There was pain.
This was usually the case, a dull ache that ran parallel to his bones, from the smallest knuckle-joints in his fingers to the arc of his ribs with each swell of fresh breath. Fenris was aware of it all in a way that others—he had learned this—were not always aware, but that did not mean he noticed it any less when the pain altered, or when the pain grew. It was an extension of his body in the same ways a trusted weapon also became an extension of his body. He knew every nock and notch in his sword and when the balance shifted—and so treated his limbs with the same sensibility, in order to be aware of them.
So: the pain had changed. There was more of it now, and focused, above the distant throb and thrum that accompanied blood as it flowed and the flow of other things: what coursed yet hotter than blood, the pain’s most intimate and consistent cause.
Pain had no distinctions other than ‘more’ or ‘less’ and Fenris did not allow healers. The tranquil with their dim gazes did not affix poultices to his injuries or ask their questions—is it sharp, is it steady, does it come and go, all words and none of them accurate.
But Fenris remembered the source of the pain. He needed no burning, no throbbing, no poisonous ache to recall the cause or the meaning, the pain that came from all things—while all led to the same end.
Dragonlings. Sundermount was riddled with them. The caves they guarded were also infested with other beasts—not just the giant spiders of legend, the arcane monsters lurking reanimated in the deep, but ghosts of lost souls and starved slaves, of murdered slavers and now of trapped apostates, fleeing rebels whose flesh would fester just the same as any other. Their corpses fed the rock and soil. Their bones awaited no honor, no burial. One could not tell the skulls apart, but it was not the long-dead or even the freshly dead that Fenris had been sent to seek.
It was not the dragonlings, either.
Yet dragonlings there had been—and far too many of them. Against one fighter, despite his bare talents, there was only one plausible outcome.
Pain—or that which came at pain’s final conclusion, that which was also pain’s opposite: no feeling left at all, nor a body left to feel it.
There was pain, and it was surprising. Fenris knew the pain; he acknowledged the surprise. His eyes were shut and not yet ready to open, though he heard movement, little sounds and little flutters, something that approximated feathers but not the flapping of wings. It was a soft sound coupled with padding footsteps, no shriek and scream of talon against rock, no fell winds beaten by sleek scales. There was no hot blast, only warmth.
‘You look better already,’ a voice said above him.
There was pain. Fenris succumbed once more to sleeping.
The mage underground had spread. Too far was its reach and its aegis, the Knight-Commander said, with the steel in her voice that accompanied the steel in her fist, that so steeled her resolve.
She was a compelling speaker. At least, there were few to argue with what she said.
‘My lone agent,’ she added later, in private. Fenris stood before her, the glitter in her eyes no less burning for all that it was pale—in the pale sunlight, in the pale air. ‘They are dangerous, yes, but we will not let them take this proud city.’
Three freed mages in as many months. The odds were slim as always—but even one would have been too many.
‘You will do this?’ the Knight-Commander asked, though she already knew the answer.
‘I will do this,’ Fenris replied.
He was dismissed. He made ready. He counted the notches in his sword as ever, one for each successful swing, each target met with the slice of his blade. The season had turned suddenly chill and the clouds signaled a coming snowfall, and the morning frost it brought along with it would not numb the constant pain. Rather, it would heighten it.
This was the weather he dealt with regularly.
Fenris did not complain.
That was what separated him from the others more than the lyrium-lines sewn deep into his flesh and his sharp ears standing beneath the fall of his hair—one marking him as an elf among dedicated humans, the other as a slave among free men. Fenris took what the Knight-Commander granted him with clear eyes that betrayed no doubt, cheeks that did not flush and words that did not fluster, and she recognized this skill for what it was: the same unflinching steel that made the pounded armor they all wore but did not live in by necessity.
He did not tire as other men did and he did not falter where other men would—but it was his conviction that set him apart from those other members of the Divine’s Right Hand.
Fenris set out at first light; he declined to take a mount from their scant stable of horses, a recent gift from their Orlesian allies. He traveled quicker by foot and on his own, without worrying for the care and protection of another creature.
A horse would need feeding and the stink of its sweat would bring wyverns or worse down upon them from the Nevarran countryside. The help it gave was not worth the trouble it caused.
He wished for a cloak on the second day, something to ease the chill from his bare arms or tuck around his nose against a sudden turn of wind. The forests slumbered at this time of year, all the green gone to rest, and he traveled beneath bare, brittle branches, above a layer of moldering leaves eaten to spines along the ground.
Fenris knelt to the frost-bitten earth, feeling the pulse in his skin that preceded the flash of other heat. Bright lyrium enshrouded him a moment later, swift as a second skin while he searched for the trail of unquiet magics in the air.
The Knight-Commander had told him nothing about his target other than that it existed, other than that it was dangerous, which was the only incentive he needed. Man or woman, force mage or healer, circle-born or forest-bred—the particulars did not matter. The scent of magic held the same bitter tang no matter where it ran and it could not elude Fenris any more than those mages could elude what they were, the power that made every last one a threat.
They were a danger to themselves. They were a danger to others. There was no place in the Free Marches, from blasted shore-side to snow-capped peaks, safe from that selfishness.
‘A wanted criminal,’ the Knight-Commander had said. ‘Alive, not dead, if you please. We require such examples for the public—to see what these rebels are really made of.’ Then, with her voice lower and unshaken by the force of her conviction, she added: ‘We have reason to believe he is connected to the incident at the Chantry, Fenris.’
Fenris closed his eyes. The wind was a howling thing, laden with salt from the rocky seaside, foam and jetsam dashed upon the rocks. He slept little. He climbed high. He scrabbled with sharp stones while his palms and the soles of his feet bore the brunt of callus, scoured by hard work and quick pursuit.
But the dragonlings were unforeseen. Their nest had been disturbed, perhaps by the very quarry Fenris sought, and though he was not unaccustomed to being hounded—this was how he had learned to track, through ruthless example, on the other side of the eternal hunt—there were too many of them falling upon him at once, without warning beyond the shifting of shale sent scurrying down the mountainside.
He killed two and gravely wounded a third before they became too much for a single enemy, the lash of their tails and the hiss of their open mouths, rows and rows of burning teeth bared snarling and spitting. They belched fire. It was unpleasant. When Fenris lost his sword he tore through them with his own talons, blue heat against red heat, but they knew him for what he was: a bold pretender without their natural strength.
At the last, he thought there might be magic. He heard its song but his bones were as tired as the lyrium above them, the marrow and the markings all one at the same. It did not call to him the way it might, his mouth full of blood rather than the taste of spell-casting.
His name would never be written upon stone, neither the name his old master called him nor the name he never spoke to any captured mage. It was not personal. It was necessary.
And here, on Sundermount, dragonlings had taken him.
It was no peaceful way to die, but it was better than some.
‘Did I say better before?’ the voice asked. ‘Because what I really meant was: you look terrible.’
This was not the voice of death, Fenris thought, before he tried to move his arm.
His limbs lacked readiness and cooperation. They were heavier than twin swords, the two-handed claymore he favored, one on each side of him. But he did not need to shield his eyes from the light for there was no light—and following that revelation came the chill of stale cavern air, roots growing in the silt above, sickly and insipid but still somehow strong.
They managed their existence so efficiently. If anything, it was to be admired.
Fenris cleared his throat.
‘Oh good,’ the voice said. ‘You’re talking. …Sort of.’
Fenris’s mouth was no longer full of blood and yet the flavor lingered, coating his tongue and dried between his teeth. Its taste made him retch but he could not sit up to cough.
‘Here,’ the voice said. It became a hand, steadying itself at the back of Fenris’s head. ‘I have water—I was going to save it for after you threw up, so you could at least clean your mouth—but it seems like you need it more now than later. Rinse.’
Fenris’s eyes cracked open only when something cool rested against the jut of his split lower lip. He could not force his vision to focus where he wanted or even as he wanted, nothing beyond the fat water-skein—or the stranger who wielded it from the shadows.
If it was poisoned then it would be no more than the fate the dragonlings had tried—and somehow failed—to deal him. Fenris let the cold water flow into his mouth, swishing it around to clear it of blood and also, it seemed, a fair amount of dirt.
The hand shifted to Fenris’s shoulder, rolling him onto his good side. He heard the pop of the stopper as it was returned to the mouth of the flask.
‘Spit,’ the voice instructed.
Fenris did so.
Voices, hands, frigid water, and the splatter of blood on the ground. He felt like no more than a child—an injured creature recovering and therefore prone and also desperate, a collection of stiff joints and clenched fingers.
Needless to say, the comparison was not appreciated.
Convalescence had never suited him.
He was able to settle onto his back without further assistance and so did, as proof of something—though what, he could not name and therefore did not know. When he stilled, he could feel his wounds begin to throb anew, sharp points of fire in his shoulder where a dragonling’s teeth had sunk deep through the leather, undaunted by the sharp pauldron spikes it found there. Deeper still were the ragged lesions that scored his ribs and abdomen, where the beasts had locked their claws beneath his armor and torn straight through flank and plate together.
More pain. More memory. He cast his eyes toward the ceiling, tongue running over the shape of his smooth, clean teeth, no grit caught between them—though his body and its wounds did not have the same leisure.
Light flickered near his side, a small flame licking the dank air, shadows cast far against the stony wall. It was no true fire, nor was there a stub of waxen candle to give it fuel. By the warmth it spread, Fenris could see a shoulder shirred in limp feathers and the wink of a gold earring, both worn by a man whose back was turned to him now.
He was an idiot. He did not know better. Or—and this was more likely—Fenris was currently as small as his body felt, as small as the pain had ever reduced it, not to be feared but to be pitied.
This was not always so. There were few who dared to turn their backs on him for the same reasons they cheated in a fight—fear, well-placed or poorly understood or bitterly foolish, but always present. Fenris was not a treacherous sort but all people feared what they did not understand, and Fenris had never seen the merit in leading anyone to understand him.
The feathers continued to move. The man who wore them was busy with some task, though Fenris’s view was not advantageous for determining its nature. He saw nothing for certain but the shadows and the wariness such sights engendered did not sit well with him, especially as he was prone—lying in place, without knowledge of his weapon, bare hands touched by gooseflesh in the silent air, vulnerable as a dog thrown onto its back.
‘You spat on my boot,’ the voice said. The feathers stirred and bent low to the ground. Everything dipped from Fenris’s field of vision and also out of the light, so that he was staring at jagged rock-face and nothing more. ‘…And since my boots are full of holes, that means—technically—you spat on my toes.’
Spitting had been the voice’s idea in the first place.
‘Spitting,’ Fenris began.
His throat held residual unpleasantness, a thick ball of phlegm and the weariness of disuse lodged deep within. He recalled that he had not spoken for some time—alone in the countryside—save to shout back at those beasts, war-cry to war-cry, and that explained the difficulty he suffered now.
‘I’m always doing that,’ the voice said. It came closer and with it came the light. Fenris could not shield himself from the sudden brightness and it was not in his temperament to look away; at the backs of his lids and through his lashes there was a flutter and there was pain—the pain he knew well, keening from bone to joint, from skin to muscle, all the severances between.
That was suffering.
‘…Always telling people to do things that somehow end up badly for me,’ the voice continued. ‘There’s no way spit on your toes is a good thing—not even in Denerim, and they have certain ideas there about what constitutes a night out on the town. I won’t judge, but toes? Really? Sometimes I think people just want to be perverse.’
The voice was making the pain worse and it was not simply the constant chattering that made it so. It was something about the light, a warning Fenris’s body should have known better how to read.
But reading had never been his strongest suit.
Instinct, then—instinct should have returned to him by now, not sticky things choking him or weighted limbs holding him down. His fingers twitched where they rested against solid ground and the hand—the hand that belonged to the voice—covered them.
The touch brought with it a jolting spark, light felt rather than seen, and Fenris heard himself snarl, the echo of it shaking dirt down from the ceiling above.
‘Now you’re just being ridiculous,’ the voice said. ‘It’s not as though I tried to spit on your toes for revenge, did I? I’ve never been one for vengeance—or for spitting.’
It had a face, but that was not what Fenris saw first. He saw the light beside that face, held aloft in a white palm. His mouth was clean of blood—and with his teeth bared, he tasted magic against his tongue.
‘You,’ Fenris said, mind reeling where his body could not.
His sword was no longer at his side but even if it had been, it would have meant nothing—for what could he hope to accomplish? His arms were still heavy, laden with stiff pain and the greater hurt in his chest. He could not move one without affecting the other; there was no autonomy granted to limbs separated from the body they served, each a part of the whole.
‘Yes. Me. Do…we know each other?’ the mage asked, no longer just a voice but rather magic itself. Perhaps he was the same mage whose steps Fenris had dogged these many days through the mountain pass—or another, one more manifestation of the symptoms that plagued the Knight-Commander’s Free Marches. ‘Or was that a more general ‘you,’ like: ‘you might just be the man of my dreams,’ or ‘you look like someone who stole my last three silvers in a Nevarran taproom to buy food for your stray cats.’’
‘You,’ Fenris repeated, deep breath swelling his chest, ‘are a mage.’
His cuts stung where his skin stretched around them, tugging at the unhealed flesh. The mage’s face shifted to a carefully neutral expression, eyes flat, tonguing the corner of his mouth to keep it from quirking up or down.
The light in his palm flickered but it wasn’t extinguished.
‘Oh, that,’ the mage said. ‘Yes. Thank you for reminding me—I’m always forgetting because people around here make that so easy.’
He let his hand drift, illuminating the ruined planes of Fenris’s armor: thick, scarlet stains marring the shorn steel and sundered leather, each split and every fray. There were wet, glistening patches that Fenris found he did not care to look at just beneath his armor’s undone protection, where the beasts’ claws and teeth had rent his flesh. These were the limitations of his body now, not comparable to the power the mage possessed, and he kept his gaze on the mage’s face instead, waiting for recognition to be met with more recognition.
After that, the course would be clear. Fenris would not die at the talons of noble monsters but at the hands of a mage.
This made its own common sense.
His fingers balled toward his palm, though even the simple tightening of those muscles made him cringe. If he was to die he would have preferred to do so with his sword in hand—even if he could not currently summon the strength to lift it.
‘Yes,’ the mage said.
‘Yes,’ Fenris repeated, and readied himself.
It would be fire or ice, the burn or the freeze, the lash of power itself, a bolt straight through the chest. He had once hated it for fear of it but that fear had blackened over time like fresh leather hardened and colored with long use. All that remained was the hate, the quickened pace of his heart yet beating, and the silence and the pain that filled it.
The mage cleared his throat.
‘I…don’t suppose you’d feel like telling me what did this to you?’ he asked, his voice pitched low and even. ‘I’m not exactly…up on my distinctions between nasty things. One grave wound inflicted this high on a mountaintop tends to look exactly like another. If it’s a wyvern, I’ll need to prepare an antidote to its poison. And if it was shades, or a Revenant… But no, these look more like claw-marks than sword wounds, and I don’t think Revenants are in the habit of biting people—unless it’s some Free Marcher custom I haven’t heard about.’
‘Dragonlings,’ Fenris said, which managed to stop the noise as it came—without sign of pausing on its own—from the mage’s mouth. ‘I…discovered a nest.’
‘Oh,’ the mage said. ‘Oh dear.’
It mattered little what the wound was—or so Fenris had always thought—just as the means of death did not ultimately matter, just as the nature of pain did not matter. It was clutter, significance ascribed to give comfort, or significance ascribed for the sake of healing.
This was not Fenris’s purview. It troubled others while he thought so little of it.
Feathers fluttered again and the light rested—free of its masters command, and perhaps all the more treacherous for that freedom—in the air beside them, a spell wisp taunting and teasing even as it shed illumination through the dark. That was its finest trick and Fenris still could not shake the wariness, for his position had no advantages, only perils.
Such was the nature of the Free Marches. He bore the brunt of the irony in that name the same as he bore the brunt of so many others—all things that required the word free to distinguish themselves were freedom’s opposite—and chose not to chuckle as though it were a joke rather than a truth.
‘No,’ the mage said. ‘Don’t look so dire—it isn’t poison. Which, honestly, is more than a relief; I don’t want to go digging through the dirt looking for ingredients. It’s so…dirty. And who knows what else you’ll find in a cave like this one. Spider droppings—or something even worse, like for example the spiders that dropped them.’
‘Stay away,’ Fenris said.
‘From the spider droppings?’ The mage did laugh. It had not been a joke either. ‘That was the plan. Though I had a little more trouble staying away from the dragonlings…’
Silence lingered, hung in the air the same as the spell for unnatural light. Fenris’s thoughts were as sluggish as his blood, affected by pain that even he could not ignore—despite how accustomed he was to the boundaries, a body’s limits could not be unlearned. They could be overcome but only for moments, in the hot white flash of otherworldly strength, adrenaline and force that grew only from sacrifice. Duration was power’s opposite. One fed the other, or fed upon it.
But there was something to that statement that began to explain itself. ‘You,’ Fenris repeated, for the third time.
‘That again,’ the mage said. ‘You’re making me nervous. Why is it always me? Why can’t it be you for once?’
‘You disturbed the nest,’ Fenris said. These were thoughts that would have otherwise remained inside his head, but there it was muzzy, and at least the air was clear—if infiltrated by other things, the scent of cold earth and colder rock, of sweat and body odors, of blood and magic combined.
That combination was worse than all the rest. Fenris’s lip curled and the mage sighed, another laugh following close on its heels. This was more threadbare, as tattered as the coat he wore, if not as ragged as Fenris’s ruined armor.
‘Yes,’ the mage said. ‘That. Well. How was I supposed to know they were there?’
‘There are always signs,’ Fenris replied.
He could not believe it had taken him so long to track this—a mage so careless as to step into a pit of dragonlings, so foolish as to return to the site and retrieve the wounded hunter from it.
‘But I felt very awful about it.’ The mage leaned closer; there was little room for Fenris to maintain a more appreciable distance. ‘You probably want to know how I rescued you, don’t you?’
Fenris did not. ‘I do not,’ he said.
‘Oh,’ the mage said. ‘You’re one of those.’
One of what the mage did not elaborate—and Fenris did not want to know that either. He kept his attention on the spell wisp above him, pale light winking as if in mockery of everything he was, the job he had accepted and the silent promise he once gave. It was too large to be mistaken for a glowing bug and burned too steadily to be real fire—not the light cast by a torch or an oil-lamp, both of which guttered when run dry of the fuel that fed their strength.
There were no such laws for a mage’s spell. What fed them was fell, from the Fade. But mages had their limitations, same as any man.
They grew tired, they made mistakes, and they were captured—more often than they were not.
They also blundered foolishly into nests of hungry predators and lacked the good sense to make a proper escape when an enemy repeated their mistakes.
The mage harbored a noise in the depths of his throat, sitting back on his heels and reverting to the shadows of his unpredictable operation. Fenris could no longer see his face clearly but he’d memorized the pertinent details: a long, sharp nose and unshaven cheeks, eyes too easily given to mirth and a mouth that was quick to follow. He did not look entirely like a fool—but one did not always need the appearance to accompany the behavior.
There were times when one belied the other for a purpose. Cleverness came hand in hand with lying.
‘You’re not very good at holding a conversation,’ the mage said. Leather scraped against stone and Fenris felt the mage’s boot tap against the outer edge of his calf. He recoiled at last, in meager increments, until the narrowing wall of the cave greeted him, followed closely by more pain. ‘This is the part where you say: one of what? ‘One of what, Anders,’ if you’re looking to rise to the top of the class.’
Fenris wished to close his eyes, but that was a promise without potential. The moment he succumbed, the darker things would strike—the mage had given away his name, which was too foolish to be true, and so by necessity it was a ruse.
Fenris would not be lulled into false security.
‘Anders,’ he said to remember it—though for how long it would be his to remember remained to be seen.
‘Very good,’ the mage said. ‘You’re only missing all the words that came before it, but that’s all right; I don’t mind a compromise. You’ve had a rough morning, dragonlings included. Dragonlings especially.’ The scuffling noise followed, so simple a thing, a cleared throat and a sigh and leather against stone, feathers against air. It was meant to confound the senses—senses already dulled and already weak. ‘You’re one of those people with no natural curiosity, although I’m starting to wonder if we can’t add no sense of humor to the list as well. You’re painting a very dire portrait for me to work with, mysterious stranger.’
‘No more,’ Fenris said. The ploy had worked. The words had become unnecessary. ‘Stop talking.’
‘If only it were that easy,’ the mage replied.
He was closer now by more than half and Fenris felt the fall of his shadow even though there was less than shadow to work from, less than shadow to see. That shadow fell across his face and Fenris’s fingers closed around stone, the clench of the muscle and the burn that followed and all the ready pain. It was easier to grasp that than the make-shift weapon slicing into his palm but no killing blow followed—neither his own nor the mage’s. His nails dug into the bite of rock while the mage did nothing more overt than lift a fall of shabby leather and hiss.
Blood overpowered magic. Fenris was reminded of all those times it had worked together, the blood and the mage, and had he been able to lift his arm along with the stone gripped in his fist, he knew he would have done so.
‘Now hold still,’ the mage said.
As though there was some other option.
‘No,’ Fenris said. He could not have enforced that insistence, the mage’s hands against his blood-streaked skin, but now another glow came to light the cavern—faint traces of lyrium that caught the mage’s pale face, each angle and hollow and dark streak of stubble, eyes wide and mouth open.
It was comical, a fool’s mask for a fool’s refusal to leave. The reason for it was one Fenris still did not know.
There were some animals—cats, for example—that toyed with their prey for hours, sometimes longer than that. Fenris did not appreciate such a choice or such a nature. He caught and relinquished; he handed his quarry to the authorities that sent him after them in the first place; and he continued to sleep as he always had: without the urge for respite, simply for the demands of the waking body.
‘…No?’ the mage asked.
He had heard properly the first time and he knew it.
‘But you’re glowing,’ the mage added, his hands a bare inch above flesh. The light moved around them, through his fingers, onto his face like little bars, the shapes cast into a prison cell—or past a window in a slave’s quarters, altering sunlight, creating pointed shadow. Always this followed, until at last one no longer needed to see those shadows to know that they were there, and to appreciate their consistent meaning. ‘Surely that can’t be normal.’
It was and it was not. Fenris coughed and the mage took it for a chuckle.
‘You’re glowing and bleeding,’ he said. ‘And laughing. I know that isn’t normal.’
Rock scraped against rock. Fenris realized it was his elbow bending, the miserable screech of stone raking over stone. ‘If you touch me, I shall kill you.’
‘Bold words from dragonling breakfast,’ the mage replied, but he removed his touch and retired elsewhere, to his own side of the cavern they shared.
Another fine joke, Fenris thought, dry throat too tight for a proper swallow. Soon it would not matter. Already the fade had overcome the pale glow. The light left him, though Fenris kept watch, until at last he was taken by darkness—for there had never been any doubt of that.
He did not dream.
Dreams were for other men, who had at their fingertips a freedom of memory and desire Fenris had never shared. But it was not pleasant sleep either for all its silence, the twitching whispers lyrium made as it pulsed from vein to vein.
Time passed, though there was no sun to mark the hour of day, no stars to mark the progression of the hours. Fenris’s waking moments were always brief, clouded by a severity of pain that would have been deemed, by any other, unnecessary.
This was a deep sleep his body required, not the indulgence of rest or relaxation. He was not conscious, for even despite the improvements afforded by the lyrium, Fenris had his limits, the same as any other being of flesh and bone and breath. When the stubborn aching became too much to bear awake the natural defenses of his body took the choice from his hands—like a mage sliding a rock from his grip—betraying him to the dark where he could neither fidget nor squirm, further troubling his injuries out of anxiety at his present company.
When he woke, dragged from the depths, there was an orange light flickering in the distance, warmth from the flames fanning his stiff limbs. The mage’s hands were outstretched but no arcane glow reached past their fingertips, demanding no answer from the lyrium stitched into Fenris’s skin.
He tried to speak, to ask the mage whether he intended to smoke them out or if this was more of his humor, meant to conjure the memories of a dragonling’s fire. But the unborn words irritated the old, dry scrape in Fenris’s throat and coughing preceded his voice, then replaced it. When he was finished he groaned, and such noise would have better fit a wounded animal.
‘Oh,’ the mage said. His feathers rustled one against the other, though Fenris was no longer watching him for movement, too distracted by the cage of his own heavy stillness. ‘You’re still alive. There was a moment there when I thought you were determined to let yourself die. Not that it’s any of my business, but I do hate needless death.’
Fenris closed his eyes, then opened them once more. It was a pointless exercise; it came to no avail. He was still trapped in the cave with a mage who seemed to think nothing of the air he wasted on speech alone and his body was without precision, racked by too much error. There was also heat in his skin, the flush that came from below rather than from without. It had nothing to do with the current fire but one forged sweaty and deep and he ground his teeth to brace himself against it.
Foolish. They were both foolish, though in their separate ways. No battering ram, no high wall, could hold against the formless things that waged their subtle assaults.
‘Is it still ‘no?’’ the mage asked.
That seemed answer enough. He drifted. He listened to the sounds of the fire and the sounds he made while breathing; there were still sounds but they were difficult ones, labored, noisome and foul. The stench of his breath was no better than the stench of his skin, the rot of wounds he had never thought to care for—especially not for himself.
This boded ill.
He cursed no one for it was neither his own fault nor the dragonlings’, nor this slim concept of Maker that dogged the footsteps of so many templars, etching its name and its meaning into their shields. That concept guarded no one. It was insubstantial, with less form than the spell-wisp or the warmth from the nearby fire—and even those had their purposes, Fade-light to blind, flames to burn, all things turned toward tangible results in the end.
When those who wielded them became desperate enough, they fashioned their weapons as they saw fit.
Fenris’s hand was empty. The mage was indeed cleverer than he pretended to remove even that barest of chances. He had taken first sword, then gauntlet, then petty rock. Fenris lashed out in frustration and soon regretted it, as the sound of his sharp cry echoed over the high ceiling and seemed to make the very rock tremble.
‘Still no?’ the mage asked. His voice came from a distance. The fever had also come from a distance but now it was here, as the mage was here, kneeling beside him with all the concern and all the cleverness and all the confusion the combination of the two brought.
Fenris grunted again.
‘What about water?’ The mage held up his water-skein; Fenris had to wonder if the source of the fever was a poison in the drink, or something already in his blood. There was nothing, no one he could trust. He knew that way of thinking came from the fever’s touch—but it was there, skittering through the cavern, skittering between his ribs.
It was the mage’s turn to grunt. Then came the pop of the stopper opening, lips against leather, a gulp and wet swallow.
‘Your turn,’ the mage said.
Fenris drank, but that was all he acquiesced to. The mage soon returned to his corner to tend the fire. Each crackle of blackened bark grew louder and louder still—and Fenris slept again, water cool in a place above his belly, just below his chest.
The fire had moved closer at some juncture between points of consciousness. The mage was warming his hands against the orange flames. Now, he had fashioned a kitten of his fingers, in the shadow on the farthest wall.
Fenris knew hands—pale and white and grasping; heavy gauntlets clasped around the leather-stripped pommel of a broadsword; rings set with jewels against swollen knuckles. These hands had freckles and stained nails. That was all Fenris could see and all he could not trust.
‘More water?’ the mage suggested. ‘More…grunting?’
Fenris scowled. There came an answering twinge of muscle deep beneath his brow. As though there was not already enough pain to contend with, his head was also aching, part of the shadow-play that plagued him—along with the rest.
‘No,’ he managed, though the word came out parched and thin, unsubtly close to a frog’s evening song. He no longer sounded recognizable; even his voice had come to betray him.
‘Suit yourself.’ The mage shrugged, an action that made the cat on the wall dissolve, ears to fingers to nothing. ‘That’s what I always try to do—though it never quite works out the way you’d hope.’
He paused. In the silence beneath the crackling fire, Fenris heard him settle, the rustling of heavy fabric and thin leather soles against more consistent rock. If he awaited a reply—imagining he might kindle a conversation as easily as he’d stoked their fire from nothing more than kindling—he would once again be disappointed, this time by a long wait with no succor at the end.
Fenris’s breathing turned shallow. While he could no longer hope to turn his entire body one way or the other, he endeavored to move his head, sore neck from collar-bone to jaw-line, bare fingers trailing over dirty stone.
‘I thought maybe I’d head to Antiva.’ The mage gestured; the length of his arm sent fresh shadows scurrying across the walls like vermin. ‘That would suit me. It’s warmer there this time of year—I suppose it’s always warmer there, but you notice it more in winter—and the merchant princes have more trouble than the mages, or so the stories always go.’
Fenris had heard of it—more idle gossip that held no purpose here or there or anywhere.
‘Now, there are always the Crows to contend with.’ The mage threw another stick on the fire; there was nothing Fenris could do but watch and twitch, a blackened branch himself if he was anything. ‘But I don’t think I’m worth much to them as I am, and it’s my understanding they work on a sort of…commission, rather than just murdering whoever looks like an easy mark with an empty coin-purse. They wouldn’t call it Sunny Antiva if everyone was killing everyone, would they? It always seems so…so different. So differently nice.’
Fenris had never heard anything about the Imperium’s close neighbor that could be considered nice. Its government was a bloodied shambles backed by a guild of assassins, organized about as well as one would expect from those provisions. He had passed through Antiva City once, many years ago, and it had smelled of rotten things: rotten fish, rotten leather, and rotten people.
‘That was the plan, anyway.’ The mage sighed, hunching closer to the fire. He looked like a beast upon the far wall, but at the fireside he was smaller than that, so much smaller than the shadow he cast. His feathers drooped and he chafed his palms together too close to the flames, then winced and sucked on one finger. ‘Always get too close to the things that burn you, don’t we?’ he asked, glancing over his shoulder.
Their eyes met.
It caused an unpleasant sensation, one of needless and thoughtless connection—as though it meant any truth that they saw one another, one speaking too much and the other not at all.
But Fenris did not focus for long; his gaze splintered soon enough and spiraled in other, darker directions. Eventually, the mage would tire of a captive audience, someone whose sharp ears could listen to no other voices.
‘You could at least use the pillow,’ the mage added after some time had passed, more fuel for the fire, more burning smell cleaner than rot but spiced with damp bark and old earth. ‘It’s not a magic pillow or an evil one. Just a bit of cloth stuffed with feathers and cotton, a tear here and there, but that’s all there is to it.’
Fenris felt it by his cheek contrasted with the tension in each vertebra of his neck; he also could not feel one side of his jaw and the flesh of his earlobe. There were benefits to both choices. There were also drawbacks. Fenris would not coddle himself without purpose—and there was no purpose for coddling ever—but at the same time it was a fool’s errand to pretend the numbness meant something more than loss.
He had not triumphed. He had not overcome pain.
Nor would a healing touch, he thought, and so he slept without a pillow, through no real choice he had made, through inaction and stubbornness and the old ache.
This time, the fever did not release him. It swung him in and out of its thrall, petty and careless as it tossed him to and fro. He recalled the weeks he’d spent as stow-away on a merchant ship, sailing toward the unknown; he recalled the taste of vomit in his mouth—and that may have been past and present for all he knew, a meeting of both in a man who had no future.
There only was, pain in the moment and pain before. That pain would come after was an assumption that did not always hold true.
The pain would end.
He thought of a young woman, somehow older and somehow younger, with red hair and a tight mouth. He knew her name, Varania, and he knew also she disapproved of something—a choice he had made, an offer, a farewell.
The pain had ended. Varania disappeared—or Fenris had—and there were only shadows, no shapes to the shadows, which meant there was nothing. This was the last. He did not care that none would know of name or legacy, that he would join the other corpses in these caverns, perhaps where he best belonged.
It was no waste. He had lived beyond his time and with purpose. He had cleared the Free Marches and kept its cities safe; though he had no title, that was a trapping unnecessary and unappreciated by honor or death or the action in between.
He thought he understood the joke, whatever it may have been.
That was how he woke—something heavy and half-warm at his side and a pillow beneath his head.
There was no bed—his joints were stiff in such a way that reminded him of all the beds he had not slept on in the past—but there were other comforts to counter the discomforts, the sort he had learned long ago never to expect. His neck itched; he lifted his hand to rectify it, fingers idling over his skin before he realized what was missing.
The new pain had not returned to smother the old pain with its surprises.
What was more, he was in command of all his limbs again, and could trust them to do as he wished.
‘Mage,’ Fenris said. The word came out clear, no croak or twist, only his voice—deep with disuse, but still recognizable. Hot anger twisted in his belly, replacing the fire that had gone out sometime in the night.
He had not asked for this, though it was not the first time he had awoken to find himself changed beyond his capabilities, changed even beyond his own capacity for measure.
The warm thing shifted at his side, feathers shivering in the cool air. The mage, indeed. At last, Fenris saw him clearly, with ready eyes and close perspective: he was no more than a bedraggled collection of scraps, buckles and patches pieced together to form an old winter coat, bandages in place of proper fastenings for his sleeves; there was a smear of dirt across his cheek as though he had chosen to sleep on the ground only after making such noise about the importance of pillows, and a fine line of tension had appeared between his brows, an old furrow that would one day refuse to leave even in dreaming.
‘You’re awake,’ the mage said, severity spoiled by sudden relief. ‘I thought maybe I’d waited too long. The question is, how stubborn do you let someone get before it ruins everything? It was a fun game for a while, I’ll give you that. Incredibly suspenseful at the end when you started muttering and cursing. Mages this and mages that—and I think there was something about dragonlings. But I don’t think I’ll be playing it again anytime soon. I’m not looking to develop a nervous condition to go with my bad back.’
Fenris let his hand drop from his throat, picking carefully between the sharp edges of shorn steel over ragged leather, all the way to his skin beneath. He avoided the lyrium and expected flesh that was equally ragged as the armor it suffered—but it had been mended as the armor had not been mended, marred only by the raised lines of lyrium that none could heal.
The mage had left no scars but he could not undo a hurt long since passed, in a land so far from this one even the skies seemed different shades of color.
There were no skies in the cave. It was neither dusk nor dawn in the dark space with its guttered fire pit. They were too close and the mage had done too much—everything, one might even say, if such things belonged in an inventory, with a hierarchy of gratitude from littlest scrape to deathliest rattle.
‘So…’ the mage began.
He was not quick enough, still slurred and slowed with sleep.
Fenris knew the way of it by now. It was easy, over before it began; he held the mage down, palms to shoulders, weight to weight.
He had no weapon but the threat of a weapon, a life in his body that meant it was his weapon. It had always been so. He needed no sharp-tipped gauntlets—which were removed, his fingers bare and dirty—to aid him, for in the end all he would have was the body altered for a single purpose, which he now commanded.
That was what he did. He turned the tables. It gave him little pleasure, save for satisfaction.
The mage did not struggle. He wore an expression that was at once frustrated and resigned. Though there was more emotion behind it than the sort worn by a common house slave returned to his master after another failed escape, there were familiar shapes to it, a reflection of that acceptance in miniature. Fenris was surprised to discover he recognized it.
‘Oh no,’ the mage said limply. ‘I never saw that coming. Whatever shall I do.’
‘No magic,’ Fenris told him.
The mage huffed, winded. ‘No more magic, you mean.’
‘That,’ Fenris agreed, ‘would serve you well here.’
He waited. There was no spark of fire, no hiss of lightning, no jolt of arcane punishment. The mage chewed his lower lip instead where the skin was raw and stared up at Fenris’s face. Again the resignation stank—of more than sweat and blood and earth, something that sullied his features more than the streaks of dirt in his hair and on his cheek.
His foolishness was what rankled more than anything else—more than the residual magic that prickled like gooseflesh, worse than the wind-stripped temperatures of his travels or any of the life-long pain. Fenris would not be beholden to magic of any sort, yet once again it formed the essence of his body, as though he could not work without these dire spells to hold him together, muscle to muscle and bone alongside bone.
‘This was unwise,’ Fenris said. It gave little voice to the grander emotion, the frustration and the disgust, but it would have to serve.
‘The dragonlings,’ the mage replied. ‘I was the one who—with the nest—oh, never mind.’
‘My gauntlets.’ Fenris did not search the environs; it was more important now than ever not to surrender this most difficult quarry, in his grasp at last. ‘Where are they?’
‘You were scratching at things,’ the mage said. ‘You were going to hurt yourself. Or me. It was so simple to solve—I took them off and put them with your sword.’
‘My sword,’ Fenris repeated.
The mage sighed, once again a weighted, painful thing. Fenris was crushing his chest but these precautions were worth their weight in the currency most respected in this corner of Thedas: advantage. ‘I had to move it. It wasn’t easy, either. Do you have any idea how heavy—right. Of course you do.’
‘Show me,’ Fenris said, then relinquished his grasp—though he did not relinquish the burden of his scrutiny.
There was a stick larger than any kindling braced against the far wall. He did not need to examine it more closely to know what it was—the mage’s staff, polished with age and crowned with a twisted collection of roots, similar to a hand in the flick of a rude gesture.
The weapon suited its owner, something commonplace that took unexpected form. Fenris moved just enough to allow the mage to stand, though his eyes were narrowed and his posture ready and he did not grant more ground than the barest of inches.
‘If you try anything—magic or an escape—I shall tear out your heart,’ he said.
Most did not merit such warning, but these circumstances had been from the start extreme.
Yet ‘ridiculous’ suited their situation better, their positions and their wariness and the mage’s continued imprudence. The only reason Fenris was able to threaten anyone was due to the mage before him, and that irony stuck like the burr of prickleweed in his pauldrons.
The mage did not brush it off, as though he did not notice it was there.
He straightened with a pop of sore joints in his lower back instead. So he had not lied about that, either, and had shared freely another personal detail, another weakness.
He would not run because he could not.
Natural instinct was always to flee a captor—just as the mouse fled the cat and the cat fled the dog and the nug fled everyone—and as unnatural as a mage proved, most still followed the basic precepts of fear. They would all run sooner or later; Fenris would always pursue. He had based his life around the simplicity of that lone philosophy until such a time as its plausibility was shattered: by a mage who stood, still and disheveled, tugging at the gold hoop in his ear.
It was a mockery of the theory. It was a mockery of common sense.
‘If I give you back your sword, do you think that’s a sensible trade for my heart staying where it is?’ The mage eyed Fenris’s right hand with new apprehension. He tugged the earring yet harder, a nervous habit that drew more attention than it diverted. ‘You’ll be so busy holding your weapon you won’t be able to hold other things? Like…the aforementioned heart?’
‘Move,’ Fenris said, taking hold of the mage by his shoulder. His fingers slipped beneath the feathers, against soft ridges and sharp spines to find the man beneath.
He would have to bind the mage’s hands. Why he had not done so already he could not say, beyond his own contemptible distraction, still caught midway between the pain before and the relative comfort that followed after.
There was a leather strap half-loose at the mage’s waist. Fenris removed it. He knotted it no tighter than he should, though it was not slack enough for comfort. He tossed the buckle aside, where it fell into the cold ashes of the fire, one more forgotten piece scattered within the place.
Then, hands at the small of his back where Fenris could see them, the mage led the way.
‘I didn’t get too far,’ he said, ducking beneath a low-hanging cluster of roots. He stopped before he had truly begun, just around a narrow corner into another belly-shaped cave too close to the last. It was dark and there was no light before them, no lamp and no burnished spell-wisps to show them the way. ‘It really was heavy. I thought about burying it… But the dirt was so dirty, and what if I uprooted something awful? What if I squished a worm?’
‘What if,’ Fenris agreed.
The mage toed the ground, feeling at the soft-packed earth until he found what he was looking for. Fenris heard the clang of metal against rock and knew his blade was there.
He felt no better with it in his hands. There was little room to swing it in these caverns and despite the mage’s bound wrists there were still ample ways for him to reclaim the power that would have been rightfully his—the proper tactic, one to be taken by any clever mage.
This mage was not clever. He spoke too much for it. He filled the silences with words and distracted himself better than he distracted his enemies; he hid swords a bare few paces from where those enemies rested, gauntlets against a crop of elfroot already picked clean.
The water had a taste—not simply fresh, but also bitter, enough to clear Fenris’s head when he drank. The mage had left the sword and gauntlets and taken the elfroot. The choices he had made, the thoughts he had harbored, forced Fenris to snort in frustration as he strapped on his gloves.
‘It isn’t my fault,’ the mage said. ‘One of them was torn already.’
‘We are done here,’ Fenris told him. The sound of his sword dragging against the ground before he strapped it to his shoulders—heavy and good, preceded by the flinty scrape of scoured metal on scoured stone—made the mage shiver. With that shiver came the excess, the flutter of feathers once more.
But he did not take flight. He glanced at the tips of Fenris’s armored fingers as though he had not been the one to encourage this, to make it happen as it did.
Fenris flexed and curled his hand. The dirt was warm between his skin and the metal.
‘Well done, Anders,’ the mage said. ‘Now he has claws. That will make all the heart-ripping so much easier.’
‘You will cooperate,’ Fenris said.
The mage shrugged. ‘As much as I can, anyway. I have a contradictory nature.’
They returned to their camp. Fenris did not avoid touching the staff but it was the last detail he saw to, and when his fingers closed around it bare palm to bare wood he grimaced.
‘Too heavy?’ the mage asked. ‘I could always carry it for you. No reason to take on all the burden. And you are convalescing. Anything else would just seem…unbalanced.’
It was not the only thing that was unbalanced within the cave, though there was no time or place for humor amongst the shadows. But there was room for a staff between the leather strappings at Fenris’s back, tucked against his spine beneath his sword. He would not have to think about it there, beyond the hum in his skin that was half imagination and half stronger than it felt, lyrium in his skin calling to the magic buried deep within the amplifying wood. The discomfort that caused would be minor in comparison to the alternatives—the mage would not be able to use his weapon for a cut of arcane frost or a jagged bolt of lightning should the impulse, suddenly, strike him.
‘We have tarried here too long,’ Fenris said, casting his eyes over the fire-pit he’d scattered. There was only one other marker to indicate there had ever been a camp here: the slouching pillow the mage had forced on him, as though such niceties were a vital part of the process of healing.
Fernis did not want to take it but just as the mage had claimed not to care for needless death, Fenris did not care for needless waste. There was no logic in leaving behind so obvious a sign for any would-be rescue parties to find and even less reason to leave it for the spiders.
As Fenris bent to claim it, he felt the mage’s eyes at his back—not a trick of the lyrium but instincts honed from years of being watched, years of profiting from the knowledge that few ever suspected he was watching in return.
‘You will take this.’ Fenris said, and brandished the pillow in the mage’s direction. It did not hold its shape. The sharp curve of his gauntlets saw his fingers stuck beneath loose embroidery.
‘Ah. Yes.’ The mage hunched his shoulders as if the pillow was a weapon, or as if any pain it suffered was one he also felt. ‘Well, as much as I’d love to help, I’m afraid I’m…all tied up at the moment.’
He trailed off, wiggling his fingers where Fenris had strapped them behind his back.
Fenris scowled—but no sharp crackle of foul energies pulsed from the mage’s fingertips.
It was worse to anticipate an attack that never came, a ruse that wasn’t real, potential that refused to meet itself. The mage’s actions made no sense and offered him no solace, much less a shift in position he would have found preferable under any other circumstances. The upper hand—it was almost as though the mage did not want it. And that made him unpredictable, which in turn made Fenris grim.
Fenris spoke no more of it. He tucked the pillow between the mage’s wrists and the small of his back instead. The mage, instinctively, tightened his hold.
‘Cozy,’ he said. ‘You’re such a chivalrous kidnapper. Not at all what I was expecting.’
He had not been expecting anything—and if he had, he would have known to prevent it. Fenris turned, darkness on more darkness, carelessness compounding carelessness.
‘What you were expecting,’ he repeated.
‘It’s not as though there’s more than one of you running about with lyrium tattoos and white hair and scary armor.’ The mage shuffled, always a source of noise, always a source of distraction. He did not tug at the earring in his ear—he could not—but the impression was the same, that mild golden glint providing the only burnished light between them. Even then it was not strong, merely the softest of glimmers, already rubbed down by too much tugging.
It was for his own good that his hands were bound. He caused himself as much harm with them as he harmed others.
‘I don’t mean it in a bad way,’ the mage added. ‘What sort of madman would I have to be to goad you into treating me more cruelly? Not my thing, I’m afraid.’
‘You could have left—yet you did not,’ Fenris said. ‘If you knew who I was, then you are madman enough.’
This had not been a joke. The mage’s laughter suggested he knew as much, though whatever pale humor he saw in it came through nonetheless, another contradiction. Fenris adjusted his gauntlet—the broken strap proved frustrating over time, not at the start but as the piece began to slip—then gestured, then began to move.
Remaining in place with no movement made him restless on a better day. Now—in the cavern with a stranger, a man who prized pillows and shared them too freely, a mage who was made of more surrender than subtlety—his very skin itched, something beyond the usual pain.
He was unsettled. It was uncustomary for someone to make less sense as time wore on.
‘Me first?’ The mage kept close to the wall, taking ginger steps around the fire-pit and along the ground. ‘Aren’t you worried I’ll blunder into more dragonling nests or something? Are you really less worried about them than you are of me?’
Fenris’s silence met him. He sighed.
‘And you call me the madman,’ he said.
There was no more complaining.
The only sound they heard after that was the breaking of a lone branch beneath the mage’s boot, a snap that made him wince while Fenris’s shoulders twitched. They left the cavern behind them. The air grew fresher already in the tapered pass. The mage stumbled but managed to right himself as they stepped out into the sunlight at last, and Fenris watched his hands for any sign of danger—tension building without any sight of a sensible end.
Sometimes they did not fight, Fenris recalled. Sometimes the fight was an instinct they had forgotten.
But mages were not slaves helpless and powerless. They had magic at their beck and call. This distinction had too much meaning to ignore or brush aside like the embers of a dead fire in need of burying.
Nothing was buried in the sunlight. It took some time for Fenris’s eyes to adjust and the mage kept his head down to avoid squinting.
‘Is it just me, or is it getting colder?’ he asked.
Fenris had already felt the chill in the air—he had already scented the crisp promise of snow in the gathering gray of the clouds, how thin the sunlight was through the cover of stormy sky. It was not unforeseen, though the timing was poor, and Fenris had promised himself he would be within Kirkwall’s borders before the first winter’s storm, not during or after it.
The latter two involved cracked fingers, chilled leather, frostbite and mages pushed past desperation into something yet more perilous—the numbness that masqueraded as immortality.
Unanticipated delays were an unavoidable facet of the work. It would have been simpler to accept on any other day—when his gauntlet was not torn; when his skin was not effused with the tingling rush of healing magic; when he was not forced to dog a mage who was too foolish to run even knowing what Fenris was, the might and the reach of the ‘master’ he now served.
His thoughts grew darker as the stormclouds gathered, though it was not until the mage gave a startled ‘oh’ that Fenris looked up. Fat flakes of snow had begun to drift downward, unhurried and plentiful. They caught in his lashes and stung his eyes, dappling the rocky path beneath his feet in powdered white, melting against bare skin drawn taut over icy bone.
‘Pfaugh,’ Fenris said, shaking it from his hair, though there was no distinction between colors there. Bright specks landed against his arms and between his steel vambraces, vanishing as they melted into nothing but slow spots of water.
‘Very festive,’ the mage said. His pace did not slow—he did not pause to inspect or wonder—and though Fenris was not grateful for the moment of practicality, he did recognize it was there. ‘We used to watch it snow from the tower all the time—open the windows and lean out as far as we could, see if we might catch something on our tongues.’ He shrugged, shaking loose a miniature avalanche from between his feathers, where the brown and gray were salted with white. ‘Although that’s not all we did with our tongues… And one year, Lake Calenhad froze over almost to the far shore. It’s the almost part that’s important in that story—I’d nearly made it to the center before I realized there were a few fatal cracks in my plan.’
There was a new chill to the ground, frozen earth numbing the soles of Fenris’s feet. It was not comfortable, and Fenris flexed his toes to warm them, avoiding the snow where it piled thicker more quickly, between crags and along cliff-side, blown into gusted drifts by the wind.
A sudden twist blinded him. He brushed the snow away with a swipe of his arm, fingers curled to shield his sightlines. The peaks of Sundermount were already swallowed by snow, solemn and solitary, though they remained side by each—they might just as well have been alone.
‘You walked across a lake,’ he said, seeking some distraction from the assault.
‘Tried to,’ the mage replied. ‘Not the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but by then I had a reputation to uphold.’
‘For foolishness?’ Fenris asked.
‘For escaping,’ the mage said.
‘Your reputation has failed you,’ Fenris suggested.
The mage shivered, full-bodied, all the way from his loose hair to his dirty-booted toes.
The snow piled ever higher, above the heel but not yet to the ankle. The faster they walked the faster it came down, and the loneliness of the mountains surrendered to the howling of the wind, assailing noise that was the opposite of loneliness. The mage sagged against a rocky outcropping beside him but could not brace his body against another blast as it hit him face-on—and Fenris felt its effects not a moment after that, like a physical blow in a fight or a wall of ice conjured between a mage’s palms.
It was everywhere, the clouds so low-burdened that the mountain above them pierced its belly. This was no spell-blizzard. But it was neither luck nor fate that it had occurred—simply the whims of uncaring weather, hunter and mage no more important to its passing than any deadened tree in the clutch of winter, any lost game or mountain beast with its seasonal pelt to keep blood warm beneath the frost.
They had no such luck, though the mage had an abundance of feathers. At his back, his fingers had begun to turn blue.
There had not been cold like this in the Imperium. Its climes were better suited to sweat, the other aches deep heat engendered, the dizziness and the thirst.
Cold was powerful too, a power that equalized any in its thrall—just like a fever. Fenris and the mage were on even ground, at a level, while shale and snow shifted and shifted beneath their every step, footfalls brought perilously close to the steep edge beside them.
‘It’s a long way down,’ the mage said at some point after the same thought had made itself known to Fenris already.
It was, though they could not see it, so caught in the swirl and storm that there was only gray on white and white on gray. Fenris could scarcely shape his hand held before him and one wrong step—as was their wont—would send them into the depths.
Fenris stopped again to scrape the ice off his lashes. He heard the mage catching his breath, ragged and quiet and already swept away by the wind.
‘Would it help if I told you we absolutely have to keep going?’ The mage cast his first look over his shoulder, frost in the stubble of his beard, at the corners of his mouth and the corners of his eyes, making his brows white and fringing the tips of his hair blown-loose around his pink ears. ‘That way you can disagree with me and say, No, mage, we must stop here at once, and that everyone gets what they want?’
He was right about this—that did not make him any less wrong about his other choices. Fenris groped his way along rock until it gave in to dark, heavy air, both of them slipping inside one of the many caves that scattered Sundermount. They were hiding holes that led to tunnels that led to deeper cruelties, barred chambers somewhere far below where so many fled and failed.
When Fenris shivered, it was due to the cold and nothing more.
With the mage at his side, his thoughts lingered where they would have otherwise moved on. It seemed he was fated in some way to dwell on escape attempts, both successful and disastrous—he thwarted the latter while profiting from the former.
Where his attempts fell upon that scale, he could not know. There had been no one like him to hunt the fugitive slaves of Tevinter when the Divine began its first March. The questions of why and why not were no more beneficial than the questions of what if.
‘This is so much better, isn’t it?’ the mage said. He bounced up and down on the balls of his feet, stamping the snow from his boots and shaking it from his hair. There would be a puddle beneath him soon enough—and that ground would be ruined for starting a fire. ‘A little better, at least. Much would be having the feeling in my hands again. Would you mind checking to see if they’re still there?’
He turned his back to Fenris, conveniently missing the scowl that followed the request and its accompanying action.
The mage knew who he was. He knew where they were headed once the weather calmed. There was no call for familiarity and even less call for good cheer.
‘Do you see them?’ the mage asked.
It was dim within the stone confines of their shelter and what slender light existed was mere reflection, caught and refracted by the blizzard without. Fenris could no longer tell the time of day any more than he could distinguish the position of the sky where it met the horizon. The mage’s hands were still attached at his wrists but their color had turned pale, translucent blue seeping beneath the nails, snow melting wet onto the pillow and his cuffs and soaking the leather of the belt black.
‘They’re there,’ Fenris said, and turned away to light a fire.
There were meager supplies within the cave itself—a few ruined crates stamped with the sigil of the Imperium made for effective kindling but it would not last them through the night. One of the boards lodged a splinter high in Fenris’s index finger and he paused to work it out with his teeth, aware once more of the mage’s eyes on him.
‘There’s an easier way to do this, you know,’ the mage said.
Easier was not always better. The splinter caught in Fenris’s unrelenting bite and he pulled, the taste of wood salted dirty, the chill more pressing than any flavor. His breath warmed his fingertip. There was a spot of blood beneath the nail when there was nothing left to stopper it and Fenris shook it free, already numbed by the lingering cold—though he would have preferred the pain, for the pain would have been more real.
‘That’s just how I would have done it, too,’ the mage said.
The blood had already stopped. The pain had never truly begun. The fire was weak and offered little heat in the face of everything, in the strength of everything it could not hope to counteract. Fenris sat beside it; the mage had his back to the opening of the cave and trembled each time fresh wind beat between his shoulders.
From this position, Fenris could see all that approached—even if all that approached was snow, and snow again, and yet more snow. He watched the flakes fall and shook the last out of his hair. He gave way to no shivers at all.
‘Good to see you taking care of yourself, though.’ The mage scooted closer to the fire on his knees, angling his hands toward the little flames. Water dripped upon the wood and it sizzled, nearly going out again, and Fenris shooed him back as anyone would discourage an adventurous bird picking at crumbs.
The similarities were pointed and unavoidable. The mage fluttered and sulked—and Fenris hardened his jaw against it all.
That kept him from feeling the cold. It was not numbness in the strictest, most physical sense, but it had its applications.
‘Well,’ the mage said.
It was not well. Neither was it unwell.
‘Well,’ Fenris replied—in a way that suggested both these things, in a tone that silenced more than it encouraged—and the sound of his voice echoed high above them but disturbed nothing. The mage did not reply.
This was preferable.
Fenris had developed—while kept alone, unfed, hungry and bound by chains of impression and implication rather than any wrapped tight around his wrists or ankles—a new instinct for the passage of time. He was no longer feverish; hunger had not set in fully and the cold made him keen in order to avoid becoming sluggish. He blinked only when necessary, when his eyes began to sting from not blinking at all.
The little fire was not hypnotic. He marked the passage of time with each breath, the rhythm he cultivated and which proved so valuable now.
An hour and then some—it was not much and in the end it was nothing. It was neither protracted nor swift nor both at the same time. It passed, and it passed in silence.
Then, the sniffling began.
‘My nose.’ The mage attempted to wipe it against his shoulder. ‘It’s running. And…it tickles.’
Fenris thought of the sweat that tracked its path straight between his shoulders and down the length of his spine as he lay in solitude under Hadriana’s chary watch. He thought of how little he wished to brush it away, how all that desire to better his own comfort made no difference this way or that in the end.
That had been years ago. It was a small thing, but the memory remained. When he had an itch now he scratched it or he did not however he saw fit; the point was that it was done through a network of impulse and decision—such simple gestures that spoke more than free men ever told.
He carried no handkerchief for no one had ever given him such an item before—nor had he found himself in need of it—though he used a square cotton cloth with the insignia of the templar’s sun and shield to carry his well-apportioned rations. It was nearing empty now and so he drew that out of his satchel with reluctance, leaning around the fire to wipe the mage’s nose none too gently.
The mage flinched before the touch—as though he expected some crueler gesture—mistrusting Fenris now when it would have done him the most good before. When no hurt came beyond the rough tug of clean cloth, his gaze turned curious, eyes lingering over the cotton and Fenris’s gauntlet beneath.
‘Always wanted to blow my nose on the chantry,’ the mage said. A small smile tugged at his chapped lips, opening a crack in the corner of his mouth with the barest red hint of blood. ‘Metaphorically speaking, of course.’
Whatever solace he found in his private sense of humor was not something Fenris could or wished to share. He had never been one to volunteer information beyond what duty required and logic insisted and his private thoughts remained private, at times even from himself.
The fire began to gutter, flames already weakened from a lack of adequate kindling. Fenris drew both hand and kerchief back; it was more obvious now that the comfort they’d enjoyed the previous nights had been due to the mage’s talents—talents that included flash and spark rather than gathering firewood.
Knowing him better—as much as anyone could understand any mage—Fenris thought the latter impossible, not just unlikely.
No doubt he feared the untraveled depths of the caves for all the dirt that lay there, the potential for exercise resembling hard labor.
‘I will seek out firewood,’ Fenris said. Straightening drew him away from the sniffling and the meager warmth of their fire.
There was no more for him to add, no further warning or reminder of what the mage could anticipate should he choose to run. He had eyes of his own and could see well enough the ‘escape’ that awaited him beyond the mouth of the cave, where the wind howled and the snow fell swifter than any arcane blizzard summoned to destroy a Divine battalion.
The mage’s escapes had not gone well thus far—his judgment affected, addled by spell-books or polluted by power—but the next would not involve accident and clever anecdote, the laughter later to soothe the sting of defeat. At best it would involve a frozen death. At worst, it would see Fenris’s promise come to fruition—his hands were untied and ready to stop a renegade no matter the means.
Fenris flexed his wrist, adjusting the strap another time. How many there had been was now too many to count. He knotted the leather to the best of his abilities and left the mage behind by the dying fire, taking his staff with him.
‘But the spiders—’ the mage began.
Fenris snorted, ducking into a low-hung passage, hewn rough from raw rock. The mage had filled his mind with too many stories: of hunters in the Free Marches; of templar aides and the beasts they fought.
It was not the many-legged creatures, the rotting corpses, the brittle bones or the rusted blades they wielded, that Fenris feared—or even considered. The magic that drove them, tainted by the scars of times past, would one day be scoured clean of the earth itself.
The spiders were a symptom. There were not so many of them and for now, the tunnels were quiet.
There were roots to gather for burning, pale and twisted and dry. Some would belch wicked colors released by the flames, little puffs to brighten the darkness or scent the smoke. It was not ideal. They would have to breathe through their mouths and hope there were no other properties to infect the air and confuse their senses.
Fenris had bent to tear leaves from a scrabble-patch of scrawny elfroot—they stank when they burned but lasted longer than they looked—when he heard the skitter over his shoulder, somewhere along the high ceiling: the whisper of silk and the murmur of furred legs against furred legs.
But the spiders, he thought, and reached for the hilt of his sword.
The head of the mage’s staff was in the way. His fingers closed not around familiar leather-wrapped metal but time-polished wood instead and the spark it left against his fingertips—an item forged by magic meeting another item forged by magic—lit the cave.
He turned in time to see his new enemy’s fat body and arced pincers, joints all bent, mouth open wide. It hissed and spat its poison.
Fenris’s sword was too large to wield effectively in the tightened space.
Even these cruel animals were clever enough to strike when an enemy’s back was turned, to note their advantage and take it—or pierce it straight through the vulnerable heart.
Fenris’s armor was already worn to pieces. There was little space for proper maneuverability. The spider’s pincers glanced off the wall and spider silk clung to the sharp pauldron at his left shoulder as he avoided the first lancing blow. He shifted into the intangible defense that always called to him, pulsing hot and cold between muscle and skin.
He was not invisible. He was simply too bright to be seen—the lyrium ghost all mages feared, without mind and without mercy, the very milk of survival.
He tore the spider open from top to bottom, sharp nails rending its soft belly. But it had brethren, allies, children, appearing from above with a chorus of spitting and hissing.
Fenris was swift indeed—but there were many more of them, and they knew their caves better than he. They came at him from all angles, mandibles clicking in chitinous warning as they poured from hidden crevices in the ceiling, narrow alcoves in the rock where they made their festering nests. Fenris lunged through another, tearing its legs from its body before sinking his claws into its head, between its many-blinking eyes.
They were above him now, claiming the higher ground where Fenris could not scale the walls to follow. The spiders had been resting and feeding in their caves while he fought to cover the frozen ground, behind a mage with more words than good sense, with more shivers than speed, who could conjure fire to his fingertips but not food to their bellies.
The next gobbet of acid struck Fenris in the chest, bubbling green through the torn leather. He whirled to face the spider who’d done it but saw only a host of furious relatives, determined now to have him as a kill if not a meal. Their sense of justice was incomplete—but it served them well and fed them better.
He would not let them. The assertion was simple even if the means were not yet clear. This was how the dragonlings had cornered him before, overwhelming Fenris by sheer and unanticipated numbers. In the caverns, there was too little space to clear his sword, the one advantage that might have regained him the upper hand in the conflict. A spider’s armor was more fragile than a dragonling’s scales, and it would fall more easily to steel if only he had the freedom to wield it.
There was yet more scuffling from the cavern-mouth. Fenris ground his teeth. This signaled a new challenge—spiders in the exit, blocking his only means of escape. He did not need to look to see it for what it was.
‘Oof,’ one of the spiders said. Fenris did look then, gaze following the light cast by his own body as the lyrium throbbed louder than a heartbeat in his ears.
The mage was there—leaning against the far wall, picking himself up from where he’d tripped and nearly fallen inside. His hands were tied in front of him instead of in the back and Fenris watched as he chafed his wrists together, wriggling free of the faded strap that Fenris had used to bind him.
‘Mage,’ Fenris said, as one of the spiders broke off from the main pack to take this simpler prey.
‘Suck on a fireball,’ the mage replied.
The fireballs followed—presumably for sucking on.
They were no hotter than the lyrium and sang the same song. But the color was different, red rather than white, orange to match the blue. They filled the cavern with their light, brighter than one body alone, one after the other as heat ricocheted off rock and tangled brittle carapace in their blasts. The spiders screamed at that, spitting and hissing still, for they could do no more than they knew and knew no more than this. Then, they knew nothing at all, as they were blackened and burnt and still twitching, on their backs to spasm their last poisoned breaths.
Those that lived cowered from the flames. Fenris, crouched behind the body of the largest, was shielded from the center of the danger.
The mage was careful. Perhaps he had even known this and predicted it, casting only once he saw he was able.
Strategy and escape and unbound hands—and the mage stood in the midst of it all, tinted through Fenris’s altered gaze, just a shape and a temperature and a potential threat all in one, arms raised high as he conjured without the staff that still weighed Fenris down and held him back.
It was but one of his weaknesses. The mage did not need it to take full advantage of the tricks Fenris did not own or could not grasp.
Yet there was no time to contemplate these shortcomings, these limited spaces without free roam, that which protected as it hindered or hindered in order to protect. The rush of battle was compounded by the fire in the air. Blood and lyrium burned side by each.
Fenris snapped the back of the nearest spider. Two remained, seeking safety in their warrens, scrambling upward to return to the hidden depths.
One was frozen where it was, ice in the wake of the flames, one of the many contradictions mages espoused routinely. All it took was a single blow from Fenris’s armored fists and it shattered, while he caught the other in his grasp and dragged it down, soft belly up, squealing and shrieking.
He plunged his blade to pinion it in place. Its legs all moved and moved, faster and faster, until at once and without warning they finally stopped.
Fenris breathed hard. The lyrium also swelled, not past its abilities but past Fenris’s abilities, then found itself subdued by the limited capacity of its living vessel.
There was a breaking point for all things, spiders and mages and slaves and soldiers too.
The spider blood began to cool, as did the air around them. The silence that followed could not last; it was punctuated by shuffling footsteps, one dragged after the other, the mage stepping around fresh corpses but keeping his distance.
‘I enjoy saying I told you so as much as the next person,’ the mage began.
Fenris looked up at him. The expression on his face must have been as hard as it felt, as bitter as it was, because it served to quiet the mage, who chewed at his lip and rubbed one wrist with the other.
‘You,’ Fenris said.
‘Me,’ the mage replied.
‘You were able to escape this entire time?’ Fenris ignored the obvious, what needed no comment: the chaos of spiders, the wretched silk and slime and slick poison, all over his boots and all over his arms. It mixed with the blood, his face flecked red, a taste in his mouth that was worse than any rotten fish he’d fed on during sea voyages, downing whatever garbage and bilge he needed to keep his body alive.
‘I told you,’ the mage said. ‘…I’ve had practice.’
Fenris needed to clean his blade. When he did so, nails scraping metal on metal, the mage flinched. Fenris watched him and the mage returned the favor, both of them observing the other from either end of the cavern, across a sea of stilled pincers and sharp-tipped legs.
This was the second time. First the dragonlings; now the spiders.
The odds remained as they were: not in Fenris’s favor. The imbalance between them had only grown, despite his distracted attempts to pretend it did not exist or did not matter.
But whether by purpose or the mere accident of fate, Fenris now owed the mage a debt of gratitude twice over.
These circumstances were not ideal.
‘Do you think spiders make good kindling?’ the mage asked—a direct question that demanded a similar answer, not an idle musing cast free to the air with neither purpose nor direction. He toed a slumped corpse with his boot, stirring loose a segmented leg. ‘I suppose the fur might go up quick, but the rest…bleurgh. Can you imagine the smell? And wouldn’t all the blood put the fire out?’
Fenris did not want to imagine it—nor did he have to after the mage’s actions with his fireballs. The smell of singed spider-meat was dank and bitter, sticky blood and wretched innards mingling in the stillness of the air, refusing to rise to the cavern ceiling. It seemed prudent to leave or at least to move, before the tension and the scent conspired to make Fenris’s stomach turn.
The mage stood to one side as Fenris strode past him; his neck prickled to know he had left his back open to open danger.
But Fenris was weary in mind and body. Perhaps he would have reason to judge himself later for the rashness of his actions now, but he found that he did not care at present to look for an attack when none had been forthcoming.
He could accept that as a truth even if he did not understand its motivations. The mage had not run when he was freed and he had not shimmied loose from his bonds at any point between cavern and cavern, before or after the falling snow. He had healed Fenris with unwanted magic when it would have been simpler, quieter, better to hold his pillow over Fenris’s face and wait for the thrashing to stop, as all thrashing did.
Each knew who the other was—yet only Fenris had done what he was meant to do. He did not appreciate the additional uncertainty, confusion and cross-purposes. Spiders and dragonlings had nearly proven the death of him on Sundermount but their actions were at least consistent.
They made sense.
The mage did not.
The fire had dwindled to the blackened heart of their scorched kindling when they returned, faint orange heat lingering in the fragile center. Fenris scowled at the sight of it, remembering what scarce brushwood he’d been able to gather, and how most of that had been lost in the spiders’ sudden assault.
He tossed a root—the only one he’d managed to keep, little fingers caught in the torn straps of his bloodied gauntlet—onto the fire. It burned sudden and yellowish-pink, the same color as a clear sky when the sun rose at first dawn, and it stank worse than the dead spiders.
Fenris covered his nose. The palm of his hand stank, too, of blood and guts and bile, of the poisonous elements that lined the spiders’ stomach. It smelled of leather and of metal beneath that and the sickly sweet root-scent, already perverted by the flames.
‘Just when you think it can’t get any worse,’ the mage said.
‘Why did you not run?’ Fenris asked.
That it troubled him was nearly more troublesome than the original trouble. And there was too much of that—a fact they both saw, for they were plagued by it together. Trouble from the start; trouble at the last. First dragonlings, then snowstorm, then giant spiders. Next it might be ghosts or wyverns, or animated corpses, or some dark revenant guarding the Sundermount peak. The Free Marches were capable of all this and more, as were its marchers, and none of it compromised Fenris’s perception of the place—of its inhabitants, twisted or ambitious or tremendously weak, each to his own sphere and none with the desire to cross it.
It was order. Order made sense. That was why it was called order—and not some other name.
The mage flicked spider-silk off his wrist, untangling it from around his sleeve. It proved too sticky to shake; after a brief struggle, he wiped his palm against the wall beside him and scraped hard. He still maintained his distance—which was at least predictable, one tactic chosen amongst many.
There was supposed to be room for more than one. A collection of tactics would provide the only possible success. People themselves were little more than a collection of tactics—and mages, especially.
‘You seemed like you were having a bad day.’ The mage wet his lips, staring at his hands. He, too, covered his nose and mouth with his palm to avoid the scent that still lingered in the air, the by-product of Fenris’s attempt to stoke their fire with something more adequate. ‘If I wasn’t around, it’d just get worse.’
Fenris snorted. The mage flinched. He leaned against the wall and pinched his palm on some sharp shape of shale, pulling back immediately, shaking out the hurt.
‘…I had my reasons,’ he said, looking away. ‘It was either this or join the dragons and I don’t think they’d have me. They’d probably eat me. Certain death by dragonfang or potential death on the tips of your talons… Call me an optimist, but I chose the latter.’
‘I would not call you an optimist,’ Fenris replied.
‘You won’t call me Anders, either,’ the mage said. ‘It’s a good thing I’m not picky.’
He leaned against the wall, hands where Fenris could see them, each movement careful and measured—yet they nonetheless gave Fenris reason to frown deeper and deeper. He could see what he had not seen before—that there was intention and planning behind each gesture, the desire not to spook an easily-startled animal, the same caution one wielded when walking past a nest of dragonlings: to avoid waking the dragon. He had not been so vigilant when it came to the dragonlings.
It had all been to placate, if not to entertain.
‘It gets lonely on the open road,’ the mage added. ‘Too many chances—too many possibilities. Too much awful. If it’s not dragonlings it’s bound to be bandits and if it’s not bandits it’s bound to be wolves and if it’s not wolves… Well. You get the idea. It all boils down to templars in the end anyway. I gave it my best go.’
‘Pfaugh,’ Fenris said again. He spat blood onto rock, not his blood.
‘May I light the fire now?’ the mage asked. ‘It’s bloody cold.’
‘Please yourself.’ Fenris tucked himself against the worn rock at his back. Further refusal would lead only to further complaint—and he had experienced enough of that already to last a lifetime. ‘I am untroubled.’
It was not entirely the truth. Fenris had suffered worse conditions on less sleep and with no more company than the shadows that passed across his face. But his armor was torn and it let the cold in; the warmth of a fire would not be unwelcome, though the magic used to light it was another tale.
Fenris leaned his arm against one knee, flexing the claws of his ruined gauntlet, the leather now stained with spider’s blood.
The mage did not appreciate these significant distinctions—or he did not share them. Fenris knew little of the stories about the lyrium ghost, passed hush over other campfires and between iron bars; perhaps no one had seen fit to mention his aversion to magic, offering no motivation beyond the strength and the action. And, he decided, that was proper. Any more detail would have been inappropriate. He had brought in many and lost few; he had tracked hard and he had been rigorous. The Knight-Commander was exacting in her instructions and she appreciated having an instrument who could follow them to the letter.
She would not appreciate knowing her most sensible subordinate was indebted to a mage—or that he considered them debts to begin with.
Fenris watched the mage through the new flames he held within his palms; the light framed his face like a chantry engraving, though Andraste’s martyrs rarely looked like a half-eaten simir bird dragged home by a magister’s hunting courser.
If the mage knew the trouble he had caused, it did not seem to bother him.
If he thought that saving a person’s life gave him leave to make that life more difficult, then he was mistaken.
‘It would seem,’ Fenris began as the fire climbed higher and the mage drew away and the words galled in his throat like spider bile, ‘that I…owe you a second debt of honor.’
‘So…the second doesn’t cancel out the first?’ The mage tucked a stray lock of hair behind one ear, where it did not stay. ‘That’s convenient. The odds have never been this far in my favor before. Now if only we had a pack of cards…’
But the odds were not in his favor. That was demonstrable. Fenris gestured to indicate that—their surroundings, the little fire, the close and dirty walls, the damp pauldrons, the blood, the dangling gauntlet once again falling loose from his wrist, the spider silk hanging from a nearby crag and trailing back and forth with eddies of wind. They tread an undesirable path, striking an uneasy balance; they stayed too close to the storm and the cold, but the deeper they strayed, the more sharp pincers they would find. There was always more and never less, and more was not—as so many believed—preferable to its alternative.
More was not better. The odds were not favorable.
The mage mirrored the movement. He also gestured—to the fire, which crackled better than before and smelled only of the tang of spell-casting, the heat of the arcane from his palms. Then he returned to rubbing his wrists over the flames—skin that was red and split, nails that were also split, fingertips that were blue but warming.
It had not been comfortable for him. That was the point. The odds were clear and his small hands had been cold for too long before they chose to warm themselves.
Fenris drew one arm around his knee. He was still ready to strike—but there were times when it was less clear if the shadows that surrounded him could be struck down. They were without body and without form; they lacked the obviousness of giant spiders or even the obviousness of a single mage.
There he was: snow-wet boots and dripping feathers and aching wrists, shivering and shuddering and shaking himself out. He called no fireballs. He required no ‘sucking’ on them. The odds were in his favor but they were not in his favor.
It was a mess. He had no one to blame but himself but he pursed his lips together and sighed, something that might have been a whistle, without effort and without tune.
Fenris waited. Once again he guarded against an attack that never came.
The odds were odd, he corrected, and nothing else.
He had notched time close to an hour, stirred by slight noises the mage made and the pull of the air around his body as he healed himself, when he sighed again—not a whistle but louder, deep and full and through his chest, from his shoulders to his fingertips.
Fenris did not reply. There was no need for a contest of sighs. He should have known the mage would attempt it a second time—louder than before and larger, if such a thing were possible.
‘Hungry,’ the mage explained, though no explanation had been requested. ‘And wet, and cold. And your face—it’s intimidating.’
‘More intimidating than the host of spiders?’ Fenris asked.
The words surprised them both.
The mage cleared his throat and loosened his collar. ‘It’s difficult to compare the two,’ he said. ‘And yet…they are similar, in a manner of speaking.’
Fenris’s fingers uncurled, then curled again—just like the wicked pincers, forelegs curling and uncurling into the air. He blinked at the notion.
‘Do you plan to solve the problem with more fireballs?’ Fenris asked, realizing too late the trap he’d sprung—that more than one response indicated not the end but rather the beginning of conversation.
The mage rose unsteadily to his feet, boots now dried by a fire that was more than the sum of its inferior elements. Fenris marked his passage, where he went and what little direction it had; he felt some tension in his bent limbs but there was little direction to that, either.
‘Did you just..’ the mage began, as though he could not trust his own ears—pink from the cold and adorned as they were. ‘Never mind; don’t answer that. I don’t know if I could stand the disappointment.’
‘You would manage,’ Fenris replied.
The mage shrugged, plucking at the bandages on his sleeves one by one, taking stock of each. Then he pressed his hands into the small of his lower back, bending to pop the stiff joints there.
There was too much to watch and all of it aimless. No threat was conjured. No magic remained, save for in the pit of the fire—which Fenris had dug and failed to nurture on his own.
The mage stepped around it. He was looking for something when all there was in the cave were exits.
‘The storm has not passed,’ Fenris said. He watched the fire but kept his focus on other movements, the play of shadow the mage cast as he distracted the darkness with each half-aimless movement.
‘I’m not going out there.’ The mage shuddered. ‘I’m not mad, but I do have needs. Once my stomach starts rumbling, you’ll really have something to frown about, and neither of us will get any sleep because of all the whimpering.’
Fenris bowed his head. There were facts amidst the chatter, flesh beneath the flutter of feathers. One had only to find it or wish to find it, the same as picking a path between pitfalls.
‘You are…hungry,’ he concluded, managing in three words what the mage could not in ten times that number.
‘Starving,’ the mage replied. ‘I might’ve been able to eat a dragonling—Karl used to say they taste only a little better than imported ham from the Anderfels—but spiders just seem like a bad idea all around. All that poison and fur, not to mention the fangs.’
Bleurgh, Fenris remembered, though he did not speak it aloud.
‘Ah!’ the mage added. He lifted a stick, sharpened into a point, which had somehow missed being tossed into the fire. He brushed dirt off the bark; in his hands it looked something close to a miniature staff, a mockery of the principle of those staffs and the needs of the mages who wielded them, one more of the jests of grand irony they had endured thus far.
Fenris braced himself, then realized what he had braced himself for—or braced himself against. It was a mage with a stick before him, no more dangerous than if he should trip and fall upon the pointed end. His wariness was born of some other shadow, some other memory, and yet more foolishness.
This time, Fenris did not blink. He was careful to watch, the mage melting in and out of exaggerated darkness into swells of light, fussing his way around the circumference of their cavern until he came to the branching path. He bent lower; he cooed; he raised his stick high and speared something by his boots. It gave no squelch or splatter, just a muted sound.
When he turned around, it was to display his quarry with pride.
He had caught himself some elfroot.
Fenris knew what it meant to fill a belly with food so foul it forgot the importance of its hunger or forgot how to be hungry at all. Weariness followed that, and emptiness, but it was emptiness of another sort—emptiness that begot emptiness and presupposed all taste, all potential for desire.
The mage returned to the fire. He held the stick over it, the elfroot hanging off the end, beginning to roast at the scraggly tip.
Fenris took the square of simple cotton from his pocket, what remained of his provisions folded within. There was a half-eaten biscuit and nothing more. He considered his hunger, which he had almost forgotten—which did not plague him the way it used to, for it was no one’s weapon and his instinct alone to bear. Food was not dangled before him and taken away; all that dangled was his gauntlet and now the elfroot.
Frustration tickled like a loose strap. The mage also remained without provision and inspired desire over hunger, the opposite of emptiness—confusion that coursed as hot through Fenris’s blood as anger, though nothing quite as hot as ignited lyrium.
‘You make do with what you have and hope you aren’t sick later,’ the mage said. ‘It’s no taproom feast—what I wouldn’t give for a hock of mutton right now, or some sour whiskey—but as bad as it tastes, it’s actually soothing.’
Fenris had eaten worse—and the worse had been more offensive than nothing. The mage tested the temperature of the elfroot and winced, sucking on his burnt finger.
‘Might want to let it cool first,’ he said, around the mouthful of sore flesh.
There had been water in the mage’s skein once, the one that hung by his side and bounced against his hip. All that was gone, Fenris suspected, because he had been the one to drink it.
Fenris licked his lips. He came forward without warning—and it was the mage’s turn to flinch, anticipating an attack and receiving no conclusion to his fear—to take the elfroot in his hands and tear it in half.
One piece was larger than the other. Deciding how to proceed was an insurmountable task, though it should not have mattered at all.
Also, the elfroot was indeed hot.
It did not burn but it was not pleasant. After the gratuitous pause, Fenris held the larger portion to the mage, for it was his elfroot and he had cooked it. This seemed to make sense; the mage took it without protest or pretense or anything too polite.
Fenris ate his with the rest of his biscuit, burning his tongue and throat the whole way.
‘Do you ever think—’ the mage began.
Too much, Fenris thought, and to little avail.
‘I do not,’ he said, and refused to offer more after that.
It was late in the evening. The mage’s eyes drooped. Fenris was also tired but he could go far longer without sleep and would, checking now and then for the sound of the unremitting wind to finally cease.
It had been the right decision to stop for the night and the better part of the day. Fenris did not make a habit of seeking reassurances for his choices—he made them and they were his own, for good or ill—but it gave him some small amount of satisfaction to know that their time here had not been wasteful or indulgent.
His back ached. He could not settle comfortably against the rock with the round, hard length of the mage’s staff resting over his sword. He did not shift in any feeble attempt at comfort, which had always been elusive, but the impulse was there alongside the potential, and that fed discomfort the same way dry kindling fed fire.
Kindling was not always necessary. Magic provided what the natural would not.
From the other side of the fire, the mage stood once more, stretching in the familiar way, hands at the small of his back.
Fenris watched him over the flames—not idle; never idle—until he passed into Fenris’s peripheral vision, tattered edges and stooped posture swallowed by the craggy narrows and deeper gloom. He paced to keep warm—or he hungered for more odious elfroot.
Outside, the wind still did not quiet. Fenris did not realize his eyes were shut until he felt the sudden warmth at his side, neither flame nor magic but a different heat.
Feathered shoulder to leather, thighs pressed together, the mage tucked himself into a space that was not meant to fit him with the same persistence as a stray dog that had once been offered scraps, its loyalty earned by nothing more complicated than an old soup bone or a few oddments of ham rind.
Fenris stilled, though beneath his skin he could hear the distant strains of lyrium hard and sharp as unformed metal or shattered glass. It was at once keen, sleek and loose—but also splintered, shards that managed despite themselves to flow. Those shards sang. Fenris dropped his shoulder, digging his elbow into the mage’s side to dislodge him.
‘Ouch,’ the mage said, then wrapped a warm, bare hand around Fenris’s arm above the elbow.
Fenris did not move his head, but his eyes took in the scene sidelong, which was as much as he could allow. Anything further would indicate he was aware of the intrusion—and that would require the faculties necessary for accepting it until the moment he dealt with it.
He knew the way of neither.
‘Mage,’ he began, heart one pounding song, lyrium another, breath and body-warmth and tickling feathers, soft fingertips and a softer palm. Fennris no longer panicked—he was past that point for any reason, not dragonlings nor snowstorms nor spitting spiders—but that did not mean he felt no distaste, no hate, or no confusion.
Yet inclining himself away only seemed to bring the mage closer.
He already had a pillow. Beaten as it was, it would have offered more comfort.
Moving away also brought Fenris further from the fire, closer to the chill of the cavern’s open mouth. It was black outside, not even a white swirl to speak of moonlight, cloud cover too thick to pierce. The snow had built to the height of a well-fed dwarf. It gusted in and scattered along the ground and it melted as it came closer to the heat—the same heat Fenris denied or rejected through his own confounding actions.
The mage made no sudden play for his staff, though it did react to his proximity with a quiet thrum, another pulse-point Fenris had to be aware of—along with his own, the lyrium’s, and whatever pounded at the mage’s throat, chin perched near to Fenris’s shoulder, where his upper arm was bare.
The mage’s hands were neither cold nor warm. They took one of the torn straps meant to hold Fenris’s chest-piece in place—doing their duty still, if in reduced capacity—and chafed the skin below.
The action was warm. It made Fenris realize something he had known but had not acknowledged—that until this point, the bare skin there had been cold.
Then, the bare skin reacted. He felt the convulsion roll in the flesh between that skin and the deeper muscle, lyrium flashing once, brightening only to dim again.
‘You’re cold,’ the mage said.
As though Fenris needed some other voice to tell him this, or how to manage it.
It does not matter was one potential response. I have been colder was another. It is none of your concern was the most accurate and gave the least away. My cold is my own was the deepest truth, a cold he bore because he could, a cold no one else could feel or—presumably—share, or give, or take away.
Freedom to feel cold. Freedom despite and against the cold, to warm oneself or not as one saw fit. Whether it was pleasant or unpleasant had no inherent meaning.
Fenris did not kneel by the fire or search out elfroot to fill his belly because he did not wish to. He did not ask why this was the case and so it had been for years.
There was pain and no cure for that pain. All the rest was inconsequential, while it comprised the few belongings he knew were his alone.
Fenris ground his teeth. The mage chafed his skin until it was warm. The touch was sure of itself, certain that it was necessary, that there was a hierarchy of things in which cold fell beneath warm with warm being most preferable. The action heated the mage’s fingers in return while the feathers continued to tickle and the pulses continued to beat.
It was not magic.
It did not hurt.
‘I know this is all very threatening,’ the mage said, ‘but my fingers aren’t sparkling, are they?’
They were not, though one line of lyrium traced below seemed almost to grow from the touch, looking too much like a slim bolt of arcane lightning. There was much Fenris could not forget, other hands that had incurred other harm, other hands that had never once thought to heal.
I was not cold would have been a lie. And Fenris did not know whether or not I did not want this would have been the truth.
‘No,’ Fenris said.
‘Are you agreeing with me, or is that a more…general statement?’ the mage asked.
Fenris considered it. Thrum after thrum, pulse after pulse, warmth after warmth—he was braced, solid as rock but more brittle, with all his crags and shadows, while soft fingers worked at the bitter cold in his leathers. ‘Both,’ he replied.
‘Both is good.’ The mage avoided slicing his stubbled cheek open on one of Fenris’s pauldrons. ‘Both is better than just one, though sometimes…’
‘…just one is almost worse than nothing,’ the mage concluded.
Fenris was surprised not by the implausibility of the thing but because he knew what it meant. The understanding was instinctive; it required no explanation or elaboration of the point.
To be offered a slim something—not the hand-up but the crooked finger, a taunt or a tease or an outright lie—was far worse than no offer at all.
Accepting the cold had made it a part of him, chill skin and hard muscles untroubled by their state—until the mage had seen fit to step in and remind Fenris of all that he had taken unspoken pains to forget.
Comfort was not requisite. It did not feed his belly or enrich his mind; it did not make him stronger, sharpening his reactions or the hone of his sword. There was no reason behind the urge to make oneself comfortable that Fenris could understand—not in the same way he understood the mage’s parable, for indeed that search for comfort contradicted everything he said—but at least the mage was consistent in his behavior.
Fenris understood this even if he did not understand him. Perhaps that was the distinction. Perhaps he never would understand it. The notion galled him just as the mage’s touch galled him, one within and one without, worn fabric of his sleeve catching against the torn fragments of Fenris’s chest-plate.
It should not have made any difference between them—any more than there was already every difference between them—but Fenris could no longer deny that it did.
‘I did not ask for this,’ Fenris said into the light of the fire and the cold of their cave.
He did not mean it generally—that went without saying—but rather this specific time. Words were needed, and not solely as comfort.
‘Well…no,’ the mage admitted. His chin was sharp against Fenris’s shoulder, tickling when it moved. ‘Not in as many words. But when you’re a healer—and I am a healer; don’t be fooled by my fireballs, magnificent as they are—you learn to…read between the lines. No one asks for what they need most. It’s the one thing we all have in common. Even dwarves. …Maybe not the qunari.’
‘No,’ Fenris agreed. ‘They do not ask at all.’
He shifted, turning his hand over to examine the loose strappings of his broken gauntlet, which had slid cross-wise in the commotion. The gauntlet was a clear problem, something he could not fix but nevertheless had its physicality and its obvious solution. He could see where it had broken, the frayed leather and the missing buckle that caused it to fall open time and again. His armor did not confuse itself or who had made it, toward what end if this was the only end. It did not question its nature. It simply was what it was.
And now it was broken.
‘For example…’ The mage tugged at his own sleeve, the leather cuff where it frayed below the ball-joint of his thumb. Fenris had been watching his arm before and now he was watching the mage’s fingers, all the differences between their garments—one undone by slicing talons, the other by quick fingers. ‘That’s obviously bothering you.’
‘It does not bother me,’ Fenris replied. He did not know if what he said was true. He did not know why he frowned, either, though he felt it as the mage unraveled an old bandage he’d wound around his wrist.
Deft. The motions were practiced, secure. He had done this before and would do it again, presumably to heal the hurts of fabric as well as flesh. He would be quick with poultices in the Gallows courtyard or he would be skilled with the enchantments the Tranquil dealt in, quiet eyes beneath their eased brows and dark brands.
The mage’s sleeve was torn beneath the length of dirtied bandage. It was not an ideal way to mend the thing at all. Under the hole in the fabric his skin was pale, freckles hidden in shadows.
‘If it doesn’t bother you,’ the mage asked, ‘then why do you keep bothering with it?’
Fenris had no answer. He was backed into a corner—literally, his body held in place by the mage’s body, his arm between his knees. The mage adjusted his gauntlet for him—as though he could not do this for himself; as though he had not, and as though such fussing and fidgeting had not always been the problem.
The mage wound broken strap-end over broken strap-end, then began to bandage it.
It was not the same as having a life healed once and saved another time. It was a small gesture, a small gift, but it was one of many others—the pillow, the elfroot, the warmth, and now this: the gauntlet.
The mage began with a knot, the age-colored cotton wrapped twice around Fenris’s wrist to secure the leather in sturdy place. He ended with another knot and tucked the short trails of fabric in, against the vulnerable skin where only one pulse was beating.
‘This—’ Fenris gestured but only barely, to indicate the patchwork, ‘—will also bother me.’
‘I know,’ the mage said. ‘Just…hopefully not in the same way.’
His palm remained where it was, covering the back of Fenris’s arm.
It was the hand up and not the crooked finger.
‘Anyway,’ the mage continued, ‘I’m probably just being selfish. You’re cold, I’m colder, and a fire can only do so much—even when it’s a magic one.’
‘Maybe especially then,’ Fenris replied.
He did not lift his other arm to place it around the mage’s shoulders, where the feathers bunched and fluffed and made him seem larger or heavier than he was. Animals displayed this same tactic, fur standing on end when they were hunted, arching their spines and baring their teeth and claws. Dragonlings attacked when their roosts were threatened. The mage bowed his head when he knew no other way.
After a time, Fenris shifted. The warmth had grown, nurtured between them, some root caught in the thin silt and—somehow—taking to the soil, burrowing between hard rock, finding its place no matter the difficulty of the path. The mage let his cheek rest near Fenris’s pauldron, hair caught on one of the spikes, and Fenris’s knuckles brushed feathers and fabric, one cold buckle, hand at his back.
The mage pursed his lips. His breath ghosted along Fenris’s skin—and for a brief time, there was no pain.
The snow ceased to fall; Fenris was still awake to see it end.
He often was.
The mage slept on, the warm patterns formed by his breath not strong enough to stir the sharp planes of Fenris’s armored pauldrons. When he had drifted Fenris could not say, which perhaps meant he had also caught a few moments of unrequested respite.
It did not matter now that it was over. Fenris was awake and the mage was not, their bodies fit together like two birds in a single nest. They were not able to tell where feathers ended and talons began.
The snow had risen no higher than where Fenris had last marked its progress, though a bare few inches had blown in through the cavern’s maw, speckling the dark ground with hoarfrost. Fenris suspected the same harsh winds that had thwarted them had also kept them from being entombed, though there were always back routes through the Sundermount tunnels—there was always a second option, though Fenris did not always care to consider it.
One brought focus to his actions, while two could easily become three, then four, and after that it was too many. It was the same principle as with dragonlings or spiders, a single flake of snow more obvious than the flurry, a single road more possible than its branches.
Straying from his objective was what had led him to the dragonlings; then, it had led him to this cave, hand at the small of the mage’s back while the mage sighed against him, chest rising and falling with the sinking fire.
Knowing this, Fenris could still not find it within himself to wish for some other outcome. One was not choice and choice was what had brought him here. While the freedom was a troubling affliction, he would no sooner give it up than he would cut off his right hand—between gauntlet and flesh, between bandage and skin.
He flexed his fingers in the mended armor. Despite all odds, the bandage held steady.
But the movement beneath the bandage was the opposite of steadiness, enough to wake a sleeping fool where he did not lie.
‘Mmfh.’ The mage turned his face against Fenris’s shoulder, rubbing his cold nose against smooth leather. Fenris did not grimace when cold skin brushed his own through a tear in the armor. ‘You’re… You’re awake. No, don’t be quiet for my sake—I can feel it. Next thing I know you’ll get all squirmy on me, and then how am I supposed to go back to sleep?’
Fenris waited for the mage to straighten, to remember his place and his preferences and adjust his hair, fingers tugging at the earring looped through the lobe on the right because this action alone—more than any other—seemed to please him. Yet he did not move; neither did he open his eyes.
‘Mage,’ Fenris said, though it was roughened by sleep, more like a name than an accusation.
‘Can’t you see I’m sleeping?’ the mage replied.
Fenris snorted. ‘I can hear that you are not.’
‘I’m going back to sleep, I said.’ The mage yawned, pink tongue curling like a cat’s. ‘I also said something about being too squirmy… Honestly, sometimes I wonder if you’re listening to me at all.’
It was impossible not to listen, just as it was impossible not to feel. Pain and sound—it required delineation. In the icy morning, Fenris was aware of that which began with him and that which ended somewhere else, the frays and the tangles and the lines drawn between, what held him together because he had tied the knots and what held him together because someone else had done the same. They did so in his stead or because they felt it necessary, or because they knew no other way, natural as breathing and drooling against a leather pauldron or scratching an itch the moment it was felt.
Fenris heard the mage yawn and he heard the fire crackle. He heard the smacking of lips and the tightening of muscle and the stretching of joints, the stiffness of bone. He heard something rip and heard the mage sigh—another sigh to fill the cold, another sound he could not unhear.
‘It has stopped snowing,’ Fenris said.
The mage stilled, hands in front of him, cracked nails and burnt elfroot stains and the freckle below the bottom-most knuckle of his thumb. His fingers were flexed but he might well have been frozen in place by the cold at last, bootheel snagging in a pile of rubble.
He said nothing.
Fenris waited—not patiently—for the next puff of laughter or the next huff of a sigh, the words and always more words, what Fenris listened to despite himself and despite the oddity, if not despite the odds.
The mage tugged at his earring and rubbed the back of his neck, though it did not appear to be because of pain.
‘And here I thought…’ The mage licked his lips. Fenris could hear that too, chapped as they were. ‘Never mind. It’s foolish.’
‘You thought that it would snow forever,’ Fenris said. ‘That you could live here amongst the spiders eating only elfroot and that this would be preferable to the alternative of leaving the caves.’
‘I could train them,’ the mage replied, ‘to respond to the sound of my voice. The spiders, I mean. They could carry me through the tunnels and make me their king.’
‘There are only spider queens.’ Fenris did not know how he knew this or why it mattered or what use it would be to them now. It was knowledge and knowledge was a comfort, and comfort was an indulgence, yet he found himself speaking nonetheless. ‘They devour their…kings after they mate and thus fill the tunnels with their spawn.’
‘Sounds appropriate,’ the mage said. ‘No worse a fate than the one I’m really in for—isn’t that right?’
‘I do not imagine it,’ Fenris admitted.
At last, the mage straightened, brushing the dirt from the bottom of his coat. He did not offer a hand down—neither the hand nor the crooked finger, the lack of promise as he preferred it, for Fenris knew how to stand on his own and could, and that was his preference. Fenris used the cave wall as leverage, weight born on one arm, and the sword settled familiarly against his back, though the staff did not.
‘Neither do I,’ the mage agreed.
Fenris was the one to cover their fire. No trace of what had transpired remained save for the corpses of the spiders, which would in time turn to nothing more than dirt and dust. Either the chitin would poison the soil or it would feed it. There would be more spiders. They would not remember those they had lost or those who had killed their kin.
It would not be easy to clear the path to begin their descent and by the end of his hard work Fenris’s hands would be cold. He would request no mage-fire to warm them again—and he would not assume that Anders would give it.
The sky was clear with the clouds dispersed, air thin and sunlight sharp. It was slow moving down the mountainside but it was not impossible. Many things were not, and happened even due to a lack of immediate plausibility.
Anders followed as Fenris cleared the way, digging wide furrows through the drifts; they switched when Fenris’s hands grew too frozen to move his fingers, soaked with cold sweat and colder snow. Anders had other means, a glow and flash of core-heat at the palms of his hands, little blasts that disturbed no lingering mountainside evil—as all were quieted by the remains of the storm.
Needless to say, they progressed more swiftly with Anders in the lead, though the path he made was slick with ice behind him, water that hardened so soon after it had been melted.
They were headed in only one direction. One—which was better, or so Fenris had presumed.
He did not dally, nor did he offer any thoughts for what lay at the end of their course. There was only the mountain and its track winding ever downward. What dragonlings remained had been chased into their warrens by the cold, their blood running sluggish beneath armored scales as they slept, and Anders did not stray to bestir elvhen burial grounds or the fade-beasts that guarded them.
The cloth he had wound around Fenris’s gauntlet held tight. The glove did not slip once despite the hard work.
That was how they made it to the base of Sundermount, traveling under the silence of the burden they shared, the one path that did not suit either of them. Anders did not indulge in frivolity, in small talk, and that had never been Fenris’s art either. He did not understand how to turn it aside much less how to begin it; he heard only the silences those words left in their wake—what they did not manage to say so much louder than what they did.
When he reached for something to say all stences passed through his hands like melted snow. He did not chase them. There was enough struggle on the ground ahead of him already.
In the distance, Kirkwall loomed; its chantry and the Gallows-spires pierced the late afternoon’s horizon like a mountain’s grim peaks. Keeping to their pace, they would arrive by nightfall, with a bed awaiting Fenris and the Knight-Commander’s sentence awaiting Anders.
He was out of breath, fingers at his back where it plagued him, just one of a host of details Fenris had already discovered he could not stop hearing. He knew them now and could not unlearn them.
He could not deny a fact even when it was objectionable. He could not turn away the lyrium in his skin or refuse to see the winking sun against the gold loop in Anders’s ear.
For the first time since they had begun their descent, they stopped. They watched the horizon, neither one ahead of the other, Anders squinting into the noonday sunlight.
‘I will return to Kirkwall,’ Fenris said. He looked away from the tower and found the favor at his wrist instead, damp with snow. When he rubbed the fabric against his thumb there was no pain, only feeling, which rested in between something pleasant and something unpleasant. It was not both. It was neither. It had its place and it had its meaning. ‘But—here is where we part ways.’
Anders scrubbed at his cheek with one knuckle, which served only to streak the dirt closer to his ear, to adjust its place but not to clean it away. There were fine lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth, the former crinkling even when he did not smile.
He was not smiling now.
But he was not frowning.
It was that in-between again, a space Fenris had never known; it was neither the caves of Sundermount nor the streets of the City of Chains. Only the crows would see their exchange, what Fenris chose and what Anders chose after.
‘I’m not really sure where to go,’ Anders began.
Fenris unstrapped the staff from his back, free of it at last. He knew—or thought he knew—why it had been bothering him all this time. It did not fit. It was not his to take.
Duty often overwhelmed choice, but choice was the lone weapon of freedom. Swords or staffs supported it and pain informed it, but there was more to it than that.
Fenris held the staff out between them and Anders took it at its proper place. It sparked.
There was feeling.
‘You will think of something,’ Fenris said, and Anders shivered, feathers rustling though there was no wind.
Fenris left Anders there at the crossroads; it was not up to him what happened next. Whether Anders fled to the mountains or rejoined his rebellious friends, whether he became king of spiders or taproom pauper, made little difference—so long as Fenris did not bring Anders to the Knight-Commander, whatever came would be the better end.
Kirkwall opened its gates to him as always. None dared to meet him in the eye as he passed. He forewent the taproom as always and was debriefed by his superiors, in the Knight-Commander’s private chambers, with the Knight-Captain presiding and a tranquil to take note of the proceedings.
‘There were dragonlings,’ Fenris began.
END PART I