The light of Ishal's beacon, blazing against the chaos as blood rained down around him, would be a sight forever etched into the mind of Carver Hawke. That day, on the red fields of Ostagar, he had become a man. He had fought alongside good men and women, many of whom he had then watched cut down before him. Despite the betrayal and the horrors that came after it, that momentary light had cut through the death. Carver could remember looking up at the remote tower, his heart bursting with the knowledge that a few of their own had made it through. It had been a short lived hope for them all, but the power of that moment had never diminished.
He had fled Ostagar when it had all fallen down. Like so many others, he had been forced to. And the maturity forged in him by the horrors he'd experienced had been quickly stripped from him by the life he had run back to. Where days before he'd been a soldier, a warrior, he was quickly demoted to being a little brother once more; a boy. He had stood patiently (sort of) at his brother's side as their Mother and their sister had been stolen from them. He had joined Cortland's hair-brained schemes, tried to integrate with the band of misfits they'd gathered around themselves – in some cases he'd even succeeded – and, all the time, he found himself watching and wondering. How had he come from the fields of Ostagar to this? Why was he in the shadows of a man who had failed to keep their own family alive? Who had failed to protect their new home from the enemy who had shared his very bed? There was no denying the love he felt for his brother, despite it all. But was love enough?
He had been in a daze since Cullen had dispatched him yesterday, on Aveline's orders. Cullen - unlike his brother - was a man who had earned Carver's respect. Aveline Vallen had stood fierce with Carver on the fields of Ostagar, and had since done nothing but risen in his estimation. Both had taken him under their wings; had believed in him after Kirkwall had fallen, where his damned brother had barely sent word. How Carver wished that they and his brother were still standing side by side now, as they had been facing the common enemy that Meredith had become. How he wished Kirkwall was still standing at all.
“He's ready for you, ser Knight.”
Leliana smiled and gestured towards a heavy door in Denerim's inner chambers. Carver stood and offered her a nervous smile. Nightingale. With a small cough, he straightened his buckles, swept a hand through his hair and knocked; his mind still unmade. Behind that door sat King Alistair. Not only King of Ferelden. Not only a man who had charmed his brother's entourage back in Kirkwall...
He was the man who had lit Ishal's beacon. He had been the light that, for a brief moment, had pierced the darkness of Ostagar.
The unappreciative grunt at his side as Fenris waved off yet another breathless follower of the Hand only caused Varric Tethras to smile. He sipped at the wine he himself had been handed and wondered at the stubbornness of the elf next to him. Fenris's insistence on scowling at the followers had several times left him bereft of the gifts they offered, and Varric could predict the elf's next words as if they were his own.
“Give me a sip of that, would you?”
Varric shrugged “Why should I? You just turned away your own goblet.”
If Fenris had possessed pockets, Varric rather expected that the man's hands would be plunged into them in that moment. For a person as powerful and at times terrifying as Fenris was, he did look amusing when he sulked. “I don't understand why you don't just accept what they offer, whitey. We may not be long for this world, for all we know. Enjoy what you can.”
He could practically feel Fenris's stare. “You'll forgive me if I don't feel comfortable with these people fawning around us. They act like slaves, running around after our every need.”
“My understanding,” Varric spoke slowly, “is that slaves are divested of choice. These people are here because they believe in our cause. They believe in us. They believe in the Hand. They are here because they want to be. Tell me how that makes them slaves.”
Fenris let out a long breath and shook his head. “Forget it. Maybe they're not slaves then. Just fools. Either way, I'm not here to be fawned over. We're here to fight a war.”
Varric spluttered a laugh “Maker, would you lighten up? Or I'm apt to stop enjoying your company. We'll be fighting for these people. We'll probably die for them. So what if they want to offer a few trinkets and the odd glass of wine in return.”
“Yes, well – it's not really us that they're offering them to, is it.” Fenris growled as they passed a makeshift altar, around which several children danced. “They just want to be acknowledged by The Hand.”
“Ahhh. You are so damned easy to read it's not even sport.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You would have chewed your own glowing arm off to be the saviour of the oppressed, right? But Blondie is – let's face it – a little more eloquent. And less likely to rip people's beating hearts from their chests for looking at him funny. He won them over and all we can do is follow. That really pisses you off, doesn't it.”
Silence from the elf. A silence that would have had Varric laughing long and loud had they not been distracted by Tallis moving as if to pass them with speed. “Hey, Tallis. You on the move? Looking for our next meal?”
The rogue stopped, her eyes still darting even though her body was still. “Oh, I wish I was off on a hunt for food, believe me. But not this time.”
Varric felt Fenris tense next to him. “What's going on?”
“An ambassador has just landed at the coast. I'm on a diplomacy mission.”
“Oh yeah?” Varric raised his brows in interest. “Who is it? They too good to come to our door?”
“I'll give you a hint. They're big, they're scary and they follow the Qun.”
Fenris's eyes flashed. “They mean to join us?”
“Or kill us. I'll let you know in about two hours.” Tallis gave no sign of the conflict she must have been feeling.
“Hawke isn't sending you alone, is he?” Varric looked around for any other council members. With ever new faces joining them every day, it was getting hard to keep track.
Tallis smiled broadly now. “Oh no. I'm not alone, but I'm probably our best chance of convincing them. Though...” She looked around herself “I should probably slow down a little. Golems don't move that fast.”
Before the 'Gol-?' had left Fenris's open mouth, they heard, as much as saw, Tallis' partner-in-diplomacy appear from between a set of trees. The golem in question dropped something on the floor, shook branches from its shoulders, and jogged a few paces to where they stood; sending a few followers scattering in awe. “My apologies. Shall we move on?”
“Sure, Shale.” Tallis glanced at the thing left broken on the path “Just as soon as you stop veering off course to kill every bird that glances your way.”
The Golem, Shale, looked over its shoulder and shrugged. “It was looking at me funny, beastly sky rodent.”
Varric and Fenris met each other's gaze as Tallis and Shale finally moved off to meet and greet with a people who could become one of the Hand's greatest allies or their worst enemies. Yes, new faces were appearing daily, it seemed.
Though, Varric considered as he handed his wine goblet silently to Fenris, they had to remember that they still had friends still unaccounted for. Friends who would be making tough decisions, wherever they were right now.
Carver's visit had been short. Inspiring. Conflicting. Once, his biggest conflict had been the love he felt for his Father and sister against the danger he felt that their magic put them all in. He had been willing to walk the line. Ever ready to protect the people he loved, but unable to block out the knowledge that their own choices and abilities were what put them in the line of fire in the first place.
He felt the line beneath his feet now. He had felt it since Kirkwall. Now it was sharp.
He sat in Denerim's inn, refreshing himself before his journey. His head as confused as it had ever been. Alistair's wise words contrasting his heart's every pulse. He nearly leapt out of his skin when a hand clapped him on the back. “You look like you're carrying a heavy load there, kiddo. You remind me of a friend of mine. Several friends of mine, actually. Hells, maybe all of'em.”
The man, or dwarf, who sat on the empty space next to him had fiery red hair and an all-consuming beard. He wasted no time in glugging down bellyfuls of ale while Carver had only sipped meekly at his own drink. Carver waited, assessed. He took in the dwarf's clothing, the axe he wore.
“You're Oghren.” He finally decided out loud.
The dwarf grinned and held out a calloused hand. “That I am, kiddo. I sometimes forget how damned famous I am.”
“I know a lot about you,” Carver smiled thinly at the legend sat real before him. “He used to talk about you and your friends a lot. I could recognise you from description of your alcoholic breath alone. And he wasn't wrong there.”
Oghren let out a belly laugh and thumped the table in amusement. “Bwahaha, I gotta keep some alcohol on my breath. What else am I gonna drink when I'm far from the nearest inn? Who's been talking me up to you then, lad? Don't tell me you just had a visitation with our dear King Alistair. He knows me too well. Good lad though. I'd follow him to the ends of the earth.”
Carver's expression soured a little. The dwarf had to have noticed. “I did, actually. But no...Anders used to talk about you.” He lowered his voice as he said the name, fearful of the reaction it could draw here. “That damned apostate used to talk about his old friends so much he never had time to find out about his new ones.”
Oghren had stopped laughing. He looked oddly serious behind his beard. “You call yourself a friend of Anders the mage?”
“No.” Carver quickly corrected his new companion. “No. I was. Maybe. For a time. But we mostly pissed each other off.”
Oghren laughed again at that, but it was a wistful laugh, laced with a sadness. “Sounds like a friend to me. He and I used to piss each other off all the time too. Had fun doing it though.” He wiped foam from his lips. “Old times.” It seemed that those two words were all that Oghren cared to say on the matter and he quickly changed the subject – for which Carver was grateful.
“So – you're the Knight captain from Kirkwall I heard so much about this morning, right? Brother to that Hawke fellow? I don't envy you your position, kiddo. I don't. Where's Al sending you? Back to Kirkwall? A post here in Denerim? Warden's keep? Or to Starkhaven, maybe? You and that Princeling go back a ways, am I right?”
“None of the above.” Carver drew a breath, downed his beer in one, and replaced the tankard harshly. “I'm off to see the council of the Hand.”
Oghren had no words. He clapped Carver on the back again, took a smaller gulp of ale, and whistled softly.