The sun was rising when they reached the hills. Merrill was cheered a bit, but she was too tired and shocked for the weak dawn light to really lift her lowered spirits. She leaned on her staff a bit as she walked. She'd used too much blood down in the city, and she'd be paying for it soon.
Hawke led the way, but she hadn't said a word since Meredith died and nobody had really wanted to try talking to her. Merrill chose to stick close to Varric and Isabela, who were trying to keep up some kind of banter, though the words kept trailing off into awkward silence. The quiet sound of their hoarse voices was muffled by the morning mists.
Fenris and Anders brought up the rear, Anders walking at a slow shuffle of a pace and Fenris keeping a wary eye on him.
Around six, they reached a small valley, spotted with bits of Tevinter ruins. Merrill remembered finding this place maybe six years back, remembered a warm summer picnic with Hawke and Carver. Evidently Hawke remembered too.
The Champion stopped next to a bit of white arch, leaning heavily on her staff as she waited for them to catch up with her. Anders hung back, and Hawke didn't seem inclined to call him over.
Merrill skipped a little to catch up to Varric. “You always made running to the hills sound so romantic,” she told him crossly. “You never mentioned anything about it being so cold and foggy.”
He shrugged. “Generally I leave out the unpleasant little details. Mud isn't exactly a crowd pleaser.”
“Right,” Hawke called. Her voice was loud and firm as always, but it had a tired edge to it. “Let's stop here for a moment and catch our breaths. Sit down, everyone, and make sure you don't have any open wounds. You know the drill... though I guess this is a bit different from our usual misadventures.”
“All right,” Isabela said. “What about our feathery little friend back there?”
Hawke looked over the clearing to where Anders was sitting on a fallen pillar, staring at his shoes. She sighed. “Merrill, Fenris, watch him,” she ordered.
Fenris coughed. “Are you certain that's a good idea?” he said dryly. Well, it sounded dry but then that was what Fenris always sounded like. Merrill picked at her nails a bit. Even after all this time, she still hadn't mastered the ability to shrug off her fellow elf's hostility.
Hawke rubbed her eyes. “No, but I don't have any better options. I've no real idea what Vengeance might be capable of. I don't think he's dangerous at the moment, but I'm not going to risk being wrong. The two of you'd have a better chance of restraining him than the rest of us.”
Merrill felt Fenris look at her, and she made herself look back at him. His gaze didn't seem to hold the usual creepy disgust, so she tried to bend her face into a smile. He rolled his eyes.
“Fine,” he said. “Come on, you.” At least he hadn't called her 'blood mage'.
Fenris perched on a bit of wall about five feet from Anders and settled into that watchful, angry pose Merrill knew he could hold for hours. She didn't understand how he found the energy.
The man who was probably the most wanted person in the Free Marches was still staring at his mud-encrusted boots. “Hi Anders,” she said, sitting down next to him.
He didn't answer.
The sky was grumpy, gray and roiling. She glanced up at it, and then down, and then she began the arduous process of removing her mail. Wet mail was extremely unpleasant. It would be nice for the rain to wash the blood off, though.
She wasn't really aware of falling asleep, but she must have, because she opened her eyes to light drizzling rain and Fenris's olive stare. She shivered. It had been a while since she'd woken up wet and cold. That was one thing she hadn't missed about traveling with the clan.
She looked over. Anders had fallen asleep too. He was probably pretty worn out, she thought, and the twinge of empathy that came with that thought felt guilty and wrong. Still. He looked rather sad in the rain, pale hair plastered to gaunt cheeks, the feathers on his pauldrons all muddy and bedraggled. She was a bit surprised he could sleep in such an uncomfortable position, but after all he'd been a Warden, and before that an apostate on the run, so he'd probably done a lot of sleeping in the open before.
The soft tread of footsteps on wet moss, and Hawke was there on her left. Hawke didn't say anything for a while, and Merrill didn't say anything either.
Then Hawke sighed, and pressed a clammy hand to Merrill's shoulder, cold through Merrill's thin fur shoulder pads. “Time to get moving, love,” she said.
“Right,” Merrill said, shaking her head to clear away the condensation in her skull. “The rain'll cover our tracks.”
“With luck,” Hawke agreed. “Anders... care to join us in the middle of the clearing?” Her voice was very nearly steady, and the words were right, the usual lightly mocking mask to cover any real feelings, and Merrill was impressed once again at her unparalleled ability to pretend. She patted the hand on her shoulder, and then set about spilling her wet chainmail into her pack.
Hawke's boots left deep imprints in the increasingly muddy ground. She padded across the space and pushed herself up onto an old pedestal. “Right,” she said. “You all know me, you know I'm terrible at giving speeches, so I guess I'm just going to say- thank you. You all stuck by me today- most of you against your better judgment- and that's the best compliment anyone could get.”
Merrill didn't let herself think about Sebastian. Instead she looked at the faces around her. So that was what loyalty looked like. A small crease in Aveline's brow, the slight upturned corner of Fenris's mouth, Isabela leaning forward to catch every one of Hawke's words, and Varric... Varric was too complicated to sum up neatly, so Merrill tried to think of a metaphor instead. Someone reading the sad part of their favorite book, or a traveler watching their city fade into the distance from the prow of a ship.
I'm standing here watching. What does that mean?
“Oh,” Merrill said. “I just realized. You want us to split up, don't you.”
“Uh,” Hawke said. “Yes.”
“Why?” Merrill asked. “Not that I don't believe you have a good reason, I just can't see what it might be from here. Maybe because I'm not standing up high like you.”
“As a group it'd be pretty hard to disappear,” Hawke explained, scratching her head. There was still blood there, matted into the fine dark strands of hair, but it was washing away in the drizzle. “Fenris, you're more recognizable than the rest of us. I think you should maybe find a ship soon. Varric, Aveline, you should go back to Kirkwall. I don't think you'll be implicated in... in the mess, and they'll need you there. The city will need you.”
Merrill didn't expect Fenris to be the one to speak up then. “We stood by you,” he told Hawke in his lovely voice. “Do not ask us to abandon you now.”
Hawke held his gaze. “I really do appreciate it. But I'm the one who made this mess. It's my responsibility.”
“I'm your responsibility, you mean.” Heads turned as Anders spoke, words falling dully towards the ground.
There was a silence as everyone tried to avoid each others' faces, and then-
Isabela sighed. “I hate it when you talk sense, Hawke.”
“Well, at least it doesn't happen often,” Hawke told her.
“We can go to Ostwick, I suppose,” Isabela said unhappily. “I've got contacts there, I can get us on some kind of boat to Llomerynn.”
“You and Fenris?” Merrill asked, seeking clarification.
“That's right, Kitten. If that suits you, of course, big boy.”
“Well then,” Merrill said quickly. “Where are we going, Hawke?”
Hawke looked about as uncertain as Merrill felt. “Merrill...”
“You're not getting rid of me,” Merrill told her, and put as much finality into it as she could manage.
“I suppose not,” the Champion admitted, and smiled. Her shoulders relaxed, just a fraction. “We'll head for the Waking Coves, I think.”
There was an awkward pause, the only sound the background white noise of rain droplets softly pittering down onto worn stone.
“I never thought I'd be saying this,” Aveline said, “but I'll be sad to see the back of you lot. Well. You've certainly made my life interesting for the past seven years. I'd better go clean up your mess now.”
She hugged Hawke. It was incredibly awkward, and they extricated themselves after only a second, both beet-red. “Take care of yourself,” she demanded. “Once you settle, get word to me. I'll pass on letters from your idiot brother.”
“You've been... you've been everything, Aveline,” Hawke told her. “Do me a favor, marry that lunk Donnic and adopt some little chevaliers or a dog or something.”
They saluted each other ironically, and then Aveline disappeared into the fog.
Saying goodbye to Isabela was the fourth-hardest thing Merrill ever did in her life. She buried her face in Isabela's chest and breathed in her perfume, trying to memorize its unique smell. Isabela ran her hands soothingly through Merrill's hair. “You'll be all right, kitten,” she said reassuringly.
Merrill let her go, stepped back. “I know,” she said. “I'll miss you, though.” She grabbed Isabela's hands and squeezed them. “I'll see you again, right?”
“Absolutely,” Isabela promised. “You're not rid of me yet.”
“And don't go thinking you're rid of me,” Varric said. “We'll meet again, Rivaini. You won't be able to resist the pull of the chest hair.” He held out a hand to Fenris. “It's been an honor, Broody.”
Fenris shook the hand, carefully. Dwarf handshakes had a bit of a reputation.
Hawke said goodbye to Isabela by pulling her in for a beautiful snog, straight out of a Hightown romance novel, dipping her and everything. Merrill felt like applauding. She wondered wistfully why Hawke never kissed her like that but the answer was obvious; Merrill would just trip over something and get tangled in Hawke's legs and they'd both go down like stones. Besides, she didn't wear bodices, and she was pretty sure that was a requirement.
“Bravo,” Isabela murmured when Hawke set her down. “You should have done that years ago.”
Hawke was a bit red-faced, but she straightened up and smiled. “Gentle seas and fair winds to you, my friend.”
Fenris coughed, and of course Hawke responded by grinning hugely and advancing on him. He put up his hands defensively. “Not now, Hawke,” he said. “Nobody dips me.”
“Not now?” Hawke said, raising an eyebrow. “So I can hold out hope for later?”
“Heehhh,” said Fenris, or something along those lines, a unique Fenris noise that managed to convey appropriate levels of amusement, disdain and embarrassment.
For a second, his eyes met Merrill's, and they looked at each other, both at a complete loss for words. Not friends, not exactly enemies; but they'd had a dynamic, however uncomfortable, and now it was dissolving into the rain. They looked away at the same time.
Isabela saluted sloppily in an obvious Aveline parody that had Merrill fighting back giggles. And then they were gone, and in their wake a sudden coldness swept into Merrill's heart.
She reached for Varric, nearly overbalancing in her haste. “Careful, Daisy,” he said. His coat was ripped and a bit singed from the final battle. She hugged him tightly. He was the only one of her friends she ever leaned down to hug. He was solid, stable. She pushed her forehead against the soft expensive leather of his coat-covered chest, closing her eyes and breathing in deep, but after only a moment she stepped back. “I love you too,” he told her, and that would have to be enough.
“Take care of yourself, Varric,” Hawke said, and this time the wobble in her voice was easily heard.
The dwarf took a few steps in Anders' direction, then stopped and turned away from him. “Blondie,” he said.
Anders didn't say anything.
“I'll tell your story,” Varric promised, and his light tenor cracked. “I'll make it a good one.”
He started to walk away.
Anders sounded deceptively normal, almost.
“I have to,” Varric said, and maybe he was crying, the rain made it impossible to tell. Merrill watched him go down the path and out of sight. She shivered in her wet tabard, water on her chilled bare skin.
The rain seemed even colder without his presence.
At nine o'clock three fugitive apostates set off into the mists, cutting diagonally through the hills. They reached the road by nightfall, though Hawke seemed nervous and had them walk along the top of the cliff instead of on the road itself. The walking was pleasant, though, once the rain cleared up. The bare rock along the cliff was easy on Merrill's feet, and a moonlit breeze swept in from the ocean and lifted her heart. Hawke sang bawdy songs from the Hanged Man, and silly nonsense songs made up on the spot, and then some of the songs Merrill had taught her, sweet and clear over the vista. Sometimes Merrill thought Hawke's voice was made for the old tongue. In another life, she could have been a storyteller, sleeping with Merrill in an aravel, teaching the old tunes to annoying little Dalish children.
Anders was quiet. He didn't make any attempt to leave them, which was a relief. Once or twice she thought she felt Vengeance move under his skin, but either the spirit was just sleepwalking or Anders was succeeding in keeping him tightly tamped down.
When light began to stain the sky over the ocean Hawke had them stop. They had no tents or other camping equipment, but the ground had dried quickly and their packs would make all right pillows.
“If we're going to be on the road for a while, we'll have to stop somewhere and get supplies,” Hawke said to Merrill. She shrugged helplessly. “The most experience I have with living on the road is that blasted Deep Roads expedition, and it wasn't my job to get the tents and things.”
“You can go without tents for a while,” Merrill said. “The hunters and scouts of the clan do that sometimes. But after a few days you get miserable, they always said.”
Hawke studied her face. Merrill blinked. The weak pink light caught in odd things, like the glimmer in Hawke's dark eyes, the edges of her sharp dark cheeks. Most things were gray and colorless still, and that tinge of pink was strange.
“Forgive me if I'm being insensitive,” she said at last, “but it seems to me you talk more freely of them, now. Your people, I mean.”
Merrill felt herself flush. “Do I? Oh.”
She reached out a hand to Hawke, touched her arm. “I don't blame you for what happened. It... it's going to hurt me forever, probably, but I know that it happened and it's in the past and there's nothing t be done about it now. I can't bring myself to wish them luck, but wherever they are, I can't affect their fate now. Which is what they wanted, after all.”
Hawke gripped her hands tightly and for a moment neither spoke.
The sun rose another inch and light spilled over the hill that shielded them from sight of the road. Hawke sighed. “I'll take first watch,” she said, glancing at Anders. He appeared to be fast asleep, ridiculously long body curled around his pack. Merrill realized that Hawke did not intend to give Anders a watch. She knew it was necessary, but still, the distrust bothered her.
Her body was sore and her mind on edge, but she'd been awake for two and a half adrenaline-fueled days, and sleep rushed over her even before her head touched the hard ground.
It was a day later when they finally saw other travelers. Small dark shapes moving down on the road, blurred by the rain that had returned in the night. Hawke peered down the cliff from behind a large outcropping.
“Merrill?” she asked.
Merrill focused on the dark specks. “Two women and an ox. They're elves. Fleeing the city, most likely.”
“Hmm,” said Hawke, looking from her to Anders and back again.
Merrill was startled by the sound of the healer's voice. “It would be good to know,” he said, so quiet the whistling wind nearly drowned him out, and then he was silent again.
Hawke bit her lip.
“I'll go talk to them,” Merrill said. Hawke made a noise of disapproval. “No, ma vhenan, don't be silly,” she said authoritatively. “Too many people know your faces, but if I put on my cloak and leave my staff here I'm just another elf.” With Dalish tattoos, she thought, but didn't vocalize.
Hawke stared at the shapes on the road a while longer before nodding curtly. “Fine.” She turned, and gripped Merrill's shoulders. “Hurry back,” she said.
Merrill smiled. “Of course,” she said, and stretched her feet up so she could pull Hawke down for a kiss. It still amazed her, how brave Hawke made her. “You two just wait here a moment.”
The travellers saw her when she was halfway down the hill. She waved and shouted a greeting. They brought the wagon to a stop and stood there waiting for her to reach them.
“Hello!” she called out, and watched them relax as they sorted her in their heads; small elvhen woman, unarmed, friendly, not obviously wealthy, or destitute either.
She reached the road. “Good day to you,” she said, a little out of breath, and gave them a quarter bow.
“To you as well, traveler,” said the woman holding the ox. She was the older of the two, brown as Hawke with a serious face. The other one was probably her sister, Merrill decided: they had a family resemblance.
“Have you by any chance come from Kirkwall?” she inquired. “There've been scary rumors. My family and I, we've got a farm here-” she waved generally at the hills- “but my brother went to the city to be a cobbler, the silly, and my mother's worried sick-”
The women were merchants from Cumberland, they told her. They'd been in Lowtown, selling fruit from Planasene orchards and clothing from Val Chevin, when the riots started. They accepted her story, maybe figuring that she was one of the young elves who thought it was fashionable to get vallaslin without knowing the culture behind them. “In the morning templars came round and told us everything was under control, but we shouldn't leave the Alienage until things settled down. Well, we've heard things like that before, haven't we. People started packing right away, leaving whatever they couldn't carry, poor sods. We thought we might stay a bit, see if things calmed down, but when we left they still seemed to be getting worse.”
“Do you know what's happened to the Circle?” she asked.
“All I've heard are rumors,” the merchant said. “The templars told us they've caught a few mages, but most of them got away. I heard a few've been made examples of in the city. Hung in the harbor, that sort of thing. That was when we decided to get out. City goes rotten, we're always the first to suffer.” She looked down. The other elf put a hand on her back.
Merrill hugged her arms to her chest. She wondered what was happening now in the Alienage, if the angry and confused humans were taking out their fears on the People while she stood here in the rain, if looters had already broken into her house. They'd find a few paintings, her personal store of lyrium and potions, but no mirror.
“I'm sorry,” the merchant said gently. “I hope your brother is safe.”
“Thank you,” Merrill murmured, guilt twisting in her stomach for lying to this woman.
Something occurred to her. “I don't suppose you're still looking to move your wares?” she asked.
Five minutes later she was back up the cliff, sliding down into the ravine where Hawke and Anders waited. They had identical nervous expressions, and that was so rare that it struck Merrill as hilarious. “Here,” she wheezed, trying to force down giggles, and she tossed the bag of clothes at Hawke's head. The Champion just barely caught it before it hit her face.
“I thought maybe we might try not wearing bloodstained robes that scream 'I'm an apostate, please come and arrest me before I sacrifice your children in depraved demonic ceremonies!'”
She could swear she saw Anders smile, just a little, just in a quick flash before his face settled back into broody.
“At least I don't wear a dress,” Hawke muttered.
“Also,” Merrill continued with blithe cheerfulness, “you two stink. Shemlen sweat so much. If either of you went to talk to those ladies, they'd scream and run in the opposite direction-”
“I get the idea,” Hawke snapped.
She started pulling off pieces of shrunken wet leather. Anders looked away, turning red. Merrill watched appreciatively. Hawke wasn't the most muscular or curvy human Merrill had ever met, but the confidence in every movement and the smug smirk she shot at her audience made watching her change very enjoyable.
Then she looked down and winced. “What is this, Merrill, a sack?”
“Least it's not torn trousers,” Merrill shot back.
“Ooh, saucy. Don't give me lip, shrimp.”
She didn't look that bad in normal people clothes. And Anders...
He looked nice. That was as far as she was letting that thought go.
“You look good,” she said. “Much less like suspicious people.”
They decided they could risk the road, though they were careful to disassemble their staves first. Even separated into pieces, Malcom's Honor didn't quite fit into Merrill's pack. She asked Hawke's permission to chip away the ancient glue holding Naked Andraste to the top of the stave. “Of course,” Hawke told her brusquely, like it was of no consequence.
“I'll be really careful, and put it right back on as soon as it's safe,” Merrill said.
“It's not a problem,” Hawke said, but Merrill wasn't sure she believed her.
The pretty, kind of heretical gold statue went in her pack, along with the crystal from Final Thought. Hawke grinned, and showed them how she'd modified Bassrath-Kata so the pommel and swordy bit could slide off and snap together to form a perfectly reasonable short Qunari sword to hang from Hawke's belt.
“I doubt the Arishok would approve of that,” Merrill said. Anders kept his opinions to himself, just continued unscrewing the various bits that made up Final Thought. Merrill remembered her amazement, the first time the two of them showed her that trick and told her that human apostates only ever carried staves that took less than five minutes to break down and shove into a bag. Then again, the Dalish didn't really go into fancy staves; Marethari had always given her ones that looked just like slightly burned branches of ironbark, even though Master Ilen carved all the other clan weapons into elegant masterpieces. Marethari had told her it was to stop her getting a swelled head.
She felt naked as Malcolm Hawke's Andraste, without the weight of a staff on her back. Vulnerable. Silly. It wasn't like she really needed a staff to do most of her spells. Still.
“We should make new ones for traveling,” Hawke said. “Ones that look just like walking sticks.”
“That sounds fun,” Merrill replied. Keep looking on the positive.
She was tempted to leave her heavy mail on the ground, but it might be worth selling at some point, and she might want to wear it again, if combat seemed likely. And after all, her back muscles were strong from years of carrying anything shiny that caught Hawke's eye. And Hawke was still carrying her silly shoulder spike thing, so Merrill couldn't do any less.
Still, she felt tired in every part of her as they set off along the dusty road, the sea breeze lifting and twisting her braids.
Five days on the road before the food they had grabbed on their way out of Kirkwall ran out. Luckily, Merrill took a bite into the last apple just as they passed a signpost for a village. One so small it wasn't even marked on Hawke's fancy map. Just a collection of farms nestled in the hills, and, in the middle, a crossroads, a rough stone statue of Andraste, and a tiny alehouse.
The mages moved slightly closer together as they came to the crossroads. Hawke settled into the relaxed gait that meant she was getting ready to Deal With People, probably by making a bad joke and then, if that didn't work, a hamfisted threat. Anders wrapped his arms around his chest and hunched in on himself, like he'd just realized he was the tallest and was regretting it. Merrill pulled her hood down low, feeling like the curls of the vallaslin were burning the skin on her face.
But they were all starving, and hunger would trump caution every time. The alehouse door was open a crack, propped open by a rock; Hawke pushed it open further with her foot and they slunk into the smoky darkness indistinguishable from watering holes the continent over.
The alehouse was clearly a lot fuller than usual; the ten or so tables were crowded with patrons and more were standing around the bar. The air was full of people talking, but the bartender noticed his new customers immediately. “What's your pleasure, sirrahs?”
“Three tankards of the house brew,” said Hawke, lounging, elbows on the wooden counter, “three bowls of whatever food you're serving, and news to go with the meal.”
“Right,” said the man, “though some of those will take longer than others. Nowhere to sit at the moment, I'm afraid.”
“That's fine,” Hawke said, “we're in no rush.”
It took half an hour to get a table, and another forty minutes to get food, by which time Merrill's stomach was growling like a tiger, but it was worth it to gaze at their bowls of cabbage and mutton soup and their plates of fried flatcakes dripping with honey. Free Marchers took food seriously. The ale was not so good, according to Hawke, but apparently she hadn't been expecting it to be. Merrill still couldn't tell the difference between ales. She liked, and drank, them all pretty indiscriminately, to Varric's eternal horror.
Anders did not offer an opinion, but he ate what was put in front of him, in an absent-minded, mechanical way. Merrill fretted a bit. She thought he was probably having extra difficulty, being among so many people after a few days of relative silence. That was always hard for her, at least. And she'd always thought he didn't particularly enjoy it in the Hanged Man, since he showed up much less than everyone else, usually only when dragged along by Hawke or Varric.
They were the only ones who ever made an effort to include him, she realized a bit guiltily.
Hawke chatted to the bartender, who was apparently also the master of the house, whenever he went by their corner. “Bit busy in here. What, is there a pilgrimage going through?”
The man shook his head, but Merrill could tell he liked Hawke. People always formed their opinions of Hawke immediately, and either they liked her or they wanted to kill her. There was no in between.
“You haven't heard? People are running from Kirkwall. Those who can.”
“What?” Hawke exclaimed, with a careful note of light surprise. “Why?”
“It's full of bloody Templars now, isn't it? They've closed the harbor to trading and put the city under martial law, or so I've heard. And they're doing some heavy recruiting. Lot of people didn't like their kids being forced into the Order, so they ran for it.” He shook his head again. “I tell you, I don't like it either. We're doing good business now, sure, but none of these lot will be coming back again. They're headed for Starkhaven, most of 'em, and they'll be leaving tomorrow.”
“What about the mages?” Anders asked from across his soup bowl. Loudly, too loudly. Merrill was pretty certain Hawke kicked him under the table, from his brief wince of pain.
“Oh, there aren't any left in Kirkwall, that's for sure. A boy came through here, ran errands for one of the herbalists at the gallows, said they put all the mages that were too slow to run away to the sword first thing. Even those poor bastards with the Maker's sign, what can't even do magic. Sad, really. The poor kid was losing his mind over it. Said some of the bodies got hung in the harbor. Imagine that! Haven't been corpses there since the old Tevinter times, I reckon.”
“Ah,” said Hawke.
“I'm worried about the ones that got away, though. They'll still be in the hills, and they'll be getting desperate. Can't help imagining demons coming down here to do unspeakable things to us all. I've heard all the stories. Well, you do when you run an alehouse. Gets in the way of a good night's sleep, you know? I hope the whole thing gets sorted out soon and they're put back where they belong, but that seems less likely every day.”
“Mmm,” said Hawke, nodding.
Anders stood up in a clatter, chair falling backwards, and ran towards the door without a word.
“What's got into him then?” their host asked.
“Delicate stomach,” Merrill offered quickly. “I told him he shouldn't have the mutton so soon after being sick, but men can be so stubborn.” She pushed her chair back and stood up, rather more carefully. “I'd better go see if he needs someone to hold his hair back while he throws up.” Hawke made a movement and Merrill gestured for her to stay where she was. “No, no, no reason for you to end such an interesting conversation.” Get more out of him, she thought at Hawke. It seemed to work; the human settled back into her seat with nothing more than a raised eyebrow. Merrill caught Hawke's new friend staring at her, and realized too late that implying a relationship with a human man might not have been the best strategy. Oh, well, she thought, maybe the bartender thought more kindly of elves than he did of mages.
She slipped through the crowd, bumping into large inebriated men and mumbling frantic “sorry, sorry”s as she went. It was a relief to get outside into the bright sunlight. The crossroads were shockingly quiet after the tavern, just sun and dust and an old dog lying in the road. And a gray cloak, a few feet beyond the road.
Merrill made her way to Anders's side and saw that he was putting the truth to her words by being sick in a ditch. He finally heard her when she was only a few feet away and jerked up, staring at her. “Oh no, not you,” he muttered. “Go away, go away.”
“You might feel better if you tell me about it,” she offered, squatting down among the bushes, careful to keep her bare feet away from the vomit.
He wiped his mouth with the back of a shaking hand, and she realized he was shaking all over, quite violently. “It's starting,” he said. “I knew it would. And there's so much more to do. I want to be out there, fighting for freedom with my brothers and sisters. Freeing Circles. Killing Templars.”
She examined his eyes. Was there a hint of blue there? It could just be the light.
“You mean he wants to.”
He shook harder. “Yes.”
“What does Anders want to do?”
“I want to sleep,” Anders whispered. “I'm so tired. I just want to... I want to be done.” The eyes of an unclear color flicked down to the knife in her belt so briefly, but she caught it. She caught it. He blinked at her.
“Okay,” Merrill said, trying her best to sound calm and responsible, though she didn't know what Anders would think sounded Responsible, at all. “It's okay, Anders. You're feeling badly now but... but it'll get better. I'll help you. Just.”
He folded up, long arms wrapping around long legs, limbs all exposed in a shirt and trousers. “Just what?” he asked sharply.
“Just don't tell Hawke, all right? I don't want her to. Get scared.”
Their eyes locked, and for a moment they were in perfect understanding with each other.
“Okay,” Anders said.
“And don't leave.”
He looked away. “Okay,” he said, with less conviction.
She helped him put himself back into some semblance of together, and they sat together outside the alehouse, waiting for Hawke. She came out after a while, a proud grin on her face and a large bag over her shoulder.
“There's off-duty templar in there who has a serious drinking problem,” she said. “He was happy to sell me the contents of his pack for enough gold to settle his tab. There's a tent in here, and a bedroll, and I bought another one from my new friend the bartender-”
“What?” Merrill and Anders exclaimed in unison. They glanced at each other, and then back at Hawke.
“There's a Templar in there?” Merrill asked Hawke in an incredulous whisper.
“And you actually talked to him?” Anders chimed in. “What are you doing?”
Part of Merrill registered that he was talking a lot more and was pleased. The rest of her was caught up in outrage.
“He's a harmless drunk,” Hawke told them, sounding exasperated, like somehow they were in the wrong. “We have the stuff we need now!”
“You,” Merrill said, “are incorrigible.”
Anders was glancing around nervously. “Where are the rest of the templars, then?”
“Oh, they headed towards Kirkwall three hours ago. Our friend the drunk got left behind.” Hawke chuckled.
“You don't seem to be taking this very seriously,” Anders said, looking out across the fields.
"This is Hawke," Merrill said. "She never worries about Templars, remember?"
"It's different now."
"Oh, I agree with you," she told him, and poked Hawke with a jabbing finger.
“We should be very careful no one sees us depart,” Anders said, biting the nails of one hand. Merrill blinked. She'd never seen him do that before.
Hawke waved a generous arm, and casually set off back down the road the way they'd come. Merrill followed, trying to stay calm and walk steady. Once they were past the cluster of buildings Hawke led them in a wide semicircle through fallow fields covered in young grass. There'd be bootprints of course, but no reason for anyone to think anything of them.
They didn't rejoin the western road for nearly a mile, by which time there were far too many burrs sticking to Merrill's cloak, but Anders seemed a bit calmer. Hopefully things would stay calm. She shoved her hands into the folds of her cloak and tried her best not to be overcome by worry.