It's all Kirkwall is.
Zealots. She's watched it all. The city smokes and burns in their wake, every three years, every decade - it doesn't change. Before the chantry went up in a flash of light brilliant enough to wake the dead, before the heavens rained down flaming stone and ash, there were the Qunari. Before the Qunari, there were clashes between the Coterie and the Carta that went back to beliefs over territory, over possessions, over what was owed. Trace it back far enough, through shifts in power in the Gallows and the vagaries of foreign wars, and there were still stories of the old Tevinters who had nearly sunk the city in blood.
It never ends. Sometimes the city gets three decades of peace. Sometime only half a year. She's lived there for over half her life and she doesn't know the full extent of it, doesn't even know the full extent of how many elves left to join the Qun. She remembers the whispers of poison gas in the streets, plots of passion to fix problems of passion.
Even apathy is a pursued with a type of zeal in these winding streets and endless stairs. Those who do not care are dedicated to not caring. She walks by them when she wanders, hears how they quiet the complaints of others, how they ignore and excuse.
She lets it all move her, and then pushes on, loyal only to herself. Perhaps that's her own form of zealotry. But it's a comfortable one, if a lonely one, and it soothes her aching soul as she loses parts of the team she has built. They all think she believes they're expendable, and they act accordingly - get out or die. It never changes.
Except for Hilgrud. Hilgrud is different. Hilgrud struggles for breath in a little back room.
Perhaps she should change her methods.
Perhaps she should find a new city.
Hilgrud lives through the fires. Prayer has brought them nothing, if the rubble of the chantry is anything to go by. But Hilgrud lives through the chaos, and when they both emerge from the Blooming Rose to find the banners have been burned and torn down, the facade broken by all the falling stone, Hilgrud walks by her side all the way down to the docks. They prowl the streets.
There are corpses to loot, carrion to pick over. Neither does.
There's money to be made, for sure. When they walk all the way back up to Hightown, to look on the wreckage of the townhouse that would not have protected them, Athenril takes a mental inventory. There was gold in that house. There were trinkets, gifts, prizes beyond number. This, then, is the danger of a permanent home.
It can be destroyed.
In the days that follow, Hilgrud leaves her side more and more frequently. The Coterie is quiet, as it was after the qunari attacks. The streets are quiet. The rubble remains, nobody willing to clear it. One day there will be a memorial board with trite offerings.
Athenril looks instead at the smoking ruins.
"I've been thinking," Hilgrud says as they walk down by the docks once more. There are half-sunken ships in the harbor and the stone is streaked by singe marks, by the foul unnatural blood of demons. Athenril is glad that she missed the excitement.
"Good. At least somebody is these days," Athenril says, stepping over strewn rope. A few ships are still afloat, and she wonders if any are taking passengers. Sunny Antiva sounds good right now, if only for a season.
"I think I'm going to stay here."
Athenril comes to a halt, then glances behind her. "And I'm not?"
Hilgrud shrugs. "Are you?"
Athenril is quiet a moment, then shrugs in turn. "I was thinking about Antiva. For a season."
"I think I'll stay here."
She looks the girl up and down. Her breathing is still uneven, and the steps wind her. There are few pockets to pick when everybody is dressed in mourning clothes. There are few elves to charm. "What will you do while I'm gone?"
"Make a name for myself." The quiet girl smiles. "Or not. Maybe not having a name is better."
Athenril has always liked her name just as it is.
Familiar voices that she cannot place drift over the rhythm of the breakers and the cries of vultures. They are at her back, and she watches for worry in Hilgrud's face. There is none. Slowly, Athenril turns.
Bethany Hawke approaches.
There is no Nevarran comb in her hair, and the years have changed her. She is not yet thin-cheeked, but it might still happen, and her eyes are haunted. The First Enchanter is dead; Athenril heard the news two days ago. No more gifted kisses, then, and no more silver hair shining in the sun.
"Hello, Athenril," Bethany says, and her accent is still proudly, defiantly Fereldan despite the years. Perhaps the sunlight would have burned it away from her, had she been allowed to walk in it. "… It's been a long time."
"How is freedom treating you?" she hears herself say.
"Well. Though I hear the air on the open sea is fresher."
"If you can take the waves."
Bethany laughs, a hesitant thing, then glances between Athenril and Hilgrud. "… There's space on the ship. If you'd care to come with us." She holds out a pale hand, a hand soft from years of holding only a book or a staff. There are bruises further up beneath the fall of her sleeve; nobody's gotten out unharmed. But that hand-
Athenril stares at it.
Freedom. She doesn't deal in flesh, but the city of chains has her tethered. To think that a chance to escape it might come in the form of Bethany Hawke, the girl who let herself be enslaved and the woman who sent her a kiss.
Athenril imagines placing her crippled hand in Bethany's, and curls her three good fingers into a loose fist. What- and then walk off into the sunset? Sail away on a pirate ship?
"Sure," she says. "Why not?" And she walks to Bethany's side, returning the girl's smile with a lazy smirk that only barely hides how something in her twists and turns, undulates with uncertainty and excitement.
Behind her, Hilgrud clears her throat.
"I think I'll stay here."
There is pride in her voice, and a certain ease that Athenril doesn't expect so soon after the girl's first real brush with death, but Hilgrud has always been a true master of tone and cadence. Where once she was silent, now she cloaks herself with confidence. If she fears, she doesn't show it.
She can survive Kirkwall, gangly dog lord that she is.
Athenril shrugs, smirk easing to a smile, as Bethany says, "Maker keep you, then." She can have no idea who this Avvar girl is unless Hawke or Aveline has told her, but she blesses her all the same. That's Hawke's little sister, for certain.
She does know a few things still.
"Just remember what I've taught you, girl," Athenril says, her voice rougher than she expects.
"Never deal in lyrium or flesh," Hilgrud says. "The only thing I have is me. And Kirkwall is a shithole of a town."