He no longer knew how many days he'd been imprisoned. Each day bled into the next, every passing minute the same eternity as the last. They'd dumped him in a cell without a roof, exposed to the blistering hot sun. His burns had long since bubbled and blistered, the cruel touch of the sun scalding his pale skin. His lips cracked and bled, and his dry tongue pressed into the creases, searching out any drop of moisture it could find. They gave him water every third day, just enough to keep him sane.
Demons tore at his mind every moment of the day, throwing themselves against the thin veil of his sanity. When he slept, they slipped into his dreams, twisting them until he woke screaming. He forced himself to stay awake as long as possible, but then they came to him in deranged hallucinations. He would have sobbed had he moisture to spare. Instead, he clawed at his eyes. The templars must have found it amusing; they did nothing to help.
On the day he was convinced he'd finally die, it rained, water pouring from the sky in thick, cold droplets. The rain pelted his head, hitting like one thousand little needles, and he rolled to his back to drink great mouthfuls. It turned his stomach, drinking so much at once, and he only just managed to turn to his side before retching it up.
The rain revitalized him, just a little, and he pushed himself up. The wall wasn't far, and he dragged himself to it, falling heavily against it. His hair, bleached milk white by the sun, dripped water into his eyes, guided it down his gaunt cheeks.
He shook and shivered, pressing against the wall for what little safety it could provide. The cold was a small and short-lived blessing; the longer it persisted, the more dangerous for him it became.
The door to his cell swung open, and he turned slowly toward it. A hulking figure took a single step toward him, and he braced himself, ready for the demons to renew their onslaught.
He drew his lips back in a paltry snarl.
"Get up, you poor sod."
The voice was familiar, and he stilled, peering through the driving rain, trying to identify the man before him. It had to be a man. There was no scratching at his mind, no pretty, whispered promises.
"Who?" he asked. His throated, abused from screaming, could barely manage the word, and it came out hoarse.
With a sound of disgust, the man threw something at him. A heavy cloak fell across his lap. Thick fur caressed his naked flesh, and he quickly dragged it across his naked body. He'd abandoned clothing when the blistering started, unable to bear the rough pull of it against his wounds. But this cloak was butter soft, and he shrugged into it, wrapping it about his shoulders.
"Get up, Warden."
He turned toward the wall, cringing against it, hating the undeniable command in the man's voice. Maybe this was a demon. A desire demon. It had come to torment him with things he wanted. Rain. Clothing. In a few empty minutes, all these things would be gone.
Another sound of disgust. Boots hit the ground.
A hard hand wrapped around his upper arm and dragged him to his feet. The world lurched around him and his stomach flipped over. He bit down on the inside of his mouth until it bled, refusing to vomit again and show more weakness.
"Pathetic," the man said, hauling him across the cell and to the door. He was dragged through it, scrambling to keep up with the man's long-legged stride. A few times, he fell against the man's body, and the edges of armor pressed against his boney side, hard and uncomfortable. "Absolutely pathetic."
"You're one to talk," he grumbled, not quite sure where the words came from. Some place dark and full of loathing. He hated this man. He couldn't remember him, whoever he was – could barely remember himself on a good day, and this day was certainly not good – but he remembered hating him.
They were met a little further down the hall by a young woman in clothes that were worn but warm. He regarded her with some amount of jealousy that slowly transformed into a seething sort of envy, the kind that made him grind his teeth. That the young woman even had clothes to wear near infuriated him when he'd had nothing. He'd languished in his cell, cooking under the hot sun, and this no one, this nothing of a human being, had the very thing he'd needed most.
He hated her, too.
"Bathe him, clothe him, feed him," the man said. The man turned to him, his expression hard. There was no kindness in his eyes. "Behave." The man lingered long enough to make sure his unspoken message sunk in, and it did; the message was clear. If his behavior was unacceptable, he wouldn't get clothing. Or food. Or escape.
The man left him with the woman, and he wondered if there wasn't a person on the planet he hated. He doubted it.
Washing up took a fair amount of time, but only because he lingered in the tepid water far longer than necessary. As he lay there, he began to remember himself in bits and flashes. Remembering wasn't quite the word for it, though. He'd deliberately forgotten much of it, perhaps because he knew he wouldn't survive in Aeonar with the knowledge of who he was. He'd all but allowed himself to go insane.
He laughed at the realization, even that making his throat throb, and when he rubbed his neck, the serving girl brought him a steaming mug of tea filled with honey. He drank it slowly, and once finished with it Carrow rose from the tub, dried himself off, and began to dress.
They'd given him a traveler's clothes. He fingered the undershirt. It was heavy, well woven linen, and it wouldn't irritate his skin too badly for the hour it two it would take him and Alistair to travel to the base of the mountain. Then he'd heal himself.
Dressed and only moderately uncomfortable, Carrow followed the serving girl as she took him down a long hall. He took the time to study the structure, since he hadn't been conscious the first time through. Tevinter arches supported the ceiling, and their statues remained tucked into hollows in the wall. Through an open door or two, he saw rooms in disrepair, and he idly wondered how long the structure would hold. Surely not much longer. The Veil was so thin that one day a mage prisoner would breathe wrong and bring an army of demons down on the place.
He relished the thought.
"Ah, there you are."
Carrow turned to Alistair with a chilly smile. "Here I am," he agreed, keeping eye contact and enjoying the way Alistair shifted with discomfort. "When will you tell me why?"
"Soon." Alistair's response came too quickly, too abruptly, and Carrow allowed himself some measure of pleasure. Making Alistair twitchy was something he'd missed.
Standing quietly off to the side, he watched Alistair exchange a few quick and quiet words with a templar. The woman scowled in Carrow's direction, and he responded with a slow, snake-like smile.
Finally, Alistair stepped back and the templar gave him a curt nod. "Maker bless the path you travel, Your Majesty."
Carrow followed Alistair from the room, down a twisting stairwell. Neither spoke, though Carrow wasn't entirely sure why. There were thousands of things he could say to make Alistair hate him more. That game never grew old. But something compelled him to hold his tongue. Perhaps it was the weight of Aeonar around them and the fact that he would sooner tear out his own throat than go back in his cell.
They came to a long hallway and passed through it unmolested by the templars at either end, finally coming into a moderately sized stable.
Carrow wrinkled his nose in disgust as they approached the doors. The rain still fell, like someone had funneled the ocean itself into the clouds and then seen fit to unleash it on the earth below. He pulled the cloak about his shoulders closed, bringing the hood over his head as he and Alistair neared a templar holding two horses.
"Your Majesty," the templar said with a slight bow.
Alistair took the reins of his horse, mounting in an easy motion that Carrow might have envied if he considered horsemanship to be an enviable trait. It wasn't. Nothing Alistair could do with grace was something to be envied.
He mounted with greater care, settling into the saddle uncertainly. His ass would be saddle sore in an hour.
"Thank you, Ser Kaulin. Mage, with me."
"Mage, is it?" Carrow nudged his horse after Alistair's, the two animals eating up the short distance from the stables to the inner gates.
Carrow remembered the gates. There were three of them, though perhaps there'd once been more, and they were massive constructs. Templars patrolled them morning, noon, and night, feeding their twisted magics into barriers that stripped a mage of his mana. He suppressed a shudder as they approached the first gate. The metal portcullis rose slowly, and with each inch it moved, tension drew Carrow straighter in his saddle.
Freedom. In moments, he'd have his freedom.
He glanced at Alistair from the corner of his eyes, finally taking the time to assess the man. He hadn't the slightest why Alistair would choose to free him. But he dreaded finding out.
A shame running away would likely screw him over.
They made camp at the base of the mountain. There was nothing around them for miles but empty space; Aeonar was not a place people found easily and it had no room for villages or way points or even the most run down of inns.
"Just like old times," Carrow said, sitting very, very carefully on the ground with the smoked meat Alistair had given him. "Save for the fact there's no Archdemon out to destroy all Ferelden and we're missing four or five people." He gave Alistair his most cutting smile. "How's your lovely wife?"
Alistair didn't even flinch. He met Carrow's smile with one of his own, a disturbingly genuine one. "Anora is well, thank you."
That wasn't the answer Carrow was expecting. The idea that Alistair and Anora might actually be happy together repulsed him. Not only because Anora was a shrew of a human being but because he'd orchestrated the marriage to make Alistair miserable. If Carrow had to be a Grey Warden, if he had no choice in the matter, than Alistair had to be king and be miserable.
Biting into his jerky, Carrow turned his gaze from Alistair to the sky. He'd stared a lot at the sky while in his cell. He'd contemplated the meaning of the stars. His place in the universe. As one does when one is insane. He hadn't gotten very far in it and could only remember his conclusion involved pickled fish and six pounds of sugar.
"You're probably wondering why I'm here."
The abrupt words startled Carrow, and he snickered. "No. Not really." Not true, he was, but he wasn't going to tell Alistair that.
Carrow's snicker turned into a laugh. "You need me, Your most gracious Majesty," he said, dipping low and feigning obeisance. "You need your mighty Warden Commander for some new task, else you'd have left me in that prison to rot."
"Where you should be."
"Tch, is that how you talk to an old friend?"
"Friend?" Alistair shot to his feet, his hand going to his sword, and Carrow readied a spell, drawing on what little reserves of magic he had left after healing his burns. "You are not my friend. You—you destroyed my home, murdered an innocent child, committed genocide against a people we needed to help us, brought ruin to the dwarves—"
"Ooh, that's news," Carrow said, not hiding his child-like glee as Alistair paced about the fire. He didn't release his magic, but he didn't cast his spell either; instead, he watched Alistair with careful eyes, ready to react should he need to.
Alistair seemed content with pacing and clenching and unclenching his hand around his sword.
"—before causing the deaths of thousands at Denerim, letting the city burn—"
"I hardly think it was thousands."
Alistair turned on him, his face a mask of fury, and for the first time in his life, Carrow was actually afraid of the man. "Do not make light of the horrors you brought on our country."
But there was a trick to handling Alistair's rage, the few times it manifested. "You mean before or after I allowed the Architect free reign?" he asked, infusing his voice with enough callous disregard to sting.
Alistair's eyes widened. "You disgust me."
"And yet here you are." Carrow grinned, pleased. Disarming Alistair by shocking him never failed. "Needing me." He bit into his jerky. Chewed. Swallowed. Spit a gristly bit into the fire. "Tell me why."
Alistair settled on the ground once more, reaching into one of his rucksacks. He pulled a rolled parchment from it and passed the paper to Carrow.
Carrow pushed the last of the jerky into his mouth, wiping his fingers on his shirt, and took the paper. He unfolded it and read it quickly, brows lifting. "You're joking."
"I am not."
"This is ridiculous." He tossed the paper at the fire, and Alistair scrambled to catch it before it caught. "Let it burn," he said, making a sharp gesture of dismissal, his face pulled into a sneer. "Do you have proof? Anyone could have written that."
"Do you really believe that?"
"Sigrun would never have written to ask for my help." And he didn't think Sigrun could write at all. He leaned back to regard the glittering stars. "Who's keeping watch?" he asked.
Alistair made a strange noise. It sounded like irritation. "I will. You need to rest."
A smirk tugged at the corner of his lips. "Of course." Carrow let his hands slide out from under him, scraping his palms against the rough ground. The rocks bit into his skin, drawing just the faintest amount of blood. He did it to goad Alistair, should Alistair be watching. Touching the center of his power, he applied a thin layer of heat to his skin, the lightest tickle of flame. Using blood to power a spell like that would be self-defeating, but he could never pass up on the chance to annoy Alistair.
He was tired, very tired, and it wasn't long before he fell into a dreamless sleep. Alistair woke him shortly after midnight. "Two hours," he said, and he dangled a small vial in Carrow's face. "You try to sneak off, I will hunt you to the ends of the earth, and Aeonar will seem like a kindness."
There was an alien hardness in Alistair's expression, and Carrow didn't doubt a word he said. He gave Alistair a sharp nod and stood, shaking himself to wake up his stiff body. He paced the perimeter of their camp, at the very edge of the firelight, moving on silent feet and listening carefully to acquaint himself with the forest's sounds.
When he returned, Alistair was asleep, snoring lightly.
Settling on the ground, Carrow waited for dawn.
They rode steadily down a roughshod road made dangerous by the previous day's rains, crossing from the plain lands into the foothills of the Frostback mountains. Near midday, they came to a town at the base of Gerien's Pass, and Alistair paused at the fringes of it.
"We'll stop here for the rest of the day before making our way into the mountains and on to Orzammar."
Carrow's eyes narrowed. "Someone's meeting us here?"
Alistair startled, making his horse shy. "How—"
"Tch. How do you manage in court?" He drew his horse alongside Alistair's, casting an irritable glance at the tiny town. Disgusting creatures, every last one of them. All he'd ever wanted was a dispensation from the First Enchanter at Kinloch Hold to study musty books in the middle of nowhere, a tower fortress to himself where no one would bother him.
He'd never have that. Ferelden's hero would never be given that kind of privacy.
Resentment bubbled within him, gnawing at his stomach.
"Sod off," Alistair snapped.
"Brilliant rebuttal." He nodded toward the muddy wreck that likely served as the main street. "So we're just going to walk in there? You're not concerned about being the king?"
The question wiped the irritation off Alistair's face, his expression melting into one of smug satisfaction. "Do you really think anyone in this town is going to recognize me?"
Carrow hissed, fingers tightening on his reigns. The pull made his horse step uneasily to the side. Alistair was right, and it pissed him off. No one in this backwater place would recognize the king, least of all in the dinged and scratched armor he wore. "Kept that from the Blight, then?" he asked, putting a cruel edge in his voice in an attempt to recover.
"Hardly out of sentiment. Let's go."
He seethed while Alistair started his horse forward, digging his nails into his palms until he drew blood. Spurring his mount after Alistair, Carrow kept his silence as they approached the inn and dismounted. They passed the horses to a stable boy who didn't look twice in Alistair's direction, and the self-satisfied smile on the king's face grew.
Had they been alone, Carrow would have boiled his blood and left him for dead.
Except he wouldn't have, not really, and not out of any love for Alistair. Killing a king brought unfortunate attention to a person, and Carrow loathed attention.
They settled at a table in the corner, where Alistair could watch the people passing in and out of the inn. Carrow took the liberty of buying two mugs of beer for them, and Alistair warned him not to overspend.
"Because there will be merchants selling priceless and indispensible antiques in the Deep Roads?" Carrow asked. Alistair fell silent at that, and Carrow began nursing his beer.
They sat there for hours, not talking and hardly looking at each other. Carrow went over the letter hundreds of times, lips silently forming the words as he tried to find some kind of trap in them. But Sigrun's missive had been plainly written. And she wasn't exactly duplicitous. But she hated him nearly as much as Alistair did, and Carrow couldn't wrap his thoughts around why she would send for him.
The Wardens had other mages. Velanna. Anders. He couldn't remember the names of anymore, but he was sure they existed. And if they didn't, it wasn't like it would be hard to march into Kinloch Hold and conscript one perfect for the job.
But no. No, Sigrun had written to Alistair to fetch him. The Legion found something in the Deep Roads. Bring Carrow.
It was enough to make him long for Aeonar. Oh, Aeonar had been hell, but a better hell than trudging through the Deep Roads in search of danger. Carrow had no desire to die. The Deep Roads toed the edge of death.
A pretty serving girl in a corset that barely contained her breasts brought them a thick gruel she had the audacity to call stew when the sun began to set, painting the inside of the inn a brilliant orange. Carrow devoured it in spite of himself. The jerky the previous night and earlier that morning had barely satisfied his hunger.
The bowl was half empty when a woman propped her hip on the side of their table and grinned down at them. He regarded her with a frown. "If it isn't the Warden," she said, and his lip pulled back in a sneer.
"Isabela." He gave her a lingering once-over, leaving his eyes on her breasts, so prominently displayed, longer than necessary. "You look different."
"You still look like a soulless hurlock." She gave him a smile, clearly pleased with himself.
He had a truly brilliant and disparaging remark on the tip of his tongue, one that would scald even her ears and shut her up, when a dwarf pushed his way onto the bench beside him. "Varric Tethras," he said by way of greeting, giving Carrow a narrow-eyed, appraising stare.
Carrow was suddenly reminded how much he hated dwarves.
"You must be Carrow."
"Really?" Carrow demanded, leaning across the table to hiss at Alistair. "You brought the slut and a dwarf?"
"Just as charming as Brona said he was." Tethras chuckled and Carrow silently reminded himself that burning an entire town to the ground was not only stupid but beyond his abilities.
He supposed he could turn them all into ticking time bombs. That would be amusing. At least until the templars found him. He wondered if being the Warden would protect him then. Unlikely.
"How do you know my cousin?" he asked, his voice calm and even.
Alistair replied before Tethras could. "Isabela and Varric were associates of hers in Kirkwall. They've been there for the past seven years."
Carrow felt an eerie calm settle deep in his bones. "Seven years?" He watched Alistair go white. "Move, dwarf. I need some air."
Tethras moved out of his way with a curious expression on his face, as though he were interested in Carrow's reaction more than he was concerned for his immediate health. Carrow wanted to rip out his heart. He wanted to rip out Alistair's heart.
He left the inn, picked a random direction, and began walking.
It wasn't Brona's name that infuriated him. Nor was it the fact that Tethras and Isabela had been her allies. Brona didn't matter. The seven years mattered. He knew she'd fled Ferelden. When they'd been in Lothering, he'd found their abandoned home, feeling the residual traces of magic there. He'd picked through a few of the things they'd left, finding a passable staff hidden away and giving it to Morrigan.
She'd fled at the start of war, even more a coward than he. Tethras and Isabela had been with her for perhaps six years then, since he'd met the latter in Denerim about halfway through the whole muck and mire of the Blight. Which meant he'd been in Aeonar for five years at least.
He stopped, finding himself on the edge of the town. And in he stood there, in the darkening light, still and silent and full of black hatred.
"Not worried about Grumpy?" Varric asked, sliding back onto the bench with Isabela beside him as Carrow left the inn looking fit to kill.
"He won't leave," Alistair said, holding his hands around his mug of beer and staring at the table. "If he leaves, he loses his chance to kill me."
Varric glanced at Isabela, and she waved her hand with a laugh. "Carrow's a petty, gutless little shit."
"I put him in Aeonar for six years."
"We'll lay traps around your sleeping roll."
"Six years?" Varric asked with a whistle. "What'd he do?"
Alistair sighed. "After he set the Architect loose on Ferelden or before?"
That confirmed the stories Hawke had told them about her cousin were true. He'd thought she'd exaggerated most of them, remembering a family member she hadn't gotten along with. Apparently not. "And that's the Warden. That's the man who saved Ferelden."
Alistair rubbed his face with an open palm, dragging his fingers across his chin and giving Varric a rueful smile. "Yes."
"That's the man you want coming with us to the Deep Roads."
He didn't understand that at all. He'd worked with some strange people with Hawke. Hawke was pretty strange herself. But Carrow seemed outright dangerous, a self-serving lunatic who would abandon them the first chance he got.
"He was asked for by name. And, strange as it sounds, I trust him."
"You trust him?" Isabela scoffed, kicking her feet up and propping them on the table, nearly knocking over Alistair's beer in the process. He saved it before it tipped, drawing it away from her rocking feet.
"Carrow's an ass, but he's a coward, too. He won't do anything that will jeopardize his life," Alistair explained, and Varric made a thoughtful sound, running his fingers along his jaw. They could work with that. A self-serving coward was better than a self-serving lunatic. More easily manipulated. "But we… might want to… well." He gave a nervous laugh, and Varric braced himself. "Sneak him into Orzammar?"
"Why?" Varric asked, dreading the answer.
"Well, it's just. The whole dwarven succession…" Alistair made a helpless gesture. "Didn't go so well?"
2/The Deep Roads
Secreting Carrow into Orzammar wasn't as hard as Varric had expected. The mage was quite willing to disguise himself and didn't seem overeager to attract attention. They rubbed mud into his hair and smeared it over his face. He hadn't cut the scruff he called a beard, and though Varric didn't think it was obscuring enough, Alistair claimed it made Carrow look like an entirely different person. He affected a limp as they walked, leaning heavily on a wooden staff. Alistair had done him the favor of cutting it down and smoothing it. A few quick spells served to make the wood look aged and battered, and when they reached the gates of Orzammar no one questioned the hooded old man.
No one said it was too easy to pass the guards. They kept their peace as Alistair led them through the entrance of Orzammar to the city proper. No one stopped them as they went. Varric doubted the dwarves recognized Alistair as the King of Ferelden; they likely assumed the outsiders were all Wardens.
That was their cover story. If anyone stopped them, Carrow was an aging Warden, a friend of the King's, come for his Calling. Varric and Isabela would claim to be Wardens as well.
"We should stock up on lyrium," Carrow muttered as they paused in the Commons. He sagged heavily on his staff to lean closer to Varric. "My crafting is rusty, and I doubt we'll find much of use down there."
"Last time we were down here," Alistair added, speaking in hushed tones so that no one would overhear them, "we ran out of poultices and had to rely on Carrow's healing spells." He gave the mage a bitter smile. "Paltry spells at that." Varric tensed and noticed Isabela shift uneasily beside him. If the two started a pissing contest in the middle of the Commons, he'd—
The mage stiffened but didn't rise to the bait. "At least I had those. Otherwise, you'd be dead." He nodded toward the left. "There were shops that way the last time we were here." He held out one hand to Alistair. "Split the gold. I'll take the woman, you take the dwarf."
Isabela took the money Alistair held out before Carrow could grab it and gave him a lofty expression. "I take myself, Grumpy," she said. Carrow glared at her while Varric choked on a laugh. "I don't need any help from you." And she swayed off in the direction Carrow had indicated. He limped after, muttering curses under his breath.
"Do you think that was a bad idea?" Alistair asked. "Letting them go alone?"
"Probably. But he won't do anything to draw attention to himself."
They poked through a few shops to see if there was anything useful. Varric found a set of throwing knives he thought Isabela might like and picked up a few parrying daggers as well, knowing how often the small weapons were lost or broken. Once they were in the Deep Roads, they wouldn't be able to leave easily. It was best to be prepared.
Alistair purchased a fair amount of oil for their armor, as well as a truly shocking amount of poultices. "You weren't here last time," he said. Varric expected him to make the statement into a joke. But he turned away, expression solemn, and checked to see if there were any lyrium potions.
They met near the proving grounds an hour later. Isabela had two packs slung over her shoulders while Carrow carried only one. "Old man," he said with a pleased smile, and Varric wondered if they couldn't conveniently lose him in the labyrinthine Deep Roads. Maybe he could fall to his death. Or get eaten by something in the dark.
They shuffled things around, spreading the weight evenly through the packs, and Alistair made it clear that once they were in the Deep Roads, Carrow would be carrying his fair share of their supplies. Isabela tucked several of the knives Varric purchased into her clothes – two vanished down her boots, another two into her top. He didn't know where the rest went and didn't ask. Carrow had found a passable mage's staff. No one asked how a dwarf ended up with one, and while Carrow said it was a pathetic thing, it would do until they found something better.
"Set?" Varric asked.
"Set," Isabela confirmed, tightening the straps of the sacks on her back.
He spared a glance at Alistair and Carrow, and found their faces equally impassive, their gazes fixed on the entrance to the Deep Roads. He wondered what they were thinking about, if they were reliving memories of their last trip or trying to fight fear.
The dwarves at the gate let them pass without question, giving a salute of respect to Carrow as they passed. It rankled Varric to see. Carrow didn't deserve it.
"So," he said after they'd traveled nearly an hour in relative silence, following a road from Orzammar into the twisting caverns. "Where to? And does someone want to take one of these packs?" He shot a scathing look at Carrow.
"No." But Carrow shrugged out of his thick cloak and tossed it to the side, reaching for one of Varric's packs. He bowed slightly under the weight, freeing the staff he'd purchased from one of the packs Alistair had and used that to support himself.
At the same time, Alistair fished a piece of paper from his packs and passed it to Isabela. "Would you unfold that?" he asked, giving his gauntleted hands a point look.
She took it, flipping the parchment open. "To His Most Royal Majesty, King Alistair of Ferelden," she read.
"Below that," Alistair said quickly, cutting her off with a pained expression. Varric smothered a rueful chuckle. It still amused him, sometimes, how Alistair didn't like being king but was more than willing to run around shouting his title to all and sundry. Then he saw the naked hatred on Carrow's face and all amusement fled. The look was directed firmly at Alistair, and it was, really, the first outward revelation of how much Carrow really did despise Alistair.
He wondered why. In a story, he'd probably have written Carrow as resenting Alistair as a representation of the Warden's order. He'd punished the man by making him king. He'd bet, with anyone else, it'd be more complicated than that. But with Carrow? Probably not.
"What's this then?" Isabela asked, peering at the bottom of the paper. She held it out. "Looks like dwarven writing."
"It is," Alistair said. "They're directions." He paused, then added, "I hope."
Carrow snorted with disgust, turning away. "Oh, good." He shook his head and rolled his eyes. "Fantastic. We're in the Deep Roads, looking for the Legion of the Dead – and they could be anywhere – and you hope we have directions." He thumped his staff against the road and a shower of sparks exploded from the end.
Both Isabela and Varric jumped back, but Alistair didn't move, looking moderately annoyed instead. "Stop being a child."
Carrow swung the staff under his arm, pointing the business end of it at Alistair's face. Alistair faced him impassively. "If we meet a broodmother on this trip, I will end you."
"Empty threats." Alistair moved to Isabela's side. "Don't mind him; he's full of hot air," he said to her cheerfully, leaning over her shoulder to examine the directions.
"Shouldn't the dwarf be reading dwarf scribbles?"
"I wasn't born here, Grumpy," Varric snapped, even his temper fraying. He pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose. This is going to be a long, long trip. "I don't read dwarven runes."
Carrow huffed and stomped a few feet away with a petulant look on his face. "I didn't ask to be here," he snarled when the rest of the party stared at him with disbelief.
Shaking his head, Varric moved closer to Alistair and Isabela. "He's a child."
"He's a damn fool," Isabela muttered. "You sure he won't get us killed?"
"No one died the last time we were here," Alistair said, but that didn't do much to assuage Varric's concern.
"If he's not going to be a team player, we need to know."
Alistair shook his head. "Carrow wouldn't survive a minute down here alone, none of us would, and he knows it. He'll fight tooth and nail to keep us alive. If we die, he dies, and he won't stand for that. Now, this." He indicated the first rune on the page. "We need to head to Ortan Thaig. And… south from there."
"As long as we don't go through the trenches again," Carrow said, and the look on Alistair's face made Varric shudder.
They set off, Alistair leading the way. They found the road blocked not long after and left them for the winding caverns.
Varric hung back with Isabela while Alistair took the lead and Carrow stayed in the middle, clutching his staff. Alistair walked with his hand on the hilt of his sword.
"Do you think we'll meet darkspawn here?" Isabela asked quietly. She toyed with one of her knifes, flipping it in her hand. An old habit. A nervous habit.
Varric nodded. "Probably. Hawke and I did, when we came down here." He nodded toward Carrow and Alistair. They both had expressions of fierce concentration on their faces. "They're Wardens, though. They should be able to sense the darkspawn before they're on us."
"I've never actually gone to the Deep Roads with a Warden before."
The way wasn't as bad as Varric expected, and they met no resistance on their path to Ortan Thaig. They found a few abandoned items, mostly useless darkspawn forged weapons, and Carrow threw them away without interest. But he did insist in inspecting the piles of junk, which provided Isabela and Varric some amusement.
"Think he knows how much like his cousin he is?" Varric asked as they paused for Carrow to fish for sparklies in a fractured rock.
"I wouldn't tell him," Isabela replied, a smile tugging at her lips.
Alistair stood nearby and grumbled, looking relieved when Carrow found nothing worth keeping.
"You can find useful things in the rocks," he insisted when Alistair gave him an impatient look. "If we run out of poultices, some of the moss that grows down here could save your life." The and mine was left unspoken but palpably obvious.
"I think I'd rather die," Alistair said, and they continued walking.
They reached a main road again, and Alistair and Carrow agreed they weren't too far from the Thaig. They agreed the party would rest there without input from Varric or Isabela, and then continued in silence.
"Did you pass through Ortan Thaig?" Isabela asked.
Varric shook his head. "We entered a different way."
She turned around, walking backwards as she surveyed the corridor around them. The high ceilings created strange shadows on the walls, and the lava trenches, thin things on both sides of the road, threw enough heat to make his own armor uncomfortable. "Think we'll find anything good down here?" She waggled her fingers at him. "To bring back?"
"I… wouldn't," he said. "You saw what happened to Meredith."
Isabela rolled her eyes. "So we won't bring back any glowing bits of red lyrium." She spun back around.
They were quiet for a minute. Varric deliberately slowed his pace, and Isabela matched them, lengthening the distance between them and Carrow. "Did you see what the letter said?" he asked. "Any details?"
She shook her head, keeping her voice quiet and ducking her head. "No. It said bring Carrow, that the Legion of the Dead found something. Have you heard of this Legion?"
He nodded. "It's a dwarven…" He floundered for a minute, unsure of the best word. "Order, I suppose. When a dwarf disgraces himself and his family, he can die a ceremonial death, leave society, and join the Legion. They fight the darkspawn for the rest of their lives."
Isabela wrinkled her nose. "That sounds…"
"It is." He shrugged. "But the Wardens do it, too."
"And we have three shining examples of Wardens," she said, lifting her arms to indicate Carrow and Alistair. "And Anders."
Varric frowned. "Two Wardens and the Legion."
"Sounds like the start of a story," Isabela said in a sing-song voice, a wicked grin on her face.
"That it does," he agreed, deciding not to voice his troubles.
Ortan Thaig wasn't as large as he'd expected it to be, mostly caved in and ruined, though Carrow and Alistair said it was mostly as they remembered. They chose a defensible building to take refuge in, Alistair and Varric venturing in to be sure it was free of spiders. Carrow remained outside with Isabela to keep watch for darkspawn.
They found nothing inside and so set up camp. While they spread their bedrolls, Carrow took his staff and paced around the perimeter, setting spells. Varric watched with interest as the mage muttered, his hands glowing. He touched the ground, sending magic into it, and when he was done looked pleased with himself.
"If anyone crosses the perimeter, I'll know," he said. "Not much advanced warning, but enough."
Varric's brows rose. Alistair looked pensive. "You never did that at camp," he said.
"It's something I picked up while—at Amaranthine." Carrow shrugged and didn't look at Alistair, but Varric noted the nervous cast in his eyes.
"They walk on eggshells with each other," Varric said to Isabela later, when she changed watches with him. "It's hard to imagine people who worked so closely for a year could distrust each other so much."
Isabela surveyed their sleeping forms and tipped her head to one side, a considering look in her eyes. "Not if what they say about Carrow is true." She turned to Varric. "Not if Alistair put him in Aeonar."
"Bastard deserved it," Varric muttered.
Varric sat against the outside wall of the ruined home, legs stretched before him, Bianca in his lap, and thought. Mostly about Alistair and Carrow and the strange mission they were on. Last time Alistair came to them, requesting aide sneaking into Velabanchel, he'd thought the man was a bit off. Maybe that's what being a Warden did to you. It'd certainly done a number on Anders. Then Alistair had asked him and Isabela to come with him to the Deep Roads.
And wouldn't say why.
And for some blighted reason, Varric had said yes. The promise of gold had been helpful, of course, and Varric had wanted to meet the famed Warden. He'd wanted to see if Hawke's stories, drunken tirades filled with venomous loathing, held true. They did. The reality was as bad as the fiction.
So he was on a trip to the Deep Roads with two Wardens who hated each other, neither of whom would particularly mind the other dying conveniently. And he still didn't have a clue why.
Varric rubbed his forehead.
Whatever the reason, it was compelling enough that Alistair removed Carrow from Aeonar at someone else's behest. And he was curious. Just a little. He wanted to know what had scared the Legion of the Dead enough to summon Wardens and ask for Ferelden's lunatic hero.
The night, if it even was night, passed as quietly as their journey, and when Alistair woke the rest of them in the morning, Varric noticed how uneasy both he and Carrow looked.
"So we're not just lucky?" he asked Alistair as they started through the Thaig.
Alistair shook his head, frowning. "There aren't any darkspawn in the area, but the fact that there's nothing at all is equally disturbing."
"You think something scared it off?" Isabela asked, shouldering her pack.
Carrow stood at the camp perimeter, dispelling whatever magics he'd cast the night before, and shrugged. "Doesn't matter all that much," he said. He turned his staff in his hand, spinning it about his fingers. "Eventually, we'll run into something awful."
"You didn't have to say that." Varric hefted his own pack, adjusting it on his back as Carrow laughed.
"Doesn't matter if I say it or not, dwarf. Eventually, at some point, we're going to run into something big and nasty that'll try to rip us apart, eat us, and kill us." He gave Varric and Isabela a nasty smile. "In that order. Alistair, you should tell them about the Broodmother just in case." With that said, he started away from their camp. Whistling.
"Broodmother?" Isabela asked.
Alistair wore a haunted expression. "I… can't. It's a Warden thing."
Varric and Isabela exchanged curious looks, but neither pressed further, and Alistair seemed grateful for that.
All things considered, their hike through the Deep Roads was going rather well. Which meant, as far as Carrow was concerned, it would start going wrong very soon. That's how his life went. It went well enough for a time; he accomplished the things he wanted to accomplish. And then a Warden showed up. Or all the Wardens died, leaving him figuring he could escape, and then he got roped into saving the world.
They'd had a day and a night of peace. Nothing and no one attacked them. He wasn't stupid; he knew what that meant. Something in the Deep Roads had either eaten or killed its usual beasts. Maybe darkspawn had chewed their way through the spiders and dragonlings. An ogre or two wouldn't have much trouble.
That didn't make sense, though. Darkspawn hadn't been this far up the last time through – just golems and spiders the size of small horses. He let his fingers drift along the cavern wall as they walked along it; there was no taint on the stone.
He tried not to think too much about what might be waiting for him and the end of the journey, but he couldn't help it. He didn't know much about dwarven history, if it could be called history, but he did recognize they'd be traveling deep into the earth. Which meant they'd be going somewhere old. That could be good, admittedly, but he was far more inclined to suspect it would bring only trouble. The older parts of the Deep Roads were the deepest, and that's where the dragons were.
And all he wanted was to be left alone.
Though Aeonar was by no means preferable, he'd at least been by himself there, alone in his thoughts if somewhat insane.
He found he missed the insanity to some degree, and then marveled at himself for thinking as much. Shaking his head, he followed Alistair around a bend and into a large, open cavern.
The creaking of rock echoed through the room, the eerie sound pulling shivers down Carrow's spine.
Alistair took a step forward, and Isabela lunged, grabbing at his arm. "Wait," she said. She pulled him back and crouched above the ground, fishing for a rock with one hand. When she found one that fit whatever criteria she deemed suitable, she tossed it across the floor. Wherever the stone hit, the rock cracked and little flecks shot into the air. Glancing over her shoulder at the men, she gave them a severe look. "We have to go around the edges, and carefully." She eyed Alistair's armor. "Very carefully."
Carrow shifted uncomfortably, moving back toward the mouth of the cavern. "We should back track."
"An hour out of our way?" Alistair asked. "No. We'll do as Isabela says."
He sneered. "We're going to trust someone like her?" he spat, giving Isabela his most contemptuous look.
Tethras moved toward him, his hands sliding along the length of his crossbow. "Someone like—"
Several things happened at once, or in such quick succession they all felt immediate, and Isabela disappeared. Carrow, uneasy, took a step back and nearly impaled himself on the point of a blade. "Get your knife out of my back."
"Sugar, you'll know when my knife is in your back," Isabela purred against his ear. She shifted, her chin brushing his shoulder as he attempted to arch his back and escape the danger her blade presented. "I fight my own battles," she snapped at Tethras, and he nodded, taking a deferential step back.
Isabela moved around Carrow, spinning her knives with deft fingers, and Carrow finally, in the silent safety of his own mind, admitted the danger Isabela presented. Underestimating her in the future would be phenomenally stupid. So he wouldn't; he had no friends among this group.
With that realization came a sudden and fierce sense of loss and a fleeting memory of Morrigan's laughter. He could barely form her face in his mind. He'd ignored her quickly enough, losing interest in her almost immediately. But they were the same. They understood each other, sharing an intense dislike for the whole of humanity.
"If we're done?" Alistair looked impatient and annoyed.
"As long as your pet mage doesn't start anything." Isabela breezed around Alistair and began stepping a cautious path along the cavern's wall.
The going was slow, measured by her small and uncertain steps. She would place one foot. Put her weight on it and test it. Then she would place her other foot, testing the next step. They inched along, their pace giving Carrow plenty of time to think.
He'd had too much time to think.
Even in Aeonar, he hadn't done this much thinking. Though in Aeonar, he hadn't done much at all. Just lain on the ground, living from each insubstantial meal to the next.
But he'd done no end of thinking, and as they made their way around the caver, he began to think about thinking, and he resented them, Alistair most of all, for being the cause of it. Aeonar seemed desirable when compared to this. He hated traveling. He'd forgotten how much.
They moved carefully around the cavern, Carrow flicking uncertain glances toward the thin rock whenever it creaked or groaned. He kept so close to the wall that several times his clothes caught and tore. The rock sometimes left angry red cuts behind, but he didn't dare stop to waste a poultice or magic on the wounds. It would be a waste.
Maybe ten feet from their exit, Isabela froze. Alistair held up his fist, a silent command that Carrow recognized immediately. He, too, went still. Power snapped through his body, following the conductive lines of his veins and arteries. It came easy to him, the draw of magic for an offensive spell, as though he hadn't spent six years in prison. But he couldn't push himself. He knew.
Relying on Alistair left a bitter taste in his mouth.
"Did you hear anything?" Isabela's voice was barely a whisper.
"No?" Alistair didn't sound too certain.
And then the spiders came.
They poured down the wall, came from both cavernous exits, and Carrow wondered if the world took some perverse glee in tormenting him.
Taking two steps back, he focused the magic building under his skin. "Alistair," he snapped, and the king picked a target, drawing his sword and lunging. Magic and steel hit the spider at the same time. It died and it exploded, or maybe it exploded and then died, but regardless the messy death showered the area with blood.
A wicked, satisfied grin lit Carrow's face. The virulent death spell would infect others, hopefully spreading. That would take care of a significant portion of their troubles.
Arrows rained down on the spiders blocking their exit, and Isabela swung between them, knives flashing. She twisted like a dancer, and elegant predator slaughtering the spiders. But for each spider that died, by blade or magic, three more took its place.
Carrow stumbled back, throwing an icy trap around one group of spiders before electrocuting the others with a chain of lightning. His body protested; only a handful of spells, and his head throbbed and his arms burned. He gasped for air, feeling sweat trickle down his forehead.
"Stay out of the center!" Isabela shouted, leaping into the air and driving her knives into a spider's body on the fall. The spider exploded as she fell back, taking several more with it. But not enough to make a difference.
They were outnumbered.
"Where should we go instead?" Tethras grumbled, firing another shot into the mass of spiders and they pushed him back.
Carrow took another step toward the center of the room in spite of the warning. Beneath the scratching of spider legs came the groan of rock, and he shuddered, reaching for what magic he had left. He found nothing and resisted the urge to stomp his foot in a childish pique.
He swore instead, grabbing for one of the vials of lyrium in his pack. He fumbled it, dropped it, and watched it shatter on the ground in a crystalline moment of clarity punctuated by pristine self-loathing.
Alistair's boots crushed the shards. "This is bad."
"Very bad," Tethras agreed.
"Your talents for understatement are unmatched," Carrow snapped as Isabela, rising from a crouch as she took two light steps backwards, said something in her native tongue. Carrow assumed it was pithy and to the point.
The rock moaned again.
As Carrow shifted his weight, dread sank a heavy rock in his stomach. He heard it crack. Splinter.
It shattered beneath them.
There was a strange, eternal space of time as they hung in the air before they fell. A desperate tension seized him in that moment, coupled with profound clarity. He pulled at the dregs of his magic, clawed out the very last of his strength as air whistled past them, and cast a shielding spell around himself and his three companions.
They didn't hit the ground so much as they bounced across it, the shields absorbing the brunt of the damage. Each strike was accompanied by a sick squelching sound.
When Carrow settled, he curled into a ball and covered his head. Spider bodies rained down around them, hitting the ground with a sharp plop. None of them moved.
"Sound off." Alistair's voice, though shaky, brooked no dissension.
"Alive," Tethras groaned.
"Or something like it," Isabela muttered.
Carrow pushed himself up on shuddering arms as the shield spell flickered and died. "Here," he gasped, his head pounding. He was somewhat grateful for the pitch blackness of the cavern hiding his shaking arms. Moving slowly in search of his staff, his hand hit something decidedly not rock-like. He froze, his stomach turning. "What in the…"
"What? Carrow, what?" Alistair demanded through the pitch dark.
He tapped the Fade, calling a small spirit through. He hated doing it, but the little critter gave off just enough light to see by. Carrow looked at his hand, painted red and black. He looked at the ground.
The spirit fluttered away as he retched.
When he took a gasping breath, the overwhelming scent of desiccated flesh made him vomit again.
"What is—oh, Maker." Alistair moaned. Carrow heard Isabela suck in a breath and then cough in an attempt not to vomit, too. Tethras groaned.
"Bodies," Carrow finally said, stumbling to his feet, abandoning the search for his staff. He nearly bowled Alistair over before the other man caught him by the elbow, steadying him, and Carrow barely registered the kindness. Better to not notice than notice and feel the need to bite at Alistair for it. "Darkspawn. Dwarves."
Isabela shifted. Stepped on a hand. She paled and tried her shift her foot to safer ground.
"Where are we?" Tethras asked, digging through his pack. He found a stick in there, and glanced at Carrow. "Can you light it?"
No. But Carrow wasn't about to look weak. So he flicked a small spell at the wood. It sputtered and floundered before it finally caught, and he sagged against Alistair, cold and shivering.
The cavern rumbled.
Behind them, something moaned and scratched at his brain. The darkspawn were all around them, picking at his thoughts, following the flow of the taint along his veins. But that noise, that scratch – those were unique.
"No, no, no," Carrow muttered, glancing at Alistair to gauge his reaction.
"What?" Isabela asked, sounding a bit faint.
The smell of rotting flesh and rancid blood filled Carrow's nose and mouth as he inhaled, and he swallowed hard to keep from retching again. "Broodmother?"
"Thank the Maker they're stationary." Alistair moved away from Carrow, pulling a torchwood from his own pack. He lit it using Tethras's and held the fire high, staring across the bodies and into the darkness. "Well. We should move away from…" He grimaced.
"A broodmother?" Isabela threw a nervous look over Alistair's shoulder.
Their pace was slow, and while Carrow liked to think it was because they were all tired, he knew it was because of him. Out of breath and magic, exhausted and wrung dry, he stumbled more than he walked. He was just shy of numb; when he was still, nothing hurt, but the minute he moved, every muscle in his body protested.
They took the only other exit the cavern afforded, sloshing through puddles of darkspawn and dwarf remains.
"We're not moving away from them," Carrow murmured, pitching his voice low enough so it wouldn't carry and echo through the caves. His lack of breath made his words come in clipped bursts.
"I know." Alistair sounded curiously unmoved. Strong. Firm.
"Being king has done you some good, then."
"Shut up." He took a step too long for Carrow to follow, and ended up dragging him through some of the muck. Carrow swallowed his gorge when something wet fell into his boots and squished between his toes.
Isabela moved to Carrow's other side, brandishing a torch of her own. The light cast long shadows across her face. "Alistair. Don't you think you should tell us what these broodmothers are?" she asked, and Carrow couldn't tell if she had a serious expression on her face or if she was annoyed; the shadows were too deep. "In case run into one?"
The cavern rumbled again; they ignored it.
"We should talk tactics in case we do." Tethras made a quiet sound; metal clicked against metal as he fussed with his crossbow.
"Run?" Carrow suggested.
Alistair sighed. "Not a bad suggestion." Isabela sputtered, but Alistair shushed her. "We don't have a dedicated healer," he said, his tone gentle but unyielding. "If Carrow wasn't on his deathbead—"
"Sod off, you, I'm fine," he groused, but he didn't pull away from Alistair's supporting hold.
"—we'd have a chance. But with two melee fighters and a crossbowman?" He shook his head. "Too dangerous."
"So they're big?" Isabela sounded like she was considering their odds.
"Big and stationary." Tethras chuckled. "Bet they're dumb, too."
Carrow turned his head and fixed Tethras with a stare full of contempt. "Don't."
Alistair jerked back on Carrow's arm, stopping them both abruptly. A tremor moved from Alistair to Carrow, and Carrow turned to follow Alistair's gaze.
Fear wrapped around his spine, an icy claw that held tight and wouldn't let go. Its nails raked through his stomach turning his legs to jelly.
Isabela took a step back as the rumbling exhalation of four broodmothers shook the cavern.
"We have to go back," Alistair said.
"Oh, yes, brilliant, let's go back into the cave with the stinking, rotting bodies, where another broodmother awaits," Carrow hissed, pulling away from Alistair. He stumbled but caught himself. Pressing a hand to his head, he dragged his fingers through his hair and straightened, ignoring the trembling in his legs.
"Better one than four."
"They're sleeping, idiot." Carrow gave Alistair a vicious smile. "We can sneak around them."
Tethras considered this, arms crossed and a thoughtful look on his face. "You think so?"
"They're slow. As long as we don't step on their tentacles, we should be okay." Carrow shrugged.
"Tentacles?" Isabela asked, arching a brow. "Fabulous." Shaking her head, she surveyed the cavern with the broodmothers. "I can find a way across," she said slowly. "And then lead you."
"Can we consolidate our packs?" Carrow asked. He'd lost his, which figured, but the others still had theirs.
Alistair reached for Isabela's. "Let me have yours. I can carry both." She passed the pack to him, and he shouldered it with ease, giving Carrow an assessing look. "You'll make it?"
"I'll make it," Carrow snapped, brushing by Alistair. He gave Isabela a scathing look. "Go."
She met his gaze evenly, her expression annoyed. "When I'm ready." She turned from him and took a deep breath. Carrow watched her breasts.
She vanished into the shadows a second later, and no matter how he tried, Carrow couldn't track her movements. He heard a faint splash, but refused to linger on it and wonder what she'd stepped in. They waited, Carrow shifting impatiently, for her to return.
When she appeared, it was without warning, startling the three men. Breathless, she leaned over, bracing her hands on her knees as she sucked down great gulps of stinking air. "Found a way," she said, "with minimal tentacles." Straightening, she wiped her wrist across her sweaty brow, smearing darkspawn blood over her skin. "Ready?"
He wasn't, not at all, but they had little choice.
Isabela lead the way, her light steps taking them around the tentacles on the ground and behind one of the broodmothers. The disgusting creatures, vile, twisted monsters, sat near the walls, silent except for their rumbling breaths. There was just enough space between them and the wall for a man to pass with relative ease.
And everything would have been fine, perfectly fine, if Carrow hadn't caught his foot on a rock when they were nearly to the exit.
He bit his tongue to keep from shouting, and instead of panicking as he fell toward the tentacle on the ground, he bemoaned his existence. A tower in the country, undisturbed and alone. That's all he wanted.
He grunted when he hit the tentacle, wincing as his elbows scraped over the rocky ground.
"Well, shit." Tethras sighed.
The broodmother Carrow fell on stirred, the tentacle pulling out from under him as it shifted and opened its eyes. They stared at each other for a moment. Then the broodmother screamed and everything, predictably, fell apart.
Alistair grabbed him by the back of his shirt. Or his neck. Or maybe both at the same time. He wasn't too sure, but his neck throbbed and his shirt tore, and Alistair hauled him to his feet and dragged him out of the way before a tentacle hit the ground hard enough to send rock flying into the air.
An arrow hit the ground and smoke exploded around them. Coughing, Carrow waved his hand in front of his face, trying to suck in clean air while Alistair continued dragging him to the exit. "Can you cast any spells?"
Carrow reached for his magic reserves and found they were still drained. He shook his head. "Nothing worthwhile."
A tentacle shot their way, bursting through the smoke screen, and Carrow cringed away from it. Alistair drew his sword in a smooth motion, deflecting the tentacle with the flat of the blade. He thrust, spearing the thing, and it jerked back.
Taking his sword with it.
"Brilliant," Carrow muttered.
"Shut it." Alistair tossed Carrow toward the exit, and Carrow scrambled to his feet and toward it. "Don't let them spit on you!" Alistair shouted.
"What happens if they spit on you?" Isabela ducked under a tentacle as Carrow pressed himself to the wall.
He rolled his eyes. "It's poison, you daft woman."
She shot him a cold glare and cut through another tentacle as it made a pass at her. Twisting out of the reach of a third, she threw one of her knives at the broodmother closet to her as one of the others, further down the cavern, shrieked.
Alistair braced himself against the scream, but Isabela and Tethras, who clearly had no idea what they were doing, were knocked to the ground. The shriek made Carrow's ears ring, and he sagged against the rock.
While Tethras and Isabela tried to regain their feet, Alistair parried strikes from the tentacles attacking them, and Carrow—
He didn't quite like being useless. He liked the idea of them dying and leaving him without a guard even less. With a sigh, he tapped his power as a blood mage, a power he rarely used because of all the questions it raised, and set one of the broodmother's blood to boiling. The creature screamed, thrashing, and Carrow groaned.
"He's a blood mage?" Isabela demanded.
"Sometimes," Carrow grumbled.
"This just keeps getting better." She regained her feet and danced backward, driven by the tentacles of the other three monstrosities.
A rain of arrows fell on the broodmothers, and Alistair sheered several tentacles in half as they attempted to withdraw from the onslaught. But it wasn't quite enough; there were still too many tentacles between them and the exit, and it was with a sick feeling that Carrow realized they were going to die.
He suspected he wouldn't get any peace in death, either.
In confirmation, a horde of dwarves spilled into the cavern, rushing by him and engaging the tentacles. One of the dwarves skidded to a halt beside Carrow, pushed up her visor, and grinned.
Carrow sighed. "Hello, Sigrun."
The Legion of the Dead made it more than obvious that Varric and Isabela weren't precisely welcome the moment Sigrun greeted Carrow and asked who they were. Carrow, and Alistair, meanwhile, were treated with a respect the mage definitely didn't deserve by virtue of the fact that they were Wardens.
It made Varric grind his teeth in irritation.
The Legion hadn't dispatched the broodmothers, merely distracted them long enough to get the injured party members out of the cavern. Then they'd retreated, but at a cost. Two members of the Legion were dead. The survivors were less upset by this than Varric would expect.
"They want the death," Carrow said, sitting beside Varric while the dwarves buried their dead in the stone. "It's an honor."
Varric frowned at him. "Are you going to tell us what a broodmother is?"
Carrow tipped his head to the side, studying Varric long enough to make him uncomfortable. But there were a lot of things about Carrow that would make any reasonable person uncomfortable, least of all his stare. Perhaps most of all was the blood magic. Living in Kirkwall had instilled him with a certain respectful fear for blood mages. Hawke had hated them. Varric wouldn't mind putting money on Carrow being part of the reason for the hate.
Shifting, Carrow leaned toward him. His lips drew away from his teeth, revealing too many for the expression to really be called a smile. "You really want to know?" he asked quietly. When Varric nodded, he continued. "The darkspawn drag women into the Deep Roads. Human, elf, dwarf, qunari, doesn't matter. They…" He made a vague gesture. "Well, we don't precisely know what they do. But they change her."
Varric started to respond to that, to encourage Carrow to keep going, and then stopped. Considered what the mage had said. "They… change her." His stomach twisted, his gorge rising. "Into a broodmother."
"Hurlocks from humans, genlocks from dwarves, shrieks – sharlocks – from elves, and ogres from qunari." Carrow looked pleased at Varric's horrified distress, and he laughed. "And now you know." He scratched his chin. "If you tell anyone, dwarf, I will kill you."
"Of course you will."
He told Isabela anyway. She, too, was disgusted, but after a moment's thought suggested Carrow had only said that to shock them both. That it couldn't possibly be true. But the sorrow in her eyes belied the truth of her words.
They camped three more times before they reached their destination, and Varric couldn't have said whether they slept through days or nights. Time was different in the Deep Roads.
The Legion led them deeper under the earth, into caverns that were somehow warm and wet at the same time. His clothes stuck to his back, plastered there by sweat and moisture.
When they finally came upon a more permanent camp, or as permanent a camp as Varric had yet seen, the party dissolved. Sigrun showed them where they'd lay their bedrolls. It wasn't much better than any place they'd camped so far, but was far more defensible. The walls of the old Thaig were crumbling, but they still rose higher than anything previously. The tops were in the most disrepair; the body of the walls seemed sturdy enough.
He studied the sweeping structure, impressed by the vaulted ceilings. The stonework, what remained of it, impressed him.
"Hard to believe dwarves lived this deep underground." Isabela crouched at his side, spinning a knife in one hand.
Varric chuckled. "Crazy, aren't they?" He sucked in a deep breath. The air felt thick in his mouth. "Any news yet on what those two are here for?" He nodded toward Carrow and Alistair. Carrow sat with his back to them, mixing more lyrium potions to replace the ones he'd lost, and Alistair traded quiet words with Sigrun, the dwarven Warden responsible for their rescue.
"None. Every time I get close, the bastard points me out." She grumbled. "And he's not just saying it to throw me off." Her expression soured. "He actually can tell when I'm stealthing around."
Carrow froze, head lifting. He turned, one green eye narrowed as he looked over his shoulder at them. Then he went back to his potion making.
"The last time I was this deep underground…"
Isabela's face twisted into a tight, displeased expression. "The lyrium idol."
Nodding, Varric stretched his legs in front of him, setting Bianca in his lap. "We don't need a repeat."
"No," she agreed. A shudder washed over her. "We don't." She shifted closer to him, draping her forearms over her knees. "Do we need a backup plan? If things go south?"
"Run like demons are chasing us and hope heading up leads to out?" Varric shook his head and shrugged. "I don't think we'd get very far. And I don't think we're going to need an out."
Isabela's shuttered expression said she disagreed, but she didn't push. She probably came up with her own contingency plans, and while Varric didn't blame her, he didn't see the use. They were in the Deep Roads. There were no good contingency plans for the Deep Roads, and the only viable starting plan seemed to be survive or, if you can't, kill yourself before anything else can kill you first.
The sound of boots crunching gravel pulled his attention, and he looked up at Alistair. The king lowered himself to the ground across from Varric, on Isabela's right, and he looked exhausted, his face wan. "We'll be here for a bit. Enough time to rest." He rubbed his hand over his face, fingers pushing against his closed eyes. "Sigrun says we've a four hour walk tomorrow. This is the closest the Legion will camp to—it's the closest they're willing to be."
"To what?" Isabela asked, tone sharp. Her eyes were narrowed, suspicious.
Alistair dropped his hand and sighed. "You'll see tomor—when we get up."
"Is there a reason for all the secrets?" Varric demanded. He was annoyed, yes, and frustrated, too. They were in the Deep Roads risking life and limb, and for what they didn't even know. "We're here helping you, but we'd both appreciate it if you told us why we're risking our necks."
Alistair hesitated. Glanced briefly toward Carrow who was still engrossed by his potion making. Sighed. "The Legion found a lyrium cache. The lyrium cache led them to a vein. The vein led them… to a cavern. Full of lyrium." He pitched his voice low, and both Isabela and Varric shifted closer, leaned toward him. "It was red."
Isabela swore, every muscle in her body tensing. "I wouldn't be here if you'd said that."
"Which is why I didn't," Alistair replied, one brow arched in amusement. His expression sobered. "But not just the red lyrium. There's a woman there. Or what's left of a woman."
"What's left?" Varric muttered the question and began to wish he'd just kept his mouth shut.
"She asked for Carrow," Alistair said. "The Legion told Sigrun, Sigrun told me, I fetched you two and Carrow, and here we are."
"How does what's left of a woman ask for anything?" Isabela asked.
"From what I understand, she's not in… pieces. She's just… not entirely… as people are." Alistair frowned, giving them a helpless look. "We'll see tomorrow. You should get what rest you can." He rose and left them, moving toward his bedroll.
"Andraste's sanctified ass. Why in blazes did we agree to this?"
"We're mad." Isabela gave him a wan smile.
"Or something like it," Varric muttered.
He barely slept when he finally turned in, having spent more time than he should have oiling Bianca and rubbing her down. Laying in his bedroll, all he could see were broodmothers against his closed eyelids. He must have drifted off eventually, because Carrow's toe in his side woke him. Still, he didn't feel like he slept at all.
Dragging himself from the bedroll, he ate a barely palatable breakfast, refusing to ask what the chewy meat was, and collected Bianca. Sigrun and two members of the Legion met him, Isabela, Carrow, and Alistair at the exit of the camp, their expressions tight. Armed to the teeth, they looked more like walking arsenals than dwarves.
"We'll follow the lyrium," Sigrun said, adjusting her gauntlet. "The path is as safe as any down here, so keep your eyes peeled."
She led them through a series of caverns, all increasingly lit with the eerie blue glow of lyrium. Carrow drifted toward a lyrium formation, fingers twitching, and something like avarice rushed across his features before he abruptly turned away. Alistair's jaw set in a firm line and he looked straight ahead.
"It's quite lovely," Isabela said quietly. "When you ignore the fact that it can kill you or drive you mad."
Nothing jumped out of the shadows, nothing attacked them, and they eventually came upon a vein of lyrium that ran along the cavern walls. They followed it in silence, winding deeper into the earth. Varric glanced upwards only once, trying not to think about how much earth weighed on the caverns' ceilings. Too much.
Sigrun stopped them at a sharp bend in a long corridor. "Here," she said, looking at Carrow. "We go no further. The cavern is just around the bend. We'll wait for you."
Carrow stood staring at the bend in the corridor for an uncomfortably long space of time. Finally, just as Varric opened his mouth to unleash a pithy and succinct barb at him, he started forward. With a blank face, he strode by Sigrun. Alistair followed, looking just as grim. Trading shrugs with each other, Isabela and Varric followed.
They came around the bend and drew up short.
The cavern was vast, almost impossibly large for something that existed underground. He couldn't see the roof of it, nor the opposite end. There was a shoreline several feet away, but the water didn't move. Stagnant, streaks of red and blue shimmered under its surface. Varric couldn't tell how deep it was from where he stood, but some strange feeling in his gut suggested that it was deep. And that he wouldn't survive if he reached a depth where he would have to swim.
He followed Isabela's pointing and swallowed. Hard. He wasn't entirely sure if disgust or terror made his stomach turn over.
Maybe twenty feet from the shore was an island made of twisted veins of lyrium. Red and blue crystal twined about itself, creating a structure that looked like a massive, deadly thorn bush. In the center of the island, which couldn't be much more than two man-lengths in any direction, sat a woman. At first glance, she appeared to be resting.
At second, he had to fight not to lose his stomach.
Red and blue thorns pierced her flesh, anchoring her in place. Some disappeared into her body. Some pushed straight through. She wore no clothes, but a single scrap of fabric hung from one of the spikes, limp and dirty.
"What—" Varric bit back the question as the woman's head tipped to one side. "She… looks dead."
Lank strands of black hair fell over her face, but her eyes, glowing a vibrant, malevolent red, peered at them.
"I hate the Deep Roads," Isabela muttered.
Alistair shifted, turning himself into a defensive position to present the woman with as small a target as he could make – which was still damn large. His hand fell on his sword hilt, and the woman hissed, the sibilant sound echoing through the cavern.
Carrow, standing at the edge of the water, waved at Alistair. "Don't," he said, but he sounded distracted. Far away.
He took two steps forward, putting himself in the water. It lapped at his boots, spilling over his feet. Little flecks of lyrium sparkled as the ripples disturbed them. He shuddered. Took another step forward.
"Shut up, Your Majesty," Carrow said, the perfect measure of venom in his voice. Alistair's body jerked, and Varric sucked in a stabilizing breath through his nose. When the mage turned to them, there was an eerie glow about his green eyes. "This is why I'm here." He lifted a shaking hand to the woman. "That's why I'm here."
Alistair was silent, staring at Carrow with a tight expression.
Something filled the cavern. Some sound. Some strange feeling that made every hair on Varric's body stand on end. He took a startled step back. Isabela slid into a defensive crouch. Her hands went for her weapons, but she didn't grab them. Didn't draw the blades.
The sound changed. It was like the howl of a winter storm but without the biting cold and with no physical wind.
The woman's head lifted. Her lips spread in a gruesome smile.
There was, Varric noted with some strange measure of reason, nothing wrong with her face. She was actually rather attractive as far as humans went. But the way her lips pulled back from her teeth, the way her glittering red eyes sparkled with—with what? Loathing? Yes. Yes, that was loathing. Her skin was too smooth. Even smiling – grimacing, maybe – there were no wrinkles on her face. No lines around her eyes or the corners of her lips.
"Leave." The voice echoed in Varric's head, knocking against his skull. It also wormed into his ears, making them ache. He wondered if they were bleeding and touched the side of his head to check.
He was surprised his fingers came away clean.
"You should do that," Carrow said.
Alistair's hands curled into fists. "We're not abandoning you."
Varric was stunned by the vehemence in Alistair's tone and attempted some quick mental gymnastics in the attempt to understand why he was so opposed to leaving a mage he hated.
When Carrow smiled, the expression was disturbingly vacant. "No. No, of course not. I'm abandoning you." He gave them a shooing gesture. "Leave." His gaze turned to Isabela. "You're reasonable. Keep them out."
She scowled at him. Varric's brows drew together. He almost spoke, then shook his head, turned on the heel of his boot, and stalked back around the corner.
He didn't want anything to do with whatever Carrow was doing.
They waited for nearly an hour. Isabela pulled out a deck of cards, and they played Wicked Grace with the Legion in an attempt to pass the time.
Carrow strode around the bend in the corridor halfway through a game Isabela and Varric were playing to ensure Alistair's victory, his expression shuttered. "Alistair."
"She wants to talk to you."
Alistair rose and went, looking like a man walking to his execution.
Carrow refused to speak with the Legion. He refused to speak with Varric or Isabela. He sat some distance away from them, his eyes closed. Though he couldn't speak of the woman in the lyrium, bound by whatever magic she possessed and an oath made with blood, he relived each moment of it in his mind.
And he hated her as much as he'd hated anyone. His only solace, if it could be called solace, was that Alistiar would have a similar experience.
When Alistair returned, gone half the time Carrow had been with the woman, they collected their things and they left.
The dwarf looked near to bursting with questions, but he didn't ask. The Rivaini seemed indifferent. Sigrun, who Carrow suspected had traded words with the woman as well, gave both him and Alistair a sorrowful look and held her silence, too.
With the Legion guiding them, they made it to the surface swiftly and without event, emerging somewhere in the south of Ferelden. A lake stretched across the horizon nearby, and Carrow grimaced.
The Legion left them, and they spent the night camped there, in the mouth of the cave, protected from the cold winds rising from the south.
Carrow volunteered to take the watch before dawn. When Tethras woke him for his turn, he moved to the mouth of the cave and sat, silent, watching the eastern skyline. He waited for Tethras' breathing to settled. Waited an extra hour for the sake of caution. Then he rose and quietly began packing a rucksack.
Finished, he hefted the pack on his back, checked his boots to make sure they were secure, and started for the mouth of the cave.
The point of a sword touched his back.
Carrow froze, anxiety washing over him for the span of a heartbeat. Then he sighed, dropping his head, feeling defeated. He didn't know what the woman said to Alistair, only what she said to him. He wondered if she'd told Alistair to kill him when he attempted to follow her command. Wondered if that would serve her purpose.
"So this is it," Carrow murmured, lifting his face to the biting wind. "Back to Aeonar with me. Or will you kill me?"
A strange, uncomfortable silence stretched between them.
Finally, the sword fell away. Alistair moved to Carrow's side, a curious look on his face as he said, "The Deep Roads are… dangerous. Aren't they?"
It took Carrow a second to grasp his meaning. A slow smile curled across his lips. "Full of unstable caverns." He didn't give Alistair his thanks, but he inclined his head just the smallest bit. "And you're back home to Anora?"
Alistair made a rude noise, and Carrow choked back a laugh.
"What a shame."
"About the young Lady Cousland. Those prancy Cousland fops had a daughter, didn't they?" Alistair gaped at him, but he continued on. "You could have married her instead of Anora."
Alistair choked on laughter, smothering it with his hand. Carrow stared at him, composing his expression into one of disdain. When Alistair had himself under control, several interminable seconds later, he wiped at his eyes and shook his head. "Oh, Maker, no. I met her once. She was a vacuous blob, incredibly vain about her hair."
"Now that's saying something, coming from you."
"Might have had something for one of the Howe boys. A little creepy, really. Glad I dodged that arrow."
They watched each other for a minute, and Carrow rubbed at his chest, uncomfortable with the ache growing there. "I know we can't discuss… what was said in that cavern." He grimaced.
"Go," Alistair said, sheathing his sword.
Carrow groped desperately for something to say. "I always hated you."
Alistair shrugged. "Me, too."
He hesitated just a second longer, gave Alistair a short, crisp nod, and walked away from the cave. He had a Hawke to find.