Safe

Chapter 24 of Daughters of Andraste

When she lived in the Ostwick Circle, Kate had studied maps with great interest. She would pore over the pictures in books, memorizing the lay of the lands she would never get to see. From her desk, she had traveled the world - or at least sketches of the world. She had thought herself quite knowledgeable on the subject of geography.

But now, Kate could see that Thedas was so much bigger and wilder than she could ever have imagined. It wasn’t just the breadth of the place - it was the depth of each location. Each corner of forest and field had its own small haunts and hollows. The world was so much more folded in on itself, so much messier than she had thought. Cities were not at all like inked dots on a map. They did not jump up startlingly from the blank vellum of the countryside, but crept up in around a person. They began as stepping stones of outlying houses that became boulders of buildings and then gave way to walls of shops and taverns and inns. And forests didn’t crop up as suddenly as the green wash of watercolor would suggest, nor were drawn mountains the only rise in elevation and all else was the same flat plain. Some landscapes flowed into others so gradually that one scarcely noticed the change over a full day’s travel. And yet others were as dramatic as a sword slice in the scenery: like the clear-cut tree line of the alpine heights or the sudden fall of a rocky cliff into the sea.

And then, Kate thought, there were some changes that came on both slowly and all at once. The approach to the Fallow Mire was such a one.

The hike had begun rather pleasantly. She and Cassandra and Vivienne, joined by Cullen and a handful of scouts Kate did not know, had set out from the Hinterlands to the southeast. They’d climbed through a narrow pass and then continued on through a rocky, wooded plain. The sun had been shining, the birds singing, and Kate had studiously avoided Cullen and spent the day talking with Cassandra and Vivienne.

Cassandra was in a far better mood now that they were away from Val Royeaux, Kate found. It seemed that the encounter with the Lord Seeker had upset her a great deal, and no, Cassandra had not wanted to talk about it. Instead, Kate had asked the Seeker about her time serving the Divine, and been treated to a very entertaining tale about when Cassandra defeated a high dragon.

Then Kate had spent the rest of the day talking with Vivienne. Or rather, she’d listened politely as Vivienne went on about tailors and shops and places Kate had never been. It was entertaining at least. And that evening, Kate had been so exhausted, she’d dropped right off to sleep.

Today’s hike had been far less pleasant. Cullen had said that the mire was no place for horses, and by mid-morning, his assertion proved true. The ground grew ever more boggy and muddy, the air thicker and more sodden, and Kate’s mood soured as the clouds scuttled in over the sky and cloaked them all in a thick blanket of fog. They walked for what seemed like forever in that haze, and Kate began to realize that in spite of the past night of sleep, she was still quite tired. She’d scarcely slept at all during the week in Val Royeaux, and now was running on the last reserves of her energy.

Upon arriving in the Fallow Mire, Kate found herself completely exhausted. And while the weather had slipped in around them as if on cat’s feet, the bog itself began quite abruptly. Beyond the village known as Fisher’s End, the path suddenly ducked down under a line of murky water, and beyond that was nothing but tufts of grass and mist. Kate found the place very creepy.

She had readied herself for sleep - helping Cassandra pitch the tent. When Vivienne handed her some cold rations for dinner, Kate smiled thinly. And all the while, Kate had done her best to ignore the way Cullen stalked about here and there, scarcely eating his food, checking in with every scout and looking over every report twice. Kate was, begrudgingly, impressed by his ability to take charge of the situation. Then Cullen had gone out to check on the village, and Kate and the others had headed for their tent.

Kate hadn’t gotten very far, however. A moment later, a scout arrived, informing Kate that Cullen ‘needed a moment of her time’. Vivienne and Cassandra had waved her on, already headed for their own sleeping rolls. Kate felt quite envious of them both, but she dutifully clambered back out of the tent and headed for the bog. She sincerely hoped that whatever it was Cullen wanted to talk about would not take long. She had no energy for decision-making at this point - and in such foul weather, too.

Kate’s boots squelched with each step as she walked along the muddy path to the end of the road. She rubbed her arms, trying desperately to keep out the chill. The air couldn’t decide if it wanted to be fog or a light drizzle, and somehow, it had contrived to be both. Everything around had a wet sheen to it, from the abandoned houses to the overlong grass. It was a very dreary place, Kate thought. She kept imagining that shadows were creeping along behind her through the trees. When she reached out with her magic, the Veil felt thin and frayed - more like a spider’s web than a proper fabric. The sooner they got out of here, the better.

Kate spotted Cullen at the end of the path. He stood under a street lantern, dimly lit in the dark fog of the mire. His face remained hidden in the darkness, his fur mantle making him appear like a hunch-backed bear. Kate paused a moment, reminded of… everything. She recalled Varric’s tales, she recalled the awkward conversation she’d had with Cullen before leaving for Val Royeaux, and she recalled how he’d often glanced over at her during their hike here. But as she was tired and simply wanted to get back to bed, Kate brushed the shards in her mind aside. Instead, she cleared her throat and said:

“You asked to see me, commander?”

Cullen turned at once, the light falling over his face and illuminating a slight smile.

“Trevelyan,” he said, taking a step toward her. He sounded tired. Be he also sounded pleased to see her. “And here I thought you’d fallen asleep and not gotten the message.”

“No,” Kate told him. “I want to sleep,” she added, “But no.”

“I’d like to sleep, too,” Cullen said, giving her one of his conspiratorial half-smiles. “But before a mission, I find my nerves are always on edge.”

Kate had nothing to say to that, so she just gave him a smile. She imagined it came off as extremely forced and awkward.

“I’d appreciate a second pair of eyes on this,” Cullen said, waving her over. “I’m trying to make some sense of it.”

Kate approached him cautiously, then looked down at the soggy piece of vellum he held in his hands.

“What’s this?” she asked, trying not to stand too close. Tall as she was, Kate wasn’t used to feeling small in comparison with other people. Next to Cullen and his hulking armor, she did.

“Well, that’s the problem,” Cullen told her, waving a hand at it. “This is the only map we’ve got of this area.”

“That’s a map?” Kate asked. Her curiosity got the better of her and she reached for it. Cullen immediately handed it over.

“I suppose…” she looked over her shoulder and squinted into the fog, but could not see very far.

“This is where we approached the camp,” Kate said, pointing at the map. “That’s the narrows through the cliffs.”

“That’s what I thought as well,” Cullen agreed. He stood near to her now and looked over her shoulder. Kate immediately recoiled from him, but he didn’t seem to notice. Instead, he held his hand out and Kate handed the map back at once.

“The trouble is,” Cullen said, evidently not noticing her skittishness, “That’s all I recognize. The keep Lieutenant Lysette spoke of is nowhere on the map.”

“Lieutenant Lysette?” Kate repeated. “I didn’t realize she’d been promoted.”

“Just before this mission,” Cullen replied, absently. “See, it looks like the marsh crept in over the centuries. I recognize this road here and little else.”

“The road seems to follow this ridge along the map,” Kate said, reaching over and pointing at it before drawing her hand back away. “It stands to reason that any higher ground on the map is still above water.”

“Which means higher ground is where we’ll find the keep,” Cullen agreed. “We know it should be above water, at least.”

“What about this plateau here?” Kate asked, pointing at a wide space on the map.

“I thought that as well,” Cullen agreed. “The scouts didn’t get a chance to explore it, as there’s only one narrow approach and it was guarded by avvar.”

“A good sign,” Kate agreed. “Or…well, not really.”

“A bad good sign,” Cullen chuckled. “Yes, exactly so. The scouts spotted spires there which may or may not be natural rock. I’m guessing that there’s a keep in here somewhere, and we can’t see it through this fog.”

“Makes sense,” Kate said. She watched as Cullen folded up the map and tucked the damp vellum into his pocket. When he looked down at her, she suddenly felt a bit self-conscious all over again.

“So,” she said. “If that’s all you needed, I guess I’ll see you in the morning?”

“Oh,” Cullen said, looking a bit taken aback. “Ah, no. Actually, it wasn’t. I need to talk to you about something else, as well.”

“Alright,” Kate said, wearily. “Shall we head back to camp then?”

“Er, no,” he said. “I want to talk to you privately. Away from the others.”

And just like that, Kate was instantly on her guard.

“Why?” she asked.

“Well,” Cullen said, glancing over his shoulder. “It’s just that certain discussions don’t need to be carried out in front of the soldiers, you understand.”

“What kind of discussion are we talking about?” Kate wanted to know.

“The discussion of how you plan to approach the templars after all this,” Cullen said.

Kate’s guard solidified into a full-body shield.

“I tried to recruit them,” she said, drawing back from him. Even to her own ears, she sounded childishly petulant. “But they just ignored me and went marching off.”

“All the more reason we need to go after them while we still can,” Cullen said. “Whatever the Lord Seeker has planned, it can’t be any good. We must persuade the templars to see reason.”

“Why?” Kate returned. “They didn’t see reason before.”

“But we must try,” Cullen persisted.

“The templars made their bed,” Kate told him, frowning. “Surely they can lie in it - armor and everything.”

“So you mean to speak to the mages?” Cullen asked.

“I already have spoken to the mages,” Kate replied. “Well, one mage. Fiona wants to join us.”

“Now she does,” Cullen snorted. “Yet, I doubt she made her offer out of any real desire to help us.”

“And you think the templars want to help us?” Kate asked, frowning. “I watched them, Cullen. They’re completely without conscience. A few of them looked worried about the fact that a templar punched a grand cleric in the face. But then, the moment the Lord Seeker said ‘march,’ off they went. And those are the kind of people you’d want as allies?”

“You’d rather have the mage rebellion join us? Do you realize the complications that would bring with it?”

“Believe it or not, I am capable of anticipating some of the issues there.”

“Such as potential possessions?” Cullen said, folding his arms over his chest. “Blood mages hiding among the other mages? The fact that a good number of those mages are children or elderly or can’t even do combat magic? We wouldn’t be recruiting an army, so much as taking on a horde of refugees of the most dangerous kind.”

“They aren’t that helpless,” Kate insisted, though she hoped, rather than knew that to be true. “And besides, we don’t have much of a choice, do we? The templars left.”

“But we could pursue them.”

“Why are you so set on having those templars join us?” Kate snapped. “Why does it have to be them? Are you really so disgusted by mages that you can’t possibly work with them?”

“It has nothing to do with that,” Cullen said, drawing back. “I…yes, there was a time when I distrusted mages - misjudged them. But that was in the past. I will endeavor not to do that here.”

“No,” Kate said, rolling her eyes, “You’ll just avoid dealing with them.”

“I am not avoiding them,” Cullen replied, irritably. “It seems to me that you’re the one who’s avoiding things. You’re so prejudiced against the templars that you won’t even consider going after them.”

“You think me prejudiced against templars?” Kate gaped at him.

“Aren’t you?” Cullen returned. His eyes seemed to search her face. And when Kate opened her mouth to speak, she found she couldn’t deny it. So instead, she left jaw hanging open, gaping at him like a fish.

“I’m sorry,” Cullen said, glancing down, and then back up again, as if suddenly uncertain of himself. “I ought to have realized before. Well, I did wonder. And I tried to ask you…” He glanced at her warily, his expression growing ever more troubled by the moment.

“What?” Kate asked.

“It’s not my place to pry,” Cullen said. “And yet, I feel I must ask - must say rather…” He gave her a sidelong glance, then said: “The templars didn’t hurt you, did they?”

“Hurt me?” Kate repeated. “No. They just marched out of the White Spire and…”

“No,” Cullen said, now looking extremely uncomfortable. “At Ostwick. Before all this. You weren’t… That is to say, I hope no one…”

Kate stared at him blankly. He couldn’t possibly be asking this, could he? And yet, it seemed that he was. He looked quite uncomfortable now.

“I tried to ask you,” he said, still speaking to the toes of his boots. “Before you left for Val Royeaux, that is. But I didn’t want to pry.”

Kate now felt like the shards in her mind - all those fragmented stories and rumors and opinions and observations about Cullen - had suddenly stood up and started dancing about.

How could he, she wondered? How dare he? How could the former knight-captain of Kirkwall ask her this, as though he actually cared about a mage being hurt by templars. Was he serious? Or was this simply an act - a cleverly planned moment of sympathy meant to bring her guard down?

At that thought, Kate felt something inside of her of snap - one of her few remaining threads of patience, perhaps. She was so damn tired of this. Tired of travel, tired of things going wrong, and most of all, Kate was tired of uncertainty. Everyone else in the Inquisition seemed to trust one another - and they all trusted Kate. But Kate didn’t entirely trust the Inquisition, she didn’t entirely trust Cullen. Right now, she didn’t even trust herself. For Kate felt a part of her melt at the thought that Cullen would be worried for her safety. And the other part of her wanted to throw ice in his face and rail at him for his hypocrisy.

Instead of doing either of those things, however, Kate grabbed hold of the fraying threads of her patience and clutched them tight.

“What are you talking about?” she asked him, very precisely. She may have said this through gritted teeth.

“I…nothing,” Cullen said, drawing back at her anger. “I didn’t meant to bring up bad memories. Your past is your own, of course. I just wanted to assure you that you’re safe here.”

“Safe here,” Kate repeated.

“Well, not here,” Cullen said, grimacing out into the fog. “This mire is hazardous to anyone’s health, and I’m not just talking about the smell. But I meant with the Inquisition. We protect our own. No one will harm you so long as you’re with us, Trevelyan. You can be sure of that.”

He looked at her with such utter sincerity that Kate wanted to believe him. And yet, there was another way to take that promise: It could be seen as a veiled threat.

“So,” Kate said, slowly, “as long as I do what the Inquisition wants, I will be shielded.”

“I didn’t mean it as an exchange,” Cullen said irritably. “I’m not trading our protection for your cooperation. It’s not like that.”

“Isn’t it?” Kate asked, testily. “You need the mark, and that’s why I’m still alive. I think I know the score here.”

“Not at all,” Cullen returned. “Whatever you were, you’re part of the Inquisition now.”

And there was another thread gone.

“Oh, right,” Kate asked, sarcastically. “Join the Inquisition, have one’s past wiped clean. Is that what they’re putting on the recruitment posters now?”

“You were the one who said we had to put aside the past,” Cullen told her, frowning now. “That was in your speech, if you recall.”

Kate did recall. But that was before she knew the past Cullen was hiding. Another thread went sliding out into the fog.

“Putting aside the past is not the same thing as ignoring it,” Kate said.

“Putting aside, ignoring,” Cullen said, waving both words aside. “Look, the past is done. We need to move forward. We must plan for allies, and the templars are our best option.”

And suddenly, the last thread of patience slipped out of Kate’s grasp.

“They are not the best option!” Kate snapped. “The mages would serve just as well. But you won’t consider that, will you? No, of course not! Maker forbid that the knight-captain of Kirkwall should stoop to asking for help from mages.”

At that, Cullen drew back in surprise.

“That’s right, Cullen,” she said, irritably. “I know where you served as a templar.”

“I served in Kirkwall,” he said, slowly. “Didn’t I tell you that?”

No,” Kate scowled. “You didn’t tell me that at all. Nor that you were the knight-captain there.”

“I must have done,” Cullen said, frowning. “But surely you know the story.”

“Oh, I know the story,” Kate said, with a bitter laugh. “I just didn’t realize it was your story until Varric said so.”

“Varric?” Cullen repeated, his guarded expression flashing with fire for a moment. “Blast him and his stupid book. Is that why you’re angry about all this? Because of something Varric said?”

“No,” Kate insisted. “It has nothing to do with what he said. Varric spoke very highly of you. He kept going on about your moment of glory - saving Hawke, saving the mages. He seems to think you’re some dramatic hero, all set to be the villain, but then you became the savior.”

Cullen glanced at her sideways at that. “I’m not sure he did me a favor then. It seems that whatever he said, you don’t agree with him.”

“I’m not sure what to think,” Kate replied. “I heard rumors enough about Kirkwall to give me nightmares. Quite literally, I had nightmares over them. So imagine my shock when I discovered that my bear-soldier was the one doing those things.”

“Your what?” Cullen asked, looking utterly confused.

“I…Nothing. Never mind. What I mean is that it was you. You were the knight-captain all along.”

“I was a knight-captain,” Cullen said. “One of many. And why are you so angry about this?”

“Seriously?” Kate gaped at him. “Do you honestly not know what they’ve said about Kirkwall? Do you honestly not know what happened there?”

Cullen opened his mouth to speak, but Kate cut him off.

“They said mages were beaten,” Kate told him, the words tumbling out. “They said that mages were raped. Branded tranquil when they’d already passed their Harrowings. Killed without provocation, even. And the templars did that. Your precious templars!”

Cullen shut his mouth and looked away sharply. Kate felt her temper rise even higher.

“And these are the people you want me to recruit? These are the men and women that you would welcome into the Inquisition with open arms?”

“They’re not all like that,” Cullen shot back, over his shoulder.

“Not all like…” Kate broke off with a low growl of frustration.

“Never mind!” she snapped. “I don’t have time for this. Or for you.”

“Trevelyan, stop,” Cullen said, stepping forward to block her retreat.

“Don’t touch me!” she snapped, drawing back and stepping into a puddle.

“I’m not…” he glowered at her, then let out a huff of frustration. “For the Maker’s sake, calm down. Your hair is turning white from all that frost.”

“Calm down?” Kate snapped, feeling ice form on the tips of her fingers.

“The templars aren’t all…”

“I don’t care about what the templars did,” Kate shot back, feeling the ground around her boots grow cold as it started to freeze. “I care about what you did.”

“Me?”

“Yes you, Cullen. I don’t doubt that some templars are decent people. Just like I don’t doubt that some are monsters who prey on the weak. But which kind are you?”

Cullen seemed completely taken aback by this question. “You… You honestly think that I…?”

“Raped mages? Beat them?” Kate suggested, waving a hand. “I don’t know. Did you?”

“Maker’s breath,” Cullen said, his brows furrowing as he stared at her.

In the back of her mind, Kate could not believe that she was going on like this. The old, timid Kate who had lived her whole life in the Circle tower would never speak so to a templar. The old, timid Kate would never dare be alone with a templar in the first place. Yet the past weeks of uncertainty and battles and erratic sleep had worn away the old Kate’s reserve - and her polish. For now Kate found herself poking at the bear-templar, as if with a stick.

“Did you, Cullen?” Kate pressed. “You were a knight-captain, so you must have done something. To mages like me…”

“No!” Cullen cried, his expression one of horror. He almost looked like he was about to reach for her shoulder, but then his hands paused just in front of Kate.

“No,” he said, holding his hands out as a guard. “As Andraste is my witness, I never did those things. I swear I didn’t.”

Kate watched him as he swallowed and held her eyes. She never wanted to trust a person’s word so much in her life. And yet…

“But you must have known about it,” she said, her voice nearly a whisper.

“I must have, mustn’t I?” Cullen repeated, looking at her with an unreadable expression.

“Didn’t you?” Kate prompted.

Cullen glanced away and ran a hand through his hair. “Damn it, Trevelyan. Don’t do this.”

“Don’t do what?” Kate asked, her anger returning once again.

“I’m fixing what I can,” Cullen said fiercely, turning to stare out into the mire. “I’m looking forward to the future. My past is nothing I want to dwell on. Can’t you understand that?”

A strange expression flashed over Cullen’s face. It was like pain and sorrow and fury all at once. It made Kate forget her frosty anger, if only for a moment. She felt the ice on her fingers fade, aided in its melting by the drizzling rain.

And yet, she forced herself to take a step back from him. She couldn’t soften toward a man who had allowed these things to happen, Kate told herself. She couldn’t feel tender toward the knight-captain of Kirkwall.

“What happened in Kirkwall?” Kate asked, very precisely.

“You don’t want to hear about it,” Cullen said. His voice was very strained, as if it were coming from a long way off.

“I assure you, I do.”

“No,” Cullen turned her, his expression so haunted, Kate drew back from him. “You don’t. Because when I found out, I didn’t sleep for weeks. I still feel sick to think of it. The things that went on…”

He shook his head hard, then looked Kate square in the eye.

“I didn’t take advantage of the mages,” he said. “I swear that I didn’t. I avoid touching… That is to say, I didn’t lay a hand on any of them.” He shook his head again and stared out into the mire.

“But you stood by as the other templars did those things,” Kate said.

“It wasn’t like I looked on and nodded with approval,” Cullen snarled, his expression darkening. “The things that happened in the Gallows happened behind closed doors. I didn’t know about most of them until it was too late.”

“And you expect me to believe that?” Kate said, wondering again if this was true or if he was simply the most devious liar she’d ever met. “You were a knight-captain, Cullen, not some raw recruit. How could you not know?”

“Because I wasn’t allowed to know,” Cullen shot back, temper flashing in his eyes. “You don’t understand what it was like. You couldn’t possibly.”

“You’re right,” Kate agreed. “I don’t understand. I don’t understand how a knight-captain could have no idea that mages were being beaten and raped just a few doors down from his offices.”

Cullen made a choking noise, then winced and looked at the ground.

“I didn’t know about the worst of the abuses. I swear I didn’t,” he went on, when Kate looked at him doubtfully. “Until Hawke brought proof that Knight-Captain Alrick had been doing such things, I had no idea.”

“You had no idea,” Kate repeated.

“And why would I?” Cullen asked her. “He was tasked with the branding ceremonies and tracking down escaped apostates. He was thirty years my senior and no, I never thought to question him. Hawke brought in his papers, and frankly, I first thought I’d be forced to arrest her for the man’s murder. But then I realized she’d done everyone a service.”

“A service?” Kate asked, her voice raw. “Certainly, the man was dead, but what about all the people he’d harmed? What happened to them?”

Now, Cullen didn’t look quite so confident.

“I’m not sure,” Cullen said.

“You don’t know?”

“When I took control of the Gallows, I tried to discover which mages had been wounded most. I thought… I don’t know. To help them? As if one could help take away such a thing. But they were all…” Here he broke off and looked away with a wince.

“Were dead?” Kate asked, softly.

“Most were,” Cullen said, quietly. “The tranquil took the brunt of the abuse. In the battle at the Gallows, most were cut down. They didn’t defend themselves at all. And most mages fled. I didn’t bother to send the templars after them. I had too few people to spare and I figured - well. There were a few mages who stayed on after all that. They didn’t want to speak of what happened. Not to me. I asked some Chantry sisters to come and counsel them, but…”

Cullen shook his head. “There wasn’t much I could do, really. Meredith razed that place to the ground. I tried to clean up her mess, but how could I? She’d never done anything but amass power and ignore the real problems. When I finally went through her files, I found Ser Alrick’s papers in her desk. I’d given them to her, and she had said she’d look into it. She hadn’t, of course. And yet, I had trusted that she would. I trusted her in everything.”

“Why?” Kate asked, completely baffled.

“Because she was my superior officer,” Cullen said, as if this should be obvious. “Because that’s what templars are trained to do. We follow orders. We respect the chain of command. And when attacked, we close ranks around one another and protect our own. You may dislike it, Trevelyan, but that’s how the Order is run. That’s how it’s always been run.”

“That’s how tyrannies are run,” Kate muttered.

“That’s how armies are run,” Cullen said, his voice low and intense. “The troops look to the general.”

“And hope she’s not crazy,” Kate added.

“Exactly,” Cullen said, his jaw tight. “But Meredith was clever, and she hid her growing madness well. Insanity does not destroy intelligence, you know. It just twists it. For years, Meredith effectively ruled all of Kirkwall. No one dared to question her. And in the Gallows, she reigned like a queen. She even called it her ‘Kingdom of Walls.’ She kept everyone off in their own separate quarter, doing their particular job with only her for oversight. She made me feel - made us feel, rather - that each one of the officers had the most important role in all the Circle. It was her way of controlling things, of running everything to her way of thinking. And I never realized it at the time, how I was being flattered and managed.”

Cullen’s voice had turned thick with bitterness, and his throat worked a moment before he added: “None of us realized that until the end.”

“But,” Kate said, shaking her head, “you worked with her for…what? Three, four years?”

“Nine,” Cullen said, tersely.

Nine years? And in nine years, you never once suspected that something might be wrong? That Meredith might not be the flawless commander you believed her to be?”

“Of course I suspected!” Cullen snapped. “I saw the bruised faces and I heard the whispers.”

“Then why…”

“Because,” Cullen said, wincing. “At first, I thought Meredith was right about the mages. I saw nothing but my own fear… My own suspicions, I mean. I thought a firm hand was needed.”

Kate felt her gut twist in disgust at the thought. “A firm hand?” she repeated, softly.

“Then I saw what I wanted to see,” Cullen went on, either ignoring her or not hearing her. “And when I finally began to recover - er, change my way of thinking, I took my new-found concerns to Meredith. She reassured me every time we met. She told me she was in control, that I was doing the right thing. And I believed her,” he snorted, then said, “Of course I believed her.”

He shook his head, then added: “You couldn’t understand. I spent so long following orders that I didn’t know what else to do. Once I began to question, I was in agony. I couldn’t speak to Meredith anymore, and I wasn’t sure whom I could trust among the templars. I wondered if I could trust anyone outside of the templars, but I was too afraid to reach out for help. I saw what happened to Ser Thrask when he’d done the same. And then… Well,” he shrugged one armored shoulder. “You know how it ended.”

Kate nodded solemnly. “I know what Varric wrote. I know what the scandal sheets published. But I want to hear it from you, Cullen.”

“Why?” he shot back. “So you can rub my face in it? So you can question if my reformation is sincere enough? Or will you simply find my work for the Inquisition lacking, because it was preceded by Kirkwall?”

“I’m just trying to understand you,” Kate insisted. “In one breath, you speak as though you support the Order, and yet, I can’t see why you would continue to do so. After everything Meredith did…”

“She did what she did and then I relieved her of command,” Cullen said, irritably. “That’s the only thing that’s relevant now. I tried to set things right. And most people believe that what I did for Kirkwall at and after the Gallows counts for something.”

“It counts,” Kate said, defensively. “But I must confess, I find it a little hard to overlook the nine years where you served as Meredith’s crony.”

“Maker’s breath,” Cullen said, turning from her in irritation.

“You stopped Meredith in the end,” Kate agreed, “But how many lives were lost before you did? And you can’t just take up a sword and mutiny against that.”

“No, you can’t,” Cullen said, tightly. “And don’t think I’m not aware of it. I regret that every single day.”

Pain flashed over his features, so real and raw that Kate began to feel sorry for him.

“I…fine,” she said, feeling caught between her annoyance at him and this growing sense of pity, “So you didn’t know about it. But I still don’t understand how Meredith managed to keep everyone in Kirkwall in the dark. How could one woman do that?”

Cullen snorted. “If you’d ever met her, you wouldn’t be asking that question. Meredith was canny and charismatic and careful. She knew how to tell people exactly what they wanted to hear, how to gather up power and keep hold of it. When I arrived at the Circle, she saw at once that I…”

Cullen broke off, then flashed Kate a very strange glance.

“She saw what?” Kate asked.

“Nothing,” Cullen said. “She just… She assigned me to train the recruits. And to guard the courtyard on alternating Thursdays.”

When Cullen flushed and looked away, there was something in his eyes that struck Kate as vaguely guilty.

“And since the recruits aren’t even allowed to speak to the mages,” Cullen went on, quickly, “I rarely interacted with the Circle mages.”

“Why were you kept from the mages?” Kate asked, frowning.

“What?” Cullen blanched.

“I meant you and the recruits,” Kate said. “Why were they kept from knowing any mages?”

“Ah,” Cullen said, looking relieved. “That’s a common practice. It’s supposed to make for better training. You can’t have a recruit’s judgment compromised by getting to know the charges personally.”

“Because Andraste forbid they see mages as people,” Kate said, folding her arms over her chest.

“It’s just how the Order does things,” Cullen shrugged. “It seemed ideal to me at the time.”

“Ideal?” Kate gaped at him.

“I meant that training the recruits suited me,” he said, quickly. “It meant I didn’t have to deal with… The point is, I was in an entirely separate section of the Gallows than all the other knight-captains. I almost never dealt with mages. Or with the older templars who, um…”

“Abused mages?” Kate suggested, her jaw tightening.

“Just so,” Cullen said, looking anywhere but at her face.

And now Kate grew angry once again. Clearly, he was withholding something. She was certain of it.

“But that’s not true,” Kate said, her eyes narrowing. “You interacted with mages all the time. Varric wrote about it in his book.”

“That damned book,” Cullen scowled. “Alright, yes, I spoke with Hawke from time to time. Once every two years, on average.” He winced, then muttered: “Far too often if you ask me. Woman was a menace.”

“Don’t lie to me,” Kate snapped. “You sedated mages. You did. It was in the book. You even attacked a recruit.”

“I’m not lying,” Cullen said, looking thoroughly exasperated now. “I…yes. I attacked a recruit who turned out to be possessed. I ran the occasional errand for Meredith, which - once - involved sedating mages. They were blood mages who were due to be executed. I saved their lives by locking them up. But I suppose you’re willing to condemn me for that, too.”

“You want me to praise you for it instead?” Kate asked him, incredulously. “You want credit for not killing mages?”

“They were blood mages,” Cullen told her. “Kidnappers.”

“They were desperate!” Kate returned. “You must have realized that. They were just people - civilians.”

“Mages are hardly ‘just people,’” Cullen said.

“That’s right,” Kate said, her voice cracking as her eyes filled with tears. Normally, she would have been embarrassed by this, but now she was past caring. “So good of you to remind me, Cullen. You don’t think mages are people, do you? That was in the book, too.”

“Ugh, that dwarf,” Cullen groaned.

“How can you deny it?” Kate asked him. “Would you ever have done such things to ordinary men and women?”

“Ordinary men and women can’t light things on fire with their minds or become abominations,” Cullen returned.

“And so you imprisoned them. You were just one more bar in the cage that held all those people captive.”

“Better that than let all of Thedas burn.”

“And you’re still defending the Order? How can you? After everything Meredith did - after everything the templars did.”

“The Order exists for a reason,” Cullen said, angrily. “That reason won’t go away just because the Circles fell.”

“And that’s your answer?” Kate asked. “‘The mages deserved their abuse?’”

“Of course they didn’t deserve it. But you still don’t understand. I’d been trained since childhood not to question the Order. It was far easier to believe Meredith’s story - that the mages were trying to cause dissension in our ranks. What else should I have thought? That my fellow templars were - what? Going against the very laws of the Chantry? That they were sick, twisted maniacs? That Meredith was power-mad?”

“Yes!” Kate cried. “Yes, that’s exactly what you should have done.”

“And what about you?” Cullen said, nodding angrily at her. “You had no part in this war, I suppose. You never practiced blood magic? Never attacked a templar?”

“No, I haven’t,” Kate said, raising a brow at him.

“Really?” he asked, mimicking her pose.

No,” she insisted. “Blood magic is lazy and sloppy. You gain strength, but loose flexibility, as it were. But this isn’t about me, Cullen. This about you, and how you’d much rather blame the mages and fear the eternal bogeyman of blood magic than see reason.”

“Reason?” Cullen repeated, his eyes narrowing dangerously. “Of course. Mages like to scoff whenever templars speak of blood magic. They think we’re being paranoid. But few people understand what unchecked blood magic can do.” Cullen paused, then added darkly: “Most people are lucky enough never to know.”

“Well, I’m unlucky enough to know,” Kate told him. “Blood magic nearly destroyed the Ostwick Circle. An abomination killed my…my mentor,” Kate fought back the pang that she felt in remembering that moment. “Coll and Lysette and I nearly died trying to stop a few blood mages. So I am aware of the dangers. But that doesn’t mean I fear all magic - any more than I fear all swords just because a few people turn into bandits.”

“It’s hardly the same thing,” Cullen replied.

“Isn’t it?” Kate asked.

“I can put down my sword.”

“And I can sit on my hands,” Kate returned. “But because a skinny little girl like me can overpower a trained soldier like you, I’ve got to be locked up, isn’t that right? It’s power that you can’t account for. It’s power that doesn’t correspond to the size of my muscles. That’s why people fear it.”

“It’s…that’s not…” Cullen glanced at her chest, sizing up her muscles, no doubt. “You’re not that skinny,” he muttered. “But that’s not the point.”

“No,” Kate agreed, “the point is that I trusted you. And now I’m not so sure.”

“You don’t trust me?” Cullen gaped at her. “You don’t trust me. A few weeks ago, you were a prisoner, Trevelyan. And we still don’t know what happened at the Conclave. And yet you don’t trust me.”

“Are you saying that you don’t trust me?” Kate asked him, her voice rising.

“I did,” Cullen said. “Now I’m not so sure. What happened to our conversation by the docks? Back then, you said that we needed to work together. Back then, you had no problem with me being a templar. What changed?”

“What changed was that I found out you were from Kirkwall!” Kate shot back at him. Cullen drew back, blinking.

“So now what?” he said, his voice going hard as flint. “Because I’m from Kirkwall you won’t speak to me? You won’t rescue our soldiers? You’ll refuse to close rifts?”

“Don’t be absurd,” Kate said, lifting her chin. “I’ll still do what needs to be done. I’m the one with the mark, right?”

“So you’ll seek to replace me, then?” Cullen said, his tone growing nervous. “Now you think I’m not competent at my job. You think that my mind isn’t sound enough to lead the armies.”

“What?” Kate blinked, completely set off course by his words. “No. That’s not what I’m saying. I just want to be sure…”

“To be sure that I have strength enough to lead? That I have resolve enough to see this through?”

“No…”

“That I can command the loyalty of my soldiers? Because I assure you…”

“I want to know that you’re safe!” Kate shouted into his face.

Cullen drew back from her, clearly shocked by her outburst. Kate flushed to the roots of her hair, both from frustration and embarrassment. She hadn’t meant to say that. It had just slipped out all on its own. But now that the words hung in the air before her, she realized that it was the truth.

She wanted him to be safe. It was a stupid, stupid wish.

Cullen made a scoffing sound and stared at her for a moment. It seemed that he’d recovered himself quickly, even if Kate had not.

“You want to know if I’m safe?” he snorted. “This coming from the woman who can tear open the very Veil? Trevelyan, you might very well be the most dangerous person in all of Thedas.”

“That’s not what I meant,” she grumbled.

And it wasn’t. Kate hadn’t meant that she feared Cullen’s sword or even his anger. To her embarrassment, Kate realized that she had meant an entirely different sort of ‘safe.’ She meant safe enough to care for. And that was a stupid wish, Kate told herself at once. Maker’s breath, why had some soft, secret part of herself wanted that?

“So you don’t think I’m safe,” Cullen said, quietly. “And here I thought… Well. If I wanted to know your opinion of me, I suppose you’ve made it crystal clear.”

Not at all, Kate thought. Because how could Cullen know what Kate thought of him when Kate herself didn’t know?

“I just want to understand all this,” she said, striving for some rationality in spite of all the conflict rattling around in her head. “I…I mostly believe you…”

“Well, that’s a relief,” Cullen said, dryly.

“But it just doesn’t add up. You say you didn’t know, but you also say you had suspicions. So which is it? There’s either something you aren’t saying or something you’re deliberately trying to hide.”

“Look,” Cullen said firmly, clearly done with her questioning. “I worked in Kirkwall training the recruits, and that was all. I didn’t rape anyone. I didn’t beat anyone. I didn’t brand anyone tranquil…”

“You’re a paragon of virtue, Cullen.” Kate spoke sarcastically to hide her shock at his matter-of-fact tone.

“People make up their own minds about Kirkwall, as you have obviously done,” he said, ignoring her remark. “I don’t feel the need to correct them. The only people who matter have given me a second chance. Theirs are the only opinions I care about.”

“Meaning Cassandra and the Divine, I suppose,” Kate said, furious to be so easily dismissed by him. “But Maker forbid you explain yourself to a mage. Even now, I’m entirely beneath your consideration.”

“That’s not true,” he said, frowning.

“Of course it is,” Kate returned. “And what would you say, anyway? To have been blind to what happened in the Gallows, you must have been willfully ignorant or stupid beyond measure. So which is it?”

“Maker…”

“Both then,” Kate said, glaring at him.

Cullen drew back from Kate as if she’d slapped him. He looked at her with an expression that held one part hurt, and one part loathing. If Kate had been planning on taking back her harsh words, the explanation died in her throat.

“And there it is,” Cullen said, drawing himself up stiffly. “I’ve been judged and found wanting.”

“No,” Kate protested. “I just want to know…”

“I owe you no explanations, Trevelyan,” Cullen said, coolly cutting her off. “You are the Herald of Andraste, not Andraste herself. I need not confess myself to you.”

Kate stopped there, stung by the venom in his voice.

“Now,” Cullen said, more evenly. “If we’re done here, I think we both need rest before the morning. We have a mission to carry out, and people are counting on us.”

“Of course,” Kate began. “Of course the mission…”

But Cullen didn’t wait to hear her out. He turned and stalked away down the muddy path. Kate watched him go, while tears pricked at the corners of her eyes and clogged her throat.

Stupid tears, Kate thought, swallowing them down. She wasn’t sure if they were tears of anger at Cullen or regret for this pointless argument or sorrow for the poor mages of Kirkwall. Actually, Kate realized, it was probably all three of those things at once.

Kate squeezed her eyes shut, and the salt-water tears slipped down her face, mixing with the damp of fresh-water rain. All around her was the boggy, heavy marsh air, and right now, she felt like she was underwater.

What on earth had she just gotten herself into, Kate thought? Why couldn’t she just leave well enough alone? That argument hadn’t solved anything. It had just made things worse. She ought to have just kept her mouth shut, Kate thought. She should have known better than to talk with Cullen when she was so tired.

If only she could have made it one more day before she lost her composure. If only she were wiser or more patient, or had any experience dealing with conflicts, she might have handled that better. But no, Kate thought, she was a Circle mage whose social experiences were all stifled and guarded, who had never once in her life had a fight like that. Her throat felt raw from shouting, her eyes still stung with the tears. But more than that, Kate shuddered to think of how Cullen might treat her in the morning. The very thought made her sick to her stomach. Considering how she’d angered him…

He wouldn’t hurt the Herald of Andraste, Kate assured herself. Cassandra wouldn’t let him. Vivienne wouldn’t let him. But even as she thought this, Kate realized that she didn’t really believe Cullen would punish her for her outburst.

In fact, that was why she’d allowed herself the outburst in the first place.

Maker’s breath, Kate thought, sucking in a breath. What had she done? Why had she gone after him like that? She hardly remembered, for the whole argument had grown dark and murky as the night around her. Kate didn’t even feel angry anymore. She just felt empty - empty and sad and so very, very tired.

She couldn’t fix this tonight, Kate told herself. She wasn’t sure if she could fix it at all. In fact, she wasn’t even sure what she was trying to repair.

Nevermind that, Kate thought. Tonight she could do nothing. Tonight, she needed sleep. In the morning, she would save those missing soldiers, and then - only then - would she worry about the rest of it. And though Kate’s gut still felt twisted and heavy, she wiped the tears from her eyes and headed back to camp.


Void take it, Cullen thought, throwing himself back on his bed roll. Void take everything.

He felt like his insides had been scored with razor-sharp claws. That wasn’t just a metaphor, either. Cullen had a physical pain in his stomach, though he supposed that might have something to do with the questionable rations he’d had for dinner. Either way, he felt ill. It was no way to start a mission. He was annoyed with Trevelyan for that, too.

Void take it, Cullen thought again, pressing his fingers to his now-pounding temples. He did not need this. He had thought himself immune to criticism about Kirkwall by now. Thanks to Varric’s books and thanks to the rumors, it seemed everyone knew the tale of the Gallows. Cullen knew that he was seen as a mutineer as often as he was seen as a folk hero, and frankly, he didn’t much care for either characterization. He had done his best to ignore all the baseless speculation and focus on his job. On rare occasions, someone might ask him about his years as a knight-captain, and Cullen always said the same thing to everyone: he hadn’t known about the worst of the abuses. Meredith had kept things from him. And then, when Meredith had finally snapped, he’d relieved her of command and tried to set things right.

But that explanation glossed over a great deal, and it was extremely impersonal. Cullen knew that, but the truth was far more complicated than he could articulate. After taking command of the Gallows, Cullen had examined the situation from every angle. Quite literally, he had gone through every file that Meredith had left behind, had bashed in every locked door in the fortress. He had considered the Gallows from every angle - considered his own guilt from every angle. And when it came to his own fault, Cullen acknowledged it. He’d laid his failings before Andraste in his prayers and had begged for forgiveness.

The absolution of the Maker’s bride did not come easily, Cullen thought with a sigh. Between the memories of the Gallows and the memories of Kirkwall, he had plenty of ghosts to haunt him at nights. They crept into nightmares, voices screaming, voices calling out to him in helpless whispers.

Cullen turned away from those memories as if drawing his hand back from an open flame. The fact was, he had arrived in the Gallows as a broken, bent sort of man, and he’d left it only marginally better. But if the Gallows was a thorny tangle of misspent time, then Ferelden was its root. But he wasn’t about to speak of that to strangers, so he’d come up with a simpler way of explaining Kirkwall. The simpler explanation satisfied most people. It had satisfied Cassandra and the Divine. Though, now that Cullen thought of it, he often wondered if the Divine had seen through his evasions. She probably had known there was much more to his story than what Cullen had said.

But Trevelyan hadn’t been satisfied. She’d kept prodding and poking, determined to get all the way back to the heart of the matter. And she had wanted to know about Cullen - not the templars, not Meredith, but Cullen himself. That made it all so much worse. No one had ever looked at him and singled him out of the templars quite like that. He wasn’t sure how to deal with it, exactly. His failures and successes had always been made as part of a group. No one had ever asked him about…him. Not even Cassandra had been quite so particular. Cassandra had wanted to know about Meredith to be sure. She had wanted to hear about the Gallows, but that was all. And she certainly hadn’t called Cullen blind and stupid. He called himself that, of course. He had been blind and stupid. But it hurt to hear to Trevelyan say it.

That was alarming, really. To Cullen’s surprise, he realized that he had actually valued Trevelyan’s good opinion. It hurt to realize that he’d never had it. He didn’t know why it hurt, exactly, for he didn’t even know when he’d come to desire her approval. He had only known her for a month, after all, spending less than a full day in her presence. And yet, somehow, he’d come to harbor a quiet regard for the woman. It wasn’t anything untoward, he told himself quickly. Rather, he thought of Trevelyan as he might regard any recruit who showed promise. Cullen had watched her progress from prisoner to Herald and tracked her missions with great interest. She had the makings of a leader in her, and he respected that. That was all.

Well, mostly all. He grudgingly admitted to a certain attraction on his part. He hesitated to call it ‘attraction,’ though, because that implied that it was some force he couldn’t resist. But he had resisted that impulse, and he’d even thought they were becoming, if not friends, then colleagues, at least. But Kate thought him a monster, and he’d been oblivious to her revulsion. His lack of social perception shamed him as deeply as her harsh words.

Cullen rolled to his side, trying to get comfortable. The armor poked his ribs and compressed his back and yet he didn’t dare undress. Cullen wanted to be ready in case of a nighttime attack.

He just hadn’t any armor on against harsh judgment, Cullen thought, bitterly.

Right, Cullen thought. Enough of that. There was a mission coming in the morning and he was supposed to be focused on it. On top of everything else, Trevelyan had distracted him from his job and that made him all the angrier. He had thought Trevelyan was a sensible, practical sort of woman. She had seemed the type to focus on the future, not to dwell on the past.

Well, whatever she might do, Cullen thought, he intended to press on. This argument had shaken him, but it didn’t change his purpose - or the current mission. He would find a way to rescue the scouts tomorrow, and if he had to work with Trevelyan to do it, then he would. The mission came first, after all. And once that was done, Cullen would keep himself far away from the woman until the breach was sealed. They only saw one another every few weeks, Cullen told himself. Avoiding the Herald shouldn’t be too difficult.