Epilogue: Against Us and Within Us
Author's Note: this chapter contains major spoilers for the ending of DA2. Proceed at your own risk.
He wasn't usually in the habit of bedding men he'd just met.
Still, it had been a long few years, and Anders was being... Let's just say he's being Anders, and leave it at that. The quickly deteriorating situation inside of Kirkwall, his lover's continued withdrawal from his own life (not to mention Etain's), the sense that this long, lonely road was not going to end anywhere he was going to be happy with—all of it was a grinding burden. No amount of drinking in the Hanged Man could help lighten it.
Everything he did that wasn't related to politics was an attempt to distract himself from them. Including agreeing to hunt down an assassin for a bunch of shady-looking Antivans. Including deciding that the assassin was telling the truth, and the Antivans had lied about why they had wanted to track down this elf.
He'd always resented being dragged into other people's internecine battles, and he was tired of being lied to.
So here he was, following the elf through scrub and between stone outcroppings, leaving his people behind. (Fenris had just shaken his head; Aveline had give him a dirty look but hadn't said anything, and Merrill had evidently found the idea delightful. Or maybe she'd thought that Etain really was going to just go talk to Zevran. Hard to tell what precisely was going on in Merrill's head, if anything.) His Mabari was at his heels; Etain went exactly nowhere without Dumat these days. It helped remind people that there was a reason he'd never been put forward as a serious candidate for the viscount's position.
Other than the being an apostate thing, that was.
The Mabari reminded people that the Champion of Kirkwall was a Fereldan, despite everything he'd done to and for Kirkwall. Even if his accent had faded as the years had gone by. Even if he had lost almost everything he had originally come to Kirkwall with except a friendship with Aveline, his dog, and his name. The whispers of dog lord and dirty Fereldan followed him still.
"And here we are," the assassin said, as they rounded a corner. "Home, as it were."
Dumat gave a low woof of warning, and Etain froze. That was—
"You know, Zev," the woman who was crouched by the small fire said, "You might have warned him."
"And miss seeing that look on his face?" the assassin said. He broke into a grin. "Not likely, little bird."
The woman rolled her eyes and straightened. There was another man in the small camp, a tall fellow with ginger hair and a look about him that spoke of long hours spent wielding a sword. There a small pack Mabari, at least four, all of whom were on their feet and wagging cautiously. One of them looked older than the rest; he moved stiffly, and his muzzle was nearly white. Dumat, beside Etain, opened his mouth and let his tongue loll. The Mabris approached each other, sniffing.
The woman was small, dressed in clothing both drab and dusty, but she wore a fine sword at her waist as if it were merely another part of her body. Everything about her was sharply carved, and pointed—high cheekbones, an angular jaw, thin fingers. A terrible scar ran down one side of her face, from temple to jaw, touching and twisting the corner of her eye and mouth. Maybe she'd been pretty once, but no longer.
She looked oddly familiar, and he couldn't quite work out why.
She snorted. "Sorry about Zevran," she said in a strong Fereldan accent. "And about luring you here under false pretenses. But we needed to speak with you, and I can't exactly walk into Kirkwall. Best that nobody ever know we were here."
"And you are?" Etain managed at last.
The woman smiled, lopsided. "That's Cullen. The Mabari are—well, we'll introduce you to the pack in a bit. And—" She paused, then sighed. "Lorn? Where are Cerys and Myf?"
The Mabari with the grizzled muzzle gave a sharp bark and bounded away. "Our daughter's name is Cerys," the woman said. "I am Kathil."
Etain frowned. Why was that name familiar? "Odd, that's the same name as—" He stopped. "Kathil Amell. Hero of Ferelden."
The corner of her mouth twitched. "Hello, cousin."
He goggled briefly, abruptly seeing the resemblance-he saw her colorless hair and black eyes every time he looked in a mirror, and she had the same Amell nose as him and Carver. (Bethany had gotten Father's nose, to her great fortune.)
She has Mother's hands.
"There are people looking for you," he said.
She raised an eyebrow. "I know. Some of them old friends. But—circumstances are as they are, and there are things that you need to know. Sit down. We have a lot—oh, Cerys."
The Mabari had returned, accompanied by a small child, maybe five years old, followed by a young Mabari. Both of them were covered in mud from head to toe, and the girl wore nothing but a scrap of blanket around her waist. Under the mud, her hair might have been blonde. She brandished a sharp stick with a wide smile.
Zevran laughed. "My little barbarian." He strode over and picked her up, paying no heed to the amount of mud that was transferred to his own clothing. "Come, we will get you cleaned up, yes? And what have you done with your clothes?"
The child bit her lip. "Um..."
Kathil sighed. "You should never have told her about that Alamarri tradition of going into battle naked," she said. "We don't have a lot of time. We'll get Etain caught up while you get Cerys washed off."
There was scant shade in the boulder-ringed camp, but they made use of what there was. Kathil began telling him a tale that he would have found implausible if this hadn't been the woman who had killed the Archdemon, if Etain hadn't spent the last several years in love with a man who was an abomination if one were to define the term strictly. If he hadn't been saved, once, by a woman who called herself Flemeth.
Cullen (who, it turned out was a former Templar, and Etain received the shock of his life when he casually referred to himself as one of Cerys's fathers) chimed in during part of it, and Zevran told his own part of the tale when he brought a freshly-washed Cerys back to them. The girl had curled up in her mother's lap, and was peeking at Etain from behind Kathil's braid. The grizzled Mabari was sitting with his head on Kathil's foot. "And that's about the lot of it," she said. "From what I can tell, the same thing is poised to happen across Thedas. The Orlesian Chantry is a disaster waiting to happen, and the Imperial Chantry is honestly not much better. From the sounds of things, it's worse in Kirkwall than just about anywhere else."
"I know," Etain said grimly. "Trust me, I know. There are days that I just want to chuck the whole thing into the sea and go find something else to do with my life. But Anders…" He scratched the back of his neck. "Anders loves lost causes, and I love him, so in Kirkwall I stay."
The others exchanged a long look. "Anders?" Kathil asked. "As in a mage who's also a Grey Warden? Blond, nice eyes, very, very angry?"
"Yes," he said, taken a little aback. "I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised you know him—he was from the Fereldan Grey Wardens, and there aren't that many."
Kathil rubbed a thumb along the scar that ran down her cheek. "Be careful with him," she said, quietly. "I knew him in the Circle Tower. Remember that Grey Wardens are capable of doing just about anything to defeat the darkspawn. Sometimes, that…spills over into the rest of our lives. It's a mindset that's hard to shake. If things go very wrong and you have to leave, come find us." She bent her head forward to kiss her daughter's hair. "We should go. Your friends will start to get suspicious. Time to pack up, Cerys."
The girl hopped off her mother's lap, gave Etain one last, shy look, and slipped off to where packs were piled by a boulder. "I have something for you," Kathil said. She strode to her pack and pulled out two books, one thin as a volume of poetry, the other thicker. She brought them to Etain and handed them to him.
"What are they?" he asked.
She paid a finger on the cover of the thicker book. "The closest thing we have to a comprehensive study of lyrium that currently exists. It's written by Dagna, of the Circle in the Stone. And the other is…well. Just read it. Try not to let it get far beyond your reach. It's heresy, more or less, but there are some things inside of it that you might need to know." She ran a sword-calloused hand over her hair. "This war will be fought with steel and magic, but it will be won with words. These are some of the words you're going to want on your side."
After Etain returned to Kirkwall, he found that Anders was down at the clinic late, as usual. He said hello to Bodhan and went up to his room, flinching as usual from the darkened alcove that held the door to Mother's room.
He lit a lamp, and opened the thinner of the two volumes. It was written in an educated hand, with the sort of angularity that they taught the Templars. He'd surely seen enough missives and posters penned by them to recognize it when he saw it.
On the first page, standing alone, were the words, The Canticle of Demons.
He read, and began to understand.
He was rather surprised that there was an afterwards. Orsino had gone mad (and it had felt good to kill the bastard, after realizing what he had been complicit in) and then there had been Meredith.
He strongly suspected that most of his nightmares were going to feature Meredith, from now on.
The rest, of course, were going to feature Anders glowing blue-white, smacking his staff against the stone. And a sound like the sky itself tearing in half, as if the Maker himself had screamed with Etain as he realized what Anders had done.
Even now, he felt sick and empty. He had tried to save Kirkwall from itself, walked a careful line for years, and in a single moment the man he loved had undone everything he had worked for. He should have sent Anders away when he'd realized what was lurking under Kirkwall. He hadn't wanted to believe the crumpled pieces of parchment written by an anonymous hand that detailed what the Tevinter magisters had done, what they had unbound.
He'd thought love and friendship could save Anders.
I don't think love ever saved anything.
But in the end, he couldn't bear to make a martyr of his lover, to complete what Anders so clearly wanted—expected—him to do. That would have been no justice at all.
He glanced at Anders, who was walking silently beside him. Fenris and Isabela were in front of them, Merrill behind them with Aveline, Donnic, and Varric. Something caught Fenris's eye, and he glanced over his shoulder at the rest of them and jerked his head. "Water. That way."
There was no pursuit. Ser Mathias would forestall anyone who thought to track them, Etain thought, at least for a while. It was safe enough to stop.
The stream was more of a rivulet, but it was deep enough for drinking and for washing the sweat and dust from their faces. The wind was blowing from the south, bringing with it stone dust and smoke from Kirkwall as it smoldered behind them.
Merrill was using her scarf to scrub her face. Fenris washed his hands, over and over again. Varric picked imaginary lint from Bianca's stock. Isabela scuffed her toe in the dirt, twisting her foot, like she did when she was angry but didn't think it worth her time to start a fight. Anders just drank from his cupped hands, then turned away from the rest of them.
It was Aveline who spoke at last. "So. What now, Hawke?"
Etain was kneeling on the sandy bank, letting the water run over his scarred hands. For a moment, he didn't answer.
So many scars. So many foes, over the years. So many times Anders had run his fingers over Etain's wounds, laughed, told him that the object was to keep the enemy away from him. You do know that the advantage of being a mage is being able to stay off the battlefield proper, right? He'd loved Anders in those moments, no less than he'd loved him when they were fighting back to back, or when he would grasp Etain's wrist in one strong hand and pull him towards bed. No less than he'd loved him when Justice would put in an appearance, sometimes just as a glimmer in Anders' pupils.
He'd loved Justice, too. That was the hard thing, the stupid thing, that he'd loved what could never, ever love him in return. Like loving a mountain, or a bolt of lightning; like loving a lamppost or a painting. Like loving a city, and watching it destroy itself.
And now it was done. Over. Perhaps one day he'd feel that again, for one or the other of them. Until then, he was a guardian, a custodian. He could no more let Anders and Justice into the world by themselves than he would let a child wander off unsupervised, than he would tell his dog to go find his own way home.
Everyone was looking at him.
He lifted his hands from the water. Sunlight caught the drops that fell from his hands, turned them into brief diamonds. "I'm going to go look for my cousin. You are all welcome to join me, or not."
"Your cousin?" Merrill asked. She looked up from where she was crouched, reminding Etain of nothing so much as a mouse pausing in the middle of a good face-washing, listening for danger. "The Warden? Oh...I remember you telling me this. She killed the Archdemon."
"The same." He stood, shook the water off his hands. "I met her once. She told me to come find her if things went pear-shaped, and, well..." He gestured at the smoke staining the horizon. "This qualifies."
Varric was eyeing him with avid interest. "You never mentioned you met the Hero of Ferelden. What's she like?"
Etain shook his head. "Honestly? Short. And I would really not like to get between her and something she wants. I'll find her eventually, if you want to tag along."
Anders stirred and lifted his head. His eyes were dull. "I ran away from her, you know. You're going to drag me along, aren't you." It was not a question.
"I am." And that was a question—I won't if you really object—but Anders just dropped his head, stared at his feet. Thought so.
"For now—" his voice was too loud, it always was when he was trying to pretend things were somehow normal— "I want to put some distance between us and Kirkwall."
Distance. Distance was a good idea. Behind them was a courtyard where Carver lay dead, a graveyard where his mother lay buried. Farther behind, a Blight-wracked clearing where Bethany had died.
Beneath Kirkwall, there was something half-awake and unbound, and everyone above going mad within its regard.
In his pack, there was a thin volume written in a Templar's copperplate hand, describing how Despair had lost her daughter Hope, and to what lengths she was willing to go to regain her.
This war will be fought with steel and magic, but it will won with words.
They turned north, and walked the rutted road into another story altogether.
No poison cup,
no penance. Merely a notion that the tape-recorder
should have caught some ghost of us: that tape-recorder
not merely played but should have listened to us,
and could instruct those after us:
this we were, this is how we tried to love,
and these are the forces we had ranged against us,
and these are the forces we had ranged within us,
within us and against us, against us and within us.
-Adrienne Rich, from twenty-one love poems: XVII
And this finishes Old Roads! That's right, I am FINALLY FINISHED. For a little while there, I was rather afraid it was going to finish me than the other way around, but the story and I pulled through together. I have been writing Old Roads for 18 months, mostly straight through. I am startled that something that was originally never going to see the light of day took on this huge life of its own, but I am glad it did.
For those who are curious, the timeline of DA2 has been significantly modified to make it work with the Old Roads timeline; the Hawke story still took ten years to unfold, but Act 1 took a lot longer and Acts 2 and 3 were shorter.
I want to thank everyone who has read this, reviewed, favorited, kudo'ed, commented, etc. You guys are totally the reason I kept writing this. (and hi, my faithful anon commenter Judy! Thank you!) Thanks also go to Crisium for being an inspiration, Bladesworn for the green ribbon that is completely canon in my head (look up the story "The Longest Night" for why), and all the folks who hang out in the LJ community circle_tower and the Dreamwidth community peopleofthedas. And the folks in the Fade Bar on Formspring/IRC, as well.
I am in the process of rewriting and editing the first story in Old Roads, "Waking Hours". Check back with that story in June; I'll try to post another quick chapter at the end so folks who have it alerted will know to go reread it. I will also be posting the full-ish version of the Canticle of Demons, shortly.
And then, I will rest. *grins*
Thank you, everyone, for coming on this crazy ride with me. I hope it was worth it!