It was meant to be a normal journey to Soldier’s Peak—Natia always made it a point to store their extra loot there after every major undertaking. The dwarven Grey Warden led her little group along the far banks of Lake Calenhad, crunching through the frosty grass as mist curled around their feet. Her breath streamed out behind her in pale white wisps, as she was sure it did for Sten, Wynne, and Leliana. Their resident bard had clearly enjoyed her brief and bloody time in Orzammar—though the Warden could scarcely tell her it had been the first time she had entered many buildings in the Diamond Quarter, too.
“I’m glad we managed to put Bhelen on the throne,” she said happily. “And Rica will be with him too! It’s all so romantic: the two lovers separated by class. A story for the ages!”
“Well, if you want to put it that way,” her bold leader called back with a laugh in her voice.
“Don’t you think that she loves him?”
“Course I do! But if Bhelen ever messes with my sister, I’ll march right back in there and tear the duster’s nuts off myself.” These last words were strained through a grim, baretoothed smile. None present thought to doubt such a threat.
“If he is indeed most suited to rule, such action would be unwise, kadan.” Sten’s tone of voice indicated he was simply stating the obvious. With all the politicking he had witnessed, it was a wonder the dwarves got anything done at all.
“But if he doesn’t know how to appreciate the woman he loves, how can he rule fairly over the people who depend on him?” Leliana cut in indignantly.
“We do all right.”
The statement provoked a sigh from Wynne. “Oh, Sten. Don’t the Qunari fall in love? Get married? Have little Qunari?”
“Certainly not the way humans do.”
“You mean they don’t come out the usual way? Morrigan sure dodged a bullet…”
“Funny, Warden. The tamassran bring men and women together to produce imekari. It is our duty to the Qun. Love does not factor into it.”
“How sad. To know nothing of the joys of romance,” Leliana said, the picture of disapproval.
“How boring! I bet Qunari unions involve contracts,” Natia snickered, imitating Sten’s deadpan baritone with limited success. “I, someone-or-other, do pledge to honour and defend my partner, so-and-so, for as long as I live.”
Sten snorted. “You speak nonsense. Such contracts last only as long as the act itself.”
“…Oh, my,” Wynne murmured tactfully.
“Ears of my ancestors…Y’know, forget I asked.”
Leliana, truly indignant now, refused to let the matter slip, and insisted on arguing the matter with Sten. The other two listened with half an ear as the mist grew thicker and the night turned ever colder. Wynne heard the Warden cough behind her, a throaty rasp of noise.
“Are you well, Warden?” she asked.
“That wasn’t me.” The hairs on the back of the dwarf’s neck stood up as she drew her weapons. Sten was already reaching for Asala as Leliana curled her fingers round her bow. “I know that sound. We’re under attack!” The mists suddenly exploded all around them with darkspawn, their eyes glittering cold in the meager light and their weapons raised high.
“Ambush!” she spat as their foes surged forward. “Keep them busy, ladies!” Her blades, and Sten’s, cut their way forward as Leliana and Wynne strived to keep the rest of their attackers occupied. Swords, arrows, spells and bloody darkspawn parts flew through the air in equal measure.
The fight was hard and dirty, but at last the final darkspawn shattered into a slushy mess, felled by a well-timed mix of Wynne’s spells. Natia shook the blood from her sword and scanned the ground for anything salvageable. Corpses whole and not-so-whole littered the once serene landscape. She wasn’t looking forward to seeing the full carnage under the harsh light of day.
It was then she heard it: the shuffle of feet, and the click of an armed crossbow. Natia whirled to see a genlock aiming at the largest, easiest target its beady eyes could focus on. “Sten!” she screamed. “MOVE!”
He turned—just as the bolt was loosed. The sharp sound of the missile flying home unlocked a rage the Warden never thought she’d possessed. She charged the genlock. In five long strides she had closed the distance between them. In six she was upon it. Putting the full force of both her arms behind her sword, she lopped its head from its shoulders with a single vicious swing. Damn it. Damn it all! How had they missed this one? How had she?!
“Son of a lyrium-licking nug-buggerin’—”
“Warden!” Leliana’s voice rang out through the thickening mist, cutting the vehement curse short.
Nugnuts. ”Sten!” Natia raced towards her companions to find Sten crumpled against a tree, face ashen. The end of the bolt protruded insolently from the left side of his chest.
“I am wounded,” he managed to grind out.
“Let me see.” Wynne reached out with the gentlest of magic at her fingertips, probing the wound. “The bolt’s punched clean through your armour. A little further and you would be down one lung.”
Leliana plucked a quiver off the nearest darkspawn crossbowman, studying its contents. “Poison bolts. And I recognise this, I think,” she said. “In Orlais they call it the ‘winding plague’.”
“It’ll give him the plague?!” Natia’s voice hit a note she never knew she could.
“No, but it’ll feel like it. That needs to come out.”
“Parshaara,” Sten grumbled, closing one large hand around the bolt. Natia was quick to stop him.
“What are you doing?!” the Warden yelped, a high note of anxiety lacing her words. “You’ll tear your chest apart!”
“You have…other ideas?” There was a strange, unfocused look in his eyes, and his breaths were hard and short.
Wynne nodded decisively. “Remove that hand, Sten. And unbuckle your breastplate.”
“But Wynne, the bolt—!”
“Calm yourself, Natia!” the mage said sharply. The name had the desired effect and the Warden subsided, wary but attentive. She turned to her patient once more, speaking quickly. “Sten, your breastplate. Leliana, hold his arms down. Warden, on my word you will pull out the bolt. We will remove the armor and deal with the wound as best as we can after that.”
“I…Yeah. G-Got it.” The Warden’s hands moved in small, sharp gestures, as they tended to do when she was thinking. Something struck her, and she dived into her pack. “Where is that thing, where…yes, here. Sten! Here, bite on this!”
He regarded her with a look of droll contempt. “The Beresaad are trained to handle pain. I will endure without such things.”
“Stop arguing and bite the damn dagger,” she growled, amber eyes flashing wildly. “Else I’ll shove the thing in your mouth myself!” He complied, if only because arguing would take strength he couldn’t spare. The blade’s touch upon his lips tingled, and the pain that held his chest in a death grip seemed to subside somewhat.
“…What magic is this?” he mumbled as best as he could around a mouthful of dragonbone.
“Master paralyse rune,” the Warden replied shortly. “Leliana, sit on his arms anyway. Wynne, would you?”
“I am here. Sten, are you ready?”
“Just get it over with, mage.”
Natia braced herself, reaching for the bolt. Wynne focused, and with a nod, hit Sten with the same psychic blast that had stunned darkspawn in their tracks countless times before. “Stone guide my hand,” the Warden muttered, and as she locked eyes with Sten he could see the berserker’s strength she’d summoned infuse her gaze with a wild gleam. With one swift wrench she pulled the offending article free from his flesh, flinching much as he did, and cast the armour aside. Wynne immediately took over, laying her hands on his wound, fighting the evil placed within him, stanching the tainted blood, mending skin and flesh as fast as it would hold.
True to his word, Sten did not betray the pain that he felt pounding in his veins. His eyebrows knit fiercely as Wynne fought the poison that spread through his blood, but he did not flinch nor cry out. His gaze fell upon the bard and the Warden, standing by as the mage worked, and he noticed something surprising: the Grey Warden, the ridiculous woman who insisted she was a fighter, who fearlessly raced into battle beside them all, who bantered with everyone and yelled curses at her enemies, had fallen completely silent. And he saw in her wide eyes something that he never had before: fear. Fear so strong it made her seem even smaller.
“It is done,” Wynne says at length, rising with bloodstained hands. “Hand me those bandages please. Now it’s up to his body to deal with what remains of the rest of the poison.”
“We have to get out of the cold, though. And we’re far from the Spoiled Princess.” the Warden grumbled softly. “Leliana? What does winding plague do?”
“It causes high fevers, and much pain.”
“Then I’ll…t-tend to him, if you two will keep watch tonight.”
“Unnecessary,” Sten growled, but the catch in his voice diminished the effect somewhat. She glared at him, as witheringly as she could, and squared her shoulders.
“I let this happen,” she said hotly. “Just tell me what I have to do, both of you. Let me make this right.”
Leliana blew into her hands a few times and stamped her feet, trying to chase the numbness out of them as she squinted through the mist-turned-fog. It was hardly an ideal camp: flat, low, and with limited cover. But they were close to fresh water, and the fog was as much camouflage for them as it was for others. When the mist cleared they could send for the rest of their group, and wait for Sten to recover before continuing their journey.
“I’ll take over from here, dear. Go get some sleep.” Leliana looked up; Wynne had arrived to relieve her from her duties. She gratefully returned to the inviting glow of the firelight and knelt there for a while, basking in the warmth. The Warden had gathered enough branches to last them until first light, but sat turned away from the fire, armour unshed and dabbing the sweat from Sten’s broad forehead with a rag. Natia Brosca, lick as a whip and sharp as a tack, didn’t look up until Leliana touched her on the shoulder.
“Oh. Hey,” she murmured.
“Hey. Has his fever broken?”
“No. He’s twitching something bad under all those blankets, too.” The Warden had piled her own bedding on top of his in an attempt to keep the cold out. She stared down at the damp cloth in her hand and clenched her fist. Tepid water squelched over her palms. “Sod it all!” she snarled. “Why didn’t I see that genlock?!”
“None of us did. You cannot blame yourself alone for this.”
“But I’m the one who’s supposed to feel them coming.” Leliana had heard the Wardens mention this in passing, that they could somehow sense darkspawn, and vice versa. Perhaps that was why they were needed against a Blight. “Alistair wouldn’t have let this happen,” Natia continued in a quieter tone.
“Alistair wouldn’t have thought of the enchanted dagger either, dear Warden.” Leliana smiled encouragingly at her companion, but received no such acknowledgement. “Wynne is on watch now, and I can take over from you any time. Do not forget to rest.”
“I won’t,” she lied. Sten shifted restlessly in his sleep, and Natia pulled the blankets up over him a little further. Brilliant, now he was shivering instead. Water. Pretty soon they were going to need more water. She started to rise, but something made her stop and turn. Sten was blinking muzzily up at the trees, as if uncertain where he was.
“Where are my men?” he muttered, as if to himself, and Natia remembered. The men of the Beresaad had fallen around this lake. They could be lying on top of their bones. But when she touched her rag to his cheek, he turned, and seemed to regain his senses.
“I’m here.” His hand had worked itself free from the many coverings they had piled on top of him, and she laid her own atop it in a soothing gesture. “Wynne is keeping watch. You really should go back to sleep. Water?”
“No. I have had…worse things happen before you met me. The pain is not as bad as it once was.” His words were slow, carefully chosen.
“Well, then I’m glad to hear it.” She plumped her rag into a dish of water, wrung it out and put it over his forehead. “But you’re still not moving from this spot. I just lost one comrade. Like hell I’m going to lose another.”
The dwarf from the carta, then, thought Sten. The one who had led them into a trap. “…This dwarf, Leske. What was he to you?”
The Warden’s shoulders went rigid. Suddenly, she found she couldn’t look Sten in the eye. “What’s that thing you call me, ‘kadan’? Yeah, what does it mean?”
“It means you are to be respected. That we are allies of one mind.”
“Then he…was also kadan,” she responded slowly, twining her fingers together.
Sten found it preposterous that she could still entertain such a notion. “He was not your kadan,” he shot back. “He could not have been. Kadan do not betray each other.”
“He was, all right?!” The Warden whirled on him sharply, eyes ablaze with anger. Abruptly, she turned away again, seeming to shrink in upon herself. “He was. At least he used to be. I had his back and he had mine. We were a team.” There was a longing tone in her voice Sten had heard before, in Leliana’s songs and Alistair’s fumbling words.
“You had feelings for him.”
“I don’t know.” The Warden shook her head and turned the cloth on Sten’s forehead over briskly, as if they weren’t having a conversation at all. “He was my salroka, as much as—as you are now.” Her voice shook, but she held it in masterfully. “He was the only one,” she went on. “Until I met Alistair, and you and the rest of ‘em…” The Warden let out a short, sad chuckle. “Ah, I’m no good at this. Ain’t never had a ‘kadan’ before. Definitely not one like you.”
“Few do.” It was an interesting concept, to say the least. A bas who didn’t run or flinch at the sight of him, even considering him friend. Interesting, yet not thoroughly unpleasant. “Now, why are you not at rest?”
“I—Broscas don’t…we don’t run away from what we’ve done. Not now, not ever.”
“Kadan. Look at me.” Sten rose onto one elbow, despite the Warden’s best and most frantic efforts to dissuade him, and stared her down. To her credit, she didn’t try to look away. “What is done, is done. And this—” he touched his bandages. “—is the work of a darkspawn. Your moping will change nothing. I gave you my word that I would aid you against the Blight. Do you now doubt it?”
“Then do not start. It is not like you.”
The Warden started to smile slowly, as if for the first time. “I believe you. That won’t change. And I’ll—I’ll bloody shank you if you go back on that promise, y’hear?” She shook a fist at him for good measure.
“Not trembling like that, you won’t.”
“Says the half-naked duster.” She placed her hand on his bandaged chest, just above the wound that the bolt had made. The steel of her gloves lay cool against the inflamed flesh, and this time when she pushed him back down, he let her.
“I got this, Sten. Sleep now. We’re done talking tonight,” she murmured. Odd words from you, he would have replied, but fatigue and warmth insistently staked their claims upon him again. The last thing he remembered was the touch of the Warden’s fingers, smoothing stray hair from his forehead with a gentleness he had never expected from her hands.
Morning was welcome consolation after the long, cold night. The sun crept across the horizon, banishing the final traces of a day long dead. Its rays finally touched a crude little camp, where the fire had died, the mists were slowly dissipating, and two figures sat watching two more.
“Pretty as a painting,” Leliana sighed, chin in her hands and the glee in her voice barely contained.
“A very strange painting it would be, to be sure,” replied Wynne, but there was no concealing the amusement in her own words, either. Sten still slept like the dead, and the Warden had fallen asleep sitting up—with her hand tangled in his braids.
The Qunari awoke quietly, shooting the two women a disquieting look when he found them gazing moon-eyed at him. “What are you staring at?” he growled.
“Well, you seem in good spirits this morning,” Wynne said.
“I am not like your soft, untrained men, woman. Contrary to what the bard might say.” Leliana giggled to herself. He sat up, and the Warden jerked awake.
“Mist! Fog! Darkspawn! Nuggets!” she bawled, scrabbling for her sword. “Oh. Uh, Good morning. What? Why are you smiling like that?”
“You must have done an impressive job last night,” Leliana said, without irony. “I’ve never seen anyone recover from winding plague so quickly.”
“No, I think we all had a hand in that. Thank you, Wynne; Leliana.” Natia discreetly untangled her hand from Sten’s hair, and he busied himself with tying it all back again. “How you feeling, Sten?” she asked when he was done.
“Adequate. Surprisingly.” The fever had broken and his wounds felt sore, but nowhere near what the poison had first wrought.
The Grey Warden sighed, her shoulders sagging with relief and a strange look coming into her eyes. “I’m glad you made it, kadan,” she said warmly, and buried her head in the uninjured side of his chest, throwing her arms around his bare midriff as far as they would reach. Sten froze, stunned—and was even more stunned to find he had raised his arm over her, to accomodate her sudden embrace. Leliana still grinned unabashedly at both of them, but her eyes were filled with the same relief and concern that radiated from Wynne’s, and those of the Warden.
“Perhaps we shall move on after the mist clears, yes?” the bard said, starting to throw earth over their campfire. “That will give you—er, us an hour or so’s reprieve.” Thankfully, she pursued the matter no further and started her packing. Sten turned to the Warden, about to ask her to cease her ridiculous display, and found her sound asleep, face pressed to his side and clinging to him still. If she had not rested during the night, surely she was doing so now.
‘Kadan’, she had called him, of her own volition; the word bore a new warmth coming from her lips. Suddenly, he felt that much less alone. It was not in Sten to love as the others did, to submit himself to their very foreign weaknesses, but there were different types of affection in the world. And he knew what he felt about this Warden: his small and unusual kadan, who fought fierce and strong and loudly for comrades she had never before dreamed of meeting. He slowly lowered his arm to rest across her shoulder, and when he was absolutely sure the others were not looking, Sten allowed himself to smile.