Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.
Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.
--The Habit of Perfection, Gerard Manley Hopkins
They take her in broad daylight.
The trick is both simple and effective. It begins with the lure, a wounded boy crouched in the squalor of a Lowtown alley with an empty beggar's cup and a white, pained face; next comes the reel, when she kneels beside him with the glow of healing magic cupped in her palms; and last is the silent moment when she sees that he is not so young, and not so wounded, and when she flings herself back from the short, sharp blade he pulls from his sleeve she finds herself caught in the bole-thick arms of a giant, left to surface with the gasping realization that she is trapped.
Trapped, but not helpless—Hawke pulls fire to her fingers, slamming her palms against his bared forearms until her nose fills with the stench of burning flesh. The giant lets out a wordless snarl of rage, his grip loosening in agony, and Hawke ducks under his blistering arms with her hands still lit with flame. She whirls on her heel to keep both the giant and the false-wounded man in her sights, her back to the ash-dusted wall of the Lowtown hovel he'd begged against, and shifts her weight to her toes as she pulls her staff to the ready. They both take a step back, wariness in their eyes. Other than them, the street is empty; the residents of Lowtown know better than to involve themselves in another's fight.
"Giving up so soon?" she asks, and lets the fire in her hand burn brighter. "It's not a bad idea. If you don't mind my advice, I mean."
"You aren't the first apostate who's resisted," the young man returns, his voice lightly accented, and when he lifts his arm another four raiders emerge from a shack across the street, armed and impassive and moving close behind the giant in a penning circle. Two of them nock arrows, the tips aimed squarely at her heart and between her eyes, and Hawke knows that the slightest attempt at a signal on her part, be it magic or a simple scream, will die as quickly as she. The young man smiles as he sees her sudden grimace; the knife in his fingers is steady. "If it's advice you're looking for, mine's to stop fighting. Before you end up like all the others." He inclines his head and adds, "It is, as you say, not a bad idea."
"Noted and disregarded." Hawke offers the man a cocky smile, but her mind is racing. They are not far from Gamlen's, not far either from Merrill's tiny home—this attack depends on speed and secrecy, and the longer they stand in this alley the greater their risk of discovery—so the greater the risk they'll cut their losses and simply try to kill her. Worse, she does not like her odds—the Champion she might be, but this battle is six capable and sword-practiced bandits against one mage, and though the giant carries no weapon, she knows he is as deadly as any of the others—maybe more.
"Take her," says the smiling leader, and the arrows fly free.
The first one buries itself in the wood by her head in a clear miss; the second she dodges more narrowly, the point tearing through the thigh of her brown trousers to leave a hair-thin line of beading blood behind. Hawke ducks left and summons fire in a swathing blast of heat—one of the archers falls back with a scream and the raider beside him drops his sword, its hilt boiling ember-red. The giant advances on her, his burnt fingers outstretched, but before he can reach her she puts two fingers to her forehead and pushes, shoving him back into the flames. The archer that had fallen cries out again, and then does not move.
Two of the raiders rush her, one with a sword and the other with a pair of daggers, and it takes a moment's concentration before Hawke can sweep her staff across the ground between them. Ice bursts from the ground in sudden sharp shards, freezing their boots to the stones in an instant. Hawke flips the staff in her hands and drives the bladed end through the throat of the man closer to her; he drops to his knees with a bubbling red gasp as she frees her staff, but the yellow-haired woman with the daggers does not even hesitate as she draws one hand back to throw.
"Alive!" shouts the leader behind them, and the woman's flinch at the moment of release sends the dagger flying wild. It slams hilt-first into the wall behind her, then drops to the street with a hollow clank. The woman, her feet still frozen to the ground, looks murderous.
Hawke takes another step back, pressing herself flat against the door of the hovel behind her, trying to decide who will be the next to die. She knew she should have taken someone with her, anyone—hadn't Aveline said just that morning that she was becoming too well-known for her own good? But she'd been careless, and foolish, and when Fenris had objected to visiting Anders's clinic she hadn't protested going alone, hadn't even thought to—but this is not the time for what-ifs and maybes, not now, and Hawke pushes her self-directed anger to the back of her mind for a safer time. She grits her teeth as the young man with the knife steps forward, grinning, and then she reaches for the pulsing scream of lightning—
—and a hand closes hard over her mouth from behind her, a hand with a white cloth soaked in something strong-smelling and sour. The door, she thinks furiously, just another trap—her head rolls back and her lightning cracks into existence across the man who owns the hand pressed over her mouth, but it is too weak, the light too faint, too young and unformed as a dream. Hawke shrieks and the sound blisters the Lowtown air, and as an iron-muscled arm loops around her neck to replace the cloth over her nose she thinks at least someone will know a fight happened here, even if she cannot speak through the burning pungency of the cloth's smell—even if she—cannot speak—she cannot breathe—
—Hawke sees white, white teeth bared in a smile; she sees the giant move towards her with measured steps that shake the ground, and then the world turns sideways and—
—she sees nothing.
Someone bumps her hard in the shoulder, and with an effort, Hawke breaches the black and heavy blanket of her drugged sleep.
She is flat on her back on something rigid and uncomfortable and unsteady, something jostling and quick-moving, and each lurching motion worsens the heavy pounding in her head. There are other people around—she can hear their voices—but there is something thin and cloying over her face. She reaches for it blindly but her hand is so heavy, her fingers thick and awkward like sausages, and it takes two tries to paw the coarse sheet away from her face.
"Shit, she's awake!"
She blinks, staring up at a sudden square of bright blue sky forcing through the Darktown haze, and realizes: she is still in the city. "Fenris," she says, and then, "help me," but it comes out slurring and incoherent through numb lips. She bites the tip of her tongue, feels nothing, opens her mouth to try again.
"She's coming to! Where's the bottle?"
A scarred hand reaches into her line of view to pull the sheet back over her face, and Hawke tosses her head to the side in a futile attempt to escape it. She is on one of the city's narrow stretchers, she realizes when her hand flops over the side, the ones used to carry the bodies of the penniless to the mass graves outside the city limits. They are taking her out of Kirkwall, and once that happens she doesn't know—
The sour, burning smell of the drug-soaked cloth seeps through the sheet over her face, thick and hot and stifling, and it takes a dizzy moment to realize her stretcher-bearers have stopped.
"Dysentery again?" says a bored female voice.
"Family called us this morning," says the man just over her head, his words distorted and distant. A rough hand shoves her arm back under the sheet.
"Help me," Hawke says again, and this time it is less even than before, a hissing, toneless breath that has no sound and less meaning. A gate creaks open with a protesting groan; a cool, wild breeze tugs for a moment at the cloth over her face before the stretcher lurches forward, and then, as the gate slams closed behind her with a final, hollow boom, the darkness reaches up with groping fingers to pull her back under its silent, rippling surface.
"I beg your pardon?"
"You're looking entirely too comfortable there. Scoot over."
A black eyebrow, lifted. "But then I will not be comfortable."
"But I will be. Come on, it's my couch; at least let me share it."
A sigh of feigned pique, and then a shift—and then a pause. "This is—not what I was expecting."
"Your head is in my lap."
"Like I said: comfortable."
Another pause, and a hand settling carefully on her neck. "Hawke…"
"And this is where you choose to sleep."
"Flames, Fenris, how's a girl supposed to get any rest with you being such a chatterbox? Read your book. Pretend I'm not here."
Callused fingertips on her ear, her closed eyelids, her cheek. "Go to sleep, Hawke."
—and a booted foot slams hard into her shoulder. Her eyes fly open; she bends forward and then back, unable to ease the sudden pain either way, and then a hand fists in her hair to pull her to her knees.
"Start with that next time," she says, her tongue still numb enough to thicken the words in her mouth. Her eyes won't quite pull into focus on the face of the woman holding her hair, but she can still see the curled-lip disgust as she drops her back to the dirt.
The dirt—the dirt. She is outside Kirkwall, she realizes, outside the reach of her friends, outside even the questionable protection of the city guard. The high stone walls of the city rise distantly in the east; Hawke can see the rough wagon trail they must have followed behind her, winding carelessly back to the pauper's gate from this small, rocky clearing just off the path. She digs her fingers into the dirt by her knees: dry, and thin, like the sparse trees and the short, scrubby grasses that cling to the low hills between Kirkwall and this impromptu camp.
A man laughs behind her and she winces, looking back over her shoulder at the cluster of raiders sorting through her belongings. The Planasene Forest stands green and thick ahead of them, the wagon trail disappearing into the shadows at its feet; another three or four people stand guard on the outskirts of the camp, bows strung and swords naked in their hands, as if a chase is expected at any minute. Hawke hopes it is; with nine raiders between her and freedom, she has little chance of escaping on her own without a plan better than a flat-out sprint under cover of night.
The sun is bright overhead and hot, hanging half-down the cloudless sky and throwing the woman above her into dark silhouette. Hawke blinks, trying to force her vision clear, but just as the woman's edges sharpen at last she turns away with an irritated scoff. "She's up. Tell Carn."
Hawke grimaces and pushes herself to her knees, and then, more carefully, to her feet. Her hands are bound together at the wrist with sturdy, well-made rope, half a dozen loops wrapped taut around each arm to end in several stout knots at the base of her thumbs. She flexes her fingers and clenches them, but there is precious little give—and then a man's voice, smooth and disinterested, says, "Good afternoon."
Hawke lifts her chin, willing her stomach to settle. He is tall, taller than her, and thick with muscle and padded grey armor; his beard is brown and cropped short, his nose hooked, and even the touch of grey at his temples is not enough to soften the falcon-sharp eyes set deep under his heavy dark brows. She says, "Is it?"
"For some of us more than others, I suppose." He inclines his head. "I am Carn. Welcome to the Black Hoods."
"And yet you seem surprisingly hoodless."
His smile has little humor in it. "The name has other applications. As you'll soon see."
"You'll forgive me if I don't look forward to it."
"You'll forgive me if your opinion is disregarded. Your name, girl."
"I think I'll keep it."
He smiles again, thin-lipped and hard, and Hawke feels her stomach jump in fear—but he only gestures over his shoulder at one of the raiders loitering behind him. A man with wavy blond hair trots up obediently—and Hawke's fear lurches again, because it is the first man, the false-wounded one with the white smile, and he bares his teeth at her again as he approaches. "Sir?"
"Bring it out."
Teeth nods and disappears into the cluster of people around her bags to reemerge with her staff—her staff, Hawke thinks furiously, her father's staff—held carefully in both hands. He passes it to Carn, who hefts it in his fingers for a long, silent moment, and then he turns it upright and holds it out, straight-armed, before him.
He says, "Destroy it."
The answer comes quick and clear. "I won't."
"Don't be a fool," he says, annoyed but not angry, as if this response is expected and vexing in its unoriginality. "I had hoped we could skip over the 'plucky defiance' stage of the proceedings."
"I'm always plucky," she says off-handedly, but her heart is racing in her chest—and then a slender steel arrowhead comes to rest point-first on the pulse in her throat and her heart stops altogether. Her eyes slide sideways to find the brusque woman who'd woken her, the one with the bored voice and the yellow hair pulled back in a severe tail, with her fingers firm and steady on the arrow's shaft. "I won't," Hawke says again, but her voice sounds weaker even to herself. If only she could reach the knife hidden in her boot—
Carn lifts his eyebrows. "You are mistaken if you think your determination will be enough, here."
"I just think you want me alive more than you want my cooperation."
Carn laughs, then, throwing back his head and opening his mouth wide to the sky. The sound is loud and hard and sudden enough that a flock of black-winged swallows startles out of a nearby thicket, lifting into the sky in a dark, fluid cloud; they wheel away in a long spiral, and when Carn lowers his head to stare at her again, his amusement is gone. "I need you alive," he says. "I do not need you whole."
"What—" says Hawke, and in a flash of pale arms and yellow hair, the woman at her back has shifted her grip from her throat to her bound hands, locking Hawke's arms under the heavy, muscled press of her armored elbow, and the needle-thin point of the arrowhead has slipped to rest on the tender skin under the fingernail of her left thumb. "I—wait—wait—"
"Destroy it," Carn says again, and holds out her father's staff.
"Wait," Hawke says, her words tripping over each other on her tongue. Her heart is thumping hard enough against her ribs that the woman must be able to hear it, must know the rabbit's wild-eyed fear that has her firmly in its grasp. "The staff. It's worth a fortune. Keep it—sell it—I swear I won't go near it, I swear—"
"And what is your word worth to me, mage?"
Hawke knows the answer as well as he does, can read it in his falcon's eyes and the rippled scars of fire on his fingers: nothing.
"For the last time," he says, and the arrowhead presses under her fingernail, "destroy it."
She is faint with fear and the promise of pain, but somehow in the blank and echoing cavern of her mind two words force their way to the front. "I won't."
Carn glances at the woman with the yellow hair, and the arrowhead drives home.
The worst moment, she thinks, is the moment before the pain comes, the split-second where she sees her thumbnail standing on end, when she feels a sudden breeze pass cool over the exposed and yet-unbleeding skin. The image roots in her mind, clear and sharp like light off a turned blade; the woman with the yellow hair grasps the nail and twists it away from the flesh and Hawke stares in blank silence a moment more—and then the pain comes, sudden and striking, and the scream that tears out of her throat turns every head in the camp.
"Destroy the staff," she hears through the haze; Hawke wavers on her feet, but the woman's iron grip will not let her fall. She feels the tip of the arrow slip under the fourth finger of her right hand.
She whispers, "No."
In the end, the price of her father's staff is four fingernails and a tooth, a molar pulled from the back of her mouth with narrow pliers and a length of silver wire. The world is pale and watery, red-tinged at the edges and fading when she lifts her head from her knees, when she pushes the arms away with bleeding hands and says with a bleeding mouth, "Stop. I'll do it. I'll destroy it."
"Thank you," Carn says impassively, but Teeth behind him is white-faced.
"Give it to me. I'll burn it."
The yellow-haired woman makes a move for her rope-bound hands again, but Carn aborts her motion with a gesture. "Enough, Delia." Then, to Hawke: "I am not a fool, mage. Burn it from there."
Hawke blinks slowly, fighting the brown and thudding pain that washes behind her eyes. She hadn't even—hadn't even meant it like that, she thinks, and the heady shame of that realization almost closes her throat around the taste of her blood. She'd only wanted a moment to—to say goodbye—
Well. Well, so long, heart's gift; so long, last legacy of her father. Hawke lifts her hands together and finds through the pain-skimming sea the gold spark of her magic—and then, with the slow and measured tread of a gallows-bound captive, a slender line of mage-flame creeps along the lines of the staff. It coils up the haft in lazy spirals, licking at the varnish until it peels, until the wood blisters and blackens beneath it; her heart aches in her chest and the fire speeds up—it reaches for Carn's hand like a hooded and gleaming snake and he jerks away, eyes narrowed, realizing his mistake too late—
Hawke struggles to her knees, her hands lit as bright as a sun, burning away the ropes in long black chunks, white-knuckled in impotent fury as the flame leaps, viper-quick, towards Carn's eyes. He shouts and a sword appears in his hand as if by his own magic, arcing through the flame in a silver wheel; the flame scatters into a thousand sparks and his falcon eyes gleam through them, at once brighter and more dangerous—she gathers the fire again—but before she can even brush it, a black and soundless hand takes the thread of her magic and shreds it into absolute nothingness, gloving the warm gold light in the void of a templar's Silence.
Her head whips left and right, frantic—and then she sees the giant, his hand still outstretched towards her, his face dark with anger and exertion. She lifts her hands again and reaches—but there is nothing there inside her, nothing to take hold of, nothing to answer her call—
And Delia's fist smashes into the side of her face.
Hawke goes down like a rag doll, limbs loose and outside her control. Her face is on fire—she'd struck her on the side with the missing tooth and every pulsing heartbeat rams white agony through her jaw, splinters of swollen heat spreading across her cheek and neck as if to scorch away the rest of her skin too.
She lies there, her cheek in the dirt, her ears ringing, and watches her father's staff burn.
A long time passes, long enough that the staff's wood chars itself to small blackened pieces, long enough that the embers lose their fire and the ash swirls up in grey, unfocused flurries to smear out the path of the wind. A curt voice says something over her head, but she has nothing in her mind but clouded ash and fire, and it is not until a heavy brown boot crushes the last of the smoking coals into the dirt before her eyes that she comes back to herself.
She does, slowly, the nail-less fingers of one hand pressed to her burning cheek as if the pain can help her keep her dizzy feet. Carn's face is inches from her own, his jaw clenched, his brown beard singed and smoking, and the words come out before she can think to check them. "You're looking a little toasted, there, Blackbeard."
His hand moves faster than she can track it, wrapping around her throat with all the inexorable force of a falling stone. He does not even blink. "I won't be the only one burning by nightfall," he says, quietly, and then he twists his arm downward until Hawke has no choice but to follow; she goes to her knees, both hands wrapped around his wrist, and he pushes again, pressing her down until she is flat on her back and his knee is between her breasts. "And if you try that again, you won't live through it."
It is not, as far as threats go, the most inventive one she has ever heard; her aching mouth goes dry all the same. He stares at her a moment longer, his eyes glittering under his heavy brows, and then he pushes to his feet and leaves her gasping in the grass. "Get her ready," he says to Teeth, and there is not the slightest change in his voice. "We need to be in the trees by twilight."
"Yes, sir," he says, and gestures at the giant, who lifts hands the size of dinner plates to allow something dark and soft to drape between them.
"The Black Hoods," Hawke says, then, laughing with a hoarse and cracking voice, and just before the giant drops it over her head she purses swollen lips and spits. It lands in a thick glob on his chest, more blood than saliva, and the last thing she sees before the hood falls over her eyes is the stain, its edges sharp against pale blue of his shirt, dark and dripping and scarlet.
They leave the hood over her head for the rest of the journey. It takes two hours to reach the trees, another hour and a half before they at last stop for the night; they rebind her arms with more rope the first time she scratches her nose through the hood, and she spends the rest of the afternoon clutching the shirt-tail of whoever walks in front of her with bleeding, tender fingers, tripping on every rock in the road as if seeking them out on purpose. She is grateful, in part, for the hood; as long as it covers her face, they cannot see the frustrated tears that force their way out despite her best effort to control them. By the time she hears Carn call at last for a fire to be built, she is not the only one with an audible sigh of relief. Her toes ache through her boots and her hands and mouth are alight with pain, and though she'd managed tiny spurts of healing magic as the giant's Silence had worn off, the wounds are still too fresh and raw for any real relief.
"All right," Carn says somewhere to her left. "Here's fine. Set a guard and keep an eye out for Silas's group—I want to know the minute they get back."
Hawke's heart drops like a rock. More of them? Even with the nine already here? She'd had precious little chance before; with more men arriving soon, it seems she will have no chance at all.
A hand clamps down on the top of her head, and a moment later the world returns in a swirl of cloth and hair. Night is almost upon them, she realizes, pushing her hair out of her face with her awkward and hurting hands; the woods are dim with dusk, the purple haze of twilight muting even the leafy canopy above them, and the glow of the just-lit fire streaks the tree-trunks at the camp's perimeter in liberal strokes of orange and gold. Someone tosses a canteen of water at her feet and she drains it in seconds, and when she is finished she wipes her mouth on her soft grey sleeve and tosses the canteen back without a second look.
Fenris will have no idea where she is.
It is the first time she has allowed herself to think of him since this morning, since she'd left the house alone and without warning. He might not even know she is missing, she thinks—she's stayed the night in Darktown before, when she'd found herself there too late, too tired to make the journey back to Hightown in the dark. It might be a day, might even be more before he realizes—and then, what? And then he'll search out Varric, and Anders and Aveline and the others and they'll search the city, top to bottom, and find nothing. And no matter how hard they look, that's all they'll find.
She doesn't even know where they're taking her.
"Silas," she hears someone shout, and it is the distraction alone that keeps her from breaking down and weeping out of frustration. A voice answers from the brush, loud and accompanied by a cacophony of yelps and cracking twigs, and a moment later a man and two women burst into the ring of firelight, a smaller, fourth figure struggling between them. A young hand flashes into the gold light, fingers splayed; a moment later a tiny, hair-thin bolt of lightning jumps skyward and both the women burst into uproarious laughter.
"And he calls himself a mage!"
"Oh—Maker—touch me, touch me, look, I'm tingling—"
"I've had better jolts from a doorknob, boy, and if you think—"
"Shut up," Silas says, and runs a hand through his silver hair. "We weren't supposed to bring back prisoners at all."
"No," comes Carn's voice, hard, and the women stop giggling. "You weren't."
The camp turns to Carn, even the boy, and Hawke catches her first glimpse of her fellow prisoner. He is young and coltish and awkward, fourteen at the most, and his long black hair is pulled back into a messy braid—and then he turns his face full-on to the fire and she catches a glimpse of a long and shining scar that strafes from his temple to his neck, taking most of his left earlobe with it.
"In fact," Carn continues, "I believe I remembered telling you explicitly to kill all witnesses. Am I wrong?"
"No, sir," Silas says, unflinching. "The boy was asleep in the Harrowing Chamber when we arrived. We had no idea he was there until we were leaving—he followed us all the way to the city limits, and by the time we realized he was behind us, there was no time to stop."
"So we brought him with us," the redheaded woman explains, her voice crisp and professional and now devoid of humor. "If you don't need him now, we'll kill him, but we didn't see the reason in taking out a test subject that walked right into our hands without a fight."
"I have a test subject," Carn says, gesturing at Hawke. She lifts her chin and says nothing. "But…" Carn adds, more slowly, "there's no cause not to reward a reasonable initiative."
"Thank you, sir," the redhead says, and when Carn waves a short, squat man with a jingling purse hurries up to count out shining gold sovereigns into each proffered hand. They share delighted glances—whatever Carn has added, it is more than sufficient—and then Silas yanks the boy forward until he is kneeling beside Hawke and binds his wrists together. "Be good," he says, not a suggestion but an order, and then, at last, they are left alone.
The boy's eyes are wide in the dark, wide enough that she can see the whites like bone as his eyes roll towards her. "What's happening?" he asks in a barely-controlled whisper. "Where are we? What do they want?"
"I'm not entirely sure," she tells him honestly. Across the fire, the third member of Silas's group, a tall woman with ash-blonde hair cropped close to her head, hands Carn a long and slender package wrapped in brown butcher cloth. "Did you see what they were doing in the Harrowing Chamber?"
"No," he says. "I was hiding from—someone, and then I fell asleep. And then the next thing I knew, they were in there, whispering, and I didn't know what else to do but follow them when they left."
"Welcome to the Black Hoods, then," Hawke says with a quiet snort, and then the boy buries his face in his tied hands and she winces. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. Can—will you tell me your name?"
He drags his hands down his face so that he speaks through his fingers. "Aleron," he says.
"Well, nice to meet you. I'm Hawke."
He looks at her, then, full-on and wide-eyed—although this time it is from surprise rather than fear. "Hawke? The Hawke? The Champion?"
"I'm afraid so."
His eyes go to her hands, unbandaged and bleeding openly; to her swollen and discolored cheek; to the dirty mess of her clothes. "Oh, Andraste," he groans. "I'm going to die."
"Stop that," Hawke snaps, nettled and hurt. "Look. As long as I'm here, I'm going to do everything I can to keep you safe and whole, Aleron. Okay? You stay behind me and you don't draw their attention, and we're both going to get out of this alive. Do you understand?"
He offers her a pale, shaky smile, but it is twisted by the long scar running down his cheek and does little to soften the hunted fear just barely hidden in his eyes. She wishes she could touch his braided hair or hold his hand or even offer him a simple hug, but the last thing she wants to do is frighten the boy more with her grotesque, throbbing fingers, so instead she settles for nudging his knee with her own. "Buck up, Aleron," she murmurs. "Don't give up hope yet."
"Yes, ser," he says again, more quietly, and then his eyes drop to his knees, and he does not look up again until the woman with the ash-blonde hair thrusts a wooden bowl and spoon at him.
"You're sharing tonight," she says curtly; a man with a bucket of unidentifiable gruel follows after her, spooning the white, lumpy mash into their bowl without once looking at their faces. "Eat up."
They eat, quickly, and share little more than a single sideways glance at the tastelessness of the food. When they are finished, the woman with the ash-blonde hair collects their bowl and spoon, tossing them into a communal wash pile, and then she and Delia join Silas and Carn in a tense but quiet conversation on the other side of the fire. Carn still holds the long, thin package; every now and then he touches the end of it with two fingers, as if to reassure himself that it is still there.
"What do you think they're going to do?" Aleron asks again. Hawke can think of nothing to say.
The rest of the meal passes swiftly and in silence, and by the time the last bowl has been added to the pile night has fallen in earnest cover, stifling all the trees outside their tiny orange circle in formless shadow. The raiders sit patiently, quietly, their eyes little more than gimlet pinpricks in the dark; Hawke feels their stares on her, and on Aleron, and when one man lets out a quiet, lewd laugh at his neighbor's mutter, she cannot stop her shudder.
And then Carn unwraps at last the brown cloth from the long, thin package in his hands, and she cannot move at all.
"Listen," she whispers, when she can force her tongue to work again. In the corner of her eye she sees Aleron's face turn towards her, pale but not terrified, and she prays he has not seen. "Something is going to happen here soon, and it's not going to be good. For either of us. But you're going to get out of it alive, okay?"
He swallows. "How?"
She thinks of her fleeting plans of escape, briefly, and consigns them to the fire. "I have a knife. A small one. It won't be much, but I'm going to give it to you, and the first moment you get the opportunity, I want you to cut the rope and run."
He tugs at his dark braid nervously. "What if an opportunity doesn't come?"
Carn glances at her through the firelight and she smiles, meeting his eyes without baring her fear in her face. "Then I'll make one."
"Where do I go? Do I hide in the woods? Should I try to help you escape?"
"No," she snaps, startled, and two of the nearer raiders glance her way in warning. Hawke sucks in a breath, and then two, and forces her voice to lower. "No. You go east. Back to Kirkwall. You have to get back inside the city, Aleron, and when you do you are going to find an elf in Hightown named Fenris and tell him what happened here. Do you understand?"
"Kirkwall, elf, Fenris. Hawke, ser, I've never been outside the Circle, I don't know--"
"I know," she says. "I know. It's going to be hard. I'm sorry I'm putting this all on you—believe me, if there was another way to get you out of this safely, I'd do it, but there isn't and I can't. I'm sorry. You're just going to have to trust me. Okay?"
"I don't even know how to find east!"
Hawke checks her first response of blind and bitter frustration. The boy is Circle-raised and –taught, and she supposes finding one's way in the woods at night is not top priority—all the same, she has to swallow several inappropriate curses before she can speak. The two raiders who'd glanced at her earlier are watching again, and Hawke covers her face with both hands as if in despair. "Straight behind us," she says into her palms. "No, don't look! Keep the campfire directly behind you and go as far that way as you can until you can't see the light anymore, and then find somewhere safe to wait until dawn."
"And then what?"
"And then you follow the sun."
"Okay. Okay. I can do that." He offers her a small, brave smile. "Hightown, elf, Fenris. I'll find him."
"Good boy," she says, genuinely touched, and prays she isn't sending him to his death. "Show him the knife. He'll know it's from me."
"Will you be all right without it?"
She thinks of the thing in Carn's hands. "I doubt it would make much difference."
Aleron nods, and the next time the two raiders look away Hawke fishes the knife out of its hidden sheath in her boot and slips it inside Aleron's long sleeve. He glances at the hilt tucked inside the top loop of rope on his wrist, just hidden by his white cuff, and then, clearly gritting his teeth, he lifts his head to meet her eyes. "Hawke," he says. "I'm going to rescue you."
She quirks a smile, ignoring the twinge in her damaged jaw. "I'm counting on it."
In the end, they give her little more than an hour.
The time is spent in silence as they wait for night to deepen, for the last of any weary travelers to pass beyond even the hope of hearing. The raiders sharpen their weapons, restring and wax their bows, watch Hawke and Aleron with little interest as she funnels the last of her healing magic into her hands and mouth; the forest-thick peace is broken only once, just before midnight, when Carn gives the order to build up the fire. The white, fresh-split logs do not last long before blazing into orange and glowing coals; when an errant breeze blows hot into her face, a push of fear surges up so fast in Hawke's throat that she nearly chokes.
"It won't be long, Aleron," she whispers.
He says, "I'll be ready."
Through the heat-wavering air, she sees Carn lay his long, iron toy at the edge of the fire. She swallows, wishing she were ready too.
When Carn begins to walk towards her, her mouth goes dry. The hours before had dragged on for so long and suddenly she wishes they'd dragged longer, that they'd lasted forever, because then she would not know what she is about to face—her heart skips forward a beat, and then two, and then bursts into a wild, racing gallop that drums inside her ribs in heady, uneven thumps. She must not show fear—she must be brave, for Aleron—and then she thinks too late she should have warned him, should have asked him what he knew about—but—
But Carn has his hand on her chin, strong-fingered and pinching until her eyes meet his, and there is no more time.
"Bring her," he says, and somewhere in the distant trees a nightingale lets loose a ripple of sweet, sorrowed song.
The world narrows to pinpoints of brilliant color and sound: the toes of her boots in the dirt, scuffed and torn until the leather is almost gone; the knuckles of Delia's hands popping as they wrap around her arms to lift her to her unsteady feet; the glint of firelight on the flat of Teeth's drawn blade, flickering in time to the wounded throb in her mouth, in her fingertips.
Oh, Maker, she thinks, in the blank clarity of utter terror. Maker, help me. Help me. Help me.
Then Delia's muscled arms shove her to her knees by the bonfire, inches from the long thin line of iron with one end propped into the heart of the flames, and she cannot think even that.
A hand twists into her hair, dragging her head back until her eyes stare straight up into the dark and unmoving leaves above her. How cruel, in this last moment, to not even give her a breeze, or one glimpse of a white star—
"I want your name."
Carn's voice is the voice of a river, of one stone sliding against another: low and without meaning. She says nothing, her thoughts circling like birds without a perch, her eyes flitting helplessly from shadow to empty shadow—and then a palm cracks sharply across her face and her mind snaps into the present. "Your name," Carn says again. He has trimmed his beard of the scalded bits, she notices.
The word comes thin, but Carn lifts a heavy brow. "Consider it a favor," he says at last. "I'll allow you to keep it in courtesy."
Hawke laughs, then, and blinks up at the trees. "Small favors."
"Your name, now. Or we'll give you one we like better."
She doesn't know why she doesn't tell him who she is, especially when she knows that shortly she will have no choice in the matter, will not even care enough to think twice before giving it. But now, here, in this bright and flaming moment, she has the choice, one last decision to make for herself, and she makes it without hesitation. She tells him only, "Marian."
Carn touches his fist to his heart. "Pleased to meet you," he says without a smile, and then Delia releases her hair to push her flat to her back on the dry pine needles of the forest floor. The ash-blonde woman pulls her still-tied hands above her head and drives a stake through two of the knots, pinning her hard in place; then she, with Teeth's help, moves to tie each ankle to two more stakes stretched almost too far apart to bear. Hawke drives her head back into the dirt, almost blind with fear—but then, like the eye of a storm, she sees an inverted Aleron half-crouched at the edge of the circle of light, unguarded in the commotion, and his eyes are riveted on her like steel.
She mouths, go.
He flinches and she shapes the word again; he shakes his head, wide-eyed, but she will not let him lose this chance to escape—she yanks hard on her bonds and screams in unfeigned frustration, the sound shattering the silence of the woods around them, and his bow-wielding guard turns towards her instead of his charge.
"Shut her up, shut her up!"
"It doesn't matter, we're more than a day from anything important."
"And when the wolves come to find her, you want to be the first to fight them?"
"Shut up, girl—"
A foot drops heavily into her stomach, knocking the breath from her in a voiceless sigh until she thinks there will never be enough air again. Still, she finds Aleron's eyes—she says, one last time, go!—and at last, her knife slides from his sleeve, at last his face hardens with resolve, and when the raider nearest him turns fully towards the fire and the captive beside it she sees Aleron's wild-eyed resolve take root before he backs away into the darkness.
She catches one wisp of firelight on a messy black braid, and then he is gone.
The woods close in behind him as if he has never been there. Hawke is giddy with relief and terror, her eyes fixed to the place where he vanished, and she watches as the raiders fail to notice his escape for as long as she can until her upside-down vision is obscured by an enormous black shoe.
She glances up, and up, and up, and finds at last among the dim branches the close-shaved head of the giant. She laughs, mindlessly, and he folds himself in half until he blots out even her view of the trees. "Be quiet," he says, and his voice is rougher than she expects, as if something deep in his throat had once been broken and healed poorly. "Or I will silence you."
His eyes narrow at her flippancy, but she can control her tongue as easily as she can leap through stone in this moment, and instead of the blow she expects, his hands, each larger than her head, come to rest on either side of her face. She blinks, surprised and confused by this sudden display of comfort—but then he goes to his knees over her tight-stretched arms, one after the other like a landslide, and his hands tighten around her face, and she realizes that he does not mean to comfort but to confine.
"Maker." The word slips out in plea, and in prayer, and when the giant's face does not change Hawke clenches her eyes shut to block it out. Better not to see it coming, better not to know the moment she will be stripped of everything that is herself—why hadn't her father told her more about this, why hadn't she listened to what he did say? When did she decide that Tranquil was for other people, for weaker people, for people with no training to protect them and no friends to keep them safe? Why hadn't she asked Anders when she'd had the chance—of all people, he would have known, would have told her what to expect and what to beware; and yet she'd never asked, even after Karl—and now, all she knows to look for is flame and the flash of agony.
She hears the iron rod slide free from wood, from fire; feels a sudden flush of too-hot air on her chest and her throat—and her forehead.
"Marian," says Carn's voice just above her, and she opens her eyes to the sun.
It burns in her eyes, the little metal star, white and blazing and trembling with heat. Each curving ray is etched in crisp, even lines, each point honed to a needle-thin precision, allowing Hawke to see the exquisite and delicate craftsmanship in Carn's stolen brand of Tranquility. Her breath comes short and painful, as sharp as the smell of sulphur and hot iron in her nose, as bitter as the salt tears that force their way free in helpless dread. The sun fills her vision completely, eclipsing in its fire the woods and the giant's unyielding hands and even the face of Carn behind it; she is caught in its endless circle like a ship with no guiding stars in the long night, wreathed in the flame of its glowing golding edges, drawn into its white-blazing ring with all the laughing horror of a madwoman.
She realizes, distantly, that the camp is silent, all eyes turned to her the way she, flower-like, turns her eyes to the light.
She says, "Please. No."
Carn twists his fingers around the leather-wrapped grip of the brand and says, "Be still, Marian."
Her mind is silent as a stone, grave-empty and impossible to fathom, dark as a river that moves, unhurried, through its path deep beneath the earth.
In that silence, the sun sears home.
This pain is not the pain of her fingers when the nails were torn away, slow to begin and then rising like the tide; this is instant and overwhelming, an agony as brilliant and piercing as any she has ever known. Each pointed sunray bites deep into her skin as if thorned, as if meant to brand itself into her very skull; she smells burning flesh and burning hair and the impossible knowledge that it is her own is too much to bear—she wants desperately to scream or go mad or both, but the giant's hands are as unyielding as granite, and her arms and legs still stretched too far by the stakes, and the pain rolls on and on in cresting waves that build upon each other until she thinks that surely he has split her head in two with the force of it.
Carn leans above her, both hands wrapped around the haft of the iron brand that presses into her skin. Her eyes will not focus properly, her muscles rigid and cramping in anguish, hot tendrils of red flame uncoiling themselves across her eyes, her cheeks, her throat, as if her forehead simply cannot handle the pain, as if a well of naked fire has flooded and spilled over the stone edge. A thin line of smoke lifts away from her skin, curls around the rod Carn holds, disappears into a field of sparks that flashes into the dark.
She is so afraid.
And that, in the end, is what decides her. The weeping is not a thing she can stop, and neither is the pain so great that it becomes painless, but she is Hawke, Champion of Kirkwall, and if nothing else she will not go into Tranquility with the limping, flinching gasp of a coward. She will not be afraid. Oh, it hurts—but she will not—she will not—
She thinks, suddenly, of Fenris.
A clear, cold light catches hold in the center of her mind, taking the place of the flame's heart as completely as a river spreads from bank to bank, edging back the fever with the cool and whispered rush of running water. The panic eases and Hawke wonders, vaguely, if this is the first Tranquil touch on her heart—but there is something in this peace that is something different, something whole instead of the black and yawning void she had expected, and she clings to it with both hands until its cold touch has swept through her like a tide to leave her trembling.
The brand lifts away from her skin. The sunburst still burns, clean and gold, in her eyes, but she does not see it—she sees Fenris instead, Fenris as he was the last time she'd seen him: one hand raised to her cheek in the dimness of his home, the other on her back, his mouth half-curved in a surprised smile at some joke she had made. His hand had slid into her hair, then, and her own around his waist, and he had pulled her mouth to his easily and without reservation.
Yes, she thinks. Let that be her choice. If she is drying up under the unrelenting light, let her last memories be not of brands but of bright gladness; not of pain and twisted flame, but of Fenris, smiling, his eyes so green they hurt.
Let the last thing she feels be love.
The sun dims. She falls back, into the dark.
Hawke wakes up.
That in itself is a surprise; what surprises her more is the faded ache in her head and her fingers and her mouth—even the bone-deep bruise left by Delia's boot has eased, and when she rolls her shoulders back against the crisp pine needles under her there is almost no pain at all. Carefully, without opening her eyes, she rubs the pad of her thumb over the place where a fingernail used to be. There is a thin layer of a bandage over it—she smells valerian and meadowsweet when she pushes it aside—but though the flesh is tender and unused to touch, there is no screaming sting, no sensitive crush of red-edged hurt to take away her senses.
Hawke lets out a breath, relieved. And then—her eyes fly open, or try to, because she is relieved—and then startled—and then afraid when she realizes she cannot open her eyes, cannot see anything under the binding of bandages and the heavy hot press of black fabric over her face—and her heart leaps at her fear because she can taste it and the shock under it—can feel it—can feel.
The Rite has not worked.
She doesn't know why and cares less, caught up in the giddy swell of glorious emotion. She is afraid and furious and exultant and so relieved her heart aches—she tries again to open her eyes and again her effort fails, but this time she catches the wafting scent of valerian, and realizes through the muddled chaos of her mind that the bandages over her eyes are meant to heal and not impair.
So. They do not know either. This gives Hawke pause for the first time; if they have decided to allow her wounds to knit and her strength to return, they do not realize their captive is not the threatless Tranquil they presume, do not know the magic is still singing sweetly under her skin. She has the advantage, now, the strength of surprise on her side—and all she needs is the opportunity to use it. But not now, though, and not without caution—the moment they discover their brand has failed will be the moment she is branded again, or killed outright, and she does not dare risk blatant assault with the raiders so numerous and herself still so very weak. No, if she is to escape she must wait, and plan, and keep herself as empty and as calm as they expect her to be until the striking moment comes.
Once, when she was a child, she had gone with her father to the creek that ran along the edge of their fields in Lothering. She'd found a stone in its clear waters, smooth and round and paler than its fellows, and she had plucked it from the pebbled bed and brought it to her father like the treasure she meant it to be. He'd accepted it with gravitas, shown her the perfect glass-smooth polish of its surface, told her of how the river takes up the hard and knife-edged stones into itself, turning them over and over in its gentle currents until even the roughest places are worn away, until the stone is left so sleek and clean that even water slides around it like the wind: untouchable.
The river has come again, and this time Hawke must become the stone. She must be Tranquil in everything but name.
Her breathing slows inside the black hood; her muscles ease their anxious tautness, as if the realization by itself has begun to close over her heart already. She must be small and smooth and pale, gloss-bright and without scars, turning over and over without resistance. She must close her eyes, her mouth, her ears: a stone does not watch its masters with fury. A stone does not speak easily.
"She's waking up," says a voice near her head, and Hawke goes limp. How much of her struggle has Delia seen—how much of her gasping breaths can be called alarm without fear?
A hand takes her roughly by the shoulder, pulling her to a sitting position before tugging the hood away from her head. The world grows lighter, though the bandages that wrap around her forehead still hold her eyes closed; her hair settles around her shoulders in a tangled mess. A stone is not vain, she tells herself when her fingers twitch to straighten it; a stone is not curious. Her head is throbbing again, a deep, dull pounding that knots at the center of her forehead and spreads, wing-like, towards her temples.
Another voice comes from her left, older and with authority: Silas. "Should we tell them we've got the merchandise?"
"Not yet," says Carn, directly above her, and it is only the stone-smooth walls rising around her heart that keeps her from flinching out of fright. "Let's find out if it worked, first."
Delia, then, irritated. "I told you you should have brought the lyrium."
"We were already taking a big-enough risk with the branding iron! They told us the lyrium was only for sedation and the pain—and besides, look at her." A broad hand grasps her face by the chin, lifts it to the sky. "Does this look like a failure to you?"
"We'll see," Carn says, though his voice is pleased. "Where's—here you are. Come get those Void-taken bandages of yours off her face. I want to see the mark."
"Yes, sir," says Teeth, and a moment later she feels his hands on her hair, on her ears, and the world, layer by layer, grows brighter. A stone does not feel gratitude—but the smell of valerian is strong, and even through her headache Hawke knows she owes her healing to him.
The last of the bandages drops away. Hawke, Tranquil, opens her eyes.
"Maker," someone breathes. "Look at that."
A breath of air stirs between the trees, brushing across her forehead as if in benediction. Hawke knows the shape of the mark intimately—still, to know that it rests between her eyes, flaring and permanent, a mark of both her magic and her failure, is another thing entirely. In one wild, ludicrous moment, she finds herself hoping it isn't crooked.
She lifts her head to look at Carn, swallowing down her hysteria. His heavy eyebrows are raised, his lips pressed tight together under the close-cut beard, and his falcon's eyes are hooded over with unreadable expectation. "Well," he says, "the scabbing's clean, anyway. Marian."
She says, "Yes."
"How do you feel?"
There are a few nervous titters behind him, including the ash-blonde woman who'd brought Aleron to the camp, but Carn does not smile. Hawke pauses, as if considering, and says, "My head hurts."
He smiles then, without humor. "I imagine so. Do some magic for me, apostate."
Hawke remains still for a moment, then permits herself mild confusion without surprise. Her heart is beating so rapidly it aches. "I cannot feel the Fade."
Silas and Delia both look to Carn for confirmation, but he gestures instead at the giant standing just to Hawke's right. She looks over without interest and his eyes meet hers—and then his Silence crashes over her in a smothering blanket, black and choking. A stone does not resist the river, but turns and smoothes with the currents, and Hawke lets the Silence wrap around her without complaint. Her magic gutters out like a blown flame.
She turns her head from the giant to Carn as if perplexed, and says nothing.
"There," says one of the men behind Carn. "See? It worked. It worked. Andraste's pyre, we're going to be rich—"
"Tranquil slaves are only valuable if they're actually Tranquil," Delia snaps. "We need to watch her for a little longer. It could be a trick."
"Her eyes look dead," says Silas, but Delia does not look convinced. "The Tranquil don't lie. Ask her something."
Carn takes a step closer. "Give me your name, Marian. Your whole name."
A stone does not lie, and neither does it falter—but is this a trick? Do they already know? She knows the Tranquil have their own volition, twisted as it is, but she cannot remember if they have ever disobeyed a command so simple without cause, and if this is a test she will have failed it already. She settles for calm dissent. "I do not wish to."
"Tranquil spitfire," someone mutters, and the laughter chokes off at Delia's glare.
Carn is more gentle. "Why not?"
Here, the truth. "You took me against my will. I am well-known in Kirkwall, and I would not like to endanger my friends."
"That's sweet. And I can understand your reluctance. But the thing is, Marian, if you don't tell me, I will find them and hunt them down myself, and there will not be a safe place in the Free Marches for anyone who ever called you 'friend.' Now. Your name."
There is nothing she can say to that. She opens her mouth—and the choice is taken from her completely when a raider barrels into the camp, stumbling and panting and shouting for Carn. Hawke recognizes the redheaded woman from Silas's group.
Carn swivels on his heel; at his gesture, Teeth steps behind Hawke's kneeling figure to stop her running, as if she could control the trembling in her knees enough even to stand. "Did you find him?" Carn asks; the woman bends at the waist, one hand braced on her knee as she sucks in air, but she reaches out the other towards Carn—and Hawke's heart stops.
Dangling from her fist is a long, messy braid of black hair.
A stone does not grieve, Hawke thinks desperately. A stone does not weep. She wipes her face into a porcelain mask, immobile and unaffected, and around her heart the wall rises a little higher. Aleron—
"But there's more," the woman gasps as Carn tosses the braid into the dwindling campfire. "This woman. The apostate."
"What about her?"
The woman's eyes fix on Hawke's face in fear and fury. "She's the fucking Champion of Kirkwall."
Hawke decides, later, that this is the moment when she is in the most jeopardy. Every eye in the camp turns to her with wide, angry eyes and fresh suspicion, hands going to blades and bows alike because surely no Champion could ever be taken so easily and with so little loss of life. Hawke offers no response, no reaction; she does not even acknowledge the statement until Carn glances at her over his shoulder.
"Is this true?"
Hawke does not hesitate. "Yes."
"Then your full name."
"Marian Hawke," she says, unblinking. "I am also called the Champion of Kirkwall."
"Thank you for your honesty," Carn says with a thin, dangerous smile, and then he turns to the rest of the raiders. "We're moving camp. Pack up. Keep it quiet." He takes two steps, makes a fist in Teeth's red shirt. "You take care of the Champion," he says. "She disappears like the boy and so do you, you understand?"
"Yes, sir," Teeth says, and he does not smile as he ties Hawke's wrists together with a short, stout rope. He tucks the discarded black hood into his belt with a warning glance, though Hawke has little intention of fleeing yet, and does not look away from her as they wait. The raiders move swiftly to work with an efficiency that even Hawke envies, and in a matter of minutes the bedrolls are packed and tied safely to the rest of the bags, the weapons out and in hand, ready to travel. Carn takes the lead and Hawke is placed at his elbow, and with little fanfare, they move deeper into the Planasene Forest.
They take no trail that she can see, weaving west between thick-trunked trees with little logic, turning arbitrarily to the left or right for a thousand paces before heading off in a new direction. But a stone is not curious and she does not ask questions, and after the third hour of the same tall pines and white oaks, Carn calls at last for them to set up camp.
Hawke sinks onto the lip of a jutting boulder and does not try to hide her exhaustion. The soles of her feet throb with each heartbeat, a blister on the outside of her heel pulsing painfully, and the sweat dripping over the unhealed burn on her forehead stings like vinegar. She cannot treat it herself without her magic; neither can she tolerate the heady anguish, but just as she steels herself to stand and ask for help, a hand inserts itself into her vision holding a poultice that smells of valerian and meadowsweet.
She looks up—without surprise, she must not be surprised—and sees Teeth standing above her. "For your head."
Hawke presses it between her eyes without hesitation, not even pausing to prepare herself for the pain of the herbs against her raw-flayed skin. She does not thank him—a stone is not grateful, she tells herself, but she knows herself well enough to recognize spite—but he watches her all the same, his brow creased, and when at last the numbing effect of the valerian begins to soothe her burn, he dips one hand into his belt pouch and fishes out a small metal canteen. Her hands are still tied together and raised to her head, but rather than set her free, he lifts the canteen to her lips with his own hands and tips it forward, letting a thin cool trickle of water slide into her parched mouth.
She swallows until the canteen is empty, and then she grits her teeth and says politely, "Thank you."
"You're welcome," he says, disconcerted and, she thinks, displeased, and he turns without further comment to help set up the rest of the camp.
Hawke does not know what to make of this, even with the full faculty of her emotions, but the water has made her pliant and more comfortable and in the end she cannot bring herself to care. She does not even react when Delia drops heavily to the boulder beside her, the long tail of her yellow hair rippling down her back. She leans back and sighs, propping herself on her hands, and tips her head to the sky. "I'm not buying this, you know."
Hawke looks at her in profile, her tanned face turned up to the sun, and says nothing. Delia glances at her out of the corner of her eye. "What, no clever comeback? No witty and impassioned defense?" She pauses a moment, then laughs. "Or passionless, I guess. Poor little mage, lost all her dreams at once."
"Would you like me to convince you?"
"And how would you do that?"
Hawke considers her for a moment, lowering the poultice to her lap, then says, frankly, "I do not think anything would convince you but time."
"But you don't think I'm the kind of person to give it."
"I do not think you are kind."
Delia gives her an appraising look that would be more appropriate directed towards a stray dog. "Now that," she says at last, "is really astute. Really clever, and piercing, and all those things you're supposed to say when someone's seen right through you. Top-notch, that mind of yours, isn't it?" She smiles and Hawke senses too late that she has trodden on a sleeping snake, ignored the warning hiss of danger as only the fearless can. Delia reaches out one hand and cups her cheek, gently. "Watch yourself, little girl," she murmurs, and her thumb strokes along the lower lid of Hawke's eye. "You give me one reason, and I'll tear your heart out of your chest. I won't even need Carn's permission."
It would be a frightening thought, but she knows someone who has torn hearts from chests before, and as sincere as this woman is she holds no candle to Fenris at his most furious. Hawke says only, "I would prefer to stay alive."
Delia pushes up from the rock. "Then watch your step."
Hawke does not answer, watching instead as Delia disappears into the rest of the raiders, her yellow hair swinging back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
Hawke pays for her insolence the next evening. She should have realized it in retrospect, should have cared more that she'd stung a sleeping beast and woken it; instead she watches Delia whisper in Carn's ear all day with casual disinterest, more preoccupied with her slow-healing wounds and her hidden grief over Aleron's death to pay the attention she should.
And more preoccupied, too, with the small cluster of spindleweed she finds at the base of one of the nearby oaks. Spindleweed for sorrow, her mother had always said—but it is the sorrow she needs it for, now, and the numbing grey fog that has always crept over her mind when she's used too much. It takes only a moment to convince Teeth it is an old folk remedy for swelling, a moment more to brew a small and potent tea in a pot over the campfire. Teeth watches her the entire time but does not object, even when she pours the rest of the tea into an empty vial to preserve it; he does not fear poison, apparently, when she is the only one who will drink it.
The tea is strong enough that it will take less than a sip to be effective. She guesses she has about a week's worth in the vial, maybe a little more—although, Hawke thinks, if she is still here in a week, she will have other problems to worry about.
She sits quietly when she is finished, in the way a stone rests quietly in the clear waters of a riverbed, and waits for the fog to settle. The camp moves around her in a babbling blur; guards are posted, men forage for dinner, and Delia bends her graceful head to Carn's, her eyes on Hawke and her lips moving in quiet, vicious litany.
And then dusk falls, and Delia comes for her.
She is dozing lightly, out of the way of the camp's bustle, when she is awoken by gentle hands and the white flash of Teeth's smile. "Carn wants you," he says, his light, wavy hair washed almost colorless in the evening haze. She stands and follows without comment and without protest, and when they reach Carn's makeshift court on the other side of the fire she is floating pleasantly on the airy cushion of her spindleweed tea. Delia stands beside him, one of her small throwing knives turning over and over in her fingers.
"Delia thinks you're not the genuine article," Carn begins without preamble. Somewhere off to the side, Teeth settles onto a fallen log and stretches his long, lanky legs out in front of him.
"She told me so yesterday as well."
"Is that so?" He scratches his beard, pondering her in silence, and then crosses his arms. "Any defense?"
"I told her that nothing would convince her but time."
Delia curls her lip, but Carn looks amused. "And so it might. But the thing is, Marian Hawke, that's the one thing we're short on. We're meeting the buyers in six days in Cumberland, and I think you'll understand if I find myself a bit…hesitant to deliver merchandise I can't personally vouch for. Makes for bad business."
A stone is not afraid of implications. "I am the merchandise."
"There are people willing to pay a small fortune for a slave that can't be unhappy. That can't revolt, or incite an uprising, or keep an enemy's secret. It's just until now that the Chantry's been the only ones with means of making them, and as you know, they keep their Tranquil on a tight leash."
Carn smiles again. "Until you."
Hawke folds her hands together carefully. "I see."
"I don't doubt you do. So if you don't mind, I'd like to take the opportunity to ask you a few questions. To make sure I'm delivering what I say I'm delivering."
"I am at your disposal," Hawke says, and barely suppresses a wince. That had been too close to her old self for comfort—but neither Carn nor Delia seems alarmed by her lapse. Careful, careful—
"Let's start with the basics," says Carn. "How old are you?"
"The fifteenth of Harvestmere."
"Your parents' names."
"Leandra and Malcolm Hawke."
"Your siblings. Are they alive or dead?"
"Bethany is dead. Carver is a member of the Grey Wardens."
Delia makes a short, irritated noise and Carn glances at her. "Something wrong?"
"These questions are a little…easy."
"And you'd like to take over."
Her eyes flash in the dusk and for a moment her face holds the hunger of a wolf, baying for blood in the dark. "Yes," she breathes, and it is only the fog-thick muddle of the tea that keeps Hawke from breaking out in a cold sweat.
Carn's gaze turns to Hawke, and then to the shadowed figure of Silas lounging by the campfire. Silas nods, his eyes lit like twin embers in the firelight; Delia lets out a thin and hissing sigh of satisfaction and stands, moving forward until she stops only a handsbreadth from Hawke. Her eyes flick across Hawke's face, up to the brand on her forehead, down to her placid mouth as if she does not know which to strike first; then she says, "You have a lover in Kirkwall."
There is no chance to dissemble, no recourse other than the truth. "Yes."
"An elf," says Delia softly, "with white hair."
"Tell me his name. Tell me everything."
Hawke swallows and it feels like scraping sandpaper down the inside of her throat; she opens her mouth and it feels as final as a death-blow. "His name is Fenris," she says without inflection, and when Delia asks she answers.
Varric's network of rumors had been even more thorough than she'd realized; Delia knows almost everything about them, from their first meeting in the grim aftermath of battle in the alienage to their hesitant, uncertain flirtations in the earliest days of their friendship. She even probes into the tender wound of their first night and the disastrous morning that followed, taking almost a vicious satisfaction in Hawke's impassive recitation of the loneliness, embarrassment, and regret that had followed.
Then Delia turns to their too-recent reconciliation with all the delicacy of a cudgel, and if it were not for the tea's influence Hawke would throttle her with her bare hands.
A stone does not fear interrogation; a Tranquil is not capable of taking offense, and Delia does not take any pains to spare it. Hawke doesn't even have the luxury of declining to answer, not with the questions harmless to everything but her spirit.
The fire grows with the dark and their audience grows with it, men and women trickling in behind Carn's quiet, seated figure to observe the evening's entertainment. It becomes harder and harder to ignore the jeers and stifled laughter when Delia's questions grow coarser, when she pries open without mercy the secret places of her heart that until now had belonged only to Fenris.
Carn neither encourages nor stops his subordinate, sitting only in silent judgment as Hawke's most precious memories are shredded into bright streaks of shame by Delia's mockery. She finds herself forced to use her hands to measure out lengths, to touch her body like a beast's as Delia's eyes glitter with cold amusement, her questions more intimate than Isabela's ever were and with none of her easy charm. She can see Silas's silver hair glinting as he turns his head away from her detached and uncensored responses, catches a flash of movement in the corner of her eye as Teeth pushes up from the log in sudden agitation to stalk away into the night.
In the end, the only solution is to close herself away, safely, in the stone.
It is easier than Hawke expects, to step outside herself and leave her body to the unkind mercy of the woman with the yellow hair. She sees her mouth working, shaping words, her eyes blinking in slow Tranquility—but there is no threat of shame's flush staining her cheeks, now, no possibility the perspiration on her forehead will be from anything but the fire. She curls her conscious mind into itself, away from the too-bright light of Delia's eyes, and draws the cool smooth walls of the river stone around her heart.
Delia is not the only one to try her in the end; Silas does too, and the ash-blonde woman, and a number of the unnamed raiders behind them, turning over every part of her life like a surgeon with a hot knife, as faceless and impersonal as the steel-shielded templars she has guarded against since she was old enough to run. They ask her about her friends, especially Isabela and Fenris, enjoying the personality of the former and the peculiar voyeurism of her relationship with the latter, and they do not hesitate to venture opinions on the others as well. Aveline suffers the most, guardswoman that she is; Anders does not fare well either under their derision, with his dedication and his focus, though the raiders take a shine to Merrill and Varric as if even her droning descriptions cannot quell the life in them. The questions go on without end, first leading one way and then another—but always, without exception, they turn back to her in the end.
They do not limit their tests to questions, either. They pinch her, strike her, tease her bruises and her scars with dagger-tips; one man drives the knobbed hilt of his sword into the outside of her knee until she falls, painful but undamaging blows meant to humiliate rather than harm.
Hawke answers them all, suffers them all without emotion and without reservation, baring herself to their torture and their scorn with as little reluctance as a wind-caught leaf at the end of autumn, dead and brown and with no substance at all. Only stone—only stone—
"Enough," Carn says at last near midnight. Most of the watchers are asleep; Hawke might as well be, her eyelids drooping in unfeigned pain and exhaustion. Teeth emerges, looking harried, from the shadows of the trees; Delia is pale where she sits near the fire.
Carn stands, stretches his broad shoulders as if he has been the one laid open on the block. "I'm satisfied. No more questions. And Silas," he adds, and the man is at his elbow in an instant. "Send a message out first thing in the morning. Tell them we have the merchandise."
"The rest of you," he says, his lips curling in a small, brutal smile as he comes to stand at Hawke's side. "Hands off."
The raiders that are still awake nod; she returns to herself long enough to say, quietly, "I am tired."
"I know," says Carn, and gestures at Teeth. "Get her to bed. We move in the morning."
Teeth nods and takes Hawke's arm; she follows him without complaint and collapses on the bedroll he steers her to without even bothering to remove her boots. She is aware of him settling near her—too near—but the awareness does not last long in the winter-tide pull of her exhaustion, and in the space of two breaths she is asleep.
That night, she does not dream.
It does not take long for Hawke to settle into the routine of her new, lightless life. The Black Hoods leave her alone, mostly, after that one terrible night of interrogation, though she suspects that is due as much to the influence of Teeth's protective hovering as her own show of Tranquility. She still has not learned his real name, the blue-eyed raider with the wavy blonde hair and the too-white smile, but she does learn, quickly, that for some unfathomable reason he finds himself attracted to her. It certainly isn't her sparkling personality, she thinks in a rare moment of wry lucidity; days of hard outdoor living have done her appearance no favors either. Still, his eyes linger too long on her face when he speaks, and his hands are too gentle with her hands when he changes her bandages, and his voice is too warm when he says her name: Marian.
A week ago she would have leapt at this chink in his defenses, this precious knowledge of his weakness kept and stored to use against him; now, she is only grateful for his kindness. She regrets that, when she allows herself regret.
Carn moves the camp twice more, each time taking them farther west into the woods towards Cumberland. Hawke knows fields better than forests, but she is familiar enough with tracking to realize their trail is almost invisible, the raiders too cautious and too experienced to leave a mark behind them. If Fenris and the others are coming, she thinks distantly, watching the ash-blonde woman scatter the ashes of the fire, they will have to keep their wits sharp.
Then she realizes she thought: if.
They camp that night a short walk from a lake tucked into the foothills of the Vimmark Mountains like an afterthought, too small even to appear on most maps. Hawke has not dreamed once in the six days since she pulled the stone walls around her heart; all the better for her survival, she decides, and does not allow herself sorrow. Teeth settles his bedroll close to hers as he does every night, and as she does every night, Hawke lies down facing away from him and closes her eyes.
Carn sends out a foraging party at dawn. They come back shortly after noon with a brown stag slung between them, its enormous eyes clouded in death, and before it disappears into the crowd of hands and flashing knives Hawke manages to count eight points. Soon, the smell of roasting meat fills the camp; her stomach grumbles despite herself, and when the ash-blonde woman delivers their all-too-meager portions, her gratitude is entirely real. Not even her daily swallow of spindleweed tea is enough to mute it.
When the meal is over, Delia approaches with the indifferent contempt she has shown Hawke since her questioning and thrusts a burlap sack full of dirty wooden dishes into her hands. "Go clean these," she says shortly. "And clean yourself while you're at it. Carn wants you presentable for the buyers."
She says, "Yes, Delia," and goes, barely noticing the woman holding Teeth back with other orders.
It takes less than ten minutes to reach the lake. The trees grow thicker and wilder for several hundred yards, deepening both the silence and the green-gold dimness of the forest floor; then, all at once, they break wide open into a brilliant blue sky above a bluer sunlit lake, soft clouds spun into white froth scudding their way across the mirrored surface of the water. Even Tranquil, Hawke cannot deny its beauty—but as she drops the sack of dishes and steps forward she feels her Tranquility unraveling, threadlike, with each dig of her boots into the pebble-studded sand. She hesitates a long moment, drawing in a breath as she looks behind her, once—and then, like a bird, she spreads her arms open to the sun and sets herself free.
It is only a temporary freedom, she knows, a second's flight from the iron bars of her self-made cage—but the water is clean and cold and she is utterly alone, for the first time in a long time, and even with the danger she cannot bring herself to spoil this chance. Her magic is singing under her skin.
Her boots come off first and her bare toes dig into the sand in unfettered delight; her torn brown trousers follow, spilling over the sand like a scab peeled away from healed skin. She tears her grey shirt over her head and flings it behind her with her smalls, and then, naked as the day she was born, she strides forward into the water.
Each step is a small triumph, a fresh victory that sets her heart beating faster and faster, some voiceless rhythm catching her up in the wind on her face, in the gentle currents tugging her feet forward, deeper. She lets out a brief, breathless laugh that breaks the silent air like glass—then a wood thrush calls out in answer, lifting its voice in a clear, sweet song that carries across the lake on the wind until she thinks her stone heart must crack through at the beauty of it. The thrush cries out again and she calls out to it in wordless longing—then it leaps from the leaves of a nearby pine and streaks across the sky, a sharp scratch of black wings that she follows sunward until it vanishes, burned away from her eyes into fire and light.
She dives beneath the surface.
The water is cold enough to take her breath away, cold enough to strip the ache from her bones and the flame from her forehead, and she does not surface until her lungs demand it and her breath bursts out in a storm of bubbles that blinds her. The surface breaks around her body like a storm, white and frothing; the ripples unwind from her wing-spread hands as if to carry her with them, to pull her out of herself into the wild, fierce joy of this place until there is nothing left of her human shell but bone-deep bruises and a sun-shaped scar.
She swims to shallower waters and stands, her heart racing, one hand pressed to her heart as if to ease its ache. She could do it. She could.
Fenris would understand of all people, surely, if she ended her struggles here. Now she is whole, and now she is aware of her hopeless future; if she took this Maker-given opportunity, here, and surrendered to the lake and its clarion call, sinking like a stone beneath its surface without intent to rise—surely, surely he would understand. Slavery, and life as a Tranquil—or—peace—
Did you ever think about killing yourself?
Hawke stops mid-step, startled at the sudden, faint memory.
I did not. To kill oneself is a sin in the eyes of the Maker.
Anders had scoffed—she had agreed with him, privately—
You believe that?
I try to.
Her breath comes too short, her chest aching for an entirely different reason. She realizes abruptly that she is weeping. Fenris—
Some things must be worse than slavery.
The water stills around her, placid and unconcerned, and for the first time since she was taken Hawke sees her own face. Her eyes are the same, if watery; her nose is the same, and her mouth still her mouth; and in the center of her forehead, livid red and raised against her skin, lies the Tranquil sun.
Some things are worse than death.
Her reflection shivers with a tear falling from her chin; another follows, and then Hawke drops to her knees under the water until she is hidden from the world, until she can scream out her fury and her pain and her grief in bright clouds of bubbles that burst, silently, into the sky. Some things are worse than death.
Anders was right, she thinks, lost in the emotions she has buried for so long that they do not fit coming out, scraping along her throat in shards of anguish and bitter rage to leave her raw. Anders was right, and some things are worse than death—
I try to.
You believe that?
I try to.
No. Fenris couldn't have known this, couldn't have possibly foreseen the impossibility of having to go back to the camp of her own volition, of willingly surrendering herself back into the hands of the raiders who'd taken her—
If there is a future to be had, I will walk into it gladly at your side.
She stands, suddenly, her eyes wide. Water streams from her body in clear rivulets, tracing down her skin as smoothly as a glass-polished stone.
If there is a future—
There is no future if she is dead.
Some things are worse than death—
If there is a future—
Hawke tips her head back, staring into the brilliant endless sky until the clouds blur and her toes go numb from the cold water. She blinks away the tears, looks down at her fingers, at the four nails missing and the soft pink flesh beneath them, brushes her tongue over the place where her tooth used to be; then she lifts a hand, gently, and touches her fingertips to the scar on her forehead, traces out the shape of it, finds each point where the sun's rays end and her own skin begins.
The wounds are tender. They are also starting to heal.
If there is a future—
It will be so hard to go back. She knows it will, knows too that the Tranquility will bind her tighter when she returns herself to it, when she surrenders to it of her own choice, that it will sink into her heart the way a vine sinks into a stone's crack to crush it. She can only trust that she will be found before it roots, and rescued before she breaks, and that her friends will not abandon her to the unknown masters awaiting her in Cumberland.
Hawke draws in a breath, slow, and deep, and steps from the water of the lake to the shore.
She chooses Fenris.
Sun-burnt and branded, she chooses to live.
She is empty by the time she reaches the camp.
It is something she expects, the slow seeping of that wild joy into the silence of Tranquility; still, each step back towards the camp seems to kill something inside her, dimming an already-weak flame into sparks—and then an ember—and then nothing. Hawke combs through her hair with her fingers before pulling it back into the low, utilitarian tail at the base of her neck, swallows her day's allotment of the mind-numbing spindleweed fog, slings the burlap sack of washed dishes over her shoulder without a sound. The sun is setting to her right, throwing long, spidery shadows across the pine needles at her feet and washing the tree trunks gold with the day's last hour of light.
Teeth meets her at the edge of the camp, his eyes pulled tight with worry that does not much ease when he sees her approach. "There you are," he says, his voice naked with relief, and curls his hands around her shoulders as if he would like to embrace her. "You were gone so long I started to worry."
"There were a lot of dishes to wash," she says, and waits patiently until he removes his hands and allows her to pass.
He follows her to the unlit ashes of the fire pit, where she kneels and begins pulling the wooden bowls and spoons from the sack to dry. "Your hair looks nice."
Her hair is still dripping wet and plastered to her neck. She says, "Thank you."
"Did you have a nice swim?"
"It was serviceable."
"I bet the water was cold."
"It was," Hawke says.
"Arden said like as not you'd drown yourself rather than come back."
"I considered it."
"I told him—what?"
Hawke glances up at his tone, her hands not stopping as they reach, over and over, into the sack. "I said that I considered it."
"I heard you," he almost snaps; then with a quick glance at the uninterested raiders around them, he pulls her to her feet and tugs her to the shadow of a dark-wooded pine. Hawke finds herself pinned against it, his palms pressed to the bark on either side of her head, his mouth so close she can feel each puff of air as he speaks. "Why would you do something like that?"
The fog is so thick in her head, the taste of spindleweed sharp and pungent on her tongue. "I thought that perhaps death would be preferable."
"How could you—how could you think something like that? Haven't I been kind to you?" One of his hands lifts from the tree, brushes across her forehead, drops gently to the tips of her fingers where the white bandages once were. "Haven't I shown I care?"
"Yes," says Hawke. "Thank you."
His blue eyes darken; his pale brows draw downward in irritation. "Is that all you have to say to me?"
There is nothing in her to care. She says, tiredly, "What would you like me to say?"
"You could start with my name."
"I do not know it."
His hand slides over her mouth before she can finish, his palm rough and callused and cold. "I heard you," he says, and in his voice she hears the rumble of dark thunder before the storm. "You know, the first time I saw you in Lowtown I knew you were going to be trouble for me."
"I do not mean to cause any trouble," she says through his fingers.
Teeth drops his forehead against hers with a quiet, bitter laugh. His wavy blonde hair tickles across the brand. "You were singing a different tune when we met."
"I was not Tranquil then."
He flinches away as if her words have burned him, as if he is the one more wounded by her scars; then his eyes grow hard and the hand over her mouth slides away, shifts its grip until he holds her jaw firmly in place. "My name is Thom," he says, and he kisses her.
She does not even have surprise left.
His mouth is cool, cool as rain and hard as a winter wind. His kiss gives nothing and takes all, drawing out of her even her breath as if he does not realize she is already empty. His grip on her chin stays strong, holding her still under him; Hawke neither pulls away nor encourages him, unmoved as a stone, and when he makes a small distressed noise and drives his tongue between her lips, she does not resist.
She wonders, staring off into the trees behind Teeth's left ear, how far she will allow him to go.
His head dips to her throat, and a moment later she feels those white, white teeth sink into the tender flesh of her neck. It hurts and she makes a noise of pain, but he is unconcerned and too insistent, and a moment later she feels the dead pressure of his teeth again. She loses count, in the end, of the marks he leaves on her skin; she only knows, when his other hand leaves the bark of the tree to palm the underside of her breast through her shirt, that she has no resistance left at all.
There is still magic under her skin, felt in the distant way of a cool breath from an unseen sea, but the call is weak and her stone-strong wall is thick, made thicker by her decision to yield to it completely, and she neither hears the Fade's song nor answers it. The wild freedom is gone with her heart; the lake is a distant thought, a dream seen through the lens of someone else's memory.
Teeth drifts back up to her mouth, dropping kisses on the angry wounds of his bites; he seals his mouth over hers, hard, and then whispers, "Say my name."
Hawke says, impassively, "Thom."
"Say it like you want me."
"Thom," she says again, as inexpressive as the first, and the dark storm breaks in his eyes.
His hand clenches hard around her breast, his fingers sharp and bruising through the fabric of her shirt and her smalls. She cries out in unexpected pain and he closes her mouth off with his own, muscling his lanky frame forward until she is solidly pinned against the tree. His breath is hot and sour from too few days with clean water; the hand around her jaw squeezes, once, then drags broad and rough down her neck, her chest, her stomach—and then his fingers slide under the waistband of her trousers and she lets a small, unsurprised sigh float free.
She must be truly Tranquil, she thinks. How else could her heart still beat so steady in her chest?
His fingers slip further downward, brushing against her smalls but not her skin—not yet. His lips are coarse on hers and his shoulders working in both anger and arousal, his breath coming too-quick and stilted, but just as he drops his other hand to tug at the laces of her trousers his eyes go wide and he gasps—
—and an enormous hand plucks him from the earth.
Hawke glances up at the giant, stepping away from the tree as she straightens her shirt and reties the laces at her waist. She cannot even blush.
"Carn said hands off," the giant says, his cracked voice a low and rippling roll of strength.
Teeth dangles red-faced from the giant's extended hand, his feet a clear six inches from the forest floor. "Shut up," he snaps, gasping for breath. "Shut up. Put me down right fucking now or I swear I'll cut you to pieces."
The giant looks at Teeth a moment, and then at Hawke, and then he turns and places him on the ground again with a none-too-gentle shove back towards the camp. Teeth lets out a muffled, vicious curse that startles a bird from the tree overhead, but he goes, and he does not look back.
The giant glances down at Hawke. "Are you hurt?"
"No," she says.
"There are bites on your neck."
Hawke lifts her hand to touch one, finds it sore. "They will heal quickly. I am not seriously wounded."
"Buyers don't like marked merchandise," he says with an opaque glance at her forehead, and then the giant turns and walks off into the woods to rejoin the other hunters. The sun is setting ahead of him, just low enough to throw his back into black shadow, and fingers of gold light spill around his edges to pool at Hawke's feet.
She watches him until he disappears into the trees. Then she pushes away from the pine and moves to kneel beside the growing campfire, across from the still and silent figure of Teeth, who says nothing, who will not even lift his eyes to hers as she reaches, again, into the sack for the drying dishes.
She cannot get warm.
Dawn breaks grey and cool, less a sunrise than a paling sky that stretches from horizon to horizon with heavy and unbroken clouds. A thin, damp mist seeps through the trees, washing away the colors of the bark and the earth and the leaves until all the wood is left fog-wreathed and muffled, the distant trees vanishing into white, indistinct shapes, their skyward-reaching branches stretched, like hopeless penitents, towards the hidden sun.
Hawke wakes early, smoothly and in silence, as if a hand has brushed across her shoulder or a well-loved voice has softly called her name. Teeth's arm is draped over her waist; she lifts it away and sits up, brushing her dark hair out of her eyes, and then she stands and stretches and sees the ash-grey mist that surrounds the camp, as smooth and soft as smoke. It ought to be bleak; she finds it peaceful. A reflection of herself.
She is the first one awake. Even Delia is curled in sleep, her yellow hair tightly braided and draped over her shoulder, and Carn lies on his back with one arm thrown over his eyes; there is no guard set, but she has not needed one in days. She thinks, perhaps, she will go back to the lake. She would like to see it in this grey dawn-light, to watch the gentle mist rolling soft and slow over the still water's mirrored surface.
Maybe the thrush will sing again.
A quiet breeze tugs at the tips of her fingers, at the loose-falling ends of her hair, drawing her with soundless laughter towards the lake. She yields to it, treading lightly in the hushed white world she has found herself in, the worn leather toes of her boots pressing into the springy pine needles of the forest floor without a noise. She passes through the outer edge of the camp, wraithlike; the trees float by her like ship-masts on the white waters of the sea, effortless, and silent, and without number.
Then a hand reaches out over her mouth, and strong arms pull her into the lee side of a thick-boled grey oak.
She thinks at first that it is Teeth, come to finish what he began; then she sees the pale steel gauntlets, and the sweet-humming lyrium that traces the lines of tanned fingers curved gently over her mouth, and when she lifts her head it is not dark blue eyes that she sees but green, green as moss, as the sunlit haze that filters through the forest leaves at noon, and hair as white as bone.
She says, "Fenris."
His face is turned away from her, pressed back against the bark of the tree as he watches for pursuit from the silent camp—but she feels a tremor ripple through his fingers on her mouth, and on her arm where his other hand rests, and his breath catches against her back. A long moment passes, silently, and then like the slow rising of light over shadowed earth, he turns his eyes to hers.
"Hawke," he says, his voice low and glad and rougher than she remembers, and then he kisses her.
His mouth is gentle, and warm, and familiar like the murmur of a dream on waking. His callused fingers cup her cheek with care, slide up the arch of her spine to twist her body until she faces him, until he can bend his head and pull her fully against the armored curve of his chest. He draws back, feathers his thumb over her lips, then tugs her forward again into a desperate, aching embrace and buries his face in her neck. His lips move against the marked skin there in soundless litany, whispering words in a language she does not understand, and his heart drums hard and quick in her ears like hail on river rocks. Her own is slower, and more steady, telling her with each beat that she is empty, empty, empty.
Fenris is here, and she feels nothing.
Too late she realizes she should have embraced him. Her hands half-rise from her sides, her fingers brushing against the leather of his jerkin—but he is already drawing back, smiling, his eyes bright with some grave and inexpressible gladness. "You worried me," he murmurs, and kisses her again.
"Thank you," she says, and then, "I apologize."
For the first time his smile slips; for the first time the familiar furrow in his eyebrows appears. He says, "Hawke? Is something wrong? Are you hurt?"
Hawke pauses before she answers. Her own reactions disquiet her in the way that a disordered room would disquiet her: unsettling her mind with the sense that how things are is not how they should be. She does not wish to distress Fenris, but neither can she lie to him—and in the end his eyes flick up, suddenly, to her forehead, and her wishes do not matter at all.
Fenris lifts his hand and traces his fingers in a straight, gentle line across her brow, drawing her dark hair aside like a curtain to lay bare the scarred and branded sun.
Then he says, quietly, in a voice that is not a voice but a brittle gasp, "Hawke, no."
"I apologize," she says for a different reason, and the white mist curls around their feet like smoke. "It does not hurt."
"No," he says again, his smile gone, his glad eyes gone, his voice a broken thing that does not carry through the fog. "No. Hawke. No." His hands grip her face, her arms, her hands, lost; his eyes dart from her eyes to the brand and back again like a ship without an anchor, as if his desperation alone might vanish the sunburst from her skin and make her whole again. "Hawke," he breathes, raggedly, and then his eyes fix themselves on the marks on her neck.
"Teeth," Hawke says in distant explanation, and Fenris sags against the grey bark behind him.
It is as if he has aged ten years in the space between one breath and the next. The lines grow deep around his mouth, between his eyebrows, across his forehead; his eyes go suddenly so flat they might have never smiled at all. His hands loosen around hers and his head drops forward—and then he stills like a hunted wolf and, very gently, touches one steel-tipped finger to the place on her thumb where the nail used to be.
"I resisted," Hawke tells him. His hair falls soft and white over his face; she cannot see his expression. "Delia tore them off with an arrowhead."
He takes both her hands in his, brushes his thumbs over her scarred knuckles, brings them to his forehead in mute and grieving apology. Lyrium-light races through his tattoos in wild, uneven bursts, rippling frissons of blue-silver light chasing over her skin and his. His fingers tremble so violently he nearly cannot keep his hold.
Hawke does not know how long they stand like that, quiet in the lee of the grey oak, or how long she waits for Fenris's shuddering sorrow to ease. She only knows that she is hollow, as pale in heart as the mist that ghosts around them, empty as the breeze and with just as little life.
She thinks perhaps the lake would have been better, after all.
"Lovers done already?" says Varric, behind her, his voice soft but amused. Fenris flinches back, his head turning away as if the words are too bright, and Hawke looks back in time to see Varric's smile die. Isabela emerges from a swirl of white fog behind him with a grin, a dagger spinning around one finger casually—and she, too, stops mid-step, arrested by the anguish in Fenris's face and the sun that burns without light.
"Hey, Hawke," says Isabela, almost steadily. Her knuckles go white around the dagger's hilt. "That's new, isn't it?"
"Yes," she says, and Fenris's fingers drop away from hers.
"Fenris—" starts Varric, one gloved hand half-lifted towards the two of them—and then, faintly, from the Black Hoods' camp behind them, Hawke hears Teeth's voice call her name: "Marian!"
Isabela and Varric look to her, their hands going for their weapons. Marian! drifts again through the mists, louder and more alarmed; Fenris sags lower against the tree, his fists clenched in steel fury until the tips dig white-wood scars into the oak.
A cloud breaks above them, caught in a sudden rising breath of cool wind, and for a single heartbeat a thin, dawn-watered shaft of light spills through the grey sheets of fog to shiver like a stream across her face. She stands without moving, stone-still, stone-silent, and waits.
Fenris straightens, then, lifts his head, meets her eyes square-on and steady. One hand pulls the sword free from his back, its long blade shining grey and cool, and he says, calmly, "I will kill every one of them."
"I understand," Hawke says, because she recognizes his rage even if she does not feel it herself. Fenris steps forward, his bare toes sifting through the pine needles and leaves that spread across the forest floor, and kisses her once, fierce and hard. Then he draws back, his eyes alight with green flame, his hair washed to quicksilver in the narrow golden light, and he turns and digs his feet into the earth, springing forward like an arrow into the mist.
It curls around him in a sudden breath, and then he is gone.
Hawke is certain Fenris does not mean for her to follow him; she does all the same, quietly, when Varric and Isabela share a harried glance and chase after his vanished figure. The morning mist is beginning to burn away, the fog thinning in places like a patchwork quilt, but Fenris is swift and the trees are thick, and by the time she catches a glimpse of him again he is already stepping across the perimeter of the camp, his straight-edged sword already lifted above his head, caught in the tremulous soaring moment that is the breath before pitched battle.
Fenris's blade swings down in a silverflame arc. A man whose name she never learned cries out in terror, his sword flashing away into the dirt, and dies.
A high, sharp whistle sounds the alarm, and the fight begins.
The Black Hoods are not callow youths, but it takes precious few seconds to see that they are no match for the strength of Fenris's furious grief. The ash-blonde woman dies quickly with her snapped bow still unstrung in her hand; two more fall in quick succession to a great cleaving stroke that drops, like the hand of the Maker, on their necks. An arrow flies from nowhere towards Fenris's unprotected back—but at the last second he wheels to one side, snarling, and the arrow punches harmlessly into the dirt.
Hawke's breath does not even falter.
Isabela lets out a sudden laugh that is edged with something strong and wild, and when the silver-haired figure of Silas bursts into the camp from the trees, his greatsword already hefted at the ready, she dances forward with both daggers flaring in graceful circles around her fingers. Varric stays closer, Bianca springing hot and quick, bolt after bolt exploding into streaks of silver light that find, unerringly, eyes and throats and hearts. Another raider drops mid-step when Bianca discovers him; half the raiders dead in as many minutes and Hawke feels nothing, not pride or relief or worry. Not even shame at her own weakness.
Then, from the same hidden place as before, an arrow drives into Fenris's shoulder with a wet thud.
Fenris staggers backward, stunned, but keeps enough presence of mind to tear the heart from the swordsman at his heels. Varric spots the archer before Hawke does and lets a bolt fly; a moment later, the redheaded woman drops from the low branch of a birch tree, her bow in one loose hand and her eyes glazed over in death. A ray of sudden sunlight catches like fire in her hair, and Hawke realizes that the clouds above them are clearing at last.
"You okay, elf?" Varric shouts, but Fenris does not answer—
—because at last, in a shadow lifting free of the trees, the oak-thick shape of Carn himself emerges from the forest. He smiles faintly, patiently, like a father with errant children, but his sword is sharp and shining in the light as he makes his way towards Fenris. He carries no shield.
A man's bubbling gasp blisters the air, and across the camp Hawke sees Silas drop to his knees at Isabela's feet, his throat slit from ear to ear. She is breathing hard, one hand pressed against a bleeding slice in her thigh, but she does not falter as she kicks the greatsword away from Silas's fumbling fingers; he stares up at her in blank surprise, his white shirt soaking red, and then he slumps forward and does not move again. Isabela curls her lip and turns away.
Carn's smile disappears. "Rescue at last," he says directly to Hawke. "Congratulations."
"Thank you," she says as Fenris takes two steps sideways to place himself in Carn's line of sight.
"Ah," breathes Carn, then, his falcon eyes glittering, his bearded mouth pulling into a facsimile of a grin. "Fenris. We meet at last."
All of the muscles of Fenris's back tense at once like the rising hackles of a cat. "I do not know you."
"But I know you. A great deal about you, as it turns out. We had an…informative night, once, before you arrived." He inclines his head. "And if half the things she said are true, well. I'm impressed."
Fenris lets out a snarl of wordless fury, his hands clenching on his sword; then he reaches up and snaps off the haft of the embedded arrow a handspan from his shoulder. An inch lower and it would have glanced harmlessly off his breastplate; an inch higher and it would have flown wide. The redheaded woman had been a superb shot. His jaw clenched, tightly, Fenris says, "Let us see."
"At your leisure," says Carn, and Fenris attacks.
They meet like the crashing of two mountains against each other, impossibly strong and just as impossible to evade. Carn scores first blood, and quickly; Fenris is tired and not unwounded, and the sword tears a thin red line from nose to pointed ear before he manages to jerk away. He lifts a hand to touch it, breathing hard, and leaves a scarlet smear down his cheek before refirming his grip on his sword. It reminds Hawke of Aleron's scar.
The clearing fills with the soft thuds of footfalls on earth and the bright, clear ringing of steel on steel. Carn is thicker and more broad in shoulder—but Fenris is the stronger, and the more agile, and though Carn's sword finds its mark more than once on his stomach, his calf, his throat, it soon becomes clear to all of them that Fenris will take the fight. He catches Carn in the shoulder with his sword-tip twice before Carn darts forward, slamming his head into Fenris's with bruising force and the sound of bone on bone. They trade blows like a storm-rough sea tears at a cliff, quick and fierce and without gaining or giving ground; Fenris bares his teeth and Carn grins without mirth, his lips stained red with his own blood.
Isabela stands behind them in silence, her daggers loose in her hands, and beside Hawke Varric lowers Bianca point-first to the pine needles under their feet. Fenris shifts his sword to one side and lunges—
—and when Carn tries to duck under its reach Fenris smashes his metaled fist squarely into Carn's hooked nose. His head goes back on his neck like a whipcrack—and then his boot falls wrong on a stone hidden under leaves, and—
—it is finished.
Fenris muscles forward, pressing his advantage. It takes only a shove to topple the already unbalanced raider, and in a sudden flurry of steel and grey, padded armor, Carn is flat on his back on the forest floor. Fenris drops to one knee on his chest, leaning his full weight forward until even Hawke can hear the raider's ribs creaking, and slowly, deliberately, the glow of lyrium crawls flamelike from his shoulder to his fingertips. He places the very tips of the metal claws on Carn's heaving chest, all four fingers and his thumb resting just above his heart. Carn's hands scrabble for his sword, find nothing, relax again in resignation.
"She mentioned this, too," he says, smiling through a bleeding mouth, tipping his head back to stare at the sky. "Make it quick."
Lip curling, Fenris pushes the first joints of his fingers into the man's chest. He says, "Why should I show you such mercy?"
"Because I say so," Delia says, the slender silver point of her throwing dagger resting lightly on Hawke's cheek.
Isabela curses; Varric takes one step forward and lifts his crossbow; Fenris does not move. His face is blank and unreadable, eyes dark, hand still partly phased through Carn's chest. Then, slowly, he pulls his hand free with the effort of uprooting a thorned vine from the earth, though he does not lift his knee from Carn's ribs.
"Get up," says Delia, shifting sideways so that Hawke fully covers her taller figure. A bit of yellow hair is caught in Hawke's mouth and her arm is crooked back hard against her spine; it is an unpleasant sensation, but there is little room to move without losing her left eye to Delia's dagger and that would be more unpleasant, so Hawke does not struggle when Delia's fingers squeeze her wrist in warning. They circle away from the others for safety, Hawke's uncertain feet an awkward counterpart to Delia's smooth, sure steps, and then the dagger scores a line of thin white pain down Hawke's cheek.
Fenris bares his teeth, his half-forgotten sword lifting away from the earth as he scrambles to his feet—and Delia replaces the tip of the dagger at the base of Hawke's eye, stopping him in his tracks. "I said get up," Delia tells him. "I don't like repeating myself."
A sudden burst of coughing fills the air as Carn rolls to one side, his hand pressed to his chest, but before he can make his way upright Isabela shoves one booted foot against his throat. "Don't get too excited, pet."
"Delia," chokes Carn, wrapping one hand uselessly around Isabela's ankle, and Fenris's eyes narrow to needle-thin flecks of green.
He says, "You did that to Hawke's hands."
Delia's fingers shift as if she has forgotten; then she wrenches Hawke's hand higher up her back until her face draws tight with pain. "It wasn't the first thing I did to her, and if you don't back off it won't be the—" She stops herself mid-word, her breath dancing through Hawke's hair—and then her weight leans forward, into Hawke's back, as if she has realized at last who she faces. "You're the elf," Delia breathes, and then she lets out a hard crack of laughter. "Oh, that is funny. That is really hilarious. He came for you, precious," she tells Hawke, her mouth tipped so that her lips caress Hawke's ear. "Isn't he just the bravest?"
"Fenris is—" Hawke starts, but her voice is cut off in a fluting gasp of anguish as Delia drags the knife deeper down the slice she has already made in Hawke's cheek. Varric looks like he might be ill.
"She sings really well, doesn't she?" Delia says, light and lilting. "Oh, she looks strong, but get one bit of a blade under her skin and suddenly she'll go belly-up for anybody who asks. The things she told me…"
Fenris is pale with fury. "Stop."
"Oh, come on. You can't pretend to be squeamish now. I've heard what you can do with those hands—" she pauses, and her fingers tighten on Hawke's wrist as she lets out a low, vicious snort, "and—with your tongue—and your cock—"
"Delia," groans Carn, his cropped beard thick with his blood, but Isabela grinds her heel into his neck until spittle sprays between his lips.
"Stop it," Delia snaps, her amusement gone. "Stop it—stop it—"
The knife strafes down Hawke's cheek in her distress, bumping over her jawbone and slipping into the flesh of her throat. It hurts and blood begins to course hot down over her collarbone—Fenris makes a sharp, panicked noise and lunges forward but Delia's muscled arms are tense with fear, hard as granite when Hawke reaches up in fruitless effort to stop the knife, to stop the bleeding—
—and suddenly the hands are torn away from her throat, from her wrenched arm behind her, from the leather-wrapped grip of the knife which falls to the earth with a quiet thump. Hawke goes to her knees, breathless, one hand pressed hard against her neck—and behind her Delia shrieks in surprise and rage over the sounds of an unexpected scuffle. Fenris is on his knees at her side before she can even blink, his hands already bare and reaching towards her. She lifts her chin and his fingertips slide quick and light over her blood-slick skin, cool where the wound burns hot—and then he presses one palm flat against her throat and slides the other behind her head, drawing her face down again until he can rest his forehead against hers.
"Not deep," he says, his voice rough with emotion and thick with Tevinter's heavy vowels. "Not deep."
Hawke does not wish to speak with her throat opened, so instead she nods and pushes Fenris's hand out of the way to cover the gash herself. He frowns and starts to speak—and Delia drops hard to the ground behind him with a gasp. She shoves back up to her knees, panting, one arm hanging limply at her side, the other drawn back with an already-bloodied dagger held tight and poised to throw. Her yellow hair lifts in a golden, tangled cloud around her face.
Her wild eyes land on Hawke. She shrieks, "Tranquil—!"
And even as Varric's bolt pierces her throat through her open mouth, the giant brings down in a swinging arc the black-iron rod of the Tranquil brand.
The rounded edge of the unlit sun slams into Delia's skull and lodges there. She goes over like a toppled tree, the limp arm bent awkwardly beneath her and her eyebrows raised in faint surprise; her mouth closes, hollowly, around the shaft of the bolt, and one hand lifts to touch the unbleeding place where the end of the brand rests, half-hidden, in her hair. Then she closes her eyes, and Delia dies.
"Void take you, Arden," Carn says tiredly, his voice stretched thin by Isabela's boot. "Son of a whore."
The giant—Arden—says nothing. Hawke rises to her feet and looks up at him, one hand still pressed to her neck, ignoring Fenris when he steps protectively between them. A gash as long as her forearm stretches across Arden's belly like a red smile, a fatal wound on any other man—but he is not any other man, and she thinks he might have something left to live for. He bends forward slightly, holding together the seeping edges of the wound, and says to Hawke, "I should have acted sooner."
"You have saved me twice now," she tells him. "Thank you."
He glances at the mark on her forehead and down to the scarring mess of her fingernails, and then he meets her eyes and deliberately touches one hand to his throat, to the deep place where his rough voice is broken. "I should have acted sooner," he repeats, and this time Hawke understands his meaning. "You should not be silent," he adds—then, without looking once at the others, he turns on his heel and heads for the trees. None of them lifts weapon or hand to stop him, and within moments, he is gone.
"Well. That was fascinating," says Isabela after a second, and taps Carn's chin with her toe. "And what about this one?"
"Aveline wanted survivors," Varric says.
"Aveline will manage," Fenris says flatly. The clasps on his left gauntlet snap closed around his forearm like breaking branches. "Kill him."
Carn laughs until it is choked off by Isabela's boot. "I should have known," he says, and stares up at the last vanishing wisps of clouds without seeing them. "Mages."
Two steps and Fenris looms over him, his eyes hard and dangerous. "Tulisti a me aliquid preciosum," he snarls in Arcanum, and then, "Give me one reason to spare your life."
"Are you always this generous with your captives?"
"No," Fenris snaps, and nods his head towards Hawke. "But she was. Once."
Carn looks at her, then, turning his head in the pine needles of the forest floor until he can see her face clearly. His falcon eyes glitter, bright and impenetrable above his broken hooked nose, and she meets them levelly and without blinking. She knows, distantly, that she once feared him; now he is only a middle-aged man with no sword. The hand nearest her opens, his palm bared as if yielding something to her in this last moment; then he says without looking away, "The last thing she said was your name."
Fenris jerks back as if struck, then, with a rush of breath and wind, drives his lyrium-lit hand into Carn's chest. He jerks, once, when the muscles of Fenris's arm flex like corded steel, and then his eyes close and his face goes wholly slack. Isabela pulls her boot away, showing neither censure nor satisfaction, and Fenris wipes his hand clean on Carn's unbreathing chest before rising to his feet and yanking the rest of the arrow from his shoulder. He does not look at Hawke.
Hawke wonders if what Carn says is true. She does not remember those last moments well in the blurred brilliant light of the Tranquil sun. Her last thoughts had been of Fenris, she knows, although whether she'd spoken his name aloud is lost with her memories of that night—although, with only emptiness left to her now, she supposes it makes little difference.
"Come on, then," Varric says quietly. Bianca already rests at home on his back.
Isabela comes first, wrapping one arm around Hawke's waist and leaning her head, briefly, on her shoulder. Her dark hair tickles Hawke's neck and she smells of salt and clean sails and the sea, but Hawke's stone heart does not lift and she does not remember to return the embrace until Isabela is already pulling away, and by then the pirate's face is composed again. Her fingers link through Hawke's without resistance, and when she pulls Hawke allows herself to be pulled. Varric follows after, calm and unsmiling; Fenris is the last to leave, after a long and stretching second, and his bare feet make little noise as he catches up to them.
The clearing behind them is silent in death, bodies scattered across the forest floor in blood and sweat and tears, broken and unmourned. There is no flame to burn them, no pyre that can lift them to the Maker's side; instead they are left for the carrion birds and the wolves, with the dead and blackened coals of the firepit the only evidence that Black Hoods ever ate and breathed and lived in this place. The swords they leave to the mercy of the woods, surrendered to rust with the armor and the packs; the Tranquil brand they leave entangled in Delia's yellow hair. Isabela guides her east, away from the lake, and Hawke does not look back.
They pass into the trees, quietly.
Later, Hawke is the first to hear the voice.
Fenris stops when she stops, her head turned back over her shoulder to look behind them, though he is as quiet as he has been for the last half-hour. Hawke says, "Someone is calling my name."
All three of them reach for their weapons, alert and alarmed—
—and Teeth crashes through the brush with a ragged gasp. "Marian!"
Fenris moves forward like lightning, lyrium-light spilling down his arms—but Teeth reaches Hawke first, his smile too bright and too relieved, and throws his arms around her. She hears Fenris stumble to a halt in the dead leaves beneath a spreading aspen. "I thought you were dead," Hawke says when Teeth draws back, the sun flashing on his blonde hair.
"No," he says, his gaze still fixed on her face. "Thank the Maker you're all right," he adds with that white smile, too warm to be a lie, and then he leans forward and moves his hands to cup her cheeks—Isabela steps towards them, her eyes furious and her mouth open in warning—and then Teeth is yanked away and pinned against the aspen in one swift motion.
"Don't touch her," Fenris snarls, the hard edge of his gauntlet digging into the base of Teeth's throat. The raider scrabbles for purchase on smooth steel, on grey bark, and finds nothing; his feet are stretched to tiptoes, his boots barely brushing the top edge of a surfacing root. "Who are you?"
"His name is Thom," Hawke offers, still standing where Fenris left her.
Varric glances her way. "Was he one of the ones who put you under that brand?"
"No. He took me from Lowtown," Hawke says. Fenris growls and drives his gauntlet harder up under Teeth's chin. "And he gave me bandages and healing poultices when I was hurt. He kissed me," she adds as an afterthought, and Fenris's face goes black—but before he can pierce Teeth's chest with his other hand Varric has crossed to the aspen and caught Fenris's arm mid-blow.
"We need a survivor," he says, his voice level. "If you want justice for Hawke, let him live."
"Death would be justice," Fenris snarls, yanking his arm from Varric's hand. "She said it herself—he took her—and when they tortured her he did nothing—"
"I wanted to help!" Teeth manages. Thin lines of tears trace down his cheeks on either side. "I wanted to help, Maker knows—but there were too many and they'd kill me before I could do anything. I was going to run away with her tonight before we left for Cumberland in the morning—I knew they'd chase us, but I thought if I could get her to safety we might—urkk—"
"Be silent," Fenris snaps. He looks at Teeth for a long moment, his eyebrows dark angry slashes down his face; then he turns to Hawke and asks, his voice tight, "Should he live?"
Hawke understands that this is not the question he means to ask. "He was kind to me," she says in answer.
It is enough. Fenris pulls back his arm and turns away, and Teeth drops to his knees with a gasp, eyes tearing, both hands wrapped around his neck. Hawke knows his pain, thinks of the makeshift bandage wrapped around her own throat—and then Isabela is at her side, her dark hands sliding around her waist and pulling her away from the others.
"Come talk to me a second, sweet thing," she says, waving a hand over her shoulder at Varric.
"Of course," Hawke says, and follows her into the trees.
They do not go far, only enough away that they cannot be seen or overheard, deep enough that the trees press closer around them as if bearing witness to the coming secrets. Isabela crosses her arms and shifts her weight to one foot, her bright eyes grave, and she says, "Now. Hawke. Tell me everything they did to you."
"Do you mean from the beginning?"
"If that's where they started hurting you, then yes."
Hawke opens her mouth, then pauses, perplexed. "If you brought me here to spare my feelings," she says instead, "it was unnecessary."
"I didn't bring you here to spare your feelings," Isabela says, her eyes hard. "I brought you here to spare theirs, because Varric is too good and Fenris is too in love with you, and because I'm a big girl who can handle hearing the hard things when they happen to someone I care about. I know what it means to be trapped with no shore in sight, Hawke—and I am the only person here who can guarantee she won't lose it when you tell me the unadulterated truth."
Hawke says nothing. Isabela's face softens, her hands coming up to curl around Hawke's. "Sorry. I don't mean to sell them short. Their lives haven't been easy either, and I know Fenris has seen his share of suffering—but this is different, sweet girl, and as much as I like a little pain with my pleasure, you're going to be too brutal for him to bear."
"I see," says Hawke, because she does.
Isabela's thumb brushes over the place where her fingernail used to be. "Start here," she says, and Hawke begins to speak.
It takes surprisingly little time to chronicle her kidnapping and subsequent venture into the woods, even less to detail the injuries she has suffered since she vanished. It sounds almost ludicrous when she lists them out one after the other: bruised shoulder, bruised ribs, the fingernails, her tooth, her beaten knee. She tells her of the branding, too, and the white-hot sun shaped out of iron, and the pain that came with it—even the still-bleeding gash running from her cheek to her throat she includes for completeness's sake, though Isabela obviously knows of its existence.
"And that man," Isabela says when she is finished, calmly and without anger. "You said he kissed you."
"He did. The last evening I was with the Black Hoods."
"Did he do anything else?"
"He held me against a tree. He bit me and grabbed me," she touches her marked throat and her breast, though not nearly as hard as he had, "and put his hand down my trousers."
"Did he have sex with you?" The question comes more quietly than the others, though Isabela's face does not change.
"No," says Hawke, and now it does, naked relief chasing anger across her face so quickly Hawke almost cannot track it. She adds, "I think he would have if Arden had not come."
"Small favors come in big packages. Or is it the other way around?" Isabela lets out a mirthless laugh, leans back against a tree with the heel of her hand pressed to her forehead. "Shit, I don't know."
"I am not sure."
"You and me both. Shit," she says again, and then she straightens with a toss of her head. "Anything else you can think of?"
"Then let's head back, and if they ask, you leave the descriptions to me."
"All right," Hawke says.
They are in sight of the others before she realizes Isabela's hands are shaking. It lasts only a moment—and then her hands ball into fists, and before Hawke realizes her intent Isabela has crossed their tiny clearing and punched Teeth square in the jaw. He goes down hard and yelping, both hands clapped to his face.
"Okay," says Isabela, shaking the sting from her hand. "I feel better."
"Glad to hear it," Varric says, but his smile does not reach his eyes.
Fenris says nothing.
They come across a small stream at dusk. Hawke remembers it from her journey westward as clear and sweet, and they set up camp with little ceremony and less chatter. The sun falls swiftly, long-shadowed trees dipping into twilight with the silence of many years behind them, and when Varric at last coaxes a tiny fire into existence Isabela breaks out the rations, handing out dried fruit and smoked meat until their bellies are, if not full, at least eased of the gnawing press of hunger.
Teeth sits by the fire, his hands bound, his eyes lowered. He will not lift his head even to Hawke when she passes, as if he cannot bear the sight of her; Fenris sits away from the others, and away from Hawke, back propped against a tree set away from the stream until he is little more than green-sparking eyes and a smear of pale hair in the dark. He does not move when Varric digs out the bedrolls, nor when Isabela banks the fire for the night; it is not until Teeth tries to settle too close to Hawke that he rises, lean and inexorable like fire-brushed iron, to drag Teeth by his bound hands to the other side of the fire.
"Stay there," he says, his voice flat, and Teeth does not move again. His cheek is dark and bruised where Isabela struck him.
Hawke watches as Fenris moves back to the tree and sinks against it, his arms crossed over his stomach and both legs stretched out in front of him. His head dips towards his chest until his white hair falls over his eyes; when he says nothing, and when Isabela and Varric say nothing, Hawke lies down and closes her eyes. She sleeps quickly, and as she has come to do, she does not dream.
She wakes shortly after midnight.
A twig had snapped, somewhere—she supposes, at least, since there is little stirring save the crickets and a lacewing-breath of wind—and then she sees Fenris, standing with his back to her at the edge of the whispering stream. His head is bent in the darkness, his shoulders bowed as if under some unbearable weight, and even as she watches he lifts one hand to his face, the hand with a scrap of scarlet fabric tied around the wrist, and covers his eyes in a despair so potent that she can almost feel the echo of it in the stone inside her chest. He does not move after that.
She thinks, suddenly, that she ought to tell him that the brand has not worked. Or had not, at least, in the beginning—she checks herself, searches the corners of her heart for anything left but the dull, hard surface of rock—but she is as dry as scorched bone, blackened into the soft nothingness of soot, and there is no voice left inside her to sing now that she does not care to be silent. The lake is only a memory; the first exultant rush after the branding is less than a dream. There is no magic in her now, no joy—and no fear, and no sorrow, and no love; so many days she has spent fighting them back that now they cannot come when she calls.
Hawke had been Tranquil since the moment the brand touched her skin, she realizes. It simply took a week to sink in.
Hawke pushes her thin blanket aside, rises to her feet. She cared for Fenris, once, she knows she did, and he went through a great deal to save her—surely she can at least thank him for that kindness. But somehow, in the dozen steps between her bedroll and the edge of the stream the words slip away from her mind, and when Fenris's head comes up sharply at her approach she does little more than meet his eyes and join him at the stream's side.
"Hawke," he says, and for only a moment his lips try to curve into a smile. "Are you having trouble sleeping?"
"No," she says honestly. "I sleep well now."
What lingers of his smile vanishes. "Of course."
He falls silent and so does Hawke, both of them looking out over the clear-shivering water of the stream, at the spatter of stars that flicker fire-like across the ripples. Her mind is empty for several minutes, peaceful and black, and then Fenris casts an oblique glance at her out of the corner of his eye. Hawke catches it, turns to look at him. "Yes?"
"All right," says Hawke.
Fenris hesitates, clearly unsettled by her easy yielding, and then he says, "What did Isabela say to you this afternoon?"
"She asked me to tell her everything that happened to me since I was taken from Lowtown. She said I would be too brutal for you."
His eyes open wide and wounded, and then they narrow as he flicks a glare back towards the shape curled by the dead fire. "She seems to have taken it well enough."
"Isabela is not asleep," Hawke tells him, because she isn't.
"I know," Fenris says, and turns back to the stream. "Neither is the dwarf."
"She said I should not tell you because we were lovers."
Fenris's breath half-catches in his throat, his chest hollowed out as if some terrible blow has crushed it. His head turns away, and then he says, so quietly she almost does not hear it, "Were."
"Oh," says Hawke. She pauses for a moment, considering, and then offers, "If you would prefer it, we may continue to be lovers when we have returned to Kirkwall."
He jerks back towards her, his face made pale by starlight. "What?"
"It would not be difficult to find evenings convenient for the both of us. I remember that your touch is not unpleasant; if you are amenable to the idea, I will have Orana arrange a time—"
"Stop," Fenris says, sharp and anguished. "Hawke. Stop." He catches her face in his hands, his callused thumbs pressed to her cheekbones. From here she can see the thin line of scab-dark blood that stretches from his nose to the base of his pointed ear.
She says, "You are not amenable."
"No, Hawke," he murmurs, and drops his forehead against her own. "I am not."
This makes sense, she decides. He does not wish to bed a Tranquil. A rustling breaks the silence as Teeth rolls over by the fire and draws his knees to his chest, the only one of their party truly asleep; then a branch rustles overhead as an owl lifts away, silent and spread-winged, into the dark.
Fenris's hands slide lower, to her throat and the makeshift bandage over it. "Does it hurt?"
"It aches. It feels hot."
He peels away the edge of the cloth until he can touch the slice left by Delia's knife. "It is not infected."
His eyes close briefly, as if she has hurt him, and then he opens them again as he smoothes the bandage back into place. His fingers drift over the marks left by teeth and tongue, the bruises from Delia's displeasure, the tips of her fingers. The nails are growing back, she notices, thin and uneven crescents of white peeping out from the inflamed skin as if afraid of the world that waits. The flesh left behind has grown harder than she expects, as if trying to become fingernails of its own; instead it is only red and bumpy, thick like a scar is thick, and unpleasant both to look at and to touch.
Fenris touches them anyway. Then he says, quietly, "It is my fault you were taken."
Hawke shakes her head. "You are mistaken."
"I refused to come with you to the mage's clinic. This would not have happened if I had not let you go alone."
"If the Black Hoods had not found me, it would not have happened either. You take too much responsibility for something you could not control."
"It was my lack of control that led to this. Hawke—" he moves his hands to her arms, his eyes searching hers for something she does not have to give, and his voice drops to something low and desperate. "Do you feel nothing?"
She does not wish to give him the answer because it will hurt him, and she would prefer not to be brutal; all the same, she cannot lie to him. "I am empty," she says. "I apologize."
His mouth quirks, then, in the way of someone smiling to keep the grief at bay. "There is no need."
"I have made you unhappy."
"Not you, Hawke," he says, and when she looks up without understanding he gathers her into his arms, carefully, as if to keep her from breaking. He holds her like that a long time, his breath stirring her hair and his heart thumping out a rhythm hers cannot follow, and then he pulls away. "Go to sleep," he says without looking at her, and she goes.
The last thing she sees before she falls asleep is Fenris's fists clenched at his side as he stands bone-stiff by the stream, the shining metal of his gauntlets unbroken in the moonlight save by a thin red strip of cloth.
The edge of the Planasene Forest is less than a day's travel eastward when Isabela looks to one side. "We're close."
"Close to what?" asks Teeth, picking a leaf from his hair with his bound hands.
Fenris scowls and says nothing; Varric glances at Hawke. "Aveline stayed back with Anders and Merrill," he says. "We weren't sure what they wanted with mages, between you and the boy. I guess we know now."
"The boy?" says Hawke, and a black-haired blur cannons into her chest so hard she is almost knocked from her feet.
"You're alive!" Aleron cries, the shortened ends of his black hair swinging loose at his jaw. He throws back his head and laughs, barely noticing in his delight when Fenris pulls him away from Hawke by the scruff of his neck. "I knew it! I knew it!"
"Aleron," Hawke says, and over his shoulder she sees Merrill, and Anders and Aveline as well, all hurrying towards her with broad smiles and, in Merrill's case, happy tears. Merrill reaches her first and her hug is almost as enthusiastic as Aleron's; Aveline follows, her embrace harder but no less sincere; and Anders comes last, as genuinely pleased and relieved as she has seen him in a year. It is a pity, she thinks, that it will not last long—even as he pulls away, his eyebrows are drawn together, his smile less spreading and bright, his happiness sapped by the somber faces arrayed behind her.
He says, "Hawke?"
Varric steps forward, opens one hand in explanation. "Blondie—" he starts, gently—and then Fenris sucks in a sudden hissing breath, his eyes wide when they all look at him.
He takes two long strides towards Anders and fists one hand in his collar. "You can bring her back," he says, and breathes not in accusation but in epiphany: "Abomination."
"What?" says Anders, his eyes hard and narrowed, one hand wrapped around Fenris's metal wrist.
"You can bring her back." His words trip over each other, too hurried and hope-starved for sense. "She—I saw you, in the Chantry, years ago—with that man. That mage. You brought him back—you brought him back. You can do that for Hawke."
The color begins to drain from Anders' face as he leans back, head turned, as if he has glimpsed a truth too terrible to face full-on. "What are you talking about?"
"They made her Tranquil," says Varric, his voice gentle, and the wind lifts Hawke's hair away from the branded sun.
Anders sags in Fenris's grip for only an instant—and then his slack mouth opens and his eyes light a brilliant blue and a voice that is not his voice but Vengeance says, "I will slay the ones who did this."
Teeth lets out a startled oath and Fenris staggers back, releasing Anders' robe, his eyes going from the mage's Fade-fissured skin to Hawke in painful eagerness. She can see Aveline standing behind him, pale enough to turn her freckles dark, one hand unmoving on her sword; Merrill's tear-tracks are frozen on her face.
Anders steps closer. His hands come up empty and crackling with magic, sheer power leaping between his fingertips in acrid sparks of lightning, so steeped in pure Fade that the pine needles blister under his feet, that Fenris's lyrium catches with sporadic flickers of light like struck flint.
"Champion," he says in the low rumble of distant thunder.
"Justice," says Hawke.
She feels nothing.
There is no Fade in her, no wild clear leaping song to snare her heart and open her magic, no twist of gold light to blaze the fire in her fingertips. She is safe and small and hidden in the smooth polished walls of her river-stone heart, curled and sleeping behind silence so thick that Justice's call recoils like rain on glass, sliding away quick and clean and without resistance. He calls again and the song dies sooner, a wave breaking on the wind to leave nothing behind but breeze-whipped froth and the swift glancing of sunlight off the sea.
The Fade sings; she does not answer. Justice brings her light; she tucks her head into her shoulder in the stone, like a bird in the grip of a storm, and waits for it to pass.
"Champion," says Justice, confused and angry. "Where are you?"
Hawke lifts her chin, the sun-scar on her forehead bare and blazing. "I am empty," she tells him in both apology and explanation.
"You do not answer."
"I have no answers to offer," she says, her voice calm and final in the way that an iron door slamming shut is final. She cannot change her heart; she cannot speak through stone, either.
The light fades; the cracks in Anders' skin close over, the hot pressure of the Fade easing away from the clearing as Justice pulls back into himself to leave Anders only, gasping, gulping sobs down like air. He stumbles back a pace, and then two—and Fenris grasps him by both shoulders.
"Mage," he says, the lines of fury and despair deep on his face. "Mage. Don't stop. Bring her back—bring back the spirit—Justice—"
"There's nothing," Anders gasps, his arms locked around Fenris's like desperate anchors, his head bent between them like he might crack in two if he tried to lift it. "There's—nothing. She's gone. Like Karl. Oh, Maker—let go—"
He yanks away from Fenris, both hands pressed hard over his face; three steps and he disappears into the trees and a moment later, they hear the thick-dead thump of knees on earth and the low, muffled cry of unchained sorrow. Fenris turns away, the muscles of his clenched jaw jumping; Isabela exchanges a glance with Varric and follows after Anders, her steps light and silent on the forest floor, and the trees swallow her without a sound.
The two of them do not return until hours later, well after Aleron has sparked the fire and Varric has found the rations. The camp is as quiet as Hawke has become accustomed to: Fenris across the fire and alone, Teeth slumped against the base of a tree in sleep, Aleron sitting at her feet with his face buried in his arms. Aveline tries a few conversations with Hawke, the only one who does, but her responses do not encourage their once-easy friendship and when Aveline gives up at last, her hair lit copper in the little glow of the fire, Hawke catches the sheen of standing tears in her eyes. She regrets that, in the way she regrets hurting Fenris, but she cannot be anything other than what she has become, and she thinks that the sooner they are back to Kirkwall, and the sooner that her friends may be free of their stone burden, the better.
Then Merrill comes to her side, her slim hands cupped in front of her and her face calm and ungrieving. She says, "I wanted to give you this as a welcome-home present. It doesn't feel quite right, now, to celebrate like that, but—here." Her fingers unfurl, and Hawke sees a delicate, carefully-woven bracelet resting on her palms. The stems are thin-bladed grass, green and waxy; tiny white flowers peek through at regular intervals, enfolded in elegant curves of dark, bent bark laced through with silver wire. "I made it for you," she says. "So you should have it."
"Thank you," says Hawke, holding out her hand. The bracelet makes a sharp contrast with her rough and blade-scarred hands; still, she slips it on and Merrill smiles to see it on her wrist, and she supposes that is enough.
Then a twig cracks at the edge of the camp, and they look up to see Anders emerging from the dusk-thick shadows and Isabela close at his shoulder. His face is steady and composed, if pale; he crosses to Hawke without hesitation and kneels in front of her, both hands lifting to settle carefully on her wrists. "You're wounded," he says, and his voice does not waver. "I should have taken care of that earlier."
"You were distressed," Hawke says. "I understood."
"No excuses for a poor healer," says Anders, and then his magic washes over her in a clean, cool burst of blue light.
It has always fascinated Hawke, the difference between Anders' healing and hers: she was good, she knows, serviceable in the broad, blunt way that a hammer is serviceable—but Anders is a natural, potent and piercing, and in a matter of moments the long-standing aches in her ribs and her shoulder vanish completely, the taste of blood in her mouth swallowed at last, the knife-edged throb in her forehead and her fingertips and her cheek easing to a mere breath of pain—and then an twinge—and then nothing.
Anders leans back and rests his elbows on his knees, his brow furrowed and faintly sweating. "They really worked you over, didn't they?" he says, too quietly for Fenris to hear. His eyes flick to the brand on her forehead and stay there.
"Yes," she says.
"Well. You're better now."
He winces, then forces a smile and pushes to his feet. "Get some rest, Hawke," he sighs, and drags a hand down his face. "We'll make it back to Kirkwall tomorrow."
She waits a moment more as he puts his hands to the small of his back and stretches, turning with the stiffness of an old man to tend Isabela's wounds and Fenris's and then to find his own bedroll by the meager fire. Aleron lifts his head, watching him go, and then he looks at Hawke and says, "I knew I shouldn't have gone without you."
"I do not think anything would have ended differently, save that you would be branded too."
He blinks, one hand coming up to tug on a braid that is no longer there. His fingers close around nothing—then he drops his head into his arms folded over his bent knees. "Sorry I took so long," comes muffled through his elbow, and one grey eye meets hers through the dark fringe of hastily-chopped hair.
Hawke says, "I thought you were dead. I see I was mistaken."
"A branch caught me by the hair as I was going up a tree when the Black Hoods were after me. I used your knife to cut it off. Then I waited until dawn and did just what you said until I got back into the city."
"You had no trouble, then."
"No," he says, shaking his head. "As soon as I showed the knife to the elf—um, Fenris—he came right away. He took me straight to Lowtown until we found that dwarf, and then we were coming back this way as soon as we could."
"You must be tired," Hawke says, because it is a lot of walking and she knows Fenris would not have set an easy pace, regardless of the boy's strength.
He lifts his chin at that. "I'm okay."
"All right," she says peaceably, and when he says nothing more she lies down on her bedroll, face turned up to the unseen stars behind the night-dark leaves. "Good night."
"Good night, ser," he says, his voice almost lost in the crackling of the fire, and she hears him pull his own blanket into place.
Hawke closes her eyes, and she does not dream.
They emerge at last from the green-lit shadows of the Planasene Forest less than a day later. The rolling grass-spare hills spread out before them, Kirkwall rising on its rocky tor in the distance—and halfway back, in the little stone clearing where she'd first found herself outside the city, lie the charred black ashes of her father's staff. She tells Varric the story, when he notices her gaze, but for a storyteller he does not seem to enjoy it. They do not speak much otherwise, especially for a group of their size; still, Hawke finds that she does not mind the quiet. It matches the deep emptiness in her mind, the blank and black-laced stillness that muffles her limbs and her heart alike, coursing through each corner of her thoughts the way a dark and rock-choked pool rises to cover the broken walls of a cave.
She is drowning inside herself, and she cannot even open her mouth to breathe.
Kirkwall's side gate opens to them a little before sunset, long black shadows twice their height stretching out before them like black arrows, guiding them back to the city that offers neither sanctuary nor respite from suffering. It takes only a moment to hand Teeth off to the ungentle care of one of Aveline's lieutenants; he goes without complaint and without farewell, looking neither at the lieutenant nor at Hawke, as if she by her very presence has made him Tranquil too. She says, "Goodbye, Thom," and he does not answer.
Anders is the first of her friends to break away when they pass by the street that leads to Darktown; Aleron follows him in after one last brief embrace, his eyes low, and something in Hawke recognizes that even now Anders would not sentence an apostate to the uncertain mercy of the Gallows, even one as accidental as Aleron. Isabela goes next, smiling, when the warm and noisy light of The Hanged Man spills over their feet, and Merrill pauses in her wake long enough to embrace Hawke with fierce, unflinching affection. "Come talk to me sometime, lethallan," she says, holding both Hawke's hands in hers. Her thumb brushes against the woven-grass bracelet. "You know, if you'd like to. I've always been curious to know what it feels like not to feel anything. If you don't mind talking about it, of course."
"Of course," says Hawke, and Merrill slips away like a breeze into the night.
Varric and Aveline linger a while longer, walking with them until they are nearly at the door to Hawke's estate; then Varric touches his hand to his forehead in gentle warmth before smiling. "I'll see you around, Hawke," he says, and then to Fenris: "Don't worry, elf. We'll figure something out. We always do."
Fenris looks away as Aveline embraces Hawke before heading for the barracks. Varric sighs, rebuffed but not surprised, and then, with a wave to Aveline, he turns and vanishes into the dark. For an instant, starlight streaks silver down Bianca's taut-stretched string where it arcs across his back, as if to say—goodbye.
Fenris opens the door. She hears Orana cry out in welcome, and then Bodahn's voice joins hers with audible excitement—and she regrets that, because she knows the pain they will suffer, soon, and at her hands, and because Fenris knows better than Varric that hope has no place in a body that cannot feel.
She steps inside, into the hearth-lit warmth. Quietly, Fenris says, "Exspectata domus."
Routine comes quickly in Kirkwall, more quickly to the Tranquil, and Hawke settles into the new and steady reality of her resumed life in a matter of days. Orana keeps close to her—almost too close, she would think, if she cared for things like that now—but Orana is careful to keep her questions separate from her gentle suggestions, fiercely protective of both Hawke's muted decisions and her privacy. She turns away more than one well-wisher-cum-voyeur at the door, as unimpressed by titled presumption as Hawke had been, before—
Before she was made Tranquil.
Hawke does not remember it well, truthfully, that giddy gold light and the glorious beat of a racing heart, the swelling waves of emotion that caught her up and carried her, as light as air and as strong as steel-cast nails. She knows objectively that she felt things once, outside her glass-smooth stone, but the memories are faint and sun-faded, a painting left too long in a shaft of light until there is nothing left but smeared color and the impression of a onetime image. Her friends provide her all the emotion she needs, anyway; Merrill comes frequently with daisies and bright bluebells and brighter stories to fill the empty corners of the estate, her laughter mingling with Orana's giggles and Bodahn's heartier chuckles until they can almost forget the emptiness left where Hawke used to be. Aveline stops by too, with Isabela as often as not, bringing food and cheer as if they might break through her walls with sheer force of will; Varric laughs often, with grieving eyes; and when Anders visits to check her healing and her heart even he tries to muster up a cheerful smile, though she feels the blue-hot simmer of Justice burning in his touch.
In truth, the only one who does not smile for her is Fenris.
She does not mind this, she finds; it is almost easier to bare what is left of herself to him when she does not need to suffer the inconvenience of weeping. She supposes the heartache is understandable, when it forces itself out in Merrill's tears or Varric's sudden pauses or Aveline's stone-faced sorrow, but there are more useful things for her to be doing than reassuring her friends of her sanity and her satisfaction with her emptiness, and it is—satisfying that Fenris does not require such assistance. Three days pass, and then a week, each day beginning like the one before it, and ending like the one before it, and Hawke finds herself, if not happy—at peace.
Then one day Fenris comes, in the middle of the morning as he always comes, and his face is not the calm enduring mask that it has been since the forest but heavy, and old, and lined so deeply with grief and anger so that he might have been carved from rock. He finds her sitting quietly in a straight-backed chair beside the desk in her room, waiting in patient stillness for a task to be given or a need to be expressed, her hands folded in her lap and her eyes half-shut in Tranquility. She looks up when he enters, notes his distress, says nothing when he stops in the doorway and only looks at her.
"I cannot do this," he says without preamble, softly, as if he is not sure whether he is speaking to her or to himself.
Hawke does not know whether he refers to their once-relationship, her Tranquility, or some other yet-unnamed thing that weighs too heavily on his mind. She says, "I do not understand what you mean."
Fenris swallows, hard. His hands open and close at his sides, the metal of his clawed fingers flashing bright in the morning sun and dark again. "Hawke, you…I promised you something, once. A long time ago. Do you remember?"
"No," she says, because she does not—and then a glancing flame of memory flares in the back of her mind, swift and soft with age: she remembers a shadowed alcove of the Chantry, a hundred red candles aglow on a stair-stepped altar, handfuls of thrown light shivering pale and gold across fingers, and throats, and slender silver lines of lyrium—and her own voice, whispering please, and never like that, and swear you'll do for me what Anders did for—
"I remember," says Hawke, so she is not surprised when Fenris pulls from his belt the narrow shining blade she'd lent to Aleron more than a lifetime ago.
"You said," Fenris starts, but something in him is not steady and he clenches his fist around the hilt of the knife. "I told you—I swore—"
"Yes," she says. "I had forgotten. I apologize."
"Stop that," he snarls, taking two quick steps towards her—then his face changes again and he draws back, aghast. "Hawke, I—"
"I do not fear death," she offers, and tips her head back and to one side, away from her heart. "I understand if you wish to keep your promise."
"Wish to—wish—" He draws close again, suddenly, his eyes narrowed and hurting and his mouth a slash of tight-pressed pain. "Hawke, you think I wish for this? You think I desire to stand here with your blade in my hand, weighing the life of the one person—the one person whom I—" he stops himself mid-word, draws in a breath, straightens. His gaze turns inward, looking back over some distant, cherished, painful memory. He murmurs, "I should not have presumed to hope."
"You swore an oath to me at my request. I would not object to its fulfillment."
His face settles into something opaque and wooden. "You would throw your life away so easily?"
"I would prefer to live," she tells him frankly, then adds, "I would prefer more to be useful. If this is the best use of my life, then I have no qualms about giving it."
"You make this too simple," he snaps, and crosses to her with quick steps until he can brace his free hand over her on the back of her chair. "This is no easy thing, Hawke—"
"I am trying to clarify a clouded issue," she says, her voice impassive, and then she reaches out and grasps his knife-bearing fingers in her own, drawing his hand up and towards her chest until the sharp and gleaming blade-tip rests just under the swell of her breast. "A short upward thrust here would be the most efficient."
Fenris stares at her, his eyebrows lifted in dark shock, his fingers clenched hard around the leather-wrapped hilt of the knife—but he does not struggle, and he does not pull away, and when Hawke allows her hands to drop back into her lap his own stay where she has placed them against her chest, stable and unwavering.
The knife rests there, rising and falling with her breath, fixed as the one-two beat of her heart. The morning sun falls bright and thick across his gauntlets and the blade, washing halos of steel-brushed silver into her eyes until they are almost too bright to see, too painful in the unflinching light—so she looks up instead, into the softer green of his eyes, and to the heavy black brows drawn down in concentration and in grief, and to the jumping in his jaw under his white hair as his eyes fix on the silver line of the knife. A single thrust, and it will be over; a single bunching of his muscles and the blade will slide through her skin as cleanly as a pear, as quick as a glance to the sky—one push and—
He looks up, at her face, and at the brand on her forehead.
Now the knife wavers, and now the fingers tremble, clench and reclench around the hilt, his thumb sliding up to the handguard and down again as if to tear the leather braiding from the haft—his eyes are locked to the sun-scar as hers had been to the firelit brand, unblinking and unable to look away, as trapped as a hare in the piercing gaze of a falcon. Fenris shifts his weight and the hand on the back of her chair slides free, to her shoulder, and then to the thin white scar on her throat; he traces it with the cold steel tips of his gauntlets, following its riverbed winding up over her jaw and her cheek to where it ends on the rise of bone under her eye. She blinks and he flinches, just slightly—and then, as if bracing himself for the sharp red burning of flame, he lifts his hand and for the first time—
Fenris touches the scarred flesh of her brand.
It is a glancing brush, at first, a light touch made lighter by the deadened skin that rises in a perfect rayed circle between her eyes; then he touches it again, more deliberately, more delicately, finding with his fingertips the places where the raised and thicker flesh, proud flesh, meets the softer paler skin beside it, following the curving edge from the outside in until he has traced out all the lines of the sun in their dark-lifting glory. He passes his thumb over it from bottom to top once in a long smooth stroke, and even Hawke can feel the intent behind that touch—and then he spreads his hand wholly over the mark, the bare skin of his palm pressed against her skin, warm and yielding where the metal of his gauntlets was cool, closing away the sun and the sight of it from his eyes, from the world that passes them by with neither interest nor pity.
"I apologize," Hawke says then, gently, because she feels somehow that she should; Fenris closes his eyes in a deep-seated pain that she can only cause and not relieve and she thinks: perhaps her death will better serve him after all—
—and then his eyes open again in a sudden green flaring of glass-sharp anguish and he leans towards her, all the strength of his arm tensing behind the knife that still presses point-first against her breast, driving it—forward—
—and away, the blade falling from his fingers until the sharpened tip scores deep into the dark-oak wood of the floor by her feet, until the leather handle falls with a soft and hollow thump to rest, bloodless, against her heel.
Fenris says, choking, as pale as death, "No."
He sags slowly, like a cliffside being washed away by the sea, his knees giving way under him, first one, and then the other, the hand that had held the knife gripping the side of her chair with a locked elbow, a brittle brace for a body that can no longer stand in the storm. His other hand drops heavily from her forehead to her shoulder, and from her shoulder to her thigh—and then, all at once, he buckles like a blow has felled him and goes hard to his knees in front of her. His head bows forward until it rests against her knees, one hand fisted against his forehead in despair; he twines the fingers of the other into the loose fabric of her trousers as if searching for an anchor, futile and wind-beaten and without hope.
"Forgive me," he says, his voice thick and broken, his shoulders catching in quick, shallow jerks of breath. "Hawke, I cannot—forgive me."
His hair is very white, she thinks, against the blackness of her trousers and the deep tan of his skin. She says, "I forgive you."
He shudders deeply, his head bending farther into her knees, far enough that she can see the place where the twin lines of lyrium start at the top of his spine and, she knows, wind their way down his back in straight and gleaming paths of silver ink. His hand clenches harder by her knee, by his forehead, all prickling pointed armor and the sharp glint of sunlight on steel.
Hawke wishes, suddenly, surprisingly, to comfort him.
It is a peculiar sensation because this grief is the same grief that the others have shown her and she has not once wished to comfort them; all the same, it is Fenris's head on her lap and Fenris's sorrow in her hands, and in the stone-smoothed spaces of her heart she finds a desire to ease his pain for nothing but the sake of it. She is no Chantry mother and Fenris is soul-sick from something no confession can soothe, but still Hawke finds herself lifting her hand the way the sisters used to for her and resting it, gently, on his head.
"I forgive you," she says again, uncertain. His hair is softer than she remembers, sliding like cornsilk over her scarred knuckles, snagging on her callused skin in a way that would have embarrassed her in another life.
Then he turns his face into the palm of her hand and his fingers catch on her wrist, and something sounds inside her like the striking of a harp-string in a deep and full-voiced chord, something wild and sweet and piercing that has no place in the crag-sharp corners of her heart, no place in a soul made out of stone. She blinks, surprised at herself; Fenris does not notice, and a moment later his face slips away from her skin, returning to the safe, cloth-clad sanctuary of her knees.
Her hand stills; the blackness curls softly around her again. The harp-note dies, mute.
They do not move for a long time. When Fenris departs at last, he leaves the knife behind him. Hawke picks it up, sharpens it, cleans the thumbprints from the blade, and places it in a drawer with Merrill's woven-grass bracelet. She does not think of it again.
Fenris does not visit for days after that. Hawke suspects he feels some sort of shame for the sorrow he showed, or anger at his own weakness, and she would tell him he need not feel either but he does not come and so she cannot. Then, at last, he does, his face composed and his back straight when Orana lets him in, and she decides that if he will not speak of it then neither will she. They fall into their new-old routine without further missteps over the next few weeks, though she finds herself thinking often of that struck-harp moment—and wondering, in the half-dimmed seconds before sleep, if there will ever be another.
Then, one day, there is.
The moment, when the moment comes, is precious little more than the space between one second and the next, unremarkable in any way save that it occurs at all. Fenris is seated at her desk, his back turned to her as he goes through the growing stack of her neglected correspondence, answering some himself but leaving the majority for her attention. The sun marks just past noon, a gold afternoon glow lazing up the side of the dark-polished legs of the chairs, along the bared lyrium twining up his forearms, touching strands of his white hair with a fine-tipped brush of liquid light as he bends his head over her letters.
Hawke watches him from the edge of the bed, dressed and placid in her usual habits, her eyes following absently the awkward grace of his hand as he grips the pen with muscles unused to such fine work. His handwriting is cramped and narrow, but elegant in a way that suits him, a match to the sharp and prickly delicacy that she has always loved seeing in the privacy of his few tender moments. She can still recall the first time she'd tried to hold his hand—he'd waited expectantly for her to pull him somewhere and she'd laughed and said no, this is all, and he'd looked down to their linked fingers and frowned as if offended—and then, hesitantly, his fingers had relaxed, and his thumb had stroked over her thumb, and it had been so blasted sweet she'd ended up holding his hand all night just to see that defensive warmth ease through the gaps in his armor—
And then, suddenly, like a wild thing startled from sleep, her heart skips forward a full beat.
"Oh," says Hawke, stunned, and puts a hand to her chest where it hurts.
Fenris half-turns when she speaks, his pen not quite lifting from the page. "Is something wrong?"
"No. Yes. Fenris—"
"I love you," she says, her eyes wide, and the stone around her heart cracks wide open.
There is an instant's silence when he draws in a sharp breath and her heart thumps once against her ribs, hard, and then the river roars in her ears and she puts both hands to her face, fists clenched, trying desperately to make sense of the sudden senseless surging in her chest. Her heartbeat will not settle—it leaps forward and slams against the stone she has built to cage it, over and over, racing madly in the unleashed storm brewing inside her and striking each painful blow with the desperation of a trapped deer sensing freedom. She is aware, distantly, that Fenris has said her name more than once, but she ignores him, ignores the gasping breaths scraping from her own throat, ignores everything but the savage crush of emotion that swallows her whole.
She loves Fenris.
She loves him, and—she is angry—and she grieves—and she is so unbearably afraid—
The dam breaks all at once; the stone shatters like glass under the unbearable pressure that is her heartbeat. Everything she has felt, everything she has kept so carefully tucked away since that last hopeless instant before the fired sun touched her skin—it all comes out in a towering wave, thundering with white-flecked foam and cold, as cold as ice, cold enough to strike the breath from her lungs and make her double over in agony. Fenris's hands are on her hands, pulling, grasping, his voice frantic with worry—
She realizes that she is weeping.
That cannot be right—that cannot be right, because a stone does not weep and the Tranquil do not weep—but Hawke cannot stop the tears, cannot swallow down the hot lump of fear and rage that lodges in her throat, a strong and vicious thing made stronger for how long she has held it at bay. A sob catches like thorns in her chest and she chokes, desperate for air, for the cool blank blackness of her empty mind that even now recedes before her uncaged heart like the night giving way at last to the rising dawn, too brilliant to her dark-used eyes and painful, so painful that she knows she cannot bear it, will break apart into a thousand splinters like a tree run through with lightning.
Everything that has happened in the last month crashes down on her in one blow, the memories merciless and blending together until Hawke cannot pull the threads apart to make sense of them. Delia tears the fingernails from her hands again and she sobs at the remembered agony; her father's staff burns with her own magic; Teeth hands her the canteen of water and she swallows down her gratitude at his unlooked-for kindness. And then the Tranquil brand comes and it burns and she cannot look away from the white-lit sun driving down between her eyes—she will go up like smoke at the memory alone—and then it changes and she remembers herself, awake and alive, and the first hard layer laid around her heart at the realization that her failure then would bring the brand again.
Her mouth is moving. She realizes that she is speaking, bits of memories and half-dreams mixing to make a nonsense babble of pleas and prayers that spills from her tongue in fluid terror. She can feel the warm solid presence of Fenris close by, his hands on her hands the one anchor she can fix on in the cloudburst of her mind—she gathers every conscious effort left to her and says, choking, "Don't let go."
"I will not," she hears him say, "I will not—" and then his voice drifts away under the river's roar and she is lost again.
Aleron dies and the grief bears down on her like the tide; she stands at Delia's mercy, and Carn's mercy, stripped bare and gagging on shame and humiliation as they probe without care into the private places of her heart; the taste of spindleweed tea blisters her tongue, sharp and pungent; she stands waist-deep in the cold clear water of the lake, a breath from ending everything, watching as the wild singing thrush burns away into the sun.
Teeth kisses her by the pine trees and she hates him, choking with disgust and frustration; Arden saves her once, and then again, and she is too full of relief to speak. Fenris reaches out with strong arms and pulls her out of the white mists and into safety—and—she loves him. Hawke's head comes up at that, staring blindly into the tree-thick fog and the soft crush of pine needles under her feet—Fenris saved her—Fenris saved her, and Isabela saved her, and Varric and Anders—she is safe. She is safe. She is healed. She is whole.
A whole woman may feel. A whole woman may love.
She is—she is not empty—
Hawke's heart thunders in her chest. She presses a palm to it, astonished, bewildered, terrified beyond words; Fenris's hand comes with hers, his fingertips pressed to her skin until she knows he must be able to feel the chaotic beat that has no place within a Tranquil. It is difficult to breathe but she forces her lungs to fill, her gaze to pull back from the shuddering muddy mess of her mind to the true things she can see in this living moment: Fenris's hand, on her hand; his chest, heaving as if he has run too long without rest; his face, gaze fixed on her like a drowning man sights a guiding star, his eyes lit in an agony of hope.
"Hawke," he breathes, and touches one trembling thumb to her tears.
She draws in a too-thin gasp of air—and something cold and clean catches hold inside her, lifting free of the last heavy places in her heart in a wild rush of white-feathered wings, soaring on the unfettered swell of gladness and relief and love that course through her as thoroughly as a fresh salt wind off the sea. She says, sob-thick, joy-thick, "Fenris."
She has half-fallen from the side of the bed already—Fenris drags her the rest of the way with hands that shake on her shoulders, on her back, until her knees slip to either side of his hips and her weight falls full against his chest. Her arms wrap around his neck like the lifeline that he is and she thinks perhaps she is holding him too tightly, but she can't bring herself to care when his own hold is just as frantic and just as fierce, crushing her so close she loses track of which hammering heartbeat is her own.
"Fenris," she gasps, barely aware that she is speaking, barely conscious of the bone-deep shiver that runs through him at the sound of his name. "Fenris—I'm so—I'm so sorry. I never meant for this to come back with me—I never meant—"
He shakes his head against hers, voiceless in denial. She can feel his fingers clench against her shoulder and her spine. "No—" he says at last, choking. "No, Hawke—I should have found you sooner. Forgive me—I—"
"I should have told you as soon as I saw you—"
"I did not see—"
"—only I didn't know by that point there was anything to tell—"
"Fenris," she says, her heart bursting, and she kisses him.
He recoils at first, eyes wide, as if even now he cannot believe it. She smiles and it is a broken, anxious thing but it is a smile nonetheless, and a smile for him—he blinks, startled, and then his face clears like the sky after a storm and something deep in him flares so brightly that Hawke's smile widens, becomes something real, and this time when she cups his face in both hands and leans forward he is there to meet her.
There is no softness in this kiss, no gentle affirmation of affection—this is hot and bright and savage like the sea in the summer sun, each seeking to fill with the other all the soul-struck hollows and the split, patched places of their hearts, healing in one blow the bruises and the sweeping scars left by the iron brand of these last few weeks. Her hands curl around his jaw, holding him to her; his own slide into her hair and around her waist, lifting and resettling her on his lap until there is no space for even a breath between them. She pushes and he pushes back; he growls into her mouth and she revels in the sound, glories in the urgent anticipation that surges through her.
Her sunlit bedroom vanishes; the hard wood under her knees melts away. There is only Fenris's mouth and Fenris's hands and her racing pulse in her ears, and under it all the strong sweet-singing harp-note of her heart.
Fenris draws back first, a lifetime later, his lyrium glittering with both sunlight and some nameless emotion. Hawke kisses him twice more, though gently, face flushed and fingers trembling, and she says for nothing more than the pleasure of it, "I love you."
His eyes fall closed; his head drops forward, into her neck. She says it again, just as quiet, and feels him shudder, and then something hot and wet falls against her skin, one-two quick, like rain. "Hawke," he murmurs, cracked, and hoarse, and then something long and smooth in Arcanum spills out like a prayer to wrap around her, head to toe, warming her from the inside out.
"Fenris, I'm sorry."
The words slip out before she means them to, though the sentiment is not untrue; Fenris lifts his head with a bare, crooked smile, and takes her face in both hands. "You came back," he says, as if it is a simple thing, and presses his mouth, lightly, to the brand-scar on her forehead.
Hawke lets out a long, slow breath, her eyes closed, her heart thumping out an uneven joyful counter-rhythm to the hard-thudding beat in Fenris's throat. A distant door slams shut somewhere below them, Orana's voice lifting in welcome and a man's voice answering; and slowly, piece by sunlit piece, the red curtains and gleaming hardwood floors of her bedroom fade back into existence.
"That'll be Anders," Hawke whispers without moving. Her room is too bright and Fenris's arms are too warm, too long looked-for to leave so easily now. Her magic is singing under her skin like the wash of light over a stream.
"He will wait."
"No," she sighs, and pushes to her feet. Fenris comes with her without letting his hands fall away from hers, as if the moment he releases her she will vanish back into that black Tranquil nothingness. "Not for this."
"So quickly you begin to thwart my wishes," he says, though his face bears nothing of displeasure.
"As if you mind."
His hands tighten on hers, just for a moment, and then one last time he leans forward and kisses her. Sunlight dances over his white hair, down the silver lines of lyrium on his throat, his arms—and in the soft green-lit warmth of his eyes. "Perhaps not."
Hawke smiles, because she is happy, and because she loves Fenris, and because here, in his arms, in the quiet, gold-dusted air of her room—
She is not stone.
Hawke is barely halfway down the stairs before Anders' head comes up in startled recognition. He blinks, his mouth open—and then he is up the stairs as fast as she can race down them, both of them talking over the other with I can feel the Fade in you and I'm sorry for not telling you sooner and how did this happen? but rather than wait for her response he wraps her up in a crushing embrace with an easy, joyful laugh that Hawke has not heard in years. Her breath whooshes out in a sigh as he squeezes her tighter but she cannot make herself mind; he is laughing, and she is smiling, and by the time he puts her down again she is not the only one breathless.
"How—?" he says again, amazed. Hawke starts to tell him, gets as far as the lake—and then Orana comes in and bursts into tears and she starts over—and then Bodahn follows after her and there are more tears and more embraces, and by the time Orana manages to send off half a dozen slightly soggy missives to their friends Hawke has lost the thread of the story anyway and decides to wait and tell it all at once.
Her study fills to bursting over the next half-hour, her friends warring for chairs and benches in a flurry of embraces and delight that fills the room to bursting. Varric is the first to arrive, his eyes suspiciously brightening when Hawke bends towards him with a smile; Aveline follows with Donnic at her heels, and though neither of them quite yields to the emotion she can see just barely held back, Donnic takes her hand and Aveline crushes her hard in her arms hard enough to bruise.
Then Merrill and Isabela arrive together, both of them with bulging sacks of alcohol dangling at their sides, and what had been relatively ordered becomes a full-fledged free-for-all.
It is absolute chaos, loud and laughing and wonderful, voices shouting over each other and bottles passed freely from hand to hand, and Hawke finds her words stripped raw by the glorious bedlam of it. Everywhere she looks there is light and noise and motion, their friends depositing themselves in chairs and on benches to be pulled to their feet again immediately by laughter and glinting glasses. Anders claims a seat only to have it won from him by Orana's shy smile; Bodahn and Varric rescue tipping tankards from the edge of a table and settle themselves by the fireplace; Isabela perches at Aveline's elbow in the wing-backed armchair that faces the open door. The long shadows grow longer as the afternoon gives way to dusk, as someone finds matches to light the candles in the cosy, close room, as Fenris leans against the mantle, his arms crossed, and smiles at her.
She gets out most of the story in the lulls between snatches of stories and curious questions, wetting her throat every now and then with long pulls of red wine as she tells them of the iron brand and the fire and the swift stone-walling away of her heart; of the Black Hoods and the speechless terror of that first night; of the lake, and the noose-tight emptiness that had taken her when she left it. The telling comes easier, here, in the friendly riot that is her study, with less hysteria than sympathy and no somber moments to smooth over at all. She apologizes again and again her apology is waved away—and for the third time that evening Hawke finds herself fishing a handkerchief from her sleeve to pass to a wet-eyed friend.
"Sorry," says Aveline, her nose red. Isabela tosses a penknife with a cork stuck on the end over her shoulder and shoves an open bottle into Aveline's other hand. "It's so good to have you back, Hawke."
"Shouldn't have left in the first place," Hawke says with a smile. "Captains," she adds to Aveline and Isabela both, lifting her own bottle in a toast, and pretends the burning at the back of her eyes is only from the liquor.
Isabela thumps her on the back, hard enough to stagger her into Anders by the fire. "Easy," he says, catching her with one hand, the world whirling as she tries to get her feet under her again. Somewhere across the room, Fenris stands with his weight on one leg and an opaque glass in his hand, listening to Varric tell Merrill about their part in her rescue. "…day you're back."
"What?" says Hawke, blinking—and Anders' face comes back into focus, his eyebrows lifted in surprise. "I'm sorry," she says, hastily setting the bottle of wine down on a nearby table. "Sorry. I was thinking about something else."
His lips quirk, as if he hears the someone else under her words. "I said, you shouldn't overdo it the first day you're back."
"No, you're right. You're absolutely right. No more wine for me."
"Right—to gin!" shouts Isabela, and a moment later Hawke finds herself in dubious possession of both Aveline's abandoned bottle and Anders' skeptical frown. "Ha," Hawke adds, weakly, as the pirate darts away towards Orana. "That Isabela."
His frown deepens for a moment, and then he sighs, relenting, and the tight corners of his eyes ease. "Justice might not understand, but—someone should get to celebrate."
Impulsively—and the wildness of being impulsive chases through her—Hawke reaches for his arm. "Thank you," she says. "For coming after me. For healing what was left."
Anders' eyes soften with memory and the weight of too-old grief. He says, "I wish I could have given him a second chance, too."
"I know," says Hawke. No need to ask who he is; no need to cheapen his honesty with empty platitudes. They are silent a moment, and then Hawke says, "Where's Aleron?"
His lips press together. "Back in the Gallows."
"No—not to stay. To spy. He says it's what he can do to keep this from happening again."
"And you let him go? He's just—" Hawke stops herself mid-word. He's just a child—who fled alone through the forest, who found Fenris, who brought Fenris to her through a wild wood he knew nothing of surviving. He is not just a child—and if he chooses to face danger for a cause he believes in, what difference is there between his choice and hers? "Just…just don't let him get himself in too much trouble."
"I'll do my best."
"Thank you, Anders," she says again, and smiles.
"Hawke—" he starts, his voice serious, his eyes flicking up for a moment to the scar on her forehead—but before he can get out whatever question he has, Isabela has circled around again and pulled him by his feathers to a little low table by the fire, its surface covered with half-full glasses of varying liquors.
"We're going to play a game," Hawke hears Isabela tell him, her voice matter-of-fact and brooking no argument.
"I'm calling it 'Pour Whisky Down Your Throat Until You Can't Tell My Tits From Andraste's.'"
"Catchy," says Anders, and Hawke grins and leaves them to it.
Bodahn finds her then, with Sandal at his side, and takes the opportunity to press his hand to hers and welcome her home. He speaks with her only a few minutes, mentioning something about making some sandwiches in the kitchen—the sun is setting over Kirkwall, throwing long slants of dying light through her windows to mark the time well past dinner, and she supposes that with the sheer amount of alcohol saturating the room her friends shouldn't be around open flame anyway.
Then, as Bodahn heads off to the kitchen, Sandal reaches up one long arm and touches the scar on her forehead. "Not burning," he tells her, and before she can think of a single thing to say in response he is gone after his father. Hawke watches him go, speechless—and then Aveline laughs and Isabela chuckles, warm and low, and she turns away from the shock-touched moment into the brighter laughing circle of her friends. Merrill is perched on Varric's knee, both of them singing some Orzammar drinking song in the dwarven tongue—Hawke does not ask how Merrill knows the words to that one, though she finds herself desperately curious—and Isabela is draped over Aveline's shoulder, reading dirty limericks out of a slim volume Hawke had almost forgotten she had. Voices lift from the far end of the room and Hawke glances over to see Anders arguing good-naturedly with Donnic over some bottle of rum, and Orana stands between them, looking torn between diffusing the battle and simply whisking the bottle away herself.
Her heart swells behind her ribs. Hawke is happy—and more, she knows herself to be happy, surrounded by friends that she feels to be friends, warm and safe and content as she had never expected to be again. But the happiness burns so hot it hurts and she lifts the gin to her mouth, unwilling to spill more tears for such a pointless reason; she takes two long swallows and coughs around the glass rim, sputtering and wiping her mouth with the back of her hand until the press of tears is pushed wholly back.
"Does that help?"
"You should know," says Hawke, and leans her head back against Fenris's shoulder. "I learned from the best."
He lets her drop her weight into his chest, his long ear sliding against her cheek as she settles, one hand coming up to settle tentatively on her waist. "Hawke—you should not—"
"I know. I'm not. Not really." She takes another swallow, not to keep from crying but because she simply wishes to, then offers the bottle to Fenris. "You want a taste?"
He lifts an eyebrow, but when he fails to decline Hawke puts the mouth of the brown glass bottle to his lips and tips upward. She watches his throat bob as he swallows—and then he coughs suddenly, sharply, and he pushes the bottle away from both of them. "You—that is—ugh—"
"Pungent? Potent? A right kick in the pants?"
"Repulsive," he chokes, still pursing his lips as if to repel the flavor by will alone.
"Snob." She laughs, taking another obnoxious gulp to spite him, and adds, "As if cheap gin ever killed anyone." Her head is spinning pleasantly enough that she does not notice his sudden narrow-eyed glance until his hand tightens on her waist; then she blinks, trying to clear the lines of his face, and says, "What?"
His grip eases; he looks away. "Nothing."
"Don't give me that." Isabela starts a lusty seafaring ditty across the room, and a moment later both Anders and Merrill join in. "What's wrong?"
"You—" Fenris's jaw works as he forces himself to meet her eyes, and Hawke finds herself silenced by the naked yearning he allows her to see. "That is the first time you have laughed since you were taken."
Hawke touches her mouth, startled—and then her lips curve into a smile and her hand slides behind Fenris's neck. "It won't be the last," she tells him, and then she kisses him.
Fenris does not pull away this time, even in such a public place; instead he pulls her closer, the hand at her waist sliding to splay over her ribs as she opens her mouth under his. It does not last long—this is a flash of white lightning rather than a long-simmering blaze—and when she pulls back Hawke flicks her thumb over her bottom lip and grins.
"I thought you didn't like this gin."
"It may have certain applications," Fenris says, his voice dry, his eyes alight in rare good humor that does not vanish even when Isabela appears from nowhere, her bandanna slightly askew, to drop her arms around both their necks.
"Time to drink!" she announces, a flask in each hand. Her earrings jingle as she glances from Hawke to Fenris. "Am I interrupting something? I am. Feel free to continue as if I weren't here."
"Thank you for the permission."
"Too selfless for my own good." Isabela sighs dramatically, her breath strong with liquor, but her eyes are clear and bright as she smiles. "This is a party. If you're not stumbling over something you're doing it wrong."
"Stop helping, pirate," Hawke says, but she is laughing again, and she lets herself be dragged to where Merrill stands beside the little low table and its half-full glasses, her brow furrowed in contemplation as she peruses her choices.
Finally, Merrill selects two and holds them up for Hawke's appraisal. "What do you think?"
"I think it's the beginning of the end," Hawke tells her, and downs the leftward glass herself.
The rest of the night passes in a blur of images and warm words: Varric, smiling with a flash of white teeth as he recounts their half of the search and rescue; Donnic, a tumbler of something amber in one hand and his wife's fingers in the other; Anders' brown boots kicked up on an ottoman as he allows himself to relax for the first time in months. The night deepens and the dark corners grow darker, Isabela's jewelry flickering into a snake of fire around her neck as she bends to pluck an abandoned bottle from the floor, Merrill little more than a slim shadow before the glowing hearth as she holds them spellbound with a Dalish tale of lost love.
In the end, though, even that fades with Hawke's exhaustion, with the heavy lidding of her eyes until all that is left is the solid warmth of Fenris's chest against her back, his slow and steady breathing a counterweight to the gold-licked heat of cheap gin sitting deep in her stomach. She leans back, rests her temple against his cheek.
"Hawke," she hears him say, quietly, and she is asleep.
That night, she dreams.
She does not realize she is dreaming, at first; it has been weeks since she has seen the soft shifting places of the Fade, longer still since she has stepped through them without fear, and when the yellow mists part to reveal black star-studded skies and dark-wooded trees and a brilliant burning sun hanging inches from her face she cannot bite back her startled cry.
The sun does not move; she swallows her terror around the aching lump in her chest. "A dream," she tries to say, but though her mouth moves no sound emerges. Then a hand fists in her hair to drag her down to the earth and Delia smiles, her fingers around Hawke's throat, her lips pursed around the shaft of a silver bolt. "This is a dream—"
"You don't have any dreams," Delia tells her, and drives the burning brand straight through her head—
—and Carn laughs, soft and without mirth, in the grey stone circle of the open plains as her father's staff burns before her eyes. "Stop crying," he says. "We don't want to spoil your looks for the buyers."
"Shut up," she snaps, burying her face in her hands, but her fingers are burnt and blackened things, shriveled at the ends and dead to the touch and she recoils, appalled—
—and the giant turns away as Teeth drops his hand to her stomach and then to her thighs and then between her legs, as she finds herself unable to either move or speak, her shoulders digging painfully into the rough bark of a white oak tree—
"Stop it," Hawke gasps, breathless, voiceless, defenseless, but the Fade is not a place known for its mercy and her dreams are all the stronger for having been shut away so long, and it does not stop.
Delia grasps the length of Hawke's hair in one fist and shaves it all away to leave her head stubbled and bare for the branding; Carn does not stop at one tooth but pries the rest from her mouth with the same length of silver wire rusted red with her blood; Fenris turns his back on her, the hatred on his face at once false and more real for the strength of it; the river-waters flood to swallow her whole, filtering the harsh slants of sunlight around her immobile arms, stone arms, stone flesh dropping her further into the deep. Wake up, she thinks, desperate, dying, wake up, wake up, wake up—
Her eyes snap open.
Chest heaving, breath coming sharp and quick, it takes Hawke a wild moment to reconcile the soft muted blurs of her room to the brilliant afterimages of fire and the taste of blood. She blinks sweat from her eyes and lifts one trembling hand to her mouth—Fenris is still asleep beside her, so she must not have screamed—and forces her breathing to steady. Her room, her room—her bedhangings, deep scarlet and still; her fireplace, swept and unlit in this too-warm night; her high narrow windows, silver with stars and a thin cloud-covered moon. Silent.
Hawke closes her eyes again, dragging her fingertips over the slick sweaty skin of her forehead. Her lips are dry and chapped with fear; she tries to wet her lower lip with her tongue and finds it just as parched. A long, low sigh slips out as she eases the cramping muscles of her back, her thighs—and then Fenris turns his head on the pillow and very quietly says, "No."
His name ghosts from her lips, less than a whisper. "Fenris?"
His brow furrows and he flinches as if struck; then the lyrium coursing down his throat flickers with sudden light and he says, louder, "Quaeso—quaeso—no—"
"Hawke," he says, gasping as his eyes open wide, and every tattoo on his body lights up like sky at noon. His eyes are less green than black, pupils blown wide in terror as they dart from one corner of the dark room to the other, searching for something she cannot see—and then they come to rest on her, on her face, and before Hawke can think to move, to even speak, Fenris has half-risen from his pillow to crush her against his bare chest. She tumbles over in a whirl of blankets and white sheets, her shoulders sliding against the sheen of sweat on his own skin like a ribbon slides over silk, smoothly and without resistance.
"Fenris—" she tries again, and his fingers dig hard into the muscles of her back. His heart races under her cheek like the thudding of horse hooves.
"Quaeso," he says again, mindless and blind over her hair, and then a long incomprehensible string of Arcanum that she understands nothing of save her name.
Ah, but she knows nightmares too.
Hawke relaxes into his chest, tucking her chin over his shoulder and dropping one arm around the shuddering heave of his stomach. "It's all right," she murmurs, as much to herself as to him. "It's all right. It's not real."
He says nothing as she continues the quiet, meaningless litany, but eventually his breathing slows, his grip eases, and he splays a callus-rough hand over the curve of her spine. "A dream," he says at last, his voice ragged and too rough, dark with fears not meant for daylight. "Hawke, I—"
"Me too," she tells him, and her fingers trace down the line of his ribs where the now-dimmed lyrium curls. "Happens to the best of us."
Fenris lets out a silent breath of laughter that is more air than true amusement and his hand tightens on her back. "It is not the first."
"Or the worst?"
"Just so." He pauses, his mouth quirking, then adds in explanation, "This time, you were here when I woke."
There is something ugly behind that, something lonely and terrified and too tender to touch so soon, and Hawke keeps her voice light. "Well, then, don't we match nicely? Like stockings made of night terrors."
He laughs again but does not respond; instead his fingers move up her spine in a long, deliberate motion, bump over the fabric of her breastband, trace over her shoulders and neck and into her hair before wandering back down again. Hawke closes her eyes, her thumb sliding over his side, lulled by silence and the slow somber drag of Fenris's fingers over her back. She does not speak again; neither does he, as the stars fade and the slivered moon pales greyer, as the first edge of the sky begins to push back the night at last into the brighter air of morning.
They wait, in silence, for dawn.
The next thing Hawke knows, the morning sun is streaming thick and gold through her uncurtained windows across her face, and a woman's voice says, "Ooh, they do go all the way down. I owe Varric a sovereign."
"Stop that," Aveline says from further away, so mortified Hawke can hear it even through the half-dazed muddle of sleep. "Just—stop ogling and get Hawke!"
"Am I being ogled too?" Hawke asks, yawning, and cracks one eye open to find herself eye-level with Isabela's sashaying hips. Behind her, Fenris rolls over with an irritated noise and pulls the blankets so high nothing is left but white hair and the tip of one long, pointed ear. "Or just him?"
Isabela drops to the side of the bed with a flourish, kicking one leg over the other knee. "Do you have intriguing and mysterious tattoos too? Because if you're offering a private show—"
"I can hear you," Fenris points out, his voice muffled through the blankets.
"I know, pet," says Isabela, and winks at Hawke.
"Isabela." Hawke unearths a hand from the tangle of her sheets with some difficulty and rubs her face, wiping the last vestiges of sleep from her eyes. "Is there something you want?"
"That depends. Are you sharing?"
"That's it—" Hawke knocks Isabela's hip with her knee through the pile of quilts, bumping her off the mattress. "Get off the bed—damned pirate—"
Isabela stands and dusts herself off, unruffled. "Hey, don't bruise the messenger. I'm only here because the Lady of the Mannish Knuckles over there couldn't muster the brass balls to get past the doorway."
"You—" chokes Aveline, but her face is flaming red. "Hawke, I didn't want to intrude—"
"She means she thought Fenris was naked."
Fenris snorts at that—she sees the tip of his ear twitch—and Aveline grits her teeth so hard Hawke can almost hear them crack. "Stop. Helping."
Isabela grins and Hawke laughs despite herself, covering her eyes in despair as she says, "Look. Is there a reason you're here, or did you just want a captive audience?"
"I don't mind my audiences captive," Isabela says with waggling eyebrows, but in the doorway Aveline's face grows solemn and Hawke feels the easy humor of the room slip away.
She sighs and adjusts her headband. "They're convening a special tribunal. Today. In just a few minutes. I wanted to know if you were coming."
"To judge the case against Thom."
Against Teeth. The last surviving member of the Black Hoods. Her kidnapper—and her healer.
"Oh," says Hawke, blankly, and sits up, barely remembering to hold the blankets to her chest. "I don't…am I supposed to be there?"
"Only if you want," Aveline says. "You'll just be observing—they won't be calling you to speak."
Hawke snorts. "An effort to spare my feelings?"
"You are an apostate," Fenris says, and Hawke falls silent. The covers slide down until he can turn his head over his shoulder. "And the Champion. They will not wish to advertise the involvement of either."
"Wonderful. I think I preferred pretending it was about my privacy."
"No such luck," Aveline says, leaning heavily against the door. "You in or out, Hawke? I need to leave soon."
She swallows, then— "I'm in. Give me a second to get dressed."
"Got it," says Aveline, and as Hawke slides from the bed in her smalls the guard captain strides into the room just long enough to drag Isabela out by her sash. "I'll see you downstairs, Hawke," she adds—Isabela makes a rude gesture over Aveline's shoulder and mouths downstairs with a sultry wink—and then the door closes, and they are gone.
Hawke stands in the silence for a long moment, her head whirling, and then she darts into action, snatching a soft white shirt and dark trousers from the floor of her wardrobe and fumbling a pair of boots from under her desk. She barely even registers that Fenris is watching her from the bed until he speaks.
"Are you sure this is wise, Hawke?"
"Nope," she says as she shimmies into the shirt and pulls her hair through the collar. "It's probably one of the dumbest things I could do. But I'm doing it anyway."
Her fingers do not even pause on the laces of her trousers. "Judge away, elf. I need to go."
She sees him hesitate at that in the corner of her vision, and then he throws back the bedspread and stands. That catches her attention—which, she thinks, is entirely fair considering the long expanse of tanned, muscled thigh laid bare for her scrutiny—but he only pulls open a drawer of her dresser and rummages through it a moment before turning back to her with a cowl in his hands. Hawke does not protest as he crosses the room again to draw it gently over her head; nor does she object as he tugs the hood a bit lower over her forehead, eclipsing her sun-brand in black hair and soft grey wool.
Fenris adjusts the hood once more, and then his hands fall to his sides, empty. "Do you wish for me to come with you?"
Hawke considers, her gaze moving from his lyrium-marked chin to his black eyebrows drawn down in unhappiness to the clear green of his eyes. "No," she says at last, and means it. "I think I'll go this one alone."
"As you wish," he says, inclining his head—then he hesitates for a moment, and adds with his fists clenched, "Come back."
Hawke kisses him. "It's a promise," she says against his mouth, and leaves.
Kirkwall's prisons are less dingy than Hawke expects. Small, yes, and undeniably formidable—but it is Aveline's prison, after all, and she supposes she should not be surprised that the stone floors are swept clean and the torches fresh, and that each cell even comes equipped with one high, barred window to let in air and light. Fresh air, too—the prison had been built on the far side of the Viscount's Keep, carved deep into the lip of a sheer cliff overlooking the Waking Sea for the sake of both safety and expense.
Aveline meets her at the door to the deeper cells, barely more than a glimpse of copper-coin hair through thick grated wood before Hawke hears the catch of a key in the iron lock and the heavy gate swings inward. Neither of them speaks—they both know why she is here after that disaster of a tribunal, after all—and when Aveline turns with a nod down the long, straight hallway that runs the length of the Keep, Hawke falls into step behind her without hesitation. The door closes behind them, gently.
The prison is mostly silent save the quiet conversation of a pair of guardsmen at the gate, but as they move down the hallway even that soon fades to leave only the clank of Aveline's boots and the softer sounds of her own leather soles on stone. It takes precious little time to reach the cell at the end of the block—less time, in fact, than Hawke would prefer—and all too soon she finds herself caught in a trap of her own making, cornered by stone and iron and her own damnable stubbornness, face to face with the straight black bars of the last cell door in the hall.
Aveline raps one of the iron bars sharply with her mailed knuckles. The sound rings around them in a heavy, unending chime. "Visitor," she says.
The figure slumped against the opposite wall shifts without rising. The small window high above his head is white and brilliant with the noon sun, throwing a dust-thick dimming haze over the whole of the room until the air swirls with pale, silver-flecked fog, until Hawke almost cannot make out the man behind his cloak of dust and light. The shadows shift again, and then Teeth says, muffled, "Go the fuck away."
Aveline sighs and turns to Hawke. "I'll be back in a few minutes," she tells her, her lips twisted in resignation, and for the second time in as many minutes Hawke finds herself listening to the regular beat of Aveline's footsteps as they disappear down the hall.
There is a rustle under the window, then derision thinly veiling anger. "Are you deaf now, too? I said go away."
"I heard you," says Hawke, her voice steady. A distant door closes with a clank. "But I'm not leaving."
Teeth snorts. "Come to get your revenge? Torture the prisoner before the noose ruins the chance?"
"No! I—" Hawke hesitates, uncertain, and suppresses the urge to pull the cowl further down her forehead. Why has she come—why can't she let him die in peace? Surely he deserves no less; surely this is justice. Instead, she says, "I was at the tribunal."
"Ah, yes. My mockery of a trial."
"You didn't even defend yourself."
His head comes up at that, sharp enough that the movement leaves a darker, blur-edged trail in the dusty haze. "To a judge," he snarls, "who'd made up her mind before entering the room, against a witness I wasn't allowed to name, when half the room was made of your guards and the other half your devoted fans. Forgive me if I know futile when I see it."
"Fine," she snaps, stung, and swivels on her heel. "Hang, then."
Teeth laughs, suddenly, low and bitter, and the sound stops her mid-step. He says, "Finally gave up the act, hm?"
He stands, then, slowly, hampered by the manacle bolted around one ankle and the long fat links of chain that tether him to the wall; he crosses the cell with uneven steps that hang loud in the opaque air between them—and then he is there, inches from her face, his smile too white and his blond hair washed colorless, a living ghost. He says, "I knew."
Hawke sees, suddenly, a dark-wooded pine tree and blue eyes intent on hers; hears a too-warm voice murmur her name; catches the clean, crisp scent of valerian. She cannot pretend she does not know what he means. "When?"
"The first night," he says, and one long-fingered hand snakes through the bars to touch her scarred cheek. "You were crying in your sleep, my Marian."
She jerks away from him. "And you concealed it out of the kindness of your heart, I'm sure."
His hand hangs a moment in air, then wraps loosely around an iron bar at his chest. "What do you think the black hood was for?"
"Marian," Teeth says kindly, as if she is a slow child, "Tranquil mages don't cry."
"Shut up," she says, furious and hurting; she closes the gap between them in two quick steps and clenches a fire-sparking fist in his shirt. "Don't you dare pretend you were trying to save me."
He doesn't even flinch at her magic. "I don't pretend half as well as you. The bit with the lake? Genius. Delia never even saw it coming."
"You think—you stupid—" she flattens her hand over his breastbone, incoherent in her anger, shoves as hard as she can until he stumbles back. The links of the chain jangle over each other like broken bells. "There was nothing false about that day. I stripped away everything when I went to that lake because I was forced to, because Carn was expecting a Tranquil—because of you—"
"Oh, yes," he says, mocking, cruel, "because I was so threatening with my bandages and my meadowsweet and my constant protection—"
"Protection!" Hawke says, and laughs, short and sharp like a breaking branch, and the walls around them turn the sound into a thousand echoes of her empty amusement. Teeth draws back, wary, and Hawke thrusts her fist through the bars by her head. "Protection from this?" she asks, her fingers unfurling like a flower to bare the half-grown nails, and then she yanks the hood from her head and flicks away her hair, allowing the noon sun fall unhindered and undimmed over its branded cousin on her skin. "From this?"
Now he flinches, his eyes lowering to some point on her shoulder. "I had no choice—"
"Oh, and you gave me so many."
"They would have killed me—"
"I died!" Hawke shouts, and the stone rings back died died died. "You took me against my will and you let them make me Tranquil, let them use me however they wanted until there was nothing left—and you ask me to be grateful—" Her heart is racing; she presses her fingers against it until she thinks she must be swallowed by the ache. Why is she here? "I owe you nothing."
His back straightens; his lip curls. "I kept you alive. I treated your wounds—and I kept your secret without asking for anything in return!"
"Except for what you could take when no one was there to stop you—"
"You knew how I felt—you didn't push me away!"
"I couldn't have turned Carn away, you bastard—"
"I loved you!"
The admission comes suddenly, loud in the still stone prison; Hawke sucks in a breath and tastes the salt from the sea. Teeth falls back another step, though she has not touched him, and braces one white-knuckled hand on the wall under the window. His fingernails dig hard enough into the mortar between stones that Hawke can hear it crumble under the pressure.
"Loved me," she repeats, without inflection, and for a moment she is as blank and Tranquil as she ever was—then she shakes her head and the blankness falls away to leave only bitterness in its place. "Loved what. Loved an empty shell? A husk that would have accepted slavery without complaint?"
"I wouldn't have let them—"
"I think," Hawke says, gently and without condemnation, "that you would."
His eyes flick up to her forehead, just for an instant, and then Teeth turns his face away to the wall. "I wouldn't," he says again, softly, but there is no strength behind the words, no conviction, and Hawke suspects he is trying less to convince her than himself. His face is pale, his mouth tight; his eyes turn inward, as if he has caught an unexpected glimpse of himself in a half-forgotten mirror and is not sure of what he sees—then his eyes clear and he draws in a sharp breath as he looks at Hawke still standing at the door to his cell, still unflinching, almost as whole as the day she'd first set eyes on him cringing in a Lowtown alley, and when she lifts her head he bends his own, sagging against the wall beneath the window.
"You came here to torment me before I hang," he says. "For revenge."
"No," says Hawke, and realizes that it is the truth.
"Why did you come?" he asks, his face still turned to the ground, and the words are not an accusation but a plea.
"I came…" she starts—and then she trails off. She closes her eyes in the light of the sun, considering—and then the answer hits her like one of Merrill's rock fists to the chest, as blunt as a blow and as clear as the summer sky. Hawke meets his eyes, and she tells him, "I came here for me."
"Because of what I did to you."
"And because of what I did to myself."
"I don't understand."
"That's all right," Hawke says, because it is. "I do."
Voices wash over them, suddenly, as the far door opens with a creak of iron hinges, and outside Teeth's window a wild seabird lets out a fierce and distant cry. Hawke turns back to the door, to Aveline standing patient and steady for her return, but Teeth's voice stops her one last time.
"For what it's worth," he says, quietly, straightening until his hair flashes gold in the sun, until his eyes cut through the haze in one last moment of genuine honesty, "I'm sorry."
There is no rage in her, here, no anger, no shame; instead there is only pity and deep sorrow—and the clean clear breath of absolution. "Goodbye, Thom."
"Champion," he says, and does not protest when she moves away. She glances back, only once, to see through the iron bars his eyes turned up to the window above him, lost in one last glimpse of freedom in the grey-stoned prison of his future.
Then Hawke steps forward, towards Aveline, towards light.
And in one of the most exciting things that's ever happened to me in this fandom, the lovely and very talented amaranthined on tumblr drew some incredible fanart for the lake scene in part two. You can see it here on tumblr: tinyurl.com/cqc949y. Go look! It is awesome.
And now we come to the conclusion of the fic. Thank you all so much for reading and reviewing! :D
The afternoon sun hits Hawke like a brick wall when she finally emerges from the prison. The air is hot and heavy, thick with salt and the promise of rain, and it is not long before Hawke's hair is plastered to her neck and her clothes clinging to her back like damp fingers. She should go home, she thinks; Fenris is waiting and the weather is uncertain and she is tired, weary to the bone with something deeper than nightmares. She should go home.
The path forks ahead of her. Hawke pauses, shading her eyes as she glances towards Kirkwall's southern gates—and then she turns away, turns west, until she faces the setting sun.
It is steep going at first; this path down to the Wounded Coast is little-used and less maintained, and more than once Hawke finds herself catching at roots and the stubby cliff-grown trees that dot the trail when her feet slide out from under her. It is not long before her shirt is soaked through and her brand stinging with salt sweat, but when she reaches the bottom at last and steps forward onto the beckoning white sands it all falls away into the earth and stone behind her, easy as the shedding of a cloak and with just as little thought. A song is burning in the back of her throat, a voice silenced and ignored so long she aches at the pressure of it, and when she stumbles into the cold white surf of the Waking Sea there is nothing in her mind but the deep and driving pulse of magic.
Hawke lifts her hand and calls for fire.
It comes, as familiar as the wind and the sky and the shape of her name, and rests in her hand like a blossom with petals of light. Bits of it shiver here and there, her magic creaking with disuse and her control not quite steady, but it holds the shape she gives it for as long as she asks, and when at last she allows the bloom of fire to vanish upward into smoke Hawke cannot keep back her smile. The Black Hoods took from her many things, she thinks. They did not take this.
The sky darkens above her, the sun long gone behind clouds black and swollen with rain, but Hawke pays it little mind. There is magic seething under her skin and she must loose it or be lost, must remind herself of what she is and what she is not, and when a distant, rumbling roll of thunder booms across the storm-dark sea Hawke throws back her head and laughs. The cowl catches on her hair, on her neck—she tears it from her head and surrenders it to the sea, a scrap of grey cloth that hangs in the air only an instant before the water leaps to swallow it.
"Try me!" she shouts, her voice almost lost in the rising wind, her shirt twisted and sticking to her skin. There is a boulder jutting up from the shallows, a foot higher than the swelling waves and more than wide enough to stand on; Hawke scrambles atop it, spreading both arms wide as if to embrace the storm and winds that buffet her. "I'm here, I'm ready, I'm ready for anything you can throw at me—"
Then the clouds burst at last, and in her eyes and ears and mouth there is only rain.
It falls in great heavy sheets, warm and steady through the gusting winds, drenching her through in a matter of seconds. In the distance a finger of lightning leaps seaward; Hawke laughs again and mimics it with a bolt of her own, a pale imitation drawn out of her mind to pierce an imaginary enemy at her feet. The air cracks and another strike lands brighter, closer, as if in pride—or warning.
"Fair enough," Hawke says, breathless, and the words are ripped from her mouth by the roar of thunder that follows. She will leave the lightning to the Maker for now—she has other ways to set her magic free.
The fire returns when she asks, settling into her cupped hands as if it belongs there. The rain pounds around her in a voiceless, deafening cadence, whipping the waves to a white froth and pummeling her arms and hands numb, but her magic is strong and the fire still burns like a star. The wind picks up as if it wishes to beat her from her stone perch; she leans into it even as another blast of thunder cracks above her loud enough to rattle her bones, to thrum deep in her heart like the voice of the Maker himself.
A sudden wave rolls in high and cold against her shins, hard enough to make her stumble, the spray like ice chips scraping across her cheeks. Hawke lifts her chin to face the gale, closing her eyes under the onslaught of the driving rain, closing her fingers into tight fists that blaze with fire and magic.
The storm batters; she will not yield. I am not empty. I am not a stone.
I am not Tranquil.
Lightning strikes again, closer; the fire surges in her hands hot enough to scald her skin, bright enough to sear even through her closed eyes. Her throat is dry with the terrifying wildness of the storm, the black-swollen clouds, the iron hammer of her heartbeat. I will not stumble—I will not falter—I will not—
Hawke opens her eyes. The sea roils before the floodrise of her magic.
Fenris's voice leaps unbidden to her ears. Hawke.
I will not be lost.
Hawke throws back her head, throws her arms wide to the winds, throws herself headlong into the sweet siren's song of the Fade. Her magic burns through her skin like a brand, brilliant and cleansing as if Maferath himself has stoked her storm-soaked boulder into a pyre—she blazes atop it, lit from the inside out until she thinks she must go mad or die away, consumed like the last spark of oil at the bottom of a lamp's hungry wick. Fire burns at her very skin—her own fire, her own self, neither lost nor tamed—she opens her mouth and swallows flame instead of rain, breathes white-curled steam instead of wind.
There is nothing but the Fade. There is nothing but her magic.
Hawke presses the heel of her hand to her forehead, at the sun there lit as brightly as the fire around her. Nothing but a mark, now, nothing but a scar and bitter memories. Lighting strikes again and again, one-two bolts that burn acrid in her nose and raise the hairs on her arms, but she pays it little mind; she is lost in sun and shadow, in the deep press of sorrow and the agony of remembered hope. She will not forget—cannot forget—but scars fade, and memories ease, and with time Hawke knows that even these wounds will become little more than a skin-deep mark and an ache on winter nights.
She also knows that she will not have to carry this burden alone.
As if her thoughts have been heard, the winds slacken a moment and the rains ease their ceaseless drumming, and the fire around her curls closer, more calmly, into her skin. Hawke draws back into herself, blinking rainwater from her eyes; thunder rumbles low and long through the clouds above her in some great, wordless song that catches her breath in her throat. She drops her hand to her chest when her heart tries to follow after, but its own limping rhythm is not quite the unchained power of the heavens, and Hawke laughs in as much relief as to hear the sound of her voice as the thunder fades into the western sky. The storm is passing, breaking without breaking her against it. She has survived.
The boulder is slick with wind and water and she almost falls as she steps down from it, barely catching herself on its shining face before going face-first into the shallows. The Maker is laughing at her somewhere, Hawke is sure, but it matters little; she is soaked to the bone, her tunic and trousers clinging to her skin and stiff with salt as if teasing her one last time for her challenge, and neither an ounce nor a bucket of water could make her wetter than she is now.
Hawke wades to the shore, toeing her boots into the sodden sand to be sure she is on solid ground once more, and glances back over her shoulder at the sea. Its waters are still dark with the storm, the clouds still thick and black with rain, but there is no fury in it, now, no tempered rage seething for release. She has not broken; she is not empty.
Hawke smiles and starts back up the path that will lead her home.
The winds have turned cold by the time Hawke at last reaches her front door, the streets of Kirkwall dimmed and empty with the twilight rain save her lone, unsteady figure weaving her uncertain way home. Her clothes are a dead, frigid weight on her skin, heavy and thick and mercilessly clinging to what little warmth she has left, and Hawke bites back a breathless laugh at her own stupidity as her fingers fumble for the third time on the latch.
"Come on," she mutters, swiping impatiently at the dark strands of hair dripping into her eyes. "Come on, come on—"
At last—there—the latch clicks and the door swings open, and Hawke stumbles gracelessly into the firelit warmth of her mother's house. "I win," she tells the door as she kicks it closed behind her, half-drunk with exhilaration and the fact that she is so cold her bones feel ready to snap. The great hall is empty, though a fire burns cheerfully in the hearth; she lurches towards it in gratitude with a single-minded focus, leaving a wandering trail of water behind her on the stone floor. Louder, she adds, "Anyone home? Fenris? Orana?"
There is no answer, but Hawke can't seem to make herself mind; instead she drops heavily to the bench in front of the fire and tugs off her left boot. Good leather, once—it'd been dyed to match her favorite black coat—but ruined now, limp with seawater and crusted and stained with salt. "Poor boot," she says as it settles into a despairing heap at her feet, and laughs into her fingers. A log splits in the fireplace with a burst of sparks that vanish upward as quickly as they come into being; she stretches both feet towards the welcome heat, wiggling the bare toes of her left foot until the numbness vanishes into the deeper ache of pins and needles. One boot down, one to go—but she is so tired, and the bench surprisingly comfortable, and with no one here to mind what harm could it do to close her eyes, just for a moment, and think of the storm behind her—
"Fenris," she breathes, twisting so suddenly on the bench that she nearly topples off the other side. He stands at the foot of the stairs, his armor gone, one hand still on the railing and his eyebrows lifted as surprise chases naked relief across his face at her appearance. "Fenris, hi! Hello. I'm back!"
"So I see," he says, his voice and his steps both cautious as he makes his way across the room. "I expected you some time ago."
"I," she declares, "got distracted."
"So I see," he says again, lower, and his eyes track down her pale skin and her sodden shirt to her sad, ruined boot flopped into the growing puddle under her feet. "Aveline came by to say you had visited the prison."
"I did," Hawke tells him. Rainwater slides from her hair down her cheek to drip quietly to her lap. "And then I went down to the Coast."
His lips press together in disapproval, but when Hawke reaches for him he allows her to wrap her arms around his waist and bury her head in his hip. His fingers brush lightly over her hair, across her cheek, down the lines of her throat. "You are cold."
"Bitterly." Her voice comes out muffled in his leathers, but she does not move, and he does not pull away. "The sun went down."
"While you stood in the storm."
"It was testing me."
"Oh, Fenris. You sound so skeptical."
"I cannot imagine why."
Hawke smiles. "It was a pivotal moment of self-discovery."
"And of no sense at all," Fenris adds, his voice dry, and when his warm fingers slide to the back of her neck Hawke tips her face up to meet his eyes. "Most people don't court death so lightly, Hawke."
"It was hardly courting. It was more a wink and a coquettish blush, with maybe an awkward flirt on the side."
"Fenris," she parrots, but under the mock irritation in his tone she can hear the lingering threads of true worry, and she relents. "I'm sorry. I lost track of time."
His mouth twists with more resignation than bitterness. "A poor excuse," he tells her, but there is no heat to it, and when Hawke smiles his own lips twitch in answer. "Come. It is warmer upstairs."
"Now you're speaking my language," Hawke agrees, pushing to her feet with only a moment's wavering; Fenris has the courtesy to catch her by the arm when her knees buckle, and when she nearly goes head over heels trying to remove her other boot he reaches down and tugs it off himself.
"You are like a child," he grumbles, tossing the ruined leather towards its mate by the fire.
Hawke throws an arm around his waist as much to steady herself as to soak up the heat of his skin. "Helpless," she agrees, and grins when he pulls a face at her icy, wet clothing and sopping hair pressed full against his side.
By the time they have reached her room, though, Hawke is shivering in earnest, and not even Fenris's arm across her shoulders is enough to ease the winter-deep cold driving into her bones. The rain is still falling outside, a slow, steady rhythm drumming against her windows, the drops on the glass throwing back the firelight like tiny stars as Fenris stokes the flames into life again. It is warmer up here, she can tell, the heat prickling along her exposed skin in waves, but her fingers are still numb and clumsy and she cannot control their shaking long enough to undo the buttons of her shirt. A rumble of distant thunder rolls across them and she pauses, thinking of the Coast, thinking of Teeth—
And then warm fingers close over her own to still their useless plucking. Fenris lifts an eyebrow, inquisitive and concerned; Hawke quirks a smile in response and drops her hands to her sides in acquiescence as he makes short work of the clasps that run from neck to navel. Then a thought occurs to Hawke suddenly enough that she cannot quite stifle her laugh, and Fenris pauses on the third button from the bottom. "Something amuses you?"
She laughs again through teeth that will not stop chattering. "Nothing. It's just exactly the plot of one of Varric's novels."
"Oh, yes. The heroine comes in soaking wet and the hero leaps up from his chair—come on, you've read this one. 'My dear, you're chilled to the bone.'"
She pauses expectantly, but Fenris only pulls the shirt from her shoulders and tosses it to the floor in front of the fire before turning his attention to the knot of her belt.
"My dear, you're chilled to the bone."
Fenris snorts, his fingers busy with the second knot of her belt. "I will not."
"You're chilled to the bone," Hawke says for him, her voice lowered in a poor imitation of his own; then she switches to a higher, breathy register that sounds remarkably like the noblewoman next door. "Oh no, sir, thank you, a cup of hot tea and I'll be perfectly fine!"
Fenris shakes his head as he achieves victory over the belt at last. "You are a fool, Hawke."
"Poor woman," says Hawke, warming to the story, "to be caught in such a terrible storm—"
"Because you did not have the sense to come out of it—"
"In such a terrible storm," Hawke continues, overriding Fenris. "We simply must get you out of those clothes." She flings her hair over one shoulder and a spray of cold water flicks over Fenris's face; he scowls, insulted as a cat at her carelessness, and Hawke laughs. "Oh, I couldn't possibly," she continues, mincing her words at the ends as she brushes the water from his nose. "If my mother found out, or my aunts—oh, the breach of propriety—how could I ever?"
"Was this written by Varric or Isabela?"
"Fenris! It's rude to interrupt."
"I beg your pardon."
"Granted. Where was I?"
"The breach of propriety."
"Oh, yes." At last Fenris has managed to get her laces untied, and Hawke switches again to the voice of her imaginary baron. "Do not jeopardize your survival for the sake of your modesty," she tells Fenris sternly. Her trousers are soaked through and sticking to her legs, and she braces one hand on Fenris's shoulder as she tries to push them down over her knees. "Come, lay with me on my incredibly convenient bed—I will preserve your maidenly virginity—I will only—"
"Hawke, be careful—"
But the warning comes too late. Her foot catches in her trouser leg hard enough to yank herself off balance—and Fenris, too, when her hand fists uselessly and firmly in the collar of his shirt—she hears one of his palms smack against the heavy footboard of her bed, but the stone is slick with rainwater and her body too clumsy with cold, and she only has half an instant to think well, at least you're taking him down with you before both of them go tumbling into an ungainly heap on the floor.
It takes a moment to sort out the elbows and knees and whirling world around her, but soon enough Hawke gathers her wits to find herself clad only in her smalls with her sodden pants still clinging to one ankle, lying half atop Fenris on the thick rug before the fireplace. One of his arms is still wrapped tightly around her waist; the other he has thrown over his eyes as if overcome by either amusement or despair.
"Hawke," he groans—definitely despair—and presses his fingers into the bare skin over her spine. "You are impossible."
She snorts a laugh but doesn't waste time retorting; instead, she kicks away her trousers and shimmies her way up Fenris's chest until she can drop a kiss on his chin, then finishes the baron's speech. "I will only keep you warm."
One green eye cracks open in the shadow of his forearm. "You are as cold as a fish."
"And you are as romantic as a brick."
The other eye opens at that, and even half-lit as he is Hawke can see the corners of his mouth turn up in wry humor. "Coming from you, Hawke, I should consider that a compliment."
"Oh? Known many seductive bricks, then, have you?"
"Something like that," he says, voice dropping, and then with no warning to speak of the muscles of his shoulders bunch and he rolls her onto her back, closer to the heat of the fire and well-pinned under the warm solidity of his hips. He braces his elbows on either side of her head, one of his legs sliding between her knees as he holds her eyes in that opaque green gaze—and then, quietly, he kisses her.
He is more gentle than she expects—certainly more tender, and for the span of a heartbeat she is almost lost to the treacherous prickle of tears behind her eyes. But she refuses to do that to Fenris—he has suffered enough of her tears in these last few days, after all—so instead she swallows them back and lifts her head to meet him, her slow-drying hair sliding free from her forehead, her fingers fumbling at the clasps of his shirt, at the hem at his waist—
Fenris goes utterly still above her.
For a moment Hawke panics, certain somehow she has hurt him—and then without moving, without opening his eyes, he says, "Your hands are—like ice."
Hawke takes a moment to consider this, flexes her fingers against the curling warmth of Fenris's stomach—and then without a moment more of hesitation she slides both palms under his tunic to splay flat against his chest. Fenris jerks, choking, and Hawke laughs; he manages to secure one of her arms with his own but the other still bears his weight, and before he can maneuver her into submission she twists and slips her fingers around to his shoulders and then up to the wonderfully warm skin of the back of his neck.
"Ooh, Fenris, you're a furnace—"
"Stop, Hawke—stop that—" He shakes his head like a cat, rolling blind away from the unexpected torment of her temperature; she laughs again, relenting, and in the time it takes for her to draw breath Fenris has slid her arm from his shirt and pinned both her wrists above her head on the rug.
They stare at each other a moment, his white hair catching the firelight like tarnished gold, his eyes flashing green in the shadows, his thumb on the driving pulse in her wrist. Then his eyes darken, his amusement fades, and when he speaks the murmur is nearly lost to the crackling of the hearth.
Fenris asks, "Why did you go to the Wounded Coast?"
Hawke closes her eyes. She'd known this question was coming, known too she could only delay it so long—and yet she has no idea what to tell him, nothing to say that will not hurt him or herself. And yet to dismiss the question is impossible—Fenris of them all deserves an explanation in the light of his patience and his efforts on her behalf—and more than that she knows that if she chooses not to tell him he will accept it, will not press her again on the subject, and in the end that is why she speaks.
"There was a lake," she says, and opens her eyes. He meets her gaze levelly and without censure, waiting as he has waited for days for her to gather her thoughts into coherency. "At the last camp. Delia sent me to wash dishes and to bathe for the buyers."
The corners of his eyes tighten in anger but Fenris does not interrupt, and Hawke is grateful for it. "It was the first time they had permitted me to be alone. The water was so cold—there was a bird singing, and I thought maybe I could escape—but the lake was too large to swim and there was nowhere to go, and all I could think was that between the emptiness of the camp behind me and the promise of only suffering and slavery ahead, that perhaps the only choice I had was to—well." She cannot meet his eyes; she looks instead past the white blur of his hair to the dim and shadowed ceiling above her. "To let the lake have me instead."
His fingers tense on her wrist, his mouth opening—but she hurries on before he can stop her. "But I didn't—I didn't—I remembered what you said, once, to Anders—" and now she looks at him, and for a moment she is drowning again in the fury and the hurt and the sorrow in his eyes; she blinks, hard, and does not look away again. "You said some things are worse than slavery. You said—if there is a future to be had—but there wasn't, not if I died—let myself die, so I took everything that wasn't Tranquil that they'd left to me and gave it to the lake instead."
Fenris swallows, his jaw clenched. Hawke tries for a smile, but between the memories and Fenris's eyes there is little room for it and instead she leans up, carefully, to kiss him. "I went to the Coast," she says against his mouth, "to get it back."
"Your magic," he says, hoarse and unsteady.
"Yes. And more than that—I wanted—I needed to know that I could still fight, still feel, that I could stand alone in the storm and not be lost to it. Even without you."
His voice drops; his eyes hold hers still. "And can you?"
"Yes," she says: the truth. And then she adds, because it is also true, "But I don't want to."
"Good," he says fiercely, and closes his mouth over hers.
The warmth of the hearth pales in comparison. The logs there burn quietly, complacently; this is fire and desperation and the wildness of knowing a thing almost lost, a heat that rushes to every part of her still cold to set it burning until there is nothing left but the heady blaze of his breath and his touch and his taste. She tries to reach for him and his fingers tighten around her wrists, gentle and unyielding, and when she opens her mouth under his he does not hesitate to take what she offers, to slide his tongue between her lips and his knee higher between her thighs until she gasps for breath.
Hawke breaks away, throws her head back on the rug to swallow air; Fenris only moves to her throat, lingering with tongue and teeth over the pulse that hammers under her skin. One hand still pins both of hers to the rug—some prisons, she discovers, she is not so eager to escape—and then the other skims down her collarbone until she can feel the tell-tale tug on her breastband. A breathless laugh escapes her, more from the surprise of her delight than anything else—and then her smalls are gone and the heated wash of the fire presses over her bared skin and Fenris's hand—
"You left me," he says against the skin of her throat, his mouth brushing over her heartbeat, his voice as rough as she has ever heard it, "to try yourself against a storm."
"To find your magic. To feel the bruises and scars that have been left behind."
His teeth close briefly at the base of her neck sharp enough to startle her, hard enough to send a bolt of heat straight to the pit of her stomach. "Yes—"
"Then tell me, Hawke," Fenris murmurs as he finds her mouth again with his own, his eyes bright and hot, "what you feel now."
She blinks, startled by the question, but there is nothing but open truth and need in his face and in his touch. What does she feel? The coarseness of the rug behind her shoulders, the slide of damp hair over her cheeks, Fenris's weight on her thighs, Fenris's hand on her hands and his lips on the raised and rippled skin of her forehead—
"Oh," says Hawke.
What she feels—what she feels, not the Tranquil or the stone or the empty shell as brittle as glass. She flexes her hands above her head and feels Fenris's strength pressed against her wrists; she arches towards him and feels the rasp of his thumb, callused and warm, over her breast. That she likes—she closes her eyes and stretches upwards again, seeking more—and then she draws back, draws in a breath, quirks a smile as she looks up at him because as impossibly trite as the sentiment is it is the only thing she can say. "I feel—whole."
His eyebrow lifts, his mouth twisting in amusement. "Whole."
"Yes," she says, defiant and delighted, freeing a hand from his hold to twine her fingers into the soft white hair falling across the back of his neck. "Whole. And warm. And home."
"The same room it has always been," Fenris says, his voice dry, but his eyes are alight with the knowledge that she means neither the fireplace nor the walls around them. She smiles and Fenris laughs, then, low and warm, and his palm slides down her bare arms to her shoulder to her throat to the swell of her breast, skimming over her stomach and the curve of her hip to leave a trail of impossible heat on her skin. Hawke kisses him again and again, pushing and giving alike as he gives, as her hand slides further into his hair to keep him with her. His mouth goes to her throat and she laughs herself, turning her head until her lips just brush the tip of his long, tapered ear.
"I missed you," she murmurs.
His hand tightens on her hip, the muscles of his shoulders tensing as he lifts himself on one elbow to meet her eyes. Half his face is dimmed in shadow, the other half lit almost too brilliantly by the snapping fire; and yet his eyes are brighter still, somehow, than even the flame, and for many moments there is no sound in the room but the fire and their breath and the soft rhythmic hushing of rain against the windows.
Then he says, "Then do not leave again."
Her voice comes fierce and quiet, strong as stone and just as certain. Fenris searches her face a moment more as her fingers slide from his hair to the slender lines of lyrium chasing down his throat—and then, all at once, his gaze sharpens and his shoulders roll forward and he smiles, and when Hawke pulls him down to meet her with her own gaze burning just as hot, he comes willingly and with a sigh of her name across her lips that has her arching towards his hands again. His eagerness is as great as hers; one hand twists into her hair as the other returns to her breast, deliberate and painful with tenderness, and he shifts only to allow her the freedom to reach the clasps of his tunic. It does not take her long—she knows them by touch, after all, and even a month's absence has not dimmed the memory of their workings—and in the space of two slow breaths she has bared his chest to the firelight—and to her searching fingers.
She draws them soft and steady over his chest, over the twined-silver branches reaching through his skin, impressing on her mind anew the tracings of his muscles and his warming skin and the knotted twists of his scars, reminding herself of the things she has lost and the things she has not lost until there is precious little left inside her but the taste of his mouth and the sweet hum of his lyrium and the sound of his breath in her ears. Her heart is racing—she revels in it, urges the beat faster and faster until it pounds hard enough to leap from her chest. Fenris shifts above her and when his skin slides too smoothly over hers she realizes she is hot—blazing from the inside out—how could she have ever been cold?
Fenris kisses her and Hawke laughs—and says, "Yes," and "there," and when his hand slips to her waist and lower she says, "Fenris, that feels—" and then she says nothing at all because words have been lost to her; he brings her over the edge with his fingers alone, and by the time he allows her to speak again she is limp and trembling and as desperate for his touch as for air.
"I like that," she says to the ceiling, her eyes closed; Fenris snorts into her neck.
"You are easy to please."
"Easier now than I was," Hawke tells him; it comes out more seriously than she means it to, but she has been gone for too long and she has missed him for too long, and that she can enjoy the touch of a lover now is testament enough that she is not what she once was. She will not let her feelings wither sunless inside her heart; she will never hide herself again in the stone.
Fenris meets her gaze as if he knows what she means; she smiles—and means it—and then she cannot wait a moment more, cannot let another instant pass by with her heart still trapped in the fear-stark cage of memory. She brushes the white fall of his hair from his eyes, touches his face with the scarred and half-healed skin of her fingers and he does not flinch; she presses his shoulder and he allows himself to be turned until she can sit astride him, her hips in the cradle of his hips, her hands at the laces at his waist. Fenris lets her, watching with open warmth as she unknots the leather and slides it down over his hips, and then as if to banish even the last lingering half-thoughts of shadowed dark-wooded pine trees and unwelcome embraces, he cups his hands around her jaw and pulls her down to kiss her.
She lets him; then she draws back and closes her eyes, rests her branded forehead against his like the last breath of sunlight before coming home, and says, plainly, "I love you."
A shudder runs through him as thoroughly as a gale shakes through slender branches, a glimmer of lyrium's unsteady light brushing against her closed eyelids—and then his fingers splay wide and coal-hot on her back as he wraps his arms around her waist, as he digs his heels into the rug and lifts his hips to meet hers in one unhesitating stroke. The immediacy of it startles them both; Hawke draws in a breath, and then another, easing homeward as his fingers tense and un-tense on her spine, as his hooded eyes fix themselves on hers like a ship sighting the last living star. Then she rolls forward, clumsy and uncertain at first with too little practice and too many memories, but he is there to meet her and to catch her, evening the rhythm until she grasps hold of it.
Always the anchor, Hawke thinks distantly as she leans over him, her fingers twining with his at the newest arrow-scar on his shoulder left by the woman with the red hair; always the linchpin in the savage gleam of Kirkwall's harder edges, always the steady storm-lit beacon that she can trust to guide her steps, to help her find herself again—
To find herself—
Her back bows as she trembles into a sigh, voiceless, euphoric; she opens her eyes when he stops, so close, but Fenris is not nearly through with her, and before she can even draw breath he has turned her again to her back on the rug before the still-burning fire, his face fierce with gladness and relief and something deeper, something nameless, at once wilder and more familiar and so powerful she aches at the pressure of it, at the answering cry surging in her own heart.
"Fenris," she says, and it is as if the word has loosed an arrow between them. He quickens and she does too, soaring again, caught in the swift-winging flight of breath and hammering hearts and fingers pressing into well-loved skin, in the rasp of promises made less with words than the heady glide of mouths and scars and broken edges easing back into place. His hands tense on her waist, her only warning—he buries his head in her neck and his hips drive hard into hers at last, and then for the second time she bends under the weight of the heavy wave that swallows her. There is nothing but the sea—there is nothing but Fenris—there is nothing but the hard-thudding beat of her heart—
—There, she thinks. Peace.
The world rights itself slowly, piece by piece gliding into existence again like the white sails of ships emerging from the mist. The gilded blur of her room dwindles into the red hangings of her bed and the carved wood of her desk and the flame-gold sheen of sweat on Fenris's skin; the roaring in her ears gives way to the little crackling fire, to the soft beating of rain on glass, to the quick, quiet draws of air at her shoulder as Fenris slips free to lie beside her on the rug.
He touches her hair, damp now with sweat and less with rainwater, and a corner of his mouth turns up in a smile. "You no longer look cold."
Hawke laughs, sated and satisfied and thoroughly not cold, and says, "Smug bastard."
His smile broadens but he allows her the point, and when she tucks her head under his chin he even goes so far as to drape an arm around her shoulders to draw her closer. They lie together in contented silence for a long time, easy with the rainfall and with each other, but all too soon Hawke becomes aware of her still-sticky skin and her hopelessly tangled hair, and with one last kiss to his chin she pushes reluctantly to her feet. The weight of his gaze follows after like a physical thing; she tosses a grin over her shoulder and is rewarded with a small smile of his own as she vanishes into the small, adjoining bathing room. She doesn't linger, though, staying only long enough to wet a cloth in the washbasin and rub herself down with brisk, thorough strokes and to knot up her hair behind her head until it is well out of the way.
Still, by the time she returns, Fenris has risen as well to stand by the window, a rust-colored blanket from her bed slung over his hips—and that, she suspects, is more for the sake of her privacy than any concern for his own modesty. Hawke does not bother with clothing of her own; the room is lit only by the small fire behind them, the night well-fallen, and the rain still heavy enough to obscure what little detail the darkness does not hide. Instead she crosses the room on bare feet until she can wrap her arms around his waist from behind, resting her chin on his white-veined shoulder as she holds tight to the steady safeguard of his strength.
Fenris lifts a hand and pushes open the lower pane of the window to let in the evening's breeze and the unmuffled sound of water on stone. A faint trace of moonlight darts down the lyrium on his fingers like tiny silverfish as he draws back, letting his hand come to rest on her hands at his waist; Hawke leans her head against his, and together they watch the last sigh of the storm.
The rain falls steadily, tiny droplets bursting against the stone sill with the sound of small, flat bells ringing the evening vespers. Bits of clouds thin here and there with errant breezes, letting scant fingers of moonlight trickle through to shaft light over a length of wall draped with damp ivy; across the grey slate of a distant roof; down the back of a lonely guardsman walking his patrol in the streets below them, his cloaked shoulders hunched up by his ears in paltry defense against the weather. In the darkness, somewhere, a nested thrush lets out a quiet, sighing song that ripples down the scale.
"I don't want Teeth to die," Hawke murmurs over his shoulder, and the sudden sentiment surprises her. She hesitates, her arms tightening around Fenris, and then just as softly, she asks, "Is that wrong?"
His thumb strokes over her wrist. "I would kill him even now," he murmurs.
"Sometimes I want to," she admits. The downpour continues, slow and unhurried; the guardsman quietly passes out of sight. Hawke can feel the swell of Fenris's chest as he breathes in and out. "I dream of killing him in a hundred different ways. And then I wake up, and all I can think of is the water he gave me when I was thirsty, and the valerian he gave me when I was in pain. But I can't kill him without him—dying, and—I don't know how to save him. Fenris, I'm so tired of death."
Fenris says nothing for a long time. Neither of them moves, her chest pressed to his back, his fingers laced through hers as they watch Kirkwall's rain-blurred edges shift and slip through the shadows of the ebbing storm. A faint, wispy mist begins to rise from the streets, just enough to soften what sharp edges are left and to dampen the cooler air easing in through the window, and then Fenris sighs and says only, "I know, Hawke."
They do not leave the window until the rain stops.
Two days pass before the last grey clouds lift over Kirkwall. Then the morning of the third day dawns clear and cool, a faint northern breeze skimming over the Vinmark Mountains to fill the streets of Hightown with the clean crisp scent of pine, and for the first time since she returned to the city Hawke finds herself awake before Fenris. His sleep is still deep enough that she can slip from the bed without waking him, and she pulls on a shirt and trousers and makes her way downstairs, caught up in the silence of the morning skies and the white-muted hush of a city not yet stirring.
She means to go to the kitchen and brew a cup of tea and then perhaps drift into the study to read; instead, somehow, she finds herself moving to the front door, her bare feet nearly silent on the stone, her fingers twisting the latch until the door stands open and she can see the empty square laid out before her stoop. It is early enough that the streets are still half-hidden in pale blue shadows, but Hawke only leans against the jamb. There is a sense of anticipation floating around her shoulders, an impression that something important and irrevocable has been decided and she must, she must wait here to meet it or regret for the rest of her life letting this moment pass her by.
So Hawke leans against the door, her ghosts gathered patiently at her feet, and waits.
It doesn't take long—maybe five minutes, maybe ten—long enough only for the lines of shadow to draw closer to the buildings that cast them, to recede under the rising light of dawn like tidewater giving way to solid ground. Then Hawke hears them: voices, first, followed by footsteps, both kept low as their owners round the corner of the square to step into her line of sight.
Isabela, and Varric, and Aveline close behind, and all three of them with faces like errant schoolchildren caught at the creek rather than at lessons.
"Hawke," says Aveline, recovering first. "Good morning."
"Morning," she says lazily. She does not so much as shift her weight in the doorway. "Long night?"
Isabela breaks into a saunter across the square, brazen in discovery and apparently quite free of the shame that neither Varric nor Aveline can quite hide. "The longest," she says, tossing her head as she passes through a gap in the shadows, and for an instant her earring flares so bright Hawke cannot look at it. "You wouldn't believe where we've been."
"Isabela," Aveline says in warning, but the pirate pays her little attention, so she and Varric are forced to follow behind as Isabela approaches Hawke's open door. "Hawke," Aveline says then, trying a different tack, her hands spread placatingly before her. "We would have told you, but there wasn't time—"
"Time for what?"
"To stage a daring rescue," Isabela says, swiveling on one heel to lean back against the wall beside Hawke. One hand goes to her forehead in a mockery of dramatic emotion; the other fists itself over her heart. "A rescue of truly epic proportions, featuring greased palms and sweat-slicked skin and really well-oiled—"
"—hinges, big girl, no need to get testy." Isabela laughs and winks at Hawke, who cannot help but return the smile despite her misgivings. Aveline sighs and buries her face in her hand.
"I wanted to tell you," she says again, her voice muffled by the leather of her gloves.
"Stop fussing and just spit it out," Hawke says, and her smile slips at the sound of anxiety in Aveline's tone, at the resignation drawn all over Varric's face. "Who did you rescue?"
Then the Chantry bells toll, slowly, ponderously, beating out the hour across the city in steady bronze-voiced booms, and Hawke remembers at last an empty gallows and who was meant to hang atop it.
"Oh," she says, blank with realization, and for a moment she tastes only the bitter bite of valerian.
A quiet step sounds behind her and a hand touches lightly, carefully, the center of her back. Fenris says, "You were tired of death."
She turns to look at him, fully dressed in his leathers and his armor, his gauntlets flashing silver, his eyes steady and green as grass as he meets her gaze. "I was. I am," she says, too bewildered to be angry, and then, "you freed him?"
"No," he says quickly; his hand tenses on her back, just for a moment, and Hawke sees the effort it costs him, has cost him, to let Teeth walk living from Aveline's prison. "Isabela arranged…an alternative sentencing."
"That's one way to put it," Varric mutters with a wry glance over his shoulder.
Isabela only tips her head back against the wall until she can grin up at the sky—though the smile has an edge to it, less happiness than grim satisfaction at a task done and gone and no longer worth the worry. She says, "I hear Ferelden still needs strong hands in the rebuilding effort. Those darkspawn tend to leave such a mess."
"Oh?" says Hawke, still swimming somewhere between fury and unbearable relief. "And so you just sent him with…what, a polite note tied with ribbon?"
"Of course not. I also persuaded a good crew to keep him locked up until they dock at Denerim. And—let's just say Their Royal Majesties still owe me a favor."
"A really big favor. Like, a full night's hard work's worth of a favor."
Hawke puts up a hand to block out Isabela's waggling eyebrows and suggestive shoulder shimmy, opting instead to face Varric and Aveline behind her. "And you two helped with this?"
"Not by choice," Aveline mutters with a side-eyed glare at Isabela.
"And Anders? Merrill?"
"Seeing off the ship even as we speak," Isabela singsongs.
"You were all in this together," says Hawke, accusatory and pleading both, but Varric shrugs.
"The broody elf asks for help, how can I say no?" Fenris chokes behind her but Varric is merciless, his good humor returning at the chance to call out Fenris on his softer side. "Comes in with these big soulful eyes asking me to break into a prison on Hawke's behalf, sincere as a damn bride giving vows—"
"Dwarf," Fenris snarls, his ears flushing, but Hawke barely notices—she is caught in the sudden giddy rush of unexpected gladness, relieved beyond words to be freed from this last stone-heavy burden, drunk on the wine-sweet surety that this is one regret she will not be forced to carry with her an instant longer. Teeth, gone; Thom saved, saved and sent safely away to a place where he can take the shreds of his life and make them into something new, something better. In the prison she had seen his heart—and he had seen himself—and though she had known him to be not wholly irredeemable she had not seen a way to save him—and then Fenris, of all people—Fenris, as always, had stepped into the dark place at her feet and lit the flaring torch.
She should have known, she thinks, breathless with something deep and unnamable, should have known he'd be the one to tear the death-weight from her shoulders—he'd come after her in the woods, after all, pulled her out of the white and soundless mists into the steadiness of his arms—and then again he'd found her balanced on the point of a promised knife, cracking her stone-strong shell clean through to bring her back to herself—and here he is again, knowing her better than she knows herself, unwilling to add the bitter pangs of remorse to the heaviness she already carries with her even at the cost of his own vengeance.
Hawke says, "Fenris," and her voice sounds strange to her own ears; but when he tears his glare from the dwarf to meet her eyes she does not hesitate before pulling him into a kiss. She does not linger long—he is stiff with surprise and she herself is still too shaken for more—but she does give him what she can of what she has left until she finds herself forced to draw back to breathe.
"Oh," says Isabela. Aveline's face is bright red over her shoulder. "Can I have one of those if I ask nicely?"
"No," Hawke says with a grin. Fenris turns away, into the cooler dimness of the house, but Hawke can see that he is smiling too.
"Well," says Isabela, resigned, "fair enough. Come on, then, since you're up—we're going to get Anders and Merrill and we're going shopping."
Isabela swings out a saucy hip and gestures at her own forehead. "Can't have you going about like that all the time, can we?"
Aveline opens her mouth as if to protest, but a thoughtful look passes over her face. "It's not a bad idea," she admits. "The less attention drawn to you now, the better. Isabela might be right."
"'Course I am," Isabela says then, slinging one arm over Hawke's shoulder and drawing her forward, step by step, into the paling gold light of sunrise. "Besides, I found this amazing hat shop in Lowtown."
"Is that so?" Hawke says, laughing, letting herself be pulled. Isabela chatters on, releasing her to poke Aveline in the cheek until she smiles; Varric chuckles at them both and Bianca's stock gleams as he turns away. Hawke watches them a moment, her heart caught in her throat; then she turns to the open doorway at her back, at Fenris filling it, his lips curved up in a smile, his eyes warm on her face. "Well," she adds, only to him, and stretches out her hand. "Come on, then."
Fenris takes her hand, his fingers threading through hers with a surety that aches, and when they step together into the brilliant daybreak she thinks only a moment of the sun-bright brand on her brow. Only a scar, now, only fading; not Tranquil, not empty, not stone—only gladness, and peace, and the slow refilling of her heart.
Hawke lifts her face to the rising sun, and she laughs.