“Nathaniel,” Anders said one afternoon when the two of them were taking a late lunch after a scouting mission. “I need to ask you a favor.”
“What is it?” Nathaniel replied, never quite knowing what he was in for with Anders.
“I can’t say here. But the two of us should go out to the Wending Wood sometime.”
Nathaniel raised his eyebrow and laughed into the goblet of wine he was drinking. “Anders, you don’t have to be so secretive about whatever it is you’re trying to get me to do.”
Anders laughed and finished chewing the last bite of the chicken leg he had devoured. “It’s nothing particularly devious, just something I’d rather not share with everybody.”
“You’re not trying – again -- to get me into your bed?” Nathaniel said.
“Normally, I wouldn’t rule it out,” Anders replied with his characteristic facial expression that was somewhere between innocent and impish, “but this time, it’s purely academic. I need your skill with animals and I’ll explain when we get there.”
“Alright,” Nathaniel agreed, shaking his head. If Anders was looking for animals, maybe he was looking for ingredients for his potions and poultices that he was always working with. That wouldn’t be so difficult. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
“Darkspawn, templars, naked torture?” Anders suggested.
“And that’s different from a typical day?” Nathaniel teased back.
“Well, the naked part—“
“Fine,” Nathaniel said, not wanting to encourage Anders any more than was strictly necessary – yet. “After lunch, then?”
And so it was that Nathaniel and Anders stood on the high path nearest to the main road in the Wending Wood as the sun was sinking lower in the sky. Both of them were armed and Nathaniel unslung his grandfather’s bow from his back. “Alright Anders, what is it that you need?”
“I need you to call a wolf, and then let me and the wolf have a conversation in relative peace,” Anders said, removing a scroll of notes from inside his robe.
Nathaniel shrugged. “Easy enough, but care to tell me why?”
Anders was silent for a long moment as he unrolled the scroll and looked at it. Finally, he turned the scroll to face Nathaniel, so the writing and diagrams were visible. Clearly sketched in Anders’s careful hand was the shape of a man next to the shape of a wolf, with arrows from the man to the wolf, and measurements and script runes. It looked like some of the other magic scrolls that Nathaniel had seen in the Wardens’ library. Nathaniel studied it, piecing together the runes that he remembered from the basic schooling he had gotten as a young person.
“Is that…” Nathaniel met Anders’s serious gaze.
“Yes, it’s shape-shifting,” Anders admitted. “I found it in the Commander’s book, the manual about it from that Witch of the Wilds, and I thought—“
“That’s unnatural,” Nathaniel cut him off. “Why would you want to do that?”
Anders’s expression hardened. “And some might say controlling wild beasts, calling them and having them obey your whim, is unnatural.”
Nathaniel countered, “Some have said you and I are unnatural, with the taint in us. Desperation or force made us this way.”
Anders relented. “It’s curiosity,” he said simply. “This is an ancient magic, from those closer to nature than we are, and it may be useful someday. I’ll take any advantage I can get.”
“Shape-shifting is straight out of stories of hedge witches and wild apostates in the forest,” Nathaniel informed him.
“I know,” Anders said, “but the Chantry’s is not the only school of magic in Thedas. There’s no doubt it works, and can be quite powerful if you believe the Commander’s stories about Morrigan and Flemeth.”
Nathaniel nodded and shouldered his bow. “Do you know what you’re doing?”
“I’ve done it before, but only with cats.”
“Figures.” Nathaniel looked around. “What do you need?”
“A single wolf. I need to observe it, touch it, let my mind become familiar with it.” Anders looked nervous. “Just… don’t let it eat me.”
“The wolf won’t eat you,” Nathaniel said. “They dislike the taste of humans.”
Anders bit his lip. “Good… to know?”
“Stay here, and be quiet.” Nathaniel set off down the path. “I’ll be back with your wolf.”
Nathaniel left Anders on the large path and set foot into the undergrowth. Years of tracking served him well, and his first howl brought a shaggy gray female out from between the trees. She looked around her, sniffing for the other wolf, and then caught Nathaniel’s eyes.
With all the skill he had practiced in the Free Marches, Nathaniel held the gaze of the wolf. He stealthily stepped towards her, concentrating on the focus between them. He exerted dominance through the gaze, sending the messages through his unbreakable stare. You are my creature, you will do as I direct.
The wolf crouched before him, lowering her head. Submission, even if temporary. Nathaniel kept his gaze on her, and felt the mingled of feelings he always felt from these creatures. As he returned to the path with the she-wolf behind him, Anders visibly brightened at the sight. Nathaniel crouched and looked directly into the wolf’s eyes and sent thoughts which made his intentions for the wolf clear: go to the human mage, but do not attack; let him touch you, pain will not come.
The wolf, comprehending in a way that Nathaniel still wondered at, walked up the rest of the path and sat down directly in front of Anders. Nathaniel watched carefully, bow and arrow in hand, ready to strike should the wolf or Anders disobey.
Anders began by looking into the wolf’s eyes in much the same way Nathaniel did. His hands glowed a soft green as he ran fingers over the her spine and head. The wolf looked uncomfortable and confused, but Nathaniel remained nearby, and every time she made to turn away he was there continuing to focus on her to keep her under his control. How long this process went on Nathaniel couldn’t say, but finally Anders leaned forward and the green glow spread across his arms and shoulders. The mage placed his forehead against that of the wolf’s, and Nathaniel felt his focus grow fuzzy and his concentration break as Anders’s glowing magic spread to the body of the wolf. Man and animal locked eyes in a gesture Nathaniel knew well from his huntsman training, and suddenly the wolf whined and pulled away from Anders. Nathaniel felt fear rise in the animal, and tried to refocus to soothe her; while he did so, Anders began to chant and move his hands in a way that was familiar from their days in battle. The glow intensified, changing to yellow, and Anders’s form pulsed in front of his vision like he was obscured by a veil of smoke. Nathaniel’s vision shifted to the wolf, who was backing away hesitantly from Anders, and suddenly mage light flashed and Anders was not there anymore.
In his place was a small, tawny colored wolf with shaggy fur and dark brown eyes.
Nathaniel’s wolf looked confused, sniffing at the ground and the air. The new wolf – Anders? – stood unsteadily on its legs, turning its head back and forth to look at itself. It must be Anders, Nathaniel concluded, because what wolf looks at itself that way?
“Anders,” Nathaniel said, having no idea if Anders could even understand him, “let her smell you.”
Suddenly, the Anders wolf looked up at Nathaniel, eyes wide. Nathaniel cocked his head, watching the she-wolf step forward tentatively to smell Anders. Anders looked horrified – and Nathaniel didn’t shy away from ascribing human emotions to animals in this case, because it was Anders, and there was a wolf shoving her nose near his arse. Nathaniel couldn’t help but laugh.
When she was done sniffing, the she-wolf growled at Anders, who – appropriately – crouched down and backed away. Nathaniel couldn’t tell if Anders knew to do this or it was some behavior written into the behavior of a wolf that he had picked up with the shifted form. He half-expected Anders, being Anders, to try to mount the female; fortunately for all involved, this did not happen, and the she-wolf was satisfied with her warning to the unknown new wolf and ran off into the forest.
The Anders wolf took off running in the opposite direction, down the main path which led back toward the road. Nathaniel hurried up the path to keep watch on him, assuming that Anders was testing the wolf form. Nathaniel felt a strange pang of jealousy – such magic was strange to him, certainly, but what must it be like to run as a wolf? He wished he could feel what Anders was feeling right now.
He let Anders run for a short while as he sat and sharpened his daggers on the road, keeping an eye on the sun. Nathaniel judged their travel time back to the Keep, and a quarter of an hour later he called out to his friend. “Anders,” he shouted down the road as he stood and walked in the direction Anders had run. Everything was quiet save the birds and the insects and the wind in the trees, and so Nathaniel listened.
He picked Anders out almost immediately. He made more noise than a mabari in a china cabinet. There was a small camp off the side of the road, and the wolf that was Anders was smelling it and stepping on everything and making a ruckus. Nathaniel hesitated as he approached the camp, because suddenly he wasn’t certain.
This wolf was definitely a female. It wasn’t the she-wolf, since that one had been gray, but who was this? What wolf made this much noise and acted so strangely? Nathaniel decided to investigate; he went to her and grabbed her by the scruff of her neck in the way that he had been taught, rounding on the wolf and catching her eyes. Nathaniel asserted dominance, holding the wolf’s stare with his own, and concentrating. He focused on those brown eyes – like Anders’s as a human, but set entirely differently – and sent the thoughts through his gaze. Are you my friend?
The wolf held his gaze and Nathaniel felt something from him – her?
Nathaniel sorted through the images – excitement, confusion, fear, no I don’t want to go back I can taste freedom.
It was Anders. Nathaniel held back the laugh that he wanted to release at Anders being a female wolf, and instead concentrated on the eyes, never breaking the gaze in the way that he had been taught to master a wild beast. You are not meant for this, Anders.
The eyes widened and the wolf jerked away from him. Nathaniel kept his grasp on the fur on the back of her neck and then suddenly he was holding the back of Anders’s robes as the mage sprawled out on the ground underneath him. Anders retched and vomited bile on the ground beneath him.
Nathaniel stood, looking away from his friend as he gathered himself. Finally, Anders quieted, and Nathaniel announced, “We should be getting back.”
“Yeah,” Anders said, sounding exhausted. “Don’t want to be here when the male wolves come around.”
Nathaniel glanced back at Anders, who was red with what Nathaniel assumed was embarrassment. “Why did you make yourself female?” he asked.
“I didn’t mean to,” Anders said, getting to his feet and dusting off his robes.
“It was an accident?”
“You’re the one who brought me a female wolf!”
“You didn’t exactly specify!”
Anders bit his lower lip and looked down at himself. “I didn’t know that would happen,” he confessed.
“You didn’t get into trouble, did you?” Nathaniel reached for his bow.
“No.” Anders’s mouth quirked into a smile. “I mean, aside from licking myself.”
A disgusted noise escaped Nathaniel’s mouth before he could stop it. “Let’s go.”
Holding his bow at the ready just in case angry wolves decided to have vengeance against Anders for his strange magic and trespasses against nature, Nathaniel started down the road that led back to the Keep. Anders followed behind him in silence until they reached the gates of Vigil’s Keep.
“Thank you,” Anders said suddenly. Nathaniel turned and opened his mouth to reply, but Anders continued. “The wild is alluring – I had no idea it was so potent. You brought me back, with that trick of yours. It was as though you saw into my mind.”
Nathaniel nodded. “It’s what I do,” he replied simply.
“Still. I probably owe you my life.” Anders smiled. “My human one, anyway.”
Hesitating, Nathaniel held his hand out to his friend. “Anders, if you’re going to do this, you need to observe wolves a lot more. You need to understand them, or you’re going to end up killed.” He paused, thinking about Anders as a female wolf in the wild. “Or worse.”
“I know,” Anders said. “That’s why I asked you to come.”
“Well, I’m just going to have to come with you if you do this again, until you prove to me you’re not going to get yourself in trouble.”
Anders looked uncomfortable and started to protest, but Nathaniel caught his gaze and stared at him intently. He locked eyes with Anders in the same way that he had just an hour or so before, except this time the other was a man fully capable of reason and logic and free thought. Nathaniel focused on Anders, and tried, I’m worried about you.
Anders looked away. “Your expertise with wolves would be appreciated,” he said.
“Good,” Nathaniel replied, having no idea if this was the result of his trick or if Anders had come to this conclusion on his own. Either way, he was relieved that at least his closest friend in the Wardens would not go endangering himself without help available.
“Or do you just delight in seeing me be—“
“There you are, you blighters!”
Nathaniel turned to Oghren’s unmistakable voice, and there indeed was the dwarf. “Oghren,” he said as a greeting.
“The Commander’s here and has been looking for you two all afternoon,” Oghren continued, waving his hand at Nathaniel and Anders. “Said somethin’ about you two having a tryst in the woods?” The dwarf laughed conspiratorially with them.
“No, just a bit of fun,” Anders said, running ahead towards the gate and the dwarf. “You know me, the woods are just too dirty.”
“I like it dirty,” Oghren said, “makes it more interesting afterwards.”
Nathaniel shook his head and followed the two of them into the Keep. Truth be told, he found himself looking forward to another outing with Anders in the woods to experiment – but for now, there was apparently Warden business to attend to.