It was a long ride down to the foothills of the mountains Skyhold was perched upon, but it was not an unpleasant one. Nestled high up as it was, it was an excellent fortified position, but that benefit also cut it off from many of the supplies its people needed. Many of those were brought in by wagon, but specific requests were much more difficult to come by–in particular, certain herbs that simply could not be grown at the altitude it was at.
Maretus had to admit, he was a little surprised when Vanora came to him to ask if he’d accompany her down to the lowlands, but he did not refuse. It was bitingly cold at times up in the mountains, and Maretus suspected Vanora knew he would welcome the chance to be on the move and spend some time at a lower clime. Two other guards went with them–neither Vanora nor Maretus were well-known faces of the Inquisition, that they’d be in danger of ambush were they to go alone, but the mountains could be a dangerous place in of themselves, and Vanora was ever the practical kind. Maretus appreciated that about her, and so rode near her as they wound their way down a narrow path on horseback. The Inquisition soldiers took point, one of them scouting ahead and the other in front of Vanora.
Though they were quiet for much of the trip, the conversation Maretus did make with Vanora wasn’t strained; each knew the other to be content in their own thoughts and was not offended when an hour went by with no words exchanged. It was… pleasant.
They did not stop for lunch, instead eating it as their mounts picked their way down the sloped, rocky path, but they did agree to try and find a decent spot off the path well before the sun set to establish a camp for the night. It would take them perhaps a day and a half, weather permitting, to reach the foothills where the herbs Vanora wanted grew, and as such had packed supplies and bedding accordingly.
About an hour before true sunset, when the sun was already starting to sink in the sky, Maretus was getting nervous about finding a suitable spot off the path, and was starting to think that they might have to create some sort of quick and rough defendable camp on the path itself before it got too late. He stopped the small party and voiced his concerns.
“Einna,” he said to the soldier who had been scouting most of the day, “go ahead for ten minutes to see if there are any places coming up we could use for the night. I don’t want to have to have all of us backtrack on so narrow a path if there isn’t anything suitable nearby.” She nodded to his order and set off down the slope while Maretus turned to the other guard, Larim. “I’ll take a look around here to see if we can’t make some sort of temporary shelter amid the rocks. Stay here with Messere Vanora until I get back or call for you both.”
“Yessir,” came the crisp reply from the young man as Maretus dismounted.
He cast a glance to Vanora as he handed the reigns to Larim. “I won’t be long. Shout for me if any trouble comes by.”
He trudged out to the right of the path onto the still-snowy ground and rocks, eyes scanning for any place they could bed down safely for the night and have a fire without it being too exposed. Unfortunately, he didn’t get too far before a cliff wall rose up, blocking his path. Looking back at his footsteps, he saw no place with even remotely even ground that would suffice for a night’s rest, and headed back, empty-handed.
By the time he returned, Einna was trotting back up the path to meet them, her face bright. “I found a spot,” she told them, and they followed her down to it.
The ground leveled off for a short amount of time where she led them, the rocky ground partly giving way to earth where a few bare trees had pushed their way up through the snow. That was a good sign.
“It’s not much, but it’s relatively flat and off the path,” Einna said. Maretus considered their options, taking the time to note the sun’s track across the sky.
He turned to Vanora. “We have a few options. We could stay here for the night–it’s a suitable place, but not well hidden if anything were to come by. Or,” he continued, “we could press on a little longer.”
Vanora shot him a curious look. “I thought you said you did not want to press on so late with no idea if we’d find a suitable campsite?”
“I did… but these trees have lost their leaves for the winter. That means we’re low enough that the seasons effect the foliage, which means we have a chance of finding something better. Animals make their dens more often in this sort of terrain, which means we would be able to more easily find something perhaps with better cover. I think it’s worth the risk.”
She weighed his words for a moment, then nodded. “I agree. Let’s press on for a while longer.”
It proved to be a good decision, in the end. Another half hour’s travel down the path revealed a small combe, little more than a hollow along the ridge of the mountain that spread to either side of the path that bisected it, but it was easy to see that it promised several more potential options than they had come across previously. Between Maretus and Einna’s scouting to either side, Einna found an impression on the southern side of the path that was vaguely shaped like a bowl and would provide excellent protection from the wind and most prying eyes. They made their camp there.
A small fire provided amost enough warmth, but they hadn’t been able to find enough dry wood to stoke it larger, and so the soldiers huddled beneath their cloaks close to one another for extra warmth, while Maretus and Vanora did the same, each pair sharing food between them for a humble supper meal.
“We’ll do watches in pairs,” Maretus announced. “I don’t want one person on watch and risk them freezing to death with no help to them or warning to the rest of us.” He nodded to the soldiers opposite them. “You two take first. Wake us halfway through the night and we’ll pick it up from there.”
After they’d all finished their food, Einna and Larim set up watch at the northern edge of their small hollow, leaning against one another for warmth away from the fire while their breath fogged before them as they talked softly. Vanora and Maretus laid out their bedrolls close to the fire as they dared, and close to one another. It was an unspoken thing that body heat was just as necessary as the fire during a cold night on the mountain, and had little to do with inpropriety, though Maretus had to admit in his mind that it certainly didn’t hurt that Vanora was pleasant to look upon and listen to.
“I hope you don’t mind sharing a watch. I’d rather not tempt fate by being reckless in the cold wildnerness,” he murmured to her softly once they were wrapped up in their cloaks and bedrolls near one another.
“Not at all,” came her quiet reply. “It is a sensible precaution. And I certainly can pull my weight on this trip–I did ask you to come along, after all. I wouldn’t have done so if I didn’t trust your judgement to some degree.”
An amused breath escaped him in a puff of fog. “I thank you for that.”
The cold stilled whatever other conversation they might have had before falling asleep.
He could not say what snapped him awake in the cold dark, but Maretus was wide awake with every muscle tensed with no warning. Suppressing a shiver, he blinked his eyes and took stock of the night sky, trying to gauge the time. A glance at the fire showed him it had died down to embers, and when he scanned for sign of Einna or Larim at the hollow’s edge, there was no sign of either of their shadowy figures. Perhaps they stepped off to relieve themselves for a moment, he tried to reason, but a twist of instinct in his gut made him doubt it. Finally able to translate the night sky into a time frame, Maretus realized that they should have been woken for their watch nearly three hours ago. Cautiously, he shifted and sat part of the way up, his eyes adjusting more to the dark and trying to discern anything more out of place. One hand went to his sword handle, and he leaned over close to Vanora and gently shook her.
“Vanora,” he whispered. “Wake up. Something’s wrong.”
At his words, her eyes fluttered for a moment, but then opened and she saw the closeness, the seriousness of his face and she woke fully, her gaze sharpening almost instantly.
“What is it?” She kept her voice as low as his.
He shook his head. “I don’t know. Einna and Larim should have woken us hours ago, but they’re gone. I’m going to go see if anything’s happened, but I want you to be ready, in case.” He didn’t have to say what in case for–Vanora was already noding, sitting up and unwrapping her bedroll from around herself to be ready.
With trained control, Maretus got to his feet and unsheathed his sword silently, padding around the dying fire to investigate where Einna and Larim were keeping watch. There was no sign of them–but wait. He peered out through the few trees leading from their campsite back to the path and saw blatant signs of passage: broken limbs, disturbed earth. It looked as if something large had come through, but that seemed unlikely. How could both he and Vanora slept so soundly through a creature coming so close as it appeared to have?
He ventured further out.
Following the trail of broken branches, he realized he wasn’t seeing just the passage of a large creature, but that it was dragging something. Dark smears stretched across the ground in places, too many for there to have been just one. Did something ambush Einna and Larim and drag them off? That was the only explanation he could come up with. It was only be the virtue of the oval shape of the hollow that he and Vanora were overlooked, he supposed.
Brow furrowed and a troubled breath misting out from his mouth, he scanned the area one last time before turning back. He had to tell Vanora they lost Einna and Larim both, that they were going to have to cut their night’s rest short and keep on the move to not be attacked themselves.
He hadn’t gone three paces when the hair on the back of his neck tingled, and he heard a low growl rumble behind him. Whipping around, he saw the eyes of not one but three large mountain cats, bright with preternatural light, crouched up several ledges above the combe where they had camped, closer to the road but too close by far for Maretus’ liking.
“Fuck,” he said, and before he took any more time to assess the situation, he turned back and bolted for the hollow, where Vanora waited.
Three of their four horses were gone, tore off their reigns and fled earlier, but one’s reigns had gotten tangled around a branch so much that it couldn’t break free, and so he swung up on its back and cut the lengths free. Fighting with the horse’s instinct to run away from the approaching wildcats, Maretus strongarmed it under his control and galloped back to the hollow where they had slept.
Vanora was waiting for him at the lip of the hollow, her eyes sharp and searching the night, but took his outstretched hand when he reached down for her, and let herself be hauled up onto the terrified horse in front of him. She clung to the saddle horn while Maretus turned the creature back around, its eyes rolling in terror.
“What’s going on?” she demanded.
“Wildcats got Einna and Larim. Must’ve snuck up on them and got them by surprise–that’s why we weren’t woken. You might need to control the horse while we ride back the other way, there’s three of them and I might need to fight them off,” he explained, hurried.
She nodded and grasped the cut reigns firmly in her hands even while Maretus urged the horse forward with his knees and heels. It didn’t need much urging, and set off into a run almost immediately, so much that Maretus nearly lost his balance and had to wrap an arm around Vanora’s waist to keep from falling.
Pressing his weight into her back as they both leaned forward against the horse’s momentum, he shouted in her ear above the rushing wind, “Head down the mountain as best you can through the trees to try and pick up the path further down. The three wildcats I saw were up on a ledge to the north.” She shouted something in return, but it was lost to him as he turned his head away from hers and watched to their left for the creatures, sword at the ready.
Sure enough, two shadows peeled away from the darkness of the forest to sprint toward them, trying to catch up to the fleeing horse. Maretus kicked at its underbelly again, and it surged forward, tearing at breakneck speed through the sparse trees. Maretus could feel Vanora’s body shifting in front of him, trying her best to guide the horse, but it was caught up in a frenzy of merely trying to get away. He thanked whomever was listening that it didn’t try to buck them and leave them to their fate.
Even with two people on its back, the horse managed to outdistance the two wildcats in pursuit and make it down the path, but even then it didn’t slow down. Sweat was starting to lather on the beast’s flanks, never a good sign on a good day, and a dangerous one in the middle of a cold night. They wouldn’t be able to keep up this pace much longer.
But, they seemed to have outdistanced the wildcats, and Vanora was slowly reigning back the terrified horse, calming it as best she could. It rolled its eyes and flared its nostrils, ears flat against its skull, and Maretus was about to tell her to stop it entirely so it could rest when a loud, growling yowl came from their right. The third wildcat.
It leapt toward them, and the horse reared and shrieked, striking out at the wildcat with its sharp front hooves–Maretus immediately dropped his sword and scrambled to grab the reigns just above where Vanora gripped them, managing to keep them both in the saddle out of sheer brute force. As soon as the horse’s hooves hit the path again it bolted, streaking down the path and leaving them only able to hang on for dear life.
Luck was not with them, though, and the horse lost its footing and fell, sending them tumbling down from the saddle. By some miracle, the horse regained its feet and tore off, faster now that it didn’t have two humans on its back, weighing it down. Unfortunately, that left Maretus and Vanora to fend for themselves, with three wildcats bearing down on them–they could hear the approaching run of several creatures coming down toward them. Maretus was already drawing his dagger to do what damage he could, but Vanora swore loudly and grabbed his arm.
She dragged him toward one side of the path, to what looked like a wall of rock. He was about to protest and stand and fight when he saw the tiny opening.
“I can’t–” he started, but she ignored him and wiggled her way into the crevice, obviously expecting him to follow.
He had no time to argue the decision, or think of a better option, and so wedged himself into the break in the rock after her. He could hear the wildcats getting closer, and tried to hurry, only to find himself unable to move. The breadth of his chest in leather armor and thick cloak proved to be just too wide to slip through the rock, and his heart pounded frantically in his chest. “I’m stuck!” he hissed wildly into the darkness, desperately trying to free himself to no avail.
And then he felt Vanora’s hands on him, tugging. He tried to help, to gain some leverage to aid her, but couldn’t do much. She braced herself against the rock on the inside of the opening and gave a few strong pulls that finally freed him. His momentum sent him crashing into her, bowling her over onto the hard crevice floor while he hit his head on the low, angled ceiling. She cursed at him again.
“Maretus, put your fucking dagger away before you stab me with it or so help me I will kick you back out there,” she hissed at him.
A small scrabble shifted them around as he managed to get the dagger out of the way–but not back into its sheath–and ended up with them crammed even tighter in the small space. They were pressed firmly into one another, close as lovers, but there was no getting around it in the cramped space.
“Shh,” he said suddenly into the fabric she was wearing beneath him, even though they weren’t talking. Both of them held their breath as they heard sounds of the wildcats coming near, growling and searching. Unconsciously, his arms tightened around what he now felt were her hips, hoping that if their hiding spot was found out, the crevice would be too tight for the large mountain predators to fit into. At this point, the best they could hope for was being too difficult to get to as prey.
In the distance, a high-pitched scream echoed along the side of the mountain, and the cats just outside the mouth of the hole they were wedged in froze in silence. The horse, Maretus mouthed against Vanora, mostly to himself than with any hope she’d understand him. As if confirming his suspicions, all three of the beasts took off in the direction of the scream, leaving them behind in their hunt for an easier meal.
Several minutes of silence passed before Maretus relaxed, releasing the tension with which he held her hips and letting out a breath. It took him a second before he realized that the softness his face was pressed into was her stomach, and an impulse made him press his lips firmly against her there. His heart still pounded, but it was more a release of adrenaline than of their impending deaths. He rested his head on her stomach, feeling sweat run down the back of his neck, and listened to her heartbeat and breathing, hearing her body calm down just as his was from the ordeal.
“I hope you really needed these herbs,” he said dryly in the darkness.
“At least it’s warmer in here,” she retorted mildly, shifting a little beneath him. Then, her voice grew hushed and she stilled. “At least we’re not dead.”
“We’ll make sure Einna and Larim get their proper rites,” he assured her gently. “But if we can come to a comfortable arrangement here, it might be best to wait out the rest of the night first.”