Kate pulled her cloak tightly around her shoulders as she walked out into the night. It was growing cold under the trees, but right now all Kate wanted was a moment alone.
It was incredible how two weeks could change so much, she thought. When she had first arrived at the Crossroads, Kate had been too afraid of the wilderness to head out into the darkness alone. But now that the Hinterlands were finally secure, Kate welcomed the quiet of the woodland night. She continued along the well-worn path up the hill, until she came to a low stone wall that ringed a little clearing among the trees. Judging by the smooth stones set at intervals in the grass, it was a graveyard. Far from finding that alarming, Kate welcomed the quiet company of the resting dead.
Kate hopped up on the wall, letting her feet dangle down, the toes of her boots touching the top of the long grass. Startled by her sudden arrival, a little fennec went dashing off across the clearing. Kate watched him go, his large ears like little silver sails in the moonlight.
“I still can’t believe it,” Kate heard someone say. The voice was loud in the still of the night. “I was comin’ down from the scout camp this afternoon, and I watch the Herald of Andraste head out huntin’. But she doesn’t just shoot a bow like any normal body would. No, no. She uses her magic to flash freeze a mess of rams. Big ones, too. Just one after the other, she freezes ‘em right in their tracks. Then she and that Seeker pack ‘em onto their horses, and bring ‘em into town, all fresh and ready to eat and easy as you please. Like they was deliverin’ from the butcher. The peasants were so stunned, you could have knocked ‘em over with a feather.”
From the creak of armor and the heavy plod of boots, Kate guessed that a couple of watchmen were passing by on their patrol. She didn’t want to eavesdrop, but she couldn’t very well sneak away without drawing attention to herself. So instead, she carefully tucked her hand behind her back, just in case it started glowing, and sat very still as the guards walked by.
“Corporal Vale was beside himself, rushing to thank ‘er,” the other man agreed. “Think he fancies her, I do.”
Oh Andraste, please no, Kate thought, cringing. Vale was nice enough, but he looked at her in that nervous, worshipful way that just made her feel strange. It was like he saw her as a Chantry statue, and not an actual person.
“With what she’s done, I think I could fancy her a little,” the first guard said. “If I can get fresh ram sandwich now and again, I’d be willin’ to overlook the freckles and the boy-hair.”
Oh, well, don’t do me any favors, Kate thought, rolling her eyes.
“Never thought a mage would help anyone,” the second fellow said. “Don’t care for naught but their own troubles, they don’t.”
Kate frowned at that. She didn’t like hearing mages disparaged, but she had to admit there was something to the man’s words. Fighting the apostates had been awful - at least as bad as taking down the rogue templars. And the rebel mages - those Circle refugees who had neither gone crazy nor died at the Conclave - they had all holed themselves up in Redcliffe Village and refused to come out. Kate had thought she could convince them to join the Inquisition, but they hadn’t even the grace to tell her ‘no.’ When Kate knocked at the village gates, they ignored her completely.
For the past day, Kate had been mulling over that setback. She’d also been mulling over the entire mage-templar problem, wondering how things had come to such a state, wondering where the Chantry had gone so wrong. Of course, Kate hadn’t come up with anything useful or conclusive from these musing. All she had managed to do was sadden herself.
“Mage or no,” the first guard said, from further off now. “The Herald is bringing Andraste’s light to these parts. She’s doing the Maker’s work for these poor sots…” His voice trailed off as the conversation traveled out of earshot.
The Maker’s work, Kate thought, sighing. No, the Inquisition soldiers were the heroes here. Kate was just the mage with the mark.
It really wasn’t right, she thought. It wasn’t right that a squabble between mages and templars made casualties out of innocent farmers. It it also wasn’t right that Kate’s paltry efforts on the farmers’ behalf should earn her so much gratitude. Their work here had been difficult and bloody, and not at all like bringing light to the darkness.
And yet, Kate thought, maybe that’s what bringing light was all about. Maybe it was dirty and messy and far more physical than she had expected. She hadn’t brought certainty or prophesy like Andraste had, but Kate had brought food and bedrolls. She’d helped kill demons and she’d closed rifts. Maybe that was enough. Maybe, Kate supposed, the best thing one could do to spread the Chant of Light was just to shut up and hand out some bread.
“Hey. You alright?”
Kate turned at the sound. Unlike the other speakers, this voice had become quite familiar to Kate by now.
“Hello Varric,” she said.
“Just came to check on you. You okay, Duchess?”
“Duchess?” Kate repeated. “No, I’m just a lady. Besides, it’s Wycome that has a duke. In Ostwick, we have banns.”
Varric shook his head. “It’s a nickname,” he explained. “I could call you ‘Worship’ like everyone else, but that’s not really my style.”
“Or you could call me ‘Kate,’” she suggested.
“That’s really not my style,” Varric laughed. “So tell me, Duchess. What’s bothering you? You seemed worn out this evening. More so than usual, I mean.”
“I just needed some space.”
Kate hadn’t meant to say that aloud, but the words slipped out before she could think better of it. She sighed and looked down at her hands. In the moonlight, they were pale and the mark didn’t even shimmer.
“Ah,” Varric said, knowingly. “Understood. Want me to leave you alone, then?”
“No, that’s fine,” Kate told him, hastily. “I don’t mind your company, Varric. It’s just the, um…”
“The adoring crowds that you could do without?” he suggested. As he spoke, he turned and leaned his back against the wall on which Kate sat.
Kate gave him a rueful smile. “Just so.”
“If you didn’t want the crowds, then I don’t know why we decided to stay the night at the Crossroads. Even the cultists weren’t as weird around you as these villagers are.”
“They did offer us beds,” Kate reminded him. “Real ones. And I’m pretty tired of sleeping on the ground. It’s so hard and…ground-like.”
“So what were we doing setting up camps all over the place for?” Varric wanted to know.
“To garner influence or…something,” Kate shrugged. “To tempt bears into attacking us? I forget. Anyhow, we head for Haven in the morning.”
“Right,” Varric nodded. “The message from Nightingale. They need you back at the war table for…?” He glanced over at her expectantly.
“Leliana didn’t say,” Kate replied, rubbing her eyes with her thumb and forefinger.
“Heh,” Varric snorted. “She wouldn’t. I’m hoping she wants to reward us for our hard work with a pint at the tavern. Maybe a week’s furlough. You think?”
“Doubtful,” Kate said, smiling. “But at least wherever they send us next, we can ride there instead of walking.”
Of course, Kate thought, that would likely just make her rear end sore instead of her feet.
“Egh,” Varric grimaced. “Don’t remind me about those beasts. That thing you picked up for me is a druffalo, I swear.”
“It is not,” Kate said, laughing. “It’s a pony.”
“It’s a druffalo,” Varric insisted. “I think Fereldens take pride in making all their animals bigger than they ought to be, just to mess with the Orlesians.”
Kate chuckled. The horses they’d borrowed from the local farmers were enormous beasts. But Master Dennet had promised Kate that if she could help him build some watchtowers and set up regular patrols through the Hinterlands, he’d find her something a bit speedier. Kate was willing to take that deal.
“You know though,” Varric said, nodding down the hill at the village lights, “I did call this, if you remember.”
“Call it?” Kate asked him. “What do you mean, you called it?”
“I said you’d be a legend, and I was right,” Varric said, folding his arms over his chest. “You give them some ram’s meat, and the next thing you know, you called down venison from the heavens. You take out a qunari Arishok in hand-to-hand combat, and next thing you know, you’re the Champion.”
“If you are implying that my story is anything like Hawke’s,” Kate said, very precisely, “Then I thank you for the compliment, but I’ll happily pass on that comparison.”
“Aw, come on,” Varric said. “Hawke’s story wasn’t that bad.”
Kate shot him a doubtful look.
“Hey,” Varric shrugged. “Hawke was a hero. She saved the day. Okay, alright, it wasn’t the cheeriest ending. But she survived, at least.”
“She barely escaped Kirkwall with her life,” Kate pointed out. “And you never did say if she and her lover, Anders, were still together at the end of it all.”
“You read my books?” Varric asked, deftly avoiding her question about Anders. Kate cast him a sidelong glance, but she didn’t press him, either.
“I think every mage in the world read it, if they could get their hands on it,” Kate replied. “We all wanted to know what had happened - and then, frankly, we couldn’t put it down. It was fascinating, and quite well written, too.”
“You flatter me,” Varric said, but his tone said he was loving it.
“Of course,” Kate nodded. “You’re an author. I plan to stay on your good side.”
“Ah, see,” Varric chuckled and wagged a stubby finger at her. “I knew I liked you, Duchess.”
“Well, that’s one companion I’ve impressed then.”
“Don’t tell me Cassandra is still giving you grief.”
“No,” Kate said, thoughtfully. “She’s…well, I don’t know if she’s warmed to me or not. She’s a bit prickly.”
“That’s like calling a giant ‘tall’.”
“I’ve yet to see her smile,” Kate said. “But I don’t imagine she has much to smile about these days. None of us do.”
“She only threatened you for a day, and since then she’s been calling you ‘Herald.’ I’d say you’ve won her over. Now Solas, eh… I don’t think he likes you so much.”
“He’s wary of Circle mages. I would be too, if I were an apostate.”
“He’s pretty powerful though, isn’t he?” Varric asked. “I mean, I’ve known my share of apostates, but none of them were quite that… What’s the word I’m looking for…”
“Wily,” Kate said. “It’s like he grabs hold of the underside of the Veil and shakes it. I’ve never seen anything like it. I think I’d tear myself in two if I tried to do the same.”
“Is that what he’s doing?” Varric asked, rubbing his chin. “I just feel a lot of static and my hair stands on end when he starts casting. And considering most of my hair is on my chest, it’s uncomfortable. Maybe that’s why the elf shaved himself.”
“Maybe,” Kate said, chuckling.
“Yeah,” Varric laughed. “I’m just still not used to the magic stuff. Even after all those years fighting alongside Hawke - Anders, too. Well, hell, I tried to steer clear of the whole mage mess.”
“And look where you are now,” Kate pointed out.
“Exactly,” Varric sighed. “There’s irony in all this. I tried to stay neutral about the mage-templar thing, and I’ve been in the thick of it every since.”
“Neutral?” Kate repeated, giving him a curious look. “You weren’t exactly neutral in ‘The Tale of the Champion.’”
“Sure I was,” Varric said. He sounded a bit defensive to Kate’s ears. “I never took a side.”
“Maybe not outright,” Kate replied, “but Anders was an awfully sympathetic character.”
“Sympathetic? He was the guy who blew up the Kirkwall Chantry and started this war. Or did you miss the ending of the book?”
“I didn’t miss it,” Kate replied. “But you made it sound like it was inevitable. You went to great lengths to show just how far gone Meredith was. She was a powerful woman who had a lot of influence and instead of defending her, you stood up for a penniless refugee who hid out in Darktown.”
“Yeah, well, stories sell better if the audience has an underdog to root for.”
“You had a spirit of Justice speak through Anders whenever he got angry about mages,” Kate said. “You might as well be telling the Chantry that the Maker himself frowned on their actions.”
“Huh,” Varric said, his brows drawing together. “You really did read my book.”
“I did,” Kate nodded. “And I kept thinking that if you wanted to get Hawke out of trouble, you could have just made Anders out to be a villain. Everyone would have blamed him and pitied her. But you didn’t. You told his story with compassion.”
“There’s a reason for that,” Varric shrugged, “If I hadn’t told the truth about Anders, Hawke would have had my hide. Even after everything, she… Well,” he shifted nervously and glanced at the village lights.
“Look,” he said, “Don’t go discussing that book with Cassandra, okay? I think she missed the subtext. Along with some other things…” Kate thought she heard him mutter.
“Alright,” Kate agreed. She and Varric sat there in silence for a moment, then Kate asked:
“So, what was she like?”
“Yes,” Kate nodded. “Your stories made Hawke seem larger than life and yet very human all at the same time.”
“She was. She is, I should say. Haven’t seen her in a while, but, yeah, that’s Hawke all over. Hawke didn’t make stories happen. They happened to her. She just contributed her terrible one-liners to them.” Varric chuckled to himself, then stared out into the night. “But everybody was drawn to her, you know? She lit up every room she walked into. Moths to flame, and all that.”
“You were drawn to her?”
“Of course,” he replied. “I’ve got a weakness for trouble and good stories, and Hawke was full of both. I guess we were all like that - Isabela, Fenris, Anders. Years passed, and there we were, still drinking bad ale in the Hanged Man, still listening to Hawke’s bad jokes. It’s funny, though. I wrote all those stories down, not thinking that they would turn into this legend. It was just life, you know? A bunch of lives circling around this one woman’s crazy adventures. I made Hawke the main character of my stories. But the world - the world made her a hero. She never wanted to be a hero, you know. But it happened all the same.”
“She sounds like a very special person,” Kate observed.
“She was,” Varric nodded. “She was flawed and funny and a complete mess, frankly. I mean, geez, her and Anders…” He waved a hand at the night and fell silent.
“Yes?” Kate prompted when Varric didn’t go on. “You do realize that’s one of the parts I never quite got about your story. I could never understand how a woman as intelligent as Hawke could fall for someone so…troubled.”
“Tell me about it,” Varric sighed. “Hell, I don’t know how to explain it. I had a hard enough time trying to capture it in my stories. I mean, at first, I thought it was just a sex thing. Those first few months, they were at it all the time. But then they stayed together, and I guess it was…more? Mind you, I’m not sure that what they had was healthy. Hawke loved attention and Anders loved his glorious despair, and…shit I dunno.” Varric shrugged. “I really don’t know. I wrote it as best I could, how things looked to me on the outside. But I never fully understood it. None of us writers do. We don’t make up our characters. We just record them as accurately as we can.”
“Is that how it is?” Kate wondered.
“Yep,” Varric shrugged. “Anyhow, seeing this - mages, templars fighting? - it brings it all back.” He shook his head. “Crazy times.”
“You were there, weren’t you?” Kate said. “I don’t mean to pry, but I have wanted to ask you about it. I mean, you were there at the very beginning.”
“The beginning?” Varric snorted. “The beginning of the mage-templar problem was the founding of the Chantry. And no, I’m not that old.”
“But you were there when the Kirkwall Gallows fell.”
“Yeah, I was there,” Varric muttered. “I was there when Anders blew the Chantry, when the templars went crazy, when Curly stood up to Meredith and defended the Kirkwall mages.”
“Curly?” Kate said. She was sure Varric had said that name before, but she couldn’t recall when.
“Yeah, you know,” Varric waved a hand. “Cullen. Or Knight-Captain Cullen, as he was then.”
And just like that, Kate felt as if someone had punched her in the chest. She gasped once, then choked out:
“Yeah,” Varric said, looking over at her. “You didn’t know that?”
“Cullen?” Kate repeated, feeling like she couldn’t get enough air. “Our Cullen?”
“I didn’t realize Cullen was ‘ours’,” Varric said, turning to her with a searching look.
“I… He’s not,” Kate shook her head. “I mean, he is. I mean… You are speaking of Cullen. Back-at-camp, Cullen. Commander of the Inquisition…”
“Blonde, used-to-be-curly hair? Lot of stubble? Furry collar? Yeah. We’re talking about the same guy.” Varric was now regarding Kate with narrowed eyes.
“He was Kirkwall’s Knight-Captain?” Kate asked yet again.
“I take it that you missed that detail,” Varric said. Kate just nodded dumbly.
Yes, she had missed that detail. And now that she had it, she hardly knew what to think. When people had gossiped about the rogue knight-captain in ballrooms, Kate had pictured a hardened, paunchy, gray haired lyrium addict who had given up after a long weary fight against disorder in the Gallows. But when Kate thought of Cullen, she remembered him as a warm-eyed, smiling bear-soldier, who had made sarcastic remarks and then told her to take care of herself.
The two images collided in Kate’s mind, so startlingly dissimilar that they shattered from the impact. Her thoughts now lay scattered about her mind like so many shards of broken glass. Dazedly, Kate glanced over all the sharp considerations and contradictions and rumors, not at all sure how to fit the mass of them back together again.
The first glinting thought that caught Kate’s attention was that Cullen was awfully young for a knight-captain. Kate would have put him in his early to mid thirties, but most templars didn’t make captain until their late forties, after years of dedicated service. For Cullen to be promoted at such a young age, Meredith must have thought very highly of him. He must have been quite loyal to her, and good at his job, besides, Kate reasoned. And if Cullen had been good at his job… As a templar… In Kirkwall…
“Maker’s breath,” Kate whispered. She drew back from that fragment of thought as though it had cut her.
“Cullen didn’t mention all this when you guys were getting cozy around the war table?”
“No,” Kate said, softly. “He didn’t mention it.”
“Ah. Let me guess. You want to hear the story from the dwarf who was there. I don’t blame you,” he added, looking smug. “It’s a doozy.”
“I…” Kate trailed off uncomfortably, then softly said: “I don’t know. I’ve heard enough gossip about Kirkwall to last a lifetime.”
“I don’t deal in gossip,” Varric said, frowning at Kate in disapproval. “Rumor is for amateurs. You forget, I was there.”
True, Kate thought, and perhaps it would be good to hear the story from someone closer to the facts. Maker knew that Kate had heard enough about Kirkwall to chill her blood. She had heard stories bandied about in ballrooms, rumors shared over flutes of champagne and little frosted cakes. In the Ostwick Circle, where the mages couldn’t speak so openly, Kate had heard the tale in a different manner. Smuggled letters, pamphlets, and manifestos from the outside world made the rounds from hand to hand and desk to desk when the templars weren’t looking. While the stories differed in severity and blame, they all agreed on one thing: Kirkwall’s Gallows were more like a prison than a Circle, and the mages there had grown increasingly desperate for their freedom. And while Kate had never considered herself a revolutionary, she had wished there was some way to help the mages in Kirkwall.
Kirkwall’s Knight-Commander, Meredith, started out as a strict ruler, but that was just the beginning. Shortly after taking power, she had purged the library, burning every tome deemed ‘dangerous.’ Then she had started locking mages in their cells at night, putting them in solitary confinement for the smallest infraction. Then, according to rumor, a true reign of terror had begun. Harrowed mages had been made tranquil; mages had been abused, humiliated, raped, even killed. Anyone who aided or harbored mages was arrested - or executed in the streets as an example to others.
And Cullen had been part of all that, Kate thought, feeling sick to her stomach. The handsome man who had listened while Kate cried about Robert, who had told her that some people were just thankful that she would stick around - that same man had worked as Meredith’s knight-captain.
As knight-captain, Cullen would have been part of Meredith’s inner circle, Kate realized. He would have been tasked with carrying out her every order. And he must have known what his fellow templars were doing. So if even a fraction of the rumors from Kirkwall were true…
Kate shivered. She wrapped her arms about her shoulders, not to protect herself from the cold, but to protect her mind from the sharpness of her shattered thoughts.
”‘Mages aren’t really people,’” she said.
“Beg pardon?” Varric asked.
“In your book,” Kate said, reciting from memory now. “That’s what the Knight-Captain says to Hawke and Anders. That’s what…Cullen…said.” She frowned, then said again, “He thinks mages aren’t people.”
“He said they couldn’t be treated like people,” Varric corrected. “He… Okay, yeah, it was something pretty close to that. I recreated the line as best I could. Curly said… Oh, how did he put it? He said, ‘Mages are not like you and me. They can light a city on fire in a fit of pique.’”
Varric’s imitation of Cullen was pretty spot-on, accent and everything. But Kate felt too hurt to say anything in reply. It felt as if one of those shards of thought had lodged itself in Kate’s chest. She absently rubbed at the spot just above her heart.
“When he said shit like that,” Varric laughed, evidently not noticing Kate’s distress, “I figured Curly didn’t know that Hawke was a mage. I used to laugh about it, thinking that the joke was on him. Turns out, he knew about Hawke all along.”
“Yeah,” Varric shrugged. “I asked him about it on our way over from Kirkwall. Asked him why he’d say shit like that to Hawke and Anders, but never arrest them. He said, ‘They needed to hear the other side.’ I guess he thought he was standing up for the Order or something.”
“And why didn’t he arrest Hawke?” Kate asked, peering at him in the moonlight.
“Now that he didn’t say,” Varric said. “Just got real quiet when I asked. Maybe Meredith wouldn’t let him? I have no idea. Never could figure that guy out.”
“That makes two of us,” Kate murmured, still rubbing at her chest.
“You got an itch or something?” Varric asked her.
“No.” Kate let her hand drop. “No, I’m just…No.”
“Curly was right about some of it though,” Varric went on. “About the whole ‘light the city on fire’ thing, I mean. Anders’ fit of pique sure messed Kirkwall up good. And before that, there were blood mages everywhere. Me and Hawke took down some demon-summoning bastard every other day, it seemed like. You gotta understand, Duchess. The average Kirkwaller was just hoping someone would keep order in that chaos - even if that someone was Meredith.”
That was true, Kate thought. Every cry of ‘mage freedom!’ was inevitably countered by the equal and opposite reminder: ‘but some mages are dangerous.’ Kate had always been taught that the Circles existed for a reason, that the Chantry had the good of the common people in mind. She had always been told that her imprisonment was the price the world had to pay to keep people safe. And Kate had endured those teachings, even if she didn’t quite believe them. Now, however, after the rebellion and the Conclave and the fighting she’d seen this last week between wild mages and templars - now she didn’t know what to think anymore.
“Meredith kept a lot of her weirdness secret,” Varric added, wrinkling his nose. “Most people didn’t really know how far gone she was until the very end. I think Curly began to suspect it, though. And some of the young templars, like Ruvena and Keran and all those kids. They all looked to Cullen as Meredith began to get loopy.”
Keran and Ruvena, Kate thought, closing her eyes. Of course.
“They’re from Kirkwall, too?” she asked, her voice very small.
“Yeah,” Varric nodded. “Them and what’s-his-tattooed-face and the dim one. Curly commanded loyalty, I’ll give him that. A good chunk of the Order switched sides when he switched sides. I guess a lot of them were waiting for someone to stand up to Meredith. Not everyone in Kirkwall was comfortable with her particular brand of crazy.”
Kate nodded, then asked a question that she had heard asked many times before.
“Why did Cullen turn on Meredith?”
The question had been asked in ballrooms all over the Free Marches - in rooms all over Thedas, no doubt. Aristocrats and mages alike had speculated and theorized, and all the while Kate had regarded it as a purely academic exercise in curiosity. Now, however, Kate felt uncomfortably invested in hearing the answer. Depending on why Cullen had done what he’d done, she might be able to piece all these shards back into an accurate portrait of him again - or she might be stuck with the fragments indefinitely.
“Ah,” Varric said, wagging his finger, clearly pleased she’d asked. “Now that was something. See, here’s the set up: the Knight-Captain - Curly - has been serving the Order for years. He’s been told mages are dangerous. He’s seen that mages are dangerous. He’s been doing Meredith’s dirty work, sedating mages and shit.”
“He sedated mages?” Kate said, weakly.
“Yeah, I put that in the book, right? After Hawke’s brother got kidnapped, Curly sedated the jerks who did it. It was either that or kill them. Anyhow, that’s not the point. The point is, the Chantry gets blown. Anders - an apostate - owns up to it. Anders admits that he’s done this to start a war between mages and templars. Hawke is horrified, the First Enchanter is freaking out, and in response to all this, Meredith orders the templars to get to the Gallows so that they can annul the Circle.”
“Annul,” Kate murmured, her stomach twisting itself into an even tighter knot.
Maker’s breath. She remembered this part of the story. In theory, annulment was a kind of magical quarantine, the purging of a Circle tainted by blood magic and demons. In practice, it was a Chantry-sanctioned massacre. To annul a Circle, templars killed every mage within that tower: every last man, woman, and child.
And Cullen would had annulled the Circle of Kirkwall, Kate thought. True, he would have done that under orders, but he would have done it. The very idea left her cold with terror, as if her shards of thought had become sharp teeth at the nape of her neck.
If she had been a Kirkwall mage, Kate thought, unable to help herself, Cullen would struck her down without a thought. He would have neutralized her magic and taken her head, and that would have been the end. His handsome face would have been the last thing she saw in this world.
Kate’s arms tightened around her waist, her fingertips bruising her own ribs.
”…But that was the good part,” Varric told her.
For a moment, Kate thought he meant her nightmarish imaginings, but then she realized she must have missed some of his story as her mind had wandered.
“Because then,” Varric went on, his voice going low and dramatic. “Then the Gallows went all quiet. Curly lifts his head. He looks up at his fellow templars, and then, slowly, he steps away from them. He takes another step, and then another, until he’s standing side-by-side with Hawke. With Anders, you get me? The guy who just blew up the Grand Cleric is standing there, and Curly joins him. Curly looks Meredith in the eye. He turns his bloodied sword - the same one he’s been using to fight his way to the Gallows - and he points it right at her throat.” Varric held his hand out in the moonlight, miming each action.
Varric dropped his arm and Kate let out a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding.
“Then what?” she asked.
“Then the tide turned,” Varric replied, spreading his hands out wide. “Cullen fought alongside the apostates to defend the remaining mages. When the battle was over, he let Hawke and Anders go. Then he held the Circle together, ordered every templar to join him or to get out. He protected the remaining mages from the rest of the city, which, as you might guess, was no small feat. A lot of people were out for mage blood after that.”
“He protected the mages,” Kate repeated.
The sensation of teeth at her throat lessened, and Kate felt as though she could catch her breath. And yet, Kate was still left with these shards of thought in her mind and an overwhelming sense of disappointment.
“Ah,” Varric grinned. “It was epic shit. My editors loved it. They didn’t entirely believe me, but it was all true. I couldn’t have made that shit up.”
“But,” Kate said, still stuck on the earlier murdering-the-mages bit, “Cullen went to the Gallows to annul the Circle. He was ready to kill every mage in Kirkwall on Meredith’s order.”
“And then he didn’t,” Varric said, pinching his thumb and forefinger together, as if trying to catch the moral of the story and hold it up for Kate to see. “That’s what made it all so poetic. The conflicted knight, bound to the rules of the Order? Then he abandons the rules so that he can defend the principles on which the Order was founded. Bah!” Varric dropped his hand and shook his head, as if this was something no one could quite appreciate but himself, “It wouldn’t be good character development if he couldn’t have gone the other way just as easily.”
“This is a person were talking about, Varric,” Kate said, frowning.
“He’s still a character,” Varric replied. “Not much of one, mind you. Other than his moment of glory in Kirkwall, Curly’s just gone from bland to blander. Needs a few more vices to make him interesting, if you ask me.”
Kate wasn’t sure about that. If Cullen had been part of what went on in the Gallows, he probably had vice enough in his past. Kate stared at Varric for a moment more, then shifted her gaze out over the quiet woods.
“That answers the question of how Cullen turned on Meredith,” Kate said, slowly, “but not why.“
“Oh,” Varric said, clearly taken aback. “Well, he uh…” He paused, then gave a short huff of laughter. “Shit, I don’t know. I mean, I guess Curly had had enough of Meredith’s lunacy. And he respected Hawke - and me, if I do say so myself. I guess he didn’t want to see us die.”
“But you don’t really know for sure,” Kate said. Varric shrugged and looked chagrined.
“Okay, yeah, I don’t know,” he replied. “It’s a reasonable interpretation though, don’t you think? But hey, if you don’t believe me, ask Curly about it. He’s a big templar, he can speak for himself.”
Yes, Kate thought. He was a big templar. That was sort of the problem. Cullen was tall, strong, and intimidating, and the thought of asking him about Kirkwall made Kate feel decidedly ill. What would she say, anyway? “Excuse me, Cullen, but were you one of the templars who raped, beat, and branded mages? Or did you just stand by while the other templars did those things?” She couldn’t possibly ask him that. As a mage, Kate wouldn’t dare provoke a templar in such a way. And she didn’t have to be a Trevelyan to know that asking such a question would offend a person beyond measure. Besides, what on earth would she do if he answered in the affirmative, Kate wondered? She wouldn’t be able to look him in the eyes ever again. As it was, Kate could scarcely think these questions without burning with impotent rage and sympathetic pain.
“Hey, maybe he’ll actually tell you,” Varric continued. “He never said much to me. But you know, in the end, it didn’t matter.”
“It didn’t matter?” Kate asked, her voice coming out a bit more sharply than she meant it to. “His reason for turning on his commanding officer, his reason for following her orders in the first place - that didn’t matter?”
“Not at all,” Varric replied. “What mattered was that Curly was in the right place at the right time. If he hadn’t been there, me and Hawke and the others might not have made it through the night. I mean, we’re good fighters, but Curly brought half of the templars over to our side. He was the only templar with the stones to turn on Meredith, and he was high-ranking enough to make the others think twice. So, as far as I’m concerned, Cullen’s made up for his former dickery, and then some.”
And there was another shard for her collection. Cullen had been the hero in the end, protecting mages and keeping the peace. But surely one act of mercy could not make up for years of perpetuating a system of cruelty.
“You’re awfully quick to defend Cullen,” Kate said, as calmly as she could. “But you also defended Anders, the person who started the war in the first place…”
And there was a case where a man’s lifetime of good deeds had been undermined by one murderous act, Kate mused.
“Hey, this isn’t about defense,” Varric interrupted, holding up a finger to stall her. “This is about truth. I’m not for mages or templars or anything but accuracy. That’s the only side a writer ever should be on.”
“I see,” Kate replied.
But Kate wasn’t sure that she did see. It was one thing for Varric - a dwarf - to look at what happened in the Gallows and say ‘for accuracy’s sake.’ He was a Kirkwaller who surely felt more loyalty to his city than he did to the Circle. He had been there for the final battle, but it didn’t sound as though he had any idea what had gone on behind the Gallows’ closed doors. But that was the part that worried Kate most of all.
What had Cullen been like in the years before his rebellion, in those hours when no one was watching him? A templar who abused mages was a monster, pure and simple. A templar who stood by and allowed those abuses to happen? That was no better. Yet reason suggested that Cullen must have done one of those two things - possibly both. True, Cullen had tried to set things right in the end, but that just implied that he’d been a part of the wrong in the first place.
Furthermore, Kate wasn’t sure if Cullen’s mutiny impressed her or concerned her. Turning on Meredith implied that Cullen was not the sort of person to blindly follow orders - at least not in the long run. Normally, she would find that a mark in his favor. But what did that mean for the Inquisition, Kate wondered? If Cullen decided that he disagreed with Leliana and Josephine and Cassandra, would he take the troops and leave? Would he turn on them, as he had done in Kirkwall? The Divine had recruited Cullen to lead her armies, but would he stay now that the Divine was dead?
And that was another thing, Kate thought. The Divine had recruited Cullen to lead the Inquisition’s troops. That gave him a great deal of credibility, even if the Chantry wasn’t quite sure what to make of the Inquisition yet. Kate, on the other hand, was only in the Inquisition by chance. She was the accidental survivor of the Conclave blast, the woman suspected of murder by half of Thedas. For all her fine titles of ‘Herald’ and ‘Worship’, Kate knew her position here was still dangerously precarious. If the others decided they no longer needed her, then she was as good as dead. It would be wise not to antagonize her templar colleague, Kate reasoned. She ought to forget she had ever heard this about Cullen.
But how could she possibly forget, Kate wondered? The splintered thoughts in her mind were needling her now. Some shards suggested ways to vindicate Cullen of any complicity in the horror of Kirkwall. Other fragments made Kate suspect him of the very worst evils she’d ever heard of. Kate gingerly sifted through the stories and rumors, trying not to cut herself on the edges. Yet she found no reliable facts, not in this glittering mess. Of course, she wasn’t exactly in the best state of mind to be reasonable about all this. Most embarrassing of all, Kate had allowed this to become personal.
Little wonder there, Kate thought in disgust. Cullen had treated her like a person, and for a moment, she had let it go to her head. Varric could speak of Cullen as some storybook hero, the gossips of Ostwick could speak of him as some lazy oaf, but Kate had met the man. Cullen the bear-soldier had struck her as neither valiantly mutinous nor sadistically cruel, neither a charismatic rebel nor a scheming turncoat. Instead, in their few interactions, Kate had come to think of Cullen as blunt and practical and intelligent. He was also surprisingly kind, amusingly sarcastic, and, curiously, for a moment there, he seemed a bit uncertain of himself.
And there it was, Kate thought, glancing away so Varric would not see the hurt in her eyes. The real reason this revelation bothered her so much was that she had felt a connection to Cullen. There had been a time - a short amount of time, true - in which Kate had let her guard down around him. It wasn’t that she fancied him, Kate assured herself, quickly. She wasn’t so foolish as to form an attachment to a man she had only met. But Cullen had been kind to her, and Kate was not used to such kindness. Even her best friends joked and jostled and were a bit rough with her. They gave her a punch on the shoulder, when what Kate truly wanted was an embrace.
It was like Cullen had sensed her need for affection, Kate thought, angrily. He had been so charming, that she now wondered how much of his behavior was an act. Perhaps he acted that way around all mages. Maybe his smile was just a lure, convincing young apprentices to trust him without question. If so, he must have gotten away with murder.
Kate shuddered. It was possible that he had, actually. It was possible he had gotten away with any number of things. After all, handsome faces often masked cruel hearts. Kate had learned that hard lesson years ago.
“You alright, Duchess?” Varric asked. “You seem kind of rattled.”
Kate jumped, startled by the sound of his voice. For a moment there, she’d entirely forgotten where she was or who was with her.
“Not at all,” Kate lied, swiftly.
“Hmm-yeah,” Varric said, watching her closely, “That line might work on Cassandra, but you forget: I have better people skills than the Seeker. So what? Did I just make things weird between the mage-Herald and the templar-Commander?”
“No,” Kate said, making herself smile so that he wouldn’t worry. “Not at all, Varric. Thing’s aren’t weird. They’re…fine.”
”‘Fine,’” Varric repeated. “Well, shit. Now I know I upset you.”
“No, really, Varric,” Kate said, as breezily as she could. “It’s fine. I’m fine. I’ve lived around templars all my life, both in the Circle and in my family. I’ll find a way to…”
She trailed off, not sure how to complete that thought. For now another memory came back to her, a shard of recollection so brilliant that it made her sadness hurt all the more. Kate recalled standing beside Cullen at the announcement of the Inquisition, when Leliana had released several ravens into the sky. The two of them had shared a bemused glance, and with it, a kind of connection that Kate rarely felt with anyone. Surely a man who laughed like that…
A man who laughed like that could be anyone, Kate told herself. The truth was, Kate didn’t know the first thing about Cullen, and certainly not the man that he had been years ago. Frankly, she suspected that Varric didn’t know all that much about Cullen either. Varric’s story explained what had happened in Kirkwall, but it said very little about the motivations of the templars involved. Varric had merely heaped more scraps of narrative into Kate’s already jumbled mind. He had provided no insight with which to glue all these fragments back together.
“To…?” Varric prompted.
“It’s nothing,” Kate said.
With a soft sigh, she lifted her head to look up at the stars. Through the waving branches of the trees and the trailing clouds, Kate could see constellations spread out all through the sky. Unlike the chaos in her mind, the stars were solid and well-spaced and beautiful as ever. The stars were so reliable, Kate thought, bitterly. They returned night after night, their course unwavering. So why were people so much more complicated? People swerved and changed sides and fell and picked themselves back up again and Kate never quite knew what to think about the mess that was human nature. Only a handful of people had ever been loyal to her, Kate reflected. And of those people, only Coll remained. Robert and Lydia were dead. Kate now ached to think of it, so much so that her chest felt as cold and empty as a cave.
And there was the heart of the matter, Kate thought, numbly. This wasn’t really about Cullen. Well, it was, but it wasn’t only about him. This was about loss and this was about rebellion. This was about Meredith and corrupt templars all over the world. This was about the walled-off mages in Redcliffe and the mad apostates and the rogue templars, too. This was about the nobility who cared only for the next fashion and the commoners who cared only to keep things exactly as they had been for years and years. It was all the same thing, at root. It all came back to that one, horrible truth: that there was no war in the world that had not begun as hatred and fear in a human heart.
And if I allow myself to fear and hate Cullen, Kate mused, Am I any better?
And yet, how could she ignore what he’d done? His crimes - whatever they had been - had not been directed at Kate. But for that same reason, they were not hers to forgive.
I suppose that means they’re not mine to condemn either.
Or perhaps they were. Whose job was it to take the templars to task for their abuses, Kate wondered? The templars could hardly be expected to censure themselves.
“Hey,” Varric said calling Kate’s attention back down to earth. “Where’d you go, Duchess? I’m talking to you, but I think I might as well be talking to the graves here. This really bothers you, doesn’t it?”
Kate shook her head. “No,” she half-lied.
It did bother her, but she didn’t want to dwell on it anymore. She would not let this distract her from her purpose, Kate decided. She would find a way to close the breach. She would find the people who had murdered Robert, and she would protect Coll and her new friends as well. Everything else was unimportant.
The only rational course of action, then, was to do as Varric had done. Kate needed to view this whole story - view Cullen - with an impersonal eye. To that end, Kate would do well to put some emotional distance between herself and the former Kirkwall knight-captain. She would work with Cullen as need arose, but beyond that, she would avoid him. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d drawn back from a person before they could hurt her, Kate thought, sitting up stiffly. It probably wouldn’t be the last, either.
And yet, even as Kate thought that, it seemed a cowardly sort of thing to do. Cullen must have had reasons for his actions - both following Meredith and turning on her. So perhaps she should just ask him about it, Kate reasoned. Surely it would be better to question Cullen to his face than whisper about him behind his back.
Maybe, Kate thought frowning. Perhaps. Or maybe not. Distance and ignorance was probably the safer bet.
“Duchess?” Varric asked again.
Kate blinked and turned to him with a thin smile. “Sorry, Varric,” she said. “Don’t mind me. News like this is like my blisters. It starts out a bit uncomfortable, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it.”
“Yeah, that’s not a good metaphor,” the dwarf replied. “That’s like saying you’re building up calluses in your mind.”
“Should we head back?” Kate said, hopping down from the stone wall. She felt exhausted now, and not just because it was growing late.
“Fair enough,” Varric said, peering up into the darkness. “Looks like the clouds are rolling in anyway.”
“I’m not sure how you can tell that in the dark.”
“Bianca told me,” Varric said, patting his crossbow. “She’s seen all this before. She knows when the storms are coming.”
Kate was not sure if she believed crossbows could predict the weather, but she was too preoccupied to question the dwarf. Instead, she and Varric silently headed back toward the lights of the Crossroads. All the while, Kate wondered what on earth she would say to Cullen when next she saw him. She wondered if she’d have the courage to speak to him at all. And because she didn’t know what to think, Kate took one last look at the broken fragments of her thoughts, and then did her best to brush them aside.