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10. Learning Curve
The sunlight is unbelievably bright, and it takes their eyes some time to get used to it before they can inspect their surroundings.
The cave exits in a deep hollow, which soon opens into a broad valley, with sparsely growing beeches and grassy undergrowth.
Crossing the patches of grass, half-covered with fallen leaves, they trudge up the opposite mild slope.
Oghren is left to keep watch, while they continue a little further to find shelter from the wind in a shallow depression among the trees.
With an exaggerated snort of relief, Anders drops Velanna to the ground – the way he carefully picks the spot and puts his cloak under her before he does so, reveal that the exhaustion is somewhat staged.
Nathaniel is less picky, and drops down at the first opportunity, and so does Cousland, just next to him.
"Phew. I'd never think that one scrawny elf might give me such sweats outside the bed." Anders stretches his back and arms. "Very well. Healing time, you two?"
"How is Velanna?" the Commander enquires.
"Stable. The burns are not life-threatening, and hopefully not permanent, either – alright, I'm probably too optimistic, but nothing really bad, she'll be such a pretty face as before."
"Anders." Cousland's calm tone sounds rather forced. "Will she be able to walk on her own once she comes to, and will she be able to cast?"
"I can guarantee the former, the latter is hard to tell."
"We'd better not rely on it, then. Tend to Nathaniel first and Velanna next, so that we can move on."
The mage raises his brows. "Is it just me, or could you use some healing, as well? You needn't play a hero; I still have some lyrium left."
"I'm not playing a hero," Cousland grits through is teeth. "I've dislocated a shoulder. I'm not bleeding and I can walk, even put up a little fight if necessary. The priority is to get everyone on their feet, so that we could move further off the cave. I don't suppose we will be pursued now that the entrance is blocked, but I'm not going to take any chances that there are yet more exits we don't know of."
Anders shrugs. "Alright, alright, as you wish, there's no need to get excited."
As Anders kneels down to Nathaniel, Cousland stops him once more. "How much magic do you have left?"
"Don't worry, I'm almost in the full, and have one more dose left."
The Commander thinks for a moment. "Does Velanna have any lyrium on her?"
"Nope, 'was the first thing I checked."
"Keep the lyrium as emergency then, we're not exactly in the best shape for fight. Rely on potions instead as much as you can. I believe you still have your reserve?"
The mage looks as if he were about to protest, but then he shrugs again. "Yeah, there are a good few left, but I needn't remind you that spells are faster and more effective, do I? And just by the way, a dislocated joint should be replaced as soon as possible, you know?"
While he talks, he begins to remove the parts of Nathaniel's damaged armour to access the wounds, and Cousland does not bother to respond to his comment. He looks pale and strained under the dark scrub and dried blood, and sits with his eyes closed, breathing in a surprisingly slow and calm rhythm.
"Bloody templar tricks," Anders mutters under his breath. "Just how did he say he got by these?"
"I didn't," Cousland mutters without opening his eyes.
Anders snorts and shakes his head. "Here we go," he warns Nathaniel before he starts treating the deep wound in his thigh with the content of one of the vials from his pouch. "We're doing emergency healing, so it will be tad more uncomfortable than my usual flawless performance. I'm afraid the cleaning is inevitable, though."
The burning is more than just tad uncomfortable, but still preferable to the constant flow of speech that Anders produces. Clenching his teeth, Nathaniel manages to let the words buzz past his ears, returning in his thoughts to the feature his trained eye caught as they were crossing the valley.
What could that possibly mean? Definitely will have to check, Cousland will want to know.
– Nathaniel Howe, the dutiful Warden. Huh.
"… and here we are, as good as new," Anders finishes. "– Alright, almost. Try not to run or jump around, and generally take care, there is no bigger nuisance than a reopened wound."
Nathaniel sits up, cautiously flexing the leg. "Thank you."
A broad grin. "Always happy to help my favouritest Howe." The mage wiggles his fingers. "It'll be miss Waspy now, and then I suggest it's your turn, Commander, if you don't object. You may want to remove your armour meanwhile, I won't take long."
After a moment's hesitation, Cousland nods and starts tugging at the straps.
Having watched him struggle one-handed for some time, either too stubborn or too exhausted to ask for assistance, Nathaniel sighs. "Let me help."
To his immense surprise, his offer is accepted.
As he removes the first pauldron, Nathaniel's old suspicion is immediately confirmed. The armour is incredibly light for a full plate, explaining how a man of Cousland's stature is able to wear it and still fight the way he does.
He hasn't even finished unstrapping the breastplate when Anders is back. "I've done the basics to meet your requirements and I'll return to her for a little more work once I'm done with you. Either she comes to meanwhile or I wake her in an instant if necessary, I just thought we could use a little peace a little longer – is that agreeable with you?"
The mage grins at the lack of protest and produces yet another vial. "Here you take a swig of painkiller, Commander, and get up, please." Then he addresses Nathaniel. "Can you stand? I could use a hand – two, in fact."
The trial is successful. "What do you want me to do?"
Being explained what to do and how, Nathaniel can't help but glance sideways at Cousland, but if the man is not thrilled by yet another close contact, he hides it well.
Suppressing a sigh, Nathaniel follows instructions and puts his arms round Cousland's ribcage just under the armpit. He shifts his weight to the right, supporting the Commander against his side.
"Good", Anders assesses. He sits on the ground and reaches for the dislocated arm. "Now, bend over as much as you can, the arm must swing freely."
Reluctantly, Ned Cousland obeys. If his body could be even more rigid, he probably would have turned into stone by now. His breath becomes ragged.
"Fine. Get ready, it won't take long."
Nathaniel sets in expectation of the pull, and feels a shiver going through Cousland's body even before Anders applies any strength.
The mage pulls steadily, twisting the arm in the process to replace the joint in its socket. The effect of the potion must have been too weak for such treatment, though, since Cousland goes from gasps to a muffled cry, until he lays limp in Nathaniel's arms, shuddering and moaning.
The Hero of Ferelden who has just fought his way through the darkspawn and dragons?
Anders curses and together, they gently lower the Commander to the ground, where he curls with his limbs pulled to the body.
"Does it still hurt so?" Anders bends over him, concerned. "Just a moment…"
Nonetheless, the only effect of the spell is that the mage gasps and presses his hands to his temples. "Maker, I'm totally drained," he groans. "Pray that we don't meet anything more dangerous than a squirrel, I'm no use." Looking at his patient, he shakes his head. "And I was told that this was the gentler method."
The sobs and shudders cease as Cousland slowly regains control. He runs a still trembling hand over his face, then covers his eyes for a moment, taking a ragged breath.
"I am sorry," Anders says, without a single trace of joviality for once, "I must have done it wrong…"
"…not your fault." Cousland's voice is hoarser and weaker than ever before. Seized by a new fit of shudder, he attempts to sit up and manages only with Anders' help.
"Here, have a drink." As Anders brings the flask to his lips, though, Cousland sharply turns away, dry-heaving.
Anders curses again and raises his voice. "Hey, Oghren! Got some ale left? The Commander is not well."
Unbidden, Nathaniel gets up and goes to fetch the bottle, to get away from the embarrassing scene and organize his thoughts. Shouldn't he be at least a little glad to see the man suffer, to see that flawless façade finally shattered?
Probably not, that would be fiendish.
But should I really feel sorry?
Cautious straining of the injured leg brings about only mild discomfort, and so he returns with the flask in no time. The Commander sits with his eyes closed and his head lowered, and Nathaniel recognizes the pattern of the controlled breathing he has seen before.
The mage snatches the bottle from his hands and takes a sip. "Wow, not that bad, actually. I'd never expect that the dwarf might have a taste for fine rum. Must be accidental."
"'Seen ya!" Oghren grunts from his post.
This time, Cousland drinks without a protest; by the look of his face, he is probably exhausted past caring. As Anders returns him the bottle, Nathaniel also takes a sip – the air is chilly and pierces the sweated clothes, and the ale provides at least an illusion of warmth.
"Seen you both, buggers!"
The angry shout followed by a stream of profanities remains unresponded. Anders rummages through his pouch and produces a box with salve. "The shoulder could use way more healing and those bruises he failed to mention, as well. Help me undress him a bit."
Together, they unlace Cousland's gambeson and carefully pull it down from his shoulders while Anders keeps the formerly dislocated arm unmoved to prevent accidental luxation. "Slit the shirt," he instructs Nathaniel, "it is in tatters, anyway."
Manipulating a blade just next to the Commander's bare throat provokes no response.
Once the rags of the shirt, stiff with the dried blood from the previous injuries, are removed, it strikes Nathaniel how badly scarred Cousland is, for one of his age, and he swallows hard as he realizes that not all of the scars originated in fight.
But he's a Cousland, he thinks, dumbfounded, the Teyrn's son… Yet, there is no denying that at some point of his life, Ned Cousland was flogged – brutally, or repeatedly, or both.
And also magically healed, judging by the state of the scars, which look much smoother than those Nathaniel used to see on the backs of the convicts in the Marches.
But even so: who dared to? And why?
Anders spends quite some time rubbing the salve into the shoulder, then wraps it in a bandage. "No big moves," he warns the Commander, "until I get down to some real healing, it could snap out again."
"I know," comes the reply in a soft, dreamlike tone.
The mage frowns. "Maker's ass, this is not the first time? I guess I should fix the whole arm then."
"Unnecessary. Just help me put the armour back on."
Anders does so with surprising knack, allowing Nathaniel to refrain from participating this time.
When fully dressed again, Cousland finally opens his eyes. "Done? Go finish Velanna, then. It's time to get moving." He gets up and grabs Oghren' flask, and makes for the edge of the depression.
Nathaniel follows him with his glance for a moment, and as he turns his head back, he meets Anders' stare, uncharacteristically hard and cold.
"That was also your father's doing?" the mage hisses under his breath.
"My father would never –" Nathaniel blurts, exasperated, then comes to a sudden halt. Father would never treat anyone like that – but he would never turn on his liege and exterminate his family, either, right?
Uneasily, he avoids Anders' eyes.
Without a word, the mage gets up and moves over to Velanna, still lying unconscious.
Nathaniel looks over his shoulder. Having returned Oghren his flask, Cousland neither stays with the dwarf nor comes back; instead, he takes an isolated post, extending the angle for the watch.
Though keeping watch is apparently just an excuse for being alone.
Nathaniel quickly makes up his mind. He joins Anders and kneels down next to him. "Could still use help?"
He receives a guarded glance but the mage replies with the usual joviality. "Sure. She'll be thrilled to find out that someone has been pawing her when she wakes up, so I could use one more culprit to distribute the blame more evenly."
They carefully strip the charred remnants of Velanna's bodice and start spreading the salve over the barely healed burns over her arms and torso.
"You weren't there with him during the Blight, were you?" Nathaniel asks as casually as he can.
"Nope." Anders seems intent on observing Velanna's blistered skin. "And, to spare you the time, neither was Oghren. He brags about some expedition into the Deep Roads they went on together but after that, they separated. Apparently, a smelly winebag of a dwarf was not a fine company enough to end the Blight."
Abandoning attempts at subtlety, Nathaniel asks bluntly: "What do you know then about what my father did?"
Again the glance that denies the jolly face the mage usually shows to the outer world. "Just what everyone does. Your father killed his father, and the whole family while he was at it, yadda yadda. The youngest son survived, killed your daddy. You came to kill him, he nearly killed you... the young somewhat fall short of the deeds of their fathers, ain't it sad?"
When Nathaniel does not respond, Anders shrugs. "Anything else to sate your curiosity, my dear Howe?"
Nathaniel presses his lips at the sarcasm, and Anders feigns offended innocence. "But I do like you Howes – I also like the Whys, the Whos and the Whats."
"Very clever. Just how long did it take you to come up with this one?"
Anders grins, showing his teeth and totally ignoring the cold tone. "Shamefully long." He wipes his hands and looks down at Velanna's peaceful mien. "Isn't she just lovely when she shuts up? Sadly, the time to wake the sleeping beauty."
Velanna is, in fact, more than lovely: she has firm round breasts, her nipples raised due to the cold…
Nathaniel quickly averts his eyes: this is neither the time nor the place to get aroused. With a sigh, he takes off his cloak and covers her: a nobleman's duty.
Anders smirks. "Good idea, she may not attack us on sight."
"You can let her sleep a little longer. There is something the Commander will want to investigate."
Not giving Anders a chance to inquire, Nathaniel turns and heads for the edge of the depression, where Cousland stands, leaning against the trunk, his head tilted back, his eyes closed, with no indication of being aware of Nathaniel's presence.
Nathaniel clears his throat. "Commander?"
The dark eyes open, expressionless.
"I believe there is something you ought to see for yourself."
After a moment, Cousland nods tiredly and follows him down the slope, to the low undergrowth covering the bottom of the valley. Without a word, Nathaniel indicates the opening in the thin forestation.
"I see," Cousland observes after a while. "It seems there used to be one of those ancient routes. Do you think it joins the main road?"
"Quite possibly, but this is not what I meant." He takes a few steps to a pit in the grass, half-covered with fallen leaves, and brushes them aside to make the feature more visible. "Ancient it may be, but it has been used recently."
This finally breaks through the wall of indifference. Cousland kneels next to him, running his hand along the imprinted trail. "A wagon, here?" He raises his eyes to Nathaniel. "Can you read more from these tracks?"
"Probably further along the route; they're not fresh, and if it weren't for the soft ground here, they wouldn't have been recognizable. You will want to follow it, I suppose?"
"Yes, definitely, but only after we locate our camp and get back in shape. Do you have a clue which direction we should be heading?"
Nathaniel has already given thought to that, but he has to admit ignorance. "There's no telling how far and in which direction we might have been carried underground, we could be just anywhere. I'd try south-east, if for nothing else, it should take us to the road and we'll be able to re-trace our previous route from there."
"That might take quite some time, and on an empty stomach. Pity you've lost your bow, we'll have to rely on what we find."
"That should –"
They both startle at a distant rumbling sound, followed by cloud of dust rising above the hills. Their eyes meet.
"I believe that the matter of direction is now clear," Cousland says slowly. "Let us only hope that there is still some camp to return to. – Time to set out, or was there anything else you wished to discuss?"
Just how my father died. What happened. What he did.
Neither the time nor the place, if there's ever going to be.