The Escape From Kirkwall
Kirkwall was gone. That was the main thought propelling Sara Hawke on, as she followed her companions through the brush. Kirkwall was gone, and there was no turning back, no running back to the estate and burying herself in sleep. Cullen had given them the mercy of a head start, but they couldn't expect him to wait around forever...
Right now, she was rather grateful of her choice of apparel. Much as she had hated the Champion's armour when she was first given it, it was rather useful now – as she clattered through the undergrowth, she doubted mage robes would have afforded her as much protection against thorn-pricks and nettle-stings as the jagged steel boots she now wore, or the steel gauntlet over her right arm. Her left arm, however, was ragged and torn from branches and thorns – she had given up healing it a while ago, because every time she did, a new wound undid her work. Her stave, the Chanter's staff she had obtained so long ago, was also proving quite useful – the oak haft was good for flattening the brush, and the winged steel blade that formed its head cut through the thicker, pricklier vines with relative ease.
The thick vegetation almost made her miss the Wounded Coast – it was barren and forbidding, but at least there weren't bloody thorns sticking out of her arm. They had torn across the coast in about half an hour, and were now several miles west of Kirkwall, plunging into the Planasene Forest. She wasn't even that sure where they were going. Presumably they would have to change directions before hitting the Nevarran border, and Cumberland – if word of Kirkwall's fall hadn't reached the city yet, it soon would...
Hawke glanced around at her companions as she settled into her stride, running almost on automatic. At the very front was Carver, cleaving his way through the undergrowth with his greatsword in hand, Warden armour glinting in the sparse sunlight that filtered through the canopy. Isabela was close at his heels, ducking nimbly through the forest, and keeping one eye on the sea, as instructed. Aveline and Merrill followed behind – the former was batting away stinging thorns with her shield, and the latter was darting untouched through the vegetation, as if elvhen magic was pushing it aside. Behind them was Hawke herself, then Anders a couple of feet behind, grim-faced and focused, and finally, bringing up the rear, Varric, who was huffing determinedly, but struggling to keep up on dwarven legs.
Only two of her friends were absent – Sebastian, who had stormed out of Kirkwall with the rather foreboding promise of vengeance, and poor Fenris... Despite her protestations and her attempts to turn him, the elf simply couldn't reconcile his begrudging loyalty to Hawke with his hatred of magic. He had confronted them in the Gallows, with a squad of templars, and had forced them into a fight. The only mercy for Hawke was that she hadn't been the one to strike him down – she wasn't sure she would have been able to, and a small part of her mind was intensely grateful that the odious task had fallen to Carver instead.
"Up ahead!" Isabela called, over the noise of rustling plants and snapping twigs, interrupting the mage's thoughts. "I see sails!"
Sure enough, as Hawke skidded to a stop beside the pirate, a trio of cream-white sails hove into view beyond the trees. The forest floor tailed off into a forbidding cliff, and before them lay a smooth bay, carved into the side of the forest by nature alone. The sweeping inward curve of the cliffs tapered down in the middle, with a carved path, hewn out of the rock, leading down to a small, golden-grained bank of sand in the innermost crook of the bay. The beach bore what appeared to be a small mooring – a walkway forged of rotting planks jutted out into the Waking Sea, battered persistently by the tide. A majestic galleon was anchored out in the sea, while further out its escort, a sleek caravel, was circling and patrolling – Hawke supposed they watching for raiders, while the galleon was anchored and vulnerable.
More importantly, a couple of rowboats, evidently dropped from the galleon, had been beached on the... well, beach, and there were templars ashore. There were only three, however, stood on the wave-battered jetty, and three men wouldn't need two rowboats, so presumably there more templars venturing through the forest... that thought sent a horrible jolt through her stomach, as her over-active imagination conjured up scenes of templars approaching them through the undergrowth. She actually had to check over shoulder, just to be sure...
"You got a plan, Rivaini?" Varric muttered, moving to Isabela's side. He was still puffing slightly from the run, but, business-like as ever when it mattered, he slipped Bianca from his back and joined the others in peering over the bay.
"Half of one," Isabela smirked, biting her lip. "Hawke? Do you remember Castillon?"
"Okay..." Isabela thought in hindsight, less than ten minutes later, "this isn't one of my better plans..."
For a start, the plan - almost identical to the one they had used to reach Castillon a few weeks prior - involved Aveline taking her weapons, binding her wrists, and holding her at sword point as the two of them marched down onto the beach. Furthermore, those templars looked a lot bigger close up... They were gathering on the jetty, staring suspiciously at the two women as they approached.
"Hold, stranger!" one of them yelled, finally. "Who are you?"
"Guardsman Hendyr," Aveline called back, "Kirkwall City Guard."
Wow... Little Miss Goody Two-Shoes could actually lie. Isabela was stunned. Then, she remembered that 'Hendyr' was just Donnic's surname, and Mrs Two-Shoes couldn't lie at all.
"What's your purpose here?" the templar continued. His shoulders relaxed slightly – good, he had fallen for the initial deceit...
"I was pursuing a pirate," the former guardswoman lied – properly lying, this time, "and the bitch" – Isabela scowled – "led me all the way through the forest. I was looking for shelter for tonight, before I return to Kirkwall..."
"Kirkwall?" a second templar piped up, before the first could reply. He sound younger, which either made him more naïve, or more tenacious... or both. "You mean you haven't heard?"
"Heard what?" Aveline murmured, with convincing surprise in her voice. Okay, maybe she wasn't such a bad liar...
The three templars on the pier looked at each other with a mixture of worry and bitterness, and Aveline was watching them with her usual hawk-eyed stare, but Isabela's gaze rested far behind them – out of the templars' sight, on a rocky outcrop at the edge of the bay, a Warden and three mages slipped gracefully into the water, disappearing beneath the azure-blue surface.
"Kirkwall has... fallen," the eldest templar muttered, finally, choosing his words carefully. "The Circle of Magi rose up and destroyed the Chantry."
Liar, Isabela's brain hissed. It was tempered by the rather guilty mental admission that the man who had actually destroyed the Chantry was currently travelling with them...
"Maker..." the guardswoman at her side whispered, twisting her face into an amateur mask of shock, adding the rather dumb question, "Is everyone alright?"
"No..." the templar replied, bluntly. "The Knight-Commander is dead, as are the Grand Cleric and the First Enchanter. The Circle was annulled for their treason."
Again, the pirate's brain was tearing into his words. You didn't Annul them, Hawke killed Orsino for you...
"Maker..." Aveline repeated, letting her sword and shield drop limply to her side.
Just as Isabela was beginning to admire her rival's acting, the third of the templars stepped up. He had been lounging a little way back from his fellows, and had been silent thus far, but now he spoke, and there was an unpleasant, suspicious tinge to his voice that set the pirate's pulse racing.
"What did you say your name was, miss?" he inquired.
"See, there's one problem with that. You don't look much like Donnic Hendyr..."
"I'm his sister," Aveline muttered, with remarkably quick thinking. It didn't seem to convince the templar, however...
"I don't see the resemblance," he growled. Rather suddenly, he drew his sword, and levelled it at Aveline's chest. "Take off your gauntlet."
The guardswoman reached for her right gauntlet, almost petulantly, because everyone on the jetty knew what the templar meant, and sure enough:
"The other one."
Aveline shared a reluctant glance with Isabela, sighed resignedly, and tugged off her left gauntlet. The bloody wedding ring glinted in the afternoon sun, and the templar's body language hardened, his shoulders stiffening. Behind the visor, Isabela was sure he was smirking, and his two fellows were letting their hands stray towards their weapons.
"That would make you... Aveline Hendyr, no?" the templar snarled. "Or is it still Aveline Vallen?"
Aveline Vallen and/or Hendyr didn't reply – in a single fluid motion, she brought her weapons up, and the templar was stunned to find his sword catapulted into the sea by a swing of hers. A moment later, she had slammed her shield into his chest, knocking him head-first into the water with a satisfying scream. Aveline just had time to wheel around and toss one of Isabela's daggers back to her before the templars fell upon her, swords drawn.
Now, Isabela would begrudgingly admit Aveline was tough – she was proving that by the moment, as she fended off the two templars. Furthermore, she had to admit the guard captain was smart. That said, there were certain things Aveline simply didn't think of – like how Isabela was meant to catch a dagger with her hands bound behind her back. The blade clattered uselessly to the floor, and one of the templars fighting Aveline broke off to the side, lunging at Isabela. His sword was raised high, ready to sweep down in a deadly arc –
And before it could, his calf crumpled, spraying a stream of blood across the wood at their feet. He dropped onto his knees with a grunt of pain, and Isabela didn't need to look up to know where the crossbow bolt, now embedded in his leg, had come from. At any rate, even if she had looked up to their former vantage point on the cliffs, Varric had made himself quite invisible in the undergrowth. The pirate took her chance, screaming as she swung a kick at the templar's head – her boot connected with a sickening crunch, and he slid off into the water like his fellow. A moment later, the last templar's sword rang off Aveline's shield, and the guard captain dispatched him with a single blow to the neck.
Wordlessly, and with an air of urgency, Aveline strode back over to Isabela, sliced the length of cord around her wrists – the pirate scowled and stretched her fingers, not really believing it had been necessary in the first place – and handed her back her second dagger. She stooped down to pick up the first too, and had just finished weighting the two blades, one in each hand, when the first shouts began to ring out through the bay.
"Raise anchor!" someone bellowed, and the pirate's senses narrowed the voice down to the galleon's quarter deck. She smiled smugly, at the prospect of what was about to happen...
That smugness faltered as an arrow thudded into the rotten wood of the jetty, at her feet. A second followed, skimming over their heads to land on the beach beyond, and Isabela could clearly see a trio of templars, lined up along the side of the galleon and bracing bows for another volley. Good though she was, she couldn't do much about an arrow to the gut, so she lunged behind Aveline – the guardswoman was kneeling down, covering both of them with her sturdy shield, as arrows began to bounce off it. Even now, the smug grin on Isabela's face was refusing to abate, because, as the galleon's anchors were wheeled back up to the deck, she could see four rather wet forms clinging to the chains, being dragged out of the water by the templars' own efforts.
Even from this distance, she could see the swiftness with which events proceeded. The anchors rose sleekly out of the sea, the chains clanked back into their sockets, and the first of the forms clinging on launched himself over the side of the ship, much to the dismay of the templars – it was Carver, and it took him mere moments to bring down two templars, hurling a third over the guardrail and into the deep sea below. Anders joined him a moment later, and the deck came alive with fire as the mage did his furious work. Indeed, by the time Merrill and Hawke scrambled aboard, the templars on the deck were all dead or dying. Nonetheless, the four of them were still moving with urgency, almost like clockwork, to fulfil the plan Isabela had outlined less than an hour before. Even as Anders scrambled to the wheel, templars were emerging from beneath the deck – Carver kicked the first one back down the stairs, swung the doors shut in front of them, and slid his sword between the handles, barring them.
The galleon was already swinging through the water towards them, and with the archers gone, Aveline lowered her shield, running to the end of the jetty to meet the ship. Isabela was slightly more cautious as she followed – she was still rather aware of the caravel, which had now shifted course, cutting through the waters to intercept the galleon.
There was no time to worry about that, though – the galleon streamed towards the end of the jetty, swinging around to avoid crashing ashore, even as Carver hurled a pair of ropes over the side. The bull-like young man was gripping one in each hand, and amazingly, managed to hold both Isabela and Aveline's weights as they jumped up and began to climb. Aveline had hurled her shield and sword up onto the ship ahead of her, and even then, her ascent was rather clumsy, armoured and heavy-footed as she was. Isabela, by contrast, was light and nimble, and had shimmied up onto the deck before the guardswoman was half way up the galleon's side. With the pirate aboard, Carver grabbed Aveline's rope in both hands, and yanked it upwards, dragging her over the guardrail and aboard.
That, unfortunately, was where Isabela's plan ran out. While explaining it, she had reached the stage of boarding the galleon before uttering the fateful words, 'We can improvise'. As she peered around, the little caravel was growing closer by the second, and Hawke was pacing frustratedly towards her over the deck. The mage's knuckles were white from the tense grip on her staff...
"Isabela," she called, "what in the Maker's name do we do now? Because Varric's still on the cliffs, that ship isn't slowing down any time soon, and our hold is full of templars!"
"I... damn it, one problem at a time!" the pirate murmured, setting her eyes on the fast-approaching caravel. A flaming arrow whizzed past her head as she did, fired by an archer on the caravel's foredeck. They had to take the damn ship down... Finally, she made up her mind, and instructed, "Everyone to the guardrail, get ready to face boarders!"
"That's it?" Hawke cried, dismayed. It was certainly novel to see the almighty Champion panicking like this...
"That's it," Isabela growled, pushing her friend towards the side of the ship. "Just follow my lead. Trust me, Hawke..."
The other woman nodded, and the group as a whole lined themselves up along the guardrail, even Anders, who had abandoned the wheel, locking it on a straight course out to sea. The few moments they had delayed had been enough for the templars to reach them – the caravel swivelled sideways at a spin of the wheel, clattering against the side of the commandeered galleon even as the templars began to ready their grappling hooks.
"Hold..." Isabela persisted, as the first hooks sailed into the air. One of them clattered against the rail beside Carver and bounced away, but the rest held fast, and the templars were beginning to swing up, grabbing the ropes to haul themselves upwards. It couldn't have been an easy task – the galleon was a good deal taller than the caravel, and the gradient made it much harder for the heavily-armoured knights to clamber up. Luckily for Isabela and her companions, it worked vice versa, and when the templars were half way up, she yelled aloud, "Now! Follow me!"
Without looking back, she vaulted over the rail, grabbing the nearest of the ropes with her right hand and sliding along it. It burned slightly, but her seasoned hands were used to rope burn. She could only hope the others were smart enough to use staves or gauntlets to slide along, instead of tearing bare palms apart...
She was soon distracted from that line of thought by the sight of a templar, suspended below the rope ahead of her, looming ever-more quickly into view. Acting on instinct, she raised both boots and kicked him hard in the gut – the templar yowled, his grip faltered, and he dropped feet-first into the sea. Another was just about to grab hold of the rope, at its base on the caravel, but he hesitated, and in that moment of hesitation, Isabela reached him, booting him away as she did.
There were five templars still on the ship as she landed cat-like on the deck – she had just sent one sprawling to the floor, but there were another two advancing, swords in hand, and two archers on the far side, pulling back their bowstrings. She dove aside as a pair of arrows shot through the space she had formerly occupied, whirled on her heel, and had her daggers drawn in the briefest of moments. One of the templars rushed in headlong, and she dropped to the deck, ducking under his sword-swing and tripping him – he plunged over the side with a yell, and was lost.
The others were rushing to challenge her, but help was on its way. The first to catch on to the scheme, Hawke clattered onto the deck at Isabela's side, and in an instant, she had reduced the two archers to lightning-blasted heaps on the floor with a surge of magic. And then there were two...
Aveline, Anders and Merrill were all sliding down the grappling lines, with Carver waiting on the galleon to see them down, but Isabela and Hawke were left side-by-side for now, to take down the two approaching templars. Hawke's magic had taken the archers by surprise, but the two swordsmen creeping forward wouldn't be so lax, which to Isabela's mind made another magical assault useless. Sure enough, the mage wasn't bothering – she was gripping her staff lengthways, readying it like a polearm.
To Isabela's surprise, Hawke was actually rather graceful in melee combat. One of the templars lunged forward, making a decapitating swing with his longsword, but the mage ducked it, trapped his sword in the fork of her staff's blade, then twisted around, turning the staff as she did and snapping his wrist with a sickening crunch. Moments later, she had smacked him around the head with the wooden tail of the staff, knocking him into the sea which was now so full of hapless templars...
The second dove forwards, aiming to catch Hawke off-balance, but the pirate lunged towards him almost without thinking about it – she grabbed him half-way to the mage's back, and rolled to the floor, spinning him on top of her before launching a hefty knee to his midriff. With the templar winded, she threw him back onto his feet, flipped herself upright, and slashed his unguarded throat with the tip of her dagger. His body hit the deck just as Anders' feet did, swiftly followed by Merrill and Aveline, and then by the rather less graceful Carver, who, after recovering his sword, slid down and crunched to the floor with all the subtlety of a scolded bear. It took Isabela a few moments to realise the idiot had tried gripping the rope like she did, and his hands were red-raw with rope burn. Hawke was already moving across, readying a healing spell, as the pirate's mind flitted back to business.
She sprang nimbly up onto the aft deck, taking the wheel and swinging them away from the galleon, just as Aveline, unbidden and rather intuitively, began to slash through the grappling lines, tearing their own vessel away from the now templar-laden galleon. In a matter of minutes, they had gone from two ships packed with angry templars, to one ship under their control, and another full of admittedly even angrier templars. Not bad, her brain conceded, but we're just getting started.
"Right, time for problem number two!" Isabela shouted, merrily. The merriness probably wasn't appropriate – they had a galleon hot on their heels, and the templars were already scattering arrows in their direction – but damn it it felt good to have a ship's wheel at her fingertips once more.
Problem number two was the dwarf, stood alone on the cliffs. Varric had emerged from his hiding place without being shot – the templars were more focused on the renegades that had just hijacked their ship – and was staring down at them with what appeared to be a hint of worry, as if he thought he was about to be left behind. With a gentle spin of the wheel, Isabela sent the caravel listing over towards the cliffs – to the apparent panic of some of her shipmates – and yelled up to the cliffs:
The reply was almost instant, full of reluctant vigour:
"Damn it, Rivaini!"
With that, Varric launched himself towards the edge of the cliff, his stubby legs pounding across the ground before leaping as ambitiously as they could. He had Bianca in one hand, and as he soared – well, plummeted – through the air towards them, he somehow managed to hook the crossbow's lathe into one of the mainsail's guide ropes. He slid down gracefully, spinning through the air...
Then lost his grip, disconnected from the rope, and dropped into the sea with a dull splash. Still winding her way away from the galleon, Isabela swung the ship right until the starboard side dipped inches from the water's surface – Carver and Merrill in particular, not having the sturdiest sea legs, were clinging on for dear life as she did – and Anders reached a strong arm into the sea, plucking the sodden dwarf out by the scruff of his duster coat. Varric sprawled on the deck, clutching Bianca and coughing his little lungs out, even as Anders marched up to the quarter deck, a steely glint in his eyes.
"Two down..." Isabela murmured, as he approached. Her voice was growing tense now. Problem number three? The galleon was gaining on them.
"What do we do about them?" Anders muttered, voicing her concerns and moving past her to watch the fast-approaching galleon. There were templar archers on the bow, just waiting to take a shot.
"They've got big, square sails," the pirate mused, "the caravel might be light, but it can't outrun them with the wind behind us. We've got lateens, though, we can outrun them against the wind..."
As she spoke, she doubted he even knew what lateens were. It was odd, crewing a ship with a bunch of 'landlubbers', to borrow a less sophisticated term from her brethren. The lateens, she told herself – no-one else would listen – were the triangular sails fixed against the caravel's two masts, centre and aft. They were smaller than square sails, reducing their speed, but they allowed the nimble caravel to zigzag into the wind where the galleon would merely stop, the winds pushing its sails in the wrong direction.
"I've got a better idea," the mage growled, and Isabela wheeled around just in time to see him clamber up against the aft rail, swinging his staff with a blaze of light – a spiralling fireball issued out of thin air, shot off behind them, and slammed against the galleon's mainsail with a burst of flames. Almost instantly, the sail was consumed with fire, which spread virulently to the rigging and the smaller sails to fore and aft. In a matter of moments, Anders had reduced the galleon to a flame-strewn hulk, drifting slowly to a halt as its sails crumbled to ash.
"Well, it's not subtle..." Isabela murmured, leaning back against the wheel, and guiding the caravel into the wind, as the flames crackled through the sunlit sky. "But it'll do..."