Genres: hurt/comfort, romance, angst, tragedy
Word Count: ~47,000
FF.net link: Here, if you're interested.
Summary: Hawke is captured and branded in a failed Rite of Tranquility, but the longer she is forced to hide the truth the harder it is to find.
Hawke wakes up.
That in itself is a surprise; what surprises her more is the faded ache in her head and her fingers and her mouth—even the bone-deep bruise left by Delia's boot has eased, and when she rolls her shoulders back against the crisp pine needles under her there is almost no pain at all. Carefully, without opening her eyes, she rubs the pad of her thumb over the place where a fingernail used to be. There is a thin layer of a bandage over it—she smells valerian and meadowsweet when she pushes it aside—but though the flesh is tender and unused to touch, there is no screaming sting, no sensitive crush of red-edged hurt to take away her senses.
Hawke lets out a breath, relieved. And then—her eyes fly open, or try to, because she is relieved—and then startled—and then afraid when she realizes she cannot open her eyes, cannot see anything under the binding of bandages and the heavy hot press of black fabric over her face—and her heart leaps at her fear because she can taste it and the shock under it—can feel it—can feel.
The Rite has not worked.
She doesn't know why and cares less, caught up in the giddy swell of glorious emotion. She is afraid and furious and exultant and so relieved her heart aches—she tries again to open her eyes and again her effort fails, but this time she catches the wafting scent of valerian, and realizes through the muddled chaos of her mind that the bandages over her eyes are meant to heal and not impair.
So. They do not know either. This gives Hawke pause for the first time; if they have decided to allow her wounds to knit and her strength to return, they do not realize their captive is not the threatless Tranquil they presume, do not know the magic is still singing sweetly under her skin. She has the advantage, now, the strength of surprise on her side—and all she needs is the opportunity to use it. But not now, though, and not without caution—the moment they discover their brand has failed will be the moment she is branded again, or killed outright, and she does not dare risk blatant assault with the raiders so numerous and herself still so very weak. No, if she is to escape she must wait, and plan, and keep herself as empty and as calm as they expect her to be until the striking moment comes.
Once, when she was a child, she had gone with her father to the creek that ran along the edge of their fields in Lothering. She'd found a stone in its clear waters, smooth and round and paler than its fellows, and she had plucked it from the pebbled bed and brought it to her father like the treasure she meant it to be. He'd accepted it with gravitas, shown her the perfect glass-smooth polish of its surface, told her of how the river takes up the hard and knife-edged stones into itself, turning them over and over in its gentle currents until even the roughest places are worn away, until the stone is left so sleek and clean that even water slides around it like the wind: untouchable.
The river has come again, and this time Hawke must become the stone. She must be Tranquil in everything but name.
Her breathing slows inside the black hood; her muscles ease their anxious tautness, as if the realization by itself has begun to close over her heart already. She must be small and smooth and pale, gloss-bright and without scars, turning over and over without resistance. She must close her eyes, her mouth, her ears: a stone does not watch its masters with fury. A stone does not speak easily.
"She's waking up," says a voice near her head, and Hawke goes limp. How much of her struggle has Delia seen—how much of her gasping breaths can be called alarm without fear?
A hand takes her roughly by the shoulder, pulling her to a sitting position before tugging the hood away from her head. The world grows lighter, though the bandages that wrap around her forehead still hold her eyes closed; her hair settles around her shoulders in a tangled mess. A stone is not vain, she tells herself when her fingers twitch to straighten it; a stone is not curious. Her head is throbbing again, a deep, dull pounding that knots at the center of her forehead and spreads, wing-like, towards her temples.
Another voice comes from her left, older and with authority: Silas. "Should we tell them we've got the merchandise?"
"Not yet," says Carn, directly above her, and it is only the stone-smooth walls rising around her heart that keeps her from flinching out of fright. "Let's find out if it worked, first."
Delia, then, irritated. "I told you you should have brought the lyrium."
"We were already taking a big-enough risk with the branding iron! They told us the lyrium was only for sedation and the pain—and besides, look at her." A broad hand grasps her face by the chin, lifts it to the sky. "Does this look like a failure to you?"
"We'll see," Carn says, though his voice is pleased. "Where's—here you are. Come get those Void-taken bandages of yours off her face. I want to see the mark."
"Yes, sir," says Teeth, and a moment later she feels his hands on her hair, on her ears, and the world, layer by layer, grows brighter. A stone does not feel gratitude—but the smell of valerian is strong, and even through her headache Hawke knows she owes her healing to him.
The last of the bandages drops away. Hawke, Tranquil, opens her eyes.
"Maker," someone breathes. "Look at that."
A breath of air stirs between the trees, brushing across her forehead as if in benediction. Hawke knows the shape of the mark intimately—still, to know that it rests between her eyes, flaring and permanent, a mark of both her magic and her failure, is another thing entirely. In one wild, ludicrous moment, she finds herself hoping it isn't crooked.
She lifts her head to look at Carn, swallowing down her hysteria. His heavy eyebrows are raised, his lips pressed tight together under the close-cut beard, and his falcon's eyes are hooded over with unreadable expectation. "Well," he says, "the scabbing's clean, anyway. Marian."
She says, "Yes."
"How do you feel?"
There are a few nervous titters behind him, including the ash-blonde woman who'd brought Aleron to the camp, but Carn does not smile. Hawke pauses, as if considering, and says, "My head hurts."
He smiles then, without humor. "I imagine so. Do some magic for me, apostate."
Hawke remains still for a moment, then permits herself mild confusion without surprise. Her heart is beating so rapidly it aches. "I cannot feel the Fade."
Silas and Delia both look to Carn for confirmation, but he gestures instead at the giant standing just to Hawke's right. She looks over without interest and his eyes meet hers—and then his Silence crashes over her in a smothering blanket, black and choking. A stone does not resist the river, but turns and smoothes with the currents, and Hawke lets the Silence wrap around her without complaint. Her magic gutters out like a blown flame.
She turns her head from the giant to Carn as if perplexed, and says nothing.
"There," says one of the men behind Carn. "See? It worked. It worked. Andraste's pyre, we're going to be rich—"
"Tranquil slaves are only valuable if they're actually Tranquil," Delia snaps. "We need to watch her for a little longer. It could be a trick."
"Her eyes look dead," says Silas, but Delia does not look convinced. "The Tranquil don't lie. Ask her something."
Carn takes a step closer. "Give me your name, Marian. Your whole name."
A stone does not lie, and neither does it falter—but is this a trick? Do they already know? She knows the Tranquil have their own volition, twisted as it is, but she cannot remember if they have ever disobeyed a command so simple without cause, and if this is a test she will have failed it already. She settles for calm dissent. "I do not wish to."
"Tranquil spitfire," someone mutters, and the laughter chokes off at Delia's glare.
Carn is more gentle. "Why not?"
Here, the truth. "You took me against my will. I am well-known in Kirkwall, and I would not like to endanger my friends."
"That's sweet. And I can understand your reluctance. But the thing is, Marian, if you don't tell me, I will find them and hunt them down myself, and there will not be a safe place in the Free Marches for anyone who ever called you 'friend.' Now. Your name."
There is nothing she can say to that. She opens her mouth—and the choice is taken from her completely when a raider barrels into the camp, stumbling and panting and shouting for Carn. Hawke recognizes the redheaded woman from Silas's group.
Carn swivels on his heel; at his gesture, Teeth steps behind Hawke's kneeling figure to stop her running, as if she could control the trembling in her knees enough even to stand. "Did you find him?" Carn asks; the woman bends at the waist, one hand braced on her knee as she sucks in air, but she reaches out the other towards Carn—and Hawke's heart stops.
Dangling from her fist is a long, messy braid of black hair.
A stone does not grieve, Hawke thinks desperately. A stone does not weep. She wipes her face into a porcelain mask, immobile and unaffected, and around her heart the wall rises a little higher. Aleron—
"But there's more," the woman gasps as Carn tosses the braid into the dwindling campfire. "This woman. The apostate."
"What about her?"
The woman's eyes fix on Hawke's face in fear and fury. "She's the fucking Champion of Kirkwall."
Hawke decides, later, that this is the moment when she is in the most jeopardy. Every eye in the camp turns to her with wide, angry eyes and fresh suspicion, hands going to blades and bows alike because surely no Champion could ever be taken so easily and with so little loss of life. Hawke offers no response, no reaction; she does not even acknowledge the statement until Carn glances at her over his shoulder.
"Is this true?"
Hawke does not hesitate. "Yes."
"Then your full name."
"Marian Hawke," she says, unblinking. "I am also called the Champion of Kirkwall."
"Thank you for your honesty," Carn says with a thin, dangerous smile, and then he turns to the rest of the raiders. "We're moving camp. Pack up. Keep it quiet." He takes two steps, makes a fist in Teeth's red shirt. "You take care of the Tranquil," he says. "She disappears like the boy and so do you, you understand?"
"Yes, sir," Teeth says, and he does not smile as he ties Hawke's wrists together with a short, stout rope. He tucks the discarded black hood into his belt with a warning glance, though Hawke has little intention of fleeing yet, and does not look away from her as they wait. The raiders move swiftly to work with an efficiency that even Hawke envies, and in a matter of minutes the bedrolls are packed and tied safely to the rest of the bags, the weapons out and in hand, ready to travel. Carn takes the lead and Hawke is placed at his elbow, and with little fanfare, they move deeper into the Planasene Forest.
They take no trail that she can see, weaving west between thick-trunked trees with little logic, turning arbitrarily to the left or right for a thousand paces before heading off in a new direction. But a stone is not curious and she does not ask questions, and after the third hour of the same tall pines and white oaks, Carn calls at last for them to set up camp.
Hawke sinks onto the lip of a jutting boulder and does not try to hide her exhaustion. The soles of her feet throb with each heartbeat, a blister on the outside of her heel pulsing painfully, and the sweat dripping over the unhealed burn on her forehead stings like vinegar. She cannot treat it herself without her magic; neither can she tolerate the heady anguish, but just as she steels herself to stand and ask for help, a hand inserts itself into her vision holding a poultice that smells of valerian and meadowsweet.
She looks up—without surprise, she must not be surprised—and sees Teeth standing above her. "For your head."
Hawke presses it between her eyes without hesitation, not even pausing to prepare herself for the pain of the herbs against her raw-flayed skin. She does not thank him—a stone is not grateful—but he watches her all the same, his brow creased, and when at last the numbing effect of the valerian begins to soothe her burn, he dips one hand into his belt pouch and fishes out a small metal canteen. Her hands are still tied together and raised to her head, but rather than set her free, he lifts the canteen to her lips with his own hands and tips it forward, letting a thin cool trickle of water slide into her parched mouth.
She swallows until the canteen is empty, and then she says politely, "Thank you."
"You're welcome," he says, disconcerted and, she thinks, displeased, and he turns without further comment to help set up the rest of the camp.
Hawke does not know what to make of this, even with the full faculty of her emotions, but the water has made her pliant and more comfortable and in the end she cannot bring herself to care. She does not even react when Delia drops heavily to the boulder beside her, the long tail of her yellow hair rippling down her back. She leans back and sighs, propping herself on her hands, and tips her head to the sky. "I'm not buying this, you know."
Hawke looks at her in profile, her tanned face turned up to the sun, and says nothing. Delia glances at her out of the corner of her eye. "What, no clever comeback? No witty and impassioned defense?" She pauses a moment, then laughs. "Or passionless, I guess. Poor little mage, lost all her dreams at once."
"Would you like me to convince you?"
"And how would you do that?"
Hawke considers her for a moment, lowering the poultice to her lap, then says, frankly, "I do not think anything would convince you but time."
"But you don't think I'm the kind of person to give it."
"I do not think you are kind at all."
Delia gives her an appraising look that would be more appropriate directed towards a stray dog. "Now that," she says at last, "is really astute. Really clever, and piercing, and all those things you're supposed to say when someone's seen right through you. Top-notch, that mind of yours, isn't it?" She smiles and Hawke senses too late that she has trodden on a sleeping snake, ignored the warning hiss of danger as only the fearless can. Delia reaches out one hand and cups her cheek, gently. "Watch yourself, little girl," she murmurs, and her thumb strokes along the lower lid of Hawke's eye. "You give me one reason, and I'll tear your heart out of your chest. I won't even need Carn's permission."
It would be a frightening thought, but she knows someone who has torn hearts from chests before, and as sincere as this woman is she holds no candle to Fenris at his most furious. Hawke says only, "I would prefer to stay alive."
Delia pushes up from the rock. "Then watch your step."
Hawke does not answer, watching instead as Delia disappears into the rest of the raiders, her yellow hair swinging back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
Hawke pays for her insolence the next evening. She should have realized it in retrospect, should have cared more that she'd stung a sleeping beast and woken it; instead she watches Delia whisper in Carn's ear all day with casual disinterest, more preoccupied with her slow-healing wounds and her hidden grief over Aleron's death to pay the attention she should.
And more preoccupied, too, with the small cluster of spindleweed she finds at the base of one of the nearby oaks. Spindleweed for sorrow, her mother had always said—but it is the sorrow she needs it for, now, and the numbing grey fog that has always crept over her mind when she's used too much. It takes only a moment to convince Teeth it is an old folk remedy for swelling, a moment more to brew a small and potent tea in a pot over the campfire. Teeth watches her the entire time but does not object, even when she pours the rest of the tea into an empty vial to preserve it; he does not fear poison, apparently, when she is the only one who will drink it.
The tea is strong enough that it will take less than a sip to be effective. She guesses she has about a week's worth in the vial, maybe a little more—although, Hawke thinks, if she is still here in a week, she will have other problems to worry about.
She sits quietly when she is finished, in the way a stone rests quietly in the clear waters of a riverbed, and waits for the fog to settle. The camp moves around her in a babbling blur; guards are posted, men forage for dinner, and Delia bends her graceful head to Carn's, her eyes on Hawke and her lips moving in quiet, vicious litany.
And then dusk falls, and Delia comes for her.
She is dozing lightly, out of the way of the camp's bustle, when she is awoken by gentle hands and the white flash of Teeth's smile. "Carn wants you," he says, his light, wavy hair washed almost colorless in the evening haze. She stands and follows without comment and without protest, and when they reach Carn's makeshift court on the other side of the fire she is floating pleasantly on the airy cushion of her spindleweed tea. Delia stands beside him, one of her small throwing knives turning over and over in her fingers.
"Delia thinks you're not the genuine article," Carn begins without preamble. Somewhere off to the side, Teeth settles onto a fallen log and stretches his long, lanky legs out in front of him.
"She told me so yesterday as well."
"Is that so?" He scratches his beard, pondering her in silence, and then crosses his arms. "Any defense?"
"I told her that nothing would convince her but time."
Delia curls her lip, but Carn looks amused. "And so it might. But the thing is, Marian Hawke, that's the one thing we're short on. We're meeting the buyers in six days in Cumberland, and I think you'll understand if I find myself a bit...hesitant to deliver merchandise I can't personally vouch for. Makes for bad business."
A stone is not afraid of implications. "I am the merchandise."
"There are people willing to pay a small fortune for a slave that can't be unhappy. That can't revolt, or incite an uprising, or keep an enemy's secret. It's just until now that the Chantry's been the only ones with means of making them, and as you know, they keep their Tranquil on a tight leash."
Carn smiles again. "Until you."
Hawke folds her hands together carefully. "I see."
"I don't doubt you do. So if you don't mind, I'd like to take the opportunity to ask you a few questions. To make sure I'm delivering what I say I'm delivering."
"I am at your disposal," Hawke says, and barely suppresses a wince. That had been too close to her old self for comfort—but neither Carn nor Delia seems alarmed by her lapse. Careful, careful—
"Let's start with the basics," says Carn. "How old are you?"
"The fifth of Harvestmere."
"Your parents' names."
"Leandra and Malcolm Hawke."
"Your siblings. Are they alive or dead?"
"Bethany is dead. Carver is a member of the Grey Wardens."
Delia makes a short, irritated noise and Carn glances at her. "Something wrong?"
"These questions are a little…easy."
"And you'd like to take over."
Her eyes flash in the dusk and for a moment her face holds the hunger of a wolf, baying for blood in the dark. "Yes," she breathes, and it is only the fog-thick muddle of the tea that keeps Hawke from breaking out in a cold sweat.
Carn's gaze turns to Hawke, and then to the shadowed figure of Silas lounging by the campfire. Silas nods, his eyes lit like twin embers in the firelight; Delia lets out a thin and hissing sigh of satisfaction and stands, moving forward until she stops only a handsbreadth from Hawke. Her eyes flick across Hawke's face, up to the brand on her forehead, down to her placid mouth as if she does not know which to strike first; then she says, "You have a lover in Kirkwall."
There is no chance to dissemble, no recourse other than the truth. "Yes."
"An elf," says Delia softly, "with white hair."
"Tell me his name. Tell me everything."
Hawke swallows and it feels like scraping sandpaper down the inside of her throat; she opens her mouth and it feels as final as a death-blow. "His name is Fenris," she says without inflection, and when Delia asks she answers.
Varric's network of rumors had been even more thorough than she'd realized; Delia knows almost everything about them, from their first meeting in the grim aftermath of battle in the alienage to their hesitant, uncertain flirtations in the earliest days of their friendship. She even probes into the tender wound of their first night and the disastrous morning that followed, taking almost a vicious satisfaction in Hawke's impassive recitation of the loneliness, embarrassment, and regret that had followed.
Then Delia turns to their too-recent reconciliation with all the delicacy of a cudgel, and if it were not for the tea's influence Hawke would throttle her with her bare hands.
A stone does not fear interrogation; a Tranquil is not capable of taking offense, and Delia does not take any pains to spare it. Hawke doesn't even have the luxury of declining to answer, not with the questions harmless to everything but her spirit.
The fire grows with the dark and their audience grows with it, men and women trickling in behind Carn's quiet, seated figure to observe the evening's entertainment. It becomes harder and harder to ignore the jeers and stifled laughter when Delia's questions grow coarser, when she pries open without mercy the secret places of her heart that until now had belonged only to Fenris.
Carn neither encourages nor stops his subordinate, sitting only in silent judgment as Hawke's most precious memories are shredded into bright streaks of shame by Delia's mockery. She finds herself forced to use her hands to measure out lengths, to touch her body like a beast's as Delia's eyes glitter with cold amusement, her questions more intimate than Isabela's ever were and with none of her easy charm. She can see Silas's silver hair glinting as he turns his head away from her detached and uncensored responses, catches a flash of movement in the corner of her eye as Teeth pushes up from the log in sudden agitation to stalk away into the night.
In the end, the only solution is to close herself away, safely, in the stone.
It is easier than Hawke expects, to step outside herself and leave her body to the unkind mercy of the woman with the yellow hair. She sees her mouth working, shaping words, her eyes blinking in slow Tranquility—but there is no threat of shame's flush staining her cheeks, now, no possibility the perspiration on her forehead will be from anything but the fire. She curls her conscious mind into itself, away from the too-bright light of Delia's eyes, and draws the cool smooth walls of the river stone around her heart.
Delia is not the only one to try her in the end; Silas does too, and the ash-blonde woman, and a number of the unnamed raiders behind them, turning over every part of her life like a surgeon with a hot knife, as faceless and impersonal as the steel-shielded templars she has guarded against since she was old enough to run. They ask her about her friends, especially Isabela and Fenris, enjoying the personality of the former and the peculiar voyeurism of her relationship with the latter, and they do not hesitate to venture opinions on the others as well. Aveline suffers the most, guardswoman that she is; Anders does not fare well either under their derision, with his dedication and his focus, though the raiders take a shine to Merrill and Varric as if even her droning descriptions cannot quell the life in them. The questions go on without end, first leading one way and then another—but always, without exception, they turn back to her in the end.
They do not limit their tests to questions, either. They pinch her, strike her, tease her bruises and her scars with dagger-tips; one man drives the knobbed hilt of his sword into the outside of her knee until she falls, painful but undamaging blows meant to humiliate rather than harm.
Hawke answers them all, suffers them all without emotion and without reservation, baring herself to their torture and their scorn with as little reluctance as a wind-caught leaf at the end of autumn, dead and brown and with no substance at all. Only stone—only stone—
"Enough," Carn says at last near midnight. Most of the watchers are asleep; Hawke might as well be, her eyelids drooping in unfeigned pain and exhaustion. Teeth emerges, looking harried, from the shadows of the trees; Delia is pale where she sits near the fire.
Carn stands, stretches his broad shoulders as if he has been the one laid open on the block. "I'm satisfied. No more questions. And Silas," he adds, and the man is at his elbow in an instant. "Send a message out first thing in the morning. Tell them we have the merchandise."
"The rest of you," he says, his lips curling in a small, brutal smile as he comes to stand at Hawke's side. "Hands off."
The raiders that are still awake nod; she returns to herself long enough to say, quietly, "I am tired."
"I know," says Carn, and gestures at Teeth. "Get her to bed. We move in the morning."
Teeth nods and takes Hawke's arm; she follows him without complaint and collapses on the bedroll he steers her to without even bothering to remove her boots. She is aware of him settling near her—too near—but the awareness does not last long in the winter-tide pull of her exhaustion, and in the space of two breaths she is asleep.
That night, she does not dream.
It does not take long for Hawke to settle into the routine of her new, lightless life. The Black Hoods leave her alone, mostly, after that one terrible night of interrogation, though she suspects that is due as much to the influence of Teeth's protective hovering as her own show of Tranquility. She still has not learned his real name, the blue-eyed raider with the wavy blonde hair and the too-white smile, but she does learn, quickly, that for some unfathomable reason he finds himself attracted to her. It certainly isn't her sparkling personality, she thinks in a rare moment of wry lucidity; six days of hard outdoor living have done her appearance no favors either. Still, his eyes linger too long on her face when he speaks, and his hands are too gentle with her hands when he changes her bandages, and his voice is too warm when he says her name: Marian.
A week ago she would have leapt at this chink in his defenses, this precious knowledge of his weakness kept and stored to use against him; now, she is only grateful for his kindness. She regrets that, when she allows herself regret.
Carn moves the camp twice more, each time taking them farther west into the woods towards Cumberland. Hawke knows fields better than forests, but she is familiar enough with tracking to realize their trail is almost invisible, the raiders too cautious and too experienced to leave a mark behind them. If Fenris and the others are coming, she thinks distantly, watching the ash-blonde woman scatter the ashes of the fire, they will have to keep their wits sharp.
Then she realizes she thought: if.
They camp that night a short walk from a lake tucked into the foothills of the Vimmark Mountains like an afterthought, too small even to appear on most maps. Hawke has not dreamed since the night she pulled the stone walls around her heart; all the better for her survival, she decides, and does not allow herself sorrow. Teeth settles his bedroll close to hers as he does every night, and as she does every night, Hawke lies down facing away from him and closes her eyes.
Carn sends out a foraging party at dawn. They come back shortly after noon with a brown stag slung between them, its enormous eyes clouded in death, and before it disappears into the crowd of hands and flashing knives Hawke manages to count eight points. Soon, the smell of roasting meat fills the camp; her stomach grumbles despite herself, and when the ash-blonde woman delivers their all-too-meager portions, her gratitude is entirely real. Not even her daily swallow of spindleweed tea is enough to mute it.
When the meal is over, Delia approaches with the indifferent contempt she has shown Hawke since her questioning and thrusts a burlap sack full of dirty wooden dishes into her hands. "Go clean these," she says shortly. "And clean yourself while you're at it. Carn wants you presentable for the buyers."
She says, "Yes, Delia," and goes, barely noticing the woman holding Teeth back with other orders.
It takes less than ten minutes to reach the lake. The trees grow thicker and wilder for several hundred yards, deepening both the silence and the green-gold dimness of the forest floor; then, all at once, they break wide open into a brilliant blue sky above a bluer sunlit lake, soft clouds spun into white froth scudding their way across the mirrored surface of the water. Even Tranquil, Hawke cannot deny its beauty—but as she drops the sack of dishes and steps forward she feels her Tranquility unraveling, threadlike, with each dig of her boots into the pebble-studded sand. She hesitates a long moment, drawing in a breath as she looks behind her, once—and then, like a bird, she spreads her arms open to the sun and sets herself free.
It is only a temporary freedom, she knows, a second's flight from the iron bars of her self-made cage—but the water is clean and cold and she is utterly alone, for the first time in a long time, and even with the danger she cannot bring herself to spoil this chance. Her magic is singing under her skin.
Her boots come off first and her bare toes dig into the sand in unfettered delight; her torn brown trousers follow, spilling over the sand like a scab peeled away from healed skin. She tears her grey shirt over her head and flings it behind her with her smalls, and then, naked as the day she was born, she strides forward into the water.
Each step is a small triumph, a fresh victory that sets her heart beating faster and faster, some voiceless rhythm catching her up in the wind on her face, in the gentle currents tugging her feet forward, deeper. She lets out a brief, breathless laugh that breaks the silent air like glass—then a wood thrush calls out in answer, lifting its voice in a clear, sweet song that carries across the lake on the wind until she thinks her stone heart must break at the beauty of it. The thrush cries out again and she calls out to it in wordless longing—then it leaps from the leaves of a nearby pine and streaks across the sky, a sharp scratch of black wings that she follows sunward until it vanishes, burned away from her eyes into fire, and light.
She dives beneath the surface.
The water is cold enough to take her breath away, cold enough to strip the ache from her bones and the flame from her forehead, and she does not surface until her lungs demand it and her breath bursts out in a storm of bubbles that blinds her. The surface breaks around her body like a storm, white and frothing; the ripples spread away from her wing-spread hands as if to carry her with them, to pull her out of herself into the wild, fierce joy of this place until there is nothing left of her human shell but bone-deep bruises and a sun-shaped scar.
She swims to shallower waters and stands, her heart racing, one hand pressed to her heart as if to ease its ache. She could do it. She could.
Fenris would understand of all people, surely, if she ended her struggles here. Now she is whole, and now she is aware of her hopeless future; if she took this Maker-given opportunity, here, and surrendered to the lake and its clarion call, sinking like a stone beneath its surface without intent to rise—surely, surely he would understand. Slavery, and life as a Tranquil—or—peace—
Did you ever think about killing yourself?
Hawke stops mid-step, startled at the sudden, faint memory.
I did not. To kill oneself is a sin in the eyes of the Maker.
Anders had scoffed—she had agreed with him, privately—
You believe that?
I try to.
Her breath comes too short, her chest aching for an entirely different reason. She realizes, suddenly, that she is weeping. Fenris—
Some things must be worse than slavery.
The water stills around her, placid and unconcerned, and for the first time since she was taken Hawke sees her own face. Her eyes are the same, if watery; her nose is the same, and her mouth still her mouth; and in the center of her forehead, livid red and raised against her skin, lies the Tranquil sun.
Some things are worse than death.
Her reflection shivers with a tear falling from her chin; another follows, and then Hawke drops to her knees under the water until she is hidden from the world, until she can scream out her fury and her pain and her grief in bright clouds of bubbles that burst, silently, into the sky. Some things are worse than death.
Anders was right, she thinks, lost in the emotions she has buried for so long that they do not fit coming out, scraping along her throat in shards of anguish and bitter rage to leave her raw. Anders was right, and some things are worse than death—
I try to.
You believe that?
I try to.
No. Fenris couldn't have known this, couldn't have possibly foreseen the impossibility of having to go back to the camp of her own volition, of willingly surrendering herself back into the hands of the raiders who'd taken her—
If there is a future to be had, I will walk into it gladly at your side.
She stands, suddenly, her eyes wide. Water streams from her body in clear rivulets, tracing down her skin as smoothly as a glass-polished stone.
If there is a future—
There is no future if she is dead.
Some things are worse than death—
If there is a future—
Hawke tips her head back, staring into the brilliant endless sky until the clouds blur and her toes go numb from the cold water. She blinks away the tears, looks down at her fingers, at the four nails missing and the soft pink flesh beneath them, brushes her tongue over the place where her tooth used to be; then she lifts a hand, gently, and touches her fingertips to the scar on her forehead, traces out the shape of it, finds each point where the sun's rays end and her own skin begins.
The wounds are tender. They are also starting to heal.
If there is a future—
It will be so hard to go back. She knows it will, knows too that the Tranquility will bind her tighter when she returns herself to it, when she surrenders to it of her own choice, that it will sink into her heart the way a vine sinks into a stone's crack to crush it. She can only trust that she will be found before it roots, and rescued before she cracks, and that her friends will not abandon her to the unknown masters awaiting her in Cumberland.
Hawke draws in a breath, slow, and deep, and steps from the water of the lake to the shore.
She chooses Fenris.
Sun-burnt and branded, she chooses to live.
She is empty by the time she reaches the camp.
It is something she expects, the slow seeping of that wild joy into the silence of Tranquility; still, each step back towards the camp seems to kill something inside her, dimming an already-weak flame into sparks—and then an ember—and then nothing. Hawke combs through her hair with her fingers before pulling it back into the low, utilitarian tail at the base of her neck, swallows her day's allotment of the mind-numbing spindleweed fog, slings the burlap sack of washed dishes over her shoulder without a sound. The sun is setting to her right, throwing long, spidery shadows across the pine needles at her feet and washing the tree trunks gold with the day's last hour of light.
Teeth meets her at the edge of the camp, his eyes pulled tight with worry that does not much ease when he sees her approach. "There you are," he says, his voice naked with relief, and curls his hands around her shoulders as if he would like to embrace her. "You were gone so long I started to worry."
"There were a lot of dishes to wash," she says, and waits patiently until he removes his hands and allows her to pass.
He follows her to the unlit ashes of the fire pit, where she kneels and begins pulling the wooden bowls and spoons from the sack to dry. "Your hair looks nice."
Her hair is still dripping wet and plastered to her neck. She says, "Thank you."
"Did you have a nice swim?"
"It was serviceable."
"I bet the water was cold."
"It was," Hawke says.
"Arden said like as not you'd drown yourself rather than come back."
"I considered it."
"I told him—what?"
Hawke glances up at his tone, her hands not stopping as they reach, over and over, into the sack. "I said that I considered it."
"I heard you," he almost snaps; then with a quick glance at the uninterested raiders around them, he pulls her to her feet and tugs her to the shadow of a dark-wooded pine. Hawke finds herself pinned against it, his palms pressed to the bark on either side of her head, his mouth so close she can feel each puff of air as he speaks. "Why would you do something like that?"
The fog is so thick in her head, the taste of spindleweed sharp and pungent on her tongue. "I thought that perhaps death would be preferable."
"How could you—how could you think something like that? Haven't I been kind to you?" One of his hands lifts from the tree, brushes across her forehead, drops gently to the tips of her fingers where the white bandages once were. "Haven't I shown I care?"
"Yes," says Hawke. "Thank you."
His blue eyes darken; his pale brows draw downward in irritation. "Is that all you have to say to me?"
There is nothing in her to care. She says, tiredly, "What would you like me to say?"
"You could start with my name."
"I do not know it."
His hand slides over her mouth before she can finish, his palm rough and callused and cold. "I heard you," he says, and in his voice she hears the rumble of dark thunder before the storm. "You know, the first time I saw you in Lowtown I knew you were going to be trouble for me."
"I do not mean to cause any trouble," she says through his fingers.
Teeth drops his forehead against hers with a quiet, bitter laugh. His wavy blonde hair tickles across the brand. "You were singing a different tune when we met."
"I was not Tranquil then."
He flinches away as if her words have burned him, as if he is the one more wounded by her scars; then his eyes grow hard and the hand over her mouth slides away, shifts its grip until he holds her jaw firmly in place. "My name is Thom," he says, and he kisses her.
She does not even have surprise left.
His mouth is cool, cool as rain and hard as a winter wind. His kiss gives nothing and takes all, drawing out of her even her breath as if he does not realize she is already empty. His grip on her chin stays strong, holding her still under him; Hawke neither pulls away nor encourages him, unmoved as a stone, and when he makes a small distressed noise and drives his tongue between her lips, she does not resist.
She wonders, staring off into the trees behind Teeth's left ear, how far she will allow him to go.
His head dips to her throat, and a moment later she feels those white, white teeth sink into the tender flesh of her neck. It hurts and she makes a noise of pain, but he is unconcerned and too insistent, and a moment later she feels the dead pressure of his teeth again. She loses count, in the end, of the marks he leaves on her skin; she only knows, when his other hand leaves the bark of the tree to palm the underside of her breast through her shirt, that she has no resistance left at all.
There is still magic under her skin, felt in the distant way of a cool breath from an unseen sea, but the call is weak and her stone-strong wall is thick, made thicker by her decision to yield to it completely, and she neither hears the Fade's song nor answers it. The wild freedom is gone with her heart; the lake is a distant thought, a dream seen through the lens of someone else's memory.
Teeth drifts back up to her mouth, dropping kisses on the angry wounds of his bites; he seals his mouth over hers, hard, and then whispers, "Say my name."
Hawke says, impassively, "Thom."
"Say it like you want me."
"Thom," she says again, as inexpressive as the first, and the dark storm breaks in his eyes.
His hand clenches hard around her breast, his fingers sharp and bruising through the fabric of her shirt and her smalls. She cries out in unexpected pain and he closes her mouth off with his own, muscling his lanky frame forward until she is solidly pinned against the tree. His breath is hot and sour from too few days with clean water; the hand around her jaw squeezes, once, then drags broad and rough down her neck, her chest, her stomach—and then his fingers slide under the waistband of her trousers and she lets a small, unsurprised sigh float free.
She must be truly Tranquil, she thinks. How else could her heart still beat so steady in her chest?
His fingers slip further downward, brushing against her smalls but not her skin—not yet. His lips are coarse on hers and his shoulders working in both anger and arousal, his breath coming too-quick and stilted, but just as he drops his other hand to tug at the laces of her trousers his eyes go wide and he gasps—
—and an enormous hand plucks him from the earth.
Hawke glances up at the giant, stepping away from the tree as she straightens her shirt and reties the laces at her waist. She cannot even blush.
"Carn said hands off," the giant says, his cracked voice a low and rippling roll of strength.
Teeth dangles red-faced from the giant's extended hand, his feet a clear six inches from the forest floor. "Shut up," he snaps, gasping for breath. "Shut up. Put me down right fucking now or I swear I'll cut you to pieces."
The giant looks at Teeth a moment, and then at Hawke, and then he turns and places him on the ground again with a none-too-gentle shove back towards the camp. Teeth lets out a muffled, vicious curse that startles a bird from the tree overhead, but he goes, and he does not look back.
The giant glances down at Hawke. "Are you hurt?"
"No," she says.
"There are bites on your neck."
Hawke lifts her hand to touch one, finds it sore. "They will heal quickly. I am not seriously wounded."
"Buyers don't like marked merchandise," he says with an opaque glance at her forehead, and then the giant turns and walks off into the woods to rejoin the other hunters. The sun is setting ahead of him, just low enough to throw his back into black shadow, and fingers of gold light spill around his edges to pool at Hawke's feet.
She watches him until he disappears into the trees. Then she pushes away from the pine and moves to kneel beside the growing campfire, across from the still and silent figure of Teeth, who says nothing, who will not even lift his eyes to hers as she reaches, again, into the sack for the drying dishes.
She cannot get warm.