There is no greater horror than to be in chains.
She doesn’t care about abominations, about demons or darkspawn. It’s hard to find room to give the lurking monsters time when the ones what stride in full daylight are constantly there. She dodges them for most of her life: Tevinter slavers looking for new blood, twisted men who want a little pretty plaything, distant family members who think she would be better put to use in a dingy bed in a back room for any amount of coin her hips could earn.
And eventually, she dodges left when she should have gone right.
It happens as she’s leaving the Viscount’s keep, the ginger - Captain Aveline Vallen, now or soon enough, and doesn’t that just make her grin with the ridiculousness of it all - following after her. Athenril ignores the rattling of armor that’s worn more to intimidate than to protect within these walls until a sharp gauntlet closes on her shoulder and spins her hard around, shoving her against the wall.
“Captain,” Athenril grits through a false smile. “You just released me. I’d appreciate if you’d do the same with your fist.”
“Not before we have a little private chat,” Aveline grits back. They’re outside the main complex, in the shadows just before the long stairs down, and Athenril notes rather unpleasantly that she doesn’t have anybody nearby. Not even guards ready to find fault with their new captain.
“About?” Athenril asks. “I thought you found no solid evidence against me.”
“Maybe not,” Aveline says, and the fury and determination setting her freckled and heavy brow were almost comical, “but you and I both know it’s only a matter of time.”
“Is it?” Athenril plucks at Aveline’s fingers which are digging far too deep. “I recall you pointedly keeping your distance and making Hawke be your go-between. I recall putting you only on the legal jobs at your insistance. I also remember you looking the other way quite a bit when Hawke had a job.”
“You know nothing,” Athenril says. “And if you continue to threaten me, you’ll have nothing.”
“Is that a threat in turn, thief?”
“No. It’s an offer.” Athenril relaxes and Aveline doesn’t seem to know what to do with herself. “You stop clawing at something you can’t manage, and I start bringing you what you need to take down the nastier pockets in this fair city.”
“What happened to not working through official channels?” Aveline snorts.
Athenril smiles. “I’m not relying on you - it’s the other way around. And besides. You could probably use some skirting yourself.”
She ducks when Aveline’s hand releases to form a fist, then dances away, bare calloused toes on shade-cooled stone. Aveline, to her credit, doesn’t follow, but she also doesn’t give an answer. In time, Athenril thinks, and she slips into a small alley meant for defense in times of siege that leads along where the stairs drop off. In time, Aveline will find her feet and get to know Kirkwall a little better. The idealism will fade.
And Athenril will go back to not worrying about official channels.
She’s shimmying down the small hatch drop-off to take her back to street level when she hears the faint grinding of glass on stone. She twists, head at the level of the alley floor. Faint blue smoke curls from a tiny vial, and she has only a moment to swear - it’s one of Tomwise’s mixtures, she knows it all too well - before it hits her, making her head spin and her eyes bulge. Her grip tightens instinctively on the ladder rung as her throat burns, and she tucks her chin to her chest, grimacing and squinting and trying to see whatever shadows will approach.
Later, she blames the smoke fog for not thinking to draw her legs up from the well. A hand closes around her ankle, and she kicks, but the kick dislodges her hold on the rungs and she slips down, jaw cracking on the wood and hands scrabbling for grip. She twists and writhes, fighting on instinct.
I’m better than this is the last thought she has before the world goes dark, fabric over her head scented with another oil that brings oblivion.
She wakes up to the prickling pain of her arms trying to go numb. They’re wrenched behind her back and tied almost up to the elbows, impossible to slip and quite likely to dislocate her shoulders. It sets the tone - she’s somewhere dark with captors who don’t care if her body falls apart, but they’ve been far lighter on the leg binding.
She wonders why, and then decides it’s not a thought she wants to spare.
Her head still aches and her nose burns, and she tosses her head to make sure the fabric isn’t still binding her to blackness. It’s gone. She feels her cheek scrape against uneven stone, and she rolls to get her shoulder beneath her, her hips braced against the ground. She levers herself up and grimaces with the pain of it.
At least they aren’t out at sea, and at least they aren’t in a rattling wagon. That means they’re still in Kirkwall, because there’s nowhere close enough that’s made of worked stone - and the stone is worked, planed flat - that they could take her before she would wake up, not without leaving her a drooling, broken excuse for a living creature. Still in Kirkwall, she thinks, and tries to inhale.
The oil has burnt the inside of her nose, and she gets nothing.
So they might be near the docks, or they might still be in Hightown. For all she knows, Vallen might have actually taken her advice - bypassed legitimate channels, and sunk straight to kidnapping and privation.
Athenril’s not sure she likes that.
This isn’t, she’s certain, just a random attack. Random attacks aren’t so well prepared. A slaver wouldn’t snatch from Hightown, and a slaver wouldn’t waste so much on a single, random target. Which means either that these aren’t slavers, or that the attack isn’t random. She’d wager the latter. She has enemies, the guard only one among the rest, and many of the others would stoop far lower more readily.
She tries to contort herself, back arching, to reach the rope that binds her ankle. Not shackles, she thinks with some measure of relief. There’s slack between her ankles, too, enough to spread her feet perhaps a foot and a half apart. She’s still dressed - a good sign - and her fingers curl around the first knot.
It would be easier if she had five functioning fingers on each hand.
Her glove, she realizes, is missing - the two she’s lost to gangrene hang useless and only get in the way, the numbness in her arm beyond what the ropes have brought making it harder to focus. She tugs at the knot.
And then the door opens, metal scraping over stone, screeching and blinding as sunlight pours in. She can’t see. She can only feel a boot connect hard with her stomach, sending her onto her side coughing and retching. Hands grab her bound arms and drag her up, pulling her backwards towards the light.
It’s a chance. Every movement is a chance, and she tries to find a way to move, tests her ankles to see if she worked the knot loose enough.
It’s metal shackles by the time they board the ship, a rickety thing she’s half-convinced could sink with a firm wind. She’s hobbled and her arms rarely have sensation between the weight of the cuffs and the tight bonds of the rope still around her. Her legs are swollen and bruised and she’s coughed blood twice.
And nobody has come for her.
Hawke is long gone, in the Deep Roads trying to make a fortune. Aveline likely has no idea and no care as to where she’s gone. Bethany is innocent, hiding, dodging templars while her sibling is away. Tomwise is hiding in Darktown and was never good for rescues anyway, Elegant is likely celebrating, and the rest-
She begins to regret not keeping her other contacts closer. They’re likely celebrating now, if only because her chunk of the Kirkwall loaf is up for grabs again.
The hold, where she’s been shoved and chained, is a miserable, fetid place, and Athenril remembers exactly why she hates ships. The rocking of it turns her stomach, and without fresh air or light, she’s disoriented. She vomits twice before they bring her any water or food, and all she can learn from her surroundings is that it’s slavers. She’s alone, though - she can hear crying from another room, but hers is terribly silent.
They know who she is, and they’re keeping her isolated. She bangs her head back against the dividing wall and tries to think.
There’s no hope as long as she’s in bonds; if the ship goes down, she’ll go down with it, and if she tries to fight, she’ll be incapacitated in a moment. She’s been lucky so far - her hobbled ankles haven’t been forced apart and the crew keeps their distance. But bite and snarl and fight, and that might all go very differently.
Her only hope, then, is to wait until they reach port. Rescue won’t come, but if she can work herself free enough, and if they dock not too far out, she can get into the city warren and disappear, and eventually break whatever chains remain and return to Kirkwall - or find a new base.
She curls her fingers and tries to find the edge of the rope.
In the end, it’s luck.
She’s a proud woman, but she’s not so proud to be angry when the ship runs aground. She’s not so proud that she’s angry when it’s Ostwick guard who crash into the hold, torches held high. She’s only proud enough that she grins for just a moment before she grimaces and tries to take the pressure off of her arms, futile but necessary with how she can feel rot setting in beneath the coils.
And then she gives in, allowing rough, perfunctory hands to drag her up and cut her free.
She half-expects Hawke to be there, or even Aveline, but it’s only guards from the place she once called home. That means they’ve gone east. Tevinter-bound, or Antiva - the sheer number of elves she sees walked out onto the shore point to the former. She’s dumped on the beach with all the rest. It’s not a satisfying end to a story, she thinks, but the stinging sea air on her raw and oozing skin is its own kind of glory. She’s alive. She's alive and, somehow, the guard miss or don't care about the blue bands on her arms, the marks she was known by before she left. They don't arrest her.
They just leave her.
They’ve broken a slaver ship, but the slaves they leave outside the city walls, hungry and dying on the sand and rock. The tide is coming in, and Athenril staggers to her feet. She helps as best she can to carry the others to where the tide will stop. And then she moves to the sea and dives into it, teeth grinding with the burning of her flesh and heart pounding because she’s always been shit at swimming, at least in tides.
She pulls herself out again, soaked and bedraggled, and then she looks west.
It takes her two weeks to get back to Kirkwall.
She almost turns back several times, when she wonders just why she wants to go back to the city of chains and stairs and shit, but the answer is always the same. Find out who did this. And then there’s the secondary echoes, the whispers of, make sure Bethany is okay even if she hasn’t spoken to the girl in months, or see Hawke come back handsomely rich, even if she doubts the expedition will turn up anything at all. Much as she’s hesitant to admit it, she has a home back in Kirkwall. It’s not where she sleeps, which changes month to month and always mocks her with a veneer of stability. It’s not who she sits with for meals, because half of them would stab her in the back.
But she thinks about First Day, and about how her arm was saved (though now it’s pocked with new wounds, both of them are, and her bandages are shoddy and she’s working on sheer determination), and her feet keep taking her west, or into the backs of wagons that will take her a little of the way for free (and more of the way if she offers something up, but she has little to offer).
She enters through the east gate. It’s Aveline’s guards there, but she slips through mostly unnoticed in the day’s market traffic. The stench of Kirkwall blankets her like something familiar and grating, and she sinks into it. Her first stop is Elegant’s, because Hawke took that blasted charity healer along into the Deep Roads. Elegant puts on a show of care but is rougher than she needs to be as she cuts back the damaged, infected skin and smoothes it with the poultices and the bandages, and the bargain they strike is a heavy one. But Athenril will once more somehow keep her arms and hands. She can only hope for the fingers.
The second is to Tomwise. He knows exactly who bought that admixture, and he tells her, too, with an apology - times are growing harder, after all, and Darktown is never nice. He gives her a gift of a box of special work, as well as an apology, and she takes both.
The third is to a safehome that she finds taken over.
The fourth is to one that isn’t.
The fifth is to Gamlen’s house, to see if Hawke has returned after all, and if Bethany is playing with that lug of a dog. She finds it empty save for Gamlen.
“They finally get fed up and leave?” she asks, leaning in the door. Gamlen glares at her and she half-expects him to throw the chunk of molding cheese he’s nibbling at. He doesn’t, to his credit. Perhaps his has civilized him.
“They’re both up in blighted Hightown,” he grunts.
Athenril finds herself smiling - and then the smile seizes. “Both. Not all three? Did Hawke-“
“Came back bloody fucking rich,” Gamlen slurs, and she notes the whiskey bottle.
Athenril feels her heart sinking and she looks for distractions - the warping of the floor boards, the places where the dog chewed at door frames, the way the dust and grime dances in the thin light. “And Bethany?”
“Turned herself in to the templars.”
The light makes patterns that she wouldn’t call lovely, but they are fascinating, at least with how her ears begin to ring. Two, three weeks gone, and Bethany- the templars.
“Turned herself in,” she repeats, mildly.
“Brought one by and got all suited up in a regulation robe and left, while her mother begged her not to.”
“Hawke didn’t stop it?”
“Was too late.” Gamlen shrugs. “But she turned herself in. Good riddance.” He waves a hand, but Athenril catches the tremor. She grimaces.
She retreats back out into the sun.
There is no greater horror than to be in chains. She knows it first hand, and she knows Bethany had rightly learned to feel it. And yet when the moment came, somehow Bethany went right when she should have gone left, gave up when she should have run.
That’s every inch the Bethany she knows, and Athenril curses her name.
She doesn’t deal in flesh, not with slavers and not with templars, but some people- some people just don’t understand the worth of it. Money is nothing, security is nothing, without the slip of a leash, the rending of a collar. Bethany didn’t learn that.
Athenril refuses to forget.