I was the one who started it, even if no one believes that. Of course, the infamous pirate would’ve been the one to seduce me, no one would believe it’d be the other way around.
Shows how much they know.
It wasn’t like “it” was really anything in particular anyway, not to start with. Neither of us were the type for romance, we enjoyed each other's company, and anything more would be too complicated. Isabela was right—it was just easier this way.
It was fun, too—while relying on Isabela wasn’t usually the best idea, in some things she was consistent. She would watch my back in a fight and then drag me out for drinks afterwards. She’d show up at the house and sprawl on the floor or perch on a chair and tell me the best outlandish stories from the pub. When Anders lost control and nearly killed someone in front of me, I headed straight for the bar at the Hanged Man. And then stopped, because I wasn’t sure I should dump the mess of confusion in my head on Isabela.
She found me anyway. And it turned out I didn’t need to tell her much. Didn’t want to talk about it at all, really, once she hauled me up to her rooms.
That, it turned out, was the night Mother first met the man who technically didn’t kill her.
Gamlen’s story didn’t worry me at first. In fact, I was happy that Mother had stopped wasting time on the man. But then Bodhan mentioned the white lilies, and everything changed.
We split up, afterwards. There wasn’t really anything else to do, once Anders looked everyone over, drew skin together over the worst injuries, hesitated before pulling away. They all hesitated, all waited for me to tell them what to do, to stay or go or—well, who knows. And I wasn’t going to tell anyone anything, not just then. Not with my mind a dark, empty cavern, echoing and full of ghosts.
I must have said something before turning to leave, but I have no memory of it. No memory of going home, not until I walked in to stunned looks and silence, refused Orana’s offers of food, accepted the bath Bodhan drew.
I went to bed healed, clean, but I felt torn open, raw and stunned and cold.
I dreamed. I dreamed a sword, far too large for me, larger even than the one Fenris carries across his back, but dreams make no allowances for ordinary human muscle and bone. A sword, then, huge and faintly glowing, slicing through enemies along a dark tunnel, bursting out into light and turning—Mother, and Bethany, even Carver and Father, dead eyes staring up at me, hideous gaping wounds tearing their bodies, blood and entrails coating the ground…and my sword.
It dropped to the ground with a clang as I stumbled back, breath catching in my throat, shaking and sobbing—
And that’s how I awoke, alone. Alone as I would be from now on, without family, in a land that had never seemed so foreign.
I couldn’t stay in bed, went down to sit, staring into the fire. The sun shone weakly past the curtains, but I couldn’t bear to go outside to find the world unchanged, uncaring.
I had responsibilities, of course. There were things that needed to be done. But sitting there watching flames consume wood, I couldn’t imagine how any of that could matter.
Gamlen, of all people, was the one to remind me.
“She’s gone,” I told him. “I couldn’t save her.”
His sharp intake of breath echoed loud over the crackling fire. “What happened?”
I clenched my jaw against the shuddering horror, the rag doll of a woman with my mother’s face. “Does it matter?” I snapped.
“I can’t believe she’s dead.”
My teeth ground in my head. What a luxury that would be. “Denial won’t help anything.”
“I should go…” Gamlen started, and relief loosed my jaw until, “…I should go make arrangements for Leandra’s…body.”
Fury, and terror, and revulsion slammed through me like a wave, and I couldn’t respond for fear of what might come out. Couldn’t warn him, couldn’t spare him what I might not have wanted to regardless. Let him share the nightmare.
The light outside dimmed, and Bodhan came in with candles, but I shook my head. “I’ll go to bed,” I said, not sure how many hours had passed, unheeded, in the flickering of the fire.
He nodded. “Of course. If there’s anything you need…”
“No, thank you,” I said, climbing the stairs and feeling as though the space from one floor to the next might well be the height of a mountain.
Exhausted yes, but sleep far from my mind, I sat on the bed, frozen again in blank uncertainty.
Footsteps on the stairs barely roused me, only enough to glance around the room for the nearest weapon I wasn’t sure I cared enough to use. And then the door opened, and probably I wouldn’t need a weapon, because Isabela stood in the doorway looking miserably uncomfortable, chewing at her lip in what would normally be calculated distraction but wasn’t, not this time.
“I feel like I should say something,” she started, not moving from the relative safety of the doorway.
“You don’t have to,” I said, feeling a ghost of amusement at the unheard-of awkwardness.
She pushed herself away from the wall and came to sit beside me, careful. “At least your mother loved you,” she said—a trace of bitterness twisting the words.
“I’m alone now,” the words slipped out, unbidden, and I couldn’t look at her, “Mother was all I had left.”
Isabela’s eyes were as shifty as mine as she pulled the words out. “Family isn’t just the people you’re related to by blood. There’s still people here who care about you,” she said, glancing at me. “Like…Aveline.” She looked away, scowling a little.
And probably that should not have made me feel better, but very little about Isabela follows any sort of logic. She sighed, got up and walked out—and that too was startling, abrupt even for the girl my mother used to cluck kept the habits of a feral cat.
But then I heard her rummaging about in my kitchen, heard her footsteps on the stairs again, and she came in with a bottle, full but unstoppered, and the smell announced quite clearly her intention.
Not that Isabela ever needed anything to speak for her. She took a swig, nodded approval, and handed me the bottle, sprawling backward over the bed.
I drank, the heat trailing down my throat, coiling in my stomach. “What is this?” I asked, looking at it. “I didn’t buy it, this smells like the stuff Merrill uses to mix potions.”
Isabela smirked, propping herself up on one elbow. “I stashed some things, you know how it is.” She held out a hand and I passed her the bottle. She drank, then cocked her head to one side, considering. “I suppose we could drink your good wine, but that seems like it’d be a waste.”
“True,” I said, taking my turn.
“There’s a new guy staying at the Hanged Man,” Isabela started, taking the bottle and settling slouched against the headboard. “He’s got a trained monkey. Good thief, too.”
I held out a hand for the bottle, but Isabela refused to sit up straight to pass it, just raised an eyebrow until I shifted to sit beside her. “Pickpocketing monkey?” I asked, “Isn’t that a little…” I waved a hand vaguely. “Overdone?”
Isabela chuckled, low and purring. “Oh no,” she said. “The man’s the pickpocket. Everybody’s heard about trained thieving monkeys, so while they’re watching the creature, he can do whatever he damn well pleases and nobody notices. It’s a good trick.”
I nodded absently.
Isabela continued in that vein for a while, recounting odd characters and embellished adventures, without much expectation that I’d add anything. Odd, that it should be comforting to hear about silly treachery and double-dealing and sordid gossip, but the very pettiness of it all was welcome.
It wasn’t until the bottle was nearly empty that she shifted closer, turned to face me, ran a hand through my hair, coming to rest against my jaw, as close to hesitant as I’d seen and closer than I’d have thought possible. Probably it was Isabela’s horrendous liquor that did it, but I hooked a hand behind her head and pulled us close, kissing her rough and a little desperate.
Any hesitancy there might have been evaporated then. Isabela twisted in one quick motion to straddle my lap, hands pressed against the headboard and then on my shoulders, dropping lower to pull at laces and fabric, while her mouth kept busy against mine. My fingers felt clumsy by contrast, fumbling until she pulled away with mostly-feigned disdain and pulled off her tunic, smirking as she returned to the task at hand.
It was easy, suddenly, to lose myself—not as I had been doing, slipping out of time and mind and feeling, but plunging in, drowning myself in sensation and in the very moment of now, so that nothing else could reach me. Isabela seemed to know, keeping fingers and tongue moving and shifting, clever sailor’s hands dancing until I nearly screamed—would have, if she hadn’t gripped my lower lip in her teeth and pulled. By the time she stopped I was shaky and dizzy from more than just the drink, and Isabela looked pleased as a cat with a mouse when she finally broke away, stretched languorously across me and came back with what was left of the bottle.
She drank, looked at me, speculative, passed it over. I laughed weakly and drank, fell back against the pillows and closed my eyes.
When I awoke, sunlight was reaching around the curtains, and Isabela was gone.
She came back though, as I was sitting at the kitchen table, finishing the meal Orana had pressed on me when I had finally collected myself enough to come down. Orana fairly evaporated as Isabela came in, leaving Isabela to pick at the leftovers, pour herself a cup of tea, and park her hip against the table.
“So I was thinking,” she started.
“That’s never a good sign,” I shot back automatically.
She glared unconvincingly. “I was thinking we should do something fun.”
I blinked, uncomprehending. What in creation could she possibly mean?
“Bring your bow, Varric says you could use the practice.”
“What?” I wasn’t sure if it was grief or the vicious hangover making me stupid or whether Isabela really wasn’t making any sense.
“You don’t really want to mope around here all day, do you? There’s got to be some criminals around somewhere in Darktown who’d be obliging enough to try to kill us.”
Relief and understanding combined left me shaking my head. “You’re crazy,” I said.
“You like it,” she agreed, grinning.
So we left, sneaking out of Hightown before anyone could try to offer condolences that would only make me want to kill them, and slipped into the warren of tunnels that made up the so-called streets of the Undercity. It didn’t take long to run into a gang of thugs who thought two women walking alone made this their lucky day.
They were wrong, but they were also dead before anyone could correct their assumption.
I got through the entire encounter without so much as a scratch, and Isabela faired not much worse, but the whole thing felt somehow unsatisfying. The dull blankness in my head was being joined by twitchy fingers, vicious fury, frustration and powerlessness, and picking off idiot criminals from fifty paces didn’t do much to quiet it. Isabela grinned, sharp and mean, the rare look void of seduction. She tossed me one of her daggers. “Shall we make it a fairer fight?” she asked, blood on her teeth flashing as she spoke. I unstrung my bow, left it, along with a very explicit promise of what would happen should it disappear, with a man selling misshapen old clothes, and we headed further in.
True to form, another gang turned up around a few more corners. It wasn’t much fairer like this, really, but it was much more satisfying, caught up in tracking bodies and blades, back-to-back with Isabela, darting out and back, circling and striking, breath coming harsh and fast, the sharp sting of someone’s lucky strike finding skin, the satisfying crunch of bone when I resorted to punching a man in the face since my knife was already stuck in his ribs.
And then, finally and suddenly, I turned to meet the next idiot and found no one, no one but Isabela, breathing fast, the fight lighting up her eyes. I felt my own face split open in a grin as I shook hair out of my face. Isabela looked over my shoulder, strode over to retrieve my knife and some unfortunate man’s dagger, tossed both to me and went scrounging for herself. “Shall we?” she said, once she’d found something to her liking.
“You sure know how to treat a girl,” I said, and headed down an unfamiliar side passage.
It was late when we returned home, stumbling with exhaustion and bleeding, both of us. Isabela had halfheartedly suggested going to find Anders to patch us up, but my refusal had been fast and definite. We would survive perfectly well without magic. Isabela sewed closed a gash on my arm, I did the same for her hip, and we tumbled into bed with no thought of anything but sleep.
She was still there when I woke up, sprawled on her stomach, facing away from me, and for the length of a breath I forgot—all of it. And then realization crashed back, knocking the breath out of my chest. I stayed very still, feeling tears sting in scraped skin and staring up toward the ceiling.
But even with my attempts, Isabela must have noticed something, because she stirred, rolled onto her back and took my arm, pulling me toward her. I took the invitation, hoping that’s truly what it was, curled against her and sobbed. Isabela just kept one hand on my back, solid, while the other scratched at my scalp, traced looping patterns on my skin.
Eventually, I stopped. Not because anything felt better, not really, but because a body can only cry for so long at a time.
I’d had ample opportunity to learn that. Hero, people whisper, and what bloody good is that when to the people who matter I’m worse than useless? I brought Bethany down to the Deep Roads, when Mother begged me not to. I drew attention to us as though it wasn’t dangerous, and Mother would never have met a man who sent white lilies if she’d been living in Lowtown with Gamlen.
Of course, I had to admit, Mother might have preferred death over spending another three years in that hole.
But there again: Death is one thing. What was done to Mother—I shuddered and the tears returned, my breath short.
Isabela sighed, I felt her chest rise and fall. “I’d have come with you,” she said quietly. “To find her.”
“What good would that have done?” I asked, cursing myself for the wet, choked sound of my voice.
“I’d have been there, instead of hearing from some drunk gossip and prying the details out of Varric.”
I swallowed. “He told you about…about Mother?” It still came out in that choked, hesitant voice, and I could feel Isabela’s body tense, which was most of the answer.
“I’m just mad I couldn’t pull his intestines out and feed them to him,” Isabela spit, furious.
I rolled away so I could look at her. She was deadly serious. “We were a little busy for something so elaborate,” I said, but the joke fell flat.
Isabela sighed, pressed a knuckle between her eyes, and rolled away to sit up. “C’mon, let’s go find someone else to kill then.”
This time it wasn’t even disguised as a joke.
This time we made a day of it, loitering in Lowtown alleyways, drinking, teasing each other until danger managed to find us. This time we fairly crashed through the door on our return, Isabela’s nails digging into the skin at my waist, teeth pulling at my lip, both of us streaked with mud and blood and Maker knows what else. We didn’t make it out of the front room before Isabela pinned me to the wall, took me apart until my knees gave and I slid to the floor, shoving her back in halfhearted revenge, shifting my weight so I could pin her to the floor. Isabela, of course, never had any shame, and I was drunk, fight-mad, far too gone to care about such trivial things as what anyone might think if they overheard. I very nearly slept right there on the hard tile floor, but Isabela elbowed me in my bruised ribs and dragged me to my feet.
“You have a lovely bed,” she said, “Shame not to use it.”
The room spun treacherously, but Isabela kept me from stumbling. I glanced down at myself and giggled. “Maker’s balls, Isabela, we’re filthy.”
“Who cares,” she said. “Are you really going to draw a bath now?”
The idea was funny, so I laughed, while Isabela rolled her eyes and tossed me over her shoulder like a sack of wheat. She dumped me unceremoniously on the bed, then hesitated.
My laughter died away. “What is it?” I asked.
“I have… things to do, tomorrow,” she said, glancing sidelong towards the door. “I should—“
“Five minutes ago you were saying how lovely my bed was and now you don’t want to use it?” I asked. “I’m hurt.”
She glared at me, then sighed and climbed in. “Alright, alright,” she said. “I suppose I have to sleep somewhere.”
“Oh, hush, Hawke, you’re drunk.”
Unfortunately, she was right, so I couldn’t come up with a response. I shoved her shoulder instead. She lifted up my hand, kissed it theatrically, and rolled onto her side, facing away.
My sleep was restless, full of odd dreams that dissolved into mist when I tried to remember them. I wasn’t sure if Isabela’s departure was another dream, half-remembered in dim morning twilight, but when I awoke for good, she was gone.
Of course, I couldn’t expect her to stay. Isabela was never the caretaking type, even the odd sort of care of the past few days was unusual. Still, I felt the loss, keenly as the headache pounding behind my eyes, the litany of bruises and abuses my body presented as soon as I moved. The bed was a mess, everything would need to be laundered, I was filthy beyond even my own low standards, and at some point I would have to stop burying myself in Isabela’s debauchery and assume my responsibilities again.
For the moment I stripped out of my ruined clothes and into a robe. The room off the kitchen already held a tub of steaming water, and I blessed Bodhan’s consideration and tried not to imagine what he must think of the mess we’d left.
Over breakfast and tea, I tried to consider my options. Surely I’d had plans for these days, before Isabela wiped them blank. But I couldn’t think of anything that might matter. And of my friends, only one could be relied upon to remind me of such things. I dressed and went to find Aveline.
She looked at me with narrowed-eyed assessment, and I squared my shoulders against the discomfort. “Hello, Aveline,” I said.
“Hawke, come in,” she said. Her eyes were warm and kind, and made me hesitate. “How are you doing?”
I was acutely conscious of the constellations of unhealed cuts and bruises that answered that question rather more thoroughly than I would have liked. “I’m fine,” I said. “I have a smile on my face, what more do you want?”
Her lips tightened a little, but she didn’t push. “I don’t remember my mother,” she said, a little wistfully. “But my father, well.”
“You don’t talk about him much.”
“I suppose not. He made me who I am, you know. And he died, years ago now, from the wasting. I was with him, at the end…” Her story trailed off after a bit. “Want a drink?”
I had to smile. Isabela and Aveline might have nothing else in common, but both seemed to resort to alcohol when events forced them to show their emotions. “Sure,” I said. “A toast to those we’ve lost.”
“Ha, well then,” she said, pouring. “To Benoit du Lac and Leandra Hawke.”
We drank. “You grieve in your own time,” she said. “Don’t let anyone tell you how to do it.”
She looked away, back down at the papers on her desk.
I left, before I did something supremely stupid like crying.
Hightown fairly glowed in the sunshine, the sound of boots on stone echoing in the courtyards. I wandered aimlessly before making my way home, with no more purpose than when I left. And for all the times I’d complained about every problem in the city falling into my lap, I could have used something to do.
In the end, it was the Viscount who gave me a task important enough to care about. He wanted me to bring his son back from the Qunari—of course, because I was perfectly suited to careful diplomacy and tact. As if I hadn’t come near to punching Varric at the Hanged Man last night over nothing more than a joke and a card game. As if Isabela’s unpredictable appearances of late didn’t consist largely of her slamming me against a wall, distracting me from awkward questions about what she'd been up to as well as turbulent, muddled frustration and guilt and grief. As if that, in turn, didn’t disintegrate embarrassingly frequently into her dragging me to bed and holding me while I cried. As if I hadn’t spent too many sleepless nights skulking in alleyways and hoping someone might try to kill me, so I could let all those muddled emotions coalesce into brilliant shining rage. As if Anders himself hadn’t been giving me strange looks as we took out another gang of assassins, hadn’t called me reckless as he healed me afterwards.
I wondered how desperate the Viscount would have to be to turn to me, and if he hadn’t regretted it already. But regardless, I couldn’t say no—not because he was Viscount, but because he was a father, half-mad with worry and trying not to let it cloud his judgement. But the Qunari… the Arishok was unsettling, though I’d hardly admit it. Isabela glowered at any mention of them, Aveline resented their ungovernable presence in her city, Anders raged at their treatment of their mages. But I needed backup, in any event, and Aveline at least was a representative of the city. Varric could be trusted to have our backs (as could Bianca), and Merrill was innocently unconcerned.
The Arishok glowered at us. “He came of his own free will,” he said, a point I had to grant. “And he is not even here. He is meeting his father at the Chantry.”
Shit. “Mother Patrice,” I suggested.
“A suspect in many things.”
It wasn’t even surprising, after that, to find the boy dead. Less surprising still to find that the Arishok had sent someone to follow us, only a little disappointing that it was he who got to shoot the woman, without so much as a murmur from the Grand Cleric.
I found myself impatient with the Viscount’s grief. “The city needs you to be strong,” I told him, feeling like a hypocrite.
The look he gave me was familiar. Hollow, echoing space behind clouded eyes.
I left. There was nothing more I could do.
The next morning I headed out to meet Merrill, for some task that confused her still. Pleasantly mundane, to be passing the morning in the Lowtown markets, hunting for rare ingredients for some Dalish specialty. I was in better spirits, until I returned home to find Aveline and Isabela arguing in my living room. Aveline needed help with the Qunari, again, and Isabela, well. “I’m going to die” is never a good way to begin a conversation.
She wouldn’t look me in the eye as she explained, her gaze darting from me to the floor to the back wall. “It might… help,” she said finally, “with the Qunari.” Aveline’s eyes narrowed, but that was all Isabela would say, for the moment.
The good of the city took priority, Aveline argued. Isabela could hardly be expected to give a damn about the good of the city, but I was supposed to be more responsible than that. As I glanced between the two of them, Isabela finally met my eye, defiant as always. She’d made her request, she wasn’t going to beg, but she would not forgive me for abandoning her.
“Alright, we’ll have to deal with the relic problem first,” I said, and they both looked startled.
“Come on,” Isabela said, pushing past me. “The exchange is happening tonight in a Lowtown foundry.”
She didn’t notice my flinch. If I never saw a Lowtown foundry again it would be too soon.
I found myself watching for a trail of bloodstains as we walked through the Lowtown streets, and shook myself out of it. Even if there was blood on the streets, it’s not as though that’s unheard of around here and it wasn’t anything to do with me. Isabela led the way, closed-off and intent and cold, until we ran into a Qunari patrol, standing outside the foundry.
At least this time they immediately attacked us, so I didn’t have to try to be diplomatic.
“What were they doing here?” I asked, looking over at Isabela. She had the decency to at least look somewhat embarrassed.
“The relic belongs to the Qunari,” she said. Behind me, Merrill gasped. “There’s a small chance they want it back.”
Andraste’s dirty knickers, what manner of nonsense was this? “Of course they want it back!” I flung up my hands.
“I’ve always known what the relic is,” Isabela said, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “I just didn’t want to…worry you.”
“What?” Since when did Isabela give a damn about worrying anyone?
She sighed. “It’s a book. I stole it from the Orlesians who had it, the Qunari chased me, I ran into the storm to get away from them, we both crashed here.”
“Masterful summation,” Varric muttered. I glanced down. He was trying not to smile.
I sighed. “Looks like the Qunari take their reading very seriously.”
Isabela gave me a crooked half-smile that gestured in the direction of an apology. “Look, I need it to get Castillon off my back. It’s right in this building, I’m not letting it slip away again. Please, help me get it.”
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath. “Alright, it’s yours.”
She blinked. “Really? I…I’m not used to having someone on my side.”
I shrugged. I would help her, but I wouldn’t pretend I was happy about any of this.
“Come on,” she said, and headed in.
I followed. We were going to sit down and talk when this was over, whether she wanted to or not. I might not like it much more than she did, but well, lying for years about something this important? I’d thought she trusted me more than that.
It would have to wait though, because Isabela wasn’t the only one who’d heard where the relic was. First the Tevinters, then the Qunari, then Isabela dashed out chasing the idiot with the book, and then there wasn’t time to think, because the air filled with magic and Qunari spears.
When the last mage fell, I sheathed my weapons and ran outside, trying not to panic. Of course Isabela wouldn’t just stay here, she’d…go back to my place, or her rooms, or…something. And then I saw the note.
She was gone. Probably for good. Carrying the one thing that might have made the Qunari leave without a fight.
“Shit,” I hissed.
Varric looked over, and I handed him the note.
“What is it?” Merril asked, all wide-eyed concern.
“Isabela says goodbye,” Varric said. “And to remember what she told you about gambling.”
It said nothing of the sort, but Varric just looked up and winked at me.
“I’m going home,” I said, trying to keep the frustration out of my voice. “We’ll find Aveline and deal with the Arishok in the morning.”
It was stupid to be upset. I always knew Isabela would leave, just as soon as she found the relic, or found a ship, or got bored of Kirkwall. I’d seen the way she looked out at the sea, eyes drinking in the horizon. I pushed away memories of salt-scented skin, sand in unmentionable places and Isabela’s low chuckle. She was better off, no more threats hanging over her, no longer stuck here, in this shitty town, with…me.
No, there was nothing Isabela needed here, not anymore. Of course she left.
I finished changing and climbed into bed. When I heard a noise on the stairs I tensed, then sighed as I heard the clicking of claws. Nobody coming to kill me, nor Isabela changing her mind and coming back. The dog shoved the door open with his nose and came in, head cocked to one side watching me and whining.
“You know you’re not allowed up here,” I said, but he saw right through the pathetic attempt at sternness, trotted over to the bed and hopped up.
I sighed, curled up for sleep, and tried not to think about how grateful I was for the warm weight pressed against my back.
I woke up early, with the burning eyes and uneasy stomach of a too-short night, the coiling dread of having to deal with the Arishok again. I had little hope of avoiding conflict, especially knowing as I did that there was no way to give him what he wanted without condemning Isabela. I didn’t know what the Arishok wanted, what Aveline expected beyond her vague hints that there might be trouble.
I couldn’t have even imagined. The fugitives were the faintest hint of excuse for everyone. Surely Aveline could see that two—children, practically, could hardly be blamed for defending their sister. And against one of her guards. Even I would’ve done the same.
I said I’d come along, not that I’d be helpful. And anyway, the Arishok had already decided what to do. “Where is the Tome of Koslun?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” I replied. It wasn’t a lie, but he saw the dishonesty nonetheless.
And even that was only an excuse, the final spark that caught the dry, smoldering tinder and set it ablaze. Who knows what the reasons truly were. It didn’t matter: the city was aflame, and Aveline’s responsibility was to keep order. After everything, I could hardly just leave her to it. Even assuming I had anywhere to go.
Varric and Anders found us as we headed for Lowtown. Bianca sang, lightning flashed from Anders’ staff, Aveline’s blade caught the light as it sliced through whoever got in her way.
I fought down apathy as I spun to meet the next enemy. What were we doing? I was no Viscount, no city guard, no leader. I was just Hawke, until recently a despised Fereldan refugee. None of this was my problem. I was only useful when I was unimportant enough to run errands for the Viscount without attracting attention.
But eventually, as we fought our way through Lowtown, it stopped mattering. With blood staining my clothes and the simple task of “kill anyone who’s trying to kill you,” adrenaline and exhaustion warring for dominance, everything stopped mattering until we reached Hightown and the bloody Knight Commander saved our lives.
“We need to get to the Keep,” she said, and my composure broke.
“I’m not fighting a whole Qunari army, this is not my responsibility.”
I’m not sure whose glare was worse, the Knight Commander’s or Aveline’s. In the end it didn’t much matter, our course was set and I was just following the current. A current flowing uphill, even, as we dashed up the stairs while Orsino rained fire down on the Qunari guards.
When I finally strode toward the doors to the keep, flung them open and came face-to-face with the Arishok, I had no idea what would happen next.
It wasn’t a surprise to see him reigning over a hall of frightened nobles. Wasn’t even much of a surprise to see the Viscount’s head on the floor, though it took a moment to recognize it.
I suppose I should have been terrified. Instead, what I most wanted to do was laugh. Of course it had come to this. How could it not?
And the pompous solemnity of it all, the pageantry of forcing us to fight his guards while he watched—it was absurd. It was unreal, even though I knew better.
“So tell me, Hawke: You know I am denied Par Vollen until the Tome of Koslun is found. How would you see this conflict resolved without it?”
Fuck if I know, I wanted to say. But then—the only thing that could make the situation more absurd—the door flew open as an unfortunate Qunari guard was flung through it.
Followed by Isabela. Holding that damn book.
She stepped up beside me and looked over for a second. Not quite apologetic, but not far off either. I couldn’t help smiling a little. Leave the feelings for after we’re done trying not to die.
Except I couldn’t help needling her just a little. “Heroic acts of sacrifice, what will people say?”
Her indignation was real, but so was the amusement behind it. “This was your damned influence, Hawke.”
She shook her head, and I had to fight the urge to laugh.
The Arishok handed the book to one of his guards, watching it reverently, and I was starting to hope that perhaps we were, if not out of the woods, at least near to finding a trail. “I am free to return to Par Vollen,” he said, in a softer voice than I’d heard yet from a Qunari, but then he turned back to us and hardened. “With the thief.”
Isabela looked stunned. “What?”
“Oh no,” Aveline said, and I glanced over in surprise. I’d have thought there wasn’t much love lost between those two, but Aveline continued. “If anyone kicks her ass, it’s me.”
As for me, I wanted to throw the woman in a river, tie her to a damn chair so she couldn’t run off again…except she’d enjoy that too much…but I wasn’t about to let these Qunari drag her away when she came back. When she decided to come back. “Take your relic and leave, she stays,” I said.
“Then you leave me no choice,” the Arishok said. “I challenge you, Hawke. We will battle to the death, with her as the prize.”
I’d read fairy tales about knights battling for the honor of their ladies, but I never thought I’d be living in one. And I am certainly no knight.
Isabela looked genuinely frightened. “No!” she burst out, and the urgency in her voice startled me. “If you’re going to duel anyone, duel me!”
I felt a wash of relief, followed by guilt, and then the Arishok refused her and none of that mattered.
Because if I did this, now, maybe nobody else would die today. If I won, great. Problem solved. If I lost… well, Isabela was a survivor, she’d manage to escape one way or another. Aveline would figure out how to get things back in order, and Varric would keep an eye on Merrill.
And anyway it wouldn’t be my problem, and no one would be able to say I hadn’t done enough.
“Fine,” I said, glancing at Isabela before baring my teeth at the Arishok in something akin to a smile. “Let’s dance.”
“Meravas!” he thundered, “So shall it be!”
It took all of thirty seconds to realize I was overmatched. The Arishok swung a sword that was larger than me, and was deceptively quick for his size.
He also, presumably, hadn’t spent the entire day fighting his way here. He had others for that. This was for honor, and pride, and, in all honesty, for fun. To him, it might as well be a dance.
But I wasn’t going to make it easy.
It took every trick, every weapon, every dirty cheat I knew, but finally, finally, the Arishok fell and did not get up.
I waited—it might have been a trick—but blood trickled from his mouth and his breathing had gone ragged, so I forced myself to walk toward him.
“One day,” he whispered, so quietly I’m not sure anyone else heard, “We shall return.”
Fine, I thought, too busy trying to catch my breath to say anything out loud. But that time it really, really won’t be my problem.
The Qunari filed out, strangely silent…
And only then did Meredith and Orsino rush in.
“Is it…over?” Meredith asked, sounding disappointed.
“It’s over,” I said.
Cheers rang out from the gathered crowd.
Meredith glared at me as she sheathed her sword. “Well done,” she said reluctantly. “It appears Kirkwall has a new champion.”
I looked over to where my friends stood watching. Aveline and Varric were gleaming with pride. Isabela looked—I don’t know. Worried. Sad. Angry. Maybe all three.
It was Isabela I went to as we filed out of the filthy Keep, leaned against her partly out of affection and partly from sheer exhaustion. I would need to find Anders soon.
But not yet.
“You came back,” I said.
She wrapped an arm around my waist, led us toward an alcove where we might pretend we had some privacy. “I did, and it was stupid.”
I laughed, but she was serious, and now she was offended. She pulled her arm away, turned as if to leave. “Isabela, wait,” I said. She stopped. I looked at her, tried to find words, but my mind was threatening shutdown. I suddenly resented her, resented having this conversation now, while I was still bleeding in half a dozen places, each breath shooting pain through my chest from broken ribs that were making themselves known, now that the fight was done. But I tried, for her. “Ask any of these people, they’ll disagree,” I said, looking around. “You saved their lives.”
She glared. “I didn’t do it for them,” she said, low. “I did it for you.”
This… I couldn’t deal with this. Not now.
Neither could she, apparently. “It was always about you,” she snapped, shot me one last unreadable look, and walked away.
I stared after her, but she didn’t look back. I reached out to lean on the wall as my vision blurred and my knees threatened to give out, and then Aveline rushed over, helped me sit, and called for Anders.
The first thing he did was knock me out, and I awoke in my bed at home, alone.