The word echoed through the air as much as was possible in such a small cavern – which is to say, not at all. There was no ominous reverberation, no mysterious chorus chanting it with him just out of sight, no flames springing up at the mere whisper of it. In fact, with the rain splattering steadily in the dark wilds outside, the word was barely audible at all.
It did not seem very appropriate.
"Danarius. Danarius... Danarius."
The word stayed frustratingly mundane in sound, four empty syllables without meaning. No image, no face sprang to his mind upon saying it. And why would it be otherwise? It was a name, and names meant so very little, a label – no, not even that, for labels were useful - a string of sounds attached for convenience, to tie the labels together. "Slave", "elf", "pet", even "little wolf" - such titles were far more practical appellations for the truths they told, for how they gripped the heart of the issue.
The name rang hollow, and the wind howled outside. Leaned against an irritatingly slimy wall of the cavern, he growled in irritation.
A name like that should hold power, some inherent significance to denote the unique status of its bearer. It should not be mundane, should not feel like hundreds of Danariuses had lived in the past and hundreds more would live and die in the future, regular, mortal men unmarked by history, or marked and quickly wiped out by the forgetfulness of time. Not when it was the name of Master – Tevinter magister, a mage to be feared and respected - the driving force, like a sun shining brightly, in the lives of so many people, but first and foremost his own.
Only a fool would defy the sun. A fool would press on in the scathing noon heat when all others took cover. A fool would ignore the sun when it chose to hide and stumble into a ravine in his blindness. A fool would die.
The sun did as it pleased, and all others bowed to it and scrambled to adjust. Such was the order of things.
A fool would die, and deserve it.
So why had he run?
It had not been the first time he had been ordered to kill. It was not his place to judge or to question, only to obey. That was his purpose, after all. To serve and protect Master and fulfill every wish of a being so powerful, so shining strong, that shaped lives and gave so much purpose to others, or stripped them of it forever. That was what his markings were for – they had been given him to make him a better servant, a better protector, his memory of all the unnecessary details that had come before them removed so he would not waver, would not be distracted from his purpose for even a moment. If he did not serve Master, what good was he to anyone?
And yet he had run.
Master – Danarius, as odd as it felt to think of him as that – had a name. Master – Danarius – was many things beyond being that which his life revolved around. Mas-... Danarius... was a mortal, a human, a man, a connoisseur of fine wines, exotic sculpture, exotic skills, exotic people, runes, enchantment, and skillfully designed interiors. He devoted immaculate care to his beard and to preventing his hairline from retreating with age. The lines of his face grew ominously relaxed when he was about to order a beating, and his eyes narrowed when he smiled. And as much as it felt like he deserved a dozen lashes for even considering the thought, Master – no, Danarius – had once been a squealing baby grasping for his mother's tit, helpless and normal as the next human, dwarf or elf. Probably.
And if Master died this moment – he shuddered at the thought, for that was something he existed to prevent – the world would, largely, go on without him. The world was vast and varied. There were – and it still felt like such a blasphemy to consider it, yet he could not stop himself – countless people living with no knowledge or care for his existence.
The Fog Warriors.
Those first few weeks, after waking up among their midst...
They had had to be from a different world, surely. They lived alone, with no one else there to guide them, to direct them, independent – free, which was a novel word to consider. Yes, there had been some who obviously held more power than others, one way or another – but... there was no driving force in their lives, no sun that defined their existence with its whims of when to spread its rays, they had been... just there, living day in, day out, by the rules they had made up themselves and sometimes liberally changed... and far from depressingly pointless, their existence had seemed so fascinatingly joyful, both certain and full of uncertainty. It was a paradox to make his head ache, yet it had infected his mind, until he too had found himself standing up straighter, looking others unflinchingly in the eye, full of defiance that he knew – knew! - could not exist in this world, because it was not something Master permitted and in the natural order of things would lead to a beating and half a week without food – no, it was a myth, an indulgent fantasy. Like a snowflake tossed into a fire, it was too laughably fragile and volatile to last.
Months had gone by. It had lasted that long, at least. He had found himself enjoying the delicate rarity of such an impossible thing, respecting others and being respected in turn. Separated from Master, he had been lost, adrift at sea, and their impossible ways had been a beacon to swim towards.
They too had perished finally, dissolved by the heat of the sun they did not even know existed, when Master had returned for him. He had obeyed – how could he not? But if he had not... if... if he had disobeyed, or far simpler, if he had never come there, how much longer could their impossible life have held out? Months? Decades? Why not a life? It seemed only a matter of luck, after all...
When he had killed them... that was another world. There were things separate from Master – from Danarius! - principles, rules, simple truths – gratitude, respect, returning loyalty with loyalty – and without meaning to – he had only meant to do as was his purpose, nothing else – he had trodden all over them. He'd always known of those things, but when he was with Master, only Master's rules mattered. The other slaves usually had it differently – not compelled by duty to always shadow him, close at hand, they were farther from the sun, left to move more freely on their own amongst themselves – and his own strength of purpose had always been a barrier between him and them. "Cry me a river," the serving girl Eliana had muttered when he'd come stumbling into the kitchen one day, dizzy from too much of his lyrium-enhanced blood drained for a spell – and it was an honour, truly, to participate in such important research, but it did leave him unable to guard Master's side and sometimes he was worried that Master didn't know when to stop, and had said as much – but she'd scoffed and scowled at his markings, "As if he would ever risk killing you."
Probably not on purpose, he had to admit. The lyrium markings both attracted Master's attention as well as protected him from the worst of it – and was it not the ideal position? Called upon to render aid no-one else could, yet shielded from becoming useless to Master – yes, it was something to envy, and he did not hold the others' resentment against them. Of course, if a desperate battle called for his life to be spent to protect Master, Master would not hesitate, and rightly so. What did the life of one slave matter compared to such a force of nature? He deserved the highest loyalty and devotion – he was powerful, charismatic, everything a being could hope to be in life, and not without kindness. How often had he commanded that Hadriana leave him alone after a particularly taxing day, when she would want to practice her spells on him – all too well, since only so could he hope to strengthen his tolerance to pain and learn to exploit the magic-resisting abilities the markings granted him, only so could he hope to grow better, stronger, more effective at fulfilling his purpose and more important to the one being that mattered – but Hadriana was not always content to leave him alone for the night, and sometimes she lost sight of when she was doing more harm than good and it took a voice of reason like Master's to rein her in. Truly, he owed Master much. His place was at his Master's side, and such was the natural order of things, the only way it could be.
The Fog Warriors lay dead by his hand. If he had never been born, if he had never been left behind, if he had died on Seheron, if he had protected them, disobeyed – they might still be alive, and that was the simple truth of the matter. It did not seem right that such a delicate rarity as their captivating, rebellious nature and the forceful glare that was Master's presence could not co-exist in the same world... Was there a choice to be made by him? How could he choose? How could he even judge and compare both options, when he knew so little beyond life at Master's side?
He'd stood over their corpses, and something from outside that life had compelled him to run.
Master was surely furious, and had every right to be. He had disobeyed – disobeyed! And in the most unforgivable way – he was a bodyguard who had abandoned his charge. Like the Fog Warriors living at no-one's feet, it was a paradox, a ridiculous contradiction. The only way to fail more completely in his purpose would've been to reach into Master's chest and tear out his heart himself.
He caught himself in horror at that thought. It had, until that moment, seemed unthinkable, but now he reminded himself that Master – no, no, he had a name, he was Danarius - was a tangible, physical human being, and there was only so much his magic could do, and it would, hypothetically, be possible to do just that. If he chose to do so. Of course, he never would – but the mere fact that the possibility existed was horrifyingly fascinating, like a forest fire one can't quite look away from.
"Danarius," he muttered again, angry at himself for forgetting, though not yet quite sure why. What purpose did it serve to think of his master as a mortal being, with flaws and limitations? None at all.
It served even less purpose to sit there hiding in a cave when he should be at Master's side, yet there he was. He should be running back to find him and beg forgiveness for his moment of weakness this same moment. What was wrong with him?
Forgiveness? An unexpectedly resentful, alien part of him flared up, spitting the word with the proud temper of the warriors who had rescued him, the warriors he had killed. Surely it was they he would have need to ask for forgiveness, after he had repaid his hospitality with sharp steel in their flesh? It did not matter at the master's side, but it was not their way, and he suspected it was not the way of most of the world, either. It was confusing and complicated, and a part of him longed for the simplicity of his life with Master, but yet another part strived for understanding.
That much, he could accept. It was his duty to grasp and solve any problem that interfered with his purpose, after all. He would not go back yet... Master needed him, yet he also needed to understand what had happened that day to make him turn and run – if only to ensure that he would never fall prey to such weakness again. If he went back now, it would remain a mystery and a danger forever. He could not allow that. It was presumptious, even arrogant, to think he could judge such things for himself, but he was the bodyguard and his charge wasn't, surely there were some things he had to know better? Master – the master – Danarius – was powerful and brilliant, but that brilliance did not extend in all directions, or many of the people he surrounded himself with would have been proven obsolete.
With some amount of satisfaction, he decided that answer was good enough for the time being.
"Danarius," he said one more time, testing the sound on his tongue. Gradually, slowly but surely, the name and the face and the memories and the tight-lipped smile were coming together to form meaning in a coherent whole. It was progress – and soon, he would find out exactly towards what. He would be a danger to his master no longer and would finally be able to return to his side with a clear conscience. There were worse compromises to imagine.
Something stirred in the corner of his eye and he saw a mouse sitting motionlessly a dozen feet away, staring at him. He imagined how ridiculous he must seem to any observer – a white-haired elf in soaked and torn clothing saying the same name over and over again – and found himself hesitantly chuckling, then shaking his head at the inanity of it all. He stopped himself before he could feel tempted to explain himself to the mouse.
Someone screamed outside.
He shot to his feet, hesitated, then darted outside and towards the source of the faint noise, habit and instinct driving his steps. Bounding through undergrowth in the dark, he found an old human man cowering in front of a cart, beset by an enraged bear, another body – apparently an unsuccessful bodyguard – sprawled not far away. The bear was taller than him, its maw already marred with blood, and his own "armour" consisted only of wet and dirty rags, but he had faced down more fearsome beasts and won without suffering a scratch. In that much, he could take pride. He drew his greatsword, yelled at the bear to get its attention, dodged a furious charge and very soon the creature lay dead at his feet.
The human he had saved – a merchant – was grateful enough to offer him the money he had on him as a reward, and request to be escorted to the town he was travelling to in exchange for the promise of a greater reward once they got there – though the explanation that he felt intimidated and wanted to provide an incentive not to shake him down for more money felt more plausible than simple generosity.
After some hesitation, he accepted the offer and even revealed the cavern nearby. He felt little reason to worry – the merchant did want to be protected from any further bears or bandits, after all. They spent the night taking shelter in the cave and reached the town by the end of the next day.
As Fenris walked through the dusty street of the market with the jingle of new coins in his purse and his sword strapped reliably to his back, watching men and women shut down their stalls, he could not help but feel strangely uplifted. A golden-haired little human girl pointed at him and smiled, waving. Despite himself, he awkwardly smiled back.
He had been there to protect the merchant – his name was Dominic, he'd learned, and while it was only a name it was also no more and no less than a name – when another had failed, and as a result, countless people in this town could enjoy their shipment of spicy herbs – a useless luxury, but one that was apparently important to them. If he had not been there, if he had not heard the cry, if he had not responded, if he had failed – the bear would have torn the merchant apart as it did the bodyguard, and that was the simple truth of the matter.
Walking through the town to choose his lodgings for the night, by himself, for once with no considerations of his master's safety coursing through his mind, Fenris admitted that there was a sort of giddy enjoyment in that sort of meaningless wandering, and that maybe meaningless was not a bad thing. Day in, day out. Killing bears, rescuing merchants, earning money, choosing whether he'd prefer to sleep in the shabby inn or the stables, and not being quite sure how to decide. It was... possible to imagine. And who was to say there couldn't be more to this, some greater purpose that had nothing to do with magic or upholding the power of the Imperium and hovering behind his master like a shadow?
Danarius could wait. Fenris had to understand the truth.
If perhaps, just perhaps, a man could choose his own sun.