The Frostback Basin, Harding decided, was a mass of contradictions.
It was in the mountains, so by rights it was cold. The friendly Avvar of Stone-Bear Hold were frequently attired in sensible furs and heavy fabrics to guard against a chill. At the same time, however, she had never seen such tropical flora as what grew in the swamp. It was not entirely unlike the Arbor Wilds; she hadn’t been part of the assault on Corypheus’s forces at the Temple of Mythal, but she had been part of the advance scouting squadron which had mapped out the area before that had taken place and she had seen for herself the way the humidity had produced enormous blossoms of incredibly vivid hue.
For some reason, despite the pervasive cold, the Frostback Basin had similar results. She overheard Lord Dorian comment that some of the flowers were so dramatic, they belonged in Tevinter; well, he was the expert on that, she supposed. Given that she was examining a flower that was larger than her own head, he probably had a point.
After contemplating it for a moment longer, she drew her knife and carefully took a cutting of the plant in question.
Giving flowers to a human male was not, as she understood it, the usual protocol. But nothing about Bram Kenric was usual, at least as far as she could see, and something about the garishly colored blossom gave her the notion that he would like it.
Besides, she still had a little lingering guilt about the way she’d been treating him, and maybe this would serve as an apology gift of sorts. One day, she’d startled him while he was reading and he’d let out the most adorable shriek of surprise. Ever since then, she hadn’t been able to stop doing it just to hear the sound again, to see the way his astonishment brought a flush of color to his complexion and brightened his eyes with mild anxiety. It was terrible of her to keep doing it. She would have stopped long since if he weren’t so ridiculously precious.
Thinking of a human as precious was very strange, but it was the best word she could find for him. Master Tethras would probably know a better one, but Harding was not about to open that door if she could help it. (He would find a way to work it into one of his books, and that would be equal parts flattering and horrifying. What would her mother say?)
Flower in hand, and trying to look to anyone watching as though what she was doing was a perfectly normal and rational thing, she knocked on the door of the little cabin which served as Kenric’s home and research facility in the Wilds. She could hear the scrape of his chair as it was pushed away from the desk, and counted his steps as he crossed the room to open the door for her.
“Oh! Lady Harding!”
Even if she were the most oblivious person on the face of Thedas (and, being a scout for the Inquisition, she could not have afforded that luxury), Harding would not have been able to miss the expression of genuine pleasure which covered the professor’s features at the sight of her. Funny. They’d seen each other maybe an hour or two earlier, and yet he almost gave the impression that he’d missed her or something.
“Is it a bad time, Professor?”
“Not at all! Please, come in!” He gestured for her to enter the room.
“I noticed last time I was here,” she said, stepping across the threshold and glancing around absently, “that it was kind of… um… well, a little dreary. I thought this might brighten the space a little.” She held up the ludicrous gift, and watched his expression; he looked, as he often did, as though he were trying to puzzle out the meaning of such a thing.
“That’s most considerate of you!” he said after a few seconds of contemplation. “I think you’re right, this is just what’s needed. And it has quite the remarkable fragrance! It reminds me of something I’ve read about the perfume used in Divine Rosamund’s bower - ‘the flower of Thedas,’ one writer called her, ‘whose attendants would scent the air to make it as refreshing as her smile.’ Possibly it’s mere nonsense fabricated by those same romantics who made her the subject of so many tawdry novels, but there’s a certain poetry to the notion of a woman having the very air around her sweetened because she was so beloved.”
“Uh… sure.” As was so frequently the case, Harding felt like she had no idea what Kenric was talking about. But as was also frequently the case, his enthusiasm was delightful and she enjoyed the Starkhaven lilt of his voice.
Before either of them could say anything else, however, another knock came at the open door, and they turned to see Rector, one of Harding’s fellow scouts. “What’s the matter, Rector?” she teased him. “Get another letter from your mother scolding you for being ashamed of your name?”
“Very funny, Harding.” The young man smiled, however. “No, I bring word from the Inquisitor. A discovery’s been made - both of you are asked to come and see what you make of it.” He shrugged. “I’ve a detailed map provided by Lord Dorian, showing how to get there. It’s not an easy trek and it’ll take you a while, but you’ll be all right. He seemed to think you would, anyway, something about ‘the little sharpshooter should have no difficulty bringing our esteemed scholar.’ You know how he talks.”
“Indeed.” Kenric chuckled. “But I’ve enjoyed speaking with him. We’ve traded some recommendations for reading - he’s tremendously knowledgable about some areas where my own scholarship is lacking!”
Rector didn’t say anything, but he gave Harding a look which she understood. “I’ll make sure Professor Kenric reaches this place safely,” she promised, accepting the map. “Are you coming with us?”
“No, I’m heading back to Skyhold. The Inquisitor has some directives for the Commander, and wants an update on the supply situation from the Nightingale. Also, Lord Varric asked me to pick up his mail, and make paper swans out of anything from the Merchants’ Guild.” Rector turned his palms upward in a gesture of surrender. “I’m not sure why he wants swans, in particular, but that’s what he said.”
“Ah. Just another day in the Inquisition, then. Safe travels, Rector.”
Crossing the Basin with Kenric was always an adventure.
“No books,” she told him as they were preparing to leave. “You’ll need your wits about you. I can’t keep you from falling off every ledge.”
“You’re never going to let me live that down, are you?” he asked, with a smile that made her insides twist and flutter.
“No, probably not.”
The map which Lord Dorian had sent was the same one all the scouts had copied; he had merely drawn on it to show them specifically where to go. “From what it says here,” said Harding, pointing, “the Inquisitor’s party has discovered a place they think was dedicated to the worship of Razikale.”
“A Tevinter temple, so far out here?” Kenric blinked.
“Well, we’ve seen a lot of Tevinter buildings. I guess it makes sense that they’d bring their religion with them.”
“I suppose that’s true, but it seems unlikely that they would go to the trouble of constructing a full temple.” He looked thoughtful. “That would predate Ameridan, of course, since Tevinter cleared out of the Basin pre-Divine and Ameridan dates from the signing of the Nevarran Accords. Their infrastructure is really quite extraordinary, you know, to have held up for as long as it has in an abandoned state. Of course, they likely used magic in the construction, which explains much, but…” He trailed off, and chuckled, looking sheepish. “I’m… detaining us, aren’t I?”
“A little.” Harding smiled at him. “Are you ready to go?”
“Almost! Let me just finish this letter and send it off with one of your excellent field agents.” He scribbled a few lines on a document, then folded it up and sealed it. “A friend of mine back at the university is looking after my pet fish for me. Capital fellow, I know he’s taking excellent care of my little friend’s needs, but he refuses to have a conversation with her.”
“He… won’t talk to the fish?”
“No, and I can’t seem to persuade him.” With a smile and a shrug, Kenric picked up whatever it was that he needed to bring along to their destination and followed her out of his cabin. After handing off the letter to be sent back to Orlais, they set off into the thick of the Frostback Basin.
The truth was, Harding realized as they walked, the Inquisitor and friends had done most of the hard work for them. The dead figures of Hakkonites littering the forest at intervals was proof of that. They paused at the ancient culvert to pay their respects to Grandin, looking sadly at the pile of ash which remained from the funeral pyre which the Inquisitor had given him, and then headed up the steep hill toward their destination.
“This is quite extraordinary,” Kenric gushed, studying the enormous tree roots which were battling with the ancient Tevinter architecture for prominence along the path. “Nature attempts to reclaim that which man has long forgotten, but man’s ingenuity evades her attempts to erase him!”
“Um… yeah,” said Harding. “We see a lot of that.”
Kenric opened his mouth to say something, but what actually came out was not words. He uttered an astonished cry of pain, and crumpled to the ground.
“Professor!” Harding rushed to aid him, and saw the slash in his tunic sleeve. “Are you all right? What happened?”
“Not sure,” he managed, looking at his arm. Harding looked around for a source of the problem, turning her head just in time to avoid being struck by an arrow. A Hakkonite on the far side of the river had his sights on them and was firing; the sharp edge of his arrowhead had slashed Kenric’s sleeve, and sliced his arm as finely as a paper cut, but his injury seemed minor. Likely he had collapsed more from shock than pain.
“Stay down,” she told him, pushing him (as gently as she could while still being firm) into the relative shelter of an overgrown bush. She drew her own bow and looked for a good vantage point; if there was one Hakkonite, there were likely more, and she needed to be ready.
Harding was terrified of heights. The treehouse encampments were bad enough. Actually clambering up to one of the random lookouts the Inquisition had stationed throughout the woods was worse. But she had to protect Kenric, no matter what, so she forced herself up the ramp and into the concealment of a towering tree. From within the depths of the branches, she sighted along her arrow.
The Hakkonite archer was joined by two of his fellows. One was a woman, she estimated, covered in that strange black and white body paint which left literally nothing to the imagination about her figure. The other was one of the big guys who sported enormous horns, like that weird chieftain whom the Inquisitor had sent to Tevinter. He would take more than one arrow to bring down, and she needed to be quick about it. If they got as far as crossing the river, they’d be a lot harder to shoot.
The woman dropped first, her sword clattering to the shoreline. The horned menace let out some kind of roar of agitation, which gave Harding a momentary sense of guilt; maybe she’d just forced this guy to watch his wife die, or his daughter, or his sister. But when it came to the Hakkonites, it was kill or be killed; Jace and Grandin were proof enough of that. She told herself to remember them, and steeled herself against any further regrets as she took down the archer. Only the big bastard left now.
He was in a rage, plunging into the river with his weapon drawn, and her first two shots missed entirely and sank into the water. A third one managed to bounce off of a horn. The fourth and fifth arrows struck home, but still he was moving. A sixth went into his knee. Well, his adventuring days are over, she thought, readying a seventh arrow. This one found purchase in his throat, and he crashed into the shallows of the river and did not get up again. Kenric was safe.
Eagerly, Harding descended the ramp and hurried back to Kenric. “They’re dead,” she assured him. “Let me see your arm.”
He was quiet as she worked. The wound was superficial; the arrow had grazed him, nothing worse, and as far as she could tell it hadn’t been poisoned. She splashed some antidote onto the arm just in case, though, then swathed it in bandages she had soaked in elfroot potion. “Is that feeling better?”
“It’ll be just fine, Lady Harding, thank you.” He hesitated. “Suppose we don’t mention this to anyone? I’ve noticed that many of your organization’s leaders are quite distressed by anyone being ill or injured, the Inquisitor not least among them, and I would rather not trouble anyone over something so minor.”
“I won’t say a word,” she promised, tying off the bandage. “But someone else is going to have to fix your shirt, I’m useless with a sewing needle.”
“Yes, I’m afraid I am as well. I’m sure I can find a reputable tailor.”
She hesitated. “Once we finish here,” she said slowly, “I was planning to go to Denerim for a few days to visit my parents. I haven’t seen them in over a year now.”
“Ah, yes! You said your mother wrote that she has a map where she keeps notations of all the places you’ve been.” He brightened slightly at that.
“Right. Well, my mother is a seamstress… that’s why she named me Lace.” She had never revealed that to anyone except Leliana, mostly because hiding anything from Leliana was pointless anyway. “So… if you want… maybe you could come with me, and she could fix it for you.”
“You would… like me to meet your parents?” She could be sure only of his astonishment.
“Well. If you want.”
Kenric hesitated, and then he gave her one of those smiles that made her insides flutter. “Lady Harding - that is, Lace - I would be honored to make their acquaintance.”
“Please don’t call me that in front of other people.” She laughed, however. Somehow she didn’t hate the name quite as much in his voice.
“You have my word. But…” His expression turned rather preciously shy. “May I call you that when we’re alone?”
Harding paused, watching the light play on his face and trying to interpret the look in his eyes. Then, throwing caution to the wind, she leaned in and kissed him.
“I’ll think about it,” she replied.