Hawke’s Flight, Chapter One

by artrald

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*

I’m afraid of the dark.

My brothers know this. My older brother, Carver his name was, he dealt with this by making sure I was always home or safe by nightfall. No matter where I was, no matter what I was doing, or with who, I had to be home by the time the light had gone and that was his job and he did it. And it was another several years before I actually realised that no, he had a perfect idea of what he was doing and the message it sent to all the other boys of Lothering whose eyes might go a-straying, and that you shouldn’t mistake acting dumb for being dumb, not in someone whose name is Hawke.

But my other brother, my twin, Tobias, he understood me better. He would never dream of looking out for my welfare, knew perfectly well that I’d not thank him for it. But don’t let me paint the boy as a saint. He might have understood me, but that didn’t stop him being a little shit. And Tobias‘ way of letting me know that he knew I was afraid of the dark was to lock me in a barn. No windows, thick walls, solid built, heavy door, heaps of a dozen sorts of things, dubious smell. We were thirteen.

Don’t let’s get the wrong idea about me, either. I didn’t break down immediately. I spent whole minutes yelling for my arse of a brother. Then for Carver, to come and kick his balls up so high they won’t drop till he’s thirty. Then, a little quieter, for my mother. Nope. Nothing. And it was very dark in that barn. And I’m afraid of the dark. I don’t just fear it, I hate it. I want it not to be.

And I’m not sure that Tobias was really expecting that having left me in the barn for a good long while and heard me go silent and stop cursing his name, the thing that would happen next would be a kind-of soft moment, an instant of light bright enough to see through the timbers – and the whole place coming apart.

Something you should know about me. And you should really know it now, before we get properly started: I’m not here for show. I’ll fool nearly everybody with that one, but I shouldn’t fool you: I’m… special. I’m not like other people. The Maker’s Gift, they call it. The tools of creation. You know. Magic. I can do it. And, well. I hate darkness. I don’t want it to exist. I want it to go away. And since the oldest of times there has been one thing that has driven away the dark.

And Tobias stood there staring wide-eyed at the mushroom of rolling white flame as it boiled up from the ruins of the building, and at me standing in the middle of it with my hands spread, classic witch pose, completely untouched, and all mockery and laughter evaporated. And heedless of any kind of danger he had my wrist and let me away from there like we’d stolen something.

What, you thought he’d locked me in our barn?

*

It was spring, when everything changed. We were seventeen. I remember the royal army riding past, and I remember the recruiters loud in the streets, and I remember how good my brothers looked in the colours of Veyence banner. And I remember that when the army came back past, Carver and Tobias were not with them.

Most of our neighbours had left that day or the next. We were packed, we had everything in a handcart and five packs, we were dressed for travelling, and we were just waiting. That first night was the first time I ever heard my mother and father argue in my hearing. She said we had to be ready for the possibility the boys weren’t coming back. And he just looked south and narrowed his eyes for a moment and said they were coming, and we were staying till they came. And she railed, and she shouted, but he was immovable: his will be done. And so it was that we were still there long after most of everyone else had left; we were still there when Carver and Tobias came over the hill footsore and mud-soaked; we were still there when the Blight swallowed the place that had been our home like it was a sandcastle before the waves.

And my big brother looked at the rest of us and he set his mouth in a firm line and he made to string his bow and my father asked him what the bloody hell he was doing, and my father never used to swear. But Carver just kept on. Bent the bowstave with a grunt, slipped the string over, and asked what was keeping us. And Dad took his boy by the shoulder and looked into his eyes and said something quiet.

And suddenly it was Carver with us and Dad with a dozen arrows slung on each hip. Go, he said. Run. Don’t look back. And that was it. And I didn’t look back. I didn’t need to. You get a kind of a sense for certain things, if you’re like me. Almost like a second pair of eyes. And so when we were making our way away, laden as we could stand, and there was kind of a soft moment from behind us, and for a moment it was like perhaps the sun had risen in the south behind us, warm orange light on the treeline – I didn’t look back. I just bade my father goodbye and ran like hell.

It bought us all of an hour. You ever run for an hour with a pack on your back? Maybe you have. I hadn’t, before. The boys were a little better off. We’d split Mum’s pack between them. But it was simply never going to work. And by the time there were actually a mob of the darkspawn on our trail specifically, following us down the road and going just a little bit faster than us, well. It was never going to work.

Magic works like dreaming. You know how hard it is to dream of something on purpose? I mean, some people are better at it than others. But it’s not an easy thing. And the more the trouble of your heart, the more the demands of your body, the more difficult it is. My father’s love for his home, for his family, for his children, his fear of death, he’d put them aside and he’d lit a pyre you could’ve seen for a dozen miles. My own terror, the pain in my feet, the sick feeling of turning fire onto real things, of what it will do – I tried to get rid of them, I tried so very hard, and I stretched out my hand and there was a sound like someone beating a carpet and six of the creatures went up in a column of dirty orange fire.

And if it had been that the Blight was maybe two dozen darkspawn, and they had the decency to come at me five and six at a time, with a few minutes in between to catch my breath and steady my nerves? I could have saved us all. Right. But it wasn’t. And the problem with lighting a candle in the dark is that you get moths, and the problem with making loud noises is that you give yourself away, and the problem with magic is that nine times out of ten? Take a bad situation and add magic, whatever you were setting out to do, and all you’ve done is you’ve made it ten times worse.

We fought. I mean, what else was there to do? Carver took a sledgehammer from a dead spawn, Tobias had his bow and quiver still, and wherever and whenever possible, there was fire. I don’t know how many we killed. I do know that it was never going to work. It was like they grew on the trees; it was like they came up from the ground. But they weren’t the worst part.

We weren’t the only people on that road, you see. Half a mile onward we made, harried by the bastards all the time, knowing that we’d never make it to safety but what choice did we have, and we found a little knot of refugees in the middle of the road defending a broken cart against a dozen or so of the things. A couple of families, there had been, and a woman in Veyence colours – and – a – man in a long and filthy crimson robe under steel half-plate, every piece and plate of his armour inscribed with words, and the bottom fell out of my stomach.

Templar.

Oh, didn’t I mention? You know how mages are tightly controlled, tested and watched, burdened and overseen, kept in gilded cages called Circles and bound with a leash that uses the name of religion? Followed everywhere by templars? Right, well. In case it wasn’t clear? I wasn’t. Me and my father alike. He grew up free of it, and that’s how he raised his daughter. A templar can’t tell a mage from a real person till they use the Gift.

So as Carver and Tobias laid into the darkspawn – I – somewhat froze. All idea of magic had fled. Since I was small, the rule of no magic had been a point where my parents had never budged. And that was a Templar. So I made like a terrified country maid, all quite true, and I hid behind my mother.

As more of ’em turned up, out of the woods. And bloody more, from the way we’d come. Whole world filling up with the buggers. I remember Tobias shooting his last arrow and coming out with knives. The darkspawn pushed the cart over, stuff and people falling out of it. I remember the wordless shout of rage from the woman soldier. I remember Carver yelling words at the spawn that I didn’t think he knew. I remember a high terrified scream and my feet frozen to the ground by my own terror, and then a group of the things turning and looking at me and Mum and – well. I closed my eyes and I told myself that I was dreaming, and just like dreaming I decided what about the world was going to be different, and I opened my eyes and it was.

The ones that looked at us, there was a heavy flat hollow sound and the flame was orange and red and they died. And that made others look around. Hang for the fleece, you know, hang for the sheep; I put my hands together, marking a line the fire wouldn’t cross, then swept my left hand away over them like brushing the floor, and I made myself stop listening to the noises they made. And –

The villagers, the people who’d been in the cart, they thought they saw a break. They ran for it. I don’t know if it was the darkspawn in their faces or the general terror and chaos and screaming or – or it was probably the fact that a six-foot wall of fire had just sprung up not ten feet from them – they broke away and ran.

The predictable thing happened. Do I need to draw you a picture? A half-dozen of the darkspawn broke away from the pack and nobody could get there – I heard Carver cry out to them – there was nothing I could have done that wouldn’t have just made it worse – and then those people were dead and I couldn’t make it worse any more.

Magic is about your frame of mind. Like I said. You can’t do it in anger or fear or pride or pain or hunger or love or what have you. You can’t. Or what you get is… I couldn’t stand what I was seeing and hearing any more and I stretched out my hand and I was lucky. I was so very, vastly lucky that all I got was a spear of screaming blue-white flame that stole all of my breath and left blisters on my hand, tore up the ground for a double fistful of yards and turned half a dozen darkspawn and five dead and dying people into nothing but shadows and ash.

The rest of the darkspawn fled. Six of us, standing. Carver and Tobias leaning on one another and out of breath. Mum mostly staring in horror. Me, lowering my hand, shaking, dry-eyed because breaking down wouldn’t help. And the templar and the soldier, bloodied, dented, exhausted, unbelieving, and the templar making immediately for me with black blood still dripping from his blade and murder in his eyes.

He was talking as he came, declaiming almost. The words I know by heart, of course, but hearing them in that voice, and I was already exhausted, and fear just turned my insides to water and tied my tongue in a knot as he came on – “Foul and corrupt are they who have taken His gift and turned it against His children. They shall be named Maleficar, accursed. They shall find no rest in this world or in the next.”

About five paces from me and my brother was in his way. Tobias, not Carver. Of a height with the armoured man, his feet planted immovable – but his eyes weren’t on the templar. They were on the woman striding along at his side, and there was recognition there. And I could always tell when Tobias was fixing to tell a lie or pull a con. Because his mouth was about to open.

But anyway, it was she who stepped between the two of them. Clearly she was something to this templar – I’ve never seen one before or since who was stopped from the warpath and quelled into silence by a single glance – and then she turned hard green eyes on my brother. “I know your face, boy. You’re one of our archers from the Lothering company.” A glance at me. “Your wife?”

And Tobias never did have a sense for the appropriate. “That’s a dirty stereotype. Sergeant, does this have to happen? Those people were dead when Bethany released that spell.” That’s my name. Bethany Hawke. I just realised I haven’t said. “And it saved our lives. You know it; I know it. But it will have been audible for miles. We’ve got to move. Now.”

Very tall she was – her head was about level with Tobias’s five foot eleven – and built like two brick outhouses side by side, solid muscle. “Wesley?”

The templar stepped a little to the side to get a good look at me and none of us missed that Tobias’ knuckles went white on that long knife as he did. “I know the name and face of every mage who’s supposed to be south of Veyence. And I don’t know her, Aveline.”

So apparently the woman’s name was Aveline. “Yes, Wesley.” The note of universal feminine exasperation in her voice told me that the two of them were married, or something like. “But is this the kind of problem we can shelve, or the kind of problem where that is certain death?”

“I’ll tell you what is certain death, sergeant, and that’s standing here arguing theology in front of a raging horde of frothing death-beasts.” Tobias’ voice was pretty calm, but his body language was anything but. And he never did know what backing down meant.

The templar sagged slightly. Looking at him properly for the first time, I could see he was wounded in a couple of places: his colour wasn’t good, and runnels of sweat were trying to clear the mud from his face. “Apostate.”

I stammered a moment. Found my tongue. Dragged out some courage from somewhere. “y-Yes?”

“In the interests of living to see tomorrow? I propose we shelve our little discussion. If you run from me, that will go badly. And in the interests of living to see tomorrow, you’ll use the Gift only at my direction and in my presence. Can you live with that?”

I nodded mutely, more of a tremor of the head.

“Heard and witnessed. Be aware, witch, I’m on my guard. Releasing fire will not harm me, even from surprise – it will only motivate me to make your demise-”

“Wesley!” Aveline snapped. “Don’t taunt the girl, she’s terrified. Do you want this to blow up in our faces?”

“I wasn’t taunting her, I was -” Abruptly he turned away. “Bah. Come. On purpose or not, they’re right about not standing around.”

*

Live till tomorrow. Right then I’d almost have settled for living till nightfall. There wasn’t any time to stop and – and – I don’t know what we’d have done to give peace to those poor dead people anyway. At least we’d acquired another couple of protectors.

The first time Wesley called for my fire I flinched and nearly burned what I shouldn’t: fine start that’d be. But there were dozens of them, and they kept coming, and when he didn’t think his wife was watching the templar was limping severely. He was getting worse.

I don’t know how far we made it, only that it wasn’t far enough. The attacks didn’t show any sign of going away. The sun was getting low in the sky, and if exhaustion was burning at the back of my throat then I don’t want to know how much worse it must have been for the men and for Aveline, and Mum was just wearily putting one foot in front of the other, because what else exactly was she going to do? I was the only one wearing a pack any more, and we’d already shared out most of the water, and there was just this kind of cold hard growing knot in my gut saying that even if we’re lived to see the sun go down we wouldn’t see it come up. I was going to die in the dark. I hate the dark.

But no. We weren’t going to make it that far. It was the crest of a hill. Wesley’s foot slipped in the mud and he went down hard on his face with a loud cry, and he needed Aveline’s help to make it back to his feet and when she let go of him he nearly fell again. And there was just this terrible look on her face when she realised her husband wasn’t going another step.

He was shaking his head, looking her in the eye, trying to tell her to leave him behind; what she did was sit him against a rock, take the shield from her back and strap it on her arm, and ask us why we were still there. And for answer Carver laid down the sledgehammer he’d been toting and took up Wesley’s sword and shield, and Mum went to kneel by the templar and see if she couldn’t clean his wounds up a little better, and I slipped out of my pack, and in that moment the decision was made. We would die there. But we weren’t going alone.

You’ve got to realise that before that day, I’d never deliberately turned magic against anything on purpose, not since that barn all those years ago. I had literally no conception of how you did it. I didn’t know spells for this. I’d never even seen a mage’s staff, I wouldn’t have known what to do with one if I’d had it. It was only because I was terrified beyond imagining that I was able to do this at all. If I’d been a trained mage, I could’ve made those slopes impassable, I could have lit torches against the dark, turned that hilltop into a little fort, I could’ve – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that there was nothing that I could do, beyond sitting there and praying to a Maker who I’ve always been convinced had it in for me. Certainly it did no good.

And again, the horde aren’t an army. If they were, we’d have had no chance. They came up that hill from three sides, yes, but not all at once and not in their vast numbers. They came up the hill like waves on the tide, each one coming a little further, each one a little larger than the last. And I didn’t use fire until I had to, and I tried to keep it down, keep it as quiet as I could. Each time I did it, I had to. Each time I did it, I didn’t need to look behind me to see my mother flinch. And the sun was setting. Pretty soon I would have to choose between dying in the dark and being a literal hilltop beacon.

The ogre was the final straw. I didn’t know what it was. It was Aveline that named it, ten feet tall if it was an inch, wider than an ox at the shoulders, horns long as your arm, humanlike and buck-naked, completely unarmed, but it’s not like that mattered. She said that she’d seen one break the Grey Wardens’ lines, seen that the things can be killed, but the look on her face nearly stole my hard-won composure completely. She reckoned she was staring at all of our deaths right there, and the frantic pounding of my heart was not helping my attempts to breathe cool and even.

The three of them made a line. It might not have been clever, it might not have been the way you fight monsters (however that is), but it’s what they did. They let the giant thing come to them. And it scattered them like ninepins. You expect something like that to be strong, but this was beyond that, a force of nature, unstoppable. Aveline saw its blow coming and got her shield to it, angled just right to deflect the force rather than eat it, and the impact still cracked the wood right across in a cloud of splinters and nearly drove her from her feet. Carver was trying to punish it for that, stabbed his blade in its side with a high wordless cry – it caught him with a backswing, faster than you’d think anything had a right to move. The blow lifted him off his feet and threw him, his sword going flying, and he landed motionless in the mud and didn’t get up and he didn’t make a sound. It aimed an elbow at Tobias and my twin brother threw himself to the ground rather than take that in his face, rolled to his feet behind it.

Which somewhat left me as the only thing that was between it and my mother. And you know? Maybe trying to keep the noise and flash down a bit doesn’t seem so important when you’re literally staring Death in the face. I don’t know what I shouted at it, but the fear behind the words left trails of fire off my tongue, and just in case you think I was being metaphorical there, the words were actually hot enough to blister my lips. The fire was a dirty orange and about as thick around as my wrist; it hit the ogre in the gut and washed around it like water, it set little smouldering flames in its hair and made a hideous white burn the size of an embroidery hoop, and the ogre roared like a bull, but it didn’t fall.

What it did do, was to fix those little piggy eyes of its right on my throat. Fear was trying to steal my legs from under me, trying to tell me that it was too late to run, that the only thing I could do was drop to the ground and curl up into a ball and hope it was quick. The magic hadn’t worked. The ogre was still moving. I started to back away from the thing almost involuntarily, and by sheer chance this took me out of the straight line between it and Mum and the templar, and its eyes followed me. So I kept that up, moved to the side a bit. Not that it was going to be any help.

Aveline and Tobias went for the ogre at the same moment. She chopped her sword down into the back of its leg – it moved its arm so fast I could barely see – she got the edge of her shield to the blow, but it spun her around completely and sent the shield spinning away in splintered pieces and she tripped her over her own feet in the mud. Tobias went for the thing’s back, a knife point-down in either hand – one of them struck actual sparks from a plate on the thing’s back, but the other one buried itself in; it shook him off like flicking a fly and tore the blade out, not really seeming to care. Still it came on for me, and all this time I was trying to clear my mind for the magic, and all this time I couldn’t and I couldn’t, and it was there tall and terrible and I was in its shadow and I hate the dark and the ground betrayed me, I slipped and fell on my back in the mud –

Mud. A handful of mud splattered into its eyes and it stopped and shook its head. Another, just as it was trying to wipe its face. Tobias’ voice high and strident, calling it a dozen names and telling it to keep its filthy hands off me. The third time it was a stone. He’d always been a dab hand with a thrown stone. And it turned, the bastard thing turned and there was Tobias with one knife and no armour, spreading his hands and yelling at it, top of his voice, bring it on, he yelled, like a bully-boy picking fights outside the tavern.

And he did it. Hell knows how. I mean, I was watching and I’ve no idea how he won that. It came on for him and he wasn’t where it was, and it was bleeding. It spun and somehow he’d gone the other way, and there was another hole in it. It brought its fist down and he hit it in the face with another handful of mud, and he had a damn good go at carving its kidneys out while it worked out where he was. It was like the two of them were dancing, to and fro and each time there was another long cut in it, and then it brought both fists down very hard on somewhere where he wasn’t, and he was behind it with both hands on the hilt of a dagger into the back of its knee, and as it collapsed to its side he sprang free from it and yelled to me for anything I had.

So I gave it everything I did have. Without thinking, without trying, without the time for terror I stretched out both hands, and the fire was pure and clean, white at its core and blue around the edges, and you could see for an instant the ogre’s skeleton black against the flames, and then it was gone and so were the tips of my fingernails, and Tobias’ eyebrows and that silly little beard of his were singed, and the blade that he’d left in the ogre’s leg was hissing and sizzling white-hot in the mud.

Tobias went to give Aveline a hand up; I was just standing there, getting my breath back, looking at the remains of the thing I’d killed and wishing it the Maker’s justice, and Mum was kneeling beside Carver in the mud and I just heard her say his name – and – He hadn’t moved. He hadn’t got up. He was still face down in the mud and Mum cried that he wasn’t breathing and if I’d been a trained mage, if it was Dad here instead of me – if he’d ever bloody taught me a thing beyond how not to look like a mage – it might have been that we could’ve done something about that.

But it wasn’t.

And while I was standing there contemplating the thing that I’d killed and metaphorically patting myself on the back, my brother was dead face down in the mud.

*

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