Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Nineteen

by artrald

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*

Aveline

The thing that was notable about the last few hours before what would later be called the Invasion of Kirkwall was the collective lack of warning and preparation on the part of the agencies responsible for the city’s security and safety. The qunari had, after all, significantly outstayed their excuse, which had been from the first transparent; and yet neither the Viscount nor the Council nor the captain of the guard had a concrete plan in place for the management of this well-equipped force quartered within the city. There simply was not the will anywhere within the highest echelons of Kirkwall’s Citizens to take the qunari seriously as a threat. The cost of their being a threat would be so high – the possibility that they were a threat so intimidating – that the opinion-formers balked; they refused to plan; they preferred to repeat the qunari leadership’s blatant untruth that their warriors were in truth shipwrecked sailors, in the hope that a lie spoken a dozen times would be transmuted by some alchemy into truth.

The templars of the city’s Chantry and Circle, in most places the last line of vigilance against all threats from within, were under the leadership of Meredith Stannard focused almost entirely upon what was portrayed to be the growing problem of apostate mages; indeed, the very day before the Invasion the Knight-Commander had come before the Assembly demanding – indeed, receiving –  additional funding for the improvement of Kirkwall’s security against this undoubtedly serious threat.

When the threat posed by the qunari was initially vouchsafed, by Tobias Hawke in closed session with the Viscount following a botched diplomatic operation, the Viscount’s response was sluggish to say the least. The qunari had given a deadline of ‘an evening and a morning’ before they would move to reclaim the relic that they falsely believed was in the city’s possession, but the Viscount for reasons of his own decided to sleep upon this information, telling only his own household; he then rose late, and the likelihood of a potential march upon the palace by the qunari was released significantly after the morning’s shift change. Thus the only forces present, correct and most importantly wide-awake at the time of the qunari action were the guards of the treasury, the bailiffs of the law-courts and the Viscount’s personal guard, for a grand total of forty at arms; an emergency recall of the city guard managed to scare up approximately the same again from those still in the palace after shift’s end.

Lieutenant Aveline herself was indeed present to lead this latter sorry contingent; she had returned to the palace before the full nature of the failure of the previous night had become known, pulled a full shift of administrative work during which nobody had decided to update her and made her way home significantly after midnight, and had then been unceremoniously dragged from sleep not three hours later by a frantic Tobias and spent an increasingly apprehensive morning assisting in the search for the absent Isabela. Suffice to say that her usual standards of competence were less than up to scratch; indeed when the qunari did not materialise immediately upon the rising of the sun over Sundermount, she managed to embarrass herself and her unit most thoroughly by nodding off to sleep while standing, and indeed holding the cup of tea that was supposed to be doing the job of keeping her awake.

Then, with the decks thus stacked, it was time as it were to play.

The qunari moved from their compound as one. In military terms they knew themselves outnumbered by a factor of ten or so and had made no assumptions concerning the ill-prepared nature of the forces arrayed against them: their movements displayed therefore the caution of a general who is waiting for the other shoe to drop. Advance elements moved with all the speed that a small unit can muster, securing the widest of the city’s great stairs; they ignored completely the guards that demanded to know their business, until the idiot of a sergeant drew a  blade, at which point the patrol was eliminated with brutal and casual speed – and then, with what their officer would be sure to describe as due caution, so was every single civilian witness. Word was given. The qunari moved. It was not yet noon.

The response from the captain of the guard upon receiving the eventual alarm was swift and accurate, but roughly speaking insufficient. The original gates of the viscountal palace of Kirkwall, had been built to hold off any likely slave-revolt – but it was an age since the original ones had fallen, and replacement after flimsy inadequate replacement had led to a steady weakening of the defences as money could never be found to make good; any unrest of Kirkwall’s common people would perforce come from the Lower City and – the thinking went – could be contained simply enough by holding the great stair. And in matter of actual fact, the qunari advance guard ascended the stairs at something that was not far short of a run; the ancient, rusty hinges of the gates at the top of them burst with hardly the slightest effort; and the giants burst through only to find that those who were supposed to be barring their path had already abandoned their post.

The action then proceeded for the most part in a state of what might best be described as utter chaos. Watch patrols throughout Hightown, converging on the noise and disturbance, found themselves met by elite troops in full armour; while the qunari were likely feeling the lack of the heavy but difficult-to-conceal weaponry with which they’d fight upon the battlefield, the lightly equipped human guards were seeing a terrifying phalanx of bristling steel-clad giants.

The first few tentative clashes established just how uneven any such fight would be; and it was here that the qunari leadership’s orders again served as an aggravating factor to the eventual atrocity of the situation. The caution of the orders given to the vanguard and the degree of mismatch between them and the situation in the field combined catastrophically with the degree of tactical initiative given as a matter of course to elite troops: seeing the humans retreat, the qunari pushed forward to try and turn retreat into rout; under pressure, the humans retreated into the nearest defensible areas, those being the businesses and homes nearby; the qunari either could not tell or did not care about the difference between civilians and enemy combatants; and by the time the fog of war had been sufficiently lifted to get the unit disengaged and moving in the correct direction, effectively the entire part of Hightown between the Grand Stair and the Viscount’s palace had been painted in human blood.

To give credit where credit is due, the qunari were indeed halted – albeit briefly – at the gates of the palace. A bolt from a decent-sized crossbow, correctly placed, is a threat to a qunari as much as it is to a horse; the vanguard were repulsed with losses before it could be discovered that the palace’s inward-opening doors could likely have been beaten down by half-a-dozen giants and a hand-held ram. The doors were braced; the crossbows reloaded; Aveline found herself suddenly too busy to be tired, atop the gate, putting to use skills she’d last used at the Battle of Ostagar. And they had eventually been useless there, as well.

The next group that attempted the gate were carrying a number of makeshift shields improvised from doors, street furniture and similar: this was the first sight that the defenders had had of the elite nature of the qunari warriors, for they were deliberately carrying them slightly askew in the knowledge that a siege crossbow that can punch a hole in steel plate will quite handily do the same to a wooden door or table. Moreover, they had counted the archers – the instant, the very instant that the volley of bolts was spent, a group of warriors broke away and sprinted with terrifying speed across the decorative but cover-free plaza that now served the defenders as killing-field. Aveline’s second shot was quickly enough loosed – she’d handed off the first bow and lifted the second almost before her bolt had struck home – but it was one of piteously few that were, and the group made it to the gate in a manner akin not to men carrying a ram but to men playing some kind of ball game –

The sudden image flashed before her eyes of the way the gates of Ostagar had fallen – on some terrified impulse Aveline cried to her people to get off the gate –

With Tobias’ sister, in that terrible abortive attempt to escape from the Blight, Aveline had had close and personal experience of fire magic. The burning heat, the flash, the hungry roar of the flames and the rushing air – but what the qunari had used was like that but yet quite unlike it. A flash there was, yes, and smoke, but it came with a noise so loud as to be a concussive physical punch, and there was no accompanying roar of flames. With hindsight, it is possible to identify that it was no kind of magic at all that they had used, but rather gaatlok – an alchemical mixture that is here named in qunlat because no western alchemist has to this date been able to replicate its function, a thing well-known and feared by those who have faced the qunari in war.

Aveline and the others fleeing the top of the gate were thrown violently from their feet, dazed, their ears ringing. Those of the guard who had chosen to ignore her panicked yell and remain at their posts, suffered worse – concussions, burst eardrums, even broken bones. But that was nothing compared to the effect of the blast upon the gate itself: the ancient hinges shattered, the timbers buckled and the bar smashed to flinders, the gate had in that single instant fallen. The gate had fallen and this time there were no Wardens, no nigh-invincible warriors to hold the line however briefly, no escape routes, no way to run, nowhere to run to. Aveline’s warriors, the people she’d trained and equipped and brought to this place – mostly, they got up. Mostly they ran (fruitlessly) to aid their fellows.

But to the shame of her honour, her person, her position and her uniform, Aveline Vallenn did not. She remained there, trying to marshal her traitorous body and mind into obedience. Trying. Slipping. Failing.

Much of the remainder of this account is therefore hearsay; the reader’s indulgence and understanding is requested.

The captain of the guard and his men were drawn up within the vestibule of the palace, making its original purpose as a second defensive line more than clear as they formed the first true shield-wall the qunari had faced. Captain Jeven, for all his faults, considered himself to be a man of honour in the ways that counted, and it was in that way that he comported himself that day: he stood with his men, front and centre, bearing arms against the city’s foe. For all the failures, for all the annoyances that had led to this point, they were gone: now it was merely him and his against the enemy.

Sadly, it availed him little. The qunari, who towered a good two feet taller than their foes and carried significantly more muscle even before their superiority in experience and organisation were accounted for, additionally held the numerical advantage. The shield-wall is at best a dubious tactic against a foe capable of delivering a blow to a shield that will shatter the arm holding it or knock the warrior from their feet; and yet the humans did not falter, did not break. They forced the qunari to break them. They stood. And they died. And Captain Jeven fell.

The qunari gained the great hall of the palace, and there – curiously – they held, their warriors forming a wall of steel across the hall. There was no question of a counter-attack by the humans; there was neither the morale nor the force nor a tactical leader. The two sides, effectively, stood there and turned their contest of arms into a contest of glowering. It was only after some minutes had passed and no further advance, that the reason for their sudden disciplined halt became clear; the phalanx became an honour-guard, an avenue in their ranks opened, and from among that dark terrifying force strode the arishok and his personal guard.

And where he had seemed a little incongruous, out-of-place, larger-than-life upon that makeshift Lowtown throne, here was the man in his element. He wore no insignia of rank, his armour no more ornate than that of his praetorians, the red tattoos on his face meaningless to an outsider; but the sheer physical presence of the man was more than sufficient badge of office. He stepped forward and in that deep resonant voice said, “Bring forth your leader.”

Nobody spoke. Nobody moved. Such was the degree of paralysis of the city, the swiftness of the qunari, that the palace had not even been evacuated of the Council and Viscount; many of them were in fact within earshot of the arishok’s words. And of course, each of them considered it the other’s job to move, to speak, to do something.

And then one stepped forward: this was the hour of Shamis Dumar. Suddenly it appeared if the young man had been preparing for this all his life. The Viscount’s son drew himself up to his full height, still not quite coming up to the arishok’s chin, and he opened his mouth, and clearly and loudly and earnestly he spoke in qunlat.

History does not record what it was that he said, but his first few words stopped the arishok in his tracks, one eyebrow raised. The human lines allowed the prince to pass; he stood there before the giant and spoke again, more surely, and the arishok inclined his head.

“Even so,” he said in the tongue of the Free Marches, and his ears twitched. “Do your fellows know the nature of the offer that you have just made?”

The prince smiled to himself. “They would not understand the literal translation. But I speak with my father’s-”

“And yet he’s here and quite capable of speaking for himself.” The arishok didn’t raise his voice; he simply looked up. “You know my terms. They have not changed, bas.  They are perfectly simple. We are here for one thing. This is the last chance. Your final chance. To provide it by peaceful means.” The simple words were transformed by that voice into the most menacing of threats.

“Arishok.” The Viscount’s voice was neither as steady or as clear as his son’s. Witnesses agree that mostly he sounded so very unutterably weary. “You already know the answer that I am going to give you. It is no different than that which my messenger delivered you-”

The giant shook his head gently. “Viscount. Ser. Do not think me some kind of fiend. I know of the burdens that you carry. Indeed, they are part of the reason I’ve acted as I have. Your fortitude and that of your people, they are not lightly to be put aside. The bravery and wisdom of your son: they are not to be ignored. But there comes a moment in any struggle where to accept the inevitable conclusion is no weakness.” His hand dropped, casually, to the hilt of the blade he wore. “And if you believe you have not reached that point, then I am prepared to take you there.”

“For the love of Andraste, ser!” The prince spread his hands. “Will you not believe that we do not-”

The blade of the arishok is in the tales reputed to be so sharp as to slice the edge of a moment in half. He drew. And, so it is said, before the defenders had truly realised that he’d moved at all, already he was cleaning his blade. And the blood of Prince Shamis flowed to mingle with the rest that smirched the floor of the chamber.

“I do,” he said.

*

Anders

So where actually was I when the invasion began?

As it happens, the answer was far more sensible and understandable than anything about my reputation might lead you to believe. What was I doing? I was with Tobias. Searching.

Yes. The Maker’s Gift grants me sight beyond that granted to another, and all that rubbish. Divination is a part of my talent that was there before Justice came to me. But you’ve got to understand – what Tobias was asking me to do was a hard thing. Divination is done carefully. Slowly. The best-known spell pattern involves such steps as ‘and now get yourself to bed and sleep at least six hours.’ And yes, I was a diviner for the Circle in my day, one of the best. Only one of the best would’ve been able to do anything at all in the time that we had. Not to mention Tobias’ continual insistence that my work was a matter of life and death – what did he think a Circle diviner does? Navel-gazing?

But you know how divination doesn’t always work? Stray influences, I used to say. The stars. Demons, and all the usual hazards of the Fade. All those waking minds. All those false positives. And of course Tobias wasn’t the type to have anything so useful as a lock of hair from his beloved – and no, beyond a certain point a description helps no further, and if he thought that what I was doing was somehow equivalent to examining the buttocks of every Antivan in the city for moles – but the short of it was that the best I could do was that she hadn’t skipped town, and I’d know her if I saw her – so very, very useful, the Art can be – and then the qunari decided the city had had long enough and everything descended into chaos.

Down in Lowtown the histories record that the fighting wasn’t so fierce – and all I can say to that is that I really didn’t want to see what the histories mean by fierce. We came out into a mess that I’ll not dignify with the name of ‘battle’ – what must have counted as the rearguard of the qunari had seized the docks at the same time their brothers had gone up to Hightown, and every objection, every hint of resistance had been met not with intimidation and shouting but with casual and extreme violence.

And against my better judgement, and quite in defiance of any wishes of mine, Justice had something to say about that.

The official histories of the Invasion of Kirkwall say that Meredith Stannard authorised the Circle to demonstrate their power in the defence of mankind, but it’s bullshit. The one who demonstrated that power, was Justice. Was me. We’d been on that street for just about long enough for Tobias to utter a string of disbelieving swearwords, when he looked around at me and saw the alien look in my eyes, the indefinable change in my features that was Justice gathering himself, and rather than try and dissuade me or run, his eyes lit with a kind of bright madness all his own. Suddenly it didn’t matter that Isabela had gone. He drew; and in earnest the madness began.

Thirty giants, there were on those docks. Thirty giants, elite soldiers arrayed for war in black battle-plate, murderers in need of justice. And the two of us in our leathers, him with his thin Tevinter-style duelling blade and me with my faithful Fereldan arming sword, and the sun was at our backs, and in that moment there was nothing we could not do.

Their training held even against Justice’s inexorable demand that the guilty face him fair and square: they tried to rush us, and Justice raised my hand and showed me once again the difference between my own poor command of my Gift and the smooth, elegant expertise of one to whom magic is more natural than breathing itself. Earth was the element he chose: an invisible blow that bowled three of them backwards like skittles, an offhand gesture that ripped the blade from the hands of another of them, because he’d rather a heavier blade than mine. They fought, Justice and Tobias, side by side; none could touch them, and to coin a phrase, it was glorious. I wish that I could say that I was helping; I wish that I could say that some of that was me; in truth, very little of it was. Just the body. Just the curse, through which Justice ceaselessly fed strength to my muscles; with his power upon me, I scarce needed to breathe, even. And the blood of giants is darker than wine, and it stinks.

The qunari fought hard and well; they fought with power and conviction and skill, but they did not fight for ever. And when it was clear that Tobias and Justice were seeming not to tire, when it was seen that Justice had more than that initial barrage of magic in him, when they came eventually to realise that two men were truly proving to be the match of thirty giants, they pulled themselves back and they tried to disengage.

And Justice, well, he was no more or less than his name. They started to retreat, and he spoke softly to Tobias, and all of the light around the two of them began to stream inwards to gather around him as dust rose from the ground at my feet and the breeze lifted my hair and as he raised my hand imperiously I felt him reach properly for my Gift in the manner I might.

And there was a soft moment, as the world around us was for a moment softened and his will impressed into it like a leatherman’s punch: then the spell released.

And upon the heads of the retreating qunari, it began to rain fire. Smoking, stinking, dirty fire in great solid heavy scads; uneven balls of fire that burst on striking the ground, fire that caught and adhered to anything organic that it touched and burned hotter and fiercer and dirtier the longer it clung. And as they broke and ran Justice stalked after them with their doom about him like a shroud, and everywhere I spied a qunari who had found shelter or attempted to save its life by splitting from its fellows, bloody-handed Justice drove me after it to bring down fire and sword once more. Kavade saarebas, they cried, kavade saarebas aixha: beware the thing that burns, beware the burning angel of death – and for them, he was. Giants are sturdy, tenacious creatures and they do not fall easily, but none of those thirty of them escaped unmarked; back they fell in fear, burned, maimed, marked by fire and steel, and not a few of them they left still and silent upon the cobbles.

And I returned shuddering and coughing to my body leaning over the corpse of one who’d not succeeded in his flight, and I became aware that I’d lost my eyebrows to the flame and the ends of my fingernails, and that Justice had squeezed me for power until I’d nothing left but pith and pulp, and I also became uncomfortably, uncomfortably aware of the red-robed lookout who stood not a hundred yards away across the harbour on Gallows Isle; and even at that distance she shrank from my gaze.

“Tobias, my friend?” I choked.

“Anders, my friend.” Tobias was leaning against a wall, running blood from half a dozen wounds he wouldn’t be feeling until later.

“I think we should, uh.” I swayed on my feet. “Make ourselves scarce.”

“Right.” He followed my gaze. That novice was retreating, getting out of my sight, but she’d be going straight to her superiors. “Hanged Man. Varric’s there.”

“Reasonable. You have a plan yet?”

He shook his head. “It contacted an enemy. Time to build another.”

*

The Hanged Man was almost unrecognisable. They’d cleared the taproom, stacked the tables and made the place into a makeshift hospital. If a qunari was trying to kill you, most times you’re not exactly in good shape, even if it got somehow interrupted; just like on the docks it looked from the casualties like the qunari had just not cared about the difference between an opponent and a victim.

And yes, Varric was here and doubtless Tobias wanted me for something – not that a spell to sober someone up would even work if that someone was a dwarf – but here I had just met what I’ll characterise as a moral imperative. It wasn’t exactly likely that the templars would be patrolling normally, and there was still breath left in me: the rest could go hang. Every Circle mage with the slightest inclination is taught to heal, and Enchanter Wynne’s lessons had stuck well, and Justice looked on me saving victims of those he’d been fighting and his approval found me some new strength from somewhere.

The lesson for frontline medicine is that you focus first on the ones who can go back out to join the fight, then help those who are bad enough to need it and good enough to make it worth your – no – apparently Justice never took those classes. Did I really want to object? My power felt bottomless. The spirit doesn’t really have mortal limits. He started with those worst off, and he didn’t particularly care that everyone here learned in moments that I was a mage, and – well. Someone started to object and his fellows shouted him down. I had all the assistants I could wish for and they were praising the Maker for bringing me and me for being brought. And maybe just for a few minutes there I could feel the shape of the world the way it ought to be. Each of us using what we had, pulling together and making things the way we wanted them to be. Magic is meant to serve man, the Chant says – well, not that I’m much of a pious man myself, but there I was, serving man with magic, and if the templars caught me at it they’d make me a slave or burn out my mind or both. So much bullshit.

But it couldn’t last, of course. A kid slipped in through the side door, came into where I was working and started demanding that everyone look out, that there were Templars coming. Middle of a Maker-damned war and the bastards were more interested in being helped the right way than in – I looked around at the room full of scared people looking at me and Justice wouldn’t have them hurt on my account. Just about sublimated his instinct to take the prospective fight outside into going upstairs.

Made like a mundane healer. Enchanter Wynne always said that nobody had any business doing something by magic till they knew how it’d be done without. People were going to have scars because of those bloody Templars, but no worse: I told ’em to come find me if my stitches burst or the wound started to stink, and I took my tiredness and the fact that I was doing just fine by hand and I stamped down hard on Justice’s urge to start helping again. Dammit. Hated every moment.

*

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