Between a Rock and a Hard Place [Complete]

There was very little sound which broke through the ringing in Velanna’s ears. The cavern swam, and try as she might she couldn’t push herself to sitting up, let alone standing. Blackness took her once, twice, and by the third time she felt it try to claim her she rolled to her stomach, causing enough pain in her body that she could shake it off.

Fen’Harel himself could not have orchestrated what lay before her. Their team destroyed, the broodmother’s still intact, and she was too far from the explosives to know if she could even reach them. The ache in her bones was especially pronounced in her chest as she gritted her teeth and pushed up from the ground. The room swung wildly in her vision, and she very nearly let sick onto the floor.

Was Barrows lost, too? If he was, she was as good as dead. But she wasn’t going to go down alone. With a prayer to Elgar’Nan she called fire to her hand, ready to use the last of her strength to get as close as she could to those explosives.

As the room tilted into focus though, she saw a blurry figure running toward her through the forest of tentacles. Barrows. Before she could ask if the explosives had been saved, an intense pressure built and was sucked out of the room, followed by an explosion of light that she guessed to be fire. The change of pressure knocked her back again, making the room spin once more. Hopefully-Barrows was flung forward, and Velanna saw his head bounce from the ground. If he was alive, he wouldn’t be for long and neither would she.

Where she summoned the strength to do so, she couldn’t say, but she crawled as fast as her pain-riddled body allowed her, and wound her arms under Barrows’. The broodmothers were screaming as her hearing started to whine back to her. She hauled Barrows’ body as far as she could manage, behind a small cropping of boulder and shrapnel. She felt pressure building again, and pulled as many roots from the walls as she could, cocooning them with her body sandwiching him against the rock. It was the last she had to give, and she blacked out.

When she opened her eyes again it was too quiet. She might have suspected she’d died had the stench of burned flesh not been so heavy in the oily air around them. The roots she’d covered them with were burned almost to char, and fell away with the slightest of pushes, but as far as she could tell, she was relatively intact.

“Barrows,” she croaked, her throat dry from heat and voice coated with the filth of the air. “Barrows, can you hear me?” She lifted to her knees, breaking the remains of their semi-protective cage away. While the broodmothers were gone, they could have called to any nearby darkspawn through their connection. They were far from safe here.

When Barrows didn’t respond she caught him under the arms again and started to drag him to the tunnel that led into the cavern from behind. She could tell he was breathing, but that was all she could discern given the circumstances. Scraped and bruised as she was, her muscles screamed from the effort, and after only a few tugs away, she fell back onto the ground with a hard thud, losing her grip on the other Warden. The only one of their party who remained.

Velanna swallowed, her throat sticking together and a warning grit behind her eyes. Moisture pooled at the bottoms of her eyelids. She let out a hard scream that ripped from her throat, warding off anything as insipid and worthless as a sob. She’d left enough people behind to die in these Creator-forsaken tunnels, and she was not going to leave him, too.

“Will you wake up already?”
It was the ear-splitting scream which finally wrenched Henri-Julien fully into consciousness. "Will you wake up already?" The words were attached to the feral outpouring of emotion, echoing around the rocky tunnel. The walls seemed to press in on him as he blinked in dazed confusion, trying to remember how and why he had come to this place.

Groaning, he rolled onto his side, even that small effort prompting a wave of nausea to crash over him. He paused, panting slightly, before gingerly pushing himself onto his hands and knees. Still disconcerted by his strange surroundings, he inched his head up so that he could focus on the one who had issued the scream, narrowing his eyes slightly to aid in focusing. He blinked once, then twice, then three times. Fluttering on the edges of his consciousness were the tatters of memory; each one had to be examined before Henri-Julien could patch together what he should already know.

Finally, his dry throat working against the dust and heat which had parched him, he managed: "how?" How had they survived? The rest of their party were conspicuous in their absence: all dead. The screams of the Broodmothers were mercifully silenced: all dead. Yet here they were, one Dalish and one Templar: alive. How was that possible?

His eyes drifted towards the charred remains of what looked to be tree roots. Nothing grew in these tunnels without the assistance of some unnatural force. That meant... He hacked a cough, pushing himself onto unsteady feet. His surroundings were hazy and his stance teetering, but he was mobile. Maybe that was why, barely aware that he spoke the words, he remarked, "thank you."

He turned and stumbled his way back towards the cavern, needing to see with his own eyes confirmation of what they had achieved. The rockfall which blocked entry into the cavern was sufficient. Nothing could have survived both the explosion and the cave-in. Swallowing against the urge to throw up, Henri-Julien pressed a hand against the largest piece of rocky debris and murmured a short prayer for the Wardens who had fallen, taking comfort that fire had cleansed their deaths. All Andrastrians would want that.

Returning on lurching steps to where he had first regained consciousness, he cast an appraising eye over the Dalish apostate, though it was not exactly an in-focus examination. From what he could see, she was in as bad a way as he: walking wounded, but only just. The thought of having to find their painful way out of these tunnels was almost enough to bring him to his knees - literally.

Instead, there was the sound of shouts from somewhere further away. Pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes, Henri-Julien tried to turn his focus inwards, striving to sense either taint or mana. It was the former, but not of full 'spawn. Grey Wardens. It was the scouting party promised by the Commander.

He half-turned, using the wall of the tunnel to support himself, as he tried to convey his thoughts to Velanna. But the wooziness was returning and instead, he blacked out again, crumpling in an undignified heap.

***

The next time that Henri-Julien awoke, it was to the sight of the infirmary in Vigil's Keep. Unlike before, his head did not pound and his body did not feel mostly broken. He felt hale, healthy and whole. At least until he caught sight of Commander Berlra standing at the foot of his bed, jaw clenched and arms folded across his chest.

"All. Dead." He pushed through gritted teeth. "You chose the group. Where was the healer?"
Just as Velanna decided she was going to have to drag Warden Barrows back to the Keep voices were heard echoing off the tunnel walls. Velanna reached out with her Warden sense, holding fire in her hand until she understood that these were Wardens, and not darkspawn. She crushed the fire in her hand and released the gathered mana. She sighed with relief, not knowing if she could take another wave of battle just yet. The time she’d taken to rest prior to this mission only stretched so far. She was exhausted, too much to fight the shemlen healer with balm and bandages, and she allowed the assistance in dressing her open wounds. The other mage worked without a spirit guide, and his skills had limits.

The trip back was slower with Barrows needing to be carried on a makeshift litter. Velanna, always aggressively proud, kept her head up and back straight. Injuries would not slow her. Every painful step and breath she pulled kept her from dwelling on the losses of the rest of their party. There would be time for that later.

Her intention to report back to Commander Berlra was waylaid upon arrival back at the Keep. The two of them were shuttered off to the infirmary where a mundane healer found her cracked ribs and a gash across the back of her head. She didn’t even fuss when she was ordered to a bed that was not far enough away from Barrows for her liking.

She was sleeping lightly when she heard footsteps that were too heavy to be the healer. She opened her eyes to see the Commander himself, arms crossed over his chest and standing at the foot of Barrows’ cot. His jaw was clenched so tightly that she could have sworn she felt the distress of his teeth.

"All. Dead." The set of his teeth did not impede his ability to deliver his thoughts. "You chose the group. Where was the healer?"

“We would have been fine if my plan had been followed,” she insisted. “The fight started before we were all in place.” She shook her head, frowning. “A healer would not have saved those lives, and we would likely have lost them, too.” Mages with healing magic were scarce at the best of times.

Of course, Velanna didn’t know why her plan had failed, only surmised that someone had failed to follow orders. She suspected it was the man beside her who managed to scrape up an entire thank you just for her efforts to save his cursed life. She could have said as much just now, and Barrows would deserve the ire he would surely catch from the Commander for his arrogance. It would have been easy. It also would help nothing. So she held back any details on the plan, and if the Commander came to his own conclusions, well, that could not be helped.

“It was Barrows,” she started, then stopped to intentionally leave a tense pause, “who kept the explosives safe long enough for them to be used.” She sat up, the simple action an incredible feat as she pushed through the aches and pains of her injuries. “Those broodmothers were more developed than they were when I found them.” She still shuddered to consider how that could have been her, pouring shrieks forth for the rest of her life before she’d had the sense to join the Wardens for protection. “They might still be alive if he had not succeeded. I barely had time to save us both from the explosion.”
Unsurprisingly, despite the demand being made of him, the nosey Dalish lying in an infirmary bed uncomfortably close by took it upon herself to answer.

"We would have been fine if my plan had been followed," she declared. In his head, he heard the unspoken accusation: you were the one who failed to follow the plan. He gave himself a slight shake, banishing the treacherous asseveration from his mind. There was truth in it but only for those who had witnessed the beginnings of the battle, and they were all dead.

Still ignoring Henri-Julien, though this time it suited him to be momentarily overlooked, Velanna continued with her unasked-for explanation. "The fight started before we were all in place." A frown crumpled her expression, accompanied by a small shake of her head. "A healer would not have saved those lives, and we would likely have lost them, too."

Her words carried little sway with the Commander. Despite his stature, he continued to glare at Henri-Julien, his anger radiating into the room until the air seemed suffocating.

"A worthy Senior Warden would have saved those lives," he growled, eyes blazing. Henri-Julien threw back his own glare, his arrogance igniting against the sparks provided by Commander Berlra. How dare his skills be brought into question!

But before Henri-Julien could retort, Velanna spoke up. Again. "It was Barrows," she remarked, pausing long enough for Henri-Julien to snap his glare onto her, wondering what additional complaint she was about to make. Instead, he was surprised by what followed - though he hid it well. "--who kept the explosives safe long enough for them to be used." Pushing herself upright, she addressed them both as though sat upon a throne, not in an infirmary bed wrapped in countless bandages. "Those broodmothers were more developed than they were when I found them." Repulsion visibly ran through her. "They might still be alive if he had not succeeded. I barely had time to save us both from the explosion."

Why? His every sense was alert to the trick which Velanna was surely springing right now. There could be no other explanation for her defence of him, even though what she said was the truth. But the truth didn't matter to the likes of her. His suspicion and distrust ran ever deeper, taking this as further evidence that the Dalish apostate could not be trusted. She was fickle, hiding her intentions behind carefully chosen words, clearly anticipating when she might claim the advantage. Well, she would never be able to do so with him. Never.

"I will inform their families." Henri-Julien turned back to Orric, meeting his gaze with all the self-assuredness he possessed. Despite the oft-repeated claim that Grey Wardens surrendered all ties to their previous life, the reality in Ferelden was quite different. Their numbers had been too few after the Blight, and their recruitment too local in the immediate aftermath, to avoid the inevitable recruiting from local areas. It was impossible to enforce the separation from their past lives when the majority of Grey Wardens passed by their old homesteads enroute to collecting supplies from Amaranthine or Denerim. "That is what a worthy Senior Warden would do."

Disgust flashed across Orric's expression. "You will not," he countered, harsh and unyielding. "I will not have your arrogance cause more unnecessary pain. You are on report until I see fit to remove you from it. All decisions will be cleared by myself or Senior Warden Theirin until I say otherwise." The Commander glanced towards Velanna, expression not softening but the abhorrence eased. "You will meet with me to make a full report once you are fully healed."

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