Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 34

We Are the Champion

"Arishokost. Qun-aneen ebra-toh." Fenris's voice rang out, the words unfamiliar to me but clearly meaning something to the Arishok. He dropped his hand from the hilt and peered at my friend. "You have granted this woman basalit-an. By your own admission she now has the right to challenge you."

"If you truly knew the Qun, elf, you would not suggest I battle a female." He sounded both furious and dismissive. That hand began to rise again.

"But she is no female. She is a respected outsider, by our own words."

The Arishok considered this. “What you say is true, elf.” He turned to me. “Then I challenge you, Hawke. We fight for the thief.”

“Just so I understand,” I said in a clear, carrying voice, “we duel one-on-one. If I win the rest of your people take the book and leave, today.” There wouldn’t be too many witnesses left if he refused to keep his end of the bargain but at least his own men would know him forsworn. I was counting on their rigid code of conduct saving the citizens of Kirkwall, assuming I lived out the afternoon myself.

He nodded solemnly. “They are bound by my word. And when you lose I will cleanse this city of its corruption, if we must raze it to the ground to do so.”

I grinned at him, stuffing into a corner of my mind the urge to wet myself and then run away. Tired and bruised though I was I felt invincible in that moment. No one could have expected the Maker to require that I keep my promise to protect all of Kirkwall so literally but I hoped it meant he was on my side in the fight.

“Tomorrow ain’t promised.” I drew my sword and set my shield. “Let’s go for it tonight.” Bela cheered and Fenris groaned.

“Meravas! So shall it be!” he roared. He'd gotten in the habit of self-translating, dealing with the bas in Kirkwall for so many years, which saved me from asking Fenris to explain everything. Now was definitely not the time and I doubt I'd have remembered later.

My giddy mood sustained me even as my heart stopped dead for a moment when he hefted a sword taller than Merrill. I’d thought he would use those unwieldy axes but here he was with a nimble blade, a wicked ax, and my own smart mouth to use against me.

The next fifteen minutes, as I have been assured was all the time the fight lasted, utterly humiliated me. I could never hope to match the Arishok physically and his reach with those enormous weapons exceeded mine by several feet.

And so I danced in and out, ducked behind pillars, dodged fearsome swings, skipped under his arm to slash at him and then slipped away again. He chased me around the room, roaring epithets and calling for me to stand and fight. My shield took beatings that would have killed me in a stroke and I wasn’t about to stand there and take the hits.

The world contracted to this room with its huddle of terrified nobles behind impassive Qunari and my friends looking worried as I flashed by again and again. I couldn’t take the chance on worrying about an honorable fight. Survival was my only goal.

I’d have sworn we stutter-stepped and dove for an hour. The thought that this would be the end of the Qunari in Kirkwall and sheer terror kept me moving through the pain of the wounds I’d taken in our fight to the top of the City.

Though the Arishok bled from a dozen places he never slowed down or gave any sign he was flagging, which did nothing for my morale. I could feel myself dragging and at some point I would trip over my own feet and fall. The nerve that kept me moving could only counter so much and it was beginning to fail.

I spun at the last moment, feeling the rush of air in front of that massive body, and was almost driven to my knee. The Arishok had charged me like a bull, looking to gore me with those wickedly-pointed horns. Thank the Maker it was his last hurrah. The impact with my shield knocked him back into the pillar and he slid to the floor, stunned and bleeding.

Without hesitation I leapt, spinning myself into a full swing of my sword. The blade came down over the edge of his left pouldron and bit deeply into his neck, slicing through until it hit the metal on the other side. I tugged it free with a grunt and stepped back from the flood I’d loosed, my sword still ready in my hand and my shield raised protectively.

Slowly, so slowly, he toppled, his eyes never leaving mine. The room could as well have been empty for all the sound anyone else made. My heartbeat thudded in my ears and my breath came raggedly but the only noise that reached me was the scrape of his sheaths across the carved stone as he fell.

With a series of little thuds, the Arishok collapsed into death on the soaked carpet. One of his horns caught on the corner and pulled his head to an impossible angle. Four Qunari dropped their crossed arms and marched purposely over to the body, neither hurrying nor hesitating. They crouched around it and one of them rather delicately disentangled his former leader’s head from where it was caught.

Looking at the nearly-beheaded corpse, I recalled my flippant comment when we’d arrived. “Gee,” I told it, “it looks like I’ll have a much more impressive trophy for my drawing room.”

One of the Qunari bending to retrieve the Arishok straightened and reached for his weapon but then stopped. At least their sense of place and honor prevented the bunch from attacking me now that I’d won the day. Enough blood stained the red carpet and cold stone of this place.

I raised my hands placatingly; I’d only been joking, anyway. That last thing I wanted was to confront that stern face every morning. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Fenris lower his arm from where I assumed he’s been reaching for his own enormous sword.

No sooner had the Qunari decided not to start a brawl than the door banged open and Meredith, Orsino, and a pack of Templars burst into the room. They skidded to a halt, mouths hanging open, at the sight of half a dozen dead people and my blood-spattered party.

“Is it over already?” asked the First Enchanter. He sounded bemused, almost satisfied that the Templars would have no hand in resolving the situation. I nodded, gesturing at the leader’s body where it was being dragged away by his fellows.

A moment of silence crawled by as Meredith looked from the Arishok’s dangling head to Dumar’s where it lay at the foot of the steps. She gave me the sneer that passed for a smile in her world. “Well, it looks like Kirkwall has a new Champion.” Somehow I knew she’d never forgive me for stealing her moment in the spotlight.

The nobles just emerging from the cowering pile they’d made in the corner started cheering. They started toward me but no one wanted to touch the gory mess of my armor so they settled for clapping one another on the back. Bethany stepped hesitantly into the room, wringing her hands, but when she saw me still standing she rushed to my side.

“You always did love to play with the big boys,” she said. I thought she might faint for a moment, her face was so pale. Then she shook it off and smiled. “Maker, that thing is almost as big as the ogre that took Carver. Mother would have killed you for taking it on alone.”

I smiled at her. Relief washed over me at seeing her unhurt and then, with the last of my fears for the day resolved, exhaustion followed in its wake. “Do you think you could help me home and stay for dinner, Bethany? Assuming I can stay vertical long enough to eat, that is.”

Her eyes went to where Orsino and Meredith stood, surrounded by Templars. The Knight-Commander’s pursed her mouth with displeasure but nodded curtly. How could she refuse the request of the Champion of Kirkwall, at least in front of most of the remaining nobles in the city?

I hated the idea that my sister had to ask permission to visit her own home, or what would have been had Cullen been able to ignore her for just a little while longer. If he’d managed to hold off even for another few days Bethany would have been able to stop taking jobs that forced her to flaunt her magic in order to eat.

Of course if Gamlen hadn’t been a worthless sod he’d have taken care of the pair of them while I’d been gone and the Templars would never have heard of her. And if he’d never gambled away the family fortune…

It was no use dwelling on my uncle’s stupidity or the Knight-Lieutenant’s bad timing. Even a goody two-shoes like my angelic sister couldn’t see her family once she’d gone to the Circle and I had to be named Champion by risking my life to defeat a giant ox of a man just to get her over for dinner. It was no wonder mages rebelled from time to time.

What could the Chantry hope to accomplish by cutting mages off from their entire lives and imprisoning them for decades? As far as I could tell, and from what Anders told me, it managed to isolate them entirely, to eliminate any friends they might have made elsewhere. Most mages, he said, had no idea how to cook or clean or haggle with a merchant.

They’d never done these things in their lives. That made them simple to catch, wandering around wide-eyed and turning to total strangers for help. Those few with families nearby often had the benefit of letters and a continued connection but most mages came a great distance to the Circle and never had a copper to their name.

Bethany pulled at my arm and distracted me from these thoughts. She was trying to disentangle my mutilated shield. I helped as best I could and Fenris stepped forward to take it, his eyes on my face. I couldn’t read the mix of emotions I saw there; relief, certainly, but something more, respect and sadness, perhaps even regret as well.

He started to speak then stopped, mouth open, considering. After a moment he simply said, “The armorer won’t be pleased to see what you’ve done to his work,” and turned to leave. I called out to him but the press and noise of the crowd let him pretend not to have heard.

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