Dragon 9:30, Drakonis 26


Mari and Carver sat together on a broken crate in the dockyards. Moonlight drowsed between the sparse clouds that swept across the sky. The icy southern sea breeze bit into her cheeks, but Mari didn't care. It was a relief to be out of the stagnant air of their new home in Lowtown. A simple name, perhaps, but fitting.

A bell from one of the boats brought Mari out of her stupor. Carver cleared his throat and looked at her. "So, big day, huh?"

Mari nodded tightly. Now that they finally had a few minutes to just sit, she wasn't certain that she could hide her inner turmoil any longer.

A big day… more like a big month.

Since they'd fled Lothering, everything had happened with such quick succession that Mari's head still spun. Flemeth had kept her word, and though she'd led them on a long, grueling trek through the wilds, she'd delivered them safely to Gwaren. The ride across the Waking Sea had exhausted both her and Carver, and Mari had only managed to swallow her own grief during the trip because of Leandra. Something within her refused to break down in front of her fragile mother—she needed to be strong, for her sake.

Finally, after their whirlwind arrival in Kirkwall, Gamlen had led them to his hovel in one of the cheapest, dirtiest parts of town. Although the homes in the area were some of the nearest to the water, the air was rank and thick with dust. The barrier formed by the tightly-packed buildings trapped every foul odor. So, it was a relief to be free of the stuffy house and her mother, who was likely to dissolve into tears at a moment's notice.

The icing on the cake, though, had been Gamlen's welcome-to-Kirkwall gift: a year of servitude, in which to work off the debt he'd incurred buying their way into the city. Mari had feared they would be turned back, especially when she learned that their ship had been one of many bearing desperate refugees from the blight lands. She hadn't expected it to come to this, though. Tomorrow, she and Carver would join the highly infamous (and incredibly illegal) underground smuggling movement.

Eclipsing everything, though, was Bethany's death. Grief followed her like a persistent fog. It seeped under her defenses, and threatened to blot everything else. The only thing that had kept her going was the drive to keep the rest of her family safe. Too late, she realized that a few tears had escaped. She hastily brushed them away, but not before Carver noticed.

"Mari, hey, it's okay," Carver said, slinging an arm around her shoulder. "We're safe now… well, as safe as we can be living with the world's biggest git, that is."

Mari coughed out a weak laugh. Her brother's attempt to make light of their dire situation only opened the floodgates, though. Head cradled in her hands, she sobbed in earnest as all the grief and pain she'd ruthlessly forced aside for the past month rushed to the surface.

Carver, for once, didn't try to cheer her up with empty words. He simply rubbed her back and let her get it out. She was glad that darkness had already fallen.

"Carver," she mumbled when the tears had finally abated enough to speak again, "what are we doing here?"

"Well, escaping the blight, for one," he replied, dodging the smack that Mari aimed at him. "Really, though, I'm as lost as you right now."

Mari shook her head. "I can't believe it… it's been almost a month, but I keep expecting to see Bethany. Even tonight, I feel like we'll walk back into that cesspool Gamlen calls a house, and Bethy will be there making dinner and fussing over how dirty everything is." She looked right at Carver, seeing her own helplessness reflected in his eyes. "And she should be there!"

"Mari—" Carver began, sensing where she was going with this. She cut him off.

"It's true, she should be! If I hadn't insisted on going and investigating the area where we were camped, we would have been there when the darkspawn attacked. I could have protected them—we both could have. She didn't have to die—"

"Mari, stop it." Carver's voice was harsh, and he grabbed her by the shoulders to look at him. "This isn't your fault. If we'd have been there, we probably would have all died. The only reason we managed to survive until the witch came along was because the wardens fought with us until then. Without them, we would have been overrun for sure."

Deep down, she knew he was right, but she couldn't bring herself to throw away the guilt that she'd wrapped herself in. She was silent for a moment. Without meeting her brother's eyes, she said, "Mother blames me."

Carver blew out a noisy sigh. "Mother is blaming anyone and anything she can reach right now. Unfortunately, she seems to have singled you out because you're the oldest. I'm just as much to blame as you are."

Mari shook her head, and fresh tears sprang to her eyes. "I don't want you to blame yourself, too—"

"We are all blaming ourselves, Mari. Mother, too. We're all just handling it in different ways," he said gently. "If it weren't for you, I doubt we'd have made it here."

"Maker… I'm a terrible sister," Mari breathed, more to herself than anything. She ignored Carver's protestations. "Mother always said that I was the glue that held this family together after Father died… now look at us: Bethany gone, our old home likely razed to the ground, and the rest of us living in a dump in a city we have virtually no ties to." She finally met his eyes again. "I've failed us, Carver. It's as simple as that. But—"

She trailed off at the sudden racket next to one of the piers. She glanced down the street, and shivered despite the cold. Two men in full armor marched toward the boat that was approaching the last lit beacon for incoming vessels. She'd recognize the insignia on the shining plate metal anywhere: templars.

Mari knew that Kirkwall was notorious for its templars, but hadn't expected to see any here, not this late at night, anyway.

Carver pulled at her arm, and they edged behind the crates that were stacked high just beside them. It was unlikely that the templars would notice them—it wasn't uncommon for people to mingle down here—but they didn't want to take any chances. They silently watched from between the slats of wood as the boat gently thumped to a stop.

Three men jumped down and quickly tied off, bowing to the templars who now stood at attention when they finished.

"Evening, sers," one of the men said by way of greeting. "Sorry for the delay, we hit a rough patch of water several hours back."

"No matter," said one of the templars brusquely. "Please have the new recruits brought out. We'll be taking them across to the Gallows this evening, yet."

The sailor called back to one of his companions, and a gangplank lowered onto the dock. Mari suppressed a gasp as no fewer than eight more templars emerged from the boat. Most of them looked around at their surroundings with mild curiosity, but the last man to jump lightly to the dock wore a hardened expression that chilled Mari to the core. He locked his gaze on the two men greeting them, and was the first to drop to a knee and greet the superior officers.

As they turned to move toward a smaller boat that would take them to the Gallows, Mari wondered idly what could have given that last soldier that sort of hardened exterior. It spoke to pain and horrors that most would never see—she supposed that her own face looked much the same right now. Most shocking, perhaps, was that he looked so young. His light hair was full and curly, and the only lines on his face were because of his slight frown. He couldn't be much older than she, yet his bearing bore the mantle of a battle-hardened veteran.

Mari knew immediately that he was not the sort of man to cross. Even if he wasn't a templar, she would have been intimidated. She shivered, wondering if all of the templars in Kirkwall were that intense. She would do well to steer clear of them at all cost—she'd learned her lesson all too well: templars were not to be trusted.

She jumped as Carver let out a sigh. "Well, I guess we know that the rumors about the templars here are true, then," he said.

She laughed weakly. "You noticed that, too?"

"It was hard not to!" he said. "Andraste's underpants, have you ever seen such an uptight group before? And here I thought the ones in Lothering were bad!" He realized what he was saying too late, as pain flashed across Mari's face again. "Mari—I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bring it up—"

She swallowed hard, pushing back the bitter memory of Balin's desertion. "It's okay. I'll be fine."

She walked out to the now deserted dock and sat on the edge. Carver plopped down next to her. "What I was saying earlier, though, is true: I have failed us." She narrowed her eyes and stared at her brother. "I swear to you, it will not happen again."

She pulled out the small knife from her belt, the blade no longer than her hand.

"Mari, what are you doing?! Stop!" Carver's worried exclamations fell on deaf ears, and she stopped him with an icy glare.

She twisted her long hair in one hand, and with a quick swipe of the blade, sheared it off at the base of her neck.

"Mari… what—"

The long, raven locks slipped from her fingers and landed soundlessly on the water. She watched in silence as they bobbed further and further away. Only after they were out of sight did she speak again. "Carver… I'm not the same person that I was a few months ago. That silly girl in Lothering—she's gone. She's been gone since Bethany died." Her eyes were dry—all her tears, spent. She'd allowed herself a moment to grieve, but it was time to be strong again. She looked Carver straight in the eye, and took a deep breath. "I'm not Mari anymore, Carver. I'm Hawke… just Hawke."

He sat in stunned silence for a moment, then took a deep breath. With a weak smile, he gave her brutally shortened hair a flick. "You know that Mother's going to lose it when she sees this, right?"

She laughed, running a hand through the uneven mop. "I'll go and get it trimmed tomorrow if it makes her happier. I only kept it long all these years because of her, anyway."

"C'mon," he said, pulling her to her feet. "She's going to find out sooner or later, we may as well head home now." They walked in silence until they reached Gamlen's district. Carver paused before he opened the door to the house. "Just so you know, Sister, you'll always be Mari to me."

End Book 1

A/N: Well, everyone, Cullen's story started as a big project for me, and ended up turning into something even bigger. Even though his story isn't over yet, finishing this first installment was a big step for me. There are a few major 'thank-yous' in order. First and foremost, to my incredible beta: Jaden Anderson. She stuck with me through it all, and came back to help out once I was feeling back to writing. She also has been helping me work out some plot details for the rest of the series. Thanks, Jaden… you are the absolute best! Second, to my support group, TWS. You ladies are amazing, thank you for everything! And last but not least, to all of you who have read and reviewed… you have no idea how much I appreciated every single notification I got from all of you!

I sincerely hope that you all enjoyed the first part of Cullen's journey! Should you be so inclined to continue along with him, for your reading pleasure, chapter 1 of Book 2: Duty and Desire, has already been posted! You can find the link on my profile page. Hope to see you there!

Love, Kyla