Winter crawled by, marking the passage of weeks by snow drifts and ice storms. The ranches and farms around Sheeplick met each day with the usual routine: stoke the fire, check the animals, feeding, cleaning, patch and repair. Hawke found herself settling into the rhythms of life until it was no longer a struggle to rise with the dawn and begin the day. She still missed Kirkwall, the excitement and ease, but there were things here to appreciate. The way the sun turned the sky pink at dawn, or the way chimney smoke curled into the clouds like a dark ribbon. The taste of fresh milk and eggs, and the smell of clean snow. For the first time in many years, Riese began to relax. And when she did have a dark day, there was Fenris.
He began to smile more, humming as he went about his daily chores. The elf had never been so happy, so pleased with himself. When the roof to the chicken coop collapsed from a snow drift, he repaired it all on his own and had to show her his handy work. He looked so proud, though it was only a mud and board shack for dirty, noisy birds. Hawke had smiled and said it was the best chicken coop in town, just for the grin that spread across his face and made his eyes light up. Life wasn't perfect, she decided, but it was good.
Hawke even managed to meet the winter thaw with a glad heart, squelching through grey snow and brown mud with abandon. It had to be sometime in early Nubilis, though it might still be the end of the second month. Honestly, it was hard to keep track out here. Pretty soon they would be tilling the fields though. Arn and Rion, two boys that worked for Tillman, had come out with a plow and left it in the barn, saying planting time was soon to come. Fenris was looking forward to it. He never planted a thing in his life and Riese wondered if he would find it so magical after a few sweaty days of digging out rocks and prodding the horse to pull the plow. That wasn't enough to dampen her excitement at the prospect of warmer weather and green, blooming things.
She was halfway through washing clothes, when Fenris opened the door with a loud, "Riese!" Hawke turned to look down the hall at him and waved one soapy hand. A bubble floated toward her face and popped under her nose, making her sneeze. The elf smiled, though it did not erase the worried look in his eyes, "I've got bad - well, not good news." "What is it," she asked, standing quickly. The wash water sloshed messily across the floor. "First peddler of the year. Tillman says he'll have goods from Redcliffe, maybe as far out as Jader." "Jader? Where is that?" Riese asked, anxiety creeping into her voice. "On the Waking Sea," he replied, coming the rest of the way in. Fenris closed the door behind him, sealing off the farmyard sounds and cold breeze.
It took a moment for the mage to process it and then her expression darkened. "Oh. News. He'll have news from Kirkwall." "Probably," the elf agreed. He crossed the space between them and wrapped his arms around her tightly. "We may have to run again," Fenris whispered into the top of her head. She barely heard him. It wasn't fair, not even a bit, she thought. But then, when was life ever? You just did what you could with what you were given. Hawke looked up at the elf and gave a trembling smile, "Well, let's try to make our next hidey hole a bit warmer. How is Seheron this time of year?"
Fenris looked at her blankly a moment and then smiled with his eyes if not his mouth. "Seheron, hm? We could disappear into the chaos, I guess." He put a kiss on her forehead before letting go. "I think we should run now, ahead of any news. I don't want to get into a fight with the people who've shown us kindness the last few months," the elf continued. Hawke nodded, then stopped. "No. I don't think we should just disappear. For all we know, the peddler might not know much of what happened in Kirkwall. This may not be so bad."
A small kernel of hope took root at the thought. Maybe they would be able to stay, at least for a little while longer. Riese didn't care much for Sheeplick but she cared a lot about seeing Fenris happy and at peace. The elf was silent, thinking. He shook his head, "I don't know. If things don't go well we may have to fight - even kill- I don't know if I can."
"We can go to town and see this peddler. Is he having some market or- ?" Riese asked, already half certain of the answer. Most peddlers would stay a few days in a town like this, relaying news and picking up post for places on their route. Since there was no village fair or market right now, he would likely host a night to show his wares at the local tavern (otherwise known as the general store counter) and take any special requests after. If he knew anything interesting, that would be when it would come out.
Fenris gave a distracted nod. "At the general store tomorrow night. He just got in today and Tillman is putting him up at his place."
"So no one in town has really talked to him yet? Just Tillman?" The elf nodded again, "As far as I can tell. Everybody saw him but I don't think he stopped to talk." Riese chewed on that bit of information. If he did have news, Tillman might already know everything. He was just one man . . . She was ashamed to realize her first thought was whether or not he could be quietly removed. The farmer had shown them nothing but kindness and even if now he regretted it, she couldn't just kill him. Or make him forget. Hawke shook her head, pushing away the tempting thrum of blood magic. It was too easy a solution, and wrong.
"What is it?" Fenris asked. "Why 'no'?" The mage gave him a lopsided grin and kiss on the cheek. "Just considering our options." "Our options?" The elf raised an eyebrow, understanding her immediately. "I won't fight-" he began but Riese forestalled him with a flat palm. "No, and neither will I." It stung a bit that he still needed her reassurance but she let it go. Now was not the time to argue.
"So what do you want to do, love?" Fenris waited for an answer. He was tense from head to toe, muscles strung tight as a bow string. Hawke put her hand on his arm, gently running her fingers from shoulder to elbow. "I want to go talk to him. Or listen, anyhow." Riese dropped her hand and went to sit down by the laundry bucket. The water was cold now and would need reheating. She stared at the damp mess in annoyance. "We can lay low until the peddler sets up his trade. If he knows anything, he'll announce it with the rest of his news."
The elf nodded, "Alright, we can wait and see. We should be ready to leave though. In case . . . " He trailed off, staring into nothing. Hawke knew exactly how he felt. That sense of being helpless while your life was torn out of your control. For Riese it was an old companion, ever since that first moment she and Carter had grabbed their family out of Lothering and fled the tide of darkspawn. The sensation hit with each calamity as she lost family and friends; this was just the latest debacle. But for Fenris, he'd never had the sense of contentment or control to lose. The elf spent his whole life at someone else's whim, first as a slave, then a refugee, and then he'd the weathered the crises in Hawke's life. It was hard to see him lose something he was only just now getting used to.
"You get our packs ready while I finish the washing," she prompted. It would help if Fenris had something to occupy his hands. The elf gave a jerky nod, pulled from his dark thoughts. He set about rounding up travel food and other essentials, moving with stiff efficiency. Hawke quietly let him get to it as she heated the water and started scrubbing again. Her spell got the water a little too hot to be comfortable. At least my hands are warm, she thought, plunging them into the bucket. The mage did her best not to think about what was coming, but all the possible scenarios spun out in her head anyhow, filling her with trepidation.
Fenris was nervous. He tried to hide it as he sorted through their small house for sleeping mats and tent stakes, beaver oil, and waxed paper - the bits and pieces of travel gear that made the road a little easier. He did not want to leave. Sheeplick wasn't the best place to live. There were giant spiders and wolves, the place had terrible wine and no entertainment. But it had become home. In the months since Tillman welcomed them to this place, Fenris got used to coming home to Hawke and a burned (or boiled, or raw) dinner. To snuggling with her on their make shift bed in the kitchen, the smells of sheep and mud and hay in his nose. He'd got used to waking early, welcomed by the sheep as he guided them into the pasture and to the sleepy, annoyed sounds of the hens when he went for eggs. To the sight of the sun as it rose over grassy hills, distant and wavering in the morning mist.
Could they really lose it on the word of just one peddler? Fenris cursed his complacency and the ease with which he settled into life here. He should have known better. When they first came, they both knew this was a temporary home in their flight from Kirkwall. A stop in the road to spend winter before moving on. But he hadn't expected to like it so much. Though the elf would never admit it to Riese, he could imagine the two of them with a passel of children here, little blonde haired beasts with Hawke's delicate nose and his own green eyes . . . he could imagine growing old here. Sitting in a chair and grumbling as the world went by. The people of Sheeplick were an ignorant lot, uneducated but accepting. They were open hearted despite the tiny world they lived in. No one called him knife ear or expected him to bow and scrape. They might gossip behind closed doors, but what folk, small town or city, didn't?
Not that his feelings about this place mattered. He knew without a doubt the people would turn on them if they learned he and Riese were involved in the destruction of the Kirkwall chantry and the massacre that took place after. Honestly, Fenris didn't blame them. He had never liked Anders and never agreed with him, but he had not truly hated the man until Anders destroyed the chantry. The deaths of all those innocent people to make some grand gesture, and worse, dirtying his own hands and that of Riese in the act . . . it was unforgivable. Even in death, Fenris hated Anders. It was the one thing he and Hawke could never agree on, no matter how much time passed. There was enough blood on Fenris' hands without adding the crimes of a companion.
So he could understand how the people of Sheeplick, their friends and neighbors, would drive them out when they learned of it. The only hope was that they would not find out. Fenris sighed. He shouldn't have let himself get attached to this place. He would mourn the loss once they were safe again, when he had a moment to look back and cherish the home they held here.
Hawke was still busy, furiously scrubbing at their dirty clothes, her face clouded with worry. She was so focused on her thoughts that she didn't see him slip on his coat and hurry out the door. Despite saying that she believed there was a possibility this peddler had no damning news and that they could stay here, her furrowed brow gave away the truth of her expectations. She knew in less than a day they would be forced back onto the road. It was sweet that she tried to cheer him by putting a positive face on the situation. The ability to hope even when things seemed hopeless was one of the things he loved about Riese. That quality had helped her through their darkest moments. Still, he knew the score this time around.
Fenris walked out to the sheep shed and knelt beside the gate to tell his charges goodbye. He knew they wouldn't really miss him. Any steady voice and firm staff was much the same to them. Still, he fancied that they understood this was goodbye as he reached through the fence slats to scratch their ears and pat their woolen backs. The ram snorted a challenge and lifted a hoof to kick at the hay, then submitted to his touch, chuffing softly. It looked at Fenris with big soft eyes, content. The elf was so relaxed he nearly didn't hear the squelch of bootsteps on the muddy path, noticing just in time to turn. His surprise must have shown on his face as he spun around.
"Didn' mean ta startle ya, there. I jus' . . ." Fuller Tillman gestured to the sack he carried, apparently at a loss for words. Fenris wasn't sure what the old man was trying to say so he stood there silent, hands covered in greasy, sheep scented muck. He was embarrassed to have been caught out with his affections in the open. "That is ah - hullo there. I was jus' bringin' up some ah - well . . ." Tillman struggled with the sentence, unable to complete it. "Food?" Fenris asked, knowing the village women often took pity on him and sent up meals to rescue them from Hawke's cooking.
"Nah, no. It's fer ladies. An' men - ah - I mean, men can - well, it ain't resolved to women anyhow." Tillman told the elf, making his burden no less mysterious. Fenris shook his head and walked to the side of the shed, wiping his hands on a rag he'd stashed there when he brought the sheep in earlier. "I have no idea what you're trying to say," he told the old man. When he turned, Tillman looked unusually serious. His eyes were dark and heavy with concern, face aging with the expression.
"Me an' some folks was talking, 'bout you an' yer lady, I ain't ashamed ta say it. We know you was running from somethin' up north. Somethin' bad, maybe real bad even." The farmer grabbed Fenris' shoulder in one hand, holding the sack out to him in the other. "We done decided whatever t'was, we got no intentions o' seeing ya run out. Not you ner Rachel." Tillman narrowed his eyes, leaning closer as Fenris opened his mouth to respond. What in the name of Andraste had they been saying about him? About Riese?
Tillman didn't let the elf interrupt. "Weena's girl does her hair up darker'n the Maker intended. This here's some o' the powder she makes fer it. Smells like the inside of'n outhouse, but it'll turn any hair s'black as the underside o' yer boot. There's enough in't fer two er three washes. Ya jus' rub it in'n then rinse off just like the fancy city soap." He shoved the bag into Fenris' hand and let go of his shoulder. The elf looked at the sack and then back at the farmer.
"What? But -" was as far as he got before Tillman spoke right over him. "We put some o' them soft lamb skinned gloves an' a scarf in it too. Figured ev'n in a big ol' town like Denerim er Redcliffe ther' can't be too many with them tattoos, all shining instead o' dark." Fuller squinted at the elf, "Might have R-rachel leave that herdin' stick at the house too if ya come inta town."
Fenris sputtered, "Wh-what? You want to - to hide us? You barely know us!" His surprise was complete. Whatever Tillman knew, it couldn't be all of it, not if he was willing to go to this much trouble to help them. "I know enough, Fenrik. That peddler's been on an' on about some nasty business with them mages up in the Free Marches. Some turrible stories. It don't take much ta put 1 an' 1 t'gether." Fuller shrugged, "I done scraped ya off the road and let ya stay here. Ya done nothin' but good since fer me and mine. Can't say's I need ta know more." The farmer turned to leave, his package delivered, purpose explained.
"Tillman, wait." The elf held out a hand, holding the sack tightly in the other. "My name isn't Fenrik. It's Fenris. And Rachel is . . . " He debated giving the old man her name as it wasn't his secret to keep but decided if he was going to be honest, he may as well be thorough. "Her name is Riese Hawke." Fuller Tillman grinned widely, "I already figured them names wasn't right. Thank ya fer trusting me. I don't plan ta spread it though." Fenris nodded, "That's not all though. Riese is a mage. An apostate."
The farmer shrugged, "Hadn't noticed no fire shootin' out her eyes yet, no demons round bouts neither." Fenris cracked a smile at that, remembering how the old man had arrived in the nick of time as they fought the blighted wolves. "She never shoots fire out of her eyes, at least on accident," the elf quipped dryly. "Yer braver than me. My wife, Maker rest her soul, couldn't throw nothin' bigger'n a fryin' pan," Tillman laughed.
Fenris wished he could leave it there, the rest of the worst unsaid. He was afraid his next words would take the smile from Tillman's face and the friendship out of his heart. "We - Riese and I - we knew the man that destroyed the chantry in Kirkwall and started this fight. I don't know what you've heard about it, but we were there when it happened. People died. Innocent people. And we," here he stumbled a bit since it was Hawke who had decided. "We let the man go. The man that did it. He died later but - we - we didn't let the templars execute him." The words stumbled out of his mouth, toneless and staccato as he struggled with how to explain their secrets.
Fuller Tillman's expression grew serious again, forehead wrinkling in thought. "Tha peddler said there was a lot o' killing and warrin' up there, mages revoltin' and blowing things up." The old man took a deep breath, thinking about what he knew. "So, so this man was yer friend?" Fenris nodded, "Riese and he were colleagues." "Didja know what he was doin? Could ya stop him from it?" The elf considered. Hawke may have known more than she told him, but he didn't think she would ever have agreed to Anders' plan, and he himself was ignorant of it until too late.
"No sir. We didn't know. If we had, it would never have happened." The words came out with more anger and passion than Fenris intended but the old man only nodded. "And ya did what ya could ta set it to rights?" The elf nodded, shuddering at the remembered battle, the scores of dead, the ash and dust and burning bodies. Horrors unleashed by magic and man. Fuller's lips edged into a half smile. "Means yer good folk what found themselves in a bad spot. Now. Don' ya ferget to rub that powder in 'afore ya come ta town. Can't have that peddler talkin' ta every blasted farmer 'tween here and Denerim about ya."
With that, Fuller Tillman turned and left, boots squelching stolidly at each step until out of earshot. Fenris looked at the sheep that stared out so placidly at him. "That farmer is the strangest man I have ever met." With that, he took the bag back into the house and set about explaining the changed situation to Riese.
Carver moved quickly, feeling almost naked without his armor. It clanked too much to wear on this kind of mission. Daisy moved in the shadows across from him and somewhere in the dark, two other elves sped to the same goal. If tonight was a success, one more slave operation in the Free Marches would find itself out of business. They had shut down two in Ostwick already. The thought made him grin, a feral white slash in his sun-dark face. He saw Merrill dart through the fence ahead, but the gap was too small for him and probably for Beren as well. The elf was almost as broad as most men, even if short. The other elf Elenia would have an easier time since she was as slight as Merrill, if taller.
The templar drew his short blade and slid up to the gate, taking it in before acting. Lyrium sang in his veins, making his vision sharper, smell and taste and hearing all elevated beyond a normal human. There were too guards stationed there, smelling heavily of sweat, garlic, and roasted meat. It made his stomach churn. He listened for more, waited to see if there was a rotation, but no one came. Carter struck out with a short leap at the nearest guard, slashing his throat in one swift, vicious attack. He shot across the gap, lashing out with a heavy boot at the other guard. The kick took the man in the belly and all the guard could do was double over, wheezing for air. Carter's blade swept down across the back of his neck, severing the head neatly. It rolled to a stop against the gate post still wearing the guard's pained expression.
Beren shot the templar a grin as he sprinted past the carnage, disappearing again into the cover of the estate ahead. Carver sighed. He would never be so good at all this sneaking and hiding, but at least he carried his weight in a fight. He paused a moment to drag the bodies out of view, shoving them into some decorative hedges. The sharp smell of broken branches mixed with the tang of blood in his nose and made his eyes water. Carver wiped at them and ended up smearing blood across his cheek. "Ugh," he sighed, annoyed. He'd clean it off after it dried. It was easier then anyway.
Ahead he heard a stifled moan and felt the stir of magic. Daisy must have found company. Though he knew she was on his side, the feel of her magic still frightened something primal in him. It stirred like a serpent in his gut, full of venom and purpose. His hair stood on end as he got closer, dread weighing on his shoulders. He didn't find Merrill at the side door to the house but he found her handiwork. Two men in Tevinter robes, vines growing up through their skin. The white and pink blossoms peeking from each destroyed eye socket were a new touch, though Carver wasn't certain if it made the dead men any easier to look at. He passed them with a shudder, ducking into the dark hallway within.
It was a servant's hall, bare of decoration, the floor clean but unpolished. He padded down it as silently as he could, wondering how far in Merrill was now and whether she had accomplished her portion of the mission. His job was simple - just sneak in, find the head of this slave operation and then kill him. Killing sleeping men was like taking candy from a baby. Easier, since dead men didn't cry.
Merrill had the hard part. She was to leave a message emblazoned someplace obvious in the house, a warning and a statement to all who would trade people like livestock. It was a dangerous proposition, since it meant going into the open. He wished she were with Beren and Elenia instead. They would slip into the slave holds and set them free, handing off some silver to each to get them out of here. Enough that they would not need to return. It had shocked Carver to learn that many of the slaves sold themselves into it. Desperate people do desperate things, he thought. Even signing away their lives for a bit of food and a warm bed.
Loosing slaves had less risk, since the slaves were happy to take the money and run. A few guards at the pens were nothing Merrill couldn't handle, after all. But stepping into the open, attention on scribing her message to the slavers . . . it was a vulnerable position. She needed someone to watch her back, but the Keeper believed adding another to their mission would only increase the danger. Five instead of four didn't seem like it would change much, but Carver shrugged off the old arguments that came to mind. When he'd sought sanctuary in the alienage, he had agreed to obey the Keeper's word as law. There was no point in questioning now. He had enough broken oaths behind him.
Carver headed up a set of narrow stairs, past a small kitchen and washroom. One closed door was likely a servant's bedroom, but he let it be. The slaver would have better quarters, something with a cool sea breeze and a nice view. They always did, he thought with a wry grin. The trade had it's perks, but then, terrible deeds always seemed to offer great payouts. All it cost was your soul. He could understand how that might seem like a small price to pay. In a way, Carver thought, he had done the same when he swore to the Keeper. His only consolation in dark moments was the belief that this crusade of hers, this path to freedom, was truly a good cause.
The door at the top of the stairs opened into a cubby beside a larger, grander staircase. The floor here was polished marble, so bright the orange lamp light seemed to have two fires, one above his head and the other below his feet. The wall to his left was hung with tapestries depicting dragons doing battle with gold plated knights, ornate brass oil lamps hung between each. The other side was a series of archways, the room beyond done up in blue and turquoise to compliment the sea beyond. Carver surveyed the room, noting the low slung couches and gilt enameled chairs, shelves with books bound in untitled leather, and one servant sitting on a wooden stool. His head was leaned into his hands, probably asleep as he waited on his master's whim. Carver took a moment to pity the man as he knocked him solidly behind his ear. No need to kill the poor guy, after all. He was probably one of the slaves they were here to free. So thinking, the templar slipped a gold piece into the servant's pocket as he settled the man on the floor.
With that done, Carver made his way silently toward the slaver's bed. It was round, with scalloped edges and pearl white sheets, making it look like some strange lumpen shell in the dim light. Be a shame to get blood all over those fine sheets, he thought, edging closer. The Tevinter man slept soundly on one side, closed eyes gazing toward windows that looked out at the sea. He was probably dreaming of travel or perhaps home. In a way, Carver pitied him. He had made a terrible choice, and today the balance on that decision was due. At least this would be swift, a less painful end than the long, hard lives the slaves he took were given. All Carver need do was remember the starved, beaten slaves they'd found in the last slave hold to harden his heart. He grabbed the man's hair and slid his blade down across the soft flesh of his exposed throat.
The slaver's eyes flew open, blood gurgling from the gaping ruin of his neck. He searched in panic, gaze flitting back and forth until they landed on the templar. The slaver seemed to understand as he looked out at Carver, body relaxing as he slid from awareness into the blank stare of death. Carver let go of the body. It barely made a sound as it sank into the sheets. He wiped his hands on the edge of the coverlet, and dabbed at his face. It was lace, soft and delicate in his rough hands, and now smeared with blood that looked black in the moonlight. The templar turned, mouth twisting with distaste as he paced from the room. He took little effort to hide his passage, going down the broad, elaborate staircase instead of the servant's passage. It was wide enough to pass a carriage, the wood carved in elaborate patterns of waves and shells. His feet thumped hollowly down them, ignorant of the beauty beneath each step. It led to the entry hall and parlor, where Merrill's handiwork decorated the floor. Servants or guards, he could not tell beneath the twisting vines and blooming flowers. The corpses smelled rotten already, the intestines burst, innards perfuming the air.
On the wall above them, writ large in letters burned into the stone, "We are the Elvhenan and we will be free."