The nightmare tried to hold him under, but Cullen clawed his way out. He burst from the sweat-drenched blankets and lurched forward out of his bedroll. He landed on his hands and knees, then crouched there, shaking.
Maker’s breath. Not again.
The air was cold in the darkened tent, and Cullen shivered. He took one great shuddering breath, then ran a hand through his tangled, curling hair. He sat back on his heels and let out a long sigh.
One more nightmare survived. That makes how many now?
Cullen let out a bitter laugh. He supposed he’d brought this upon himself. When he was a templar, Cullen had not feared the night terrors commonly associated with the job. Then, he had known that a blue vial would greet him in the morning. Now, he dreaded sleep, knowing he’d only wake to tangled sheets and a gnawing emptiness that felt as if it would never be filled. He had thought that self-denial would grow easier with time. But every day without lyrium was as difficult as the first.
Best get to work then, Cullen thought with a sigh. It would take him at least half an hour to fight his way back to normalcy. There was irony in that. Freedom from the lyrium meant Cullen was bound to an even stricter regimen than before.
Cullen donned his armor - no small feat in a darkened tent that forced him to bend double - then headed outside. He picked up his sword and shield, and went to work on the practice dummies. All the while, Cullen imagined himself sorting through the mess in his mind as if he was sorting through the papers on his desk. The part of the dream involving claws and teeth? Torn in half and thrown on the fire. The part of the dream involving smooth skin and glossy hair? Shoved into a bottom drawer - not destroyed, but definitely ignored. With each swing of the sword, Cullen felt the blood moving in his chilled veins, felt as if he was similarly thawing the more reasonable parts of his mind. Bit by bit, he brought himself back from the deep freeze of fear.
By the time Rylen joined him at the practice field, Cullen had worked up a good sweat - a good warm sweat - to banish the clammy chill of morning. Cullen stopped abruptly as Rylen approached, then gave the man a nod and went to put away his weapons.
“At it early, ser?” Rylen asked. His Starkhaven brogue made it sound as if he was asking far more than the question he’d actually posed. Cullen glanced at the man, his expression speaking for him.
“Right,” Rylen said grimly.
He didn’t ask any more questions. Every templar knew how bad memories could be. But Rylen didn’t know that Cullen was facing those memories without lyrium. No one knew that, except for Cassandra.
“No reports from Keran and Ruvena yet,” Rylen said, mercifully changing the subject.
Cullen nodded. He hadn’t expected there to be.
“The group going to to the Hinterlands are gathering their supplies now,” Rylen went on. “They’re takin’ the Herald with them, right?”
Cullen drew up short at the mention of the woman.
“Er, right,” he murmured. He looked back at the village gates with a frown.
“Ser?” Rylen asked.
“Nothing,” Cullen muttered. “I just… I agreed to speak to the Herald before she leaves. Something Josephine wanted.”
He didn’t bother to elaborate, and Rylen didn’t ask for clarification.
“You could catch her at the smithy, ser,” the captain said, pointing. “Saw her headin’ in that direction a few minutes ago.”
“Alright,” Cullen said, trying not to sound as though he dreaded the meeting. “Get the recruits going on their drills. Adjust the training regimen to focus on dealing with mages. They need to be prepared. Leliana reports that the Hinterlands are crawling with apostates.”
Rylen saluted, and Cullen strode away.
It took Cullen a while to track down the Herald. It wasn’t that she blended in to the scenery. Quite the opposite, really, for her hair was like a beacon in the rising sun. But Cullen spent a minute searching around the blacksmith’s place before realizing she’d wandered past the smithy and down to the lake.
Cullen soon found the Herald at the end of a dock, a solitary figure against the white expanse of the frozen lake. She stood with her arms folded over her chest, her face turned toward the ice. Cullen strode up to the shore, then cleared his throat.
The mage stiffened, but she did not turn around.
“Morning,” Cullen said, politely.
The mage said nothing in reply. Cullen paused for a moment, confused. Surely she had heard him, he thought.
“Before you go,” he said, speaking a little more loudly, “I wanted to speak to you. Yesterday at the war table, I mentioned that I was once part of the templar Order.”
He said this firmly, determined not to sound apologetic for the fact. He also paused here, allowing the mage a chance to respond to his statement. She said nothing. She didn’t even move.
Was she deliberately ignoring him, Cullen wondered, or was she still nervous because he had once been a templar? He found it difficult to tell.
“I mentioned I was once part of the Order,” Cullen went on, his tone becoming clipped as he became more annoyed. “I did not think of it at the time, but Josephine reminded me that you are a mage and may have concerns about my past loyalties. I want you to know that I left the templars to join the Inquisition. I don’t intend to look back.”
He paused there. There was a long silence, and then - finally - the mage said:
Her voice was low, throaty even. It sounded a bit… sensual. Cullen shook his head, recovered himself, and pressed on.
“I imagine that you will become a regular fixture at the war table,” he said, thinking back on the previous day’s meeting. “So I want to make certain that you and I have no conflict. So long as you serve the Inquisition, I have no quarrel with you.”
Cullen waited for the Herald to say something in reply. She did not.
“Do you not agree?” he asked her, a moment later.
The Herald sniffed and lifted her chin.
“Of course,” she said.
“So then we understand one another?” Cullen asked, pointedly. “We put the needs of the Inquisition first?”
The Herald gave a short nod and said nothing.
Cullen scowled. And now he was being dismissed. Maker save him from the stubbornness of mages. Cullen turned to walk away. But then he stopped and looked over his shoulder. The Herald stood at the end of the dock, staring out over the lake. Her bearing reminded him of all those haughty Kirkwall aristocrats, who thought they were so much better than everyone who worked for a living.
Blast it, Cullen thought irritably, he did not need this. The Inquisition did not need this. There were too many lives at stake. Cullen had set aside his issues with mages - or he had tried to, anyway. This woman needed to do the same with her dislike for templars. She needed to know what they were up against. And she needed to know that Cullen wanted nothing more than to set things right.
Determined to get through to her, Cullen strode back to the shore and out onto the dock.
“Look here,” he said, marching up to the Herald’s side. “I don’t know your position on the mage rebellion and frankly I don’t care. But you must understand…”
Cullen broke off, his words failing. His feet came to a sudden stop.
For at his approach, the Herald turned her head. Sunlight glinted off of the tears running down her face. A moment passed as she stood there, staring at Cullen with eyes so full of hurt and loss that he felt as if his own heart had been crushed. Then she caught herself and turned away, shielding her face with her hand.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered in a raw, throaty voice. “I didn’t mean…” She sniffed again, and Cullen realized the sound had not been one of disdain, but that of a woman trying desperately not to weep aloud.
All thoughts of mages and templars were now forgotten. Cullen took a step toward her, and with far more feeling than finesse, asked:
“Maker’s breath, what’s the matter with you? What happened?”
The question was so strange, that Kate couldn’t help but choke out an answer.
“What happened?” she said, her words coming out on a bitter laugh. “That happened.” She pointed up at the breach with a shaking hand. “That thing, that horrible thing in the sky. And I…may have done it.”
Her voice caught there, and Kate dropped her hand to her side. She now felt mortified: mortified at her outburst, mortified to have been caught crying in the first place.
She’d been caught crying by the bear-templar, of all people, Kate thought miserably. He was the last person she wanted to see her like this. Years in the Circle had impressed upon Kate that templars saw emotion as a source of weakness. A sorrowful mage might attract a despair demon, a lustful one might attract a desire demon, an angry mage was prey for the rage demons - or so the reasoning went. So between the Circle and her naturally stoic family, Kate had learned to hide strong feelings. It utterly shamed her to have the templar watching her now.
Kate squeezed her eyes shut, and two more tears tracked down her cheeks. She swiped at her face with her fingers, willing the tears away.
“That wasn’t your doing,” the bear-templar said. Kate blinked up at him in surprise.
“You believe I’m innocent?” Kate asked. To her embarrassment, she hiccuped on the last word.
“It seems I do,” the templar said, more to himself than to her.
“But you can’t know that,” Kate said, softly. “I can’t know that.”
“If you had destroyed the Conclave,” the bear-templar pointed out, “you’re not doing a very good job of escaping the Inquisition. You landed yourself in the middle of it, rather.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Kate said, softly.
“Call it baseless intuition,” the bear-templar said dryly. “But it seems to me that if you truly had the capacity to wipe out the entire Conclave, there would be little reason for you to remain - and we would have no chance of keeping you.”
His wry tone made Kate smile just a little - a very little. But then she swallowed as she remembered her reason for coming out here.
“I suppose that’s true,” she said. “But however it happened - however I got this mark, I survived and so many others…”
Kate broke off there, struggling to complete her thought without bursting into tears again.
“Ah,” the bear-templar said. “Yes, well, there is that.”
“Robert.” The name was out of Kate’s mouth before she could stop herself. “He was my cousin. He didn’t…” She stopped there, for her throat seemed to seize up.
“Robert?” the templar repeated. “Oh! Robert. Was he the one who…”
The templar made an odd sort of cupping motion with his hand. Kate thought the gesture looked a bit obscene, but surely she was imagining things.
“Never mind,” the bear-templar said, letting his hand drop.
“Did you see him?” Kate asked. Her chest swelled with hope and fear all at once. “They said he went to the forward camp to fight.”
“I don’t recall,” he said, hesitantly. “There were many soldiers fighting up there, and most of them died. Er, that is….”
“Robert would have stood out in a crowd,” Kate interrupted eagerly. “You would have remembered him. He was tall - golden eyes, brown skin, very handsome. Best archer you’ve ever seen.”
“No, I’m sorry,” the bear-templar said, grimacing, as if he regretted his words. “I didn’t see anyone like that. And I would have remembered a good archer. We needed them, and they were in short supply.”
“Of course,” Kate said softly, her eyes dropping back to the ice again. “I thought as much.”
She had known that was likely the case, Kate told herself. The evidence was clear: Robert was not here, which meant he was missing, which meant he was likely…
Kate swallowed, fighting the lump that rose in her throat and threatened to pour over as another wave of tears. She had held out hope until now, even as she’d tried to tell herself that hope was foolish. Last night, she had asked around at the tavern, questioning everyone about Robert. A few people remembered him - ‘the loopy lad’, Flissa had called him. But no one had seen him after that first night. Kate had gone to bed with tears in her eyes, but with Cassandra and Josephine in the room, she had been determined not to let those tears fall.
This morning, she had woken early. Kate had walked out to the edge of town to read the lists that named the dead. Robert’s name was nowhere to be seen. And more than that, there was a sight that had made Kate crumble inside. Near the funeral pyres and along all the roads were bags - rows upon rows of bags. Coll was right - none of them looked long enough to contain Robert. But the enormity of what had happened swept through Kate like an icy wind. These people had died - and Kate had survived. She was here - and Robert was missing.
Kate had turned away from the pyre and walked blindly through the village. All the while, tears had stung her eyes, but she couldn’t let them fall - not in front of the people of Haven. They were mourning, and yet they still had returned to work.
As their Herald, how could Kate do anything less?
So Kate had hidden her tears. And when she could hide them no longer, she had hidden herself here at the end of this dock. Here, she had let the tears fall. But she hadn’t hidden herself well enough, Kate realized. The bear-templar had found her out.
“So this ‘handsome’ cousin,” he asked. “He’s your betrothed?”
“What? No!” In spite of her grief, Kate recoiled at the thought. “No, he’s just my cousin.”
“Some noble cousins marry,” the bear-templar reasoned. When Kate just stared at him, he shook his head. “I’m sorry. That’s irrelevant. Are they searching for him, or…?”
“He gone,” Kate managed. “Just gone. And I don’t…”
And I don’t know what happened, Kate wanted to say. I don’t know where to look. Most likely, Robert was frozen under the snows and they wouldn’t find him until the spring - if they ever did.
That was the thing about the snow, Kate thought, even as her eyes began to burn with tears. The snow covered everything - the good, the bad. It turned everything into a uniform blanket of white. And for a while, one could enjoy that cold purity. But a muddy, dirty mess hid under the snows, waiting for a thaw.
Like the mages and the templars, Kate thought, distantly. In her speech, she had spoken as though the Inquisition covered everything, transformed everyone into a smooth, even, unified cause. But that wasn’t true. The conflicts of rebels and loyalists, of Chantry and heretics still remained. As she stood here, the weight of it all pressed on Kate, so heavy that she felt suffocated.
How did one move forward through all this grief, Kate wondered? How did she continue without Robert, without his humor? How would she manage to fight with a bunch of strangers at her side? How could she be sure they were even fighting for the same thing? Was their vision of peace the same as her own, Kate wondered? What would happen when the snow melted?
A sob escaped Kate and her shoulders began to shake. She quickly turned her face away as tears escaped her eyes, tracked down her cheeks, and landed on the toes of her boots.
“Maker’s breath,” Cullen muttered, unable to think of anything else to say.
He now felt like an enormous clod. Here, he’d barreled right up to this woman, rambling on about mages and templars and his role and her role. He’d been ready to lecture her, to pronounce judgment on her, even. And all the while, there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for her odd behavior: The woman was reeling. She had endured the madness of the Conclave, borne the brunt of everyone’s suspicions, borne the weight of everyone’s expectations, and all the while, she was grieving the loss of someone close to her. How had she even managed to hold herself together, Cullen wondered? It was rather amazing, really.
And yet, while Cullen felt very sorry for the mage - and impressed by her, in a way - he also felt very awkward. He had no handkerchief to offer, and “there, there,” didn’t seem appropriate.
Void take it, Cullen thought, glancing over his shoulder in the direction of the village. Where was Keran when you needed him? There was a reason that Cullen always had his lieutenant deliver the bad news to the families of fallen soldiers. It wasn’t that Cullen didn’t sympathize with loss. It was just that he never knew what to say. Unfortunately, there was no one here to offer the woman comfort except for Cullen. More the pity for her, he thought.
To Cullen’s relief, however, the mage managed to compose herself. She wiped her hand over one cheek, then the other, then back, then back, until Cullen was quite sure she was trying to erase her face with her fingers.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I was trying not to do this.”
“Trying not to do what?”
“Cry,” she said, with a snuffling sort of sound. “I cry when I get upset. It’s very foolish, I know. It solves nothing. And yet, when I think…” She squeezed her eyes shut, and more tears tracked down her cheeks.
“I’m struggling to make myself move,” she whispered a moment later. “But it’s like my feet are frozen to the ground.”
Cullen gave a wry half-smile at that. He knew that feeling as well. This very morning, when he’d woken up from his nightmares, he’d felt similarly immobilized.
“But I will move,” the mage added, more to herself than Cullen. “If I did this, I’ll set it right. If I didn’t do it, then I’ll find the one who did.”
The determination in her voice made Cullen feel very strange. He respected her practicality. Yet he saw another tear slide down her cheek, leaving a shimmering track behind. And because he didn’t know how to express either his approval or his sympathy, Cullen said nothing. For a moment, they stood there, side by side, neither one of them speaking.
“Robert wouldn’t have wanted me to cry,” the Herald murmured at last.
“People cry all the time,” Cullen told her.
“Trevelyans don’t.” She said it simply, as if it were a known fact.
“Well, I do,” she admitted. “But don’t worry,” she added, wiping her cheeks, “I’ll be perfectly composed by the time I leave for the Hinterlands. We can’t have the Herald of Andraste go walking about with tears in her eyes. Bad for morale and all that.”
As she spoke, she turned to Cullen and gave him a little smile. Her eyes shone with both humor and unshed tears. And in that moment, Cullen felt…
Respect, he told himself. That was what this feeling was.
“And though Leliana may disagree, I imagine that a runny nose is even less flattering than Ferelden rouge,” the Herald went on, attempting to smile.
Yes, Cullen decided. This feeling was respect. The Herald had pulled herself together with a single smile. He admired that kind of self-control. He envied it, even. More than that, he and the mage were establishing a kind of rapport. That was good. Considering that they would be working together, this warmth Cullen felt for her was acceptable - appropriate, even. It was better than cool animosity, surely.
“That was supposed to be a joke,” the Herald said, frowning at whatever it was she saw in his expression.
“I gathered that,” Cullen told her. He then cleared his throat and turned his eyes toward the frozen lake.
Kate avoided looking the bear-templar in the eyes. One moment, she had been sobbing, and the next, she had started making terrible jokes - about cosmetics, of all things. No doubt, she sounded like a lunatic.
“Don’t mind me,” Kate said. “Robert was the humorist in the family. My jokes never quite hit the right note. Always a bit too dry and a bit too delayed. I suppose it’s a good thing I turned out to be a mage. It saved my family the trouble of disinheriting me.”
She gave the bear-templar a lopsided smile, but this only seemed to confuse him further. He glanced at her, then looked away, his brows furrowing more deeply as he frowned at the lake.
“Speaking of me being a mage,” Kate said, deciding to change the subject, “I owe you an answer, commander. About the mages and templars, that is.”
“Right,” he said, still looking out at the lake. “Yes, that’s… Yes.” He cleared his throat. “That’s what I came here to talk to you about.”
“You did,” Kate nodded. She, too, kept her attention focused on the scenery before them. “I meant what I said in my speech the other day. I mean to work with you - with all of you. You’ve been quite fair to me - the Inquisition has been quite fair to me - considering everything that happened.”
“We were fair to you eventually,” he said. “Not at first, I’m afraid.”
“You had good reason for that,” Kate said, shrugging. “A mage, falling bodily from the Fade? I would suspect me if I wasn’t me.” She then stopped and considered those words. “I’m not sure if that makes sense,” she muttered.
“It does makes sense,” the bear-templar assured her.
“But whatever happened,” Kate went on. “Whatever I do or don’t remember, I’m ready to help. And on that note,” she sighed, looking back toward the village, “I suppose I should get going.”
The bear-templar nodded. He seemed far more comfortable with this line of conversation than all her sobbing and confessions from before. Maker’s breath, Kate thought, she had truly made a hash of this conversation. Of all the members of the Inquisition, Kate had most wanted to impress the bear-templar.
She didn’t want to analyze why this was so. She suspected that if she were honest with herself, she would have to admit that she still distrusted templars - even this one. Deep down, Kate still feared that if she showed any weakness, the templar in him might cut her down, like an apprentice at a failed Harrowing. Kate felt chilled by the very thought.
But actually, Kate realized, glancing over at the fellow, that was unfair. This man wasn’t cold and removed like other templars she’d met. He had been kind to her, putting up with her blubbering and everything. Kate now began to wonder why he’d become a templar in the first place. Maybe his family had forced him to join, like her family had tried to do with Robert. Kate was beginning to think he was one of those young, didn’t-fully-buy-into-the-Order types. She could appreciate that. It was the driven, high-ranking officers that you had to watch out for.
“Be careful out there,” he told her, drawing Kate out of her thoughts. “You’re heading into rough territory. The Hinterlands will be less civilized than what you’re used to.”
Kate couldn’t help but chuckle at that.
“I imagine so,” she said, wiping the heel of her palm across her cheek to catch the last of the stray tears. “I suspect the Ferelden countryside is a good deal less tower-like than my usual environs.”
The bear-templar’s scarred lips twitched in amusement. “I suspect you’re right.”
“I’ll be fine,” Kate assured him. “As Herald, I get my own entourage. Cassandra will shield me as I fumble around in the woods. Solas will point my hand at rifts and offer all sorts of cryptic advice about the Veil. And Varric will do…whatever it is Varric does.”
“Record your history inaccurately?” he suggested, dryly.
“Oh,” Kate cringed. “I hope he doesn’t record me at all. That wouldn’t reflect well on me or the Inquisition. But don’t worry. No matter what happens out there, I won’t shirk my duties. I intend to be the Inquisition’s most prolific, useful field agent, if only to avoid Leliana’s wrath.”
But this time, when she turned to smile at the bear-templar, he gave her a very strange sort of look.
“You know,” he said, slowly, “not everyone is expecting you to save the world. Some of us are just glad you’re willing to stick around.”
“Oh,” Kate said, softly.
That brought her up short. In that moment, she felt…
Gratitude, Kate told herself. That was what this feeling was. The bear-templar had treated Kate like she was a sane adult, even though she was certain she’d acted like an idiot. She attempted to smile at him in thanks, but when their eyes met, Kate felt her heart skip a beat. She only managed to blush instead.
Cullen had been trying to say something kind, but from the way the mage flushed and quickly looked away, he supposed he’d failed. Since sentimentality hadn’t worked for him, Cullen opted for practicality instead.
“I’ll keep an eye out for news of your cousin,” he told the Herald. “It may be bad news, but I imagine it would be better to know for certain.”
“Thank you,” she murmured. Her voice sounded a bit strangled. Cullen supposed she was about to start crying again.
“Would you like me to give you a moment alone before Cassandra comes looking for you?” he asked her.
The mage swallowed hard. “Yes.”
“Alright,” Cullen replied. He turned to go, then looked back over his shoulder. To his surprise, the Herald was looking at him, and not the scenery.
“Take care of yourself out there, Trevelyan,” he told her.
To Cullen’s amusement, the Herald straightened and gave him a jaunty Free-Marcher salute. “Of course, commander,” she said. But as he turned to walk away, he thought he heard her murmur:
“Take care of yourself…Cullen.”