AN: This is a kmeme fill that ran so far away from my original idea that in the end, all I could do was hang on for dear life and hope the story stopped before I did. Original prompt: F!Hawke (mage preferred, but not picky at all) is kidnapped and brutally tortured by some rogue group in Kirkwall trying to use her for whatever reason. Maybe the Followers of She need her body for She to possess or something. Eventually, romanced!Fenris and the gang track her down and rescue her. Would love to see furious, super-protective Fenris during/after the rescue, especially if he swears in Arcanum. The worse the torture, the better, although anon would strongly prefer it to be physical and psychological, not sexual. Bonus points for Fenris having to carry Hawke at some point during the rescue.
Anon's wish was anon's command. Also, please note that this is still unbetaed at this point; as soon as it gets thoroughly scoured, I will post the edited version and make a note here. And because every time I post to this site I'm reminded how utterly deplorable FFnet's formatting restrictions are, if you'd care to read the fic with the intended spacing (a relatively minor detail, I suppose, but they're my line breaks, dammit!), it is also available on LJ and AO3. Still, wherever you end up reading this, I hope you enjoy it!
Hawke wakes to total darkness.
For a split-second she thinks she's been struck blind. Panic surges in her throat with a whitewater rush that nearly chokes her before she can tamp it down, and the back of her head throbs with adrenaline and a thick thudding pain. Breathing deeply is difficult even aside from her fear—the air feels close and damp, as if it is trying to press her lungs shut in her chest, but Aveline's face rises in her mind, Aveline who is solid and steady and most of all doesn't panic (and would probably cuff Hawke upside the head if she saw her now, all atwitter just from waking up), so she swallows the worst of it and forces herself to breathe normally. Her captors have stripped her of her robes and staff, leaving her only a thin cotton shift; the room is not cold, but she shivers all the same. There's a buzzing in her brain behind the drumming ache that feels at once alien and familiar, like a loved voice speaking from very far away; she shakes her head, trying to dislodge it, and that is when she discovers that she is chained to the floor.
Her wrists are encased in thick metal manacles. A short length of fat chain joins them to each other, giving her maybe six inches of freedom between her wrists; she traces it blindly with her fingers and finds another, longer chain that branches off at the center and trails down to her bare, shackled feet, passing smoothly through the eye of an iron ring that protrudes from the clammy stone floor. The chain is not long enough for her to stand properly, but she can at least kneel if she crouches over the ring, so she pushes herself up in the darkness, trying to ignore the clinking links that jangle against her nerves.
"Okay. Okay," Hawke says aloud, as much to distract herself from the chain as to ensure she hasn't also been struck deaf. "All right. I was…what. I was in Hightown. No, I wasn't—I was in Lowtown. Visiting Uncle." Her head pounds in perverse agreement and she presses the heels of her hands against her useless eyes. "And then I picked up that tincture for Merrill's daffodils. And then—Isabela's hat shop. And then—and then—"
And then—nothing. Hawke shoves her fingers into her hair and pulls, unable to stifle a noise of frustration. It is a complete blank.
The manacles bore into her temples. She allows it for a moment—the pain there mutes the more insistent one in the back of her head—but there are curious bumps on the sides that dig into her cheek, and Hawke lowers her hands to investigate them more closely. The cuffs aren't smooth metal, as she'd thought; they're engraved with ridged, whorling patterns that glow in her mind, patterns she recognizes from a qunari called Ketojan—patterns used in the great collars to drain the magic of the Saarebas—and Hawke realizes with the clinical detachment of blind terror what the buzzing in her head is.
Her magic is gone.
Hawke stares into the nothingness around her—in her, now, and tries to summon even the smallest spark of flame, of light, of anything that will burn it away, but it doesn't come. Her magic buzzes too faintly, calling to her from across a chasm that gapes so wide she cannot see the other side of it. The sound of her own breath rasps harshly in her throat, too loud in her ears, and she opens her eyes as wide as she can, straining to see anything at all outside of the few square feet of stone she's acquainted herself with, trying to keep the panic from bubbling over.
Unexpectedly, a boot-heel clacks against stone. It sounds like an explosion to her heightened senses, but Hawke relishes it—she is not alone!—fears it—she is not alone. There's a sudden sliding noise of metal against metal and then glorious light shines through a narrow slit in her cell door (she has a door—she has an escape). She catches the briefest glimpse of a torch, of stone walls glittering damply, of two heavily-browed eyes that peer at her, light catching like pinpricks in their depths, and then the slit slams shut and her captor, and the light, are gone.
They leave her alone in the dark.
There is not enough slack in the chain for her to pace, so instead she sits on her heels and picks at her cuffs by feel alone with a hatpin her captors have missed. Isabela has taught her a few basic lockpicking skills, and though she doesn't have the skill to break the lock herself, even these little efforts are infinitely preferable to sitting in the dark and waiting to go mad. The panic recedes into something manageable and familiar as she fiddles with the manacles, undistracting and quiet, like the damp moist press of the air around her. Most of the first day passes in total silence save what she whispers to herself; although she does hear the heel of her booted jailor at one point, he does not give her light again.
It is impossible to imagine that she will be here for very long. It is a dangerous line of thinking, Hawke knows, blind hope that will more likely lead her to complacency than action—but all the same, she has friends, dear friends who will surely notice when she does not appear, a city full of people who know her as the Champion. Aveline, captain of the city's own Guard; Varric, with his finger on Kirkwall's pulse. Fenris. Surely, surely, she will not go unmissed.
Surely, they will be able to find her.
At the end of what she guesses is the first day, she takes the hatpin and scratches a little tally-mark on the floor with a mostly-sane snicker. "Day one," she says aloud, letting the sound bounce dead against the stone walls around her. In her imagination, Varric spins a wild tale in front of the fire at The Hanged Man of the rescue of the Champion, prisoner a single day, and the patrons of the tavern laugh and clap their hands in delight like children.
Sleep comes fitfully that night, when at all; the Fade is barred from her with the cuffs, and she doesn't know how to sleep without dreaming. At last, somewhere in the early morning hours of the second day, Hawke gives up on sleep and sits up, curving her shoulders around the around the iron ring set in the floor. She rubs her wrists with her fingers and pulls them away wet; the cuffs are bloody around the edges where she has pried at them.
Her head still hurts something awful, and after two days without a drink, her lips are cracked and her tongue is parched. There is still no light in her cell and no boot-heel at the door, so instead she counts the links in her chains and thinks of a happy memory to go with each one. There are seven links between her wrists and seven links between her ankles, and twenty links even between those two chains. Thirty-four links, thirty-four happy memories. Most of them involve Fenris.
Hours pass with no sound. She dozes off and on when even her Fadeless sleep is preferable to the dark. At midday, or at least what she thinks is midday, she wakes up to the sound of sobbing echoing off her walls. It's a welcome sound, at first, proof of another life near her, until she realizes that it's her own voice bouncing back from the walls, her own cheeks that are wet. Hawke cleans her face, furious at herself—how could she waste what precious little moisture she has?—and does not sleep again.
She is sure the sun is falling outside. Nothing changes in her cell, not the temperature or the dankness of the air or the darkness her eyes cannot adjust to, but she knows in her bones that sunset is approaching, the golden tongues of flame spreading across the sky to lick at the edges of the rose-stained clouds, softening light that would warm her right down to her toes, and she has never, ever appreciated it before. She will, if she escapes. When. When she escapes.
The boot-heel explodes on stone outside her cell again, and again the slit grates open with the screech of rusted metal, and again, the heavy-browed eyes stare at her for an instant in precious torchlight, light she tries to soak into every inch of skin before it vanishes. He scowls—Hawke is not sure how she has displeased him, being as she's the one imprisoned alone in the dark—and he turns to his side, mutters a command—and then her light is shut away from her. Hawke grits her teeth so hard her jaw creaks—she refuses to give them the satisfaction of hearing her frustration—and uses the hatpin to scratch a second tally-mark in the floor, next to the first one.
If she stretches her feet in every direction as far as she can with the limited chain she is allowed, she can touch eleven flagstones. She hopes Varric brings a full skin of water with him when they come to save her.
On the third day, there's a knock at her door so soft that she's sure she's imagined it. It takes her a minute to sit up—she's been sleeping, and she's half-convinced that she's dreaming—only she can't dream right now, can she?—and then the knock comes again, and the fog in her mind is shredded into sudden bright wakefulness. She tries to open her mouth, but her cracked lips stick closed with dryness and disuse, and they sting when she finally speaks.
"Come in," she says with as much cheer as she can muster. Her tongue is thick and swollen and her voice hardly sounds like her own, gravelly and thick and pitched low, so she clears her throat and tries again. "The door's open! Or…probably not."
The slit in her door slides open and she revels in this unexpected allotment of light, her heart leaping in her chest. Fenris, and Varric and Aveline and everyone, they're found her at last, they've found her—only it's not Fenris's eyes that appear in the little grating of her door, and her hope deflates so abruptly that it takes her breath away. Instead, it's the eyes of an old man, warm and with laugh lines around the corners; his eyebrows are white and whiskery and instantly make her think of silly old Barlin from Lothering. "You do live!" he whispers, his fingers coming up to curl around the opening.
Hawke makes a show of pinching her arm with exaggerated surprise. "I'm as shocked as you are, I'm sure."
She is shaken from the fading rush of adrenaline and bitterly, bitterly disappointed, and yet she cannot stand to lose this point of human contact. The old man turns his head to the side and for a terrible instant Hawke thinks he is leaving her—but then she hears him, arguing with her still-unseen guard (guards?), and then another grate opens in her door, one flush with the stone floor and unbarred. "I'll try to get your time moved up, child," the old man whispers. "For now, this is all I can do."
Hawke doesn't have the faintest idea what he means—or who he is—but she forgets to ask, forgets even to mourn the sound of his footsteps fading away and leaving her alone again, because pushed through the grate, just within the reach of her chains, is a little tin dish full to the brim of water. She doesn't dare to lift the dish—her hands are shaking with emotion and exhaustion, and she can't bear the thought of spilling a precious drop—so when the grates slam shut, leaving her in darkness and blessed privacy, she drops her head to the floor like an animal to a trough and drinks. The water is cool and clear and as holy to her as the sacramental wine in the Chantry, and it is, without a shadow of a doubt, the best thing she has ever tasted in her life. She drains the dish in a matter of moments and then cups it in her hands, swirling her tongue around its corners and crevices like a lover, searching out the last precious drops until there is nothing left, and then, when she is finished, she hurls it at the door with all of the strength she has left.
It bounces off her door with an embarrassingly pathetic tink and rolls out of her reach. Hawke curls around the iron ring in the floor, tired and angry and grateful and utterly, utterly ashamed.
There are five little tally-marks in the floor and another dented tin cup in the corner when the door to her cell bursts open. Torchlight streams down around her like the glory of the Maker—but it is too much, too much—like needles in her eyes that have seen nothing but blackness for so long—she lets out an animal shriek and throws her hand over her face. The manacle digs into the bone above her eyes before it is dragged away by rough, gloved hands, the hands of her captors and not her rescuers, and Hawke feels a sudden sharp pang in her chest that has nothing to do with the force of the men's grips, the men who open the iron ring in her floor and drag her, and her chains, from her cell because she no longer has the strength to stand.
She squeezes her eyes closed, trying to shut out the light. There are no tears left in her to ease the ache, but after a few silent moments, it recedes into something bearable, and Hawke manages to crack them open just enough to see the aged, well-worn leather of her guards' gloves wrapped around her upper arms; the torchlight shining on the jingling links of their chainmail; and the long, low-ceilinged hall they drag her down. Hawke does as best she can to track her surroundings: thick, heavy stone in the walls, too well-worked to be near Lowtown; torch brackets at regular intervals, tended and guttering with fresh oil; uncarpeted stone floors, utilitarian but clean; and over it all, the scent heavy in her nose, of damp rot, and of blood.
Her captors make no sound aside from the grunts of carrying her weight, not even when they approach a grand double door at the end of the hallway. It's nothing but planked wood and an iron latch, and yet it seems more ominous than anything Hawke has seen thus far, and even as the guards march implacably towards it, she tries to break free from their grasp. She knows it's a foolish attempt—she can do little more now than roll over and squall, like an infant might—and yet she has to try, and she tries to push back, to twist like Isabela showed her ages ago.
The soldier on her right catches her elbow in one hand as it slides past him, plants his other on her spine, and dislocates her shoulder with a casual, practiced movement. The breath leaves Hawke in a soughing rush—she has no strength left even to scream, and the second man throws her over his shoulder with no discernible reaction. The next few minutes pass her by in a blur of creaking hinges and shuffling feet and agony pulsing from her fingertips with every step until the steps abruptly stop.
Eventually, like a meandering drunk, the thought drifts through her head that she is sitting. Upright, and in a wooden, high-backed chair set in the precise center of an enormous empty great hall, with her right arm dangling limp at her side. It is such a struggle to focus her eyes and her thoughts; they scatter away from her the closer she tries to grip them, and she feels her head rolling on her neck. Then suddenly, strong fingers grip her chin like pincers—it hurts and she tries to turn away, but another hand fists itself in her hair, forcing her to look ahead, and through the waning tears and the glittering of the torches, Hawke finds herself staring at a woman without a face.
The shock of it clears her head, if just for a moment, pushing the pain behind a curtain to be dealt with later. The woman's head cocks to the side, and Hawke realizes: the nothingness of her face is actually a thick black veil suspended from a heavily-worked gold band, a veil which covers her eyes and nose and flutters over her mouth with her breath. The fingers pinch her chin, turning her face from side to side, and then they release her to scrabble over her neck, down her collarbones, over her shoulders and breasts and ribs and waist, poking and prodding her like a side of meat in a butcher's shop.
"I go for four sovereigns a pound," Hawke hears herself say, and though the words don't come out quite right, she giggles at her own joke. She is distant with pain and damaged hope.
The woman straightens and her faceless head turns to one of the guards behind her, and with the sudden silent violence of lighting, a fist comes out of nowhere to slam into her jaw. Some of her hair tears free in the other guard's hand and her head ricochets off the back of the chair before lolling forward. Pain judders across her brain and she sinks under its weight; she finds herself too tired to lift her head again, so she watches instead the feet of the woman as they approach in dainty, pointed little shoes to stop just out of her reach. Her vision flares white with each heartbeat. There's a bloodstain on the floor next to her left foot, as if something has died and been dragged away.
"This one is best suited," the woman says. It sounds as though her voice comes from very far away, like her mother calling her home across the fields of Lothering. "But she will run if given the opportunity. Hobble her. Begin her training tomorrow."
"Hobble," Hawke slurs through swelling lips. She likes the sound of it, all bubbly and limping, and is so distracted that she barely notices when two more women in green veils approach her, their gloved hands gleaming with magic. "Hobble," Hawke singsongs, rolling her head back on her neck, "hobble, hobble, hobb—" and then the women touch her manacles with fiery hands, and then she only screams.
"My poor child, oh, you poor thing," groans an old man's voice in her ear.
It hurts, it hurts, oh, it hurts—
It takes a momentous effort to crack her eyes open, and when she does, she wishes distantly that she hadn't. She has not moved from where they'd thrown her nearly a full day ago, and her hands are the first thing she sees. They are curved in a grotesque parody of claws, the fingers swollen and sausage-like—she remembers, vividly, the sound they'd made as each bone had been broken—curling in on themselves so that the tips of her fingers twist in to the inside of her wrists, just brushing the ridges of her fetters. Her feet are no better, as the biting agony reminds her; her toes are bent at awkward angles, her ankles seized like iron. The broken bones are excruciating; worse is the spiking scarlet agony that throbs with each heartbeat, as if every muscle of her arms and legs is cramping at once, a vicious pain that goes on and on and on.
They have made her feet anchors to keep her, fixed unbearable weights at the ends of her wrists, and now, she cannot run.
She's not overly familiar with blood magic, despite the gentle offers from—from—from Merrill, her name is Merrill, Merrill of the Dalish, with dark hair and green eyes and a sad smile—so she does not know what magic they've used to harden the muscles of her wrists, her ankles, locking her broken fingers and toes in place. Not that she could do a thing about it with her magic gone, says a voice distantly through the blood pounding in her ears. She wishes she could stop her heart by will alone, if only for the sacred silence it would bring.
Everything goes gray around the edges, suddenly, and she is content to let it—and then the old man who reminds her of—of—the name escapes her in the hazy red pain—he cradles her head in his hands and pours water down her throat. She slurps it greedily and chokes on it, and great racking coughs tear at her chest like fire. The old man smooths her hair behind her ear, his fingers cool against skin hot and swollen from her beating; he says something gentle and kind and comforting, and then he is gone, leaving another little dish of water and a tray of bread and soft cheese behind him. The door slams closed, but out of pity—or malice—or simple forgetfulness, her guards leave the little slit open, allowing a shaft of thin cold watery light to trickle over her damaged limbs.
She lies still a long time, looking at glitters of light on the chain that loops through the iron ring in the floor and letting the smell of the bread fill her nose. When the clawing hunger in her stomach becomes too insistent for her to ignore, she crawls to the tray on her elbows, her useless hands curled into her chest, her useless feet dragging after her, and savages the bread with her teeth until she can swallow it.
There's a terrific racket outside her cell. Someone is shouting—someone is screaming—and then she hears the voice of the old man, kind and urgent—"This way, this way, follow me!"
She sits up, her heart racing. This is not right—this is not the time of day when she is allowed sound or light or water or food—and then there is an enormous crash at her door as if someone in full armor has slammed against it. There's another cry of metal on metal (a sword, whispers her mind, a great sword screeching down the metal of the door), and then a man's deep voice rings out—
Her lungs are empty and she cannot draw breath—she knows this name, knows this voice. "Fenris," she croaks with thick tongue and split lips, because she knows her name and knows his, and terror that he might pass her by, might somehow miss her makes her try again, louder, "Fenris, here! I'm here!"
The violent sounds of metal, again—keys on the door, this time, and then her door crashes open and it is Fenris standing there, blood-spattered and wild-eyed and with Varric and Aveline and Isabela behind him, and her heart nearly bursts through her ribs. "Fenris," she whispers, and he looks down at her where she crouches over the iron ring—
—and his lip curls in disgust. "Beast," he says in his low voice, and his eyes narrow in a sudden viciousness that shocks her.
She—she cannot believe it, and she stretches her hand towards him, her hand that is broken and buckled in on itself, and Fenris recoils in revulsion. "Contemptible," he snarls, "and weak."
"Fenris," she whispers again, and this time it is choked with tears, "Fenris, please—"
Isabela shakes her head in the doorway, her earrings jingling softly. Aveline looks nauseated and pale behind her freckles. "Such a shameful thing," Fenris hisses, and then he turns his back on her, and he stalks away from the cell—from her, weak and wrecked and useless.
"So long, Hawke," Varric says sadly, and the door closes behind him.
She wakes up weeping in the wild delirium of terror and shame and agony, barely recognizing the faint burn of magic dribbling away from her, and the sound of the door closing echoes in her mind like an old song, over, and over, and over, until it is the only thing she can hear.
The Mother allows her magic if she is good.
She sits in the high-backed, wooden chair, very straight—the Mother does not approve of slouching—and directs her attention where the Mother points. When the Mother nods, she may raise her left hand, the hand that still moves easily, and use her magic against the wooden targets, just the little the Mother allows her and as the Mother directs. She has not slept in two days because she was disobedient and used more magic than she needed to make ice, but she accepts this punishment as her due. The Mother is kind to her when she does well and allows her visits with the old man who brings her good things and she is grateful when that happens, so she tries to do well often. Sometimes she fails, though, and when she does the Mother is forced have her beaten, so that she may remember the lesson better for the next time she is asked to repeat it. Sometimes she uses the willow switch that hangs from her waist which only welts her skin, but when she has been especially bad, the Mother has to ask the guards to correct her and that is more painful. When the Mother has finished with her for the day, her guards carry her back to her little cell with the iron ring in the floor because her feet do not work.
One night, the Mother ends the lesson early and stoppers up the magic from her hands. She is a little sad—she likes the magic, more than she knows she should—but the guards bring the Mother a lovely soft armchair and she sits across from her with a very serious face. It is an unusual occurrence, and she sits up very straight in her chair with interest.
"Do you know why you are here?" the Mother asks, and her voice is gentle and warm like it is always gentle and warm, except when she is angry.
She shakes her head. She has not been given permission to speak yet.
The Mother leans back in her chair, her long thin fingers folded in front of her. "In three days, we will have a guest. She is coming." A little thrill rockets up her spine at the word said like a name revered. She is curious despite herself, and the Mother smiles a little to see it in her face. "She has chosen to use you as a vessel, child. You should be honored."
Her chest swells with pride—she is honored, now that the Mother has said she should be, a vessel to She who needs one, chosen above all others! She smiles at the Mother and something—something in the very back of her mind—pricks her—says maybe she is not so proud—and her smile falters, and when it does, the Mother's smile vanishes altogether.
"You are unsure," the Mother says with a sternness that makes her stomach flip. "The Lady Hanker needs a willing heart, my child. A vessel with a heart with an inkling of doubt in it would only kill Her. Do you want to kill Her?"
The Mother's eyes are hard and she shivers to see it, but there is doubt in her heart that she cannot shake—she does not want to be punished—but she cannot lie to the Mother—she buries her head in her elbows, her broken fingers brushing against the back of her neck, and lets out a quiet whine, a noise that she is not permitted and one she knows will be punished for, but she cannot lie to the Mother and she cannot do as the Mother asks and she does not know what she may do—
And then a gentle hand alights on her back, and she hears the voice of the old man at her shoulder. "Hush, child," he says, always gentle and always kind, and she hushes. "Now sit up, child, like a good girl." She does, though it is very hard, and she cannot look the Mother in the face. The old man crouches at her side and his white whiskery eyebrows draw together in sympathy. "Now, listen to me," he says, and she obediently turns to face him. "Mother and I have waited for this friend for a very long time. You wouldn't want to disappoint us, would you?"
She doesn't, oh how she doesn't want to disappoint them! But she cannot get rid of the seedling of doubt—and then he takes her unusable hands in his big warm ones, and he asks her with wonderful benevolent eyes, "Have I ever done anything to harm you?"
He has comforted her when she has brought beatings on herself. He has brought her food and water and light when she is allowed it. He has held her and spoken to her and he has never harmed her. The seedling withers in her heart.
She shakes her head: No.
His mouth curves up at the corners. She mimics the expression. "Do you trust me?"
The Mother smiles.
The morning of the day she is to become the vessel for She comes. She can tell that it is morning because there is a little cup of water and a piece of hard bread nudging her rigid ankle, and when she is sure that she is fully awake and that her chains are where she thinks they are, she turns herself on her elbows and eats the bread and drinks the water. When she is finished, she nudges the dishes into orderly position with her wrists, and then she curls herself around the iron ring, a little giddy, a little nervous, but mostly excited, and waits for the Mother to come.
There is a neat little row of lines carved into the stone by her cheek, lines that she knows better by feel than by sight, even though the guards rarely close the slit in her door now. She makes one of the lines every night in the stone with a little metal stick pinched between her wrists in her room with the iron ring. Frivolous as it may be, it brings her comfort, and the Mother has not disallowed it, and so she treasures them as her own private possession. She runs the outside knuckle of her left hand along the scratches, counting them silently until she reaches the very last one, the one she made the night before, the one that makes twenty-nine even little lines, and then she starts over again.
She has just reached the third count through when she hears a very distant scream. It is an unusual sound because she is not the one making it, and she sits up on her elbows in curiosity. There is another scream and a great clashing crashing metal noise and suddenly she is afraid, because it is closer to her than the first one, and none of these are sounds she is allowed. A man's voice shouts something and it is not voice of the old man—she does not know what this can mean and she worries—what of the Mother? More clashing, more screams, an angry rattling cacophony growing ever nearer—she is well and truly frightened now, and she pulls her thirty-four links of chain as far away from the door as she can.
An enormous burst of crackling magic explodes just outside her door, so close she can feel the thick itch of it making the hair on her arms stand on end, lighting up her cell for an instant like the sun—the sun, warm and golden and gleaming—she shakes her head sharply and the image is gone. The noises of the metal clamor are so close to her now, maybe even in the same hall as her little stone room, and she can hear the man's shouting voice clearer. She does not know what he is saying—it sounds like nonsense syllables, hok hok hok, and then more voices join him, women's voices and then more men, all saying the same thing, hok! until the bouncing sound becomes a resounding echo that deafens her.
She hears footsteps pounding on the stone in the hall, an approach that is implacable and horrifying like the Mother when she is angry and she freezes, hoping against hope that she will be hidden in the darkness—and then with the shrilling of metal like the tip of a sword dragged against stone, the footsteps stop, there, right there outside her room.
A shadow falls across her little window. Two glowing green eyes flare in the open slit for a split-second before they widen and vanish—she hears the slick-thick squelch of flesh against flesh and then a thud and she knows that the last protection she has—had—is dead. The back of her right hand skates over her little metal stick and she picks it up, clutching it to her chest between her thumbs, her last safety.
The man calls out again hok here and she presses the heels of her feet that do not work against the iron ring in her floor, desperately pushing herself as far from the door as she can. There is a faint tinkling metal sound—keys, her addled mind supplies, on a ring—and then more footsteps, a rush of them that thunder towards her sanctuary, and a crush of babbling voices accompanying them.
"Which one is it?" the man's voice says, low, urgent.
"It's faster to pick it," says a woman. Her voice is deep and sooty and unhappy—wrong—and she shakes her head again, unsure why she thinks so. The lock on her door rattles—and then it clicks— she is faint with terror—
—and the door swings open.
So many of them stand shadowed in her doorway. She sees two women and one—no, two men, all crowding in, chief among them a tall, blood-spattered man with pointed ears and white hair; they are limned in light, backlit by the torches in the hall, and she cannot see their faces for the shadows.
"Lethellan," cries a female voice, a word she does not recognize—and yet does. The man with the white hair raises his arm—an enormous sword fills the room and she throws her own arm in front of her face as a paltry shield—her metal pin flies from her grasp to skitter on the floor as one of the women gasps and—and—and the blow—does not come.
Her heart hammers in her chest. Silence presses down on her in her little room, too much silence for the four people plus her, and when it becomes too unbearable to wait for the killing strike to fall she dares to lower her arm, just enough that she may glimpse—
"Light," snarls the man that towers over her and she cringes away from him. His bare foot takes a half-step towards her and she does not want to die—she wants to help the Mother and be the vessel—but there's a snapping pop of magic from the doorway and a cool blue glow springs from the littlest woman's hands, a pale woman with dark hair and green eyes and no trace of a (sad? why would she be sad?) smile on her face. The light washes over her and she closes her eyes, turning her face away from it lest it burn her.
"Maker, have mercy," one of them breathes—the other man, the very short wide man she forgot to look at.
"Hok," chokes out the woman with the sooty voice, and then there's a harsh pattering of footsteps running out the door and away from her little room, down the hall towards the still-faint sounds of metal and magic.
She hears the gentle creak of leather and a clank of iron on stone, and when she dares to open her eyes again the man with the white hair is kneeling beside her. His blade is on the ground beside them; her eyes flick to it and then to him, but he makes no motion towards it at all. She blinks in the soft blue light. He feels dimly of magic, somehow, faint and familiar—then his hand flies towards her face, a vicious, metal-clawed hand, covered in blood that gleams wetly in the torchlight—and she recoils, throwing herself as far from him as she can. The chains tangle around her ankles and she falls, landing awkwardly on her good elbow.
Hurt soars to the top of her head and floats there like oil; she sucks in hissing breaths through her teeth as silently as she can—even from them, she has not been given permission to speak. The man makes an inarticulate noise and she senses movement in her direction, but the woman still standing at the door says something in a soft voice that she can't quite make out, and he stills. "The chains, Varric," the woman says, quietly, and the short man moves, then, to crouch at the iron ring in her floor—he is called Varric, she realizes, and she realizes that she knows he is called Varric—an image flickers in her mind of a long thick wooden table, littered with dozens of empty tankards, and him, the dwarf, presiding at its head like a prince and grinning at her when she enters, calling her—
"Hawke," says the elf who kneels by her, and it is no longer nonsense but a sound with meaning, even if she can't remember that meaning right now. His hands are open, palm up, as if calming a wounded deer, and she sees tanned skin instead of metal—but it is his eyes she notices now, green, and hard, and bright with an emotion she does not know how to name. She—she knows those eyes, somehow, though she is certain she should not. Her eyebrows draw together; it strains a newer cut on her temple but she is very skilled at ignoring that minor sort of pain, and though she knows that the Mother would be very angry with her, she wonders if, maybe, she should try to remember.
His face softens, just slightly—yes, she thinks, startled, that is right—and somehow, a little of her fear ebbs. "We have to leave. Now. Can you stand?"
An order. She wants to obey, but: "No," the short man—Varric—answers for her. He twists his hand and her iron ring creaks open, the chain slipping through it, and his eyes follow the chain to her feet that do not work. "Look at her toes. They broke her feet too."
The littlest woman puts her hand to her mouth, her light winking out into nothingness, and drops her eyes. The man with white hair goes very still next to her in the sudden dimness. She doesn't understand—don't they realize that she was hobbled because the Mother knew she might run?—and then she feels his fingers brush her bare knee in the dark. It's not a painful touch, not exactly, and of course she's had far worse, but she cannot suppress her instinct to twitch away as his hand skims feather-light down her leg to her ankles, rigid and unbending, and then over her awkward buckled toes. She feels him suck in a stuttering breath and then, inexplicably, he—glows. Markings she hadn't even noticed are lighting up with a burn of lyrium that she can feel even with her magic stoppered, spreading from his chin over his neck and down his arms, his eyes alight in a rage that terrifies her, his muscles so taut she can see them jumping in the light he is making. Her heart leaps into her throat and lodges there. She cannot move.
"Get a grip, elf. You're scaring her." The words are harsh, but Varric's voice is gentle. "I can't get the manacles off here. They're sealed with blood magic, and it'll take more time than we have to work them free now. Hold it together until we're safe and then you can light up Hightown all you want."
He swallows. It looks like a very difficult thing for him to do, and then he stands, sheathing his great sword on his back, and turns away—"Beast," he says, snarling, "contemptible. Weak. Shameful."—she gasps for breath, blinded by his glowing skin and sudden memories that she cannot make sense of, memories that are there and then suddenly gone.
Gone—like her metal pin. She inhales sharply, remembering the tink on stone as she'd lost it to the shadows of her cell. Panic rises in her throat and her chains rattle as she pushes to her knees, trying not to choke, the elf forgotten completely as she searches the ground for a tiny shard of light—
"Here, lethellan," says the little woman with dark hair and sweet, sad eyes, holding the hatpin—safe!—in her hands. Relief washes over her in a wave as the woman delicately threads it through her cotton shift over her collarbone so that it won't be lost from her crippled fingers again. Her hand cups her cheek for a moment, cool and gentle, and she feels the faintest wisp of magic against her skin.
"You sure that's a good idea, Daisy?"
Not Daisy, a voice whispers. Merrill—called Merrill, of the Dalish. Merrill, who straightens at the rolling echo of a distant explosion. "She needs it. Like the others need our help, I think, and quickly." Merrill looks down at her where she crouches on the ground for one last moment, and then, clutching her staff to her chest, she darts through the doorway and out of sight.
Varric's hands are tense on his crossbow, like his eyes, like the air. "Hurry," he says simply, and then he is gone after her.
The elf puts his hand over his face. The metal of his gauntlet glitters, all edges of fire and pointed steel. The fading markings on his throat move as he swallows again, and when at last he drags his hand away, she meets that green stare that she's seen before, the one that she feels as though she knows, and then he bends forward until his hair falls like a white curtain to hide it. "I am sorry," he breathes, so soft she can barely hear him, and then he gathers her in his arms, chains and all, and lifts her. She cannot help crying out; he is mindful of her hands and feet, but she has other hurts he cannot see, cannot know to mind, and the cuffs of his gauntlets bruise her side and his breastplate digs into her shoulder—and she can't help thinking of how very angry the Mother will be when she hears of this, and how very disappointed—and the old man will be so very hurt—
His thumb brushes against her cheek where the bone is broken, that same too-bright look in his eyes plucking at her heart to mute her fear, and then his face hardens, and he carries her through the door.
The next moments come only in flashes of light and furious sound. The noise of battle swells around her like a sea as he runs—screams of both men and women, the shriek of blade sliding on blade, the snapping sizzle of magic in the air—all twisting into a terrible driving roar that deafens her. She catches glimpses of the damp glistening walls, the flagstones, the guttering torches in their iron sconces, all of them flashing by in her vision like the half-dreams the Mother allows her when she has been particularly good. Merrill flits by in the opposite direction, her staff whirling above her head and then cracking against the ground with the sharp snap of a thorn. A man looming in their path bubbles a gasp and his sword clatters at his feet as he falls. "Keep to the east wall, Fenris," she shouts over the din, falling into step at their backs, and he nods in curt assent.
She doesn't even notice that they've reached the end of the hall, reached the double door that opens into the great room where the Mother allows her magic.
He is called Fenris. He is called Fenris and she knows him. She is certain of it.
So lost is she in the whispery rush of revelation that she doesn't even have time to blink when Fenris—Fenris, who she knows—ducks the flashing arc of a sword. Merrill cries out behind them and Fenris shifts all of her weight to his left arm, flexes the claws of his right hand—the tips shine silvering in the lamplight, and she knows this too—and then he thrusts them through the chest of the guard as if it were water. The man looks surprised, his heavy brows drawing together in confusion, pinpricks of light glinting in his eyes as he stares at the gauntlet blossoming from his chest; the muscles of Fenris's arm snap tight, the man lets out a soft sigh, and like he is simply grown too tired to stand, he slumps to the ground and dies.
She should be afraid. She should be terrified, and she can see from the flicker in his eyes as he straightens her in his arms that Fenris expects her to be so, too—but she isn't. Instead, though she hardly knows why, she turns her face into his chest like a child seeking comfort, and he stiffens for an instant before he eases his hold on her waist. His hand cups the back of her head, a hesitating reassurance she senses he does not give easily—she feels him breathe against her, once—and then they are through the door and into the great hall.
It is chaos.
Everywhere she looks is lit with the blaze of magic and the flare of torchlight on steel; every echo she hears is choked with the spitting hiss of fire and ice and the wailing of wounded men. Fenris slips along the east wall with sure steps, his body angled between her and the fighting, and Merrill dogs their heels, her staff almost vibrating with the amount of power she pours through it.
"Aveline's taken the worst of it," Merrill says at Fenris's shoulder, and across the room a woman with red hair and full armor (a woman solid and steady and loyal, a woman who most of all does not panic) plants her booted foot in the middle of a man's chest and shoves; he tumbles head over heels and straight into a dagger that sprouts between his ribs. The dagger angles downward and, slowly, the man slips free and crumples into a heap at the feet of a woman with dark skin and dark hair, the woman with the sooty voice (a voice that laughs at her as she tries to pick a lock with a hatpin). "Isabela's warned the rest of them what to expect with Hawke, but I really don't think Anders quite—look out!"
Fenris has tucked her between himself and the wall before she realizes he has even begun to move. A great gout of flame billows around him, his shoulders arching over her like the hackles of an angry cat. It stains his hair gold as his head dips near her own; the tips feather over her forehead and his eyes lock to hers, lidded against the heat, half-wild and wary and tantalizing in their familiarity—and then a body thuds into the wall beside them in a shower of ice and splinters.
"That…was uncomfortable." The man sags against the stonework before straightening gingerly, his robes shedding shards of ice that tinkle when they hit the flagstones. One hand grips an intricately carved staff at his side; the other flicks the blond hair escaping its tail out of his face. Anders, her mind murmurs, and she blinks. A woman shrouded in a green veil darts by, her outstretched hand sparking with magic; Anders's staff spirals light and her feet lock in place beneath her. The edges of the veil flutter wildly as her head whips back and forth in search of the source of her paralysis—and then a bolt thwacks square in the center of her forehead, and the veil does not move again.
Anders whoops. "Good shot, Varric!" he shouts, the dwarf's answering laugh almost lost in the cacophony of battle. He turns to Fenris and to her in his arms and his smile slips. "Isabela said—who—is that Hawke?" He ducks a stray arrow that clatters on the wall near his shoulder and nears until he can see her face. "Void take me," he breathes, and he grips his hair as if it is the only thing tethering him to life. "Hawke—Hawke—"
He is too close. His skin is hot and smells like scalded lyrium; her manacles tingle and she winces, pulling her mangled hands tighter to her chest over her hatpin, grateful when Fenris twists her out of the man's sight.
"There is no time, mage," Fenris snaps.
Anders says something sharp in return but she misses it. She has glanced to the center of the great hall, empty of fighting like the eye of a storm, and in the center of the eye there is a wooden, high-backed chair—
—and standing behind that chair, tall and motionless and with her faceless black veil pointed directly at her—
—is the Mother.
Her breath seizes in her chest. She knew, she knew that this would displease the Mother—knew she should have stayed in her room with the iron ring in the floor—the Mother must be so angry and oh, she trembles to think of her punishment. Terror closes her throat as the Mother just—just looks at her, cradled as she is in the arms of an elf the Mother does not know, saturated in sound and sight and light that she has not been allowed. Someone speaks to her, or near her, but she ignores it. She can hear nothing but the blood pounding in her ears.
The Mother raises her hand, palm up, and then she crooks her fingers in an imperious command. She calls.
She must obey.
The elf is strong but she surprises him all the same. She draws her manacled wrists back and strikes him across the jaw with all the strength she can muster—he staggers, shocked, and she hits him again and then magic burns in her fetters, magic funneled to her hands by the Mother and she draws on it just as she has been trained, sucks out all she is allowed and no more than that, never more than that. Electricity bursts from her knuckles and tears into his chest with a crackling roar. He staggers again—his arms weaken around her and she writhes, the chains twisting like living things around her body, sparking with her magic—and then she is free, free and falling from his arms.
She hits the flagstones with a thud that knocks the breath half-out of her and jolts agony straight to her toes but there is no time for the pain, no time for the elf and the man she leaves behind—the Mother is calling and she must go—she pushes to her elbows and crawls on her belly, dragging her useless feet behind her like dead things.
"Hawke, stop!" Fenris shouts behind her and her heart twists at a command she cannot follow but she cannot, cannot be disobedient to the Mother. Men with naked swords pound past her on the ground where she crawls and engage Fenris and Anders in close combat, preventing them from blocking her path to the Mother who waits faceless and ever-patient by her wooden chair in the center of the hall. Her forearm slips in a puddle of congealing blood and her chin cracks against the flagstones so hard her teeth rattle, but she ignores the coppery taste of blood between her teeth, ignores the metallic howling behind her and pushes on—a body's length—an arm's length—she is so close—
"My vessel," says the Mother behind her veil, and she presses her cracked lips to the hem of her robes in obeisance.
The Mother gestures to the chair and she levers herself into it, her damaged fingers scrabbling on the wood uselessly for a second before she can seat herself properly. Her pulse flutters—she learned the Mother's moods long ago, and never has she seen her so silent in rage. She stands pitch-black and statue-still; not even her veil shivers with her breath.
"Child," she says, "you fled from me."
She shakes her head mutely—no, not by choice, never by choice—and the Mother backhands her across the broken cheekbone. Tears spring to her eyes and she blinks them away. The Mother does not like open displays of weakness.
"Hawke!" Fenris's voice is closer, but she will not look. She will not be weak.
The Mother bends, then, and cups her face in warm hands. A soft perfume wafts from the veil; the Mother always smells wonderful. Her voice is like the coo of a mourning dove. "My child, have you forgotten your promise?"
To be the vessel. She has not forgotten.
"Good," says the Mother, a smile spreading through her voice, and she slides a long knife from her belt.
Her eyes slip closed at the sight of it, and she feels the Mother's hand skim from her cheek to her shoulder as she circles around the chair in the center of the room. The Mother's steps stop directly behind her and she tries to swallow the gorging fear—she trusts the Mother—doesn't she?—but she is so afraid—
Long fingers slip into the hair at the top of her head and clench there, pulling back until her neck is stretched to breaking. Her hands flutter helplessly at the base of her throat—she is unable to speak, unable to disobey, unable to cast aside the fear in her heart—unable to remember, unable to forget—
"Hawke!" Fenris's voice is desperate and violent and wild and her eyes fly open. Aveline is staring at her in horror and somewhere Merrill screams, but they're not the ones she's searching for. The Mother is speaking words of magic behind her that she does not know and the terror rises with the knife—and then she sees him.
He is spattered with blood, his own and others', and he strains against two men in battered plate who block his path, but Fenris is not looking at them. He is looking at her, and his eyes are savage and sorrowing and too, too bright—
"Hawke," he says, and it is as if the entire room has gone silent save the sound of his voice, "fight."
She must obey—she must fight. No, she mustn't fight, must not disobey the Mother. She wants—to be the vessel—she wants to fight—
She sucks in a breath. The knife skates over her skin with the movement but she hardly notices it—his command is piercing through the fog like the clear ringing of a bell at dawn, a beacon blazing in her mind to burn away the veil that hides her—
Something breaks in the deepest part of her mind with a quiet snap.
"My child. My vessel," coos the Mother in her ear.
—her name—her name—
Her hands fumble at the collar of her white cotton shift. The Mother begins to cut—
And the sharp edge shrieks against the fat iron links of her chains instead, drawn between her neck and the knife. The Mother tightens her grip on her hair, the black veil sucking in and out over her mouth in blind fury. "You dare to defy me, child—"
She pops her elbow up in a sharp motion that catches the Mother in the temple—her head snaps sideways and the knife flies from her hand to clatter against the stone—she twists in the chair to face the faceless woman—
"My name," she says, her voice harsh and guttural and rasping with disuse, "is Hawke."
And Hawke lifts her hands over her head, the hatpin clutched between them, and tears the veil in two.
Hawke doesn't stop to think about what's happening. The woman—not the Mother, ever again; she had a mother and she lost her—is already screaming for reinforcements from the remaining soldiers she has, already spitting words of power like curses through a bleeding mouth. Hawke recognizes the greasy clinging of blood magic and demonic summoning and steels herself; her manacles might mute her own magic, but the woman had given her much more than she'd needed to fight Fenris, earlier, and Hawke is very good at taking no more magic than she is allowed.
With all the strength she has left, Hawke wraps her arms around the woman's neck, slipping the chains over her head like a grotesque necklace. She staggers with a screech at the unexpected weight and goes down, and Hawke, tethered to her like an anchor, tumbles over the arm of the chair on top of her.
For a split-second, they are eye-to-eye for the first time.
She is nothing but an old woman. An old woman with a painted mouth and fear in the rheumy eyes that water in the naked torchlight. Her fingers (long and bony, fragile fingers—how has Hawke never noticed them before?) grope for the tatters of her veil, for the oozing slash that strafes down her face between her eyes, the last tally-mark of the harmless hatpin.
"Release me," she commands, as if the floor were a throne, her eyes boiling with magic.
Hawke falters. The urge to obey bears down on her mind like steel, its compulsion and the slavish desire to please vibrating in her mind, insistent and overwhelming. She shakes her head violently once—twice—reminds herself that the veil has been torn and she has seen behind it—and the blood magic slips its hold. Hawke sucks in a breath, and then she leans forward until her matted, filthy hair drops like a curtain around them, until her nose almost brushes the nose of the old woman. "I will not."
She presses her manacles flush to the woman's skin on either side of her throat. They shiver with power, the ridges and whorls flickering with electric light.
The skin over the old woman's neck wobbles as she swallows. Her voice is barely a whisper. "Let me live." She presses her hand against Hawke's where it is pinned under her fetters in a gentle, motherly gesture. Hawke looks at the woman's hand—and then she looks at her manacles and the aching tortured things at the end of them, and then she looks directly into the old woman's face where the whites show all the way around her eyes.
"I will not," Hawke says, and she opens the floodgates of her magic.
It is as if she has reached into the heart of a storm and grasped it for her own. Lightning pours from her hands like a river over the old woman's neck and through it. Her head bows back against the floor and her mouth opens in a mindless scream; sparks arc between her teeth, over the surface of her eyes that bulge from her head. There is still power left in the chains—Hawke pours it all in, puts in everything she has left. A bolt jumps to the wooden chair beside them and the wood chars instantaneously; she can smell the burning wood and burning flesh, the old woman's or her own, she doesn't know—the sheer silk of the black veil goes up in smoke—
—she hears the screech of metal, the slapping of feet against stone—
—hands, on her shoulders; hands, on her hands, pulling—
The world goes white. Hawke knows nothing more.