The Mage Underground is tearing itself to pieces, and Hawke manages to get himself involved.
Back to Justice in Surrender: Contents
Tobias spent much of the rest of the day on errands in Hightown. Slow progress was inching away with the estate; Varric’s guildmate, Bodahn, had proven to be quite the astute manager, and had already employed stonemasons and carpenters to get the building’s infrastructure habitable. They were making enough inroads that, Tobias had been assured, it would be possible to begin plastering and painting soon after Wintersend, if the weather was dry.
Oh, good. How thrilling.
Naturally, Leandra had been ordering trade catalogues from dozens of merchants. She had grand plans for furnishing the place—bringing everything back to the way it had been when she was a girl—and he felt consumed with apprehension at the mere thought. At least, he told himself, paying for it wasn’t such a pressing worry. With the haul from the Bone Pit, and Hubert’s generous contributions, he could afford for her to have all the fabric swatches and flowery, sycophantic letters from commission-seeking Orlesian cabinet-makers that she wanted.
He just had to try not to think about how much more good the money might have done elsewhere.
There wasn’t much going on in town. Tobias kept his ears open, like he always did, and he found a few familiar faces in his travels. Eline Rennick—‘Elegant’, as she’d been known when she used to work the Lowtown bazaar, because most doxies who hawked two-bit potions and snake oils didn’t wear silk petticoats while they did it—had made a good marriage. Freed from the drudgery of work by snaring herself some middle-aged merchant, she enjoyed spending her afternoons swanking around the courtyards and promenades in her best new dresses, offending the city’s great and good with her broad Kirkwall vowels, and her low-cut bodices.
She seemed pleased to see Tobias, anyway, and she was full of gossip. That was one thing you could find just as much of in Hightown as the darkest pits of the slums, he supposed. Elegant—he couldn’t stop calling her that, especially now she was powdered and doused in lavender water, with a blue silk ribbon around her neck and a roll of lace in her hair—had heard rumours about murders. Murders, she said, leaning forward until the pale, trembling flesh of her breasts threatened to spill out of her gown.
Tobias had snorted, because this was Kirkwall. People killed each other over stale bread. Cabals of Tevinter slavers and renegade blood mages riddled the sewers and hidden corners like woodworm in an old trunk. All the same, Elegant said, she’d heard about a woman going missing, and nothing being found of her but a hand. She pouted when Tobias didn’t look impressed, and she couldn’t have known he was thinking about the Bone Pit, and the dead dwarven woman they’d left down there to rot alongside the decomposed, charred corpses of the lyrium smugglers and the least fortunate of Hubert’s workers.
He said his goodbyes, assuring her it was probably only an isolated incident—didn’t the same rumoursmiths say this woman’s husband had likely as not done her in?—and took his leave.
The sun turned thin in the afternoon, and a cold breeze rifled through the air. He wanted to go down to Anders’ clinic, to talk about the lyrium and the stupid things he’d said the night before, which he hadn’t meant and had come out all wrong… but, equally, he didn’t want to arrive at the meeting in the healer’s company. Tobias was, he told himself, irrationally angry with the man, which was easier to admit to than being angry with himself.
He thought about the Rose, and their Antivan brandy, and Jethann’s beautiful eyes and wicked mouth… and it was tempting, but not tempting enough. Besides, Tobias wasn’t sure he could face the thought of the elf having just heard the first stories about the dragon. He’d mug and flounce and paw at Tobias’ arms, tell him how impressive his “weapon” was, and he didn’t want to hear any of that. He still hurt from the fight; everything still hurt, despite Anders’ healing, and everything still smelled just a little bit of the damp shadows at the back of the cave.
So, instead, he went to Varric’s warehouse, secure in the knowledge that his friend wasn’t there—he’d be at the Hanged Man by now, probably, holding court in his suite, so everyone knew where to find him—and glared at anybody who looked like they might be curious as to why he was removing six bottles of lyrium from the crates at the back of storage bay.
The warehouse in which the Underground was meeting wasn’t much like Varric’s. It was a wide, desolate kind of space, dusty and unkempt. That night, Tobias walked around the block twice before he was really sure he had the right place, and that was stupid. He’d been here before, albeit with Anders, and he knew what he was doing… but it just felt so different.
It was dark, cold, and wet. Rain swirled in soft spirals from a vast, gunmetal grey sky, seeping into every crack and ravine between Lowtown’s close-pressed buildings. Tobias wore a hooded cloak to blot out the worst of the chill, but every time he glanced up, he could see the thin whips of rain slicing down through the narrow gaps between the flattened roofs. The alleys were sodden. Finally, the telltale candle appeared in a small upper window of the warehouse building, and he joined a few other dark figures sneaking their way to the meeting. They seemed to melt from the shadows, appearing like ghosts, and no one met his eye as he moved with them to the rough wooden door.
Tobias hung back, waiting his turn, aware of the weight of the lyrium potions he carried in a bag across his chest. The damn stuff had been itching at his senses all evening. He didn’t know whether anyone else could feel it; didn’t know how many of these people were mages or just sympathisers.
Don’t know anything about anybody… never realised how dangerous that is.
That was a lie, he reflected. He knew. He’d always known. And, when he’d come to these things because Anders had asked him to, he hadn’t cared. The notion of danger hadn’t seemed real or important… but it did now.
The warehouse’s door was opened for the two people ahead of him. As Tobias stepped forward, he saw Selby’s dark blue, iron-hard eyes glitter in the darkness. A candle burned faintly within, her outline picked out in amber-hued shadows.
“You got the stuff, then?”
He nodded. “Yeah. Still want me to come in?”
She scoffed, and motioned him inside, stepping back to let him shuffle through the narrow space.
It wasn’t at all like the first meeting he’d been to. There was no fireplace, no small, warm room full of people who all believed in the same thing. Instead, there was a wide, long, draughty space, the darkness punctured by a couple of torches on the far wall, and knots of people clustered beneath them. Tobias headed over, convinced the shadows had a physical presence that he could feel on his skin, and as he entered the flickering pools of light, he made out the first couple of familiar faces.
Elias Creer was immediately recognisable. Tall, broad, and standing with his hands on his hips, a gaggle of acolytes around him, all apparently engaged in some intense, serious debate. He looked up at Tobias’ arrival, and smiled brightly.
“Well, well! Serah Hawke!”
Tobias’ heart plummeted towards his boots as Creer moved to greet him, the acolytes splintering away in his wake.
“Indeed,” Creer went on, as he clapped Tobias enthusiastically on the back and pumped his hand vigorously, “it is a pleasure to see you here in one piece, messere… especially after your recent adventures. The Dragonslayer walks among us, no?”
Tobias winced. “I… wouldn’t say that.”
Creer either didn’t hear him or chose to ignore him, and, still with his hand on Tobias’ shoulder, turned to beam again at his abandoned acolytes. They hadn’t strayed far, of course. Tobias recognised Selene, the blue-eyed elven woman, and a couple of other elves in hoods and loose clothes not entirely unlike the garb the street gangs were wearing these days. He cringed at their scrutiny, and just about managed a polite smile.
“Um… I have something I’d like to talk to you about,” he said, aiming the words for Creer alone. “Did Mistress Selby mention…?”
“Of course.” The theatrical sparkle dropped at once from Creer’s face. “This way.”
He turned from the group, leading Tobias to a corner of the warehouse, then up a small set of steps, to a gantry that—during daylight hours, and when the warehouse was in proper service—no doubt served as a foreman’s post. There was a wooden table, two chairs… a candle lantern. Tobias thought privately that Elias Creer always seemed to get himself the choicest spots.
From up here, they could see across the dark floor below. The torches that had been put up served as little islands of light, and Tobias was able to watch the shadowed figures crossing between them. He wondered at that, for a moment. The way they moved, forging paths through the darkness, travelling with purpose and quiet grace… like a game of chess, or maybe like the allegiances and solidarities that the Fraternities formed within the Circle. Plenty of people here tonight knew something about that, didn’t they? And, for mages both escapee and born free, the politics that came with the Enchanters’ little splinter groups still had far-reaching consequences.
Tobias shivered, despite his cloak. He’d pushed the hood back: no sense hiding. People knew his face, knew his identity… knew what he was. That felt liberating, in a peculiar way, although he was almost sure he could feel Malcolm’s ashes spinning in the ground.
“So, Selby tells me you found some goodies down in the dark,” Creer said, fixing him with an expectant look.
Tobias reached into the bag across his chest and drew out a small bottle, its heavy glass almost humming beneath his touch. He passed it over wordlessly, noting the way Creer didn’t seem to shrink from the lyrium. Was he even a mage? If he was, he was far more adept at hiding his power than anyone Tobias had ever met. He could sense nothing from the man, except the vague kind of unease that Creer always engendered in him. He was like something coiled, ready… a perfectly poised and honed creature full of potential, and his sheer sense of waiting calm unsettled Tobias.
Partly, it made him want to respond on the most basic level, to rear up and lock horns, diving into the most immediate kind of territorial pissings. And, partly, he wanted to slink away, because his father’s voice rang loud in his ears, telling him that no good ever came of attracting attention to yourself… especially when you had something to hide.
“How many?” Creer asked.
Tobias gave him the numbers: how many crates, how many bottles, the likely strength and provenance of the stuff.
“Reckon it might have been smuggled in from a dwarven broker. There was something that looked like an Orzammar stamp on one of the crates, but it was hard to tell. Still, good stuff. I’m planning to keep, say, twelve back for Anders’ clinic. I don’t think he really wants it—he doesn’t use the stuff—but I figure it’s worth keeping in the lock-up for emergencies… as long as no one knows he’s got it.”
Creer nodded slowly, removing the complex little wire cage over the bottle’s stopper, and twisting the cork from its slender neck. A light crackle of power chased Tobias’ skin, raising the hair on his nape. He cleared his throat.
“The, uh… the rest of it, I think you’ll probably get more use out of. It must take a lot of energy to break people out of The Gallows.”
He knew by the way Creer’s dark eyes suddenly centred—as if his attention had been drawn by some aberration on the far wall—that he’d struck a point. Creer sniffed the neck of the bottle and winced, then delicately extended a finger into it, withdrawing it again once the very tip was shimmering wetly.
“That’s true. It does. We… do frequently have need of things like this,” he said carefully, pausing with the taste of the lyrium en route to his lips. “Although many of us would wish that recourse to such powerful magic was not necessary.”
Tobias nodded succinctly, while the memory of how it felt to slam a dragon’s head against solid rock—using only the sheer, brutal force of his own mana—tore in vivid flashes through his muscles. He still ached, still burned with the after-effects of that battle.
Does it feel the same when it’s templars?
He blinked, wishing he could push the thoughts away. He’d used magic in fights before; smashed bandits into rocks, blinded mercenaries with well-placed arcane bolts, even tossed out the odd fireball to even up the odds. There had been the business with the demon and Lady Harimann, and that whole thing with the Dalish… and, Maker, it wasn’t like he hadn’t killed templars before.
That night at the chantry came rushing back then—the recollection of how badly Anders had wanted to save his friend, and the strength of his horror when he saw what Karl had become.
And what he did to the templars who found us there….
Tobias struggled to keep his face blank as he recalled the screams that came from metal mouths, and the terrible, obliterating swirl of Anders’—Justice’s—rage. So much blood. Metal, and blood, and the smell of burnt copper in the air. And yet… there hadn’t been a choice, had there? If they hadn’t done what they had, the templars would have killed them, or thrown them in The Gallows, and— well, it was no choice at all.
It’s necessary. It shouldn’t be, but it is.
“I understand that,” he said quietly, watching Creer put his finger to his lips.
He felt it then: that small, silent shudder of power, like a bright, coiled snake. It whispered mage, and more than that… a vast ache of magic seemed to tug at the air, rippling beneath unseen bonds.
Creer licked his lips slowly, his eyes growing briefly unfocused. Tobias blinked again, uncomfortably. The Rivaini was a damnably good-looking man, but it was more than that. It was something to do with the way the air itself stiffened between them; the ebb and the pull of magic, and the dark places inside Tobias that it touched.
So. You are a mage after all… but what kind are you?
It wasn’t the killing, he realised, as he watched Creer recork the bottle. Death had ceased to shock him a long time ago. No… not the killing. That was a hazard of life—of this life. The thing was, there was a difference between what he and Anders had done at the chantry—what he’d done to so many countless mercs and thugs—and what happened when the Underground purposely tried to break someone out. It was the difference between collateral and intentional damage, killing because you had to and killing because you believed the bastards deserved to die.
It’s the difference between being a crook and an assassin. A murderer.
I’ve made my peace with one… I don’t know if I want to find it with the other.
“Well,” Creer said, raising his brows. “It’s a fine gift, Hawke. You’re sure you want to give it?”
Tobias nodded with barely a breath of hesitation. “Yeah. It’s… important. The Gallows, I mean. Getting people out. You are still doing those runs, aren’t you?”
“Now and then,” Creer admitted. “Not as often as we were. It has become too dangerous. Meredith doubled the guard on the prison, so every run is a gauntlet, much worse than it was when we started. Even with enough lyrium to fuel a full frontal attack on the place, we would lose more than we’d gain, and it is… concerning… to consider the punishments that those we left behind would face.”
Tobias frowned. The other man’s candour surprised him, though he appreciated it. However, what good was everything he was handing to the Underground if it didn’t set mages free? He’d turned over hundreds of sovereigns to pay for forged papers, supplies, and safe passage for runaways—how in the Maker’s name could Creer possibly justify abandoning all of that work?
“Yes,” he began, “but… I mean, you can’t just leave people in there. Especially when they’re so vulnerable. If you have the means to get them out—”
Creer smiled slowly, the torchlight glimmering on his cheekbones. “Ah. I do believe I detect a hint of our friend Anders in your words, messere. Of course. I understand you two are… close.”
There was nothing awkward in the way he said it; just the briefest of hitches before the word. Tobias didn’t even know why he found himself scowling defensively.
“Well, I happen to think he’s right. It could be any one of us that gets put in that place. If Meredith had you chained up down there, wouldn’t you pray for rescue?”
Creer set the lyrium potion down on the little wooden table. The glass clinked against its rough surface, and Tobias felt its hum against his skin. He twitched his fingers irritably as Creer shrugged.
“Indeed. However, you must realise that, sometimes, there is nothing we can do. All that remains for those we are too late to help is an end to the pain.”
Karl’s crumpled body flashed through Tobias’ mind: that, and the whirl of feathered pauldrons and blood-spattered bitterness that had been Anders, running into the night.
“That,” Creer continued, catching his gaze with a hard, intense stare, “is the bitter edge of our quandary. It is no longer enough to save one mage, five mages… it is no longer about individuals, Hawke. We have to ask ourselves, what will it take until they see that incarceration is not the answer? Not the rescue of a few. The only thing that can prove how useless locking mages away truly is, is to show them how flimsy their so-called ‘security’ measures really are.”
Tobias baulked at the utter conviction in the Rivaini’s face, and gritted his teeth. “I’m pretty sure the people desperate to be broken out of that shithole wouldn’t see it like that.”
Creer merely shrugged again. “And if we all die trying? No one has won anything. No… there is a war coming, Hawke. Make no mistake. But,” he said, smiling suddenly, and yet with a tired, resigned sort of look, “your generosity will help many people. We will speak again before you leave; I’ll arrange the collection of the goods, and we will see you rewarded, in some form. You… you are repairing and furnishing your family’s estate, yes?” He waved a hand dismissively as Tobias opened his mouth to protest. “You will need a carpenter, an upholsterer… we have a surprising number of guildsmen in our ranks, you know. And Master Temmen can, no doubt, fix you up with almost anything at less than two-thirds of market price.”
“That’s really not—”
“Nonsense,” Creer said, still smiling as he rose from the table. “We look after our own, Hawke. We always do. Now, I believe we are keeping people waiting. Come!”
And, with that, he was heading back down towards the main floor, the lyrium potion swiftly swept up and tucked into his pocket.
Tobias sloped back down the steps after him, not entirely sure why it felt as if the deal he’d just done was dirtier than anything Athenril had ever paid him for. He flinched at the feel of Creer’s hand slapping him heartily on the shoulder.
“And look!” He smiled warmly, gesturing across the torchlit warehouse floor. “No sooner spoken of than he appears! The wolf in the fable. Anders… it’s good to see you.”
The healer glanced up, caught in one of those pools of warm light, halfway through the act of running a palm over his hair to wipe away the rain.
Tobias winced. Stupid of him, of course. He’d known how likely it was that Anders would be here tonight, how probable that he’d have to find some way of acknowledging his attendance without admitting that he’d gone behind his back, but… he hadn’t been prepared for the weary, dry look on his friend’s face.
“Elias.” Anders nodded to Creer. “Hawke,” he added, the word curiously devoid of inflection, and accompanied by an odd, faintly suspicious look in those dark, guarded eyes. “I see you’ve had a lot to talk about. I’ve just been having a word with Selby.”
Creer squeezed Tobias’ shoulder—an uncomfortably proprietary sort of grip, coupled with a broad, bright smile—and nodded enthusiastically.
“Yes? Good. Isn’t it grand? You brought a true helpmeet to us here, Anders, you really did. Now, if you’ll excuse me a moment….”
And, with that, he moved away into another knot of people, slicing a path through the dispersed little groups; the islands of allegiances and alliances that Tobias had noticed before. He didn’t notice them now. He was watching the echoes of disapproval, concern, and suspicion dance behind Anders’ impassive expression. To anyone who didn’t know him, the only real hint of his discomfort was the tight line of his mouth, and that could have been attributed simply to tiredness. He did look tired. Fuck it, he always looked tired, and Tobias was noticing that more and more these days. Every time they met, it niggled away at the inside of his chest… how tired Anders looked, as if defeat was edging in on him, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Nothing he’ll let anyone do about it, more like.
There was a lot Tobias wanted to say, but he didn’t have the words for it, and it wasn’t the time or the place and, anyway, he wasn’t sure Anders wanted to hear it. They got by like this, on not talking about anything, but the fiction was getting so much bloody harder to maintain.
“I, uh… y’know,” he said, gesturing uselessly at Creer’s retreating back. “Few bottles for you, in the clinic, and the rest for—”
“I don’t use them.”
“—well, no, but… just in case.”
“Oh.” Anders crossed his arms, the tatty pauldrons of his coat rustling like a threadbare bird. He glanced after Creer. “Did Elias say anything about The Gallows?”
Tobias bit the inside of his lip, unsure whether anything he said would be perceived as taking sides.
“He, er, he said it’s harder to get in there now. I figured the lyrium potions might help.”
Anders nodded slowly, but he didn’t look as if he agreed. “Yes. Maybe.”
“Well, I thought—”
The healer nodded absently, like he wasn’t really listening, and that was hard to bear. “Hmph. He doesn’t think we should still be doing those runs. You know, they say the templars have closed off one of the tunnels. There’s still other ways in, but… what I can’t work out is how they knew. We’ve always been so careful.”
Tobias groped for something to say, and ended up with a strangled, non-committal sort of noise. “Uh-huh?”
Anders looked wearily at him. His eyes were ringed with dark circles, the skin there blooming to greasy, bruised hues with what was either lack of sleep, or the pressure of Justice… or maybe both.
If he was about to say something, he thought better of it, and glanced over to where Creer and a handful of the others were beginning to pass around cups of the cheap, bitter wine that usually marked the meeting’s official beginning of business.
Anders turned wordlessly and made his way across the warehouse’s dim floor, his boots scuffing on the dusty boards. Tobias followed, watching the reflections of the torchlight on his dirty blond hair, and trying to isolate the smell of soot and elfroot against the gloom. It was harder to do, he realized. Anders was no longer islanded in his mind, no longer separate from all this, from these people… from the chaos building under the city’s grim exterior.
Maybe that’s why I’m frightened for him. Is that what this is?
He didn’t have time to contemplate it further. He could hear Creer’s voice—the words ‘dragon’ and ‘glorious’ were being put far closer together than Tobias would have liked—and, sure enough, people had started looking at him.
He smiled weakly, and shot Anders an embarrassed glance, only to find the healer smirking at him with an odd mix of derisory amusement and pride on his face.
“…our very own slayers of mythic monsters!” Creer finished, grinning widely.
Tobias accepted the small cup being pushed into his hand by an elven woman with large, amber eyes, and did his best to ignore the tittering and curious stares. He recognised some of these people—a few merchants, a very minor clerk from the Keep, and one of Aveline’s guardsmen—but plenty of the others were strangers to him.
“It really wasn’t that dramatic,” Anders said quietly, as Tobias noted the space that had been left around both of them: a small ebbing in the flow of people. “It was… messy, more than anything.”
“And loud,” Tobias added, with a small smile as he glanced at his friend, remembering the way those torrents of power had coursed around him, the sheer volume and strength of his magic enough to stifle the air itself. “It was loud, too.”
Creer laughed, and turned the full wattage of his smile on Tobias. “You know how The Bone Pit got its name, surely?”
Behind him, Mistress Selby was making the rounds with the rest of the cups, and a flask of wine. She wasn’t the most cheerful looking woman at the best of times but, at that moment, she might as well have been sucking a lemon.
Tobias wrinkled his nose, recalling Fenris’ words. “They, uh, they used to throw slaves off the minehead in the old days, didn’t they?”
Creer smiled; a thin crescent of triumph. “It was called the Maharian Quarry then. The old Tevinter overseer used to cause slaves to be lined up over the pit, then have each of them push the one ahead over the edge.” He held up his hands, miming a gentle shove forwards. “An inventive cruelty, don’t you think? Quite horrible. They say the man kept a pack of dragonlings, and they would tear the poor unfortunates apart before they hit the ground. Of course, the creatures were meant to have been killed off after the Imperium pulled back… but, I suppose, that beast you did away with might have been a lone survivor. Hidden away, growing fat on lazy smugglers, until our heroes made an appearance.”
He laughed, looking around the group until a few other reluctant chortles were drawn from people. Tobias wished they wouldn’t join in.
“Well,” he said awkwardly, “the dragons are back, aren’t they? Been seen from the Frostbacks to Orlais now, so who knows? It’s a whole new age. Not as extinct as anyone thought.”
Creer’s smile lingered, growing hard at the edges. “No,” he said. “Of course, there is such an advantage in having an enemy believe you are dead.”
His gaze moved slowly from Tobias to Anders, his eyes cloaked with a strange, almost predatory expression. Tobias felt the hairs on the back of his neck begin to rise, caught between an instant, stupid impulse of protective anger, and curiosity at the way Anders merely cleared his throat and, for some reason, looked chastened and embarrassed.
Selby appeared at Creer’s shoulder then, pouring wine and looking stone-faced. That her dour expression was enough to prick the atmosphere that had been forming between the three men said something significant, and Tobias suppressed a shudder, watching with concern as Anders moved away, going to lean against a wooden pillar nearby. Creer just smiled to himself.
Selby went through the same grim intonation that marked the beginning of every meeting—the memorial to the dead, and the vow to fight for the living—and, for the first time, the words turned Tobias cold inside. He’d never really understood it before, he realized. Not truly. Oh, he’d thought he had… but he’d been wrong.
This wasn’t about disorganised disobedience. It wasn’t about getting people away, or even just being angry at the way mages were treated, and complaining in dark corners.
What was happening here was conscious, deliberate planning; plotting against more than just Meredith, or the iron fist with which she ruled the city.
Creer was right. This was about a coming war.
Tobias stayed quiet for most of the meeting, but he learned a lot. The people who spoke the most were the usual suspects: Temmen, the merchant, and Gethyn, the sharp-faced little firebrand with the attitude problem; Selene, from the alienage, and a handful of other regular conspirators.
I recognise them, and I know what they’re going to say before they say it—because they’re always saying the same damn thing—but does that mean I’m one of them now? It doesn’t feel like it. What do they even see when they look at me? The gullible idiot with the money and the guilt complex? Huh… wouldn’t be surprised….
The blond man whom Tobias had met at the first gathering he’d ever been to—Luc, with the Orlesian accent and the dark tidings from across the border—had been killed somewhere near Ostwick. That was one of the first pieces of news. Something to do with information being passed to templars, or part of the Templar Order: The Seekers. Rumours were running thick, and apparently none of the escapees he’d been accompanying had got away. It was unclear if they’d been taken back to the Circle, or summarily executed; maybe there wasn’t a difference between the two.
Beyond that, as ever, there was politics. Something about elections prior to the rebuilding of the Fereldan Circle, and the suggestion that its new council of Enchanters would be mostly Orlesian, given the foothold Orlais—and its Grey Wardens—had in the country now. A few people cast sidelong looks at Tobias when this was mentioned. He said nothing. What did he know about Fereldan’s Circle, anyway? Something had happened there during the Blight: blood mages, or demons, or something. The entire place had been torched, so people said. The Grey Wardens might or might not have had something to do with it but, of course, if you believed the bards, the Grey Wardens had something to do with everything. In the past few years, there had been a concerted effort to make the Wardens into Fereldan folk heroes—the Bastard Prince and the brave, beautiful daughter of Teyrn Cousland, fighting alone against impossible odds—but, in Tobias’ opinion, the whole bloody lot sounded fishy.
He’d never seen any of it firsthand. Carv had talked a bit about Ostagar. Not much, because they’d fought over him going in the first place—why in the name of Andraste’s arse d’you want to join the army, you stupid prick?—and then the whole thing had gone so completely tits-up after the king’s forces were routed, but he’d come back with battle wounds, and that stupid tattoo, and the gleam of triumph in his eyes, like he’d proved something to himself in the middle of the blood and chaos. Not long after that—barely long enough to get Carv patched up and calm their mother away from an imminent apoplexy—the hellishness of the whole thing had become apparent, and darkspawn started streaming up the valley and… well, after that, they ran.
There hadn’t been the time to take the scenic route, and Tobias had only caught up with the stories once they were already halfway to legends. The Bastard Prince—if that’s what he had indeed been—disappeared; some said executed by Queen Anora. The fabulous Lady Cousland, whose beauty and glory the bards just wouldn’t shut up about, had died in the final battle against the archdemon, and Teyrn Loghain along with her. There was a statue to him in Denerim, apparently. Tobias wondered what the Hero of River Dane would have made of the influence all the Orlesian Grey Wardens had on the place now.
Funny. There was a war to keep the bastards out, and now they’re back in… but for our protection. Allegedly.
Of course, the ins and outs of Fereldan politics didn’t much matter to the mages of Kirkwall and, the Orlesian influence aside, conversation moved swiftly on.
Because no one gives a shit about the dog-lord backwater. No… of course not.
Tobias sipped his wine and listened quietly to the overlapping, proselytising voices. There had been a new appointment in one of the Nevarran Grand Clerics’ seats: a member of the powerful Pentaghast family, several of whom were already high-ranking templars. Somebody made a comment in a dark tone about ‘keeping it in the family’, and someone else spat on the floorboards in disgust.
There was a lot of discussion of whether this made certain movements of mages less safe. Passages across the Marches and across the sea were discussed; some places were worse than others, some more expensive, and everything—just like always—was couched in that secretive, semi-coded language that made it so bloody hard to understand. Tobias swilled his sour wine and wondered, with equal sourness, when someone was going to touch him for a few hundred sovereigns… but nothing seemed to move that way. Even without all the pieces of the puzzle, he could see that they were arguing in circles, and it soon came back down to ideals and politics.
Apparently, the College of Magi in Cumberland had recessed for an indeterminate period, and the Secession of the True Libertarians, as Creer called it, had been labelled an unconstitutional heresy by two of the Fraternities, and a high-ranking Knight-Commander.
“Just what the Loyalists would have us believe!” Creer fumed, causing the short, fair man with the weatherbeaten complexion—who had just delivered this report from his sources on the coast—to flinch visibly. “It is clear what must come. By ignoring our voices, the Fraternities push us to action! And the templars… if they silence the College, they must know what will happen!”
“The Divine has yet to move on the issue,” said a slender elven mage, wrapped in a heavy woollen cloak. “I’m sure we’ll hear something soon.”
“Aye, and should we live on promises of bread and jam?” Creer pulled a face. “If the Divine was truly against this subjugation, she would have spoken before now. She would have acted against those who have silenced Clairveaux and the other Orlesian sympathisers. No… we cannot assume we have any friends in the Chantry.”
One of the other hooded figures shifted uneasily. “The Grand Cleric’s not that bad. I-In fact, plenty of people in the Kirkwall Chantry—”
“Kirkwall’s just as corrupt as anywhere,” Anders spat, speaking up for the first time since the badgering about safety of escape routes across the Vimmarks. “Probably more so. Meredith’s got the whole thing in her pocket. There might be the odd one or two people on our side, but that’s not enough!”
Tobias sipped his cup of wine, watching that hard, angular face light up with the familiar current of bitter, irritable zeal. Anders seemed to come alive when he was angry; angry at the Chantry, the templars, the poverty, the crime and the disease… angry at the sodding dirt, as if his anger changed anything.
“And the Grand Cleric’s no better,” the healer continued, his voice rising steadily. He was apparently oblivious to Selby raising her hand, as if to put it on his arm, and his wine was sloshing dangerously close to the rim of the cup as he gesticulated. “She does nothing! She’s weak, useless… I don’t know if she’s blind to what the templars are doing, or if she’s part of the corruption. Do you know how many mages they’re making Tranquil? Mages… people who’ve passed their Harrowing. Not apprentices, not apostates. Meredith is using the Rite to silence anyone who disagrees. That is what’s going on in that bloody Tower, and—”
“You’re just sensitive to it,” one of the other hooded figures said: a woman Tobias didn’t recognise, with fair hair, green eyes, and ruddily tanned skin.
“Sensitive?” Anders repeated, outrage quivering in his voice.
Tobias winced as he drained his cup. This did not look like it was going to end well… and would it ever, if the Underground couldn’t progress beyond this sniping, bitching confrontation? He glanced at Creer, expecting to see irritation in the Rivaini’s face, but he seemed oddly placid, as if he had no reason to disapprove of this fragmentation among the ranks.
The woman shrugged. “Well? You was in the Fereldan Tower, right? We all know what happened there. Sometimes, there’s reasons mages get made Tranquil. Rebellions, demons… Maker only knows what they was up to in Ferelden before the Annulment.”
Anders had turned pale—the kind of pale that went hand-in-hand with quiet, deep fury, and the gentle whisper of blue light crackling across his knuckles. Tobias winced again, as did a couple of other mages in the room. The feel of his power shifting was like being hit in the back of the neck by a sock full of wet sand, and it made everything taste of copper.
“I wasn’t there then,” he said stiffly. “I don’t know. Yes, all right, sometimes it’s used to stop demons, or after a rebellion—maybe they’ve done it in Starkhaven, I don’t know. But what they’re doing here—what that bitch is doing—it’s wrong! It’s not about magic. It’s about politics. Power. It’s about Meredith grinding us all down. It’s about people like Alrik—”
The name was unfamiliar to Tobias, but it had a visceral effect on the room. Faces were pulled, words were murmured… and Anders raised his voice, determined to continue his rant despite it, and despite Selby now firmly taking hold of his sleeve.
“Anders—” she began calmly, before he shook her touch away.
“Have any of you even been to The Gallows? Have you stood in that bloody courtyard and just looked? There’s more of them every day! I’ve been watching and every single day there are new Tranquil, selling their bloody wares! They’re good mages, too. People I know passed their Harrowing. People who’ve done nothing wrong but voice their opinions. Libertarians, even broad Aequitarians—that’s what they’re doing to them. And don’t you dare tell me I’m just sensitive to it! Every single bloody one of us should be sensitive to it!”
Energy practically crackled off him. The torches guttered, and people shuffled their feet. The fair-haired woman shrugged, her mouth pursed into a tight line.
“He’s got a point,” snapped Gethyn, who had been uncharacteristically quiet for most of the meeting, except for chiming in with the odd muttered assertion. “We ain’t talked about The Gallows half enough. What about Leorah, Willen, Edda… all those people? We going to leave them there?”
There was more foot-shuffling, and more faces were turned away. Tobias watched Anders take a drink from his cup, his hand trembling, and then grimace as he struggled to swallow. He looked pale, sweaty… frightened. Gethyn glared at the gathered figures, his narrow, dark eyes blazing in the torchlight.
“Well?” he demanded. “What are we gonna go? Are we leaving ’em there? Is that how we do things now? Wring our hands and shout about how awful it is, what the Divine isn’t doing in Orlais, or how we think the Fereldans are getting done over… only to do nothing in our own back yard?”
Elias Creer had remained quiet for much of the exchanges, only speaking to pinpoint questions or underscore facts; absorbing the information as it was relayed from various sources with terse nods of his head or twitches of his lips. Now, he met Gethyn’s gaze firmly, his deep voice rolling over the group with a smooth, authoritative weight.
“It’s going to be harder than it ever has been to get anyone out. We can’t use the same way, and there’s a good chance the templars will be expecting it. If—”
“There’s Smuggler’s Cut,” Gethyn said, working his hands together anxiously. “There’s other ways. And so what? They can’t keep double watch every night. Not forever. We’ve waited long enough since last time, haven’t we?”
“We all know it’s hard to wait,” Creer began, casting his gaze around the group, garnering sympathy from the others. “But—”
“What if Anders is right about that sick bastard, though, eh?”
Tobias lowered his cup and glanced at his friend. The healer still looked pallid, but impassive now, as if his mind was elsewhere. On hearing his name, he blinked, and for a moment he seemed so vulnerable, as if he was at the mercy of some unpleasant memory. Brief flickers of expressions played across his face, then slid away beneath a tight-wound mask of concentration.
“We need to know,” he said stiffly. “Whether I am or not, we need to know. If what Alrik’s doing can be proved… if there’s any shred of evidence, we’ll have something to take them down with.”
Tobias frowned, his curiosity only heightened by the way that almost every other person in the room appeared to be pretending that they were at another, totally unconnected, meeting. He half-expected some of those still wearing their hoods to start whistling nonchalantly as well as avoiding eye contact.
Who the fuck is Alrik, and why does he make people so nervous?
His interest was matched by a dull kind of resentment simmering within him—because, of course, it wasn’t as if Anders would have told him about any of this, was it? Not as if he was worth confiding in, or being told half as much as the strangers of the Underground—but, Tobias decided, this was definitely something worth pursuing. His pulse quickened as Creer sighed wearily and shook his head.
“I cannot conscience asking anyone to do this thing,” Creer said solemnly, hands on his hips as he gazed at the grubby floorboards. “It could be suicide. Of course we want to spare our friends from suffering, but dare we risk everything we have worked for?”
“I don’t believe it, anyway,” said Selby, averting her gaze as Anders gave her a look of heartbroken betrayal. She shrugged. “I’m sorry, Anders. I don’t. Every mage? No. It don’t make sense. I think Alrik’s a sadistic shit, yes… there’s rotten eggs in every barrel. But I don’t believe every templar is like him, or that even the Knight-Commander would sanction a plot like that. It’d raise too many questions.”
“You’ve seen it happen,” Anders protested. “You’re seeing it now! All those people…! And what he did to—”
“I know,” she said quickly, shaking her head. “I know. But… it’s dangerous.”
Gethyn scoffed loudly. “So what? Being a bleedin’ mage is dangerous all by itself, and how many of us asked for that? I say we do it. I’ll go. Who else?”
“Me,” Anders said, not missing a beat, though he was still looking at Selby, reproach staining his face.
Creer sighed again. “I cannot stop you, gentlemen, I know, but I can certainly suggest—”
“I will,” Tobias said, hearing the words as if his voice was coming from some semi-distant, echoing chamber. “I’ll go. Into The Gallows, right? That’s exactly what I wanted… doing something real to help.”
Gethyn scowled at him. “It’s not a bloody parade.”
Tobias lofted an eyebrow, readying a sarcastic response, but Anders cut in before he even had his mouth open.
“Shut up,” he muttered and, for a moment, Tobias wasn’t sure whether the healer was talking to him or Gethyn. Anders glanced at him, frowning deeply, his face a hard-edged curve of indecision and suspicion. “Hawke….”
The word was a whisper, a soft, tenuous thing that cut into Tobias like a knife. Dark eyes met his, full of wariness and concern, and he wanted to take hold of Anders by his tattered, feathery shoulders and shake the stupid right out of him.
Don’t you dare try to tell me I can’t do this. I’m as much a mage as you—as any of these people. This is my fight. My decision. And it’s not about you.
Maker’s cock, what have I just said I’ll do?
An elven woman—the one with the huge amber eyes, who’d passed the wine around earlier—weighed in at that point, fixing Tobias with a pale stare that was oddly unsettling. Her eyes were hard and flat as coppers, the rest of her face impassive but for a mouth drawn up like a tight bow, and he couldn’t help thinking of Jethann’s hypnotic gaze. They were odd like that, elves: those beautiful eyes, and yet you never knew what was going on behind them.
“Is it true, though?” she asked, her words clipped with the briskness of a northerly Marcher accent. “Your brother. He’s one of them, isn’t he?”
Tobias shrugged, though the current of discomfort that moved through the group was palpable.
“Not technically,” he said. There was no point in denying it, obviously, although the distinction didn’t seem to make any difference to this audience. “He’s in training. But he hasn’t ratted me out… that counts for something, doesn’t it?”
The elf snorted, screwing up her face. “You expect us to trust to that? He ought to prove his worth. If you’ve got someone inside, why are we not using that?” She turned to Creer, her eyes widening even further. “Elias? Why haven’t we been making use of this?”
The Rivaini spread his hands, appealing for calm, but Tobias didn’t feel terribly forgiving.
“Because ‘this’ is my brother!” he snapped. “He’s a man, not a resource… and, frankly, Carver’s a bit of a prick. I trust him to keep my back because of our mother. Beyond that… I don’t know what he’d do if they questioned him. As it stands, he’s a recruit. They don’t ask recruits many questions about anything. We… we don’t speak. We don’t see each other,” he added, growing increasingly uncomfortable with airing information that felt much more personal that he’d imagined it would when he started talking. Tobias shoved his thumbs through his belt and shrugged petulantly, scowling at the floorboards. “He knows nothing. I intend it to stay that way.”
Creer nodded, apparently satisfied, and gave the elven woman an encouraging smile. “You see, Bethan? Just as it was said.”
She muttered something under her breath, but Tobias didn’t catch it—or the implications of Creer’s words—through the sudden jarring of memories that her name set off.
Maker… what would she have made of all this? Of me?
He felt a small, brief rush of light-headedness—so stupid, here and now, after so long; it wasn’t as if the memories would ever go completely, but he’d grown used to them being silent ghosts, not roaring in his ears—and it embarrassed him. When he raised his head, still blinking, it seemed like everything had been decided. A few people were giving him odd looks, but Master Temmen was talking about the next safe shipping date—his chin wattle wobbled when he spoke, and his balding pate glimmered greasily in the torchlight—and it seemed as if the meeting was moving on, and drawing to its close.
Tobias found himself caught up in that; caught in the networks of people, and their unspoken bonds and allegiances, and somehow he managed to be kept there, listening to Temmen talking about forged travel dockets (oh, it was important, and yes, of course, he was Hawke-who’d-worked-for-Athenril, so naturally he knew a man in the Port Authority Offices who could be bribed to stamp anything put it front of him), while he watched Creer and Anders move away, up the little staircase to the overseer’s gantry that afforded the only privacy the warehouse had to offer. Tobias couldn’t make out what they were saying, but Anders seemed to be scowling a lot, and Creer had ceased his warm, superficial smiling. Gethyn stood at the bottom of the steps, arms folded, glowering.
Like the world’s shortest, grumpiest guard dog. Liable to piss on people’s ankles before he bites them, I wouldn’t wonder….
The meeting ended with more sombre words and bitter wine, like usual. They dispersed by dribs and drabs: rats scurrying tentatively back out into the streets, each eager to dissociate themselves from the others.
Tobias waited by the warehouse’s doors. It was still raining. Cold, sharp stings of it, pelting down against the hard-packed dirt. The air smelled of frost and ice, and deep, ragged clouds sat across the dark sky like shadows. Few stars, and no moon tonight. The air pinched his cheeks, his breath coiling in spools of white in front of his face as he pulled his cloak around him. His shoulders relaxed as, after another couple of figures passed by, familiar footsteps scuffed against the floor.
“You didn’t need to wait,” Anders said.
Tobias didn’t turn his head. He didn’t really want to see the expression of annoyance that, judging by the tone of his voice, he suspected would be on Anders’ face.
“Nope,” he said instead. “But I thought I would.”
The healer sighed. “I didn’t think you’d be here tonight.”
Tobias kept his gaze fixed on the wall of the building opposite the warehouse. It was an old store of some kind: a small, squat affair with crumbling render and a lop-sided roof. “No,” he said quietly. “You’ve done your best to keep me out of it, haven’t you?”
“I—” Another sigh, followed by the weary scuff of footsteps. “If you can’t see why, Hawke… then you’re blind.”
Tobias smiled mirthlessly. Oh, we both know I am. That much is true. Blind to every last little thing I don’t want to admit I can see. And that works for you, doesn’t it? Oh, yes. It’s all to your benefit, you bastard.
“All right,” he said, glancing over his shoulder. “So I’m getting pally with the guard, the nobility… my brother’s a sodding templar. If they catch me, they’re going to burn me for that alone, and screw the Underground. Anyway, d’you think I’d give anything up?”
Anders stood with his shoulders hunched, still shrouded by the shadows from within the building, caught between the inside and outside—two kinds of darkness, perhaps—with the rain pattering at the cobbles, and the torches being quietly extinguished within. He shook his head sadly.
“You wouldn’t want to. But you don’t know what they do.”
I’d die before I gave you up. You know that….
“Oh? If it’s that bad, who says anyone can be trusted? You, Selby, Gethyn… Creer. Aren’t we all in the same boat?”
Anders gave him a glum look as he stepped out of the doorway, and peered at the rain beyond the warehouse’s covered porch.
“Yes, all right… maybe we are.” He let out a breath that coiled on the air, wreathing his lips with white, and the tired, resigned look on his face said he wasn’t prepared to push the argument any further. “Ugh. It’s wet.”
“And cold,” Tobias offered, by way of a temporary truce. “Walk you back to Darktown?”
Those dark eyes narrowed. “Why?”
He smirked, the corner of his mouth twisting with the temptation of cruelty.
What, are you worried I’ll try and kiss you goodnight? I’ve learned that lesson.
“If I’m going to break into a prison with you,” he said instead, leaning over to make the words a low, conspiratorial stage-whisper, “I want to know what we’re up against.”
Anders winced, but didn’t say anything. They began to move off into the damp, dark alleyway, walking shoulder-to-shoulder, each huddled into his own protection against the weather, and the healer wrinkled his nose.
“The Gallows won’t be the weirdest thing we’ve ever done.”
“Or probably the most illegal,” Tobias added, which did at least raise a small smile. “So…? This isn’t just another run to get some people out, is it? I heard Gethyn mention names. And this templar you spoke of… Alrik?”
That name definitely had power. It made Anders’ jaw twitch, like he was clenching his teeth, and it sent shadows skittering over his eyes. He tucked his chin down into the stiff collar of his coat, the bedraggled feathers sticking up in clumps, and a corona of raindrops clinging to his pulled-back, unwashed hair.
“He’s one of the worst,” Anders muttered, as they crossed an alley lit only by the light thrown back from a lantern hanging outside a cobbler’s shop at the end of the street. Everything was elongated: the shadows, the threads of yellow-orange light… even the pauses in the healer’s words. “Cold-blooded as a lizard.”
Tobias frowned as their footsteps punctuated the silence, each muffled tread on the wet ground shot through with the beat of the rain. It was getting harder, and trying its best to turn to ice. The cold air stung his nostrils, and his eyes had started to water.
“He’s one of those that thinks no mage is safe,” Anders said, scowling at the labyrinth of alleyways and sidestreets ahead of them. They were working through Lowtown’s back cuts; narrow, dark, dangerous streets that he seemed to know like his own palm, and he glared at the shadows, as if daring something to leap from them. “That we’re all just vessels for demons. He’s spoken out before—said that the Harrowing is useless, because our corruption is ‘inevitable’. But, in the last couple of years, he’s gone beyond talking.”
Tobias was following him now, half a step behind, his frown deepening as he assessed the information. Anders cut behind the north end of the slums, and he realised that they weren’t far from the place where there’d been the incident with the qunari gas. It looked like people had started to move back in over the past few weeks, though the damage that had been caused in the fight—and in the ensuing riot, after Lowtown’s denizens had heard about the dead, and started blaming it on mages, elves, and ox-men—was still evident.
“Beyond how? He’s responsible for Harrowed mages being made Tranquil?”
Anders shook his head irritably, glaring straight ahead as they walked, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his coat. “It’s more than that. Alrik’s a sadist. Likes to… experiment. Find out what will push a mage past breaking.” He scoffed bitterly, his breath misting ahead of him. “Of course, if he can do that, it makes the Rite of Tranquillity legitimate. You see? No one could go to the Grand Cleric and say that Meredith is using the Rite to silence anyone who speaks out, because they’ll just tell you that—in the case of a few regrettable malcontents—it was necessary. ‘Drastic measures’. ‘A merciful alternative to execution for crimes they were unable to control’. Hah!”
A stray cat, all damp fur and long, skinny legs, jumped lightly down from a rooftop close by, landing on a couple of broken barrels piled up by the back of the crowded, crooked walls. They both glanced towards the movement, but the cat darted away into the shadows and, as if in response, the half-rain half-hail increased in its intensity for a brief burst, scattering beads of ice against the dirt that turned almost at once to slush. Anders blinked, his face drawn into a tight, pained frown.
“We’ve tried,” he said quietly. “Elias wrote. Selby… so many letters. The Grand Cleric claims neutrality. Impartial. I don’t believe it. She’s either a fool, or she’s as up to her neck in it as the rest of them.”
“I… didn’t know,” Tobias admitted. “That it was—”
“What? So widespread? So organised?” Anders snorted. “Alrik has a plan. There have been rumours about it for months. It’s not enough just silencing the dissenters anymore. There’s too many. The three mages Gethyn spoke of, they’re all Libertarians and—more than that—they’re all Enchanters.”
“Mages who’ve taken on apprentices of their own,” Anders explained impatiently. “I know one of them. Leorah. She was an apprentice at the same time as me, back in Ferelden. Only… while I was running away, she was being a good little mage. Toeing the line. Passed her Harrowing at a very young age, and took her first apprentices early. What Irving used to call ‘an exemplar among his students’. Pompous old—” He stopped short, and shook his head again. “No. It doesn’t matter. She was lucky to escape the Annulment. Left to join the war effort at Ostagar, so she missed the rebellion at the Tower, and ended up here… but, of course, they don’t believe any Fereldan mage is clean. They’ve just been waiting for a chance to trip her up. The other two are Kirkwallers. Moderate Libertarians who spoke out… Edda was one of the ones who raised concerns about Alrik in the first place. And look where it got her.”
The rain slacked off as suddenly as it had worsened, leaving Anders’ bitterness echoing dully around the brickwork. He glanced up, his face pale and sallow in the darkness, and then took a sharp right turn, leading Tobias through a shortcut behind what smelled unpleasantly like a tannery.
“You see why we can’t just leave them there.”
“Yeah.” Tobias quickened his pace, eager to keep up, and eager to ask why Creer was so ready to leave mages to rot… though he doubted it was worth putting those words to Anders. For all his disagreements with the Rivaini, it certainly seemed like there was something complicated going on between them—something that Tobias wasn’t sure he liked the look of. “So… that’s Alrik’s plan? Turn the dissenters Tranquil and make sure all the Enchanters are tame ones, approved by the Chantry instead of the Fraternities?”
Anders stopped suddenly, turning to face him. They were in the lee of the tannery’s bulging rear wall, the yard behind it filled with the foul vapour of the trade—worse even than chokedamp, though possibly not quite as lethal—and it soured the air.
His eyes were shadowed, his face steeped in darkness, and there was a terrible quality of stillness to him in that moment. The night breeze rifled the shoulders of his ratty coat, and though the feathers moved softly, Anders seemed to hold his breath.
“I wish it was just that,” he said quietly, the words escaping through gritted teeth. “It’s not. He won’t stop until he’s neutered every last mage he can. Every mage. People like him… that’s the only way they think we can be allowed to live. Like shells. Husks. No feeling, no dreams….”
His voice sounded hollow, threading through the darkness like a dry whisper. Tobias suppressed a shiver, trying to hide his sudden nervousness behind cynicism.
“Huh… every single mage? That’s… that’s impossible. Think of the paperwork.”
Anders snorted—a small, bitterly dismissive sound—and turned away, moving on again… stalking off with his shoulders hunched, one sharp barb tossed back at Tobias like a discarded bone.
“Of course. I forgot. You think I have delusions of persecution.”
Tobias bit his tongue, and lurched after the healer. Somewhere close by—in another of the tight-shuttered yards—a dog roused itself and started to bark.
“I never said that!” he protested, reaching out to grab Anders’ arm just before they got to the end of the alley. His fingers closed on the rough, damp fabric of that worn-out coat, and the third-hand light from a tenement on the square ahead of them spilled out across the cracked bricks and pavers. “I… I don’t think that.”
He felt Anders tense up. So much tension, all wound into dense, sharp coils inside that lean frame. His head was slightly bowed, but he cast a wary glance at Tobias from beneath his lashes, his face set into that familiar petulant glower, his eyes clouded and his mouth pulled tight.
“They’re working on a deliberate plan to turn every mage in Kirkwall within the next three years,” he said, quietly and bluntly, not quite making eye contact. “Alrik’s at the head of it, but he’s not the only one. It’s his project. His… ‘solution’, he calls it.”
The words puckered with hatred—more hate than Tobias had ever seen Anders reserve for templars, which was saying something. He looked down at his hand, where it rested on the stiff, unyielding elbow of Anders’ coat, and realised how loud his own breathing seemed, and how narrow the alley appeared to have become. Raindrops pattered against their shoulders, and their breath misted on the air as they stood, sharing the same shadows.
Anders nodded. “That’s what people say. People who died getting the information to us.”
Tobias’ fingers slid from his coat, his hand falling uselessly to his side. “Maker….”
It was hard to shake the thoughts that had begun to pummel his brain. Would Carver…? No. It didn’t bear thinking about. All those people….
“It’s not just about getting people out,” Anders said in that same quiet, low tone. “It’s about getting proof. Stopping this. Stopping Alrik. He has to pay. He has to pay for what he’s done, what he wants to do—”
Tobias swallowed heavily, not thinking about his words until they were already out of his mouth. “That sounds like Justice talking.”
“We are the same,” Anders snapped, his voice growing louder with the anger that ran under the words—anger that flared suddenly in those dark eyes, glinting in the half-light. He blinked, his breath coiling white on the air as he exhaled. “I mean, there’s no difference. And it’s my passion for the cause that drives him. I thought you understood that.”
“I do.” Tobias frowned. “And I believe in it… I believe in you, but—”
Anders looked up at him sharply. “I won’t give up this fight, Hawke. You know that. And, sooner or later, everyone is going to have to choose a side.”
That familiar blaze of defiance and ire burned in his face, in his voice, and Tobias’ mouth turned dry. He wished there was moonlight, a cloudless sky… something that would lighten the shadows and let him fall into those dark eyes.
“I thought you knew whose side I was on,” he murmured.
A small crease appeared between Anders’ brows, made as deep as a crevasse by the darkness, but the anger seemed to fade and, very briefly, he seemed lost and unsure.
“Yes,” he said softly, as the cold rain pattered around them. “You’ve made that clear enough.”
Tobias frowned, trying to pierce the dimness and scour his face for any sign of reproach or discomfort.
If you want me to back off, you only ever had to say… but I can’t believe you do. You don’t want that… do you?
The air rippled with the ghosts of their breath, and that familiar, aching tension settled in again around Tobias, knotting his shoulders and his stomach, and making his head feel light.
“I’m… I’m with you,” he said quietly, trying to seek out Anders’ eyes in the dark. “You know that. Not just because you’re my friend. Because we believe in the same things. We want the same things.”
And, Maker, we do, don’t we?
After a moment that stretched out longer than an age, Anders inclined his head.
“I had… hoped… you’d say that.”
Hoped? You didn’t know? How in the name of Andraste’s pimpled arse can you not bloody know?
Tobias bit the inside of his lip, and held his breath. When Anders raised his gaze, he swallowed heavily, and his throat felt tight and thick.
“There isn’t much that’s good about this city,” Anders said softly, his voice plucking insistently at the base of Tobias’ gut, “but you’re one of the few bright lights left. Thank you.”
Tobias felt himself colour, surprised by such a sweet, poetic turn of phrase… and not a little unnerved. He shrugged.
“I do my best. Anyway… I can hardly let you go alone, can I?”
Anders smiled, and it was a small, slightly wry twist of his lips, his face moulded by the shadows as he lowered his gaze again.
“Gethyn’ll be there. Maybe a couple of others.”
“S’not really the point,” Tobias said, breathing in deeply as the mild, green scent of boiled herbs and soot pierced the rain and the mud. “Anyway, it’s important. You’re right.”
A small sound, somewhere between a soft chuckle and a weary sigh, left Anders’ lips. They seemed closer, somehow, and the air seemed to hum just a little as Anders looked up at him, chin slightly lowered and his words quiet, his uncharacteristic reticence shrouded in the gloom. Rainwater shimmered very lightly on his cheeks, and Tobias ached to reach out and wipe the droplets away.
“I’ve always feared being made Tranquil,” Anders said, his voice little more than a whisper. “Now more than ever.”
The words hung between them, brushing Tobias’ face like a lover’s feather-light touch. Of course, he told himself, Anders meant this alleged plot. Whatever it was this Ser Alrik was doing, or…. Only, he could taste every other nuance the words held, every other implication, and they burned in his chest. Anders held his gaze for just a little longer than necessary, and there was such a look in his face, traced through with hunger and hope and frustration.
He felt it too, Tobias knew, was certain, and the idiocy of the whole thing made him want to scream. What was the bloody point in being afraid of losing the ability to feel, if you never acted on your feelings in the first place?
He wet his lips, a prickle of sweat breaking out at the base of his spine and in the hollows of his palms.
“You should go,” Anders said, turning away abruptly, and Tobias noticed for the first time that his hands were clenched into fists, his knuckles standing pale and proud.
Anders cleared his throat awkwardly, and Tobias wanted so badly to protest, but the moment was already gone, nothing throbbing in the air between them except the embarrassment of a missed opportunity.
Maker’s breath… sometimes I think I hate you more than you hate yourself. And yet we still keep doing this, don’t we? We still keep on and on, and this is starting to feel like it’s normal—and it’s not fucking normal… not at all.
“It’s late. I need to get back to the clinic,” Anders continued, apparently addressing the wall behind Tobias’ left shoulder. “Come by tomorrow if you want to know more about Alrik. We’ll make the run in two days’ time. And… thank you. I mean it, Hawke.”
Tobias shook his head. “It’s nothing. We’ve taken down a dragon, right? Don’t see there’s much that can stand in our way.”
Anders gave him a sad, tired, empty look, and smiled weakly. “That’s what Karl used to say… except the bit about the dragon. But Alrik broke him, just the same.”
Oh. Right. Well… fuck. That makes sense.
A plummeting kind of chill tugged at Tobias’ stomach. “Alrik was the one who…?”
“Mm.” Anders nodded. “Let’s just say I’ve seen his work first-hand. I know what he did… what he does to push mages into the arms of demons. The Gallows isn’t just a prison, Hawke. It’s a living hell. There are places the Veil is so thin— well. If you’re very unlucky, you’ll see.”
“Ah?” Tobias watched the grim, introspective look settle on the healer’s face, those tight-clenched hands thrust into the depths of his pockets. “Right.”
He knew there was more he should say. He didn’t want to leave things like this, to make his awkward farewells and traipse back to Gamlen’s place while Anders peeled off back to the tunnels of Darktown with nothing changed and just the darkness of The Gallows to look forward to… but he didn’t have the words for it. He didn’t know how to reaffirm his loyalty, his support—or how to say a single damn thing about Karl.
So, he let Anders push him away with that tightly controlled, crisp ‘goodnight’, and he left the alleyway to walk back across the west side of the slums with the rain seeping into his scalp, and the burn of shame chilled on his cheeks as the night grew ever more bitter.