photo art by tatjna
"Prompt: I've always loved the moment when you first meet Anders in DA2 and he brandishes his stave at you. Freedom's Call - a crappy stave with an evocative name, it only does 9 damage, is worth a grand total of 2 silver 48, and has obviously seen better days. When you leave Anders in Awakening, he has the best stave that money can buy (or you can loot off a corpse). When he flees the Vigil with a raging Justice newly in his head, he has nothing. Yet by the time we reach that fateful moment in Kirkwall, he has Freedom's Call - a stave that only he can wield. What happened here?”
He walked into our valley in the winter of ’30. I was a boy then, barely taller than the sheep I tended. I didn’t know anything about mages or inquisitions or Exalted Marches. Neither did anybody else.
That day had passed like any other before it: I grazed the flock on the lower seventh—my favorite pasture, for you could see the whole of Hambleton up there, made by distance small enough to hold in the palm of your hand.
In the late afternoon sun I lazed like my charges on the grassy hillock, an apple in my hand and a whistle on my lips. That is, until I spotted him, one small, gray spot on the trail that curved into our valley from the Vimmarks beyond.
At first he seemed nothing remarkable: just another traveler, a messenger maybe, moving with unhurried persistence toward the cluster of thatch-and-mud houses that made up center town. But then he passed Ser Lucas and Ser Fletcher. Though he himself paid the Templars no heed, they ceased their gambling and regarded him with great interest, even long after he’d passed them by.
That made me curious, for little ever attracted their attention but a low-slung bodice or a favorable dice roll, and never before had I seen a man entirely dismiss them. So I hopped up from my grassy seat, my flock quite forgotten, and scrambled down the hill to follow after the stranger.
I caught up with him at the main square, where stood our Chantry and the town well. There the road forked in several different directions. One branch bore straight ahead, across the river to the sprawling pastures owned by the Chantry. Another swerved wide, up to the stone terraces where we yeomen grazed our herds. Still another path curled away from Hambleton and into the mountains, to Markham three days hence. The stranger frowned in consideration, though to me he seemed less concerned about which path to take than the Chantry that loomed before him.
I watched him from behind a corner at a safe yet proximate distance, studying his movements, his expressions, his dress. He wore a tunic of fine-spun fabric, dyed gold and black and cropped to the knees. It was bound at the waist by two narrow belts and a green overskirt that appeared to be soft, finely-tanned leather. On his forearms were dark cuffs, and instead of a cloak he wore on his shoulders two great bursts of black feathers that looked like crows in molting. They were full, soft, and clasped at the throat with a wide gold and silver collar.
On one ear flashed a small earring: a golden circle that caught the sun and seemed to set itself ablaze. I was fascinated by it, as I’d never before seen jewelry on a man. I didn’t know it was allowed.
He leaned on heavy-looking walking stick, the top of which had long ago been snapped off by some accident or another. He loomed tall above the split wood, and with a shudder I thought of Adain’s bedtime tales, the ones with stories of ogres that snapped tree trunks to use as their toothpicks.
But the stranger was no darkspawn, and as fine as his clothes were, they were also threadbare and road-stained, with several crudely-stitched patches on the knees and elbows. The man seemed to have fared little better. His last shave had been days or even weeks prior, and his tawny, scraggled hair hung lank and loose around his blunt chin. Yet on him there remained a vague sort of magic, the hint of lands and customs far distant from Hambleton.
He drifted toward a nearby food stand, where grizzled old Bart fried up sheep shank and hot peppers on an open grill. Bart glanced at the stranger and, apparently finding little of lasting interest, bowed his head back toward his skewers.
Without relaxing his grip on his walking stick, the stranger removed two coins from a pouch at his hip. “Will this buy me one of those skewers?” he said.
Bart shook his head, though not unkindly. “It’ll buy you some feed, though.”
The stranger sighed and nodded, and Bart disappeared behind his stall to retrieve the goods.
I spotted a flash of movement—Ser Lucas and Ser Fletcher had joined us in the square. They loitered by the well, hands resting on their sword pommels. The stranger couldn’t have seen them, back turned as it was, but I swear he knew their presence, for his shoulders tensed together anyway.
I picked up a small stone and hurled it at Ser Lucas’s head.
Ser Lucas yelped, a sound that brought a wicked smile to my lips—and to the stranger’s.
“D’you throw a rock at me?” Ser Lucas growled at the man.
“No,” said the stranger without turning around. Bart returned then, slapping a small bag of oats on the counter. With a furtive eye on the Templars, he pocketed the stranger’s coins swiftly, before their shine could be seen.
Ser Lucas took another step forward, and Bart dropped his gaze, suddenly fascinated once more by his sizzling kebabs. But when the Templar spoke, it was only to the stranger. “D’you see who done thrown it?”
“No,” said the stranger again.
“Rocks got to come from somewhere,” said Ser Fletcher.
Finally, the stranger turned to regard the Templars. In return Ser Fletcher squared his shoulders and puffed out his chest, so that the stranger couldn’t miss the sword and flames insignia embroidered on his mud-spattered tunic. The stranger’s gaze shifted from Ser Lucas to Ser Fletcher, and for the briefest of moments, I thought I saw his honey-colored eyes flash blue. Without knowing why, I felt a sudden chill.
“Perhaps it was an avalanche,” the stranger offered in a light voice.
Bart stifled a laugh, and the sound made Ser Lucas frown. Stepping forward, he grabbed the bag of feed from the counter and tossed it to Ser Fletcher.
“The Chantry thanks you for your donation, serrah,” said Ser Lucas. Then he and the stranger eyed each other a long time, like dogs that circle each other for the same prized patch of grass, each daring the other to snap first. It was many moments before Ser Lucas spoke again. “You’d best be on your way soon, traveler. Staying here’ll cost you more ‘n you can afford.”
The stranger said nothing. Ser Fletcher laughed, and the two Templars turned away, marching back toward their post.
Brow furrowed, the stranger watched them go. His fingers adjusted their grip on his walking stick, and his mouth twitched, almost as if he were conversing with himself. Oddly the air smelled of storms, though no clouds were in sight.
“Templars,” muttered Bart. The stranger shook his head, and the smell of storms faded. Perhaps I’d imagined it. “Says they protect us from the magickers, from the abominations what want our blood.” Bart snorted. “So they say.”
“I’ve never seen Templars before without full plate on,” murmured the stranger.
“Plate? As in, metal?” Bart frowned, peering distrustfully at the stranger’s clothes. If the bag of feed had still been before him, I was sure he would have withdrawn it. “Exactly what fancy land you from, lad? You ain’t one of them ponces from Starkhaven, are you?”
“Just a traveler passing through,” corrected the stranger.
“Aye, well,” said Bart balefully, “We ain’t got the coin here to parade about in tin cans. Or,” he eyed the stranger’s pauldrons, “feathers.”
The stranger pursed his lips, subdued by Bart’s wisdom.
I knew it was impolite to intrude on the conversations of my elders, but I could contain myself no longer. Bristling with excitement over what had just occurred, I abandoned my hiding spot and sprinted to the stranger’s side.
“Thanks, messere. For not handing me over to the Templars, I mean.”The words tumbled out in a rush.
The stranger ignored me – which at my height and years I was quite used to, though of late it had begun to annoy me more and more. I refused to let it happen now, though, keeping my heart and mind fixed on my goal. I stepped around him and into his path once more.
“I’m Jo,” I tried again. “I like your feathers.”
The man politely but determinedly stepped around me and did not meet my gaze.
“I really owe you, messere,” I said, maneuvering myself between him and his path again, so he’d have no choice but to pay me heed. “Come back to my house. I’ll feed you?”
The man hesitated, rubbing one hand over his stomach. Then, perhaps realizing that he would never be rid of me until he acquiesced, he nodded. I whooped and led him down the path to my house—though I couldn’t help but notice that his gaze remained drawn to the Chantry behind him, long after it disappeared behind house and hill.
We walked the trail to my house without speaking, him full of fatigue and me full of too many questions to decide which should be first. Something intangible and warm hung in the air between us. Our silence made me feel very old, for adults rarely trusted me to my own thoughts unmolested, and I decided then that I very much approved of this stranger, whoever he might be.
Our home may not have been a Starkhaven palace, but it was strong and solid and it had weathered many a storm, the way Father had intended. The house itself was adobe and thatch. Inside was large enough to accommodate a fire pit and a permanent table, as well as a small altar to Andraste by the south window, which overlooked the mountains. Outside it was painted white and yellow—a rare touch so high in the Vimmarks. Father had done it to remind Mother of her native Amaranthine, though to be honest I’m not quite sure how I knew this, given how rarely Mother spoke of either Father or Ferelden.
Around the house lay our claim: seven neat terraces divided by mortarless stone, the kind folk had laid in this land for centuries. We’d long ago harvested the year’s crop and sent what we could off to Markham, and now the step lay bare, awaiting the season’s first snow. Behind that was our corral, a goodly size, big enough to hold thirty sheep—
Whom, as soon as I spied Mother sweeping the doorway, I realized I’d forgotten to bring in.
“Jo,” she scolded, lips pursed down at her work. She gripped the broom in her hand with white knuckles, and I kept a smart distance away from her. “You left the flock again.”
“Don’t you ‘sorry’ me. You know what happens if the Chantry finds—“ She wheeled around to wag her finger, but her voice got stuck in her throat when she at last noticed the man by my side. “Oh. I didn’t realize you’d brought company. Good evening, messere.”
“Good evening, mi’lady,” replied the stranger. He stepped forward and bowed deeply, his overskirt swishing grandly like some courtly Starkhaven prince. We both stared at him. But Mother collected herself quickly and, to my surprise, curtseyed in reply. I’d never seen her do that before.
“Are you a friend of Jo’s?” she said, returning to her usual posture.
“He just stood up to the Templars,” I said, unable to hide the pride in my voice, as if the stranger’s accomplishment had been my own.
Her eyebrows rose into her dark hair. “Well, then. Isn’t that something?”
The stranger did not interject his thoughts, instead seizing the opportunity to take stock of all that surrounded him: our home, our terraces, us. I saw his eyes come to rest on the elfroot and embrium planted by the entrance of our house. Why he found them so fascinating, I can’t say; Father had planted the herbs shortly before he’d been taken, but even so many years later they remained sorry specimens of their breed, wilted and perennially stunted. Mother just couldn’t make them grow the way he had, she often complained. Still, the stranger must have found great import in their presence, for when his gaze once more shifted back to Mother, much of the tension had eased away from his shoulders.
“I did very little,” he said apologetically. “Your brother did all my hard work for me.”
“Son. Jo’s my son,” Mother corrected. Not even our hardest sun could affect Mother’s dark, Fereldan complexion—but she was pink now, flushed to the tips of her ears, I don’t know why.
“Then you must be an enchanter as well as a beauty,” said the stranger smoothly, with another courtly tilt of his head. This made Mother’s eyelashes flutter.
“Aren’t you the dashing Starkhaven prince?” She sounded both flustered and interested. “My name is Mari. And you are…?” Her voice trailed away as she eyed him up and down.
“Call me Anders.” His was a strange name, I thought, akin to being named “Marcher” or “Tevinter”. I almost told him as much, but I hadn’t seen Mother smile so broadly in such a long time, and I didn’t want anything to sour her on our new visitor.
“Anders, then. Wait here, and I’ll fetch some water.” She turned back into the house, smoothing her hands on her skirts and her hair as she went.
The man named Anders turned to me.
“Jo, is it?” I nodded. “You were watching me for quite some time.”
It was not a question, though it did leave me fumbling for the proper answer. “I-I’m sorry,” I began. “I didn’t mean—”
He held up one hand, and I fell silent immediately. “Smart thinking,” he said. “A man who keeps his eye on the exits will never be taken by surprise.”
I gaped at him, unable and unwilling to correct his misconception of my manhood. At a loss for any suitable response, I settled for nodding dumbly instead.
Mother returned then, relieving me of the burden of conversation. She handed Anders a cup of water, from which he drank greedily but not noisily. She watched him, eyes soft, as he drank.
“I insist you stay for supper. Any man who stands up to Lucas and Fletcher is a prince in our home.” Her brows knitted together. “Those men should be ashamed to wear the sword and flames.”
“The real Templars are in Markham,” I explained to Anders. “Like my brother, Adain.”
Over the cup’s brim, his gaze sharply shifted back to me, and suddenly I felt I had said something very wrong, though I could not pinpoint what exactly. Once again I swore I saw those his eyes flash blue. But when he spoke, his voice was light and gentle, just as it had been when he’d teased Ser Lucas in the square.
“Your brother could probably teach them all about who’s trouble and who’s not,” he said. Then he sighed from deep within his belly. “Thank you for the water, Mari. But I can’t stay. I should be moving on.”
“But it’s too late in the day to resume your journey,” said Mother. “When the sun sets, you won’t see two steps ahead of you.” She frowned at Anders’s walking stick, eyeing it up and down. Then she brightened. I knew that look—it was one that meant she’d come up with a scheme she found particularly clever, usually one that involved me performing various chores. “Jo could use a hand in the thatching. Why don’t the two of you work a spell, and then we’ll all eat?”
Anders’s stomach loosed then a particularly insistent growl, and the sound had him chewing at his lip, knowing that he’d been betrayed. He nodded his assent.
“Good. Help him with his things, Jo,” said Mother.
My heart thudded, threatening to tear free of its cage. I stretched up to my tiptoes to help Anders shrug off his pauldrons; then I took his cup and his cuffs and his pouches, which I nearly dropped in eagerness, for they were larger and heavier than I’d expected. Anders stopped me, however, when I reached for his walking stick. The instant I touched it, he pried away my fingers and leaned it against the wall of our house, with a look that permitted no interference.
For a few hours, Anders and I worked on the thatching. It was the kind of manly chore that never seemed to get done; like fishing or hunting, the more hours you spent on it, the more it needed. But I was happy to do it now. Adain used to do the thatching, and it was he who taught me the proper ways of twisting bundles and stitching them to the roof timbers so that the rain wouldn’t soak through. He once told me that when Father was still around, he could thatch a roof that would last ten summers long. I wasn’t sure whether to believe him, for Adain was always telling all manner of wild stories about Father, until Mother would rap him on the back of his head and tell him to be quiet.
The stranger and I sat outside the house and prepared the thatch, twisting the tops of the grass bundles so they’d stay together when sewn into the frame. Perhaps my smallness offered an advantage, for Anders seemed ill-equipped to handle the task. His over-long fingers couldn’t quite grip the grasses properly, and whichever stalks he twisted only let loose many more to fall free. After a short while he was surrounded by fallen grass like a threshed wheat field. I tried not to think the poorer of him for it; there were many things he could do that I could not, like walk long distances and stand up to bullies. Still, I had to ask: “Have you ever done this before?”
“Once,” he admitted. “When I was about your age. My father tried to show me how, though I’m not sure I was any better at it then.” He furrowed his brow down at the bundle in his hand. “That was a very long time ago.”
I felt the kinship between us renewed, even bolstered by the idea that a man such as he had ever been my age. Courage set my tongue to flapping. “Are you from around here?”
He shook his head.
“Where are you from?”
“Far away,” he said. He grabbed another bundle and twisted; stalks shot in every direction.
“Oh.” I wrung my own bundle, neat and clean. “Where are you going?”
“Far away,” he repeated.
“Jo,” called Mother from inside the house. “Leave the man be.”
“Yes, Mother,” I replied with a great roll of my eyes. Then I lowered my voice, so that it could only be heard between us men. “So where’d you get your walking stick?”
With a sudden application of too much force, Anders jabbed himself with a bit of grass. He sucked in a harsh breath, and a dot of blood pooled from his new wound.
“Jo,” said Mother. “A word, please.”
I glanced at Anders, hoping to trade a long-suffering glance or perhaps even a fraternal sigh over the dogged insistence of mothers, but he was too preoccupied with his wounded finger. His other hand twitched, as if he might do something clever with those over-long fingers of his. But when his eyes flicked over me, his hand stilled and instead he stuck the whole of his wound into his mouth.
Faintly disappointed, I scurried into the house to answer Mother’s call. Her floured fists were on her hips, and she had a very serious look on her face.
“Stop pestering our guest,” she said. “It’s rude to bother people on what they’d rather not talk about.” She frowned down at my muddy hands and the grass stuck to my trousers. “Now wash up for supper.”
Begrudgingly I returned outside and dunked my head in the water trough, shaking it dry like a dog in from the rain. Mother was always insisting on washing: washing one’s hands, washing one’s clothes. You’d think we were launderers, not mountain folk. It was enough to hurt a boy’s pride.
I’d hoped to be dry before Anders could notice me, but to my surprise he’d also sidled up to the trough, though he did not dunk his head as I had. Instead, he’d taken out a small rag and wet it, using it to carefully brush the grass from his overskirt and the mud from his boots. Then he dipped his hands in the trough and scrubbed thoroughly. He scraped out the mud under his fingernails. He splashed water over his face and rubbed it a few times. Then, taking a small string from somewhere inside his tunic, he smoothed his hair and tied the crown of it back from his face. When he was done, he winked slyly at me; only then did I realize I’d been staring. But I couldn’t help it. None of the men I knew were so proud about their looks.
In the doorway Mother watched us, her hand lingering on her breast. She swallowed as if gulping water from a cup. “Supper’s on,” she said briskly, then turned back into the house.
When Anders and I entered, we saw three bowls had been set around the table. Since Adain had left, the table usually felt too large, but with the third bowl in Father’s vacant seat, our spread seemed better and more welcoming, more like a table was meant to.
Mother was a good cook, and tonight’s supper was even better than most. Mother’s eyes sparkled as Anders devoured whatever she put in front of him: biscuits, jam, stew, eggs--even her potatoes, which I knew for a fact weren’t very good but which he asked for seconds and thirds of all the same.
Then we all leaned back, holding our stomachs, and I listened to Mother and Anders prattle on in the way of adults, laughing and teasing each other almost like old friends. I could tell Mother was trying to suss out facts about our guest, but Anders dodged her at every turn, though he was unfailingly polite and spoke readily enough about the places and people he’d seen. He must have been traveling for many weeks, because he had plenty of news from towns he’d visited as far back as Hercinia and even Amaranthine, and still others I’d never even heard of before. But of himself or why he traveled, he offered nothing.
Afterwards I washed the dishes and swept the floor while Anders and Mother chatted some more. When I was finished, I tried to resume my seat at the table, but Mother gave me a look and I trudged over to my bedroll instead, while Anders diplomatically retired outside.
“Isn’t it peculiar how he won’t talk about himself?” I whispered to Mother as I unfurled my bedroll.
“Peculiar?” Mother nodded. “I suppose you’re right about that.”
“I’ve never seen a man like him before.”
“I don’t know. You saw his like in Amaranthine sometimes.” I went very still. Mother never spoke of Amaranthine. “A bad one was poison, but a good one clear as glass. Never asked for much, but made your life the richer for it. You never saw them for very long, though, not before they were back on the road, wherever that might take them.”
“I like him.” My voice was serious. “He reminds me of Father.”
I half-expected a cuff for that, but she simply hummed noncommittally. “He is very kind, and gentle. But there’s something about him too,” she said, her voice far away. “Something underneath the gentleness… something…” Her voice trailed away.
“Dangerous?” I offered.
When she smiled down at me, it was as if she were seeing me for the first time that night.
“He’s dangerous all right.” She chuckled and ruffled my hair. “But not to us. In fact, I don’t think we’ve ever had a safer man in our house.”
She kissed my head then and went outdoors to sit with our guest. I hastened through my prayers to Andraste and climbed into my fleece roll. I lay as quietly as I could, so that I might better hear the low voices carrying in through the open entrance.
Anders must have been a rare man indeed, for in no time at all he had Mother talking about all manner of subjects she usually avoided with the townfolk—Markham, politics, even the magickers.
“Yes, Anders, you’ll see. Calenhad was only the first. The way things are just can’t last. Folk here don’t see it yet, but they will, someday. Keeping magickers walled off from the rest of the world works only for the top Circles: Cumberland, the Gallows, the like. For the rest of us, it just don’t make sense. Too much going in, nothing coming out—too much space for too little results. And it cripples towns like ours, takes all our eligible girls and all our strongest boys when we need them here for the harvest.”
“Interesting,” said Anders. “I’ve heard the opposite quite a bit lately, and from people with pretty clear heads too. They say the Circles should have more power, that the mages should be kept even further from town, where they can’t hurt anybody.”
“Hurt anybody? By the Maker.” She paused, and I could tell she was grinding herself up for one of her speeches. “Listen here, Anders. My man, he was as gentle as a doe, just like his father before him. All either of them wanted was a patch of land big enough to carry a family through a winter. Hurt anybody? Hah! My man Adain couldn’t so much as wring a chicken’s neck; I had to do it for him. No, I don’t care what the Chantry says. I say let ‘em all try a Vimmark chill, then you’ll see properly which men ought and ought not to be locked up for their own good.”
Before Anders next spoke, there was a long companionable pause, as he considered the weight of her words. “How long has your husband been at the Circle?”
“Adain was taken to Markham when Jo was only two,” she said. “I don’t think Jo remembers much of it. But Adain—that is, my eldest, named after my man—he did remember. He saw the whole thing. I don’t think he ever got over the shock, not with his father and his grandfather so long outside the Circle. As soon as he was old enough he enlisted.” Mother sighed, and it was as if she’d drawn the breath directly from the navel of the world, only to release it in one short gasp. “At least they’re together, I suppose. They can watch out for one another. Thank the Maker for small comforts.”
Anders’s voice had softened considerably. “Do you often hear from your husband?”
“Once a season he writes, when he has the mind to.” Anders made a noise of dismay, but Mother cut him off. “It’s been seven years since he was taken, messere. That’s a long time to remember anybody. Or—any promises.”
Anders abruptly cleared his throat. “Yet still you tend his embrium and elfroot.”
“I do. Yes. That’s fair. That I do.” She sounded flustered, as if Anders had gotten the drop on her. “Maybe even now I’ve got too much of the old Amaranthine lady in me, to be such a sentimental fool all these years.” Then her voice dropped, and I could barely hear her. “My man gone. My eldest too. If it weren’t for Jo and the mountain, I’d think I dreamed those years.”
“It wasn’t magic that did this to your family, Mari,” said Anders softly.
“And it wasn’t magic that could stop it neither.” Mother chuckled sadly. “If only…”
“If only what?”
“If only there weren’t ever again any magic in this valley,” she said, “maybe then Jo and I might finally find some peace.”
They sat in silence for many moments, and I thought the conversation had finished. But eventually Mother spoke once more, and the conversation abruptly turned to the fashions of Amaranthine, what women were wearing “back in civilization”, as she said. She pestered Anders to describe the women of the Bannorn, and he indulged her, going on about how the ladies had begun to fashion their hats in blue and silver, and wear fox fur on their shoulders, in solidarity for the Grey Wardens. Talk like that seemed foolish to me coming from a grown man, yet Anders didn’t seem the least bit bothered. Indeed, he seemed to enjoy it, far moreso than he had the conversation about Father.
It couldn’t keep my attention however. I turned what Mother had said over and over in my mind. Was it true? Could Father really not wring a chicken’s neck? In all his stories, Adain had never once mentioned that.
I must have dozed, for with a start I realized the conversation had ceased, and Mother lay still in her bedroll. I slipped out of my fleece and over to our visitor, who was using Adain’s old roll. I watched him very carefully for several heartbeats to make absolutely certain his breathing was deep and even.
When he slept, he looked much younger. The wrinkles that had carved his brow and cheeks vanished, and he curled in on himself like a sleeping babe, as if to compress his long limbs into as compact a space as possible. His mouth hung open, however. I had the naughty urge to stick a rag in it.
Close to his open palm lay his heavy walking stick. I took it. Anders didn’t flinch.
Clutching close my prize, I hastened out to the garden. The moons, slung low over the mountains, offered enough light to guide me at my task. From the corral, a sheep bleated sleepily at my presence; I shushed it, but it did not bleat again. My secret was safe, kept between me and the sheep and the open sky.
I gave the stick an experimental twirl around my head. It was even heavier than I’d supposed. Perhaps in faraway lands trees grew thicker, taller, in added protection against ogres who might tear them from the roots—or perhaps just to keep pace with the tallness of the men who lived there.
“Hiyah,” I whispered, swinging the stick again. I wasn’t certain that was the appropriate term, only that some instinct deep within told me that my movement required verbal accompaniment. “Yah. Hiyah! Giddyap!”
I struck out again, and again, jabbing this way, spinning that. Suddenly I was with Father, practicing our magic on the lower seventh—no, no now I was Father, unleashing my lightning across the valley, feeling the hot crackle of magic course through me, up my spine, to the palms of my hands, out the pads of my fingers and the top of the stick. I was powerful. I was strong. I was a sight to be seen. I was a man to be feared.
“You’re holding it wrong,” came a calm voice.
Halfway through a spin, I lost control of the stick and fell on my bottom. Sure enough, Anders stood at the entrance to the garden. His arms were folded, and he was sleep-rumpled, but he did not look mad.
He did, however, take the stick from my hand.
“Clasp it closer to the middle,” he said, demonstrating. “When you grip nearer the center of balance, you can hold it with one hand, no matter how heavy it is. Here, you try.”
He offered the stick back, and I did as requested. Indeed, as he had said the wood felt easier in my hand, and I no longer felt I might topple at any moment, though my knees and elbows fairly shook with excitement. Anders nodded his approval before once more taking back what was his.
“Remember, your staff is just an extension of you,” he said. With one hand, he gave the stick—staff—a well-practiced twirl, then slammed it into the grass. I know it was just my imagination, but the entire world seemed to shake before him. “The wood simply channels what you already have inside.”
“Wow,” I said.
“A staff is a tool, Jo. Whether it’s used for good or bad just depends on the person,” he said. “So don’t think of the staff as a weapon. It’s not the weapon. You are. Remember that.”
I nodded eagerly. “I am the weapon.”
He put a hand on my shoulder. “I think we ought to get back inside before you mother finds out you’ve escaped.”
I leaned into his sparing touch. “Thanks. My brother used to show me things all the time,” I said. “I think you’d like him.”
“Maybe,” he said, though his voice sounded very far away. “But would he like me?”
He dropped his hand, but even in its absence I felt the heat of it pressing down into my shoulder. It rooted me to the soil, to the here and now, and I smelled the faint smell of storms brewing somewhere on the horizon.
In the morning came gray skies and the departure of our visitor. I was unbearably sad, sadder than I could ever remember feeling. But I could tell Mother fared little better, so for her sake, I tried to stand straight and tall, and wipe my cheeks only when she wasn’t looking.
“Here,” she said to Anders, giving him a satchel of food. “This should last you a few days.”
“Thank you, Mari, for all your kindnesses,” he said. He met and held her eyes as he accepted her token gravely. “I truly hope that you and your son find the peace you seek.”
Then he turned to me. I gulped and squeezed my eyes shut against whatever he had to say, and I silently prayed to Andraste that Anders didn’t have to leave.
My prayers were answered in the sound of boots tromping up our dirt trail. My eyes flew open. It was Ser Lucas and Ser Fletcher.
“What do they want?” I said.
“Trouble,” replied Anders. His hand tightened around the walking stick, and his eyes became like the winter, burning with cold fire. Even his skin changed somehow, and it looked like if I were to touch it, it would feel cool and hard as ice.
“Ser Lucas, Ser Fletcher,” said Mother. She smoothed her hands on her skirts and hoisted her apron higher on her chest. “To what do we owe the honor of the Chantry’s presence so early this morning?”
Ser Lucas bared his teeth in a smile. “Just thought someone ought to let you know the latest out of Markham,” he said.
“Abominations done took the Circle,” added Ser Fletcher.
The blood drained from Mother’s face, and she raised a shaking hand to her lips. “No. That can’t be.”
“True as the mountain in front of your face,” said Ser Lucas. He eyed Mother up and down and let out a cruel laugh. “Oy, Fletch. You hear what them maleficars did in Ferelden?”
“I heard they tortured the Templar recruits,” sneered Ser Fletcher, “then they fed ‘em to their pet demons.”
“Shut your mouth,” I shouted over their laughter. “Father would never—”
The Templars fell silent. Stepping forward, their hands fell to their sword pommels. My hands curled into fists.
Then Anders stepped in front of us. The air hung heavy around him, the way it clings to your skin just before a rainfall. He radiated a fierce kind of energy, like the Void were about to tear itself asunder and let out every demon in the Fade to answer his command.
“You will leave this place,” he said. His voice had become several octaves lower and deeper. No gentleness was left in him.“Now.”
Ser Lucas and Ser Fletcher’s eyes widened. As one, they took a step backward.
Then, just as suddenly as he had spoken, Anders tilted his chin downward and fixed his eyes on the ground.
“No, we cannot,” he said softly, speaking only to himself. He leaned heavily on his staff and did not look up. “This isn’t our fight. Karl needs us now.”
The Templars traded a curious glance.
“I think it’s time you was on your way, stranger,” said Ser Lucas.
But they were the ones who walked away first, back down the hill toward the Chantry, exchanging worried glances all the while. We all watched them go. I did not dare to move, or even breathe, until the two Templars had disappeared behind the hill.
When they were finally gone, I turned to Mother.
“What’s going to happen to Adain?” I asked. I grabbed onto Mother’s skirt and hugged tightly. I no longer cared about seeming manly to anyone.
“Father will protect him,” she said.
But she tugged away from me, pried my fingers loose, and went inside the house. She looked dazed and did not say another word.
I gulped, fighting back tears, and asked Anders, “Will you stay?”
“No,” he said. His eyes were too busy watching the hill where the Templars had disappeared to meet mine. He looked in the midst of some great inner struggle. “I need to move on.”
“Are you going to Markham?” A wild hope flew into my chest. “Will you help my brother?”
“No,” he said again. But he bent down to my level. His eyes were still cold and fierce, but his voice was infinitely kind. “Jo, you must remember what we talked about.”
“The staff is not a weapon,” I said. “I am.”
“Exactly. Good lad. Now go take care of your mother. She needs you.” Then he was off.
It wasn’t long after Anders had left that the Templars returned.
They didn’t even knock on the entrance to our house before tromping in, smearing long tracks of mud behind them wherever they stepped. Mother did not rise from the table to greet them, even after they demanded she prepare them a mid-day meal, complete with chicken fritters and sweet cakes and biscuits and jam.
“If you’ve bounty enough to spare for wandering tramps,” argued Ser Lucas, “then surely you’ve enough to donate in service of your Chantry.”
I stepped between them and Mother.
“Go away,” I said. I tilted my chin up, trying to seem as tall as Anders had. “Leave us alone.”
“Would you get a gander at this lamb what thinks he’s a wolf?” laughed Ser Fletcher. “Know what we does to wolves on this mountain, don’t you?” He lunged at me, and I flinched backward behind Mother’s chair. He laughed again, a high, cruel sound. “We skin ‘em.”
“Jo, please,” said Mother. She rose to her feet with a weary sigh. “Sit, messeres. Pray, give me a moment to collect my pans.”
There was something about Mother’s heavy step, or perhaps the way Ser Lucas leered at her as she passed, that I just couldn’t abide, and my blood pounded like a drum in my ears. For the first time I noticed how unfathomably dirty he and Ser Fletcher were. I noticed every smear of mud, every blade of grass stuck from their reeking jerkins, and I hated it. I hated it all. I hated the crumbs on their tunics and the rheum around their eyes and the mud under their fingernails. I hated that their ears were bare and that they left their hair to hang lank and free at their shoulders. I hated my Mother for making them sweet cakes and fritters. But most of all I hated my brother and my Father and Anders, because they weren’t here to make them go away.
So I shoved past them and I ran outside. Behind the house Mother kept our farming tools: shovels, spades, the like—including one long, smooth piece of red steel that had been there as long as I could remember. It looked a little like Anders’s walking stick, though it wasn’t broken like his was. It had a small double blade on one end and on the other a six-pointed star for balance. It had once belonged to Father. Now Mother occasionally used it to reap the wheat fields in the summer.
I grabbed it and ran back to the doorway.
“You leave us alone,” I demanded, holding the reaping stick at the center as Anders had shown me, and slammed it into the ground as he had done. The Templars spun on their heels at me, and behind them, Mother’s face had gone bloodless, as pale as the moons. “You leave us alone right now, you—you—bullies.”
Ser Fletcher recovered from his shock first. His lips broke into a wide, terrible grin.
“Oy, Mari. Looks like your boy here fancies himself a magicker,” he chuckled. “Then I’m afraid it’s off to the Circle with you, boy.”
“No. Stop! He’s just playing,” begged Mother. “You know how kids are.”
“Sorry, Mari. Can’t take no chances with no blood mages,” added Ser Lucas.
“Stop!” screamed Mother. “Wait. Please! Jo!”
But they’d grabbed me before I had any chance to swing the stick or do anything else that Anders had taught me. They hauled me away, down back the mud-slick trail, off toward the Chantry leaning at the heart of our town, and I could hear Mother’s screaming in my ears the entire way, long after our house had disappeared from sight.
Like an unruly horse they hitched me to the post of the Chanter’s Board, though not without penalty; I managed to land a solid bite on Ser Lucas’s forearm. He cracked me for it across the cheek. I tasted blood, his or mine I couldn’t tell, but I knew its tang and I wanted more.
“He’ll come for me, you know,” I told them. My voice rang out hollowly in the empty town square. Not even Bart was at his stand today. “He’s gonna fix you up good. Then he’s gonna go to Markham and fix up the Circle there too. You’ll see.”
That earned me more laughter. “I’d pay to see that,” said Ser Fletcher as he took a swig from some foul-smelling flask.
“He’s gonna fix up the whole stinking lot of you,” I said.
“Settle down, magicker,” warned Ser Lucas. “Or it’s the brand for you.”
Then they sat on the Chantry steps and waited. They passed the time with dice, with liquor, with making rude faces at any townsperson foolish enough to pass through Hambleton’s square. Once they took turns hefting Father’s reaping stick. Ser Lucas told Ser Fletcher he thought it fancy enough to be Starkhaven make, but Ser Fletcher said he wouldn’t believe it, not even if the lost Vael prince himself carved it. When they asked where I’d stolen it from, I refused to speak, and Ser Fletcher kicked me for my silence.
“He’ll fix you up good,” I reminded him.
“Shut your cob-choked trap,” he replied.
But it turns out I knew Anders better than they’d thought I did. Near sundown he appeared, his shadow tall and black and terrible against the light of the setting sun.
“Anders!” I cried. “I told them you’d come.”
If he’d heard me he made no acknowledgement. “Let the boy go,” he said in that deep voice, the one that seemed to come from the bedrock of the mountains. “He is not yours to claim.”
Chuckling, Ser Lucas and Ser Fletcher pushed off the Chantry stoop. They stepped into the square, their eyes glittering with obvious delight. I realized then that this was what they’d wanted all along.
“And who are you to make us?” said Ser Lucas.
“Who I am does not matter. But I know who you are. I knew you by your stink as soon as I came to this town. You claim to be holy warriors, but you’re just thugs, freeloaders. Rat-spit scum.” Ser Lucas clenched his jaw tight at these words. “You lord your power over everyone, because you know you can’t survive an honest day’s work like everybody else.”
“You gonna let him talk to you like that?” said Ser Lucas to Ser Fletcher.
“I sure ain’t,” said Ser Fletcher.
He charged Anders, and, quick as a lightning bolt, Anders jammed the butt of his walking stick into Ser Fletcher’s midsection. He tossed away Ser Fletcher as if he were a rag.
Suddenly Mother was at my side, freeing my ropes with a kitchen knife.
“Jo,” she whispered. Her fingers trembled as they ghosted over my cheek. Already I could feel several bruises coming on. “Oh, my dear, sweet Jo.”
“I’m sorry, Mother,” I began.
“No. No, no, my brave little man.” She pressed a quick kiss to my head and scooped me close. “Don’t you ‘sorry’ me. Not now. Don’t you dare.”
I was scared, trembling with all that had come to pass, but I let her hold me and I held her. The smell of flour and her skin and the mountain around us folded over me like a fleece blanket, and I loved her fiercely as I never had before. Things would be different between us now. I could already tell.
Like that we huddled together and watched the fight unfold before us. Ser Fletcher had regained his feet. He and Ser Lucas had drawn their swords and begun to circle Anders, who held out his walking stick out in front of him for protection. Ser Lucas jabbed left. Anders dodged. Then Ser Fletcher struck out. His blade connected heavily with the stick, and shattered the wood in two.
Anders tossed the fractured pieces at them and dashed away, seeking cover behind the well. I could see his brow drawn, the sweat trickling down his temple.
“Skitter, skitter, little mouse,” snarled Ser Lucas. “The cats are out to play.”
It was then that Mother noticed the wheat reaper, still leaning against the Chantry stair. Her hands clenched around my shoulders once, nails biting into my flesh; then she shoved me behind her and scurried toward the pole.
“Anders,” she cried, grabbing it and tossing it to him. “Use this!”
Anders caught it in mid-air. Their eyes met briefly, and I had the impression something very important was passing silently between them. Then he was turning and wheeling and slamming the six-pointed star down into the ground, just as he’d shown me last night.
But this time, fire raged out the top of the stick. It hurtled toward the Templars in a long, hot column, forcing them to dash out of its path or be burned.
“A magicker!” shrieked Ser Fletcher.
The breath stilled in my throat. Anders, a mage! Like Father and Grandfather before him! No wonder he’d walked so tall, and known so many great and powerful things, for he trod the Veil between two worlds, and could shape and command the very earth before him. Love surged through me, clear and pure and reckless.
But Ser Lucas’s eyes narrowed. He looked dangerously, deliriously happy.
“Not a magicker. A maleficar,” he said, voice taut with pleasure.
Ser Fletcher and Ser Lucas once more advanced on Anders but from opposite sides, forcing him to choose his opponent. Anders wheeled about, shooting a bolt of energy toward Ser Fletcher, then another, and another. The magic connected solidly, knocking Ser Fletcher back—but it opened his left flank to Ser Lucas’s attack.
But Ser Lucas did not swing his sword at Anders as I’d expected. Instead he put two fingers to his temple and closed his eyes. There was a firm push in the air, a snapping unlike anything I’d ever felt before. Anders went flying back several feet. He landed face-down across the square and lay still.
“Looks like we get to brand us a steer today after all,” sneered Ser Lucas.
Anders didn’t move, not even when Ser Fletcher walked over to him and toed him with his boot. He was so still he looked as if he were sleeping.
“Get up,” said Ser Fletcher.
“Get up,” I whispered too.
And then he did.
But what got up wasn’t Anders.
It was a creature, a monster, a raw thing of meat and bone. Its skin cracked apart like a dry, lifeless riverbed. Blue-black smoke curled off its shoulders and hands. Its eyes burned, blue and bright and wild. It was not a demon. It was not anything. It was the stuff of nightmares.
It grabbed Ser Fletcher, who babbled, pleaded in incoherent terror for mercy.
“You will pay,” the creature assured him. Every word was like a thunderclap through the heart of me. “Every Templar who stands in the way of our freedom will die. We will have justice. We will have vengeance.”
Then it snapped Ser Fletcher’s neck.
“Andraste save us,” whispered Mother.
But there was no salvation to be had. With a howl Ser Lucas charged and the creature that had been Anders fell upon him, tearing into him like paper, blood spraying about them both in great clouds. It shredded his skin, squelched his innards, ripped his throat clear from his neck. Then, in a sound I shall never forget, I heard exactly how a man without a throat tries to die.
“Listen,” the creature said, exultant, raising its bloody hands to the dying sun. “Listen to the beautiful sound of freedom’s call.”
The golden circle on the creature’s ear caught the fading sunlight and flashed, hot and fierce, an uncontrollable fire that threatened to set the entire sky aflame.
There should have been silence to meet such a speech, but there wasn’t. Instead there was only high-pitched shrieking, a terrible wail, echoing harsh and loud in the empty square. Only too late did I realize it was me. I was shrieking at the raw sight of him. And I couldn’t, I couldn’t stop.
The creature that had been Anders blinked. It sagged and swayed. The light faded from its eyes, the skin repaired itself. When it looked up, the thing had become a man once more.
“Jo,” he said at last. It sounded like a question, but I had no answer for it.
Anders peered at the scene around him. He did not seem horrified at what he’d done as much as exhausted by it. Without wiping the blood from his face or the gore from his boots, he walked over to the fallen wheat reaper – the staff – and picked it up. He marveled at it in his hands. Then he turned back to us.
“Not a step closer,” warned Mother.
“I am sorry,” he said, his voice old and tired and gentle once more.
“You,” I wailed. Tears, hot and fat, finally fell down my cheeks. “You killed them.”
“I hate you.”
“I am sorry,” he said again. Then, without stepping forward, he held out the staff to me. In the sunset, the blade and the six pointed star gleamed, but all I could fix on were the splotches of blood dotting its handle. “This is yours.”
“I don’t want it. I don’t want any of it. You’ve ruined everything,” I shrieked. I wasn’t making any sense. “Go on. Get away. Get away and stay away for good.”
Anders sighed. He bowed deeply at Mother, who refused to even look at him.
“At least now there will be no more magic in your valley, my lady,” he said. “Maybe now you’ll at last have your peace.”
“Just go,” whispered Mother.
Then he started down the trail out of town. At his side he kept Father’s staff, but now it was not a thing he carried, not a piece of wood, but a piece of him, a piece of the man, of the full terrifying force that was Anders. He walked that way, down the trail and out of our lives, slim and dark and gigantic, the sun casting long shadows like broken towers behind him as he went.