Chapter: One - Morsus
Rating: M for later content.
warnings: Angst, UST, explicit sex in later chapters
Word Count: 3, 117
Summary: After her mother's death, Hawke vanished from Kirkwall. Four years later, Sebastian sees someone he never thought he would again.
She simply disappeared.
Her mother's ashes barely cool, she vanished in the dead of night, leaving nothing behind except for a pair of very confused dwarves and a stately but dilapidated manor in the city. Her Mabari vanished with her, along with enough food to last her several weeks and her journals.
They had searched, of course, combing the Wounded Coast and the slopes of the Sundermount, but to no avail. There was nothing. Varric and Isabela had exhausted their contacts to try and find a trace, a footprint, but she could have been a figment of their imagination if the pain she left behind hadn't been so very real. He himself had torn apart the countryside around Kirkwall, riding old deer trails and brushy paths, poking his nose into caves and thickets, looking for some sign, some indication of where she'd gone.
The only sign they had found had come months later, her staff driven into the soft earth at the peak of the 'mount in front of a cairn. Merrill had suggested she might be dead; he had threatened to cut out her tongue and had to be restrained. It had opened wounds afresh and for him, they hadn't yet scabbed over. It would probably help if the Staff of Parthalan did not hang on the wall behind the desk in his study. Surely that tore him open each time he happened to glance at it. He didn't care. It was all he had left of her, besides this festering coil of hurt and anger.
It had been years, and it hadn't abated. Not with the taking of Starkhaven. Not with the deposition of the simpering simpleton that had wanted to play politics by virtue of a weak claim of blood. Not with the clamoring of the landed gentry that wished to see him married. Not with the women who paraded themselves in front of him with the urgings of their noble mothers, hoping to land a Prince to increase their own social standing.
It had faded to a dull throb when he was out riding, hunting, brooding. He rode now, his falcon ranging with him as he urged his stallion Berach into a canter, ranging through the fields that bordered the Minanter. He rode for the forest, the quiet of the woods and the lodge that his father had kept when he was alive. He had ordered it restored when he was crowned, and now it was his refuge from politics and scheming mothers.
The day was just beginning to get warm, the weak spring sunshine breaking through the clouds. Above him, Gideon cried out, spotting prey on high. The falcon dove, talons outstretched to strike, and he could see the flailing furry body that the bird snatched from the ground. He stuck his forefinger and thumb into his mouth and gave a shrill whistle, slowing Berach's gallop. Gideon took to the air again, arrowing toward his outstretched arm with its heavy leather gauntlet.
The rabbit was fat and glossy, and he tore a hunk of meat out of the flank with his belt knife, tossing it high in the air. Gideon leapt from his wrist, keening as he caught the gobbet and ghosted up into the sky on a spiral of warm air. He watched the peregrine for a moment before tying the rabbit to his saddle and clucking at Berach to resume the ride.
He breathed in the smells around him: rich meadows with sweet grass, leather and good horse sweat, the small patches of Andraste's Grace that were almost hidden from view by the lush greenery. He passed herds of sheep that grazed under the watchful eyes of young shepherds, their wool coming in full and thick as the lambs cavorted around their mothers. All of it belonged to him; the land around him was sharecropped by farmers who swore fealty to the principality.
He kept his eyes on the tree line. He was angling for a trail he knew was there, one that led deep into the forest, towards the lodge. Birch and alder, elm and spruce all came together to form a thick canopy that enveloped him in dappled shadow as he eased his stallion onto the packed earth of the trail. Gideon wheeled above him, a thin cry wafting down to him from the sky. The peregrine would find roost at the aerie at the lodge; he was well trained, and his owner was not concerned that he would just fly off.
The familiar scent of spindleweed assaulted his nose as his horse trampled some brush that had grown over the path. It made his lip curl, both from the bitter scent and the bitter memory it invoked.
A warm palm on the back of his neck, urging him to put his head between his knees to quell his nausea. "I remember the first time someone in the Red Iron tried to get me to smoke some. The smell alone made me feel like I was going to throw up the soles of my shoes."
He pushed farther into the forest, letting the horse have his lead, his mind locked far in the past. He could not help it some days; his grief at her absence was still fresh enough that it burned, choking him with the heat of it. He could not begrudge the Champion his fame; he had stepped up admirably in the wake of his sister's disappearance. The only one he could blame was himself. He had not wanted to go to her when her mother died. He felt that it wasn't his place to intrude on her sorrow, and then he knew sorrow of his own when she was gone. He could have stopped her, he was certain now.
The rustling of animals in the underbrush went unnoticed. He claimed that he went out to hunt, but it was rare that he downed any game other than what Gideon stooped to catch. He merely went to the forest to be alone with his thoughts. It drove his advisors to the brink of madness, but his word had been law from the day the coronet had been placed on his head and he had ensured that everyone knew it. He had no fear of assassins. He would deal with them if they came.
The path he followed was wider once. It had been large enough to ride three men abreast, but the thickets of vegetation that grew up now had narrowed the trail into one that could only accommodate a single rider. He had cut the path himself, and had deliberately kept it small to avoid encouraging anyone to visit at his lodge. Berach knew the way and moved at a loping walk, fast enough to make distance but slow enough that he would not turn a hoof in a hole should there be one.
Pinpoints of sunlight slithered through the leaves, freckling on his hands as he stared at them. He was nearing his thirtieth birthday. He knew he could not escape the noose of marriage for long, especially when he did not have a cousin with suitable qualities to rule after him. Should he die without an heir, the principality would be plunged into war. Although it had recovered well in the last few years, thanks to Ferelden's reliance on their grain and wool, Starkhaven could not afford another struggle in a power vacuum he would leave behind. It was his duty to his people to provide them with an heir.
And he had never shied from duty before.
He tried to swallow the bile in his throat at the thought of marrying for political alliance. He knew his mother would have told him that only peasants could marry for love and he bit back on that, too. Dead these many years, Meghan Vael had sold him to the Chantry in the hopes of furthering their position in the Free Marches, and her influence should have rightfully ended there. The locket that hung on a sturdy chain next to a pendant of Andraste suggested otherwise. He could feel them now, pressing against the skin over his heart. Another thing that had been given back to him after his family was murdered, along with the bow that rested easily between his shoulder blades like a second spine.
He mulled over the choices in his head. Several noblewomen had expressed interest in him, all of varying degrees of beauty and wealth. He was not vain, but neither was he stupid; he knew he could have the pick of them should he want them, but something had stayed his hand, compressed his lips into a thin grimace where instead they should have curved upward in a charming smile. He had begged off of parties and masquerades, citing paperwork or treaties to avoid the rustle of silk and lace, the scent of perfumes and oils a poison far deadlier than anything an assassin could coat on his blades.
He could not avoid them for much longer. He sighed, shifting in his saddle, and the stallion pricked his ears forward. They neared the clearing where the lodge stood, sheltered from prying eyes and the rest of the world. He could just see where the path began to widen out, signaling the packed earth around the cabin and the stable.
Berach snorted, giving an alarmed whinny as someone darted in front of him. Before his rider had time to react, the great brute reared back, his hooves lashing forward as training took over and the horse attacked. There was a small cry, and a cloaked form went spinning to the side, into the brush. Berach kicked out with his back legs and reared again as his owner held on with his knees and tried to calm him. He danced to the side, great sides heaving as his eyes rolled in nervous tension. He placed a hand on the side of its neck, murmuring soothing things as he stroked Berach's mane and calmed him.
He dismounted, dropping the reins to the ground to indicate the horse should remain there. Berach complied, lowering his head as his breathing settled. He patted the side of the beast's neck as he looked toward the brush, noting the slim dagger that had apparently dropped from his assailant's grasp. It lay in the dirt next to his boots, and he tucked it into the saddlebag. Someone had meant to attack him, and he meant to find out whom.
The cloaked form did not stir at his approach, and only the rise and fall of the chest indicated that whoever it was still lived. Blood darkened the edge of the hood where the horse had struck, the soft grey wool going tacky with it. The face was shadowed by the hood, but the profile stirred something deep in his memory, tracing light fingers over his subconscious. Rough slippers encased her feet; she was indeed female, he saw, crouching down to look at her. Slender legs showed beneath a tatty skirt that was rucked up to her knees, holes in the fabric showing more of the creamy skin of her thighs. She was thin, almost painfully so, and her legs were badly scratched from nettles and underbrush.
He'd always made sure that the poor were well fed in the principality. He had initiated a work program that would feed and clothe a man for a day's honest labor. There should not be any poachers anywhere near his forests. This made absolutely no sense. He had hesitated before, to see if she had been faking her wounds enough to get the drop on him, but now he could see she was unconscious. He reached out to draw the hood back so that he could see her face.
His world spun out from underneath him, yawing and stretching as his breathing seemed to quicken and slow at the same time. The hood had covered short hair, filthy from weeks of living in the wilds, but had once shown a deep and lustrous red in the sunlight. A straight, almost aquiline nose had been broken once and mended poorly. Her eyes were closed, but he would bet that should she open them, they would be a dark green, dark enough to threaten to swallow him up. Her face was too thin, her lips cracked and raw from dehydration, but it was one he had seen in his thoughts for far too long to not be certain.
"Hawke," he said, his voice no more than a whisper.
His trembling hands nearly failed him. He tilted her head, examining the wound on her temple. It wasn't deep, but like all head wounds, it bled like a stuck nug. A large lump was already beginning to swell, and he couldn't remember if he should move her or not. He freed his dagger from his belt and cut a strip of cloth from the edge of her cloak, folding it upon itself and placing it against the cut on her scalp. Deciding that he should probably risk it, he gathered her to him, keeping her close to his chest, and stood. His legs decided not to give out on him; he was grateful for that. He would hate for one of his retainers to come looking for him and find him sprawled underneath a starving woman because he was so afraid of losing her again his legs gave way.
She was much too thin. It felt as if her bones were hollow, like Gideon's, and he held her tighter, afraid she would dissipate. He hoped this was not a daydream brought on by madness.
He made his way to the door of the lodge, and with some maneuvering, he managed to get it open. He eased her inside and kicked the door shut, laying her out on the couch that sat before the fireplace. He knelt beside her, easing her skirt down to a modest length and covering her with a blanket. He checked the ragged piece of cloth that had pressed against her temple, and noticed the swelling wasn't nearly as bad as he'd feared. His horse must have barely grazed her. He blew out a thankful breath he wasn't aware he'd been holding.
He rose and went to the washbasin in the corner, picking up the pitcher to carry it to the well outside. His horse remained where he was, cropping the soft leaves of the brush around him. He'd have to see to Berach, and to Gideon, too. He retrieved the horse, leading it up to the stable.
He hadn't expected the low growl that echoed from the shadows. The horse shied away, sawing its reins out of his hand as the growl came again. He'd only heard that growl come from one animal in his entire life a Mabari. He hesitated.
"Cambert?" His voice was soft, non-threatening. He got down on his haunches, holding out a closed fist. A soft scuffling came from the shadows, and then the dog appeared, thinner than he remembered, but otherwise in fine fettle. Cambert gave his hand a cautious sniff, still growling low in his throat, until memory kicked in and his stubby tail began to wag.
"Good boy. Good." He laid his hand on the dog's head and scratched behind his ears. Cambert tried licking his arm, but he twisted out of the way and stood up, retrieving the reins of his horse and leading the stallion into the stable. The windows were still shuttered against the rough winter they'd had. He struck flint and lit the lantern, hanging it above him on a crossbeam.
A rough pack sat in one of the stalls, and Cambert wandered back over to it, plopping down with the contented sigh of a dog doing a good job. A woolen blanket was stretched out over the stale hay left over from the winter.
"Was your mistress going to sleep in my stable for the night?" he wondered aloud. Cambert gave a soft bark.
He led the horse into the other stall, removing the saddle and tack and giving him a rubdown. Berach butted his head against him, and he stroked the soft nose thoughtfully before feeding him and giving him one last pat. The horse fed and watered, he turned to Cambert.
"Your mistress is in the house. Shall we take her pack to her?" The dog wagged his tail, and he reached for the pack, expecting a growl of warning. There was none, and he picked up the bag and slung it over his shoulder, patting his thigh to indicate the Mabari should follow.
He deposited the pack next to the well, giving that sharp, clear whistle again. An answering cry, and Gideon landed on his wrist, preening. He carefully hooded the peregrine and stroked his back, taking him into the aerie next to the lodge. The aerie was situated near enough to the brick walls of the fireplace in the main lodge to keep it warm for the birds in winter, the wattle and daub building retaining heat in the winter and keeping cool in the summer. He eased the falcon onto a perch, made sure there was fresh water for him, then retrieved his hood and latched the door.
He drew another bucket of water, his mind churning the entire time. Why now? Why here, of all places? And why him? He had no answers to any of these questions, and they spun through his mind as he filled the pitcher and left the bucket on the ground for Cambert to drink. He picked up her pack and set it just inside the door, his gaze riveting on the couch. She slept still, and he knew she would probably be queasy when she woke.
If she woke.
He tamped down on that line of reasoning as quickly as it had come. It had been four years. He would not lose her again. Not this time.
He poured water in the basin, soaking a spare cloth with it and returning to her side. He knelt and removed the makeshift bandage, relieved to see the bleeding had slowed to a trickle. He wiped her face and hands, his touch gentle as he smoothed the filthy hair out of her face. His task was over much too quickly, and he sat back on his heels, unsure of what to do with himself. Cambert came to sit next to him, nosing his broad muzzle under his hands for attention, and he buried his face in the dog's fur.
For the first time in four years, Sebastian Vael lifted his voice in prayer.