"Stop trying to see." a harsh command; the qunari's voice. "Do not become so fixated on what you have lost that you cannot grasp what else you have."
I nodded and wiped sweat from my brow. Clenching my swords tighter, I tried to regain focus. My eyes are broken. I must make use of my other senses.
"You are not." Sten countered. "You humans. Thought is not to do, to do is not to think. Sever yourself from one before you attempt the other."
Right. Sten was a strange man, if one could call the qunari men. But he had taken it upon himself to re-teach me the sword. After I had lost my sight to Andraste's Flames, a poison used by Leliana's once lover and mentor, Marjolaine, I thought I had lost all usefulness as a warrior. Sten had not endured my melancholy well. He had publicly upbraided me in front of the camp, decrying my weaknesses and lack of adaptability.
All who are born to the Qun will serve their purpose, he had said, regardless of limitations. Even if blind, the warrior will submit to the Qun, and take his place.
Angry, I had demanded that he instruct me as those among his people were taught. To my surprise, he had chuckled and accepted.
I closed my eyes, even though I knew the gesture was futile. I struggled to focus on what I felt, the wind, the warmth on my face from the setting sun, the rivulets of sweat trickling down my back and over my face. I concentrated on the whispering of the leaves, the song of the crickets.
Feel, hear the natural world, more of Sten's advice. Ground yourself in all that is around you. When you find something outside of that, then you know where to point your blade.
Movement, cloth wrinkling, a cutting through the wind. I lifted my blades and blocked Sten's overhead blow. The weight slid from my swords and I shifted my stance…caught the flat of Sten's blade against my rib cage. I staggered back, gasping for breath.
I dropped to my knees and Sten grunted. Maker's breath! I swore, driving my swords into the ground and clawing my way to my feet. I've been through worse. Heavens and hells, I died not a fortnight ago. If I can walk back from eternity, I can fight blind.
"Again." I panted, wanting to speak before the qunari could find more disdain to harbor against me.
"Are you certain?" he asked, baring my considerable fragility with those three words.
He grunted again; fell deadly silent. I tensed, waiting for his next strike.
"Relax your body." he ordered for the hundredth time. "You prime your weapons because you know my attack is imminent. Darkspawn you can sense, but against bandits, assassins, and the like, you are doomed. Only until you become part of the earth you tread on will you be ready to face any opponent."
I worked the tension from my body, trying to heed his advice. I took a deep breath, cursing as another strike took the back of my knee.
"You see." Sten asked. "You are ill-prepared."
I hate this. I bit my lip. Andraste's ass, I bloody hate this.
"Damn you." I muttered.
"On your feet, warden." he sounded as though he smiled, but I had never seen him do so. I got to my feet. "And stop cursing at me. You chose your fate. You must bear the consequence. Now, again."
Too late, I heard the sound of footsteps. I stepped back, raising my blade, only to feel his massive fist against my face. I fell back, dropping my blades, collapsing to the ground.
"Enough." the Orlesian accent carried a false calm. "Sten, she's had enough."
The qunari grunted again. His Qun did not allow for love. He could not grasp the concept of one soul becoming so entwined with another's that it overrode the will of Self or dedication to a cause.
No. I haven't. We've been beyond fortunate these last two weeks. It will not be long until we find ourselves once more surrounded by enemies.
"I'm all right, Leliana." I muttered, standing up for the third time.
"You're not." her hand wrapped around my arm and I jerked in surprise. I had not heard her approach.
I wanted to pull my arm out of her grasp, but I restrained myself. For the last two weeks, Leliana had been my eyes, my protector. She had assumed the role I had grown accustomed to. I no longer knew where I stood.
"All right." I swallowed my pride and let her gather my swords. I bristled as she set them into their sheathes.
So bloody useless.
Leliana took my hand. "Thank you, Sten." I said, not wanting him to hate me entirely.
He grunted yet again and I smiled, expecting nothing less. Leliana guided me back to our camp, to the tent we shared together. She had foregone her privacy to take care of me.
Because now I need looking after, I berated myself again.
The tent flap moved aside and Leliana ushered me in. Deft fingers wrapped around my shoulders and lifted my swords from my back. I exhaled, grateful for the freedom from the weight.
"You're working yourself too hard, love." Leliana whispered. "It takes time to acclimate to a lost sense."
"I don't have time." I replied, speaking the truth.
"Sit down." I could hear the ire in her voice.
What have I done now?
I obeyed, kneeling before I sat, uncertain of the ground. "Leliana…"
"That brute split your lip." she said from the corner of the tent.
I reached up, gingerly touching the corner of my mouth. My fingers came away sticky. "It's fine."
She sighed. I could sense that she was troubled, but could tell nothing unless she spoke. "What's troubling you, dear heart?" I asked.
A cool cloth was pressed against my lips, cleaning away the blood and taking down the swelling. "You." her voice barely rose above a whisper.
I reached up and took her hand in my own. "I…I do not know what to say."
"You're pushing yourself too hard." her words poured out in a tumble. "It's only been two weeks, Salem. You walked out of death and two days later we started traveling towards the Frostback mountains."
Of course. I should have realized. Damn it, Salem, stop insulating yourself.
"Loghain's men were staking out the camp, becoming suspicious." I defended my actions. "Staying was too risky."
"But at the risk of your health, your life?" Leliana exclaimed. "You barely sleep nights, you're still far too pale, your wounds still haven't healed. All this and I find you, after an exhausting day's travel, being flung around like a rag doll by the qunari. It hurts, Salem. It hurts me to watch you do this to yourself."
I wrapped my arms around her, holding her close. "It's all right, Leli. I'm all right."
She jabbed her fingers into my side where Marjolaine had driven in her blade. I cried out and doubled over, breathing hard.
"You're not." her voice was ice.
"Makers breath!" I gasped.
"You're not invincible, my warden." I felt the warmth of her hand on my cheek. "And it hurts me to watch you run yourself ragged. We have time, love. Please rest."
A thousand arguments raged behind my lips, but I stilled them. I knew we did not have time. Leliana knew it too. Arl Eamon's life hinged on our speed. Our safety depended on my ability to fight. I would not be a burden, I would not. But I did not voice those thoughts aloud.
"Stay with me?" I asked, smiling for her sake.
"Of course." she sounded relieved.
I lay down and took Leliana in my arms. Arguments could wait for another time. For the moment, all was well within my world.