Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 13

Betrayal and Temptation

When we entered the camp the disappointment at our being alone showed on every face. Even the Keeper could not keep her dashed hopes from showing as we approached and handed over the amulets of the slain hunters. We confirmed that we had killed the varterral and I asked why it had been killing the hunters.

“I do not know,” Marethari said sadly. “It has long lived in that cave and never before bothered members of our clan. Perhaps the elder spirits, now so restless atop Sundermount, share their agitation with the one at its roots.”

If even one so experienced and knowledgeable could not explain the trouble with an ancient power how could Merrill assume she knew how the eluvian would work? Before I could ask for the what tool we’d come to retrieve would do Merrill burst out, “Why does everyone fear me so, Keeper? What have you been telling them?”

Marethari’s face grew colder, her sorrow for the dead set aside. “Only the truth, d’alen. The mirror is tainted with the Blight and will bring death to us. You have abandoned your training and your clan to continue this pursuit.”

Merrill wailed in consternation. “Keeper, why would you tell them that? You know what I did to learn how to cleanse the taint. It’s not a danger any more!”

“I have told them the truth, d’alen. The eluvian will bring only death to this clan. However, I keep to my word and the traditions of the elhven. I am giving you the arulin'holm, Hawke, with the hope that you can persuade Merrill where I have failed.”

Marethari handed me the device, cupped her former apprentice’s cheek in her hand with a look of desperate sadness, and then walked away without looking back at us. Merrill gazed after her, regret and frustration warring on her face. Then she turned to me, her hand held out for the ancient tool. ”She’s turned her back on me now but when I can bring her proof that I was right she’ll tell the rest of the clan and I can come home. I thought for a moment that she wouldn’t keep her word.”

I felt about a foot tall but after what the Keeper had told us and the example of the varterral I couldn’t let Merrill keep playing with fire. Marethari was a mage and versed in the lore of her people as well as a witness to what the mirror had caused. I should have returned the arulin'holm to her immediately but I’d been so surprised at her handing it to me rather than Merrill that she’d disappeared while I was trying to understand what she’d done. Merrill held out her hand and I just stared at it.

“I can’t give this to you, Merrill,” I said finally. “Not when the eluvian has already killed two people. It was broken for a reason and adding blood magic to it can’t possibly make it less dangerous.”

She goggled at me, unable for a moment to believe what I’d said. “How could you do this to me?” she cried when she realized that I wasn’t going to hand it to her. “I trusted you but you’re just another shemlen, using me just as the others said you would.” The accusation hurt, that I was the sort of human that viewed elves as nothing but tools or toys, but she refused to hear any of my explanations.

Anders placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder as the slight elf ran off toward the city. “You did the right thing,” he said, “whether she can see it now or not. She’s playing with forces she refuses to understand.” I squeezed his hand in thanks for his support. He spoke from experience, regretting the decision to allow Justice into him though both their intentions had been to help one another. I wondered if the spirit could see as clearly how badly awry that purpose had gone and what it was doing to Anders.

We turned our steps back to Kirkwall, discussing the day’s events and whether Merrill would take this new round of warnings to heart. I bid Varric and Anders farewell as the night stretched between the buildings of Lowtown to darken the streets. The last of the fading sun still shone on the upper reaches of The Hanged Man and warmed me as I climbed the interminable stairs to the top of the city. I headed for my home, to clean up, and then intended to visit Fenris in his lofty, decaying quarters.

While Sebastian and I had been bonding over philosophical discussions, I was bolstering the sad and lonely Anders and enjoying a growing interest in Fenris. I found myself in the company of the most interesting people I’d ever met, most of them men, and balancing their conflicting views and egos as delicately as the rope walkers that strung lines over the stairs between Lowtown and Hightown on market days.

My haunted mage took any kindness as a deeper affection but I couldn’t bring myself to be cruel in the face of those tortured eyes. It seemed the only time he could be lighthearted was our teasing, flirting sessions when he could push Justice into the background and simply be himself. I could see a brighter Anders hiding beneath the anguish he wore like a second coat and enjoyed bantering with him and Isabela on topics that caused Sebastian and sometimes even Fenris to blush or simply leave the room. Yet I had no interest in a romantic entanglement with so wrecked a man and endlessly cheering him was beginning to wear on me.

Fenris, on the other hand, was tasting his first lasting relationships and learning to trust. He rarely joined me when Merrill or Anders was near but the tightly-wound elf took to inviting the rest of us to Danarius’s mansion where he waited in Hightown, not far from my own reclaimed estate. Most visits were comprised of friendly conversations, cards, and exploring the wine cellar while he learned to live outside of his constant fear that his former master would appear to reclaim him once again.

Some evenings, however, when Aveline had patrol and Varric left to earn his keep as the storyteller at the Hanged Man, Fenris and I indulged in more personal chats. He told me about his flight from Danarius, his fears that he could not escape his own past, and asked in his fumbling way how one went about building a new life when the old was nothing but ashes and pain.

Between these tentative queries he sometimes slipped touches on the hand and those plaintive eyes, the ones that, when anyone else was near, most often expressed anger or disdain. Yet he never spoke of anything more between us and responded to my teasing with nothing more than a smile and a little growl of appreciation before changing the subject. He’d never once betrayed a hint of desire in the four years I’d known him. I had often wondered if there were something in his time with Denarius, something more than the markings themselves, that made him abhor contact so much. His momentary touches I wrote off as his small way of trying to fit in with our rough-and-tumble group.

On one such evening we’d been drinking wine and talking about my father. Though he’d been an apostate, a mage who’d escaped from the Gallows here in Kirkwall decades before, he’d also been a strong man, one who had taught his family the dangers of the Fade and the creatures that so desired to controls mortals. He’d also been a wonderful father, loving and so proud of my strength and skills even without magic. I missed him terribly and found more than once myself wishing that mother had died in his place. It was a horrible thing to think, a feeling I’d never admitted to anyone, but that night it all came pouring out in a rush.

Fenris brushed the backs of his fingers across my cheek as he made some reply to my accusations of selfishness. I forgot my guilt in surprise. Was my interest in him was returned; had he had been letting me know all along had I only been able to see it? He kept his eyes on me, watching for my reaction after he’d finished speaking.

As casually as I could, I replied to whatever he had said as I reached up and took his hand in mine. Our words held no sense for me as my mind raced, wondering if I really understood or if I was reading too much into a simple comforting gesture. I looked down to toy with his long fingers, trying to avoid the markings that hurt him so much. Concentrating on doing so let me avoid glancing up for a minute or so. When I finally worked up the courage to look at him the desire in his face stabbed through me. Flutters of excitement danced within me. I’d long ago given up the idea that he wanted more from me. Apparently my friend just moved very, very slowly in matters of the heart.

I continued to hold his hand for a time while we made noises at each other than I doubt either of us understood. Something new had come to us, something that burned higher than the warm friendship we’d long enjoyed. I released his hand at some point but by then we’d managed to somehow move closer to each other. The chairs that had been at an angle to one another had slid much nearer and my knee was pressed lightly against the side of his slender thigh. He seemed so nervous, clearing his throat and blinking those beautiful green eyes of his frequently.

It had been a long time since I’d considered physical involvement with anyone. I found myself contemplating his lips, wondering if he would kiss me and if it would hurt him. Something particularly forward popped out of my mouth, a jest I’d intended lightly, but he stiffened suddenly, withdrawing a bit. I started to apologize, fearing I’d shocked him, but he stopped me. “No,” he said, looking at his ever-exposed toes, “it’s just that…” He seemed unable to finish the sentence. He stood and walked to the window, looking out as if unable to face me. “I’ve never…”

My eyes widened as I mentally finished that sentence. Somehow I’d always pictured a sexual element to his servitude. Perhaps my female perspective had unconsciously equated the cruelty Danarius and Hadriana had visited on him with those most degrading of personal invasions. Thinking back for a moment I couldn’t recall Fenris ever having mentioned such a thing even in his most detailed retelling of his years in slavery. I flushed, both at the idea of being his first and with embarrassment at the thrill I felt thinking about it.

“You…ever?” I couldn’t think of a delicate way to phrase the question. The surprise showed rather more clearly in my voice than I’d intended.

“I’ve never stayed long enough in one place, never gotten to know anyone well enough since I escaped. There was never time to…worry about it.” He spoke haltingly, still staring down at the courtyard as if wishing to distance himself from the conversation. The cheek that I could see colored lightly along the bone.

I walked over, standing near without touching him. It seemed as though I was, indeed, that tightrope walker making a delicate crossing. Flip remarks, my usual default, would be useless but I’d never been in such circumstances. I studied his back-swept ear, the sturdy point somehow erotic in the moment, and the line of his jaw above the lyrium that decorated his neck. A desire to run my tongue along it swept through me.

“And now?” I spoke quietly, almost whispering with a voice thicker than it had been moments before.

Fenris half-turned, a smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. “Now, I worry about it.”

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