Alistair could feel that something was wrong the moment they stepped foot into the Dalish camp. There was the presence of something sickly in the air, like it was a living thing itself that sought to drown all that opposed it. And it wasn’t just from the obviously sick elves that he could see lying on cots on the other side of the camp.
Something was obviously wrong.
The leader of the group that had found them barked out what sounded like an order in Dalish and they came to a halt. He turned then, fixing the two humans with a hard gaze, and said, “Don’t try anything, shemlen. We don’t take kindly to strangers.”
“Really? I never would have noticed,” replied Alistair, his smart mouth getting ahead of him like it had the tendency to do when he was nervous. Instantly Bernard’s hand wrapped around his wrist and he flushed before saying,”You have our word. We won’t move an inch.”
The elf arched an eyebrow, the vines tattooed around his eyes writhing with the motion, before he barked out something else then turned on his heel. As he stalked across the camp, Bernard leaned forward and hissed, “I wasn’t aware you had a death wish, lad.”
“My mouth likes to get ahead of my brain sometimes.”
“Ah. I suppose that is a family trait then.”
Alistair flinched because it was as he clearly remembered Cailan and Father periodically making absolute asses of themselves. Then he tried to shake the emotion off and turned to asked quietly, “They weren’t who you were talking about hunting us, were they?”
Instantly he could tell he’d surprised the captain just a little bit with that assessment, which made him scowl. For some reason his age and circumstances of birth seemed to make people think he was simple or something of that sort as they rarely ever expected much of him. They just seemed to forget that he’d been raised in the Palace and taught by the same teachers as his brother as well as by those who’d taught the Cousland children. Sometimes he was certain they thought he’d been raised by dogs.
It was rather disappointing that the older man might be among those people.
“No,” Bernard replied finally. “I didn’t even realize the Dalish were there until they were upon us.”
Frowning, Alistair said, “It must have just been one or a few following us then, right? Otherwise they wouldn’t have let the hunters capture us.”
“One would assume.”
A snort came from one of the hunters to Alistair’s left and he turned to look at her, arching an eyebrow at her amused expression. She noticed him watching her and smiled knowingly before she tilted her head towards the place where they’d entered the camp. As he turned to look, he saw that another pair of hunters was returning and between them marching a lithe human woman with short red hair wearing well-used leathers. Like them, the scabbard on her hip was empty and judging by the way she kept glancing at one of the hunters, the extra bow slung over his shoulder was hers as well.
Bernard grunted in surprise and asked, “She was hunting us?” Alistair looked back at the female hunter for an answer and got it when she bared her teeth in the mockery of a wide smile. She then called out something to the pair and they veered towards the group, falling into the loose circle the others had made easily as they pushed the woman into the center.
Taking a step away from her, Alistair glanced towards Bernard then asked, “Who are you?”
“Is my name truly important at a time like this?” she replied, her voice soft and obviously Orlesian accented. Alistair flicked his eyes towards her bow, still slung over the hunter’s shoulder, and thought of the stories TeyrnCousland had told of his time in the country as well as those he’d found in the Highever library. Tales of bards and spies, intrigue and betrayal, and of the overarching back-and-forth competition that the Orlesians called the Great Game.
Bernard moved a step forward and, despite not having a weapon, protectively positioned himself between her and Alistair. “Given that I’m sure you know who we are as you were following us,” he growled, “it is very important.”
Blue eyes narrowed then she replied, “Leliana.” She then cocked her head at him and continued, “You have some skill to have noticed me, Bernard of Alamar.”
The captain just smiled coldly then his head snapped to the side as the leader of the hunters returned with a dark scowl on his face. He snapped out an order that had the group around them dispersing then said, “Our Keeper seems to think he can get some use out of you shemlen.”
Alistair blinked then asked, “And what exactly does that mean?”
“You shall have to speak to the Keeper.” The hunter smiled menacingly and added, “He told me to inform you that to refuse might be contrary to your health.”
“Killing us would just bring a worse reputation down on the Dalish,” pointed out Bernard.
The hunter arched an eyebrow haughtily in an obviously silent question of Do you truly believe we care before he turned and started walking in the direction he’d come from. Alistair frowned and said, “Captain, I don’t think we have a choice.”
For once Bernard didn’t scold him for using his title and simply nodded. As he started to move after the elf, he turned to the woman and said firmly, “You try anything and I will gut you. That is a promise.”
She coolly looked back at him in the face of the threat and nodded her head before saying, “I did not mean either of you harm in the first place, Captain,” as she moved ahead of them after the elf. Alistair frowned after her, highly confused as to just what she had been pursuing them for if not to kill him.
As he and Bernard moved to follow her and the elf across the camp, he wondered aloud, “What’s worse than death?”
The older man frowned in response before answering, “I get the impression we might be about to find out one thing that might be, lad.”