Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 15

A Plague of Dragons

Suddenly frustrated, Fenris spun and stepped even closer, stopping with his face an inch from mine. He growled, “Maker’s breath! Are you a mage, like your sister, to have bewitched me? Ever since we talked I can think of nothing else.”

I blinked at him, unable to form a response. The heat in his gaze and the sudden change of mood made it hard to think. It was nice to know that he’d been thinking about me, at least. Yet his markings began to glow as he continued.

“How can I accompany you into danger when I’m more concerned with keeping you safe than completing any task? How can I fight at your side distracted by watching the muscles of your shoulders slide under your skin when you swing your shield, by seeing the flash of sweat trickling down your neck as you spin to strike down a foe?”

Without waiting for a response Fenris slid a hand into my hair and attacked my mouth with his. The hunger I’d been ignoring for weeks broke loose and I shoved him against the nearby wall, my hands finally allowed to slide down his arms and up his back. A sound half pain and half pleasure escaped his throat and I recalled those markings, my fears that such intimacy would hurt him. I started to back away but his powerful hands kept me locked against him, our armor grating together. We gave in utterly.

At some point later, the taste of his skin on my tongue, I caught enough breath to protest that we were still in the front hall. We managed to get through a suspiciously-deserted house to my bedroom before either of us was entirely nude. Bodahn was a more discreet and thoughtful dwarf than I’d known. Much later, we found the items discarded elsewhere cleaned and neatly folded outside my door. By that point we’d begun an argument and I was relieved not to have Fenris storming about the house looking for his chest piece while railing at me for not understanding.

And understand I did not. Fenris told me that, in the throes, his lost youth had flashed clearly before him and, just as quickly, receded again behind the memories of pain that veiled it from him. My suggestion in response, one I thought perfectly reasonable, was that we try again to see if the same trigger would make them accessible for longer. In my satiated state I must have sounded more flippant than I’d intended. Suddenly Fenris was furious, telling me while pulling on his greaves before the fire that I clearly didn’t know how painful this was for him.

I apologized for taking it lightly and asked him what he wanted. That seemed to stop him for a moment and he looked at me, considering.

“It’s just too much, all at once” he said, his expression softening into sorrow. “Forgive me. I can’t…” His voice dropped away. “I can’t.”

Seeing the longing that swept his face I started to go to him, to take him back into my arms. But before I could finish rising from the bed he left. I banged my head on the bed post for a while but I wasn’t about to chase him into the square in the altogether and beg. On top of Hadriana’s revelations about his sister the sudden glimpse of her in his life must have stunned him. For the moment I simply had to let him withdraw. That protective shell had served him well for much longer than he’d known me. One evening was not enough to bring him out of it.

All of us had been working to convince Fenris that people were not all out to use each other, to hurt one another for selfish reasons. He’s overwhelmed, I thought. He just needs some time. Had I known how much time I would have run after him that night, pride be damned. The longer he took the more I was convinced that I had lost the opportunity forever.

You may think I did nothing for coin but beat up bandits, mercenaries, and Qunari so I thought I would explain the source of the rest of the fortune I amassed over those years. I did those things as well and the trinkets and artifacts from the Deep Roads provided a large pile of gold but there was more to my money than mercenary work. Like any good noble, I became a business owner.

It had started as a job clearing a mine called the Bone Pit for an Orlesian merchant named Hubert, a sleazy-looking sort with an excessive moustache and an accent I could have cut with my sword. Something had been killing his miners and the lot of them had gone on strike until he dealt with the problem. He was hardly going to get his own hands dirty so he hired me to find the source of the problem and eliminate it.

Sebastian was back in town so I asked him to tag along. He’d been in and out of Kirkwall since our little adventure at the Harriman estate and the latest trip had taken him a full two months. I’d missed our long talks, the more so in that time when Fenris had been avoiding me, and thought we’d enjoy a trip across the harbor and into the hills above the Gallows. We bumped into Aveline coming off duty and she volunteered to go with us. For her, fighting deadly beasts in the bowels of a mine spelled recreation. I did love my fierce and battle-thirsty friend. She definitely needed a break from fighting the politics of her position.

Yet she never let her joy in exercising her strength and skill, or her frustration with the constraints that the Viscount put on her command, affect how she ran the City Guard. None of her subordinates had anything but good to say about her and crime on the heights of Kirkwall had been reduced to a level the nobles found more than acceptable. Of course, the refugees and poor of Lowtown still dealt with much the same situation as ever but even they knew that their complaints no longer fell on deaf ears. Guards just could not combat the level of desperation that led so many of them to turn on each other as easy prey.

We picked up Isabela at the Hanged Man. She and Aveline had formed an unlikely and strange friendship. To hear them speak you’d believe they hated one another but their venomous banter covered a deep respect and affection. To call Isabela a slattern and a drunken whore was Aveline’s way of expressing it and Isabela’s descriptions of Avenline’s manliness and how badly she frightened her men were Bela’s tongue-in-cheek response.

It took me three hours and half a bottle of whisky to convince Merrill of this after she’d come to me in tears one evening. My pirate friend and the Captain of the Guard had been going at it tongs-and-hammer at the Hanged Man, accompanied by roars of laughter from the other patrons, and Merrill had been convinced they would kill one another. When I finally got her calmed down and dragged her back to the pub we found them with their heads on the table, companionably passed out cold.

The next morning, after a quick visit to Anders to have their throbbing heads healed, I brought Merrill to them and told them what had happened. The two laughed so hard that they had to hold one another up, wiping their eyes. “Just because she’s a thieving slut doesn’t mean she’s not my friend,” Aveline finally managed.

Isabela threw an elbow into her side. “Watch it, big girl,” she said affectionately. “The meanest guards in Kirkwall might tremble in fear when you pass by but I’m not afraid of you.” Merrill shook her head, smiling in that confused way that showed her willingness to accept one more example of bizarre shemlen behavior.

Sebastian adored Aveline and was more frightened of Isabela than she claimed Aveline’s guards were of her. I kept dragging him around with her in the hopes that he’d loosen up a little. Though we spent a great deal of time together he still shied away from even a clap on the shoulder from me and he never brought his eyes above Isabela’s knees on the few occasions he managed to actually speak to her.

I’d grown so accustomed to her exposed cleavage and lack of pants that I tended to forget that her undressed state might be uncomfortable for a man of the cloth but, really, how strongly could he hold to his vows if even her simple presence was such a temptation? Though she did tease him mercilessly, now that I think on it. The day she bought those new boots…dear Maker, I thought Seb’s head would explode his face was so red from her attempts to show him how high they extended up her naked thighs.

Regardless of their interaction, these three often made up the group I chose when Fenris was otherwise occupied. Aveline and I could hold off a dozen men with our shields while Sebastian rained arrows down on them and Isabela stabbed them in the back, two by two. While the captain and I used brute force to hammer down our foes Bela danced among them more like Fenris, but with two daggers she sacrificed power and reach for flexibility. She’d trained long and hard at dueling with those blades and every moment of it paid off in battle.

We arrived at the Bone Pit to find a deserted mountainside half-hollowed by a grey-white quarry that appeared strangely lumped from a distance. As we climbed the path I realized that the rounded areas were not outcroppings of rock but piles of bones. I’d never have imagined that the name of the mine was literal but skulls were heaped a dozen or more feet above the floor of the pit. We could put no number to the dead but it had to have been thousands. At the point where the tracks for the mine cars came together above the quarry a monument told how they’d come to be there: the Tevinter magisters that had run this mine had flung disobedient slaves and any that died under their oh-so-tender care off the cliff to rot.

Even Bela had no joke to make about what we found and Sebastian offered a lengthy prayer to the Maker for the souls of the departed. I thought it a little late for that. Where had the Maker, or the gods of the elves the Tevinters had conquered, been when this horror had been perpetrated? Fenris had seen what the descendents of those people had become and I found a new sympathy for his hatred of them, though there was no indication that magic had played a part.

Shaking off my horror, I led our little group to the mine tunnel Hubert had said was currently being worked. It didn’t take long to find the trouble: we’d passed barely a dozen yards into the shaft when baby dragons and their pint-sized papa attacked us. I’d have to have a little chat with Hubert about the quality of his information but in the meantime the four of us had an exciting, if toasty, time clearing out the dozens of creatures in various stages of dragon-y development.

Near the end we found a panicked man dashing frantically through the mine. He stopped to tell me that he’d thought to hide on a grassy ledge where the tunnel ended above another part of the quarry but had found his way blocked by a dragon far larger than those he’d fled. Bela all but rubbed her hands together and Aveline grinned like a madwoman at the prospect of a bigger challenge. Even Sebastian was chomping at the bit to see what awaited us.

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