The stench of rot and evil was overpowering and Anders gagged as he stooped to follow Mariken through the cavern opening. He bit his tongue at the little niggle of panic that always reared its ugly head whenever he was reluctantly dragged underground; the weight of the earth over his head always seemed to press down physically on him, the air itself heavy and oppressive. But he had a duty, an obligation to the woman who had saved him so many months earlier. Even if she wasn't beside him at that moment, he owed it to her to grit his teeth and pretend he wasn't about to curl up into a babbling, hysterical ball of mage angst against the cavern wall.
She would have laughed at that image, he was sure of it. She would have laughed, and then she would have knelt beside him and pulled him to his feet, a gentle smile on her face and mischief in her eyes as she pointed out he was more of a scaredy-cat than his actual cat. That much he'd learned from her- that Grey Wardens were not infallible, nor were they all knowing, unstoppable battle juggernauts as they would have the outside world believe and that was perfectly alright. If one went by the precedent that Commander Tabris had set, then Wardens were foul mouthed, snarky, irrepressible little tyrants with no tolerance of fools, a wicked sense of humour and a crippling fear of open spaces. He and Oghren liked to tease her about that, the elf with a fear of the horizon.
He grinned to himself when he realised he was well inside the tunnel, following the vague shadow that was Mariken's outline in the darkness. Apparently vaguely inappropriate thoughts about his commanding officer were enough to keep the panic at bay and he tried to keep the fear at an arm's length as he surveyed the cavern. The Warden scouts had reported evidence of a heavy darkspawn presence in the area; judging by the smell, they weren't half wrong.
"Maker that's an unpleasant stench," said Rolan, bringing up the rear. "Smells a bit like the commons after Oghren has run a drinking contest." He laughed heartily at his own wit, and Anders resisted the urge to sneer. The cave was dark, but not quite dark enough for him to get away with it. If the ex-Templar caught him mocking him, at the very least he'd be patching up his own split lip later on.
"Enough with the chatter, Warden," Denril said, appearing from the darkness up ahead. The Orlesian Warden Captain had about as much patience for Rolan's self-importance that Anders did. It was the one and only thing that he and the captain had in common. "We've got a large nest to deal with, and I'd rather they didn't hear you prattling away hours before we get to them."
Rolan's mouth snapped shut with an audible crack. It almost made Anders chuckle to see the idiot put in his place- almost. It was the only amusement he got these days.
He glanced around the cavern instead, knowing he wouldn't be able to hide his satisfaction at Rolan's chastisement and knowing what the result of that would be. The stupid git would be unlikely to leave him alone for weeks, lurking in the corridor outside his room, following him to the mess hall, making excuses to be in the same place as him at all times. It was as humiliating as it was infuriating, and the last thing he wanted to do was encourage the bastard to redouble his efforts. Knowing his luck, he'd wake up in the night to find him looming over him like some deranged watchman.
The cavern bore the tell-tale signs of darkspawn, from the scratch marks in the stone from claws and jagged weapons, to the spindly vein-like creepers across the floors and ground, to the appalling stench of rotted meat and death that was so thick it was like breathing in soup.
"Report, Mariken," Denril said, swinging his longbow over his head again; Anders had never considered Orlesians to be particularly terrifying warriors until Weisshaupt had sent Denril to play second to Commander Tabris. The archer loomed over him by a good few inches, and even Nathaniel had struggled the first time he'd tried to draw the Captain's longbow. Anders was convinced that Denril didn't have any other facial expressions except 'scowl' and 'scowl harder'; he made Varel look positively chipper by comparison. "Is this a breeding lair?"
The tiny blonde rogue straightened at being addressed by the Captain. "No sign of a Broodmother," she said briskly, although she seemed to shudder at the mention, "and no pods that I could see, so no larvae. Looks like it's just a nest come up recently from the depths. They're not well armed, weapons and armour looked dated. Maybe eighty, a hundred years old? They'll be brittle in these conditions- shouldn't be too difficult."
The Captain nodded, her information apparently corresponding with his own sweep. "Lead the way, Warden," Denril said, gesturing the rogue to go on ahead. Mariken was a new addition to the Wardens, less than three weeks into her service. She was a rather brittle young thing, Anders had found, and she wasn't at all responsive to his jokes about blondes and sex and belly buttons. A shame really- she was cute. However, despite having a sense of humour even worse than Rolan, she was at least a decent Warden. She was one of the only sane things to come out of Haven in the far west, the fanatical town that had safe guarded the Ashes of Andraste for centuries. Determined not to be swept up in the madness that ruled the town, Mariken had become an excellent tracker- after all, anyone who spent their youth creeping through the forest to hide from their family tended to develop a talent for it.
She nodded to Denril and slipped into the darkness ahead, her boots making only the slightest whisper against the stone. The Captain turned to them. "Rolan, you take second. Anders, follow him and I'll take the rear."
They fell into the routine of an extermination sweep, descending quickly through the dank tunnels and closer towards the stench of decay. The few darkspawn they encountered were despatched quickly and ruthlessly, the rot and the smell and the sensation that they were walking on something sticky growing worse and worse the deeper they wound into the earth. It was unpleasantly dark, and the air was damp and cloying; at Denril's request, Anders conjured a wisp light to guide their feet and he managed to stop himself from audibly shuddering in relief. The darkness and the damp and the awful, looming weight of the ceiling above him
Maker, he could have sworn the walls were closing in on him.
The last thing he needed was to give Rolan more things to torment him with.
They'd been climbing steadily downwards for about half an hour when Mariken crept back into view and stopped them all abruptly, signalling with a number of hand gestures what they faced in the next chamber. Not that she really needed to explain in detail- Anders could already feel the pull in his tainted blood, like a hook lodged in his pulse points and dragging him to face the direction of the threat. He could hear the hissing and the creaking, shifting of armour, the slither of leathery skin on stone. His skin crawled at the occasional rasping growl, his brain leaping forward to try and understand
before he remembered that not all darkspawn talked, and they certainly shouldn't now. Not after that horrific encounter up at Drake's Fall two months back.
Mariken's hands flew in the dim light; suddenly aware of the potential for discovery, Anders dimmed the light as much as possible, gritting his teeth as the darkness crept in closer again. Denril was frowning, and Anders realised it was probably a good idea for him to have paid attention to what the blonde rogue was signing. He stared at her hands, trying to recognise the shapes she was making- nearly two dozen darkspawn, including an ogre. Her hands flew faster and he blinked as he felt certain she had signed incorrectly, or that he just couldn't keep up with her talk. Thankfully he was not the only one perplexed by her signs, because Denril signed for her to confirm her report a second time. Mariken made the same gesture again.
The darkspawn have a prisoner.
There was a moment of hesitation, and even Rolan frowned slightly, the creases on his forehead seeming more sinister than normal in the shadowed tunnel. Denril nodded curtly and signed in return.
Is she alive?
While it was not unheard of for darkspawn to take male prisoners, the threat against females was so much more immediate and horrifying. And if this was indeed a nest newly ascended from the depths of the earth, the need to hunt for a female to corrupt would be their driving motivation. Anders shuddered to think of what the poor woman must have been through; assuming Mariken hadn't just spotted a dead body. He almost wished for the prisoner's sake that she was already dead, that she hadn't survived the brutal torture- if she was still alive, and it was within reason to rescue her instead of doing the merciful thing and killing her, she would carry the trauma within her for the rest of her life. He didn't have to be a healer to know that.
He took a deep breath and immediately regretted it; so close to the nest, the smell was overwhelmingly disgusting. Denril made the signal to move, and Anders hefted his staff and dashed in behind Rolan and Mariken.
The battle was surprisingly short but bloody. A great many of the darkspawn had been napping, or whatever it was that those disgusting creatures did to rest, and as such were easy fodder in the first wave of their attack. Anders took advantage of the moment to throw out a Mind Blast, and Mariken darted in and out of the stunned creatures, her twin blades hacking and slaying with an almost musical ease. Rolan ran straight at the ogre, and when the stupid fool got himself caught in the beast's paw, Anders was almost prepared to look the other way and pretend to be too busy fighting. Sadly, Denril loosed an arrow straight into the ogre's eye; with a bellow the creature staggered backwards, dropping Rolan in the process. The idiot leapt straight back into the fray, slashing at the tendons on the back of the ogre's legs until it toppled over and proved easy prey for his greatsword.
Within minutes it was over, and they all stood panting for air and wiping gore from their faces. Anders leant against his staff and looked about at the carnage, the scene lit only by the guttering flames of a dying fire. "A larger nest than normal," he said, to no one in particular. No one usually paid attention to him anyway.
Denril slid his bow back into place next to his quiver and glanced about the dark cavern. "You said there was a prisoner, Mariken? I do not see anyone." His formality in such a macabre setting was unsettling, to say the least.
"Over here," she called from the far side of the space; the tremor in her voice couldn't be hidden. She struck a flare and threw it onto the ground, throwing magical light across the gory scene. Mariken was kneeling beside a bloodied figure, a woman, who was bound by her hands above her head. Her head was slumped forward onto her chest and she had just enough slack in the chains to kneel, rather than to stand. She was naked, maimed and bruised, with blood coating her body- although how much of the blood was hers and how much was darkspawn remained to be seen. "Anders, come quickly! She's still alive."
He ran across the cave, darting between the bodies of the dead darkspawn. He slid to a halt beside Mariken just as she cut the woman down; Anders caught her and lowered her gently to the ground. The moment he touched her she moaned softly; the sound caught him off guard and he glanced at her face. Not just alive, but partially conscious- that was a good sign. He brushed her dark hair out of her eyes and stared for a moment; her features were exquisitely pretty beneath the blood and the evidence of torture, a realisation that caught him by surprise. He had to force himself to look away from her, appalled at himself for latching onto such thoughts so quickly. Inappropriate thoughts about a patient were bad enough; worse still when she looked close to death and had suffered only Maker knew what in the last few days.
He could feel the pull in her blood, the answering dissonance to the song that sang in his veins. "She's got the taint, but she's not corrupted beyond hope," he said, running a wisp of mana through her body to check for injuries. He winced in uncomfortable sympathy as his gift carried back an ugly story. "A couple of broken bones, some internal bleeding. It's nothing I can't fix if you give me a minute."
"Is she worth saving?" Denril said, standing over his shoulder. The Captain sounded grim and even more taciturn than normal. "She may be too far gone for your efforts to mean anything."
There was a snort of derision from behind them. "Commander said they turn women into broodmothers," Rolan said, crossing his chest with the sign of the Maker. "What if we get her back to the surface only for her to sprout hundreds of tentacles and try to eat us?"
Sixth day, her screams we hear in our dreams. The Commander had taught him the rhyme, after she'd thrown up in Kal'Hirol once the nest of the beasts had been destroyed. If he'd thought the creatures themselves were nightmarish, hearing their origins explained had sickened him. However he was a healer first and foremost and the woman in his arms felt no more tainted than any of his companions from his cursory check. Anders tightened his grip on the abused woman, suddenly furious with Rolan for even suggesting that she could turn against them. Did he not see how frail and broken she was? "I've seen a real broodmother, Rolan, and I've seen corruption. See, I actually do things as a Warden, unlike some others I could-"
"Warden," Denril said warningly.
Anders bit his tongue. "She is not a risk, ser. I will not leave someone to die when it is within my capacity to save them. If she turns out to be too unstable, then fine. But I will do my best to save her first."
The tension in his grip must have roused her from whatever place she had fled to in order to escape her torture. Half-conscious became fully conscious as she stirred in his arms; she murmured softly, the sound full of pain- and the words utterly alien to him. He blinked and looked up. "Did anyone catch what she said?"
The bewilderment and suspicion on his comrades' faces said what they did not. They had indeed heard her words, and none of them had understood them. Denril was Orlesian, and spoke the language of the Anderfels fairly fluently as well. Mariken knew a smattering of languages from the various Avvar clans she'd encountered in the Frostbacks, and Anders knew enough Arcanum to recognise the structure of the words
but nobody had the flair of recognition in their eyes. The woman groaned, terrified and tortured and spoke again. Again, her words were strange but distinct, in no tongue that was recognisable to him.
"Can you hear me?" he asked, drawing her up onto his lap. She whimpered and tried to grab hold of his wrist, her hand seizing as if in pain. He took her fingers in his, running soothing fingers across the back of her hand and sending a little wisp of mana into her skin. He felt the muscles relax beneath his touch and he repeated the question, hoping he'd roused her enough to try and converse. As if by great effort, she slowly opened her eyes and stared about, her gaze coming to rest on his face. Her pupils were dilated with agony but she still managed to focus on his features; he was stunned to see shock and recognition pass over her expression, and she tore her shaking hand away from his and reached for his cheek.
"Anders?" she whispered incredulously, his name twisted as she forced the word past dry, cracked lips. Her fingers brushed against his skin, a feather light touch that seemed far too intimate for the macabre setting.
"She said his name?" Rolan made an already inane question sound even more foolish. "She said his name. I'm not hearing things. She knows him. Who is she, Anders?"
Anders could not tear his eyes away from hers. Transfixed was the wrong word for what was gripping him right then; it was far too mundane for what flooded through him. "I
I don't know. I don't know who she is; I've never met her before."
"But she knows him!" The Templar was surely hankering for a swift kick in the teeth. "We all heard it. Why does the apostate know a woman in a darkspawn lair?"
"She does seem to recognise you, Anders," Denril said, his tone anything but comforting. Bloody Maker, as if he needed to give them another reason to be suspicious of him! As if having his own private Templar wasn't bad enough
"Are you sure you don't know who she is?"
"Of course I'm bloody sure!" he snapped, tensing when she whimpered at his harsh tone. He ran a soothing hand down the side of her face. "Can you understand me, sweetheart? What's your name?"
"Anders," she moaned, tears spilling onto her cheeks. She broke out into a stream of what sounded like gibberish, at least to him. When he stared at her blankly she closed her eyes and buried her face against his chest, weeping and murmuring in her alien tongue.
He saw Mariken tense before he felt the pull himself. "There's more darkspawn coming up from below," she said, cocking her head to the side as if she were listening. "They are maybe ten minutes away, at most. A larger group too. We should hurry and decide whether to kill her or not."
The woman in his arms moaned and clung to him, wailing incoherently. She drew back from his chest, tears streaking through the grime on her face, and whispered, "Don't let them take me."
Anders stared at her, even more perplexed than before. She had no trace of an accent, nothing to suggest she wasn't a normal Fereldan- and yet apart from his name, those were the first words he could understand. What other language could she possibly have been speaking?
"Heal her and be done with it, Warden," Denril said, his tone impatient. It didn't seem that he had heard her whispered plea. Instead he gestured to Rolan. "And give the girl your coat, man."
Again, Anders resisted the urge to smirk as Rolan whined while removing his outer garment. All four of them were wearing some kind of cloak, so any one of them could have surrendered a piece of clothing to cover her; it was seemingly as amusing to Denril to hear the Templar whinge like a scolded child as it was to him.
He turned back to the woman in his arms as she stared up at him with huge, tear-filled eyes. His stomach lurched at the sight, and he mentally shook himself. Now was not the time to get distracted, not with more darkspawn approaching and suspicious Wardens looking on
even if the distraction in question was disarmingly pretty and utterly intriguing. She stared at him with complete certainty in her watery gaze. Whoever she was, she was unreservedly convinced that she knew him. Which was quite unnerving, if he had to be honest.
He gathered his will and sent his healing gift into her body; she shivered and drew closer to him as the magic began to work inside her. She never broke eye contact with him, even when her bones began to knit back together and the discomfort from the healing began to show on her face. Her lips parted and he heard the tiniest cry of pain emerge and he fought the impulsive need to stroke her cheek and whisper soothing words until the agony passed. Blessed Maker, look at him- a pretty face and a set of luminous eyes and he was all but drunk on moonbeams. Clearly he needed to go into Amaranthine more often and play the 'hero' card with the girls at the inn.
Rolan stood over them with a scowl and dropped the fabric over the two of them. Anders rolled his eyes in exasperation and carefully wrapped the cloak around her, doing his best not to brush against her recently healed wounds. As if noticing she was naked for the first time, she glanced down at herself; something akin to panic flared in her eyes and she buried her face against his chest. He thought he heard her groan and resisted the laugh that fought to escape.
What a bizarre day.
"Can you carry her, Warden?" Denril asked, clapping a hand on his shoulder and breaking the moment that had risen up between the two of them. "If you're done with the healing, we need to go now or the other group will catch up to us."
He climbed awkwardly to his feet, hefting her in his arms while hers snaked up to wrap around his neck. She weighed alarmingly little and, he had to admit, smelled terrible. He couldn't really blame her for that, but
Maker. She smelled worse than the cave.
They wound back through the tunnels that had brought them to her, and when they stepped into the sunshine he felt her tense in his arms. She peeked out hesitantly, her eyes filling with tears again as she stared around at the scenery, wonder written across her face. As if she had never expected to see the world again.
"If she tries to turn us all into lunch before we get back to the Keep, I'm blaming you," Rolan said, shoving his shoulder as he walked past and headed through the trees towards the main road.
Denril sighed and shook his head. "Mariken, take point again. Scout out in the usual pattern. Report back only if we have trouble." The hunter nodded briskly and vanished into the tree line. Denril looked over at Anders, staring at the trembling bundle in his arms. "You notice anything out of the ordinary," he said, his eyes flat like stone, "anything at all, end it quickly." Saying that, he turned towards the path that Rolan had taken, gesturing for Anders to follow.
With a sigh of his own, Anders set off after them. The woman in his arms squirmed, tightening her hold around his shoulders and burying her face in the curve of his neck. He tried not to tense; instead, he glanced down at her and murmured "Who are you?"
Her eyes met his again and she took a deep breath before finally whispering "Tahlindra."
Well. That didn't clear anything up.