Digging For an Archdemon Part I [Complete]

Three days of walking did not lessen whatever it was that hung between them back in Crestwood. They traveled east, bypassing the Hinterlands and taking the West Road until it met the Imperial highway near Lothering which was still something of a blighted flit along the road. The open space made it easier to endure this mystery tension, even when they needed to backtrack half a day to correct their course on the right side of the river. Instead she found this a welcomed distraction from the quiet she usually welcomed. Despite her constant companion, Velanna felt an odd loneliness in it, the answer seeming to lie with Henri-Julien, though she could not figure out how.

She’d gone to bed in Crestwood feeling rebuffed, which was absurd. Rebuffed from what? She could not say, only that it had left her with an unpleasant feeling in her stomach that replaced that electric charge of lightning that was unrequited by something tangible to strike. Not dissimilar to the urge to pick a fight, but she had no desire to quarrel. No. It was something else.

When he broke their relative silence with something unrelated to their travel the feeling snapped tight once more, the charge to the air prickling at her skin and making her heart beat somewhat faster.

"I have offended you." He said it with such assurance, like a statement of fact rather than a question. "I did not intend to do so."

How odd. Velanna tilted her head, her brow creasing over her vallaslin as she tried to think if this was true. Not even the off feeling she’d had in Crestwood seemed to be identified when he named it offense. “You have not.” It was the truth, or at least as true as she could name.

By the Dread Wolf, she did not like this feeling, this uncertainty she felt, and her face crumpled into irritation. Not at Henri-Julien, but at the situation which had led him to feel he’d offended her when it was clear he had not. He was just so sure about it, the air about him as smug and confident as ever. It would have been insufferable any other time, him telling her what her feelings were.

Except for that charge of static between them, like a rope of lightning drawing her closer. Had she any affinity for the element she might have blamed her magic. Alas, she had not even that to stand upon. “Why would you think such a thing?” The question was earnest, her irritation giving way to something akin to grief that he’d failed to name it correctly, and that she could not correct him on it. It was not like Velanna to sit on an offense and let it tear at her like a wolf with a kill.

She lengthened her strides to close the distance between them, at least physically. Unthinking, she touched his arm, and the charge connected so suddenly that she drew in a quick breath. She didn’t back away, clinging to that momentary feeling of relief before it swelled to something both less and more intolerable. It felt right, in the moment, to clasp his gloved hand and pull him up to a stop. “You’ve not offended me at all,” she said, more like an accusation than an assurance. Everything felt turned upside down, except the point where her hand held his.

It struck her then, as she searched his handsome face, as sure as any spell of paralysis might render her unable to move. Had the world come to a stop, other than the flurry of her heart? A bird call whistled through the air, echoed by another. “Henri-Julien,” she implored him to understand what she suddenly did, “I think I—

A snap of magenta light flashed between them, breaking their connection and driving Velanna back as the light coalesced into a ball around Henri-Julien. A cage of magic bound him in place. How had she let herself miss the pull of the Veil required to do such a spell?

Quick as a flash Velanna rounded, balls of fire formed on her delicate hands, facing a group of five mages, one stationary woman, obviously the caster. She aimed her fire at the woman, the fury on her face making it clear she would not feel remorse in taking her down.

“It’s alright,” the leader of them said, as if trying to coax a wild halla into submission. A snarl formed on Velanna’s lips. This was anything but alright. “We’re here to help you, but we must be quick while the spell holds.”

Morons!” she shrieked at them. “I’m not in danger, but if you do not let him go you will be.

“We can protect you,” another man cooed, “but it must be now.”

I’m not,” Velanna stopped. She crushed the balls of fire in her hands but let the magic seep through her until she could feel every tree root and branch nearby. “I think we’ve found your collective of mages,” she said over her shoulder. Apparently her words were a surprise, enough for the caster of the magenta cage to falter in her hold on the spell.
His remark was greeted by a tilt of her head and a frown. "You have not," Velanna stated brusquely. Irritation sharpened the lines of her face.

Inwardly, Henri-Julien readied his silent surrender, his one and only means of investigation having been so readily dismissed. How else was the strangely strained atmosphere between them to be addressed if Velana would not explain herself? Certainly, Henri-Julien did not possess any animosity towards her. At least no more than was common between them. Was that the absence he felt? Simply the lack of a deeply ingrained hostility. Except their friction towards one another had been ebbing for weeks, not just at Crestwood.

Yet from behind, Velanna pressed him further. "Why would you think such a thing?" The torment which infused her words prompted Henri-Julien to spare a sideways glance towards her, confused why she might feel that way. Why did it unsettle her that he had apparently misunderstood the situation?

He lifted and dropped his shoulders. "Given the circumstances, it was a plausible conclusion," he remarked. Although Henri-Julien did have to concede that it was highly unusual that Velanna would hold on to a grievances rather than confront it directly. 

She hurried to catch up with him. Seemingly without thinking, she reached out to catch hold of him, her fingers brushing against his arm. A sharp gasp from Velanna signalled that she was just as surprised as Henri-Julien at her behaviour. Yet neither of them objected when she dropped her hand into his, tugging him to a halt. "You've not offended me at all," she insisted, sounding as though she would much prefer if he had!

Her face was upturned to his, eyes roving over his expression, clearly afflicted in some unknown way. He seemed caught by her paralysis, as still as she. "Henri-Julien," she beseeched him, "I think I—"

She never finished her sentence. There was a blinding flash of ethereal light and the whole world developed a crimson tinge. All at once, a pressure pushed around him, desperate to exist in the very space his physical form already occupied. He might have let out a cry of pain but the cage prevented even that small movement of his throat, forcing him to endure the increasingly excruciating pain in unnatural silence.

Fortunately, he need not move to counter the magic. Although it was difficult to keep his mind focused, it was possible to summon enough of his concentration to counter the crushing element of the spell, even though he could not cleanse it in its entirety. The relief of being able to gasp a breath without a constant weight pushing on his chest was as sweet as any feeling he had experienced.

A hazy figure with fireballs for hands stood a short distance away. Velanna. Her back was to him, her attention ensnared by a blurred group some distance away. He could only hear muffled sounds but he recognised the stance she had adopted: she was furious. When she turned her head, speaking something to Henri-Julien, he did not catch it but he did feel the weakening of the spell. Whatever she had said, it had startled the caster enough to disrupt their focus.

With one desperate effort, Henri-Julien focused on his cleansing ability as one of those dwarven grenades, the force of it bursting out in all directions. It had the desired effect: the world regained its vivid colour and rich sound as Henri-Julien crumpled to the ground, every limb feeling too heavy to hold upright. He groaned, trying to shake off the effects of the spell. Fortunate for all that the effort of using his ability within the crushing prison had temporarily exhausted his abilities. Equally fortunate was that the scattered approach he had employed meant all of the apostates were affected in some way or another. Otherwise this encounter might have turned far more bloody.

What it did not prevent was the way in which the group scattered. All in different directions. One, however, lingered just long enough in order to grab hold of Velanna's arm, still committed to "saving" her. The sheer stupidity of this entire idea struck Henri-Julien that moment. Had he really believed that the Collective would entertain the notion of a Templar speaking openly with him? But if someone, say a fellow mage, could introduce the notion...

He caught Velanna's eye for just a fraction of a moment. Hopefully she knew him well enough to understand that his lack of reaction was deliberate. His display of trust in Crestwood would hopefully provide precedent for this: she should allow herself to go with the Collective, and he would follow discreetly. He was a Tracker, after all. Hunting down apostates was his forte, particularly if said apostate had been 'stolen' from his custody. 

Within moments, Henri-Julien was alone, presumed too hurt to give chase. He waited for a few more minutes before staggering up onto shaky feet. The lingering effects of the crushing prison would take some time to wear off. In the meantime, he had to rely on his keen observation to ensure he did not lose the trail, setting off after the two sets of footprints which revealed Velanna and her 'saviour'.

By late evening, Henri-Julien had located the newly reformed group, their little camp well-hidden in a small area of woodland. Unfortunately, the least experienced apostate had chosen to use their fire abilities to light the campfire, and so it had been easy for Henri-Julien to hone in on their precise location. He wondered if Velanna had something to do with that. Unlikely; she would probably scorn anyone for making so foolish a mistake, even if it helped her situation.

Only when he was certain that Velanna was within hearing at the edge of the camp did Henri-Julien take the risk of making contact. On silent steps, he moved through the undergrowth, keeping low even as he drew alongside her.

"You are well?" he murmured. Not that he thought the Collective would harm her being one of their own, but her initial refusal to go with them might have provoked some anger. "I should have sensed the summoning of the prison. They were lucky to take us unawares."
The next moments were a flurry of chaos as the Veil snapped, a concussive force of power blasting out from where Henri-Julien stood contained. Breaking free of the prison, he fell to the ground, the combination of the spell and escaping it having exacted its toll upon his body. Velanna’s outrage was only outshone by her concern for him. The blast of his power had the effect of stopping the others casting but it had ripped control of the trees from her grasp.

Grasping her arm, the mage was insistent. They had to go now if they were to get away while he was weakened. But the very fact that Henri-Julien was weakened was why she couldn’t go. Her would-be rescuer did not understand, and had a surprisingly strong grip, but it was only the fact that Henri-Julien was not fighting back that stilled her hand in defending them both.

Her eyes caught his, if only for a breath of time, and it was clear he had a plan. If the Collective was here to save her, then she would let them. Henri-Julien was a tracker, for better or for worse, and she had to trust he would follow when he was able. These mages would not harm her, for she was supposedly one of their own. Of that she could be certain. The rest she had to leave to trust, and she had it for him in abundance.

Still, it felt like ripping something away from her as they fled.

It was some time they traveled, Velanna holding her tongue as they moved quietly, as stealthily as a group of their size could hope to. Perhaps if they’d been followed by anyone else, they might have been successful, but Velanna had seen Henri-Julien lead them across half of Ferelden long enough to know that he was not just an average tracker. She could only imagine how it would go to his head to know she thought as much.

They made camp, so arrogant that they would not be pursued that one of them lit a fire around which to warm themselves and cook. Fools! Even without the sparks that spiraled into the air, the mana drawn to do such an act would have been enough to draw attention. It suited her purpose fine, so she held her thoughts on it.

“To which Circle were you chained?” one of them asked.

Do I look like a Circle mage?” she snapped. The vallaslin on her face and the robes she wore should have given it away, but she did not belabor the point by pointing that out.

“You were escorted by a templar,” one of the women said. “Why, if you are Dalish?”

We travel together.” Velanna’s patience grew thin as she tried to explain again that Henri-Julien was no threat to them. Perhaps telling them that they were Grey Wardens would have smoothed the path but she also did not wish to draw attention to that fact. “He only wishes to speak with you.

Some of the others snickered. Scoffed. They would not believe it. But the woman who seemed to be their leader seemed less convinced. “And how do we know this isn’t a trap?”

Velanna rolled her eyes, hoping the fact that they outnumbered them three to one spoke for itself, for she would not dignify such a ridiculous accusation with a response.

The other mages set about their evening routine, leaving Velanna to ‘recover’ from her flight to freedom. Only when she was alone did Henri-Julien approach, his voice low, and his steps silent.

"You are well?" he whispered. "I should have sensed the summoning of the prison. They were lucky to take us unawares."

I distracted you,” she said as an apology. “I am well enough now that I see you are here.” She rose from her place on the ground enough to crouch in front of him. “I worried for you.” While she’d trusted he had a plan, she had no assurance that he had not suffered injury. A sense of relief overwhelmed her and she felt called to act in some way but could not discern what that action could or should be.

Henri-Julien wasted no time explaining the parts of his plan she’d not worked out. Perhaps she could intercede on his behalf, to convince the others that he just wished to parler. It seemed simple enough in theory. “The leader may be amenable. That I am Dalish seems to conflict with what she believed was the situation.

It became obvious that the others were returning, and Velanna stood, facing the group of her supposed saviors. She placed herself between them and Henri-Julien, her hands poised to harness the trees around them if needed to defend them both against the others should the need arise. Her stance was enough to still the others, and the leader raised a hand.

We wish only to speak with you.

“She led him to us!” one of the others accused.

Your fire did that well enough,” she retorted.

“How do we know there are not others?”

You don’t,” she said honestly. Hopefully Henri-Julien had a plan to earn their trust as he had earned hers. She could only open the door; he had to walk through it. “We intend no harm.” Her eyes looked to Henri-Julien, then back to the leader, hoping to appeal to her reason. “Hear him out. If you do not like what he has to say, then we will go.” Her voice took on a warning edge. “Harm him, and you will wish you had not.

“She cares for him!” one of the others accused, as if it were a stain on her, a reason not to trust her.

I do,” she admitted, her face darkening with flush. “You would still be fools not to at least speak with him even if that were otherwise.
At least his arrival did not precipitate an immediate scolding for the events of earlier. Though he had not allowed himself to dwell too much on the thought, it had crossed Henri-Julien's mind that Velanna might not appreciate his in-the-moment decision to 'allow' her to be captured. Particularly given that his explosive use of his cleansing abilities meant that she could not fight of her own accord - or at least not with her first-choice of weapon, her nature magic.

"I distracted you," she replied, as close to an apology as either of them would ever deign to offer. "I am well enough now that I see you are here." She shifted her position, moving to crouch by him. "I worried for you."

A brief snort greeted the observation, his lips twisting into that strange smirk he found graced his lips more often in her company. Almost as though the muscles of his face were yet to learn the gentle curve of an easy smile. "I have endured far worse injuries when confronting apostates." Most people would not consider such a sentiment to be reassuring, but given his previous occupation (even if she had not yet glimpsed the significant burn scars across his left thigh and knee), Henri-Julien believed that Velanna could draw her own conclusions. "Though the injury to my ego will take more time to heal," he added. There was little jest in his words: no matter what excuse Velanna offered, it did not change the fact that he had developed lax habits in her company.

But that was a matter to dwell upon for another time. For the moment, Henri-Julien explained more fully his thinking, clarifying what Velanna had not already surmised by herself. She, at least, seemed to see some merit to his idea.

"The leader may be amenable. That I am Dalish seems to conflict with what she believed was the situation."

On the other side of the camp, the others straggled into camp from whatever self-appointed tasks they had appointed themselves, and Velanna swept up onto her feet. She stood stoutly between Henri-Julien, who had followed Velanna's lead and straightened to his full height. Yet it was the fact that she adopted an offensive position which stilled the others.

"We wish only to speak with you," she addressed the leader. Henri-Julien was not accustomed to having another speak on his behalf but he would try just this once.

"She led him to us!" One of the others insisted. one of the others accused.

"Your fire did that well enough." He felt a flicker of smug satisfaction that he had known how Velanna would disapprove of so idiotic an oversight.

"How do we know there are not others?"

"You don’t." She was not one to make false promises. "We intend no harm." To try and emphasise that, Henri-Julien moved from the overgrowth, stepping slowly to Velanna's side. He gave Velanna a slight nod as she looked between him and the leader. "Hear him out. If you do not like what he has to say, then we will go." A hardness like slate entered her voice as she added, "Harm him, and you will wish you had not."

"She cares for him!" A sneering accusation rang out, their disgust clear.

Henri-Julien made to snap back but Velanna answered instead. "I do," she replied, her cheeks colouring. "You would still be fools not to at least speak with him even if that were otherwise."

His jaw clenched tight. But it was more an effort to silence a strangled noise of surprise than it was intended as a sign of displeasure. Care for him? His head reeled with what that possibly meant. No one cared about him in much the same way that no one cared about Velanna. That was one of the rare commonalities on which they had found equal ground! How else to explain why they could both depart from Vigil's Keep and even after all these weeks, no one had thought fit to try and locate them?

"Is that why you travel together?" The leader looked between them, something of a guarded understanding in her eyes. "You are bound to one another?"

"Yes." The word sprang from his lips without nary a thought from Henri-Julien himself. He was not accustomed to lying, something which provoked further questions over why he had spoken, but this might be an opportunity to prove he was no threat. What had he said to Velanna about knowing she would not kill that thief in Crestwood? The power had been hers. If the apostates thought they had power over himself and Velanna, they might be more receptive to what he had to say.

He only hoped that Velanna would concede to going along with another of his plans. She was giving a lot to this cause of searching for his archdemon. He was not sure how he felt about feeling so indebted to her. If nothing else, they could not part company until that obligation was repaid.

"I was escorting her," he explained, his tongue carefully feeling for the truth within the omissions. He would not lie outright, but there was no obligation to reveal the entirety of their circumstances. "I have often tracked apostates." They could draw their own conclusions between 'escort' and 'tracked'. "But as a Dalish, she has a different perspective on the world than what I know from the Chantry."

The leader snorted. "Don't we all." She folded her arms. "What is your point, Templar?" She waved her hand towards Velanna. "Do you have some grand plan to return her to her clan? Five apostates took you by surprise; I doubt you can survive the Brecilian."

Henri-Julien bristled. It was one thing to admit to his failings with Velanna; it was another to have this scornful apostate tell him what he already knew. Besides, he had visited the Brecilian prior to the Blight, though some of the sights he had glimpsed had quickened his step until the trees were far behind him. Not to mention that it was pure ignorance to believe that Dalish in Ferelden could only exist in the Brecilian... as if he himself had not entertained the same certainty only a matter of months ago.

"We wish only to exist by ourselves." Again, not a lie. Yet Henri-Julien felt the way his throat closed up, somehow feeling as though he was revealing something so private that he himself had not even fully recognised it. "But that's not why I followed you. We... I... wished to make contact with the Collective."

"No." The answer was unequivocal. 

Desperation leant his demeanour an earnestness which was unusual. "Please. I don't know what else to do.

"Don't hunt those with magic," came one's wry reply.

"Why not?" Henri-Julien threw back. He turned to look at the leader again. "It's all I've been taught. If I go to any Chantry, it's what they'll repeat to me. If I need to know why not, I need a different perspective." He stepped closer to Velanna, resting his hand lightly on her arm to encourage her to relax her stance. "From those who know the Chant of Light."
Velanna’s confession caused Henri-Julien’s jaw to clench, a reaction she’d not expected. Too distracted by the disdain thrown at her for it from the other mages, she didn’t have time to address it. Perhaps she was misreading things and she had now made a fool of herself—and him—in front of all of these strangers.

"Is that why you travel together?" the leader asked. "You are bound to one another?"

Before Velanna could salvage the situation Henri-Julien answered for both of them.

"Yes."

What?! It was all she could do not to react to the single syllable. Her eyes widened nearly imperceptibly, and she had to assume that he had a reason for so bald a lie. There were moments to trust him, she was learning, and this was one of them.

"I was escorting her," Henri-Julien went on. "I have often tracked apostates." The disgusted mage snorted again. "But as a Dalish, she has a different perspective on the world than what I know from the Chantry."

"Don't we all." The leader crossed her arms over her chest and snorted. "What is your point, Templar?" With a wave of her hands she indicated Velanna. "Do you have some grand plan to return her to her clan? Five apostates took you by surprise; I doubt you can survive the Brecilian."

A scowl found its way across Velanna’s face. How dare they! As if Dalish only existed in the Brecilian. As if they were not seasoned enough to traverse it together, were that their destination. As if it had not been sheer bad luck that had found them unprepared for an ambush where they were largely outnumbered.

Henri-Julien, perhaps sensing her indignation, hurried to offer explanation in his prickly demeanor. "We wish only to exist by ourselves." This time Velanna did blink, thrown by such a declaration that felt like it should not have been happening in front of five perfect strangers. "But that's not why I followed you. We... I... wished to make contact with the Collective."

"No." The answer left no room for argument. These mages held all the power of their situation, and they knew it well. Velanna’s hackles raised. They were running up against a stone wall. All of this fuss, and they would get no answers. No magic she would dare use could sway these mages if they did not wish to help them.

"Please.” Henri-Julien’s voice took on a rawness that startled her. A rare moment of earnestness she was unaccustomed to. Especially combined with his next confession. “I don't know what else to do."

One of the mages retored, "Don't hunt those with magic."

Velanna threw her hands up.

"Why not?" Henri-Julien asked in answer. "It's all I've been taught. If I go to any Chantry, it's what they'll repeat to me. If I need to know why not, I need a different perspective." He stepped beside Velanna, resting his hand on her arm and causing her to stand down from her frustrations. "From those who know the Chant of Light."

That was at the core of it. The living heart of the tree struck by lightning. The Chant of Light, which he held dear. It was not Velanna’s truth, but that was not the problem. Or maybe it was. Velanna could offer all the insight of her education. She could tell him of elvhen tradition and thoughts on magic until she passed out. He needed a perspective from inside his own belief system. Something familiar in the sea of uncertainty he currently tread. That was not something she could give him.

“You’re not buying this!” The same angry mage spun about toward their leader. “It’s a cliche we see again and again. Suddenly the templar’s bed is warm and now mages can be people?” He jammed a finger through the air at them. “When it goes sour, it will be the fault of all of us, too.”

How dare you!” Velanna ground between her teeth. Her mind reeled trying to make sense of what he’d said. Of all the ridiculous notions. Still, even as her mind rejected the words, her face burned red as images came unwelcomed to her thoughts. She looked away, embarrassed as though someone had pried something very private from her. Something she did not even yet know existed. Before she could even grapple with it, it had been torn from her, and she was angry for it.

“That’s enough,” the leader said, her eyes scrutinizing them with a cautious understanding. “Templar, you make a point.” She looked to her disgruntled companion. “We say we want them to understand our position, yet when one comes to us, we shun them.” She looked at Henri-Julien, studying his face, looking for some hint that he was not being forthright. Velanna knew he was not a liar, and believed the woman would find nothing dishonest there. Only earnestness reigned in his expression. “We need a show of good faith,” she said at last.

Meaning?” Scrutiny wrinkled Velanna’s face, but her hand slipped easily into Henri-Julien’s without thought. As if it was the kind of thing she did under normal circumstances. It grounded the spark of her temper, however odd and delicate the connection was. Never in her life had any sort of physical contact felt so correct. So necessary.

“Surrender your weapons,” the leader said.

“And your lyrium,” the other added.

That is unreasonable,” Velanna objected. “You have us outnumbered, and you know what you ask him to risk.

“I’m no foolish mage, freshly dragged from my home. I’ve been hunted by his kind before. We all have. We know what he is capable of.”

The leader held her hand to stymie the other, but said, “Those are our terms. You may take them, or take your leave.”
Whatever the leader of the small group thought about it, she was not given the time and space to express it.

"You’re not buying this!" The angriest apostate demanded of the woman, spitting his fury. "It’s a cliche we see again and again. Suddenly the templar’s bed is warm and now mages can be people?" He stabbed an accusatory finger towards the pair. "When it goes sour, it will be the fault of all of us, too."

"How dare you!" Velanna fumed, colour rising high in her cheeks. She refused to even look at the other apostate, clearly revolted by the very idea of sharing a bed. Were they by themselves, Henri-Julien might have pointed out that the close confines of a tent equated to the narrow space of a bed, but such redundant arguments were not for an audience. He certainly did not appreciate the insinuation of inappropriate behaviour on his part. Never mind that his pride was undeniably dented by Velanna's emphatic rejection.  

"Desire need not only refer to the flesh," Henri-Julien sneered, his eyes flashing. "Yet I can see you have never known the desire to expand your understanding of the world." His arrogance, ever-present, coated each word with scorn.

"That’s enough," the leader interrupted, though there was a new light in her eyes now. "Templar, you make a point." She turned to address the others, quelling any further protest. "We say we want them to understand our position, yet when one comes to us, we shun them." Turning back to Henri-Julien, she studied his face, weighing up how to proceed from this stalemate. "We need a show of good faith."

"Meaning?" Velanna intervened, her hand finding Henri-Julien's. Startled, he cast a fleeting glance towards her, before recalling his own very stretched version of the truth. She was simply providing further proof of his claim. Something which he had undermined by his reaction. To try and overcome his blunder, he lightly squeezed her fingers, noting the comforting warmth of her touch. Distractedly, he wondered if this was how the fragile seedling buried in winter's frozen earth experienced the warmth of the early spring sun.

"Surrender your weapons," came the leader's order.

“And your lyrium," someone else joined in.

"That is unreasonable," Velanna interjected. "You have us outnumbered, and you know what you ask him to risk."

"I’m no foolish mage, freshly dragged from my home," the angry one snarled. "I’ve been hunted by his kind before. We all have. We know what he is capable of."

Holding up her hand, the leader indicated silence. "Those are our terms," she stated, unmoved by Velanna's protest. "You may take them, or take your leave."

His jaw worked while Henri-Julien harnessed his temper, threatening to rear like a wild colt. Had he been alone, he would not have agreed. But - and this was strange to acknowledge - he was not alone. Even if he was stripped of his weapons and ready access to his lyrium, Velanna would still command her nature magic. Funny, the one thing which had prompted his deep suspicion of her when they first met was now the only thing which offered him a modicum of comfort. Even if the apostates demanded Velanna's staff - and he doubted it given their cause, even if she was Dalish rather than apostate - she was in no way defenceless. 

"Your word that my weapons will not be damaged?" He asked of the leader who, despite a huff of annoyance, gave a short nod. Mindful of his movement, Henri-Julien reached for his pair of daggers, stepping forward to place them on the ground before taking the same step backwards. A signal from the leader sent one of the quieter apostates scurrying forward, swiping up the blades. Henri-Julien forced himself to take a steadying breath, the sense of misgiving difficult to ignore entirely.

His gaze swept across the camp, locating Velanna's pack. "My lyrium is in there."

The leader started. "She carries it?"

"Too lazy to carry it himself!" The angry one burst out, keen to see fault in every opportunity.

"Quiet, Raju!" The leader finally lost her patience. Her gaze settled on Velanna, mulling over this surprising revelation. "That is a show of faith, indeed," she observed quietly. "Let us have your word that you will not grant him access to it beyond what is necessary to manage his addiction." She flicked her eyes towards Henri-Julien, shooting him a pointed look. He supposed that lyrium addiction would be well-known amongst the Collective; some likely dealt in black market deals. "As a show of our good faith."

With the confrontation resolved, the angry one lost no time in conducting a hissed conversation with the leader. The other three, however, seemed to accept the judgement of the woman, and resumed their responsibilities around the camp. Given that Henri-Julien and Velanna both boasted full packs, he judged that it was probably prudent to share some of those supplies, if only to avoid inviting suspicion by disappearing to hunt almost immediately.

Any worry that the apostates might realise his and Velanna's association might be anything other than they had presented was soon quashed with the practised ease in which they readied their small part of the camp. Then, Henri-Julien laid down by the campfire enough food for the whole group, retreating to his newly unpacked bedroll so that the angry one could not make some farfetched claim of Henri-Julien trying to poison them all.

"This all happened rather more expediently than I had anticipated." He kept his voice low while speaking to Velanna, not wishing their conversation to be overheard. "Thank you for your assistance in the matter." One blessing was that he did not have any further time to re-think his decision in Crestwood. At least not without placing the pair of them in unnecessary danger. 

"They do not carry enough supplies to reach any of the larger villages," he added. It would be prudent that Velanna understood the entirety of the situation. Since she did not have the same geographical knowledge of this area, he thought that she might tolerate what otherwise might sound condescending. "They also adjusted their trajectory more northward." His gaze turned inward momentarily, consulting in his mind's eye the extensive maps which were kept within his head. "They either intend to visit a supply cache, meet with more of their group, or..." He trailed off, doubting what his own conclusions revealed. "There is an ancient fortress which many do not know exists. Just on the edge of the Brecilian. It has been abandoned for over a century." His nose wrinkled with ingrained disdain. "Seekers of Truth." Sparing a glance towards her, he added, "what you feel for Templars, I feel for Seekers."
Velanna’s temper burned as brightly as the fire she favored as Henri-Julien exacted a promise that his things would not be damaged. His capitulation was the only thing that stilled her ire as he moved to place his weapons on the ground in front of her would-be saviors. He then looked around the camp, certainly looking for the place they both knew his lyrium kit would be: her pack.

"She carries it?" The leader of the group of mages seemed taken aback.

The angriest one of their group found this to be an outrage, as well. "Too lazy to carry it himself!"

"Quiet, Raju!" the leader scolded, her eyes settling on Velanna. Raising her chin, Velanna gave no comment, but would not be seen as weak for such an arrangement. "That is a show of faith, indeed," the leader said quietly, and Velanna nodded fractionally to confirm it. "Let us have your word that you will not grant him access to it beyond what is necessary to manage his addiction. As a show of our good faith."

That addiction was part of the life of a templar was clearly no secret. Why would it be? It rankled that these mages would have such control over Henri-Julien. She loathed the addiction that came with his abilities, remembering too well how being denied his dosage left him. Hers was a promise she did not make lightly. “I will not endanger him,” she clarified. “But you have my word.

This must have been good enough for the group’s leader. While the angry one voice what was likely their objections in a hissed exchange, the other mages went on to ready their camp for the night. Henri-Julien and Velanna were left to do the same, the latter not appreciating the stares cast their way as they did so. Whatever version of the truth Henri-Julien had sold them, their easy routine reinforced it. She’d not thought before about how accustomed she’d become to his company that she did little things to make his part easier, much as he did for her. At some point his company had become the norm, and not the exception to it. Her chest squeezed.

Out of the corner of her eye she watched Henri-Julien as he laid out a portion of their supplies to share. But it was not his generosity that captivated her attention, making her forget what she was doing, if only for a moment. The way the firelight suffused gold over his hair, the way the shadows reinforced the shape of his jaw and the lines of his profile. How much of what he’d said before was part of their act to curry favor with the Collective members? Is that what he saw in her confession of caring for him? That it was part of an act? Velanna had worked too hard to come to terms with it to let it be part of a farce. She would need to set the matter straight as soon as possible. She needed to know if her feelings were wasted, though she feared she the answer was in his stretching of the truth.

Soon the camp was settled and Henri-Julien settled on his bedroll. Velanna had taken care to lay hers close to his, and told herself it was to keep up the charade, and not because she wanted the closeness. She wanted that charge that existed between them when he was near, if only for a comfort in their current situation. More practically, it made it easier for them to speak privately.

"This all happened rather more expediently than I had anticipated." His words stayed low, only for her ears. "Thank you for your assistance in the matter."

Nodding once, she said, “Of course.” She had given her word, and meant to keep it.

She was not given time to consider if this was an appropriate time or not to clear the air. Always with a keen eye to their surroundings, Henri-Julien was quick to brief her on what he had surmised of their situation. "They do not carry enough supplies to reach any of the larger villages," he told her. "They also adjusted their trajectory more northward." She watched his eyes drift as he searched his memory, likely calling upon his knowledge of the area, which he knew better than she. "They either intend to visit a supply cache, meet with more of their group, or..." He trailed off. "There is an ancient fortress which many do not know exists. Just on the edge of the Brecilian. It has been abandoned for over a century." Disgust reigned on his face as his nose wrinkled. "Seekers of Truth. What you feel for Templars, I feel for Seekers."

He barely looked at her as he spoke. True as it was that he was trying not to draw attention, it left a cold feeling in her stomach. “They wield power over your order.” His former order, but she did not need to clarify that. She’d said enough to prove she understood what he said. Anger at their existence underscored with an element of fear at the power they held.

Surely they are not in league with your Seekers.” Even to her limited knowledge that made no sense. “You believe they are using it as their base of operations.” It was pragmatic, if it were as he said. There was a sort of odd symmetry to the idea of mages using a Seeker of Truth fortress for their own purposes. “What does this mean for our predicament?

A meal was arranged out of the marrying of their supplies. Despite wary looks, the pair of them were left to their own corner of the camp, though Velanna did note one mage acting as a rover, and it was likely there were glyphs around the perimeter as well.

I am sorry for the things they implied about you,” she said, more to her bowl than to him. It wasn’t right, the way the angry mage had suggested impropriety on Henri-Julien’s part. “I know what you told them to be part of an act.” She risked a look in his direction, trying to discern his mood. This was ridiculous and getting her nowhere.

She finished her portion quickly and offered her hands to the cleanup, hoping to keep up the goodwill she’d been granted from the mages. Some of the others stared. The one called Raju looked like he would just as soon spit on her than speak to her.

“I’m Darla,” one of the women, a non-Dalish elf, introduced herself as she and Velanna buried the waste leftover from preparation. Velanna did not respond. “How do you do it?” she asked, her suspicious eyes watching Henri-Julien as she did. “You know what he is, what he has done, what he could do to you. How can you justify loving someone like that?”

How is that any of your business?” Velanna snapped, though her cheeks pinked. Her eyes followed Darla’s line of sight where Henri-Julien did whatever it was he had occupied himself with in a camp full of hostility toward him. It was no business of anyone, the things Velanna felt, and she would not engage in a discussion that she had not even had with him. Still, the edge of her mouth turned up, slightly duck-lipped. “You do not know even half about which you speak.

With that, she returned to her bedroll, uninterested in speaking to any of the mages who claimed to want to help her from a situation in which she needed no help. She sat with her legs crossed and faced Henri-Julien, her voice low for only him to hear. “I know we must keep up appearances.” She swallowed, holding her hand out for his expectantly. “But I need you to know that what I said was no act.” Such a ruse was beyond her cleverness and required a self-awareness Velanna did not possess, though she would never admit as much. “They threw my care for you as an accusation, one of which I am guilty.” Her throat moved as she swallowed again, trying to navigate the sick feeling she had that she was about to destroy something precious to her.
"They wield power over your order," Velanna surmised, succinctly showing that she understood the root of his displeasure. Henri-Julien offered a slight nod by way of confirmation, unease plain in the way he held himself.

"Surely they are not in league with your Seekers." Again, he offered a shake of his head to confirm what the uplift in her voice had questioned. She found her way around to his true meaning. "You believe they are using it as their base of operations." She considered the matter for a moment. "What does this mean for our predicament?"

"Nothing, save that it is a bold move." His gaze darted between the apostates, assessing and reassessing their abilities. Ingrained habit was difficult to resist. "It would suggest that the Collective are more confident than I had anticipated."

Their conversation was interrupted by the serving of the meal, noticeably improved by the addition of their supplies. Aside from the meal itself, portioned out into their own bowls, the apostates did not interact with them. A regular patrol was set up around the limits of the camp, and Henri-Julien had sensed the slight tug on the Veil as glyphs were cast, but there was no overt hostility. At least for the moment.

"I am sorry for the things they implied about you," Velanna suddenly spoker, her attention more on her bowl than Henri-Julien. "I know what you told them to be part of an act." With the speed of a mountain hare, she glanced towards him, seemingly expectant of some reaction or other. When she did not find it - for he truly did not know what she thought she would, or should, find - she looked away just as swiftly, hastily finishing what was left of her meal.

Abruptly, she stood, abandoning when he sat in favour of assisting with cleaning after the meal. It drew a range of reactions from the other apostates, from surprised to distrustful. One of the women drew near to Velanna, helping to bury some of the waste from the meal, whispering as they worked with their heads bowed close together. Distrust streaked across her face as she regarded Henri-Julien from across the camp.

Velanna, however, did not share whatever sentiment the woman held. Somewhat sluggishly, Henri-Julien busied himself with some menial task, fussing around the area of his bedroll, so as to obscure the fact that he had been watching Velanna so closely. Likely, the other apostates would judge it to be borne from possessiveness and control, that he feared his influence over her might be loosened through some hastily muttered plea to common sense. 

Not long after, she returned to their closely laid bedrolls, settling down in her customary cross-legged stance. Lowering her voice, she addressed him without any further heed for their distanced audience. "I know we must keep up appearances." Her throat worked and she reached out for his hand, once again initiating a physical contact which Henri-Julien had not known he would welcome. "But I need you to know that what I said was no act." A subtle distress broke through her controlled demeanour. "They threw my care for you as an accusation, one of which I am guilty." She spoke as though the words were the most heinous of confessions before Andraste herself.

Henri-Julien blinked at her, adrift in a rare moment of clarity. Of himself, of Velanna, of their association. The urge to act as he had always done, to deny and reject what he struggled to grasp with ease, was ever present. Save for the alert group of apostate, perhaps he might have done exactly that. Their presence forced Henri-Julien to reconsider his initial reaction, despite his dislike of how exposed it made him feel.

"You feel guilt because you do not wish to harm me like these others?" So perhaps the proximity of the apostates had not made him reconsider every part of his reaction. As ever, his words were as sharp as his blades.

But at least his self-awareness had improved. No sooner had the words lefts his mouth than Henri-Julien winced, knowing that he had misstepped. "I mean that you shouldn't feel guilty." He glanced at their hands, wondering at the implicit forgiveness asked from the gentle squeeze of his grip. "It's not something to feel ashamed over, is it?" Yet there was a slight uplift to his voice which revealed the thread of doubt in his own mind.

Hastily, he pulled free of her grasp, reaching for his whetstone only to discover he had no blade to sharpen with it. His jaw tightened and he looked away, suddenly shameful of his conduct. "But perhaps they are right," he muttered, voice rough as he struggled with his conscience. "You don't warm my bed," and he was very glad not to be looking at Velanna in that moment, "but I did not regard you as anything but a threat until..." He gritted his teeth. "Suffice to say, it was not until you had proved of a use to me that I changed my opinion of you."

His gaze slid towards the apostates, the corner of his lip beginning to curl into a sneer. Old habits died hard, and he was not yet free of his prejudices. Only when the angry one - Raju - began to stir did Henri-Julien realise how his demeanour might be interpreted. That he was admonishing Velanna for some small slight. With an effort, he drew in a deep breath and let loose of it slowly, regaining more of his Templar calm.

"I did not lie. I do only wish to exist in company with you." That he had little patience for people was not news to Velanna. In that, they had always held a similar perspective. "In that regard, I am bound to you. I would not willingly leave you unless you decide to part ways. It would not be fair, not after all you have agreed for my benefit. But," and now Henri-Julien did force himself to look at her, the extent of his internal war clear in his eyes, "it is because I see you as something other than an apostate." Perhaps his meaning was not clear. Perhaps it was offensive in the extreme. "I see you; you have magic. Yet so long as I continue to see you, I can accept your magic as part of you. But were you to be any other apostate..." He trailed off, uncertain if he made any sense.

Then, because he was certain his words were only serving to ignite her temper, Henri-Julien lunged forward and kissed Velanna. Clumsy and hasty and desperate. He half-expected the shouts of the apostates to ring in his ears, protesting to what must surely appear as forcing himself on her. Certainly, there was no sweet romance to the gesture, not helped by his almost complete absence of any such behaviour. 

He sat back, cheeks hotter than the campfire. "That was not to keep up appearances," he muttered. Though perhaps he was about to have to defend himself against five angry apostates... plus Velanna.
Time stopped, hanging in the blink of clear blue eyes as Velanna waited for a reaction. Any reaction. She needed to know if she was a complete fool, and was almost certain she was.

"You feel guilt because you do not wish to harm me like these others?" Sharp words cut the relative quiet. Velanna narrowed her eyes. How could she have been more clear? She huffed a sigh almost at the same moment he winced.

"I mean that you shouldn't feel guilty." His eyes moved to their joined hands and he squeezed, a gesture Velanna didn’t know how to react to. She welcomed it, even if her posture stiffened. "It's not something to feel ashamed over, is it?" The slight lift of the last of his words betrayed a self-doubt that hit her with a clarity she had not expected. She was not a fool.

I feel no shame,” she said flatly. Not only did she not wish to hurt him, she wished to keep him from any harm she was able. Had even one of these Collective mages raised so much as a wisp in his direction, she might have been inclined to burn their camp to ash. That it likely would not have won her favor with him did not occur to her.

Jerking his hands away, he turned away from her. Velanna’s hand felt so cold and empty without his in it. His jaw tightened, and she prepared for an onslaught of bitter words. For she was cursed, after all. "But perhaps they are right," he muttered, a rough quality to his voice. "You don't warm my bed," that he would not look at her when he said it spoke to how repulsive he found the idea, "but I did not regard you as anything but a threat until..." His teeth ground together. "Suffice to say, it was not until you had proved of a use to me that I changed my opinion of you."

Well she knew that. The tenets of his most deeply held beliefs spoke to how her ‘curse’ was only to be used in service to man. Hot shame reared its head that she’d failed to take that into account.

The mages around the camp carried on with their night, though a few of them did cast looks their way. Most notably Raju, who seemed determined to find fault in anything Henri-Julien did or said. Apparently he noticed the angry mage, too, and he took a deep breath, letting it out to find a center of calm.

"I did not lie,” he started again. “I do only wish to exist in company with you." That they were disinclined to spend time in anyone else’s company was no surprise. It was a shared fact between them. "In that regard, I am bound to you. I would not willingly leave you unless you decide to part ways. It would not be fair, not after all you have agreed for my benefit. But," he paused and turned his eyes to her with great effort, as if it pained him to do so, "it is because I see you as something other than an apostate. I see you; you have magic. Yet so long as I continue to see you, I can accept your magic as part of you. But were you to be any other apostate..."

Velanna raised her eyebrow, unsure where he was going with this. He could accept she had magic, but not others? He made no sense. An uncomfortable sensation gnawed at her belly, which had nothing to do with the dinner they’d just eaten.

Anything she might have said was cut off. One minute she was preparing a rebuttal and the next his mouth crashed into hers. Stunned, Velanna didn’t know what to do. Was he… was he kissing her? Hard and almost painful in the clumsiness of the act, he certainly was. But people did not kiss her! Never in her years had anyone volunteered to do such a thing, and that had always suited her just fine. The kiss was over before she knew how to react, and when he pulled away, her face was red in equal measure to his.

"That was not to keep up appearances," he uttered, almost below his quickened breath.

Perhaps Velanna did not know how to react, but it certainly had caused a stir in the camp. Velanna’s face pinched in hurt and confusion, certain he was making fun of her somehow. It wasn’t until the leader of the mages stood, looking as if she might interrupt them that Velanna thought to say anything, let alone smooth her face.

Then what was it?” she demanded, matching his tone with her own grumbling. She felt ambushed by it, a fact that was intensified by the eyes of all these strangers suddenly watching them without hiding their nosiness.

“Is everything all right over here?” the leader asked her. Her. Not Henri-Julien. It was quickly clear what they thought had happened. Befuddled and flustered though she was, she couldn’t let these people think he had forced himself upon her.

Unless you think one of us is going to kiss you!” she snapped.

“I only thought—”

I know what you thought.” Velanna crossed her arms, her posture defensive. “You are wrong, and you are unwelcome in this conversation.

The leader snorted, holding up her hands in a sign of retreat, and turned her attention to shooing the others from interrupting further.

Arms still crossed, she glared at Henri-Julien, though confusion remained uppermost in her expression. “No one has ever done that.” It was her turn to mutter now. “Not in front of other people, and not in private.

Self-awareness was not Velanna’s strongest virtue, but it did come to her now. She was not opposed to the gesture, and she was behaving as if he’d offended her. “I feel bound to you as well.” Her words were sharp, enunciated through her teeth. “Not out of debt or obligation.” She did not want to feel like this, whatever it was, was born of some feeling of duty. “I… I would rather be alone with you than any other person, elf or otherwise. I would rather be with you than alone.” The latter point, perhaps more important to emphasize.

Velanna took a deep breath and exhaled hard, trying to find a stillness to her flaring temper. “I care for you. I know what you have done in the past,” certainly no one in this camp would let her forget how he had once hunted mages, “and I know why you have done it. I don’t care.” She harrumphed, blowing air out that ruffled the fringe of her hair. Anyone else would face the full of her wrath, as he'd seen before. “I feel safe with you, and I want to keep feeling that. Even when you lose your temper. Even when you frighten me.” She knew he would not harm her. “But…” She sat back, her eyes fluttering shut as she looked at her knees so near his. “I have never kissed anyone before. If you are going to do it again,” she looked up, hoping to impart that she sincerely hoped he did, “I demand to be part of it next time.
Just as he had anticipated, the apostates did not take kindly to this display of physical affection. And, for one heart-stopping moment, Henri-Julien thought that Velanna, too, was about to retaliate in her hot-tempered way. The injured bewilderment which overshadowed her features certainly hinted as much. So much so that the leader of the apostates found her feet, clearly intent on intervening in some way.

"Then what was it?" Velanna hissed, though she had regained control of her expression.

"Is everything all right over here?" The question was addressed exclusively to Velanna. Knowing exactly what the watching group assumed, Henri-Julien looked away, his breathing coming in rough rasps as his fingers clenched against the loose material of his bedroll. No, his physical demonstration had not been invited, but it had been borne of a desperation that he could articulate his thoughts! He would never do what these accursed apostates clearly believed. Never.

Fortunately, whatever else Velanna thought of his behaviour, she was disinclined to allow others to judge either of them. "Unless you think one of us is going to kiss you!" she threw back at the leader, caustic.

"I only thought—"

"I know what you thought." She folded her arms across her chest: a barrier to their enquiries, and to him. "You are wrong, and you are unwelcome in this conversation."

Roundly dismissed, the leader threw up her hands, turning away from the pair. While she instructed the others to mind their business, Henri-Julien let out a strained exhale, uncomfortable with the situation but relieved to no longer endure accusatory glares. Well, save for Velanna herself.

"No one has ever done that." She spoke lowly but with fervour. "Not in front of other people, and not in private."

"I do not make a habit of it," he snapped. As if that was even a relevant detail. Although a thread of shame did weave its way through his demeanour that her first experience of a kiss was so abrupt and exposed. It was hardly the high standard of behaviour to which a Templar should hold themselves... not that a Templar should ever succumb to so corporeal a demonstration.

Something relented within Velanna. Just a fraction. "I feel bound to you as well." The words were pushed through gritted teeth. "Not out of debt or obligation. I… I would rather be alone with you than any other person, elf or otherwise. I would rather be with you than alone."

Surprise eased the stiffness within Henri-Julien's posture. He turned his gaze upon her, looking at her properly for the first time since before the kiss.

She was fighting against her temper, the repeated draw and exhale of breath proof of it. "I care for you. I know what you have done in the past and I know why you have done it. I don’t care." With a puff of air, she ruffled the front of her hair, stirring it like a summer breeze through barley. "I feel safe with you, and I want to keep feeling that. Even when you lose your temper. Even when you frighten me." Something which was comforting given that there remained a kernel of fear deep within Henri-Julien over what she was. What the Chantry had taught him she must be. "But…" She shifted backwards, eyes falling to her lap. Her knee was no more than a hand's breadth from his. "I have never kissed anyone before. If you are going to do it again," she suddenly raised her head, catching his gaze with an unfaltering look, "I demand to be part of it next time."

He half-coughed and half-snorted. The sound was not attractive. "That is not an unreasonable request." His eyes slid towards the apostates who, despite their outer appearance of disinterest, were still very much observing the signals between the pair. "One which I will observe once we are by ourselves." He refocused on Velanna, shy and defiant all at once. "I am not inclined to provide any more of a performance for our audience." He did, however, stretch out his small finger, gently brushing against the back of her hand. It was a strangely exhilarating gesture given how inconsequential it appeared to anyone else.

Yet for all he resented the implied accusations of the apostates, Henri-Julien knew why they had suspected it. It was a deeply unpleasant reminder of why he had chosen to seek out the Collective: to gather experiences which were beyond his own frame of reference, of both the Chant of Light and the Templar Order.

"There is precedent for their concern," he admitted, fiddling with the edge of his bed roll. "It is in no way permitted by the Chant of Light. Not in even the most tenuous of interpretations." Such abuses of power deserved the strictest of punishments. "But it happens." His brow drew together in a soft frown, mulling over the issue. "They do not know you and yet they are willing to intervene on your behalf." Not that he intended to suggest that there were not good and just people who would not do the same if they knew the circumstances. However, his being a Templar and their being apostates raised further complications. 

He drew in a sharp breath, disliking where his musing had led him. "There are honourable and just Templars," he stated. Whether Velanna agreed or not did not matter on this. He knew it to be true. "But if they were to react as the apostates had just done, the likelihood of their being punished by the corrupt Templars would be considerable. Depending on the differences in rank and so on." His expression pinched. "We justify our behaviour by the Chant of Light. Even when it does not sustain our interpretations, we insist upon our being right. Whereas apostates..." He glanced towards the small group. "They are guided more by their conscience." Of course, he knew that apostates misused their abilities; it was the rationale for his very role within the Order. But what apostate - no matter how fanatic - could claim to have the backing of the Chantry itself?

Looking back to Velanna, Henri-Julien settled himself a little more comfortably on his bedroll. "How do the Dalish ensure the law of the clan is obeyed?" He wished to seek parallels. "It can not only be the word of the Keeper. Authority can only go so far."
To her demand, Henri-Julien made a very undignified sound. "That is not an unreasonable request." She watched his eyes slide to the mages who were watching them, even if they tried to feign disinterest. "One which I will observe once we are by ourselves." His eyes turned back to hers, and she felt her temper slide away at the expression on his face. Unsure, yet certain all at once. "I am not inclined to provide any more of a performance for our audience."

The urge to respond was cut short by the brush of his little finger against the back of her hand. Such a small, strange gesture, yet one she found sent a rush of goosebumps up her arm from the delicate contact. Surely it was the most intimate thing she could recall in her life to this point. She smiled, unguarded and easy, unable to help herself.

Henri-Julien sobered. "There is precedent for their concern," he told her, his free hand toying with the edge of his bed roll. "It is in no way permitted by the Chant of Light. Not in even the most tenuous of interpretations. But it happens." The slope of his eyebrows rocked together as he frowned. "They do not know you and yet they are willing to intervene on your behalf." Velanna tilted her head just enough to notice. This did not seem odd to her, even if she’d expressed disdain to the ones who had tried to intrude in their own affairs.

"There are honourable and just Templars," Henri-Julien said without room for argument. "But if they were to react as the apostates had just done, the likelihood of their being punished by the corrupt Templars would be considerable. Depending on the differences in rank and so on." His face drew into a pinched expresssion. "We justify our behaviour by the Chant of Light. Even when it does not sustain our interpretations, we insist upon our being right. Whereas apostates..." He looked to the group of mages once again. "They are guided more by their conscience."

Settling himself into a more comfortable position, he asked, "How do the Dalish ensure the law of the clan is obeyed? It can not only be the word of the Keeper. Authority can only go so far."

Relief eased Velanna’s posture. “Certainly the Keeper has final say.” He had the right of that. “There are those appointed to settle disputes and watch over the clan, though that is seldom their primary role within the clan.” Any uncertainty fell away, given that this was a topic she knew well, and the tension between them seemed resolved for the better. “Justice is restorative. If you wrong someone, you must make amends.” Her face drew more serious. “However, the worst crimes, including those you speak of, result in exile, recompense or not.” She trusted he understood the gravity of that: her own crime had been treated as the same.

It wasn’t a perfect system, and to pretend that the Dalish were somehow beyond reproach in how they handled their own internal troubles would do them a disservice. “Overall we rely on the collective conscience, but there are times when that is impossible, or a dispute too severe.” She shrugged her shoulders. “The Keeper’s First and Second would also assist.” A wry smile turned her lips. “We also believe we are right in most things.” This would come as a complete surprise to him, she was sure.

Around them the camp began to settle, the one taking watch shifting out to relieve the one who had already stood. Most of it was conducted without much in the way of talking, and that which was done was in hushed tones. Certainly she and Henri-Julien were still a topic of dissent, but no one disturbed the corner allotted to them again.

I have seen you act on your conscience.” She turned her hand so she could hook her little finger with his, returning the small yet strangely enthralling gesture. “Even when it has conflicted with your Chant of Light.” She ducked her head a little closer. “You are an honorable and just man.” For he would never do the things the other fools in the camp suggested he might.

As the others in the camp were doing so, Velanna slid down between the layers of her bed roll and prepared for sleep. She smiled, an odd, content feeling flooding her despite the prying eyes. She’d found something. Someone who wanted to be in her company, and she’d never imagined that she would ever do so. Not with the cantankerous way she was, and did not see fit to change. She left her hand where Henri-Julien could find it easily if he wished to do so, and waited for sleep to claim her.

The camp broke early and with swift precision it was struck almost as if they’d not been there at all. Their little convoy moved on, heading northward exactly as Henri-Julien had said. They were placed at the center of the line as they moved, the trust the leader had in them clearly tenuous, with the ever-angry Raju at some distance behind them. They traveled for some time in relative silence, the hours marked only by the passing of the sun through the trees.

“We will be there soon. I cannot guarantee that anyone will speak with you, Templar. It is on you to make connections.” Velanna rolled her eyes, and offered her hand once more.
Whereas before Velanna would have rejected the very idea of sharing her Dalish culture with him (as if Henri-Julien would have enquired in the first place), now she offered it readily. The explanation did not prompt any epiphany for Henri-Julien but he welcomed her words nevertheless, turning them over  and over again in his mind much like a wine connoisseur might savour a rare vintage.

Yet their conversation was cut short by the movement of the others, swapping roles and readying beds. Unless he and Velanna intended to draw further ire upon themselves, they too would need to settle for the night. He doubted any of the apostates would accept his offer to take one of the watches during the night.

"I have seen you act on your conscience." Velanna broke the quiet between them, shifting her hand so that her little finger hooked around his. Fire danced through his veins at the touch. "Even when it has conflicted with your Chant of Light." She leant forward, close enough that her freckles were visible in the dying light. "You are an honorable and just man."

Her words rang hollow in his ears. He wanted to ask but by what measure?, for that was surely the crux of it all. What he had once measured himself against, the decrees of the Templar Order, had grown ill-fitting and cumbersome. Yet he had no alternative to use save for his own interpretation of the Chant of Light; an interpretation which was moulded entirely by the Chantry, the exclusive overseer of the Templars. He had never had to judge his behaviour by his own standards before.

Yet none of that could be expressed in the scant few moments before they were expected to lay down and sleep. So, when Velanna nestled into the warmth of her bedroll, Henri-Julien followed suit in his own. Her hand lay free of the blankets and Henri-Julien reached out, entwining his fingers with her own. The warmth of her touch, reassuringly roughened and calloused, helped to ground the lighting of his thoughts. He soon found his eyelids grew heavy, and when he reached the Fade, it was blessedly dark.

The morning sky was still heavy with its own slumber when the small group broke camp. Just as Henri-Julien had anticipated, they maintained their route northward. He and Velanna were kept in the middle of the small convoy, the leader at the front and Raju at their backs. The bruised purple of dawn gave way to the bright blue of a spring day and began to wane into the burnished gold of early evening as they trekked. Barely a word passed between any of them.

“We will be there soon," the leader abruptly declared. A point somewhat made redundant given that the high towers of the fortress could now be glimpsed through the trees. He had been correct: the Collective had built a base within Therinfal Redoubt, though how permanent it might be was anyone's guess. "I cannot guarantee that anyone will speak with you, Templar. It is on you to make connections."

With a roll of her eyes, Velanna reached for his hand, a gesture becoming more and more easy between them. Not wishing to offend her, Henri-Julien briefly squeezed to show his gratitude before releasing her hold. Restlessness revealed itself in the stumble of his normally sure-footed steps, akin to a skittish horse who shies without reason. It was ridiculous to be wary of a fortress, even one which had once housed the Seekers of Truth. Yet the painful thud of his pulse would not steady and he reached with one hand for the hilt of one dagger, seeking only reassurance in its cold solidness. His scabbards, however, remained empty.

"My daggers." His voice was rough, betraying the struggle over his fears. "I need my daggers."

"He intends to shed blood the moment he crosses the threshold!" Raju interjected, shoving himself to the front of the group. "We should never have brought him here."

The leader pursed her lips, eyeing Henri-Julien as the fox might the wolf, cunning in its own right but ever mindful that it was still prey. "You said you wished a different perspective on the Chant of Light. What you feel now?" She gestured towards the looming towers, beginning to blot out the sky. "Is only a fraction of what every single one of us has felt entering a Circle. What every one of the apostates you hunted and forcibly escorted have felt arriving at a Circle."

A harsh lesson, but an effective one. Clarity struck him as roundly as a shield-bash. It did little to ease his own trepidation, but it reminded him why he had chosen to seek out the Collective. Clenching his fists by his side, he gave the leader a terse nod, signalling his acceptance of her explanation. It would also serve as a discreet reassurance to Velanna that she need not summon a whirlwind of fire around their group. Yet.

The group continued on and into the fortress itself. Every instinct in Henri-Julien cried out that he should flee. The walls pressed in on him, having seemingly absorbed the unfeeling judgement of the Seekers, while the air seemed thin, filled with acrimonious mutterings from a few watchful groups. His skin prickled against the lingering use of mana, acting as a siren's call to his lyrium abilities. It would be so easy to summon a cleanse... A relief, even.

"Andaran atish’an." An elven man strode towards their group, ignoring everyone save Velanna. His gaze bore into hers, the intensity only matched by the fullness of his vallaslin. Ink was drawn across the entirety of his face but one half was shaded fully. "Garas quenathra?"

Though there was little point in Velanna using the tongue of her people with Henri-Julien, he was accustomed to her using occasional phrases or making reference to her gods. He had never, in all the time he had spent in her company, heard her speak exclusively in Dalish. There was something about this man, with his overt markings and abrupt use of Dalish, which was at odds with how Velanna conducted herself. As though he had something to prove.

Yet before Henri-Julien could glance towards Velanna, he caught sight of something which threatened to undo all the strides forward he had made in recent weeks. "You."

He got no further. A ball of white heat slammed against his chest, sending his crashing onto his back. The stench of singed leather filled the air, so very similar to those desperate hours in the Frostback when Henri-Julien had endured the nauseating fetor of his own burned flesh. Amidst a screeching cry, he found hands clasped around his throat, and the refusal to return his daggers became a fortunate accident. Otherwise Henri-Julien would surely have thrust the blade deep into the unyielding flesh of the scrawny apostate. Flames licked along the hands of his attacker, singing his hair and scalding his skin as he continued to choke Henri-Julien.

"I'm not going back!" the apostate grunted, eyes ablaze with unbridled hatred. "I will kill you before I go back!"
The fortress loomed above them, and after a squeeze of his hand, Henri-Julien let hers go. "My daggers." There was a rawness to his voice she did not recognize, and did not like. Fear. "I need my daggers."

Naturally their angry friend had thoughts on that. "He intends to shed blood the moment he crosses the threshold!" He forced his way past them to the front of the group and approached the leader. "We should never have brought him here."

If the leader agreed, she did not say. Instead, she pursed her lips. Velanna recognized the look of someone who was about to impart a lesson. "You said you wished a different perspective on the Chant of Light. What you feel now?" She gestured toward the fortress, growing ever larger in front of them. "Is only a fraction of what every single one of us has felt entering a Circle. What every one of the apostates you hunted and forcibly escorted have felt arriving at a Circle."

Velanna’s rage burned. The woman was right, but that did not mean she appreciated hearing it directed at Henri-Julien. Still, Velanna could not completely ignore his past. Her feelings for him only overrode so much. Had circumstances been different—much different—she could have been one of those mages.

His hands balled into ineffectual fists filled with nothing to comfort him. He nodded to the leader, accepting her challenge to him, and soldiered on.

THe tension only seemed to swell as they passed through the entrance, letting the walls of the fortress fold around them like an unwanted embrace. No, perhaps Velanna had no reason to fear what lie inside, but it filled her with apprehension all the same. That she preferred the out of doors was no secret, and could even be surmised by the mages around her. Inside felt so cold, so uninviting, no matter how the members of the Collective seemed to want her to feel welcomed.

They were not inside long when her attention was snagged. "Andaran atish’an." A man, Dalish by the bold vallaslin that colored his face called out to her. "Garas quenathra?"

Ma serannas, Emyr.” She straightened her shoulders, barely aware that she did so. Exile had not diminished the imperious way she presented herself when approached as a Keeper, even if this man was not of her clan. “Ma dirthara—” she started at the same time that Henri-Julien spoke.

"You." The single syllable barely preceded the ball of white-hot flame that slammed into his chest a moment later, the smell of singed leather and smoke filling the air.

Fen’lin,” Velanna cursed and turned away from Emyr. The mage who had approached Henri-Julien now had his hands around his throat. She could smell the hair that singed and the way it seared into his skin.

"I'm not going back!" the mage grunted, hatred and familiarity making his eyes wild. "I will kill you before I go back!"

Velanna did not think, only reacted, blowing an arcane bolt of energy at the man and knocking him from atop Henri-Julien. She threw herself between them, a ball of flame at her hands in the absence of any trees to command. “Fen’harel ma halam,” she snarled, uncaring that the man had no way to recognize her threat for what it was. She would end him where he stood should he act again.

It was Emyr who acted next, placing himself between Velanna and the other mage who was now curled on the ground. “Ma banal las halamshir, var vhen.” While his intensity did not lessen, it was like a wall of calm around him. He would not let Velanna harm the man on the ground, and she would not let the latter near Henri-Julien. They stood at an impasse.

Var vhen,” she scoffed back. “Var vhen?” Her voice rose with each syllable. These were not their people. The man on the ground was not their people. In fact, she could not identify another Dalish in the room with them, and then she gathered his meaning and her eyes narrowed down to slits. He expected her sympathies because she, like the others, were mages.

“Enough,” the party leader shouted. While she did not quench the fire in her hand, Velanna did look to the woman, her outrage clear. They’d come here with an assurance of mutual safety, in her mind. “We all must account for the actions of our past. Did you think there would be no repercussions to coming here?” She gestured around to indicate the crowd that had gathered. “Your mate has as much to answer for as he seeks.”

“Mate?!” Emyr burst. “You’ve bonded with one of them?”

We did not come here to be attacked.” Her words rose to a feral screech.

“Then why did you come with him, exile?” Emyr asked again.

As I said, to learn.” If Emyr knew little else about her, her thirst for knowledge was well known among Keepers and Firsts.

The scrawny man who had attacked Henri-Julien rose to his feet. Being thrown to the ground had done nothing for his temper. While Emyr was unwilling to let Velanna near him, he was also unmoved by the man’s insistence that he be allowed to attack again.

The man shouted at the leader. “How dare you bring him here. Now we are all at risk.”

She replied simply, “I believe he comes in good faith.”

“Good faith?!” He pointed with a single finger, jabbing it through the air in Henri-Julien’s direction. “Raquel you don’t believe that.”

While the scrawny mage and the leader bickered, Velanna turned her attention to helping Henri-Julien from the ground, prepared for his temper to refuse her offer. “You are injured, ma vhenan.” Angry or not, he needed a cooling balm for the burns inflicted, the smell of his singed hair telling her as much. She retrieved one from her pack.

It was the endearment that lost Emyr his cool. He threw his own hands up and cursed, “Fenedhis. I don’t believe this.”

You will mind your own business Emyr.” She shoved a finger in his direction, magic at her fingers once again.

“Everyone stand down,” the Raquel spoke again. “I’ve given my word on this.”
The breath being choked from his lungs, darkness dancing around the edges of his vision, Henri-Julien's humiliation was completed by the intervention of Velanna. A blast of arcane energy did what he could not: threw the apostate clear of his body. Lunging forward, Velanna took up position between the apostate and Henri-Julien, the wild flickering of flames over her hands casting terrible shadows across her face.

"Fen’harel ma halam." The threat laced in her tone provided sufficient translation.

Wheezing coughs racked Henri-Julien's body as he rolled onto his hands and knees, clawing at his throat in the futile hope it might rid the sensation of the apostate's fingers squeezing tightly around it. He was dimly aware of the other Dalish, the man, stepping in front of the apostate, squaring against Velanna.

"Ma banal las halamshir, var vhen."

Var vhen," Velanna echoed the last phrase, her tone once more providing context. She was scathing, her voice rising to echo against the impenetrable stone walls which watched over this altercation with the same cold detachment as a Seeker might regard a Templar. "Var vhen?" All warmth was sucked from the air, creating a chill which seeped into his very bones. It was the most dangerous moment; when Velanna might be tempted to let fly her rage.

"Enough!" The leader finally interceded, drawing the attention of both Dalish as well as the rest of the courtyard. "We all must account for the actions of our past. Did you think there would be no repercussions to coming here?" She swept her hand around at the gathered crowd. "Your mate has as much to answer for as he seeks."

That only prompted a fresh round of outrage. This time, however, it was from the Dalish man. "Mate?!" He exploded. "You’ve bonded with one of them?

Now that the instinctual terror of not being able to breath had abated, Henri-Julien began to feel the sting of burns, his leathers having not deflected all the heat from the fireball. More than that, he was bruised from the sheer force of the spell, every part of his body aching. He tried, unsuccessfully, to stand. All around him words were parried like swords. Yet he glimpsed from the corner of his eye that the apostate had already regained his feet, staggering towards Henri-Julien for a second attempt. Only the magic of the Dalish man kept the apostate at bay. Regardless, that a malnourished pitiful robe could stand when Henri-Julien could not, only served to deal a blow far more devastating than any physical wound he had sustained. 

More than that, the damned apostate was now arguing with the leader. It was at that very moment Velanna chose to offer her hand to him. His pride could not withstand it. He snarled at her, as viciously as when he had declared that he would never trust her all those weeks - months? - ago. He did not hear the words she used for him nor did he welcome the small pot of balm which she retrieved from her pack. She might have offered him a pinch of the Lady Andraste's ashes and he still would have rejected her.

The Dalish man renewed his criticism of Velanna. She, in turn, responded. The leader also spoke up. None of it mattered. Henri-Julien was deaf to it all. His focus had narrowed onto the scrawny begrimed apostate. A primal urge bubbled up from deep within, overriding the years upon years of training he had absorbed as an initiate. Proof in itself that the fanaticism of the Templars could be undone.

Without warning, Henri-Julien launched himself at the mage. No lyrium, no weapon; only himself and the lithe athleticism common to Trackers. So focused was he that the calm which washed off the Dalish man neither affected his senses nor his attack. It was nothing more than an all out brawl.

"You stole everything from me!" The words were grunted between the thud of punches and the scrape of boots. "You're the reason everything went wrong!"

"Templar, stop!" The leader - Raquel, was it? - let loose a shout, revealing an authority which had not otherwise manifested itself. The world turned a crimson hue for the second time in his life. Though he could not move, Henri-Julien imagined writhing against the fresh burst of intolerable pain, further worsened by the burns already inflicted by the apostate. 

This time, however, he was not kept in the crushing prison long. No sooner had his movements become frozen than the pressure released and Henri-Julien collapsed gasping on the unforgiving ground once more. Raquel addressed Velanna, sharp and uncompromising. "If he cannot control himself, we will treat you both as our enemy." She spun around, grasping the apostate under his arm and dragging him up onto his feet. "You have blame in this as well, Tore." She shoved him in the direction of some others, indicating that they should escort him away. None of them attempted to approach Henri-Julien; it was a small mercy at least.

Between his original injuries and now the blows from the fistfight (not to mention the spell), Henri-Julien was a very different sight to the man who had walked through the gates only a matter of minutes ago. Shakily, through sheer stubbornness, he regained his feet and made towards the corner of the courtyard, a few crates providing the guise of cover from the unyielding stares of the gathered Collective.

Sinking down behind the crates, he let out a whimpering gasp, already reaching for the clasps which held his leather armour together. He would need to inspect each point of pain across his body. He gritted his teeth, trying to ignore the very real temptation to unleash the entirety of his lyrium abilities across the courtyard. It would mean his death but it might assuage the frenetic pulse of rage and frustration coursing through him.

A pot of balm appeared in the periphery of his vision. The very same small pot which he had so recently rejected. Shame washed over him at sight of it, recalling how he had reacted in that earlier moment. His boiling rage cooled into a more manageable simmering.

"You would be justified in refusing me any healing," he admitted, the words feeling too large for his bruised and bloodied mouth. "It seems the archdemon I seek to destroy is not always just some philosophical thought." He swallowed against the roughness of his throat, desperate for some water but unwilling to ask. "I should not have behaved towards you as I did."
When she’d proclaimed that she preferred Henri-Julien to being alone, even when he lost his temper with her, Velanna had not expected that to be tested so swiftly. He snarled at her offer of help, reminding her well of those many weeks ago that he’d said he’d never trust her. It was a challenge to keep herself calm in the face of it once again, but her jaw clenched and she gave him the space he apparently wanted. While she argued with Emyr and Raquel, while her attention was turned away from him, Henri-Julien lunged at the willowy apostate.

There was no finesse to it. It was just violence at its most raw. Had she not been with him the whole time she might have thought it someone other than Henri-Julien, who would never debase himself with such behavior.

"You stole everything from me!" Skin hit skin and bone and the words were almost lost in the grinding of teeth that accompanied it. "You're the reason everything went wrong!"

"Templar, stop!" Raquel yelled, the authority in her voice unmistakable. If there had been doubt about her leadership before, it existed no longer. The crimson cage sprang up around Henri-Julien again and Velanna’s throat went dry.

The spell dissipated almost as quickly as it had appeared, dropping Henri-Julien to the ground in a heap. Frozen by his words from moments ago, Velanna did not go to him. Raquel addressed her directly. "If he cannot control himself, we will treat you both as our enemy." With arms below his, Raquel dragged the other mage to his feet, bloodied and bruised. "You have blame in this as well, Tore."

If Velanna had ground her teeth any more they might have burst into chalk. Henri-Julien got to his feet of his own strength, what remained of it, and dragged himself to a corner behind a stack of crates, out of the eyes of the staring crowd. She considered not following, for only the space of the deep breath she took. She spun about and pointed at the skinny mage who was being ushered away by the others. “This is not over.

“I will not have more violence.” Raquel crossed her arms, her words uncompromising.

“Velanna,” Emyr said, his tone making it clear he thought she should leave the templar to his own devices. Mouth in a straight line and chin high, Velanna straightened her shoulders and walked to the crates without hesitation. Angry she might be, but she would not be cowed by someone who did not understand their… whatever this bond between them was. No one would be more surprised that she that it overrode her Dalish ties to the other man.

With the pot of cooling balm in hand once more, she rounded the crates. Henri-Julien was in the process of divesting himself of his armor, his face empurpled with bruising and stained with blood. He was a mess in many ways, and a deep part of her wanted to leave the pot and turn about. But she found she could not, and approached, like one might a spooked halla.

"You would be justified in refusing me any healing," he said. Velanna did not respond, did not so much as nod her head though she agreed with him. "It seems the archdemon I seek to destroy is not always just some philosophical thought." He swallowed, roughly. "I should not have behaved towards you as I did."

No, you should not have.” It was easy to agree as her pride was stung. No, not her pride. This was not a feeling born of wounded pride. It was something else. She placed the pot on one of the crates and produced her water skin. “Rinse and drink,” she ordered with a quiet steel that could have cut wind.

There was more she wanted to offer, something physical and reassuring, but she didn’t know how. When he was ready to let her near him, she brought the pot of balm and began applying it to whatever burned flesh he indicated, letting him take over as he wished. Her frown deepened at every inch of burn, and she sought his eyes. Already there was swelling. She offered him elfroot for the pain. “Chew.” Of all the magic at her disposal, she had hardly any healing to offer him, and finally it struck the blow that wounded. She dropped her head and shook it. “I have little else of use to you, ma v—” She cut herself off, the term of affection dying before it could catch the breath of life. She could not tell if it was welcomed.

What she could tell was that Henri-Julien and the mage Tore had history. Anyone could put that together well enough. It was obvious that Henri-Julien had once hunted the man, and perhaps had been successful in doing so, to a point. The question was why was his blood smeared across Henri-Julien’s armor and knuckles? Even that was beyond his temper as she knew it. “That’s him, isn’t it? The one who caused you to be turned into a Warden?” She touched his chin, turning it to assess the injury to his face. “We need to get you proper healing.” Her throat moved as she swallowed, her heart feeling too big for her chest. Seeing him in pain drove away the hurt and anger, and the world shrank down to just them for the moment.

Help me understand why you put us at such a risk.” She drew from the fade, the blue-green hue at her fingers providing a soothing effect, and she held it just away from one of the worst of the bruises on his face, requesting permission with a fractional tilt of her head.