The knock on the door was most annoying. Glancing up from the ancient parchment, he squinted through a candelabra laced with spider webs and then rubbed his tired eyes. The flame flickered as he exhaled in resignation, also launching a whirlwind of dust that had settled on his books.
"Come in!" said the old man in a gruff, irritable tone. Everyone knew he was not to be disturbed at this hour. His colleagues at the Université d'Orlais were well acquainted with the clearly posted hours that he spent in his office between lectures. From behind the solid oak door, peered a set of wide, nervous eyes. His grunted and stuck the quill back into the inkwell.
"Excuse…professeur." His wiry assistant cleared his throat and then tentatively entered. His ornate robes, emblazoned with the distinctions of a junior professor, swished through the narrow space he allowed for himself. Quietly, he shut the door with a delicate hand and stood before the large wooden desk with perfect posture.
"Professeur Saunière, I have received urgent news." Tassilo always spoke with precision and perfect diction, and worked to maintain his comportment, despite being out of breath.
Saunière thought it odd that his assistant had ran all the way up to his office, so he took it as a sign that this message was not an inconsequential piece of faculty gossip; Tassilo knew better.
Rolling up the document he had been working on, he popped it into its tube and then leaned back into his creaky chair.
He folded his arms and scowled. "All of Val Royeaux had better be in flame, Tassilo. You know better than most complacent nitwits at this fine institution not to disturb me during research hours…" He rubbed his chin with one hand and tried to remember the last time he had shaved. Two, maybe three days at the most?
It was unclear whether his assistant caught his intended sarcasm. "My apologies, Professeur." Tassilo approached Saunière's desk, piled haphazardly with books, dried ink pots, loose parchment and uneaten food. He tried to hide his disgust, but it was painted all over his face. He held a letter in his hand.
"This arrived moments ago."
Saunière leaned forward and grabbed the letter from his assistant's hand. He inserted a monocle into his good eye and carefully inspected every contour of the letter. The scrawling penmanship, suggested that the author was in a hurry, or distressed. The ink was cheap, the type procured from any peddler between here and Rivain. The paper, however, that was curious indeed. It was a parchment reserved for only the most senior scholars, known for its ability to keep its ink and withstand the ages. Saunière noticed the edges were worn and stained with mud. This could be the fault of a careless messenger. But the colour of the soil was of interest, and suggested the canyon lands in Nevarra, or perhaps an area closer to the Anderfels.
As the professor studied the envelope, Tassilo quietly paced behind Saunière's chair and hovered. Saunière paid no heed; he was used to his assistant's interest in his work. As he continued to study the penmanship, following every contour of the cursive writing, he took careful note of every misplaced drip and blotch. Tassilo quietly opened the thick curtains. The professor grumbled.
"By the Divine Tassilo! Must you disturb my study? Can't you see that I am reading? Is it some arcane Dalish tradition that sunlight must impose upon an old man deep in study?"
Tassilo turned, the contours of his head and elven ears, were now clearly outlined by the floor to ceiling window. He crossed his arms and looked Saunière directly in the eyes.
"Mon Professeur, we cannot have one of the most respected scholars at the university blind from eye strain. The Faculty of Medicine has well established that reading in proper light, will in fact maintain what vision you still possess. This has nothing to do with my mother."
Bérenger Saunière's family, known for their wealth and prestige, owned many elven slaves and had for generations. Saunière had known Tassilo as an elfling still clinging to his mother's dirty apron and living in squalor in the scullery of their Ghislain estate. Before Tassilo could walk, Saunière had heard him speak fluent Orlesian and Antivan. He was sure that, given the chance, he would quickly pick up Nevarran and Qunari. When the elvling was old enough, Saunière took him into his care and educated him, and after tough negotiations with University administration, Tassilo would be given a post to teach languages when he reached adulthood. It had also cost him most of his inheritance in bribes; this was an act of revenge as well as charity. His father would roll in the family crypt, had he learned that part of his family fortune had paid to employ an elf. Although Tassilo would never rise to a post beyond the humbled lecturer, it was better than living in his family's service.
Saunière stood, his back and knees stiff from long hours of reading and then plucked out the glass lens, returning it to its velvet-lined box. With a groan, he shuffled to the window. Now in the twilight of his life, he still stood tall and lean, although he was loathe to admit that he was developing a hunch that characterized most older professors. His hair had thinned and he had developed a severe widow's peak by the time he turned fifty. He refused to cut the back, deciding to keep what he had left and kept it tied in a ponytail. Watching the lawn of the quad, he thought for a moment on the recent news of the Kirkwall Chantry. Groups of students headed to class with haste or sat reading in the early spring sunshine. At the far end of the quad stood the Cathaire Library. The façade was festooned with marble statuary and depicted the symbolic victory of the Chantry, its ornamental domed roof, clad in copper and silverite, rose above every other building in the area. He tried to imagine the ruin and rubble that now scarred Kirkwall. Far in the distance, the spire of the Grand Cathedral pointed skyward, and Saunière half-wondered how it would respond to the destruction of its sister in the Free Marches. As he stared out the window, he turned the message in his hands.
He side-stepped behind the heavy velvet curtain to shield himself from the cloying light and inspected the back of the letter. "Now this is interesting. Duchamp's seal." The red sealing wax was stamped with the Faculty of Ancient Theology's crest and Duchamp's initials: BD. Balthazar Duchamp.
"Now do you understand why I ran up twelve flights of stairs to bring you this message with utmost haste, Professeur? Are you going to open it?"
"Much can be said about the outside of a letter as the contents. What can you tell me about the messenger?"
Tassilo sighed with impatience, but knew how thorough the professor was. "A plain man. Spoke fluent Orlesian."
"Do you think it was the tongue of his parents?"
"No, the accent was either Nevarran or Anderfeldan"
"Divine mercies Tassilo! You are a linguist! Can't you tell the difference?"
"Mon Professeur, he spoke four words to me. 'Take this to Dr. Saunière.' I dare you to come to conclusions with so little evidence."
"Point taken. And what of his dress?"
"Orlesian without a doubt, suggesting someone of fortune, but without title. Is Duchamp still conducting his research in Nevarra? The extreme urgency of the letter makes it sound ominous. I fear Dr. Duchamp is in trouble." With a finger, he tried to subtly direct Saunière to explore the contents of this letter but Saunière saw straight through his tactic.
"Trouble? What sort of trouble can an old retired scholar get into researching in old Chantries across Thedas? He's likely forgotten the name of a book or is going to question the date of a particular event. Last year, he left to travel through Montfort and hoped his research would eventually lead him to Nessum. The last letter I received, he wrote from Caimen Brea, tracing Andraste's last journey to Minrathous. I know the library there— very small. The Chantry vaults have always yielded some delicious bits of information though." He continued to study the envelope, scratching his chin in thought.
Saunière reached to his desk, grabbed a letter opener, and sliced open the blood-red wax seal. The letter unfolded, bearing only a single sheet of parchment with a few hasty lines scribed in the centre. Quickly, he read the contents of the letter, his brow crumpling deeper and deeper with concern. Saunière blanched.
"Mon Professeur! The news from Duchamp! Please tell me nothing unfortunate has happened to such a great man, he has made such an important contribution to Andrastian history!"
Saunière read it again. "This is not a message from Duchamp. It's his assistant, Felix…Dear Divine…they found a ruin that he insisted on exploring near the borders of Nessum."
"A ruin?" Tassilo asked, pacing through Saunière's office, straightening a pile of books on a side table as he passed.
"The letter does not specify. Duchamp went missing two moons past."
The horse trod carefully upon the narrow path. To the right, a canyon wall rose above Saunière and to his left, the edge of the winding trail dropped perilously into a river basin. From time to time, Saunière would crane his neck to see the thin snaking river below, sometimes obscured by tangled trees that clung to the sloping cliffs. The sun was high and sweat beaded on his brow. From behind, he could hear the plodding hoof beats of Tassilo's mount.
Within days of receiving the message from Duchamp's assistant, Saunière sought permission from the rector to take extended leave and search for the missing scholar. Duchamp was an old man, nearing his seventieth summer and was greatly respected within Orlesian academic circles. Saunière had studied under him as a young man, once he was no longer of use to the templar order.
His father had sent him to the Chantry as a boy, fearing that his son's love of books was turning him soft. For ten years Saunière served under the Ghislain Chantry until he was fatefully struck down by a malificars. He felt it was the best thing that had ever happened, even though his body would forever bear the scars and constant aches. At least the lyrium had not completely taken his mind. The Chantry sisters that cared for him after his injury told him he would never walk again, but Saunière, forever stubborn and never willing to take no for an answer, proved everyone wrong. In the darkest days of his convalescence, he sought refuge in the only remaining thing that he loved—books. Ser Joubert, Ghislain's Knight-Commander, recognized Saunière's scholarly inclinations, and used his connections to send him to Val Royeaux to study with Duchamp, once Saunière recovered from his injuries. Duchamp opened new doors for Saunière, and over the years they worked tirelessly on Andrastian history and early Chantry theology. Duchamp had a special love for investigating the first cults of the Maker and had a talent for sniffing out new areas of research.
Saunière pulled a handkerchief from his riding coat and mopped his sweaty brow, and then turned to check on Tassilo. He sat high in his saddle on his Orlesian Bloodmare and looked every part a noble knight: impeccable and fearless. Even though Tassilo loved books and libraries as much as he, the blood from Arlathan still coursed in his veins, despite having adopted the superficial trappings of Orlesian culture. It seemed to endear him the rest of the University faculty. Despite this, he had strapped a Dalish longbow to his back; Tassilo's aim was as precise as his tongue. Even in his Orlesian leathers, he seemed impervious to the heat, another subtle reminder of his assistant's humble origins.
Saunière groped for his wineskin slung over his shoulder and drank deeply. Maker knew he had seen far too many summers to be traipsing all over Thedas. His knees were on fire and a pain had settled between his shoulder blades and in the small of his back.
They had been travelling for a month. From Val Royeaux, they journeyed to Nevarra City, resupplied and then made their way north. They were now a day's ride outside of Nessum, in the heart of Tylus Canyon, close to the borders of the Tevinter Imperium. Felix had provided a rough map and a general description of where Duchamp was last seen.
Despite the many years that separated him from his templar training, there was always a lingering unease when he journeyed close to Tevinter. This was a land that templars are taught to fear and loathe. Never one to accept anything at face value, the first thing Saunière did when he had arrived under Duchamp's tutelage all those years ago was to become an expert in Tevinter history and culture. It was one of his first acts of rebellion. When his research raised the ire of the Blessed Rector, Saunière stood in front of the academic council to defend his work.
"Allowing Tevinter history to be cloaked in mystique will only give it more power. Let us shed the light of the Maker upon it." He announced, full of arrogance.
He grew to love the academic dance. Really, he did not even think the Maker existed, but loved to use the Chantry's rhetoric to get his own way. Duchamp taught him this game, and Saunière was determined to find him. He hitched his breath as he allowed himself to drift in the current of his memory.
The canyon path twisted around a rocky prominence. Saunière guided his horse and noticed that the road began to widen. The roots of the canyon above offered a shady shelter. Not quite a cave and more like a porch, the outcropping would offer the men a safe place to rest for the night. Saunière dismounted and tied the horse to a nearby pine.
"This looks as good as any place to camp for the night," he called out to Tassilo.
"We've enough water for another days ride. If we don't find another source, we'll have to head down the canyon again." Tassilo unpacked the leather water bags they had filled before their ascent and struggled to serve each horse. Meanwhile, Saunière stretched, pulled off the hat that prevented the top of his head from turning red as the dawn and sifted through his belongings to find his hand axe. There was enough scrub and deadwood for a fire. Nights were cold in the Disputed Lands, and the canyons were full of slavers, mercenaries and all other manner of brigand.
By sunset, he and Tassilo sat before a humble fire, with a peccary turning on a spit. The grease sizzled and spit as it dribbled into the flame and signaled Saunière's stomach to beg for relief. Night creatures started to sing their evening songs. In the distance the cry of a wolf put the professor on edge. Tassilo sharpened a dagger in preparation for the feast. He looked up, his eyes reflecting the flickering flame and adjusted a log to better roast their dinner.
"It continues to beguile me why Duchamp ventured this far north." Tassilo said, as if he was verbalizing a conversation already taking place inside his head. "Surely there is no evidence of an early Andrastian cult here. These lands are for travelling through…no scholar that I have read has ever hinted that a religious community had ever settled here."
Saunière closed a small notebook he had been scribbling in. "Duchamp is rarely wrong. He was on to something, that much I am sure. You are aware that he was not always forthcoming about his research, Tassilo."
Tassilo arched an eyebrow. "Mon professeur, the Chantry was pouring coin into his research into Andraste's last journey to Minrathous. He was hoping to establish a pilgrimage route. Whatever are you talking about?"
The smell from the roasting meat was driving Saunière to distraction. With a small blade he kept strapped on his calf, he cut a strip for himself, to Tassilo's disapproval. It was a little on the rare side, but it was enough to silence the grumbling.
"Duchamp was never one to allow the Chantry to direct his research. He'll give them what they want; it's his…extracurricular study…that I am most interested in. There are traces, mere hints that Andraste was more than an escaped slave."
"Of course she is more than that, she is the holy prophetess."
"By the Divine Tassilo, you sound so…Orlesian…Duchamp was gathering evidence that she was escaping Tevinter with more than just the rags on her back. Think about it, my dear friend, Archon Thalsian either learned magic from Dumat or from the elves—depending on which side of the argument one wishes to align with. If magic is considered to be beneficial force, then of course it is the gift from the elves, or if it is a curse upon Thedas, then one will of course suggest that Thalsian had dark dealings with Dumat. Regardless, we are still missing one piece of the puzzle, Tassilo."
Somewhere beyond the firelight, a twig snapped. Tassilo looked gravely at Saunière, quickly jumping to his feet and investigated. Bats darted over Saunière's head and the wolf called again from the valley below. Tassilo returned and settled down again, assuaging Saunière's concerns and suggested it was the horses.
"And what piece of the puzzle was Duchamp so interested in?" Tassilo asked, taking the meat off the spit and started to carve thick slices onto a flat stone.
"Learning magic is one thing, but how is the ability passed from one generation to the next?" Saunière held out his tin plate while Tassilo piled roughly cut chunks onto it. Saunière wasted no time appeasing his impatient hunger.
"And you think Andraste had something to do with that, mon professeur?"
Saunière placed a finger over his lips. A great Orlesian grey owl flew overhead, its haunting call echoed over their camp site. Tassilo seemed unfazed by the nocturnal visitors. The professor leaned toward the fire and spoke barely above a whisper.
"I think Duchamp found evidence to show that Andraste had everything to do with it, my dear Tassilo." He held up a finger to stay his assistant's response. Saunière turned around, hoping his eyes would quickly adjust to the dark. Brilliant stars hung overhead.
"Tassilo my friend, I think we are being followed."
A/N Bioware owns all, gads I am loathe to admit that. Thank's for all your early interest in Andraste's Key. My deepest gratitude and appreciation are sent to my betas Kira Tamarion and DoorbellSpider. Stay tuned for Chapter 3: Nuraya. A quick shout-out to Oleander's One for your kind reviews, in this and in In Her Mind's Eye. Much appreciated!