Sign of the Maker part five
"The thing is, Sebastian. Your word as the rightful Prince of Starkhaven would be worth more to me right now than that of a priest."
Sebastian Vael's heart seemed to pause its rhythm as he heard those words. That they were being uttered by the unlikely man sat opposite him, whose regal features suddenly seemed in stark contrast to the bawdy atmosphere of the Hanged Man inn around them, it just…
His mind reeled. If he was honest with himself, and he rarely was, these were words he'd longed to hear, weren't they? He had wished for someone to take this heart-wrenching decision away from him. He had hoped selfishly for a release from the burden of choice. When Hawke had appeared in his life, not asking too many questions, selflessly supporting the Prince's right to remain in the chantry and not take up arms and face his inheritance, Sebastian had felt a surge of relief. However, as time went on and as he saw the paths of his companions unwind around him, that nagging doubt had returned. When he looked upon a man like Anders and considered the good that even one as seemingly cast-out as he could achieve, he had to give pause for thought. Was this the only way? Had he truly made the right decision?
Elthina had once told him that there were many ways to serve the Maker, and that being stuck in a stuffy Chantry was not his only path to the divine. He hadn't listened to her. He had wanted to stay close to her. For a long time, she had been one of the only things in his life that made sense. He wanted to achieve the peace that he saw in her eyes. He wanted to stay close by her and, if his abilities were to be used for anything, protect her from harm. But what was he protecting, aside from the woman herself? His own narrow-minded ideal? A selfish vision of what he wanted to become? Maker…
Almost without knowing it, Sebastian had lowered his head into his hands. Opposite him Alistair, the King of Ferelden, shifted uneasily as he heard the darker-haired man utter a quiet moan. He knew that moan all too well. The blonde tilted his head in sympathy and looked away. He hated to do this to someone, to put someone else through what he himself had endured. Was this how it had been for Elissa, Teagan and the rest? Had his own face looked so utterly lost and unsure of itself? He supposed it must have. He saw so much of himself in the slightly younger Prince that it brought a rush of memories to the surface. While Sebastian had chosen the Chantry as his escape route, Alistair had found the Wardens. Elthina had become a mother to the exiled Prince, just as Duncan had seemed a father to the bastard son. Duncan…
Gingerly, Alistair reached out and touched the other man's shoulder in what he hoped would seem a warm and not a threatening gesture. Sebastian's head lifted slowly to respond and, Maker, those eyes. A surge of guilt wracked the blonde again before he swallowed and spoke.
"Someone once told me that I had a responsibility. For a little while I hated him for it. But he was right to tell me, and I appreciate now the courage it took for him to speak those words, knowing how little I wanted to hear them." A confused frown crossed the archer's features, but he let Alistair continue, uninterrupted, "And now it falls to me to be the one to say those words to you, Sebastian. Something big is coming. Bigger than any of the conflicts I know are raging here in Kirkwall. But Kirkwall has a Champion; Starkhaven does not. When war comes, Ferelden will need Starkhaven; and Starkhaven needs you."
Sebastian blinked and watched a drop of mead make its skittish way down the side of his tankard. His jaw was set tight, his hands fists on the table surface. Through the fog of his whirring mind he made himself focus on the face of the man opposite him; the man who, Sebastian was realising now, was not only a legend, but a living, breathing human just the same as any of them. He looked…sad. And tired suddenly.
"Words you didn't want to hear? Were you not fighting to win your crown from the usurper, Loghain?"
Alistair closed his eyes and sighed "Maker, no. Fighting darkspawn, undergoing the joining, facing an archdemon…that was all as nothing compared to the utter dread I used to feel whenever anyone got talking about the throne of Ferelden around me."
Sebastian shook his head. "I – I don't understand. Are you telling me you didn't want to be King?"
The warden-King let out a long breath before fixing a gaze on his questioner,
"I didn't. But your Maker had other plans for me. I would have been happy living out my days in the grey wardens, with Elissa at my side. Sure, it would have been dangerous, messy and horribly creepy, but it would have been my choice." Alistair leaned his elbows on the table and crossed his fingers into a temple onto which he now rested his chin. "But, we don't always have that luxury, Sebastian. I don't want to lie to you. Every day I find myself wondering whether I'm doing a good enough job; whether I'm living up to the hopes so many placed in me. Every day I face doubts and worry that I'm not good enough. But I know that there are people who believe in me. And, when I need them, they will stand with me and support me. I'm not alone, and neither are you."
Sebastian's expression was hard to read, but there was a definite note of sympathy creeping in. Sympathy was something Alistair had hoped never to see again in the eyes of someone looking at him. He was stronger, better than that now. But, he refused to lie to the young man at the same time as placing such a burden on his shoulders. The Prince had a right to know the truth. If he didn't have Vael's trust, his support was worth nothing. Elissa had taught him that much.
Those blue eyes now narrowed, a new thought occurring to the brunette,
"Why did you come here to Kirkwall?"
Alistair felt a rush of relief at the change of subject. He leaned back in his chair and allowed a smile to dance on his features again. "Ah. Originally to speak to Knight Commander Meredith. For better or worse, she is the closest thing Kirkwall has to a viscount right now. But on my journey I heard stories of this Champion of Kirkwall. Cortland Hawke's his name, yes?"
Sebastian contemplated the thought of Hawke's deeds making their way out of the city in story form. No doubt Varric had played a large part in that. He felt proud of his friend, proud to be his ally.
"Yes. And the stories are well-deserved, I warrant you."
"He intrigued me for several reasons. Courage, strength, charisma…he reminded me of my own Hero of Ferelden in those early days. And, like her, he seemed to surround himself with a bewildering mix of companions: A sassy pirate, an escaped slave, a Dalish blood-mage, an exiled Prince…"
Sebastian's jaw clamped at the mention of Merrill's blood magic. Just how much did this man know? And what would he be likely to do with the information? But before he could interject, Alistair finished his list with words that made the archer's eyes snap to his own.
"…and a runaway grey warden who, it should be noted, owes me a debt."
"You know Anders?"
Alistair chuckled "Ahhh, my sources were correct then?"
Sebastian bit down on his lip and cursed his stupidity. He had played into the King's bluff so easily. The blonde leaned forward once more, his voice firm. "I want to meet this Champion of Kirkwall. I'd also be very interested in seeing Anders."
Before he could stop himself, words were babbling out of Sebastian's mouth in defence of the apostate that surprised even him. "Anders does a lot of good here in Kirkwall. He…he saved my life. He saves dozens of lives every day. If you return him to the wardens…"
Alistair's eyes widened with surprise, and he smiled "Not the reaction to an apostate mage that I'd expect from a chantry boy like yourself, Sebastian. But then, should I be surprised? That man seems to inspire loyalty in the strangest of places."
The King seemed to be musing on something, gently nibbling a thumbnail with a thoughtful frown. Then the moment passed and he focused on Sebastian again. "Where can I find Anders? My men have had little luck getting a location out of the Ferelden citizens here in Kirkwall."
"I'm not surprised. The man's like a hero to them. From the way they treat him, I think they see him as some kind of saviour since Ferelden…" the Prince stopped himself. Or, rather, the hurt look to cross Alistair's expression stopped him. Since Ferelden what? Fell? Forced them to flee? Made no effort to get them back? "I think he's a link to what they've lost, as much as anything." He quickly added.
Alistair gave a sad smile and nodded. "And his location? Will you take me to him?"
A bead of sweat made its way down Sebastian's strong features. Why, he wondered, was he so nervous about revealing the location of a criminal to a proven hero? Whatever else Anders was, he was an escapee on two counts. And an abomination…
"I can't take you to where he does his work. It's not a suitable place for a King. But, you can often find him at…at Hawke's estate. I would gladly lead you there."
A flash of understanding made Alistair's eyebrows raise ever-so-slightly, his lips parting in surprise. "The plot thickens." He mused. "I'm not one for caring about suitability, Sebastian. I do want to visit Hawke and will gladly follow you there. But I want to see the work Anders does. No, I - I need to see it."
The archer gave a nod, and finished the last of his drink. Placing his palms on the tabletop he stood, dipping his head to the still-seated King.
"It is late. I'll meet you here tomorrow at noon. I'll take you to Darktown."
Seeing the armoured man's discomfort, Alistair tried to look as reassuring as he could. "I'm not going to steal him away from people who need him, I can promise you that much."
A nod was his response, and seemed to be the last reaction he'd receive from the Prince before Sebastian paused in his departure and turned his head so that his thoughtful profile could be seen over an armoured shoulder. "It has been an honour meeting you, and I am grateful. Forgive me if I seem distracted. You have given me a lot to think about."
And he was gone.
Alistair closed his eyes for a few seconds before standing and making his own way out of the inn, pulling his cloak around him as he did so. When he was safely away from the Hanged Man, with the night winds of Kirkwall caressing his face, he allowed himself to stop. Bracing himself against the wall of a building with one arm, he let his head dip as his second hand gave the wall a small, but frustrated punch. A shape from the shadows came forward, his voice low.
"How did it go, Alistair?"
The blonde grit his teeth and let his head now also rest wearily against the wall with a sigh "Fine, Teagan. It went just fine."
The red-headed man next to him folded his arms across his chest and raised an eyebrow. "But?..."
His King stood and turned, so that his back now rested where his forehead had been moments before "But, Elthina didn't know quite everything it seems. Maker, this is going to be even harder than I thought."
Teagan smiled fondly and clapped a hand to the younger man's shoulder "No one ever said being King would be easy, Alistair."
"No," agreed the young man with the weight of a war on his shoulders "No, they didn't, did they?"
Morning crept into Hawke's bedroom at a lazy pace.
Beams of sunlight found their way through a small gap in heavy, velvet drapes and danced playfully over the two figures in the bed. The darker-haired of the two opened his eyes first, and Cortland allowed himself a grateful smile as he realised he wasn't alone. Anders was nestled against his side, one arm slung lazily over Hawke's chest, the other bent sharply at the elbow and pressed close to his own body, fingers curling softly against parted lips where his head was dipped low to meet them. His lashes cast shadows on high and worryingly prominent cheekbones, and the sharp angles of his jaw were covered with the beginnings of a beard that illustrated how little time he was able to spend on himself these days, but – to Cortland – he was the most beautiful of sights. As a ray of sunlight caught blonde hair that fanned seductively over white pillows, Hawke turned his body carefully so that the sleeping form in his arms snuggled into his chest. He allowed a hand to stroke the mage's hair and brought his lips to his forehead, where he let them rest. If he could keep this moment, remember this feeling, he didn't need anything else.
Hawke had no idea when he had finally managed to fall asleep the night before. Torturous thoughts had wracked his mind after Anders's breakdown. Champion of Kirkwall he may be, but at that moment, when Anders had been shaken and scared, he had felt utterly helpless. There was nothing he could do to soothe injuries he couldn't see. No enemy he could run through with a blade to ease a memory. He had been relieved that the mage had agreed to stay the night. If all Hawke could offer right now was a warm bed, he needed to give that much. His anger over the distance between them in the past weeks had dissolved into a hopeful sadness.
Perhaps the worst had passed? Perhaps this had been playing on the apostate's mind, and the cave-in had served to bring to the surface something that had been creating the silence, the disquiet in his lover? Perhaps Justice had now learned enough of his host's past to allow him his future?
Hawke let his hold on the warm body in his arms tighten as he looked past the blonde head and towards the window. Sebastian, please have patience with him. Please listen to what he cannot tell me. Heal him.
Anders's eyes fluttered and opened, his head tilting up so that Hawke's lips found themselves on the end of the mage's nose. The blonde-haired man smiled, his eyes bright for a moment, and then – so clearly that Cortland could almost see the thought process – he remembered. Reluctantly, Anders disengaged from Cortland's embrace and sat up, rubbing his eyes.
…And Hawke's heart broke just a little bit more.
His booted feet pounded the cobbles, white knuckles gripping the staff in his hands. Space, quiet…somewhere away from people. He found what he was looking for in an alley below the elven alienage; an empty, dark place where he could feel completely alone. Images of Hawke's sad eyes, Hawke's warm arms, gave him strength for the confrontation he was about to have. Anders steeled himself and fell inward, facing the spirit companion whose own thirst he now knew had been eating away at his body and soul.
You slept. I'm glad
Of course. You need your strength
"For what? What more would you have me do?"
You will continue what we have started, old friend
"No. No, I won't. I know what you're making us become. I'm ending this course of action. You need to let me live my life and make my own choices."
…I don't understand. At your hands, mages will have their revenge. The circle will –
"Not like this! Not this, Justice! I am so, so sorry for what I have done to you; what my own anger has done to you. But we have stepped dangerously close to a line I am not willing to cross. Not for you, not for me."
You would let suffering continue? Are you still the man I knew?
"I will not. And I am. I am a man who will continue to fight, but I am not a man who will end innocent lives. And I am not a man who can cope with this alone any more. I can't watch him hurting as our path takes me further from him. I need…
You need his love. His bed. Comforts denied to the many mages you claim you would save…
"Shut up! Stop it!" Anders was on his knees, clutching his head, angry blue veins of light criss-crossing his skin as he fought internally. "It's not wrong for me to want that! Damnit all, I deserve that! I weep for those who can't have it, and I will give all of myself to make a world where they can…but I won't give the lives of others."
The lives of chantry drones…your words. The lives of ignorant, blinkered people…your thoughts…
"My words and my thoughts are those of a human, Justice! They can be wrong. I can be wrong."
The priest's words have softened your resolve.
"No. My resolve is as strong as it ever was. But he showed me that people can be reasoned with. That people might listen. We have other options. I want to try them."
And your human companion. You trust his sword and his tongue. Enough to challenge me on this?
"Yes. And I won't make him suffer any more. I will continue our fight, Justice, believe me. But you're killing me. You're…killing me." His head met the cobbles, his body a ball on the floor pulsing with a blue light that almost threatened to engulf his frame. Then, the pulsing slowed, the blue shifted.
…I…don't want that.
Anders huffed, gasping for breath. "I know you don't. I know, old friend."
What will you do?
"I'm going to remove what we put in the chantry. Tonight. Our fight will continue, and we can trust in Hawke to be right there with us. But we are not cold-blooded killers, you and I. We are better than that."
I saw what they did to you.
"I know." A pause. Anders allowed himself to relax just slightly. He let his staff rest on the ground, grateful that he hadn't needed to use it. "But what you saw, that's a personal memory. It's something I need to deal with. If I let that memory fuel our anger into doing something unspeakable, then I am no better than those who would destroy all mages because of the actions of the few."
And you would turn to your enemy for help with this?
"You mean Sebastian? Yes, I think we have a chance to convince him of the faults in the circle with my story. I can finally unburden, and he will see, as he wanted to. I don't think he needs to be an enemy to us. Do you understand that? I need you to let me have that release. I need you to let those memories rise. If we can't make him understand, we will fail. This is a better way."
Justice was silent for a long while, as Anders let his breathing steady, straightening hair that he had practically ripped from his head moments earlier. Then the mage felt a strong wave of regret, and, for once, it wasn't his own.
I…I am ashamed.
"No. No, you shouldn't be. My hands are to blame for what we nearly did, not yours."
I have no hands
Anders grinned, feeling underused muscles coming back to life. "That's true."
"Are you alright down there? Anders? Is that you?"
A shrill, familiar voice was calling from the stairwell above where the mage now sat, leaning back on his hands, his legs sprawled out in front of him. He let his head fall back so that his face looked up into Merrill's, as she leaned over the railings.
"Merrill! I'm fine. In fact, I'm better than I have been in a long time."
Bare feet carried her nimble frame down the stairs and to his side as he continued to grin, enjoying the sensations that now washed over him. A weight had been lifted from his shoulders, one that had been playing on his mind for so long. He would not follow that darkest of paths. He would do the right thing with what the Grey Wardens had left him of his life. He would do it his own way. He felt a sudden desire to show his companions just how much they all meant to him, how much he wanted to stay in their midst. Varric, he mused, maybe Varric would appreciate that cushion, the one his mother had embroidered…
"Do you really feel fine?" Merrill laced an arm under Anders's own as she hefted her weight against his larger frame to get him to his feet."Because, by the dread wolf, you look terrible."
The apostate broke out of his daydream to glance down at himself. His robes were drenched, tears and rips had appeared in the places where Justice's light had been the strongest. The spirit had almost ripped him in two with his force.
"It looks bad, but really – I'm fine, thank you." He smiled at the confused elf "You're a good friend, Merrill."
Merrill shook her head and sniffed "Funny, you don't smell drunk. Come on, let's get you to my house. I'll fix you something to drink before we get you back to your clinic. I hope you like water."
Anders giggled, giddy from his relief, and allowed himself to be lead by the small mage. Hawke, he thought, thank you for your patience. Justice and I…we spoke. And we're going to do this your way, Hawke. Your way. The right way.
Justice stayed quiet, as Anders and Merrill entered her home.
Not so far away, the King of Ferelden waited for the clock in his rooms to strike midday, his face grim. His hands fidgeted with a locket he wore around his neck as he willed his mind back to Ferelden and to his wife. Back to the reason he was here. He had to stay strong. He was a King now, after all.
You won't forgive me for what I'm about to ask of you, Anders. But you're the only person I can turn to.