Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 9

It's a Trick: Get an Axe

In telling of the Qunari earlier I find myself to have been disingenuous, another of Varric’s influences. I did, in fact, have rather more to do with them than ogling their half-nude forms on occasion. The sorts of encounters we had with their race were typical examples of life in Kirkwall for us.

While still gathering the coin to buy into Bartrand’s Deep Roads expedition we’d killed off some bandits that attacked us on one of the many paths that wound up from the city into the surrounding hills. A weasel of a dwarf named Jevaris Tintop, whom we thought we had been rescuing, promptly asked us to assume the job for which he’d hired the men that now lay dead around his feet. He promised us a share of his profits if we would kill the Tal-Vashoth, as Qunari that left the religion were called, to show his good faith to the leader of the still-faithful.

The rebels had camped north, up the Wounded Coast. Apparently Jevaris would get some secret formula for an explosive in return for their elimination, something powerful that would be in demand among the Coterie factions that controlled the caverns and passages, collectively known as the undercity, that riddled the hill on which Kirkwall was built. I needed the sovereigns so we did as he asked and then accompanied him to the Qunari compound to claim his reward.

All Qunari appeared to be as reticent as the one I’d seen in Lothering. We came before the Arishok, the man in charge and the only one other than the gatekeeper who actually spoke to us. He was the largest reasoning creature I’d ever seen, nearly as vast as the ogre that had seized Carver as we fled Lothering.

Horns even Flemeth would have envied curled back from his forehead with smaller pairs highlighting and underscoring them. He wore protective chaps that looked to have been made from the tanned skins of half a herd and paldrons covered with blood-red leather, the straps crisscrossing the intricate red tattoos that covered his otherwise-bare torso. Cuffs of gold outlined his pointed ears, elfin in shape but looking so much smaller than Fenris’s on the enormous head.

He settled himself on a low, backless sort of throne and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. In a stern voice that rumbled up from deep within that barrel of a chest he stated baldly that the dwarf had presumed a deal where none had been offered. Yet again it looked like I’d volunteered our time and talents. Then Fenris spoke and the Arishok sat up a little. Clearly my favorite elf had hidden depths: he knew much about the Qunari language and religion.

I don’t know what Fenris said but in response the Arishok suggested ponderously that Jevaris pay me for my efforts, despite the “misunderstanding”. The men lounging on the steps below the throne stood at his change in tone and crossed their arms, muscles bulging menacingly though none drew a weapon and the bored expressions remained fixed.

So intimidated was the dwarf that he handed over everything he had. After a resentful look up at my new benefactor he stomped out of the compound, colorfully cursing the Arishok and me both. The other Qunari watched impassively, beefy arms still crossed, as I was then dismissed in turn.

It had been an unsettling day and I was happy not to have reason to enter the compound again. I hadn’t thought much of it at the time. The tasks my little group undertook often led me to strange and out-of-the-way places where Kirkwall’s citizens and even the most desperate refugees never ventured.

We’d had other tangential encounters. Viscount Dumar’s son, Seamus, was reported to have been kidnapped by the Qunari, though why he should have been no one ventured to guess. We accepted a commission to rescue him. It was an open contract, one that a particularly violent band of mercenaries called The Winters had also taken. Seneschal Bran all but begged us to get to Seamus first.

The Qunari shared a strange fascination with the Wounded Coast with the Tal-Vashoth. Not only had the rebel faction set up their camps along its winding paths but the trail to Seamus took us straight there as well. We arrived on a barren peninsula in time to find a woman standing over a dead Qunari and brandishing a sword at the viscount’s son. The young man seemed more concerned with the dead man than the weapon but I could see that she was seconds from striking him for balking at returning to the city with her.

We served as a distraction, at least, but when she realized we were there for the same bounty she ordered her men to attack. The mercenaries were no match for Fenris’s blade and the battering of my shield, not with Varric’s arrows and Anders’s crushing magic for back-up. Once we’d mopped up the last of those standing around Seamus told us she’d called for more of her men. We gathered his things and waited on the easily-defensible spit of land for the next wave with the younger Dumar safely behind us.

Before reinforcements arrived the Sheamus told us that he’d willingly left with the Qunari, intending to convert. I wasn’t interested in the politics but I did sympathize with his grief. His pursuit of a “higher purpose” had gotten his mentor killed. That was unfortunate but I hoped it would open his eyes to the fact that, as Dumar’s son, his choices had much wider ramifications. The uneasy peace with the Qunari force in the heart of Kirkwall could only stand up to so much pressure, something our other experiences with their warriors underscored.

The last of the Winters arrived and we handily defeated them. After we’d returned Seamus to his father, leaving the two to an awkward reunion and argument, Varric, Fenris, and I had headed down to Lowtown intending to enjoy a drink or three at The Hanged Man with Isabela. At that late hour few souls were brave enough to wander about but we happened upon a woman in Chantry robes agreeing to meet with a man in the nearby alley to discuss a business proposal. After a group head-shake we popped in to save her from herself.

To my surprise the woman thanked us for killing the thugs that had attacked her and immediately offered us the job she’d meant to give them. Clearly she was a slow learner. Yet she summoned a Templar to guard her as she made her way to what she called her safe house. With curiosity and a collective shrug we followed, wondering that a knight of the Order would be publicly following a Chantry sister about Lowtown this late at night.

The woman’s “safe house” turned out to be across the alley from Uncle Gamlen’s apartment though I couldn’t recall having seen her around before. The distinctive robes would have given her away and that strident, nasal voice would certainly have made an impression. All in all the circumstances screamed “trick” but the particulars remained unclear.

We ducked through the rus-coated door and found a filthy room already all but full with the Templar, the sister, and a Qunari sarabaas. I’d never seen one of the race’s mages and his condition appalled me. The magnificent horns had been sawn short and a high collar and chains appeared permanently fixed to his shoulders. He made a gurgling grunt in response to the sister’s introduction and I realized that his mouth had been sewn almost shut.

Fenris explained that Qunari treated all mages this way. The mighty warriors shackled and muted them, using them as tools but preventing any free thought or action. Normally a sarabaas would have a handler leading it on a chain like a dog. A dangling link showed this one’s forceful removal from its leader but the sister, who finally introduced herself as Petrice, declined to explain how it had come about. The momentary shock of such cruelty distracted us from the suspiciously vague nature of her story.

Petrice proudly said she’d named the sarabaas Ketojan, as though it were a stray she’d picked up in the alley, and that she wished to smuggle him out of Kirkwall to free him from the oppression of his fellows. The sarabaas stood impassively, his eyes barely visible behind the beaten-metal mask strapped around the stubs of his horns. The sister directed us to a passage in a back room that would take us well outside of town. At least that explained her presence in Lowtown.

The first thing I did upon getting Ketojan into the caverns was to try removing some of the cruel restraints he wore. Though he did not speak the sarabaas pulled away from my touch and refused to allow me even to remove the mask. I spoke calmly and tried explain that I did not want to hurt him but he would not let me touch him. I felt like a slaver leading hobbled prey but hopefully I could earn his trust enough to at least snip those horrific stitches through his lips before we left him to his fate. He certainly could not last long on his own in this condition.

Just as the passage began to slope again toward the surface a group of bandits that lived in the deeps challenged our passage. Their leader threatened violence against me and, before I could even draw my blade, a blast of force knocked my whole crew to the ground. In the ensuing fight our sarabaas displayed a power that even Anders would envy but he seemed almost uncontrolled, as though he was unsure which enemy to strike and so tried to attack them all at once.

When the last of the bandits lay dead Ketojan’s conflagration continued unabated. I approached him warily, soothing him and reminding him that we were trying to help. Slowly the encumbered mage calmed. We made our way through the last stretch of the cave and came out on the coast, straight into a group of Qunari. The leader explained they’d followed a trail that led them straight to us, though it came from the opposite direction. That bitch Petrice had set us up.

The Qunari wanted their mage back but it wasn’t my decision. I asked Ketojan if he wished to return. In reply, he fell to his knees in the sand before the others. Another gurgle apparently communicated his wish to speak freely and one of the warriors flashed on the collar with a large rod, releasing whatever enchantment had been laid on it to keep the mage from speaking coherently.

The sarabaas rose and turned to me. I winced at every word as he spoke, unable to stop watching as the stitches stretched and pulled. We argued gently as I tried to convince him to seize his freedom and escape this pain, offering my help in defeating the men that surrounded us. He thanked me for my intentions but was implacable in his desire to submit to the Qun. Then he turned back and knelt again. The Qunari with the rod promptly slit my new friend’s throat.

I cried out, a wordless protest at the way Ketojan had lived and at his unfair punishment. The warrior claimed that such unfettered speech had undoubtedly contaminated the sarabaas, as well as my friends and me, with demons but that we should be honored at facing such a ceremonial death. Fenris had watched the exchange with fascination, seeing the polar opposite of his experiences with the magisters played out with this mage who had less freedom than even the most punished enchanter in Thedas and the most tightly-controlled slave in Tevinter.

We destroyed every one of the Qunari that had followed Sister Petrice’s false trail. Even had they not attacked me I would have slaughtered the lot of them after what I’d seen that night. Then we returned to Lowtown to have a little talk with the sister, one I intended to begin with a shield to her face.

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