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The Heart-Tree

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They have fallen into a routine, in Kirkwall. They rise at the break of dawn, and Stitches and those of the rank-and-file Chargers who have drawn the black marble prepare breakfast for the whole company. The fog from the docks will roll in and put its fingers through their windows, testing their patience; Skinner will turn her face from Dalish's foul morning breath and go to bathe.

She comes down to breakfast last. She does not need to eat much. Then, finally, the great rustle of metal as the entire company gets its armor on, and then will they head up the hill to Hightown, forty of them, in a rough group, with the Chief at their head, his waraxe glinting in the morning sun.

But there is no Chief this morning—and there are only fifteen of them going to Viscount's Keep. There is only Krem and his maul leading them up the endless steps. It is a small break in the pattern, but it's enough, enough that Skinner does not chafe at having been left out of this week's slaver-killing expedition, when the chief has taken all her Throatcutters with him.

"Cold morning," Dalish says, putting an arm over Skinner's shoulder.

"Yes," Skinner says. It is not cold, it is damp. Dalish cannot tell the difference. This is not a silence that needs filling. But the contact pulls Skinner out of her head, and it, too, is enough.

Kirkwall is shit. Overwhelmingly—it is shit. Working on construction is shit, the wine is shit, the morning fog is not unlike breathing in shit, and the alienage is especially shit. It is made uniformly of the same beige stone from Hightown to the docks, and it is ugly. The street vendors sell meat pastries filled with what purports to be pork but is, in truth, rat; Skinner is intimately familiar with the taste and texture. Some of this hatred, she can put down to her justified, sane, Orlesian disdain for places which are not Orlais; but it has been three, four years since the city exploded, and it has still not pulled itself together completely.

Training with the city guard is less shit than most things. There are as many elves as there are shems. She is even looking forward to hitting something, but when they walk into the barracks, all the recruits are sitting on chairs and barrels, and there is an elf with a walking stick—it is a mage's staff—standing at the head of the room, next to the guard-captain.

"Hello!" the little elf says, clapping her hands together. "My name is Merrill, and I'm a mage."

Some of the recruits balk, visibly, and one of them calls on the Maker, but the big redheaded guard-captain, she clears her throat. They subside. Skinner has seen Guard-Captain Aveline fight, and it is sensible of them, to be more frightened of her than of any mage. Merrill goes on, "Aveline asked me to teach you what blood mages can do to your body, so you don't run crying when you meet one. Is that all right?"

The Chargers are at the back of the room. They are more experienced and better-traveled than the assortment of green boys and girls who have crawled from the gutters of Kirkwall to the Viscount's Keep, and they do not need to attend this session. Dalish leans over to whisper, "This is going to be good," and her lips brush over Skinner's earlobe.

Skinner swats her away. "What does an archer know about blood magic?" she says, very quietly. Krem throws them both his Lieutenant Look, his The Chief Is Off On a Job So I'm Responsible If You Two Break a Table look, and Skinner folds her arms over her chest and sets her jaw. Dalish gives him her most dazzling, knee-melting smile. It does not work. Dalish turns her attention to Merrill the Mage's lesson. Hahren Merrill, Skinner remembers, of the alienage, a great personal friend of the Champion's.

"Oh, Creators, don't get me wrong!" Merrill is saying, in response to some brave recruit's question. She not so young as she appears, judging from the lines around her eyes, but not far past thirty. And dainty, in the way mages who aren't pretending to also be archers become. "Blood mages can make you do whatever they like, but it takes lots of energy to do it! It's easier to knock you out and control your blood directly. Or kill you. Killing is usually faster, in a pinch. This isn't very reassuring, is it?"

Guard-Captain Aveline clears her throat again. Merrill looks sheepish.

"What I mean to say is..." Merrill trails off and looks into the middle distance for a moment, gathering herself. "It isn't as all-powerful or as evil as your Chantry teaches you it is. Do you all know what mana is?" Some recruits nod. Some don't. She doesn't offer an explanation, in any event. Skinner narrowly keeps herself from snorting. "Blood magic makes a mage difficult to kill, because you'll probably die before you get anywhere near them. But don't be nervous! Or do. Probably do. Sloppy blood mages, the ones who turn to it out of desperation, greed, or laziness, they wear themselves out fast. And they can't heal themselves well, or at all, most of the time. So you just have to get close."

From the corner of her eye, Skinner sees Dalish nod. A sign that this Merrill is a good mage, a skilled mage, then. They behave themselves for the rest of the lesson, and when it's over, Dalish says, "She's marked for Falon'Din."

She sounds impressed. As Skinner is rarely impressed by anything less than white marble and silk, Dalish is uninterested in anything short of the Chief's level of butchery on the battlefield. It speaks volumes. "Your god of death?" Skinner says.

And yours, Dalish's raised eyebrow says, but this is the beginning of an old argument neither of them will win. So Dalish nods, and Skinner scratches her chin. Merrill is behind them, talking animatedly with Krem and the guard-captain. She is pale as a noble, and has wild, dark hair, tamed into a little plait at the base of her neck. Skinner catches Dalish looking, too, and she says, "Do you think she fucks women?"

"I'd be more surprised if she didn't," Dalish says. Whatever else they argue about, this—this is something they will always agree upon.


Building in the alienage is still shit, but at least it's important shit. Meaningful shit. There are bandits to be slaughtered along the Wounded Coast, and it is not so terrible being here, painting a house, with Hahren Merrill at her side; the house is on the central square, and the vhenadahl gives them some shade from the relentless sun.

She can feel Merrill plucking up the courage to speak. "You're quite good with your hands," she says, at last. "I've seen you—working. Here and there."

"Maman was a carpenter. I took up her trade until I joined the Chargers."

"And then?"

"The Chief, he found me and pulled me out of Val Foret," Skinner says. Dalish, on the opposite side of the wall, has already lost some of her patience with Rocky's jokes, and has painted a stripe up the side of his face. "I killed some shems, yes? Shems who deserved to die. I would have been executed. But now, you want a fast and quiet kill, you call Skinner and her Throatcutters."

Merrill nods. She is the kind of quiet a person becomes when they're trying to draw words out of someone, and it may have worked, if Skinner did not see the Chief do it constantly. The Chief—he can have someone spilling their life's story in five minutes. He'd done it to Skinner, in the city dungeons.

The memory makes the back of Skinner's neck prickle, feel hot. The cell had not had a window, or a pot to shit in, and she'd had no food and little water until the Chief passed her some through the bars. The water had been stale, days old. She'd drunk it anyway, and been grateful for the kindness, any small kindness. If she grinds her teeth she can remember the feel of the grit from the bottom of the flagon, and even after the week of beatings, this is what is clearest in her recollection.

Merrill says, "And you've been with the Chargers ever since?" and it is a relief.

"It's a good life, I think," Skinner says. "Sometimes dull; have you ever guarded a caravan?"

"I've robbed one. Or two—or three. We might have been getting Varric's goods back? It was a dreadfully long month."

Skinner sees no reason to trust Varric much farther than she can throw him, but he is the reason the Chargers have such good lodgings, by Kirkwall standards. He is too glib, too smooth, too much a noble gleefully slumming it. In another life, she could see him on the streets hawking vials of Andraste's ashes, or dealing in slaves.

"If only we were robbed more often," she says. "But I have travel, wine, good pay. The Chief is a fair leader." And Dalish. The Chargers gave her Dalish. "Your vhenadahl, it's the largest I've seen."

"Is it?" Merrill says. "We feed it shemlen blood every full moon. It does wonders for the soil, you know."

Skinner has not laughed in days, and the sound of it surprises her. At least—she hopes Merrill is joking.

"Hahren!" someone calls, from the far side of the square. "A messenger!"

There is something sad in Merrill's eyes, when they call her hahren. Sad, and weary. But it passes in a flash, and she turns, and sets her paintbrush down. Skinner pauses to watch her square her shoulders, gather herself, and cross the square. There is one of the People waiting for her, and the girl who called out stays glued to Merrill's other side, with a stack of papers, work orders, missives from the new Viscount.

The foundation upon which the alienage is built, and re-built, and re-built, stuck between worlds. It would be pitiable, if Merrill seemed less capable. But this is none of Skinner's business. She paints her way down the wall to Dalish and Rocky and elbows Rocky in the side of the head, when he paints something rude into the side of the wall.

Merrill does not rejoin them. She and the messenger sit together in the shade of the vhenadahl, and people bring them refreshments, without being asked. They treat her as a queen, and she genuinely does not notice. She beckons Krem to lay down the sacks he is carrying and sit with them, as well, and scoots over to make room for him on the root she is occupying.

"You're watching her," says Dalish, once the wall is finished. Rocky wanders off in search of more stimulating, less violent company, and Skinner, fingers smudged with blue, sets her paintbrush down on the bucket.

"Look at the way they're sitting," Skinner says, "she's making Krem a proposal."

"What, you think she fucks men, too?"

"A job. Look, Krem has sovereigns in his eyes."

Then Merrill shakes her head, and the sovereigns flicker out and vanish. Krem makes to stand, but Merrill reaches out and puts her hand on his bare upper arm, head tilted, her big, bright green doe-eyes fixed on him. Krem sits back down, immediately.


And so the Chargers take the job, such as it is.

The messenger is from Clan Alerion. Rifts have driven them far from their usual stomping grounds in Nevarra, and now they are encamped on Sundermount, and plagued by darkspawn. They are isolated enough from the ways of the cities to only understand that Merrill is the Keeper of the nearest clan, and they should petition her for aid.

Skinner does not believe the latter for the moment. Hahren Merrill is good-hearted, and still of the People, for all that she has not walked among them for a decade. The Alerion would not bestir themselves to help Kirkwall's flat-ears, and are without a doubt taking advantage of her legendary kindness. They do not even have any coin with which to pay, they claim.

"We need some real exercise, Chief," Krem says. "Something tougher and nastier than bandits. We've got good intelligence on their numbers; we can hit them fast and hard, and clear out their nest before they know what hit them."

It will be nice, to get out of the city. To stay in one place so long—it makes her jumpy. It is long past time they moved on to the next job, but here they stay, plastering walls.

"Scout for yourselves. Take Dalish and Skinner with you," the Chief says. Krem cranes his head to look at them, and Skinner, from her couch, nods her assent. Of course the Chief understands the extent to which she wants to claw her way out of her skin, staying in these little rooms, having salted fish and watered ale for dinner every night. "No stupid risks, either."

"Ser," Krem says.

They set off to Sundermount at daybreak, three days later. Well before the mountain, there are miles and miles of farmland, and in these times, the people working the fields do not look twice at three elves and a shem traveling together, armed to the teeth, so long as they are left alone. Sundermount is a broad mountain, the tallest she as ever seen, and it dominates the horizon.

"Oh, I've spent a bit of time up there," Merrill is saying to Dalish. "My own clan stayed here, for a while, but I didn't stay with them long before I"—she hesitates, and likely thinks it unnoticeable—"left for Kirkwall. But Hawke, you see, she had business here. There are ruins up at the top of the mountain, but the passage to the Deep Roads will be plaguing my kith."

"Kith," says Skinner.

"Family," Krem says. He has been hanging on Merrill's every word since they left the city, and desperately trying to get a word in edgewise, despite his having nothing to bring to a conversation about the People. Their day at the Keep, their discussion in the alienage, they have left an impression on him. Before this, Merrill has not noticed his existence beyond asking him to lift heavy things for her, and referring to him in conversation as 'such a polite young man, but—his maul is alarmingly large, don't you think?' as though she is a wizened grandmama, and not a mere three, four years his senior.

"I know what it means," Skinner snaps.

Merrill ignores all of this, either because she is diplomatic, or because she simply does not notice. "I was born into the Alerion—I hardly remember them, but I do owe it to them."

And what do the Chargers owe the Alerion? Skinner thinks.

"What clan raised you?" Dalish says.

"Ah, look, royal elfroot," Merrill says, rushing ahead to examine what, to Skinner, is just another plant. "Creators, I haven't seen any on Sundermount in an age! I thought I'd picked the mountainside clean, last time I went up." She turns back to Dalish. "What did you say?"

"Nothing," says Dalish, and shoots Skinner a look. Dalish thinks her looks are more significant and comprehensible than they are. This one, it could mean, I have gas, and would like some elfroot to chew, or When are we going to make camp? or Hahren Merrill is hiding something. Or all of these things.

They break camp at nightfall, at the base of the mountain. Two tents, one campfire, three flasks between them.

"Why don't they just camp farther away from the darkspawn?" Krem asks, once the tents are pitched. "Or get off Sundermount entirely."

Merrill is not drinking, much. She and Krem have first watch. "Sundermount is remote enough from Kirkwall that you can spot any humans days before they make it to the camp, but near enough that you can go into the city and trade—but there's only one spot on the mountain with ground level enough for aravels, and it's within spitting distance of an entrance to the Deep Roads. Not a good one, mind, except for the golem—" She pauses, looking at the three of them, as if she is waiting to be told to shut up. But Krem is dangling after her, as he has been, and Dalish looks politely interested. "There were quite a lot of demons in it, but not many darkspawn."

Dalish plucks the flask from Skinner's hand. Skinner is profoundly offended, but also profoundly drunk. "And how long did your clan stay on Sundermount?"

"For a time," Merrill says. "The hunting is quite good. It's a pity about the Veil being so thin here, but that's what you have me for."

"So that's why the Chief didn't want to come along."

"Maybe he didn't want to be subjected to your company when you get bored with roughing it," Dalish says. "Ser."

Merrill is leaning—quite heavily—into Dalish, and whispers something in her ear, and giggles. Krem turns red down to the neck.

Krem has not had his sword polished, these long months in Kirkwall. Perhaps as a Vint he is less uncomfortable around a mage than someone raised under the correct Chantry. Merrill seems so harmless, she sets everyone around her at ease. Skinner has not seen her do anything more disturbing than drink the Hanged Man's ale, but that does not mean she is not trouble. For all that Skinner wants, idly, to see whether her or Dalish's vallaslin go farther under their clothes, she is prepared to show her her own intestines, if needs must.

You just have to get close, Merrill had said. A knife in the ribs would be a fast death, a clean death, even a kind one. Someone must plan for these things.

"Did your clans take city elves in?" Skinner says, shaking off this line of thought, when she catches Krem giving her a sidelong look. He is as adept as the Chief at knowing when Skinner is contemplating a murder, but not so adept at making her stop.

"If they could prove they would be useful," says Dalish. It is the way of the People, to be reticent about their clans: Skinner has never pushed, but in the light of the fire, it seems more permissible. "We always needed more hunters."

"We took one or two," Merrill says, and then she frowns, all her good cheer gone. A few more drinks, and she takes her staff and wanders off into the darkness. Krem cranes his neck to watch her go, but it is Dalish who stands and follows her. Merrill is pretty, yes, and tortured, in her quiet and winsome way—yes—but Skinner has enough demons of her own to care to join them. She and Krem drink in a companionable silence. They have never had much to say to one another, beyond slit that one's throat, he's going to be trouble and yes, ser.

"She's from the Sabrae," Dalish says, much later, in their tent. Krem and Merrill have first watch, and Skinner has no intention of sleeping. "Creators. Everyone knows about the Sabrae."

"Everyone does not know about the Sabrae," Skinner says, setting her daggers aside and pulling Dalish's shirt off over her head. If this is politics, she doesn't particularly care to hear of it before sex, but there is a fire in Dalish's eyes.

"The First made a deal with a demon and was cast out of the clan. The Keeper kept the clan here for six years, and then she died. Then the clan left. You can fill in the blanks for yourself, love, Mythal knows everyone else has."

"And Merrill was this First?" Skinner asks. Dalish nods. "Is she possessed?" Dalish shakes her head, and Skinner decides to take her word for it.

"Do we still want to fuck her?"

Skinner grunts, pulling her leggings off. Traditionally, the People take a dim view on kinslaying, and none of this is relevant to the sex they are going to have. "Not half so badly as Krem does."

"Then we'll have to get there first."

Who is we? is Skinner's first instinct, always. She is bound to the Chargers by her loyalty to the Iron Bull, and she tells herself—she can leave whenever she likes; she is a free woman. No one is chasing her, no one is looking for her. The Val Foret alienage was burned half down years ago, as a warning to others who might have been emboldened by her success, and she is not welcome. She carries it on her conscience. She has found a place in this company of exiles, and she has found Dalish, Dalish who has a clan to return to, somewhere, Dalish who has her hands on the backs of Skinner's knees, and draws them apart, to kiss up the inside of Skinner's thigh.

She'd thought she'd known her own body, before Dalish. Squat, strong, square-jawed, fingers callused from knifework, ribs that will never have enough flesh on them to assure her she will not starve the next day, or the day after, or the day after. "Maker," she says, when Dalish's mouth comes up between her legs. They have been together two long years, fucking in tents, fucking in inn rooms and temporary barracks, fucking at Skyhold and in the desert on their way to break a fortress full of demons. There is a we.

"I like her," Dalish says, afterward. "I don't think she killed her Keeper."

"We will never know," Skinner says, and rolls over to get some sleep.


They come across their first party of darkspawn two days up the mountain.

"Oh, look," Merrill says, pulling a piece of parchment from the hollow of a tree that is unmarked, to Skinner's eyes. "Meraas has been this way. 'Kadan,'" she reads, "'tread lightly.' Well—that's helpful enough, I suppose. Maybe I should have been more specific when I asked him to leave us notes."

"Kadan?" Krem says. There are dark circles under his eyes, but it is not Skinner's place to suggest that Dalish and Merrill switch guard postings, so he does not stay up to all hours of the night talking.

"I think it means 'respected comrade'?" Merrill shrugs. "You've met him, I'm sure. I asked him to go ahead of us."

Meraas. The name does not ring a bell, but, then, Skinner does not much care to know anyone outside the Chargers unless it is absolutely necessary. "The Tal-Vashoth who hangs around the Hanged Man," Dalish supplies. "You know, big, silent, gigantic sword."

"Of course," Skinner says. She cannot recall. "Meraas."

But Krem cannot tread lightly, in his heavy armor. Skinner takes point, finds a pair of crude trip-lines, and disarms them. This is their first warning. The decapitated elven heads hanging from the trees are their second warning, and still, Skinner almost stumbles into their camp.

She catches herself before she does. There are ten of them in the clearing—the small darkspawn, mostly, and three of the larger ones. She will have to ask Stitches what they are called when they get back to Kirkwall. She signals to Dalish, who signals back to Krem and Merrill to hold.

"I like our odds," Krem says, very quietly. "It'll be a good warm-up."

"No risks," Skinner says, though she is itching for the fight. She does not know how far Merrill can be trusted at her back. "We can avoid them. We should."

And then a breeze passes Skinner's cheek, and the decision is made for them by a darkspawn appearing from nowhere, and cuffing the side of Dalish's head with the back of its claw. Dalish cries out, and Skinner's daggers are in her hand before she can think, and she guts the creature before the rest of the darkspawn burst onto the path.

Merrill grabs Dalish by the arm and drags her back from the fray. Do not let them cut you, Skinner thinks, standing with her back to Krem's back. All of the darkspawn are watching him, and his maul—good. Their armor is rusted, a patchwork—better. A boulder uproots itself and flies at one of the tall ones, crushing it against a tree. Skinner does not look at Dalish, except to reassure herself that Dalish is alive and stirring and drawing her bow.

A blow from a shield catches Skinner's side, and she stumbles to her knees, one armored forearm up to catch the sword-blow that is surely coming. It does not come. Skinner looks up. There is blood dripping from Merrill's palm, and the darkspawn advancing on Skinner and the darkspawn on Krem's back turn on one another. They fall on one another's swords, entwined like lovers, and then it is over.

It's easier to knock you out and control your blood directly.

Krem is the one who says it. "You're a blood mage." He is not even breathing hard, and already, he is sitting down in the midst of darkspawn corpses to clean the blood from his maul.

"Ah, well," Merrill says, closing her hand around the cut on her palm, "yes, I'm afraid."

"Do I kill her?" Skinner says. She likes Merrill, but she is a maleficar, and at Krem's word, she will be dead.

"Creators, Skinner, she saved my life," Dalish says, from where she is slumped against a tree. "Leave her be."

At Dalish's word, Merrill is spared. It is that simple. Krem knows he does not have to say anything more, and he takes Merrill by the elbow and pulls her off into the woods for a talk, an argument. There is shouting. Skinner does not care to eavesdrop. She sits next to Dalish, sets her daggers within easy reach, and pulls a clean cloth from the pouch at Dalish's hip where she keeps the bandages. The blood on her head is from an abrasion, not a cut. If Stitches was here, he could surely tell if any of the taint is in her.

"You're fussing," Dalish says.

Skinner goes into the next pouch over, for the poultices. "You're hurt."

"She really isn't possessed," says Dalish, "I felt her magic. It's from the blood, but there's no demon riding her."

"You're sure?"

"Who's the archer, here? Me or you?"

"You," Skinner says. She feels empty and level, now that she has had a good fight. "If you have the taint, I will cut your throat myself."

"Love you, too," Dalish says.

Krem and Merrill return. They are not speaking, though Merrill's hand is bandaged neatly. They do not speak the rest of the way up the mountain, and they do not speak when they reach the Alerion camp and find the mercenary Meraas trussed up in the middle of it like a roast chicken, with three hunters sitting on his back.

"Kadan," Meraas says, from the dirt. "It is good to see you."


"We're not a fighting force, hahren," the Keeper says. She is young: in her mid-forties, perhaps, black-haired and green-eyed like Merrill, and they look so alike they might be sisters, cousins. This is for Merrill to worry about. "We could wipe them out on our own, but we would lose too far many in the attempt."

"The Chargers are the best in Thedas," Merrill says. "They'll get the job done."

The Keeper does not let Krem and Meraas leave the camp, despite Merrill's reassurances that they are safe and trustworthy. Skinner and Dalish go with some of the clan's hunters to see where the darkspawn are massing, at the Deep Roads passage. It is less than five miles from the camp, and there are around seventy of them, coming and going. "No mages," Dalish says, eyes narrowed.

"Well-armed," Skinner says. But not smart, and the biggest one, the alpha, it will be no match for the Chief.

The Alerion cannot pay them in sovereigns. But they can pay in information, in stacks of correspondence from Nevarran diplomats. Krem looks the papers over with an impressed whistle. Politely, he does not ask where they came from. "The ambassador'll like this."

"We've no use for it," the Keeper says. "We offer it freely, in exchange for your help."

"Deal," Krem says, and it is settled.

Whatever passed between Krem and Merrill in the forest is half resolved on the way back to Kirkwall—but he invites her to the Hanged Man for drinks when they make it back to the city. "Seeing as we're in business together now," he says, stiffly.

"Of course," Merrill says. "I would be—it would be lovely. I've been so busy, you know. With the alienage. Haven't gotten out in months, now. Except for this. And the Keep."

"Oh, sweet Mythal's mercy, get over yourselves," Dalish says, under her breath. Skinner nods her agreement. Wrapped up in one another, Merrill and Krem hear nothing.


There are too many shems at their table.

Krem, Skinner can handle. He is a known quantity. Grim and Stitches, too. Rocky is a dwarf, and Meraas the mercenary is qunari, and they do not make her uncomfortable. But there is Lieutenant Brennan, who is handsy when she has had too much to drink (Skinner knows how to break a wrist so it will never heal straight) and she has brought some of her guards with her. There is even a templar drinking with them tonight. The woman is out of her armor, but the way her eyes slide over the table, the way she carries the sword on her belt—Dalish goes still, nostrils flared. Under the table, Skinner draws a knife from her thigh sheath.

"Knight-Captain!" Merrill says, and rushes to embrace her. Skinner replaces her knife. It is not a sisterly embrace, which answers one question Skinner had about Merrill, and raises several more.

Her name is Ruvena. Her hair is the color of wheat, her eyes are dramatically, absurdly blue, and she is bad at cards. Rocky takes her for all she is worth in a game of diamondback, and only after her spectacular loss, and more than a few tankards of ale, does she put her arm around Merrill's shoulders.

"We can't commit people to this darkspawn problem," Ruvena says. "They're too far out from the city, and according to Lieutenant Aclassi's report, there were no emissaries?" Krem, from the other end of the table, nods. "The Knight-Commander won't hear of it. But I did try, for you."

"The guard can't, either," Lieutenant Brennan says.

"I know," says Merrill. "Aveline told me herself. She was very... emphatic."

"They will care when the darkspawn come down from the mountain and attack their farmers," says Skinner. Meraas, who is nearly as silent as Grim, and nearly as bitter as Skinner herself, nods. Dalish's eyes are entirely on Ruvena, and she has not spoken a word through the game of diamondback, the game of Wicked Grace, the second game of Wicked Grace, which is reason enough for Skinner to follow Ruvena back to the docks and leave her bleeding in a ditch. She knows Kirkwall well enough by now to do it, and not be caught out.

But Merrill kisses Ruvena's cheek and says, "I do appreciate it." She ducks her head to hide her smile. Skinner knows an affectation when she sees one. This is not an affectation. "Both of you, trying, for me. Meraas, do I have your sword?"

"You do," Meraas says.

Clearly, Skinner thinks, through the fog of wine—clearly, Merrill has fucked all three of them, and parted on good terms. Their easiness around her, the way their eyes follow her when she gets up for more beer, the way none of them are bothered by her being an apostate. But they all fall away, eventually, and leave Merrill alone with the Chargers.

"Do you think the alienage is coming along well, Lieutenant?" Merrill says. The change in Krem is immediate: he puffs out his chest and becomes insufferably smug, when pretty girls in taverns address him by his rank. There will be no living with him for days, now.

Today was a day for roofing, and Rocky complaining that he can bring anything down, but putting things up is another story. Stitches, offering his services to the elves. Grim, who does not know a hammer from an adze and is too clumsy to be trusted with anything but carrying wood and shingles, watching the workers' children, carrying one on each shoulder.

"As well as can be expected," Krem says. He is a loud drunk, but most nights he is not half so drunk as he is pretending to be. This, he learned from the Chief. "Seeing as it's the last on Hightown's priority list, and we're putting it together from everyone else's junk."

"We have a phrase for this, in Orlesian," Skinner says. Krem and Merrill look at her as one.

"You've got a phrase for everything in Orlesian," Rocky says.

Once, she might have risen to the bait. It is not her fault, that her mother tongue is so rich and evocative. "Avec ma bite et mon couteau. 'With my cock and my knife.' How can you remake a city from scraps? And yet, here we are."

The night goes on. With each affectionate pass of Merrill's hand over the shaven parts of Krem's head, with each opinion solicited, he grows closer first to forgiving her for Sundermount, and then to falling face-first into her lap. Merrill has an innate charisma, Skinner thinks, a gift for making each person she turns her gaze on feel special, valued, interesting, and it would not be so charming or so effective if she was aware of it. The night goes on, and more and more of it, this light, this absolute focus, is turned directly on Krem. Skinner can see how it would be irresistible. She is a daughter of Orlais, and generally immune to charm, but she understands.

"Quit staring," Dalish mutters, refilling both their glasses of wine. "You'll spook the halla."

Now Krem's arm has gone around Merrill's shoulders, now Merrill leans into him and sighs, as though he is her one and only pillar of strength; his expression softens, turns tender, and if he was not leaving with her before, there is no question of it now.

"Fuck yourself," Skinner says. "This is reconnaissance."

Dalish, who is far drunker, and not at all interested in anything but her own gratification, takes Skinner's hand under the table, laces their fingers together. "Bet you a sovereign I can bed her before you can."

"I will take that bet," says Skinner, giving her a squeeze.

The first time they met, Dalish called her a flat-ear. Skinner took mild exception to this, and broke two chairs over her head. It took the Chief and Grim to pry them apart. It was, in retrospect, the best foreplay Skinner ever had. The memory makes her smile, as a pair of bricklayers find it in themselves to get into a fistfight. "Let's get out of here," Dalish says. And so they leave.


Krem staggers back down to the docks in the small hours of the morning, and immediately collapses onto a couch in what passes for an officers' mess, in this gaping shithole. After a furious debate over whether to wake him, Skinner loses her patience and whips his blanket cocoon off him. He is half-drunk from the night before, not an invalid. They're all being ridiculous. "Breakfast, ser," she says.

"How was it?" Dalish asks, from the table.

"None of your bloody business," Krem says, snatching the blankets back from Skinner and running his hand through his hair. He staggers to the table, his walk stiff and careful. His loose shirt does not hide the scratches on his upper arms. This bodes well, in Skinner's estimation.

"It's all right if you couldn't bring 'er off, ser," Stitches says, clapping a fatherly hand on Krem's shoulder and setting a tall glass of his hangover remedy in front of him. Two raw eggs, ground lamb, ale, and a great deal of crushed elfroot. It is only the elfroot that settles the stomach and soothes the head; the rest is a test of one's endurance. "We all have to start somewhere. Hahren Merrill looks like a forgiving little lady."

"Hahren Merrill is a respected figure in this city," Krem says into his glass, between gulps. "She's a pillar of the community."

"Worse than we thought, then," Rocky says, nudging Stitches in the shoulder and passing Krem a plate heaped high with eggs and bacon.

Krem finishes his drink with a flourish. "Still none of your bloody business," he says.

Outside the dingy window, it is raining like a horse pissing on a flat rock. They cannot see the harbor from where they are, and in any event, there would not be much to see.

Too wet for roofing. In the alienage, they will be rushing to cover the half-finished houses with whatever they have at hand, taking shelter under the vhenadahl. The company makes their slow way up to the Viscount's Keep, and they are becoming spoiled, if a bit of damp makes them sullen. Skinner looks over her six Throatcutters, and finds their backs straight and their chins high.


After practice, and after the guard-captain pummels the Chief into the ground again, the Chief sends the rest of the Chargers off to their duties—patrolling the coast, patrolling the walls, dealing with the Coterie—and pulls his officers into a spare meeting room. Merrill is there, at the head of the room, looking fresh as a daisy, and cheerful, and obscenely well-rested. The Keeper and one of her hunters are there, too, glancing nervously at the walls and the ceiling.

"So, we've got a shitload of darkspawn to get rid of," the Chief says. "Any ideas, guys?"

Krem sits next to Merrill, and they would seem to be politely ignoring one another, if Krem did not take every excuse to touch her forearm, the back of her neck, to brush a stray hair away from her face.

In the end: Rocky and the sappers will cut off the passage into the Deep Roads, trapping the darkspawn in the tunnels and giving the ones on the surface nowhere to fall back to. It'll be good workmanship, if it's stood this long in this part of Thedas, but if it's up, it can come down, Rocky says. The rest is a matter of trapping them in the pass and putting them to the sword. They will go down easily—still fighting, but easily enough.

It is too easy, in Skinner's estimation.

"Not everything has to be hard," Dalish says, later, in their bed.

"I don't like it," Skinner says. "I don't like the Keeper. I don't like darkspawn."

"Ma vhenan, you don't like anything."

"I like you."

"Don't have to like the job," says Dalish. "Just have to do it. The Chief wouldn't lead us to our deaths. Besides! Look up, and you'll see me. I'll be the one with the bow on fire."


The day the roofing is finished, Skinner stays late in the alienage with a tool kit someone has lent her, fixing chairs and table legs and carts. It is not that the alienage does not have its own carpenters, its own woodworkers, but they work themselves to the bone in the city proper all day for shems. Skinner is lucky, that she only need do this for her own amusement.

"You work so hard," Merrill says, walking around the square with her staff, lighting the lamps.

"It is nice to put something together, once in a while," she says, packing away her files, her chisels, her saws and hammers. "You're one to talk, hahren."

Merrill's vallaslin dance in the veilfire. "Come with me on my rounds? I've two miles to go, and it's so dull without company."

"Very well," Skinner says, and follows her.

She stops to talk with people on their stoops, as she goes. She asks after their children, their chickens, their ailments, their plumbing, she passes out medicine from the bag at her back, she settles disputes. The guards patrolling in the light of her lamps give her respectful salutes, and not only because she is a friend of their captain. In their walk, they interrupt two muggings, which must be the Maker's own hand at work.

And then they have made the whole circuit of the alienage, and Merrill brings them back to the vhenadahl, and proceeds to sit down on one of its roots and cover her face with her hands. "For six years, I was just the apostate on the corner. And now—they want so much of me," she says. Skinner stands back from her. She is no good at comfort. If she was not an outsider, Merrill would never let her see her like this. But Merrill peers out from between her fingers, and she looks as though she wants to collapse.

"You're tired," Skinner says. To care for someone outside the Chargers feels like standing after crouching for too long. "When was the last time you ate a meal? I will make you supper."

Merrill looks, frankly, stunned. "Of course," she says. "Of course. One more thing, before I go."

She pushes herself to her feet, and she turns to face the vhenadahl. She raises her hand. In the branches, a hundred little green lights flicker, then flare into life. There are people hanging out their windows to watch the display, though it must be a nightly occurrence, and it is—beautiful. The most beautiful thing in Kirkwall.

"Now we're finished," Merrill says.

Her house is large, for a place in the alienage, as large as some of the places the Chargers have built. There is elfroot and embrium drying from the rafters, and the tables are covered in papers, and every other available surface is crammed with books.

"If you are going to ask me about Krem," Skinner says, over bread and jam (no wonder Merrill is so skinny, if she cannot feed herself), "don't."

"I wasn't—"

"You were," Skinner says.

"I was," Merrill admits.

"What you did with him, at the Hanged Man, it was like clockwork," Skinner says. It feels strange, to put this into words, to have to put anything into words, with someone who cannot read her facial expressions and infer the rest. "Krem likes to feel big and strong, to be a protector of the small, to live up to the Chief's example. Some con artist, some whore, taught you very well, I think."

Skinner can see it now, the trail of lovers Merrill has left behind her: soldiers, every one, and all of them desperately fond of her, and all of them useful to her. Had she done what she'd done to Krem with all of them? Or had she made Meraas feel honorable, made Brennan and Ruvena feel as though they could lay down her burdens for a moment?

"Her name is Isabela," Merrill says, "I suppose she's a bit of a con artist. You and Dalish want to sleep with me, don't you?"

"Yes," Skinner says. Directness is refreshing. And now is as good a time as any to ask: "Did you kill your Keeper?"

Merrill looks to the side suddenly, as though she has been slapped. "Dalish told you, then—about my clan. I made a deal with a demon, to restore something from my people's past, and Marethari... thought she should intervene, and take on the price I would have to pay, eventually. It may as well have been my hand."

"I don't care," Skinner says, more harshly than she intends. Merrill stares down at her hands. "I killed seven people—young nobles, sons and daughters of city officials. They came in the night and murdered friends of mine like dogs, for sport. I was, how do you say it, a second-story man, mostly, and a knife-for-hire, sometimes, when the coin was good. I found them in their homes, in their beds, and I cut them open from their navels to their throats." She shrugs. "But now I am a Charger, and you're a hahren, and these things are much better than what we were."

This is about as bad as it's gonna get. Shit, it's as bad as you're gonna get, Iron Bull had said, once she'd finished the disgusting water and told him her story. And she'd felt, stuck to the bottom of the flagon, a key. Break out tonight, meet me at the Trois Oignons. There's good coin in leaving your worst self behind.

And I can kill shems?

All the shems you want, Ripper. No—'Skinner.' I like 'Skinner,' for you.

"Murderer," says Skinner, "kinslayer. Stupid children who thought we would make a difference."

Merrill looks up from her lap. "But we tried," she says.

This is also a seduction, Skinner realizes. Merrill sitting calmly at her little table, very still, unblinking, because she knows, as they all know, that Skinner is a hairsbreadth from violence at any given moment. And now she will get up, put her hand on Skinner's cheek, and make her feel as though she is more than a wild animal to be loosed on one's enemies.

And it would not work, if Merrill did not absolutely believe these things to be true.


Skinner does not stay the night. Hahren Merrill, pillar of the community, fucks like an Antivan sailor. She will tell Dalish this, when she returns, and kiss her with the taste of another woman on her mouth.

"If this was all to test me, I really do like him," Merrill says, her forearm thrown over her eyes, "quite a lot. He's a kind man. Very—strong. My goodness, but they make them brawny in Tevinter."

"Then why go along with"—Skinner gestures down between her legs—"this?"

"Why not?"

In those two words, and in Merrill's weary sigh, is encapsulated her last four years, Skinner imagines. The world you have built for yourself may fall apart at any time; take your pleasures where you can today, because the invincible Guard-Captain may be cut down tomorrow, or the templars may decide being an apostate outweighs your value as a peacekeeper, or Starkhaven may break through the walls and sack the city.

"I was not testing you," Skinner admits, and sits up, and kisses Merrill's shoulder. There are two old scars there, thick and knotted, from crossbow bolts, perhaps the only ones on her body not from self-inflicted wounds. They are precious, and not for Skinner to contemplate.


It is a slower march up to Sundermount, with all of the Chargers in tow. Meraas, too—and, in the end, ten archers and crossbowmen from the templars, and twenty of the City Guard. The Alerion receive them with a bewildered gratitude that verges on suspicion.

There is a feast for them, on the eve of the battle. The press of people is too much for Skinner. She heads up the mountainside, and takes her shoes off halfway to feel the dirt and rocks press against her soles. They are still hard as rock, despite her months of soft living.

The clanking of armor, heavy boots, a gait that favors the left side, slightly. "Krem," Skinner says.

"We're headed out at dawn," he says. "Best to get some rest."

"Ser, you should know," Skinner says.

Krem shrugs. "Yeah, yeah, you think this is a bad idea."

"Not that," says Skinner. "Well—yes, that, but you should know—"

"Oh," Krem says. "Right, Merrill. I know."

"You know?"

"I know," he says. His smug, crooked smile would be handsome, on an elf. She does not like the expression on a shem, but this is her lieutenant, and he is a good man. A kind man. And, apparently, brawny. Skinner has never seen the appeal of having a large partner in bed. "You don't talk to me, but I talk to Dalish."

"I talk to you," Skinner says. Her sense of the dramatic was hoping for far more than this, but, ah, well. "I'm talking to you now. Look! We are talking. But you talk to Dalish so much? Tell her she still owes me a sovereign."

"Will do." Krem puts a friendly hand on her shoulder, and she does not move, except to turn her head and stare at it. He removes the hand. "You really hate the job so much? You should've said something. The chief would've listened."

"Horns up," Skinner says, and raises her pointer fingers at either side of her head. There are whispers—they say it was the Inquisitor's word, and not Iron Bull's, that called them back from certain death and let the dreadnought sink—but not for one moment does Skinner believe them. "He would never lead us to our deaths. We have the skill and the numbers; let the Maker sort the rest out."

"You sure?"

"If I was not sure, you would know."

"That we would," he says. "Hey—there any chance the four of us could ever, you know?"

"No," she says flatly.

"Right," he says. "All right. Out of the question. Absolutely. Silly Cremisius."

"Silly Krem."

For whatever reason, this brings the smile back to his face. And then, mercifully, he leaves her be.

She does not hear Dalish approach until Dalish says, "Ma vhenan. My love. Come back to the fires; get some sleep."

Skinner shakes her head and leads her even farther from the company, off to the edge of a little cliff overlooking the camp. She sits down, legs dangling over the precipice, and looks over her shoulder. In the camp, there is Merrill and the Keeper, sitting next to each other in the shadow of an aravel, heads close together. Rocky and the chief, arm wrestling. Grim, sleeping.

She can see down the mountainside, down, at Kirkwall, clinging to its steep hill like a leech. There, the amber torchlight of Hightown. There, the fires from the docks and the Gallows, the hundred ships in the harbor, the beacons in the Twins, the wreckages of Starkhaven ships the city has not yet dredged out of the bay.

"Look at the alienage," Skinner says. "See?"

There: Lowtown is dark, but for a little corner of it where the streets are limned with green.

In Merrill's absence, some mage has come out from their bolthole and lit her streetlamps. There is no power in Thedas that can keep it dark, now. Dalish sinks to her knees next to her, and takes Skinner's hands in hers, and does not ask any questions about what this means, because she does not need to.