The rain from the previous day lasted all through the night, tapering off by morning, leaving the world smelling clean. A few puffy clouds remained, dotting the sky; there were enough of them to leave open the possibility of more rain later in the day, but for now cool, damp breezes rustled the trees and grass, fluttering the curtains in the windows, and sending the scent of sweet hay throughout the barn.
Amelle had used the morning's chores as an excuse not to speak to her mother about her… request (which was the politest way of putting it), carefully avoiding the subject when she finally came in for breakfast (thank the Maker for Fenris, since Mama was particularly disinclined to pursue the topic any further while he was around), and continued avoiding it by vanishing up to her little worktable in the hayloft soon thereafter. It wasn't so much that she didn't want to talk about it, but that she didn't know what to say. And so she sat, slowly and painstakingly crafting potions, one after another after another. From somewhere outside there came the rhythmic thwack, thwack, thwack of either Tomas or Kellen, Tomas' younger brother who was another of the farmhands, chopping wood, reminding Amelle she still had to go back into town and see about that new plow.
Pushing the errand out of her mind, she measured out dried roots and leaves on her little brass scales, pulverizing them with her mortar and pestle, then steeping and stoppering restoratives and tinctures and ointments, not because she particularly needed to get to work on bolstering her wares just yet, but because the work soothed her and cleared her mind, and the Maker knew she needed a clear head right now.
Carver. Mama wanted her to reconcile with Carver.
Her gut instinct—which had yet to fail her in her twenty-six years—told her it was a bad idea for many reasons, not the least of which was the part where her brother was a templar now. And not just any templar—one of Meredith Stannard's men. Meredith "I always get my mage" Stannard. Meredith "the only good apostate is a dead apostate" Stannard.
It was excellent incentive to perfect the tincture of magebane, she supposed. It wouldn't do to traipse all the way to Kirkwall only to find herself jailed for her trouble.
Assuming, of course, she even went. She still wasn't sure about that.
Amelle blew away a sweaty lock of hair sticking stubbornly to her forehead, then carefully placed long strands of dried spindleweed on the scale, taking care not to blow the whole pile of thready pieces all across the workbench. She added another several strands until the scales evened. If she didn't go, it'd mean Mama's disappointment, and that wasn't such a terrible burden to bear, since she was fairly certain even Mama didn't understand what she was asking of Amelle. The best—the very best case scenario involved Carver and Amelle in a teary, joyful reunion, the likelihood of which was… slim, at best.
The worst case scenario, however… Amelle shuddered against the whisper of a chill ghosting down her spine, so very much colder than the damp breeze. She didn't want to think about the worst thing that could possibly happen. There were worse things than cells and chains. Worse things than never seeing the farm again, never seeing her mother again. There were worse things than death, even.
As she moved methodically through each step of her rejuvenation potion recipe, Amelle considered her options. She didn't like them. She could go, obviously taking every single precaution she possibly could, and fulfilling the letter of Mama's request, if not the spirit, approaching the task like any unpleasant chore to be done. Or she could not go—the more appealing option, naturally—and… and what?
Disappoint her, she thought miserably. Do you really think you can expect to stay here if you don't try to talk to him, at the very least? Oh, it's all very well that you want to make this a more permanent home, but will you be permitted to if you don't give her this?
It wasn't as if Amelle thought for a moment Mama wouldn't welcome her home again, but things would definitely be… strained. The more practical side of her reasoned that a strained relationship with her mother was worth it if meant avoiding Tranquility.
The rejuvenation potion finished, she set aside the bottle and leaned back on her little stool, arching her spine until it cracked, then rolling her shoulders until they did the same. The packet of magebane ingredients lay innocuously on the workbench, weighted down by a heavy bottle of laudanum. Everything she needed, just waiting for her to go ahead and put them all together. Then she'd need to test the dosage, which Amelle looked forward to roughly as much as she looked forward to playing Isabela one on one in Wicked Grace.
Reaching out slowly, Amelle brushed the tips of her fingers against the edge of the packet; freeing it from underneath the potion bottle, she pulled it closer. She knew the recipe already, and had for a while now. And yet, Amelle's heart still thundered away in her chest as she pulled each ingredient out, setting small square packets of brown paper flat on her work surface. She breathed, in and out. Three deep, slow breaths.
Her hands were steady.
Amelle worked carefully, measuring each component twice before dropping it in a deep glass tube with the rest. Magebane wasn't a difficult recipe to master; no, as with so many potions, the difficulty came with dosage. She blended the mixture with a slender rod, watching as it went from a murky brown to a dull blood-red. Cradling the glass in her hands, Amelle added heat until the liquid within turned first a hazy lavender, then a vibrant, jewel-toned purple. Cooling the potion too quickly would cause the glass to shatter, as previous experience had taught her more than once, so it was with careful precision that she shifted the mana in her veins, gradually easing back heat as she pushed forward cooler energy. As the magebane cooled, it went cloudy before turning sharply clear.
Setting the tube down on her workbench, Amelle examined her work. A poison like this one really had no right being so pretty. Shafts of sunlight caught the liquid as she poured it into a bottle and then stoppered it, casting a long stream of pink light down the table's scarred and pitted surface.
Several small cobalt blue bottles—enough for several trials of differing strength—sat innocuously among a collection of completed potions, empty bottles, and stray corks. Amelle plucked one up and twisted its stopper free. The laudanum's bitter odor wafted up from both cork and bottle, and though she didn't think it terribly likely, Amelle wondered if it was worth hoping the magebane stood a chance of improving the laudanum's taste. Or maybe the laudanum would improve the magebane. Could work either way, really. The most likely outcome was that the whole affair would taste singularly awful, so there was that to look forward to.
Measuring the magebane into tinctures of varying potency was meticulous work, but once the liquids were combined (producing a smell worse than magebane or laudanum, something Amelle wouldn't have thought possible), the bottles marked accordingly and the remaining magebane hidden away high on a shelf for safekeeping, Amelle stared down at her handiwork. There was no putting it off any longer—she'd have to test it sooner or later. At the moment, later was the more appealing option; after the trip to Lothering for the plow, perhaps. She pushed away from the little workspace, her stool scraping loudly across the hayloft floor, and then climbed nimbly down the ladder. She'd let Merrill, Tomas, and Kellen know where she was headed and maybe see if Fenris still needed to take a trip into Lothering. His injuries seemed to be healing well enough, definitely faster than she'd anticipated. He still wanted to be useful and… repay her, she supposed, so Amelle had instructed Merrill show Fenris how to mix the bran mash for the horses along with a few other light-duty chores that wouldn't be too overtaxing. So long as they took it slow, she saw no harm in him accompanying her to Lothering—it was just a little longer than the turn they had taken around the farm the other day.
It had been a nice turn around the farm, though. Until the rain.
She still wasn't quite sure what to make of Fenris; he'd needed her help, she'd helped him and now he was doing a fine job with the healing process, which meant he'd be heading his own way soon. It'd made for an interesting few days, though. Maybe not always the good type of interesting, especially at the beginning there, but… interesting all the same. What he'd said to Amelle in the barn came back to her, the way his low voice mixed too well with the shadows and the rush of rain. Bethany's death, not her fault. She wasn't sure she believed it, but it was nice to think somebody thought it was possible.
Merrill was hip deep in mucking out the stalls, singing an old Dalish tune under her breath when Amelle rounded a corner and found her.
"Anything you need from town?" she asked, wincing apologetically when Merrill jumped and gave a little yelp, swinging around, still holding the pitchfork, which resulted in Amelle having no choice but to dart out of the way or get skewered.
"By the Dread Wolf! You shouldn't sneak up on a person like that!" she cried, digging the tines down into the hay, resuming her mucking with vigor. "I could've poked you full of holes!"
"Healer," Amelle riposted, wiggling her fingers, but Merrill just shook her head, slender braids swinging. "I'm off to town again shortly. Figured I'd see about a plow. Is there anything else we need?"
"Nothing I can think of," Merrill answered, turning the pitchfork handle slowly in her hand. "But you'll want to tell Tomas he can stop fussing with the old handle. He'll be glad to hear that."
The barn was angled such that the little area behind the building was swathed in shade for most of the morning and was a popular spot for certain jobs, like repairing the plow, chopping wood, or mixing up bran mash. That was already the case this morning—Merrill said she saw Tomas working on the plow handle while Kellan chopped wood, and Amelle followed the sounds of wood being chopped, calling out to Tomas as she came through to the back of the barn.
"Good news, Tomas, I'm heading to town to see about a new—"
But when Amelle came through the barn door, it wasn't Kellen or Tomas she found chopping wood. The plow was nearby, but abandoned, and the person methodically splitting log after log after log had graceful white lines twisting and twining up the center of his back like a vine, splitting at the nape of his neck and traveling across his shoulders and onward down his arms, lean cords of muscle along his back and arms that flexed with every swing of the axe. No, not Kellen and not Tomas, but Fenris. Definitely, absolutely, and undeniably Fenris. Sweat plastered his pale hair to his head and darkened the waistband of his trousers, but his shirt was safe and dry, hung neatly on the handle of the ruined plow.
For a moment Amelle couldn't speak, literally could not make any words of any language form in her brain or come out her mouth. For that moment, Amelle simply watched in open admiration at the way the muscles played beneath his skin.
But when, after far too long, the words finally did come, what left her lips wasn't precisely what she'd expected to say. Or, more precisely, shout.
"What in the Maker's name are you—are you trying to cripple yourself?" Amelle yelled, stomping around to face Fenris the very moment the axe landed solidly against the wedge, splitting the log in two as the blade lodged itself in the chopping block. "Is that what you're trying to do? Did you think baking a pie was an appropriate prelude to cutting giant hunks of wood into kindling? Are you demented?"
Her outburst hadn't surprised him. On the contrary, Fenris simply worked the axe free again and picked up another log to split, which did exactly nothing to soothe her burst of anger. "I told you I wished to be useful during my stay."
"Useful's fine," she snapped. "I wholly support being useful. But this—" Amelle swung her arm, gesturing grandly, "this is asinine. Are you trying to reinjure yourself? Is that what you want?"
"I am aware of my own limits," he ground out through his teeth. "I am not a fool."
"Chopping wood less than a week out from being shot and crushed by your horse in an ambush and you're trying to convince me you're not a fool?" Amelle reached out and poked one unerring fingertip against the muscle along his arm; there was no scar there, but it was without a doubt the spot he'd been shot. When Fenris hissed in a sudden, sharp breath through his teeth, Amelle experienced a fleeting stab of guilt, quickly drowned out by annoyance. "Maker's balls, Fenris, honestly."
Rubbing the abused muscle gingerly, he stepped around the chopping block to face her. "This is work I know how to do. I refuse to sit idle just because—"
"Did we not have the what the healer says goes conversation we had? Because I am nearly certain we had that conversation."
His brows lowered into a stubborn line that slashed across his forehead. "We did," he retorted. "I feel much recovered."
Amelle opened her mouth, then shut it. Then she wondered if maybe his brain had been somehow damaged in the attack. Because that would've explained so much. With a scowl, she crossed her arms over her chest. "Fine. But reinjure it, and you're on your own."
That line across his forehead lowered further as Fenris' scowl deepened. "Was there some purpose to this visit, Hawke?"
It wasn't the most artless subject change, but Amelle took his point clearly enough. "I thought I was going to find Tomas back here," she answered shortly. "But I'm planning to take a walk into Lothering in a bit. You'd mentioned wanting to make a trip yourself, so I figured I'd let you know I'd be going that way."
He nodded once, and then, rubbing his palms on his trousers, picked up the shirt hanging from the plow. "Yes," he answered, adding, "I have need to replace some of my belongings that were damaged in the slaver attack."
Like the sense the Maker saw fit to give you? she thought acerbically, but what Amelle said was, "All right. I'll make sure to find you before I go."
Evidently what Hawke needed to accomplish before leaving for Lothering was to change out of the simple cotton shirt and trousers she'd been wearing and into a dress not terribly unlike the one she'd worn the previous day, though the material was somewhat less diaphanous, he noted, the color of a robin's egg and trimmed with pale lace and dark blue buttons. Nothing so grand as what he'd seen ladies wearing in the Imperium or elsewhere across Thedas, but Hawke's bearing complemented the garment as much as the garment complemented Hawke, something he noticed in particular as his eye fell to the pleasing curve of her waist.
Or it would have been pleasing had she not still been so irritated with him. Hawke's displeasure rolled off in waves, as if the source of her scowl was further beneath the skin's surface than anyone could hope to imagine. Perhaps it made a sort of sense, given her moments of contentedness—the brief ones he'd been witness to—seemed to likewise originate deep within her. The same could also be said of her sadness. But now her posture was rigid stiff, and every step she took was one determined to propel her away from the farm as quickly as possible.
It didn't seem likely she was only irritated with his decision to assist with chores more difficult than mixing horse feed. He knew himself and knew his limits, and would not have attempted such a task if he'd thought it would result in lasting damage. He could scarce afford foolish risks such as that, and yet Hawke's anger, sparking hotly in her eyes and in the furious flush that crept up her neck and warmed her cheeks, was just enough to make him begin to question his decision. Indeed, he was loath to admit it out loud, but his arm still ached where she'd poked him, and her precision in locating just the right spot where the bullet had pierced his flesh was nothing less than surprising.
The silence between them ought to have been a welcome one; Fenris was accustomed to his own company and quite enjoyed the peace of solitude, but Hawke's own silence was tense; it crept pricklingly along his nerves, scraping up restlessness in its wake. Perhaps this disquietude was something to do with the incident that had unfolded the night before. That too was possible. Her… he supposed it was a confession, though in Fenris' opinion that there was nothing to confess, had revealed more to him in minutes than he'd learned in the days he'd spent at the farm so far. It certainly explained her deep resistance to her mother's suggestion, beyond, even, the obvious difficulty found in her brother's position with the templars.
Finally he could take no more of her rigid posture and furiously determined strides.
"If you have something to say, Hawke, I would ask that you say it."
She slowed her steps long enough to look at him, one eyebrow arching toward your hairline. "Something to say, maybe, on the topic of your blatant disregard for a healer's orders?"
"I know myself and my limits," he countered. "I would ask you not insult my intelligence."
Hawke's expression slid from annoyance to something… wry and almost—incongruously enough—amused. "Everyone says that, you know. Everyone. People always insist they know their own limits, always insist they know themselves best. And nine times out of ten, when someone utters those exact words, it's either right before or right after they've done something boneheaded." She sent him a sidelong glance in the silence that followed, then added, "Healers don't like seeing people hurt. We especially don't like seeing the people we've healed hurt themselves."
"And I dislike feeling as if I am taking advantage of hospitality."
"You said as much." They went a few steps further before she said, "So what are we supposed to do about it?"
"I can hardly keep you from doing what you set your mind to doing. The most I can do, in fact, is refuse to heal any new damage you do to yourself. Which, I'm afraid you'll find, is a difficult promise for any healer to make." Hawke then clasped her hands in front of her, and… something about her gait changed. No longer did she walk as if she were trying to escape the farm, and Fenris wondered anew whether she was truly irritated with him.
"What I propose," she continued, "is… a compromise."
"What sort of compromise?"
"You want to be useful on the farm."
"All right," Hawke said, nodding once. "Then help me."
Fenris didn't understand her meaning and said so, at which point Hawke shrugged. "Stay here and recover—allow yourself to recover, fully—and in return, you can repay me helping me with…" She sent him another glance from the corner of her eye. "I told you I was working on a magebane tincture."
"You did," he replied. "But I know nothing of potion-crafting—"
"I need to test it." Her throat moved as she swallowed. "But at the end of the day, magebane is a poison, and it's idiotic of me to pretend otherwise. If something goes wrong, I need someone there who'll have his wits about him."
"You anticipate… something going wrong?"
Hawke shrugged again. "When you're dealing with potions and poisons, there's always room for something to go badly. This is… counter to my usual skill set—I'm not used to blending things designed to hurt. And I'm sure as the Void not used to taking them. But," she sighed, tipping her head back to look at the sky, "if I'm actually going to go to Kirkwall to find Carver, I'd better have a damned fine potion on my side if I don't want to wind up a permanent guest of the Kirkwall Circle of Magi."
"You… have decided to go, then."
"Depends on if I can perfect the magebane tincture," she replied. "Sapping my mana is good. Knocking me senseless is… not so good."
"Which is where you want me to come in."
"It doesn't sound like much," Hawke admitted, "but having someone standing by with lyrium potion should I need it will be an immense help."
"Why not ask another's assistance?"
"Isabela and Varric already think it's a bad idea, and Merrill already worries too much. Magebane isn't a pretty poison. I don't—I don't want to scare her."
The look she shot him was far too shrewd for Fenris' liking. "I have a feeling you've seen plenty in your life that hasn't been pretty. I doubt you scare easily."
The request sounded too… easy, leaving Fenris with the feeling Hawke was trying to dupe him somehow, by tricking him into accepting a meaningless, empty task.
All the same, it was a compromise, and he did not expect to remain at the Hawke farm for much longer. "Very well," he finally agreed. "If you require my aid, you will have it."
After Fenris agreed to assist Hawke with her potion testing, they continued on to Lothering in a far more companionable silence than they'd started out with. Lush green fields and farms rolled across the hilly landscape on either side of the main road, until they came upon Lothering proper. The town, though small, was pleasanter than the overgrown mining camps scattered across the countryside, but that was the difference between towns built around mines and ones built around farms. The people of Lothering didn't possess the same desperate, pinched, ill look of the people who lived around the lyrium mines. Though Fenris would not have placed the Hawke he'd first met—the one dressed in red who commanded the attention of a crowd—in such a town, this one—the Hawke who tended horses and ran through rainstorms and shared her sorrows with a near-stranger in dim lanternlight—seemed entirely in place here.
"That was the schoolhouse we just passed," she said as they walked, "and along Main Street here we've got the general store and the feed store and Miss Allison's dress shop—doubt you'll need to stop in there—and… well, it's nothing fancy, but old Hiram's been Lothering's tailor for as long as I can remember, so if it's clothes you're needing…"
He shot her a curious look, but she only shrugged. "Doesn't take second sight to notice how light you pack and how put out you were after our soaking yesterday."
"You are… observant," he murmured, recalling too clearly Hawke's scrutiny the day she'd sold him the frostrock ointment. Observant, indeed.
"I have to be, I think. It comes with the territory. Doesn't matter if I'm healing someone or selling them something, I need to be able to see what it is they need."
"You are not incorrect, as it happens."
Hawke nodded. "You should probably go on ahead, then. I've got to see about that plow, and hunt down Varric and Isabela and let them know our plans may possibly… change, somewhat."
"Do you think they will accompany you?"
"I think," Hawke drawled dryly, "Isabela wouldn't let me leave her behind if she thought I was heading anywhere remotely interesting."
"Well, obviously you're taking us, kitten. When do we leave?"
Amelle pinched the bridge of her nose. "Isabela, I'm not so sure—"
"You're not leaving us behind. Either of us."
"I don't intend to. But you've made my intent rather easier said than done."
"Oh, this?" Isabela flicked a finger at one of the bars separating her from Amelle. It clanged softly. "This is nothing. It's just a minor inconvenience. A formality. A—"
"Inconvenient formality my left foot," drawled Aveline from behind her. Amelle glanced over her shoulder—Aveline was an old friend, sure enough, but even the oldest friends had lines that weren't meant to be crossed, so Amelle didn't cross them. Isabela, on the other hand, wasn't Amelle and, as Aveline was always quick to point out, Isabela wasn't Aveline's friend, either. Right now, in fact, she looked annoyed enough to spit, at which point Amelle wondered if Isabela had been needling the sheriff all morning. "Barlin's told and told and told you knives aren't welcome at Dane's Refuge."
"Barlin's just cranky I keep winning," Isabela tossed back airily.
"Cranky he can't catch you with cards up your sleeve, you mean," Aveline riposted, but Isabela just rolled her eyes.
"Everyone cheats at Wicked Grace, big girl—it's practically the object of the game. Anyone who says otherwise is just playing a different kind of game."
Turning her back on Isabela, Amelle crossed the tiny room and planted her hands on Aveline's desk, leaning forward. "You're really keeping her?" she asked. "Really, really keeping her?"
"Twenty-four hours in a cell and a fine. You know the rules, Hawke."
Amelle did know the rules, as well as she knew Aveline wasn't about to bend them for her. She glanced back at Isabela, who'd now draped herself along the narrow bunk, booted feet propped up against the wall. "Varric paid the fine already, sweet thing. Now it's just a matter of waiting." She smiled and shot Amelle a wink. "Unless you feel like breaking me out."
Amelle could only roll her eyes. "I am fairly certain this isn't the sort of conversation you're meant to have in front of the sheriff, Isabela."
"Oh, you're no fun at all," Isabela replied, thumping one booted heel against the wall, watching Aveline out of the corner of her eye, as if waiting for the other woman to react.
Amelle turned back to her friend. As it had happened, Amelle had stopped in at the sheriff's office in hopes of finding Aveline. Catching Isabela there was just a… a bonus, in a demented sort of way.
"So? What do you say?"
Aveline shook her head and let out a long breath. "You're really going to Kirkwall? Really?"
"Unless I chicken out at the last minute? Yes."
"Family's family, I know that well as anyone, but even so, I'm surprised Leandra wants you to take that kind of risk."
"It's only risky if I don't prepare for it."
Aveline's face creased into a pained grimace. "Maker, don't tell me about your preparations."
"They're all perfectly legal!"
"And perfectly asinine too, if my guess is right."
"This may surprise you, Aveline," chirped Isabela from her bunk, "but you and I happen to be in complete agreement on that."
The look Aveline then shot Amelle was too eloquent by half. "Oh," she said, brows lifting, "that makes me feel ever so much better."
Frustration prickled under her skin as Amelle sent a glare Isabela's way. "Isabela's exaggerating, like she does. I'm not asking you to help, or come along, or to do anything remotely questionable. I just want you to keep an eye on Mama and the farm while I'm gone."
"And if you don't come back?"
"Maker's breath, Aveline," Amelle huffed, "I'm coming back."
Especially if I don't come back.