Title: A Slice of Freedom
Summary: “Don’t you ever want to know what it’s like out there?”
“You’re leaving again, aren’t you?” The question made Anders stop in his tracks. He could have sworn that he had been alone.
“Are you sure you’re really a mage?” he asked, skirting an open bag of potting soil. The Tower’s greenhouses were normally quiet this time of night; he hadn’t expected to encounter anyone during his escape. “You’re so sneaky; I swear you’re a rogue in disguise and they’ve kept you here by mistake.”
Theodora frowned and continued packing mulch over the fledgling elfroot buds she had been tending for the past few weeks. With the onset of winter, the weather was getting colder even in the safety of the greenhouse. If the seedlings froze now, she’d have to start all over again from scratch. “I can zap you with lighting to dispel any of your doubts if you’d like,” she said, not looking up from her task. She scooped out another handful of mulch from the bag with more force than necessary. “I just might do it anyway if it will knock some sense into you.”
He set his pack down. The guards weren’t due to change places for another fifteen minutes; he had been anticipating hiding out in the greenhouses until then anyway. “You’re not going to try to talk me out of this again, are you?”
“Why should I bother? I haven’t been able to talk you out of the past four attempts, now have I?”
“Well, no, but at this point you’ll be breaking tradition if you don’t at least offer up a token protest.”
She sighed. “Couldn’t you wait until after winter if you’re so set on this? You’re going to freeze to death if you try swimming across the lake now.”
“Ah, but no one expects me to swim across the lake during the winter.” He tapped the side of his nose. “I’ll have the element of surprise on my side.”
“You’ll have hypothermia on your side, more like. And here you’re the one that’s supposed to be the healer.” Task complete, Theodora turned to face him, her hands on her hips. “They’ll only catch you again, and you know…”
Anders rolled his eyes. “I know, I know. I’ll be put into solitary confinement for a few months and then Greagoir and First Enchanter will come by to tell me what a naughty mage I am. Wynne will more than likely make an appearance to inform me of how disappointed she is in me and then you’ll sneak past the guards to slip me a book since you know how bored I get cooped up in one place or you’ll give me another pair of socks because you’ve heard me complain enough about how drafty solitary is.” He walked over to her. “I’ve never thanked you properly for those, have I?”
She felt her cheeks warm and hoped that her face wasn’t as red as her hair. “You’re never around long enough to say anything,” she mumbled instead, fidgeting with the hem of her robe. She turned her back to him and began to put her gardening tools away. When she didn’t hear a reply, she figured that he had snuck off.
“Come with me.” He said it so quietly that she was certain that she had imagined it.
Very slowly, she turned to face him. “What did you say?” His expression was unreadable, but the look in his eyes made her heart climb up into her throat.
“Come with me,” he repeated, stepping closer to her. He reached out and tucked an errant curl behind her ear. “Don’t you ever want to know what the outside is like? What it’s like to actually live without people looming over you at every turn or staring at you every second of the day? Don’t you ever wonder what it’s like to be free?”
She had never admitted it to anyone, least of all him, but she envied Anders’ escapes. However briefly, he had managed to breathe in air that wasn’t musty from old tomes and feel what it was like to spend a day without Templars waiting for him to turn into an abomination at any given moment. The tiny, adventurous part of her wanted to leave with him and never look back, but her more practical nature eventually smothered it. “I’m not fond of freezing my arse off in the middle of the night,” she said lightly, taking a small step away from him.
For a brief second, she could have sworn that he had looked crestfallen. “Ah, but that’s why I’m here,” he told her with a grin and waggle of his eyebrows, regaining his normal composure lightning-quick. “Every healer knows that the best way to stave off hypothermia is to get naked and snuggle up next to someone that’s similarly naked.” His eyes raked down her body and even though they had already been together a handful of times, the way he looked at her never failed to make her breath catch and her pulse pound.
She rolled her eyes at him. “I can already hear the gossip now. ‘Look, it’s Amell and Anders. Did you hear how the Templars caught them? Oh yes, naked as the day they were born. Now if that wasn’t a sight.’ Reputations would be ruined.”
“You’re worried about my reputation? That’s so sweet.”
She smiled and shook her head. “I was talking about mine. You already have the reputation as an incorrigible flirt.”
He couldn’t help himself. Gathering her in his arms, he rested the shelf of his chin against the crown of her head. “And you wouldn’t have me any other way.”
She wrapped her arms around him, her fingers splaying across his back. “You really mean to leave?”
“I do.” He rubbed his cheek against her hair. “It’s still not too late to come along. Think of the fun we’d have! Two apostates on the run living life to the fullest - it’s like the start of one of those romance novels you’re so fond of.”
She huffed. “I’ll have you know that I read nothing of the sort.”
“Oh? The books you have hidden underneath your mattress say otherwise.”
She smacked the back of his head. “What have I told you about getting into my things?” Sighing, she pulled back. “Here, take this.” She dug into the small pouch she normally kept her herbal clippings in and pulled out two sovereigns. “I know it isn’t much, but at least it’ll buy you dry clothes and some food.”
“Where did you get these?”
She shrugged. “Cullen and a few other Templars might have been…misplacing a few bits and silvers here and there for the past few months. I traded in what I could nip with the Tranquil so that you wouldn’t jingle when you walked.”
He gave her a suspicious look. “And since when did you start picking pockets, my lady? Not that it isn’t appreciated, but still.”
She bit her lip. “Since the last time you ran off. I figured that in between them finally discovering you missing and the time that you would have done in solitary confinement when they eventually caught you that I would have gathered up enough money to give you a decent head start when you decided to leave again.”
He cupped her cheek with his hand. “You knew I would try again?”
“Some birds were never meant to be caged,” she said. She turned her face into his palm. “And others are too frightened to fly from the only roost that they’ve known.”
“If you could, what would be the first thing that you would do?” Anders threaded his fingers into her hair. “Forget about being a mage, forget about getting caught. What would be your first order of business once you were out of the Tower?”
She thought for a while before answering him. “I’d walk barefoot in the grass, just to feel it between my toes.” Theodora had been very young when she had been brought to the Tower. There was nothing but stone on their little island; she could vaguely recall what it felt like to walk in sun-warmed fields or how the blades would tickle as she lay down amongst them and stared up at the sky overhead to try and find pictures hidden in the clouds. “It’s silly, I know, but…”
He stopped her with a gentle finger against her lips. “It isn’t silly,” he said, his face serious. “I’m going to miss you, ‘Dora.”
“That’s an awful nickname,” she said, blinking away the tears that surprised them both.
“I’ll have to come up with a better one while I’m away. Would you rather I call you Theo instead?”
She made a face. “The guards should be changing at any moment,” she told him. “If you’re going to leave, you’d better do so now.” She rocked up onto the balls of her feet and kissed him, her hands sliding over his chest to rest at his shoulders. “And before you ask, yes, I’m going to miss you too. The Tower is far too quiet when you’re away.”
He looked down at her, a fond smile on his lips. “Wish me luck?”
“You’ll need it.” She fussed with the collar of his robe. “Please don’t freeze any important bits off. Do you need a distraction?”
Anders grinned. “You’re distraction enough to keep my important bits warm. Yet if you’re talking about getting that Templar watching close by to look the other way, then I’d appreciate it.”
“The things I do for you,” she grumbled, hefting up a heavy terra cotta pot.
“That’s because you can’t resist my charming ways and handsome good looks.” He quietly laughed as she mumbled something under her breath and tottered towards the greenhouse’s front entrance. He crouched down low and edged his way towards the back door, picking up his bag as he went.
“Could you help me lift this, please?” he heard Theodora ask the Templar. “Wynne would have my head if I let these freeze; I’d feel so much better if they were inside where it was warmer.”
“Liar,” he whispered, carefully opening the door and slipping outside. Anders stuck to the shadows until he made his way to the lake’s edge. Bracing himself for the shock of hitting the cold water, he silently dove in and began to slowly swim to the other side.
Theodora sat on her bed in the apprentice’s quarters, wondering how she was going to explain the fact that she had a tomato plant upstairs.
“Let me guess,” Jowan said, flopping down beside her. “Anders made another run for it.”
She reached for her bag of yarn and shrugged. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’ve been in the greenhouses all evening. The last time I saw Anders was this afternoon at lunch.” She didn’t have a lot of the blue yarn left, but she did have some more orange and yellow that she could use for stripes if she needed to. She mentally figured out how many stitches she would need for a sock that would fit Anders’ foot and began to cast yarn onto her knitting needles. She really did wish that he’d find the freedom that he so wanted, but she figured that he would have at least a week before the Templars caught up to him. Maybe two weeks; the weather is starting to turn for the worse. If she estimated another two weeks to return to the Circle, she might have enough time to knit not only a pair of socks for his time in confinement, but perhaps a scarf as well.
It took the Templars two months to finally catch him and another month to bring him back. Theodora had been in the library when she heard the commotion and stuck her head out to investigate.
“Ah, it’s so good to be back! I love what you’ve done with the place; it looks the same as usual.”
Anders spied her as he walked down the hallway. He’d grown the beginnings of a beard, probably as an attempt to avoid detection. She squinted. He’d also gotten his ear pierced during his time away. The combination of the gold hoop and stubble along with the unfamiliar tunic and snugly fitting trousers leant him a rakish air that sent a warm thrill through her. “’Dora! Here, be a dear and make sure all my things get put away.” She grunted when he tossed his bag to her, but managed not to drop it. “I trust that my usual spot has been kept nice and drafty for me?”
Theodora watched him go, his pack held tightly in her arms. Cullen was eyeing her suspiciously, but she didn’t care. Making her way back up the stairs to the mages’ quarters, she knelt in front of Anders’ trunk at the foot of his bed. Someone had left a note saying Welcome Back on top of his pillow, but she doubted that he would be able to read it for a while. The Templars that had been with Anders had looked highly annoyed, which probably meant that he had made them work to catch him. She had meant to just leave his bag inside the trunk, but something made her stop and actually unpack it. She shook her head at the wadded up shirts stuffed close to the top. “At least he thought to wear something other than robes outside,” she muttered, smoothing her fingers over the material before properly folding and putting the clothes away. “Robes tend to scream out ‘look, I’m a mage!’ rather loudly.” Several odds and ends soon followed and she frowned at the large parchment envelope at the very bottom of the bag. Taking it out, she caught sight of Anders’ handwriting.
For Thea. See? I found a better nickname for you, it read. Very carefully, she broke the seal and looked inside.
“You knew you’d be back, didn’t you?” she whispered, running her hands through the chunk of turf he had given her. He had put the piece of sod under some sort of enchantment – the blades of grass should have already been yellow and wilted brittle by now, but they were as fresh and green as they would have been in the spring. Her throat felt tight and for a moment, she found herself taken back to when she had been a little girl running through fields with her father, the sun warm on her face and the wind in her hair. She had been the apple of his eye once upon a time, before her magic had decided to manifest in the form of an accidental fireball that had destroyed their hayloft. She hugged the envelope tighter to her chest, inhaling the sweet springtime scent. Her father hadn’t been able to look at her as the Templars took her away, her clothes still soot stained and reeking of smoke.
She sat back on her heels and wiped at her cheeks. Carefully placing the envelope and its treasure inside the bag she had meant to put her research books into before being interrupted, she wandered back to her own quarters. Knowing the Knight-Commander and First Enchanter, they would be lecturing Anders right about now. After that, Wynne would make an appearance and lecture him some more. It probably wouldn’t be until after dinner before she would get a chance to sneak by and hand him something to occupy his time. The scarf she had made out of the last bits of her yarn had turned out pretty long; she’d be able to wrap it around a thicker book than usual.
She put a protective hand to her bag. Anders might have been taken away from the freedom he desired, but in his own way, he had managed to bring a piece of it back with him.