The next two weeks pass quickly, as if time is trying to catch up for all the days she spent asleep. Hawke spends as much time as she can outdoors, the sun her own personal addiction as she tries to gather the threads of her life back into her hands; there are a half-dozen jobs that have gone unattended in her absence, relatively inconsequential things like neighborly grievances and tracking down old business partners, and little by little, Hawke eases back into something like a rhythm.
Fenris even lets her leave the house unattended after a few days. Her feet are almost entirely healed, although she has a slight limp that she suspects will never quite disappear, and when she demonstrates that she can, in fact, run the full length of the dining room with nary a squawk of pain, Fenris concedes that she might be capable of holding a shopping basket on her own arm without collapsing in a wispy heap. Even though she still cannot quite sleep without nightmares, nor bear the dark without a candle, the peculiar kind of solitude of walking alone in a crowd of people is something she has come to treasure. Her acquaintances in Hightown greet her with gladness and something like relief; she suspects it is more the Champion than the citizen they are pleased to see, but in the end, she can't seem to make herself mind much.
Most days, she can trick herself into something like normalcy, as if her absence might be chalked up to an extended vacation along the coast rather than a cell under the streets of Hightown. Aveline even remarks on it once, when Hawke is visiting the Keep to acquire more of Donnic's flatbread. "You're readjusting so well," she says, tucking the cheesecloth over the basket.
Hawke doesn't tell her that Varric has had to take her home twice in the last week because a lamed beggar had pleaded for coin from her outside The Hanged Man, his shriveled hand twisted in on itself, leaving her shaking too hard to walk straight. She doesn't mention that every time she sees a woman dressed all in black, her stomach heaves like a ship at sea and she has to sit down or be sick. And she doesn't tell her that Orana has taken to putting water to warm before she goes to bed because she knows she'll be up soon enough making tea anyway, or that just the night before, when she'd awoken screaming in the full throes of a night terror, she'd flung herself so hard from Fenris that she'd knocked over her nightstand and nearly set the house afire.
Instead, Hawke throws her a cheeky grin and tells her, "I've always been the resilient type."
That's the last she sees of Aveline for several days. Donnic tells Hawke that Aveline's caught a tip on the remaining cultists; it is at this point that she discovers that the old man had not been among the dead in the catacombs, and it is at this point that she knows that there are other girls out there, suffering as she did. Though Hawke wants more than anything to help with the investigation, Donnic shows her a note in Aveline's hand that orders Hawke in no uncertain terms to keep herself scarce until she has something more to go on than rumors. Hawke concedes with poor grace—she always leaves a winning impression of herself with Donnic, it seems—and stalks off to complain to an unsympathetic Fenris.
That week, she spends her evenings at The Hanged Man, trying to catch up on the month's worth of news she has missed from Varric and the equally-newsworthy gossip from Isabela. Anders is there more often than not, those nights, making sure that Hawke is neither imbibing Corff's concoctions nor overexerting herself during the day, and even Merrill stops by occasionally to chat and lose at diamondback. The patrons at the tavern give her the warmest welcome of all, the first time she returns; it's Varric's influence, she's sure, since the dwarf can't seem to help making the world fond of him and his friends by proxy, but the thankfulness she feels is real all the same.
Then, one night when Hawke is being spectacularly bluffed out of yet another sizable pot of silver, Aveline strides through the door with Fenris hard on her heels. Both of them look harried and a little wild around the edges, and when Fenris spots her in the corner where she sits with Varric, Merrill, and Anders, they make a beeline for the table with a single-minded purpose that makes Hawke forget her cards entirely.
"We've found him," Aveline says, her words clipped at the ends. The few people that had been lingering over their shoulders to watch the card game quietly drift away, sensing that the Champion of Kirkwall is about to supersede the woman losing at Wicked Grace. Isabela bumps Anders with her hip as she arrives at the table, drawn to the commotion, and Anders makes a noise of protest as his ale sloshes over the edge of his tankard.
Hawke doesn't even notice. "Found who, specifically?"
"The old man who imprisoned you," says Fenris. His lip curls, and Hawke's heart just about stops. "He is an apothecarist named Adom based here in Lowtown."
Hawke sucks in a breath. That's it, that's it, she remembers—remembers passing the tiny apothecary jammed between a squalid apartment and a seedy little inn; she remembers seeing a little spray of herbs in the window and she had been short on embrium—she'd walked in, and there he'd been behind the counter with his white whiskery eyebrows and his easy smile and she hadn't even noticed the cloying incense numbing her senses until her knees were no longer steady beneath her, until her eyelids dragged down like they'd been weighted and the world had fallen black.
And then she'd awoken in her cell, blind and chained, and begun to break.
"He's heading a cell of those cultists in the foundry district." Aveline takes over, smoothing over Hawke's stunned silence, her hand gripping and releasing the hilt of her sword as if she is itching to draw it. "I think he has the missing girls with him, though Maker knows if they're still alive. I've summoned the Guard but I don't think they'll get there in time, and we've got to stop him before he kills anyone else."
Hawke stands in a sharp movement, scattering cards and empty bottles across the tabletop. "Are you certain?" she asks, and doesn't know whether she wants them to be or not.
Fenris nods. That is enough.
She grabs her staff where it leans against the wall. "Let's go."
The halls of the abandoned foundry stink of smelted iron and sweat, the ceilings cut low and claustrophobic, but it is the blood spattered on the floor that makes her nauseous. She remembers that blood, remembers how it pooled and slicked on her skin as her feet were dragged through it, remembers the thick congealing stickiness of it between her fingers when they were broken. She shudders and hides it in the shadows cast by the torches, trying to ignore the shaking in her hands.
Fenris sees it, of course; he has turned to glance at her from where he leads their party with Aveline, and he drops back to her side. She is edgy and anxious and barely clamping down on her sparking magic, and more than anything she doesn't want him to know how the terror is swelling in her stomach. He falls into step with her, and ineffective a defense as it is, Hawke looks away.
"I'm fine," she says, free hand raised to forestall the protests she knows he will voice anyway.
The blade of his naked sword glitters between them in the torchlight. "You should not have come."
"To the Void with that," Hawke hisses, her anxiety bleeding into irritation. "Don't you dare try to protect me from this."
His eyes narrow. "You can barely hold your staff upright. Should I be wary of misguided lightning again?"
He's needling her, she knows, testing the strength of her mind because she will be tested by someone less careful soon enough, but oh, that one hurts—she hooks her fingers into the edge of his breastplate and yanks him to the corridor wall, out of the path of the others following them. Anders takes a step towards her and she jerks her head after Aveline; this won't take long, and she does not need help.
"That was uncalled for," she snaps as Anders disappears around the corner, anger scratching up the back of her neck. "I have the right to be here. More right than anyone."
"You are not strong enough for this," Fenris says, tense and harsh. "You should go back to your home and let us finish this."
Hawke shakes him by his breastplate, trying to bite back her fear and now, her fury. She is genuinely hurt that he is suggesting this and incensed at herself for being so. "How can you say that? How can you tell me that I should just go—go sit on my laurels like a good little girl? I would never, never have tried to keep you out of the fight when Danarius came for you, wouldn't have even dreamed of it! How can you, of all people—" She shakes him again, harder, and he slings his sword over his back so his hands can grip her wrists like vises.
"You," he says, and the glare in his eyes stops her words in her throat, "have not slept without screaming for two weeks. You still bear the scars of the man we are about to kill. I lost you for a month and when I found you chained in a hole in the ground like an animal, you did not know me." His grip tightens on her wrists, just to the point before pain, and though his voice drops, his eyes do not. "I watched you crawl away from me on your stomach to a woman who wanted to slaughter you. You, who—" he makes a frustrated noise, searches for words, "tu mihi karissima. And now you race to throw yourself at the feet of the very people who did this in the first place. How can you ask me not to protect you?"
She doesn't know Arcanum, but she knows what he says all the same. "Bastard," she whispers, and drags him down by his breastplate until she can kiss him. It is short and hard and all teeth and tongue, and when it is over she pushes him back and dashes the tears out of her eyes. "Protect me by watching my back."
His eyes are grim in disapproval and for a second she thinks he will force her to go whether she wills it or not, but in the end he tips his head forward a fraction, ceding this conflict to her. "Always."
Hawke gives him her own sharp nod in response and whirls on her heel, breaking into a jog to catch up to the others. Fenris follows, and she hears his sword slide free behind her.
They find them waiting just before an enormous double-wide door at the end of the hall with two dead guards at their feet, and Isabela pulls a face as she wipes a dagger on one of the guards' tunics. Merrill gestures for silence as they approach and Hawke slows to a careful toe-heel walk; she can hear rusting movements from inside, the echoes indicating it is a room nearly as large as the great hall from the catacombs, although the lack of distinct voices tells them nothing about the room's inhabitants. Aveline gestures at Fenris, and with the practiced ease of frequent combatants, the two of them slide to either side of the door. Fenris glances at the rest of them and then carefully, silently turns the handle and cracks the door open the width of two fingers, inclining his head just enough so that he can peer into the room.
He stands still a moment, counting. Hawke's heart is thudding in her chest. The hushed anticipation of battle thunders in her ears as it always does, but this time there is more to it, banked rage and a lust for vengeance and a spiny needling fear that digs into her lungs. What if the old man is not there? What if he is? What if he looks at her with all the weight of an unspoken command as the Mother did and she loses herself just as easily to his will—what if Fenris is right and she shouldn't have come—
Fenris turns at the door and her spiraling thoughts collapse in on themselves. She has no time to be afraid for herself now, and besides, Fenris is watching her back. He holds up three fingers, then makes a closed fist—thirty enemies even. He glances back over his shoulder through the gap, double-checking, and then holds up a series of numbers that Hawke tallies in her head. Fourteen warriors—probably hired swords, she guesses, since the main force of the Followers of She had been decimated in her own rescue. A dozen mages, most of them probably hip-deep in blood magic, and four people of indeterminate specialty.
Hawke's mouth quirks. They've faced worse.
Anders pulls a little glass vial from his coat and drains it, then tosses a second one to Fenris, who catches it without looking and tucks it in into a pouch on his belt. He presses his shoulder to the door and Hawke braces herself in the tense coiling moment before the rush—and then he stops dead, his eyes widening in shock. "The old man has just entered the room," he says, barely bothering to whisper. "He has a woman with him." He doesn't have to say anything else, and suddenly no one is looking at Hawke. They all know what kind of woman he means.
"Then let's move," Hawke says, and they do.
The first guards who see them raise the alarm, their blades ringing free from their sheaths as they charge. There's a split-second of silence, a harsh breath when the swords shine silver-edged and falling, when the veils on the mages swirl with whorling magic, when Hawke gathers her power swift and swelling in her fingers like the surge of distant thunder—and then Fenris's sword sweeps up to meet the downswinging blade of his enemy, and it begins.
Hawke loses the next few moments in the frenzy that is pitched battle. Her world narrows to a crush of sound and light: the crisp clear chiming of steel on steel, the screams of warning and wounded both resounding from the high stone walls, the hissing crackle of magic arcing fire from her hand to the heart of a woman in a red veil. She hears a plated footstep crunch the ground behind her and ducks just as a thin-bladed dagger whistles through the air where her neck had been; an instant later, the man groans and falls backward, the ornate hilt of a knife protruding from the center of his forehead.
"Thanks," Hawke shouts, and Isabela tips an invisible hat before spinning out of the way of a woman wielding an enormous maul.
There's a bump at her elbow and she glances over to see Anders, eyes flickering light around the edges: Justice, seething for battle. He throws her a grim smile and she nods curtly before turning her back against his. The cool airy whisper of his magic soughs through her for a moment, and then it turns outward, laced with Justice's bitter bite, and Hawke hears a woman behind her shriek in agony.
A man in dark robes screams something and points at her from across the room. Hawke swivels on her heel and angles her staff at his heart, pushing out blasts of ice that shiver the air between them; he falls to his knees with a cry and fumbles at his belt for his knife before slicing it across his wrist—blood magic, Hawke realizes, and his hand gleams slick and dark and wet in the torchlight before he fists it at his chest. She sinks lower into her stance and sets her heels, preparing for the oily burst of magic she knows is coming—but abruptly, a shining, metal-clawed hand protrudes from the center of the man's chest, just left of his sternum. He looks down at it, the spell dying on his lips, and unfurls his fingers to touch the tips of the claws as if he is confused. The hand jerks back, then, leaving a fist-sized hole in the man's chest where his heart used to be, and slowly, he tips forward onto his face with a quiet thud.
Fenris gives her a sour look from where he stands over the blood mage's body, and Hawke tries not to smirk as he surreptitiously wipes his gauntlet on his trousers. He glances back at her—and his mouth opens in warning as he stares to her left; she brings her staff up in quick response and impales the woman charging at her through the throat. The mercenary's sword falls from nerveless fingers to clatter on the flagstones, voiceless words bubbling through her lips, and then she jerks, twice, and dies.
Hawke lowers her staff with a curse and puts a booted foot to the woman's collarbone, pushing her off the end of it. That had been luck more than anything else—it'd been the woman's own momentum that carried her to her death, not Hawke's strength, and she has only Fenris's warning to thank for her life. She looks back in his direction, meaning to thank him, but movement between them draws her attention—
—and her eyes land on the old man instead.
He stands on a small raised dais in the center of the room, oblivious to her stare. Huddled in a heap at his feet is a pathetic little pile of rags and long, unkempt blond hair, and Hawke feels a sudden icy rage press so hard behind her eyes that it nearly blinds her. Before she knows it, she is shouting in wordless wrath and pounding across the room, ignoring the arrows that shriek past her, the look of utter surprise that she glimpses on Aveline's face as she darts by—she leaps the last few feet in one go and skids to a stop on the dais between Adom and his sacrifice.
He stares at her open-mouthed, his white whiskery eyebrows climbing into his forehead, his warm and gentle eyes so wide the laugh lines around the corners have disappeared. His fingers slacken around the knife he holds shoulder-high and the tip of it droops; Hawke snaps up the bottom of her staff and it cracks into his chin. His head pops back on his neck—she sees a tooth go flying—and he staggers backwards, the knife falling free on the stone.
Hawke recognizes it in half a heartbeat—it is the same long knife the Mother had brought to Hawke's throat, the same narrow wicked blade gleaming in the torchlight—it skitters behind her and she lets it, turns to face Adom again.
He takes a step backward off the dais—she half-hopes he'll simply fall and break his neck—but suddenly there are two men in chainmail at his elbows, steadying him, their naked swords flashing fire into her eyes. She braces herself for the onslaught, angry and anxious, hoping the girl behind her isn't dead already—but her line of sight is abruptly blocked. It takes her a second to register what she's seeing: a lean back armored in thick, braced leather, muscled shoulders bunched under the weight of an enormous greatsword, thin lines of lyrium skating up tanned skin to disappear into hair that glints silver under the torches.
Fenris doesn't even look at her. He simply pushes her back with a blind hand towards the blond figure still pooled bonelessly on the dais, and then he swings his sword over his shoulder, and he charges.
Without hesitating, Hawke spins, leaving the old man and his guards to him, and runs the length of the platform until she can sink down on her knees next to the girl. She pushes the long, matted hair from her face, tucks a hand under her head and turns her over until she can see—
Her stomach roils.
The girl is a solid mass of bruises and broken bones. Chunks of her blond hair are missing, torn out by the roots—Hawke remembers vividly the gloved hands fisted in her own hair—one eye is swelled completely shut, and her nose looks like it has been broken, healed badly, and then broken again. A heavy chain dangles like a leash from a thick iron collar fastened around her neck, the skin at the edges of it lacerated and showing signs of deep infection. Hawke falters, confused—why the collar and not fetters, as they'd used with her? —and then she sees the grimy grey bandages at the end of one of the girl's wrists, at both of her ankles, and Hawke realizes.
They have cut off her feet at the ankles and her left hand at the wrist. Hobbled her, so that she cannot escape as Hawke had. So that she can never run again.
"Maker," breathes Hawke, not even aware she is speaking aloud. "This is my fault."
The girl stirs at the sound of her voice, although how she can even hear it in the cacophony of battle Hawke has no idea, and the unswollen eye cracks open to reveal the faintest hint of blue under the glaze of confusion and pain. She doesn't look more than sixteen.
"Hi," says Hawke, cupping her head in one gentle hand and dipping into her magic. "How are you feeling?"
The girl looks at her blankly, and Hawke remembers with a sick twist in her stomach what she waits for. "You have my permission to speak," she adds, the words acidic on her tongue, but the girl's eyes flicker to life.
Her mouth cracks open, her dry lips sticking together and bleeding at the corners. Hawke snatches at the waterskin at her belt that she'd brought for just this reason and pops out the cap with her teeth, then carefully tips it to her lips. She sucks at it greedily, the water dribbling over her jaw to leave trails in the grime, and when it is empty she lets out a terrifying noise of mindless gratitude and flops her head back onto Hawke's knee.
"Thank you for the water," she says, her voice rough and thick with illness and pain.
"You're welcome," Hawke says, swallowing her own emotions as best she can. "We're here to rescue you. Do you know your name?"
The girl's brow furrows as if she doesn't understand the question. "I," she whispers, and then she chokes and has to start again, "I am going to be the vessel for the Mother."
A cold chill slaps against the back of Hawke's neck, but she still tries for gentleness. "I know, my darling. I know." Her healing magic probes at the stumps of the girl's ankles and Hawke winces; the wounds are old and poorly-treated, and even if she survives the next few hours, she will have a long recovery ahead. "How long have you been here?"
Her head rolls on her shoulders, nearly slipping off Hawke's knees before she answers. "I have always been here."
"Surely you had some kind of home, some family? A mother, a brother? Sisters?"
Suddenly her eyelids flutter, her gaze turning inward for the briefest second—and then she turns her head violently away from Hawke's face and shudders. "No," she whispers, her voice shivering with emotion. "No, no, no. I have always been here to serve the Mother."
Hawke lets it go for the moment, though her heart lifts—the girl remembers something, at least, her mind not lost quite yet to the ravages of the new Mother and her bloody blasted old man—she forces herself to smile as the girl rolls away from Hawke's knee to curl bonelessly against the stone floor. "All right, darling. Just...don't worry. Everything will be all right."
There's a bellow behind her and suddenly Fenris is staggering backwards until he stops himself just shy of the two of them on the dais. He's bruised and nicked in a few places and his hair is staining red behind his left ear, but he doesn't look too much the worse for wear; he lets out a vicious shout and springs forward, and in a flash of sword and lyrium's silver light the second guard falls dead at his feet.
Hawke takes advantage of the moment to survey the room, still murmuring meaningless assurances to the blond girl, even though she knows from experience that she barely understands them. Everywhere she looks there are broken bodies and glistening sprays of blood, torches sputtering oil and sparks over the last pockets of combat. Even as she watches, Aveline leans back out of range of a man bringing a greatsword to bear and Varric launches a bolt that thuds into the nape of the man's neck. Merrill dances by, her staff glowing, and Isabela swaggers around the body of a dead mage with her dagger still jutting from his ribs.
Fenris growls behind her, then, his voice hot with the flush of battle. "It is time to end this."
Hawke pushes to her knees and turns. Fenris is advancing on Adom, his sword dark with blood; the old man has nearly palpable fear in his warm and gentle eyes and Hawke grimaces at the sudden choking rush of hatred that swells in her throat. She wants to watch him cower, to throw himself on Fenris's mercy and find none. She wants to watch him die.
The old man's eyes dart to her where she crouches on the dais, hovering protectively over his would-be sacrifice, healed and almost whole and never bending her head to him again, waiting to see him choke on his own blood—and then they flick past her, just for an instant, and triumph lights his face more clearly than any sun.
"Do it, child," he says clearly, and the sound of his voice rings to the rafters of the foundry.
Hawke can't breathe, can't think, can't move fast enough—she starts to turn, start to stretch out her hand but it's too slow, too late—
—the knife glitters in the girl's one hand, the knife that skittered away on the stone—
—and the girl brings the blade across her own throat in one swift wet slice.
Sparks spray where the steel scrapes iron. Hawke screams—she can't help it—and tears the knife from the girl's unresisting fingers. She clamps her hands to the gash that spurts blood; severed the damn artery, a distant part of her brain tells her, and healing pours from her hands in a brilliant wash of light. Hawke doesn't understand how she'd even had the strength— she has cut so deep and she can't stop the bleeding—
"Anders!" Hawke shrieks, because the girl is her as she was and she has to, has to save her. "Anders, help me!"
His hands are on her hands, suddenly, his healing magic a cresting wave where hers was only a stream, and Hawke flings herself backwards, lurches to her feet, her fingers soaked in the girl's blood.
The room falls silent around them. She sees Fenris kneeling on Adom's back in the corner of her eye, his sword impaled through the man's spine; sees Isabela sheathing her daggers without ceremony; sees Merrill and Aveline and Varric dispatching the last of their enemies and slowly approaching them on the dais, but she has eyes only for Anders and the girl under his hands, young and white and utterly still.
Hawke knows. Hawke knows even before Anders pushes his hair out of his face and looks up at her that it is too late. She is too late, too late to save her, too late to save a damned thing.
Her stomach churns. She is going to faint; she is going to be sick; she has to get out of this bloody place that reeks of rot and iron and dead things. Swallowing down her bile, she tightens her grip around her staff until the grain of the wood anchors her to the moment. "Okay. Okay. Check the side passages," she says, and her voice is almost steady. "See if there are any other survivors."
Aveline nods. "I think there are one or two of the guards left alive. We'll take them to the Gallows and see what the interrogators can wring out of them."
"Good." She glances to Fenris, avoiding Anders, still kneeling before her, and the empty corpse that lies at his feet. "The old man is dead?"
Fenris's eyes narrow, telling her he doesn't quite believe she's as controlled as she'd wish, but he doesn't push it. "Yes."
"Good," she says again, and starts to wipe her face before she remembers the girl's blood still hot on her hands. "Everyone, spread out. Meet back here as soon as you've combed the place."
They scatter, with a few of them tossing lingering glances in her direction. Aveline pulls Fenris off to the side of the hall for a moment, their conversation too low for her to hear, and Hawke takes advantage of his distraction to snag Varric by the shoulder. "Make sure you get the cuffs off," she says, and Varric nods.
Against her will, her eyes go to the nameless girl's bloody body on the dais. Her knees nearly buckle; Varric grips her around the waist. "You okay there, Hawke?"
"Oh, Maker," she gasps. It is too much—the bile rises in her throat again and Fenris was right, she shouldn't have come, she shouldn't have—she shudders so hard Varric almost loses his grasp. "Varric, I've got to go. I've got to get out of here, oh, flames—"
She pushes away from him roughly and falters her way to the doors at the end of the hall, slow and wavering at first, and then faster, unable to care whether anyone notices. The door slips shut behind her; she catches a glimpse of Varric leading Fenris away from the dais, covering for her exit and she will need to thank him later for understanding, but right now, she must get outside or lose her mind.
Hawke makes it exactly four steps outside the foundry before her legs collapse under her. She goes to all fours and heaves, throwing up everything she has in her stomach and then some, her arms shaking under the strain, her hair hanging limp around her face. She gags, coughs, retches again, wipes her mouth on the back of her hand and her tearing eyes on her sleeve, and then she shoves her way to her feet.
She puts one hand on the white stone wall to steady herself. Hawke breathes, a harsh ragged sound that hangs in the air around her, and takes a step away from the foundry; the next step comes easier, and easier still the step after that, and eventually, she disappears into the shadows of Lowtown, a smear of blood on the wall the only thing she leaves behind.
Fenris finds her in her room, hours later.
She is wedged into the corner under the window as far as she can get, her knees drawn to her chest and her head buried in her arms. The thin light of the moon trickles in through the window to pool on her dark hair, her shoulders, and her hands, laced over the back of her neck and still raw from scrubbing. She tips her head just enough to glimpse his face, calm and unworried, his eyes paling more grey than green in the moonlight, and then she buries it again.
She hears the latch quietly click closed behind him and the soft thump of his sword as he leans it against the wall. Hawke blows out a breath against her knees. "Seems I'm always making you chase after me, lately."
A pause, then two muffled clanks, one right after the other: his gauntlets, dropped to the desk. "Then know that I will always look."
Her hands tighten behind her neck. Had that girl had anyone to look for her? Did someone wait, even now, for a daughter to come home, a young woman with blond hair and blue eyes and an unburdened smile? She presses her forehead closer to her knees and closes her eyes. "Did you find any of the other girls?"
There's the zip of leather sliding through metal as he unbuckles his breastplate. "There were five women in the foundry besides the one who...died. Two of them still live. They are at the mage's clinic in—poor condition." The leather creaks as he rests the armor against the leg of the desk, and then he pads almost silently across the carpet to her side. "Aveline compared her to the descriptions of the missing women," he says, quieter. "Her name was Gloria."
Gloria. It fits. "Family?"
"A mother and four sisters. They live in the more affluent section of Lowtown." She senses his weight shift as he bends, but he doesn't touch her, and she is grateful. She doesn't want to be comforted, not tonight. "She was taken to the Circle at a very young age. Her sisters did not know her well."
Hawke says nothing, but they both know what he means: at least they will not mourn their loss so badly.
Eventually, Fenris steps forward into the opposite corner of her alcove, sinking down to sit against the wall opposing hers. He stretches out his legs in front of him, crossed at the ankles; they are long enough that his feet reach her hip across the carpet, and he brushes them against her just once, just to let her know that he is there, and then he folds his arms over his chest and falls still. He cannot give her peace tonight, but somehow, the fact that he is there, waiting with her for dawn, even if he does nothing more than track the silent stars across the sky while she grieves: for Gloria, for the other girls whose names she does not yet know, for herself—
It is enough.
Neither of the girls at Anders's clinic survives. Fenris brings her the news. It does not surprise her, not exactly; instead, it feels quiet and heavy, like grey clouds are closing out the sky over her head, and she can no longer find the sun through them.
Hawke attends six funerals over the next week. Aveline goes with her as the official representative of the Guard, the kerchief around her neck temporarily replaced with a black scarf. The others leave them to it; the last thing Hawke wants is to turn these events into a spectacle for the Champion and her companions, so she goes with Aveline alone, and meets the families that have been left behind. Most of the funerals are small, only a handful of mourners paying their respects before the pyres, and one by one, Aveline offers her condolences to the girl's mother or brother or husband with a steady poise that Hawke cannot hope to match. She tries, only once, to speak to a suddenly-childless father, and the blankness in the man's eyes is worse than any Tranquil's.
Gloria's funeral is the last.
It rains the whole day in Kirkwall and the puddled streets are nearly empty of life. The only attendees are her mother and sisters, who stand in a small, huddled clump of mourner's cloth and blond hair that not even the drizzling rain can dampen. The girls all look terribly young; the youngest can be no more than three, and she sits hefted on her sister's hip, wide-eyed and silent and very small in black. Their mother stands stone-still before the pyre where her daughter's body lies shrouded, the rain pulling the veil from her hair and tracking down the lines in a face meant more to smile than weep.
The attending chanter recites the tenth chapter of Tranfigurations, the pattering of the rain his only accompaniment, and the words are so familiar to Hawke now that she could speak them in his place. When he finishes, he moves to the pyre and tries to spark flint, but the straw is soaked through and the fire won't take. He strikes steel again and again, each blow a scrape against Hawke's nerves that makes her flinch; then one of the girls stifles a dry sob that hangs dead in the rain, and that is enough for Hawke.
The pyre bursts into a tower of whirling flame that stretches high above them, leaping stormward as if it is trying to burn away the sky itself. The chanter jumps back, startled, then recovers himself; he bows his head before the crackling pyre, raising his hand in benediction, and finishes the last verses. "For there is no darkness in the Maker's Light, and nothing that He has wrought shall be lost," he says, and the rain hisses where it strikes the burning straw. Gloria's family stands tall and still, their hair blazing gold in the firelight, and Hawke turns away. She knows what comes next.
Aveline touches her shoulder as she passes. Hawke throws her a tremulous smile, then pulls the hood of her sodden cloak close over her head as she leaves behind the spire of snapping flames, its thunder muted by the roaring silence of a family one less than full. The chanter's last words hum after her through the rain like a snatch of quiet song.
"The Light shall lead her safely
Through the paths of this world, and into the next."
If there is light, Hawke cannot see it.
Hawke flings open the door to Fenris's mansion without bothering to knock. It is unlocked, as she expects—it's not like he's the type to fear thieves, and besides, there are enough broken windows in the place to tempt the greedy and the idiotic away from any obvious entrances—but more likely, he'd known she'd come before she did. She's avoided him for ten days, ever since Gloria's funeral, ever since those fat grey clouds had settled heavy on her shoulders. She is miserable and confused and in an absolutely foul mood, sick to death of rattling around the estate and scaring Orana with her black looks, and when she'd stormed from the house just past dawn her feet had led her here without conscious thought. It feeds her annoyance, somehow, and it discomfits her how much she enjoys her anger.
She strides in, letting the door slam shut behind her, and pauses as her eyes adjust to the gloom; she can hear movement ahead, footsteps and grunts and sharp steel singing through air, and it draws her like a siren.
Fenris is standing dead-center of the great room at the heart of the mansion, stripped to the waist, his bare shoulders glistening with sweat in the cool mid-morning light. His eyes are half-shut in concentration as he sweeps his enormous sword over his head, slowly, then levels it at an invisible opponent and holds it there with point unwavering so long that Hawke's own arms ache in sympathy. She doesn't interrupt—he would ignore her at the moment anyway—and skirts the edge of his reach until she arrives at the far wall between the twin staircases. A pair of rickety wooden chairs and a slightly sturdier table have been dumped here almost haphazardly, and Hawke spins a chair on one leg to sit in it backwards, folding her arms along the back of it and resting her chin on her wrist. She watches Fenris in silence.
He steps forward and then back, his knees bent deep into the stance as his sword traces a long arc in the air around him, and then he lunges in a sudden strike that pulls the muscles of his back taut. The lines of his tattoos ripple as he slides into a new position without lowering the greatsword, and then they catch the shafting sunlight in a sudden iridescent flash as he moves into the next series of steps. His feet slap against the bare stone with the faster paces, his toes splaying out as he pivots on the ball of one foot, his heels swirling up dust that hangs silver in the air around him; his hands slide with sure movements down the braided leather of the grip, his long fingers wrapping around the pommel as he reverses the blade in a wide, swathing stroke that sends the dust into a glittering, eddying dance.
He looks completely calm, completely unconcerned by the world in general and her in particular, and Hawke doesn't know why but it—irritates her. Readjusting her head on her arms, she flicks her middle finger against her thumbnail, letting a tiny little flame spurt free to flare orange an instant before dying. He glances at her, then, but doesn't break his stride as he turns away in a whirlwind of broad thrusts; she gives his back a moody look and flicks her finger again.
Just as Hawke begins to think she might as well come back another time when he is less inclined to completely ignore her, Fenris darts into a set of lightning-quick steps that take him the whole length of the room. His sword flashes and gleams above his head, swings around his hand like liquid light, flickers and dances forward as if he wields a weapon half its weight. One foot swivels on the ground and he faces her, suddenly, from the far side of the hall; he takes three short steps forward and leaps—he hangs in the air with his sword lifted over his head like an Old God stepped from the pages of a storybook, his eyes narrowed and brilliantly green, the lyrium stretching up his chest lit like silver—and then his sword crashes to the stone in a ringing strike that peals through the empty mansion. Hawke feels the wind of it lift her hair from her cheek and scowls, trying to ignore the sudden pounding of her heart.
Fenris picks himself up—barely breathing heavily at all, Hawke sees, though his hair is stuck to his forehead with sweat—and pulls a rag she hadn't noticed from his waist. He mops at his face and shoulders, then runs it along the length of the bloodless blade.
The irritation rises again and Hawke snorts. "Oh, no. Dust."
Unruffled, Fenris leans the now-dust-free sword against the wall and looks at her. "There is no shame in keeping a weapon clean."
"I'll clean your weapon," Hawke grumbles, and the flame that flicks from her fingers is perhaps a little goutier than she means it to be.
Fenris glances at her hand, and at last she sees a faint trace of displeasure in his eyes. "I would prefer it if you did not do that here."
She flicks her fingers again, nettling him and enjoying it, and this time the larger flame is entirely intended. "Oh, sorry. Does this bother you?"
He scowls, wiping his hands on the rag, and approaches her where she sits. "Stop."
The push to obey shudders through her, but she is irked and glad to be so, and the heat of it shoves back the pressure of the order in her head. "Shan't," she says, and a fat little flare pops out of her hand to hover over her knuckles. Fenris swipes the back of his hand through the air over hers, dissipating the fire into nothingness, and Hawke straightens in the chair, annoyed and showing it. "How rude!"
He laughs, short and unamused, and he crosses his arms over his chest. "I hardly think I am the one being ill-mannered at the moment."
"Because ignoring your guests is the height of civility." Hawke mimics his scowl derisively, aware somewhere in the back of her head that she's being unreasonable and probably a right idiot as well, but she ignores that in favor of goading Fenris. Cupping her hands over the back of the chair, palms up as if in supplication, she summons a shot of flame the size of a watermelon and holds it there, inches from Fenris's stomach. "Oh, my stars," she says, wide-eyed in mock-surprise, her lower lip pulling into a pout. "How clumsy of me."
Fenris curls his lip into a snarl and grabs her wrist with fingers like iron. "Control yourself, Hawke!"
Hawke jerks away from him, the rickety chair tipping forward with a hollow bang, and the fire vanishes upward between them. "A thousand apologies, messere," Hawke says, her voice dripping with scorn. Fenris is angry, now, and she is pleased to see it. "I do hope the evil little mage with her evil scary magic didn't frighten you."
"You have been speaking too long with Anders," snaps Fenris, his hands flexing at his sides, his face darkening. "No one is as dangerous as a volatile mage. Especially," he adds with a sour glare at her hands, sounding thoroughly disgusted, "one who apparently models her ideas of restraint after Tevinter's magisters."
He couldn't have incensed her more if he'd slapped her. "You bloody hypocrite," Hawke says, the anger surging in her like a thunderhead. "You want to talk about volatility? Then let's talk about you sticking your hand right through everyone that looks at you cross-eyed, hmm? Let's talk about templars running hot and cold just as they please and dropping Tranquil behind them like flies." Sparks jump between her fingers and she clenches them into fists. "Or maybe you'd prefer that kind of restraint."
Two steps and he's looming over her, the back of her thighs pressed hard against the table, his eyes snapping like green lightning. "Control yourself," he says again, and this time his tone is not a warning but an open threat. Hawke's anger swells into full and utter rage.
"Bastard!" she shouts, and the word echoes in the rafters bastard bastard as she plants her hands on his chest and shoves. He stumbles back and she follows, pressing her advantage, shoving again when she reaches him. "Control me," she taunts him, jeering and mocking and livid. "Damp down the magic in the dangerous angry mage. Maybe you could even go back to the foundry and get some of those wonderful cuffs from the dear departed Mother, all simmering with blood magic like a teakettle." Laughter splinters out of her—his eyes are furious and she revels in it. "I bet you'd like nothing more than to strip the magic right out of me."
Fenris sets his heels and seizes her wrists when she goes to shove him again, and this time she can't break free. "You would thank me for it if I could," he snarls.
"So you would put me right back there," she spits. Her mind is white with fury. "Chain me right back into the hole in the ground with the Mother and Gloria and all the other dead women where I'd be nice and helpless and tame, a compliant little mage to trot after you like a dog on a leash, panting for any scrap of magic you deign to drop. My own personal Danarius." She twists in his hands, desperate to hit him, but she can't get free because he's holding her wrists too tightly, as merciless as the manacles she's never been able to free herself from. "Void take you, Fenris, you bloody arrogant shit."
"You wish for the freedom of the magisters. Their power," he hisses, and before she knows what he's doing, he yanks her hand forward until her palm slaps against his throat, where the long lines of lyrium skim thrumming under his skin. "What about this power? Take it!"
For an instant—she wants to, sees herself pulling on the singing silver threads until they glare white, sees herself sucking him dry to feed her fire and her ice and her wrath until he lies boneless and empty at her feet. She stares at him, her jaw clenched so tight it creaks, the muscles jumping wildly under the strain. He jerks his head towards hers until his hair falls against her forehead, his lip curled, his eyes savage. "Take it!" he shouts.
Her fingers clench around his neck. They curl so hard into his throat she can feel his heartbeat, thudding just as rapid as hers—she hates him for saying this, for doing this, hates him for knowing her so well, hates him for saving her. He glares at her without blinking, his dark eyebrows drawn snap-tight over his fury, all the muscles in his neck and arms and chest so tense they ridge under his skin. His knuckles are white where they grip her wrist. She wants to kill him.
Hawke kisses him instead.
The kiss is fierce and hot and brutal, her fingers still digging into his throat, his hand still iron-fixed around her wrist. She will not take the lyrium under his skin but she will take this, her tongue delving into his mouth and claiming it even as he falters in surprise. He snarls into her lips and his hand unclenches from her wrist to fist in the hair at the base of her neck, forcing her head back—and then it is his tongue that takes her mouth, the insistent wildness of his strength pulling her forward, the lean muscles of his chest pressed full against hers.
Hawke bites his lip hard. Fenris jerks away, teeth bared, but Hawke will not be cowed. There's a wild cry bubbling up in her chest—he has given her an order but she will not submit, she won't—and she grasps the back of his head with the hand he freed. "I refuse," she says, low and fierce, her hand flexing on his throat, "to obey you." He opens his mouth and she covers it with hers, silencing him.
"I refuse to obey you," she hisses again, and his fist tightens in her hair but she shuts him up a second time because she's not finished, because he is going to understand this whether he likes it or not. She kisses him again, and again, hard and angry kisses that take more than they give, shoving down the weight of his commands until they wither into nothing, until they are only words. "I am not," Hawke says against his mouth, her fingers digging into his scalp, "one of your magisters. I am a free woman in love with a bastard of an elf—" he shudders at love and his eyes go wide and she doesn't care, not in the slightest, because it's true, "—and I am that of my own will. I choose that. And if you can't handle the thought of this mage choosing of that will to care for you without lusting after your tattoos, then—you can just march yourself and your sanctimonious orders straight back to Tevinter, you stupid stubborn fool."
Fenris growls, a low rumbling deep in his chest that coils through her belly, and then he wraps his free arm around her and crushes her against him. His mouth seals over hers in a searing heat as blazing as her rage had been, and she can't help the noise she makes as she pulls him closer.
His grip in her hair loosens—his hands scour down her back and waist and ass, and then he lifts her bodily against him. Hawke obliges, wrapping her legs around his waist, wrapping her arms around his neck, still fighting for control of the kiss. A part of her realizes that Fenris is moving, making his way with her up the stairs towards his bedroom; the rest of her is more occupied by the feel of his hands gripping her hips, the smell of him all smoke and sweat and tangy lyrium, the light in his eyes as feral as her own.
He kicks open the door—she hears the wood crunch—and then they are both toppling over onto his bed in a tangle of limbs and gasps and entirely too many clothes. Her hands are at the collar of her robes in seconds—it's too hot and she needs to be free of them, needs to feel his hands on her skin—and then Fenris is pushing her hands out of the way as his mouth drops to her throat.
"Fenris—ah—" Hawke tries to speak, to tell him she can undress her own damn self, but his teeth are grazing down her shoulder to sink onto the junction of her neck and shoulder, and she loses her train of thought. "Fenris," she says again, fainter; he bites down on her neck and her fingernails rake over his back of their own volition.
She feels him smirk against her throat and that, more than anything else, clears her head; a moment later, she has rolled them over on the bed until she can straddle him, his eyes narrowing as he grips her waist. Her robes are half-undone already—the elf has always multitasked well, blast him—and Hawke leans over him, rolling her hips as she does so, savoring the flutter of his eyes and the shudder of his neck as he swallows.
"I bet you think you're terribly clever," she purrs, and her hand skates over the muscles of his chest and down his stomach to tug at the waistband of his pants. She drops her head and plants an open-mouthed kiss on the barely-there mark just under his collarbone, the only remnant of her rescue still unfaded, and feels him jerk; one of his hands slides to cup her breast through her robes, ungentle and tantalizing as she moves to the hollow of his throat. She sweeps her tongue over the straining tendon there and rolls her hips again, teasingly—he growls again and Maker, that sound does things to her—and a moment later, with the sudden sound of tearing cloth, her robes are falling free from her shoulders to puddle around her knees.
She should care. She should care a lot, actually, since these robes were brand new and had cost her nearly six months of savings, but his mouth is hot on hers and his hands are finally, finally on her bare skin, and she doesn't know if the gooseflesh is from the morning air or his touch. His thumb flicks over her nipple and she shivers; the calluses on his palm scrape coarse over her breast and she stifles a moan, choosing instead to dip forward and press her mouth to the shell of his ear.
Fenris bucks under her with a gasp and she laughs softly into his ear, triumphant. He starts to snarl something but she darts out her tongue to trace the edges of his ear, grazes her teeth over the lobe, pauses to suck gently on the very tip of it, and he lets out a groan; he squeezes her breast with one hand and the other goes to her ass, cupping it and pulling her hard against him.
They seem to both realize at the same time that he is, in fact, still wearing pants. Hawke pulls back from his ear with a last nip and scrapes her nails down his chest, over the lines of lyrium that sing under them, and tugs at the laces at his waist. She has only a moment's notice when his muscles bunch in his arms and his neck strains forward before he has flipped them both, her poor shredded robe sighing from her knees to the floor.
"I am occasionally clever," he says with a half-smile still hard around the edges from his earlier anger, his weight heavy over her stomach, and his voice is rough and dark and it thrills right through her.
"Not so clever. You're still wearing pants." Hawke hooks a leg around his waist and shifts her hips, as if to demonstrate that it is indeed a problem, and Fenris's eyes hood over.
He kisses her, hard, and then moves to her neck, and lower. "You tempt fate, woman," he mutters against her collarbone.
"I'm not trying to tempt fate," Hawke says breathlessly, threading one hand into the white mess of his hair as his mouth skims over the swell of her breast. "I'm trying to tempt—ah, Fenris—"
His tongue laves rough over her nipple again and her fingers clench in his hair. "Dirty trick," she gasps, and arches into his touch. "Stop and die." His chest rumbles over her stomach and she feels his hand scrambling between them, seeking out the laces she's abandoned; he shifts over her in a sudden movement and then at last his leggings follow her robes to the ground, forgotten. Again his head bends over her breast, his dark skin made darker by her own paleness, the lyrium nearly sparking where she rubs against it.
Hawke grasps his jaw and tugs. As much as she likes the feel of his tongue she wants to taste him more, and he kisses his way back up her chest until his mouth is sealed over hers, until he is pressed flush between her legs and she can feel how very tense he is, how much he is holding himself back to keep from hurting her, and it's not that she wants to be hurt but Hawke is tired to the bone of feeling fragile—she wants him to trust in her strength over his and let go.
"Hawke," he groans into her mouth, husky and hoarse, and the sound of it sweeps through the hot tight coiling in her stomach to curl her toes. She slides her leg higher on his waist in open invitation; he stares down at her with pupils blown wide for a long moment, bracing himself over her with straining arms, and then he kisses her with a fervor bordering on savagery as he enters her.
It has been too long. She has missed him too much and she has gone through too much and it has been too long, and she can't help the moan she makes as he drops his head to her shoulder and presses his open mouth to the muscle there. He moves, then, slowly at first and then faster, and her hips roll to meet his as he quickens. She doesn't want gentle, doesn't want soft, doesn't want careful—she wants rough and hard. She wants to feel alive.
His hands slip under her shoulders, raking his long fingers over the tender scars there with something like desperation, as if he is a man given back a treasure he had thought was lost. Hawke answers in kind, scrapes her fingernails down the muscled, sweat-slicked planes of his back where the tattoos run straight and his teeth dig into her lip in retaliation—this is what she wants, the stormy wild abandon, rasping and furious and perfect. She leans back, breathless and grinning as her tongue darts out to trace the marks of his teeth on her lip and he pulls her mouth back to his; his kiss is ravaging, rough and territorial, and Hawke feels the twining heat in her belly twist in on itself.
"Fenris," she breathes, because she is close, so close, and his pace increases as if her words are electric. "Fenris," she says again, letting everything she's feeling out in her voice, all the heat and light and shuddering love, and then the heat snaps tight in her belly and she arches like a bowstring on his bed, her arms seizing him as close as she can get as she clenches around him, as the waves crash down behind her eyes.
The growl rumbles again in his chest, feral and possessive, and then Fenris's voice soars to a victorious shout and his hips rock hard into hers. He pumps once, twice, three times, and then he grabs her face roughly and kisses her, bracing his weight on his elbows as best he can as they ride out the tide of sensation that swallows them both.
Eventually, when her pulse slows to something slightly less than a deafening roar, when Fenris's breath is not quite so harsh in her ear—he's panting now, she thinks with no small sense of satisfaction—he rolls to the side with a groan. Hawke follows him over, her sweaty skin sliding smoothly over his, resting her head on the lyrium lacing over his chest and pressing her ear to the place where his heart beats. One of his arms wraps around her in rare comfort, and his fingers draw over her shoulders in a slow motion that pulls the last of her anger out of her.
She lets out a long sigh over his skin. "Fenris..."
"I don't really think you're a bastard. Most times. Sometimes you are."
He snorts and Hawke feels her mouth curve into a smile. "I will consider that a compliment, Hawke."
She loves the way he says her name. "So intended."
Her hair moves over her forehead as he laughs almost-silently, and then he turns his head and presses a painfully tender kiss to her temple.
Silence drops around them gently, a quiet peace that Hawke doesn't mind so much anymore. The curtains in Fenris's room are ancient, thick navy brocade shredded with age and old tantrums, and sunlight, still cool with the morning air, pours through the holes and gaps like drops of burnished brass to play across their skin. It sets the lyrium in his skin alight where it touches, and the silver glow is radiant under her cheek.
Hawke remembers the words the chanter spoke at Gloria's funeral. "The Light shall lead her safely," she murmurs, and flicks a finger at the lines that course over Fenris's chin.
She thinks of the Mother, then, of the damp dark cell with the iron ring in the floor, of the old man who smiled at her with warm eyes and brought her food and sound and light. She thinks of the wooden chair in the center of the great hall where she was allowed her magic; she thinks of Merrill cracking open her chains and of Isabela and Aveline bringing her breakfast; she thinks of Anders, exhausting himself if only to heal one more of her wounds. She thinks of Varric and his sheaf of papers, covered with his close handwriting and Hawke's words; and of Gloria, Gloria of the golden hair and the blue eyes, and her sisters tall and black before her pyre.
She thinks of Fenris, who will always look for her.
Hawke takes in a breath, and then she lets it out; when it goes it takes more weight than she knew she carried, and then Hawke smiles, a real smile, unburdened and light and clear. "Nothing," she says. Fenris's hand tightens on her shoulder, and the silence around them swells with life, with the birds chirping outside, with the distant voices of Hightown citizens calling to each other, with the rise and fall of Fenris's breath by her ear. She soaks it in, all of it, letting the sounds wash over her like sunlight at the end of winter; his heart beats quiet and steady under her fingertips, a safeguard, and a promise, and Hawke's eyes slip closed.
He lives. So will she.