This story is rather different in tone to my others, and has no connection to my other Dragon Age story. As usual, I own almost nothing, and reviews are always welcome.
Chapter One: Oaths
Beneath the high arches of the trees the day wore on, and the wind soughing in from the north turned rough. With his feet braced against curling bark and his shoulders flat against the spreading width of the branch beneath him, Darrian breathed in the early evening chill. He remembered the empty stone halls beneath the earth, and the pale elven spirits that had called out in thin, high voices. He closed his eyes and willed away the thought of them, and the werewolves that had lived in the caverns there, and the terrible revenge Zathrian had sought against them.
It was done, he thought, finished and done and the clan was safe, and there was little else to worry over.
Somewhere below, he heard footsteps, cautious and agile and a little too deliberately loud.
"I'm up here."
"Yes, I can see that," Zevran answered. "I am tempted to ask why."
He sat up and winced when something in his back pulled. "Am I needed?"
"Urgently. For dinner." Zevran tilted his head. "What are you doing?"
"Not very well, my Warden." Zevran smiled, and it was that smile again, rapid and dazzling. "Will you be coming down, or must I strain my neck in order to enjoy looking at you?"
Darrian snorted and vaulted down off the branch. His heels hit the ground too sharply, and he swayed. "You enjoy looking at anything," he said, to try and distract himself from the sudden lurching dizziness. "Is everything alright?"
"No, we have not all been horribly slaughtered in your absence," Zevran said. "Disappointed?"
He dreamed that night of the thing that looked like a dragon. It twisted above him in a sky the colour of wet slate, and when it opened its jaws, he tried to run. He tried to push himself away from it, but he could not, and his legs buckled. He lay there, his hands clenching against cold stone, and he could not move, not even when its song filled his head and his thoughts and his mouth until he knew nothing else.
He woke, and pushed the heels of his hands against his eyes until his heartbeat slowed. Angrily, he kicked the blankets aside. In the darkness he fumbled for his breeches and hauled them on with hands that shook slightly.
Outside, the bright dance of the fire chased away the shadows. When he listened, he could hear the wind and the creaking of the trees and the small, simple sounds of the night.
"Can't sleep?" Alistair lifted his head. He sat near the flames, the dog curled up near his feet, and his face full of fluttering shadows.
Darrian nodded heavily. He sat, and almost without thinking, he pressed his fingers against the dog's thick fur. "It was singing to me."
Alistair did not smile. "I know. Sometimes I just see it, and sometimes I hear it talking to the others. Not talking. Sounds. You know what I mean. Those sounds."
He did, and when he thought of them, his stomach knotted. "Yes."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"No. Not really." He sighed. "I just…why did I have to dream it now? Is it even halfway to dawn?"
"No." Alistair grinned ruefully. "Shame the archdemon has no sense of propriety when invading our dreams, hmm? Couldn't wait until you'd got a few good hours in? Shameful. Rude, even."
"Only because I don't want to hurt your feelings." Darrian grinned and scraped his hands through his loose hair. "Why don't you give it a try?"
"Sleeping," he said, and shot the man a pointed glare. "I won't be able to, and there's no sense in both of us sitting around out here."
He remembered the thing's song, and how it had rippled through him, as slow and as steady as the beat of his own blood. "I'm sure."
Alistair nodded and left him to the flames and the night and the dog's warm, welcome presence. He dug his fingertips gently against the soft patches behind the dog's ears and was rewarded with a sigh and a shiver. He curled himself a little closer to the dog's solid bulk and tried not to think about the cold brush of the amulet at his throat, and the gleam of darkspawn blood trapped in the glass there.
"On watch does not mean watching the dog, my dear Warden," Zevran murmured from somewhere behind him.
He stirred, and turned, and managed a tired smile. "I didn't hear you."
"I noticed." The assassin sat with easy, fluid grace. "What I do not notice is your fellow Grey Warden."
"I couldn't sleep, so I took Alistair's watch." Something flickered in the assassin's eyes, not quite sympathy, almost curiosity, and Darrian added, "And the forest is loud. At night."
Zevran grinned. "Haunted as well, or so they say."
He remembered the mist, and how it had flickered and twisted between the high branches. The still pools between the trees had been mirror-bright, and he remembered the wind as it keened, and the strange stone walls beneath the ground, high and white between the roots of the trees.
"I'd never seen a forest like this until I left Denerim with Duncan."
"Why would I have? I grew up in Denerim." He stared down at his own hands, still wreathed across the dog's shoulder. "When I was younger, I used to sit on the roof of my father's house and I'd watch the city go all quiet at night. Or as quiet as it used to get. The ruins," Darrian said, and shrugged. "I didn't know they would look like that."
"Yes," he said, and tried to ignore the strange ache in his chest. "I don't know. Did you see the shapes on the walls? The carved shapes?"
"I didn't know whether they were letters or pictures. Not that I would've been able to read them, either way."
The dog sighed and rolled over, and Darrian rubbed his hand across the dog's broad nose. He noticed Zevran's slightly perplexed expression, and demanded, "What?"
"Oh, I don't know. I simply do not relish the prospect of introducing my hands to that monster's fleas."
"He doesn't have fleas."
"You're certain of this, are you?" Zevran rested his chin on one hand. "You are very tired, my Grey Warden. You need to sleep."
"We spent yesterday neck-deep in werewolves, my friend, and there lies a long walk ahead of us on the morrow. If you are so obstinately set on wearing yourself out, I am sure there are more enjoyable ways of achieving this, hmm?"
"Yes," Darrian said, and found himself returning the assassin's smile. "But not tonight."
"Oh," Zevran said. "Is that a promise, or a threat?"
He laughed. "Which would you prefer?"
"You taunt me with your words."
"You're an easy target." Darrian patted the dog's neck again and rolled onto his side. Against his lips, the night air was cool. "Six months ago I wanted nothing more than to get out of Denerim."
"I don't know," he answered, honestly.
"Is it truly so awful, my Warden? You live, and in freedom, of a sort."
"I suppose." He thought of Soris, and Shianni, and the day everything had changed. "If I wasn't here I'd be locked up, I suppose. Or dead."
"See? Fate is a cruel and teasing mistress, my Warden, but sometimes her favours fall where they should." The corners of Zevran's mouth curled up into another grin. "And this way, you are blessed with my inestimable company, yes?"
"Blessed or cursed."
The assassin's hands lifted, slim and agile, and Darrian noticed again the small scars that twined across the back of one, disappearing down his forearm.
"You have only yourself to blame," the assassin said. "You spared my life."
"Only to get you to shut up," he retorted mildly.
"Oh, you are a cruel man, my friend. Such cutting words, and from such a lovely mouth. Now," Zevran added, his voice still bland, "While I cannot admit to entirely wanting you to leave me to my own thoughts, it is late. I do not wish to be accused of attempting to assassinate you by way of lack of sleep."
He remembered those first days, terse and impatient, when the others watched the assassin ceaselessly, and Wynne would not let him close to her herb pouches, when even Morrigan eyed him askance. When it had been assumed that the assassin would not be taking watches overnight, when it had been argued out that maybe he should be made to give up his weapons.
"And have him gutted by the first darkspawn, bandit or angry bear that jumps out at him?" Darrian scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Alistair, don't be absurd."
"I'm not," the Warden said, and scowled. "At least, I'm not trying to be. I just…I suppose I don't understand it."
"Well, we were both perfectly happy with the Chantry girl who speaks to the Maker and the qunari who was imprisoned for murder. What's different?"
"Well, when you put it like that." Alistair sighed. He shrugged, and added, "I'm sorry. I don't mean to question, or, you know…"
"It's just, we are the only Grey Wardens around. I'd really hate to be the only one if something happens to you."
"Yes," Darrian said, and nudged him. "You'd have to make all the big grown-up decisions yourself."
"Oh, very funny. Here I am, worrying about your life, and you mock me."
"Look," Alistair said, heavily. "If you think it's alright, then it's alright."
He smiled then, and nodded. "Alistair?"
"Yes, well. Us struggling heroes have to stick together."
"Yes," Darrian said, and he remembered Ostagar, and how the sky had been filled with fire and the sound of men dying. He remembered how Alistair had hauled him away from the sweep of the darkspawn's axe, how the man had turned and let his shield absorb the terrible, shuddering impact. "We do."
"You won't," he said. "Be accused, I mean."
Zevran tilted his head to one side. "Let us not test your strange trust of your followers, hmm?"
He groaned and pushed up to his feet. The assassin was right, he supposed, and when he crawled back beneath the blankets, he felt the aching tiredness again. How long, he wondered, how long had it been since he had been able to fall into sleep easily?
He pushed his way out of the tent and into the brisk chill of the early morning. Smoke plumed up from the last glow of the fire, and he noticed the assassin sitting poised on the flat rock.
The assassin turned, and the gently curving lines on his face shifted slightly when he smiled. "Ah. My Warden."
"Why do you call me that? I do have a name."
"It is what you are, is it not?"
"Yes," he said, and hopped up onto the rock beside him. "It's not what I've always been. Are you alright?"
The assassin's head came up. "Why would I not be?"
Darrian looked at him, at the shadows around his eyes. The smile beneath was bright and edged, and he wondered again what the assassin had left behind, what he had done. "I don't know. I just wanted to know."
"Oh." One side of his mouth slid up, and he added, "Thank you, Darrian."
Out of the forest, the days broke clear and crisp. The road ran west, twining through low hills that lay brown and folded beneath the pale sky. The afternoons often brought rain, falling in quick, chill bursts from grey clouds, and Zevran huddled beneath his cloak and silently cursed the climate. The mountains and Orzammar lay ahead, he supposed, and after that, Denerim, and he wondered what they might find there. He would be hunted, he knew, and he wondered again why he had tried quite so hard to prod the Warden into accepting his services.
Almost without thinking, he let himself look across the uneven, damp ground to where the Warden walked. Careful, light-footed steps, and one hand on his sword hilt. Loose black hair brushed his shoulders, and Zevran eyed him for another admiring moment.
He woke to sudden, sharp pain, and he gritted his teeth. The sunlight seemed too viciously bright. There were ropes around his wrists, and others lashed around his ankles, and his weapons were gone. Blood, and he could feel it, seeping hot from the gouge just beneath his collarbone. There were other marks on him as well, the clinging ache of bruises along both shoulders, the raw sting of scrapes on one arm and down the back of one calf muscle.
"Is he awake?"
"Sit him up."
"This isn't wise," someone else said, male and young and rough.
"I just want to talk to him."
Hard hands dug into his shoulders and lifted him. His stomach somersaulted horribly, and he held on until he was aware of the ground beneath his knees. He could smell mud and metal and the coppery tang of his own blood, filling his mouth.
Some shadow moved in front of him, and resolved slowly into the angled face of the elven Warden. He was flushed, his temples running with sweat, and some part of Zevran's mind wondered why no one had informed him that at least one of his targets was rather easy on the eyes. Painfully, he looked at the other one, the tall, broad-shouldered man, and noted that beneath his scowl, he was also pleasantly handsome, all brown eyes and thick gold-brown hair and high cheekbones.
Still, the elf had proved quick enough with his blade, and Zevran remembered how the sword had batted past his and sunk beneath his collarbone, how the human Warden's shield had thumped into his shoulder, how one of them had kicked his feet out and sent him sprawling.
"Oh," he managed, and saw the elven Warden frown, black eyebrows drawing together. "I rather thought I would wake up dead. Or not wake up at all."
How long had it been, he wondered, since that day? He had spoken the words that had saved him from the death he thought he had wanted, and the elven Warden had smiled. A strange smile, a smile that did not quite reach his pale blue eyes.
He breathed in, and the air against his tongue was damp and cool. He looked at the Warden again, at the tilt of his head and the set of his shoulders, and for a small and delightful moment, he allowed his thoughts to wander.
Under sweeping curtains of grey rain, the road curled through a high stand of trees, and there, where it twisted sharply past the sweep of an old ash, the darkspawn attacked. They attacked as they always did, throwing themselves forward quickly and viciously, until Zevran could hear nothing past the thunder of their feet and the scream of their swords.
He knew about the poison, the taint that lived somewhere in their blood, so he was careful, as careful as he dared.
The bright ripple of Morrigan's spells sent them reeling back, and the rain hissed against them when they burned. He twisted beneath the downswing of an axe, and his follow-up kick sent the creature sprawling against Alistair's shield. He turned again, and his heel slid. He pushed on, and when he saw the other Warden, hemmed in on both sides, he quickened his pace. A crackling, pale spell swept one darkspawn to its knees, and he sank both blades into the back of its neck.
Darrian grinned raggedly, and turned too slowly. Half a step behind, Zevran saw the other darkspawn's sword snake past the Warden's. He drove his sword into the darkspawn's flank and cracked the pommel of his dagger against the back of its head. When it swayed, Darrian buried his sword in its belly and held on until it toppled, the sword ripping free.
"Warden?" Zevran ignored the fallen darkspawn. "You're bleeding."
"I'm fine," he said. He took a step, and blanched. "Oh."
"Yes, fine," Zevran muttered, and caught his arm. "Obviously fine, my Warden. Come. You need healing before you splash more of your own blood onto the ground."
Through the pounding rain he saw Wynne, the point of her staff glowing silver, and Alistair, one side of his armour spattered with mud and grime.
"What happened?" Alistair squinted. "Is he alright?"
Wynne reached him, and wordlessly she helped him steady the Warden. He eased Darrian's arm around his neck, and pried the sword from his other hand. The Warden was shivering in great, heaving tremors that shook his whole frame. When his knees gave way, Zevran took his weight against one shoulder and pushed on through the rain that tracked cold ribbons past his eyes.
The earth was wet and slippery and no fire would catch around the damp wood, and even when Morrigan set it ablaze, the rain pattered it out and sent smoke twisting through the chill air. Zevran paced, too aware of how his sodden hair hung around his neck, and too aware of the silence across the small glade.
"He's sleeping," Alistair said eventually, and his voice was rough. "He'll be alright. Are you hungry?"
He summoned a smile, and retorted, "For the kind of food you cook? You make a poor case for the offering."
The rain did not ease as the evening fell into dusk, and Zevran noticed the Warden's absence until the impatience that prickled under his skin made him push up to his feet. He left his barely-finished plate beside the dog and ignored Alistair's plaintive shout. He waited out the sunset, the folds of his cape heavy and dripping around his shoulders until he gave up and heaved it off.
"I thought you said you liked the rain," Darrian said, from somewhere behind him.
Zevran turned, and tried to ignore the slight relief that broke through him. "Oh? You see through me so easily, my Grey Warden?"
"You look about as pleased as a soaked cat." Darrian grinned, lopsidedly.
"I do like rain. The warm rains of Antiva. Not this," he muttered, and brushed droplets off the straggling ends of his hair. "You are still alive, I see."
"With the way you walked into that darkspawn's sword, yes," he said, a little sharper than intended.
Darrian scowled and pushed a hand through his hair. Thick black hair, Zevran noticed again, and spilling through his pale fingers like silk. "I know," the Warden said, eventually. "It was a mistake. Stupid mistake."
"And just a few weeks ago your fellow Grey Warden was telling me all about how heroically you scaled the tower at Ostagar."
"Well, we ran through it, crashing into darkspawn along the way. I wouldn't say we scaled it. And we both got shot with more than a couple of arrows each."
"If we hadn't," Darrian said, acidly, "You would've missed your opportunity to run away from the Crows."
He wanted to snarl back at the Warden, but the young elf was healing and tired, and frustratingly, he was probably right. "Hmm, true," he murmured. "And who knows? My next target may have been neither as benevolent nor as handsome as the one who showed me such mercy."
The Warden groaned. He propped himself awkwardly on the uneven sprawl of a fallen branch. "You never stop, do you?"
"My dear Warden, I am soaked to the skin and shivering, but never let it be said that Zevran cannot find something to smile about. Besides, I gave you my word, no?"
"Yes," Darrian said, thoughtfully. "You did."
He looked across the green swathe of the glade, to where Sten stood on watch, his profile fierce against the gloom. No fire broke the twilight, and when he glanced back at the Warden, he saw the deep shadows beneath his eyes. His loose shirt clung to his shoulders, patched and wet with the rain, and again Zevran recognized the lean, spare frame of a man who had been running, and running for too long.
"My father once said that words are the most powerful things we possess, even when everything else is taken away from us," Darrian said quietly.
Zevran almost let himself snipe back with something about his own father, about how he had never known the man, and why should he have, coming from the place he did?
"I swore to Duncan, when we left Denerim," the Warden said, in the same soft tone. "I swore that I would stay alive."
"Did he demand such a thing of you?"
"No. He didn't even ask it. We were attacked, maybe seven days out of the city. I'd never been that far out of the city before." The corners of his mouth moved. "They were just bandits. Scared men. Scared human men, and I killed them. After they were dead, I swore to Duncan that I would stay alive, and that I'd come back to Denerim."
"And will you?" Zevran asked, to fill the silence, to change the strange thoughtfulness in the Warden's blue eyes. "Soaking wet and half-recovered?"
"Of course, if another darkspawn doesn't get me first." The smile resurfaced then, edged and slightly vicious. "And besides, isn't that what your oath was for? To make sure that doesn't happen?"
"Yes," Zevran said, and found that whatever he had wanted to say locked up in his throat. "It was. Though I cannot hope to prove useful when you insist on walking directly into the swords of your enemies."
"You're right." Darrian grimaced, and when he pushed up to his feet, the lines around his eyes tightened. "You'll let me know if we get ambushed, I hope?"
"In this weather? Even your darkspawn will have gone to ground, if they are at all sensible." He watched as the Warden turned away, and he noticed how the Warden's hands twisted together, white and slender. "But if such a tragedy should come to pass, have no fear, my Grey Warden. I know where you sleep."