Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 35

After the Storm

It had been a year since I’d staggered out of the keep that no longer had a Viscount. In the power vacuum his death left Meredith expanded at an alarming rate and every inch of her bristled with unreasoning fear. Even mages who never left the Gallows, who had, until recently, supported the Templars, stood accused of plotting and nefarious deeds.

Things had gotten so bad that even Cullen, her second in command, had begun to question her judgment. Though he never admitted it in so many words he’d begun to shade the truth and then outright lie to her to keep her placated as best he could.

The haunted look he’d had when we’d first met, an artifact of some horrific experience in the Ferelden Circle, had faded in the first few years I had known him. Over the months after I was named Champion the deep circles beneath his eyes returned again. As Knight-Lieutenant he retained enough authority to do much without involving Meredith but he couldn’t have been more than ten years my senior and a good number of those he tried to command were much older.

Some, like Thrask, kept their heads down as best they could and worked to protect mages from the Order as it operated in Kirkwall. That wasn’t well at all. The population of the Gallows had been much reduced by those killed battling the Qunari. The constant escapes and Rites of Tranquility winnowed the number of mages down even further.

Without the infusion of the mages after the fire at Starkhaven’s Circle and a few children brought to the Gallows from around the Free Marches the Templars might have run out of charges entirely. I’d have thought having so few active mages would allow Meredith to relax but she ordered her men to ever more vigilance. The tighter they squeezed the remaining residents the more they tried to escape.

My personal life was much more stable, in that nothing much happened. We all spent our time drinking, playing cards, and looking for excitement around the City. Though Aveline still had her guards to captain even she found herself at loose ends from time to time. Whatever the Arishok had intended, the fight up from the docks to the top of Kirkwall had cleared a fair percentage of the population from its streets.

It took months to get all of the corpses burned and the buildings were only partially restored. But with so much more space for everyone, Darktown’s most miserable—that is, those with just enough to attract the notice of the Coterie—could find space in Lowtown. Even the slums seemed a paradise to them after squatting near the sewers for four years, particularly when they came with a lockable door.

Tthe only place unaffected by the string of battles had been the Alienage. I knew that several elves had defected to the Qun, probably where those kids had gotten the idea. Popular rumor had the Arishok warning their leaders of the attack so that they could barricade the alley into their quarter and stay out of the fight entirely.

Personally, I thought them wise to hedge their bets by playing both sides. They had enough problems without being drawn into a war based on a religious conflict in which they had no stake. Why should Kirkwallers assume the elves they treated so badly would side with them over a perceived attack on the Chantry?

With the ranks of thugs and thieves even more reduced than the law-abiding population—thanks, in part, to our stopping the looters on our way through—it became easier to police the streets. As the population Hightown recovered from their shock and started throwing fêtes and balls to celebrate my status as Champion the citizens and refugees learned to live together in Lowtown.

I found there could be no polite decline for these celebrations. After the hissy fit one of the women threw when I tried to dodge her invitation I decided it would save a lot of drama if I just accepted. The first few came as a sort of welcome distraction, a chance to share the relief all of Kirkwall felt at the sudden release of tension. The attention quickly grew embarrassing, however. I’d never much enjoyed being the center of attention and three or four nights a week listening to people tell me of my own fabulous exploits rushed the bloom from the rose.

Sebastian gallantly squired me to most of these events. Fenris stared at me in horror the one time I asked him and Anders could hardly be expected to attend in the midst of the losing battle he was fighting with Justice. Every scrap of news and rumor from the Gallows made the spirit angrier and brought him closer to the surface.

Some days I thought Anders gave Justice credit for everything of which he was proud, just to find some good in their mistake. From the stories he’d told me and what I saw of him, Anders was a gentle man who wanted only for people to live their lives as they chose. He controlled powerful magic, as capable of killing as of healing, and he had no compunction in using it to help us and others who found themselves in danger’s path, but I’d never known him to use it to control or manipulate someone.

He was everything Fenris insisted the magisters of Tevinter were not and yet the two couldn’t have a civil conversation about magic and Templars. Anders’s contention that living in the Circle from childhood crippled apprentices, left them unable to function in the outside world, fell on deaf ears with my stubborn elf. The poor decision our mage had made outside the control of the Order did rather argue against his claim that the others deserved to be free, as did most of our encounters with escapees or apostates around Kirkwall, however.

Nearly every mage we came upon outside of the Gallows had resorted to blood magic either to defend themselves or because they were, in fact, batshit crazy. The woman in charge of the group that had captured the delectable Keran was a perfect example of the bizarre behavior that magic users seemed unable to resist in the environs of Kirkwall. Many of the Templars behaved little better, though, as Ser Alrik and the idiots we’d struck down with him proved.

I had to wonder whether something in the city’s history made it the worst possible place to reside for those so connected to the Fade and who used lyrium so freely. Even Anders had to admit he’d never seen Templars as vicious as some in Kirkwall, nor had he encountered so many mages unable to resist the draw of demons.

I had found obscure references to the Tevinter occupation and the shocking numbers of slaves that had died or simply been lost somehow in the time when thousands of elves were taken from their clans and brought to the city. Had the magisters performed some ritual, some heinous act that made Kirkwall so dangerous for those sensitive to magic? Had they damaged the Veil, somehow, making mages more susceptible to demons?

It was nothing I ever managed to resolve. The few references I found to truly scholarly study of the question ended in death or abandonment by the searchers. Of course I had no access to the libarary in The Gallows. Cullen professed to not having seen or heard any such thing when I asked him. He looked thoughtful for months after I explained why I had asked but he never admitted to finding anything.

The poor man had more immediate concerns to occupy his attention. The tensions in Kirkwall between the Templars and their charges were building and burning. Every month or so rumors of some horrible act on one side or the other would filter through the streets, with everyone taking sides and defending the oppressed or the oppressors.

I quickly learned not to let Anders speak of Templars and mages when I visited or I’d be treated to a glowing diatribe that did nothing for the condition of the man’s body. He insisted that he was fine, that he was coming to some sort of compromise with it, despite appearances. As the months passed I saw less and less of him, finding the clinic empty or his helpers running things without him as often as not.

He rarely turned up at The Hanged Man, that year. When he did he slumped in his chair and declined to play Wicked Grace. Varric would buy him a whiskey and it sat on the table, barely touched beyond a wistful sniff. I asked if he was afraid of what might happen if he had too much and he smiled sadly at me, the only way he seemed able in those months. “Justice doesn’t let me get drunk any more.” He took tiny sip as if to show that he could still disobey. “I kind of miss it.”

We all worried about him, none more than Varric. The two had grown close and the dwarf didn’t take kindly to being shut out by the voice in Anders’s head. Even he was stymied, however, by the mage’s continual denial of any problem. “Without Justice,” he would say, “I’d still be too selfish and too lazy to help other people. I’d still have my back turned on other mages, thinking they could take care of themselves the way I had.” He’d shake his head at his former self. “Justice just gets impatient with my weakness, sometimes. I can’t be as single-minded and that frustrates him.”

Varric and I tried to be his friends but he pushed both away. And then late one night he appeared in Varric’s rooms when we were well into our cups. He smiled, he hugged me, he let Isabela drape herself over him and exclaim how she’d missed his cushy robes. We all slept in what had been our accustomed, drunken tangle that night, with Fenris precariously sprawled on the bench nearby.

Whatever storm had been brewing in Anders’s head seemed to have passed without breaking. He still disappeared on occasion, still neglected to care for himself and was easily provoked by talk of the Chantry or the Templars, but he seemed easier in his skin than he had since our little encounter in the clinic so long before. In our relief, we all tacitly agreed to let sleeping spirits lie.

Thankfully, at least for my friends and me, the quiet in Kirkwall drew bandits from across the Free Marches looking for an easy score or new territory. We patrolled the Wounded Coast as much or more than the guards themselves, something that caused a bit of resentment among the City Guard. Their admiration for Aveline herself tempered their frustration, however, and all of her men and women had to admit they finally felt they made a difference to the City.

I felt the same. My promise to protect the city, given the stamp of legitimacy by Meredith’s proclamation of my new title, guided my actions. The Templars and mages stood outside my circle of influence but with ready access to the other nobles I suggested charitable actions aimed at rebuilding Lowtown and helping the former Fereldens who had lived there long enough by now to be regarded as fellow citizens.

Most refused to part with much but a few loved the idea of having an alley or a building emblazoned with their names. As Lowtown grew comparatively safer and cleaner, however, the resentment of the Coterie built. Their easiest targets moved into the slums aboveground and, though they ruled Darktown with a loose iron fist, even they were having trouble making ends meet in the lawless dark below.

Their frequent ambushes gave us something to do and lent me an excuse to wear my armor and shield most nights. The sword gave most of the nobles’ sons pause and me a welcome respite from their attentions.

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