Author's Notes: Acckkkk. I don't know how to apologize enough for not updating this story in so long. It was never my intent to abandon it, but, well... That's pretty much what happened. I'm really sorry about that, and for anyone still following along, I really appreciate your patience and support. It means a lot.
I still really want to continue this story to the end. That said, considering my history with writing it as of late, I don't know what my update schedule will be like. I hope to start updating more frequently now that I feel some of my steam coming back for this story, but I just don't know for certain yet.
In other news, during this hiatus, I've gone back and reviewed the previous chapters numerous times. Most every chapter has had some changes made to a more or lesser extent, though nothing seriously plot-changing. I hope it all reads much better now!
Again, thank you very much for your support and feedback, everyone. I really appreciate it. I hope you enjoy this new chapter!
Edit: Also, if you've read David Gaider's The Stolen Throne, you might know what tree I'm talking about, haha.
Chapter 21: The Terrible Tree Twist
It was the next morning – the sun shining, the blanket of snow through the forest all aglitter, and everything not screaming death and gloom for once – that Alistair discovered the other reason why Solona had steered their group south.
She had gone to see Flemeth.
He hadn't known at first, not even suspected it in fact. He'd suspected other things, but not that. Some news about the blood mage Jowan, perhaps, or that she'd found out where that Anders fellow had disappeared off to at long last. But not Flemeth. After they'd left the witch, picking their way through the Korcari Wilds for Lothering what seemed like a small lifetime ago, he'd thought they'd seen the last of her.
In hindsight, he supposed it was too good to be true. Though with a Blight to deal with and Ferelden falling to pieces around them, most anything good could fall into that category.
No, he didn't realize anything was amiss – until he woke to a stick being jabbed into his cheek.
With a groan, he shoved it away and blearily opened his eyes. The sun was bright and high, shining brilliantly even through the roof of his tent, and he winced. He pressed a hand over his face as he contemplated simply slipping back off to sleep, stick or no.
But there he suddenly stopped. The sun was shining through the roof of his tent? That couldn't be right. That would put the time at late morning, possibly even close to noon, and they always rose around dawn. They had a camp to dismantle, pots and dishes to collect, and supplies to load; they didn't have the time to sleep in. And he knew for a fact that no one had asked for a rest day in the darkspawn-infested Wilds.
The stick poked him again, this time against his arm. "Blast you, Alistair – get up already!"
He stiffened. He knew that voice!
He whipped his hand off of his face and looked to the front of his tent with a grimace. "Maker's breath, Morrigan, what do you want?" he grumbled. "And what's more, what are you doing in here?"
She wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Trust me, 'tis not my first choice of place either," she replied. "But Solona and the others have not yet come back, and I… I…" She hesitated, frowning. "And it is most strange of them not to return by the time she said they would." Her tone made it clear they hadn't left for a little early-morning hunting.
He was throwing off his blankets and furs before she'd finished. "What?" he gasped. "Where are they? What happened?"
In his mind, he began running through a list of equipment to grab: sword, shield, boots, pants- No, wait, he slept in his pants, and thank the Maker for that or he would have given Morrigan an eyeful.
"Calm yourself, Alistair," she said, though he couldn't help but notice that she sounded somewhat unnerved herself. "You will not find them by charging blindly into the forest. Gather what you need, and then come out to the center of camp. I shall explain there."
She turned and, with a few shuffling steps, left. It took him only slightly longer to get his things – he hesitated over taking up Duncan's sword, then decided his own would serve well enough – and follow after.
Outside, he found that "Solona and the others" didn't mean "Solona and everyone besides Morrigan and himself," as he had initially feared. Bodahn and Sandal nervously fussed with the supplies in the cart, and the horse whickered and stamped its hooves next to them. Leliana stood near the ashy remains of last night's campfire, her bow already strung and a quiver of arrows hanging at her side. If she felt cold only in her leather armor and a single cloak, she didn't show it. Wynne, dressed in her warmer though considerably heavier robes, was by Zevran's tent, arguing with the elf.
The very runny-nosed, pink-cheeked, and six-layers-of-blankets-bedecked elf, that was. "Just give me a moment and I will… ah… ah… ah-choo! I will come with you," he said as he fished through his pack. "I only need – snnfffff – my daggers and-"
"Zevran, listen to me," Wynne said. She laid her hands on his shoulders and gently pulled him away from his things. "You are ill. You must stay here and rest. We've already discussed this."
"Hardly a discussion, I would say," he replied, shrugging off her touch. "If my memory is correct, you simply told me. You never asked what I thought."
"And, besides which, what will the others think?" He laughed, a forced, wheezing sound. "'Oh, there is Zevran sleeping again, that old lazy-bones. These days he can't even stick a mark, one way or another! And-'"
Wynne returned her hands to his shoulders and whispered something in his ear that Alistair couldn't make out.
Zevran stiffened, but only for a moment. He turned to look at her with a skeptical eye. "My darling Wynne, I don't believe-"
Again, the mage murmured to him, and this time his brow furrowed.
With a huff, he threw his hands into the air. "Very well, have it your way," he muttered. Then, with a rather sharp motion, he shut his bag and threw it back into his tent. After a curt, "You shall hear no more from sick Zevran," he followed in after it.
Wynne straightened with a smile and smoothly strode back to the center of camp. "I knew he would see reason," she said.
Alistair eyed the tent suspiciously. He couldn't believe Zevran would leave the matter at that. At least not without slipping in a minimum of three innuendos before he did.
Then again, perhaps he was only being paranoid. Solona had told him before he was a bit of a worrywart.
His chest tightened in concern again. Maker, please let her be safe, he thought.
As it turned out, Alistair had little time to dwell on the subject. A few seconds later, Morrigan stepped out of Oghren's tent with a grimace. "Never mind him," she ground out, more to herself than to anyone else. "Waking the dead would be easier."
Remembering Ostagar and Redcliffe, Alistair wondered for a moment if such a thing wasn't as far off as she assumed.
Then Zevran sneezed hard enough to shake the walls of his tent, and his mind returned to the present.
Alistair quickly tallied up their number once more. Aside from Solona herself, only Sten, Shale, and the mabari hound remained missing. The realization of who she had taken with her swam uneasily in his stomach.
"Well, I believe that is enough pleasantries," Morrigan said, stepping into the center of camp. "As I've already said, several of our member are missing, including our leader. They left some time ago, around an hour after dawn I believe. Now normally I would not pay this much mind but…" Again, her voice wavered slightly as her eyebrows drew together. "But they have gone to see my mother."
Bewilderment overtook the worry roiling in Alistair's gut. Your mother? he thought. What could they possibly want with your mother? He had assumed the witch had left the Wilds ages ago, as any sane person would in the direct path of a Blight.
His confusion was also shared by Wynne and Leliana, though not for the same reasons.
"Your mother?" Wynne said, an eyebrow raised high.
"Yes, my mother," Morrigan replied, casting a sharp look at the mage. "I do have one, you realize."
"Isn't your mother a Witch of the Wilds?" Leliana asked.
At that, Morrigan unsteadily pinched her neckplace between her forefinger and thumb. "Yes, she is," she replied, twisting the golden chain, "and I have asked Solona to kill her."
"Kill her!" Alistair cried. "Why in Andraste's name would you want her dead? She saved us!"
"Saved Solona and you," Morrigan corrected with narrowed eyes. "But not me, no."
What followed was a quick but illuminating explanation of exactly what Morrigan had found in that creepy grimoire Solona had given her a small age ago. That, and what the two had been discussing late into the evening for the past several weeks, which sometimes Alistair had half-jokingly assumed were criticisms about his hair.
Hint: It hadn't been about it his hair. Or at least most of it hadn't.
No, it had simply been more doom and gloom. Well, more specifically, Morrigan's doom, in a manner of speaking. Which wasn't quite so gloomy in Alistair's opinion, but he wasn't about to say that out loud.
"And so now you understand why I have woken you," Morrigan said. "They are undoubtedly locked in battle with my mother as we speak. I cannot go with you, but I can give you a ring that will show you the way."
With that, she pulled a small band of what looked like plain copper out of her satchel.
Then she strode over and handed it to – eurgh – him. His desire to find Solona safe and sound made him accept the piece of jewelry without complaint.
"Think of the hut you saw, Alistair," Morrigan told him, "and you shall find Flemeth. And with her, the others as well."
Well, at least he didn't have to wear the thing.
The three of them – Wynne, Leliana, and himself – strode off into the forest with him heading the way. As the camp quickly disappeared behind them, he considered making a quip about his leading skills, but the joke turned sour from the worry blistering in his chest and died in his throat.
Instead he thought of the last time he had seen Flemeth's home, of its moss-choked roof, its ivy-smothered walls, and a strange, cloying smell he'd never managed to quite identify. He imagined it looked somewhat different now in the dead of winter, likely covered in snow and the plants all withered, but that was the image that stuck in his mind. He focused on it, and as he did the ring seemed to pull him along. For once, he forced down all of the doubts he had about the raven-haired witch and simply trusted her.
Solona, Sten, Shale, the mabari hound – they had to help them. An image of Solona flashed in his mind, her dark hair and eyes, the way a genuine smile spread across her lips and crinkled her eyes. He worried if they would all be alive and well, if they'd still be fighting like Morrigan thought, and then of what they'd be fighting.
He frowned as he recalled they had never found a real explanation for the whole arriving-in-the-nick-of-time bit. Really, he'd been happy enough they'd both gotten out alive. But now the mystery dawned on him anew and more than a little ominous. How had Flemeth reached them all the way at the top of the tower? And, what's more, how had she managed to carry off two fully-grown people? It seemed an impossible task.
Then he realized with a start that the ring had stopped leading him, and he returned his focus to Flemeth's hut.
In short time, they found themselves in familiar ground. Well, familiar to Alistair, at any rate. Despite the frost and snow, he still remembered the half-circle formation of rocks, the sharp bend in a tree trunk, the tall evergreen split in two and barren of needles, probably dead from a lightning strike.
And, of course, the fog.
He impatiently waved at it with a grimace, but even before he had finished he knew it was a futile endeavor.
"Calm, Alistair," Wynne gently said from behind him. "Focus, and we will find them."
With a sigh, he nodded and kept on, the soft crunching of their boots in the snow the only sound for several minutes. Then he heard it: a faint, unearthly roar off in the distance. Like something of that between the bellow of a bull and the scream of a hawk. He pocketed the ring before drawing his sword alongside his shield and picking up his pace, and he heard Wynne and Leliana follow suit.
The roaring grew steadily louder, until – almost before he quite realized it – they were bursting through a line of scraggly vegetation and out into the open.
To his horror, a high dragon stood near the hut, perching on the lip of the small hill in the marsh. It was a gigantic creature, greater and more imposing than any story could have prepared him for. The length of it covered the plateau from edge to edge, and its wings stretched high enough to easily match a three-story building. Thick, red scales – some as long as his forearm – covered it from head to toe. As Shale charged into its side, Sten cut a deep gash into a leg, and Captain tore into a foot, it recoiled with a shriek that was not entirely unhuman. Alistair shuddered at the sound.
Then the beast turned and lashed out with its tail at the three. The mabari leapt aside and the golem weathered the blow, but it caught the qunari square in the middle, sending him flying back and into the side of the wooden shack. With a growl, Shale caught the dragon's tail and yanked at it, sending the creature crashing to the ground. An arrow from Leliana flew past Alistair and struck the beast in the eye, and again it roared, this time an enraged scream like that of a woman's.
Alistair ignored it and, seeing the opening, charged up the hill and to the dragon. With a leap, he got a foothold on the tail, just a bit above where Shale was gripping it, and then he was running further up. Past the creature's flank, across its back, between the wings, and, Maker, he was absolutely, bloody insane for doing this but the head was right there and-
The dragon suddenly twisted out from underneath him, and only by some stroke of luck did he manage to sink his blade deep into its hide and hang on.
A moment later, a great gust of air rushed over him, beating against him from both sides, and then another came, and then another. Looking back he saw its immense wings clawing at the air. The dragon was trying to take flight.
All right, he thought. Getting on the back of a high dragon was not one of my better ideas.
He tightened his hold on his sword and fervently hoped it wouldn't slip out. The beast leapt into the air, flapping its wings once, twice-
Then a boulder hit the dragon in the shoulder, knocking it back to the ground. Alistair slid across to its side from the force of the attack, and he scrambled to crawl his way back up. For a moment he was glad he had not had the time to don his heavy armor. The lack of weight combined with the strength he'd built up made the task take only a few seconds, and then he was climbing up the beast's neck with his sword in hand.
The dragon struggled to right itself with its wounded side, and it failed to notice his approach. At least not until he had his legs wrapped around its neck and was practically pounding his sword against its skull.
It screamed again and threw its head back, but he tightened his grip and held on with a grimace.
As it swung its head down in ready to try tossing him off again, he held up his sword with its point facing down towards its forehead. With a silent prayer, he watched as the beast began to throw its head back once more.
Then he thrust his blade down, and the steel length, met by the force of the dragon's thrashing, punched through the skull with a sickening crunch.
The high dragon's eyes rolled back, and it dropped to the ground with an earth-shaking thud.
The peat of the marsh absorbed its collapse only slightly, and Alistair found himself thrown off and into the dirt as well. He instinctively rolled to help absorb the impact, and once he stopped, he was relieved to find himself without any injury.
Which was more than could be said for others.
"Maker's breath, Sten, are you all right?" Wynne cried as she approached the hut.
The giant grunted, stirring slightly against the wall as the mage knelt down next to him. But he made no attempt to wave her off, and he seemed otherwise unaware of her presence. She cast a healing hand over him, but to little effect.
With wide eyes, she suddenly looked up and asked, "Where's Solona?"
The question hit Alistair like a bucket of cold water. Solona. He hadn't seen her at all during the fight. He quickly swept his eyes about the clearing for a prone form, but no hint of her patched bronze robes crossed his gaze. His stomach dropped as he looked back at the fallen high dragon.
It hadn't eaten her, had it?
Captain abruptly barked, and he turned his attention to the mabari. The hound was running circles around a large oak tree about several paces' distance from the shack. It was a rather odd tree, he realized now that he had a chance to study his surroundings. It was one of several others, all notable for the fact that, despite the deep winter chill around them, they had their leaves. This particular one, though, was especially remarkable, for it was also shaking ever so slightly.
The mabari hound barked again, leaping upon the trunk of the tree and scratching at it.
Then, faintly, he heard from within its boughs: "I'm up here!"
Alistair immediately ran over to it and then looked up. High above, entangled thoroughly in the branches and half-caught in shadows, was Solona Amell. A rather well-chewed branch hung near her mouth, likely the reason for her prior silence. Other than that, though, she appeared in good shape. Well, save for her furrowed brow and the flush burning at her cheeks.
But, just to be sure, he called up to her, "Solona, are you hurt at all?"
"Only a wounded sense of pride," she muttered. Then, glancing back towards the hut, she shouted, "How's Sten?"
"Bad," Wynne replied. "I need to get him out of this marsh and somewhere dry where I can work on him."
"Take him into the hut. It should be safe now," Solona said.
"I can't," the elder mage said, shaking her head. "He's too heavy. I-"
"Allow me," Shale said as she strode forward.
Then, with a gentleness that surprised Alistair, the golem kneeled down and scooped up the fallen giant before walking over to the door and pulling at the latch. Finding it locked, she simply drew back a fist and punched the door in. Then she stooped down and stepped inside.
Alistair winced. "Well, that's one way to open a door," he murmured.
Wynne glanced over to him and Leliana before giving a short nod to the tree. "Try to get Solona down while I help Sten," she said, and then she turned and followed the golem inside.
The lay sister walked over to stand next to him. She peered up into the tree with a puzzled expression, and she tilted her head this way and that as she hummed in thought. A few minutes later, Alistair realized he was doing the exact same thing.
Maker's breath, how could a tree have so many branches? And how could they wrap so intricately around a person?
Finally, Solona sighed and said, "Just go get Morrigan."
Alistair and Leliana looked at each other for a long moment in a mixture of uncertainty and calculation. Then they both said, "I'll wait here. You go get her."
Leliana balked. "How could you ask me to do that? We don't get on at all!"
"Are you kidding me?" Alistair replied, shaking his head. "I think she torments me for sport."
"She gave the ring to you," the sister pointed out.
"And when did jewelry become a standard of-"
"I don't care who goes!" Solona huffed. "Just someone get Morrigan!"
Alistair and Leliana looked at one another again. He fiddled with the collar of his shirt, and the sister silently wrung her fingers. Then they both turned their gazes back up into the tree.
"Please stay calm, Solona," Leliana soothed. "Rest assured we will find a way to get you down."
"I already gave you a way: get Morrigan," Solona replied.
Alistair stepped up to the trunk of the tree and gave a low-hanging branch an experimental tug. It was thick and strong in his hand, and the rough bark offered him a firm grip. "Don't worry, I used to climb trees all the time as a kid in Redcliffe. Particularly when I wanted to get away from Isolde," he said with a chuckle. After another tug, he pulled himself up and grabbed hold of another branch. "This will be a piece of cake!"
Solona shook her head at him with wide eyes. "No, Alistair, don't! Stay on the ground!"
He ignored her and swung himself over to another branch. She wasn't far off now; perhaps only a few more branches and he'd already be next to her. Then it would simply be a matter of hacking away the boughs tangled around her. "Just a moment, and I'll be right there," he said, an easy smile on his face.
A minute later he was also stuck in the tree.
Alistair tugged at a branch wrapped around his bicep. He tried to ignore the fact he had at least a dozen more wrapped elsewhere along his body. "Hm. You know, this was not how I envisioned this," he said.
Solona sighed. "I tried to tell you. It's a magic tree. Flemeth did… something, and I got stuck up here." She glanced over at him. "And I guess I was right in my assumption that it'll trap others by reflex."
"Flemeth?" he said, his brow furrowing. "You don't mean…" He nodded towards the clearing, or at least where it would be if he could see it through the leafy boughs of the tree.
"The dragon?" she said. Her shoulders drooped. "Yes. That's Flemeth. Or was, at least. Sort of."
"Sort of"… He was tempted to ask what she meant by that, but he decided against it. Perhaps ignorance really was bliss in this case.
He tried to put it out of his mind, as well as the fact that he had just killed a high dragon of all things. Or, rather, a legendary Witch of the Wilds in the form of a high dragon. Which really didn't help make it any better, if he thought about it.
No. No thinking, he reminded himself.
"So, what now?" he asked a little shakily.
"Get Morrigan," she said.
"What's the second plan?" Leliana called up from below.
"Get Morrigan," she said again, more tiredly this time. "How many times do I need to repeat myself? She's lived here for years. She probably knows how to dispel this."
"Can't you cast a spell of your own?" Alistair asked.
"Certainly," she replied, "if you like being burnt to a crisp along with the tree."
Still, the sister hesitated, plucking uncertainly at the string of her bow.
Solona sighed. "If you go get Morrigan, I'll let you decorate my hair however you like."
That brightened Leliana's expression considerably. "Really?" she asked. At the mage's nod, she smiled and waved to the mabari. "Come on, Captain Cuddles – back to camp!"
Alistair grimaced. Well, he supposed he couldn't really help it if some people still used the old name…
He watched as Leliana and the hound strode out from beneath the tree, and then he listened as their crunching footsteps faded away into the distance. Rather belatedly, he worried if other foes still waited in the forest. Even if the sister and dog could handle themselves, he doubted Solona and he could, stuck as they were.
As if reading his mind, Solona said, "I think Flemeth was using magic to hide this place from the darkspawn. We should be safe for a while yet."
He nodded, and then another thought occurred to him. "You should have added a qualifier to your promise. Now Leliana will want to do your hair every day."
Solona blinked. "Oh," she said, and then she frowned. "Oh, no."
"I think she's been keeping a collection of ribbons. Lots of bright, pastel colors." At her grumble, he added, "At least we'll have no trouble picking you out of a crowd, eh?"
Before she could reply, a gust of wind whipped through the clearing, whistling against the eaves of the hut and shaking the boughs of the trees. Above them, something rattled, dull and hollow, and again that strange, cloying odor he remembered wafted by, except stronger this time.
He sniffed the air, trying to identify what it was at last.
From next to him, Solona said, "You don't want to look up."
He looked up.
And, true to word, instantly regretted it. Before, blinded by the sun and snow, he'd only been able to distinguish the lower reaches of the tree. Now that he was enclosed in its shade and his eyes had adjusted, he could see the skeletons and decomposing corpses hanging further above them. Of what clothing remained on their gaunt forms, many had just a simple soldier's gear – unwary deserters, perhaps – but he couldn't help noticing that more than a few wore plate armor bearing the familiar symbol of a flaming sword.
Well, that explained the smell.
He looked back down towards the ground – the wonderful, perfectly ordinary, dullish-brown ground speckled with a bit of snow – and tried not to think on the matter any further.
He wondered how soon Leliana would return.
Alistair and Solona lapsed into an awkward, slightly tense silence as they waited, broken only by the howling of the wind and the jostling of the branches – hard, hollow branches, he thought pointedly – above them. That, and the occasional rustle of Solona's robes as she shifted in the tree's grip.
After the fifth time, he sighed and asked, "All right. What is it?"
She twisted restlessly once more before giving up with a grimace. "My side is itching horribly, and I can't reach it."
He looked further back and toward her abdomen, and he barely held back a gasp as he suddenly realized that, at this angle, he had an unimpeded view down the front of her top. From her collarbone all the way to where the sash tied the material at the waist, she was all soft, creamy flesh. The really tantalizing bits remained hidden behind a stretch of tight, black fabric – likely her breast-band, he thought – but still… He snapped his eyes back to hers with a fierce blush and hoped she hadn't noticed.
By the rising arch of an eyebrow and the grin twitching at her lips, she definitely had.
He cleared his throat. "So, um, which side is it?" he asked.
The grin slipped away. "My… scarred side. Sometimes it acts up."
Which was the side closest to him. He wiggled his arm and, after a few grunts and grimaces, managed to tear it free of the branch wrapped around it. He was rather surprised when another didn't immediately reach down to grab it again. Perhaps whatever magic had been sustaining the tree's movement was wearing off.
He stretched his hand back and towards her abdomen, forcing himself to focus on her side and not the tempting gap in her robes. But she suddenly shrunk away, and he stopped.
He returned his eyes to hers and offered what he hoped was a reassuring smile and not the bungling mess he felt like. "I'm just trying to help scratch it," he said.
She hesitated, biting her lower lip, but then after a moment she nodded and relaxed.
The low moan she gave as his fingers ran across her side surprised him, making him nearly give one of his own. Relief, he reminded himself. It was a moan of relief. Which didn't exactly help him, as several more possibilities of how he could help "relieve" her sprung to mind. He squirmed a little, his legs shifting back and forth in the tree's tight grip, as he desperately tried to ignore the heat gathering in a particular part of his body.
Oh, yes, his priorities were in perfect order. Here he was, dangling high up in the grip of a Death Tree, and all he could think about was Solona moaning next to him. Or above him. Or below him. Or…
He squirmed again.
He supposed there were stranger places to be turned on. Not many, but some.
"Alistair," Solona suddenly said, and he looked back into her dark eyes in something of a daze. He realized he had stopped scratching at some point, and his hand now simply rested on her side. "I… I should really tell you about-"
A bush cracked below, and he snatched his hand away. So much for being safe here! he thought, grimacing as he frantically looked for his sword. But the blasted tree had torn it from him earlier, and it now hung several feet out of reach. He stifled a curse.
Maybe he could just headbutt any darkspawn that climbed the tree? He probably had a thick enough skull for it…
But only Zevran stepped out of the line of brush.
Which wasn't all that much of an improvement, Alistair glumly thought.
The elf smacked at the clinging bushes with a grumble, wincing when several twigs cracked loudly underfoot. "I am usually much more nimble than this," he muttered to himself. He patted his sides, making sure the bushes hadn't tugged away his daggers as well.
"Zevran!" Solona shouted. "We're up here!"
The elf spotted them in seconds. "Ah-ha!" he said, striding up to the tree trunk with a smirk. "I see where our lover-birds have gone. This brings to mind a certain children's rhyme, no? Something about sitting in trees and-"
Zevran tsked. "Oh, very well," he said, grasping hold of a branch. "No teasing for now. I will have you down shortly."
Both Solona and Alistair hurriedly shook their heads. "Wait, Zevran! No!" they cried.
The elf scowled at them. "I am sick, not a frail waif on her death bed," he said, pulling himself up into the boughs. "Really, you Fereldans worry too much."
Two minutes later Zevran was also stuck in the tree.
The elf pulled his arm against the branch twining around it yet again before giving up with a frown. "It is the cold," he said. "And that is all I shall say on the matter."
Then, as if the mention had summoned it, he let out a fierce sneeze that shook the entirety of the tree.
Alistair grimaced. "If you get us sick as well-"
Another bush cracked below, and then another and another, each one closer than the last. Again, Alistair strained an arm towards his sword in vain, and Zevran twisted and struggled in the tree's branches to reach the blades still at his sides. Solona finally managed to pull a hand free and began focusing a spell into her palm.
Only to let it fizzle out at the bark of a dog. Shortly after, the mabari hound and two familiar figures emerged from the forest. Alistair, Solona, and Zevran sagged against the boughs with a collective sigh.
"Zevran?" Leliana said as she approached. "I thought we had left you back at camp."
The elf in question huffed. "Yes. Well."
"'Twould explain the strange silence there," Morrigan said with a small, amused smile. Then, looking further up, her gaze fell upon Solona, and she frowned. "But no matter. You have done what I asked, and I shall free you."
Alistair nearly melted in relief. Finally, they would be out of the Death Tree and back on the ground, where things were normal and upright and not surrounded by dead templars-
He quickly halted that line of thought.
"Yes," he said, again a little unsteadily. "Yes, down would be goo-"
Morrigan stamped the end of her staff against an exposed root of the tree with a quick murmur of half-heard syllables, and then suddenly Alistair was falling.
He landed face-first on the peat below, and the air rushed out of his chest with an "oof." Luckily, he hadn't had far to fall, and he suffered no injury from it as far as he could tell. But by the way the mud squelched beneath him, he was quite sure his clothes would need a thorough wash, not to mention his face.
He raised his head, about to complain, when Solona dropped down onto him.
The impact forced the air from his lungs again and pushed him a couple of inches deeper into the mire. After he regained his breath, he checked himself over again, at least to what extent he could. Aside from a little soreness, he seemed to have escaped without harm yet again.
But then Solona moved against him, and any concern of pain flew out of his mind. She was soft yet firm, and even with her nose digging between his shoulder blades, the warm roundness of her breasts pressing against his back was the most pleasing sensation he could remember right then. Then she exhaled, and the heat of her breath rolling across the nape of his neck made him shiver.
No, he thought; he certainly didn't mind having Solona on top of him. And then, unbidden, he thought of a much better way she could be on top of him, and he blushed.
Suddenly, he was very glad to be facing downward.
"Sorry, sorry, sorry!" Solona cried as she pushed herself off.
Only to be shoved back down when Zevran landed on top of her. Which then shoved him another few inches into the muck. Lovely.
The elf groaned. "Well, I suppose we're at least all out-"
Then the rotting corpses toppled out from the tree as well, crashing down onto them. Well, onto Zevran to be precise. And only a few, as most just tumbled into the dirt around them, but even from under Solona he could feel the elf's shudder. For once, Alistair was thankful to have simply gotten pummeled into the ground.
Zevran hissed a string of foreign curses before muttering, "Bath. Now."
"I could not agree more," Solona said, her reply a little muffled from her face being pushed into Alistair's back. "But first you need to get off."
Morrigan stifled a snicker behind a hand as Leliana stepped over to help the elf up. Though Solona rolled off shortly after, Alistair lingered on the ground, still feeling more than a little affected by Solona's closeness. As he was now, he was pretty sure getting up would be a bad idea.
"Err. You go ahead. I'm going to… lie here for a bit," Alistair said.
Solona looked down at him with a worried expression. "Are you hurt, Alistair? Do you need healing?"
Maker, the thought of her hands on him, running across his skin…
"No, no," he said, smiling weakly. "I just need to relax for a moment. You know?"
Zevran glanced at their corpse-strewn surroundings and then raised a brow at him. "Truly? Here of all places? You have strange tastes, my friend."
Alistair flushed. "It isn't…" At the elf's snicker, he groaned and shoved his face into the dirt. "Just, shut up."