“We just received word from the Ostwick Circle. It seems they’ll be sending someone to the Conclave after all.”
Commander Cullen Rutherford looked up in surprise at this bit of news. “I thought they had refused to come,” he said, frowning.
Cullen turned his attention to the table before him. A list of all the delegates lay upon it, as well as a large map of Haven. The map was all marked with ink and pins and various notes about the patrol schedules. This single table served as Cullen’s base of operations, and the location for his morning meetings with his ranking officers. Shoved into the north alcove of the Chantry, the table was a very poor meeting place indeed.
Still, Cullen had made the best of it. He had bigger challenges to worry about than securing himself a satisfactory desk or even an office. His mission was to fortify the Temple of Sacred Ashes in preparation for the upcoming peace talks. It was not an easy task. These mountains gave new meaning to the word ‘uncharted.’ And it certainly didn’t help matters when delegates cropped up at the last minute.
Beside the table, Ser Rylen, Cullen’s second-in-command, just shrugged apologetically. “Aye, sir,” he said. “Ostwick was neutral. But it seems some rebel templars showed up at their door. Or was it blood mages? Either way, it changed their minds for them, so to speak.”
“Ah,” Cullen said. The muscles of his jaw tightened ever so slightly. “Well then.”
That was a story he had heard often enough in this past year. He and his ranking officers had lived that story, in fact. It was why they were standing here in the Haven Chantry, rather than in the Kirkwall Gallows.
“What do we know about the Ostwick delegation?” Cullen wanted to know.
“Not much,” Rylen admitted. “Sister Nightingale gathered what information she could, but it’s spotty at best. All she knows is that the mages held off their attackers with a very powerful spell.”
“Not what I wanted to hear,” Cullen muttered, glancing at the list of delegates. Dipping a quill into the ink pot, he added, ‘OSTWICK,’ in his bold scrawl.
“So they’re sending mages, then?” Cullen said, about to make a note of it.
“Mages and templars, both,” Rylen replied.
Cullen looked up in surprise. “What, really?” He made a note of it, then placed the quill back in the ink pot.
“Seems so,” Rylen said. He handed Cullen the spymaster’s brief and a folded letter. Cullen took these papers and read Leliana’s note first. Her report said only that the Ostwick circle had been attacked and then closed its doors to the outside world. Cullen turned his attention to the letter from Ostwick. The seal was already broken, so Cullen unfolded the letter and read through it quickly.
“Ser Ira,” Cullen read. “I don’t know him. He’s coming with a mage and a few retainers. A mage and a templar,” he muttered to himself. “That’s odd.”
Odd, but not unwelcome, he added, silently. To date, Cullen could not think of a single Circle that had sent both mages and templars together. Most other Circles had utterly dissolved into fighting between the two groups. And in many cases, only one group survived the resulting battle.
“Do you suspect trouble, sir?” At Rylen’s side, Ser Ruvena looked up at Cullen from beneath the metal scout helmet she always wore. “Should we detain them?”
Cullen always suspected trouble, but in this case, he just shook his head.
“No need,” he replied. “If Ostwick sends mages and templars together, they might be more reasonable than most. And if they’re not, well, we have plenty of soldiers in place.”
“Mercs, you mean,” Rylen said, frowning.
“Just so,” Cullen said. He, too, disliked the fact that only Tal-Vashoth mercenaries were being allowed in the temple proper, but he understood the Divine’s reasons for it. She wanted the Conclave to present a neutral front, and the horned giants were definitely not from the Circles.
With that thought, Cullen skimmed through the letter from Ostwick once more. The missive began with a formal salutation to the Divine and excessive praise for the peace talks. These bits of prosy nonsense were followed by a short report of the violence at Ostwick. That was the only part that interested Cullen, and it obscured far more of the conflict than it described. The letter concluded with the not-so-subtle hint that the mage in the delegation was related to some Free Marcher nobleman.
Cullen folded the letter with a shake of his head. As if he cared for such name-dropping. Having lived most of his life in the Order, Cullen generally ignored the aristocracy and their posturing. In a Circle tower, all that mattered was one’s ability to get the job done. For templars, that meant guarding the mages. For the mages… Well, Cullen thought darkly, that usually just meant staying sane.
Cullen handed the letter and note back to Rylen. “Make arrangements for them,” he said.
“We’re a bit full up, sir,” Rylen put in, hesitantly. “The Divine wants everyone to have a place to pray before the talks begin, but there are only so many chapels…”
“As if the Maker cares where we sit our rears when we say our prayers,” Cullen could not disguise his irritation. “If there aren’t enough altars to go around, then build a few. Just stick a statue of Andraste in a broom closet and don’t tell anyone the difference.”
Ruvena gave a laugh, then quickly bit back her smile. Rylen hesitated, evidently wondering if his commander was condoning blasphemy or not. But he said, “Yes sir,” and nodded all the same.
“Anything else?” Cullen asked, looking to the other officers present. “Ruvena?”
The officer straightened at once. “The recruits are coming along in their training well enough, sir,” she replied. “Not exceptional swordsmen, but they’ll do.”
Cullen nodded. “I’ll stop by later today and check in on them.”
“Very good, sir,” she nodded.
“And you, Keran?” Cullen asked.
“The check points have been set up along the pilgrim’s pass, sir,” the young man replied. “Lady Cassandra has agreed to oversee the forward camp.”
“Insisted, was more what it was,” Ruvena put in. “Chancellor Roderick wasn’t happy about it.”
“That’s no surprise,” Rylen muttered.
“Anything else, Keran?” Cullen asked.
“Well, um, yes,” the young man said, hesitantly. Cullen raised an eyebrow expectantly.
“I was going over some of the maps of the area, sir,” Keran said, glancing at the papers in his hand, “and I’m a bit, um, concerned.”
“Concerned how?” Cullen wanted to know.
“Well,” Keran said, uncertainly, “We’ve cobbled together every map we could find to try and get a read on this place. But I keep thinking I saw a map that looked quite different from the ones we have here. And now I can’t recall where I saw it.” When Cullen frowned, Keran quickly added, “I know that’s not very useful, sir. But I thought I ought to mention it all the same.”
“Fair enough,” Cullen said, “But I can’t send our people to scout out the entire mountain range. Do you have any clearer idea where you think we ought to look?”
“It was a path,” Keran said, slowly. “Or no. No, I think it might have been a cave?”
“We’ve sealed off dozens of mines and nug trails already,” Ruvena pointed out. “The main road is the only real way in now.”
“That only makes me worry more,” Keran said, frowning. “When you have an obvious front door, there’s almost always a secret way out the back.” His gaze grew troubled as he glanced down at the map in his hands.
“Kirkwall was a warren,” he added, quietly.
The others didn’t say anything to this. Cullen didn’t either. He knew - they all knew - that Keran had once spent almost a week lost in the the caverns below Kirkwall, trapped at the hands of blood mages. It made Cullen uncomfortable to think of that. After all, it reminded Cullen too much of the time when…
Well, this was not the time to worry about the past, he reminded himself. They had too much to worry about in the near future.
“Understood, Keran,” Cullen said, crisply. “If you think we’ve overlooked a passage, it’s worth scouting the mines again. Better yet, we can have Leliana’s people take another run at it. They’re better suited to sneaking through caverns than our recruits are.” He glanced around at all of his officers and added:
“You’ve done good work getting this place secured. But we’re far from finished. The delegates will be arriving any day now, and we must be prepared for whatever comes.”
Three heads nodded at him in understanding. Three pairs of eyes reflected his determination to see this through.
And then, Cullen thought, then there was the fourth soldier.
Cullen cleared his throat. Though he knew he would regret it - he always regretted it - Cullen raised his voice and asked:
“Anything to report, Morris?”
The young man turned and blinked at Cullen with vacant blue eyes.
“Report?” Morris asked, as if this was a completely foreign concept, as if Cullen hadn’t asked him this same question every morning of every day for the past five years. The other officers, Maker bless them, managed not to laugh. Instead, Rylen considered his boots and Keran studied his maps. Ruvena gazed up the ceiling as if the rafters had suddenly become fascinating.
For his part, Cullen took a breath for patience. Morris had his uses, but staying on point during meetings was not one of them.
“Anything to report, Morris?” Cullen asked again.
“Will there be apostates at the peace talks?” he asked.
The others glanced at one another in confusion. That was actually a relevant question, though it had a rather obvious answer.
“Well,” Cullen said, patiently, “considering that the Circles have fallen, that means every mage is technically an apostate now.”
“Oh,” Morris said, frowning.
“So, yes,” Cullen clarified. “There will be apostates at the Conclave. But remember, these apostates have trained in a Circle. There won’t be hedge mages or shape shifters or anything unusual. Well,” he amended, “There shouldn’t be. But be prepared for anything, as always.”
Cullen stopped there, wondering if he’d answered Morris’ question. The young man considered this, nodding solemnly.
“Oh, good,” he said. “I was nervous about dealing with apostates. They frighten me.”
“Mages have terrible power,” Keran conceded. “But not all of them are bad.” Rylen nodded his agreement.
“Just remember,” Ruvena said, patting Morris on the shoulder as though he were a child, “We’ve dealt with apostates before.” She shot a quick glance to Cullen as she added, “We can handle whatever they throw at us.”
Cullen wouldn’t have put it quite that arrogantly, but he was pleased to see that his officers felt confident in their abilities. Morris just shook his head, slowly.
“I’ve never dealt with apostates before,” he said.
“You have, though,” Rylen replied. “You were there when the Gallows fell, just like the rest of us.”
“And before that, you spoke with Hawke all the time,” Ruvena added.
Morris’ eyes went huge and his mouth dropped open.
“The Champion of Kirkwall was a mage?”
The others just stared at him.
“What, seriously?” Ruvena gaped. “How could you not know that?”
“But I once asked her for information on suspected apostates and she just laughed at me,” Morris said, cocking his head to one side.
Cullen rolled his eyes heavenward. He could only imagine how that conversation must have gone. Hawke and her friends must have laughed themselves silly over that one.
“Right,” Cullen said, returning to the subject at hand. “Mages. We’ll be ready for them. And the templars, too. Many of the templars are still loyal to the Order, but we can’t be sure which ones. Be on your guard around them, and make sure our recruits know not to trust anyone but our own forces.”
Everyone nodded - everyone but Morris.
“But,” he said, slowly, “Hawke wasn’t really a mage, was she?”
“Maker’s balls,” Rylen groaned.
“Did you truly not know that Hawke was a mage?” Keran asked him.
“How could she have lived outside of the Gallows for all those years if she was a mage?” Morris wanted to know. “Wouldn’t Knight-Commander Meredith have captured her?”
“A question for the ages,” Cullen muttered dryly. “Alright, if that’s everything…”
“But Hawke had black hair,” Morris pointed out.
That brought Cullen up short.
“What has that got to do with anything?” he asked, before he could think better of it.
“I thought all mages were gingers,” Morris said.
The officers just stood there, exchanging confused glances.
Too many mornings had ended this way, Cullen thought, pinching his nose with his thumb and forefinger. But before he could stop them, the others chimed in:
“Morris, you lived in the Gallows Circle for years,” Ruvena said. “Surely you saw that mages look like anyone else. They come from every country, every race…”
“Not dwarves,” Rylen pointed out.
“Well yeah, not dwarves,” Ruvena said. “But that just proves my point. There are a lot of dwarves with red hair, and they don’t have magic. There are a lot of humans with red hair and they don’t have magic either. Just look at Sister Nightingale. She has red hair.”
“And she’s scary,” Morris whispered.
“Right,” Cullen said, cutting this line of conversation short before Morris could derail them further. “Mages could be anywhere, and soon they’ll be here. So, we have work to do. Ruvena, you’ll be –”
“Drilling recruits,” the woman said.
“And I’m putting statues of Andraste into broom closets,” Rylen added, tipping his hand in a wry salute.
“I’m going to speak with Leliana about the maps,” Keran said.
“And Morris…” Cullen trailed off, noting that the young man had clearly forgotten all about apostates. He was now staring at the stone wall as if transfixed. “Um, you go with Keran,” Cullen finished.
Keran cringed but said nothing. Rylen and Ruvena looked a bit relieved.
“Alright then,” Cullen said. “Dismissed.”
Rylen, Ruvena, and Keran saluted. Morris turned as though he was going to ask something more. Thankfully, Keran grabbed Morris by the arm and dragged him off before he could say anything.
Cullen watched them all go, then looked down at the map of Haven and sighed.
“Broom closets, is it?” Cullen heard a voice ask.
Cullen straightened and whirled around at once. Behind him stood Divine Justinia herself. With that long white robe and the strange, flat-topped wimple on her head, she looked a bit like a human-sized chess piece. Cullen cringed and ran a hand over the back of his neck. He probably should not mentally compare the Most Holy to a rook, any more than he should have ordered Rylen to build chapels out of spare rooms.
“Most holy,” Cullen said, sketching a small bow. Given how unfamiliar he was with courtly gestures like bowing, it came off a little stiff.
“Commander,” Divine Justinia replied, her accented voice soft and calm. Even though she used his military title, Cullen could almost imagine she was saying, ‘my son.’ She took a step forward and waved at the table before him.
“So we need a few extra statues of Andraste, do we?” she asked, lightly.
“Well, you said you wanted everyone to meditate before the peace talks,” Cullen hedged. “And unless we pack them into the great hall like cattle…”
“An inspired solution,” Justinia said, surprising him. “In fact, I volunteer to pray in such a room.”
“What, really?” Cullen asked. “I thought you’d be holding vigil with all the grand clerics.”
“I could use a moment of quiet before it all begins,” Justinia said, almost to herself. “Besides,” she added, lifting her head, “the Maker hears our prayers no matter where our rears are seated. Is that not so?”
Cullen made a face. “Just how much of our meeting did you listen in on?” he wanted to know.
“Enough,” Divine Justinia said, lips pursed in amusement.
Wonderful, Cullen thought. He could handle officers and recruits well enough - even ‘special’ cases like Morris. Military rank and daily operations were familiar ground to him. But when cast out on the waters of social niceties, Cullen frequently felt as though he was floundering. Was the Divine offended by what he had said in the meeting, he wondered? Did she expect him to apologize for it? Cullen wasn’t quite sure. But then, that slight smirk suggested that she was more amused by his irreverence than offended. Thank the Maker for that.
“If you take one of the makeshift chapels,” Cullen warned Justinia, “you may end up meditating in a storage room.” Far from upsetting the Divine, she just inclined her head patiently.
“In the unfinished wing,” Cullen added.
Justinia chuckled. “Very good,” she said. “If I meditate in such a place, then I set an example, no? It will discourage squabbling over the gilded chapels.” She paused and sighed. “At least, I pray it will. We have enough to worry about without fighting over such insignificant things.”
Cullen had nothing to say to that. Justinia looked at the table for a moment, then raised her pale blue eyes to his face.
“Commander,” she said, “I did not come here to listen in on your meeting…”
Though that appears to have been a side effect, Cullen thought, still feeling a bit embarrassed.
“Rather, I came to tell you that you must not be seen when the delegates arrive in Haven.”
Cullen frowned. “I won’t enter the temple, as agreed,” he said. “Though I still think you ought to take Lady Cassandra and Sister Nightingale with you. They are your bodyguards, after all.”
“No,” the Divine shook her head. “We must all disarm if these talks are to work. But while Cassandra and Leliana will be watching the road up to the Conclave, I want you to stay out of sight entirely, Commander.”
“What are you saying?” Cullen asked, growing irritated before he could quite catch himself. “You want me to hide in the Chantry for the weekend?”
“Or as long as the talks take,” Justinia said, fixing him with a serious expression.
“Oh, for Andraste’s sake,” Cullen scowled. “Are the delegates really going to be so frightened by the sight of a former templar? I don’t even wear the armor anymore.”
“Commander,” Justinia said, gently. When Cullen just folded his arms over his chest, she cocked her head at him. She now looked as though the chess piece of her body had been bent in half, and was about to topple over onto the board.
“It is not just that you served as a templar, Commander,” Justinia said. “That would worry them well enough. It’s that many of them know where you served.”
Cullen’s shoulders stiffened.
“You were there when the Ferelden Circle fell to demons and blood magic…” Justinia began.
“I survived that,” Cullen said, curtly, before she could go on.
“But you must know the rumors that followed you. Some said that you wanted to annul the Ferelden Circle. Some said you killed mages with your own hands when that annulment was not granted.”
“Just the former,” Cullen muttered, looking away. He was ashamed to admit even that. He was not about to own that there were times when the latter had crossed his mind, too.
“You were quite wounded,” Justinia said, softly. “I understand.”
No, she didn’t, Cullen thought. No one did. But that wasn’t the point.
“I left Ferelden years ago,” Cullen said, shortly. “In fact, this is the first time I’ve set foot in my homeland in almost a decade.”
“And in the meantime you were in Kirkwall,” Justinia said, patiently. “Everyone knows you were the Knight-Commander there.”
“Knight-Captain,” Cullen corrected.
“But when your commander lost control of the Circle…” Justinia pressed.
“When Meredith lost her mind,” Cullen interrupted, “I stepped in and did what I could.” He knew he was being rude, but he was past the point of caring.
“Commander, I admire what you did,” Justinia said, holding up a hand as if in blessing. “It is why I sent Cassandra to recruit you. You protected the people of Kirkwall. When everyone pushed you to chose a side, you stood in the center of both mages and templars and kept the peace as best you could.”
“And still it wasn’t enough,” Cullen said, looking up sharply. “I am well aware of what I did and did not accomplish.”
If Justinia was put off by his sharp tone, she did not show it. “Commander,” she said, mildly, “you did well. But the fact remains that you have a rather personal history with this conflict.”
Cullen frowned at the wall. That was the understatement of the century.
“So because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, I’m to be punished now?”
“Is that what you think I’m doing?” Justinia asked, peering at him.
“Isn’t it?” he returned. “I will not allow my past to compromise the Inquisition’s future.”
“Commander,” Justinia said, “There is no Inquisition. Not yet. Hopefully, not at all.”
Cullen opened his mouth, then closed it. That was true, he thought. The Divine had her backup plan in place, just in case these peace talks did not work. Cullen had not realized how little faith he had in the idea of compromise until just now.
But then again, it was his job to plan for a battle, so that the Divine might plan for peace. As the leader of all the religious peoples of southern Thedas, the Divine personified faith. As the leader of her secret armies, Cullen personified caution.
“I cannot just sit idly by while the mages and templars fill the valley,” Cullen said.
“Cullen,” Justina said, kindly, surprising him with the use of his name, “I don’t believe you’ve ever been idle for a moment in your life. And I don’t ask you to stay out of sight because I wish to punish you. But your reputation is well known to both the mages and the templars. I cannot allow their fear of you to cloud their minds. And with everything else that must be done, I do not have time to correct their assumptions.”
Cullen sighed. The Most Holy had a point. He didn’t like it, but she did have a point.
And she’s the bloody Divine, Cullen reminded himself. She could ask him to command her armies while wearing an Orlesian skirt and he’d be honor bound to do it. Staying out of sight - a reasonable request when he thought about it rationally - was something he ought to agree to at once. And yet, Cullen still chafed under the order.
“Very well” he said, gruffly. “I’ll speak to Rylen and the others. They’ll be my eyes and ears and I’ll…stay in here.” He curled a lip as he considered the small, cramped Chantry.
“Thank you, Commander,” Justinia said, smiling. Cullen nodded, realizing that she could have just ordered him to stay away, but instead had taken the time to speak to him about it. He supposed this was why she was the Divine: she really did have the ability to get people to see things her way with her words alone.
Now she just had to work her verbal magic on the mages and templars.
“I’ll stay here,” Cullen added, looking at Justinia gravely, “but know that if anything goes wrong - anything at all - I won’t stand by. At the first sign of trouble, I’ll be up at that temple, and hang what anyone thinks.”
“I knew you would understand,” Justinia replied. “But I do not think it will come to that. You’ve set up walls and guards enough to keep us safe. And now, give yourself a chance to rest, my son.”
Cullen knew he wouldn’t rest in the days to come, but he nodded anyway. He gave the Divine as formal a bow as he could manage, then pretended to return to his notes as she walked away. The word “OSTWICK” swam before his vision as he glared at the table. Then, when he was sure the Divine was out of earshot, Cullen stabbed his fingers through his hair.
“Blast,” he muttered to no one in particular. This was a complication he did not need. But, he reminded himself, the peace of the world rested on turning the Divine’s hopes into reality. So if he had to sequester himself in the Chantry in order for the talks to go more smoothly, then he would see it done.
He would do it, but he did not like it. He most certainly did not look forward to spending the next few days - or weeks - stuck inside. With a wistful look out the doors at the lightly falling snow, Cullen sighed and returned to his work.