In general, Robert was happiest when he was the center of attention. Short of that, he preferred being in the middle of a loud party. In a pinch, Robert could stand to sit by and watch other people have a good time, but Robert hated being alone.
Actually, Robert thought, this was worse than being alone. There was someone out there in that low, foggy passageway before him, but Robert hadn’t spotted the bloke yet. He kept hearing a hissing voice echo through the fog, but he couldn’t quite tell where the sound was coming from. Creepier still, Robert felt certain that someone was watching him. And it wasn’t the pleasant, pretty-woman-making-eyes-at-you-from-across-the-inn sort of watching. This was more like an I’ll-shiv-you-in-the-guts-when-you-step-into-the-alley-to-take-a-piss sort of watching, and Robert didn’t like it. This room was far too dark and foggy to be certain which direction his assailants might be coming from. He wasn’t even sure where he was, exactly, or how he’d gotten here.
The last that Robert remembered, he’d been rattling around in the bottom of a cart, surrounded by sheep and bags of food. Robert had woken up just long enough to spot Freddy, walking alongside the wagon. The bastard then drugged Robert again, and Robert remembered nothing more of his journey.
Now, however, Robert had a good chance of escape. He had woken this time to find himself alone, his bonds had been cut, and he was… Well, he had no idea where he was, really. It looked a bit like a dungeon, for there were stone arches all around, holding up a low ceiling. The corridor seemed to go on forever. As for the ground, it was springy, like turf, and covered with a low, oily-looking fog that appeared to bubble up from underfoot. Yet, when Robert reached down to feel the ground, it felt smooth and cold like rock.
It was, Robert had expertly concluded, very odd. He suspected that whatever he’d been drugged with was still in his system. But as he was moving forward, he didn’t worry about that too much. He was more worried about running into the person whose voice echoed down the dark passage. The voice sounded like the slithering of snakes - or a rat’s feet scrabbling over stones.
Robert was now thinking that all his previous escape experience wasn’t going to translate very well to his particular situation. Robert had sneaked in and out of a few bedrooms. He’d even gotten himself free of silken ties a time or two. But this underground labyrinth was taxing all his sense of direction (virtually non-existent) and all his stores of patience (likewise, meager). He was growing quite annoyed now, for he half suspected he’d been wandering around in circles for…
Huh, Robert thought, his feet slowing to a stop. How long had he been down here? The only light in this place was dim and greenish and gave no sense of the days passing. But surely he couldn’t have been here for long, Robert reasoned. He wasn’t hungry or thirsty and was not at all tired. In fact, he felt sort of weightless. That, too, was likely a lingering effect of Freddy’s drugs. Added to all that, this damn song was stuck in his head. He kept thinking he knew the tune, but he couldn’t recall the words. It was a haunting melody, and it did nothing to improve the mood of this dreary dungeon or sewer or whatever the hell he was wandering around in.
Just then, Robert heard the echoing voice again, like rustling in dry grass. But this time, the passing words were hissed directly into his hear.
Robert spun around, reaching for an arrow, only to find he carried no weapon.
“Who’s there?” Robert demanded. He peered into the darkness, but saw nothing. “Who are you?”
“Who are you?” Robert’s own voice echoed back from the endless corridors, yet it seemed to have taken on a second sound. The reverberation added an eerie quality to it, as if someone else was asking that question.
What a horrible place, Robert thought. The song continued to play in his mind, tantalizingly familiar, and yet just beyond recollection.
Show me who you are. The echoing voice hissed over the top of the melody.
And then, quite suddenly, the song in Robert’s mind had words. A whole verse unfurled in his mind, as if it were a bit of string that had suddenly become untangled.
I am the maid Who draws the waves Down every shipwreck's side. I seek the one Who curse-marked me And cost my true love's life.
Right, Robert thought, with a sudden pang. That was how the song went. It was one of those awful sailor ballads about a beautiful woman who died at sea for no reason whatsoever. For reasons Robert could not fathom, his mother used to sing it as a lullaby. And for reasons he could not fathom, the song suddenly brought a vision with it.
Suddenly, Robert was there again. Or rather, he was then.
All at once, the dreary corridor faded from his sight, and Robert stood in Trevelyan House, in the hallway outside his uncle Maxwell’s study. The paneled walls about him were polished and bright, and outside the windows, the sun was shining just like it had on that awful day. And somehow, Robert knew exactly what day it was, as if he’d been given a script for this scene and was now just following along.
He watched as his father and his uncle Maxwell walked right by him and into the open doorway. He watched as his uncle poured two tumblers of Starkhaven whiskey, and offered Robert’s father a drink. Robert watched as his father tossed the thing back in one gulp, then handed Uncle Maxwell the glass. And as the two men began speaking, Robert was so caught up in the memory that he didn’t even think to wonder how this was happening or where the dark corridor had gone.
“She’s not coming back,” Uncle Maxwell said. Uncle’s voice sounded familiar, and yet, somehow, it wasn’t quite the same. The words were strangely distorted, as if spoken by two throats.
“It doesn’t matter,” came the reply. Robert’s father spoke in the same two-voiced way. “The marriage stands and the alliance is secure. That’s all that matters.”
Robert was less struck by the strange resonance of their voices as by how much these men looked like each other. They were both very tall, with broad, straight shoulders that would never bow to anything - not joy, not grief, not anger or pain.
“And her new lover?” Robert heart Uncle Maxwell say.
“He’s a boy with no prospects,” his father replied coolly. “They require an income, not a marriage.”
“So we provide her with an allowance and that’s the end of it?”
“She understands the situation. So does her family. And the Antivan contacts have seen all this before. What matters is that our family names are connected. No one cares whose bed she’s sleeping in.”
Robert swallowed, and a dark, oily sort of feeling slid around inside of his stomach. As a child, he’d only vaguely understood what had happened that day. Now, he heard these words with the mind of a man. And yet, in a way, he also heard them with the heart of a child.
Robert held his breath, waiting for the answer. He watched as his father shrugged. He watched as his father turned away, watched for a flash of hurt or pain or any emotion at all. Robert saw nothing but cold disdain.
“Lends a bit of Orlesian flair to the whole thing, don’t you think?” his father asked, dryly. “That can only help our standing with the investors from Val Royeaux.”
Robert felt anger bubble up within him at his father’s cool sarcasm. It was like father couldn’t even care enough to hate her. Robert had inherited that same quick wit, but in this moment, he hated his father for it. But what made Robert really furious was that he knew what came next. He braced himself as Uncle Maxwell turned to his father and asked:
“What about the boy?”
Robert felt small now - so very small. He was so little that his father and his uncle couldn’t even see him here. They hadn’t seen him - not on that day, not now. Surely father couldn’t have said it and known that Robert was listening.
“The boy?” his father asked. “What about him?”
Uncle Maxwell turned to pour another pair of whiskeys. “I just wondered what you planned to do with him. With his mother gone…”
“I don’t see any need to change his living arrangements,” Robert heard his father say. “Unless it will be a problem to keep him here. I suppose I can speak to the Chantry about taking him earlier than anticipated.”
Damn it all, Robert thought. It was like father was discussing how to best pack his luggage.
“There’s no need for that,” Robert heard his uncle say. “Robert and Katerina spend most of their time running the grounds or climbing trees. I never see them. Those two are thick as thieves.”
“They are that,” Robert heard his father say. He didn’t sound especially pleased about it, but then, father never seemed pleased by anything.
“You’re sure the boy’s mother won’t come for him?”
Robert sucked in a breath, for he knew what the answer would be. His father snorted, showing a brief flash of one emotion at least. That emotion was clearly disgust.
“I asked her that,” his father said.
“And she said she wouldn’t wish to deprive me of the only proof that we’d ever had relations at all.”
“Shocking,” Uncle Maxwell muttered. “No sense of propriety.”
“And this is why I won’t be going after her. Everything has turned out for the best. I’m quite pleased, really.”
Father gave a thin smile, said ‘cheers,’ and downed his drink. At the same moment, Robert saw the scene fall away. He felt as though he was shrinking, growing smaller and smaller still. He was tiny as a mouse now, curled up on the…
On the stone floor of a dungeon.
Robert blinked, looking around. He was in a proper dungeon, now - inside a cell, even, looking out through a grid of metal bars. He was most certainly not in Trevelyan House, Robert realized. And he was a grown man again, not a child, for all that he was getting all weepy like one. Blast it, Robert thought, blinking back tears. Where the hell had that memory come from? And why had it seemed so real?
This was why he always avoided being alone, Robert thought angrily. This was why he far preferred the noise of a tavern to the noise inside his head. The quiet made him think of how he was always being left behind.
Annoyed, Robert shoved at the door of the cell, but of course, it didn’t budge. He was locked in, it seemed, and that made him wonder just how long he’d been lying here, hallucinating.
Suddenly, that snaky voice was in his head again, all scaly and dry and shifting:
Katerina left you, too. Didn’t she?
Robert froze. Well, maybe the hallucinations weren’t over yet, he thought. The visions were gone, but the echo remained. But this voice - imagined or not - was spouting utter rubbish. Robert knew that Kate hadn’t left him. She’d been taken away - taken away screaming and crying and casting spells all over place. Uncle Max had been beside himself, wondering how he would get all that ice cleaned off of the front steps.
No, the slithering voice said. Katerina left, just as your mother left. And don’t you hate your cousin for it?
No, Robert thought, frowning. No, he didn’t hate Kate. Kate was probably the only relative he didn’t hate in some way or other.
Lies! the hissing voice said. Let me see her!
But just as Robert was beginning to wonder how long these drug-induced visions would last, another voice started talking.
“Ice on the roses,” someone said, soft and low and urgent. “Ice on the fountain and the door frame and the carriage window. But the house went cold the moment the morning sun melted away her magic.”
Ooookay, Robert thought, looking up at the ceiling of his cell. This was getting very weird. Evidently, the templars had decided to loosen Robert up with their drugs and then they planned to do that ‘sifting’ thing that Freddy had talked about.
“Not sifting but searching.” It was the soft voice now, the one that sounded more like a poem than a snake. “You’re hurting, hungry, hasty. What happens to the hammer when there are no more nails?”
For a split second, Robert could have sworn he was alone in the dungeon, listening to disembodied voices. But then he blinked and someone was actually there - standing on the other side of the bars. The someone appeared to be a boy in rags, who wore an enormous hat.
“How long have you been here?” Robert demanded, shooting to his feet.
“It’s…hard to say,” the boy replied. “Time isn’t the same in here.”
He spoke from under the brim of his hat, so that Robert couldn’t see his face. But the boy didn’t have reddened veins on his hands or any visible weapons, so Robert supposed that was a mark in his favor.
“What happened to the templars?” Robert demanded. “Are they still out there?”
“Yes,” the boy replied. “I followed them, but they didn’t know I was there. They can’t see me, not as they are. Red, raw, roaring. Old songs splintered with old rage. It broods and breeds and bruises, blighted and blistering. Never again quiet. Never again still. Why won’t the singing stop?”
Robert cocked his head to one side. “Uh…”
He had nothing to say to that. Robert licked his lips, trying to formulate a polite way of asking, ‘is there something wrong with you?’ when the boy raised his head. Robert looked into the boy’s wide, overly-bright blue eyes, and realization struck.
The boy was mad. Clearly. Robert had no clue how or why the crazy boy had wandered into this dungeon. Yet, it struck Robert as oddly fitting, given his recent run of bad luck. He had been hoping for help, and the only person in sight was the village idiot.
“This is not a village,” the boy said. “It’s you.”
Robert frowned. Had he said that aloud? Oh well. The boy hadn’t seemed to take offense.
“Look, um…boy,” Robert said, aiming for politeness. “Can you help me get out of here?”
“Yes,” the boy replied. He almost made it sound like a question, but at least he’d answered in the affirmative. Robert sighed with relief. Robert’s smile quickly faded, however, for the boy didn’t move a muscle. He remained on the other side of the bars, standing perfectly still. It didn’t even look like he was breathing.
“Right,” Robert said. “Now, this is the part where you help me find a way to open this door.”
“That won’t do you any good,” the boy said. “You have to get out, first.”
“Yeesss…” Robert drew the word out very slowly. “I have to get out first. That’s the point.”
“But you’re still in,” the boy said.
Robert raised a brow. “You don’t say.”
“You have to break free,” the boy said. “Then you have to stay free. If you slip, he’ll find you, bind you, make you in again. The longer you’re in, the less you’re out. The belly gnaws with hunger, but the mouth can’t feed.”
Robert gritted his teeth and tried again: “If you could just find me a hairpin or something, then I can pick the lock.”
“I gave all the hairpins to the woman who ran away. She needed them to hide her hair in the blacksmith’s hat.”
“Of course you did,” Robert muttered. Alright. It seemed that asking the crazy boy for help was a mistake after all.
“You have to hurry,” the boy said, urgently. “He wants to hold you, grip you, break you…”
“No one is going to break me,” Robert said firmly, shivering at the boy’s creepy, cryptic words. “If I can get out of this cell and find a bow and some arrows, I can handle the rest.”
“You can’t shoot an arrow into your own head,” the boy replied, looking distraught now. “That won’t help at all.”
“Shoot an arrow into my…” Robert gave up. “Look, please just find me a bit of metal or something - anything - that could fit in that lock.”
“Only you fit into the lock,” the boy replied.
Robert looked down at his body - all six and a half feet of it - and then rolled his eyes. “Oh for the love of the Golden City,” he muttered.
“He doesn’t love the Golden City,” the boy said, nervously. “He hates it. He ran from it. That’s why he wants you. He wants to sort you, search you, learn you. But you can endure that. You did just now, you see.”
“I…” Robert stared at the boy. “No,” he said. “No, I don’t see. Alright, never mind. I’ll let you go and do…whatever it was you were doing before you came down here.”
“But you wanted company,” the boy told him. “You were lonely.”
Robert opened his mouth, but no sound came out.
“I heard you,” the boy continued. “You’re quieter than them, hard to hear over their pain. A boy in a corridor: small, silent, solemn. Longing for laughter when every mouth was folded in a frown.”
Robert licked his lips and opened his mouth again. It was no use. He still couldn’t think of anything to say to this oddly insightful lunatic.
“It’s lonely here,” the boy told him, sadly. “That’s why you avoid being inside, why you make it loud outside so the laughter filters in. But you don’t have to be afraid of this place. I can guard you. I can guide you. When he presses in, I can help you find the loopholes. Every mind has back doors. Look for them. Learn them.”
“See here,” Robert said, determined to get some sense or help out of this boy if it was the last thing he did. “Just help me find a lock pick and…”
“I found this,” the boy said. He held out his hand. In it lay a shiny red apple.
“I’m not hungry,” Robert said.
As soon as he said that, the words struck Robert as strange. He was always hungry.
“Follow your hunger,” the boy urged him. “Real hunger, true hunger, is meant to be filled. Some longings are lovely. They lead to better things.”
“Better things,” Robert repeated.
“His longing is violent, vengeful,” the boy said, quietly. “Dark, dangerous, dragging-down desires. He wants to deny you so that he can feed.”
Robert had no idea what that meant. All he knew was that as he stared at that apple, he seemed to remember…hunger. He remembered how good it felt to eat something after a long day of travel, and as he stared at that apple, the walls around him seemed to melt. The boy held the fruit perfectly still. A statue couldn’t have been that still, Robert thought. And then, quite suddenly, there was a snarl. It sounded like the snaky voice of before. Then there was a bursting sort of sensation, and Robert sat up with a start.
Robert blinked his eyes once, twice, and looked around in surprise. The world felt…real. Well, more real, rather. The hazy half-light from before had become real moonlight trickling down from a high window overhead.
Robert now saw that he was in a cell, in a dungeon, and most decidedly alone. There was no foggy corridor, no polished hallway, only damp stone walls about him and a metal door to keep him penned. Robert tried rattling the door of his cage, but it didn’t budge. And it was one of those old Antivan-style locks, too. They were tricky to pick, even if Robert had a proper set of tools on him. Just to be sure, he checked his pockets. No, he found. He had nothing on him but his clothes.
But at least the slithering voice was gone, Robert thought. The big-hat boy was gone, too, which made Robert feel a bit lonely. He really had been drugged too long, Robert thought, if he was willing to stoop to imagined company. He was also ravenously hungry, he now realized. His stomach growled so badly that it actually hurt. What he would not give for that dream-apple now, Robert thought.
Then, as he peered out into dungeon, something caught Robert’s eye.
There was the apple. It was red and shining and so like his dream that Robert drew back a little. Lying beside the apple was a loaf of bread. It smelled hot and yeasty and there was a hunk of cheese out there, too. For a moment Robert wondered if he ought to eat it, but that moment quickly passed. One should never turn down a good Ferelden cheese, even if it was lying on the damp floor of a dungeon. Robert eagerly reached through the bars, grabbing each item and carefully setting it into his lap. Robert was just thinking that he wished he had something to drink with all this food, when a tankard had appeared outside of his cell. Robert blinked. He must have missed it before. He reached for the mug eagerly, hoping it contained a good Denerim lager.
It was milk, Robert realized in disappointment. He drew the mug through the bars of his cell carefully, so as not to spill a single drop. Robert stared at the meal, feeling wary, but thankful that someone had seen fit to feed him. He would have preferred some lock picks, honestly, but food was necessary, too. Robert wondered for a moment if he was still dreaming, but he wasn’t going to argue with Ferelden cheese. He set into his food and began to eat.
And yet, as he ate, Robert could not shake the feeling that the walls were closing in around him. He tried to ignore it, but the dark pressure of the empty dungeon rested over him like a great, damp hand. For a moment, Robert thought there were eyes watching him from the corner - and not vacant blue ones. But when he looked in that direction, Robert saw no one there. Doing his best to ignore all this, Robert shivered and returned to his meal.
He hated being alone.