Crossroads

Chapter 19 of Daughters of Andraste

As soon as Kate was alone again, she concentrated her efforts on calming herself. She dried her tears, and then she did her best to set aside the rather strange emotion she’d experienced when Cullen had smiled at her. For a moment there, she had felt the light, fluttery sensation that had accompanied her various teenage infatuations. The feeling was so sudden and unexpected, Kate had barely managed to stammer out a response, much less a proper goodbye.

But that being past, Kate wiped her eyes, lifted her chin, and then headed for the smithy. There, Cassandra and Solas and Varric were packing up their bags. Coll was present as well, with a great many potions. She shoved as many elfroot draughts into Kate’s bag as it would hold, and then handed Kate a bottle of sun ointment - ‘the better to keep yer face as pasty as yer arse,’ Coll told her. Coll then gave Kate a fierce hug, wiped a tear from her eye, and stalked away angrily.

“That’s one weird friend you have,” Varric remarked. “Then again, I’m not really one to judge.”

“She’s perfect,” Kate had told him, feeling a bit teary herself. But instead of crying in front of the others, she set off for the Penitent’s Path, and Kate focused the rest of her energy on hiking down the hill. It was a long way down - far longer than she had remembered, and by the time they reached Haven’s Landing, Kate’s feet were quite sore. She also suspected she was forming some blisters thanks to her new boots.

The afternoon saw them sailing across Lake Calenhad’s dark waters, headed for the southern shore. From there, they climbed up steep, winding paths to a narrow ridge, and arrived at the Inquisition scout camp just as the sun set. The view was amazing, Kate thought, looking out over the forested valleys. She was exhausted from all that walking, but the scenery was almost worth it.

Kate had thought she was a reasonably fit, outdoorsy sort of person. And she was - for a mage. But as she drew off her boots and took stock of her newly acquired blisters, Kate realized that daily walks and the occasional horse ride did not an adventurer make. Kate was not used to marching, not used to long hours in the sun and she was not used to camp food. The provisions of flat bread and dried apples did not entirely satisfy Kate’s hunger.

By the time she crawled into her tent - the tiny tent she was supposed to share with Cassandra and Varric and Solas - Kate had begun to rethink this Heralding business. She laid awake, tossing and turning on her cold, hard bed-roll, listening to Varric snore. And all the while, Kate wondered how on earth she was going to repeat this level of exertion on the following day.

She might have thought of Cullen, too. Just a little.

But exhaustion claimed her at last, and Kate slept soundly for a few hours. She then woke, and realized she needed to use the necessary. The privy was just a hole in the ground, dewy and fragrant in the early morning air. She crouched and held her nose at the same time. She cleaned up as best she could - with leaves, for the Maker’s sake, which was just really too much. Was this really what camping out was like, Kate wondered? She now understood the appeal of an inn - even the nug-infested variety.

By the time Kate returned to camp, she found the place in an uproar. The Crossroads were under attack, the scouts reported, and Mother Giselle was in danger.

Kate spotted Cassandra, Varric, and Solas, all gathering their weapons and gear. Kate joined them, and they all ran for the village as quickly as they could. Scrambling downhill along uneven paths tore open every blister on Kate’s feet, but she forced herself to ignore the pain.

Then, suddenly, Kate turned a corner and there they were at the Crossroads. It was barely even a village - just a few houses clustered around a signpost. And yet, it had already turned into a massacre.

There were bodies everywhere - slashed, burned, rotting. Kate saw templars attacking fleeing villagers, mages gleefully setting houses on fire as the people within shrieked in terror. It was so brutal and chaotic and violent, that for a moment, Kate just stared. Then Cassandra shouted a battle cry, and Kate found herself drawn back to the present. And though she had precious little battlefield experience, Kate joined the fray.

Actually, ‘joined the fray’ would be too generous a term for it. The mark on Kate’s hand still interfered with her magic, and Kate found she could draw only enough from the Fade for a simple barrier on Cassandra. As it turned out, hiding in the Seeker’s wake was a pretty effective strategy. Kate kept that barrier up as best she could, and if it was a lopsided sort of arrangement, at least it kept them both alive.

But then Cassandra charged off without her, and Kate found herself alone and depleted of energy. In that moment, one of the rebel templars spotted her. The knight turned to Kate with fury in his eyes and rushed her. Kate saw a raised sword, gleaming armor, and she froze in panic. But just as the man was about to strike, Solas appeared out of nowhere and fried up the templar with a single bolt of lightning.

Kate turned to Solas in surprise.

“Where did that come from?” she blurted out, too startled to thank him properly.

“Like all magic, it came from the raw Fade,” Solas replied. He grabbed her marked hand and gave it a small shake. “Don’t fight it’s flow, Herald. Swim with the stream.”

Kate stared after him as he returned to the fight. She was beginning to think that elf was a bit crazy, but curious now, she tried his advice all the same. When Kate reached for the Fade a moment later, she realized what Solas meant. Rather than scooping energy, Kate slid her next spell into the Fade, as if slipping her hands underwater. She concentrated at a point halfway across the field, and…it worked. A templar suddenly screamed as a shell of ice snapped into place over his legs. He tried to run, but could not move. One of the Inquisition soldiers - a woman wearing a silver helmet and scout armor - took advantage of his paralyzed position. With one well-placed slice, she quickly divested the frozen templar of his head.

That woman turned out to be a good sort. As soon as the battle was over, she introduced herself as Ruvena, one of Cullen’s lieutenants. She took Kate to see Mother Giselle, who was, thankfully, unharmed. Kate spent some time speaking with the priestess - enough to decide that Giselle was both devout and kindhearted. Kate welcomed Giselle to Haven, the woman accepted, and for a fleeting moment, Kate thought that her job in the Hinterlands was done.

Of course, it wasn’t. As soon as Kate finished speaking with Mother Giselle, a young man came up to her, asking about food for the farmers and then there was another fellow who had some idea about finding blankets for the refugees and by the time the sun was overhead in the sky, Kate had learned that the situation in the Hinterlands was far worse than they had thought. The apostates and templars both had settled into separate camps in the wilds, and would continue to attack the villagers if nothing was done about them. There were bandits in the woods, rifts in the hills, and in addition to all that, another one of Cullen’s lieutenants had gone missing. According to Ruvena, a young man named Keran had been taken by the rogue templars.

When Ruvena told them about this, Varric sighed and shook his head.

“Captured by templars this time?” he asked. “What, were the blood mages busy?”

“It’s not funny, dwarf,” Ruvena snapped back, and before Kate could ask what that was all about, the woman turned to Kate with a pleading look.

“Please, Herald,” she begged. “I know I’m supposed to stay at my post, but this is personal. I need to bring Keran back and kill the bastards who took him.”

It seemed a reasonable request to Kate, and so she gave the order and they all set out at once. It wasn’t too difficult to track the templars. Unlike mages, who tended to keep a low profile until their spells started flying, the templars had no inclination to hide themselves. They had boldly marched through the woods, leaving heavy boot-prints everywhere. It took Varric and Solas only a few hours to hunt them down. It seemed the rebels had set themselves up on a high ridge that overlooked a ravine. It gave them a good view of the river and a narrow, steep approach to the camp.

Two well-placed and surprisingly discreet arrows from Varric felled the templars on watch at the base of the path and they crept up through the underbrush. Just as soon as they had settled behind a wooden palisade, another templar went striding into the clearing, only paces away.

Kate bit her lip to stifled a gasp. The man’s spattered armor was half-visible through the leaves and his eyes were blood-shot and wild. When he turned, his metal gauntlets glinted at Kate, and for some reason, the sight of them reminded her of Cullen.

Cullen wore very similar armor, Kate thought. And Cullen had been a templar just as this man was a templar. And yet, the two men couldn’t have been more different. Cullen was calm and kind, while this man…

This man was a murderer.

“Did you get it?”

Another templar appeared suddenly beside the first. Kate swallowed, feeling far too near and far too exposed. She wanted to run, but didn’t dare move a muscle.

“Didn’t get it,” the second templar replied, shaking his head. “Damn dwarves won’t budge.”

“Then we take it,” the first templar said, growling. “I can’t think without it. It’s too loud.”

Dwarves? Kate wondered. Loud? Then realization dawned. Lyrium, she thought. These templars were in the grip of withdrawals. No wonder they fought so wildly - and with such little skill. They were half-mad without their daily dose of the drug.

“There’s a source in the hills,” the second templar said. “But I’m thinkin’ some other templars got to the dwarves first. We’re gonna have to kill ‘em all for a cut.”

“Or we could ransom this one for some money,” the first fellow said, kicking at something on the ground. “Those heretics from Haven might pay for him.” When the lump rolled over, Ruvena hissed in a breath.

“Keran.”

Kate elbowed Ruvena in the ribs, but only succeeded in bruising herself on the soldier’s armor. Kate and Ruvena both shot each other a glance, but the templars were too out of it to notice the disturbance.

“The Herald ain’t going to pay for this fool,” the second templar scowled.

“Then what’s Hugh keepin’ him for?”

“Said they were friends once. Gonna try and turn ‘im.”

Kate had thought Ruvena looked angry before, but she hadn’t seen anything yet. Fury blazed in the woman’s eyes.

“Those sacks of shit,” she hissed.

“Ruvena!” Kate warned, but before Kate could stop her, the lieutenant shot forward, charging the clearing.

“Try and turn this, you bastards!” she shouted.

Holy Maker, Kate thought. The woman thought nothing of charging two templars. Thankfully, Ruvena had more than just a hobbled herald at her side. Cassandra roared and burst from the trees, clearly glad for an opportunity to join the fight.

The Seeker and soldier slammed into the templars in unison. As Kate frantically threw a weak barrier spell over them, three more templars charged the clearing. Kate tried to gather her magic again, but at that moment, three lightning bolts shot up from the ground, skewering each of the newcomers. They wriggled like fish caught on spears. A trio of arrows whistled out from behind a tree stump, taking advantage of the immobile, closely grouped targets. One hit a templar in the leg, the other in the chest, and the third templar was shot through the throat.

As Kate watched, Cassandra and Ruvena took out the first two templars in almost identical attacks. Both of them bashed the templars with their shields, then slashed at the men’s necks. Kate was awed by the sheer strength of the two. Cassandra severed her opponent’s head from his shoulders. Ruvena, who was carrying a much shorter sword, stabbed her templar through the jugular. He went down in a burbling fountain of blood.

Another templar burst into the clearing, rushing for Cassandra. Kate tried to summon a spell to aid the Seeker, but no sooner did Kate reach for the Fade than she found her magic was blocked. The Veil now felt solid, like ice over flowing water. Kate’s left hand began sparking in response.

Damn templars, Kate thought, scowling. Even low on lyrium, they could stopper up a mage’s magic. And now Kate had nothing but her staff to fight with.

No, not just her staff, Kate realized. She raised her left hand, shouting the loudest battle cry she could muster. It sounded rather silly to Kate’s ears, but it was effective. As she had anticipated, the wounded templars turned to stare at her, thinking her mark had resisted their dispel. At the same moment, Kate pointed her staff at one of the attacking templar’s, and shot a shard of ice neatly into his eyes.

It was a pretty dirty trick, really. And yet, Kate didn’t regret it for a second. She wasn’t about to play fair with an addled, lyrium-hungry templar. Her feint was all that Cassandra needed. The Seeker spun around and smashed into the attacking knight. More arrows flew, more lightning speared down from the clear sky, and Ruvena finished off the final templar with a fierce slash. Kate blinked and looked around, taking in the gruesome scene. Blood pooled all around her, reeking of iron and the damp, deep-cave smell of lyrium.

“Is that all of them?” Kate asked.

“I’ll check,” Cassandra said. “You see to the boy.”

Ruvena didn’t need to be told twice. She ran to Keran’s side, gently rolling him over onto his back.

“Oh, shit,” the woman murmured. “Herald! He’s alive, but he’s not waking up.”

“I’m coming,” Kate said, heading in her direction. “Make sure we’re safe here,” she told Varric and Solas. They both nodded and followed after Cassandra.

“What’s wrong with him?” Ruvena demanded, as Kate crouched down over the young man.

“I’m not sure,” Kate replied. It then occurred to her that she probably should have kept Solas around for his healing abilities. Kate wasn’t much of a healer to begin with. With the weirdness of her mark and the lingering suppression of the Fade, she could manage little more than a pain-relief spell. She pressed her glowing hands to Keran’s chest, but this only caused him to groan and turn his head to one side.

“Was that supposed to do something?” Ruvena asked, frowning at her. “Heal him already!”

“I’m trying to,” Kate said irritably. “My magic is…” She glanced at Ruvena’s worried expression, then decided not to waste time making excuses for herself. Instead, Kate reached for her belt and drew out one of Coll’s elfroot potions.

Kate carefully lifted Keran’s head, then poured the potion down his throat. She sent up a quick prayer that this would work, and it seemed that for once, the Maker was listening. The young man blinked up at them with wide blue eyes, then began coughing.

“R-Ruvena?” he rasped, when he had use of his voice again.

The other soldier gave him a relieved smile.

“Maker’s breath, Keran. One kidnapping wasn’t enough for a lifetime? Wanted another crack at it?”

“This has happened before?” Kate asked.

“Yes,” Ruvena said, nodding down at the young man. “He’s an idiot.”

“Oh, thanks for that,” Keran said, coughing. “It wasn’t on purpose. I saw Hugh. He was right near the village and I thought… We knew him, Ruvena.”

“You knew one of these templars?” Kate asked, frowning. How awful, Kate thought, to know one of these people from before, and then lose them to this madness.

“What, you thought you could reason with him just because you knew him?” Varric wandered back into the clearing, snorting at Keran’s words. “Never works in the stories and it sure doesn’t work in real life.”

“He was a friend once,” Keran said, defensively.

“Well damn him to the abyss,” Ruvena snapped. “We’ve been tracking these templars for the better half of the day, and they’re all sacks of shit. The Herald can attest to that.”

Kate wouldn’t have put it in quite so colorful of terms, but yes, she could attest to that. At the mention of Kate’s title, Keran’s eyes went wide.

“The Herald?” he asked, trying to sit up. “You’re the Herald?”

Kate wrinkled her nose. “So they keep saying.”

“The glowing hand kind of gives it away,” Varric quipped.

“I’m so sorry, Herald,” Keran said, ignoring Varric’s witticism. “I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just that we heard…”

“We heard a lot of rubbish,” Ruvena filled in for him. “Stuff about you being a murderer - then about you being a saint. But whatever they say, you proved yourself today, Herald.” She gave Kate a short nod, then turned to Keran. “She cleaned out the Crossroads, Keran. Our soldiers are alive because of her.”

“They’re alive because of the Inquisition,” Kate said. “My magic isn’t much good in a fight just now.”

“It was useful enough,” Ruvena said. “Magic that helps is good magic.” She cast Keran a warning look.

“Of course,” Keran said, quickly. “I wasn’t taking issue with the rescue party. We may have been templars once, but I have no problem with mages like you, Herald.”

“Wait,” Kate blinked at them. “You were templars? Both of you?”

“Yeah,” Varric answered for them. “They were templars. The not-crazy kind, as you can see.”

Maker, Kate thought. First Cullen, now these two. Who would have guessed that there were so many former templars in the Inquisition ranks? It did explain Ruvena’s skill with a blade, however. Kate was beginning to think that if she ever wanted to become a warrior, Chantry training was the way to go.

At that moment, Cassandra returned. The Seeker stomped into the clearing, a look of pure disgust on her face. Solas followed behind, looking more solemn than usual.

“Cowards,” Cassandra snapped.

“I’m sorry,” Kate frowned, her brows drawing together. “I thought you had things well in hand. I didn’t know you wanted us to follow you.”

“I did have things well in hand,” Cassandra replied. “I didn’t mean you, Herald. I meant these templars. No,” she scowled. “Not even templars. They are unworthy of the title. These men are rogues.” She said this as if it were the worst insult she could think of.

“Are the rest of them dead?” Ruvena asked.

“Well, at least we saved someone,” Varric said, nodding his head at Keran. “Nothing but corpses back there.” He hiked a thumb over his shoulder.

“There has been too much life taken this day,” Solas said, shaking his head sadly. “It seems these templars have no law but hate.”

“The apostates haven’t been much better,” Ruvena snapped, glaring at the elf.

“Enough,” Kate said, cutting them both off. “These people are attacking innocents, and they all need to be stopped. It doesn’t matter which side they came from.”

There was a moment in which everyone just stared at Kate in silence. Then Varric snorted, and muttered:

“A voice of reason. And in the middle of an Inquisition, too. Who would have thought?”

Cassandra scowled at the dwarf, but Kate quickly held out a hand.

“This has gotten to all of us,” she said. “Let’s just get Keran back to the Crossroads. We can set out for the apostate stronghold from there.”

“The apostates?” Solas asked her, his eyes narrowing.

“Once they learn the templars are dead, they’ll try to press their advantage,” Kate pointed out. “We can try to reason with them, but…”

She didn’t bother to finish that sentence. They all knew that reasoning with the apostates would go over as well as reasoning with the templars.

“You’d fight your own?” Keran asked Kate, his brows furrowing.

“My own what?” Kate blinked at him, not quite understanding the question.

“Your fellow mages,” the young man clarified.

Kate snorted in disgust. “I think we’ve established that these mages are not mine any more than these templars are yours,” she replied. “Come on.”

Kate tried to help Ruvena haul Keran to his feet, but in armor, the man was awfully heavy. Cassandra hurried to his side and the two female warriors helped Keran stagger away from the clearing and down the path. Kate stood there feeling a bit foolish. Kate had known she wasn’t very physically strong, but she’d never been so aware of it as she was now.

Solas fell in line behind the warriors, and Kate and Varric followed after. They had only walked a few paces when Varric turned to Kate with a bemused smile.

“You know,” the dwarf said, “I wasn’t so sure about you when we met, but now I can safely say that I’m glad you’re the one in charge.”

“I’m not in charge,” Kate replied, feeling a bit self-conscious. “I’m just the woman with the mark.”

“You also have some useful magic,” Varric pointed out. “And the ability to tell people what they need to hear. That’s rarer than you think.”

“I doubt that,” Kate said. “Well,” she amended, “I believe in the power of well-crafted words. I’m just not sure that’s a gift I have. Still, it’s kind of you to say so.”

“I’m not being kind,” Varric said. “I have many vices, but flattery isn’t one of them. Consider this my warning.”

“Warning?” Kate frowned. “Of what?”

“Of where it goes from here. I’ve seen this all before, Herald of Andraste. The stuff you’re doing? Taking out the bad guys, closing rifts, hell, just getting shit done? This is how legends get started, mark my words. I predict that by the time we get done here in the Hinterlands, they’re going to be singing your praises.”

“I sincerely hope you’re joking, Varric.”

“Not at all,” the dwarf replied. “These people already think you’re sent from the Maker. You keep helping people out like this and it’s only going to get worse. I’m just saying,” he added pushing back a branch, “You’d better brace yourself. I’m kind of getting the impression that you don’t like being the center of attention.”

“I don’t,” Kate said.

“Well,” Varric laughed. “Better get used to it.”