Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Twenty-One

by artrald

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*

I’m sure he knew I followed him. It wasn’t smart of me, but as you’ll be unsurprised to know, I’m not so sure that I’m good at making smart decisions. He didn’t go straight to the palace: he stopped past an eating-house of all places, somewhere the guard had turned into a soup-kitchen. Turns out he wanted Aveline at his back going in there – she stood up the moment she saw his face, and he headed off any words with a shake of his head, momentarily parted his cloak to show that he was wearing my satchel.

And, well, there were absolutely starving children who were in dire need of that bowl of soup that Aveline dropped, but in the moment that it crashed on the flagstones she got a grip. Nodded crisply – the snap and polish was papering over some pretty deep cracks, given the bags under her eyes and the shivering she couldn’t quite hide, but weren’t we all a little like that? Her voice was a little cracked as she barked for a full detail, but nobody needed telling twice, and in a minute or two Tobias’ escort was a dozen hands, none of ’em in any better nick than their boss.

Except with a little start I recognised Anders lean and dangerous among them in a uniform that looked like maybe three people had died in it. Knew the man was a mage, but this is the first time I’d seen him in – no, come to think of it, that was – huh. It wasn’t the uniform. It was a bit of cloth in a shape to suggest a torn livery-coat, over a set of leathers that absolutely weren’t a guardsman’s issue mail, the whole thing absolutely soaked in the blood of humans and qunari. Disguse. Good one. And at least if everything went (further) to hell, Tobias had a mage with him.

So they moved. Nobody had an eye out for a tail that day. The palace gates were broken, smashed as if magic had done it – I made myself notice how many people had died here. Qunari guards. One scare as we entered the great hall – the qunari guards weren’t for show and they didn’t want anyone in or out – but I’m not for show either, mysteriously part of Tobias’ group as we went through, melted immediately into the group inside moving like a scared little chantry-mouse, found some other mice and played scared. Front-row seat, I had.

The moment he hit that room, Tobias shed every bit of pain and exhaustion and tiredness in an act so good you’d seriously wonder if he hadn’t been putting it all on before. Straightened his back and lengthened his stride and stepped forward like he was prince here, all in the motion of throwing back his cloak. The arishok had had a chair set up as a throne, the viscount and sundry others to his sides like a court, though the prince’s body had been left obscenely sprawled in the middle of the floor: he motioned to the guards and Tobias was allowed forward.

“I wondered how long it would be,” the giant rumbled, reflectively. “To your senses you come, too late for many: I assume your arrival is a true capitulation, this time, and not the little show we all put on to appease the priests?”

Tobias did not bend. “You once asked me if I had something to say, instead of just noise to make.”

“So give me something better to listen to than my own voice.”

Tobias slipped my satchel off his shoulder and in the same moment the arishok stood, and every giant in the room came to stiff attention. He held it out before him by its strap. “Here. The sound of a thing worth the death of you and me and everyone either of us knows.”

The arishok muttered a word and two of his guards stepped forward; in the same motion Tobias stepped back and laid a hand on his hilt, and the intake of breath around the room was palpable.

“That.” The arishok’s voice was like rocks breaking. “Not yours.”

“No,” Tobias said. “It’s not. Not theirs either, unless I’m very much mistaken, arishok. Feel like leaving off the damned tests?”

And the giant nodded; motioned back his guards; descended from his throne and faced Tobias straight, the human looking like a disobedient child facing his elder. Held out his hand, simply. And Tobias lifted the satchel, opened it, and offered it, and the arishok reached within and withdrew the tome.

His people, their response was a soft kind of a sigh, the sound of victory. The arishok just looked – if he looked anything at all – weary. Like a benevolent father who’s found his son dead-drunk four mornings in a row. “A crime,” he said, softly. “This was senseless. Pointless. Someone steals the Tome, so we come looking, so you cage us and pay lipservice, so we find you out and take arms, and so your people die by the sahasra.” He looked Tobias in the eye. “And what I am telling you is that it ends. Today.”

“It does.” Tobias stared at the giant like he was staring him down. “That’s in your gift, I feel.”

The arishok raised an eyebrow. “The crime was yours? I don’t believe you. This smells of women. Of priests and queens and those who need not die in the dust. Who see not the war, and the blood, and the death that attends upon their words: they see only that for a generation the Qun in these lands is made to seem not the way of order but the way of genocide. But in the end, ser, warrior’s honour wins out. I will not see this happen again. Give her up, ser. One death. One of them to die in the dust as we do. The thief. The cause. Give her up.”

Tobias didn’t even look around. I’d frozen. If he knew I was there – there were no unguarded exits – didn’t I deserve this, anyway? –

“Enough,” he said, and the arishok blinked. “We’ve done everything you asked. You have what you wanted.”

“And I am asking for one thing more. For the criminal who started this. For the one at fault, whose head for justice’s sake should roll. Don’t tell me you owe her loyalty, after how she’s paid you for it.”

Tobias shook his head. “You don’t understand and I’m not going to make you. You speak of justice? You speak of honour? Might be a surprise to learn, ser, but mine and yours aren’t quite the same. Yours won’t let you leave without her. Mine won’t let me give her up.” He flicked his cloak back over his shoulder and the scabbard of his duelling blade was quite visible. “There’s a custom we have in the Free Marches, for this situation.”

The giant shook his head, sadly. “I have no wish to add your head to the pile. And if you die, then what have I done but slay my only lead?”

Tobias shook his head. “Ignore the politics. Without you, your people leave. Without me, my people give up the thief. We’ve both got honest subordinates who’ll see that done.”

“Justice demands a death. You are proposing your own, as the one who sheltered the snake?”

“Or yours, as the one who stood by to let her strike?”

The giant drew himself to his full height. “I do not disrespect you, champion, but I am literally twice the warrior you are.”

“Blades,” was all that Tobias said to that, and his hands went to the clasp of his cloak.

*

They were somewhat terrifyingly mismatched. Tobias, five foot ten in the stained, distressed white shirt and leather trews he’d had on under his armour, already sporting cuts and bruises from earlier endeavours, dark circles under his eyes, a thin-bladed Tevinter duelling blade in his left hand. The arishok, eight foot two, had similarly discarded his black iron in favour of an almost monkish belted robe in black; the blade he had lightly in his right hand was a good few inches longer than the human’s, a broad killing blade with a single cutting edge, a heavy thing that must have been balanced like a cleaver, but he held it like it weighed nothing at all.

Standing eight feet apart they brought their blades up before them, more like a parody of a street duel than anything with any honour. “Your last chance, champion,” he said, his eyes on his opponent. “One life. Dead anyway if you lose.”

“Justice is the strength of the righteous man,” said Tobias evenly, “and rightness is the power in the limbs of those that do the Maker’s work.” That was a quote from the Chant of Light. I mean, romantic as this was, I was beginning to wonder if Tobias was actually out of options and blowing smoke. “May your blade break, ser, and turn in your hand; may your aim be false; may you slip and fall.”

They made their salute, and their mismatched blades crossed in the next instant. Neither blow more than a test of the other. The power in the arishok’s arm was immense – that had been barely a flick, and it had raised sparks. The reprise likewise; he was simply letting Tobias feel that strength, and that bloody falchion of his could absolutely cut right through Tobias’ thin light blade if he wasn’t careful.

A third pass, and the giant committed too early. I saw him do it – little telegraph of his shoulders and hips, the unconscious mistake of a man whose experience is in war, not duelling – and Tobias let it come as if he’d missed that, then calmly swayed aside and –

And as Tobias put his point neatly up to rake the giant’s forearm, the other massive fist struck out completely without warning and caught him a staggering blow to the chest. The arishok followed through immediately, stepping forward and driving the guard of his sword at Tobias’ face, but the smaller man had let the first blow take him over backwards. He rolled, rolled again when the arishok tried to press his advantage with a kick, and came to his feet with a smile and a wicked lashing counter-cut which the arishok had to dodge in turn. Dark qunari blood on his point. They’d traded, a little shallow slice for a heavy solid blow, and a hefty slice of respect in both directions.

But Tobias didn’t seem like he’d noticed that at all. Went immediately on the offensive. His blade was everywhere, a whirlwind of steel: the arishok’s defence was quick and solid, whipping that heavy wicked blade around like a featherweight sabre, never breaking eye contact; a break in the pattern, suddenly, again he tried for a punch with his off-hand, but this time Tobias was ready, ducking under the blow and responding with a stilletto. Yeah. Honourable it might’ve been; chivalrous it bloody wasn’t.

That thrust bit deep, up under the ribs, but the blade was tiny: maybe it was a bad wound, maybe it wasn’t, but it was pretty much ignored; wasn’t time for a second. The arishok hissed, caught Tobias crushingly hard at the base of the ribcage with a knee, and as he tried to roll with it the big bastard lunged forward and he had to sprawl inelegantly out of the way or be spitted; kneeling, he got his blade to the arishok’s second blow; the arishok twisted his weapon as they met one another, and the crashing impact as their hilts collided drew an incoherent yell from Tobias’ throat.

Immediately he crossed his little six-inch stilletto onto the arishok’s blade, letting him use both hands, but it didn’t help him. It was like watching a grown man contending with a stripling child. The giant simply took a step to balance his stance and then pushed, firmly, and the weapons were driven inexorably downward; Tobias twisted aside, trying to surge to his feet, and he simply kicked the human’s feet out from under him, and as Tobias fell face-down the arishok put his foot down and trapped his sword-blade.

At which point many people might’ve been forgiven for giving up. I had my hands knotted in my robe because otherwise I’d have my knuckles white on the hilts of my blades. The room held its breath. The arishok’s black blade rose, and fell –

And Tobias surged up from the floor in the same instant; he spun past the descending blow and past the arishok in a fluid motion that opened a long shallow bleeding line down the giant’s back; it was only as he came to a momentary halt that I realised that he’d snapped his blade in half at the moment he surged up from the floor; and with that broken weapon he redoubled his assault.

He should hardly have been able to stand. The arishok was solid muscle, and I’d seen what a punch from a giant could do: Tobias should’ve had half a dozen broken ribs and a ruined knee at the least, not to mention a couple of solid days’ exhaustion and the half-dozen minor wounds he’d had going into this, and there he was acting for all the world like the arishok was the one with the shorter wind. He put the stilletto into the arishok again, and this time he left it there and drew a longer, heavier blade. The next pass laid his forearm to the bone in return and all he did was curse, not slowing for a second; meanwhile the giant’s footprints were beginning to show in blood and his breathing was becoming laboured.

And the arishok snarled and put a second hand to his blade, trying to force Tobias onto the defensive with a flowing series of unstoppable blows any one of which would take a man in half; and Tobias gave ground rather than meet them, once, twice, three times – and the arishok lunged, all his weight on his front foot –

And he slipped, in the blood on the floor, and he fell, and in the same instant Tobias’ broken blade whipped down and bit deep into the giant’s neck.

And I may have bit right through my lip just then.

*

Aveline

Much of the aftermath of the Invasion is public record: where the histories are accurate, this account shall not waste ink. The qunari certainly kept to their leader’s word, with no sense of hesitation. The aftermath of the massacre was long, messy and largely unfit for public consumption: let this account concentrate therefore on those things others were not in a position to record.

As soon as possible after the qunari had left, Tobias was practically cornered by Knight-Captain Karras; Aveline had found an excuse to be near enough to intervene, should that have turned bad. The templar looked him in the eye for a moment with a stony expression, then abruptly he said, “Your mage.”

Tobias was the picture of innocence. “Ser?”

“The blows that you took.” He looked Tobias up and down. “Nobody has endurance like that. You should be a bloody heap on the floor after a beating like that, and you’re not even limping. Either the Maker Himself heard your little speech about justice and decided to make the world happen like a story – or you didn’t win that duel fairly.”

“You mean – you…?” Sincerity was practically dripping from Tobias’ voice. “Ser, for true, I thought the magic was your people’s doing. That fight was my last, desperate throw – if you think the arishok would’ve left once he’d proven to himself we were truly beaten, you’ve got another think coming. When he hit me, that first time, I thought I was dead for sure and certain.” He looked the templar in the eye honestly. “And I got myself back up, and it didn’t hurt. And I hope you’ll forgive that the first thing on my mind at that point wasn’t “Where’s the mage?”

The templar shook his head. “We don’t train our mages to work underhanded like that. If you’d had their assistance, you’d’ve known about it.”

Tobias bit his lip. “Well, shit.”

“Uh-huh.” Calculating look. “You’re telling me that you didn’t have a plan – that you were genuinely praying for help you didn’t think would come? Tobias Hawke, the man that foxes go to for words of advice when their cunning fails them?”

Tobias threw up his hands – “All right! Yes. Yes, I had a bloody plan. I had a plan day before yesterday, when the Tome showed up in the first place.” A flicker of anger in his eyes. “Since then, ser, I’ve seen half my friends dead and most of the rest vanished without a trace, and I’ve seen the giants knock down my front door and murder my family.”

He took a step forward and almost physically pushed the armoured man back. “And everything else in the world that I gave a damn about was right behind me when I stood up to tell that grey bastard no further. And who the hell exactly was going to stand up if I didn’t? One of you bastards? I’d venture to say that even on bugger-all sleep and after half a dozen other battles I could have any three of you with a blade. The only other one who could possibly have stood up to them was Aveline, and -” his eyes flicked to where Aveline was standing – “She was having trouble standing upright best of three. So it was up to me. Like Captain Jacen at the gate. No bloody chance, but those behind me had less.” He looked at the templar straight. “Not much of a plan, I know, but at least I’d die with my boots on. And what d’you know? Something intervened. Hell if I know what.”

The templar dropped the matter, and he let the insult slide, and the moment passed. And it wasn’t until some while later – when Tobias headed back in the direction of Darktown, to get his injuries looked at by someone a little better than a barber-surgeon – that it occurred to Aveline that one of the squad who’d accompanied them into that room had been Anders; but neither of them could ever be drawn upon the matter.

*

Merrill

So, right, it went like this. Hawke had come to me when first it was that Isabela had turned up missing, because, as he put it, he wouldn’t put it past the lady to have thrown on a pair of pointed ears and be pretending to be from out of town. And her with a figure that’d embarrass a halla heifer – anyway, as I told him, I couldn’t help him. Not a hide, not a hair, and anyway, none of my lot would bloody dare hide a shemlen fugitive – it’d be pointed-eared heads on spikes from Marches to Anderfels if we did that, I don’t know why they keep thinking that ever we might.

And I think that’s the first anyone had used ‘fugitive’ of Isabela, and I saw the stutter-step in his chain of thinking and felt more than a touch sympathetic, so there was that. But I can’t scry in dreams, not for things awake. I’d get all the fairy stories you like and barely one in three of them would look at all like what’s real. I told him nay and he left hot-foot, though I’m guessing he’d little idea where to, and I didn’t see him again till it was all over bar the shouting.

But that meant I was a little bit forewarned, see, and I started working out what I’d do if they came looking, and visions shot through my head of what the templars would do to people all up and down Thedas if they came to our door and I played the part of last and only line as a Dalish keeper ought. Not prophetic visions, mind, as I said, I’m no seer. Just the usual sort of bad feeling. You can magic a templar, but it relies on them not knowing what you’re about – the shemlen know little enough about magic that I’m better off than one of their aposatates would be, but still I didn’t fancy my chances, not if there was an easier way, and I figured there was. All it would hurt would be me.

So when the next day came around and the lass Kethri came beating on our door saying ‘they’ were killing ‘everyone’, I was ready. I turned to the keeper and said hold them together, and I grabbed the bag  I’d prepared and went, and his question of what I was going to do met my back.

I stopped, once, to fill the bowl from my bag with water from the fountain. This wasn’t going to be pleasant, not in the very slightest. Cobblestones would do for earth, open sky for air, and Kethri looked on a little open-mouthed as I put a candle down somewhere it’d stick and breathed on it to light it. Cross-legged, bowl in my lap, a moment’s thought. Drew the fire into the water to warm it. Started to speak the spell. Mythal wanted to protect the earth, when the sun drew too close, so she threw her shield in the way. I didn’t have a shield, not a real one, but what I had is I had earth and I had air. And the earth came up and the air came down and there wasn’t an alienage gate at all, just a place where sky met ground. And the sky didn’t want to move and neither did the earth. It wasn’t their nature. But neither earth nor sky was master: by my power, I was. So that was what the bowl of warm water was for, and the little knife, and Kethri drained all the way pale when she saw what it was that I did and asked me if I was all right, and of course I was, but it was a while before I’d got the space in my head to turn and look at her.

And by then she was backing off from me, and she shrank from my eyes. I told her to make sure nobody left, because every soul that I let in through this door would cost me, and I told her to make sure I had spare candles, because I couldn’t get up and move around too easily with my hand in this bowl of water in my lap that was slowly turning pink.

So it wasn’t too bad once I’d got it all balanced. The whole thing was held together by the candle slowly burning down: the fire and water made a little spell of creation that stopped me fainting for lost blood, and the blood gave me power to lift the earth and draw down the sky, and blood magic doesn’t hurt – quite the reverse – and just because the spell felt like standing on a mountain and spreading my arms into the clean wind really, really didn’t mean that I believed I could fly.

We had a couple of dozen People to come in, of course, people who’d run when it all started, and for each one who ran up and stood there staring I had to reach through my own work and invite them in, and the rush of power was almost painful in its release, but I had a handle on it. But the worst bit was how they looked at me, because they could see the blood in the bowl in my lap and they could see the candle burning blue-white and unnatural and this was maybe the first time that my people in Kirkwall had seen me for what I was and not what they’d made of me in their heads, and they feared me. They didn’t stand at my shoulder, they didn’t stay around to chat – not that I was good company – the stack of candles that they left for me, they came up as if greatly daring, dumped them and ran.

And it was all that day I had to hold it up, and I could feel all the blood outside and all the death and I really hoped I’d chosen right to hide my people rather than try and lead them out, and I was starting to feel really quite pale despite it only being a nick. And my people were treating me like I’d turned into some sort of monster. They weren’t watching over me: they were watching me. I could hear some of them praying to the Maker. I suppose I’d’ve been naïve to reckon that in a couple of years I could overturn a lifetime’s teaching, but you’d have thought that they might at least recognise that it was the ancient art of our ancestors that was keeping us safe, or at least Mythal whose story I’d put myself into, and not the humans’ blind deaf uncaring god.

I winced. A probe, a pair of piercing unfamiliar eyes looking over the city for the unusual and the unexpected, and when they couldn’t see they pushed, but the human who owned those eyes wasn’t expecting to be so far overmatched – blood magic is unsubtle and dirty, isn’t it? – and all they saw was a place where the sky met the earth. All the ‘dirty’ was on my end. Don’t let me pretend that it hurt, though. The power was singing through me and painting the world in rose-white and every breath tinged the world in rapturous sparkles and my head was spinning from more than the blood loss, and the problem was in reminding myself who was mistress here.

The bowl was beginning to overflow, but I didn’t trust my hands to spill a little without spilling it all. It’d have boiled, too, if the candle wasn’t there, the flame burning hot enough I could feel it on my face. That’s why I needed the candle – it wasn’t that I was taking power from the flame, it was that I was using it to burn off all the heat I didn’t need. Didn’t need to worry about the candle going out – if you’d dumped a bucket of water over it right now, it’d catch like boiling oil – just needed to watch out that there was something there to burn.

The sun went down.  I’d about the attention to spare to jump the flame from one candle to the next before it started trying to burn something that doesn’t burn by nature. I hadn’t paid attention when people had come past. Not really watched the group of giants, black armour, bright hungry blades, grim faces. Like a mouse in her hole I was. I’d stopped counting how many humans had come looking for the alienage and lost their attention or been distracted and never even found the last line where the sky met the earth.

But yes – pretty clearly, if you want to know if it was me who saved Tobias’ life: no, not that day I didn’t. I was too busy barring a door that didn’t have a gate and trying not to lose my grip on the spell that’d kill me if I wasn’t careful, too busy showing myself up as a a holy terror in the eyes of these people I was supposed to be learning how to lead (and from who? A lecherous old goat who didn’t have an apprentice because none of them respected him enough to ask?)

Eventually, though, things end. It wasn’t forever – it’s just that maybe it felt a little like it was getting there, by the point that I’d sat more than half dreaming by the place where the sky met the earth, sat for for pretty much all the hours of daylight and a good few of darkness, listening to the scratching of hungry little spirits who wanted to come live in my head, hearing the movement of the bigger ones in the deep of the Fade, kind-of realising that eventually one of them was going to reckon me interesting enough to do more than nudge, and did I really have enough life in me to fight something off and then to pull myself out of the spell and still keep living after? Suppose I’d have found out –

And it was properly dark, by the time that a tall muscular blonde human in a guard’s saffron came along, stained and bloodied and messed and torn until the uniform was barely recognisable, not looking directly at the place where sky and earth met, and leaned against the wall not half a dozen yards from me. And it wasn’t till the third time she spoke that I heard the sound through the cloying haze in my head and realised it was Aveline, and that it was my name she’d spoken.

“Aveline?” My voice was clogged and rusty. I could speak and keep the spell, pretty much. “You’re in the right place. I’m here.”

“Knew that nobody else would think to say.” She looked resolutely at the wall. “Or know to. Merrill, it’s over. It’s done.”

The stupid thing would have been to let my spell slip. To need to put it back up – “We’re safe?”

“It’s over. The qunari -” Her eyes were hollow as her voice, dark circles under them. I could feel the exhaustion rolling off her like mist. “They’re gone. Half of Hightown is a wreck. It’ll be days, counting the dead. But the fighting is over.”

“Dread Wolf.” I swallowed hard. The spell took the chance to make my world spin and it was a moment before I could respond. “Anything else I need to know?”

“Viscount’s son is dead; Viscount’s not long for his seat, and I’ve not a clue who follows him. I don’t think we’ll see fighting over it, because by the Maker’s Bride we’ve all seen enough of that. But as they say, if Hightown sneezes, Lowtown catches a cold.”

“And deep muck doesn’t care how short you are. So you’re saying that if I could keep this spell up for another few weeks…?”

“Then I suspect that I would be significantly tempted to ask if I could please be on your side of whatever is actually between me and you right now.” A pause. “Could you even do that?”

I made a face. She couldn’t see me. “If I fall asleep, bad things happen. Ever stayed up a whole week?”

Sigh. “Feels like.” She stared at the wall for a while. “You can let it go, Merrill. They’ll need you in the morning, if nothing else. It won’t be every elf who made it home.”

“It’s that bad out there?”

“Worse.” It was practically a whisper. Aveline sagged. “I’ve lost a lot of friends today, Merrill, I was half expecting to come here and find ashes and – I’m – damned glad not to be mourning you tonight.”

And it was that that made me pull my hand out of the bowl. Took both my arms to do it. Put it down. Stood up. Pinched the little nick in my wrist shut and felt the vein knit as easy as it had opened. Felt the glee of the little spirits as they felt the dream I’d crafted falling into their hands; felt them snap at my heels as I walked those half a dozen yards between sky and earth. And I walked out of the alienage I’d maybe saved, alone and shivering and bloody-handed and pale as birch bark, and the world swam together and I put my back against the wall next to Aveline.

Silence, good long silence. I leaned against her and she put an arm around my shoulders and I stopped pretending I was ever going to fit in anywhere and held on to her in return.

*

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