Of Shems and Elves And Other Trifling Things
Disclaimer: All characters, names, locales etc. property of Bioware
Prologue: The Tainted Dalish
It was a strange thing for a man to know his death was imminent but not to know how he would die. Violence was most probable, but would he die in battle or torn to shreds by the Deep Stalkers, half-maddened by the Taint in the shadows of some manner of lost Dwarven Thaig? That was the question.
Still the circumstance surrounding his own demise was not the most pressing matter Duncan of the Grey Wardens had to contend with on the day he breached the north eastern fringes of the vast Brecilian forest in search of……well, in search of something miraculous. Surely finding someone worthy of joining the order in a time of Blight could only be a miracle, after all, yet that was the task Duncan had assigned himself and that was the task he would do his utmost to complete.
A shout pierced the stillness beneath the green dappled shadows of the forest canopy. Duncan stopped instantly senses screaming. He tasted old copper and something rank on the tip of his tongue; bile and blood. Darkspawn. Where seconds before he had sensed only the silent predators of nature's cruel design hidden in the labyrinthine paths of the forest, now his mind swam with the susurrus whisper of the horde. He started to run without needing to know his destination; the minions of the Archdemon glowed like a beacon in his thoughts, guiding him unerringly towards the sound of piteous, dreadful shrieking.
Leaping over the moss cloven hump of a fallen tree trunk, diving under a thicket of clinging vines, skidding down a sharp embankment and splashing through the thick and muddy slurry of a stream Duncan thundered through the underbrush, wrenching twin blades from sheathes mounted to his back. His robes, common among the men of the Free Marches, tangled in the brush but nothing less than the full might of the horde could halt his progress.
The tree line gave way, thinning out to reveal open sky as the land tracked upwards in serpentine curves. The taste of Darkspawn, all rot and corruption, filled his sinuses and had he been less familiar with the stench he might have paused. As it was he thundered onwards, passing pale hewn cliff face and trampling fragrant Elfroot under his boots as he ran on. He could hear the deep malign rumble of Hurlock laughter just around the next turn in the path.
Whereas the stench of Darkspawn had served only to spur Duncan on the sight that accosted him as he rounded the blind curve of the cliff face and entered a small clearing, did give the veteran Warden pause.
One Hurlock, three genlocks; two archers in the ranks and the other two with swords and daggers apiece; the Hurlock threw back his scabrous head and bellowed a war cry loud enough to shudder the ground at his feet as the archers wrenched back their bows. The dagger baring genlock advanced on one lone elf.
'Die interloper!' The genlock fell back in response to a truly savage kick to the head followed up with vicious speed by a inexpert, but undoubtedly impassioned, sweep of a elven made dagger. As Duncan watched, caught in a frozen second of surprise, the Genlock archers loosed their first volley of arrows, only to find their prey had melted smoothly into the forest shadow. Duncan caught a shimmer flash of wide, wild blue eyes in a bone white face marked with the intricate patterning of the Dalish and then the girl was in motion.
'Tamlen!' The elven girl leapt at the back of the Hurlock wrapping skinny arms around scaly shoulders and slamming dagger points deep into each lung. 'Where is he? Where is Tamlen!' Again and again the tiny elf female jammed her daggers past mouldy leather armour to penetrate soft tissue. She screamed near wordlessly in fury as she did so, enough to make an Ashe warrior proud. Blood arced into the air, black as sludge under a gentle sun. The Hurlock howled, twisted, threw the girl from his back. She hit a tree trunk and slumped to the ground. The Darkspawn turned as one, brandished tainted blades, and advanced on the fallen elf.
Duncan broke free of his paralyse and ran forward, twin blades catching sunlight and reflecting back only the purity of fire in the treated steel. The Hurlock was already mortally stricken and a kick to the kidneys brought him down for good. Duncan whirled, ducked a fresh volley of arrows, and dove for the nearest of the two archers. The first genlock archer's head flew free of his stocky shoulders with just one clean swipe of the warden's blade. The other closed with Duncan, the tainted creature too lost to bloodlust and lacking even the most rudimentary of survival instincts. This second archer fell, sliced open from sternum to abdomen, before it could draw the ugly rusted dagger at its hip.
Something twanged in the back of Duncan's mind; a whisper of warning, come too late. He had forgotten the third and final genlock. Duncan dropped flat to the mossy, uneven ground, rolled on to his back, thrust his daggers forward into the air and kicked with his legs. The last genlock, pinioned like some obscene insect on the ends of Duncan's daggers snarled and wriggled, still trying to rip his face off with lizard-claw hands. That's when Duncan saw her.
The elf girl was up once more. She rose like a shadow behind the wriggling genlock, pale and slick with sweat and sickness, eyes wide and somehow empty, as bright as the summer sky, and her face so terribly, terribly young, already a mask of black darkspawn blood. Duncan almost spoke but had no time before twin Dar'Misu embedded themselves into the neck of the writhing genlock, punching right through and loosing thick, scalding gouts of blood in a deluge all over Duncan.
The genlock went into a single spasm still impaled upon Duncan's swords and then died. The elf collapsed to her knees before slipping bonelessly sideways, falling like a broken puppet almost on top of Duncan. Her spring sky eyes clouded almost white, the cataracts of the Taint forming like frost over the surface of a lake, and then her eyelids slipped closed.
'Maker be praised,' Duncan's exclamation was no less reverent for the fact that he used it to kick the genlock corpse away from him and wipe the gore from his blades on the grass. He had come to these woods in search of the impossible, a miracle no less……and now he had found her.
Kneeling beside the elven girl he rolled her onto her back and checked the pulse at her neck. It thundered like a waterfall, crashing against the thin skein of her flesh. The scent of Taint and rot rose from her callow skin like miasma. Duncan did not know how this Dalish girl had come to be Tainted, but that almost did not matter. All that mattered was that he had found someone worthy of the Grey Wardens and he would not now lose her to the very Blight he needed her to fight.
'Can you hear me girl?' He patted her cheeks as gently as he could, lifting her by narrow shoulders into a half sitting position. Had he not known that a Dalish Clan, the Mahariel, camped nearby Duncan would still know this girl as one of the Elvhen. She had the faintly golden yet impossibly pale skin, like the inner bark of ancient oak trees that many of the Dalish possessed, and of course, there were the blue ink whorls and spikes etched across brow, cheeks, and chin.
'Girl if you can hear me you must speak.' Duncan did not know how far the Mahariel camp was from here and even as he watched he could see the Taint spreading through this girl's veins. Her skin was on fire already, her breathing harsh and hitching.
'Answer me girl!' This Dalish child had fought four Darkspawn even as the Taint burned through her veins. Duncan had not met a more promising recruit since finding Alistair in the Chantry. The thought that he might lose this one now was simply unacceptable. Regretting the necessity Duncan drew back one hand and slapped the girl full across the face. 'Answer me!'
Blue eyes snapped open, burning through the cobweb of tainted white. She stared up at Duncan and right through him. 'Tamlen……touched….the mirror……the mirror…..Tamlen……' She shuddered, almost convulsing and suddenly threw herself forward, heaving violently. Blood and bile and something far worse erupted from her in a choking steaming mass across the grass. Duncan held the girl by the forearms as her body attempted to cleanse itself of the Taint.
'The mirror…..they came from the mirror……' presently the girl stopped vomiting, stomach voided of all it could be. She slumped instantly limp against Duncan's arms. Duncan cradled her in his arms, the girl's eyelids fluttered and he shook her. 'Your camp girl; where are the Dalish?'
Her eyes could not focus on him but she managed to lift an arm and point towards the east. 'Past the river, over the rise….our hunters will find you first…..' she succumbed once more to unconsciousness.
Whispering a soft prayer to the Maker that the girl survived the trip back to her people, Duncan hefted the small elf in his arms and started off in the direction she had indicated. All through the journey he listened to the rasping of the girl's breathing and the unnatural silence of the forest. He could not sense any further Darkspawn but somehow he knew they were there. The Blight was upon Ferelden once more and to Duncan it seemed that the Archdemon itself breathed down his neck. Time was running out for them all and whether instinct or the desperate delusion of a man who knew himself not long from death, Duncan did not know, all he knew was that the girl in his arms could prove to be either the Grey Wardens salvation or their damnation.