Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 17

Sudden Reversals

Anders explained that one of the senior Templars, Ser Alrik, had been agitating for what he termed the Tranquil Solution under which all of the mages in the Gallows would have their connections with the Fade, and thus their magic and their emotions, severed. Isabela and Merrill looked as horrified as I felt. Such a program would go against everything the Circle was intended to do.

The Rite of Tranquility was supposed to protect people from mages who were too weak-willed to face a Harrowing or who had already proven dangerous without that test. Enchanters who transgressed went to mage’s prisons rather than undergoing the Rite. It was not used to punish the outspoken or disagreeable and the Chantry would never approve it for all mages.

Would they? I thought. Meredith was a little nuts and Elthina had shown all the backbone of an earthworm in defying the woman she’d appointed Knight-Commander. By the time Orsino appealed to the Divine and received an answer it could be too late to save any of the mages. Clearly the First Enchanter didn’t have the power to prevent his charges being made Tranquil against his wishes, unless he was complicit in the plan as well, something I found impossible to believe.
Chantry sanction or no, we needed to act. Anders promised we would find proof if we accompanied him immediately and we three agreed readily. He led us across Darktown to one of the many sewer entrances that dotted the interlinked caverns and gave the place its pervasive smell. “You must swear to me,” he said, looking more solemn than I’d ever seen him, “that you will never reveal this passage. It has saved the lives of dozens of mages and the sanity of many more.”

I shook my head at his absolute lack of guile. It would have made far more sense to make us swear such a thing before he had shown us its entrance. For all the drive Justice gave him, for all of the experience they’d had with fighting and fear, neither had learned much about intrigue and deception. I suppose Justice’s whole purpose railed against it but clearly the spirit hadn’t thought about an enemy employing such nefarious tactics.

For Anders, it was simply a lack of experience in the world. Enemies may lie but your friends did not. Pretending not to have been indulging yourself with your fellow prisoners in the Circle was far different than smuggling people out of a situation where you might both be killed if caught. His earnest face showed that his use of the word “swear” was more a formality than an honest requirement for a pledge. He might just as well have said, “Promise you won’t tell,” like a small boy proposing some mischief to his compatriots.

I patted his hand, trying not to smile. “We won’t. Will we, ladies?” Merrill shook her head, nearly as grave as Anders himself. Isabela grinned, finding the pledge as childlike as I, but she readily agreed. Relief flooded his face and he threw his arms around the three of us.

“You don’t know how much this means to me,” he said as Isabela took the opportunity for an exploratory grab at what was beneath those robes and Merrill struggled to keep her face out of Bela’s cleavage. Despite her awkward position the willowy elf looked thoroughly pleased with the sudden expression of affection from a man who most often berated her for being foolish and willfully blind.

We’d talked about him once and I think Merrill understood that he sought to protect her, as best he knew how, from the dangers of the decisions she’d made. He saw in her the same naïveté that had led him to accept Justice into himself, believing that together they could solve the problem that had plagued the Chantry and the Circles for centuries. That didn’t make it easy for her to bear how he went about it, however.

I patted Anders on the back. “We’re your friends, Anders. That’s what friends do.”

He released us, then, giving me that eager puppy look that made me want to step back lest he lick my face. “I don’t deserve such friends,” he answered, “but I’m glad to have you.” I’d long before learned not to argue with such declarations and, even had I wanted to speak, the fear and anger rushed back into his face as he recalled why we stood around this secret place so important to him and how he thought of himself.

The path led through an utterly filthy tunnel lit only by a glow Anders created. Merrill gave an “ooh” every several seconds as her bare feet squished in something or other in the near-dark until I asked her to kindly remember we were in a secret passage. The length of dripping, stench-ridden rock seemed interminable but finally we emerged into a relatively dry area with packed dirt underfoot, much like the rest of the undercity. It wasn’t until I wondered how many other exits led to various bolt holes in Kirkwall that I realized why the passage had been so black: we’d passed under the harbor entirely and were beneath the Gallows itself.

I felt a little weak at the idea of running back again, knowing the incredible weight of water would hang over us, but I shook it off as Anders gestured us forward. Merrill had been busily cleaning her feet on some nearby rocks while Isabela gauged the damage to her boots but the three of us quickly huddled around him. Ever the imp, Bela goosed him a little where he crouched, peering around a corner. When he turned I whispered in his ear, “Those Templars are going to be so jealous, seeing you surrounded by all these women. Maybe that’ll distract them.” He shook his head but I spied the twitch at the corner of his mouth as he did.

It was the last light-hearted thing any of us said the rest of the afternoon. We crept around the corner, my armored boots the only noise and one covered by the clank and creak of several men wearing heavy plate. Rather than a group of Templars on patrol we found nearly a dozen men, all watching a young woman sprawled in a sunny clearing of ferns and moss. A nearly-bald old man loomed over her, sneering, the skirts of his armor nearly brushing he toes where she scrabbled away from him. Her right arm was raised as though to defend against a blow and she was pleading, promising to do whatever he wished.

As though the scene were not enough to bring Justice roaring to the fore, the man chose that moment to say, “Oh, yes, when you’re Tranquil you’ll do whatever I want.” His voice dripped with a lusty disgust that curdled my lunch. The mage cowered at his feet, her eyes darting among the men avidly watching the confrontation. The Templar took one more step forward where she’d backed away and Justice had had enough.

“You will never hurt another mage!” the spirit roared, leaping into the clearing and slicing the man’s head clean off with the bladed portion of Anders’s staff. I cheered and joined the fray wholeheartedly. Merrill snared Templars for Isabela to finish off while I bashed some heads. Justice used both the magic Anders possessed and his own combat talents to destroy half of them before we ladies struck our first blows.

The surprise of his entrance stunned them. They’d barely had time to react before we’d slaughtered the lot of them. The woman lay where she’d been, curled in a ball with her hands over her head, trying not to get trampled in the fight. She lowered them when the quiet fell again to see Justice blazing out of Anders, his mouth drawn down in fury, staff still raised threateningly. He stood nearly as close as Alrik had. The sight must have been terrifying.

“Are you a demon?” Her voice trembled and I could see her bracing herself for death. Frightened as she was the idea must have been preferable to being made Tranquil and suffering the whims of a group of clearly-eager men.

Justice bellowed, “Are you one of then, that you would call me such?!” The spirit reversed the staff, preparing to impale the poor woman.

“Anders!” I screamed. The blue glow that streamed from his eyes and through his skin stuttered as he dropped his staff. He hands flew up to clutch his head, as he fought for control of his own body.

“We just saved this woman and now you want to kill her,” Isabela said derisively, just about the only way she ever spoke when Justice was in evidence. She didn’t seem to think much of the spirit’s dedication, instead mocking its single-mindedness.

Anders moaned and twisted. I put my hand on a shoulder, feeling him shudder beneath the feathery paldrons. “She is the reason we are here.” I spoke calmly, trying to help him subdue the fury. “Would you throw her life away after all?”

His face turned to me, agony etched around his mouth. The radiant lines were fading and but a hint of blue hid his normal amber. “Hawke?”

I rested my other hand against his cheek, feeling the skin close beneath my palm. He laid his own over mine and closed his eyes for a moment before letting loose a wordless cry of pure anguish. Then he shook himself free and ran.

Merrill started to go after him, her face loose with shock, but Bela grabbed her arm. “Give him a minute, kitten,” she said softly. The elf began sobbing and my hardass pirate friend pulled her into an embrace, stroking her back and hushing her. The girl stood shakily and eyed the pair, a strangely matched duo to be sure. I could only imagine how confusing the afternoon had been for her.

I patted Merrill on the back but I couldn’t resist a tiny lecture. “Now you see why he fears for you.” She wailed again but Isabela gave me a sour nod. It may not have been nice but if we could drive home the lesson it might be worth her hurt feelings.

I quickly searched the bodies as the stranger looked on in horror. Within Alrik’s voluminous skirts I found correspondence from Meredith and the Grand Cleric, both of whom had dismissed his proposed “solution”. Relief caused my knees to sag for a moment before I realized how weak Meredith’s control of the Templars must be if some of them were making mages Tranquil without any authority.

I took a moment to kick the asshole’s head farther across the room then gestured for the mage to follow me. We got the hell out of the basement of the Gallows, glad of the woman’s magic to light our way without Anders. When we emerged in Darktown, stinking and filthy, the young lady introduced herself as Ella. “What was that thing?” she asked, her eyes widening in memory.

I sighed, not knowing quite how to answer. “That’s a complicated question,” I began. “For now let’s just say he’s a man with a lot of serious problems.” She nodded uncertainly, wiping her palms on her robes as if that would clean them.

“Well, thank you for saving me, twice, whatever happened,” she said. “I’d better find somewhere a little farther than my mother’s house to hide. When they find those men…” She shook her head sadly. “There’ll be hell to pay.”

We wished her luck and saw her on her way. Merrill looked exhausted from the emotion of the afternoon. Bela led her away with an apologetic look that I waved off. I could find my own way home and I wanted to check on Anders in any case. But when I arrived at the clinic it was locked up tight and no one came despite my insistent banging. I feared what Anders might be doing behind those doors but I could hardly stand there all night drawing attention to his place of refuge.

I decided to get cleaned up and then return with Varric to pick the locks. Rather than trudge through the streets of Hightown smelling like a chamber pot I took the basement passage that had sat unused the whole time I’d lived in the mansion. Its entrance lay not far from the clinic’s door and I wouldn’t have to see anyone until I found Bodahn and begged him for bathwater.

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