Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Eight
They think I’m daft, you know. Because I talk. Which I do. Constantly. To cover nervousness and to fill little silences and because I think of things or to entertain me or just generally because I can and I’m not daft. I’ve been mah’el to a clan of Dalish, not the clan I was born in, but another one, because what we do, see, is if one clan has two Gifted children and another has none then we foster and prentice and anyway all of the People are cousins and it’s far easier to live in this clan in the Free Marches where I’m such far kin to all of ’em that I wouldn’t need to seek very far for a husband when I came of age, if I had a taste for any of ’em, which I didn’t, or if by then I hadn’t separately alienated or terrified all of the clan, which it turned out that I had done, why am I telling you this?
I suppose I have to tell someone. Anyway, it wasn’t so much of a problem to leave the clan I’d lived half my life in, because to them and mostly to me it was more like ‘near’ than ‘in’, and to the Wolf with Marethari anyway. Oh! No, no, I wasn’t leaving because I was looking for a husband, that was just me rambling off the topic, I do that. Leaving was my choice, and it’s private, and that’s all I’ll say. Forty people had independently told me that I was completely batty to leave the Dalish for the city, and to any of those that had ever given me a thing I’d responded by giving it back, so that’s why I didn’t really have much on me when we set out down from Sundermount towards Kirkwall, I had the pack with the few treasures I owned and I had a walking-stick and not a proper staff because the one I’d used as mah’el had been a gift to Marethari when she was my age and she didn’t owe me a thing at all.
The quicklings – wait. Do you like that word? Shemlen? Humans? Humans. Were less terrifying than I’d been led to believe, or at least these three were. I mean, they were properly big, a whole foot taller than me, but they spoke and listened like sensible people and at least the warrior Aveline seemed interested in what I had to say, although between you and me, mostly I was babbling like an idiot because I was a little bit nervous. And they didn’t smell at all bad, just different – I’d been warned that humans stank. Anyway, it was nice to talk to them and learn a little bit about their lives, although all of them seemed to be a little bit concerned that I didn’t seem to have a trade. Never mind, though – they’d learn soon enough.
My first sight of their city up close, though, it was a little bit disappointing. I’d somewhat expected a place that was built all in stone to be very clean, because after all, where would the dirt come from? But mostly what all that white stone meant was that you could see all the dirt. And, well, where the dirt comes from is people and their animals, and by Mythal weren’t there just a lot of them. You don’t really – you can’t – understand words like ‘a hundred thousand souls’ until you walk into the noise and bluster of a place like that and you see them all right in front of you. I mean, I wasn’t so much intimidated as a little overwhelmed and deafened, but it was nice not to be alone the first time I went through those gates.
So Kirkwall is built on a series of wide terraced steps on Sundermount’s slope, and it faces south, so the city’s in the mountain’s shadow: the lower down you are, the earlier it is that night falls. The dirt basically flows downhill, and so of course does the city’s water, and so it’s really easy to tell how nice a place is going to be, you just have to look at how high you are above the harbour. The rulers and the religion are at the top, then you get the people who provide them their goods and their entertainment, and that’s all called Hightown, and it’s all wide-open and clean and pretty and there are even trees and plants in manicured little flowerbeds, though none of them seemed to be any use. You need special permission to live there, and humans don’t like people who don’t look like them, so while they say that anyone at all can do it, I never did meet anyone who lived in Hightown who wasn’t a human. And it costs, as well, more than most can afford.
The rest – those without permission, and those who don’t want to spend so much just on a place to live – they have to live lower down. Lowtown is what they call it everywhere that gets some sun at some point during the day, and takes in all the places where the humans climb over one another like rats scratching and biting to get just that little bit higher, and takes in the bustle of the docks which are the city’s guts. And if you get no sun at any point in the day then you’re in Darktown, and everybody says that the only people who live there are those who’ve got neither friends nor allies nor family nor money, nor anywhere left to run.
And as everyone says, the other thing about Kirkwall is the walls, the statues, the art. Up in Hightown the murals are done in stucco and paint and they change with the fashions and the seasons, the statues changing their hairstyle and even their dress to keep the humans’ favoured ancestors and the big statue of the Bride of their Maker looking as if they’d lived only yesterday; down the steps in Lowtown the murals are incised inch-deep in the walls and every knee is bent and every eye is downcast. They call Kirkwall a lot of things, city of coin, city of chains, city of the bended knee: it’s all from the art of Lowtown and Darktown, and it raised my hackles to see those ancient things and my hands itched to scour them from the stone. All one big spell-scroll, or so it seemed to me, although I never tried to memorise it or work that magic – if you see those wretched submissive broken figures every time you open your eyes then eventually you’ll see them when you close ’em. And if a whole city’s dreams are of nothing but servitude and slavery – well. A creature that cannot dream of freedom is a better slave. I’d grow to hate those walls before ever I grew accustomed to them, I swore then, and through all that happened thereafter I can tell you I kept that oath.
And one place where the walls had indeed been scoured was the alienage. It was at least in Lowtown, in a place where the heart-tree could catch the morning sun, if not the sunset – and the walls here had been painstakingly gone over by hand, every carving filled in, and the hollow faces and the bended knees and the chains had been painted out with the designs of the People. I could see the story of the sun and the moon and Mythal; I could see a legend of the Dread Wolf; I could see the coming of Death and the story of Falon’Din; every house seemed to have another little story upon it, a story I recognised, although I must say that the style of the art wasn’t what I’d been expecting – closer to graffiti than artistry it was, and the figures had a distinct angular edge reminiscent of the Tevinter art they were blocking out.
The humans wouldn’t know where to find the alienage’s keeper, of course – I bade them a farewell at the gate, and Aveline went to some trouble to point out to me where she lives as if she expected the elves here to throw me out on my ear. Really very sweet of them, and I did catch the worried look the two women shared, but it wasn’t like they knew anything I didn’t.
Anyway, what I did was, I walked into the alienage and I sat myself down cross-legged by the heart-tree and I waited. If it had been a Dalish camp I’d walked into, I’d have been met as I approached: I suppose you’ve got to be more circumspect when you live with humans. Still, it wasn’t that long before a woman came up and asked quietly in a funny accent what I wanted, and I said I was waiting for the keeper and she gave me a mysterious look and went away. And some while later a tall broad fellow came past and asked with a smile in that same accent what it was I was looking for, and I said I was waiting for the keeper, and he smiled oddly and he walked on.
And the shadows were getting long and dark by the time a third one came by, a child, and he asked what I was looking for and I said I was waiting for the keeper, and in the language of the humans he asked me what on the Maker’s good green earth was the heathen jabber I was spitting.
And, well, that was my introduction to my city cousins. (Don’t worry: that boy got his, all right. I drew a bit of a crowd. His mother was mortified.) I can hardly believe, looking back on that first few days, how I didn’t get myself robbed or taken for a ride or worse. I thought I knew everything, of course, and every day it turned out that literally nothing I knew was helpful in a practical sort of a way. I didn’t have a proper trade, I didn’t have much in the way of money, I barely knew how to cook what passes for food in a city and clean for myself – I tell you, I was as out-of-place among the city elves as they’d’ve been with the Dalish.
Yes, I made my way: I found the keeper and moved in with him eventually, of course. He wasn’t much of a keeper, tell the truth – a fifty-year-old bachelor, silvering hair, liked to ogle the pretty maids and tell rambling stories that were more than half his own invention, and the alienage as a whole drew a sort of collective sigh of relief when it became clear they weren’t going to have to rely on him to train a successor.
I think the Kirkwall elves worried about me, too. Most people who meet me do that, no matter how much I maintain they needn’t. At least three different old dears warned me about the keeper – I mean, I was quite aware the old dog wanted more than just a successor, and I did have to make it plain more than once that he wasn’t getting any such thing, but he wasn’t dangerous to the likes of me. And I’d two or so offers a week from young men or ladies to keep me safe on my forays out into the town – I mean, it was sweet, and so were they mostly, but it was also just a touch patronising. Perhaps I should’ve taken to carrying an obvious weapon – I mean, yes, there were things in the town that I’d not have been happy to meet on a dark night, but a cutpurse truly was not one of them.
So this meant I was popular? Well. What I could do was popular. They liked the stories I knew, and the songs; they liked that their children would grow up able to read and write two languages and knowing the old holy names; they liked that I could set a broken finger or clean and bandage a dog bite, and that if they absolutely had to be fit and well tomorrow they could tell me and they would be, and human law be damned. They liked that I existed, and I’d come from somewhere, and so there was a place out there where an elvhen could go, and I didn’t tell them that if I was asked to tell whether half of ’em were elvhen or shemlen I’d be guessing the wrong way as often as the right.
But as for Merrill, the person? As opposed to Merrill the healer or teacher or pretty foreign girl whose last name wasn’t Kirker so she couldn’t possibly be your cousin by accident? No, I don’t think anybody actually knew her at all, except possibly Aveline who’d wave at me on her rounds and come to me if we had another little tea leaf problem, which I’m sorry to say was distressingly common.
But I was too busy doing a keeper’s work to let that Merrill out much, look you.
And no. I didn’t miss my home at all. I’d have had to have had one first.
So it came to pass that we had an issue. And by we, I mean Tethras and Sons, and by an issue I mean a big honking bastard of a problem, and that problem was called Bartrand Tethras. Well, strictly speaking, a bastard is about the one thing he isn’t, though I might be, if you catch my drift. But, look. He had one job. One job. His job was to make sure that gold went in the right direction and not the wrong one – that everybody got paid – no matter how clever he thought he was or they weren’t, his job and his function in life were to move the money to the places that the money needed to be.
And then he decided that he was cleverer than one of our primary sources. A particularly unprepossessing type, a man thrown out of Orzammar not by the king but because he became more trouble than his worth to local organised crime, who wanted an increase in our funding of his undesirable habits along with an understanding that we’d buy off the law when he was inevitably discovered indulging them.
And Bartrand figured that a man with that much to hide had a similar amount to lose, and made a threat rather than a proper offer, and our criminal friend took the threat a little more seriously than my dear brother had anticipated, and in a day we went from the threshold of the brightest deal anybody ever closed on to a plan with a massive great hole right through the middle.
You see, what that source was to us, apart from a pain in the holy of holies, was our way in. We had a map of the Roads, we had our pet Shaper to get us to the ancient thaig – but what she didn’t have was a way into the Roads themselves. And our informant? Did. Until he fucked off to Amaranthine on the fastest ship he could pay for.
So as I said, we had a problem. And Tobias and I, we set on out about a solution.
The Deep Roads might be my people’s birthright, but we aren’t the only people who use them. A few of the shallower old thaigs, weathered open to the sky, are home to the odd Chasind or Anderfel bunch, and you know all those stories about dragons in gold-plated caves under mountains, well, in addition to being our gold it’s usually our damn cave to boot. And there’s the darkspawn, of course.
But after the ‘spawn, you see, deliberately hunting them, or that’s what I was always told – there are the Wardens, the Grey Wardens. And because of the Wardens’ habit of losing at politics they’re often short a coin or two. And because of the Wardens’ habit of winning fights with darkspawn they often actually come back from the Roads with their map. And Tobias, bless his woolly Fereldan socks, had got hold of a rumour that placed a Warden agent inside Kirkwall itself – party name of Anders, a Fereldan, living in Darktown. And so it came to pass that Tobias and I shouldered our metaphorical picks one gloomy day and went down the stairs into the parts of Kirkwall that never saw the sun.
Lot of people hear ‘Darktown’ and they think that means like pitch-dark, and they’re quite wrong. What Darktown is, is dim: you can see the sky, but you’re permanently in the shade, like it’s twilight all the time. Lot of people don’t like the art; Tobias’ sister won’t come down here, not even chaperoned. Rents are cheap and nothing else is over expensive, and even such worthies as Aveline don’t do much more than sweep the dividing line while making it a seriously poor life choice to cross it with malice aforethought – though it’s notable that the number of people going downward with that sort of intention fell through the floor when she made it very clear that the law’s protection extended two ways.
But anyway, the refugees, those that stayed, they usually ended up down here. The Lowtown docks benefited from the cheap labour, the Chantry got some more sad abandoned souls to save, and the Fereldans learned that living out from under the metaphorical shadow of a feudal lord just meant living in the literal shadow of someone with a lot more money, a little less class and a hat of a slightly different shape.
Wasn’t just the Chantry saving people down here, though, or that was the rumour. Closed-mouthed they may have been, but Tobias’ silver tongue and my silver coin worked like a pick in a lock. And upon suitable reassurance of honourable intent, information was obtained. Yes, there was a man. A man to whom you could turn – a man who’d take your side when nobody else would. A good, honest man, and a damn fine doctor. He operated out of what used to be an ale-cellar, and the building above was a boarding house now.
Just once, said our source with an ale-broadened smile, the local protection people had come after him for rent. And he’d not knuckled under, and he’d not beaten them up – he’d just left their barely recognisable bodies in a neat little stack in the street outside. And their friends had come after him to demonstrate their displeasure – and he’d taken up a quarterstaff and without much of a fuss he’d killed a dozen armed men without taking so much as a scratch. The suitably lubricated story went, see, that the Maid of Ferelden – the Warden Commander – had looked over the sea and seen the plight of her countrymen and sent one of her Wardens to settle right from wrong in the good old Fereldan way.
And you reached him by walking in there, pretty much: you’d ask him for help or you’d ask him for justice, and if he could he’d make it happen, and never would the question of payment be raised. Our funeral, it was, to seek the man except in dire need: well, let us see how true that’d be.
The basement smelt like an apothecary’s shop, all herbs and oils; a somewhat incongruous lightstone set into the ceiling provided a soft-edged illumination to the whole place. Chairs, tables, a couple of beds; as much a hideout as a hospital.
We’d waited until there was nobody coming in who actually might need some help. Sauntered down the stairs all casual, and found a lanky blond human in serviceable leathers sitting at one of the tables, his back to us; he was eating, quickly and neatly, something that looked more like trail rations than anything else. We made sure to make noise coming down the steps, but he gave no sign of having noticed us.
“Warden Anders, I assume?”
He froze, a piece of hardtack halfway to his mouth; put it down slowly and deliberately. Didn’t turn. “Who’s asking?”
“Name’s Tethras, messere. Varric. And this is my associate, Tobias Amell. We have… a proposal for you.”
Hunched his shoulders. “I’m not a rent-boy, ser.” Fereldan accent, he had. Strong one. “Is it justice you’re after, Hightown boys? A place to hide from your rich and powerful enemies, perhaps? Or is it that you heard what I did to the last lot with a ‘proposal’ for me and just need someone’s kneecaps broken? Maybe yours?”
Tobias spoke while I was drawing breath: in place of the sharp Kirkwall tones I knew, he was sporting a different accent entirely. “I’d rather call it honour than justice, ser. Someone’s done us wrong, and if you are who they say you are then you can make it right. It’ll cost you nothing, take hardly any effort, and we aren’t penniless or powerless. A man known as a friend of the desperate can surely see the value in having a rich man in your debt.”
The blond man stood quickly, turned with a single graceful step. Not an once of spare flesh on him – you hear descriptions of people built like anatomical drawings, but you don’t expect to meet them in a place like this. Gaunt face, high cheekbones, couple of days’ stubble, hard steel-grey eyes. “There’s a proverb, isn’t there?” He smiled humourlessly. “Owe a man a crown and he owns you; owe a man a hundred crowns and you own him?”
Tobias smiled. “Believe me, ser, I know all about the kind of debt of which you speak. But if you’d rather take a fair price now – a bird in the hand, and all that? We can do that instead.”
The tall man frowned. “I’m still not a mercenary, and this… isn’t… a… Hmm.” He pursed his lips. “You. Are you mercenaries? Those weapons, could they be turned to the purposes of justice?”
“Ser,” I said expansively, “that’s why we brought them.”
He snorted. “Liar. But yet I smell a certain kind of honesty about both of you rogues. I’ll not have a favour from you hanging over both our heads, and it’s blatant that what you need from me is neither quick nor easy nor simple. But while the favour I require of you in return is not necessarily easy, it does happen to be relatively – h’m.” He bit his lip. “Look. It’s like this. There is a thing that you can do for me. I’m – tomorrow – about to do something that’s not exactly legal, or safe, or wise. But it’s a little wiser and a little safer for all concerned with a like-minded blade or two by my side, and I’ve an inkling that it’s the same degree of… favour.”
Tobias nodded slowly. “In doing you this favour, we’d become your accomplices in crime. And you imagine we’d have more to lose by our involvement becoming public knowledge, than you would.”
“And that’s my price.”
“Without either of us knowing the favour we’re trading?” My eyebrows shot up. “Ser, you’re a strange one.”
He gave a crooked smile. “I am that. The favour I’d be asking is that you watch my back as I meet with a friend. The favour you’d be asking is to do with that word you used of me when you came – Warden, am I?”
“Aren’t you?” Tobias blurted.
“I joined,” he said, and there were sharp teeth in those words.
“All right,” I said shortly. “The Roads. If you know them, you know-”
“That we’re too far from Orzammar to have been stripped bare for certain, and you’ve bought a shiny new bridge in-”
“You don’t need to believe us.” I cut him off. “The day a dozen dwarves need a guide on our own Roads is the day you can lay us to rest with pick and shovel, ser. But the louse who knew the way to the Roads, from here, he split on us. All we need is an entrance.”
The man bit his lip. “You were right about my name. I can give you what you need. And you can take my price or leave it.”
“Done.” Tobias held out his hand without hesitation. Anders took it, and the worst decision we ever made was taken.