Carver sat in the driver's seat of an old wooden wagon. It shuddered every time they rolled over a bump, joints shrieking in protest. The sound grated on his nerves and put him on edge. The blighted thing should be put out of its misery. Better to walk than to put up with it. The templar grimaced, silently cursing the whole situation. Honestly, Carver wasn't sure how he'd ended up here. There was still so much work to be done in the Val Royeaux alienage; they'd barely gotten started.
Charity brought the rebellion converts en masse, and Carver's group sent them on, five or ten at a time to the forest where they would meet the elvhenan. The Dalish split them up on arrival, send them out with different caravans to be trained and educated. To help where they were needed. It was a good system, and the work kept Carver's mind off other things.
He'd been handing out sacks of food in this same blasted cart when Merrill found him. She'd said they were leaving and told him little else. Carver hadn't the heart to ask more; he kept his conversations with her brief. Merrill made it clear she wasn't interested, couldn't be. It hurt, but the ex-templar figured maybe it was better this way. There was less to lose. Carver threw himself into the rebellion with reckless abandon, willing to do whatever task they asked of him. If that meant leaving the alienage, then so be it. The details were unimportant.
As if summoned by his thoughts, the Dalish mage appeared to the left of the wagon, mud caked up to her knees, hair greased and gritty with bits of the forest tangled in her curls. Merrill nodded to him. "Scouts say we're getting close. There's a clearing - you should stop there." She flashed the templar a grim smile and ducked back into the forest.
Carver wanted to ask what was close, but Merrill disappeared in the dense greenery before his mouth formed the words. He felt a flash of annoyance. He'd walked away from his family for her. Daisy could at least . . . pretend they were still friends. The templar sighed. It was probably out of kindness that she kept her presence brief. She didn't want to encourage his affections. Carver wished it was that easy, that somehow avoiding her would ease the ache in his chest, but it didn't help at all. Even the sweet lyrium song he craved did nothing to lessen his need for Dalish mage. Separately equal requirements for life, leaving him empty if either one was absent.
The clearing came up faster than expected. Carver pulled the wagon to one side and hopped down, giving the horses a pat. With no idea what was coming, he decided to unhook them from the traces and give them a quick rub down. They could graze and rest till it was time to move on. A scout entered the clearing as he was finishing with the horses. The templar didn't recognize the hunter or the stumbling city elf that followed, but that was nothing unusual. He didn't know many of the Dalish, and converts all pretty much looked alike after a while.
"He's going to watch the cart," the scout told Carver, gesturing to the exhausted city elf. The templar felt a pang of sympathy for the newcomer. He'd probably been walking the better part of the last three days, with little food and less rest. Poor guy hadn't any idea how hard rebellion could be. Still, the elf managed to bob his head in acquiescence and made to climb onto the cart bench.
"More comfortable in the back," Carver said, ignoring the scout for a moment. "And if you're hungry, there's dried fruit in the open sack on the left."
The city elf gave a wan smile and tottered around to the back. He didn't go for the food, but rested his head against the side rail after climbing up. "Thanks."
The hunter scowled. "You're here to keep an eye on things. Don't get too comfortable." The elf sighed and sat up. Carver gave him a sympathetic smile. The convert would get used to life on the move. They all did. Or they didn't make it. He put that thought from his mind as he turned attention back to the hunter.
"Are you ready then?" the scout asked, looking pointedly at the templar.
"Ready as I get, unless you've got a set of plate armor in your pockets." Carver gave him a hard grin. The scout ignored the comment and set off at a ground eating pace. How the short, slight elves managed to walk so swiftly and so silently always astounded the templar. Even in this shitty, soft leather armor he made twice as much noise as one of them.
It didn't take long to figure out why they stopped the cart back in the meadow. The air between the trees stank of spent magic. The residue made the lyrium crawl in his veins, vibrating with echoes of recent spells. A few steps further in and he sighted the first burnt corpses, elves with armor blackened and crisp, skin cracked and oozing. Some still lived, breath rattling from raw, gaping mouths, whistling past the melted flesh of their nostrils. Carver steadied himself as a wave of crimson rage surged through him. He pulled his sword from its scabbard and focused his energy toward the nearby mages. His senses tugged him on past the carnage.
Between the trees Carver made out the patched ground of an old, rutted cart track. He knew the mages couldn't be much further. The templar was rewarded as he came around a bend in the path with the sight of four ratty wagons circled round, their paint peeling, cloth covers grey and frayed. The general look of disrepair was proved false by the condition of their wheels, bound in steel with polished spokes, fire hardened and new enough to sport an oiled sheen. The deception was just enough to avoid drawing bandits, but didn't extend to the parts needed for speed. Typical smuggler's tactic.
The carts were stopped in a crooked ring around a group of men and elves. The elves were bound, kneeling on the ground in rows while the men sheltered behind them. Some of the men were robed; others wore armor in leather and steel. It didn't take an educated man to figure out the situation. Slavers, Tevinter or otherwise, and their cargo. Carver didn't give himself time to think; it was easier that way. Instinct led as he barreled forward, shouldering past the rough, splintered edge of a cart and into the circle of flesh.
One slave valiantly pushed to his feet to stand between the templar and the mages, but Carver kicked him in the chest and sent him crashing backward. Poor sod. That left a clear opening to thrust at one enemy, sword cleaving easily through the studded leathers to find the meat behind it. The man dropped, not dead yet but gushing life's blood into the dirt. A nearby slaver in robes sent skirling threads of fire toward the templar's unprotected face, but the spell dissipated harmlessly against the lyrium fueled aura that surrounded Carver. He stepped to the side with a two handed sweep of his blade, shearing the mage's head from his shoulders.
For a moment, Carver was blinded by a warm, red fountain of blood. I could have angled that better, he thought, as a spear tipped staff jabbed his direction. Only luck sent it scraping across a bit of metal plating and into the soft meat of his upper arm. The templar gave a hoarse cry of pain and pulled back. His attacker fell with a Dalish arrow in his throat.
Carver kept moving, feet slipping on ground muddied by spilt fluids. Left, slide, catch yourself, bring the blade around in guard . . . it was like a dance, one he knew so well he'd forgotten the steps even while he went through them. As the corpse of another slaver slid to the ground, the templar felt a push at his back, barely a breath of force. Carver had the space of a heartbeat to turn, but movement is slower than thought. The templar was shoved into muck and darkness.
When he opened his eyes again, he was clean and warm and dry, a feeling he'd almost forgotten in the last year. His sheets were nearly white on a bed of - Carver took a moment to poke at the mattress tentatively - feather down. The templar closed his eyes again, wondering where the hell this was and how he'd come here. His body felt strangely free of familiar aches and pains too. It was very tempting to stay where he was, wrapped in soft sheets, but the pervasive sense of calm in this room set his nerves on edge.
Carver sat up warily, holding the blanket to his naked chest. A quick glance around the room told him his gear and clothing hadn't been left here. The room was empty, though a large fire burned in the hearth across from him and a wooden stool was set squarely in front of it. There was a table beside the bed and a clay mug within his reach. The polished wood floor was mostly covered by a large and obnoxiously colored rug. All in all, much too nice for one unemployed ex-templar or the elven rebellion he worked for. But certainly on par for a successful slaver. That would figure, he thought. Well, any slaver that thought a templar needed weapons to be dangerous was about to get a lesson. Of course, it would be nice to have clothes on when doing the teaching.
The rug was soft and warm under Carver's bare feet as he stood and shuffled over to the fire. He wrapped the blanket around his hips and stood there frowning a moment. There was no way he was getting far dressed in only a sheet. Maybe a sheet and some boots would do . . . He picked up the mug and sniffed at it. The smell was stale but not bitter, and a careful sip told him this was boiled barley water. All the flavor of a piss-poor beer and none of the pleasantness. It just reminded him that he was hungry and thirsty.
When the cup was empty, the templar set it down, frowning. Then, before he could think too much about it, he picked up the stool in one hand, holding it like a club. Three steps, grab the door handle, and pull. The door flew open with barely a squeak. Carver dove out, landing in an awkward crouch. He swung the stool left, then right as he straightened. "Stay back!"
Movement in the center of the room caught his eye and he took an involuntary step back, heel thudding against the wall.
The stool pitched from his hand to fly toward the movement and then stopped its forward motion as an unseen force slapped it to the ground. "What a way to greet your savior." The voice was familiar, as was the face that came into view.
"Anders?" Carver's eyebrows crawled toward his hairline and his jaw fell open. "You died!"
"Turns out death isn't as permanent as everyone makes it sound," the apostate shrugged, grinning. His face was gaunt, skin pulled tight to his skull, with feverish, burning eyes peering out from the shadows of his brow.
The templar shivered, flesh prickling at the unnatural energy around the mage. It washed against his senses like a bad odor. "I've heard that," Carver replied cautiously.
Anders laughed, a warm, rich sound at odds with his desiccated body. "I am sure you have. It's easy to forget how much you've seen in your . . . line of work."
"I'm not a templar anymore, if that's what you mean."
The mage shrugged, "Not a templar? I suppose it’s true. It might be easier if you were." Anders motioned to some chairs behind him. "You look tired. You should sit, relax. I don't plan on hurting you."
"Don't plan on it or won't?" Carver asked, staying where he was.
Another laugh. "We were friends once. Let's keep this civil. You keep yourself to yourself and I won't do anything to you that you don't ask for."
The templar felt something slide against his mental defense seeking a weakness. It was a feeling he knew well from his time in the circle, the push of a questing demon. He tried to mask his realization, relaxing his stance. "Ok. I hope this means you plan to let me loose. I need to find Mer- my friends."
Anders nodded, "I understand. And of course I plan to let you go. It's why I had you brought here rather than the inn. Just me and you, no one to get between us and complicate matters." The apostate sat down and Carver followed suit. There were three chairs facing each other and a table with a few books stacked atop it. Some shelves on one wall, and a locked cabinet. Nothing to use as a weapon, and no idea where the door on the opposite wall led.
"So what is this . . ." Carver gestured to the room and himself. He didn't want to give anything away to get some answers. Anders, or whatever lived in his body, had some plan. That much was obvious.
The mage gave a wry smile. "It's a house I've taken residence in when I need some private time. My followers are . . ." the smile turned gleeful and more than a little vicious. "Ardent in their devotion.”
"And me? I'm here because?"
"You're a friend." Anders shrugged. "Do I need more reasons?"
Carver crossed his arms. "Bullshit."
"Blighted, suspicious ass," the mage laughed. "Alright. So I have more reasons. You were with a group of those Dalish rebels. The ones that think they will reclaim their homeland. That their gods are returning. It's curious, to say the least. I was hoping you would be more willing to talk than they are."
The templar scowled. "I don't know much about that. I just go where I'm told and do what needs doing. What about you? I thought you were all for freedom."
"Yes . . . and no," Anders shrugged. "Freedom, as it turns out, has a price. I paid it once when I died and again when I came back. And now others are paying the cost of freedom for our descendants. The mages and children of mages that come after us. You should hear my speeches about it. Very stirring, or so I'm told."
He leaned forward until his face was only a hand span from Carver. His breath was hot and smelled of spices and rot, eyes glistening with a feral intensity. For a moment the templar was almost overwhelmed as the demon's awareness assailed his mind. A cold tremor ran up Carver's spine, and between his legs an unwelcome heat and excitement blossomed. Thank the Maker for Meredith's harsh training, he thought, giving Ander's a grim smile as he distanced his mind from the physical reaction.
"Do I stir you, old friend?" The apostate asked, laying a hand on Carver's bare leg.
"About as much as my morning shit," the templar replied.
Anders' eyes widened in surprise and then he threw his head back and laughed. "You put up twice the fight of any of those so called magisters and their tame little templars. Ah, truly you are your sister's kin. Alright. Enough games. I need you to call your elven friends off my slave routes. Send them after the Orlesians, the Fereldans, or Free Marchers, but tell them Tevinter is off limits."
"Why should I?"
"Because if you don't, they will be slaughtered." The apostate smiled as he said it, a look so alien to the man Anders had been that it made Carver shiver.
Hawke surveyed the port with distaste. Landing was a welcome prospect but the miasma of dead fish, seaweed, and rotting wood did little for her already sensitive belly. She swallowed rapidly, but it wasn't enough to keep her gorge down. Riese grabbed the rail and leaned over, adding the contents of her belly to the swirling brown waters of the bay. Behind her, one of the sailors guffawed. It was hard to look dignified while vomiting, Hawke thought. At least Sebastian's templars didn't laugh at her. Not openly anyway.
"Drop anchors!" The captain's shout brought a scurry of activity to the ship, barefoot sailors darting here and there, and the grinding slide of the huge anchor chain as it slipped beneath the waves. Riese did her best to stay out of the way, wishing they could go faster. After what seemed half a lifetime, a small boat was lowered to the water, and a rope ladder rolled down to its deck.
Sebastian's templars were the first to board. Varlin, a taciturn man much favored by the prince, followed by his friend Harold, a templar Hawke could almost stand. At least Harold didn't look at her as if she was lower than mud. After those two, three sailors clambered into the boat and then Sebastian. She knew it was her turn next, but it was hard to move when she looked down the side of the ship. The landing boat creaked and shook beneath her, violent in comparison to the barge they had arrived on.
"Hurry up Hawke," the prince urged. One of the sailors straddled the ladder and the lip of the rowboat, holding it as still as he could. She could see him roll with each churning wave, his knees jogging up and down, up and down. Her stomach did a flip and she felt warm bile rise in her throat.
"Can't I take the next one?"
The sailor holding the ladder laughed and Sebastian shook his head. "You'll be happier once we're on the docks. Come on, or I'll send Varlin up to fetch you." The templar gave a curt nod but didn't move.
Riese had no doubt he would carry out the order if it was given. She clamped her jaw shut and crab walked to the rope. The sailor grinned up at her with his gap-toothed smile. Hawke swallowed once, turned her back on the water, closed her eyes, and lowered herself onto the ladder. It was wet and rough on her hands, a solid reassuring discomfort. The smell of tar and wood was stronger this close to the hull, and she breathed in the welcome change from harbor stench.
One step and then another, one step and then another. Riese gasped in surprise when the sailor grabbed her hips and hefted her the rest of the way into the boat, but she was grateful for the assist. Sebastian wisely said nothing, but she caught the edge of a smile tugging up the corner of his lips. Varlin was muttering under his breath while Harold watched the shoreline, ignoring the whole episode.
Hawke white-knuckled it for the rest of the short trip to the docks, eyes focused on her boots as the small boat tossed in the waves of the bay. When it ground to a halt alongside a wooden pier, she stumbled out and shuffled to solid land as quickly as she could. The sailor behind her sniggered loudly, but Riese chose to ignore it in favor of savoring the blessing of sweet, unmoving earth.
"Ready ta go or still worshipping the ground?" Sebastian asked, stepping up beside her. He looked none the worse for wear, cheeks pinked by the cool ocean breeze, hair tousled. His blue eyes were as intense as ever, focused not on her, but their surroundings.
Dock workers and fishermen bustled past, disinterested in the newcomers. The whole place rang with a constant hum of busy movement punctuated by orders shouted from deck or dock. It was reassuring to see a place moving along at such an ordinary pace, as if nothing in the world was wrong - could go wrong. Hawke envied them that blissful ignorance.
"I'm ready," the mage replied, looking back to see Varlin completing business with the sailor. The other templar was already moving ahead, scouting the area. "Where are we headed?"
"There's a small trade road out the west gate. It's the fastest route to Val Foret."
Riese motioned to the bustle around them. "We aren't stopping for the day? After all that time on the boat . . ." She sighed, "At least walking is better than sailing."
The prince shrugged, "I didn't see a point to waiting about."
"Great," Hawke replied flatly. No bath, no soft, soft bed. No hot meal at a table that didn't pitch with the motion of the ship. Just road dirt and hard tack to look forward to. The mage shook her head in resignation. Together, the two followed after Harold. The templar was already a few streets ahead; if they lost sight of him in the crowd, he was easy enough to find again as the light bounced off the polished edges of his armor.
It rankled Riese that everyone but her knew the plan. Everyone being the prince, the two templars, and whoever they were meeting here. As they walked, she watched Sebastian from the corner of her eye wondering what else she didn't know about. Though they'd grown closer on the trip, Hawke still didn't trust him. He'd turned on her too quickly in Kirkwall, and even if that had been in anger, what would happen now should he become angry again?
Dark thoughts followed her as they walked past the town center, with its attractive street of inns and taverns, and into the merchant district. Tenements and houses shared street space with shops and carts. The ground here was paved, with ditches to each side to keep the road clear of mud and filth. Several weavers and cloth merchants clustered here, selling everything from skeins of wool to rugs and fabric in every color she could imagine. The smells of lanolin and wool reminded Hawke of her time on the farm and Fenris with their small flock of sheep. She stopped near an outdoor loom and took a breath to savor the memory. Of all the things to miss.
Sebastian looked at her over his shoulder, pausing for her to catch up. "See something interesting?"
Riese shook her head. "No. Nothing, really." She didn't much feel like sharing her thoughts.
The templar Varlin, ever suspicious, stopped to investigate. The poor weaver gave a squawk of surprise as he checked her yarn and harness, peering between the skeins. What he thought he might find Hawke didn't know.
It just added to her mounting irritation with this situation. Even if Sebastian hadn't set Varlin to watch her, it was obvious that was the templar's purpose. If the prince didn't trust her, then why travel with him? She could as easily reach Val Foret on her own and handle Anders and the demon in her own way. It was frustrating that the prince at times seemed like his old self, kindly, considerate, bold and impetuous. Other times he was a stranger, his boldness turned to a cold determination, kindness all but gone.
"If you keep wearing that face, it'll stick," the prince nudged her, tone jovial.
"I'm not making a face," Hawke snapped.
"But you are! Like you just ate mudfish. Or had a sip of dwarven beer," Sebastian went on, grinning broadly.
"I was just - just thinking," Riese began, tempted to unleash her frustration. Her thoughts evaporated in a blinding wave of energy. It surged up within her and around her, washing everything away in a brilliant, green flash.
"She did something." Varlin's voice, thick with anger and fear.
"I doubt it." Harold, defensive, worried.
Distant cries of fear, shouting, and the smell of something burning. "Hawke wouldna done something like this. Wouldna had anything to do with it. Now quiet. I'm going back out." Sebastian. Boots on a creaking wood floor, then silence again.
Riese opened her eyes slowly, blinking away a vermillion haze that seemed to settle in the corners of her vision everywhere she looked. The edge of a cold, sharp blade pressed against her throat before she could do sit up.
"She's awake." Varlin stared down at her with disgust. His hand trembled slightly, the razor edge shivering against her bare skin.
Harold nodded, putting a hand on Varlin's shoulder. "You can put that up. If the prince trusts this mage, so do I. They aren't all bad."
"Bad enough," the templar murmured, but he sheathed the knife.
"What - what happened?" Hawke sat up moving slow and careful. She felt disoriented, much as she did when she dreamt in the Fade. It was odd for the waking world to be so disjointed, as if the universe had forgotten which way was up and which was down.
"The world is ending," Varlin spat, glaring at her. "Thanks to your kind. You finally pulled the demons down on us all."
"Look outside," Harold said, ignoring the other templar. "Just be discreet. We don't want to draw attention to this place."
Riese stood, wobbling a bit. She noticed for the first time the people huddled in the back of the room. There were maybe ten of them, all pallid and worn. Women and men that looked like shopkeepers, just villagers and their children. Now they held each other and cried quietly, cringing at every sound.
The shutters were closed tight, but Hawke could see between the slats. Outside, the sky was a sickly green and the air was thick with magic. Whispers from spirits benign and malicious inundated her soul. Riese felt nauseous as she looked out onto the nightmare of the city streets. People ran screaming, as demons chased them down, while others reveled in new found powers, their bodies succumbing to the corruption within. It was everything the chantry feared and worse. What could have torn the veil so thoroughly? Hawke had to find out.