NOTE 4/6: Sorry for the long hiatus. I'm breaking up with my SO of more than ten years :-( It's very hard to do anything creative while the process is still ongoing.
Thank you for reading, and hugs to all reviewers, and to my beta Elenilote! You're a treasure, my dear. All remaining errors are my own.
When he left the hut the next morning, he half suspected to be confronted by a few incensed villagers, or at least one angry father. But no such thing happened. In fact, no one seemed to even know about his scene with Kari. The half-elf girl had left early to hunt with her father, or so Shiha told him, and Fenris had no reason to doubt her. The healer seemed aware something was wrong, but was obviously too discreet to ask.
Life at Riverbend village continued much like before. The relaxed rhythm of its existence felt alien to someone used to the structure and demands of a more developed society. The forest provided ample food all year round, and when the villagers weren't caught up in warfare, they spent much of their time storytelling and game-playing and crafting, and — as Fenris gradually started to understand, now that his eyes were open to this aspect of their lives — endless complicated amorous endeavors.
As days went by, Fenris started to suspect that the Fog Warriors would have been happy to have him as their guest forever. But he hated the idea of existing on anyone's goodwill. Even more importantly, he was getting bored out of his mind. Finding something to do proved difficult, however. He was no hunter, and when he offered to help the women with their domestic chores, they just giggled and rolled their eyes. Finally Shiha directed him to the village blacksmith whose son had recently been sent to another community. The man worked at a simple brick furnace, beneath a canopy weaved of leaves. The idea was for Fenris to help him until he found a new apprentice. What good would come of it, Fenris did not know, since he would soon leave, but at least it kept him from feeling useless.
To his surprise, he liked the work. The aging, taciturn blacksmith was easy to be around with, and primitive as the tools of his trade were, the man's skills compensated for their limitations. Fenris, on the other hand, knew much about putting an edge to a blade and keeping it there. Due to his strength and intellect he was quick to learn the basics of smith-craft. Very soon the two of them fell into a relationship of companionable silence with only occasional grunts to signal a thing or other while they worked.
At nights Fenris joined the others at the communal fires. There he played games or just listened to the storytellers and music-makers. Some of the women (and a couple of men) threw him interested looks, but he pretended not to notice, and to his relief, they did not insist for more.
All in all, it would have been a pleasant time without the knowledge that sooner or later he would have to confront Kari. Surely it could not be a good sign that the girl stayed away so long? It felt odd to worry, and odder still to not be able to tell whether he worried for Kari's safety, or his own.
As it happened, it took five days before she returned, and sharpening of most old blades in the village.
One day, with the afternoon rain making a steady hiss against the leaves, Fenris was working alone at the blacksmith's shop. White mist rolled over the village from the forest and the mountains beyond, making everything in the shelter drip with moisture. Fenris was clothed in nothing but his hose and a loin cloth, humbled by the hot, humid climate to finally reveal his ugly scars to curious stares.
With the sound of rain and distant thunder, he only noticed Kari's presence when she slipped beneath the canopy. The girl crossed the small working space and dried her face in rough old cloth strung on a bit of string nearby, robbing him of any chance of just pretending she wasn't there.
"Hey," she said, then, her tone wary but not hostile.
Fenris wiped water from his brows and laid the knife and polishing stone he'd been working with on a wooden block, before he turned to face her.
As always, Kari was nearly naked, with only leather briefs and soft boots and some beaded jewelry to cover her light-brown skin, wet from the rain. Her dark hair was in its usual long braid, and the fresh scrapes and bruises on her told of braving the dangers of the pathless forest. The little ill-tempered monkey occupied its customary place on her shoulder, shivering to get rid of the water on its puffed-out fur.
Fenris managed a nod. She wouldn't look at him, and instead pretended to interest herself in the tools around.
"I went hunting with Father," she said. "Did you know he came from the cities?"
"No," he said, surprised. This was definitely not the way he had imagined their conversation to begin.
He knew little of Kari's father, Raj, beyond the fact that he had not been born among the Fog Warriors. The short, stout human spent most of his time hunting and scouting in the forest. Fenris was no more prejudiced against one race than the other, having little enough reason to like any, and neither had he any personal reason to dislike Kari's father. The few dark, contemplative looks he'd received from the man told that the indifference was perhaps not shared.
"Well, he did, though he's never spoken of it much," Kari continued. "Until now. I suppose I have you to thank for him finally opening his mouth. I told him what happened between us. And he told me some of what his life in the city was like, and of the devil-mages — magisters, he called them." For the first time, she turned to look at him directly. The look on her face had a sharpness to it he'd never seen on her before. "He said that you are to your magister like my monkey is to me."
Why did her words hurt? It was true, after all. Danarius had often called him 'his pet'. Fenris stood silent, his face carefully composed, and lowered his eyes.
"But even my monkey has a will of its own. Father said you have none. That you are bound to your magister and will go back to him if you can."
For a moment she waited in silence for him to gainsay her. But he did not, and she went on.
"He said that the magister uses mind magic to control you, that you are a danger to us all. Are you?"
Due to the weather, Fenris was already drenched in sweat, yet he felt himself sweating even more. He'd always been a miserable liar. Fortunate for him, then, that in this at least Kari's father had been wrong. Danarius had never used blood magic on him.
"I'm not his puppet," he said gruffly, using the only word he knew of that could in the Fog Warrior tongue convey the maleficar mind trick and its results that Tevinter languages had a dozen different terms for.
Kari breathed out. Some of the tension seemed to bleed out of her. All of a sudden, Fenris felt guilty, as if he'd lied after all. "So I said," she said. "I was angry with Father. Very angry. When will he stop treating me like a child? He never spoke of his past to me before. He thinks I can't handle the truth. He doesn't believe I can live with it, or decide for myself."
Fenris shook his head. She was too eager to trust him. Raj was right; he was a danger to this village and everyone in it. He wanted to tell her so, but the words would not come. Something in him needed her acceptance too much, something that had only lately started to show the first sings of unwinding.
Kari looked away. "Father also told me that when Mother healed your old wounds, she found hidden scars... bad scars. Very bad. Maybe from when you were a boy. She told that they must have caused you a lot of pain, that the memories must still haunt you. The things they did to you..." Perhaps for the first time ever, she seemed to lack the confidence to speak directly. Did she find his past repulsive? "Is it — is that why you wouldn't have me?"
He'd thought himself past useless shame, but now he very nearly cringed at her words. It was the first time he heard of Shiha's findings. He'd always suspected as much, from what Hadriana had suggested, and from what he'd personally witnessed Danarius do to adolescent elven boys behind closed doors. Yet after the ritual Danarius had never touched him against his will. He was too old and masculine for the magister's tastes, and after sating his curiosity about the markings, the man had left him alone — even when Fenris might have secretly wished it otherwise, instead of the ways his master chose to use him, and the games he allowed Hadriana to play.
Fenris wondered how free people did it. How did they open their mouths and speak? It seemed almost physically impossible to just allow thoughts to slip from one's tongue. Was it because of that very lack of words that his mind felt so half-formed and shapeless?
Yet he knew he had to try. To survive here he would have to pretend that he had a will of his own.
"No," he said. "That is not the reason. Whatever was done to me, I do not remember. I've lost all memory of my childhood."
It took a moment before she could speak from her dismay. "That's — that's horrible! How did it happen?"
He shrugged with the apathy he was used to feeling about his amnesia. Who was he to judge the tools Danarius had employed to shape him?
"It is how it is. The reasons do not matter."
"Then why did you reject me? I don't understand!"
"It — hurts," he said, the words clumsy and jagged as he spoke. He'd never had to explain this to anyone before. "It is physically painful for me to touch anyone."
"Because of your strange vallaslin?"
"Then why didn't you tell me before?"
"You didn't ask."
She looked like she wanted to howl in frustration. "That's not an answer! Did you mean to insult me?"
"No. If I could have... were it possible, I would have done it. Perhaps I wished too much I could." He kept his eyes averted, and fought his urge to bow and scrape.
He heard her groan under her breath. "I'm starting to understand what Mother meant when she said that our ways are different. We use the same words, yet we mean different things by them. I thought your blood makes you like me, but now I see that I was wrong."
"Forgive me," he grated out. "Do you... wish me to leave?"
"Phah. So you think I'm a child, too? Unable to get over a rejection? Don't be silly. You're not that pretty, white-hair." She grumbled. "Well, almost. But not quite."
Hesitantly he raised his head to look at her. There was something wistful in the way her eyes passed over him, but no anger, and no sign of lingering bitterness. He made as if to bow to her, then checked the instinct. She would not understand the gesture.
She looked around, and he noticed for the first time that the clouds were scattering and that the heavy hiss of rain had turned into a mere drizzle that washed away the last of the fog. Birds were starting to sing and the village was waking from its afternoon slumber around them.
"Are you hungry?" she asked. "They're going to roast something I and Father brought. And there's much to talk about, of what we saw down the coast, more Qunari, and other savvath. We might have another battle on our hands soon. That should cheer you up, no?" She gave him a sad smile that seemed older than her years. "You must come and listen. And don't be so afraid to speak your mind! After all, you're not a child, either." She turned to go and mumbled something about city people and their tight-lipped ways. The monkey on her shoulder made a rude expression at Fenris behind her back.
For a moment he watched her go, still bewildered by how she had neither chastised him nor demanded him to leave. No one showed such leniency with nothing to gain. Yet her intent toward him escaped definition, like everything in this place that had no master or servant and seemed more interested in sex, songs and stories than power.
"So you're not coming, white-hair?" she called over her shoulder. "Coward!"
He frowned and straightened his back. If there was one thing Danarius had always commended him on, it was his courage. How could this wisp of a girl, barely out of her adolescence, say otherwise?
Then, with a pang of embarrassment, he realized that her unjust mockery was just a joke.
Only much later did he realize she might have spoken the truth, after all. For what was it but cowardice, how he had turned his back and waited in silence for his master to return? Would he follow Kari now, they would expect him to take part, to speak. To not remain indifferent. But the purpose of a slave was to wait and to obey, and that was what he'd always done. Intimidated by the mere thought of becoming the center of attention, he wanted to remain like he had always been; an outsider. A stranger, a mere creature, isolated from his kind. A weapon to be held at his master's side and taken out only when needed.
So, perhaps he was a coward. Perhaps it was just curiosity, that made him step from the shadow of the canopy and follow her. For it was definitely not courage. Of that, at least, he would always be certain.
o o o
Aveline's principal witnesses in the kidnapping case knew little beyond what she'd already told. It was slightly surprising, considering how much they talked, mostly on top of each other in their nervous excitement over meeting the Champion.
The women lived together in a dismal tenement house in Lowtown. Almost no light seemed to penetrate their narrow apartment, so small that Fenris stayed behind in the corridor so the rest could fit in. It was just one of dozens of similar rooms that had been knocked out in an old warehouse, with a pathetic cloth-covered hole punched through the thick stone wall to serve as a window. Hawke could smell and hear whole families living nearby, in homes no larger than the smallest servant's chamber in his estate, stacked in depressing rows next to each other. It was almost as bad as anything one might expect find in Darktown. Things had gotten worse after Viscount Dumar's death. Much worse.
The visit took quite a while. Despite their obvious destitution the women insisted on serving tea and cookies and carried them to Fenris in the corridor as well, taking the strange appearance of their guests in good stride. Of all the disjointed babbling that took place, Hawke distilled one new bit of information — one that Fenris confirmed, once they had finally extracted themselves from the over-animated females, and could head out to the sunlight and marginally fresher air outside.
"I don't think that their friend was being controlled," the elf said with obvious distaste, but also curiosity, while picking cookie crumbs from the seams of his armor. "I think that her memory was wiped, like mine."
"Shouldn't you be excited?" Varric asked. "I mean, bad as it is for the victims, maybe you'll find out something about your own condition."
"Perhaps. And yet... I've never heard of anyone outside Tevinter performing the trick. The idea that the magisters' lore is spreading throughout Thedas gives me no comfort."
The tea and cookies had left them more hungry, rather than less, and they headed for an early dinner in a decent tavern. Varric related some amusing rumors, Isabela graced them with a string of her dirtiest jokes, and even Fenris gradually showed signs of succumbing to their humor with a throaty chuckle that was quickly disguised as a cough. Hawke very carefully hid what feelings the sound elicited in him.
At sunset they headed for the Docks and a shady place to hide in. The night was clear and cool, with a steady wind that blew away some of the stink of fish and rotting seaweed. In what was usually a busy corner, Isabela strutted near one of the smoky braziers maintained by the harbor master's men, heavily rouged and disguised in a blond wig, wrapped a tight striped faux-silk gown tucked shockingly high up on one side. On a normal night, the usual owners of the street would quickly have torn her a new one for trying to work their area. But tonight most of the bawds were keeping to their homes. The desperate ones who remained kept their distance, or didn't seem to care. Rumors of the lack of merchandise had reached many potential buyers, but not all, and Isabela had her hands full in turning away men eager to sample the goods revealed by her scandalous outfit.
On a wooden platform erected against one of the immensely tall stone walls nearby, Hawke, Varric and Fenris stood in the deep shadow cast by Hightown, waiting for the unlikely event that their plan would work. The landing was on the small side, and Hawke found himself standing a bit too close to the elf for his peace of mind. He craved for melleta to calm his nerves, but was afraid the pipe's glow would attract attention.
At first they waited in silence, but as the better part of an hour went by, they got too bored to keep completely quiet. Fenris and Varric started talking in hushed voices. Hawke just pulled the collar of his black coat up against the wind, tucked his hands in his pockets, and concentrated on keeping an eye on Isabela.
"You're in a suspiciously good mood today, Broody," Varric muttered.
"Oh?" Fenris rumbled. "I am?"
"Well, it's not that long since you burst into my suite looking like you're going to murder me. And now you haven't even complained about the smell of fish. Your lack of brooding disturbs me."
"It does? Should I ask why?"
"It might unbalance the universe. Other crazy stuff could start happening. Two-headed kittens and earthquakes. Shit like that. Bad for business."
"I see. Well, as long as it doesn't start raining magisters." A short pause followed. "Evidently my manners have been even worse than usual, lately. I... apologize."
"By the stone, now I know Kirkwall will be destroyed by a volcano. Bianca, honey, don't be scared. The mean elf is just joking."
"I do not like to grovel over my shortcomings. That does not mean I'm oblivious to them."
"May I take that as acknowledgement of all the times you've hurt my tender feelings?"
"I believe I have lost enough gold to you over the years to insult your 'tender feelings' now and then, dwarf."
Hawke knew there was a time he wouldn't necessarily have recognized the dry humor in the elf's words for what it was. Not for the first time, he wondered how much of the moody air Fenris projected was just the result of his gruff voice.
Varric chuckled. Then it was silent again for a moment.
How Isabela managed to turn away all the passing drunken sailors without incident was beyond Hawke's understanding. Once or twice he noticed the glint of a dagger when she turned down a particularly insistent customer, but otherwise she seemed to rely on her wit to redirect unwanted attention. It almost seemed like magic, the way she handled the traffic while waiting for their quarry to emerge.
After a while, Varric spoke again. "You don't need to stay in that pit, you know. It's falling apart. And the way that Orlesian's men trashed the place... did you even find your belongings?"
"I did." Fenris fell silent.
"No need to thank me or anything," the dwarf said after a while. "Or Hawke. In case you haven't already."
It was an open invitation for scraps of gossip, but Fenris refused to take the bait. "I'm not ungrateful for getting back the use of the place."
"Whoa! Don't overdo the praise, elf. Could hurt your reputation, you know."
"It seems peculiar to thank you for something I did not regret losing."
"So, I take it's just to spite your neighbors that you ask Aveline time and again to bury complaints and change the patrols around your mansion?"
"Yes, perhaps I was glad of being finally rid of the source of so much trouble."
Varric snorted. "Right. I get it, Broody. The next time Hawke asks my help to get back something of yours, I'll tell him to go sniff the roses."
"No, you won't. You'll do exactly as he says, like everyone else in this city."
Hawke stiffened at the elf's ironic tone of voice.
"Hey, what can I say," said Varric. "Even when he's got no clue what he's doing, he always takes me somewhere interesting. Or, well, at least interesting stuff tends to happen when he's there. So don't take that as an invitation to drag me for yet another hike across the good old Wounded Coast, eh Hawke?"
The street below was now almost completely empty, and Isabela seemed to be adjusting her endowments so they wouldn't accidentally spill out of her bodice. Against his better judgement Hawke turned, a hand on the railing, a strained smile on his lips. "So, what's your secret, Fenris? How come you're the only one immune to my charms?"
The elf's eyes glittered at him from beneath the shadow and the pale brushstrokes of his hair. When he spoke, his voice was dark and unreadable.
"Who says I am?"
Hawke's smile faded. The same seemed to happen to the world around them.
Shut the fuck up, Garrett. There's no way he meant it like it sounded. Don't embarrass yourself.
"So, does that mean you'll follow my orders, too?" he heard himself say, his tone dropping several notes beyond mere flirt to open suggestion. Apparently the connection between his mouth and brain had just been severed.
"I'm here, aren't I?"
"I must warn you, I can get very inventive."
Was he completely deranged, or did he see a tiny quirk twist the corner of the elf's mouth? "So they say. So far, I remain unconvinced."
"I'm sure I can change your opinion, if I put my mind to it."
The elf's gaze flicked down and back up, fixing Hawke's eyes with what might have been a challenge, had it been in any way possible and not just a figment of Hawke's overworked and apparently entirely insane imagination.
"I'm not sure your mind is what you want to put anywhere, Hawke."
Suddenly Hawke had absolutely nothing more to say. Maybe because the temperature in his head (and certain other parts) had just increased dangerously.
Don't stare at his mouth. Don't stare at his mouth. Don't —
"Guys. I hate to interrupt your staring contest, but I think Rivaini's plan just worked."
At Varric's words, Hawke wheeled around, mind spinning.
"What? It did?" he rasped. For a second, he'd genuinely forgotten what they were doing.
"See for yourself." Varric jerked his head in the direction where Isabela had been performing her act.
Hawke did. Fenris stepped forward, as well. "Venhedis," the elf muttered in disbelief, a steel-covered hand on the railing.
Someone wearing a long hooded cloak had taken the Rivaini by the elbow, and was leading her in a fast and determined pace up the street, deeper into the district. The rogue seemed strangely docile, and Hawke realized immediately she was not just acting.
Shit. Just a few more seconds without Varric happening to look down, and they would have... He cursed under his breath, and headed for the rickety wooden ladders with the dwarf in his wake. Fenris swung himself over the railing and dropped quietly a full storey's height to the shadowed street below. Hawke was reminded of how he'd once served Danarius as an assassin as well as a bodyguard.
When Hawke and Varric reached the street level, the elf was already standing behind a corner, gesturing for them to follow. Without waiting for them to catch up, Fenris slipped after the Rivaini and her companion, and the others followed at a slightly longer distance, knowing they would be far more likely to alert their prey to the presence of his secret audience.
"I think they're heading for Darktown," Hawke muttered after some time.
"Shit." Varric groaned. "Why do these crazies always have to live underground? I just had the stink of sewers scrubbed from this coat, too. What if I just put a bolt in him? Make him talk. Safer than facing him on his turf."
Hawke shook his head. "I can't fight here, in the open. And he's got Isabela for a hostage. No, it's too risky."
"Your call, I guess," Varric said, clearly disagreeing, but not willing to press the matter.
After some more twisting alleyways and climbing a narrow, winding flight of stairs, they were greeted by the familiar thick, dark atmosphere of the undercity caverns, the smell of fish giving way to the stink of refuse and chokedamp and burning trash. Here they had to genuinely concentrate on not losing sight of the elf who flitted in and out of shadow ahead of them, white hair flickering against blackness and weak red fire. Wherever they passed, eyes followed them from the dark, either with the resigned indifference of the truly hopeless, or estimating how much their fine attire and weapons would pawn for — or perhaps what kind of gold they would yield when presented to a Tevinter slave trader. Once again Hawke was struck by how little his title protected him here. It was the staff at his back that made the Darktown gangs keep their distance, not his Championship.
Eventually the cloak-wearing stranger lead Isabela behind one of the few actual shop fronts in the undercity. It looked like a general store, not even a proper name on it, just the word 'SUNDRIES' painted in white across darkened planks. Like most such constructions here, it was half sunk in the black stone of Kirkwall coast, and could hide anything behind its facade.
To their surprise, the door was unfettered, and the room behind it looked like an actual store, neat and well stocked with cheap but serviceable goods. Someone who looked like the owner stood behind a cluttered counter, making notes in a ledger. He was a middle-aged elf of simple dress and a nondescript face behind thick spectacles. Of Isabela there was no sign, and the elf seemed much slighter of build than the man they'd been following.
"We're closing," he said in a disapproving tone. Then he raised his head and took in their weapons and Fenris's armor over the brim of his glasses. His demeanor turned wary. "In case you're with Tiberius, we've paid already. Come back next month." He shook his head and turned back to his bookkeeping. "By my ears, I can't believe how sloppy that man is with his accounts."
Without a word Fenris crossed the room, grabbed the man by his collar, and easily yanked him on top of the counter. Little tin boxes and plates and an inkwell clattered down and spread their contents on the stone floor, a ceramic paperweight shattered. Fenris's arm lit with a menacing flash, casting the shop owner's startled face in sharp relief.
"Where?" the Tevinter growled.
Hawke realized that Fenris was absolutely terrified something would happen to Isabela.
Without any pretense at ignorance, the shop owner pointed a trembling finger toward one of the stacks of shelves that covered the stone wall behind him. "S-s-secret p-passage," he wheezed past the gauntleted fist choking him on his own collar.
Fenris's grip tightened, making the man croak disturbingly. "Who is he?"
The shop owner waved his hand toward his throat, growing red in the face. With a curse, Fenris relaxed his sharp steel claws to an extent.
"I don't know!" the man rasped. "Just s-someone... renting the passage to the tunnels. A foreigner. From where, I don't know."
"L-last month. We never speak. I never go down there myself! I'm too afraid! S-sometimes I think I can hear sounds rising from there, at night... he promised he would take care of them..." The man gasped for air. "Please, that's all I know!"
"You're fortunate I don't have time to put that to the test."
Fenris tossed the man behind the counter. With a cry, he crashed against the shelves and down to the floor, and raised his hands to protect himself as bolts of cloth rolled on top of him from their storage.
When Fenris turned, Varric was already going for the secret door, likely guessing where its hidden mechanisms could be found.
"Tie him," the dwarf said, nodding toward the sorry figure of the shop owner. "He may be telling the truth, but I wouldn't risk it."
Just a minute or two later they left the man hidden behind the counter, bound and gagged with some of his own sundries. Varric did something that looked like sleight of hand, and the secret door rotated on its well oiled hinges to reveal the black maw of a narrow downward tunnel. Hawke took his staff from his back and kindled his spell light, and the others took torches from the shelves and lit them from a lantern. As an afterthought, the Champion pressed a couple of coins on the tabletop in way of payment, in case the shop owner was really innocent. He almost expected Fenris to roll his eyes at such useless evidence of compassion, but it seemed that the Tevinter did not even notice his gesture, too intent on going after Isabela.
A moment later the secret door closed behind them, as they disappeared into one of the ancient Tevinter tunnels that meandered beneath Kirkwall, deeper than Darktown, and perhaps older.