Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 32

Certain Doom and a Reprieve

The looters discouraged or dead, we returned to following bands of Qunari across Lowtown. For every ten we killed two more hauled another well-dressed human off toward Hightown. Satisfying as it was to finally let loose on them, we’d have to make our way up as well and find out what they had planned.

As we followed the warren of alleys, circling around closed gates and collapsed buildings that still smoldered and spit flame, we found ourselves outside Gamlen’s apartment. Instead of guards or armed thugs fighting for their lives we found three men wearing impressive blue and silver armor in battle with the Qunari. They fought well but were hopelessly outnumbered.

We threw ourselves into the fray and, between the seven of us, we made short work of the remaining troops. In the quiet that followed, the sounds of struggle much subdued after the swath we’d cut across Lowtown, one of the men bowed and introduced himself in a ridiculously formal Orlesian accent as Rochard, a Grey Warden.

I thought back to the day we’d met Anders. When I’d asked him to verify his identity as the former Warden to whom the shopkeeper had referred us, he’d assumed we had come from the Order and vehemently refused to return. Could these men be here seeking our tortured apostate? My amusement with Rochard’s foreign charm cooled.

Though the three refused to tell us what they were doing in Kirkwall they did explain that their business was pressing enough they could not stay in the city to help us defend it. Clearly they did not seek Anders, after all. Their charming farewells left me smiling again. After I’d checked on Gamlen and found him huddled in his apartment, a goblet and a bottle near to hand, we left to climb the interminable way to Hightown.

We refreshed ourselves with what poultices and salves we had along the way. I’d killed more people that day than I had in the past three weeks combined but, for the first time since Fenris had walked out on me, I felt truly happy. My life had been marking time for months, little frustrations and big building upon one another. For all the little missions I’d undertaken it hadn’t seemed like anything had changed. This explosive change cleared my mind and showed me that every silly errand we’d run for the Viscount and each dastardly deed I’d tried to stop Petrice from perpetrating had been building up to this.

Aveline was, if anything, more relieved at the culmination than I. She’d been walking a tightrope between the demands of the citizenry Petrice had been stirring up and this very eventuality. Now she could act instead of weighing every word for its political impact. The pair of us gleefully slaughtered the men whose presence had caused us both so much trouble. Fenris’s withdrawal, Isabela’s betrayal, my mother’s murder, the deaths of Emeric and Du Puis and Seamus and Petrice; everything faded in the sheer relief of doing.

And so we bounded up the last of the steps into the market square where we’d wangled half the Bone Pit from Hubert and bought half the daggers Isabela had ruined on other people’s armor. Outside the occasional scream Hightown remained remarkably quiet after the chaos of Kirkwall’s lower reaches.

We stepped into the broad stone courtyard to find a pair of red-streaked Qunari hauling a well-dressed woman along its pillar-supported overhang by her ankles. Upon hearing the clatter of our arrival the pair turned and quickly dropped their prize. They readied their weapons, the noise alerting the others left to stand guard nearby. I presumed other groups had been left at all of the entrances to Hightown while the rest gathered the nobles as ignominiously as this woman had been.

She scampered past us and disappeared down the steps, preferring the possibility of being seen in low-class Lowtown to whatever she thought the behemoths had had in mind. No one in the square gave her a passing glance. The rest of us were too busy trying not to die.

Fenris, Aveline, and I tackled the Qunari in groups of two and three as we worked our way toward the lone tree in the middle of the court. We used the trunk and stalls around it for cover from the archers atop the nearby raised porch where Ghislain had first begged us to find Ninette. Varric rained arrows on them, using Bianca’s repeating feature to outmatch their firepower. One of these days I’d have to ask him where he’d gotten that magnificent machine. There didn’t seem to be another like it in all of Thedas.

I couldn’t dwell on it long, however. The press of grey flesh and flashing weapons reclaimed my attention almost immediately. Finally a dozen bodies lay at our feet and we stood in the dripping quiet. As soon as we’d caught our breath I gestured to the others that we should move. At the first step around the ruined stall a saarebas leveled the lot of us. It was humiliating.

We lay sprawled and stunned. I could see the shackled, shambling thing as it prepared to finish up off but my arms refused to move. Fenris had landed with his head just touching my side and I heard him say my name faintly, hopelessly but I couldn’t even move a finger to touch him one last time. Aveline protested from somewhere nearby. “Not like this.”

But just as the mage’s hands rose a sword bloomed through his unprotected belly. A gout of blood replaced the stream of magic he had been intended to send our way, spattering our already-filthy armor. The spell holding us still faded and Fenris turned his head away from me, spitting a mouthful of blood with a disgusted noise.

I didn’t move, however. The saarebas crumpled to its knees, sliding off the long blade with an indescribably wet sound, and I waited to see the face of our savior. Let it be a random guard that Aveline can silence, I prayed. My reputation and our livelihood may not survive this.

But the Qunari’s death revealed not some lowly guardsman or handy merchant but the Knight Commander herself, face grim until she saw whose life she’d saved. Then the gloating I so feared surfaced. Had my hands not been coated in blood I’d have buried my face in them.

“Serrah Hawke,” she said, her voice rich with satisfaction. “My Knight Lieutenant’s reports of your prowess look to be exaggerated.”

Aveline cursed as she struggled to her feet and Meredith arched a brow. “Such language from the Captain of the Guard! What sort of example is that to set for your men?” Maker, what an icy bitch she was. From the rumors I’d heard it wasn’t just to those of us outside the Gallows, either. The Templar recruits had come to fear her as much as the mages did, by all accounts.

Her fanatical devotion to controlling every aspect of their lives had won her many critics. Most people said she’d started bad and gotten exponentially worse over the past few years, though what had changed no one could say. Enough mages turned to darker forces that she could justify a certain paranoia. The attempts of such maleficarum to insert demons into her recruits explained a bit more, perhaps.

But the stories of her refusal to believe that anyone who disagreed with her could have resisted the lure of demons and the power of blood magic made even the most complacent of Templars and mages nervous. Executions and Tranquil ceremonies had risen sharply since Bethany had been sent to the Circle and I believed it was only her compliant, gentle nature that kept someone so long an apostate from facing the same fate Anders’s friend Karl had.

The knowledge that Meredith held so much power over my sister’s continued well-being kept my tongue in check where normally I would have responded derisively. With the exception of Aveline, who still endured much flippancy, I normally had little patience with authority. In this case, however, I thought it best to remain actually polite rather than sarcastically so.

“We appreciate your timely intervention, Knight Commander.” She nodded primly, her piercing blue eyes gauging my sincerity. I suspected our good Templar kept a lengthy and running list of the slights she perceived and held each one against its giver at the moment it was least expected. With luck she’d see that I meant what I’d said: without her we’d all be dead.

Once we’d finally regained our feet she turned regally and started say without looking back to see if we followed. “They are gathering nobles at the keep,” she said with a gesture at a dead Qunari as she passed. “We will need to stop them.”

“Who’s this ‘we’?” Varric asked. “I don’t recall signing up for Templar training. The armor’s really not my style.”

Aveline and I laughed at the image of him in heavy plate with skirts pooled around his feet but Meredith was not amused. Her acid reply was cut short, however, by the battle we found nearby. The five of us leapt into action. When the dust settled we found robed mages lying still and First Enchanter Orsino the only one standing.

“Gone, all gone,” he whispered. His anguished face turned left and right, detecting Andraste knew what. Never particularly dark, his skin had turned ashen and I feared he would collapse. Then he gasped and rushed to a dark-haired figure in blue robes lying on her side with her back to us. “Alive!”

Sad as the devastation was my mind had gone ahead to how we could get into the Viscount’s keep. With only a single entrance at the end of a stone funnel more likely to feed us to the Qunari than anything, we faced the likelihood of certain death. Even Aveline didn’t know of another door despite her intimate familiarity with the enormous building.

When Orsino turned over the woman, however, all other concerns dropped away: it was Bethany. I rushed to his side only to hover uselessly as he employed what healing skill he had. She stirred and looked up at him with what I thought an unseemly smile. Clearly I’d have to keep a closer eye on my sister and the First Enchanter. Being under his wing would keep her safer from the Templars’ predations than I could. Still, he was at least old enough to be our father.

“So, you’ve survived,” Meredith observed drily.

Orsino matched her tone. “You needn’t sound so relieved, Meredith.” If they’d been dogs we could have seen their hackles standing on end while they circles one another. Their legendary arguments thrilled Anders and he told me the stories in great detail. Matters looked as bad between the two as such tales had them but it was not the time for their squabbles. We had Qunari to kill and a Keep to invade.

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