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The trip to the Wending Wood went wrong.
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7. A Spider In The Web
The horse jerks its head and pulls against the reins.
Nathaniel grits a curse through his teeth. Though he shares the horse’s opinion of walking down a slope thickly covered with fallen leaves, slippery and obscuring holes and fallen boughs, there is no other way. He gives the reins a profound pull and leads the horse on, following Velanna, who has given him an impatient frown over her shoulder.
When they set out to investigate the danger lurking for travellers in the Wending Wood, none of them could have imagined that the root of the trouble would be a single, tiny elf.
And very pretty, Nathaniel has to admit, thought after a couple of days spent in Velanna’s company, other words come to mind more readily, such as edgy, bitchy, nasty, moody and touchy – Wolf is probably the only one who has not felt a lash of her tongue.
And brave, that can hardly be denied. Fighting alone against overwhelming odds. Solitary in the company of strangers who have no reason to like her, quite the contrary. And though the Commander treats her courteously, Oghren snorts every time she passes by and the four soldiers accompanying them do not even bother to conceal their hatred and disdain.
Deep within, Nathaniel has to admit that it is a relief not to be the one evoking such feelings for once – relief, and surprise that it should matter to him what these people think of him at all.
Or what Velanna thinks of him, for that respect.
Watching Velanna’s self-confident gait as she picks her way along the ancient route, Nathaniel feels intrigued once again. He has seen many a pretty elf in his time – more than just seen, in fact, and prettier than Velanna – but he never encountered a Dalish before.
And he never encountered a proud elf, either. Given his status – his former status – he is unused to elves watching him with cold indifference at best, or with open contempt.
And though the experience is baffling, even irritating, the prevailing response it evokes is one of respect.
Nathaniel feels his lips curve. When he first addressed Velanna as ‘milady’, the word rolled from his tongue quite naturally, and the elf’s reaction was priceless. She opened her eyes wide and flushed deeply, only to scold him ferociously at once. Ever since that, she has been treating him accordingly – with a combination of bewilderment and half-hearted venom.
He suppresses a chuckle. Well, at least I fare better than Anders.
“Have I ever told you that I find tattoos on women incredibly attractive?”
“Have I ever told you that I find most humans physically and morally repulsive?”
Not that the mage was put down for a second.
The tattoos are definitely charming, Nathaniel ponders, just as Velanna frowns again, this time at one of the soldiers at the rear whose horse almost slips and starts prancing.
“Can’t you shemlen do at least one thing right?” she snorts. Ignoring the collective looks she earns, she resumes her previous pace.
Nathaniel meets Cousland’s amused glance and can’t help but grin in response before he quickly turns away, embarrassed.
This is something he could have anticipated but, for some reason, did not: that travelling together might eventually build some common ground. Reason tells him that such development is desirable: what use is to feel the bile rise every time he looks at the man whom he pledged service?
Yet, whenever something like this occurs, it leaves Nathaniel feeling guilty – mostly over the persisting fact that he is actually enjoying himself, Cousland or not.
Autumn, with its colourful leaves and bright but not overly hot sun, has always been his favourite time of the year, and the favourable weather has allowed a comfortable journey so far. The mood is less tense than at the Keep: though contact is more frequent, and closer, it happens on a simple and neutral basis. There is nothing potentially ambiguous in chopping wood, fastening tent ropes, or passing round the salt.
Cousland probably feels it, too, Nathaniel realizes. He definitely seems less reserved, at least with the others, though he tends to be somewhat broody in the evenings, sitting separately most of the time – something Nathaniel tends to do himself.
Maybe the change is a sign of better things to come – a future that looks less bleak than he used to think.
Or maybe he is simply too optimistic.
It is difficult not to, though, on a bright and pleasant morning, with the leaves rustling in a gentle breeze, whirling down to the ground in an occasional gush.
Even though he knows that they are marching into the mouth of darkness.
With a pang of unease, Nathaniel recalls the encounter with the darkspawn.
Darkspawn who do not attack at sight but bid their time, waiting, watching…
Darkspawn who plot and forge evidence.
Nathaniel did not have to see Ned Cousland’s quickly concealed look of worry to understand that something is very, very wrong here. Could there be a mastermind behind their actions?
Velanna can hardly be blamed for not seeing through their deception, she was caught in the web of their planning. Who would have thought that darkspawn might kidnap her sister and frame the humans?
Her desire to save her sister at any cost is something he can understand for sure – and it’s also the only topic that can be discussed with the elf without receiving half a dozen insults within a single sentence.
Hastily, Nathaniel switches the course of thoughts: thinking of sisters is something he does his best to avoid for the time being. Even the darkspawn are a welcome distraction.
The darkspawn… in his first fight, in the deep bowels under the Keep, he was not able to sense them yet; the memory of the weird feeling their presence evoked in his mind makes him shudder.
What sickens him most about it is the feeling of affinity; the stark realization that he has a part of them within him.
The fact that they are heading now right into their nest somewhat spoils the trip.
The darkspawn presence in the woodland area was puzzling at first, but then Nathaniel remembered having heard of an ancient silverite mine in the area. With no better clue, the mine thus became the aim of their search in the difficult terrain. The two days of exploring the hills in the northwest part of the Wending Wood finally brought its fruit: the remnants of an old road, still recognizable but not easing their progress as much as they had hoped.
Nathaniel does not mind the delay in the least.
As they reach the bottom of the valley and proceed to the north, he notices yet another dark spot on travelling through the Wending Wood.
“Hold!” he alerts the company while still at a safe distance. To the inquiring looks, he points out the tree which stands alone, separated from the vegetation by a circle of empty ground.
“Maker, it’s huge!” he hears one of the soldiers mutter.
Velanna gives him a sour look. “Ancient trees do tend to stand alone, you know.”
Or maybe you are just miffed that you did not see it first.
“We will find out soon enough,” Cousland remarks dryly. “Secure the horses.” He grabs hold of Wolf’s collar. “And you’re staying here, too.”
Cautiously, they approach the gigantic oak and stop well out of the reach of its branches, their usual weapons replaced by axes. At Cousland’s behest, Anders sends a bolt of energy into the trunk.
The tree shudders in fury, the creaking of wood resembling a roar. The branches beat frantically, the soil in a wide circle seemingly explodes as the roots make their way to the surface.
In the whirlwind of falling leaves and bursting soil, the ancient sylvan slowly starts to move towards them.
“Maker preserve us!” sighs a soldier – the same as before, a religious type called Gareth. Nathaniel softly repeats the prayer, just in case – they have fought a couple of sylvans once they left the main travel route, but the biggest of them was barely half the size of this one.
The branches and roots swarm like maddened pythons: the multiple blue bolts Anders releases crack the bark and the sap splashes far around. The creaking and grinding take an even more furious tone and then turn into a wail, as a fiery explosion from Velanna’s hands sets the half-dry leaves ablaze and the sap starts to sizzle.
The sylvan changes the direction and aims for the Dalish, who calmly maintains her ground and conjures yet another fireball.
More and more roots burst from the ground and branches lash violently, intent to crush the insolent offenders. Nathaniel smirks: the sight of a walking sylvan is impressive, and an unwary pilgrim would find himself in a great deal of trouble in the vicinity of one, but a well-prepared group means the sylvan’s death.
Size itself is not enough.
A thin root lashes against Nathaniel’s feet and he chops it off, retreating a couple more steps and watching out for others. The caution is necessary: though the sylvan’s attention is aimed at the mages, it’s never good to underestimate the enemy or lose concentration.
The truth of this old rule is quickly confirmed as Oghren gets caught by a root and loses ground. Within a second, he is drawn towards the trunk, encaged in a mass of roots. His screaming is interrupted as the roots suddenly freeze under the layer of ice; with a blast of energy, they are smashed to smithereens. The sylvan shrieks like a wounded animal. With half of its branches already scorched and cracked, its attack falters and the wooden limbs start to beat around without coordination.
At Ned Cousland’s order, they start a concentrated attack at the roots, while the mages keep freezing and crushing the branches.
The sylvan’s movements are slower and slower; then with almost a human sigh, the branches stop moving as the wooden body becomes too damaged to host the demon which animated it.
With the roots only loosely in the ground, the tree inevitably falls, sending the leaves and soil into the air one last time.
Nathaniel does his best to wipe his face clean; as he does so, he notices Velanna, undoing her hair and shaking out of it dry leaves and pieces of bark.
A most attractive source of trouble. He has always had a weak spot for blonde women.
He quickly averts his eyes, not to be caught staring: the elf would probably not appreciate his attention.
“You have saved us a great deal of trouble.” Cousland approaches him, followed by Wolf, happily airing his glee of being on the loose again.
Nathaniel slightly bows in response. Though he is getting used to the praise, since Cousland never fails to acknowledge anyone’s contribution, he is still uncomfortable with it, especially when it concerns wilderness lore.
All those years in the Marches which Nathaniel spent honing his hunting and scouting skills, he secretly hoped that this is something father would at least a little approve, or even appreciate; the memories of Rendon taking him along for a hunt, teaching him to track and stalk game, belong to those Nathaniel cherishes most. And though the said skills were not the main which he was supposed to acquire, he still hoped that it would be something they could at least have in common.
Instead, he uses them to impress his father’s killer. What an irony.
Ignoring Nathaniel’s discomfort, Cousland does not seem about to leave. “I was wondering,” he says, looking at the fallen sylvan and scratching Wolf’s head, “this is not the usual look of oakwood,, if I’m not mistaken. Perhaps it could be of use – better use than normally?”
The inner wood, visible where a mighty bough broke off as the tree fell, does have a completely different hue – tinged deep red, like blood. Nathaniel has noticed the colouring even with previous sylvan, though of much lighter shade, as well as the tendency to ooze sap in great quantity, as if the demon presence somehow affected the quality of the wood.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing, but I’m hardly an expert. After all, I haven’t seen a sylvan before. It’s well possible that their wood has some superior qualities – “
“You do not know?” Having overheard their conversation, Velanna comes closer, her eyebrows raised. “Where do you think our best bows and shield come from? Or is thinking an activity you shemlen have abandoned?”
“I was under the impression that ironbark is the material of choice,” Cousland replies calmly.
She rolls her eyes. “Of course. Ancient sylvans are hard to come by, you know?”
“I can imagine,” Nathaniel mutters, earning a furious glance before the elf struts away.
Impossible. Nathaniel quickly averts his eyes; reading Cousland’s mind is not among the skills he desires.
“Best bows and shields? Wade will pee his pants with glee when he gets his hands on it,” Oghren remarks, watching a chunk of wood tied on the back of one of their pack horses as a sample for the armourer. Then he curses, as Anders spreads the healing salve over the reddened and cracked skin of his cheeks and nose. “Watch what ye’re doing! You bloody nearly froze off my nose before, so don’t ye break it off now!”
“It wasn’t my spell!” the mage acts offended. “But if I were you, I wouldn’t complain too loud, or she might freeze off your other bits next time.”
With Oghren being the only casualty, they resume their journey in almost no time, and spend on it almost no time, either, since the next bend of the road reveals a half-hidden entrance in the slope of the hill.
They retreat back to the fallen sylvan, and set camp further uphill, with a good view to prevent an ambush. It has been long decided that the soldiers will not be going underground with the Wardens, as there is no telling how long the search of the mine might take and the horses have to be attended meanwhile. None of the four men seems to be sorry to miss the rendezvous with the darkspawn.
Wolf, however, is of different mind; only a promise of morsel bones once they get back home persuades him to stay and guard the camp. Laying his head on his front paws, the dog stoically obeys his master’s command.
Examining the equipment piling in the centre of the camp, Nathaniel disbelievingly shakes his head. The crystal lamps? Is there ever anything the man does not anticipate? First the extra axes, then the lamps – would he produce even a pinch of Andraste’s ashes if they were required?
The poor Archdemon can’t have stood a chance. The man is dauntingly efficient.
The thought if Cousland was equally efficient with his father, sends Nathaniel’s stomach in a momentary churn.
The mouth of the rock is cold and damp, like caverns tend to be. There is not a single trait of darkspawn presence, yet Nathaniel somehow has the feeling that this is the place.
Shortly after they enter, there is an enormous pit: probably a remnant of a natural cavern. With utmost care, they descend to the bottom: the staircase hewn in the rock is cracked and crumbling. From what he can see, there are multiple tunnels ensuing from the cavern: some of them on the floor level, others higher in the steep face of the rock where the silverite dike once led the ancient miners.
Searching the mine will not be easy.
They make their way over a heap of rock, fallen from the ceiling, and access a more even ground. Still, not a trace of darkspawn, or anything else.
As they keep looking around, Nathaniel’s eye is caught by a faint shimmering line in the dust under their feet. Before he can alert the others to the weaving pattern, Ned Cousland snaps his head towards one of the elevated entrances; following his look, Nathaniel discerns two figures standing there even as he feels the warning tug of that new sense in his mind.
Before anyone can react, the taller figure raises its hands, and the concealed lines on the floor glow with fierce light.
Nathaniel feels his legs give way.
As it turns out, even Cousland does not anticipate everything.
And then there is nothing but darkness.