The relief at finally being out of the snow was tempered by the sheer number of rifts they encountered in the Dales. Ellana's arm was on fire. They rarely stayed on the road-- the moment one rift was closed, she could feel the next. They wandered vaguely westward, following a trail of demons.
When Ellana closed her fifth rift of the day, her arm dropped like a stone to her side. She looked at it with irritation, and then stared at the sky where the rift no longer existed. At this rate. it would take a month to reach the Approach. Her companions slowly made their way toward her, looting corpses and brushing off carnage.
"I've heard some people actually enjoy walking in the wilderness," Varric muttered. He had tripped over at least three giant tree roots that day. "They do it for fun. It's called 'hiking.'"
"Stupid people, maybe," Sera said, yanking and arrow out of the ground. "Even the Veil is bored of trees here, if it had any sense."
"Must be why the whole thing is crumbling around us. Are you sure you couldn't have invited us to a trip to the city?" Varric called to Ellana.
Solas had reached her. "Let me see your hand."
"Be my guest," Ellana said with a shrug.
He lifted it gingerly. "Can you move it at all?"
"No," she said lightly, "But I can't feel it either, so that's a relief." She watched him probe the anchor, then gently bend each finger. For a moment sensation came back. She gasped. A wave of dizziness washed over her. "Maybe I could sit down..."
Solas didn't look up. "If you sit down, you won't wake for eight hours."
"Five, maybe," she said, leaning her head into his chest. "One for each rift..." She closed her eyes as sharp pins of pain shot up her arm. Her legs felt wobbly, but Solas was steady, like the tall trees around them. She imagined him growing taller and taller, to walk among them like the giants they had seen earlier...
"Finally," Dorian's voice drifted to her. "I've been waiting for her to fall asleep standing for weeks. Pay up, Varric. I'll accept coin or spirits."
Ellana tried to tell him he was wrong, she was not sleeping, but her words were a muffled sigh against Solas's chest. Solas wrapped his free arm around her and the world fell away.
Sera's voice was too loud in Ellana's ear. She tried to swat her off, but her hand was too heavy.
"This is your fault," she was yelling.
"I fail to see how you could come to that conclusion."
Ellana was uncomfortable. Stiff. She was... moving?
"As if you didn't keep her up all night." Sera's voice pitched high, mocking, "Oooh, how exciting, some shite elven building. Better bang our elfy bits together. Glory to the Empire!"
Ellana was awake. She was on a horse, sharing it with Sera. She did not want to be part of this conversation. She kept her eyes closed.
"If our current travel arrangements bother you, the Herald can share my horse," Solas said, irritation sparking in his voice.
"What, so you can grab a quick feel? I don't think so."
Dark anger dripped from his words. "I would never--"
Ellana's eyes popped open. "Did I nod off again?" she asked innocently. She blinked widely at her companions, throwing in a yawn for good measure.
Dorian laughed. "That's one way to put it."
"Was it... did I miss anything?"
"We decided we needed to keep moving. The mages transferred you to Sera's horse for safety," Varric said. "Which... might be the first time the words 'Sera' and 'safety' ended up in the same sentence together."
Ellana was having a hard time picturing this. "They... transferred me?"
"Like a sack of glowing potatoes," Sera said from behind her. "You're welcome."
She closed her eyes, wondering which was worse. Two men carrying her together to put her limp body on the horse, or using magic to lift her into the air...
"And have we made good progress?" she asked, trying to hold onto a thread of authority.
"There's an abandoned Dalish site up ahead. We'll camp there," Solas responded.
Varric actually answered her question. "Nobody could say that closing five rifts in a day isn't progress, kid."
Her hand was buzzing again. Solas or time or sleep had managed to wake up her dead arm. "If we take a left past that statue, it will be six," she said.
"Your hand?" Dorian asked with concern.
"Probably won't fall off just yet." She stretched her fingers in her gauntlet. They were stiff, complaining, but they would move. She could probably wrap them around her sword grip. She was going to need to start training to use it one-handed.
"Don't be stupid," Sera scoffed in her ear. "The Veil will be just as wobbly in the morning."
They found the camp just before sunset. Statues of Fen'Harel guarded their path. Out of habit, Ellana stuck out her good hand and rubbed one for luck.
They were camping earlier than usual. Ellana's fault. She tried to take advantage of the sunlight to pen a note to Miri. She sorely regretted sending her sister away. She held the quill in her hand like it was a knife, her letters etching the paper. They were ill-formed, irregular, stilted. Eventually her grip snapped the quill in half. She tossed it into the fire. She really wasn't sure what to say, anyway.
Dear Miri, I captured an Elven ruin in the Dales, but it's made of poison and surrounded by dragons. I'd like to make you queen of it.
Dear Miri, I'm finally seeing all the things you dreamed of seeing and I dreamed of hearing about from you.
Dear Miri, I'm sleeping with a man who claims our gods were frauds, and I think I believe him.
"Varric," she called, "Are you planning on writing down the events of the past week?"
Varric looked up from his journal. "Eventually. I'd rather work on that than this report."
"Would you mind making me a copy? I seem to have, um, lost my quill, and Miri would flay me if I didn't tell her about the Dales."
Varric smirked. "Do you want me to include anything else for her? I've, uh, seen your penmanship."
"Oh, you can add that I love her and I miss her and that I'm making fascinating discoveries about our history."
Varric pulled out a piece of parchment, and began scritching away. Ellana passed him her inkwell and spare paper. She stretched her traitorous hands.
"Come with me, vhenan." Solas took her hand and led her out of camp.
"You've been here before," she said. He nodded. He did not offer any other information. His hand was cool, soothing on hers. "My hand always feels better when you hold it."
"I suspect the mark would be less painful, or at least less tiring, for a mage. Your body is still unused to magic, and to have a mark of such powerful magic..."
Miri would have done it better. "Perhaps you would have made a better Herald," she muttered.
He looked serious. Concerned. "The anchor is Elvhen, and I had hoped with time your body would become accustomed to it." He smoothed his facial expression. "Perhaps it still will."
They crossed red lyrium deposits as they walked. Ellana pushed down her fear. The infection was mild here, nothing like what they saw to the east. She unsheathed her sword and destroyed each crystal they walked past.
"The red templars..." she frowned. "I was thinking. They used to be people, but they've been driven mad, deformed, changed. Whatever it is they used to be, they've lost that now. Killing them is the only path. And... I find that... I find them..." She twisted her hands. Just talking about them raised her heart rate and dried her throat. "Is that how you feel when you see the demons coming out of the rifts? The tragedy, the waste of it..."
Solas stopped walking. He turned to look her full in the face. His stare was intense, his lips smiling faintly. Her breath caught. He shook his head slightly. He brought his hand to her chin, and tipped her face up. His lips pressed to hers, gently, chastely. He pulled away.
She opened her eyes, stunned. His kisses were usually passionate, uncontrolled, a burst of suppressed longing. His hand was still holding her face. He rubbed his thumb over her chin.
"Thank you," he murmured. "Though I did not know you counted templars among those you care for."
"The red lyrium doesn't just affect them," she said, her eyes darkening once more. They continued on the path. "I saw you, and Sera, Varric, Cassandra... Every minute we're near it, we're at risk of contamination. Maybe it's already started. But I wondered if that's how spirits felt about the rifts. If they can have those sorts of feelings. Can they feel fear?"
"It depends on the complexity of the spirit. Certainly they do not feel the same way we do." He squeezed her hand. "It is not wrong to feel revulsion to red lyrium."
Ellana felt more than revulsion. They crossed a small creek, and Ellana paused to dip her hand in the cold water. She sighed with relief. "Is there any chance you're bringing me to a pool to bathe in?"
He shook his head. "Not this time. But we are almost there. Come, before we lose the sunlight."
They stopped at a group of particularly impressive trees. Even growing up in forests, Ellana had never seen so much green in her life. "This is what I wanted to show you. These trees are the Vallasdahlen, the graves of the Emerald Knights who once patrolled the borders of the Dales. This one is for Mathalin." He gestured to the tree immediately in front of them.
Ellana raised her eyes skyward. "For Math... Of course." The original Mathalin, not her Mathalin.
"I thought you would want to see the final resting place of his namesake."
Ellana knelt at the base of the tree. In previous times, she might have prayed to Falon'din, god of the dead, to calm his spirit and guide his feet. Or perhaps to Mythal, for protection of her first love in the beyond. Or even to Sylaise, goddess of the hearth, to thank her for time as newlyweds and the home they built together, however brief. Now she hesitated. They were just words, they had always just been words, but they felt wrong in her mouth. Instead, she fished in her pack for a flower. She pulled out a dawn lotus, a little worse for wear, and set it at the tree.
"We never should have bonded," she said quietly. "His clan wanted him back as their First. Mine didn't really need him. And... my bonding meant the end of my usefulness."
Solas had been keeping a respectful distance. Now he knelt next to her. "How is that possible? I saw what you were capable of..."
"I was bare-faced in that memory. A child. To bond, I needed to receive my vallaslin. I could not move through the cities so easily with it." She traced one of the lines on her cheek, remembering how her sister had traced them all on her, so she would know how they looked. "It was Miri who picked Mythal. It felt like a cruel joke on her part. In getting the symbol of the protector, I was losing my ability to protect. But Miri always pointed out she was also the goddess of love." She sighed, remembering those days. Ten years of widowhood had taken the sting from it. She had been so determined to bond with him. So much arguing and change and work for a bond that lasted little more than a year. She shook her head. "We were so young. I was not a very good wife."
Ellana sat for a while longer, staring up at the leaves of the trees. "Thank you for showing me this."
Solas was gazing at the other trees. "Our people built a life here. It must have been a sight to see."
Our people. A rare phrase for Solas. She stood up, put her hands on his shoulders where he knelt, and kissed the top of his head. The sun had set, and the light was fading quickly. "We should return to camp." She held out her hand, pulled him to his feet, and they left the Vallasdahlen behind.