Regan watched Anders make his way to Viscount gardens in the dead of the night. He was never an outdoorsy person to begin with, and each time he had to go outside, he got meticulously careful not to bring a following with him. She had to keep her distance, even more so that she would if she followed someone she didn’t know; and several times during this night-time walk Hawke almost lost him from her sight. The whole idea of stalking in and of itself, ridiculous as it was, only got worse when closely examined ‘in the field’: it is harder to stay unnoticed if you’re trying to stay hidden from someone who knows your face well.
She felt bad for following him like that, in secret and under the cover of the night, and several times an impulse too turn back came onto her. She resisted. It wasn’t right. Regan did not delude herself on this account. There was a foul taste of betrayal in her dry mouth every time she had to duck behind a marble column, bathed in scarce, dispersed moonlight. She clung to it, almost desperately, It was firm and cold, pressed to the small of her back, and for a moment it seemed to her an anchor of stability in that disastrous situation she found herself in.
They haven’t had a conversation in months. Duties kept them apart, but never before with such urgency or intensity. It didn’t have to be like this, and it used to be that it wasn’t enough.
When last they met — properly — Anders read out loud to her the final version of his manifesto, which was prepared for printing. They spent hours upon hours in Amell estate where it was safe and private enough to do so, pausing only to relocate from the study to a cozy room with a fireplace, and back. Regan loved watching emboldened Anders, such as he was, when reading his own words out loud. Some chapters he knew by heart, and, while reciting them, his eyes would sometimes linger on Regan; sometimes, he would also slip his hand to touch hers, briefly, as if by accident, and then he’d tear it off like it caused him great pain. Hawke would move her feet, tucked in a slipper, to be closer to his, and the folds of her shuffling overcoat would touch Anders’s thigh lightly, getting warmer as they sat almost cheek to cheek, looking at rows upon rows on uneven letters of text written in blue ink.
At some point, Regan found herself slowly drifting off, not paying attention to actual substance of the manifesto, while only listening to the sound of his voice in actuality. Anders didn’t seem to mind, even though Hawke doubted he’d noticed that: she has read through it several times already, assisting him with editing sometimes. When he’d get a little tongue-tied because of his mouth going dry from all the reading, she’d pour him a glass of watered-down beer, which was the only kind he ever agreed to drink. Resting her head on her hand, she’d watch him go on and go on, trying her best not to distract him by touching him in some sort of an inappropriate way.
Saying goodbye that night took much longer than usual, their two willowy figures tiptoeing around the threshold. There was almost an indescribable expression on Anders’s face, pleasure and discomfort in equal measure. Finally, he left, with a stack op sewn up paper under his arm, leaving a faint smell of some herb on Hawke, who stopped wearing any perfume precisely for one purpose: to have his smell lingering around on her when he was away.
So there she was, standing in the thick underbrush, under the gentle rustling of evergreen leaves in the night. This position, although very safe, did not offer a good line of sight, and Regan had to abandon her hiding spot for one that was worse, near two pine trees that were almost hugging the fence. Their trunks were too thin to hide behind them, so Hawke stood near, entwined them with one hand. Once there, she watched Anders squat to pull up a single plant and put it in a sash. Then, all of a sudden, he quickly turned on his heels, faced Regan, and their eyes locked.
Anders tried to reach to where his staff would be, but he didn’t have it with him, and his hands grew restless. When his eyes, grown accustomed to the dark, finally assumed the expression of recognition, his distant, gloomy silhouette shrank.
She broke the gaze as soon as she noticed that, and felt a bottomless pit gape open inside her. Regan turned red in the face as shame took over her, now that she’s been spotted. She has always been unable to suppress her vigorous blushing, and now she begged the Maker to arrange the clouds so that they would embrace the moon and hide her flushed skin. Which, to her dismay, did not happen at all, and it still was very bright.
Regan wasn’t a dishonest person, not truly, but she was a compulsive liar.
“Were you just… admiring me from a distance?” He put emphasis on the word ‘admiring’ which didn’t suggest he said it in the way he tried to imply. Anders looked alarmed and displeased. “Maker but you’ve scared me. I thought you were a guard, or worse, a templar.”
“I was admiring the stonework,” she said defensively as her lips twisted into a long, thin line, “these gardens are truly grand. And you don’t have to worry about the guards, they are only here when the Viscount is. It’s what they call private property.”
“Then may I ask what exactly is a woman of your standing doing on this private property so late in the night, skulking in dank corners?”
“That’s a low blow, Anders. I was going to ask the same of you.”
“It’s what I usually do, I’m an apostate. Remember?” He asked it as if they haven’t seen each other for years, but it wasn’t clear whether he wanted to remind this to himself or Regan. “I was passing by the gardens one evening and one very specific plant caught my interest. It’s very rare and, apparently, whoever planted it here had no idea about its… ‘medicinal’ properties, which is why I had to come back for it… It’s a rare night-blooming flower, from which you can brew a potent poison that is almost impossible to detect... But that’s beside the point, because you haven’t answered my question yet.”
“I was here when you came. I saw you hop over the fence,” Hawke said, “I know of a hidden entrance that can be used without climbing or passing through the keep I’ve been here enough times, I can show you.”
Anders listened to her as he approached the alcove in which she stood, half-turned to him. “Would you be offended if I told you I’m having difficulty believing that? You don’t have to lie to me, you know. I heard some noise not long after I went in, I just didn’t know it was you.”
“Must you insist on dragging this on? Then, I’ll be honest,” she took a deep breath noisily through her mouth, “I’m here because I think you’ve been avoiding me purposefully, because I’m confused and worried, and because being the stupid person that I am, I decided to follow you instead of approaching you directly. But here we are, and I guess I ended up doing both. Is this what you wanted to hear?”
“I’m not avoiding you. Not intentionally, anyway. I’ve been neglecting my patients lately, and I have relocated elsewhere, this may be why you haven’t seen much of me.”
“You could have told me. I thought... I thought all the worst thoughts,” Regan said as she closed her eyes, “and I missed you. Terribly.”
The mage looked profoundly sorrowful. “I’m sorry if I caused you pain, because it is the furthest from what I would have wanted to do for you, but there were so many things I needed to sort out, and I didn’t want to burden you with it.”
“You were never a burden to me, and you never will be.”
The crickets were chirruping, and the grass was making a soft rustling sound under Anders’s groggy footing as he shuffled back and forth at forearm’s length to Hawke. Even in the moonlight she could see his features grow sharper; his face saddened and he looked crestfallen and miserable. She followed his erratic movements with her eyes, but not her head, and it pained her that he was too agitated to find comfort in anything. Next to them, a little swarm of fireflies was circling in a whirlpool, poorly illuminating the alcove.
There were so many things he kept from her, even though he never wanted to be anything but candid with her. Her face, pale and gleaming in the moonlight, it seemed, peered right into his soul, and had a pleading expression about which Regan didn’t notice. Anders felt guilty for not sharing more, and was overwhelmed with desire to explain himself. She deserved it, more than anything he could ever give to her.
“I’m afraid it’s gotten more complicated…” He shook his head, making a tiny, unsteady step toward her and hiding the uncertainty in his eyes by a warmer tone of voice. “It’s like time itself is slipping away from me, and sometimes I can almost feel being separated from reality, I tend to misremember things when I’m at my worst, sometimes, hours at a time… I haven’t told anyone — except for you, now, — just yet, but I think they’re beginning to notice. Frankly, I don’t know what to do with this, because at times I find myself in a waking dream, and it seems so real… But somehow,” he said, fighting an impulse to whisk away a fleck of hair on her cheek, “when you’re around, I can feel a firmer grasp on the world and this realization alone replenishes my strength, which is, it’s fair to say, not easy to come by these days.”
At this point, she had to lift her head up to look in his face because of how close he’d moved to her. “But if this is how it is,” she murmured in stunningly befuddled state, heartbroken at his misery, “why didn’t you tell me? Why were you just pushing and pushing me away when I tried to help?”
Anders seemed preoccupied, as if withdrawn, and fairly nervous; he ignored her questions altogether, preparing for something, but still looking undone. “Regan.” he said, “I am going to ask you a question, and I want you to answer honestly, because I need to know whether I’m delusional about this or not.”
Regan shot her eyes to the side and nodded slowly, leaving her head slightly lowered, but her eyes fixed on him, peering from her lowered eyelids frowningly.
“Do you have feelings for me?”
It wasn’t what she expected to hear, so his question startled her more than she anticipated it would. “Yes, uh, I do. I thought you’ve noticed.”
He was disappointed with the answer, despite her candor, because he wished with all his being that she would say no, and for a second it seemed to him that it would be better if she lied. Handling reciprocation was harder than the lack of it. “Evidently,” he said, in awe at his own vexation, “I wasn’t attentive enough to see this as it is… I thought I was imagining this, all this time, and I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable, since I developed my feelings for you long ago, and it felt so good just having them even in what I thought to be a delusion on mine.”
Their bodies touched, longing for each other, burdened by garments, and their cheeks scarcely met because Anders’s face was half-buried in the tall collar of his mantle: it was quite difficult for him to reach her since he was considerably taller. “What are we going to do about this?” he asked, letting out a sigh.
Regan could feel his breath on her skin, and the sheer pressure of flesh alone made her press harder onto him, putting her arms on his chest, his collar-bone being felt ever so slightly even through the thick linen of his apparel. “Why are you speaking of this as if it’s a problem?”
“I’ve tried to hold back.” Regan was bemused at how he was trying to justify his own actions; actions which to her did not demand any justification. “You know me. You’ve seen what I am, and yet… I am still a man. You can’t tease me like this and expect me to resist forever.”
“I don’t want you to hold back, and I don’t want you to resist either. It’s only human to give in, and I’d like you to do just that.”
“This is going to be a disaster,” he almost chuckled in his profound nervousness, continuing to hold her in his arms, “for both of us.”
“Anders, this better go somewhere, because, frankly, I might get offended.” She hesitated, and her voice went unreasonably high within an instant. “Am I not kissable enough for you?”
“I see what you’re getting-” he stopped mid-sentence, too aroused, to grab her head again gently by the nape and, threading fingers through hair, move them away slowly to touch her face and caress her temples with his calloused thumbs. To actually kiss Regan, Anders had to bend a little bit, and then he reached for her lips as careful as he could. Finally having felt what she had been aching for for so long, Regan made a quiet moaning sound that made him groan in turn, just as quietly, into her open mouth. It seemed foolish to him, because it was the first time a kiss made him start so frantically and then go as slowly and steadily as he could, and it was also the first time a kiss woke some sort of airy turbulence in him.
His stubble was giving Regan a tickling sensation, and she appreciated him sometimes forgetting to shave. When he finally pulled away, the two just stood motionless with their eyes closed. Anders could feel her shivering even as they stood brow to brow with her head turned upwards, and his toward hers. It was every bit as beautiful as he’d imagined, and she could read it in his eyes because hers expressed the same amount of relief and thankfulness.
“I can already say I won’t be able to live without it,” he said, and the left corner of his mouth lifted slightly in an adorable smirk, “and I want you to know it.” Suddenly, Anders’s facial expression transformed from a dazed bliss to alarmed worry, and his voice lowered. “But most of all, I want you to be safe, and I wish I could give you a normal life. But, if you’re with me, we’ll be hunted, hated, the whole world will be against us; we could die tomorrow-”
“Then so be it.”
“Then so be it,” the mage smiled again, still tensed up, but then he leaned in to touch Regan’s lips with his, and this dull feeling forming in his sore throat slowly dissipated into nothingness.
As their bodies — poor prisons for their aching beings, struggling to reach even closer to one another — pressed against each other in some sort of a clumsy slow dance in the darkness of a place they both did not belong to, both Regan and Anders were relieved to feel that they have finally found their place in the world, and it was at each other’s side. The revelation, although unshared, seemed to resonate between the two and did not require announcing which would be an insult to their connection.
Night-Blooming Cereus by Protomartyr
She woke at midday, almost deafened by noises coming from the outside. She threw a light overshirt on her naked shoulders and looked out the window. The day was still young, but already hot; the scorching sun mingled with dry wind touched Regan’s hair and cracked her lips, a light, peachy stain on pale skin, as she tried to see what was going on at the square.
She saw templar banners, black on red, and adorned in white, carried by two knights, and a senior knight wearing ceremonial armor of the order in front. There was cheering, words of congratulation and speeches; the Knight-Commander stood next to a noblewoman in a heavy dress of crème-colored folds which suited her station. Hawke watched the gathering for a while, understanding very little of what was going on, and when she was looking through the crowd, she spotted a familiar wheat-ish curly head in the midst of it.
Regan washed her face in the small wooden basin that stood on the night-table, quickly dressed and left the house, refusing breakfast and thus upsetting Bodahn who was then quickly cheered up by his son. She squeezed through the crowd, catching strange looks from the templars, to speak to the man she was looking for.
“Good morning, Knight-Captain,” she said without realizing that it had already passed, “what’s with all the commotion? Can’t say I see dressed up templars parading around every day.”
“It’s a celebration of a life-long commitment to the order of one of its senior and most loyal officers,” Cullen replied, “the late years of a templar are always difficult, and the command wants to ensure that they express our gratitude accordingly, and he can continue his faithful service to the Maker at his family’s side. Knight-Commander Meredith oversees the proceedings.”
“A family?” Regan asked, bepuzzled. “I thought you people were supposed to be celibate or ascetic, maybe even both-” her manner of articulation became slower and thoughtful, as she watched two knights put the banners on the both sides of the door of a mansion, “-but owning a prestigious piece of property doesn’t really go well with that, in my opinion.”
“Celibacy is never the requirement,” said the Knight-Captain, “but about owning property, you are right. Technically, the mansion was a gift to a good wife of the officer from Viscount’s Office. She is of noble standing, and their marriage was approved long ago.”
“How very convenient,” she frowned, “don’t you think it contradicts the rules, even if a way was found to avoid doing so directly?”
“It may be an unpopular opinion, but I am not alone in this-” said the knight, shifting uneasily in his armor, “yes, I don’t think this is right. Still, he is the one to take Meredith’s position is something should happen to her.”
“I thought it was your privilege, I mean, to ‘inherit’ the title in case of. You’re her second-in-command, after all,” Regan said, defeatedly at ignorance she may have been showing, “every day I learn that in truth I do not know anything about the Order at all.”
“No, it is a common misconception. I doesn’t quite work that way in the Order, I’m afraid,” he admitted, “my position as Meredith’s second-in-command makes me nothing more than a glorified errand boy. Thankfully, I have my duties as a Knight-Captain also to get away from it.”
“Know thy neighbor,” Hawke smiled contentedly. “Maybe I’ll pay them a visit later, to congratulate them in person. It seems that Hightown is being repopulated with a new generation of noble men and women. So many different origins. Good to know.”
The crowd began to disperse, forming two straight lines behind the back of the Knight-Commander.
“I got to go,” Cullen said, turning on his heels and twitching his shoulder towards the procession, “nice talking with you.”
Hawke nodded and turned away, vigorously fanning her face and neck with her palms, trying to cool off her body on which light perspiration was beginning to appear. As she approached the door of her house, she noticed Anders haunting the threshold, abiding his own state of concealed moodiness.
“Hello,” she said, giving him a smile, “you’re early.”
“Just came to see you,” the mage replied justifyingly as his features brightened in an instant. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“I was pleasantly surprised, is all,” Regan dove under the shadow cast by the roof to escape the heat and beckoned Anders to herself, a sharp but friendly gesture of her small hand, “and I’m glad.”
“Good, I-” he began, but stopped himself, adjusting the collar of his mantle, with no hint of shame or embarrassment, “I just wanted to make sure you... and everything that happened with us last night was real.”
“You mustn’t doubt yourself. Hey. You didn’t imagine anything, if that’s what you’re worried about,” she reassured him soothingly as she opened the door, beckoning the mage to herself. “Please, come in. We can talk inside, and besides, I would be a bad host if my guest died from heat at my very own doorstep.”
As Anders stepped over the threshold, Hawke moved closer to him, just for a second, squeezed his hand mutely, drawing slightly upwards, and the tip of her nose slid on his neck. Instead of a tickling sensation she intended it to give him, his skin prickled as he drew a deep breath of anticipation.
“You didn’t imagine anything,” she stressed again.
Soon, they found themselves in the private comfort of Amell study. The windows were covered with thick curtains, and even in the brightest part of the day it was quite dusky in an already dimly lit chamber. The study was also the coldest area of the mansion, the farthest from both the furnace and the fireplace. So there the two sat, next to the huge bookcases richly colored with covers which Regan never bothered to read and Anders frowned upon. She reclined relaxedly in an armchair, facing Anders across the table. She rubbed her temple, squinting her eyes in the way one would do if one was blinded by radiant light, but it was gloomy in the study, and her skin looked ashy in the absence of the light.
“Are you feeling all right?” Anders asked sympathetically.
“Well, not really, to be entirely honest,” she confessed reluctantly, “but it’s just a headache I’ve been getting plenty of lately. It’s almost gone already, really, and it’s not like a migraine-” Regan didn’t want to complain or bother Anders with a problem she was doing her best to neglect— but she thought of how much anguish it must have cost him to confess his questioning of reality that it only felt right not to keep anything, especially something she wasn’t proud of, from him, “it just hits suddenly, and then goes away just as suddenly.”
“How does it hurt?” was the customary, professional question which came automatically from Anders who already got so used to asking something like this, he replied without thinking or forming the sentence in his head. The intonation with which he spoke, however, remained warm and mellow as before, in a way he would not talk to a patient.
She tarried uneasily before answering, tapping with her foot at the floor, embarrassed at the admission she was about to make. “Like someone’s squeezing my skull with pincers, or an arrow piercing my both temples… And it can happen several times a day… messes with my sleep...” She sounded unsure when describing the pain, and spoke each word like it was a question on its own.
“You shouldn’t be ashamed of feeling unwell,” he said, instantly sensing the discomfort that Regan felt- he could see her line of thinking clearly, because he was already familiar with it; a headache wasn’t a flesh wound, and, in her opinion, did not warrant the attention. He continued talking and trying to reassure her, reaching for her over the table, as if the message was the more powerful the closer he was to her: “It doesn’t make you any less strong.”
She wasn’t fully convinced by his words, so deeply this idea of hers was ingrained in her being that she was rather absent-minded at hearing this, but she respected his insight, even if she didn’t quite agree with it. Then, completely consternated and amazed at the same time, Regan blurted out something she never pictured herself saying:
“Can you do something about it? I mean, can you cast some spell so that I stopped looking like a lyrium addict most of the time? I’d really appreciate it.” As she went on, it became easier to admit things she always kept to herself, so Regan made an effort to let him in on something she hadn’t yet mentioned. “Maybe then I can finally get some sleep.”
Entertained by her sudden willingness to go along with something he hadn’t yet proposed, but was planning to, he let out a light chuckle under his breath: “Sweetheart, it’s not how it works. What you want me to do won’t bode well for your health.”
“How so?” she asked, genuinely clueless.
“Well, it’s a very common mistake persons unaccustomed to or unfamiliar with medicine and healing do. Before treating something, a root cause must be discovered. Otherwise, it’s just treating symptoms instead of a disease, and this is like the paint over the cracks in the wall instead of reinforcing the foundation. Yes, in theory, I could put you to sleep with a spell, and you wouldn’t wake because of pain, but it would be a very deep sleep after which your mind will be hazy and muddled and all sorts of unpleasant things.”
She stood up and went to the counter, where, on its surface, was arranged a neat collection of delicate smoking pipes. She took one of them, filled it with something Anders couldn’t see her take from a small sash that smelled of herbs, and lit it. “I see,” Regan replied to Anders, puffing at her pipe, “and I guess we can’t have it.”
“You’re right,” he said, frowning inwardly, “we can’t. But it doesn’t mean we cannot try. We can start with some general advice. You can come visit me in the evening- I’ll tell you where, and we’ll see what we can do.”
“But not now?”
“I- have to do something later in the day, but! At dusk, I’m all yours.”
Hawke motioned for him to continue, her hand enveloped in a small cloud of white smoke.
“Anyway, if I had to guess, I would probably say body’s overreaction to stress. Very common. The general advice part-” he hesitated as what he was going to say sounded in this context horrid, to him, “you should relax more.”
“Oh but I do relax,” Regan removed the pipe from her mouth to enunciate it more effectively, “I go to the Hanged Man all the time.”
“I wouldn’t really call hanging around the Hanged Man relaxing,” he said with a note of condescension in his voice, “I’d say- maybe cut down on drinking?”
“I don’t get drunk,” she said like it she intended it to sound like she was proud of it, but she looked rather disappointed. “I wish I could, sometimes, but I just don’t.”
“Which doesn’t mean it’s good for you in either case. It can put a lot of pressure you aren’t able to detect. That’s why I give general advice, it’s supposed to sound useless and horribly generic.”
“And you really ought to stop talking to that templar,” he said suddenly.
“Never took you for the jealous type,” Regan retorted.
“You could say that,” Anders smiled, rather detached, as he watched puffy circles of smoke lifting to the ceiling, “but that is not the issue I’m having with him. I just don’t understand how you can stand him, nothing more. The hate that he spews from his mouth is horrid. I wouldn’t have the patience.”
“Anders, he’s young.” There was something of a plea in her voice when Regan said his name, “I don’t think he believes half the things he’s saying.”
“He’s Meredith’s second-in-command for a reason,” the mage argued, his mind an echoing chamber already, “she wouldn’t appoint someone whose mind would be drastically different from her own.”
“While I wouldn’t assume the Knight-Commander to be an excellent judge of character, I think she is a master manipulator and fear-monger. She’s very good at exploiting people’s fears, and her… reign, let’s call it that, holds on this and this alone.”
“So you sympathize with him?”
“I think he can be persuaded to see reason. He doesn’t mind working with me, for one, though I’d hesitate to say we’re friends, more like mutual informants or partners… Varric and I are friends, you and I are- more than friends, the Knight-Captain and I… possibly friends, but not now.”
“But do you think he’d extend you the same courtesy of niceness and partnership if he knew you were a mage?”
If this was a real, serious argument, which she did not consider this conversation to be, she would have to concede his point; he’d win, he was right. He looked victorious because he knew it well, and this realization upset Regan.
“He’s not irrational,” she defended herself as she could, “Besides, it would be good for him to see we can be different.”
“You’re evading the question,” Anders noted grimly.
“You caught me red-handed, damn right I am,” she admitted without fear, “I don’t know the answer to this question, but I am intent on pushing things to a more… amenable way. For us.”
“So you admit you’d be locked away otherwise?”
“I admit nothing,” Regan said with surprise at his attack, “I merely say that having Meredith’s second-in-command doubting her could be beneficial. Something happened to him that he now views command, clings to it as something infallible. But if his trust in command can be be weakened, I’m sure he’d reconsider many things. Again, he’s not entirely without reason.”
Hawke had a grimace of bewilderment on her face, and put away her pipe because she nearly forgot about it being stuck in her mouth, in awe at the fact of them discussing Cullen so seriously it was beginning to sound like a debate; Anders was getting more agitated by the minute. To calm his temper, Regan tried her best to keep her voice down, but his eyes were already ablaze with righteous fire. The more restless he became, the more uncomfortable it made Regan. She wished they never came to this discussion, but it was too late. She knew she could have stopped it, but something compelled her to go along with the conflict willingly, and now she had to face the consequences of that decision.
“If you call declaring mages not people reasonable, then I simply refuse to believe it!”
This made her angry, but the anger quickly died down before it could escalate further. This conversation was way too serious for the beginning of the day, and she decided to deflect with humor: “Well, that’s just changing definitions. I didn’t suggest he was the bastion of rational thought. I only said it is possible he can get to that point.”
“And how are you going to accomplish that?”
“He’s distrustful of both mages and templars, as we’ve already seen, so his only loyalty lies in what his order represents, and, by extension, the Chantry. We need but to make him see that the Order isn’t true to its own principles. Don’t dismiss it so easily.”
“If you only knew to what extent they are hypocritical, and how they choose to be blind willingly, with what they knowingly put up with, you wouldn’t say that, you wouldn’t be so convinced.”
“Is there something I don’t know about?” she asked, but Anders was already far away, focused on something inside of himself as his eyes darted from side to side rapidly. From the looks of it, Regan was inclined to say she was talking to Justice and not Anders, but it was Anders’s voice, his intonation, his gesticulation- nothing in his manner of speech reminded her of the spirit trapped within the mage’s body. She had only encountered Justice once or twice, but the impact he had left could not be confused with anything else. The contrast between Anders of yesterday and Anders who sat in front of her, furious, was so striking she felt powerless, listening to him with her mouth slightly open.
“They reserve their pretty little discharges for those young, naive recruits who think they can get away with bending the rules a little by smuggling notes around, but leave raving lunatics alone, avid researches of most bizarre conspiracy theories and creators of their own, The Tranquil Solution,” he spat, and Regan realized he was talking about someone specifically. His veins were full with blood and she could swear she could feel it pulsating and his wrath getting to her. The mage was angry, and he spoke like a wrathful man, but his aggression was not directed at her, but elsewhere, at someone who was not present. “Not a theory really,” he went on, grinding his teeth, “more like a plan. What the Order thinks of this, I do not know, but what I do know is that the existence of this ‘work’ is a well-known fact in certain circles and the templars haven’t disowned him. To me, it means it’s time to act.”
Something clicked in Hawke’s head as she remembered how he briefly mentioned something about the poisonous plant last night, and she was horrified at the suggestion she planted in her head. “You’re going to kill that templar, whoever he is, aren’t you?” she asked carefully.
But he was careless in that matter, which was something he wouldn’t normally do, so he went on rambling angrily: “Poison him, yes. His death could be a message for everyone, but it needs not be this way. It doesn’t matter in the end. The world must simply be rid of this creature in the most natural way possible. No complications. The least I’d wish is to incur wrath on the mages of the Gallows who will be suspect, even if it means actually doing a service to the templars to whom his presence in the order is, in fact, a disgrace.
“There’s been so much talk about this among my friends… Some thought his presence beneficial for us since his actions and his continuous persistence discredit the order more than anything else ever could. I would agree and it would be the case, but he is a vicious, cruel and cold-blooded torturer, who loves to see mages beg, and he is the one who forced Tranquility on Karl with their silent approval, and because of that, he deserves to die. I only wish I could make it slow and painful without sacrificing our safety, but the fact of his death, plain and simple, will have to suffice.”
Anders was out of breath when he finished, a thin streak of hair covering his left eye, his chest pumping and eyes bulging as if came up for air from the endless depths of the fiercest sea. As the fresh air resumed its course through his lungs, he screwed up his face as one would having swallowed a sour berry, too astringent on the tongue. There was bitterness he tasted in his mouth, on the tip of the tongue, and as he focused on the taste, he sobered up. The mage jolted his head back and forth, as if shaking off the sleep. He seemed confused and lost, stuck in a moment of failure and worry, and his trembling stopped when his eyes finally found Regan. Something flicked in his brain, like an electric jolt, he was seeing something new in a usual, everyday picture, and it took only a second- there she was, petrified, fear written on her face unambigiously, a painful grimace of astounded bemusement. She looked at him as if she never knew him, as if he was a complete stranger to her, a threatening presence of the unknown.
“Oh no,” he said, suddenly realizing that his hands went up indeliberately, grabbed, even clutched, his head firmly in order to keep it stable through pain. “I fear I may have said too much,” he stuttered, “whatever I’ve said, I- I didn’t mean it, or… may not have meant exactly that, and...”
“You don’t know?” she cut in, completely mystified by this change.
“I’m so sorry,” Anders cleared his throat, compressed to the size of a small pea, and agglutinated with thickened dried up saliva, “this is exactly what I wanted to avoid… I never wanted to burden you with this.”
“Was that you talking?” Regan asked with concern in her voice, after a pause that was uncomfortable for both.
“I don’t remember,” he confessed, “or maybe I remember differently, I don’t know, I thought we were talking about that templar boy and then something happened… I don’t know what, it’s like I was in trance, like I drifted off, because there isn’t even- What did I tell you, Regan?”
“You were angry,” she said, still reserved, “and the more you talked, the angrier you became. We argued, you went on about templars and you told me you were going to kill someone.”
“I didn’t want you to know that.”
She sounded upset. “I am not unfamiliar with murder."
“But you’re going to stop me nevertheless.”
“I am no Aveline,” Regan chuckled nervously, “but I’m concerned for you.”
“Do you trust my judgement?”
He didn’t, himself, not fully, but Regan was doubting. Still, she chose to omit it: “I do, but I think you should be careful.”
“It’s not happening any time soon,” Anders tried to reassure her. “There are many things we need to take care of before actually setting about. It is so intertwined with our other plans that everything must be executed precisely right… and it takes preparation. I wouldn’t dare even start on this if I weren’t convinced in its necessity…”
“Does your offer still stand?” Regan interrupted him.
“Of course,” he replied hurriedly, glad to segue into an entirely different topic. “Again, I’m sorry that this conversation got so weighty. I promise I’ll make it up to you,” the mage made a poor attempt at a smile, but instead, a corner of his lip twitched sharply.
“You better,” Regan hummed with her eyes narrowed.
“I will. I’ll tell you where to find me, but be careful not to bring a following. It’s your attention I’m all right with, not the templars’.”
smut is coming up next chapter
Chapter 3: Laying on of Hands
THIS CHAPTER HAS SMUT, FLAT OUT SMUT IN IT SO IT'S NSFW.
I wrote this when I was drunk and I'm posting it hungover. Never wrote porn before. I also may have vomited a little bit
Getting past the entryway leading to the dilapidated attic, Hawke reached the room at the end of a narrow corridor on the second floor of a dockside inn. She knocked at the door once, paused, then knocked four more times, as was their custom. From behind a closed door, his muffled voice sounded lower than usual: “Are you alone?”
“Yes,” she replied, double-checking as not to be lying. Anders opened the door quickly, just enough to drag Regan by her arm inside. As he was locking the door behind her, she removed the cowl of her cloak and looked around. The room had an abandoned, even unnerving look about it, bigger than it seemed on the outside, but for the most part, empty, with poor excuses for furniture; on the left, she noticed a small laboratory in disarray. For some reason unknown perhaps even to the Maker, this room was connected to the attic, and she could see tiny holes in the roof through which the dusky spots of red-and-blue skies colored the whole-colored ceiling. There was a sweetish smell in the air.
Regan removed her cape completely; underneath, she wore a greyish-blue padded tunic. She was so tired from having to wear armor even after her initiation into the noble circles, she was glad to have an opportunity to let go of it.
Anders moved a three-legged stool up to his guest, took her cape from her, and put it away. “Take a seat and let me examine you,” he said, still hypnotized by what happened between them earlier in the day, and desperate to move past it.
Hawke obeyed and landed on the stool he put out for her. Healer leaned over to her, taking her head in his hands, rough from hours and hours of alchemy practice. It was proving to be increasingly difficult for him to maintain a professional distance, which was something he was supposed to do. He couldn’t help himself but feel the intensifying inner revelation of him being the closest to her among people she knew. They’ve known each other for over three years now, but it seemed to him that it has been much, much longer. There were many things no one could say but himself: he knew all the things that troubled her, protected her from harm, sewed her wounds. Saw her unclothed. He brushed the last thought off. It was so much more than simple want or lust. There was an ache, a desperate, longing desire to be loved, to give himself.
Anders examined her eyes, then put his thumbs on her temples, rubbing them as gently as he could, proceeding carefully to the area behind her ears, then the neck, checking for hard spots, where there were none. He listened attentively to her breathing: it was clear, unobstructed. He then took her pulse, which, while seeming to be quite high at first, was normal. Physically, nothing was out of the ordinary. Anders put his palm on Hawke’s forehead. It felt hot, but not feverish hot. After many examinations he conducted on her over the years, he was used to her body temperature being slightly higher than the average, and it didn’t raise any questions. At last, he put his hands on the top of her head from both sides, focused, and drew on his mana to attempt to detect something on the inside of her skull. He could feel nothing.
“Well, you’re not ill. There’s nothing wrong with you physically, otherwise I’d be able to tell,” he concluded finally, half-relieved and half-concerned. “It’s as I suspected before, a common reaction to stress. All the general advice I gave you earlier is still valid, even more so than then.”
“I can’t really see stress disappearing from my life any time soon,” she exhaled, “with all that’s going on in this wretched shit-hole… Will I ever see the end of these headaches?”
“I’ve already suggested ways to minimize the pain, Regan,” Anders reproached her, “I can’t make you do stuff, but I highly recommend listening to my advice. But,” he lifted his index finger, “there are things we can do to treat it more directly, other than simply avoiding things that can make the headaches worse.”
The healer left her confused, as he went to the side, quickly opened the huge canvas curtain, and returned with a big bucked pressed onto his side. “A bath!” he announced causally.
Hawke was disappointed. “A… bath?” she snorted dismissively, almost with disgust.
“Yes, and before you say anything, I did clean it,” he smiled as he laid the tub with clean linens he pulled out from a cupboard.
“No, I mean, normally you’d need a lot of water to fill a tub… where would you get so much, and why would you want to waste it on me?”
“No worries, I have enough,” the healer reassured her, revealing the biggest cistern she’s ever seen, hidden slightly to the side behind a curtain, “the innkeeper owes me a few favors, so I guess I can call in some of them. As for the matter of bathing,” he said casually as he emptied a bucketful of water into the tub, “Mind you, hygiene is important to your health, and magic can’t do everything; it can’t clean, for one, which has always been a necessity for me. So, yes, you don’t have anything to worry about.”
Regan drifted off slightly, watching him pace back and forth, carrying water, little drops of sweat on his forehead glistening in the candlelight. Enchanted by a picture of him, tall and lean, his sleeves rolled up, his hands hugging a bucket, pressing it onto his side, a little joyous smirk on his face, she could see right through him, trying to act all professional around her, but there was something more. Most of the time he had everything written on his face, not having made the effort to conceal his emotions. But she could feel he had no elaborate plan; it was nothing more that a genuine offer.
“All right, all right, I’ll bite. How can a bath help with sleeplessness?”
“Well, there are oils, emulsions, alchemical compounds... Added to the water, they are relaxing for the skin and the body. It feels good, for lack of a better term. I could have just given you a jar of such oil to use at home, but then a thought occurred to me. In this hole, you will be undisturbed for once, because who would guess to search for you here?”
His face went turnip-red in a matter of seconds, and he cursed to himself. Having averted his eyes from Hawke, he touched the water surface gently with his hands, starting to heat it slowly. Inwardly, he scolded himself greatly.
“That wasn’t what I meant,” he said, finally.
“It’s all right, I would really would like to be lost and not found for a while,” she said, to his great relief.
“Good then,” Anders livened up, emboldened by her not taking offence to his stupid, stupid words, “now, I want you to put your hand in the water and tell me when it’s warm. Not boiling hot, Hawke, warm.”
“It’s good,” Regan said as she felt the water with her fingers, then watched Anders bringing a vial from his working desk, and poured the sugary-brown liquid into the filled tub, and was enchanted how beautifully the water changed its color in gradients. “What is it?” she asked curiously.
“Spindleweed, beewax… some other ingredients you don’t have to bother yourself with.” Anders looked at her before proceeding. “You can take off your clothes and get in the tub now,” he frowned as he noticed that she squinted her eyes, a note of something he couldn’t just recognize. “Don’t give me that face, Regan, I promise not to look.”
He gave her a reassuring smile and turned his back to her.
“As you command,” Regan replied and started undressing. She felt no embarrassment as she removed her chest binder and her trousers. She undid her laces and buttons quickly, with trained movements. Even though nowadays she didn’t have to go through the drill of doing and undoing the buckling as she used to during her days in the Red Iron, her reflexes never went anywhere. Regan stepped out of a pile of clothing that she left on the floor, and climbed into the tub. The water level was high enough to cover most of her nakedness, but not so much to do the same for her breasts. She covered them with her hands to save the sense of chastity that was in the air. “It’s done,” she called, setting more comfortably.
“Good,” he said, turning around, “half an hour will do, I’ll pack the oils for you to take home. Also, some proper herbs for you pipe, instead of that dog shit you’re ususally smoking. Removes muscle tension. And, worries, too.” He put his hands at the edge of the tub, then watches as Regan lowered hers slowly, submerging them in water and revealing the nudity she made a bare attempt to cover before.
“Looks like someone doesn’t keep his promises,” she chuckled.
“It’s not unlike I haven’t seen you like that before,” he smirked in reply, not even making an effort to avert his eyes even slightly. He looked like he wasn’t planning on pulling back, but doubt was eating him up alive.
“Like what?” Hawke laughed heartily, “no, you haven’t seen me like that.”
“Well, then, you call me when you’re ready,” Anders attempted to retreat, “and I’ll give you something to wrap yourself into.”
She grabbed his hand, sending tiny brooks trickling down his long, slim fingers. “I would really prefer it if you stayed.”
Anders hesitated for a moment, then pulled up a stool next to the tub, letting Regan’s hand rest on his all that time. He couldn’t decide whether she wanted him to play by her rules or do something else entirely. To void with it, he thought and abandoned his detached interior and started waiting to see what comes next, not to jump to any rash conclusions. The last thing he wanted at the moment is to insult her with transparent lust. He hadn’t planned such a turn of events, he never even expected this, and the longer he thought about it, the more he wanted that moment to last forever.
She leaned closer, and immediately he felt a strange stirring in his loins. Her face was so close he could feel her breath, hot on his lips. What have you done, Regan, he though, what have you done…
“You’ve been holding back,” she teased, but was quickly interrupted as Anders pressed his mouth to hers. Hearing her voice was enough for him to abandon all hopes of this going somewhere appropriate. Something contracted in her chest as she felt him gently cup her breast, squeezing it slightly. Never before would he let himself be so arrogant, let his hands wander over her body like that. Tonight, he could forget about everything else. He could let himself be a little bit selfish again. The mage broke away for a second to whisper something to her. “And you have been a terrible tease to me,” he retorted, “so I really do hope you aren’t ticklish.”
Before Hawke could ask what he meant by that, he tugged at her nipple firmly, feeling it harden under his thumb. She gasped in pleasure, arching her back, her mouth left open slightly. It sent shivers down her spine. For the first time, Regan was at a loss for words, but she decided she quite liked to be led.
“You’re trembling so much, are you cold?” Anders asked with a delightful smirk, and she could swear she almost heard him groan when he did. He leaned over to her to warm her nipple with his breath; he lingered there as she stroked his hair. She was uncertain whether the heat pooling between her legs was due to the excitement or warm water she was laying in. Whenever his mouth abandoned her breasts, even to make space for his hands, he’d lift his head and look at her, never dropping his gaze. At this point, his playing with her made Regan lose it, she let out a moan and grabbed his hand in an attempt to slide it down her belly. He didn’t let her.
He whispered over her lips, “We’re not in a hurry, don’t you think?”
His honeyed words spilled onto her skin, silky, tender, and she let them come. Anders went back to her lips. He loved it that she tasted like spiced wine. Hawke lost the track of time, but she wanted it to last forever, listening to him, enjoying his gentle touch, being teased.Then, when she thought that she couldn’t hold anymore, that he would drive her mad by mere touch, Anders pulled her out of the tub, wrapped her tightly in a thick cotton sheet and carried her toa bed, standing forlornly in the corner. He’d almost forgotten he was fully clothed, and, since they both silently agreed that it had to be rectified, put a mutual effort to free Anders of his mantle. Regan, with little drops of water not dried off, clung to him in a heated kiss, and their hands weaved and tangled together at buttons and knots of his shirt. It was clumsy, and he chuckled softly into her mouth at their combined failing. Finally, he pulled away and pulled the shirt over his head, as Hawke worked her way through the laces of his pants, finding him hard and stiff between his legs. Anders moaned at her touch, and she responded in kind when he jerked his knee a little bit in the direction of her thighs. She rubbed against him, gasping at how the pressure felt, and tremendous waves of desire were roiling through their bodes, awakening in them a tempestuous yearning that, it seemed, could never be sated.
As they continued to stroke and caress each other, she felt him enter. She’d hoped she would be able to tell him something, dirty or not, but as he the mage turned her to her side, almost immovable save for his pelvis going back and forth, all Regan could say was “just like that”. Holding her close with one hand, he went to play with her nipples with the other, squeezing them between his fingers, going from one to another and back. It drove her wild, and she would move her hips against his body fervently, and when she could no longer contain herself, she’d cry out sharply as she had nothing to bite on, and Anders would put his hand over her mouth gently, moving up to whisper in her ear, “quieter”.
She turned over to the opposite side, to face him and to groan into his neck, shuddering in his arms as she burst, reaching her climax. He wouldn’t stop, increasing in speed, thrusting against her, cupping at her buttock, squeezing and fondling. Regan wasn’t moaning already, but whimpering and even whining as her spasms continued, forcing her to lock her thighs around him as he pumped. Then, he gasped, and his frictions continued, fast and even desperate in their intensity, and she felt him spilling inside of her.
They lay silently, drawing deep and noisy breaths, still entwined, curling into each other, their hunger satiated finally, wiggling comfortably in each other’s care, loins pulsating in satisfaction. As Anders slipped out of her, Regan felt him getting a little stiffer. But the two were so exhausted they could scarcely move, and chose to remain in a state of light, sweet and excited arousal.
Regan woke up first, disturbed by a radiant ray of sunlight which went straight for her eyes. She shuffled under the weightless blanket and lifted her torso slightly, rising from Anders’s arm which lay under, supporting her head. The mage’s hair was loose, messy and tangled up. The sun illuminated his skin, warm and rosy, as Hawke watched his chest rise and fall when he breathed in and out steadily, a faint trace of a smile on his lips. She run her fingers across his neck, with tenderness, then traced the outline of his jaw, stopping for a moment around the earlobe, and then thrust her fingertips into his hair. It felt like straw, but Regan like that nonetheless, she liked the way his legs drooped from the bed which did not fit him, she loved the fact that he was next to her naked, tall and lean and warm, and that they were both unburdened by clothing, in each other’s arms.
When his eyelashes fluttered as he opened his eyes, hazy from sleep, a certain lustre burned in them. He reached for her, removing her hair behind her ear to see her face better. It was, undoubtedly, a good morning. Quiet, they basked in the kind morning sunlight, grateful for this simple pleasure of life.
He scratched the side of his face where skin was irritated because of his stubble he hadn’t shaved. “I want you to know,” he said, mellow, “that I love you and nothing in the world is going to change that. I know I’ve been holding back from saying that, and this is the thing that I regret most. In the three years that I’ve known you, I’ve lain awake every night aching for you. But now, I am not terrified to go to sleep, because I know for certain, that when I wake up, you will still be with me, if not in person, then in spirit. And,” he stressed, “I want you to never forget it, because if it is the last chance I get to say that, then I will die fulfilled.”
“Don’t say that. You are not going to die, Anders.”
“If I’m with you, I’ll do even more than what’s within my powers… and Justice’s, to stay alive- to stay with you.”
“I want you to do it for yourself,” Regan sounded almost reprimanding, “and not for me. I promise we’ll get through this, and we’ll fight for freedom side by side. I am not afraid of anything.”
“Together we will last.” he agreed heartily.
Chapter 4: Thunderstruck
Meredith wants to have a candid conversation with Hawke and it goes wrong
Knight-Commander Meredith’s voice was captivating in a way a rabbit feels captivated before the gaze of a snake that is about to devour it. It was heavy; there were tiny, almost imperceptible notes of screeching in it, the sound of rusty metal parts grinding against each other. In her office, things were arranged perfectly on shining surfaces, and amidst the sterile chamber that looked liked it belonged to someone long deceased, she almost hovered, sternly, like an ancient, pristine monument of vigilance, an ivory tower of a woman. Meredith never sat in her chair. She always stood upright, guarding it instead, so that it would never be able to fulfill its purpose.
“Did you know that most mage sympathizers are, in fact, women?” she said casually, as lightly as one would approach a simple greeting. She never even glanced in Regan’s direction as she began to talk, preferring to look around the office and listen to the rhythmical ticking of the table clock, the only object in the office that wasn’t ever-still. It was getting on Regan’s nerves with every little ticking noise it made. There was a peculiar smell in the air, dulled-out spearmintor something that felt like it.
Meredith’s tone sounded a bit condescending, but it was much softer than what Hawke had been expecting to hear from her. “We come across them every day,” she continued. “Their touch is present in little things and thus is easy to detect when it’s required; sometimes we bring them in for questioning. Such compassionate souls they have, such kind, merciful hearts. More often than not, they aren’t even related in any way to the mages they hide in their homes and cellars. They are far from friends, they are complete strangers who simply give their hand to those in need. For that, I cannot blame them. Who in their right mind could?”
When Regan entered the Gallows at an urgent request from Knight-Commander herself, she was wearing a polite smile, just as one would a hat or a scarf. But as Meredith went on with her speech, there was less and less of a trace of any expression remaining on her face; not realizing the subtle change, undoubtedly noted by the templar who was already studying Regan’s reaction in detail, she grabbed hold of both of the chair arms so hard her bony knuckles went white. Meredith’s eyes were almost bulging as they closely followed Hawke’s uneasy movements. It was an unsettling sight.
“You paint everything in a very interesting manner,” was everything Hawke found herself saying with frosty politeness, and as guardedly and as she could. “Excessively colorful, I’d even say. Have the cases of blood magic become more frequent recently?
“Yes, and extremely,” the templar nodded as she lowered her head grievously.
“I’ve heard of more… scandalous cases, but I thought you put an end to abominations and cultists and whatnot.”
“I am letting you on a secret,” Meredith continued, satisfied to have wrestled a response from her late visitor, “The Order is in upheaval right now, just as we speak. We are treading upon an extremely treacherous ground. No matter how many rabid dogs we put down, there are always more, waiting to strike. I feel it in my gut. It is sickening. There is this cancerous influence…” the Knight-Commander’s face went an unhealthy shade of ocean-y green, “we don’t quite know how to deal with it. The blood magic is spreading, as do its followers and practitioners.
Meredith paused to make a direct eye contact with Regan. Her heart missed a beat, perhaps even two – she could not read the Knight-Commander or her intentions.
“But!” Meredith finally said, starting to enunciate every word clearly, “the most curious thing is that blood mages’ wives are the most stalwart defenders of all. It will forever remain a mystery to me, that those who are well aware of who their husbands really are, almost never leave or report them to us. Instead, they choose to stay with them to the end. Their faith in their husbands is so strong that nothing can break it. To their last breath, they believe that they can help them, that they will get them through, that they can change them with the power of their love. But neither love nor faith matters in the end which they meet broken and betrayed. It is a shame that some people do not understand that being kind and sympathetic is not always the right thing to do. Far from it. There are exceptions to any rule, of course,” she added reassuringly after a hiss, “but in this case they are simply way too rare to be regarded.”
“It’s all very informative, of course, but all this makes me wonder… Do you often invite people to attend such grim lectures?” Hawke asked, clearing her throat. “Seems a little bit excessive-- if you forgive me for repeating myself. Well, it’s for my tastes, at least.”
“Of course not,” Meredith replied, crossing her arms on her chest, “I only extend my invitations to selected few- I jest, of course,” It looked like a semblance of a smile that she put on was causing her pain or, at least, great discomfort. “You, messere Hawke, are an upstanding citizen, whom I regretfully get to meet in person only now- but do not worry, I didn’t just invite you to merely pay respects, face-to-face… I would never have taken you from your duties without a reason.”
“This reason being?..”
“Your work towards prosperity of this city hasn’t gone unnoticed, and neither have your certain... affiliations.” Meredith squinted her eyes. “This blasphemous work, The Mage Manifesto, has made a lot of noise, both in mage and templar circles. It is inherently violent, and repulsive to any and all who revere Andraste’s word. Which is to say… How well,” she frowned, “if at all, are you familiar with it?”
“I am, and... I may have had a hand in editing the work.” Regan blurted out in response, in awe at her own arrogance. For a compulsive liar, such level of honesty, especially in this matter, was an act of social suicide.
“Excuse me?” Meredith’s voice went up slightly, and her hair, blonde and graying under the heavy cowl of scarlet twill, shuffled and writhed like tentacles.
“I meant to say that I am indeed familiar with the manifesto. Based on that, are you going to accuse me of heresy?”
“Not quite.” said the woman, “I must admit I am rather abashed by your… statement, it wasn’t something I expected. We’ve suspected you might be acquainted with the author. It appears, then, it is unlikely that you will agree to cooperate.”
“Is that what it’s about?” Regan asked as her lips thinned and twisted in disgust.
“We have enough troubles with our own mages, you see,” the Knight-Commander screeched, “what we need least of all is a warden stirring up trouble, soliciting our charges to break the law… Their- freedom,” she clenched her horse-like teeth as she heard herself say the word in this context, “is of an unusual nature; it isn’t ordinary and thus inaccessible to most of the circle mages. It is wrong to wave this flag in front of their faces. This manifesto has sparked a huge controversy around itself both in mage and templar communities, and especially among the young and impressionable. To be frank, the Manifesto is borderline heretical. It is a spurn of Andraste’s laws which we have sworn to uphold.”
With her armored glove, she tapped on her steel-clad hand. “We have made several inquiries into whether the author in question is indeed a warden or some sort of impostor, who had infiltrated the city under false pretenses. Unfortunately, so far, we have received no answer, which is why I was hoping you would be of assistance to us, because if our questions remain unanswered, we will be forced to act.” As she finished the sentence, her hand went to grip the hilt of her sword. “It is something that I wish could be avoided, and the Divine shares this sentiment, but I am of a more practical mind. If this matter calls for action, I shall gladly grant it.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you,” Hawke said stalwartly, peering right into the cold steel of eyes of the Knight-Commander, “If it is warden business, it is unlawful to do what you’re planning to do, and besides, it’s outside of your jurisdiction.”
“Forgive me,” Meredith’s voice brightened up a bit, “but according to our reports, law and jurisdiction have never been much of an obstacle for you. Why such a sudden change of demeanor, rushing so quickly to defence of something you never regarded with reverence or respect?”
“Perhaps I never have,” Regan shrugged, “but we are in completely different positions, and you are an important figure, way higher up than I’ll ever hope to be – head of the Templar chapter in Kirkwall. You’re bound not just by Chantry law, but by mortal, too. You cannot neglect your sworn duties, and neither can you make me do it in your stead.”
“Not now, no,” Meredith said, deep in thought, considering something in her mind and squinting her eyes suspiciously at Regan. “Of course. So it would seem that in this matter you are of now help for us.”
“So it would.”
The Knight-Commander shook her head in reprimand. “Pity.”
Hawke stood up and nodded toward the door, eager to leave the office: “May I?” she asked.
“Before you go,” the templar said slowly, stopping her with a single flick of her index finger, “Consider what I have said earlier, and consider carefully. I would hate for us to find each other at the different sides of an interrogation table.”
“I haven’t done anything for such measures to be warranted, Knight-Commander,” Hawke responded confidently, “you know it as well as I. So, I don’t think we will ever find ourselves in such a situation.”
“Shame. In that case, we shall see,” concluded the woman and gestured for Hawke to take her leave. “Good evening to you, messere Hawke.”
When she set her foot in Hightown, the sky had already gone dark. In winter, days were short, and people rushed faster to their homes, wrapping themselves tightly in their cloaks, and hiding their faces from harsh wind which was almost bellowing in wide arching streets.
For a moment, stuck in the desperate wailing of wind, she felt like she was the loneliest person in the world. She tried to shrug this feeling off, but it sat tightly in her chest like a heavy stone. Something bad has happened, her inner voice preached, and she listened to it as if it was a sermon.
Regan swept little drops of rain from her shoulders as she entered the warm interior of the estate, and put the wet cape she took off next to the fireplace. Sandal greeted her with a concise “enchantment!”, and judging from the sounds, Bodahn was rigorously trying to clean up the larder. She shook up her soggy hair as it leaped to her cheeks, warmed her hands by placing them on the mantelpiece, and went upstairs.
In her bedroom, it was quiet, except for the soft murmur of the rain. With one flick of a match, she lit the candles on the table and her pipe, entertained by the simplicity of the trick. As the smoke reached her lungs and started its hazy circulation, a huge knot that had formed in her stomach started to untangle slowly. She puffed and puffed until it disappeared, taking nausea away with it and replacing it with shaky contentment.
But something was amiss, and Regan could feel it in her stomach. Carefully, she turned her head slightly to the side. In the corner of the bedroom, unilluminated, stirred a restless figure, its noisy breath fluctuating in the back of the room. It was menacing even in its slouching poise. Break-ins occurred, not just once or twice – and were always thwarted, but never has a burglar had audacity to sit in wait. As Regan’s eyes grew accustomed to the dark, in this silhouette she recognized none other than Anders, angry, staring down at a table in disgust, fists clenched, nostrils wrinkled and bulging. He didn’t notice her even when she drew closer and put her hand on his shoulder. He didn’t budge, but it was obvious to the both of them that he was as startled by her as she was by him.
“Anders? You scared- you scared the shit out of me,” she exhaled, deeply perplexed but also strangely relieved.
“Regan- I didn’t hear you enter,” he whispered in a low voice as if he was discovered while hiding from someone who wished him great harm.
“How long have you been waiting in here?”
To say that Anders was confused would be a terrible understatement. It was as if a sudden twinge had woken him up from deep, deep slumber. He was blinking rapidly as one would if they were to hold back tears. His eyes, however, appeared completely dry and glassy, like the ones of a stuffed animal.
“I don’t remember how I got here,” he said, feeling his face all over with his fingers, “and when. Especially when.” His hands itched terribly. It felt like tiny worms and insects were crawling under the skin. He scratched and scratched relentlessly, his skin reddened under his fingernails, but the itch wouldn’t go away; as he went on, Anders noticed he had a broken finger. He laid the healthy hand on top of a wounded one and continued brooding, almost forcefully if that were possible.
“In any case, someone must have seen you enter,” Regan soothed, heartbroken at his misery, “I’m sure of it. Well, unless you scaled the walls and climbed through a window...” She tapped and tapped at the dimple on her cheek with her index finger. “Would you like me to ask Bodahn?”
He nodded, and there was such bitterness in the subtle movement of his head that Regan involuntarily winced. “I don’t know what exactly I am hoping for here,” Anders said, “It’s like I was in a trance-like state,” he was trying to explain what he felt, but clumsily and obviously lost and unsure, “only I don’t recall entering it-”
“We’ll get to the bottom of it, all right?-” she tried to grab him by the hand, but got interrupted by a loud sound of clumsy knocking on the door. “Speak of the devil,” she smiled as she turned on her heel to reach the round copper doorknob. “Good evening, Bodahn, I haven’t seen you when I came in. Oh,” Regan touched her forehead as if she was suddenly struck by a violent fever, quite dramatically, perhaps even more than it needed to be, “I feel such a bad host! Out guest has probably been waiting around here forever, dying from boredom with this stubborn, inconsiderate head of the house being somewhere else completely… What will people say of this backwater upstart, playing at highborn life?”
There was sincere terror in servant’s gasp, trembling at the ends of syllables, which immediately made Regan feel bad about this little deception she had spun – something that was, perhaps, in way so ordinary for her that it became something akin to a bad habit. She had no reason to distrust Bodahn and could have easily asked her question without any willful embellishments. He would have understood. He has grown to like Anders over time. But she has already lied, and it was already too late to turn back, and Regan had to stick with what she dragged herself into.
“No! It couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes. Sandal was the one to greet him,” said the servant, with pride warming up his voice, “right before I went down into the larder. Being his usual self, though, master Anders headed straight for the study. I see you’ve found each other without my help,” he nodded in the direction of the gloomy figure. How he recognized Anders sitting hunched at the back of the dark, dimly-lit room, Regan couldn’t even begin to understand. “But I now must beg you to excuse me, I have duties to perform, and the dinner isn’t going to wait, I’m afraid. It shall be ready in...” the dwarf scratched his chin, “no longer than forty minutes, if you wish to join.”
Anders didn’t respond, so Hawke simply nodded in Bodahn’s direction as a vague statement of agreement he was more than happy to accept. As the servant pressed the door into the frame from the other side, and just as Regan heard a soft thud, she rushed to Anders, almost dropping down at his feet on her way. There was a thought gnawing at her mind, a creeping suspicion, an absurd feeling of being watched. Her first instinct was to moisten her fingers and put out the burning candles, swiftly and silently. Out of the corner of her eye, a moonlit banner, red and white and black, a sword in flames, beating against the rain, caught her glimpse across the yard. It had probably been hanging there for some time, but she never noticed it until that moment. Its powerful imagery, even from considerable distance, was enough to evoke apprehension in her already doubtful spirit.
She wanted to reassure him, to join their efforts in restoring the chain of events that transpired. Even though Bodahn’s help didn’t amount to much, it was, at least, something.There were words of support stuck in her mouth, but for some reason Regan couldn’t squeeze them out because of the irrational fear of those words not sounding sincere enough, so instead she found herself saying something else entirely, but equally as important as the matter at hand. “Anders, I want you to listen to me very carefully,” Regan urged, not being able to keep her overwhelming anxiety in, “did you publish your manifesto under an alias? A pseudonym, maybe?”
A jolt of electricity shot through his body, and the single impulse was enough to make his blood rush. He got up, almost menacingly, in the misty semi-darkness of the back of the bedroom. Euphoric security and hesitating relief she felt in the safety and silence of Anders’s gloomy presence vanished in an instant, replacing itself with dread. For some reason Regan couldn’t even begin to understand, but it seemed like she was more afraid of feeling afraid than of receiving such a threatening vibe from Anders.
After all these years, he still had the same look about him, just as the day she met him, the look of a man who knew he’s seen too much and done too little. In a smoky twilight mist his face looked coarse and chiseled. Notorious for his lack of brevity in the best of times, he was now speaking with integrity of a man accused of a deathly sin. Hawke could swear the air between them was heating up. It smelt like the thunderstorm raging outside. Crushed by the tremendous weight of his personality, she found herself somehow regretting her own words.
“The manifesto has no author. It’s not some fancy literature to be perused leisurely by some noble who never knew hardship,” he frowned in disgust, his features growing heavier with disappointment, “it is a rallying cry, it is a voice of those who used to be mute. It has no need of name-dropping, but… I made no secret of my past or my background. Regan, it is the work of my life,” Anders said with tiny hints of desperation crawling through his voice, “it has no place for lies or deceptions. I thought of using the name I was given at birth rather than what I’ve been going by all these years, but then I realized how unnecessary it all is-- Those who need this work most will not benefit from knowing my name, but understanding what I am, the essence of every mage there is — and ever was — will bring them closer together.”
She sighed. With each layer peeling off him there were countless others, it felt; for each chapter he brought for review there were two more which he never even considered sharing. It hurt, even though she knew that underneath all that facade of revolutionary asperity and self-deprecation hid an empathetic, devoted and magnanimous person. Still, Regan feared that one day she might uncover in him something so repulsive she wouldn’t be able to handle it.
It was so unfair she wanted to start screaming; he knew her terrible secret while she couldn’t even begin to guess what else he was hiding from her. The doubt was triumphing in her heart. What if he never understood the importance of why she kept being a mage a secret or that it was more than a safety precaution? Or worse, what if it wasn’t that a thought never crossed his mind to share more, but a deliberate attempt to hide something?
Was he ever truly honest with her?
“Why didn’t you show me any of it?” she asked poignantly, unsure of what exactly she referred to.
“I left you a copy,” he retaliated. “It’s been months! I’d assumed that you would at least open it!”
“You know I’m not much of a book person. And it’s quite… voluminous. I feel threatened even when I look at it, let alone in.”
Anders sighed. “I needed your help on chapters I wasn’t sure in or wanted to see your reaction to. But the manifesto itself is based on philosophy I have carried through my entire life, and I have complete confidence in it. It made it in raw. There were also some parts for which needed insight of a slightly different kind, so I asked other people for advice, too. Didn’t I mention this?”
“Not that I remember.”
“I thought I did.”
Regan shrugged. “Must have slipped my mind, then,” she said irritably, displeased from being steered off the topic of vital importance. Whether Anders didn’t pick up the urgency of the matter or simply chose to dismiss it completely, it was impossible to discern.
He was always hard to read.
“Why did you even ask this in the first place?” the mage demanded. Being involuntarily distracted from the pressing issue of trying to find out what happened during a short period of time erased from his memory without remainder rendered a therapeutic effect on his weakened consciousness. The fragment he was searching for was stuck in the back of his mind, in dark, murky water, drowning deeper and deeper the harder he tried to focus on retaining it. As it sunk, it stung and buzzed in his brain relentlessly.
“Meredith summoned me to the Gallows today,” Regan stressed, “Anders, it’s serious. They are onto you, they are cooperating with the wardens… I don’t know whether Meredith’s words can be believed and, if so, to which extent, but I think they are preparing for an arrest. Or hoping for, I don’t know… She was trying to pressure me into giving you up! What she told me was so disgusting I don’t even want to repeat it!”
“They banned it, didn’t they?” Anders asked suddenly, detached and monotone. He knew it for a fact, but how he came by this knowledge he couldn’t say. It puzzled Regan that his first reaction rushed to the destiny of his work, and to his own he remained coldly indifferent. “It was a matter of time, after all,” he went on, having answered his question without any input from Hawke, “I would be a fool to think that wouldn’t happen. I just hoped it wouldn’t be so soon.”
“So you expected this?” Regan asked in a state of undiluted perplexity.
“I was counting on it. Any reaction, however bad it may be, is still a reaction. Their actions against it only prove that it worked, and that my effort was not in vain. But it doesn’t mean that I am going to embrace it with open arms and just leave it at that. It doesn’t mean that I’m not furious about it.”
Suddenly, an eerie chill washed over him. The healer’spalm, wet and cold,rushed to a pocket hidden in a fold of the breast of his blue mantle, and as it rummaged in there unconsciously, fondling the softness of the fabric to warm up, it sought out a thin crumpled sheet of paper. It was greasy because of the smudged ink and blots smeared all over it, unpleasant to the touch...
And then it came back to him in an instant.
It hit like a hammer, fast, hard, in a confident motion. The answer stood before him, clear as day. It no longer had the blurred outlines of a half-forgotten dream, it no longer seemed a hallucination, a fantasy, or the worst possible outcome the mage kept imagining when he was left face-to-face with his thoughts.
It had happened.
He wasn’t delusional.
“Anders, what actions? What are you talking about? I don’t understand? Do you know something I don’t?” The rant which he had begun had sparked so many question that Regan feared she herself looked like a giant question mark.
“You know what? Frankly, I don’t give a damn about what Meredith says,” Anders said confrontationally, not even looking at Regan, as if the Knight-Commander herself stood on the other side of the room, glaring at him from her scarlet cloak with her empty steely gaze.
On the tip of his tongue, he felt a faint but familiar taste of blood.
“She and her disciples,” Anders spat out, “may declare it heresy, they can outlaw it all they want, they can burn down every single copy there is, they can stomp and scatter the ashes, they can mix it with cow shit for all I care, but it won’t be enough to stop me. Nothing is,” he rasped, “I will rewrite every tome by hand if I need to, and I’ll give it personally to anyone interested. If they really think that an idea can be destroyed, then they are so invested in their own delusion that they are beyond any help, as is anyone sharing this… barbaric ‘sentiment’. They aren’t interested in having their minds changed. Any conversation is futile. Those who have opposed us throughout history will continue to do so; but fanatics with all their eccentricities will draw away those with even a little reason.” The mage paused to swallow the bitterness in his mouth. “It’s good for one thing. A not-so-subtle indicator that the time for words has passed.”
He clenched his fist with a piece of parchment clutched tightly in it, and his broken finger responded defiantly with a sharp pang. Anders winced, but couldn’t let go. A spasm has bound it motionless.
“It was a mistake,” he said with regret, “to abandon my patients. They should see me work. I should be with them. They have no one else. And the wardens know where I am. They can come gawking and pointing fingers all they want, but I’m not going anywhere. Let them judge me by my deeds and not those filthy letters Meredith is keen on writing. But I sincerely doubt it that they care enough. It’s been years.”
“Do you even want to know how you got here?” Regan asked irritably after listening the rant. It had started to creep her out, how every conversation, no matter what it was about, would always end up in flames.
“I don’t need to. It came back to me,” he stated matter-of-factly. In the ill dimness of the room his eyes seemed darker than they were. Anders’s chest which he had thrown out was pumping up with bottled up frenzy.
“You could have just said so!” Regan yelped like a wounded animal, then swiftly silenced herself. “Here I am, doing my damnedest to think of something that might be of help, and I can’t even begin to guess what that could be!”
“The Manifesto has been banned. That’s all,” said the healer as if it was not even worth mentioning. “Hasn’t Meredith told you?”
“Not explicitly, no,” she sighed. “When did this happen?”
“Earlier this week. The circle mages sent word. I only caught wind of it today.”
The smell from the kitchen had reached the upper floor. It was heavy and warm and tasty; there were spices and they tingled Anders’s nostrils pleasantly. He realized he hadn’t eaten all day.
“You’re staying for dinner,” said Hawke, trying her best to pretend their conversation never took place, “and it’s not negotiable. Bodahn is cooking his special meal. You look like you could use some.” Before he could decline, Regan went on. “And I’m fixing up that finger of yours. Did you think I wouldn’t notice?”
The mage’s shoulders fell and suddenly he seemed to have lost some of his height. He exhaled loudly.
Chapter 5: He Is
The soft curls clinging to Knight-Captain’s forehead wilted in an instant as he heard Regan’s request. In their firm grip, her sharp fingernails were almost piercing Cullen’s skin through his worn and patchy leather glove.
“You remember that Tarohne woman very well, don’t you?” she asked ingratiatingly. “That fancy little cult she had all to herself, and a small circle of smugglers dancing to her tune and putting all the nasty things in recruits’ meals? Then you must also remember that Hawke woman who aided you in this investigation, purge, call it whatever you like? She’s calling in on a favor.” Everything she’s said at that point was nothing other than a massive burst of words which seemed to never cease. Her chest was swelling with ill-contained pride. “She, too, needs some dirty laundry sorted.”
The knight stared at the woman blankly. He’s never seen her so desperate before.
“I’m not asking you to steal anything or rummage through Meredith’s drawers or rubbish. She’s waiting for a letter from the Wardens. I simply need to know what it says. The more detail, the better. Besides, she’d probably just tell you outright. Not the type to keep it all bottled up.”
“Have you met?” he finally asked, horrified.
“I can’t do this!” Cullen begged feverishly. “It’s private correspondence! I have no right!”
“Come on, don’t tell me you don’t look through her mail?”
“No!” he rasped, keeping his voice down, flushed from ear to ear, and feeling deeply violated. The man rarely gets any joke, Regan chuckled to herself.
“Hey, look, let’s not panic, all right?” Regan weakened her grasp and faked a smile which looked more like a mischievous grin. “It’s not like I’m telling someone. Besides… Well, okay, I’ll cut you some slack, just listen, please?” Hawke’s jaws were so tightly pressed together that her face looked like a bulky, square dwarven sculpture. The young man wasn’t leaving yet, and it meant that the prey was almost in her hands. “If she explicitly tells you NOT to reveal this information, then don’t tell me anything, and we leave your soul sinless and pure, okay? But! If she doesn’t, then you can just send me a hint if you don’t feel reciting it word for word. It’s not treachery.”
“I can’t promise anything,” he grumbled under his nose. “It will depend on the importance of that information.”
“Well, I’m confident in your judgement.” Hawke shrugged as Cullen wrestled his armored hand away from her grip as it was some corrosive substance. “And I’m not rushing you. Do it or do not, at your convenience,” she continued, conciliatory, “I will be content with anything you can tell me. Anything.”
“I’m not promising anything,” he stressed again, indifferent but not oblivious to her desperation. “Good day to you.”
The knight was relieved to finally be free of Regan’s company, and as she watched him stride away so swiftly one could think a demon was at his heels, she was torn between injury and reverence. Resentment faded quickly when Hawke remembered he could slay a demon without his heart skipping a beat. Or so it seemed. The fact that the sight of a woman frightened him so much left her in a jolly mood.
As of late, the Captain has become a frequent visitor in Hightown. She wondered why as she made her way up the stairs. The templar ranks have suffered a serious blow after the purge a couple of years back – a furor caused by one blood mage’s insane plan. Although it was absolutely true, and not some conspiracy theory, a sport in which many citizens tended to devilishly overindulge, its scope was minuscule and victims few. Still, as a precautionary measure, many recruits got laid off or were discharged permanently.
And now they needed to pull more people in. He was recruiting, no doubt.
“Thank the Maker Carver almost had to die to be taken in the wardens,” she thought to herself, “because he wouldn’t be able to say no.”
In two weeks’ time, the Knight-Captain knocked gingerly on the massive door of what used to be Amell estate back in the day but still bore the same name despite all the changes. The obliging dwarf let him in with his usual, soft smile peeking out from his neatly braided beard. As the young man was torturing himself over doubts of whether he should wipe his feet or not, tiptoeing on the small dusty carpet next to the threshold, the head of the house, dressed in long garments, soared confidently from behind a corner. Regan’s presence filled the archway immediately, her eyes glistening brightly with good hope.
A dreary outline loomed overhead, shining in a halo of soft, distant light.
“Good afternoon,” her eyebrows started rising as she drawled smoothly, greeting him like an old friend. “Don’t just stay there like a pillar, come on in.”
“That won’t be necessary,” he answered politely, unsure if Hawke’s welcome was a safety measure, another joke or a completely genuine greeting. Nevertheless, she was being nice, and the knight felt he had at least to respond in kind. He cleared his throat. “Gallows delivery service… at your… service,” he made a poor attempt at a joke which amused the hostess immensely despite the fact she didn’t laugh, “from Meredith herself, so you are in luck,” he added importantly, reaching out to Regan with a small piece of parchment in his hand.
“Give it here!” she almost ripped it in half as she grabbed the paper, staring into it hungrily as her eyes jumped from one line to another. The cheerful expression she had about her faded into nothingness quickly when she realised that the luck he had mentioned was of a bad kind. The words that came out of her mouth next felt like a sneeze.
“Cullen… What the fuck is this?”
From across the long hallway, he sensed a dead, cold glare filled with resentment so strong he felt unwell. The templar stared unblinkingly at Regan, at a loss for words – and he himself was unable to discern if he was more struck by the foul language he wasn’t used to or her being completely dissatisfied with him fulfilling her request.
“What do you mean?” he asked finally.
“I don’t understand…” Hawke stuttered a little bit, “If it’s what I think it is, there’s zero context. It doesn’t even look like a letter. Who writes like this? It just makes no sense to me... And she put you up to this? Have you even looked at it?”
“Yes,” Knight-Captain admitted embarrassingly, then started to make excuses for himself which even to him felt uncalled for, “but only because I wanted to know what I was almost getting myself into. Meredith was very eager to hand it over to you but too busy to do it herself.”
“Of course she was,” Hawke frowned, “how very convenient it must have been to send you in her stead.”
“Yes, yes, but she left a note! Look, there, on the margins,” he said, waving dismissively at first, then changing in demeanor in an instant as if trying to soothe Regan.
She pursed her lips and squinted her eyes so intensely they sunk deep in the eyelid creases and disappeared completely. “So I’ve noticed,” she thundered.
The sorry excuse of a letter she held in her hand, surprisingly, only contained one name – Meredith’s – and a bunch of titles that came with it. On closer inspection, however, underneath Knight-Commander’s dubious message thickly written in red ink Regan finally noticed a piece of a broken seal she had been holding the tip of her finger on. Somehow, it had managed to regain some of it softness, but still it was impossible to comprehend the letters etched in the wax. The rounded edge looked like a hex or a sigil with a peculiar texture imprinted on it, but it wasn’t something Regan recognised; on the right, she could swear, the hex was enveloped in shreds of birds’ feathers.
“Well, we can only give this to someone who may know what this all’s about,” Hawke said turning the sheet around to ensure she hasn’t missed anything else. “And you will be present.”
Sensing encroaching humiliation, the knight scowled as his lightened grimace started to drain from his now concerned face. “I doubt my presence will help matters.”
“Oh come on,” she gestured impatiently. “Meredith wouldn’t have sent you to me if she didn’t expect a report, am I right?” A satisfied grin shaped her face as Cullen failed to produce a response. “You don’t want to disappoint her. Besides, it’s about time you met Anders. He’s not as bad as you people think.”
Despite seeming a recipe for disaster, this bold move was fueled by Hawke’s confidence that Meredith was very upset – and she suspected it was due to Knight-Commander being denied her favourite blood sport. She was proven wrong, and bitter – and wanted to take it out on those who dared to oppose her.
Regan dragged the knight into the living room. The moving parts of his armor were grinding against each other, producing the most awful sound as if it was old and rusty and never polished or its joints oiled. He dropped the helmet he had been pressing against his side with his left hand; it made a crashing sound of a dropped bucket. Cullen reached down quickly and grabbed the ugly thing, now holding it firmly with both hands. It reminded Hawke of the army of mannequins adorning the halls of the Viscount’s Keep.
“Anders, we have guests,” she announced triumphantly, unusually upbeat even for her everyday demeanor.
“Uh-huh,” said the mage as he rose from behind the desk he was slaving over with slumped shoulders, “I know.”
“And with good news, no less!” Regan went on. “Well, at least I think it’s good. But we’re having a little trouble understanding what it really is, so, we thought you might be able to help.” She waved the letter suggestively in front of his face.
“Let’s see,” Anders said as he snatched the paper from her hands.
It was something he never hoped to see even in his wildest dreams. He fought to keep the smile in, but it was a losing battle. In the corner of his mouth, the white tip of his tongue appeared. The message was wonderfully satisfying in its extreme brevity, and it took him little time to finish reading it.
To Her Reverence,
the Knight-Commander of Kirkwall,
There was no signature. At the bottom of the page, in angry but flat handwriting, there was another phrase, underlined twice:
This isn’t over.
The healer snorted loudly. He wore the confident expression of a victor. There was a playful spark in his eyes.
“She doesn’t know who’s she dealing with,” he giggled, savouring every word like it was candy, “oh no she doesn’t. I can’t believe it!”
“Well?” muttered the templar.
“Well,” mocked the mage, “I have no idea if Meredith addressed the original letter to the fereldan chapter or, more likely, knowing her, to Weisshaupt and it got redirected to Ferelden… but in any case it got straight into the Warden-Commander’s hands! You’re right, this is wonderful news! Do you see this seal?” he asked of Regan, proudly ignoring the templar in the room, “or what’s left of it, anyway? I could recognize it in a heap of thousands similar pieces.”
He divided the space of the hall by standing between the Knight-Captain and Regan as if he intended to protect her from harm with his body.
“It’s the Commander’s personal seal. But even if hadn’t seen the piece of it attached I’d still be one hundred per cent sure it was him who wrote that. They say brevity is the soul of wit, and I think he may have taken it a bit too close to heart. Hates correspondence, too. Not sure why,” he scratched his chin and sighed, “but it’s the way it is. He’s a strange man, but not unkind. And while I can’t even begin to guess what the Knight-Commander could have written to him, I can safely say if was a lot of inquiries.” The mage shot a vicious glance at Cullen. “Confirm or deny?” he snapped, his posture indomitable.
“Confirm,” said the knight, immovable.
“Just as I thought. The Commander doesn’t like answering questions. He probably saw there was more than one, got upset and wrote a quick response to the first question or managed to get through the whole thing and answered what he thought was most important. Personally, I’m leaning towards the former,” his voice took on an accusatory tone, “but surely you must know that. Meredith is stubborn, but she isn’t stupid. She wouldn’t have written her little passive-aggressive note right under here if she didn’t solve this, and she would do nothing of the sort if it was the answer she was hoping for.”
He tapped on his chin, unwilling to let go of the moment of his triumph.
“She asked if I was a warden. Am I right?”
Cullen nodded defeatedly.
“And so she can stick it in the-”
“Don’t tell her he said that,” Hawke interrupted the mage swiftly and smiled widely with her eyes closed. “Would you care to stay for dinner? I would hate all that effort on your part to go to waste.”
Anders rolled his eyes, but it wasn’t enough to wipe the grin off his shining face.
“I’m afraid not, but thank you for offering. You’re very generous,” the knight said, fiddling gingerly with his helmet as a recruit would, “There are some duties I still need to perform, and it’s getting late.”
The sun would only begin to set in a few hours’ time, so Regan nodded passively in response. “Of course, of course. In that case, we won’t delay you any longer,” she said, gesturing affably towards the exit.
The knight stopped in half-turn, scratched the back of his head, and then boldly addressed Anders. “Even if you are a warden, I’d recommend for you not to push your luck. Our patience is already strained, and it may yet be even thinner.”
“Of course you would resort to petty threats, who would have thought,” said the mage. “I’m only surprised it didn’t happen sooner.”
“I am threatening no one,” Cullen denied, “I am doing nothing more than giving a friendly piece of advice. The Order knows about you. Meredith’s inquiries would not be even necessary if we, and I specifically, haven’t been turning a blind eye to your medical practice. We’ve taken a great risk for Ferelden and you need only to betray that trust for it to change.” His words sounded neither an order nor an urge. “You may not be persecuted on magical grounds, but one can be a warden and heretic both.”
With his warning finished and not waiting around for an answer, he deftly put on his helmet, bowed with his hand over the heart, then.
“Very exhilarating, don’t you think?” Regan asked watching the door close behind the armored figure.
“Indeed,” Anders wheezed – even the templar’s harsh words weren’t enough to dampen his joy. “I can’t believe this!”
He lifted Regan in the air suddenly, and as she shrieked in delight, they swirled around, the folds of her garments flopping happily in the air, the metal-adorned soles of his shoes clattering on the parquet. For the first time in months, genuine laughter was filling the room, and bliss was almost spilling onto the floor. The mage then finished his last spin and landed in an armchair with a deportment of an orlesian duke and Regan in his lap. With his two fingers and a gentle movement, he adjusted the folds of her skirt and smoothed the surface.
“How you can talk to them, I won’t know for the life of me,” the healer said affectionately, “but the more I see, the clearer I realise that you should be the one to lead us.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Hawke chuckled, “you know I can’t do this. Besides, you’re a much better candidate.”
She pinched the tip of his nose. He was joking, clearly, but Regan was willing to entertain it. She knew he would never let her join the cause formally even if she wanted to.
Anders gave her a little spin before he went on talking.
“They are willing to listen to you because they’re not afraid of you. You have that advantage, you should make good use of it.”
Now, she wasn’t as sure about what he meant, so she assumed it was just a long-winded compliment.
“Well, some are afraid, so I wouldn’t be so quick to judge if I were you,” she replied, “and then again I wouldn’t even call myself a mage. I doubt they’d take me in.”
“Hey,” Anders said, “you shouldn’t be ashamed of what you are. It’s what they want you to think. What you do with your abilities is your business.”
“You know I grew up as far from that part of Chantry doctrine as it was possible,” Regan replied sadly, “my father made sure of that, but still… It’s what I am, it’s how I always felt and they surely had no say in that.”
Though the conversation took a more serious tone, they kept holding each other.
“It’s my choice,” Hawke continued, “that I’m not using any magic. Not out of disdain or disrespect, I just don’t feel like it. There are other things I’m good at.”
“I know,” Anders said. “But you are still just as vulnerable as any other mage. Because you were born that way. Personal choices should matter, and your reason for fighting is no better or worse than any other – we’re judged on our utility, our usefulness to others, and it’s always been this way. So disgustingly cynical.”
“Yes, it’s staggering... Thank you for understanding. I wasn’t sure you viewed it that way,” she confessed, “but I’m glad you do. I’m fine where I am now. I just got lucky.”
“And I got drafted into the Grey Wardens at some point, if you can call it luck,” said the mage as he removed a lock of hair from Regan’s face and tucked it behind her ear, “and I’m still laughing about that letter thing. I just hope Meredith won’t inquire further because the Commander’s answer could also mean ‘you can never really leave the wardens so formally he is a warden’, it would completely make sense knowing him… Then, technically, I am disfavored and all that...”
“Don’t dwell on it. I’m pretty sure he understood what she meant quite well and gave an exhaustive reply.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah. Just lay low for a while, it won’t hurt.”
“We’ll see,” he said, “we’ll see. It’s such a load off my chest… I can finally work without being hunted all the time. Isn’t it just wonderful?”
“It is,” Regan confirmed, “it really is. Stay with me tonight. We’ll have a little celebration. Just you and me. You can tell your friends tomorrow. I’m sure they’ll understand.”
“All right,” he said as he leaned in slightly, “just you and me.”