Teambuilding experience of the silverite mine brought some fruit.

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11. Moments of Transition

Damp, cold air, ever warmer as he descends into the lower reaches.

The feel of the rock under his feet, smoothed by countless steps over the time. The obstacles which he avoids, relying on instincts, on the Sense.

The presence of his brethren, closer or more distant, like bright patches in the surrounding dark. The hazy, unfocused minds of the unwoken ones, roaming aimlessly over the place. The low, guttural sounds of their lust and yearning for the Song.

His body moves of its own accord, following the familiar turns, till he approaches her place: their half-sister, the Sense in her veins revelling to welcome him

Nathaniel Howe abruptly sits up in the darkness of his tent, gasping; he only slowly recognizes the familiar surroundings. The camp is quiet at night, except for the even rhythm of Oghren’s snoring.

Nathaniel rakes his fingers through his hair and pulls at it. The pain helps him regain control, at least partially – his heart still pounds and he feels as if choking. “Oh, Maker,” he mutters and crawls from the blankets, out of the tent, into the chilly night. Sweating as he is, the breeze immediately sends him in shivers, but the fresh air helps.

With somewhat uncertain steps, he heads for the fire, burning low. He finds the kettle with the mint tea, still half-full, and helps himself to a generous sip. Sagging to his knees, he stares at the red embers.

More dreams like that and I will hardly last three years, not those thirty. He shivers again, and instinctively embraces himself, trying to calm down his breath.

Out of the various aspects of being a Warden, this one is the worst. The reason tells him that the dream was most probably a reflection of their capture in the mines, but the vividness is disturbing.

With his senses still dulled by sleep, he doesn’t hear the approaching paws until the beast is right behind him, and startles as the Commander’s dog puffs at his nape. Nathaniel softly curses but still pats the broad neck, even as Wolf pries his cold snout into his face, with a pant of smelly breath.

A soft whistle, and the dog runs away. Instead, Cousland appears in the circle of the flickering light.

For a moment, they stare at each other in silence.

“Darkspawn dreams?” the Commander then asks softly.

Nathaniel nods. “You too?” he blurts, realizing that this must be the reason why Cousland is up, as well.

“Sort of.” After a moment’s hesitation, Cousland kneels to the fire, using a stick to shift a piece of wood closer to the flame here and there.

Nathaniel watches the flames leaping higher in a cloud of sparkles. He runs his hand over his face. “You said that the dreams would recede?”

“More or less.” Cousland keeps staring into the fire. “Once we deal with that darkspawn threat here, it should be better.”

Should be”, Nathaniel repeats with a tinge of bitterness.

A glance. “Still better than during the Blight, you know. As for my insufficient knowledge, I’ve had only a few chances to speak with the older Wardens, and with the recent events, it’s highly unlikely that there would be many more volunteers in Orlais to come and enlighten us.”

He falls silent. It would make for an opportunity to leave, but Nathaniel is still loath to return to his tent, with the dream hovering fresh in his mind. He takes one more sip of the tea, watching sideways Cousland’s profile lit by the flames, and makes up his mind.

“May I ask you something, Commander?”

He keeps staring into the flames. “Sure.”

”Concerning Velanna – I didn’t see you take her for that little walk like you did with me. When do you intend to – “

Cousland’s head snaps up, his eyes like dark holes, shadowed from the firelight. “I don’t intend to at all, and I strictly forbid you to mention the Joining or anything else in front of her!”

Exacerbated by the curt reaction, Nathaniel takes his breath for a sharp answer, but then reconsiders. “That was unnecessary,” he retorts in a calm tone. “I wasn’t going to spread Warden secrets or dissuade her from her decision.”

After a moment, Cousland sighs and raises his hand in an apologetic gesture. “Point taken,” he mutters. “Alright – I do not intend to tell Velanna anything until we are safely back at the Keep or even later. Not until it can be determined for sure if she has contracted the Taint or not. She’s so bloody reckless, and if I tell her now what it takes to be a Warden and that she may have no choice, she might just run away in denial and die of the Taint somewhere in the wild. In the Keep, I hope I’ll be able to make her see the reason, and keep an eye on her.”

Nathaniel nods in acknowledgement and ponders the options. “But will she make a good Warden?” he asks.

Ned Cousland sighs again. “She is a capable mage, but as a Warden… I have my doubts. Unfortunately, we can’t afford to be picky right now.”

Though some would definitely prefer to. Anders still had a red cheek from Velanna’s slap, even after they reached the camp.

Not that Nathaniel blames her too much – waking bare to the waist, with Anders leering over, would probably provoke even one of a calmer nature.

Nathaniel unwittingly looks back at Velanna’s tent and lowers his voice: “But what does she expect to gain? As I see it, the chances to ever find Seranni are next to zero. Her decision makes no sense.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Cousland agrees, also keeping his voice low, “but I doubt that she will ever admit to herself that Seranni is lost.” A pause. “However, as I have said, I have to take anyone who comes handy. I’m not going to force the issue with Velanna unless it turns out that she is tainted. If she’s not, she’ll have the time to reconsider, and she can stay or leave of her own volition.” He passes his hand over his forehead. “Hard to tell the outcome, though. I can’t recall anyone so stubborn even when she’s apparently in the wrong.”

The assessment cannot be more true. “Won’t she poise a greater risk than gain, then?”

Cousland snorts. “I do hope that she will be able to grasp some notion of discipline and cooperation; otherwise, yes, having her along might turn out more dangerous than the darkspawn themselves.”

Nathaniel can’t help but feel the corners of his mouth lift, even as he sees Cousland twist his lips, as well.

Having Velanna around will certainly be… interesting. In many respects. The remark, however, diverts his thoughts in another course. “That darkspawn here… the Architect… You haven’t seen anything like him before, have you?”

“No. Nor have I heard of such a case. It’s most disturbing – we have barely been able to fend off the darkspawn as they are, and to think that we might face their numbers being able to actually think…” His voice trails off as he stares over the fire into the darkness. “I’ll have to send word to Weisshaupt as soon as we come back, and to Orlais, as well, I guess.”

That sounds ominous, and Nathaniel shifts uneasily. “You think that…?”

Even in the flickering light, Cousland’s face has the look of worry, revealing the previous exhaustion. “I won’t be taking any chances. We did our best to secure the Keep, but we’re grossly undermanned. Another unexpected attack might sweep us all. The news must spread, and if anything like that has been encountered before, we will need any piece of information that might help. Besides…”

The pause that follows is long, and Nathaniel almost holds his breath so as not to repel the continuation, but Cousland still seems willing to keep sharing his thoughts: “There is one more thing that does not fit. We did encounter Blighted wolves in the area, which can easily happen as they scavenge, but I’ve seen no marks of wilting or corruption on the vegetation at either entrance – have you?”

Nathaniel takes his time to think. “No, none at all,” he assesses at last.

Cousland nods. “I will want to explore the surroundings of the cave tomorrow, and that road you discovered, but I am already sure that we will find nothing. If someone was willing to come and have dealings with the darkspawn, probably even repeatedly, then the person was not afraid of contracting the Taint. Could it mean that it can be prevented by the darkspawn themselves? That’s yet another thing I’ve never heard possible.”

A logical conclusion, Nathaniel has to admit, though not the only one: the weight of gold has already overcome many a fear. Then a thought surfaces, and Nathaniel looks at Velanna’s tent again, before he lowers his voice even more: “But if the Taint can be prevented – “

“ – why was Seranni tainted at all? A good question. And even better one: why does she stay with the darkspawn if she clearly retains her own mind? It is known that the ghouls join the darkspawn, but only at the stage when they are no longer in their right mind. None of those I’ve seen with the symptoms as advanced as Seranni’s, were still lucid.”

The debate has shaken off the last remnants of sleepiness, and is much less awkward than Nathaniel would have expected. He is still far from entirely comfortable with Cousland, but already able to pursue his curiosity. He opens his mouth, and then hesitates.

“More questions?” Cousland asks, his eyebrows raised.

“Well, yes – if you don’t mind me keeping you up?”

“No. I’m not sleepy in the least.”

“Those darkspawn which attacked the Keep…” Speaking softly, Nathaniel follows an idea that has been forming for some time, “they were related to this Architect, right? Were there also any of that conscious type during the attack?”

Cousland watches him for a moment, considering. “They were lead by one,” he admits in an equally low tone. “It seems that no-one in the Keep is aware of this, except those who survived that final encounter – that would be me, Anders and Oghren, and Varel. I would rather it stayed that way.”

“Why tell me, then?”

A smirk. “You are a Warden, too. In case something happens to us, you will have to deal with it.”

“You think that the danger is so imminent?”

“I think that we are all mortal. Accidents happen… and so do mistakes.”

Ah. Heroes don’t make mistakes, they just happen?

As if said aloud, something in Nathaniel’s reaction causes a breach in conversation. Silence sets in, and lingers.

Wolf’s paws rustle in the dry leaves again and he drops on his haunches next to the fire, reaching his head to Nathaniel for a scratch. Then, with a wide yawn, he starts wriggling, until he presses his side against his master.

Cousland pats the dog’s back and puts his arm round his neck. “He’s taken to you,” he remarks.

Nathaniel clears his throat, unsure how to respond. The moment is gone; picking up the conversation is now difficult.

A branch cracks loudly somewhere to his right, and his hand reflexively reaches to his side, even as he realizes that he has left his weapons in the tent.

“Don’t be alarmed. That’s Rennis on the watch.”

The dog remains calm, as well, and so Nathaniel relaxes. “I’ll sure be glad to leave this place,” he mutters more or less to himself.

“Not for long, I’m afraid.” Seeing his frown, Cousland explains with something which suspiciously resembles amusement. “As soon as we return to the Keep, I’m going to organize an expedition for the sylvan wood, as well as for the silverite the darkspawn have so conveniently uncovered in the landslide. We certainly shouldn’t ignore any resources the Maker has dumped on us in His providence.”

“Certainly not.” Though the idea of staying in the vicinity of the now sealed mine is more than unappealing.

A brief smile flashes across Cousland’s features. “Would it improve your mood if you were put in charge?”

It takes Nathaniel quite a while to overcome his shock. “You would actually entrust me with command? Why?”

Cousland looks definitely amused. “Well, as much as I’d love to be in charge myself, I’m afraid that I cannot neglect the matters of the arling any longer. Anders is too busy commanding his own tongue and without much success, which leaves you and Oghren – and though he does have experience from the army, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of a permanently drunk commander.”

“But – “ Even with the reasoning presented, it still sounds unbelievable.

Cousland tilts his head. “Well, I’m not going to push you into something you don’t feel up to…”

Was that teasing?

“… and I have to test Oghren’s mettles sooner or later, anyway…”

Don’t you dare to start grinning! Nathaniel inconspicuously grits his teeth. “The choice is yours. I will do as you command.” He does his best to keep his voice neutral.

He receives an unfathomable look. “Of course you will – and I have no doubt that you will rise to the occasion.”

At a loss, Nathaniel quickly averts his eyes. Damn those twists of his. “Thank you.” He has to clear his throat, to produce a more natural voice. “I will do my best.”

Cousland does grin this time. “With a little luck, the worst enemy you will face here will be frost.”

Wolf yawns again, and his master pats him mechanically. “Soon, boy,” he mutters. Then he addresses Nathaniel again: “I believe the arrangements will be best left with Varel, which will allow you enough time for a little trip to Amaranthine.”

He hasn’t forgotten then.

Still with a smile, but in a resolute tone, Cousland relieves him of the need to compose an answer: “And I also believe there has been enough talking for tonight. You should take the chance to rest some more.”

And this comes from one who had to lean on Anders most of the way. Nathaniel gets up. “You too. Good night, Commander.”

As he fastens the tent flap, he catches a glimpse of the man, leaning his head against the dog’s while still embracing him.

Sleep crawls in almost immediately after Nathaniel warms up in the blankets, despite the disorganized thoughts which race in his mind.

This time, though, no nightmares plague him.