They could no longer meet openly. It had been hard enough to stay together at first, but just possible, in the chaos that followed the uprisings. But now the Chantry had its agents out, following their trails. It had been nearly a year since they'd parted ways with Hawke and Anders. Not long after that, Aveline had come to the reluctant conclusion that she would be able to provide more stability for Donnic and the child if she wasn't with the rest of them all the time, and on the heels of that decision, Isabela had finally taken off in her ship. If he ever related this tale, perhaps Varric would say, "That was the end," but it wasn't. Smaller groups could still stay together, and none of them wanted to be alone anymore.
These days, it was Bethany who found places for them to regroup and exchange what information they'd discovered. The Grey Wardens were powerful, and they were supposed to stay out of politics--that meant she could find places for them to stay and made it marginally less likely that one of her colleagues would tip the Chantry off to that fact. This time, she sent out the call from an old farmhouse that, she later explained, had been abandoned when an entrance to the Deep Roads was discovered nearby and claimed by the Wardens for convenience afterwards. Personally, Fenris had doubts about the tale of its abandonment. The Grey Wardens were, after all, powerful, and whatever family of common people had lived on the farm probably hadn't been. It would have been easy enough to force them off their land and take it, and that was how the world worked. He didn't mention this to Bethany, though--she was an intelligent woman and had probably thought of it already herself.
He was traveling with Isabela (alternating between land and sea as her whims dictated) when word came that Aveline had found something that needed everyone's attention. So they gathered at the farmhouse, all of them--except for Hawke and Anders. Varric assured them that he'd seen Anders just weeks ago, and that the mage knew where Hawke could be found, but as Fenris didn't hesitate to point out, Anders was a madman of dangerous delusions and, though this he did not point out, Varric was a compulsive liar. Regardless of the reasons or truth behind it, however, the Champion and her man were nowhere to be found. Whatever confronted the rest of the group now, they would have to deal with themselves.
After they'd all rested and filled their bellies, they gathered in the central hall of the house, over a long, plain table. Gravely, Aveline slid something out in front of them. "Does anyone know what this is?"
Isabela reached for it first (and Fenris saw the gleam in her eye of a catfight waiting to start, and he stifled a sigh). "It's half a letter. Waterstained. Let me guess. It's an accounting of your sex life!" She didn't get much chance for the kind of banter she had with Aveline much anymore, and she was seizing it while she could.
"That you'll never get your hands on," Aveline said, but she spoke evenly and didn't rise further to the bait, and Isabela glanced at her for a moment, then settled back in her chair as it dawned on her that this was serious. "I was assisting the guard in Ostwick..." She often made her living, and found brief islands of peace for her family, by allying herself with city guards and sharing her expertise with them. There was always someone in the guard sympathetic enough to the tales of her time in Kirkwall to serve as her contact, help her disguise herself, and arrange enough pay for her to live on. But by the same token, there was always someone eager to sell her out should word of what was going on reach them, and it always did eventually. "A man tried to bribe me to reveal Hawke's whereabouts, and...well, you don't need to know how it all happened."
"Oh, but I do," said Varric. "But that's all right. I'll make up my own version."
"I want to hear Varric's version!" Merrill said.
"As I was saying," Aveline said, trying not to appear too hurt in the look she cast at Merrill, "this man was looking for Hawke. Anders, too. When they fished his body out of the well, I discovered a number of hidden weapons as well as poisons on his person. And this." She slapped a hand down on the torn piece of paper. "Unreadable now, of course. But see the seal? Varric, what do you make of it?"
"What makes you think I know anything about seals?" Varric pulled the fragment over to examine it. "Hmmm. Looks familiar. From Starkhaven, isn't it?"
"That's what I thought," Aveline said. "But..." She let some troubling thought trail off unspoken.
Fenris had a feeling he knew what that thought was. He leaned over to get a better look at the ruined letter. "It's the Vael family seal," he confirmed.
Aveline raised an eyebrow. "That's what I thought, but...Fenris?"
"Sebastian showed it to me once," he said. "You find this so difficult to believe? We got along, on occasion." He took a moment to bask in the refreshing lack of Anders jumping on the opening to accuse Fenris of conspiring with the prince for some ill-defined but nefarious purpose. It was nice not having him here.
Instead, Isabela sighed wistfully. "He...showed you his seal. And I thought I'd run dry on ideas for friend-fiction."
"Isabela," Aveline snapped.
"Of course," Isabela said mildly, her expression suddenly bordering on pensive, "I suppose it's not friend-fiction if one of the people in it is an enemy prince who's now sending assassins after Hawke and Anders. Shame about that, really."
"So," Varric said, "I take it we're going to do something about this. Anyone have any ideas for where to start? I'm listening."
"We need more information," Aveline said. "We need to get into Starkhaven and find out if it's true. Then we can decide how to stop it."
"You're not thinking of going, are you?" Isabela said.
"If you go, I'll follow you in and make your entire investigation a living hell," Isabela promised.
Fenris glanced sidelong at her, noted the concern in her eyes behind the stubborn set of her jaw. He was inclined to agree, and so he spoke up. "When the guard there decides to run you out, they may not be content to leave you alive. Or Donnic and the girl, for that matter."
Aveline's eyes flared. "Don't bring them into this!"
"Why not? It's true."
"He's right, and you know it," Isabela said. "Plus, following you in? Making your investigation a living hell? I wasn't kidding."
"I could go alone," Aveline began.
"You shouldn't," Bethany said quietly. "You want to stay with your family, don't you? I know I would be with my sister if..." She shook her head and stopped.
Aveline sighed. "Then what option do we have? Getting information out of the Starkhaven nobles? That won't happen."
For the first time since Aveline had brought out the letter, Merrill spoke up. "Starkhaven has an alienage," she said.
"All cities have alienages," Fenris said, annoyed at the inconsequential interruption. "Your point?"
"That's what I'm saying," Merrill said. "There's an alienage everywhere. Nobody pays attention to who comes and goes in it. I can slip in unnoticed and track down the information we need."
"That's...not a bad idea, Daisy," Varric said.
Isabela tapped her chin in thought. "Starkhaven borders Antiva, doesn't it? Zevran must have contacts in the city. They can help you settle in, and pass word back to us when you need to."
"Ooh, this will be fun," Merrill said.
Fenris rolled his eyes up to meet the low ceiling. "An excellent plan, all of it. Provided she remembers that the purpose is to gather intelligence and not conduct dark rituals on the newborn litters of alleycats."
"I would never," she said, aghast.
"He's making a joke, Merrill," Bethany said.
"Was I?" He continued to study the rafters. "Regardless, if we want to accomplish anything useful in Starkhaven, someone should accompany her."
For a long moment, no one spoke. With a sudden sinking feeling, Fenris slowly looked back down at the others.
Everyone was looking at him.
* * *
When their ship finally made its way up the Minanter River into the docks of Starkhaven, the mild northern winter was nipping gently at the city. Had they not been traveling as stealthily as possible, and had they been rich, and had they been human, they would have come by barge and entered the city at its so-called central square. Instead, they passed into Starkhaven in the hold of a trading ship bringing spices and other luxuries for the people who used the barges and lived around the central square.
Or at least, that had been the plan: hide below decks until they docked, then leave under cover of dusk and make their way to the alienage. But the sounds of the city rippling across the river to them lured Merrill out, and she fled the hold as they approached Starkhaven. Fenris leaned against a crate of dried fruit, from which he'd been discreetly stealing for his lunch, and considered letting her wander around the deck of the ship in the company of the sailors they had bribed to carry them to Starkhaven and keep their silence about it. Perhaps one would throw her overboard. Then Fenris would finally achieve the peace and quiet he had hoped for the whole voyage while Merrill chattered away about flowers and tried to tell him old Dalish stories.
That wasn't entirely fair: she had stopped with the old Dalish stories after the first day, when he made it clear how very uninterested he was.
It occurred to him, however, that she might say something that would compromise their cover. It wasn't guaranteed (he had to admit, reluctantly, that Merrill was not as stupid as she seemed, not always), but it was enough of a concern that he could not in good conscience leave her on her own above decks. He took the heavy canvas sack containing their belongings and supplies--their armor, Merrill's staff, a smaller sword than he was used to, some maps and notes, and a few other practical items--and climbed up the narrow stairs, balancing gingerly in the shoes they'd both donned for their disguises.
She was clinging to the side of the ship with typical reckless abandon, peering wide-eyed over the edge at the opulence of Starkhaven rising above them on the far bank of the river. He had to admit that it was a sight. They were passing by the nobles' quarter now, and for a wealthy district, it was exceptionally large and extravagant. Everything was hard, expensive stone, marble and granite, pale and gleaming in the sun. Slow, elegant barges drifted into port at the center of the district, discharging a stream of travelers, some awed by the unexpected splendor, others perfectly used to it.
Merrill didn't look at him as he approached, but his footsteps were clear enough in the awkward boots he was wearing. After a moment, she said thoughtfully, "All the estates are so close to the river! I've never seen anything like it. Doesn't it smell on warm days? Do you think they have servants to fan away the fumes? We could pretend to be servants like that. Oh, but it's winter. It won't be hot enough for there to be a need. That's too bad!"
Fenris rubbed his brow wearily. "Look at the current. It's slow, but steady and strong. This quarter's waste is carried downstream. To the poorer parts of the city. Starkhaven is known for its wealth, but there are always poorer parts of a city."
"Oh," Merrill said.
Sure enough, after a little while the ship began to turn around a wide bend in the river and draw closer to the Starkhaven bank, and the current quieted, the waters growing stagnant and murky. Fenris glanced at the shore. The grandeur of the nobility's residences around the central square still drew the eye, towering above the higher banks, but closer now were the docks where the less glamorous trade occurred. Surrounding them, rather less grand houses and apartments teetered over the river, built with wood and cement onto the sturdier stone walls of the city. But the paths between the homes were still wide and bustling with colorful activity. It seemed the residents didn't mind the smell or the filth. But then, they had little choice.
"The alienage is farther from the shore," Merrill said as the ship approached the docks.
"Are you sure?" Fenris said.
Merrill nodded. "Besides, they wouldn't put an alienage on the river. It would seem almost free."
Fenris scowled and bit his tongue on a comment. There were less free places to be than alienages, if only because the elves who lived there allowed themselves to be caged.
The ship crunched lightly against the piers. One of the sailors--the only elf amongst the crew--paused by them, setting down the sack of spices he'd been carrying. "You two should go now," he said. "The sooner the better."
"Why?" said Merrill.
"Is the rest of the crew giving you grief over our presence?" Fenris asked.
The sailor shrugged uncomfortably. "Not exactly...I don't think they're far from starting, though."
"Come," Fenris told Merrill. "You do know the way to the alienage?"
She nodded and awkwardly gathered the long, ragged skirts that came with her disguise, and he hefted the bag with their items over one shoulder. They made their way down to the piers and then onto solid ground.
Stepping off the lightly swaying wooden piers onto the firm stone beyond it, Merrill pitched, pinwheeled her arms forward, and started to fall. With a grimace, Fenris reached out with his free hand to grab her by the shoulder. "You do recall that we're trying to keep a low profile?"
She steadied herself and shook off his hand. "You could have let me fall, Fenris," she said with a flash of irritation. "I would have gotten back up. I'm not going to shatter like glass, you know."
He wasn't sure what her point was. "Low profile," he repeated.
"Anyway," she said, "I couldn't help it. We were on that boat for a while, and these shoes--! I feel like I have sad little trees strapped to my feet. Don't they bother you too?"
They did. His feet felt cramped and pinched. "They're useful," he said levelly. "Where is the alienage?"
She looked at him pensively for a moment, then shook her head and turned to start down one of the paths leading to higher ground. The commoners' markets started almost immediately after the docks fell away: stalls full of foods made creatively from simple ingredients, colorful cloth with the cheapest dyes, leathers and other practical armor.
"We should pick up dinner!" Merrill said, slowing near a vendor hawking some of Starkhaven's signature fish dishes.
Fenris just barely managed to swallow the impulse to gag. "Why did I agree to come to this city again?"
"Because this is important--oh," she said, glancing back at him. "You weren't being serious. Most people smile when they make a joke, you know."
"We'll get dinner at the alienage, after we've settled in," he said.
"That means smoked rat on a stick!" said Merrill. "I wonder what spices they use on it here?"
"Better than fish," he sighed. "Keep walking."
No one gave them more than a curious glance or two as they wound their way through the streets of the lower district; a pair of shabbily-dressed elves, one of whom carried a sack, was nothing special in any city. One or two passing humans paused just a little longer, perhaps noticing that their tattoos weren't typical of city elves, but even they passed soon enough. Fenris could guess well enough what was going through their heads: well, they look a little stranger than usual, but who knows what elves consider strange? Human reactions were predictable and a little pathetic, but not as pathetic as most of the elves who provoked them.
Fenris wasn't happy about staying in an alienage. But he pushed the disquiet to the back of his mind as he followed Merrill.
The streets eventually began to narrow, and the avenues became less frequent, the alleys more closed off. Alienages were always difficult to get in and out of, cut off from easy traffic with the rest of their cities. The sound of the docks faded, but the smell worsened. Finally, just as he caught a glimpse of high branches ahead, they emerged into a cramped square with twisting alleyways spidering out from the vhenadahl at its center.
"Here we are," Merrill said, stepping into a precious patch of sunlight and spreading her arms. She nearly knocked over a youth scurrying by in the process, and he stopped to glare at her. "Andaran atish'an," she said, smiling at him.
"You'll need to stop that," Fenris said, watching the younger man dash away.
"There are many in the alienages who try to keep the old ways alive, Fenris," she said. "It's not so unusual."
"And they are the first targets when the authorities decide we need to learn our lesson."
"Is that our fault?"
"It's the way things are," he said.
"It doesn't have to be," she said.
He didn't bother suppressing a sneer. "Don't think you're going to be the one to change it."
She curled her hands into fists and looked down at the cracked ground for a moment. "I don't," she said quietly. "Not anymore." Swallowing hard, she plastered a smile across her face again and looked up. "Let's find where we're staying."
They were lodging in the attic of an elfblooded whore with a knack for gathering information--an entirely unsurprising contact of Isabela's assassin friend. The luxury of the empty attic itself was surprising, or had been until they'd heard that it had until recently been occupied by a thief taking refuge from the city guard. The whore had thrown her out when she'd started to draw too much attention. It was a sensible attitude, and Fenris had every intention of keeping it in mind if they started drawing attention.
Merrill somehow made it up the narrow stairs without falling and immediately began investigating the single room. "I'll hang a curtain in the corner so we have somewhere to change," she began. He promptly tuned her out as he set down the sack with their belongings in it and started to go through it to figure out what could be safely taken out in the dubious sanctuary of the attic.
After a few minutes, a giggle interrupted him. He looked up, frowning. "What now?"
"Oh, it's nothing," she said. "I was just thinking...it's sort of cute to see you out of all that spiky armor and bustling about a home!"
"This is not a home," he said, "and I am not cute."
"Maybe not," she said, still smiling. "The home thing, I mean. But you are cute like this. You are!"
He grabbed a heavy blanket out of the bag and flung it into a corner. "You take the bed," he said. "I'll sleep on the floor."
"That's very sweet of you," she said, "but we can both fit on the bed, you know. And I know you won't try anything funny. I remember: you'd 'sooner kiss a diseased nug than that fool witch,' right? I'm not interested either, but it's okay if you want a friendly hug..."
She was teasing him. Maddening. Who had taught her to do that? "You misunderstand, as always. There are vermin in the mattress," he explained. "Enjoy your rest. I'm going out to find us some smoked rat."
"Get me the special!"
He tried not to stomp down the stairs. It would only hurt his feet, and with the shoes on, they were already uncomfortable.
* * *
They spent the first few days working out a routine and intermittently arguing over it. Fenris held fast to his original plan throughout: he would prowl the back alleys of the nobles' quarter at night, eavesdropping on their conversations and picking up what he could from the servants. If anyone knew anything about Sebastian Vael's plans, it would be the rest of the nobility who politicked with him. Merrill had less practical ideas.
"I see I'll be coming back to the alienage to find an abomination rampaging," he said.
"That's not what I meant by 'my own way,' Fenris," said Merrill.
"You could have fooled me," he said. "Hasn't that always been your way?"
"There won't be any spirits--"
"There won't be any spirits involved in my efforts, I promise," she continued, gritting her teeth. "I'll do it all myself."
"Really," Fenris said. "This I have to see."
"I'll make friends with the other elves in the alienage," she said. "And when they trust me, I'll ask around about their relatives who work as servants for the nobility."
He leaned back in the sagging chair at the crooked table beneath the attic's dreary window. "You haven't seen the problem with this yet?"
"What?" She was glaring at him now.
"You spent more than six years in the Kirkwall alienage," he said, "and you didn't make friends there. What makes you think a few months in Starkhaven will be any different?"
"It's very difficult for you not to be cruel, isn't it," she said, flushing angrily. "I--"
Fenris realized what she was about to say immediately, and the familiar sensation of control slipping misted up his brain and loosened his tongue. "If you say you feel sorry for me," he said, "I'll rip out half your throat."
Merrill shut her mouth.
"Go, then," he said. "Make friends. I'm going to compare our maps with local knowledge."
He spent the next day gathering intelligence about the nobles' quarter and its workings. The place was collectively known as the estates, or sometimes "the central square" if the one speaking wished to make the nobles sound connected to the city at large. It didn't matter that the square in question wasn't central at all to the majority of Starkhaven's population; it was central to the nobles and their grand mansions, and they impressed that well upon visitors, or at least the rich and official ones.
When night fell again, Fenris took the opportunity to change back into his usual armor and strap on the undersized sword he'd been able to bring. He was on his way past the vhenadahl when he stilled, sensing in the disturbance of the fitful night sounds behind him that someone was following him. He turned, reaching for his sword, wishing bitterly that he'd been able to bring a bigger one.
But all he saw, silhouetted in the murky moonlight filtering through the vhenadahl's leaves, was a scrawny girl barely into adolescence, a thin cat rubbing up against her legs. He looked blankly at her.
She stared at him, saucer-eyed. Finally, she said, "Aneth ara?"
"What," he said.
She swallowed. "You're Dalish, aren't you?"
"No," he said. "I am not Dalish."
"But your tattoos--" And here she shrank back from the force of his glare. After a heavy moment of silence, she said quietly, "I'm Arilen. My grandfather was Dalish. That's what my mother told me. When I saw the two of you come into the alienage earlier this week, I thought..." She ducked her head.
"She's Dalish," said Fenris.
"What?" the girl stammered.
"The woman with me," he said. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement in the alleyway he'd come from. Merrill was watching them.
"Do you think she'd tell me some of the stories?" said Arilen.
"Hasn't your mother told you them?" he asked.
"Yes, yes, she did," she said. "She's dead, though. My father won't tell me them now that she's gone, either. He says he's not as good at it as she was."
Fenris glanced from Arilen to the shadow that marked Merrill's presence in the alley. He crouched in front of the girl and lowered his voice until he was certain Merrill couldn't hear. "Yes," he said. "I think she would tell you some of the stories. You should ask her."
"Okay," Arilen said. "I'll tell her you sent--"
"No! No." He shook his head. "It was your idea in the first place. You can say I just--told you she was Dalish."
She frowned. "Are you all right, ser?"
He sighed. "I'm fine. But I have things to do." He stood up. "Go." And he turned to leave the alienage.
But Arilen's voice followed him out. "Thank you!"
He quickened his pace on the uneven stones until he had left the shadows of the vhenadahl behind him. The streets grew slightly cleaner first, the paving better tended, and though the buildings to either side were just as small, they were in marginally better repair. The humans here struggled to get by in the shadows beyond the estates, but at least they could comfort themselves with the knowledge that they had it better than the elves. Fenris kept in the alleyways and side avenues as much as possible, knowing better than to attract attention.
By the time he reached the estates, the city had undergone a complete transformation. Even the sounds of the whores plying their trade along the riverbank seemed more stately. He could see light in the room beyond a nearby balcony with its door half-open, and see he settled into the shadows beneath it and waited. He could be patient. He had the whole night.
After a little while, voices fell to him from the room above, and he strained to hear. He could make out fragments--schooling and inherit and little sister. Parents discussing their children. He stifled a dangerous rising tide of uncertainty and told himself that if they were important enough in Starkhaven's political games, their children's future would be intertwined with Sebastian's plans, and they might mention something of that.
Footsteps rang out above. The husband had strode onto the balcony. "He'll pull himself together," he was saying. "I keep telling him of the Prince's example."
Fenris tensed, waiting for more on the topic.
"--terrible," the wife said, following. "Maker's mercy, do you want him up at night worrying we'll be slaughtered the moment he leaves home?"
"The fear might do him good."
"You can't be serious," she said. "He'll find his way."
"How can you be sure?" her husband said.
"Because I love him, dear," she scolded. "And because he's your son, and I love you."
"Ah," he said. "You shame me, Eloise. I--"
Somewhere inside, a young girl's fretful voice rang out. The noblewoman sighed. "We've upset our daughter again, too. She knows when we argue over him, I'm sure she does."
The couple retreated back into the mansion, their voices fading, and Fenris realized he was clutching at his head. Perhaps it was the riverside air, he told himself; but he knew better. He had never even caught a glimpse of the parents above, but he could picture them easily enough in his mind's eye, dressed in their fine velvets and silks, the careless extravagance of their privileged lifestyle betrayed by the worry marks around their eyes and mouths that caring for children had formed. He hadn't wanted to overhear that. Why couldn't they have talked about politics instead of family?
It was too easy to remember, now, that he had no family he could call his own, and he never would again, and he would never even remember a time when he had. Worse, the conversation he had just witnessed let a traitorous thought slip into his head: in another lifetime, he could have sought to rebuild with children. But it would surely have to be another lifetime. What woman would bear his children in this one? More to the point, what madness would have to take him before he'd allow such a thing? There was magic in his blood, he knew now. Any son or daughter he sired could be a mage. He would not be responsible for bringing another of them into this world.
The same cruel shadow that had stirred up the thought of children in the first place murmured to him again: what was more important was that he knew he could never trust himself to be a decent father to any child of his who bore magic.
He threw the idea away, rose to his feet, and stalked from the yard. This was getting him nowhere. Another noble would surely have something more important for him to overhear.
The rest of the night saw more snatches of conversation drift his way, though few intact enough for him to get anything out of it. When politics came up at all, it was the same worry over the Circles' uprisings that dominated everywhere. It grew dull, but as always, he was patient, and he allowed himself some brief entertainment in the form of a flirtation with a servant girl who discovered one of his hiding places. She swore to say nothing of his presence in exchange for a kiss from this excitingly dangerous stranger. All the same, with the phantom sting of her lips still troubling him, he made a note to avoid this part of the estates on future nights.
He was almost ready to consider this first night of spying a loss and go back to the alienage when he caught sight of movement in a garden across a broad lane. Fenris focused and made out the shapes of two people moving furtively through the trees. They no doubt thought they couldn't be seen, and they were right where it counted. No one who was supposed to be here could probably see them, and even he might have missed the pair in the darkness if not for the acuity of elven night vision. He slipped closer and crouched against a low stone wall to hear their conversation.
"--were betrothed to me as a child is no reason to risk yourself now," one of them was saying, a young man. "You know you can't marry me anyway."
"You're being stupid," came a woman's voice, just as young. "I never cared whether I married you or not. But you were always the closest I had to a brother. I can't let them hurt you."
"Of all the wretched timing," she said. "You know what a sum your mother paid to keep you out of the Gallows and in one of Antiva's Circles instead. Now none of them are safe, and you're on your own except for me."
"No, don't you 'don't' me! I won't see the templars end you!"
"I swear," he said, "I swear by Andraste's holy marriage, you will be safer here than if you come with me."
Fenris thought of Hawke fleeing with Anders. The young mage was right. But he suspected the girl wouldn't listen. She had that steel in her voice that signified an argument already finished.
"Scoundrel," Julienna said. "Invoke the Maker's Bride to justify ripping yourself from my life a second time and this time for good, would you? Would you? I can still beat you to the ground, six years later! Remember that!"
"Please, it's for the best--"
"Keeping my family is for the best, you--!"
Rough sounds of struggle; she had knocked him down. Fenris finally caught his breath somehow and took the chance to flee, cursing himself under his breath the whole way for his cowardice; surely that woman knew something of Starkhaven's politics and might even have mentioned it if he'd waited. But he couldn't. He couldn't listen anymore.
* * *
Dawn had crept into the city by the time he returned to the alienage, but the sun put in scant appearance here in the cramped square with its crowded alleyways. Everything was dim and grey, and Fenris wished bitterly for a nice, conveniently empty mansion in the estates from which he could conduct this investigation in peace and comfort. Merrill wouldn't even need to be with him at all if he had a base like that. He'd be safely alone, in fact. But that was a strange thought. He knew he was as alone as any person could be in this life, yet he'd grown used to traveling in the company of others.
That couldn't be good for him. It was bound not to last.
Lackluster movement stirred the gloom of the alienage's shadows: its inhabitants were getting up for another day of whatever work they could find, which Fenris suspected mostly involved begging and stealing. Even now, the way other elves wasted their freedom rankled him, left him torn between anger at the humans who oppressed them and disgust at the elves who allowed it. But these days it was an uncomfortable conflict, layered with doubt. He had always thought it wasn't his business to change things, and that anyone who believed it was theirs was probably mad. Now, he only mostly thought that. The idea had occurred to him a few times over the past couple of years that someday, the elves might produce their own Andraste or their own Hawke, although he was almost past caring about such a thing himself. Really, though, knowing elven luck, they were more likely to get their own Anders. A mad fool selfishly yearning for his own power at everyone else's expense who--almost accidentally--ignited a dangerous revolution that then fell into the hands of someone saner and more capable? That was about the best they could hope for.
More purposeful movement than that in the rest of the alienage drew him out of his bleak reverie and brought his attention to a small, dirty lane across the square. He blinked, frowning, and started to try to identify whether or not it was a threat. Before he could determine anything more, though, a sudden glow came from the culprit, faintly lighting up Merrill's face.
The witch was doing magic.
He strode across the square, throwing aside most pretenses of stealth. When he reached the alley, he tossed off the last of it by drawing his sword.
The light faded. "Oh, Fenris," Merrill said. Even without the glow, from this close he could see the awkward guilt on her face.
"What were you intending?" he said. From this close he could see it wasn't just Merrill. A few feet away, the girl he'd encountered upon leaving the alienage that night hovered nervously, pressing herself against the wall.
"I was up for a while after you left talking to Arilen, you see," Merrill began, "telling her the stories, the ones I'm any good at, at least, which aren't many, because I'm not a hahren and never was--"
"Get to the point."
"--so she came to me later when I was about to go back to the attic and told me that her father had found her cat's kittens and tried to drown them, but one had survived and was sick and injured, and did I know any Dalish lore for healing animals?" She took a deep breath and stopped, looking up at Fenris apprehensively. He saw now that there was a tiny cat nudging weakly up against Merrill's leg where she knelt.
Ignoring Merrill for the moment, he looked across her at Arilen. "I'm sorry," he said, "but you should have let your father kill them. Cats are nothing but competition for food here--the ones that don't get turned into food themselves, that is." She lowered her gaze shamefully, and he added, "And Merrill can't heal, so coming to her was pointless. You should go to bed while you can still get some rest." She didn't move at first, so he stared at her for a moment longer until she looked up worriedly, saw his expression, and turned around and darted away.
He was left alone with Merrill.
"That was unkind," she said.
"I wasn't trying to be unkind," he said. "It's true." Fenris dropped to a half-kneeling position, making sure that he was close enough to Merrill to stare hard at her, but not low enough to be level with her gaze. "What madness were you trying to accomplish? Should I wring the cat's neck now, or do I have to wait until the demon possessing it shows its true form?"
"You'll do no such thing!" Merrill said. "And there isn't any demon." She was upset now, and the kitten had stopped trying to rub up against her and started to back away.
"Then what were you doing?"
"I was trying to heal it," she said, glaring defiantly up at him.
"I told you."
"You can't heal," he said. "Demons don't grant healing magic. I've seen enough blood mage hunters watch their men fall to me because of it to know."
"It's true, the hungrier spirits can't give a mage the ability to heal," she said. "But--" She took a breath and balled up her fists. The kitten sneezed and skittered further backwards; Fenris could see now that it was limping slightly. "Other spirits do grant healing magic. Some mages have a natural bond with them. I thought I could cultivate such a bond if I tried to reach for healing spells enough..."
He could feel the heat of anger rising up in him despite his best attempts to stifle it. "Are you insane as well as stupid? I thought you knew better than this."
"It could work!" she insisted. "Watch!"
"I will not watch your foul magic--" But it was too late; she was already raising her hands to cast some dark spell. Her fingers glimmered, and light leapt from her to the cat only to sputter fitfully out. That was it for the creature; it turned and fled down the narrow lane as fast as it could on its dragging hind leg.
"Oh," Merrill said miserably.
"Just think," Fenris said, "that beast has a brain a fraction the size of yours, and yet it is infinitely more intelligent."
She flushed angrily and rose to her feet. "This isn't just about the kitten, you know!"
He got up too. "It isn't? I thought you needed no more excuse than that to summon demons."
"I told you, I wasn't--" She bit her lip and stopped herself. "I...I was going to make it all worth it, you know. Back when I had the eluvian, when I was working to restore it. I knew I wasn't any good as a fighter, that I couldn't help any of you very much...I'm not clever like Isabela, or sensible like Varric, dependable like Aveline, strong and fierce like you, or...or amazing like Hawke. But I thought--I know now it was selfish, but I thought that if I could do something for my people--for our people, Fenris!--it would make up for all that."
"It couldn't," he said. She flinched. "Get to the point."
"My point is," she said, "I can't think that anymore. I can't think, it'll be okay when the mirror is restored. I can't tell myself that my life will have meaning if I can do this one thing. So I started thinking that I'd find a new way to be worth something to all of you." She slumped back against the wall and started to slide slowly to the ground again. "If I could heal like Anders...it wouldn't return anything we've lost as a people, but at least I could do something for everyone I care about."
He sighed. For some reason he couldn't fathom, the rage he'd been expecting to surface was simply fading now. "You are an idiot."
"I hear that a lot," she said, and for the first time he heard actual bitterness in her voice.
The sun had finally started to filter down through the scraggly leaves of the vhenadahl to reach the alienage, and he turned to look out of the alley to see if anyone had grown curious about the scene they were making. No one was paying them any attention, though. It seemed that ignoring altercations was part of life here. Good.
"Why do mages like cats?" Fenris asked, glancing back down the alleyway in the direction the kitten had taken off.
Merrill straightened up, a falsely sweet smile fixed on her face. "Are you trying to tell a joke, Fenris? Because I think I could make a better one on that topic."
"I was asking a question," he said, "but I can speculate, if you like." He didn't wait for her approval. "Cats are good for nothing except catching the occasional rat, and no matter how many times you scold them, they don't care that they leave festering scratches in their wake. But people still let them walk in and out of houses at will, with no restraint. It's because you want to be cats."
"That was a very bad joke," Merrill said. "I was going to say, it's because we can both give you a shock if you rub us the wrong way."
"I wasn't trying to tell a joke," he said.
She looked down at the ground for a moment, then abruptly turned an intense stare up at him. "What you said earlier. Did you really mean it?"
"Every word of it," he said, holding back a flash of irritation at the inanity of the question. "I always do."
"Oh, not the stuff about mages," she said dismissively. "To tell you the truth, I learned to ignore all that long ago. Well, most of it. Not...when it's about me in particular. That's harder. But really, it's like...oh, you know those people by the boards in front of chantries? Chanters! It's like when they get tired after a long day and start falling back on a bunch of the same lines! I always thought that was funny."
He stared at her impatiently.
"No, not that," she said. "The part where you said you thought I knew better. Do you really think that? You did say I'm an idiot. I didn't ignore that part."
Fenris blinked. "Yes," he said. "I thought you'd learned something. Maybe I was being optimistic."
"But you hate me," she said. "For everything I am."
"I--" He bit his tongue. It had been a long night, and he was tired. "I'm going to go back to the attic and sleep."
"I'm going to find the kitten," she said.
He rubbed at his eyes. "No one cares that you aren't clever, sensible, dependable, fierce, or 'amazing,' you know. Or that you can't heal." He was so tired. "And..." What was he even saying? "...I'm not strong."
Merrill looked sadly at him in a most uncomfortable way, then turned to head deeper into the alleyway.
"Don't use blood magic on the cat," he said.
"I'm going to bandage her, Fenris," she called back to him. "And keep her warm."
He didn't stay around to see if she was telling the truth.
* * *
The days, then the weeks, edged by in a slow and tense procession. Fenris tried not to see much of Merrill. It shouldn't have been difficult. He slept through most of the days, staying awake in the daylight long enough only to put in a few hours of work at discreet tasks closer to the market that paid the meager sum the two of them needed to get by. Merrill, for her part, did odd jobs around the alienage, which paid even less, but did, he had to admit, ingratiate her with the locals. Come nightfall, Fenris put his armor back on as always and headed to the nobles' quarter.
Despite there being no need for their paths to cross much, Merrill tried to talk to him when they did meet. She asked after his nights by the estates, and she suggested incessantly that he try to make friends with the others in the alienage, like she was doing. She didn't dare impress upon him the Dalish stories that she was telling the children, but she did suggest he tell them stories of his own that he had read.
She also tried to make him pet the kitten.
His nightly investigations bore little fruit. The Starkhaven nobility was abuzz with the news of the Loerich daughter vanishing, and even the servants voiced their thoughts on whether they believed she'd been kidnapped by her long-lost mage lover or whether she'd taken off in pursuit of him of her own volition. In the face of all that useless gossip, Fenris could barely gather scraps of useful information. The trade in enchantments was growing strained as the Circles became unstable; the hours of Starkhaven's templars were unusually long lately; word was the Champion had been seen in three places at the same time. That last one was less useful and more entertaining. The information about the local templars was potentially useful, but their training grounds were scattered throughout the estates, usually in places that were difficult to penetrate, and Fenris could not risk investigating them further without a more solid lead and better details.
And so it went, until one night he found himself turned back from the estates early by a heavy presence of guardsmen--a particularly bold theft had excited the nobles, and he couldn't risk stalking their properties amidst that. Resigned to calling the night a failure, Fenris made his way back to the alienage. As he approached the square again, though, an unexpected light made him tense. He slowed, readying his hand to reach for the sword (whose size he was still getting used to).
But when he came close enough for the scene to resolve, he saw that he needn't have bothered worrying. It was just Merrill, for once not abusing anything with her magic. She sat under the vhenadahl with a small torch in her hands, surrounded by a meager crowd of interested children brave enough to emerge from the scant safety of their hovels for, he presumed, a chance to hear the so-called old stories. He grimaced and stalled just outside the square, not wanting to pass by the little crowd and hear Merrill's sanctimonious voice cooing over the Dalish tales. But with a sigh, he steeled himself to go on by anyway.
Then he stopped as he registered just what she was telling the children.
"--vision waiting in the Beyond. In the time of Arlathan, they said, Dirthamen had left it buried in a secret place there, and even he had not known its purpose." She clutched, white-knuckled, at the torch, its flames casting shadows over her face.
Fenris had read about this story and how it was created during the establishment of the Dales. He knew where this was going.
"But in the trance that had fallen upon him, Shartan hunted through the unfamiliar lands of the Beyond." She wasn't a very good storyteller, speaking as haltingly as she did, but she was earnest, and that kept the children paying attention. "For the first time in his life, he ventured out of his own dreams, guided by Andruil's arrows. There he found the buried vision, and he awoke as the magisters were putting him to the flames with the human prophet. With his last breaths, he told his people...our people! He told our people that the old gods waited for us in a new land, and there we would be free."
"But they didn't." Fenris didn't recall making the decision to speak. He hated when that happened. But he was committed to it now, so he strode out of the shadows and into the feeble torchlight. "Even now you teach that the gods of Arlathan are locked away."
"Perhaps we weren't given enough of a chance to revive them," Merrill said quietly. "Maybe they're still waiting."
"Believe that if you will," he said. "The story's false, though. Apocryphal, invented by the first Dalish to give their stories of old gods legitimacy. The few accounts of Andraste's martyrdom that mention Shartan all agree on one point: he was unconscious when put to the flame. The Tevinter soldiers were unable to subdue him any other way."
"Those stories are human ones," said Merrill. "Of course they wouldn't dare admit that an elf had anything to say to his people."
"You miss the point," he said. "If he'd woken before his death, the magisters would have taken great pains to mention it. They drew as much pleasure from their enemies' suffering then as they do now. Luckily for us, they've forgotten some of the ways they used to draw power from it as well." He was still bitter from hearing her story, and he knew even as he spoke that he shouldn't have been saying some of these things in front of the group of children. But he did it anyway. "I'm sure you consider that a great loss. Perhaps you'd like to rediscover their methods?"
Merrill glared at him for a moment, then forced herself to look away, back at her listeners. "Everyone, this is Fenris, my companion in our travels."
A couple of the youngest children edged away. Another asked, "Are you Dalish too, Fenris?"
"No," he said. "I am Tevinter."
A boy started to speak up. "But I thought the elves in the--ow!" An older girl next to him had stepped on his foot, hard. "Oh. Oh."
"I want to hear your stories, too," a familiar voice chimed in abruptly. It was Arilen, on the edge of the group.
"I have no stories," he said. "None that I wish to tell." But the small crowd was looking at him now, seven pairs of wide elven eyes shining in the firelight. He thought of Merrill's stupid tale of the vision Shartan had never had, and he sighed. "If you're going to hear lies about Shartan, there are better ones. On the journey away from the Imperium after Andraste's death, the elves made a game of inventing the most absurd tales they could imagine about him. After the fall of the Dales, those of us who wound up with the humans found writings about the practice and revived it."
Merrill frowned. "That sounds awfully disrespectful," she said.
"Do you know many of them?" asked the girl who'd stepped on the younger boy's foot.
Fenris grinned. "I know every one recorded in writing."
"Oh," Merrill said. "You smiled! Is your face going to break? I can't help you if your face breaks."
He walked over to her, leaned down, and took the torch. "In 1:33 Divine, a dwarf challenged Shartan to a beard-growing contest. In 3:02 Towers, the same dwarf was found by human hunters, beardless and weeping."
Merrill frowned, started to lift a hand, then stopped.
"In a fight between the Maker and the Archdemon, Shartan would win."
A few of the children stifled gasps at the blasphemy. One giggled.
"A bear tried to eat Shartan once. It never recovered its teeth or its intestines, but it always considered itself lucky to have met him."
Merrill and one of the children simultaneously wrinkled their noses in thought.
"Shartan's tears are the only known cure for the Blight. Too bad he has never cried. Not once."
The children were silent, waiting for more.
"A king once raised a legion of mages to move a mountain that stood in the way of his conquering army. When they reached it, they had to turn around and go home, because Shartan had moved another mountain in front of it."
One boy clapped.
"There once was another nation in Thedas. It looked at Shartan funny." It was strange. "The Divine once declared an Exalted March on Shartan. It was later called the Exalted Apology For Disturbing Shartan's Supper." He was actually enjoying this. "Amongst a barbarian tribe of Ferelden, they tell--" Fenris cut off as he felt Merrill tugging at his gauntlet. Frowning, he pulled his hand away from her. "What?"
"It seems a terrible shame to interrupt you," she said, "but the children were supposed to go home to their beds after I finished that last story."
"But I want to hear more," the boy who'd first spoken said.
"Tomorrow," Merrill said firmly. The group reluctantly began to disperse.
After a minute, though, it was clear that one girl wasn't leaving--the oldest of them, by the looks of her, at fourteen or so. Instead, she approached the two of them. "I'll go soon, Merrill, I promise," she said. "But this is important. I mean, you were asking about these things."
"What is it, Emmea?" Merrill said.
"My aunt works in the kitchens and cellars at the Eislend estate," she said, "and I overheard her telling my mother about it. There've been a lot of shipments passing through the mansion to a nearby square where templars are trained--" Fenris leaned in a little. Emmea glanced at him apprehensively, then continued. "And last week, two servants carrying a crate accidentally dropped it and got sick. My aunt checked later and found broken vials of poison inside. I thought that sounded like the sort of thing you were looking for."
"It is," Merrill said. "Thank you."
"Where is the Eislend estate?" Fenris said. "And is there a way of getting to it without attracting notice?"
"What's wrong?" Merrill asked.
"Whatever happens, there will be no way of tracing it to your family," Fenris said. "I promise."
Emmea bit her lip. "If I show you the servants' passages, there might be."
Fenris glanced at Merrill. "Go and get a sovereign. We can spare it."
Emmea's eyes widened. "I can't take a whole sovereign! You..."
"We have allies beyond this alienage," Fenris said quietly. "You do not. Save it, for now. Using the money right after giving information to us would be too suspicious."
She nodded. "You're right."
Merrill frowned, then headed for the attic.
Emmea looked after her for a moment. "I'll show you tomorrow," she finally said. "I liked your jokes, by the way."
Fenris smiled. "What makes you think they were jokes?"
* * *
In the end, it took three days to prepare for the trip into the Eislend mansion. Most of that time was spent hunting down and procuring a heavy jacket with the family crest on it for Fenris to wear over his rather conspicuously spiky armor. He was already going to be moving through the cellars of the estate carrying a large sack containing a sword; he needed some way of granting himself some legitimacy.
Eventually, their host in the alienage helped them out by stealing the crest from a friend of a customer, and Arilen sewed it onto the jacket after Merrill's fourth failed attempt. The two of them then retired to a corner where Arilen could teach Merrill how to handle a needle, while the kitten batted infuriatingly at spools of thread.
"Do you know how many people in the Eislend mansion have connections to the alienage?" Fenris asked the prostitute whose attic they were lodging in as he tried not to watch this spectacle.
"Why do you ask?" The man's name was Sef. He was getting ready to go out to market and so was dressed and made up to pass as human. Fenris had seen him prepare to go to his job, and he looked very different then, when he needed to emphasize his elven heritage to draw in the human clients who favored that.
"Too many, and the link will be obvious if I'm discovered," Fenris said. "Too few, and it will be too easy to narrow down to one family."
Sef shook his head. "Nobody would connect you to the alienage."
"I would have thought that a compliment, once," Fenris said. He suspected it was true; Sebastian's men likely had descriptions of all of Hawke's companions, and his no doubt made a point of mentioning his preference for Hightown mansions. That would be useful here.
He looked away. "I'll go tonight," he said.
When Emmea had mentioned servants' passages, Fenris had imagined a few connected cellars beneath each mansion. What they turned out to be was something much more useful: the renovated remains of an old sewer system from when Starkhaven had been less wealthy and only the elite center of town had been able to afford such a luxury. Many tunnels between different estates had been blocked up to prevent theft, but a few remained, either from neglect or intention. No wonder gossip spread so fast in the estates. Servants flowed back and forth like a tide beneath them, mingling and sharing news, the occasional joke, and the rarest of stolen kisses. A few of them looked askance at Fenris as he made his way through at night, but most backed off at the sight of the Eislend crest on his coat. So long as he avoided the paths known to have particularly sharp and well-paid guards posted, he would be fine.
He'd intended to walk right up to the square of the templar training grounds and climb out in the corner of the yard. Approaching the bend in the passage that would lead to that exit, however, he heard the tread of exceptionally heavy footsteps coming from further down the hall. He ducked back, pressed himself against the wall, and waited.
"Stop pacing." The voice had a trace of the accent of Starkhaven nobility--definitely a guard and not a servant.
There was a cough, and the footsteps stilled. Fenris waited for more chatter, but these men were well-trained, and they knew that uninitiated servants were nearby. They weren't going to reveal any secret plans here. He retraced his path back down the passageway, looking for another exit.
A door swung open not far away, and a woman in plain clothes, a human servant, ran down a nearby staircase and out into the main underground hall. She skidded to a halt at the sight of him, illuminated by the lantern she held. "Oh," she said, taking in the Eislend crest on his jacket and the large sack in his hands, "you must be delivering the lyrium."
He raised a brow. "Am I to give it to you?"
"Of course," she said. "Master Eislend has all the deliveries for the new templars routed through me. It's not something the--" Looking at him, she stopped, checked herself, and revised her statement. "It's not something just anyone can be trusted with."
"Really," he said, pleased with his luck but careful not to show it. "Why can't the templars handle their own lyrium trade?"
She shook her head in disapproval. "The Prince has been pushing them too hard. I don't know how he got authority over templars, but they say he's rearranged their training completely here. They need more supplies than the Chantry normally allows for." She held up her hands. "That's all I know. Are you going to give me the lyrium or not?"
"I was told I'd be handing it over to a man," he said. "Perhaps the dwarf was confused, or perhaps he knew something neither of us do. I'll return once I've spoken with my contact." Before she could object, he gave a slight bow and strode off down the hall.
His luck held out around the next bend, where a ladder led up to the surface. He checked the location against his memory of the maps and pictured where it should come out. Not far outside the walls of the templars' square. Good. This was clearly the place, but he needed to learn more about what they were doing here before he could go back. He wasn't likely to have another chance to return here.
Fenris climbed up the ladder, swung open the grate above, and pulled himself out of the passages. It was dark out, and he could make out no one nearby enough to see him. Another stroke of luck. He took off the coat, then pulled his sword out of the sack and hefted it in one hand, then checked its balance with two. Not as firm or heavy as he'd have liked, but he made do with what could be smuggled, around here. He made his way to the wall surrounding the square and started following the noises from within.
There weren't many. It would have been better to come in the morning, for purposes of information-gathering, but he would never have made it here unseen. He'd been fortunate enough on that account even now. From the sounds of armor jangling, though, there were definitely still templars in the courtyard. The strange part was that those same sounds weren't as loud or metallic as he'd have expected from templars. They were more lightly armored than usual.
A stray conversation between two off-duty trainees confirmed this: they were being taught to use lighter armor, and they weren't pleased with it. The older one cut the newer recruit off before he could breathe a word of why, though. That was all right. Fenris was starting to form a decent picture of what was going on here. Templars being trained as assassins. A clever use of Chantry resources, indeed.
Aside from that brief exchange over the armor, though, and one complaining about the late hours tonight, "even if the reason is obvious, of course, and we're supposed to be grateful he cares," Fenris overheard nothing of interest from the templars. Either they were gathered somewhere too far for him to hear anything, or they were being well-behaved at the moment. Or both.
Instinct honed over the years sent a warning trickling down his spine after his second circuit of the wall. It was time to go. Whatever was keeping the templars so docile tonight was a danger to him as well. The grate he'd left the servants' passages through was just across the lane; he would be gone before anyone other than the woman in charge of deliveries for the Eislends knew he'd been here.
He got close enough to resolve the dark shape of the half-open grate before the suspicion lurking at the back of his mind exploded into frantic alarm. A pale bright figure atop the courtyard wall, something coming at him, he had to move before he could get a better look--
The first arrow whistled past his neck, and he realized a second too late, as the next shot slammed into the edge of his breastplate and cracked the rib beneath it with a shock of pain, that it had never been meant to hit. The aim was to debilitate him and take him alive.
"I thought the servant a liar when word came of what she had seen, Fenris."
Over the past nearly two years, Fenris had let sentiment cloud his recollections of Sebastian Vael. He recalled a man of earnest and polite if irritatingly naive and occasionally hypocritical honor, dedicated to the memory of his family; a devout believer who preached to everyone equally; an adherent of the Chantry who espoused sensible principles on magic in a time when nearly everyone else around them seemed to be going mad on the matter. He had forgotten the impetuosity and impatience. The overwrought flair for drama.
He lifted his sword to deflect the next arrow. "I hope you didn't have her beaten by your new recruits." Another shot, barely dodged. "What does the Chant have to say about politicians who use templars for their vendettas?"
Sebastian made an excellent target for a ranged fighter up on the wall, brilliant in the moonlight on his white armor. It was too bad Fenris didn't have any such allies at the moment. "The Maker blesses some causes above others. Surely you of all people understand that!"
Fenris reached the far wall, but that entrance to the tunnels was useless now. They were surely being patrolled for his presence, and he'd have to find somewhere else to enter. "You think you have the right to tell me what I understand?"
But Sebastian was not content to let the true question go unasked. "Hawke and her maleficar stand for everything that has made you suffer! How can you defend them even now?"
The sudden and familiar bloom of rage made him sloppy. Fenris curled his mouth into a snarl. "I will choose who I--"
Two arrows in quick succession tore through his arms, just shy of the arteries, and pinned him to the wall. Pain almost dazed him for a moment, and he reeled against the solid stone, barely keeping his hold on his sword. In the ensuing break in the onslaught, Sebastian climbed nimbly down the wall. Fenris wondered distantly what his templars thought of that rogue training of his.
"I will not have you killed," Sebastian said. "The Maker demands that we show mercy to those who wrong us, and we were not always enemies." He was still approaching. Did he really think the pain had staggered Fenris for more than a second? More fool, he. "And you know where Hawke and Anders are."
Fenris laughed, low in his throat.
Sebastian paused, suddenly and belatedly wary.
"Absit invidia." The familiar and inescapable old magic crawled through his flesh, and he left the arrows behind in the wall, still dripping with his blood. He solidified again inches from Sebastian and struck the bow from the prince's hands with his sword. "You mean me no harm, is that right?"
Sebastian stumbled back a step. "I--"
His mind clouded by all the blood and focused so intently on the man before him, Fenris barely registered the approaching footsteps until they were too close. Maybe if they'd been wearing heavier armor, he'd have heard them sooner. As it was, the templars almost seemed to materialize around the scene: two of them behind Sebastian, three behind Fenris. Already wounded, he stood no chance against so many fighters--on their own, yes, certainly, but not with more no doubt on the way.
Sebastian steadied himself. "Give yourself up, Fenris," he said.
Fenris smiled. "What do you think happened to every other man who told me that?"
The templars behind him rushed. He ghosted back from the charge, only narrowly avoiding their blades. Next time, he would not be so lucky, and they were already turning to regroup.
He braced himself and wished again that he had a larger sword. They came at him.
Fire blossomed in the air just in front of him, slamming back Sebastian and his templars and faintly singing Fenris himself. Merrill's voice hissed in his ear. "Come quickly!" She was right. The smoke would only hide them for a few more seconds.
Somewhere in that smoke, Sebastian screamed in fury. "Show yourself, Anders! I will see true justice done this night!"
Fenris ran, focusing on Merrill's fleeing figure in front of him. She bounded around the corner, raced across an avenue, scrambled over a fence, and jumped. She landed in the canal below with a splash. He followed her approvingly. Departing by water was the only way they wouldn't leave a trail of blood showing the way to the alienage.
The sound of chaos and pursuit dimmed behind them. As they trotted along a shallow ledge, Fenris felt a chuckle bubbling up.
"What?" Merrill looked back at him, wide-eyed. "What's funny?"
"He thought you were Anders." Fenris found himself barely holding in the hysterical edge on his laughter.
Merrill frowned. "He did. Does he really think Anders is the only one who can manage a good fireball?"
"He's obsessed," Fenris said. "And it's dulled his wits if he thinks I would put up with that lunatic long enough to--" He sagged against the wall of the canal, barely catching himself in time to avoid leaving a bloodstain on the stone. He had questions to ask, he realized: how Merrill had known he would be in trouble and managed to arrive in time to help instead of being distracted by a nearby flower or rabbit, and what they would do now. But right now it was hard enough just to keep his feet moving in a straight line. "We can't go back to the alienage," he said. "We put them in danger now." Sebastian's vendetta was both amusing and useful now, but he would come to his senses soon enough, and then he would realize it was Merrill who had interfered. The next conclusion would not take long to make.
"We can stay there just a little more," Merrill said. "I think. Besides, Arilen said she would be sad if either of us died."
That was his last clear memory of the night. The rest of the journey back was a bloody haze.
* * *
He dreamed of happiness and knew, with detached awareness, that it was a dream. Hawke was not his cousin come to visit a comfortable house in a peaceful village, and surely in waking life he would not have allowed Merrill into his home without good reason. It was strange, though, for he often dreamed of Hawke tending to domestic life with him these days. Sometimes he also had a fire for Varric to tell stories by, and often he heard the sound of Aveline teaching children to defend themselves out in the yard. On occasion he even found Isabela in bed, though he certainly regretted the one time he'd let this fact slip to her in reality--or at least her inability to stop teasing him about it. But this was the first time Merrill had been there, or at least the first time he'd let himself remember her presence.
Hawke's dog kept sitting squarely on his right arm, and for some reason he did not question the fact that Merrill's kitten clinging to his left arm was just as heavy. Such was the nature of dreams. But slowly the memory filtered through to him of why it was happening, and Fenris drew himself up to wakefulness with the usual easily suppressed reluctance. The dull aches of his dream intensified to a throbbing and were joined by a companion in the form of his cracked rib. He sat up and checked his bandages. They had been changed at some point while he slept, and the blood had not yet soaked through the new ones.
Merrill's laughter rose up from the house below, and for a peculiar moment he felt as if he had not yet awakened after all. The sensation passed, leaving him still weary and aching. He glanced at the dusty window. It was afternoon outside. He had slept too long.
Fenris couldn't make out the details of the conversation going on below, but now that he turned his attention to it, he realized that there were three different voices. Two he recognized as belonging to Merrill and Sef, but the third was unfamiliar and bore an accent he hadn't heard in the alienage, though it was common enough in the markets here. He had a fair guess as to who it was, but he wasn't sure whether this would help them or complicate matters further. He put the question out of his mind for the time being, along with the hunger and thirst that followed blood loss, so that he could dress. Had Merrill really needed to strip him to his underclothes to tend to his wounds? He put his armor back on; there was no point in hiding under disguises anymore.
When he made his way down the rickety stairs, the conversation in the rooms below slowed and stilled. He emerged into a kitchen with three faces turned to the stairwell in curiosity.
Merrill rose from her seat. "You're awake! Fenris, this is--"
"I'm aware," Fenris said. "Isabela's friend."
"As are you." He was quick to speak and not much slower to rise and then execute a flowing half-bow, an irritatingly affected gesture. "Do you know, some people say that when you make love to someone, it is as if you have made love to everyone they have as well?"
"Oh," Merrill said, sitting heavily back down. "Oh, that would be messy."
Fenris lifted a brow. "It's a good thing Isabela doesn't 'make love,' then."
Zevran laughed. "So she still gives that speech. I suppose it is part of her charm. My dear," he glanced back at Merrill now, "does your friend here ever smile, or would that disrupt the very sensual and attractive brooding?"
"He does smile sometimes," Merrill said. She glanced up at Fenris. "Is something wrong?"
"Other than the blood loss and the broken rib?" he said. "No. Why do you ask?"
"It's just that you haven't told him how I'm not your friend yet," she said.
"Ah," the Antivan said. "You are lovers, then? You make a charming couple. Tell me, is it an open relationship?"
Fenris closed his eyes and pressed the heel of one hand to his head. He heard a chair scrape against the rough floor, and when he opened his eyes, Sef was standing up to take something down from a shelf. It was a health potion.
"Here," he said. "Zevran brought some."
He grimaced automatically as he took the potion, uncapped it, and downed the draught. The pain in his arms and chest receded to dimness; though the injuries were still there, they were no longer severe enough to be debilitating.
"You always look like you tripped in a sewer when you make that face, you know," Merrill said.
He opened his mouth to tell her how much fouler than sewage he found the magic in these potions to be, but by the time he'd formed the words, he was struck with the odd realization that they were more automatic than angry, and somehow that stopped him. Instead, he said, "Why did you come after me last night?" It sounded a little wrong when it came out--as if he were asking about her feelings rather than a practical matter. So he added quickly, "You had no reason to believe I couldn't handle the investigation on my own."
"But I did," she said. "Soon after you left, Emmea got word that Sebastian was visiting the training grounds that night."
He frowned. "And you thought that reason enough?"
"Well, it was, wasn't it?"
She had a point. He set down the empty container and turned to Zevran. "Why are you here? This is a bad time to be near us."
"So I've been told," he said. "I am in Starkhaven on business of my own, but I've a message from Isabela with the details of where you should go when you leave the city." He held up a scroll. "Terrific timing, no?"
"She does have that," Fenris allowed, taking the scroll. "Sometimes."
"Ha," Zevran said. "I saw that smile."
He took the scroll, opened it up, and started to skim the instructions, but before he'd had time to gather more than the gist of the journey that awaited them, Merrill spoke up.
"Wait," she said, keen distress suddenly piercing her voice. "You're saying we're leaving?"
"We've uncovered Sebastian's plans against Hawke and Anders," Fenris said. "The longer we stay, the more danger everyone around us will be in."
"But if we go now," Merrill said, "he'll have a chance to move his operation and send more assassins after them."
Zevran leaned back thoughtfully against the wall. "He's using assassins?"
"He's training templars to use the methods of assassins," Fenris explained.
Zevran tapped a finger to his chin in consideration. "I cannot aid you in battle, of course; my fight lies elsewhere. However...it occurs to me that if I start a rumor that Prince Vael has stolen Crow methods for his own purposes, we may be able to turn our enemies against each other for a time. Who knows?" He shrugged expansively. "It may even be true. That's the beauty of it."
"I appreciate the help," Fenris said.
"No," Merrill said. "I mean, yes, that would be a great help! But it's not enough. We have to strike while we have the chance, now. Besides..." She wrung her hands nervously. "The more damage we do to them, the less resources they can spare to strike back at the alienage."
Fenris was prepared to unleash a retort, but he realized, almost belatedly, that her logic was actually sound. He closed his mouth to mull that over. Finally, he said, "What chance do the two of us have against a hall full of templars with poisons?"
"I don't know," Merrill admitted. "We'd have to be awfully quick about it, wouldn't we?"
"Yes," he said. "We would."
"But," she said, "if you protect me while I cast, I can turn powerful spells against the entire building."
He gritted his teeth against the rising knot of anger and disgust that came to him at the idea. "Templars are trained against magic. That's their purpose."
"I know," she said. "But we're faster than they are. And they aren't trained against Keeper magic."
He rolled his eyes.
"Are you going to give up a chance to defend Hawke, Fenris?" she asked, her wide-eyed gaze alarmingly sober and intense. "Because that's what running now would be, and you know it." She stood up again. "If you go now, I'll fight them myself."
"You are an idiot," he said.
"So you'll come with me?" she asked.
"Yes," he said. "I'll fight."
Zevran grinned and murmured to Sef in a stage whisper, "It is as I said. They are the most charming couple."
Fenris ignored the assassin and turned to Sef himself. "There's a bag of coins by the bed upstairs. Pay off whoever you need to, but make sure word reaches the guard that after the battle, we fled towards Nevarra."
"Understood," he said.
"Make sure no one in the alienage mentions us. Bribe people, if you have to, but Sebastian is an arrogant fool, not a tyrant. So long as the evidence is thin and the people obedient, he won't attack his own citizens. Even the elves."
"Are you sure?" Sef asked.
"I knew the man," Fenris said. "He cared for his city, once...or at least his duty to it. I doubt he has abandoned that completely. Praise the Maker in his presence and you'll be fine."
Merrill nodded. "There'll be templars in here for a while, though. I know the alienage is one of the safer places for mages to hide, but make sure their families know to be extra careful in the coming days."
Zevran chuckled quietly. "Truly, I would love to stay for the spectacle, but I've the feeling I should conclude my business and leave before you begin your attack."
"But you never said just what your business was, Zevran," Merrill said.
"Mmm," he said. "No, my dear. I didn't."
She turned those eyes on him expectantly.
He smiled. "I will say but one thing. The Crows pour great effort into training their charges. Each of us...each of them possesses formidable killing power, honed like the sharpest of blades. But in the end, they're nothing but blades. They know nothing of fighting side by side with a friend, for one has no friends in the Crows. They understand fear, not loyalty. And should you know which threads to cut, they fall apart like cheap rags."
"It sounds very lonely," Merrill said.
"It is," he said. "But I'm no longer one of them. I am a free man."
Fenris looked at him and said nothing. The silence between them hummed with all the nothing he said.
"It was a pleasure meeting you, Fenris," Zevran said, "and as much a pleasure seeing you again, Merrill." He leaned down to kiss Sef on the cheek. "Perhaps someday I'll travel longer with you. It would be most exciting, don't you think?"
"I'd like that," Merrill said. "Could you teach me some of the things Isabela and Varric keep saying they'll tell me when I'm older? I'm almost twenty-eight, you know."
He laughed and left her wondering. Fenris hastily stifled a grin. What they planned to do was madness, and he knew that it was real; yet somehow, a part of him wondered if he had yet woken up from his dream.
* * *
They left their belongings in a small boat at a shadowed dock off the usual paths of the city, guarded by a typically underpaid worker gifted with most of the rest of their money (or rather, half of it, the rest promised to him upon their return). Merrill took great pains to make sure the cat was comfortable there, even wasting time on seeing that it had food to eat.
"It will be gone when we return, you realize," Fenris said as they crept through the darkened alleyways on the slow approach to the estates. "Cats have no sense of gratitude."
"Nonsense," Merrill said. "Da'nehn knows I care for her. She likes you too, you know."
He sighed. "I know. It jumps on my head in the mornings."
She beamed. "They can tell when someone doesn't like cats. They're very smart that way!"
The plan was relatively simple. Earlier in the day, Fenris had seen that word was leaked to a small and hungry band of thieves that an opportunity waited in one of the mansions not far from the templar training grounds they needed to attack. His weeks lurking around the estates gave him enough knowledge to pad the claim with convincing facts, and the build-up of soldiers in the area was no doubt being kept under wraps for the time being. The thieves had taken the bait. They would surely flee as soon as they realized the information was false, but before then, they would provide a useful distraction.
Merrill, of course, had worried what would become of the criminals. Fenris had found himself wishing that Isabela was there to provide some reassurance for her, but there was nothing to be done save to tell her that most likely the thieves would manage to abscond in the chaos.
Now the two of them approached the estates from the bottom of a steep bank that conveniently kept them from flooding with a protection the lower quarters of the city lacked. Fenris grasped the bottom rung of a rickety and infrequently used ladder. "We'll have to be quiet from here," he said. "No more talking about the cat."
"Wait!" Merrill said, eyes widening. "There's something I thought of."
He stopped and looked at her.
"It's those stories you were telling," she said. "The jokes. I just thought that we should make some about Hawke."
"What?" he said.
"Maybe Sebastian's soldiers would stop and listen..."
Fenris rubbed his face.
"Or maybe we should wait until we're done and on our way out of the city," Merrill concluded.
"Yes," he said. "Good idea. Are you ready?"
"Of course," she said.
He swung up onto the ladder, and she followed. From here, they would approach the training grounds at an angle to the Eislend estate--not through it again, as it was no doubt guarded fiercely now, nor opposite it, since that was the front entrance to the templar square, but from the side. It was early enough that Sebastian and his men shouldn't be expecting them quite as much as they otherwise might, but late enough that activity nearby would be scant. This was the best they could do.
Holding onto the ladder and listening to it creak, he waited for the thieves to make their move. The minutes crept by. Merrill shifted her grip anxiously on the rungs below, and he suppressed the urge to snap at her. They couldn't afford to argue now.
Finally, a shout rose up in the near distance, followed swiftly by the clash of weapons. "Time," he said. "Let's go." And he vaulted up onto the stone ground and started running. Merrill followed, and they made for the templar square under cover of the nearby fighting.
They were nearly to the wall when the first templars emerged from the shadows: one a stocky woman quick on her feet, the other a rangy man wielding twin daggers. Fenris took the woman with a swift swipe of his sword to her chest. Her armor blunted the worst of the blow, but he heard bones crack all the same, and she staggered backwards, dazed. Meanwhile, a bolt of magic from Merrill winded the man, and she smacked him on the head with her staff as they ran by.
"Stand back!" Merrill said, but she needn't have bothered. Fenris was already bracing himself as she commenced casting. Seconds later, the tree nearest to the wall twisted as if in agony, nature magic uncoiling from its branches, then bucked into the wall, shattering the stone.
Fenris was first over the newly opened path, with Merrill following close behind. He slammed right into a knot of templars belatedly preparing for battle, scything out with his sword to take down the lot of them. He wished that, with the need for disguise over with at last, he'd been able to procure a larger sword, but there'd hardly been time. He'd make do with what he had.
The sounds of conflict from their intended distraction were fading as the templars and guards alike realized they'd been tricked and the thieves fled. Still, it would take the divided forces a precious handful of minutes to reunite. Fenris caught his breath and took in the scene around him. The nearest templars that hadn't been taken down by his blows were doubled over in agony, blood spattering the ground around them, as Merrill drew upon her demonic dealings. He checked to make sure she could pay enough attention to follow him, then ran for the main building. That was their target.
He planted himself in front of the door and ran his blade through the first templar to emerge. "Bring out your worst spells, witch," he called behind him.
Merrill answered him in furious, incomprehensible elven words and began to cast. The ground around them trembled slightly as it responded to her power.
He had no time to voice his contempt. He never had, when he'd fought at her side. It was strange, though--this was the first time he'd done it without Hawke to mediate. He wondered, briefly, if that should bother him, and then he struck down another templar that approached with a wicked poisoned blade.
Tendrils of raw magic rose up from the ground nearby, and he danced back instinctively as they lashed out with the force of the earth at the building. The stone shuddered, pieces of it falling and crumbling. In the rising roar of the falling rock, he almost missed the whistle of arrows headed for him and Merrill. Not Sebastian's, not precise enough to be Sebastian's, but other templars were trained as archers now. He deflected most of the arrows, then scanned the walls until he caught sight of the enemies. He pointed.
Merrill nodded, her face paler than usual. She unhooked a lyrium potion from her belt, hurriedly swallowed it down, then unleashed a wave of fire at the row of archers, followed by a larger storm of flames at the smaller buildings around the courtyard. She was sweating with effort now, he noticed. He would have to work hard to protect her so she could concentrate.
This was not a situation he had ever dreamed he would be in.
Most of the templars had fallen now, dead or too wounded to continue the fight, but the ones remaining were tougher and more clever than the others. He caught sight of a pair of them sneaking around to stab both of them in the back. Only quick thinking allowed him to take care of the two enemies: he shifted his sword to a single hand to slam it into one, then immediately phased his free fist into the other's throat. Blood fountained into the air, freezing in place halfway through its arc before falling abruptly to the ground as Merrill consumed its power.
He grimaced and swallowed his bile.
"Well, you weren't using it," she muttered defensively before downing another lyrium potion and lapsing back into her elven chanting.
He didn't dignify that with an answer, instead focusing his attention on slicing into another attacker. As the templar fell, so too did the roof of the hall at last, crumbling finally into the earth. The courtyard lay strewn with rubble and bodies around them. They had accomplished their mission. The hard part now would be getting out alive.
Fenris turned and grabbed Merrill's wrist. "We go," he said.
"But there are still--"
"We've done enough damage. They won't be able to recover from this."
She looked him in the eye. Even paler than before now, she was sweating copiously and shaking a little from exertion. She wasn't used to using such powerful magic in such rapid succession. Normally he took great pleasure in seeing mages exhaust their inner resources, the dark power within them drained dry at last, but now he worried. "All right," she said with a nod.
The arrow took her in the shoulder. If he hadn't been standing there, blocking Sebastian's view, it would probably have gone through her neck.
Snarling an oath in Arcanum, Fenris spun around. "You throw your men at us to die, then come when we tire? What a prince you are."
Sebastian stood atop the remains of two broken stone pillars at the entrance of the templar hall. He said nothing, but there was a betrayed fury in his eyes visible even from this distance, and he nocked another arrow.
Fenris did not stop to deflect it. He raced forward instead, sword at the ready, barely feeling the pain as the arrow lodged in his breastplate. Two more great leaping steps, and he was halfway up the pile of rubble Sebastian stood on. He realized belatedly, as an arcane bolt slammed into Sebastian's chest and sent him stumbling backwards, frustratingly quick to catch his balance, that Merrill had followed him despite her injury.
Sebastian finally spoke. "Why?" he said. He gestured vaguely at Merrill below them as if she represented this entire mad endeavor. Which she did. "Why, Fenris?"
He was stalling. From the shouts not far away, it was clear that the guards and the remainder of the templars would arrive soon. "I owe you no answer," Fenris said, because he had none.
"No," Sebastian said, "you owe me nothing." He had his next arrow pointed at Fenris now, but he was not loosing it. "But you owe yourself one."
Fenris jumped to close the distance between them and swung his sword. He wasn't aiming to kill--they could ill afford to be responsible for the death of a prince--but he did need to disable.
Sebastian half-dropped his bow and caught the flat of the blade in his hand, wincing at the pain from even the gentler than normal swing. But he regained his stance and stared unflinchingly at Fenris. There was a familiar pain in his eyes both more and less than the holy fervor he so claimed motivated him.
And in the end, that was what got Fenris to speak. That was what pulled words from his mouth that he'd barely allowed himself to think in fleeting moments of inescapable contemplation. "Revolutions come and go," he said. "Powers rise and fall. The Chantry will stand when this is done, though it may be changed in ways I would not choose. All that is beyond my control. But the people I hold close? They are mine to defend. I would not forgive myself if I let them slip away because of my hate."
Sebastian tried to muster a gaze of sanctimonious disapproval and pity. He only partially succeeded. "That is not the Maker's way, Fenris."
"Perhaps not," Fenris agreed. "But it is our way. Mine, and yours." Below them, reinforcements had arrived, and Merrill frantically flung ice and fire at them to thin their ranks and stagger their blows.
Sebastian's look hardened. "You question my faith?"
Fenris shook his head. "No. But why bother seeking Anders's death now? You know that madman was nothing but the spark. The fate of the rebellion rests with Hawke now."
The prince hesitated.
"It's vengeance you're looking to have," Fenris said. "For Elthina."
Despair unmasked flashed in Sebastian's eyes. Lightning quick, he pulled a knife from his belt and stabbed out at Fenris, who ducked and dashed back down the rubble to avoid it. In the reprieve granted, Sebastian lifted his bow once more, nocked an arrow, and fired at Merrill. She was far too exhausted to dodge in time.
Fenris knew, in the instant available to him, that he was better armored and could safely take the arrow with far fewer injuries than Merrill could. He moved automatically to intercept it as he fell. The arrow tore into his chest. It wasn't that bad. He could handle pain.
"Fenris?" Merrill said, wide-eyed.
He gritted his teeth. "Enough."
She turned around and blew Sebastian off his feet with a shock of magic. To his credit, he cried out only briefly as he tumbled down the pile of stones. But then, he had little reason to cry; his wounds would be the first ones tended to when relief came.
Merrill grabbed Fenris's hand and pulled him to his feet. They ran, though she was pale with exertion and he with injuries. They had health potions waiting, and for once, he would not complain when he drank them.
* * *
"I still have trouble believing the cat stayed," Fenris said as they climbed out of the trading caravan on its latest stop outside a village a few days' journey into Antiva from the border. They had a meeting to make this afternoon.
"Oh, you just don't know her," Merrill insisted, carefully helping the kitten down out of the wagon. "You should get a cat of your own sometime, Fenris. To keep you company. It would be good for you!"
"No," he said.
She sighed. "Maybe a puppy? Puppies are cute."
"Maybe," he said. Before he could see her reaction to the victory, he turned to go pay the traders for letting them come along unremarked. It was the last of their money. They'd need to rely on the others they were meeting from here on out.
The two of them forged a meandering path through the gentle hills, away from the thin crowds of people on the outskirts of the village. The field swiftly gave way to light woods, and Fenris reluctantly let Merrill pick her way through them. "How have you not forgotten how to put up with all this dirt after years in the city?" he asked.
"There's plenty of dirt in cities," she said, pulling aside some thin branches.
"It's different," he said, but they'd discussed this before. It was familiar ground now, unlike the strange Antivan valleys they picked their way through.
"But you know what I did miss, those weeks in Starkhaven," she said thoughtfully. "Having my feet free. Ugh, I couldn't stand wearing those shoes all the time."
"Neither could I," he said. "I don't see the point."
"Exactly," she said. "The Creators gave us feet for walking on; why put strange things between them and the dirt?"
He rolled his eyes. "I'm not sure that's how I'd put it. But yes."
Merrill smiled at him. He looked away.
The scattered trees fell away after not much longer to reveal a small clearing pushed up against a low bluff. Fenris stopped as he saw who waited for them. "I thought Isabela was meeting us here," he said.
"Believe me," Anders said, "if it were up to me I wouldn't have anything to do with either of you."
Hawke hit him lightly with the back of her hand.
"Oh," Merrill said. "Hello, Hawke!"
Fenris inclined his head as Merrill ran to her. "Hawke."
She put an arm around Merrill to hug her. "It's good to see both of you."
"Everyone was wondering about you, Hawke," Merrill said. "Where were you and Anders?"
"We were visiting the Imperium," Anders said, glancing sidelong at Fenris without any subtlety.
Fenris fixed his gaze on Anders deliberately. "I assume you enjoyed it."
Anders drew himself up and braced his shoulders against the air. "Yes, as a matter of fact, I did. It was rather nice being treated like a real person for once, instead of a...oh...what's the word..."
Fenris felt the familiar call to arms of a battle that would never end or be won by either side rising in him. He opened his mouth to supply the word Anders made such a show of looking for, along with several other, more choice ones.
Merrill interposed herself before he could. "It bothered you, didn't it?" she said. "You won't admit it to Fenris, Creators forbid either of you ever learned to tolerate the other. But you don't like seeing the innocent suffer, neither of you do, really."
Anders turned to look at Hawke for help. She looked back at him and folded her arms. He sighed. "Yes, all right, it bothered me. It might be a better way than what we've got here with the Circle, but it's...not what I imagined. Maybe we really do need something completely new, if there's ever to be justice in this world. I don't know." He flashed her a resentful look. "Who are you to talk about innocence, anyway?"
Fenris found himself speaking up. "She knows a great deal more of it than you."
Anders blinked. "Did you just defend her?" He looked at Hawke. "Did he defend the blood mage?"
Hawke shrugged and spread her hands.
"Is this an elf thing?" Anders frowned, then looked hopeful. "Is he possessed? It would be hilarious if he were possessed."
"He's not as bad as you think, Anders," Merrill said. "Not all the time, anyway. Did you know he can smile?"
"Stop that," Fenris said.
Hawke coughed meaningfully and said, "Is everything taken care of in Starkhaven?"
"Yes," he said. "Sebastian was training templars as assassins, but we put a stop to that. You should be safe for a while longer now."
"You too," Merrill said to Anders.
"Neither of you did it for me," he said.
"That's right, mage," Fenris said.
"I did it for both of you," Merrill said, sighing.
"From here," Hawke said, "we'll take Merrill to Rivain to meet Isabela."
Merrill made a face. "But she still won't take me to Llomerryn."
"Trust her when she says you wouldn't like it there, Merrill," Hawke said. "Fenris, where are you going?"
"Aveline is in Wycome," he said. It occurred to him that this could be the last time he ever saw any of them. Nothing was certain, anymore. He wasn't sure how to feel about that, but he had the faintest suspicion that he might miss them. Except for Anders, of course. "I'll be staying on the outskirts to help keep her informed."
"That won't be conspicuous at--" Anders stopped in mid-rant. "Oh," he said.
"What?" Fenris said.
Anders knelt down. "Oh," he repeated, "aren't you adorable?"
The kitten meowed as it peeked around Merrill's legs. Fenris lifted a hand to his forehead, composed the most neutral expression he could manage, and wondered what kind of puppies they had in Wycome.
"Will you stay with us for the night, Fenris?" Hawke asked. "I hear the inn at the next village serves a wonderful dinner."
"You only ever think about food," Anders muttered.
Fenris considered the offer. "Just for the night?"
"Just for the night," Hawke affirmed. "Anything else would be too suspicious right now."
"Then the night it is," he said. "I think I'd like that."