Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Twenty

by artrald

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*

Varric

The door opened quickly, as if to catch any mages hiding behind it, and it was like it let in a whirlwind. The four well-armed humans coming in were looking first for threats. The fifth man in was a knight-captain: thin sharp man with a hawk’s face and bearing, the kind who you’d think should have been a chanter or, hell, a chandler rather than a templar. Eyes caught Tobias in a moment; Tobias stood up and faced him, and if you didn’t know who the young man was then that bow he sketched was insolently shallow.

“This’ll do,” the knight-captain said. “Bring the enchanter in: we’ll set up right here. Someone find the closest watchman with a plume on his hat and have him keep ’em busy getting his people into some semblance of order. You.” He indicated Tobias. “You’re conscripted, ser, and yes, I know who you are: as of right now you’re captain of irregulars. Clear me a table, captain.”

Two ways Tobias could’ve jumped; pretty damn clear his first impulse had been the wrong one; he ducked his head. “Aye, ser.” He pulled a table from the stack round the wall rather than move the patient lying on the one that the vanished Anders had been using, and gave it a slight sarcastic polish with his sleeve. “One table, ser.”

He got the side-eye for that. The knight-captain pulled out an actual parchment map of Hightown, unrolled it on the table, as in through the door came a heavily escorted dark-haired dark-robed thin-faced little man carrying an ornate black staff. “Enchanter,” said the templar without looking up. “Give us the bad and the ugly.”

And, well, anybody who hadn’t got out of the way yet started doing so a little more emphatically. A Circle enchanter talking war? They didn’t even want to stick around to see if those snakes on his staff were carved or real. His voice was bigger than he was, unexpectedly deep. “The qunari have no mages with them, and nothing they have can double for a templar, but that’s about our only point of light. Exactly three hundred of them went up the Great Stair, and it’s a bloodbath up there: I can’t count heads easily, but let me just say that it’s physically impossible for all those dead to be qunari and let that sink in a moment.” Deep breath. Muscle worked in Tobias’ jaw. The templar just nodded in a fashion that said that somewhere behind those eyes, notes were being taken in quite thorough detail. The enchanter’s nails were long and painted: he flicked an index finger out to mark out an area on the map. “The death and blood extends in this area. Definitely in houses as well as on the street. As we saw just outside, they’re out to level everything in their path.” He tapped the palace gate. “Fire blossomed, here, too quickly to be natural. Perhaps another apostate. Certainly not a qunari saarebas. Regardless, there is death there, and inside the gate. They’re fighting at the second line.”

“The chantry?”

The enchanter shook his head. “From what I feel, I’m guessing they are giving succour to the wounded.”

The templar frowned. “We’re likely outnumbered, and I wouldn’t back one templar over one giant. Can you tell if they hold the stair?”

“I can’t.”

“Find that out,” he said to Tobias.

Tobias, naturally, placed his hand to his temple, frowned a moment in concentration and then replied, “Yes.”

The templar threw him an irritated glance. “No mage, you. I need that-”

“You’ve got it, ser. I used my eyes, dozen or so minutes ago. The top of the stair is held by what looks like a rearguard of a couple of dozen. Your best bet is up the West Stair – looks to me like they’ve ignored it entirely, and from the enchanter’s scrying they’re nowhere near the top of that one – and down Edris Terrace, here.”

The templar paused. Looked at Tobias with a slice more respect. “Right. Leaves us cut off with no retreat bar the city’s steepest, switchback stair. Things go badly, we’re screwed.”

Tobias looked him in the eye. “What’s our force?”

Returned the look steadily. “Forty Templars and three mages, and whatever the guard scrape up.”

“Then we’re already screwed, ser. Well-equipped you may be, powerful you may indeed be – but you’re ludicrously outnumbered by a foe who’s superior one-on-one. Or d’you think that a mage is worth a hundred giants?”

“You’re under a misapprehension.” The templar looked down at the map. “My orders aren’t to lift the siege, ser: they’re to end the fighting.” He cleared his throat. “By whatever means.”

Tobias raised an eyebrow. “Your meaning?”

“Any means, Hawke. We’ve already seen one, maybe two maleficars crawl out of their holes to chase away the qunari. The longer we leave it, the more chance that one of ’em gives us a bloody sight more than an army of giants and a rain of man-eating fireballs to worry about. If we have to burn the whole of the-”

“You’re not serious.” Tobias leaned on the table. “Glorious triumphant saviours of a heap of blood-soaked rubble on fire. To say nothing of the harm that it would do to your mages to destroy innocents along with-”

“Do not presume to tell me my business.” The templar cut him off sharply. “Militarily, ser, I’m aware of the odds; do you have some kind of plan?”

Tobias nodded. “Yes, actually.” The current of exhaustion under his words and actions was clear. “Yes. With your numbers now clear, I think I actually might do.” A muscle worked in his jaw. “We surrender.”

At once the room erupted. The giants had bathed this city in blood, and there he was standing up and proposing simply to let them get away with it? And Tobias raised a hand for silence and when that didn’t get it he didn’t so much yell as project, a single sharp syllable that cut through the hubbub, “Quiet.”

And they shut up.

He looked around with a challenge in his eye. “Nice tantrum you all just threw. How many able-bodied warriors in this room? Counting the templars?” He paused significantly, as if counting. “If we storm the palace with a hundred warriors for every one I see here? It’ll hurt, but we’d have a shot at winning. If we go up there with fuck-all but our swinging tod? Well, good luck. We’ll be dining with Andraste come evening.”

“Coward.” One of the men that Anders had healed stood up from his chair against the wall. “Puling bloody-”

Tobias spun on his heel, addressed the man. “Ser, by the look of you, you’ve met the giants. As have I. My tale, so far, today, is three dead and two injured. What’s yours?” The sweep of his arm took in the room. “Because unless you’re hiding an army under that tunic, ser, then every man and woman and child in this room had better make me look like a ham-fisted apprentice.”

They stared at one another a good few moments longer. Then the man sat down, seething; Tobias turned back to the templar, with not much of a different expression. “D’you know the qunari, ser? D’you know why they invaded? Because I really, really do. You say you know who I am?”

“I’ve heard of you. Your point?”

“That I’m the Viscount’s expert on these horned bastards. And I know why they went to war, and what they think they’re trying to prove and what they want, and what they don’t.” He took a deep breath. “And what I’m telling you is that if it’s between surrendering or leveling half of Hightown and killing all our leaders? Then we damned well surrender.”

The templar faced Tobias over the table and his voice went cold. “So what you’re saying is, this whole thing is your fault.”

“What I’m saying, ser, is that the qunari are here for one thing. One thing. Which we don’t even want. They don’t want a city – they couldn’t rule it for two weeks, and they know it. They don’t want tribute, and they aren’t out to convert us – their leader disowned his own priest and had him killed for trying to recruit. I know what they want.”

“And you’re proposing we give it to them?”

“I’m proposing we stop trying to pretend we have it!” He gestured around at the room. “The resistance, the drawn weapons, the fighting. Qunari just don’t see the world the way we do. They aren’t any more honest or honourable than we are – they just can’t bring themselves, genuinely can’t make themselves think, that we’d be doing this if we didn’t have something to hide. Or that’s my assessment. They’ve told themselves a story that we’ve got their holy thing and won’t give it back. Telling them that we don’t have it just makes them think we’re trying to extort them.”

The templar frowned. “So you’re saying, what? We walk up and lay down arms?”

Tobias bit his lip. “Not so far off, actually, though you don’t want to actually lay your weapons down. Flag of truce. We talk to the arishok. Make it clear it’s religious authority you’re acting on and he’ll likely believe you when you act like you’re in charge.”

The two of them locked eyes for a long moment. But – was there really any doubt? – the Templar blinked first. “This is so far outside the scope of-”

Any means.” Tobias’ expression was implacable. “Or tell me a plan that will win this.”

Silence.

*

Aveline

It’s a fact that the qunari batted aside Kirkwall’s attempt at a military defence and seized the palace; it’s a fact that Tobias Hawke, accompanied by Karras, the second-in-command of the templars of Gallows Circle, gave the surrender some time in the early afternoon of that day. The lull in the fighting afforded by the first, abortive attempt to give a surrender that the qunari would accept had allowed Lieutenant Aveline finally to come to her senses; dazed, shaking and otherwise weak, nevertheless her place was by the Viscount’s side, and that is where she eventually got herself. Tobias’ appearance, with a guard of a dozen templars, didn’t surprise her as much as it might: the expression of relief that flickered across his face when he saw her was like a punch in the gut, for she was only alive because she’d effectively abandoned her post.

The follow-through to the punch, of course, being what it was they were there to say. There is a distinct difference between knowing that there’s only one reason that a delegation could be there under a flag of truce, and hearing the reason in words.

“… And I am this day authorised to offer you Kirkwall’s surrender, on the authority of Knight-Commander Meredith.” The templar ceremonially reversed his sword, put the tip of the blade against the flagstones and placed his hand over the pommel.

“I am curious.” The arishok inclined his head. “What if I say no?”

The templar’s knuckles tightened. “What?”

“What if I refuse, bas? What if I have decided that I am sated only by blood? That my troops hold the docks and the gates, and I shall take this city apart stone by stone and body by body until I find what I seek or it pleases me to cease?”

Tobias cut in before the templar could do more than draw breath. “You know the answer, ser. You’re very aware of it. D’you truly gain something from making us speak it?”

The arishok’s voice was distant as the mountain and colder than stone. “Humour me.”

Tobias’ mouth made a flat line. He shot a glance at the templar and back at the giant – and Aveline knew that look. Here was the confidence trick. “Ser, I don’t know where in the city your Tome is. But it is in the city. And there is a proverb about beasts, ser, and what they do when they’re cornered and have nothing left to lose.” He took a deep breath. “Kavade saarebas,” he said, in a passable mimicry of the giants’ own accent. And his words sent a ripple of tension through the qunari host in a way that the prince’s speech had not.

And the arishok pricked up his ears in a qunari smile, for all that his voice remained as implacable as the sunrise. “It is a perversity of fate that raised you outside the Qun. Ser.” He raised his voice. “Shok! Tiel ka vesaad! Until the sun falls twice behind the mountain, the qunari shall stay our hand! You have surrendered: you will allow our search-parties to go where they will! You know what it is that is our desire: we have but one! My word is spoken; my bond is given!”

And there were many among the humans who wept, in fear or in sheer relief. But Tobias was not one of them, nor Aveline, and weary though they were, their path was set. They’d failed to find the Antivan in one day: now they had one more. But now their quarry knew what surely awaited her: and a city is an easy place to hide in and an easy place to leave.

*

Isabela

Don’t you look at me like that.

You presumably wanted the truth, and you’re getting closer to it. D’you think I knew the provenance of what I had, till that sten let slip I was carrying not a copy but the original? I’ll leave aside the question of whether I’d’ve done a single thing differently if I had known.

So where was I, during all of that? Can’t a lady have some secrets?

Ugh. Fine. I was in a derelict building in Hightown. Burned down recently, apparently. Building was pretty much a shell. Good sightlines. Roof access. Cellar with two entrances. Bought the place straight off Varric in broad daylight: the man thought it literally impossible for anything to conceal my figure and my height, and let’s just say that it’s really not. Boarded it up, set it up as a safehouse.  I knew I’d need to lie low one day, you see, and while it wasn’t a ship, as a hideaway it was the next best thing.

The fighting hadn’t come as far as this. Thought I was going to have to scarper when they forced the door, but it turns out they wanted somewhere they could run a field hospital and thought the place abandoned – I didn’t exactly watch closely, but there wasn’t much else to do, and the sheer number of people that got brought in – it was pretty literally murder out there. Went and sat on what was left of my roof. The streets were nobody’s idea of safe. Every man’s hand, and all that – I was better served lying low. And Hightown’s built in stone, so I was safe from fire.

So, you know, I got a grandstand view. Don’t have much love for the Chant, you know – never really could tell where it actually bore any resemblance to how the world works at all – but if I was the believing kind then it strikes me that I’d’ve felt the Maker was rubbing my face in what it was that I absolutely had no responsibility for. Bloody waste. Pointless. Nothing fun about that shitstorm. Nothing at all. Nobody wanted it. Just bled. Gutters ran with it. Time and again I saw the giants stopped, but it was done with far too many lives.

And after a while it died down a bit. The qunari just sort of made this wall of steel and stuck there, and apart from a few lone venturers the city guard pretty much let them. I mean, what were they going to do?

I heard the word as it hit the field hospital I was pointedly not watching. The qunari had taken the palace. Someone important was dead: some said the captain of the guard, some said the Viscount, some the Viscount’s son. The templars had come up under flag of truce, put their head in the lion’s mouth with an Assembly member with them – three guesses who, I thought – and they’d formally surrendered the city.

And apparently the qunari barely accepted the surrender. They didn’t want vassals, see, and they don’t take slaves. Apparently all they wanted was a beautiful pirate queen who’d given them the slip, all they wanted was what she had in her satchel – no, no, they didn’t say that last. Because what I heard echoing up to me from the sergeant briefing the guards was that they’d given the city a day to come up with the proper tribute. Or all the murder would begin again.

And I sat back in the dark grey cloak and the layers of misshapen rags under which I could be anything at all except a lovely young lady, and I put my hands behind my head, and I luxuriated in anonymity and practical invisibility, and I tried to ignore the sounds and the smells and the sights of a city gravely wounded. The plan was to get a little shut-eye, lay low till dog-watch. Slip out the Sundermount gate when they changed the guard before dawn. Even qunari sleep, and there’s no way the arishok was feeling secure enough to detail a full quarter of his force guarding properly. I’d be well away by sunrise.

Couldn’t get comfortable.

Pulled the cowl down over my ears. Still too much noise.

Fuck it.

Fuck it.

Could always just get moving sooner.

And a bloody good thing I did move. It wasn’t qunari that climbed up to that roof and found where I’d hidden: It was bloody templars. Five of ’em, out like they were after a witch, armed for a proper dance. Didn’t miss me by more than a few minutes. Blood went cold. Didn’t take a genius to jump to conclusions. Bet they were following a mage’s advice.

A mage can track you from a name and a description, yes, but they’d rather have more. Heard a tale that the Circle track mages with a bit of their blood, that the Tevinters take a finger from a slave who’s escaped once so they can track ’em easier a second time. And you know what’d be nearly as good?

I swore quietly to myself. Damn my eyes for a soft-headed… I knew that moving in with Tobias would be trouble. If they got so much as a strand of my hair, then getting out of Kirkwall would just make me all the easier to ride down. I made for Tobias’ house.

*

And, uh. What I found there. Look. I didn’t know. I swear on the Maker’s Bride I didn’t know. This was not on purpose. This was not a thing I wanted to happen. I’m a pirate, not a monster.

The gate of the old Amell estate was off its hinges. A squad had withdrawn into the courtyard, used it as a choke point. They’d been driven back, three guardsmen lying dead where they fell. The front door had been torn asunder. Two men had tried to hold the door with spears – one of the points was marked with dark qunari blood – but they weren’t alone –

Look, I’m sorry. I can’t.

There wasn’t a living soul in the place I’d been calling home. Not the maids, not the steward. Not the lady of the house.

I knew she’d disapproved of me. She was a smart lady; like mother, like son, and all. She’d seen straight through me when first we met and she’d been perfectly right. Self-interested, self-centred and self-absorbed; out for number one. Carefree; careless; just doesn’t care: pick one. She’d never compared me in my hearing to a stray cat, but she’d not have been a great deal wrong to. I could say a landsman wouldn’t understand, but the truth is that a heartless murdering slattern is pretty much the same ashore or afloat –

I did what I could for the bodies, which wasn’t much. Then I washed my hands. Scrubbed them raw, and the rest of me. There was still a hot kettle on the kitchen hearth. It was okay to shed a tear or two for people I’d known, people I’d lived and laughed and joked and shared bread and salt with. At least Tobias wasn’t lying there.

Took advantage of the hot water. Got tolerably clean. Fresh outfit, change of disguise. From a blind beggar to a Chantry novice. Slits in the skirts, armour and blades underneath; lank brown wig (too many people wear a wig that’s far too clean); I’d do from ten feet, and I could run and I could fight and if I needed another change of disguise I could always – aha – kick the habit. The joke crumpled and died before I could raise so much as a smile.

Made myself up a light pack from the stuff in our room. Rest of it went in the fireplace. Everything of mine that I could find. The smell of smoke didn’t drown out the smell of blood. I’d washed top to toe and I could still smell it. Note for Tobias? No. A mage could track me by it. And what the fuck exactly would I put?

No, really, Isabela. What’s your excuse? What’s your story? What’s your explanation? What’s your reason?

What the hell is supposed to be your excuse?

*

It was later – the sun had gone down at some point – I – look – basically speaking and for all useful purposes I hadn’t moved. Might have been up in our bedroom where I didn’t have to look at dead people. Important thing was that when Tobias came into his house he saw what I’d seen and he didn’t know I was there.

And he froze. I’d never seen him freeze. I’d never seen him speechless. I guess that’s about the reaction you’d-

“Bethany,” he said, breaking the silence. “I don’t know-” his voice squeaked. He swallowed hard. “I don’t know if you can hear me. But – I’m guessing you’ll know. I’m guessing you’ll hear. Or dream it. Or something. And it’s better that you -” He closed his eyes. Too long a pause. “I warned them, stay indoors. I warned them that no place would be any safer than here. And Mum’s dead, Beth. Everybody’s dead. And I wasn’t here. Again.” Pause. “Look, Beth. I’m – I’m running dry. I’m running out of options. Even if – fuck, I don’t know. Even if you let me know you were all right. Something. Please.” And his voice died and he went and knelt down by the side of his mother’s body and bowed his head. He was talking to her but I couldn’t make out the words, I – gave him some damned privacy, is what I did.

Kind of expected him to notice me in the shadows against his wall the second he stepped out of the door. He didn’t. Looked neither left nor right. Made it halfway across his courtyard before I made my voice work and said his name.

Again he froze for a good long moment. Then he turned, and the expression on his face was unreadable, and I blinked and my eyes tried to stick themselves together.

Took a couple of steps towards me. Sudden overpowering urge to run. I stilled it. He kept coming. I stood where I was. I’d earned this, good and fucking proper.

He stopped close enough to touch. No drawn blade, no violence, no retribution. Long moment he looked into my eyes. His looked dry. Wasn’t fooled for a second. Voice sounded rusty. Broken. “The tome.” That was all he could make himself say.

I slipped the satchel off my shoulder and held it out. He took it.

“Tobias -”

“Save it.” He slipped the strap over his shoulder. Took a step back from me quickly, as if he was afraid I’d touch him. Tore his eyes from mine.

Turned. And left.

*

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