"You know, there's a path up the other side, if you're having trouble."
Solas tightens his grip on the tree root he's holding for balance before he turns his head to see who's casting a shadow over him. "No trouble," he grinds out, hating how out of breath he sounds.
"Oh, sorry then," she says. Solas takes a good look at the girl. She's another one of the wood elves he's had the displeasure of meeting, the Dalish. She's got the slave markings on her face and doesn't seem bothered at all by it. He feels the anger bubble up inside him, with the crushing despair right below it.
The girl speaks again. "You've been struggling on this hill for a few minutes, I thought maybe you didn't see the trail. It's well hidden, I don't think anyone would blame you for missing it."
Solas hates her very much in this moment. "Yes, well..." He trails off almost immediately. "Thank you," he says after a few too many seconds of silence. He's aware she's been staring the entire time. He imagines he looks every inch the fool he feels.
Stones rattle down past his feet as he shifts and he feels the roots he's holding loosen their grip on the ground ever so slightly. He straightens as best he can and starts to pick his way through the underbrush towards the path she's pointed out. The girl is gone when he looks to her again.
There is indeed a path on the other side of the hill. It's far less steep and there are signs of wear where others have used it. Solas curses himself inwardly for being so focused on his goal that he didn't even notice it or think to look for a path before he started climbing. His mind is still so full of cobwebs that he can scarcely think straight. It's been a hell of a week.
Solas climbs the path, cold air burning his lungs and the whipping through his thin clothes, and he thinks of the future. He has a plan -- had a plan, anyway -- but it all hinges on him being so much stronger than he is. He did not count on waking so weak. He'd make it to the top of the ridge, that was the first step. Everything else would fall into place, he will make sure of it.
When he makes it to the top, the view is incredible. The steep cliffs fencing in all the rolling farmland between them with the great, wide ribbon of blue winding it's way south, the sun hanging low setting the trees to glowing. Solas stands at the top of the ridge and looks to the southwest, just admiring for a few moments while he catches his breath.
"Lovely, isn't it? Definitely worth the climb up."
Wonderful. Here she is again. Solas doesn't have the magical energy to waste making sure this girl doesn't bother him again, and killing her just for trying to be helpful is distasteful in the extreme, so he's going to have to come up with another method.
"Entirely," he says, turning to face her with venom in his eyes.
"The wind up here though… Oh, you must be freezing!" She is oblivious to his derision, but not to the goosebumps on his skin. "I'm Merrill. Aneth ara."
She ends up giving him a patchy fur cloak out of her pack and all but forcing him to sit with her while she builds a fire, repeatedly claiming they were some kind of kin and therefore should help each other. Solas couldn't think of a reason they'd be similar, can't recognize any of himself in what this creature is, but the fire is warm and he has been cold for days. He sits in silence and watches as the flames creep over the wood.
"So," Merrill says, thankfully not sitting near enough that he feels he must move. "You're not Dalish."
At least she recognizes that, he thinks. Small mercies. "No."
"Have you been traveling long?"
Solas tears his gaze away from his own hands to meet her eyes and her mild smile. "I… have. Yes. A long while."
Merrill shrugs. "I thought so. You look that way. I thought maybe if we're both out here in the wild, we're traveling alone, both of us, and I'm a bit lost. Maybe you are too? We could help each other out. Better to be lost together than lost alone. You're headed east, that will bring you through the forest down there. Lots of predators, I would think. Ooh, I'm rambling."
"Yes," Solas says, because she really is. The thought of a traveling companion is not the most provocative thought he's had since waking up, but the more he thinks of it and the more the warmth from the fire seeps into his bones, the more he thinks it could prove useful. He is still so weak…
"I am old. And slow. I have not traveled in a long time. My worth might not prove itself immediately," he warns her.
"I'm in no hurry to be anywhere," she says, still smiling. She offers him some dried fruit from her pack. "What should I call you?"
"I am Solas," he tells her. He doesn't want to give her any chance to come up with something for him.
"Ah, lovely. Now, do you know how to build a shelter? I don't like how many clouds I see up there."
Three days pass with only one small falling down the side of the cliff face incident, but Solas grabs her arm and hauls her back upright before she suffers much more than scrapes. They retreat back to a wide ledge to regroup and get their wits about them again.
As soon as they're on firm ground again, Merrill throws her arms around his neck. "Ma serannas," she says, the tremor in her voice mostly muffled by his shoulder. If she notices that Solas stiffens and tries to pull back for a second before reluctantly allowing her to hug him, it's something she doesn't acknowledge.
Mostly, Solas is too busy marveling at the strength he didn't know he'd regained. After waking up only a few weeks ago and it taking almost two full days before he could even walk again, he truly hadn't realized he'd had it in him.
"Solid ground," Merrill says, turning to him when they're finally in the valley. Her smile is wide and earnest, and, Solas finds -- to only his very minor vexation -- contagious.
In spite of the joy that the easy walking in the valley brings, Solas quickly finds himself miserable again. The wind rips through the valley and cuts him to the bone. Merrill is shivering beside him within minutes, and he feels obliged to seek warmth for the both of them.
"You've never suggested a break before," she says, eyeing him sideways as they gather a few sticks for kindling. There's a jut of rock they can set up camp behind, safe and relatively out of the cold until the wind decides to shift again.
"It's me that stops first," she reminds him. "You just look at me for a few seconds and then shrug."
Solas shrugs and Merrill laughs, nudging him with her elbow as she straightens up with her bundle of twigs. "I don't think you've ever recommended we stop in an inopportune place," he says.
"Oh no, you never seem like you're put out. I just think you're one of those people who has to weigh every option before deciding." She drops her kindling next to her pack and her staff and rubs her hands together, either to get the dirt off, to warm them up, or both.
"That's an interesting point. I shall consider it closely."
Merrill laughs again, throwing her head back a little when she does. Solas bites back a smile and crouches to light the fire.
Merrill shivers in her sleep, even so close to the fire that she'll be parched in the morning. Solas hasn't slept yet, though he's settled comfortably enough against a fallen log. He shrugs off the fur cloak that Merrill had lent him the first day they met and tucks it around her as best he can without rousing her. He'd tried to give it back earlier, but she flatly refused it, claiming he had more need of it than she did. Solas has already learned to never argue with her, or she'll chatter all day, but in her sleep she fell blessedly silent on the matter.
Solas lays another log on the fire and tries not to think about how cold he's getting. There was a pinprick of light in the distance, probably less than a day's walk. A human settlement, hopefully, where they could trade for some warmer clothes.
Bird chatter wakes Solas up when the sky is starting to turn lavender around the edges. He doesn't remember exactly when he fell asleep, but it seems Merrill has draped the fur back around his shoulders. No winning with her, Solas figures, but he's thankful.
She's humming and cooking something over the fire and she grins at him when he sits up. "Lovely morning," she says. "There's something about waking up in the woods…"
"It's terrible?" Solas guesses. Merrill ignores him.
"That creek we passed just back there -- go wash up, you'll be amazed at how perfectly lovely a day can be after a good wash."
Solas doesn't tell her she sounds touched, although he's definitely thinking it. He wonders briefly, as he walks back towards the little river, if he smells bad and that's why she suggested it. There hasn't been much time for washing up. It's a possibility, and a rather embarrassing one at that.
The water is bracingly cold, so he wastes no time, though he must admit he is now wider awake than he's felt in weeks. He climbs into his old clothes as fast as he's able, because although the air is warmer than the river water, it's still not warm.
He hears Merrill coming down the path towards him with her usual singsong voice. "Yes, I've not drowned," he tells her, stepping from behind a tree onto the path right in front of her. She yelps and throws her hands up in front of her face.
"Apologies," he says. "I didn't mean to startle you."
"I thought you'd be dressed," she says, still behind her hands.
Solas glances down at himself. "Oh, for the love… my shirt is torn. I was hoping to mend it before I put it back on. I am otherwise clothed."
"I just saw… Nothing. I didn't see anything." When she finally drops her hands, she's as red as anything and she walks quickly back to the campsite. Solas only sees her glance back at him twice. He makes sure to maintain eye contact when she turns but he saves his chuckle until she turns eyes forward again.
Back at camp, they're sitting comfortably next to each other on Merrill's bedroll when she offers him breakfast. "You caught this?" he asks, examining the meat.
"Aren't you chilled to death?" she says instead of an answer. She's still trying not to look directly at his bare chest, and he's still amused by it.
"No, I'm not… built exactly the same as you."
"Well, I can see that," she says. She flushes scarlet the moment the words are out of her mouth. Solas can't stifle his laugh then. Merrill sinks further into herself and doesn't turn her head an inch when he pats her on the knee to reassure her he's not upset.
"It's rabbit," she says, louder than is necessary. "And yes, I caught it. Now give me your shirt and I'll have it fixed in no time."
Solas watches with a mouthful of cooked rabbit (not his favourite, but it's hot and the burnt edges crackle as he chews and he decides Merrill is a fine cook) and she waves her fingers over the tear in his shirt. She murmurs to herself and they both watch as the cloth is mended.
"Do you have any magical talent?" she asks, finally meeting his eyes once he's covered himself again.
"A little," he says, feeling a small shiver of tension in his shoulders when she asks, as if she would understand the truth even if he told her, or that she could put the pieces together and discover who and what he is with such a small fact about himself.
"I could teach you that one," she offers.
"I could teach you a few too. Maybe one day, I might."
They steal some bits of clothing off a pair of lines criss-crossing between three homes outside a village. There's noise coming from what seems to be the town square, maybe a festival or a public demonstration. Merrill frets for a moment and tries to leave a coin or two, but Solas presses them back into her hand. The world is dangerous and wide, and money will be more helpful than anything else in getting her through it. She leaves the rabbit skin instead. It's something.
They slide into their extra layers once they're safely hidden by the trees again.
"Warmer already," Merrill sighs, fiddling with the rusty coloured wool of her new sweater. It's far too big, but she looks proud.
"Indeed." Solas's new clothes fit him better, simple and sturdy, and almost like something he would have chosen for himself.
Merrill leads the way, heading east as the sun climbs above them. There's the sound of running water coming from somewhere nearby but the dense trees block out any view of it.
They camp that night in the lee of a crumbling ruin. Merrill hunts for their dinner again, and once she's back with a rabbit and a pheasant, Solas tells her how impressive he finds her skill. She waves him off with a flick.
"It's nothing, really, I was never very good. We had real hunters in my clan."
"Truly though," he says, taking the bird from her to pluck it while it's still warm. "You've fed us well, and if that's not skill, what is?"
Merrill doesn't say anything, but her smile lingers for hours.
"These ruins… Are they Tevinter?"
"They're elven," he tells her. "Well, and human ruins crumbled around them, as with many of our people's places. But look at the stones in the centre there. See the natural, almost organic progression of sizes? Not uniform enough to be dwarven, and the Imperium would have never used limestone, even when it reached this far. Besides, look there."
He's pointing to the worn nose of the wolf statue peeking around a corner. Merrill nods when she sees it. "Fen'Harel's shrine. How do you know so much about ruins?"
He lets out a weak chuckle in the darkness, thankful she can't see his face in the dim light of the fire. "Have you ever traveled in the Fade?" he asks, thinking to answer her and distract her at the same time.
"In my dreams, you mean? A few times, but it's hard, isn't it? I always wake up more tired than I started."
"It has its difficulties, certainly, but I savour my time there. In the Fade, I can see many things, learn many things. History is all around us, you know, and it wants to be heard."
Solas feels her shift beside him, resists the urge to face her when he feels her eyes on him. He stares at the fire.
"Fascinating," she says, and he's happy, because it is and she recognizes that on her own without him having to drag her there and make her see it, as he's done with friends in the past.
He realizes then that this aggravating Dalish girl that annoyed him so much only a handful of days before is his friend. Really, the only one he has left in this place, and he feels a warmth unrelated to fire settle inside him.
"We should leave something," Merrill says once they've packed up their things.
Solas turns to look where she's pointing.
"For Fen'Harel. You always leave an offering for him."
"Ah," Solas says, and nothing more.
"The rest of the rabbit, or the pheasant, which would he like more?"
Solas considers it closely. "Leave the rabbit," he tells her.
"Yes, I thought that would be right."
It's right because Solas prefers the pheasant, and now he can have it for lunch. An offering for Fen'Harel indeed.
"There's another village up ahead, I think. If we take the left fork."
"I'd just as soon stay away from villages," Solas says.
That was it, the entirety of her argument. Bread. She says it a few times, and when he doesn't immediately acquiesce, she starts listing different types of bread.
"Cheese," she reminds him. "And biscuits."
"Enough. We'll go your way. My word, but you are stubborn!"
They agree that stashing her staff before they head into town makes the most sense. No sense in deliberately sticking out more than they will by just being elves.
The people in the town speak broken Trade with thick Orlesian accents, so Solas answers them in Orlesian. It's not his strongest language, but the conversation suddenly flows much easier. He secures them some bread (a little more than they need, but Merrill looks so thrilled by it all), cheese, and a bottle of wine.
"Very impressive," Merrill says, when they find a place out of the way to sample everything. "A man of hidden depths."
Solas passes her the bottle after he uncorks it. "Mes divers talents cachés vous surprendrerais, ma chère."
She giggles. "I don't understand, but it sounds lovely."
"That is the point of Orlesian, I believe."
The flash of lightning is hidden by the canopy above them, but the thunder rattles the trees themselves. "We should take cover," Merrill says, looking up suddenly. She pauses, waiting, only moving forward again when Solas has caught right up. Her pack bumps him in the chest.
"It sounds very near," he agrees.
"I've seen storms like this before. Feel that in the air?" She looks rattled. Solas touches her arm, digging in a little past the thick sweater. "I don't like it," she says, the disquiet rolling off of her in palpable waves. She even reaches back to loosen her staff from it's place on her back, like she plans to fight off in the oncoming storm.
"Come on then," he says, steering her by the shoulder. There are a number of caves they've passed in the last few days and any one would be sufficient for waiting out the rain.
Solas takes the lead for the first time since they'd set out together, but it only lasts a moment or two before she's in step with him, her fingers encircling his wrist.
It gets dark all at once and the thunder claps are so close together, it becomes impossible to tell what's thunder and what's the echoes of thunder off the high rocks walls that ring the valley. The lightning makes itself apparent, lighting up the path in fits and starts. Merrill's hand draws tighter around his wrist to the point he has to pry it off, taking her hand in his instead. He doesn't say anything (would it be heard over the thunder anyway?), but is certain she's relaxed a little when she squeezes his hand.
There isn't really a first drop of rain, no little drops hitting their faces to warn them it's coming. When it finally arrives after the lightning and thunder have been teasing for twenty minutes, it comes in a deluge.
Everything is soaked instantly, clothes, packs, and the ground itself becoming treacherous under their feet. They have to climb a little trail up to one of the caves, only about fifteen feet or so off the ground, but it's slow-going and terrifying. Solas just hopes that this cave has nothing inside else sheltering from the storm.
The sound of the rain pounding into the rocks around them and the almost continual rolling of thunder blocked out any other sound for the first few moments they're in the cave. It's empty, luckily, and Merrill lights a blue fire in her palm with a word while they look around.
It's a long minute before his eyes adjust to the bright light, but once he's acclimated, he can tell the light is wavering wildly. He turns to Merrill, shaking in her sodden sweater.
"Tel'numin, lethallan," he says, smiling in a way he believes to be reassuring. "We're through the worst of it now."
She nods, but the light falters again when her arms droop. She's uncharacteristically silent.
"You can't keep the fire going like that all night," he says, watching closely for her response. He doesn't want to upset her further, but it's the reality of the situation they're in now and they need a plan.
"No," she says, her voice small and barely audible over the wind and the water. The light dims.
"Have you anything dry in your pack?"
They rummage through their belongings as quickly as they can, searching for something dry to wear or something to burn.
He offers her a barely damp shirt from the middle of his pack. "Please," Solas says when she doesn't take it right away. "You'll feel so much better when you're dry."
She changes out of her wet clothes with her back facing him. He studies the contents of the cave while she does. Enough dry brush and twigs to at least start a fire. Won't stay lit for long, but they might get some warmth from it. He gathers it all together, stopping to strip down to his breeches when his wet clothes weigh too heavy and cold on his skin.
Solas piles the sticks as close to the mouth of the cave as he dares and calls up some fire in his palm with the same word of magic that Merrill had used. He can feel her eyes on him, imagines them wide and wondering. It's the first time he's used magic in front of her, and only the second time since he awoke. The flame he makes is strong and bright, casting a warm yellow glow over the cave. He's very pleased with himself.
"Are you feeling better?" He beckons her towards the fire. Merrill holds her hand out, offering a small collection of paper.
"It's not much, but it's dry. Will it help the fire?"
"Letters?" he asks.
"I have a friend who likes to write. I've gotten many from him. None lately though."
"You should keep them with you. I think I can get us a little more to burn."
"You're not going back out there," she says, half disbelief and half warning.
He smiles, reassuring once again. "Won't be gone but a moment. You stay here and warm up."
"You'll get washed away out there. It's too dangerous, lethallin." Solas hears his sentiment from earlier echoed in her voice and it stops him mid-step. He turns, and she's reaching out for him.
He doesn't leave.
They sit side by side, legs pressing together, in front of the little fire until it burns itself out. Merrill falls asleep, shivering occasionally, until he pulls her tight against his side.
He flexes his hand, feeling out the familiar pattern of a barrier and seeing the shimmer in the air around them in the dark. He feels it in the back of his neck, a sweet, aching tension, like walking on sore muscles the day after running a hundred miles. Gently, he pushes on the barrier with a crook of his fingers, watching it flare a little and feeling the heat generated in return. It's a delicate balance, but Solas thinks he can hold it in stasis.
They'll be all right until morning.
Solas wakes up very cold, with a crick in his neck, and pins and needles in the arm that Merrill is still leaning heavily on. He can hear the rain, still coming down in barrels, and it seems the wind is picking up. Merrill is still asleep and when he tries to extract his arm, she just burrows more against his side, probably seeking warmth, and stays there. Despite the ache in his arm, she's warm against him. She can stay.
Peering out the cave mouth as best he can over her head, he notes the rain has actually lessened somewhat from the previous night. It's still dark, but there's a definite blue tinge on the horizon. There's a roll of thunder, but it sounds like real thunder instead of sounding like the earth falling down around them.
He's worn out from trying so much magic the night before. With so much in the way of upkeep required to keep it stable, Solas feels he could sleep another day. They'll have to leave at some point, despite the fact that their clothes and packs spread out on the other side of the cave don't look all that dry. There is food to think about, and fuel for a real fire, never mind the thought that this storm could last days if it wished and they couldn't sit forever. Solas ponders how they'll handle these considerations when Merrill wakes up.
It takes her a few moments, stretching her muscles in small increments, legs flexing against his where they touch, blinking her eyes and flicking lashes dragging on his bare skin, before she realized how close they are and pulls back with a start.
"I'm sorry," she starts, at the same time he tries to smooth over the awkward awakening with a "ir abelas, lethallan."
He laughs and starts again. "It was very cold, and I was worried--"
"No, I'm sure it was me. One time we had to camp on Sundermount overnight and Aveline said I was worse than the skeletons. I don't remember, but she says I stole her whole bedroll and pushed her out when it got chilly." Merrill picks at her borrowed shirt, straightening the hem. "Is your arm all right?" she asks when she sees him trying to rub feeling back into it.
"Fine, fine. Skeletons?"
"Yes, almost a whole army's worth. And some things a whole lot nastier, too. Very interesting place, with all that history. I lived there, for a time."
Solas tries to think of a place that elves would call Sundermount, as he's never heard the name. "Remind me where that is?" he asks.
"Vimmark Mountains, near Kirkwall in the Free Marches. Have you ever been to the Free Marches?"
Solas can put it together from there. Sundermount. What a name. Human influences, their touch on everything, everywhere now. "A few times when I was a younger man. But not in a great many years, I'm afraid."
"It's lovely, really. Even the cities. I lived in Kirkwall for many years. The alienage was quite nice, in it's way." She's moving around now, turning over their clothes to check how they're drying.
"What was a Dalish doing in an alienage?"
Merrill pauses for moment before turning to him. "A long story."
"We have time," he reminds her. "Unless… You needn't tell me anything you don't wish to, of course."
Merrill picks up the dried fruit that survived the onslaught of water in it's waxed paper package and comes back to sit with him. "You mustn't judge me too harshly," she warns. "I've only done what I must."
Solas nods, all too familiar with the sentiment. Still, he's surprised to see her so serious, until last night with her fear of the storm, she's been nothing but optimistic and open around him.
"The short version of the long story is that I wanted to bring back something that was lost, but it didn't work out the way I intended. People got hurt, people I cared about." She sighs and rubs her eyes. "I believed our people needed to have our history, even a small part of it, returned. I said it was worth preserving, worth fighting for. I wonder now if I was short-sighted, or just selfish."
"You sound exactly like someone I know," Solas says. There's an intense rush of emotion in him now, with the defeat in her voice and hearing her second guess the one intention he's always had, to see himself so crystal clearly in someone else… Just to know that maybe, maybe, he is not alone here.
"And what did you say to them?" she asks.
"I reminded him that he knew in his heart what he wanted, what he had to do. That our people deserve to choose for themselves once again, and that what was lost had worth beyond measure."
"You're very wise." Her eyes are wet again.
"I'm not, but I aspire to be. I think wisdom is a process, a journey we go on, instead of a destination."
They sit for a while, listening to the wind and the rain, waiting for a sign of it clearing, or a sign of anything at all.
"My clan and my Keeper are dead. My friends are scattered, the city I lived in is a burnt out shell," Merrill says, after a while.
"I have not had a place to return to in… far too long," Solas tells her.
"Then where are you headed now?"
Solas thinks for a moment, and shrugs. "I have an idea to make a new home for myself, and indeed, if it goes well, maybe a home for all our people."
"Truly? That would be wonderful. Somewhere with lots of sky? I missed the sky so much when I lived in Kirkwall."
He smiles again, lets her chatter on about the sky and the flowers and the lovely places she's seen. Solas doesn't know what else to say to her, how to explain what shape his plans will take. He sees so much of what he has to do in her, knows that she could make a good ally, an advisor even, but so much of the attitudes in this time are still confusing to him. Would she be angry at what he did in the past? She spoke of friends, humans and such; would she be upset that his new world doesn't include them?
"I'm surprised we didn't freeze," she said, interrupting his thoughts. "It gets so cold here in autumn. Unless…" Merrill eyes him suspiciously. "Did you do something?"
"A little magic," he tells her. "A modified barrier, just to keep us from losing more heat. Plus it kept the rain away when the wind shifted."
"All night?" Merrill asks. "That's a lot."
"I know a few tricks," he admits.
"You must teach me," Merrill says, suddenly bouncing like an excited puppy. "I've always been sort of rubbish at barriers. I'd love to learn. I can do a little combat magic, but it's all sort of tricky, isn't it? And you don't have a staff, do you? Don't you find that it helps you focus the energy? I can do little things without mine, but it always gives me such a headache."
"Yes, yes, I can show you," he says, holding up a hand to calm her, because she's right, the headache is real. "Just give me an hour or two to work out all the knots."
A full day later, when the rain starts to let up and their clothes are dry, they continue on their way.
The valley has turned entirely to muck. Mud sucks at Solas's boots every step, and Merrill's bare feet are filthy almost up to her knees. She uses her staff to pull herself out of it, but it's sinking deeper and deeper as they trudge downhill.
"Rain makes flowers grow," Merrill reminds him again when he curses the stuff.
Solas is about to snap back with something equally trite when she stops dead in her tracks. She holds up a hand, a warning to stop, but it's unnecessary because he hears it too.
Someone is coming towards them.
There is the jingle of armour and definitely more than one voice, and it's painfully obvious that they are two elves, one carrying a staff, out in the wilderness doing nothing specific. They dash for the cover of the trees as fast as the mud will allow.
In the shadow and the low hanging boughs of a huge white spruce, they wait to see what will appear on the path and if whoever it is will look for them. There is absolutely nothing to be done about their footprints -- obvious and instantly trackable -- in the soft earth.
Four men walk into view, also having difficulties with the mud. Solas sees no indication if they've spotted the tracks yet.
"Templars," Merrill says. She grips his arm and makes to pull him further into the trees. Solas is familiar with templars only in concept, but a glance at Merrill, her face linen-white under her vallaslin, is enough for him to know. They fade a little further away from the path, behind a few more trees, into the underbrush.
"They can't find us," Merrill says. "They can't."
"We will fight, if we must," Solas says. He doesn't have an immense store of magic available to him, but he feels he has enough to get them through this. Once they make it through, he'll have to make a staff, something to sharpen what little reserves he has.
Merrill is watching the way they just came with determination. This isn't the fear he saw in her during the storm, this is something else entirely. She looks ready to fight for their lives, ready to kill.
"Have you met a templar before?" she asks, voice barely audible in the background noise of the forest.
He shakes his head.
"I envy you."
They wait, at Merrill's insistence, for far longer than Solas would like. He's more edgy waiting for some barely conceivable horror to come to him than he would be walking right up to the enemy and waving his hands in their faces. But Merrill will not be swayed.
So it's a cruel sort of irony when they hear the rumble behind them.
"Fenedhis," Merrill whispers.
Solas ducks behind the closest tree right before the bear's claws come sweeping down across him. He sees a jet of green light fly from Merrill's position and strike the great, ugly thing in the side.
The bear drops back on all fours and it's head whips around, faster than something that size should be capable of. Solas remembers seeing great bears this large before, but he thought Andruil's people had hunted them into extinction. Evidently not, as it rears back on it's hind legs and ambles towards Merrill. She's glancing over her shoulder, like she's expecting the templars to burst in on the fight and only turns back around when the creature is on top of her.
"Fen'Harel ma halam," she tells it, spinning her staff to connect with it's knee with a lightning crack at the same time a rock rumbles up behind the bear, splitting the earth apart. The bear topples backward, over the rock, roaring it's pain as it crashes down. The forest shakes around them.
Ignoring the danger for a second, Solas grins. She said she had little combat skill, and here she is, clever and resourceful as anyone could hope to be. He calls up a wall of ice between Merrill and the great bear as he reaches her side.
"Oh dear," she says. "I've never seen a bear so big."
It's still righting itself, and when it moves to roll over, a massive leg crashes through the wall, sending shards of ice flying. Solas shields his face, but he feels at least a few nicks. Beside him, Merrill makes a small noise of pain. Another few bolts of light hit the bear as Solas lowers his arm and thinks of his next move. He's annoyed with himself -- fighting used to be second nature in his reckless youth. He's been asleep too long.
Solas keeps hoping the bear will get bored and wander away. The stinging light from Merrill barely fazes it and it's only when she gathers enough power within herself to hit it with a cone of rock does it actually seem to be injured. At one point, she loosens the dagger in her belt and stabs it right to the hilt into the bear's side. The thing barely twitches.
He sends up another wall, finally catching the beast off balance by putting it between it's front legs. Solas can feel the mounting headache and taste the acrid tang of wisps of lingering magic in the back of his throat. He can't fold the ambient energy into his personal field without a staff, so it's hazy annoyance he'll have to move past.
The bear doesn't get bored, it doesn't waver in its dedication to the goal of killing them. They best it, but only by inches. Merrill is sweating, panting, with a small splotch of blood on her face from an unidentified wound. Solas's head is reeling, he feels nauseous and off balance, and there are lights dancing behind his eyes
But neither one of them is bleeding out, and no other bears have come along to see what's happening.
"Are you all right?" Solas asks, skirting around the bear's body and a few new boulders that Merrill has conjured.
"I think so, yes. What about you?"
"I will be. Let's get out of here."
They find a clearing, penned in on one side by a pool that turns to a river, and on another by the rock face. There's a gush of water above them, a waterfall diving straight down into the pool and kicking up peaks of white foam. All very picturesque and worth admiring, if Solas didn't feel the urge to vomit and then sleep for a week.
"You look terrible," Merrill tells him. He grimaces.
"I'm aware. I've not used that much magic in a dog's age. I really think I ought to sit…"
He sits with his head in his hands and listens to the moving water until he feels the world stop spinning so quickly around him.
"Better now?" Merrill asks. She's built a campfire and has fluffed out her bedroll next to it. She looks almost as bad as he feels, but she's made herself comfortable.
"I think so," he says. "I should set a ward."
"Not if it means you'll keel over," she warns. Merrill moves to sit up, but aborts the motion halfway through and lies back. She pats the blanket next to herself instead. "Come sit."
Even with the invitation, he feels a bit odd intruding into her space. But the blanket, the fire… all so warm looking. Solas pushes himself up off the stump he was sitting on with a groan and then lowers his aching body back down, bumping her legs in the process.
"This blanket," he says, feeling every inch the articulate scholar he's always know himself to be. "It's so soft."
Merrill makes a noise of agreement. "Lie back. Get some sleep."
Solas wants to say something about impropriety or invading her good graces, but the blanket is so soft and she's warm at his back. Sleep takes him in seconds.
In the Fade, there's mist rising off the water in twisting tendrils, teasing at the air. Solas watches them with interest. He wonders how they can look familiar when he knows he's never seen this place. They beckon for him to follow, so he does, fearing nothing, knowing his own power in this place.
Merrill is sitting on the bank down the river, brushing her hair. "I didn't mean to end up here," she says, smiling up at him when he approaches. "Like you said, some things want to be heard."
"You are incredible," he tells her, because it wants to be heard.
Merrill says nothing, and looks out across the river.
He sits with her and takes her hand in his.
They look out at the water together. A fish swims by, tickling their feet with its twinkling fins, bigger and more golden than a fish can be, and it makes Merrill laugh. Her laugh is more golden than a laugh can be, Solas thinks, and it too wants to be heard.
When Solas wakes up, he's still tucked under the soft blanket. There's no mist rising from the water, no golden fish, but Merrill is still right next to him. She's sleeping, peaceful and deep, the sleep of someone who fell into bed utterly drained the night before.
His head still thumps, but it's fading. The heat of one of her hands where it's snaked between his shirt and the small of his back in the night is not fading, it's burning into his skin, an anchoring point, something to fixate on.
Solas rolls over, onto his back and dislodges her hand as gently as possible. She twists it into the front of his shirt, pulling herself into his side, up under his arm.
Dawn's coming, but it's not there yet, and he thinks they can afford another few hours of sleep before insistent birdsong and empty bellies force them awake. He tucks his arm around Merrill, keeping her close, and drifts back to sleep.
She's looking at him, staring at him, when he wakes again. It's strange, but it's nowhere near as awkward as the last time they woke up this close together. He's got his shirt on this time, for one. She hasn't tried to flee yet, either.
"Hello," he says. He's not sure what else he should say.
"I had a very odd dream," she tells him. "I think I dreamed you were flirting with me."
He kisses her, because he's not sure what else to say.
It's a bad angle, and he's very much out of practice, but she stretches up towards him and makes a soft noise when he pulls away, so all signs point to she doesn't hate it.
"Oh. Well." He kisses her again, just a touch of lips together. Merrill pulls herself up a little more and touches their foreheads together. "I'm starving," she says after a few moments.
Finally, something he has an answer for. "Yes."
With a great deal of groaning and complaining, they both make it to their feet and in the general direction of tasks. After promising to avoid all bears, Merrill says she'll be back with game and she heads into the woods. She's back a few short minutes later empty handed.
"No good?" he asks. She grabs him by the shoulders to kiss him.
"Now I'll be right back," she says after.
Now that he remembers what it's like to share casual affection with someone, Solas finds himself quite unable to stop. Merrill doesn't seem to mind at all, letting him twist their fingers together when they walk side by side, almost purring like a cat when he cards his hands through her hair when they stop for the night.
Every day since waking up has brought him something new to learn, or a new challenge to overcome, but since meeting Merrill, it was as if every moment that didn't have a tempest or an angry bear is a good one.
They've reached the foot of the Frostback Mountains. They're maybe three days from Solas's destination, an old friend waiting for him with news and strategy. He hasn't told Merrill, for fear of ten thousand things, and now he doesn't know if he has the strength to tell her they must part now.
They stop for a rest on a hillside, with the whole valley stretching out behind them, the mountains rising in front of them clad in greys and purples and a snowy mist. The view from any angle is breathtaking.
"Thank you, lethallan," he says, holding her close and dipping his head to whisper in her ear. She lets her head drop back on his shoulder, hands clasping around his at her waist.
"For what?" she asks.
"Everything. I would not have made it through the forest without you."
Merrill laughs, he feels it in his chest. "Well, that bear would have eaten you, for one."
"A catastrophe, to be sure."
"Poor Solas, cut down in his prime to be bear food."
"Woe. Pure tragedy."
"I'm glad I was there," Merrill says. He hears the layers in her words.
"I do mean it. You got us through on talent and your sunny optimism."
"And I'm sure we'll both get us through whatever else is coming," she says, turning in his arms.
"Of course," he says, hoping for so much truth in what she says.
On the hillside, the grass and wildflowers at their feet, with Merrill's hair catching in the wind and dancing around them, it will make a good memory. She stands on the toes of his boots and kisses him deeply, smiling against his mouth and letting one hand press into his chest.
It's a sweet moment, and it's the one he chooses to remember when he sets a ward around her and leaves her in the night.
The letter he left doesn't explain anything nearly well enough, but she'll find it in the morning. Solas wonders what she'll choose to remember then.