"What I don't get is why you're following me," Alistair said, a mere three hours after we had set out without the rest of the motley crew the Warden had gathered. "Don't you have anything better to do?"
I smiled at him. Well, more of a smirk, if I were being honest, and to myself I always am. "Hmm, no, not really. You think I should stay at the camp and wait for the Warden's return, no? But why should I do what you do not?"
He shook his head and turned away, exposing his back to me. I could have told him how foolish that was, but for once, I did not bother, merely continued to follow him. I had spoken the truth – I had nothing better to do and I was curious where he was going on his own.
Surely there was nothing more to it. I felt no shame about my appetites and I knew myself well enough to know that Alistair wasn't my type - terrible hair, more naïve than I'd been as a boy of seven, and so repressed I could almost believe he had no sex drive at all. Though I suppose there was a certain appeal to the big lunk, at least if you were the sort who enjoyed watching a grown man flail around like an adolescent boy. In different circumstances, I would have paid him no mind at all.
But such were the times I had fallen upon. Not only had I failed an assignment and sworn loyalty to a Grey Warden, but here I was, following a man who had "sucker" written all over him. Perhaps, I mused, I was here out of self-interest. I would keep Alistair safe if anything should happen, since the Warden seemed to value him for some reason I could not begin to comprehend. Merely another service I could provide, proof of my loyalty and usefulness even when not in the Warden's company.
But I had become too lost in thought and fallen behind. When I caught up with Alistair, I found him waiting for me rather than proceeding onward and hoping to leave me behind.
"If you're coming, stay close," he said. Naturally, my leer at this request went straight over his head. "I wouldn't want even you to be eaten by a darkspawn. Well, maybe – no, no, I don't think I could explain it." What did I tell you? Such a sweet talker, this one – truly a sentiment to warm the heart.
"Most would not want an assassin at their back," I pointed out, unable to resist the opening. "You are either very brave or very foolish and I believe we both know which one, yes?"
"Look, I don't trust you. But I don't think you're here to assassinate me either." Alistair turned and began walking again, making his way along the rocky path with that graceless walk of his that left me wondering how he didn't trip over his own feet.
"So the royal bastard doesn't expect assassination? You are right: you are not ready to be king." I shook my head, picking my way over rocks in silence, though with Alistair along, anything ahead would hear us coming from miles away. "A king must always be prepared for the knife in the dark. If you intend to live, you would be wise to learn this." Another time, perhaps that knife would even be mine, but for now, he had nothing to fear.
He made no reply and we continued without words. I cannot say in silence, not with the clanking of that armor he insisted on wearing and the heaviness of his footsteps. When he made to enter a small cave, I could not help but speak up again.
"Pardon me for asking, but where are we going? I do not mean to question, but you must admit this looks suspicious. Perhaps I am intruding upon an assignation?"
"An ass – what? Oh." He flushed, proving that even Alistair can pick up on hints, if they are broad enough. "No, it's nothing like that. There's something in here – I can sense it."
"Something? If it's darkspawn, perhaps we should wait for the others." I was not afraid, of course – Antivans know no fear. But that does not require us to be stupid either and I was not so ready to die. Foolish as he seemed, I had not forgotten that Alistair was a Grey Warden, too. What else would he sense from such a distance?
"The bold assassin, afraid of the dark?" Alistair laughed and that made up my mind. "You can turn back if you like. I can take it from here."
Naturally, I would not. This was now an affair of honor; I could not turn my back. Boldly, we went into the cave, a dank hole in the ground that smelled of animal droppings and worse. Caves, you must understand, have never been my favorite places. Many a man has vanished into a cave, never to return. I should know – death is my business.
The cave was, of course, not empty. We could not be so lucky. There were darkspawn and in numbers. I must say, though, we were ridiculously awesome and dispatched them with little trouble. Even darkspawn do not deal so well with a knife between the ribs, even less so if one chose just the right poison to apply.
Not that Alistair complimented my skill with a blade. Perhaps he even believed he was protecting me - the gallant knight in his heavy armor and shield. If so, I chose not to disillusion him. After all, he was of some use as a target.
In a central chamber in the cave, we at last found what he must have been seeking. Our goal was here, a faceted jewel, as large as a hen's egg and red as blood, glowing with a sickly light. "Well," I said, sheathing my daggers and reaching for the jewel. "If this is what we came here for, perhaps you have the makings of a thief after all."
"Don't touch it!" He grabbed my hand, mere inches from the stone. "Look at it, at the way it glows. Glowing like that is bad. Something's not right; I think we should leave."
"After we came all this way?" I scoffed, then proved that even a former Crow can be foolish. I picked the jewel up – and the chamber shook, a quake hard enough to nearly knock me from my feet. Alistair, burdened by far too much metal, was not so fortunate. He fell over and did not move afterward.
I should have left, then. I should have run for my life and left him behind. Perhaps the Warden and the others could come retrieve him later; it was no business of mine. It is the first rule I learned growing up: survival is all. But I followed one folly with another. I stayed, curled inward to protect my head while the rocks fell. I hoped the cry I heard was not truly that of a dragon; there are some things even an assassin knows better than to attack.
It was some time after it had become silent once more when Alistair sat up, removing his helmet and rubbing at his temple. "Did we win?" he asked woozily.
I hope you do not imagine that I had been waiting there all this time, crouched over him like a lovesick maiden. No, of course not. I had been exploring, discovering simultaneously the extent of the cave-in and our current predicament. But for this moment, yes, I was there. It would be foolish to go too far and abandon him once I had chosen to stay.
"We beat the darkspawn, yes," I told him. "Against the rocks, we were not so lucky."
Alistair sat up, looking around the ruins of the cave and then back at me. "You stayed. Why did you stay?" He sounded honestly confused and his expression was almost lost. It made him look even more like a little boy than he usually did and he hardly needed help with that.
I had no answer for him, so I avoided the question, focusing on more practical things. "We seem to be trapped. The entrance is blocked by large rocks that I doubt even you could lift. We could go deeper into the cave, or we could wait for rescue." I leered at him again, though it was dark enough that he might not see it. "Given enough time, I might find even you attractive."
"What? That is… Don't you ever think about anything else?"
"Of course. How much more pleasant it is to contemplate starving to death here in the dark."
"Don't be ridiculous." He stood up, then extended a hand to me. I did not need his help, but I took it. "There will be a way out. We just have to find it."
I did not share his optimism. I knew better: life is no song or tale. We could easily die here in this hole; it would make little difference in the world at large. Alistair should have known better, too, after what had happened to his mentor. But who am I to guess at the superstitions of other men? If he chose to believe we would magically find an exit, that perhaps the Maker himself would rescue us or whatever he thought; it was no affair of mine. I let go of his hand and followed him. I had, after all, nothing better to do.
We began by checking the way we had come but found that I was not mistaken: there was no hope of escape there. So we turned the other direction, proceeding deeper into the darkness. The path was narrow and difficult; there were times when we had to assist each other over rocks. Had it not been for the monsters – the darkspawn and giant spiders – I would have suggested Alistair abandon his armor. It slowed us down and made too much noise; better to have the expense of replacing it than be trapped forever. But I could not argue that it did not provide protection, so I said nothing.
It was Alistair who next spoke, though he was climbing over a fall of rocks at the time and not looking directly at me. "I'm sorry, you know. About leading you here, Zevran, and getting us trapped. I didn't mean for this to happen."
I shook my head, though he couldn't see it. Apologies were something I disdained, along with regrets. They were so rarely sincere that I did not see why anyone bothered. We do what we want to do and it is foolish to apologize for it. But it was like him that he tried.
"Do not forget that I chose to follow you." As I have said, I am honest with myself. I won't blame someone else for the consequences of my actions. I could blame Teryn Loghain for hiring me or the Warden for defeating me, but what good would that do? The failure was still mine. Likewise, I did not blame Alistair for this, though I wondered why he had truly come here.
"I haven't forgotten, I just…" He shook his head and what he said next was lost in the sound of rocks rolling under his boots, but I thought it was something about things like this being why he didn't like leading anyone. I could not disagree; there is a reason why assassins tend to work alone. All this teamwork and caring about other people was as foreign to me as this wet, backward country. Sometimes I wondered if it were worth it. But then I asked myself, "Zevran, would you rather be dead?" and the answer was clear. This was a new way for me, but it was not so bad – particularly when compared to the alternatives.
It seemed days that we were lost in those tunnels, one cavern giving way into the next with no end in sight, but at last, the floor seemed to be leading upward, toward the surface. No one could have been more relieved than I to see the sky again. I did not know where we were, but for the moment, it didn't matter.
Alistair gave me a relieved smile, then looked away, almost shy. I have never been one to value reticence, but in that moment, I saw why some might find him attractive. He had a wonderful smile. Being a royal bastard obviously had its benefits in terms of dental work. "I wanted to thank you," he said, "for staying with me. That would have been much worse alone."
Gratitude, I've found, is nearly so false a coin as apology, yet it is often more valuable. But in cases like this, when it seems to be not only genuine, but for actions I would rather not admit to, I prefer to respond in a more lighthearted manner. "Careful, my friend. You sound like you are starting to enjoy my company. Next you'll be giving me flowers and reciting romantic poetry in hopes of wooing me. And who could blame you? A handsome elf like myself is hard to resist."
"Oh yes, I've always been a big fan of poetry. Particularly if it involves scary caves – they'll be all the rage for romantic spots this year." Alistair shook his head and laughed. "No flowers, I promise, but I might buy you a drink sometime. Strictly as friends, you understand."
Well, that was a start. Unexpected, but quite promising, despite the disclaimer. I smirked back at him and gave him a wink. "As you say. Just as friends, or that will be what we tell the others. Don't worry – this will be our little secret." And without waiting for his reply, I started down the path, my mood surprisingly good despite hours lost in a hole in the ground. We were still lost, probably miles from camp. We still had an archdemon to fight in the end. But one of these days, my tent might not be so lonely as it was at present.
It was not much, but an Antivan takes his comforts where he can find them.