“Are they still following?”
Hawke tears her eyes from the snowy white haze climbing ahead of her, and slowly rolls her neck as if stretching out the muscles. It’s a natural movement, one any weary traveler might make, so she feels there’s little danger in their pursuers noticing the subtle way she twists to peek back over her shoulder. Scrubby bushes and trees obscure most of the landscape, and the ground slopes steadily downward at an angle she’s only just noticing. They’ve climbed a fair way since the night before.
Something appears, spots of vivid color and shadow almost disorienting contrasted with the tightly packed snow.
“Unfortunately.” She tracks the figure until it quickly disappears into a dense cluster of trees. “About thirty yards back.”
Fenris chuckles mirthlessly. “I was beginning to hope they’d given up.”
She turns her head to flash him a smile. “They must know we’re worth the trouble. Very flattering. Full marks for persistence.”
Bundled up the way he is, it’s almost difficult to read Fenris. An oversized cloak swallows most of his body, legs sticking out awkwardly at the bottom in a way that nearly makes him look like a fat bird. His feet slip in second-hand boots, worn under duress after Hawke expressed concerns about walking barefoot up a mountain in the first throes of winter. Initially, her insistence met with some grumbling, but once they realized they were being followed, he acquiesced with no fuss. Avoiding detection when leaving a trail of bloody footprints is difficult, if not impossible.
Unable to reach the holster for his greatsword beneath multiple thick layers, he carries it over his right shoulder instead. Its steel doesn’t quite glint in the dying sunlight, long overdue for a decent polish, but the effect is suitably intimidating. Hawke finds herself admiring it, and him, in idle moments where she leaves herself enough room to think.
In any case, after so many years, body language is mostly irrelevant. She doesn’t need the line of his shoulders, or the way he balances on the balls of his feet, to know that he’s tense. She sees it in his eyes, somehow more striking than ever when staring out from below the fur-trimmed hood. They flicker, back and forth, taking in his surroundings with sharp jerks anyone else might have ascribed to fear. Hawke isn’t so foolish. Fenris is always the predator – never the prey.
She winces, wrinkling her nose. He never objects to such comparisons, but she never intends to make them. He isn’t a wolf anymore.
“Thirty yards,” Fenris says, almost musing to himself. “They’re getting closer.”
“We’ve been on the move since last night. If they’re tiring, it might be making them reckless.”
Fenris’s busy gaze suddenly comes to rest on her face, studying her. His brow furrows. “Are you tiring? You look…”
“Exhausted, I’m sure.” She waves away his concerns with an exaggerated flourish. “I accepted dark circles into my life as a permanent fixture years ago. Awful as they look, they have very little bearing on how awful I feel.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
He reaches out, startling her into abrupt stillness as his hand gently cups her cheek. Her skin is frosted over with the cold, but his bare palm scalds her like fire. She melts into the touch. As he swipes a thumb over the sensitive skin just below her eye, she sighs, and doesn’t miss the gauntlets he abandoned several years before. Too recognizable, he’d complained. She hadn’t objected, especially to the easier access of his hands.
“They’ll gain on us,” Hawke murmurs, leaning into him so heavily he supports part of her weight. She is tired. Funny she hadn’t allowed herself to feel it before now.
Fenris snorts with derision, even as he uses his hand to guide her into his chest. She collapses a little, so she can fit, but she doesn’t mind. He tangles long fingers through her hair, and readjusts his sword on his shoulder. “Let them. We’ll face them now, and be done with the mess before dark.”
His cloak scratches her skin uncomfortably. She stays anyway, and breathes in the stale, musty smell as greedily if he were wearing a garden of flowers. Something about it reminds her of home – not the mansion, or Gamlen’s house, but their old place in Lothering. Whoever came first built the hut years and years before her family took up residence, and it would have lasted years and years after them were it not for the Blight.
The hut, the Blight, Lothering, Carver – all memories now, ghosts lingering over the peaks of these mountains. Ferelden has healed in the last ten years, from what she’s heard, but even as its people rebuild and pave over and forget, nothing can scrub Hawke’s memories clean. Not for the first time, she wonders if they should turn around… but that’s foolish. Orlais is unsafe, for anyone now, but especially for her. With the government falling to pieces, and conflict between mages and templars coming to a frenzied head, the people are desperate. For food, for glory, for money – some are desperate enough to think they might capture refugees, or whatever they think she is, and sell her off to whichever side might pay more to clip her wings. They can’t stay.
As if on cue, several bushes rustle further down the mountain.
“Here they come,” she says, muffled by Fenris’s cloak. “They think they’ll get the drop on us.”
“A misconception I’ll enjoy rectifying.”
Witty one-liners, from Fenris of all people! She’s having a terrible effect on him. Grinning, she stays burrowed into his neck for several brief seconds, listening intently to their noisy pursuers’ bitten-off whispers and the crunching of snow. In a moment of light-headed levity, she pulls back from Fenris and raises her voice.
“It’s a smart idea,” she says, refusing to look round and spoil the fun, “but a pincer attack won’t suffice, I’m afraid. That strategy works best when your targets are unaware of your approach, and we’ve been aware of you for some time. If you’d like we’ll give you a chance to fall back and think again!”
She expects Fenris to roll his eyes, as he does, but she couldn’t have begun to anticipate the fondly exasperated smile he bestows on her.
“Piss off!” says a man’s voice in a thick Orlesian accent, obviously at a loss for anything more eloquent to say.
“Move in,” the other man grunts. “Plenty of leverage with Gordian if we catch the Hawke.”
Hawke forces a laugh. “Bravo!” she yells, too loud and strained by the unpleasant, swooping sensation in her belly. “Of course, you recognized us. But if you know who I am, then you’re surely aware facing me is an incredibly bad idea?”
They don’t respond to that. One of them lets out a battle cry, tipping her off to his exact location: fifteen feet behind, and closing fast. Stepping back from Fenris, she turns and unsheathes her own sword, lifting it into a defensive position just in time to meet the height of the man’s swing. His weapon – skinny, chipped, and apparently quite blunt – seems like a child’s plaything compared to hers, which is nearly the size of Fenris’s treasured blade and just as broad. They grapple, each pushing mightily against the other, but only for several short seconds. The man must sense a stalemate, or that given long enough, he’ll lose. He gives one great shove and backs away, breathing heavily as he considers his next approach.
Fenris snarls something in Tevene at the second bandit, and she hears the dull thunk of his sword wedging itself into a wooden shield. Her man has nothing, so far as defense. He wears thick, discolored padding, like the undergarment that usually goes beneath plate, and his helm sits askance like it might be too big for him. Its shape is familiar, rather like those that belong to chevaliers. All it’s missing are the telltale feathers.
The man hocks loudly and tilts the helm forward to spit. He flips his sword with a flashy, careless flick, and jumps forward even before he’s caught it again.
Nimbly, he feints from left to right to confuse her, searching for an opening. She refuses to give him one. At some point, he had formal training, probably from the chevalier whose helm he stole. It’s in the way he carries himself, and how she can hear him reciting forms and techniques as he moves. None of it is enough to make him very good. He telegraphs each of his movements a full second before following through, and it’s more than enough time to counter them.
“I tried to warn you!” she laughs, after one of her swings comes dangerously close to taking off his arm. He narrowly dodges another, panting, and then – he drops down and rolls, losing his loose-fitting helm. Before she can recover from the surprise, he’s on his feet again and in her space. Too close. Hawke smells his rancid breath, sees the whites of his eyes. There’s no room to leverage her weapon against his. She tries to scramble backward, her boots skidding on a patch of ice hidden under a thin layer of snow.
As she turns her head to anticipate her fall, a point scratches across her cheek. It isn’t painful.
Just before she loses her balance, her feet find solid ground. With a grunt, she moves one hand off the hilt of her sword and throttles the blade, lifting it high. Even through her thick leather glove, she can feel the bite. This time, when the bandit strikes, his blade’s tip catches in the fuller between her hands, digging fruitlessly into steel. She jerks both arms down, hard, and he loses his grip.
The bandit hisses with aggravation, like a cornered drake. “You fucking–”
Hawke interrupts him by bashing her pommel against his mouth. Blood spurts from the impact, and she hears a sickening crunch. He drops as if she’d taken his legs from the knee down, collapsing face-first with a pained cry.
After that, it’s over. Her man doesn’t know it yet, spitting blood and shards of his own teeth, but she does. He blinks rapidly, trying to clear powder from his eyes. One hand scrabbles, searching frantically for his lost weapon. She wonders whether she should be merciful, and let him die thinking he still has a chance, or if she should be smart and kill him before he can surprise her again.
“You hesitate?” Fenris asks, startling her. He appears at her side, barely sweating with exertion, and clutching something bloody in his free hand. When she raises an eyebrow, he smirks, and carelessly throws the heart away. It sizzles when it hits the snow. “Are we interrogating him?”
“I don’t think so.” With a little difficulty, she frees her sword from where it had wedged into her glove. She hadn’t gripped tight enough to break skin, but the split leather will need to be repaired before long. “I doubt he can tell us anything useful.”
“No crowns!” the man tries to shout, mumbled through the ruins of his mouth. “No nobles!”
Hawke runs him through with one, clean push. He dies inhaling, and the bloody stain he’d made on the white landscape slowly spreads outward. “No, thank you,” she mutters, mostly to herself. To Fenris, she says, “Let’s go through his pockets before everything gets ruined. Did your man have anything?”
“I haven’t checked. Did he hurt you?” He wipes at the offending cut, coming away with a fair amount of her own blood dripping down his hand.
“I hadn’t noticed.”
It’s mostly the truth, but Fenris frowns anyway. She has to promise she’ll let him attend to it shortly before he leaves her alone, and by then the body is soaked. Grimacing, she uses a foot to flip him over. The padding is crimson now, rather than its previous dingy grey. His jaw hangs open, revealing bits of broken teeth jutting from a shallow pool of blood that’s gathered in his cheek. Her stomach twists. It doesn’t matter how many times she’s seen dead bodies – or even how many times she’s been responsible for one. Everyone dies in their own way, and there is something horrible about it every time.
Or, perhaps not every time. Years ago, before Kirkwall fell apart, a would-be mugger once stopped Hawke and Isabela on their way to the Hanged Man for a drink. When they ignored his feeble threats, he made a move to attack and slipped in a puddle of excrement. He’d impaled himself on his own knife. To make matters worse, as he died he suffered the indignity of Isabela laughing uproariously and helping herself to his purse. Perhaps it was awful of her, but Hawke had laughed too, and accepted the drinks Isabela paid for with the dead man’s money.
Maker’s breath, but she misses her, sometimes.
The bandit doesn’t have much by way of coin. A silver piece hangs around his neck, but a hole bored through for the leather thong makes it useless to her. His blade, still half-buried, is little better than scrap metal, and even the chevalier’s helm isn’t worth keeping. Huffing with frustration, she holds her breath as she gingerly peels the padding away from the man’s chest. He might have kept something hidden there, another trinket he was smart enough to hide from his friend, anything that might tell her what it is they wanted…
She finds a piece of parchment, creased from being folded and unfolded. One corner is wet and red with the man’s blood. Fishing it out, she takes several steps away and inhales deeply, the cold, pure air stabbing her lungs in a way that feels cleansing.
A noise of disgust turns her attention back to Fenris. He holds the collar of the man he killed in one hand, and a folded piece of parchment in the other. “This is all he had,” he says, casting the body aside. There are no noticeable wounds on his corpse – but then, there wouldn’t need to be.
Hawke lifts her own discovery to show him that they match. “What does it say?”
He shrugs. “I can’t read it.”
She glows with pride for his lack of embarrassment. After so many years of her lessons, shoddy though they might have been, Fenris can read nearly anything. Some words give him trouble, and less than pristine handwriting makes letters illegible, but he’s more capable than many of her neighbors had been when they lived in Lothering. He’s smarter, too, but she’s known that as long as she’s known him.
“Want me to read it out loud?” she asks, reaching out to take it from him. Fenris tells her no, and busies himself pulling out a poultice and mostly-clean cloths. As he tends to her cheek, gently mopping up the blood she still doesn’t feel, she leans on her sword and checks each slip of parchment. “They’re orders,” she says, “or some kind of manifesto, perhaps–”
She regrets the word as soon as she says it. Hawke might have talked him into helping her in Kirkwall, and he might have come with her willingly to liberate Montsimmard, but Anders is still a painful subject. Fenris does not notice, or decides to let it pass without comment. Either way, she’s grateful.
“Were they with one of the armies? This will sting,” he adds, uncorking the bottle. Hawke rolls her eyes. As if she hasn’t used healing salves a thousand times.
“I don’t think so.” She grits her teeth in anticipation of the pain, and focuses on the distinct aroma of Lady Elegant’s special blend. They have so few of her wares left… just one more piece of home gone, once they run out.
She nearly shakes her head to clear those thoughts away, but Fenris holds her chin in place with a firm grip. Half-heartedly, she glares at him, and goes back to reading.
Our numbers now are few, it says in part, but as word spreads more and more soldiers turn to our cause for the hope so sorely lacking. They join us in speaking the truth – that Orlais is ours by right, and that it is our duty to defend her from Empress and Grand Duke alike. A change is coming, my friends, that will allow us to do just that. Soon we will have power beyond Celene and Gaspard’s imagining. Rendezvous with the templars at –
Hawke frowns as she scans further down the page. “They were supposed to meet with templars, back in the Dales. We may have accidentally waylaid them.”
“What business have the templars with Celene and Gaspard’s squabble?” Fenris asks. He wipes the excess mixture on his cloak and nods to show her he’s done. “I would have thought they’d be too busy with their own war.”
They are not bound by the restrictions of the Order you know, but do not be frightened. Neither they or their cargo matter; indeed, they are merely stones in the path on our way to freedom. Do as they ask, and we shall be one step closer to victory.
“‘The Dales belong to the Freemen,’” she reads aloud. “‘No crown, no nobles.’”
Fenris heads to the snowbank where he’d left his sword for safekeeping, unsheathing it and resuming its resting position on his shoulder in one smooth movement. He’s ready to move on, but something about the wording of these letters keeps her still, skipping over certain lines again and again. Talk of changes, of templars, of something that might scare even a battle-hardened warrior… Unease gnaws at her, the same wrenching, sick feeling she’d felt at the sight of the bandit’s ruined mouth.
“If it’s as you say,” Fenris says, coming close again to take hold of her shoulder, “then it has nothing to do with us. We presented an opportunity, that’s all.”
Hawke attempts a grin as she stows the letters in her belt, but it quickly falters. She hates that, and she hates that Fenris would have known the way she felt even if she’d managed the subterfuge. “They knew my name. They knew who we were.”
“You’re a notorious woman, Hawke. Not to mention distinctive. I think we might have trouble finding someone who couldn’t place you in a crowd.” He lifts a few fingers to brush against the ends of her hair, stark white even without the contrast of his skin. “In any case, we killed them easily enough. Should more come, it’s unlikely they’ll give us trouble.” She huffs, and finds that this time, her smile comes easily.
It isn’t enough to alleviate her fears. For now, though, it’ll suffice.
The sun sinks as they climb, descending slowly over the empire they’re leaving behind. It casts foreshortened shadows ahead of them, shrinking as the ground steepens, and as the sun disappears, the temperature begins to drop. They need to find shelter, some sort of cave… preferably one that isn’t being used by a bear, which is a mistake they’ve made before. Hawke checks over her shoulder periodically, just to be sure no one is coming after the men for apparently abandoning their orders. At their height, she can see what must be a full mile away – and what she sees is a great deal of nothing. Even so, her nervous edge won’t dissipate.
A change is coming, my friends.
Do not be frightened.
An hour or so after sundown, just as Hawke begins to miss the little fires Bethany used to conjure on cold nights to keep their frigid fingers and toes warm, Fenris finds their temporary refuge. He explores far back enough inside the cave to ascertain that no one else currently lives there, and then begins establishing their campsite. Hawke collects dry twigs for kindling, and pieces of the patchy shrubs that might serve well as tinder. While she works, she clenches her jaw tight to keep her teeth from chattering, and determinedly ignores the grey clouds gathering overhead that threaten either rain or snow. So high up in the mountains, she knows which is more likely.
They build their own fire together, the hard way. It takes time, and Hawke nearly flings the flint against the wall when her second spark dies out. With a look, Fenris plucks it from her fingers.
“I’m tired,” she says as her excuse. It sounds hollow and stupid, cramped words echoing through a cramped cavern. She regrets saying it, and regrets the angry, stung feeling that lances through her when Fenris manages to keep his little fire going long enough to light the kindling.
He’s never been the sort to baby her out of bad moods. They both have sizable tempers, and when roused, sometimes it’s best they leave each other well enough alone. Still, he returns the flint to its place in his pack and reaches out to take her hand. She wishes she’d thought to take off her gloves. The warmth of his skin barely leeches through.
“It doesn’t get easier. Being…” He pauses, hesitating, and changes tack. “I’ll keep watch. You rest.”
“You’re tired, too,” she protests, unable to keep herself from arguing. “And what if there’s more–”
“Then I’ll wake you.”
His tone is quite final. No point in belaboring something he’s already decided.
For the sake of contrarianism, she puts off sleep as long as possible. She fusses with her outer clothes, dithering over which pieces are safe to remove and how neatly they ought to be folded, and she moves her sword around several times before deciding it’s best where she’d initially left it. Fenris glances her way once or twice, but he neither finds her antics funny nor acts as if he’s annoyed. The lack of reaction is what she expected, but it eats at her, the same way the letters from earlier still eat at her. Everything feels raw, and wrong. With no other way to deal with it, she finally curls up under Fenris’s comically large cloak and squeezes her eyes shut.
If she has dreams, she doesn’t remember them. Even so, some part of her subconscious pieces things together well enough that when she wakes, realization hits her so strongly it’s like she’s been punched in the mouth. Her memory helpfully supplies the accompanying sound – crack! – and she shudders. Then she shudders again, rubbing her bare arms with both hands. The fire is dying, and snow drifts on the wind straight into the mouth of their cave. At her side, slumped and half-sitting against the wall, Fenris lets out a muffled snore.
It doesn’t get easier, he had said, as if he meant it to be reassuring. He hadn’t finished the thought, but she knows what it is, now. She knows what’s been bothering her all evening, ever since she read that missive. It might have even started before that, before she knew what the warning signs were, before they made the decision to leave Orlais.
Hunted, is what he meant. Thanks to her, Fenris has spent the last three years on the run.
Hawke isn’t sure how long she lays there, sorting through what this means – how stupid she’s been not to realize, how selfish to drag him along behind her when he deserves better. At the least, it’s a fair while. The color of the sky outside the cave never changes, but snowflakes steadily pour in like grains of sand in an hourglass. When Fenris snores again, and a misty plume escapes between his lips, she pushes the cloak out of her way and grabs a stick to stoke the fire. After everything else she’s put Fenris through, she can’t let him freeze to death on her watch.
His eyes are open when she turns, squinting against the renewed blaze. Hawke’s gut flips: a sour, sinking feeling. She’s had too many of those today.
“I fell asleep,” Fenris murmurs, not quite asking for confirmation. He digs the heel of a hand into his cheekbone. “I apologize.”
“Don’t,” she says. “Come here.”
His hands and arms are frigid from exposure to the cold. Just under his skin, she can feel his muscles jumping – not a tremble, or a shiver, but whatever comes just before. She pulls him in, covering them both with the cloak, and tries to rub warmth back into his fingers. Again, she thinks of Bethany. If she were here… but then, none of her friends or family should be here. It should be Hawke, alone, with no one to suffer for her mistakes except herself. She’s caused enough damage.
She could be responsible for much more.
“Fenris,” she whispers, clasping his hands in her own. So close, it’s hard to look him in the eye. “I have to go back.”
He doesn’t respond. He stares at her with that well-known, piercing look, stripping her down to her bones and exposing everything she tries to keep hidden. This time, he gives nothing away. No hints of an affectionate smile, no furrow in his brow that predicts his intent to argue. It makes her head spin, trying to put together what he might be thinking, so she looks away.
“What the missive said about templars, and strange cargo, and power… it made my hair stand on end. I can’t shake the feeling that it has to do with us.” She shakes her head. “With me.”
Fenris withdraws from her reach and sits up, running a hand through his hair. His voice is still rough from sleep, gravelly and low. “With the red lyrium.”
Of course, he found his way to her conclusion. She supposes it can’t have been too hard. “I know it sounds foolish,” she says, getting to her knees beside him, “but if I’m right, then everyone’s in danger. We saw what it can do.”
“The idol was destroyed, that night.”
“Anyone could find their way back to the thaig, if they had the resources. There might have been more.”
“You can’t be sure.”
“I can’t. That’s why I need help. Someone who knows lyrium, who has access to secrets and documents and whatever else one needs for an investigation. Warden Stroud helped Bethany, when we asked him. If he can’t get me what I want, he might be able to point me to someone who can.”
Fenris huffs, as if amused. The sound doesn’t match the look on his face. “Evidently, you’ve thought this through. Shall I guess what comes next?”
This time, it’s Hawke who doesn’t answer. Her insides squirm with discomfort and guilt.
He snorts. “I thought so.”
“All those years,” she says, struggling hopelessly to keep her tone even, “you never had a moment’s true peace. You fought hard for your freedom, and you won, and I took that away from you.”
“What was I to do?” Fenris snaps, scowling. He hasn’t been so angry at her in a very long time. “Should I have gone home to a pile of rubble, and made my life in Kirkwall’s ruins? You didn’t force me to stay, I chose this. I would choose it as many times as you offered it to me. I couldn’t abandon you to–”
To her immense irritation, tears leak from Hawke’s eyes. Fenris pauses, apparently shocked, as she swipes at them to hide the evidence of her weakness.
“Please.” Her voice finally cracks, breaking as she begs, and she hates herself in a way she hasn’t done in years. Taking measured breaths, closing her eyes against the continued threat of tears, she gives herself several long seconds to calm down.
Through the wait, Fenris is silent. He sat with her, after her mother died, and said nothing then, too. At the time, she found it comforting. Now… she doesn’t know.
When she feels she’s less likely to collapse in sobs, Hawke opens her eyes. Fenris’s frown is gone, but in its place is a look she hasn’t seen in six years. It breaks her heart. “I’m going to have to ask questions people won’t want to answer,” she says, struggling with each word. “If something happened to you because of me, I… I can’t. I can’t.”
Tenderly, as every time he’s done it before, he takes her face in his hands. The urge to cry swells up so strongly it nearly makes her feel nauseous. It kills her, to feel so fragile, but she can’t bring herself to pull away. This is Fenris, her Fenris, who loves her enough to help her liberate mages simply because she asks him. He laughs at her terrible jokes, freely touches her where once he might have shied away, and shows her every side of himself regardless of how messy it seems. He deserves the truth, her truth, even if giving it hurts.
This time, when he brushes his thumb across her cheek, he wipes another tear away. “You could have left, before I woke up,” he murmurs, bumping his forehead against hers. His eyes slide shut. “It might have been easier.”
The thought had crossed her mind. It probably crossed his, the night they first slept together, when he stared into the fire for hours before she stirred. But he stayed, and gave her the courtesy of an explanation. What kind of person would she be, if she hadn’t offered him the same?
“I’m terrible at covering my tracks,” she says, smiling tremulously. “You’d have found me before the day was out.”
Fenris kisses her, then. It starts slow, a careful touch of his lips to hers. Hawke exhales, taking hold of the back of his neck, and then the kiss grows hungry, sloppy. Desperate. She crawls halfway into his lap, clinging to his shoulders as he moves his hands from place to place. They’ll have to say goodbye, but not yet, not yet – not yet.
“When will you go?” he asks, retreating far enough to whisper the question against her mouth.
“Morning,” she says. She bends to bury her nose beneath his jaw. “Noon. Never. Don’t ask me.”