Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 31

Making the Best of It

Varric laughed when we told him the scope of Isabela’s exploits. “You have to admit, Rivaini’s got bigger balls than the Arishok,” he said. “I can’t wait to see what he says.”

Off the four of us went to tell him that we knew why he couldn’t leave and then convince him to turn over the “converted” murderers that Aveline wanted. None of us was optimistic about our chances of success.

While we’d been at The Hanged Man Aveline had sent word for a contingent of guards to meet us outside the Qunari compound. When we arrived, however, the men at the gate refused to allow them inside. This did not increase my confidence.

After a tense moment during which I thought Aveline might behead the poor man just doing his job, we agreed that just the four of us would enter. As ever, the Arishok’s sources had informed him of recent events faster than we could. He was pacing agitatedly, axe the size of Varric in hand, but spun to a stop as we reached the base of the stairs to his rough throne.

“Serah Hawke.” If he’d lowered his tufted white eyebrows any more they would have obscured his eyes entirely. He was clearly furious. “And the Captain of the Guard.” It sounded halfway between a greeting and an indictment on some as-yet-unspecified charge.

Aveline spoke up, eyes as ever on the goal. “We come regarding the elven fugitives that took refuge here.”

“Irrelevant,” the Arishok responded, crossing arms that weighed more than Fenris across the slabs of his chest.  “I would speak to Hawke about the relic stolen from my grasp.”

“My former companion has removed herself and your book from Kirkwall. In all likelihood she’s halfway to Rivain on some ship she stole.”

He paused, his massive head lifting in surprise before he nodded. “This I knew,” he said, “but your honesty is…refreshing.”

Of course he knew, which was half the reason I had told the truth. “Why anger you further for a woman who has lied to me for four years?” I asked reasonably. “And if it gets you out of Kirkwall then why wouldn’t I tell you where she’d gone?” Fenris said something in Qunari behind me that he translated as “the simplest means to the best end”.

The Arishok’s only response was a ruminative “hmm”. Aveline gestured dismissively. “That's a matter for another time.  We're here for the elves. Have they truly converted or are they using using you for shelter?”

Two could play at the dismissive game. “The elves are now vidithari.  They have chosen to submit to the Qun and are no longer your citizens.  They will be protected.” When she opened her mouth to protest the Arishok flipped a hand at her impatiently. “You have not hidden the abuses of your zealots or the corruption of this city.  You will understand why I must do this.”  I cursed Petrice and her short-sighted, narrow-minded obsession, mentally spitting on her grave.  “Let us look at your ‘dangerous criminals’,” he continued.

  The soldiers to his right parted as he turned his head to them. Their movement revealed two boys who could be no more than fourteen.  "A city guard forced himself on our sister,” one of the said, angry but still casting frightened glances at the giants surrounding him.  “We reported him, or tried to, but they did nothing about it.  So my brothers and I paid him a visit.  It…didn’t go well."

“By the Void, Aveline! Why didn’t you tell me they were kids?”

“That doesn't excuse murder,” Aveline responded sternly.  When I asked if their story was true she shifted uncomfortably.  “There have been rumors and I will investigate.”  Then her voice firmed; she felt back on solid moral ground.  “But they still took the law into their own hands.”

“Sometimes that is necessary,” the Arishok said ponderously.

Aveline bristled.  “Like you avenged the Viscount's son?  It was not right then and it's not right now. I don’t have the authority to arrest your men but I do these.”

The Arishok waved away her objection.  “Their actions are mere symptoms.  Your society is the disease.  They have chosen.  The vidithari will submit to the Qun and find a path your way has denied them.”

“You can't just decide that,” Aveline protested.  “They killed a guard and they must stand for their crime.” She sighed. “Look, I know they’re young. But they were old enough to act as vigilantes and they’re old enough to answer for it.”

We both knew that two elves would have little chance of a sympathetic trial by humans and that neither was likely to survive imprisonment. The Viscount didn’t pay her to look at shades of grey, however. They didn’t pay me at all so she used me on issues she knew the black-and-white view of the law shouldn’t handle. That didn’t bother me. I was glad she could still that grey and find a different path, as she’d asked me to come to help these boys in some way.

The two stood, looking defiant but nervous, flanked by soldiers easily twice their size. Aveline turned to the Arishok. “If they’d run to the Chantry I’d be having this same conversation with the Grand Cleric. You find the chaos of our lives disturbing but I cannot do my job of limiting that chaos if murderers can hide behind the nearest religious figure. You must hand them over.”

The Arishok settled back on his hips and regarded her silently for a long moment.  “Tell me, Hawke.  What would you do in my place?”

With a look of apology in Aveline’s direction, I answered, “I’d refuse.  They asked for your protection and we all know the nobles that judge these things show more interest in keeping residents of the Alienage and Lowtown in their places than they do in justice.” 

“I’m afraid I have to concur,” Fenris said from behind us.  Varric tossed in his agreement as well.  Aveline opened her mouth to protest but closed it again.  She had known what side I would take when she brought me here, just as she’d known the Qunari would never hand the elves over to her.  This was a play, a put-on that would allow her to tell the Viscount honestly that she had tried to do her job.  Short of attacking the mass of men in the encampment she could hardly force them to relinquish the fugitives.

If I’d hoped my agreement would calm the situation I was sadly mistaken. Aveline’s hollow protests had only served to highlight the things he hated most about Kirkwall. “I cannot leave without the relic and I cannot stay and remain blind to this dysfunction.  There is only one solution.”  The Arishok had been stewing for months and this latest confrontation had to have exploded out of proportion in his mind.  He was prowling again, that axe describing a dangerous arc with every pace.

“Go after Isabela?” I suggested hopefully.  Aveline kicked me in the ankle.  “Arishok, there is no need for...” she began.

He silenced her with a single, abruptly-raised finger.  He spoke two short words and javelins filled the air above the low courtyard in which we, fools that we were, stood alone. The walls around us were lined with soldiers, each readying a lance or straightening from having thrown one. An obscene oath escaped me but I fear I gawped at them longer than I should have.

“Go!” Fenris called.  He tugged the strap of my sheath as he began backing toward the gate, pulling me with him.  His blade was already in his other hand.  I slid my shield into place and reached back to draw my sword but Aveline stopped me.

  “Not here.  It’s too exposed.”  Spears thudded into the ground from all sides. We knocked a few aside but none hit us.  Surely the Qunari could not all have such terrible aim.    Perhaps my honesty had bought us a scaring off rather than a quick death.

As we neared the narrow gate Fenris and Varric turned to guard our backs against the men we’d left outside. At some point they’d either come into the compound behind us or left entirely. All my friends found were guards lying where they’d fallen. A lance thudded into the wall near my face, discouraging us from stopping to check if any of them still lived. As much as I hate to admit it, the moment as we were out of range we turned and fled back up one of the stairways that led to Lowtown.

We stopped to catch our breath on one of the landings. The sounds of metal clashing and screams of pain and fear echoed down the narrow passage from both ends. “Can you hear it?  The Qunari are spreading out.  They must be attacking the city.”  Aveline stamped her foot almost petulantly. “Why?  What could they possibly hope to accomplish?”

“They're not exactly 'If you can't beat them, join them' creatures, Aveline, but I think they’re going to take their best shot at beating us anyway. Call it a parting gift.”

“Well, then, let’s give our best shot at stopping them,” she said. We grinned at one another. The mounting tension of the past months had finally broken and we could do what we did best: bash heads to help people keep their own intact.

The cries and clashes of a dozen battles sounded from all around us. We saw Qunari slaughtering citizen and refugee alike and intervened where we could. The saarebas hammered us with explosive bolts. Without Anders we were far more vulnerable; healing salves and injury kits went only so far. Much as I appreciated Varric’s facility with Bianca, I wished we’d brought my haunted mage to the compound. But then who’d have expected this storm to blow up so suddenly?

As we crossed Lowtown, following the few Qunari who had abandoned fighting for dragging well-dressed people ever upward, we found people looting the stalls and homes abandoned by others. “Oh, by Andraste’s blood!” I exclaimed. “Has today not gone badly enough?”

Varric laughed. “You leave a door open, someone’s going to go in,” he said philosophically. “The Coterie’s cleaning up what they can from the rubble.” I cuffed him affectionately across the back of his head, careful not to muss the stub of hair he wore drawn back in what looked like imitation of Anders but likely was not. Varric was hardly the type to style himself after another and Anders, no matter how many wild tales he told of his time outside the Circle in Ferelden, didn’t inspire admiration in the dwarf so much as protectiveness.

“Let’s stop them, while we’re here,” I said. “The people who live here have little enough without losing everything to thieves. Then we can mop up some more of those Qunari.”

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