Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Nine

by artrald

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*

Varric

So I’d been expecting something shady, Lowtown probably, some kind of meeting with a Carta contact or something, maybe at worst we’d be helping a less-fortunate Fereldan escape an indenture or a disadvantageous marriage. And therefore what I wasn’t expecting was to meet our new contact – now dressed in a perfectly serviceable chanter’s robe – in a street-corner eating-house in Hightown just as dusk was falling.

And we weren’t meeting in Hightown to allay suspicion, either. Anders took the lead, naturally, walking as if he knew the place as well as Tobias or I – leading us confidently and surely to… to the Chantry, in a matter of actual fact. Back gate. Where the guests and the lay servants live, and this early in the evening the servants are clearly busy and the guests are out. Nobody on guard; he let himself in, and, well, you’ve heard of Tobias’ attitude to points of no return. Right turn once inside: men’s side. Through another little arch, straight across the cloister and through a wooden door into a little common room. Dim in here. One slit window high up. Sure the Chantry would call those things easy chairs: they looked pretty damned hard to me.

And no contact. Tobias raised an eyebrow. “Early, are we, chanter?”

Anders frowned. “Hmm. We are, but my friend believes in the inherent virtue of punctuality.”

Significant glance at the room’s other doors. “Can we rely on having privacy?”

“Nobody uses these rooms at this hour.” And it was funny, but the way he said it just resonated in my bones. Not only did he believe it, but it was like the walls and the very floor agreed with him.

Tobias blinked a moment, then nodded shortly and leaned against the wall such that nobody coming in a door would see him straight away. “So who’s the friend?”

Anders’ mouth formed a firm white line. Eventually he opened it. “Karl, his name is. Brave man. Righteous. A friend to those in trouble.”

Two and two. I gave him a sidelong look. “And now he’s in need of a friend himself.”

“I do believe that you hear my tune. He’s gone the full measure, here, and needs some assistance in taking a little break.” Anders took a deep breath, in and out. “Though it is perhaps a little late for either of you to bow out of this dance.”

“You sound like my father.” Tobias didn’t move.

“Do I.” Anders settled onto one of the hard chairs, his back to the wall.

“He wasn’t a religious man, you know.” Looking at nothing in particular. “Live-and-let-live type. Raised us to be much the same.”

The Warden’s eyebrows went up. “Hmm. Some people don’t have the luxury of being let live, you know.”

“I’m vaguely familar.” Tobias drummed his fingers. “You’re expecting trouble, in helping this friend of yours?”

“Always.” Anders’ teeth showed for a moment. “He’s trusted here, as far as one can be, but that’s not overly far, and while he didn’t mention anyone else we needed to disappear along with him, that doesn’t mean he won’t have someone.”

“A fugitive from the Chantry. And potentially his accomplices or apprentices.” I cast Tobias a wry look. “You sure know how to pick ’em, partner.”

Whatever Tobias was about to retort was cut off by Anders raising his hand – and I don’t mean that he saw it and stopped talking, I mean that Anders raised his hand and the sound in the room deadened like our ears had been struck by a large felt hammer.

Hey. Wait. The Warden was a mage? Did we know the Warden was a mage? We were accompanying a mage into the Chantry? Did Tobias know, and just not tell me? This some kind of human thing? But just as I was drawing breath to ask a few pertinent questions, the door  we’d come in opened.

The man who came into the room was a neat little fellow, thin little beard, his hood raised, cheap tunic in peasant colours, everything about him your stereotypical mage: not familiar to me, but Tobias sure did a double-take: he’d seen this one before. The mage halted a couple of steps through the doorway, looked around the room, his expression a kind of bottomless serenity: Anders surged forward and embraced him, which he accepted with more than a little awkwardness.

“Karl?” Anders’ voice was soft as he released him. “You… all right?”

And Karl’s voice was – not expressionless, but all there was was a kind of dark stillness like deep blue water, and his eyes were unreadable. “I am, Anders. Never have I been better. I am glad you and your friends have come.”

The Warden took half a step back, shaking his head.”But we spoke. Last night. You said-”

“That they were on to me. That I needed to get away before they acted.” He inclined his head a little. “I was wrong.”

“We agreed. In the dream. You said you had to get out of here.” Anders swallowed. “I saw your fear, I saw-”

“Hush.” Karl smiled, gently. “It’s all right.”

“No!” The Warden put his hand over his mouth. “No – tell me they – Karl – tell me it’s not -”

The other man pushed back his hood, and there on his forehead was a neat little puckered scar the shape of a diamond, and in the corner of my eye I could see Tobias back up away from the man as if he was trying to crawl through the wall itself, getting a short sharp blade into his hand and trying not to look like he was doing it. “I told them everything, Anders. Your name, our relationship, our plans, the reasons their apprentices kept being mysteriously transferred. Tonight, of course. Everything. They are outside, now. Waiting for my call. It will not take long.”

“I – see.” And Anders’ hands stopped shaking.  You want a cliché? Fine. ‘As if by magic’, he changed. All that concern and uncertainty went out of his stance and his voice, the whole of him seemed to ice over in an instant. Now, I’ve seen stone-hearted killers before, worked with them, employed the odd one here and there where I had to. But that hard cold pitiless glint of that Grey Warden’s eye as he spoke, the grate of his voice, that was something else again. “They’re waiting for us. The Templars.”

“Of course.” Karl appeared entirely unmoved by the change that had come over the Warden; and before Anders could grab him he stepped smartly to one side, and then everything went insane.

All of the room’s three doors exploded inwards at the same moment, under blows that should never have had the strength to shatter solid oak. And my first personal sight of a templar arrayed for battle was of the man who appeared in the doorway, tall and broad in his red armour, seemingly haloed in the evening’s dying light.

Until Anders spat a single glorious word that was louder than sound itself and the templar was knocked physically off his feet by a searing blue-white flash of actual shit-ye-not lightning – of those not currently on their back twitching, Tobias recovered first. The templar who’d smashed in the door next to him found herself kicked in the side of the knee, her own momentum carrying her to the floor in a clatter.

The other one strode handily into the room, brought up a sword in a shining arc that I handily ducked, and once again I was in a position to teach a human that a man who comes up to your breastbone will generally have an uppercut more than hard enough to leave a fist-shaped dent in your codpiece. Heh.

While we were occupied the Warden stepped out of the door with a cat’s grace, twisting naturally to avoid the ambusher that waited beyond and replying with another spell, a thunderclap blow of invisible force that threw the templar most of the way across the cloister. Weren’t these people supposed to be immune to magic? Not that you’d find me complaining.

Tobias practically hauled Karl along by the scruff of his neck and started to follow, blade in his other hand. I suppose that when you’ve got the drake by the tail, your options get shorter and shorter: given a terrifying mage on a rampage, being clearly on the same side as the terrifying mage seemed like a good idea at the time, at least. Ahead, said mage had liberated a sword from a templar: the next attacker, Chant on her lips, should have thought more about her swordplay as in three brutal blurring moves he tore the blade from her hand and sent it clattering across the flagstones.

And then he cold-bloodedly stabbed her in the throat.

And that was when it kind-of hit me just which line it was that we had crossed. Helping the odd mage in a clandestine escape – Stone knows it wouldn’t be the strangest type of thing I’d been paid to do, and it’s the kind of material that you can just run with. But murdering Templars in the damn Chantry? That’s another whole axis of wrong.

But it wasn’t exactly as if they were giving us time to reconsider and repent. Another pair of them came at Anders from the front – what he yelled at them was incomprehensible to me, but the one on the left just fell onto his knees crying and the one on the right dropped her sword and stood there staring blankly as we ran on past. Softness blanketing all sound as the mage pushed out his aura of quietness as far as he could in all directions.

And then there was one. Sure, the ones we’d inconvenienced would be after us in a moment, but if we were out of this gate then we were good – and one last Templar held the gate, a dark-bearded middle-aged fellow all rawhide and leather. He was hauling on a bell-rope, but Anders’ blanket of silence apparently dealt with that just fine. Dropped the rope as we approached, long blade levelled in the ox’s guard like a man who seriously knew what he was doing. His eyes narrowed as he spoke another verse of the Chant of Light and alone among all of the sounds I was hearing, his clear cold voice echoed around the stones of the chantry like it should, real and clear in a way that none of the rest of this was.

And, “Back!” he bellowed, and it was like Anders ran into a physical wall. You hear of ‘burning eyes’ – I’m not exaggerating, in an instant the Warden’s eyes were pools of literal fire, blue light spilling from them like tears. He extended his hand in the classic mage’s-duel pose, his robe flapping in a tempest I couldn’t feel, his face illuminated by a light I couldn’t see, and he leaned against a force I couldn’t see and his mouth opened in a silent snarl but he made no headway.

And, so. As I said, Tobias and lines to be crossed. He dropped Karl’s wrist, three strides forward, ignoring the magic, lunged for the templar’s face. Steel clashed. The templar didn’t blink. His blade was a proper long-sword, a knight’s weapon, made Tobias’ little duelling sword look like a toy – he had my partner beaten on reach and tempo and sheer raw strength, he was armoured where Tobias was not, and he had a gate to hold; the lad went for him anyway, aggressive as you please, forcing him back by main ferocity till he was using the stone of the gate to watch his flanks. But Anders still couldn’t come any closer, Karl was just standing there like a lump – the bells still weren’t ringing – but the other templars would be after us any moment – bah.

Not like they’d have believed me if I said that none of this was my fault anyway – hang for the fleece, and all that. And just let me tell you, it was just about then that I started really regretting Bianca having stayed at home. You know? Bianca? Don’t you people name your weapons? Bah.

Anyhow, she wasn’t with me that day for some unaccountable reason. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t make a habit of wandering around Hightown with an easy fifteen pounds of rune-carved crossbow on my back, especially not when out upon some nefarious errand. But just right then, it would have been really nice to have her long, sturdy stock in my hands rather than the wimpy-feeling grip of this slightly questionable hand crossbow that happened to fit neatly under my coat.

And have you ever cocked one of them in a hurry, without a winch or a strop? Human, are you? Yeah, just don’t even bother. It’s why you people don’t use these things. I hooked the string and drew it back with a grunt of effort and a creak of the lever – most people in this town would just have ruptured something or done their hand a mischief. The dart clicked into place – Tobias said something that I hoped was something about any time now being really good – clear shot – mind and hand and eye aligned and do you really think that I’d miss a shot from a distance of all of seven yards? Yeah, well. I didn’t.

Not many places you can shoot a man who’s in full armour, not without a poisoned bodkin to kill with a scratch. But as previously indicated at length, I’m a damned fine marksman in a pinch, especially at seven yards. The bolt went just under the rim of his sallet helm, caught him in the cheek, sank up to its flights; choking, he staggered backwards; Tobias tried to press his advantage only to get a terrific kick in the gut.

But we’d broken the Templar’s concentration. A wordless snarl came out of Anders’ throat as he flashed forwards and Tobias hardly had time to duck. The mage grabbed the Templar literally by the face, his fingers sinking in like claws, and – all right. I looked away, but the brightness of the light left afterimages, blood misted, terrible smell, and what he dropped to the floor was barely recognisable as once having been human.

I grabbed the completely oblivious Karl by a wrist and we were out of there onto a street where nobody had yet even raised any kind of alarm; Tobias led and we followed as random bystanders watched – and yet nobody seemed to be doing a thing. Now, I know Kirkwall; I know the people on these streets. And to have them just… stand there, as if this meant nothing, as if it was nothing more than the normal proceedings of everyday life? There should have been yelling, there should have been running, towards and away in roughly equal measure, there should have been something – and yet, there wasn’t. They just… watched, for a few breaths, then looked away, moved on, forgot. I wanted to shout at them. I wanted to –

You know? Fine. It was useful. But to see the people of my city like that? Damn. This price that we were just now engaged in paying – it was climbing. Swiftly.

*

We eventually stopped in an alley halfway to Lowtown. Whatever the magic was, it had worked – no hue, no cry, no bells, no shouts, no people running. I reloaded my bow as I kept an eye out – Tobias had both of his fixed on the Warden, the mage, the one whose eyes were no longer blue with fire. He spoke, low voice, expression controlled, stance balanced. Like he was half expecting another fight. “And what now?”

But Anders was just looking at the man we’d rescued, at the diamond scar on his forehead, at the composed flatness of the man’s expression. “I’m sorry, Karl,” he said, and the Tranquil man said nothing. “I’m so sorry,” and Karl frowned slightly, like he didn’t understand.

“Then go back,” he said. “Turn yourself in. Repent. And then you can join me.”

Anders was shaking his head. “There’s nothing left, is there. Nothing at all.”

Karl shook his head gently. “You are wrong, Anders,” he said. “All that is worthwhile of me – my intellect, my sapience, my worth as a person – it has remained. What I have lost is better off lost.”

“No.” The Warden dropped his hand. “That isn’t true. The man I knew – the man I came here to save – he wouldn’t have said that. He wouldn’t have said any of it.”

“Of that you are right.” Karl inclined his head. I could see Tobias almost cringing away from him every time he moved. “The Karl that you knew would be crying, now.” Something was giving my partner the absolute flaming creeps, and it was more than just the words the guy was speaking. Like an instinct that I didn’t have. “The man who loved you – he would be begging you for release from this.” Karl shrugged. “He would be wrong. This state is a pleasant one.”

Anders’ knuckles were white. “Karl, if you’re in there, I swear. If you can hear me-”

“Anders.” It was Tobias who interrupted. His voice was shaking. “For the Maker’s sake put the poor bastard out of his misery.”

And the Warden practically snarled at him. “You cannot understand what this means to me – you cannot possibly –

“Really?” Tobias took a step forward into Anders’ personal space. “Then let me speak a little plainer and we’ll see if you agree. Yes. It’s your lost love standing there. And yes. What’s been done to him – I’ve never seen one before, but that’s Tranquility. I get that. All right? But you know? That could just as easily have been my father. My sister. I am watching you go through my own personal fucking nightmare and I am watching you floundering. Now, you’re an educated man. In a way I’m not. But tell me this, Warden, mage, apostate? Has anyone come back from -” he gestured shortly at Karl – “that? Ever?”

Anders stared straight back into Tobias’ eyes. “No. No, they haven’t.”

“It’s not a thing that heals. Is it.”

Anders swallowed. His eyes flicked to Karl and back. “You’re right.”

And Tobias pulled a dagger from his belt and physically pressed the hilt against Anders’ chest until the older man took it. “So say your goodbyes. Need some space? You have it. But you heard his plea for mercy from his own damned lips.” He snatched a breath. “Don’t you dare make me do it for you.”

And that’s the last that I’ll record until Tobias and Anders and I were way the hell out of there.

*

Anders

The two locals left me my space till we got back to my safehouse, yes, but when I say that they weren’t going away without an explanation to go with all the, you-know, crime – they were pretty much staring intently at my back with that blend of fear and fascination I knew so well: once someone’s seen beneath the mask an instant, they’ll pick and pick at it until it comes right off.

So anyway, I picked my ground. My clinic, we used. Not that I’d have patients likely to come in at this hour, but the expectation might get their company manners out – I collapsed into a chair and gestured vaguely to others, but neither of them sat. Of course they didn’t. And then there was silence for a moment, and the dwarf broke it.

“All right. We’re waiting. If we were expecting guests, we’d’ve heard them by now.” He gave a short meaningless smile. “What the everliving fuck just happened? At all?”

I do a good line in glares. “That was what remains of my life going tits-up, friend. And in case you hadn’t noticed? I wasn’t exactly planning for any of that.”

“That’s good.” The dwarf glanced theatrically to his companion. “Isn’t that good? He wasn’t planning not to tell us what he was, wasn’t planning not to tell us what was likely to go down – Stones, he probably wasn’t even planning to make us accessories to the murder of Knight-Captain Kaercher and a short handful of his little friends.” And nobody can scowl like a dwarf, even a clean-shaven one with an expensive haircut. “A little bit of shared dirt, making us partners in crime so-to-speak? That’s understandable. A kidnapping here, a fugitive there? No problem. It’s just good business to build a little trust in this fashion. But… this?” He shook his head. “You’re sailing more than a little close to the wind, ‘friend’. So you’re going to open your mouth, now, and you’re going to do some talking, and we’re all going to remain friends. You comfortable with that?”

Hot bitter words bubbled up my throat and I clamped my jaw shut and swallowed them. Deep breath. “Yes,” I managed. “You’re right. I dragged you into the worst sort of trouble. You had my back. And without the two of you, the evening would have gone more than a little differently. I pay my debts. So, yes. I’ll get you to your treasure hunt, right on schedule. Satisfied?”

The dwarf growled in the back of his throat; Tobias put a restraining hand on his shoulder. “I’m glad to hear that you pay your debts, Anders. But it’s not like we’re going on our little trip this very night. And what my partner is trying to say in his own affable fashion is that you’ve aroused our… curiosity. As I was saying before everything went to shit – I’m not exactly the Chantry’s greatest friend myself. And I figure that there are things that you’d like to talk about, and I’m in a listening mood.” He shrugged. “And if in the process you end up explaining why the fuck anything that happened this evening was a surprise to the two of us? That would be excellent. Because the way that I and mine have survived as long as we have is by leaving the Maker-molesters well alone and making like everyday folk. Clearly you don’t think that’s an option. So talk to me.” He shrugged. “Might be you’ll make yourself a friend.”

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