Anders didn't think twice when he saw the slaver break from the melee to dart into the nearby trees, dragging the girl with him. Hawke was too preoccupied with finishing off the two slavers he'd cornered, whilst Varric was picking off those further away. He saw no sign of the elf anywhere. The mage snatched up his staff and sprinted into the trees after the slaver and his prey.
He had reason to regret his impulse as he pushed further into the forest; the trees grew close together here, little of the overhead sun making it through the thick canopy - just enough to nurture the bracken and the sprawling brambles that rambled through the gloom, throwing up viciously thorned loops that caught unwary feet. He couldn't quite repress a shiver quite unlike that produced in him by the Deep Roads. This was a different fear; an older one. The fear of a child of the Anderfels who had been raised on dark tales of the dangers of the woods and the beasts within.
A soft growl somewhere to his right seemed to play right into those childhood fears and his heart leapt into his mouth. Eyes wide in alarm, he pushed on into the forest, driven on as faint sounds drifted back to him from the slaver and his unwilling hostage.
Then the girl let out a cry, and Anders' eyes narrowed in anger as he leapt forward, raising his staff and calling the magic into his hands, unheeding of the thorns that tore at his coat, the branches that tangled in his hair and whipped at his face.
The slaver looked up in alarm as the mage burst out of the undergrowth, eyes wild, the magefire glowing balefully about his hands and the head of his staff as he pointed it unerringly at the man, who jerked the girl in front of him, pushing a wickedly slender knife up against her throat as he held her before him like a shield.
"Let her go," growled Anders, taking aim.
"Try it and she dies," spat back the slaver. The girl stared at him with terrified eyes, her long brown hair dishevelled and her face streaked with tears.
"Please - Ser-" she began then fell silent as the blade pressed tighter against her fragile young flesh. She began to sob, trembling in her captor's hands. Anders paused.
If he unleashed a spell, he couldn't be certain of not hitting the girl as well. He stared at the pair, in an agony of indecision. He could try a mindblast, but he couldn't be certain the slaver wouldn't accidentally slit the girl's throat through sheer reflex. The slow, cruel smile that spread across the slaver's face showed he was well aware of the mage's dilemma also.
The deep, low growl from behind startled them all. The slaver glanced over his shoulder then muttered an oath as he shrank to one side, pulling the girl with him. Anders, also distracted, shifted his glance to see what it was... and then froze.
It was a wolf. Not just any wolf, but the biggest wolf Anders had ever seen. An immense beast, easily half as big again as the biggest mabari he'd ever seen. Its fur was silver, marbled with white; it seemed to almost gleam in the half-light of the forest gloom. Its head was lowered, the emerald-green eyes ablaze with a preternatural fire, its teeth bared in a threatening snarl. It stalked slowly forwards, immense powerful muscles bunching, shifting and flexing beneath the shaggy silver fur, murderous intent in its eyes as it fixed its gaze briefly upon the suddenly-terrified mage, then swung its great heavy head to bath the slaver and the girl with its predatory glare.
It seemed a beast straight out of his worst nightmares. Anders was suddenly a child again; a terrified child of barely ten summers, gone too far from the safety of home, the stick in his hands no longer the imagined hefty spear of the fierce hunter but a thin sapling, no more than a twig against such a terrible creature.
Then the wolf sprang, and Anders wasn't sure who screamed loudest – the girl, or him.
The slaver sent the girl sprawling down into the dirt as he turned and fled. Anders flung himself forward almost against his will, swinging his staff wildly at the wolf as he flung himself between the child and the wolf, control of the magic utterly forgotten as he reacted from blind instinct.
"Get away from her! Get away!" he screamed, battering at the creature with a strength born of pure sheer raw fear. The beast recoiled with a snarl that sent a chill down the apostate's spine, but he stood his ground, certain that at any moment the wolf would leap towards him and that his last moments would end in those terrible jaws. The beast growled, low and threatening, and Anders felt his legs trembling, threatening to buckle beneath him. The child behind him clung to his arm and wailed in fear. The wolf gathered itself, muscles rippling beneath its pelt, and Anders briefly closed his eyes, sure he was staring death in the face.
And then it leapt cleanly over them and disappeared into the forest, close upon the trail of the slaver who had run.
Anders fell to his knees, shivering, as the girl threw herself into his arms crying. He held her to his chest, staring down at her in disbelief. It had gone. He had shouted at it, and it had gone. He couldn't believe it. He clutched his staff tightly and cradled the child with his other arm, stunned by what had happened.
Then from behind them in the darkness came a terrible scream.
The sound seemed to spur him out of his momentary fugue as fear caused his heart to race once more. Gathering the girl up into his arms as he lurched to his feet, Anders fled from the forest back towards the light of the clearing and the safety of his companions.
Behind him, the screams had fallen ominously quiet.
This only served to spur his feet on faster, unheeding of the branches and thorns that whipped at his face and tore at his clothes. His foot caught in a loop of bramble; he staggered, the girl in his arms shrieking in alarm; but somehow he managed to catch his feet, pushing himself on. He fancied he could hear panting breath behind him, the soft padding of paws through undergrowth, and his feet sped on faster.
He burst out of the undergrowth into the bright sunlight of the clearing, startling the others as they were making their way around the clearing, rolling over bodies and looting them. Hawke straightened, surprised at the mage's appearance. Wide-eyed and white-faced, he staggered towards them, the girl clutched in his arms with her thin arms flung around his neck, her face buried against his chest. Anders' face was drawn with fear, bleeding from thin cuts across the cheeks and nose; he seemed oblivious to them as he pushed himself forward, still clutching his staff in one hand, his knuckles white.
"Anders? What's wrong?" asked Hawke, taking a step towards the frightened mage.
"I've never seen Blondie so spooked before!" exclaimed Varric quietly as he moved to join them.
The girl in Anders' arms shifted round to look about them; she suddenly wriggled down from the mage's arms with a glad cry of "Mama!" and ran towards one of the freed slaves, who fell to her knees with a glad cry and swept her up into her arms with many tears of rejoicing.
Anders stood silently, clutching his staff in both hands as he fought to bring his breathing back under control. He was still shaking, adrenaline coursing through his veins yet.
"Anders?" said Hawke, putting a reassuring hand on the trembling mage's arm. "What's wrong? What happened back there?"
Anders shook his head, still not capable of speech yet. He took a couple of halting steps forward. All three whirled round at the sounds of someone – or something – making its way out of the forest behind them.
Fenris walked slowly out of the dark gloom under the eaves of the trees, shaking blood off his spiked gauntlets then running his hands down his chest in a futile effort to remove the gore. Blood was smeared around his mouth and across his face. He paused, aware of all eyes upon him, then his own green eyes narrowed as he caught sight of the pale-faced mage. He stalked slowly towards him, fingering a bruise on one cheek with an angry look in his eyes. "Mage."
Anders' eyes rolled back into his head and, to the utter perplexity of Hawke and Varric, he abruptly crumpled to the ground in a dead faint. The elf halted, staring down at the unconscious man as Hawke dropped to his knees beside Anders and began checking him for any injuries.
"He's not bleeding; I can't find any wounds," he said, frowning.
"Probably pushed himself to far casting spells; you know how Blondie is," shrugged Varric as he pulled off a glove and slapped Anders' bloodless cheek briskly. "Come on Blondie, this is no time to be taking a nap!"
The mage groaned quietly as his eyelids fluttered, then he stirred slightly, turning his face away from Varric's hand. "Ow," he muttered, pushing the dwarf away as he pushed himself up onto his elbows.
"You OK, Anders?" asked Hawke, concerned.
"Yes, I'm fine," the mage muttered, not looking up as he put a hand to the back of his head and winced. He sat up then glanced around.
"You don't look fine, Blondie," remarked Varric. "You look as though you've had the fright of your life."
"You came out of those woods as though a pack of wolves were on your heels," added Hawke. Anders stilled, then abruptly pulled away from the concerned hand Hawke rested on his shoulder. His eyes flicked briefly up at Fenris, his expression unreadable; then he dropped his gaze, rolled over onto his side and pushed himself up to his feet and turned on his heel.
"I'm perfectly fine!" he snapped, then strode away towards the huddled group of freed slaves. "Anyone hurt?" he called as he approached them. "I'm a healer." He was rapidly surrounded by grateful people.
"What was all that about?" wondered Hawke as he rose to his feet. He turned to the elf. "Fenris? Any idea?"
Fenris' lip curled in a sneer. "The mage is afraid of his own shadow," he dismissed. "Pay him no heed." He folded his arms and watched the mage with a speculative look as Anders moved amongst the rescuees, his hands enfolded in the blue glow of healing as he reached out to heal all who needed it then dropped to one knee to concentrate on a young boy's arm with a quiet word of reassurance, oblivious to the elf's scrutiny.
"Looks like you took care of that last slaver then, elf," remarked Varric.
"Indeed," was Fenris' only comment. He glanced down at the blood still smeared across his palms, then popped a finger into his mouth and licked it clean. Varric watched with a faint look of revulsion then shuddered and moved away, bending to retrieve crossbow bolts from the corpses.
Hawke frowned then shook his head as he bent down and picked up his pack, hefting it up onto his back. "It's getting late," he said, glancing up at the sky. "We've only got another three hours or so of daylight by my guess, but we haven't enough tents for us plus this lot. I think our best bet would be to head over towards the coast; there are some caves along the shore about an hours' walk from here."
Varric nodded. "Makes sense. We can lead 'em back through the smugglers' tunnels into Darktown afterwards; I doubt we'd be able to get 'em back in the main gate."
"Not a group this size," agreed Hawke as he waved Anders back over. Anders finished healing a young woman with a broken wrist, smiling reassuringly at her as he said something to the older woman she was with, then got up and wearily made his way over.
"Hawke, I've done what I can but there's no way we can get them all back to Kirkwall tonight. The children are all tired, and the slavers didn't feed anyone in the group since they left Kirkwall two days ago." He rubbed his forehead, looking fairly exhausted himself.
"You don't look much better," remarked Hawke. Anders shook his head.
"I'll be fine. Healing always takes it out of me." He glanced back at the group then at Hawke again. "What are we going to do with them all?"
"Remember the caves we explored whilst we were looking for that relic of Isabela's a couple of months ago?" asked Varric. Anders nodded.
"They'd make decent shelter for the night," he agreed. "That's where we're going?"
"It's just an hour away," explained Hawke. "Do you think the kids will make it OK?"
"They'll have to, won't they?" replied Anders drily. "The adults can carry the younger ones. What'll we do for food? I'm not sure our supplies will stretch to four additional adults and seven kids."
"I will hunt," said Fenris, stepping up unexpectedly behind Anders. The mage started with a faint yelp. He darted him a sidelong look, then sidled over towards Varric.
"I'll, er, go round them up and tell them what's happening then, shall I?" he muttered. Hawke nodded with a wave of dismissal.
"You want a hand, elf?" asked Varric, patting Bianca's polished mahogany stock. The elf shook his head.
"No. I'll be faster alone." Fenris replied quietly. "Dwarves are not exactly renowned for being quiet."
Varric snorted. "Thought Daisy was the nature-loving one good in forests, not you, Broody!"
"I... became proficient whilst with the Fog Warriors," said Fenris, inspecting the steel claws of his gauntlets. "I will follow you all shortly." He glanced over at the mage once more, then turned and disappeared off into the forest.
Anders marshalled the rescued slaves together and herded them towards Hawke and Varric; he was carrying the youngest child – a little lad of about 4 – in his arms whilst the young girl he'd rescued walked beside him, clutching at his coat sleeve. The adults walked alongside him, a couple of them carrying a child each whilst the remaining older children clustered around Anders. "It's just another hours' walk – there'll be shelter and food when we get there, and we'll make a nice big fire so everyone will be warm," he was explaining, The girl at his side was looking up at him with big adoring eyes; Hawke couldn't quite hide a smile as he watched the group approach.
It took them more than the hour Hawke had estimated; walking at the pace of the children slowed them down, and the adults were weary; particularly those who, like Anders, were carrying children though they swapped off with those who were unencumbered. Even Hawke took a turn carrying small ones. The girl stayed glued to Anders' side, even when they paused to share waterskins and take a brief breather for the sake of the younger ones.
Fenris was waiting for them on the beach when they finally reached the coast. He'd built a fire and set the butchered carcass of the deer he'd felled to roast on a spit over the flames. It was a welcome sight as they straggled over the sand towards the cave.
"That was quick work," remarked Hawke as he set the small child in his arms down.
"I was... lucky in the hunt," replied Fenris with a small half-smile.
They pooled their supplies; with the venison and what they'd carried, they were able to put together a reasonable meal for everyone. Despite his obvious exhaustion, Anders foraged for additional greens and found a stand of beech trees reasonably close nearby, returning with a goodly supply of beech nuts to make beech mast bread; whilst Varric and Hawke set to work preparing the rest of the meal, Anders showed the girl and the two elder boys how to pound the nuts into a paste, binding them together with a little honey and shaping them into flat cakes which he set on stones around the fire to cook.
Fenris watched keenly from where he sat on a log of driftwood across the fire from the mage, watching as the slender fingers worked the dough, gesturing as Anders explained what he was doing to the children. The mage was aware of the elf's eyes upon him, glancing up uneasily now and then.
They all sat around the fire to eat, Anders and the younger children all but falling asleep over their food. Fenris had demurred sharing in the meal, claiming he'd eaten earlier, though he did sample one of the beech mast loaves, his jade-green eyes regarding the tired mage thoughtfully as he ate.
"Anders, you look all in," observed Hawke as he brushed crumbs out of his beard. "Why don't you turn in?"
Anders nodded wordlessly as the four former slave adults herded the children into the cave. He hefted his pack and followed them. He tugged out his own bedroll and spread it out as bedding for the children, tucking the girl and the two youngest children into his grey Warden blanket with a slight smile before curling up in his feathered coat, pillowing his head against his pack.
He wasn't sure just what it was that awakened him. Some small sound perhaps, or a chill breeze that struck down the back of his wide collar. Whatever it was, between one heartbeat and the next he was suddenly, completely awake and aware that he was being stared at. Again.
He could see Fenris' dark outline, silhouetted against the low flames of the fire at the mouth of the cave. He was about to roll over and try to get back to sleep when he suddenly realised the elf was studying him.
"So. You are awake," said the elf quietly. Anders slowly sat up. "How long have you been watching me?" he asked suspiciously. Fenris didn't answer; instead he gestured to the log next to him.
"Sit here," he said quietly.
"Why?" demanded Anders belligerently. Fenris merely turned and fixed him with his green, lupine stare. Anders quietly got up and made his way to the mouth of the cave, seating himself on the log as far from Fenris as possible.
"So," said Anders quietly.
"So," agreed Fenris, staring into the fire. The flames danced gold in his eyes.
"What are you?" asked Anders softly.
"I'm sure you have already guessed for yourself," replied Fenris, turning to glance at Anders, the reflected firelight turning his gaze to amber.
Wolf eyes, thought Anders, and shivered. He glanced up at the night sky.
"It's not a full moon, if that is what you are wondering," said Fenris evenly.
"H-How long..." began Anders, his voice tailing off.
"How long have I been a werewolf?" Fenris finished for him. Anders nodded wordlessly. "I... am not sure. I first... transformed... whilst upon Seheron, with the rebels. But it may have been before that." He raised a hand and began to slowly tug off his gauntlet, then flexed the bare hand slowly, turning it over, the ghostly white lines of lyrium subtly reflecting the moonlight in a glimmer of silver over the dark skin. "I sometimes wonder if it was Danarius who bestowed the curse upon me when he branded the lyrium into my flesh. Perhaps it was the only way to give my body the accelerated powers of healing to cope with the ordeal."
Anders stared at the lyrium brands seared into the elf's flesh; they were raised, standing out proud of the flesh, their surface taut and smooth, devoid of hair. They were beautiful yet chilling, and this close to the elf he could almost hear the lyrium singing softly to him, calling forth an answering echo from within him. Like catnip to a cat, he mused, then hastily he looked away, his cheeks suffusing with colour, the skin hot.
"You are afraid of me," said Fenris, in the tones of stating a fact.
"I'd be a bloody fool not to be," replied Anders, pulling his coat tighter closed around his thin body as he repressed a shiver.
"Why?" asked the elf frankly.
Anders blinked and looked at Fenris to see if he was joking, but the elf's face was perfectly calm, and serious, his eyes holding a frank, questioning look.
"Are you toying with me?" exclaimed Anders in a hushed tone so as not to awaken any of the sleepers. "Just look at you! You can rip the heart out of any man without even breaking his skin, you can transform into a living ghost at will who moves faster than the eye can blink, you're carrying enough lyrium to give any mage the wet dreams of their life with a touch – and believe me, you do not want to know what the proximity to all that lyrium does to Justice - and to cap it all off, you're a bloodthirsty werewolf who can turn into the biggest damned wolf I've ever seen outside of my worst nightmares and who could easily rip my throat out without thinking twice about it!" He stared at Fenris disbelievingly. "What's not to be afraid of?"
"You are scared of wolves?"
Anders stared at the elf for several long minutes, then glanced away, seeming to shrink slightly in upon himself. He mumbled something inaudible.
"Mage?" prompted Fenris.
"Yes," murmured Anders in a small voice. He stared into the flames, his expression troubled.
"This is why you dislike Hawke's mabari?"
"I don't dislike him, I just..." Anders' voice tailed off as he dropped his gaze to his hands as they rested upon his knees. "I don't know why I'm even talking to you, let alone telling you any of this," he muttered. "Why should you care how I feel about dogs?"
"Because you know what I am," replied Fenris.
"And my knowing is a threat to you, am I right?" concluded Anders glumly.
Fenris chuckled, low and throatily. "Mage, if I perceived you as a threat, you would not still be breathing this very minute." He gave Anders a sidelong glance and suddenly grinned wolfishly. Anders froze and swallowed hard against the fear that suddenly leapt unbidden into his throat.
"You... you wouldn't..." he breathed, unconsciously inching back away from the elf, though Fenris hadn't moved. Fenris stared at him steadily from behind a curtain of snow-white hair, his gaze unflinching. Then he silently rose to his feet and slowly advanced towards the mage.
Anders leapt to his feet and backed away from the elf, eyes widening as he raised his hands in front of him, moving back until his foot hit a stone and he stumbled, sprawling upon his back in the soft sand with a small cry which was instantly silenced as Fenris was upon him, one hand firmly pressed over Anders' mouth, stifling his cry even as the elf's weight pressed him down, pinning him to the ground.
He stared up into Fenris' face, his face pale with fear. The elf in turn stared down into his wide amber eyes, his expression inscrutable. His glass green eyes glittered in the half-light cast by the fire behind them, his face in shadow; the lyrium lines were a faint shimmer of silver against his dusky skin.
Fenris' breath ghosted over the apostate's skin, and Anders stiffened. Suddenly he thrust back at the elf with his hands as a faint blue light began to dance deep within the amber depths of his eyes.
"Oh-ho, the abomination begins to show his true colours," chuckled the elf darkly. He pressed his free hand flat against Anders' chest, and smiled as the lyrium lines began to glow. Anders went perfectly still, though the blue fire never left the depths of his eyes even as they narrowed in anger.
Fenris smiled wolfishly, and then the smile began to stretch as his nose and jaw began to elongate, the eyes drifting wider apart, the ears slowly moving up the side of his head as silver fur sprouted from the smooth dusky cheeks and the bones of his skull shifted and moved, contours changing. His body, too, was stretching, changing, the fingers upon his hands shortening, nails lengthening and darkening as they became sharp-tipped claws. The moonlight glinted off rippling fur and the wolf crouched over the prone mage, shaking its shaggy mane and stretching out its neck as the dread beast's maw opened to reveal rows of gleaming white fangs mere inches away from Anders' face.
The blue fire died in his amber gaze as his eyes glazed over in fear, mind driven beyond where Justice could reach. Anders' body trembled uncontrollably beneath the wolf, and as the lupine green eyes stared down at the vulnerable, terrified man, Anders moaned softly before his eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped, unconscious.
The wolf stared down at him for a moment. Then shaking himself all over, he leapt over Anders' prostrate form and away into the darkness.