Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Fourteen
Sorry about the delay: there was an accident with some Pythons.
It wasn’t even on purpose. It was the stupidest thing in the world.
There was a new girl at the Rose, you see. No hint of trouble to her, no sniff of a potential problem, or so Madam Lusine said, and she looked and sounded the part – sure, her whole ‘sultry exotic’ act was thanks to an Antivan half-elf for a father, a native acting talent and vast quantities of henna, but that’s no worse than many. And she had a glowing letter of introduction from a friend of Lusine’s, and she danced like she didn’t have a rigid bone in her body, and her name was Idunna.
Popular, too, and quickly, especially with a particular slice of our clientele. It goes like this: while neither a chanter nor a priestess is celibate, neither are they particularly famous for their promiscuity and the only places where the Maker’s houses are actually hotbeds of licentious debauchery are the worst sort of salacious entertainment. So naturally there’s a certain sort of Chantry novice who, eighteen, hormonal and frustrated, will hear well-meaning sermons decrying the evils of the flesh and see something between a manual and a shopping list.
And once they’ve already forged a pass to get them out, filched a purse and concealed their identity to get them out on the town in a deniable fashion, they’re aren’t exactly going to be in a mood to settle for a half-pint of small beer and a lapdance, if you see what I mean. And a girl who on top of being negotiably available and clearly some kind of irredeemable sinner was probably also related to an elf in some fashion – well, apparently this was exactly the right degree of transgressive for them, and Idunna the inauthentically exotic was exactly what they wanted in a companion. Or something. Look, I was tending bar at a pretentious knocking-shop, how d’you expect my anecdotes to start.
Anyway, my point is that it was nothing to do with me. I’d done nothing to rouse the suspicions of the Templars, I’d done nothing to bring what happened upon me: it was pure chance, what happened next, pure providence, and did I mention that while I’m fairly certain that divine providence is a force in this world, I’m pretty much just as certain that said force has it in for me.
And I say this because it transpired that Idunna was a blood-mage.
It was relatively early one evening. We hadn’t really got going for the evening; there were a couple of groups of patrons on their first round and the minstrels were tuning up, when Aidan (that’s Tobias’ replacement) came agitated over to fetch Madam Lusine, and he told her in an undertone that there were Templars at the door, and a visit to the privy was my excuse for getting out of the common room as quick as I could, because all I could think was that they were after me –
And Idunna accosted me all of a sudden in the corridor. Her finger was bleeding where she’d chewed on a nail. “Come with me,” she said without preamble, and I did so without thinking that anything was at all odd.
(… My body was moving by itself. I could feel the spell around me like a leash woven from hot wire. Shit. A mage. Blood mage. Double shit. Uh.)
“Stop.” We were inside her room. “Hold out your left hand.”
(She clearly didn’t know what I was. I reckoned I could break the spell by simply pushing – but what then? I’d be face to face with a scared and angry blood mage, and the only way I’d have of fighting her wasn’t exactly subtle, and there were still templars around, and did I really want to set my home on fire -)
She pulled her fingernail from the base of my thumb to the tip of my index finger and perfectly naturally it left a deep bleeding cut. “Now. When I tell you, you’re going to go downstairs and out of the back door. When they try to grab you, slap the closest one with your left hand and scream, then push straight past them.” She raised her hand to me, with the blood on it, and sketched a symbol in the air before my face with quick sure lines.
(She would slip out while they were dealing with me. Was probably intending to hide her spell of concealment under the other spell that she was putting on me. I’d no idea what it was meant for: nothing good, I can tell you.)
“Now, then.” My hand hurt. My face hurt. “That’s done. Go.” So I turned on my heel, opened her door and started to walk quickly. I could hear raised voices in the bar. Down the stairs we went; she was close on my heels as a shadow.
(I would get one shot at disobeying her. What could I do with it? I played along for now.)
The back stairs, normally gloomy, were outlined in a kind of red light – a moment more and it seemed that I was the source. Her other spell. Sinister menacing light haloed around my head and my hands and my heart. She’d made me look for all the world like a mage gathering power for one desperate strike.
(So I did just that, carefully, quietly, as I walked. One shot, I’d have. One try. No way I’d be stronger than her if she knew what I was. I could tell there were guards outside if she couldn’t. She’d have to run to the right, down the alley. The orders she’d given me would have me out of her way. I could hear her quick scared breathing.)
I lifted the latch, opened the door fast. Two of them, a man and a woman, red-robed under their armour, and their eyes barely had time to widen –
The spell opened my mouth and dragged out a hoarse ragged shriek from me and in that instant the blood mage tried to run, her spell pointing the whole world at me, making me the centre of everything as she slipped past me, as close to invisible as it’s possible to be
And instead of going for the Templars I hit out hard backwards with my elbow, felt it connect, turned and slammed my fist into her face. Just about had time to see her flat abject surprise – she spat blood at me, and I could feel the piercing bright chaotic flame of her spell building and my choices were to cast without thinking or think without casting –
Maker help me, I chose the second of those –
And looking back on it, I can tell you exactly what happened next. At the time, what I saw was her seem to slip as she gathered her will, the power spill through her fingers like trying to hold a pint of blood in her cupped hands, and what she’d intended to take the flesh from my bones did no more than sizzle the air.
But what had happened, of course, was the templars standing behind me, two of them, well-prepared and ready for this exact threat, pitting their training, their faith and the lyrium of their sacraments against her magic directly and seeing it fall apart like smoke in a high wind. I’d thrown myself away from her with my hands over my face and no, nobody caught me, I fell hard on my back in the street and the woman Templar literally stepped over me. It was a truncheon she had in her hand, a short blunt thing of black wood, and she just punched forward with it and caught Idunna on the chin, a second blow following quick on the heels of the first and taking her between the eyes and the blood mage fell down to the floor and did not get up again.
So the woman Templar swore pungently when she realised she’d knocked her out, and yelled for assistance which was a terrifyingly short few moments in arriving, and the two of us were physically manhandled into one of the Rose’s backrooms for all my protestations that for the first part I was completely innocent and for the second part I could walk perfectly well –
We were sat in chairs, physically held down and still by a Templar who was keeping skin contact with us the whole time; the woman had Idunna, I was being held by the man who I’d been supposed to slap. Two more of them in here, drawn blade on each of us, which I thought most unfair – had I done anything to them, at all? But I’m not my idiot brother: I held my tongue.
And two more of them came in, more senior types in enchanted armour and finer robes, with Lusine beside them looking harassed and hurt and I just wanted to go to her, I don’t know whether to hide behind her or tell her it was none of it her fault, but that clearly wasn’t happening – and there was a fourth person with them, a thin-faced dark-haired black-robed man carrying a staff that was somehow a terrible, painful thing (I tore my eyes from it).
Lusine identified the two of us, didn’t use my family name, just said that I’d been working there a year and a half and the other girl had been with us but two weeks; the man with the staff nodded, looked at us both thoughtfully. The one on his left, he said, was a blood-mage for certain, and keeping her unconscious would be for the best. He’d need to compare directly, but her touch matched the victims – victims? – and was certainly all over me. And as for me?
He inclined his head like an elf, whispered words I’d first heard the night I entered Kirkwall, blinked hard and saw straight through me. Then narrowed his eyes. Whipped around like a snake, and the tip of that staff was suddenly under Lusine’s chin. And, well, his next few words – words that I know damn well he didn’t need to speak, words that could have got away without ever passing his lips, words that changed my life – were just this. “How long have you known,” he asked, “that you had an apostate mage in your employ?”
I’d go on, but the truth is that one’s memory of such moments goes a little. Look, it’s quite simple.
They found me out.
My friends didn’t know me.
My employer deserted me.
My own mother disavowed me.
My brother wasn’t even there.
And by the time of the Great Storm, they’d marched me hooded down the great steps of Kirkwall with half a dozen templars for guard; they’d taken me through the doors of Gallows Circle; they’d had me assessed and assayed by the Head Enchanter himself; they’d found that I knew as much about magic as I knew about the far side of the moon; they’d assigned me an apprentice’s quarters little better than a cell. You want to know where I was when the world went mad? What I had to do with it?
It’s quite simple. I was nowhere. I did nothing. And as you might have perhaps gathered by now? You’ll have to look quite a lot further than me if you want to know what made the Champion of Kirkwall.
So our return to Kirkwall was, as you might have gathered, not the smoothest and happiest. My having rolled into town ready to string my brother up by the heels only to discover his complete and utter absence; Tobias’ arrival back at home to some kind of family emergency that saw him disappear entirely for a few days and then show up at an ungodly hour on my doorstep in Anders’ company, explaining that he didn’t have a home to go to and they weren’t about to go back to Anders’ place through Darktown blind drunk past midnight; Aveline taking what I’m only going to describe as a swan-dive into politics; and the elf taking her share of the proceeds almost entirely in lyrium and then disappearing back down whatever hole she came out of; it was what by the standards of the time we were describing as a parcel of utter insanity.
Heh. I’d kill for that sort of quiet life these days. Literally.
But I digress. The storm that had greeted us coming out of the Deep Roads – yes, it was just a storm, nothing magic about it as far as anybody could tell, but it was a bastard of a storm, a real ship-killer. It went on for a good twelve days, and by the time it was done there were a lot of fortunes lost in Kirkwall. A lot of people who were suddenly in need of a helping hand, some of that literal and some financial – and where I could have spent a reputation and gained a fortune and a half by turning usurer, I gained significantly more by simply being able to supply liquidity and product where other sources suddenly weren’t able. I shit you not, it was three days after I hit the city before I had the time to wash the dirt of the trail properly from my hair, and if I may have given the impression that it was a shipwreck I’d been in rather than the Deep Roads, and if I may have somewhat concealed the true extent of my newfound wealth by operating out of the Hanged Man in Lowtown – well, the whole thing came together quite nicely.
Wasn’t just merchants that the storm affected, of course. The biggest one for the city – and I’ll get to our own seafarers in a moment – the biggest thing that most people would’ve noticed from the Great Storm would have been the – well. About the ninth day of the storm it was, that such a hubbub and a commotion was raised at the west gate of the city that it even reached my own ears. The first thing to reach me was that we were being invaded by strange grey creatures out of the storm, which struck me as more than a touch unlikely, so a couple of coppers slipped to one of my street lads got me a bit of better information, and even that was more than a little unbelievable, and so it transpired that I had to go and feast my own unbelieving eyes – but it was true, or near enough. Three hundred forty-four of them, grey-skinned, white-haired, horns as long as your forearm, built more like dwarves than humans – if ever a dwarf was an easy seven feet at the shoulder. And yes, I’m afraid to say that it was a human swearword that came first to my lips when I saw them. Maker’s breath. Giants.
Castaways, they claimed to be, and there’s an old truism about a guy with biceps the size of beer-kegs and whether you should take him at his word: the Viscount met their leader and I dare say that money changed hands there, because the old bastard wasn’t born yesterday, and suddenly there was an announcement that ‘our qunari friends’ were being allowed to rent some space down near the docks until the storm should lift and a ship come for them.
Now I’ve seen the odd giant before – like fish out of water they looked, usually with those horns of theirs either broken or cut off, often with great big scars where once had been tattoos that spoke of their station in life, their duties to their addle-headed religion. But this lot were different. See one of them on their own, the tattoos don’t seem to mean much – but when you’ve got a dozen of them together, suddenly you’re telling them apart by the angular or curving varicoloured designs they’ve all got incised into their flesh. And the next dozen you meet, you realise that the design goes with the job, not the person, and you realise that the red chevrons and bars of a sten are a signal that you’ve got one that speaks the language and talks to outsiders.
And no, you can’t teach the others. They aren’t thick – they just don’t care. They have a sten to speak the language for them, or if push comes to shove a ben-hassrath or an arishok – neither of which I’d ever heard of before. The sten eventually said that if I wanted so much to be able to sell things to other ranks that I should learn qunlat, their language – except, of course, that a sten’s duties did not include language instruction, thank you, have a nice day. So frankly, life was too short and so was I; I hired a human to sell things to giants for me and largely ignored the creatures from then on. Just goes to show, sometimes I get days off from being a genius.
The qunari weren’t the only people to have been shipwrecked, either. Tethras and Sons don’t ship goods by sea unless we can help it, and the first reason is that the coastline of the Free Marches is by and large as friendly and welcoming as a rusty sawblade; there were a number of ships, even some from the Flotilla, which had come to grief in the storm and washed their crews up in Kirkwall as the nearest port from which anybody might be hiring anytime soon. The difference between Flotilla and freelance, by the way, is the difference between organised crime and disorganised crime: the second reason we don’t ship by sea is that the only way to do that without losing your shirt is to get into bed with either, and you know what they say about people who get into bed with sailors.
And I mention this because in with the other shipwrecked and shirtless mariners came a woman whose importance to history you’d never have guessed from meeting her: real character, that lady, name of Isabela, no second name, and apparently no sobriquet or nickname either. I was first introduced to her on what I believe to be the first evening that she and Tobias met; she made a terrible first impression and I’m afraid to say that it was a great deal of time before that changed, if indeed it ever did; and I’m going to have to tell this bit of the story properly if anything of the next month or so is to make a blind bit of sense, so hold your nose and play along.
So as I said, it started badly. Tobias had washed up in the Hanged Man that evening, without Anders for once, and knowing what I did about the man and the fact that he could afford to buy places like this practically from pocket change, and also with not a little fellow-feeling for my friend and partner, I’d collared him and sat him down for a serious chat about what ailed him.
Across a table that a very few moments later, a raven-haired beauty of a lass went flying onto, giving both of us what I guess I’ll describe as a slightly hair-raising eyeful as she slid on her back across the table, continued into a back-flip off the far side and retaliated at her original aggressor with an accurately thrown chair. And either Tobias was feeling in a particularly chivalrous mood that evening or he was looking for an excuse to escape me or both, because instead of the perfectly reasonable strategy that I adopted (to wit, getting my arse out of the incipient brawl), he decided to take the lady’s side.
Turned out that the other side contained six of them, and her side contained, well, her. Further turned out that those long, beautiful, tanned legs not only went all the way up but were perfectly capable of a powerful and well-placed kick to bring a sympathetic tear to the eye of any man watching, and we’re all perfectly aware of Tobias’ skill with any weapon or none, so that little encounter ended with the two of them looking at one another over the unconscious body of the sixth assailant and grinning like idiots, and the lass abruptly stuck her hand out. “Isabela. Thanks for the assist, mate.”
“Tobias.” They shook. “What’s a nice place like you doing in a -”
“Business, sadly.” She had golden earrings, which don’t usually speak of a tavern fighter, and I’d likely have heard of a Kirkwall bravo who’d just shown she could hold her own beside Tobias Amell. Curious. “There was supposed to be one of them, and we were supposed to be taking it outside.”
“Flotilla?” Huh. Apparently whatever was wrong with Tobias hadn’t affected his wits if he’d jumped straight to Kirkwall’s most likely organised crime.
She nodded shortly. “Yup. Bastard lied to me about the boat I was escorting and took offence that I hove off.”
“In this weather?”
“Nah.” Bright teeth flashed. “Old quarrel. Wouldn’t’ve come up if we weren’t cheek by jowl; bloody weather.” She bit her lip, thinking: one couldn’t help but notice the stud through it. Abruptly, “Look. You up for a bit of fun?” A quirk of the eyebrow. “Because said bastard just escalated on me. Six bully-boys to teach a lady a lesson for calling him out? Proportionate? I think not. So I’m of a mind to teach him a lesson back. Want in?” She threw me a glance over her shoulder. “Your mate’s invited provided he wipes the drool off his chin.”
Tobias shrugged. “We didn’t have a vast amount planned for this evening. Varric?”
Fake smile. “As you said. Someone’s got to look after you jokers. You paying, sera?”
“I don’t carry that sort of money.” Her grin was probably not the only thing about her that was infectious, if you get me. “Half shares?”
Well, that sent my eyebrows up. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we didn’t need the money and we’d likely have done it for free. But you don’t haggle like that with Varric Tethras and expect to keep your shirt, even if it is low-cut. “Half for me, you mean?”
She chuckled at that as we got going. “So it’s true, then, what they say about dwarves.”
“As a matter of fact,” I said deadpan, “it is; additionally this particular dwarf is a gold-loving whoreson with an affinity for a hard bargain.”
“Ohh, you boys couldn’t afford me.” Looked for a minute like she was considering ruffling my hair, but thought better of it; clearly she might actually have met a dwarf before.
“For all you know, I’m the richest young bravo in Kirkwall,” said – well – the richest young bravo in Kirkwall. “Anyway. Where’s your bastard?”