18 – Elissa
Elissa knocked on the Warden recruits’ bedroom door. “Wakey, wakey, folks. The sun is up, and I need you all dressed and ready for a quest.” Without waiting for an answer, she opened the door with a loud bang, startling the recruits inside.
“ARGH! What? Who! Where?” Oghren yelled, tumbling out of his bunk.
Anders snuggled into his bedsheets. “Too early,” he mumbled. Elissa marched over to his bunk and ripped them off. “Hey!” the mage moaned, scrunching into a foetal position, Ser-Pounce-A-Lot curled up against his chest. “That’s unfair.” The cat gave a sleepy meow in protest.
Elissa could not help but smirk. “I’m your commander. I’m allowed to be unfair.” She looked over at Nathaniel’s bunk to see him sitting up, rubbing his eyes. There was no need to wake him like she had the others. “The situation in the Wending Wood has grown worse,” she told the room, opening the curtains to let the sunlight filter in. “More traders have died trying to pass through it.”
“That’s their problem,” Oghren grumbled, stretching his stubby limbs.
“You three are to be downstairs in fifteen minutes. I have our packs ready with some food and water for the journey.”
Nathaniel’s soft morning voice caught Elissa off guard, her chest clenching. “I thought you said you were looking for Warden Kristoff?”
“We have a duty to Amaranthine, just as your family did when they resided here. If the citizens need help, we must oblige.” Elissa walked with a skip in her step towards the door. After almost two years of waking up early in freezing cold campsites at the crack of dawn, she was always peppy first thing in the morning. It was almost amusing to think that in her previous life as the daughter of a Teyrn, she hardly ever woke up before midday. Now, she could not remember the last time she hadn’t woken up with the sunrise. “We shall deal with this today, and then continue the search for Warden Kristoff. Remember, you have fifteen minutes,” she warned, and left them to it.
She waited downstairs in the courtyard, breathing in the fresh scent of the early morning. It always smelled so different to any other time of day. Perhaps it was the lack of smoke rising from the blacksmiths’ smithy, or the dew on the freshly trimmed grass. The air had a chill to it that felt crisp and refreshing, and Elissa soaked it all up. A moment of peace in a chaotic life.
It was almost reaching the twenty minute-mark before Elissa heard the shuffling of reluctant steps approach. She sucked in her lips, attempting not to smile at their demeanour. They each wore their Grey Warden uniform and had their packs slung over their shoulders, as she did. Nathaniel was the only one awake enough to nod respectively to her. Oghren and Anders lent on each other, eyes struggling to stay open.
“Reporting for duty, boss…” Anders slurred, raising a hand for a sleepy salute.
She decided not to mention that they had taken longer than she had given them, pleased that they had actually listened to her. Instead she gestured for them to follow her, beginning the hike towards the Wending Wood.
It took a couple of hours of steady walking, but they reached the woods in good time. As soon as they stepped foot inside, however, an eerie feeling hit Elissa like a brick wall. It made the hairs stand to attention along her arms.
“You feel it too?” asked Oghren, noticing her tensed stance. “I thought it was just my hangover.”
Up ahead, along a narrow path, a group of humans surrounded an overturned wagon. As Elissa and her party approached, they took one look at her and bolted into the trees.
Anders sniggered. “Well, that was odd.”
Elissa agreed. “I didn’t even say anything.”
“It’s probably your face. I told you that you have a scary look—that one, on your face right now!”
Elissa rolled her eyes at him, before continuing to lead the group further into the woods. They kept walking, climbing over fallen trees and avoiding huge boulders until they reached a rickety wooden bridge. Their feet made the wood creak as they stepped upon it. When they reached half way across, a bandit ran towards them, his wide eyes full of fear.
“Get out of my way! I need to get out of here!” he cried.
“What’s wrong?” Elissa asked, her hands twitching at her sides, ready to grasp her daggers if need be. You could never trust a bandit.
“I just need to get out of here!”
Elissa’s eyes narrowed. “Why? Is someone after you?”
The bandit yelped. “The elf!” he said, pointing up at the trees on the hill above them. “She makes the trees come alive! All we wanted was some easy money from the caravans…” He stopped, his head turning at the snap of a branch. “Maker…help me!” He backed away from the trees ahead of them, almost bumping into Elissa and her companions. “She’s here, gotta get away!”
As the bandit sprinted past them back over the bridge, a low rumble filled the air. On a ridge above them, roots shot out of the ground. When they retreated, a blond elf was in their place, staring down at them menacingly. She wore the robes of the Dalish elves, along with their tattoos on her forehead, and had a wooden staff strapped to her back.
“Another scavenger here to prey on the misfortunes of others?” said the elf. “No…you are too well armed. Here for me then? You will not drive me from these forests. The Shems could not do it. The darkspawn could not, and you will fare no better!”
Elissa shook her head at her claims. “We are grey wardens,” she told her, keeping her tone calm.
The elf tilted her head to the side in confusion. “Oh. Here to battle the darkspawn then. Fair enough. Should you encounter any merchant caravans, tell them to release my sister or more of their men will die.” She waved them away disinterestedly. “Now go, deal with your darkspawn, and stay out of my way. Consider this a warning.” She raised her hands, and roots shot up from the ground by her feet. When they disappeared into the ground, so did she.
Anders’ loud snort broke the silence. “What a weird woman.”
“She seems to think the bandits hanging around here took her sister,” said Nathaniel.
Oghren grunted. “They didn’t look like snatchers, or murderers.”
Elissa was inclined to agree. Those they had passed looked like common thieves that only dealt in items they could sell on. What would they do with an elven girl? “Well,” she said, gesturing for the party to move forward, “from the sounds of it, those bandits we saw earlier weren’t all of them. Clearly this feud between the elf and these bandits are causing the merchants to get caught up in all of this. We should see if there’s any way we can put a stop to it.”
The party travelled further into the forest, fighting their way past rogue Sylvans, sickening darkspawn, and daring bandits, until they reached what appeared to be an empty campsite in the centre of some abandoned ruins, with colourful tents and a burnt-out fire. At the entrance to the camp, there was a sword shoved into the ground. Elissa bent down to get a closer look. A common Ferelden sword, deliberately shoved into the ground…but why? She looked ahead at the campsite, daring to get a little closer. There were blood stains everywhere, and in between them were human swords scattered about the stone floor.
“A Dalish campsite,” Elissa realised out loud, noting the elven craftmanship of the tents.
“Don’t these people travel in packs?” asked Oghren. “What’s with the tiny camp?” He strolled ahead of Elissa. “And here…looks like there was a bit of a fight,” he said, pointing to the blood all over the ground, “but no bodies. Just all these weapons.” He took a deep breath through his bulbous nose. “Somethin’ smells here, Commander, and it isn’t me.”
Elissa nodded in agreement. The group split up and explored the empty campsite. Discarded human weapons were everywhere, covered in blood, but where were the bodies that were clearly slain with them? Where were the Dalish elves that belonged to the camp? “It looks like the bandits attacked the Dalish here,” Elissa thought out loud as she knelt down beside a bunch of discarded weapons. “But I don’t think that’s what happened. Where are the bodies if that’s the case? Why did they leave their weapons? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Nothing makes sense in life when you think about it,” said Anders, fiddling with his earring as he half-heartedly looked about the camp. “I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s confused at something.”
“Now isn’t the time for your nonsense,” Nathaniel spat. “Do you ever say anything useful?”
Anders smirked. “I can say Alakazam when I cast a spell if you like,” he said, wiggling his fingers in the air, “to make it more entertaining.”
Nathaniel rolled his eyes. “Why did we bring him along?” he asked Elissa.
“Because,” Anders cooed in his ear before Elissa could reply, “I’m the only one who can heal your broken bones should you accidentally fall off that bridge back there.”
Nathaniel exhaled loudly, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Oh, come now, Nate, I’m only—”
“It’s Nathaniel. I told you not to call me that.”
Anders slid up behind the rogue and placed his hands on his shoulders. “But you never said what makes it so unappealing! What could make a nickname so effective?”
Nathaniel shoved him away. “Don’t go there.”
“Was it something your parents called you when you were scolded as a child?” said Anders, undeterred. “Not that I know much about having parents, being locked away in a tower for my entire life away from mine, but I’ve heard that you’re normally called by your full name when that’s the case.” He gasped dramatically at a new theory. “Ooo, is it something an ex-lover called you, one you’re not over? I bet that’s it! Isn’t this exciting? Tell me more! I’m thinking…she died in the Blight? Or she ran away with another man—or woman? Or did you leave her, and now you regret it?”
Elissa looked up from her investigation as she heard Nathaniel’s breath shake when he exhaled loudly again. His voice was low and threatening. “I said, don’t go there,” he warned the mage.
“Oghren,” said Anders, ignoring Nathaniel’s reaction again, “stop helping the Commander for a second. What do you think about this?”
“I really don’t care,” the dwarf replied with a shrug, not looking up from a blood stain he was examining.
“What? But this is the most exciting thing I’ve managed to pry out of the guy in the weeks he’s been with us! He’s so boring normally. What about you, boss? What do you think?”
Elissa took a stern tone. “I think that’s enough, Anders.”
“Come on! Not you too! Don’t you think this is—”
“I said enough,” she warned, getting to her feet. “Stop prying where your nose isn’t meant to be.” She shot him a look as he parted his lips to protest, silencing him. “We are not here to interrogate each other on personal matters. Stop messing about and make yourself useful.”
Oghren whispered, “Take a hint, mage.”
Anders sighed. “You are such a party pooper sometimes, commander, you know that?” He stormed off in a huff, shaking his head.
Elissa looked over at Nathaniel to see his eyes closed and breathing slowly. She knew better than to ask if he was okay—he clearly wasn’t. I used to call him Nate, she remembered, back when we were friends before the Blight. She hadn’t spoken to him properly since the argument in her study almost a week ago. Not knowing how or when to approach him, to speak to him about what they had discussed…or rather shouted at each other. Instead, she continued her investigation, leaving him be.
After a few minutes of awkward silence, Anders jogged back over to the group. “Commander, I found something you should see.” From the lack of usual sarcasm in his tone, Elissa perked up at his words, following him out of the camp. They travelled along a slope, down past the camp, and further into the forest to find a man wailing in pain on his back in the centre of a small makeshift camp beneath a tree, his skin mottled and his eyes glazed over.
“Don’t look!” the man shouted as they drew close. His silver armour was splattered in black ichor and red blood. “Don’t look at me!”
Elissa knelt down before him. “I don’t think you should get too close,” said Nathaniel. “He looks…ill.”
“He has the Blight,” she told him. “It cannot harm us Wardens.” She spoke to the man in a calm and soothing voice. “Who are you?”
“Olaf, my name,” he answered, his voice hoarse and scratchy. “Came with friends to…to drive away the elf, but…the darkspawn were too quick. We were ripped apart. Biting claws and teeth from the darkness. Then I woke…flesh and bone and gristle under me…around me…everyone dead.” He trembled. “Dead soft meat melting into the ground. I crawled away, came here. Can’t stand to see it.”
“He’s deranged,” said Nathaniel, recoiling away from him.
“Did you kill the elves?” Elissa asked.
“No,” the man replied. “Darkspawn came first. They slaughtered us, took our steel, brought it to the elven camp. Tricked us. Tricked the elf. Now she thinks we are to blame. Hunts all in her rage! While they watch.”
Anders spluttered. “So, all these people died over a misunderstanding? That’s horrible. We have to stop her, boss. Tell her she’s wrong! Do you think she’s back at her camp? We could try looking for her there.”
“The dark ones are curious about you too,” said the man, pointing up at Elissa. “They watch you as well as her. Can you feel them?”
Elissa could feel them. She had felt a strange tingling ever since she had stepped foot inside the forest. She had assumed it had been the magic of the forest, or perhaps lingering darkspawn in the area, but the feeling had never faded, meaning it was possible that darkspawn were following them. She kept her cool, showing no sign of worry, but made a silent signal with her fingers to the wardens behind her back to arm themselves. “Do you know anything about the elf’s sister?” she asked instead.
“Sister? I have a sister! Do I? Elf’s sister… No, we did not take her. Probably dead, or eaten.”
Elissa chewed the inside of her cheek in thought. He was beginning to slur on his words, his mind clouded. “This disease will kill you, you know,” she told him honestly.
The man laughed, a dribble of blood escaping his cracked lips. “I’m already dead. Am already gone. M-Make…make it end, please?”
Elissa got to her feet. Her mind whizzed with thoughts of how to save this man, but there was nothing she could do. He was too far gone to conscript him into the Wardens. By the time they got him back to Vigil’s Keep, he would be changed, or dead. There was no other choice. She pulled a dagger from her back-harness. “Maker have mercy on you,” she said, and thrust the blade into his chest. His eyes widened from the impact, but his face melted into a smile as the light faded from his eyes.
Elissa pulled her blade free once he had passed, wiped it clean on the grass, and placed it back in her harness, her shoulders heavy. “Let’s—” She stopped, the tingling in her body growing louder. “I feel darkspawn.”
“So that’s what that weird feeling is,” said Oghren. “I thought I really needed a piss or something.”
Elissa would have scolded him, but a rusty arrow flew towards her head, forcing her to dive out of the way. As the arrow thudded into a tree behind her, a small hoard of darkspawn jumped out of the bushes around them. They launched into combat with weapons drawn, making short work of the darkspawn. Nathaniel speared them through the chest with his arrows, Anders blasted them back with his magic, and Elissa and Oghren slayed them with her daggers and his axe.
Once all the darkspawn were slain, they sheathed their weapons and darted back to the camp in search of the elf. They ran back up the slope and through the trees, but a glimpse of movement made Elissa skid to a halt, Oghren and Nathaniel slamming into the back of her. The blond elf stood high up on a ridge, her face twisted with anger.
“Why are you still here?” she yelled, throwing her hands in the air. “I told you to stay away from me! I warned you, this place is not for you!”
Seeing the look of pure rage on her face, Elissa knew there would be no point in trying to reason with her, so instead she blurted, “The humans didn’t kidnap your sister!”
The elf snorted. “I know a human crime when I see it. I’ve experienced more than enough of them. You will pay for repeating their lies!” Her hands glowed with magic, and two of the trees beside them jumped to life.
“Oh great,” said Anders, “more Sylvans.”
The elf disappeared in a tangle of roots and sprinted up the hill away from them, leaving them alone with the crazed trees. Elissa remembered that they were weak from fire, so had Anders burn them into ash. It was painful to see such creatures destroyed, but the elf had left them no choice. With haste Elissa chased the elf up the hill and back towards the campsite, her party hot on her heels.
The elf was stood before three mounds of earth covered in stones at the edge of the camp that looked like graves, hunched over as she caught her breath. “Y-You will never…take me alive!” she yelled.
Elissa raised her hand as her party caught up, ready to charge in with weapons drawn. “We’re not going to kill you,” she said calmly.
The elf snarled. “I will not go with you to some Shemlen magistrate! I won’t bow to their rules!”
Elissa put her hands up. “I just wish to talk, truly. The humans were not to blame for what happened here.”
“You expect me to believe that? What of the weapons, and my sister’s disappearance?”
“The humans aren’t responsible because the darkspawn killed them.”
The elf shook her head. “I should never have come here in the first place. If they had just left us alone, all of this would never have happened.” She finally looked away from the graves and faced Elissa. “If it wasn’t the humans that killed my people and took Seranni, are you saying the darkspawn did it?”
Nathaniel stepped forward with something twinkling in his hand. “I found this trinket on a darkspawn,” he said, and threw it over to the elf.
She caught it, examining it in her hands. Her voice became soft. “This is Seranni’s…she would never willingly part with it. Our mother gave it to her before she died. Why would the darkspawn do this?”
“I don’t know,” Elissa replied honestly, “but I’m going to find out.”
The elf’s eyes lit up. “You have no reason to trust me, but let me come with you?”
Anders snorted. “After you killed all those people and attacked us?”
“I fell for the darkspawn’s deception! I took lives, this is true, but I see now that this was a mistake. I swear to you that when I get Seranni back, I will leave this place for good.”
Elissa nodded. “Okay, you can come with us.”
Oghren groaned. “Great, another twitchy magic sort. Just what we need.”
The elf stepped forward and held out her hand. “My name is Velanna…if you care for such things.” Elissa shook her hand. “Do you know where the darkspawn might dwell?”
“Tunnels, most likely,” she answered.
“There’s an abandoned mine some ways to the North of here. Tunnels run far into the earth. We will likely find the darkspawn there.”
“Right,” said Elissa, taking charge, “then that’s where we’ll go.”
Anders made a noise with his throat. “Uh, excuse me?” he said, waving his hand in front of her face. “We already have a mage in this party. We don’t need two.”
Elissa smirked. “You’re right. That’s why you’ll keep watch outside.”
Anders spluttered. “What? I’m not a guard dog!”
“That’s what you get for being troublesome whilst on a mission,” she replied, and noticed Nathaniel’s mouth twitch into a tiny smile. “Now, let’s head there before any more darkspawn try to ambush us.”