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Dissonance

Chapter Text

.x.

The day comes when the Qun will demand an accounting.”

—The Arishok

.x.

The Qunari had returned to Kirkwall.

Hawke watched their arrival from a vantage point high above the dusty streets of the shipyard district. She stood on the roof of one of the many warehouses that littered the area in organized chaos, leaning with her elbows propped on an uneven ridge of mortared stones—a chest-high remnant of what had once upon been a wall. She had been there for hours, alerted to a disturbance on the seas by the sonorous and near-mournful wail of the shipyard watchman's horn when the sun had first crested the horizon to usher in the morning. The sound had carried effectively through most the city, as was its purpose; as a result, it seemed that almost the entire population of Kirkwall had prepared themselves for the worst and boarded themselves inside their houses or behind the formidable defenses provided by the innermost keep. Some of the braver, more adventurous citizens had ventured to the docks much as she had, drawn by an apprehensive curiosity and a morbid desire to watch the return of those who had once almost conquered their home. So it was that the population of the dockyard had increased considerably since dawn had broken; nearby rooftops were occupied by other observers, and the streets below contained more than one person hoping to catch a glimpse of the much-feared, much-speculated arrival.

The Qunari fleet was indeed impressive, easily warranting such fear and speculation. Hawke was unable to secure an accurate count from a distance, but she was certain that more than one hundred of the ferocious looking dreadnoughts were anchored just off the coast. Their sails, though not raised, were a collective blood-red color that stood out with fierce splendor in the bright midday sun. The very sight of them was, Hawke knew, effective in spreading even more unease and fright throughout the Kirkwallers who stood witness. The spectacle was a distinct promise of a threat that she was not entirely certain the city could withstand.

In direct response to said threat, the Templars and the city guard had come out in force. Patrols of five, guard and Templars intermingled, were doing their best to keep the bulk of the inquisitive onlookers away from the wharf proper. From her position Hawke was able to see the entirety of the quayage, was able to observe as another impressive company of soldiers—both of the holy order and not—fell into precise ranks along the length and breadth of the largest of docks. The early afternoon sun glinted off numerous sets of Templar armor polished to a masterful shine and Hawke had to lift a hand to shade her eyes as she leaned over to survey more closely. There, at the vanguard of a small group of city soldiers that occupied the largest pier, was the Captain of the Guard herself. Aveline stood as a statue might, tall and unmoving with her arms straight at her sides, fully armored with the long copper fall of her hair caught and bound in her traditional single braid. Her gaze, Hawke surmised, was fixed rigidly on the Qunari flagship that had just moored off the edge of the pier. Beside her stood Knight-Commander Cullen, his two-handed sword held in a loose and ready grip before him, the tapered point buried in the packed dirt of the street. It was apparent his stance was meant to serve as both a warning and an indication that the city was prepared this time for whatever it was the Qunari had returned for.

There was, Hawke mused then in the temporary lull as the whole of Kirkwall awaited on the appearance of the Qunari, a certain dynamic between the Knight-Commander and the Captain that had led to a powerful, potent partnership in the aftermath of Anders' attack and Meredith's demise. One would have anticipated—and indeed, most had—that in the wake of the mages' rebellion and the destruction of the Chantry, Kirkwall would have simply fallen apart, unable to maintain cohesion in light of the catastrophic series of events. It was not so. Cullen had assumed the mantle of Knight-Commander immediately after Meredith's destruction and had proven a competent leader, making quick work of the hostile apostates and abominations that had remained behind after the chaos. Aveline, with her characteristic stoic efficiency, had marshaled the city guard to join in the Templars' endeavors with remarkable aplomb. The two forces had since been working in unison to return Kirkwall to some semblance of what it had been and had surprised most everyone by doing a more than passable job.

But how, Hawke wondered as she caught sight of sudden activity from on board the Qunari flagship, will the two of them be able to handle this particular threat?

There was no fanfare as the Qunari began to disembark, no proud blaring of trumpets or extravagant parade of colorfully swathed slave women as she had witnessed many times before with the arrival of other foreign dignitaries. There was simply the Qunari, moving down the docking planks with the same purposeful strides she remembered from her dealings with them long ago. In creating them, the Maker must have meant to inspire awe and caution—“bronze-skinned giants” was the oft-used moniker of the Qunari and it was a very literal description. She took note of their military ranks as they made their way towards Aveline and Cullen. There were the infantry scouts, the Ashaad, only a few in number and followed by several of the Karashok. Behind those came two of the Saarebas. The sun caught the heavy, burnished chains that bound the Qunari mages, creating a painful glare that had Hawke squinting yet again, much as it had with the armor of the Templars. The corner of her mouth twisted as she thought on the irony of that comparison for a moment.

There could not be Saarebas without their Arvaarad—the mage-handlers walked directly behind their charges, carrying in their left hands the short staves with which they could bind and unbind the Saarebas. Next came the Karasaad, the elite warriors who walked bare-chested, their skin painted with the same fierce, linear, vivid crimson lines Hawke recalled so clearly from years ago. Once the last Karasaad had stepped foot onto the pier a strained hush fell over the entire district. There had already been an unearthly silence in the city since the Qunari fleet had been sighted with the rising of the sun, but the silence that fell now was unsettling in its absoluteness. Hawke then caught and held her breath, her eyes, like that of every other observer in the area, fixated on the last of the Qunari to disembark.

The Arishok had not changed with time. The moment he stepped out from under the shadow of the ship's rigging and collapsed sails, Hawke released her breath in a slow hiss of recognition. It was he, the one she had dealt with before. The result of those dealings had been nothing short of disastrous. The years had not lessened the forceful, imperious stature of the Arishok—his bearing was still one of brute strength, the impression still given of tremendous amounts of power contained securely within that imposing physical frame. His expression, could she have seen it from this distance, would have been as it had always been—impassive but for a flicker of disdain that would seem more a fleeting shadow than anything else as he swept his gaze over the humans that had gathered to greet him. It was his eyes that would give most pause, she knew, housing within them a sharp and formidable light of intelligence melded with the severe and undeniable authority that had been bred into his very soul.

Hawke had not in all her travels encountered a more intimidating figure than he.

As the Arishok neared Aveline and Cullen, as an errant breeze caught and carried his blunt, one word greeting to her ears—“Shanedan.”—Hawke pushed herself away from the crumbled wall, straightening from the leaning position she'd been holding most the day with a wince as her stiffened muscles protested. That fragment of the Arishok's voice had brought unbidden a sudden torrent of memories to her, recollections she had no particular desire to dwell on. While having some concern for what would happen next between the Qunari and the city of Kirkwall, it would be an irrelevant detail. Her time in the city would be brief, a short visit to recuperate, to restock before she set out yet again on the hunt that had almost completely consumed her life for the past seven years.

Echoing that thought came the inevitable, aggravating twinge of pain in her right hand. She lifted the offending extremity, flexing the three fingers that remained, seeing with her mind's eye the smallest of the two that were no longer there. The pain persisted, a souvenir from a battle she'd been unable to avoid and foolish not to expect. It had been nearly a year since that particularly violent encounter, and though the small stumps had healed completely, there were days when the sensation that she was still in possession of all her digits lingered, usually accompanied by the sharp, throbbing ache. It had been quite a while since last it had bothered her so, but she was not unsurprised that the pain had returned on this day. It seemed fitting.

Hawke let her gaze linger a moment longer on the figures of Aveline, Cullen and the Arishok as they stood grouped together. She felt a flash of empathy for her friend, having to deal with a such a situation, one that would almost certainly end in violence of one type or another. The time had long since passed, however, where Hawke would have rallied to Aveline's side, vehement in her desire to protect the city and all it housed. Her time living in Kirkwall was only memory now, though not as faded as she would have liked. She'd forsaken the mantle of the Champion and become instead a vagrant, a wanderer, a hunter whose quarry had very nearly taken her the length and breadth of all of Thedas. Many did not understand her choice. Many felt she'd abandoned the city she'd fought so hard to protect. It no longer shamed her to admit that they were not wrong in those assumptions.

She turned then, making her way carefully across the rough and pitted roof and entering the short, spiraled stairwell at the opposite end. Coming to the bottom, she paused before stepping out onto the street, tugging the thin, tightly woven dark scarf she wore around her neck up to cover her mouth and nose. It was not a habit borne of vanity; the conflict in which she'd lost her fingers had not left her face unscathed and though she was quite past caring what others thought of her marred appearance, she did not want or appreciate the attention it drew from some.

Hawke moved quickly through the district, weaving through the crowds gathered to watch the arrival of the Qunari, aware that as people caught sight of the staff strapped to her back that they stepped back to give her wide berth. Mages were not a common sight in Kirkwall since the clash between the Circle and the Templars years ago. Those magic-users that had not fled or turned abomination—and they were not many—had actually been welcomed into the ranks of the city's forces and a kind of makeshift Circle had been formed with the cooperation of both the remaining mages and the Templars, much to the astonishment of many. Cullen had had the insight to realize that not all mages were abomination-bound, a quality his predecessor had lacked. As such, almost every mage in the city was a member of the city's militia. It was therefore unusual to see one walking the streets without robes adorned with Kirkwall's insignia.

Hawke knew that word of a possible apostate mage would reach Cullen within the hour. She carried with her the serpent-headed staff she'd acquired from Orsino's mutated corpse; so familiar even now was the sight of that weapon—and indeed, the tale attached to it—that it would be known to most the city by the end of the day that Hawke had returned. Despite what they might say and what they might expect, however, she was no longer the Champion of Kirkwall and had not come to address this newest threat. She was simply a passer-by, a traveler with pressing business elsewhere.

After first embarking on her hunt, she had returned to her former home usually three or four times a year. She had been absent far longer this time, having not set foot in Kirkwall for almost two years. She had, upon making the decision so long ago that so many could not comprehend, bequeathed her estate to Aveline and her husband, Donnic. Aveline, as was typical, had declined the offer. Refusing to relocate to the mansion and unwilling to sell it, the Captain had instead opted to look after the house during Hawke's long absences. Hiring people to come in once a month to clean and repair whatever might need mending and paying them from the considerable sum of coin Hawke had left her, Aveline thus ensured that whenever her friend returned, she still had a place to call home.

It was to the estate that Hawke now ventured. It had been her intent that Aveline either move into the mansion or sell it and profit, but she would readily admit that this situation suited her needs quite well. She detoured to stop by the vendor stalls in Lowtown, hoping that the arrival of the Qunari had not frightened all the merchants inside. Fortune had smiled upon her; from one dour looking woman she purchased a wheel of cheese, a loaf of bread and some salted meat. The heavy clink of coins from the pouch sewn into the lining of her jerkin caused the merchant's expression to soften somewhat, and the woman persuaded Hawke to purchase two green apples for an additional silver. Her foodstuffs secure within a canvas sack, Hawke slung it gently over her shoulder and again began making her way through the near-empty streets, heading this time for Hightown.

.x.

Hawke did not think of herself as overly sentimental, but as always, stepping foot in the mansion forced upon her an unwelcome battery of memories and accompanying emotions. A mother horribly murdered, a brother lost to the Blight, a sister cut down in her prime—all this flooded through her with every step she took through the all-too-familiar rooms. Each noise she made carried hollowly, disconcertingly, the sounds seeming an accusation made by the house itself for her abandonment. Past the fireplace—Mother so often stood there, that frown I hated to see upon her face—and to the stairs she moved, glancing at the writing desk now covered with a thick and obscuring layer of dust—Bodahn always reminded me of letters I'd received, of visitors arrived. Almost hesitantly she laid her right hand upon the railing, feeling the smooth, polished wood of the balustrade beneath the shortened nubs that had once been fingers as she climbed slowly upwards.

At the top she paused, staring at the door that she had refused to open after the death of her mother. A minute later she continued on, walking past a row of windows and into the large chamber that had once been her bedroom. Her eyes trailed over the chest, the bookshelf, the large armoire in the corner, before finally and reluctantly centering on the bed, hating yet welcoming the things she would remember. A swift and cluttered onslaught of visions came to her then, of Fenris' body twining with hers beneath the sheets, of his voice and the way it caught on her name, of the look in his eyes when she'd ever-so-gently traced the lines of lyrium branded into his skin. She felt a sudden and unwanted welling of combined sorrow and anger within her then, and resolutely forced her mind ahead, to dwell on the present rather than the ceaselessly clamoring ghosts of the past.

She left the room then, made her way back downstairs to the study. There was always wood next to the fireplace—the people Aveline hired made certain the mansion was ready to be inhabited at any time by its wayward owner—and so Hawke went about making a fire. Once the blaze was lively and roaring and the lengthened shadows cast by the sun through the windows revealed it to be nearing sunset, she sat down cross-legged on the floor, opened her sack of food, and began to eat. As she chewed on a hunk of bread laden with cheese—both of which were surprisingly tasty—she thought about what her next actions would be. She would meet with Aveline, of course—her friend often had news about the activities and locations of Hawke's quarry and other relevant information, as well. She would not tarry long in the city—two days at the most. She knew Aveline would ask for her assistance in dealing with the Qunari and knew what her reply must be. The fate of Kirkwall was no longer her concern and though Aveline could not completely understand Hawke's path in life, she had accepted it as much as she could.

She opted to retire early. Days spent traversing the wilderness during her search did not often lead her to opportunities for a full night of sleep. That, and the constant strain of having to rein in unwelcome recollections that been brought to life once more by the empty and forlorn rooms of the mansion had wearied her. Upstairs once again, she found within the bottom drawers of the armoire the blankets she'd had in her former life. She grabbed two—the early spring nights tended to be somewhat cool—and then laid herself out upon the bed after disrobing. Again, she struggled with memories of Fenris and their tryst in this very bed those several years ago. To combat them she instead thought about her next destination, about the precautions she must take, about the supplies she must acquire before leaving. Briefly, before sleep finally claimed her, she thought of the Qunari and Kirkwall, and of how time's irrevocable erosions had altered her so much that they hardly mattered to her at all.


.x.

The summons came, as she expected it to, in mid-morning. She'd risen with the sun, retrieved from the well in the basement some water, heated it over the fire and bathed before clothing herself in the outdated finery she found in the armoire, another remnant from her past. Slipping out of the mansion before most the city had risen, she made her way to the Hightown market, purchasing with deliberation the things which she needed to replenish her meager traveling stores. No more than an hour later she had returned to the mansion, both hands full of satchels of goods. She had arrived at the same time as a messenger from the city guard, a young man who looked nervous to be addressing none other than the Hawke. The Captain, he stuttered, requested her presence an hour past noon in the Guard's Keep—formerly the residence of the now-deceased Viscount. With a smile at his blushing awkwardness, Hawke thanked him and bade him reply to Aveline that she would of course be in attendance. Her smile faded somewhat as his widened eyes flicked from her right hand to the scarring on her face, but she still bid him a pleasant farewell before stepping inside the mansion and closing the door.

She ate a small repast from the leftover cheese and salted meat before setting about preparing for her meeting. Opting to forgo her finery, she quickly set to work cleaning the various pieces of her armor—the Champion's armor, gifted to her all those years ago when she'd saved the city by choosing to let the Arishok take Isabela back to Par Vollen along with the recovered Tome of Koslun. There had been a time when the guilt she'd felt for making that choice had been nearly debilitating, but in time that emotion and concern—like so many others—had faded. What was done was done, the past was the past. She lived now only for the present.

She dressed with practiced ease, buckling on the armor that was one of the only things she'd chosen to keep from her life before. Once fully clothed she stood before the full-length mirror with the silver and bronze gilded frame and ran a critical eye over the image she presented. She had learned from painful experience that long hair provided enemies a handhold and an advantage, and so she opted to keep her dark strands fairly short, clipped above her ears with a thick shock of it sweeping over her forehead. Her eyes, a pale gray that had a tendency to darken with the weight of her moods, were currently narrowed in her inspection. Her right cheek was marred by a long, jagged, faintly pink scar which started near the corner of her eye and ran the length of her face to end in a bisection of her lower lip. She had long since gotten used to it and only occasionally was reminded of it, usually when smiling as she could feel the odd pulling sensation caused by the expression. She wasn't horribly disfigured—indeed, some men had even claimed it added to her comeliness in hopes of procuring a dalliance from her. Vanity had never really been her vice but it was sometimes hard to ignore the attention her visible scars garnered, and even harder to shrug off the concern some people offered. Aveline, she knew, would be horrified, but would not dwell on the injuries—or the cause of them—as many others would.

Hawke completed her self-inspection by making sure her gear was all in order. Living the way she had for so many years, her body had grown lean and rangy. She wasn't short, by any means, even in height with Aveline. Her armor had been custom fit for a heavier, fleshier Hawke, but over the years she'd made the needed adjustments and it looked as right on her now as it ever had. The odd juxtaposition of metal and leather and the black fur of the cowl was something she had always loved, and in terms of functionality, the armor allowed her a freedom of movement that robes never had. Finally satisfied that she looked presentable, she turned, grabbed the serpent's head staff from where it lay on the foot of the bed, and slung it over her back. Without further delay, she made her way down the stairs and out of the mansion, heading northwards to the Keep.

.x.


It was Donnic that greeted her as she entered the building she found herself unable to think of as anything other than the Viscount's Keep. He approached her rapidly from beyond the large stone pillars in the main entrance, calling out her name as he did so.

“Serah Hawke!”

“Donnic,” she said warmly in return, responding to his welcoming hand clasp as inconspicuously as she could with her left hand. Despite his apparent enthusiasm at seeing her here, it was obvious as he beckoned her to walk with him that he was distracted. A smile creased his face, but it was clearly a forced expression. As they began to move to the staircase that led to the second floor of the keep, she spoke.

“You look well, Donnic,” she told him while they climbed the stairs, their footsteps upon the polished stone echoing loudly throughout the large confines of the entrance.

“As do you, Serah,” he replied. A brief, wry smile flitted across her face; his remark was a plain indication of how deeply distracted he truly was. Just as she opened her mouth to question him about his unease, they crested the top of the stairs and he suddenly slowed in his pace. Hawke, glancing up, found herself coming to a startled halt as well.

On either side of a large wooden door—their destination, she instinctively knew—stood one of the Qunari Karasaad, the elite guard of the Arishok.

With a distinct sinking sensation, Hawke realized that Aveline had once again managed to draw her into a clever political snare. Beyond that door, she knew, she would find herself facing a gathering of leaders and creeds so contrasting that there was no real hope whatsoever of finding a shared, common, peaceful ground. The Qunari had come to Kirkwall to conquer, to convert the whole of Kirkwall—regardless of race—to the Qun. No real good could come of this meeting—it was mere pretense, an attempt by the leaders of the city to forestall the inevitable. Violence was imminent, but Hawke knew that Aveline needed to explore every option available—the city did not need another devastating battle because it not yet fully healed from the last that had been waged within its walls. Hence this meeting between the leaders of the humans and the Qunari and hence Aveline's plan to draw an unwilling Hawke—former savior and therefore favored political pawn—in to attend the proceedings that had been from their conception doomed.

Donnic turned to look at her with a quick glance that was both unseeing and questioning, his eyes flicking immediately back to the motionless Karasaad at the door.

“They're waiting for you,” he said and Hawke nodded, mouth compressing into a thin line as she silently cursed Aveline with every new profanity she'd learned over the past seven years while simultaneously pondering the merit of turning around and heading right back the way she'd came. It was something she could not do, however, for Aveline had remained a truer friend to her than any other over the years and the strength of that bond between them meant she must try to assist in any way she could. She had retained some honor since her days as Kirkwall's Champion, though what remained was undeniably skewed. Uncomfortably aware of the silent scrutiny of the Karasaad sentries, Hawke approached the door. She knocked once and when the reply—Aveline's voice—came from within she took a deep breath, placed her hand flat on the thick wood, and pushed.

The interior was well lit, a wall of windows in the south window allowing the bright noon-day sun entry into the confines of the room. There was no table, only a scattering of chairs and benches. she recognized this to be the waiting chamber of the former Viscount's office. Occupying one chair was Knight-Commander Cullen. He was clad in full Templar regalia, leaning forward with his elbows propped on his knees and hands clasped together before his face. Standing beside him, one hand resting on the pommel of the sword strapped to her hip, was Aveline. There were two other humans present, both Templars, standing near the door from which she'd entered, faces hidden by their helms—they were a security measure, Hawke realized as she ran her eyes over them. And standing near the windows, completely silhouetted by the bright light from outdoors, was a towering and redoubtable figure, easily dwarfing both Cullen and Aveline. The shadow he cast was one of forbidding, a massive black specter whose wide, curving crown of horns spilled to an end at her feet.

Hawke felt the combined weight of three sets of eyes settling upon her at once. Aveline strode towards her immediately, a welcoming if somewhat tense expression on her face. That expression faltered as she drew close enough to view her friend in greater detail.

“Maker's Breath, Hawke … what happened to you?”

Aveline's eyes had swiftly traced the scar on Hawke's face and then unerringly focused on her right hand, which was hanging loosely at her side. Instantly Hawke felt the phantom ache, and so she lifted her hand, looked down upon it and found that, as always, her mind insisted on seeing the ghostly image of the two smaller fingers that were no longer there.

“These were gifts from Anders,” she said with a smile that held no mirth, feeling the conflicting pull of the scar on her lip as she did so. She gestured with the same hand to the mark on her face. “The result of a trap he laid for me.”

Aveline's expression had grown grave as she considered this. “He has turned to blood magic, then?”

Hawke nodded. “Among other, more unpleasant things.” Not wanting an awkward silence to fall—pity and sympathy were something she neither needed or wanted—she stepped further into the room and inclined her head to the man seated in the chair. “Knight-Commander.”

Cullen returned her greeting with a solemn tip of his head. And then reluctantly, feeling an unfamiliar, weighty tow of dread, Hawke turned and respectfully addressed the looming, solid tower of shadow that stood unmoving before the window.

Shanedan, Arishok.”

“Serah Hawke.” he replied in the same deep, arresting voice she remembered. His features were still lost to silhouette—he'd made no effort to move since her arrival—but she knew they would be as devoid of expression as his voice was.

“Hawke was good enough to join us for this counsel, though she no longer calls Kirkwall her home,” Aveline said, moving past her friend to take her former position standing at Cullen's side. “Because of her accomplishments during her time as the Champion, those of us who have remained behind still value her thoughts and opinions on matters such as this.”

Hawke slanted her former comrade an unfriendly look; despite the severity of the situation, she could have sworn she saw a twinkle of mirth in Aveline's eyes. “You may find I lack insight, I'm afraid. I've long been absent from this land and this city. I am a traveler now almost by trade.”

“And yet you always return,” Aveline replied, and Hawke was certain then that the Captain was enjoying their repartee in spite of the issue at hand, and enjoying even moreso seeing Hawke in a rare unsettled state.

Hawke sighed inwardly. She was here, and though she was certain there was nothing she could say or do to alleviate the racial and religious strains that were fairly resonating throughout the room, she was resigned to hearing all that was to be said. Leaning her staff upon the wall near the door, she moved to the chair next to Cullen and sank down in it, placing both hands flat upon the scrolled armrests, aware as she did so of the attention her missing fingers were drawing. “I apologize for any interruption my arrival caused. Please, do continue.”

“We were explaining to the Arishok our willingness to grant his priests, the Ben-Hasserath—” Cullen stumbled over the unfamiliar word, “audience with any of our citizens who wish to learn more about the Qun.”

Hawke watched the Arishok as the Knight-Commander spoke; from where she sat now, the shadows of the room had shifted and his features were now visible. The Qunari leader's face was as though carved from stone, so unreadable it was. She knew Cullen's proposal had not come from the Arishok—it had been a device planned by leaders of the city, an attempt to placate a beast of which there could be no calming. This prompted her to speak, though she'd resolved earlier to remain as silent as she could on this issue she so dearly wished to avoid being tangled in.

“The Ben-Hasserath are not mere priests, Knight-Commander.” As she spoke, the eyes of the Arishok slid sideways to focus on her. The unwavering directness of that gaze was almost enough to cause her forget what she was about to say next. “They are also warriors, and it is their sole duty to enforce the doctrines of the Qun.”

A silence fell then, rife with the tensions shared by the humans in the room as the implications of her statement were absorbed. Aveline was the one to break the stillness. “There will be those who wish to convert,” she said to the Arishok, her tone one of supplication. “There was evidence enough of that the last time you were here.”

“There is no need to resort to violence,” Cullen added. “And if it must come to that, know that Kirkwall is not the same city it once was, Arishok. We are prepared for war.”

Hawke knew this much to be true. The Qunari had promised, before departing with the restored Tome of Koslun and the thief who had taken it from them, to return to Kirkwall. Some had dismissed this as an idle threat, but both Aveline and Hawke had, in those turbulent, near-lawless days that had followed the death of Meredith and the uprising of the mages, managed to convey to Cullen their belief in the sincerity behind the Qunari promise. Steps had been taken in improving the defenses of the city against an attack from the sea, and much of the military might of Kirkwall had engaged in conflict against the Qunari those several years ago. Hawke knew that once the Qunari fleet had been spotted the previous morning, messengers would have been dispatched to the other strongholds of the Free Marches, namely Starkhaven, Tantervale, Ostwick and and Markham. It was a good bet that armored companies from both were already marching their way to Kirkwall. Still, this was not a small company of stranded, ship-wrecked Qunari as it had been before—this was an army marshaled and come with force.

The Arishok had remained silent throughout their conversation but for his acknowledgment of Hawke. When next he spoke, it was to her he directed his words.

“And you, Hawke … would you defend this city to me now as you did once before?”

She hesitated only a fraction of a heartbeat before replying. “The Knight-Commander is correct. Kirkwall is not the same as you remember it. Things have improved.”

In the long pause that followed, Hawke found she could not pry her eyes from his, so piercing they were in their intensity.

“So much so that you have chosen to leave?” He asked after a span of several seconds.

She had managed to school her face into an expressionless mask that she hoped was as effective as his own. This was not a discussion she wished to be a part of, nor were these words she wished to be relaying with only a semblance of sincerity. Carefully, she said, “My decision to leave Kirkwall was not rendered from the shortcomings of the city, Arishok.”

He said nothing, and so she went on, gesturing in the direction of Cullen and Aveline, “There is no point in dancing around this issue any longer. You've come to prosthelytize. You've come in greater numbers than before and you've come this time with the intent to convert by force. But you will be met in kind, as the Knight-Commander has said. This time, Kirkwall is not without allies. It will be a battle with great losses for both sides.” Here she paused, hands tightening on the arms of the chair before asking her next question, a question that would be an echo of one she'd asked of him years before. “Surely there must be another way than to slaughter each other over this?”

He said only, as she'd known he would, “It is the demand of the Qun.”

She stood then, casting an apologetic glance at Aveline. The Hawke of old may have been able to negotiate a truce, may have even been able to execute some kind of complex political maneuvering that led to an outcome that appealed to both sides. But she was not that Hawke, not any longer, and felt in that moment only an overwhelming urge to be out of that stifling room, out of that city, back out into the open expanses of the land she had grown to know so well over countless months as she had mapped her days into the all-encompassing pursuit of her quarry.

“I'm sorry,” she said to Cullen and to Aveline, knowing only the former would understand her need to depart. A flush had risen in her cheeks—she could feel their heat—and she found herself feeling completely flustered and helpless in the face of such a grave circumstance, something she was not used to experiencing. Years of being away from civilization and away from any type of government or politics had made her soft, it seemed. “I can stay no longer. I have business I must attend to before I go.”

Aware that this would seem like a retreat to the others and knowing with some shame that it was in fact so, Hawke gave both the Arishok and Cullen a nod as she stepped away. Looking then to Aveline, she tried to convey in her gaze her remorse for having likely made a bad situation worse and was somewhat heartened when the Captain gave her a small, sad and understanding smile—Aveline had known all along this proceeding would be hopeless, but had decided to try anyway. Relieved at the dismissal, Hawke turned, gripped her staff, and had just opened the door when Aveline spoke again behind her.

“Hawke, the white wolf has been spotted within the city. I thought you'd want to know.”

Though she was able to keep a startled noise from escaping her mouth, Hawke could not help but come to an astonished halt, half-turning to look at Aveline to make certain she'd heard correctly. Reading the expression on her face, Aveline nodded grimly. “Two days ago I first got word.”

Hawke's voice was soft, “And?”

“And the wolf has yet to leave.”

It was yet another reason to hasten her departure and one of distressing urgency, at that. “Thank you, Aveline.”

“Watch your back.” Was all her friend said by way of farewell.

She stepped out of the room then and closed the door firmly behind her. Ignoring the Karasaad who still stood guard outside, Hawke made her way quickly down the stairs, her strides swift as they carried her out of the keep. All thoughts of the Qunari and Kirkwall had fled from her mind, chased away completely by the mention of the white wolf.

.x. 

Chapter Text

.x.

“Your role would change little if you accepted the Qun.”

-Ketojan

.x.

For seven years, Hawke had been in pursuit of Anders, a former friend driven mad by the injustices against his mage-kin and the presence of a demon tormented with the desire for vengeance housed within him. For seven years she had chased him across the whole of Thedas, from nation to nation and city to city. Inevitably, after months of their intricate cat-and-mouse game, she would manage to close the distance between them and they would clash. Every time this happened she bore further witness to the changes his inner torture had wrought upon him. Gone was the charming, affable mage she'd once known; in his place was a driven and relentless monster, an abomination that no longer had any qualms over meting out death and punishment however he saw fit.

Seven years ago Anders had chosen to destroy Kirkwall's Chantry to fuel a revolution. Distracted by the resulting chaos and devastation and the explosive schism between Kirkwall's Templars and Circle mages, Hawke had let Anders escape with his life. It was only later, after both Orsino and Meredith had been slain and the citizens of Kirkwall reeled in hapless terror from the sundering of their city, that she was forced to realize she had grievously erred by letting Anders live. Fenris had been livid—though he'd remained with her and the others throughout the final battles, he departed immediately after, but not before claiming that Hawke was as much to blame for this catastrophe as Anders had been. He had not been wrong. His final words to her on that day were a promise of a threat: should they meet again, it would only be in battle. In their time together, both as lovers and as comrades, he had struggled to accept that she herself was a mage. It had been her final decision to let Anders live that had for Fenris driven home the realization that she was the same as every other magic-user he had ever known and been subjugated to.

Wracked by guilt and shame, Hawke had tried her best to assist Aveline and Cullen in rebuilding the city and reestablishing a sense of order upon its citizens. The feelings she'd harbored for Fenris had ran even deeper than she'd realized, despite the somewhat turbulent nature of their relationship. His departure had wounded her almost as deeply as the realization of her accountability in Anders' plot had. When word began to drift to the city from the villages lining the eastern coast of the Free Marches of an apostate mage rousing any he could to join his cause—and punishing any who openly opposed him—Hawke made another choice of grave significance. Letting Anders live had been a mistake—Kirkwall was only one city with only one Circle. He and the demon within him would not be sated until the entirety of Thedas' mages were liberated from what he viewed as the heavy-handed tyranny of the Templars. His crusade was one that could not be completed without remarkable violence and so it was that Hawke chose to forsake her birthright, her standing as Champion of the city, and most the relationships she had spent so long forging in order to seek out Anders and right the terrible wrong she had made.

She had managed over the course of the years, either by luck or by some kind of divine intervention, to avoid encountering Fenris. Once hailed as a wolf by the Witch of the Wilds, the former slave's parting words to Hawke had been spoken with an inarguable iron certainty. Hawke had always known that it had only been a matter of time before their paths would again cross, and knew with unshakable clarity that when that day came, one would be forced to kill the other. Now faced with that prospect, however, she found herself unaccountably afraid. Her quest to bring Anders to justice for his crime and her resulting sojourns had thrown her into conflict with a great many dangerous creatures. She had survived and through surviving, been able to hone her skills considerably. She was more powerful and more learned than she had been years ago, more savvy and far more cautious. It stood to reason that she was now more than a match for the white wolf, but upon hearing Aveline's words of Fenris' arrival in the city, she found herself mired firmly beneath an unshakable shroud of apprehension and dread.

Her rushed strides since leaving the Keep had brought her to the Hightown Bazaar, and she noted distractedly as she crossed the open courtyard that the looming threat of the Qunari had frightened all the merchants into remaining places more secure. The area was completely devoid of any presence, and its emptiness lent credence to her already existing fears that Fenris would find her with ease. She crossed beneath the covered stone archway that overlooked the ocean, swiftly amending her plans as she did so. She needed to return to the mansion and secure her supplies and slip away from the city under the cover of darkness this very night—

She heard the footsteps a mere second before she sensed the presence behind her; with a silent curse she spun around, hands flying to her staff and sweeping it out before her in a defensive stance. She had expected to find herself faced with Fenris—indeed, the more paranoid part of her had thought even to see Anders—and thus she was somewhat astonished to find herself facing neither elf nor mage, but one of the Qunari Karasaad instead.

The Qunari, already a forbidding figure and made more so by Hawke's disquieted state, held both hands outstretched and open before him to show her he was weaponless. “I mean you no harm, Bas'Sarrebas.”

Hawke was familiar with the word, a term used to describe mages outside the Qun. Still, his statement did little to assuage her confusion and so she did not lower her staff, demanding instead, “What do you want?”

“The Arishok would speak with you further.”

Shaking her head, she backed a step. “The Arishok and I have nothing to discuss.” Still shaken by his appearance—and that fact that she'd been so distracted that she hadn't noticed—she retreated another two steps. Within her, fine strands of anxiety had unfurled and were humming with urgent intensity. Fenris was in the city, and the chances were better than good that he knew she was present as well. She did not want a confrontation with him, not now, not ever. It was imperative that she make her escape from the city as soon as she possibly could. The fact that the Qunari leader wanted to speak with her only added to her quiet desperation. With those dire thoughts in mind, she decisively turned her back on the Karasaad and resumed again her swift pace in the direction of the mansion.

But the Qunari was not so easily dismissed. He knifed in front of her, his long strides having allowed him to catch up with her quickly. The solid barrier of his bulk brought her to another halt and this time when she brought her staff out before her, it was with the intent to use it.

“Move, please.” she told him. “I've no quarrel with you but I cannot be delayed.”

He said nothing and did not need to. Hawke knew that he would die to carry out the order of his Arishok, even an order as mundane as this. She had no wish to combat him and even less desire to kill him, but in order to make good her escape her options were few. And so, with her staff gripped tightly in her good hand, she curled the remaining fingers on the other and began to summon to life within their cradle the elemental fire she was able to call at will.

Parshaara!

The voice came from behind Hawke; recognizing it, she closed her eyes in dismay. The fire conjured within the palm of her maimed hand dissipated, leaving behind small, trailing tendrils of smoke as she lowered her staff and turned slowly to face the speaker.

The Arishok drew to a halt a few feet from her. Such was his stature that even from that distance she found herself craning her head back in order to see his face. The other Karasaad stood at his left shoulder and the one that had intercepted Hawke remained in place behind her. Acutely aware that she was being flanked and that should she need to make a sudden escape it would be a difficult undertaking, she resolutely squared her jaw and waited wordlessly to see what would be said.

“The fate of those that threaten one of the Qun should be known to you, Hawke. If you were only bas, your blood would now stain the stones of this street.”

She had known, of course. Trying to convey her urgency and the reason behind her actions would, however, be futile, and so she simply said, “He wouldn't let me pass.”

“And you would have attacked Karasaad for his minor trespass and by doing so, ignited the battle you have tried to convince me to abandon?”

He spoke the truth, she knew. Harming the Qunari under the tenuous truce established by their sending a delegation—even if it was just pretense—was tantamount to declaring war. She hadn't been thinking of that, though—she'd been focused solely on the issue of Fenris and the dire promise he'd made all those years ago. It shook her that she had come so close to openly attacking the Karasaad, shook her even more that her current harried state of mind had rendered her oblivious to the consequences of that action. Feeling suddenly wearied by the convoluted, tangled web of circumstances she found herself trapped within, she ignored his question and instead asked, “There's something you wish to discuss?”

For a long moment the Arishok stared at her, unblinking. She met his gaze and held it only with supreme effort of will, so deeply perceptive was his regard.

“I find you greatly changed, Hawke.”

She felt a bubble of wild laughter rising in her throat at his statement and choked it back. This was not the time for an inane reaction borne of skittish nerves. “Time,” she told him, “has a way of changing people.” Except you, she added silently. In the full light of day, his body no longer hidden by the deceitful shifting of shadows, she could see that time had not altered the Arishok at all. Everything about his appearance, from the tooled dark leathers that encompassed the lower half of his body to the ridged crimson pauldrons that armored his shoulders, the length and curve of the impressive coronal of his horns and the thick bronze rings that encircled them, the fierce, vivid markings that adorned the broad, naked expanse of his chest—all of it was as Hawke remembered. It was disquieting in a way she could not possibly explain, to know that the Arishok had so completely escaped the ravages of the years that she had not been adept enough to avoid.

Aban aqun. You were once basalit-an, the only one worthy of respect to be found in this festering sore of a city. Time ...” here he paused, adding only the slightest of emphasis to the word, an indication that her previous reply had displeased him in some way. “Has it stolen from you your merit as completely as it has your fingers?”

Her head snapped back indignantly at those words. Though he hadn't raised his voice or changed his tone, the insult was apparent and sharply biting. Her brows descended as her eyes narrowed, fingers tightening reflexively around the haft of her staff. She found her apprehension and fear ebbing under the sudden rush of anger. “I am still human, Arishok. I cannot help that, nor what I've become.”

“Untruth. Your humanity is unfortunate, but can be overlooked—your previous deeds have proven that it is so. It is what you are now that demands an accounting. Are you still basalit-an, Hawke?”

She didn't answer immediately; to her utmost shame she found she could not hold his gaze any longer. That the Arishok could see and understand so fully all that she had chosen to cast aside and forget was unnerving in the most potent of ways. Long gone was the ever-smoldering fire that had been her conviction, that which had driven her to protect Kirkwall and its citizens no matter how dangerous the threat. Gone too was the woman who had, faced with the prospect of outright war between the Qunari and the city, made the terrible decision to seek peace at the cost of allowing the Arishok to return to Par Vollen with Isabela, knowing all the while that her friend would be subject to the harsh laws of the Qun for what she had done. Anders was now Hawke's purpose: in letting him live, in being too blind to see his real intent she had been to blame for the destruction of the chantry and the deaths of those within as well as the deaths that had followed in the explosion of conflict between Templar and mage.

She did not hope to enlighten the Arishok to her current cause, for such a focused vendetta was something that under the Qun would be seen as a weakness. Eyes fixing again on the austere features of the Qunari leader, she said simply, “I am Hawke. That's all I've ever been.”

“Indeed.” There was another weighted pause as he considered her, his eyes beneath his prominent brow unrelenting. When he continued, something in his voice had changed, becoming grimmer still. “Kirkwall will fall before us. You know this. Once, you would have died yourself to prevent such a thing from being so. Now it seems you would flee. Tell me, Hawke—”

She did then something very few others had ever been foolish enough to attempt. She lifted a hand and spoke, her voice evenly cutting through his own. “Then is not now, Arishok. My life—my purpose—is no longer decided by the fate of those who inhabit these city walls. It's not as I would wish it, but I couldn't have known …” She stopped, took a deep breath, and tried to ignore the severity of his expression in light of her impulsive, ill-timed interruption. “I arrived here with the intent of only remaining a day or two. Even had your ships not appeared on the horizon, I would have left. I must leave. The fate of Kirkwall is no longer my concern.”

The Karasaad standing next to the Arishok shifted his weight, turning his head as he scanned the perimeter of the bazaar, reminding Hawke with alarming clarity that she was effectively alone here, surrounded by three Qunari of more than impressive presence. The Arishok himself remained still, head slightly tilted now as he stared still at the human before him, his perpetual frown deepening as he spoke. “In any other, I would call this cowardice.”

“Call it what you must,” she said tiredly, leaning a little on her staff and inwardly willing one of the city guard patrols to appear, willing Aveline to appear, willing even Fenris to appear and put an end to this confrontation that, she was certain, would come to a less than pleasant conclusion.

She had expected further remarks about the degradation of her character, and thus was surprised when the next words from the Arishok came in the form of a question. “What manner of creature do you pursue to have devoted yourself so completely?”

For the span of a heartbeat, she debated not answering. She debated lying as well, but knew the Arishok had an almost preternatural ability to ferret out a lie. In the past, her refusal to tell him anything but the truth had earned from him a modicum of respect. She replied reluctantly, “A mage.”

She could not be certain, so invariable were his features, but it seemed that one of his eyebrows had lifted a miniscule amount. “Surely not a mere apostate.”

“No,” she said. “He's no apostate, not any longer.”

“Maleficarum, then.” When she nodded an affirmation, he went on, “This has not been a short chase.”

“Years,” she reticently agreed, and added silently, it's been far too long.

“An obsession, Hawke.”

She startled herself by replying with, “Yes.” She shook her head, discomfited by how unthinkingly she had uttered that response. Such was the authority of his gaze that she found herself unwillingly saying more, “It doesn't matter any longer. He was a traitor. He lives because I hesitated to take his life, and in doing so I condemned a great many to death. He must be brought to justice for what he's done. He must be held accountable.” She stopped speaking abruptly, appalled and astonished at how the admission of her greatest shame had so easily tumbled forth from her mouth.

“An admirable stance, but you are no arbiter.”

“I have to be. There are no others.”

“It is for your Templars to finish.”

“No.” She shook her head again, the movement a little wild as she realized that it was as she had feared—there was no convincing the Arishok to simply let her go on her way, to continue with the hunt that had become her very existence. Her voice became strident under the force of her distress. “This one isn't like other maleficars. He is different, dangerously so. He is also an abomination. He can shift from human to demonic form at will. Many Templars have tried their hand against him and none have lived to speak of it.”

“Thus the Qun decrees that mages be bound and controlled. The Saarebas are not permitted to submit to the demons of the Fade and should they succumb to weakness, their Arvaraad are there to ensure the threat of their turning is not fully realized. The mages of Thedas would greatly benefit from such handling.”

“I am a mage,” she reminded him uneasily, and then found herself wishing then that she had kept her mouth shut. Once again the Arishok's eyes became keen and unwavering, boring mercilessly into her own. He said in a voice that had grown even more toneless than usual, “Yes.”

She knew then what was intended, the realization uncoiling in chilling, insidious tendrils within her. The Arishok began to approach, closing the short distance between them with only three strides. Hawke took two quick steps back and halted as she recalled the Karasaad behind her. She was not given more time to react as the Arishok stopped half an arm's length from her, the other Karasaad following closely at his shoulder.

Hawke's hand gripped the staff so tightly her fingers ached. This close, she was forced to crane her head back in order to see the Arishok's face. She hated how small such a thing made her feel, how harmless and insignificant his physical being made her seem. Every part of her body was afire with tension. The time for negotiation had, she knew, long since passed. Despite the inner voices screaming at her to lash out with her intrinsic elemental power, despite the cries of her instincts to whirl about and flee, she remained absolutely still as the Arishok began to speak once more.

“Your role would change little should you submit to the Qun.”

“My role would be the same as that of the Saarebas. I would,” she said with grim, unwavering honesty, “rather die than spend my life gagged and chained as they are.”

There was a pause before he responded. “It is not certain whether the Tamassran would decide that path for you.”

Hawke's smile was mirthless and fleeting. “But it is a possibility, yes?” His silence was all the answer she needed. She shook her head once more. “The Qun would be the death of me, Arishok.”

“The Qun would bring order and direction. Within it you would find all the purposes of your life made clear, the road to attaining them one of enlightenment found through duty. No longer would the afflictions of your heritage dog you. There would be an end to the incessant chaos that is by nature the essence of being human.”

“Life outside the Qun has never seemed that hopeless to me.”

“No?” The Arishok glanced down at her maimed hand. “This … quest  ... you pursue—you have lost to it years of your life. It has plainly taken even more than that from you. Tell me, Hawke, are the wounds you have sustained an indication that your chase draws to an end? You know it is not so. You are no closer to defeating the maleficar than you were when you started. The emotions that fuel all humans have driven you to engage in a hopeless cycle that will wear away at you until you have destroyed yourself. Such is the curse of humanity. I have observed it in those years I spent in this city. Your kind is a flock without a shepherd, doomed to harm themselves simply because they are not strong enough to adhere to the demands of a greater creed.”

“And you would save us from ourselves by forcing the Qun upon us? Deny and die, you once told me—how does slaughtering those that will not convert differ any from what you see as our chosen self-destructive fates?”

“You are not capable of understanding. Not yet.”

“I never will, Arishok.” She corrected. “I am not for the Qun.” Aware that the discussion was drawing to a close and knowing that when the time for words had passed there was a great possibility she would be fighting for her life, she added quickly, “Nor is this city. I entreat you again, leave Kirkwall. By now, her allies will have been alerted. They will be marching here as we speak.”

“This city's allies,” The Arishok replied, “will not know of our arrival.”

In the stark, stricken silence that followed, Hawke stared at him with an uncomprehending frown. Comprehension dawned on her a second later, a swift and terrible knowledge that drove her another step back to jostle the Karasaad standing there. Instantly she righted herself, twisting away as she did so, gaining space to stand freely. The Karasaad had made an inclination to follow; with a quick gesture of one hand, the Arishok wordlessly commanded him to remain where he was.

“You've already sent troops ashore.” She said then into the foreboding stillness that had fallen, her voice thick with dismay as she stood facing the three Qunari. “Further up the coast, before you were ever sighted here.”

The Arishok inclined his head in acknowledgment of her words. “Several companies we sent aground. They will have prevented the messengers from reaching the other cities. There is no aid coming to Kirkwall.”

The occurrence of thought that came to her then—I must warn Aveline!—was evident as a mercurial shifting of her expression. She knew the Arishok would recognize it immediately. As she cast one frantic glance about the bazaar and discovered it still empty of any but herself and the Qunari, she inhaled deeply and steeled herself for what was to come next.

The Arishok spoke sharply, something she could not understand, and then both the Karasaad were rushing for her. Both hands now wrapped about the slender haft of her staff, Hawke waited until they were within touching distance before bringing the butt of her weapon down hard on the cobblestones beneath her feet. A burst of energy erupted, a pulse of rippling air that flowed outwards with tremendous force. Being so close to the origins of the shockwave, both the Karasaad were caught and flung backwards, landing hard on the street some several feet away. The Arishok, however, was merely staggered and recovered swiftly enough to make Hawke whisper a curse in agitated frustration.

Before the Karasaad had regained their feet, Hawke was casting again. Staff now held securely in one hand, she called to life within the palm of the other elemental fire. With deft movements she gathered the flames into a loose, swirling orb. The Arishok began to approach and she let fly the fireball, aiming not for the Qunari but for the ground at his feet. Her aim was unerring, but even as the stones of the street erupted beneath the power of her attack, the Arishok was moving undeterred through the wild flames.

Hawke began to backpedal, continuing to fling fire even as she retreated. The flames did not abate after they had struck the ground; instead they burned high and bright, sustained by her will. Her seemingly aimless throws had managed to confine both the Karasaad within a maze of fire, but she knew it was only a matter of time before they navigated their way out of it. The Arishok was not as susceptible to her magic, steadily advancing on her even as she fell back, batting away the fiery projectiles if they got too close.

He rushed her suddenly, a short, explosive flaring of speed that closed the gap between them. Hawke uttered a breathless cry as he reached for her. Gripping the staff in both hands she struck at his arm, channeling power down the length of ebony wood. There was a blinding flash at the point of contact between weapon and Qunari. The Arishok grunted and stumbled back a step. As he gathered himself and lunged for her once more, she swept the tip of her staff along the ground in a curving arc while summoning from within her another elemental power. Jagged, man-sized shards of ice erupted explosively from the stones of the street, creating a barrier between her and the Qunari leader.

The air around the ice wall steamed. From across the magical formation the Arishok regarded her, eyes narrowed, wearing an expression of such fierce and focused intent that she unconsciously backed a step. From beyond his shoulder she caught sight of one of the Karasaad quickly approaching, having freed himself from the labyrinthine confines of her fire, and she knew that the ice would not hold them for long.

“This will conclude another time, Hawke.” The Arishok promised as she whirled about.

She hazarded a glance back and saw that he was still unmoving and that his Karasaad was skirting around the ice. Without giving a reply—she was unable to think of one—she turned back around and with a sweep of her hand, incited to life a wall of shifting flame to serve as another barricade with which to cover her escape. Momentarily satisfied—the fire would keep the Karasaad at bay for certain—she twisted about and raced to the far end of the courtyard. A large metal disk lay there secure within the ground, a cover to an underground passageway that she had been very familiar with during her time as a city-dweller. She dropped to her knees, let fall the staff, and threaded her fingers through the holes of the disk. A swift look back in the direction she'd come revealed the Karasaad and the Arishok had breached the giant ice crystals. The Karasaad were halted now at the fire wall, unable to cross while behind them their leader quickly approached. The Qunari leader would, she knew with some fear, be able to cross the flaming barrier with ease.

Her sense of urgency renewed, Hawke tensed and pulled up hard, managing to drag the metal cover out of its indentation and slide it almost entirely free of the darkened aperture. Quickly taking up her staff, crouched at the edge of the gaping maw that was the entry into the undercity, she glanced again in the direction of her pursuers. As she'd predicted, the Arishok had crossed through the flames unscathed and was now drawing quickly and steadily nearer. Without further hesitation, Hawke dropped through the hole, falling only a few feet and landing lightly. Without bothering to let her eyes adjust to the dimmed interior of the tunnel, she began to race, one hand in contact with the pitted wall as she did so as to try and maintain some sense of direction. The tunnels beneath Kirkwall were no less than a maze, one that Hawke had known almost by heart at one point. Drawing on memories from long ago she was able to navigate through several tight and serpentine curves, running from one tunnel into another and then swiftly retracing her steps to branch off into another corridor. Instinctively, she moved towards the paths she knew would take her deeper underground, the steady decline of her path granting her a sense of security that she took some relief in, though she knew it may play her false. For how long she fled she could not be certain, and she came to a ragged halt only when the muscles in her legs began to cramp in protest from her harsh flight and her lungs burned with exertion.

Falling back against the dirty stone wall of the tunnel, she closed her eyes and attempted to quiet her breathing. Over the racing thunder of her heart she strained to make out any sound of pursuit; after a minute of no such indication, she pushed away from the wall, leaned hard on her staff, and began to walk. Though her recollections of these passages was somewhat dimmed, she had a vague notion of where she was and where she must go from here to gain entry to the northern part of Hightown. All thoughts of fleeing the city and of Fenris had gone, having been completely chased from her by the Arishok's reveal. Aveline and Cullen must be warned that their riders had been intercepted by the Qunari and that in all likelihood, none of the other cities of the Free Marches knew of their plight. Whether this knowledge could save the city, Hawke was not optimistic, but she still had to try.

And so it was with great trepidation and wariness that she proceeded further into the undercity.

.x.

Chapter Text

.x.

“This city may demand certainty.”

-The Arishok

.x.

It was with suitable astonishment that the guards patrolling the Viscount's Way stopped to watch a much dirtied and stained Hawke crawl forth from a hole in the ground. Having shifted the circular metal cover just enough to allow her room to squeeze by, the former Champion tossed her staff up to clatter loudly upon the stones of the street before hoisting herself through the opening. Without bothering to replace the cover, she scooped up her weapon and began racing down the boulevard towards the keep, leaving a gaggle of utterly confused Templars and city guards in her wake.

She hit the massive doors and barely slowed, shoving them open with her shoulder. The thunderous noise as they slammed back against the wall drew attention from most everyone standing within the enormous entrance hall and as heads swiveled to track her progress, Hawke swerved towards the stairs she'd climbed once already that day and began to take them two at a time. Concerned cries echoed out behind her—the weapon she bore made her quite easily recognizable—but she ignored them and raced on, skipping the last three stairs and vaulting over the marble banister at the top. The door to the room where last she'd seen Cullen and Aveline loomed before her, and, having no real idea if they were still within, she made the choice to shove it open anyways.

As the door exploded open beneath her rough touch, she caught sight of both the Captain of the Guard and the Knight-Commander—their expressions those of bewildered alarm—within. With a gasping sigh of relief Hawke crossed the threshold and strode to where the two of them stood, holding out one hand in a gesture meant to garner their full attention.

“Arishok,” she panted with some incoherence, unable to patch together a full sentence in light of the rapidity of her breathing. Both Aveline and Cullen were staring at her with concern—her foray through the undercity had left her garb filthy, and what flesh was not hidden by clothing was also covered in grime. She saw Aveline open her mouth to ask the obvious question—are you alright?—and shaking her head violently, managed to bring her breathing under control enough to speak.

“You must evacuate the city,” she said, and promptly collapsed into the nearest chair.

.x.

Several hours had passed since Hawke's dramatic return to the keep. The sun was beginning its descent below the horizon, its red-gold reflection resplendent upon the unusually still waters of the sea. The mage stared at the view unseeing as she stood vigil upon the battlements of Kirkwall's northernmost wall. She had averted her gaze from the commotion transpiring below her—the disorderly exodus of the city's citizens made for uneasy viewing. It was a haunting reminder of the way she'd left Ferelden all those years ago.

To her left the wall rose to accommodate the enormous gate that was one of only two exits from the city. Unimaginatively dubbed the “North Gate”, it was a structural remnant hailing from when the city had been under Tevinter rule. It was the path through the North Gate that granted the quickest travel through the Vimmark Mountains. The easternmost gate of the city was the road most traveled by, for it led to a less treacherous path along the coast, one favored and frequented by most merchants and travelers alike.

The reasoning behind the evacuees heading north was simple. Tantervale was the northernmost city of the Free Marches. The Qunari that had been sent ashore to stop the messengers of Kirkwall would have landed on the far eastern coast. Their interception of the messenger headed for Tantervale would be one of the last they'd make. After Hawke had explained all the Arishok had revealed to her, it had not taken Aveline and Cullen long to make the decision to send an armored company of fifty men out immediately to ride north with great haste to both reach Tantervale with the news of the impending invasion, and to deal with whatever Qunari they may find. From there the plan fell quickly into place, haphazard though it was: Kirkwall could not stand alone against this threat. To try and fight off the Qunari would lead only to senseless slaughter. And so, with dusk looming perilously close, the Knight-Commander and the Captain of the Guard rallied all their respective troops to go forth and gather all citizens to begin an immediate evacuation.

“And if we can somehow stop the Qunari from passing through the North Gate,” Cullen had said during their tense planning session, “It would delay them considerably to reroute through the eastern gate and then skirt around the city. It may buy us enough time to make the Vimmark, and from there we can hold the passes if need be.”

“Destroying the gate would be the easiest way,” Aveline had said, “And nearly impossible given the time we have left. But I don't see how else we might stop them.”

Hawke, who had stood listening in silence, had experienced a sudden and somewhat unwelcome blaze of insight. Inwardly questioning the wisdom of her words, she said, “I could help with that.”

She would not tell them what she had in mind, however, only insisting that she could manage to prevent the Qunari from passing through the North Gate. Cullen had been openly skeptical and Aveline only slightly less so, but in the end, as Hawke reminded them, their options were a scarce few. And so as every guard and Templar in the city went swiftly forth to roust the citizens from their homes and shops, Hawke had gone to the north wall, climbed the rampart, and it was there she had remained in the hours that passed, watching as people forced to leave behind everything they knew filed through the gate in a helpless, confused trickle.

It was there Aveline found her after the sun had vanished from the sky, giving way to a clear night-sky canvas of stars. The stream of evacuees was still steady through the gate; even from this height their noises of confusion and rage and sorrow were audible. Hawke had chosen to face away from the desolate sight below and instead was staring out over the calm, mirror-like waters of the sea.

“This makes me think of Ferelden.” Aveline said by way of greeting, glancing down at the scene illuminated by torchlight below.

“I know,” Hawke replied.

The captain came to stand alongside her friend, her eyes sweeping out across the waters in an effort to try to locate the Qunari fleet. It was a fruitless venture, for there was no moon to reveal what she wished to see. She sighed, hand coming to rest upon the reassuring pommel of her sword at her waist.

“I never thought I'd see this day. I don't know if we can bring them all through this alive.”

“Leaving is a better option than staying, Aveline. The Qunari will not be gentle in their invasion.”

“I know, but I still wish ...” she trailed off.

Hawke turned to her and laid a hand upon her arm. “You're doing what must be done. That's all that can be expected.”

The mage drew away then and paced a line to the door of the gatehouse and back again, arms folded over her chest. Aveline studied her intently in the dim illumination provided by a torch set into the wall nearby before saying with some amusement, “You look as though you're dressed for a funeral. Surely you must have robes that fit you better than that?”

Hawke glanced down at her apparel. The thick black robes she wore were far too big, their voluminous folds swallowing her form entirely. She looked back at Aveline with a shrug and a smile. “Black seemed an appropriate color for all of this.”

Aveline gave a short, humorless laugh. “I suppose.” A frown creased her face then, and she asked, “Hawke … why didn't the Arishok bother to kill you today when he had you cornered?”

There was a pause before Hawke replied. “I don't know. Because of what I was, I think. I'd earned his respect once. He named me basalit-an because of it. Apparently it was enough that he would try to convert me rather than kill me outright this time around. Who better to advocate the Qun to the people of this city than the former Champion of Kirkwall?”

“And now that you've refused the Qun?”

Hawke's lips twisted into a hollow smile. “I'd rather not find out.”

“Perhaps you shouldn't stay behind, then.” Aveline said lightly, but Hawke heard and recognized the underlying concern in her words.

“There's no other option,” she reminded the captain.

“I know that, and I hate it.” She stopped and stared hard at Hawke. “I don't know what it is you're planning, but I have the feeling I won't be seeing you again.”

“I'm not planning to die, Aveline.”

“I hope not. I've missed you enough as it is. Two years, Hawke … what kept you away so long this time?”

The mage turned once more to look out over the sea. “There were complications.”

“Anders? The trap he laid?”

Hawke nodded. “That was part of it.”

“Will you,” Aveline asked quietly, “ever speak of it to me?”

The mage glanced down at her maimed hand, flexed the remaining fingers. “Someday.”

“Someday, then.”

“When will you and Donnic ride out?”

Aveline pretended not to notice the abrupt change in topic. “With the last of the refugees.” She paused. “Ironic, isn't it? When we first came here we were the hated refugees to these people, who could never understand having had to flee your home after it had been destroyed. And now here they are,” she swept one hand out, indicating the river of lost and bewildered citizens filtering out through the gate, “running away just as we had to.”

“They'll understand better now what we Fereldens endured,” Hawke agreed, coming to stand again by her friend.

After a short silence, Aveline spoke again. “Some of our mages, that of the guard—they want to stay with you to assist in whatever it is you have planned.”

Hawke shook her head. “No. It isn't something they can help me with.”

Aveline sighed, a frustrated exhale, “Maker's Bones, Hawke, I trust you but … what can you alone possibly do to stop an entire army?”

The mage faced her friend, placing both hands on her shoulders. “Aveline, please just trust me in this. I've learned some things, here and there, during my travels. I wouldn't have volunteered for this if I didn't think I was capable.”

“Capable of stopping an army and blowing up a gate like this? Sometimes I think you scare me.”

“Sometimes,” Hawke said with a wry grin, an expression Aveline had not seen on her friend's face for quite some time, “I scare me, too.”

But Aveline was not mollified by humor. "I still don't understand your change of heart, not that I'm not thankful. You were hellbent on leaving this city earlier. I know -" she held up a hand to stall the familiar protest she'd heard countless times before, "to hunt Anders. Truthfully I wouldn't blame you if you wanted to leave, especially now. Kirkwall is lost."

"So are all those people," the mage said, pointing with her whole hand to the north where the snaking caravan of refugees was visible only by the torches they carried as they wound up the northern road, "if the Qunari aren't stopped here. I can't explain to you while I'm still here. I can't describe to you how badly I want to put an end to Anders. What was said between the Arishok and I, it ..." Here she paused, frustration creasing her brow as she shook her head. "It pained me. I know I've lost sight of a great many things over the years, Aveline. I know I've lost a part of who I used to be. This may be a way for me to get it back. But that's not the only reason I'm still here. If I can delay the Qunari here and give all those people the chance to survive, I would be worse than Anders if I chose not to try."

She stopped speaking, her words falling heavily into the night air. They faced each other wordlessly for a moment, and then Aveline stepped closer and enveloped her friend in an embrace. Momentarily startled, Hawke stiffened, but then relaxed and returned the gesture.

“Promise me,” Aveline said when they'd drawn apart, “that I'll see you again.”

“I promise that I'll try to fulfill that promise.”

The captain snorted. “I suppose that will be good enough.” She glanced down at the commotion on the street and sighed. “I should go and check on things, find Donnic. Will you come with me?”

Hawke nodded, casting her eyes one last time out over the sea before following Aveline into the gatehouse.

.x.

Dawn arrived with a muted glow, the first rays of the sun to breach the horizon creeping across the sea in a manner that seemed ominously hesitant. Hawke, sitting cross-legged in the space between the rampart's crenellation, found herself wondering if the subdued sunrise was in fact some type of omen. Clouds had gathered over the city, blowing in from over the mountains to the north, and their presence—heavy and dark—promised imminent rain later in the day. Later, when the sun had fully risen, it would be lost behind them. The air had grown colder and moist in the dark hours before dawn and Hawke sat hunched beneath her robes in an effort to stave off the wind that spread a chill to her very marrow. The morning's first pale light revealed to her what she had expected to find: the red-sailed ships of the Qunari had moved during the night and were now moored just beyond the harbor. It was not difficult to see, even from this distance, the hundreds of longboats bearing troops steadily making their way to shore.

The fact that the invaders had not met with retribution during their encroach in the night would have alerted them immediately to the evacuation. As Aveline had said told her earlier, there were still people left within the city, those that had refused to believe the threat was so dire that they need abandon everything and those of a lesser fortune, curious to see what the Qun could offer them and hoping that it was better than the lot they'd been cast. Hawke imagined the strictly regimented Qunari soldiers combing through the empty streets and alleys rounding up any who had stayed behind, and imagined them in the dank, dirty tunnels beneath the city, rousting those who had chosen to remain in Darktown. She did not think any of those that had decided to remain were prepared to face the Qunari's ungentle methods.

The last of the Kirkwaller evacuees had disappeared from her sight only a couple of hours before with Aveline, Donnic and a small company of the city guard accompanying them. It seemed remarkable that the hasty evacuation had actually been accomplished, but Hawke knew it was all for naught if the Qunari forces were allowed to pass through the North Gate. The city below her seemed forlorn in its abandonment, devoid of both presence and noise. She had convinced the city's mages to flee along with the rest of the guard and Templars, despite their avid protests that they wished to stand alongside her when it came time to halt the Qunari horde. To them she was still the Champion, an apostate that had risen beyond her born status to achieve great and meaningful things. It was, she mused dryly, convenient how in the face of this invasion they had chosen to forget how easily she'd forsaken the very title and accomplishments they so admired her for. So young they were, so eager—they thought by standing with her against the invaders they could know some of the glory that once upon a time had been hers.

Glory is clear and defined, the Arishok had once told her of the Qun. Experience had made her skeptical of that claim.

The cloud cover spread more quickly than she expected it to, stretching out now over the sea and shrouding the early morning sun completely from sight. That it would rain soon she had no doubt. For a moment she pondered how that would effect what she must do, and decided that she'd rather not dwell on those uncertainties and doubts. Either she would succeed, or …

From a small canvas sack that lay in her lap—a last gift from Aveline—she withdrew a strip of thick dried and salted meat, some hardtack, and an apple. She began to gnaw on the meat as she gazed out over the vacant expanse of the city. Though she could not see more than the water of the harbor, she knew that by now the Qunari would have landed. They would comb with their ruthless efficiency through all the houses, the stores, the warehouses, the alleys they came across and locate anyone unfortunate enough to have stayed behind. It would take them, she estimated, at least two hours to make their way here, to the keep and the North Gate. Plenty of time for her to carefully go over every aspect of her plan.

Plenty of time to worry about it, too.

She finished her meal slowly, every mouthful she swallowed settling as a hard lump in her stomach. When she finished the last bite of the apple she threw the core out into the open before her, watching as it struck the cobbled street far below and burst into several pieces. With the back of one hand she wiped at her mouth, eyes on the ships in the harbor as she contemplated how many troops each one could hold. She glanced down to make certain her staff still lay beside her, running a hand over the familiar warped and blackened haft for the small amount of reassurance it could give her. The wind suddenly whistled around her and she shivered, drawing up the loose cowl of her hood and tucking her hands protectively into the opposite sleeves of her robe. It offered little in the way of warmth, but she could persevere. She would be warm again soon enough.

Time passed. Hawke made an effort to keep her mind from wandering down paths that lead self-doubt and apprehension, but had little success. A kernel of anxiety had bloomed in her mind and as it grew with each minute leading to the inevitable confrontation, she felt the contents of her stomach begin to roil uneasily. It was strange, her jittery nerves, she mused, for even when face to face with Anders in the past, she'd been able to maintain some semblance of calm. Perhaps it was because the maleficar had become such a familiar threat over the years, or maybe it was because with Anders, she knew that if she were to fail, she would simply die.

She was not so certain her fate if she were to founder here.

By the time she caught sight of the first of the Qunari entering the courtyards of Hightown, tension sang along every nerve in her body. She gripped her staff and came to her feet slowly, watching as rank after rank filed into view, trying to keep count but ultimately failing as a tremor borne of fear and misgiving worked its way up her spine. She watched as a small company broke away from the main group and made its way up the Viscount's Way to enter the keep. That they'd sent so small a number meant they were no longer concerned about encountering resistance. Other groups formed and went off as well to search the houses, and Hawke knew that her former abode would be among those canvassed. Still, the main body of the Qunari force marched on, rounding the corner to gain entry to the street that led directly to the North Gate. And as the vanguard of the force host came into clear view, Hawke's breath left her in a slow and astonished hiss.

Fenris walked among the Qunari.

The Arishok was at the forefront with two Karasaad on either side. That he chose to appear so brazenly at the head of his army was a clear sign that he considered nothing in the city a threat. Even so, he was prepared for battle—Hawke caught sight of both his weapons, axe and sword, riding at his back. The white wolf walked two abreast of the Arishok, his dark armor hauntingly familiar to her, a broadsword in a sheath cutting across his spine. It made terrible, alarming sense to her then as to why, after so long, Fenris would have returned to Kirkwall. He'd been acting as a scout, reconnoitering for the Qunari. Which meant that all along the Arishok had known the true reason she had meant to flee.

She did not linger on the knowledge that Fenris had gone to the Qun, though a large part of her was stunned. In the past he'd openly admitted to admiring its teachings, but had also stated that to live under its harsh, strict rule would be something he simply could not do. That time had so drastically altered his stance on that issue was surprising, but then again, time was capable of a great many things. Her own transformation over the years was proof enough of that. Still, long moments had passed before she was able to tear her eyes from the elf and focus on the Qunari as a whole.

They had caught sight of her, a shout ringing out from among their number. She watched as heads swiveled to mark her where she stood upon the rampart, to the right of the gate. She felt the eyes of both Fenris and the Arishok land upon her and for an instant was seized with a near overwhelming urge to turn and run, to leap from the other side of the wall, to find uncertain safety beyond the gate. With great force of will she managed to stifle that inclination. Remaining absolutely still, she took several deep breaths and watched as the Arishok brought his army to a halt some distance from the gate. She was within range of the spear-throwers, she was certain, and was just as certain that they would not attack. Her instincts proved right; in the long silence that followed the Qunari halt, no move was made to harm her.

Hawke, for a moment ignoring the dangerous expectations that now surrounded her, closed her eyes. From deep within her core she found the bright, ever-shining spark that allowed her to harness the elemental magic that was her birthright and seized it. It was an effortless thing, to call fire or ice to her fingertips, as easy to do as breathing. Manipulating them was an ability she had never had to think about, having known inherently that it was what she was meant to do. A lifetime of practice had led her to new and unexpected discoveries in just what else she was able to do with those powers, led her to the knowledge that she was as potent a weapon as any blade.

And it had been in fighting for her life that she discovered just how destructive she could be.

From that spark at the very center of her being she slowly coaxed forth the flames that were hers to command. Carefully, she channeled their heat outwards, driving it not towards her deft hands but instead fanning it throughout her entire body. She could feel it pulsing beneath her skin, a warmth that drove away the chill she had taken from long hours exposed to the wind, a warmth that pushed gently at the confines of her flesh, seeking a release. And when she felt finally that it had spread throughout the entirety of her body, flooding her muscles and her veins and her very blood, she tugged from the spark a sudden gust of energy and used it to ignite the heat that simmered within her.

In the space between one breath and the next, her skin ignited.

The flames were tiny, miniscule and insignificant as they danced along her limbs, so small as to seem to lurk beneath her flesh. They were fueled by the essence of her will and would not falter, not so long as she conscious. It was for this she'd chosen to wear the heavy, voluminous robes, to keep the fire hidden. It would not burn through the cloth, not yet; even were someone to touch her bare skin now, all they would feel was an uncanny heat.

Hawke opened her eyes. The Qunari host still waited below. Taking firm hold of her staff, she made the mental jump to the ground. She winked out of existence only to reappear directly in front of the gate. The invader ranks stretched out before her, the bones of an armored and frightening serpent that had wended its way throughout the emptied city to find her here. Her attention fixed on Fenris for only a moment and that one moment drove home the knowledge that even after seven years, his hooded green eyes could leave her shaken. Her gaze slid then to the Arishok, and he spoke.

Shanedan, Hawke.”

She inclined her head in deference, but remained silent. A sudden burst of moisture landed on her cheek, followed by two more in quick succession. She did not have to cast her eyes skyward to know that the clouds had finally decided to deliver their gloomy burden. In the seconds that followed, it began to rain in earnest, becoming a heavy and uninterrupted downpour.

“I did not think,” the Arishok said then, his voice carrying easily over the sound of the rain, “to find you still here.”

“It wasn't something I had planned,” she replied.

“Have you chosen to surrender to the Qun?”

She shook her head. “No.”

“Yet you remain when all others of your kind have so foolishly fled. A decision to oppose us would be most unwise. You know this.”

The water had quickly soaked into the heavy folds of her robes and they were beginning to cling to her uncomfortably. Even so, Hawke began to channel more energy into the fire that flickered over her body, urging it to grow hotter, wilder. She would be able to keep her intent hidden for a little while longer, she knew.

When she spoke next, she pitched her voice to carry beyond the first few gathered Qunari. “I cannot let you pass beyond this gate.” Her eyes found the Arishok again as she mirrored his earlier words. “You know this.”

“Speak.” The Qunari leader said, and for a moment Hawke was confused. She realized then that his order had been for Fenris, and with a disconcerting, hollow feeling, she looked to the elf—her former lover—to await what words he might say with dread.

“Hawke,” the white wolf said, “the people of this city are conquered no matter the choice you make here.”

The very sound of his voice brought a swift and stabbing pain to her heart. Reacting to this, her aura of flames leaped in size. Reaching around to grab her staff in both hands, she leaned on it hard, wondering why after so many years such a simple thing as a voice could influence her so and hating the fact that it could. The water droplets striking her exposed hands were sizzling. To mask their hiss she replied then to elf.

“If you know me at all, Fenris, then you know that I must try to stop you here.”

They stared at each other for a fraction of a second before the elf nodded, something like regret rippling across his face. “I do.”

Hawke looked again to the Arishok, feeding once again the fire that bathed her, feeling it grow all around her. “Leave the city. There's nothing for you here.”

The Arishok's eyes narrowed. “Submit.”

“Is that what you expect of a basalit-an?” She was talking now only to distract their attention, for the flames had become greedy and demanded room to grow. From the corner of her eye she could see their flickering red and orange tendrils appear from beneath the cuffs of her sleeves. “Shall I surrender here simply because the odds are insurmountable? I believe you'd call that cowardice, Arishok. Or am I wrong?”

The air around Hawke had begun to steam, great ghostly plumes of it rising on the wind to be scattered by the hard fall of the rain. The fire that encompassed her began to lick the hem of her robes and extend along her wrist and fingers in a wavering dance. The rain could not quell it. Even as Hawke took a step back, even as the Arishok and his Karasaad began to lunge forward in sudden realization, the fire continued to grow, consuming the fabric that clothed her, wreathing her hood and her hair within it. She felt no pain from the fire though anyone near her now would suffer the heat; she felt only a terrifying exhilaration she'd felt but once before in knowing that there was no turning back.

They were all coming for her now, a swarm of Qunari descending upon her as a horde with only one intent. And with them ran Fenris, broadsword held securely in his grip, an instrument meant to be her demise. Hawke took two quick steps back and came up hard against the iron portcullis of the gate. She was exactly where she needed to be, and it was then that she funneled all her power, all her will, into the flames that haloed her with a great and terrible light. She became a living inferno, a pillar of pulsing, swirling fire and the suddenness of it all had the Qunari staggering back, away from the searing, blistering heat she was emanating in waves.

She blinked once. The Arishok, still the foremost among his men, was backing steadily away. She could not read the expression on his face through the shroud of furious flames. She blinked again, let fall her staff and cast her arms wide as she gave one last final, terrific push of power.

The world exploded.

So great was the blastwave that it swept like a raging tide over the Qunari directly before her. She saw it tear their ranks apart, saw them thrown great distances even as she herself was falling. She hit the ground hard, her world still that of the all-consuming fire and saw in the instants before all consciousness left her the great stones that comprised the North Gate tumbling down all around her.

.x.

Chapter Text

.x.


"What comfort has freedom brought you, mage? You would have more if you submitted to the Qun."

-Ketojan
.x.


Hawke awoke to dampness and cold.


A persistent spattering of water upon her upturned face freed her from the reluctant grips of a dark and terrible dream. No sound escaped her as her eyes fluttered open to find only a world of an impenetrable blackness. Moments passed and the dark shaped itself into shadows among other shadows, until finally she realized that she was not lost in a plane of eternal and merciless night as her dreams had so hinted. Turning her head a small distance, she discovered with a dazed sweep of her eyes that she was buried beneath huge blocks of stone.


That fact in itself was not surprising; she could recall with vivid clarity her stand before the North Gate with the whole of the Qunari army pressing in upon her. She had achieved her goal and destroyed the gate—she could remember too clearly seeing the stones of its foundation come tumbling down around her before all awareness had fled. The crooked and uneven slabs that so effectively entombed her were, she surmised, a testament to her success. The realization that they may also serve as a sepulcher was not a heartening one.


As more water spattered onto her cheek—rain, she knew, filtering through the cracks in the blocks heaped all around her—she attempted to shift her body away. Immediate pain filled her then, and she couldn't help the low moan that escaped her as every muscle and every bone began to ache with sharp intensity, jarred by her stirring. Even the expanse of her skin was alight with agony, feeling gritty and raw. She ceased all movement, remaining as she had been upon her awakening, lying prostrate on her back, legs splayed and arms close to her sides. Still the water rain persisted, small droplets beating a staccato against her face before sliding uncomfortably down her neck to pool beneath her shoulders. Slowly she turned her head, gritting her teeth at the discomfort caused by even that small action, so that the water instead dripped past her ear. She had no will for anything else. All her power, all her energy had been expended in her last great push of magic, in the explosion that had buried her thus. In the aftermath she was left feeling alarmingly feeble, having barely the strength to keep her eyes open to stare unseeing at the interior of her makeshift crypt.


That she was alive was nothing short of a miracle. Having exerted all her sorcery in an effort to destroy the North Gate, she had been left unable to conjure even the most elementary of magical shielding as the great blocks of granite had collapsed all around her. That had not been a part of Hawke's original plan; she had not lied to Aveline when she had said she did not plan to die. That she hadn't been crushed beneath the tremendous weight of the gate's debris was astounding, but now she was left to consider a more insidious demise—would the Qunari dig beneath the fallen stones of the North Gate to locate the mage that had hindered them so? Or would they assume her dead—not an improbability, by any means—and leave her body here within the chance convenience of her tomb? Both options made her close her eyes as an oppressive despair washed over her. Neither option, she knew, would end happily for her. Both were at this point equally possible and inevitable.


Hawke took several deep, steadying breaths in light of the knowledge as to how dire her situation really was, recalling as she did so another time, not so long ago, when she had first discovered she was capable of causing such magical destruction. The first and only other time she had attempted this exertion of her powers, she had had an ally nearby to assist her in the aftermath, one who had aided her in her weakened, dazed state in getting to a place of relative safety. No friend awaited Hawke now, ready and willing to dig her out from within this haphazard cairn to guide her securely through the threats that lurked beyond. Whatever came for her now—if indeed something should—would be in the form of an enemy.


A deep chill had settled over her. Unable to escape the water pooled beneath her body—unable to tell how long she'd lain thus—she was helpless against the icy tendrils that crept throughout her form to settle within the brittle marrow of her bones. Even the simplest of magical tricks—conjuring a tiny lick of flame from which to leech warmth—was beyond her now. With the unshakable cold came an inescapable weariness. Hawke could not move, could not summon her power, could do nothing against the dire circumstances she now found herself in. And so she let close her eyes once again and gave way beneath the forcible push of fatigue, drifting off once again into the murky, dreamless dark.


.x.


The Qunari found her a full day later at dawn, having taken that long to shift and move the sizable chunks of rubble that had so effectively ensconced her. The rain had not abated in the hours that had passed and so unrelenting was the downpour that it surely seemed the whole world must be drenched beneath its torrent. The Qunari, working tirelessly under the supervision of their Arishok, tackled the task of removing the giant, charred stones with the same stoic, unyielding determination with which they approached everything.


Almost the entirety of the northern courtyard bore the marks of Hawke's conjured fire. The gate itself had crumbled completely, as though obliterated by the very will of the Maker. The mountainous pile of smoldering, charred stones was impassable. With the final explosion, the fire had swept outwards to blister the surrounding walls, blackening the mortar and even the cobblestones of the street. The flames had wrought further destruction upon any Qunari that had had the misfortune of being closest to Hawke; nine had died in the immediate blast and three more had succumbed to the severe burns they had sustained. Even the Arishok had not escaped her attack unscathed. While he had exhibited some resistance to her brand of magic in their earlier encounter, such was the tidal force of power she had unleashed at the gate that the flames had managed to scorch the length of his forearms and some of the exposed skin of his chest. The dead and the wounded had been attended to in the hours that had passed, and the Qunari leader stood now before the great mound of rubble with his burns salved and dressed, seemingly unaware of and unperturbed by the rain that pounded down all around him in a relentless deluge.


The water had extinguished the greater of the raging fires left behind after the North Gate had fallen. Even so, smoke still rose skyward in thick dark plumes and the heat the stones retained slowed the Qunari's excavation. That they labored so intensively to uncover the mage that had caused such devastation was not perceived as unusual by their number. Exceedingly rare was the occurrence that the Qunari found themselves so thoroughly routed by one lone individual. Even more anomalous was the fact that it was a human who had done so. Hawke's pharaonic demonstration of raw power had cemented her status as dangerous and worthy rival, so unprecedented and unexpected had it been. The Arishok had ordered her retrieval after the Qunari dead had been taken from the courtyard and the military ranks had been reorganized. It was recognized by all involved that the possibility of the human mage's death by the collapse of the gate was high. There was, however, the chance that she had survived and if it were so, the Qun demanded she be found, for there were rigid axioms by which such a rival must be held accountable.


When one of the working Ashaad shouted out in sudden discovery, the Arishok moved as one with the rest of the Qunari gathered and began to climb the uneven mound of debris, striding forth undeterred by the stones that wobbled and smoked beneath his feet. A ring of Qunari converged finally upon the position of the Ashaad where he stood in a waist deep aperture within the hill of stones. Wordlessly, the Ashaad indicated with a thrust of his chin to the ground at his feet where the crumpled form of Hawke lay.


The rain had created a sizable pool around her prostrate body. Her ebony robes were singed and tattered about the edges and completely soaked, clinging to her skin. Blood was visible in smeared lines down the length of her exposed arms and legs. Her head was turned to the side and the water had plastered her dark hair to her skull in thin, dripping ribbons. Her staff lay some several feet away, still half-buried beneath the immense bulk of a granite block.


Fenris—a Karasaad now within the Qun—hopped down lightly from where he'd been balanced on a large jagged shard of broken stone and approached the fallen human, gently splashing through the pool of water as he did so. He knelt beside Hawke and with deft fingers felt for signs of life. A moment passed before he raised his eyes to that of his leader and nodded once. "She lives."


The Arishok remained motionless for a string of seconds before he moved, stepping down from the rubble. Fenris rose and stepped back as his leader approached, his head respectfully inclined. The Arishok came to a halt, the water rippling around his booted feet, and stared down at the prone mage. There lay one of the only humans to earn the mantle of basalit-an. There lay one of the only living beings who had stood alone in open defiance against the Qunari and lived.


There lay the mage that had managed to halt his entire army in its tracks.


When he knelt, it was with great deliberation. The water that soaked through his leathers was shockingly cold, but he made no move to withdraw. Instead he reached for the mage.


And stopped when her eyes snapped open.


He read no fear in their mist-like depths, no trepidation, no panic. He saw instead an acceptance of a fate that she had been unable to escape, a calm and quiet resignation. He checked his movement and for a moment they regarded each other, two adversaries bound and made familiar with each other by a history of decisions and circumstances. Water trickled over her brow and down the side of her face, tracing the exact line of her scar. She moved then, slowly bringing one arm up and over her chest; he noted the way her face became drawn and the way she inhaled sharply in pain.


It was she who spoke first, her voice muted and low, "I cannot stand."


Fenris stepped forward and again knelt at her side. She glanced at the elf without expression but accepted his aid as he carefully lifted her into a sitting position with a hand at her back. That the entire process had been agonizing was evident in the way she breathed, but she uttered no other sound until she was upright. Eyes returning to the Arishok, she asked in a voice made taut by her suffering, "What of the refugees?"


"Safe, for the time being. We will hold and strengthen our position here."


"Until more of your armies arrive," she said.


He dipped his head, affirming her words. "It is so."


She looked away, gaze skimming over the blackened, smoking, rain-spattered rubble that surrounded them. He watched as her eyes fixed on the serpent-headed length of her staff, watched as the fingers on her maimed hand flexed briefly. She did not look at Qunari or elf as she phrased her next words.


"And what of me?"


"You live."


Her eyes flicked back to him and he saw worry burgeon to life within them, belying the steadiness of her voice. "In what manner?"


He did not answer. Rising to his feet, he gestured wordlessly at Fenris; the elf began to gather Hawke into his arms with the intent of carrying her from the exposed depths of her would-be barrow.


"No," she said sharply, shaking her head. "I can walk, with aid." That she was disputing her earlier words to them did not matter. Fenris assisted her with an arm about her waist as she slowly and unsteadily gained her feet. So pale did she become when at last she stood that it appeared she must topple over, but after a long minute she shook off Fenris' touch and took first one wavering step, and then another forward.


"My staff," she said as the elf made to lift her up onto the slick, rain-wet surface of the foremost of scattered stones.


"It will be retrieved." The Arishok replied without turning, having already made his way up the uneven mound.


After a moment of hesitation, the mage allowed Fenris to carry her over the rubble. He hefted her as gently as he could, but her soft sounds of pain were audible to both Qunari and elf as they picked their way across the field of stones. When Fenris finally stepped down from the last onto the cobblestones of the uncluttered part of the street, he set her down carefully and she moved away from him on legs that shook.


The other Qunari had dispersed to fulfill their other duties, their task in the courtyard having effectively been completed. Elf, Qunari leader and human faced each other in silence, a conflicting trifecta of races and creeds. Hawke clutched the scorched, ragged edges of her cowl about her neck as though to ward off the incessant patter of rain. Her tremors, borne of cold and weariness, were apparent to both observers.


Her eyes found again the Arishok and she spoke then, her voice still even in light of all she was currently faced with. "Why not kill me? Why not leave me here to die?"


"The Qun demands otherwise."


"I won't submit."


The Arishok's eyes were unblinking even as water streamed in rivers down the hard, craggy planes of his face and dripped in rapid trickles from daunting, imperious curve of his horns. A silence stretched on between them, broken only by the dull roar of the rain. It was she who finally broke it, voice finally wavering beneath the weight of her conviction. "I won't become Saarebas."


"You will become," the Arishok replied tonelessly, "what you are meant to be. There are certainties and absolutes all about you, Hawke. They will no longer be ignored or denied. Karasaad," he addressed Fenris then, "Escort her to the Keep. Instruct Viddathari to tend to what wounds she has. Find a place to secure her."


Hawke said nothing further as Fenris caught at her arm, urging her to walk with him. Without another word she acquiesced to the steady pressure of his touch, pivoting and making her way from the courtyard with slow, halting steps.


The Arishok watched their departure until they were beyond his sight.


.x.

Chapter Text

.x.


"There is but one way to know these things, human. And I have yet to decide if it must be done."


-The Arishok


.x.


The Keep seemed to Hawke an alien structure, no longer familiar to her. The faces that blurred together as she and Fenris made their way through its stark, grave halls were of nobody she recognized, though there were some among them that were not Qunari. Even had her eyes found the features of someone she knew, she was too exhausted and too weak to do anything more than acknowledge the fact. Her strength having fled her completely, her body wracked by uncontrollable tremors, she was supported now almost entirely by Fenris' arm about her, unable to help the way her body leaned against his. In a different time and place, she would have resented the weakness that subjugated her thus, rendering her helpless and entirely reliant upon him. In a different time and place, she knew wearily as she forced her aching legs to mount the stairs she found suddenly before her, she would have tried to kill him.


Time drifted from her then, and she aware only of the movement of her reluctant body, of the pull and release of every agonized muscle, of the way each step jarred bones that felt made of glass. The white wolf had not spoken to her during his escort, even when she half-collapsed against him halfway up the staircase, even when he lifted her into his arms with a muted grunt. The rest of their journey was lost to her as awareness fled, chased from her by the merciless ebb and flow of pain.


"Hawke."


She came to suddenly, prompted by Fenris' voice. Her eyes came open reluctantly to find that they had apparently reached their destination. Seeing her awake, the elf set her down carefully, keeping one arm about her waist in order to keep her upright. Dazed, Hawke swept her eyes across the room they had entered. It took her a long moment to realize they were within the main hall of the Keep's internal barracks; she'd visited here often enough back when Aveline had first joined the city guard. They were not alone in the room. Two other human women were present, standing side by side and facing Fenris expectantly. The women wore the mantles of a hard life, their faces lined with bygone worries and grief, their shoulders hunched and their postures timid. They were of Darktown, Hawke instinctively knew, of those that had either been unwilling or unable to flee the Qunari invasion. That they stood here now, still among the living, meant only one thing.


Fenris' next words confirmed her suspicion. "Viddathari, her wounds are to be washed and treated."


Suddenly loathe to have the converts touch her, Hawke made a small sound of protest that went ignored by all present. The women both nodded their wordless obeisance, turning as one to walk towards one of the several doors set along the walls of the long, rectangular room. Applying steady pressure to the small of her back with his arm, Fenris prompted Hawke to begin walking again. She clutched his shoulder as they moved, shaking still beneath the potent onslaught of exposure to the cold rain and the expenditure of the sum of all her powers, ignoring all else and focusing on simply taking one step after another. Through one door the elf led her, then down a short corridor, and then through another entrance. One of the converts closed the final door behind them after they had crossed the threshold. The other stood near a large stone tub—one of several—set into the stone of the floor from which thick tendrils of steam rose to haze the air. They had entered the barracks' bathing chamber.


When both converts approached Hawke to lead her from Fenris, she struggled only briefly, a tussle in which she was easily overcome. Knowing resistance was of no use, she bowed her head and allowed them to half-lead, half-carry her to the lip of the stone basin. As they began sifting through the ragged folds of her robe to find the fastenings, however, she snapped to full awareness and shoving one of the women away. She turned abruptly to face Fenris standing still near the door, the world spinning violently as she did so. Swallowing hard against a sudden wave of nausea, she shook her head and spoke.


"Leave." she told him, her voice to her dismay coming out thin and reedy.


But the elf shook his head, backing up a step to lean against the wall near the door. "You're too much of a risk to leave alone, Hawke."


She gave a short, strangled laugh. "I could do nothing even if I wanted to. I'm no threat to anyone like this."


"I'm not so certain." Fenris said, crossing his arms over his chest and regarding her, eyes glittering with intense speculation. "Regardless, I will remain. Let them help you. You can't stay as you are. Your wounds need to be cleaned and treated."


She glared at him for a long moment, hating that he was right, but when one of the converts reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder to turn her back around, she grudgingly acquiesced. She remained motionless and silent as the women found the laces of her robes that lined the seams at the sides and gritted her teeth as they undid them with fumbling hands. Full clarity had returned to her, dragged back by her anger and unease at the situation. With the heavy lengths of her sodden robe bunched in their hands, the women began tugging it up over her body. Reluctantly Hawke lifted her arms and allowed it to be removed from her. Clad then only in damp, rough-spun undergarments, Hawke began to shiver with increasing intensity as the chill that had long shrouded her wormed its way closer to her core. The converts began to work at the ties that affixed them to her form quickly, and as they too fell away she closed her eyes in the utmost mortification, her body now completely exposed.


She allowed herself to be led by gentle hands to the lip of the basin, allowed herself to be gently pushed, one step at a time, further into the steaming depths. As the near-scalding waters rose up around the length of her scraped and bruised legs she hissed, but then bit at her lower lip and stumbled down further until the water rose to her waist. She sank down, the water lapping at her chin as she turned and floated back to rest against the edge of the tub. All thoughts left her then as the blessed heat permeated her skin, warming her in such a welcome manner that she closed her eyes in relieved gratification. The cuts and scratches she had sustained stung sharply at first, but then even that discomfort faded beneath the delicious comfort offered by the hot bath. For an unknown span of time she drifted in the unexpected bliss, the warmth of the water soothing her aching muscles and driving the ice from her bones. She fell into a doze, unable to keep the weariness at bay any longer, and was jolted awake once more by the sound of Fenris' voice.


"Hawke."


She sighed as her eyes opened to find the elf standing now at the rim of the tub. Though all of her body save her head was hidden from view by the darkened depths of the water, she wrapped her arms about her chest before she could check the movement. That she was insecure and apprehensive to be naked and so near a man who had once been her lover was inevitable. That she had allowed him to see her discomfort was greatly troubling, but she inwardly steeled herself and let her eyes flick upwards to meet his gaze.


"You fell asleep." He told her, his voice and face both utterly inexpressive. If he felt anything similar to what she was experiencing, he hid it well.


Hawke opened her mouth to apologize but bit back the words, instead scowling and sinking lower into the water. Fenris gazed down at her for a moment longer before turning and perching upon the lip of the basin, his back to her. He said nothing further, and for several seconds she stared suspiciously at his form before she turned and reached for the folded cloth and cake of soap the convert women had left for her before retreating to their positions on either side of the door. Keeping one eye on the elf, she went about gently washing the length of her sore, battered body. For a long while the only sound in the chamber was her gentle splashing as she went about carefully cleaning the abrasions she had sustained. Finally satisfied, she dunked her head then beneath the surface to soak her hair. Blinking the water out of her eyes, she lathered the short dark lengths with the soap and then submerged herself again until she was certain every strand was clean.


"You have a considerable amount of scars," Fenris said when her head broke free of the water for the last time. Wiping at her eyes with one hand and smoothing the sopping mass of her short hair back with the other, she waited as he went on. "More than I ever recall you having before."


That he would make mention of the past, when he had been overly and intimately familiar with the nude expanse of her body, shook her. A frown furrowed the skin between her brows as she studied the rigid lines of his back and she hesitated before replying. "I've fought a considerable amount of battles since then. I wasn't always lucky."


"And your fingers? How did you lose them?"


"Anders." She said tersely, glancing about for a sheet with which to dry herself.


Fenris turned, bracing himself with his hands upon the stone rim of the tub. Hawke stilled, feeling suddenly too exposed, having risen so that the water lined now the skin just above her breasts. His expression was still unreadable, his eyes direct and unwavering as they caught and held hers.


"How?" He repeated.


She debated not answering, debated keeping her lips mulishly sealed against his probing question. Such a thing, she knew, would only lengthen this awkward scenario and so with a slow and irritated sigh she settled back against the edge of the tub, the water rising once again to her neck.


"I had managed to track Anders to a place where I thought he had no chance of escaping. A little more than a year ago," she said finally, casting about her memory to try and pinpoint the exact point in time that she referenced and finding it to be elusive. "No, it was more than that. A year and a half, maybe."


She fell silent, eyes upon the miniscule ripples of water brought to life by the mere act of her breathing, thoughts tumbling through a barrage of unwelcome recollections that had been freed from the furthermost corners of her mind by his question. He moved slightly, shifting his weight and her gaze found him again to find him watching her expectantly. She cleared her throat and looked away before continuing.


"He'd entered the Deep Roads, into a large warren of tunnels that went nowhere, blocked off from the rest by cave-ins. Or so I thought. We went after him—Varric, Merril and myself. Varric had been traveling with me for a while. We'd sought out Merril, to ask for her aid. I was certain that with the two of them to assist me, it would be the last time I faced Anders. He had nowhere to run." Again she fell silent, the reluctance she felt to reveal the rest of the story almost overwhelming.


But Fenris was persistent. "And?"


"And I was wrong on all accounts." She looked at him and her lips quirked into a mirthless and twisted smile. "Anders was familiar with that part of the Deep Roads. Familiar with its designs and familiar too with its denizens. We walked directly into a trap, the three of us—I led us right to it. Just when it seemed we had him cornered, they came out of every crack and hole in the place. We were," she said softly, her eyes still on his, "completely surrounded. There was no getting out."


"Darkspawn," the elf said quietly, and she nodded.


"How he managed it, I don't know. He's a twisted creature, more demon now than man. Perhaps he learned to communicate with them. Perhaps they feared him and that fear led to their obedience. Whatever the reason, they had us at their mercy. When they attacked I didn't think we'd live—so many of them and just the three of us. We fought with all we had. We were no easy target. But they overwhelmed us, in the end. They caught Merril—she was dragged away and then Varric and I were overrun ..."


Her eyes in the telling had grown wide, still locked on his. They had become mirror-like as a wash of emotion flooded them with every word she spoke. She was staring at him unseeing, and as she took up the thread of her story yet again her voice was stilted and forced. "I knew we were lost. I'd brought them both to their deaths. I took up my magic and I wielded it in a way I'd never done before, in a manner I'd never thought to try. I called it all to me and I let it build as they came for us and when I felt their hands on me I just let it go."


She blinked once, twice, as though her mind had broken free of some kind of inexplicable tether. When she looked to him again, recognition was present. "The result of which, you've already seen. I brought the very cavern down around us and destroyed most the darkspawn. Varric had managed to evade being crushed—how, I don't know—and he pulled me out of the rocks and dirt and bodies. He saved my life. I was as I am now—weak, powerless. Useless. Varric became my defender down in those depths as we wandered, trying to find Merril and trying to avoid the darkspawn. We were lost for days. I couldn't go far and Varric couldn't carry me. Gradually I regained my strength. We kept going, the two of us, until it seemed we would never find our way out. And it was then, by chance, that we found Merril."


Her voice had thickened as she spoke and when finally she halted, her breathing was hard and fast. She made a noise low in her throat then, a sound of such raw and profound sorrow that Fenris momentarily drew back. Hawke's eyes fixed on the surface of the water as more words tumbled from her mouth in a violent expulsion. "It was Anders that had taken her from us, in all the confusion. And he gave her to the darkspawn—he let them have her. Do you know, Fenris, what they do with women?" Her gaze had slid inexorably back to his as her voice dropped to a harsh whisper. The elf nodded once, slowly. An expression of horrified fascination had crept into place upon his features.


"Broodmothers," she choked, forcing the words past the lump of fury and anguish in her throat. "They fed her the flesh of the dead. They fed her pieces of themselves. They violated her. We were too late—there was no way to bring her back by the time we found her. We killed them all, those that had her. I don't even know how. I can't—I can't remember—" Here her voice broke, but still she went on, shaking her head, her face haggard. "She wasn't Merril, not anymore. But I tried to bring her back, with my magic. I went to her and I tried to talk to her, but she couldn't understand me. She struck at me, she spat at me, and then when I tried to touch her ..."


From out of the depths of the water, she lifted her maimed hand. Droplets rained down in rapid succession from her skin and beaded along the length her fingers, both injured and whole. She made a fist slowly, curling her fingers downwards until the nubs of the last two rose above the knuckles of the others. "Her teeth," Hawke went on, her voice having reached a toneless pitch, devoid of any emotion, "were that of the darkspawn. She fed on my flesh as she'd fed on theirs. And I saw in her eyes that she enjoyed it. We would have killed her then if we could have. We would not have willingly left her that way, but more of them found us. There were too many, again. We had to flee."


She stood suddenly, facing him directly, a pale and battered apparition risen from waters ominous and dark. She was unashamed then of her nakedness, of the canvas of scars that traversed her limbs, of the cuts and bruises she bore that were testaments of all she'd seen and all she'd done in the years that had separated them. Water streamed from her limbs and steam rose from her flesh as it met with the colder air of the chamber, but still she did not move, instead continuing to speak.


"We found our way to the surface eventually. Varric had bound my hand as best he could but I caught a fever not long after. I feared it was the taint. We found our way to small village somehow—again, I would have died if not for Varric. The healers there could do nothing. I learned then that the fire I command could do more than just destroy. As I lay dying in a stranger's bed, I set myself on fire inside. I let the flames rage through my blood and over my bones. I burnt until I had nothing left. And when I woke days later, I found that I'd healed myself of whatever malady had beset me. I lived."


She moved then, breaking the spell her grim words had woven over the occupants of the room, walking up the steps of the basin on legs that were still weak. She stepped out of the tub and past Fenris and a shudder clawed its way up her spine as the entirety of her wet body was hit by the surrounding chill of the room. She stopped and lowered her head, her back to the elf, lost in that instant to the full weight of grief and hatred she'd known in those days she'd spent lost with the dwarf in the Deep Roads.


"Viddathari." Fenris' voice was oddly hollow.


Unseen by Hawke, the women approached and suddenly she was draped in the welcoming thickness of a drying cloth. They wrapped it around her loosely. She reached for the edges and drew it about her body tightly, needing the warmth and the false sense of security it offered. She was aware of Fenris striding to the door and watched from the corner of her eye as he turned to face her and the converts.


"Tend to her wounds. Clothe her."


Both women nodded obediently as he opened the door and stepped from sight.


.x.


After the converts had salved and dressed the most severe of Hawke's wounds, they had clothed her in a simple, thick, rough-spun robe of wool that was the color of ash. For her feet they had found thin slippers. After drying her hair the best they could, they led her to the door and through it, presenting her to Fenris where he paced the length of the hall.


Wordlessly, he grabbed her arm and began to lead her. Still wearied—feeling in fact moreso after the telling of her dark tale—she managed somehow to wrench free, angered by his very presence and by his insistence that had led to her reliving the past she had tried so hard to ignore. For a moment they glared at each other in taut silence, both oblivious to the converts who lurked by the door made apprehensive by the tensions flowing thick in the air.


"Follow." Fenris said finally, turning and walking towards the door in the far wall. Hawke, having no other option, complied without a word.


He led her through the labyrinthine layout of the barracks with a quick pace that she struggled, in her injured state, to keep up with. They passed several Qunari, all of whom gave them no passing notice and instead continued on their way with their typical austere calm. When finally they rounded a corner and came to a stone staircase that led down, Hawke backed a step; the lower levels of the Keep had once functioned as a prison.


Staring into the dim recesses of the stairwell, Hawke considered for a moment attempting to flee, but knew there was no use in such an action. Her magic had been entirely expended and she was completely defenseless. When Fenris gestured for her to proceed him down the stairs she did so with great reticence. She proceeded carefully, the singular torch embedded in the stone wall casting a wan and unhelpful light, her hands on the wall on either side of her as she went. At the bottom she paused, finding herself faced with another long hall littered with wooden doors. A lone Qunari stood at the far end of the hall, hands clasped behind his back, eyes staring straight ahead. With a small shove, Fenris indicated Hawke was to head in that direction.


The Qunari's gaze flicked to elf and mage as they approached. The door he stood in front of was as unremarkable as all the others in the hall, but Hawke knew instinctively that this cell had for whatever reason been chosen as hers. He opened the door as they came to a simultaneous halt, swinging it open. Inwardly resigning herself to imprisonment, Hawke crossed the threshold without needing to be prompted. She saw immediately why the room had been designated as hers; the chains bolted to the stone wall were numerous. She had seen such a thing before. This was a cell meant to hold maleficars.


As Fenris entered the room behind her, she tore her eyes from the chains to scan the rest of her surroundings. A simple straw mattress lay in the corner furthest from the door, heaped with blankets that appeared both clean and whole. Aside from that, the room was empty. Hawke turned to the elf then, her words pitched to supplicate.


"I'm powerless, Fenris. I can do nothing."


He remained silent, instead turning and moving to the coiled mass of linked metal lying on the floor. He picked up the lengths and began to sort them, the sound of metal on metal echoing eerily throughout the small confines of the room. Hawke's eyes followed his movements, identifying what he held: two chains with cuffs meant for her arms, and one with a wide, smooth collar meant for her neck. The length of the chains was considerable. She would be able to move the entire breadth of the room. Involuntarily, she stepped back as Fenris stood and neared her with chains in hand. She stopped when she recalled the Qunari standing just outside the door.


She did not move as the white wolf grasped her left arm and slid the sleeve of her robe up. She did not move when he fastened the iron cuff about that wrist, nor when he set about doing the same to the other. She kept her eyes downcast, tracing the lines in the cracked stones of the floor, resolutely trying to keep from thinking about the fact that she would be left chained within this tiny cell in the lowest depths of the Keep, without the use of her magic. Even had she any power left in reserve, she mused darkly as she felt his fingers pulling at the cowl of her robe, it would do little for her if she was bound in such a manner.


His fingers ghosted against the skin of her neck moments before she felt the uncomfortably cold, smooth surface of the collar. With an audible and foreboding click it closed about her, and the wave of despair she felt then was almost debilitating. She slanted a furtive glance at the elf, but he stepped past her, moving to the door. She turned to mark his progress, the chains dragging at her as she did so, rattling with her momentum. At the door Fenris paused, casting one last glance over his shoulder. Their eyes met, and she saw then that the green depths of his own were hooded and empty as always. That she had expected anything else made her feel bitterly foolish, and she turned away.


Fenris spoke briefly to the Qunari, words that she could not decipher, and then she heard the door thud closed. Left alone in the ominous dimness of her cell, Hawke remained still for long minutes before crossing the floor to the bed. Carefully taking hold of the chains, she held them aloft as to prevent them from becoming tangled as she sank down onto the mattress. She then coiled the metal links in her lap, feeling their heaviness and the dire promise they carried, as she leaned her head against the unyielding stone of the wall.


Her body ached with an incessant throbbing and she was still weary, unbearably so. Even thus, it was a long time before she was able to close her eyes and find a path through fragments of troubling memory to find the merciful tendrils of sleep.


.x.

Chapter Text

 

.x.

 

You know of certainty and borders. You are closer to the Qun than you think.”

 

Ketojan

 

.x.

 

Under the combined force of fatigue and her body's need to heal and rejuvenate, Hawke's sleep was restful and unbroken, devoid of dreams or any of the usual shadowy taints of the Fade. She had managed to find a position of relative comfort, curled on her side on the thin straw mattress, kept warm beneath the mound of blankets left to her. The long, cumbersome length of chains she coiled on the stone floor in front of her, keeping them away from her flesh as best she could. Still, the cool, unyielding metal banding her neck and wrists was a discomfort that persisted as faint, intrusive wisps of reality even as she slept.

 

She woke once briefly, her awareness reluctant and hazy, her eyes focusing briefly on the mortared stone walls around her before falling to fix upon the links of her restraints. Recollection came then, swift and merciless, and it was a method of mental defense for her to close her eyes again and burrow further beneath the many blankets, letting sleep descent upon her once more.

 

When next she woke, she burned.

 

She knew it was severe instantly. Her entire body was drenched in sweat, and as she moved to push the blankets away from her superheated flesh she felt that they were damp, too. The task of freeing herself from the blankets had pushed her to the brink of exertion. She lay on her back, eyes staring unseeing at the stone ceiling of her cell, breathing hard and feeling the fever heat suffusing every muscle, every bone, every vein in her body. It was a warmth so very unlike the fire she commanded. It was a pervasive heat, carrying with it continuous throbbing pain and weakness, and she knew that the chances were very, very good that she'd die from this illness if left untended.

 

The simple task of turning her head to the side was exhausting. There was no sign whatsoever that anyone had set foot in her cell since she'd been placed there by Fenris. The heavy, reinforced door was still closed. She wondered briefly if the Qunari guard was still standing outside. For an even briefer span of time, she considered calling out for help. The dilemma presenting itself was clear, even with her mind clouded and dizzied by the fever. If she was nursed through the fever, she would have to face whatever it was the Arishok had planned for her. And she had no doubts whatsoever that what it would entail would result in either the breaking of her will, or death.

 

Eyes on the door, an image of the guard as she'd last seen him hovering in her mind, she laid quietly as her internal debate waged. And then, with a long, soft sigh, she turned her gaze away from the door, letting her eyes focus once more on the ceiling. With the decision made, it was easy enough to give into the weariness that accompanied the fever, the soul-deep exhaustion that made it possible to fade back into slumber despite the simmering aches that consumed her entire form.

 

Her rest from that point on was intermittent. She woke once suddenly, gasping, ripped from the grips of a terrible dream. She moaned softly as the world swam around her, as nausea roiled in her belly. Her hands had knotted unconsciously in the blankets as she'd slept, though she hadn't pulled them back over herself. Instead, the blankets were clutched tightly to her as she lay curled on her side. Though her body was exposed to the chill air of the cell—her breath with every exhale rose as faint mist—she was again completely soaked with sweat. The simple woolen robe she wore clung uncomfortably to her body.

 

Help, she knew, was as simple as raising her voice. But she kept her mouth mulishly shut, refusing to stare at the door or imagine the guard the stood just beyond it. Life for her had become one of two finalities—death, or subjugation. The Qunari were not gentle in any aspect of their lives. Her subjugation would be as crippling as any mortal wound. And despite the choices she'd made, the promises she'd forsaken and the honor she'd lost, she would not lose herself. She would not live a life bound and gagged simply because she'd been born with a gift.

 

No, she wouldn't call for help. This fever was a boon.

 

Sleep became difficult to differentiate from wakefulness. Even when her eyes were open, the world felt surreal. The painful heat that had enveloped her body faded sometimes, and in its place grew a terrible coldness. She would lie in a tightly curled ball, the blankets drawn tight around her, her entire body shaking violently as tremors rolled through her. And then the chill would subside and the heat would begin again, the two forming a torturous pattern that she was too weak and disoriented to fight, had she any inclination to do so. All she could do was suffer through.

 

At some point, phantom sensations began to haunt her. She felt molten pinpricks skittering up and down her spine and thrashed helplessly in their wake. The cold iron fastened about her wrists and neck felt as though it was constricting, closing in about her skin until she was sure blood had been drawn. And finally came the feeling she'd dreaded most, the touch of hands—not gentle, but not unkind—on her shoulders, on her sides, and finally on her cheeks. The fingers were cold, so cold against her superheated flesh and her eyes flew open as she lashed out in protest at her nonexistent assailant.

 

"You're a fool, Hawke."

 

No dream, then. Fenris' voice, Fenris' words. She clung to them hard, making an effort to discern reality from the waking dreams she'd been trapped in. Through lashes beaded with sweat she stared up at the elf and then beyond, to where a large figure loomed, blurring in her exhausted vision. She dragged her tired eyes back to Fenris and found that while the rest of the world spun and wavered, he remained perfectly clear.

 

Each breath felt constricted, her chest heavy. She had to swallow once, twice, before she could get the words past the dryness in her throat. "Come to see me off?"

 

"That may very well be the truth." It didn't take a clear, unclouded mind to recognize the grim tone in his voice. "You've only been in here one day and one night. I checked on you myself. You feigned sleep, then?"

 

She couldn’t recall his visit, though she'd been lost in a rhythm of troubled dozing and fretful waking and had likely been unaware. She knew it wouldn't take him long to discern the truth. Seconds later she watched the realization alter his features, lining his face with a solemn frown.

 

"You're a fool," he repeated.

 

"Yes," she sighed tiredly.

 

"You could have called for help."

 

"No."

 

He rocked back on his heels as though to rise from his knees, but checked the movement. Beyond him the figure of the Arishok stirred, and she turned her eyes to him.

 

" Shanedan ," she whispered. It was getting very hard to stay focused. Weariness was again pulling at every fiber of her being, a relentless adversary.

 

The Arishok approached, stopping beside Fenris. Long moments later he dropped to a crouch. His expression was as it always was—grimmer, perhaps.

 

"Hawke," he said, "this is not the way."

 

"It’s one way."

 

His head tilted to the side to concede her point, a movement so small it was almost to be missed. "A coward's way."

 

She wouldn't argue that. He was right.

 

"We’ve sent for healers.” Fenris said. It seemed as though his voice was receding.

 

She was unable to keep her eyes from closing, from letting feeble, unwise words tumble from her mouth. “Let me die.”

 

She wasn’t certain if the response she heard was real or another figment brought on by her malady. “The Qun demands otherwise.”

 

.x.

 

Awareness evaded Hawke, so too did time. So securely in the grip of illness was she that she was entirely uncertain of whether the voices she heard and the faces she saw were real. Clarity, when it came, was in brief bouts, and the first time it happened she found herself staring up two unfamiliar visages on either side of her. She reacted on instinct, some memory not scattered by the fever spurring her into a panic. She lashed out wildly, limbs weakened and uncoordinated, only to find herself restrained by hands, far too many hands. Recollections flooded back to her, of dank, dark places underground, of darkspawn, and she heard herself screaming until all awareness mercifully fled.

 

Hours or days passed. Lucidity returned more gradually this time, filtering back bit by bit until, blinking, she realized there was a stone roof over her head. She sucked in a deep breath — was this the maleficar’s cell beneath the keep? She lifted an arm experimentally and found that it was unfettered, without chains. Where then was she? Shadows flickered on the periphery of her vision. She turned her head but they fled from her sight, seeking refuge in the darkest unlit corners of the room. Darkspawn. She struggled to sit up and found that she was buried beneath a considerable amount of blankets and sheets, all of which conspired to keep her trapped by tangling maliciously around her legs. She gained her feet and managed two trembling coltish steps before she was forced to stop, breathing hard, the world spinning violently around her.

 

She heard voices. They were barely audible at first but grew in volume until they were nearly deafening and she bolted, stumbling toward the outline of a door. It flew open at her urgent touch, booming against the wall. A large figure inserted itself into her path, chest emblazoned with bold crimson designs. She darted to the side, hitting the wall and pushing herself away from it, running for the stairs leading downward that she saw several feet away. The shadows from the other room had followed her, were converging upon her, and she ducked in order to avoid the grasping reach of their twisted, eldritch fingers. She’d reached the stairs and they seemed to lengthen and warp in her vision. She hesitated, unsure of her ability to traverse them.

 

“Hawke.”

 

She knew the voice, knew too the intent it carried. She half-turned, maimed hand gripping the banister. There were several loosely grouped Qunari with the Arishok at their vanguard. Behind them loomed strange silhouettes whose shapes changed as quickly and completely as the flames of a fire. She could hear those shadows again, heard them conversing in a low and vaguely threatening susurrus. She edged backward, feeling the edge of the top stair beneath her bare heel. The Arishok moved. Her eyes flicked to him and she found that his shape too was changing, his outline muddying in her wearied vision.

 

“They’ve come for me,” she told him. Her voice sounded odd to her own ears, thready and weak.

 

“No. It is only the sickness.”

 

Something was crawling across the floor toward her, an ominous insect-like thing made of deceitfully shifting shadows. She was wholly unaware of the Arishok's careful scrutiny, her eyes tracking the creature's movement as it scuttled between the legs of the Qunari. The thing paused in front of her, long, segmented limbs twitching. She held her breath, descending a step. It leapt for her, a fragment of nightmare given inexplicable substance, and with a breathless cry she twisted aside, sacrificing her balance. She tottered for a fraction of a second before falling, attempting to shield her face as the rest of the staircase rose up to meet her.

 

Large fingers quickly fastened around her wrist, stopping her from tumbling downward, pulling her back until she felt solidity beneath her feet. Her breath left in her in a long, relieved exhale that transitioned into an abrupt gasp as she caught sight of the insect thing again, slowly climbing the stairs toward her. The Arishok had not released his hold, his touch anchoring her to the reality that was seeking to alter itself in such fickle ways.

 

She asked unsteadily, “It’s not real?”

 

“No.”

 

It looked real. She was positive that if it reached her, it would feel real. She looked at the Arishok, seeking truth. She found it in the austere lines of his countenance, in the invariant manner of his pale gaze. His face, unlike every other thing surrounding her, was unaffected by eerie distortion. Her eyes moved back to the stairs. The creature was still there, still approaching, and she could not help but back a step.

 

“Ignore it, Hawke. It is a product of your fever and nothing more.”

 

“What about the rest?” she wondered aloud, closing her eyes, willing the world to right itself when she opened them again. “What about you? What of this place? It could all be false.”

 

“It is not.”

 

“How are you always so certain?” She was looking at him again. His voice seemed to have the effect of dissipating the spectres that haunted her. She needed him to speak more. “Do you never question anything?”

 

“Exhaustion addles you,” he said. Still gripping her wrist, he began to move, pulling her with him toward the room she’d burst forth from. “You must recuperate.”

 

“And what happens then?”

 

He spared her an unreadable glance, but said nothing. She suspected she already knew the answer, somewhere in her chaotic jumble of thoughts. Back in the room, he loosed his hold and directed her to the bed with a wave of one hand. There were others in the room that had not been there before, two women that she stared at for a long span of moments before her memory triggered. Viddathari.

 

“Ensure she sleeps,” ordered the Qunari leader.

 

Hawke let herself be led to the bed, let herself be pushed gently down onto it. Before she laid down she offered a strange insight. “Your voice keeps them at bay, Arishok.”

 

He’d turned to exit the room but paused at her words. She wasn’t aware of him looking back at her as she sank down, as she nestled her head into the pillow, as the blankets were drawn up over her. All fears and doubts had gone, banished back beyond the boundaries of her perception. She slept.

 

.x.

 

The fever broke eventually, leaving her weakened far beyond what she’d been after destroying the North Gate. It was an almost impossible task to even sit up in bed in those first days, and she could not do so unaided. The Viddathari became her frequent companions, tending to her every need, even those most intimate and embarrassing. There were worse things than being bathed by women she did not know, however, and so she mutely endured it all. It took several days before she felt strong enough to attempt standing, and when she did it was on legs that shook. Determinedly she made an effort to regain her strength, pacing herself and taking only as many steps as she was capable of on a day by day basis. Finally the Viddathari deemed she was capable of leaving the room of her convalescence.

 

She’d already known she was within the keep. As she was slowly led from the room a quick glance about revealed that she was on one of the middle floors, where visiting nobles to the city had once been housed. She was unsurprised that one of the Karashok shadowed them on their slow, faltering circuit throughout the corridors. She had to pause frequently to catch her breath, leaning on walls or one of the Viddathari. Upon returning to her room she was overcome, sinking down upon the bed and immediately shutting her eyes.

 

She regained her strength slowly. Eventually she was able to master the stairs, departing the mid levels for the main floor. It was then that she gained a full understanding of the Qunari might brought to bear upon the Free Marches — the keep had effectively been transformed into a center of operations. It was a hub of ordered, organized activity, and pausing at the top of the stairs, Hawke caught sight of familiar barrels, labelled in crimson Qunlat letters, stacked three deep along one of the far walls. Gaatlok. Her hand tightened into a fist, and suddenly she felt crowded, suffocated, entirely too helpless.

 

“May we go outside?” Hawke didn’t bother asking the ever-present Viddathari that had become her nursemaids. She knew enough of the Qun to know that their answer would count for nothing. Instead she directed her question to the Karashok that had accompanied them as always. He considered for a moment before dipping his head slightly, gesturing with one hand toward the large oak door that led to one of the keep's many balconies. Outside, she was immediately bathed in sunlight. She stood in it, luxuriating in it, and only thought to move long moments later. The balcony ran along the southern wall of the keep, giving her a mostly uninterrupted view of Hightown. She walked along it, trailed by her keepers, until she came across a stone bench. She paused, turning to address the Karashok. “May I sit for a while?”

 

He nodded again. She took a seat on the bench while the Karashok spoke to the Viddathari in a low voice, dismissing them for the time being. Hawke settled herself into a comfortable decision, leaning back against the wall behind her, closing her eyes as she basked in the warmth of the sun. The Karashok wouldn’t leave — she was still considered a threat, even now, debilitated first by the expenditure of all her powers and then by the ravages of the fever. Her illness had done her no favors; the day before she’d tried conjuring simple fire in the palm of her hand. All she’d managed was a single flame that sputtered once and died. That small effort had taxed her considerably. It would be quite some time before she was back to what she had been, and she feared what awaited her in the interim. Allowances had been made, she was sure, because of her illness. Now that she was in recovery, she was experiencing no small amount of trepidation imagining just what the Arishok — and the Qun — would demand of her. She was glad to still be alive, glad she hadn’t succumbed, but was also very aware that what she might experience while at the whim of the Qun could be worse than death.

 

She heard footsteps approach, turned her head and cracked her eyes open upon hearing Fenris’ voice. “I will watch her,” he told the Karashok, who inclined his head before striding away.

 

Hawke considered feigning sleep, considered greeting him, but in the end settled for turning her eyes to the urban scenery laid out before her. Fenris obstructed her view by positioning himself directly in front of her, crossing his arms over his chest as he perched on the balustrade. Having no choice but to look at him she did so wordlessly, running her tongue over her teeth before finally arching a brow in silent inquiry.

 

“You seem to be recovering well.”

 

Hawke nodded. “Slowly.”

 

They regarded each other in silence. She wondered if the memories of their shared past were assailing him too, wondered if the sound of her voice or the way she moved brought back recollections better left buried. He spoke finally. “You would have let yourself die so easily?”

 

She expelled a breath, a short, grim laugh. “Not so easily, from my perspective. There are certainly simpler and quicker ways to die.”

 

“Regardless.” His chin lifted as he stared down at her. “This is not the Hawke I knew.”

 

Vexation furrowed her brow, one corner of her mouth twisting. “And you are not the man I knew. This is not the Kirkwall it once was. Everything changes. Yes,” she said, seeing him open his mouth to interject, “even this drastically. I was given a choice between subjugation and death. I dread the former more than the latter. An opportunity presented itself and I took it.”

 

“You would call illness an opportunity?”

 

Her eyes narrowed. “Fenris,” she said, her words tempered with iron resolve. “I will not submit to the Qun.”

 

“You think it will be that easy to defy what awaits you?”

 

“Nothing involving the Qun is easy.”

 

He surprised her by snorting a little at her deliberate understatement, smiling. Unexpectedly, she found herself smiling back. Bit by bit her expression faded as she recalled the the years that had separated them and the hidden, barbed traps that were the memories of the emotions they'd once shared. Fenris was now the enemy. She needed to remember that.

 

“So what happens to me now?” she asked abruptly, eyes skimming over the rooftops of Hightown.

 

“That is not for me to decide.”

 

“But you have an idea.”

 

“You’ve some time yet, until you have recuperated fully.”

 

“Time enough to plot an escape,” she remarked, only half-joking.

 

“You can try.” There was no hint of amusement anywhere on his face now. “I would advise against it.”

 

“So what would you advise? I sit back and let the Qun claim me as it has you? Resign myself to a life of subjugation?”

 

He shook his head slowly. “You’ve no real idea what it could be.”

 

“And I never will.” Hawke pushed herself to her feet, unable to keep ire from coating every word that left her mouth. “I thought I’d already made that clear. I value my freedom more than anything else — freedom to be who I am, to embrace what I was born with. To be shackled and restrained because of my magic is a fate no better than death.”

 

“And what has it won you, this freedom you tout? Years spent chasing a maleficar, fewer fingers and fewer friends?”

 

Her breath hissed out from between her teeth as she fixed him with a potent glare. She stepped closer, riding urges better left ignored, urges brought on by an anger she hadn’t experienced for a very long time. “When last we spoke, all those years ago, you made it perfectly clear that I was responsible for what happened with the Chantry, that I would be responsible for whatever else Anders might do. You were right, and I’ve spent the last seven years attempting to rectify that wrong. But you would mock me for it?”

 

“No,” he murmured, eyes intent on her face. “I… I should not have said that.”

 

Suddenly aware of just how close they were, she eased back one step, and then another. “This is not the Fenris I knew,” she offered with a brittle smile, tossing his earlier words back at him.

 

“Hawke—” he said, but she was already turning, walking as quickly as she could toward the door to the keep. The Karashok awaited there, opening the door for her to slip through. She went across the main hall with a determined albeit labored stride, feeling the effort strain muscles still not quite up to the task. She passed numerous Qunari and some of their non-kossith converts, but paid them no mind. She wanted the isolation of her room where she could sit and dwell on her anger, on the tangled knot of emotions that caused it — and on all the ways it rendered her vulnerable in the place where she could least afford to be.

 

.x.

 

The summons came eventually, as she knew they would, five days after her encounter with Fenris. She no longer required the aid of the Viddathari to eat, bathe, or dress, and so she was able to prepare for her meeting in relative privacy. Her armor had been taken from her after the destruction of the North Gate, as had her staff; she doubted she’d ever see either of them again. She wore still the ashy robe she’d been given weeks ago, though it hung off her now, far too big for her frame. The fever had taken a significant toll upon her, as evidenced by the image she presented in the gilded mirror bolted to the wall in her room. She looked gaunt, haunted, the flesh drawn tight across her cheekbones, gray eyes staring out from within dark hollows, thick locks of her wavy dark hair falling over her brow and hanging past her ears. The scar that bisected her lip was far more prominent now, an unseemly line flaring across her face. She plucked at the folds of the robe, scowling at her reflection. The fabric's color, combined with her pallor, made her look like a ghost. She wondered if that in itself was some kind of dire omen.

 

Once prepared, it was a simple matter of raising her voice slightly to draw her attendants back into the room. The Viddathari were never far away and she was never left alone for long and always there were two Karashok stationed outside her door. She fully expected to be moved to more secure quarters as her recovery progressed.

 

She was escorted by two of the Karasaad and she walked in subdued silence between them, head bowed. Her stomach was roiling, beset with nervous energy as she was, and she hadn’t bothered to eat anything for that reason. Today, she knew, she would ultimately learn her fate. She was not optimistic. The Arishok awaited her within what had once been the Viscount’s receiving room. Like the rest of the keep, the large chamber had been repurposed to suit the needs of the Qun. All manner of decoration had been removed, so too the furniture, and the only thing it held now was a bench at the top of the raised dais that looked identical — and most likely was — to the one the Arishok had held court with during his time in Kirkwall years previous. As she crossed the threshold into the chamber the Karasaad at her sides peeled away, taking up positions on either side of the door. Hawke hesitated. The Arishok was not alone. There were numerous Qunari here, lining the walls, and she felt the pressing weight of their gazes as she continued forward.

 

Shanedan, Hawke.”

 

He was standing. As she neared the bottom of the dais he seated himself upon the bench and suddenly she was transported back in time to their first encounter, he an incredibly daunting figure deigning to give an audience to beings he clearly thought of as something lesser. She’d stood before him just like this, the dwarf Javaris at her side, and had looked up at him with no small amount of consideration and respect.

 

“Arishok,” she greeted, snapping herself out of her unintentional reverie.

 

He studied her. She endured his scrutiny unmoving, not willing to meet the piercing nature of his gaze just yet. Instead her eyes drifted, taking silent count of the Qunari assembled along the chamber walls, mouth tightening a little to see that there were more than a few Saarebas, accompanied as always by their Arvaarad handlers.

 

“You appear frail.”

 

It was an honest evaluation. She shrugged, attempting to convey an indifference she most certainly did not feel, standing alone before the leader of the Qunari army as she was. “I am. But I’m healing.”

 

“This is not as you would have it.”

 

She’d known it would be like this, he putting forth irrefutable, uncomfortable truths and she attempting to navigate her way carefully through them without ever revealing too much. “No.”

 

“And your abilities?”

 

Her first instinct was to lie. Her magic was the only thing she had left to rely on, and if there was any hope of her ever escaping the grips of the Qun it would be through its merit. But to lie to him was to show great disrespect, something she had never done before, something she did not intend to do now. “They return slowly. As it is, I am capable of conjuring no more than a candle flame.”

 

He shifted, leaning forward, settling his elbows on his thighs. “Karasaad told me of your time spent in the Deep Roads and what you encountered there.”

 

She was not surprised Fenris had relayed that information to his leader, but found that she was somewhat dismayed that the Arishok was now privy to yet another of her disastrous failures. She shook her head slowly. “Going there was a mistake, one of many I’ve made over the years.”

 

“Indeed. But it was there you learned of the full potential of the power you bear.”

 

“Yes. Desperation is a curious thing in that regard.”

 

Silence. Against the wall one of the Qunari Ashaad stirred, folding his arms, serving as an unnecessary reminder for Hawke that this audience between she and the Arishok felt far more akin to a tribunal. She had the sense she was being evaluated on multiple levels. It worried her.

 

“No other has stood before us as you have and survived.”

 

His voice snagged her attention, pulling her back from anxious thoughts. “Survival was never a part of the plan. It was but a hope,” she admitted to him, revealing a truth she hadn’t dared to share with Aveline.

 

“And yet you did survive. First the explosion, and then the sickness.” He paused. “But you did not intend to survive that either.”

 

In any other person, the reproach woven into those words would have been imperceptible. Hawke, who had exercised extreme caution in dealing with the Arishok years ago when a single misspoken word or misconstrued action could have led to war, was attuned to him still. She heard and recognized the condemnation in his tone and found to her surprise that it troubled her more than it should.

 

“Consider my choices,” she said, unable to keep her eyes from flitting sideways to fall upon one of the Saarebas. “If my life has become limited to the point where I am to be muted and bound simply because I was born a mage, then yes, I prefer death.”

 

“You were already told that the Tamassran may have decided a different path.”

 

“And I was also told that becoming Saarebas was still a possibility.”

 

He inclined his head very slightly, as close as she would ever get to see him yielding a point.

 

She inhaled deeply, deciding to dispense with the admittedly strained pretense she’d been struggling to uphold. “Let us speak plainly, Arishok. There’s a reason you’ve called me here?”

 

Another silence. And then: “The Qun has never encountered one such as you.”

 

There were more meanings in that statement than the most obvious, and Hawke thought hard on that before she reached an abrupt, unsettling understanding. “And because of that,” she clarified aloud, “things have changed. The Qun may no longer have a use for me.”

 

His tone was entirely affectless. “All have their uses.”

 

Hawke felt an unpleasant, reckless smile twist her mouth, felt it pull against the tightness of her scar. “But what of apostate mages? Those that defy your army… those that have hindered your army?”

 

She was behaving poorly, treading where she should have the wisdom not to tread simply because she was afraid. The Qun as she understood it was an uncertainty, but now her actions had changed the demands of the inflexible ideology and she had no idea what to expect other than it would likely be worse, much worse, than what she had anticipated.

 

“Your fate is to be decided by the Tamassran, when they arrive here.”

 

“Ah,” she said softly, slowly. “And when will that be?”

 

“They have already passed the Rivaini coast.”

 

“A matter of days, then.”

 

The Arishok nodded once. “It is so.”

 

Hawke rubbed at the bridge of her nose with one finger, ducking her head, unwilling to let any in the chamber catch a glimpse of the disquiet she knew was etched into ever crease and line of her face. “So I wait to know what judgment befalls me.”

 

“No.”

 

Her head came up, eyes moving to his face. He said in answer to her unspoken question, “We depart in three days.”

 

It took her a moment to comprehend the significance of his words, and once she did she involuntarily took a step back. She’d expected this, known it was an inevitability, but to be confronted with the reality of it now still took her aback. She asked, half in awe, half in disbelief, “You will wage war on the Free Marches?”

 

“Your destruction of the gate bought the people of this city time enough to pass through the mountains. The other cities have since rallied behind them.”

 

“But your countermeasures… ?”

 

“— have evidently failed.” There was no mistaking the displeasure in his voice this time.

 

She stared at him as her thoughts raced. He would have her accompany the Qunari army out of Kirkwall, a situation which lent itself more to an opportunity to escape then remaining here in the keep ever would. She was no fool, though; she would be kept under perpetual vigilant guard, likely restrained at all times due to her own admission that her power was returning. Still — outside of these walls, she would have more of an advantage, even if it was an incredibly slight one. And if somehow, along the way, she was able to think of some way to further impede the Qunari—

 

Suddenly aware of the Arishok’s unrelentingly perceptive gaze upon her, Hawke reined in her thoughts, schooling her face into what she hoped was an expressionless mask. In an attempt to divert, she asked, “And how many of your forces will arrive by ship?”

 

His brows descended; her question was a foolish one. “Enough.”

 

“Arishok,” she cautioned as the full gravity of impending events finally struck her, “to war with the Free Marches is to war with Ferelden.”

 

There was a long pause. “Perhaps,” was all he said.

 

She shook her head, wishing she had enough mastery over words to successfully supplicate him to abandon this course of action. Nothing she could ever say would be enough, however, and she knew this, had known all along. This war had been decided seven years ago, rendered by the shortcomings of Kirkwall and all those that resided in it. In this, the Qunari would not be denied.

 

The Arishok stood, a precursor to her dismissal. “Go now, Hawke. In three days we march, and it is then you will begin to learn all that the Qun dictates and provides.”

 

She could not stop the impulsive, unwise question that spilled from her mouth, “And will I survive those lessons?”

 

He gave her no answer. She hadn’t really expected one. She backed away from the dais before turning. The Karasaad at the door awaited to escort her back to her room, falling into place on either side of her, walking a pace behind. She paid them no mind as she walked, paid no attention to anything other than the frantic procession of her thoughts. Opportunity awaited her upon leaving Kirkwall, she sensed, but also an uncertain threat tied to the Qun. She could not discern if it at its core lay the Arishok or herself. She had time enough to unravel those vague suspicions, to try and pinpoint where the greatest danger lay. She had three days.

 

Three days, until everything changed again.

 

.x.