Aran skinned his knees and palms as he catapulted into solid, rough rock. His pained, shocked shout echoed endlessly around him in the dark. Pitch dark. “Hello?” he called and his own voice called back to him over and over and over again.
He shivered, curling in himself, as ragged pain blossomed anew. Tried to focus. ‘The dead don’t feel pain’, he heard Cole’s voice in his head. So he wasn’t dead. “Cole?” Cole’s name pulsed in his eardrums. Cold. Side. Right side. Beneath the ribs. Wet. He carefully prodded the tear in his shirt with his fingers. It was too dark. Blind? Had he somehow lost his sight? He blinked hard, waving his hand closer and closer to his face until he touched his nose and still could not even see the outline of his hand. What was worse? To succumb to the cold or bleed out? He pulled his shirt over his head, shuddering again with the cold, and wadded the greatest part of it up against the wound in his side, using the arms to try to tie it into place. It wasn’t the best, but it was what he had.
The sting and pain kept him in the moment, kept him alert, as long as he could cling to them. He had to be somewhere. He was breathing, for one, and there was an echo. Which meant a contained space. A room, large enough for the sound to bounce through.
He crawled, inch after painful inch, patting the cold stone ahead of him as he went. He was trying not to think too much. Right now, with the blood pooling out of him and the cold seeping in, thinking would lead to panic. He had no idea where he was, how he’d gotten here, how to get out, how long he had before blood loss made him lose consciousness.
Eventually, his fingers brushed floor that bent. Bent? He pressed his hand up, up… a wall. Smoother than the floor. A smooth stone wall. Which meant people. So it was a room of some kind. A cold, dark room, true, but better than some alternatives. He skimmed his fingers along the wall. What was a better use of energy? Crawling or trying to stand? If he tried and then fell, he might worsen the injuries. Then again, crawling with a gaping hole in his side wasn’t much better.
He leaned his shoulders back against the wall, breathing, flexing his hands. So strange how small tears could hurt so differently. Sharper. A flicker of light nearly blinded him. He stared where the light had been. Where his left hand was sitting on his knee. “Maker, I’m an idiot.”
Worth the risk, he wondered? Opening a rift could bring spirits through, and he was in no shape to fight. But the light… if he could just get some light without a full rift? Was that possible? Just a tiny, tiny crack in the seal. Another blinding flicker, shaking. “Fucking freezing,” he muttered. He shut his eyes, flexed his hand, welcoming the pull of torn skin, the stomach-churning feeling of the anchor’s flux. Here and there. Just a glimmer. Just a little.
He opened his eyes and found a soft veil of light filtering out from his hand, a pale green glow. He brought it closer to his side, carefully peeling back his ersatz bandage. The cut was deep, ragged, curving just beneath his lowest rib. He tilted his head back when he caught sight of bone glinting. “No. Getting out of here. Finding out where I am and getting out. Going home. Do you hear that, Dorian? Cole?”
Carefully, using the wall, he climbed to his feet.
He followed the wall until he found a corner. Spiderwebs and fragments of clay pots. Behind him, a streak of blood remained on the stone where his fingers had touched. He kept walking. Kept going. Wall, more wall… he frowned. Cage? He wrapped his fingers around the freezing metal bars. Some dungeon, maybe?
He followed the bars, squinting inside. A brazier. Books. More pots, urns… Temple? Vault? Another cage. Back to wall. The ground felt less even. The air churned. “Shit,” he said as his legs gave out from underneath him.
He woke to fingers pressing at his hand. He jerked, squinting up at the faces in the torchlight. Narrow features with wide almond eyes surrounded by tattoos of various designs - tree branches, leaves, vines. “Dalish,” he whispered.
He peered blearily at the speaker, trying to remember what that meant. Had he ever learned those words? He’d read treatises on the Dalish, but only small bits in the actual language. What was ‘help’ - that would be useful. “Mana,” he rasped. “Ma halani.”
“You speak our tongue, but you are not Vhen.” The woman closest to him pointed to his hand, “Why do you bear our old words?”
“I touched an elven artifact. It was being used by…” it was hard to think, “a man who wants to be a god. To break the walls of the Black City. It… became part of me.”
“You wanted to help this man?”
“No. Never. Trying- trying to stop him.” He shivered. “I’m dying.”
She frowned. “Are you a devotee of Ghilan’nain? How did you come to be within her temple?”
“Please. Mana. I can’t-“
She looked to the others, faces lit by torch-light, flickering in the dark. “Take him.”
The next time he opened his eyes, he was staring up at stars stuttering above in a sky torn asunder, but he was warm. A nearby fire brought feeling back to his limbs. A sour smelling salve was lathered on his cuts, covered in leaves and packed mud. ”Sahlin inan!” a boy called from beside him, roasting a piece of meat on the end of a stick.
The woman from before padded across the camp, a baby lolling at her hip in a wide pouch. Her vallaslin speared down the center line of her face, gathering and brushing out across her cheeks like feathers. Her hair was long and straight, flecks of copper in the warm brown where it caught the light, hanging in long braids to her hips. “You live,” she said.
“Thank you.” He licked his dry lips, “Ma serannas.”
“Where did you learn our tongue?” She asked, settling to a low stool beside the skin he was laid out on.
“That’s about the entirety of what I know,” he admitted. “Hello, help, thank you, and a couple songs.”
“Where?” She asked again.
“Books,” he looked down at his hand, the soft glow still there. “There were a couple clans near the chantry where I studied, the Senlasan and the Lavellan. I wanted to learn about them.”
She was impossible to read. The baby at her hip gurgled and she offered it her knuckle to gnaw on. “Why?”
“Because I didn’t know anything about them. Because no one really did.”
She seemed to consider that for a long time. He swallowed, pressing his lips together. “How did you get into the temple?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” She stared at him, waiting. “I was in the Frostback mountains. Someone stabbed me with a… I don’t know what it was. Some kind of handheld sickle.” She was still staring. “That’s it. That’s the whole story.” He shut his eyes, “I don’t know. It… had jewels on it. One big one, green, not emerald - I don’t know much about gemstones. And there was writing on it, I think, or that could have just been the fuller. I didn’t have a chance to study the thing since… you know… it was stabbing me.”
The fire crackled. Somewhere nearby, children whispered and laughed quietly. The baby cooed softly. “Where is the artifact now? The one you touched.”
“He has it. The monster. Corypheus.” A murmur made him open his eyes. A couple of the other elves. “You know his name? He’s evil, do you understand? He’s killed hundreds of people. He’s got a cult of insane Tevinter mages worshipping him. I have to get back.”
“Get back where?”
“The Inquisition. We were fighting to stop-“
“Shemlen fighting amongst themselves when the ancient beast bears the wisdom of our ancestors as weaponry.” Her voice was a rush of fury, though her expression remained placid. “I will not go back to them. They treated me as a prisoner.” Slowly, she began unwrapping her hand from the bands of leather that had enclosed it. Green, gleaming Fadelight speared through, bright and strong.
How had no one told him someone else had the same mark? Not even a single mention? Was it because she had escaped and he hadn’t? Or because she was Dalish and he was human? She was working for her people the same way he was working for his. If they could all be on the same page, how much more could they accomplish? Especially considering how much elven history seemed to be playing a role in the Breach. “Hey, me too,” he told her with feeling. She narrowed her eyes. “I’m not lying. They did.”
“Because of the mark we bear.”
“Solas calls it an anchor.”
“I have heard this name - Solas - but he is not one of us. He walks outside the path.” She sighed, looking back and nodding. One of the other Dalish, a man with a series of short brown braids around his face, stepped forward to take the baby from her arms. “You will tell me what you know of this ‘anchor’. What they know of it.” She narrowed her eyes, “All of it.”
“Where do you want me to start?”
They talked through the night, him answering her questions one by one until the dawn peeked across the sky. The daylight combing through the clouds, lighting the distinct black-barked birches made him sit up, wincing. “Wait...what- this is… we’re in the Marches?”
“Yes,” she agreed. The camp was already beginning to bustle, children running in circles, hunters loading arrows into quivers and setting off into the forest. “I am Neriel. Dirthara’enasal for the Lavellan clan and the People of the Dales.” She met his eyes. “You will help me save my people from this menace, Aran of Ostwick.”
There were rules. He wasn’t to speak to the children or touch them. He was to bathe downstream from the clan. He wasn’t to attempt to leave. The whole situation reminded him strangely of his first weeks with the Inquisition: enormous responsibility and complete lack of freedom. Nevertheless, he ate and slept among them, though his hands were bound when he laid down each night. He was still healing and they had no intention of letting him die of hypothermia.
Everywhere the aravel traveled, they seemed to come upon destruction. Houses burned, farms abandoned. They spent a good deal of time harvesting wheat and corn and vegetables from those uninhabited plots of land, searching the empty embers of houses for anything of value they might be able to trade later.
And Aran learned… so much more than had ever been in the books he’d read. How to spread charcoal powder under his eyes to prevent the glare from the snow. How to make cheese from halla milk. How to study the smoke rising from the fire to predict oncoming storms or clear weather. A week went by, then two. They closed rifts, the same familiar rhythm, only it was quicker with he and Neriel working in random, taking turns breaking down the rift’s defenses while the other joined in the fight against whatever demons spilled from it.
She handed him a piece of bread and cheese as they rode beside the aravel, keeping watch. “At least let me send word to my people that I lived,” he whispered. The babies were sleeping inside. “Please.”
“We do not have clan to spare for sending messages across the Waking Sea and into mountains.”
“Starkhaven or Kirkwall, then- there are chantries where I could leave a message that would get to them.”
“And then what?” They had reached a kind of peace, and though none of them fully trusted him, he had proved himself to some small measure. They’d told him as much, with actions more than words. They weren’t unkind. Neriel wasn’t. “The shem are mad. They will come, either to take you or destroy you.”
“Please, Neriel, the people in the Inquisition are not crazy. Not like those we’ve seen here. They’re good people doing their best and they’re my friends. I don’t even know what they think happened to me, or what happened to the woman who stabbed me-“
“Ir abelas. I hear your sorrow, but we cannot. If you would allow wisdom to nurture your heart, you would understand.”
They killed more demons. They watched the smoke rise over Kirkwall from the shadow of the trees, then continued on. He skinned rabbits and peeled potatoes. They stopped putting the bindings on when he slept. He thought of running, but where? Kirkwall, which seemed to be overrun with abominations? Ostwick was overrun with darkspawn. Starkhaven refused entry to the aravel, the guards not caring who he said he was.
Dorian, he thought. What are you thinking? Does Cole know? Can he feel me out here, at least enough to let you know I live?
He wrapped leather bindings around his hand to hide his palm in the night when they scouted ahead. He accepted the leather and sheepskin clothing they gave him as the winds chilled, wrapping a warm cloth around his face and head to preserve his own body heat. He fell into the rhythm of the aravel as they traveled further east, then began making their way south. Like a school of fish, the clan gathered other clans to them, moving in droves, then splitting off into safer territories as the Lavellans moved on.
“If there is a chantry standing in Montfort,” Neriel said one day, apropos of nothing, “you may send word to your friends. Keeper Thoriel and I agree.”
He hugged her, drawing a surprised laugh from the stern woman, and no one pointed an arrow at him. “Ma serannas,” he beamed at her. “Truly. Thank you.”
“Hn. Hold Halladin,” she said, passing the child into his arms. “I need to check with the scouts.”
He cradled the baby to his chest, protecting her head, smelling her warm, sweet baby hair. “Iras ma ghilas, da'len, ara ma'nedan ashir. Dirthara lothlenan'as bal emma mala dir…” he sang quietly while those chubby little fingers wound into the sheepskin of his coat. She didn’t seem to mind his tone-deaf rendering, just snuggled closer.
There was a Chantry standing in Montfort and he even found an Inquisition scout, though the man didn’t recognize him at all. Leliana’s scouts were far and wide, though. It was possible… possible that they only knew him as the Herald of Andraste and not by name, but he had never liked using that title. Never wanted it. He frowned, “Just… tell the Nightingale that the scout who was wounded at Skyhold yet lives. Can you do that?”
“I can do that, serah.”
Mad. He had to think that he was mad, a Marcher standing there in Dalish garb, eyes blacked out for the sun, talking nonsense. “Ma se- thank you.” When he returned to the aravel, Neriel looked over from her bond-mate’s side, a surprised tilt to her brows.
“I half expected you to stay there, or find yourself a mount and ride off.”
“I gave my word to help you and I will. I would be doing much the same work with them. And if they need more of me, a message will be waiting in Serault.” Leliana would figure something out, some way for them to all work together. Dorian. Dorian would understand, he prayed.
“Then we will approach Serault with caution when we come to it,” she nodded. “Come. The Marshes await.”
“The-” She’d never told him where they were going before. Only told him what she expected from him moment to moment. ‘Go hunt with Deras.’ ‘Clean the roots for supper.’ ‘Kill these demons.’ ‘Talk to those shem.’ “Nahasin Marshes?” he asked.
She swung up onto her mount, “There are several rifts in the Marshes that need sealing. The Talaselin do not wish to leave and if they are safe, with enough hunting, we may be able to send other clans here for safety once we’ve cleared it.”
He jogged along beside her as she rode back to the aravel. “There are Dalish in the Marshes?”
“There are Dalish everywhere, shem.”
Aran bowed his head as he matched the pace of the halla. He stopped, panting when she drew short and walked the horned beast around him.
“You have learned to hold your tongue.” Maker, she was hard to read. Years of hiding her thoughts from human merchants and mercenaries had trained her to remain impassive in the worst of circumstances. “You will come with me to the Talaselin. We will close their rifts. Showing them our joined power will strengthen their faith in us.”