The Keening Blade
Cbapter 50: Breakfast of Champions
The dockyards buzzed uneasily with repressed violence. Loghain pointed at the narrow gate to the Qunari compound and asked Aveline, "Is that that the only means of egress?"
Too worried to glare, she replied, "I...believe so. I have never heard of any other."
"Then have your men form ranks here, and get some archers up on the steps to shoot into the Qunari's flank if they try to break out."
"Surely it won't come to that!"
Loghain scowled at her in answer.
Maude made a face. "We'll try talking first."
The Qunari guard at the compound gate glanced at their party. "Not all of you may enter."
Aveline nodded impatiently. "Then I, the Regent and two of my guards…" She saw the furious blaze in Loghain's eyes, and added, "..and the Warden-Commander will enter. Is that acceptable?"
"Stay here with Zevran," Maude ordered the dogs. "Really. This is serious."
The dogs did not like it, but obeyed. Ranger did not object to the smell of the compound at all, remembering a friend who had smelled like that.
Loghain stepped back and spoke swiftly to his companions. "Wait here. And you— Sebastian—get up there on the steps with the other archers. If this goes bad we need to be prepared."
Ambrose said, "The guard captain made it sound like she's more worried about people attacking the Qunari."
"She's wrong," Loghain said briefly. "Not even Kirkwallers are crazy enough to attack a fortified body of Qunari."
The gate opened, and Loghain strode in behind Maude, looking about. Well-fortified, indeed. With the gate the only access point, he knew he could have held this place for days. Loghain hoped that Hawke had luck finding the book the Arishok wanted.
The inside of the compound was tense as a coiled spring. Every one of the Qunari was horned, which made them look very different from Sten, the only Qunari Loghain had ever known well. Apparently. hornless Kossith were regarded as something remarkable, and had been sent to Ferelden with the expectation that they could "blend in" better with the locals. Loghain snorted. As if heavily-armed, lavender-eyed, seven-foot-tall giants were likely to go unnoticed…
In their Qunari war panoply, smeared with red ochre, these beings looked truly formidable. And the biggest was not seated on his chair of judgment up on the dais above, but was waiting, great double-bladed axe in hand, standing at the foot of the stairs.
"That's the Arishok, yes. Let me do the talking," Maude whispered. "And Qunaris aren't much for introductions, so don't be offended."
Indeed, the Arishok's eyes were on Maude as she approached. Loghain was interested in how Maude's body language changed the moment she entered the Qunari's territory. She took on a curious stillness and impassivity. Doubtless those were traits valued by these strange people. The Arishok greeted her courteously enough.
"Greetings to you, the one called Kadan by a Sten of the Beresaad."
"And to you, Arishok."
Aveline did not stand on ceremony. "Greetings, Arishok. We would speak to you about the elven fugitives that took refuge here."
The Arishok seemed not at all interested. "Irrelevant. I would speak about the relic stolen from my grasp."
Grimly, Loghain said, "We have discovered who has it, and are taking steps to obtain it. It will be returned to you, of course. It is of no value to us."
Maude smiled fixedly. Loghain supposed he had said something tactless.
The Arishok regarded him coolly, and said, "The thief's part is clear. Your admission is surprising...and welcome."
Maude said, "I have not been long in the city, but I have learned much. I know what it is that brought you here. I know who took the item you seek. I believe that I can lay hands upon it and return it to you." She took a careful breath. "If the item were returned to you, would you then be free to return home with it?"
"I cannot leave without it."
"Permit me to seek clarification. If the item were returned to you, would you then depart?"
"The Tome of Koslun must be taken to Seheron." He narrowed his eyes. "I have no patience with trickery or delays."
Maude smiled faintly. "I once found a Qunari sword—a single sword—in a land ablaze with war. I can find the Tome of Koslun."
The Arishok inclined his head. "I have heard this story, and of how the Sten thought you might be an ashkaari—a finder of secret truths. If the Tome of Koslun is put in my hands, I and all my soldiers will take ship and gladly depart this city."
Maude relaxed slightly. "Then find your ships, Arishok, for I swear to you that I will put the Tome in your hands within the day." She began to reach inside her armor. "As a token of my good faith, I have brought a gift…"
Aveline interrupted her. "This is all very well, but it doesn't settle the matter of the fugitives. Arishok, two murderers are hiding in this compound. Turn them over, and then you can go in peace, and welcome!"
Loghain took a quick breath. Maude's face froze.
"You idiot," she hissed under her breath. "Shut up, Aveline, and let me settle this."
The Arishok stared Aveline down. "The elves are now viddathari. They have chosen to submit themselves to the Qun. They will be protected."
Maude was at her most soothing as she asked, "Do they truly believe, or are they simply sheltering behind your strength?"
"They have chosen, and so have I. You know the corruption of this city. You will understand why I must do this. Let us look at your 'dangerous' criminals.' Speak, viddathari, whom did you murder, and why?"
A pair of slender elven men—boys, really—with dark red headwraps and burning eyes came forward. The taller of them spat out his words, still angry.
"A city guard forced himself on our sister. We reported him—or tried to—but no one would listen. So, one night we paid him a visit!"
"That doesn't excuse murder!" Aveline protested.
"Is it true?" Loghain demanded.
She scowled at him, hating him. "There have been rumors. I will investigate. But that does not excuse them taking the law into their own hands."
"Of course it does!" Maude snapped. She looked at the slender young elves, her brows knit in stress. "I know exactly what it is to be in their position. Grievous, irreparable harm was done to one they loved, and there was no hope of justice for them! I remember once when I sought justice, and was told that I 'had no rights!' So you know what I did? I sought out justice for myself, and I killed a man. I have never regretted it. These elves are right: maybe—just maybe—some strutting bully will hesitate to rape an elf, because he'll remember what happened to that guardsman of yours!"
The Arishok shook his massive head. "Their actions are mere symptoms. Your society is the disease. The viddathari will submit to the Qun, and find there a path your kind has denied them. Despite lies and fear, bas beg me to let them come to the Qun. They hunger for purpose. The elves have made their choice, just as the one who was once the Viscount's son did. You will not deny them."
Loghain followed the Arishok's glance. Saemus must be the young, blue-eyed human, also wearing a red head-wrap, standing in the shadows. He glanced their way with nervous defiance.
"You can't just decide that," Aveline said. with a fierce gesture of denial. "You must hand them over!"
"Tell me, Kadan of the Sten," said the Arishok to Maude, "What would you do in my place?"
Maude paused, clearly torn between diplomacy and honesty. Perhaps unfortunately, honesty won. "I would never, never surrender a suppliant under my protection."
And there it was, Loghain realized. The children in the mansion, the fierce defense of Wynne. Maude would see the analogy to the Arishok's situation with the elves. It was of a piece with her refusal to kill anyone who had surrendered to her, and thus a part of her aristocratic worldview. A noble must protect a guest under his roof; he must defend his vassals. Maude believed that nobles must, on occasion, actually behave in a noble fashion; and no time was more appropriate than when someone was at your feet. Granted, bullies found that the best time to crush other people; but Maude hated bullies.
"I am of your mind," agreed the Arishok. "Exactly so. I cannot leave without the relic, and I cannot stay and remain blind to this dysfunction. There is only one solution..."
But Aveline was utterly furious at what she perceived as a betrayal.
"I demand that you surrender the fugitives to justice at once!" she said, her voice growing shrill.
"Aveline," Maude said, quickly and urgently, "Let him go, let him take his viddathari with him, and just go. Forget about revenge for your rapist guardsman. Not going to happen."
Aveline lost her head completely, and pushed forward. "Arishok, there is no need—"
Something changed in the Arishok's eyes then.
"You have come too late, Kadan of the Sten."
He turned his back on them. The audience was clearly over, and Loghain had a very bad feeling—
"Vinek kathas!" rumbled the Arishok.
Maude's eyes widened. "Oh, fuck!"
Loghain glanced up at the balconies surrounding the courtyard, and raised his shield just in time. A bad situation and a bad position. A rain of heavy spears drilled down at them. A scream, and one of Aveline's guardsmen was on the ground, skewered like a rat on a stick. The man thrashed and was still. More spears followed. Maude dodged one, and knocked another aside. The spears thundered on their shields, and the Qunari on the ground closed ranks and advanced.
"Withdraw!" Loghain shouted. "Come on, Maude! We can't fight a hundred of them!" Another spear struck his shield, and he staggered from the force of it. Another guardsman was wounded in the leg, and stumbled. Without a word, Maude heaved him up on her shoulder and they fled back through the narrow gate, out of the compound.
Loghain kicked the gate closed behind him, and looked about for something to barricade it. They were at the docks, after all.
"Darrow! Get some of those barrels. Crates! Anything! Pile them up in front of the gate! The Arishok has declared war!"
"What can he hope to gain?" Aveline asked.
Maude hit her hard on the jaw, and the tall woman reeled back, shocked.
"What do you think, bonehead?" Maude shouted. "He hopes to kill a bunch of us, and every life lost will be your fucking fault! I nearly had him talked down, but you just had to pander to your gang of bullies, and now a lot of people are fucking going to die!"
Aveline rubbed her jaw, furious. Loghain pulled Maude away, while Valentine and Kain stepped in between the two women.
Arrows and spears shot out from the narrow gateway. Loghain snarled, and signaled his people to duck behind the makeshift barricade. "Maude, take your springbow and get up on those steps with Sebastian!"
She dashed out, running low, and was around the corner, telling the Prince of Starkhaven about the current disaster.
They had the Qunari sewn up and pinned down, but they could hardly leave before the city guard came to reinforce them. Storming the compound through that narrow bottleneck would be suicide.
Loghain considered their position, and took a hard look at the rooftops overlooking the compound. Somehow, they had to get their own people up there.
"Aveline!" he said, pointing to the tall building fronting the street. "Where is the door to that building? We need to command the heights!"
As guard captain, she knew quite a bit about property ownership. The building was a city warehouse, and along an alley running perpendicular to this street was a door that would get them inside. Not everyone could go: the Qunari were certain to launch a sortie soon. Loghain presumed that they would want to break out and make for the ships in the harbor. This might well turn into a siege, unless they could get a clear field of fire down into the compound. Furiously,Loghain wished he had some Stardust bombs, or even Dworkin's lyrium explosives. This was going to be a nasty job, even though it should not be his job. He could not get his people, their passengers, and their gear safely to their ship with the Qunaris in arms.
Aveline sent two of her guardsmen toward the alley entrance to the warehouse. Their job was to scout out the rooftops and watch what the Qunari were doing. If a sortie was imminent, they were to give Aveline a shout.
So there they were. Arrows continued to come through the gate, holding them off. Time passed, and no more guardsmen appeared in answer to Aveline's messages. Aveline swore, and planned horrible punishments for them. A noise from the the windows fronting the street, and one of the guardsmen called down in a muffled whisper.
"Captain! I don't think they're here! There's just four at the gate. Everybody else seems to be...gone."
"A back way. An escape plan!" Loghain growled. How could he blame the Arishok? If Loghain had been confined to this cul-de-sac for months, of course he would found another way to get out, even if he had been forced to tunnel through solid rock. A handful of brave soldiers had stayed behind, giving their lives to save their comrades. How...human.
He snapped at Aveline, "Get some more men up there and pick the Qunari off. We need to search the compound and verify that they've evacuated."
Furious, Aveline ordered three more archers up into the building. Then Loghain knew it was time to distract the defenders. He and Aveline and other shield bearers waited until the archers had time to get into position. Then they charged.
Eventually the Qunari defenders lay dead, the gate was smashed down, and they were in the echoing emptiness of the compound courtyard. It did not take long to find the hole that had been dug through the rear wall. The Qunari had patiently chipped away at the mortar and removed the stones. Then they had dug through plaster, and pushed away planks. The breach led into the basement of the adjoining warehouse. The Qunari had cleverly concealed the opening, with crates and barrels and loose planks and a bookcase, but during the final exodus, there had been no reason to disguise their movements. The door to the warehouse stood open, and dead men were scattered about in heaps.
"They couldn't get to the docks this way," Aveline said, growing pale. "This street curves back to Lowtown. The Qunari are already rampaging through the city!"
There was no time to stand there bewailing the disaster. Some of the guardsmen were detailed to remain in the dockyards, while Aveline and the rest of her men joined the Wardens. Together, they hurried back up the steps to Lowtown. Already they could hear distant screams.
They ran, and met frantic civilians fleeing toward them.
"The Qunari!" howled a man. "They're killing everyone!"
They met scattered resistance in the shabby residential streets. The Qunari had moved out fast, not bothering to break down doors and sack the slums. Loghain knew where he would be going were he the Arishok.
"Where does that lead?" he asked, pointing at a high, barred gate.
"The Alienage," Maude said, "the elves have locked themselves in. The best thing for them, really."
"He's going to the take the citadel," Loghain predicted. "Slaughtering civilians would be 'wasteful,' in their parlance. He's going after the Viscount."
Past the Hanged Man, they met Hawke, Varric, Merril, and Fenris, making a stand by the alley leading to the Foundry District.
"Where's Isabela?" Maude shouted.
Hawke's face was bleak. "Gone. While we battled an ambush, she made off after the fellow who had the Tome. She's probably halfway to Ostwick with her prize by now."
There was no time for regrets over the man's wayward mistress.
Loghain said, "The Qunari made themselves an escape route, and got away while we thought we were holding them at the compound gates. I believe they mean to take the city."
"We saw the Arishok go past," Hawke said. "He detailed a few to fight here, but he was headed to Hightown." He added, "I saw Saemus with him."
Maude clicked her tongue. "Idiot boy."
Slaughter might be 'wasteful,' but plenty of civilians were being slaughtered, anyway. Scores of terrified people crossed their path, unable to reach the city gates and afraid to make for the docks. Moving through a side alley in Lowtown, they discovered that the Qunari were not without allies within the city. A Sten was in command here, busily securing the Lowtown market square with discipline and dispatch. The Wardens engaged him, and then found themselves attacked by a mob of elves, all wearing the red headwrap of the Qunari convert. And while the elves wore no armor, they carried fine Qunari steel.
They were unskilled and inexperienced, however, and went down quickly. It was an ugly massacre. Loghain hated them just as he hated all enemies who tried to kill him, but afterward he admitted the justice of the Arishok's words. Why should the elves of Kirkwall feel the slightest loyalty toward those who ground them underfoot? Why not grasp at any possibility of escape?
Moving across the bridge to Hightown, they found the market all but deserted. Only a Qunari patrol was there, mopping up resistance and taking any civilians they found prisoner. They saw the Wardens approaching, and charged.
"Teth a! Bas!"
It was a fairly brutal fight. The Qunari had two of their mages with them: chained, their horned chopped off, lips sewn shut. Saarebas, Maude told him, was the term. However unspeakably abused, they fought for their masters. Though they had not a shred of finesse, they commanded a great deal of raw power, casting plumes of blue-white flame and bolts of crackling lightning. Loghain found being knocked off his feet an unpleasant surprise. Aveline's guardsmen were burnt alive from the inside out.
"Target the mages!" Loghain shouted.
It worked. Those immense spells took time to recharge. Before that could happen, the Qunari mages were paralyzed, frozen, beheaded, and shattered. Loghain finished off the tough Qunari officer, and the Wardens, alert for traps and ambushes, surged on through the streets of Hightown.
The citizens had barricaded a number of streets—in some cases successfully. What streets remained passable funneled them out towards the great square in front of the Viscount's Keep, where a raging battle was in progress.
For the first time, Loghain saw Templars fighting to defend the city. There were not many of them, true: perhaps two dozen in all. Loghain caught a glimpse of the long blonde hair that belonged to Knight-Commander Meredith. Loghain respected the woman for emerging from her fortress in the Gallows to stand against the city's enemies. Then he realized that as Templars they did have some sort of obligation to defend the Chantry, which was also in Hightown. His lip curled.
And another thing: yes, they were out and fighting at last, but in front of them, and bearing the brunt of the Qunari counterattack, was a small band of Circle mages.
Their leader was impressive. He was a rather small elf of middle years, hurling fireballs at the enemy with admirable speed and power. A Saarebas countered with a bolt that sent the elf flying. At once, Ambrose and Bethany froze the enemy mage in his tracks while Maude, Varric, and Sebastian shot him in every vulnerable spot. A crash, and the Saarebas toppled, his face connected with the paving stones, and he lay dead.
"I am First Enchanter Orsino," the elf introduced himself, dusting off his elaborate robes. "And if you are Grey Wardens, then you," he sketched a little bow to Loghain, "must be the Dragonslayer and Hero of Ferelden. And you're just where we need you to be today."
Meredith approached, taking no more notice of Orsino than she would of dirt under her boot. She spoke, instead, to Loghain.
"Warden-Commander. It is generous of you to lend us your sword today. From what I can gather, the Qunari have forced their way into the Keep and are holding the Viscount and many of the nobles hostage."
"This can't be all your men. Where is Ser Alrik?" Maude demanded. "Where's my boy Cullen? You'd think they be out defending the city."
Meredith smiled coldly. "Ser Cullen has been remanded to his quarters for dereliction of duty. Ser Alrik has…other tasks. Let us finish this business first, and then we shall discuss the matter."
Maude's smile was equally cold. "We certainly shall."
The Qunari held the Keep, and must be dislodged. They must be dislodged quickly, since they otherwise would be sending out the Viscount and his nobles in small pieces. The Wardens could force their way through, but a distraction would be essential.
It was First Enchanter Orsino who ran out, a fireball blossoming in each hand. It was he who led the Qunari guard at the open bronze doors on a merry chase. That diversionary tactic was one of the bravest deeds Loghain had ever seen, and one of the unlikeliest to win any praise or rewards. Meredith took his sacrifice for granted, as she would a housemaid cleaning a floor. Loghain decided that if he had been born a mage, he would have killed every Templar in Thedas.
The distraction worked brilliantly. The Wardens, plus Zevran and Hawke and his friends, piled through the open doors of the Keep.
Qunari defended the great entrance hall; defended it with traps and swords and their lives. A pair of Qunari Saarebas were there, too, and they needed to be dealt with quickly. Varric was thrown against a wall, and afterwards Bethany went to some effort to heal his concussion. There was time only for a sip of water while they prepared to move on. Bodies littered the fine stone floor, and their blood dyed the carpets. Guardsmen had fallen here, but also serving maids and noblemen.
The doors to the barracks were locked. Aveline swore bitterly, but there was no time to go looking for guardsmen in hiding. From the noise ahead, the survivors had been herded into the throne room. Down, down the long hall, stepping over more corpses, they made their way to resolution of the conflict. At the end of the hall the doors to the throne room were closed. Maude tested them carefully.
Through them, muffled, they heard the Arishok shouting.
"Here is your Viscount!"
The screams that followed suggested that something unpleasant had happened to the old man.
"Look at you. Like fat dathrasi you feed and feed and complain only when your meal is interrupted. You are blind. I will make you see!"
Maude finished with the locks, and stood back, mouthing at Loghain, "Good to go."
He took a breath, and kicked the doors open. Revealed to them was a scene of high drama and chilling horror.
The severed head of Viscount Marlowe Dumar lay on the carpet in front of them, mouth open, eyes rolled back in death. The nobles of Kirkwall—a sorry lot—cringed and cowered before the invaders. Against the far wall stood Saemus, the Viscount's own son, tears in his blue eyes, but still loyal to the Qunari.
The Arishok nearly smiled at the sight of Maude, and he said, "But we have guests." Slowly, he descended the steps from the throne toward her.
"Shanedan, Kadan of the Sten. I expected you here. But for all your might you are no different from these bas. You do not see."
"I see my way clearly. You see yours. "
"So tell me, Kadan. You know I am denied Par Vollen until I can obtain the Tome of Koslun. How would you see this conflict resolved without it?"
From the door, another woman spoke.
"I believe I can answer that."
The Rivainni pirate swaggered into the throne room, a huge tome under one arm.
"Isabela!" cried Hawke, unbelieving and overjoyed.
The woman shrugged. "It took me awhile to get back, what with all the fighting everywhere. You know how it is."
"Well done, Isabela!" cried Maude. "At just the right moment!"
"Heroic acts of self-sacrifice?" Hawke said to his lover, in an aside. "This is unlike you!"
"It's your influence, Hawke," said Isabela. "Pathetic, I know." She grimaced, and surrendered the Tome to Maude.
"I have kept my word to you, Arishok!" Maude declared. "I swore that you would have the Tome within the day, and behold! It is done!"
The Arishok accepted the book, and stared at her, eyes unreadable. With great reverence, he handed it off to a subordinate, and then turned to Maude. "It is so. The relic is reclaimed. I am now free to return to Par Vollen—with the thief. She stole the Tome of Koslun. She must return with us."
"Oh, no!" Aveline cried. "If anyone's going to kick her arse, it's me!"
"I said, Arishok," Maude declared, her voice clear in the great chamber, "that you would have your book, and that you could take your soldiers and your converts and go. That was my word on the matter, and I have kept it. I said nothing about Isabela. You cannot have her."
"You would defend the thief?" growled the Arishok.
"Isabela was just doing what Isabela does: taking other people's stuff. It's her nature. She is a brave comrade, who stood beside me against darkspawn and demons in the Deep Roads. You can't have her. I do not give up those under my protection. You, of all men, understand that. You have the book. You get to keep your viddathari. I get to keep Isabela. I think that's fair, considering that none of this is my quarrel anyway."
Her voice— so confident, so winning, so reasonable— had nearly everyone in the chamber nodding in agreement, even most of the Qunari, as ensnared as the rest. Loghain allowed the power to roll past him, all the time watching the Arishok's eyes. They glazed briefly…and then hardened.
Not the easy way, then. Definitely the hard way.
"Then you leave me no choice. I challenge you, Maude, Kadan of the Sten. We battle to the death, with her as the prize."
"Maude—" Loghain snarled.
"My fight," Maude said. "Not yours, Loghain." She gave him a sweet and secret smile, and whispered. "Trust me. It's going to be fine."
"Her fight," agreed the Arishok. "Not yours. You are not bas-alit. You are not a Kadan of the Sten of the Beresaad."
Maude was luminous with calm. "I accept your challenge, Arishok!"
"It is well. You alone are Basalit-an." The Arishok shouted at the trembling nobles. "This is what respect looks like, bas! Some of you will never earn it!" He hefted his axe, and bellowed. "Meravas! So shall it be!"
The dogs were made to sit and be quiet, and the duel began.
They faced each other, the Arishok vast and corded with muscle, towering over the slender woman opposing him. Hawke and Varric exchanged worried looks. Isabela pretended to be unconcerned. Loghain promised himself that she would never leave this room alive if Maude were killed. Aveline, too, for that matter. Her blundering had sparked the violence.
In fact, he was feeling fairly pissed-off at all of Kirkwall. If the Viscount's severed head had been near his foot, Loghain would have kicked it through a window.
Maude and the Arishok were circling now, eyes only for each other. Maude's sword was out, and a closed, intense, rapt half-smile lit her face. Loghain knew that look well. It was Maude's game-face, and he had first seen it in the Landsmeet Chamber when they had dueled…was it only two years ago? He had underestimated her then, and he prayed that the Arishok was underestimating her now.
Watch him, Maude. Watch him. Watch his eyes. He's going to…
The massive rush of the Arishok was awe-inspiring. He was far faster than Loghain had expected, and moved from complete stillness to the the momentum of a charging bronto in seconds.
But Maude was fast, too; no one faster. Almost too quickly for Loghain to comprehend, she was charging to meet the Arishok's attack, and as they met, her left hand flashed out, using the Qunari's mighty shoulder as a handhold. She swung up and to the side, arcing gracefully like a tumbler, sword arm raised high. Loghain glimpsed her face and hissed in shock at the mask of dark bloodlust.
She plunged her sword downwards into the top of the Arishok's spine, just underneath his gleaming armor. At the blade drove in, grinding against bone and sinew, she screamed out with the effort, screamed like she had never screamed in childbirth. The Arishok's inertia sent him crashing into the wall.
But Maude had already pulled her sword free, and she leaped to the side, rolling sideways and then stopping in a graceful crouch, still gripping her sword, with her left hand touching the floor for balance. Her head snapped up, staring darkly as the Arishok hit the wall. He slid down bonelessly, like an unstrung puppet. Blood smeared the wall, and then spread out from his body, like ripples in a still pond.
He was dead. Dead within less than a minute from the start of the duel. The Qunari gaped in disbelief, and a thin, wild babbling rose up from the terrified nobles.
"The city has been saved!"
The Wardens had no restraint at all. Lusty cheering echoed from wall to wall to roof. The dogs barked in excitement. Loghain heard their voices as if underwater, but they were all distinguishable to him, even the voice of that bloody Antivan.
"Brava, my Warden! Bravissima! A single blow!"
Loghain could not take his eyes from Maude, as she slowly straightened up, and then looked his way, the slumberous fire in her eyes enthralling him. He would really like to find somewhere to…
The door burst open, and Meredith and a dozen of her Templars dashed into the room, swords drawn. The Knight-Commander looked around her, betraying her disappointment at the shocked Qunari, the massively dead Arishok in a pool of his own gore, the cheering Wardens, the relieved and hopeful nobles; and she cried out, like a child forgotten at Satinalia—
It might be. It could be. Loghain caught his breath. But then her face reddened with rage and embarrassment, and she waved her sword at the surviving Qunari.
And the Qunari weren't having that, obviously. They charged down the steps to the throne, ready to sell their lives dearly. It was madness; it was a storm of death.
"Valentine! Bethany! Sebastian!" Loghain roared. "Get the civilians to the corner there, and defend them!"
They had done enough: they had bloody done enough for this crazy, drooling-mad city. Let the bloody Templars fight the bloody Qunari, since they had done little enough so far. With cool approval, he saw a pair of Templars go down.
Mustn't let the Qunari actually win, though, he realized with a slight regret. That would be bad for us and for these poor puling nobles.
"Saemus!" Maude called out. "Put down that sword and get over here!"
The young man glanced at her, through the fog of battle, and gave her a slight, sad shake of the head. He raised his sword and advanced, a little tentatively, behind his Qunari brothers. Meredith gave a howl of triumph, and lunged at him, impaling him with her greatsword. Then she shoved him away, leaving him to scream and flail and die.
"You bitch!" Maude shouted at her. "Fucking bitch!" She grabbed at Zevran and hissed something at him, eyes blazing. The assassin nodded and darted away, slipping through the press of fighters. Maude edged along the wall, eyes terribly blank.
Loghain shouted at one of the Qunari, "Get out of here or die!"
The Qunari was puzzled briefly at being offered a choice, but quickly elected to die. Loghain obliged him, dropping low, and sweeping out a swift arc with the Keening Blade. Entrails spilled out. Loghain felt quick, spiteful pleasure in having ruined an expensive carpet.
A Qunari and a Templar were having it out on the steps of the throne, but Loghain was not inclined to help either of them. He backed toward the wall, keeping an eye on what was going on as a whole. Aveline had taken down a Qunari archer. She was a fine warrior, certainly, but not a particularly good guard captain, in Loghain's opinion. Hawke was fighting admirably, and Varric's springbow was a remarkable weapon. Merrill, Isabela, and Fenris were holding back: they had joined the Wardens who formed the protective wall in front of the civilians. Loghain vaguely remembered being told that Fenris rather liked the Qunari. As more Qunari and Templars fell, the way to the antechamber behind them was clear, and Loghain gave Darrow a quick gesture that the sergeant understood.
Darrow bawled out, "Come on now, you lords and ladies. Move away. We'll keep you safe!"
The civilians stumbled from the throne room, some sobbing, some wailing, some babbling their eternal thanks. Loghain recognized the de Launcet women, and wondered where the Comte was.
Only a pair of Qunari remained, bleeding but still undaunted. One had to admire their courage and stamina, but dread it at the same time. Loghain wanted no Qunari in the Waking Sea…but there were other things he did not want either. Meredith had clearly hinted at a threat to Wynne and children, and he decided that he would not tolerate it.
He moved to Aveline's side.
"Guard-Captain," he said swiftly. "Surely you should take charge of the civilians. They are frightened, and will need protection and reassurance."
Aveline hesitated, her face taut with suspicion and dislike, but then she nodded and left, following the noble mob. Loghain heard her voice in the antechamber.
"I have a key to the barracks!" she shouted. "You will be safe there while the last of the Qunari are dealt with! Wardens, follow me. Warden Bethany will heal any wounds…"
Her voice faded. Loghain glanced at Kain by the door, and jerked his head to tell the man to follow the rest. Then he shut the door behind him.
The last of the Qunari was falling now. In the throne room were only the dead, and Loghain, Maude, Zevran, Hawke, Varric, and the dogs. Facing them were Meredith and three Templars. It was not at all a fair fight, and Loghain did not care.
Meredith disengaged her sword from the dead Qunari, and turned to find other forces arrayed against her.
"So, Dragonslayer? You seek to interfere in the work of the Chantry? In the affairs of a sovereign city?"
Maude stared at her with narrowed eyes. "Did you send that bastard Alrik to our house?"
Meredith stared back. "The city must be cleansed of apostates. Nits breed lice."
"How many did you send?" Loghain demanded. This woman was really, really pissing him off.
"A sufficient number," Meredith smirked.
Zevran, Loghain noticed, was not smiling, even though he smiled at most kinds of threats. Menacing the children clearly enraged him in a nasty, cold, flay-you-alive sort of way.
"That's it," Maude said bluntly. "You're going down, bitch."
"Really?" Hawke wondered, wide-eyed but willing. He hefted his sword. There was a streak of blood along his jaw, but he looked quite game, as did a grinning Varric.
"Princess," said the dwarf, "we're really going to miss you when you leave this city."
"Wait!" one of the Templars bleated, seeing the heads turn toward him like wolves scenting prey. "You can't get away with—"
Violence bloomed briefly, blood red and blood-scented. Later, it was impossible to determine who had actually killed Meredith. Once the other Templars were variously shot, stabbed, and slashed, it was a pile-on of gleeful abandon. Meredith was supposedly a fearsome warrior, but they gave her no chance to show how fearsome she was.
"Remove your crossbow bolts from the remains, Varric," Maude advised. "They're something of a giveaway."
Loghain scowled at Zevran. "What did Maude say to you?"
The assassin smiled bleakly. "That no matter what else happened, that madwoman was not to leave the throne room alive."
"And she didn't." Maude said happily, Tome of Koslun clutched protectively to her heart.
Loghain grimaced. "Now you want the book?"
"Prize of battle." She lifted her chin, defiant. "Last token of a brave but misguided man. I'm sorry for the poor Arishok, and I ought to take his stuff for a keepsake." She saw Loghain's raised brows, and nodded, tearing off a strip of bloodstained drapery. She wrapped the book in it. "Discreetly. We don't want a Qunari dreadnought sailing into Breaker's Cove! Anyway, let's go. We've got to get back to the house soon. Either Oghren held Alrik off, or we've got to break into the Circle and wreak vengeance."
"We will," Loghain assured her, "but we'll make a brief stop first."
Hawke cocked his head, looking at the shambles. "What now?"
Loghain walked over to a pile of corpses. Behind them was an iron circlet, somewhat bent out of shape. He scooped up the diadem of Kirkwall, and said, "Now it's time for those nobles down in the barracks to choose a new Viscount. That's how it was done before Meredith, wasn't it?"
Hawke frowned, "But, who—" He caught Loghain's eye. "Oh, no. No. I don't think—"
Maude beamed at him. "To paraphrase Flemeth: 'Destiny awaits you, dear boy. When the moment comes, do not hesitate to leap.' Really, Adam, you're the only human of noble blood who's shown the least hint of competence in the entire time we've been here. It has to be you."
Varric leaned on his beloved bow, and grinned. "If you don't seize the day, Hawke, you'll lose all rights to complain about how somebody else runs the city!" The grin widened. "What a wow finish to Hard in Hightown!"
In the Keep barracks, Adam Hawke was elected Viscount of Kirkwall by acclamation. It made perfect sense to Loghain, as Hawke was the only Kirkwall semi-noble so much as holding a sword at the moment. And his friend, the imposing Guard Captain, was standing behind him, also holding a sword. With some effort, the diadem was bent into a shape that would fit Hawke's handsome head.
"Look at Fifi de Launcet!" Maude whispered to Loghain. "Hawke had better watch out!"
Loghain did not see how Hawke could be taken in by the idiotic blonde's bosom-heaving sighs and lash-flutterings, but the girl seemed sincere enough in regarding him as her personal hero. If anything, the mother was even more enthusiastic.
Bethany shed tears of joy at her brother's rise to glory. She gave him a kiss, and fell in with the Wardens as they trotted in quick double-time back to Varric's mansion. Sebastian called out, "Wait! I must see if the Grand Cleric is unharmed!" and joined them part of the way.
The Prince of Starkhaven was otherwise silent, perhaps communing with the Maker about the significance of his friend Hawke's ascension. The late afternoon sun cast long shadows in the deserted Chantry courtyard. The Chantry itself was locked up tighter than a farmer's daughters when the militia was in town. Loghain spared the building a sneer.
"I shall give the glad tidings that the city is safe," Sebastian declared, "defended by the valor of its new Viscount!"
"And by me," Maude muttered, but Sebastian was already too far away to hear her.
There were no bodies on the steps, so Loghain felt growing hope that the Qunari had not made it this far.
"Fenris' house looks all right," Ambrose said. "Door's not broken down, anyway."
The Tethras mansion was off the wide court, past an arbor with marble benches. A jutting wall concealed the steps leading up to the front door. Maude swore aloud when she saw the huge bloodstain on them.
"I will gut that bastard Alrik!" she snarled. "I will hang him up by his—"
The front door swung open. "Too late," grinned Oghren. "Done and done."
The children were safe, locked in the attic, protected from the gruesome sight of six dead Templars sprawled in various stages of dismemberment in the high and wide reception hall of the mansion.
"I decided to let 'em in," Oghren said. "Easier to fight them in the open here in the hall, and the kid—" he gestured at Thanyra—"was up in that gallery with a clear shot at them. Wynne, too. Easier to hide the bodies this way, y'know."
"Good work," Loghain said briefly.
"There were seven," Thanyra told them, very impressed, "but the Elder caused their leader to shatter like an icicle." She added in a whisper, "I have never seen such power!"
"Sodding filthy mess," Oghren agreed cheerfully. "Had to sluice it down with a half-dozen buckets of water! Wynne's gone to sit with the kiddies. Probably needs a bit of a lie-down. Making Templars explode must take it out of her."
Zevran wasted no time, but ran up the stairs. They heard a distant knocking, and then nothing more.
Oghren and Thanyra were loudly praised, and then regaled with the events at the Keep.
"Huh!" Oghren snorted. "So your friend Hawke is going to be running this city? I suppose he can't screw it up any more than it already is!"
The sun would be setting soon, and the streets were still largely empty. Loghain decided the thing to do would be to dump the bodies in one of the cul-de-sacs by the entrance to the Keep. They would be found the following morning, apparently slain by the Qunari, The streetcleaners of Kirkwall, would undoubtedly be busy for many days to come.
"Let's move the bodies out to the entrance hall for the time being," he ordered. "And cover them with some of that sacking in the cellars."
"What about supper?" Valentine asked. "Is there anything left?"
Once reminded of food, everyone was absolutely starving.
"Come on!" Maude shouted, grabbing Ambrose and Bethany. The dogs ran after her, themselves ravenous. Loghain could hear her, complaining loudly of the squalor left over from the midday meal.
After the bodies were moved and covered, the children were allowed to come downstairs. Zevran was with them, and told Maude that Wynne had gone to bed.
Not having seen the slaughter, or even heard much of it, the children were in fairly good spirits. The two little girls skipped rope in the reception hall, while the boys played with tops and toy horses. Lilia disappeared into the dining room, wanting to help Maude.
Loghain thought he'd better help her, too. Being a clever, efficient girl, she had things well in hand. The ruins of the midday meal had been picked over. Crumbs and fragments were swept to the floor, and the dogs enjoyed the impromptu meal. The table then had to be scrubbed down.
The meat pies had been completely devoured, but some of the roast nug was left, and some cheese and bread. Maude set some wine to mull at the fireplace, so there would at least be a hot drink. That task she turned over to Ambrose.
"See that it doesn't boil," she commanded. "That would ruin it."
Bethany hastily washed and wiped the dishes and spoons. Loghain was set to carving every bit of edible meat from the nug. Lilia was running errands, and was sent variously to the pantry for eggs, butter, and a large frying pan.
"And bacon!" Loghain called after her.
"What I wouldn't do for some early greens," Maude muttered to herself. "I'd love a salad. Loghain, let's go picking greens when we get back to Soldier's Peak!" She pulled a gauzy, gaudy bag from under her breastplate. "And we have some sugarplums for afters. I meant to give them to the Arishok—Sten was very fond of sweets—but well, poor fellow..."
Large amounts of scrambled eggs filled everyone up satisfactorily. Maude really was quite a good cook—and an admirable housekeeper, too—Loghain granted.
He would really, really like to leave tomorrow, but it would probably not be possible. Maybe tomorrow, everyone could have a well-deserved rest.
Once darkness fell, the dead Templars, no longer leaky but growing awkwardly stiff, were manhandled out the door and through the silent courtyard. They saw no lights in Fenris' windows, nor in those of the houses they passed. Only a shaft of moonlight guided them to the killing field outside the Viscount's Keep. There were lights enough in there.
The bodies were heavy, and Bethany followed behind, carrying some extra bits that Oghren had caused to fall off. At one point a hand escaped her, but Topaz dutifully retrieved it. Loghain checked their path for tell-tale traces and was satisfied. The bodies were scattered amongst the other bodies, and the Wardens retreated to their comfortable mansion.
Loghain was as happy to retreat as anybody. Maude had remained at the mansion, not even interested in looting the dead. Instead, she had cleaned up the remains of supper, and had helped put the children to bed.
"There's some hot water in the ewer," she told him, combing out her long brown hair in the privacy of their bedchamber, "but I don't suppose I've left you a single dry towel."
She stood in the dim light, pale and naked and strong, marked with bruises and scars; but beautiful, and his alone.
What bliss to remove his armor. It felt as if it were growing into his flesh, but somehow it was lifted away, and he could have a good, long wash, thinking over the tumultuous day. Maude slapped him playfully with a wet towel, and he indulged her with a weary smile.
"Maude, that duel with the Arishok…"
"Wasn't I marvelous?"
"Yes." He paused. "That was quite a move against a bigger and stronger warrior." A silence, while she scrubbed at his neck and shoulders.
"Looked pretty good, didn't I?" Her breath was warm on his back.
"If you had done that at the Landsmeet during our duel, you would have killed me out of hand."
"I know." She rested her head on his shoulder, hands slipping lower, squeezing voluptuously. "I didn't want to kill you. I told you that a long time ago." She kissed a shoulder blade lightly. "Think how sad it would have been if I'd killed you like that. What do you think would have become of me? But I was too clever to end up alone, with no Loghain and no Loghain's baby. So I had to fix it so you'd surrender to me. Aren't you glad you did?"
He turned, and took her in his arms. "Every day."
It was not his bloody city, and he was not going to help these Marcher idiots scrub the blood from their stones. The next day, Loghain slept late. Well… stayed in bed, anyway.
The children eventually made them get up, running around the attic gallery like squealing little mice. Loghain grimaced glumly at his armor, and knew that he must clean it before he did anything else.
"Valentine's turn to cook," Maude said sleepily into her pillows. "I hope he makes pancakes!"
"It'll probably be porridge."
The pancakes had elfberries in them. Life was good. Loghain and Maude picked through their loot, and began packing. Darrow and Kain were sent down to the docks to see if their ship was whole and ready. They returned with the news that it was. The shipmaster, during the fighting, had stood the Wild Wyvern out into the harbor, and thus avoided being overcome by a band of surviving Qunari. Another ship had fallen to them, and had disappeared into the twilight, bound for parts unknown. Loghain had no doubt whatever that they would be back someday.
Later in the morning, a message came from the Keep.
"Warden-Commander, you and your Wardens are requested to attend the Viscount this afternoon." The messenger bowed, "And that, of course, includes Her Grace. The Viscount was most especially emphatic about that. There will be an audience, followed by a service at the Chantry and a celebratory feast."
"Good," remarked Ambrose. "I won't have to cook."
A celebratory feast? Loghain sighed, and unpacked his best doublet. Maude was more cheerful. "I brought my tiara," she said, "Somehow I knew I'd need it."
"Not that Dumat-thing, I hope," Loghain asked, rather worried.
"No! As if I want brain tumors! No, my real tiara. I brought it. You never know when you're going to need serious jewelry."
And she wore his favorite: that red gown with the red velvet boots. Only a few months after bearing a child, and she was back in splendid shape, fitting into his favorite gown and vaulting over charging Arishoks. Loghain knew he was a lucky man.
They emerged from the mansion to find that quite a few of the dead bodies were gone. Kirkwall was too vertical for horses and wagons, so men with stretchers had been going back and forth all day, gathering the dead, bringing them to the Gallows to be identified, and consigning them to the pyres. A haze of smoke shrouded the city. The mood was somber, but everyone acknowledged that it could have been far worse.
And the people seemed cheerful about their new Viscount Hawke. Why not? He was young, handsome, and brave. He had fought for them and triumphed. He was personally popular, due to his services to many in the city, and to his notoriety as the hero of Varric's hard-boiled romances.
A guard of honor met them at the steps of the Keep. Once inside, Loghain noted that quite a few carpets had been removed. Personally, he thought it improved the place. It made it less…Orlesian.
The bodies of the Viscount and poor Saemus had been removed with the rest. Hawke, wearing his iron diadem and a very splendid black and gold doublet, rose from his throne to greet them. Loghain was pleased to see that he had not cast aside his old friends. They stood ranged beside him, on either side of the throne. The seneschal might turn up his nose at them, but Loghain suspected that the seneschal would be let go before the friends.
"Citizens of Kirkwall!" Hawke began. "Honored guests! My friends." He smiled, and there was a rustle of pleased expectation. "We have suffered much, but the city survives and is secure. Never again, please the Maker, will we face such a danger so ill-prepared. Dark as the hour was, there were those ready to give all to defend this city of Kirkwall. I was privileged to stand with them!"
Cheers: quite sincere cheers, too. Loghain noticed that the Comte de Launcet was alive and well and standing with his wife and daughter. Perhaps he had been cowering in his mansion. The nobles of Kirkwall and their hangers-on were putting on a brave show, garbed in silk and velvet and adorned with every jewel they possessed. And Hawke—Viscount Hawke— was doing very well, speaking eloquently and looking authoritative. Loghain knew the fellow had the gift of the gab. He was friendly now, but he would bear watching. At least he had grown up in Ferelden, and would probably be well-disposed toward the country of his youth.
Hawke said, putting the mildest and most innocuous spin on the event, "While Knight-Commander Meredith perished in the battle, we are pleased to recognize the promotion of Ser Cullen to Knight-Commander of the Circle of Kirkwall, and we look forward to working with him in a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect."
Cullen, standing next to the Grand Cleric (and looking a trifle dazed), bowed. Loghain would have loved to know what had happened last night, when Meredith's death was confirmed. Presumably they had been forced to let the second-in-command out of his confinement in order to take charge. It was to be hoped that he did not prove as great a loon as his predecessor, but Loghain would wait and see.
Hawke's speech continued: "With so many wounded and injured, we consulted with the Grand Cleric and the Knight Commander, and obtained the services of mages of the Circle to heal those in need. I wish now to recognize the courage of First Enchanter Orsino, who personally faced the Qunari alone, creating a diversion that enabled a successful assault on the Qunari leadership!"
Surprised but polite applause, and some hearty cheers from Bethany and Ambrose. The elven mage looked about him, astonished that he would be remembered. Uncertainly, he came forward, and bowed.
"First Enchanter Orsino," said Hawke, "we are obliged to you for your bravery and your loyalty to the city. We hope, with your cooperation and that of the Knight-Commander, to make the emergency clinics a permanent feature of Kirkwall life: mages and Templars working together for the betterment of the city and its people!"
More applause and some wondering murmurs. It was not, Loghain noticed, an unpopular idea. He should mention this to Anora. The Grand Cleric seemed perfectly at her ease. Cullen was not, but gave a strained smile. Orsino was cautiously delighted.
Next, Hawke called his friends forward, recognizing each by name, and giving them a roll of parchment which had some sort of signed recognition by him, and then hinting that other—more fungible—rewards would be forthcoming. He made a special point of indicating that he was conferring Kirkwall citizenship on Fenris, Merrill, and Isabela, "with all the privileges and protections appertaining thereto." Aveline and Varric, of course, were already citizens.
"And our close friend Prince Sebastian of Starkhaven…"
Sebastian, all wide blue eyes, smiled at the proud expression on the Grand Cleric's face, and stepped forward, to be assured of the Viscount's personal regard, the importance of Kirkwall's ancient ties to Starkhaven, and Kirkwall's support when Sebastian should pursue his "rights."
Loghain was pleased. Maybe the young idiot had had enough signs from the Maker in the course of the past two days that he would do his duty.
There was more, of course: "The entire city is beholden to the Dragonslayer of Ferelden, Loghain Mac Tir, and his heroic Wardens, without whose skill at arms the city of Kirkwall might well have fallen to the enemy…"
More cheers. Many cheers, and foolish grins, and cranings of necks to see. Loghain made his bow, shook the Viscount's hand, and the rest of the Wardens were all called up by name, and rewarded with gold or jewels.
"…including my sister Bethany Hawke. Bethany: I am proud to be your brother!"
She was given a beautiful sapphire necklace that Hawke must have found in the treasury of Kirkwall. There was much sympathetic applause, and much approval of Bethany's pretty face and gentle manners. A few onlookers whispered regrets that she was a mage and a Warden, and therefore not available on the Kirkwall marriage market. A family alliance with the Viscount would be highly desirable.
"And last, but in a place of special honor, I wish to call forth Her Grace Maude Cousland Mac Tir, Regent of Gwaren and Senior Warden of Ferelden…"
Maude had been watching everyone but her being honored, and perhaps suspected that something was being kept in reserve for her. With the grace of a hunting cat, she glided forward, all sleek red velvet and gleaming pearls, and dropped the Viscount a most beautiful curtsey.
Hawke said, "No one who did not witness it—and many here did—could believe that this noble and beautiful lady was the same fearsome warrior who defeated the Qunari Arishok in single combat. I was there, and saw the greatest feat of arms in my personal experience. With a single blow, Her Grace slew that mighty opponent, throwing the enemy into chaos. In recognition of this deed, I revive an ancient custom of the Free Marches, and name this lady Champion of Kirkwall!"
Very loud cheers indeed; and Loghain struggled to look pleased. He did not like the idea of any continuing ties to Kirkwall, City of Lunatics. Maude, of course, enjoyed the encomium, and her friends were delighted. Hawke presented to her some sort of grotesquely enormous medallion, set with a huge diamond and attached to a heavy gold chain, which if melted down would buy a year's provisions for the Wardens. Not that a sane man would suggest it. Hawke was smiling at her, kissing her hand; and then he whispered something in her ear, which caused her to nod and smile herself.
Then there was a procession to the Chantry, with throngs lining the way. Loghain glanced over to the place where they had disposed of the dead Templars, and saw that they had been carted away. The Grand Cleric—thank the Maker—made her sermon brief, and the music was very ethereal and very pretty, with Maude again being singled out for praise and attention. By the time that was over, the tables were arranged at the Keep, and the feast could begin. It was a very different affair from the one that had welcomed them to Kirkwall eleven days before.
They were leaving tomorrow, barring earthquake, flood, or fire from heaven, taking chests of loot with them. In the meantime, it was a very good meal.
Maude seemed glad to go home, too. "I miss Gareth so much, Loghain! My chain is very nice, but I need to hold Gareth as soon as I can. I hope Anders' potion works so I can nurse Gareth again. I hope Morrigan hasn't cursed the city of Highever. I wish I'd bought heaps more sugarplums. I'll leave some money with Varric and have some shipped."
"Why not just buy the ingredients and have them made in our kitchens?"
"Oh. Well. I suppose. But then we wouldn't get the pretty boxes!"
He snorted, and then asked, "What did Hawke say to you?"
She whispered, "He's sending a writ of citizenship and a bag of gold to Zevran, too. He understood why Zevran wanted to stay out of the public eye, but he still deserved thanks. And quite right, too. Oh, and food from this feast is being delivered to the mansion along with the writ, so Zevran and Wynne and the children will have a lovely dinner. Hawke can be very nice and generous when he's not being fierce and blood-thirsty, and I approve of that. It's too bad he's not a Bann of Ferelden, but that's all blood under the bridge."
They departed from Kirkwall the next morning, arrayed in their best armor, determined to leave the citizens sufficiently awestruck. No Templars appeared to bar their way. Cullen, of course, must be rather shorthanded, between the loss of Meredith and her companions and that of Ser Alrik and his murder squad. And since the Templars had to provide supervision for the various clinics—in the Keep barracks, in Hightown, in Lowtown, in Darktown, in the Alienage, and at the Docks—their available manpower was stretched too thin to further harass the Wardens.
Maude fretted over the children's bare feet, as they marched through the filthy streets. There was no help for it, though. Once they reached Highever, she would have them all measured for footwear by a reputable shoemaker.
They were hardy little Wardens, though; for even the smallest manfully did his best to keep pace without complaining. A mob of porters were hired to carry the Warden's luggage and chests of newly-won loot.
Wynne said little as they shook the dust of Kirkwall from their feet. Her sufferings had been great, and had changed her. She had been very pleased to hear of the changes in Kirkwall, and of the elevation of Adam Hawke—whom she thought a very nice young man— to Viscount. That did not mean she had the least desire to remain and see more. Instead, she spoke wistfully of His Majesty King Alistair and dear Queen Anora, and expressed her longing to see the little princess. Loghain hoped that Wynne had had enough gadding about to satisfy her for the rest of her life, and that she would be content to serve as Royal Mage henceforth.
It was essential to watch the children—most especially, to make certainly they did not throw themselves over the rail of the ship and drown. This became very much an issue when they reached the docks, and the children realized that Zevran did not intend to travel with them.
"Zevran!" the smallest boy sobbed.
"Zevran!" wailed the little girls.
"Don't le-e-e-eave us!"
The elf boy, Valandrion, began hyperventilating. Worse, tongues of flames were licking up from his hands. All they needed was a fire at sea…
Ambrose cast a sleep spell on the boy, and carried him onto the ship.
"I'll keep an eye on him. If I must, I can drain his mana, but that would be hard on him."
"Oh, dear," Wynne fussed. "Here, let's find a comfortable spot for him. Watch him carefully, Ambrose…"
Maude turned to the Antivan, with a look of gentle reproach. "Zevran, you can see how much the children need you. I know you want to settle things with the Crows, but fuck that! The only way you can do it is either to kill them all or be their leader. The first thing is probably impossible. Do you want the second? You'd have to do it for the rest of your life."
Loghain, very carefully, said nothing.
Zevran confessed, "I really, really do not want to be a Warden."
"You don't have to," Maude assured him. "But you can come back to Ferelden and follow other career paths. You can work for my brother. Nobody would be better at figuring out how to keep someone from being assassinated than a former assassin. At the very least, why don't you come to Ferelden and have a nice holiday with no one trying to kill you? Let the children get settled in. Then, if you still want to venture elsewhere, that's fine. Do you have any pressing appointments that would conflict with that?"
Zevran hesitated. Loghain could not blame him. The honey of Maude's words and the tear-stained faces of the children did their work.
With a laugh and a shrug, the elf leaped down onto the deck and was surrounded by squealing children. At least there would be one more nursemaid.
Their ten Fereldan repatriates were there too, humble and hopeful. Lirene had organized a lottery, and all of those chosen had managed to survive the Qunari rampage through the streets. Possibly it was because most of them had been living in Darktown, which was not affected by the Qunari at all. Counting more carefully, Loghain noticed that they were rather more than ten, if one counted babes or toddlers in arms. He decided to say nothing.
There was a shifting in the crowd, and it parted, leaving a path for Viscount Hawke and his guards. The Viscount's raffish friends were there, too. There were bows and curtseys and hand-shakings and back-slappings. Aveline was there, looking stern and official. Loghain wondered if Hawke would ever tell her the full story of the fate of Meredith Stannard. If he did, would she care?
Varric was as affable as ever, and said, "This is good for a new volume of the continuing chronicles, Princess. You and the Dragonslayer will loom large. Almost as large as in real life. Loghain's particularly good at looming."
"Thank you," Loghain replied dryly. "I've made a study of it."
Isabela pressed close to Maude.
"Did you get the book?"
"Hmmm…the book, the book…" Maude cocked her head, and smirked. "I battled the Arishok with you as the prize. Technically, that means you have to be my slave, forever and ever. But if I keep the Tome instead, then we're square."
"Oh, all right, but never take my stuff again!"
"I won't, if you never nearly get me killed again." Isabela swaggered off to wish Zevran good luck. Maude smiled in great satisfaction at Hawke. "I looked really good, didn't I, fighting the Arshok?"
"You did," said Hawke. "A pity you don't have a sister somewhere."
Maude agreed. "I've always thought so, too. Of course, we probably would have fought like bitch-wolves over a rabbit!"
The captain insisted that they would miss the tide if they did not depart immediately, and Loghain gladly gathered his people together. They cast off, moving out into the harbor, toward the great, ominous crack in the cliffs that would take them past the Twins. With any luck, they would never again see those ghastly colossi.
And so, he stood by Maude at the rail of the ship, happily watching Kirkwall shrinking away; unbending sufficiently to wave at the tiny figures of the new Viscount and the citizens of Kirkwall.
Idly, he asked his wife, "You never had the chance to loot the Circle Library. Do you regret it?"
"Yes," she sighed. "A little. But if Hawke has persuaded the Grand Cleric to let the mages have a modicum of respect and a real place in the city, I can't justify stealing their books. Besides, I should ransack the Ferelden Circle first: it's my patriotic duty to give them precedence. And I got at least one really rare book out of our little jaunt. We'll be studying the Tome of Koslun for years, trying to understand the Qunari."
"Trying to understand them, so we can kill them," Loghain muttered agreement.
She smiled and squeezed his hand, for the moment in perfect harmony. The sails billowed in the wind, revealing the glorious painted wyvern; the banners of Gwaren and the Grey Wardens fluttered bravely. Gulls screamed overhead, and cormorants soared in the blue sky. In two days, Loghain would again stand on Fereldan soil. All was well.
Thanks to my reviewers: Oleander's One, Reyvatiel Songstress, KnightOfHolyLight, Zute, Jyggilag, Sah'Rahaal, butterflygrrl, riverdaleswhiteflash, Judy, Kira Kyuu, JackOfBladesX, Tsu Doh Nimh, Anime-StarWars-fan-zach, Mike3207, Josie Lange, Sarah1281, Jenna53, Phygmalion, sizuka2, timunderwood9, Tikigod784, MsBarrows, Psyche Sinclair, Shakespira, mille libri, Tyanilth, and EpitomyofShyness.
I have plenty of material to continue this story, but I'm taking a break from it, in order to concentrate on Victory at Ostagar and my original fiction. Changing gears between my two fanfics each week was breaking my brain!