Chapter Five

Dragon Age, 9:31 – Act I: year zero – past

The Waking Sea was harsher than I had previously thought it would be. Though who knows what I expected, considering I'd never once traveled by sea before, let alone beyond my homeland. I got sick plenty on the way, and not just home sick. Aveline and I shared a green face and lost lunches together, hanging over the side of the rails, scarcely talking, but when the rock of the deck threatened to throw us off our feet we would grasp each other by an arm or shoulder.

More and more I started to fear the deep waters surrounding us in all directions, of a washed out graying blue, beating against the boat. It threw us about as though a child's doll, while cold winds strained against the mast and sails. The crew worked tirelessly against the vicious tides, and I felt useless watching them, their art that I didn't know nor understand. I sat deep within the relative safety of the boat's belly, accompanied by my new and strange companions. At night I would close my eyes, press hands into my ears and ignore the fact that I could hear the waves against the wood around me.

My fear was not lost on them. Carver always twisted his lips at me and though Leandra seemed lost in her grief to speak much, she spared me queer glances. Aveline was much better at feigning contentment, in concerns of Wesley, but I could have sworn she sent me scathing looks every once in awhile. Bethany seemed like the only one willing to help me, let alone speak to me.

And I could not help but give into her company. She was the only one willing to be my friend for hundreds of miles. There was a sweetness in her, that I had known in Leliana. But she had a tongue that liked to say things when she was teasing that reminded me of Morrigan. I clung to the similarities of my old companions within her. When I spoke to Bethany, it was not her face I saw, her words I heard, nor her hand that might of briefly squeezed mine to comfort my fear; it was only shadows I sought.

She, too, had fears. Most of them were for her family, though. Something sweet and touching, caring for others. I merely had nightmares about myself, about the ship sinking and the sea swallowing me – I can't fight, nor stab the sea – and the occasional terror of forgotten darkspawn ripping me to pieces. Leliana woke crying out for Melina, for Carver and reaching for his strong arms when he would wake at the sound. I woke clawing at the wooden boards underneath my sides. I tried comforting her once or twice over her fears, about her guilt in the fact that Melina died, for her, because she was a mage, but I couldn't find the right words. I resolved to squeeze her hand back and savored the old friends I sought for in her eyes.

Carver, who had once shown respect upon hearing who I was, turned that into a cool bitterness. He called me a deserter when I explained to them that I had left Denerim for good. Perhaps once he had fought in my army, alongside his recently deceased older sister, but he would no longer take my orders, and he certainly wouldn't respect me. I accepted that quickly, as well as his distaste. I had deserted.

I didn't tell them the why of my leaving. Not that the new queen was out for me, or that the Circle wanted to lock me away again. I wasn't going to tell them my greatest fear of entrapment and how Alistair broke my heart, and all the sappy, pitiful things that one might share. To unwrap myself and my life before them like that? It caused me to shudder. I merely told them I was Caela, an apostate, a refugee, and I hated the sea.

Their mother wouldn't look at me much, nor speak to me; whether Caela or Tera. She was consumed with anger at the fact that I allowed Aveline to join us. She still blamed Ser Wesley for Melina's death and despite how Bethany tried to say the Maker took his life in penance, it had no impact. Aveline herself was similarly inclined to ignore me, and she took her husband's death in quiet sadness, but I held strong hope in those few strained meetings at the rails we shared. As few as they were, I was sure that she could eventually forgive me for my mistake and for Wesley's death on my hands.

Proof of their true bitterness was shown in way they had not even thanked me.

Upon making my deal with Flemeth, I had requested their safety, too. Since I was not keen on any particular place (other than the Dalish clan) I agreed to go wherever it was they had been heading. Aveline admitted that she had no where to go. She gestured at her dead husband, "Not without him," and stared blankly at Flemeth. I offered her to join me, because Wesley was partly my fault, and the words kept tumbling out of my mouth. I promised her I would offer her my protection and money whenever it was needed (the only things I could offer, really). Reluctantly, the woman agreed. It was up to the Hawke family to answer next and Carver refused both Flemeth and me, until his mother cut in, demanded his silence and told me that I would take her family to Kirkwall. I owed her that, she had said. I didn't deny it.

It was Flemeth, really, who got them on the ship. Me, included. We never went to Gwaren. Flemeth led us to a much smaller port on the coast. In which I was not questioned or recognized. There, we boarded a ship without charge and set sail to Kirkwall. I'd never heard much of that particular city, other than it was in the Free Marches. Throughout the short time I spent within the court of Fereldan, I'd listened very little to the lessons Alistair received about the surrounding politics. I'd caught faint rumors about Kirkwall from the lips of strangers. Small things about how the Arishock had landed themselves in the city during a storm, stranded without ships. The environment was tense. The viscount was scandalously trying to keep it quiet. I hadn't bothered to worry about the issues back at the palace; I didn't want to get myself into more politics or clashing races, after all I'd seen and done. I'd had my life's fulfillment of war. Not to mention darkspawn and warriors, kings and noblemen, dwarfs and werewolves.. I'd had myself up to my neck in that stuff and I didn't want anymore.

So I was going to Kirkwall.

Ironically, I had thought the Arishock wouldn't be a problem. Of course not. They followed the Qun. I knew Sten, whom held faith in such traditions, and I respected him. Sometimes I didn't understand him, but I knew that he had no intentions of harming Fereldan. I knew that the Qun wasn't a barbaric belief system such as some. I trusted that Kirkwall was safe..

So I was going to Kirkwall.

I repeated the name in my mind. The sound of the city didn't stick the way Fereldan had. That would always be my true home, the one I loved dearly, like an old friend. I had saved it from corruption. I would never forget the heat of the dry summers, the taste of toasted dirt sitting on my tongue, and in the city, the rustle and bustle of the markets. But I had to let that go.

So I was going to Kirkwall.

It was perfect, despite the way it sounded. It didn't hold the remembrance of all my travels. Not every tree would bring those nights in camp and the warmth of my old friendships, painfully to the surface. All the things I would miss. Kirkwall promised me a breath of fresh air. Would become the safe haven I was searching for.

Thinking back, perhaps, I was made for the countryside, for the small rough villages that string the Fereldan lands. I was barbaric and simple in the way all the Fereldan people were. If Leandra's words could be believed, about her childhood, about her family there, then the city would be a foreign place and hold an unknown society to me. Fancy and elegant and regal. A far cry from Fereldan, but not quite Orlesian.

And so, I was going to Kirkwall, heading straight toward it, in a wooden box floating across the Waking sea, with a bunch of strangers, who, frankly, I didn't trust. They all knew who I was. That won't bode me well, once my identity becomes an important factor that could mean both life and death. A deal of some sort needed to be made. An agreement for them to keep my secret and I... would protect them? Become their personal slave? Kiss their feet? I expected the last from Carver. He seemed the high and mighty type. Someone who wanted to rise up, above betters. His mother on the other had, would probably only request my death by flogging. Bethany wouldn't want anything. With Aveline, I had not an inclining what she would want. If I had to have guessed, something big.

On the ship, my identity didn't matter, though. The deal could wait.

By far, the ship travel was the worst of my journey. It paled in comparison to traveling through the darkspawn infested Deep Roads; it was only my fear of the water that drew me up short and made me prefer the earth over my head, miles deep in darkness. Unable to bathe, but instead get showered with the sea's salty spray, the ship was overcrowded and stank of rank bodies. The smell was as foul as any considerably large village in Fereldan. Bright side? At least I could not smell corpses – an all too familiar scent. Terrible motion sickness and lack of proper food left me dizzy most days, and the heat of the day had caught up with us made for respite to the chilling showers.

Next time Flemeth came to me, asking to make deals, I might just have to rethink them. She obviously doesn't realize how to properly hold up her side of these things. I mean, safe travel, does not entitle these sort of conditions.

Arriving at Kirkwall was a matter with little relief. The gallows were still a creation of when the city had been full of slavery. The statues of weeping and starving slaves, chained, was not to my taste. I felt homesick for Fereldan more than ever, as I walked uneasily from the ship's deck onto the docks, the nerve-racking sea at my back and a stranger on each side.

The day was moderately hot, and humidity hung in the air, clinging my robes to my body with sweat. Certainly, I was a mess of a sight. When I caught a glance at my reflection in the armor of a guardsman standing beside the city gate, I was reminded of those days traveling across Fereldan, for more than the hundredth time; seeing the tangled, matted ropes of my hair, as wild as flames, the color dulled in grease. The only difference was that my robes would had to have been soiled in blood, instead of salt water, but of course back then, it would have been Sten's or Alistair's armor I caught my battered face in not a city patrol man.

All my company was similarly a mess. No one objected when Bethany led us to the side of the bustling docks. Next to a ship that was unloading, the captain's shouts echoing around, we took a short dip in the water. I was hesitant at first, the water was polluted and thin, but once I got used to the feel I ducked my head a few times, and changed into a rough-spun tunic feeling clean. I shifted the brown fabric as low as it would go, mere mid-thigh and straightened the stiff collar, the laces moving up between the valley of my breasts.

"You look different, in that," Aveline noted. "Less like a mage."

I shrugged, tucking the dirtied robes into my pack and slinging the carriage around my back. "My staff gives me away well enough," I admitted. "That aside, any trained Templar can pick out a mage in a crowd. That's what they're taught in those Chantry schools. Don't you ever wonder why apostates make a break for it the moment they glimpse that shiny Templar attire?"

"You fear Templars, then," Carver said, pulling himself from the water and back onto the dock. He jerked his clothes onto his legs and over his head, before he brushed the drops of water from his hair. "That is surprising."

"I don't fear them."

His gaze found mine, narrowed in challenge. "You do. I can see it."

"I fear what they will do to me," was my answer. "You fear those who will kill you, men who are stronger and bandits who would cut you to pieces for only the gold in your sack. I don't fear them, because all they want is my life and my possessions. Templars.. they won't just take my life. It's not my robes and staff they want from me. They'll take everything. My feelings, my voice, my memories.. my future, my freedom. Everything. That is what I fear."

Bethany looked frightened, while Carver grunted, turning his attention to the laces of his trousers. Aveline shook her head, jaw clenched, and insisted, "Wesley was not that kind of man."

"Perhaps not," I said. "But he would have handed me over to the other kinds of men who were."

Aveline flushed beneath her freckles and turned sharply from me. She would have none of my words, and I was glad. The others were still dressing and cleaning up, so I opted to get a look around and away from the awkward air I'd induced. I was grateful to be free of them for a few moments, reacquainting myself with the sweet, sweet ground beneath my boots.

No one looked too closely at me as I shouldered my way through the docks. They didn't care enough to glance at another traveler. I was no one. It was beautiful.

The closer to the city gates I got, the more crowded. There was a horde of people just before two or three guardsmen. Others were hanging about, sitting along walls, buying from hastily set up merchants, crying, or begging for food and passage on ship. Complaints moved from the lips of those directed at the guards, and a high strung hostility hovered in the surrounding area, mingling with the dinginess.

"They're not letting anybody into the city," a woman grumbled to my left.

"Why?" I overlooked the crowd of people. None seemed inclined to start a riot or fight. That was somewhat disappointing. "Has there been trouble?"

"Overflow, more like." There was a hard edge to the woman's voice. I turned to her and noted the way she critically eyed me. "That's a Fereldan accent you've got there. I thought your Blight was over. Haven't you refugees spoiled enough for the rest of us?"

There was a little girl clinging to the woman's soiled and muddied skirts, and she peered up at me from a sunken, hungry face. The mother pushed the girl further behind her side and sent me a warning glare before marching off. This will not be fun, I decided, turning back to the docks. None, at all.

I told the others about our predicament. The family of three instantly became distressed. "That's impossible, they can't do that," Leandra protested. "I was born in those walls."

"Looks as if they can," I said.

"There has to be someone we could talk to.." Bethany said.

The thought was a half hopeful one. If I planned on going into Kirkwall as Caela, then I would have to exhibit myself as any other commoner, leaving me with just as much a chance of getting in as the other people gathered there. If I wanted to go in as Tera, the Hero of Fereldan.. well I would certainly be let in immediately, whether in welcome, or as a prisoner, or for the Circle, that I could not know, and certainly word would get back to Denerim within the next ship's departure.

I looked to Carver, who met my gaze in half a glare. A deal would be ripe for the time. I murmured for them to follow me, and they agreed, so I led them toward the shadowed alcove between two dock warehouses. Few people lurked near and though the space was cramped, I could see all my companion's faces. I could see the honest curiosity in Bethany's eyes and the guarded caution in Aveline's. Carver maneuvered a shoulder in front of each family member; it brought Melina to the surface, laying across the ground, between us as she once did, and that look they shared..

I didn't know Carver, but I knew he would put his family first. They were his responsibility and he would protect them, if he would do anything else. I would have to play off that. "I need your help," I said, crossing my arms over my chest.

"Yes, because your help last time benefited us so well," Carver said.

"Do you really believe you would be in Kirkwall right now if it was not for me?" The words were hissed, and I felt my temper well, much too easily triggered. For no other reason than that he was undermining me and my strength and my intentions to help them. I protected you the best I could, I thought. I wasn't stronger than Flemeth, I never meant for that Templar to die.

Carver's own knee jerk defense rose to meet mine. He stepped forward and brandished a finger at my chest. "I would not have left Fereldan if not for you."

Me? What about Bethany? "And pray tell me, what have you left behind?" I snapped. "A dead sister? The destroyed remnants of your home in Lothering? The none existent job you had after my army was laid to rest?"

Leandra stepped forward and pushed aside Carver's hand. "Not yet," she told him. Then, to me, "Get us in those walls. You said that you would aid us. Do this and you will be free of our debt."

"Keep me in your debt, all I ask of you is your silence."

"Pardon?" Aveline said, eyes intent on my face. "Warden, what is it you're asking?"

I cringed at the title. "Well, first, do not call me that." She nodded curtly. "Second.." I glanced around the space, at all of them. "I need you to forget who I am. I beg you to never indulge the information upon others, no matter the circumstance. Will you help me... leave my past behind? Here, together, we can start anew."

They were not so moved by my words as I had hoped. Carver stared at me as if I were mad, or insulting him in some mixed up way, while Aveline only seemed to hesitate. Bethany was reeled in by her mother's arms and Leandra took on a clouded grieving expression. "You remind me of Melina," she said to me, her voice soft.

The words made me tense; the fact that she was speaking somewhat kindly to me relieved me, as well as unnerved me. It was unknown territory, with Leandra, and the discussion of Melina at all. "I do?" I asked tentatively.

"She had always stressed the point of us staying together. Like her father, she could not bear the sight of her family breaking apart."

Carver shifted his weight, uncomfortable, looking to his mother. "You can't think she would want us to do this? To help the Warden?" he asked.

"We cannot know what she wanted, Carver," was her only reply, but it made me smile, if only slightly.

"Will you help me then?" I asked.

Looks were passed. They were probably remembering the last time I had asked for their aid. One of them came up dead, I ended up allying with the dragon, demon, being.. but even so, after a long draught of silence, Aveline nodded. "I swear to the Maker, I will not speak a word of it to anyone."

I smiled upon her. Carver cut in before I spoke. "I do not find any gain from sharing with others, nothing short of killing or imprisoning you. You have my word that it will not be me who gives you away."

"I wouldn't dream of it," Bethany said, earnestly.

The mother agreed absently.

I beamed at all of them. A weight had been lifted, and I could breathe the humid air in gratefully.. I felt just that much freer. The homesickness dissolved and ebbed as we walked down the docks. In its place was a drive for something new. The name, my new name, bubbled to the surface of my thoughts. Caela. I could not for the life of myself remember where I'd heard or seen that name before. Mayhaps I made it up.

All I knew was that Tera would not return to the past like those other ancient Grey Wardens, or such as my past companions, who had all gone back to their old lives, to what they had possessed before the Blight. What I had before was not a life, I had only the Circle and Jowan, both of which were things I lost and learned to loathe. Kirkwall though – I lifted my eyes to the towering, white, creamic walls – it was nothing spectacular. Bigger, yes. Smellier, for certain. The slave markings were not "pretty".. no, but it was neater with its tiled paths and squares.

"What is your plan?" Aveline asked. We neared the gathering of people I'd assessed before.

"We get into the city," I told her.

Carver shot me that look again. The one that made me feel like an idiot. "How do you suppose we do that, Caela?"

Only he could have made my new name sound like an insult. "You've an uncle here, don't you? If I heard correctly, then he and your family are highly considered."

Carver loomed closer. "And who says he will let you in? He is our connection."

I didn't rise for the bait. "You would no–"

"Gamlen will get us all in the city, if he can do it," Leandra cut in. "Melina would never forgive me if I left Aveline out here alone or..." There was obvious hesitation for adding the next part. "...Caela. She has helped us get here at least. Can you not pause to care?"

"Of course I care," Carver said. "But she would not forgive me if I allowed us to trust blindly in two strangers. Especially one that makes deals with demons.. or witches, or dragons."

"Her name is Flemeth," I supplied.

"Don't care," Carver said, flinging a hand my way to silence me. "All I care about is that you aren't similarly messed up and that she won't have regular visits."

"No, I expect I don't want to see her ever again," I told him.. and that seemed to deflate the entire group's anxiety. "We're not friends, her and I."

"That is good news," Aveline said.

Bethany slipped from her mother's crushing hold and touched a few fingers at my wrist, catching my gaze and smiling. "I told them that, but they didn't believe me."

Gossip behind my back already. A perfect start. I gripped her hand momentarily, squeezing it, before I dropped it. "Thank you." I knew that they still wanted to blame me for their misfortunes. Aveline wanted to hate me for Wesley, but it didn't seem her nature. Whereas Carver had no problem putting all his resentments on me; perhaps he was really angry at himself because he had not saved Melina, or that he wanted to blame Bethany for making them run in the first place, but couldn't, and so he blamed the nearest mage. I could only guess at this, not know for certain, but one was bound to be correct.

There was a shout from the people, a groan of protest. We all turned at the sound. Someone was being pushed aside and arrested by a pair of guards. Aveline frowned. "This could be dangerous." She glanced at my less than lackluster clothing. "There might be trouble."

"Then I'll conjure my armor," I told her dismissively. It was nice, though, to think she cared enough for my safely. But perhaps she only cared for my benefit in battle, compared to Carver and Bethany's fighting strength. "Let's save the skirmishes for later. There has to be someone here we can speak to."

I don't bid them to follow as I move, but they shadowed my footsteps when I slipped through the crowd. I stopped short in front of one of the guards, whom stood stiffly in front of white stone steps that led up to the inner walls of Kirkwall. The man was blonde, with hard-unmoving brown eyes and I went for a more civil approach. "Pardon me–" I had begun, but he cut me off, addressing the entire front line.

"Back up!" he ordered. "Back up! Do not bully your way to the front. No one's getting in." Him and the man next to him raised their arms, to guide the horde back. People merely began muttering irritability, jostling closer, stepping on each other's toes.

I hissed when Carver's boots clamped down on my own feet, and I gave him a shove away from me, stepping up the guard, face-to-face, demanding, "Why are you not letting anyone in?"

"We're full," the blonde guard snapped. "The city can't handle anymore mouths to feed or hands to occupy. Too many refugees from the Blight, that don't seem to want to leave. Arishock take up a whole district. The streets are overflowing and crime has peaked. The viscount has ordered that no one is to get in. Knight Commander Meredith has fortified the decision."

"All agree, we don't need anymore foreigners stealing the jobs of Kirkwall citizen," the second agreed.

"But we have to get in. Isn't there someone we could talk to?" Aveline said.

The blonde guard looked uncertain. He noted Carver plenty, being the armed man of our group, but his eyes seemed to focus on me far too much, his eyebrows drawn tight. I had begun to wonder if people did know too much about Tera, until he admitted, "I do not think it will do you much good. But you can talk to my guard captain.."

"Where?" I said, looking around.

He jerked his chin to the stairs at his back. "Just up through there. You'll see him, standing at the gate."

Bethany told him our thanks, while I moved instantly to clamber up the steps. We went down a few paths, before we came upon a square. There were a fewer people here, compared to the docks, but these ones were quieter, leaning on walls and sitting huddled next to merchant carts. One was shouting out for coin, rattling a dented tin can. Aveline paused to drop a copper in. "Look at all these poor people," she murmured, as we crossed the wide opening. "Someone should help them."

Throughout the passed year of war, I'd learned to numb myself to most of that stuff. The suffering, the doomed to die, the poor. It was awful, but I knew if I looked long enough, if I thought about it.. it would have felt like a fist in the gut. Only, I didn't. I brushed it out of my mind and breathed and knew I wasn't strong enough to help. "Maybe you should," I told her weakly.

"Why?" Carver asked, unfazed. "It is their own fault they have ended up the way they have."

Bethany bopped him on the arm, then sought out Aveline's glare. "Ignore him, please. He has such an ill taste of humor."

"I wasn't joking," Carver insisted. Bethany merely elbowed him. The mother ceased a retaliation in a glance.

There was a group of men standing at the base of the staircase leading to Kirkwall's gate. An argument was in place. Armed, and clearly angry, I threw a warning hand behind my back at my group, holding up two fingers. Then I realized that meant nothing to them. Alistair would have understood. Sten would have lumbered to my side and Shale would have moved to Morrigan's flank. Leandra would have slipped the knife she keeps inside her sleeve to fit into her palm. My new companions stared at the hand in confusion.

I dropped the appendage. From what I could pick up, the men were demanding entrance, but as I pulled up to their side, they fell silent, every man's eye falling to me. Then Carver, then Aveline, then dismissively at the youngest and oldest of our group. I knew that was what they were doing, because I did the same to them. I went to the leader, then my eyes danced to the strongest, the tallest, the best armed, and I disregarded the weakest. I'd trained myself in that way, I have heard my teachers; Wynne, Morrigan, Zevran, Leandra.

After assessing them, I promptly ignored the group of men and looked to the head guard. "Why isn't anyone being let into the city?" I asked. The other guard had answered me easy enough, but I found myself wondering if there was more reason for it than people let on.

The guard gave nothing away. "I'm sorry. There is simply too many refugees from the Blight. There is no room for more travelers at this time. I–"

"But we have family here!" Leandra cut in.

"Yes, well a lot of people claim–"

"Amell," Carver said. "We have an estate."

"And an uncle," Bethany added.

The guard captain considered that, and his face suddenly twisted in thought. "Amell?" he asked and when Leandra nodded, he continued, "That does sound familiar.."

Quite, actually.

Tera Amell, rings a few bells for me and I slid Leandra a glance that spoke my every confused thought. Before I could voice these, one of the men who had been arguing beforehand, exclaimed, "What!" He stepped forward, shoving between Bethany and Carver, eyes snapping angrily between the captain and I. "You can't be serious! We have been here for days and they haven't had foot on this dock for an hour and you're going to let them in?"

The captain sighed exasperatedly. A gloved hand raised to defuse the man. "I didn't say that. I–"

"We payed good coin to get here!" one of his men spouted.

"And so did half of Fereldan, but you're too late," the captain said. "There is no more room."

I cut in, my eyes straying toward the gate. For a split second, I considered sneaking in. I might have pulled it off, alone. But with the others to think about, and my wish for them to uphold their end of the deal, I couldn't. "You have to be letting some people in," I said, evenly. "Otherwise you wouldn't be here."

An uncomfortable tension rose from the captain and the two other guards standing stationary behind his back. They shared a glance and the captain pressed his lips together. "Citizens and merchants that make our wile, yes. But not refugees."

Carver would not take no for an answer. "But doesn't our family count? You said you recognized it."

The guards looked unconvinced as a whole. "Perhaps I don't. I've heard that claim a thousand times before, most always a lie. I'm sorry, there is nothing we can do. Eventually the ships to take you back to Fereldan will be found. Until then, you stay here, outside the walls."

"There must be someone else in charge we can talk to," I said. I felt a slight annoyance, but I tried my best to suppress it. I hadn't come this way all for nothing. If anything, I can't go back. Not now.

"The city has been closed by order of the viscount," the captain replied, straightening. "You stand within Knight Commander Meredith's fortress." He lifted his chin, arrogant, superior, and my teeth grit together. "But as far as you're concerned I'm in charge here."

I wondered what he would say to Tera, the Hero of Fereldan, Grey Warden Commander, and perhaps, most importantly, apostate. Fleetingly, I thought I'd like to see what a lesson of manners would do to a man like the guard captain, but I held my tongue. Those kinds of urges were exactly what got me in a world of trouble more times than I could count. Maker knows the Blight might have been just a little easier if my tongue and temper hadn't gotten me into so much trouble...

So I changed tactic. "Please." The word was more hiss than plead. "Gamlen Amell. He is the uncle. Surely you could at least bring him to us if you won't let us in."

"Gamlen?" One of the guards behind the captain echoed. "I know that name."

"He lives here in the city, a nobleman," Carver offered.

The guard snorted harshly. "A nobleman? Nay. The only Gamlen I know is a weasel who couldn't rub two coppers together."

Captain Arrogant considered his companion. "They are telling the truth?" he asked.

The guard shrugged. "I know this Amell."

"Then if he comes around, I'll bring him to you," Captain Arrogant allowed. "But I don't have time to–"

"You're going to let them through?" Leader Guy from before cut in, and that time he positively shoved Bethany into Aveline and stepped up to my side, sending me a glare of hostility. "If you let them in, you let us in."

Captain Arrogant obviously didn't hear the threat in that last sentence. Or the subtle shift of hands to hilts, or the dead set violence that clicked into their minds. Not like I could, not like I'd been trained to see. Sten's training rang in my head; never let them surprise you, small girl. The guard captain continued to try and calm the situation. "Now, now, I didn't say anything about–"

"That's it! We're carving our way through. Men!" Leader Guy drew a sword, in time to his whole gang. I'd seen that same situation too many times in my life to be truly shocked. My muscles moved on instinct, on a memory, before my mind even remembered. My staff was off my back in seconds, my first spell was Tera Amell's go-to one. A wall of ice, spreading away from me, giving me breathing space, throwing the weakest of the gang off their feet.

I felt a hand on my elbow, pulling me back, throwing me off my feet and landing hard against the steps. Captain Arrogant had done that, drawing a sword and crossing a sword with Leader Guy. The same sword that had been swinging at me. The two other guards were there, right behind him. My own companions jumped into the skirmish and so I rose to my feet again, taking two steps back, higher up and out of the heart of the fight. From there, I could do the best damage. I stuck to the weakest spells I knew, that wouldn't drain the magic in me so quick and I wouldn't be forced to waste any of my lerium potions.

The archers became an annoyance. Coel, my hound, had always made quick work of those, so I'd never paused to worry over much about them in a long time, not since Ostagar. There, at that time, in Kirkwall, I had no choice but to direct my fire balls and stone fists and nearly as many showers of ice as I could manage at them.

A man screamed, as Aveline brought him down. That scream and the clashing of the swords, singing of steel, the calls of rage and of pain, the panting and the growls of fighting men... they were all a well-known chorus to my ears. Blood was flicked by the back swing of Carver's longsword and the burning droplets splattered my face and arms. Like a well worn layer of skin, it was familiar. The warmth of the liquid, coppery on the edge of my lip, the smell of rust and salt and pungent bitterness.

I was reminded of Tera Amell and I fell into her easily.

I forgot to care about my space. I dove closer, stumbling down the two steps. I forgot about being the cautious Caela commoner. The simple spells were silly. I conjured an armor of rock and felt the weight of the stone forming along my limbs. Each sword swing nicked across stone, bounced away and I shouldered aside the guards, Carver, Aveline, all of them, invoking Leader Guy's most acute attention.

Around us, the others went at it, locking against each other, breaking away, circling. Before the Leader Guy got any fatal blows in (I had no doubt one whack of his greatsword would shatter my armor, including some of my ribs with it) I froze him. The ice helped fortify him, made my strikes dull, but I struck rapidly, using the staff for my strength, not spells, merely the magic I felt throbbing to the surface, bits and pieces, that flushed my cheeks and hitched my breath. Or was that the anger?

For reasons beyond me, I was inexplicably angry. Upset, somewhere inside me, that though the battle was familiar, all I could see were stranger's faces. Infuriated that these simple highwaymen stood in my way to the city. Enraged that they would even attempt to stand in my way, at my new chance at life. All of that was true, all those things, but that didn't seem.. a good enough explanation.

I was angry, so angry. At no one. At that man. Flemeth had promised me that I would get a new life. Something of what I seek. If I was required to kill a couple of mediocre fighters to get that, I would.

And what, I think, made me the most frustrated in those moments, was that my first thoughts were of Alistair. Oh, how he would disapprove. How ashamed he would be with me, at my lack of care for human life. But you're not here, I had thought, directed bitterly at him, you don't have a say anymore. Alistair wasn't there to restrain me anymore. Leliana wouldn't placate me and Morrigan wouldn't use barbs to distract me, and Sten wouldn't complain about my shouting. Shale wouldn't hold me down when I thrashed and made to do something impulsive. I drew on the anger. It was somehow easier. It was stronger, I could feel instantly. The lerium in my blood had been thin at that point, having taken a toll by the conjured armor and freezing the Leader Guy, but when I turned myself to my anger, the lerium spiked, soared inside of me, boiled in my blood.

The man was thawing. I'd reduced his health to nothing. He was hardly clinging to life. Once the ice completely dissolved and dripped away, Leader Guy staggered in front of me, to his knees, using his sword to stay somewhat upright. Around us his men buzzed and I intended to take them all out in one blow.

With the way my throat swelled, in a good, dizzying way, I discarded my staff and ducked forward. I felt a thrill go through me, with the magic, and I was nearly undone by the anger. But I grasped the man's face, both hands cradling his cheeks, tipping his gaze up to meet my riveting glare. I felt a sneer on my lips, and I let the magic rush out of me, into my palms and onto him.

He screamed, twisted futilely. Smoke rose from the connection between our flesh. Thin rivulets of black crawled up and across his face, ticking silently. Abruptly, I ripped my hands away. His own hands replaced mine. Groaning in agony, he fell to his elbows, bowed.

I turned, snatched my staff and scrambled away. I grabbed uselessly at Carver's arm and shoved at the other city guards and urged Aveline a length or two out of the fight. We were just out of the rough, huddled brawl (which could not have been much more intense than any old pub fight), when the walking bomb spell took effect. Blood splays outward in all directions at the broken cry of Leader Guy. Whoever got hit with a substantial amount fell. They shouted, they tore at their faces, their weapons were dropped in surprise, they wandered in deranged little circles, as the blood seared through their skin. Those who were not directly at the Leader Guy's side and had little touch their flesh in a critical way were stunned after most of their allies dropped dead. They hesitated and stared in appall, giving the city guards time to lurch forward and cut them down.

Carver looked at me in apprehension after all the men lay dead and tucked a protective arm around Bethany, whose face was contorted in admiration and wonder. Aveline sheathed her sword, the movement stiff and professional. "That was well done, Warden," she said.

I hissed through my teeth. "Caela." I turned away from all three roughly, before they could speak. The rebelling men were dead and the sight of the mess, of their bloody corpses across the pretty white tiles of the city made my stomach twist around itself. Hurriedly, I wiped the blood from my face with the sleeve of my tunic and then took careful steps toward Captain Arrogant, avoiding the spreading pools of crimson.

"Unbelievable," Captain Arrogant spat. His eyes roamed the dead, then to me, and behind my back, at my companions. Both him and I jumped, hand flying to staff or sword, at the sound of running footsteps coming our way. But there was no need, it was merely the blonde man from before, who'd told us where to find the guard captain.

"Maker's breath! I heard fighting.. and.. are you alright?" he asked.

"I am. No thanks to you." Captain Arrogant overlooked the younger guard with reproach. "Where is everyone? I thought we were going to contain these things."

"Sir, I don–"

"Go find them!"

I opened my mouth to speak, not in favor of the rookie, nor the captain, but rather to invoke some sort of deal. I had helped the fight, after all, that was worth something. And the sooner I was away from everyone the better I could assess the tremor running in my fingers. "Captain," I started, but he cut in.

"Captain Reane is my name," he supplied, then tipped his head to me. "You have my thanks, for yours and your companion's aid." His old arrogance was missing, a grateful lilt in his expression. "Look, I can't get you into the city. It's not my decision, but I'll find your uncle and bring him here."

"That would be great. Thank you, sir," Bethany jumped in, laying a hand on my arm. Carver jerked her away from me with the arms he had around her waist. Captain Reane was already turning away and missed that entirely, climbing the steps toward the gate. Even before I could reply and inform him that it was not my uncle, as he referred him to be.

I glanced at Carver, who struggled with his sister, the two whispering. Leandra was the one to sigh and speak. "What does it matter?" she said to me, then her children. "She has no real identity yet, only a name."

"You want me to pretend to be your daughter?" I asked the woman archly.

Leandra made an exasperated sound. "I don't care if you do. You got us this far. If you can get us into Kirkwall, then what does it matter if you take the place as a daughter of mine. You're old enough to be without me, and you'd only be taking the name."

No, I thought. I'm already an Amell. Before, I'd merely put it aside, because Amell couldn't be that uncommon of a name. If I'd grown up in the world, I would have known that for certain. Instead I was from the Circle and knew nothing of common names. Carver knew me as Commander Amell. Surely he would have made a fuss if he thought anything off of it.

"We would only need to confirm her as our sister," Bethany told her brother.

Carver's carefully masked face twitched. "Why would you want to pretend to be related to us?"

I don't, I thought. I wished I could leave them behind. Tie them into the rest of the past I'd set out to forget. But to ditch them would be to risk their silence. How could I know if there was someone among all the refugees, travelers, and merchants within Kirkwall, that could recognize me? Or, at least, think they did? What more could I offer them aside a "Nope, sorry" which essentially is nothing? Maybe I could use a back up. I smiled stiffly, and for a moment, the muscles in my face ached. I never had a family before. "I would like that."

Carver frowned at me, suspicious and untrusting, but Bethany beamed and Leandra sniffed in the other direction. I caught Aveline overlooking me, then the corpses and she said nothing. The brother did, however, stress the point that they would help me out only if I got them into the city. If their Uncle Gamlen failed, the problem would fall to me. That made the wait for Gamlen extra stressful.

There seemed to be an unspoken agreement between our group to stick together, because we all herded off to find a place to camp out as we waited. There wasn't much talking and Aveline disappeared for a while, but came back with food and shared it. I payed her for my bit. "You could borrow, you know," I told her. I was still feeling queasy over Ser Wesley. "I told you if you came with me, my money and my protection was at your disposal."

"I don't need handouts," Aveline decided, not quite rude, but when she caught me measuring stare, she ghosted a smile. "Thank you, though."

"Of course."

The first night was moderately fine. I offered to stay awake and watch our stuff, to protect it from other people sleeping inside the wall, watching us from their shadowed corners. Halfway through my watch, Carver woke and offered to take over. I let him, reluctantly. I slept for some time, then the nightmares were upon me, as they most often were and I woke gasping, clawing at the stone beneath me.

"Bad dream?" Carver asked.

I shot him a look, swiping the sweat from my hairline. "Memories."

"I was in the war, too. I have my fair share of memories," he said. He was watching me with hooded eyes. I tried to settle more comfortably on the ground to find any scrap of sleep. "But I've never seen anyone thrash so much."

"It's a Grey Warden thing."

He continued to watch me. "I don't trust you," he finally said.

"Good. Don't."

"Are you saying there's a reason I shouldn't?"

"Of course there is." I opened my eyes again and met his gaze in the night. "There's dozens of reasons. I talk to dragon-ladies. I make deals with witches. I have lured you all away from your homeland. You don't know me. War has turned me into a monster. I've run away from something, for some reason. You don't know what that reason is. Could I have been under arrest? Have I turned against the king? Was I chased out? Am I really Commander Amell?" I watched his eyes grow narrower and narrower as I spoke. "You don't know. You don't trust me, so if I told you the answers, you'd still not know. Those are the reasons not to trust me."

Carver pondered them, then pressed his lips into a frown. "You forgot one."

"Enlighten me."

"You're a mage."

I tried not to outwardly flinch at the reminder of the reason I never got to be queen. "Clever boy."

"I'm no boy," Carver said. "I may trust my sister, and I may have loved my father, but I know better than to trust any random apostate because of them. I saw you fight. That crazed look in you."

Crazed? No. I was angry. He was mistaken. I wasn't crazy. "I fight well," was my response.

"You fight well, aye. But you fight ruthlessly. Friendly fire is deadly stuff."

"I know better than to hit my own."

"Do you?"

It was my turn to watch him narrowly. "I don't know. Add that to your list." I turned away from him, tucking a hand underneath my pack that was being used as a pillow. I waited for him to scuff and then I closed my eyes. But I couldn't sleep. I fought sleep. I fought the anger that rose in my chest, curled my fists, and urged me to sit back up and hit the boy square in the jaw.

By the next morning, I was certain the idea for me to take up an identity as their sister wouldn't work for several reasons. I was plainly not getting along with more than half of them. I looked nothing like any of them; Carver and Bethany had black hair and the mother's gray tresses gave way to dark brown. According to Bethany their father was the standard reddish-brown haired Fereldan man, though. Eye color was easier to pawn off, because Carver's were blue. Appearance had the potential to hold me back, just as much as the walls of Kirkwall.

I wasn't certain about the plan of pretending to be their sister, but I knew I needed to get into the city. I also knew there couldn't be anything to do about that until Gamlen came and confirmed whether or not there were more convenient ways to get beyond the walls than what I was contemplating.

I'd briefly brought up the discussion with Aveline. Her ideas were the same as mine, which was comforting. That made me not the only one leaping to drastic heights in the group, and made me feel better over being called crazy the other night.

Bethany held too much faith in her uncle to consider other ideas, so we did little together. Perhaps that may have been the work of her brother, keeping us apart. He would bring her around the docks and distract her whenever I spoke to her. More and more I was stuck with Aveline.

One day turned into two as we waited. The others were short of money and I bought our food. (Thank the Maker for all those chests I sacked during my travels in Fereldan). I bought myself new robes, then Bethany, too. Carver almost made her refuse them. Aveline accepted the woolen blanket I snagged. I handed Carver new gauntlets the next day, made of doe skin and studded iron, and I felt as though I were buying their favor. I stopped the gifts immediately after the thought occurred to me.

It was on the third day that Leandra had slipped away to admire some merchant cart with Carver, and Bethany was speaking with another Fereldan family nearby, when Aveline felt compelled to fill the silence between us. I mean, it had been enduring for days, really. Why disrupt it? In the worst way possible, by asking, "Why are you here?"

"I got on a ship."

"That's not what I meant."

I tugged at my robe's sleeve, nervous. "What would you like me to say?"

"The truth."

"I needed to get away. I didn't plan on coming here. To Kirkwall. It just happened."

Silence endured for a moment, then a hand was on my shoulder; heavy, strong, sure. "I didn't plan on coming here, either."

"Where were you and Wesley going?" I said lowly, wondering if it was a question for me to ask.

"Home," Aveline said. "I'm from the rocky coast of the Fereldan north. Wesley had never been there before and I was bringing him to meet my family. I have five sisters, all of them older and married with children. They'd been expecting us.. but.."

My hand flitted up and grasped hers on my shoulder, momentarily. I suspected she didn't want to show up with the corpse of her husband in her arms. That wouldn't be the best family welcome after such a long time. Or, that was what I thought about, since I knew nothing of family. My family was the Circle, and I would have rather died than returned to them. Somehow, I felt more sympathy toward Aveline than I should have.

Another day came and went. With careful consideration, I pieced my temper back together from the mess it became during the fight. Yet, I felt it spike at random moments and I wanted to battle, still, to lash out and beat things and cry and stamp my feet childishly. I never did, any of those things, but the want to was overwhelming sometimes I would wrap my hands into fists and bite into my cheek until I bled.

At night I would bury my face into my makeshift pillow. Usually, the nightmares were of that last fight, with the Archdemon. But sometimes I would remember bits and pieces of other darkspawn battles. On the fourth night, I dreamed of drowning, in the open sea. I screamed and fought, kicked wildly, called out for help. The name on my lips was unbidden; Alistair. Then I saw him, distantly, on shore, arms around another woman. The next wave that crashed into me pulled me under and I allowed it. Salt inundated my lung and seared my throat. Then it tasted coppery. Red swam in my vision. Sea turned to blood, thick and congealed, more jam than fluid. I remembered the screams of my fellow Grey Warden recruits in Ostagar. Flemeth's laughter joined that, echoed distantly, more disturbing than the blood that pressed around me on all sides.

It was in a panicked flurry that I woke, jerking to the sitting position, hands jumping up to cradle my throat. I breathed desperately, ignoring Carver's stare. "I'll take watch," I told him, wheezily. "You can sleep."

"I'm not tired," he said.

"Have it your way, but I'm not sleeping." I hiked the blanket I'd bought for myself to my shoulders and positioned it around them, hugging the fabric closed over my chest. I stared at the walls, eyes tracing the shapes of them, subconsciously trying to find the best place to climb over.

It was nearer to the gray light of dawn that Carver said: "You talk in your sleep."

I knew that. Oghren used to love that. Sometimes he wouldn't, of course, when it was me crying out for help or in pain or pleading with someone to stop. Other times, it was amusing. My guess was Carver didn't find it all that entertaining. "I take it I've offended you in some way," I said.

"No. I was only.. wondering, who's Goldanna?"

"Did I say that name?" I struggled to remember the dream, because it was foggy, but I was certain Alistair's half-sister had nothing to do with it. "Was that tonight?"

"Two days ago."

"I don't remember that."

"That's not what I asked.." he started to say, then shook his head. "Never mind."

"She's from Denerim, has five children and washes clothes. Did you know her?"

"I lived in Lothering my whole life before I joined your army. So, no."

I glanced at him. He was staring sadly into the sky. "Why did you ask?"

"Goldanna sounds like Joanna," he said, simply. "I used to know a girl with that name."

"Ah."

Carver turned sharply at the sound. "Not 'ah'. You don't understand."

I raised my hands in surrender. "Okay, I don't." But I did. More than we both wanted me to.

On the fourth day, Gamlen finally arrived.

No one saw him strutting our way until he exclaimed, "Leandra!" and was embracing her. Carver jumped to his feet in seconds, preparing for a fight, but everyone managed to reel in any startlement.

"Damn girl, the years haven't been kind to you," the man continued.

"Gamlen," Leandra merely replied, sighing, relief-filled. She said something more, and he did too, while I stood and took the time to measure this man up. He was of average height and strength, old, with a short beard, and eyes too shifty for my liking.

I noted his returned hesitation in Leandra's affection. His words stumbled and came out as: "Let me just say up front. I wasn't expecting this. The Blight! Your husband.. dead. I-I just.." Leandra pulled away from him and he couldn't quite meet her gaze. "I just figured you'd pretty much be Fereldan for life."

In a single breath, and only a few sentences, Gamlen reminded me of Loghain. The manner in which he received people, the dishonesty, the assumptions, the maneuver to blame not himself, but something other than him; such as the Blight, or her own misleading decision. Everyone else was blind to it. Especially his own sister. "Oh, Gamlen!" she said. "We came too late! My poor Melina didn't make it, Andraste guide her.."

"Leandra don't drop this on me here. I don't even know if I can help you get in."

There was my chance. I stepped out of Aveline's shadow and those shifty eyes instantly zoned in on me. Less for my own sake, and more for theirs, I asked, "How about just your kin?"

Leandra instantly disregarded my suggestion. "No. We stay together."

Bethany pulled an arm around my waist and tried to reel me into her side, but I shrugged her away in confused instinct. I regretted instantly the harshness of that, when I saw the offense in her eyes. Gamlen spoke before I could, "I was hoping to grease some palms, just for one or two, but the Knight Commander's been cracking down. For all of you? We're gonna need more grease. A lot more."

"But what about the estate?" Leandra asked. "Surely father left something when he died."

Gamlen grew uncomfortable. "R-right.. about the estate. It's um.. gone. To settle a debt. I've been meaning to write you..."

Carver made a dark, upset sound, and Bethany twisted to rest a calming hand on his bicep, but Aveline beat her to it. I watched in wonder at the way Carver didn't recoil from Aveline's touch.

"Then there is no hope," Leandra said.

I tried not to smile. Instantly, I made to think of some ways to get us all into the city. The plans were half soaring, half built to completion, when they were shattered by Gamlen: "Not quite." He leaned in, lowering his voice. "I know some people who might help. If you're not too delicate about the company you keep."

"We don't have much choice, do we?" Carver grumbled.

"Well," Gamlen said, not even gracing Carver with a reply, "I talked to my contacts and I found some people who would be willing to pay your way into the city. The catch is–" Wasn't Flemeth saying something about catches and deals? "–Carver and Melina.." There Gamlen slammed to a halt, stunted for a minute, then gave Leandra a pitying look. "I had thought she would be.. alive. I don't know if the deal would–"

"My other daughter will be enough," Leandra put in smoothly. She placed a hand on my bicep. "Caela is just as good as Melina ever could have been. My third daughter. I was meaning to tell you of her, I just never got around to writing because she was always so.. and she is very much like Bethany and my husband.. I didn't want to risk the Templars. You know how it is." I tried to hide my bewilderment at the story; even Carver looked thrown. But both of us managed to tighten out lips and remain outwardly unperturbed.

"Well then," Gamlen said, looking me over like the men in Denerim used to before I became known as a Grey Warden. Like I were a wife or whore in training. "I guess she'll do. She's is smaller than you'd said Melina had been." Then, addressing me, "Are you skilled?"

"Somewhat."

"The deal will require Carver and yourself to work off the debt of getting into the city... for a year." He paused to assess the flare of displeasure written in both Leandra and Bethany's faces. "Are you skilled enough for that?"

I'd known that what it was to pay a debt, of course. But for that long? An entire year? More oft than not we'd be doing someone's dirty work, or trivial kill jobs – if not the job that come aft the killing. The thought of a year in servitude displeased me greatly. I'd left for freedom, not to be enslaved while in search of it.

My temper wavered, ridiculously. I couldn't pinpoint the why, only that the magic in my blood pulsed a fraction tighter. I buried the feeling, straightened and tipped my head to Gamlen. "Is there any amount of coin that would convince these 'contacts' to shorten this sentence?"

"How much coin?" he wanted to know.

Leandra finally found her voice and cut in: "A year?"

"It was the best I could do. Trust me when I say a bunch of refugee haven't and won't get a better option anywhere else. Take this. It's the deal of a lifetime–"

"So selling us into a criminal servitude is the best option? I don't buy it," said Carver.

"You don't have to buy it, just endure it. Think of it as a job waiting for you in your new home." No one made a reply to that, so he continued, "I managed to convince my contacts to come to the gallows to meet you personally. Mearin is head of the mercenary company; The Red Iron. They're looking for recruits. Athenril.. I guess you might just call her a smuggler. Either one of them can help you. All you need to do is find them in the court yard, and convince them you're worth the trouble."

"We'll meet with them, but I can't guarantee they will be worth my time," I said.

Gamlen was displeased by that. "You think you could do better?"

"I can always try."

After a little fuss, it ended up being only Carver and I who would meet with these two potential employers. Bethany wanted to come, but both Gamlen and Leandra urged her to remain behind. Aveline and I spoke privately and we made our own sort of deal; there would remain no more debt of any sort between us if she allowed me to put her cost of entering the city onto my plate. A clean slate. Which was more than I could say for the rest of our group. I certainly owed the Hawke family for their borrowed name. It was odd to think that if Leandra had not taken her married named (Hawke) I could still be going by the same last name (her maiden name; Amell). And thus, I found it disconcerting when Carver told this Athenril woman to address me as such: "This is my sister, Caela Hawke."

The elven woman greeted us, but dove straight into business. I heard only little of what she said. I had no interest in what she offered in the manner of employment. Smuggling was ever not my strong suit, with my clumsy tendency when it came to sticky fingers, and my lies usually led to ill-tempered ones that came out short and harsh and obvious. Carver and I both agreed that a mercenary's life would be easier to endure.

As we approached a gaggle of four or five men, who seemed to be expecting us, Carver murmured close to my ear, "Do you really think you can get us a better deal?"

"We can hope."

"How?"

"Depends on the person."

Mearin looked like just the right one. Him and his men wore fine clothes and sharp, polished weapons that spoke of good wealth. He had those eyes. The kind that locked with yours, that seemed to target you, personally. As if my every little weakness was his sweetest delight and his most delicious secret were my undoings.

A smirk played over his companion's faces that did not touch his own. I knew why. They saw my shortness, my tiny fists, and thought me comical. I had endured that look before. In the tower from Templars that were not Cullen, when I was in Ostagar, new to the whole world. It had been a long while since I had last seen it, though, let alone directed at me. Sten and Shale had put an end of them; no one laughed at the woman who was accompanied by a man, or being, such as them. However, they were gone. I was back in the same meek position as before. Constantly taken as a joke.

Carver didn't seem to earn any of their respect either, nor impress them. That would not bode us well.

"What can we help you with?" Mearin asked, when we finally stepped before them.

"I'm Caela–"

"–Hawke," Carver finished for me, flinging out a hand to the man. "And I am Carver. My uncle, Gamlen, sent us." Mearin eyed the hand and did not move to shake it. "Can you get us into the city?"

Mearin's consideration turned toward me, doubtful. "I was told you had the skills to be useful."

I tried not to sneer. "Tell me what you want done and.. we can work out a deal."

"Deal?" Mearin said, smiling. "There already is a deal. We get you in, and you work for a year."

I shook my head, reaching for my pack to pull out some coin encouragement, but my motives were read wrong, as it seemed their eyes zoned in on the staff slung across my back. Mearin's hand moved as a snake strikes, and grasped me around the wrist, twisting the appendage enough to bruise.

I tried to wretch myself free, but he was undoubtedly stronger, his face set into grim lines. Carver stepped forward, but Mearin gave my arm a jerk, pulling me downward, turning the wrist enough so that it clicked and I let the pain spark panic. And the panic quickly turned to anger when the lerium in my blood got involved.

"I don't have a year," I snarled, and allowed the magic to rush through my skin and sear across his. It was him who retched away from me, fire leaving an uglier burn mark on his flesh than the later bruising on mine would be.

The truth was I did have a year. I had plenty. I simply didn't want to waste any of them, especially in service of someone else. Particularly him. I had recently devoted a year of my life to Fereldan and the Blight and the Grey Wardens. I hadn't gotten anything good or lasting out of that other than knowledge, learned lessons, and new skills. Mearin offered me even less than that. "We'll give you three months service, anything you ask, and in return you get all of us into the city. To sweeten the deal, I pay you a nice, hefty sum now, and I don't kill you. Agreed?"

Predictably, him and and his men didn't take well to being bossed around, or threatened. Nonetheless, Mearin considered my words, rubbing his hand where it was wounded and then exchanged dark glances with the men around him. They were tense, and I was rightfully anticipating a fight, so I pulled the staff from my back and Carver shifted. He shifted to put one broad shoulder in front of mine. I was offended, fleetingly, at first. Then I realized that I was also gratified, to the smallest degree. At the very least it meant that Carver did not wish me dead.

"There are hundreds of others I could offer this deal to. They wouldn't even hesitate," said Mearin.

"Then why aren't there hundreds of others lining up behind me? Why haven't you stopped looking for recruits if there are so many occupants to choose?" I stepped forward, dropping my head back to meet his gaze and was about to drive myself further into the hole, but Carver pulled me back with a hand on my elbow.

"Caela," he warned.

The anger had snuck up on me. I shook myself, then shoved my staff into Carver's hands, to pull the heavy sack of coins from my pack. It was nearly all the money I possessed. Enough to cover Aveline and Bethany, if not Leandra as well. I held it out to Mearin. "Three months."

They continued to appear unconvinced and displeased until he looked through the hundreds of shining gold coins and their faces became less so, and much more compliant. Mearin tied the pouch to his belt, considering Carver and I sharply, before, finally, a thin smile touched his rugged face and he extended a hand our way. I took it tightly, and we shook: "You have yourself a deal, Hawke."

A jolt of surprise caught me at the name, but I hid it well.

I would have to get used to it.