Sometime between the ages of eighteen and twenty, Garrett Hawke became a man. Not just any man, either. Possibly the man, a specimen Anders had only ever read about in the romance novels his old friend Karl Thekla kept hidden behind the histories of Shartan and the Exalted Marches.
Garrett didn’t wear his shirts unbuttoned down to his waist, and in place of a flowing mane of luscious hair he had a rather sensible beard, but the principles of manhood were the same. Wherever he went, women and men alike were overcome by the urge to throw themselves at his feet. They laughed at his jokes, even the very bad ones; he never spent a night alone. He was the sort of man Anders had always known never truly existed, because fiction was always necessarily more scintillating than the real life people got to call their own.
Once life itself became a story—complete with implausible characters and daring acts of bravery—then there was nothing exciting to escape to at the end of the day. And Anders did so cherish a thrilling escape.
‘Daydreaming again?’ Carver taunted him, large head poking out from the upstairs window. ‘I can see where the task might be a little too complicated for you. Go all the way to the market, get us some turnip, then come all the way back again. Oh, and if you happen to pass my brother in the Crown and Lion, drag him along too, would you?’
He was gone before Anders could form an appropriately biting response—something about it being all too much for his poor apostate brain to follow, and how he might well come home having paid six coppers for a bushel of Garrett, thereby leaving a large turnip in his seat at the pub.
It was all just as well, since Carver didn’t have any sense of humor.
But Anders didn’t want to spit on Malcolm Hawke’s kindness by constantly, ruthlessly dressing down his younger son, even if the temptation grew ever more impossible to resist. As the years flew by, Carver was the sort who seemed to become less mature with age.
Anders’s patience—never that impressive to begin with—dwindled with each month that passed.
They’d been in Amaranthine now for nearly a year—the longest the Hawke family had stayed settled anywhere, in all the time Anders had known them and traveled with them and shared their meals, their lives, their stories. It had been hardest of all to leave Lothering, knowing they could never return to the place where they’d buried Leandra, but even that charming little outpost on the border between Nothing and Nowhere hadn’t ever felt like home to any of them.
Not that Anders ever had a home to compare it to. All he knew was that anything beat the Circle, and it was because of the Hawkes that he’d managed to avoid returning to that fate for so long.
As expected, Garrett was blazing drunk in the Crown and Lion’s taproom, one arm slung around a templar’s broad plated shoulders.
That was because Garrett had balls of polished steel. The sheer nerve was enough to win a man’s heart. Anders never knew whether he admired the eldest Hawke sibling, or was terrified of his supernatural powers—they had nothing to do with magic, everything to do with charisma.
Anders slid onto the bench across from them only after he’d determined whether or not he recognized the templar. He didn’t, and the templar himself was drunk, practically cross-eyed, as honestly bleary as Garrett was only pretending to be. Even if he had seen Anders’s face on a wanted pamphlet, hammered into a Chanter’s Board somewhere between Lake Calenhad and Amaranthine, he wouldn’t be able to place it now. Or until the headache cleared; the Crown and the Lion had ale that lingered long after you’d pissed yourself dizzy and sweated the night through, striking a man down like a plague more than a simple fever.
It was, Anders always suspected, possibly made with darkspawn blood as a prime ingredient. He wrapped his hands around his tankard and stared into the depths, his nose staring back at him, a pale blur along the surface.
‘Anders is here to take me home,’ Garrett explained to his broad-chested friend, leaning back on his stool with a creak of stiff wood. ‘I’d know that look anywhere. What is it this time, Anders? Bethany’s making stew and Carver’s just jealous of my happiness because the women of Amaranthine have all fought off more darkspawn than he has?’
‘Turnips,’ Anders said, because, to Garrett, that would explain everything.
Bethany’s turnip stew had been a staple of Anders’s life on the road for nearly six years now; it was the first meal she’d made for him, an earnest, wide-eyed twelve year old when Malcolm Hawke brought Anders back to their campfire and introduced him to the family. Sullen Carver in the shadows; Leandra, smiling and beckoning him closer; Bethany, smaller than the pot she was stirring; and Garrett, sixteen, awkward from his elbows to his knees, a sunburn streaked across the bridge of his nose.
‘This turnip stew,’ Garrett told him, as Anders settled down close to the fire, ‘probably tastes better on its way out than in.’
They slept that night in an abandoned barn that still stank of its previous inhabitants, livestock sweat lingering in the stale hay. That morning they all had broken, short little pieces sticking out of their hair, and Garrett helpfully flicked a few from Anders’s ponytail, in the back, where he couldn’t see them.
That was before he realized Anders was going to stay, before they were ambushed by a group of poorly-assembled raiders and Anders offered his fireballs to their defenses, before Malcolm Hawke realized Anders, however embarrassingly, needed them.
‘A templar helped me escape Kirkwall,’ Malcolm explained, over the dying embers of yet another fire, hands folded over his chest. ‘Without his kindness, I wouldn’t have all this.’
‘You mean…a life on the run, a bed made of moss, and a stone for a pillow?’ Anders asked.
Malcolm grinned. He liked Anders’s jokes, which made him just about the only man in Thedas who did. ‘Some days, I don’t know what to do with all this wealth,’ he agreed.
Anders supported Garrett on their way back down Amaranthine’s main thoroughfare. Garrett held the turnips.
‘Did you know,’ Garrett began, carelessly knocking into Anders’s hip with his own, ‘there’s going to be some big to-do down at Vigil’s Keep this weekend? The skirts were all abuzz tonight.’
‘And you’re sure a bee didn’t get into one of their suits?’ Anders quipped smoothly. He already knew the pun would fall unnoticed by the wayside, just the same as all his best jokes. Garrett enjoyed being funny more than he enjoyed laughing, and he experienced great difficulty in paying attention to anything when he was drunk. ‘Amazing what one little insect can do to fell an entire regiment of templars, really.’
Garrett rolled his eyes, leaning his head against Anders’s shoulder. If he wasn’t as drunk as that templar had been, then he was doing a rather convincing job of pretending—even though they no longer had an actual audience.
‘I thought you of all people might appreciate my efforts. I went undercover, into the very belly of the beast, to get insider information on this little fracas.’
‘You were flirting with the enemy, and they just so happened to mention something of interest.’ Anders tucked his arm neatly around Garrett’s thick waist, ably steering him around an Amaranthine widow and her son, whose index finger was lodged in his nose up to the second knuckle. ‘One of these days, that habit of yours is going to land the lot of us in shit so deep that even the extraordinary Garrett Hawke won’t be able to drag us free again.’
‘Poor Carver.’ Garrett sighed. ‘He’ll be left all on his own.’
‘Yes, let’s focus on the real tragedy here,’ Anders agreed. ‘Just thinking about Carver without the four of us around to look after him ought to set you right. Not to mention what the city guard would say.’
‘They’d say I’m a credit to the force when I’m working,’ Garrett said. ‘And a credit to drunks when I’m not.’ He let the bag of turnips swing in his left hand, bumping it up against Anders’s calf. ‘I thought you loved gossip, Anders, and you aren’t even letting me enjoy it.’
‘Oh, fine,’ Anders told him. ‘Go ahead. I’m all ears.’
Garrett grinned, crooked, perfect white teeth flashing against the dark bristles of his beard. ‘The Hero of Ferelden’s coming to Vigil’s Keep. That’s what I found out, although there’s no word on how long he’s going to stay. Guess those reports of darkspawn lurking around the arling instead of going back underground where they belong finally caught the king’s attention.’
‘You should have said that to begin with,’ Anders chided. ‘Did you happen to hear if he’ll be glad-handing the peasant population anytime soon? I’m sure the twins would love an autograph.’
Proving that Anders could have made a fortune as a Rivaini seer—had he only been born a little bit farther north—Carver’s face lit up predictably when the news broke over dinner. He nearly seared his tongue on a piece of hot, mashed turnip, unsuccessfully trying to swallow his mouthful and speak at the same time.
‘The Wardens are coming here?’ He reached for his cup, cheeks flushing red as a radish with excitement. ‘To this little spit of a city in the middle of nowhere?’
‘Carver,’ Bethany said, taking his glass back so she could fill it. ‘Amaranthine is the jewel of the coast—you know that’s what everyone says.’
‘Well, you can tell ‘everyone’ that their jewel is mired in mud and smugglers,’ Carver retorted. ‘They might want to give it some polish.’
‘Isn’t that what we’re doing?’ Garrett asked casually, toying with a broken nail.
‘No,’ Carver said. ‘We’re solving everyone’s problems in the dark for no praise and no profit.’
‘Remarkable how noble we sound when you put it that way.’ Anders stirred his turnip mush, caught Bethany side-eyeing him, and shoved a scalding hot spoonful into his mouth so she wouldn’t question her generally adequate and sometimes abysmal cooking skills. ‘Nobility and stupidity—really the exact same thing, just from different angles. Delicious turnips tonight, by the way. I had no idea they could be quite so…lumpy. And by lumpy, I mean flavorful.’
‘No one is visiting Amaranthine directly,’ Malcolm corrected them. In the years since he’d taken in a fledgling apostate and lost his wife, his beard had become flecked with white. Silver hairs threaded through the dark brown at his temples, and there were fresh, deep wrinkles at the corners of his mouth, ones that had caught on only recently. Of all the Hawkes, it was Malcolm who bore their hardships right there on his face. ‘They’re headed to Vigil’s Keep. Which, I might remind you, is a military outpost. It’s no concern of ours.’
‘Right,’ Carver huffed. Anders didn’t need to look to hear him rolling his eyes. ‘Wouldn’t want to draw too much attention to ourselves.’
Anders knew there was no point in making his point any clearer; it would only result in hurt feelings and wasted turnips and probably a food fight. There had been many of those since Anders first began following the Hawkes across the bare Ferelden countryside; more of them lately, especially after Carver’s return from Ostagar. Perhaps it was a soldier thing, something the others, as unrepentant mages, would never understand. Either way, Anders was tired of washing mashed vegetables out of his robes and various unspeakable, private body parts, though he did know now he hadn’t truly lived until he’d needed to devise a special spell just for removing impacted jam and butter from his left ear.
And yet, life was rather wonderful, in its own way—so much better than in the Circle that it never seemed a fair comparison.
‘What are you smiling about?’ Carver asked darkly, throwing his spoon down next to his bowl. ‘Fancy yourself a future Grey Warden, do you?’
‘Well,’ Anders replied, ‘you never know. My life is just one jolly boon after another.’
‘No,’ Carver muttered. ‘That gift would go to my brother, no doubt. Talk his way into some Warden’s ritual—and his…’
Malcolm cleared his throat just as Carver trailed off. Bethany blushed; Garrett positively beamed; and Anders pretended to be an architect of turnips, building little mountains, tearing them down again directly after. The stiff peaks did have lumps in them, and Anders surreptitiously mashed them against the side of the bowl to smooth them out again. If only he could have smoothed tensions in the air that way, but devising a spell for preventing familial spats wasn’t yet in Anders’s purview.
‘You were saying, Carver?’ Malcolm prompted.
Carver cleared his throat, staring hotly down at the tips of his boots. ‘May I be excused, Father?’
Malcolm waved one hand. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I think that would be best for all of us.’
After supper Anders helped Bethany wash dishes because no one else would, and Malcolm shouldn’t really have to, and the soap smelled nice, something sweeter and less pure lye than the stuff they’d once had to bathe in while on the road.
‘He’s right, for once,’ Bethany said, handing the dishes off for Anders to dry. He did his best not to drop and break one, same as he always did. ‘Carver, I mean.’
‘Don’t let him hear you say that,’ Anders replied.
Bethany grinned, something quick and wicked that reminded Anders of Garrett. ‘Don’t you think I know how to deal with him by now? His head’s big enough already.’
‘And how,’ Anders said.
Bethany flicked suds off her elbow, then went back to the basin, pouring more water in from the bucket nearby. ‘You know my brother. Garrett will do something stupid,’ she sighed. ‘Something stupid and brilliant. It’s only a matter of time, not if but more…when. And then we’ll all be Wardens, or arrested, or on the run again, and I like Amaranthine. …Sort of.’
‘It is better than Lothering,’ Anders agreed.
‘Talking about me, are you?’ Garrett asked, swinging through the kitchen, stealing a wedge of cheese and some stale bread. He slung one arm around Bethany’s shoulders, the other around Anders’s, hair damp, still smelling of whiskey beneath his freshly washed hair and clipped beard.
‘No,’ Anders replied shortly. ‘I’ll have you know we were discussing the many fine townships of Ferelden—a deep, theoretical study of all the different varieties of mud.’
‘Sounds like a real party,’ Garrett said. ‘But I’ve got something better to do with our evening.’
‘Something better’ ended up involving a long night spent cramped and packed amongst crates of contraband, cold rank breezes blowing in over the bilge-infested dock-water. Anders felt the beginnings of a cold coming on—one of the few, pesky ailments even his skill as a healer couldn’t ever quite manage to ward off. He muffled his sneezes in his own shoulder, while his feet lost all feeling from his toes to his heels, and his thighs cramped and his knees ached. He was getting too old for this—he’d found his first gray hair a few weeks prior, whereupon he’d locked himself in the washroom until Garrett coaxed him out to breakfast.
‘What happened in there?’ Garrett had asked later, doing his best to be understanding and charming, but Anders had refused to tell him, in self-defense.
He was keenly aware of his position as the oldest among the Hawke siblings; not being a true member of the family didn’t mean Anders could escape all the jibes and mockery that came hand in hand with living with them. Most of the time he didn’t mind—it was a sign of acceptance, and Anders liked being accepted, especially since it happened so rarely—but between Garrett and Carver’s tender mercies, Anders didn’t think he could handle coming clean. He was far too delicate for their raucous abuses.
Ironically, it was Bethany’s kindness that would be worst of all. She’d probably say something about how he was lucky to be so fair, because the silver would hardly show at all against the blond—and Anders would have to go and drown himself in the Amaranthine Ocean.
‘Shh,’ Carver said, although no one had been talking.
Behind them, Malcolm stirred. Out of the corner of his eye, Anders saw him rest a hand against Garrett’s shoulder to signal him. Saltwater slopped against the dock-support poles beneath them; there was a soft creak of wood, then the abrupt slap of a fat wet rope hitting the planks.
It was Carver who moved first, but he didn’t beat Garrett’s gravitational fist to the punch. The smugglers—clad all in black, so unimaginative—scattered like ninepins, bowled over by the force of his unexpected spell.
‘So much for the element of surprise,’ Malcolm said, hoisting himself to his feet. ‘I think I’m getting too old for this.’
‘You have no idea,’ Anders said, backing up his surrogate brothers with a flash of fire.
Amaranthine had a bit of a problem with smugglers. It was no secret to anyone who lived there; the good Constable Aidan made it known to anyone with the misfortune of running across him at the city gates, whether it was their first visit to the city, or their fortieth.
The city was a fishing village by trade, but certain less moral individuals had taken it upon themselves to be a little more enterprising with their wares after the Blight. Privately, Anders didn’t see anything wrong with a small amount of naughty contraband slipping into Ferelden now and then—all the very best romances came from Antiva and Orlais, which were often frowned upon in certain parts of this upstanding country—but things had spiraled out of control in Amaranthine’s little jewel upon the coast. Soon enough, according to Malcolm, the place would be a hub for lyrium smuggling and lyrium smugglers, just like Kirkwall, and that was a group apparently just as ruthless as over-zealous templars and Tevinter magisters.
Not every member of the Hawke family had actually joined the guards—only one of them could—but they were all called upon to help in the darkened shadows when no one was watching. It was no small wonder Carver had such a complex, when he was a bored entry-level guard by day, and a broadsword-wielding force for justice by night.
‘It’s just like Ostagar,’ Carver was fond of complaining, to anyone who’d listen. He was growing up to be just like Constable Aidan. ‘No one knows what’s really happening. No one even wants to know.’
‘I should think you’d have more sense than to compare anything to that night,’ Malcolm said, keeping his tone light, cowing them all so thoroughly no one was able to continue.
Four of the nine men who’d been knocked aside by Garrett’s spell struggled to their feet just in time to meet the flat-edge of Carver’s two-handed sword. The jokes about compensation practically made themselves, although if he was built like Garrett, Anders rather thought he didn’t have anything to compensate for.
One was privy to all sorts of information growing up with the Hawke family. And Garrett—because he had nothing to be ashamed of—was very fond of public nudity.
Thinking about Garrett and public nudity was far too distracting for the midst of a fight. An arrow sped toward Anders’s head and glanced to one side at the very last second, knocked down by one of Garrett’s force spells. Anders turned to thank him, but he’d already moved on, speeding through the dark alongside his father to be at the front lines—like neither of them knew what it meant to be a proper mage, and let the warrior draw fire.
Malcolm had a particular vendetta against smugglers. Anders still didn’t quite understand the reason, but he could only assume it had something to do with his time in Kirkwall. The Free Marches seemed like the ideal place for any good vendetta to begin.
‘So here we are,’ Bethany said, voice wry with unshared laughter. ‘The only ones sensible enough not to put our staffs up against blades.’
‘Sometimes I wonder if we’re both really Hawkes at all,’ Anders agreed, spinning his old oak staff around in one hand. Together they unleashed a volley of fireballs hot enough to sear the hammered metal of Carver’s flashy armor, to singe the tips of Garrett’s fur pauldrons and Malcolm’s graying beard, but mostly to stop the smugglers dead in their devious tracks. The stench of bilge and rotten fish along the dockside was replaced with darker hues of charred leather and melted steel; the gentle rocking of the nighttime tide with the sound of bodies scattered by each relentless spell and Carver’s equally relentless blade.
The cargo they collected and left for Constable Aidan to find the next morning—for the purpose of presumably more legal redistribution—was nothing more than a few chests full of Orlesian silks, some admittedly fine Antivan weapons, and bits and bobs of shiny jewelry that the merchant who’d brought them into Amaranthine probably hadn’t come by legally in the first place. But Ferelden was just on its way out of a Blight. It needed all the help it could get in terms of foreign exports, especially since most people seemed to think a few darkspawn here and there were an excuse to go about dirty and unfashionable all the time, and also, to stop bathing.
Amaranthine was a little less dirty than other cities Anders would politely refrain from mentioning, and certainly less unimpressive than all the muddy, indistinct ‘townships’ scattered across the Ferelden countryside, no more than a handful of barns and cousins married to cousins, far removed from anything that remotely resembled the urbane. But it wasn’t Denerim—Denerim, to which Anders’s mind and heart always drifted, cutthroat and restless and teeming with life, busy shops, pickpockets and gossips. Denerim, the city of his dreams. And nightmares, too, but that was how all the best love affairs were supposed to start.
‘Here,’ Garrett said, on their ambling way back to the house. It was a humble abode, one they were renting the upper floors of from a blind old woman who was, Anders suspected, eavesdropping on their every conversation, if only for want of anything better to do.
Anders thought fast, catching whatever it was Garrett had just tossed his way—small, golden, glittering in an arc through the air in the pale dawn light. He nearly fumbled it, then managed to hold it against his chest, picking the little thing out of the feathers on his coat.
‘It’s an earring,’ he said.
‘No,’ Garrett said. ‘Is it really? And here I thought it was a sextant.’
‘Ha ha,’ Anders replied. ‘Did you steal this, Garrett?’
Garrett made a vague gesture, putting on a burst of speed to catch up with the others. ‘You’d look funny with an earring,’ he said, as though that would explain everything, and left Anders in the dust with the lump of burnished metal, already warmed by Garrett’s touch, burning in the center of his palm.
Anders’s right earlobe was already pierced, from a moment of youthful indiscretion and misdirected rebellion. Sometime in the year following, Anders had begun to act out in other, more meaningful ways; he’d fashioned a rope made of sheets stolen from the laundry and the various complicated undergarments of senior mages and attempted, albeit very unsuccessfully, to shimmy down from one of the library windows in the tower. He’d broken his wrist, his nose, and his dignity—he tried to convince one of the healers he’d also broken his arse, but further inspection revealed it was nothing more than a very painful bruise.
Still, it all meant that Anders had the perfect place for his new earring, though it took a few tries to get the blighted thing in, and he also suspected he might have been bleeding afterward.
He hated bleeding.
At breakfast, dark circles under his eyes, Carver rubbed at his face blearily, blinked at Anders well over ten times, then burst out laughing with a mouth full of honey-soaked porridge—he ate it now the same way he’d eaten it when he was twelve, with less porridge than there was honey.
‘Best thing I’ve seen all day,’ he said, wiping a tear from his eye.
‘Oh, Carver,’ Anders replied, ‘since you like it that much, now I finally know what to get you for Feastday.’
‘Bad idea,’ Garrett said, looking fresh as a spring daisy, not at all like a man who’d been fending off back-stabs with force spells all night. ‘Anything shiny would merely draw attention to Carver’s monstrously large head. He looks enough like an ogre as it is—and, as we all know, ogres don’t wear earrings.’
‘I think I’m the only one who’s been close enough to an ogre to be able to tell what they wear, actually,’ Carver said. ‘Bit tough to see when you’re all cowering behind my back, I’d imagine.’
‘What was that, Carver?’ Garrett asked, liberally doling oatmeal onto his plate. ‘You want to see what life is like for the poor sods who don’t have a healer to tend to their injuries after battle? What a brave man you are. Here’s hoping your future broken bones don’t leave you a crippled shell.’
‘You’re bleeding,’ Bethany murmured, her fingertips brushing Anders’s earlobe in secret kindness. ‘Did you know?’
Only Garrett would give a gift that would cause such a ruckus at the breakfast table. In like form, Anders supposed, only he would be foolish enough to actually wear it.
‘Am I?’ Anders asked. ‘I had no idea.’
The morning passed in typical fashion: Carver and Garrett managed to hold off on killing each other long enough to take their posts at the guard; Bethany and Malcolm went to investigate rumors of a few missing hunters in the Knotwood Hills; and that left Anders a whole half-day to himself, left to nothing but his own devices. The only stipulation Malcolm had left him with was stay away from that bloody chantry, and even then Anders got the distinct impression he was talking to Garrett more than anyone else.
What would Leandra have said, if she’d been able to see her firstborn son endangering them all in such a flagrant and obvious way? Probably the same thing she’d said while she was alive, which was that Garrett was exactly like his father, and—despite the fact that Malcolm had won his freedom, not to mention earned a family of his own—no one should aspire to follow in his footsteps. It was a difficult road he traveled, a difficult road they all traveled, after all.
Yet there was no reason for anyone to worry about Anders’s indiscretions in that regard. He was already well aware of what life was like inside the Circle, not to mention he’d squeezed all possible joy out of flirting with templars that he could manage long ago, when he was younger, and hadn’t the slightest idea what it would be like to find a gray hair one shimmery spring morning. None of the so-called thrills of flirting with the enemy could ever compare to real freedom.
He didn’t blame Garrett for not understanding; he’d been an apostate all his life, and had no real sense of proportion.
Anders kept to the other side of town like a good little illegal mage. He gossiped with Mervis about the rumor that something foul was attacking the caravans in the Wending Wood, and chatted with Garrett’s contact—a rotund man named Kendrick, built more like a barrel than a person—about whether there was still any work to be found for people with more guts than brains.
‘Some nutter from the chantry’s on the lookout for the canticle of Maferath,’ Kendrick said. He punctuated his statement with an eloquent snort, just in case there was liable to be any confusion over how he felt about it. ‘The job’s anonymous, but he wants some poor fool to go out and make charcoal rubbings off a bunch of statues in the Wending Wood. Says he’ll pay decent for it, too. Just goes to show you—fools and their money.’
‘The Wending Wood’s seeing a great deal of traffic these days, isn’t it?’ Anders commented. ‘I suppose it benefits from sounding more inviting than, say, the Blackmarsh, for example.’
‘Now that you mention it, I think one of these jobs is from the Blackmarsh,’ Kendrick said, turning back to the guild board.
‘How wonderful!’ Anders said. ‘I do so love it when I open my mouth and make unpleasant things happen for no reason. It’s all very empowering.’
He wandered quickly away before Kendrick and his stale whiskey-breath could actually pass along any of the job’s details. Garrett—of course—actually liked the Blackmarsh, and jobs that took place in the Blackmarsh; he’d grown into the sort of man who enjoyed clear and present danger, fighting giant, evil, walking trees that attacked when you so much as sneezed in the underbrush, and getting his boots stuck in sloppy black tar. Anders, on the other hand, had no such joy for the darker side of nature—or the brighter side, for that matter. If he could somehow keep Garrett from learning about the Blackmarsh jobs, maybe, just maybe, no one would have to go there.
Further into the market, Anders was saved from his boredom and his own dubious devices by the only woman in the entire city who was nearly as beautiful as Bethany—his dear friend Delilah, who had a mysterious past and a child on the way. Always the best combination. Anders shared with her a love of romance novels as well as a reluctance to talk about anything that had happened in their lives before Amaranthine, and thus, they got along swimmingly.
‘So, have you heard about the Hero of Ferelden?’ Anders asked her, over tea and leaden scones and the usual assortment of gossip and biscuits. ‘Terrible to be the Hero of Ferelden and have to come here, don’t you agree?’
‘Funny story about that man,’ Delilah said, reaching for a pat of butter. ‘You know, he killed my father.’
It broke all the rules of not talking about the past—not talking about family, not talking about feelings—but the woman was pregnant and Anders supposed he had to make an exception just in case the pregnancy madness took hold of her and she suddenly started crying. Then, in the middle of their bizarre conversation about Arl Howe and an incident in Highever, Delilah did start crying, at which point Anders pretended not to notice while at the same time sliding her a napkin so she could take care of things.
‘It’s not that I blame that Cousland, either,’ Delilah said, dabbing at the corners of her eyes. ‘You can stop pretending to be interested in the curtains, too, Anders; I know you hate that blighted pattern.’
‘Yes,’ Anders agreed. ‘It is offensively ugly.’
‘Don’t think I don’t know it.’ Delilah scrubbed at her nose, and Anders continued to avoid looking directly at her, like crying people were as damaging to stare at as the sun—her pink cheeks and red-rimmed eyes, the way her mouth kept twisting this way and that, the little tears gathered on her lashes. ‘It’s not as though I chose it. It’s not as though I’ve had much choice in anything.’
‘Yes, well,’ Anders replied vaguely. ‘This is Ferelden. Does anyone? Not even the king chose to be the king, the way I hear it. And if the king can’t choose these days, who can?’
‘But I’ve told myself, it could be worse,’ Delilah continued. ‘My husband might not have wanted to be my husband, for example, and I could have no curtains at all, no windows of my own to hang them on.’
‘No curtains, no husband, no windows, and a baby on the way.’ Anders did his best to imagine what it would be like, how very uncomfortable, but the whole ordeal made him feel quite disoriented. Eventually, he realized Delilah was watching him, but she didn’t look like she was on the verge of weeping anymore, something closer to laughing, and that was much better.
Healer Anders might have been, but he preferred it when people didn’t cry, because he’d never had any idea of how to begin comforting them. The last tears he’d seen were Carver’s—very unexpectedly, without any warning, when he finally rejoined them after Ostagar, and forced them all to retrace their steps through darkspawn-infested territory just so he could see Leandra’s grave for himself. None of the others wept then, not even Bethany, but she did kneel by Carver’s side, and touched his shoulder even when he tried to shrug her off. It was all very gentle, very sweet, very beautiful in its own way, and Anders had hated every second of it, knowing someone who’d made such fine hotcakes and tended scraped knees without ever complaining was deep, deep underground.
‘I wouldn’t expect you to understand it.’ Delilah sighed. ‘Not dead traitors for fathers—you might have one of your own somewhere; I won’t ask, and you don’t have to tell me—but the other part.’
‘Oh, trust me,’ Anders said, ‘I have been stuck with no curtains and no husbands and no windows in my time.’
‘And the prospect of looking after a young one?’ Delilah asked, with a delicate arch of her brow.
‘Hmm,’ Anders said. ‘Do you suppose Carver counts as a babe in arms?’
Delilah thought it over for a moment. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘maybe a very large one.’
Anders took a few of the scones home; he acquiesced when Delilah insisted, since one never knew when a few solid projectiles might come in handy. If only the Blight was still on, they could lob them at the heads of ogres and genlocks liberally, like their own merry band of darkspawn-killers, the Hawkes instead of the Wardens. For now, Anders supposed he’d settle on offering them to Carver for breakfast, just to thank him for the earring incident.
‘Come on,’ Garrett said, sweeping Anders up on his way through the door. He’d barely had a chance to step over the threshold when Garrett caught him at the elbow and dragged him back into the street.
‘Smugglers?’ Anders asked. He could only hope Garrett hadn’t checked with Kendrick to learn about the Blackmarsh; the only thing worse than traveling to the Blackmarsh at all was traveling there in unforgiving nighttime.
But Garrett grinned, sharp white teeth gleaming in the fading sunlight. ‘Even better. Grey Wardens.’
There was little that genuinely excited Garrett—and that was because he’d done more than most men had in three of their lifetimes, maybe closer to four. Some men had a hearty appreciation for those terrifying embodiments of the supernatural that reminded them of their own mortality in one fell roar, but Garrett currently had little more than contempt, a boredom Anders recognized because, once, back before the gray hairs, he’d lived it.
Yet they’d never fought a Grey Warden, nor had they even seen them lately, what with all the stories about what had happened at Ostagar. Only a few remained, and with those few, the burning embers of Garrett’s healthy Fereldan fascination with them.
How Garrett planned on meeting the Hero of Ferelden was beyond Anders at this point, but he was certain Garrett would find a way somehow. Even if it took all night.
Not surprisingly—because Garrett was Garrett, and that was how things always worked out for him—the Wardens had taken refuge at the Crown and Lion. Constable Aidan intimated that the Hero of Ferelden in particular had been very helpful with their smuggler problem, before pointing Garrett in the right direction.
Anders felt sheer, stubborn annoyance ripple through him—making his feathers stand on end like a cat’s ruffled fur, or so Garrett would say—before he pushed it down like a sensible person. The Hero of Ferelden really didn’t need to be cheating good people out of a job, putting down their smugglers all at once by looking at them with his terrible, lightning-filled eyes, or stepping on them with his enormous feet—that naturally went with his ogre-sized body—but at the same time, he probably imagined he was doing the right thing.
Anders could have easily told him how much damage had been done over the years by heroes doing the right thing, but he didn’t want to be ornery on his first night out with Garrett alone in weeks.
‘You make your own trouble, being so contrary all the time,’ Leandra had told him once. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised to find you’re a little in love with being argumentative.’
‘Next you’ll be comparing me to Carver,’ Anders had said replied with a shudder, and Leandra’s lips had pursed up in a way that intimated she knew, all his flaws and all his fancies, and she adored him despite that knowledge, not for lack of it. And they’d both left it at that.
Nevertheless, it was the memory of a good woman who’d wanted him to keep from alienating everyone he knew and liked completely that helped Anders to hold his tongue as they made their way to the city’s only tavern.
‘Let’s hope this doesn’t mean there’s some sort of infestation at the Crown,’ Anders muttered. ‘Although it would explain the taste of the whiskey, wouldn’t it? Darkspawn leavings corrupting the taste.’
‘Even Wardens have to take a day off sometimes,’ Garrett reasoned. ‘And even Amaranthine’s bound to be more fun than Vigil’s Keep. Sounds far too vigilant for fun, doesn’t it?’
He pushed open the door before Anders could begin to list, in numerical order, all the ways in which Amaranthine was not fun. Both first and last on the list was the smell of fish, and how impossible it was to get out of Garrett’s fur pauldrons, Anders’s feathered ones; after that the smugglers, the nearby Blackmarsh, the people, the animals, more smugglers, less good gossip, the chantry, the roving templars, the Crown and Lion’s ale—but now Anders was just being petty.
The crowd inside the Crown and Lion was particularly raucous that night, as though everyone was putting up a show for company. One man had already fallen down the stairs, and he lay unaided at the very bottom of the landing, giggling merrily on his back.
Anders surreptitiously began to search the crowd, but he didn’t see a man who was ten feet tall, crushing a dragon’s throat in his right hand and wielding Caridin’s anvil in his left. So the stories were wrong, then. They always were.
Instead, there was the usual crowd of derelicts and drifters, farmers who’d come to forget about their ravaged lands and widows who couldn’t stand another minute with their starving children. They all belonged, to Anders’s utmost disappointment. There was nothing remarkable about any of them.
Garrett’s shoulders straightened, and Anders quickly followed his gaze. As a few drunks wove sloppily out of the way, one of them carrying a placard that said something illegible about blight orfans notis board, he caught a glimpse of bright silverite armor, and wearing it, a man with magnificent red hair. He was flanked on his left by a dwarf in plate mail, who had an even more magnificent beard than Garrett’s, even more magnificent red hair than the man in silverite, and another man lurking in the shadows, who, from what little Anders could make out, seemed to be all nose and no smile.
The dwarf let out a staggering belch that nearly rattled the windows in their panes. He scratched his beard, then pulled out what resembled a half-eaten leg of lamb, meat and hair in equal parts hanging off the ravaged bone
‘I’m going to be ill,’ Anders announced, to no one in particular.
‘Better make it quick,’ Garrett advised. ‘Or it’ll spoil the whole introduction.’
Anders pressed his hand to his chest and burped, much more quietly, certainly more politely, than the dwarf. True to form, it eased the tension in his gut and chest and allowed him to avoid vomiting for a little while longer, at the very least.
‘That’s better,’ he said. ‘Now, where were…we…’
He trailed off when he realized Garrett was already moving through the taproom, sidestepping a bar-wench and avoiding the drunken revels at a nearby table, every man rolling about in place like he was out in a skiff on a stormy sea. Anders, left behind in Garrett’s wake, wondered now only how he’d do it, if he truly planned on marching straight up to the Hero and introducing himself, one hand out, the other resting casually on the table, breaking all the unspoken rules that everyone else in the taproom was—despite their poor upbringing—actually following. Anders knew and understood what they knew and understood: that you couldn’t just say hello to the Hero of Ferelden. You had to have a reason, something that wouldn’t make you look like a cad and a glory hound, and whether or not Garrett was capable of being both those things on a daily, even hourly basis, he still wasn’t so indiscreet as to make it obvious to someone during their very first meeting.
But Anders should have known Garrett better. He’d lived with him all these years, out on the open road, no doors between them save for the occasional broken one they found in a stable. He’d seen every subtlety at work, every trick, every sleight of hand, nothing magical per se unless one counted that kind of charm as magic—which Anders often did. It had its own pitfalls, its own powers, its own demons. And Garrett was as dangerous as an abomination, in his own way, as silver-tongued as a desire demon, just as wickedly delightful.
He was also an unrepentant stirrer of shit, starter of barfights and offender of wives, and Anders saw the precise moment when he pretended to stumble, knocked a raucous farmhand in the back of his neck with his elbow, and ducked immediately afterward.
The ale, just as Garrett must have predicted, went flying.
Anders caught some of it the side of his face, followed by a pat of butter and a half-eaten chicken thigh; the grease dripped down his jaw from his ear to his neck and rolled under his collar, little drips and streaks of fat that would only come off after a few good scrubbings—yet the feeling, the memory, would linger forever.
All Anders could do after suffering that indignity was clamber unceremoniously beneath a table and wait for the fighting to be over, watching its participants and picking sides the way he always did. He liked to make wagers with himself in times like these; most of his imaginary coin was always, loyally, placed on Garrett’s victory, a sure thing no matter where they were, but he also liked to make the pretend gamble a little more interesting by picking some other hapless sod and hope he lasted at least three-quarters of the way through the ensuing fight.
This time, in a fit of stubborn pique, Anders didn’t chose the Hero of Ferelden—that would’ve been too obvious—but the dwarf. He seemed a solid fellow, possessed of a large weapon and a sturdy constitution, someone who wouldn’t be easily felled by man or beast.
Yet Anders’s instincts were never so dulled as when it came to betting. He should’ve chosen the nosey fellow instead, since ten seconds in, really just upon standing up and getting no farther than reaching for his weapon, the dwarf pitched forward, tripping over nothing even as substantial as his own boots, and fell face down on the taproom floor. The whole building shook with the impact.
‘Dwarves,’ Anders muttered to himself.
‘I agree,’ a lad beside him under the table said. He barely had any fuzz on his cheeks; he certainly wasn’t old enough to be drinking. They shared a moment of understanding, without having to know each other’s names: Anders, who couldn’t let loose fireballs in such close quarters; and the lad, who was here without his mother’s permission and was likely smarter than everyone else in the room, currently losing valuable teeth.
Then, the whole taproom was nothing more than shouting and howling and slurred Ferelden insults, some foreign as well mixed in, the flash of daggers and the whirl of fists, and Anders cheated himself by switching his wildcard bet to Big Nose, who was obviously a rogue, and still conscious, and had far better odds. Not of winning—Garrett always won—but at least of making it to the finish line.
Curiously enough, the Hero of Ferelden didn’t employ as much gusto as Anders might have expected in a straight-out fight. Rather, he seemed content to back up Big Nose, deflecting blows and only ever glancing his own punches, when he deigned to throw them. He fought like a rogue, Anders realized, not that he was studying him, motions quick and precise and fast enough, vague enough to mimic shadows.
All this time, Carver had been imagining a strapping warrior—someone like himself that he could look up to—but once again stories had led them dreadfully astray. It was difficult to imagine a man with two tiny little daggers defeating an entire Archdemon. They couldn’t have felt like much more than needles to a beast that large. But perhaps those rumors had been greatly exaggerated, too.
Anders flinched when one of the robust farmer-looking fellows came at Garrett with a stool, but Garrett ably ducked beneath it, turning away as it splintered against the far wall and felling his opponent with a single blow to the gut. And perhaps also a knee to the groin. Garrett wasn’t the most sporting of fighters, a spirit which Anders had always taken to heart. Why introduce an entire code of conduct into a fight when it only made it harder to accomplish the entire point of combat—which was to win, and also, to not die?
Sure enough—although it wasn’t so obvious that Anders could discern whether it had been Garrett’s plan all along—Garrett ended up back-to-back with the Hero of Ferelden’s shining plate. Big Nose had disappeared into the shadows by the stairs, but Anders could hear the creak of floorboards beneath his feet, and the sharp, unmistakable sound of heads being cracked together. He didn’t envy those poor fools, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, swept up in the tempest known as Garrett Hawke. It wasn’t a fate Anders could, in all good conscience, wish upon any unsuspecting soul.
‘Bloody flames,’ the lad next to him said, wiping beneath his nose with a dirty sleeve. ‘Is this what it’s like every night? No wonder Mother didn’t want me to come.’
‘She sounds like a clever and discerning individual,’ Anders said. ‘You should probably listen to her more often.’ He jerked back as an unconscious body thudded to the floor just in front of their hiding place. There was a purple bruise blooming on his left cheek, and a nasty-looking split in his lip. Despite all that, he’d wake bragging about how he’d fought one-on-one against the Hero of Ferelden and lived to tell the tale. Revisionist history at its finest.
Anders’s fingers twitched at the sight of an injury, the frustration he felt at knowing he couldn’t heal it. .
The wound wasn’t life-or-death. Perhaps it was mercenary of him, but Anders thought his freedom came just a cut above someone’s swelling face.
‘Enough,’ the Hero said, his voice pitched just loud enough to be heard over the chaos. ‘That’s enough, Nathaniel. We’re meant to be drinking in Mhairi’s name, and now Oghren looks like he’s set on joining her sooner rather than later.’
The dull sound of two ale-bags hitting the floor filled the air, one after the other, over by the stairs. Anders realized they had possibly been the last two men standing in the pub, save for Garrett, the Hero, and Big Nose himself, who stepped out of the darkness a moment later, looking as ferocious as an eagle who’d just gutted a couple of hares.
If Anders squinted, he thought he could even see blood on his cheek. How ghastly. Perhaps where the Wardens were from, they didn’t have bar brawls—only massacres.
‘Is that your dwarf?’ Garrett asked, toeing the barrel-shaped carcass with as much respect as a man could muster when his boot was against someone’s ribcage. ‘I’ve heard so many stories about the berserker fighting style, but I must admit, there’s nothing quite like seeing it in person.’
The Hero blinked. Then he let out a laugh, the sound of it washing richly through the taproom like cool autumn ale.
‘Finally, a Fereldan with a proper sense of humor,’ he said, clapping Garrett on the back. ‘You must let me buy you a drink.’
It was what Garrett had planned all along; his expression was blithely smug when he reached under the table to help Anders’s new friend out, then Anders after.
‘You did all that on purpose,’ Anders said, cleaning sawdust off the front of his robes.
‘Probably,’ Garrett replied. ‘I do everything on purpose.’
The next thing Anders knew, he’d be picking his teeth in the reflective surface of the Hero’s armor. It suited his cockiness; it would do nothing for his already over-inflated ego. As it was, he adjusted the fur swath at his shoulders, tilting his head just slightly to the side, while the Wardens found themselves a new table—one that wasn’t littered with the bodies of the fallen, happily moaning drunks with giant eggs forming on their foreheads.
‘Well?’ Garrett asked. ‘How do I look?’
‘Like a devastatingly handsome apostate who just conned himself into drinks with the Hero of Ferelden,’ Anders admitted grudgingly, placing both palms flat against Garrett’s back and giving him a nudge. ‘Go on. Reap the rewards. Make Carver agonizingly jealous. He deserves it.’
Garrett turned back to him with a wink, grin white against his dark beard and tanned skin. ‘Why else do you think I’m doing all this? Awful lot of trouble just for a free round.’
That was the family dynamic. Malcolm did everything for everyone; Garrett did everything to spite Carver; Carver did everything for attention; and Bethany did everything else, if only because someone had to do it. She also did nice things, like leaving little treats on people’s pillows in the morning, now that they had pillows, and helping their neighbors whenever someone took ill or found themselves with a sprained wrist or a broken nose. But when it came to Garrett, his impulses were usually only ever inspired to prove something—not to be downright spiteful, but to make it clear to everyone just who was cleverest, when really, he didn’t need to try so hard. It was obvious enough all on its own, without needless attention being drawn to it.
Years later, when Anders had to explain to his adoring public how it was he came to share drinks with the Hero of Ferelden and his merry band of Wardens and misfits, he’d explain it just like this: that Garrett somehow convinced them to buy the first round, and the second, while he sat across from them with his chin in his hand, drawing out trade secrets and life histories with the same ease most men had in idle chat about the weather, or the condition of the soil that season.
Anders idly trailed his forefinger around the rim of his tankard, trying not to stare directly at the Hero’s silverite—it was blindingly polished—or the living creature that appeared to be crawling around in the dwarf’s beard. The way they all looked was like the beginning of one of the more popular post-Blight jokes that were making the rounds in the Crown and Lion these days. So a Warden, a dwarf, and a Giant Nose walk into a bar…
‘We waste time here,’ Big Nose said. ‘We were looking for someone, Commander. Or do you not remember?’
‘Actually,’ the Hero replied, ‘I remember all too well.’ For Garrett’s benefit, mostly, and a little bit for Anders’s, he added, ‘You know how it is. One thing follows another. Always fields to protect and villages to save and Keeps to re-man and rebuild and impatient companions to please.’
‘Happens to me all the time,’ Garrett agreed. He turned back to Big Nose. ‘What did you say your name was again?’
‘I didn’t,’ Big Nose told him.
He was going to have to let it slip eventually; it was awkward to have to call him Big Nose all the time. The dwarf was the dwarf, the Hero was the Hero, but Big Nose, while specific, just didn’t flow off the tongue.
‘Cousland,’ the Hero said, breaking the ice ably. ‘Beside me is Oghren—’ The dwarf obligingly belched, the stench of old meat and even older cheese wafting to Anders from across the table, ‘—and Nathaniel Howe. Bit sensitive about his name.’
‘Howe?’ Anders blatted, rather tactlessly, from sheer surprise.
Swiftly, Garrett kicked him under the table.
‘Ow!’ Anders added. ‘That’s what I—meant to say—before, when I—didn’t. Howe rhymes with ow, you know. Common mistake. Happens to me all the time.’
‘There’s no need,’ Nathaniel said tensely. ‘I know the reaction most would have to that name.’
‘Well, it’s rather hard not to,’ Cousland assured him. ‘All things considered. Still, he can be touchy.’
‘And yet he’s not the one who kicked me under the table,’ Anders murmured.
Garrett continued to smile, the same smile he wore when he was about to argue down the price of a merchant’s wares to the point where he might as well just rob the fellow and be done with it. ‘Fascinating company you keep.’
Cousland shrugged, then downed the contents of his tankard in one swallow. Ale foam remained on his upper lip until he wiped it clean with the back of his hand, a gesture that pleased Oghren the dwarf into belching again. ‘It comes with the territory. You know what they say: Wardens can’t be choosers.’
‘You know what else they say?’ Oghren asked. Everyone waited. He scratched at his beard, tugged on a braid. ‘…Nah. I forgot already. Something good, though.’
‘And this,’ Cousland said, leaning back on the bench, ‘is my life.’
‘I can scarcely imagine,’ Garrett said, shaking his head in wonder. ‘I’ve tried, of course, but hearing it second-hand from third-rate bards and seeing it first-hand by yourself are two incredibly different things.’
‘They leave so much out of the songs,’ Anders added. He wasn’t quite able to keep from glancing in Oghren’s direction as he said it. ‘So many…odorous details.’
‘That’s because there isn’t much that rhymes with ‘vomiting dwarf,’’ Cousland said. ‘Or—‘great ropey strands of mabari drool.’’
‘Eugh.’ Anders shuddered. As far as he was concerned, no great acts of heroism were worth keeping close company with a mabari warhound. Even setting the drool aside, one couldn’t hide the smells, and Anders could only assume there wasn’t much time for cleaning the beast when Cousland was far too busy saving Ferelden.
‘We are wasting time,’ Nathaniel said, setting his tankard down with more force than necessary.
Anders raised his eyebrows. ‘Rather anxious to see your sister, aren’t you?’
It seemed like a safe bet, all things considered. Cousland and Oghren obviously didn’t share Nathaniel’s concern about locating their contact, and it was far too late now for a business call. Anders wasn’t a guardsman, but sometimes the pieces of evidence were right there in front of him, just waiting to be put together.
‘My what?’ Nathaniel asked. His voice turned oiled and dangerous, like a sleek bowstring.
From behind his flagon of ale, Cousland coughed.
‘Your…sister?’ Anders repeated, not quite so certain of himself this time, but undone, as always, by his own frustrating, inexorable, natural momentum. It was a great deal like falling down a flight of stairs and being unable to catch himself on the next step. Down and down and down he went, sort of enjoying it, but braced for impact and broken bones. ‘Delilah? She clearly didn’t inherit the family nose, but how many Howes can there be in Ferelden, anyway? That sounds like a novel, doesn’t it? How Many Howes? That’s the sort of thing you’d read children to teach them counting. Two, two, two Howes, now, add one and get three… And how many more Howes do you need? And so on.’
Garrett tried to kick Anders under the table again, but he was expecting it this time, and he tucked his fragile shins out of the way at the very last minute.
‘My sister is here?’ Nathaniel asked. ‘Living in Amaranthine?’
‘Yes…’ Anders said, looking around the table for aid and finding none. Cousland was still drinking; Garrett, that traitor, wouldn’t make eye contact; and Oghren appeared to have fallen asleep with his eyes open in a particularly flagrant fashion. A buzzing fly landed dangerously close to one, and the blighter didn’t even flinch. ‘I wouldn’t bring this lot with you to visit her, though—and certainly not at this hour, in her delicate condition. The surprise would be too much; she might give birth right there in the doorway, before so much as a Hello, brother.’
Nathaniel stood up straight, jolting their drinks as his knees struck the underside of their table. It was, possibly, to make a move, his first move, all a part of killing Anders, and Anders recoiled, trying to place Garrett between them.
‘Well there’s no need to look at me like that!’ he said. He was fully prepared to throw himself behind Garrett and use him as a full body shield, if necessary. ‘It isn’t as though the baby’s mine or anything.’
‘Anders,’ Garrett said finally. His hand found Anders’s knee under the table, sending a frisson of pleasure all the way through the robes to Anders’s skin beneath. It really was utterly unfair how he could manage to do that. Especially since he wasn’t even trying. ‘And Nathaniel, was it? This all seems to me to be a rather large misunderstanding. Why don’t we order another round—on me, this time—and let the ale soothe everyone’s ruffled feathers, mm?’
‘Thought you said your family was dead,’ Oghren slurred, roused momentarily from his stupor to contribute that little gem to the conversation. He slapped himself in the face, killing the fly instantly. Then he appeared to dip back into unconsciousness.
‘Because I thought they were, dwarf,’ Nathaniel said. He sat—no one was entirely immune to Garrett’s charms—but he was still gazing at Anders with suspicion. ‘I never imagined— No. I never dared to hope.’
‘Take it from me,’ Garrett said, lifting his mug to clink it against Nathaniel’s. ‘Family has a way of showing up in the unlikeliest of places.’
‘Don’t say that,’ Anders muttered. ‘You’re liable to summon Carver.’
Carver, however, was on a late shift that evening, working thanklessly and tirelessly for Constable Aidan; he had a curious sense of duty when it came to the odd jobs he picked up here and there, as though he thought following the rules would somehow net him the fame and fantasy he so obviously desired. Meanwhile, Garrett, breaking all the rules, being sneaky and underhanded and downright mad, ended up getting drunk with Cousland, Cousland’s dwarf, and the son of one of the most hated men in Ferelden. Second only to Loghain Mac Tir, of course, and behind both of them, Maferath. Fereldans were fickle like that. With time, Maferath would once again pull into the lead, but the events of the Blight and King Cailan’s death were all still very near, giving everyone someone else to hate beyond the usual suspects.
That was nice. Anders, too, felt less persecuted than usual, warmly, comfortably drunk out of his mind, watching the taproom swim about muddily, suspecting that Oghren was awake again now, and also farting. Every now and then the benches gave a diabolical rumble, matched only by the diabolical expression on Oghren’s face, the diabolical smell that followed, making Anders vomit each time, just a little, into his own mouth.
‘Hah! I know what yer thinking,’ the dwarf said.
‘Do you really?’ Anders asked, skeptical, not entirely sure if someone like Oghren was capable of understanding such refined, delicate, complicated thoughts as Anders had consistently.
‘Yeah,’ Oghren replied. ‘I sure do. And the answer is yes, not to mention I’m proud of it. Heh. Might not have the tone they could, but they sure are potent.’
‘I see,’ Anders said, and scooted farther away from him, closer to Garrett’s side.
Nathaniel Howe had wisely chosen not to visit his sister at this uncharitable hour of the night; instead, he was nursing his tankard of ale with the sour expression one might expect from someone who was currently working with the very man who’d killed his father. Unsavory individual as Arl Howe must have been, that nonetheless had to feel like a personal slight more than sometimes. It explained the mood, if not the nose.
Then again, Anders didn’t think there was anything that could explain a nose like that, other than noble inbreeding and very bad luck. Still, the more he stared at it, the more it became bizarrely appealing. There was just so much of it; it was so unavoidable, so unashamed of its own presence. So very there, and Anders so very drunk.
Garrett, on the other hand, didn’t have eyes for anyone but Cousland. It was possible, Anders suspected, that he’d finally bought into at least some of the hype—he must have been thinking about what it was like to be so famous, so well-loved, buried beneath so much more than simple, local worship by little people from township to township, but a general adoration from the public. With parades. With throngs.
It was dangerous for someone like Garrett to start thinking on a grander scale, because once he got an idea, he set about implementing it. Right now he was drinking, a pastime that was innocent enough, but there was a sharp, hard glitter in his eye that Anders didn’t quite recognize, a keen and distant longing—one he was only supposed to get when he looked up at the stars, a vast, dark sky full of distant, beautiful, celestial bodies, promising greatness, immortality, an eternal sort of treasure.
Anders stared down into his empty cup. It was the wrong mixture of ingredients, just the right number of drinks to feel contemplative, which was very bad, even worse when he had Garrett’s soft, fuzzy shoulder to rest his cheek on, smelling of warhound.
‘I’ve got a Mabari too, you know,’ Garrett said. His voice was a low rumble deep in his chest, seductive, almost flirtatious. Not overtly so—it was just that Anders had been with him so long, he could recognize it for what it was. Interest. Attraction. Desire. Anders wanted to crawl inside him and be buried there, to have that tone focused solely on him and him alone. But now it was saved for Cousland—broad-shouldered, green-eyed, handsome and legendary across the table. How could Anders hope to compete with that? Comely templars and innocent apprentices were one thing; the Hero of Ferelden was quite another. ‘We ought to have ours meet sometime. Get to know each other better.’
‘He is lonely these days,’ Cousland admitted.
‘Locked up in Vigil’s Keep?’ Garrett took a pull of his ale. Anders could see the bob of his throat, the dark stubble against the pale skin. ‘I can’t imagine how lonely that is.’
They stumbled back home once more in the early hours of morning, Garrett propping Anders up with one broad shoulder. Cousland took them half the way, then dragged his dwarf and his Howe back on the road.
‘A Warden’s work is never done,’ he explained. Anders wished he would look tired, or unhappy, or lonely, or anything other than cheeky and cheerful and not at all drunk.
‘Come back to the Crown and Lion soon,’ Garrett made him promise, and then they were wandering the mostly-empty streets, watching a few enterprising merchants setting up their stalls, hiding massive yawns behind their hands.
Malcolm was awake when they arrived, sitting at the table, holding a wooden mug of steaming tea in both hands. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Anders and Garrett. Good of you to join us tonight.’
‘Yes, well,’ Garrett said, moving swiftly past him, ‘we almost joined the Wardens instead. Didn’t we, Anders?’
Anders—caught between the proverbial rock of wanting badly to impress Garrett, and the hard place of wanting to prove to Malcolm that his kindness all those years ago hadn’t been for nothing—wisely froze up like a pail of milk in winter.
‘I beg your pardon?’ Malcolm asked. He lifted the mug in one hand, taking a thoughtful sip. ‘You’ll have to humor an old man—my ears aren’t quite what they used to be.’
‘You wouldn’t believe the coincidence,’ Anders said, making his decision quickly—one had to be swift to pull out in front of Garrett. ‘The Hero of Ferelden was drinking in the Crown and Lion tonight. I ask you—what are the odds?’
‘Entirely too likely, where my son is concerned,’ Malcolm replied.
Garrett rolled his eyes. Anders could feel the tension in his body, a sudden stiffness in his shoulders that hadn’t been present on the walk back. He’d heard these conversations between Malcolm and Garrett almost weekly for years now—nine times out of ten they ended in an apology the next morning and a good firm hug between relatives.
The tenth time, however, required a very special set of circumstances. Nights when Garrett was tired, or something had been nagging at him all day. Nights when Garrett was in a mood for no reason, or he had a reason, but because he was Garrett, he hadn’t told anyone what it was. As Garrett bristled beneath him, Anders could tell it was a tenth time kind of night. He drew his head off Garrett’s shoulder, creating the necessary distance between them, not wanting to be just outside the center of the storm when it hit.
The center itself was safe. That dangerous little ring close by wasn’t; it was the worst place to be, caught up in the gravity of it all, suddenly in between two force mages who loved one another, but were equal parts deadly and furious.
‘You can’t keep us trapped like birds in a nest forever, you know.’ Garrett wasn’t shouting, and he didn’t sound particularly angry; it was the frustration that Anders could sense, seeping like sweat from Garrett’s very pores. ‘Amaranthine’s bigger than Lothering, to be sure, but how long until you decide it’s not safe here, either? How long until you move us all to Orzammar—because Maker knows there aren’t any templars underground. We’ll all be safe there, won’t we—save for occasionally braining ourselves against low-hanging doorjambs, of course.’
‘Garrett—’ Malcolm began.
‘It’s time for bed,’ Garrett finished, knowing the rote command by heart. ‘Well—you heard the man, Anders. We’ve got to be up bright and early for another day of puttering around and putting down smugglers. What would this city do without us? I do so love making such a big difference in the lives of other people. Other people who have lives.’
Anders sighed. He nudged Garrett ahead of him with one hand against his armored back, mouthing a brief sorry to Malcolm as they passed. Malcolm noticed it, but didn’t nod or bow his head.
‘I bet the Hero of Ferelden doesn’t have to live by his father’s rules,’ Garrett called back; there was a bit of a sting in that one.
‘Indeed,’ Malcolm said, raising a thin brow. ‘Well, the Hero of Ferelden’s entire family was also brutally murdered; he was the only one to survive. Perhaps you can wish for that happy fortune to be bestowed upon you as well?’
‘You don’t have to take everything so seriously all the time, Father,’ Garrett said. It was almost a request.
‘Actually, I do,’ Malcolm said. The steam from his cup wisped up into his beard, vanishing into the gray. ‘But I wish you were right. How about that?’
‘A poor excuse,’ Garrett muttered, and went to slam the door.
That night, Anders couldn’t sleep. He stared at the hole in the curtains as the sun rose, watching the sky change from black to a cold, pearly gray. Garrett rustled and shifted in the next bed over; they were both restless, but neither seemed inclined to speak.
No one ever appreciated how hard that was for Anders. It took a lot of self-control to give other people their space, and even more to give them silence.
Midway through the night, the floorboards in the hallway creaked, signaling Carver’s return. He had no idea what he’d missed just by working all night, poor fellow. It was the story of his life.
When Anders finally did drift off—mere hours before Garrett would wake him with the sound of his boots falling off the end of the bed—he dreamt of being a Grey Warden, singlehandedly pushing back the Blight and riding an enormous winged tabby into battle in place of a griffon.
Anders found himself in a mess of trouble with Delilah Howe for not warning her about her brother’s impending arrival. But she couldn’t have known Anders was busy enough already dealing with his own familial situation; he weathered her accusations as bravely as he could, then offered her a minced meat pie to buy her forgiveness, and in return she offered him solace, at least for the afternoon.
Carver, predictably, had flown into a rage when he learned about Garrett’s new best friend the Hero of Ferelden, and nearly ran away from home because of it—if the little house could even be called home, when it wasn’t more than a glorified place to store their collection of travel-worn boots. They didn’t even own the pots and pans they used for cooking, neither the sheets nor the pillows, nothing from the teacups to the curtains. It was cozy enough, and had taken on particular, distinct, homey smells, but Garrett had been right about one thing.
Eventually, they would be moving on.
Carver’s reaction mollified Garrett somewhat after his late night fit of pique with Malcolm, but unless Anders had missed it somehow, he hadn’t yet apologized. To say things were tense would be an understatement; to say Anders enjoyed that kind of conflict would be an outright lie.
What they really needed, he realized on his way through the city market, was Leandra. She would have put an end to all this Wardening nonsense.
Then, having thoroughly depressed himself, Anders headed to the Crown and Lion for the rest of the afternoon. Though he had a reputation to maintain—for Malcolm Hawke’s sake, if not his own—he was also a very weak person, especially when it came to emotional revelations or even just the smell of bad whiskey. At first, it had been a catch-as-catch-can sort of situation, a period of time when he acted out because he had little idea of when he’d be hauled back to the Circle, and wasting precious time on dull experiences was an insult to his sudden rash of freedom. But as time passed and Malcolm expertly evaded the templars, and as each port turned to the next, each town to each farmstead, and Anders wasn’t left behind, the immediacy of it all, the keen need to do and feel and taste and also ruin began to fade, until it was merely a quiet, constant want. Always there, always greedy, always just a little desperate.
But that was how the Circle had made him.
Malcolm bought Anders his first real pint, gave him an elfroot potion for the nausea when he was sick the next morning. He did the same for Garrett some few years later, with Anders presiding, and by that point, Anders had ostensibly grown into manhood under Malcolm’s keen watch, something that wouldn’t have happened elsewhere. Anders was nearly sure of it.
Malcolm Hawke could have been a senior enchanter—a really good one, too—but that would have also been a waste of his talents, a waste of his right to choice. Instead, he was a father, a thwarter of smugglers, an intrepid adventurer, an apostate, and everything Anders wanted to be, along with everything Anders knew he wasn’t.
As time passed and the others became more rebellious, Anders only became more aware of how important it was for Malcolm to have someone on his side.
Even if that someone was far too much of a people-pleaser to speak up about it.
The Crown and Lion wasn’t crowded; it was only a Wednesday, after all, and still shamefully early at that. But there were a few people Anders recognized already in the taproom, notably the Hero of Ferelden and his companions, and also, an enormous mabari with its great pink tongue lolling and dripping dog drool onto the sawdust by its paws.
Crouched by the dog, rubbing the top of its broad, unassuming face with his skilled hands, was Garrett. Anders could have picked him out of far larger crowds than this one, dark hair and travel-dusted pauldrons and all, the gray of the fur and the glint of his piecemeal armor.
The dog looked happy enough; as it should be, with so much attention from a man in such high demand. Anders made a face, realized how obvious it was, and headed for the bar.
‘Your finest liquid destroyer of mental faculties, barkeep,’ Anders said.
The dwarven bartender gave him a look—the same look he always gave him when he said something ridiculous, instead of just asking for some blighted ale.
‘…Ale, please,’ Anders amended. As though they didn’t both already know that was what he wanted.
He took a gulp to steady himself, to ease the blow of whatever stupid thing he was bound to say next. Being inebriated—despite Malcolm’s fine training, Anders had no stage between sober and pissed out of his mind—wouldn’t make him smarter, but it would make his stupidity less embarrassing, at least while it was happening. Then, and only then, steeled by liquid courage, was he ready to face the Warden. Wardens, really, and the mabari, who was probably a Warden too, knowing how hard up they were for recruits these days. But there was just one who made Anders feel smaller than usual; it wasn’t the dwarf with his collection of pitch-perfect belches or Nathaniel Howe with his unhappy nose, or even the dog, who like all dogs made Anders instinctively uncomfortable.
‘Anders,’ Garrett said, suddenly at his back, suddenly with an arm around his shoulder. ‘Fancy meeting you here. Free rounds to my friends at the table over there, Dolgan.’
‘Coming right up,’ the dwarf said.
‘He has a name?’ Anders asked cheekily. Of course he had a name; of course Garrett knew it. ‘You know you smell like dog, by the way.’
Garrett tightened his arm, trapping Anders in more of a headlock than a lazy embrace. The gesture was playful, and lasted only seconds. ‘There’s nothing wrong with smelling of mabari every now and then. It’s how you know you’re a man. A Fereldan man, I’ll point out.’
‘Well, I’m not Fereldan,’ Anders said, the statement accompanied by a pointed sniff. ‘I’m from the Anderfels, thank you, and we have a rather more civilized idea of how to handle our pets in that country.’
He was, of course, talking straight out of his arse. The truth was, Anders had very little memory of the country whose name he bore. He’d been taken to the Circle so young, and Ferelden was really all that he remembered. If it weren’t for his name, his sensibilities, and his extraordinarily sandy-blond good looks, then he might as well have been born Fereldan after all.
But he could never admit to that. Sometimes a man’s pride was all he had.
‘Don’t give me that,’ Garrett said. He wasn’t buying what Anders was selling—not one bit. ‘You’re just a cat person.’
‘Guilty as charged,’ Anders admitted. He was embarrassed and thrilled to note that while Garrett had loosened his arm, he hadn’t pulled away completely. ‘You’re funding the Wardens’ bar tab now, are you?’
‘Buy a man a drink, and you’ve earned yourself a friend for life,’ Garrett said grandly. ‘Ancient Fereldan custom. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?’ He nodded in the direction of the Wardens’ table. Cousland was petting his mabari with the toe of his boot, Nathaniel was doing something that looked equal parts dangerous and fascinating with a dagger, and Oghren was slumped over in what looked like a plate of sweetmeats. But perhaps it was regurgitated poultry. Anders had no intention of getting close enough to find out. ‘I’d say that’s worth more than a few coppers, wouldn’t you?’
Somehow, Anders couldn’t find it in himself to disagree.
‘The key to fightin’ a broodmother is, you gotta wear her down to just her tentacles first,’ Oghren announced, no more than half an hour later, after Anders and Garrett had long since joined Cousland at his table.
‘And just think,’ Anders said. His fingers grazed a rough groove in the wood beneath his palms. ‘Mere seconds ago, I’d never even heard of a broodmother—and now she, I assume it’s a she, is mentioned in the same sentence as tentacles, no less! I’m all aquiver.’
‘Yeh-heh,’ Oghren nodded, letting loose with one of his disturbingly wet chuckles of approval. ‘That’s what they do: quiver. Like big bowls of wobbly…flesh ‘n’ vomit custard. You’ll never get the smell of that out of your armor—no, ser!’
‘So that’s what that pungent aroma is,’ Anders said. He smiled innocently when Garrett raised an eyebrow in his direction. ‘I’d wondered. And now I’ve learned so much more than I ever cared to.’
‘Oghren here is a veritable well of handy facts,’ Cousland said. He broke off a piece of the sausage he’d been eating and tossed it beneath the table for the dogs, since of course Garrett’s fearsome hound had joined them. And the barkeeper, bless his short little spirit, didn’t have the heart to enforce the no dogs rule when it came to the Hero of Ferelden. ‘He might as well have been an archivist.’
‘You don’t gotta make fun of me, Commander,’ Oghren said, with a roll of his watery eyes. ‘I’m just tellin’ ’em the ropes, in case they were looking to join the party full-time.’
Nathaniel made a noise of disbelief in the back of his throat, raw and smoky. He glared at Garrett and Anders together—making it clear he resented their presence above all else—then leaned in toward Cousland. ‘Surely you can’t allow him to go on this way. He’ll betray vital secrets.’
Vital secrets. Now there was a phrase that sounded promising; one couldn’t help but be instinctively interested. Anders didn’t share Garrett’s unexpected fascination with the Grey Wardens and their lore, but he appreciated vital secrets just as much as the next man.
Cousland let out a sigh. He leaned across the table, dragging Oghren’s tankard away. That act alone—more than any duels with large and fangy archdemons—showed the true extent of his bravery. ‘That’s enough, Oghren. Knotwood Hills won’t wait forever. The seneschal’s bound to notice if we come back empty-handed again.’
‘I don’t like this,’ Nathaniel said, although he stood too. ‘Staking all our time on nothing more than a hunter’s rumor? It could just as easily be a waste of time.’
‘If there’s a potential entrance to the Deep Roads somewhere nearby, then it’s our job to investigate it,’ Cousland said simply. There was an unhappy twist to his full mouth. ‘Once our ranks number in the double digits again, then you can decide what’s a waste of time and what isn’t.’
‘And until then, you decide.’ Nathaniel slid his dagger somewhere invisible; it glinted, once, a pointed trick of the light, before it disappeared completely. Anders wasn’t sure whether he disliked rogues more than he disliked dwarves—until Oghren stood, too, and released a wave of smells he’d been sitting on all night, like the barstool was his nest, and scent itself was his young. It certainly smelled like eggs under there. Just not fresh ones. ‘Yes. I see how it is, as always, Commander.’
‘It is a burden,’ Cousland agreed. He reached down, and his mabari lumbered to its paws. Garrett gave it a few pats on the head, but made no move to follow, or even stand to see them off.
Something was wrong with that. It just didn’t feel right, normal, like something Garrett would do, being a curious and impulsive and also reckless young genius. But Anders was too drunk to know what yet; it was coming to him, on the tip of his tongue, yet every time he neared the point of revelation, Oghren shifted and his leather creaked and some new smell hit him square in the face, distracting him from thought, murdering his brain.
‘Pleasure to meet you, boy,’ Garrett told the mabari. He rubbed at the thick-set wrinkles in the dog’s brow, and it whuffed in delight. ‘You’re the most sensible conversationalist I’ve met in ages.’ The hound barked, sounding happy, and Anders rolled his eyes, then put his head down into his folded arms, his nose pressed against the roughly-hewn table. That smell was familiar, not overly offensive, at least nor more so than usual: sweat, sawdust, stale, spilled ale.
‘Good night, Wardens,’ he said. ‘Good night, and good bye. And good other things—good luck, good hunting, good broodmothers, good darkspawn…’
Cousland—it had to be Cousland, with such a heroic grip, such strong fingers and a broad palm—clasped him on the shoulder. ‘All but the last two, we can only hope.’
Anders couldn’t see them leave, but he did hear them, the scuffle of boots and the scrabble of clickety-clackety dog claws against the floorboards. At his feet, Garrett’s hound lifted its head to yawn, then dropped its chin back down against Anders’s ankle, using his foot for a pillow.
‘Stop shedding on me,’ Anders told it, without looking up. ‘My boot is ruined. You never stop drooling. I hate you.’
‘Stop being mean to my dog,’ Garrett said. ‘Pick your head up, and splash some cold water on your face. We’re going out.’
Slowly, Anders raised his chin, angling it just enough that he could see the stark outline of Garrett’s face in the dim taproom light. They’d come before most of the Crown and Lion’s patrons had arrived, and they were still here long after the others had left. Some lonely bastard remained in the corner, strumming a lute that was very out of tune, and the barkeeper—or another dwarf who looked exactly like him; Anders wasn’t exactly the best judge at present—was standing next to him, humming, singing a few somber dwarven verses instead of actually doing his job. Even if there was no one to serve ale to, it was the principle of the matter that troubled Anders, on a fundamental and inebriated level.
But none of that was relevant, because Garrett was alive with possibilities, posture alert, poised, at the ready, the muscles of his back tense, his expression equal parts wary and entranced. Anders liked cats; he knew cats, and he also knew Garrett was ready to pounce. Somewhere, beyond the scope of Anders’s vision, Garrett could see something—a plan, an idea, the future itself. Anders had to squint just to see the color of Garrett’s eyes, but Garrett could see the very color of opportunity.
That wasn’t fair.
‘Where are we going?’ Anders asked, dragging himself away from the table and onto his feet. The world spun dangerously, but Garrett steadied him, leading him out of the tavern and into the cool night, the dog trailing affectionately behind them.
‘Knotwood Hills, of course,’ Garrett replied. He paused just long enough to let Anders bend down by the pump and sluice some ice-cold water over the back of his neck—because he was such a generous person—and then they were on the move.
It was dawn by the time Anders was finally sober, sober enough to wish he was still drunk. The dew had settled on every bare inch of skin, seeping through the fabric of his coat and his feathers; his body was a brittle map of tortured gooseflesh, and he knew his lips had turned blue and his skin ghost-white.
‘I’m dying, Garrett,’ he said, in the palest of hopes that such a thing would actually convince Garrett to turn back. ‘I have rocks in my boots. Will you carry me?’
‘Ride the mabari,’ Garrett suggested. He was distracted; he didn’t even laugh when the dog whined reprovingly.
‘Neither of us likes that idea very much,’ Anders said, foot catching in a gnarled tree root. He went flying, then righted himself again, but it was too late for his mood, too late for his dignity.
It was also too late to prevent this from happening—whatever this was. Dread had seeped in alongside the dew, just as chill, just as relentless. Anders knew he wasn’t the best chaperone. He wished Malcolm was there, to knock Garrett about the thick head with the side of his staff, with Carver and Bethany to help drag him home again after.
Anders had neither the arm strength nor the conviction of character necessary to do that sort of thing where Garrett was concerned. It didn’t mean his desire was lacking, just his ability to set that desire in motion.
And that was what lay between a man like Garrett and a man like Anders.
It made all the difference.
‘We don’t even know what’s in Knotwood Hills,’ Anders observed, trying to make Garrett see reason as they attempted to cross, together, the most poorly-constructed rope bridge Anders had ever seen in his life.
‘Deep Roads,’ Garrett said. The dark back of his head remained impassive, swinging side to side with the motion of the bridge. Anders was going to be ill. He’d looked down once already, and he hated himself for it. ‘Honestly, Anders, don’t you listen at all?’
‘Potentially an entrance to the Deep Roads,’ Anders corrected him. ‘There’s no way of knowing if it even leads anywhere. Might just be a local rumor or someone playing a practical joke.’
‘No one starts a rumor like that unless there’s some truth behind it,’ Garrett scoffed. He stepped onto solid land, then—mercifully—reached a hand out to pull Anders across the remaining distance, off the half-rotted planks and frayed rope.
All the aggravation that had been building in Anders since they set foot outside the city disappeared when Garrett squeezed his hand. His callused palm was warm, pressed tight against Anders’s soft one.
How did he do that? If Anders didn’t know any better, he’d have said Garrett was a blood mage. There was something about his mere presence that soothed Anders’s mind and bolstered his resolve at the same time, even when Anders was angry at him, especially when Anders was angry at him. Garrett was utterly manipulative, and worse—he was utterly aware of it. If it wasn’t due to blood magic, that was even more frightening a prospect. Imagine if such traits were natural.
Imagine if Garrett reproduced and those traits spread.
‘What do you plan on doing once we do find the Deep Roads, then?’ Anders asked. He leaned against Garrett’s chest to catch his breath, accepting the unspoken offer before it could be rescinded. ‘Throw off a few surreptitious fireballs, pound them hard with gravitational forces, and just…hope no one catches on? I doubt even the Wardens will look kindly on accepting an apostate into their ranks.’
‘They fight with mages,’ Garrett said. ‘Carver told me there were mages at Ostagar.’
‘Circle mages,’ Anders reminded him.
‘Do you really think that matters to Cousland?’ Garrett asked. Despite how completely mad he sounded, his eyes were clear and there was no trace of how much he’d drunk the night before in them. In fact, for the first time in Anders’s recent memory, Garrett didn’t look anything but certain, focused on a single purpose, strong and bright. There was no splintering frustration in his gaze, no flicker of impatient flirtation. This wasn’t something done in idleness, to waste the endless hours Garrett so resented in Amaranthine.
There was only the plan. And no matter how cracked it was, Anders couldn’t help but find that raw conviction alluring.
‘I think I’m not willing to risk your safety on a man I barely know,’ Anders admitted.
From somewhere behind him, that blasted mabari let out a whuff of disapproval. Not quite a bark, but it was wetter than a wheeze. It was remarkable how many resemblances there were between that animal and Oghren the dwarf.
‘Dog likes his mabari,’ Garrett pointed out. He grinned cheekily—just so Anders would know exactly how far gone he was—and pulled away, heading off down the wending path. ‘Mabari can tell you a man’s worth better than anyone. That’s enough of an endorsement for me.’
‘The dog?’ Anders asked. ‘You’re going to trust the dog?’
‘Keep up, Anders,’ Garrett called back. ‘You’re starting to sound like my father.’
In the days to follow, the words I told you so would prove wholly inadequate to express Anders’s feelings. Not only did the path in Knotwood Hills lead to the Deep Roads, but the mouth of the cave opened into an entire dwarven thaig. They’d barely made it five minutes in—down underground, in the dank and the dark—before they caught up to the Wardens’ party.
Fortunately for Garrett—unfortunately for everyone else—they were being set on by a host of the most monstrous things Anders had ever seen. They didn’t look like any species of darkspawn he’d laid eyes on before during his one—and hopefully only—Blight, but they took a flame like they were made entirely of whale oil and hot wax.
Perhaps they were. They were awfully lumpy little beasts—and they screamed like anything when they burned.
Worse than that was the sound they made when Cousland drew their attention and they leaped on him all at once, a pile of scrabbling legs and shifting chitin, brittle exoskeletons streaked with bloody slime. They didn’t scream then, but rather laughed, hungrily, and suckled on skin with their open mouths, trying to slurp sweet flesh clean off the bone.
Garrett, of course, didn’t hesitate for an instant, and scattered them with a single blast, his staff already in his hand. Anders rained fire down on the rest, red-hot burst after red-hot burst, and Cousland broke free with his daggers, snarling as he dove into the fray. There were dogs howling and Nathaniel’s shrieking arrows and Oghren’s bellows all throughout the cavern, Anders’s boots mired in something too sloshy and thick to be pure grime.
He did what Malcolm would have suggested, under the circumstances, and tried not to think about it.
‘You need mages,’ Garrett said when it was over, breathing hard. Anders wrenched his left leg free of the gloop and skirted around the pile of the dead, their bodies curled up with their wretched, clutching pincers finally stilled, a few of them twitching in their last, nightmarish death throes.
‘Do we now?’ Cousland asked. Then, he softened, blood smeared across his face—his own red and fresh, and something else grimy and dark brown, probably belonging to an earlier prey. ‘You’re right. That does sound tempting.’
‘Pretty flashy, all them lights,’ Oghren agreed. ‘Wouldn’t mind roasting a few more of those things before chopping ‘em up good.’
Nathaniel said nothing, but stalked to a far corner, removing an unbroken arrow from one of the creatures’ white, fleshy underbellies. He inspected the shaft, found it suitable, and returned it to his quiver.
‘Chatty,’ Anders said, not loud enough for anyone else to hear him, ‘aren’t you? Why are they never like their charming sisters?’
‘What were they?’ Garrett asked, wiping something filthy off the bottom of his staff. ‘I like to know the names of things I’ve killed. For posterity.’
‘I don’t really know.’ Cousland shrugged. He didn’t re-sheath his daggers. Instead, he had a wary focus, glancing off down one of the many branching tunnels that surrounded them, somewhere to his right. Oghren was still holding his war-axe in both hands, and Nathaniel had paused only to fletch his bow. Anders tried very hard to listen to what it was they heard, what they sensed coming, but to no avail.
Garrett’s dog whined in the back of his throat.
‘I like to call ‘em mincemeat,’ Oghren said. ‘Reminds me of home-cookin’.’
‘Grubs,’ Nathaniel said, stalking off into the darkness. ‘Childer grubs. Second wave—now.’
There were more of them, of course, swarming from the rocky landscape in countless droves. Garrett set about making himself seem unarguably useful, and Anders did his best not to get piled on like Cousland had before. With two rogues, two mages, and one barrel-shaped heavy-hitter, the little beasties—as said barrel-shaped heavy hitter put it—barely stood a chance.
‘This is Warden business,’ Cousland told them when they were finished, now knee-deep in childer grub corpses. ‘The two of you can’t go any further, I’m afraid. Much as we’d love to have you.’
‘It isn’t as though we couldn’t hold our own,’ Garrett pointed out. He didn’t seem disappointed, but Anders knew the look he was wearing all too well—it was the textbook definition of stubborn bloody bastard. Anders wanted to tell Cousland there was no point in arguing, but he’d find that out for himself soon enough. ‘I was counting. Were you counting, Anders?’
‘I didn’t really have time for counting,’ Anders admitted. ‘I was too busy wondering where my life went so horribly wrong.’
‘That happens to people who travel with me,’ Cousland said. Oghren cleared his throat, or perhaps choked on a week-old chicken bone. ‘People and dwarves,’ Cousland amended.
‘Just ain’t right lumping me in with people,’ Oghren replied.
Anders couldn’t help but agree with that assessment.
‘Look,’ Cousland continued, finally cleaning his daggers and sheathing them on his back once more, ‘I could invoke the right of conscription here and now, if you’re all that keen. I can do that. I’ve done it before. But the truth of the matter is…it’s hardly fair to your dog.’
‘Your dog seems happy enough,’ Garrett pointed out.
Anders was getting rather tired of this dog metaphor; it was obvious the two of them were talking about each other, and frankly, it was starting to become obscene. ‘Not to mention how unkind it would be to your Anders,’ he said, not caring at all if it made him seem annoying and needy. Which, naturally, it did. ‘You can’t really think this is a good idea, Garrett. We’ve had our fun; we’ve fought with the Hero; Carver will brown his city guard armor with abject jealousy… We achieved what we came for, didn’t we? Now let’s just pack up and go home and save this story for a rainy day. Somewhere nice, cozy, warm. No childers. No grubs. Doesn’t that sound lovely?’
‘He’s right.’ Cousland’s expression was tight, but there was a wistful shadow in his eyes. He was no longer listening for something that existed, creeping and crawling in the unseen dark, but imagining something that didn’t exist—a moment of respite, perhaps; untroubled sleep; happier days; vacation. ‘You seem clever enough. If I had it to do all over again…’
‘You’d choose the same thing,’ Garrett said.
It was a gamble, but like all of Garrett’s gambles, it naturally paid off. ‘Right again,’ Cousland said. ‘You’re good at this.’
Garrett accepted the compliment gracefully. ‘Good at killing darkspawn, too.’
‘And such modesty,’ Cousland said.
Oghren belched, resting the head of his double-ended waraxe in the gravel beneath their feet. ‘Last I checked, this wasn’t a tea party for ladies to stand around and gossip about the size of their petticoats. That Legion scout—she didn’t cut and run for nothing. My bet’s the real prize is further in.’
‘My goodness,’ Anders said, staring down at him. ‘Real sentences. You’ve been holding out on us, Oghren.’
‘Hurr,’ Oghren agreed.
‘You need us,’ Garrett reminded Cousland firmly. There was no desperation in his voice, but instead a certainty, which seemed impossible both to ignore and to resist. ‘Anders is a healer.’
Now that was going too far. It was no skin off Anders’s nose whether Garrett sold himself off like a hunk of good meat to the highest bidder, but parading certain other people around like the farm’s prize pig was quite another matter entirely.
Anders didn’t want to be useful to the Wardens. Especially not now that he’d experienced fighting darkspawn up close and in person.
Cousland sighed. He looked at Oghren, who’d begun twirling his weapon, and Nathaniel, still glowering in the shadows like a shade. There was a restlessness in his posture, but he didn’t fidget because of it, instead remaining perfectly still. Both Nathaniel and the dwarf were, Anders realized—each in his own way—leaving the decision up to Cousland. What a lucky fellow he was, to have such loyal companions, who believed in him so much they had him make all the tough choices.
‘You’re going to regret this,’ Cousland said at last. He reached up over one shoulder to touch the off-hand weapon at his back, looking troubled. Of course, that expression could easily be blamed on whatever odor was currently wafting over from beneath Oghren’s armor. Anders was beginning to realize that the plate actually worked to trap long-buried smells in against his skin, leaving them there to fester and freeing them only when he shifted in exactly the right way.
It wasn’t worse than the childer grubs. But it was more omnipresent.
‘So long as you don’t regret it,’ Garrett replied, and from the look in Cousland’s eyes, Anders had to wonder if the Hero of Ferelden was currently capable of regretting anything at all.
There were more childer further into the tunnels, not merely grubs, but dreadful clicking beasts that broke free of their cocoons fully-formed. They charged Cousland on thin insect legs, their round mouths sharp with rows and rows of teeth to satisfy their innate hunger. Nathaniel drew and fired like a relentless machine, his face impassive, cutting down their enemies where they stood, reaching back to reload and repeating the process over and over. Anders had never worked with an archer before, certainly not one so precise, unwilling to exchange jaunty dialogue to obscure the presiding sense of abject terror.
Oghren was always at the forefront, blade swinging, body spinning. Sometimes Anders couldn’t tell what was skill and what was pure accident, but he cleared the way for them well enough that it didn’t entirely matter.
Then there was Garrett: he and Cousland worked better together than even Garrett could have predicted. Cousland kept the childers off his new mages with his daggers, and Garrett covered him with a few well-timed force-blasts, always at just the right moment to send the most enemies scrabbling and clacking against the far cavern walls.
Anders had to admit there was something oddly beautiful about watching darkspawn scatter like a flock of frightened birds when one of Garrett’s spells turned their world topside-up. Somehow, Garrett always managed to steer them straight into the path of Nathaniel’s rain of arrows, or Oghren’s axe, and it was there that they met their inevitable, shrieking end, loudest always before the silence.
Afterward, Anders tended to a round, ragged bite-mark on Cousland’s neck. His skin was pale, but the pulse in his throat held strong, beating rapidly against the sensitive pads of Anders’s fingertips.
‘I hate the Deep Roads,’ Cousland confided, speaking softly while the others kept watch. ‘I suppose that doesn’t make me a very good Warden.’
‘No,’ Anders agreed. Bright light flashed under his palm, and he felt the wound begin to close, skin knit tight over raw muscle, streaked with warm blood. ‘It makes you far too sane for that.’
As the days passed below the surface, Anders did his best to formulate the ultimate excuse—the perfect explanation for Malcolm about why they’d been gone so long, and also why they’d left no warning. Telling the truth was obviously the worst thing he could do, though Malcolm was unnaturally clever and Garrett rarely deceiving when it would benefit Anders for a change. The entire Hawke family would learn all about this chapter in Garrett’s life sooner or later, but at least coming up with a good story kept Anders’s mind occupied and off his current, miserable situation.
Anders wasn’t a dwarf, obviously; he was a mage from sunnier, livelier climes, and the lower they descended, the less happy he became. Considering how unhappy he’d been at the entrance, his mood was currently as damp and as dark as each narrow set of stairs that led them downward and only ever downward, cold, unforgiving, wet stone lined with what appeared to be bulbous lumps of festering flesh. Sometimes—or maybe it was just a trick of the light—it all appeared to be moving.
Something squelched beneath Anders’s boot. It hissed and wriggled, then fell still.
He’d say they went on a bender, he told himself; that Garrett had just a bit too much to drink, and Anders’s attempts to chaperone him ended in a lost wager to a group of Tevinter slavers straying far from home, looking for handsome body slaves to serve their wicked masters. When Anders bravely offered his handsome body in Garrett’s stead, the slavers naturally took the obvious opportunity for procuring two handsome body slaves and rendered them both unconscious with great spiked clubs. But, somewhere between the Crown and Lion and their slaving ship down at the docks, something went horribly wrong, and when they woke, Garrett and Anders found themselves in Orzammar of all places, bound to fight together in the Proving to win their elusive freedom. What with one thing and another, they logically ended up married to two feisty dwarven women, short but powerful, stern but positively wicked in the bedroom, and it was there they had to battle their way back through hordes of angry clansmen in order to free themselves from two lifetimes of wedded bliss and return to the family they so adored.
‘You look like you’re about to bust something vital in that head of yours,’ Oghren muttered, coming up on Anders like a particularly vituperative rash. ‘What’re you thinking about? Lemme guess: it’s something naughty.’
Anders did what he could to keep an eye on Garrett in the dark, flickering light from Cousland’s torch rounding a far-off corner, their shadows warping and stretching together before they finally disappeared. Anders felt as though he’d never catch up. ‘Nothing so pleasant, I’m afraid. Rather, I was imagining what it would be like to be married to a dwarf.’
‘Don’t go gettin’ any ideas, mage,’ Oghren replied. ‘I already been married once, and besides: you’re not my type.’
‘Cruel,’ Anders said. ‘But what about Nathaniel? How do you feel about big noses?’
The alibis became more elaborate as their situation became more obviously dire. Yet Anders managed to maintain the necessary fiction that there wouldn’t be a joining at the end of the tunnels—that Garrett would come to whatever lay in the depths of the Deep Roads and realize what a folly this all was. Then, Anders would help him to run away—something Anders was instinctively good at—and they could face the wrath of Malcolm Hawke together.
As unpleasant as that future was, it was familiar, and a far a better prospect than the idea of Garrett actually becoming a Warden. He might not have seen the look on Cousland’s face moments before darkspawn burst from the walls—or maybe he had seen it, and simply didn’t care—but Anders had plenty of time to observe its nuances while standing in the back, lending the party protective fire, instructing their enemies to suck on his fireballs. It was obvious from his eyes, that sad, full mouth, that Cousland wasn’t happy.
No one who spent most of his time underground could be happy and still retain his sanity, which of course explained dwarves.
Anders liked to feel needed, and being the party’s only decent healer did place him in that position, but with each fresh wound he closed on Garrett’s arms and shoulders, one beneath the torn leather over his ribs, a broken ankle, a bloody nose, he felt more and more at a loss as to why Garrett was doing this, what it was he thought he was going to find in all this mess. He threw himself into each battle with the same zeal as a Warden, and he was as skilled as ever, but he didn’t seem content to stand with Anders where mages should stand, in the back with the archer, where they would be safe. Or at least safer; it was all about comparatives in this place.
‘Really, Garrett,’ Anders tutted. ‘Not the face. You’re going to ruin it. And it’s a good one.’
‘Good thing you’re here to patch it up again, isn’t it?’ Garrett asked, turning away. Light colored his pale skin, sallow from sleepless nights spent underground, the shadows rolled under his eyes, as Anders healed the split skin along his cheekbone, the dark bruise fading gently away.
‘Oh, yes.’ Anders’s fingers strayed, feeling stiff, dried blood in the hair at Garrett’s temple. He brushed it free. ‘I’ve managed to do so much here—like stop you from endangering yourself, stop you from endangering me, talk sense into you at just the right moment, turn you back before we ever made it to Knotwood Hills…’
‘This is better than anything we’ve ever done,’ Garrett said.
Anders finally dropped his hands. Garrett was all healed; there was no excuse left to keep touching him. ‘Define ‘better’ for me, please?’ he asked. ‘Because I wasn’t aware better ever involved darkspawn and childer grubs and—what was it Oghren said we were likely to find down here? Ah yes. Broodmothers.’
‘You can’t tell me this doesn’t feel good,’ Garrett said. He let his hand fall against Anders’s thigh, fingers drumming against thick fabric and the taut muscle beneath. And he was right; Anders couldn’t say that didn’t feel good. Sadly, he was rather certain that touch wasn’t what Garrett was referring to.
‘Can’t I?’ Anders asked, his voice like a fireball winking out, with none of the energy and clout he needed to argue with Garrett effectively, to make Garrett listen.
‘We’re making a difference.’ Garrett squeezed Anders’s knee, sending a jolt of warmth upward through his body. ‘We’re living, Anders—the way we were meant to. You can’t tell me you want to spend the rest of your life cowering in every backwater outpost between the Frostback Mountains and Denerim until we die, always looking over your shoulder for templars, frightened to breathe—frightened to move, frightened to use your staff in the daylight, in barfights, in the street. Frightened that even when you do cast a spell, in the dark of the night, for good and not ill, the people you’re helping will turn you in anyway, because they’re bastards or because they’re just plain foolish.’
Anders pursed his lips, swallowing to conceal the lump in his throat. Damn him, but Garrett had inherited his father’s gift for giving speeches. It was difficult to put him off with a simple rejoinder, because what Anders valued most of all was freedom—and what Garrett had just described wasn’t it. The plain fact of the matter was that it was far more difficult to conceal four mages in one household than it was for one to slip unseen through the templars’ nets.
But Anders also knew that he’d have never made it this far if it wasn’t for Malcolm taking him under his wing; so he was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t.
Not looking at the situation closely allowed him to maintain the pretense that it wasn’t so bad. And it could have lasted, too, that appealing narrative, if Garrett hadn’t taken it upon himself to explain things in such blatant terms.
Not for the first time, Anders felt the futility of it all. Being born a mage in Thedas meant being shackled at birth, with no way to break the chains of that bondage. It swelled up inside him like the taint, raw and black and bubbling. He might as well have been a Warden already, for all he was poisoned from the inside out, for all he had to accept this burdensome calling.
Garrett drew his thumb up and down the curve of Anders’s knee, bringing him back to himself.
‘If that’s what you’re so worried about, why didn’t you just ask me to run away with you to Tevinter?’ Anders mumbled, still raw from the blow Garrett had unknowingly dealt him. ‘We could live like kings. Or magisters, at the very least. We’d be able to use our magic right there in the streets, if we felt like it.’
‘Because I know how you feel about blood magic,’ Garrett said. An honest grin split his face, lighting up the dim shadows of the cave around them. Anders hated the sight of it, if only because of how weary and happy Garrett looked. Didn’t he know even Wardens didn’t want to be underground? ‘And Carver would make a terrible slave.’
‘But also hilarious,’ Anders admitted. He gave the back of Garrett’s cold hand a little pat, and added, ‘All fixed,’ even though it wasn’t.
‘Is anyone else seeing ghosts?’ Anders wondered aloud, one day shy of one week underground. ‘Because I think I’m seeing ghosts.’
‘Best to keep yer head down,’ Oghren muttered. Was he actually trying to keep quiet? It was impossible to tell—but rather endearing all the same. Anders chose to pretend he was, for Anders’s sake, because Oghren was finally growing fond of him, just as everyone did sooner or later. ‘Everyone in Orzammar thought Kal’Hirol was lost. Don’t like agreeing with the naysayers and the nug-humpers for no good reason, but I’m starting to think maybe some thaigs are better off staying lost.’
‘But think of all your wonderful dwarven culture buried here,’ Anders said. ‘All the secrets to banging out weapons on anvils and carving geometric shapes into unforgiving stone that might’ve been gone forever.’
‘Faugh!’ Oghren said, spitting directly through one ghost’s face as it swirled past them, all white mist and unending sorrows. It didn’t blink. Ghosts never did. ‘Artisans.’
‘Have some respect for the dead,’ Nathaniel chided.
‘Hard to feel respectful when you’re covered in childer entrails,’ Garrett said. He held up his hands when Nathaniel rounded on him. ‘I’m merely pointing out the facts. Some of us wouldn’t know what that’s like, standing in the back all the time.’
Cousland slipped around a corner, smoothly pulling out his daggers as he did so. Anders had to hand it to him—if the Wardens were useful for anything, it was their uncanny ability to sense darkspawn coming.
‘Trouble up ahead,’ he muttered. For the first time since they’d arrived, Anders thought he saw a flicker of worry pass over Cousland’s noble countenance. ‘Be on your guard—that goes for new recruits and old.’
It was Anders’s first golem; he hoped it would be his last. This one seemed to be special—because it was on fire, sort of, or at the very least occasionally flaming—and as far as Anders knew that wasn’t supposed to happen.
Fireballs did nothing but fuel its blazing advances, and Anders shifted tactics quickly, tucked into a narrow corner and calling on a trusted ice spell instead. Nine times out of ten it froze everyone within its perimeter, not just the enemy, but then Anders could always warm the poor bastards on his side up; it bought them some extra time for ice carving before the golem’s natural heat melted whatever remained of its arcane prison.
‘Liked the fireballs better,’ Oghren said, roaring his way past Anders’s hiding-hole. ‘A good singe on yer beard’s ten times better’n a pair of frozen manjigglies. HUAGH!’
His berserker’s battle cry echoed through the thaig, rattling the stalactites, mingled with the clash of blades against fiery rock, Nathaniel’s hail of arrows singing through the hot air, pinging uselessly off the golem’s broad chest.
And all that was before they were joined by another enemy.
If Anders had been called upon to say anything nice about fighting golems in general—not that he had enough experience yet to generalize, but it was a fine start—he would have admitted that they were at least straightforward, all rumbling power and smashing fists. They weren’t quick, they weren’t tricky, and they certainly weren’t smart. They could dole out plenty of damage despite their shortcomings, and it wasn’t as though Anders wanted to fight another one of them ever again under any circumstances, but they were easily distracted and even more easily outwitted. Anders managed to freeze it in place for long enough that Garrett’s next force spell and Oghren’s next blow combined were strong enough to shatter it, giant ice chips and smaller ice shavings and scorched chunks of rock skittering in a flurry along the ground. Just like winter.
But in the frozen rubble’s wake, as the frost cleared, as Anders took a breath of relief too soon, their second opponent appeared, gray-white face beneath the glint of chainmail, bloodshot eyes, lips bleached back in a tortured rictus of a smile. Anders’s gaze shifted, traveled upward, along the length of a tall, broad, tormented body, nearly human, but never quite achieving humanity’s better aspects. It was a darkspawn, it had to be, but it wasn’t right, close enough to a real person’s intelligent tics and twitches that Anders questioned himself.
And then, it spoke. Words, not grunts, as coherent as Oghren on a good day. Anders was positive darkspawn weren’t supposed to do that.
‘We cannot be letting you pass through here,’ it said, with a half-way bow, a gesture of a long-clawed arm. ‘We will not be letting you.’
‘If I had a sovereign for every time someone said something like that to me,’ Cousland said, jaunty and tense, ‘then I’d be a wealthy man. Again.’
‘What about every time a darkspawn said something like that you?’ Anders asked. His voice, he was ashamed to admit, actually broke on the final word.
‘Perhaps I’d better start a collection now,’ Cousland said, and leaped—no time, no trust, no patience, no mercy.
From the start it was clear this was another battle entirely, one comprised of sacrifices and of wits; Anders never imagined his life would end because he’d been outsmarted, not outstabbed, by a darkspawn. But the blighted creature was as strong as the golem in its own way, and outranked that formidable enemy by a mile when it came to tactics and strategy.
Anders truly, very badly, desperately wished to kill it—so he wouldn’t have to look at it anymore, so he wouldn’t have to think about how familiar it was to hear someone talking as they fought. The darkspawn moved all too quickly, preternaturally so, with lashing talons and a deadly scythe, each thrust and parry studied and practiced and outright planned. It wasn’t some raging, mindless beast from the dregs of the earth’s core, smashing bones and snapping necks because it didn’t know any better. It had something to protect, a purpose, a cause, and the longer Anders had to see it in action the more time he had to really think about what that meant.
Nothing good would come of this.
They had the Hero of Ferelden on their side; heroes always found a way to save the day. The thought almost comforted Anders as he did his best to melt the flesh from the darkspawn’s bones; here and there, the flesh was already stripped back, revealing gray and red muscle beneath, coiled tight and narrow, the bone itself just under that. Darkness clouded its eyes, the skin at its brows and cheeks.
Sweat dripped down Anders’s face as he shot fire past his fingertips; Oghren’s axe buried itself into the thing’s shoulder and lodged there; three of Nathaniel’s fletched arrows stuck out of its chest, somewhere close to where its heart should be, if darkspawn even had that particular organ—but still it pressed forward undaunted, its weapon trained on Cousland, who ducked and dodged in a flurry of bright blade-arcs and tendrils of smoke.
Where was Garrett?
Honestly—if he was being truthful with himself, something he saved only for special occasions—Anders didn’t care about the others, not in the same immediate way. He knew Garrett; he’d lived with Garrett, spent more than seven days underground with him, but something closer to seven years. They’d been to every town in Ferelden together, or so it sometimes felt; they’d toasted in every taproom, no matter how bitter the brew, no matter how overpriced the ale. And now Garrett was here, in the midst of this terrible whirlwind, at the thing’s back, staff lodged in the ground, light gathering at the head. Garrett’s brow was tight and his face was sheer concentration, his lips whispering a silent spell, but the creature was drawn to the sound, to the weakness, maybe even to the magic. When he turned, Anders shouted, and Cousland buried his daggers in its back, and Garrett was sent flying into the craggy rock-face behind him, moments after the spell was cast.
It was his spell that ended things, the aberrant body torn apart, limbs bursting through the air, the sound of rending flesh and chain-links snapping, brittle joints popping out of place one after the next after the next.
As much as Anders loathed him for putting himself in danger—and oh, he did; they would be having words later, and if Garrett dared to compare Anders to his father again, Anders would light him on fire—that didn’t stop him from rushing to Garrett’s side. Just to make sure he hadn’t broken anything vital. Like his head, for example, or his arse.
Both were incredibly important parts of the Hawke anatomy, as far as Anders was concerned.
‘Not bad,’ Oghren said, beating Anders to Garrett’s side by sheer virtue of having been there all along. He barely had to bend over in order to give him a hand up. ‘Keep that up, and I might just have to rethink my stance on how useless alla you sparklefingers are.’
‘I wouldn’t hold my breath,’ Nathaniel muttered.
‘What’d you say about my breath?’ Oghren demanded.
From the other side of the room, there was a soft, sickly crunch of bone, and the sound of something wooden being rolled across the floor. Anders turned just in time to see Cousland tucking the toe of his boot beneath a smooth wooden staff. He jerked his leg and the weapon flew up into his hand. It was a neat trick. Anders was going to have to practice it someday—although he already knew he wouldn’t be able to replicate it while wearing robes, or with his poor hand-to-eye coordination.
‘I think you deserve this,’ Cousland said, hefting the staff in both hands just so he could hold it out to Garrett.
Under normal circumstances—though Anders wasn’t all that sure what qualified as normal anymore—Anders would have been swept up in the romance of it all. Fighting with Grey Wardens, earning their favor, defeating an unspeakable evil only to be presented with its weapon of infinite power… It was all very fantastical. Just like something out of a novel, one of the really juicy ones.
Instead, however, Anders was singed, cranky, and doing his level best to look Garrett over for injuries. He’d winced when Oghren had dragged him to his feet, but he didn’t seem to be favoring one side over the other. There was a dark streak of blood across the back of his neck, but the same was spattered over his clothes, flecking the armor and matting down his fur pauldrons. Anders gulped back fetid breaths full of dank air, attempting to feel brave and heroic, instead feeling lonely and anxious and on the verge of outright panic. As always.
Garrett was unharmed. It had looked bad, but that was what made for the stirring climax in every story Anders had ever read, so he supposed he believed it.
‘You’re just saying that because we’re your only mages,’ Garrett said. He tossed a crooked look in Anders’s direction, then winked. There was mud—or some other foul thing—smeared across the bridge of his nose. He looked like a painted Dalish warrior, except they were always beardless to a fault.
‘Better to have it put to use than moldering away in some merchant’s caravan,’ Cousland agreed. The hard set of his shoulders relaxed somewhat, and Anders realized that he’d been looking Garrett over for injuries just as carefully.
That whole business with the staff had been nothing more than a roguish ruse.
‘We’re close, now,’ Nathaniel said. He’d slipped free of the main group to scout ahead; Anders had barely noticed his departure, to say nothing of how stealthily he’d made his return. Nathaniel Howe was certainly a man to keep close watch on—if you could. The only problem was that Anders only had two eyes, and they were rather focused on monitoring Garrett all the time. ‘Less than a day’s passage, I’d say.’
‘How does he do that?’ Anders wondered, falling closely into step with Garrett. ‘How do you do that, Nathaniel?’
‘I can smell them,’ Nathaniel said, in a way that made Anders very sorry he’d asked.
They were near enough now that no one wanted to stop and set camp for the night. Anders rather suspected he wasn’t the only one growing sick of cold stone and colder air and the interminable shifting whisper of the darkspawn, all around them but not quite attacking them now. It made for horrible, restless sleep—he could only imagine what the entire ordeal was doing to his complexion.
He kept close to Garrett in the long, dark tunnels, near enough that he’d catch him if he stumbled. That hadn’t happened yet, but Anders could tell he was getting tired. Garrett always got a certain look about him—his shoulders stooped, and his eyes grew hooded beneath his lashes, lids drooping but never quite falling shut. His skin had taken on the sheen of new cheese, waxy and pale, not yet ripe enough to eat.
If he started sweating next, the way cheese did, Anders had no more clean handkerchiefs to dab against his broad forehead.
Personally, Anders couldn’t imagine anything more foolish than rushing toward a broodmother on no sleep at all, but then, what did he know? He was only a healer. Useful in a pinch, that person nobody could really do without, but never the captain, never the leader. Never the master of his own domain, much less the master of anyone else’s. He wasn’t even a very good battle-mage; back-up suited him fine most of the time, but he was wishing more and more these days that he had the self-confidence and the commanding presence to make people pay attention to what he had to say. Or not even people—just Garrett would do. Only Garrett.
Was that asking so much?
Garrett paused where he was, reaching up to wipe his brow with the back of his arm. Up ahead, Anders heard the sound of Oghren muttering to himself, the swing and swish of his axe through the air as he swung it before him. There was no path of gnarled underbrush to clear in this blighted place—literally blighted!—but Anders didn’t exactly mind the strategy. It certainly swept the ghosts away, though even the ghosts trapped here were sensible enough to stay out of the true deep.
It was all very lonely without them, and Anders fished around in one of his packs for a handkerchief. It wasn’t as fine a gift as a brand new staff, one inscribed by darkspawn and possessing untold power, but it would be of some help. Nothing grand, nothing particularly noticeable, but necessary in the same way Anders liked to imagine he was necessary.
Everyone needed to blow his nose now and then. It was the little things that really counted, at the end of the day.
Anders had been holding the handkerchief out for a long time now, but Garrett hadn’t taken it, nor had he made any move to go on. It wasn’t like him to slow down, not for anyone or anything, and Anders finally drew up alongside him, listening to the ragged pulse of his unsteady breath.
‘Garrett,’ Anders said.
Garrett lifted one hand, waving, distracted and vague. ‘I’m fine.’
‘No one ever says that when they’re really fine,’ Anders pointed out. ‘They never have to, you see.’
‘It’s not my fault if everyone else you’ve ever met has been a dreadful liar.’ Garrett’s voice had some mirth in it; Anders dared to hope, like the fool that he was, that everything was fine, and Garrett wasn’t the most dreadful liar of all, and the sheen on the back of his neck—the curve of something dark and bloody and gruesome beneath the furs, like a hidden wound—was nothing but a trick of shadows on more shadows, an illusion in the caves.
The dog brushed its head against the back of Anders’s knees and whined. It was a sound that perfectly encapsulated Anders’s feelings: uncertain and wary and full of dread.
‘Garrett,’ Anders said again.
‘You aren’t my father, you know,’ Garrett said. The last time he’d sounded this bitter he’d be no more than sixteen, wondering just the same as Anders how much longer Anders would be staying, what it meant for Garrett, what it meant for who he was supposed to become. Garrett had grown past that resentment of no longer being the oldest one once he’d learned how much less mature Anders was than anyone, but it had taken months to come to that conclusion, guarded and suspicious months they barely spoke to one another at all. ‘And you aren’t my brother, either. It isn’t as though you can tell me what to do—it isn’t your place. It never has been.’
‘Well, I rather thought I was your friend, at the very least,’ Anders murmured lightly. ‘If only some of the time. I just want to see what’s on the back of your neck—’
Garrett made a noise, frustrated and defensive. Defenseless, too—or maybe that was just Anders projecting. ‘Fine. But it isn’t your fault, so try not to get all guilty about it, there’s a good man.’
The noise their companions made—which wasn’t all that loud to begin with—had already faded off down the tunnel. They were two mages, not exactly defenseless, but certainly not Warden level just yet. Anders knew there wasn’t much time to waste; he already felt bad enough as it was imposing on Cousland’s lifestyle without having any real plans of helping them further.
Then, fingers hooked underneath the damp fur of Garrett’s pauldron, he revealed the wound—black-and-blue around the edges, gooseflesh chalky beyond that, a spreading, bruise-dark network of little veins that ran over Garrett’s pale skin, between all the freckles scattered across his shoulders.
Anders recoiled as though it had burned his fingers. When the pauldron fell back into place, Garrett’s shoulders twitched; Anders recognized the expulsion of breath as a sound of pain.
‘Cousland,’ Anders said. The darkspawn could hear them; the ghosts could hear them; the tunnels could collapse around them for all he cared. ‘Cousland!’
It was the Taint, of course, and all Garrett’s strengths would mean nothing to that now that it was upon him. He couldn’t charm it into leaving, talk it into infecting someone else, convince it he was a terrible host and it might do better with another, some ways down the road. And it wasn’t Anders’s fault all this had happened because he was older, and should have known better, and should have known how to stop this, but that certainly didn’t help him to feel better about himself, either.
Cousland didn’t have to confirm what they already knew. At least Nathaniel and Oghren both had the decency not to look away; they were good people, good, strange people. Cousland stopped them in a wide portion of the tunnel, in an alcove of mineral-streaked rock, and unsheathed his daggers.
‘You can’t kill him!’ Anders protested, horrified.
Cousland looked sad, apologetic, then rolled his eyes. ‘I could, but I won’t. Wait here.’
‘Where’s he going?’ Anders asked as he disappeared round a sharp corner, looking to Oghren and Nathaniel for some kind of explanation. Not that anything would appease him now, but if he just kept talking… ‘What is he—is he just leaving us here? He’s a terrible hero!’
‘Darkspawn hunting, I think,’ Nathaniel replied.
Anders tried not to choke on his own tongue ‘God to know he has a sense of the appropriate.’
Garrett reached for Anders’s hand, touching the back lightly. His palm was clammy, his pulse slow. ‘I think it’s the perfect day for hunting darkspawn. Or night—down here, it’s rather hard to tell.’
Anders smacked his hand away, then reached back immediately, clutching it hard. If he held on tightly enough, Garrett would never have to know how badly his own were shaking. All Anders could think about was Malcolm, and how no amount of dwarven divorces or excuses about Orzammar were going to be able to hide something like this from his watchful eyes. Everyone was going to know, because Garrett was going to—no, no, Anders couldn’t think about it. Every time his mind went there, his brain shorted out completely, as if struck by a renegade spark of chain lightning.
Instead of his thoughts forming words, he could only picture the look on Bethany’s face, the look on Carver’s, which was somehow worse than all the others. None of them would ever forgive him. To say nothing of whether Anders would ever be able to forgive himself.
Anders felt a strong hand on his shoulder—not Garrett’s. Instead, Nathaniel had come forward, exerting just enough pressure to bring Anders back down to ground. Or under ground, as the case might have been.
‘You’re breathing too fast,’ Nathaniel said, releasing him. ‘You’ll lose consciousness.’
‘I rather think that’s the least of our concerns at the minute,’ Anders replied.
‘Anders is far hardier than he looks,’ Garrett added, daring to sound proud. ‘He could panic for hours and not even break a sweat.’
‘And you aren’t helping,’ Anders said. He crouched inward on himself, tucking his body back against the uneven stone wall, between Garrett and a stalagmite. ‘Don’t try to be funny. I’m very angry with you.’
Garrett resettled his grip so that he could lace his fingers through Anders’s. The cool touch of his skin was unbearable, and because of that Anders was being unfair. Still, even though both of them knew it, Anders saw no way of putting a stop to it anytime soon.
‘Don’t be like that,’ Garrett said. Despite the dark of the corridor, Anders could see the spidery network of veins crawling up along his throat, toward the corner of his jaw, disappearing under the line of his beard. ‘Do you really want your last words to me to be something ornery?’
Anders kicked him. Since they were both sitting, it didn’t have much effect.
‘Wouldn’t go takin’ yer last rites just yet,’ Oghren said. He’d used the opportunity to pull a flask out of parts unknown in his armor, taking a long swallow and wiping the foam from his beard. Anders’s chest tightened in miserable desire.
If there’d ever been a moment when he needed to be drunk off his arse, this was it.
‘Be silent, dwarf,’ Nathaniel said. Maker bless, but he actually sounded as though he believed it would have some effect.
Oghren chuckled. ‘All I’m saying is, the Warden-Commander’s not out there hunting just for sport. Never does that, blighted sod, and Hawke here’s proven himself to be a hot little handful under pressure. I’m willing t’bet he was gonna end up recruited one way or another; this here just happens to be the quickest route between the start and the finish. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. I prefer goin’ direct, myself.’
‘Would someone please tell me what’s going on?’ Anders asked. He was all too aware of Garrett’s head against his shoulder, the warm weight there reminding him of all the times he’d done the same in return—weary in some taproom, befuddled, happy-drunk, stealing what intimacy he could whenever he had an excuse—and how everything was all wrong, now.
It frightened him.
‘Just wait,’ Nathaniel advised. ‘It will all become clear in time.’
What felt like lifetimes later, Cousland finally appeared, dragging a genlock back by the rusted scruff of its piecemeal armor. Anders eyed it warily, all too sensitive to Garrett’s body pressed against his own as they crouched together in the dark. Garrett was hot—too hot—but his skin retained its deathly chill.
‘…I need a cup,’ Cousland said. ‘Or a vial. Anything like that. You don’t happen to have one of those on you, do you, Anders?’
‘I’ve got yer cup right here,’ Oghren said, shifting suggestively. It took Anders a minute to realize that he was actually pulling something out of his armor. ‘’Course, you might not wanna drink out of it—considering where it’s been, and all.’
‘That’ll do, Oghren,’ Cousland said. In the time since he’d disappeared, his face had grown hard, his features tightly knit. He looked more like a statue than a man—the Hero of Ferelden at last, and not merely a rogue named Cousland. He sought Garrett, green eyes settling on him, unflinching. ‘Bring him here.’
‘What are you going to do?’ Anders demanded—or tried to demand, anyway. He was quite aware that he wasn’t in any place to be making demands, and it caused his voice to pitch unexpectedly shrill.
‘You’ll have to leave,’ Cousland said, not answering Anders at all. ‘It never struck me that you wanted to join up. Handy as it would be to have a healer around again, this isn’t your fight. It isn’t your future, either.’
Anders shook his head. It was all very tempting to cut and run, but he was standing his ground—now that it was too late, now that it wouldn’t matter to anyone other than himself. ‘That made…some sense, I suppose, but it’s not as though I can just leave. I don’t even know what it is you’re doing.’
‘And it’ll have to stay that way, I’m afraid,’ Cousland confirmed. He shifted his grip on the genlock, holding the writhing, wounded creature one-handed as it struggled, clapping Anders on his shoulder for, it seemed, some kind of man-to-man comfort. Anders flinched at the touch, trying to move after Garrett as Oghren pulled him to his feet. ‘Warden secrets and all that. Have to stay secret.’
Then, Cousland stepped away, unsheathed his off-hand weapon, and drew the blade across the genlock’s neck. Blood spattered everywhere, so close Anders had to scurry free of its arc to avoid getting it all over his face, up his nose and in his mouth—dangerous, too dangerous, considering what that blood was capable of. As horrible as he felt about all this, as wretched as he was about Garrett’s position, it was still up in the air whether or not he’d switch places with him—and he certainly didn’t want to join him for absolutely no reason.
Blood dripped onto the floor at their boots.
‘Heh—this one’s a real bleeder,’ Oghren said. ‘That’s good. We’re gonna need it.’
Darkspawn blood, a dead genlock, and Garrett with the Taint. The Hero of Ferelden was here, and he had a plan, but he couldn’t explain it, and Anders looked to find Garrett leaning against Oghren, one hand on his armored shoulder, the other on his hip. Trying to look jaunty, pretending he was really that brave.
But Anders knew him, and Anders knew that he wasn’t.
He wondered what Malcolm would have done, but he didn’t have to wonder for long. Malcolm didn’t believe in letting any of his children do anything alone; he would have undergone the ritual first, right there where Garrett could see him, just to prove it was all right, and Garrett didn’t have to be afraid.
Anders was no Malcolm Hawke; only one person was good enough to have that honor. But he didn’t want to be an unforgivably terrible person, either.
‘Andraste’s knicker weasels,’ he said miserably. ‘I’m staying. I’ll stay.’
‘Knicker weasels, huh?’ Oghren rubbed at his beard. ‘I think I had me some of those once. All wiggly. Felt kinda good.’
‘Was that really necessary, dwarf?’ Nathaniel asked.
Oghren snorted and wiped his nose. ‘It’s called lightening the mood.’
There was blood all over Cousland’s right arm, from his thumb up to his elbow. In his hand was the cup Oghren had procured; in that cup was more blood, red-black and viscous, and also whatever dead fleas and flakes of scabrous dwarven skin had collected there from being stored in Oghren’s armor. ‘Are you sure about that, Anders?’ Cousland asked.
‘No,’ Anders replied.
Something twitched at the corner of Cousland’s mouth. ‘I never figured you’d be that honest.’
‘I’m usually far more dissembling,’ Anders admitted.
‘Don’t be an ass, Anders,’ Garrett warned.
‘I am an ass, Garrett,’ Anders replied. He couldn’t quite bring himself to look at him now, somewhere over his shoulder, somewhere just behind him. ‘And so are you. Which makes us—finally—even. Shall we get down to joining? I’m ready to be joined.’
‘Are we gonna need another cup?’ Oghren asked. ‘’Cause I know I’ve got one somewhere.’
‘One cup will probably do, Oghren,’ Cousland said.
In the shortened lifetime that was to follow, Anders would always remember this moment as his moment—when, regardless of his own personal safety or comfort, he drank first. Not because he needed to be saved, not because it was the only answer to a Taint that would otherwise claim his life, but because it couldn’t be Garrett. At least Anders would be able to tell Malcolm that—if he didn’t die, anyway; if his body didn’t naturally revolt against the assault on its sensibilities, the hot, thick rush of bitter darkspawn blood inside his mouth and down the back of his throat, burning as it went along.
It was disgusting; Anders had the presence of mind to make that clear, to splutter and lick his lips and try, unsuccessfully, to spit. He wanted to say something, too, about how it wasn’t as bad as the ‘Antivan wine’ they’d shared in that one tavern just outside Lothering—‘Antivan wine? More like Antivan brine!’ Anders had said, completely drunk, because of course they’d polished it off anyway—but when he opened his mouth like everything was just fine and nothing at all had changed, the sound came inside his ears and inside his skull, a roar of scrabbling fingers and gaping mouths, and he fainted rather grandly, right there, in front of everyone.
No one caught him when he fell.
He woke to hunger, his stomach clenched and shriveled somewhere around his spine. When he moved, it gurgled loudly, the sound echoing pointedly through the darkness, bouncing over high cavern walls and between sharp stalactites. He winced.
Nearby, he could hear the crackling of a small fire, the scrape of a blade being polished with a rough cloth, and beneath that a horrible roiling laughter, the fat wet slapping of flesh against flesh, a ceaseless, labored, aggressive wobbling. Like a hundred rotten puddings swaying in the wind, Anders thought—and yet somehow, he didn’t immediately lose his appetite.
‘Ah,’ Cousland’s voice said. ‘You’re awake. The odds of survival at my Joining were absolutely abysmal compared to this. Sometimes I wonder if the Blight doesn’t know how few of us are left, and the blood just accepts anyone these days.’
‘Hmgh?’ Anders asked, rolling over. His joints ached. He felt at intervals feverish and delirious, and also utterly peaceful.
‘After all, Oghren survived,’ Cousland continued. ‘That has to say something.’
Anders registered that he was making a joke—and at the dwarf’s expense—which should have been right up Anders’s alley, but he couldn’t bring himself to laugh. His throat was far too dry for that. Instead, his eyes scanned their campsite with dizzying speed. He passed over Nathaniel, seated by the fire with a dagger and whetstone, and Oghren face-down in the dirt. Cousland was near Anders himself, which meant…
Which meant that was Garrett sitting propped up against his own rucksack, looking equal parts boneless and befuddled. The sallow sheen of his skin hadn’t left him yet, but his eyes were clear, and he seemed alert. Anders could no longer make out the delicate and deadly network of the Taint-veins spreading over his throat.
The cure had worked, then—if it could be called a cure. Perhaps it was a disease in and of itself.
At any rate, they were Wardens now.
Anders stumbled to his feet. He’d make his apologies to Cousland later, laugh at all his jokes from that point onward extra hard, just to make up for his present inattention. He wasn’t feeling at all like himself at the minute, which ought to have been understandable. He also wasn’t feeling much like a hero, either. He harbored no abiding urge to go rushing into battle, to smoke out the source of that awful sound and vanquish it once and for all.
No, Anders’s instincts bade him instead to go rushing to Garrett, collapsing once more like a sack of cornmeal, his insides dry and small.
‘Warden,’ Anders said, nodding his head in greeting.
‘Anders,’ Garrett replied. He licked his dry lips, teeth tugging at a chapped spot at the corner of his mouth. He’d been staring into the fire, but he turned immediately when Anders settled down beside him. Up close, it looked as though Garrett had aged ten years in as many seconds. There were harsh lines in his forehead that had never been there before, a haggard quality to his face that Anders didn’t remember.
On impulse, Anders reached up to smooth the wrinkles. He pressed his fingers to Garrett’s brow—mercifully warm again—and traced them down to the corner of his eye, the sharp rise of his cheekbone.
‘Hello again,’ Anders murmured. ‘But our reunion will be short-lived and tragic, because your father’s going to murder me.’
Garrett huffed, making a wet sound Anders had only ever heard before from his mabari. He looked away, then suddenly pressed the palm of his hand to Anders’s cheek, fingers shifting to cradle the back of his head. Anders held very still, feeling Garrett’s skin against the week’s worth of unshaven scruff on his face. His own nervous heartbeat rattled up against his ribcage, a prisoner demanding freedom. As much as he was constantly angling for attention—he craved it, the same as lungs craved air to breathe, and mabari craved scraps of meat under the table—Anders found that he didn’t quite know what to do with Garrett’s focus now that he had it.
What if he couldn’t hold it? That would be far worse than never knowing what it was like to begin with. So it seemed he would never be satisfied.
‘You didn’t have to do that,’ Garrett said. He rubbed the soft, smooth lobe of Anders’s ear between his thumb and index finger. Humiliatingly, Anders realized it was just as effective on him as it was when he employed the same technique on the dog.
‘Of course I did,’ Anders huffed. There were certain arguments that could be made at this juncture—that Anders hadn’t wanted to come to the blighted Deep Roads in the first place, that he hadn’t even wanted Garrett to be made a Warden, and if he’d been in charge they’d be sitting in bed next to a roaring fire right now, sharing a cup of warm chocolate with a purring cat between them—but they were all moot points. What Anders had wanted didn’t matter much anymore. What Garrett wanted probably didn’t matter either.
All that mattered was what they’d done.
Uncertainty flickered in Garrett’s eyes, their color brighter than even the firelight. Anders didn’t want to be the cause of that hesitation. He couldn’t be the man responsible for Garrett Hawke losing his confidence, not on top of everything else.
‘Look,’ Anders said, thinking quickly so he’d have something to say after that, ‘look—who knows, really. Maybe all of this happened for a reason.’ It was difficult to think with Garrett staring at him like that; even more so when Anders felt Garrett’s fingers find purchase and dig in, rubbing in slow circles at the back of Anders’s neck. ‘Maybe I was always meant to be a Grey Warden. I am from the Anderfels. We’re a naturally hardy people by trade.’
‘You can’t possibly mean that,’ Garrett said.
‘Of course I don’t mean that,’ Anders admitted. ‘It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever said.’
Garrett’s chapped lips twitched, right at the corner, quick and uneven and a little relieved. Anders would never be able to look at his mouth again without thinking of darkspawn blood; he’d never be able to look at it without picturing it crookedly grinning, either. And so Garrett continued his tradition of being a contradiction and an enigma, fascinatingly handsome, ultimately devastating. ‘You’ve said some rather ridiculous things in your time, Anders. Are you sure about that?’
‘Almost completely,’ Anders assured him. ‘But who knows what ridiculous things I’ll be saying tomorrow, right? I can’t possibly limit myself now.’
‘Anders—’ Garrett began, but the dog pushed its way between them then, licking Garrett all over his face, and Anders felt as much relieved by the interruption as he was disappointed.
Cousland had no speeches for them now. Perhaps he simply believed speeches could no longer help them.
From the clamor in his brain, Anders was beginning to understand why Nathaniel was such a pacing shadow of a man, always on the prowl, incapable of letting his guard down.
‘If you’re recovered, we move on,’ Cousland said, as ruthless as he’d been when he drew his blade across the genlock’s throat. ‘We’ve wasted too much time already.’
Anders wondered why it was—knowing what they knew, hearing what they heard—that they were still headed in that actual direction, rather than avoiding the source of the ruckus altogether. Whatever made that infernal sound, simpering, sweet, pregnant with chaotic possibility, it couldn’t possibly be pretty.
‘So, dwarf—tell me more about these broodmothers,’ Anders attempted, sidling up next to Oghren. The fact that life was continuing just as it had before the joining was a little piece of dramatic irony Anders preferred not to think about. Maybe, once he felt sunshine on his skin again, once he’d bathed and shaved and changed his smallclothes, once he saw Malcolm Hawke standing in the doorway, grateful they were back in one piece, understanding and anger slowly dawning across his usually welcoming face, then Anders would be able to recognize that things had changed, not just for the present, but forever.
Until then, he was going to postpone the revelation for as long as possible, and try to fend off an impending, cacophonous headache.
‘Picture your worst nightmare,’ Oghren began.
Anders didn’t have to work at that very hard. ‘Easy: I’m already living it.’
‘Hah!’ Oghren spat again; Anders nimbly leaped around the path it took, managing to avoid the majority of the subsequent splatter. ‘That’s what you think. Except you haven’t even seen your worst nightmare yet.’
‘If I haven’t seen it, then how can it be mine?’ Anders asked. ‘Technically, it would have to be someone else’s, wouldn’t it?’
Oghren was puzzled, briefly, but he didn’t let that stop him. ‘You’re a Warden now, mage,’ he said finally. ‘Quit tryin’ to make these things make sense. Logic won’t help you when you’ve got a broodmother’s tentacle wrapped ‘round yer body like yer nothin’ more’n a babe’s wooden rattle.’
‘Poetic,’ Anders said, feeling that lingering sense of dread intensify. ‘Did you say…tentacles?’
There were, indeed, tentacles—bursting forth from the floor beneath them when they arrived at their destination at long last, deep in the belly of Kal’Hirol. They saw the tentacles first, black blubber and pointed rasps on the tips, thrashing high in the air before they slithered back down into the caverns below.
‘Broodmothers,’ Oghren said, grimly determined, ruddy brow knit together. He shifted the weight of his axe in his hands, then spat into one of his palms, readying himself.
‘Broodmothers,’ Anders repeated. He wasn’t the sort to rip off a healing plaster and get the pain over with; he liked to let it linger, nurse his dread like a tankard of ale, delaying the inevitable for as long as possible. He didn’t want to see them. He didn’t want to know, beyond the vague forms taking shape at the back of his skull, crooning and stark-raving mad.
‘Sometimes,’ Cousland added, with a resigned shrug, ‘I wish they were as pleasant as Archdemons.’
‘Oh, lovely,’ Anders moaned.
Garrett looked as though he was about to say something—perhaps even apologize for everything; that would have been nice—but Nathaniel loosed a well-timed arrow and pinioned one of the waving tentacles to the ground.
‘Wait’ll you see what the rest of ‘em looks like,’ Oghren said. ‘If you don’t have the kerbangers for it, don’t look down.’ Then, with a berserker’s roar, he threw himself into the thick of them, and the rest could do nothing but follow.
Anders sensed them from start to finish, their outrage and their pain as their limbs were butchered, hacked at by sharp steel and lanced through by projectiles. He felt each scream as much as he heard it, while Garrett sent electric currents racing through them, from one grasping sucker to the next; he felt the cold from his own spells, the subsequent, wordless agony of despair, an assault they couldn’t see from where they lurked.
Needless to say, it wasn’t pleasant, but even worse was running through the lash of the few that yet remained intact, following Garrett to the edge of the abyss, ignoring Oghren’s rather straightforward advice, and looking down.
It made sense that Garrett would be the sort of person who needed to see them—their bulbous, pale bodies, each roll and layer of lurid flesh, bald heads glistening with fear-sweat. Anders swayed where he stood, then vomited into the chasm—just adding insult to injury, he supposed.
Garrett hooked his fingers into the loops of Anders’s belt and held him steady.
‘All done,’ Anders mumbled weakly, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
Cousland marched back from the other side of the hole; Anders was dimly aware of a horrible, grinding, metal sound, which turned out to be Cousland and Oghren slicing through the chain-link supports, supports that had previously balanced an enormous steel structure above the breeding pit.
In retrospect, Anders supposed, it was a truly terrible design. The darkspawn had it coming, and it was because they simply weren’t smart enough to put their lair in a place that wasn’t directly beneath a cage of half-rusted metal.
Garrett tugged Anders back as the final chain swung loose, and the whole thing plummeted downward into the abyss, crushing the broodmothers where they stood. Or rolled about on stubby tentacles—standing didn’t seem to be something their anatomy could manage, since they didn’t really have legs.
Anders’s stomach pitched at the sight. Maybe he’d given the ‘all clear’ too soon.
‘Never thought I’d see something that disturbed me more than catching Carver in the barn with his hands up the baker’s shirt,’ Garrett murmured. Even Anders wasn’t so self-absorbed that he couldn’t tell Garrett was trying to distract him, to help—in his own way. It wasn’t an impulse Garrett normally had. Anders just wished he’d found it before he’d gone and made them both Wardens.
‘Wasn’t she married?’ Anders asked, feebly playing along. Garrett’s hand turned against Anders’s lower back, knuckles rubbing against the hard knots of tense muscle there. He had no natural skill for healing at all, but he was doing his best with the talents the Maker had given him.
‘She was forty.’ Garrett sighed. ‘That’s much worse.’
‘Yer all just lucky you didn’t have to fight ‘em up close,’ Oghren muttered, flicking blood off the edge of his blade.
‘Those tentacles certainly felt close,’ Anders pointed out.
Oghren snorted; Anders was beginning to recognize that as his version of a laugh. ‘Even worse when they’re chewin’ off yer face. Heh, Commander, remember that time one of ‘em had a go with that elf of yours—’
Something moved, shifting in the shadowy dark, and they closed ranks at once, rallying around the noise. Anders was gratified to feel Garrett yank him in closer, leveling his brand new talking-darkspawn staff at the sound.
To Anders’s great surprise—and he wasn’t alone, judging by the look on Cousland’s face—it was a dwarf who stepped into the light, not another flaming golem or talking darkspawn or miniature, mobile broodmother. She—Anders thought it was a she; it was so hard to tell with dwarves, and there were gray markings on her face that looked distinctively like the beginnings of a beard—bore a horned helmet tucked under one short arm, removed in order to better express her awe, her marvel, her adoration.
Already, Anders liked this dwarf better than Oghren. Who didn’t like being adored?
‘You really did it,’ the dwarf said. If she was bothered by the smell now wafting free of the pit, then it didn’t show on her face. More power to her, since Anders was only just discovering that broodmothers smelled even worse on the inside. ‘I never thought—and without me along, too! The power of the Wardens really is as magnificent as they say.’
‘’Course it is, woman,’ Oghren said. He spat into the dirt for emphasis. ‘You think I’d be here if the Wardens weren’t the roughest group around?’
‘I hadn’t really given it much thought,’ the dwarf admitted. She glanced around the cave, pausing slightly when her gaze came to rest on Anders and Garrett. ‘Did you multiply while you were down here? It hasn’t been that long, although this is a breeding pit… Is this another Warden ability I didn’t know about, Oghren?’
‘Nah,’ Oghren said. As though he wasn’t desperate to take responsibility for the bouncing bundles of joy that Anders and Garrett so obviously were. ‘That’s all the Commander’s doing.’
‘Warden Commanders are mysterious indeed,’ the new dwarf said.
‘I think we’d better discuss it all topside,’ Cousland suggested, speaking for the first time since they’d encountered the broodmothers. ‘No offense, Sigrun, but I’m not like you; if I don’t get some sunlight soon, I’m liable to shrivel up and die.’
‘I always thought humans would be tougher than daisies,’ Sigrun said, but she was grinning. ‘Come on, then. I suppose I’ll have to tag along for the time being. I can’t turn down a good story.’
Without any further discussion—Cousland must have assumed rightly that they were all of one mind about this particular topic—he led the party out of the breeding room, up through a gradually lightening tunnel, toward the promise of fresh air and natural light.
Malcolm Hawke and Amaranthine waited for them on the surface. But even that wasn’t enough to keep Anders from running toward the future, if the future meant finally getting out of the Deep Roads.
It was midday when they found themselves with their feet on the grass, dirt that looked like dirt and not raw meat crumbling underneath their bootheels, little birds and insects flitting about, a few of the former chirping, the latter buzzing and biting at Anders’s skin. He swatted them away happily, eyes adjusting to real sunlight and watering as he squinted up into the bright, cloudless sky. Never had there been a more beautiful day in the history of Amaranthine. Anders had never known weather—crisp breezes, the shifting of the trees—to be this beautiful.
Normally he hated nature. Now, it was practically rapturous at seeing so much of it.
‘How I’ve missed you,’ he said, to no one in particular. He was actually talking to the air—fresh air—reveling in the way it swept over his skin and reminded him of how terrible he currently smelled. But at least those smells were familiar: sweaty and achy and proper for a man. Everything in Kal’Hirol had been the opposite of that, dank, dismal, dead; thinking about it made Anders shiver all over again, and he did his best to ignore it, to enjoy the perfect, welcoming weather, the heady aroma of grassy knolls and the distant salty tang of the Amaranthine ocean.
Despite that, the memory of Kal’Hirol still lingered—the sounds of Kal’Hirol not completely silenced, the few remaining, chittering whispers, the surviving darkspawn cursing them and scrabbling hand over feet, across centuries of buried stone. Searching for someone, answering a distant call—one that Anders heard even now, steady as the thrum of blood in his ears.
Despite the sun on his skin, Anders shivered.
‘You topsiders and your sky,’ Sigrun said, with a shake of her head. ‘Now that’s an obsession I’ll never understand.’
Anders was too relieved that he’d made it out of Kal’Hirol at all to dwell on what had made it out of there with him; momentary as that relief was, he had to nurture it, to make it linger, to coax every last ounce of pleasantness from it that he could. He couldn’t risk being offended by a smug dwarf with opinions on fresh air.
‘You know what else is an obsession I’ll never understand?’ Anders asked, feeling dizzy. ‘Feet. I mean, of all the parts of the body you could get into, some of them very nice indeed, it’s always struck me as odd when people choose the callus-y bits you walk on, all covered in fuzz from woolly socks and things.’
‘Human,’ Sigrun said, ‘did you go mad down there in the deep?’
‘I think so,’ Anders replied.
Sigrun flicked at a bug, glancing back over her shoulder. ‘Happens to all of us, sooner or later. I won’t blame you. For now.’
‘Dwarves are so generous,’ Anders said. ‘I really had no idea that was a presiding personality trait amongst their people.’
‘All that ‘n more,’ Oghren belched, once again appearing like a rash one thought they were rid of, only to discover it had cropped up again, twice as itchy, somewhere else. ‘We’re the type’a people to share whatever we got. Drinks, weapons, diseases—you’ve only gotta say the word, and what’s mine is yours.’ He was covered in vile darkspawn blood, armor glinting through the carnage, hair matted and wild. Why Anders kept being affronted with heinous sights, he had no idea. Probably because of something awful he’d done as a child that was just now coming back to haunt him, though for the life of him he couldn’t imagine what terrible actions deserved so cruel a punishment.
‘We’re returning to the Keep,’ Cousland said, crouching to pet his dog. The beast was actually licking him clean, Anders noted, and he turned away in horror. That, of everything, offended his delicate sensibilities the most. ‘Sigrun wants to join us—the Wardens being but one interpretation of the Legion of the Dead, I suppose—and there’s always some fresh problem to solve.’
‘Vigil’s Keep,’ Anders clarified. ‘That sounds so…welcoming and friendly. Vigil in general, really. What a warm, fuzzy word. Is it next to Harrowing’s Keep, I wonder? I think I belong there instead.’
The image of a stark military barracks, with uncomfortable benches and absolutely no good whiskey, rose unbidden to mind. Yet, as much as that sort of lifestyle was the antithesis of Anders’s very nature, the opposite of an existence that would ever make him happy, Anders still found the idea of being called a puny nug by some zealous, muscle-bound, hatchet-faced lieutenant far more appealing than facing Malcolm and Carver and Bethany, and telling them, in his own words, what had happened.
It was also possible his rampant imagination was getting away from him yet again.
‘Finish up your business,’ Cousland suggested. ‘Your family, isn’t it? They might like to know. Then I’d make the obvious joke about joining us at the Keep, but somehow it all seems so distasteful now.’
The trip back to the city took them in the opposite direction of the Wardens; they parted ways without much fanfare, since presumably they’d be seeing each other again all too soon.
Now that they were alone, Anders had no one to be witty with. Garrett was silent as a roadside grave, and Anders knew there was a good chance, if he opened his mouth, that he was just going to start yelling and yelling and yelling at him. Then, bandits would no doubt hear them and descend, think they were the terrible undead risen from filthy, rotten graves, and that was how panics and rumors of nonexistent Blights got started.
So Anders held his tongue, and the dog trotted down the path ahead of them, tail flicking back and forth in a weary rhythm. Not quite cheerful, Anders thought; rather anxious, in fact. Mabari were smart; they sensed their owners’ feelings and reacted in kind. And if the tight expression on Garrett’s face was anything to go by, the easy shatter of his mockery of a smile, then the poor animal was probably feeling miserable indeed.
They said nothing to each other about what they were going to say. Garrett’s father was a specter on the horizon, worse than a ghost. When dark fell over the trees, Anders lit them a quiet little fire, and the dog curled up at his feet, happy to sleep uninterrupted by darkspawn.
Anders was tired—scratch that; he was weary, down to his bones—but the cure for that didn’t seem safe at present. Anders wasn’t yet ready for a Warden’s dreams, whatever it was Wardens dreamed about.
Hopefully it wasn’t all broodmothers all the time. Anders would never sleep again, if that was the case.
‘You think Father’s going to murder you,’ Garrett finally said, breaking the near endless silence at last with a dry, mirthless laugh. ‘No—you’re not the one he’ll start with, anyway.’
‘That’s not how it works,’ Anders said, mustering a grim smile. Either Garrett was being charmingly optimistic, or he truly had no concept of his instinctive talent for deflecting trouble. Perhaps being at the center of every conflict didn’t give him the best vantage point to observe the blame as it ricocheted in every direction except directly toward him. ‘Haven’t you heard? Blood is thicker than my neck, which your father is going to wring. Common phrase in this part of Ferelden.’
‘I’m not sure mages are supposed to talk like that about blood, actually,’ Garrett said. His voice was tight, almost strained, as though there were great bands of iron wrapped around his chest like a barrel’s staves. ‘Then again, we’re already apostates and Wardens. Would you like to try for the third forbidden specialization? It’s not as if Father will even care, since once you pass ‘illegal mage’ and ‘unpopular hero hopelessly tainted by darkspawn,’ I think you effectively hit a wall for being objectionable.’
‘Do you suppose Cousland will mind terribly if we don’t show up at Vigil’s Keep after all?’ Anders asked. ‘On account of our being dead, I mean. Family trouble—he’ll have to understand.’
Garrett waved his hand. ‘I’m sure he’ll conscript our ghosts instead. He seems the type for it.’
Anders thought about it, then came to the unpleasant conclusion that it all seemed likely enough. ‘You’re probably right,’ he said. ‘…You don’t think there’s a chance your father might understand? These things do happen. Particularly in Ferelden. If only we were in sunny Antiva right now, we’d all be Crows instead.’
‘My father?’ Garrett shook his head, eyes downcast. ‘What would your mother say? That’ll be the first thing out of his mouth, mark my words, and then I’ll actually have to—no, the man’s got wily, wily ways. There won’t be any getting around it.’
Garrett swallowed; Anders knew the moment he said it that he was thinking about what Leandra would have said. But try as he might, Anders couldn’t picture it—if only because Garrett had never acted out like this while Leandra was still alive. Even when he had behaved like a foolish child with a man’s distinctive physique, it was always Malcolm with whom Garrett clashed most, never his mother.
Apparently one always argued with the parent they resembled best. That was the rumor, anyway. Anders wouldn’t know about that personally.
All Anders had left of his mother was an embroidered pillow that smelled of every barn between Lake Calenhad and the Amaranthine coast; he couldn’t say whether not knowing her had shaped him into the person he was today, but he had little doubt that Garrett losing his own mother had helped to set him on this path.
This path toward the Deep Roads, apparently.
If only Anders had seen it coming.
Leandra, on the other hand, had always secretly hoped that Garrett might be bound for greatness, in spite of his magic. Or maybe because of it.
In some perverse, roundabout way, Anders supposed she’d finally gotten her wish.
He put his hand on Garrett’s shoulder, thumb hooking beneath the shorn chainmail to rub at smooth skin. Garrett didn’t shrug him off. The dog snored amiably at their feet; either he was no longer aware that his master was still having a personal crisis, or—being a wise and discerning creature—he’d managed to get over the dilemma far quicker than Garrett himself. If only they could all be as good natured, as accepting, as dogs—not quite as finicky and specific as cats.
The fire crackled before them, bark bent back along the twigs, curling as it burned.
‘Would you like to hear something funny?’ Anders asked. ‘Well not funny, really—more like utterly ridiculous, in keeping with everything.’
Garrett grunted. Anders took that to mean, yes please, Anders, you’re ever so good a judge of timing.
‘I was just thinking about the excuse I’d devised for us being gone so long,’ Anders elaborated. ‘A daring plan and bawdy adventure that would have left no room for doubt, or disappointed fathers. In fact, it would have made us legends. Heroes even, Garrett.’
Finally, Garrett cracked a smile. The tension in his shoulders eased beneath Anders’s hand—and he hadn’t even needed to use magic.
‘I like plans,’ Garrett admitted. ‘When they aren’t mine.’
Anders knew that. He smiled, too.
‘It started with us being kidnapped and sold off as Tevinter body-slaves,’ he continued. He hooked his arm around Garrett’s neck, drawing him close in order to set the scene. ‘Picture, if you will, two fine young men at a taproom in Amaranthine, beset by cruel—yet sickeningly handsome—slavers.’
‘I love it already,’ Garrett said.
They arrived in Amaranthine proper some day and a half later, bearing the full weight of their travels on their shoulders—not to mention rampant evidence of where they’d been, dirt and dew and mud and traces of darkspawn blood, childer grub guts, broodmother slime, and so on. Anders stopped at the water-pump near the Crown and Lion to splash his face, a half-hearted and ultimately pointless gesture at cleanliness when he knew he’d never really be clean again. He didn’t want to catch sight of his reflection in the pail, and so dashed the water at Garrett instead, getting him to finally clean that blood-streak off the bridge of his nose.
Debonair as it was, it wasn’t the first impression that they wanted to give the family. The second impression was already going to be fatal, and if Anders could try to avoid them looking like two homeless brawlers when Malcolm murdered them both in a stunning display of force magic at its deadly finest, at least they might not be buried in an unnamed ditch somewhere, and could even have a chance at a proper, somber funeral.
‘How do I look?’ Anders asked, flecks of water on his chin, in his stubble, before he delicately flicked them away.
‘It isn’t good, Anders,’ Garrett replied. ‘I’ll be honest with you. You look positively obscene.’
‘Oh good,’ Anders said. ‘Maybe they won’t recognize us at all.’
‘You look obscene most days, actually,’ Garrett told him, and ruffled his hair, with the same jolly affection he reserved for his mabari.
Even knowing how much Garrett loved that dog didn’t make Anders feel better about the gesture.
Walking through the markets had never seemed so arduous or infinite a journey before, but now it felt practically eternal. The dog ran about sniffing things and finding old territorial markings here and there, adding a few new ones, and there was a pleasant moment when it seemed that a local merchant was going to have them clapped in irons before they ever had to face Malcolm’s wrath, or—even worse—his disappointment. But Garrett, of course, smoothed things over with the sudden return of his charming affability and silverite tongue, until the merchant was practically his best friend since childhood, feeding the dog a few bits of bacon before sending them on their way again.
Now if only that skill could last just a little longer, Anders thought; or if only it ever made a difference, when it came to dealing with Garrett’s father.
But Malcolm Hawke, Anders had long suspected, was the first man to invent sweet-talking. He’d passed the custom in time-honored tradition down to his firstborn son, but he already knew all the tricks, all the ins and outs, how to block and how to parry. He was a master, whereas Garrett was merely an apprentice—a very bloody good one, but not yet utterly transcendent.
There was no hope left.
‘Ready to attend our own funerals?’ Garrett asked spryly as they rounded the familiar bend, in the direction of their most recent lodgings. Most recent lodgings with a roof, that didn’t include rafters of stone in the belly of Kal’Hirol.
‘Pretty day for it,’ Anders agreed. ‘Sadly, I’ve always wanted to die when it was raining. It seems it might make me feel less resentful of the whole thing. Dying on a day like this one just seems too cruel, doesn’t it?’
Garrett glanced over, then shook his head in disbelief. ‘I’ve never met a man to hate the rain so much.’
‘But it’s so wet, you see,’ Anders explained.
Smoke was rising from the chimney when they arrived; at least someone was within. Anders scuffled about shyly on the front step, attempting to avoid opening the door and crossing the threshold, playing a bit of a depressing game with Garrett known as Who Caves First? A Match of Avoidance and Impatience and Immature Men. Anders knew it would be him—because it was always him in the end, while Garrett found brand new ways to stall and continue stalling, inspecting his staff and biting a nail and bending down to pick up a broken piece of cobblestone, chucking it for the dog to chase.
‘Too frightened to go in?’ Garrett asked, attempting to make a joke out of it.
‘Well, yes, actually,’ Anders told him. Then, because he really didn’t want to die in the street, in front of witnesses, in an embarrassing fashion, he sighed and tried to square his shoulders and nudged the door open, stepping cautiously into the hallway.
‘It’s about time you got back with those vegetables,’ Bethany called from the kitchen. ‘Honestly, Carver, you’re even worse than—’ Her voice faltered. Anders cringed. ‘Just bring them in here already—you don’t have to be stubborn about everything, you know.’
Anders just wanted to run to her and hug her, inappropriate as it would have been. Malcolm was going to end his life anyway; what was one more addition to his very long list of unforgiveable misdemeanors?
He didn’t kick off his boots, despite how his feet were aching, or shrug out of his coat, despite how terrible it smelled. It was practically caked onto his body by this point, bound to his skin with a powerful glue made of dried sweat and more dried sweat. Instead, he lost all sense of the appropriate and raced into the kitchen, where he skidded to an awkward stop in front of the table, not actually knowing how to hug someone—even when he desperately wanted to be hugging them.
Really, he told himself, he didn’t deserve to be hugging Bethany, anyway. He’d followed her brother into obvious and ultimately avoidable danger. He’d allowed things to happen, terrible, unspeakable, irreversible things.
He should have been running the other way. So many of his instincts told him that was the sensible course of action.
But then Bethany turned to see him, shouted, and lobbed a plate at his head. Anders ducked. Garrett side-stepped nimbly. The plate smashed on the far wall, inches away from Garrett’s right pauldron.
‘What a welcome,’ Garrett said, pointedly avoiding looking at anyone. ‘I always knew you were hard-hearted, Bethany, but really—’
Anders stopped paying attention the moment he was struck hard in the chest by a much larger projectile. He thought he might be dying—that Bethany had thrown the entire wood stove at him this time; always bothersome to taunt a mage—until said projectile wrapped its arms around him, and Anders realized it was Bethany, not a stove. Stoves didn’t have arms.
Rather than attack him, she’d hugged him instead.
It made a strange kind of sense. Bethany had always possessed an uncanny intuition for these things. She understood how to navigate the difficult, emotional topography that was constantly tripping Anders up. Consequentially, she was wise beyond her years, utterly infuriating because of that, and Anders couldn’t help but put his arms around her in return, because she was a part of the only family he’d ever really known.
‘Well,’ said a voice that had once haunted Anders’s dreams, before the darkspawn came to replace it. Abruptly, Bethany seemed less like a sister to hug and more like a woman-shaped human shield set between Anders and Malcolm Hawke—who was sitting at the table, barely a few steps away, terrifyingly close.
She was a good girl, that Bethany. Wonderfully versatile.
‘Father,’ Garrett said. In that same voice, Anders heard both the child he’d been and the man he’d become. Seventeen and stubborn, home from the docks after having threatened to take ship and turn pirate and run away to the Free Marches—and twenty-two, just the other week, when Malcolm had chided Garrett for getting too close to templars and Wardens alike. He’d grown so much, yet the parts of him that never changed lingered in a way that was almost comforting, when they weren’t so distressing. Anders could read him like a map, seeing both the places he’d been, and the road he might cover in the future. If he got the chance.
It was uncomfortable knowing a man that well. Now that they were joined together—now that they’d Joined together—Anders couldn’t picture it changing anytime soon.
Unless stoves were thrown, and lives were ended all too quickly.
There was a scrape of wood on wood, the chair beneath Malcolm moving as he pushed back from the table and stood. Anders watched from his position, half-hidden behind the fall of Bethany’s dark, sweet-smelling hair. Here it came. At long last. It was almost a relief to have the other boot drop at last. Anders only hoped that Carver would find it within his briar-patch of a heart to say a few words at the funeral, so that Bethany wouldn’t be stuck with all the heavy lifting. Perhaps Malcolm would be able to attend the service, just before he was locked away by the city guards for murder.
Then again, he’d proven himself quite capable of ably avoiding the law up until this point. There was no guarantee he’d ever be caught for the crime.
Malcolm moved before Anders could blink, before he could throw up a glyph of paralysis or some manner of ward around Garrett, just to protect them both from doing something they’d all regret so much later.
But what happened next wasn’t at all what Anders had braced himself to expect. Instead, Malcolm met Garrett in exactly the same way Bethany had landed against Anders—one arm over his shoulders and one around his waist, father pulling his son in close for a real embrace.
If Malcolm smelled what was on them—how could he not?—or if he was worried about staining his good trousers and shirt with darkspawn guts, it didn’t show on his face.
By contrast, the look on Garrett’s face was utterly priceless. Anders almost wished they had their very own Hawke family portrait artist on hand to capture the moment. He looked as though he’d seen a broodmother come flobbering down through the ceiling, and was waiting for her flesh to stop jiggling so he could find somewhere to land a spell—completely flabbergasted, and nearly frozen on account of sheer confusion.
His eyes met Anders’s, both of them peering over the shoulders of their respective Hawkes. Anders attempted to shrug around Bethany. She seemed to take it as uncomfortable fidgeting, and released him.
Anders almost wished she hadn’t—it had been a very good hug, one of the best he’d ever received. But he couldn’t be greedy. Especially not when the entire world seemed to have been turned on its head, ass over teakettle, during their absence.
Perhaps they’d died down in the Deep Roads. But that couldn’t be true, because Leandra wasn’t here, waiting for them, with something warm and sweet to drink, and a patient smile, a pat on the chair beside her.
‘You look awful,’ Bethany said, pert nose wrinkling. ‘And you smell—’
‘Even worse?’ Anders supplied, his voice two octaves higher than usual. ‘Yes, I’ve discovered a fascinating new perfume. Perhaps I can tell you about it…? If no one’s in imminent danger of being killed, that is. Stories do tend to lose some of their edge when they’re being shouted over, you know, abject carnage.’
‘You were gone for over a week,’ Bethany said, pausing to give Anders a light smack to his chest. Then she checked him for injuries, as though he didn’t know how to heal himself without having her around. ‘That was rather thoughtless of you. I hope you realize how worried Carver’s been, hauling in every drowned body down by the docks, every ditch-diving-drunk with a dagger in his back just to see if you—’
‘—Just to see if we hadn’t got lucky somehow,’ Carver said, steely, from the direction of the doorway. He was holding a bag of vegetables, the ones Bethany had sent him out to get before, no doubt feeling as though he’d missed everything once more, as though he was doomed to stand on the other side of the door for the rest of his life.
Anders turned to look at him and really saw him for the first time: the inflexible anger and reluctant disbelief stamped plain on his plain face, the hope in his unhappy eyes, the sheer relief behind that. He was a complicated man, Carver, even more so for someone who should by all means have been uncomplicated, and at last Anders felt what he should have been plagued by all along: not just guilt, but shame, and all the self-indulgent self-blaming that went along with it.
‘You wouldn’t believe where we’ve been,’ Garrett said.
‘Go ahead and try us,’ Carver countered.
‘You’re going to be so jealous, Carver,’ Garrett added, attempting to sound merry, and faltering for the first time in years. It was a thin fissure, a very small crack, but it was there, something only those who loved him best would be able to recognize. Malcolm knew it the moment Anders did, and met Anders’s eyes, searching.
Anders tried—also unsuccessfully—to give no quarter. Instead, he shifted under the piercing gaze; it stripped him bare, dressed him down, forced him to suffer youth again in a way he hadn’t for ages. Since before he’d crossed paths with Malcolm, in fact, and all the other Hawkes along with him.
He wasn’t ready to meet that gaze yet, not strong enough or man enough to be worthy of it. He looked to Garrett, and Garrett’s brittle smile offered no assistance.
‘Go ahead and tell them about the Tevinter slavers,’ Anders prompted. ‘The Tevinter body slavers. The big, devastatingly handsome ones.’
‘You mean the ones who looked an awful lot like Wardens?’ Garrett asked. That was how Anders knew it was all over. The proverbial cat was about to come out of the bag, and Anders reeled toward the window, desperate to look anywhere but at the scene as it unfolded. And still he couldn’t pry his eyes away—it was like picking at a scab, knowing it wasn’t ready yet, knowing it was going to bleed all over again, knowing better but not doing better, as a grown man should.
‘Yes, those are the ones,’ Anders said wearily. ‘I must have been confused. All that walking—it does so interfere with the proper functioning of my poor old brain.’
Garrett leaned against his father; Anders saw Malcolm pat his back, troubled but caring, ready to support him. Still, after all this, after everything. That was family for you. You could be as stupid and careless as you wished with them, and to them, because ultimately, they had to love you; they’d known you since birth, when you were innocent and most vulnerable, and they’d always remember that time, unable to forget it no matter how awful you became.
Anders wished he had that security with even one person in the entire world, but he didn’t, and so he stood apart from the others, where he belonged.
‘It was all an accident,’ Garrett began. ‘I need you to know that—I need you to believe me.’
‘Only you,’ Carver said, when the story—implausible as it was, worse than one of Anders’s infamous excuses—was finished. ‘Only you would be the sort of person to join the Wardens because of an accident. What greatness you’ve been destined for.’
Garrett did his best to shrug it off; Anders realized he was waiting for his father to say something, but Malcolm remained troublingly silent, and that silence was doing more to undermine Garrett’s depleted stores of confidence than anything Carver could even dream of saying. ‘Like I said, I didn’t do it on purpose. I’d never do something like that.’
‘Wouldn’t you, though?’ Carver asked. When he moved toward Garrett, fast as the warrior he’d become at Ostagar, Anders didn’t think he’d need to reach for his staff—but he wasn’t sure. And that was rather overwhelming.
Malcolm moved out of the way; maybe he knew something Anders didn’t, that Garrett wasn’t in any real danger, that brothers never hurt each other, not seriously, not like this, not on purpose. But Carver gripped the front of Garrett’s chest-piece with disturbing force, causing Anders to wonder when it was he’d grown so ridiculously tall, bigger than Garrett now, the youngest but also the largest of all of them. He was sheer muscle, arms bare in the summer, freckled from the sunlight, not wearing his city-guard armor but solid as brick nonetheless, and his hand fisted in the leather of Garrett’s pauldron, giving him a single, hard shake. Anders saw his arm tremble, just as he bowed his head.
Garrett lifted a hand, not to defend himself, but to rest against the back of Carver’s neck, where the fair skin was always getting sunburned. They stood that way, about to come to blows, about to embrace one another, for a long moment. Malcolm had predicted it, just like he’d predicted everything—everything within reason, everything that had a sensible vocabulary.
He hadn’t predicted the Warden bit, though. So he wasn’t perfect. Just as close as any one man would find possible, given the year, and their current distance from the good graces of the Maker.
‘What a stupid—’ Carver said. He pulled free, letting go of Garrett with a shove, scrubbing the back of his hand across his eyes as he turned away. ‘—bloody stupid thing to do.’
‘Oh, Carver,’ Garrett said. ‘You of all people should know: I’m a bloody stupid person.’
‘And I’ve always known it,’ Carver agreed.
Garrett let Anders have the honor of first bath, which was a tactical error on his part, since while Anders was in the washing room, he took full advantage of the opportunity and hoarded both the first and second baths all for himself. Maybe even the third, too, but that was up for debate. The first he climbed into while fully dressed; it turned the water black, flakes of some indistinguishable organic material rising to the surface, along with various dark chunks that swirled around Anders’s thankfully-clothed form. He leaned his head back against the rim of the tub, wiggling his toes happily inside his wet woolen socks.
The second rinse was closer to a true washing up. Anders climbed in naked, and the water stayed a proper watery color this time. He scrubbed his skin and hair thoroughly, paying careful attention to every crevice. It was as though he was cleansing himself of Kal’Hirol—the talking darkspawn, the broodmothers, and of course the flaming golem.
Anders had a brief moment of wondering whether—in another tub, at a distant Keep—Cousland was bathing himself with the same desperate fervor. Then, with a rush of heat, he realized how inappropriate it was to be thinking of another man while in the bath—a man who was going to be his Commander, no less. He was wasting time, which just meant that Garrett was being kept in the kitchen, waiting for his turn, trapped with his family members.
After that—and a third, swift sluicing, just for good measure—Anders finished up quickly enough. He toweled himself off, tied his damp hair back with a worn bit of cord, and dressed in clean clothes that smelled of the soap Leandra had always favored while doing the wash. It was easy to tell when Bethany had done laundry instead of either of her brothers, because the clothes always smelled like something fresh afterward, as opposed to like someone had thrown all the garments into lukewarm water, then poked at them half-heartedly with a stick.
The shirt was an old one of Garrett’s—one the man himself had fortunately outgrown, which meant it wasn’t comically large on Anders now. He merely had to roll up his sleeves at the cuffs so they wouldn’t droop over his hands, and he looked not too much like a poorly-stuffed scarecrow.
‘About time,’ Garrett said, bolting for the washroom door the minute Anders reappeared.
It was no wonder, Anders realized, because he’d been sitting with Malcolm the entire time. Now, there were practically scorch-marks on the floor beneath Garrett’s feet, left by how quickly he’d fled the scene.
‘What can I say?’ Malcolm said, observing his son’s exit with a wry twist to his mouth. ‘I did raise him to have manners. I’m not entirely sure what happened, or where those manners went. Maybe they’re in there somewhere—or maybe I’ve always been fooling myself.’
‘Don’t blame yourself,’ Anders replied instinctively. The rhythm he had with Malcolm was deeply-ingrained. When they were alone, it was easy to fall into the familiar pattern. ‘The best laid plans, and all. Things do happen.’
‘Sons do become Wardens?’ Malcolm finished. He sat back in his chair, hands folded loosely against the tabletop. ‘Yes. So I’ve heard. Usually during a Blight, though. Usually you can almost see it coming.’
Guilt hammered steadily in Anders’s chest, calling to mind the dwarven anvils of Kal’Hirol, all the pale echoes of the ghosts trapped forever in the deep. ‘I really did try my best,’ he managed. ‘That Garrett—he’s very difficult to argue with. I even tried to think what you might do, but then he got the taint—’
‘I see,’ Malcolm said. ‘So technically, you’re saying it’s me who got you into this mess.’
‘Not you exactly, but thinking like you,’ Anders corrected him. He was too nervous to sit down; any relaxation that had steeped into his sore muscles from the bath had evaporated like so much hot air. But he’d never been good at pacing, always far too lazy for that, so instead he stood with his hands on the back of Garrett’s chair, the wood streaked with remnants of darkspawn grime. The piece of furniture stood between him and his old friend, something of a makeshift barrier. Not as good as anything arcane, but it would serve.
‘I’d hoped he’d get over it,’ Malcolm admitted. ‘With Carver it was an obsession; with Garrett, just a phase. He didn’t seem invested, I thought. Just…acting out a bit. No harm there.’
Anders moved his hands to another part of the chair, slightly cleaner, gripping the wood tight. ‘Isn’t he always? Acting out, I mean—now there’s an obsession for you. Entertaining. Short-lived. That’s always been the best part: when it’s over, and everybody’s happy again.’
‘Not as though I can say he’ll come around now, though.’ Malcolm turned his keen gaze to Anders, instead of the wall somewhere behind Anders, and Anders pretended to be fascinated by the chair’s craftsmanship, observing how the wooden bits locked together with the other wooden bits—to employ the technical terminology. ‘And what about you? Caught the taint too down in the deep, did you?’
‘Mmmahhmm,’ Anders said, noncommittally. ‘Do you ever wonder how chairs are made, Malcolm? No, you don’t, do you—you probably know already. I bet you’ve made a great many chairs in your lifetime. Did you make this chair? I like how comfortable it is for…sitting on. As all the best chairs should be.’
‘If you like it all that much, you should try actually sitting on it,’ Malcolm suggested. ‘It’s even better then.’
Daintily, Anders picked his way around the chair, scooted it closer to the table, and perched on the very edge with his hands on his knees. Ready to flee at a moment’s notice, to hide with Garrett in the washroom, covering his eyes with a towel wrapped around his head like a poorly-fitted magister’s turban. ‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘Must you know everything?’
‘What I don’t know,’ Malcolm said, leaning forward, ‘is what really happened down there.’
‘And you really don’t want to know,’ Anders assured him. ‘Broodmothers, worst nightmares, taints and joining and darkspawn and things. Belching dwarf. Son of a traitor. All those pesky details, terrible stuff, not for the faint of heart. Can’t talk about the rest of it—Warden secrets and all. So sorry. Wish I could, but they’d probably kill me—you know how it is.’
Malcolm fell silent, hands clasped together loosely. His staff was resting against the table by his chair, and he reached out to touch it, the worn grooves his hands fit into from stubborn years of fighting. Smugglers, raiders, highwaymen, bandits, looters, depraved bastards, giant spiders, a few darkspawn here and there, and of course templars—Malcolm had fought them all.
Not broodmothers, though. Nor flaming golems. Now Anders and Garrett had that up on him. It didn’t feel very good to surpass him, mostly because Anders knew it was a false sense of accomplishment. He wasn’t ready to move forward, to move on, to be anything other than what he always was, nothing spectacular, nothing too demanding.
Next to his staff was Garrett’s new one, and Malcolm touched that, too, its charred metal tip, then pulled his hand back, and rubbed stiffly at his palm.
‘Cramp?’ Anders asked, helpfully. ‘I can fix that for you, if you’d like.’
‘No, thank you, Anders,’ Malcolm replied. He refused to be distracted. ‘Just tell me: why did you do it? Why did you join him? Or…was it actually the taint?’
Anders ignored him, for just long enough to move off the chair and kneel at his side. When he took Malcolm’s hand, Anders could feel the cramping of the muscle, knotted tight, locking the thumb-joint in place. Just a little bit of healing energy later, and the feeling was gone. Malcolm sighed in appreciation. ‘There you are, then,’ Anders said. ‘Good as new. Doesn’t it feel better not to be stubborn?’
‘Only sometimes,’ Malcolm said dryly. ‘Maybe you’d care to do yourself the same honor.’
Anders licked his chapped lips, daring to look up at Malcolm’s face. It was as understanding and wise and kind as ever, the perfect face for a father, what Anders liked to imagine his father would have looked like—without the dark hair or the strong nose, features a little more appropriate to the Anderfels, but the expression, ideally, would be the same. Understanding. That was all Anders was asking for. ‘I really don’t want to talk about it,’ he said.
Malcolm squeezed his hand. ‘I know.’
‘But I’m going to talk about it anyway, in the hopes that it will make me feel better?’ Anders asked.
‘That would be for the best,’ Malcolm said.
Anders unburdened himself as best he could, in a mess of words and a flurry of hyperbole that wouldn’t have made any sense to a lesser man. It was a testament to Malcolm as a person and as a modern-age saint that his eyes didn’t glaze over, that he actually tried—Maker bless him—to acknowledge everything Anders said, about the tentacles and Oghren’s smells and Garrett’s stubbornness, how he’d planned on letting Garrett spend all his excess energy on killing darkspawn and playing at Wardening before he tired himself out, grew disenchanted, bored. But it hadn’t happened that way, and Anders was sorry, and Malcolm said he was sorry as well, and then Garrett came out of the washroom half-naked with the scar on his shoulder, hooked like a fish-lure around to the back of his neck, no longer blackened by the taint, but painful to look at anyway.
Malcolm couldn’t decide what they would do next without everyone coming to a consensus; it wasn’t just his decision to make, he explained, before telling them both to get some sleep.
‘I find I do my best thinking while I’m unconscious,’ Malcolm added, standing, cracking his sore back.
Anders, who by that point was operating on sheer relief and punchy adrenaline—he hadn’t slept in far longer than he cared to think about—gratefully took the excuse to flee to the bedroom. There, he put his freshly-shaven face against his mother’s old pillow, the rough little nubbins of embroidered thread against his cheek and jaw, and enjoyed the feeling of a real mattress, one that wasn’t made out of cold, unforgiving, Kal’Hirol stone.
‘May I join you?’ Garrett asked from the doorway.
Raw heat flooded Anders’s body, proving that there was truly never a moment in his life when he was too tired to appreciate the sudden appearance of Garrett in their shared bedroom. He shifted lazily in place, barely possessed of enough energy to lift his head. Even simple things—such as how to form words, and then how to string those words along into a coherent sentence—eluded him as he stared over his shoulder into Garrett’s handsome face.
‘Well all right,’ Anders managed. ‘But you can’t have my favorite side of the bed, and I’m a dreadfully squirmy sleeper, so I hope you’re prepared to wake up with a knee lodged in your back, or an elbow in your eye.’
Oh yes. Very attractive.
Garrett laughed. It was dry, but it was real, and Anders breathed in deep, as if it was a smell he could inhale and keep all to himself. It had been ages since he’d heard Garrett’s laugh—in Kal’Hirol, it would have echoed off the walls and sounded all wrong, and also they didn’t have much reason for laughing then.
They didn’t have much reason for laughing now, either, but at least they did have clean sheets.
‘Actually,’ Garrett said. Anders’s bed creaked as he knelt down on it. ‘I was just thinking about how comfortable that lovely pillow looked.’
Anders rolled to face him, one hand swatting uselessly at Garrett’s thick wrist. ‘Back, Fereldan invader. This is a genuine artifact from the Anderfels, and I won’t have it stolen from me by a barbarian.’ Pulse pounding, Anders looked up at Garrett in a way that he hoped would seem wicked and alluring instead of exhausted and possibly demented. Garrett looked better—some of the harsh lines in his face remained from Kal’Hirol, but his skin was flushed and his eyes bright. Remarkable how much more alive some people looked when they’d had a bath, and fended off impending doom. ‘I plan on having many terrible nightmares about the darkspawn on this very pillow, so you can just give up your designs at once. I became a Warden for you—the least you could do is show a little consideration.’
Garrett ducked his head, affecting a chuckle that sounded more like a sigh. He was moving again, pulling away faster than Anders could say don’t. The mattress bounced slightly, and he was gone in a cloud of warm soap-smells and damp, dark hair. Anders tried to tell himself it was for the best. He wasn’t all that sure what he’d been anticipating, but he was definitely too tired for it now.
And even if he hadn’t been, Garrett was. He was younger—still in that stage where he didn’t know his limitations until he’d hit them, hard, fast, without warning and without preparation. Anders listened to his steady footfalls crossing the room, the abrupt moment when they stopped and the bed groaned under his weight. Or maybe that was Garrett groaning. Anders couldn’t tell without looking, and he wouldn’t roll over just to stare again. Doing so once was charming, but twice threatened to betray a rather embarrassing pattern.
‘Goodnight, Anders,’ Garrett called. He extinguished the torch, settling in his own bed, with his own drab pillows.
‘Let’s hope so,’ Anders replied. In spite of how tired he’d been, it took him a long time to finally drift off.
After a great deal of discussion the next morning, it was decided at last that the remaining Hawkes would stay in Amaranthine while Anders and Garrett went on to Vigil’s Keep. At first, Bethany and Carver had seemed bound and determined to join the Wardens right alongside them—a courageous offer that Anders admired, but one he also had to discourage. For one, while Malcolm had accepted two out of his four charges joining a doomed legion of heroes and madmen, Anders had his doubts as to how far a father’s patience could possibly extend. The man was still human at the end of the day; Anders had no desire to test his limits, despite how considerable they always were.
‘Besides,’ Garrett had added, in a way that almost made it seem as though he wanted to be helpful, ‘someone’s got to look out for Father and Bethany now that we’re gone, Carver.’
‘Yes,’ Carver said. ‘Hiding two illegal mages will be easier than hiding four. You’re so clever, brother. Was this all part of your plan?’
‘Oh, Carver,’ Anders said. ‘I think I’ll miss you most of all.’
It was partly the truth; Anders knew he was going to miss all of them, Carver included, despite how little they got on. At least, Anders always told himself, Carver barely got on with anyone, so it probably wasn’t personal. But they’d grown so accustomed to one another over the past six years—nearly seven, come winter—that Anders didn’t know what he was going to do with himself now. He was positively ancient, dead three times over in dog years, and suddenly he had to start adapting to a brand new set of rules and routines. Garrett could do it, because Garrett was still young and virile, but Anders wasn’t looking forward to learning all these new tricks. Or not learning them, which was far more likely.
‘And after Vigil’s Keep?’ Carver asked. ‘If the Wardens move on, what then?’
‘You’ll probably have to give up your budding career as a city guardsman,’ Garrett drawled, reaching out to grab him and tousle his hair, rubbing his knuckles into Carver’s scalp. ‘What a pity. I know it was a calling for you, Carver, but I’m sure you’ll find something else just as challenging to replace it.’
‘We can’t all be Wardens, brother,’ Carver muttered, fighting back.
‘Yes,’ Garrett agreed. ‘That’s rather the point, isn’t it? Only a rare few of us are chosen. Such a burden, really.’
They scuffled, and Bethany folded her arms and rolled her eyes, and Anders nudged her in the shoulder with his shoulder. It was a subtle thank you for the goodness of her heart and the patience of her soul, and an equally subtle apology for leaving her alone with only Carver for company. At least she still had Malcolm, who was really quite entertaining for such a well-mannered gentleman, deadly at diamondback, a magnificent storyteller. But it wouldn’t be the same with three instead of five—especially since it hadn’t even been the same with five instead of six—and Anders knew it. He was apologetic, in that way where he never mentioned it out loud, and hoped its meaning would come across anyway, by some miracle of instinct.
‘Yes, Anders,’ Bethany murmured. ‘I know.’
And so it all worked out.
Garrett had a bruise forming underneath his right eye, blooming across his cheekbone, when he finally managed to break free of Carver’s dead-hold, getting him in the gut with the back-end of his new staff. ‘I’ll have to thank Cousland for this,’ he said, twirling it one-handed, showing off egregiously, and of course putting on a grand show for everyone. ‘Do you know we got this after battling a talking darkspawn and a flaming golem? How many flaming golems have you fought, Carver?’
‘Look after him,’ Malcolm told Anders, clasping his arm at the elbow, holding tight. ‘He certainly acts clever, but we all think that of ourselves at that age, and we invariably find ourselves ankle deep in our own shit because of it.’
‘Or ankle deep in darkspawn shit,’ Anders added, then cleared his throat. ‘Do they even—never mind. Yes, I’ll do what I can. Remarkable you still trust me after the last go-round, but I can’t fail that badly twice in a row, can I? Maker, I hope not.’
Malcolm smiled, the laugh-lines at the corners of his eyes seeming deeper than ever. Then, he released his hold, setting Anders loose, when all Anders really wanted was to be told it was time to run again—this time from the Wardens and the templars.
What was one more deadly enemy, really, in the face of freedom?
Vigil’s Keep wasn’t as bad as Anders had been expecting, but it wasn’t exactly a chalet by the ocean, either. It looked about as brutal as one would imagine from the outside, though on the inside the men and women of the keep seemed friendly enough. Anders was on the look-out for hatchet-faced lieutenants who’d make him lick their boots in order to break him to soldierly life, but none presented themselves, just a few bluff soldiers who paid him and Garrett little to no mind.
‘Mind telling me where the Wardens are?’ Garrett finally asked one, with that old, familiar, companionable tone, the one that Anders wished—one day—would be turned on him, to give him an actual reason to melt into a happy puddle in his boots.
Predictably, the soldier’s fine training blew away like a house of cards in a stiff breeze under the unexpected attention, Garrett’s handsome face staring down at him and back-lit by the sun above, all white teeth and relentless charm. ‘Might be a long wait,’ he said, desperate to be Garrett’s best friend already. Next thing they knew, the poor fellow would be trotting after him, falling into place next to the dog, sitting by him at the mess table, begging for treats.
Anders toyed with his earring, the metal cool against his fingertips in the crisp air. It was colder up here, and Anders was grateful as always for the woolly socks Leandra had given him three Feastdays ago now. Itchy they might have been, but they kept his toes warm, and that was always important.
‘I think they’ll want to see us right away,’ Garrett assured his new friend, clapping him on the back with a hollow clang of armor. ‘Be seeing you around then? There’s a good man.’
Anders trailed him beneath a second portcullis and up a short flight of stairs; there were more soldiers now, some of them very nearly hatchet-faced, though no one looked properly villainous just yet. They passed through the great wooden doors, and into a fine hall, very Fereldan, complete with roaring fire and belching dwarf.
‘Hello again, Oghren,’ Anders said. ‘Admit it: you missed us.’
‘Who in the flames’re you blighters?’ Oghren asked, blinking his eyes in an obvious attempt to focus. Anders couldn’t even imagine what he thought he was seeing.
‘He’s been drinking,’ Nathaniel said, by way of explanation. He was standing a measured distance away from the dwarf in question, and once Anders passed into range, through the sphere of his odors, he understood why.
‘I’m always drinking,’ Oghren said. ‘Even when I ain’t drinking.’
‘Transcendent as always, Oghren,’ Garrett said.
Oghren swayed, and reached for his axe. ‘What’d you call me?’
‘Shouldn’t we…roll some sort of mattress underneath him for when he inevitably falls over?’ Anders asked. ‘Not for him, I mean—for the floor. Otherwise he’ll dent it.’
‘The Commander just lets him fall where he stands,’ Nathaniel admitted. ‘He says it suits him to keep the nobles on their toes.’
Anders stepped around Oghren to Garrett’s other side, because it suddenly seemed prudent. ‘Unconscious dwarves do always keep me on my toes. Why are there nobles here, exactly?’
‘Because no one can do anything without me,’ Cousland said, appearing behind them with his arms outstretched. ‘Welcome to Vigil’s Keep. Bit dreadful at the moment. Full of people who want things. Worst kind of people, in my experience.’
‘Cousland,’ Garrett said. He held out his hand, then seemed surprised when Cousland pulled him into a full-blown hug instead. Anders, on the other hand, was far from shocked.
People loved to get their arms around Garrett whenever they could. Anders was only surprised it had taken any of the Wardens this long to give it a go. It would probably be Oghren next, and his short arms wouldn’t wrap all the way around, and it would be quite embarrassing for everyone.
‘Hawke,’ Cousland said, releasing him with a leonine grin. He gestured to the keep’s throne room, hand obscuring Oghren as he fell flat on his face at last. The floor rumbled beneath their feet, the throne room’s very foundations shaking, a few nobles gasping in surprise. ‘Welcome to a nightmare of unimaginable proportions.’
As Anders had feared, Cousland wasn’t referring to battling darkspawn in the depths of the Keep’s cellar. He didn’t even have the decency to produce a dragon for them to rally against, or anything similarly scaly and scorching. No, their first test as Wardens was far more trying than any of that.
And Cousland had orchestrated the entire thing, that sly rogue. He introduced Anders and Garrett as the newest recruits to the ranks, then abandoned them to the tender mercies of a woman with a face like a leather belt, who went by the name of Bann Esmerelle.
‘More Wardens?’ she asked, looking at Garrett like he was something small and hairy her carriage had run over on the way here—notable only because it had broken a wheel-spoke in the process. ‘Curious that he would begin to rebuild your numbers only now, with the Blight having passed already.’
‘He’s a curious fellow, isn’t he?’ Anders agreed cheerfully. Cousland had disappeared on the promise of getting them drinks; something told Anders he was never coming back. In the absence of having something to do with his hands—not to mention being painfully sober—Anders fidgeted, tugging at the fabric of his sleeve. ‘Curious and handsome. I can never quite tell what he’s thinking.’
‘He also brought Orlesians in, you know,’ Bann Esmerelle informed them. ‘More…Wardens. Practically rolled out the welcome mat for them when we’ve only just pushed back across the border. It’s insulting to all the real heroes who died in the wars before the Blight.’
‘Real heroes—do you mean like Teryn Loghain?’ Garrett wondered. Despite the tone of his voice—blandly curious, innocent and sweet as a pat of butter—Anders wasn’t immune to the sudden tension forming around him. It was much like the atmosphere in the underground smugglers’ caverns just before Garrett called down an immense crushing pulse of gravity.
The very air would change, when Garrett was angry enough. He hadn’t lost control—this hapless woman had no idea what she was getting herself into—but Anders took a needlessly heroic step closer, ready to administer a swift kick to the shins if it came to down to it.
‘I’m surprised,’ Bann Esmerelle said, foolishly misinterpreting Garrett’s question as the acquiescence of an ally. ‘Not many would dare to utter that name in this house.’
Garrett’s face went tight, his features stark as though they’d been hewn from dwarven rock. Anders wondered whether he’d ever stop seeing Kal’Hirol in every surface.
Maybe in a few years, when the memories weren’t so fresh, when he had new Deep Roads to hallucinate about.
‘My brother was at Ostagar,’ Garrett said, examining the nail of his ring finger as though he’d suddenly found it dirty. ‘One of those men your great Fereldan hero left to die. Although I must admit, the Orlesian occupation hasn’t started again, so I suppose his actions must have prevented that. Incidentally, if that’s what you believe, I’d like to inform you here and now that I’ve been singlehandedly protecting Ferelden from invasion by the Tevinter Imperium. Just take a look around! Do you see any magisters lining up to take all the best virgins for slaves? So you see my vigilance is working.’
Anders coughed, turning away to cover his mouth as he swallowed a laugh. The look on Bann Esmerelle’s face would have been fodder for Anders’s nightmares were it not for the fact that he’d already gotten so much of that from the broodmothers already.
‘Sorry about that,’ Cousland said, exhibiting tremendous timing, as Anders had come to expect from an unrepentant rogue. He slipped a goblet of very fine-looking wine into Anders’s hands, then tucked between them to stand next to Garrett. ‘What have I missed? I must say, even from across the room, it’s obvious you lot are having the most fun of everyone here.’
‘Not so much fun as Oghren, I’d imagine,’ Anders said. ‘I wish I was unconscious and drooling right about now.’
‘Soon enough,’ Cousland promised, a hand on his back. ‘Now. Where were we?’
‘Offending the rich and powerful, I believe,’ Anders told him, and Garrett grinned wickedly in confirmation.
Having met and made a suitable impression on Bann Esmerelle—‘Remarkable how that woman’s managed to turn busy-bodying into an art form,’ Cousland said with a sigh—they were introduced to countless other assorted nobles, all of whom were equally unimpressed by the sudden appearance of two Warden apostates in their midst. Anders didn’t exactly blame them, though they’d all come around once he began to tell his very best jokes from the Circle. People always did, even the most fervent of non-believers.
‘Sorry about all that,’ Cousland said, drawing them away from the crowd at last. Anders noted that the nobles and the Wardens did not mingle freely—possibly because ‘the Wardens’ currently consisted of two dwarves, one of whom looked dead, and Nathaniel Howe, not exactly bolstered in modern social circles by his unfortunate pedigree. ‘I like to get the least impressive bits over with first whenever I can help it. I also like to give these ravening crows false hope that I’ll actually listen to their requests today, which I won’t by any means, but it’s fun to see their little faces light up like it’s Feastday all the same.’
‘I knew I liked you,’ Garrett told him, because the two of them were practically one and the same. They were getting on swimmingly, as well as handsomely, and Anders was aggressively draining the contents of his wine glass in response.
‘Mutual, mutual,’ Cousland replied. ‘But first—I have some things for you.’
‘The Warden Commander likes to give us presents,’ Sigrun explained pertly, as Anders naturally fell behind. Cousland had one arm around Garrett’s shoulders, red head bowed against Garrett’s darker crown; it was impossible not to stare at them and think how attractive they both looked together, how they were natural leaders, natural charismas, and Anders sighed, naturally feeling very sorry for himself indeed.
‘Of course he does,’ Anders said. ‘That makes it rather hard to hate him, doesn’t it?’
Sigrun looked equal parts thoughtful and cheerful at the same time. Anders would have to ask her how she did it—since being thoughtful always led to the death of being cheerful, in his experience. ‘I think some continue to hate him just fine,’ she said at last. ‘Don’t you like presents, human?’
‘I love presents,’ Anders admitted. ‘Who doesn’t? That’s just the problem.’
‘By the ancestors, you’re a strange one,’ Sigrun told him.
Anders shrugged. ‘I’ve heard that before.’
Cousland led them to a large chest by the door and opened it—picking the lock rather than using the key—and Anders peered curiously inside because he couldn’t help himself, shoulder bumping against Garrett’s. ‘If you see anything you like, feel free to take it,’ Cousland said. ‘New staff, new robes, matching rings, belts, anything. I rather thought these would suit you, Anders,’ he added, pulling a set of purplish Tevinter robes out from the depths, complete with glossy, black feather pauldrons and a golden mid-section, a little bit wrinkled, but otherwise good as new. ‘Another companion of mine used to wear them—but then I impregnated her with, potentially, an old god, and she ran off, understandably.’
Anders cautiously reached out to touch the rich silk, shimmering and soft, laced with runes and also very fine stitching. It shivered against his fingertips beautifully. ‘You made that up.’
Cousland smiled at him benignly. ‘Did I? Maybe.’
‘If I wear these, I might as well hang a big I’m a Mage sign around my neck, while I’m at it,’ Anders added, not quite letting go of the robes. He’d always wanted to wear a set like this, but of course it hadn’t been allowed—for the obvious reasons, those reasons being Malcolm Hawke.
‘You’re a Warden now,’ Cousland told him. ‘Right of Conscription trumps templars every time, so I’m told. If you wanted, you even could go about stark naked.’
‘Too cold for that,’ Anders said.
‘But not too cold for incredibly expensive Tevinter robes,’ Cousland agreed. ‘If you don’t wear them, they’ll just be lying in there forever, getting eaten by moths.’
‘Well,’ Anders said, finally reaching forward to bundle the perfect garment into his arms. ‘We can’t have that.’
It was a bit complicated to put on, and Anders realized only after he’d changed that he’d put it on backwards; he could hear Garrett pacing impatiently in the room next-door, the one Cousland had shown him to and then, mercifully, left him alone in. Anders didn’t know what he was expecting, exactly, but he was only able to breathe a sigh of relief once he heard the door close and the latch slide shut, and Cousland’s bootfalls disappearing down the hallway.
The rooms were clean and a bit cold, one high, sunny window in the far corner, a hearth, a simple bed, a table and a chair and a rug, nothing fancy but nothing stark, either. Anders was relieved, tossing his pillow on top of the others, glancing at the adjoining door between his room and Garrett’s, then undid the buckles of his old coat, sliding each leather strap free, fingers smelling of metal when he was all done.
Shimmying into the Tevinter robe set was more difficult than it had looked, but when he finally got everything right, laces done up, high collar tight against the scruff at his throat, arms bare, little golden bands wrapped tight ‘round the muscle, the silk swished just so against his legs, and fit him very nicely at the waist. He spent far too long in front of the mirror, touching the feathers, preening, then sighed when he saw his face and his head and his travel-tousled hair on top of it all, which really ruined the effect.
He was finally startled out of his vain reverie by the sound of a doorknob rattling; then, Garrett banged on the separating door. ‘Are you quite done in there, or do you and that outfit need even more time alone?’ he asked, voice dry and muffled through the wood and stone.
Anders’s hand went to his throat, nearly crushing the feathers against his chest before he remembered their existence. ‘Just a moment!’
Then, contradicting himself, he went to the door immediately. He comforted himself about his own eagerness by reminding himself it was never a good idea to let Garrett know exactly what to expect. Like a noble, he needed to be kept on his toes. Anders brushed off an imaginary speck of lint on his thigh—more than likely it was a cobweb, judging by what he’d seen of Cousland’s storage facilities—and hauled open the door.
Garrett was on the other side, looking poised to knock it down with his shoulder.
‘About time,’ he said. Anders had no way of knowing whether there was meant to be more after that, because he abruptly fell silent.
Somehow—although it was a very near thing—Anders managed not to twirl. ‘So,’ he said instead, expectantly. It wasn’t necessarily being self-centered, because Garrett had been the one banging on his door in the first place. Anders doubted it was out of curiosity as to his living space; all personal quarters in the Keep looked more or less the same.
‘Not used to seeing you in skirts,’ Garrett said at last. He looked Anders up and down so slowly, so thoroughly, that Anders could practically feel his gaze probing like callused fingers, his touch light but curious. He shivered slightly, then bit down on the inside of his cheek, attempting to get a hold of himself. Just who was supposed to be the older, more mature Warden here?
That was the biggest joke in Thedas. Older Anders might have been, but the only man less mature than him at the Keep was Oghren, and Oghren wasn’t even a man. He was a dwarf, one who was married with a child, if idle gossip could be trusted, which was a concept foreign enough to Anders that it struck fear into his heart—into his very soul.
He simply couldn’t imagine a baby—soft, squishy, with those fluttering heartbeats at the very crown of their heads—in Oghren’s hands. Every time he tried, he felt like he might black out from the sheer terror of it. It’d be a miracle if the babe ever made it out of infancy alive.
‘Is that it?’ Anders demanded, pulling himself back to the moment. He did twirl then, or rather he affected a far more mature and sedate turn in a circle, just so Garrett could appreciate his trim waist and how flattering the robes were in back.
Garrett laughed, and Anders felt him tuck his fingers beneath the gold belt from behind, tugging him in closer.
‘Do you think they make them in my size?’ Garrett asked. The heat of Garrett’s breath against his ear turned Anders’s bones to jelly.
‘You’ll have to ask,’ Anders huffed, hiding his delight. ‘I hear Cousland likes giving gifts. Maybe you’ll get lucky.’
He knew that was the wrong choice of words when Garrett laughed again, deeper this time, and released him, letting Anders stand all alone in his room once more. It’d been a while since he’d slept alone, too, and while at first the idea of such independence had been mildly alluring, now Anders found he wasn’t at all looking forward to it.
‘Why, Anders,’ Garrett said, eyes sparkling. ‘Getting lucky with the Wardens? It’s almost as if you’d read my mind.’
But if that was the truth, Anders rather wished he hadn’t.
In the days that followed, it became apparent that Anders’s robes were one of a kind, and the bare arms and feathered shoulders would have looked all wrong on Garrett. He certainly didn’t need anything else that would help in drawing attention to himself, either.
‘Looks like a bunch of birds got together, saw what you were already wearin’, and died laughing right there on your shoulders,’ Oghren said, the first time he’d seen Anders’s new attire. ‘Tch. Mages.’
‘Now, Oghren,’ Anders said. ‘We can’t all go about looking like a bit of scrap metal the blacksmith keeps in the back of his dirty little hovel. You know—the piece no one wants. Covered in bits of lint and fuzz and stray hair. Just like you are!’
‘Did I mention the dead birds yet?’ Oghren asked. ‘’Cause I’m about to mention ‘em again.’
Still, it was the first real attention anyone had given him about the new robes; Garrett seemed to have forgotten all about them, and no matter how many times Anders posed attractively in shafts of light within the Keep so as to become more noticeable, no one ever saw fit to actually notice him.
‘Better,’ Nathaniel said at last, at the end of the first long day, just a stalking, skulking shadow in the lamp-lit hall.
‘Because it’s so flattering to my trim, mage-like physique?’ Anders asked impishly. He just couldn’t help himself. Someone had to pay him a compliment eventually, even if he tricked them into it.
‘Because now we all know who you are,’ Nathaniel replied darkly. ‘A mage should be straightforward. Potential allies should be forewarned.’
‘I think you mean what I am, in that case, Nathaniel.’ Anders sniffed. ‘Who I am has nothing to do with my robes, or the fact that I’m a mage.’
‘Is that so?’ Nathaniel asked.
Anders reveled, for a selfish moment, in the knowledge that he was about to win this verbal spar. It happened so rarely these days that he wanted to enjoy every moment of it properly, thoroughly, because he deserved it. ‘Unless who you are is nothing more than a Howe,’ he said at last, and enjoyed the lone misstep, the awkward loss of rhythm in Nathaniel’s footfalls.
‘An unfair point,’ Nathaniel told him.
‘I’m rather an unfair person,’ Anders replied.
Sigrun liked the robes; she said they made him look like a real character, and Anders took that to be a compliment, because he was in such dire need of one. Sigrun was a real character herself, after all, but not dressed nearly so well. She did have excellent taste when it came to literature, however; Anders had to explain to her what an Antivan milk sandwich was after plowing eagerly through one of her bawdier recommendations, and after that he just felt unclean.
It was wrong to teach dwarves about such things, even more wrong to imagine them putting the knowledge to practical use.
At last, Cousland had the good sense to seek Anders out, just when Anders was settling in by the window to read another one of Sigrun’s favorites, this one—hopefully—with fewer dewy petals and glistening staffs. Cousland looked bluff, wind-tousled, red-cheeked and pink-nosed, his silverite armor streaked with frost. Wherever he’d been, it was cold enough to make the skin on Anders’s arms turn to gooseflesh just looking at him.
‘Well, stand up,’ Cousland said. ‘Turn around a bit. Let me see you.’
‘I beg your pardon?’ Anders asked, two spots of pleased heat rising high on his cheekbones.
Cousland crossed his arms over his chest, shiny, winged helm tucked beneath them. ‘Very few things in my life are actually enjoyable,’ he explained, ‘and seeing my own exceptional taste come to light is one of those small, infrequent pleasures. I want to be sure the gift suits you, so I can feel good about myself.’
Some men had all the luck, all the self-confidence needed to be blindingly honest with people. And other men, like Anders, were easily swayed by that cocksure attitude. He slid out of his seat and did his little turn, arms held high, feathers rustling, and stopped to find Cousland looking inordinately pleased with himself, as though he was the one who made the robes look this good.
‘It’s not as though I’m expecting any gratitude,’ Cousland admitted. ‘A job well done is its own reward. They suit you, by the way. Strike fear into the hearts of our enemies in that thing, will you?’
‘Rather hard to strike fear into the heart of an ogre,’ Anders said. ‘Unless you’re an even bigger ogre, but even then…’
Cousland threw his head back and laughed pleasantly at the joke, the sound of his fading mirth and leather boots and the clack of his mabari’s scrabbly dark nails following him all the way down the hall.
‘Saw you with Cousland earlier,’ Garrett said later that night, shucking off his boots and kicking them into the far corner of his room. The door between them was open; Anders could catch glimpses of the fire in his hearth, crackling gently away, the mabari stretched out on the rug nearby, fur pauldrons in a heap by his side, leather straps and chestpiece just beyond them. The room was an absolute mess, in other words, and Anders leaned in the doorway, arms crossed over his silken-gold belt, arching his brow in comment.
‘He was admiring my robes,’ he replied. ‘At last: someone appreciates me.’
‘Of course he was admiring them, Anders,’ Garrett said, peeling off his socks and flicking them in a wide arc through the air. They landed in front of the dog’s nose, and his wrinkled his muzzle, opening one reproachful eye. ‘He got them for you, didn’t he? Not even a new gift—just being resourceful. Cousland’s a resourceful man.’
Anders made an unpleasant expression, then sighed and wilted like a bird caught in a storm. ‘He is a good liar, though. Very convincing. Practically swept me off my feet.’
‘With a flutter of skirts and silks and feathers, no doubt,’ Garrett agreed, and shut the door between them without further ado.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Warden life wasn’t all gossip and naughty books and lounging about in throne rooms watching the nobles grow restless. Vigil’s Keep, as Cousland said, wasn’t able to run itself, and there were rumors of late about the Blackmarsh, not to mention the threat of a peasant uprising in the neighboring farmlands, and also a murderer on the loose, killing travelers indiscriminately out on the open road.
Cousland took it all in great stride, while Anders prayed to the Maker he wouldn’t choose the Blackmarsh as their first destination. But that was all ruined when their intrepid Commander took him and Garrett aside after a very brief morning meeting with the Keep’s seneschal, looking a bit more serious.
‘We’re heading to the Blackmarsh,’ he said, and something of Anders’s feelings on the matter must have been made painfully obvious, because his expression lightened, and he chuckled. ‘Not all of us, though. In fact, I’d rather hoped you and Hawke might be willing to do me a more…personal favor.’
‘Warden business, I hope,’ Garrett said, inspecting one fingernail. ‘Anything else would just be inappropriate, Cousland, and I’d have to report you.’
‘Maybe some other time,’ Cousland agreed. ‘Sounds pleasant, though. …No, it’s Warden business and not Warden business, in a way. Requires someone with a honeyed tongue—precisely why I thought of you, Hawke.’
Garrett licked his lips, and Anders quickly looked away. ‘I do have one of those.’
‘Exactly.’ Cousland clapped him on the shoulder, petting at his fur; he was a tactile man, with rough fingers and palms, a rogue’s hands, always touching things to understand them. ‘Will you be my man for this, then?’
‘Be your man?’ Garrett asked. ‘I suppose I could be persuaded.’
‘Excellent,’ Cousland said. ‘Now: what do you know about King Alistair?’
As it happened, what Anders and Garrett knew about King Alistair didn’t amount to much more than what everyone knew, pieced together from bits and bats of gossip, rumors gathered from Lake Calenhad all the way to Denerim and even farther north. He was Maric’s bastard son; he’d been coronated right after the Blight; and he’d married Cailan’s widow, Queen Anora, after being instrumental in the downfall and eventual death of her father Loghain.
Anders had no idea how that could possibly work, but he was willing to bet it made for some really awkward pillow talk.
What they hadn’t known—a bit of some more personal information, a detail Cousland had only just let them in on—was that King Alistair resented Cousland monstrously for all those things, chiefly because it was Cousland’s fault that they’d come to pass in the first place.
It was utterly thrilling to be at the source for such juicy political gossip, even if there was no one for Anders to share it with after he learned it. In the Circle, rumor and scandal—especially scandal—had been an important form of currency amongst the mage apprentices; one traded it for better stories, or better pillows, or a more advantageous place in the lunch line. Garrett often complained that Anders gossiped like a one-man sewing circle, but he simply didn’t understand, because he’d been an apostate his whole life. His life was the sort people with Anders’s life gossiped about. Anders would really never be used to actually living it.
‘Did you ever imagine we’d be part of a royal delegation?’ Anders asked Garrett, as they set out of the Keep together—Anders in his new robes, and Garrett in his furs and dented steel armor. Neither of them looked the part. There were no trumpeters or flag-bearers or anything.
‘As far as I understand it, we are the delegation,’ Garrett said. He scratched his nose, fingers rubbing at the bump in the bridge. ‘The only two men brave enough to serve as ambassadors between the Wardens and the monarch of Ferelden. Do you think there’s possibly something they’re not telling us?’
‘Technically, we’re negotiating between the Wardens and another Warden,’ Anders pointed out. ‘If the rumors are true. Actually, when you think about it in those terms, it does sound rather odd, doesn’t it? I almost feel as though we’re being dispatched to solve a personal problem.’
‘It’s still better than the Blackmarsh,’ Garrett said. ‘Or the Deep Roads, for that matter. I’ve had enough dwarven thaigs to last me a lifetime.’
A private shiver ran up Anders’s spine. ‘Serving as Oghren’s bedpan for a night would still be better than going back to the Deep Roads, I think.’
‘Eugh,’ Garrett said. ‘Are those my only options? What about death? This is a terrible game. I’m not sure I want to play it anymore.’
‘What do you think Carver’s doing right about now?’ Anders asked, deftly changing the topic so they could both be a little more comfortable.
A devious grin split Garrett’s face, just what Anders was hoping to see. ‘I can venture a guess as to what he’s not doing.’
Anders couldn’t help but laugh. Neither of them had ever imagined they’d be returning to Amaranthine City in such a capacity—joining the king’s retainer as his procession checked on the coastal cities. With any luck, Carver would be one of the guardsmen they pulled off regular detail in order to beef up security for King Alistair.
Imagining the look on his face if he saw Anders and Garrett fraternizing with the King of Ferelden was more terrifying than a hundred ogres charging them down full-bore, if only because Anders didn’t have to live with the darkspawn.
As expected, the king was ‘vacationing’ in one of the large mansions of Amaranthine City—the type that generally went unnoticed by someone of Anders’s caliber, since he was about as welcome among the nobility as an untimely summer frost among the crops. There were templars everywhere, patrolling alongside the city guard just so King Alistair would know he had the protection of the Maker and not just these fallible mortals.
Anders couldn’t help but feel another private shiver. It was far older, far more instinctive, than anything to do with genlocks and hurlocks and childer grubs. He’d always secretly believed that templars were so frightening because they were so normal looking, actual people with faces and human bodies underneath all that heavy armor, men and women just like him—save for one very important distinction—who had nonetheless been the villains and monsters of Anders’s daylight hours ever since childhood. He could be repulsed by broodmothers all he wanted, their obvious tentacles and grotesque features, but the subtler terror of the templars would always be more efficacious. To him, at least; personally. Which was rather how he took everything.
‘Did you ever hear the rumor that King Alistair started as a templar?’ Garrett asked, out of thin air.
Anders realized he’d drawn closer to him in the last few paces, a search for comfort instinctive as his fear. It was something he would have done with Malcolm, if Malcolm were there. Then, Anders rather hoped Malcolm wasn’t there, that he’d taken Bethany and they’d both gone underground for a bit, at least during this current templar infestation.
‘We ought to get along swimmingly, then,’ Anders replied. ‘You know me and templars. Like salt and pepper—always a harmonious union. Born to be together. Miserable when separated. Delicious when served on roasted meats.’
Actually, Anders knew, it was more likely that Garrett would be the one to get on with them—he had a sick fascination with templars, once again because he’d never been a Circle mage at all, and didn’t know just how much he was supposed to fear them. He flirted with that danger the same way he flirted with all dangers, even though it wasn’t the same as all dangers. It was worse. There were times when observing that tendency in action made Anders sick to his stomach for reasons more noble than petty jealousy.
Those reasons never suited his complexion.
But the only templar—ex-templar and current King of Ferelden, to be more precise—that Garrett was supposed to get along with was currently camped in an estate Anders never even bothered to pass by, since it was always so depressing to see the very nice things he’d never be allowed to touch, much less own.
And that was probably why Cousland had sent them, of all people, into this den of roiling templar energy, amidst more polished, clanking templar armor than Anders had ever seen in one place, even at the Circle. Because Cousland was an excellent judge of character, understood Garrett’s particular talents to a fault, and was also trying to make Anders hate his life as much as possible.
‘You could show off just a little bit,’ Garrett reasoned. ‘Haven’t you always wanted to light a bit of a fire under a templar’s arse? Well: now’s your chance. After all, there’s not much they can do to you these days, is there? Don’t forget, Anders—you’re a Warden now.’
‘How could I forget?’ Anders asked. ‘I’m hungry all the time, I’m running errands for the Warden Commander, and I have to live with Oghren. As if the real nightmares weren’t nightmare enough.’
‘Fought a den of broodmothers and you’re still afraid of a few templars.’ Garrett shook his head. ‘Good thing they don’t matter anymore, isn’t it?’
Then, as if to prove his point, he swirled his dramatically obvious darkspawn staff and sidled up to a ruddy, handsome fellow, sun insignia emblazoned on his skirts and chest-piece—just to make the point unmistakably clear. Exactly what all templars wanted to see coming their way—what made them draw weapons first, chop mages up second, and ask questions approximately never: an apostate, wielding a suspiciously exotic staff, grinning like a fiend. Every templar’s favorite combination.
‘My good fellow,’ Garrett said, smooth as fine-churned butter, ‘would you be so kind as to direct me and my apostate associate here to King Alistair’s whereabouts? We’re here on Warden business, you know. Very important. Wouldn’t want to be you if we’re delayed.’
Anders had been half-expecting a reception of some sort, complete with countless different ways to bow and tug his forelock and make obeisance and the like. He’d never met a king before; he’d never imagined meeting one. It wasn’t as though it was one of the wildly impossible things he wasted time daydreaming about, like coming across Garrett in the bath and bending down to wash his shoulders, to bow their heads together, to kiss him full on his crooked mouth.
As far as daydreaming was concerned, doing something like that was far better than meeting royalty.
Anders was also, therefore, half-expecting to offend the king somehow within the first five seconds of being introduced, and to be thrown into the dungeons soon after that. While he’d discovered that Warden trumped templar every time, he couldn’t imagine Warden trumped magnificent ruler of all Ferelden, and he really didn’t want to offend a man with significant political power who was already, from Cousland’s description, very cranky about things.
Instead, they found themselves in a large but unimposing room, certainly nothing as impressive as the throne room at Vigil’s Keep, just some noble reception area for guests and tea parties and whatever else nobles did with their time to feel better than the common people so far below them, with so much smaller houses. And there were only two guards, and a man dressed in armor shinier than even templar standards, and Anders realized as his mouth fell open that it was King Alistair after all. No one but someone of that high standing would be able to afford armor made of beaten gold.
The King—Alistair—honestly, Anders had no idea how to refer to him mentally; ex-templar would probably have been rude, but every time it was the first thing that came to mind—winced enormously.
‘I hate it when people see me and make that face,’ he admitted.
Anders had to think fast, but, as always, his tongue moved more quickly than his brain. ‘Please don’t behead me,’ he said
‘Behead you because I hate your face?’ the king asked. ‘Not even your face, just…one you were momentarily wearing?’
‘That seems as good a reason as any,’ Anders replied. ‘It’s what I’d probably do, if I were king. Which I’m not. And never want to be. And I’d make a dreadful ruler, by the by; I’m not actually here for an assassination, despite what that sounded like. Garrett, why don’t you talk now? Please.’
‘Don’t mind Anders,’ Garrett said, reaching up to ruffle the hair at the back of Anders’s neck. The skin there was damp with sweat; Anders did his best not to shudder, or gasp, or do anything else that would be utterly inappropriate in front of company. Kingly company. ‘He hit his head on a low beam when we came in—walked right into it—and he hasn’t been the same since, I’m afraid.’
‘Not at all,’ the king said. Despite Anders’s misgivings—to say nothing of Anders’s word vomit, each sentence hurled like a projectile in King Alistair’s direction—he didn’t seem perturbed. Perhaps being a monarch and presiding over trials and other noble squabbles meant he had a great deal of experience in dealing with the aggressively annoying and potentially insane. ‘I’ve been meaning to speak with someone about having that beam fixed. Probably a dwarf—dwarves seem good at that kind of thing. But then you realize you’ve gone and let them into your homes, and they start knocking around on the walls and saying all sorts of mean things about human construction. Insulting your palaces, insulting your forefathers. It starts to seem like more of an ordeal than it’s worth, really. But I apologize for your head. And your Anders. I hope he isn’t too broken.’
‘Not at all,’ Garrett said. If he was surprised by the king’s peculiar way of talking, he didn’t let on for a minute. Cousland had chosen him well, Anders had to admit. Garrett was a special kind of diplomat, more like a living weapon. ‘It happens to us all the time. We’re…a very tall people.’
‘Are you—from the Anderfels, then?’ the king asked. ‘Or are you just possessed of a nickname chosen specifically to confuse people?’
‘Only one of us is,’ Garrett said, nodding toward Anders. ‘But I’m Fereldan through and through. I even have the dog and everything.’
‘Oh,’ the king said. He shifted in place, the bulky plates of his armor clanking together uncertainly. Then—so fast that Anders nearly missed it—a look of self-satisfied amusement passed over his face. It reminded Anders of an expression Carver had made at age twelve, when he was about to come out with a fantastic lie. It gave the whole thing away, of course, so it hadn’t gone as planned, but the lie itself had been a good one. Just delivered poorly. ‘I was raised in the Anderfels, you know. A whole pack of slobbering dogs took me in and made me their…ah.’ He stopped, his enthusiasm faltering. He glanced surreptitiously to the guards, then back to Garrett again. ‘You’re giving me that look. I know that look. That’s the exact look Teagan said people would give me if I kept on about the dog story.’
‘What look? I thought it was a fascinating story,’ Garrett said. ‘Seemed set for all sorts of adventure and…mysticism.’
King Alistair sighed. ‘You might not believe it, but I’d kill for a little mysticism, these days. Well, maybe I wouldn’t kill. Killing is frowned upon when you’ve become all kingly. But I’d maim for sure. Kick someone really hard in the shins. That sort of thing.’
‘With those boots, that would be very painful,’ Garrett agreed.
‘Won’t you sit down?’ King Alistair asked, Garrett’s charm working on him exactly as Anders had known it would. ‘My wife… I mean, Queen Anora is always saying how rude it is of me to go on and on without seeing our guests to their chairs first. You’d think I’d learn, one of these days, but somehow I never do.’
Garrett made a point of catching Anders’s eye as they took their respective seats. It was clear that he was thinking along the same lines as Anders—King Alistair was rather unexpectedly a bit of a character, just like all the rest.
Maybe it was a Warden thing, written in fine print on all the documents: Must be a bit of a character in order to survive Joining.
Cousland hadn’t mentioned that. Of course, he was the type who’d want them to figure it out for themselves as they went, and he was probably laughing himself all the way to the Blackmarsh. But the joke was on him, because Anders had still gotten out of going to the Blackmarsh in the first place. Weird kings were better than haunted wastelands.
Things went well for a time, with Garrett charming both guards out of the room, then entertaining the king with the story of how—once, when extremely not-sober—he and Anders had almost burned down the Chantry outside of Lothering. King Alistair was a jolly enough sort, but he turned as sour as one of Bethany’s lemon tarts the minute Cousland’s name came up.
‘Oh. Yes. I was wondering when you’d bring that up,’ he said, sinking down into his chair—or was that throne? It was possible that any chair, with a king’s arse in it, became a throne by default—the moment the words Warden Commander and Cousland were spoken. He looked like a petulant child, one whose hobby horse had just been broken. Anders had seen Carver wear that exact look countless times before, sullen and moody as an autumn storm-cloud. At least King Alistair looked slightly less murderous about it. ‘How’s Cousland these days, then? Does he have any more countries up his sleeve he wants to crown me king of? Free Marches? Cumberland? Starkhaven?’
‘Starkhaven.’ Anders shook his head sadly. ‘That’s almost as bad as the Blackmarsh.’
Privately, he wondered if it was possible King Alistair hadn’t known all along that Cousland had orchestrated this bizarre delegation. Obviously, since they were Wardens—Wardens coming straight from Vigil’s Keep, no less—there was no other possible explanation. But kings, Anders supposed, had to be as good at lying to themselves as other veterans of the lifestyle. In fact, with the weight of crown and country on their heads, they were probably even better at it than most.
‘He seems healthy, I suppose,’ Garrett murmured, rubbing at his jaw through his beard.
‘Enjoying his freedom?’ King Alistair asked. ‘Reveling as he roams? Wondering wonderfully as he wanders?’
Anders had long since given up on trying to follow everything the man said. Poor bastard—was it treason to think that?—but he seemed lonely. ‘Are you sure you’re a king and not a poet?’
‘It was the dogs’ influence,’ King Alistair explained. ‘Dogs from the Anderfels are incredibly loquacious. Less drooling, more composing of free verse. But then, you’d know that, being from the Anderfels yourself. And might I remind you it’s frowned upon not to agree with everything your king tells you?’
Anders sighed. ‘If only I’d stayed there.’
‘Yes,’ King Alistair agreed. ‘It would have suited you, too.’
‘Being raised by wild dogs and rhyming couplets?’ Anders asked.
‘How I miss my youth,’ King Alistair said sadly.
‘I wouldn’t exactly say Cousland is enjoying the delights of being a thoroughly capricious man,’ Garrett mused, delicately reclaiming the conversation as its rightful master. King of Ferelden Alistair might have been, but he was no match for Garrett on a good day—and this was a good day; Anders could see it in the color of Garrett’s eyes, the ease of his posture, the slouch of his shoulder to arm as he reclined, elbow resting lightly against his thigh, fingers dancing on the air. ‘He is the Warden Commander at Vigil’s Keep. Have you seen it for yourself, your highness?’
Once again, King Alistair’s expression curdled. ‘Please, don’t call me that. Anything but that, really. You could try, I don’t know, You There or Lughead or something even more offensive—Blithering Idiot or Blighted Sod or something, so long as it isn’t…that awful thing. Everyone calls me your highness,’ he added, with a dark look at the far wall, staring bleakly at a row of very dusty, very dull looking books. ‘But I have a name, you know. A good one. It’s Alistair.’
‘…Alistair,’ Garrett corrected himself smoothly.
Only he would have balls stony enough to call his king by his first name without getting a written dispensation for it first. But Alistair relaxed visibly.
‘Better,’ he admitted. ‘No one calls me that anymore. Sometimes I forget who I am. I could start answering to Boris or Chester next.’
‘Or You There or Lughead, apparently,’ Anders added, not quite ready yet to be on a first-name basis with the king. Maybe later. Maybe after a few stiff drinks.
Alistair almost smiled. He almost laughed, too, but then he winced, and it came out closer to a hiccup. ‘I’m remarkably easy to please, you know. I like cheese and fuzzy slippers and some nice hot milk before bedtime. That’s all I’m asking for. Is it really so unreasonable? But kings aren’t supposed to drink hot milk. Apparently it’s very embarrassing.’
‘I think it’s delicious,’ Garrett said. ‘Tell me, Alistair: how do you feel about slightly more serious drinking?’
Alistair’s eyes narrowed, curious and bright. ‘I feel like I’m terrible at it, but that doesn’t always stop me,’ he replied.
Anders knew he was in for a wild night when Garrett suggested, in all seriousness, that they help the king escape for an evening on the town. In disguise. As a templar.
‘See, this is exactly the sort of escapade I used to get into with—’ Alistair began, then stopped, unhappily, despite having already made it very clear who and what he was talking about. ‘Never mind. All water under the bridge, right? Things won’t ever go back to the way they were, Alistair, so kindly stop talking to yourself. And so I shall. Well then: how do I look?’
‘Like a templar,’ Anders told him. ‘Goody. Templars are my favorite.’
‘Just like old times,’ Alistair said. ‘All the clanking and the terrible crick in my back and everything. You know, sometimes I think I actually miss it?’
‘You’d rather be a templar than a king?’ Garrett asked, reaching out to adjust one of Alistair’s beaten-steel pauldrons.
‘Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?’ Alistair wiggled his ankle around in his boot, beneath the heavy fall of his purple skirts. ‘But, if we’re being honest, I’d rather be a Warden more than anything.’
‘Once a Warden, always a Warden, as I understand it,’ Anders said.
‘You’d think that, wouldn’t you?’ Alistair sighed, moving eagerly toward the door. ‘But then the coronation happens, and people tend to forget some things.’
Garrett led them to the Crown and Lion, which was a terrible plan as far as Anders was concerned. In fact, even if he was given a week to strategize the worst possible course of action for the evening, he still wouldn’t have been able to come up with anything more horrendous than heading to a place where they were almost guaranteed to run into someone they knew. While attempting to lay low, that seemed specifically, purposefully intransigent, in Anders’s opinion.
‘That isn’t going to happen,’ Garrett assured him, with all the confidence of a man who’d never seen his plans go south.
‘I’m less worried about us than I am about Ser Boris,’ Anders admitted. He was conspicuous all on his lonesome, to say nothing of how strange it was for two mages to be accompanying a templar anywhere.
‘Oh no, anything but Boris,’ Alistair groaned, his voice echoing off the inside of his round helmet. ‘If I’d known that was going to stick, I’d have picked something a little more appealing.’
‘No one ever gets to choose their own name,’ Garrett said. ‘Don’t beat yourself up too badly over it.’
Despite Anders’s misgivings and Alistair’s startling tendency to wander off whenever he saw something that caught his attention, like a pitchfork stuck sideways into a tree or something a mabari had left by the side of the road, they made their way to the Crown and Lion with little incident. Garrett had enough good sense to procure them a table in the corner, so Anders could sit with his back comfortably to a wall, without having to worry about being suddenly ambushed by guards convinced they’d kidnapped the king.
It could still happen. The night was still young.
‘Bloody hot in this thing,’ Alistair mumbled. He glanced around, his large, metal head rotating with comical slowness from left to right. Anders didn’t laugh. He’d seen that look on far too many templars in the past—templars who were searching for him, or for Bethany, or Malcolm, or even Garrett himself.
Anders didn’t find the costume as amusing as Garrett seemed to. It gave him indigestion just to look at Alistair—and it wasn’t as though Anders could comfort himself by saying oh don’t worry, Anders, it’s only your monarch, because for some reason, that concept didn’t have the same effect as a soothing glass of milk or a satchel of lavender tucked beneath Anders’s pillow at night.
The fact that Alistair was ‘only his monarch’ rather made the whole thing worse.
‘Just take it off,’ Garrett suggested. ‘No one’s looking.’
‘Aha…ha,’ Alistair chuckled nervously from beneath his iron prison. ‘Do you know, that’s exactly the sort of thing Cousland used to say to me? Bit of a…jester, that one. Not that I think that’s what you meant, of course.’ He waved his gauntleted hands in the air as if trying to ward off Garrett’s bad impression of him. ‘It just brings back memories, that’s all. Embarrassing memories, now that I think of it. Ones that oughtn’t be discussed in public.’
‘I wouldn’t be so sure about that,’ Garrett said. He clapped Alistair on the back—just put a hand on his shoulder, like he was only a man and not the man, in charge of every soul in Ferelden, to say nothing of the very land beneath them—then stood. ‘I’m going to get us some drinks. You two make yourself comfortable.’
Perhaps Anders should have expected that Garrett wouldn’t even need to ask what sort of drink Alistair liked in order to bring him the right one. He just knew, the same way he’d known Anders preferred whiskey to ale, and Carver liked wine when he thought he could get away with drinking it. Bethany liked spiced ciders, and Malcolm preferred something stiff and occasional, just before bedtime, to serve the same purpose as Anders’s lavender satchels.
Garrett’s knowledge—that easy grace he had with strangers and loved ones alike—prompted Alistair not only to drink, but to remove his helmet after the second round.
The sight of his face, sweaty and flushed from the armor and the liquor, sent Anders into a tizzy of panic—but it was ultimately just him overreacting, as always. No guards set upon them to drag Anders and Garrett out and hang them up by their ankles for treason; no old friends or at least half-remembered acquaintances caught sight of them across the bar and joined them at their table; and, in fact, not even the dwarven bartender, whose name Anders had long since forgotten, recognized them.
‘I don’t circulate portraits very often, that’s why,’ Alistair explained loudly, over the roar of a nearby barfight. ‘I can’t sit still long enough for them to come out right, and anyway, the ceremonial armor is even worse than the slightly less ceremonial armor when it comes to poking me in my sensitive places. If you can believe it.’
‘Tell me more about your sensitive places, Ser Boris,’ Garrett suggested.
‘Not until my fourth drink,’ Alistair said daintily. ‘At which point, so I’m told, I become very…friendly.’
‘Don’t we all?’ Garrett asked.
‘Garrett’s friendly all the time,’ Anders said, a bit surly, then dove into the rest of his whiskey, feeling the foam tickle his upper lip, the brew burning on its long way down. After all, he’d need to be a lot more drunk to make it, alive and well, through watching Garrett flirt with the attractive ex-templar bastard Fereldan king, with whom Anders really couldn’t hope to compete in terms of innocent charm and inoffensive, every-man appeal.
Eventually, after the fifth drink, when Anders felt blasted out of his mind like the scorched-black site of a violent battle, or like Oghren in the late morning, when he was just beginning to sober, they finally opened up to one another. In the time honored tradition of people who began the night as strangers, sharing drinks and stories over an ale-stained taproom table, they were all suddenly best friends, leaning on each other and laughing, stupidly, at stupid things, for stupid reasons, for a stupidly long time. Everything was funny; nothing was bad; Anders’s piss-poor mood had passed once he entered into fresh territory, that point in drunkenness where life itself was more love than hate, more blissful ignorance than blighted desires. He wanted nothing but to get a sip of Garrett’s drink, and Garrett offered it to him, while Alistair continued to talk about the Queen as though she were a broodmother.
‘Which, sometimes, I suspect she is,’ Alistair said. He wiped the tears at the corners of his eyes. They were mirthful tears, but sad tears as well, brought on by too much thinking about her highness the broodmother, and Anders stole a bit of his drink too, for the sake of solidarity. ‘Do you ever— I mean, the bastard was, he is my best friend, but to do something like that to someone you know full well just isn’t ready for it— How can you live with yourself? And still seem so happy, too—that’s the real insult. Happy, not married to just about the scariest woman I’ve ever met, and believe me, what with Morrigan and Wynne together in one place, that’s steep competition—’
‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ Anders told him, straightforward, right to his face. Because they were friends now, best friends; the whiskey made it so. ‘You’re drunk, Ser Boris.’
‘Drunk on forgetfulness,’ Alistair agreed. ‘Drunk on freedom! Drunk, and still married to a darkspawn, and feeling very sorry for myself.’
He put his head down onto his folded arms. Over the rise and fall of his armored shoulder, Anders looked to Garrett for some confirmation, some camaraderie and shared amusement, maybe some help. It wouldn’t do to let the King of Ferelden lose consciousness and drown in his own ale. Not on their watch. That wasn’t what Cousland wanted from them.
But what had Cousland wanted? And why did Garrett look so pinched all of a sudden, so far-off?
Maybe there was something wrong with Anders’s eyes. He blinked, then rubbed blearily at them, but Garrett was staring into the distant fire, over the rim of his tankard, holding it tight in two hands.
‘I begged him not to, you know,’ Alistair added. ‘I’m not proud of it, but I did it. Because I thought it was important to be honest with my feelings. Never had a best friend before. Templars don’t really encourage it. Not a part of all the training.’
‘Sometimes friends do terrible things to each other,’ Garrett admitted at last, sighing, taking a long pull of his whiskey. He drank whiskey most often, just like Anders, whenever he had the leisure to drink what he wanted, when he wasn’t trying to impress someone specifically. But he’d also drink whatever everyone else was having, just to be agreeable, to show that he could. ‘And family, too, I’ll point out. More so than strangers, because it’s all so personal.’
‘Family is supposed to welcome you with open arms, no matter what the circumstances are,’ Alistair muttered into the table. His voice rumbled through the wood. ‘Friends are supposed to support you in what you want, even when it’s all wrong, and you both know it.’
‘Hardly.’ Garrett sighed and set his empty tankard down. ‘Whoever explained all this to you, Boris, they weren’t doing you any favors. Didn’t anyone ever teach you about how awful people are to one another? Especially when they care?’
‘Didn’t have to.’ Alistair lifted his head at last, looking as bleary-eyed as Anders felt. ‘Saw all that for myself first-hand. I just thought it would be different eventually. Cheese, fuzzy slippers, hot milk, and wrong impressions. That’s me all over.’
‘Well, if you’d stuck around Vigil’s Keep for a little while longer, you would’ve seen first-hand how awful Cousland’s life is now,’ Garrett informed him.
‘Really?’ Alistair asked. He brightened, then looked angry with himself. ‘I am— Maker, that was horrible. I just got excited at the prospect of another man’s life being even worse than mine.’
‘Welcome to my world,’ Anders told him, and clinked their empty tankards together.
Garrett assured Alistair that Cousland’s life was one petty aggravation after another—all to make him realize, Anders understood at last, just how similar their duties were, how they might be able to come together over shared annoyances after all. It was a beautiful thing to watch Garrett weave his magic—not the force magic, but the other kind, with his quirky mouth and his honeyed tongue—and they all got another round, and another, with the barkeep realizing quite insightfully they were his best customers of the night. He kept the whiskey coming.
That was how, sometime presumably much later, Anders opened his eyes to pale sunlight, a splitting headache, and a dull, distant pain on the skin of his hip, stinging and prickling the more he came back to himself.
The headache Anders had been expecting; the sharp pain in his skin, less so. That wasn’t normal—and Anders had gotten himself blazingly smashed enough times to be certain. Even though his brain felt like someone had gone around tightening all its screws in the night, he did his best to cast back, wading through the murky depths of action and coincidence, the happenstance with so many missing pieces, and the totally implausible ones that weren’t missing.
They hadn’t been in a fight the night before. Anders was also certain of that, because Garrett only ever started bar brawls when he was sober enough to finish them. Anyway, the pain in his hip wasn’t reminiscent of diving under a table or a new bruise achieved from a moment’s stupidity in the heat of drunken battle. It was too sharp, too precise for that.
Anders’s fingers traveled curiously toward his tingling side, ready with a glowing burst of healing should the pain prove too uncomfortable to ignore. Unlike Garrett—to say nothing of Cousland, Oghren, Sigrun and Nathaniel—Anders didn’t believe in ‘toughing out’ his pain. As a healer, it went against everything he stood for.
It also went again personal comfort, an issue near and dear to Anders’s heart.
Tentatively, his hand brushed up against what felt like a stiff poultice—of a poorer quality than the ones Garrett favored in a pinch, but nonetheless functional. Anders pulled it off with little ceremony. His own need to know everything that had ever happened, not just to him, but to everyone around him—some might call it being nosy—meant that he had little patience for concepts like not picking at any scabs that might have been newly forming.
Instead of wounded flesh, or—as Anders had privately feared—a monstrously festering spider bite of some sort, he couldn’t feel anything, which was equal parts relieving and disturbing. He frowned and finally allowed his own curiosity to get the better of him, tugging down the covers and taking a quick, nervous peek.
There was a tattoo on his hip.
The stark, unmistakable outline of a griffon in profile stared up at Anders, tucked just beneath the sharp rise of his hipbone. Anders stared back, slack-jawed.
‘Garrett!’ he shouted suddenly, with no regard whatsoever for the fact that they were staying in the king’s house. And what had happened to their glorious ex-templar monarch Ser Boris last night? There was only one man who held the answers to such tantalizing questions, and he was sleeping in the next room over.
It appeared that Alistair had kindly given them a set of rooms, once again with an adjoining door in their shared wall. Anders couldn’t imagine why, unless it was Warden protocol, leaving them some means for private darkspawn conference, so they didn’t spook the guards that patrolled the halls. Either that, or Anders had confessed his feelings in a moment of drunken abandonment, and Alistair had taken pity, choosing to show solidarity by giving Anders a secret path into Garrett’s private quarters.
And this, Anders reminded himself, was yet more proof that Malcolm Hawke was always right, that being so very drunk was often enjoyable but even more often regrettable. If only Anders had the capacity not just to listen to Malcolm’s advice, but also to act on it.
That inconsistency was the largest factor preventing him from becoming a better person.
There was a dull thump from the next room, and Anders fought the illogical urge to hide beneath the covers and play dead. He’d been the one screaming. It seemed rude to ignore that part. Uncivilized.
Instead, he peered over the woolen edge of the itchy blanket he’d been given, watching as the door creaked slowly open. It occurred to Anders over the pounding of his head that he hadn’t even smoothed down his hair, or rinsed out his mouth or washed his face, but it was far too late for any of that now. Garrett appeared in the doorway, his own gray blanket wrapped about his bare shoulders, hair tousled from sleep. He wore a crooked smile and very little else.
Anders’s pulse doubled in his chest, veins throbbing at his temples. If it hadn’t been for the pain of the tattoo, he’d be quite willing to believe that this was a dream. It still might be. Garrett had never looked at him like that before.
‘Good morning to you too,’ Garrett said.
Anders drew the covers up over his nose, so that only his eyes would be visible—his eyes, and also the top of his head, and not the more dangerous parts of his face, like his scratchy cheeks and open mouth and hopeful expression.
‘You called?’ Garrett added, prompting, when it seemed Anders had been rendered speechless by something or other. And he had been—just not something Garrett could ever know about. He was speechless at the sight of Garrett’s pale, bare chest, the few, dark freckles on his stomach, on his shoulder, the freshly-healed scar at the back of his neck, the slope of taut muscle that wound, in a hint of flesh stolen away between folds of gray blanket, from his hip to his pelvis, hard and tight. It was one of the most attractive parts of the body on a well-muscled man, or so Anders had always believed, and his eyes were starting to prick and water with how intensely he was staring, how determinedly he was appreciating it.
Quickly, Anders looked up to the ceiling, a fine, gilded affair, and much nicer than any ceilings he’d ever lain under before. He tried not to think about the flex and arch of Garrett’s calf beneath his makeshift nightshirt, the fingers that gracefully clutched a handful of fabric to his chest, holding the blanket up, leaving at least a few details of his anatomy to the imagination.
The imagination: currently Anders’s least favorite part of himself, since it was running wild, without caution or care, picturing all too clearly the dip in Garrett’s lower back, the dimples in the muscle there, just above the swell of his ass. The curves of his thighs, the cock of his hip, the trail of black, stiff hair from his navel right down between his parted legs, and oh Anders wished someone was there to throw cold water on his face, someone as mean and unforgiving as Carver, as ruthless as a guardsman or a templar.
Cold water in the face was all Anders deserved right now.
‘Did I call?’ Anders asked hoarsely. ‘I must have been hallucinating. Dreaming.’
‘Crying out my name in your sleep?’ Anders heard Garrett shift, the slither of fine cotton sheets against bare skin. ‘So many do.’
Anders groped about for a pillow, chucking it blindly in the direction of Garrett’s voice, Garrett’s head. There was a dull thud. At least Anders had hit something. ‘A nightmare, I think,’ he explained, using the pillow thing as a distraction to comb his fingers swiftly through his hair, and tuck all the flyaways hurriedly behind his ears. Then, he sat up, still using the fancy coverlet as a protective barrier, an arcane shield between himself and Garrett’s eyes. Because—against all reason—Garrett was still looking, holding the pillow Anders had thrown to his chest, his sheet now wound loosely about his hips. Anders swallowed thickly. ‘A nightmare in which I spent the night knocking tankards with the king, who was disguised as a templar, and awoke only to discover I have an griffon tattooed on part of my actual body.’
‘Remarkable how much nightmares often resemble real life,’ Garrett said. He crossed the room to sit on the edge of Anders’s bed, returning the pillow to its proper place.
Anders attempted—attempted, and failed—to scramble nimbly away from him. Garrett’s expression shifted, possibly even soured, before he shrugged it off, literally shrugging, his shoulders rolling backward with a satisfying pop.
There, on his left shoulder-blade, Anders saw a circle of red, raw skin and fresh, black ink. The shape took him a moment to parse, but then his eyes focused and he realized it was also a griffon, the symbol and standard of the Wardens, now eternally emblazoned on Garrett’s back.
If that wasn’t representative of everything that had gone wrong in the past few weeks, then Anders would eat his staff, including all the awkward metal bits and the pointy wooden end. Garrett’s perfect skin, a few of his freckles surrounding the area, framing the tattoo; Garrett’s perfect skin, marred by the sign of what he’d become—something that offered them both freedom in the guise of indentured servitude, while they were no longer beholden to the templars, but in the thrall of the Wardens instead.
Better odds, Anders supposed, but it was so very much six of one, half a dozen of the other. Why did the choice always have to be something as difficult templars or broodmothers? Why couldn’t it sometimes be hot toddy or fluffy kitten? Long nap or good sex? Delicious meal or comforting snuggles?
‘Tattoos,’ Anders said, swallowing to soothe his scratchy throat.
Garrett rubbed at the back of his neck, fingers inching carefully around the scar. He pointedly didn’t touch it. ‘Warden tattoos,’ he confirmed.
Anders bowed his head, his brows resting against the boniest parts of his knees. He dug them in a bit, just to ward off the headache, to remind him of something starkly physical, a little bit of heightened pain to bring him back to himself. ‘Wonderful. Just perfect. I let you bamboozle the King of Ferelden and let us both get tattooed, all in one night. Your father really is going to kill me.’
‘We’re both grown men, Anders,’ Garrett said tensely. ‘In case you hadn’t noticed. We can do what we like.’
‘But I don’t like getting tattoos,’ Anders replied. ‘Not as much as I like a great many other things. When you think about it, this is rather permanent and also rather painful. Neither of those things are my usual preference.’
‘I’ve always wanted a tattoo,’ Garrett mused. His voice was conveniently, purposefully light. ‘Now that we’re living on our own, like two adult men should, it’s not as though we have to keep looking over our shoulders, expecting lectures about finishing our breakfasts and cleaning our rooms all the time.’
‘Except we’re not living on our own, are we?’ Anders pointed out. He pulled at a loose bit of embroidery on his coverlet, knowing full well he was saying all the wrong things, unable to keep himself from saying them anyway. ‘We’re living with Oghren, who’s about as distracting as at least twenty normal people, as smelly as at least forty, and Cousland and Nathaniel Howe and Sigrun the Happy Dwarf and a fat lot of dissatisfied nobles. And two mabari and the Seneschal. And so on.’
‘It’s different,’ Garrett said.
‘Is it really?’ Anders asked.
Garrett fell silent, a rare occurrence, though not quite as rare as when Anders himself was rendered speechless. He checked nervously under the blanket, his hip still throbbing, and made a keen sound of distress when he saw the tattoo was still there. When he looked back up, Garrett was leaning forward, with his elbows against his thighs and his fingertips pressed together. Muscle shifted and stilled along his ribcage, his broad back, and Anders toyed with the brave, careless, delightful idea of reaching out to touch him, while tightening his fingers in fistfuls of fabric instead.
‘…It’s easy for you to say,’ Anders said finally, just so Garrett would stop looking so moody. ‘You’ve got the skin for it. I’m going to get a rash.’
The atmosphere was still a bit tense after that, but at least it was getting better, not worse, and they stayed just long enough in the city for Anders to discern that Alistair also had a tattoo, though he was doing his best to conceal it from the queen.
‘Everything seemed to be going so well last night,’ Alistair moaned over breakfast. ‘At least I can tell myself that I’m not fighting—what was it you said? Nobles and talking darkspawn? I suppose things really could be worse. But then, whenever I say that, they do get worse. Shut up, Alistair.’
As they made their way back to Vigil’s Keep, Anders realized two things: one, he’d never before seen a king crying into his scrambled eggs, and probably never would again; and two, they’d neglected to visit the Hawkes while they were in Amaranthine.
‘I think they can survive a few days without us there to take care of them,’ Garrett said, completely unperturbed, when Anders brought it up.
‘You don’t think your father will be angry?’ Anders asked. ‘At the very least, crushed? Depressed? Miserable? Heartbroken?’
‘I’d worry less about that, and more about why it matters to you so damned much.’ Garrett’s voice was light, but there was an unexpected bite to it at the very end, like the bitter aftertaste in a bad batch of ale.
Anders bit his tongue, nursing the insistent throb of the tattoo at his hip. This Garrett was a far cry from the one who’d sat drinking whiskey with the king, calling him Ser Boris and challenging him to another round. He’d given Alistair a new lease on life simply by detailing the utter bleakness of a Warden’s existence in Amaranthine, yet he couldn’t seem to turn that gift inward, to make himself feel better about anything at all.
Despite Garrett’s talent for solving the problems of others, he had no skill when it came to his own.
Similarly, there were some hurts that Anders couldn’t hope to heal. He couldn’t tell what was bothering Garrett; he only knew it was there, it was happening, and being helpless only made it seem that much worse.
‘You’re probably right,’ Anders said, attempting to smooth things over. There was a great deal to be said for keeping up appearances; if neither of them sounded cross or unhappy, then perhaps they’d come to forget they actually were. ‘There’s only so much Carver can take, after all. Joining the Wardens is one thing, but if we told him we were out drinking with the king? His enormous head would burst open from jealousy like an over-ripe melon.’
‘Bethany and Father would be scrubbing the stains out of the floor for weeks,’ Garrett agreed.
‘I don’t know,’ Anders said, relieved that Garrett was playing along. It never seemed right to him when Garrett was in a mood. Likely he was suffering from a bit of a drinking headache, coupled with the gloomy knowledge that the moment they got back, they might just as well be called away to the Blackmarsh again, or somewhere equally sinister. After sharing drinks with the king—back in Amaranthine, familiar as it was—all other Wardenly duties seemed somewhat less enjoyable than usual. ‘A little splash of blood here and there adds some character to a place, don’t you think?’
‘That’s not what you said about the Deep Roads,’ Garrett reminded him.
‘Blood is very different from pulsing walls of flesh, Garrett,’ Anders said with a sniff. ‘You can ask Cousland, if you don’t believe me.’
But Garrett couldn’t ask Cousland, because the minute they stepped into the Keep he was kidnapped by Sergeant Maverlies, who needed someone to charm the bafflingly-named Voldrik Glavonak into building their walls for only a very small increase in pay. This left Anders quite alone for the first time in days. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d gone anywhere alone, without Garrett accompanying—and entertaining, and protecting—him.
It was early in the afternoon, although inside the Keep’s walls, the air was always somewhat oppressively dank, like the damp in an open meadow before a storm set in. Anders crossed his bare arms over his chest for warmth, standing in the shadow of the enormous statue of Andraste someone had helpfully placed at the center of the courtyard. The sight of it practically made the hairs on the back of his neck curl, but it also made an excellent bit of cover for when someone didn’t want to be spotted by the wretched duo of Herren and Wade.
The only thing they seemed to agree on was how fun it was to make other people as miserable as they were; just listening to them bicker did the trick. Anders wanted no part of that, since he was already possessed of all the tools he needed to make himself miserable all by himself.
‘Only just returned and you’re hiding already?’ Cousland asked, nearly startling Anders out of his skin. It shouldn’t have been legal—even for a rogue—for a man to walk up on someone unannounced like that. ‘I could take that personally. Although I have to say—’ Cousland reached up to slap one big hand against Andraste’s stone thigh, ‘—this is not the first place I’d expect to find you.’
Anders shrugged, feeling trapped and inadequate. Cousland was hoping to find Garrett, no doubt; the separation, even for so short a period of time, must have been too much for him to bear. ‘Actually, I was trying to look up her skirts. There’s a rumor in the Circle that someone out there took the time to carve Andraste’s stone panties, so I was merely attempting to ascertain whether this was the statue in question.’
‘Not this one,’ Cousland said, ‘but there’s one in Highever just like that. Used to stare at it all the time when I was young. Probably why I am the way you know me today.’
‘Really?’ Anders asked.
Cousland shrugged, wearing that frustratingly noncommittal expression he had—he could have been lying, or telling the Maker’s own truth, but it didn’t matter, because what he really wanted was to keep people guessing. It was the art of making a lie seem like the truth or the truth seem like a lie that he enjoyed, and Anders understood that, because he’d always harbored a similar impulse.
‘Have fun in the Blackmarsh?’ he asked finally, when Cousland made no move to leave, no move to remove his broad, dagger-fletched fingers from Andraste’s stony limb.
‘About as much fun as one can have in a place called Blackmarsh,’ Cousland replied. ‘Although I try to make my own fun wherever I go. You know me. Brief jaunt into the Fade, recruitment of a possessed and moldering Warden corpse, momentary distraction whilst fighting a Bone Dragon…’
Anders hoped such constant, unremitting acts of heroism weren’t a side-effect of the Joining. He liked sleeping in and being lazy every now and then; Cousland’s life seemed less like a life, really, and more like a lesson in the dangers of over-achieving. ‘You can’t do anything normally, can you?’
‘Hard to recruit a possessed, moldering corpse normally,’ Cousland said.
‘Tell me about it,’ Anders replied. ‘I have so much trouble with that, myself.’
‘Maybe,’ Cousland suggested, ‘with the right amount of practice, we’ll get better at it.’
‘Only if the Maker is willing,’ Anders said, glancing meaningfully at Andraste looming above them. ‘And his beautiful bride.’
Cousland chuckled, then fidgeted around in his armor for a moment. Anders watched, forever doomed to be pleasantly curious about the man’s incomprehensible behavior, no more able to dislike him for being so attractive to Garrett than he’d ever been able to dislike Garrett for being so attractive to everyone else. The most charming people were impossible to hate because of the very charm that made them so worthy of hatred in the first place, or, at the very least, persistent, near-fatal jealousy.
‘By the way,’ Cousland said casually, hands finally falling to rest on a worn leather satchel slung over his shoulder, ‘I have this for you.’
‘An old leather bag?’ Anders’s fingers twitched, even more curious than before. The Tevinter robes had been an excellent gift—one of the most useful and indulgent gifts he’d ever been given. But perhaps the Warden Commander’s taste in presents was more hit or miss than he’d been led to believe. ‘Really, Cousland, you shouldn’t have.’
‘It’s what’s inside the wrapping that counts,’ Cousland reminded him. ‘Not the armor, but the man who wears it. …Although, that being said, good armor does help, especially when you’re fighting Bone Dragons.’ He slipped the frayed strap off his shoulder, lifting the bag delicately; Anders thought he saw it wriggle, and then, he definitely heard it meow.
‘A magical cat bag,’ Anders revised. ‘Now that is special.’
‘Nothing quite so interesting, I’m afraid,’ Cousland admitted. The flap holding the bag shut moved more obviously this time; a paw slid out from underneath it, followed by a group of charmingly twitchy whiskers, a pink nose, and a dirty mouth. ‘I’d make the obvious jokes—about the bag, and the cat being out of it—but that would seem desperate.’
‘You got me a kitten,’ Anders said, just to be sure he understood what was happening.
‘Well, yes,’ Cousland confirmed. ‘I’d thought that was obvious by now.’
Anders reached out to pull the flap back. Two orange paws swatted at his hands, with sharp, tiny, brilliant claws. ‘But…why did you get me a kitten?’ he asked. ‘Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I do like kittens, and anyone who doesn’t is probably depraved. Probably halfway toward becoming a darkspawn. Probably an abomination.’
Cousland was silent for a moment, watching the awkward dance, as Anders let the little orange thing sniff at his fingers and lick the lingering taste of lyrium potions and elfroot and smooth wood that, after a veritable lifetime of practicing magic, had worked their way into the grooves and whorls of his fingerprints. Anders petted at its vulnerable, soft head, the scraggly fur beneath its sensitive chin, and felt it begin to purr, a low thrum deep in its throat and scrawny chest.
‘I got you a kitten because you don’t like dogs,’ Cousland replied at last, as though that should have been obvious, too.
Finally, Anders knew what it had been like for Malcolm all these years—attempting to protect something, his family, which didn’t know any better, from a world full to overflowing with unforeseen threats, powerful magic, wretched darkspawn, and inebriated dwarves.
Perhaps the bit about the inebriated dwarves was more specific to Anders’s life than Malcolm’s, but the general sense of fear presided—that someone was going to sit on the kitten, fully armored, or step on him or belch on him or hurt him in some way, and then, Anders was going to have to kill them.
He fed him scraps all throughout supper, letting him sit most inappropriately right there on his lap and, sometimes, when he looked particularly irresistible, eat directly out of his plate.
‘You’ve got a new friend,’ Garrett pointed out idly, reaching over to sneak the cat a bit of cheese.
‘Cousland gave him to me,’ Anders replied, a bit distracted. ‘Isn’t that right? Yes he did.’
Garrett retracted his hand as though he’d been bitten—which, given the kitten’s prickly disposition with everyone other than Anders, wouldn’t have been all that surprising.
‘He probably thought your fingers were food,’ Anders tutted, reaching over to check for broken skin. ‘And he probably smelled dog on your hands. He might have thought he was being attacked. Or maybe he’s sensible, and just doesn’t like the bouquet of aromas that is old mabari.’
‘Why did Cousland give you a cat?’ Garrett asked. He didn’t let Anders see to his hand, and instead slid his plate further away from the kitten’s questing, shivering nose.
Anders gently restrained him, two fingers against the swell of his fuzzy chest. He was going to have to think of a name eventually, but he wanted it to be perfect—something no other kitten had, something distinct, not necessarily something to be proud of, but something that would set him apart from all the rest. ‘Because I like cats. Why not?’
‘No reason,’ Garrett said. He drummed his fingers against the table, picking up a piece of stringy green vegetable and popping it into his mouth. ‘I’m just thinking about the fairness of it all, really. Cousland’s given you robes and a cat now, but he hasn’t given me anything. A man’s liable to get a complex.’
Anders found himself immediately, selfishly glad, then guilty on account of his gladness. It was merely that the way Cousland flirted seemed to indicate what he wanted more than anything in the world was to give Garrett something, and Anders sometimes suspected it was only preserving Nathaniel Howe’s virgin eyes that kept him from giving it to Garrett right there at the dining table.
The kitten mewled, turning in impatient circles in Anders’s lap. Anders gave him an absent pat. Cats always knew when someone’s attention had wandered away from them, and consequentially took instantaneous offense. This one was worse even than Mr. Wiggums, the very first cat Anders had ever known and, subsequently, loved. To know Mr. Wiggums was to love him, really, old and leaky-eyed and blindly friendly as he was.
‘All right, I’ll fold: what’s its name?’ Garrett asked, as it became clear Anders was too enraptured with his new pet to pay any real attention to the conversation.
‘I don’t know yet,’ Anders admitted. The kitten swatted at his fingers and he drew them carefully back. ‘I hadn’t decided yet.’
‘You mean Cousland didn’t name him for you, too?’ Garrett nearly sounded jealous. Anders had no idea why, since it was Garrett Cousland always flirted with, and Garrett Cousland’s dog treated like a second master. ‘Seems like a rather shoddy bit of present-giving, if you ask me.’
‘Well, I didn’t ask you, did I?’ Anders muttered. He was being horrible, but that was only because Garrett had been horrible first. It was Carver Logic at best, but Anders had made allowances for Garrett’s mood earlier; now he was being outright rude, and about a helpless little kitten, of all things. Even a terrible hangover was no excuse to act like an ogre.
But Garrett never bothered with being charming when Anders was involved. Strangers, templars, Warden Commanders, barkeepers and barmaids were all on the list; Anders, he’d probably never even considered putting on it.
‘Well, I hope you’re prepared to look after it,’ Garrett said. He’d turned away—no longer sitting at an angle, to face both Anders and the table—and was cutting into his meat with more vigor than seemed strictly necessary. ‘Maybe later we can introduce him to my dog. Since they’re going to be neighbors, and all.’
The kitten let out a yowl and dove under the table. Anders wished he could join him. Avoiding Garrett in a bad mood wasn’t exactly the same thing as avoiding a bar brawl, though, even if the two things always seemed comparably awful in the heat of the moment.
After dinner, the Wardens retired to the throne room for an audience with the seneschal. This quickly descended into everyone talking at the same time, those who’d been to the Blackmarsh debriefing those who hadn’t.
And, since this was Anders’s life now, it was all exactly like Cousland had said: a trip to the Fade, the recruitment of a spirit inhabiting a corpse, and the vanquishing of a Bone Dragon. All in a good day’s work.
The spirit in question was a rather frightful-looking fellow. Or to be more accurate, the corpse he’d taken for himself was; Anders had no idea what the spirit looked like, underneath the skin and melting flesh and bone. Then again, corpses were usually rather frightful-looking, at least in Anders’s experience. This one, however, was more gruesome than most. Formerly belonging to a Warden, the hapless, reanimated body had a waxy, shaven head, skin stretched tightly over its skull, with deep-set eyes a few helpfully Dalish facial tattoos.
He’d already begun to decompose just a little, Anders assumed, because there were smells in the hall strong enough now to compete with Oghren.
‘So,’ Anders said, naturally sidling up to him the first chance he got. This habit of picking at scabs, literal and metaphorical and otherwise, was really going to have to stop. ‘I didn’t catch your name in all that. Though I admit, I wasn’t listening very closely. Tales of the Blackmarsh give me nightmares—that’s rather what they’re for, in Amaranthine. Scaring children into finishing their suppers and not going out after dark. And I have difficulty with my digestion already.’
The spirit’s eyes flicked over him, unimpressed. Anders didn’t blame it for having that reaction. He knew it was only his imagination, but he felt a cool breeze trickle down his spine nonetheless, ominous, foreboding. There was something about the man’s eyes—they were the exact color of the Fade, a pale, murky brown that muted and dimmed even while it offered hints of the vibrant world lingering just beneath the mist.
‘I am Justice,’ the spirit said.
‘Y…es,’ Anders said, slowly. ‘But is that what you are, or who?’
‘I am Justice,’ the spirit repeated. Just as helpful as any other spirit Anders had ever met—which was to say, not helpful at all. ‘There has never been a need for further clarification.’
‘I see,’ Anders said, feeling the iron jaws of the trap snap shut around his ankle. Where was Garrett to rescue him from this conversational quicksand? For that matter, where was Cousland? They were off somewhere together, no doubt, having a bit of fun in a dark corner while Anders was stuck dealing with the new recruit. Spirit of Justice—of course it wouldn’t be the Spirit of Comical Banter, or the Spirit of Throwing Fantastic Parties. ‘Well that sounds just lovely. I hope that works out for you, really, I do.’
‘Works out?’ Justice asked.
‘Depending on how long you decide to stay on this side of the Veil, I’m sure you’ll understand what I’m babbling about soon enough,’ Anders said. ‘So, Justice: how do you feel about kittens?’
Talking to Justice proved to be even more of an ordeal that talking to Nathaniel.
‘Tell me, Oghren,’ Anders said, having at last blissfully extricated himself, ‘why is it that this job in particular attracts the most humorless sorts of people? I mean, really, just because we’re doomed to shortened lifespans and ceaseless, miserable combat with darkspawn doesn’t mean we can’t all be fun and merry and delightful, does it?’
‘Lemme tell you something, mage,’ Oghren said. Then, while Anders was still waiting to be blessed with his pearls of dwarven wisdom, he belched hugely, so hugely that the air in fact rippled in front of his mouth.
‘Sometimes I think you might be a force mage yourself, you know,’ Anders told him. ‘Was that it? Was that what you wanted to tell me?’
‘No,’ Oghren said, looking incredibly pleased with himself. Anders wished, briefly, that his life, his needs and his emotions and his impulses, could be satisfied as simply as this: with an expulsion of latent gas, the surge of utter physical relief that followed. ‘I was gonna tell you I stopped listening to what you were sayin’ when you got to my name, but that’s what came out first. And I stand by it, too.’
‘Don’t you find it disturbing?’ Anders asked Garrett later—or tried to ask Garrett; it was difficult to speak to him through the door between their rooms when it had been shut, but that night it was locked for the first time since they’d arrived at Vigil’s Keep, and Anders only knew Garrett was there because he could hear the sounds of life from within, the creaking of the floorboards too heavy and too consistent to be the mabari pacing, or thumping its tail on the fireside rug.
Not that Anders had been eavesdropping or anything. That would have been wrong, and far beneath him. But he couldn’t help listening, now could he?
‘Find what disturbing?’ Garrett called back at length. Anders pressed his cheek against the wood, trying to hear him better. ‘That a grown man, nearly thirty years old, is completely beholden to a kitten?’
Anders made a noise of frustration, extra loud; he hoped that Garrett would pick up on it and feel adequately chastised. To call Anders old in a general sense was one thing; to employ the use of actual numbers was unforgivable. ‘Yes, that’s really the most disturbing thing that’s happened today. And not at all the fact that the spirit of Justice is currently presiding in a dead man’s festering corpse—that Cousland, in his infinite wisdom, has decided to make him a Warden. I suppose it could be worse. He could start recruiting darkspawn next, blood mages, outright abominations…’
The door opened without warning, and Anders stumbled away, quickly busying himself with the kitten for cover. Garrett leaned in the doorframe at his back; Anders could feel him standing, breathing, watching, and judging.
‘Who knows?’ Garrett sounded crankier than ever. ‘Maybe he’ll give Justice a kitten, too.’
‘I doubt it,’ Anders said. ‘You see, Justice doesn’t like kittens. I’m assuming that’s because they don’t really have many kittens in the Fade. Malevolent spirits taking the form of kittens to trick hapless mages wandering through: yes. Adorable fluffy bundles of love and whiskers: no.’
‘Just keep it out of my room,’ Garrett warned. ‘I don’t want it bothering my dog.’
By the next morning, Garrett seemed to have forgotten about his fit of pique the night before, but that didn’t mean Anders was just going to forgive him the moment he smiled Anders’s way and told the first clever joke that came into his head. Anders was completely prepared to shun his advances until he begged for forgiveness—for the kitten’s honor, as well as his own—except that Garrett seemed happy enough to ignore Anders completely, accompanying Cousland on some trip around the local farmlands.
That left Anders alone with the dwarves, the Howe, and the corpse. A good beginning to a joke itself, except when that joke was a man’s life it tended to lose its humor.
‘Don’t worry,’ Anders told the kitten. ‘We can have fun on our own, playing with balls of yarn and watching sunlight travel across the floor. We’ll show them.’
He contemplated adequate kitten names all day, recommended a few books to Sigrun for a change—the ones he used to read before he decided it really wasn’t worth it if Leandra or, even worse, Malcolm were to find them—and avoided the more somber members of their merry band of tainted misfits, whose numbers were growing at an alarming rate. Mostly, he just avoided Justice—because Justice was a concept Anders understood only vaguely and somewhat objectively, detached from the real meaning, in that he felt it had more to do with other people than it had to do with him, and he was fine with that. More than fine, really. Ecstatic. Justice could continue being something everyone else understood and recognized and lived with, and Anders would continue to avoid it the way he avoided the templars, since he found both to be quite scary.
It probably said something about him, who he was, who he was never going to be, but at least Sigrun was coherent; at least Oghren was funny and Nathaniel Howe was a human being—probably—with an actual pulse and everything. No sense of humor, but some people were born less fortunate than others.
‘I think I’m going to name my kitten Ser Pounce-a-lot,’ Anders said, testing it out on Nathaniel first, to see if it would have the desired effect or not.
Nathaniel’s subsequent look of abject horror confirmed for him what he already knew: that it was, all things considered, exactly what he’d been going for.
It was a full day and a half before Garrett finally drew him aside, and by then, Anders was in no mood to talk. They’d been traipsing up and down the aptly named Forlorn Cove all morning and most of the afternoon; all he wanted was to take a hot bath, then promptly fall into bed and never leave it again.
Judging by the way Ser Pounce-a-lot was squirming around in his robes, he was ready for the same.
At least he had the kitten now. The kitten agreed with him.
But Anders could be forgiving. More than that, he didn’t want to make a scene in front of the others, or air their personal laundry for all and sundry. Cousland and Sigrun were up ahead, passing beneath the Keep portcullis, chatting about birds or clouds or some other confounding topic that dwarves always found fascinating, that Cousland was indulgent enough to pretend he also found fascinating. Nathaniel, as always, had chosen to bring up the rear. Oghren wasn’t with them, because he’d elected to stay behind and attempt to write a letter, of all things, to his poor abandoned wife. Anders was dubious as to what the final product might be, but it had been agreed between everyone that it was an all-day project, and no one wanted to be the one to help him with it.
‘Yes, hello, Garrett,’ Anders said, aware that he sounded a bit transparently huffy. ‘Can I help you? Are you in need of healing? Has the invisibility spell worn off me at last?’
‘Something’s not right,’ Garrett said. His fingers tightened around Anders’s bare arm, below the gold band encircling his bicep.
‘Is that so?’ Anders refused to be swayed by the physical contact, so often his undoing. ‘I’m shocked you finally noticed.’
‘That’s not what I mean,’ Garrett said. But he didn’t also feel the need to explain what he did mean. Instead, his eyes flicked from side-to-side only twice: once as they passed the statue of Andraste, and once just before they entered the throne room. He looked serious, and Garrett always tried to look anything but. ‘Just stay close to me.’
Anders pursed his lips but drew closer out of habit. Now that he was paying attention—now that Garrett had set a match to his instinctive paranoia—it did seem unnaturally quiet in the courtyard, almost as though there were a few guards missing from their posts. It wasn’t enough to be noticeable to everyone, but Garrett noticed all the little things. That was what came of befriending every guard down to the infantrymen, Anders supposed. He knew their names, knew their faces, and knew them well enough to detect when they were missing.
‘Seneschal’s waiting for you.’ The private who greeted Cousland seemed nervous; or maybe that was just Anders projecting. ‘Says there’s some business to discuss with Bann Esemerelle.’
‘Wonderful,’ Cousland said, not bothering to hide his contempt. ‘My favorite person. I wonder what it is she wants this time?’
What Bann Esmerelle wanted this time was, perhaps not unexpectedly, Cousland’s life, and she announced it by way of an arrow to the throat. For one swift, horrible moment Anders was sure Garrett would dive in front of it, but he threw his arm up instead to cast a deflecting spell, the shimmer and glister of an arcane shield solidifying the air, protecting the group from further harm.
That was all the others needed to prepare. Nathaniel fired back his own volley, arrows flying almost as soon as they’d been notched. Sigrun and Cousland leapt into the fray together, stealthy daggers twinkling in their hands as they disappeared amongst the crowd, vanishing only to resurface at the backs of their enemies. Cousland went for Bann Esmerelle; Sigrun provided short, dwarven cover, remarkably swift for someone with such short legs.
Judging by some of their enemies’ sun-soaked skin and the dings on their armor, they weren’t all angry nobles with a bone to pick regarding Cousland’s style of leadership.
But whoever they were, they’d attacked first; Anders had no qualms about sending off a few well-timed blasts of lightning, watching in appreciation as the electricity crackled from one man to the next, chainmail sizzling white-hot against skin. Garrett followed it up with a force spell, a fist of pure energy called down from above. It was a team effort, and a well-executed one at that; no matter what, they could always count on being able to work together, even when they were in a tiff, which was a testament to Malcolm’s thoroughly practical teachings, if nothing else.
Out of the corner of his eye, Anders thought he saw Garrett favoring his left arm.
He didn’t have time yet to consider it. Malcolm had always been specific, sometimes ruthless, about when a healer was supposed to heal, and it was only after he was certain none of his comrades were in immediate danger, and his own position secure, behind an arcane wall. Anders caught the barest threads of Garrett’s magic to hold, then widen, his barrier from earlier; it allowed Garrett to switch fully to the offensive, and Anders felt the foundations of the Keep shaking with each fresh spell.
Now that he’d taken care of business, he surveyed the room: Cousland was still moving sharp and quick as ever, Sigrun still as unexpectedly graceful, and behind them Nathaniel was drawing his bowstring and firing without any signs of injury. It was a far cry from fighting with three other mages and one impetuous swordsman; Cousland and Sigrun were too unpredictable in their feints and dodges to catch, and Nathaniel was shrouded in a swathe of dark smoke, hidden behind a support column, completely out of sight.
Oghren had also joined the fray, of course, for the only thing he liked best in the world—second to drinking himself into a rolling stupor—was swinging his axe around and attempting to hit things with it. There was Justice, too, somewhere in their midst, lumbering, powerful blows, each surrounded by fine fissures of otherworldly magic. He niggled, Anders decided, right at the back of his mind, a sour aftertaste, a whisper in the dark. It reminded him of what had—until very recently—been his version of the Wardens’ darkspawn, something he shared with every mage: the promises of demons, their deals, their bargains, their sweet voices as idle and hopeful as dreaming.
Justice wasn’t a demon; he was a spirit. Anders knew the difference, that it was an important distinction to make. But he fought like a demon, and the air around him tasted of ash and burnt lyrium like a demon left in its wake, and it made Anders wrinkle his nose.
He was no master of battles, just a healing mage with a good sense of timing, but even he could have told Bann Esmerelle there was no way this plan would work out the way she’d hoped. There were too many Wardens, for one, better trained and far cleverer than she was, and none of them wanted to die; even on the defensive, they quickly put her and her forces down, with Cousland’s daggers crossed over her neck.
Anders wondered, but only briefly, whether Cousland would strike a bargain, or how the woman thought she’d be able to talk her way out of this one. Then, Cousland slit her throat by drawing his blades together over the frightened, pulsing vein, and Anders looked away, telling himself he really should have expected that.
After the clash and clang of battle, the clamor of blades against blades and arrows pinging off shields, the throne room was for once very quiet. Oghren rested the head of his battleaxe on the floor, and Anders checked to make sure Ser Pounce-a-lot was still in one piece, not too scared, or rather, still napping, while Cousland wiped the blood off his chin and mouth, then moved to check a nearby body with the grim, stalking grace of a feral tomcat.
‘Quick thinking back then, Hawke,’ he said, leaning back on his heels. He snatched up the purse of one of the hired men, dark skin blistered with dark burns and even darker blood. ‘Any day I don’t have an arrow sticking out of my neck’s a good one. I’m in your debt.’
‘Any day you don’t have an arrow sticking out of your neck’s a good one for me, too,’ Garrett replied easily. ‘I like your neck exactly the way it is. Remarkable how much we have in common, isn’t it?’ Then, he affected a bow, but it lacked its usual flair, and Anders saw now—how hadn’t he been certain earlier?—that he was favoring his left arm, tucked bare and bloody against his chest.
It wasn’t a deadly wound, nothing more than a deep scrape and nicked muscle, more painful in the moment than it would be lasting, but Anders hated looking at it all the same. He was bleakly jealous of that mark—because it was yet another scar Garrett bore, another reminder that he’d do anything for some people, nothing at all for others. He had placed himself between Cousland and danger after all, and Anders knew him too well to think his motivations had anything to do with a Warden’s duty to his acting Commander.
No; Garrett’s actions were always so much more personal than that. If he’d protected Cousland then it was for Cousland’s sake, because Garrett liked him, because their dogs liked each other, because they were so similar, so quick to grin white-toothed and wicked at each other’s jokes. Now, Garrett’s pale skin streaked with his own blood, Anders knew that his place would always be to stand somewhere to the back of this full-grown man, watching to make sure he didn’t harm himself for the sake of other people, people for whom he was rash and foolish and self-sacrificing, people who weren’t Anders.
Garrett held out his arm to Anders as though it was an afterthought, and Anders came forward at last, stepping over a prone body to heal the wound. He was gentle, because it was important to him to be gentle with Garrett—with anyone he treated, really, but Garrett most of all—and Garrett looked the other way the entire time, like these things didn’t matter, like it didn’t even hurt.
Bann Esmerelle hadn’t been acting alone; Cousland said he had a few ideas of who she’d hired, and that he would ‘look into the matter,’ but after that he said nothing about it at all, save for what few logistics he couldn’t avoid discussing with Seneschal Varel.
‘People try to kill me all the time, you see,’ he explained that night over dinner, Garrett’s arm loosely bandaged, but already mostly healed. ‘You’ll get used to it. So used to it you won’t leap to my defense anymore.’
‘I hope that never happens,’ Garrett replied. ‘Someone has to look after that neck of yours.’
Anders knew right then that he’d be dying alone with his cat, and no one would come to the funeral, and that was what he should have been expecting all along. He rubbed at Pounce’s flat head, chuffing him under the chin the way he liked so much, and didn’t even pull his fingers away when Pounce gnawed on them, not breaking skin, friendly and playful and young, just as Anders was not young. Not anymore.
‘Bad cat,’ Garrett said, flicking at his ear.
‘Excuse me,’ Anders said, as Pounce retracted his fangs to leap at his new victim. ‘Did you just strike my cat?’
‘Flicked, actually,’ Garrett said. ‘It’s very different. Much gentler. He was biting you.’
‘Yes, and now he’s biting you,’ Anders pointed out. It was true. Ser Pounce-a-lot was currently in the midst of scaling Garrett’s arm like a tree, gleefully swatting at the gauzy fabric of his bandage.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ Garrett said, with an infuriating shrug. As though he could injure himself as much or as often as he liked, and none of it made a difference. As though he didn’t even really care, which made Anders so mad that he could spit.
He wouldn’t actually spit, of course. That would be unrefined, and so much like Oghren that Anders would no longer be able to live with himself. But he was mad enough to do it, and that was the important thing.
He reached up to unhook Pounce’s claws from Garrett’s sleeve, catching him just in time to see Garrett reaching up to feed him a nibble of cheese. It was just like him to show mercy when Anders was already cross with him.
It was an underhanded tactic, and Anders wasn’t determined not to fall for it.
‘Have you named that thing yet?’ Garrett asked, which just made Anders realize how long it had been since they’d properly discussed anything. It felt as though Anders had named Pounce ages ago, but Garrett’s door had been closed all this time, only the muffled sounds of him getting ready for bed at night and rising from bed in the morning giving Anders the barest insight into his private life. At least it didn’t sound like there was anyone else in there with him—but he did come back late some nights, and Anders had his suspicions about where he was all that time. Certainly not taking nature strolls in the woodsy area surrounding the Keep.
‘He’s Ser Pounce-a-lot,’ Anders said, with just a hint of his usual humor.
Garrett didn’t even blink. ‘Of course he is.’
The corner of his mouth twitched before he could stop it; Anders knew he’d almost smiled. It wasn’t quite the same as diving in front of arrows for Cousland, but it was a much-needed balm for Anders’s wounded soul. He knew if anyone would understand the grandeur of such a name, it was the man who’d chosen—back when he was still straightforward, back when he was still a child—to name his mabari ‘Dog.’
Any normal person would have used an assassination attempt to get out of going back to work, but not Cousland. The very next morning they had a new destination: the Wending Wood, by way of the Pilgrim’s Path. Anders kindly held off on asking whether they’d be also making their way through the Foundering Forest, or using the Tremulous Trail or the Random Road; his sense of humor was only appreciated by one member of the party, and that member was still blowing hot and cold.
Currently, Garrett was up front with Cousland, their heads bent over the same map, the nape of Cousland’s fair neck burning in the sun. Anders could see Garrett’s scar hooking beneath the collar of his shirt, the pink skin surrounding it, a little line of damp sweat. He swallowed and looked away.
‘I hear those men who attacked us were part of some famous assassin’s guild,’ Sigrun confided, coming up on Anders unannounced. There was something unfair about the combination of rogue and dwarf, since they were already half the size of regular people, which made them twice as difficult to spot. ‘I’ve fought so many interesting things under the Warden Commander—it’s much different from gutting an army full of hurlocks and genlocks.’
‘An assassin’s guild?’ Nathaniel asked. Anders was going to have to start putting bells on all these rogues, he decided. Little leather collars with great brass jinglies on them, just so he’d know when they were coming. Or better, when they were eavesdropping. ‘So it was the Crows?’
‘The crows?’ Anders said. ‘I didn’t see any birds.’
Nathaniel’s face curdled into an expression of disbelief. At least it looked like disbelief. It might also have been disgust. In fact, knowing Nathaniel, it was probably both. ‘You’ve never heard of the Antivan Crows?’
‘Should I have?’ Anders gently nudged Ser Pounce-a-lot beneath his robes, coaxing him to take his claws out of his chest. ‘We haven’t all had an exotic upbringing in the Free Marches, Nathaniel. Some of us grew up, quite literally, locked away in a tower.’
‘And now you are unleashed on the unsuspecting populace at large.’ Nathaniel shook his head, leaving Anders to wonder if that was or wasn’t a bit of a joke.
‘I can lend you a book on the Crows sometime,’ Sigrun offered. ‘I’ve spent most of my life battling darkspawn in the gloom, but that doesn’t mean I still didn’t find the time to read, human.’
Anders cleared his throat delicately. ‘I’ve read a great many books too, you know.’ That much was true. ‘Magical treatises and tomes of arcane knowledge and the like.’ That was also true—but it wasn’t a thorough list, nor did it include Anders’s favorite pastime, sneaking romances from his fellow mages. It was a booming trade back in the Circle: the naughtiest ones were tucked into the pages of a history on the Exalted Marches; the dramatic ones rolled into a scroll on Tevinter artifacts; the tragedies slid in between two very dusty encyclopedias about ancient Kirkwall. Anders always went for the naughty ones first, the dramatic ones second, and the tragedies never. He remembered long, sleepless, breathless nights tucked under his blanket, reading by the steady glow of his own palm, stories of excitement and debauched adventure and, of course, freedom—in other words, fiction in its purest, most enticing form, everything he could imagine happening to him, but never really hoped would.
And now he was here, discussing a guild of assassins with two rogues—one, a dwarf; one, the son of a known wartime criminal—on his way to the Wending Wood, which was a name not even the worst of those poorly-bound novels would have had the audacity to employ.
‘You’re smiling like that because you just remembered that Antivan thing, aren’t you?’ Sigrun asked.
‘What…Antivan thing?’ Nathaniel ventured, clearly against his better judgment.
‘Antivan Milk Sandwich, I believe,’ Anders replied, always happy to live up to a man’s low expectations. ‘That is what you were talking about, isn’t it, Sigrun? And I can tell you all about that, Nathaniel—just one of the many bits of subtle arcane knowledge I picked up during my time at the Circle.’
‘Sometimes I wonder about you humans and your circles,’ Sigrun said. ‘Someone should write a book on that. I’d read it.’
They were the wisest words spoken all day.
In one’s life as a Warden, Anders found that one gruesome act was usually followed by another, in a ceaseless pattern of gruesome acts, each locked in epic battle to see just how far gruesomeness, as an art form, could be taken.
They found bodies—an entire battalion of them—festering in a mass grave; Anders couldn’t even make the obvious joke about why not recruit some of them, they’ll make Justice feel so much less alone because he was too busy hiding in the bushes to avoid being ill in front of people. Cousland and Garrett stalked the length of the burial site, and Anders wished they weren’t heading directly toward whoever was responsible for such carnage, but again—Wardening life wasn’t easy, and this was always how they chose to deal with terrible things. By immediate, poorly thought-out involvement, as though such due diligence was really going to make a difference in a world where terrible things had always happened, and would always continue to happen.
Maybe it would mean something to someone and maybe it wouldn’t, but Anders wondered if he’d ever enjoy a sleep not wracked with beastly nightmares ever again.
It might not even have been so bad, except then the trees of the Wending Wood turned against them—giants creaking, shaking the very earth, lobbing branches at their heads, reaching out with gnarled roots for fingertips—and nature itself followed suit, a network of brambled cages and lashing vines, wrapped ‘round their ankles and wrists, snaking ‘round their throats, blinding their eyes.
If this was because of all the times Anders had made fun of the Wending Wood in his head, then he was sorry—now that it had come back to slap him, with a thorny tendril, right in the arse. As these things so often did.
Of course, they ended up recruiting the charming Dalish woman who’d orchestrated the whole thing—because Cousland’s theory was, if they were powerful enough to almost kill you, it was important you made sure they were on your side.
Not exactly the worst premise, not by a mile, but not one Anders could trust, either. At least now he wouldn’t be overtaken by nightmares, because he was never going to sleep again knowing this woman was roaming free and murderous in the Keep with them.
‘I’ve always found Dalish women irresistibly attractive,’ Garrett told their newest recruit, the lovely Velanna, who was only as beautiful as she was deadly, a combination Anders appreciated in theory but didn’t want to live with in practice.
‘I’ve always found Dalish women horrifically demented,’ Anders muttered. What was one more taunt thrown at the face of death itself? Cousland was going to get them all killed sooner or later anyway; at least Anders could say he’d chosen his time.
‘I’ve always found human men reprehensibly vile,’ Velanna concluded, and that was the end of that pleasant conversation.
‘Cheer up,’ Anders told Garrett, feeling a bit relieved she hadn’t fallen for it. ‘It can’t work with everyone. There’s always bound to be one who gets away.’
‘Yes,’ Garrett agreed. ‘One who gets away. But being spurned only drives me that much more wild with desire.’
Anders colored, and distracted himself by pretending to cover Pounce’s large, warm ears. ‘Really, Garrett; not in front of the kitten.’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Garrett said. ‘I’ve always assumed pets take after their owners—which would make this kitten a very naughty animal, indeed.’
A week passed after Bann Esmerelle’s botched assassination; Anders was beginning to suspect that, when Cousland said he’d look into it, what he’d really meant was: Leave me alone and I have no respect for my life or anyone else’s or perhaps I’m too busy making love to Garrett Hawke to care how many arrows he catches for me.
The last might have been a wild flight of fancy on Anders’s part, but it could just as easily have been the truth.
He was brooding on the matter, crouched next to the roaring fire in the brazier with his fingers crooked beneath Pounce’s chin, when the door to the throne room creaked open; Anders glanced up just as it closed again with a loud and final clang. At the far end of the hall, Anders saw the intruder’s shoulders twitch together in a private wince.
He was a strange-looking fellow, not someone native to the Keep, or else Anders would almost certainly have noticed him before. Anders noticed his features first, long nose and wide mouth, laugh lines around his eyes incongruous to his sharp ears—because the Dalish never laughed so much that they developed wrinkles; in fact, unless they were very old, Anders never saw them develop wrinkles at all. The stranger was also wearing a mix of what looked like leather armor and polished veridium, and he bore twin daggers, the worn pommels peeping over his shoulder-blades. He was a man of action, or at least he was dressed for it.
Not a social call, then.
If this was another assassination attempt, Anders was leaving tomorrow at dawn. He was packing up, taking Pounce, Dog and Garrett, and this time he wouldn’t be charmed out of his decision.
‘Ah,’ the elf spoke, suddenly realizing he was being watched. Or perhaps he’d been aware of it the whole time. He had that keen hunger to him—as all assassins did—and Anders didn’t trust it. ‘So many new and unfamiliar faces here—and not a one bearing what I would consider to be a welcoming expression. You Fereldans are a very hard-looking people, did anyone ever tell you that? And I say this hailing from sunny Antiva, where skin is most often likened to leather.’
‘Antiva?’ Nathaniel asked, his voice bearing wary incredulity from his place in the shadows.
‘Indeed, my good man,’ the elf said. He glanced around the room, a look of tight hope passing over his features. ‘What fine ears you have. But what about your eyes, I wonder? …You wouldn’t happen to have seen a rather large and impossibly redheaded specimen wandering about, solving problems wherever he goes?’
Oghren let out a belch that echoed through the throne room. Out of the corner of his eye, Anders saw him making his way forward, a rumbling, lumbering, tree-stump of a dwarf. ‘So: it’s you, huh? I thought I heard someone yabbering on like a nug stuck in a hole.’
‘Oghren!’ the elf said. Anders stood, holding his kitten. If a fight was about to break out, he didn’t want to be anywhere near it, but more importantly, he didn’t want Pounce getting involved. Sometimes, the kitten was as bad as Garrett when it came to impetuous acts of stupid bravery. ‘I cannot truly express my delight at seeing you alive and with all your wonderful odors intact, but I must confess—you are not the redhead I was looking for.’
‘Zevran?’ Cousland asked, from somewhere over Anders’s shoulder.
Yet another rogue; yet another silent approach. Up until recently—Anders wasn’t sure how recently, because of said approach being so silent—Cousland had been in the war room with Seneschal Varel, discussing their latest discovery: a talking darkspawn who’d gone so far as to name himself the Architect.
But what was there to say about a situation as preposterous as that? It seemed Cousland and Varel had finished early.
The elf turned away from Oghren; the brief flicker of awed relief and welcome affection in his eyes made Anders feel as though he ought to leave the room, or at the very least turn away. But, since he was a nosy mage with terrible manners and no better way to pass the time, he did neither of these things, and instead continued staring.
‘My dear Grey Warden,’ Zevran said. ‘Or is it…Warden Commander now? You know how I do so love titles. It would seem the Crows do not learn from my past mistakes, no?’
Oghren let out a bawdy little heh-heh that made Anders’s skin crawl, as always, while Zevran was already moving, swift as an assassination attempt but—Anders could only hope—not nearly as deadly. He was into Cousland’s arms before anyone, even Cousland, could react, and then Anders did turn away, because some things really were too private.
Even the best romances occasionally faded to black.
Cousland and Zevran were not present at dinner, which was just as well, since that made it easier for them to be thrown about as the main topic of conversation, idle gossip, rampant speculation, and so on.
‘It is…unexpected,’ Nathaniel admitted.
‘I think it’s romantic,’ Sigrun announced. ‘Did you hear what he said about the Crows? Ooh, he probably came to check on him because he heard what happened. Isn’t that sweet?’
‘He is one of them Crows,’ Oghren grunted. ‘Or he was, anyway. Don’t know what he gets into these days. Besides Cousland’s—’
‘That’s quite enough, Oghren,’ Garrett said. Contrary to what Anders would have expected, he actually seemed to be in a better mood now than earlier. Anders wondered if he’d made everything up—Garrett could be a jealous person, when he wanted to be, as evidenced by what Anders now thought of as The Kitten Incident, but unless he was a better actor than Anders thought, he wasn’t at all bothered by this little turn of events. Maybe he’d always known. Maybe the Cousland distraction was just a fling, one of Garrett’s many impulsive, short-lived decisions. It hardly seemed fair to this Zevran fellow, but then again, where had he been during all this, and why hadn’t he thought it appropriate to rescue his lover from the snare a handsome young apostate had set for him? He was from Antiva, where Anders had been led to believe the people were as a whole more liberal. Maybe it would soon devolve into a threesome situation, in which case Anders would have to hang himself. ‘We’re all capable of using our imaginations.’
‘After tonight you won’t need to use ‘em,’ Oghren said. ‘Won’t be thinkin’ it’s so sweet, either. My advice? Sleep with a pillow over your head and cotton in your ears, and don’t say old Oghren never did you any favors.’
Vigil’s Keep was a large building, solid, with thick stone walls in the Ferelden style of grim, gloomy, ultimately boring architecture. Why make a place pretty when you could make it gray and solid—that was the common Fereldan builder’s philosophy, and while it was probably very reassuring during a siege or two, it was very drab every other day of the year. Not to mention nothing held quite the same way dwarven construction did, so in the end the Keep was really the worst of both worlds: dull sensibilities and inferior execution.
And, Anders could only assume, dwarven walls would have kept the sound out better.
It was his bad luck to have his room closest to Cousland’s. Laughter echoed down the hallway for hours, laughter punctuated by other sounds, deep and carnal and lusty, then silence that was somehow even bawdier than the noise. Then, the whole process would start up again, soft in the beginning, building to a wild crescendo, and while Anders expected such reckless sexual abandon from an Antivan, Cousland had never really seemed the vocal type. At least until now.
Now, Anders suspected he knew a great deal more about what type Cousland was, more than he needed or wanted to know. Living in close quarters allowed for so many unexpected and unnecessary discoveries like this one. Anders muffled a groan with his pillow, doing his best not think about how unfair it was that someone like Cousland could have a tawny, wild elf as a lover and flirt with Garrett on the side, and how long it had been since Anders had last had anyone at all, on the side or otherwise.
Then, he did his best to suffocate himself with the bundle of stuffing and fabric, until it became uncomfortable and hot and difficult to breathe, and he had to stop.
Blood rushed back to his head, a flush of annoyance and a blush of amusement. He stared up at the ceiling, recognizing how difficult it was going to be to face their intrepid commander come morning—over breakfast, with Cousland looking smug as a cat beside a bowl of cream, that Zevran fellow not coming down to join them for hours, probably unable to walk after the night he’d had.
But those thoughts were going to make it even harder to meet Cousland’s eye even by accident, and Anders buried his face in his pillow again, wishing he was the sort of man who had fortitude enough to bring himself any sort of physical pain. If he had been that sort of man, he’d simply clock himself over the head with a chair and spend the rest of the night blissfully unconscious.
He’d ask Oghren, but Oghren was so strong, and had absolutely no restraint; Anders didn’t want to wake up with a skull cracked open like a boiled egg, or not wake up at all.
At the same time, he couldn’t help but feel just the slightest bit relieved—about a few things, but mostly that Cousland wasn’t like this with Garrett, for example, in the next room over or in his room or somewhere else hidden away within the Keep. As awful as it was for Anders to imagine, in destructively lurid detail, all the things Garrett and Cousland might do together, even worse would be having his face rubbed in it, having to lie back in his bed alone listening to another man lying with Garrett.
Garrett, who was the man himself, the one of Anders’s dreams, even if he only had nightmares of late.
Anders would even have accepted a nightmare right now, would have readily traded it in for a sleepless night like this one, in which he had only his own thoughts and Cousland’s cries of pleasure to keep him company.
It must have been difficult for Garrett, Anders finally decided, just as it would be difficult for anyone, no matter what agreement had been drawn up beforehand, to listen to a lover with someone else. It was also inappropriate, not to mention unkind, for Cousland to do such a thing when he knew certain people would be listening, people whose feelings might potentially be wounded when they discovered he was so much louder with someone else. As always, Anders’s feelings on the complicated subject were as tangled as a ball of yarn between Pounce’s paws: he was delighted Zevran was here to distract Cousland; offended on Garrett’s behalf that Cousland could be distracted at all. At one moment relief threatened to overwhelm him; at the next, he became incensed. And, above all that, was the roiling flush of embarrassed interest, wondering how two men could last so long.
Part of it had to do with Warden stamina, Anders assumed—a topic Cousland had broached with Garrett one golden afternoon soon after their joining, each word dripping with possibility, with promise. Anders had known then that the two would end up in bed together, testing their limits, because Garrett was always so curious and always so applied, and who better to learn with than the man himself?
Anders dug the heels of his hands into his eyes until behind his eyelids everything sparked with traveling pinpricks of white-hot light. When he dropped his palms back to the mattress beside him, he heard Zevran shout something indistinct but definitely in Antivan, and Anders sought to disappear beneath the pallet, between the slats of the bedframe, and down through the floorboards.
Garrett, apparently, wasn’t loud. And that made sense, Anders supposed breathlessly, because despite his grand gestures and constant ploys for attention, he was also a private sort of person. You could never tell what was really going on in that handsome head of his, no matter how well you thought you knew him. He played his cards close to the chest, something Anders had never been particularly good at, and as a result you never even knew what game you were playing, much less how to win.
The proper thing to do would be to check on Garrett, Anders told himself. Despite dogs and cats and Couslands and all the awkward incidents that currently stood between them, Garrett was still Anders’s friend. Best friend, in fact. They were practically family, a comparison Anders didn’t like to bring up too often on account of the debilitating feelings he harbored.
Inappropriate though they might have been, they were much worse when he started thinking of Garrett as a brother.
With difficulty, Anders levered himself out of bed, crossing the darkened length of his room. Ser Pounce-a-lot was sleeping curled up in a heap on Anders’s old clothes, proving once and for all that cats were dreadful traitors, loyal only to themselves. Having some direction to move in at least gave Anders a distraction from the fitful sounds now being made next door, keening little gasps that were bound to put him in a very uncomfortable state if they went on much longer.
He tried the door, then remembered in a rush of disappointment and possibly also mounting hysteria that it was locked. And here he’d thought with Garrett’s improved mood—not to mention Cousland being otherwise involved—the walls might at last come down; perhaps Garrett had merely forgotten to undo the latch after all the excitement of the evening. Whatever the reason, the latch wouldn’t budge; Anders could have knocked, but it seemed too desperate to try.
Jiggling the handle on the door was just a fraction below too desperate, and Anders did it twice before he had to face the facts. Garrett didn’t want to speak to him. He was probably sulking, or contemplating his competition—Garrett was the only person Anders knew who defied the law of misery loves company.
Garrett hated company when he was miserable. It made him impossible to comfort, but there was nothing Anders could do about it now, save for blowing the door off its hinges with a well-timed fireball.
Anders wisely decided to hold back. The ensuing blaze would only interrupt the reunited lovers, which was just mean-spirited—and besides, he didn’t want to traumatize young Pounce too early in his life. There would be plenty of time for that during Anders’s career as a Warden, all twenty to thirty years of it, before it was tragically cut short.
As he was climbing back into bed, something thumped against the wall next to his head; it started slow, then built up toward a tantalizing crescendo. Zevran’s low whimpers shot like hot lightning through Anders’s body. The sound, coupled with the steady beat of what must have been the headboard against the stone, inspired madness.
Anders no longer needed to close his eyes to picture what was happening just one room over. They’d been at this for hours now; Anders could imagine down to the last beaded arc the sweat dappling Cousland’s flushed brow, the tight grip of dark, lean-muscled thighs around his waist. Even Warden stamina could only carry a man so far. They were probably both exhausted, clinging to one another, hips rocking with a momentum neither could fight. He thought about the abrupt, aching pleasure Zevran must have been experiencing upon being fucked so thoroughly, while Cousland continued to be shameless about it, since as far as Anders could tell, it hadn’t been nearly so long for him.
Anders pressed his legs together tightly, but the added pressure only made his burgeoning erection throb. Definitely there now; it’d only been a matter of time, and there’d be no more ignoring it. Even guilt wasn’t enough to keep Anders’s hand from creeping beneath his thick blanket, fingers twitching in anticipation.
He’d never been able to do this while he’d shared a room with Garrett—and there had been so many nights when he’d wanted to, Garrett wandering in shirtless, rolling drunkenly into Anders’s bed because he thought it was his own, tossing a warm arm over Anders’s chest, burying equally warm lips against Anders’s throat, using Anders’s shoulder for a pillow, breathing heat against Anders’s collarbone. He always fell asleep right away, smelling of whiskey and sawdust and someone else’s sweat on his skin, and Anders would lie awake all night long afraid to move, happy in one way, miserable in another, while Garrett’s body kept him warm, and he pretended there was a purpose to it, a mutual agreement and mutual benefit—that it wasn’t all accident, like so much of the rest of Anders’s life.
Cousland moaned and muttered something—a name, perhaps, a term of endearment, a sweet nothing private enough that he bothered to lower his voice just a fraction. Anders wrapped his hand around his own erection and began to stroke, coaxing it into fullness. He wasn’t surprised in the slightest when it didn’t require much persuasion.
He was already hard not because of what was happening next door, not because of the wanton cries straight off the pages of one of his favorite books, but because he missed Garrett, because missing Garrett meant thinking about Garrett, and thinking about Garrett always meant wanting to feel him. Simple, innocent gestures would have done, the ones that came before all this: just brushing the hair back from his temple or lying beside him, awake, next to the dying fire in their latest campsite, staring up at the stars.
I like the stars, Garrett had said, so young then, while Anders somehow felt even younger, because no matter where you go they’re always the same; I like to pretend they’re my friends. Then he laughed and Anders said something foolish, not at all like a good role model, about how they were probably as full of hot air as everyone else’s friends. It was only so he wouldn’t have to think about what it meant, that Garrett was so lonely he had to imagine celestial bodies for comrades, where other boys had groups of living, breathing people their own age to play with. Even Anders had known that—not friendship, but companionship, at the very least. He’d known his peers, oftentimes too well, but in his own way he was luckier than Garrett, just as Garrett was also luckier than Anders.
But somewhere between the ages of eighteen and twenty, Garrett had become this—this man, someone Anders couldn’t quite relate to, someone he very badly wanted to kiss. He dreamed about it, back when his dreams were his own, and woke shameful and blushing before dawn. He hid it from everyone, from Malcolm and Garrett most of all, but each for the same reason: he didn’t want to lose them, couldn’t stand to, wouldn’t have anything if they were gone.
Anders let out a ragged breath, folded over himself, strokes uneven and unsatisfying, falling into the same rhythm of the dull thuds against the wall. He pressed his face against cool stone, watching the moonlight travel across the floor until he squeezed his eyes shut, sweat beading his own brow now, drawing deep on every memory of Garrett’s skin. Bare shoulders, arched back, diving naked into a freezing stream because Carver dared him to do it—and, most recently, with only the blanket draped around him, back in Amaranthine, freshly tattooed and smug and destructively handsome. Anders thought about how smooth that skin was, in all the places it wasn’t scarred; then, he thought about the scars themselves, the raised and puckered flesh, the stories they told. He thought about how he’d been there for all of them, the one on Garrett’s shoulder and the one on his hip and the one on the back of his neck, the one Anders could have—should have prevented, but didn’t, and now…
Now they were here, Anders thrusting into the palm of his hand, thinking of the way Garrett shook his head when it was wet just like his dog, water flying everywhere, cheeks pink from the cold, pale complexion turning ruddy, little droplets beading on his lashes before he wiped them away with the back of his wrist.
It was sick, honestly, how Anders knew so much, had watched so carefully, studying Garrett more than any one man could be studied—it was the same reverence he’d given to maps of foreign lands, places he thought he’d never see, a world he thought he’d never know. And now that it was his, free to roam—sort of, anyway—he was trapped again by the rise and fall of Garrett’s chest, whatever instincts thrummed impulsive and dream-like just beneath with the rhythm of his heartbeat.
Anders came into his hand and bit back a sound, too quiet for anyone but himself to hear, a ragged whimper, trapped behind his teeth. There was no one around to ask him if he was well or feeling feverish, what he was doing with his body curled up beneath the blankets; there was no one to scold him but also no one to care, and Anders realized how much he missed them, Malcolm and Carver and Bethany and Garrett most of everyone, Garrett who was all grown up and going to fall in love and going to leave him.
He didn’t sleep; there was still too much noise. Instead, cheek pressed against his mother’s old pillow, he tried to chase down the last, lingering scent of Garrett tucked away in the brocade, until dawn came, and the lovers were finally too tired for any more loving.
When Anders complained to Oghren the next morning, he was offered no sympathy at all.
‘You think I’m this sodding drunk all the time by choice, mage?’ Oghren asked. ‘Not on your life. The bad habit all started back at th’Commander’s camp. Didn’t even have walls in those days. Just tents.’
‘Oh my,’ Anders said. ‘You poor, sweet, innocent dwarf. Whatever would your good mother say?’
‘Huh,’ Oghren snorted. ‘Tell me about it. I drink to forget, not ‘cause I actually like the taste of ass sweat ‘n’ nug shit.’
‘You dwarves don’t actually…put all that into your ale, do you?’ Anders asked.
Oghren shrugged. ‘Gotta do something to give it flavor. I won’t lie to you, mage: human brewing’s about all you’ve got goin’ for you on the surface. If it wasn’t for that, I’d be back in Orzammar. Well, that and everything that happened with my anvil-brained broodmother of an ex-wife.’
‘Oh, Oghren,’ Garrett said, coming up on them suddenly like a shriek erupting from the soil. ‘Isn’t it a little early to be dragging out the dead wife?’
Anders felt twin spots of hot color rise unbidden to his cheeks. He couldn’t look at Garrett, lest his actions from the night before show on his face—but, because Anders was stubborn and needy and awful, he couldn’t not look at Garrett, either. At first glance he seemed hale and healthy, his dark hair tousled, bangs pushed back from his forehead; the thick rise of his collarbone was visible beneath the splayed-open collar of his homespun shirt and he was grinning widely, as though he’d been the cause of those noises last night.
Anders wasn’t fooled. He had a natural eye for detail, and he’d been studying Garrett more than six years now. For him, the evidence that Garrett had been kept up by last night’s show was written all over his face. He couldn’t hide it with a quip here and a naughty grin there, easy as sewing a patch over a fraying hole. His shoulders were slumped and there were bruise-dark shadows underneath his eyes, as though someone had taken their thumb and swiped Sigrun’s dark warpaint against the thin, delicate skin there.
‘Never too early when you’ve got Mackay’s Epic Single Malt, Hawke,’ Oghren said. He gave his thigh a jolly slap. The resulting clang made Anders wince. ‘This whiskey’s smoother than an elven babe’s bottom.’
‘And how do you know that?’ Garrett asked. He put his hand on the back of Anders’s chair. Anders leaned into it, feeling Garrett’s thumb against the ridge of his shoulder blade.
‘Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answer to,’ Oghren advised.
‘Elves don’t look like they have very smooth areas.’ Anders sniffed. ‘You’d think they’d be all knobbly like trees. Or tree bark, I suppose.’
‘I s’pose you could always ask Velanna,’ Oghren said, with a lascivious flair that Anders both envied and feared.
‘Or Zevran,’ Garrett said innocently. He slid into his seat next to Anders, reaching out to pluck a grape from the barely-touched fruit bowl in front of him. ‘If he’s even alive after last night’s little adventure.’
Anders sighed, clutching moodily at the cup of tea he’d poured for himself, which had long since gone cold. If he was going to be the bigger man here, then it would only do to ask after Garrett’s feelings. He hadn’t been able to delve overnight into anyone’s inappropriate feelings but his own—but that didn’t mean he could put it off forever like he could put off telling Malcolm about the tattoos forever.
The fact of the matter was that Cousland had been reunited with his long lost love, and Garrett had no one else to talk to about it. It was going to have to be Anders, as much as he dreaded the prospect of the conversation.
When all the Hawkes were still living together, Anders had always been able to pretend that Garrett confided in Bethany the things he didn’t see fit to tell Anders; what he didn’t tell his sister, he’d grudgingly share with Malcolm. But now they were on their own—it was Anders or no one, and Anders liked to think he was still a little better than the other option.
He cornered Garrett by one of the stone stanchions in the throne room shortly after they’d finished breakfast, before anyone else could butt in. Both Anders and Garrett had learned to take their meals quickly on the road; sometimes, if you didn’t eat fast, you didn’t eat at all. It wasn’t a trait that made them unique in this particular group, but it seemed that everyone else had taken the opportunity to sleep in that morning.
Anders didn’t have to guess why.
‘Anders,’ Garrett said, favoring him with a nod. The laugh lines at the corners of his eyes were only just forming; Anders saw them crinkle as he smiled. ‘If you’re looking for your kitten, I swear, I don’t have him.’
‘Ser Pounce-a-lot?’ Anders asked. ‘He’s in my room. I wasn’t looking for him, I was looking for you.’
‘Success, then,’ Garrett said. He spread his arms wide, but the pageantry wasn’t enough to hide the uncertainty in his eyes. ‘What did you need me for?’
‘I don’t need you,’ Anders said. It was a blatant lie, and one he attempted to hurry past. ‘What I mean is—’ How did Malcolm always phrase these talks? ‘I just wanted to make sure you’re…all right. With. Things. With everything, really. So, you know, with all the…things.’
Garrett arched a dark brow. ‘All right with things?’ he repeated, just so Anders would know how stupid it sounded out loud.
‘All the things,’ Anders agreed, with proper emphasis, only slightly miserably.
Garrett rubbed at his jaw, fingers scritching against the stiff bristles of coarse hair, then smoothing over the skin at the corners of his mouth. It was all very slow and pointed, and the uncertainty of the moment made Anders feel as though he’d made a dreadful blunder.
‘I do know what two men do alone together, if that’s what you’re asking,’ Garrett said finally. ‘I’m not exactly shocked by Cousland and his handsome elf’s display. At present, I have little honor left to protect, Anders—in fact, I believe I left the last few scraps of it back in Lothering—but thank you for the glimpse into my more innocent past all the same.’
He was smirking, of course, a twitchy little expression that was poised on the precipice of outright laughter. This was how it always went: a well-intentioned inquiry followed by unrelenting mockery, how the men of the Hawke family, at least, dealt with all their more serious problems. Even Malcolm rarely admitted to an honest fear, if only because someone had to stay brave for everyone else to maintain the appearance of calm—but that had been warped beyond recognition by his sons, a competition of one-upmanship in which nobody wanted to be the first to surrender. It had been going on for years now, and even Anders, who admitted that not talking about his feelings was really the best route for anyone, was starting to grow weary with the effort it took to maintain the constant charade.
‘I should have seen this coming,’ Anders admitted, mostly to himself. ‘I’ll try not to step directly on the trap next time—though really, why do we bother having rogues around at all if they don’t warn us about these things?’
Garrett’s expression briefly darkened. ‘I believe all our rogues are currently engaged,’ he said. Then, he brightened again. ‘Quite literally engaged, in some cases. Apparently the elf gave Cousland a ring or an earring or something, unless Oghren completely hallucinated the whole scene—’
‘Possible,’ Anders cautioned. ‘Always distinctly possible; this is Oghren you’re talking about.’
‘—and it’s meant to signify an agreement. An arrangement,’ Garrett added, and shot Anders a funny, probing look, before quickly glancing away, squinting out the window, into the sunny courtyard.
Anders felt himself frown. ‘And you’re sure all that doesn’t bother you?’
‘Bother me?’ Garrett’s face, illuminated by crisp, high-altitude sunlight, was practically glowing. ‘Why would something like that bother me?’
‘Because you’ve been sleeping with Cousland this whole time,’ Anders said, knowing as he said it how much of an ass he was being. But he couldn’t help it—it just came out, as though he was thirteen again and given to acting on every flush of petty jealousy he felt, undermining people whenever he’d had a bad day, just so they’d be having a bad day with him. He wasn’t that person anymore—he liked to think Malcolm and the others had helped him grow out of it—but every now and then the instinct returned with a vengeance, and he found himself floundering, returning to his old ways. Regressing, as it were, which was the only thing, aside from healing and kissing with tongue, that he’d ever been really good at.
Garrett made the same sound Pounce did when a bit of fur was stuck in his throat. ‘Sleeping with Cousland?’ he asked. ‘Me?’
‘First you, then the elf,’ Anders agreed. He wished he hadn’t brought it up. Some people were relieved after shedding fresh light on old wounds, but not Anders. ‘But mostly just you, since the elf thing only happened very recently, and though it’s much louder, and kept me up all night, it doesn’t really have to do with me in quite the same… Would you stop looking at me like that? It’s making me feel naked.’
‘Is it also making you feel stupid?’ Garrett asked.
Anders didn’t even have to think about that one. ‘I rather thought that went without saying.’
‘I haven’t been sleeping with Cousland,’ Garrett said, after a long moment of working his mouth and his tongue into cooperating. The look of sheer bafflement on his face meant one of two things: that he was delusional, or Anders was. ‘It’s not as though he’s given me any cats or sleeveless Tevinter robes lately, you know.’
‘Yes,’ Anders reasoned, trying to maintain at least the appearance of sanity, ‘because he was giving you other things. …Wasn’t he?’
Garrett turned away from the window; he reached out, almost about to touch Anders’s shoulder, then drew his hand back. Finally, he was laughing, a familiar sound, one that should have been comforting, except it was incredulous and uncertain and hoarse, as desperate as Anders felt, not at all the jolly sort of chuckle that let Anders believe all was right in Thedas.
‘You thought Cousland and I…?’ he asked. As if that was the most ridiculous thing Anders could have assumed.
‘Your dogs were practically all over each other,’ Anders pointed out, ruffling. ‘Isn’t that some sort of archaic Fereldan mating ritual I wouldn’t understand because I’m not a dog person?’
‘Just because they were licking each other doesn’t mean we were,’ Garrett reasoned.
‘You certainly wanted to,’ Anders insisted; he knew he hadn’t hallucinated that much. ‘I saw the way he looked at you—the way you looked at him.’
Garrett’s expression locked into something harder, shoulders stiffening. ‘But did you also see the way he looked at you, I wonder?’ he asked. ‘He gave you gifts, Anders. Two of them. Do you know how many gifts he gave me? Ah, yes—that would be: zero.’
‘Do you know how many gifts he’s given Oghren?’ Anders asked. ‘Whiskeys and malts and other brews to render him unconscious—perhaps he gives the least gifts to the person he most wants to sleep with.’
That much logic—or lack thereof—quieted Garrett for a bit; in the absence of sound, Anders could hear only his blood racing hot at his temples, his ears warming, probably turning pink and heating the golden hoop ‘round the lobe. That was Garrett’s gift to him, something he never took off, unlike the robes; something he was never without, unlike Ser Pounce-a-lot, who often left him to hunt mice and birds or spy on people or trip errant soldiers, then scamper away in the ensuing chaos.
‘Anders,’ Garrett said finally. ‘Just because I flirt with someone doesn’t mean I’m also sleeping with them. What sort of person do you think I am?’
There was no way of answering that without getting into trouble, especially because it wasn’t as though Anders’s suppositions had come out of thin air. Garrett could just as easily have been sleeping with Cousland. No one knew he’d had a capable Antivan lover waiting for him in the far north.
‘But you saved his life,’ Anders said, well aware now that he was grasping at straws. ‘Stepped right in front of that arrow, then made all sorts of lascivious remarks about Cousland’s neck.’
‘Do I need to be sleeping with someone to save their life now?’ Garrett said. There was a sharpness to his tone, like the polished edge of one of Sigrun’s daggers. ‘Nathaniel will be so surprised. And Sigrun, if you count that time at Anselm’s Reef. They may fight it at first, but I’ll simply have to tell them no, the rules are quite clear, Anders says so. In saving someone’s life, I’ve intimated that I’m bedding them.’
Anders’s fingers twitched, hands balling into tight fists. He wondered, far too late, why he’d ever thought Garrett might need someone to ask after his feelings when it was clear he didn’t have any in the first place. His heart pounded miserably, cheeks flushed with humiliation.
‘Perhaps if you didn’t flirt so shamelessly with people you’ve no intention of sleeping with,’ Anders began hotly, ‘then these little misunderstandings wouldn’t occur.’
‘I thought you…felt things for him,’ Garrett said, as though that explained everything. He rubbed the palm of his hand over his beard. Anders listened to the pleasant rasping sound it made, but didn’t allow himself to be drawn in by it. ‘He gave you that cat—the first year I knew you, all you did was talk about that damned cat you had at the tower. Giggles or Tiggums or Wiggles—’
‘Mr. Wiggums,’ Anders corrected, then, ‘…You remember Mr. Wiggums?’
Garrett shrugged, one-shouldered, an easy gesture that looked anything but relaxed. ‘Hard to forget, since you wouldn’t shut up about leaving him behind.’
‘And you thought I’d told Cousland…about Mr. Wiggums?’ Anders said, desperately trying to follow the thread that had brought Garrett to the conclusion that Cousland and Anders were sleeping together.
Except he couldn’t follow it, because he wasn’t completely insane. Soon, perhaps, but not yet.
Garrett bent his head, running thick fingers through his short, dark hair. He was either trying to calm himself down, or attempting to tear off his own head. Anders couldn’t tell, but he rather hoped it was the former. The latter seemed so messy. Also, it would be a waste of such incredible good looks.
‘He got you a cat,’ Garrett said at last. ‘What else was I supposed to think?’
‘I don’t know,’ Anders admitted, still hot under the collar and feeling peevish because of it. Garrett wasn’t supposed to be the one who had wild, illogical flights of fancy. Despite being possessed of the ability to seduce someone just by looking at them, he was normally quite grounded. Except apparently when it came to thoughts of Anders and Cousland. Anders didn’t know what it meant, and it bothered him. ‘Apparently thinking isn’t our collective strong suit.’
Garrett sighed, rubbing damp palms against his thighs. ‘Just so I’m absolutely clear on this… Neither of us is interested in Cousland. Is that so?’
‘No,’ Anders said. He shook his head to hide the tremor in his voice. ‘I mean—yes. It is so. And it’s a good thing, too. I wasn’t looking forward to having to rescue you from another Crow assassination. Although,’ he added, attempting a smile, ‘they don’t seem to be very good at it.’
Despite Anders’s best efforts to the contrary, things remained awkward between him and Garrett for the rest of the day. They weren’t not speaking to each other, and Garrett didn’t seem angry, but he treated Anders with a careful, distant politeness that almost felt worse than anger. At least anger was passionate, but scrutiny offered no clues whatsoever.
Being kept at arm’s length by the one person whose arms Anders would have appreciated more if they were wrapped strong but also gentle around him felt dismal, hopeless, and also lonely.
He tried to remind himself of when things had been awkward before, so many years ago—when Garrett had given him the silent treatment, successfully, for three whole days, in an effort to drive him off. It made sense at the time, and even more sense now, that Garrett had been so opposed to the new addition to the Hawke family caravan, but it had been no less awful for that understanding.
Now, Anders didn’t understand anything, except that it was hard to eat supper while it was distractingly clear that Cousland and Zevran were engaged in illicit businesses underneath the table. Anders would have suggested they get a room, but really, he preferred it if they didn’t, since they’d only be noisier then, and no more would be left up to the imagination.
And imagination was the problem, ultimately; Anders’s imagination in particular, but Garrett’s also, just a little bit. If only people were capable of saying every last, foolish thing that came into their heads, they might have been happier for it, as well as less easily embarrassed.
‘Just can’t see why you like her so much,’ Oghren told Cousland with a powerful belch of disapproval. ‘Elf women’re usually skinnier’n dwarven women—why I don’t like ‘em myself—but this one doesn’t have any tits. Flatter’n a nug on an anvil, if you get what I’m sayin’.’
‘Perhaps it is my slim, attractive legs that make up for my other shortcomings,’ Zevran suggested, not at all offended, somewhere on the verge of fondly cackling.
‘Definitely his slim, attractive legs,’ Cousland agreed. Then, he added, ‘What shortcomings?’
Oghren wiped turkey grease off the side of his face with a grunt of disgust. ‘Pfagh—keep alla that mushy stuff outta sight from where I’m eating, will ya?’
If only people were capable of talking like dwarves, Anders amended—drunken dwarves with small, lonely animals spending the cold winter squirreled away in their beards. Oghren seemed blissful, the happiest person Anders knew, even when breaking out in obscene rashes, even when face down on the floor, even when covered with what appeared to be his own excretions.
Anders wanted that for himself—perhaps sans the part about the rashes and the excretions—a freedom that had nothing to do with mages and templars, with Amaranthine or Vigil’s Keep or anywhere else, wherever they were headed, wherever they might one day settle down. It was all in his mind, or perhaps partly in his heart, and that made it so much more complicated, since the chains had never once been visible.
Despite knowing what to expect—the impressive marathon of relations, even by standards of Grey Warden stamina—Anders had still hoped things might calm down a bit on the second night. But, sitting now on the edge of his bed and shrugging balefully in Pounce’s reproachful direction, he knew that hope had been in vain, as so many of his hopes often were.
He’d taken a bath when it began, a cold and unpleasant experience in a narrow little tub, then did his best to shave and otherwise make himself feel presentable. There was a ritual in cleaning oneself that he needed to undertake, and yet he knew the goings-on next door were only going to make him feel incredibly dirty again in mere seconds.
It was slightly less awful this time, if only because Anders didn’t have any further reason to relate it to himself. He didn’t have to wonder what Garrett was thinking, if he was jealous or hurt or longing or sad, or worse, aroused, and currently plotting how best to get Cousland to make those sounds for him instead of for someone else. It no longer had the same relevance, and Anders accepted his own overreaction, his own stupidity, with as much grace as he could muster, leaning his head against the wall and finally laughing at himself.
Pounce mewled at him, recognizing his slow descent into madness. But he also recognized that Anders needed to be alone with his private mistakes for a time, and so elected to remain in a fluffy ball on the floor, wisely curled up by the warmth of the fire.
‘Well,’ Garrett’s voice said from the open doorway, warmer than the crackling embers in the hearth, ‘sitting alone and laughing at no one? Or perhaps the kitten told a joke? Really, what has your life come to, Anders?’
Anders tensed, then eased, with no ready excuse, no hope for reclaiming his dignity. In some ways, the most hopeless of situations were also the most reassuring. Since there was nothing he could do, he didn’t have to worry about trying to do anything. Some called it surrender. Anders merely called it relief. ‘No need to ask,’ he replied. ‘I’ve wondered the same thing to myself so many times—but there isn’t an answer. Not a good one. Nothing beyond dwarves and darkspawn and debauchery, three words that shouldn’t ever come together. Perhaps,’ he added, drawn ever onward by his own irrepressible momentum, ‘I’ll become a true healer someday, in the saintliest sense of the word, and make sure no one else ever makes the same mistakes I have. I mean, you can have dwarves; you should have debauchery; you can even have darkspawn, if that’s your thing, but when you mix them up like this—’
‘Babbling,’ Garrett warned him, just like old times.
Anders bit his lower lip. ‘Right.’
‘Are you really that unhappy?’ Garrett asked. He bent down to pick up Pounce, surprisingly gentle, and Pounce allowed it, tolerated it, if barely.
‘Only sometimes,’ Anders assured him, watching. ‘Mostly when I can’t sleep.’
Garrett gathered Pounce’s pillow into his arms next, then turned back to the door, setting him down just across the threshold. ‘I’ll tell them to find themselves another room. One next to Oghren’s—it’s not as though he’ll notice.’
‘You’d be my champion if you did that,’ Anders said. ‘…What are you doing with my cat?’
‘Protecting his innocent eyes,’ Garrett replied, and shut the door between them.
‘Garrett,’ Anders said, rising at once. Alarm and disbelief mingled within him, creating an unexpectedly heady rush. Or maybe that was because he stood too quickly. ‘You can’t leave my cat alone in there with your awful dog.’ What did Pounce’s eyes need protecting from, anyway? It was his ears that needed protecting, if anything, but he’d never take to having them stuffed up with little balls of cotton. Still, the question niggled at the back of Anders’s mind as he stormed toward the door; if he could just answer that, then he had a feeling the rest would fall into place, too. ‘He’ll get slobbered on, or eaten, and—’
Garrett slung a strong arm about Anders’s waist, catching him up and swinging him around to put his back to the wall. The gesture wasn’t forceful enough to knock the wind out of Anders’s lungs and yet he felt breathless. It was funny how that worked. Garrett’s teeth were white, his lips soft in the shadows cast by the sliver of moonlight slicing through Anders’s room. He sucked in a needy breath, and just as Anders was about to blurt out something stupid—about how they’d never hear Dog and Pounce fighting over the sound of Zevran and Cousland wrestling next door—Garrett nipped in close and kissed him.
Anders had been trying not to touch Garrett the whole time, arms hanging determinedly at his sides. Now his hands rose of their own volition, fingers nervously stroking the coarse cotton weave of Garrett’s left sleeve, tracing the thick band of muscle at his lower abdomen. Garrett made a noise in the back of his throat and pressed into the kiss; Anders tipped his head back, letting it hit the wall with a thud and not even thinking about the bruise it would leave come morning. He parted his lips to breathe and Garrett slipped his tongue inside Anders’s mouth, biting at his upper lip, the kiss turning hungry as it carried on.
From the next room over, Zevran made a high-pitched noise that sounded as if he was dying, gutted and exhausted on some distant battlefield.
Garrett’s body surged up against Anders, one strong, capable thigh working its way between Anders’s legs and over his skirts. Anders bucked gladly into the friction, then whimpered, shuddering all too visibly in Garrett’s hold.
‘Wait, wait,’ he muttered, throat tight. It was difficult to speak—difficult to even think, but Anders liked to believe he’d matured somewhat in the last six years. Or even the last six hours. His hands settled against Garrett’s shoulders; he held on tight to stop his fingers from shaking. ‘Garrett—what are you doing?’ Then, because Anders was nothing if not fair, he amended the question. ‘What are we doing?’
‘I should think that would be obvious,’ Garrett said. The breathless cast to his voice was one Anders had never heard before. It was like a spell in its own right, binding magic, keeping him in place. Even worse, Anders found himself all too happy to be held in its thrall.
Without warning, Garrett shifted positions, dragging Anders up into his arms and stumbling, pointedly, toward the bed. Anders’s pulse was pounding, far louder than anything that had happened in Cousland’s room to date, a drumming heard no doubt throughout the entire Keep. Heat prickled over his skin, warm with mortification and desire. It was foolish to be enjoying this so much, foolish to be old—well, older, in any case—and still enjoy being pampered like a child. Anders locked his arms around Garrett’s neck, fingers threading through the soft, shorter hair at the back of his head.
He couldn’t muffle the gasp that slipped free from his lips when Garrett braced himself against the wall and dropped Anders down on the bed. It occurred to him that Garrett hadn’t yet answered his question—or if he had, then Anders hadn’t been nearly specific enough to begin with.
Always his problem. One of many, in fact. But it didn’t matter now.
Garrett kissed his neck, teeth at his throat in a way that would be more appropriate amongst a mabari hunting party. Anders was glad he’d shaved, a stupid, meaningless thought that drifted like a dust mote through his mind, then disappeared on the breeze.
‘Garrett…’ Anders murmured, fingers clutching hot at the back of his neck. He’d never said that name aloud in a moment like this one, hard cock, eager hips, mouth half-open, chest rising and falling, the whole rhythm of his body awkward and clumsy and heady and uneven. He’d never dared to, not even when he was alone.
‘Don’t ask me to wait,’ Garrett said. There was something soft in his voice, hidden like cream in dark Antivan coffee. ‘I’ll tie you up if you don’t stop squirming, Anders.’
Weak protest—the opposite of instinct—finally unfurled, along with a fissure of heat in Anders’s belly. The former faded away; the latter only intensified. Anders crushed his mouth to Garrett’s without a thought spared for consequence, like in the second, impulsive stage of a naughty dream, when the conceit was still plausible, when his body, half-melted and so eager, still believed everything was real.
Garrett bent over him, knees splayed open on the bed; his chest was too far away, not to mention his hips, the bed too small and the angle too awkward, too difficult. Anders squirmed against him—not all squirming was a bad thing—and suddenly Garrett lost tension, lost precision, tumbling forward, straight into Anders’s arms.
There was no room now for anything: breathing, moving, finesse. This was better, Anders thought, bellies crushed together, hips crushed together, because it meant that Garrett wouldn’t be able to protect or maintain the distance, wouldn’t undo him one-handed while Anders forgot all forms of reciprocation. His teeth scraped along Garrett’s lower lip and Garrett made a noise, the direct vocal translation of what Anders was feeling, a hundred warring emotions run ragged and raw and homeless, lost, a little pathetic. It was the first time Anders had ever heard Garrett sound like any of those things. He tried to scrabble backward, to hold Garrett’s face in his hands; now his fingers were the one scritching at that beard, and Garrett fought him, but only for a moment. Then, he relented. While Anders’s head fell back against the pillow, he lifted his eyes.
‘I thought I said—’ he began. When he licked his lips—of all things, Garrett was actually uncertain—the swipe of his tongue ran along the corner of Anders’s mouth, and Anders’s heartbeat faltered, then soared.
‘No waits,’ Anders promised. ‘No waiting. Just…other questions, like—what, and how, and why—not who, who is all too obvious—and now that I think about it, what, maybe that’s obvious too—’
‘I should hope how is also obvious.’ Garrett’s voice was lean, dangerous.
Anders let the promise of it all thrill through him, pulse after white-hot pulse. ‘A few details might be altered here and there in the heat of the moment, but I think—’
Garrett shook his head, quieted him with his mouth slanting over Anders’s instead. The kiss lingered, neither of them fighting anymore, not themselves and not each other; instead, they sought something, confirmation or reassurance, Garrett’s fingers struggling with the complex network of laces and sashes that held together Anders’s Tevinter robes. ‘I always knew how that damn coat of yours worked,’ he muttered finally, brow falling to rest against Anders’s forehead, pinched with concentration. ‘But this is just—it’s ludicrous, I hate it, take it off.’
Anders covered Garrett’s questing hand with both of his own, guiding him toward the first catch, the second loop, the third buckle in the wide belt. Garrett’s fingers twitched and flicked, and finally the whole thing fell open, cool air hitting Anders’s skin, his body arching upward with an eager hiss on his lips. He waited for Garrett to touch him.
But Garrett didn’t.
Anders cracked one eye open, then the other; he could see nothing more than the top of Garrett’s head, his own lips buried against Garrett’s hair, the smell of his soap and his sweat overwhelming, but the sight of his face would have offered so much more insight. He held very still, while Garrett’s breath gusted over his bare throat, his palm flat in the air just above Anders’s stomach. Fingers splayed, but frozen. Not moving even the slightest inch.
Anders dropped his hands to Garrett’s shoulders and squeezed the tense muscle there; he couldn’t help but use those gifts that had so often been a curse to him, and heal, with warmth and affection and encouragement.
Sometimes he forget he was the older one. Sometimes he forgot what that was supposed to mean.
It wasn’t Anders’s fault that Garrett acted so competent, so cocky, so self-sure; it wasn’t Anders’s fault that he was particularly susceptible to those displays, those gestures, the impression people gave, especially when the act itself was so convincing. He forgot, sometimes, that Garrett was good at what he did precisely to fool other people. A different kind of magic, involving monumental pretense and sometimes frighteningly accurate sleight-of-hand.
But he was young, still, and impetuous, and hesitating—probably because Anders had been so foolish as to introduce, in this moment of action, the element of doubt.
No one else belonged here, all sound relegated to a dusty corner of Anders’s no longer functioning mind, only his own quickening breaths and Garrett’s slowing ones. The air above Anders’s stomach shifted as Garrett’s fingers jumped, trembling, wanting to touch, but now less certain than he had been before.
Hesitation was a deadly instinct to have, especially when you were a mage.
‘Don’t ask me to wait,’ Anders suggested.
Garrett laughed, raspy, wet. He buried his face in Anders’s throat, the place where muscle stretched taut to his collarbone, and dropped his smooth palm to Anders’s belly, his hip, the curve of his lower back as he pushed himself into that deliciously uncomfortable position.
‘Anders,’ Garrett said.
‘Garrett,’ Anders replied.
It was the same confirmation they’d been seeking before. Anders knew his expression was befuddled, blissfully so, and he was glad Garrett couldn’t see it, vulnerable as it was, and unpredictable, probably very ugly.
‘I’m going to suck your cock, Anders,’ Garrett said then, casual, without any real ceremony—though Anders knew all this had been leading up to that offer, that Garrett was testing the waters, waiting for Anders to melt into uneven shivers. Which he did, naturally, clutching at Garrett’s broad shoulders and gasping for air. ‘…Is that a ‘yes’ or a ‘wait?’’
‘Don’t be an ass, you know what it is,’ Anders told him, breathless and incredulous at once.
‘Good,’ Garrett said. ‘Now what do you say we show those amateurs how it’s really done?’
It had been six years—six years—since Anders’s cock had gotten some attention from anything other than his own hand. He’d done himself the favor of imagining sometimes that it was Garrett’s hand against him, Garrett’s strong fingers wrapped around his length, palm callused from the rough wood of his homemade staff, but nothing his mind had conjured could ever match the reality of what it really felt like, now that it was really happening.
Garrett crawled down between his legs, leaving Anders to shiver and turn his face against his own pillow. Despite what Garrett had said—in that low tone, the promise of bright heat lying at its core like the center of a hot coal—Anders wasn’t the sort of person to cry out so easily, to let everyone know exactly what was happening in a private room between two private people.
In the Circle, circumspection was a necessity for survival. He’d gotten into the habit of being quiet not because of any sanctity he ascribed to intimate acts between two people, but simply because he didn’t want to be found out and separated from the few people he actually liked in the tower on Lake Calenhad.
Nothing killed the atmosphere faster than being walked in on by a templar. All that clanking just destroyed Anders’s libido.
Garrett steadied him with a hand against his thigh. The big muscle in Anders’s leg stiffened as he jolted, then drew in a breath, trying to relax.
Warm air puffed between his legs, just before Anders heard a distinctly familiar sound. Was Garrett laughing at him?
‘Excuse me,’ Anders said, his voice tremulous and not at all indignant the way he’d planned. ‘Was that a chuckle I heard down there? Because I don’t know what you’re in the habit of doing, but I’ll tell you now, it’s not at all encouraging.’
‘Not…laughing at you,’ Garrett said. He drew warm fingers up and down along the sensitive skin at Anders’s inner thigh. With each pass, his fingers climbed higher. Anders’s belly twisted like he’d swallowed a fireball. There were rumors in the Circle that one of the apprentices had done it once—and the poor fellow had never been the same after. ‘It’s just…you were always talking about Circle orgies—not to mention you had all those books… I always imagined bedding you would be like bedding Captain Roland the Magnificent, or Ser Thomas and his Amazing Broadsword.’
‘Oh,’ Anders groaned, and might have ended things then and there if Garrett hadn’t wrapped his thumb and forefinger around the base of Anders’s erection and squeezed. It hurt, but when he let go the resulting blood flow made Anders’s cock twitch and ache with newfound desire. He threw one arm over his face, hiding his nose against the crook of his elbow. ‘And now you know the horrible truth. I’m a dreadful liar, not at all what I seem; the consummate illusionist, really. Can we please not talk about my books right now?’
‘I hadn’t planned on talking at all, actually,’ Garrett said. Then he lifted his hands to splay Anders’s thighs against the bed, lowering his round, red mouth over the tip of Anders’s cock.
He was just as skilled as Anders had never allowed himself to imagine Garrett might be. He’d watched him disappear with a variety of handsome men over the years, templars and stableboys, the captain of the guard and one swarthy Rivaini bandit who’d been set to hang in the morning; somehow, he’d worked loose of his shackles and slipped beyond the borders of Redcliffe before dawn. Anders had watched them all over the years, mouth dry, heart in his throat, wishing to be each and every one of them, to embody the different types of handsomeness, the strong profile, the stronger jaw, the supple mouth or the rogue-fast fingers.
Now it was his turn at last, and all he could think about was the infinitesimal scrape of Garrett’s teeth, and the way Garrett’s lips looked wrapped around Anders’s cock when he lifted his head to glimpse him in the dark.
He’d watched Garrett suck an icicle into nothing in the dead of winter, once. He had a talented tongue.
‘I was…’ Anders began, and Garrett flicked his tongue lower, down along the vein, below his balls; Anders lifted his hips and bit down on his forearm, quieting himself.
Whatever he was, whatever he had been—infamous, really, the sort of fellow all the new mages were warned about, the one all the old mages asked for by name—it didn’t matter here, as Garrett’s lips teased that stretch of skin so thin and vulnerable between Anders’s ass and his dick, that one place his own fingers never reached properly, practically Maker-made for a mouth talented enough to kiss it just so. Anders’s cry of pleasure died in his throat against the bob of a rasping swallow, as Garrett took him full into his mouth, all the way to the back of his throat, stifling any chance for sound. And yet sounds came, dim, muted hums and gasps, a music and rhythm that thrummed against the length of Anders’s cock and had him thrusting, mindless, stupid, deep, when he’d known better for years, and wanted to make a good impression.
Garrett deserved better—the best, not that Anders believed himself capable of that. Maybe somewhere close, someone who didn’t grip his hair and go spineless with self-centered satisfaction. But Anders could do nothing more—at least, he did nothing less—each buck of his hips answered by a swipe of Garrett’s tongue, mouth full and sucking, hot breath against the nest of sweaty hair on pale skin above.
Anders whispered for him, reached for him, while Garrett steadied his palms on Anders’s hips; he licked his way down and dragged his way back up, and Anders wondered distantly if he’d ever thought this could happen, if he’d ever been prepared for it despite how much he’d thought about it. What would Malcolm say? Would Leandra come back to life just to slap him? Would Carver—overprotective as he was, despite being the youngest—split him open from throat to gizzard? Would Bethany ever be able to look him in the eye again?
And why was he thinking about the others now—why had he suddenly forgotten how to be selfish?
He felt the sweat-slick expanse of Garrett’s brow, raked his fingers through his hair, down over the bristling stubble of his jaw, beneath his chin, where the pulse hammered reckless at his throat. His nails dug into Garrett’s shoulders and he tried to warn him, his voice coming out small and unrecognizable; then, he surrendered, absolutely, all the way from the center out.
At least four long years of yearning, and six even longer years of trying to be good—this was the end result. Patience wasn’t in Anders’s nature; succumbing to impatience was. He’d say it was worth it, in the end, but that would be oversimplifying things a bit, and besides, he didn’t trust himself to speak.
There’d be time enough to lie boneless, brainless, even dickless later, but Anders knew better. There were some lessons he’d learned easier than others, quick recovery chief amongst them, that were supplemented now with an unexpected gift. Warden stamina.
He never thought he’d be grateful for a side-effect of Wardening in his life, but there was this, something he could offer, something he could use and, more importantly, enjoy.
Garrett was still licking his lips when Anders pulled him up into his arms, kissed him and sucked his swollen lower lip, his spit and Anders’s own spent pleasure suffusing his mouth. It had a bitter aftertaste, but the glow and the warmth and the trembling eagerness of Garrett’s body made it an unimportant side-effect of the main event, and Garrett’s hands ghosted down over his sides, taut muscles, old scars, familiar freckles, holding him at the waist and the hips, actually touching his ass, its sweet swell and tightening curve.
Garrett moaned, and Anders answered him, and then he said, his voice dangerously steady, ‘Did I ever tell you about my nickname back in the Circle?’
Garrett stilled, wary but curious, a position Anders knew well on his own terms. ‘I’ve heard some of them,’ he said finally, hoarse. ‘I take it this one’s different?’
Anders touched him at last, healer’s hand against the length of his cock, thumb against the very head, where the slit was wet and willing.
‘A little different,’ Anders admitted, and switched positions with an old dexterity, which just went to show it was impossible to forget a skill after you’d really learned it.
Afterward, bunched up in the dirty sheets, Anders realized he’d gone and ruined his Tevinter robes—which had probably been Garrett’s plan all along. He had no idea how to wash these things, sweat and semen and spit, out of silk, and the feathered shoulders were all matted, and one of the clasps at the throat had been torn asunder, the gilded thread tickling at his skin. Anders ran his fingers over it not all that regretfully, then shifted to touch Garrett’s side, rising slow and steady, then falling. His skin prickled beneath Anders’s fingertips. It was much smoother than silk from Tevinter, though the scar just beneath his thumb was rough as brocade.
‘We weren’t as loud as they were,’ he said, just a bit mournfully. He’d always been competitive, bad enough on his own but worse whenever he was with Carver.
‘That’s good,’ Anders said, ‘because it’s not as though I’d want your father to be able to hear us all the way in Amaranthine. Maker,’ he added, as the name—like a spell—conjured sudden realization, his stomach bottoming out through the mattress and the bedframe, heading downward through the floor. ‘Malcolm.’
‘I liked it much better when you were saying my name,’ Garrett muttered, only pretending to be cross. ‘Can we—for once—not bring him into it?’
‘It’s all very easy for you to say that, isn’t it?’ Anders said. ‘You’re not the one he’s going to gut like a fish. Have you seen what fishermen do, Garrett? It’s all very unappealing.’
‘Anders,’ Garrett said. He shifted like a bear waking from its slumber, butting his damp forehead against Anders’s own. ‘In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not exactly his responsibility anymore. I’m all grown up—buckling my own belt, killing my own darkspawn. And here I thought the beard was a dead giveaway.’
‘Yes, well’ Anders said, pushing Garrett’s face away. At least he meant to, but his hand faltered before he could finish what he’d started, and he ended up cupping Garrett’s jaw against his palm, beard bristling against his skin. ‘Forgive me for thinking your father might be a little protective of his firstborn son. Not to mention the fact that he took me in and gave me his trust, which I have now used to defile you.’
Garrett chuckled, drawing his lips from Anders’s temple to his cheek. He rolled his body halfway onto Anders’s and wriggled suggestively. ‘I’ve got news for you, Anders. I’ve been defiled before. Repeatedly. Sometimes twice in one night.’
‘Charming,’ Anders said, struggling to free himself and failing. It was possible—no, entirely probable—that he hadn’t been trying that hard to begin with. He sighed, settling an arm over Garrett’s back, fingers tracing the dimples over his ass, where the skin was beaded with sweat. ‘Oh, Maker. He’s going to make me leave, isn’t he? I’ll be cast out. I’m the fox in the henhouse. The fox in the Hawke house. There are feathers littering the crime scene and everything.’
‘Too many feathers on those robes anyway,’ Garrett muttered, shaking a few loose from his fingers. Anders made a noise—more like a whimper—that wasn’t quite agreement so much as it was sheer terror.
Garrett could blow it off because Malcolm was his father, and at the end of the day there would always be that bond to keep them tethered. Anders wasn’t attached by nearly so sturdy a means.
He clenched his hand tight against Garrett’s back as he shifted again, this time sitting up on his elbows. Garrett’s arms were braced on either side of Anders’s head, shoulders tense as they held him steady. He looked into Anders’s eyes, and Anders glimpsed the whole world—his very own corner of Thedas—hidden in their amber depths.
‘You don’t really think he’d make you leave, do you?’ Garrett asked. ‘Putting aside the fact that you aren’t a child anymore, you’re as much a part of the family as anyone. As much as Carver is, anyway. Besides, Father knows.’
Anders had a retort on the tip of his tongue, ready to send it crackling like lightning across the sky the moment Garrett stopped talking, but he fell silent, those two words ringing like a broodmother’s cry in his ears. Father knows.
‘Malcolm knows?’ Anders asked, his voice shooting up an octave or twelve. ‘Malcolm knows what, Garrett?’
‘About us,’ Garrett said. The look on his face was infuriatingly calm. ‘Or rather, shall we say that I was developing a rather precocious interest in you.’
‘Aha…’ Anders said. It was remarkable how Garrett could just drop these things casually into conversation and then leave them there, floating like dead bodies beneath the docks. Remarkable, too, was how difficult it was to work up a proper panic when Anders was lying on his back, weighted down beneath Garrett’s naked body. He should have been shocked and horrified, but it all felt rather…distant and unimportant at the minute. ‘You were… You spoke to your father about this?’
‘When I was eighteen,’ Garrett confirmed. He leaned in and crushed his mouth over Anders’s unexpectedly, as though all of a sudden he’d remembered what it was like to be eighteen and hungry for something. Anders certainly remembered. His entire body arced like he was a bow Garrett had decided to string, arms slipping around Garrett’s neck as he parted his lips, letting Garrett take control of the kiss.
‘Do you know what he said to me?’ Garrett asked, breathless when they parted after a minute or so.
‘Mm?’ Anders murmured helplessly.
‘He said that you would always be a part of this family,’ Garrett said, leaning up to press his lips to Anders’s forehead. ‘And if I was any sort of man worth his staff, I’d make it official before you found someone better.’
Anders wondered if Garrett had made that up—he did have a penchant for outright lying—but it seemed like something Malcolm would say. And anyway, as Garrett kissed him again, Anders decided that however much he couldn’t believe it was outweighed by how much he wanted to. For now, Warden stamina making itself useful, nothing else mattered. At least not for the rest of the night.