Tobias prepares to venture beneath The Gallows.
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“Really, Hawke?” Varric raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
Tobias nodded solemnly. “Really.”
They were in the dwarf’s suite. It was mid-morning; thin, cool light fell through the high windows, papers were strewn over the table, and a plate of mystery meat stew was congealing gently on the edge of Varric’s desk. Tobias leaned his hip against the ornately carved wooden table and, arms folded across his chest, fixed his friend with his best expression of imploring charm.
“What? You got something in your eye?”
Tobias pulled a face. “Forget it… Look, will you? That’s all I want to know.”
Varric pushed back in his chair, his breakfast forgotten and his ink-stained shirt dishevelled. No doubt he’d been working late again; a sheaf of papers amid the desk’s clutter was covered in his familiar hand. He rubbed his forehead, and looked up at Tobias with incredulous concern.
“I still don’t quite believe it…. You’re serious? The Gallows? Meredith’s back yard?”
“I know.” Tobias held up his hands. “Look, I know it’s risky.”
“Risky? Hawke, it’s downright suicidal!”
“Which is why I’m asking you.” Tobias broke out his very best shit-eating grin. “Come on, Varric… there aren’t many people I could trust for something like this. Aren’t you with me?”
Out front, Corff was cleaning up. The bar had seen quite a bit of action last night—two stabbings and a punch-up, all told—and it had apparently ended with the guard being called out. Tobias was almost sorry he’d missed it.
The rhythmic sloshing of bucket and mop grew louder as Corff worked his way up the hall, and the movements of a few other patrons who paid for rooms—and were even, in a couple of cases, brave enough to venture out of their lairs for mystery meat stew or fry-up in the mornings—made a muffled kind of backdrop to the suite’s stillness.
Varric drew the silence between them out to the very last strand of ease, his heavy, broad features locked into a serious and contemplative expression; the kind he usually only got when he was trying to find a good synonym for ‘nipple’.
He narrowed his eyes. “This is all Blondie’s fault, isn’t it?”
Oh, shut up, you short-arsed, perspicacious bastard.
“Will you do it?” Tobias repeated, ignoring the question. “Just tell me.”
The dwarf sighed theatrically. “He pulled that moody rebel thing on you, didn’t he? I knew you couldn’t take it.”
“Fine… fine, I’m in. But if I die down there just because you went goo-goo for a tortured scowl and a ponytail—”
“I haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about,” Tobias said briskly.
Somewhere outside the door, Corff began to whistle tunelessly as he sloshed water over the floorboards. Varric raised an eyebrow and leered… something he truly was disturbingly talented at doing. It had to be a natural gift, Tobias decided. A horrible, terrible gift.
“You sure, Hawke? Because the maidenly blushing says otherwise.”
Tobias bridled, wishing he could deny the heat rising in his cheeks. There wasn’t much point in trying, though, so he settled for a dirty grin and a shrug.
“Oh, my dear Varric… this blushing? Not maidenly. Not in the slightest, I’m afraid.”
“Please….” The dwarf held up his hands, nodding to the cherry wood cabinet that sat in pride of place on top of the dresser at the end of the room. “No details. Bianca is very sensitive.”
“I wouldn’t dream of offending her ladylike sensibilities,” Tobias promised, glancing towards the crossbow’s resting place.
She was an amazing piece of machinery—he’d certainly never seen another like her—but it was hard not to find Varric’s anthropomorphizing of his weapon faintly worrying sometimes.
At least she doesn’t sit opposite him for breakfast. He does keep the display case kind of near his bed, but… no. I don’t want to think about it.
“So?” he asked, dragging them back on point.
Varric sighed heavily. “All right. Fine. Who else is playing along with this crazy plan?”
Tobias lifted a hand and scratched idly at the back of his neck. “Well, aside from me and you, there’s Anders… and at least one of the mages from the Underground. Don’t worry,” he added quickly. “They’re trustworthy. Gethyn knows what he’s doing, at least as far as this is concerned, and as long as he doesn’t think you’re going to rat them out, there won’t be any problems.”
The dwarf fixed him with a deadpan stare. “Really? Oh. Goody.”
“C’mon, Varric…. Look, there’s only a handful of people I’d pick for this. It’s a short list.” Tobias winced. “Um… I didn’t mean that like a dwarf joke.”
Varric grinned dryly at Tobias’ scowl, then shook his head wearily, turning to pick up a measure of wine from his desk. He swilled the watery liquid around the inside of the pewter vessel, the thin morning light catching at the red glass stones that studded the cup.
“Well,” he said eventually, wincing as he swallowed, and giving Tobias a critical look, “I guess there’s not too many others you could ask except me. Isabela’s not exactly discreet—unless it suits her—and I suppose you’d rather not have Broody plastering mages to the walls.”
“Hmm.” Another few turns of the cup, and Varric frowned at his wine. “What about Daisy?”
Tobias grimaced. “Blood mage. That… could be awkward.”
“Huh.” The dwarf raised his brows. “And you think every last one of your new friends is squeaky clean?”
That took him aback. Tobias opened his mouth to argue for the integrity of every mage, every sympathiser, and every worn-out face he’d seen in the ill-lit warehouse the night before… but the folly of that soon struck him.
You have a point, Varric. I have to give you that.
Of course, he wasn’t about to actually say so. He shrugged nonchalantly.
“What we’re doing is important.”
“We?” That earned him a smirk; arid humour spreading across his friend’s broad face. “You’ve finally paid your dues, huh?”
Tobias pushed away from the carved table and paced a little way across the suite, irritated by—if he was honest with himself—how true those words might be.
“It’s important,” he repeated stubbornly. “They’re torturing people to death in there. There’s mages—enchanters—incarcerated just because they’ve spoken—”
“—spoken out against Meredith,” Varric continued, rolling his eyes skyward, “something something oppression, something something templars are all nug-loving bastards, something… something something. Am I close?” He rocked back in his chair, still holding his now-emptied cup of wine, and tapping the heavy gold ring on his index finger against the side of it, raising a dull ting sound against the pewter. “Oh, Hawke… don’t pout. I tease because I care. Really.”
The memory of Elias Creer’s face tugged at Tobias’ mind—that, and Gethyn standing guard like a sour hound—and he struggled to dredge up a smile, instead glaring stonily at the dwarf.
“I’m not saying it isn’t dangerous, or stupid. I’m not saying it isn’t a terrible idea, but—”
“But you’re going to do it anyway,” Varric said, sighing as he set his cup back on the desk. “All right, all right…. Fine.”
Varric snorted. “Don’t look so surprised. I said I would. I mean, I don’t agree with what Meredith’s doing. I don’t know if I believe this stuff about turning every mage in the Marches Tranquil, but… yeah. You need me, I’ll tag along. It could be worthwhile.” A light, yet not entirely pleasant smile settled on his lips as he studied Tobias. “Just tell me when and where, and we’ll kick some ass. All right?”
Tobias nodded vigorously. “Thank you. I mean it, Varric… this— Well… thanks.”
He broke off, the words he wanted to say somehow cloying and dying on his tongue. For all their friendship—everything they’d shared over the years, and everything Varric had done for him, whatever the reasons behind it—he suddenly felt too awkward, like trying to voice any of it would choke everything.
He wondered if he should have asked Varric at all… it wasn’t a thing for outsiders, what they were planning to do, but then Tobias couldn’t be sure whether he was still an outsider or not and, anyway, there was more to it.
I don’t want to die. He’s right: taking the templars on in their own house is crazy. Doesn’t matter how many times the Underground’s done it before. Creer probably has a point—it’s too dangerous. Why in the ever-loving fuck did I say I’d do it?
Oh, right. Yeah. I remember.
Outside the suite, the slap and splosh of Corff’s mop continued in its rhythmic motion, and Tobias tried to ignore the sense of foreboding that pulled at him.
It was almost mid-afternoon before Tobias headed down to the clinic to prise some more information out of Anders.
He wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to try. The awkwardness that came with being around the man aside, he was worried it would come off like back-pedalling, like he was having second thoughts about what he’d promised to do, and that wasn’t really accurate. Besides, did he really need to know anything about Alrik other than the fact he was a sadistic shit? The evidence of the mages they intended to free—if they were still there, and hadn’t been summarily executed, made Tranquil, or otherwise disposed of in the meantime—would give the Underground everything necessary to move against him.
All the same, Tobias still went down into the tunnels. He wanted to know more, mostly because he couldn’t quite shake the recollection of the fury and hate in Anders’ voice when he’d said the templar’s name… and because of Karl.
He found the healer cleaning, crouched by the clinic’s doors and sluicing dirty, bloody-looking water out of a large copper. Anders looked up at his approach, and gave him a small, tired smile.
“Need a hand?” Tobias asked by way of greeting.
“You could lift the other side of this,” Anders said, straightening up and nodding to the copper.
Together, they man-handled the pot back through the clinic’s doors and past the rows of pallets, laundry bins, and low rickety tables. Only a few of the bed spaces were occupied—two old women, an elderly man with a hideous, sucking cough, and a younger man lying on his side, motionless beneath the blankets—but a gaggle of walking wounded appeared to be awaiting Anders’ attention.
“No assistants today?” Tobias asked, helping him lift the copper back onto the hook by the hearth.
Anders shook his head. “They’ve gone. Only her. Saryha. Came here yesterday… I think I might have thrown her in at the deep end,” he added ruefully, glancing towards the tall, yet very thin girl who was trying to sort the patients into some kind of order.
She had a long black braid and an anxious expression, and she might as well as have had ‘Circle runaway’ stamped on her forehead.
“Did she come out of The Gallows?” Tobias asked, keeping his voice low.
“No.” Anders shook his head. “From Starkhaven. We interrupted—that is, we caused a caravan to be interrupted. They’ve been transferring mages regularly for months. There’s a lot of tension. It’s possible the Circle there will rebel.”
He spoke quietly, mildly… as if his mind was elsewhere. It might have been, Tobias reflected, and he frowned as he looked at the girl.
“I don’t know.” Anders shrugged. “Ferelden was a one-off, I think. I hope. But… it’s hard to say. The secession has changed a lot of things.”
He patted the side of the copper thoughtfully, as if he’d reminded himself of something important, then he shot Tobias a small smile.
“I know you’ve got things you want to ask. Give me a few minutes?”
“Yeah. Can I…?”
Anders gestured vaguely to the sheets and linen bandages that hung from clotheslines at the back of the clinic, drying in the stale, residual heat from the fires. Tobias nodded resignedly—somehow, he always ended up rolling bandages when he was here—and watched the healer move away from him, readying to get back to work.
He watched Anders while he busied himself with the laundry, too. Watched him work through the patients with bad coughs, sore joints, fevers, poxes, haemorrhoids and all manner of other minor complaints. Winter did seem to bring out the agues, although it was by no means as bad now as it had been in previous years. Just after the Blight hit, when Kirkwall was knee-deep in refugees… that had been the worst of it. Like Anders said, he saw fewer starving children these days. More pregnant women, and more poxed whores, but not quite so many deaths, especially among the very old and the very young. Tobias had said maybe that meant he was really doing some good, but he’d just smiled that distant smile of his that was so obviously a plaster over some burst of hyperbole Justice was trying to spew, and said nothing.
The girl, Saryha, came over at Anders’ instruction and started trying to do something with the pot of herbs steeping on the workbench. The pan was clearly too heavy for her to lift so, done with pulling the bandages off the line and rolling them neatly, Tobias went to help her.
“This is embrium, isn’t it?” he asked, prodding the sloppy green mess with the distinctively sharp smell that they decanted into one of the conical sieves.
She shrugged, her eyes wide. “I don’t know, ser. I’ve never done anything like this before. Only seniors were allowed to use the potions laboratory at the Tower.”
“Ah.” Tobias smiled as kindly as he could. “Well, why don’t you go and get those bandages, just from over there, and I’ll give you a hand with the plaisters.”
She looked grateful for the intervention though, in all honesty, he wasn’t sure he’d helped much. The poultices they made up together were wet, greasy, and rather lop-sided and, when Anders called her over with two to apply to an old man’s scrawny chest, he looked like he was either going to shout at her or burst out laughing. He settled on a weary shake of his head and a glance across the clinic at Tobias, who shrugged innocently.
Well? What am I supposed to do? I’m no expert. Last healing spell I tried almost set the floor on fire.
Later, when the walking wounded had been dispatched and the overnight patients made comfortable, Anders brewed a pot of tea—it turned out Saryha wasn’t even sure how to do that—and lowered himself wearily into one of the chairs that sat around a small table at the back of the clinic, near the workbench and the banked-down fires.
“What’s in this?” Tobias asked, lifting his cup to his lips and sniffing it curiously.
Anders had stretched his legs out, his slouchy boots crossed at the ankles and his body low in the narrow wooden chair, like someone had just crumpled him up and left him propped, discarded there. By contrast, Saryha sat neatly, her posture stiff and her hands curled around her tea, though she still looked like she needed permission to drink it.
“Dogweed, mostly,” Anders said, his voice thickening a little with fatigue. “Little bit of mint. Some pulmonaria. Good for the chest and the digestion. Doesn’t taste bad. Bit like goldenrod.”
Tobias took an experimental sip. It certainly tasted better than the clinic usually smelled… although that wasn’t saying much.
Over in the corner, one of the elderly women was trying to attract attention without actually raising her voice, clicking her fingers and clearing her throat. Anders glanced in her direction, a look of pure oh-for-the-love-of-Andraste-what-now skimming fleetingly across his face before he nodded at Saryha.
“Bedpan,” he muttered shortly. “I’m sure she’d prefer it was you instead of me. Over there. Cloths on the right. Check her sores while you’re at it, would you? Thanks.”
The girl looked horrified, but she rose clumsily to her feet, muttering her acquiescence and facing the full terror of the task ahead of her with, Tobias thought, considerable bravery for someone who’d never been out of the Circle in her life.
“Bossy,” he chided gently, smirking at Anders as he sipped his tea.
It wasn’t at all bad, actually; light, but mellow, and fresh. Something of the colour of freshly scythed grass lingered in the liquid, and Tobias was reminded briefly of summers in Lothering, when the farms paid for labour and the village boys stripped to their shirts—and sometimes beyond—to work with the sun on their backs.
The healer gave a small, tired chuckle. “I know. I’m horrible. That poor girl… I think she misses the Tower. Never had to mop up so much piss in the library, I’ll bet.” He took a mouthful of his tea, and regarded Tobias with half-hooded eyes. “So?”
Tobias shrugged, curling his fingers around the warmth of his cup. “Tell me about Alrik,” he said quietly, watching the inevitable tension pinch Anders’ face at the mention of that name. “You said he believes all mages are corrupt, that he tortures people to—”
“How did you find out?”
Anders turned his head to the side, peering along the clinic as if to make sure they couldn’t be overheard. If they kept quiet, it was unlikely: his small collection of geriatrics were either deaf, sleeping, or studiously trying to ignore Saryha attempting to help the old woman use a metal chamber pot.
Something tight and dry lingered in that careworn face: like the place hate would be if he wasn’t so tired, and so bowed under the weight of regret.
“Karl wrote to me. He used to… write. A lot. Once I was at the Vigil, I could send word, say where I was, so that made it easier. He said there were templars like Alrik.” One long-fingered, herb-smudged hand rubbed idly at the side of his cup. “I thought, when I came here, we could do something about it. I didn’t know the rot went so far.”
Anders sipped his tea, his throat working slowly as he swallowed, and his gaze fixed hazily on a point somewhere beyond the centre of the table. Tobias watched him—watched him with an intentness that ached to his core—but said nothing.
“Karl used to write a lot about the templars here, about all the problems… the number of blood mages they unearth. He was worried. I—” He smiled bitterly, shaking his head. “I thought I’d get here, just break into the Tower or something… find some chink in it all… I didn’t. It was impossible. I was right here, in this bloody city, and I couldn’t even get across the lake to see him.”
His expression hardened, the flicker of anger in his voice not a sharp edge of irritation, but the pull of Justice beneath it, swelling and pitching under the current of the words.
“So, I fell in with the…. You know. And Elias, he was very… good to me.”
Tobias said nothing, though the back of his neck prickled slightly. He wanted to know what it was Creer and Anders had talked about before—what it was the Rivaini had on him that made him look so pale and worried.
In the darkest, loneliest corners of the night, Tobias had to admit he’d wondered if they were ever lovers. The thought stung like second-hand whiskey, and he wanted very much to believe it couldn’t possibly be true, but the possibility was there.
“I’d seen some of the things that happen in that place on the first couple of runs we did,” Anders said quietly, staring at the tabletop. “Selby’s sister… that was before my time but, Maker, they still talk about that. It’s systematic. Not just anger, not just frustration… there are some of those bastards who’ll push you and push you until they break you, and then use the pieces for fun. It made me sick. We saw a girl—I don’t know, no more than fourteen, maybe—strapped to a rack. There must have been more than one of them. I don’t know how many. She’d been down there for days, maybe weeks. They’d come back again and again, use her a little bit more… might have been the same ones, might not. I don’t know. Maybe they took turns, drew lots or something. Wouldn’t be surprised. It was like she was meat, not even a person….”
His face twisted around the memories, revulsion staining his eyes as he brought his cup to his lips. Tobias watched the faint tremble in that pale hand, and tried not to let his imagination fill in the gaps in the things Anders obviously needed to say.
Across the clinic, Saryha was still struggling with the elderly woman, who was not being a cooperative patient, and had begun to berate the girl… probably more because of the lack of privacy than anything she’d really done wrong.
“I carried her out,” Anders said softly, apparently oblivious to the commotion. “Poured everything into her, but she died just as we got to the docks. I hadn’t seen a haemorrhage that bad since the battle at the Vigil.”
He blinked, cleared his throat, and, with another swallow of his tea, frowned as he tried to get himself back on track.
“I suppose it was last year that we had the first report that named Alrik. Edda, the woman Gethyn knows, she snuck a letter out. She’d been writing it all down, writing down everything she heard, everything she saw. There’d been another couple of rotten bastards we dealt with—Miden, Hettle, those two spring to mind—but that was about power. Beating, raping, tormenting… you put people in charge of other people and tell them they’re superior, and it’ll happen. It used to happen in Ferelden, though everyone said it didn’t. It wasn’t common, like here… but you always knew there were certain templars you didn’t cross, didn’t let yourself be caught alone with.”
Anders broke off, pressing his fingers over his eyes for a moment. When he looked up, blinking again, he seemed so tired, so papery.
“I’m sorry. I… I can’t remember what I—”
“Alrik,” Tobias prompted gently.
The smell of urine filtered through the air as—with a great deal of fuss, flailing of elbows and complaining about her modesty—the elderly woman finally got to relieve herself. They both ignored it, though he did feel a moment of pity for Saryha, who looked mortified, even while she was holding the pot.
Anders nodded slowly. “He’s different. It’s not just about power… it’s political with him. Edda’s letter… he believes he’s right. She wrote in great detail about what he did to people. How he treats it like science. And there’s plenty who follow him. He has friends in the Order: Knight-Captain Kurrid, for one. He’s ancient, but if he kicks off any time soon, it’s three to one Alrik will replace him. He toadies to Meredith something rotten… that’s what worries me. We don’t know how far advanced this plan of his is, but it’s possible he could already have taken it to her, to the Grand Cleric…. I know how far-fetched it sounds, but it could be real in a matter of months. It could happen.”
Tobias frowned. “And Creer won’t move on him?”
Anders pulled a face, guilt flittering through his expression as he rubbed at the rim of his cup. “Elias doesn’t see it as a reality. He thinks Alrik’s a loose cannon—dangerous, yes—but he doesn’t believe Meredith would ever implement anything like that. Or the Grand Cleric. It would mean tearing up all the Chantry law regarding mages, the Circles, and Tranquillity itself. The Rite is supposed to be a last resort, not a punishment. Some people choose it rather than face the Harrowing—some have it forced on them, because the Enchanters know they’ll fail—but it’s not a way of subjugating anyone who misbehaves. It’s not supposed to be, anyway. If you break the rules, they punish you—lock you up, execute you if they can prove you’re a danger—but they can’t just do that. And what Alrik does… his… experiments….” Anders winced, his mouth twisted in revulsion. “That’s just wrong by anyone’s standards.”
Tobias frowned, the awkwardness welling up in him, and yet throttled by burning curiosity. “He, uh… he did the ritual on Karl?”
Anders nodded stiffly, his face clamping into mask-like blankness, betrayed only by the wounded scars in his eyes.
“Yes,” he said quietly. “I knew something was wrong when the letters stopped. Went to Elias… hoped he was in solitary or something. They did that to me, once, in Ferelden. Says something, doesn’t it, hoping that’s what’s happened? Of course, you know what… well. I should have done something before. I came to this bloody place because he— I let him down.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Tobias murmured, resisting the temptation to reach for the pale hand that lay upon the table, fingers twitching lightly to some internal rhythm of guilt and regret. “You tried to help him, and—”
Anders shook his head. “He was caught because of me. The letters. The…. After what happened, I wanted to know why. Couldn’t leave it alone. I did some digging… found out Alrik was the one who did that to him. I— well, I went looking. It served me right, I suppose.”
Across the clinic, Saryha managed to drop the full bedpan. She muffled a shriek, the metal clanged, the old woman looked embarrassed, and one of the elderly men applauded as piss splashed over the floorboards.
“Went looking?” Tobias echoed, his brow furrowing. “What—?”
Anders flexed his fingers, a dismissive little flick of his hand as he shook his head. “You were in the Deep Roads at the time. I… I wanted to know what had happened. We didn’t have Alrik’s name then, but I knew there had to be something behind it. So I went behind Elias’ back. Managed to buy a lot of information on the courtyard. People said Karl had been speaking out, getting on the templars’ nerves.” The healer smiled sadly. “Trying to go through the proper channels, I bet. Bloody optimist. He’d have thought, even if it got him in trouble, that would make other people take notice. He talked about it in the letters. I… I should have acted sooner.”
He sighed deeply, apparently not even noticing Saryha’s frantic clean-up attempts on the other side of the room.
“I got in there. Bribed my way in. Bribed one of the green recruits to tell me what I wanted to know. I was going to kill him. Alrik, I mean… for vengeance,” Anders added softly, his face oddly blank, as if the sheer weight of the memory pressed the emotion from him. He curled his lip, repeating the word, like he hadn’t believed it the first time he said it. “Huh… vengeance. Not that it would have done Karl any good, and he wouldn’t have approved anyway, but… I didn’t get him. Slippery bastard. And so arrogant! He stood there and said to my face that we were all abominations in waiting. That we’re aberrations, in need of control. I nearly had him, but he caught me with a cleanse, and it wiped me out… didn’t know it would hit Justice so hard, but apparently it does. I ran. Still,” he said, his voice tightening as he pulled himself back together, adjusting his position on the chair and peering speculatively at his half-cup of cold tea, “he was out of commission for a few weeks, at least… and he never saw my face. I like to hope they still don’t know I’m me.”
Tobias blinked, confused, and still somewhat stunned by the tale. “Wait, you actually tried to…?”
“Yes,” Anders said simply, those dark eyes meeting his with an unsettling coolness. “I wanted him dead. I wanted him to suffer the way he makes mages suffer. They said—the people I spoke to when I tried to find out about Karl? They said you can hear the screams from the dungeons halfway up the fortress. They torture, humiliate… degrade you until you’re less than human, then push you over the edge, and punish you for it. That’s what Alrik wants to do to all of us. Neuter us, make us tame.”
His breathing had started to quicken, a hardness entering his voice, and Tobias started to worry.
“It’s still illegal,” he said dubiously. “Isn’t it? It’s immoral, anyway. Enough evidence, and someone will have to take notice. Anyway, I can’t think every templar’s like that. If—”
“They’re not.” Anders shook his head. “That’s just it. If we can make all this public, there will be people who see how wrong it is. And I hope there will be those in the Order—and in the Chantry—who won’t stand for it. That’s where the revolution should come from. It’d be better for everyone. Elias doesn’t agree, of course.” He shrugged, toying with his empty cup. “And I dare say he’s got a point. There will be those who refuse to see the truth unless we make them. But that shouldn’t be our first line of offence.”
Tobias bit the inside of his lip. Dramatic as all the polemic was, there was something about this talk of war and revolution that worried him. He cleared his throat.
“Um. Yeah. You and Creer,” he said, letting the words dangle awkwardly, because he had no idea what to actually do with them. “Um. I mean, he seemed to, uh….”
“I don’t know. Some of the things he said to you last night… and what you said just now: they don’t know you’re you? What…?”
“Oh.” Anders snorted softly. “That. Yes. Well, you know I am a wanted man.”
Tobias cocked an eyebrow, and he smirked, shaking his head in wistful self-deprecation.
“Seven times, I ran from the Tower in Ferelden. Once from White Spire, but I was only there briefly. They almost didn’t catch me, that first time in Lattenfluss. That’s where I’m from,” he added, with a small smile. “Originally.”
It wasn’t much, but it was more than Anders had ever said about his homeland, and the gesture of sharing it seemed important somehow to Tobias.
“Mm-hm. Long time ago, that. Still… nothing like a serial escapist to piss the templars off. Making them come out in the rain and the mud to pick you up, having to cart you all the way back.” Anders grinned sheepishly. “They hated me. But….” His grin faded, replaced with a pained look in his eyes. “Well, of course, escape is punishable, but not by Tranquillity, unless they could prove you’d dabbled in something terrible, or been corrupted. But, then there was the Wardens. And the way I left… it wasn’t exactly noble. That’s what Elias was talking about.”
“Oh?” Tobias tried to keep his tone neutral, but his curiosity was killing him. “What happened?”
Anders shrugged, avoiding his gaze. “Lots of things. One day, I’ll tell you all about the Vigil properly. I’d have to, if you were going to understand. Long story short, there was a battle. Big, bloody…. Horrible. Commander Caron left some of us defending the keep and took the others to… well, to deal with the source of the problem. I never knew much of what was going on in that place, but I’m not even sure I believed what I did hear. The point is, we were besieged. We took heavy damage. A lot of people died, and… well, as far as anyone in Ferelden knows… so did I.”
“You?” Tobias frowned. “What, you faked your own death?”
“Mm-hm. Switched clothes with a dead guard, then burned the body so they wouldn’t recognise me. The worst part is that I did it before the battle was won. They were all still fighting and… and I was running away,” Anders murmured, staring guiltily at the tabletop. “I killed a couple of templars, too. I probably didn’t need to, but I was so afraid they’d track me down. I needed them not to be looking. They still have my phylactery, as far as I know. While they don’t have a reason to be looking for me, I’ll be all right. But— the way it happened at the Vigil… what I did was… was bad.”
His voice faltered, his lips closing with finality on the words, and Tobias wanted more than anything to wash that away.
“Well, if you hadn’t—” he began, reaching for amelioration, but Anders shook his head.
“I tore those men apart. I… Justice… we…. I don’t know. It was all new, and I didn’t know what had happened until it was over. I lost control. I was afraid of it happening again. I had to get away, so I— I did what I did at the battle. And it was all right, until that night at the chantry, when Karl….” He trailed off, cleared his throat, and took a deep breath. “When I killed Karl.”
Oh, Maker, Anders… don’t do that to yourself, you idiot. You can’t do that to yourself. Please.
The memories of the first time he’d seen Justice’s fury burst out played vividly in Tobias’ head. Searing light and violent energy, and men’s throats and bellies split open with the force of magic and anger, and blood splashing the stones, soaking the silk banners emblazoned with the Maker’s Eye.
“You helped him,” he said earnestly, pressing his hand flat against the table, the wood rough beneath his fingers. “What happened wasn’t your fault.”
Anders gave him a wan little smile, his eyes still distant. “You have too much faith in me. You really do, Hawke. Still… I don’t doubt they’ll work it out sometime. Then it’s just a matter of whether I can run before they find me.”
Tobias clenched his jaw, unwilling—unable, even—to hear those words and not have every muscle in his body rebel against them.
“We’ll take Alrik down,” he said, glaring at Anders as if he could frown him into not talking this way anymore. “We will. And we’ll see this end. I promise.”
Anders blinked, raising his gaze to Tobias’, his eyes hazy and a look of faint surprise and gratitude touching his face.
“You’re a good man, Hawke,” he said softly, reaching across the table. “Truly. And I… I’m more grateful for your friendship than you could know.”
Tobias’ heart beat light for a moment, and he opened his mouth, finding the words vanishing on his tongue as those long, herb-smudged fingers touched the back of his hand. Anders squeezed his wrist gently.
“Thanks for letting me talk,” he said, with a brief, rueful smile. “It… it does help, actually.”
“Good,” Tobias managed, as Anders took his hand away, folding his fingers around his empty teacup and averting his gaze again.
He tried not to feel it like a sense of loss, a chill on his flesh, but it was too late.
Later, when he left the clinic—once they’d discussed the minutiae of where and when to meet, the fact he’d roped Varric into coming along, and the names of the other mages who’d be joining them—Tobias walked slowly back towards Lowtown.
It was a horrible feeling, but he couldn’t quite escape the sense that the things Anders had said had been confessions… the outpourings of a man who wasn’t sure he was coming back.