Disclaimer:I don't own Dragon Age~ The boys are not mine~ If they were, Anders and Nathaniel would have had a very different reunion scene in DA2.
Author's Notes: YAY. IT'S DONE. Well...chapter one, at least. I told myself I would'nt do another multi-chapter for Dragon Age while I had Arcanum to focus on, but this was a plot bunny that got stuck in my head and refused to get out. Eventually my brain had to grab it by the scruff and shake it around a bit, and the end result is what you see here. This story won't have a set update schedule; I'll update it as I finish each chapter - but as always, the more interest the more motivation. :) As for notes, well, post-DA2, pre-Asunder and m/m relationships galore.
Much thanks to Teakwood for betaing and putting up with my fangirlisms, and special thanks to LittleLeto, also known as lisakodysam, for giving me the nudge needed to get the first chapter finished. Sorry it took me so long to post!
Chapter One: Escape
He could hear them behind him, the sounds of their heavy plated boots thudding against the dirt, sticks and dead leaves giving way with each step. Each breath he took came out in a harsh pant; his lungs felt as if they were on fire. How long had he been running now? Since Ostwick, when the templars had picked up on his trail again? Or had he been running even longer, since Kirkwall, since that fated day when he had turned the world of Thedas on its head in one fell swoop?
Yes. That was it, exactly. Ever since Hawke had given him cold stare and told him in no uncertain terms to Get Out and Leave, Anders had been running. With Sebastian's cries of vengeance (what irony) echoing behind him, Anders had grabbed his staff and fled, chest tight and heart heavy as the full force of what he had unleashed fell upon Kirkwall and played out around him.
He had no contingency plan. He was supposed to have died then, died at the hands of Hawke, retribution for what he had done. The destruction of the Chantry had been justice for the mages; his death had meant to be justice for the Chantry. That had been the plan. That had always been the plan, and Anders had never wavered from it, save for those lonely nights in Darktown when there was no one to distract him in the clinic and he began to feel the gnawing guilt at putting Hawke in such a position.
Then the day had come, and everything had proceeded exactly as Justice had dictated it would – except Hawke, always striving to not follow the status quo, had failed to follow through on his part. And Anders – who could not, would not, take his own life – was running. He didn't know where he was headed. His only thought was to go – go, and keep going, until he had no choice but to stop. And then once he'd caught his breath, get up and move again. It was a familiar dance, but old – the last time he had performed it had been prior to his arrival at Vigil's Keep in Amaranthine.
Prior to his life changing forever.
Don't think about then, he ordered himself tersely. Dwelling on the past wasn't going to grant him a future, and if he didn't find a way to shake the templars than the only thing that possible future was going to be was very short indeed.
Wouldn't that be for the best? his mind whispered. Phylactery or no phylactery, they will never stop hunting you. Wouldn't it be better for you to submit to them, the take your punishment for all those lives lost? Is there truly anywhere that you can hide?
Anders felt his chest tighten as the thoughts bombarded him. It was one thing when he'd intended to die by Hawke's hand. Hawke had been a friend, a confidant, a support. Hawke was someone Anders had grown to respect. Hawke…Anders could have accepted death by Hawke's hand.
But he would sooner take his own life before allowing templars to put their hands on him again.
The footsteps behind him had grown fainter, and Anders slowed his back marginally in an attempt to determine whether they had stopped, or merely fallen behind. When he heard nothing he hesitated, leaning against a tree to catch his breath. Was he truly that lucky that his pursuers had given up the chase? Or was it just that he'd run far enough, fast enough, that he'd been able to give them the slip?
Pain lanced through his side, indication of how out of shape he was, and Anders pressed his hand to his side and allowed the soothing sense of his healing magic to spread through him. He was low on mana, he could feel it, and he'd swallowed the last of his lyrium hours earlier. He spared only a small amount on his healing, just enough to give him that extra boost to start moving again. Once he found a safe place, he could rest the remaining pain and discomfort away.
Nowhere is safe. They'll keep coming for you. There's no point in running any longer.
He felt his heart speed up, a rapid pounding in his chest that made his mouth go dry. If he stopped running, if the templars caught him, then he knew what would happen to him. They'd kill him – perhaps swiftly, perhaps a drawn out spectacle in the name of the Chantry. No. No. Because he had realized one very important thing, in the moment when Hawke had spared him and ordered him gone.
He didn't want to die.
His vision blurred. Stubbornly he clenched his jaw, refusing to allow the welling tears to fall. It didn't matter what he wanted. He'd made his bed, so to speak, and now he had no choice but to lie in it. There really wasn't any place safe, was there? Perhaps if he were still with Hawke… but that was a path closed to him.
Yet despite his feet feeling like lead, despite the heaviness in his heart and the feeling of helplessness rising up inside of him, he could not bring himself to simply give up. Maybe the templars would catch up to him, but he couldn't just fall where he stood and wait. Fight or flight. That was the creed he'd always lived his life by; hell if he was going to stop doing so now. Taking a deep breath to steady himself, he brought up his hand to cast another rejuvenation spell. His hand lit up with the familiar glow.
And then the light vanished. Not a fade, but the sudden dispelling like a candle's flame being snuffed from the wick. A cold chill spread through his body, starting at the center of his chest and spreading outwards into his arms and legs. The moment it reached his head a wave of vertigo washed over him and he staggered, groping for the tree in an attempt to keep himself on his feet. He trembled with the effort.
The soft crack of a heavy boot on a stick jerked his head up and caused another rush of dizziness to come over him. He paled, staring at the armor-clad templar who stepped out of the forest shadows only a few feet away from him. Cold, cruel eyes as dark as coal glared at him from beneath thick blonde bangs, the stubble-covered jaw clenched in anger.
"Did you think you'd given us the slip, apostate?" the templar hissed. "You led us on a merry chase, you did, all the way from Ostwick to this place. Where did you think you were going? Surely you didn't think you were going to make it all the way to Markham, did you?"
Anders tried to force himself to stand up straight, but the physical manifestation of his magical core being so thoroughly drained was having a startling effect on his coordination and stability. Just straightening hit him with another wave of dizziness and he swayed, sliding half-way down the tree as his legs became unable to support him. It wasn't just his magic that was being drained from him; the cleansing struck his very core, throwing his entire body out of focus. It had been six years since the last time he had fallen victim to it, but the chilling emptiness within him was as familiar as if it had happened just yesterday. And just like that last time, he was helpless now to defend himself. He didn't even have a staff with him.
His throat tightened when he saw the other two figures emerge from the trees to join the first templar, their expressions equally hard and glaring.
"So this is him?" sneered one of the newcomers, looking at Anders with narrow eyes full of contempt and disgust. "This is the abomination who destroyed the Chantry in Kirkwall and murdered the Grand Cleric? Not much to look at, is he?"
"You don't need to look at him, Nigel," the first templar snapped. "You only need to be able to run a sword through him."
Anders felt himself grow cold, heart pounding heavily in his chest. He felt his limbs grow heavy with realization and resignation. So. They weren't even intending on dragging him off anywhere for trial. They meant to execute him here and now.
The templar must have seen the way Anders' eyes widened, and faced him with a cruel smirk. "Did you think we'd allow you to martyr yourself, abomination?" he jeered, advancing towards the weakened mage. "A public execution, perhaps giving you a chance to speak out in the name of your supposed cause? A chance to ignite the flames of rebellion once again? I think not."
He was less than a foot from Anders now, and his hand shot out, grasping the mage's long hair and yanking his head back, rough enough to elicit a cry of pain from him. "No," the templar hissed, "there's only one ending that you're fit for, demonspawn, and that's the tip of my blade."
Anders opened one eye, ignoring the blinding pain in his head as he struggled with a half-grin creeping across his face. "Really?" he asked weakly."That's the best line you could come up with?"
The templar's eyes flashed, and there was a resonant crack of metal and leather against skin as he backhanded Anders hard across the face. The force of it sent the mage to the ground, and a well-aimed kick at the ribs with a steel-toed boot made sure he stayed there. Anders did not imagine the crack that came with the kick, nor did he hallucinate the pain. His vision blurred as he struggled to catch the breath that had been stolen from him, and only once the hazy blackness around the edge of his sight vanished did he notice the sword that was now being pointed at him. Or, more specifically, at the soft flesh of his neck.
"Wait a moment, Flann." This came from the third templar, who had until that moment been silent. Anders could only hear his voice; he couldn't lift his head enough to see his face. In another time or place – and from another mouth – it might have been a pleasant voice. Now it only drew a shudder from Anders, because he was certain that the halting wasn't going to be in favor of any sort of mercy.
"Why kill him off so quickly?" the third templar continued, a smirk in his tone. "After the chase he's led us on, I think we've more than deserved a bit of fun beforehand. I've heard stories about this one from Ferelden. He had himself quite the reputation some years back."
Anders' throat tightened, the words chilling him so much that he forgot about the pain. No! his mind screamed, rebelling at the insinuation, a surge of panic rushing through him as he struggled to remember how to breathe. He'd sworn, sworn, that he would never again be a victim. That he would never have to submit himself to another in order to survive, that he would never again allow himself to be used for the sake of another's cruel amusement. Dimly he heard Flann give a dark laugh of ascent, and when he heard the sounds of armor clinking as it was removed and adjusted, his heart and stomach both attempted to climb up into his throat.
Gloved hands grabbed him and hauled him up to his knees, ignoring the shout of pain he gave after being jostled so roughly. Ribs aching, head throbbing, and magic drained he was too disoriented to fight the hands that were suddenly manhandling him without a care for his injuries. A hand on his back suddenly shoved him forward, pushing his face into the mossy ground, causing him to nearly choke on the dirt that almost ended up in his mouth.
He could feel his clothes being tugged at, the already tattered and torn garments nearly ripping from the lack of care. Please, no! he thought desperately, trying to gather up the strength to fight back, to do something, but finding himself unable to move. It felt as if his body were out of his control, as if nothing he could do could get it to respond the way he needed it to.
Maker. This was really going to happen to him. His greatest fear, born of cold nights in the darkness of solitary, was about to be realized.
Justice? He called out to the spirit, a note of desperation in his mental voice, but he felt no answering reply. The Spirit had been silent since Kirkwall, since the moment that Hawke had chosen to spare his life and sent him out of the city. There had been moments when Anders had thought the Spirit had abandoned him, but…no, he'd feel it, wouldn't he? If Justice left him, he'd know for sure. So he had to be there still, somewhere in the depths of his mind. And Justice wouldn't abandon him, would he? Justice, please! I can't...!
Rough hands grabbed him by the hips, and hot tears – of what? Anger? Panic? Despair? – pricked at the corners of his eyes. He opened his mouth to cry out, to curse or swear, but no sound came out. The cruel laughter of the templars rose up around him, and Anders felt the cold blanket of inevitability fall over him.
The laughter cut off abruptly, replaced by a wet, gurgling sound that Anders dimly recognized but in his dazed state could not place. The hands fell away from his hips, and with a thud the armored body for the templar collapsed to the ground mere inches from Anders, dead eyes staring at the mage's. A single arrow, slim shafted and feathered in blue and gray at the end, protruded from his unprotected neck.
The other two templars let out shouts, drawing their swords in near unison as they charged at an attacker that Anders could not see. He listened to the clash of blades, to the shouts of pain and the swearing epithets. Dimly he noted the fall of the first body, and then the second, the sounds of battle diminishing until they were no more.
He thought he saw a pair of leather boots come into his line of vision, a gloved hand come to rest on his shoulder. Dimly a voice registered, and he thought it was familiar… Can't be possible. Just a hallucination, he thought dimly as the combined forces of pain and exhaustion at last overwhelmed him.
How the hell, the rogue thought sourly, did he keep ending up in these situations?
The candlelight flickered off the wooden walls, casting dancing shadows across the contents of the small one-room building. A fire burned dim in the fireplace, and he kept one shrewd eye on it to make certain that no wayward embers popped their way onto anything that might catch.
The other remained focused on the still figure lying on the bottom bunk in front of him. He hadn't stirred once since they'd made it to waystation, flat on his back as he'd been settled. Pale skin that showed evidence of years living out of direct sun, sunken cheeks and eyes from dehydration and sleep deprivation, too-skinny body (Maker, he'd been shocked when he'd first lifted him up, he'd weighed no more than a child!) that spoke of malnutrition – if not for his shallow breathing he could have easily been mistaken for a corpse.
He was so far from the vibrant, laughing mage who had once graced the halls of Vigil's Keep that Nathaniel couldn't help but feel a surge of pity for the man, even knowing what it was that had had him on the run from the templars in the first place. If anyone had asked him, seven years ago, if he could have ever imagined Anders in this situation Nathaniel would have laughed in their faces. Carefree and a bit of a magpie though he might be, Anders was at heart a good man.
Was being the operable word. Good men did not blow up an entire Chantry and pave the way for civil war.
A soft cry escaped from the man on the bed, interrupting Nathaniel's thoughts. Anders was shifting restlessly, turning his head as he trembled, beads of sweat breaking out on his skin. Nathaniel reached for a small basin of water and dipped a cloth in it, letting it soak through before using it to wipe as Anders' forehead and face. The moment the cool, damp cloth touched his skin Anders seemed to calm, though his breathing remained shallow and his lips were cracked and dry. He grimaced. If Anders didn't wake soon Nathanial was going to going to have another set of problems to deal with. He had no way of ensuring that Anders got enough nourishment while unconscious. He'd seen firsthand what happened to Wardens who were unable to keep up with their enhanced metabolism. That ravenous appetite designed to accommodate their increased strength and stamina could backfire in horrendous ways, and Anders was already clearly not eating enough as it was.
And he hadn't even addressed the swelling and bruising that was beginning to show itself on the mage's skin.
Nathaniel could clean and dress an open wound, he could splint a broken arm or leg, and he was moderately decent at finding herbs that helped stave off infection and fever. When it came to actual healing, however, he was well aware that he had neither the skill nor the aptitude for it. He was no physician or chirurgeon, and he certainly wasn't a healer. If there were broken bones that he couldn't see or internal bleeding, he could do nothing for it.
And unfortunately, the only healer within miles was currently playing the part of patient as well.
He dropped the cloth back into the basin and scowled, leaning back in his chair.
Damn you, Colin, Nathaniel thought with as much anger as he could summon, as if the mage in question would be able to hear his cursing thoughts on the other side of the Waking Sea. I told you I didn't want this assignment! He'd been quite vehement in his insistence as well, but as usual the Warden-Commander did what he wanted to do, and damn the rest of them! He should have known when he was summoned to the Commander's office that he was not going to like what the other man had to tell him.
But it was impossible to say no when his Commander – and friend – gave what was both an order and a request, and Nathaniel couldn't deny that he was the best person for the task. He was the Ferelden Wardens' best ranger, and his knowledge of the Free Marches was greater than any others stationed at Vigil's Keep.
He'd argued, briefly, that it would have been better to request that the Ansburg Wardens take up the search as they were already located in the Free Marches, but Colin hadn't wanted to waste the time it would take to get a message to them and then risk a possible rejection. Though the Wardens weren't exactly partial about whom they accepted into their ranks, they did not look too kindly on deserters.
Particularly deserters who had single-handedly brought about a revolution and a massacre all in one day.
And if Nathaniel was going to be one hundred percent honest with himself, he didn't want to see Anders' head on an executioner's block. Whatever else lay between them, he had never wanted the mage dead.
The rogue sighed and shook his head. When it came to Anders his anger came in waves – one minute he could think of the other man in distant, dispassionate terms; the next he felt such a violent surge that no one dared even mention the mage's name in his presence. Only Colin took the risk, seeming to think that actually talking about Anders was more beneficial to Nathaniel than avoiding the matter entirely. More than once Varel, Zevran, and on the rare occasion Oghren had had to intervene to keep the Warden-Commander from getting an arrow in the back when he pushed too far, saying or doing something to drag suppressed memories too close to the surface.
Those were the nights when, long after the rest of the Keep had returned, Nathaniel closed himself up in his room and found himself seeking comfort in the bottle.
Those were the nights when the memories he worked so hard to bury rose up once more and plagued him, taunting him with suppositions of what-might-have-been. Images of bright amber eyes and impish smiles would plague his dreams. The memory of smooth fingers caressing calloused palms, of a surprising lean body pressed against his own larger frame, of red-gold hair mixing with black atop a pillow – all of these would come back to haunt him, and no number of standards downed in quick succession could ever chase them away.
Now here he was, sitting in a dank, drafty cabin, staring at the pale-faced, too-thin form of a man who had once been filled with life and laughter. What had the mage been through in the past seven years to lead him to this? What had he seen – what had he done? Nathaniel had heard rumors that he'd been part of the Champion of Kirkwall's retinue, though he hadn't been present during Nathaniel's own brief encounter with Ashton Hawke in the Deep Roads. Rumors also placed him at the scene of the battle of Kirkwall that had left First Enchanter Orsino and Knight-Commander Meredith – not to mention scores of the mages and templars who served under both – dead. Accounts of what had actually occurred outside of the Chantry varied, ranging from Anders destroying the Chantry with a single spell so powerful that it brought the entire structure down in one blast to the mage leading a massive underground army of mages in rebellion to destroy the symbol of their suppression. Even those who had been present for it – and lived – told a different version of each tale, each more absurd and fanciful than the last.
Only a handful of people really knew what had taken place, and most of them had vanished into the forests of the Free Marches.
Nathanial dipped the cloth once more into the water, then leaned forward and dabbed gently at Anders' forehead, wiping away the cold sweat that had formed once more on his brow. Then he moved to do the same to his jaw, swallowing a reflexive growl at the sight of the darkening bruise from where the templar had struck him. As the abuse the men had rained upon him began to physically manifest, Nathaniel couldn't help but regret that the men were already dead, if only because such a state robbed him of the opportunity to kill them again. He drew his hand back, glancing at Anders' face again with a slight frown.
Hazy amber eyes stared uncomprehendingly back at him.
Nathaniel froze, his hand and the damp cloth only inches away from the prone mage. He held himself in such a way for several moments, schooling his expression carefully so as not to give anything away.
The lethargic haze cleared slowly from Anders' eyes, and they slowly began to widen as recognition dawned on them, followed instantly by shock. Chapped lips parted, moved, no sound coming out at first. The second attempt drew out a voice that was hoarse from disuse and dehydration, but nonetheless a voice that Nathaniel knew too well.