Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Ten
What exactly were my options? I talked.
Yes, I’m a mage. And an apostate. And I grew up in the Circle, and now I’m free. You’ll have been told that that’s rare. You’ll have been told that it’s nearly impossible. That templars can see magic, smell it on the air, see it on people. That the Circle can track anyone who’s ever been a member – anywhere – that any apostate mage can’t help but make so much metaphysical noise that the Circle and the Chantry will hear them right across the kingdom. But as with almost anything that comes out of their mouths that isn’t the actual Chant of Light? It’s not exactly what you’d call truth of the first water.
The Chantry relies on us to catch one another, you see. A templar can smell magic, yes, if it’s thrust under their nose – but it takes a mage to know a mage, if they don’t want to be seen. It takes a mage to track over many leagues from the drop of preserved blood and hank of hair that the Circle keeps for us all. And this means that they need to trust us, some of us, or we cannot be effectively policed. And you can tell what comes next.
Karl was a diviner, a sensitive like me. Damn good one. Better than me. Best I ever saw. And as far as the Chantry knew, he had no friends. Cold fish. Practically Tranquil already. Dependable. Excellent success rate. Practically one in three, you know.
Much more, if you count all the places the Templars went and found a cold trail. Because more than any advocate on our side or any sword to our defence, what saves us from them is no more or less than the holes in their net. Difficult? Yes. Heartbreaking? Absolutely. But the cold, hard decision is that they will make someone do this job, and a well-chosen one in three – the insane, the dangerous, those who would most likely get themselves caught anyway and those who ought to be locked up – is more use in every sense than the best efforts of a half-trained wrongheaded amateur.
But roughly speaking, there’s only so long you can do that before someone notices, and roughly speaking the one who did all the noticing in Ferelden Tower was Wynne – now Head Enchanter Wynne – and her notebooks and her numbers and the mind like a steel trap behind all her charm. And we thought our game was up, and I walked into her office ready to bring the whole place down, and she just smiled and winked and said she’d just received transfer requests for the two of us. Packed us off, right under the templars’ noses – to be charitable, she was keeping us one step ahead of the templars and keeping us where we could help; to be uncharitable, the old bat shipped us off with a bunch of useful lies to pacify us and the Templars alike and made us someone else’s problem the moment she could.
Karl got Denerim, working with the newly appointed mages of Anora’s court, thence getting himself sent to Kirkwall as a specialist once suspicion had calmed; I got the Wardens, working alongside the dozen or so misfits and ne’er-do-wells that the Warden of Ferelden had assembled to right wrongs and do good and clean up after the Blight.
About which job, the biggest, the most serious and arguably the only problem that truly mattered was the Warden herself. I hadn’t joined because I cared for her cause, and she hadn’t given me the job because she gave two shits about mine. She couldn’t stand me once we got to know one another – I reminded her of someone she cared about a great deal once, except that compared to him I was a self-obsessed malingerer, a slacker and a waste of air, and she made it her business to make sure I knew as much – and I hated everything from the hard living and the sleeping rough to the discipline to the constant drilling.
And just to take a random example of that woman’s heartlessness? I rescued an abandoned kitten and she even turned down my request to keep the thing as a pet. You know, something to remind me we were human? And I said as much and she went ice-pale and cold and said that if she ever saw that bloody animal again she’d kill it herself. Like I said. It was just never going to work.
And I confronted her with this, and that I’d done not one single thing to help a fugitive mage since I joined the Wardens. And she said that I knew the deal when she gave it to me, and I could leave if I wanted, if I thought I had somewhere to go. And even though I didn’t have anywhere and she knew it, I took her up on that offer, and if she hadn’t meant it, she shouldn’t have bloody said it.
And then I first had the dream when I was sleeping despondent and disaffected in a ditch. And yes, dreams aren’t uncommon. I’m a mage: bad dreams happen. Temptation, I’m familiar with. But this was something else. This wasn’t offering me a thing. It was asking for help.
Ignored it; it came back. Hedged it out; it came back. Night after night, after night, after night. Unusual, really unusual, for the same one to just keep coming where it’s finding no purchase. It wasn’t so much that it was pushy, though as that it was desperate – think of the cries of an animal in a trap, or a man who caught his foot in midstream crossing a river. Or a lion with a thorn in its paw. All it wanted was help.
And it wasn’t a demon. Wasn’t a creature of hate. It showed itself to me, and it couldn’t have lied, not to someone with my level of training. Someone had bound it to a spell, bound it for more than a generation of men. Dredged it up from the depths of the Fade and hitched it to a team and metaphorical plough, turned its nature into a weapon until it started to twist and poison itself in its own wastes, until it began to starve on the foreshores of dream. It had somehow worked loose from its prison and now there it lay, exhausted, too weakened even to send itself home. And the nature of this great creature that was not a demon?
And I caught my breath, even in my dream, and I asked what it would do, if I helped it. And it said that it would do nothing but seek that which was its name and nature. And it could see my cause. It could see the injustices that I’d witnessed, that I knew were out there. And it said that it could help me.
And Maker help me – in the end, eventually, I said yes.
Justice is right here, inside my head. He can hear, you know. He doesn’t understand so much, but he’s watching. And if I need him, or if we can no longer just stand by and watch something, or if we’re in danger, he steps up and we trade places.
And, yes. This is where you might use the word ‘abomination’. And in the strictest possible terms, you’d be right. When Justice is in charge, the world works the way Justice wants. I’ve got the Maker’s Gift, the tools of creation. And he’s got the imagination, the experience, the sheer inhuman strength of character that I lack. Together, we are ‘an abomination’. Together we can be, have been, a creature that Justice would call evil’s worst nightmare.
But when he’s not needed – he goes. He sleeps. I’m just me. A little tired, a little dirty, but he takes great care to preserve me for all that he could quite easily walk around in my broken corpse if he had to.
He doesn’t care about most of what I do – and what he demands of me, a lot of it I’d do anyway, if I could. He can match Templars with his magic and kill them. He can keep me going long past the physical and mental limits I should have, for he doesn’t understand the concept, not really. And if you want no greater judgement of his character than this, only know that he can heal, and without the spell I’d have to forge if I wanted to do the same.
And he left all of me that was Karl’s, alone. Karl never met Justice, never heard him. That part of me is ours alone. You want to call me abominable, be my guest, but I tell you. This arrangement, it is equitable, it is worthwhile, and it’s still better than the bloody Wardens, who were neither.
So that’s why I came to Kirkwall. To be near him. To do some good. Karl working inside the Chantry, me outside, co-ordinating within the dreams that we shared. And the Chantry’s dragnet catching maybe one out of three, and their attack dogs increasingly balked and frustrated at finding two false or cold trails for every live one. That frustration eventually boiling over against their source of information. His panic; my reaction; too late.
And once again Jusice released me with blood on my hands, and once again it’d be a damned lie if I said that I didn’t want it to be there. And that’s my story.
So. What now?
I shrugged, looked my audience in the eye. What I was doing. Help people. Make things a little more right where I can. Pay my debts. I didn’t suppose they wanted anything more to do with me than anyone else who knew what I truly was.
But Tobias shook his head at that one. Told me a little more about his sister, about his own family. About how they’d all been examined when they came into the city. Examined with magic. By a man upon whose word all their lives had balanced, a man who didn’t know them from Andraste, a man who had lied for them. A man whose face he’d seen for the second time in his life, today.
And on that basis, and with his voice more than a little thick with an emotion that his dwarfish friend was clearly mystified by, Tobias made me an offer. Partnership. A share in their potential risk and their possible reward. A shot at resources on a scale that could surely help with my cause. And after all, what the hell else was I doing with my life?
And damn me for a sentimental fool, I agreed.
I was taking tea alone in my cottage when I heard Tobias knock on my bedroom door. Middle of my night off it might be, idiot brother he might be, but the last time he woke me without a very good reason was six years ago. So I put down my tea, double-locked all the doors and windows, and somewhat reluctantly woke.
Hate the dark. I scowled at a candle and it lit. Tobias knocked again.
“I’m decent,” I said by way of permission, and he slipped inside and put his back against the door, and Maker’s breath, he looked horrible. Blood on him, just a few spots on his doublet, on the left leg of his hose, on his left glove, and there was something odd about it. Covered in cold sweat, he was. Smelled of blood and sweat and charcoal and brandy. Dark circles under his eyes. Still wearing his weapons. My tiredness forgotten, I sat up quickly. “You all right?”
He shook his head, looking at the far wall, his head leaned back against the door. “No. No, I’m not.” I stood up, all concern, and he raised his hands as if to ward me off. “Don’t. Don’t touch me, you can’t afford to, I, uh.” He swallowed. “Blood on me. We killed Templars, Beth, I fought them, it was them or me and I’ve got blood on me.”
Ice in my veins, sharp cold crawling ice, and a distinct feeling like someone grabbed me by the stomach and twisted. I put my hand over my mouth. “Tell me.”
He shook his head again. “Better I don’t. I – I don’t think anyone knows who it is -”
“Tobias.” I looked at him levelly. “You didn’t wake me in the middle of my night to tell me and then not tell me.”
“No,” he said. Visibly getting a grip. Never seen him this shaken. “I woke you up because I have templars’ blood on me and you can make sure I got it all.”
I scowled. An earful could wait. “Left glove, doublet, left leg of your hose. You ditched the weapon?”
He was already pulling his doublet off. “Wasn’t my blade that spilled the blood. They were good. Full armour. Nearly had me.”
I made a face, wrapped the glove carefully in the shirt. “None soaked through. You should’ve come here straight.”
“I was losing pursuit.” He undid the point on the offending leg of his hose.
“Yeah. Nobody would think to look for you at the bottom of a bottle of brandy,” I said acidly. “None of the blood on your leg either. Give me that.” And I snatched the hose off him and held the clothes up in front of him. “Blood sprayed like this, there’s someone out there with it all over them. Who else am I looking over?”
He shook his head mutely.
“Don’t give me that.” I could’ve picked him up and shaken him. “Your dwarf friend? That elf?” Still no response. “Surely not-”
“No.” Tobias sighed. “Nobody you know.”
“I don’t care if I know them. Do they know you? Could they pick you out of a crowd? Because when the Templars find them-”
“Well, I’m glad of that,” I practically snarled at him. “Because you just bet my life on it. At least you didn’t come and buttonhole me anywhere where it would look like the rest of the family was in on it as well.”
“You don’t want to know him. It’s better if the two of you never meet.” He sighed. “Would it kill you just to trust me?”
“I suppose we’ll find out, now, won’t we.”
He doubled down, of course. “Bethany. Even if the Templars do find him – and they will be looking for him, and not for me – they won’t be able to take him. And even if somehow they did – they wouldn’t be taking him alive. Would you worry if my accomplice were Flemeth of the Wilds?
“Yes?” I raised my eyebrows. “Like I have been? For months?”
He frowned. “The man’s name is Anders. He’s an apostate mage, he’s – you’re giving me that look.”
“Bloody straight! What the hell have you got yourself mixed up in this time?” I looked at the clothes in my hand, back at him. “Unexpected swordfights with Templars, blood all over you, working with organised criminals and runaways and actual maleficars, do you know what it would mean for the Chantry’s suspicions to be aroused, for them to start coming sniffing around your home and family?” He put a hand on my shoulder and I slapped it off. “We have a life here, Tobias. Yes, fine. My daily bread comes from swanning around barely dressed selling overpriced refreshments to the rich and loathsome. And yes, fine. I am technically hostage to the whim of my employer – a woman who happens to be a personal friend. You say that this might be all well and good, but we could be so much more.” I stared him in the eye. “And you’re right.”
And I took my irritation and my frustration and I focused it on what Tobias had done and I personified that in the clothes I was holding in my hand. And there was a flash of white light and heat that made my brother flinch involuntarily backwards into the wall. And I looked him in the eyes until the afterimages faded, until all that was left in my hand was a dusting of fine white ash, and until I reckoned I could keep my voice level. “I am going to say this once. All right? I could be so much more. And it would break us. So forgive me if I do not share your ambition. Forgive me if I’m happy to remain where I am, what I am. You want to move up in this world? Fine.” I clenched my fists. “But watch where you’re putting your damned feet.”
The reader might wonder – and rightly so, for Aveline would ask the same question of herself in later years – why it was that the fiercely unbending sergeant of the Lower City guard would agree to join Tobias Amell’s little expedition into the ancient underworld of the dwarves. But the answer in truth was simple enough.
Aveline’s name had been spoken of in terms associated with an individual destined for higher things. The Viscount himself had heard her discussed in connection with a string of impressive if relatively minor successes in the Lower City. Her reputation for probity had finally reached the ears of people rich enough to believe that this was the only legitimate way to act; in short, her star was rising, and it was likely that it would only rise further.
Which held, for the honest officer, problems. A citizen-officer of the law could live where she chose, for sure, and there was no expectation that she would keep off-duty the style that many of the officers did, so her salary would remain sufficient to outfit her in a manner that didn’t shame the city and to keep body and soul together – just about. But this was not about her, but rather, her subordinates.
Because most of the guard did not live so frugally, or had families and so on to consider; the salary of a guard compared unfavourably to the earnings of a journeyman in most trades, once the requirement to provide their own equipment was taken into account. As such, if they were forbidden from taking bribes unofficially as well as officially, their income would quickly drop below that required to maintain morale and performance. In short, it should be no surprise to anyone that honesty costs in the City of Coin, and orders to be honest had better come with coin to pay that cost.
So Aveline was in serious need, if she wished to spread the good she’d done any further than just her tiny corner of the city, of coin – coin in quantities that could have just plain purchased her the honours she aimed to win fairly. Loans were out of the question, not least because there was no expectation of return on investment, and most potential sources of income that large would be shockingly illegal. But the Deep Roads expedition – its main cost was personal risk. And Tobias had asked her, not as a friend, not as a favour, but for a share in the profits. And she wasn’t a mercenary – but this was a lot of money, and better it go to her cause than another’s.
Of course, Tobias did have an agenda; nothing ever simple with that man. He didn’t just tell her what she needed to know to organise and work with the semi-trained dwarves who made up half of the expedition’s strength; he told her everything. The nature and location of the goal; as much of the lore of the Deep Roads as he’d been able to find from Varric and from his own research; and the fact that both Varric and his brother Bartrand were adamant that the expedition’s ace-in-the-hole would be its magical support. That Tobias’ sister had outright refused to take part in the expedition, citing everything from a lack of formal training to a fear of the dark. And thus the only mage the expedition had with them was a man that Aveline didn’t know, and Tobias hesitated an instant too long before vouching for the man’s character.
So clearly Tobias had intended for Aveline to raise a fuss about working with an unknown mage, and while his protestations of the man’s honesty and trustworthiness were genuine enough, they were also nowhere near as strong as they could have been. So of course she didn’t back down, and eventually in frustration Varric turned to her and asked if perhaps she had a mage hidden up her sleeve that they could invite to the party?
Which, of course, she did. And while the elf Merrill was surprised to be invited and Varric was surprised in turn when she turned out to have an excellent idea of the market value of her skills and a truly eye-watering impression of the sums required to to compensate her for her time, an agreement was eventually reached. After which Merrill giggled and said that the lure of adventure had almost led her not to ask for payment at all, and one could almost hear the dwarves wincing.
And thus it was that the expedition became what it was: the merchant Bartrand Tethras and half a dozen city-dwarves to handle logistics and travel; the adventurer Varric Tethras and his friend the exiled Shaper of Memory and her maps and her keys; Tobias Amell and Aveline Vallenn with their skill at arms; and the two mages Anders and Merrill.
To the Roads they went; to the darkness, to the danger, to the risk and the reward.
And the reader may have thought by now to ask why it was that this tale, the tale of the Champion of Kirkwall, was begun half a decade before he ever bore that name; and the answer is the mages, the answer is Bethany Hawke, it is the name of Amell, it’s the expedition that was intended to be Hawke’s springboard from rags to riches and it’s the reason that only one Hawke walked the path that had been made out for two, and it’s Merrill and it is Anders, and how these people went down under the earth as wary strangers and returned as a company of allies.
And of course, what came back with them. But we shall come to that.