Author's Note: This story will contain a relationship between female Hawke and the Arishok, along with some involvement with Fenris. If the idea of such things bother you in any way, please consider this a friendly warning!
Disclaimer (applies to all chapters): I own nothing. It all belongs to Bioware / EA.
-The Erosions of Time-
"The day comes when the Qun will demand an accounting."
The Qunari had returned to Kirkwall.
Hawke watched their arrival from a vantage point high above the dusty, beggar-lined streets of the shipyard district. She stood on the roof of one of the many warehouses that littered the area in organized chaos, leaning with her elbows propped on an uneven ridge of mortared stones—a chest-high remnant of what had once upon been a wall. She had been there for hours, alerted to a disturbance on the seas by the sonorous and near-mournful wail of the shipyard watchman's horn when the sun had first crested the horizon to usher in the morning. The sound had carried effectively through most the city, as was its purpose; as a result, it seemed that almost the entire population of Kirkwall had prepared themselves for the worst and boarded themselves inside their houses or behind the formidable defenses provided by the innermost keep. Some of the braver, more adventurous citizens had ventured to the docks much as she had, drawn by an apprehensive curiosity and a morbid desire to watch the return of those who had once almost conquered their home. So it was that the population of the dockyard had increased considerably since dawn had broken; nearby rooftops were occupied by other observers, and the streets below contained more than one person hoping to catch a glimpse of the much-feared, much-speculated arrival.
The Qunari fleet was indeed impressive, easily warranting such fear and speculation. Hawke was unable to secure an accurate count from a distance, but she was certain that more than one hundred of the ferocious looking dreadnaughts were anchored just off the coast. Their sails, though not raised, were a collective blood-red color that stood out with fierce splendor in the bright midday sun. The very sight of them was, Hawke knew, effective in spreading even more unease and fright throughout the Kirkwallers who stood witness. The spectacle was a distinct promise of a threat that she was not entirely certain the city could withstand.
In direct response to said threat, the Templars and the city guard had come out in force. Patrols of five, guard and Templars intermingled, were doing their best to keep the bulk of the inquisitive onlookers away from the wharf proper. From her position Hawke was able to see the entirety of the quayage, was able to observe as another impressive company of soldiers—both of the holy order and not—fell into precise ranks along the length and breadth of the largest of docks. The early afternoon sun glinted off numerous sets of Templar armor polished to a masterful shine and Hawke had to lift a hand to shade her eyes as she leaned over to survey more closely. There, at the vanguard of a small group of city soldiers that occupied the largest pier, was the Captain of the Guard herself. Aveline stood as a statue might, tall and unmoving with her arms straight at her sides, fully armored with the long copper fall of her hair caught and bound in her traditional single braid. Her gaze, Hawke surmised, was fixed rigidly on the Qunari flagship that had just moored off the edge of the pier. Beside her stood Knight-Commander Cullen, his two-handed sword held in a loose and ready grip before him, the tapered point buried in the packed dirt of the street. It was apparent his stance was meant to serve as both a warning and an indication that the city was prepared this time for whatever it was the Qunari had returned for.
There was, Hawke mused then in the temporary lull as the whole of Kirkwall awaited on the appearance of the Qunari, a certain dynamic between the Knight-Commander and the Captain that had led to a powerful, potent partnership in the aftermath of Anders' attack and Meredith's demise. One would have anticipated—and indeed, most had—that in the wake of the mages' rebellion and the destruction of the Chantry, Kirkwall would have simply fallen apart, unable to maintain cohesion in light of the catastrophic series of events. It was not so. Cullen had assumed the mantle of Knight-Commander immediately after Meredith's destruction and had proven a competent leader, making quick work of the hostile apostates and abominations that had remained behind after the chaos. Aveline, with her characteristic stoic efficiency, had marshaled the city guard to join in the Templars' endeavors with remarkable aplomb. The two forces had since been working in unison to return Kirkwall to some semblance of what it had been and had surprised most everyone by doing a more than passable job.
But how, Hawke wondered as she caught sight of sudden activity from on board the Qunari flagship, will the two of them be able to handle this particular threat?
There was no fanfare as the Qunari began to disembark, no proud blaring of trumpets or extravagant parade of colorfully swathed slave women as she had witnessed many times before with the arrival of other foreign dignitaries. There was simply the Qunari, moving down the docking planks with the same purposeful strides she remembered from her dealings with them long ago. In creating them, the Maker must have meant to inspire awe and caution—"bronze-skinned giants" was the oft-used moniker of the Qunari and it was a very literal description. She took note of their military ranks as they made their way towards Aveline and Cullen; there were the infantry scouts, the Ashaad, only a few in number and followed by several of the Karashok. Behind those came two of the Saarebas. The sun caught the heavy, burnished chains that bound the Qunari mages, creating a painful glare that had Hawke squinting yet again, much as it had with the armor of the Templars. The corner of her mouth twisted as she thought on the irony of that comparison for a moment.
There could not be Saarebas without their Arvaarad—the mage-handlers walked directly behind their charges, carrying in their left hands the short staves with which they could bind and unbind the Saarebas. Next came the Karasaad, the elite warriors who walked bare-chested, their skin painted with the same fierce, linear, vivid crimson lines Hawke recalled so clearly from years ago. Once the last Karasaad had stepped foot onto the pier a strained hush fell over the entire district. There had already been an unearthly silence in the city since the Qunari fleet had been sighted with the rising of the sun, but the silence that fell now was unsettling in its absoluteness. Hawke then caught and held her breath, her eyes, like that of every other observer in the area, fixated on the last of the Qunari to disembark.
The Arishok had not changed with time. The moment he stepped out from under the shadow of the ship's rigging and collapsed sails, Hawke released her breath in a slow hiss of recognition. It was he, the one she had dealt with before, with the result of those dealings being nothing short of disastrous. The years had not lessened the forceful, imperious stature of the Arishok—his bearing was still one of brute strength, the impression still given of tremendous amounts of power contained securely within that imposing physical frame. His expression, could she have seen it from this distance, would have been as it had always been—impassive but for a flicker of disdain that would seem more a fleeting shadow than anything else as he swept his gaze over the humans that had gathered to greet him. It was his eyes that would give most pause, she knew, housing within them a sharp and formidable light of intelligence melded with the severe and undeniable authority that had been bred into his very soul.
Hawke had not in all her travels encountered a more intimidating figure than he.
As the Arishok neared Aveline and Cullen, as an errant breeze caught and carried his blunt, one word greeting to her ears—"Shanedan."—Hawke pushed herself away from the crumbled wall, straightening from the leaning position she'd been holding most the day with a wince as her stiffened muscles protested. That fragment of the Arishok's voice had brought unbidden a sudden torrent of memories to her, recollections she had no particular desire to dwell on. While having some concern for what would happen next between the Qunari and the city of Kirkwall, it would be an irrelevant detail in her life. Her time in the city would be brief, a short visit to recuperate, to restock before she set out yet again on the hunt that had almost completely consumed her life for the past seven years.
Echoing that thought came the inevitable, aggravating twinge of pain in her right hand. She lifted the offending extremity, flexing the three fingers that remained, seeing with her mind's eye the smallest of the two that were no longer there. The pain persisted, a souvenir from a battle she'd been unable to avoid and foolish not to expect. It had been over a year since that particularly violent encounter, and though the small stumps had healed completely, there were days when the sensation that she was still in possession of all her digits lingered, usually accompanied by the sharp, throbbing ache. It had been quite a while since last it had bothered her so, but she was not unsurprised that the pain had returned on this day. It seemed fitting.
Hawke let her gaze linger a moment longer on the figures of Aveline, Cullen and the Arishok as they stood grouped together. She felt a flash of empathy for her friend, having to deal with a such a situation, one that would almost certainly end in violence of one type or another. The time had long since passed, however, where Hawke would have rallied to Aveline's side, vehement in her desire to protect the city and all it housed. Her time living in Kirkwall was only memory now, though not as faded as she would have liked. She'd forsaken the mantle of the Champion and become instead a vagrant, a wanderer, a hunter whose quarry had very nearly taken her the length and breadth of all of Thedas. Many did not understand her choice. Many felt she'd abandoned the city she'd fought so hard to protect. It no longer shamed her to admit that they were not wrong in those assumptions.
She turned then, making her way carefully across the rough and pitted roof and entering the short, spiraled stairwell at the opposite end. Coming to the bottom, she paused before stepping out onto the street, tugging the thin, tightly woven dark scarf she wore around her neck up to cover her mouth and nose. It was a habit borne of vanity; the conflict in which she'd lost her fingers had not left her face unscathed and though she was quite past caring what others thought of her marred appearance, she did not want or appreciate the attention it tended to draw.
Hawke moved quickly through the district, weaving through the crowds gathered to watch the arrival of the Qunari, aware that as people caught sight of the staff strapped to her back that they stepped back to give her wide berth. Mages were not a common sight in Kirkwall since the clash between the Circle and the Templars years ago. Those magic-users that had not fled or turned abomination—and they were not many—had actually been welcomed into the ranks of the city's forces; a kind of makeshift Circle had been formed with the cooperation of both the remaining mages and the Templars, much to the astonishment of many. Cullen had had the insight to realize that not all mages were abomination-bound, a quality his predecessor had lacked. As such, almost every mage in the city was a member of the city's militia. It was therefore unusual to see one walking the streets without robes adorned with Kirkwall's insignia.
Hawke knew that word of a possible apostate mage would reach Cullen within the hour. She carried with her the serpent-headed staff she'd acquired from Orsino's mutated corpse; so familiar even now was the sight of that weapon—and indeed, the tale attached to it—that it would be known to most the city by the end of the day that Hawke had returned. Despite what they might say and what they might expect, however, she was no longer the Champion of Kirkwall and had not come to address this newest threat. She was simply a passer-by, a traveler with pressing business elsewhere.
After first embarking on her hunt, she had returned to her former home usually three or four times a year. She had been absent far longer this time, having not set foot in Kirkwall for almost two years. She had, upon making the decision so long ago that so many could not comprehend, bequeathed her estate to Aveline and her husband, Donnic. Aveline, as was typical, had declined the offer. Refusing to relocate to the mansion and unwilling to sell it, the Captain had instead opted to look after the house during Hawke's long absences. Hiring people to come in once a month to clean and repair whatever might need mending and paying them from the considerable sum of coin Hawke had left her, Aveline thus ensured that whenever her friend returned, she still had a place to call home.
It was to the estate that Hawke now ventured. It had been her intent that Aveline either move into the mansion or sell it and profit, but she would readily admit that this situation suited her needs quite well. She detoured to stop by the vendor stalls in Lowtown, hoping that the arrival of the Qunari had not frightened all the merchants inside. Fortune had smiled upon her; from one dour looking woman she purchased a wheel of cheese, a loaf of bread and some salted meat. The heavy clink of coins from the pouch sewn into the lining of her jerkin caused the merchant's expression to soften somewhat, and the woman persuaded Hawke to purchase two green apples for an additional silver. Her foodstuffs secure within a canvas sack, Hawke slung it gently over her shoulder and again began making her way through the near-empty streets, heading this time for Hightown.
Hawke did not think of herself as overly sentimental, but as always, stepping foot in the mansion forced upon her an unwelcome battery of memories and accompanying emotions. A mother horribly murdered, a brother lost to the Blight, a sister cut down in her prime—all this flooded through her with every step she took through the all-too-familiar rooms. Each noise she made carried hollowly, disconcertingly, the sounds seeming an accusation made by the house itself for her abandonment. Past the fireplace—Mother so often stood there, that frown I hated to see upon her face—and to the stairs she moved, glancing at the writing desk now covered with a thick and obscuring layer of dust—Bodahn always reminded me of letters I'd received, of visitors arrived. Almost hesitantly she laid her right hand upon the railing, feeling the smooth, polished wood of the balustrade beneath the shortened nubs that had once been fingers as she climbed slowly upwards.
At the top she paused, staring at the door that she had refused to open after the death of her mother. A minute later she continued on, walking past a row of windows and into the large chamber that had once been her bedroom. Her eyes trailed over the chest, the bookshelf, the large armoire in the corner, before finally and reluctantly centering on the bed, hating yet welcoming the things she would remember. A swift and cluttered onslaught of visions came to her then, of Fenris' body twining with hers beneath the sheets, of his voice and the way it caught on her name, of the look in his eyes when she'd ever-so-gently traced the lines of lyrium branded into his skin. She felt a sudden and unwanted welling of combined sorrow and anger within her then, and resolutely forced her mind ahead, to dwell on the present rather than the ceaselessly clamoring ghosts of the past.
She left the room then, made her way back downstairs to the study. There was always wood next to the fireplace—the people Aveline hired made certain the mansion was ready to be inhabited at any time by its wayward owner—and so Hawke went about making a fire. Once the blaze was lively and roaring and the lengthened shadows cast by the sun through the windows revealed it to be nearing sunset, she sat down cross-legged on the floor, opened her sack of food, and began to eat. As she chewed on a hunk of bread laden with cheese—both of which were surprisingly palatable—she thought about what her next actions would be. She would meet with Aveline, of course—her friend often had news about the activities and locations of Hawke's quarry and other relevant information, as well. She would not tarry long in the city—two days at the most. She knew Aveline would ask for her assistance in dealing with the Qunari and knew what her reply must be. The fate of Kirkwall was no longer her concern; though Aveline could not completely understand Hawke's path in life, she had accepted it as much as she could.
She opted to retire early. Days spent traversing the wilderness during her search did not often lead her to opportunities for a full night of sleep. That, and the constant strain of having to rein in unwelcome recollections that been brought to life once more by the empty and forlorn rooms of the mansion had wearied her. Upstairs once again, she found within the bottom drawers of the armoire the blankets she'd had in her former life. She grabbed two—the early spring nights tended to be somewhat cool—and then laid herself out upon the bed after disrobing. Again, she struggled with memories of Fenris and their tryst in this very bed those several years ago; to combat them she instead thought about her next destination, about the precautions she must take, about the supplies she must acquire before leaving. Briefly, before sleep finally claimed her, she thought of the Qunari and Kirkwall, and of how time's irrevocable erosions had altered her so much that they hardly mattered to her at all.
The summons came, as she expected it to, in mid-morning. She'd risen with the sun, retrieved from the well in the basement some water, heated it over the fire and bathed before clothing herself in the outdated finery she found in the armoire, another remnant from her past. Slipping out of the mansion before most the city had risen, she made her way to the Hightown market, purchasing with deliberation the things which she needed to replenish her meager traveling stores. No more than an hour later she had returned to the mansion, both hands full of satchels of goods. She had arrived at the same time as a messenger from the city guard, a young man who looked nervous to be addressing none other than the Hawke. The Captain, he stuttered, requested her presence an hour past noon in the Guard's Keep—formerly the residence of the now-deceased Viscount. With a smile at his blushing awkwardness, Hawke thanked him and bade him reply to Aveline that she would of course be in attendance. Her smile faded somewhat as his widened eyes flicked from her right hand to the scarring on her face, but she still bid him a pleasant farewell before stepping inside the mansion and closing the door.
She ate a small repast from the leftover cheese and salted meat before setting about preparing for her meeting. Opting to forgo her finery, she quickly set to work cleaning the various pieces of her armor—the Champion's armor, gifted to her all those years ago when she'd saved the city by choosing to let the Arishok take Isabela back to Par Vollen along with the recovered Tome of Koslun. There had been a time when the guilt she'd felt for making that choice had been nearly debilitating, but in time that emotion and concern—like so many others—had faded. What was done was done, the past was the past. She lived now only for the present.
She dressed with practiced ease, buckling on the armor that was one of the only things she'd chosen to keep from her life before. Once fully dressed she stood before the full-length mirror with the silver and bronze gilded frame that hung on the wall and ran a critical eye over the image she presented. She had learned from painful experience that long hair provided enemies a handhold and an advantage, and so she opted to keep her dark strands fairly short, hanging just past her ears with a thick shock of it sweeping over her forehead. Her eyes, a pale gray that had a tendency to darken with the weight of her moods, were currently narrowed in her inspection. Her right cheek was marred by a long, jagged white scar which started near the corner of her eye and ran the length of her face to end in a bisection of her lower lip. She had long since gotten used to it and only occasionally was reminded of it, usually when smiling as she could feel the odd pulling sensation caused by the expression. She wasn't horribly disfigured—indeed, some men had even claimed it added to her comeliness in hopes of procuring a dalliance from her. Vanity had never really been her vice but it was sometimes hard to ignore the attention her visible scars garnered, and even harder to shrug off the concern some people offered. Aveline, she knew, would be horrified, but would not dwell on the injuries—or the cause of them—as many others would.
Hawke completed her self-inspection by making sure her gear was all in order. Living the way she had for so many years, her body had grown lean and rangy. She wasn't short, by any means, even in height with Aveline. Her armor had been custom fit for a heavier, fleshier Hawke, but over the years she'd made the needed adjustments and it looked as right on her now as it ever had. The odd juxtaposition of metal and leather and the black fur of the cowl was something she had always loved, and in terms of functionality, the armor allowed her a freedom of movement that robes never had. Finally satisfied that she looked presentable, she turned, grabbed the serpent's head staff from where it lay on the foot of the bed, and slung it over her back. Without further delay, she made her way down the stairs and out of the mansion, heading northwards to the Keep.
It was Donnic that greeted her as she entered the building she found herself unable to think of as anything other than the Viscount's Keep. He approached her rapidly from beyond the large stone pillars in the main entrance, calling out her name as he did so.
"Donnic," she said warmly in return, responding to his welcoming hand clasp as inconspicuously as she could with her left hand. Despite his apparent enthusiasm at seeing her here, it was obvious as he beckoned her to walk with him that he was distracted. A smile creased his face, but it was clearly a forced expression. As they began to move to the staircase that led to the second floor of the keep, she spoke.
"You look well, Donnic," she told him while they climbed the stairs, their footsteps upon the polished stone echoing loudly throughout the large confines of the entrance.
"As do you, Serah," he replied. A brief, wry smile flitted across her face; his remark was a plain indication of how deeply distracted he truly was. Just as she opened her mouth to question him about his unease, they crested the top of the stairs and he suddenly slowed in his pace. Hawke, glancing up, found herself coming to a startled halt as well.
On either side of a large wooden door—their destination, she instinctively knew—stood one of the Qunari Karasaad, the elite guard of the Arishok.
With a distinct sinking sensation, Hawke realized that Aveline had once again managed to draw her into a clever political snare. Beyond that door, she knew, she would find herself facing a gathering of leaders and creeds so contrasting that there was no real hope whatsoever of finding a shared, common, peaceful ground. The Qunari had come to Kirkwall to conquer, to convert the whole of Kirkwall—regardless of race—to the Qun. No real good could come of this meeting—it was mere pretense, an attempt by the leaders of the city to forestall the inevitable. Violence was imminent, but Hawke knew that Aveline needed to explore every option available—the city did not need another devastating battle because it not yet fully healed from the last that had been waged within its walls. Hence this meeting between the leaders of the humans and the Qunari and hence Aveline's plan to draw an unwilling Hawke—former savior and therefore favored political pawn—in to attend the proceedings that had been from their conception doomed.
Donnic turned to look at her with a quick glance that was both unseeing and questioning, his eyes flicking immediately back to the motionless Karasaad at the door.
"They're waiting for you," he said and Hawke nodded, mouth compressing into a thin line as she silently cursed Aveline with every new profanity she'd learned over the past seven years while simultaneously pondering the merit of turning around and heading right back the way she'd came. It was something she could not do, however. Aveline had remained a truer friend to her than any other over the years and the strength of that bond between them meant she must try to assist in any way she could; she had retained some honor since her days as Kirkwall's Champion, though what remained was undeniably skewed. Uncomfortably aware of the silent scrutiny of the Karasaad sentries, Hawke approached the door. She knocked once and when the reply—Aveline's voice—came from within she took a deep breath, placed her hand flat on the thick wood, and pushed.
The interior was well lit, a wall of windows in the south window allowing the bright noon-day sun entry into the confines of the room. There was no table, only a scattering of chairs and benches; she recognized this to be the waiting chamber of the former Viscount's office. Occupying one chair was Knight-Commander Cullen. He was clad in full Templar regalia, leaning forward with his elbows propped on his knees and hands clasped together before his face. Standing beside him, one hand resting on the pommel of the sword strapped to her hip, was Aveline. There were two other humans present, both Templars, standing near the door from which she'd entered, faces hidden by their helms—they were a security measure, Hawke realized as she ran her eyes over them. And standing near the windows, completely silhouetted by the bright light from outdoors, was a towering and redoubtable figure, easily dwarfing both Cullen and Aveline. The shadow he cast was one of forbidding, a massive black specter whose wide, curving crown of horns spilled to an end at her feet.
Hawke felt the combined weight of three sets of eyes settling upon her at once. Aveline strode towards her immediately, a welcoming if somewhat tense expression on her face. That expression faltered as she drew close enough to view her friend in greater detail.
"Maker's Breath, Hawke … what happened to you?"
Aveline's eyes had swiftly traced the scar on Hawke's face and then unerringly focused on her right hand, which was hanging loosely at her side. Instantly Hawke felt the phantom ache, and so she lifted her hand, looked down upon it and found that, as always, her mind insisted on seeing the ghostly image of the two smaller fingers that were no longer there.
"These were gifts from Anders," she said with a smile that held no mirth, feeling the conflicting pull of the scar on her lip as she did so. She gestured with the same hand to the mark on her face. "The result of a trap he laid for me."
Aveline's expression had grown grave as she considered this. "He has turned to blood magic, then?"
Hawke nodded. "Among other, more unpleasant things." Not wanting an awkward silence to fall—pity and sympathy were something she neither needed or wanted—she stepped further into the room and inclined her head to the man seated in the chair. "Knight-Commander."
He returned her greeting with a solemn tip of his head. And then reluctantly, feeling an unfamiliar, weighty tow of dread, Hawke turned and respectfully addressed the looming, solid tower of shadow that stood unmoving before the window.
"Serah Hawke." he replied in the same deep, arresting voice she remembered. His features were still lost to silhouette—he'd made no effort to move since her arrival—but she knew they would be as devoid of expression as his voice was.
"Hawke was good enough to join us for this counsel, though she no longer calls Kirkwall her home," Aveline said, moving past her friend to take her former position standing at Cullen's side. "Because of her accomplishments during her time as the Champion, those of us who have remained behind still value her thoughts and opinions on matters such as this."
Hawke slanted her former comrade an unfriendly look; despite the severity of the situation, she could have sworn she saw a twinkle of mirth in Aveline's eyes. "You may find I lack insight, I'm afraid. I've long been absent from this land and this city. I am a traveler now almost by trade."
"And yet you always return," Aveline replied, and Hawke was certain then that the Captain was enjoying their repartee in spite of the issue at hand, and enjoying even moreso seeing Hawke in a rare unsettled state.
Hawke sighed inwardly. She was here, and though she was certain there was nothing she could say or do to alleviate the racial and religious strains that were fairly resonating throughout the room, she was resigned to hearing all that was to be said. Leaning her staff upon the wall near the door, she moved to the chair next to Cullen and sank down in it, placing both hands flat upon the scrolled armrests, aware as she did so of the attention her missing fingers were drawing. "I apologize for any interruption my arrival caused. Please, do continue."
"We were explaining to the Arishok our willingness to grant his priests, the Ben-Hasserath—" Cullen stumbled over the unfamiliar word, "audience with any of our citizens who wish to learn more about the Qun."
Hawke watched the Arishok as the Knight-Commander spoke; from where she sat now, the shadows of the room had shifted and his features were now visible. The Qunari leader's face was as though carved from stone, so unreadable it was. She knew Cullen's proposal had not come from the Arishok—it had been a device planned by leaders of the city, an attempt to placate a beast of which there could be no calming. This prompted her to speak, though she'd resolved earlier to remain as silent as she could on this issue she so dearly wished to avoid being tangled in.
"The Ben-Hasserath are not mere priests, Knight-Commander." As she spoke, the eyes of the Arishok slid sideways to focus on her. The unwavering directness of that gaze was almost enough to cause her forget what she was about to say next. "They are also warriors, and it is their sole duty to enforce the doctrines of the Qun."
A silence fell then, rife with the tensions shared by the humans in the room as the implications of her statement were absorbed. Aveline was the one to break the stillness. "There will be those who wish to convert," she said to the Arishok, her tone one of supplication. "There was evidence enough of that the last time you were here."
"There is no need to resort to violence," Cullen added. "And if it must come to that, know that Kirkwall is not the same city it once was, Arishok. We are prepared for war."
Hawke knew this much to be true. The Qunari had promised, before departing with the restored Tome of Koslun and the thief who had taken it from them, to return to Kirkwall. Some had dismissed this as an idle threat, but both Aveline and Hawke had, in those turbulent, near-lawless days that had followed the death of Meredith and the uprising of the mages, managed to convey to Cullen their belief in the sincerity behind the Qunari promise. Steps had been taken in improving the defenses of the city against an attack from the sea, and much of the military might of Kirkwall had engaged in conflict against the Qunari those several years ago. Hawke knew that once the Qunari fleet had been spotted the previous morning, messengers would have been dispatched to the other strongholds of the Free Marches, namely Starkhaven, Tantervale, Ostwick and and Markham. It was a good bet that armored companies from both were already marching their way to Kirkwall. Still, this was not a small company of stranded, ship-wrecked Qunari as it had been before—this was an army marshaled and come with force.
The Arishok had remained silent throughout their conversation but for his acknowledgment of Hawke. When next he spoke, it was to her he directed his words.
"And you, Hawke … would you defend this city to me now as you did once before?"
She hesitated only a fraction of a heartbeat before replying. "The Knight-Commander is correct. Kirkwall is not the same as you remember it. Things have improved."
In the long pause that followed, Hawke found she could not pry her eyes from his, so piercing they were in their intensity. After a span of several seconds, he asked, "So much so that you have chosen to leave?"
She had managed to school her face into an expressionless mask that she hoped was as effective as his own. This was not a discussion she wished to be a part of, nor were these words she wished to be relaying with only a semblance of sincerity. Carefully, she said, "My decision to leave Kirkwall was not rendered from the shortcomings of the city, Arishok."
He said nothing, and so she went on, gesturing in the direction of Cullen and Aveline, "There is no point in dancing around this issue any longer. You've come to prosthelytize. You've come in greater numbers than before and you've come this time with the intent to convert by force. But you will be met in kind, as the Knight-Commander has said. This time, Kirkwall is not without allies. It will be a battle with great losses for both sides." Here she paused, hands tightening on the arms of the chair before asking her next question, a question that would be an echo of one she'd asked of him years before. "Surely there must be another way than to slaughter each other over this?"
He said only, as she'd known he would, "It is the demand of the Qun."
She stood then, casting an apologetic glance at Aveline. The Hawke of old may have been able to negotiate a truce, may have even been able to execute some kind of complex political maneuvering that led to an outcome that appealed to both sides. But she was not that Hawke, not any longer, and felt in that moment only an overwhelming urge to be out of that stifling room, out of that city, back out into the open expanses of the land she had grown to know so well over countless months as she had mapped her days into the all-encompassing pursuit of her quarry.
"I'm sorry," she said to Cullen and to Aveline, knowing only the former would understand her need to depart. A flush had risen in her cheeks—she could feel their heat—and she found herself feeling completely flustered and helpless in the face of such a grave circumstance, something she was not used to experiencing. Years of being away from civilization and away from any type of government or politics had made her soft, it seemed. "I can stay no longer. I have business I must attend to before I go."
Aware that this would seem like a retreat to the others and knowing with some shame that it was in fact so, Hawke gave both the Arishok and Cullen a nod as she stepped away. Looking then to Aveline, she tried to convey in her gaze her remorse for having likely made a bad situation worse and was somewhat heartened when the Captain gave her a small, sad and understanding smile—Aveline had known all along this proceeding would be hopeless, but had decided to try anyway. Relieved at the dismissal, Hawke turned, gripped her staff, and had just opened the door when Aveline spoke again behind her.
"Hawke, the white wolf has been spotted within the city. I thought you'd want to know."
Though she was able to keep a startled noise from escaping her mouth, Hawke could not help but come to an astonished halt, half-turning to look at Aveline to make certain she'd heard correctly. Reading the expression on her face, Aveline nodded grimly. "Two days ago I first got word."
Hawke's voice was soft, "And?"
"And the wolf has yet to leave."
It was yet another reason to hasten her departure and one of distressing urgency, at that. "Thank you, Aveline."
"Watch your back." Was all her friend said by way of farewell.
She stepped out of the room then and closed the door firmly behind her. Ignoring the Karasaad who still stood guard outside, Hawke made her way quickly down the stairs, her strides swift as they carried her out of the keep. All thoughts of the Qunari and Kirkwall had fled from her mind, chased away completely by the mention of the white wolf.