Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 16

Back and Forth

A worthy battle we found atop overlooking the quarry: the mother dragon that had spawned the dragonlings we’d fought with in the tunnels. Yet after facing down Flemeth’s high dragon form a regular full-grown dragon didn’t intimidate me as much as I’d have thought. The biggest challenge lay in keeping out of its way when it loosed a full-throated trumpet that battered your ears and made your whole head swim. My shield provided enough cover so the gouts of flame barely singed the fringe on my armor but the teeth and claws were a different matter.

Isabela danced to stay behind mama dragon while Sebastian jockeyed for position on the piles of rock around the cave we’d just left, trying to stay out of her line of sight. He sank arrows into the hollow at the base of her neck and after a time it began to look like the dragon was wearing a ruff of feathers. Aveline and I kept her attention as much as we could, striking at intervals from behind our shields but mostly just letting the others chip away until she lay, magnificent and bloody, unable to fight back any longer.

Aveline and Sebastian argued about who should get the death blow until I finally walked over and ended the beautiful thing’s suffering. They both pouted the entire way back to Kirkwall, Isabela’s jibes pricking each of them. Meanwhile I dreamed of being able to transform as Flemeth had.

Our little dragon adventure was by no means my only involvement in the Bone Pit. When we returned to the market, and Hubert, to report what we’d found he threw up his hands. “It’s one thing after another up there! One of the men told me they had been attacked by dragons and I had him beaten for lying,” he exclaimed in that overblown, Orlesian way he had.

“I’ll make you a deal,” he continued after a deep breath. “I will deed half of the ownership of the mine to you if you can keep the men working and the tunnels clear.”

Though I had the pile of coin the booty from the Deep Roads expedition had brought I knew that it would not last forever, especially at the rate my mother was spending it on the mansion. I jumped at the chance to own half a business, though the cash he had on hand to give me amounted to a measly three gold. I headed to Lowtown and found the foreman, deep in his cups and singing Ferelden tavern songs with his friends. The whole of the crew working the Pit was comprised of refugees willing to take on the dangerous work rather than scrounge for scraps or turn to the Coterie like so many of my countrymen.

I introduced myself and explained that we’d cleared the mine of those pesky dragons. The men cheered me, raised cups sloshing the cheap ale that was all they’d been able to afford over my boots in their enthusiasm. They agreed to return to work after I explained that the Bone Pit was now half mine and I wasn’t about to let them get killed and waste a whole week’s work finding replacements.

Over the next several months, between jobs and jaunts and Qunari nonsense, I got calls to clear out yet another new section of tunnel infested with one thing or another. The first such request involved giant spiders, the matriarch of which was fully ten feet high. Then there were the undead, if you can believe that, men who had died at some point in a sealed passage somehow returned to life and furious about it. I had to strong-arm Hubert into a pretty hefty raise to get the men back to work after that one.

The last time they needed my help was just after we’d taken down Varnel and returned the dead Qunari delegation to the Arishok. The complaint that time was not monstrous creatures preying on the men but faulty equipment. I laid out fifteen gold to buy new pickaxes for them in the hope that, when next Hubert sold whatever it was they hauled out of those dark shafts, an even bigger purse would await me. For the next four years the mine ran smoothly with the occasional visit from my friends and me to remove another infestation. It made me a hefty sum of gold that, with Fenris’s help, I stashed in hidden slaver caves up the Wounded Coast.

You must be wondering, after my abrupt subject change, what happened with Fenris. Obviously, that night did not signal the end of our friendship. I had to respect his feelings, after all, little sense as I thought they made, but neither of us was willing to give up working—or drinking, or being—together so easily. It took months but we came to a point where we no longer danced around our one time together whenever we happened to be near one another.

It didn’t help that everyone seemed to know what was going on, though I certainly never discussed it with any of them and Fenris swore he had not. Yet almost daily another of my companions would ask me about it. Isabela was at least straightforward. “Are you done with him yet?” she asked me one night at the Hanged Man. “I wouldn’t mind trying out his ‘talents’ myself.”

She’d asked too soon, however, and all I gave her was narrowed eyes and, “Not really.” She dropped it after that. To my knowledge she never approached him directly. I’m certain one of them would have mentioned it if she ever had.

Anders, on the other hand, was more circumspect with me. Somehow he knew and he pried around the edges of the subject on more than one occasion before I finally just said, “Look, it happened once and now it isn’t. Just drop it.” Though his eyes flashed strangely for a moment he sounded sincere when he said he was sorry I’d been hurt. Whatever else he may have been, he was my friend as well.

He was not, however, friendly with Fenris. The two held opinions diametrically opposed from one another, their histories having taught them utterly different things about magic and those who used it. That antagonism extended even to my short-lived relationship with the former slave. Several weeks after he had left my bedroom so regretfully I overheard Anders needling him about it. The warning in his tone was clear as he responded, “Leaving her was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Do not make light of it.”

I wanted to cry out, “Then why did you do it?” But I already had his answer. I wasn’t willing to make it even worse for him by starting the whole conversation over again. We still interacted in a tentative way, weighing every word for meaning when we spoke. If we could salvage some of the closeness we’d enjoyed before I thought I could learn to live without more. I pretended not to have heard and ordered another whisky in which to drown my sorrows.

Anders asked me to come to his clinic one afternoon not long after that exchange. It was rare that I came there on his request. Usually just I stopped in to check on him uninvited, happy though he normally was to see me. He was pacing impatiently when I arrived, Merrill and Isabela in tow.

Though she’d not forgiven me for withholding the arulin’holm Merrill hadn’t enough friends to throw them away and the rest of our crew had been adamant in supporting my position. She remained wary with me and threw puppy eyes my way whenever the subject of the eluvian arose, still. Maker, elves have eyes just made for mute appeal! But she was slowly coming to believe that I had not kept the tool out of greed or spite.

Isabela had been trying to get her out of her rooms more, hoping to ease the elf’s obsession with that creepy mirror, and I’d run into the pair of them on the docks, Isabela conducting some sort of shady business while Merrill watched, wide-eyed. I’d long before learned not to ask about such transactions.

As I said, we walked into the clinic to find Anders, blue glowing eerily from his eyes, talking to himself. More correctly, he was talking to Justice, trying to calm him. I could see the strain in his face, the struggle between them etched in every tense line of his body. But when he or they or it noticed us the light faded quickly. It was far from the first time I’d seen Justice peeping out and watched Anders struggle to stuff him back inside. After his comments to Merrill I knew that Justice had been asserting its control over their shared body but when I asked him about it Anders had brushed off my concerns.

“Some nights I don’t really know what he’s been doing and others I watch when he…does the things I am not strong enough to do,” he’d told me, hardly reassuring me with the haunted tone that belied his casual words. Then he’d changed the subject, telling me how Justice admired my skill in battle and missed wielding its own sword and shield. I had let him derail the conversation onto a discussion of what Justice had been like before they’d joined. His admiration for the spirit was clear, as was his regret at the increasingly-violent results of their merging.

Most often Anders managed to express himself without help from his passenger but on some subjects their shared feelings ran too strong for Justice to remain in the background. Yet Anders feared what Justice would do and fought to contain it whenever it began to emerge. All of this made me believe that Justice had been hurting or killing people when it controlled their body, though death was such a fact of life in Kirkwall’s undercity and on the surrounding hills that there was no way for me to pick a single incident and ask Anders if they had been involved.

For his part my friend defended the spirit, crediting it with every ounce of his dedication, both to his patients in the clinic and to the underground that smuggled mages out of the Gallows. He’d mentioned, when I was brushing out his hair or cajoling him into eating something, having helped apprentices escape when they had been threatened with being made tranquil or had suffered abuse at the hands of the more rabid elements in the Templar order that guarded them.

Yet he’d chosen to train as a healer from the first. The stories he told me of his time escaping from the Circle Tower in Ferelden and wandering the countryside included instances of his stopping to help those who needed it, more than once at the cost of his own freedom. And the whole reason he had become a Grey Warden rested on his resolve to help those at Vigil’s Keep fight off the Darkspawn rather than taking to his heels the moment he’d had the chance. Anders refused to see these instances as proof he’d not been a wholly selfish man before Justice had entered him. His failings, and what Justice told him were his flaws, weighed nearly as heavily on his mind as his conviction that the Chantry could not continue to control mages in Thedas.

But again I’ve wandered from the story I intended to tell. When all evidence of his possession had faded that afternoon in his clinic, Anders turned to us. “I need your help,” he said. “I never wanted to involve you before but this…I have to know.” Blue flared again in his amber eyes, a short-lived pulse that underscored the strength of the emotion in his voice and I knew that something very, very bad was happening in the Gallows. I feared for Bethany even before I heard his explanation.

“We thought it was just the troublemakers, the ones who escaped or turned to blood magic. You must have noticed how many more Tranquil there are in the courtyards around the Gallows, more every week. I know some of those people; they passed their Harrowings years ago. They’re good people and strong mages. And yet…” Again Justice bloomed in his eyes and his body thrummed as he fought to contain his anger.

“But that goes against Chantry law!” I exclaimed. Over the years it had become harder and harder to communicate with my sister, even with Cullen’s friendship. I’d worried that Bethany might be harassed or hurt by Templars, certainly, but it had never crossed my mind that, once she’d passed her own Harrowing, she might be made Tranquil anyway. If the danger was real and could be prevented, I needed no more motivation to give Anders any support he wanted. “What help do you need?”

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