Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 3

But I didn’t want to tell you about that. I wanted to tell you how I came to know Sebastian. After his dramatic display at the chanter’s board and the generous terms of his request, signed Prince Sebastian Vael of Starkhaven no less, I was intrigued. I doubted a man of such obvious means and training would deign to join my merry band of outlaws and apostates but perhaps he could be persuaded to invest in us for the Deep Roads expedition should we display sufficient talent and resolve in avenging his family.

That would certainly beat scrounging for smaller jobs and running errands for a few coppers at a time. Certainly Uncle Gamlen couldn’t be counted on to provide for us. He spent most of his time drinking at the brothel and gambling away what little he could get.

Gamlen and my mother fought often, mostly about the fact that he lived in an apartment in Lowtown, the sprawling slum just above the docks. The building sat not a hundred feet from entrance to the Alienage. I had known that elves in the large cities of Thedas nearly all lived in Alienages and every one of them was a place of punishment for a race that dared to no longer be slaves, though few humans would phrase it quite so bluntly.

But that crumbling, crowded section of Kirkwall opened my eyes to the reality of how awful such places were and living so near it demonstrated just how low Gamlen had brought the family name. Of course we could have been homeless and begging in Darktown so it was hard to complain too much.

My dear Uncle Gamlen was unpredictably moody. Bethany and I never knew if he would praise us for working so hard or demand rent from us when we gave mother some of the money we’d earned. He seemed to have genuinely loved his parents and to adore his big sister, most of the time. Yet he would round on her, too, and rail at her for leaving the family to chase true love with an apostate, blaming her for my grandparents’ deaths and his having lost the estate.

My uncle had, it seemed, gambled away the family fortune and the estate in more-gracious Hightown after his parents had passed. While we’d known mother had grown up in Kirkwall Bethany and I hadn’t known just what she had meant by “an estate” until we’d seen them. I’d long pictured a grander farmstead than our cottage near Lothering. But the land rises so steeply from the port that the homes in the city had been built cheek by jowl, even atop one another on the lowest portions of the slopes, and jumbled together as they’d been added one at a time to fill the available space.

I quickly took to avoiding Gamlen and the little ramshackle apartment. I loved to wander the clean stone streets and courts of Hightown, exploring the top of the hill on which Kikrwall had been built, climbing the dozens of steps to the Chantry with its enormous golden statues and visiting the dwarf portion of the merchant’s quarter with its enormous carved guardians and brusque commerce. The city was unlike anything I could have imagined back in rural Lothering.

It was in Hightown that I first met Bartrand his brother. Rumors of their planned expedition circulated among the refugees as something that could solve all of one’s problems. Naturally dozens of Fereldens had approached the man only to be scornfully rejected. Why Varric took an interest in Bethany and me I never did understand. His only explanation, then and to the end, was, “I saw something in you, Hawke. I still do.”

I do keep losing the thread of my thoughts. I’ve spent rather too much time with Varric, I fear, whose rambling stories always seem to go this way—promising one thing and then slipping in a dozen others around the edges until you can’t remember which tale he’d said he would tell at the beginning. Yet he could read his audience so well that he always ended up sharing just the story you wanted to hear, even if you didn’t know what it was.

I do want you to know about Sebastian. It simply isn’t easy to tell you how things were with him if you don’t know what our lives were like. I’ve not as yet described the others in my little group at that time.

Anders and Fenris could not have been more different and Sebastian was yet again a world apart from each of them. Anders was an apostate mage from Ferelden, one with whom my sister appeared at first to be quite taken. He was gaunt and pale under his stubble with dark blonde hair carelessly pulled back to keep it out of his face. A skilled healer, he ran a clinic in Darktown for his fellow expatriates and anyone else sick and desperate enough to come to him, well below the notice of the Templars in Kirkwall, or so he hoped.

But while most apostates affected casual dress to blend in Anders remained in robes as he had since being taken to the Circle at the age of fourteen. He rarely spoke about his time there but told me he’d become a Grey Warden after his seventh escape and fought beside the Hero of Ferelden in Amaranthine. It seemed I’d stumbled onto a powerful and battle-tested fighter, one who had seen more than was good for him if his haunted appearance told me anything. The filth and despair of the refugees that squatted in his surroundings below Lowtown pained him terribly and he gave everything he had to help them.

From the moment I met him I wished I could take the anguish from his eyes. He hid a dark secret, one worse even than the blood magic he despised, one that poisoned his soul. He tried desperately to do as much good as he could, driving himself to help everyone who came to him no matter the hour or the physical cost of doing so.

It had been in part of his wish to atone that led him to Kirkwall in the first place. But it was a need for our bodyguard skills that convinced him to speak with us when we sought him out and that led to our uncovering his secret. It was this romantic air of mystery that first drew Bethany to him but the truth of his life quickly changed her mind.

The elf Fenris was haunted as well, but not by anything so noble as battles to save the very land from a darkspawn horde. He was an escaped Tevinter slave whose masters had inflicted on him the sort of casual cruelty that brings parents throughout Thedas to threaten misbehaving children with being sold to the magisters. For a man so lean, well-muscled though he was, Fenris swung a two-handed sword with power I’ve never seen matched. He was quick on his bare feet and flashed about a battle like sharpened lightning.

On his skin, from the soles of his hands and feet to the fullness of his bottom lip, he bore something else I had never seen, and have not since: raw lyrium had been burned in mystical designs into the flesh itself. The stark blue-white stood out against his golden skin, matched by the white of his hair. It gave him abilities that made him formidable on and off the battle field but the power he received cost him. The agony the ritual had caused was his earliest memory and the lines caused him constant, low pain. The combination of the two left him short-tempered and suspicious. Well, the lyrium and the fact that he had first hired us as a distraction for the hunters his former master Danarius had sent to recover him. We encountered such slave hunters repeatedly over the ensuing years. I’d likely have been mistrustful myself.

One would think that an escaped slave and an escaped mage, both actively hunted, would have found something in common. In this case one would be wrong. Fenris had seen nothing but the worst of what mages would do when left unchecked, abuses perpetrated for amusement and slaves treated by the magisters as disposable sources of blood for particularly powerful spells. He hated and feared mages and he didn’t trust a one of them to resist the lure of blood magic if Templars were not watching every move.

Anders seemed like the perfect counterpoint to that sentiment: a mage who wanted only his freedom and used his gifts to help others or to hurt those who preyed upon the weak. Even Bethany’s innocent sweetness and cheerful attempts at healing seemed weak proof in comparison.

But Anders had quickly been forced to tell us his secret. He’d agreed to meet with us if we provided back-up while he helped a mage friend escape the Circle. Karl had, in fact, been what had drawn Anders to Kirkwall. It seemed clear than Anders blamed himself for Karl having been brought to the Gallows, as the Circle in Kirkwall was called. We’d found instead that the man he’d intended to rescue had been made tranquil and arranged a Templar trap to capture Anders. Fury had overwhelmed the careful control behind which he had hidden his true nature.

His eyes had glowed electric blue and his voice deepened, roughened, hardened. He’d seemed a soft and sensitive man but suddenly he was lit from within and on the attack. Anders wiped out the Templars that had leapt from cover with little help from his supposed bodyguards. We were too busy standing around with our mouths hanging open.

It had been clear that he was something other than human. He’d had to confess that, in an act of friendship with a spirit accidentally cast from the fade, he’d taken an essence of justice into his body. It was this spirit that had reacted to the Templars, furious at the illegal action of turning a Harrowed mage Tranquil to be used as bait.

Anders had hastened to assure us that Justice was no demon but a good spirit that wished only honesty and fairness for everyone. He admitted that the power of the phantom had augmented his own but insisted that his only aim had been to offer a willing host to a disembodied spirit that had fought at his side in Amaranthine for months. Unfortunately that melding gave Justice all of Anders’s memories and frustrations.

Some alchemy had begun to work on them both, twisting the spirit into one less interested in justice and more concerned with wreaking vengeance on those it perceived as oppressors. Templars and the Chantry that nominally controlled them topped that list. Anders fought to maintain perspective on the balance that had held for a thousand years between mages and their supposed guardians. When we first met he was miserable and guilty but still able to joke and laugh at times. Yet even then Justice whispered in his mind night and day.

Anders on his own would have been powerful enough to discomfit Fenris but the idea that a spirit lived inside him had horrified the elf, whether it had been a demon at the beginning or not. The two bickered constantly about abusing power, each blind to the truth of the others’ charges. Something was not right between the Templars and the mages in Kirkwall and each of my companions perfectly represented a side in the growing conflict.

We kept hearing rumors that the Circle was not merely a cage for the mages but that the chantry’s guard arm ruled with an iron fist, cracking down on imagined infractions by the mages and within their own ranks as well. Yet it seemed we could not find an escaped mage who had resisted turning to blood magic’s power for protection, inviting the interest of Fade demons and exponentially increasing their risk of being possessed.

At root I was a mercenary, apolitical in all things, and had worked for both the Templars and for the underground helping the mages but even I could see that the increasing tensions were destroying a system that had worked in Thedas, well or ill, for hundreds of years.

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