Digging For an Archdemon Part I [Complete]

Settling her sewing aside, Velanna reached for her pack, drawing out a neatly folded pile of clothes. Yet when she unfolded the items, the box was not between the soft fabric. She turned to the pack itself and rummaged through, more forcefully this time.

"It is not here," she spoke into the gaping opening, before turning and repeating it to Henri-Julien himself. "It was here when we resupplied." Agitation threaded through her words, as subtle as the stitches she had just sewn into the hem of his cloak. "And now it is not."

His first instinct was to snap at her, anger flaring up in a way that made his blue eyes flash as brightly as lyrium itself. How could she have lost his lyrium kit? She had witnessed first-hand how withdrawal ravaged through him! Yet the way in which she flew up from the bed, heedless to the way her hair fell about as she searched through the room, prompted Henri-Julien to bite back his snarling rebuke.

Very little cracked the stony composure which Velanna summoned as easily as her magic. Even so, Henri-Julien judged that he was as close to witnessing such a fracturing as he had ever been. "It was here, and now it is not." Her face, usually so carefully guarded, softened into outright alarm.

Fleetingly, he caught the tremble of her jaw, before she steeled herself once more. "One of those fools from the tavern room must have taken it. That is the only time it was out of my direct sight." Head high and shoulders back, Velanna advanced on the door much like an army upon an Archdemon, resolve hardening the beauty of her face. "I will find whoever took it."

Having wrestled with his temper, it took Henri-Julien a moment to rediscover his voice. "Find or flay?" he attempted to ease the crackling tension, but it was too late. She had already stormed from the room. "Velanna!"

Now, for all he was incensed about the loss of the lyrium kit, he was not as yet suffering lyrium withdrawal. It would take another day before he began to feel the full effects. Hence why Henri-Julien could stand idly by while Velanna invited the wrath of an entire village upon her head.

"Velanna!" He hissed again, rushing out behind her. "Be docile--" The words died on his lips. So intent on recovering his lyrium kit, combined with her habitual disdain of the shemlen world, Velanna stalked through the tavern room, inevitably drawing attention from all quarters as she did so.

He drew back into their shared room before anyone could glimpse him. His mind whirred. If he rushed after her, it would seem that the Templar was not in control of his Dalish charge, likely inviting much censure and maybe even inciting a more violent reaction. It depended whether some of the occupants were spoiling for a fight. Alternatively, if he remained in their room, when the - surely inevitable - hue and cry began, he could react by asserting that Velanna was acting on his orders. Unusual, yes, but it gave the guise of authority.

The wait was intolerable. Every muscle in his body tensed, readying to intervene, but he forced himself to still. This was not dissimilar to waiting out an apostate who had gone to ground somewhere in the Bannorn. Patience was key.

None of which explained his rather rash behaviour only a heartbeat later. Glimpsing a flash of blonde hair, he practically pounced from the doorway, his hands gripping a pair of shoulders as he dragged the offender into the room. A piercing scream greeted his efforts.

"What in the name of the Maker are you screaming fo--" He trailed off, realising his mistake even as the poor tavern girl whirled around to face him. Velanna would rather cut her tongue out than scream in fear. "I-- uh, my a-apologies. I thought--"

"Thought what?" she shrieked. "That because you're a Templar you can act how you please?"

"Maker, no!" Aghast, Henri-Julien shook his head, holding his hands up as he backed away. "I would never presume!" Now he realised that the blonde of her hair was akin to mouldy hay rather than the honey of Velanna's. Never mind that her scrawny frame could not compare to the lithe willowyness of his companion. "It was an honest mistake." This girl should count herself blessed: Henri-Julien did not readily admit to such occurrences. "Please, I am so sorry. I thought you were--"
"Find or flay?" Henri-Julien attempted a joke as Velanna stormed for the door to avenge his headache. She would decide when she got there. "Velanna!"

She hesitated a moment at his calling after her, but only a moment. This was too important. Whoever had his lyrium kit could have been halfway to another village by now. "Velanna!" He rushed to follow her. "Be docile--"

She wanted to bite back against the order, but she remembered her promise to be… docile. She made it to the bottom of the stairs and took a deep breath, the air in her lungs having less of a calming effect than she would have liked. She expected Henri-Julien to come chasing after her, but he did not, something else which caught her attention. He was trusting her, rather than hovering over her to watch her every move.

With another breath she entered the tavern room, looking around to see if she could recognize any of the faces there. It was impossible to tell one shemlen from another, and she’d not made any special attempt to note any faces.

Folding her hands, she started at the nearest table, politely asking if anyone had noticed a dropped parcel of some type. Given the value of lyrium, she did not mention what was in the box, hoping that whoever took it did not know its worth.

Reaching a long table with benches, one of the patrons who was well into cups suggested that maybe the mayor took it, since he was looking particularly shifty when he left. That was of no help to Velanna, as the mayor certainly did not spend much time near them. He would have needed swift fingers to do what he was being accused of. Just as she had decided that she would go back to the room to let Henri-Julien know of this turn, she heard a scream that pulled the attention of half the room.

Velanna doubled her steps, hurrying to get up the stairs to where she’d left her companion, to find him with his hands raised, backing away from the tavern girl herself.

"Maker, no!" Henri-Julien was backing away from the woman, who was giving him an angry glare. It did not take Velanna long to figure out what had happened. "I would never presume!" The woman was blonde and thin, though that was where the resemblance ended. She even had blue eyes that flashed at Henri-Julien in anger. Perhaps his mistake should not have rankled her as it did, but there was the feeling all the same. "It was an honest mistake." The girl likely had no idea how lucky she was to hear the next words out of his mouth. "Please, I am so sorry. I thought you were--"

Me,” Velanna said, thinking quickly. “He thought you were me.” Insulted though she may be, she could not leave him floundering in this poor woman’s accusation. “I strayed from the room when I should not have.” She folded her hands in front of her and dipped her head. “And for that, you have my apologies.

The tavern girl looked hard at Velanna’s face, noting her tattoos, no doubt. Velanna fussed at her hair to make sure the tips of her ears were not there to gawk at, caught herself doing so, and folded her arms in front of herself.

“Yes, I’m sure he mistook me for you,” she said sourly. Velanna did not understand why that was so difficult to believe. Had she not also noticed that they were both blonde and thin? Any fool could miss the light lines of her tattoo.

Because I’m an elf?” she demanded, then saw a flash in Henri-Julien’s eyes. It was not very docile to be so curt, she imagined. Well! She’d told him it was not her strongest ability!

“We both know that’s why,” the girl said with a roll of her eyes. “Perhaps you ought to handle your charges with a little less force, ser templar.” Her thin lips thinned further into a sharp line. “Or stop her hiding her big ears so you can see them.”

Velanna’s chest rose and fell with the breathe she needed to keep her from yelling once more. There was nothing left to do but return to the room and let him handle it from here, as her escort. She hurried behind him before her expression could crack from rage.

She paced frantically while Henri-Julien took care of the situation as he saw fit. Oh, it vexed her that she could not handle these things for herself. Or that she could not argue with the woman on his behalf.

When he returned to the room, Velanna had tied her hair back to hide her ears once more and was standing before the fire. “Some drunk shemlen thinks he saw the mayor take it, which I am sure is the most reliable lead we will come by.” She turned about to face him, a frown pulling deeply at her mouth. “I’m sorry that I rushed off. I… the thought of you being ill again wrenches my heart. I would spare you the misery.
By the blessing of Lady Andraste herself, Velanna arrived just in time to intervene in the unexpected altercation.

"Me," she finished his sentence. "He thought you were me." She looked none to pleased about the fact, either. "I strayed from the room when I should not have." Clasping her hands in front of her, Velanna performed an admirable attempt at being, well, docile. It did not suit her, he realised - not that he intended to admit as much... ever. "And for that, you have my apologies."

Now it was Velanna's turn to endure the tavern girl's glare. Strangely, it seemed to draw out her self-consciousness, as she began to play about with her hair. Henri-Julien winced, knowing that she was trying to ensure her ears were disguised, and seeing first-hand how her fussing only drew more attention to them. Perhaps Velanna noticed because she abruptly dropped her hands, opting to fold her arms instead. It only served to make her look more defensive.

"Yes, I’m sure he mistook me for you." Should she wish, the tavern girl could earn coin stripping whitewash from walls with that tone.

Alas, it also had the effect of setting Velanna on edge. "Because I’m an elf?" she retorted.

Docile, Henri-Julien mouthed over the shoulder of the tavern girl, accompanying it with a glare.

"We both know that’s why," was the response from the tavern girl, dripping in sarcasm. "Perhaps you ought to handle your charges with a little less force, ser templar." She pursed her lips into a thin line, aging her almost twenty years. "Or stop her hiding her big ears so you can see them."

That Velanna did not respond was in itself a miracle. Oh, her anger was evident in the snatch of her breath and colour in her cheeks, but she kept a tight control over it. Stepping around him, she disappeared into their room, leaving Henri-Julien to try and salvage something of this unfortunate altercation.

Except he was not really of the mind to do so. If their pretence that he was Velanna's escort was to hold true, it required that behaved in precisely that manner. A dutiful escort would not allow his charge to be derided in such a manner.

"Bold of you to challenge her," he remarked, sucking in a breath between his teeth. "Certainly, I have been tempted to do so many a time." Neither statement was untrue. "She is a very powerful apostate, you know. I will pray that she does not cast a curse upon you as punishment for your candor." So, yes, that was very much relying on a number of very harmful stereotypes. But he was hardly going to alter the hearts and minds of this rural community over the dangers of either magic or the Dalish. So, he would settle for petty revenge instead. "Maker watch over you." With that, he crossed his arm over his chest and retreated into the room, slamming the door in the face of her protests, most of which centred around the fact that he was a Templar and he should be able to neutralise-- He stopped listening after that.

A heavy weight settled in his stomach as Henri-Julien caught sight of how Velanna had rearranged her hair, ensuring the tips of her ears were covered. Neither of them valued false platitudes; her ears were unmistakably elven, even with the most fleeting of glances. Yet to see her shamed like that, particularly when he already knew of her self-consciousness over her ears... it did not sit well with him.

"Some drunk shemlen thinks he saw the mayor take it, which I am sure is the most reliable lead we will come by." Turning from the fire, she frowned, agitated in a way which did not match the circumstances. "I’m sorry that I rushed off. I… the thought of you being ill again wrenches my heart. I would spare you the misery."

Perhaps this whole crisis of faith was, in fact, Maker-sent. How else would he have learned the patience required to deal with a Dalish Grey Warden posing as a Chantry mage? Certainly, he would not be merging from this journey entirely unchanged, be that for good or ill.

"It was... very you," he observed, not without a hint of wry amusement. "But as you have not set the tavern alight," perhaps that was a little too close to the bone, but it was said now, "it would seem unnecessary to dwell on it."

Clearing his throat, Henri-Julien skirted around the more emotional revelation and focused instead on facts. "The mayor barely came near us. I can't believe he would have stolen it." His brows drew together, considering her report. "The drunk..." He lifted a brow, nodding towards the door to indicate the tavern girl. "What if he was tormenting you? It could be some form of perverse entertainment; they will likely assume I will reprimand you for not returning with the lost item.

He folded his arms, moving to the window. It overlooked the street with the entrance to the tavern on the far right. Deep in thought, Henri-Julien watched the comings and goings, sifting through possible - and plausible - solutions to this near-calamity. "For all it's worth, lyrium is difficult to sell," he mused aloud. "Few can safely ingest it and even fewer have sufficient coin to pay for it." His eyes gleamed, suddenly sensing a route through this tumble of thoughts. "Let's assume whoever has the box has opened it. If they recognised it for what it was, they'd want to check how much lyrium was contained." Alas, due to his foresight at the gates of Orzammar, a great deal more vials than it should, but that might work to their advantage. "If they didn't recognise it, they'd want to see what was in it. Either way, they know it's lyrium. Thanks to that," he jerked his head towards the door, indicating the recent altercation, "I imagine a lot more people now know that a Templar is here. So, unless you did genuinely drop it by accident," he shook his head to signal that he did not believe this was a result of carelessness on her part, "we can be certain that it will not be handed in to the local Chantry. So, whoever has it, they're likely to know their market is limited. As in, I am the only feasible buyer within at least twenty miles."

Henri-Julien shifted his clear blue gaze to Velanna, the corners of his mouth pulling upward slightly. "In your opinion of shemlen nature, do you think it more likely the current owner of my lyrium kit will attempt to blackmail or coerce a reward from us?"
To her excuses, Henri-Julien simply said, "It was... very you." There was a hint of humor that she appreciated. "But as you have not set the tavern alight," she tilted her head to the side to agree, "it would seem unnecessary to dwell on it."

It would.

He cleared his throat. "The mayor barely came near us. I can't believe he would have stolen it." His forehead knit together as he considered her words. "The drunk..." He indicated the room downstairs and the tavern girl with a nod of his head. "What if he was tormenting you? It could be some form of perverse entertainment; they will likely assume I will reprimand you for not returning with the lost item."

She turned in the direction he pointed as if she could see the drunk and smell his foul stench, the words of the tavern girl too fresh in her ears to not be able to associate the two acts now that it was clearly drawn out for her. Her fists clenched hard enough to leave half moons in the flesh of her palms.

He crossed his arms and walked to the window, watching out over the street below the tavern. Velanna moved close enough that she could see over his shoulder, but not close enough to touch him. "For all it's worth, lyrium is difficult to sell," he said. "Few can safely ingest it and even fewer have sufficient coin to pay for it. Let's assume whoever has the box has opened it. If they recognised it for what it was, they'd want to check how much lyrium was contained." More, since they had replenished for this very trip back in Orzammar. "If they didn't recognise it, they'd want to see what was in it. Either way, they know it's lyrium. Thanks to that," he indicated the door with a point of his chin, "I imagine a lot more people now know that a Templar is here. So, unless you did genuinely drop it by accident," he made sure that she knew he did not blame her for it, a relief she did not realize she needed, "we can be certain that it will not be handed in to the local Chantry. So, whoever has it, they're likely to know their market is limited. As in, I am the only feasible buyer within at least twenty miles."

His clear eyes turned to her now, his generous mouth pulling upward at the corners. "In your opinion of shemlen nature, do you think it more likely the current owner of my lyrium kit will attempt to blackmail or coerce a reward from us?"

Her own smile lifted to mirror his. “It would depend on their target. Another shemlen can be coerced through needs. A docile elf, blackmailed through her fears.” She folded her hands in her best docile posture. “Do I wish to avoid punishment? Does my templar guard wish to avoid illness?” She could only guess that the effects of withdrawal from lyrium were known among other shemlen. Outside this one example in front of her, the ways of templars were hardly her area of expertise.

Are you well enough to do this now?” she asked, her head tilted forward enough that she had to look up under her lashes, concern uppermost in her expression. “For I think you have the right of it. Which would be the easier target? Perhaps an elf who has already caused a commotion and faces the ire of her templar?

She tilted her head a moment, puzzling for a moment over her phrasing. Her templar? Did she really think of him like that? As hers? No, that was ridiculous. A person did not belong to another. She did not put ownership on him. Blinking, she let it cross her face a moment longer than she would have liked.

Shaking it away, she continued on with her idea. “If whoever took it believes I am desperate enough, perhaps they will seek me out with an offer.” She rolled her eyes. She was no storyteller or actor. “How would you convince this hypothetical person that your mage is desperate? That I would pay any price to get your belongings back?

Her frown returned. “You could chastise me in front of the crowd downstairs. Perhaps they would believe that I am but an obedient waif at your command.” The last she punctuated by throwing her hands in the air above her head. “We could split up and see who is approached first.” Though how they would then convince said person to turn over the precious lyrium, she did not know. Things were so much easier when she could just set fires and scare everyone.
Velanna was quick to follow his line of thought. "It would depend on their target," she remarked with knowing smile. "Another shemlen can be coerced through needs. A docile elf, blackmailed through her fears." She clasped her hands in front of her, affecting an air of defence. "Do I wish to avoid punishment? Does my templar guard wish to avoid illness?"

A question asked mockingly but which in fact raised a pertinent point. "Except the effects of lyrium withdrawal are not especially well-known beyond the Chantry," he mused, re-assessing the situation based on that pertinent detail.

The mention of withdrawal evidently brought Velanna's attention to his own well-being. "Are you well enough to do this now?" Her concern softened how she looked towards him. "For I think you have the right of it. Which would be the easier target? Perhaps an elf who has already caused a commotion and faces the ire of her templar?"

"Unfortunately, I agree you would be the more viable target." Even if the thief knew of lyrium withdrawal, the reputation of the Templars would shore up any suggestion of weakness.

Velanna seemed to accept this in her stride. "If whoever took it believes I am desperate enough, perhaps they will seek me out with an offer," she suggested, though accompanied with a roll of her eyes. He doubted that she relished the idea of playing a role, especially one so far from the truth. "How would you convince this hypothetical person that your mage is desperate? That I would pay any price to get your belongings back?"

Somewhat irritably, Henri-Julien shrugged, at a loss beyond the original idea. This was hardly his area of expertise, either. How had this initially seemed so simple and yet become so complex?

Her brows furrowed, though more in thought than at him. "You could chastise me in front of the crowd downstairs. Perhaps they would believe that I am but an obedient waif at your command." She threw her hands up, clearly losing her patience. "We could split up and see who is approached first."

"Hold on," Henri-Julien scrunched his eyes shut, trying to gather some semblance of clarity. "We know that I gave you the lyrium kit to look after on my behalf, but..." Awkwardness caused his throat to close up, prompting him to cough to try and obscure the slip. "Well, it's... unusual." Unheard of, actually. "To have a... mage--" Dalish apostate, "--carry something like that.

He folded his arms across his chest, eyes narrowing as he considered, staring unseeingly out onto the street. "They'll think you stole it first. So they must know there's only a limited time before I discover the kit isn't in my pack and assume I'm the one who has been pickpocketed, not you." His eyes lit up. "Stealing from a Templar is a far more reprehensible crime than stealing from--" Just in time, he swallowed what he was about to say. Just because it was a valid observation did not mean that he had to give voice to the prejudice which permeated throughout Ferelden. He was still struggling with his own biases.

"The point is," he hurried on, "that I agree they'll be looking for you. But I think this works best if I appear to be oblivious." Turning, Henri-Julien snatched up his newly-repaired cloak, before throwing Velanna's across to her. "Let's head through the taproom as though going for a walk. I'll act like you're insisting on it. Hopefully, we'll attract the attention of the thief."

Hastily, they clattered down the stairs into the taproom. Digging deep, Henri-Julien summoned forth a highly irritable persona, irked by everything and who spoke entirely with disgruntled sneers. It was quite the stretch of his imagination.

"You can be certain I will following this up with the First Enchanter when we return," he snarled at Velanna, gritting his teeth. "To expect that I escort you to source herbs after a day of travel is ridiculous!"
"Hold on." Henri-Julien closed his eyes, the lids bunching and drawing a furrow in his brow. "We know that I gave you the lyrium kit to look after on my behalf, but..." He let a dry cough to clear his throat, and Velanna tilted her head as he seemed to struggle with his words. "Well, it's... unusual. To have a... mage carry something like that."

She nodded slowly, as much in response to his seeming distress as to express her understanding of what he’d intimated.

He crossed his arms, turning something akin to a scowl at the street outside their window. "They'll think you stole it first. So they must know there's only a limited time before I discover the kit isn't in my pack and assume I'm the one who has been pickpocketed, not you." Realization lit his face. "Stealing from a Templar is a far more reprehensible crime than stealing from--"

A mage? An elf? Velanna rolled her eyes. He was right, but that did not mean she enjoyed hearing the truth of it.

"The point is," he rushed his words, making up for what was not said, "that I agree they'll be looking for you. But I think this works best if I appear to be oblivious." He grabbed his mended cloak and tossed hers to her. She snatched it out of the air and threw it around her shoulders. "Let's head through the taproom as though going for a walk. I'll act like you're insisting on it. Hopefully, we'll attract the attention of the thief."

She could do nothing but shrug at the cleverness of the idea. It was believable enough a plan, and she would enjoy catching the attention of whoever thought her a whimpering victim. She followed him down the stairs and watched as his posture went rigid, his face growing colder. He sneered at her, much like he had when they first met. It took Velanna a moment to remember that it was an act, that his supposed ire was not really directed at her.

"You can be certain I will following this up with the First Enchanter when we return," he growled between his teeth. "To expect that I escort you to source herbs after a day of travel is ridiculous!"

Velanna hunched her shoulders, adopting a meek posture and trying to look the pathetic appearance of the chattel mages of the Circles. “I noted several pain relieving varieties on the way in,” she argued, though she pitched her voice to that of a scared girl. Her eyes darted around the room, as if the crowd made her nervous, watching for signs that anyone took special notice of the pair. A woman looked away as she drank from her tankard. A man stared intently at his plate of dinner without eating it. Another watched them openly as they made it to the door.

Once outside she withdrew her herb knife, seeing no reason not to take advantage of their ruse to pad their stocks. If this did not work, Henri-Julien would need the elfroot at the very least. The embrium would also be good if he should slip into labored breathing. She picked her way through the damp town along the line of trees, cutting what she could of each. For the beginning of her search she made certain to stay within his line of sight, but after a few minutes she got the feeling she was being watched by others. She began to stray further away from Henri-Julien, trusting his tracker instincts to know where she was.

She dipped into the trees, coming upon a few blooms. For a few moments she thought she’d been mistaken about being watched, and let her guard down. She snipped a few more embrium, deciding that to be enough for their needs, and folded it into a scrap of cloth to roll up and pocket. Deciding to head back, she froze when she heard a rustle.

Whoever it was could not claim the grace of her traveling companion. They bumbled into the area, and even Velanna’s basic Dalish learning could have followed or avoided the intruder easily. Her instinct was to turn about and show them the folly of taking her for an easy mark, but the reminder to be docile rang in her ears, so she played the fool and began to return to the trees.

“I think I have something you want, elf.” The man’s voice was perhaps louder than a sneak should have been. Even if Henri-Julien could not hear it, she was no helpless waif, even if she couldn’t see the thief. She snatched the fade to her fingers and reached with her magic for the roots of the nearest tree, but a large branch caught her across her middle and dashed her against a tree, making her lose the spell. “Keep your hands where I can see them,” he sneered at her. “Call for your templar and you die.” The man withdrew a knife. “I doubt he’ll be saddened by your loss.”

Rage thundered in her ears but she drew a breath as deep as her gut would allow and kept her hands in front of her. She didn’t need her hands to cast, not entirely, as the mere crook of a finger would suffice to call upon the vengeance of nature to her aid. “I need it back,” she rasped out, adding a quaver to her voice for good measure.

“Hoping to get coin enough to escape with?” He let a dry chuckle. “Shifty mages can’t be trusted. Perhaps I should tell him what you’ve done. Maybe he’ll reward me?”

Not likely she thought. “Please,” she whimpered.

“Your pleas won’t line my pocket.” He used the tip of the knife to lift her chin. “Nor will your pretty eyes.” While he focused on her face, she bent her finger, drawing a root to creep from the ground, coaxing it toward his unsuspecting feet.

I don’t have any coin, shemlen fool.” If she did, as this idiot so clearly did not comprehend, she wouldn’t risk stealing from a templar to fetch it. The root bent to her will, with a quick flick of her wrist it grasped the man around the leg and yanked him to the ground. The knife nicked her chin as he fell, but the root was quickly joined by others, and she bound him in a cocoon. She gripped the roots to emphasize that she was now the one in control and narrowed her eyes sharply. “Give it back, or I will crush you, slowly, rib by rib, bone by bone.
Just as Henri-Julien had slipped into a... not-entirely-alternative version of himself, so too did Velanna adopt her docile demeanour. In truth, it was rather convincing, and Henri-Julien found himself wondering why Velanna resisted behaving in that manner more of the time. It would make her life a great deal easier.

Hers or others? A whisper threaded through his thoughts. There were countless mages in Circles across Thedas who performed their meekness in much the same way. Except those mages grew so accomplished at the role that it eventually became a part of them. And for the ones who refused to play the part assigned to them by the Chantry? Tranquility. 

"I noted several pain relieving varieties on the way in." Velanna's tremorous voice broke through his thoughts, returning him to their shared ruse. Hastily, he harrumphed his impatience, storming out of the tavern without further remark. 

Once outside, Velanna took out her her knife, apparently of the opinion that she would make practical use of their pretence. He swallowed back his snort, though he could not resist the roll of his eyes. Yet where once the gesture would have been full of irritation, now it was more resigned acceptance. If nothing else, he had to concede a small flicker of admiration over Velanna's unwavering pragmatism. Why were there not more people who shared that trait?

Step by step, the distance between them was teased out, until Velanna disappeared from sight beyond a line of trees. Not wishing to hamper her attempts to draw out the pickpocket, Henri-Julien tarried at one of the roadside market stalls, casting a disinterested eye over the little trinkets. The merchant tried their best to entice him into parting with some of his coin but his short clipped responses soon dissuaded them of the notion. 

A flash of movement drew his attention. A man had slipped through the trees in the same direction as Velanna. Abruptly, Henri-Julien strode away from the stall, following in the footsteps of the pair. On reaching the trees, he stepped from the path, moving as silent and watchful as a spirit. Not that he need have bothered: the man thrashed and stumbled his way through the undergrowth, clearly more skilled with his hands than his feet. Only when the man emerged into the small clearing where Velanna had stopped to gather flowers did the racket finally die down, and that was simply because there was nothing for him to catch his feet on!

"I think I have something you want, elf." So smug over the success of his plan, the man practically crowed the words. Yet he clearly did not underestimate the danger of mages as he caught Velanna with a large bough, slamming her against a nearby tree. Prudent, given that Henri-Julien had sensed the draw of mana, but a knot of anger tightened in his chest at the violence against Velanna. "Keep your hands where I can see them,” the man demanded, his lip curled into a sneer. "Call for your templar and you die." He pulled out a knife. "I doubt he’ll be saddened by your loss."

"I need it back," Velanna pretended to plead, committed to the ruse.

"Hoping to get coin enough to escape with?" He chortled to himself. "Shifty mages can’t be trusted. Perhaps I should tell him what you’ve done. Maybe he’ll reward me?"

"Please," she sniffled, eyes large and beseeching.

"Your pleas won’t line my pocket." He rested the tip of her knife against the underside of her chin, forcing her to raise her head. "Nor will your pretty eyes." Had Henri-Julien not felt another pull of mana nor noticed the slither of a root around the man's foot, he would have broken cover. Yet he was inclined to allow Velanna her revenge on the man, not just for the theft but for his current treatment of her.

"I don’t have any coin, shemlen fool." The root seized the man around his leg, dragging him down to the ground. Without hesitation, Velanna summoned more, wrapping tightly around the man until he was bound tight. "Give it back, or I will crush you, slowly, rib by rib, bone by bone."

Well, well, well. Henri-Julien supposed that this was the moment to reveal himself, but now he had watched the encounter unfold, why should he? Velanna had the situation under perfect control. Instead, he summoned a little of his abilities, just enough to warp a tiny fraction of the Veil, in order to confirm his proximity to Velanna. If she should wish or require his assistance, he was here, but otherwise he was content to allow her to judge the best course of action here.

Once Velanna had completed her business, Henri-Julien deliberately stepped into view so that the man could glimpse him. If the man should ever try to recount what had happened here, no one would believe him. A Templar stand by and watch while a mage distributed justice? Ridiculous. They would think he had involved himself in something he could not handle - which, in its own way, was correct.

Yet as Velanna drew near, Henri-Julien caught sight of the slight cut beneath her chin. His jaw clenched, briefly reconsidering his non-involvement in the matter. But if the man should have something so mundane as a bruised jaw, it would only lend credence to his claims of what had happened here. Instead, Henri-Julien turned his back on the scene, gesturing towards another path which wove away from the village.

"Let's find some elfroot," he suggested. His eyes raised skyward, noting how the clouds had lightened - at least for the moment. "I know you prefer to be out in the open air than cooped up in a tavern room. We can stay out until the rain returns."

They wandered through the woods, slowly gaining height. Finally, once Henri-Julien judged they were sufficiently far from where they had left the pickpocket, he held out his hand for the lyrium kit. With a small rueful twist of his lips - not quite a smile, but almost - he nodded to her chin. "If you see to your cut, I'll see to my dose."

After a thorough inspection of the contents - it was perhaps missing a vial or two but no more - Henri-Julien prepared his dose. His reservations over ingesting lyrium with Velanna as a witness has steadily dissipated over the course of their journey. Not that he welcomed having company, but it no longer soured his temper as it might once have done. The rush of the lyrium sent his head spinning and he remained where he had sat, waiting for the excess colour and sound to settle.

"Thank you for returning this to me." It was belated but no less sincere. 
The slightest tremble of the veil was the only sign Velanna needed that Henri-Julien was nearby. An unspoken reassurance she’d not realized she wanted or needed, and a type of consent to carry on as she was. So she did.

The man whimpered, and at first seemed not to value his own well-being as he spat out, “You wouldn’t dare.” Velanna’s eyes flashed bright green as she clenched her fist just a little tighter to let them man know that yes, she would dare. Yes, she was in fact willing to end his pathetic life if he was so foolish as to challenge her.

She took her time, not having any need to rush with Henri-Julien’s presence nearby. He had no problems speaking his mind or commenting on her actions. His silence was tacit approval. After a few minutes she was able to retrieve the vessel in question, and Henri-Julien stepped into view along the path back to the clearing. The thief would never be believed should he recount his tale. What templar would stand by and allow a mage to do such a thing? What shemlen would allow an elf to exact such retribution against another shemlen?

She loosened the roots enough that the man would eventually be able to disentangle himself, but not a fraction more. She picked her way on light feet back to Henri-Julien, pausing just a moment as a tendon in his jaw tightened. "Let's find some elfroot," he suggested. His clear blue eyes raised upward, but not to roll as she might have expected. He judged the equally clear sky. "I know you prefer to be out in the open air than cooped up in a tavern room. We can stay out until the rain returns."

She smiled, her lips taking on the familiar twist of her expression. Her appreciation could be seen in her eyes just a moment before they searched about for the aforementioned root. They walked far enough away from her would-be assailant before he held out his hand for his paraphernalia kit. "If you see to your cut, I'll see to my dose."

Luckily elfroot grew in abundance almost anywhere, and it was quickly found. Washed and crushed, she applied it to the nick on her chin. Instantly her skin was soothed, though the cut would need to heal in its own time. It had been enough time for Henri-Julien to partake of his daily dose. It had been some time since she’d balked at such a thing, wondering why he did not take the opportunity to try and wean himself away from the substance. He did not want to, and where once she might have thought it was ridiculous, it was not hers to criticize. It became as normal as her need to sleep when tired. When he’d had sufficient time to adjust to the effects of the lyrium, he said, "Thank you for returning this to me."

It is yours and you trusted me with it.” There was no other option than to do what it took to see it restored to him. Her smile tightened as she checked him over with her eyes. “You are well now?” He’d been in no real danger, not after such a short time. Still, she could not help herself the small amount of fuss, and did not resist the urge. Even a headache would have been enough for her to deem the thief unfit to remain with all his bones intact.

The weather remained steady long enough for her to collect more elfroot as they wandered the woods. They spent plenty of time out of doors, but having the time to leisurely wander and appreciate nature was rare. They traveled with such purpose normally, she was more than content to dig her toes into the ground and coax blooms from flowers that seemed reluctant to do so on their own in the strange lingering overcast that seemed to swallow Crestwood.

Just before sunset the rain returned, light at first, enough for her to appreciate as they returned to their tavern room. She went about her routine for cleaning up for bed, washing her face, hands, and feet. As she did so, glancing in the tiny mirror, she caught sight of the cut just under her chin, barely visible from straight on, but noticeable enough to her vanity. She touched the skin around it, examining the whole of it with a twist of her neck and lift of her chin. “Do you think it will scar?” she asked without thinking, her voice heavy with the hope that it would heal clean. “I suppose I should count myself lucky that it was not worse.” That it could have been a mortal wound had she not acted as swiftly as she had was not so important to her as the effects it might have on her beauty now, and her frown was genuine. It was not something that could be covered with her hair.

She attempted to shake off her distraction. Her eyes flicked to him, not wanting to invade the tiny bit of privacy they were each afforded in shared quarters. She assumed they would take the North Road through Lothering, according to the maps she’d studied along the way, and on to Denerim from there, but their travels were not what picked at her mind as she settled in front of the fire, tailor style. “You did not interfere when I used my magic against that thief. How did you know I would not kill him?” The thought had crossed her mind, after all.
"It is yours and you trusted me with it." Since they each understood the responsibility of giving their word to something, Henri-Julien recognised her determination to retrieve the stolen lyrium kit as a point of honour. What he was not prepared for, however, was the close sweep of her gaze over him as her smile froze just a fraction. "You are well now?"

"Yes." There was no need to elaborate; she had witnessed firsthand how he fared when he was not sufficiently dosed with lyrium.

With his senses fully returned, Henri-Julien clambered back onto his feet. They resumed their unhurried walk through the woods with Velanna gathering more elfroot as she went. She became absorbed in her surroundings, almost relaxed, while she stopped here and there to entice another bright bloom from within itself, creating splashes of colour against the muted landscape.

Less enamoured with his surroundings, Henri-Julien lended his thoughts towards rationalising how Crestwood had come to gain so oppressive an atmosphere. He did not recall this dreary gloom from previous visits. Perhaps the Blight had wreaked more damage than anyone realised. Maybe the weather sensed his thoughts because the rain began to drift in, falling as soft motes of sparkling light in the golden sunset before the clouds closed over.

Fortunately, they were at the tavern before they could be thoroughly soaked. While Velanna moved about the room, following through on her nightly routine, Henri-Julien sat on the edge of his bed, mindful not to dampen the blankets as he shed his boots and cloak. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Velanna examining the small cut which the thief had bestowed upon her, her whole expression pinched with displeasure as the tips of her fingers lightly pressed against the tender skin.

"Do you think it will scar?" Even though he did not turn his head, Henri-Julien heard the unspoken hope wrapped up in the question. Not that Velanna permitted him the opportunity to answer as she mused, "I suppose I should count myself lucky that it was not worse."

"Leave it alone and it will heal cleanly." Despite his brusqueness, there was an underlying earnestness to the words. "Continue poking at it and you will interfere with the healing."

Whether or not Velanna agreed with his assessment - one which was in more way more informed than her own - she nevertheless moved away from the small looking glass. Instead, she took up position by the fire, sitting cross-legged in front of the warmth of the fire.

"You did not interfere when I used my magic against that thief." She changed topic with the rapid flow of a river in spate. "How did you know I would not kill him?

"Because--" Henri-Julien made to scoff but found the words died in his throat. Startled into a discomforting realisation, his brows pulled together, a familiar scowl darkening the sharp lines of his face. "I did not," he admitted, gruffly and with an air of resentment that she should force such a confession from him. That he had acknowledged the oversight at all was remarkable in itself, but not something he dwelled upon for the moment. "But if you had made the attempt, I would have intervened." Yet while it was true that he could negate her magic, his ability to do so before she caused fatal injury... that was not so certain. 

Disliking the way his mind now raced with accusations and imagined consequences, Henri-Julien stood up, busying himself with hanging his cloak just-so on the back of the door so it would dry properly. Irritated, he fussed with folds until they lay a particular way, but his fingers brushed against the newly mended hem which Velanna had so carefully sewn only a few hours before. He held up the fabric, as though her neat stitches could be read in the same way as fortunes could be told through a deck of cards. 

"You had no cause." This time, his words were careful and considered. "There was a moment where it would have been justified." Just before she had summoned the first root. When the man had been deliberately tormenting her. "But after that, you held all the power. There was no need to kill him." He half-turned, somehow managing to look both haughty and humble. "You're not someone who kills for sport." And when had he, the great pious Knight-Tracker, decided that she, a wily elven apostate, did not revel in the spilling of shemlen blood?

Sighing, he returned to his perch on the end of his bed, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his thighs, supporting his chin in his hands. "But, in all honesty, I didn't even pause to consider the possibility." A weariness settled over him, bone-deep and not borne of physical exertion. "Perhaps I am disillusioned with anticipating the worst all the time."
The fire before her helped to alleviate the oppressive, ever-lingering dampness of outside as Velanna settled in for the night. She contemplated the flames as Henri-Julien removed his wet outer garments with care.

"Because--" came his answer that stopped dead in his throat. Velanna turned her head, witnessing the scowl she knew too well as it returned to his face. "I did not," he admitted. Velanna was not expecting that, given the way that Henri-Julien prided himself on knowing the behaviors of mages, even if his knowledge was considerably biased at times. "But if you had made the attempt, I would have intervened."

That was enough for her, though she did wonder if he could have stopped her in time. The thought came out of no arrogance, but a type of curiosity she did not intend to share.

The answer did not seem to be enough for Henri-Julien however. He stood, deciding his cloak needed to be hung on the door in a way it refused to hang without his fussing with it. Choosing not to stare, she turned her eyes back to the fire, though she could still hear the rustling of the fabric. Whatever thoughts were riling him to moving were his own, and she did not pry.

"You had no cause." His careful words broke the silence a few moments later. "There was a moment where it would have been justified." Velanna lifted her brow at him. Not that she did not believe he thought so, for he did not say things without intention. "But after that, you held all the power. There was no need to kill him." No need, perhaps, but had that ever stopped her in the past? She tried to remember. "You're not someone who kills for sport."

No, she was not. Even in the past, at the height of her quest for retribution, she’d only killed those she’d believed were responsible. That she regretted the deaths now was no secret, she’d admitted as much out loud before when she’d been under Aedan’s command. When Justice had loudly proclaimed that she owed reparations to those she’d harmed.

His movements disrupted her thoughts and brought her back to the moment. He returned to his bed, perching upon the edge of it like a bird glad for the respite. "But, in all honesty, I didn't even pause to consider the possibility." Had they not spent the afternoon and evening in relative reprieve, she might have mistaken it for fatigue of travels. Instead it seemed more, something deep within him pulling him into a mental exhaustion. He propped himself with elbows against his knees. "Perhaps I am disillusioned with anticipating the worst all the time."

A soft puff of air passed through Velanna’s nostrils. “It is exhausting,” she admitted, being no more innocent of such expectations than he. Her head tilted fractionally as she considered him. She tried to remember the last time he’d exerted his will over hers, as he was not afraid to do when they’d first met. He was stronger and possessed the one ability that could stop her wrath were she in the throes of it. A strange thing that he did not step in, because she always assumed a shemlen would inform a situation through their own power. Yet, in the moment, she’d not expected him to. She’d trusted he’d let her handle it unless it got out of hand.

You surprise me,” she told him. “Often.” Her fingers smoothed at the hem of her robes as turned her eyes away. “It did not occur to me in the moment that you might stop me, just as it did not occur to me in the moment to actually harm him.” As Henri-Julien had already pointed out, she had everything under control, the offensive wound to her chin notwithstanding. “He was an idiot, nothing more. But you?” She smiled, having no answer to her own pondering.

She stood and pulled the blanket from her bed, wrapping herself in it before crossing the room where she settled on the floor once again, this time next to his bed. She felt an urge to comfort him, a strange pull that she resisted as she shuffled about to find the comfortable position for herself she’d seemed to leave by the fire.

You are not like the other shem–” She paused and changed course, “Not like the other humans I’ve known. You could be, but you choose not to be. I’ve come to expect better of you, and have not often been disappointed.” No one was more surprised by it than Velanna herself. The man who’d once held a knife to her throat did not seem the same one who sat above her now. “Perhaps others have only shown you the worst of themselves.” She picked at a pill on the blanket without looking at it, her eyes turned up to meet his. She knew this had at times included herself, but did not feel the need to say as much. “No wonder you tire of it. You deserve better than to always be disappointed, at least from what I have seen.” Oh, he had a temper, for sure, incandescent at the worst of times and a rival to her own. He was mercurial to a fold, as she was as well. But he had a goodness to him that he discounted. “Only you know the true north that guides your moral compass, but it’s clear you have one.
Judging by her own soft snort, Velanna at least empathised with his weariness. "It is exhausting," she acknowledged, regarding him with veiled gaze.

Indeed, Henri-Julien suspected that throughout their lives, each of them had been forced to revise their already low standards further when confronted with the idiocy of others. Yet not suffering fools and seeing the worst were two different things. He doubted he would ever have patience for bumbling idiots, but anticipating disaster now seemed to have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, how would the Henri-Julien of six months ago have responded to the earlier situation, and how would it have ended as a result? The answer to both questions was 'badly'.

"You surprise me," Velanna declared. Now it was Henri-Julien's turn to snort, rolling his eyes. "Often," she added, effectively brushing aside his incredulity. Her fingers played with the hem of her robe as she looked back to the fire. "It did not occur to me in the moment that you might stop me, just as it did not occur to me in the moment to actually harm him." At least they were both guilty of momentarily forgetting their prejudices. But was it really just a momentary lapse? It had been a number of weeks since Henri-Julien had maintained his vigilance with Velanna in the way he had - and would - with any other apostate. Maybe even before they set out for Orzammar. "He was an idiot, nothing more. But you?" Her lips curved into a smile, leaving the question hanging there.

Scoffing, Henri-Julien folded his arms, refocusing on the darkening evening beyond the as-yet unshuttered window. "I allowed an apostate to use their magic unnecessarily." Oh, if he wished, he could argue that her magic had been used in service of his needs, but he knew how that Henri-Julien of six months ago would have reacted to so thin a defence. 

Unfolding herself from in front of the fire, Velanna rose and fetched the blanket from her bed, expertly wrapping it around herself to guard against any chill. She moved across the room and reseated herself on the floor by his bed. Somewhat bemused by this exchange of positions, Henri-Julien eyed her, wondering if she was about to begin some strange sorcery involving drawing marks on the floor and chanting incantations.

She was not. "You are not like the other shem–" The word seemed to stick in her throat. "Not like the other humans I’ve known. You could be, but you choose not to be. I’ve come to expect better of you, and have not often been disappointed." Arching his brow, Henri-Julien thought he might have preferred the sorcery; this heartfelt reassurance was far more unexpected... but not entirely unwelcome. "Perhaps others have only shown you the worst of themselves." She fiddled with the rough weave of the blanket, her eyes locked on his. "No wonder you tire of it. You deserve better than to always be disappointed, at least from what I have seen." That was too much. Shaking his head, he broke from holding her gaze, scorn in the wrinkle of his nose and twist of his mouth. 

Still, Velanna pressed on. "Only you know the true north that guides your moral compass, but it’s clear you have one." It was clear that she meant well, but it did not have the desired effect of comforting him.

Yet neither did it have the opposite effect of enraging him. Yes, he felt the familiar corrosion of disdain pooling in the pit of his stomach over her words, but he did not spit that back at her as he might once have done. 

"I am guided by the Chant of Light," he corrected, standing up so he could turn to face her. Maybe it was habitual: to relocate himself into a position which granted the best vantage - him looming over where she sat. "Nothing else." He folded his arms across his chest, exhaling through his nose. "A fact which you have witnessed first-hand is immensely problematic. I..." He trailed off, his mind racing to find the epiphany that skirted around his thoughts.

Almost unaware of it, he sat back on the bed once more. "I am like a child," he murmured, almost awed. That he was revealing the rawest of his realisations did not seem to mute his voice. What was one more life-changing revelation? Velanna was well-versed in enduring the most personal of his divulgences by now. "Less than a child, actually." He spared her a brief glance, briefly wondering if she would appreciate this particular detail. "I was called rathe-ripe when I first arrived at the orphanage. I remember being embarrassed that I didn't know the meaning." He snatched a rueful chuckle. "It took me a few weeks before I could properly investigate what it meant. At the time, I was smug when I learned the definition, but I know now it wasn't accurate. I was intelligent but not mature.

"My point being," he went on, "is that I was taught to measure the world against the Chant of Light. Throughout my life, until I became a Grey Warden, this worked perfectly. It made me perfect." Navel-gazing would never diminish his ego; that was as much a part of him as his blue eyes. "Perfection invites easy judgement. Only those who follow the exact same tenets as you can ever hope to compete, and even then the strength of their devotion can always be challenged."

"But now I don't have the Chant. Not like I did before." The admission prompted his voice to tremble a fraction. "So I'm encountering things and it's left to me to decide how I should react. Just as a child would do." His lips pressed together, thinning. "Save I am a grown man." His fist clenched and struck harmlessly against the bed, his deepest frustration making itself known. "It is mortifying." It was also terrifying: what if he should make the wrong decisions? Perhaps all of this was the wrong decision. Except... it did not feel wrong. It felt... freeing. But then, did not every child who wilfully fled the protective embrace of their caregiver feel the same way?
Henri-Julien bolted to standing. "I am guided by the Chant of Light," he reminded her. He towered over her where she sat, but Velanna did not feel challenged. "Nothing else." He crossed his arms over his chest and exhaled loudly. "A fact which you have witnessed first-hand is immensely problematic. I..." The rest of the thought seemed to escape him, and Velanna remained silent in case it was within his reach.

He sat upon his bed once more, like some unseen force had urged it to happen without consulting him. The bed creaked softly as he did, but it did not seem to disturb him from wherever his thoughts had turned. "I am like a child," he nearly whispered. She’d not expected that and merely crooked a blonde eyebrow, hoping he would go on. "Less than a child, actually." He looked her fleetingly. "I was called rathe-ripe when I first arrived at the orphanage. I remember being embarrassed that I didn't know the meaning." Velanna had not heard the term herself, and waited for context. "It took me a few weeks before I could properly investigate what it meant. At the time, I was smug when I learned the definition, but I know now it wasn't accurate. I was intelligent but not mature." Ah. Now she understood.

Once upon a time she’d thought being deemed a mature child was praise, and surely it was intended to be. Looking back Velanna knew such praise was born out of her reluctance to play with the other children in her clan, a fact which was only true because they refused to play with her. Had this circumstance also informed Henri-Julien? She did not ask, not wishing to interrupt where his thoughts were headed.

"My point being," he continued, "is that I was taught to measure the world against the Chant of Light. Throughout my life, until I became a Grey Warden, this worked perfectly. It made me perfect." Velanna tilted her head, acceding the point. She was learning to pick her battles after all. "Perfection invites easy judgement. Only those who follow the exact same tenets as you can ever hope to compete, and even then the strength of their devotion can always be challenged."

At one time she’d found this sort of talk from him unbearable. A sign of his shemlen arrogance, that he could never be found wanting if he clung to his precious Chant of Light. Perhaps she did not agree with the world of human religion–certainly not!–but she understood its importance to him much the way she gave quiet devotion to Sylaise or breathed curses against the Dread Wolf with a tinge of apprehension. Now it was simply part of him, much like the eyes she admired so openly.

"But now I don't have the Chant. Not like I did before." She meant to argue, but held her tongue at the waver in his voice, slight though it was. "So I'm encountering things and it's left to me to decide how I should react. Just as a child would do." His full mouth pressed into a thin, rigid line. "Save I am a grown man." He struck the bed with an impotent fist. "It is mortifying."

A tree will shed its leaves to protect itself in the winter. It is not embarrassed that it must do so. It is not a weakness. It gains another year’s wisdom, and in many cases bears fruit in spring with that reserve of energy.” Her eyes narrowed slightly, only lending to the seriousness of what she was saying, even as she wrinkled her nose at the thought of him being a child. Younger than her, possibly, but something in her firmly rejected that he was childlike.

A child believes what they are told because they know no better. It is not until they are able to inform their opinions with their own experiences that they change them.” At least, if they were to achieve any self-assurance, for better or for ill. “Your roots are established even if you feel unsteady.” Her eyes fluttered as she realized that she, too, often felt unsteady, but this was not about her. “You are indeed a man,” she glanced away, the world stirring a feeling she could not name. “Perhaps the only one of integrity I can think of.” Surely, as she knew of no other shemlen men who deserved such praise! He would do well to see it for the compliment that it was! “Were you otherwise, this would not weigh on you so.

But if he was not a child, why was she coddling him like one? She tossed off her blanket and stood, hands on her hips. “So what if you must change your world view? We all must. You alone have warped my sense of what a human must be, and I have been forced to accept that perhaps I might have been wrong about at least one of them. You are not exempt from this. You are not special amongst all others.

She paced away from him, finding herself agitated. It wasn’t completely true. She was quickly learning that she found him special among others, but that hardly seemed relevant to the point of the moment. “Perhaps you can not be made Tranquil as you so recently suggested I be,” she held up a hand to express that she held no ill will over that conversation, “but you flog yourself all the same as I. If you wish to be seen as a child…” She shook her head and sliced her hand through the air, refusing to give in to such an absurd thought. “Learning and growing is not the province of children. Something in you is burning bright that is not your Chant of Light. It’s you, not some external measure of perceived worth.” She stepped close to him, the wind dying from her flight around the room, and looked up. “You need only grasp ahold of it and let it guide you.” She swallowed, her voice lowering. “And I wish to be at your side when you do. If you'll have me.
Velanna was unmoved by his internal plight. "A tree will shed its leaves to protect itself in the winter," she remarked sharply. "It is not embarrassed that it must do so. It is not a weakness. It gains another year’s wisdom, and in many cases bears fruit in spring with that reserve of energy." A slight wrinkle of her nose revealed her distaste for his comparison, unwilling to concede any truth to his sentiment.

"A child believes what they are told because they know no better. It is not until they are able to inform their opinions with their own experiences that they change them." There had better be a point to this. "Your roots are established even if you feel unsteady." Her own conviction seemed to falter momentarily but she recovered herself. "You are indeed a man," she acknowledged, glancing away from him. "Perhaps the only one of integrity I can think of." He chose not to be churlish and point out that he was the only shemlen man that she could likely think to name. At least in terms of having spent a significant amount of time. "Were you otherwise, this would not weigh on you so."

He did not believe that. It was often the refuge of those who were too frail of purpose to comfort themselves with the notion that they would not 'feel as they do' if they embodied what they feared to be. A flawed logic, in his opinion. 

Perhaps that revealed itself on his face. Certainly, Henri-Julien was in no way adverse to sharing his opinions, but he had not intended to give voice to this particular one. For all that he took no comfort in her words, he recognised that Velanna was making an attempt to offer reassurance. Yet the manner in which she suddenly leapt to her feet, discarding the blanket, hands firmly propped on her hips while she glared at him, suggested that she had accurately interpreted his expression.

"So what if you must change your world view?" she snapped. "We all must. You alone have warped my sense of what a human must be, and I have been forced to accept that perhaps I might have been wrong about at least one of them. You are not exempt from this. You are not special amongst all others."

Her emphatic dismissal of his place in the world struck against his ego like flint and steel. Just because he did not immediately agree with her words of comfort, she saw fit to dismiss him entirely! He could feel the edges of his temper begin to curl, signalling an imminent burst into full flame. 

Turning on heel, Velanna strode away from him, clearly struggling with her own temper. "Perhaps you can not be made Tranquil as you so recently suggested I be--" Before he could spring to defending his prior remark, she indicated with a raise of her hand that she did not wish to invite further argument over that exchange, "but you flog yourself all the same as I. If you wish to be seen as a child…" Abruptly, she cut through the air with the edge of her hand, shaking her head to emphasise her rejection of the notion. "Learning and growing is not the province of children. Something in you is burning bright that is not your Chant of Light. It’s you, not some external measure of perceived worth."

The only point on which Henri-Julien might be persuaded to agree was that learning should not be restricted only to children. Yet his affront did not allow him to concede even that much, so he crossed his arms and glared at her from where he still sat on the bed, jaw clenched and eyes flashing with a some kind of burning brightness, though he doubted it was the same as what Velanna apparently saw within him.

Maybe sensing as much, she lost the impetus which had fuelled her rush around the room. Instead, she retraced her steps until she was beside him once more, raising her head so that she could look at him directly. "You need only grasp ahold of it and let it guide you." Her throat worked and her voice dropped a fraction. "And I wish to be at your side when you do. If you'll have me."

"You are here, are you not?" His temper smouldered, not yet doused by her startling reversal but nevertheless starved of fuel to catch alight properly. "Should I not wish to have you by my side, you would not be."

He stood up, shouldering past her. "And you're wrong," he snapped. "It is the Chant of Light you see in me." He paused, forcing himself to take a deep breath. Just one didn't help so he took another. "But you're also not wrong," he conceded, the words spoken on a rough exhale. "It's my Chant of Light, not that which has been taught to me."

Once again, the unshuttered window was his point of reference, the bright blinking of the stars calming him. He knew the constellations, naturally, but it was the simple sight of the open sky which soothed him. Too many of the recent years had been spent in the open, prompting a vague unease whenever he was deprived of it. Fortunately, his inflated sense of self-importance usually sustained him on the occasions that he had to travel beneath the earth. And when sleeping indoors, such as now, an open window served as an acceptable compromise.

"I know there is a truth to the Chant of Light." Henri-Julien looked back to Velanna. "It's not your truth, but it is mine. I feel it." He tapped at his heart to indicate the instinctual certainty that came with religious fervour. "But my Chant is different to what I've been taught. I've been struggling with articulating that. Until now."

A cluster of words crowded on the tip of his tongue. Too many to be said all at once: that it was her company - first detested and now welcomed... even looked for - which had forced a new perspective into his dogma; that the teachings of her Dalish faith were, in fact, fascinating to him, and not the heresy he had initially proclaimed; that he had not felt this rush of curiosity since childhood, and she was solely responsible for unearthing it. A spontaneous urge saw Henri-Julien reach out, gently brushing the golden strands of her hair behind her ear, revealing the elegant slope into a sharp point. As he drew back, the backs of his fingers grazed gently down the length of her jaw, mindful not to aggravate the small cut.

A flush across his cheeks brought uncharacteristic colour beneath the weathering of his skin. Embarrassed by both his actions and his own ineptitude to give voice to the many complex feelings which squeezed his chest with each rise and fall of breath, Henri-Julien pointedly refocused on the fire, clearing his throat. "We will not go to Denerim," he declared, almost stiffly. "There's no point in going to the Cathedral. They'll only tell me what I have already been taught. That isn't going to help with how I feel right now. Except..."

He frowned, wondering how far to push this new idea. "There is something known as the Mages' Collective. It is the bane of the Chantry and Templars." Even as he spoke, he could feel parts of him resist and reject the notion forming in his head. Maybe it was one step too soon and too far... but it was the only one he had, and they needed a destination before their departure tomorrow. "It is almost impossible to monitor and has never been successfully infiltrated. But," now Henri-Julien risked a glance, a mix of hope and doubt, "I want to understand. Their point of view. Unfiltered by years of doctrine or conditioning." He could, after all, request to speak with any Circle mage under the guise of being a Templar. "The Collective exists everywhere, though those who live in remote areas may be more wary. We could go anywhere and make an attempt for contact. What do you think?"
By this time, Velanna was used to Henri-Julien’s whiplash temper, how it heated and cooled at neck-breaking speed. "You are here, are you not?" She’d roused it, and not yet smothered it. Fortunately she was also used to knowing whether it was aimed at her directly or not. "Should I not wish to have you by my side, you would not be."

She was still getting used to that, having her company wanted. She nodded and made a note not to bring it up again.

He shouldered past her, something she was learning not to take too personally, though it did send a spark of her own temper skyward. "And you're wrong," he said with a snap. "It is the Chant of Light you see in me." He took a deep breath, and then another, trying to calm himself, and she followed suit. How dare he tell her what she saw! "But you're also not wrong." Now he was speaking some sense. "It's my Chant of Light, not that which has been taught to me."

He turned his attention to the window, the stars outside comforting him in ways she could not. He also seemed drawn to the freedom of being under the sky instead of locked away indoors. She looked out the same window, as if she had any chance of seeing the same thing he saw in the infinity that was the night sky.

"I know there is a truth to the Chant of Light." He turned his gaze back to her. "It's not your truth, but it is mine. I feel it." He rapped a finger over his heart, emphasizing that his religious fervor was similar to her own, even if they had vastly different views of the world. "But my Chant is different to what I've been taught. I've been struggling with articulating that. Until now."

Just like that her temper was gone, doused under the oddly pleasant feeling of seeing him work something out and find a modicum of peace. Whatever he was about to say next, he kept it to himself, but his hand reached out and pushed her hair behind her ear, his fingers making just enough contact on the sensitive tip that she shivered despite herself. He withdrew his hand, the backs of his finger grazing her jawline in a way that made her hold her breath lest she make a sound and embarrass herself. The phantom brush of his fingers remained after the touch ended, and she stared with wide eyes at the unforeseen display.

His flush mirrored her own, and she stood, dumbfounded, wondering what she was supposed to do. He saved her having to figure it out, clearing his throat and turning his eyes upon the fire instead of her. Her eyes remained wide and curious, unsure what had just happened, but sure that she wanted to feel it again.

"We will not go to Denerim," he said, the matter settled in his stiff manner. "There's no point in going to the Cathedral. They'll only tell me what I have already been taught. That isn't going to help with how I feel right now. Except..."

A frown curved his lovely mouth. "There is something known as the Mages' Collective. It is the bane of the Chantry and Templars." Her eyebrows shot up. Of all the things she might have expected, and she’d not known what to expect just now, that was not even on the list. "It is almost impossible to monitor and has never been successfully infiltrated. But," something warred on his face as he glanced at her, "I want to understand. Their point of view. Unfiltered by years of doctrine or conditioning. The Collective exists everywhere, though those who live in remote areas may be more wary. We could go anywhere and make an attempt for contact. What do you think?"

She didn’t speak for a long time, studying him as if she needed to memorize his face. It took her most of that time to really process what he’d said in full. Was he talking about infiltrating a secret mages organization? Her brow creased as she considered it, this idea of his that felt fragile in the air between them. He was searching for something. Grab his light, she’d told him, and he was. To question him now could undo the tenuous certainty he had in this.

I think you should do what your heart tells you, and not overthink it.” She knew less about this collective than he did. Perhaps they did interact with the Dalish, but she had no experience. “If this feels right, then we will seek them out.” They could, after all, provide him a perspective she could not. She was not a mage of the world’s circles, and could not speak to the experience of it. Nor did she wish to. The only thing she wished was to assist him in this journey in any way she could.

Feelings mixed up and piled upon her chest and she forgot to breathe. She could still feel the trail where his fingers had touched her jaw, her ear. She blinked up at him several times, trying to tell one feeling from the other and make sense of the tangle. It would be far more simple if she could put words to them, to tell him how his company gave her a warmth she didn’t know from anyone else. She reached up, letting the backs of her fingers brush up along his jaw, stopping just before his ear. Something akin to lightning charged through her, something she did not dislike. She dropped her gaze as her hand fell to his chest and rested for just a moment over where he’d pointed before.

Whatever is going to help you find the peace and order you seek, we’ll do it.” If they weren’t going to Denerim, they would need to choose a new place to go before they departed this room in the morning. “Perhaps we go south.” There were towns, but spread out. There were stretches between settlements that would give them plenty of time beneath the sky. “Do you think we might find this collective of mages there in the countryside?” Her fingers curled into a fist and unwound again at her side. She wanted to touch him again, just to feel the warmth, the shocked energy of moments ago. “We’ll go south, and find your answers.” Now the energy felt like it was floating in the space between them. She swallowed, her voice very low. “I need answers to my own questions as well. Perhaps we’ll find those along the way.
In the aftermath of his question, a still silence settled over the room, as though both occupants had been struck by some paralysis spell. Henri-Julien could not find it in himself to break free, his idea - no matter how absurd - contained too much of him, of his deepest vulnerability, to be dismissed so quickly. Throughout his body, the chill of embarrassment began to pervade where once the heat of temper had stalked.

She thinks it is foolish. She thinks you are foolish! The words whispered through his thoughts, taunting and rebuking in equal measure. How else to explain why she kept that wide-eyed gaze upon him, the green as rich as the grass beneath the trees of the Brecilian. She is judging you! She, an apostate, is judging you, a Templ--

"I think you should do what your heart tells you, and not overthink it." Perhaps Velanna had the growing internal conflict within him. Her next words reassured him that this was to be a joint effort on their part. "If this feels right, then we will seek them out."

He loose a harsh exhale, not dissimilar to if he had been punched in the gut. "I'm not sure I'm thinking or feeling this at all," he admitted, his expression contorted between a grin and a grimace. Now, with Velanna having already committed to joining him, Henri-Julien could acknowledge that what he had suggested was preposterous. The likelihood of success was close to none. And, for him at least, there was a significant risk of grievous harm, if not death. It was not simply ego to believe that all the Knight-Trackers within Ferelden were known to at least some of the Collective. In this, at least, his enforced "retirement" through his Joining might be of benefit.

Some of this belated apprehension must have revealed itself on his face. What other explanation for the sudden reach of her hand, mirroring his own gesture in reverse? Her fingers stopped short of his ears, however, and Henri-Julien had the disconcerting experience of resenting the shell-like shape which did not invite further touch in the way that Velanna's did. She would likely laugh full in his face at the idea.

Dropping her gaze, Velanna also let her hand fall to his chest, momentarily pressing her palm over his heart. Then her touch fell away completely and Henri-Julien had to fight against the urge to lean forward into the space her hand had occupied, as though he could reclaim the brief tactile connection.

"Whatever is going to help you find the peace and order you seek, we’ll do it." She took more ownership of the idea, turning it into a shared one. "Perhaps we go south." Directly south lay the Kocari Wilds, but to the south-east was the likes of the Southron Hills which would provide a useful hiding place from either South Reach or Gwaren. He did not wish to venture anywhere near the Kocari. He was already dealing with an existential crisis; he did not need to encounter the Chasind to further complicate matters. "Do you think we might find this collective of mages there in the countryside?"

"Towards the Southron Hills," he nodded. "Maybe."

Her fingers flexed by her side but Velanna seemed resolved otherwise. "We’ll go south, and find your answers." Her throat worked, her normally confident voice dipping into almost hushed tones. "I need answers to my own questions as well. Perhaps we’ll find those along the way."

A strange prickling sensation raced through him, much like the moments before a burst of an electrical spell crackled through the air. Was Velanna close to losing control on her magic? Yet he did not sense any flare of mana or rending of the Veil. There was just this... tension.

Disliking this sustained moment of ignorance, Henri-Julien did what he always did in the face of something inexplicable: he rejected it. Coughing, he stepped away from Velanna - though the movement felt sluggish - and retreated to his bedside once more, fussing with the pillow and blankets. "Of course we will look for your answers," he remarked, a little gruff but not dismissive. "I've said before, this cannot only be my archdemon we seek."

Having exhausted all pretence of readying his bed, Henri-Julien lay down upon the bed, feigning tiredness. "We'll leave just after first light," he informed Velanna, before turning on his side. His back lay to the room while his gaze drifted towards the window, watching the night sky until he finally fell asleep.

***

Three days later and the unlikely duo were half-a-day east of Lothering. They had travelled from Crestwood to Lothering, only just being rebuilt after the devastation of the Horde during the Blight, before briefly doubling-back on themselves so they remained on the correct side of the Drakon River. The West Road followed the opposite bank and would have hindered any later attempt to cross into the Southron Hills, no matter how much easier the going would have been had they been able to stay on the road a little longer. Regardless, they were fully supplied and in good health. Traversing through the Hills should offer little difficulty to two seasoned travellers. 

What was causing Henri-Julien difficulty was the vague sense of being out of step with Velanna. And not literally. Ever since Crestwood, they had maintained their hardwon peace, even moving further into amicable companionship. Yet he still experienced a sense of absence. Not loss; no, it was akin to standing within a dark cellar and having a flash of light momentarily illuminate the area. When the darkness returned, his circumstances were no different, save that he felt the absence of the light all the more keenly. But what confused him was that he could not identify what was missing. He was here; Velanna was here! Nothing was lacking! So why did he feel this way?

"I have offended you." He took refuge in his habituary self-assuredness. Perhaps if he projected an air of confidence, Velanna would assume that there was no point in obscuring her feelings further. After all, he had no other explanation for this disjointedness between them, so by exclusion of all other possibilities, this must be the answer. "I did not intend to do so." He could not go so far as to offer an apology - something which was rare even when it was deserved - but perhaps showing some semblance of regret might suffice.