The Bad Part of Town
"The bad part of town" didn't even touch the squalor and desperation that bled from the walls in Darktown. Reflexively, Mahariel brought the collar of her shift up over her nose as Anders led her around the winding passages and down the dark steps of the Undercity.
"You don't... live here..."
He turned around and looked at her with something just shy of contempt. "Here, I'm just another apostate. I live wherever I can. And these people need me."
She regretted her words, pained by the determination and fatigue in his eyes. "I didn't mean -"
"I know," he said, but this time he kept walking, and didn't turn back to meet her gaze. She watched him as he walked, watched the hunch in his shoulders, the scuffing of his boots on the dirt. Just how unkind had time been to him?
The ascended a small flight of stairs and before he took her into the dark recesses of the clinic, she stopped him, hand on his arm.
"Are you ...alright?" Her full mouth was pressed thin with concern, murky blue elven eyes wide. He twined his fingers in hers. Anders shook his head, but said nothing, and she couldn't tell if it was an answer to her question or if he was dismissing her again, but he kept his hand linked in hers as he took her through a half-rotted wooden door and into a large man-made cavern of a room, full of the sick, the helpless.
Anders walked over to a slender man with dark brown hair, holding Mahariel at length, though holding her still. He leaned in and whispered something against the man's ear, and the man indicated a small group of children, huddled in the corner. Anders nodded, and turned back to the Warden-Commander.
"One of those children just lost their mother; the rest have been orphans for some time. This is the only place they have left, and from what it sounds like, the littlest one," he indicated a small, blonde boy who was propped up against the wall and trembling, "has stopped eating. They don't know if he's sick or if he's just given up."
Mahariel stared at the huddled group of orphans, stared at the sad, sunken faces all around the room. Her heart froze in her chest. She opened her mouth but it would form no words. He took her gently by the shoulder.
"I'm sorry if I've been short with you. But I hope now you see why."
"Just tell me what I can do."
Releasing her, he smiled to cover up his pain. "Nothing."
He went to the small group of children, most of them boys, and knelt down. They backed away from him at first, but he reached in his pocket and pulled out a few of the gold coins Mahariel had slipped into the donation box. Thus bribed, they drew closer. Anders spoke softly and Mahariel couldn't make out the words, but the little blonde boy stepped from the back of the group to where Anders stood and allowed the mage to ruffle his flaxen hair. It was a gesture of comfort, but Mahariel knew too that Anders was checking the boy over. She waited for any subtle clue the mage might give, but he was restrained. He stood tall, stretched with his hands on the small of his back, and instructed the group of homeless children to remain where they were. He went to the back of the clinic and retrieved a loaf of considerably stale but not yet moldering bread and brought it to the children, watching them carefully with his hands on his hips to make sure they split it up fairly. Dusting the crumbs from his hands, he went back to Mahariel.
"It's prison fever; not serious yet. Probably just given the boy an upset stomach. Easy enough to fix, but they never stay well. They get it from the nits that fester in this place. I keep the clinic as clean as I possibly can but the minute they go back to their filthy blankets..." he shook his head. "Half of them die of diseases people in Hightown would never notice if they caught." He sighed. "If he eats, he'll be alright. But once the actual fever sets in, there's nothing I can do. Even the ones I get to in time, they're never the same."
He sat down hard on an empty cot and Mahariel thought for sure it would collapse under his weight, but it remained firm and she joined him.
"Sometimes I think it might be better if I just left them to..." he looked down quickly, and then back up, watching the children savor the bread as though it were the finest cut of meat. "It's a cycle. They get sick, they come here, I make them well, they leave, they get sick. And it only ever ends in death. No one leaves this place, no one stays healthy." Anders cracked the backs of his knuckles with his thumbs, then allowed himself to slip his arm around her middle. She leaned against him, hoping the gesture would soothe the mage, but she had nothing else to offer him, no words, no actions that would make any kind of difference.
Anders sensed her unease and offered, "The money will help. Thank you. They'll have bread and clean water and maybe even new clothes. But unless something in this city changes - so much here needs to change."
As she had so many times before, Mahariel bent to him. "I'll see what I can do. I can't make any promises."
"That you came down here into this hole means more than anything those noble bastards have ever done. I don't even think they know we exist, except when they send the templars to come and imprison us."
Mahariel squeezed her eyes shut tight, the weight of the situation bearing down on her. During the Blight, she would never have let this stand. She would have handled the situation, and taken a legion of darkspawn down to round out the day. But she had had letters of conscription, had the aid of arlings and all the races of beings that called the land home. This was a new place, and though she had more power now than she ever had before, she couldn't begin to know what to do. Who would she go to? The city had no viscount, and there was no room for the impoverished. Kirkwall was overfull with refugees and threatened to succumb to civil war at any moment. The only thing she would be certain of was what side she would be on if the tense peace finally collapsed. And she didn't get the feeling the Knight-Commander was someone she should go rail to, lest Mahariel herself burst the fragile bubble of quietude herself. Perhaps the Grand Cleric could do something. It was as good a place to start as any, she reasoned, and if she would not or could not do something, Mahariel would reassess the situation then.
"What are you plotting?" asked Anders softly. He knew the look the Warden-Commander got when she was preparing to make a move. He'd seen it time and time again. He'd seen it when she'd told the templars that the mage was hers now.
"Anything I can."