The dwarf was waiting in the Hanged Man.
His name was Varric; he didn’t look like any other dwarf Anders had ever met. Granted, Anders was no expert on dwarves. But he was almost positive they were supposed to have beards.
It was possible he had the wrong man. It wasn’t as though he’d paid much for the information—or even paid for it at all—and he wasn’t sure if this was the right place to commit a major social faux-pas, insulting a very short person by mistaking him for someone he wasn’t. Some dwarf he wasn’t. The slightest insult might incite a riot, perhaps even a downright war. Everyone in the Hanged Man was armed to the teeth; it was the finest collection of sharp knives and vulgar tattoos Anders had ever seen.
But again: he wasn’t exactly an expert.
‘Beg pardon,’ Anders murmured, keeping his head down, doing his best not to make eye-contact with anyone. ‘Coming through—don’t mind me—my fault entirely, yes, you’re so right—my mother did suck her fair share of nugs, what an astute observation—’
‘Stick out a little more, why don’t you,’ the beardless dwarf named Varric said, just as Anders finally crashed into his table.
Anders reached out to steady himself. Varric reached out to steady his tankard. Anders held his breath, awaiting swift, pointy retribution, but the chaos of the taproom continued as it had despite the collision; after the colorful invectives hurled his way, cruel and uncaring as they were, no actual weapons followed suit. And that was how Anders preferred it: no broken bones, no sticks and stones, and a brand new vocabulary of delightful insults to employ in a no-doubt inappropriate future.
‘Well?’ the beardless dwarf named Varric took a pull of his rescued drink. Anders waited for him to belch, or wipe his face with the back of his sleeve, or lean over just slightly in his chair and let loose a rumbling fart. Dwarves always did that in the stories. Instead, Varric set his tankard down in front of him and steepled his fingers, looking alarmingly sharp-eyed over his stubby hands. ‘You’re the contact? You’re the apostate I’m here to meet?’
‘Say it a little louder, why don’t you?’ Anders said, hurriedly taking a seat to avoid being in anyone else’s way. ‘I don’t think all the bounty hunters in this place heard you.’
Varric snorted. ‘I don’t think that’ll be a problem. But fine—have it your way, stranger.’
‘That’s better.’ Anders fidgeted with his collar. ‘Now. Where were we?’
‘You being my contact,’ Varric supplied helpfully. ‘You know. The one with the details on where to find Thedas’s most elusive treasure?’
Silence descended over the Hanged Man. If Anders had been nervous before—suffering under the acute gaze of a single, beardless dwarf—the feeling had intensified a hundredfold. Anders contemplated casting a subtle fire spell, raising the alarm, and fleeing in the commotion.
‘You aren’t a very subtle dwarf, are you?’ Anders hissed.
Varric shrugged. ‘This lot? They’re gonna find out anyway. The crew of The Champion likes to give ‘em a sporting chance every once in a while. Makes it seem like more of a race.’
‘How…generous of you,’ Anders said. He drummed his fingers against the table, feeling the promise of heat thrumming in his veins.
Probably best not to burn the tavern down around them, not unless it was strictly necessary. Anders had to make a good impression on these people—sudden outbursts of arcane fire tended to put strangers off, for whatever reason.
‘Right,’ Varric said, with a look in his eyes that suggested Anders wasn’t right in the least bit, and was actually already quite mistaken. He leaned forward on the table, eyes bright, gloved fingers laced together. ‘Let’s just say the captain’s a wee bit eccentric and leave it at that, shall we?’
‘The captain?’ Anders repeated. It was difficult not to look over his shoulder, thereby betraying his sudden fear that said eccentric individual would be among these men and women, all of whom were currently fondling their weapons—as though each had a secret recipe for barbecued mage they were just dying to try out.
‘…Is on the ship with the rest of his crew,’ Varric said. He squinted, heavy brow lowering over his eyes. ‘Listen, Blondie, if you’re yanking my chain for the free drinks, you might as well come clean now. I’ll cut my losses, head back to The Champion, and chalk this one up to minor disappointment on all sides.’
His chair scraped against the floor, and Anders’s panic splintered at last, straight through his desire for secrecy. ‘No—don’t do that. I need a ship to take me to the Gallows. Yes, the Gallows. It’s real. There: I said it. You’ve had it out of me at last. And if you’ve heard of it, then you know what riches await you there. Like, for example, The Book of Justice—’
‘An old legend,’ Varric scoffed, but his eyes were on the men and women ranged through the taproom. It seemed that he was regretting his earlier decision to let everyone in on the prize.
Perhaps he hadn’t counted on it being so valuable.
Anders took that as a sign of encouragement and, to employ local metaphor, sailed bravely on.
‘I can pay,’ he added. He had enough good sense not to show Varric how much, there at the center of the Hanged Man. ‘Your fee—a good, ah, healer aboard the ship, for whenever the crew needs healing—and whatever you find in the Gallows, you can take. It’s all yours. I don’t…’ Anders sighed heavily, questioning what his life was coming to. ‘…want the treasure.’
Varric took Anders in, his words and his clothes, both equally paltry. Under that gaze, Anders felt every rip, every torn seam in his coat and every loose feather. He hadn’t shaved properly in a week, and his hair was in disarray, blond wisps tickling at his cheeks where they’d come loose from the leather cord.
‘You’re right: you don’t strike me as a treasure hunter, Blondie,’ Varric said at last. ‘So that leaves the important question: what are you after?’
‘I have my own reasons for going,’ Anders confirmed, adjusting the fall of his coat. It was all very noble, and just as implausible, especially for anyone who knew him. But when he’d heard Karl Thekla had been lost to the mythical Gallows, he’d also known he’d have to do something. Anders was just ashamed that it’d taken him this long to charter a proper ride. ‘…Personal ones.’
‘Isn’t that always the way?’ Varric sighed, shaking his head. ‘Well, friend—you’ve got yourself a ship.’
‘Just like that?’ Anders asked. He couldn’t believe it would be that easy.
‘Just like that,’ Varric confirmed. ‘To borrow a phrase from our first mate: I like the cut of your jib, Blondie.’
The Champion was legendary—so legendary even Anders had heard of it, a collection of tales and whispers, warnings and, in Anders’s opinion, a hearty dose of whimsy, not to mention the popular series Tales of the Champion, of which Anders was a self-proclaimed fan. But when he first saw it docked amongst the other ships—to his great dismay—it wasn’t lined in a filigree of gold, with silverite-tipped masts or velvet sails, like all the stories claimed. In fact, it looked very much like every other boat, weather-notched wood and barnacles on the helm near the water, bobbing with the same sleepy rhythm as all the rest.
Anders tried to decide which was which, a game he played with himself by picking through the handsomer vessels close-by, but Varric trotted on and left those pretty sleek things behind, ignoring their fresh coats of paint, oblivious to the griffons and dragons and other wicked beasts carved into their bows.
‘You sure don’t know anything about sailing, do you?’ Varric asked, stopping in the midst of a whistled tune to make Anders feel small indeed. ‘Those’re all flash. Pretty, sure—if you like style over substance. But all that paint just covers up what they don’t have, if you know what I’m saying.’
‘Oh good,’ Anders said. ‘The time-honored sailor tradition of comparing one’s ship to a woman begins already, does it?’
Varric didn’t miss a beat—though he did step nimbly over a rotting plank, one Anders narrowly avoided plunging his foot straight through. ‘Who said anything about women? Now here we are. And that’s what I call a ship.’
‘That,’ Anders said, eyeing it warily. Varric’s look of beatific adoration only seemed to make The Champion look even smaller, and even less impressive.
It was as anti-climactic an introduction as any Anders could have imagined—or rather, hadn’t imagined, when in his mind’s eye he’d seen the proud prow gleaming beneath the setting sun, above the glittering water. The Champion, in comparison, was a scruffy little skiff, smaller than the other docked boats, and without any of the finer trappings outlined in all the best stories.
There was, however, one detail consistent with what Anders knew: the face of the woman carved into the bowsprit. Her wild hair was a tangle, like seaweed, or like horns; her eyes were painted a faded, merry gold, while her wooden lips swooped into a wicked smile.
‘There she blows,’ Anders murmured, staring up into that quixotic face.
Varric cringed. ‘Here’s a tip, Blondie: don’t say that in front of the captain.’
Anders wondered, privately—enough of his instincts for self-preservation yet remained to prevent him from vocalizing every last one of his delightful thoughts—if the captain of The Champion would be as much of a disappointment as The Champion itself. Although there was something to be said for the sheen of the worn wood, the craftsmanship in that wide mouth, the quirk in the corner suggesting some secret of time and the tide that only she would ever know.
‘Speaking of the captain…’ Anders began, stepping around, pretending he knew at all what he was looking at. ‘…Does he really have a beard like in the stories? Or is that a lie, too?’
‘Oh, he has a beard,’ Varric replied.
Anders reached over to touch the helm of the ship, saw Varric’s frown of disapproval, and quickly tucked his hand back inside his sleeve. ‘And what about the first mate?’ he asked. ‘Is she as beautiful as they say?’
‘Even more beautiful,’ a clear voice called from above. ‘Why don’t you ask her yourself, duckling?’
To his credit, Anders managed not to startle himself right off the dock and into the water. Instead, he looked up, shielding his eyes from the bright glare of the late afternoon sun. There was a woman leaning over the railing above him, body dripping with trinkets and baubles of pure gold, dark hair fluttering like a loose sail in the breeze. She had an easy smile that was nothing like the woman carved into the prow of the boat, a smile full of promises met and secrets shared.
When she caught Anders staring, she waved happily.
‘So?’ she asked, shifting to rest her bosom against the rail. ‘Do I meet your expectations, or not? I always like to hear if I’m a disappointment straight out of port—call me old-fashioned that way.’
‘Rivaini,’ Varric warned, sauntering on ahead of Anders. ‘What do I always tell you about playing with the cargo?’
The first mate—Isabela, in all the stories—sighed and straightened, moving to lower the gangplank to the dock. ‘It isn’t my fault so many of them get the details wrong,’ she said. ‘Did he call me first mate? Second captain, more like.’ She cocked her hips to the left, drumming her fingers against the bare brown skin of her thigh.
She wasn’t wearing a skirt. Or trousers. Or anything at all down there, Anders realized with a thick gulp. So the stories were accurate there—Anders would try not to ask her if she ever felt drafty.
‘You won’t get any argument from me on that point,’ Varric said. ‘Except I know how you hate to be second in anything.’
Anders didn’t want to stare, but he couldn’t look away, either. He hurried after Varric, who was clearly so used to this routine by now that he paid it no mind. The gangplank creaked ominously under Anders’s weight, the thin wood flexing as he crossed from the safety of the dock onto the relative unknown, the unremarkable deck of The Champion.
He’d hoped that its outward appearance might have been an illusion—a dismal sham meant to put off pirates and raiders and lawmen alike by making the ship only look as shabby as possible—but upon boarding, it became clear that wasn’t the case. The Champion was completely functional, just with none of the polish and trappings Anders had seen on the majestic merchant vessels lining the docks.
‘I know that look,’ Isabela said, coming up behind Anders and setting a jeweled hand on his shoulder. ‘But don’t you dare judge her before you’ve seen her in action.’ Swiftly, before Anders had the time to exhale, her hand dropped and pinched his ass beneath the coat. ‘You don’t look like much yourself, after all, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be willing to give you a test run.’
‘Rivaini,’ Varric said.
‘Present and accounted for,’ Isabela murmured cheekily, adjusting her bodice instead of offering a salute.
‘Where’s the captain?’ Varric asked meaningfully.
‘Also present,’ said a gruff voice from just above and behind Anders’s head. He took the opportunity to sidestep away from Isabela, and turned to squint again into the sun.
It was beginning to be a thing—or rather, par for the course—that Anders was taken off guard, ambushed from his blind spot, just like The Champion cornered her enemies on the tumultuous waves.
There was a tall man making his way down from the helm, a coil of rope twisted around one of his bare shoulders. His arms were muscled, skin half-bronzed and half-burnt from days on the open water; he had a broad, hard face with what looked like a smear of dried blood marring the bridge of his nose, and Anders’s fingers twitched at the sight, fighting the well-worn urge to heal.
Just as Varric had promised, the captain had a beard as dark and thick as his hair; he pushed his bangs from his forehead before he held out a hand in greeting.
‘Hawke,’ the captain said.
‘Yes,’ Anders said, fully aware he was staring outright, fully incapable of making himself stop. ‘I know.’
‘I think he’s heard of you, Captain,’ Isabela said. With a cheeky swish of her hips she stepped forward, brushing past Hawke like he wasn’t all warm muscle and sun-burnished gold, looping the rope off his arm and around her wrist.
‘Who hasn’t?’ Varric added, grinning.
Anders forced himself to swallow, to lick his dry lips. It wasn’t every day a man met a legend. It wasn’t every day a wanted apostate set foot on board the most famous ship in Thedas, bound for sights unseen, lands unknown, treasures untold, and came face to face with a dastardly hero—part villain, like all the best heroes were, when it came to compromise and sacrifice and glory.
‘Don’t suppose there are any stories about you I might have heard?’ Hawke asked, testing a knot on the mainmast, then leaning against it to inspect a broken nail. He watched Anders over one split knuckle, waiting, and not exactly patient.
Once again, Anders felt small. That was a recurring theme of the day, as well; he didn’t have his sea-legs yet, the bobble of The Champion beneath their feet making him unsteady while the others stood firm. Hawke’s gaze, too, stripped him like splintered rigging from a ship dashed against the rocks, and Anders shifted where he stood to find some pale imitation of equilibrium, holding out his hand at last.
‘Anders,’ he said. ‘And there are stories about me, now that you mention it. They’re more sort of…local, though. Not exactly wide-spread. Not exactly flattering, either. In fact, it’s probably best you haven’t heard of me.’
‘It’s probably best if you stop talking,’ Hawke suggested. ‘Varric here’s the chatty one. We’ve already got that covered.’
‘Ah,’ Anders said, three-quarters choked and one-quarter strangled. ‘I take your point.’
‘They always do.’ Varric shuffled up behind them, far too comfortable on-deck for any normal dwarf. ‘It’s nothing personal, Blondie. Hawke’s as heartless as they come.’
‘And trust me,’ Isabela called from the rigging, ‘I’ve tried to find that heart myself. Countless times.’
‘Good thing she found something else,’ Varric concluded. ‘Otherwise she’d get grumpy.’
Anders swallowed again, throat as dry as the stretch of beach in the coves beyond. He waited for Hawke to crack a smile—the wicked flash of white teeth against his black beard, the moment that preceded every one of his grand adventures—but it never came. Varric cleared his throat against his cupped hand, and Hawke continued to inspect Anders like a bit of shriveled flotsam sloshed up on deck, just before he called for a cabin boy to wash it overboard.
‘Well?’ Hawke said at last.
Anders blinked. He wondered how long it had been since he’d last indulged in that necessary act, as his eyes were actually burning. ‘Well what?’
‘Why are you here?’ Hawke started off in another direction; Varric followed him easily, and Anders scrambled to keep up. ‘Honestly, Varric, if this is going to be like the Tome of Koslun fiasco—you really have to stop believing everyone with a half-baked story from here to Antiva. It’s ruining our image.’
‘Oh, Hawke,’ Varric tutted. ‘Don’t be so cynical. Something tells me you’re gonna like this one.’
‘…So you see,’ Anders concluded, having shared the implausible tale from start to finish, the moment he received the map from his old, adventurous friend Karl Thekla to the moment he set foot on the deck of The Champion, ‘it’s really a mystery how I, of all people, ended up with the map.’
‘A mystery,’ Hawke repeated. They were below deck in the captain’s quarters, narrow sunlight spilling in through the stained window just past Hawke’s broad shoulders. He leaned back in his chair, resting cracked leather boots on the clean surface of his desk. Both soles were streaked with mud, and Anders could see where grit and sand had worked their way into the cracks to mend them. ‘Yes, I suppose you could call it that. I’d call it dumb luck, however.’
Anders worried at a hangnail on his thumb, attempting not to be too obvious about his fidgeting. He missed Varric’s bolstering presence at his back. Dwarves were comforting like that—sturdy as a castle keep against even the assault of mere conversation. He hadn’t expected a chat with Captain Hawke to feel like sailing into a squall unprepared; perhaps due to his inexperience, Anders hadn’t seen the dark clouds forming overhead.
‘Yes, that would be rather in keeping with the events of my life thus far,’ Anders muttered. In keeping with his current situation, too, in which he was doing his best to remain afloat. ‘If you’d heard the stories about me, you’d know that—but never mind, it isn’t important.’
‘Funny how you seem to keep returning to that,’ Hawke said. ‘Talking about things that aren’t important, I mean. If it were up to me, I’d think you’d want to spend as much time as you could talking about what does matter.’
‘In that case…’ Anders began, smoothing the map’s well-worn creases flat on Hawke’s desk. It was difficult to look at the man; even out of direct sunlight, he seemed to carry a certain glow on his skin. ‘I believe the map speaks for itself. In fact, you’ll probably find it a better conversationalist than you find me, since it doesn’t babble when it gets nervous.’
Hawke leaned forward, even deigning to remove his boots from the desk to examine the map for himself. Anders had been uncomfortable with the idea of poring over it in front of the crew—to his surprise, Hawke had agreed with that assessment, deciding to meet with him alone. But at the time, Anders hadn’t realized what it would mean: that he’d be trapped in a locked room with only a legend for company.
A legend who didn’t seem to like Anders much, for that matter.
‘The Gallows,’ Hawke muttered under his breath. He brushed over the far edge of the map with sun-cracked fingers, tugging pensively at the corner of his beard with his other hand. It was current consensus that the Gallows did exist—just too far away, too riddled with arcane scars, to make the trip worth the trouble. Not until there was specific incentive, like confirmation the Book of Justice was currently residing there. And confirmation was what Anders had in spades. With directions, to boot. ‘I’ve never charted such a wicked course.’
Anders drew in a breath, unsure whether he was meant to respond to that, or if Hawke had forgotten he was there altogether. Dark head bowed low over the map, Hawke reached out for a thin metal instrument Anders didn’t recognize, then walked its slender metal legs forward and back from one corner to the one opposite. At last, he stilled, sharp metal pressed against worn vellum, and rubbed his temple with his thumb and forefinger.
Anders waited. He held his breath. He leaned a little closer, too, trying to see what it was Hawke saw in the majestic cartography.
‘Fenris!’ Hawke shouted, so suddenly that Anders nearly leapt out of his boots. Somehow—clinging to the tattered shreds of his dignity—he managed to remain in place.
The door behind them creaked; the metal bolt slipped out of place with a clunk. Someone ducked beneath the crossbeam and stepped into the room, and Anders was reminded at first of the giant spiders he’d seen back in Ferelden, long limbs and sharp, armored exoskeletons. The man who’d entered had the slight build of an elf, but there was something foreboding, something quick and powerful in the tension of his posture. As he stepped closer, Anders saw that he was an elf after all, covered in white vallaslin, with an expression as fierce as any angry Dalish woman Anders had ever encountered.
Before The Tales of the Champion, Anders didn’t know elves ever took to the sea. He’d always imagined them as more of a land-faring people, what with all the trees and opportunities for frolicking with the halla.
Then again, this elf didn’t seem like the frolicking sort.
Besides, Varric was aboard the ship. So obviously no one on board knew how to be decorous.
‘Yes, captain?’ the elf asked.
Anders fought his nerves and wracked his brain for the details he knew of Captain Hawke’s fearsome crew. The first mate Isabela was one of the most popular characters, for obvious reasons; her sharp tongue and ample curves made for fantastic storytelling, and there weren’t many who’d accept a tale of The Champion without the promise of Isabela on-board. But over the years—loose-bound leather-backed volumes making their way from port to port, multiplying alongside The Champion’s infamy—new characters were added. Anders recalled two elves in that number, though one was a woman, a good-natured apostate named Merrill with deadly powers. She was likable enough, though Anders privately found it terrifying that a blood mage could be so friendly.
Clearly, she wasn’t the elf before them now.
The other elf, Fenris, was—Anders paused to thumb through distant, lovingly-read pages—the bo’sun, also a warrior, also an ex-slave and a bitter sort, given the occasional dry line at the end of a rousing chapter. But despite his lack of socialization, he was just as deadly—and after all, ‘deadly’ was the favored word in those books, the only real requirement shared amongst all members of The Champion’s motley crew.
‘We’ll be passing through qunari territory soon, Fenris,’ Hawke said, over the sound of Anders’s thoughts. They scattered like a handful of sand in the wind, and Anders blinked, suddenly very much in the present, amidst real people, not alone as he so often was with characters on the page.
‘Beg pardon?’ he asked.
Both Fenris and Hawke ignored him.
‘I see,’ Fenris said, his voice rich and deep—at once exactly like Anders had always imagined it, while at the same time surpassing all his expectations. ‘I will ready the others. And I will avoid telling Isabela, lest she get any…ideas.’
‘Ah, Fenris,’ Hawke said. ‘You know just what I like to hear.’
‘Qunari territory?’ Anders asked again, clarifying his point of contention. Perhaps they hadn’t heard him. Perhaps they hadn’t realized what he meant.
‘It won’t be easy,’ Hawke continued, rising as he spoke, and sweeping the map up one-handed as he went. Anders reached after it—he’d meant to keep it, as collateral—but just like that, it was gone. ‘Treacherous waters, ample competition, ruthless enemies, the elements against us—nothing we haven’t sailed through before, of course, but it’s never auspicious when your course starts off with qunari dreadnoughts, now is it?’
‘You care little for omens,’ Fenris said. ‘Ill or otherwise.’
No, Anders thought. Of course not.
In his experience, there were two sorts of people in Thedas: those who cared little for omens, as Fenris said, and those who did care for them, just as much as he cared to stay alive. Anders—who liked to err on the side of caution, and also acknowledged the importance of good, old-fashioned superstition to keep a man possessed of all his limbs—was rather more the second type.
‘Qunari dreadnoughts in qunari territory?’ Anders asked a third time, further clarifying his point of contention, and speaking up a bit, too, despite his reluctance to draw overt attention to himself. As if, by somehow avoiding the scrutiny of his peers, he could simultaneously avoid the scrutiny of the Maker himself.
It never worked. But Anders always gave it his best go anyway.
Slowly, Hawke turned. Fenris seemed to notice Anders for the first time—one simple sweep of his attention left Anders feeling smaller than a dwarf, like a pebble caught between an elf’s bare toes, kicked to the side of the road and forgotten in the grass and dirt and moss. Those were three of Anders’s least favorite things, second only to being rained on, and he pretended to lounge casually in his chair by the desk, at least until he nearly fell over backward, and had to flap his arms to right himself again.
‘Hello,’ Anders said. ‘Remember me? I’m also here. Still here, in fact. Never left. Curious about this qunari business, as one might expect. What is all that about, by the way?’
‘This is Varric’s contact?’ Fenris asked.
Somehow, Anders preferred being called cargo by a beardless dwarf and a notorious pirate.
‘Anders,’ Anders said. He knew better than to offer his hand, this time.
As he’d expected, Fenris made no effort to extend the courtesy in turn. He merely looked Anders up and down, then sniffed in a way that seemed particularly damning.
‘…And you’re Fenris,’ Anders added, helpfully gesturing to him.
Fenris’s mouth quirked momentarily, although his eyes betrayed nothing. ‘That is what they call me.’
It was a curious statement, one Anders hadn’t been expecting, and it served only to throw off the rhythm of the banter he’d been building. Even worse, he was no closer to the information he’d requested moments earlier.
When Anders remembered the qunari—and their dreadnoughts—his face fell; Hawke must have taken pity on him.
‘The quickest route is to the north,’ Hawke explained. He had the map in his belt, next to a rather handsome compass and a bronze sextant. The instruments dangled from the worn leather, adding unexpected musicality to his steps as he moved. The books never described that poignant jingle of metal on metal. ‘And sailing to the north will take us past one of the islands the qunari claimed as a military outpost. I don’t expect trouble, but then I never do. The Champion can outrun one of their dreadnoughts—I’ve done it before, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be looking to do it again.’
‘You require stealth, then?’ Fenris asked. There was a furrow in his brow, as though trying to follow Hawke’s erratic course of thought was as difficult for him as it was for Anders.
The possibility was a comforting one. Anders held it selfishly close, while at the same time doing his best not to feel like a stray house-fly being batted between a cat’s paws.
‘Good man, Fenris,’ Hawke said. He brushed his fingertips over the upper edge of the map, assuring himself it was still in place. Anders had done the same thing, more times than he could count, on his way over. It would be just like him to lose it the same way he’d found it: completely by accident. ‘It’s like you’ve read my mind.’
‘You do not make it especially difficult,’ Fenris admitted.
‘Well,’ Anders said, once more sallying bravely forth into uncharted waters, ‘bit of bad news with the qunari, but that’s hardly the worst we could encounter. The route—it seems viable to you?’
Hawke’s eyes raked over him, the promise of talons glinting in their amber depths. ‘Anything’s viable, Anders. It all depends how much I’m getting paid for it.’
‘I worked out the details with Varric,’ Anders said. For some reason, he didn’t feel comfortable promising the riches of the Gallows to someone like Hawke. It seemed tawdry—and Anders didn’t share Varric’s gift for feeding a man lines and making them sound fresh and compelling. ‘He seemed to indicate the terms were sufficient.’
Hawke huffed, rubbing his forehead and sweeping his bangs aside. ‘Dwarves. Make one a part of the crew, and all of a sudden he thinks he’s the ones in charge of accounts.’
Anders felt a flicker of panic, eyes traveling to the map now tucked safely in Hawke’s belt. For a moment, he could envision his one chance to reach the Gallows slipping away from him, right through his fingers. He still didn’t know why it mattered to him so much, but he clenched his hands into fists, nails digging into the soft flesh of his palms, and attempted to relax. Hawke was abrupt, possibly even off-putting, but nothing in the tales had ever indicated he was dishonest.
And if Anders couldn’t believe the stories, then what could he trust?
Hawke’s gaze moved on at last, over Anders’s shoulder to Fenris. ‘Show our guest to his room, would you? I’ve got a course to chart and a first mate to sweet-talk.’
‘Don’t you always,’ Fenris said.
Anders didn’t know what he’d been expecting—after all he’d seen already, expectations were no longer a viable system of prediction. Still, he wasn’t the sort of man who could comfortably arrange himself for a long sea voyage amidst sacks of potatoes and barrels of pickles in brine; considering the way the members of the crew looked at him, they knew it. Though his failure to adapt would mark him separate from them—not necessarily a bad thing, given their collection of tattoos, scars and, apparently, blood as a form of accessorizing—it would also make it painfully clear he required separate, private, comfortable accommodations. At least until the qunari dreadnoughts blasted them all into the Void and back, a natural equalizer of sea-hands and land-lubbers and beardless dwarves and handsome elves, and so on.
‘Your chambers,’ Fenris said, his tone as dry as sun-baked seaweed, with just as much salt.
Anders peered past him, into the darkened room below deck. Not even the faded sunlight penetrated the stale depths. Anders sniffed. He smelled pickles.
‘No,’ he said. ‘There’s some misunderstanding here. This is—’
‘—the storeroom,’ Fenris confirmed. ‘Remarkably, the captain doesn’t want you underfoot. You seem the sort of man who is capable—despite all his best intentions—of getting into trouble. Am I correct?’
Anders wasn’t sure which was worse: being read so easily, or being seasick amidst the pickling brine. He steadied himself on the door, trying to make out the rest of the sacks in the dark.
‘Look at it this way, big boy,’ Isabela said, sauntering past. ‘At least you’ll have all the midnight snacks you want. Not to mention all the visitors.’
‘Visitors?’ Anders asked.
Nearby, Varric began to whistle. ‘She means the rats,’ he explained, in between bits and snatches of a jaunty sailing tune.
Anders sagged against the weather-blasted wood behind him. The deck was busy, awash with preparations he couldn’t quantify and couldn’t understand. Beyond them—members of the crew he recognized from the stories, and those who’d never factored in beyond the general crowd, a cabin-boy here and a cutthroat there hired on to make the work go double-time—the sun was setting over the water, and beyond that, qunari dreadnoughts awaited them.
‘There is much work to be done,’ Fenris said. Anders opened his mouth, readying a jaunty reply, until he realized, with a sudden clap of self-awareness, that Fenris hadn’t been talking to him.
Who he had been talking to, however, was less clear. Perhaps he was only talking to himself. He was gone in an instant, not quite disappearing amidst his fellows, and Anders folded his arms over his chest, fresh sea breeze rifling through his hair and coat-feathers, cooling the faint, damp sweat on the back of his neck.
This kind of lifestyle was supposedly healthy. It put hair on a man’s chest. But all Anders could think about was the last time he’d traveled by boat—hidden as a stowaway amidst Orlesian contraband, spending a full two weeks surrounded by stinking cheeses in the height of summer. That sort of experience addled a man’s mind; it changed him forever, and it still didn’t prepare him for the prospect of seeking out an old friend who was, presumably, trapped on a mythical traveling island, so far in the distance most didn’t believe it was real.
Once, when Anders was younger—just as foolish, but rather more aggressively so—he would have relished the idea. Adventure was freedom, in a manner of speaking, certainly more freedom than most men saw. Yet now that it was here before him, ruffians shouting at one another to hoist anchor and belay the scallywag and all that, it smelled faintly of perspiration above a seething bed of abject terror, and not at all like sunlight glittering on foamy wave-caps. If sunlight even had a smell.
According to all the books, it did.
‘This had better be worth it,’ Anders muttered. Much like Fenris, he was speaking only to himself.
It didn’t take Anders long to pry the bolts from the door’s hinges.
It was nothing personal—it seemed a very nice door, and he was sure that Hawke had only the best of intentions locking him below deck and out of harm’s way—but after a few hours of sitting alone in the dark with only the sharp tang of salty brine for company, Anders was more than ready to stretch his legs. He didn’t take well to solitary—never had—and there were no proper, sunny windows in the stockroom, for reasons that were probably obvious but nonetheless went straight over his head.
It was maddening to hear the ship creaking all around him, the swell of wooden beams suggesting movement, the rise and fall and swoop in his belly indicating they’d already set sail—but nothing Anders could see from inside his prison confirmed that, because Anders could see nothing at all aside from a gross collection of pickle barrels.
Once he’d discovered that he was locked in, there was only one course of action to take.
The metal bolts hit the floor outside, one after the next with a dull thud. As the door swung downward, slow at first but gaining quick momentum, Anders had to scramble to catch it before it fell smack against his feet. He wasn’t a true prisoner—he knew that instinctively, despite the evidence; true prisoners were usually tied up with a bit more rope—but that didn’t mean he wished to attract unwanted attention to his escape.
Anders had no desire to go against the captain’s wishes, but he wasn’t about to be treated like a barnacle clinging to the stern of The Champion, either. This was his map, his idea, and therefore his expedition—at least in a matter of speaking. He had a right to fresh air if he wanted it, anyway.
That was what Anders told himself as he shimmied sideways down the hall, acting for all the world like he was ducking templars. Again. It was an instinct that never truly dried up—Anders could feel it within: shriveled, but never truly forgotten.
‘You’re being ridiculous,’ Anders told himself. Then—reflecting on how ridiculous it was to be talking to himself in the belly of a ship without so much as the hint of an appreciative audience—he climbed the steps to the deck and thrust open the very same doors he’d been lead through hours ago.
Cool wind slapped him in the face, rifling through his clothes and hair. The sun was setting in the distance, smearing the sky to a deep, rosy pink beneath fierce golden clouds. Isabela was high in the rigging, slinking down from the crow’s nest with all the shadowy grace of a cat. She slipped behind one of the full sails; Anders heard a metallic clink from behind his head, and the gruff, unmistakable sound of laughter.
‘Did you hear that?’ Varric’s voice carried across the deck. ‘Looks like he found his sense of humor, after all.’
Fenris muttered something—Anders could make out the tone, but not the meaning. He levered himself onto the deck, curious about what happened on a ship once evening fell, even more curious about what happened on this ship. The stories all said The Champion did her best hunting under the cover of darkness, but Anders couldn’t see another vessel around for miles.
That was a relief. He wasn’t altogether keen to become involved in piracy, although at this point in his life, compounding his list of offenses didn’t matter anymore.
‘Ah,’ Hawke said. ‘It’s you.’ The crew was gathered by the helm; the man of the ship had one hand on the wheel and one wrapped around a tankard of ale. It couldn’t have been safe—could a man be trusted to steer a ship while drunk?—but then again, Anders wasn’t the captain. Something told him no one on the ship would appreciate even the most well-intentioned of suggestions. ‘I was wondering how long it’d take you to break out of there. I believe Isabela had her money on ‘before the sun set’—I’ll have to tell her that’s what she gets for having so much faith in people.’
‘Will you now?’ Isabela asked, coming up behind Anders like an unexpected breeze. She rested her elbow against his shoulder, leaning there comfortably. ‘Don’t worry, little lamb. I’ll teach you a swifter way to pick those locks.’
‘You were betting on me?’ Anders asked.
Varric—cross-legged on a crate by the bow—scooted over, patting the wood beside him. ‘Blondie,’ he said, ‘we bet on everything here. Don’t take it personally.’
‘Yes,’ Fenris agreed, looking off toward the horizon. ‘Some of us require pastimes other than attending the ship.’ The wind shifted through his hair, and the shadows shifted across his face—and just like that, the sun dipped below the swell of the open horizon, bathing everyone in darkness.
A moment later, Varric struck a match and lit a lamp. Anders looked from his bluff face to the one beside him, Fenris’s unwelcoming features stark and oblique in the exaggerated oil-light, while Isabela glowed all over like a flare-bolt or a star or a lighthouse as she settled down at Fenris’s side. She squeezed in between him and a delicate elf with enormous eyes—who could only be the heretofore unintroduced Merrill, her expression exactly as disarmingly guileless as it was in all the stories. And there was a sullen young man beside her, pale and burnt in the shadows, chin resting on his fingers—Carver Hawke, the captain’s younger brother; not exactly a popular character, sort of a sad fellow as far as Anders could recall, but not quite sad enough to be really interesting—and beside him, legs crossed, bright kerchief ‘round her neck, was a pretty girl with a tart voice. Another of the Hawke family, legendary as it was, with a light in her eye and a sparkle at her fingertips. She’d always been one of Anders’s favorites—not because she was so cheerful, even in the midst of a raging storm, but because she was also an apostate, a healer, and a clever one, while somehow remaining well-liked by everybody.
Any good press for his kind couldn’t hurt. Bethany Hawke gave apostate healers a good name, while Anders, decidedly, did not.
Anders took a moment to pause, and to wonder why a beardless dwarf with massive shoulders and lustrous chest hair—made even more lustrous in the golden lamplight—had never been mentioned in those tales. Perhaps he was a new addition to the crew, though his comfort amongst them was incongruent.
Anders stood at a loss and at a distance, watching them lean against one another, gossiping and laughing at equal intervals, or at the same time, together. Some laughed more than others; apparently Fenris’s facial muscles refused to indulge in anything close to smiling, though Isabela seemed determined to laugh enough for everyone, not just on the ship, but on all of Thedas’s open seas.
It was friendly, companionable, the whole scene smelling of sour ale and fresh sea air, sudden whips of wind taking Anders by surprise, forcing him to steady himself against the mainmast while the mainsail snapped taut above. Hawke took another liberal pull of his drink, while The Champion creaked beneath them as he leaned against the ship’s wheel. At Hawke’s side was the dim outline of the map; Anders could barely see it, and he rubbed at the stubble on the side of his neck, trying to recall each shape and cipher. He’d done his best to memorize it as collateral, just in case these cutthroat mercenaries—not quite pirates, but certainly of questionable morals—decided to heave him overboard as soon as they were far enough out for him to drown.
Anders knew how the stories went. He was only one man—one mage against a fabled crew—although they didn’t look so intimidating now, Isabela doubled over in laughter and nearly falling out of her bodice, while Merrill tried to right her and touched bare skin, and Carver’s eyes widened, melancholic look momentarily forgotten as he began to blush.
No: the intimidation was of a different sort, all of them ranked together so comfortably, each with his or her own place, some shoulder to lean on or laugh into.
All except for Hawke, Anders realized, as Fenris stretched and broke away from the others, moving to stand beside him at the helm. They shared a hushed conversation—from a distance Anders couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he could see Fenris’s head bent low, as though he was speaking to no one other than his own chest. Hawke gestured with his mug of ale, then shook his head, rolled his broad shoulders, and stepped away from his place at the helm.
Fenris took his place instead, armored fingers wrapped tight around the worn wooden knobs of the wheel.
To Anders’s surprise, Hawke didn’t take the opportunity to join his crew. Instead, he headed directly for the stairs—directly to where Anders was standing, something he only realized once it was too late to scramble out of the way.
Anders stood frozen in place as Hawke strode toward him, eyes bright and heavy-lidded. This close, he didn’t seem drunk, but merely tired—and he smelled of seawater more than whiskey. The sharp metal pauldrons of his armor were weathered and salt-streaked, the leather covering his chest battered and worn. Anders wondered whether Hawke wasn’t mirroring his ship in some way, unremarkable clothing obscuring the remarkable man beneath. There was another scent that lingered on his skin, something that reminded Anders faintly of burning things, and the woodsmoke that went hand-in-hand with fire.
Perhaps it was just his imagination.
Or maybe that was the smell of sunlight the books were always on about. If so, they weren’t describing it very well.
‘Passenger,’ Hawke said, acknowledging Anders with a nod of his head.
‘It’s Anders, actually,’ Anders said. He wished momentarily that he had his own tankard to sip from.
Nothing punctuated an awkward silence better than sipping terrible whiskey. It made the pauses seem almost friendly.
‘Anders,’ Hawke repeated. On his tongue, the syllables seemed harsh and foreign; Anders’s mind filled with the tales he’d heard of his homeland, hard rock and infertile land, winds that stripped a man to the bone. He was far too delicate for a life in the Anderfels. If he could thank his rotten luck for anything, it would be that he’d been carted off to Ferelden before he’d had to grow up in his home country. ‘That’s not a name, is it? It’s a nationality.’
‘And Hawke is a bird,’ Anders pointed out, a little too quickly. This always happened; he could never help but flirt with the templars charged with carrying him back to the circle, and there was some perverse part of him that seemed to actually enjoy pushing the boundaries in the face of evident dislike. The more someone found him clearly distasteful, the more tart his flirtations became. ‘Does that mean I should raise objections to your name, as well?’
Hawke’s lips split to reveal sharp white teeth in a flash of a grin. What was it Varric had said about him recovering a sense of humor that night? Perhaps Anders had blundered into his usual, accidentally excellent timing. Or maybe he was just being particularly charming.
No; that was unlikely. It had to be the timing, then.
‘Clever,’ Hawke said. To Anders’s mild distress, he leaned back against the railing instead of moving on. ‘You know, I’d suspected that about you from the start. Too clever to tell me what you want with the Gallows—that’s rare, in a man. You’re sure it isn’t the Book of Justice?’
‘I’m sure,’ Anders said. For once, he didn’t have to worry about his various tells—he was speaking the truth. And even that was somehow harder, for some people—people like Anders—than an outright lie. ‘I’ve got no interest in ancient mythological artifacts. As a mage, I can tell you from personal experience they often do more harm than good. Not worth the trouble, really. Certainly not worth the coin. Not worth the possessions or the hauntings or whatever you want to call it, either. All kinds of payment, way too steep. …Although I’m sure your sister must have cautioned you already about all that.’
‘If Varric was standing here right now, do you know what he’d say?’ Hawke asked. There was a narrow glint in his eye that was breathtaking, but in the same way uncontrollable lightning was breathtaking, a way that made any sensible man feel suddenly nervous.
Anders cleared his throat. ‘Haven’t known him long enough to wager a guess, I’m afraid.’
‘Something to the effect of never mention the captain’s sister again because it’s a topic that proves dangerous to a man’s health,’ Hawke supplied helpfully. ‘He’d make it a bit more fancy, of course, but I’m sure you take the point nonetheless.’
Anders tried to clear his throat again, but it got stuck along the way. Hawke waited, the very picture of patience, arms folded over his chest as Anders darted a cautious glance to Bethany in the distance, giggling helplessly at some joke Varric had just offered her. She didn’t look dangerous, but her brother certainly did.
‘Very sharp, yes.’ Anders straightened, trying to shake off his nerves. ‘Not even to compliment her, ah, intelligence then?’
‘Compliments can be just as fatal as insults,’ Hawke said, flashing his teeth again. ‘To be fair, while you’re at it, it’s best you don’t talk at all.’
‘But you asked me a question,’ Anders pointed out. He couldn’t help himself. It was the same as the flirting—the more he sensed someone wanted him to remain silent, the louder he became, or at least, the more loquacious. Even here, with Hawke’s shadow stretching farther than the mainmast’s, the flash of his eyes like chips of amber in the dark while Fenris watched, gaze hooded, his words were a compulsion. For so long now, they’d been Anders’s only friends, but they were traitorous little buggers, so often running off without consent.
‘So I did,’ Hawke admitted.
Anders, at least, had the truth on his side. It might not stand between him like a shield between a warrior and an enemy’s sword, but Anders always thought of himself less as a soldier of conversation, and more as a rogue. Or perhaps a little skiff facing off against a dreadnought.
‘But you didn’t answer my question,’ Hawke added. ‘You see, there’s something about all this that doesn’t add up.’
He was right about that; Anders didn’t know how to explain it to himself, much less to someone else. ‘Would you believe me if I told you it was a personal matter?’ he asked. ‘Something to do with honor and friendship and duty?’
‘Not even for a second,’ Hawke said, making it all too clear exactly the sort of person Anders was—the person he appeared to be to other people, the person he probably should have been for the sake of his own safety.
‘Sometimes I don’t even believe it myself,’ Anders replied, with a half-hearted laugh. But Hawke had already moved on, stalking off through the shadows from aft to stern, patrolling his ship with the lean grace Anders knew to expect instinctively, having been a student of The Champion’s metaphors, if not its prime reality.
Anders realized only later, while he was trying to sleep—the bob and sway of the boat, the creak of the planks, the slosh of the brine in the pickle barrels, his fear of qunari dreadnoughts, and other various noises, the chittering of store-room rats and laughter, footfalls from far above, preventing him from achieving any sort of satisfactory unconsciousness—that he’d missed his prime opportunity, the chance to ask Hawke why he was doing it. Or really, why he did anything at all. One couldn’t simply be motivated by a lack of a heart—though that was the explanation the books always gave.
As heartless as the sea, the captain of The Champion sailed on.
Yet, Anders reasoned, before coming eye-to-eye with a bilge rat and losing his line of thought completely, heartlessness seemed to be the very antithesis of adventure. Why chase the glory of a thing if there was no pleasure in it?
Steadying his pounding heart and attempting to kick the vicious rat back into the darkness, Anders realized there was a fatal flaw in the legend of Captain Hawke. It was probably just some pretty detail thrown in by an over-zealous writer, something that contributed to the full body of the lore, but at its heart—ha, ha—it didn’t have a leg to stand on.
Anders told Varric as much the next day on deck, trying to shield his eyes—and the rest of his face—from the burning sun. It seemed to him that they were mostly alone, and the weather itself far too beautiful for their first skirmish at sea—in the books, these things always happened during a violent, sleeting storm—but Anders was prepared nonetheless, his eyes narrowed, attempting to watch keenly for any sign of qunari dreadnoughts in the distance.
Varric collapsed his portable telescope, sucking a breath in through his teeth with a whistle.
‘You waited until you boarded The Champion to ask questions about her captain?’ He hung the telescope over a belt-buckle. ‘That doesn’t seem like a very wise strategy, Blondie. Where’s your forethought? Your planning?’
‘I’m a mage, not a strategist,’ Anders pointed out, crossing his arms. ‘We stand in the back and hurl fireballs at our enemies. It doesn’t exactly require a great deal of forward thinking. All I meant was, it seems like a narrative flaw. A man with no heart—well, he can’t be a very compelling leader, now can he?’
And, Anders thought privately, there was so much heart around the lantern earlier. All of them, every last one, cozy as a family. Not exactly the sort of scene one ever saw in Tales of the Champion, but there it was.
Varric strained his neck, as though trying to ascertain for himself whether or not they were truly alone. Isabela was in the crow’s nest as always, but the winds were furious at such a height—there was no chance of being overheard from that angle. Fenris was stationed at the helm, but they were far enough toward the bow that Anders was confident he wouldn’t pick up on anything objectionable.
And Fenris didn’t seem the type to be interested in gossip.
‘Here’s the thing, Blondie,’ Varric said, seemingly satisfied with his own, similar conclusions, ‘a heartless captain’s kind of a hook, sure, but it’s not what you rely on to draw the readers in. Not Hawke’s hollow chest—but what kind of a deal he made to end up that way in the first place. That’s where you get your audience; you gotta reel ’em in from the very beginning. Build up a bit of sympathy for the lead before he goes all cutthroat. It’s the oldest trick in the book, if you’ll pardon the expression.’
Anders was no longer certain whether they were speaking metaphorically or literally. Either way, he supposed he was no better than one of Varric’s imagined readers—he felt like a hapless trout on a fisherman’s lure, sharp metal hook piercing his lip, drawing him in. It was far more entertaining listening to him talk than watching stretch after stretch of empty sea flash by, each beautiful glitter of sunlight across water growing more boring than the last.
‘There wasn’t any mention of any deal in the books I’ve read,’ Anders murmured.
He realized too late that he’d just admitted to reading tales of The Champion to one of its principle cast members. Even if Varric never featured in the stories, he was as close to part of them as a man could get.
‘That’s because this story’s one that never got written down,’ Varric said, tapping the broad bridge of his nose with a leather-clad finger. Unbidden, Anders felt a chill travel down his spine. He told himself it had nothing to do with the sudden shift in Varric’s tone; more likely he’d just gotten an unwelcome breeze up his backside. That was the trouble with wearing robes on a ship. Anders had no idea how Bethany managed it every day without catching cold all the time. ‘Even I’ve never gotten the details straight from beginning to end. But rumor has it Captain Hawke made a deal with one of the old gods.’
‘Asha’bellanar,’ said a lilting voice, from behind a row of barrels. Merrill straightened from where she’d crouched—though how long she’d actually been there, Anders couldn’t say. He could only hope the answer was: not very long.
‘Bloody flames, Daisy,’ Varric said, putting a hand to his luxurious chest hair. ‘One of these days you’re going to give a fiendishly handsome dwarf a heart attack.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Merrill said, pulling a face. With her wide, green eyes, she looked exactly like Ser Pounce-a-lot when Anders had tried to scold him for leaving dead animals in the bed. Anders missed Ser Pounce-a-lot. But his delicate constitution didn’t take well to oceanic journeys, and Anders had left him with a nice woman, lovely family, plenty of sunny spots to nap in. Anders wished he was there with Ser Pounce-a-lot now, lounging happily, occasionally receiving gentle pets. ‘I didn’t mean to startle you—I was just doing inventory for the captain, and then I heard voices… Normally I do it in the storage room, but since they’re your quarters now, Anders, I thought I’d take care of things out here.’
‘Not a problem,’ Anders assured her. ‘Did you…say something, before? Or was that a sneeze?’
Merrill paused, blinking, then understood all at once, lighting up like a storm in the distance, in the very dead of night. ‘Oh! You mean Asha’bellanar?’
Anders paused. He glanced to Varric. Varric shrugged and grinned. ‘You might know her better as Flemeth,’ he explained. ‘Or maybe just…the Witch of the Wilds?’
‘You know,’ Anders murmured, dropping back to lean against a nearby barrel, ‘it’s hardly fair that someone can have no name at all—like me, for instance, having to steal one oh-so-brazenly—while others have at least three. Doesn’t that strike you as an injustice? Or, at the very least, a consistent imbalance. It’s selfish, honestly. People ought to share, or at least consider the impact of their bold-faced greed.’
‘The way I understand it, Flemeth doesn’t share,’ Varric said, with a burden of prophetic meaning that sent shivers up and down Anders’s spine. ‘She’s just not that type.’
‘Oooh.’ Merrill perched on the crate nearest her, tugging one knee to her chest. Anders reminded himself, fervently, of the time she’d battled a kraken single-handed—the catalyst for Hawke recruiting her, in fact, if any of the stories could be believed—so that he wouldn’t be forced to let his guard down, and think of her as anything but a clearly disturbed and potentially deadly Dalish blood mage. Even one of those things would be bad enough on its own, but in combination, on the narrow deck of the ship, Anders knew—with his awful brand of luck—that he’d be the first hit when she finally snapped, like a frayed rope holding together all the rigging. ‘Are you telling stories again, Varric? You know I can’t resist a good story.’
‘Hawke’s gonna be mad,’ Varric warned.
‘And you can’t resist a good story, either,’ Merrill added.
Ah, Anders thought; there it was. A hint of diabolically innocent slyness, something so subtle and so succinct any lesser-prepared man wouldn’t have noticed it. But Anders had been on the lookout for it, and there it was, as frightening as entire league of qunari dreadnoughts. Dalish women and qunari battleships were just about equal—in Anders’s personal estimation—when it came to dealing strikes both ruthless and fatal.
‘You got me there, Daisy,’ Varric said, holding a hand over his heart. A heart he clearly had, just like Merrill, and just like Anders—but not just like Hawke, though Anders was beginning to question the veracity of that particular element of the legend.
But if anyone could clarify the matter, it was Varric.
Despite Anders’s better judgment—if he even had any—he sat as well, and leaned forward, only a bit too eager for his age. From above, Isabela shouted something that was swallowed by the wind; Fenris turned the ship’s wheel, and they shifted course, the sails billowing, the boat lurching.
Anders would have preferred this sort of story be shared with all the atmosphere the ocean at night could bring: the lapping waves hush against the hull of the ship, nothing but the distant whisper of the stars and the knowledge of the sea all around them—and whatever hid in those fathomless depths, the sky as black as the water, without a horizon at which both met. But, considering his options, Anders supposed he’d take a good story at any point, especially when it staved off the clear and present promise of being seasick.
It was coming, just like the qunari dreadnoughts. It was only a matter of time, just like everything else.
‘Well,’ Varric began, rubbing his jaw between cracked forefinger and blunt thumb, ‘I wasn’t there at the time, mind. And it’s not like the captain is much for sharing.’
‘Or talking when we should be hard at work,’ Merrill added.
‘Or talking ever,’ Anders murmured, remembering his conversation from the previous night, brief as it was. If it could even be called a conversation.
‘But Carver was there,’ Varric continued, ‘and if there’s one good thing about Carver—aside from making you feel better about your own place in life, of course—it’s how much he talks when he’s drunk.’
‘It’s true,’ Merrill whispered, for Anders’s sake. ‘You’d think he’s the quiet type, really, but give him just one tankard, and he’s as chatty as—well, as chatty as I am, I suppose.’
‘There’s an old Tevinter saying about truth in wine, you know,’ Anders whispered right back, enjoying the sudden feeling of camaraderie. ‘But my Tevinter’s a bit rusty these days, and I’m rather sure I learned it while drunk, myself—’
‘Ahem.’ Varric leveled them both with an equalizing look. ‘Who’s telling this tale, I wonder? ‘Cause if you want to make things up willy-nilly, I can go where I’m more appreciated.’
‘Like to the bottom of the ocean?’ Carver suggested, merely passing through, a heavy barrel hoisted over one of those infamous Hawke shoulders.
Varric sighed. ‘That’s the thing about Carver,’ he explained, once the Hawke in question had disappeared somewhere below-deck. ‘He makes it so easy to want to betray his confidences.’
‘You were saying?’ Anders prompted, with what he hoped was just the right amount of delight and adoration.
As a combination, it seemed to work. Varric drew in a deep breath, massive chest puffing outward, reminding Anders of a hearty Ferelden pigeon. ‘I make no promises—you might not even believe it. It’s a pretty tough story to swallow, even for a master of disbelief like me. But somewhere in our captain’s illustrious history—when he was young; I swear, sometimes imagining that’s the most implausible part of all—he got into some kinda bind back in Lothering.’
‘Ooh,’ Merrill said, leaning forward as she swung her legs. When she caught Anders looking, she hunched her thin shoulders above her ears. ‘Sorry—but this is always my favorite part.’
‘Always?’ Anders asked.
Merrill nodded against her knees. ‘Oh, but it’s Varric’s favorite part as well, you see.’
‘It had to do with the Blight, I’m told,’ Varric said, as though he hadn’t gone over the details front and back countless times before. ‘Nasty business, that—darkspawn everywhere. Even a sane man might be pushed to do some crazy things. And you can say what you will about Hawke, but I’ve never considered ‘sane’ to be…strictly accurate. He fought off an ogre to protect his family, but even that wasn’t enough. The horde kept on coming. Fortunately—’ Varric paused, just to make sure he had his audience on the edges of their seats—or the edges of their barrels, as it were, ‘—the Witch of the Wilds just so happened to be nearby, taking her morning stroll—or soar, to hear Carver tell it. Back then, the captain wasn’t the captain—just the man of the family, mother dead in the Blight, father dead years before. He had his brother and sister to look out for, and between you and me, Hawke’s always been a little reckless. So what do you suppose he did?’ Varric waited again. Anders got the distinct impression he wasn’t supposed to interrupt. ‘…He cut a deal with the witch then and there, that’s what. Not for his soul, not like some of the legends go—no, Hawke’s way too smart for that. What he gave her wasn’t himself, but a good piece of it, instead.’
‘His heart,’ Merrill murmured. Her eyes were wide and bright as lamps swinging in the summer dusk. Anders felt his chest tighten, his own heart beating louder than ever, as though it was trying to remind him it was still there. He wondered if Hawke had a pulse like that, reckless in the throat and chest, making too much noise when all you wanted was quiet. How could he? But then, how could he not? How did a man know he was alive every morning, know when to be afraid or when to run, for that matter?
Perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps the real trick to The Champion’s luck was having a captain who knew no fear.
‘Yeah, Daisy,’ Varric said. He rubbed the back of his neck, looking not at all put out that she’d stolen the punch-line right from under his stubby legs. ‘She took his heart, and in return she gave him this ship. First mate sticks around ’cause the winds favor him mightily—my guess is it’s not the winds so much as Flemeth herself, looking after her investment, protecting what’s hers. And the ocean always favors us. Not the worst deal you can make, when you look at it that way.’
Anders thought about Hawke, the light in his eyes and the smell of his skin. He had no magic of his own, but there had been something about him… It wasn’t at all like spiritual possession; in fact, it had been more like the absence of something—something important, touched by powerful magic, but made hollow by it, like an empty gourd on Feastday.
‘That’s horrible,’ Anders said, before he could think the better of it. ‘He did that for Bethany and Carver? And they know about it?’
‘Captain’s kind of a difficult man to argue with,’ Varric observed. ‘Don’t know if you’ve noticed.’
‘But that’s just…’ Anders huffed, reduced to quick breaths instead of words. The specter of the Tranquil rose shadowed and strong in his mind; while Hawke hadn’t severed his connection to the Fade, he’d lost a part of himself all the same.
Who was to say the two were any different? Anders would never have chosen to be made Tranquil for the sake of someone else. The very idea made his bones turn to ice, like the floes The Champion dodged along the coast, toward the far north of Thedas, somewhere past Seheron.
‘I know, Blondie,’ Varric said. ‘I know. You’re not the first one to think it, either. You heard of Lieutenant Admiral Vallen?’
‘Of course,’ Anders murmured. Aveline Vallen was a recurring character in the tales, sailing in and out as suited the narrator best. She and her crew hunted The Champion from leather-back to leather-back, always attempting to bring her to justice, and never quite managing the feat. What no story ever managed to make clear was why the lieutenant admiral cared so much about Hawke in the first place.
Varric nodded, just once. ‘She was there, you see. In the Wilds with Hawke when it happened. Some say—well, there’s a theory that she’s trying to help Hawke even now, but opinions differ on that particular point. That’s the problem with a popular story: once it’s out there, everyone gets his own ideas, and there’s no reaching a consensus on anything.’
‘I’ve a consensus for you,’ Fenris announced, without so much as a creak in the boards as he appeared beside them. ‘Quit gabbing of topics that do not concern you and get back to work instead, dwarf.’
‘Oh, pish tosh,’ Varric muttered, but, Anders noted, he started moving double-time nonetheless.
Fenris seemed a convincing sort; Merrill was already in the rigging, and Varric scurrying elsewhere across the deck, swinging his telescope up out of his belt to observe the apparent nothingness that greeted them on the horizon. That left only Anders behind—not that he had a job to return to, but he did have a storeroom, and Fenris’s shadow as it fell across him seemed to imply just that. Anders attempted, for a brief, doomed moment, to hold his ground, then quickly wheeled to face the water again, stomach lurching with a swell of the waves.
‘Are you the sort of man who believes everything he hears, I wonder?’ Fenris asked. Anders closed his eyes, and wished that he would suddenly decide to leave—that he’d find some rat to intimidate instead, or continue his antagonistic repartee with Varric, who was clearly hardy enough to take it.
‘Only the most unbelievable things,’ Anders replied, staring down at the shadows on the sea.
‘Hn,’ Fenris said.
It seemed judgmental, but then the creaking of the boat and the rush of the water swallowed any further sound he made when he finally left Anders to his own devices, imagined dragons swooping overhead, between the clouds, their wings pounding each fresh billow of the sails.
The day passed uneventfully after that. Anders almost wished the dreadnoughts would descend upon them, if only because the waiting was more miserable than the reality. They were bound to come; it was inevitable. Might as well get the carnage over with, since thinking about it only brought Anders closer and closer to diving overboard when no one was looking.
But he didn’t enjoy being wet, and he couldn’t much swim, either; when faced with certain death and uncertain death, a man absolutely had to choose the latter, if only because the odds were slightly better. Never good, in Anders’s experience. One simply took what one could get.
It was just that the suspense was worse than outright murder. It was certainly more blood-curdling.
Anders spent some of the day on deck, until he realized the flash of the sun off the sea was burning the underside of his chin, and the cloudless sky made for little protection, and his brow, nose and cheeks were soon the color of a too-ripe tomato. He spent the rest of the day below-deck after that, nestled amongst sacks of potatoes, attempting to heal the flush and the burn, or at least feel less feverish. It didn’t do much for his mood—not to mention his complexion—and he was reminded again of what he’d known all along: that mages weren’t made for ocean life, or really any other kind of life than tower life, depending on who you asked.
Not that Anders adhered to so strict a vision of the world as the templars. In fact, he found he rarely agreed with them on anything, and honestly so, not just on principle, not just to be argumentative. But he also didn’t like forests, plains, open roads, or the open sea. He didn’t like towers, either. What he did like was taverns, comfortably obscene ones, with drunks and wretches belching out slurred stories all over the taproom. He liked tankards of stinking ale that made him stinking stupid, and he liked flirting with bar-wenches and bartenders equally, in the hopes of procuring himself a free drink. Taking what he could get, and all that. Not necessarily a motto, but absolutely a lifestyle.
Anders sighed, leaning back against a nearby barrel. The boat lurched just as he did so, causing him to slam his head against one of the metal staves, and he once again got the distinct feeling The Champion was doing it all on purpose.
If a ship’s captain didn’t have a heart, it was possible to say the ship itself did Or, at the very least, it had a perverse sense of humor.
Something scrabbled in the distance. Rats, Anders decided; of course it was rats. The sudden movement must have disturbed them from their nest.
He attempted to remain very still while sweeping the area with his eyes. Anders didn’t believe in needless cruelty, in slaughtering small, defenseless animals, but he wasn’t above sending the odd arcane bolt after an outright infestation. The only reason he’d held back until now was fear of damaging the ship; a mage’s fireballs were useful in battle, but it was likely they wouldn’t be appreciated on a vessel made entirely of wood. Even wet wood. Anders’s fire was very powerful.
In the distance, something snorted. The noise itself was larger than a rat.
‘…Hello?’ Anders called, feeling foolish even as he did so.
From the depths of the storeroom came a loud bark; Anders had just enough time to stand up in surprise and catch his head on a low beam before a great galloping mabari practically exploded out of the pickled shadows, ropes of drool hanging from its mouth. It launched itself cheerfully at Anders’s chest, barking and attempting to lick his face. Attempting, because Anders had immediately thrown his full weight into keeping the animal down and off him and away from his mouth.
Anders hadn’t been kissed in a long time—and he didn’t want to start the habit up again with a dog.
‘No!’ Anders said, making an effort to sound firm, instead of on the verge of disgusted panic. ‘No, no, no. I’m sure you’re a very nice dog, but we can’t—I’m really more of a cat person, you see, and—help! Excuse me? Yes, if anyone’s out there, I could use a bit of help! There’s a wild animal in here—and it’s trying to eat me!’
To Anders’s surprise—left sleeve now soaked from doing battle with an affectionate mabari, dog drool streaked along the side of his neck, the mabari’s mouth full of sticky feathers—the bolts in the door slid open, and a shaft of light split the dark of the storeroom. Fenris peered in through the crack; Anders knew it was Fenris only because his tattoos seemed to glow in the faint light. Anders squinted, then squeezed his eyes shut, surrendering to the darkness, to the whims of the beast.
He was seeing things—hallucinating from the horror of it all.
‘You,’ Fenris said, clapping eyes on Anders’s epic struggle at last. The mabari broke away at the sound of Fenris’s voice, rushing toward him like a one-animal battering ram.
‘Look out!’ Anders cautioned, miserably fingering his damp sleeve.
‘Sit,’ Fenris said, crossing his spiky arms. Anders was struck by the sudden urge to find the nearest barrel and park himself behind it. Mercifully, he fought it off, instead staring in shock as the mabari’s nails skidded to a full halt at Fenris’s feet, plopping down on the floor and furiously wagging its stump of a tail.
The beast had actually obeyed a direct order.
Fenris raised his eyes to Anders’s. ‘This is your infestation?’
‘Well, in a manner of speaking, yes,’ Anders managed. ‘Is it…yours, then?’
‘No,’ Fenris said, quickly enough that Anders wondered whether he wasn’t secretly a cat person, too. He certainly shared their prime characteristics, dignified and aloof and sharp-clawed, although it was difficult to picture him deigning to lick himself clean. The very idea made Anders giggle, at which Fenris scowled, and Anders pretended he was suddenly plagued by fear hiccups. ‘The animal belongs to Captain Hawke, but…’ Fenris’s tattoos pulsed once, searing bright-white into Anders’s corneas, then faded completely. Fenris’s gaze was no less keen when his vision cleared. ‘You know of his condition, now. It troubles his pet. The hound barks whenever they are together, and so I find it prudent to keep them apart. Are you hungry?’
Anders blinked, attempting to follow the pace of the conversation. Fenris wasn’t much for talking, but when he did indulge, it happened with merciless speed. Anders supposed he ought to have expected that; it was the same style in which he fought, an unforgiving push to gain the ultimate ground. It was no wonder he was The Champion’s vanguard on land and sea.
‘I don’t have to eat pickles, do I?’ Anders asked.
A half-hour later, and Anders wished it was pickles after all. They, at least, required no extra preparations—unlike potatoes, which required a great deal of peeling. It was difficult to do in the dark, and Anders didn’t think it prudent to request Fenris’s assistance—although just a smidgen of glowing wouldn’t hurt, to light their way more than the flickering lamp set on the barrel between them, as Anders did his best not to cut his thumb off while skinning the potato in his hand.
A few others were streaked with his blood by now, he was sure of it; the pile of skins at his side was far less impressive than the one next to Fenris, who probably didn’t need Anders’s help anyway, considering the quick work he’d already made of things. But his presence calmed the rabid animal at his side, drooling into a puddle by his spiked boot, and Anders knew that any sudden movement would once again attract its attention.
And his sleeve had only just dried.
It did so stiffly, with a lingering smell Anders didn’t appreciate, but since he’d come away from the traumatizing incident with his life and all his limbs and fingers and toes and various other appendages still in their proper places, he didn’t have the heart to complain. Nor the stomach, either, since the waters outside had grown choppy, the lantern sliding back and forth across the barrel as they went.
Peeling potatoes in a cramped pickle storeroom with a famous oceanic hero—Anders had to wonder where his life had gone so very right. He also had to wonder where Fenris’s life had gone so very wrong, and also if he was wondering the same thing: why he was relegated to such menial tasks when they were obviously beneath him.
Anders cleared his throat lightly, just testing the air. Fenris didn’t look up, but the mabari did, and Anders focused on his potato once more, as well as the throbbing in his thumb where he’d very nearly managed to slice it clean through to the bone.
It wasn’t entertaining. Anders prepared himself to risk the attentions of a dog and its drool, a lesser sacrifice for the greater good of amusement. No one could ever say he wasn’t a martyr, at least in his own small way.
‘So…’ Anders began. He’d never been one for silences. Even when he was alone, he didn’t like them, and since he wasn’t good at whistling, and singing was rather out of the question, it had to be talking, didn’t it? Better than other noises of a lewder variety, similar too but deeper than each guttural pant from the dog.
‘So,’ Fenris replied, after a long pause, when Anders was beginning to think he wouldn’t say anything at all.
After that, the dog whuffed, a soft huff of agreement, almost as though he thought he was capable of joining in on a human conversation.
Then again, given the content of said conversation so far, it was somewhere below a mabari’s capabilities. Anders didn’t mind the extra help, mono-syllabic as it was. It still managed to be friendlier than Fenris’s contribution.
‘Does he have a name?’ Anders asked. Better than inquiring about the weather—frankly, Anders didn’t care much about the weather, so long as it wasn’t storming—but not so personal as to seem like prying. He wasn’t exactly a master of small-talk, but he supposed, if he managed not to offend the deadly sailor sitting cross-legged before him, he’d be all right.
As all right as one could be, bleeding to death because of a sack of potatoes.
‘Hawke simply calls him Dog,’ Fenris replied flatly.
In response, the animal whuffed again, as though to say yes, that’s me and also pleased to meet you, though not, at any point, sorry about ruining your coat.
Animals. They were always so unrepentant.
Anders scraped the little blade along the tuber in his hand until it hit a snag, one of the eyes, and he nearly cut off another finger. If he’d known sailing life would be so dangerous—and not because of all the dreadnoughts or lieutenant admirals—he might have rethought his brave plan before signing on.
But there was something to be said for the impetus a man found through boredom, through a lack of any real alternative. Anders couldn’t bring himself to compare this life to the one he’d been living before it, simply because there was no comparison. Really, anything would have been better.
Anything except the tower.
And that was the whole point, after all; there was only so much a man could do to avoid the templars, especially when they had his phylactery. Eventually, he ran out of options—only the templars didn’t spend much time traveling by boat.
‘How imaginative,’ Anders murmured, attempting to avoid eye-contact with the beast. He could feel it watching him still, contemplating his delicious flesh and fluffy feathers.
‘As imaginative as Anders, I suppose,’ Fenris replied.
‘Ouch,’ Anders commented. ‘That was personal, don’t you think? Why does everyone seem to have a problem with the name? My name never did anything to them—it’s absolutely harmless. Far more harmless, I’ll point out, than dragging someone out of one dark room into another to peel potatoes under false pretenses.’
Fenris eyed him, as though trying to decide which bit of inanity to address first. Anders couldn’t blame him for being paralyzed—there was so much to choose from.
‘Food must be prepared before it is consumed,’ Fenris said at last. ‘It seemed to me that you did not have much else to occupy the time, or your hands.’
‘Well, no,’ Anders admitted.
‘As for your name, it makes little difference to me,’ Fenris added, turning a peeled potato over in his talons. ‘Varric chooses to discard them altogether, substituting words of his own fancy. The name I use is not my own.’
‘Your name isn’t Fenris?’ Anders asked, ducking as the potato sailed into a half-filled barrel.
‘No,’ Fenris replied. He returned his attention to his work, starting at the top as the potato-skin peeled off in a long, brown ribbon, an unbroken whorl.
Anders waited, but what had seemed like the promise of an explanation—a comma in Fenris’s speech, instead of a period—had been his full answer. No, his name wasn’t Fenris. No, he didn’t see where that might require further explanation. No, he wasn’t going to elaborate. No, he didn’t care if Anders was strangled by curiosity. And so on, and so forth.
‘I see,’ Anders said, although it was obvious he didn’t. Dog made a wet, wheezing sound, then thankfully settled, resting its head against its paws. Anders pondered the wisdom of continuing with this particular line of questioning, at least where Fenris was concerned. On the one hand, it seemed invasive and potentially volatile. On the other hand, it was the longest conversation Anders had shared with a crew member who wasn’t Varric—and with Varric it didn’t count, because it was always Varric talking. Monologues weren’t conversations, and Anders was far too heartened by his own meager success to stop now, not because of a little thing called common sense. ‘Is it a nickname, then? Meant to, I don’t know, intimidate your enemies? Or was your real name something embarrassing? No, don’t tell me—was it Frederik?’
Fenris’s hand paused. The coil of potato-skin fell to the ground, broken when Fenris’s knife came to a sudden stop. Anders couldn’t read his expression in the dark, but he saw his mouth move, lips pursing in irritation.
‘I do not remember my name.’ Fenris skinned the last shred of peel from the potato and hurled it over his shoulder. Naturally, it landed right where he’d wanted it to. ‘Fenris is what my master called me. As I have no ready replacement, it suits Hawke to call me by the same.’
‘Oh,’ Anders said, damp potato sweating in his open palm. He felt like that potato: bared naked to the world when he ought to have been growing comfortably in the ground.
Perhaps he’d taken the concept of peeling too literally. He was always doing that.
Fenris didn’t seem angry. Or rather, he didn’t seem murderous, which was how Anders understood Fenris displayed anger, according to the stories. He was glad that he hadn’t chosen to improvise—that he hadn’t asked whether Fenris couldn’t remember because Flemeth had taken his brain along with Hawke’s heart. It was the sort of thing clever people got away with in stories, but sometimes Anders was more concerned with being likeable than he was with seeming intelligent.
‘That happens to everyone,’ Anders said instead, struggling once more with the knife. It was too small to kill someone—at least, in Anders’s hands, it was—but too large for the present task. That, along with Anders’s distracted clumsiness, was probably why it kept slipping. ‘Well—no. Not everyone. But more people than you’d think.’
‘Does it,’ Fenris replied.
It wasn’t a question.
Anders wondered why he hadn’t chosen to strike up a rapport with Isabela—who seemed a friendly sort, chatty, easy, fond of humor and dirty jokes and tight bodices, not to mention touching people’s rear ends when they weren’t prepared to touch hers right back. That was more the type of interpersonal relations Anders was good at, and having to focus on the blade in his hands alongside Fenris’s blade-tipped words was a juggling act few ever managed to perfect.
‘No need to feel self-conscious,’ Anders added companionably. ‘So long as people have something to call you—other than you, there, which can get so confusing—a name’s not that important, really. Isn’t that right, ah, Dog?’
But the creature—traitorous beast—was sleeping, and offered Anders no assistance this time, no whuff of agreement or drool of support.
‘There you have it, then,’ Anders murmured, finally tossing his fourth potato into the proper spot. He heard it thud, dully, from within the belly of the barrel. ‘Damning silence. Story of my life, I’d say.’
‘Be careful not to tell that story to Varric,’ Fenris said.
Anders paused. It seemed they were on the verge of a breakthrough, some camaraderie displayed at last. Warning presupposed caring, Anders told himself, and caring meant not waking up one day to find that paring knife embedded in his forehead, right between his eyes. He leaned forward, recognizing how lonely it all seemed, but nonetheless surrendering to his greatest weakness—aside from all his other greatest weaknesses, including hot stew, cold weather, shiny breastplates, fuzzy kittens, woolly scarves, clever templars, handsome bards, and really, the list went on forever. But at the top of that list was one quality that couldn’t be avoided by closing his eyes, or sticking his fingers in his ears, or drinking himself into oblivion, or anything else.
‘Why not?’ Anders asked.
‘Because he will sell it for three sovereigns and a round, and you shall never see a copper of the profit,’ Fenris replied. Done with his work for the evening, he extinguished the light. ‘Come. We move on to the next.’
After spending such an inordinate amount of time peeling the potatoes, Anders had come to think of the poor things as his naked little tuber friends; baking and mashing them came next, however, which just felt cruel now that they’d become acquainted. Anders wasn’t able to muster his usual enthusiasm, though he tried to picture familiar faces behind glinting helms on each, and that helped somewhat.
When the others complained about the meal—‘Some days,’ Varric said, ‘I wonder if I won’t just up and turn into a potato,’ to which Isabela replied, ‘Don’t be silly, Varric; you’re sure to wake up as a pickle first’—Anders couldn’t help but feel personally affronted, stirring his slop around in its bowl before trying, without choking, to swallow it. Fenris never once complained, never chose to inform his companions just how troublesome cooking for them was—just how much blood and sweat, literally, had gone into the meal they weren’t appreciating—while Hawke ate his by the helm, one hand on the ship’s wheel, looking out into apparent darkness.
‘Don’t ask what it is he sees out there,’ Varric said, appearing suddenly at Anders’s shoulder, holding a lantern up beneath his face. It lit him at all the right angles, making him resemble a possessed gargoyle, and Anders yelped loud enough that he heard the dog begin to bark from the holding rooms down below, while Isabela and Merrill and Bethany all laughed. Even Carver seemed on the verge of cracking a smile—or perhaps that was simply indigestion, the generously fibrous texture of that evening’s meal sticking somewhere in his chest, between his throat and stomach.
‘What is it he sees out there?’ Anders asked. The whole transaction was also the story of his life—though the moment Anders thought that, he recoiled, wondering if Varric was about to steal it.
‘Nobody knows, Blondie,’ Varric replied cryptically, swinging his lantern away and heading off to some other part of the deck.
Anders wished that he might gather the strength of character to stand, and take his bowl over to join the others, and close his eyes while Isabela repeated the word pickle to him, over and over, in that lovely voice of hers.
But all the strength of character he’d ever had was already spent, mustered for and squandered on the journey. It didn’t seem to be self-restoring. Like a barrel of fine dwarven ale on Feastday, Anders was all tapped out.
He sighed instead, and poked the stuff in his bowl with his spoon, wondering if they hadn’t somehow stumbled upon the secret recipe for fine dwarven mortar, its key ingredient being mashed potatoes with just a touch of apostate sweat and apostate blood.
Recalling his own magnificent suffering, Anders made a face.
‘Don’t worry, Anders,’ Merrill said, trotting cheerfully by him with an empty plate. ‘You get used to it, after a while. When you’re that hungry, weeks or months out on the water, it doesn’t matter what it is you eat, so long as you’re eating something.’
‘Yes,’ Carver added, crossing behind her. ‘The rats are always delicious, at least toward the end.’
‘He’s just crabby because a tail got stuck in his teeth once,’ Isabela said, slinging an arm around Carver’s shoulders and tousling his hair. Anders watched, and waited, and even in the considerable shadows finally caught sight of it: Isabela’s other hand sliding along the back of Carver’s trousers, making an uncharacteristically dreamy look appear on his otherwise sour features.
Anders didn’t blame him one bit. He even envied him, if only for a brief moment.
‘We don’t always eat rats,’ Bethany confirmed. ‘Sometimes, Varric shoots down gulls. But you do get tired of fish, I’ll give you that.’
‘Make yourself useful,’ Fenris suggested, bringing up the rear, and gesturing Anders’s way with a quick twist of his sharp-tipped fingers.
Anders scrambled to his feet, wiping potato off the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand. He didn’t have enough optimism left—after everything he’d seen, all the places he’d been, and all the places he’d been dragged by templars—to think he was about to be included in the secret society of The Champion’s crew, but anything was better than sitting alone on deck in the dark, asking himself what it was Hawke saw on the blackened horizon. Questions without answers were never good for a man’s digestion.
Perhaps Anders should have been expecting the rest of the group to split off, leaving Fenris to lead him back below deck, back to the galley’s low sink, ducking beneath lanterns that swung faintly with the buck and sway of the ship. There, Anders stood to one side, under the dim spotlight of a flickering oil wick, watching as Fenris stooped to fill the sink with a bucket of seawater.
There was a pile of dirty dishes heaped to one side; gluey, gray potatoes clung mashed to the edges of plates, and spotted forks were jammed in haphazardly, their handles sticking out every which way. Anders stifled a sigh.
Below deck, there was no horizon at all, save for the one that awaited him at the end of his personal course, the one he’d charted for himself when he’d committed to saving Karl Thekla.
Don’t be ridiculous, Anders told himself, somehow managing not to laugh at the folly of that particular bit of advice. Of course he was going to be ridiculous; he couldn’t exist without some modicum of the ridiculous in his very blood. But he would admit that—wherever Karl was in the mysterious Gallows—he probably had it a lot worse than Anders did, washing up after the crew of The Champion, bits of potato still lodged beneath his cracked fingernails.
The distant sound of laughter crept in through the walls. Wherever the others were, they were enjoying themselves. Perhaps they’d found Hawke and set up another impromptu drinking party; they seemed to do that a lot, something Anders had in common with them—something they could have bonded over, except no one else knew it.
Anders wondered why Fenris hadn’t joined them. Drinking was always better than cleaning up—in fact, what wasn’t better than cleaning up? It was possible he didn’t trust Anders with the treasure of their dirty silverware and dented metal plates, but somehow, that didn’t seem likely.
‘You wash,’ Fenris said, tying a stained cloth apron around his midsection. ‘I shall dry.’
‘Are you sure about that?’ Anders asked. He shrugged out of his coat, then—looking around suspiciously for Dog—folded it out of reach on top of a barrel, deep in the swaying shadows of the galley. ‘If my hands are in water for too long, they go all pruny. It’s not at all pleasant. Do elves get pruny? I think you should wash, and I should dry; it’s only fair.’
Fenris fixed him with a black look. It was remarkable how he could share Merrill’s wide green eyes but use them so differently, to inspire such fear. A lot of practice had must have gone into that look. It was said, in some of the more detailed manuscripts, that Fenris could fell an entire fleet with the force of his gaze—or at least thoroughly demoralize them before the battle ever began.
Privately, Anders had his doubts. Besides, the books had never mentioned anything about The Champion’s vanguard doubling as the ship’s cook, a key detail that seemed to destroy his reputation almost completely.
‘Then I shall wash,’ Fenris said, and went about unstrapping his armored gauntlets.
Anders swallowed, made nervous by unexpected success. He couldn’t actually believe it had been that easy. Nothing in life—his life—ever was. Surely it was a trap—but that was more Varric’s style than Fenris’s, going by what he’d read. When you had the big sword and knew how to use it, in Anders’s understanding of the crucial role of the warrior, then you didn’t have to lay traps. You just hit things. Very straightforward.
‘Do you know—no one ever writes about you doing all this menial labor,’ Anders said, inspecting a ragged dry-cloth, pinching it between thumb and forefinger as he held it up to the light. It was dirty. Anders dropped it. ‘Is that new? Did The Champion lose its cabin boy at the last port, and you’re just filling in for the time being?’
As he spoke, he rolled up his sleeves, heading toward the sink. If he moved quickly enough, maybe he’d be able to get there before Fenris had the idea to crack him over the head with a plate.
But Fenris seemed neither to notice nor to care about Anders’s antics, even in close quarters. Instead, he appropriated Anders’s abandoned cloth, patterned red and white with a hole at the center, and turned it over in his fingers distastefully.
‘Soon, we will be approaching qunari territory,’ he said, plunging his hands in water up to the wrist. Anders stood by, waiting to receive his first dish. ‘I do not anticipate danger, but only a fool would imagine himself immune to a qunari dreadnought. Your friend—I hope he is worth it.’
‘Is Hawke?’ Anders wondered aloud. His eyes widened, and he hurried to pluck a wet plate from Fenris’s outstretched fingers. ‘Not that—I didn’t mean it like—yes, well, shut up Anders, there’s a good man.’
‘Hm,’ Fenris replied. It seemed to Anders that he was agreeing with the previous statement.
People usually did. It was the one thing that brought everyone together.
Anders allowed the silence to continue, punctuated only by the faint, salty slosh of water and the stink of very strong lye wafting over from the sink—which was more like a large bucket than anything else, with a few smaller buckets nearby, some full, some empty—listening to the scrape of the rough cloth in his hands against the dinged metal of the first plate. He picked at the edge, looking for any remains of that evening’s meal, but—true to form—Fenris hadn’t missed a spot. He was just as ruthless, just as meticulous, with enemies on a battlefield; Anders contemplated whether or not it was possible to consider potatoes in the same vein as lance-bearing qunari, then giggled, then wished he hadn’t.
Fenris didn’t look up. He did, however, shove over a second plate, which Anders took.
‘Qunari dreadnoughts, you say,’ Anders said, in the midst of a portentous bob of the hull. ‘You’ve fought those before, haven’t you? Of course you have—I’ve read all about it. If it wasn’t for the adventures of The Champion I probably wouldn’t know what a qunari dreadnought was. And if only I didn’t,’ he added, sighing wistfully. ‘Sometimes I think it’s better to know nothing at all.’
‘And the less a man knows, the more he speaks, is that it?’ Fenris asked, with just a tinge of humor.
It was possible all the lye was addling his brain.
‘You aren’t nearly as funny in the books, you know,’ Anders murmured. He checked Fenris’s fingers surreptitiously for signs of pruning—if an elf could prune was suddenly a point of real fascination for him—but it was impossible to tell in the dim galley light, each swing of the lamp illuminating new secrets just as quickly as it plunged the old ones into darkness. Anders’s eyes weren’t that keen; although he was accustomed to seeing things in the pitch black, it was always seeing things that weren’t actually there. His imagination, in other words, worked far better than his skills of perception. That was always the problem.
‘Am I now?’ Fenris plunged his hands back into the muddied waters.
‘You don’t know?’ Anders ducked a swinging lamp to step closer, stacking the plates in what he hoped was a structurally sound fashion. ‘Ohhh. You mean—you haven’t even read them?’ Fenris’s silence seemed to confirm that assessment. ‘Really?’
‘Yes. Really,’ Fenris replied. The amusement was gone, replaced by something a touch more impatient. Anders always managed to turn good will into outright annoyance sooner or later; he found it prudent to get it out of the way, before indulging anyone’s gross misimpressions.
‘Aren’t you the least bit curious?’ Anders asked.
‘Curious? To read about my own actions as interpreted by a foolsome dwarf?’ Fenris snorted, a sound that was, in Anders’s opinion, as delightful as it was un-elf-like. ‘Perhaps you think it strange, but it is better not to indulge in the impulse. It is…difficult enough living with Varric as it is.’
Anders blinked. ‘I don’t think I understood any of that,’ he admitted.
Fenris made that noise again, charming, precious, thoroughly out of character—and Anders recognized it from the books now, something that hadn’t been described properly, written as a tsk when it was something closer to a tch. But with a few more t’s. ‘When one reads the books,’ Fenris explained, expression completely impenetrable, a master of shadows just as he was a master of peeling potatoes and washing dishes and battling qunari leaders in single combat, ‘one is forced to supply commentary. How was the plot, and did it entertain, and other details to satisfy so considerable, so hungry an ego. Besides which,’ he continued, and there, Anders noticed, his shoulders tensed, the first hint of a real expression at last, vulnerability rather than outright annoyance, ‘I do not read them because I cannot. Is that answer enough for you, mage?’
‘Anders,’ Anders supplied, then paused. He didn’t know where to begin. That was the trouble with his entire life thus far—beginnings were so tricky, not to mention so daunting, and they presupposed middles and ends, both of which could be incredibly long and emotionally draining. If one never began—if one never made that choice—then life never happened, not exactly, but it was also ever-so-much easier.
‘…Anders,’ Fenris acquiesced, voice deep but quiet.
Anders felt a little tingle. He ignored it for more pressing issues. ‘You’ve had at least…’ He counted on his soap-stained fingers, ‘…thirty books written about you and you can’t read?’ Then, because if he didn’t make a choice—if he just went with everything, which was the opposite of choosing—he’d feel much better about himself, he added, ‘…Varric writes those books?’ A feeling of dread, different from the sort he felt when imagining qunari dreadnoughts questing a nearby wave-cap, settled over him. ‘Oh no.’
‘Oh yes,’ Fenris replied.
Anders had all too clear an idea of what Varric might say about him in one of those stories, especially after Anders’s unwitting comments on his prose. He felt gripped by the sudden knowledge that inevitably, The Champion’s next installment of adventures would feature an apostate passenger who stank of pickles and didn’t get along with anyone. He’d be relegated to comic relief, someone for the mabari to chew on between scenes, when the readers needed a bit of levity after the last great battle. And not just because he’d insulted Varric’s work, to his face, without realizing it.
He took his dishes from Fenris in silence after that, something the elf seemed to appreciate more than the incessant blather. Anders observed the set of his shoulders relaxing out of the corner of his eye, watched the taut lines in his face begin to soften. If it bothered him that he was all but alone in the kitchen while the rest of the crew busied themselves elsewhere, without his company, it didn’t show.
‘Why do you do all this?’ Anders asked at last, but it didn’t come out the way he’d wanted. ‘What I mean is, it seems more like something Carver would be useful for. Being the youngest, and all—I’m told that’s how these positions are dictated. Youngest, least popular, rudest to strangers, and so on.’
Fenris exhaled. It couldn’t be called a sigh, because it was all huff and no real feeling behind it. He licked the corner of his mouth, pink tongue darting out to swipe over a crack in his lips. Anders realized that he might have been watching Fenris too closely, then shook the feeling off.
It wasn’t as though he was staring outright; one had to be looking at a person head-on to do that, and Anders was only using his peripheral vision. Very different.
For a moment, it seemed that Fenris was about to answer. Anders felt as though he was on the precipice of something—something bigger than himself, bonding with another person, asking questions about his life and motivation and being offered insight in return. In fact, it felt much like what he’d imagined arriving at the Gallows would inspire in him: awe and mysticism, change or even purpose, with a little bit of fear-sweat for good measure.
‘Remember what I told you about the qunari,’ Fenris said then, turning his attention to the dishes once more. Anders felt the quality of the air change around them, the whisper of promise returning to nothing more than lye and warm salt. ‘When we engage them—and we will—you should remain below deck.’
‘I’m a mage,’ Anders said, not entirely sure what he was arguing for. Despite his relative enjoyment of the stories, he had no desire to live them, nor to personally come to blows with a qunari warrior. Especially if they were anything like Varric had described—the cousins of ogres, ashen-skinned giants with horns that could gore a man in seconds. Anders could read about goring all he liked—and he did like to; who didn’t?—but that was more the sort of thing he preferred happen to other people. ‘More importantly, I’m a healer. Surely there’s something I can—’
‘You can remain below deck,’ Fenris said, flinted steel coloring his words. He still wouldn’t look at Anders at all, which made it difficult to interpret his motivations. Yet another member of the crew who didn’t want Anders underfoot, no doubt. ‘You are our passenger, and you are obviously not trained to fight. There is no reason for you to endanger yourself needlessly.’
‘I could be a fearsome battle-mage,’ Anders muttered, smoothing his thumb over the dried rim of a plate. ‘You don’t know.’
Fenris did turn then, taking Anders in with a long, green look. Under his gaze, Anders became aware of every part of him that gave away that particular lie: strong arms, yes, but slightly thick around the middle, unshaven and dressed in an old coat and trousers. He didn’t even carry his staff with him everywhere, a habit born out of necessity. Keep the staff hidden; keep himself hidden. Although there were no templars on board The Champion, and everyone aboard knew who—or rather what—he was, old instincts didn’t just die hard. Rather, they never died.
‘Do I need to say it again?’ Fenris asked.
‘Stay below deck,’ Anders muttered. Unlike Carver—who chafed at every one of Hawke’s commands, although even the most obtuse of readers could see they were for his own safety—Anders could accept an order. He had no warrior’s pride, only a mage’s sense of self-preservation.
It was a novel concept to have someone else looking out for him for a change. He’d always imagined that was lost with Karl in the Gallows.
‘Yes,’ Fenris confirmed, where someone else might have said: good. Only it wasn’t good—life itself was far from good, for both of them: a violent elf who couldn’t read a book and an unshaven apostate who couldn’t read a room. And both of them were relegated to washing dishes, picking sticky bits of an unsatisfying dinner out of dented cutlery, neither of them precisely complaining, but surely neither of them appreciated it.
No; it wasn’t good. Which was why, Anders realized, Fenris hadn’t said that. He’d said yes, instead.
Still, it could have been worse—and would be soon, if qunari territory had anything to say about it. Or qunari dreadnoughts. Anders’s new least favorite but also most-employed phrase.
‘But when you need a healer,’ Anders added, just a bit stubborn about the whole thing, ‘don’t come crying to me.’
‘I was not considering it,’ Fenris replied, and that was that.
Anders slept a little less deeply that night with Fenris’s sonorous words of warning echoing in his ears—not to mention the dog was there now, very friendly, a bit of a hog when it came to the single burlap sheet Anders had appropriated for himself, and the pillow made of more potatoes. Everything was potatoes now—even Varric was soon to be a potato, if his lament could be believed—and Anders contemplated, or rather tried unsuccessfully to maneuver, using the mabari as a pillow. It didn’t work out; the beast was softer and less lumpy than potatoes, yes, but its stomach gurgled and heaved, and it kept moving around to lick Anders’s head in what might have been affection, but—given the stomach gurgling—might just as easily have been hunger. Anders had no idea how a mabari prepared its food. Perhaps copious head-licking was merely the first step in a one-course apostate feast.
And then, there was the ceaseless whimpering.
It began at some point, very late, when Anders had only just managed to drift off with his coat rolled up beneath his head—the feathers tickled his nose and jaw, yes, but it was far softer than any other option, and life aboard The Champion was all about choosing the least unpleasant sacrifice.
The sound, pathetic, sad, lonely, desperate, filtered into Anders’s dreams—which were more of the same, really; the whimpering fit right in as far as background noise—and after attempting to ignore it, he cracked open one eye, peering after the animal in the dark.
‘Stop that,’ Anders said. ‘I’m unhappy, too, but you don’t see me crying about it. It just isn’t polite in strange company. It’s embarrassing, that’s what it is. Aren’t you embarrassed?’
The mabari stopped, turning toward him, eyes and teeth glinting in the lone, pale shaft of moonlight from the very narrow window overhead. It cocked its head to the side, and lifted an ear, and made the face of such an unrepentantly manipulative puppy that Anders couldn’t help but be ashamed of his lack of understanding, actually tripping the line into feeling sorry for the blighted creature.
The guilt didn’t last; when it had spent itself, Anders naturally became more annoyed than ever.
‘…Besides which, it’s creepy,’ he added. ‘And I don’t have to explain my actions to a dog, I’ll have you know. I was only trying to sleep. This might be my last night alive before I’m claimed by the sea, and I can’t even swim, so if anyone has anything to whimper about, it’s me, actually.’
The dog whuffed and whined, then panted. It shoved its head closer to Anders’s face, and began to lick him again.
Anders asked himself if this was an attempt at solidarity—both of them lonely, lacking the one connection that might anchor them to a single port—then told himself he was a complete idiot for attempting to rationalize his personal experience with a dog’s. Even if that dog was a mabari, and mabari were so clever—they would also eat burnt bacon and human refuse and blood, so they couldn’t be that smart.
Anders grimaced. The dog swiped his face with a rough, drool-slick tongue.
‘Stop that, too,’ Anders commanded. ‘Your behavior displeases me.’
The dog did stop, mercifully, but it didn’t move away, smelling of dirty, wet fur and the inside of its own stinking mouth, muzzle pressed right against Anders’s shoulder. But at least it didn’t whimper for the rest of the night, only the occasional, sad little whine at various intervals, turning its face to the window, searching for something that wasn’t even there.
In the morning the dog was gone. Anders rolled over, tangled in the burlap sheet, covered in fur. There was something dried and sticky—no, not sticky, but flaky on the side of his face, and when he scraped it off it released so many smells from the night before. Anders reminded himself that he hated dogs, that no amount of puppyish disapproval would ever convince him to be so soft again, and that he had to be strong in the face of such a demoralizing onslaught, or else he’d wake up every day covered in dried dog drool. Not an option. Not something Anders could live with.
Then, the shipped lurched dramatically, and Anders rolled toward the far wall, narrowly avoiding being crushed by a barrel—not because of his lightning-quick reflexes, of which he had approximately less than none, but rather because of a second sharp lurch, flinging both him and the barrel in the opposite direction.
Anders landed against the barrel, completely winded, stomach heaving and head pounding and heart skittering in his chest. In the distance—but not far enough way to feel comfortable about said distance—he heard shouting.
Qunari dreadnoughts. Anders shuddered, frozen in place, amidst the staves of a half-broken barrel, covered in pickle-juice.
Everything he’d thought about wanting to get the inevitable over with, he took back, in one single catch of his breath. Not surprisingly, the Maker wasn’t listening to him today, and the shouting only grew louder, instead of magically disappearing in a puff of benevolent Maker-smoke.
Why wasn’t there ever a puff of benevolent Maker-smoke? Just once would be enough—Anders promised himself he wouldn’t get greedy, then reminded himself there was no time to worry about so much foolishness.
Footsteps pounded above his head. There was no running on the ship except in case of emergencies, a state Anders was now forced to consider they must have entered. He couldn’t hear as much as he would have liked—Isabela calling orders with the force of a summer storm, words indistinct but meaning clear as day, followed by Merrill’s telltale lilt and Varric’s familiar low tones; and Hawke’s voice roared above them all, in what had to be one of his infamous speeches meant to rally his equally infamous crew.
Anders wondered how much of those speeches Varric wrote verbatim, and how much involved personal improvisation. For a man with no heart, Hawke certainly had a gift for inspiring it in others.
Maybe that was all part and parcel of his charm.
In the wake of Hawke’s speech, there was a loud thump; then, silence fell overhead. Anders realized he was holding his breath and exhaled dramatically, clutching tight to the barrel next to him.
But he’d breathed too soon. Someone let out a blood-curdling shout—Anders had time to register it was Fenris, getting the first word in, or rather, striking the first blow—answered by a deafening boom in the distance.
Gaatlok, Anders told himself, as fresh fear gripped his heart. His heart, which he had; his heart, which he didn’t want to end up skewered on a qunari lance. A splinter drove itself into his palm as he clenched his hands instinctively around the barrel. Qunari technology—especially where explosives were concerned—was what had allowed them to conquer so many nations in Thedas, before someone had thought of sending mages up against them. A boom for a boom, as it were. And as it turned out, mages proved just as useful as exploding powder in warfare; somehow, with a combination of inexplicable courage and blatant self-sacrifice, they’d been able to beat the invading forces back.
The qunari hadn’t been too happy about that. No one liked to be defeated so soundly, in front of so many other nations cheering on said defeat. Qunari battalions patrolled the waterways and borders of every site of great mystical power these days, an attempt—and generally a successful one—to cut mages off from what mattered to them most. Most called it petty revenge, but Anders supposed there might have been some strategic reasoning behind it, too.
All that mattered to Anders now was that, thanks to his brilliant plan, The Champion was sailing straight for the heart of the Gallows. And between the ship and its destination stood the qunari, and their gatlock, and their dreadnoughts, and their lances. So many dreadfully unpleasant things.
Anders braced himself, waiting for the inevitable impact when the qunari’s stone projectiles breached the ship’s hull. It never came. Two more explosions set off, and Anders lurched as the ship rocked wildly beneath him. There was no way they could be dodging the blasts—not at this close range. He didn’t understand it.
While he was in the midst of attempting to sort that puzzle out, a rumble like thunder cracked the air in two just above Anders’s head. He ducked immediately, covering his ears with both hands. The ship pitched forward and back; in the distance, Anders heard a terrific crunch, the sound of something hard and heavy making an impact on wood.
They’d returned fire. The Champion had returned fire. Was such a thing even possible? Anders wracked his brain, trying to remember what the battles were like in the stories, all the technical business Anders skipped straight through in order to learn more quickly who had won, and who had died, and what the treasure was. The naval battles might have been absorbing to some, but Anders had always been far more interested in the people fighting said naval battles than the actual mechanics of war. Isabela’s daggers glittering as she swathed herself in shadow, or the twirl of Bethany’s staff as she dispatched Lieutenant Admiral Vallen’s men with a few well-timed blasts of ice—each member of the crew had his or her own style; such details were infinitely more interesting to the story than whether or not Hawke had discovered a means of replicating gaatlok for himself.
What mattered was that The Champion always won. Anders tried to comfort himself with that, to rise above pesky doubts—that perhaps Varric’s tales were more propaganda at this point than strict, unadulterated truths.
Slowly, tenderly, Anders removed one of his fingers from his ears. There was too much chaos, too much shouting; not even an expert would have been able to determine the exact goings-on from this distance. But there was some detail he’d missed, something more immediate: Dog, in the far corner by the door, snarling at the wood, pawing at it with a scrabble and click and scrape of his claws.
Another explosion shook the planks beneath Anders’s boots.
‘Oh no no no,’ Anders said, fixing the dog with his best glare. In order to make it really effective, he had to pretend he was Fenris—think like a murderous elf, become one with his inner lyrium. ‘We are not going for walkies right now. Don’t you hear what’s going on up there? I thought mabari were meant to be intelligent!’
Dog’s ears flattened, and he let out a single, unimpressed bark. Anders wedged himself more firmly behind the pickle barrel.
‘You can help by being quiet and minding your own business,’ Anders reasoned. Which meant he was reasoning with a dog; that was what he’d been reduced to. None of Varric’s stories ever included such pointless desperation. ‘See? I’m helping already. Why can’t you be more helpful, Dog?’
In response, Dog showed Anders his rear-end, scratching at the door instead of attempting further communication. It occurred to Anders then that he was displaying considerably less bravery than a dog, but then, the dog wasn’t as smart as he was. It couldn’t rationalize or debate; it didn’t know all the things that could go horribly, pointlessly wrong when a mage went charging into battle just to prove a point.
The ship jerked again, and Anders heard a series of sharp, metallic thunks on the deck overhead. Grappling hooks, by the sound of things. The qunari were trying to board.
‘I’m good,’ Anders told Dog, amidst all the scrabbling, the mild form of chaos below deck and the accelerated form up above. ‘I follow orders. I do as I’m told. When the mean elf with the big sword says sit, that’s what I do. When the qunari board, I don’t offer myself as the first line of defense. And I certainly don’t think it’s—you aren’t listening to a word I’m saying, are you?’
Dog barked again.
‘No!’ Anders said. ‘Don’t bark! Don’t draw attention to our location! With any luck they won’t even bother searching the ship—that’s qunari for you; they don’t care about prisoners or about looting, I’m pretty sure none of that is in the Qun—and besides, with just the two of us, we can turn this death-vessel back around and head straight for the nearest free port when it’s all over—’
Anders knew he was rambling. It was part of an acute nervous reaction that occurred whenever his life was so obviously threatened. Some men fell silent when faced with danger; some stood with reverent calm against their gruesome fates. But Anders supposed it was logical to spend his last moments just as he’d spent the rest of his life: talking.
At least he’d always know he went out doing what he loved best. Aside from kissing, but then, it was all part of the same thing: what a man did with his lips and with his tongue, Anders’s two favorite parts of his own anatomy.
Dog threw himself at the door—which was louder and more obvious than barking—and Anders jumped after him, grabbing onto his rope-collar, trying to drag him back into the storeroom, into safety, into pickle-juice. It was for the best. It was for both of them, the sole survivors of the soon-to-be legendary defeat of The Champion. Anders was going to have to write about it, if only because Varric was going to be too dead to do the honors.
But Anders had gravely underestimated the strength of a mabari warhound, one who was in prime physical condition, not to mention driven wild by the sounds of a nearby battle—a battle it wasn’t yet a part of, but so badly wished to join. It wasn’t so difficult to imagine the beast was stir-crazy after spending so much time below-deck, and the idea that its master—heartless or no—might be in danger without being able to protect him, or at least fight by his side…
‘I’m thinking like a dog,’ Anders bemoaned, to no one in particular, just as said dog crashed through the door, dragging Anders along for the ride.
Smoke poured down the steps, early morning sunlight obscured by the wreaths of green-black smog. The sound of shouting was louder now, but no more clear, and Dog shook Anders off only after he’d dragged him just slightly more than halfway up the stairs.
Anders heard projectiles swish and ping overhead, the crash of heavy footfalls on deck, the sound of steel on steel, each clang making him cringe and shrink. The whole imagined scene, so close and yet so hidden, was thrilling, enough to make Anders feel like vomiting, but he hauled himself up the last few stairs anyway, immediately scrambling out of the way as Carver went sailing past.
‘Prime strategy, Junior,’ Varric’s voice said, from somewhere amidst the smoke. The stench was so thick Anders could barely breathe; he tried to cover his mouth with his hand but it seeped in through the skin, and only the occasional fresh swoop of wind managed to clear the smoke before a new explosion darkened the air again. ‘If only I could fly like you can!’
‘Save your breath for the qunari, dwarf,’ Carver replied, heaving himself to his feet with a grunt.
His eyes met Anders’s. He paused. He was confused, perhaps not more than Anders himself, about why their apostate tagalong was suddenly up on deck, instead of cowering behind a barrel somewhere, which was his rightful place in the world.
It was a nice moment, very meaningful, bringing them both together before a lance sheered straight past Carver’s shoulder, nicking through his patchwork armor. He made a noise of shock, and Anders, dementedly, caught up in the heat of the moment, said: ‘I see I’ve arrived just in time!’
Then, because his desire to be a part of something outweighed his desire to dive for cover—just another sign that he probably shouldn’t have made it out of the tower, out of Ferelden, out into the real world, where danger like this lurked around every corner—he healed him.
‘There you are,’ Anders said, while another deafening boom rocked the very boat beneath their feet. ‘Good as new!’
‘Stuff it and don’t get in my way,’ Carver replied, shoving past him, diving once more into the fray.
‘You’re very welcome,’ Anders said.
The fray itself was unsubtly close to what Anders had envisioned: qunari had already boarded the ship; everyone was fighting everyone; Varric’s crossbolts shimmered through the smoke; Isabela was glorious; Bethany was brilliant; Fenris was the only person Anders could really see, awash with tantalizing lyrium light; and the sound of Hawke’s laughter filtered down from below, while Anders felt the crackle of natural magic pulse through the air, bringing with it the scent of some foreign, woodsy place, so it had to be Merrill who was casting.
There in the distance, its dark, forbidding shape filtering through the haze from the gaatlok, Anders saw the dreadnought. It was easily twice the size of The Champion, maybe even three times, built by someone who had an entirely different idea of what ships were meant to look like, or what their purposes should be. Its hull was longer and flatter—built not for speed, but to take and give heavy fire. Anders could just make out the cannons lining her side, the glint of sparking muzzle-shot before they loosed another volley.
‘Get down!’ Merrill cried; Anders caught sight of her nimble frame as she sprang to the forefront. The waters pitched and frothed around both ships, arcane waves lapping at the dreadnought’s frame. A wall of water rose to shield The Champion from the rounds of cannon-fire; Anders felt the air shudder with the impact. Merrill hissed, and he looked up just in time to see a bright spray of crimson blood flow from her palm. Beneath the qunari ship, the sea began to boil.
‘Ataash, qunari!’ One of the qunari warriors—Anders could never keep them straight; they all had titles instead of names, and if that wasn’t the sign of a nonsensical culture, Anders wasn’t sure what was—rallied the others, flexing his ashen gray arms. ‘The bas saarebas will be our downfall, if we are not rid of her!’
‘Right,’ Anders muttered, trying to work out the relative wisdom of shooting a fireball on a ship made of wood. ‘Always go straight for the mage. As if we don’t already have it hard enough already.’
Before he could make the difficult decision to sacrifice his own position for the greater good, Anders saw Fenris streaking toward them, brighter than a Fade-spirit. He seemed to pass straight through a stockpile of scattered crates, wasting no time in slicing his sword up hard into a thick qunari shoulder. The warrior roared; his companion loosed a long, cruel javelin.
‘Look out!’ Anders called, his own safety momentarily forgotten.
That didn’t usually happen.
Fenris’s head whipped around, skin flashing in sudden understanding. He lunged in the opposite direction, doing exactly the opposite of what Anders had intended by knocking Merrill aside. The lance flew over her head; the light in Fenris’s skin flickered, and the weapon pierced his side with a wet, uncomfortable finality.
Anders couldn’t possibly have heard the sound it made against half-phased flesh over the roar of battle. Once again, his imagination was doing him no favors.
The air around Merrill shimmered, then rippled bright. Those qunari warriors still standing were blown backward, caught by a strong, unnatural wind. Some made it to their ship—others went flying into the ocean. Most of the smoke cleared as Merrill thrust both hands up, and Anders heard the sloshing rush of water dripping back from the dreadnought’s hull.
The wood creaked ominously. She was going to tear the bloody thing apart.
Satisfied that at least that much was in hand, Anders darted from one hiding place to the next, making for Fenris. He ducked around Bethany, back-to-back with Carver as they watched the dreadnought rise out of the ocean, and slipped past Varric, patting his crossbow with considerable fondness. Fenris was on the deck, back flat, knees bent, with the glow fading from his skin, sputtering on and off with each flickering pulse along his tattoos. His talons were clutched tightly around the javelin; when he saw Anders, his eyes narrowed to feline slits.
‘I thought I told you…’ Fenris began, then trailed off with a grimace. Finishing a sentence was a matter of personal pride. In Anders’s experience, it all made sense; anyone who wielded a two-handed sword was always on the verge of compensating for something. ‘…to remain below deck.’
Anders leaned in without a second thought, taking Fenris by the arm and dragging it around his own feathered shoulders. ‘I won’t argue with you there. You definitely did. But I remember the stories—I’ve read about you lot, remember? If anyone needs a healer on deck, it’s the crew of The Champion.’
‘A minor miscalculation,’ Fenris muttered. He winced as they straightened, then clenched his jaw tight to ward off any further outbursts.
‘Stubborn,’ Anders told him.
Fenris tched, that familiar sound, the one with all the t’s that Varric never got right. ‘Yes.’
He didn’t seem to think it was an insult, so much as a point of fact.
‘As long as you know it,’ Anders said, dragging them both to a point of relative safety, behind another blockade of crates. With the rocking of the boat, each surge and slosh of the sea, it was a juggling act to remain witty and charming, but distractions proved invaluable when it came to dealing with the gravely injured. Nautical tactics weren’t the only type to be employed on this boat, Anders suspected; interpersonal skirmishes were a part of everyday life, and rogues weren’t the only ones who had to regularly employ subterfuge. When someone didn’t want to be healed—when they felt they were, say, above healing; when they were stubborn, just like Fenris was stubborn—a little sleight of hand, emotionally or verbally, often did the trick.
Fenris slumped with his back against the splintered wood. Anders reached for the nasty and sizable projectile still buried in his flank, but Fenris jerked away without warning; it took Anders a moment to realize it wasn’t anything personal, but yet more general stubbornness. Fenris gripped the edge of a crate, hoisting himself up onto one knee, staring out into the carnage. Anders made to pull him back down, then remembered the incident with the mabari—how all this had started in the first place—and dropped his hands, following Fenris’s gaze, out over the roiling ocean.
‘Hawke,’ Fenris said.
As though that explained everything.
Anders wiped the sweat from his eyes, still smarting from so much stinking smoke. He squinted, trying to focus on the details of the battle: in its last throes, already won, despite the not-unmentionable damage done to the winning side. Their side—or, at least, the side Anders was physically, actually on, which had to mean something. Even if that something was not being on a sinking ship.
Hawke, Anders thought. What did Fenris mean by it? And where was Hawke, at that?
A sharp wave crested the hull of the dreadnought; Anders thought it looked more like a tentacle, an arm of sea-water wrapping the ship in its crushing embrace. It split the vessel in half, clean across the middle; flames sparked, gaatlok igniting, before the whole thing was swallowed, mid-burst, into the dark ocean below. Anders felt it rumble beneath, sucked down to the depths, flotsam scattered amidst the bodies of the dreadnought’s crew—all that remained bobbing along the uneven surface.
And there, in the midst of the whirlwind, Anders saw—or thought he saw—Hawke rise upon a second wave, more like the wing of some hidden beast, hurtling him straight toward their deck.
Fenris let out a breath. With it came a sound of pain stronger than any man’s stubbornness, and Anders—because he was a healer, so help him—felt that instinct, the needs of his magic, pull him away from the other magic, the older magic, to which he might have just born witness. He didn’t know. Maybe he never would. Maybe he’d read it someday in a dusty book forgotten in some distant tavern, and smile to himself, and think: so that’s what it was.
But none of that mattered now, a second rasp of the air rattling in Fenris’s chest pulling Anders back to the present, even as Hawke’s boots thudded on deck, and the rest of the crew—with the exception of Carver—let out a cheer. It wasn’t like Anders to ignore the natural progression of a story, to look away from the center of action, but Fenris’s claw-tipped finger-guards were grasping at nothing but smoke; they closed around the javelin a moment later, attempting to pull it out.
‘No!’ Anders shouted, making Fenris start and hiss, like a cat with a stepped-on tail. Not his finest work—normally he was gentler, more patient with the injured—but Fenris was being particularly obtuse, as though he wanted to do himself yet more physical harm.
Warriors, Anders thought with a shake of his head. Definitely not for the first time, probably not for the last.
‘Hold still,’ he said, hand resting in the air above the wound, blood staining the leather armor darker than its dye. His fingers twitched with the urge to heal, to make all pain better, to fix those little injuries he actually could. His one really noble instinct, the only one he had—and probably not his, either, but rather a side effect of magic. That could be just as stubborn as a fool-hardy warrior, when it wanted to be. The only difference was that magic was often less appealingly muscular. ‘Try to think of something nice—if you can think of something nice, that is—because this will only take a—’
Arcane warmth flared along Anders’s palm, straight through from his wrist where the pulse thudded, and out through his fingertips. He embraced it, its colors and its whims, the pleasant heat, the promise of doing some good, but just as soon as it began, as it built toward something beneficial and honest and right, Fenris snarled and scrambled, the lyrium in his veins throbbing hard enough to send Anders reeling backward onto his ass, clutching his head.
It was as though the very air had burned him, its tension blasting him away. When Anders’s vision cleared, he saw Fenris curled against the crate, eyes flashing, vallaslin flashing even brighter.
He didn’t really have to say don’t you dare heal me to get the point across.
Anders’s ears were ringing from all the explosions and the shouting and, now, the impact of the lyrium. Never had he met someone as obstinate as Fenris about this one point of contention; only a fool would refuse to take succor in pain removed, in a wounded body healed. It wasn’t a pretty wound, and it was bleeding tremendously, and Anders felt personally offended, because he knew what some didn’t: that he was an excellent healer, a prodigal one, and he had his uses, only no one wanted to accept or appreciate them. And why was that? Because he wasn’t a member of the crew? Because he wasn’t one of them, and never would be?
Fenris stared at him over the shallow rise and fall of his chest. He seemed to know he was being ridiculous—or at least there was something in his pale gaze that suggested uncertainty. Anders didn’t know how to convince him that it was all right, that he wasn’t about to do something untoward. Hadn’t he ever been healed properly before?
A reluctance to be healed usually went hand in hand with an aversion to pain, but Anders knew that wasn’t the problem. Obviously. Fenris had already proven he indulged little care for his own comfort as well as an incredibly high threshold for grisly injury.
Footsteps sounded on the deck behind them, and Anders froze in place. He watched Fenris’s hand tighten against the planks, sharp, armored claws digging grooves in the wood.
‘Hawke,’ Fenris said. He lifted his free hand to the wound, then seemed to remember Anders’s words, hesitating before he took hold of the javelin’s thick shaft.
‘What’s going on back here, then?’ Hawke’s rough voice sent a shiver up Anders’s back. He’d been shouting before, and now his words sounded like old, frayed rope. Anders glanced over his shoulder; Hawke smelled sharply of gaatlok smoke and saltwater. There was a fresh, pink burn on his left shoulder and a streak of blood across his cheek to match the dye across the bridge of his nose. He was smiling fiercely, but the look didn’t extend to his eyes. Steam rose off him, as though his clothes and skin were burning hot.
Anders almost reached out to touch him, then thought better of it. Curiosity and mages didn’t always mix—and the difference between a smart mage and a dead one was being able to control certain…impulses.
‘I thought to employ my skills as a healer,’ Anders said, when he realized it was his turn to speak. His voice sounded high, not at all rough and deep from battles well fought, but rather squeaky and breathless from anxiety. ‘It’s what I’m good at, after all, and… Well if we’re being completely honest, it’s my fault we’re here, isn’t it? I thought it was the least I could do. No; not the least. The most.’
‘Right.’ Hawke nodded, a new glint in his eyes—one that reminded Anders of Fenris’s lyrium glow. And perhaps it was nothing more than a reflection. He moved forward, crouching in the space between them, one hand flat against Fenris’s chest, the other against the remains of the shattered javelin. ‘You’re being difficult again, Fenris. Why am I not surprised?’
To Anders’s open-mouthed confusion, Fenris didn’t fidget. On the contrary, he seemed to be fighting to stay put. Anders couldn’t look away from the struggle, could feel its tension in the becalmed air.
‘Because you are too smart to be surprised by everyday occurrences,’ Fenris said. His eyes darted between Anders and Hawke, fingers twitching in restless anticipation.
He didn’t know the half of it. Neither of them could possibly understand how difficult it was to be a healer confronted with a wound and being told by its owner not to fix it. Except that Hawke hadn’t actually said that, yet. Fenris hadn’t either. They were both playing parts, reading off a script that Anders hadn’t been given a copy of. His own lines, by comparison, felt too much like improvisation, which he always said he excelled at, but didn’t.
‘Anders,’ Hawke said.
‘Present,’ Anders murmured.
‘Fenris here has a bit of an aversion to magic,’ Hawke explained. This close, Anders couldn’t help but pick up on other, smaller injuries—a bruise on the inside of Hawke’s forearm, blood beading up at his knuckles where he’d scraped them on Maker-only-knew-what. Qunari teeth, no doubt. ‘He doesn’t like to be healed, but I think he’ll have to agree it’s necessary in this case. Won’t you, Fenris?’
‘I do not have to do anything,’ Fenris observed. He didn’t recoil as Anders shuffled closer, however, half-crouching, half scooting along on his knees.
‘My ship, my crew.’ Hawke shifted aside to give Anders ample space to do his good work, an unexpected bit of thoughtfulness. ‘My rules.’
‘And where were you, exactly?’ Fenris asked. Anders drew in a breath, flexing his fingers and feeling the spark within him. He realized now what Hawke was doing—talking to Fenris, providing a new distraction, so that Anders might get through this in peace. And also in one piece. It was an admirable gesture; Anders didn’t have the first idea of how to thank him for it, or even if he should. ‘Not on your ship—not abiding by your rules.’
‘I don’t suppose you’d believe me if I said I was making diplomatic overtures to our Northern brothers?’ Hawke asked. Fenris pierced him with a look that Anders was grateful not to be the focus of, for once. Despite an indiscriminate love of attention—attention of any kind, good or ill—he’d be the first to admit it was too much scrutiny. Even Hawke’s formidable bronzed shoulders tensed under its weight. ‘All right, Fenris; fair enough. I was in their armory, helping myself to the gaatlok. I know how you feel about qunari innovation; you never know when a little explosive powder might come in handy.’
‘And when they realize their recipe has been compromised, they will have more reason than ever to hunt you down,’ Fenris said. He shuddered as Anders eased the javelin free of the wound. ‘As though they have not been given reason enough already.’
Hawke shrugged. ‘One reason, twenty reasons, a hundred—it doesn’t matter. Qunari are pesky like that, in case you hadn’t noticed.’
‘Yes,’ Fenris said, with a hint of amusement playing at the very corners of his mouth. Then again, a grimace looked remarkably similar to a grin at times, especially in moments of great duress. ‘That is…one word for it.’
‘Lucky for you, I’ve got plenty more,’ Varric added, somewhere behind them.
‘Why am I not surprised,’ Fenris replied, or repeated, and Hawke even laughed at the joke.
Anders didn’t want to look up; he also didn’t have the time for it. He knew from the creaking of the ship and the fall of shadows over his line of vision that the entire crew was ranged above him, watching his every move. But despite all that attention—good attention, this time, or at least, not specifically bad attention—his hands didn’t tremble. Not even when they wanted to; not even when he thought they might. He knew the way of healing better than he knew breathing, sometimes, certainly better than he knew how to talk to people, or how to keep his skin from burning on a long sea voyage, or what hardtack meant, despite it sounding gruesome. It was the one thing on the entire ship he trusted, even if there was no one on the ship—not even himself—he afforded the same respect.
‘Oh, Fenris,’ Merrill said, kneeling down beside him. ‘I know you don’t like being thanked for what you see as your duty, but I’ll say it anyway—’
‘You will not,’ Fenris muttered darkly. ‘I did not do it for you.’
‘Pay him no mind, Merrill,’ Hawke said, his good humor sharp as the tips of Fenris’s finger-guards—which were, at present, digging sharply not into the deck, but Anders’s thigh instead. ‘He’s lost a lot of blood, and that seems to make him crankier than usual. Isn’t that right, Fenris?’
Fenris’s fingers spasmed in reply.
Anders’s eyes smarted again, not from smoke, but from pain. And yet the sharp touch focused him, drew him away from the idle chatter as, in turn, he drew the splintered wood from Fenris’s flesh. Muscle protested, then relaxed in gratitude, and Fenris shifted, hissed, back arching off the crate. He clawed for purchase, tearing Anders’s skin while Anders’s healed his, and somewhere between the thud of the javelin as it hit the deck and the tenderness of Anders’s clever hands—sometimes too clever for his own good—Fenris released a breath Anders recognized from years of practice: the sound a man, or an elf, or a dwarf, a templar or a mage, a pirate or a lieutenant, made just before the blood-loss and the pain and the reality of physical trauma became too much for their conscious mind to handle, and they drifted into blessed sleep, wrapped in the cool embrace of the distant Fade.
Bethany told Anders later how impressive it all was—not that Anders didn’t know already, because he did, but it was nice to hear it all the same.
‘He’s very difficult, you see,’ she said, in a hush, while Carver and Hawke and Isabela moved Fenris somewhere below deck, to what Anders would later discover was his storeroom. Technically Hawke’s storeroom, but Anders spent more time in it than he did. Ownership should have been measured in time spent, not coin or proper documentation.
‘Really?’ Anders replied. ‘I simply hadn’t noticed.’
Bethany’s lips twitched. ‘Ha, ha. Don’t you fit right in amongst this jolly crew.’
No, Anders thought, but that was a petty and childish impulse, and besides which, Bethany was the nice one. She was talking to him, which was a kindness in and of itself, and Anders supposed biting the hand that healed him would make him more like Fenris than was strictly acceptable. ‘I’ve always thought I might,’ he said instead, trying not to seem too weary, holding onto the dog’s scruff for support—while the animal in question stared, unhappily, after Hawke’s receding form, beginning to whimper again in the back of its throat. ‘Then again, what wanted apostate doesn’t read Tales of The Champion and fantasize about one day joining its rag-tag crew?’
‘Is it everything you dreamed of and more?’ Bethany asked, sounding a lot like her brother, except with a touch of much-needed warmth.
‘Dreams, nightmares…’ Anders waved his blood-stained hand. ‘What’s the difference, really?’
‘You’re hurt,’ Bethany said, and started forward. Anders didn’t have time to react; the dog wasn’t his dog, and made no move to protect him. A moment later Bethany rested her hand on Anders’s thigh, just above the torn cloth, where his blood spattered his clothes instead of Fenris’s blood. There was a lot of both. ‘…Ah. Yes. I see it now. That’s why my brother doesn’t let me heal Fenris, you know.’
‘Don’t let said brother catch the two of you in this compromising position, speaking of which,’ Varric murmured, trotting by at exactly the right moment. Anders wondered what lewd, romantic concoction he was composing in his head at this very moment; his blunt fingers seemed to twitch in the air, as though he was writing with an invisible quill on an invisible page with invisible ink. ‘You’re useful, Blondie—I’ll give you that. Even Hawke’ll give you that. …Right before he ties a chain around your ankle and sinks you in the blackest part of the deep, that is.’
‘He wouldn’t really do that,’ Anders whispered, as Bethany healed the bothersome scrapes, far deeper than they’d seemed at the time. ‘…Would he?’
‘You know the stories,’ Bethany said, then sighed. ‘As if it isn’t hard enough already to meet someone nice when we spend more time at sea than we do at port. And the rest of the time, it’s just people chasing us down, wanting revenge, kill or be killed—the idiots.’
She finished her work, and Anders smiled at her gratefully, before putting the necessary distance between them to avoid being murdered by her older brother. She seemed to recognize the impulse, to be resigned to it, though they shared a moment of understanding—that life was rarely as exciting as it was in books, or rather, that most people preferred reading about dangerous romance than actually experiencing it.
‘Well,’ Bethany finished, ‘all I meant to say was, be careful with him. Not my brother—that goes without saying—but Fenris. Not just for your sake, but for his, too.’
‘Because he doesn’t like being healed,’ Anders said.
‘And because that says a lot about a person, when you think about it,’ Bethany confirmed.
She left Anders to his own devices, sagging against the dog, petting it absently—until he realized what he was doing, the smell left on his hand and the streak of blood left on its fur, and pulled back, grateful no one had seen him engaging.
Life on the ship was more complicated than he’d imagined. Nothing was what it seemed in the stories, and yet every member of the crew carried with them a whisper of their character, some truth that made it all fact instead of fiction.
Varric was a more talented narrator than he let on, certainly more talented than he looked. Or perhaps Anders just hadn’t been talking with him enough lately. He supposed he was holding back—because he wasn’t sure how he felt about ending up with his own chapter tacked onto the next installment of The Champion’s adventures—The Curious Case of the Healing Apostate Who Was Mysteriously Thrown Overboard After Speaking To Bethany or, more simply, Left to Die in the Gallows and Nobody Noticed.
As if Anders wasn’t nervous enough about their destination already.
Alone, without even the dog for proper ballast, he found himself leading them both below deck once more. He was just too conspicuous anywhere else, lingering topside without some proper duty to attend to, and besides, Anders wasn’t in the mood to trade witty barbs with Carver about his relative usefulness aboard the vessel. Instead, he made his way toward the now-familiar storeroom, to lock Dog up before all the fresh salt air encouraged him to get frisky, or the sight and scent of Hawke nearby drove him mad. Whichever came first. And, possibly, to check in on Fenris, while avoiding his very sharp claws.
Someone—most likely a combination of Hawke and Isabela—had gone to the trouble of clearing out the empty and broken barrels. There were fresh candles in the lanterns, lit, throwing soft, unfamiliar shadows on the walls, and a dirty canvas hammock slung low in the nearest corner. Fenris was curled within it—Anders could see the prickly, segmented plates of his armor poking up over the edge of the fabric, and, in places, poking through it, too.
‘Mage,’ Fenris said. Anders tripped over a stray crate, then stumbled as he fought to keep his footing.
‘It’s Anders, remember?’ After a pause, Anders pulled the crate closer to Fenris’s hammock, perching warily atop it. ‘I don’t go around calling you elf, now do I?’
‘The dwarf has taken on that particular duty,’ Fenris replied. He shifted, fingers clasped around something small and leatherclad, something that Anders couldn’t quite make out. ‘It seems he has a certain enjoyment for literal descriptions. I am told it is something I would…understand, had I the skill to appreciate it for myself.’
As he held up the object, Anders recognized it—no secret weapon, no mystic dagger, no bolstering flask, nothing more simple, nothing more wonderful than an old book. One of Varric’s books, to be precise, the very first volume in Tales of The Champion. He wondered whether Varric had tucked it in with Fenris, a bit of unnecessary self-promotion. Then, naturally, Anders was forced to wonder whether any other member of the crew knew of Fenris’s shortcomings.
There were so few. It made sense he’d guard them close.
‘Well now,’ Anders said, reaching out to pluck the book from his hands. Fenris held tight, then relinquished his hold without warning, well before Anders thought he might. That was interesting. ‘It seems a shame to leave you in the dark about your own feats of dazzling strength, doesn’t it?’
Fenris stared at him, posture limp and exhausted, swaying back and forth and back again with the motion of the hammock. Anders was seized by the overwhelming urge to reach out and stroke him behind the ears, the way Ser Pounce-a-lot had always enjoyed—followed by a friendly chuff beneath the chin, where the bones narrowed and the throat bobbed and the skin was soft.
Somehow, he managed to control himself.
‘Do not bother,’ Fenris said. He huffed, eyes following Anders’s fingers as they cracked the binding. ‘I have no mind for learning at the moment.’
‘Does it hurt?’ Anders asked, his voice suddenly sharp.
Fenris pressed his lips together, jaw tight. He moved as if to sit up, then surrendered the attempt halfway through, limbs shuddering back into enervation. That, more than anything, told Anders all he needed to know. Fenris never left something unfinished, in the books or in life, unless there was no other option available.
‘Less than before,’ Fenris said at length, licking dry lips. His gaze traveled back to the book, watching it with the same keen wariness he’d employed on his enemies.
Sometimes, what one didn’t know—what one didn’t understand—was the greatest enemy of all. Anders thought he might have read that in one of the Tales. He certainly hadn’t come up with such an overblown line all by himself.
‘Did they instruct you to come here?’ Fenris asked. Anders didn’t have to ask who he meant. ‘To…check up on me?’
‘Hardly,’ Anders replied with a sniff. ‘They’re all devoted, I’m sure, in their own ways—as devoted as pirates can ever be—but a more self-centered crowd you’ll never see in your life, am I right? I doubt they’re quite so tender. No; I just didn’t have anything better to do. Nowhere else to be, no one else to talk to—unless you count the dog, which I don’t, because: it’s a dog.’
‘Hn,’ Fenris said. His favorite riposte.
Anders knew how to parry it better now, or at least how to avoid taking it personally. It simply was, an interjection deployed into the silence, something different and even better than being outright ignored. It might not have been helpful, as far as sustaining conversation went, but by the same measure it wasn’t outright denial.
Anders—as always—would take whatever he could get.
‘Besides,’ Anders continued, as though Fenris was merely the anchor, while Anders was captain, ship and crew, ‘I’m a healer. It’s what I do. It’s all I do, honestly, besides running from templars and shirking my other apparent duties. The rest of the time I’m content to be a lazy sort of bastard, laziest there is, my lone claim to glory—but when it comes to this, I prefer to be thorough. Can’t have you dying on my watch, now can I?’
‘Of course not,’ Fenris said. There, beneath the guarded words, was that shadow of humor, a touch of dryness.
Anders was beginning to suspect the elf found him amusing.
He hid his expression of secret pleasure by burying his nose in the book; he also heard the hammock sway, followed by a rustle and strain of the cloth, the faintest ripping sound as some jagged spike of armor tore into the weave. But there was no subsequent crash, just the stillness that descended after the shift, the knowledge that Fenris had eased—somewhat; that was all Anders could ask—into a position of resigned wariness.
One didn’t have to like a healer, after all. But it was necessary for one to accept him.
‘That’s better,’ Anders said, soft against the pages. He cleared his throat, controlled his facial muscles, and pulled back just enough to actually see the words. ‘Don’t be shy. Speak up if anything changes. If, for example, you get the distinct impression all your bothersome internal organs are about to spill out and ruin the potatoes, just remember: Anders is right here. All you have to do is warn me ahead of time, and save everyone else the trouble later. Not to mention the cleanup. Not to mention an awful taste in their mash come suppertime.’
Fenris cleared his throat. When Anders peered at him over-top of the book, he was looking, pointedly, in some other direction.
‘I’ll take that as agreement,’ Anders said.
Again, Fenris’s jaw tightened, fingers clenching where they rested, arms tangled over his chest. ‘Will you.’
‘You know,’ Anders told him, ‘you have a remarkable talent for turning questions into statements. Just like in the stories. Would you like to hear one? A story, I mean—not a question statement, or statement question, since you have enough of those already.’
‘Would I—’ Fenris appeared momentarily overwhelmed by the question. Not overwhelmed by qunari javelins or dreadnoughts or gaatlok, but the idea that someone might read to him was somewhere beyond his capacity for understanding, for life as he recognized it. Naturally.
Everything was so backwards on water, the opposite of proper things set in their proper place. Where sensible people preferred to say—dry—with both feet solidly on land.
‘Would you…’ Anders prompted.
Fenris made a face.
‘Oh, don’t get me wrong,’ Anders continued. ‘I wasn’t patronizing you. Just expressing curiosity. I’ve been told my curiosity does tend to come off rather cheeky—must be something about my face, my inimitable spirit, my naturally buoyant personality—and it does get me in trouble sometimes, I won’t lie. But rest assured, just like your crankiness, it isn’t anything personal.’
‘It would appear I am your prisoner,’ Fenris said darkly, but not, Anders suspected, completely mean. ‘Whether or not you choose to read aloud from that…tome of outright lies is entirely up to your discretion.’
‘You mean I’ve already made up my mind exactly what I’m going to do, and no amount of desperate pleas for mercy will persuade me otherwise?’ Anders asked.
Fenris leveled with him, a simple gaze, flat as an unimpressed cat’s. ‘…Yes. That is one way of putting it.’
‘Excellent!’ Anders balanced the book on one knee, while the dog shoved its head onto the other, drooling merrily onto the torn stretch of fabric. At least the skin beneath was healed now, and there’d be no chance of a future, dog-drool related infection. Anders felt slightly less put-out because of the creature’s gross assumptions of familiarity, if only because the trousers were ruined already. He still flicked at the dog’s nose, whereupon it swiped its tongue at his finger lazily, both of them refusing to accommodate the other’s position in any way. So long as they recognized the way things were and would continue to be, Anders told himself, relations would be just peachy.
‘Excellent,’ Fenris repeated. He didn’t sound nearly as excited.
‘Now, I will warn you, the first one just has Captain Hawke for a while,’ Anders continued, flipping through the pages. ‘And I tend to prefer the later stories, with the group dynamic. But this is what we’ve got, and we’re just going to have to make do. I’m sure Varric has a collection somewhere on this ship—he seems the sort. Ahem hem hem.’
Fenris waited while Anders made a grand show of clearing his throat and adjusting his invisible spectacles. He continued to seem thoroughly unimpressed.
‘There was a time men didn’t know of The Champion,’ Anders began, leaning closer to the flickering lantern-light, hoping he didn’t destroy his eyes by the time all this healing was through. And why was it that the process of healing for one man so often involved the sacrifice of another? A theoretical dilemma for another day, he told himself, and refocused his attentions on the page. ‘But Captain Hawke knew, back on the bleak-black cliffs of Lothering, all that was about to change.’
As it turned out, Varric did happen to have the complete collection of The Champion’s adventures on board. He called it a lucky coincidence—Fenris called it unimaginable ego. Whatever the reason, Anders wasn’t about to complain, because he’d discovered the secret to actually keeping Fenris below deck and resting.
The real trick to healing, beyond the actual healing bit—which was probably the most important part, no matter how you looked at it—was finding a way to keep your patients well-rested afterward. Some took to that more naturally than others; Fenris was difficult, but he was hardly Anders’s first stubborn invalid with more courage than sense.
The afternoon after they’d passed the halfway point in Origin of The Champion, Anders had come below deck to find Fenris exercising, which seemed mostly to consist of him swinging his broadsword around the storeroom and terrifying the dog. Anders had suggested, with a few, pointed remarks—a style he’d learned from Senior Enchanter Wynne, the grandmaster of imperative suggestions—that Fenris return to bed.
Fenris, in kind, had suggested that Anders go to the Void.
Clearly, it wasn’t a working arrangement; it explained Anders’s willingness to swallow his ego for the greater good, asking Varric for further volumes, the promise of further entertainment to entice Fenris into bed-rest—or rather, hammock-rest—but it was the best he could come up with, given the ship’s limitations.
Unfortunately, it was difficult for him to tell whether Fenris actually enjoyed the stories or not. While they were read, he simply lay in the hammock, staring impassively at Anders over the hammock-cloth as it swayed lazily from side-to-side with the rocking of the ship. Occasionally, he scowled at a passage of violently purple prose, but other than that, he seemed content enough to listen, hands flexing aimlessly in his lap.
‘Captain Hawke had a habit of kissing his amulet before a fearsome battle,’ Anders continued, one gray afternoon that had shown them nothing but fog. ‘Inevitably, that habit brought him victory against his enemies. No one could say whether it was part of the deal he’d worked out with the old witch, or just a piece of the captain’s luck. All they knew was that when Captain Hawke was around, the winds favored him.’
‘Nonsense,’ Fenris muttered, staring at the ceiling.
Anders paused, keeping his place with his index finger, and looked up in curiosity. He took a moment to wet his throat with a nearby cup of ale. Reading left him so dry, and even the best stories always improved with the right amount of lubrication.
‘Care to elaborate?’ Anders asked.
‘The winds favor Hawke no more than any other man.’ Fenris shifted to roll onto his side. He was looking better these days, warmth returning to his brown skin beneath the vallaslin. It had been a bit touch and go there for a while, when he’d still looked as ashen as a qunari, but time and Anders’s healing fingers seemed to have staved it off.
Or perhaps Varric was right after all, and his prose really was magic, a cure for all ailments, especially the fatal one known as boredom.
‘Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret,’ Anders said, leaning back on his crate. What he wouldn’t give for a proper chair—or perhaps a cushioned stool—but the only real furniture he’d seen aboard the ship was hidden away in the captain’s quarters, enjoyed by senior members of the crew. Anders supposed they’d earned the privilege, the lucky bastards. ‘Sometimes, storytellers think it’s jolly good fun to exaggerate certain elements of their tales to suit whatever picture they’ve already decided to paint. No one wants to read about life exactly as it happens—that’s what we live it for, isn’t it?’
‘Then he should simply make something up,’ Fenris reasoned. ‘Not pass off a pack of lies as fact.’
‘Welcome to the wonderful world of fiction,’ Anders said with a sigh. He’d already encountered his own small disappointments in the reality of Captain Hawke and The Champion. Like, for example, the lack of raucous drinking parties, and Isabela not sunbathing constantly in the nude. ‘Next thing you’ll be telling me Hawke doesn’t even have a lucky amulet. Maker, I hate to think how you’ll react when we finally reach your part.’
Fenris’s mouth twitched, the clever curve of his lips nearly stretching into a smile before he diverted it back into a frown. ‘If I am not finally healed by then.’
‘I certainly hope that wasn’t a slight about my prowess as your healer. I’m very sensitive about such matters, you know.’ Anders took another delicate sip of ale—by this point, he was certain it was made from festering seawater and perhaps a bit of pickle juice thrown in for good measure, but that wouldn’t stop him from drinking it—then licked his thumb to turn the sticky page.
‘Well,’ Fenris replied. It was confirmation enough. Anders huffed, as was expected of him, and Fenris cleared his throat, as was expected of him, and it was all very pleasant, a regular back and forth, a banter, with the same rhythm as the lapping waves. Not at all stormy.
Anders liked it.
It was better than being ignored all the time; outright insult at least signified something other than pure invisibility. Which Anders occasionally felt he was, with no family, no friends, only rare acquaintances from town to town who never even asked for his name, while an old cat was his only constant friend.
Being known best as You, there could be so demoralizing.
Maybe that was why he enjoyed the templars’ attentions as much as he did. At least he always knew they were thinking about him—which meant someone was thinking about him, and even if their thoughts were unpleasant, something was, by very definition, more than nothing.
‘He does have the amulet,’ Fenris continued, an unexpected moment of verbal charity. Anders blinked, aware he’d been wooed by Varric’s way with words—he believed in embellishing facts, absolutely, but when it came to interpretation and metaphor, allegory and analogy, Anders knew how dangerous it could be for a man to analyze himself.
That was why the world needed characters. So people like him wouldn’t be forced to self-reflect.
‘Does he?’ Anders rested his elbow on his knee and his chin on his palm. ‘That’s a relief. No wonder we made it past the line of qunari dreadnoughts. I wouldn’t want to think we’re out here, heading through uncharted waters, likely to meet with every form of heavily be-tentacled beast Thedas has to offer, without Hawke’s lucky amulet.’
‘I wonder if you would not be better suited to conversation with the dwarf,’ Fenris said dryly. ‘The two of you have much in common.’
‘Not at all,’ Anders replied. ‘Talkative people never get on with other talkative people. It’s very tiresome, actually, trying to outtalk someone who’s really giving you a run for your sovereign. No; I think that’s why Varric and I don’t get on. That, and I insulted his skills as a storyteller right at the start of the voyage. Without realizing it, but still: it was incredibly hurtful, and I’m sure even he has a heart underneath all that chest hair. It’s only Hawke who doesn’t.’
Fenris’s voice was dark, but not altogether tight. ‘So they say.’
‘So they say?’ Anders leaned forward again. Eventually, Fenris would realize the tables had turned—that he was the one telling tall tales, not the other way around—and he’d make another of his now-unforgettable noises, pfaugh! or bah!, and possibly fall out of the hammock in a clever warrior’s trick for distracting nearby mages from the truth with a fit of irrepressible giggling.
Then again, if you wanted a job done right, the only way was to do it yourself. Anders never cared about jobs done right or wrong; he wasn’t about to fix all the fallacies of fable since he liked a good fallacy now and then, not to mention a good fable, but it seemed important to Fenris, and also, it was interesting.
‘So they say,’ Fenris repeated.
‘No, no, Fenris,’ Anders said. ‘That isn’t how you elaborate at all. Just saying the same thing with altered inflection might seem, in theory, to be very meaningful, but it is in fact confusing.’
Fenris leveled Anders with a narrow look, half inquisition and half wariness. ‘I did not realize there were rules.’
‘There are rules for everything,’ Anders replied. ‘It’s just that people like you, and the captain, and Varric, and Isabela, and so on—and me, too, in my own little way—spend so much time breaking them, we sort of forget that. But in reality, we’re just as bound by them as everyone else who follows them. Without rules to break, what would we do? Hawke would be just like Lieutenant-Admiral Aveline, and I tell you what, I do not relish the idea of scrubbing the deck so it gleams to her standards. Plus I don’t think there’d be quite so many exciting explosions, either.’
‘You ask me to elaborate, then make it impossible to get a word in edgewise.’ Fenris tutted, softly, fingers curved in front of his mouth, voice muffled against skin—skin, for once, and not taloned metal. ‘You are exactly like the dwarf.’
‘Just a bit taller and less classically handsome, I hope,’ Anders murmured, attempting to rise to the occasion.
Fenris waited. It wasn’t exactly patient; patience required understanding, and it was clear from Fenris’s expression he’d never once considered that. So Anders shut the book, keeping his place with his thumb, and conducted his own impossible feat, right there in the hold of The Champion, a ship where the impossible itself was forged.
He held his tongue.
Fenris let the silence last for a few moments longer than were strictly necessary. If Anders didn’t know him better—or didn’t suspect he knew him better—he would have guessed it was on purpose, to prove a point, or possibly just to make Anders squirm. He did squirm, knees pressed together, testing his very best Ser Pounce-a-lot eyes on Fenris, who remained unmoved by the spectacle. Typical of Anders’s life, he’d chosen to employ the tactic on the one elf in all of Thedas who wasn’t impressed by the naturally adorable.
At last, Fenris decided Anders had waited long enough—had proven himself worthy, or learned a valuable lesson. ‘It is not what you think,’ he said, and then, in a slightly softer tone, he added, ‘not that I presume to know what it is you think. What it is anyone on this ship thinks. Rather, I do not wish to know.’
‘I could tell you what Isabela thinks,’ Anders said, unable to not be cheeky for such a long stretch of time. ‘We’re kindred spirits like that. We understand one another—even if she doesn’t know it yet.’
‘So many say that about Isabela,’ Fenris replied.
‘And so many ask questions about Hawke, too?’ Anders ventured.
‘Some do,’ Fenris said. ‘But few are ever answered.’
‘Well then,’ Anders said, leaning forward with a creak of the crate beneath him. ‘Was that meant to be discouraging, or to force me to appreciate a golden opportunity?’
‘It is neither—it is not meant to be anything,’ Fenris said. He shifted his weight to one elbow; Anders could hear the scrape of steel armor against canvas as he moved. ‘I have never been in a position of elaborating before. To you, or to anyone.’
‘I’d think not,’ Anders said. ‘What with going to all that trouble not to presume what other people are thinking.’
Fenris arched a dark brow in a glare. It was the same glare he’d directed at Hawke above deck, on the fateful day they’d encountered the qunari dreadnought. Consequentially, Anders found it almost friendly. He was an experienced cat owner; one had to learn how to read their moods, to interpret affection from even the sharpest of scowls. Ser Pounce-a-lot was always on the fence between purring or clawing Anders’s face off. It was a narrow distinction, but Anders could navigate those treacheries well enough, if not the open seas.
‘Hawke is not cruel,’ Fenris said, his eyes traveling to the lamp behind Anders where it swung, casting oblique shadows along the narrow walls, between lumpy sacks and battered barrels. ‘He does not exhibit most of the qualities a person would typically associate with heartlessness.’ His lip curled, as though even the phrasing was distasteful to him. ‘He merely did what anyone would, given his situation. Why the dwarf thinks that Hawke’s story deserved telling is anyone’s guess. I do not presume to wonder.’
Again with the presumptions, Anders thought. Little did Fenris know they were the spice of life.
‘It’s very popular,’ he reasoned, tapping the stubble between his lower lip and chin. There was something he was missing in all this, a subtlety that he hadn’t been able to pin down. Whenever he tried, the feeling slipped between his fingers like an old pickle in brine. ‘People like adventures—grand sacrifices that mimic their own without actually being their own. No one wants to give up a heart, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to read about someone who did.’
‘Everyone surrenders a part of himself at some point or another,’ Fenris said. The lamp threw new shadows over his face, too, dappling his skin and darkening his eyes. ‘I see no reason to draw attention to Hawke for doing the same. It does him a disservice.’
Anders chewed at a bit of dry skin on his lip, moodily poking at the sore spot with his tongue. He’d never heard Fenris speak for quite so long on any topic, nor with such conviction. He’d dedicated whole sentences in defense of a man Anders knew better on the page than in life.
There had to be a reason for it.
He recalled Fenris’s dedication to manning the helm, the initiative he’d taken in both peeling their potatoes and scrubbing the plates clean afterward. Fenris was ruthless when it came to work being done—work being done properly—on Hawke’s ship, but why? Because he had an exacting personality?
No; there was more to it than just that. People could be stubborn for themselves, but even more so for others. It was a pattern Anders hadn’t given much thought before, but he was beginning to notice certain points of repetition, similar colors in the general weave.
At last, Anders grasped the pickle.
It wasn’t about the stories. It was never about the stories, and always about Hawke.
Fenris had feelings for the man that went beyond an ex-slave’s duty to his captain, the first person alive to trust him as a who rather than a what. It was so painfully obvious; it didn’t have to be written, and yet here Anders was, feeling like a ripe idiot for not picking up on it from the very start.
The realization left him with a sour taste in his mouth—one that couldn’t be blamed on the ale beside him. For the first time in his life, he had nothing to say, despite a sudden surplus of juicy gossip.
Fortunately for them both, Fenris was not the sort of person to object to further silence. Rather than sensing—with the keen rogue’s skills both Varric and Isabela possessed in spades—that something had gone awry, that the cat was out of the bag or the potato out of the sack, he merely rolled over, as though he could expedite his own healing process by lying as still as possible. Perhaps he could. It was as fine an instinct as any.
‘You may continue the story tomorrow,’ Fenris said into the silence. He was done now, thinking about Hawke in the sunlight, the glint of his teeth, the flash of his knives, the sound of his voice above the crashing of the waves.
Anders cleared his throat. ‘Yes. Good. …You’re the only man in Thedas who doesn’t want to know how Captain Hawke met Captain Vael, though—and how their first naval battle ends.’
‘I already know how it ends,’ Fenris pointed out.
‘But what about the beginning?’ Anders asked, and Fenris chose not to reply.
Fenris was well enough the next morning—after four days and five nights of interminable inaction—to rise with the rest of the crew; by the time Anders woke, the hammock was empty, the dog curled beneath it, drooling a wet puddle between its paws.
‘You,’ Anders told it, ‘disgust me. All that you are, all that you do, everything you stand for—the way you smell and the way you leak—I can’t even imagine being you. It’s too horrible to contemplate.’
The dog yawned and looked offended—or perhaps it simply looked stupid; with Dog, it was impossible to tell. Anders supposed he owed the thing an apology for being so rude for so little reason, if he ever stooped so low as to apologize to a dog, which he wouldn’t. But he was in a foul mood, lonely and achey, stiff neck from the pillow made of his coat, goosebumps on his arms because the coat was under his head instead of on his body.
The further north they sailed, the colder it got; sometimes Anders wondered how the dog didn’t have icicles dripping from its muzzle instead of ropy strands of warm liquid. When he imagined the sight, it made him giggle, then cover his mouth—as Dog gave him a reproachful look, wondering why he was so mean in one moment and so cheerful the next.
‘That’s just what being out on the water does to a man who isn’t used to it,’ Anders explained, attempting to shave by employing a polished plate for a mirror, and one of the knives he used on the potatoes, some of the dish-washing lye splashed on his jaw and cheeks. In the end he gave up, scruffy as ever and smelling positively awful, while Dog wrinkled its moist nose and backed away into a corner, hackles up, clearly not appreciating Anders’s efforts.
‘I’m serious,’ Anders said, mending some of the loose feathers in his pauldrons, just one part of his stultifying daily routine. He stabbed himself no fewer than three times with the needle, the burlap thread far too rough for the delicate feather-spines. ‘I’m not meant to be out here. I don’t know what I was thinking. Couldn’t I have just…I don’t know, drawn a picture of Karl, left instructions with the map, slipped it all into Varric’s pocket, and enjoyed my time in the Hanged Man on that sunny, far-off isle, waiting for news of The Champion like everyone else? What did I possibly hope to prove? Could I really have been so bored?’
They were deep questions, soul-searching and personal. He hadn’t known Dog for long enough to expect an answer, though he was still disappointed when he got none.
After that rousing experience, nearly slitting his own throat while shaving because of the ship’s unpredictable movements, little bits of bandage plaster stuck to his thumb and forefinger, Anders headed up on deck—some sunlight kept him from going stir crazy, and he didn’t burn as long as he stayed mostly in the shade. And, perhaps most importantly, the promise of being caught by someone kept him from talking to himself. It was good for his health to get some fresh air, though now and then a sea-bird did void its bowels on him.
He’d be lucky if his coat made it out of this in one piece. Anders liked his coat, because it always made him look so rebellious.
But it didn’t make him look like a man prepared for the sea-faring life.
All the others were stripped down to what little they could get away with; some, like Isabela, wore it better than others, like Carver. Anders felt a momentary pause, a caress of sympathy, when he realized there were some people, like him and like Carver, who weren’t made for laboring underneath the noonday sun; they burned, whereas others bronzed. The very tips of Varric’s chest-pelt glimmered like blinding gold as he strode by.
‘You can look, but you can’t touch, Blondie,’ Varric said.
‘That happens to be my least favorite rule,’ Isabela added, ropes coiled comfortably around her bare shoulders.
Anders crossed his arms over his chest and pretended to be a part of it, to chuckle merrily, to banish all the storm-clouds of his moods and feelings with the clear day and the glorious ocean, the stiff breeze and the billowing sails, the promise of adventure and nearly-certain death. Then, he pretended he wasn’t scanning the deck for Fenris—and, even if he was, it was because, as a healer, he had a purpose, a job, a duty, to make sure that his patient wasn’t doing any heavy lifting.
It had nothing to do with their shared moments in the dark, Anders squinting at the page and realizing, through the shifting of Fenris’s breath, the slight shake of his shoulders, that he was actually laughing—either at one of Varric’s genuinely witty bits of dialogue, or because a detail was so preposterous he couldn’t help but be personally offended that there was anyone in the world gullible enough to believe it. The laughter never lasted long—it had a very short wick, and burned too fast to catch—but turned into a sort of uncomfortable cough, or throat-clearing, or hem hem, just one of a vast catalogue of Fenris-shaped noises that Anders heard in his sleep. Or used to hear, but wouldn’t anymore, now that Fenris was up and about, part of the crew’s topography once more.
Where he wanted to be. Where he belonged.
Anders caught sight of him at last, not golden, not silver; there was no real color to describe him, and Anders watched as he stalked toward the helm to confer with the captain, then point across the waters to the horizon, at some future Anders couldn’t hope to make out.
He tried anyway, shielding his eyes with his hand, squinting into the distance and nearly blinding himself with the reflection of the bright sun on the still ocean surface. But, just as he’d expected, he couldn’t see anything, though Fenris and Hawke had their heads bowed low together, in deep conference, sharing confidences and experiences and personalities, and making Anders feel very alone.
He thought about seeking out Merrill, or going back below-deck to spend more time with Dog. But both options were too desperate—the former because it courted death by thorny vine, the latter because of all the drooling.
Instead, Anders lingered on the deck, like all the patients he’d told not to poke at sores or exacerbate bruising: exposing his open wound to the elements in hopes of numbing it.
For whatever reason—probably because it was equal parts backwards and stupid—that method never worked. The more Anders saw of how well Hawke and Fenris worked together, the worse his mood became, even though it had nothing to do with him, and nothing to do with them, either, just a reality Anders didn’t have the fortitude to actually change.
‘You’re looking awfully sour,’ Bethany commented, tugging off her red scarf to wipe the sweat from her brow. She’d snuck up on him, the devious witch. Anders was beginning to wonder whether all the Hawkes weren’t secretly rogues—even the warriors and the mages. ‘And here I was going to say how good it is to see you above deck for once instead of cowering down there in the shadows, and now I can’t, can I? It’s dreadfully rude to tell someone you’re happy to see them when they look so miserable. Don’t tell me: is it all the pickles?’
‘Did your brother teach you that?’ Anders asked, without even the instinct for self-preservation that would have kept his voice from sounding so damned melancholy.
It had to be the ocean. The tricks it played on a man, and all that rubbish Anders tried to get Dog to believe in.
‘No,’ Bethany said, neatly folding her arms. She, at least, seemed to possess a proper mage’s appreciation of layers, although Anders had a feeling that had more to do with their charted Northern course than anything else. ‘Garrett’s not much for manners, in case you haven’t noticed.’
‘And yet he manages to get along with everyone so nicely.’ Anders successfully tore his eyes away from Fenris and Hawke at the helm, in the interest of not making his feelings glaringly obvious to the captain’s sister, who had a certain perception for these things, apparently, not to mention an impeccable sense of timing.
‘I’m told he has a way with people,’ Bethany admitted. ‘Carver doesn’t see it, of course, but…’ She trailed off, peering around Anders to look at her brother. ‘He gets by well enough. For a man with no heart, anyway. Gives the rest of us something to aspire to—Hawkes always overcome adversity, you know. It’s what we do.’
‘So the stories say,’ Anders murmured, aware he was being rude and still unable to stop himself.
Bethany narrowed her eyes. ‘You aren’t in love with him, are you?’
‘No,’ Anders blurted, too quickly for it to be anything but the truth. He’d been a little in love with the character, yes—with the idea of the man, absolutely. And Hawke wasn’t unattractive, which didn’t hurt. Anders wasn’t immune to the seduction of Varric’s prose, and he was more than willing to admit to a flutter or two when he encountered Hawke on the page.
In life, however, they hadn’t had much of a chance for encounters, fluttering or otherwise.
Hawke was handsome; whenever he came near it seemed as though he’d brought a piece of the Fade with him into the world. But it was Anders’s magic that responded to that, not Anders himself. At least, that was how he’d reasoned it out in his mind. Besides which, Anders had dealt with enough people who acted heartless to know he should avoid someone who actually was.
‘All right,’ Bethany said, holding up a hand to ward off future vociferous protestations. ‘I’ll take your word for it; no need to shout. So many who read the books are, you see. Varric’s got a certain…gift for romance. He can be very convincing.’
There was something about the distant look of glazed distraction in her eyes that put Anders off. Or maybe it had to do with the sudden flush in her rosy cheeks.
‘Hang on,’ Anders said, momentarily diverted from his own personal problems. ‘You and Varric—’
‘Get along wonderfully,’ Bethany said, a note of heartlessness evident in her own voice, now. ‘Yes—thank you for asking, Anders.’
Out of the corner of his eye, Anders saw Fenris and Hawke break apart at last, Fenris taking up his temporary position at the helm, while Hawke headed off, perhaps to nap. If he even needed to sleep.
Anders stared after him, the uneven fall of his boots as he took the steps two at a time, the round silver medallion swinging free from the beaten leather of his armor.
So there was an amulet after all. It didn’t look that remarkable, mostly weather-worn, a bit dull and overall rusty. Anders would have expected it to be glowing, shooting sparks of lightning, surrounding Hawke with an opalescent, arcane shield. He’d hoped it was made out of a dragon scale, or mermaid flesh, or a fire gland, not just a hunk of old metal without so much as a pale sheen.
‘Are you sure you don’t…’ Bethany began, with something of an impish grin.
‘I can’t help but notice Varric’s chest is looking particularly broad and luscious today,’ Anders said, having understood the way of it at last. As expected, Bethany fell silent immediately, lips pursed tight, twin spots of color rising high on her cheeks.
‘It isn’t as though certain insufferable gossips don’t already know,’ she told Anders later, while Anders watched Isabela and Fenris do something inexplicable with ropes and the mainmast and the topsail and all the other pieces of ship-wise whosiwhats, so many official sounding words Anders had read about in the books. What Anders was really focusing on, however, wasn’t the technicality of the knots being tied, but rather the two crew-members tying them, together, so close to naked Anders felt nearly blind in the sunset.
‘Hmm?’ Anders asked.
It wasn’t his fault for being distracted.
‘It’s Isabela,’ Bethany continued, dropping to sit at Anders’s side; after a moment’s sheer confusion, the idea that anyone would be paying attention to him so foreign it didn’t even seem real, Anders scooted over, making room for her. The two of them settled in comfortably, each with one knee drawn up to their chests.
Anders’s trousers had a hole in them; Bethany’s skirts did not. But still, it was a nice moment, a sweet detail, one that managed to catch Anders’s focus as something meaningful—more meaningful than sunlight on dusky skin, burnished sweat glittering at the nape of a lean neck.
‘What’s Isabela?’ Anders blinked. ‘That’s Isabela? Yes, of course it is. Difficult to miss her. She’s very—noticeable. Among other things. All of them very, very nice. Good work, though, Bethany—quick, can you point out which one Fenris is next?’
Bethany’s expression said it all: a presiding lack of amusement coupled with disbelief that Anders would be quite so stupid as to respond to friendly interaction, which he was in dire need of, by being himself, and therefore driving it away.
Poor Bethany. The books always made her out to be such an optimist; little did she know the extent of a man like Anders’s preternatural ability to lightning-bolt his own damn foot to the floor.
‘Good point, Bethany,’ Anders said. ‘It’s Anders next, and he’s a bit of an idiot, and how does he manage to keep talking with a boot shoved down his throat, all the way to the knee-cap? In answer to your question,’ Anders continued, ‘it’s an acquired talent. I’ve practiced long and hard, and it isn’t easy, and sometimes I turn red and very nearly choke, but that’s actually part of the skill. The choking part.’
‘Hard not to choke with a boot in your mouth,’ Bethany agreed.
‘Precisely.’ Anders smiled his most winning smile, coupled with the Ser Pounce-a-lot look. Just because it hadn’t worked on Fenris didn’t mean it might not be effective on someone else. ‘Just give me a moment to remove my boot and slap myself for you and we can carry on with our conversation, shall we?’
Bethany obliged, and Anders made a big show of removing the boot, gagging and wincing and causing Carver to shoot them both a baffled scowl, which quickly lost its charm, and indicated he thought they were both disturbed.
‘Don’t mind him,’ Bethany said, actually laughing at Anders’s joke.
No one did that anymore. It was a welcome change.
‘I never do,’ Anders admitted, inclined to like her more than ever.
She was the nice one. Nice was always appreciated.
Silence followed, not awkward, just friendly, interrupted only by Isabela’s raucous cries, the sound of Merrill cheering as she swung through the rigging, the occasional grunt of exertion from Fenris, and Anders wondered if he’d ruined the moment by distracting Bethany from her confessions. He did like gossip. And it wasn’t as though he had anyone to talk to, save for Dog.
The best thing about Dog—or perhaps the only good thing about Dog—was that it kept one’s confidences impeccably, in part because of its inability to produce words.
In fact, Anders was the perfect candidate for listening to Bethany’s tale of love and lust and dwarves—not that it was his particular preference, but he could appreciate the heart wanting what it wanted, especially when one actually had a heart to want something with in the first place. Bethany was trapped on a boat with no other options but brothers and elves—and Isabela, but she was a class unto herself, out of everyone’s league, half woman and half force of nature.
Varric wouldn’t have been Anders’s first choice. But he also wouldn’t have been Anders’s last choice, either.
It was something he and Bethany could see eye-to-eye on, anyway. Anders had nothing if not a relentless imagination.
At that, Bethany sighed, the deep sigh Anders had been feeling all day, watching Fenris do Hawke’s bidding and tend to Hawke’s rigging and steer Hawke’s ship-wheel. He answered it with a sigh of his own, while they both watched the purpling sky, reds and oranges and pinks bleeding into each other as the sun faded below the horizon they continued, without pause or rest or fresh bathing water, to chase.
‘I thought so,’ Bethany said, a bit too sharply, and Anders busied himself by fussing with a particularly hairy patch on his cheek.
‘Being out in the sun this much can addle a person as much as lyrium addles the templars,’ Anders said. ‘Did you know that, Bethany? Some people think it’s healthy, but to be perfectly honest with you, it can actually be quite detrimental.’
‘No one sighs like that without feeling something for someone,’ Bethany replied. She was just as ruthless as her brother, Anders was beginning to suspect, only without the whole heartless excuse. ‘And I should know.’
‘I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine,’ Anders offered.
Bethany didn’t even have to think it over. ‘Done,’ she replied.
Night fell hush and black as it always did, with only the stars and the moonlight to guide them. Hawke appeared on deck as soon as the cold crept in, almost as though he’d brought the cold with him, though Anders knew that wasn’t possible. The work for the day was done, and most of the crew at rest, with Varric playing the spoons against an empty barrel, Isabela beside him, clapping to the beat.
To Anders’s surprise, Carver was seated behind them both, a lute cradled in his hands, delicate and reverent, but also like he wished for nothing more than to break it over the head of the first person to make fun of him for playing it. Anders wasn’t going to be that person, despite the sudden, inconvenient urge, the idea that it might be hilarious—at least until his skull got cracked open. And wasn’t that always the way?
Still, he’d more expected Bethany to be the lutist of the family. A warrior’s fingers were rarely delicate enough for the strings.
‘Don’t just stand there staring,’ Isabela called, taking notice of Anders where he lingered in the shadows, her keen eyes flashing in the dark. ‘That’s no way to appreciate artistry, now is it?’
‘Come again?’ Anders asked, checking over his shoulder to make sure she wasn’t talking to someone else behind him. Then, stepping forward, he got the distinct impression he was walking into a trap, though he was only a mage, lacking the fleet feet necessary to avoid it.
‘I believe Rivaini’s trying to encourage you to dance, Blondie,’ Varric said, not missing a beat. ‘Fenris does, sometimes. But only when he thinks no one’s looking.’
‘You’re joking,’ Anders said. After all, it hadn’t been in any of the books. Anders was sure, if only because it was something he would have remembered.
‘Am I?’ Varric asked.
The ship pitched gently beneath them, and Anders nearly stumbled, but he managed to catch himself at the last moment. He was earning his sea legs one hour at a time, inch by inch—but that didn’t mean he was prepared to try dancing next.
‘Tch,’ Fenris muttered, close enough that Anders could feel the warmth of his breath through the cold wind. He shivered, tucking his hands further into his sleeves. ‘Be good enough not to spread your lies about me, dwarf, when I encounter people fortunate enough not to have heard them already.’
‘I take it that means you won’t be favoring us with a reel?’ Varric asked. He seemed unmoved, almost as if he viewed all this as another kind of story—one he’d already written the ending to.
‘It’s a pity.’ Isabela sighed. ‘As you can imagine, he looks marvelous when he frolics.’
‘You are mistaking me for some other elf,’ Fenris said. He crossed his arms as well, unconsciously mimicking Anders’s posture. It shouldn’t have meant anything, but Anders took note of it all the same.
If he shifted his weight, they’d be standing feathered shoulder to spiked pauldron.
It was the little moments that mattered most, both in the stories and in life.
Out of the corner of his eye, Anders saw Hawke moving toward them, the shadows that clung to his skin melting away as he approached the music and the light.
‘The witch indulges in such pastimes,’ Fenris elaborated. He paused. ‘Frolicking. I prefer not to.’
‘The witch—and I’m sure she adores that pet name; I never pegged you for such a charmer, Fenris—is below deck,’ Hawke said. He slipped a companionable arm around Fenris’s shoulders and then, unfathomably, one around Anders’s, as well. That was how Anders found himself pressed up against Hawke’s broad shoulder, the burnt smell of his boiled leather plate strong in the air. The muscles in Hawke’s arms flexed as he drew them in; Anders watched them shift beneath his skin, half-fascinated, entirely in awe, pale, fletched scars and hard bone. ‘She’s divining, she says. I think she had a premonition we might be running into some trouble up ahead, and I guess she wanted to get in touch with some of her spirit friends.’
‘Demons,’ Fenris spat.
Hawke shrugged. Anders could feel it against his body. ‘I say nug, you say noog. It’s all the same, really. So long as they’re on our side, then what does it matter?’
‘No one says noog, Hawke,’ Varric pointed out.
‘Wanted your opinion on that, actually,’ Hawke continued, ignoring Varric completely. ‘As luck would have it, Anders, you’re the only apostate aboard this vessel who’s ever been a part of the Circle. They teach you how to resist demons there, don’t they?’
‘That’s the idea—in an ideal world,’ Anders began, a bit more shyly than even he expected.
‘Which this isn’t,’ Hawke confirmed.
Anders cleared his throat, voice faltering. ‘Exactly that.’
All he’d wanted was some attention, but now that he had it—each glittering gaze so heated from across the uneven lamplight—he discovered it was too much. It was one thing to have exciting information to share, but when it came to his experiences with the Circle, it was tedium after tedium followed by more tedium, peppered with horror stories that made everyone look bad. Not exactly the impression one wanted to give, when one actually wanted to impress.
Besides which, of all possible topics, Fenris seemed the least charmed by this one.
The matter of apostates was a polarizing one. Anders knew there wasn’t a templar aboard the ship—no former templars, no future ones—but still their shadow stretched ever outward, a gauntleted hand reaching toward him, and Anders was always half-prepared for it to fall, heavy and tangy with sweat on metal, against his shoulder at any moment. You there, the voice would say, hollow beneath the flat-topped helmet, and the whole run-around would begin as though it had never really stopped.
Stranger things had happened. Like receiving a mystical artifact from an old friend one day, a map hidden with an otherwise inoffensive letter. Or Anders actually choosing to act on it, not conveniently bury it in the nearest ditch.
‘They try,’ Anders continued, ‘and with me, obviously, their teachings worked like a charm. I’ve never been possessed in my life. And that’s saying something, because those demons strike a pretty hard bargain. They offer such wonderful things, you see; they really know how to get to you.’
‘Pfaugh,’ Fenris said. Right on cue.
Isabela, at least, was slightly more charmed by the prospect. ‘Is that so?’ She leaned closer toward the lamp, lip-stud gleaming against a sudden flicker of light, the wind against the candle-wick making the flame gutter and jump. ‘What…kinds of things?’
‘I’m sure you can imagine,’ Carver said.
It might have been wishful thinking—the influence of Varric’s hints in his sometimes unsubtle prose—but the poor lad seemed terribly flushed at the thought of Isabela imagining anything.
‘Hey, some of us like not having to use our imagination, sometimes,’ Varric said. When everyone turned to look at him, more like outright staring, he held up his hands. ‘What? It’s true. You think I’d be half the writer I am today if I didn’t listen to other people’s stories all the time? No way. That kind of closed-mindedness keeps you from growing as an artist.’
‘It’s not a story, really,’ Anders tried to explain. ‘It’s more like a—life. That I’ve lived. Full of hardship and turmoil and hilarious coincidence, not to mention a liberal portion of misunderstanding and the occasional trouble with midges—’
‘Strangely enough, that wasn’t what I was asking you about,’ Hawke reminded him. ‘Unless it’s all part of the technique. The training. Is it part of the training, Anders?’
Anders coughed softly. ‘Yes. Well—no. But it’s not as interesting as you might think—’
‘Try me,’ Hawke said.
Everyone was watching Anders again; Varric’s momentary distraction had been exactly that, momentary, and now the moment was over, the new moment back in Anders’s hands. It made him feel powerful, in a way, to have such a captive audience, some of the greatest heroes—or was that anti-heroes?—in modern Thedas interested, for once, in his experiences. In him, as a person, whether they realized it or not. Anders knew he’d destroy the mystique as soon as he opened his mouth; that was why, he told himself, he was drawing it all out, only the center of their lives for so brief a time, against Hawke’s warm armor and cold skin, with Fenris nearby, jaw set at a hard angle.
‘Ultimately,’ Anders said, with a steadying breath, ‘it all depends on the person. I don’t think it’s something you can teach. Sooner or later, there’s an offer just good enough you take it. Or there isn’t. Everything else is just an ideal, but people can’t live like that; they mess it up. Spectacularly, I might add, with spectacularly terrible consequences. The real key is not to want anything. Not even deep down. Not even where you think it doesn’t matter.’
‘Well,’ Isabela said, leaning back and uncrossing her legs, ‘I suppose that means I’m doomed. But it could be worse,’ she added, with a wide, wicked grin. ‘I always did want to die happy—and thoroughly debauched.’
‘When you do,’ Varric told her, ‘just make sure I’m around to see it, all right?’
‘Of course, Varric,’ Isabela replied. ‘I’ll need someone to commemorate it. All that glory. All that action.’
‘Oh please,’ Carver muttered, but Anders wondered if it wasn’t a real request: like, oh please let me come along.
Anders turned his nervous laughter into a very serious cough. Hawke saw right through it, but clapped him on the back anyway, broad palm between his shoulder-blades.
‘No worries,’ Anders explained. ‘Just a reaction I have to the current topic. Bit of a mage thing. Not something I’d expect everyone to understand.’
‘That is how you avoid the demons?’ Fenris asked. His voice scratched somewhere deep in his throat, or perhaps deeper still, in the hollow of his chest. ‘It seems a poor tactic. A very poor one.’
‘It suits me, then,’ Anders replied lightly. ‘Did you know that I’m a very poor person?’
‘We had no idea from the way you were dressed,’ Hawke said, voice turning wry.
Anders could feel the heat rise from his throat over his cheeks, prickling beneath the stubble on his jaw. ‘You know me,’ he said. ‘Or—you could, if you wanted to. Which you obviously don’t. But I’m very straightforward like that. It’s part of my charm. I don’t really pretend to be something I’m not. Unless you’re a templar, in which case, regular rules don’t apply.’ He paused to swallow, to wet his lips with his tongue. The others had gone back to music; whatever prophecy Hawke had been looking for, whatever caution or warning, seemed to be forgotten, but Anders suspected it wasn’t. They dealt with it whatever way they could, and that was the only way they managed to sleep at night.
Most of the time, Anders couldn’t sleep at all.
‘Anyway,’ he continued, ‘I find it somewhat preferable to the other option. Well, not outright possession of the growling grunting melting-sulfur sort. The other-other option.’
‘Which is?’ Fenris grit out, while Hawke watched, expression halfway between impassive and generally delighted.
So he liked watching people dance for his amusement. Good entertainment was hard to find these days.
‘Thinking you’ve got it all under control,’ Anders replied simply. ‘I’d rather underestimate my own abilities than overestimate them. It’s always seemed slightly less dangerous, at least when one is caught between a rock and a hard place. Going out in a blaze of glory or remaining blissfully unimportant? I know what I’d choose. What I have chosen, actually.’
‘Then why are you here, I wonder?’ Hawke asked.
‘Personal reasons,’ Anders reminded Hawke—reminded himself, really, because every now and then, he started to ask himself the same question, or started to forget. ‘All to do with a friend, who happened to be one of those blaze of glory types. And you can see where that landed him.’
‘Smack in the middle of the Gallows.’ There was a certain relish in Hawke’s tone, as though he was very much looking forward to his own blaze of glory, if it came. Or rather, when it came. For a man with no heart to speak of, he didn’t seem to have much trouble evoking raw passions. ‘You’d best watch yourself, Anders. I have this crazy notion that traveling to the wellspring of all Thedas’s mystical refuse is going to make you a little less unimportant, when all’s said and done.’
His words carried with them an uncomfortable ring of truth. For the first time, Anders felt less like a footnote in one of The Champion’s Tales and more like a featured character.
It was everything he’d ever dreamed of. And, perhaps for that reason, exactly what he didn’t need.
The storeroom was still cramped and dark, but at least no one had thought to remove the lamps or the hammock after Fenris’s convalescence. Privately, Anders thought it was beginning to resemble a real room at last, albeit one that shared space with barrels of brine and strands of garlic on rope.
Nothing beat the night Anders had come downstairs to find a whole squid split from end-to-end and drying on the floor where he normally slept. He hadn’t known whom to speak to about it, but thankfully the horrible thing had been removed sometime in the following afternoon, causing Anders to move his makeshift bedroll to another spot. Simply knowing the squid had been there was enough to give him nightmares—worse than usual.
At least it had been company, Anders thought, as he checked the lamps for oil. Miserable, flattened, be-tentacled company, but apostates couldn’t be choosers, or so the old saying went. Tonight even Dog seemed to have abandoned him for greener pastures—the animal was likely hunting rats in the galley, or scratching at Merrill’s door. Blood magic made it nervous, which just proved it was more sensible than a good number of Circle mages Anders had known in his lifetime.
But that was all well and good, Anders told himself. After the strangeness of being embraced by The Champion’s crew at last—not to mention embraced by Hawke himself, physically, which was different—what he needed was a moment of privacy to clear his head. Solitude was really the only acceptable state when it came to moments of contemplation. For example: Varric probably worked in silence, finding the perfect words, crafting the perfect metaphors. Peace and quiet was what the mind needed to get going, nothing but its own whirring thoughts providing necessary distraction.
Anders didn’t often indulge in the habit, mostly because he didn’t often think. The more he thought, the less he was certain of anything, rather than the other way around—but every now and then there was a special occasion, special enough that he broke with tradition, and actually embraced reflection.
The Maker himself seemed to know it was too dangerous, because he’d only just begun before he was interrupted.
From somewhere beyond the door, the ship’s planks creaked; Anders jumped, knocking into a hanging lantern with his shoulder.
‘Ow,’ Anders said. Why was it that doing the right thing, logical and sensible and mature, always ended in some manner of physical pain? Didn’t the Maker want to encourage him to be a better person? ‘For the last time, Dog, I’m trying to be alone, and alone doesn’t include you. As a matter of fact, you are the opposite of alone. You are its arch-enemy, its number one adversary. It’s prime antithesis.’
Anders waited for the whine, the huff, the scolding, depressed bark. It didn’t come.
‘Mage,’ Fenris said instead from without, and Anders felt like jumping all over again, his pulse kick-starting like a spooked Orlesian warhorse.
Truth be told, he’d assumed that their conversation on-deck had been the end of things for Fenris—the final straw, as it were. It was evident he hated magic—the books always made such a big deal of it—and therefore it seemed reasonable to assume he’d want nothing to do with a mage. Especially not a mage who’d just laid out the very real danger of demonic possession in detail; even when someone was partial to you, they tended to stop being partial, after demons were involved.
And yet, Fenris was here, while Anders was cowering in his storeroom like an apprentice who’d been caught lighting things on fire again. Not that he knew about that personally or anything.
Anders cleared his throat.
‘Ah—not in, actually,’ he said. ‘Although if you’re looking for Anders… Well, I suppose that would be a different matter altogether.’
There was a pause, during which Anders had just enough time to curse his inappropriate sense of humor at least six separate ways, before the door-handle turned.
‘Anders,’ Fenris amended. He lurked in the open doorway like a cat, refusing to come in or leave. Not at all like Dog, who would have bounded in and started licking, as though they’d been separated for years, not minutes. Fortunately, Anders had some experience with that particular attitude. He stood back, waiting as Fenris examined the room for hidden booby traps or whatever else he thought Anders might have set up in the interim. The dog, perhaps—or more dried squid. Very slippery. So many deadly tentacles.
‘Fenris,’ Anders replied, but only after Fenris took the first step—bare toes against the worn wooden planks, passing across the threshold, coming to a full stop.
Fenris glanced up, then looked away. The sharp tips of his armored gloves drummed against one steel-plated vambrace. Anders held his breath. ‘I wish to know—what happens after Lieutenant Admiral Vallen catches The Champion on the reef,’ Fenris said at last. ‘It seems a poor place to stop. …All things considered.’
Surprise trickled through Anders like a sudden squall, cold and refreshing. ‘It does?’ he asked. He cleared his throat, then tried again. ‘I mean—it does. It is. The middle makes for a terrible ending.’
‘Yes,’ Fenris agreed, with a stiffness not entirely ungrateful.
In fact, more than anything, he just looked awkward. Anders recognized this was an awkward action, awkward for both of them, but more so for the person who’d made the first move. And that person was Fenris, ranging by the door, inspecting something invisible beneath the tip of one claw.
He’d extended the gesture. Now it was up to Anders to respond, instead of standing there stunned, about as interactive as a dried octopus.
The book was sitting on the floor by the hammock, a strip of dried leather holding their place from before. Anders moved for it at once, one hand on the binding, the other reaching for a nearby barrel. If his coat hadn’t been destroyed by splintered wood and armored gauntlets and salty winds and dog drool already, it would have been done in by the overwhelming smell of pickles, seeping in through the barrel staves. Anders perched himself neatly atop it, for once not even thinking about the stench of the brine, while Fenris regarded the hammock like it, too, was booby-trapped.
Anders resisted the urge to sigh and draw attention to that hesitation, lest it somehow feel encouraged to spread or grow. The hammock was dangerous, actually; Anders had tried sleeping in it just the night before, and ended up face-down on the ground, legs still tangled in the burlap, with a crick in his neck and a bruise on his chin and the dog whuffing at him, almost like quiet laughter. Being laughed at by a mabari was too much indignity for even a man as well-versed in the ways of it as Anders, and he’d resolved never to trust the thing again, no matter how much more comfortable it was than the floor.
Somehow the floor was where Anders always ended up, no matter where he began. It seemed less cruel to fool himself into thinking it might ever be any different.
Underestimation. It was prudent. Safe. Comfortable. Not always noble, but then, not everyone could be. It was sensible, and Anders knew how to be the opposite, just not when it counted. That was why he liked to read: to experience every bravery he couldn’t muster alone.
‘Where were we?’ he asked.
Fenris had chosen a crate; it scraped along the floor, coming to a full stop neither too close nor too far from the hammock and the barrels and the lamp, and Anders himself. For a moment it seemed as though he was about to peer at the pages, before he thought better of it, and made a noise of impatience instead. ‘Do you not remember?’
Anders thought about everything that had happened in the interim, all his personal revelations, all Bethany’s personal revelations, his suspicions about Carver and Isabela, Merrill conducting blood magic somewhere close by, and demons on the waters ahead—not that the last was so surprising; in a mage’s life, there were always fresh demons on the horizon. And there was face time with Hawke, too, the Hawke, actual words exchanged, and further proof of his half-pitiable, half-enviable state, the heart he didn’t have, the heart he’d traded over. Knowing Hawke, he’d done it without question, or even pause.
‘No,’ Anders admitted. ‘I don’t remember. That’s actually why I asked.’
Part of it was that he’d read the story so many times already. Each scene slipped and slid into the next, about as distinct as the lapping waves of high tide. They were all the same as the last, all the same as the next.
‘Lieutenant-Admiral Vallen was closing in,’ Fenris said, finally taking his seat. He rested his elbow against his knee, spiked armor on spiked armor, fingers curled against his palm. Waiting; almost expectant. ‘There was no way out, save for through the cliffs.’ He tched, tutted. Anders was starting to think of it as a sigh of exasperation, spelled like tfft. ‘As though a man like Hawke would not navigate those waters with little difficulty. He knows the way of it. There is hardly any real suspense.’
His impatience, Anders noted, was tinged with disbelief, not to mention a touch of scorn, wondering how Anders could have possibly forgotten something so important.
Anders slid the strap of leather free, wrapping it around his fingers. ‘You have to remember, Fenris, this is where it all began. Not even Hawke was magnificent from the start. He had to learn the way of it.’
‘One does not learn magnificence,’ Fenris pointed out.
He was right, but it rankled Anders two-fold all the same. Firstly, because it was never pleasant to be confronted with one’s own limitations, who you could and could not be; and secondly, because Hawke already had Varric to sing his praises, and wasn’t that enough?
Anders sighed. Fenris arched a dark brow, as though to say, I’m waiting.
There were all kinds of people in Thedas, Anders supposed; not all of them could be Varrics, and even fewer could be Hawkes. Some were Carvers, the worst fate of all, and some, pleasantly, were Bethanys. Some were Isabelas, a rare breed, thriving on the fun most never admitted they wished they could have, and more were Merrills than you thought, since blood magic was ever so common these days. Far too many were Anders; that was something Anders had come to understand all too quickly, and not just because of the name itself. An Anders: someone who underachieved because the opposite was far too meaningful. Someone who read, instead of someone who did. They weren’t always, by necessity, mutually exclusive; it was only in the case of an Anders that they very much were.
But Anders had only ever met one Fenris. He wasn’t so much heroic as he was stubbornly straightforward, refreshing but also intimidating, a brand of determination that didn’t lack imagination, but also didn’t understand it, even when it was his.
And those people, sometimes, required the services of others—the Anders of the world, not even the thinkers, not even the storytellers. Just the readers. Someone who knew how to do all the voices, with little more guidance than candlelight.
Anders smiled down into the book, and Fenris asked, ‘Is there a…funny part, I take it?’
‘Well, you probably won’t think so,’ Anders replied, and began to read.
Usually, Anders read until the candle went out, which it did of its own accord after a few hours; by then, Anders’s tongue was stiff and his throat was hoarse. The candle never guttered because of any stiff breeze; they were below-deck, and Dog knew now not to drool on the wick.
Anders was in the middle of the great duel between Hawke and Sebastian Vael—arguably the finest scene in Varric’s extensive body of work, since both were rogues, and neither above hitting below the belt—when someone blew out the candle.
‘Critics,’ Anders sighed into the darkness, even as a shadowy chill ran up the back of his neck. ‘They’re everywhere. Was it the brogue? I really thought I had it that time.’
Fenris huffed, an impatient sound that never quite achieved real anger. ‘You were not truly trying,’ he said, in a moment of startlingly accurate insight. ‘It was an effort at comedy, and a poor one at that.’ He drew breath to continue, pausing only when the bright lines of lyrium in his skin began, without warning, to flicker.
Light pulsed through his veins like the undertow of the ocean current, traveling down his forearms and along his dark jaw, ribbed like a barrel’s staves at the flex of his throat. Anders stared, mouth dry. Under normal circumstances, he’d have cracked a joke about how useful it was never to need a lamp—possibly something about how Fenris was better than a lantern and could Anders hang him on the wall?—but Anders had spent enough time aboard The Champion, not to mention following its previous exploits, to question sudden acts of the inexplicable arcane.
A candle that went out by itself was one thing. Fenris’s lyrium acting up was another. The two of those in concert spelled trouble, clear as the words on the page it was now too dark to read.
‘I suppose this means you’ll have to lecture me on my brogue another time,’ Anders murmured, already closing the book.
‘Hush,’ Fenris told him. Only the dim outline of his shimmering skin told Anders that he was moving. He slipped silently out of his crouch on the crate and moved to the door, one hand already on the broadsword at his back.
There were times when Anders managed to forget it was there. That was the difference between mages and warriors, he supposed, although in Anders’s defense, Fenris moved with the kind of grace once didn’t normally achieve under the weight of an enormous steel weapon.
Anders realized he was staring again—acting like this was something written down in a book, a story to read aloud, but not participate in directly—and got to his feet instead. It was something about the chill air, or the spark of pale blue light along the length of Fenris’s blade, the figure he cut in the icy dark, that inspired Anders to act.
Or maybe it was just that he didn’t want to be left in the darkened storeroom alone, without even the dog for company, without even Fenris’s glowing tattoos to combat the hungry shadows.
‘The witch was communing with her demons,’ Fenris murmured, already opening the door. In the corridor, the air was icier still. It was black as pitch outside the storeroom, and gray mist filtered through the cracks between planks, clinging to the floor and walls.
They’d sailed into a fog somewhere during Anders’s second week aboard, but even then, the air hadn’t been quite this sleepy or quite this thick. Hot morning sun had burned off most of the haze by noon; now, Anders tried to remember what the sun even looked like, struggling to recall what it meant to be warm.
A mage was supposed to know the arcane when he felt it. In this case, it was strong enough to be seen as well as felt, the cool whispers of the Fade beneath the roiling smoke.
‘If this is her doing,’ Fenris continued, a strong voice in the swallowing silence, ‘if she has endangered this ship with more of her bargains—’
Anders felt the cold squeezing at his heart. At least he wasn’t a blood mage—he’d never even considered it, one of the few consistent principles he’d had—and from the venom in Fenris’s voice, Anders was happier than ever not to be an abomination. As though he needed any more reasons to convince him he’d made the right choice, for once.
They moved toward the upper deck together, Anders giving Fenris the lead, along with enough room to swing that monstrosity of his. It was a qunari weapon; Anders remembered that from the stories. Fenris had a certain affinity for their people, and carried the thing as a sign of respect. Anders, in turn, respected the thing enough to be sure to stay out of its way; and it was remarkable how respect and fear were such close cousins. Practically brothers, really.
‘Hush,’ Fenris cautioned.
But Anders hadn’t said anything. He strained to listen, while distant whispers crept down the back of his neck, under the frayed collar, turning his nervous sweat to pearls of ice.
In the distance, he heard it at last: singing. The melody slipped through the walls, far-off but gaining on them, shivering through his skin and making all the hairs on his body stand on end, even his stubble and the unruly flyaways at his brow he could never tie back. The voice was too high, too melodic for Isabela, who preferred rough-throated sea shanties to keep her awake in the rigging. It was too delicate for Bethany, and held none of Merrill’s recognizable lilt. And it was too feminine to be Varric, too close to a voice to be whistling.
But there was something familiar about it despite that. Anders knew who it wasn’t; he also felt as though he knew what it was.
The fog reminded Anders of his jaunts to the Fade, his Harrowing being the prime example—and he’d never wanted to go through that again.
Fenris’s skin flickered, then blazed bright. Anders knew he was standing next to the fabled lyrium ghost now, the legend with the ability to walk through walls and even stop a man’s heart in his chest. But if they were going above deck, it wouldn’t be enough. Not if Anders’s instincts were right, which they were occasionally known to be.
‘Stay close to me,’ Anders said, on impulse. ‘And don’t believe anything you see out there.’
‘I rarely do,’ Fenris replied.
Even his voice was glowing.
Anders didn’t want to go up on deck; he also knew he had no choice but to do just that. He’d cautioned Fenris not to wander, but it was as much for Anders’s benefit as it was for his. Fenris followed his duty to the ship; Anders followed Fenris because he needed someone to follow. There was strength in numbers, to be sure, but most of it was emotional—mental—a potion concocted to soothe the nerves: the idea that one’s odds naturally improved if one wasn’t alone. That was all camaraderie was, in the end—or so Anders told himself as his joints began to freeze, the boards not even creaking as they ascended the stairs and headed topside. Someone else to stand between you and danger—not just beside you, but literally between.
In the grand scheme of things, everyone always thought in terms of him or me.
Maybe it wasn’t so ignoble in the books. There were some, a rare few, who made sacrifices for others. Hawke, for example, hadn’t fallen prey to that particular brand of selfish decision-making—when asked, by the Witch of the Wilds, if it would be them or him, he’d answered me.
Not a normal fellow, Hawke. And Anders was still uncertain—fingernails turning blue, teeth chattering, blood slowing in his veins, only the bright flash of Fenris’s form in front of him to keep him focused, to keep his eyes from freezing shut—whether or not that was actually a good thing. Presumably it was.
But not everyone could be a hero. Even fewer could be genuinely selfless. If everyone in Thedas only ever did things for other people, when would they have the time to do things for themselves?
Surely there was something fundamentally wrong with that. No one could live that way, no matter how nice the theory sounded.
Anders reached up stiffly, attempting to wipe the frost off his lashes and brows. He could feel it crackling around his lips, the metal clasps on his coat and belt so heavy and cold they nearly burned the skin beneath. Fenris didn’t seem to mind—he looked like ice already, ice around a candle, but the glow wasn’t quite as warm as Anders always imagined, and it seemed slower somehow, lacking the passion and the flash, nothing at all like burst after streaking burst of raw power. Maybe Varric hadn’t studied the lyrium ghost closely enough; maybe he had this detail wrong, same as all the others Anders had begun to notice, and even catalogue.
Or maybe Fenris was just as affected by the cold as Anders was.
Moonlight glinted off the deck. Plates of ice had curled around the bottom of the mainmast, frozen waves stretching from port to starboard, a glittering splash wrapped like a vine around the base of the ship’s wheel. The stars glinted off the polished surface; when Anders looked down, he was nearly blinded by his own reflection.
And the singing was growing louder, voices just as cold as the air, each puff of labored breath met with an answering note. Beneath that song hummed the promise of warmth.
In the distance, just beyond the helm, Anders thought he saw something shift and turn—another wisp of smoke, as smooth and subtle as a woman’s naked back—pale and blue in a slant of moonlight. Like a fish leaping above water, the glossy curve of a dolphin mid-leap. The singing stopped; the ship creaked. Anders thought he heard someone giggle, a fond chastisement, a tut of reprimand. Nothing too serious.
Silly. Those aren’t the right words.
The cold was slowing him down—not just his body, but his thoughts, too. When he glanced to his feet, he noticed the ice around his legs; just because Fenris was still moving, could phase through the very deck if he wanted to, didn’t mean Anders had the same luxury.
Anders knew it wouldn’t be appreciated, but something had to be done about the cold, and the ice because of the cold, and the fact that the song came now with moist, freezing breath along the back of Anders’s neck. The same invisible huff, perhaps, that had blown the candle out. It tickled, not necessarily in a pleasant way, little fingers drawn between his shoulders, down the length of his back. Sharp nails, something burning beyond the chill. Anders drew on an old spell, and hoped The Champion would forgive the use of the fireball later.
But nothing happened. The arcane heat Anders knew so well guttered and fizzled out before it ever reached his fingertips. Anders wondered if they were in the Fade, where magic was always so much more close at hand, yet so much more finicky, too. You had to chase it down, like the threads of a narrative from a distant dream, all elements that made sense only in terms of instinct, but not in terms of spells or even simply words. The more Anders tightened his hold, the more intangible his magic became.
Then, with a sweet little laugh and a flurry of fresh air, that curl of smoke wrapped around his shoulders, gusting from his back to settle before him. It formed, without warning, a pair of well shaped breasts, pert nipples, a glint of gold, the same purple as a fresh bruise.
Or maybe that was just the color of smoke and moonlight.
Anders heard himself catch his breath.
‘What are you doing all the way out here, I wonder,’ the breasts said—or rather, their owner said it, her face matching up all too nicely with the rest of her. It. Demon, Anders reminded himself, but that was the thing about demons—demons like this one, pretty ones, were far too attractive for anyone to care.
‘Having a nice trip,’ Anders managed, smoke billowing right underneath his nose. ‘At least, I was—until you came along. Was all the ice really necessary? Couldn’t we just be normally becalmed?
‘I could make it nicer,’ the demon replied.
‘Nicer than all this?’ Anders asked.
Unlike a templar, the demon didn’t get impatient. Words meant nothing. The pounding of Anders’s heart meant everything. ‘So much nicer,’ she agreed.
It, Anders reminded himself. Demon. And only one type of demon looked this good. Desire, a tantalizing body of recognizable parts, made of nothing more substantial than smoke. But you still couldn’t resist wrapping your arms around it—making it your nothing, as if that meant anything at all.
In the moment, it always did.
‘I won’t argue with that,’ Anders choked. ‘I mean, I have to sleep on the floor. The floor! With pickles. Awful business, that. Not something I’ve ever, ah, desired before.’
‘No,’ the demon agreed. She rubbed her neck as though it was sore—as though demons ever felt sore, beyond imitation and artifice, something meant to draw Anders’s attention to how smooth her neck looked, how slender it was compared to the wider spread of her breasts, the way her slim fingers pressed against an invisible pulse, a lingering warmth. ‘Sleeping on the floor like a dog? My bed’s far more comfortable. And you can still behave like an animal, if that’s your fancy.’
Anders felt a slender sprig of heat shoot up within him, not his own arcane fire, but something far more common and mundane. Desire. Everyone had it. That was why demons were always so successful. They preyed on those commonplace yearnings that existed within every man: pride, lust, gluttony. All of it hunger. If there was a demon of Living Free In a Mansion With Many Romance Novels and Just a Few Cats, then Anders would have been made an abomination long ago. Since that didn’t seem to be a very common weakness among men or mages, thus far he’d managed to resist.
Yet every time he asked himself, is this it? Surely there’d be a tipping point—not just a good offer, but the best one. Time was ticking. Anders wasn’t necessarily sick of postponing the inevitable as he was aware, very aware, that was all he was doing.
‘No thanks,’ Anders heard himself saying. The demon’s siren song had quieted, but he could still hear whispers of it carried on the frigid breeze, promising him all the things he’d never asked for—everything life had never seen fit to offer. ‘I’m actually quite comfortable where I am, you know. Sleeping on the floor. Being human. Being not an abomination. Those are all things I’m rather fond of at this present moment in time and I can’t see that changing in the near future, either. But—very good job, you know? It was tempting, I’ll give you that. No need to feel bad about it. You very nearly got me.’
The demon sighed. Anders saw crystals of ice pass her lips, turning to vapor as they hit the air. He shifted experimentally, to see whether the ice had loosened its hold on his feet. It hadn’t, but he was beginning to feel warmer.
Refusing a demon had a way of spiking one’s adrenaline. It had been all the rage back in the Circle, the most fun you could have without participating in an orgy.
‘I see now,’ the demon said. She cocked her head, long horns jangling with the jewelry worn by her last victims. Her voice was a little like Isabela’s, or would have been if Isabela had no heart—a dangerous combination. ‘You’re no ordinary man, to be swayed by simpler offers. Silly me—I should have known that from the start.’ She leaned in close, one lavender-tinted hand at Anders’s shoulder, breath prickling against his skin, just waiting to blow his light out. ‘I know what you really want: a pretty girl, a hot meal, and the right to shoot lightning at fools—isn’t that right? I could provide you with those fools. No one goes looking for a few measly templars. And the hot meal, and the pretty girl—I happen to know the prettiest.’
Anders drew in a sharp breath. He couldn’t hide everything from demons, as much as he wanted to. It galled him to hear his own needs voiced outside his head, words he would have used in a voice that wasn’t his, but the surprise set his heart to hammering, pumping his blood where it had once run sluggish and slow. He needed that fire, the discomfort that came from being pinned in a tight spot with no way out.
Already, he’d been at this too long. There was no telling what might’ve happened to the rest of the crew; not all of them were mages, and Hawke himself had said Anders was the only one with experience in fending off demons.
This was his moment. This was Anders’s special skill, something he could do that no other member of the crew could.
Or so Hawke had said, as though he’d predicted the entire show-down before it came to pass.
‘No,’ Anders said, half to his doubts, half to the demon’s offer. He clenched his jaw, to keep his teeth from chattering. Again, he cast for the fire within him; this time, he felt an answering crackle. Resistance had lit a spark within his chest. He thought hard about cupping his hands around that light, coaxing it into a true flame, shielding it from the cold, feeding it with his own body heat. What little there was left of it, anyway. ‘No—actually—I sort of like it here. You might not understand that, being a demon and all, seeing as how it makes a tremendously little amount of sense, but the thing is, I’ve never been part of the story before. So, if it’s all the same to you, I’d like to see how this one turns out. Finish what you start, and all that. So sorry you can’t do the same.’
The demon snarled. This time, when Anders shifted his foot, he felt a crack in the ice shackling him to the floor. Her hold on him was breaking—he had to move quickly, or risk being torn to pieces. Demons didn’t like being thwarted, same as anyone else, and just because it wasn’t their first impulse to kill a man didn’t mean they were above it. Quite the contrary, in fact. Sharp claws sunk into Anders’s shoulder, sending white-hot pricks of pain through his flesh. Heat crackled through his skin, rushing to his fingertips, purpling with cold.
Anders didn’t have time to wonder where the others were, where Hawke was, or if anyone would be around to stop him from setting fire to the ship. He did have time for a brief prayer to the Maker—never a friend to mages at the best of times, but he figured it couldn’t hurt—before bright orange flames burst free from his palm, lighting the night sky and frying the demon where she stood. Her screams pierced the air as the flames licked downward, and Anders wrestled free of the melting ice around his boots, following up his first stream of fire with a second. That couldn’t hurt, either.
‘Suck on that,’ Anders muttered; his face fell when he realized how clever he’d been with no one around to hear it.
But if there was no one around to hear it, and he’d come on deck with Fenris, then…
There was no telltale flash of lyrium, no pulse of cold blue light to answer Anders’s fire. There was no pfaugh, no scrape of metal as the qunari blade was drawn, no indignant huff letting Anders know exactly what he thought of spells running wild in such close quarters.
Anders was alone. And without the charred corpse of the desire demon to light his way, the deck was bathed in darkness once more.
Anders fumbled before a new flame—less deadly, this time—flickered to life in the hold of his palm. He lifted it high like a lantern, still surrounded by that haunting song, no longer just something that could be heard, but also something that could be seen, and felt, with a color and a taste on the air and everything. It hadn’t been just one desire demon after them—no, of course not, because that was never how Anders’s life worked, and certainly not how The Champion’s stories worked—but rather a whole choir of them.
In the pale light shed from Anders’s weakening spell, arcane energy from the Fade sucking all the life out of other, lesser magics, he saw a faint glow in the distance, high up on the helm of the ship, clambering onto the bowsprit. The glow flickered on and off; Anders only had a brief moment, barely more than the fraction of a breath, to wonder what the demon had offered Fenris, how she’d managed to sway someone so stubborn, with such a wealth of resolve.
It wasn’t his fault. Demons could be so persuasive—they were the very definition of persuasion, persuasion given voice, persuasion given song. And there was no one alive who didn’t want something.
‘Fenris—!’ Anders called, his voice swallowed by the sudden pitch of the frenzied song. He contemplated using magic against him—just a small bolt of lightning, weak magic to break the stronger magic’s hold. Fenris would hate Anders for it, that would be a given, but at least he’d be alive to hate at all, and not somewhere buried deep in the ocean, poised as he was on the bow, about to leap into the ice-capped waters below.
The sound of Anders’s voice barely made it through all the mist; the song itself was more tangible than desire ever was, though it had no words, only the promise of the melody. Even now, even having beat his demon at her own game, Anders couldn’t help but stop to think how pretty it was, how much prettier it would be if it only took its proper form. He saw Fenris’s shoulder twitch, the sound of his name carried to him at last, then snatched away by the very same breeze, teasing him, taunting him, never intending for rescue to be an option.
Anders stumbled forward. Only one of the ice-plates had melted; the other was still half-formed around his ankle, bringing him down. Lightning built as an impulse, as a headache, as a last resort, tension pinched between his brows, his lips parting as he shouted Fenris’s name a second time.
Maybe it had to do with the name—names as spells, and Fenris not his real name at all.
Then, like a bolt of lightning himself, Hawke appeared.
Rather—Hawke swung down from the rigging, one arm wound tightly with the rope, the other reaching out to grab Fenris around the middle, taking him out over the water, before they arched back around and landed together on deck.
Anders heard the thud, followed by the scuffle. The song turned ugly—or maybe it had been ugly all along, a collection of screams that pretended to be sweet nothings. Now that they were unveiled, Anders reached up to clasp his hands over his ears, while Hawke and Fenris fought, and Hawke laughed—laughed—into the chaos of sound, just before he won.
Fenris fell; the light of the lyrium ghost was snuffed. Anders could barely see amidst so much screaming, with only the clouded moonlight, Hawke’s actions like shadows beyond the furious smoke. Anders followed him, or tried to follow him, as he dragged Fenris all the way to the mainmast.
There, at the very base, was the rest of the crew.
Anders blinked, certain at first he was only hallucinating. But he was near enough to it that the familiar sight resolved itself—just as he realized he was halfway between the mast and the gangplank, halfway between safely on deck and throwing himself overboard, tricked by his own desires into drowning in the deep.
‘Come back,’ Isabela moaned, thrashing against the rope that bound her—for she was bound, just like the others, and the creaking of fresh knots being tied signaled Fenris was joining them, all of them lashed into place by Hawke’s deft hand. ‘We weren’t done yet! And where’s the ship you promised me, anyway?’
‘That’s right, Bianca,’ Varric mumbled, a bit lower, not so much thrashing as he was making kissy-faces at no one. ‘You know you’re the only one for me.’
‘Back, Archdemon,’ Carver added, one arm free from his binds, as he brandished an invisible broadsword. ‘I’ll be the one to slay you, and no mistake. The name Carver Hawke won’t be forgotten any time soon—’
Anders flushed; he wished he could stick his fingers more deeply in his ears, hands still warm from the burst of arcane fire, just so he wouldn’t have to know anything more personal about the others. What a desire demon offered his new friend Bethany was far too personal for their current relationship; they knew things about one another, yes, even private things, but that was all guesswork, and there was something much safer about that than actually knowing.
Knowing ruined everything.
‘—powerful enough that no man’s your master already, Fenris,’ Anders heard Hawke saying, as he pulled one finger free of its respective ear, curiosity getting the better of him. As always.
Now that was what the demon should have offered him: magical hearing. The ability to eavesdrop on every conversation, from the King of Ferelden’s private chambers to the most expensive rooms at the Pearl. If only it had offered him that, Anders would never have been able to refuse.
But, Anders admitted, somewhere very deep, it wasn’t the same as what he’d nearly been given. A chance to turn the ship around, to return to the way things were. A life very much like drowning, in fact, except so slowly a man didn’t have to notice that was what he was doing. He could have spent the next thirty or forty years drowning, with a hot meal and a pretty girl and the occasional lightning shot at fools.
Or, he could stay aboard The Champion, the fear of the horizon offering him a new life in the unknown.
He’d made his choice. Not exactly one he’d ever thought he’d make, either.
It had to mean something—something unpleasant, something either very mature, or very immature, or possibly the mad combination of both.
Anders heard the sound of a callused hand patting knotted rope; then, the deck creaked, the ice cracking further and further with each nearing footfall. Finally, all the shadows knit together, darkening, taking new form, and Anders looked up to see Hawke looming over him, eyes bright as twin stars.
It was blocked from the moonlight, but the metal of his amulet still gleamed.
‘A light, if you please,’ Hawke said. ‘Bring it over to the helm. The sooner we’re out of these waters, the better.’
Of course, Anders thought. There was no one alive who didn’t want something, except for the man who couldn’t want anything—the man who had no heart.
‘We’re close to the Gallows now,’ Hawke added, striding toward the ship’s wheel. Varric slurped wetly in the distance, smooching Bianca, whoever that was, and Anders heard Bethany giggle, heard Fenris curse in rich Tevinter. Anders had just enough time to think how beautiful the language was—not to mention how crass Fenris was being—before he struggled to his feet and hurried to Hawke’s side.
It was curiously lonely on deck, despite the chatter of the imprisoned crew nearby. Hawke took his place at the helm, and Anders took someone else’s place beside him, holding his light aloft for Hawke to steer by. Even to an inexperienced eye such as Anders’s, the waters looked grim and murky, blacker than black, save for the occasional streak of pale white ice sleeking past the prow. He’d never thought about the different oceans before—one seemed very much like another, a great deal of water and salt and seaweed—but the waters around the Gallows were supposed to swell black with forbidden magic.
This seemed about right.
Hawke, the wind rifling through his dark hair, sweat glittering on his brow in the dim firelight, seemed unimpressed and unbothered by any of it. Anders wondered for the hundredth time what must have been going on in his mind; there had to be something, to combat the nothing in his chest. Did Hawke know he was supposed to feel something and felt only its absence instead, or was this perfectly normal to him, having forgotten the way of emotions altogether?
Now seemed as good a time as any to ask. Except for the fact that, no matter how Anders phrased it, it was going to be rude.
‘When you say close,’ Anders ventured instead, the light bobbing as he stepped nearer to Hawke, ‘what do you mean, exactly? How far along are we? One man’s close is another man’s eternity—usually my eternity, come to think of it. I wonder why that is.’
‘Shouldn’t be more than a few days, now.’ Hawke grunted, then cast a look toward his crew. Bethany seemed to have gone slack in her ropes, but a few of the others were still struggling. ‘Would’ve been a lot longer if I’d had to stop in Par Vollen and pick up another crew. Bet you didn’t think you’d be applying that knowledge of yours so soon, did you?’
‘Did you?’ Anders asked. The words came out too quickly for him to think of propriety. And he was curious; it seemed all too convenient that Hawke had thought to ask about the best way to resist a demon on the same night they were attacked by a host of them, haunting here and tempting there.
Hawke’s sharp eyes found him in the dark. It was the sort of look designed to read the measure of a man, long and serious; Anders held his gaze. In the distance, bands of dark gray streaked across the horizon. The sun would be rising soon, and Anders was going to regret the night’s exertion when it did. He wasn’t as young as he used to be, a phrase that seemed to gain new meaning with every passing year.
‘Sometimes I hear things,’ Hawke said, in the same tone that any other man would have used to say sometimes I like eggs for supper or sometimes it rains in Ferelden. ‘Not voices, just…’ He trailed off, tapping his chest. Anders caught another glimpse of the amulet, wondered whether it was warm or cool to the touch. His fingers twitched; the flame in his palm was drawn toward it. ‘Sometimes I think it’s her—the old witch. Not warning me, no; that’s never been her style. But a side effect, perhaps. Something that just is. Maybe being touched by old magic means you always know when it’s coming.’ Hawke shrugged. The idea didn’t seem to bother him. Maybe he thought it useful more than it was disturbing. ‘The bit that’s inside me recognizes its own, or something.’
‘Like how an old sailor’s joints ache when it rains?’ Anders asked, knowing full well it wasn’t the same thing.
Hawke cracked a smile. ‘Ask me in thirty years,’ he said. ‘You’ll have your answer then.’
With Hawke manning the helm, it was impossible to feel as though their course wasn’t the right one. Anders almost felt as though they’d sailed straight into morning as the sun rose, and the ice floes melted, and they left the darkness somewhere behind them, in a murky past, hopefully not the same course they’d travel on their way back.
If, at this point, Anders could even contemplate returning.
The very act presupposed a harbor, a safehouse, a home, and Anders didn’t have any of those things, not even the palest imitation of one. He’d always supposed they’d pop into the Gallows, take what they wanted, fight a few arcane horrors, beasts never before seen by man or dwarf who lived to tell the tale, and after it was all over, Karl would know where to go, or, if Karl was no more, Hawke would drop Anders at a neighboring port. Perhaps somewhere nice, like wicked Rivain, or sunny Antiva.
Anders hadn’t given it much thought. But in the slim hours between night and dawn, with the soft, gentle heave of the water against the ship’s hull, the slosh of melting ice around the boat, Anders did think about it, dreary and tired and cold, the sound of his own chattering teeth echoing the rhythm of the song he remembered on the desire demons’ lips, that chorus of potential. Except this was melody was without answer and without end.
What happened next wasn’t Anders’s area of expertise. He’d always assumed it might be enough to say he’d started the bloody thing—‘the bloody thing’ being his one grand adventure at last, now that he was nearly too old to enjoy it, no longer on the right side of thirty—but since he was here, listening to the creak of the ship’s wheel, faced with the beauty and horror of Hawke’s unflagging purpose, it seemed like starting was a terrible idea. One of his worst, if not the worst.
Thinking about Karl—about what Karl had intended by sending Anders, of all people, the legendary map—no longer helped the way it used to. Naturally, it would be just terrible to let the man down, to offer him no help whatsoever, to leave him waiting for eternity in the Gallows proper. If he was even still alive in there, not dead, or tranquil—tranquility being less desirable than straight out death, because at least when you were dead nobody lied about what you were. They didn’t bother. They didn’t need to. It was cut and dry, straightforward, decently terrifying, as opposed to something that couldn’t be quantified in an alive sort of way.
If you could call that living. Which Anders didn’t.
But with the sunlight rising sweet and hopeful along the horizon, some of the cold finally managed to fade. Anders flexed his fingers, the light in his palm dimmed now that Hawke no longer needed it. He wondered if he’d have the balls to allow himself to feel proud for the night before—for helping the captain sail the ship, for being the only person on deck with a heart to avoid having it used against him—but really, he felt nothing more than weary. Perhaps pride would come later, after some sleep.
Anders napped in the storeroom and woke with the dog; he was accustomed to that now, and so long as the dog wasn’t another desire demon in disguise—Anders asked; Dog was skeptical—then it wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to him. Also, Dog was warm, which counteracted smelly now that Anders was so cold, and when he finally ventured above-deck again, the crew was alive and well, just as they should have been, something Anders hadn’t even realized just how much he’d missed.
Isabela was catcalling to Carver, who was the fine color of boiled beets; Bethany was attempting, in her own misguided way, to ask Varric subtly about the apparently salacious Bianca; and Merrill was laughing with Hawke, which was further proof that all Dalish women were just a little bit heartless, too. No one was mourning or weeping or gnashing their teeth; some were more embarrassed than others, and rightly so, and even Varric seemed flushed.
But all that was par for the course. Anders was just relieved to see them acting like themselves again—not characters he recognized, but people he’d come to depend on, for tying knots and keeping The Champion ship-shape. And for their wealth of bawdy jokes, the likes of which Anders had never heard and knew he’d never hear again, and the entertainment it provided whenever someone tormented Carver.
Anders knew he was relieved for them, and had no right to be, and was anyway; he was invested now, and as much as he tried to tell himself it was the same any man felt about good characters, he knew that wasn’t right. It was a lie, one he very badly wanted to believe, but the events of the night before, seeing them all for who they really were, recognizing—painfully—that they also had weaknesses, made that impossible.
‘Always wanted to be tied up by you in the rigging, Hawke,’ Isabela called out, hands cupped around her mouth so her voice would cut clear across the stiff breeze. ‘Just never thought I’d be obliged with Varric!’
Anders smiled, then cleared his throat, then realized no one was even looking at him, though Bethany nodded in his direction as he passed by, while Varric murmured a companionable ‘Blondie.’ He clearly yearned for some interruption of his current uncomfortable conversation, a distraction that Anders, as Bethany’s friend more than Varric’s, couldn’t provide, and he pretended to be blissfully unaware of Varric’s pointed looks, ever the socially distracted mage, searching the deck for the one member of the crew who was often most noticeable, yet now most noticeably missing.
‘If you’re looking for the elf,’ Varric said, stubborn little dwarf that he was, clinging to Anders like a drowning man clung to his jetsam, ‘look no farther. Where else would he be but brooding?’
‘Varric,’ Anders said, because it was a terrible thing to be read so easily by a single dwarf, ‘are you going to write about this adventure next?’
‘If we live through it,’ Varric replied. ‘Those are always the rules. Live to tell the tale, then you’ve gotta tell it. Kind of like bargaining with the fates.’
‘Oh, Varric,’ Bethany said. It might have been part of something more, but it never made it all the way. Anders supposed she found that motto very attractive; maybe Anders would, too, if he liked his men short and obscenely hairy.
Sadly, as Anders had decided one pleasant summer far too close to Orzammar, he did not. The hairy bit was negotiable—Hawke drifted prominently through his thoughts, jaw bearded, chest rough with dark hair beneath the battered leather of his armor—but the short part always made Anders feel like an ogre, and it was so difficult to cultivate the romantic mood when one felt like a hulking darkspawn.
Anyway, none of it mattered, because Anders was already certain he was far too tightly strung for a salt of the earth type like Varric.
Also, Bethany would kill him if he tried anything.
‘I’ll just be heading below deck, then,’ Anders said, darting a glance toward the high noon sun. It was bright, but cast very little in the way of actual warmth. He’d known it would be cold this far north, but he still couldn’t help but remember the desire demons, their icy breath and the sharp spines of their ice-tipped talons. ‘Back to my storeroom—you know how I just hate to be in the way, lazing about while the lot of you are doing hard work.’
‘Must be a masochist, then,’ Carver commented, breezing past with a round barrel hefted against his shoulder. There was a red rope-burn across his left forearm. ‘Doing something you hate all the time, I mean.’
‘Don’t listen to Carver,’ Bethany tutted. ‘He’s just mad because now everyone knows he’s sweet on Isabela.’ She craned her neck, shouting after the retreating form of her twin brother. ‘As if it wasn’t obvious already!’
Carver’s reply was wordless, a one-handed gesture that Anders understood was banned in Orlais, but had naturally been the toast of Ferelden when he’d left its muddy shores.
Varric sighed. ‘See now, that’s the kind of thing that just doesn’t translate well to print,’ he said. ‘But nobody ever considers the biographer.’
As Anders made his way below deck—feeling not altogether keen on the idea of drawing any more unwanted attention—he found himself thinking about the twins, different as they were, hardly twin-like at all. He wondered how it must have felt to go on with living, knowing that you were only there—only alive—because someone else had stuck his neck out for you. It seemed an uncomfortable mode of existence. Anders would have felt obligated to make something of himself, knowing all the while that if he didn’t, another man’s sacrifice would have been for nothing.
All things considered, he was much happier this way. No one expected anything of him, and they had no reason to suddenly start. His life was his own, for all he did—or more often didn’t—do with it.
Just as Varric had predicted—the man had a more impressive success rate than Karl’s old almanac—Fenris was below deck, pacing the storeroom. The planks creaked beneath his bare feet as he moved, back and forth, up and down in the lengthy shadows that swathed the small space. There were no lanterns lit, because it was the middle of the day; presumably he had his own quarters somewhere on The Champion, but for some reason, he’d chosen to hole up amongst the supplies instead.
It must have been the pickles. Perhaps they were an elvhen delicacy.
Then again, The Champion was a smaller boat than Anders had anticipated. Maybe there was less space on her than he’d thought. Maybe the storeroom was a blessing of privacy, and not the cruel prank he’d assumed.
‘Hellooo…’ Anders said, ducking his head beneath the low door-jamb. He didn’t knock, but that was only because he hadn’t been expecting anyone to be there in the first place. ‘Were you looking for something? Pickles, perhaps? Or garlic—there’s lots of that, if it’s more your style. Chew a bunch and just breathe the desire demons into defeat—bet you never thought of that strategy, did you?’
‘Pfaugh!’ Fenris snarled from behind a support pillar. He paused, then peered around its structure. ‘I do not wish to join with the others and their jokes. I sought a quiet place to think, and I had found it. You need not trouble yourself.’
‘Trouble?’ Anders fidgeted in the doorway, compelled to do so because of Fenris’s relative stillness. The more motionless Fenris became, the more imperative it seemed that Anders should fidget, until finally Fenris was brittle and steady as a statue and Anders was buzzing like a hive of bees. ‘No—to be perfectly honest with you, Fenris, I’ve come to revise my understanding of the word after certain…incidents. Take, for example, last night. Ice floes everywhere, very nearly dragged overboard with the rest of the crew by a marauding group of singing desire demons… These things don’t just happen all the time. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that it’s given me perspective—and not just about the ridiculous, but about the mundane, as well.’ Fenris stared at him. Anders licked his chapped lips. ‘…What I mean is, go right ahead. Trouble me all you please, because it Isn’t a trouble, actually.’
‘Then I would not be troubling you at all,’ Fenris ventured, momentarily thrown off course, a sturdy ship too wide for the narrow pass Anders had steered him into.
‘Ah,’ Anders agreed. ‘Words. Yes; they’re magical too, you know. Every word a little spell. And people—dwarves, I’m sorry, not people, how careless of me—dwarves like Varric are grandmasters. Practically senior enchanters, when you look at it that way.’
‘Why are you here?’ Fenris asked warily.
Anders shrugged. Because I’m lonely didn’t seem like a concept Fenris would understand, since the ship was full of people far more recognizably entertaining; because I was concerned about you, on the other hand, was a bit too much and way too fast, in Anders’s opinion, not to mention also a concept beyond Fenris’s desire or inclination to grasp. After all, it wasn’t a solid instrument, the hilt of a two-handed sword, a weapon with heft and weight, good for bashing and cleaving and aerial sweeps. It wasn’t a story, either, which Fenris also seemed to like—but rather an impulse, not to mention one that was poorly thought-out, ultimately inappropriate, completely absurd.
Stories were more than impulse. Or at least, the good ones were.
‘I like pickles,’ Anders explained, instead of saying anything normal—or honest. ‘Every now and then I think about how lucky I am to be on a boat that has so many of them. Then I pop down to the storeroom and munch away to my heart’s content. It helps me feel brinier—more like an old sea salt who actually belongs on this ship. Also, these are my quarters, and if I stay above-deck for too long I turn the color of Carver when he’s thinking about Isabela. Not pleasant. So—what are you doing here, Fenris?’
Anders wondered, albeit briefly, if his technique of distraction—dancing about the point for as long as possible, weaving a web of words so wondrous even Varric would have to admit he was impressed—might work on someone like Fenris, who could cut through said web as easily as he cut through the rigging, or a sten.
He didn’t have to wonder for long.
Fenris cleared his throat against his curved fingers, the tips twitching sharp and very lean. ‘They made light of what came before,’ he explained, all while focusing on a distant wall, not even pretending to look at Anders as he spoke. ‘We have been confronted by demons before, but never ones that were so…persuasive.’
‘Offered you something nice, did they?’ Anders asked.
Fenris paused. ‘…Yes.’
‘Something you’ve always wanted but never told anyone about, right?’ Anders continued.
This time, Fenris merely snorted. Tttf. Anders figured that meant yes, too.
‘And you simply don’t know what came over you, but despite all your best intentions you agreed to it, because you wanted it so badly you completely forgot how to refuse?’ Anders finished.
Fenris’s eyes narrowed, jaw tight. He looked bruised, a little betrayed, and wary, as though he thought Anders was reading his mind with some arcane ritual of naughty blood-magic. As though Anders really needed to do that in order to understand the frustrations, the violations, the angers and the fears behind demonic possession
‘…Yes,’ Fenris repeated.
‘Well that’s a relief,’ Anders told him. ‘And here I was thinking you were actually worried about something terrible.’
Fenris’s gaze flickered; he was focusing on Anders now, sharp and pointed, the color of his eyes warm despite the slant of his brow, the sharp arch, each offensive angle. There was something soft and vulnerable beneath, sweet, dappled shadow behind steel, and Anders hid his smile by clearing his throat and trying—only trying, likely failing—to look innocent.
‘I succumbed to their temptation,’ Fenris began. ‘I am no better than—’
‘Oh, please, Fenris,’ Anders said. ‘No better than a mage, is that it? But it’s not as though we’re the only ones who fall for it, you know. They don’t just hook the mages; that’s a bit short-sighted, considering how many other people there are to seduce. Why stop at mages, anyway? Demons don’t believe in limiting themselves—that’s the opposite of the point, as far as I understand it. Or want to understand it. That way lies madness, and… Well, anyway. It’s just that you only mostly hear about the mages because we do so much more damage. Generally. What with being magical—having all the magic. It’s a combustive union, but we don’t have the market cornered on being led into temptation; the number of templars I’ve seen falling prey to pride demons is about equal to the number of senior enchanters I’ve seen do the same. There’s no difference, unless you count the shiny hats. Do you know, sometimes I think the demons are the one thing we really have in common—the one thing we all understand.’
‘All of us save for Hawke,’ Fenris replied, though he sounded subdued, deeply thoughtful. His fingers were still fisted before his mouth, and he stared down at his finger-guards, as though the answer to this puzzle—or forgiveness itself—was hidden in the glint of faint, below-deck sunlight along metal.
‘Hawke has a witch,’ Anders said. ‘Or…had a witch. Something like that. I’m no expert, but I would wager that it’s different. Or maybe it isn’t as different as we think. Nice to have him around to tie everyone up so they don’t drown themselves, though. Isn’t that nice, Fenris?’
Fenris tutted. ‘The others do not understand.’
‘Trust me,’ Anders said, ‘I think Carver has the market cornered on embarrassment this morning. No matter what, you can always tell yourself: At least I’m not as embarrassed as Carver!’
‘I do not compare myself to others.’ Fenris’s voice was flat. Of course you don’t, Anders told himself, followed by stupid, stupid Anders. ‘There is no point in it.’
‘I’m just saying,’ Anders fumbled, ‘if you were to start, it’s a helpful technique. Makes me feel just peachy when I’m vomiting over the edge of the boat.’
‘Perhaps,’ Fenris suggested, ‘the source of your discomfort stems from how many pickles you eat.’
‘Oh…’ Anders said weakly. He wished he’d thought of a better excuse, now—something that didn’t make him seem like an apostate with a pickle addiction. He just hoped the rumor wouldn’t spread, everyone giving him pickles when he couldn’t stand them. Such blatant lies were, he suspected, the most common source of ruined Feastdays. ‘Yes, that’s probably true. But your potatoes are always soothing—so you see, the two things even themselves out in the end.’
‘Water would likely help as well,’ Fenris added. He came halfway around the column, sharp elbow leaned against the worn wood stanchion. ‘…If we had any aboard that was fit for drinking.’
‘No thank you.’ Anders shuddered, just to lend an air of drama to the proceedings. ‘I get enough salt in my diet already from the pickles. Which, apparently, I love.’
Fenris wasn’t the type to be entertained by such things—Anders knew him well enough that he didn’t dare hope for amusement—but judging by his uncertain posture and the half-formed quirk of his mouth, he was in need of some distraction. Anders already knew he could provide that much. He was an excellent distraction, perhaps an even better distraction than he was a healer.
People always said so, although they didn’t always preface it with the word ‘excellent,’ which had so many kinder meanings.
True to form, Fenris’s fingers tightened over his elbows, as if to ward off some unwanted assault. But there was only Anders in the room, not even the dog about to pounce and lick and shed, and while his conversational skills had been compared to a tactical assault on more than one occasion, he’d already proven they could stand one another’s company. That was the most crucial step in getting to know someone.
Anders felt as though he knew Fenris, in a manner of speaking. You couldn’t sit vigil next to someone without developing some feelings of responsibility. That was why it fell to him now, as the ship’s unofficial healer, to offer some kind of balm for the hurt he was suffering.
Allowing him to linger alone in the dark with the pickles and ropes of garlic wouldn’t do anyone any favors. The smell would only make Fenris crankier, and that would never do.
‘Look,’ Anders said, then thought better of it, ‘no, listen—there’s no sense in torturing yourself over all the things that could have happened. Is there?’
‘I am not—’ Fenris said. He scraped his lower lip with his teeth, not quite catching it. ‘What troubles me is not what might have happened, but what did. If I am not above the offers of a demon, then…’
‘…Then you’re no better than the rest of us,’ Anders confirmed, as gently as he knew how. He hoped it didn’t sound smug. For once, that wasn’t what he was going for. ‘Except for Hawke, of course, but Hawke’s special. Special people don’t count. You can’t hold yourself up for comparison against a man with no heart. You have a heart—presumably; what a coincidence it would be if you didn’t!—so the playing field’s uneven from the start.’
Fenris watched him with lidded eyes. His mouth was doing that thing again, quirked at the sides, as though he didn’t quite know what to do with it. ‘‘Presumably,’’ he repeated.
Anders pushed his hair back from his face, fingers tangling in the leather cord. ‘Not really presumably. You know what I meant; don’t play coy. The way Varric describes you is very intimidating. Don’t distract me from my point!’
Fenris blinked. ‘…That was not my intent.’
‘Hmph,’ Anders said, puffing up like an offended bird, feathers and all. He was aware that he was acting like a complete fool, but even more aware that it didn’t matter to him in the slightest. Anders took pride in the things he was good at. Resisting demons was one—acting like a raving lunatic was another. Carver wasn’t the only man aboard the ship who was capable of making others feel better about themselves simply by being himself. ‘The point is that it’s all right. Not all right that you succumbed; that’s not what I’m trying to say—but that things turned out for the best. Now you’ve had your first experience with a demon, with that particular sort of failure, which only means you’ll know what to expect. You can take that knowledge and apply it to the next host of mystical beings who want nothing more than to help you, then devour your insides for their own nefarious purposes. Frankly, I think you’re being a little hard on yourself—it isn’t as though you were lashed to the mast all by your lonesome, is it? There were others with you. Acting far more foolish, I might add.’
‘True,’ Fenris agreed; he didn’t seem to think the others acting foolish was, at this point, worth remark. ‘But it was not only Hawke who managed to resist the demons. You seemed to have little trouble with them, and you do not carry a witch’s favor. Or do you, coincidentally, lack a heart, as well?’
‘Oh, me,’ Anders said, waving a hand. He felt a private rush of pride that Fenris had noted that about him, even if it wasn’t necessarily the right time for showing off. ‘That’s all practice. I’ve had years of demons trying to squeeze their way into my delectable mage body. After a few years of avoidance, you learn all the tricks.’
‘Is that true?’ Fenris asked, his green gaze suddenly sharp.
‘Well, no,’ Anders admitted. He rubbed the sweat from the back of his neck, resting his palm against the damp hair curling there. ‘But you start to hear the same lines repeated, get a feel for it, and that spoils the magic, or at least the spontaneity, in my opinion. It’s never alluring to feel like you’re one of countless potential victims. You feel so used. So expendable. Demons just don’t know how to make anyone feel special.’
‘And you…like feeling special,’ Fenris said.
‘Who doesn’t?’ Anders asked.
Fenris’s brow twitched. ‘I do not.’
Anders sighed, hand stilling, fingertips against the knobby bone and the tight muscle just at the base of his neck, the eternal crick he suffered from lack of a proper pillow aboard the ship. He should have brought his own pillow with him—the one his mother had made, with his name stitched into the seam—but then, he’d left it with Ser Pounce-a-lot, something to remember him by, to shed on in his absence.
‘Funny,’ Anders murmured. ‘It’s all the most special people who say that. Something to be said about not appreciating what we have, only what we don’t have—I should mention that to Varric. Might even make its way into his next book.’
Fenris made a noise; it sounded like eugh.
Anders traced the shape of it with his mouth, trying to spell it, to feel it with his tongue, to see it on the page. But it was far more delightful hearing it, in person, along with the creak of the boat beneath Fenris’s feet as he shifted, the matching creak of his armor as he resettled his folded arms over his beaten leather chest-plate. ‘Well it’s my only chance at immortality,’ Anders said, finally making his way into the room. He expected Fenris to protest, and he did watch Anders’s progress warily, but he didn’t move for his sword or uncross his arms or even flex the muscles in his legs. He just watched.
With Fenris, that was practically an invitation.
‘So that is it,’ Fenris said at last, after Anders managed to let the silence last by pretending there were words written in the whorls of the nearest crate-plank. There weren’t, but sometimes there were nearly faces, imprints from Fenris’s gauntlets where he leaned forward in the night, clutching the edge, listening to the tales he scoffed at—scoffed at, and still enjoyed.
‘That’s what?’ Anders asked. He glanced over his shoulder.
Fenris was still watching him.
It felt like arcane fire, Anders thought; just not his arcane fire. He’d practiced enough with other mages to know what it was to be bound in another man’s spell, to be caught in a force-field without warning, to be on the wrong side of chain lightning. There was a spark of warmth, a prickle of danger, a knot that formed in the stomach and the chest—awe and fear in equal abundance, the two prime ingredients for delight. Most of the time, the danger won out; it always lingered, but it very rarely caused Anders to linger, and that was the difference.
Now, it froze him in place, caught under that gaze, sweating under his collar. He liked it not despite being terrified by it, but because he was terrified by it, an unending cycle of thrill after thrill, the pitch and swoop of his belly like The Champion cresting the swell of a stormy wave.
For a moment, it felt as though Fenris could see everything; Anders might just as well have been naked, for all the distance had been stripped bare between them. In fact, he wanted to be naked—well, did and didn’t, as these things so often went.
Then, the moment passed; Fenris shook his head with another twitchy sound, just as twitchy as his fingers. ‘Can no mage ever answer a simple question?’ he asked.
‘Only the boring ones can,’ Anders replied.
‘No,’ Fenris agreed, ‘you are not boring,’ but the emphasis he placed on certain words didn’t make it an overt compliment.
Maybe, Anders told himself, it was supposed to be a subtle one.
‘It’s not as though I have all the answers, Fenris,’ Anders added, mumbling. He slotted his fingers against the grooves in the wood, left by Fenris’s clutch and grasp, as he settled down onto the crate. His ass was never going to forgive him for this journey, just like his neck. Already the backs of his thighs were preemptively numb. ‘My experience is different from yours, which is obviously different from Carver’s—thank the Maker for that—which is different from Isabela’s—a fact Carver clearly mourns every day—and so on. But it’s not as though anyone can pass judgment on what another man wants. It’s not as though we can ever truly know.’
‘Do not presume to know what I want,’ Fenris told him. It sounded as though there might have been another, second meaning in that statement, though for the life of him, Anders couldn’t figure it out.
‘Actually, if you think about what I said, I really wasn’t—’ Anders began, but Fenris had already left, stalking off down the hall, leaving the door open.
Anders’s shoulders slumped.
‘The exact opposite of presuming to know what you want,’ Anders continued, though there was no one left to hear him. It was only that it seemed important. For the sake of closure, or a false sense of scene conclusion.
A few seconds later, Fenris was replaced by the sudden appearance of Dog, tongue lolling, one eye weeping, prancing cheerfully into the room and placing its dirty front paws on Anders’s already dirty trousers.
‘Whuff,’ Dog said.
‘Normally I’d hate you for this,’ Anders told it, ‘but right now, I’d rather have a hug.’
Anders had resolved never to speak—or even to think—of the quiet moment of friendship he’d shared with Hawke’s mabari ever, ever again, and Dog seemed to have forgotten about it already, when the door to the storeroom creaked open, interrupting their special alone-time. Dog thought of these private hours as bonding, no doubt, while Anders considered it something more like brainwashing, and also imprisonment.
It was late evening, sometime past supper—a good supper, of pickles and potatoes and garlic, and everyone was in a grand mood, laughing about their own failures because the alternative was so much less pleasant. Anders enjoyed telling Varric, in great detail, how he’d bravely fought the demon back with massive fireballs; Carver enjoyed telling Anders, in great detail, how very bad it was to employ massive fireballs on a ship made of wood; and Bethany enjoyed telling everyone, in great detail, how Carver was just jealous of massive balls of any kind. And so Anders felt included, even if he knew what the others didn’t: that this great feat of will wasn’t anything more than what he did on a regular basis, just a part of every mage’s life. Nothing too special, nothing too grand.
If heroics were the sorts of acts one committed every day, unnoticed and unsung, then Anders’s entire world-view was about to be set on end.
He preferred not to think about it.
‘Late night pickle-snack, Bethany?’ Anders asked. ‘Or do you just want to discuss the soft fluffy bed of Varric’s chest some more—or—hello, Fenris. Fancy meeting you here. I mean—care for a pickle?’
Fenris’s face looked as sour as if he’d been pickled, perhaps marinating in a barrel ever since he’d last left Anders in the hopes of becoming more delicious. It didn’t seem likely, but the thought made Anders hiccup a nervous laugh.
‘You are obsessed,’ Fenris announced, crossing the threshold of Anders’s storeroom. He no longer asked for permission before entering; Anders wasn’t sure whether he should feel grateful about that, or just invisible. Either way, he stepped neatly to one side, his attempts foiled when Fenris brushed too close to be avoided. ‘Yet you do not even eat them; why you persist in this fiction is beyond my ability to understand.’
‘It keeps things interesting, doesn’t it?’ Anders asked, warmed through from the brief press of Fenris’s body. ‘All the best characters have a quirk. Hawke’s without a heart, and Carver’s without a personality, and Isabela is without pants, and I… I like pickles. It’s going to be my most notable characteristic. Besides which, there’s the added play on words—apostate who loves pickles, apostate in a pickle… I’m doing it for Varric, honestly. Because I’m a charitable person. It’s in my nature.’
‘Hn.’ Fenris grunted, an undignified sound. Anders was discovering that Fenris was full of those unappreciative noises; it leant a color to the lithe, haughty character he’d been in the books, shading him in, making him real and also unpredictable. Anders liked this Fenris better than the one Varric had invented to please his readership. But saying so would inevitably offend someone, and, once again, Anders was put in the difficult position of having to hold his tongue.
‘Hn?’ Anders repeated, hoping Fenris would elaborate.
Actually, this armory of monosyllabic grunts and snorts was handy when one didn’t wish to remain silent, but at the same time couldn’t commit to any real statement. Anders appreciated the tactic, though he also knew it wasn’t his style.
Fenris’s eyes flicked down, toward Dog and the crates scattered lazily about the room in a haphazard sprawl. ‘I can think of a few other characteristics,’ he said. Then, he hesitated, curling his fingers toward his palm into a fist. ‘…Although I would not share those with Varric.’
Anders made a noise of assent in his throat, partly in gratitude, but mostly to cover up the sudden pounding in his chest, the rush of hot blood through his ears, making them heat up, probably making them get all pink. That was the tricky thing about Fenris—he’d say a thing that sounded perfectly sensible, nothing more and nothing less than the truth as he saw it, not bothering to realize how kind it sounded, or how deeply certain kindnesses might affect a lonely apostate in a pickle. He was as slippery as a rogue, that one, but too straightforward to ever know what he was doing—and in a way, that was more dangerous than rogues like Isabela or Varric, who did know. At least, with the latter, there was something to predict.
‘Grateful for it,’ Anders said, his voice too loud for the small space. ‘We’ve got to watch out for each other, haven’t we? I mean the crew, of course—all of us. We’ve got to stick together against Varric’s wild, marauding lies.’
From the floor, Dog let out a lazy whuff, then rolled over onto his back, unimpressed and expecting pets. Fenris knelt to oblige, sharp, clever fingers raking carefully over the soft folds of mabari skin beneath stiff mabari fur.
Traitor, Anders thought, without even the good sense to be embarrassed for himself. Jealousy made no distinctions between man or beast—or perhaps it made beasts of them all—and what was Dog but an extension of Hawke? No wonder Fenris was kind to the rascal. Anders knew better than anyone that kindness shown to a pet was kindness shown to its master; he’d employed that technique countless times in the past, and so he deserved this turn of irony now. Deserved it, but didn’t for an instant enjoy it.
No longer able to listen to the scritch of fur or the happy pants in the back of Dog’s throat, Anders sat in the hammock, careful to brace his feet against the floor lest his perch attempt something dastardly. Being flipped ass over teakettle was embarrassing enough in private; Anders had no intentions of repeating the performance for an audience. Especially not this audience, distracted as he currently was.
Anders watched, fondly, the bend in Fenris’s long neck from behind, the fall of his hair half-silver in the candlelight, wincing affectionately when he came to the spiked pauldrons, the complicated system of worn leather straps and weather-notched metal. Fenris hadn’t mentioned continuing with their nightly stories, but Anders’s eyes traveled from him to the unfinished book anyway, examining the battered leather of its cover, the stray strip that held their place until next time.
They’d reach the end, soon. If Varric hadn’t been quite so prolific, there’d be no other reason for Fenris to come visit again. Anders supposed he owed the dwarf something, at least for the discovery that Fenris liked stories.
Reading to someone was far more innocuous than healing them. It didn’t ever seem like a gift, even though it was, which meant Fenris could accept it, without realizing he had.
It was all so much subtler than Anders’s usual fare. But he didn’t mind the change of pace, not nearly so much as he minded being seasick all the time, or being wobbly-legged every time he woke up in the morning. Some people, Varric had said, looking almost sympathetic, just never get their sea-legs, Blondie.
Anders cleared his throat. ‘Shall we pick up where we left off, then? We’re getting quite close to your grand entrance, Fenris. I plan to do your voice and have it all go spectacularly awry. You’ll try not to laugh to spare my feelings, but also because you don’t laugh anyway, and I’ll turn every shade of Carver known to man, and the dog will… Well, the dog will drool. That’s what it does. What do you say?’
Fenris looked up. He appeared to consider the book, mouth pressed into a hard, flat line, as steady as the deck beneath Anders’s boots.
Some people, Anders suspected, only ever had sea-legs.
Then, Fenris shook his head.
‘No,’ he said. ‘That is not the story I would hear tonight.’
‘Now, Fenris,’ Anders said, ‘no need to be shy. You already know what Varric’s like, the lies he loves to tell; I’m sure you can imagine the sort of dashing figure you cut across the deck of The Champion. You’re actually one of the more favorably represented, I’d say. Very bold. Very attractive. Perhaps a bit over-the-top… So I’m sure it’s very embarrassing to hear about your own exploits in such detail, especially when you know Varric’s such a dreadful little bastard about embellishment, but that’s why I decided I’d embarrass myself just as much by imitating you—what with how charitable I am; I believe I mentioned that already?’
Fenris didn’t blink. It wasn’t the first time Anders felt pinned in place by those eyes; sometimes he wondered if it wasn’t exactly how Fenris had felt while felled by the qunari pike.
‘You are too much like him,’ Fenris said at last. His hand had stilled against the dog’s chest, while it’s stub of a tail thumped idly against the hollow wood beneath. The rhythm was too slow; it didn’t match the quick beat of Anders’s heart. ‘Varric.’
‘I can assure you, Fenris,’ Anders replied, ‘I am not nearly so hairy.’
‘But you do talk,’ Fenris replied. ‘So many words to say so little. What is the point of it?’
‘Avoidance.’ Anders licked his lips, wishing he had something to fidget with. Fenris’s gaze was bright beneath its shadows, unflinching, unforgiving, and Anders liked forgiveness, so much more than its opposite, especially when there was nothing to forgive. ‘…Yes. That’s it: avoidance. Plain and simple. No one enjoys being put on the spot, you see, and not all of us have such a vast catalogue of intimidating looks.’ Fenris arched a brow. ‘Ah! There’s one now. So you do know what I mean.’
‘Irrelevant,’ Fenris replied.
Anders wondered if the nervousness he felt now was akin to a warrior’s thrill, the rush of adrenaline fueling desires and uncertainty and passion and excitement. He wondered how spotty his cheeks were, flushed beneath the stubble, and if his constitution could handle much more of this, since his complexion had already failed him. His throat and cheeks felt hot, and he tucked a stray flyaway behind his ear, failing to match the intensity of Fenris’s gaze with one of his own.
No; he was so much better at shadowy, sultry looks, meaningful but still avoidant, as he’d said. Yet there was something about the way he met Fenris’s gaze that seemed to chip away at his otherwise imperturbable balance, even if he refused to give in, refused to be bested by it.
‘Don’t tell me the story you want is about Sebastian Vael,’ Anders said, pulling a face. ‘He has so many fans, but I can never understand why. Hardly as interesting as some of the others. I mean, the brogue is one thing, and I’m sure he’s very handsome, but doesn’t it seem risky to devote yourself to someone who’s already devoted to someone else? Pretty hard to challenge the actual Maker when it comes to winning a man’s affections. I’m sure there’s also blasphemy in there somewhere, and I try not to commit that on a daily basis. Call me superstitious.’
Fenris tsked, the muscles in his neck bobbing, looking away with a quirk of his lips. Anders wondered if it was part of a grin, part of a scowl, or some combination of both. Maybe Fenris himself, the elf who wore it, didn’t even know the source of its impulse, the meaning behind each pull of aggravated muscle.
‘It is impossible to talk with you,’ he said, somewhere into the sharp shadows of his shoulder.
‘I know,’ Anders replied. ‘And trust me, that’s a gift and a burden, even at the best of times.’
‘I do not wish to hear of Sebastian Vael,’ Fenris added. Straightforward to a fault; if it hadn’t been so frustrating, Anders would have admired it. Some people never gave up—while Anders, on the other hand, knew nothing but surrender. ‘I asked once before, and you did not answer. Not properly. Why are you here?’
‘Why does everyone ask me that?’ Anders wondered aloud.
‘Perhaps because we do not know,’ Fenris answered, and there was something wry in his tone for that.
Anders grinned, then caught Fenris looking at him, and did his best to appear serious instead; he could tell from the continued arch of Fenris’s dark brow that it hadn’t worked. ‘That’s not a very good story, Fenris,’ he admitted. ‘I mean—quite boring, actually. Only funny in bits, and then it’s the depressing sort of humor where at the end, you feel rather…sad. Diminished because of your contact with so pathetic a person.’
‘Do you feel sad?’ Fenris asked.
‘Sometimes.’ Anders rallied his avoidance, a vast army of it, always at his beck and call. The only trouble was getting them to answer that call—when they were designed to avoid so well. ‘When I think about Carver, for example. Or when I realize I’m going to have to eat more potatoes. Or when I remember I’ve been on a boat for so long while not actually liking fish.’
‘Pfaugh,’ Fenris said.
That was Anders’s favorite one.
But Fenris fell silent after that, and Anders felt like the accidental hero who’d failed an important test, whose journey had just ended before it ever began. He heard Dog whine in the back of its throat, the way it always did when Hawke was near, and Anders wished for just an ounce of that bravery, the ability to ignore the possibility of failure or injury—to ignore the real sadness one felt when one actually tried, when one actually answered the call, and still came up short.
Trying should have been the lone precursor for success, but it wasn’t, and Anders knew that, andthat was what made him sad, more than anything.
It was also what made him hesitate.
‘It really isn’t a good story,’ he murmured, plucking at a loose thread in his torn trousers. ‘And I’m not just saying that. The hero’s not even a hero at all, just a bit of a callow bastard.’
‘It cannot be worse than one of Varric’s stories,’ Fenris said.
Anders chuckled wearily. ‘No? At least Varric’s stories have Hawke in them.’
Fenris met Anders’s gaze head-on, with the clear-eyed purpose of a warrior. Anders suspected that was the vanguard in him; once someone had the taste for being the first into battle, it became second nature and then first nature, and they lost all instinct for meandering subtlety. It was an impulse Anders recognized, even though he’d never fostered it, himself.
‘I know Hawke’s stories,’ Fenris said. He leaned away from Dog at last, dragging over a nearby crate to settle down on. The wood didn’t creak beneath his weight. Elves, Anders thought. Even without trying, they could make a man feel no more graceful than a mabari, certainly no more light on his feet. He did his best not to think about what it meant that Fenris was sitting closer this time, bony knees almost grazing the threadbare fabric of Anders’s trousers, sharp-grooved greaves nearly catching the weave. ‘I have lived so many of them. But I do not know yours. …I would like to.’
Anders felt cornered—by Fenris’s requests as much as Fenris’s sudden proximity. He realized too late that they were all battle tactics; Fenris had used his superior skills to maneuver Anders into a corner, and now Anders was trapped. Fenris’s steady gaze wasn’t one of devotion but watchfulness, and if Anders tried to escape from revealing his past now, Fenris would stop him.
It was awful.
Anders felt a shivering thrill travel down his spine, a lance of lightning burying itself deep at the base.
‘Well,’ he began, mouth dry. He swallowed to wet his throat. Fenris rested his elbows against his knees, hands linked loosely in front of his face. ‘Did I already warn you it’s not going to be that interesting? Because it isn’t. Not in the least.’
‘Anders,’ Fenris growled, dark eyebrows drawn sharply down.
At least it wasn’t ‘mage.’ That, ridiculously, gave Anders the breath of courage he needed to begin. He didn’t know why he’d been belaboring the point anyway. It wasn’t worthy of all this buildup, and time bred anticipation, which bred disappointment, as far as Anders was concerned.
‘I had a friend in the Fereldan Circle,’ he began. The image of Karl rose fresh as ever in his mind, smiling and bearded, managing to look preternaturally masculine in even the ugliest of Circle robes; he’d always been too brave, too incendiary for his own good, not the sort to cut and run when the air grew thick with promise. ‘Karl Thekla. Bit of a ginger, at least before he went gray. No, don’t look at me like that, the details are important, just as important as everything else. Anyway, he escaped—well, we were always escaping, really, but he managed to stay escaped, the lucky dog.’ Dog lifted his head with a whimper, and Anders hushed him. ‘Not you. Stop interrupting; I’m only speaking metaphorically.’ Dog dropped his chin back to his paws. That was better; Anders swallowed. ‘…In any case, Karl stayed out while I went back to the tower. Made me hate him for a while. Jealousy’s so ugly, especially on an Anders. He’d write me letters, though; he was always looking for something—the next great discovery, he called it. Something that would help the plight of the mages in Thedas.’
‘The Book of Justice,’ Fenris murmured. He didn’t seem to realize he’d said it aloud until Anders glanced at him curiously, at which point his shoulders twitched together. ‘…Hawke has spoken of it. He does so more now—ever since your arrival on the ship.’
‘Just so,’ Anders said. He rubbed his jaw, fingers tricking beneath to where the scruff was growing ever thicker. He liked the feel of it against his fingertips, stiffly bristling, but not altogether unpleasant. ‘I’ve no interest in the thing, personally—seems like a bad idea to start using artifacts from the Fade to shape life in this world. But…that’s just me. I told you the hero wasn’t very… Never mind. It’ll all sell for a mountain of gold; I’m sure someone like Hawke will be able to think of something to do with it. Have the right buyers, the right contacts, that sort of thing.’
‘And your friend’s desires?’ Fenris asked. ‘Does he not wish to acquire the tome for himself? For adventure, for fortune, or—for glory?’
Anders thought about the day he’d received Karl’s last missive, a hurried note scribbled in a shaking hand, and a worn-out old map hidden between its folds. He’d made it as far as the Gallows, and if he didn’t write again within two days, he said, then he’d need Anders to come in after him.
Karl, well-liked by everyone in the Circle, as free as an apostate could ever hope to be, had chosen to rely on Anders, of all people, to perform his daring rescue in the final hour.
All his travels must have addled his poor mind. Either that, or he’d had piss-poor judgment from the start.
‘All that matters now is rescuing Karl,’ Anders said, trying to sound convincing—like the sort of man who made these difficult decisions every day. ‘The Book might not even be real. Or, if it is real, it might not be what everyone’s thinking.’
Fenris sat back, palms cupping his knees. His hair slipped free from where he’d tucked it over his ear, falling into his eyes. As if they weren’t hard enough to read already. Now, the shadows were deeper, like bruises, like the dark beneath the deep sea, but Anders liked them so much because they reminded him of solid land, of light on dappled leaves. ‘…You are on a journey to save your friend, then. I do not understand why you felt the need to hide such a simple fact from everyone.’
‘Because it’s so simple,’ Anders replied. ‘And simplicity, amongst this crew—in case you haven’t noticed—can be embarrassing. Not for me—well, maybe a little for me—but for Karl, especially. Don’t you think it’s tragic that he didn’t have anyone but me to ask? We hadn’t even seen each other in years. I could hardly say no; I figured I had to agree, because of how miserable the whole damned situation was. And it’s not as though I was doing anything at the time. It seemed like my only chance to make something of myself: pick up on the loose threads of someone else’s grand adventure.’
Fenris made one of those wonderful, dry noises in the back of his throat. Anders saw the scowl flit across his face; they were sitting so close it was impossible to miss.
Had he said something wrong?
‘Sometimes I think maybe he asked me because he knew I had nothing to lose,’ Anders confessed, voice lower now. He dropped his gaze to his hands, fingers knotted together, thumbs crossed one over the other. His hands wouldn’t scowl at him. They had no opinions at all save for the fact that ship living was making them dried and cracked, deep elfroot stains splitting his life-lines, recalling other lives, lives he’d saved—or tried to save. ‘Except my life, of course, but it’s not as though I was doing much living in the first place. No great loss there, I’m afraid.’
‘That is your story?’ Fenris asked. He sounded incredulous, in some ways, but mostly angry. Anders took it to be anger born of disappointment. Even without blood magic, he’d predicted this outcome from the start.
‘I told you,’ Anders reminded him. ‘I said you wouldn’t like it.’
‘It is not that,’ Fenris said.
Anders glanced up, shoulders hunched, starting to ache. He wished Isabela would take notice of him and grace him with one of her legendary massages—the very same that had managed to relax Lieutenant-Admiral Aveline, just long enough for Hawke to make another daring escape.
No small feat.
But some people were like that, destined for greatness. Some people had it so easy, like Isabela, while others had to work for it, like Karl. Anders had often wondered if Karl felt the futility of it all—if, wherever he was, he ever regretted being so brave. The more time passed, each day Anders didn’t hear from him, he imagined a wealth of lamentation from the kind, sharp-eyed man he once knew, flecks of gray darkening his pale beard.
But at the same time, he almost hoped Karl didn’t regret anything. There had to be people like that in the world, people for whom failure was nothing more than kindling for the fire. Or, in the case of certain apostates, kindling for the fireballs. It meant something, not just to themselves, but also to all the people who weren’t that way. People like Anders, caught up in how big the ocean was—who dreaded the inscrutability of an ever-changing horizon.
It couldn’t always be the challenge, he often told himself. It couldn’t always be the journey. Sometimes, just to mix things up a bit, there had to be a real destination. But the latter wouldn’t mean anything without the former; they needed each other, and Anders felt the press of that need just as he felt the press of Fenris’s finger-guards against his knee.
Sharp. Slightly painful. It surprised him, then grounded him.
Fenris’s eyes, just like the horizon, were also inscrutable: their color, their sharp focus, the cant of their lids. Anders saw him part his lips, then lick them, and he couldn’t help it—he absolutely had to kiss him.
A kiss, in its own way, was also an adventure, without any promise of recompense, without any hope of ever returning, or of being returned. Anders had been successful before, about as many times as he’d been unsuccessful, but he liked to think of them as his small braveries, the little ones no one ever talked about—the ways in which he chose to live, or at least make himself feel alive. His fingers carded through Fenris’s hair, which was very soft, his thumb against the pointed shell of Fenris’s ear, and he hoped he didn’t taste like pickles as he slid his lips against Fenris’s only slightly parted mouth.
It was a bad idea, as these things so often were. The excitement it bore was equal to its uncertainty, but Fenris was the type of person who left no room for doubt, at least not for very long. Anders supposed—when Fenris’s sharp fingers tightened against Anders’s thigh, when the hum of Fenris’s lyrium became that much louder than Anders’s heartbeat at his temples, when Fenris’s free hand pressed against Anders’s shoulder to shove him as far away as possible—that he should have expected this, given the magic beneath Anders’s touch, and the lyrium beneath Fenris’s skin, and the boundaries the latter had already established, compared to the former’s determined lack thereof.
Fenris snarled—but there wasn’t only anger in it. Anders had devoted enough study, both purposeful and accidental, to recognize all the subtleties of emotion in so simple a sound, though he couldn’t yet translate from that language to his own. It inspired equal parts hope and despair, while Fenris clenched his hands in the feathers at Anders’s shoulder, and held him tight even as he pushed him off.
It was that tension Anders felt, the interplay between arcane heat and Fenris’s answering lyrium-song, and all the simple body heat beneath that, not arcane at all, something templars shared with mages and dwarves shared with elves—although Anders didn’t want to think about dwarves getting all hot and bothered, not at a time like this.
He hiccupped again, another nervous, fitful laugh, his own version of Fenris’s frustrated pfah!—because it was frustration, anger turned inward, more infuriated by the questions one asked oneself than all the dithering avoidance Anders had brought to the table.
Anders hooked his fingers in one of the fletched buckles at Fenris’s flank, digging in against leather, skin somewhere too-far beneath, and that tipped the balance, Fenris pushing forward instead of pulling back, driven into Anders arms by that same frustration as before.
Frustration, which was somewhere halfway between anger and desire.
His jaw was clenched, and because of that, their teeth knocked together, hard; the lyrium sparked and flared, rushing over Anders like he always imagined it would be to drown. For a moment, he couldn’t breathe; then, he remembered Fenris’s mouth on his, and that was probably why he couldn’t, warm breaths caught on warmer skin. The kiss more like an attack than anything else, not at all what a simple mage was used to.
Anders never thought of anything in terms of fighting; the games he played, he’d always assumed, weren’t anything like a warrior’s brand of constant strategy. But in a way, they were his weapons, and Fenris was fighting back the only way he knew how, driven to that point by the swipe of Anders’s tongue over his lower lip, climbing into his lap with a whine in the back of his throat—as though he thought Anders had no heart. As though he cared about that, as well.
Instead of being shoved away, Anders found himself shoved down, gauntleted hand splayed across his chest, a flutter of feathers and a creak of the hammock tarp. Fenris’s eyes glinted above him, though his hair fell across his brow, and Anders reached up to brush it away, still braced by the hand clenched around one metal buckle, dragging Fenris’s hips against his own.
It felt like he was falling. The hammock swayed. Fenris gripped him by the upper arm, pinning him down—and the hammock swayed again, and the tarp creaked, and the stanchions also. When they kissed again, Anders really did wonder if he was falling—right up until the moment his back hit the boards.
Then, he didn’t need to wonder.
The hammock—treacherous, vile thing to the last—had swung too wide and deposited them unceremoniously onto the floor. Fenris landed against Anders heavily, mouth jerking as his teeth dug into Anders’s lower lip. His finger-guards scraped against the deck, scoring sharp grooves into the wood. When he broke away, he was wild-eyed, pale hair sticking up on the side Anders had tangled his fingers through. He looked exactly like a cat that had miscalculated a long jump, all confusion and furious dignity.
His eyes were darker than Anders had ever seen, pupils blown with lust, and his skin was still glowing softly, its song humming in Anders’s bones.
‘Tch,’ Fenris said, and tried to pull away.
Of course he would. Moments like these depended on spontaneity for sustenance. It was the act of being swept away that buoyed all inadvisable measures just long enough for anyone to get anywhere; kissing someone was supposed to lead to getting carried away, not thrown onto the floor in a tangled heap. The crash was as loud as an alarm bell; the physical distraction could be fatal.
Anders ought to have let Fenris go. Who was he to stand against fate and his own rotten luck? He should have expected something to come between them from the beginning—that he’d be left all alone on the floor with only his friends the pickles to keep him company after being thwarted. Again, as always, forever—it didn’t matter.
Instead, Anders held on, fingers tugging at the leather strapping beneath the metal of Fenris’s armor, digging in tight as he tried to pull away. They scuffled on the floor like children, Fenris caught and uncertain what to make of it, Anders stubbornly refusing to let him go. To let this go.
In the distance, Dog barked.
‘That’s right,’ Anders said, still giddy with the press of Fenris’s mouth to his own; he could feel his pulse through his lips, throbbing from the heated kiss. ‘Clear off and close the door behind you—that’s a good mabari.’
To his surprise, Dog hauled itself to its feet, toenails clicking against the floor as it did as it was told—obeying Anders’s commands for the first time in its miserable life. In their miserable lives.
Anders felt power rush to his head, along with all the blood rushing to his cock. Who knew it was possible to have a pet that actually listened?
No wonder people were always going on about dogs instead of cats.
‘Anders,’ Fenris said, after the door had shut with an audible click. There was a wary look on his face, but he’d stopped struggling.
‘Hush,’ Anders said, far too fondly. He stroked the sharp jut of Fenris’s hipbone through his armor, pale fingers finding the buckles that held it together. ‘I’m actually…really good at this; maybe even better than I am at healing, even if that…isn’t a fair comparison—because you hate being healed. But it’s not exactly like—you know what, I’ll stop avoidance-talking now. Right.’
He half-expected Fenris to snarl, or flinch away, or tell him to stop—just the way he had when Anders had been hovering over him above deck, seeking to heal the wound in his side. No privacy in that. No dignity in it, either. But Fenris had gone curiously limp instead; his breathing was shallow, his grip loosened, his hands falling backward to support him as he sat on the floor, knees splayed apart to make room for Anders’s hands. The light in his skin had begun to fade, but he was still hot to the touch.
His stomach jumped when Anders’s fingers slipped beneath the armor, working his trousers down little by little.
‘What…’ Fenris asked, then seemed to think better of it. Perhaps he’d realized he already knew.
‘You’ll see,’ Anders promised, in awe of the confidence in his own voice. His tongue felt thick inside his mouth. It was a wonder his hands didn’t shake. ‘It’s better answered with a demonstration. And…some stories are better left untold.’
Fenris had the decency to look offended by the statement, so Anders muttered a choked apology, hoping the Varric comparisons didn’t start up again. Neither of them was the type to invoke a dwarf during…this, this, something that made Ander’s chest swell and tighten at the very same time. Varric was all well and good, an intriguing dwarf, a clever fellow, attractive to some—there was no accounting for taste; Anders didn’t like to pass judgment—but Anders also really wanted to stop thinking about Varric now. He had no place here; Anders only hoped he wouldn’t read about this later, his own actions, his own quick cut of need: the flames-hot romance between the Tevinter slave and the wayward apostate, neither of them particularly well-suited for one another, which was what made all the best stories come to life.
The accident, the implausibility. The unseen writer making the readers believe in everything they shouldn’t, everything they didn’t want to, without ever tipping his stained and steady hand.
Anders fingers paused just above a stiff fold of leather. Fenris was still watching him, waiting for what came next, attempting to look indifferent, lips still parted to reveal a hint of pink tongue. Anders wanted to kiss him again but told himself no, focusing on the dark skin swathed in shadow between his thighs, each pulsing glow where Anders’s fingertips rested against lyrium-veined skin.
Fenris waited. For once, he was patient. Anders was less so to a fault, always wanting, never thinking—but wanting didn’t necessarily mean doing, and this was the first time he’d done in a while, so to speak. Years of stories, of emotional denial, had made him like this.
He yearned, however foolishly, to savor the moment.
‘Your pauses are unappreciated, as always,’ Fenris said, his voice catching rough on the beginnings of a snarl. ‘Your obsession with pickles is matched only by your obsession with suspense.’
It was ridiculous—ridiculous and true, as most truths were ridiculous—and Anders did as he probably shouldn’t have, bowing his head over Fenris’s erection, licking the tip with a wicked tongue.
That same tongue had gotten him into so much trouble countless times before, and not just because he didn’t know how to stop talking once he’d started. There were other times, other ways—robes drawn up over bare thighs, face buried against flesh, lips parting, throat sore, huffing eager, strangled breaths, determined, perversely, to be the best in this, the best in anything he could be. Something to remember him by. Something, and not everything—but for a while it was pleasure, not practice, and pleasure was enough.
Fenris shuddered, falling back against the deck, fingers clawing at the rough-spun hammock tarp bunched in a tangle beneath him. He made a noise, not one Anders had ever heard, not from him, a wheezing sort of gasp, a keening little thing. Anders squeezed his eyes shut, steadying himself against Fenris’s hip, while Fenris’s free hand traced the air somewhere above his hair. Not daring to touch him, but wanting to.
People were always contradictory like that. Anders himself wasn’t beyond the scope of such a reprimand; he’d indulged in the time-honored tradition so often before, denying himself what he longed for most, ruining his own chances before he ever gave himself the opportunity to size them up. It was easier that way, and easier was supposed to be better.
But now, Anders traced the throbbing vein from the base of Fenris’s cock all the way to the tip, leaving a damp little trail of spit behind, Fenris’s skin smelling not of sweat—of course not, he was an elf—but very much of well-worn leather. Something metallic, too, and something purely from the Fade. Fenris’s fingers spasmed, gripping the air, holding onto nothing; Anders wanted to feel them rake through his hair, against his scalp, clutching and guiding, because otherwise, there was no way of knowing what Fenris wanted.
At least, not specifically. The general impulse was, however, finally obvious.
Anders kissed the slit at the tip and Fenris bucked his hips; his back was a perfect bow-curve off the floor, trousers rolled stiffly down his thighs, the most vulnerable part of him bare. And he allowed it, for whatever reason, encouraging it with each sharp, broken growl of pleasure, sounds that went straight to Anders’s belly, piercing his gut like a qunari lance.
Anders told himself it meant something. He told himself it had to. Fenris wouldn’t even let Anders heal him, but this was something he allowed; Anders was the one to give it to him, without the cool practicality of a man like Hawke, with too many answering urges for it to be the perfect assault. It just was, the throb of Fenris’s dick and the swell of the lyrium heat providing another rhythm behind it, both of them unraveling while Anders tried to remember what it was to breathe, to keep his head above water, to be good at something because it mattered, this time.
It always mattered, as far as principles went. But this had the added distraction of being personal, as well as the added impetus.
The tips of Fenris’s finger guards grazed Anders’s ear, grasping for purchase he still wouldn’t allow himself. Sharp metal stung the flesh. Anders swallowed and parted his lips, licking the head of Fenris’s cock and sealing it in the heated warmth of his mouth; Fenris groaned and made a fist at the back of Anders’s head. Anders could hear the strain of metal and leather behind him, well-oiled joints working with the effort it took Fenris not to dig in and hold on.
Anders hummed in the back of his throat, allowing the vibrations to carry through flesh. One of Fenris’s legs twitched, the muscles in his brown thigh contracting as he struggled to remain still. He thought this was like healing, perhaps, something to hold steady against in order to prove himself a good patient. But half the fun was in getting as tangled as they were, with no direction, with no way out again. Anders liked to feel someone else’s enjoyment; he liked to be encouraged in all the most distracting ways.
Though next time—if there was a next time—the gauntlets had to go.
He wrapped a hand around the base of Fenris’s damp cock and began to stroke, moving his hand in time with his mouth and each helpful swipe of his tongue. That made Fenris swear, one of the violent, colorful curses in Tevinter that sounded so rough on the tongue. When Anders looked up, Fenris was panting, his face barely visible behind the striped bob of his dark throat, the glow of the lyrium against the vulnerable pulse, head thrown back between pinched shoulders.
Fenris, Anders knew, was always in complete control of himself. Even his battle rages were part of that calculation, a strategy carefully constructed to intimidate the enemy and draw their aggressions onto himself.
Anders wondered whether Fenris had ever allowed himself to relax like this—though it wasn’t relaxation so much as it was abandon, two very different things. But he was also almost grateful that detail hadn’t already been a chapter in one of Varric’s books.
He twisted his wrist the way he preferred best, in another life when he hadn’t been sharing a storeroom with Captain Hawke’s mabari spy. Fenris jerked his hips forward, and Anders had the experience to allow it, a little gift Fenris was too far gone to recognize, but never too far gone to appreciate. In fact, appreciation was the whole point.
The ship rocked beneath them. Anders was close enough to Fenris now that he could feel him trembling, the limber strength in his muscles turning brittle down to the bone. It had been a long time since anyone had thought to do this for him, Anders decided; either that, or he’d never come up against someone of Anders’s caliber, a thought that left him flushed with pride.
Anders let his fingers drift lower than the shaft of Fenris’s erection, stroking the soft, wrinkled skin beneath. Anders murmured with interest, the noise muffled around the cock stuffed in his mouth, and tricked his fingers delicately down, intoxicated by the freedom he’d been granted, the quick combination of imagination and impulse, savoring the feel alongside the success. Fenris made a wet, choked sound in his throat; his entire body shuddered like the ship was coming to pieces all around them, shattered at last by qunari gaatlok.
Then, all at once he was moving. Anders felt the dig of Fenris’s heel at the small of his back as strong, lithe legs wrapped around him, trapping him in place like a vise. The weight crushed the air from his lungs. His hand grew shaky, and there was no chance at all that Fenris—who noticed everything—wouldn’t feel the sudden change. There was no way for Anders to hide his actions and what they meant here, no avoidance he could employ while his mouth was full.
Maybe that was what made him so good at this. He couldn’t foul it all up by talking over himself.
‘Anders,’ Fenris gasped at last, and clutched his shoulder in a grip just on the wrong side of too painful. He wasn’t compensating for the sharp tips of his gloves. He’d probably forgotten he was wearing them.
But none of that mattered, because at the sound of his name a sharp coil of heat-lightning shimmered to life in Anders’s belly, spreading through his limbs like arcane fire. Fenris was no mage—he would have balked at the very idea—but he commanded a universal magic, the same any man or woman possessed in this position. He’d cast a spell of his own on Anders, although he’d be smart enough never to call it that, supporting hand braced against the smooth skin at Fenris’s hip.
When he came it was a surprise to them both: Fenris was too far gone to warn him and Anders too caught up in the moment to pay attention to certain vital signs. Fenris’s hand tightened at his shoulder, his legs all hard, lean muscle as he bucked his hips into Anders’s mouth, trying to sneak a bit further in each time. Anders ought to have known when his movements gained speed, that tell-tale hint of desperation, but it wasn’t until Fenris let out a strangled cry, falling forward onto Anders like a man felled in battle, that the recognition clicked.
Fenris came into Anders’s mouth with a gasp and a twist, hips pumping out the last, shuddering aftershocks, reminding Anders of the smaller swell of the tide after the crash and crest of the real wave.
Anders pulled back, licking the salt from his lips, choosing to swallow rather that befoul any of the pickle barrels by finding a likely one to spit into. His heart was pounding loud in his ears, as though he’d somehow gotten his head trapped between a dwarven forgemaster’s anvil and hammer. He needed to look up, but he could he couldn’t manage it.
He knew what he’d see, and he wanted to pretend it was something else instead—a Fenris flushed and warm and cozy, loose limbs and easy posture and satisfaction, and not a warrior recalling himself in tensing increments, shadows coming up like chest-plates and greaves and vambraces, all strapped into their proper place like so much armor. But Fenris was the latter always and never the former, the sort of defensive alley cat you couldn’t pet under the chin or coax along with tiny saucers of warm milk, the sort that refused to come in and warm itself by the fire, even if it wanted to, or needed to, or some combination of both.
Anders’s fingers trembled. He tried to push some of the hair off his sweaty brow when cool metal followed his touch, neither gentle nor rough.
Finally, slowly, Anders looked up.
Fenris was and wasn’t what Anders was expecting—and that said it all, not just about this, but about everything—half shielded already, one shoulder drawn high to hide his face, the breath hot on his parted lips, while the other sagged, arm bent crooked, propping him up. A contradiction in terms, pleased and guarded, still open and already closed-off. He’d twisted away, free hand amidst a nightmare of clawed tears in the hammock, his eyes half-lidded, his brow heavy. Anders recognized something in that look, something he couldn’t have predicted. It was trust.
Fenris trusted him.
Of course Fenris trusted him—otherwise this would never have happened. For a moment, Anders couldn’t understand why—or rather, he couldn’t understand anything at all, but that was no different from the usual state of things. He felt Fenris run his fingertips lightly along the hair at his temple, trying—and failing—to push that flyaway hair behind his ear. When it slithered free, refusing to listen, Fenris huffed, a deep sound, coming all the way from the center of his chest.
‘It never works,’ Anders explained, still breathless. ‘Believe me, I’ve tried. Hundreds of times—probably thousands. But there’s no way to keep it back, you see, so I’ve just given up.’
‘Ah,’ Fenris said.
Fenris trusted him.
Anders scrambled under the force of his gaze, under the twin pulls of pride and arousal, to figure out why, what had changed since he’d fought, tooth and nail and gauntlet, to keep from being healed. It wasn’t the pickles; Anders knew that. And he didn’t think he’d proven himself in any significant way recently, not with his behavior toward anyone, certainly not with his wicked stories over supper about the Fereldan Circle, mostly to impress Isabela.
Certainly not with his impression of Sebastian Vael’s noble brogue. Fenris hated that most of all.
‘The hammock is ruined,’ Fenris added after a pause.
‘The hammock deserved to be ruined,’ Anders told him, resting his cheek against Fenris’s hip. His lips and his breath skirted against bare, sweaty skin, and he felt Fenris shiver, a full-bodied effect, something he could no more help than he could contain. His legs twitched, knees pressed inward against Anders’s shoulders. He seemed surprised by it, his own reaction baffling him, and tenser than ever, while Anders breathed in deep the smell of his skin and his leather, wriggling against his own erection, those little details making him hard again despite the lull. He snuck a hand down between his legs and stroked himself, roughly, and when he moaned Fenris startled all over again, pressing off the floorboards, almost like he was chasing each sound with his body.
Anders thought—or hoped, or prayed—that Fenris was watching him: swathed in shadow, still tangled between Fenris’s legs as he brought himself easily to completion. He muffled his noises against Fenris’s thigh—one of his charms was his lack of inhibitions when it came to being vocal, but that was never appropriate for a boat full of naughty-minded, eavesdropping half-pirates—so only Fenris would know they were there.
Anders was by no means a private person. Not even Varric’s brand of snooping—more like appropriation, when you thought about it—could hinder his oftentimes humiliating bids for attention.
But Fenris trusted him, and he didn’t know why; the whole thing was a relief and a comfort and a blissful pleasure. He was warm, hair pricked with sweat, the back of his neck damp, body all twisted, and that wasn’t necessarily pleasant, nor was it comfortable. Anders dared to kiss the joint, the dip and curve where Fenris’s thigh met his hip, that sweet spot of skin beneath the curve of heavy muscle, and Fenris deigned to allow it, though Anders could only imagine his expression when he felt it, all rough stubble and soft lips.
He’d be about as confounded by the action as he had been to discover the destruction of the hammock—for which he was inappropriately affectionate.
‘It tried to kill us,’ Anders explained. He felt drowsy and complete, heavy and alive. Fenris’s thigh made a far better pillow than anything else he’d tried to this point, and his arm—by accident, obviously—was curved around Anders’s shoulders, palm cupped against his throat. He must not have realized what he was doing. It must have been an inadvertent embrace.
‘Many things have tried to kill us,’ Fenris pointed out. His voice was gruff and hoarse. He tried to clear it but succeeding in making only another one of his sounds, an answering thrill closing Anders’s throat up tight. ‘They have been more successful than this.’
‘It’s the little things,’ Anders told him. ‘The ones you don’t expect. They always get you in the end.’
‘It is a hammock.’ Fenris’s fingers tightened against Anders stubbled skin, but they didn’t hurt.
‘Not anymore it isn’t,’ Anders replied.
Anders drifted off, the lull of the rocking boat and the dip in adrenaline tricking him into thinking, for at least a few hours, that all was well and right and good. It didn’t last, though Fenris held very still, and eventually Anders opened his eyes, blinking to accustom himself to the darkness, lashes tickling against something.
Skin. Fenris’s skin.
‘Ah,’ Fenris said. Anyone else would have squirmed and giggled.
Anders was glad Fenris hadn’t. The squirming was one thing, but the idea of a giggle slipping pasts Fenris’s lips was something straight out of a demonic nightmare.
‘Ah,’ Anders parroted. He sat halfway up, leaning over Fenris’s body, still undressed, the straps of his armor in disarray over his stomach and the floor beside his hips. ‘Were you sleeping?’
‘No,’ Fenris said. That single syllable had such a ring of finality to it that Anders felt his spirits immediately dampen. No was Anders’s least favorite word. Yes could mean so many things; no meant only one. It wasn’t anything he hadn’t been expecting—he was nothing if not fatally realistic—but he’d still thought he had more time. Even if an afterglow could only last so long, when there was no enthusiastic author to pen its duration ad infinitum. ‘You were sleeping.’
‘I was, wasn’t I?’ Anders tried to make it all sound casual. ‘I must have drifted right off after all the excitement. Er, that happens, sometimes. It’s certainly not a commentary on the excitement itself, which was…’ Anders trailed off, blinking up at Fenris. His eyes were impossibly large, the exact shade of new leaves unfurling in springtime. They watched Anders with a curiosity that amounted to something more than his usual wariness. ‘…exciting. By exciting I mean marvelous. Thank you, and you’re welcome. …Have you really been lying here the whole time?’
Fenris scowled, dark brows wrinkling beneath his downy hair. He untangled himself, marginally, finding the loose buckles in his armor and fitting them back together at a pace that could—for him—almost be termed lazy. ‘If I had not been, you would have woken.’ As though it was truly as simple as that. ‘…It is pointless to ask a question when you already know the answer.’
‘Well, of course I knew,’ Anders said. He shimmied down Fenris’s body half-way, attempting to tug up his trousers—which had been far easier to get off than they were to get back on. His fingertips brushed against Fenris’s thighs and his cheeks tingled with heat, not to mention his pulse was pounding again, though it was all for different reasons than it had before.
Fenris was getting ready to leave. Anders knew that, had been ready for it, had never expected any other outcome. But watching him make all the necessary preparations still stung.
‘I just thought maybe you might’ve done that thing you do—you know, phased out from underneath me, gone out for a snack, and then phased right back in again,’ Anders continued, looking everywhere but Fenris’s eyes. Not because he didn’t want to see them—he liked seeing them—but because he didn’t want Fenris to see his. ‘It’s a useful trick. Not that….obviously that isn’t what you did. You probably don’t use it for such trivial matters, do you? No. Of course not.’
Anders cleared his throat, looking off to one side. It always came to this part—talking too much to fill a silence, whether filling it or not was strictly necessary, and someone staring at him as though he’d begun babbling in elvish. Which he might as well have done, all things considered. Ma serannas and ma nuvenin and everything.
‘It is not a trick,’ Fenris said at last. He lifted his lips to wriggle back into his trousers, body pressing flush against Anders’s for one tantalizing moment. Anders stared hard at a pickle barrel lined up against the far wall, thinking of vinegar, and little green vegetables that had once been larger, growing in the sun on some distant shore. He wondered if he’d be the next thing to pickle in the storeroom, turning small and sour in the dark. It was possible, what with all the brine. What with all his own, personal bitterness, which made itself known at the worst of times. ‘It is a tactic I employ in the midst of battle. There is no battle here.’
‘No,’ Anders agreed, even though he privately believed there sort of was. He took his hand off Fenris’s hip, fingers tracing the shape of a steel buckle. ‘The midst has passed, in any case.’
Fenris sat up, knees bent, one eye hidden beneath the fall of his hair, bare heels pressed into the folds of torn burlap. Even though he was dressed now, there was something still vulnerable in the sloped set of his shoulders, the sharp bend of his elbows, the way he didn’t know where to place his hands. Anders was seeing him with fresh eyes—or maybe he’d never truly seen him to begin with. Maybe this was how Fenris had always been, and Anders had allowed Varric’s prose to color his perception, his understanding, minimal as that was.
‘Tch,’ Fenris muttered. He reached up, fingers fumbling for the knot where the hammock was fastened above them. ‘You are staring, mage. I do not appreciate being gawped at like a fish that has flopped up to die on deck.’
‘Anders,’ Anders murmured. The longer Fenris lingered here, the more difficult it was to be braced for his inevitable departure. He wasn’t the sort to postpone the inevitable. By all means, he should have already left. ‘You call me Anders—remember?’
Fenris grunted, which Anders supposed he would have to take as assent. His sharp finger guards made short work of the hammock’s rope, and it came tumbling down on one side, creating a torn mess of a canvas nest on the floor. ‘I will never understand your fixation with that name.’
‘It’s mine,’ Anders said. It was his turn to be wary, watchful of Fenris’s every movement, as though the next one would carry him out the door. It was coming. Anders knew it was. ‘There aren’t many things I can say that about; I suppose that’s why I’m so particular.’
‘My name is not Fenris,’ Fenris replied, completely unexpected. He didn’t fumble with the knots he was tying, though he did seem to lose patience with the hammock despite his attempts to tame it. Anders could have warned him about that. Even now, wounded as it was, torn beyond the sensibility of repair, it was still putting up a fight. Anders envied such determination, one elbow resting on his knee, fingers trailing in empty air as he watched Fenris’s clever hands make short work of nothing at all.
‘I…see,’ Anders said. ‘That’s…really? Are you sure about that?’
Fenris jerked the cloth tight, such a fine knot that even the difficult hammock couldn’t argue with it. ‘I am sure.’
‘Of course.’ Anders bowed his head, hiding a smile—even though Fenris wasn’t looking at him, and couldn’t possibly see it. It wasn’t wry so much as it was accepting. There were some people who could be sure of everything, and—to keep the balance—others who were sure of nothing at all. It wasn’t something Anders could learn, just as it wasn’t something Fenris could teach. ‘Of course you’re sure.’
Fenris paused mid-action. He glanced over his shoulder, and Anders looked up; it occurred to him only then that Fenris was not leaving and, in fact, was doing everything in his power to find some tenuous excuse to stay. Anders reached out without thinking, touching his palm to the rough burlap sackcloth stretched between them, feeling the fray in the weave where Fenris’s gloves had rent long, raked holes straight through. Not a clean tear, easy to pick wider—which Anders did, idly, as the threads tickled at his fingertips.
‘Say, Fenris,’ Anders said, casually, once he became aware of things—the bruised shadows on Fenris’s mouth, swollen from each kiss; his tousled hair, sticking up at the back from where his head thrashed against the floor; and the sound of little dog claws scratching at the storeroom door.
Fenris nodded. Then, with some difficulty, he acquiesced. ‘…Anders.’
‘I was just thinking,’ Anders continued. ‘Not that I don’t do that all the time—contrary to popular belief, it is one of my more productive pastimes—but I just so happened to borrow Varric’s second book from his collection of all his own works, and I was wondering—’
‘It is not fair,’ Fenris said.
Anders balked. That was unexpected. ‘…Not fair that Varric should be his own greatest fan?’ he ventured, trying to regain equilibrium, or at least momentum, or at least coherency. ‘Not fair that such a genius should have to eat so many pickles?’
‘Pickles again,’ Fenris muttered. Anders enjoyed, however briefly, the delight and pride that came with knowing he could distract this person—indestructible as Anders once believed he was.
‘Pickles always,’ Anders said sagely. ‘I believe that’s Varric’s chief complaint, actually.’
‘Mage,’ Fenris warned.
‘Fenris,’ Anders replied.
Fenris flicked his fingers, sharp but light, over the length of cloth in his hand. The knot was tied; the job was done. Long done, in fact, and a flimsy excuse even before it was over.
Anders scooted closer along the floor and reached out, just as light, to touch the back of one spiked gauntlet, where the metal was most sharp, to recognizing—or acknowledge—the kindness done to him, the kindness he hadn’t appreciated in the moment.
‘Thank you for not tearing me to shreds, Fenris,’ Anders added. He believed in saying things, everything, no matter how unimportant, no matter how inane, exactly as and exactly when it came into his head. It wasn’t an easy life, but someone had to be that way, for all the people who weren’t. And, Anders suspected, for the people who couldn’t. ‘I have sensitive skin. You’ve no idea how much I can complain, too, especially about physical discomfort. Not to mention how I detest welts. What isn’t fair, by the way?’
Fenris made a noise, the closest Anders suspected he’d ever come to an honest you’re welcome The simple exchange seemed to be beyond him, but that was all right, because he allowed the gesture, Anders’s chin very nearly resting on his shoulder.
He would have done, too, if it hadn’t been for all the armor. It didn’t look comfortable, even if the skin just beneath smelled faintly of lyrium, and burned wonderfully warm.
‘That you should be the one to read,’ Fenris said finally. His fingers twitched beneath Anders’s hand; Anders took that as his cue to draw back, to fuss with his open collar and his messy feathers and search out the nearby book. ‘Your throat. It grows…hoarse.’
And after what I just did, it’s bound to be hoarser still, Anders thought, though for once, he didn’t say it. Even if the leer he offered Fenris in the darkness did.
Fenris cleared his throat and glanced away. Anders thought he recognized the instinct, the self-same one that caused him to bow his head and hide his smile. ‘Do you want to learn to read, Fenris?’ he asked.
‘Do not court the impossible,’ Fenris muttered, without saying no, without realizing that was exactly what Anders liked best.
Anders fell asleep with Dog on one side and Fenris on the other, crouched against his beloved pickle barrels, knees tucked up against his chest and book tucked up against his knees. When he woke there was only Dog, no Fenris at all, and plenty of pickle barrels, though Anders wasn’t quite as disappointed by what he was missing as he might have been.
Fenris had stayed when it counted. Anders had traced for him, with the tip of his finger, each letter of the alphabet along the browning vellum page, and Fenris had followed each motion with keen hunger buried deep in his dark eyes.
That was what mattered most.
Anders stretched, humming a yawn, lifting his arms high above his head and trying to work the crick out of his neck. His muscles were stiff but also particularly lazy, the former because he’d slept in a variety of odd positions recently, and the later because sheer physical pleasure was something he’d learned to store away, release in increments, solace to carry him through tougher times like a skein of water in the desert. He flexed his fingers in the air high above his head, thought about the sounds Fenris made when he came, and sank back against the rough-cut staves and round metal rings, smiling at no one.
Then, Dog pawed at his thigh, imparting a subtle whine. Anders glanced around the storeroom, almost expecting to see Hawke there with him—crouched low over his prone form, the whites of his eyes glinting silver in the pale dawn light, lucky amulet intimating all who crossed his path or slept with his bo’sun were about to be very unlucky.
But there was no one there, only a slim shaft of sunlight creeping across the floor and over Dog’s stumpy tail. Anders deigned to scritch him in his favorite spot between his ears, because misery liked company but sometimes happiness did, too. Dog thumped his tail hopefully, probably experiencing some of the same pleasure Anders had enjoyed the night before—at which point Anders had to stop that line of thinking altogether, because it was wrong, because it was Dog, and because he was disturbing himself.
‘All right, fine,’ Anders said, rubbing the small of his back. He hurt all over, in the best of ways, which was why he couldn’t bring himself to be annoyed by it. ‘I’ll bite. What is it, boy? Secret message? More desire demons? Don’t tell me you want to offer your congratulations? There’s a good dog.’
Dog whuffed, almost sounding like he was laughing—but dogs couldn’t laugh, not even mabari, and Anders chose to ignore its hidden meaning while Dog lumbered over to the door.
‘You know,’ Anders told it, dragging himself to his feet with a groan, leaning backward into the press of his thumbs, ‘this isn’t how this relationship works. The master is the one who’s supposed to lead you places. Dogs don’t tell people what to do and where to go. It isn’t right. A gross perversion of the status quo—that’s what you are.’
Dog’s only reply was to drop a fat plop of drool onto the floorboards, which Anders judiciously stepped around as he left the hold.
‘Hold your slobber,’ he muttered. ‘I’m coming as fast as I can.’
Dog managed to be patient as he led Anders above deck—despite the fact that he had four legs while Anders had only two, a trait Dog found insufficient. When they reached the surface, he let out a lone, wary bark, then loped away, his canine attention caught by something more interesting than a mage who dragged his heels when it came to possible danger.
There was no mist swirling along the wooden planks and breaking against the masts overhead; there were no belches of smoke or sharp cries from a nearby dreadnought about to fire on The Champion. But there was a chill in the air that cut through Anders’s clothing, burying itself deep beneath his skin, all the way past gooseflesh to the knotted muscles below.
There were cliffs in the approaching distance, not just rough-hewn stone, but man-made shapes casting man-made shadow. They looked like statues—but instead of standing proudly on either side, welcoming passengers through the narrow straights, their carved shoulders were hunched, broken backs bent as if from years of hard labor. If Anders squinted, it almost looked like they were holding their heads in their hands, weeping into palms of salt-stained bronze.
An expression of suffering: larger than life, forever trapped in grief, suspended from the northern cliffs. There were some twisted minds in the far corners of Thedas, Anders thought, not to mention peppered through its illustrious history; and who would commission such beastly things, anyway?
‘The Gallows,’ Varric said, sneaking up on him like a summer cold—which was more dangerous than not, in this weather. ‘They say the magisters put those statues there in the old days to intimidate their slaves—give them just a taste of what they were in for.’
‘How do you know all these things, Varric?’ Anders asked, wrapping his arms around himself tightly, fingers digging into the frayed cloth at his elbows. ‘You’re like an encyclopedia of wretched facts.’
Varric chuckled. ‘Actually, I gathered that much from the elf, before he started getting free and fancy with the added commentary. Said he couldn’t stand the sight of them—and that’s about where I stopped listening. But if you’re looking for him, he stalked off to inspect the rudder chain or engage in some other below deck duty.’ Varric grinned broadly, wicked eyes flashing with private amusement. Yet when it came to Varric, Anders had discovered, there was no chance of anything being private at all. ‘…Seems he’s been occupied with a lot of those, lately.’
Anders cleared his throat, hoping the flush in his cheeks could be blamed on the cold. It wouldn’t be enough to fool Varric—not by a long shot—but plausible deniability was what mattered so often in affairs of the heart.
Changing the topic was his only recourse. Deflection—one of avoidance’s finest tactics.
‘That’s the Gallows?’ Anders asked, with no small amount of trepidation. ‘We’re meant to be sailing through those cliffs?’
‘Easiest course is usually the most straightforward, Blondie.’ Varric shrugged. ‘Don’t let the elf’s superstitions get to you, all right? Any old magic that lingered in those statues faded away long ago—I guarantee it. No better defense than a hearty dose of superstition. These days, they’re only there to warn off would-be plunderers and explorers.’
‘Like us,’ Anders murmured.
It wasn’t the comfort Varric wanted it to be.
‘Exactly like us.’ Varric sounded satisfied that Anders had caught on so quickly. The ship creaked beneath them as idle, salt-thick waves slopped against its hull, and Varric let out a low whistle of appreciation. ‘Sure is one heck of a miserable sight, though. If I were with anyone but Hawke, I might suggest we turn this ship around.’
But Karl hadn’t turned around—Karl, who hadn’t been with anyone. It was the only thing that kept Anders from agreeing with Varric right then and there: yes, charting a new course to Antiva or Rivain seemed a lovely idea, and perhaps they were better off bringing their new plan to Hawke immediately, before it was too late?
Avoidance, as always, was Anders’s watch-word. Even now, the temptation was fierce within him, worse than a demon’s lures; he struggled with it under Varric’s gaze, the dwarf staring at him like he was already composing a paragraph about his internal struggle. Perplexingly, the dwarf didn’t seem to have anywhere better to be. Anders could see Carver manning the sails off the port-bow with Dog hounding his movements, and Merrill in the rigging; Hawke was at the helm behind them, and Isabela no doubt in the crow’s nest. Fenris had disappeared, but then Varric had said he didn’t care for the statues. He’d appear again once they’d sailed past them—Anders was sure of it.
‘Listen,’ Varric said, in a tone of voice that implied he was about to impart more dwarven wisdom. Anders could only hope it wasn’t a proverb about the perils of courting an elf, especially a fugitive from Tevinter with a natural distrust for magic, when one just so happened to be a mage. It wasn’t anything Anders didn’t already know, and he could have told Varric to save his breath, to save them both the trouble, because Anders was the sort of person who never took advice. No matter—or perhaps because of—how good it was. He had a contrary nature, and he was too old now to change that; Varric, on the other hand, was too quick to let anyone else get a word in edgewise. ‘No, Blondie, don’t give me that look. Just listen, like I said. Literally. Hawke’s not letting on yet, but full disclosure seems only fair, since you’re the financier of this little expedition and all.’ He glanced over his shoulder toward the helm. Anders couldn’t help but follow his gaze.
There Hawke stood, like a proper statue, broad-shouldered and proud at the ship’s wheel. The streak of red blood across his nose looked fresh, and the set of his jaw was hard, his gaze like unhammered steel.
He was impressive. No one could argue against that. But the carvings in the bowsprit rose before him, dragon wings mid-flight, and the rush of inspiration Anders felt was tempered by a deep shiver.
You could never get close to a man like that. Even Isabela gave him a wide berth, like Hawke was the center of a wild storm, and Isabela the winds that blew just around it.
Varric cleared his throat. Overhead, the mainsail snapped in the flagging wind.
‘All right, enough meaningful pauses, Varric. What is it?’ Anders asked.
‘We’re being followed,’ Varric told him.
Of course they were.
Anders whirled around, knowing full well Varric was laughing at him, that he’d planned this cruel surprise all along, and also wondering how he hadn’t seen it coming. There was always a second plot element before the final hour of any true adventure; the only question on Anders’s mind now wasn’t where the distant ship was, but whose it was.
Most likely it was Lieutenant-Admiral Aveline’s stalwart galleon The Guardsman, or Sebastian Vael’s sleek Starkhaven vessel The Repentance, or perhaps some unnamed group of roving pirates searching for treasure, all too willing to let The Champion clear the waters for them and sail, unnoticed, in her wake, to strike when they’d finally dropped anchor.
The third choice was the most preferable, Anders decided, searching the horizon they’d left behind for any sign of their pursuers; at last, he saw a speck, but when he blinked it was gone, and it might just as easily have been dust in his eye as an actual ship. Varric’s eyes were too keen—and his ears were, too—for any normal dwarf. But Anders specifically hoped it was a rag-tag group of seafaring mercenaries and leather-boiled raiders, because they never stood a chance of winning against named characters, Hawke and the rest of the crew.
It was The Guardsman and The Repentance Anders was worried about, though he’d always wondered about Sebastian Vael’s ship, white as snow and pure as Andraste herself. Part of Anders’s perverse nature had always encouraged him to wonder whether or not the third prince of Starkhaven and devout Andrastean was the sort to scrape the barnacles off the hull of his virgin ship himself, or if it was slightly less chaste than Varric’s stories claimed.
The same thing went for the ship’s captain. In Anders’s experience, it was always the ones who were the most devout who had the most to hide.
‘Who do you think it is?’ Anders asked, breathless, his lungs and throat tightening in the cold. The shadow of one of the cliff-side statues fell over the prow of the boat; Anders’s concentration was split, torn between the horizon behind them at the salt-stained metal above.
‘Can’t say for sure,’ Varric replied. ‘I’m a dwarf, you know, and we don’t much care for reading the future. Reading the past, though—well, to do that, somebody’s gotta write it, don’t they?’
‘I just asked for a guess,’ Anders muttered peevishly. ‘Not a discourse on your life mottos.’
‘Well, in that case,’ Varric told him, ‘I’m hoping it’s Sebastian. Haven’t had The Repentance show up for a while now, and let me tell you, the fans are clamoring for another man-to-man duel. Something where Hawke’s fatally injured and recovers last second. You know what I’m talking about—you’ve read ‘em all, and let me tell you, my ego appreciates it. What Hawke really needs is a challenge. Someone who’s got aim.’
‘You have absolutely no loyalty whatsoever, do you, Varric?’ Anders asked. Truth be told, it was an impressive feat to be that unabashed.
Varric’s eyes twinkled despite the creep of the shadows along the deck. ‘Only to the things that count,’ he said.
They passed through the statues and into Gallows waters without further incident; Anders was waiting the entire time for the cliffside to crumble and bury the ship, for the waters to open up to swallow them, for whirlpools and tornadoes, for dragons to leap down from above and crush the mainmast with the massive beating of their wings.
When nothing at all happened, it was almost worse than tragedy—and worse still because Anders could see the ship in the distance now, not gaining on them fast, but no longer concerned with keeping its presence unknown.
Varric started up a pool on deck as to who it would be; when everyone said Sebastian, Anders picked Aveline—just for the sake of being contrary—which likely meant it’d be Sebastian after all, since Anders was notoriously bad at betting games. Even when it was pure luck. Especially then.
Skill, at least, was something that could be taught—not something Anders had yet managed to learn, but the point remained. Bad luck, on the other hand, was something you lived with or something you didn’t, the same as good luck, and Anders had far too much of the former without even a smidgeon of the latter to balance it out.
‘There’d better be treasures aplenty in the Gallows,’ Varric told him, ‘so you can pay us what you owe us for betting wrong. And no, we don’t take IOU’s. Who do you think we are? This is The Champion, and don’t you forget it.’
Anders shielded his eyes from the narrow sunlight, too bright through the thin gray clouds, still trying to make out—despite the great distance—whether or not the boat in their wake was white or some other, regular color. It still looked like nothing more than a black speck, something Anders could have rubbed out of his eyes.
‘There is no point in staring,’ Fenris told him. Anders whipped around for the second time that day, attempting too late to make it all look casual, steadying himself against the base of the mainmast and nearly slipping when he gave himself a splinter. After that, he gave up, sucking on his finger to stem the tide of pain, while Fenris stood before him and made no comment at all—no comment, like no action, both of which were worse than something outright bad. It was all the suspense, without being able to skip to the last page to see how it all turned out. ‘Either it will follow us to shore or it will not. In this case, it will, and you shall see it then. Watching now will change nothing.’
‘Soothing words to ease my nerves?’ Anders asked, around a mouthful of his forefinger. ‘Oh, Fenris. I didn’t know you cared.’
Fenris’s eyes narrowed. ‘Did you not?’ he asked.
Anders felt simultaneously harpooned and marooned, far too much oo for his own good. He assumed he was reading too much into the question, one of Fenris’s more straightforward responses; it had no implications, no second meanings, no verbal sleights-of-hand like Varric’s conversation. Not to mention Fenris was in a bad mood; he didn’t like the statues, and who would, but his brow was knit sharply, looking heavier than usual, the clench of his jaw matched only by the tension in his neck.
Anders rubbed the back of his own neck, feeling guilty for being so relaxed.
‘Aha,’ he said cleverly, chewing on his lip, so that the word came out sounding more like uh…huah. More choked than revelatory. He wasn’t much good at this, at the after part—which was ironic, all things considered, because he was normally so much better at talking than he was at anything else. Especially, but not limited to, acting. His words—normally the staunchest of allies—had up and trotted away like Dog, vowels sprouting legs from their fat midsections, wandering off to sniff at and piss on some distant corner of the boat. How embarrassing, to own something so badly trained, to be responsible for it. It reflected poorly on a man. ‘No. I mean, yes. I suppose I did know.’
His voice grew high on the final syllable, taking the coward’s way out and turning it into a question, just on the off chance Fenris hadn’t meant it at all. That wasn’t his style, but then Anders had been known to inspire a sort of ill-timed sense of humor in the people be became, against all odds, marginally involved with.
It might have been flattering, if it weren’t so obvious.
‘Neither the lieutenant-admiral nor his highness has the speed necessary to catch us mid-sail,’ Fenris said, drawing closer to lay his hands on the railing. ‘The Champion is unbeatable in the open water, which is why they will engage us only after we have docked.’ He turned toward Anders, the wind rifling through his pale hair and spilling it across his brow, making his expression even more inscrutable than before. If ever there was proof that nature itself was Anders’s enemy, this was it. ‘There will be no point in remaining below deck then. You will not be safer there, and so you will have to travel with us.’
‘Yeees,’ Anders said slowly, not sure that he followed. In the end, it was his expedition, and always had been. He also didn’t think Karl would appreciate him sending proxies in his stead on the last leg of the journey. Having made it so far, what was one brisk stroll through haunted, unhallowed ground? ‘Don’t worry, I wore my walking boots.’ Anders stuck out one foot, wiggling it for show. ‘I may be a delicate mage—squishy, actually; squishy is so much more accurate—but I have lived through a Harrowing. If anyone’s prepared for mystical adventures in accursed territory, it’s me. Or other Circle mages, presumably; better ones, braver ones… But if you’re counting people actually aboard this ship, then I’m your man.’
Fenris’s expression darkened like a gathering storm. His fingers dug into the railing, splintering the wood beneath the polish. He was frustrated; words were never his friends. He viewed them as another enemy to hack at indiscriminately until he’d forced them into the right order; that was how he read, and that had always been how he spoke.
Anders would have helped him, if he thought any sort of aid might be appreciated. Sometimes, lines cast after drowning men seemed more like lures than anything.
‘It will be dangerous,’ Fenris explained tartly. From her perch on the crow’s nest, Isabela called out an order. Carver went running down the deck, with Bethany just behind him. Up ahead, Hawke kept his hands steady on the wheel, and Varric had his telescope out, spying on their company. Fenris lowered his voice. ‘Keep to your place in back with the dwarf. Sebastian Vael is a marksman; no matter the pretense of distance, it will not keep you safe.’
‘Shouldn’t I be the one offering you advice?’ Anders asked. If he talked quickly enough, he might distract Fenris from his pink ears, how eager he was to accept even the most curt counsel. This time, it seemed less that Fenris wanted Anders out of the way, and more that he wanted Anders out of harm’s way. The difference was small, only a single word to change its meaning, but it meant everything all the same. ‘Don’t trust your eyes, don’t make a deal with any attractive demons, and…try not to step on any haunted skulls?’
Fenris pressed his lips together tightly, but not before Anders saw them twist. He was trying not to smile.
For one absurd moment, Anders wished that Varric had been there to see it. Someone had to record it for posterity.
‘We are running aground,’ Fenris said then, pulling away sharp, sudden, but not entirely unfriendly. ‘After we lower anchor, find Varric and prepare to dock.’ He paused, back and shoulders spiking with tension; hesitance was a state of being that he mistrusted instinctively. If he’d been a cat, all the hair along his spine would have stood on end. ‘I trust your…friend is worth all this trouble.’
‘When is anything worth the trouble?’ Anders asked.
‘Hm,’ Fenris said.
He might just as well have said: Wrong answer.
‘He is,’ Anders corrected himself; and he was thinking of Karl, of course, but more than that, more selfishly than that, he also meant the time he’d spent on board The Champion. Anything was worth that. Even qunari dreadnoughts. Even gaatlok.
The idea that it might soon be coming to an end twisted in Anders’s gut like a broken barrel-stave. And he’d only just found his sea-legs—not to mention spending only one meager, ill-timed night in Fenris’s arms.
‘All hands to deck!’ Carver called, and Fenris slipped away at last, leaving Anders to resume not being a part of anything. He was, for a time, but it would all end soon, and Anders lifted his palm to his brow, squinting at the sunset behind them. Somewhere out there, Hawke’s greatest rival was sailing to meet them. Whoever it was—for Hawke was the sort of man who had so many.
There was no dock for the Gallows, since there was no one left on the island to tend to them, but Isabela found them a narrow pass in the rocky cliffs to drop anchor. Instead of lowering the gangplank, Bethany tied a rope ladder to the starboard side, and they lowered themselves to ground like raiders at midnight, slinking unseen down the side of the ship. Fenris went first, then Varric, with Anders following suit, an awkward shimmy that left him with rope-burn on his palms and fingers. The rock beneath his boot crumbled like old cheese when he stepped down, but the ground itself decided to hold, at least for the time being. The silt was dead and colorless, drained of life; it was like stepping into the Fade, only Anders was certain he wasn’t dreaming and hadn’t volunteered for a second Harrowing, which only made the experience as implausible as it was disturbing.
‘We’re sure this is the right place?’ Varric asked. ‘Call me a dwarf, but I’d pictured…more piles of gold and wailing ghosts.’
‘Look above you, dwarf,’ Fenris muttered.
They were face to face now with another Gallows slave, one of countless statues hewn into the rock. This one was smaller than the two that greeted them, almost too large to contemplate, but this close, it was impossible to mistake the sorrow in its hunched form, wrought in bronze as a monument to the suffering of the place.
‘Spooky,’ Anders murmured, his attempt to lighten the mood with humor swallowed by more authenticity of emotion than he was prepared to deal with.
‘Nah,’ Varric said. ‘Are you kidding? This isn’t so bad. I’m pretty sure my ancestors lived in places worse than this.’
Anders sniffed. ‘Dwarves have thicker skin than mages.’
‘Yeah, but who doesn’t?’ Varric asked.
‘Fair point,’ Anders replied.
Their chatter was making Fenris uncomfortable, as though it even mattered, as though the Gallows was even listening or even cared. Anders knew that, and wished he could stop, but it was still better than acknowledging all the stillness that surrounded them; even the familiar sounds of waves on the shore or against the ship’s hull were muted by the arcane pall that hung, like mist, stretched from rock to rock. A man could be swallowed up by that much history, if he wasn’t careful; Anders could feel each crime committed like blows against the stone, carving their own despair into the surface of the island.
Some places could see too much; some damage was never forgotten. Fenris’s lyrium flared in response, like anyone else would clench their fist or curl their lip, and Anders swayed against solid ground, missing the uneven keel of The Champion where before, he’d cursed the rhythm of sailing to anyone who’d listen.
Which was to say, only the dog.
Anders glanced up, trying to make out the familiar figures on the deck. The boat still looked real, solid and even colorful, but seen from a great distance, or through a smoggy lens. Anders rubbed at his eyes, and saw the rest of the crew ranged on the deck, none of them on the verge of leaving.
‘Psst, Varric,’ Anders said, shuffling closer to him. ‘What are they waiting for? They…do know we’re here, right? And that we’re being followed? And that time is of the essence? Just…pop into the tower, find the treasures, pack it all away and get out of here before someone catches up with us?’
Varric lifted a thick brow. ‘C’mon, Blondie,’ he said. ‘Don’t tell me you don’t know better than that.’
Anders swallowed, glancing between the distant peak of the tower behind him and The Champion’s crow’s nest, skimming the swell of a low-hanging cloud.
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘We don’t plan on getting out of here before someone catches up with us. We plan on staying here until they do, and making them very sorry they gave chase.’
‘Well, that’s what Hawke plans, anyway,’ Varric confirmed. ‘You can always tell it’s Captain Hawke by the way the plans don’t seem to make much sense, but get the job done anyway.’
Anders ran his thumb and forefinger over his growing collection of stubble, prickly, especially underneath his chin and in the shadow of his bottom lip. ‘…Which explains why Hawke isn’t coming. Sort of. But what about the others?’
‘What about the others?’ Isabela called from up on high. ‘Me, I’m not missing a chance to flirt! I’ve made real progress with Sebastian, you know. You can’t put a price on that.’
‘We stay with our brother,’ Carver added, just loud enough to be heard. He sounded three parts angry and one part proud—remarkable how similar those emotions were, in someone like Carver.
‘For better or worse,’ Bethany agreed. ‘Even if it is so often the latter.’
‘That’s my girl, Sunshine,’ Varric told her.
Anders thought that was nice; she’d like that, and the idea made him unexpectedly happy.
But there were other details to focus on, other threads of the tale that still didn’t make sense. ‘So that’s it?’ Anders asked. ‘Just the three of us traveling through what is arguably the most treacherous place in Thedas all by ourselves? Just a dwarf, an elf, and an apostate in the Gallows?’
‘Sounds like the beginning of a good joke, doesn’t it?’ Varric rubbed at an imaginary stain on his well-polished crossbow. ‘And you know what they say about good jokes.’
‘I don’t know what they say about good jokes,’ Anders muttered. ‘Is it ha, ha?’
‘They’re all you need to tell a good story,’ Varric replied. ‘Come on. Before we lose the lead Hawke’s buying for us.’
‘Yes, and about that,’ Anders added, as always unable to let the little things go, ‘is he really willing to trust us with the treasure he sailed here to claim for himself? It’s not as though the jaunt was easy, either. I distinctly remember qunari dreadnoughts attacking, not to mention an entire host of desire demons becalming the ship. Do you expect me to believe Hawke doesn’t want to be the one to lay hands on the Book of Justice first? That he thinks we won’t take it for ourselves or even that we’re competent enough to find it? What with us having hearts and all,’ Anders added, taking a deep breath, hoping Fenris wasn’t judging his sudden attack of nervous energy.
These things happened to normal people who found themselves in abnormal situations. Anders would have liked to say he rose to the occasion, but of course he didn’t, and whether or not it reflected poorly on him now mattered very little in the wake of all the promised ghosts: the whispers and trickles of voices blown to them on nothing more than deadly-still air, the silence that stretched like a shroud all the way across the uneven shore.
‘Are you all done, Blondie?’ Varric asked.
‘I think so,’ Anders said. He paused, just to be certain. Nothing more came to him. ‘Yes. I am. Quite.’
‘Good,’ Varric said, ‘because you were starting to turn purple. Can’t be good for your health.’
‘Being at the Gallows isn’t good for my health,’ Anders pointed out.
‘Hawke trusts us,’ Fenris added, already some distance away, moving with a preternatural grace that somehow fit the setting. Maybe it was the lyrium glow, in the air already heavy with lyrium scent—almost burdensome that way, but Fenris managed to remain graceful despite it. And he trusted that Hawke would trust them; he didn’t even have to question it. Anders knew he shouldn’t be jealous—shouldn’t, as Fenris instructed, presume to know his feelings—but it was so natural Anders couldn’t help but feel personally slighted.
Once again, he couldn’t bring himself to get along with nature. Even when that nature was a part of someone he wanted, very badly, to get along with, on so many levels.
‘The thing is,’ Varric explained, picking his way daintily over so much shifting shale, leaving Anders to scramble along after him, ‘Hawke trusts us because he knows we’re smart enough not to double-cross him. He knows that we know one wrong move leaves us stranded in this place—and nobody wants that, now do they?’
Anders slipped on a loose stone, steadying himself with splayed arms and an ungainly yelp. He wished he had half the grace of an elf, or half the height to fall like a dwarf. But, as always, nothing useful presented itself.
He had only himself, silence before him and silence behind, not even the sound of pebbles scattered underfoot. ‘I see your loyalty goes both ways, Varric,’ he said.
‘I told you,’ Varric reminded him, ‘I save it for when it really counts.’
They made their way along the shore—once a dockyard, Anders suspected, though it had long since fallen to ruin—with Fenris’s glow lighting the way ahead. He never once looked over his shoulder, nor condescended to offer Anders his hand, and Anders tried to appreciate it while at the same time feeling slighted by its implications. He knew he couldn’t have it both ways—that he couldn’t be special while at the same time experiencing true integration—and it was his inability to decide on which he wanted that had burned him so many times before.
But with every step he took, he drew closer and closer to the whole thing ending, without any real conclusion—not for him.
Once they found the Book of Justice, and Hawke’s promised treasure, and—hopefully, if he was still alive in this dreadful place—Karl, there wasn’t much left to say, nothing at all left to do. They’d get back on the boat, hope Sebastian Vael hadn’t finally succeeded in bringing Hawke to the Maker’s justice, and Anders would have to treat, as he always did, the nearest port as his, until he moved on to the next one, never belonging in any one place.
There were some sailors who didn’t have a port beyond whatever they found in a storm, but that was different; their home was somewhere else, on the sea, with their crew. Anders didn’t have that either, just a cat and a pillow he’d left with a friend, which was hardly comparable, no insult intended.
Crumbling stairways underfoot gave way to an equally crumbling courtyard. Anders noted statues, and more statues, the bronze dull in the faded sunlight, barely piercing the thicket of clouds overhead.
‘How many statues do you really need?’ Anders muttered under his breath, attempting to remember—despite the oppressive atmosphere—what it felt like to laugh. He’d almost forgotten. ‘People just don’t appreciate subtlety when making a statement. At this point it’s not even scary anymore.’
‘Uh, Blondie,’ Varric said.
‘I’m serious,’ Anders continued, taking a deep breath, feeling better the more he talked. Silence wasn’t natural; it wasn’t good for a man’s health, not to mention his nerves, and the sound of his own voice could at least remind him of who he was, since the rest of the Gallows seemed so determined to stamp that memory out like salt-water on a dying flame. ‘It’s ludicrous, that’s what it is. Whoever built the place made their mean little point ten times over with the fiftieth bloody statue we passed, but now it’s all blending together into caricature, isn’t it? Someone ought to have told them that before they wasted all this bronze.’
‘Blondie,’ Varric repeated.
‘I will not be silenced,’ Anders told him. ‘Sometimes, the sound of my own voice is the only thing I have, Varric.’
‘Well, that,’ Varric agreed, ‘and the blighted moving statue right behind you.’
For a moment, Anders didn’t look. It was just like something out of one of Varric’s novels—the moment of suspense before the big reveal—and the dwarf was more than capable of making these things up. Mostly, Anders didn’t want to believe something like that was happening ‘right behind him.’
Anders had an all too clear idea of how many statues they’d passed on their way in.
If one was moving, then who was to say the rest wouldn’t join in?
Then, Anders saw the shaft of reflected light travel across the broken pavement in front of him, heard the creak of metallic joints rusted and aching, one solid footfall shaking the foundations of the courtyard. The ex-courtyard, as it were. To call this place something so formal was an insult to courtyards everywhere.
‘Get behind the pillars,’ Fenris said, unsheathing his sword in one fluid motion. His tattoos flared to life, skin shimmering translucent despite the otherwise grim atmosphere. He looked over his shoulder, brows knitting together in a scowl when he saw that neither Varric nor Anders had done as required. ‘Now.’
‘What’re you going to do, elf?’ Varric asked. ‘Hack away at it with your sword? That thing’s gotta be solid bronze. It’ll be like a needle off a nug’s back—only without all the squealing.’
A hollow metal thud shook the ground beneath their feet a second time. Anders’s molars vibrated, and he clenched his jaw to stop them. The statue was loping toward them like a newborn calf, all unsteady, graceless meandering. It seemed to have no idea how to use its limbs; its uneven gate was also unbalanced, but Anders decided it could do just as much damage falling on them as it could with an outright attack.
Besides which, it was a walking statue. If that didn’t strike fear into a man’s heart, then he probably didn’t have a heart to begin with.
Anders did his best to focus on something familiar, something mundane, like the stones of the courtyard, the broken symbol just beneath the statue’s bronze-carved boots. It was a chantry sun, paint long since faded—the very same sign they burned onto the peaceful brow of every mage ever made tranquil in Thedas.
A shiver ran unbidden down the back of Anders’s spine. That, as much as the dozens of Gallows-slaves they’d seen, was a mark of intimidation—one Anders understood better than the rough-hewn chains.
Anders shifted his staff in his hand. Staring at the ground was a bad idea—one of the worst he’d had, second only to ‘hire the crew of The Champion and sail straight for the Gallows.’ Sweat beaded along the back of Anders’s neck as he lifted his staff; eventually, he was going to have to get over the ghosts of templars past in this place, and cast a spell of defense, and hope to anyone yet listening that the arcane flare didn’t attract more company.
The statue before him had no eyes, no chips of painted glass amidst the rusted sockets, but Anders could feel its gaze searching them out. This was old magic, tied to the Gallows in the same way Hawke was tied to that amulet, and maybe even to The Champion herself. Anders wondered whether or not Karl had made it past the statues, or if he’d become a part of the foreboding debris that lay scattered along the corridor. If Anders squinted, he was fairly certain he could make out one or two skulls, a handful of collarbones, the occasional ribcage and femur.
He couldn’t think about that now. They had to keep moving.
‘My sword will be of better use than your arrows, dwarf,’ Fenris said, with a ripple of annoyance. It was strange to talk to him this way, the light in his eyes hidden behind the arcane glow that shone across his skin. The statue shuddered toward them on clumsy bronze feet, arms swinging numbly at its sides. It reminded Anders of a lonely child, desperate for a new toy to play with, a new toy to break. ‘I will not tell you again—get back.’
There were scorch-marks streaking the pillar that Fenris herded them behind, charred stone marring the crumbling architecture. Anders pressed his fingers there, then drew them away, smelling the faint traces of smoke that lingered in the air after a bad lightning-storm.
Metal, Anders knew, could be an excellent conductor for electricity.
‘Wait—’ Anders said, reaching out, yet not daring to catch Fenris by the shoulder.
The statue shambled closer. Anders could hear the clank clank of its footsteps, the swiveling joints in its neck as its head rotated in confusion now that they’d disappeared from plain sight.
‘Now is not the time, mage,’ Fenris said, words hissed against the corner of Anders’s jaw.
‘Not in front of Varric,’ Anders agreed, with a flicker of familiar, if inappropriate humor. Even if Fenris imagined Anders was the kind of sentimental fool to insist on showy declarations of affection on the battlefield—which he was—it was still comforting that Fenris thought of him at all. Anders felt fingering roots of warmth take hold in his muscles and bones, beating back the cold that had set in from the long trek through the dismal Gallows. ‘But no, for once, it isn’t that. I meant I can help you. Just distract the thing long enough for me to shoot it full of lightning.’
‘A distraction, huh?’ Varric said, rubbing his chin with gloved fingers. At some point, when Anders wasn’t looking, he’d fished a suspicious flask out of his belt. ‘Well why didn’t you say so in the first place, Blondie? Distractions just so happen to be my specialty.’
Before either of them could speak, and much to Fenris’s tight-jawed disdain, Varric loosed the flask. Dark, greasy smoke burst up around them; it went straight down Anders’s throat, and he fought to keep from coughing, miasmic tears forming in his eyes.
Well done, Varric, he would have said, if he’d been able to speak, if his tongue hadn’t been slick with oil and his nostrils full of black bilge-smoke. I always wanted to choke to death, then have my body be pulverized by a nearby Gallows statue. Hooray!
Then, on some unspoken signal—while Anders was still doing his best to get air into his clogged lungs—both Fenris and Varric swooped into action. Fenris broke free of the smoke-wisps, limbs gleaming as he swung his blade to cleave the Gallows slave statue at the knee. Varric fired at its head, arrows pinging every which way like a sudden, deadly hailstorm. While Anders crooked his finger in his ear and tugged out a plug of hardened miasmic residue, he thought he could hear the crazy dwarf whistling—a happy tune, not one Anders recognized, probably not a sea-shanty, but a melody concocted for just this moment. Fighting a Bronze Statue With a Glowing Elf By My Side, Varric would call it, and soon they’d hear that very refrain in all the dockside taprooms.
Show-offs, Anders thought. Like a sensible apostate, he remained obscured behind the pillar, heat-lightning sparking between his fingertips, awaiting the proper moment. He didn’t think Fenris would forgive him if he acted too early and accidentally shocked an ally.
The statue made no sound as it attacked, save for the ringing whoosh of air as it swept its heavy limbs at the arrows, and then at Fenris, who was working hard not to get his blade stuck in the weather-softened metal. Anders took a moment to appreciate the strength—not just of body, but of character—that it took for someone to fling himself head-first at an enemy so obviously wrong, not to mention so solid. Anders would never have done it himself, but then, his place was elsewhere, bent in the charred shadows of a nearby column, chain lightning building behind his fingertips.
Everyone had his place. Just because some of them couldn’t glow with lyrium-heat on command or compose apropos ballads in the flush of the moment didn’t mean they weren’t all necessary, in some way. As a catalyst, or as backup.
Or as the person bent in the charred shadows of a nearby column, chain lightning finally flying free from his fingertips and across the Fade-thick air.
‘One lightning storm, coming up!’ Anders said—because it sounded good; because it was the sort of thing that would help Varric in his subsequent literary endeavors—and because he’d always wanted a catchphrase. Who didn’t? Then, arcane energy pulsing hotter than blood and whiter than sunspots all the way through his veins, he wondered if it didn’t need some work. ‘…Suck on a…lightning bolt?’ he tried, as Fenris and Anders dove out of the way, and the statue had a moment of perplexed uncertainty, swinging its head from side to side, a doomed attempt to determine the source of all that hostile magic. ‘No—that’ll never do. It just doesn’t have the right ring to it. How about… I’ll show you why mages are feared?’
The first lightning bolt struck the statue dead-center, right in its beaten bronze chest. It wasn’t enough to fell or even stun, just annoy—what was it Varric had said? A needle on a nug’s ass or something equally delightful and indefatigably dwarven?—but that was the lovely thing about chain lightning: there was a chain of it. The first bolt was followed by a second, then a third, then a fourth, and so on, until Anders was completely drained of the spell itself, sagging against the column beside him, positively stinking of singed hair and burnt fingernails, yet far better after his efforts than his enemy, which was usually the preferred balance.
Being a mage was all about sacrifice. You took your shot, gave it your all, cast the spell, and hoped it took the other man out before he got to you. Because if it didn’t, you were a mage on a stick, very popular in Thedas amongst templars and raiders and other assorted mean people.
Anders lifted his hand to wipe the sweat off his brow, flicking some out of his eye, squinting into the chaos before him. Some would call it beautiful—some, including Varric; Anders could envision the scene already, the paragraphs devoted to each crackle of lightning, each hiss of melting metal—but now that he was in its midst, Anders thought it depressing. The statue fought off nothing at all, only the aftershocks and spasms through its cumbersome limbs, arms windmilling as it fell backward, dashed against the already battered limestone of the courtyard floor.
There it lay, Anders watching breathlessly, giant body twitching and shaking from the spell. After a time, it seemed a fair assumption to make that it wouldn’t be getting up again, and Anders told himself not to feel guilty, that it wasn’t anyone at all, just a buildup of latent, unhappy magic, the remembrance of other atrocities committed in this very place. Whether or not it was the spirit of all slaves or all tranquil didn’t mean it shouldn’t be put to rest, same as all dead things.
Maybe, now that it wasn’t trying to kill them, they could find peace.
Anders stepped out from behind his column, and Fenris watched him over the length of his sword, and Varric gave the fallen statue a wide berth, though he was still whistling.
‘You come in pretty handy, Blondie,’ he said. ‘You know that?’
‘I’ve been told I’m good with my hands, actually,’ Anders replied, feeling giddy about the whole thing. Being useful had such a way of making a man feel important—the two weren’t always the same, but the former masqueraded as the latter, and either way, it was a good feeling.
Fenris coughed. They all pretended it was because of the miasmic flask from earlier, which Anders himself was still suffering the effects of, and not anything more personal, which Varric had already picked up on.
‘Too much information,’ Varric told him, once Fenris stopped sounding like a cat outwitted by a hairball. ‘We don’t know each other well enough yet. Maybe some other time, all right? I’ve been thinking about breaking into romances for a while now. It’s where all the coin is, so I’ll let you know when I’m ready to take that plunge. Get all the gory details. But seriously, Blondie—those catchphrases need some work.’
‘I’m sure you’ll think of something, Varric.’ Anders wiped grease off his hand and onto a crumbling stanchion. ‘Now what do you say to inspecting the haunted rooms of this blighted place before the other statues get any bright ideas?’
‘I’d say you’re finally talking my language,’ Varric said, before they gladly left the courtyard behind.
There was one word that perfectly described the Gallows now—Anders had ruled out eerie, spooky, and tormented, because they were too obvious, and they didn’t capture the essence of arcane decay that infused the surroundings with an incomparable ambience. Crumbling, he’d chosen at last, and stuck with it, stone turning to gravel and chalk beneath his feet as he ascended a narrow set of stairs. He winced when he ducked under an unsteady doorframe, expecting the whole building to collapse on them at any moment, and all three of them set about scuttling through the long-abandoned rooms, uncovering chest after chest of legendary artifacts and less legendary—but no less commendable—coin.
‘Now that’s what I’m talking about,’ Varric said, twirling his lockpicks after the third successful break-in. Looting the personal effects of high-ranking, corrupt templars didn’t bother Anders morally in the slightest; he was enjoying Varric’s gusto, though Fenris ranged back and forth by the doorway, each flicker of lyrium-heat indicative of his discomfort.
Anders was a healer, but there were some wounds, old anxieties, the prickle of skin at the perceived shadow of an enemy, that even the most dedicated of healers couldn’t salve. Anders suspected this was one such injury; he only wished he could share some of his glee with the person there most staunchly against enjoying anything.
Well, Anders reminded himself. Not anything. There were some things Fenris enjoyed.
‘This place is cursed,’ Fenris muttered—or rather, accused, as though he thought he was the only one amongst them to know it. ‘Lingering to indulge in the dramatics of the moment remains unwise, dwarf.’
‘C’mon,’ Varric said, locking the chest up tight and dragging it over to the others. ‘A place like this? You’ve gotta respect it or it turns on you quicker than usual. And that’s exactly what I’m doing. Everybody—and everything—likes being appreciated.’
Anders glanced around the room. It seemed untouched, in the same state of decay as every other they’d been through; there was no way to determine whether or not Karl had passed the same way. Maybe a good rogue would have known based on the way the dust had settled like fog over everything, but Anders was too busy being distracted by the pile of shiny Varric had collected.
Just because he wasn’t a dwarf didn’t mean he couldn’t appreciate vast treasures, glittering gems, and enormous fortunes.
‘All right,’ Varric said, transferring all the best treasures into the main chest, some jewels slipped into pouches here and there on his person, an ancient text slipped beneath his collar, a few new coinpurses clipped to his belt, jangling heavy by his telescope. ‘Now that the easy part’s out of the way, I don’t suppose you know where to find the Book of Justice?’
‘Karl wasn’t exactly specific about that,’ Anders admitted. ‘His final letter was…just about as coherent as you’d expect from a man bold enough to travel to the Gallows on his own. He said it was here, but he couldn’t say where-here, and then there was something about an idol and who knows what else. I burned the letter,’ Anders added, aware he was whispering, as though the walls had ears, or there were ghosts just behind them. Perhaps a few more walking attack statues. ‘It seemed wise. And less uncomfortable than eating it, which I supposed was my only other option.’
Fenris made another hairball noise. ‘Unbelievable,’ he said.
Anders chose to interpret some fondness in the statement.
‘In case you haven’t noticed, Blondie,’ Varric added, ‘we don’t exactly have time to search this whole place from top to bottom. Hawke likes things done fast. Clean. In and out. No more killer statues than strictly necessary. …Hang on—do you hear that?’
‘No,’ Anders said, drawing out the vowel so it sounded more like nooo. He was no expert in these matters, but it didn’t ever seem like a good sign when the experienced dwarven rogue started hearing things.
‘No,’ Fenris agreed. Then—just as Anders was about to thank him for being so helpful, throw him a look filled with gratitude and maybe a hint of private affection—he stalked out of the hall and back through the courtyard, bare feet picking through the rubble on the floor. There was another sun-sign stamped into the tiles here, the waved lines of its aurora stretching out like spider’s legs across the ground. Anders glowered at it.
He liked the sun, when it wasn’t burning his skin pink and raw. There was no reason the chantry should be allowed to use something so warm and friendly-looking for its nefarious purposes. They’d ruin the sun for everyone, if they weren’t careful.
‘It’s coming from that direction,’ Varric said, trotting after Fenris on surprisingly swift, short legs. ‘You’re sure you don’t hear it?’
‘I am quite sure,’ Fenris said. He came to a broad, double door made of thick metal, like the kind they’d had in the Circle tower. Anders stared at it in wonder. ‘And I do not appreciate being made to repeat myself.’
Without further explanation, Fenris kicked the doors, hard. They buckled inward with a groaning protest, but ultimately held.
As Anders drew closer in alarm—taking care not to trip over what looked like half a ribcage, with a golden goblet set worryingly amidst the bones—he thought he heard someone muttering on the other side of the wall. But the voice quickly stopped, mid-sentence, having realized it was no longer alone.
‘Varric,’ Anders said. ‘Was that voice what you heard?’
‘No,’ Varric admitted. He wore a look on his face that Anders wasn’t fond of—his eyes were glazed and distant, the set of his mouth uncertain, confronted by something he didn’t understand.
And Varric always understood. That was an author’s right, his due privilege. Anders didn’t like thinking that they’d finally walked into a story where there was no unseen hand to pen their actions. It would be just his luck to be a part of The Champion’s crew right before her untimely demise.
‘Good,’ Anders said, managing to keep up appearances. ‘At least I know I’m not going crazy.’
‘This door is locked, dwarf,’ Fenris said, with a look on his face like he wanted nothing more than to kick it again.
‘All right, all right, everybody wants a piece.’ Varric shook his head, setting down the bulk of his ill-gotten gains to wrestle with the enormous lock.
Anders met Fenris’s eyes over Varric’s head. Whatever was inside—Gallows slave statue, or something more sinister, more chatty—they would confront it together. That was what it meant to be part of a crew, although Anders was beginning to feel that the fellowship he shared with Fenris in particular was something deeper than a more general bond. It had taken him a while to come to that conclusion, but in all fairness, it was difficult to see a romance being foreshadowed when the character in question hadn’t yet been introduced in the novelization.
‘You are staring,’ Fenris noted. It didn’t sound exactly like a complaint.
Anders was prevented from saying anything humiliating in reply by the screech of rusted metal being forced asunder as Varric had his rugged way with the lock mechanisms. He let out a whistle of appreciation at his own skill, drawing away to slip the lockpicks back into his belt. Anders was relieved to see the mystified look from earlier had faded—a fine distraction from being seduced by the song of the Fade; had Fenris planned this distraction, or was it merely a happy coincidence?—but wisely chose to keep that to himself, watching as Varric brushed the rust flakes from his blunt fingertips.
‘I’m gonna pretend I didn’t hear that,’ Varric said. ‘For the sake of all our sanity. Tenuous as it is at present. I’d say it needs all the help it can get.’
‘We should not linger in the open,’ Fenris said. He put his weight behind the leftmost door and shoved it hard.
This time, it fell inward.
There was a flickering light within the room, casting dappled shadowplay over the stacked shelves of books, the long writing desk at the center and the high windows at the back, glass panes shattered and stripped around the metal framework. Someone—or something—had lit a fire in what appeared to be the far corner of Knight Commander Meredith’s old chambers.
If it had been up to Anders, he would have let the whole place go up in flames. But then, he was an unforgiving sort when it came to templars and the horrible massacre and subjugation of his people and every injustice he’d ever suffered because of a hard-helmed half-wit.
Fenris stepped on a discarded book, then froze as the spine creaked beneath his bare foot.
‘…Do you still hear it, Varric?’ Anders asked. ‘Just out of curiosity.’
‘Who dares disturb the resting place of Justice?’ inquired an unfamiliar voice from the depths of the room. ‘The unworthy shall be expelled.’
‘Oh,’ Anders said.
‘Shit,’ Varric added.
‘Anders?’ someone asked, in a different tone from the first, one that was neither booming nor arcane, but merely familiar.
‘Andraste’s bloody frozen knickers,’ Anders muttered. ‘This is ridiculous.’ Then, because impatience coupled with implausibility had finally bested him—it was never any contest—he cast a globe of light, holding it aloft in his palm like a lantern.
Karl Thekla was sitting in front of the weak fire, half-hidden behind a desk chair, but still the same man as ever, if a bit older by default. He was completely gray now, for one thing, but some things didn’t change—like the staunch set of his shoulders, and the shape of his beard, square and sensible and well-trimmed as always. As he stood, Anders felt a rush of warm relief settle over him, like the summer breezes they’d encountered on The Champion before sailing so far north. Clean, refreshing—even hopeful. Full of promise. Full of destiny.
‘Well,’ Karl said, taking in the scene before him: Fenris ranged nearby like a living weapon, ready at a moment’s notice to spring into action, to kick more doors; Varric, squat and bare-chested as always, ludicrous weapon on his back, pile of treasure by his feet; and Anders, unshaven, finger-shaped holes in his trousers, covered in miasmic flask residue, grinning stupidly. Slowly, Karl shifted the stick he was holding—not a weapon, Anders realized, but a roasting skewer, with what appeared to be a rat pierced on one end, half-cooked, all part of the nearby fire set-up. ‘Isn’t this a surprise? I have to say, Anders, I wasn’t hoping for much when I wrote to you. In fact, I thought I was going to have to cut a deal with the Book of Justice after all—and I can tell you in all honestly, I wasn’t looking forward to that in the slightest.’
‘I require a host.’ The voice boomed to life once more, awakened by ongoing conversation. ‘Grave crimes have been committed on this land. Justice must be served.’
‘Oh look,’ Anders said. ‘It’s a talking book.’ Then, because that didn’t make any sense, and he wanted to be certain they were all on the same page, no pun intended, ‘…It’s a talking book?’
‘I am the Book of Justice,’ the voice replied. ‘Grave crimes have been committed here.’
‘Well would you listen to that.’ Varric whistled—not a tune this time, but definitely impressed. ‘He’s repeating himself. Maybe he needs an editor.’
‘Hardly. He’s like that all the time,’ Karl explained. ‘Impossible to talk to him. Even more impossible to bargain with him, I might add.’
‘Justice makes no bargains,’ the book-voice said.
Karl shrugged. ‘Maybe that’s why Justice doesn’t get much done,’ he replied archly.
It was all too awkward, Anders thought, like walking in on a married couple in the midst of arguing over something as mundane and eternal as dirty dishes or making the bed or feeding the dog under the table. By Anders’s count, Karl must have been trapped in the Gallows for a long time—at the least, a few weeks—which was just long enough to get used to the idea of a book that could talk, and also just long enough to be resigned to all the annoying things it had to say. Not to mention just long enough to start thinking eating rats was an acceptable form of sustenance, which—even when you were starving—Anders felt should never be the case.
‘So you found the Book of Justice,’ he said.
‘You were expecting it to be bigger, weren’t you?’ Karl pinched the bridge of his nose. He looked gaunt, now that Anders had drawn closer to him, and tired—though the former was doubtless from the rats, while the latter had to be because of the chatty ancient tome he was currently shacking up with. ‘I was expecting it to be bigger. More glowy. Like that elf over there. Fenris, isn’t it? I’m a big fan of Tales of The Champion.’
Fenris snorted. Anders tried to determine whether that behavior was more or less embarrassing than a rude talking book.
‘He’s like that all the time,’ Anders echoed, lips twitching. ‘And you’re right. I did expect it to be bigger. More…mystical? Something like that.’
‘The concepts within me are boundless,’ the book said. ‘They cannot be contained upon the page. I seek a host—’
‘Yes, yes,’ Karl tutted. ‘Don’t get testy. You’re really a marvelous book.’
‘Justice does not require flattery,’ the book said.
Karl held up his hands. ‘Do you see what I mean? Impossible to talk to him.’
‘Books are tricky that way,’ Varric admitted. Of all of them, he was the only one willing to step straight across the floor, just around Karl’s fire, right to the desk, where the Book of Justice lay open and faintly glowing. He peered down into it, face illuminated by the arcane light. ‘Not everyone’s gonna be a fan, you know. So what do you suppose happens if I just close it?’
‘You cannot close Justice—’ the book began.
Then, Varric did exactly that.
Silence filled the room, though Anders felt a static flicker of arcane frustration, as though the book was shouting from beyond its binding, and Karl twitched, obviously feeling the same effect.
Then, when the covers didn’t blow open, deep voice continuing to boom off the page, he sighed in relief. ‘I like the dwarf,’ he said. ‘He’s practical.’
‘Well,’ Anders replied. ‘I like the elf. He’s marvelously handsome.’
‘I…see,’ Karl said, glancing from the former to the latter, then to Anders, with a hint of a sly smile. Or maybe that was a grimace. Or maybe he was just hungry for his rat. ‘Excellent. Sounds like a fascinating story. Much better than the tale of Justice, which is very long, and gets a bit too shouty in parts for my taste. Tell me, Anders, do you suppose we could just take the book and the loot your friends have stolen and leave this place? I’ve been marooned here for a while now and there are times—don’t laugh—when I feel like the desk is singing.’
‘Singing,’ Anders repeated.
‘Singing,’ Varric added, though he said it differently, as though it all made blissful sense, and Anders caught Fenris staring at him with an arched brow. They shared a look, and Fenris shrugged, then glanced away.
Anders was beginning to love it—this dance, just like courting a finicky cat, so particular about the way it liked its pets, stubbornly refusing to rub up between someone’s ankles until they stopped making such a point of attracting attention. Then, only once they felt comfortably ignored, there they were, a little bit of fuzz determined to trip you up and send you sprawling to your broken-necked death.
Anders just loved cats. They were, without a doubt, the best kind of animal.
And he’d been so used to dealing with Dog for so long that he’d almost forgotten the way of it: the tentative back and forth, the painfully difficult push and pull that, if you played it just so, finally led to indifference. Which—in a cat’s world—was just the same as accepting someone, as adoring them.
Anders smiled, pushing a damp wisp of stray hair behind his ear. Then, from the nearby desk, he heard the sound of a lock mechanism being thrown, and metal sheering unpleasantly, as Varric slid open a rusty drawer.
Pale pink light filtered over his face, once again making him look more like an angry dwarven statue than a real dwarf of flesh and bone. ‘More glowy things,’ Anders said. ‘Oh, good. Just what we need. As though we don’t have enough of those already.’
‘Lyrium,’ Fenris added, suddenly brighter than ever, fingers twitching inside their gauntlets.
Unfortunately, Anders was going to have to apologize to Varric for thinking he’d gone mad—because there was a song now, impossible to miss, humming low as a heartbeat in the faded air.
‘Book of Justice and priceless lyrium idol?’ Varric whistled, thoroughly entranced, holding the thing like it was his own baby. ‘Blondie, did you ever consider you might just be somebody else’s good luck charm?’
‘Do not give him any ideas,’ Fenris said dryly.
‘If you feel like writing that into your next manuscript, you might find yourself piercing the veil of suspended disbelief,’ Anders added. ‘Just as fair warning. I don’t know if people would go for it.’
‘Speaking of warnings,’ Karl said, his voice pitched low, as though he was afraid someone—or something, specifically with a leather binding and stiff vellum pages shiny with ancient dust—might overhear them. ‘Might I suggest we get going? It’s heartening to see you’ve made such close bonds with the ship’s crew, Anders, but I hope you’ll forgive me when I say I’m rather anxious to leave.’
‘Hawke’s probably waiting,’ Varric agreed, slipping the Book of Justice down the front of his open blouse. ‘It never takes him that long to get the upper hand in a duel with Choir Boy. That’s where fighting with honor gets you—tied up in the rigging and being tickled by Isabela. …What?’ he trailed off, noticing both Fenris and Anders staring at him. His fingers patted the top of the book in sudden understanding. ‘Why shouldn’t I keep it here? It’s the best place for Justice, if you ask me. Right over a man’s honest heart.’
‘You can put him down your trousers for all it matters to me,’ Karl muttered, straightening his robes. They were hopelessly grimy, with what looked like the remains of a cobweb streaked around his skirts, and a long burn mark in one of his sleeves. So he had done battle with the statues, after all. Either that, or he was much less talented at lighting his supper fires than Anders had thought possible. ‘Let’s just get out of here before night falls, shall we? As bad as it is now, I’ll tell you this—it’s worse in the moonlight.’
‘Don’t get your skirts in a twist, Beardie.’ Varric eyed the lyrium idol again, although its song had dimmed. Anders could no longer hear it whispering its promises. But maybe that just meant he wasn’t intended for it. Mercurial artifacts of great mystical power could be so peculiar—so picky. ‘The Champion may be a swift ship on her own, but her crew’s even quicker. She wouldn’t have it any other way.’
‘Yes,’ Fenris agreed. ‘They talk as fast as they act.’
If they didn’t, Anders assumed from his tone, then he’d be on some other ship, with some other crew.
They filed out of Knight Commander Meredith’s chambers together, Fenris in front, Varric and his treasure in back, both apostates in the middle like the center of a sandwich. Despite the small chest Varric was toting, they hadn’t come away with that much. It wasn’t at all the bounty Anders had in mind, not for a crew with The Champion’s reputation. It must have all been about the Book of Justice and not the coin—though Anders couldn’t imagine they’d be able to sell it for a reasonable price.
Not once potential buyers realized it had a personality, and not a very nice one, at that.
They picked their way back through the courtyard in relative silence, although Karl let out a whistle of approval when he saw the Gallows-slave felled beside the cracked sun-sign.
‘You lot really are as remarkable as they say, aren’t you?’ Karl asked. He was in a conspicuously better mood now that his rescue was underway; Anders asked himself whether the entire experience had soured Karl on adventuring altogether. It didn’t seem likely, but then, time in a land of dead things and old magic had its way of changing a man, generally not for the better, or at least not for the bolder.
‘Flattery,’ Varric said, smiling widely from ear to ear. ‘I’d almost forgotten what it was like to like to have a fan around, singing my praises. Blondie here’s practically gone native on us. Even critiqued my work once or twice. Unsolicited. You’ve never know he wasn’t a part of the crew from the beginning—and that makes it downright embarrassing to fish for compliments.’
Fenris grunted. Anders, being without his Fenris to Common Language guide-book, wasn’t sure what it meant. He didn’t seem interested in the conversation, but then that was par for the course where Fenris was concerned. Anders scurried after him, trying to read anything useful in the set of his shoulders, beyond ‘we’re sharp and unfriendly,’ but that was all he got.
Eventually, he was going to have to accept it as enough. Because he knew there was more beneath it—because people couldn’t be as easy to read as books, at least not most of the time.
When they drew close to the docking point, they heard a crash of cannon fire; Anders cringed, the sharp scent of gaatlok powder hanging heavy in the air. Hadn’t there been enough today? Moving statues, talking books, and now, more gaatlok? When would it ever end?
Fenris—not plagued by the same eternal questions—threw out one arm, so that Anders was forced to skid to a halt, and not blunder into an untested situation.
‘The battle is over,’ Fenris said. He wrinkled his nose, as though the smoke was about to make him sneeze.
‘Are you sure about that?’ Karl asked. He didn’t wince or even roll his eyes when someone—likely Carver—let out an embarrassing battle roar in the distance. ‘It sounds rather…continuous, as it were.’
‘No,’ Fenris said, shaking his head. He lowered his arm, and Anders felt the gentle scrape of his armored plates against the fabric of his robes. ‘It is over. The Repentance is mounting a retreat. Hawke follows her with cannon-fire to discourage an ambush. That is always the way of it.’
‘And Junior just hates it when they get to sail off in the end.’ Varric sighed, shifting the load of treasure in his arms. ‘He’s got no appreciation for the chase. And no concept of repeat customers, for that matter. Hard to build a series when you’re always killing off the main villains.’
‘Come,’ Fenris said, beckoning with sharp talons. Karl found Anders’s gaze, as though asking for his opinion.
As though somehow, in these long, salt-drenched weeks, Anders had become part of the crew. A character in the stories Karl read, and not a friend he wrote to as his last resort.
‘We’re not just going to leave you here,’ Anders told him, feeling lightheaded. The combination of gaatlok smoke, miasmic oil and camaraderie could do that to a person, especially one with Anders’s constitution. ‘Your boat’s ruined, so we’ll just…drop you off at the nearest port?’
‘We, huh?’ Varric asked with a grin, and Anders knew he was already composing the build-up for the moment—as though Anders’s self-instigated recruitment hadn’t been brewing all along, from the very instant he didn’t jump ship when they’d weighed anchor, when he didn’t swim straight back for the dock.
There were signs of the skirmish all across the deck of The Champion, the crew dirtier than Karl thanks to the residue of the gaatlok. When Anders and the others joined them, it was still possible to see The Repentance in the distance, a white streak of a ship passing between the narrow cliffs, gilded brightly, but listing faintly to her starboard side.
‘I wanted to tie Sebastian Vael to the mainmast and give him lashings,’ Isabela mourned, wiping the soot off her cheek like another woman would wipe away a tear.
‘When don’t you want that?’ Bethany asked. ‘I can think of a few on board this ship just as in need of lashings as the third prince of Starkhaven, you know.’
That wasn’t the way of it, Anders thought, but he didn’t know how to explain his deep understanding; some people just wanted to do the naughtiest things with the most righteous of handsome fools, and it was hard to imagine any member of The Champion’s crew as being righteous—not even Carver, who did look earnest, at least about his desire to receive lashings of any kind at Isabela’s hand.
‘You’ve multiplied in your time away, I see,’ Hawke said, approaching them as unexpected as a summer squall, while Anders wished there’d been invaluable mage robes in the Gallows proper, preferably enchanted ones, so he could change and look less like a bedraggled sea-rat for this particular scene.
Some men wore dirt beautifully. Others didn’t. It was one of the many small tragedies of life—the ones no one, not even Varric, ever wrote about.
‘Crazy things happened on that island, Hawke,’ Varric said. ‘Crazy things I can’t even tell you about. …You’ll have to buy my latest book to get the skinny, all right? And don’t look at me like that—it’s practically a trade requirement. You don’t expect me to give away all the best parts for free, now do you?’
‘So long as you have the Book of Justice, you can dress like Fenris and talk like Merrill, for all I care,’ Hawke said.
‘And that’s why I like you, Hawke,’ Varric replied.
He handed the treasure in question over, and Anders thought he saw it give a little struggle—as though the book had a tongue rather than a worn leather bookmark, and was trying its utmost to make a rude noise at its thoughtless captors. Hawke turned it over in his hand, and Anders was certain now that he’d never wanted the other treasures—though the added incentive of there being other treasures couldn’t have hurt.
‘You know,’ Anders said, as casually as he could manage under the circumstances, ‘there really wasn’t much loot in the Gallows at all. It seems a bit strange that someone of your stature would come all this way for a box of old templar bits and bobs and a cranky book.’
‘Very cranky book,’ Karl added. ‘The fun was clearly in the search, and not the destination.’
Hawke grinned at last, white teeth against his dark beard, narrow sunlight glinting off the dull metal of the amulet swinging level with his chest. ‘I have my reasons,’ he said, and turned his back on them without further comment, calling out to his crew to weigh anchor once more.
They were on their way to the nearest port—Llomerryn, Anders thought excitedly; he’d always wanted to see what Rivain was like—when Varric intimated, in his special way, that Lieutenant-Admiral Aveline was hot on their trail.
‘Get below deck, pull up your skirts, tuck your head between your legs and hold on for dear life,’ Varric suggested, without a second thought for anyone’s easily agitated nerves or upset stomachs.
‘She will not be on us for some time,’ Fenris added, the sun in his eyes and in his hair, the latter glinting whiter than any prince of Starkhaven’s famous ship. ‘A day or so, I suspect. There is still a chance to deboard at Llomerryn, though the Lieutenant-Admiral does take prisoners.’ He paused. ‘And treats them well, if they are not engaged in blatant acts of piracy.’
‘Do you mean like sailing with the crew of The Champion and smelling suspiciously of gaatlok and pickles?’ Anders asked.
Fenris cleared his throat. ‘Ah. That.’
‘The way I see it,’ Anders continued, suddenly nervous, and not because he’d always wondered if Lieutenant-Admiral Aveline was really as fearsome as she was made out to be in the books, ‘I’ve already engaged in enough acts of piracy to make me dangerously complicit. I have been rather mercenary of late, you have to admit. And once you’ve crossed that line, there’s no turning back.’ He hesitated. This would have been easier with Varric crouched below a barrel, whispering charming lines to help the process along. ‘…There’s no getting off in Llomerryn, either,’ he added at last, licking his forefinger to test the wind, the way he saw everyone else do.
He hoped it lent an air of legitimacy to the proceedings. He wanted to look the part, or at least be marginally convincing. In fact, even something more along the lines of ‘not a dreadful embarrassment’ would have been acceptable, times being what they were, Anders being who he was, and Fenris giving him such an inscrutable look his knees were turning loose as pickle brine.
‘That tasted awful,’ Anders added, wiping his finger on his robes. It wouldn’t get his hands any cleaner, sadly, but it might make them dry. ‘And I still can’t tell which way the wind is blowing.’
Fenris sighed, close enough that Anders could feel the warmth of his breath. ‘Let me make things clearer for you, then.’
Before Anders could move, or call for help, or warn Dog to avert his tender canine visage, Fenris wrapped an armored hand around the back of Anders’s neck, and leaned in to crush their mouths together in a fierce kiss. His tattoos pulsed with bright lyrium light, and Anders was pressed back against the ship’s railing.
For one heady moment it seemed like he might fall overboard, but he couldn’t muster the energy to care.
He was far too concerned with finding handholds in Fenris’s armor, the leather beneath the plate that was softened with relentless use, easy to work his fingers under. Fenris’s tongue slipped into his mouth, and by the time they broke apart they were both panting, Fenris leaned up against Anders like he didn’t mind the support, not in this situation.
From the crow’s nest, Isabela let out an obvious wolf-whistle, and Anders made the swift decision to ignore her. Matters being what they were, he couldn’t afford to get riled every time Isabela snooped. It was going to be a very long voyage otherwise.
‘Ah,’ Anders said, finding his voice at last amidst the heave of the ship and the sea-salt breezes. ‘Well. Well. This is awkward. Here I was thinking all I had to stay for was my dear friends the pickles.’ This close, he was forced to look deeply into Fenris’s eyes—dramatic, meaningful, and over-the-top. ‘So…sour, at times, yet so delicious.’
‘Pfaugh,’ Fenris said, just as Anders had known he would.
‘Tonight, we’ll learn about metaphors,’ Anders announced, helpless against the giddy smile he could feel stretching his face. ‘Also allegory, allusion, and I’ll teach you how to write your name.’
‘You seem very confident all that can be achieved in a single night,’ Fenris noted.
‘All that and more,’ Anders said. ‘I’m an excellent teacher. No I’m not—that’s a blatant lie. I’m actually terrible at it. But I can be incredibly patient. It’s all the brine, you see. Goes straight to my head. I could even say it’s changed me for the better.’
Fenris made a sound in the back of his throat; it was almost affectionate, but also probably annoyed. ‘We will have to resupply with other fare when we drop anchor to leave your…friend Karl at Llomerryn.’
Anders felt a thrill run through him, the simple joy of hearing we. Karl had always relished making his own adventures, on his own, but Anders had discovered he liked tagging along on the adventures other people saw fit to have. He’d gone to all the trouble of making himself a part of the story now; it would hurt Varric’s sales to introduce such a compelling character, only to lose him by the next volume.
Besides, there was still the mystery of what Hawke planned to do with the Book of Justice to solve, not to mention the mystery of Hawke himself, with an amulet in place of a heart, a man collecting mystic objects of arcane power toward some secret purpose Anders couldn’t yet fathom.
If he ever planned on getting that heart back someday, it was going to be an epic battle with the Witch of the Wilds. There’d probably be dragons and ogres involved, and who didn’t want a good healer in their midst when facing insurmountable odds and claws and fists and clubs and talons?
‘Well,’ Anders said, running his fingers over a familiar buckle at Fenris’s hip, ‘so long as there aren’t any more qunari dreadnoughts, I don’t think I’ll mind staying on for a while.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Varric told him, just passing through. ‘I never repeat a plot device.’END