Sometimes reality gave you a hard gut-punch and walked away, leaving you gasping for air in the dirt. It wasn’t much of a beginning of a story, Hawke realized, but it would be an even worse ending to one. Varric would be displeased.
"You have got to get a feeling for these things now, Hawke," the imaginary dwarf chided him."You are a story now, and stories just don’t end, they grow with each telling."
"I’m not good at telling stories," Hawke replied. "You should do it. You should be here."
"But I’m not. You got me involved Hawke, involved in things I wanted to stay out of." Even as an imaginary specter Varric managed to be disapproving.
"I’m sorry about that," Hawke sighed. "But you didn’t have to give me a beard in return. Or make me that pretty, or, Maker’s breath, I swear that in some of these stories I’m even a woman."
"Some people like that," Varric laughed inside his head, "makes it all the more romantic. Defeating the Arishok, romancing Anders… or Fenris, or Isabela… or Maker forbid, even Merrill."
"What are you talking about? I think I might have a concussion." Hawke tried to shift, but his limbs felt heavy and his head ached.
"My gift to you. Your story. You don’t see it yet Hawke, but you will. The Champion of Kirkwall. You’re whatever people need now, a noble warrior, a powerful mage, and sometimes, yes sometimes I admit, even a shifty rogue treading waters too deep for him."
"I can’t even swim. And I still have no idea what you are talking about." Were there chains around his wrists? Yes, yes there were.
"Better learn then," the imaginary dwarf winked. "And tell me Hawke, what did Andraste look like anyway?"
"I… have no idea." Hawke tried to remember icons and pictures. "Red hair I think. Long."
"That is because you’re from Ferelden, where people have long, red hair. In Orlais she is blonde with lustrous shiny waves; elsewhere she has raven black locks and skin the hue of walnuts. People see what they need to see, and the story changes accordingly."
"It was ages ago," the rogue protested. He should open his eyes, but he was afraid Varric would be gone then, and he’d be knee deep in shit. As per usual.
"Can you tell me what the founder of your own country looked like then? Calenhad Theirin? Or, Maker’s breath but you are dumb sometimes Hawke, what was the name of your king… Cailin Theirin? You even saw him once, didn’t you?"
"Once. On the eve of battle. He had shiny armor and… long hair. Blonde. I think. I’m not sure." He wasn’t sure of anything right now. Was he dreaming? Probably.
"You see? That is all most people know of you. And for everyone that actually did meet you, there are a dozen that claim that they did. And that is why you sometimes have a beard. Or boobs." Varric seemed mightily amused at the last.
"Because a beard represents authority," Hawke groaned, starting to wake up.
"Or maybe because in their mind, real men have beards. Some humans are funny that way, like dwarves."
"Do you think I should grow one?" Hawke asked, fighting to open his eyes.
"I think you should wake up."
"I don’t want to."
"Sorry, Hawke, this is not a story yet. This time you have no choice."
"Hawke?" Anders’ voice, sounding worried.
"mmmhm…" Hawke groaned in return, finally opening his eyes. He immediately wished he hadn’t. The light sent sharp daggers of pain through his aching head; the sun was a cruel mistress for the concussioned.
"Thank the Maker," the mage sighed, shifting a bit where he was sitting on the ground. Chained as well. "You were mumbling to yourself, I thought the spell might have addled you. It happens sometimes."
"Wasn’t a spell that gave me the bump on the back of my head," Hawke mumbled. Shifting to a sitting position was hard, his hands were manacled, as were his feet, and a length of chain connected the two making any movement but a hobble hard to manage. Not that he had anywhere to hobble to, they were sitting in a small forest clearing, surrounded by trees on all sides, the autumn sun basking down on them.
"Ah, well, that would have been one of the Templars I suppose," Anders said with a sigh. "They like hitting things on the head. Even when they don’t need to." He said the last words loudly, causing one of the men guarding them to sigh, as if he had heard it all before.
He was a young man, hardly over twenty, with a stubbly beard and heavy armor, devoid of any identifying markings. But he had the bearing of a Templar.
"I am Karsten, and I am no longer a Templar," the young man explained with a tired expression on his face. "And I already apologized for hitting him that hard. We just could not take any risks with the Champion."
"You didn’t apologize for hitting me," Anders said, nearly pouting. He was chained up much the same as Hawke, and didn’t look happy for it.
"I did not apologize for that because a blow to the head is the least you deserve." Karsten’s voice had gone hard, "If it was up to me you would be dead for what you done, but… it is not."
"Lucky for you," Hawke mumbled to the young man, trying to keep his eyes focused. "Saved your life."
"Listen to me… Templar." Ander’s voice was filled with enough vitriol that Hawke realized where Justice had got his Templar aversion from. "He has a concussion. A bad one. If he loses consciousness again he might slip into a coma. He needs to be healed. I swear, I won’t run, just loosen these chains long enough for me to help him."
"No," the young man replied, but with a bit of a worried glance at Hawke. "My companions will be back with the wagon shortly. They can heal him then. And I am not a Templar."
"I’m alright," Hawke mumbled, trying to figure out what was going on, but his thoughts shuffled through mud, leading him nowhere.
"No, you are not," Anders sighed. "But try to stay awake. Keep talking to me. Don’t fall asleep." His voice was thick with tension.
"I thought these people were supposed to be your friends," the rogue muttered, head hanging.
"So I thought," Anders sighed. "The mage underground spoke of a haven in the Brecilian Forest. I did not think the Templars had already found it."
"They have not." A new voice interrupted, the pale-haired elf slipping out of the forest like a shadow. "But that doesn’t mean you are amongst friends, human."
"Velanna?" Anders sounded as if he couldn’t quite believe his eyes. "Andraste’s furry knickers, it is you!"
"Your powers of observation are as sharp as always I see," she replied coolly, touching the tip of her staff to the ground. Around the elven mage, the trees started inching back, leaving enough room for a small wagon to push through.
"You know me, always on top of things," Anders replied, something like relief in his voice. "Well, since I don’t think you’d be siding with the Chantry, I suppose I will have to take the word of tall dark and stubbly over there that he’s actually not a Templar."
"Do you two know each other?" Hawke managed to ask, though the creaking of the wagon wheels made him feel sick.
"Unfortunately," Velanna replied with a grimace.
"She’s a Grey Warden," Anders filled in. "Or a ghost. But she’s scowling too much for a ghost. I thought you were dead? They say a wall collapsed on you during the siege of Vigil’s Keep."
"You humans say so many things," she shrugged. "Do not look to me to make sense of your stories."
"Hah, I knew it," Anders grinned. "You did run away. I thought you might have. Tried to talk your clan into taking you back?"
"No," she snapped harshly. "Where I went and what I did are none of your business human." The last bit was spat out with sudden vehemence.
"I’m glad to see she doesn’t just do that to me," the former Templar mumbled, leaning down to help Hawke to his feet.
"She’s a mage," the rogue mumbled back, while Anders and Velanna had begun arguing over past events neither of the others knew or cared about. "And you’re a Templar."
"I’m not," Karsten said, with the patience of someone far too used to explaining himself. "I was. But many of us serving in the Fereldan Circle choose to join the mages when they left after the events in Kirkwall. We are all the Maker’s children, despite what the Chantry is teaching these days."
"The mages were allowed to leave?" Hawke winced as more hands reached down and helped him up on the wagon. "Then why capture us? We’re on your side."
"The view on magic in Ferelden is different after a mage slew the Archdemon and saved us all from the Blight, but…" the young man helped the others ease Hawke down in a somewhat comfortable position "…there are a lot of people that holds issue with what your companion did. A lot of people that thinks he should pay for his crime."
"You among them I bet," Hawke muttered as cool fingertips caressed his temples from behind, gentle waves of healing chasing off the nausea and pain.
"Yes. But he will get a fair hearing, and then the Circle will vote on what should be done. Until then, we take no risks. You both stay in chains."
"Fine…" Hawke muttered, drowsiness overtaking him as the fingers teased both injury and consciousness from his grasp. "But if you touch him… I’ll…" he never got to finish the sentence before falling asleep, but he hoped the sentiment was taken to heart.
Hawke had to admit, that whatever this place was, it was impressive. The ruins had a distinctly Tevinter flair to them, the same grand, mad scale and columns, but tempered by what almost seemed to be an elven elegance. They had been cleaned and made fit for habitation, but no attempts had been made to repair the broken walls, or the haunted-looking statues that lined the archways of the room. It left the place with a certain desolate elegance; he only wished he had been in a better position to have a look around. This place begged to be explored.
But they were still in chains. Or rather, he was. Anders was free. Or, well, as free as one could be when standing in the middle of an assembly of mages staring down at him from the surrounding seats. Had this been an audience hall once upon a time? An arena? A temple? Hawke wasn’t sure; he just kept silent, and tried to unobtrusively fiddle with the locks on his chains. These people had really no idea what he was; they seemed to have bought into Varric’s whole noble warrior idea. Suckers.
But even if he did break free it wasn’t like he could do anything. Would do anything. From the look that Anders had given him earlier, this was a gamble that the mage had to take. Something that needed to be done. He needed allies; he needed for these people to understand why he had done what he had done. They had agreed to seek the mages out because they had no choice. Even if it meant that Anders might… Maker’s breath, he had no idea how the healer could stand there so calmly. These people didn’t love him, didn’t know him and certainly hadn’t spent months coming to terms with what had happened. They could both die here; even though Hawke hadn’t felt his own life being threatened, if they turned on Anders he couldn’t just stand there watching it happened. Even if they had no chance. The power in this room was suffocating.
"Am I here to be judged then?" Anders asked nonchalantly once the mages had settled down. Even without his staff, he looked less a criminal than the accuser.
"No," one of the older mages said, wisps of gray hair still clinging to his balding head. "You are here to be heard."
"Funny, Ravan, it feels a lot like a court to me." Anders swept with a hand over the assembled mages.
"Is that guilt talking?" Ravan replied patiently, the old mage was clearly the chosen spokesperson for the assembly.
"Mostly an aversion to chains and Templars," Anders shrugged, rubbing his wrists.
"Karsten and his brothers are on our side. Not all Templars saw fit to side with the increasing intolerance of their order."
"Funny," Anders replied with a wiggle of his eyebrows. "My bruises tell me differently."
"You deserve a lot more than bruises," Karsten replied hotly from his place next to Hawke.
"Are you sure he’s on our side?" Anders drawled, but lost the smile when Hawke gave him a cautioning look to actually take this seriously. The rogue held his tongue for the same reason, good things never happened when he spoke too glibly, and he wasn’t sure he was capable of anything else.
"On our side, yes." Ravan said with a curt nod. "Whether that is the same side as yours remains to be seen."
"Alright," Anders sighed, running a hand over his face, getting back on track. "What do you want to know then?"
"How could you possibly justify what you did?" The question came from another mage, a serene-looking older woman. "Killing all those innocent people…"
"How could you possibly justify doing nothing?" Anders replied hotly, feathers bristling on his shoulders.
For a moment there, Hawke thought he looked exactly like an angry crow, challenging a colony of seagulls. Never a good decision.
"We are not on trial here," Ravan replied.
"Aha," Anders snapped, pointing a finger at the old man. "This is a trial after all. And maybe you should be."
"Would you tell us why that is then?" Ravan asked patiently. It was clear this was not the first time a discussion with Anders had frustrated him.
"Fine," Anders sighed. "This is a story that needs to be told."
The mage took a moment to center himself. Hawke suspected he had been going over this speech again and again in his head, like he had the drafts for his manifesto.
"Everybody keeps telling me that the dead were innocent," the healer started, speaking softly to his audience. "I don’t deny that some probably were. Maybe most. Will I carry their deaths with me to my grave? Yes, I will. But I would do it all again if I had the choice, because the Chantry was far from innocent, and neither was Grand Cleric Elthina." Anders’ voice rose at the last words, daring anybody to interrupt, but his remained the one voice in the room.
"Doing nothing does not make one a good person," he continued, voice strong and angry. "Ignorance is not the same as innocence. She claimed to take no side in the conflict, but by her inaction she condoned what was happening in Kirkwall. What kind of mother stands to the side and lets the older sibling beat up and abuse the younger one? That is not neutrality. That is silently condoning crimes that should never have happened. And on what grounds? That it would complicate matters further? Andraste’s ashes, of course it would complicate things. Life is not simple, and if she was afraid of making tough decision she is no more fit for the role of Grand Cleric than my cat. If I had one." The last was mumbled afterthought, leaving him a moment of silence to catch his breath and let his words sink in before he started speaking anew.
"Have you ever studied history?" Anders asked rhetorically once he had collected himself. "I did. I found it fascinating. Did you know why it took so long for slavery to be outlawed despite everybody agreeing that the Tevinter Imperium was evil, and that we were all the Maker’s children? Because it was hard. Because it was complicated. There were whole noble houses that fed off the slave trade, and ending it would mean an end to quick and easy coin. The economy would crumble, they argued. Who could afford hiring workers in those numbers? The crown would weaken, there would be no taxes, no army and then the Tevinter Imperium would invade again. Besides, there were already beggars on the city streets, vagrants and refugees on the roads with no farms to support them and no hope of a future."
"Wasn’t it better for the slaves to remain slaves?" Anders continued with a cynical grimace. "After all, then they had food and shelter and if their master abused them… well, that was too bad, but maybe it was better to work on just improving their circumstances rather than actually freeing them. Certainly a lot simpler." He spat on the floor, as if he had a bad taste in his mouth, and Hawke found himself wondering exactly how much time the mage had spent talking with Fenris.
"I talked with Elthina," the healer sighed, his worst ire vented. "I pleaded our case again and again and all she would do was to spout words that sounded like they were coming from the mouths of long dead slavers. ‘It would be too dangerous’, she would argue. ‘The people would not support it. There might be unrest. Yes, the abuse of the mages was wrong, but the Templars should be tempered, not abolished completely.’ It’s no wonder this happened in Kirkwall, the city was built on slaves, and the chains never lay unused for long. How many rebellions were put down there before finally succeeding? How many innocent people were slain by people who had just had enough? Been pushed too far?"
"I saw more blood magic there than I had believed possible existed. Are mages dangerous? Maker, yes we are, especially when fighting tooth and claw for our lives and sanity. Backed into a corner even a rabbit turns to fight, and every time another mage cracked it was an excuse to tighten the chains. You can’t really understand. The circle in Ferelden was different, not the norm of how things were done. I kept running away, but Maker, I didn’t know how good I had it." Anders admission seemed to cause the first stirs of surprise in the audience. Apparently they had not expected the renegade to have anything good to say about the place he escaped from.
"I had a benevolent master," Anders continued with a look of dangerous humility on his face. "And if I had been a good slave I could have been spared the whippings and the solitary confinement and given privileges. My leash could have been looser, I could have been allowed to go outside now and again, maybe even get a position at a court, or in a noble’s mansion. Maybe be granted permission to do some research. If I was good." He tapped his cheek with a finger, looking thoughtful, before voice grew harder, sharper. "But marry? Go where I wished to go? Start a family? Have children? Never. Because I was still a slave and my master owned my future and my offspring."
"Think about it," he shouted, silencing the murmurs that had begun to spread amongst the benches. "How many of you have lost a child, had it killed in the womb or given away at birth to be raised by the chantry? How many of you were taken from your parents, not even knowing why you were dragged away? Thinking that it was because you had been bad, complained about your nightmares too much or because your parents really hated you? How many of you have kept silent about the mistreatment of yourself or others just because you were afraid that if you made a fuss, if you protested, you might lose what few privileges you had gained? How many of you have had friends made tranquil, run away or kill themselves just because they could not take being locked up all the time? How many nights have you laid awake wishing you were not a mage, thinking that this was all your fault somehow, that you were bad. Evil. Tainted. Hated and marked by the Maker." Anders was angry now, and the room silent enough to hear a pin drop.
"This couldn’t be allowed to continue," the healer said with steely determination. "I would not allow it to continue. And if that meant killing those others would name innocent, so be it. I accept their blood on my hands because this has to stop. If it takes war, then war there will be. Why is it that it is considered noble to fight the tyranny of a king, but not the Chantry? You know how things are, but have you ever stopped and thought what they could be like? If we only tried?"
Anders’ voice went soft, he had no need to raise his voice anymore, everybody was listening now. “Imagine the Circle as a place of learning, where children could be brought to study and get help to master their magic. Not stolen from their parents but brought there with pride, being able to go home for holidays, and having their relatives visit when they wished to. What would things be like if there was no need to hide? No fear? No stigma?” He paused briefly, then his voice turned sharper, aimed not just at the listeners but at himself
"How many demon infested nightmares have we inflicted on the young just by accepting the Chantry’s judgment on us? How many apostates have turned to abominations, not from evil or a lust for power, but because they feared the Templars more than damnation? Imagine the Circle as a school, where apprentices are kept safe instead of captive. Imagine knowing that you will graduate one day, pass your Harrowing and be allowed to do whatever you want with your life. Marry your sweetheart, stay as a teacher, or just see the world. Imagine how many fewer abominations we would have if mages just knew that they had a future to look forward to. There is nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose. Imagine how many that could be saved just by giving people hope? Isn’t that worth fighting for? Isn’t that worth dying for? A world where a mage could be just a man. Just any man."
Anders paused there, running a hand through his hair, fighting with the sudden sadness that threatened to overcome him. Resigning to his fate.
"If you want to kill me for what I did, fine," he finally continued. "I never expected to survive Kirkwall. But you’ve heard what I said, and I can see some of you thinking. Imagining. Wondering if I am right. That maybe there is another way than just delivering yourself into the hands of the Templars, pleading for mercy with me as the peace offering. Because if you do, know that the blood will be on your hands. Not mine, you’re all welcome to that, but theirs, the dead of the Chantry and of Kirkwall. Because then you let their deaths amount to nothing. You made all this a mistake instead of a beginning. And that, for me, is as great a crime as lighting the fuse."
"You are an unlikely savior," Ravan said at last, breaking the silence of the assembly.
"I am not a savior," Anders sighed. "Maker knows I never wanted more than freedom for myself. But times change. People change."
"We need to discuss this," another mage broke in, voice sharp, but Hawke couldn’t even begin to guess with what emotions.
"Oh feel free," Anders shrugged. "It’s not like I’m going anywhere."
"Actually you are," Ravan said. "Karsten, escort the pair of them to their room. Make sure that they are given food and water, and loosen the chains on the Champion. I do not believe there is a need for them anymore. He seems like a reasonable man."
"Never mind me," Hawke shrugged, dropping the unlocked chains on the floor in front of him. "You just do your talking quickly enough, and I’ll do my best to remain… reasonable. There’s a first time for anything I suppose."
It was a moment he would remember, Hawke decided. It was not often that he had managed to startle a roomful of mages. Nor any time he could remember actually having felt more proud of his lover. He always forgot that, the way the mage could sneak inside his heart and actually make him believe for a moment. Believe that this might actually be possible.
Believe in a better world.