The party broke up more slowly than Hawke expected and quicker than he hoped, but he couldn’t expect them to follow him forever. Aveline and Donnic went to Highever, and Isabela and Fenris headed to Rivain, and in Antiva, where Isabela’s ship had left them, Varric and Carver made plans for Kal’Hirol.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better muse, Hawke,” Varric said with a smile.
“So I’m good for something,” Hawke replied with a glance at Carver, who was guarding the entrance of the alleyway. When his brother didn’t return a quip, Hawke shook his head and clapped the dwarf on the shoulder. “Goodbye, Varric. It’s been… We’ve had…”
Hawke cleared his throat and Varric said quickly, “I’ll think of something witty for you to say in my epilogue. Besides, I’m sure we’ll run into each other again. The world’s too small for someone like you.”
They said their farewells in the dim light of dawn while the rest of the city was recovering from parties and assassination attempts. But finally Varric and Carver turned away and as Hawke watched, disappeared down Antiva’s winding street. Merrill wiped her face on her cloak and Hawke caught Anders hand in case the mage was planning his own escape, but Anders stayed at his side. With the fights and festivals churning through the streets, no one cared about three shabby figures slipping from docks and then through the gates out of the city. Or maybe Varric had arranged that too, a parting gift of peace and quiet for once so that Hawke, Anders, and Merrill could put some more miles between them and the Chantry, the Crows, the Wardens, and whoever else had connected faces to the crime in Kirkwall.
The hills of Antiva were gentle, rolling swells, the golden wheatfields growing into delicate greens as the forest overtook the farmland. When a wind swept by them, it rippled the crops like they were a vast sunlit ocean. They made good time for a while, especially Merrill who was glad to be in the wilderness again, traveling speedily enough that at night they were too tired to do much more than sleep. Tevinter, they had decided. For history, Merrill had suggested. For the weather, Hawke had said and slung his arm around Anders, who said nothing at all. And none of them said the real reason: the war that Anders had started. The Tevinter magisters were possible allies, and at worst, at least not enemies. Merrill pointed into the distance and Hawke spotted the shadowy clouds of some storm as it blew across the countryside. All roads led to Minrathous, even though the majority of the Tevinter highway had been swallowed by fields. And there, before the gale covered it, was the thin white line of the ruined highway.
“You disguised yourself, didn’t you, Anders?” Hawke asked as they walked. “When you escaped the Circle.”
“Poorly,” Anders said wryly. He studied Hawke, then added, “Beyond dyeing our hair and using aliases, I’m not sure what else we can do. And both of you have such dark hair that I doubt we can even dye it.”
Their robes had been the first to go, hurled into the bay as Isabela sailed them out of the city. And that had been more out of disgust at the blood and smoke-stained things than any attempt at deception. Even Merrill, loathe as she was to completely renounce her heritage, had donned clothes more appropriate for city elves than Dalish. Except for shoes. Their staves had been harder to give up, Hawke thought with a pang of guilt and sorrow at the loss of his father’s staff. Malcolm had carried in through the Free Marches to Ferelden and Hawke had repeated the journey in reverse. But at the first port they stopped in, Aveline had made the compelling argument that with its shape and color, the staff was not just noticeable but practically iconic. Anders had surrendered his, too, and Merrill as well, but that was more out of commiseration than necessity. They’d barely gotten any coin for them; an added insult to injury that Varric promised he wouldn’t include when he finished Hawke’s biography.
The old, wooden rods that served as a staves now barely lived up the the name.
“I’ve always wanted a different name,” Merrill said. She looked up wistfully at the sky as she contemplated. “Daisy was nice, but it wasn’t very impressive. How does Dragon Crusher sound?”
“It suits you,” Hawke told her with a laugh. When Anders chuckled, Hawke’s grin widened in pleased surprise.
They had enough provisions to avoid the towns they passed at first. When they noticed more people working in the field, Merrill led them off the path and into the scrubby trees that meandered along the borders of farms. The golden acres of wheat darkened into green vineyards as the trio moved deeper into the country and one night they made their camp a couple of short miles from a massive stone building that crouched protectively over its labyrinth of grapevines. Even from a distance it was an august fortress, with tall walls and towers, and as night fell, Hawke could see pinpricks of light as a patrol began along a parapet.
“I think that’s the Alava Chantry.” Anders said, pointing with a long finger. “For some reason the Circle Tower had a number of books on Antivan wine-country. A gift for the inebriate librarians, I suppose. The sisters there specialize in making heavy reds, and if I remember correctly, are the only vineyard permitted by the Divine to make black wine. Very popular place for pilgrims, unsurprisingly.”
“Black wine? Do they drink it at service? I’m intrigued. I have been wondering if I should be more devout.”
“Maybe your alias should be Brother Tristan,” Merrill teased and he pretended to consider it.
They didn’t press their luck and despite having skeins that could have held wine instead of water, in the morning they left the vineyards. They did risk stopping at a small cluster of houses on the outskirts of the woods, and the last of Hawke’s coins paid for dried meat and bread. Which didn’t last as long as they should have. The story of his life, Hawke thought as he studied the remains of their supplies.
“Right,” he said. “Merrill, I leave this in your capable hands.”
“You’re Dalish. You’re one with wilderness.”
“Hawke, I was studying to be a keeper, not a hunter.”
“Right,” he said and launched optimistically to his second option. “Anders. Use your Warden powers.”
“I can only sense darkspawn and other Wardens,” Anders replied with a tired sigh.
Hawke took small comfort in the fact that at least Varric wasn’t witnessing their deterioration. They’d collapsed in a small clearing chosen more out of convenience than comfort or security. As Hawke wrapped up the last bits of greening cheese and hard bread, he looked at Anders, who was frowning at something in the distance, and tried to gauge what his lover - or his spirit - was feeling. Justice must have been appeased by the Chantry’s destruction, at least temporarily, because Anders was being patient to the point of docile. Hawke sighed and stood up slowly, cracking his knees and his back. “We’re three of the greatest mages in Thedas,” he announced in a voice that was unnecessarily loud in the quiet forest. “We can roast a dragon if we felt like it.”
“Let’s start with rabbits,” Merrill advised.
He reached down to grab Anders’ hand and pulled him to his feet. And then he kissed him, because they could do that now, with only Merrill and the birds there to judge them. Anders’ smile erased some of the weariness from his expression and it made Hawke convinced that they could take down a dragon, even without a warrior or a rogue or any armor between them.
Finding a rabbit took nearly to sundown and the three of them lost it almost instantly in a patch of briar. The second one was easier to spot and Hawke caught it in a blast of fire that scorched it and the surrounding plants into a blackened lump. He prodded the remains before gingerly picking the smoking thing up. “Smells terrible,” he said and dangled it at Merrill.
She wrinkled her nose. “We need to skin it before cooking.”
“It’s been awhile since I had to catch dinner,” he conceded. And then to keep them from thinking of meals back at the Amell estate, Hawke told them about Carver as a young boy and his first hunt, which had eventually involved a bear and a swarm of bees. The night was warm but they made a small campfire anyway; it made them targets but the dark oblivion of Antiva’s countryside was unbearable. Too empty and too quiet, too much of a change from the noise of Kirkwall’s streets. And like it had been since they left the city, their conversation circled back to magic and mages.
“This had to be what Tevinter was waiting for,” Anders said. “It’s an opportunity that the magisters won’t be able to ignore. The country might be at war by the time we get there.”
“Will they be marching or will someone be marching on them?” Hawke asked, not expecting an answer. “Maybe Celene will be too occupied with Kirkwall.”
“I wonder what’s happening in Ferelden,” Merrill said quietly, and Hawke felt Anders shift. She raised her large eyes to him. “You worked with the queen, didn’t you, Anders? What do you think she’ll do?”
“Conscript everyone into the Wardens,” he said with a dry, bitter humor. But then he shrugged. “She may support the mages, actually. She seemed to, anyway, back then.”
Merrill prodded at the small fire with ineffective vigor until the last log collapsed into embers. With a sigh she tossed the smouldering stick into their firepit and then said in a subdued voice, “I hope Aveline and Donnic are all right. I mean, I’m sure they are. Aveline is Aveline, after all. And Donnic is almost as impressive as she is. And he has nice hair on his face. I always thought that.”
Hawke had been ruminating on Aveline and Donnic too, and the rest of their friends. And Charade and Gamlen, and Bodahn, Sandal, and Orana. And everyone else he’d left behind, from Walter and Cricket up to Seneschal Bran. A list of names that Varric could add to the litany of grievances that made up the epilogue of Hawke’s story. Probably wouldn’t be as good a read as some of Varric’s other tales, though.
“What are you thinking about, love?”
“Corin,” Hawke replied instantly. The aging mabari had been another thing Hawke abandoned, a part of the Amell estate that Hawke had left to his cousin. “I hope Charade isn’t overly fond of her boots.”
“I’m sure she’s taking good care of him.” Merrill patted Hawke kindly on the arm. “He’s probably lying in front of the fire with a good bone right now.”
Anders leaned against Hawke, resting his head on Hawke’s shoulder. He stroked Anders’ hair, tucking the long strands behind his ear so he could kiss Anders’ temple, his brow, the arch of his cheekbone. “You’re getting furry,” he said and tugged affectionately on Anders’ beard.
“You are too, sweetheart. I like it.”
“Good, because I don’t think I’ll have the chance to shave anytime soon.”
“I wish I could grow a beard,” Merrill said wistfully. “You’d think there’d be a spell for that. Maybe Tevinter knows one.”
Conversation stayed strictly in the realm of the lighthearted after that, a lie that they participated in for each other’s benefit.
When they woke in the morning, the weather was fair and after shaking the dew out of their clothes, the three started their march. After several hours they broke from the path into the woods again for a rest, following the sounds of a nearby stream. Hawke pulled off his boots and rolled his pants up to his knees, then sat with his feet dangling in the cold water. He healed the blisters and bruises, but there was still a low, persistent throb of pain deep in his bones. “Your feet are probably worse off than mine,” he said to Merrill when she squatted beside him. “Here, let me see them.”
“Oh no, they’re happy to be in the grass,” she said and wiggled her toes in the mossy soil. “This is much better than the street. Sometimes I stepped in things that even Varric couldn’t identify.”
Hawke’s response was lost as a blast erupted through the trees, a din that they both recognized at once. A fireball.
Anders. They shot to their feet. Merrill grabbed theirs staves and tossed Hawke’s to him as he jammed his feet back into his boots. She slipped easily between the trees, parting the branches and leaping over the roots with ease, and Hawke crashed along beside her. Anders found them as they approached the road. He grabbed Hawke’s robe and pulled close beside him, then said in a quiet but excited voice, “It’s a mage caravan! They have to be apostates!”
“Wasn’t me.” Anders released him and hurried out of the woods.
The smoldering trees framed the scene. A cart and a wooden wagon were pulled by panicking oxen who were bellowing loudly over the cries of the frantic people around them - twenty, Hawke guessed, his eyes quickly scanning that battleground. A few were trying desperately to pull the ox back into the road but with every explosion or scream the animals yanked away. Bandits armed with bows picked off mages with ease while Templars battered back against an onslaught of swords and clubs.
Hawke led and Ander and Merrill fell into step behind him with a deadly efficiency honed in Kirkwall, one of the few things they’d taken with them from the city. Hawke’s first bolt of lightning decimated the row of archers. Merrill slammed her staff to the ground and roots erupting from under the road, grabbing and dragging bandits down as they screamed. Suddenly time seemed to withdraw it’s pressure and Hawke and Merrill’s spells shattered the air as they were cast - Anders’ haste made each movement fly.
It wasn’t joy, but there was a sense of pride, of satisfaction. Hawke spun the wooden staff and then will a yell pulled forth lightning so spectacularly bright that around it the natural world blanched and shook. After that crackling explosion, everything was silent.
The hot wind tossed dry leaves spotted with blood. Merrill released the last prisoners of the twisting roots and the bandits that could retreated, dragging their wounded and leaving their dead. Anders rushed away with his staff still clenched in his hand and then dropped to his knees in the dirt next to a groaning boy. “I need to pull out the arrow before I can heal you. It’ll hurt but not for long. Get ready.”
“And I can heal that,” Hawke said to a Templar. She lowered her shield to reveal blood dripping from under her arm. From behind her helmet he could see her eyes widen in surprise.
“No serah, heal Damase first,” she replied. She cupped a hand around her mouth and called to the nervous faces peering out from behind the wagon, “They’re healers! Damase, come here! Sister Hildegard!”
Under the fresh wounds were older bruises and fractures, and Hawke could feel the knots of poorly knitted scars deep in Ser Damase’s muscles. That the Templar had been subjected to such meager healing surprised Hawke, but it was something to puzzle over later, when his patient was no longer spitting blood onto Hawke’s pants.
The punctured lungs had to be healed first. Hawke worked from the innermost layers outwards. And while behind him, he could hear Anders explain each step of the process to the boy, Hawke just talked. “Poultices are no good, you know. Hard to make, and even harder to make well.”
When he’d finished mending the Templar, a young mage timidly approached with her bloody hand clasping the side of her head. That scrape was quickly healed, as well as the blisters and scratches on her feet. The crowd’s commotion had continued as Anders and Hawke worked, but the cries of fear and pain were changing to exclamations of surprise. More people gathered around and Hawke grinned and shook every hand that was offered. If Varric had been there, the dwarf would’ve had a comment about Hawke’s vanity and the stroking thereof, and Carver would have been happy to voice his own thoughts about how Hawke wouldn’t have made it much farther without his normal diet of adoration.
But most of the attention was split between Merrill, who bent down to look into the faces of the elven children in the group, and Anders, who was still skillfully healing. Anders’ tired smile was still radiant and Hawke felt like he could take on another hundred bandits at least.
It didn’t get completely silent, but the voices quieted as the crowd parted to make way for a woman in a stained Chantry robe. Over her shoulders was a dark traveling cape and the skirt of her robe had been cut to her knees, but the symbol of the blazing sun was clear. Hawke dragged his eyes from it to stare again at Anders, but the other mage was still engrossed with his work. Once again Hawke felt the absence of Varric, who’d be able to tell Hawke if it was irony or just shitty timing - Hawke always got those two confused - but without the dwarf’s advice, Hawke could only do what he usually did in the various messy situations he found himself in: crack a joke and then laugh at it.
“Nice congregation you have here, Sister.”
The woman was probably around fifteen years older than him, with brown hair liberally streaked with gray. Her dark eyes flittered over them before she turned away.
“Thank you, serahs. Please, one moment - Ser Damase, are you all right? Tamar, how is Musa? And where is Tyana - there you are. Are you hurt?” Her breathless inventory completed, the woman finally hurried toward them, wiping her bloody hands on her cloak. “You saved us. I can’t thank you enough. I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t been here. I’m Sister Hildegard, from the Circle in Ansburg.”
“Garrett,” Hawke said promptly and shook her outstretched hand. “We’ve always had a knack for perfect timing.”
Anders helped his patient to her feet and then said, “And I’m Frederick.”
“Alerion,” Merrill called out, and then added quickly, “but you can call me… Aly. That sounds all right, doesn’t it? I do like nicknames.”
“Are you… Tevinter mages?” she guessed and then frowned when they shook their heads. “Apostates?”
“That’s us. On our way to Tevinter. Where are you going?” As Hawke looked around, a couple of people echoed “Tevinter.” The faces were thin and sunburnt under the dust and blood. Like the sister, the mages wore the impractical robes from their Circle, though some also had more functional coats or cloaks draped over their shoulders. The Templars were bowed under their heavy armor and while their expressions seemed more curious than menacing, Hawke still felt the prickle of old injuries and painful memories.
Someone had started to pull the oxen back to the road and the wheels ground noisily into movement. An older Templar with a closely cropped beard and thinning gray hair put his arm around the sister to guide her along with the procession. It was only a moment of uncertainty, but Hawke noticed it all the same: they were rogue agents, possibly even abominations, who could disrupt or even destroy the caravan. Hawke wasn’t offended. It’d been the same way in Kirkwall - People regretting instantly the amount of trust they had to put into him and his band of misfits.
“Serahs, will you join us?” Sister Hildegard asked, and Anders and Merrill looked to Hawke, who shook the sister’s hand again to seal the deal.