Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 14

Rough Vindication

Though I wanted to maul him right there I held back, waiting to see what Fenris chose. Apparently he wasn’t quite ready to set aside that physical reserve that held him apart from the rest of our circle. He moved around me and back to the chair on which he’d been perched earlier that evening, the tension I’d barely registered showing clearly in the stiff line of his back when I turned. The intimate moment passed and, although I briefly considered a trip to the Blooming Rose that evening to take the edge off my suddenly-powerful frustration, I wasn’t about to push him.

Weeks passed after that evening and nothing much changed. Fenris seemed to avoid being alone with me but so subtly that I could not decide whether it was intentional. Yet he smiled more and joked with Varric on our frequent trips about town cleaning up messes with and for Aveline. Even Anders remarked that he’d not received yet another lecture on the evils of magic from Fenris when they’d met at one of the regular card games Varric arranged at The Hanged Man. I decided to let the matter lie until Fenris brought it up again but as the days passed I grew less sure he ever would.

It may seem from my descriptions that Fenris led a bored and petulant life, squatting in the mansion and closely guarding his hatred and distrust, drinking and gambling like a wastrel. In fact he had reason as the years passed to believe that Denarius hunted him still. We regularly encountered groups of slavers plying their trade using the refugees and elves that filled the lower reaches of Kirkwall. Many of them knew to whom he was to be returned, should they manage to capture or kill him, and they taunted him with their intent to reap the reward. They all paid the price for their foolish arrogance.

Some weeks after our conversation, on one of our many trips up the Wounded Coast, our progress was interrupted by slave hunters and the pupils the magister had finally sent for Fenris directly. Naturally we defeated them soundly. Fenris snatched the lone survivor’s hair and bashed his face into one of the rocks that dotted the path, demanding to know where Denarius hid. The man revealed that it was not the magister but his favorite pupil who had brought them so close to Kirkwall. She and the rest of the hunters had a base in the caves around Sundermount where slavers used to hide their human cargo from one another hundreds of years before.

Fenris snapped the man’s neck as casually as most people turn a doorknob then urged us to lose no time in pursuing Hadriana. It didn’t take us long to cut through those guarding the way. Fenris fought like a demon, though I’d never have used those words to him.

I’d seen him fierce before, seen him angrily lay waste to a whole troop of Tal-Vashoth or mercenaries, helped him destroy slave hunters to the point where they could be shipped home a dozen to a wine cask, but such displays were nothing to the fury he vented on these slavers. The rest of us stayed back, not daring to close with the enemies while his blade flashed so wildly. The lyrium in his skin glowed blue as he used every ounce of his power to slaughter those who stood in the way of his vengeance.

The caves we entered were clearly of dwarven design, twenty-foot stone paragons guarding the corridors as they had in the Deep Roads, at least the upper portions not leading to the ancient thaig. Lava bubbled up along the edges of the halls providing light and keeping the dressed stone warm and dry. Dwarves had built not only much of Hightown but the tunnels that riddled the stone beneath Darktown and wound under Sundermount and up the Wounded Coast. Many of the passages and caves looked eerily familiar, as this one did, the same layout used in variations a dozen times or more.

In one of the chambers we found a man bled dry, the last dribble still tacky on his face. Fenris snarled as we struck down the men guarding the far door, Hadriana must have heard the echoes of our battles with what guardians she had left for suddenly shades and demons appeared to block our path. The dead man’s blood fueled her desperate attempts at protection.

Our disgust pushed us through them quickly. Men and Fade creatures alike fell before us, mages cut down in mid-summon and slavers slaughtered as though their armor did not exist. Seeing the size of the force that Hadriana had brought I finally understood how badly Danarius wanted my friend. Fenris’s paranoia had been more justified than even I had thought.

Just before we finally caught up with our quarry we found a slave, her stick-like limbs and frightened eyes showing the sort of treatment she suffered. She was unable to explain clearly how she had managed to avoid the creatures or Hadriana’s blade in her grief. Her father had been the man bled for power on that slab now far behind us and the sudden, vicious reversal of fortune had shocked her to near-incoherence.

Ss gently as I could I got her name and sent her back to Kirkwall, the way behind us cleared, to take a job in my household if she wanted it. Mother would sure find use for a lady-in-waiting or a cook less “creative” than Bodahn. Fenris touched my shoulder after she’d run off, nodding his thanks. The poor girl would have been lost without some direction, so far from any home she’d known with her father dead and the people who’d brought her to the Free Marches so soon to be dead.

In the next room we found Denarius’s pupil. She threw everything she had at us, spending every drop of the blood we’d all spilled to bring waves of creatures from the Fade. But nothing could stop Fenris. He drove relentlessly through everything, whirling madly and shouting imprecations as he fought closer and closer to the corner into which she’d backed herself. Finally Hadriana was too exhausted to continue and the last of her allies lay dead. She crouched protectively, knowing what Fenris would do to her. Before he could strike, however, she spoke.

“You don’t want to kill me,” she said, sounding more sure of herself than she had any right to given the circumstances. Fenris naturally disagreed but she promised him information more valuable than Danarius’s location if he would give his word to spare her life in return. He turned his head to me, looking for guidance, but I was not the one to make this decision. I gestured to him as if to say, “Do as you will.” He gave me a smile that would have struck fear into even my heart had it been for me. But I knew the true target.

Fenris turned back to where she was huddled, dropping to one knee and leaning forward until his face was mere inches from hers. “Oh, yes,” he sneered, “you have my word.” How she could not read the sarcasm dripping from his voice, feel the menace that radiated from his body, I don’t know. She likely wanted to believe she would survive the encounter and what she had to say did buy her her life, for the moment.

“You have a sister,” she began. Fenris rocked back to sit on his heel. She detailed where the woman could be found and revealed that the she was no longer a slave. He let Hadriana talk until she ran out of secrets then, drawing on that frightening power, lit the lyrium along his right arm. He reached into her chest and crushed her heart with a look of savage satisfaction, giving her a little shake of finality before he dropped the body and began to pace the small chamber in agitation.

I touched his shoulder gently as he passed. “Do you want to talk about it?”

He spun and glared at me. “No, I don't want to talk about it,” he spat. Tears stood in his eyes but they seemed as much a product of anger and frustration as any sadness. He railed that this new revelation could only be a trap, yet another strand in Denarius’s evil web designed to capture him. I could see how much he yearned for it to be true, for a family, a piece of his past that may prove the key to unlocking his memories, yet he was afraid to hope.

He turned his back to me again, shoulders hunched as though to protect his heart. I laid my hand on his shoulder, as much contact as I thought he’d allow and far less than what I thought he really needed. He recoiled, snarling that he needed no comfort. When he turned, lip still curled, he must have seen the hurt on my face. The words he’d been poised to hurl at me died in his throat and his eyes softened. For a moment his hand begin to rise and I thought he’d reach for me.

Then he whirled again, saying he needed some air, and I let him go. Where Anders’s displays of how damaged he truly was drew only pity such moments with Fenris engendered a protective instinct I could not explain. Perhaps the difference lay in the elf’s determined self-reliance, the distance he kept around his heart, while Anders pursued me like a puppy, desperate for a pat on the head or a crumb of affection. The former drew me, a mystery to explore, while my haunted mage just made me sad. Varric shot me a sympathetic look but none of us spoke as we made our way back to town.

I dragged myself into my house, wondering if I should seek Fenris out in his mansion or give him some time to himself, only to find him sitting one of the benches just inside the door, picking at the splintered edges of the tooth marks in what had somehow become my Mabari’s favorite chew toy. When I stepped through the door Fenris leapt to his feet and paced some more while I handed off my things to Bodahn for cleaning.

When we were alone he walked slowly toward me, looking tentative. He barely met my eyes as he mumbled an apology for his harsh words. I touched his hand, just resting my fingertips on the back of his glove. “I understand, Fenris. How can you place your hope and trust in what that woman says yet how can you resist the promise of a family?” He raised his gaze to meet mine, tears again filling his eyes, and I smiled gently. “Thank you for the apology, though. It means a great deal to me.”

We stood for a long moment, just looking at one another. Just as I began to wonder what would come next Fenris dropped his head and turned. “I should go,” he said hesitantly.

I snatched the hand that I’d been touching, afraid of how long it would take for him to find this much courage again. An embarrassing, pleading note sounded in my voice when I answered, “Don’t.”

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