Breath rasped in his throat as he fled along the broken remains of the Imperial Highway, keeping to the forests whenever possible. The scent of loam and pine and deadfall filled his gasping lungs. Three days. Three days since the signal fire had been lit and the king's army overwhelmed. Two days since he'd last eaten, finishing the short rations he'd managed to shove in his pockets right before the battle when there was no time to eat and his stomach was churning anyway. One day since the ache in his legs and feet had dulled to a dim throb and then to numbness. But Lothering was on the horizon.
He couldn't stop or he'd start to feel the pain of strained muscles. He could see the town as he crested the hill, his two-handed sword heavy on his back. He didn't know how much time he had, though, before the horde of Darkspawn surged across the Wilds.
Running up the hill to the bridge that would bring him into the town, he stopped short suddenly. Several dead bodies just lay where they'd fallen on the time-roughened stone bridge. His panting brought the stench of their rotted state to his throat and though it wasn't the worst thing he'd ever smelled, he still had to stifle his gag reflex. He covered his nose and mouth as he approached, cautiously. Several had been killed by magic from the burns on their bodies. Fear for his sisters, especially Bethany, turned his mouth dry. Heart pounding for an entirely different reason, he started running again. What had they done?
He ran down the steps to the fields surrounding the village, barely registering the the tents sprawled out in front of the defensive wall. Past the Chantry and the tiny shacks where most of the village artisans lived and plied their trades, he dodged men, women, children, all seeming to be rushing about gathering anything they could carry. Every face he passed drawn in worry and fear. Somehow, he redoubled his pace, heading for the family farm.
"Carver!" He skidded to a halt, collapsing forward slightly, his hands on his knees, his leg muscles screaming. He sucked in air, unable to raise his head for a moment. "Carver?" At the more tentative query he raised his head and generous hips, a slim waist and a torn and dirty skirt filled his view. He took a deeper breath and raise his head higher. Pale cleavage, a generous expanse of female flesh, desperately rising and falling in time with his own frantic breathing met his eyes.
"Peaches?" He managed to gasp out before she flung herself into his arms so hard he was forced to catch her and brace himself. She managed to wriggle until she could plant her lips on his, but he pushed her gently away, still unable to catch his breath. He set her on her feet and held her at arms length. "Peaches! Listen to me! Get your family and get out of here. The darkspawn are coming. Ostagar fell!"
"Oh, Carver!" She looked up at him, blue eyes wide. "I - I saw you and - I thought you were dead!" She clutched at one of his hands with both of hers and pressed his palm flat to her chest, right between her breasts. "You have to come with me! Carver, please, you have to protect me!"
Staring at where his hand had been placed, he shook his head to clear it. Her scent, flowers and sweat, hay and earth, exertion and passion and-. "I'll find you. I have to help my family. Go! Help yours!" With a last longing look, the girl turned and fled.
Margaret put her hands on her hips and stared incredulously at her mother. "Mother, you cannot take Father's trunk. How many times did you and he have to go on the run when we were kids? Did you forget how to pack?" The small two bedroom house was a wreck with their belongings strewn all over the few pieces of furniture in order to help the three women better sort what they absolutely needed to carry that much faster.
Leandra glared at her oldest daughter. "Your father was alive then and that was all I needed! This is all I have, now!" Margaret glared right back at her mother, biting off a retort. What? We're not enough of a reminder?
"Mother," Bethany's kind voice intruded. Always the peacemaker. "We can't carry the trunk, itself. What if we took the most important things with us in our packs? And Margaret can take Father's staff." Margaret wrinkled her nose at the prospect. It was a powerful weapon, but the stylized naked woman on the top - especially since it had been carved by their father and lovingly painted a gaudy gold - had always made her uncomfortable. But, if it would get them all moving sooner...
"Fine. I'll take it and Father's old mage robe. Maybe we can make it fit one of us as we go." Quickly, Margaret threw the lid open and began sorting out their father's belongings. His old robes were tied into a bundle she could carry at the bottom of her pack until they could fix them. His staff joined hers across her back. Bethany found a small pouch at the bottom, under a sword and shield from who knew where, that contained several pieces of jewelry. Margaret held out her pack to put it in, they'd go through it later. Now wasn't the time.
"What about Carver's things?" Bethany asked, hope plain in her large brown eyes. Margaret sighed. I guess if we don't find him, we can sell the bigger things. If we have to. Margaret wanted the chance to mourn her brother, but had steeled herself against his survival when that tall, blond warrior claiming to be a Grey Warden survivor from Ostagar had stumbled into the Chantry with a dark haired elf mage in tow. Who somehow still seemed to do all their talking. Margaret hadn't run into a lot of elves in her time in Lothering, with it's small Alienage, and in the rural areas where they'd lived before, elves were rare. The Hawkes never had coin to hire servants or field hands. It just wasn't usually the tiny female with the staff on her back, but the large human male that negotiated with Revered Mothers.
The sound of the door slamming against the wall and a male voice shouting, "Mother!" made all three women jump where they stood. Instinctively, Margaret had her hand behind her back with a fireball ready to go before she even registered that the voice was familiar. Only one male's voice would yell like that. It took her a moment to calm the surge of adrenaline and snuff the fireball, but in the meantime, Bethany and their mother had both rushed to greet the very tall warrior that was Bethany's twin. Margaret straightened up from her defensive semi-crouch, light headed in relief, and walked to greet her brother, putting what she hoped was a welcoming smile on her face, the adrenaline surging through her veins making politeness difficult. "Carver. Glad to see the rumors of your demise were premature." Wait, that didn't sound remotely like I'd wanted it to.
His brows drew down and his eyes narrowed. Well, that didn't take long. "What were you going to do, leave without me?"
Bethany and Mother stepped away from Carver as he stepped closer to Margaret. Unflinchingly she met his eyes. "Yes. As a matter of fact, I was going to evacuate our mother and sister ahead of the darkspawn horde."
He blinked at Margaret. "How did you-?" She rolled her eyes and turned to finish packing.
"There were Grey Wardens." Bethany's sweeter voice spoke up. "Sister and I ran into one of them at the Chantry."
"Grey Wardens! They... they were supposed to have all died in the first wave!" Margaret turned at the sound of the surprise in his voice.
She shook her head at her brother's astonishment. "Doesn't matter, they're long gone now. Heard they're trying to raise an army. Join them if you want. I need to get Mother and Bethany to safety."
"Why, by Andraste's ass, do you think I ran here from Ostagar in the first place, sister?"
"Fine, Carver. Bethany, hand him the weapons and that shield and all the stuff we gathered for him if we ran into him on the road." Margaret didn't look up as she shoved the last of the magically enhanced jewels down deep toward the bottom of her pack, under her father's mage robes. She'd also wrapped them in her small clothes, hoping a brigand wouldn't be smart enough, or would be too squeamish, to find them. As soon as Carver got his gear settled, it was time to leave Lothering.
"So, you weren't going to leave me?" he asked, slinging the shield across his back.
"Why, by the Maker's hairy arse, would I do that?" Margaret demanded as she snapped her fingers for Hopper, her mabari, to get off his lazy backside and follow her.
The family joined the exodus of refugees. The Revered Mother led her flock of widows and orphans, flanked by almost every Templar that had been in the Chantry. While Margaret had spent most of her life fleeing the Templars, and tended to view them with a wary eye, Ser Bryant was a sensible one. He took in hers and Bethany's staves with a glance and a raised eyebrow, then turned a blind eye. Working with a mage, apparently, even two apostates, was preferable to the Darkspawn. One of the older boys in the center of the ring of defenders, regaled his fellow children with the tale of how "the Grey Warden gave me a silver coin straight out of her own purse!" Margaret caught Bethany's eye and they both grinned at that.
Catching Carver's attention where he stood scanning the refugees with a worried expression on his face, she jerked her head to the rear of the column of refugees. "With the Templars in the middle, the rear's undefended. We'll likely get hit from behind, wouldn't you think, Brother?"
Carver wiped sweat out of his eyes and reluctantly pulled his eyes away from their search. Is he actually looking for that brainless Peaches at a time like this? You're supposed to think with the bigger head, Brother Dear. The heat of the blistering sun high over head wasn't abated by the columns of smoke that trailed upwards from the horizon behind them. He glanced backward. "You're right. We're sitting ducks."
"Let me talk to Ser Bryant. It'll do us no good to take rear guard if there's no way to warn anyone to run."
Carver nodded. "Make it a quick conversation, Sister. There's no time for flirting."
She sniffed and glared up at him. "I do not flirt with Templars."
"Of course not."
Margaret resisted the urge to stick her tongue out at her younger brother as she turned to find Ser Bryant again. See? I am adult enough to let him have the last word. I may have to point that out to him later. "Ser Bryant?"
"Hawke?" The tall, dark haired man stepped out of the formation, his tone polite. Courteous, even to a known apostate. "How can I help you?"
"Actually, I was going to offer to help you." He politely inclined his head, waiting for her to continue. She cleared her throat, fear (Andraste's ass! I'm talking to a bloody Templar!) welled up inside her and constricted her throat.
"Um, right. Well, we're awfully strung out here, Ser Bryant. My brother and I, we are going to take up the rear guard and keep a watch out for any advance scouts looking for us. How shall I signal you if we find trouble?" She clasped her hands in front of her stomach to keep herself from doing anything stupid with her fingers.
The Templar eyed her staff where it stood above her head, his eyes widened and his cheeks turned red, probably seeing the top of her second staff. "I suppose you and your brother are used to... working together?"
He wrenched his eyes back to meet hers and took his helmet off to run his gauntleted hand through his damp, sweaty hair. Before he could respond, though, the Revered Mother's voice sounded from behind them. "Ser Bryant, I certainly hope you're not about to refuse this girl's help just because she's an apostate?"
"Your Grace!" The Templar bowed. "I was actually about to suggest she signal with her staff as we don't have the men to spare for messenger duties. Three bursts into the air?" Margaret felt her stomach untwist at the Templar's word. She nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
The Revered Mother turned her tired gaze to Margaret and lifted her hand with a questioning look. Obediently, Margaret knelt on one knee with her head bowed.
"Blessed are they who stand before
The corrupt and the wicked and do not falter.
Blessed are the peacekeepers, the champions of the just."
Margaret glanced up at the Revered Mother's odd choice for a benediction and briefly wondered if it was because of her apostate status. The old woman motioned for her to rise. "Maker go with you and Andraste watch over you, child."
Margaret bowed her head in thanks and nodded once at Ser Bryant. As she turned to walk away she heard the Templar ask, "Reverence, are you sure we can trust an apostate to walk rear guard?"
The Revered Mother's voice didn't bother to hide her annoyance. "These are her friends and family, too, Ser Bryant. She and her brother risk much. Besides, there is something about that girl..." the sentence trailed off as Margaret got too far away to hear them over the creak of wagon wheels, the lowing of oxen and the shrieks of children chasing each other through the caravan. She shook her head and dodged a little girl squealing and giggling as she ran from a boy who bore a strong resemblance to her.
Margaret found her brother and sister waiting for her at the rear of the column. While she expected Bethany, their mother's appearance was a surprise. "Mother, you should be further up in the column where the Templars can protect you."
"Thank you, sister. I kept telling her that." Carver crossed his arms and glared at their sole parent.
"Nonsense. I am not going to hide behind the Templar's skirts while my children risk their lives for us all."
It took a monumental effort of will, but Margaret did not roll her eyes at her mother. She turned to Bethany, though, and said, "And you! You shouldn't be back here either!"
The younger woman smiled, her warm brown eyes crinkling at the corners. "Sister, your healing magic has always been rubbish. You and Carver will need me to keep you alive if worse comes to worst." Margaret met Carver's gaze. He rolled his eyes and threw up his hands dramatically as he walked away muttering about impossible women.
Glancing from her mother to her baby sister, Margaret frowned. "I can't keep either of you from doing this, can I?" They both shook their heads. "Fine. Mother try to stay back and out of the way. You distracting us will get one of us killed. Beth, do not charge up to be with us. Stay by mother. I'd leave Hopper with you for protection, but I think Carver and I are going to need him. After all, the more Darkspawn we kill, the less make it through to you and to the refugees."
They glanced at each other. Leandra yanked Margaret off-balance and pulled her into a hug. "Be careful, Margaret. You are too much like your father." Margaret kissed her cheek in reply.
Bethany hugged her, too, and whispered, "Don't do anything stupid, big sister."
Margaret grinned. "Of course not! I like my hide in one piece, Beth!"
The four stepped out of the streaming line of refugees and waited for the column to pass by. The town's elves brought up the rear and Margaret found herself pitying them even more than the orphans. Doomed to squalor, the elves were considered the most expendable and had been the last to be evacuated. She shook her head and met Bethany's eyes, wide with compassion. There was nothing they could do, though. Just defend them from the Darkspawn.
Once the column passed, Margaret led her brother and Hopper to the end and made certain they were several yards away from Bethany and Leandra, but not so far that Beth would have trouble healing them if it came down to it. "Try not to get their blood on you, sister," Carver advised.
She glanced up at her brother. "That'll be a bit difficult, won't it?"
He frowned at her, "I'm serious. It's poison. It'll turn you into a … a..."
"I don't know, they didn't tell us. But the Grey Wardens gave us all pitying looks."
"Lovely." She cleared her throat. "Thanks for agreeing to help me help the villagers, Carver."
He shrugged. "They aren't all complete wastes of skin, Margaret. Besides, I want to make sure they get away, too."
"'They' wouldn't happen to include a busty farmer's daughter by the name of 'Peaches,' would they?"