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River Stone

Chapter Text

---

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.
        --The Habit of Perfection, Gerard Manley Hopkins

---

They take her in broad daylight.

The trick is both simple and effective. It begins with the lure, a wounded boy crouched in the squalor of a Lowtown alley with an empty beggar's cup and a white, pained face; next comes the reel, when she kneels beside him with the glow of healing magic cupped in her palms; and last is the silent moment when she sees that he is not so young, and not so wounded, and when she flings herself back from the short, sharp blade he pulls from his sleeve she finds herself caught in the bole-thick arms of a giant, left to surface with the gasping realization that she is trapped.

Trapped, but not helpless—Hawke pulls fire to her fingers, slamming her palms against his bared forearms until her nose fills with the stench of burning flesh. The giant lets out a wordless snarl of rage, his grip loosening in agony, and Hawke ducks under his blistering arms with her hands still lit with flame. She whirls on her heel to keep both the giant and the false-wounded man in her sights, her back to the ash-dusted wall of the Lowtown hovel he'd begged against, and shifts her weight to her toes as she pulls her staff to the ready. They both take a step back, wariness in their eyes. Other than them, the street is empty; the residents of Lowtown know better than to involve themselves in another's fight.

"Giving up so soon?" she asks, and lets the fire in her hand burn brighter. "It's not a bad idea. If you don't mind my advice, I mean."

"You aren't the first apostate who's resisted," the young man returns, his voice lightly accented, and when he lifts his arm another four raiders emerge from a shack across the street, armed and impassive and moving close behind the giant in a penning circle. Two of them nock arrows, the tips aimed squarely at her heart and between her eyes, and Hawke knows that the slightest attempt at a signal on her part, be it magic or a simple scream, will die as quickly as she. The young man smiles as he sees her sudden grimace; the knife in his fingers is steady. "If it's advice you're looking for, mine's to stop fighting. Before you end up like all the others." He inclines his head and adds, "It is, as you say, not a bad idea."

"Noted and disregarded." Hawke offers the man a cocky smile, but her mind is racing. They are not far from Gamlen's, not far either from Merrill's tiny home—this attack depends on speed and secrecy, and the longer they stand in this alley the greater their risk of discovery—so the greater the risk they'll cut their losses and simply try to kill her. Worse, she does not like her odds—the Champion she might be, but this battle is six capable and sword-practiced bandits against one mage, and though the giant carries no weapon, she knows he is as deadly as any of the others—maybe more.

"Take her," says the smiling leader, and the arrows fly free.

The first one buries itself in the wood by her head in a clear miss; the second she dodges more narrowly, the point tearing through the thigh of her brown trousers to leave a hair-thin line of beading blood behind. Hawke ducks left and summons fire in a swathing blast of heat—one of the archers falls back with a scream and the raider beside him drops his sword, its hilt boiling ember-red. The giant advances on her, his burnt fingers outstretched, but before he can reach her she puts two fingers to her forehead and pushes, shoving him back into the flames. The archer that had fallen cries out again, and then does not move.

Two of the raiders rush her, one with a sword and the other with a pair of daggers, and it takes a moment's concentration before Hawke can sweep her staff across the ground between them. Ice bursts from the ground in sudden sharp shards, freezing their boots to the stones in an instant. Hawke flips the staff in her hands and drives the bladed end through the throat of the man closer to her; he drops to his knees with a bubbling red gasp as she frees her staff, but the yellow-haired woman with the daggers does not even hesitate as she draws one hand back to throw.

"Alive!" shouts the leader behind them, and the woman's flinch at the moment of release sends the dagger flying wild. It slams hilt-first into the wall behind her, then drops to the street with a hollow clank. The woman, her feet still frozen to the ground, looks murderous.

Hawke takes another step back, pressing herself flat against the door of the hovel behind her, trying to decide who will be the next to die. She knew she should have taken someone with her, anyone—hadn't Aveline said just that morning that she was becoming too well-known for her own good? But she'd been careless, and foolish, and when Fenris had objected to visiting Anders's clinic she hadn't protested going alone, hadn't even thought to—but this is not the time for what-ifs and maybes, not now, and Hawke pushes her self-directed anger to the back of her mind for a safer time. She grits her teeth as the young man with the knife steps forward, grinning, and then she reaches for the pulsing scream of lightning—

—and a hand closes hard over her mouth from behind her, a hand with a white cloth soaked in something strong-smelling and sour. The door, she thinks furiously, just another trap—her head rolls back and her lightning cracks into existence across the man who owns the hand pressed over her mouth, but it is too weak, the light too faint, too young and unformed as a dream. Hawke shrieks and the sound blisters the Lowtown air, and as an iron-muscled arm loops around her neck to replace the cloth over her nose she thinks at least someone will know a fight happened here, even if she cannot speak through the burning pungency of the cloth's smell—even if she—cannot speak—she cannot breathe

—Hawke sees white, white teeth bared in a smile; she sees the giant move towards her with measured steps that shake the ground, and then the world turns sideways and—

—she sees nothing.

---


Someone bumps her hard in the shoulder, and with an effort, Hawke breaches the black and heavy blanket of her drugged sleep.

She is flat on her back on something rigid and uncomfortable and unsteady, something jostling and quick-moving, and each lurching motion worsens the heavy pounding in her head. There are other people around—she can hear their voices—but there is something thin and cloying over her face. She reaches for it blindly but her hand is so heavy, her fingers thick and awkward like sausages, and it takes two tries to paw the coarse sheet away from her face.

"Shit, she's awake!"

"Where's Carn?"

She blinks, staring up at a sudden square of bright blue sky forcing through the Darktown haze, and realizes: she is still in the city. "Fenris," she says, and then, "help me," but it comes out slurring and incoherent through numb lips. She bites the tip of her tongue, feels nothing, opens her mouth to try again.

"She's coming to! Where's the bottle?"

"Here, here—"

A scarred hand reaches into her line of view to pull the sheet back over her face, and Hawke tosses her head to the side in a futile attempt to escape it. She is on one of the city's narrow stretchers, she realizes when her hand flops over the side, the ones used to carry the bodies of the penniless to the mass graves outside the city limits. They are taking her out of Kirkwall, and once that happens she doesn't know—

The sour, burning smell of the drug-soaked cloth seeps through the sheet over her face, thick and hot and stifling, and it takes a dizzy moment to realize her stretcher-bearers have stopped.

"Dysentery again?" says a bored female voice.

"Family called us this morning," says the man just over her head, his words distorted and distant. A rough hand shoves her arm back under the sheet.

"Help me," Hawke says again, and this time it is less even than before, a hissing, toneless breath that has no sound and less meaning. A gate creaks open with a protesting groan; a cool, wild breeze tugs for a moment at the cloth over her face before the stretcher lurches forward, and then, as the gate slams closed behind her with a final, hollow boom, the darkness reaches up with groping fingers to pull her back under its silent, rippling surface.

---


"Scoot."

"I beg your pardon?"

"You're looking entirely too comfortable there. Scoot over."

A black eyebrow, lifted. "But then I will not be comfortable."

"But I will be. Come on, it's my couch; at least let me share it."

A sigh of feigned pique, and then a shift—and then a pause. "This is—not what I was expecting."

"Problem, elf?"

"Your head is in my lap."

"Like I said: comfortable."

Another pause, and a hand settling carefully on her neck. "Hawke…"

"I'm tired."

"And this is where you choose to sleep."

"Sure is."

"Why?"

"Flames, Fenris, how's a girl supposed to get any rest with you being such a chatterbox? Read your book. Pretend I'm not here."

Callused fingertips on her ear, her closed eyelids, her cheek. "Go to sleep, Hawke."

She smiles—

---


—and a booted foot slams hard into her shoulder. Her eyes fly open; she bends forward and then back, unable to ease the sudden pain either way, and then a hand fists in her hair to pull her to her knees.

"Wake up."

"Start with that next time," she says, her tongue still numb enough to thicken the words in her mouth. Her eyes won't quite pull into focus on the face of the woman holding her hair, but she can still see the curled-lip disgust as she drops her back to the dirt.

The dirt—the dirt. She is outside Kirkwall, she realizes, outside the reach of her friends, outside even the questionable protection of the city guard. The high stone walls of the city rise distantly in the east; Hawke can see the rough wagon trail they must have followed behind her, winding carelessly back to the pauper's gate from this small, rocky clearing just off the path. She digs her fingers into the dirt by her knees: dry, and thin, like the sparse trees and the short, scrubby grasses that cling to the low hills between Kirkwall and this impromptu camp.

A man laughs behind her and she winces, looking back over her shoulder at the cluster of raiders sorting through her belongings. The Planasene Forest stands green and thick ahead of them, the wagon trail disappearing into the shadows at its feet; another three or four people stand guard on the outskirts of the camp, bows strung and swords naked in their hands, as if a chase is expected at any minute. Hawke hopes it is; with nine raiders between her and freedom, she has little chance of escaping on her own without a plan better than a flat-out sprint under cover of night.

The sun is bright overhead and hot, hanging half-down the cloudless sky and throwing the woman above her into dark silhouette. Hawke blinks, trying to force her vision clear, but just as the woman's edges sharpen at last she turns away with an irritated scoff. "She's up. Tell Carn."

Hawke grimaces and pushes herself to her knees, and then, more carefully, to her feet. Her hands are bound together at the wrist with sturdy, well-made rope, half a dozen loops wrapped taut around each arm to end in several stout knots at the base of her thumbs. She flexes her fingers and clenches them, but there is precious little give—and then a man's voice, smooth and disinterested, says, "Good afternoon."

Hawke lifts her chin, willing her stomach to settle. He is tall, taller than her, and thick with muscle and padded grey armor; his beard is brown and cropped short, his nose hooked, and even the touch of grey at his temples is not enough to soften the falcon-sharp eyes set deep under his heavy dark brows. She says, "Is it?"

"For some of us more than others, I suppose." He inclines his head. "I am Carn. Welcome to the Black Hoods."

"And yet you seem surprisingly hoodless."

His smile has little humor in it. "The name has other applications. As you'll soon see."

"You'll forgive me if I don't look forward to it."

"You'll forgive me if your opinion is disregarded. Your name, girl."

"I think I'll keep it."

He smiles again, thin-lipped and hard, and Hawke feels her stomach jump in fear—but he only gestures over his shoulder at one of the raiders loitering behind him. A man with wavy blond hair trots up obediently—and Hawke's fear lurches again, because it is the first man, the false-wounded one with the white smile, and he bares his teeth at her again as he approaches. "Sir?"

"Bring it out."

Teeth nods and disappears into the cluster of people around her bags to reemerge with her staff—her staff, Hawke thinks furiously, her father's staff—held carefully in both hands. He passes it to Carn, who hefts it in his fingers for a long, silent moment, and then he turns it upright and holds it out, straight-armed, before him.

He says, "Destroy it."

The answer comes quick and clear. "I won't."

"Don't be a fool," he says, annoyed but not angry, as if this response is expected and vexing in its unoriginality. "I had hoped we could skip over the 'plucky defiance' stage of the proceedings."

"I'm always plucky," she says off-handedly, but her heart is racing in her chest—and then a slender steel arrowhead comes to rest point-first on the pulse in her throat and her heart stops altogether. Her eyes slide sideways to find the brusque woman who'd woken her, the one with the bored voice and the yellow hair pulled back in a severe tail, with her fingers firm and steady on the arrow's shaft. "I won't," Hawke says again, but her voice sounds weaker even to herself. If only she could reach the knife hidden in her boot—

Carn lifts his eyebrows. "You are mistaken if you think your determination will be enough, here."

"I just think you want me alive more than you want my cooperation."

Carn laughs, then, throwing back his head and opening his mouth wide to the sky. The sound is loud and hard and sudden enough that a flock of black-winged swallows startles out of a nearby thicket, lifting into the sky in a dark, fluid cloud; they wheel away in a long spiral, and when Carn lowers his head to stare at her again, his amusement is gone. "I need you alive," he says. "I do not need you whole."

"What—" says Hawke, and in a flash of pale arms and yellow hair, the woman at her back has shifted her grip from her throat to her bound hands, locking Hawke's arms under the heavy, muscled press of her armored elbow, and the needle-thin point of the arrowhead has slipped to rest on the tender skin under the fingernail of her left thumb. "I—wait—wait—"

"Destroy it," Carn says again, and holds out her father's staff.

"Wait," Hawke says, her words tripping over each other on her tongue. Her heart is thumping hard enough against her ribs that the woman must be able to hear it, must know the rabbit's wild-eyed fear that has her firmly in its grasp. "The staff. It's worth a fortune. Keep it—sell it—I swear I won't go near it, I swear—"

"And what is your word worth to me, mage?"

Hawke knows the answer as well as he does, can read it in his falcon's eyes and the rippled scars of fire on his fingers: nothing.

"For the last time," he says, and the arrowhead presses under her fingernail, "destroy it."

She is faint with fear and the promise of pain, but somehow in the blank and echoing cavern of her mind two words force their way to the front. "I won't."

Carn glances at the woman with the yellow hair, and the arrowhead drives home.

The worst moment, she thinks, is the moment before the pain comes, the split-second where she sees her thumbnail standing on end, when she feels a sudden breeze pass cool over the exposed and yet-unbleeding skin. The image roots in her mind, clear and sharp like light off a turned blade; the woman with the yellow hair grasps the nail and twists it away from the flesh and Hawke stares in blank silence a moment more—and then the pain comes, sudden and striking, and the scream that tears out of her throat turns every head in the camp.

"Destroy the staff," she hears through the haze; Hawke wavers on her feet, but the woman's iron grip will not let her fall. She feels the tip of the arrow slip under the fourth finger of her right hand.

She whispers, "No."

In the end, the price of her father's staff is four fingernails and a tooth, a molar pulled from the back of her mouth with narrow pliers and a length of silver wire. The world is pale and watery, red-tinged at the edges and fading when she lifts her head from her knees, when she pushes the arms away with bleeding hands and says with a bleeding mouth, "Stop. I'll do it. I'll destroy it."

"Thank you," Carn says impassively, but Teeth behind him is white-faced.

"Give it to me. I'll burn it."

The yellow-haired woman makes a move for her rope-bound hands again, but Carn aborts her motion with a gesture. "Enough, Delia." Then, to Hawke: "I am not a fool, mage. Burn it from there."

Hawke blinks slowly, fighting the brown and thudding pain that washes behind her eyes. She hadn't even—hadn't even meant it like that, she thinks, and the heady shame of that realization almost closes her throat around the taste of her blood. She'd only wanted a moment to—to say goodbye—

"Well?"

Well. Well, so long, heart's gift; so long, last legacy of her father. Hawke lifts her hands together and finds through the pain-skimming sea the gold spark of her magic—and then, with the slow and measured tread of a gallows-bound captive, a slender line of mage-flame creeps along the lines of the staff. It coils up the haft in lazy spirals, licking at the varnish until it peels, until the wood blisters and blackens beneath it; her heart aches in her chest and the fire speeds up—it reaches for Carn's hand like a hooded and gleaming snake and he jerks away, eyes narrowed, realizing his mistake too late—

Hawke struggles to her knees, her hands lit as bright as a sun, burning away the ropes in long black chunks, white-knuckled in impotent fury as the flame leaps, viper-quick, towards Carn's eyes. He shouts and a sword appears in his hand as if by his own magic, arcing through the flame in a silver wheel; the flame scatters into a thousand sparks and his falcon eyes gleam through them, at once brighter and more dangerous—she gathers the fire again—but before she can even brush it, a black and soundless hand takes the thread of her magic and shreds it into absolute nothingness, gloving the warm gold light in the void of a templar's Silence.

Her head whips left and right, frantic—and then she sees the giant, his hand still outstretched towards her, his face dark with anger and exertion. She lifts her hands again and reaches—but there is nothing there inside her, nothing to take hold of, nothing to answer her call—

And Delia's fist smashes into the side of her face.

Hawke goes down like a rag doll, limbs loose and outside her control. Her face is on fire—she'd struck her on the side with the missing tooth and every pulsing heartbeat rams white agony through her jaw, splinters of swollen heat spreading across her cheek and neck as if to scorch away the rest of her skin too.

She lies there, her cheek in the dirt, her ears ringing, and watches her father's staff burn.

A long time passes, long enough that the staff's wood chars itself to small blackened pieces, long enough that the embers lose their fire and the ash swirls up in grey, unfocused flurries to smear out the path of the wind. A curt voice says something over her head, but she has nothing in her mind but clouded ash and fire, and it is not until a heavy brown boot crushes the last of the smoking coals into the dirt before her eyes that she comes back to herself.

"Get up."

She does, slowly, the nail-less fingers of one hand pressed to her burning cheek as if the pain can help her keep her dizzy feet. Carn's face is inches from her own, his jaw clenched, his brown beard singed and smoking, and the words come out before she can think to check them. "You're looking a little toasted, there, Blackbeard."

His hand moves faster than she can track it, wrapping around her throat with all the inexorable force of a falling stone. He does not even blink. "I won't be the only one burning by nightfall," he says, quietly, and then he twists his arm downward until Hawke has no choice but to follow; she goes to her knees, both hands wrapped around his wrist, and he pushes again, pressing her down until she is flat on her back and his knee is between her breasts. "And if you try that again, you won't live through it."

It is not, as far as threats go, the most inventive one she has ever heard; her aching mouth goes dry all the same. He stares at her a moment longer, his eyes glittering under his heavy brows, and then he pushes to his feet and leaves her gasping in the grass. "Get her ready," he says to Teeth, and there is not the slightest change in his voice. "We need to be in the trees by twilight."

"Yes, sir," he says, and gestures at the giant, who lifts hands the size of dinner plates to allow something dark and soft to drape between them.

"The Black Hoods," Hawke says, then, laughing with a hoarse and cracking voice, and just before the giant drops it over her head she purses swollen lips and spits. It lands in a thick glob on his chest, more blood than saliva, and the last thing she sees before the hood falls over her eyes is the stain, its edges sharp against pale blue of his shirt, dark and dripping and scarlet.

---

They leave the hood over her head for the rest of the journey. It takes two hours to reach the trees, another hour and a half before they at last stop for the night; they rebind her arms with more rope the first time she scratches her nose through the hood, and she spends the rest of the afternoon clutching the shirt-tail of whoever walks in front of her with bleeding, tender fingers, tripping on every rock in the road as if seeking them out on purpose. She is grateful, in part, for the hood; as long as it covers her face, they cannot see the frustrated tears that force their way out despite her best effort to control them. By the time she hears Carn call at last for a fire to be built, she is not the only one with an audible sigh of relief. Her toes ache through her boots and her hands and mouth are alight with pain, and though she'd managed tiny spurts of healing magic as the giant's Silence had worn off, the wounds are still too fresh and raw for any real relief.

"All right," Carn says somewhere to her left. "Here's fine. Set a guard and keep an eye out for Silas's group—I want to know the minute they get back."

Hawke's heart drops like a rock. More of them? Even with the nine already here? She'd had precious little chance before; with more men arriving soon, it seems she will have no chance at all.

A hand clamps down on the top of her head, and a moment later the world returns in a swirl of cloth and hair. Night is almost upon them, she realizes, pushing her hair out of her face with her awkward and hurting hands; the woods are dim with dusk, the purple haze of twilight muting even the leafy canopy above them, and the glow of the just-lit fire streaks the tree-trunks at the camp's perimeter in liberal strokes of orange and gold. Someone tosses a canteen of water at her feet and she drains it in seconds, and when she is finished she wipes her mouth on her soft grey sleeve and tosses the canteen back without a second look.

Fenris will have no idea where she is.

It is the first time she has allowed herself to think of him since this morning, since she'd left the house alone and without warning. He might not even know she is missing, she thinks—she's stayed the night in Darktown before, when she'd found herself there too late, too tired to make the journey back to Hightown in the dark. It might be a day, might even be more before he realizes—and then, what? And then he'll search out Varric, and Anders and Aveline and the others and they'll search the city, top to bottom, and find nothing. And no matter how hard they look, that's all they'll find.

She doesn't even know where they're taking her.

"Silas," she hears someone shout, and it is the distraction alone that keeps her from breaking down and weeping out of frustration. A voice answers from the brush, loud and accompanied by a cacophony of yelps and cracking twigs, and a moment later a man and two women burst into the ring of firelight, a smaller, fourth figure struggling between them. A young hand flashes into the gold light, fingers splayed; a moment later a tiny, hair-thin bolt of lightning jumps skyward and both the women burst into uproarious laughter.

"And he calls himself a mage!"

"Oh—Maker—touch me, touch me, look, I'm tingling—"

"I've had better jolts from a doorknob, boy, and if you think—"

"Shut up," Silas says, and runs a hand through his silver hair. "We weren't supposed to bring back prisoners at all."

"No," comes Carn's voice, hard, and the women stop giggling. "You weren't."

The camp turns to Carn, even the boy, and Hawke catches her first glimpse of her fellow prisoner. He is young and coltish and awkward, fourteen at the most, and his long black hair is pulled back into a messy braid—and then he turns his face full-on to the fire and she catches a glimpse of a long and shining scar that strafes from his temple to his neck, taking most of his left earlobe with it.

"In fact," Carn continues, "I believe I remembered telling you explicitly to kill all witnesses. Am I wrong?"

"No, sir," Silas says, unflinching. "The boy was asleep in the Harrowing Chamber when we arrived. We had no idea he was there until we were leaving—he followed us all the way to the city limits, and by the time we realized he was behind us, there was no time to stop."

"So we brought him with us," the redheaded woman explains, her voice crisp and professional and now devoid of humor. "If you don't need him now, we'll kill him, but we didn't see the reason in taking out a test subject that walked right into our hands without a fight."

"I have a test subject," Carn says, gesturing at Hawke. She lifts her chin and says nothing. "But…" Carn adds, more slowly, "there's no cause not to reward a reasonable initiative."

"Thank you, sir," the redhead says, and when Carn waves a short, squat man with a jingling purse hurries up to count out shining gold sovereigns into each proffered hand. They share delighted glances—whatever Carn has added, it is more than sufficient—and then Silas yanks the boy forward until he is kneeling beside Hawke and binds his wrists together. "Be good," he says, not a suggestion but an order, and then, at last, they are left alone.

The boy's eyes are wide in the dark, wide enough that she can see the whites like bone as his eyes roll towards her. "What's happening?" he asks in a barely-controlled whisper. "Where are we? What do they want?"

"I'm not entirely sure," she tells him honestly. Across the fire, the third member of Silas's group, a tall woman with ash-blonde hair cropped close to her head, hands Carn a long and slender package wrapped in brown butcher cloth. "Did you see what they were doing in the Harrowing Chamber?"

"No," he says. "I was hiding from—someone, and then I fell asleep. And then the next thing I knew, they were in there, whispering, and I didn't know what else to do but follow them when they left."

"Welcome to the Black Hoods, then," Hawke says with a quiet snort, and then the boy buries his face in his tied hands and she winces. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. Can—will you tell me your name?"

He drags his hands down his face so that he speaks through his fingers. "Aleron," he says.

"Well, nice to meet you. I'm Hawke."

He looks at her, then, full-on and wide-eyed—although this time it is from surprise rather than fear. "Hawke? The Hawke? The Champion?"

"I'm afraid so."

His eyes go to her hands, unbandaged and bleeding openly; to her swollen and discolored cheek; to the dirty mess of her clothes. "Oh, Andraste," he groans. "I'm going to die."

"Stop that," Hawke snaps, nettled and hurt. "Look. As long as I'm here, I'm going to do everything I can to keep you safe and whole, Aleron. Okay? You stay behind me and you don't draw their attention, and we're both going to get out of this alive. Do you understand?"

"Yes, ser."

"Good."

He offers her a pale, shaky smile, but it is twisted by the long scar running down his cheek and does little to soften the hunted fear just barely hidden in his eyes. She wishes she could touch his braided hair or hold his hand or even offer him a simple hug, but the last thing she wants to do is frighten the boy more with her grotesque, throbbing fingers, so instead she settles for nudging his knee with her own. "Buck up, Aleron," she murmurs. "Don't give up hope yet."

"Yes, ser," he says again, more quietly, and then his eyes drop to his knees, and he does not look up again until the woman with the ash-blonde hair thrusts a wooden bowl and spoon at him.

"You're sharing tonight," she says curtly; a man with a bucket of unidentifiable gruel follows after her, spooning the white, lumpy mash into their bowl without once looking at their faces. "Eat up."

They eat, quickly, and share little more than a single sideways glance at the tastelessness of the food. When they are finished, the woman with the ash-blonde hair collects their bowl and spoon, tossing them into a communal wash pile, and then she and Delia join Silas and Carn in a tense but quiet conversation on the other side of the fire. Carn still holds the long, thin package; every now and then he touches the end of it with two fingers, as if to reassure himself that it is still there.

"What do you think they're going to do?" Aleron asks again. Hawke can think of nothing to say.

The rest of the meal passes swiftly and in silence, and by the time the last bowl has been added to the pile night has fallen in earnest cover, stifling all the trees outside their tiny orange circle in formless shadow. The raiders sit patiently, quietly, their eyes little more than gimlet pinpricks in the dark; Hawke feels their stares on her, and on Aleron, and when one man lets out a quiet, lewd laugh at his neighbor's mutter, she cannot stop her shudder.

And then Carn unwraps at last the brown cloth from the long, thin package in his hands, and she cannot move at all.

"Listen," she whispers, when she can force her tongue to work again. In the corner of her eye she sees Aleron's face turn towards her, pale but not terrified, and she prays he has not seen. "Something is going to happen here soon, and it's not going to be good. For either of us. But you're going to get out of it alive, okay?"

He swallows. "How?"

She thinks of her fleeting plans of escape, briefly, and consigns them to the fire. "I have a knife. A small one. It won't be much, but I'm going to give it to you, and the first moment you get the opportunity, I want you to cut the rope and run."

He tugs at his dark braid nervously. "What if an opportunity doesn't come?"

Carn glances at her through the firelight and she smiles, meeting his eyes without baring her fear in her face. "Then I'll make one."

"Where do I go? Do I hide in the woods? Should I try to help you escape?"

"No," she snaps, startled, and two of the nearer raiders glance her way in warning. Hawke sucks in a breath, and then two, and forces her voice to lower. "No. You go east. Back to Kirkwall. You have to get back inside the city, Aleron, and when you do you are going to find an elf in Hightown named Fenris and tell him what happened here. Do you understand?"

"Kirkwall, elf, Fenris. Hawke, ser, I've never been outside the Circle, I don't know--"

"I know," she says. "I know. It's going to be hard. I'm sorry I'm putting this all on you—believe me, if there was another way to get you out of this safely, I'd do it, but there isn't and I can't. I'm sorry. You're just going to have to trust me. Okay?"

"I don't even know how to find east!"

Hawke checks her first response of blind and bitter frustration. The boy is Circle-raised and –taught, and she supposes finding one's way in the woods at night is not top priority—all the same, she has to swallow several inappropriate curses before she can speak. The two raiders who'd glanced at her earlier are watching again, and Hawke covers her face with both hands as if in despair. "Straight behind us," she says into her palms. "No, don't look! Keep the campfire directly behind you and go as far that way as you can until you can't see the light anymore, and then find somewhere safe to wait until dawn."

"And then what?"

"And then you follow the sun."

"Okay. Okay. I can do that." He offers her a small, brave smile. "Hightown, elf, Fenris. I'll find him."

"Good boy," she says, genuinely touched, and prays she isn't sending him to his death. "Show him the knife. He'll know it's from me."

"Will you be all right without it?"

She thinks of the thing in Carn's hands. "I doubt it would make much difference."

Aleron nods, and the next time the two raiders look away Hawke fishes the knife out of its hidden sheath in her boot and slips it inside Aleron's long sleeve. He glances at the hilt tucked inside the top loop of rope on his wrist, just hidden by his white cuff, and then, clearly gritting his teeth, he lifts his head to meet her eyes. "Hawke," he says. "I'm going to rescue you."

She quirks a smile, ignoring the twinge in her damaged jaw. "I'm counting on it."

---


In the end, they give her little more than an hour.

The time is spent in silence as they wait for night to deepen, for the last of any weary travelers to pass beyond even the hope of hearing. The raiders sharpen their weapons, restring and wax their bows, watch Hawke and Aleron with little interest as she funnels the last of her healing magic into her hands and mouth; the forest-thick peace is broken only once, just before midnight, when Carn gives the order to build up the fire. The white, fresh-split logs do not last long before blazing into orange and glowing coals; when an errant breeze blows hot into her face, a push of fear surges up so fast in Hawke's throat that she nearly chokes.

"It won't be long, Aleron," she whispers.

He says, "I'll be ready."

Through the heat-wavering air, she sees Carn lay his long, iron toy at the edge of the fire. She swallows, wishing she were ready too.

When Carn begins to walk towards her, her mouth goes dry. The hours before had dragged on for so long and suddenly she wishes they'd dragged longer, that they'd lasted forever, because then she would not know what she is about to face—her heart skips forward a beat, and then two, and then bursts into a wild, racing gallop that drums inside her ribs in heady, uneven thumps. She must not show fear—she must be brave, for Aleron—and then she thinks too late she should have warned him, should have asked him what he knew about—but—

But Carn has his hand on her chin, strong-fingered and pinching until her eyes meet his, and there is no more time.

"Bring her," he says, and somewhere in the distant trees a nightingale lets loose a ripple of sweet, sorrowed song.

The world narrows to pinpoints of brilliant color and sound: the toes of her boots in the dirt, scuffed and torn until the leather is almost gone; the knuckles of Delia's hands popping as they wrap around her arms to lift her to her unsteady feet; the glint of firelight on the flat of Teeth's drawn blade, flickering in time to the wounded throb in her mouth, in her fingertips.

Oh, Maker, she thinks, in the blank clarity of utter terror. Maker, help me. Help me. Help me.

Then Delia's muscled arms shove her to her knees by the bonfire, inches from the long thin line of iron with one end propped into the heart of the flames, and she cannot think even that.

A hand twists into her hair, dragging her head back until her eyes stare straight up into the dark and unmoving leaves above her. How cruel, in this last moment, to not even give her a breeze, or one glimpse of a white star—

"I want your name."

Carn's voice is the voice of a river, of one stone sliding against another: low and without meaning. She says nothing, her thoughts circling like birds without a perch, her eyes flitting helplessly from shadow to empty shadow—and then a palm cracks sharply across her face and her mind snaps into the present. "Your name," Carn says again. He has trimmed his beard of the scalded bits, she notices.

"Why?"

The word comes thin, but Carn lifts a heavy brow. "Consider it a favor," he says at last. "I'll allow you to keep it in courtesy."

Hawke laughs, then, and blinks up at the trees. "Small favors."

"Your name, now. Or we'll give you one we like better."

She doesn't know why she doesn't tell him who she is, especially when she knows that shortly she will have no choice in the matter, will not even care enough to think twice before giving it. But now, here, in this bright and flaming moment, she has the choice, one last decision to make for herself, and she makes it without hesitation. She tells him only, "Marian."

Carn touches his fist to his heart. "Pleased to meet you," he says without a smile, and then Delia releases her hair to push her flat to her back on the dry pine needles of the forest floor. The ash-blonde woman pulls her still-tied hands above her head and drives a stake through two of the knots, pinning her hard in place; then she, with Teeth's help, moves to tie each ankle to two more stakes stretched almost too far apart to bear. Hawke drives her head back into the dirt, almost blind with fear—but then, like the eye of a storm, she sees an inverted Aleron half-crouched at the edge of the circle of light, unguarded in the commotion, and his eyes are riveted on her like steel.

She mouths, go.

He flinches and she shapes the word again; he shakes his head, wide-eyed, but she will not let him lose this chance to escape—she yanks hard on her bonds and screams in unfeigned frustration, the sound shattering the silence of the woods around them, and his bow-wielding guard turns towards her instead of his charge.

"Shut her up, shut her up!"

"It doesn't matter, we're more than a day from anything important."

"And when the wolves come to find her, you want to be the first to fight them?"

"Shut up, girl—"

A foot drops heavily into her stomach, knocking the breath from her in a voiceless sigh until she thinks there will never be enough air again. Still, she finds Aleron's eyes—she says, one last time, go!—and at last, her knife slides from his sleeve, at last his face hardens with resolve, and when the raider nearest him turns fully towards the fire and the captive beside it she sees Aleron's wild-eyed resolve take root before he backs away into the darkness.

She catches one wisp of firelight on a messy black braid, and then he is gone.

The woods close in behind him as if he has never been there. Hawke is giddy with relief and terror, her eyes fixed to the place where he vanished, and she watches as the raiders fail to notice his escape for as long as she can until her upside-down vision is obscured by an enormous black shoe.

She glances up, and up, and up, and finds at last among the dim branches the close-shaved head of the giant. She laughs, mindlessly, and he folds himself in half until he blots out even her view of the trees. "Be quiet," he says, and his voice is rougher than she expects, as if something deep in his throat had once been broken and healed poorly. "Or I will silence you."

"What, again?"

His eyes narrow at her flippancy, but she can control her tongue as easily as she can leap through stone in this moment, and instead of the blow she expects, his hands, each larger than her head, come to rest on either side of her face. She blinks, surprised and confused by this sudden display of comfort—but then he goes to his knees over her tight-stretched arms, one after the other like a landslide, and his hands tighten around her face, and she realizes that he does not mean to comfort but to confine.

"Maker." The word slips out in plea, and in prayer, and when the giant's face does not change Hawke clenches her eyes shut to block it out. Better not to see it coming, better not to know the moment she will be stripped of everything that is herself—why hadn't her father told her more about this, why hadn't she listened to what he did say? When did she decide that Tranquil was for other people, for weaker people, for people with no training to protect them and no friends to keep them safe? Why hadn't she asked Anders when she'd had the chance—of all people, he would have known, would have told her what to expect and what to beware; and yet she'd never asked, even after Karl—and now, all she knows to look for is flame and the flash of agony.

She hears the iron rod slide free from wood, from fire; feels a sudden flush of too-hot air on her chest and her throat—and her forehead.

"Marian," says Carn's voice just above her, and she opens her eyes to the sun.

It burns in her eyes, the little metal star, white and blazing and trembling with heat. Each curving ray is etched in crisp, even lines, each point honed to a needle-thin precision, allowing Hawke to see the exquisite and delicate craftsmanship in Carn's stolen brand of Tranquility. Her breath comes short and painful, as sharp as the smell of sulphur and hot iron in her nose, as bitter as the salt tears that force their way free in helpless dread. The sun fills her vision completely, eclipsing in its fire the woods and the giant's unyielding hands and even the face of Carn behind it; she is caught in its endless circle like a ship with no guiding stars in the long night, wreathed in the flame of its glowing golding edges, drawn into its white-blazing ring with all the laughing horror of a madwoman.

She realizes, distantly, that the camp is silent, all eyes turned to her the way she, flower-like, turns her eyes to the light.

She says, "Please. No."

Carn twists his fingers around the leather-wrapped grip of the brand and says, "Be still, Marian."

Her mind is silent as a stone, grave-empty and impossible to fathom, dark as a river that moves, unhurried, through its path deep beneath the earth.

In that silence, the sun sears home.

This pain is not the pain of her fingers when the nails were torn away, slow to begin and then rising like the tide; this is instant and overwhelming, an agony as brilliant and piercing as any she has ever known. Each pointed sunray bites deep into her skin as if thorned, as if meant to brand itself into her very skull; she smells burning flesh and burning hair and the impossible knowledge that it is her own is too much to bear—she wants desperately to scream or go mad or both, but the giant's hands are as unyielding as granite, and her arms and legs still stretched too far by the stakes, and the pain rolls on and on in cresting waves that build upon each other until she thinks that surely he has split her head in two with the force of it.

Carn leans above her, both hands wrapped around the haft of the iron brand that presses into her skin. Her eyes will not focus properly, her muscles rigid and cramping in anguish, hot tendrils of red flame uncoiling themselves across her eyes, her cheeks, her throat, as if her forehead simply cannot handle the pain, as if a well of naked fire has flooded and spilled over the stone edge. A thin line of smoke lifts away from her skin, curls around the rod Carn holds, disappears into a field of sparks that flashes into the dark.

She is so afraid.

And that, in the end, is what decides her. The weeping is not a thing she can stop, and neither is the pain so great that it becomes painless, but she is Hawke, Champion of Kirkwall, and if nothing else she will not go into Tranquility with the limping, flinching gasp of a coward. She will not be afraid. Oh, it hurts—but she will not—she will not

She thinks, suddenly, of Fenris.

A clear, cold light catches hold in the center of her mind, taking the place of the flame's heart as completely as a river spreads from bank to bank, edging back the fever with the cool and whispered rush of running water. The panic eases and Hawke wonders, vaguely, if this is the first Tranquil touch on her heart—but there is something in this peace that is something different, something whole instead of the black and yawning void she had expected, and she clings to it with both hands until its cold touch has swept through her like a tide to leave her trembling.

The brand lifts away from her skin. The sunburst still burns, clean and gold, in her eyes, but she does not see it—she sees Fenris instead, Fenris as he was the last time she'd seen him: one hand raised to her cheek in the dimness of his home, the other on her back, his mouth half-curved in a surprised smile at some joke she had made. His hand had slid into her hair, then, and her own around his waist, and he had pulled her mouth to his easily and without reservation.

Yes, she thinks. Let that be her choice. If she is drying up under the unrelenting light, let her last memories be not of brands but of bright gladness; not of pain and twisted flame, but of Fenris, smiling, his eyes so green they hurt.

Let the last thing she feels be love.

 

The sun dims. She falls back, into the dark.

---