Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Six

by artrald

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*

Aveline

Aveline Vallenn, by any sensible measure, had fallen on her feet. Widowed in the Blight and cast up on the shore of Kirkwall with hardly a friend and little more than the arms and armour she’d had with her ar the Ostagar massacre, she’d earned a crust or two freelancing for the city guard and been offered a more permanent position on the strength of her training and perhaps not a little native talent. Compared to military life, the discipline was lax, the work easy, the hours laughable and the living soft – and for a clean-living single woman who didn’t mind living over the road from the elven alienage, the pay was more than generous, even before the endless gratuities and tips people insisted on bestowing on her for little more than her job.

Which was the fly in the ointment, the splinter in the wound, the itch she couldn’t scratch. A tip was one thing; a year in the City of Chains had taught that the quickest and easiest way to thank someone sincerely for good work was in coin. But the money she was being given was more than the odd tip and gratuity. A coin to chase a thief; a coin to take a statement; a coin to tell the truth. A coin for a lie, and she’d told the man in proctological detail where that coin would be better employed. Employing leniency for a young lady who should have known better and wasn’t worth the city’s time, Aveline was mortified to receive a thoroughly generous consideration thereafter.

And when, as she did once a month, she visited the Amell family who had brought her safe to Kirkwall, and when, as she did once a month, she asked Leandra’s son and daughter if they were planning on ever finding reputable employment – the lad Tobias looked at her straight and asked her if she’d name five distinctions between his employer and hers? When his sister kicked him under the table and apologised for him? Something changed, like a shift of the eye that turns a drawing of an old crone looking left into one of a young beauty looking right. Because Tobias wasn’t wrong enough about the Kirkwall Guard. And the Maker couldn’t give a damn about the good in your heart if the work of your hands is found wanting.

The world doesn’t change overnight. These things take time, and they take work. Aveline’s painstakingly acquired reputation for simple competent honesty quickly began to be rivalled by a reputation as being a bit funny about being paid. Nothing she couldn’t handle, of course: she could pretend that it was for her skill at arms that she was given a technical promotion, second in command of the rough side of the Lowtown beat, and given that that was her excuse she determined that she’d make it true. Regular training; beefed-up patrols; personal overtime. After all, it wasn’t like she had much else to do with her spare time.

She made contacts with most of the local vigilante types, the thugs, what’s the phrase, ‘leaders of the community’. Being able to demonstrate a decent Fereldan dialect on request helped in a lot of places: this beat was where a lot of her less fortunate countrymen had washed up. People would tell things to Aveline they wouldn’t tell to a local. And if she helped them by asking nothing to sweeten her job, well, so much the better.

And one of the other tasks that nobody wanted to do was to bear dispatches. The duty involved regularly going up many steep levels to the Hightown terraces, and no Hightown dispatch clerk would tip even as well as a common cutpurse; to forestall arguments among the men, Aveline climbed the bloody hill herself every day and called it healthy exercise.

*

The pouch was heavy, that evening. The sun had dipped below the mountain by the time she got halfway up those stairs. Out of breath and sweating, nevertheless the scrape of boots on the stone had her twist by reflex, the blade passing under her arm and the man who bore it taking an elbow hard in the chest. Pain, the hard strike of metal on metal: a coat of plates, her attacker had. She turned instantly, not even trying to draw, face to face with him for all he was a step below her. Big fellow, wearing what would’ve been good kit once; sure she recognised him from somewhere. She got a punch in the belly for that moment of hesitation, her own mail and padding lessening the terrific blow, but the edge of the step she was standing on caught her in the shins and she went over awkwardly on her arse.

And what d’you know, now there were five of them. No space or time to draw baton or blade. She kicked out at the man who’d knocked her down and he just took the blow on his shin, caught her foot, so she kicked out wih her other foot, aiming high –

An impact. Someone’s boot hit her in the side just as she connected with her own kick and made the man drop her: steel toecap on that boot, or he’d have broken his toe. Only the one man armoured; all the rest of these just looked like everyday folk. No time to go for her whistle. Rolling with one kick took her straight into another: she’d worry about the pain later, but right now she carried on the turn, pushing hard off the ground to try and roll away from them, a fall down those five wide steps to the corner less bad than staying surrounded.

A shout from someone up-slope as she fell, her arms shielding her head, and the world was for a few brief moments nothing but confusion and pain. The impact of her back against the wall a welcome one, but a moment later someone kicked her in the gut again. Temptation to curl into a protective ball was overwhelming, but if five men wanted to beat her to death then that instinct would just get her killed. At least her back was to a wall, now. The next kick, she caught with her right elbow just below his knee; pain screamed up her arm but she’d felt something give there. The next one was aimed at her face; surging up from the ground she caught the blow on her left vambrace, tried to push them into one another. On her knees in time to see a stick whistling down; flat on, that’d have broken her arm, but again she deflected it, lashed out and made one of them dodge back. The world was still spinning; still on her knees she drew the baton from her belt and paid for it with a kick to the side that near knocked her down again.

But now she was armed. Another raining blow she blocked with the baton, without warning slammed it out sideways, hearing a hoarse yell as it connected. Just moving on sheer instinct now. Pushing hard off the wall, inside another swing, her fist just under someone’s breastbone, all her strength into the uppercut. The tiniest instant’s breather as he staggered back, and she was on her feet now: again flicking the baton out at the blur of the armoured man’s face to her right, making him duck away from her. The one with the stick was likely behind her; she ducked, turning towards him, and his strike whistled over her head as she drove an elbow into him and followed up with the end of her baton, aiming high, striking home.

It was like she was back fighting the darkspawn again. Individually aggressive, quick, dangerous, brave, but these people had no sense of how to fight as a team. Except that the spawn were stronger than her by far and unafraid of injury, and these men were neither, and on this small square flat landing their numbers weren’t to their advantage. A kick to the kneecap sent the stick-wielder rolling down the stairs. A couple of savage blows with her baton and another one of them fell, his wrist broken. The armoured one tossed his knife from hand to hand like an amateur; she hit him in the same instant his eyes were off her, the baton sweeping at his eyes to make him flinch, her boot to his codpiece and he went down groaning. The other two looked at one another and then tried to grab her, one going for each arm; she went into the second one with her shoulder, carrying him into the wall hard, and the other one saw his chance to run. A good three or four blows into the one she was holding and he stopped trying to get back up, but the other one was well away.

Until a blur went past her at about head-height and the man fell with the smack of impact; someone she hadn’t seen skipped quickly across the landing and the groaning bodies on it and sauntered down the stairs after him. Wasn’t until the new arrival had arrested that one’s slithering fall and started dragging him up to join the others that she caught sight of him properly. Little over average height, muscled, well-armed, bearded, shit-eating grin.

Idiot boy. Aveline set about relieving her attackers of their weapons and any remaining will to fight. “I suppose you’re now going to say you had my back that whole time,” she cast at him as he returned.

Tobias shook his head as he dropped his unconscious prisoner none too gently onto the landing. “You did look like you were enjoying yourself. But no; I heard the fight and came running.”

“No, I’m fine; thanks for your-” straightening up, she froze a moment as a belated stab of pain lanced through her – “D’you know, I swear they were wearing steel toecaps. Does that count as attempted murder?”

“Not usually, though the dagger might have been… a…” Tobias ground to a halt, recovering something from the ground. Trust him to have found the dispatch pouch. “What d’you have in here? Gentrifying the Lower City one brick at a time?”

Attempting to snatch the thing back would have resulted in a demeaning game of keep-away; Aveline focused on tying her prisoners’ hands before any fight came back into them. “That’s city business, Amell, and I’ll thank you to-”

“Damned straight it’s city business.” Tobias had lifted out an unfamiliar leather-bound book and was leafing through in a way almost deliberately calculated to cause offence. “Isn’t this one supposed to live in your watch-house?”

“It’s not supposed to live in your damned hands, certainly.”

“No, for true.” He closed the book with a snap. “Patrol ledger? Not just records, but plans? Rosters? Routes?” Slipped it back into the bag beside the document pouch. “Aveline, I don’t want to start our usual argument, not with you bleeding like that -”

“It’s. Nothing.” The guardswoman stood up and turned to put herself almost nose to nose with the young bravo. Snatched the accusingly heavy bag out of his hands. “What’s it to you, anyway? You ever going to make something of that high horse you rode down here?”

He inclined his head shortly. “It’s not nothing. You’ll be a week recovering at least, unless His Grace sees you limping and has you healed again. And I’m telling you, you’ve been betrayed. Two birds, one stone. You think it’s an accident that you are carrying this on the one night someone tries to waylay the dispatches?”

She ground her teeth. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it were less plausible. “Yes. Now. Give me that bag back. Or I’m adding another man to this pile.”

She blew her whistle, three short and three long blasts, sending for some more hands to help bring the idiots in for a night in the cells, and his eyebrows went up as he handed the bag over. “I surrender, Guardswoman. D’you mean you knew about this already?”

“No.” She put her back to the wall, leaned against it to wait. “Clearly. Or I would have brought friends, Tobias, d’you think I enjoy having the perdition beaten out of me?”

He raised his hands at that, significant glance at her attackers, clearly not going to talk in front of them – or in front of the guardsmen, when they came. He was polite, kept his head down. Lent a strong arm when needed. Saw them safely up to the watch-house. Noted, curse him, that Aveline retained the dispatch pouch; went and sat pointedly outside and waited.

Ten minutes and she joined him there, concealing a limp. Muscles were stiffening, but nothing was broken. Sat down heavily. “So,” she said without preamble. “Now I get to hear what you’re after.”

He ran an hand through his short-cropped hair. “Well, you do. But it’s not all self-serving. You feel like making trouble for the one betrayed you?”

“Needling. Lovely; it must be a Thursday. One of your sweet flowers spurn your advances again?”

He gave a snort. “Show me a barman who’s an alcoholic and I’ll show you a barman without a job. But again I say, I’m not joking. That pouch is exactly what you need. Blood on the blade. Take it to your Lowtown superior, and you’ll be disciplined for breaking the seal on it.” The fool had the bad grace to grin. “Even if it snapped in the fight. Because he’s got to have sent it.”

“Or know who does, yes. I’m not an idiot.” She folded her arms. “Just a foreigner. Up here they barely give me the time of day.”

He nodded faux-wisely. “If only you knew a well-connected young nobleman who could get your information to someone high enough up to be outraged and not high enough to be jaded.”

Her eyes narrowed. “And if I did? What would he ask for such a high favour?”

“Because the Viscount’s high provost is no friend of his friends.” Tobias stretched like a cat. “And because the quickest and easiest route to a reputation is to make waves, and because your cause is unambiguous, open, moral and just, and – yes – because of rumours that something like this was in the offing.”

“And because he wants a well-placed friend in the guard,” she growled.

He shook his head. Leaned forward, uncomfortable. “Aveline, please. Listen to me. Between you and me – I – Owe you.” He shifted. “Or rather – The man I wronged, he isn’t around to tell. And you’re good people and this is something I can probably make right. And-”

She surged to her feet: he stood with her; she turned and slapped him. The mark of her gauntleted hand on his cheek as pale as her own. Stood there for a moment to catch her breath. “Now hear this,” she said, staring him down, voice clipped and quiet. “I’ll say this once. Wesley’s death is not between us. It’s mine. And I don’t need your strong arm and I don’t want your damned pity. So give me your aid or don’t, Tobias who’s already abandoned his father’s name. But do it because it’s the right thing to do, not as a favour to a maiden fair who’s been neither of those things since long before your voice broke. Or don’t, and fuck you.”

He took the words like she’d hit him again. Rubbed his hand over his jaw ruefully. Knew that if he gave her any more words on that topic she’d kick his arse for proper. And abruptly nodded. “Come on.” He turned quickly away. “Evening session ends at the bell. We can catch him this evening if we pick our feet up.”

Apparently, the wheels of justice grind a great deal faster if one knows exactly where to give them a damned good kick. The undersecretary to the Viscount’s steward wouldn’t have been the first person that Aveline would have thought of when discussing a charge of corruption in the provost’s guard, but to judge from the man’s shocked and appalled reaction she might have been reporting high treason. It was like watching an avalanche. And yet it was odd to note how few witnesses there had been – how few people had known, much less condoned, the activities of what was after all a relatively unimportant part of the Guard – how many people, indeed, stood stiffly and declaimed their hatred of the corruption and graft that she knew perfectly well was their stock-in-trade.

And the men involved were given the opportunity to fall on their metaphorical swords rather than see the wheels of justice grind any finer, which of course they took, and before Aveline’s bruises had begun to fade there was no guard in the Lowtown watch-houses who outranked a sergeant.

And no, no thanks were looked for and none were given. Tobias had done this thing specifically and only because it had been the quickest thing he could do to build a reputation. If it had been something less morally acceptable, nobody was under any illusion that he’d have done that instead. And certainly he hadn’t done anyone a favour.

*

It was a couple of weeks later that the inevitable tit-for-tat came. He sent his sister, of course: Aveline was always much more willing to speak to the mousy young lady than her pain of a brother. The dazzling smile was new: working in expensive hospitality teaches manners, no matter what one thinks of the use they’re put to. And the favour – well.

Once again, something nobody else could do, something well within her capabilities. And as far as she could tell, Tobias’ shadowy new business partners were completely uninvolved. A trip, it was. Out of the city, to the north. Up Sundermount. Tobias was looking to climb it. With his sister. Bringing not just one of his sword-wielding acquaintances, but Aveline Vallenn, the only other person in the world to know of Bethany’s little gift? The only reason to turn him down would have been simple spite, a thing she hated in herself as much as ever she did in others: Aveline agreed.

The day was clear, the weather bright, the road wide and easy at first; but the path Tobias chose to take up toward the summit was overgrown and thorn-covered, and clearly he’d known, because he’d brought a heavy broad-bladed hatchet to help them along. Aveline’s fieldcraft was never very good, and a year in Kirkwall hadn’t done it any favours, but this didn’t look like more than an animal trail. Made by small animals. She asked him if he knew where he was going, and he chuckled and said that there was a perfectly good road that he was following: clearly there was no talking to him.

And Bethany wasn’t even trying. Beyond ducking the odd branch, she wasn’t paying that much attention; a couple of times Aveline had caught her as she’d stumbled and received a muttered “Thanks” in return. Some kind of magic, perhaps? There was no outward sign; she was neither providing directions nor muttering nor doing much at all, and that walking-stick was just a stick.

At least a year living in Kirkwall meant that the climb itself wasn’t too much of an issue, if not for all the bloody vegetation; it wasn’t much steeper than the Hightown steps, really –

Steps. These weren’t convenient rocks, poking out of the moss and bracken just as the way was getting steep. These were actual steps cut from the mountain itself. No animal path, this. But it was funny – the steps were narrow and short, like they’d been cut for children. Surefooted children. Where were they going? Again Tobias kept his own counsel.

And abruptly the steep close tight winding path opened out, the branches no longer close overhead, the steps coming to an end; the three of them found themselves walking out onto soft springy moss, onto a wide flat terrace bordered on all sides with trees, perhaps the size of a village green. And again, perhaps it was living a year in Kirkwall, but Aveline found herself musing that if this lovely place had formed naturally then she’d no eye –

Bethany froze. Her eyes opened wide and she seemed to come fully awake in an instant – “You were right,” she said, and her tone had Aveline putting herself instantly to cover their backs as Tobias’ hand went to his sword. “They’re here.”

“Where? How many?” His eyes scanned the treeline suspiciously.

She shook her head. “Can’t see them.”

“Who?” Aveline hadn’t drawn, because Tobias hadn’t drawn. Tension in every movement.

“Good enough! Let’s start there!” The voice seemed to come from the mountain itself: the speaker was throwing his voice. The accent was unfamiliar: lilting, rustic, rich. “Who are ye, that come here all blundering and loud-footed?”

“My name’s not important, but it’s Tobias Hawke; this is my sister Bethany, and our friend Aveline. What’s important is our business-”

“If we were in trade, we’d have a stall in the market.” Different voice, seeming to come from somewhere else. A woman. Same accent. “Wolf’s got a thread on your lives, Tobias Hawke of Kirkwall. Speak your ‘business’ and begone.”

“Wish I could.” Tobias quirked a smile. “I’m here to talk to one named Marethari, on the business of one who I’ll name here if you’ll take the consequences.”

The first voice again. Bethany’s eyes turned to fix unerringly on a particular stand of bushes. “You’ll speak it, if you’re not using that first name in vain.”

And he inclined his head, spread his hands. “All right: I’m here on the business of Asha’bellanar, of Flemeth of the Long Years. I bear her token and sign.”

A pause. Aveline was sure that what she was looking at in the woods was a pair of unblinking inhuman eyes high up in the fork of a tree.

Then without much ceremony there was a figure standing there on the mossy ground like he’d grown up out of it just that moment. Living over the road from the alienage, Aveline was familiar with elves, but this was like none of them she’d met before: for one, this was quite literally the smallest man she’d ever seen, couldn’t have been more than four foot six. For another, no elf had she ever seen carrying a weapon with the same casual ease that this one leaned on his barbed spear.

“Quite a name to speak, that.” The elf’s voice was surprisingly deep and masculine. “And not a one I’d be expecting from a lump like ye. Ye’re armed.”

“We are.” Tobias spread open hands. “Even expected, I wouldn’t come here defenceless.”

This seemed to amuse the creature, assuming that twist to his mouth was the start of a smile. “Oh, so we’re all a threat t’ye now, is that it?”

“In my experience,” Tobias said carefully, “a terrier who goes practically alone into a den of weasels had better bring a bite as well as a bark.”

And that did produce a smile, and Aveline wondered idly where Tobias had learned to flatter an elf. “Right and well said, shemlen. Ye’ll peace-bond those blades of yours and the walking-sticks can stay here, lest people start growing feathers, aye?”

Tobias solemnly looped the lanyard of his scabbard over the hilt of his blade in a peace-knot, and Aveline took his lead; they laid down their staves and Tobias returned his hatchet to his belt and bonded that also; he met the elf’s eyes and bowed, as to an equal, and the elf nodded shortly and beckoned for them to follow.

*

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