Nothing good ever came from walking Sundermount.
This was a place of death and restless magic, and each step taken upon its soil was a provocation to both. It was, at once, too dull and too bright, cold in a way that roused the hairs on one’s neck; and the many graves along its trails appeared too fresh, as though their ages-gone inhabitants had only recently been placed beneath the earth.
The higher Fenris and his companions climbed, the more he became convinced that they would come to regret testing the mountain’s patience.
Fog coiled around the ankles of its latest trespassers like cool, spectral fingers, and beneath the undulating mist swayed dewy grass, greener than green. There was a surrealism to these ancient grounds; the Veil a mere, fluttering curtain which allowed the Fade to spill over the mountain like sunlight.
This journey could not end too soon.
“Alright, it’s slightly less creepy here,” Hawke announced with a clap, “Time to set camp.”
The proclamation had Fenris snapping around to assess her face, and was incredulous to discover that this was not simply one of their 'leader’s' ill-timed jests.
Varric huffed a laugh, turning in spot to observe their surroundings. “Translation: the corpses haven’t popped up yet.”
“Pretty much,” she said, unhooking the bed roll at her lower back.
Merrill shuddered. “I hate how they jump up like that.”
“That would be the part that scares you.” Varric shook his head, kicking his own bed roll so that it uncoiled along the grass. The banter and casual way in which everyone was preparing camp only teased Fenris’ annoyance.
The campsite Hawke had chosen was not bad, per se – a grassy landing with a fence of thin trees and jagged rock along its exposed edge to obscure the party’s view of the endless drop beyond (and offer protection for those who might roll off the mountain in their sleep).
It might have been a fine campsite, if not for the fact that this was Sundermount.
“It is foolish to spend the night here,” Fenris protested at last, stiff and surly amidst the bustle of the party’s camp-building.
Hawke fanned out her bed roll, tutting indignantly when the wind thwarted her efforts. The gust had also blown some of the strands of her glossy, brush-thick fringe askew, which she patted back down impatiently. The rest of her hair remained mostly bound within that eye-shaped barrette she favoured, the few that had escaped a small testament to the day’s toil.
“Well, I considered the altar grounds, but I imagine that Arcane Horrors make for poor bedfellows,” she said as she lowered to her knees, not even sparing a look for Fenris as she continued to unfurl the stubborn bedding, “All that screeching and flailing of arms, plus you just know they’d steal the covers.”
“Our rations, too,” the blood mage offered eagerly, “They seem dreadfully thin.”
Fenris glared an imaginary hole into the side of Hawke’s head. “Spare me your trifling; you know precisely what I mean.”
The woman sighed dramatically and then rose to her feet, careful not to stumble on the hem of her dowdy, black robes. Irritatingly good-natured, she asked, “Alright then, what would you have us do instead, Fenris?”
Though it made no sense, the total lack of condescension in her manner was only cause for further frustration. The party’s other half was quiet now, familiar enough with these exchanges to know that it was wiser to stay out.
“I would have us not become sitting prey for demons,” he argued, and then honed in on Merrill, “These ruins are but an hour’s walk, are they not?”
The tiny elf dropped her bundle of kindling in surprise, doe-eyes blinking at him rapidly. “O-oh, yes, but–”
“Then we should continue,” he told Hawke imperiously, “Collect this blood mage’s damnable flowers and leave the mountain to its spirits.”
It was absurd enough that they were risking their lives simply to collect a plant; it was utter insanity that they should spend the night and risk their souls for the endeavour.
A thread of Hawke’s patience had split when he’d accosted Merrill, and she explained in a dragged tone, “Yes, the ruins may be nearby, but it is another day’s walk to the base.”
“Do not speak to me as though I am a child,” he snapped, “I am aware of this fact. But I would rather be in need of a long rest than risk being devoured by the evils here.”
“Fenris,” she heaved, now pressing a thumb into the inner cup of her eye in attempt to stave off headache, “It is for this very reason that we are setting camp.”
“What she means, Fenris, is–”
“Oh right, shutting up again.”
“What I mean,” Hawke continued, casting Merrill a look of mock chastisement, “Is that when we do walk back down this demon playground, I would rather not do so half-addled with tiredness.”
“So this is about you, mage.”
“Ugh!” Hawke threw up her arms, and Fenris quickly folded his own to hide his small twitch of surprise – Hawke very seldom had outbursts, “No, you idiot! This is about not wanting to trap Varric and your pretty, tattooed hide on top of a mountain with a couple of abominations!”
The dwarf, crouched down to collect twigs, muttered, “Hey, my hide’s not pretty?”
Fenris and Hawke ignored the jape and Merrill’s responding giggle. They glared into each other over their companions’ heads, the pupils of Hawke’s eyes tiny in the light of the setting sun, jade green irises flashing gold as the clouds shifted. After a tense silence, she broke the stare and shook her head in frustration. It was no victory, but there was still a degree of satisfaction in seeing the usually unflappable mage so annoyed.
“Look, we’re here and we’re staying, so you’ll just have to add this to the list of things you hate about me and move on,” she said exasperatedly, making for the log-seat her companions had placed before the unlit fire, “And Varric, yes, your hide is lovely.”
The laughter and answering quip was lost in the rush in Fenris’ ears, the simmer of his blood becoming a boil. Hawke’s sudden dismissal of an argument was nothing new, but repetition had done nothing to dull its insult. Watching as the mage engaged in banter as freely as though nothing had disrupted her cheer, as she ignited the pile of kindling with a snap of her magic-riddled fingers, it was difficult to remember why he had agreed to join this trek.
But more importantly, why he agreed to go anywhere with Artemis Hawke.
A few prize curses itching his tongue, he turned away and skulked over to a rock, which was jutting out of the ground like a large, dull spearhead. The bare ground was cold and damp, but Fenris unclasped his sword and settled there anyway, using the rock face as a wall for his back.
Behind him, the rest of the party chattered merrily, all tension left to reside solely with the elf. Hawke let out a peal of laughter, the sound woody and unwelcomingly pleasing. It calmed some of his fire even as it stoked it, a paradox with which Fenris had become accustomed during his acquaintance with the woman.
Unseen by those sitting at the fire behind, Fenris tilted his head back and closed his eyes, trying to find some clarity in the breeze – however ominous and prickly that breeze might be. His debt to Hawke had long-since been repaid, and yet, here he was atop this wretched mountain. Even now, with his fingers twitching to wring the mage’s neck, he did not entertain thoughts of leaving her company – simply tried to make sense of why he remained.
Perhaps – and it made his lips thin to admit this to himself – it was the simple knowledge, that for all the hostility that lived between them, Fenris could still turn his back like this and not expect a knife.