Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 33

An Offer from the Arishok

I needed to make sure Bethany knew about Mother before we did anything else. Gamlen had promised to send word but he’d hardly proven the most reliable of family members. Once I’d helped my sister to her feet she embraced me, gingerly to avoid being impaled on my pouldrons. Before I could decide how to ask delicately if she knew our mother was dead, however, Bethany proved she did.

“Did mother suffer, sister, or was it at least brief?” As always, she wore that earnest expression that made me want to tell her everything was going to be all right. It had never worked on Carver, who used to nail her braids to her bed when she was sleeping, but the rest of us had coddled her utterly. No wonder she had become so comfortable in the Gallows where no outside concerns intruded unless a mage sought them out.

As I hadn’t been there when Mother had been beheaded and sewn onto that monstrous, piecemeal body, I couldn’t really answer her question. I did the best I could. “She lingered a bit but she didn’t seem to be in pain,” I said. Bethany nodded mournfully but more pressing matters interrupted our talk.

“The beasts are collecting nobles in the keep,” Meredith said, disdainful of any personal concerns. “We will need to find a way inside.”

“And I suppose you think you should be in charge,” Orsino responded bitterly.

Before the two could start arguing I stepped in. “We don’t have time to fight among ourselves. I’m taking charge. Now get moving.”

Meredith looked like she’d bitten something indescribably sour for a moment before gesturing at me to proceed. I nodded as graciously as I could and led the way onward. A few Templars had been lurking in the shadows around the courtyard and they joined us as well. Our group, now ten strong, made its way up to the sheltered verge of the avenue before the Viscount’s Keep. Meredith and Orsino kept the others between them which suited me just fine.

Aveline peeped up at the broad porch before the doors. “I don’t see any of my guardsmen.” She sounded worried, though I suspected more about them than us. She knew we could handle ourselves but her new trainees sometimes barely knew their way around a sword. They wouldn’t stand a chance against well-trained soldiers.

Orsino stuck his head around the corner as well. “They outnumber us two to one and they have hostages,” he said when he pulled it back again. “We should create a distraction to draw some of them off.”

The Knight-Commander looked scornful. “That’s cowardly. Besides, we hardly have time. We can fight straight through them.”

Maker, could these two even agree the sky was blue? I rolled my eyes as I considered the problem. While we certainly could finish off so many Qunari another group indubitably awaited us inside, and then there was the Arishok himself. Diversionary tactics made more sense; they would allow us to conserve our strength.

“Orsino’s right,” I said. “We’ll have enough fighting on our hands once we get past this bunch.”

Meredith looked mad enough to spit, though she was far too self-contained to actually do so in front of her subordinates. For a moment she stood, frozen, almost vibrating as she brought herself under control. Then she nodded crisply. “Fine.”

Orsino indulged in the smallest of triumphant smiles before he strode out into the middle of the courtyard. Bethany followed him with admiring eyes and I wondered again just how close the two of them had become. As usual, my own feelings had to be put on hold for the moment but I made a mental note to talk to her about it when we were no longer in mortal danger.

The First Enchanter proved his strength, calling out mockingly to the massive figures at the top of the stairs. His rich robes marked him as a figure of importance even if they did not know who he was, ripe bounty for whatever harvest they intended. As they started down toward him he unleashed a firestorm that made even Bethany gasp.

The Qunari stumbled, several aflame, and he called out again. The combined stench of burning flesh and unwashed bodies filled the narrow street, causing all of us to draw back and cover our mouths, lest we start coughing and draw attention. The soldiers who could, angry and unthinking, followed while their attacker backed past where we stood in the shadows.

The group kept its attention on him. Smoke and flames obscured Orsino’s form and they jostled for position as they tried to find a clear path for their spears. Meredith and Bethany attacked them from the rear. My sister stood well back, firing spells seemingly right at the head Templar’s back. Not a one really came close nor did any miss their marks but the picture was startling.

It must have taken an enormous effort of will for Meredith to turn her back on a mage and to literally put herself in the line of fire of another like that. I couldn’t help but feel a small twinge as my uncharitable side wondered whether the Knight Commander would survive this skirmish. Bethany could never bring herself to murder someone nominally on her side but I didn’t know Orsino well enough to bet on his scruples.

All that flashed through my mind and then was gone. We had only a minute or so to move while the bulk of the Qunari stayed distracted. Fenris, Aveline, Varric, and I tackled the two left guarding the door. In mere moments we were inside. I doubt the others ever noticed us in the conflagration.

The wisdom of my decision became immediately clear. Easily a dozen Qunari lined the mezzanine rail where it overlooked the entry. Corpses littered the floor before us and Varric warned in a low voice that the landing before us was trapped. Had we fought through the mass of meat on the front steps we’d be even more wounded and exhausted than we already were.

Standing by the door and dying hardly appealed to us so we took a deep breath and charged, pausing just long enough for Varric to spring what he could. The fight went well until a saarebas wandered out from the hall to the throne room and tried to lay waste to us. At least this time we saw him and could prepare ourselves.

Aveline and I used our shields to good advantage, standing shoulder to shoulder and protecting Varric as best we could. Fenris flashed around the battle, blade slashing from unexpected angles as he dodged axes and knocked javelins aside. It didn’t take long before we’d cleaned out the men guarding the way to the throne room.

One presumed anyone inside had been ordered to stay there rather than joining the fight. It was too much to hope that the Arishok cowered there, alone behind a living shield of nobles. At least we had a reprieve to treat what wounds we could and catch our collective breath.

The four of us stood at the end of the hall before the towering doors, sharing a look, before I nodded. “Let’s do it.” We rushed the short length and Aveline and I kicked open the doors. Our dramatic entry, tumbling into the room and coming to a halt in a ready stance with Varric guarding our rear and the rest of us covering the other three directions, brought nothing more than startled silence for a long moment.

The nobles we expected were the ones doing the cowering, herded into a corner on Aveline’s side. Many of them looked relieved to see their Guard Captain coming to their rescue as they peered around the Qunari who didn’t even deign to look at them. I barely spared the assembly a glance. The figure descending the broad stair from the throne captured most of my attention.

“Serah Hawke.” The Arishok sounded almost satisfied at the idea that I’d brought my little band through his toughest men. “I have been waiting for you.” He bowled the head of Viscount Dumar down the stairs to rest at my feet, an accusation and a response all in one. Nobles all around me shrieked, the men as much as the women.

“Gosh, thanks,” I said, delicately pushing Dumar’s head aside with my armored toes. “I have an empty plaque at home that needed a trophy.” The nausea didn’t show too clearly in my voice, thank the Maker.

He narrowed those silvery eyes at me, though I swear I detected the twitch of a smile at the corner of his mouth. “Prove yourself, basra, or kneel with your brethren.”

I looked around at the over-dressed, terrified nobles. “Do I look like one of these sheep?” I asked before I shrugged my shield off my back and set myself for the fight. My companions did the same around me as the Arishok nodded solemnly.

He really did want to see how this turned out, though he had to know he was sending his men to their deaths. We'd certainly killed enough Tal-Vashoth in our time. It could be that he thought trained and disciplined soldiers would prove more of a challenge. They didn't.

When the last of them lay bleeding around us the Arishok shouldered his vast ax and nodded again. “Serah Hawke, you are basalit-an after all.” As usual I could not read his emotions in his voice but getting a name that separated me from the weeping, whimpering Kirkwallers behind us had to be a compliment.

His further acknowledgment of our prowess had to wait. The two guards at the doors thudded to the ground suddenly and there stood Isabela, grinning that fool grin of hers, holding the book. She shrugged at me and sauntered over to us. “I was halfway to Ostwick when I realized I had to come back,” she said. “You’re a terrible influence on me, Hawke.”

She handed the book to the Arishok who passed it to a bowing, awestruck minon. “The Tome of Koslun is reclaimed. I am now free to return to Par Vollen...with the thief.” His head was lowered and for a moment I thought he'd charge me like a cranky bull.

“Hmm, that does sound reasonable,” I answered, pretending to think over his offer. From the corner of my eye I could see Isabela gaping at me. She deserved to sweat it out after running off like that. Maybe it would give her a better idea of how it felt to have your friend stab you in the back, even if she did take it back.

“Oh-ho, no,” Aveline objected. “If anyone kicks her ass it’s me.”

I gave her a considering look before turning back to the horned hulk looming over us. “Sorry, Arishok,” I finally said, shrugging lightly, “the Captain of the Guard outranks you. Here’s your tome. Now you can leave. Please do.”

Bela punched the back of my shoulder. “Bitch.” She was laughing, though.

“Hey, watch the sword arm,” I joked.

The Arishok was not amused. “Can you basra take nothing seriously?” I shrugged again. “Then all of you will die. The demand of the Qun is clear.”

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