Emily hurried down the hatch and into the cargo room. She needed time alone, away from Fenris, away from Alistair. As soon as she closed the door, she pressed her back against the wall, slid down to the floor and began to cry for the second time in less than a day.
Anders. I wish you were here with me, love. I miss you. How am I ever going to make it without you?
Emily heard her name as if it were an answer to her question. She felt a warm hand on her shoulder and opened her eyes to find Anion down on one knee in front of her. She wiped the tears from her cheeks with her fingertips, wondering why, of all people, it had to be him.
“Sorry,” she whispered.
The young elf shook his head. “Why are you apologizing for crying, falon?”
Emily shrugged. “I don’t know. My father always told me not to let anyone see me cry. That I had to be his big strong girl.”
As soon as the words left her mouth, Emily regretted saying them. She never told anyone that, not even Anders. Why tell Anion, a man she barely knew?
He sat down next to her and pulled his knees to his chest. “I cannot imagine a father telling his child such a thing. Although, I may not be the best judge. I never knew my own father.”
“Did he die when you were very young?” the older mage pried.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. My mother rarely spoke of him. She was only seventeen when I was conceived, and the fact that he was human brought shame to our family.”
“So how did you end up with the Dalish in the Free Marches? Ghilya said something about you and your mother coming to them seeking shelter?”
He nodded. “I was eleven when we left the alienage in Denerim.”
“But why did you leave?” Emily pressed.
Anion studied his hands for a few moments before smiling at her. “Because of a kitten.”
“A kitten?” she asked with a bemused grin.
The smile he wore was wistful. “Yes, a kitten. I found her on the street one day, half-starved and looking for food. I snuck her into our apartment and gave her milk. My mother was furious at first, but allowed me to keep her, probably because I had no real friends. She was as black as midnight, so that is what I decided to name her.
“I only had her a few weeks when I woke up one morning and found her missing. I searched every room and all around the outside of the building, but I could not find her anywhere. I then began looking in the streets in other parts of the alienage. I had almost given up, when I saw her lying near a puddle close to the gates leading into the city.
“Her cries were faint and, when I picked her up, I could tell she was not long for the world. I cuddled her to my cheek, and, suddenly, I was aware of what was wrong with her. Somehow, I just knew she had been poisoned. I closed my eyes and concentrated. It was like an instinct. I felt a warm tingling move throughout my body and gather into my hands. The next thing I knew, Midnight was jumping from my arms and heading back to our apartment for some milk. I was in awe of what happened. You are a mage, you know of what I speak. The day you discover your gift by causing something to happen which you did not know you were capable of?”
The older mage nodded. “Yes, I remember that day. I think all mages do. I was five when it happened to me.”
“You must be a very talented mage indeed to show your gift at such a young age. How did it happen?”
Emily recalled that day with perfect clarity. Up until Anders died, it was the last day she ever shed a tear. It was also the first time she ever took a human life. A local boy had taken her favorite doll and ripped its arms off. She tried to pull it away from him, but he pushed her down in the mud. A group of the boy’s friends gathered around her in a circle, and laughed at her tears, calling her horrible, nasty names. The more she cried, the worse the other children’s verbal abuses became.
As she sat there helpless in the muck, the other children continued to close in on her. Emily wasn’t sure what they were planning, but all of them were older and bigger. She was terrified, and there was no one else around to help her. She prayed to the Maker to reach down from the sky and engulf them all in flames so she could escape. That’s when it happened.
It started with a warm, tingling sensation flowing throughout her body. She closed her eyes and, all at once, her mind cleared. The voices around her grew silent, and she found herself standing in a place she had seen in her dreams many times before.
Suddenly, the tingling moved from her body and concentrated into her hands. Afraid of getting burned by the heat building within her balled up fists, she opened her eyes and flung her palms in the direction of her tormenters. Large, angry, red and orange flames engulfed the other children but didn’t singe a single hair on the young girl’s head. Paralyzed by fear, she continued to sit in the mire and watch the other children screaming and running in all directions.
Before Emily realized what was happening, her father scooped her up and threw her over his shoulder then sped toward their home. The moment they arrived, he shouted to her mother to pack everything she could as quickly as possible and to only take the bare necessities that could be carried on their backs. He then said something about templars and a circle that Emily didn’t understand.
When her father sat her down on the floor and Emily began to cry again, he grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. “Buck up girl! No tears. Mages never cry. Crying shows weakness, and weakness makes you an easy target for the templars.”
“Yes Papa,” the girl sniffed, wiping tears from her cheeks with the backs of her small hands.
It wasn’t the first time she heard her father mention templars, but she never paid enough attention to know what they were. Whatever they were, her father hated them. He smiled at her and mussed the top of her hair, his voice filled with both pride and worry.
“That’s my big, strong girl,” he told her before running out the door.
Several minutes later, her mother dropped two packs onto the kitchen table then went back into her room for Emily’s brother and sister. The babies were wailing from being woken from their naps, and her mother was too distracted by her husband’s absence to calm them. When Emily’s father finally reappeared, he looked harried and much older than Emily had ever seen him.
“Leandra, you carry Bethany and I’ll take Carver. The road is clear, but we need to get out of here now, otherwise we may not get the chance to escape before the Chantry sends the templars.” His stern tone softened a bit as he addressed his oldest daughter. “You may have to run to keep up, little one. Do you think you can do it?”
Whatever templars and mages were, they didn’t matter to the child. All she cared about was earning the favor of the greatest man in the world, her father. She vowed right then and there, she would never show weakness again. She wanted him to see her as perfect as she saw him. She would be his big strong girl and make him proud, no matter what.
Like a soldier answering her captain’s call, Emily raised her chin high in the air and stiffened her body with fists clenched at her sides. “Yes, Papa. I won’t let you down, I promise.”
The sound of Anion’s voice drove away the bittersweet memories of the Champion’s youth. “You do not have to answer if you do not wish, falon. I have learned that the first use of their gift is not always a pleasant story for some mages.”
“Thanks, Anion,” Emily said with an apologetic smile. “Maybe I’ll tell you some other time. So, you saved the kitten?”
The young elf sat a bit straighter and continued. “Yes, I saved Midnight and I ran home to feed her and tell my mother what happened. What I did not know at the time was that someone had seen what I had done. An old elf named Voronis witnessed the entire thing. He was lame and unable to find work, so he decided to turn my name into the templars in exchange for coin.”
“That’s terrible,” Emily exclaimed. “You were just a child.”
“Desperate people will commit desperate acts, falon, especially within the alienage. Luckily though, my grandfather worked as a groundskeeper at the Chantry and overheard Voronis talking to the templars. He came straight home and told my mother that she had to take me away from the city. He then gave her all the coin he possessed and told her to use it to take a ship out of Ferelden. My mother secured passage for us on a privateering vessel bound for the Free Marches.
“It wasn’t until we had been on the ship for a few days that my mother discovered the sailors expected more than coin for allowing us to sail with them. They locked me in the cargo hold and took turns with her. For days, I listened to her screams and pleas for them to stop, but it just continued. When the ship docked at Greenvale, they threw both of us off the boat as if we were refuse.”
Fresh tears formed in Emily’s eyes. She took hold of Anion’s right hand and brushed back a stray tendril of hair from his temple, hooking it behind his ear. Her own troubles temporarily forgotten, she wanted nothing more than to comfort the young man.
He managed a tight-lipped smile. “My mother was bruised and scarred both physically and emotionally, but, somehow, she managed to get both of us safely into the forest. After two days, we came across Ghilya’s camp. My mother asked for the clan’s protection, but the Keeper refused, telling her we could stay for the night and my mother’s wounds would be healed, but we would have to leave the next day.
“At the time I did not know the reason, but, the next morning, the Keeper told us that not only could we stay with the tribe, but she would begin training me to use my gift immediately.”
“Anion?” Emily whispered. “What happened to your mother?”
A tear trickled down his cheek while his throat constricted with a hard gulp. “She discovered a few months after we began living among the Dalish that her experience on the ship produced a child. She died in childbirth along with my sister. I had not trained long enough in my gift to be able to save either of them, but Creators know that I tried.”
The older mage gathered the young elf in a tight embrace. When he began weeping against her shoulder, she stroked his dark blonde hair and held him closer. She wanted to be strong for Anion, but no matter how she tried, she couldn’t hold back the flood of her own tears.
“I’m so sorry that happened to you. Please forgive me for pushing you into talking about it.”
He sat up and swiped the tears from his eyes. “No need for apologies, falon. Believe it or not, it actually feels good to finally talk about it. I have never spoken of it to anyone before, not even Ghilya.”
Emily took his face into her hands, and gave him a gentle smile. “I can’t tell you how honored I am that you chose me to tell such a painful secret to. Thank you.”
When Anion returned her gesture with a smile of his own, a vision of Anders’ face flashed before her eyes. She shook her head to drive the memories of her lost love away before pressing her back to the wall again. Her own sorrow provoked more tears. Dear Maker, would the pain of losing the only man she ever truly loved ever subside? Would she ever be able to move on or go a day without thinking about him? Without missing him?
Tired of feeling sorry for herself, Emily decided it was time to go back to the main deck. Maybe Isabela could give her something to do to keep her mind off her troubles. She was just picking herself up from the floor, when the ship lurched violently and threw her right onto Anion. As if by instinct, his arms encircled her waist before he rolled both of them over to one side.
“Are you alright, falon?” he asked.
“What in Andraste’s name was that?”
Before the elf could answer, the ship pitched again and the cargo surrounding them began to shift. The third time the ship rocked, one of the crates broke loose from its rigging and slid across the floor toward them, forcing Emily to use an air spell to knock it away. The roaring of the sea outside was growing louder. What in the Maker’s name was happening?
When the brig began to cast about in earnest, Emily leapt to her feet then helped Anion to his. Opening the door proved more of a challenge than she expected. Every time she started to get a grip on the handle, the ship would rock and throw her off balance again. After nearly a dozen attempts, she finally managed to get the door open just as her young companion blasted one of the crates back with force magic.
Once in the main area of the lower deck, torrents of water coming in from the open hatch above knocked them from their feet. Gripping the metal tie down braces, Emily struggled against the waves toward the ladder. She had to get that hatch closed or she and Anion would drown.
By the time she reached the ladder, the waves had subsided enough for her to stand. Just as she gripped the middle rung, she was forced to abandon her climb to make way for a very wet Alistair descending from the opening. Upon landing, he shook his doused head and threw it back then greeted Emily with a boyish grin. After running his hand across the top of his wet hair, he peered into the dark sky through the hole above.
“I think we might be getting a little rain,” he yelled.
Emily donned a sardonic expression. “Really? I thought maybe it was the ale fairies pouring their bounty down upon us.”
“If only,” laughed Alistair. “Are you alright?”
“Other than almost getting flattened by a dozen or so loose crates, we’re fine.”
He squinted against the rain pelting his face. “Well in that case, Isabela says to get your asses on deck right now because we need all the help we can get.”
Before Emily could secure her hold on the ladder, another large wave lambasted the ship, sending a rush of water to blast through the opening. While Alistair braced himself by tightening his grip on the ladder, the mage lost her footing for a second time. Already exhausted and cold, she wasn’t sure how many more times she would be able to fight the incoming tides.
“Come on!” the prince cried with an outstretched hand when the cascade finally subsided.
Emily grabbed Anion’s right wrist and towed him behind her as she made her way back to Alistair. Just as her fingers wrapped around his forearm, another wave descended on them. Still holding one of the rungs, the prince lunged forward, clasped his hand over Emily’s small wrist and jerked her into the flood. While the water was pouring over her, she held on to Anion for dear life, and, once the stream had subsided, she pulled him toward her
“You first, son,” Alistair yelled to the healer over the din of the storm.
Without argument, Anion quickly scrambled up the steps. Seconds later, another large downpour overtook the other two, causing Emily’s unbound hair to shroud her face in clumps. When she reached up and pushed it out of her eyes, she was greeted by one of Alistair’s mischievous grins.
“Have I told you how beautiful you look with your hair down?” he teased.
She raised a brow. “And have I told you that you’re not as cute as you think you are?”
“No,” he replied, his smirk widening. “I’m damned adorable.”
After an exasperated eyeroll, Emily finished climbing the ladder. When she reached the top, she lay down on her belly and held out her arm to help Alistair up in case another wave came through. Mercifully, the next few crests were smaller and sent little water spilling over the main deck. When the prince finally emerged from the hatch, he regarded her with another impish grin.
“What?” she questioned.
“Nothing. I just thought you might want to know that your face is a mess.”
She donned a sardonic expression, but, before she could respond, Isabela interrupted from the helm. “Hey! No time for foreplay right now. Get that hatch closed before any more water floods the bilge and she scuttles.”
Isabela barked orders to her crew, her shouts carried on the howling wind as Emily and Alistair struggled with the hatchway door. Sheets of rain battered the mage’s face as massive waves continued to wash over the rails of the deck while they worked. She almost wished she was back on the ship that carried her family to Kirkwall during the Blight. As horrible as the storms were during that voyage, none compared to the gale she now found herself in.
Once the door was secure, she and Alistair made their way to the captain’s position. “What do you need us to do, Isabela?” she asked.
“The rigging to the main sail broke free,” the pirate hollered over the bedlam. “If someone doesn’t secure it, the weight of the sail in this wind is going to snap the mast. My men are having enough trouble getting the rest of her sails out of this shit.”
Still unclear on what her friend needed from her, Emily lifted her upturned hands in a questioning gesture. “So. What should I do, then?”
“I already sent Fenris up there, but it’s too much for him to handle on his own. I need you to use magic or get up there and help. Just do something to straighten those lines.”
Emily couldn’t think of a single spell to assist her in fulfilling the pirate’s request. Hoping the solution would eventually dawn on her, she headed for the main mast’s riggings. The moment she reached out to grab hold of one of the rungs, she spotted an enormous wave swell at the right side of the ship.
“Heave to starboard men!” Isabela shouted then jerked the wheel to steer the brig began to into the wind.
When the deluge collided with the tall ship’s deck, Alistair pushed Emily against the ropes and pressed his body into her back. “Just hold on!”
Within seconds, the tide washed over her entire body to completely take her breath. Her hands slipped from the ropes with the sheer force of the influx allowing the undercurrent to drag her down. Panic set in as Emily fought against the tide. Why didn’t she accept Anders’ offer to teach her how to swim when she had the chance.
Just when she thought she was lost to the abyss, a strong arm encircled her waist and pulled her from the undertow. Emily wrapped her arms and legs around the body of her savior and held on for dear life. When the surge subsided and she could breathe again, she finally opened to her eyes to discover she was squeezing the life out of Alistair. His chest heaved up and down against hers in short, quick breaths as he brushed soaked strands of sable from her face.
He grabbed the back of her head and pressed his forehead to hers. “Holy shit. I thought I lost you there for a minute.”
A nervous laugh escaped the mage. “You almost did.”
“Don’t ever scare me like that again,” he breathed, clutching her tighter.
Even in the middle of a raging storm with the world going to the void all around them, Emily became completely lost in Alistair’s hazel eyes. A tremendous crack resonated from somewhere above, forcing her back to reality. She and Alistair looked up at the same time to witness the main topsail shudder as its supporting frame splintered from the mast. As it plummeted toward the ship’s portside deck, Emily jumped from Alistair’s arms and cast an air spell to slow its decent, giving the people below ample time to get out of its way.
“I suppose magic does have its uses at times,” observed a deep voice from above. Fenris jumped from the rigging and landed on the deck next to his friend. He shot a glare at Alistair before addressing her. “Are you hurt, amica?”
“No Fenris. I’m fine.”
Although Emily was glad her friend was safe, she still didn’t want to engage in conversation with him. His earlier silence told her everything she needed to know. There was nothing more to talk about. Sure, she’d get over in in time. It wasn’t anything she hadn’t dealt with before, but, at that moment, she wasn’t quite ready to forgive him. Mercifully, Alistair spared her from any further idle chatter with the elf.
“Hey. The rain stopped.”
Emily peered up at the sky then at the surrounding ocean. Not even a drizzle remained. The dark clouds were giving way to sunshine and a blue sky while the surging tide subsided to gentle waves lapping against the hull. As the mage marveled at the rapid change of weather, Isabela and Anion approached from their left.
“That was the damndest thing I’ve ever seen,” admitted the captain, waggling her head. “That storm had us walled in from every side. I thought for sure we were goners, but as soon as I turned into that wave it began easing up. And now the wind’s started blowing from the opposite direction.”
They stood in silence for a long moment, contemplating Isabela’s words and what they witnessed, when Anion interrupted the reticence with a gasp. “Fenris! Your hands!”
When the warrior turned his palms up to study them, the healer’s concern became obvious. Fenris’s hands were raw and bleeding from working the mainsail’s wet riggings. “They are fine,” he lied.
Emily placed her hands on her hips like an impatient mother scolding a petulant child. “They are not fine, and you know it. Now, let Anion heal them.”
“Very well,” the elf groused, adding a sneer at the healer for good measure.
Isabela chuckled at the warrior’s discomfort before getting back to the matter at hand. “Alright, as for the ship, the main sail got ripped to shit when the topmast went down, but we have a fair wind from the north, which will help since our mains are gone. We’ll use that wind to our advantage while we can, but we need to make port as soon as possible for repairs.”
“Any clue where we are?” Emily asked.
The captain surveyed the horizon for a moment before replying. “Well, without charts or a compass, it’s hard to be sure. My best guess, given how far we traveled west, is that we’re somewhere north of Bann Loren’s lands. Or what used to be Bann Loren’s lands, anyway.”
“So we’re going to Ferelden?” Alistair questioned with an incredulous scowl. “Won’t it be dangerous for us to be seen there?”
The pirate shifted her weight onto her right leg and crossed her arms. “Not if the two of you can manage to keep your heads down and stay out of trouble.”
“So we should stay on the ship, then?” the prince surmised.
The captain shook her head. “No, you can’t stay on the ship while the repairs are being made. The crew tends to get a bit cranky about that.”
“So, I take it you have a way around that?” Emily drawled.
Isabela grimaced at her friend as if the answer should have been obvious. “Of course I do. Cloaks with hoods.
Alistair’s brow lifted. “But won’t that make us more suspicious?”
“Not if you know where to go,” the pirate said with a shrug. “I know every dive in every port in Ferelden. If you want to hide in plain sight, they’re the best places to be. Everyone in those taverns looks suspicious, so you’ll blend right in.”
Emily wasn’t sure it was the soundest plan she’d ever heard, but what choice did they have? The ship had to be repaired. In a way, the detour was a bit of a relief. She knew what awaited her in Val Royeaux, and she was in no rush to meet the wrong end of the executioner’s axe.
Once Isabela was back at the helm, the mage walked to the starboard rail to watch the bright rays of the sun dance along the gentle waves. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Alistair approaching, and she prayed to the Maker to give her the strength to resist his charms. Perhaps she wouldn’t need it. Maybe he would simply pass her by. Disappointment settled in with that notion, but was quickly forgotten when he came to a halt at her side.
“Thank you,” she whispered, her gaze still glued to the water. “For saving my life.”
He turned to face her and took her hand. When she regarded him with an expression of gratitude, he tucked her wet hair behind her ears and extended the boyish grin she had grown to adore. He was so handsome, so strong.
Stop it, Emily! He already told you he’s not interested in a relationship. You can’t fall in love with him. That would be insane.
His smirk widened. “You look like a drowned badger.”
“Oh, like you look so much better?” she countered in a snarky tone.
As he caressed her cheek with his thumb and gazed into her eyes, his smile faded. “I haven’t been back to Ferelden since…Well, you know. I’m glad you’re going to be there with me.”
He leaned down and brushed his nose against hers then placed a light kiss on the tip. Without another word, he pivoted on his heel and headed for the hatchway, leaving Emily in a state of confusion and a stomach full of butterflies.
When Alistair made it below deck, he had to fight with himself not return to Emily and kiss her. He had come so close a few minutes before, but managed to control himself enough to bestow a quick peck to the tip of her nose instead. He could only imagine what she thought about his gesture. She probably considered it silly and childish the way Erin always did. His fellow Warden hated his playful flirting. Whenever Alistair dared to do inane things like kiss her nose or tease her, she grew angry and demanded he grow up.
Emily, on the other hand, picked up on his banter right away and always played along. Her sarcastic sense of humor aligned perfectly with his. In fact, everything about her was perfect for him.
A little too perfect, actually.
Was it all an act? Could she possibly be that wonderful? If it was an act, she’d only end up breaking his heart. Worse than that, if it was real, she was too good for him and he’d end up breaking hers. Either way, he was going to have to be more cautious around her lest his emotions get the better of him.
But how? Every time he looked into her emerald eyes, every time she smiled at him, every time he was near her, he fell harder. His conversation with Isabela didn’t help matters any. If the pirate was to be believed, Emily’s capacity to love and forgive others was beyond amazing.
The prince found his way to the galley wine stores. Because of the storm, most of the bottles were broken after slipping through their secured racks, but Alistair managed to find one that was still intact. After pulling the stopper out with his teeth, he spit it across the room then turned up the bottle to gulp down half of its contents then swiped the back of his hand across his mouth. When he noticed the bandage still around his finger, he unraveled it, threw it to the floor, and waggled all five digits. Anion was talented. He had to give the kid that much.
At least one thing’s gone right today.
His hand wasn’t throbbing anymore, but the lack of physical pain wasn’t enough for Alistair to put down the wine. For the first time in seven years, he wasn’t trying to drink away his memories of Erin and what she did to him. His memories of the woman who shattered his heart and sundered his soul were replaced by the unrelenting desire to take the chance and throw himself into the abysmal pit of love again. It was a mistake, of course. All that awaited him there was agony and despair with fleeting moments of happiness.
With a heavy sigh, he lifted the bottle to his lips to finish it off. He needed to drive away his thoughts of Emily. To drink away his inane longing to be in her arms, to be loved by her. He turned his gaze to the ceiling and the Maker beyond its barrier.
You understand, right? How am I supposed to get through this otherwise? I’ll stop drinking, I swear it. Tomorrow.
He was lying, of course. In the core of his being, he knew better. The Maker would just have to understand. Perhaps someday he’d be able to keep his promise, but right then, he just couldn’t. Drinking was easier than thinking. It was easier than feeling. It was all he had left.