Tomorrow came, and with it two Dalish with breakfast and a set of shackles. After the one had been eaten and the other affixed to his wrists, they led him out of his tent and into the bright sunlight of a crisp, clear autumn morning. The grass was dewy and cold under his bare feet, but he didn't mind that small discomfort. It was noted and stored away as a sign of how far the seasons had progressed. It seemed to him that there was a large portion of this last summer he could not quite remember- when had it started? How had it passed him by almost unnoticed? Had he really been this dead to the world?
But he stopped wondering soon enough. Outside for the first time, he did his utmost to take in his surroundings and commit them to memory. The clan had settled on the crest of a hill- how high, he was unable to tell, as trees to both sides blocked his view of the hillsides and the land beyond. His tent seemed to be set more or less in the middle of the camp, which put a long, meandering trail of aravells and other tents on the south and north side of it, but there was not much room to settle otherwise, as the hill began to slope down east and west a mere few feet from the outermost building.
The remains of old stone buildings dotted the narrow space here and there, the more intact of which had been cunningly integrated in Dalish mobile architecture. It was interesting, he had to admit, but not of much use to him, and so he went on scanning the elves themselves, instead.
It was a strong clan; many, well-armed hunters, healthy-looking people, a lot of children. Many of them watched him with open mouths and pointing fingers as he was being led through the camp. The adults were more discreet in their staring, but stare they did, and he made a point of holding every pair of eyes that caught his own for as long as he could. The times when he had flinched from every look were past. It was a meagre triumph, to find that most eyes were hastily averted when his gaze met them, but he would not be choosy as far as small victories went.
They came at last to a place where the hilltop widened enough to allow for a kind of square, formed by tents and aravells and holding what had to be most of the clan's population. Fenris found himself forced to reestimate their numbers. This clan was far larger than he'd thought; large enough that it would soon have to split up and form two smaller clans, if survival was to be ensured. So many elves would eat the countryside bare; it was a credit to their Keeper that every last one of them looked so well-fed and was so well clothed.
And, apparently, every last one was allowed to witness the trial the witch and he were to be given. He should have guessed.
As his guards pushed back the throng of elves that blocked their path and led him into the middle of the square, he caught sight of Merrill standing in front of the stump of a once-enormous tree, a pair of guards flanking her as well, her hands free, and an iron collar gracing her slender neck. She looked thinner than he remembered, tired and pale, yet she stood with head held high, slim shoulders squared. The pale light of the late autumn sun seemed to shine through her ivory skin, throwing delicate shadows along her throat. A soft wind stirred her short hair, blowing it across her forehead.
Green eyes were the only spots of color in this white-and-black face, catching the light and reflecting it like summer leaves, warm and fresh at the same time.
She was beautiful.
But he had no time to follow that train of thought right then. The moment he and his guards halted beside the other trio, the elvhen crowd parted to make way for the Keeper and the clan's elders to pass through. They did so in a solemn procession, stepping onto the big round of the tree stump, lining themselves up in a half-circle. Then with precious little ceremony, Merrill was ushered into their midst, and the trial began.
After it was all over, he would be surprised by how little he actually remembered of it. There was invoking of the Creators, and swearing of vows, and telling of ancient elvhen lore, of course, but he didn't listen to any of it. Merrill was made to tell her story- again, he supposed- and she did not hesitate a second as she began to relate the tale of her obsession with the cursed mirror. Her voice was low, but strong, never wavering; and looking up to her standing above him, watching her calm, set face even through the most harrowing passages of her story, he felt his perception of her shift once more. This wasn't a girl facing scrutiny, defending herself against accusation. Up there stood a woman, and she was taking full responsibility for a crime she had committed, even knowing it would mean her death.
His lips twisted into a wry little smile. Isabela's kitten had grown into a cat, it seemed.
Then Merrill fell silent; her sentence was pronounced: Death by the arrow, come dawn the next day; and she was pushed off the dais. Their looks caught and held for a second, he gave her a curt nod, and then lost sight of her as he took her place.
His own trial was mercifully short, the end predetermined from the start. He stepped back down from the old tree stump a man sentenced to death, with only one day left to live.
Merrill walked like someone in a dream, not even seeing the crowd that parted before her, or the ground beneath her feet, or the door to her prison that opened before her for the darkness within to swallow her once more. She must have moved to her furs and sat down there, because that's where she found herself, safely shackled by the ankle once more.
She lifted her hands to rub at her face, then straightened and drew in a deep breath, and it felt like the first breath in years.
"So this is it.", she murmured softly to herself.
"It does seem so."
She started. A moment ago she would have denied that anything would be able to startle her ever again, but this voice- this well-known, deep, rough, low voice did. It was dark in her prison room, as it always was at day, and she couldn't see him until he moved, putting his back to the door, when slivers of light outlined his tall, slim frame and put a silver glint in his hair.
There was no reply, only the slight rustle of clothing as he approached, then the added rustle of furs someone was sitting down on. He was close now, close enough for her to stretch out her hand and touch him. And she wanted to touch him, to reassure herself that he was real, to reassure him that she was real, to anchor them both, because she felt so light-headed still she might have been floating.
She didn't, though. She kept her hands carefully folded in her lap and said, "I'm sorry."
"What for?" Her eyes were getting used to the darkness. Now she could see his own green eyes flicking up to her as he spoke, glittering sharp like glass shards. Just like the shards of the eluvian.
"All of this."
"As well you should." His tone wasn't cold, but it was not sympathetic, either. He was stating a fact because he felt it had to be stated. It had taken her so long to get used to this part of him, the part that would tell about the atrocities he had suffered at the hands of his master with an impassive face and level voice, the part that neither sought nor offered pity, and threw it back into the faces of those who offered it to him. She had been one of them, at the beginning. Then her pity had turned to exasperation, then to anger. She had felt offended by his constant rebuffing her every attempt to be nice to him.
How little she had understood him.
"Do you regret it?"
"No." And it was true. "I don't regret that it has come to this. Everything else, yes, but not this. I should have paid the price, then, not her. It's only right that I pay now."
She could feel him nodding softly. Her gaze had dropped to her fingers, and knowing nothing more to say, she felt silent; so did he.
A day and a night. That was all the time left to her, and she could think of nothing to say. Silently, in the cover of the darkness, she smiled to herself at that. Words had never been her strong suit, she always had too many of them and too little to say. It was better like this. This silence was not meant to be filled with inane chatter...
There was no way to measure the passing of time in the dark vault. The bit of light slipping past the door was not enough to go by, and only when it faded entirely did Merrill know that evening had broken outside. Soon after that, two Dalish entered with her lit brazier, and she blinked in the sudden glare, as it seemed to her.
The clan elves retreated, the door was locked and bolted once more, and they were alone again. Merrill scooted closer to the fire and its welcome warmth, rubbing her arms to chase away the chill that had begun to settle in her bones.
Fenris did not immediately join her there; he took advantage of the light to walk along the walls of the prison and inspect them. If he did this because he actually retained hope of escape or just to banish thoughts of what awaited them tomorrow, she could not guess, but whatever it was, the attempt was aborted after two rounds around the room and he moved to sit at right angles to her beside the brazier. She noted that his hands were shackled, still, his wrists rubbed raw by the metal, but if this caused him pain, he did not show it.
"And to think that I only wanted to save some humans." She chuckled softly; it seemed so far away now. Almost like a dream.
"So they were real?", Fenris asked, his voice sounding slightly laconic.
"Oh yes, they were. I don't have enough imagination to make up a thing like that. And I guess I did save them; from you, at least." She drew her knees to her chest and placed her cheek upon them, looking at him. From this angle, he looked even more horribly haggard than when she had met him in the woods. The wound, their flight, and the subsequent healing had taken a lot out of him.
"One small thing to be thankful for, then.", he stated drily. She chuckled again. "They probably aren't. They don't know how lucky they were."
"Lucky indeed." He looked back at her, his dark green eyes inscrutable. "I would have killed them without second thought. In fact, I'm still not sure why I didn't just kill you, then and there."
For some reason, that made her smile. "You're asking me? I never did understand you, Fenris. But it would have been the better thing to do, too; look where letting me live got you." For a moment, the unfairness of it all squeezed her heart so tight she couldn't get a word out. She pressed her forehead against her knees and waited with held breath until she felt sure of her control over her own voice once more.
"It's not fair. There's always someone else paying for my mistakes." Surreptitiously wiping her eyes on her trouser legs, she looked up again and ran a hand through her loosely falling hair. It was just becoming a nuisance, but she guessed that wouldn't matter by tomorrow morning. "You know, the thing that I regret most is my dragging you into this. I do seem to visit disaster on everyone I" care about "... know."
"It is your very own special talent." He was smirking, in that way he had; you had to look close to spot it, but it was there, in the twist of his mouth and the lift of his eyebrows. Merrill did not know if she wanted to slap him more than she wanted to laugh, or if she wanted to laugh more than she wanted to cry. Or kiss him. Or all of them.
She coughed a little.
"You seem so calm about all of this. Is that because you really are, or is it just the usual Fenris way of dealing with things?" A year ago, she wouldn't have dreamed about asking him a thing like this. A year ago, she had been someone different; he had been someone different. She wasn't afraid of him anymore.
"A bit of both, I guess." A year ago, such a reply would have been unthinkable; a few days ago, it would have been unthinkable. "I don't regret it. Certainly not the drunken tramp I'd become." Again, that twist of his lips. She did laugh, then, a soft, sad sound.
"Oh Mythal, I'm going to hear about this even as Falon'din guides us through the Beyond, aren't I?"
She reached over and gave him a push. It rocked him softly, but probably only because he allowed it to. He smirked again; she smiled back.
"But I don't intend to die here."
She stared at him.
"Not when I just started living again..."
Her mouth might have dropped open at that, she wasn't sure. Too busy fighting down the flock of butterflies in her belly and the telltale heat in her cheeks. His look was trained on her as he said this, so matter-of-factly, and she felt so foolish for having such a reaction to such a statement. And now he was inclining his head, raising his eyebrow in bewilderment, and she blushed to the tips of her ears and looked down at her toes.
"That... won't be easy. I mean, escaping. From here. With the guards and... all." If her blush could have gotten any hotter, it would have. Get a grip and stop stammering, Merrill!
"No. That is why I am going to need your help."
It could get hotter, after all. And it did.
"What... what do you need me to do?", she asked of her toes.
"To trust me."
Wh... what? Oh Mythal, her ears were going to burst into flame. But she somehow managed to look him in the eye and form a straight sentence: "What... How dangerous is this going to be, exactly?"
"If it works? Not at all. If it doesn't? No more dangerous than the two arrows out there with our names written on them. But you will still have to trust me to know what I am doing. Can you do that?" His eyes on her were carefully guarded, yet intent; and, feeling that she couldn't do any less for getting him into this mess in the first place, she nodded.
"Not now. Too early. We'll have to wait until most of the clan are sleeping. That means early morning. And talking about sleeping, you had best try and get a wink as well. I am going to need you rested."
Merrill couldn't help smiling weakly at that. "I doubt I can get any, now."
"Try." He got up and started wandering around the room again. She followed him with her eyes, settling down slowly on her side on the furs, obedient to his wish. Try she would, but she wasn't hopeful about the result.
"Shouldn't you try to sleep as well?"
His steps slowed behind her. "I did. For days. You look like you have not slept since those scouts found us."
She couldn't argue with that. It was mostly true, after all. So she simply curled up and closed her eyes, and tried to relax, which was easier than it should have been with Fenris pacing around her, and knowing what he wanted to do, as well as knowing what awaited them tomorrow if his plan failed, and darkness was coming up really fast to swallow her, all of a sudden...
Something was prodding her. She swatted at it, and met only air.
"Witch. Wake up."
"Mmmmph..." But she had just fallen asleep, hadn't she? It couldn't have been more than a few minutes, why was Fenris shaking her awake alread...
She was suddenly very awake. Equally green eyes met, one pair startled, one confused. He was crouching over her, very close, and his hand was on her shoulder. It was warm, and firm, devoid of the metal that normally encased it, and its touch must have been burning a hole into her clothing. She blushed, yet again; his eyebrows rose, his eyes following his own arm down, and his hand was withdrawn hastily as if he had just then noticed.
A sort of madness took hold of her then. And if her life hadn't been about to end, she would never have dared what she now did, grabbing his arm as he drew it back, pulling him toward her while she sat up, succeeding probably only because she had taken him by surprise with this move, and kissing him.
At least it was supposed to be a kiss, if she'd had any remotely clear plan at all. It ended up with her lips mashed against the corner of his mouth and her nose bumping against his cheek, and it lasted all of a second before she propelled herself backward out of his immediate reach, blushing head to toe and embarrassed beyond speaking. The Dalish won't have to kill you now, a wry thought spoke up in her head.
But the anticipated reaction did not come, that is, Fenris lighting up and crushing her heart in his fist. What came instead was:
"What... was that?" Fenris sounded utterly dumbfounded. She couldn't muster the courage to look up and see if he looked that way, as well.
"I... I'm sorry, I shouldn't have..." Her voice, tiny to begin with, dwindled into nothingness. She hung her head. Of all the stupid mistakes...
"Stop stammering and answer me, witch." Now that was unexpected. Merrill unclenched her jaw and said the first thing that came to mind. "A kiss."
She could have slapped herself immediately afterward. Fenris' voice sounded drier than sand.
Mythal, she was making such a fool of herself. Again.
"I... well, I... thought just in case this doesn't work, I wouldn't like to die... unkissed..." This at least sounded a lot better than "I wasn't thinking at all."
There was a pause. Then: "You've never...?"
"Not counting Isabela."
He snorted softly, and that gave her the courage to raise her eyes again. And to pose the second incredibly stupid question within the span of two minutes.
"Have you ever...?"
She must have caught him off-guard, because usually he guarded his emotions better. His wince shut her up. Biting her lip, she stared at him, a feeling of guilt settling in her stomach like a lead weight. There was just no way, even for her, to misinterpret the way his eyes flicked away, the way his mouth set and his shoulders tensed, the way his shackled hands clenched into fists for the briefest of moments.
"Not in a way that counts." His bitter grin was a terrible sight.
Merrill could have slapped herself.
She had seen Danarius. Just by chance (and Wicked Grace), she had been in the Hanged Man the day Fenris' past, in the form of his old master, caught up with him. And now, seeing him like this, several things she had noted and stored away about the man suddenly made sense. How he'd pegged Hawke's defense of the warrior as jealousy, and his odd comment about Fenris' "talents". The way his cold eyes swept up and down his former slave's body. Add to that Isabela's random comment about bodyguards being always at hand, and several things she had seen around the Alienage, and the picture that came to mind was almost enough to turn her stomach.
And make her really, really angry.
"I hate that man!", she spat, with feeling.
He chuckled weakly. When his eyes met hers, the haunted look was gone from them. "I appreciate the sentiment. And now... weren't we planning a break-out?" And that fast, he was back to business, pushing up from the ground, as if nothing had happened. At least he would have seemed so to anyone not noticing how his hands curled into fists to stop their shaking. She decided to do the same, though she knew it would occupy her thoughts for quite some time.
Folding her legs under her, she focused on the present. "Will you tell me what you're planning?"
She bit her lip. Well, it was almost worthy of a Hawke plan.
"Alright. Let's do this." She breathed in deep, and bared her neck to him. For the briefest of moments, nothing at all happened, and she almost started to think he would not do it after all, but then blue-white light spilled around her as his tattoos activated, and her heart skipped a beat and started thundering in her chest like a panicked halla running away. Her hands dug into the fur she was sitting on, and she noticed that her eyes were closed, but she didn't need to see to know how close his ghostly hand hovered to her throat. Fingers without substance pushed past her skin, and she shuddered, his hand was inside her throat and if he chose to solidify now and kill her, there was nothing she could do. She waited, with baited breath, not daring to move.
There was a tug at the back of her neck, a soft chink of breaking metal, and the necklace warding her from the Fade was gone. It returned with a vengeance, nearly sweeping her away in its embrace, and for a moment she feared she was going to get lost in the flood overwhelming her senses. It was all she could do to hold on to anything solid within reach, and weather the storm.
Then it was over, and she very nearly fainted.
"I don't want to do this again. Ever.", she murmured, only realizing she had said that aloud when Fenris answered her. "With any luck, you won't have to. Are you all right, witch?"
She hoped so, she really did. Drawing in a shaky breath, she reached out for the Fade again. This time she was prepared for the roil of her magic, seperated from its place of origin for days, and she gripped its strands and started to weave with them.
Vines burst from the floor all around them. There was a gasp that didn't come from her throat, and she reeled to realize that Fenris was as afraid of her magic as she was of his powers. How had she never seen this before?
It almost slipped away from her then, but she forced herself to concentrate, directing the vines to grasp at the shackles binding both her foot and Fenris' hands. They wove under and around them, crushing the iron with the strength inherent to all green and growing things. Merrill felt exhilarated. It was hard to let go of her magic, it was pushing her, demanding she do more, wanting to be spent, but she crushed it down with a will.
Fenris was on his feet as soon as the shackles fell off of him, crossing over to the door, still rubbing his wrists. They were red and raw, but not bleeding, thankfully. She got up to follow him, positioning herself where she could be heard outside. This next part was going to demand a bit of acting, and she felt like a fool as she opened her mouth and started to cry out for help. Fenris cut in with an example of the most vicious bit of swearing and threatening she had ever heard, his markings lighting up to bathe the walls in flickers of blue. Real fear leaped in to lend an edge of desperation to her voice as she pleaded with her virtual attacker to stop, but when she caught the smirk on Fenris' face, it was all she could do not to burst out laughing hysterically.
The door burst open. The guards piled in, swords drawn, saw her standing there alone in the middle of the room, and paused just long enough for Fenris to grab the first one by the front of his jerkin, wrench the weapon from surprised fingers, and whack the other one over the head with the hilt. He folded up. The first guard jumped up from where he had landed on the floor, but before he'd gone so much as a step towards Fenris, Merrill stretched out a hand and stone erupted from the floor to encase him head to foot. His scream of frustration was cut short when the sword hilt connected with his own temple, and Merrill let him go gently to land on the floor in a heap.
And that fast, they were free.
A shared grin passed between them, reckless on his part, rather shaky on hers. Fenris strode over to her, grabbed her arm and hauled her along outside, into a cold, damp, overcast night. He closed the door behind them and looked around, though there wasn't much he would be able to see until his eyes had adjusted to the darkness. Standing still, Merrill with a thumping heart and shivering in the sudden cold, they waited until shapes began to form in the gloom. Then Fenris' hand closed around her arm again and he tugged on it, wanting her to follow, which she did, with trepidation.
As they crept through the dark, still, sleeping camp, Merrill noticed that Fenris was going further in, instead of making for the edges of it. Her brows furrowed. She put a hand on his shoulder, stopping him in his tracks in the shadow of an aravel, mouthing, "What are you doing?", at him.
"Supplies.", was his equally silent answer, and without looking to see if she was following, he crept on, peered around the landship and disappeared inside a tent that she recognized to be the craftsmaster's. She followed, her heart beating in deafening thumps. It only got worse when she entered the tent, where the darkness seemed to be all-encompassing. Blind and deaf, she stood there, shivering.
The sudden touch startled her so badly she nearly cried out. Something was being pressed into her hand- two things, to be exact. One was hard and cold and supple, the other long and thin and smooth. A mail shirt, and a mage's staff.
She swallowed. Her lips felt numb, and it was so hard to form the words. "Fenris, I... won't be coming with you."
"Like fuck you aren't." His voice sounded calm and even. She could hear him rustling around somewhere to her right.
"I mean it." She couldn't, she just couldn't. She'd helped Fenris escape. She'd go back, and pay for her crime, and everything would be as it should. There was no way she could run again.
"Then think about this." He was close to her now, she could feel it. Something else was thrust against her: Soft and leathery, with something bumpy inside. A pack. "This Keeper knows what I am. She could have kept me bound hand and foot or magically restrained, and she didn't. She put me into this cellar with you. Why?"
If it wasn't so dark, she would have stared at him. He brushed past her, pushed back the tent flap, and stopped to wait for her. And, clutching her bundle to her chest, she followed.
The rest of their flight was a succession of heart-stopping moments as they dodged sentinels and slithered down the steep western slope of the hill. Merrill's heart was still hammering in her chest, her breath was coming in short gasps, and her feet as well as various other parts of her hurt viciously from stumbling into trees and falling over roots in her headlong rush through the gloom. They had to make the best of their head start, she knew; it couldn't be long until they were discovered to be missing. The staff she held slapped against her thighs with every step; the mail shirt chafed her arms through the fabric of her sleeves. She held on for dear life and suppressed the pangs of her conscience, reprimanding her for having turned thief, on top of all of her other crimes. It didn't really matter now, but she still hated the thought.
They pressed on endlessly, it seemed to her. She noticed she could see better all of a sudden; morning was coming. Fenris running before her was now more than a blob of white in the blackness; his lean form was emerging from the shadows, a familiar sword on his back and unfamiliar armor hugging his body. It was mail and leather, reaching down to his thighs, and reenforced leather leggings, and it might have been black or dark green, she couldn't tell. He was also carrying a pack as well. She was impressed. He was really fast at plundering.
When the sun had come up for good and was peeking over the mountaintops to the east, Fenris called a halt. They were both winded, he even more so than she was, his face pale and sweaty as he leaned against a tree to catch his breath. Merrill regarded him with concern. He'd only been on his feet for a day after receiving his injury, and then this flight in heavy mail...
She crouched down, still out of breath, but recovering, and rooted through the contents of her pack. They were oddly assorted; he'd just crammed everything into it he'd been able to get his hands on in the dark, that much was obvious. There was a water skin, but it was empty, and she heard no sound of running or falling water nearby.
But the tree Fenris was sitting propped against was an acorn, and it still had most of its leaves, though they were reddening now. She plucked the largest leaf she could reach from its branch, folded it into a sort of cup and went around knocking dew off of leaves and blades of grass, until she had a mouthful of water. This she offered to Fenris, kneeling down before him, and he took it without hesitation and a nod of thanks. She then dug out the food from her pack and parceled it out between them, and for a while they sat chewing in silence.
They rose again as one, knowing they could not afford to lose more time. As Fenris turned to walk away into the waking woods, Merrill turned one last time to look back. She could not see the hill rising steeply from between the trees any more, but she knew it was there. Her people were there.
Just for a moment, she teetered. Was this the right thing to do? Was she not just running from fate, again, afraid to take the consequences for her actions? She did not wish to die, of course, but what did she have left to live for? Outcast that she was; apostate; murderess.
She shuddered, her hands coming up to rub at her arms for warmth.
They met with another pair of hands, long-fingered, bronze-skinned, lyrium-veined, calloused and warm. Without the gauntlets, Fenris' touch was oddly gentle, and she hardly dared breathe, afraid she might scare him away like a wild bird, as his arms slowly slid around her, drew her into him. Two fingers at her chin coaxed her into turning her head, and she caught one brief glimpse of his beautiful green eyes, lit by the rising sun, wary yet intent, determined...
Oh, she thought.
When she came back to her senses, her forehead was resting against Fenris', their breaths mingling in the space between them, lips only inches apart. A slow, lazy heat was twisting in her belly, much like a sleepy, contented cat might roll on its back in the sun, stretching and curling up again. Her fingers were resting at the base of Fenris' neck, threading through the fine silvery hair there. His hands at her back kept her knees from giving out on her; she was leaning against him with all her weight, unable to stand for being so dizzy. It felt almost like that time Isabela had bought her this drink made from honey and she had realized a little too late that there was more than honey in it. Only it was much, much better.
As a matter of fact, it hadn't been the most expert of kisses. A far cry from what she had imagined her first would be like when she guiltily allowed herself to dream of it. Bumping noses, clashing teeth, and tongues that got in each other's way had certainly not been part of these dreams.
And it had been perfect.
A long, blissful sigh left her lips and she folded herself into him, head coming to rest on his shoulder. His breath now tickled her ear; it made her shiver. This couldn't be real. She would wake up any moment now... or he would shove her away, his eyes narrowed and his look hateful, like she had seen it so often in the past...
"Witch." Fenris' voice was low, a rumble in his chest more felt than heard. His lips brushed against her ear. Her breath caught in her throat. "Come with me."
She had her answer then.
Author's notes: When I started writing this fic, I thought that, at this point, there would be one or two more chapters and then the happy end. But the story had other plans... so, this is going to be it for "Witch". The continuation of Fenris' and Merrill's misadventures will bei found in "Apostate", since it felt better to me to separate the suddenly a little longer fic here. Thanks to all my readers, followers, and review writers. I love you :D