Despite his constant complaints about what The Hanged Man passed as food and alcohol, the seedy tavern really had a special place in Varric’s heart. In fact, on good days, when Norah gets his orders right and Hawke doesn’t almost gets him killed on another of his suicide missions (for gold, glory, guys and girls alike, that lecherous bastard, Varric thought fondly), The Hanged Man has a place right beside Bianca’s in his heart. It was as unpretentious a place as you could get, and after years of living with Bartrand, that was something he had grown to appreciate more than most people. But more important than that, this was where all the real business happened in Kirkwall. The Viscount and the Knight-Commander could try their very best to make Kirkwall seem an upstanding and pious city but the truth is that the underbelly of the city – the part of it that was rift with crime and corruption – was the one that controlled most of what shaped Kirkwall.
The Hanged Man was the most popular tavern among the shadier occupants of Kirkwall, which evidently served Varric’s purposes very well. As a businessman, Varric does not commit the crimes; he merely dallies with the people who do, and if he manages to earn a few sovereigns along the way, that wasn’t really a crime now, is it? It’s a conversation he’s had with Aveline several times, all of which ended with her storming off in the opposite direction. But he had also self-appointed himself the unseen guardian of the little ragtag group he’d found himself ensconced in. Older than all of them, he just sort of one day assumed the role of the older brother they could rely upon and never looked back. Keeping an eye on the general activities of the crime populace of the city kept him informed of who had to be bribed or silenced to keep his companions safe.
He’d like to point out that he was doing a better job as an older brother than Bartrand, (at the very least, he hasn’t left any of his companions to die down in the Deep Roads, and that, he thought, already qualified him to be better than Bartrand) but proprieties must be observed.
Today, as it was like every other day, the busy dwarf woke up to a bunch of letters from the Merchant’s Guild. He didn’t even bother to read any of it; he just threw all of them into the merry little fire in the fireplace. He doesn’t have to, he knew it was going to be an assortment of summons and questions of why he hasn’t attended a certain number of the Guild’s meetings (he had lost count of how many he’s missed a long time ago. He had better things to remember), invitations to Guild meetings or parties thrown by Guild members and confirmations on the paperwork of several cousins and uncles that he made up. It was always the same old thing. The problem with most merchants, Varric mused, was that they had no creativity at all. Also, the letters have proved to be quite good kindling for the fireplace. Varric liked being warm and toasty.
After the fire has worked into a roar, he called for Norah, the only barmaid in The Hanged Man. This early in the morning, she still looked a little bit sleepy, though not as hassled-looking as she always is during the night-time - the natural roaming hours of the wicked.
“Yes, Varric?” she afforded him a smile, because he was always polite and nice to her and isn’t that a nice change from the uncouth and brawling idiot customers she usually had to deal with?
“Morning, Norah. Ah, could I have the usual, please?” the dwarf said, with his usual aplomb.
“Of course. You just wait a minute, dear,” Norah said affectionately, closing the door behind her. By now, he’s sure Norah would bring him the usual even without him ordering it in the morning, but Varric liked the personal touch. He was a people person, he wasn’t going to deny it. While waiting for Norah to bring him his breakfast – there was no rush, Varric was not an impatient man – he looked at the other bundle of letters on his desk. A while ago, he had asked his messenger to sort his letters into two piles: a pile from the Merchant’s Guild and a pile for everything else. He had to get a new messenger who could actually read to replace the old one when he got the idea to do so. The new guy costs him extra, but it made his life so much easier.
Most days, Varric was thankful for the combination of the clan he was born into and the charm he was born with. Armed with these two, he had managed to build himself a vast network of connections over the years. Most of the letters he sifted through were just letters of greeting; trivial things, but important for maintaining contacts. There were a few letters in the pile that were hastily written notes pointing out various odd jobs around the city, or rumours that looked to be worth investigating into. Those he set aside for later, to pass onto Hawke.
He managed to write two and a half letters of replies to people before Norah came back with a bowl of dubious looking stew. She put down the bowl on his table, and Varric asked, “Where’s Isabela today?”
Norah smiled deviously, “Today, she came out of that room at the end of the corridor. The guy who paid for the room was-“
Varric cut her off, “Ah, I don’t really need to know the details, Norah. I pride myself on being a storyteller, but some stories aren’t meant to be told.” He added after a moment, “Or heard.”
The barmaid almost laughed, then she made her way out. “She just came out of the room actually. I reckon she’ll be here in a few minutes,” she called from behind her shoulder. She opened the door to leave, only to find herself face to face with a smiling Isabela. “Norah, reporting on my sexual prowess to the nosy dwarf again? You naughty thing.” Norah shook her head, still smiling, as she walked past Isabela and left the room. The pirate came in and closed the door behind her. She strode over to the nearest chair and sank into it. “So how was your night, Varric? Mine was fantastic.”
Varric chuckled, “My night was alright. I won a couple of silvers from Hawke in Wicked Grace. We were wondering where you went, though.”
“I was drinking at my usual spot, and someone caught my eye,” Isabela said, like that explained everything.
The dwarf groaned, “Please tell me it wasn’t the heartworm poet guy."
Isabela made a face, “Of course not. Contrary to popular beliefs, I do have standards, Varric.”
“Oh, I thought that was just a myth,” he teased. Isabela rolled her eyes and grabbed a spoonful of the bowl of stew. After just one bite, she stood up, declaring to the only other person in the room, “That’s a good breakfast. Time for dessert.” Varric shook his head. He liked his wine, but the Rivaini really took it to a whole new level. It was only a little after midmorning. Isabela waved at him and left the room, to go out to the main hall of The Hanged Man, to her usual spot by the counter. He tsk-ed, a sound that sometimes expressed more than words can. Finally alone, he sat back and enjoyed his dubious bowl of stew. He’d given up long ago trying to figure out what the mystery meat in it was.
Over the next couple of hours, several of his sources dropped by. Some were there to give him some new information on several things he’s been keeping a close eye on. Some were there for their pay. Varric, with a bit of reluctance paid them their worth. He may be a slightly unorthodox businessman, but never let it be said that he was a man who doesn’t pay his debts. Regardless of everything, he was still a member of the Tethras clan, and with Bartrand the way he is now (slightly insane, catatonic in an asylum, take your pick), he’s the only one left to defend his clan’s honour. He wouldn’t have put himself as a candidate for anything involving honour, but dire circumstances forced his hand.
Just after he’d taken his first sip of sour wine, right after his lunch, Hawke burst into the room. “I don’t suppose you’d ever remember to knock the door?” Varric asked. Hawke grinned, “But surprises are more fun!” That earned a mutter from Varric, “It depends on what kind of surprises.”
“So, what brings the mighty Champion to The Hanged Man?” Varric asked, purposely using the grandiose title, just to see Hawke squirm. It worked. Hawke squirmed. It was obvious that he still wasn’t comfortable with the title that was bestowed upon him by the fine citizens of Kirkwall after he defeated the Arishok in single combat. Varric was kind of glad that his friend was the one to shoulder that title; he knew that Hawke would rise up to his title, he had just the right combination of courage, strength, heart and wit for the role of a hero. Varric was content to be the storyteller. Besides, he much preferred the freedom working behind the scenes gave him.
Despite Hawke’s squirm, he made a smooth recovery, “The mighty Champion comes to The Hanged Man for the ale and the company. Mostly the company, though the ale has been improving lately. Or maybe I’ve just become more immune to it.” Varric chuckled. Immunity to the horrible ale was actually a more plausible explanation than the ale improving.
“No, actually, today I came for another reason,” Hawke continued, now completely serious. Varric waited for Hawke to explain himself. “Have you ever heard of the Antivan Crows?” Hawke asked.
“The Antivan Crows? The guild of assassins?”
“I gather you’ve heard of them,” Hawke said, and then went on, “I bumped into a few of them today in Hightown, outside The Blooming Rose.” Varric smirked at the name of the infamous high class brothel. Hawke obviously saw the smirk because his next words were, “Don’t get any ideas, I was just passing through the place. Anyway, one of them, the leader, I’m guessing, said his name was Nuncio Caldera Lanos.”
“That’s a mouthful,” Varric noted.
“That’s what I said. So this Nuncio fellow comes and tells me about this mysterious murderous elf they’re hunting, who’s now hiding among the Dalish at Sundermount. Surprise, as it turns out he wants my help to track this elf down and kill him.”
“They’re the Antivan Crows, the most efficient assassin’s guild in Thedas. Can’t they track down one elf themselves?”
“Again, exactly what I asked them. Nuncio said they’ve tried but this elf has killed everyone he’s sent after the elf.”
“Are you sure you want to pursue this, Hawke? If the Antivan Crows can’t kill this elf, what makes you think you can?” Varric asked. He never thought he’d be the voice of reason in any conversation. But ever since he met Hawke, he’s found himself in those shoes quite often.
“Because I’ll have my trusty dwarf beside me!” Varric raised his eyebrows and Hawke hastily added, “And Isabela. Maybe Anders too.”
Varric sighed, “Sundermount, was it?”
Varric wondered why he ever thought being friends with someone like Hawke was a good idea.
They were in one of Sundermount’s many caves, and once again, they were fighting giant spiders. If he had one thing to be glad about, it was that his weapon of choice allowed him to stay a safe distance from those horrendous many-eyed monsters. Also, away from the guts and blood that tends to splatter from the spiders when you slice them open. He’s seen the others who prefer close combat after a fight with spiders, and they never look – or smell – very good.
He shot three arrows consecutively at a spider who was about to attack Isabela from her back. The spider screeched, turned over and died. Isabela barely noticed as she continued attacking the spider in front of her. Anders was shooting bolts of concentrated lightning at the spiders. Hawke was slashing and slicing at all the spiders surrounding him. When all the spiders had died, Varric and Anders were relatively spider guts-free, whereas Hawke and Isabela looked like they had taken a bath in them.
“Blergh,” Isabela crinkled her nose in disgust as she looked down at herself.
“Come on, we’ve got to keep going. I think we’re near the end of the cave,” Hawke exclaimed, clearly unfazed by all the spider guts on him.
They continued on until the cave opened up into a huge cavern. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Anders said.
Varric groaned. It was practically bad luck to say something like that, and he’s pointed it out to the others more than once, but do they ever listen? Obviously not. He hated being proven right over and over again when it comes to this, but it couldn't be helped. Suddenly, the ground began to tremble and the ceiling of the cavern began to shake. They could hear what sounded like scuttling, but as if it was being magnified. “Oh shit,” Varric managed to say as a varterral – a monstrous mythical creature that resembled a cross between a spider and a praying mantis – came upon them. As the myth goes that it was created by the elves, Varric made a mental note to never ever cross the Dalish again.
Hawke cursed, “Didn’t I already kill it?” as he unsheathed his mighty sword and rushed towards the varterral. If Varric didn’t know any better, he could’ve sworn Hawke had suicidal tendencies.
“Time to shine, Bianca,” the dwarf moved to a more advantageous spot and took out his precious crossbow. Anders too, moved to a safer vantage point while Isabela followed after Hawke, laughing in glee. She twirled and danced around the varterral, like a deadly whirlwind of knives. Hawke, for all his brute strength, did not possess as much finesse as the pirate queen when it came to combat, and settled for hacking and slashing at any part of the varterral he could reach, while barely dodging most of its vicious attacks.
Varric kept firing round after round of bolts at the varterral. He usually prided himself on the accuracy of his shots, but this time, in the frenzy of the fight, he couldn’t care less which part of the varterral he hit, as long as he hit something. He even almost used a hail of arrows on the varterral, figuring it to be big enough to take most of the arrows, but he was worried the arrows might hit Hawke or Isabela. Anders, for his part, used up his arsenal of offensive spells which admittedly wasn’t an impressive repertoire. But he was also the sole reason Hawke and Isabela seemed unaffected by the varterral’s attacks, as he kept casting defensive wards and healing spells on them, so Varric guessed he couldn’t complain.
Out of nowhere, the varterral started stomping hard on the ground, and loose rocks started tumbling from the ceiling. Varric dropped to the ground and rolled. He was hit by several of the falling rocks, but he could feel that none of it caused any serious injuries. He grunted and got up, glancing at Anders who was already infused with blue healing light. “I’m fine. Keep an eye on Hawke and Isabela!” he yelled at Anders, waving him off. Anders nodded and cast the healing spell over the warrior and rogue instead, who was taking most of the damage. Isabela, in particular, was slowing down. Despite her skill with daggers, they weren’t causing the varterral’s tough skin much damage. She stopped, for a split second, to catch her breath, and didn’t notice one of the varterral’s sharp legs lunging towards her.
“Rivaini!” Varric yelled, alerting the pirate just in time for her to instinctively duck. The varterral stumbled, too much weight put forward into the lunge. Varric cocked Bianca and aimed straight at the varterral’s small head. He let fly a bolt. It shot through the air, spinning and gaining momentum, until it struck the monster’s head with dull thud. The varterral shrieked in pain, and Hawke moved in for the kill. He charged forward, his sword held upwards and it sliced through the varterral’s underbelly. It shrieked one last time, and then its legs gave out. Hawke rolled out of the way as the varterral slumped to its death.
They were all panting, drenched in the varterral’s blood, too exhausted to even rejoice in the fact that not only are they alive, they had just killed the same mythical monster. Twice. Suddenly, they heard someone clapping and everyone turned their heads towards the source of the sound. It was a tan elf, with shoulder-length blonde hair. He had tattoos on his face, but it looked nothing like the Dalish vallaslin. He was armed to the teeth, and Varric tensed up, expecting another fight.
“Now you, I wasn’t expecting,” the foreign-looking elf said, his accent distinctively Antivan, as he addressed Hawke. Varric saw Isabela perk up, “I thought I smelled Antivan leather.”
The elf laughed, “Isabela! If it isn’t my favourite pirate wench.” That elicited a laugh from Isabela. Varric relaxed a little. The two of them seemed to be old friends, and the others waited patiently while they exchanged pleasantries. Finally, the elf introduced himself as Zevran Arainai. Anders mentioned that he’s heard of him. Even Varric has heard of Zevran Arainai. He was one of the Hero of Fereldan’s companions, who helped to defeat the Fifth Blight. Practically a war hero. In fact, if rumours were right, he was once an Antivan Crow himself.
A while into the conversation later, and the elf himself confirms the rumour. He explained that the Crows were vengeful little bitches, out for his heart because he repudiated the Crows. He was even gracious enough to offer himself up to be captured and trussed and manhandled (Varric was very surprised to find someone other than Isabela who makes all those words sound dirty while in a life-or-death discussion), all ready to be delivered to Nuncio, but he also mentioned that Nuncio will probably kill them too as ‘the Crows do not like loose ends’. To be honest, after all he’s heard about the Crows, Varric was willing to believe Zevran. Hawke seemed to consider this too.
“You know him best. What do you think, Isabela?” Hawke asked the pirate beside him. She shrugged and without even batting an eyelash, said, “I’ve had better.” Hawke glared at Isabela, “I meant about letting him go or not.”
“Oh, right. I’d let him go,” she said without hesitation. That seemed to help Hawke make up his mind. That was one thing about Hawke: once you’ve earned his trust, you’ve earned it all the way. It was almost a fault, if Varric thought about it, but he understood why. He remembered with a pang that despite the fancy title and the plush luxuries he can afford now, in a sense, Hawke has lost everything; his home, his family. Of course now he’s going to cling onto the people closest to him, even if he tried not to show it. Varric had a sharp eye and an even sharper mind, but he knew enough to keep his observations to himself.
Hawke decided to help Zevran, and almost immediately headed to the Crows’ camp just outside the city. He confronted Nuncio about his lies and the Antivan assassin unashamedly admitted to it. Tsk, Varric thought. That was just plain unprofessional. The secret to a good lie – or a good story, as he preferred to think of it – was to stick to it through thick or thin. And these people called themselves the best? Varric was starting to rearrange his notions of the infamous Antivan Crows.
After some typical villainous exchange of threats, including a surprise appearance from Zevran again, the Crows attacked them. Varric found out that the skills of the Antivan Crows have been greatly exaggerated. They may be masters of stealth and poisoning and other espionage tactics of killing, but when it came to actual physical combat, they were only slightly better than the regular thugs that hounded the streets of Kirkwall at night. The five of them, plus Zevran, easily overwhelmed and defeated the Antivan Crows.
After looting the camp and bading farewell to the enigmatic elf (during which the elf, Isabela and Hawke have a rather bizarre conversation where Varric was pretty sure they propositioned a threesome most bluntly), they trudged back to the city sans Isabela and Hawke. Varric would rather not think about what exactly they were up to then. Anders wanted to return to his clinic in Darktown the moment they arrived at the gates of Kirkwall, but Varric, concerned about his friend who seemed to be getting more and more distracted and reclusive lately, managed to convince Anders to reluctantly follow him back to The Hanged Man for a drink. Or not, depending on the thing that was living inside Anders’ head. Fenris can call it abomination and Anders can call it Justice all they like, all Varric knows is that it’s a glowy spirit thing that makes Anders a very dangerous man to piss off. Then again, he knows many people who didn’t need a glowy spirit thing in their heads to make them dangerous people to piss off, so it didn’t really make a difference to him.
They made their way back to The Hanged Man and by then it was already nightfall. They entered Varric’s suite to find Fenris already there. The broody elf stiffened when he saw the mage following Varric, “What is the abomination doing here?” Varric expected a snarky comeback from Anders but the mage, presumably still exhausted from all the fighting merely sighed, “Just one drink, Fenris. Just leave me alone long enough for one drink.” Fenris sneered, like he was about to say something scathing despite Anders’ unusual docility, but Varric shushed him with a wave of his hand. “Let’s just start playing Wicked Grace first, okay?”
The three of them played Wicked Grace for a bit while waiting for some of the others to show up for the game. Varric always opened his doors for Wicked Grace at night for his companions, though not all of them always showed up. Hawke, Fenris, Merrill and Isabela almost always showed up. Aveline and Donnic, surprisingly, dropped by quite often too, though Varric suspected it’s mostly because of Donnic that Aveline puts up with coming to The Hanged Man. Anders rounded off the group with almost never showing up since a couple of years ago. Varric thinks it’s because Anders and Fenris can’t help but to snipe at each other when they’re in the same room, and also because Anders was one of the most terrible Wicked Grace players he’s ever met. Even Hawke’s Mabari played the game better than him.
Just a little while into the game, Merrill walked through the doors with Aveline and Donnic. “I bumped into them on the way here. Isn’t that such a wonderful coincidence?” Merrill beamed with delight. Varric noticed Aveline exchanging looks with Donnic. He was glad that he wasn’t the only one who was keeping an eye out for some of the more vulnerable members of their odd group. Not that they couldn’t defend themselves – Varric was well aware that they could – but that they were in circumstances that were less favourable to their safety. And Daisy, perhaps of all of them, was the most vulnerable one, what with her still being unfamiliar with the ways of the city, even after 6 years of living in it, coupled with her naivety and looking so generally fragile, like a… like a daisy, he guessed.
The three of the newcomers sat down and joined them in the game, although Aveline quit after only one round. It was quite late in the night when Hawke and Isabela turned up, both grinning like idiots. “No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know,” was what Varric had said when they came in. Merrill, inquisitive as ever, had asked, “Is it something dirty?” Isabela sat down next to Merrill and purred, “You bet it is, kitten.” Varric tuned them out after that. There were some things he wasn’t comfortable thinking about when it came to his friends, and thinking about them naked and having sex was pretty high up that list. He was actually quite amazed at Isabela’s and Hawke’s ability to be so casual about having had sex with each other.
Hawke excitedly told the others about what had happened that day, with the others chiming in at random intervals. Aveline, as usual, looked put out by Hawke’s dealing with less-than-respectable characters, while Merrill was quite pleased to be able to utilize her knowledge of elven history to explain that the varterral will stay alive as long as it has something to guard. Fenris gave little to no reaction to Hawke’s story, only tchah-ing and harrumph-ing at certain parts of the tale, like when Hawke revealed Zevran’s identity and the Crows’ deceit. It was a strange collection of people, Varric had to admit, but after six years, they had more or less settled into a routine that none of them will admit out loud, out of pure stubbornness and pride.
They played another few rounds of Wicked Grace and then Aveline, Donnic and Anders all left at the same time. As Anders put it, “At least when I’m with Aveline, I know that the Guards aren’t preparing to ambush me from around the corner.” Another few more rounds and Hawke and Merrill excused themselves. “Bodahn has a tendency to stay up and wait for me to come home so I better not keep him waiting, poor man,” Hawke explained. Merrill was getting a little tipsy from the ale and Hawke thought it best if he accompanied her home first. Now, all that was left were Fenris, Isabela and Varric himself. The three of them were all pretty good Wicked Grace players, if Varric dared to say so himself, but that meant that the rounds ended mostly in stalemates. After a while of that, and a lot of footwork under the table that did not involve Varric but which he noticed nonetheless, the elf and the pirate suddenly both declared that they were tired. They both left and Varric was a little glad, because otherwise things would have gotten a whole lot of awkward.
Now all alone in his room again, he shuffled the cards one last time before setting them aside. He poked the dying fire a couple of times to make sure it stayed warm throughout the night, then he slumped into his comfortable chair, kicking off his boots. Glass of sour wine in hand, he contemplated the events of the day, and wondered how life would be like if he hadn’t met Hawke, or maybe if he wasn’t living in Kirkwall. A whole lot less exciting, he concluded after a moment’s thought. Finishing his last sip of wine, he stumbled onto his large bed, suddenly keenly aware of how tired he was.
He quite liked excitement, he thought sleepily as he yawned. Excitement meant he was still alive, and that in itself was a miracle, considering the circumstances. He fell asleep to thoughts of excitement, and monsters who wouldn’t die and friends who kept losing at Wicked Grace to him.