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The mud splashes his boots with every step, slightly yielding under the soles, which makes the descent from the mild slope rather uneasy.
If I slide, I'll be muddy all over.
Not that I can feel any more dirty than I already do.
Treading on, Alistair keeps his head low, under the pretext of watching his steps: looking up would mean watching the back of his fellow Warden, marching somewhat ahead.
Normally, they would go side by side or one after another, but nothing is normal, ever since Redcliffe.
They don't even talk, since Redcliffe.
They did, once: on the first night they camped outside the castle, which they left as soon as the weather allowed for travel. Alistair tried to approach Ned, to make him see why it was so essentially wrong what they did…
Somehow, they ended up yelling at each other; or rather, Alistair yelling, while Ned's voice was icier, and nastier, with every sentence.
The words have cut deep, and they have been ignoring each other since.
On the rare occasions that Alistair does look at him, he sees a complete stranger. Not the man with whom he has fought alongside, shared hardship, cracked jokes.
Cold, distanced, menacing.
As if he opened a lid, and darkness poured out.
How could he…?
And, how could Teagan ever consent?
He thought he knew Teagan, but that was a boy's memory, over ten years ago. He also thought he was getting to know Ned – to know, and like.
He never thought that Ned might turn out so cold – reserved, yes, but not as cold as stone, without any feelings…
Had he not witnessed that one moment of weakness in the Wilds, the raw pain that erupted from within, he would actually come to believe that the other Warden is actually the cold monster he seems.
Yet, Teagan who had never been cold and unfeeling, just stood there and let it happen…
How could I have been so wrong?
Could I be wrong?
Alistair kicks the broken branch that lies on the road, and the blasted thing adds some more mud to the layer covering his boots.
"Merde, look what you're doing, Alistair!"
He huffs an apology without even looking at Leliana. The ugly mood has spread all over their little group: the constant showers brought by the still prominent wind do nothing to ease it. There is little protection to be found from the elements as they make their journey along the shores of Lake Calenhad, and so they march on, cold and wet and miserable.
So miserable that he even ignores Morrigan's venomous remarks.
Apparently, Morrigan's heart is not in it, either, and so most of the time, they walk in complete silence.
Meaning, the train of his thought can go on undisturbed, though he rather wishes it didn't. Its direction is making him more and more uncomfortable.
Right. Wrong. Right…
They trudge up a mild slope, until they ascend a long terrain wave. The road now runs quite high above the lake: on their left, a span of turf ends with a sudden edge as the face of the rock falls steeply to the shore; on their right, bushes and low trees grow rather thick. A place like many, and the darkened sky promises yet some more rain.
The weather, the mood, each of them preoccupied with thoughts of their own… so it happens that they walk directly into an ambush.
Suddenly, a spray of arrows flies from the grove on the right. Alistair freezes as one passes an inch before his face; Wolf yelps as another hits his hind and then growls angrily. The third clunks off the breastplate that Sten acquired from the Redcliffe armoury – apparently, the cloak the Qunari was holding close to his body misled the archer into a wrong choice of the target. The other arrows miss; unsurprisingly, in this weather, bows are unreliable.
Then, a mass of men in rag-tag clothes and mismatched armours, come roaring upon them.
What follows resembles a well-trained performance.
Before the bandits can reach them, Morrigan steps up; the cold white fume which emits from her spread hands encases the front row in an icy grip. Morrigan retreats a few steps as Sten and Alistair charge the shocked bandits, each knocking down one at the moment of surprise. Leliana's throwing knife finds the throat of a third, a lightning bolt almost sizzles Alistair's hair before it hits fourth… they have danced to this tune before.
Except that one note is missing.
Ned, too far ahead, is separated from the group, and struggling on his own.
Alistair curses under his breath: he cannot leave Sten alone and expose Morrigan and Leliana; not until they manage to reduce the number of the bandits.
At least, Wolf's growling and barking comes from the right direction: Ned is not completely alone.
Alistair drops in his knees to avoid a blow aimed at his head, thrusts his sword in the man's belly, blocks a blade with his shield and as he springs up, he drives its edge in the man's face. He ducks again and turning, he kills the man who is about to attack Morrigan.
The wave of cold air leaves him momentarily short of breath and the blade of his sword is covered with hoarfrost. "Look where you're aiming!" he yells at Morrigan, who only laughs wildly in response and continues casting.
The bandits now fight like desperate men, and Alistair assesses that they are just about to break and run. However, his satisfaction disappears as he glimpses what is happening to his left.
Two corpses already sprawl on the ground and Wolf is currently producing a third one, ignoring the horrible sounds his victim is issuing. The remaining two, however, one wielding a sword and shield, the other a mace, are giving Ned a hard time; they seem more skilled than those Alistair had to deal with.
Even as he watches, Ned evades too slowly and the edge of the shield connects fleetingly with his face. Ned staggers, raising his arms reflexively – and letting a mace swing through the gap in his defence.
"Ned!" Alistair roars helplessly, as the mace strikes Ned in the chest and sends him flying to the ground.
Morrigan yells something incomprehensible and her staff hits the ground, sending a shockwave which leaves the surrounding bandits shortly dazed, but it doesn't reach Ned's opponents. The swordsman steps closer, rising his weapon high to finish the helpless Warden, and Alistair knows that there is no way he can stop the blow.
No way, unless...
The energy of the holy smite releases with a white flash. The two bandits stagger, stunned – and before they can re-compose, they have to face the approaching Templar's wrath. The mace-wielder is felled before he can raise his weapon to his defence; the swordsman manages to deflect the first blow before Alistair runs him through.
Quickly checking that his companions are able to deal with the remaining bandits, he drops his sword and shield and falls to his knees next to Ned. What can be discerned from the young man's face covered with blood is coloured ugly red, quickly turning blue as he vainly struggles for breath. The sight makes Alistair's heart jump violently. "Oh Maker, Ned… no… Ned, please, don't die… oh, Maker, please, don't let him die…"
Unable to stop his babbling, he fumbles with the buckles of Ned's breastplate and hastily cuts the laces of the gambeson and tunic. Seeing the hollow spot where the mace has broken the ribs, he moans desperately: "No… Ned…"
As if in response to his pleas, suddenly comes an inhalation; as more ragged, pained gasps follow, Ned's colour is slowly returning to normal.
Leliana kneels next to him, pale and holding her arm, pierced with an arrow. Unceremoniously, Morrigan squeezes between them and bends lower, listening to Ned's breath, until she contentedly nods. "The lungs are not punctured." She wipes the blood from his face. "The blood is from the nose, not mouth, you oafs. He will live."
Despite her claim, though, Ned's face begins to gain a ghastly pallor and he starts shivering so hard that his teeth chatter. The witch shrugs and reaches into her pouch, producing one of her potions. "What are you waiting for? Hand over some blankets, make fire, fetch water, make camp over here."
"Right here?" Leliana asks, wide-eyed.
"Where else?" the witch snorts. "This is as good a place as any. Just throw the corpses down the cliff."
My thanks to Thanwen for supplying the information on the effect of chest blows caused by blunt weapons, and introducing the concept of the concussion of diaphragm. The fault for implementing it is solely mine, though /sorry, Ned/.