The next thing Kate knew, a fully-armored Cassandra was shaking her awake.
“Huh-wha?” Kate mumbled. She lifted her head to see that one of the tent flaps had been drawn back, revealing a morning of gray skies. Heavy drops drummed on the canvas overhead, and the rain fell in sheets beyond the door.
Kate stared at the weather dolefully, trying to remember why she didn’t want to wake up. Obviously, she was tired, and the weather was quite uninviting, but it was more than that. There was something else that had her wanting to hide in the blankets, something like…
Kate winced and placed a hand to her forehead. That was right. She had to plan for a mission. She had to plan for a mission with Cullen. And she had to do that after what had passed between them last night.
Kate’s stomach started to churn.
She and Cullen had argued. More than argued, Kate had shouted at him. She’d yelled in his face. In fact, Kate was pretty certain she’d called him names at some point.
Maker save me. She had offended and angered a templar. At the thought, Kate’s hands began to shake. She couldn’t believe she’d been so careless. She instantly wanted to run away and hide. Every survival instinct demanded it. And yet, a stubborn, reckless part of Kate said that she’d been right to stand up for herself. It reminded her that Cullen had forced the interview in the first place.
Still, she could picture the look on his face just before he’d walked away from her. It haunted her, that wrecked look in his eyes. And yet, she was still furious with him. For him to act as though her questions were inappropriate, as though he had nothing to answer for…
A dull roaring filled Kate’s ears. It seemed to mingle with the pattering rain until Kate nearly felt as if she was underwater, under heavy black waves.
Kate blinked, and found herself looking up at Cassandra. She probably looked ridiculous, Kate thought, with her bed roll bundled up to her shoulders like a cocoon. Maybe she should hide in here until her metamorphosis from an awkward, angry Circle mage into a proper, pious Herald of Andraste was complete. But that was assuming Kate could someday become a Chantry butterfly - a highly unlikely prospect.
“Are you alright?” Cassandra asked, frowning.
“Quite well,” Kate lied at once. Her voice sounded strangled to her own ears.
Cassandra looked unconvinced, but nodded all the same. “It is time to be moving,” the Seeker said, “Everyone is waiting on you.”
With that, she drew away from the tent flap and let it fall into place. Kate was left in semi-darkness.
Wonderful, Kate thought. She’d worried Cassandra, offended Cullen, and on top of that the entire camp likely viewed her as a lazy layabout. More than that, she still felt like she was pulsing with muffled fury.
Maker’s breath. This day had been ruined before it even started.
And how many days have been ruined for those lost soldiers?
The thought hit Kate out of the blue, almost as if it had been whispered into her ear from outside of her mind. Kate’s eyes widened and she gasped as if struck.
That was right, she thought. Whatever she had been through, the soldiers had suffered far worse. She could not allow an argument with Cullen to distract her from her purpose here.
Save lives first, settle matters with the templar later, Kate told herself. With that thought, she rummaged around in the mess on the floor of the tent. The clothes and the bedclothes all ran together, but Kate finally managed to locate her things. She put on a half-corset under the linen undershirt she’d slept in, then stabbed her legs into her pants, pulled on her overshirt and laced up her boots. Over a month ago, Kate had found dressing in a tent most inconvenient. But now, it was just her morning routine.
Outside, the camp was a flurry of activity. The scouts were mostly gathered around one of the tents, filling their packs with extra supplies for the missing soldiers. Cullen had thought of everything, it seemed.
Kate glanced around the camp, looking for him. She spotted Cullen at the requisitions table, standing under an awning that someone had set up to keep the rain off of the papers. Cassandra stood there as well, and also a dwarven woman in scout armor. Cullen had his back to Kate, and his fur mantle was matted and soaked with rain.
Kate sucked in a breath and gritted her teeth. This would be an awkward meeting, but that didn’t matter. The soldiers were more important than anything else. With that thought, Kate ducked her head and hurried across the camp. Her boots splashed in the puddles as she went, and she dashed under the awning. Cullen turned to her, startled by her sudden arrival. The dwarf seemed amused, and Cassandra was entirely unimpressed either way. The Seeker just continued to glare down at the papers on the table.
“Morning commander,” Kate said to Cullen, using her clearest, most authoritative voice. Or at least, that’s what Kate thought she said. A roaring erupted in her ears when she tried to speak. Unsure if she’d managed a confident greeting or not, Kate added a business-like nod in Cullen’s direction. Something flashed in his eyes for a moment, like a light flashing in the windows of an otherwise empty house. Then he turned back to the table. His face was a stony wall once more.
“We were going over the plan,” Cullen said, his tone chilly. “You and I will take point, Trevelyan. Cassandra and Harding will take charge of the remaining soldiers. Oh,” he added, turning, but not quite looking Kate in the eye, “I trust you’ve met Scout Harding, yes?” Here, Cullen waved a hand at the dwarf.
Well, Kate thought, this was every bit as stilted and awkward as she’d feared it would be. Still, Cullen hadn’t shouted at her or embarassed her in front of the others. In Kate’s experience, templars always found a way to punish mages for perceived infractions. But rather than getting her back for the argument last night, Cullen seemed to be pretending that it had not happened. Kate realized she’d been right about him: he would not harm her, even if he was angry at her.
Maker’s breath, Kate thought. If that was her expectation of templars, then they had set the bar very low indeed, hadn’t they? The thought made her angry once again. Kate turned away from the commander and addressed the dwarven scout instead.
“I believe we met briefly in the Hinterlands, Scout Harding.”
“Good to see you again, Herald of Andraste,” Harding replied, as the dwarf shook Kate’s hand.
Kate tried to maintain her smile, but hearing the title ‘Herald of Andraste’ made Kate wince instead. She couldn’t quite forget how bitterly Cullen had used that title the night before. As if she needed another reason to dislike that moniker.
“I wish we were meeting under better circumstances,” Kate returned.
“As do we all,” Cullen muttered.
“Well, yes. Of course,” Kate said. She shook her head and tried to regain her footing.
“Alright then,” she said, turning back to Scout Harding. “Whatever went before, the soldiers are the important thing now. Shall we get to it?”
Cullen glanced up at once. For a moment - less than a moment - he studied Kate’s face. But then he looked away, and when he spoke again, his Ferelden accent wasn’t quite so clipped.
“This plan is going to need some careful coordinating,” he said, resting his hands on his sword hilt. “The good news is that Harding came back from her scouting with some excellent information about the keep.”
“Oh?” Cassandra asked.
“I got close enough to scout the keep itself,” Harding said, with a note of pride in her voice. “I ran the walls and counted numbers. Got a sense of what’s crumbling and what’s still intact.”
“Excellent work, Harding,” Kate said.
“Yes, excellent work,” Cullen agreed. “Harding found an inscription that identified the fortress as Hargrave Keep.” With this, he shoved a map in Kate’s direction. “I wouldn’t have guessed that at all from the terrain. This used to be a thriving bannorn before a plague rolled in.”
“Oh,” Kate frowned. “How awful.” Though that would explain the reports of undead, she reasoned. “This is a map of the keep?”
“Yes,” Cullen nodded. “I found it in one of the books I brought along.”
“You just happened to have an atlas of Ferelden on you?” Kate said, unable to keep herself from chuckling in amusement.
“Yes,” Cullen returned, his tone steely.
“Oh,” Kate blinked. “Well, that’s good then, isn’t it?”
Maker, Kate thought. Would things always be this tense with Cullen from now on? She supposed they might. Yet again, Kate pushed aside her frustration. Instead, she turned her attention to the maps. The fortress was a rambling thing, but as Harding now explained, most of it was collapsed. The only real entrance was through the front, and the Avvar had holed up in the back.
“That’s an unfortunate advantage they have there,” Kate observed.
“Just so,” Cullen agreed. “I was thinking we’d be able to get our soldiers in closer, have them scale the side walls, maybe, but like this…” He shook his head.
Like this, Kate thought, the forward team would be entirely isolated from any potential backup. And as Kate and Cullen comprised the forward team, they would be entirely alone together once they reached the keep. Not a comfortable thought.
“Did you see any of our soldiers?” Kate asked Harding, trying not to dwell on that detail.
“No,” Harding said. “But there’s a door right here,” she pointed to the left side of the innermost part of the keep. “I saw an Avvar go in there with two loaves of bread and a jug of water,” Harding explained. “He left with just the jug, so unless he’s storing bread in a moldy room…” She broke off with a frown. “I’m hoping they’re in there, anyhow.”
“If they are, we’ll bring them home,” Kate said, reassuringly. “We’ll make certain that they have more than bread and water for dinner tonight.”
Again, Cullen’s eyes flicked to Kate’s face before he glanced away. “Hear, hear,” he muttered.
“How many Avvar are we dealing with, Harding?” Cassandra asked, pursing her lips as she looked down at the maps.
“About…six or seven?” Harding wrinkled up her nose. “It was hard to tell. They kept moving around the walls. We’re going to have to keep our troops way back, ‘cause they can see pretty far from that keep. Most of them had bows.”
“Did you see that ‘Hand of Korth’ fellow?” Kate wanted to know.
“Sure did,” Harding said. “Well, that is, I think I did. I’m assuming he’s the one wearing horns and carrying a really big maul. Think he’s overcompensating for something, your Worship,” she added, elbowing Kate, “if you get what I mean.”
Kate bit back a laugh, but Cassandra and Cullen didn’t seem to have heard that part. They were both shaking their heads over the maps.
“I still think we could take them directly,” Cassandra said. “The Avvar can’t have greater numbers than we do.”
“They could have enough to do some serious damage,” Cullen said.
“How many people were in our lost troop?” Kate asked. “I assume the Avvar must have outnumbered us in order to take our soldiers without a fight.”
“Not necessarily,” Harding replied. “A stealthy scout team can take a bigger force without a shot fired.”
“Yes, but someone who goes by ‘The Hand of Korth’ and carries a giant maul doesn’t strike me as very stealthy,” Kate pointed out.
To Kate’s surprise, Cullen snorted at that. She thought he might have even smiled before he schooled his expression back into something more serious. Maybe he still had a sense of humor lurking in there after all.
“Whatever Korth is,” Cullen said, “We need to approach him carefully. Scout teams only, soldiers as back up.”
“Your plan takes too long, Cullen,” Cassandra put in just then. “It would be best to simply storm the keep.”
“Storm the keep?” Kate looked at the Seeker in disbelief. “We have, what? Twenty-some people with us?”
“And surely we are better trained than they,” Cassandra replied.
“That’s not wise,” Cullen replied. “It’s not just the risk to our captive soldiers. It’s also about future risk. If we offend against Avvar customs, even unwittingly, this could come back to haunt us. Avvar hold grudges. The last thing we want is some honor-mad chieftain sending all his people to attack us. Let’s just stick to the plan and play along with this challenge. It’s the best option.”
Much as Kate was feeling out of sorts this morning, she had to nod in approval at that remark. Whatever else Cullen was, he was far more contientious about the Avvar than most people would be. He hadn’t dismissed them as barbarians, as most military men would have. If only he had such consideration for mages, Kate thought.
Actually, Kate amended, that was the odd thing about Cullen. He wasn’t inconsiderate of mages in practice - at least the encounters Kate had seen. Based off his behavior to the mages of Haven - and to Kate herself - he’d been cordial, supportive, even. If she hadn’t heard his history, she would never have guessed it. And it wasn’t Cullen who had started shouting last night. That had been Kate’s fault.
Well yes, another part of her mind grumbled. But he’d started it. Maybe he hadn’t started shouting, but he’d started the fight by wanting to go recruit the templars. He’d started it by being a templar in the first place. And now she was right back where she started, Kate realized. She felt twisted up and angry and she just wanted to be done with this mission already.
I bet the scouts want to be done with this nightmare, too, she thought.
“We cannot just ‘play along,’ Cullen,” Cassandra was saying with a scowl. “This is not a game.”
“I know it’s not,” Cullen said irritably. “But we can use the duel to our advantage. We will play fair - right up until the moment that Korth cheats.”
“You think he’ll cheat?” Cassandra asked. Harding gave her a wry look and nodded.
“I always plan for that eventuality,” Cullen said. “So we prepare for two games: the one where I win this duel and Korth gives us our people back, and the one where I win and Korth tries to double-cross us.”
“I hesitate to ask about the case where you don’t win,” Harding chuckled. “No offense, commander.”
Kate laughed at Harding’s comment. Cullen glanced over at Kate, frowning.
“Do you share Harding’s concern?” he asked her.
Kate thought for just a moment, then shook her head.
“A braggart with a maul against a knight-captain? You’ll flatten him.”
Cullen seemed a bit taken aback at that, though he also looked flattered as well. But before he could say anything, a scout came over and interrupted him. Cullen turned to speak to the fellow, and Harding and Cassandra started talking about where they were going to take up their positions. That left Kate with nothing to do but look over the maps absently. As she did so, she spotted a letter that lay to the side of all the other papers. Being the sort of person who read everything placed in front of her, Kate skimmed the words without stopping to think that she was reading someone else’s mail. Then, suddenly, her eyes went wide.
“Alright then,” Cullen said, turning back to the table. “If we…”
“Wait a minute!” Kate grabbed up the letter. “This Korth fellow challenged you to a shield-reckoning?”
“Um, yes,” Cullen said, looking at Kate as if she were a bit slow. “That’s the reason we’re out here.”
“But you said we were here for a duel,” Kate said.
“Right,” Cullen said, nodding at her. “The duel with the Avvar.” He said this as though he might say, ‘please try and keep up, Trevelyan.” Kate might have found that annoying, except that she was so startled by this news. All thoughts of last night’s argument had now been pushed to the back of her mind.
“A shield-reckoning isn’t a duel,” Kate said. “Well, I mean it is, but it’s far more. You planned for that, right?”
“Planned for what?” Cullen said.
“Unless Lysette got this wrong - and, well, maybe she did - Korth challenged you to a shield-reckoning. That’s not just ‘climb into an arena and have at it.’ It’s got all sorts of extra traditions that have to be followed.”
“You’ve done a great deal of research into Avvar duels, have you?” Cullen asked. He sounded like he didn’t know if she was posturing or serious.
“Actually, I have,” Kate replied, loftily.
Sort of, she added, silently. The first book she’d read on the subject was not exactly a history tome. Kate had once picked up a dog-eared novel called Chief and Challenger at the recommendation of one of the older apprentices. The book had indeed featured a shield-reckoning…followed by five chapters involving the various ways the chief had pleasured the challenger in celebration of her victory. The story had struck Kate as wildly improbable, especially the part where the chieftain went down on his knees and…
Well anyhow, the point was, Kate had been intrigued enough to do some research on the subject of Avvar tribes - while also reading through the entire Avvar romance section of the Ostwick library for good measure. Kate had never thought that her rather dubious taste in extra-curricular literature would come in handy. However, it appeared that today, it would.
“A shield-reckoning has all sorts of rules associated with it,” Kate said, thinking back on what she knew about the tradition - what the history books had corroborated from the novels, rather.
“Like what?” Harding asked.
“For a start, you’re supposed to go bare-chested.”
“I beg your pardon?” Cullen gaped at her.
Kate swallowed, for the moment she said that out loud, of course, her mind had to picture it. Kate suddenly found herself wondering how toned Cullen’s muscles were under all that armor, and if he had hair on his chest to match the stubble on his jaw.
Kate squeezed her eyes shut as if in pain. No, no, and no, she told herself. She was not thinking this. Being angry at Cullen was bad enough. Being aroused by him was completely out of the question. Besides, Kate had much better things to do than wonder what the templar training regimen had done to Cullen’s body.
Maker’s breath. Kate drew herself up stiffly and tried to return to the relevant point:
“In a shield-reckoning,” she said, her tone carefully crisp and neutral, “All participants must arrive at the match without armor. If they don’t, they’re declared ‘fear-weak.’ That can be grounds for disqualification. Or in our case…”
“That could be an end to the negotiations for the hostages,” Cullen said, his lips thinning.
“Right,” Kate nodded.
“You can’t be serious,” Cassandra sneered. “Arrive without armor on? What kind of a duel is that?”
“It’s not a duel,” Kate reminded her, “It’s a shield-reckoning.”
“What am I supposed to wear, then?” Cullen asked her. “Just my trousers?”
Kate’s mind stuttered over the answer to that question. For in Chief and Challenger, the heroes had both ended up wearing nothing but loincloths.
Don’t think it, don’t think it. Kate told herself, but it was no use. The image from the cover of Chief and Challenger popped into her mind, in all it’s lurid glory. However, superimposed over the chieftain’s overwrought physique, Kate now saw Cullen’s face, complete with the long braids and the fur loincloth, and…
And she did not need her overactive imagination to be distracting her like this, Kate thought, irritably. She imagined herself taking hold of her fantasy, closing it up like a book, and hurling the wretched thing across the camp.
“The clothing is determined by the challenger,” Kate said, a bit more sharply than she meant to. “Still, it’s customary that the fighters go shirtless.”
“But wait,” Harding said, glancing up at Kate. “The original challenge went to you, your Worship. Does that mean you’ll be bare-chested, too?”
Cullen made a strange, strangled noise and quickly turned to examine the maps. Kate’s jaw dropped open. Harding burst out laughing. Only Cassandra seemed to miss the awkward tension.
“This is preposterous,” the Seeker said, wrinkling her nose. “We can’t send the Herald of Andraste walking into that keep topless.”
Cullen broke into a fit of coughing.
“I won’t be topless!” Kate cried, “It’s not like that. Look, if we follow tradition, then Cullen and I are supposed to show up wearing… Well, I imagine our trousers and undershirts would do. The fighters will disrobe further after that.”
“Maker’s breath,” Cullen muttered, scrubbing a hand over his face.
“Armor is the challenger’s choice,” Kate continued briskly, “But the challenged party gets to decide on weapons.”
“Sword and shield then,” Cullen said, taking a shuddering breath. “That’s a relief. Possibly the only one,” he added in a mutter.
“Hang on,” Kate said, suddenly realizing something. “You don’t get to choose the weapons, Cullen. He does.”
“Why?” Cullen asked, looking up at her. His face was extremely red, probably from all that coughing.
“Normally you would get to choose the weapons,” Kate told him. “But if a champion is appointed, then the choice of weapon defaults back to the challenger.”
“Mauls it is then,” Harding said. “How’s your two-handed game, commander?”
“Not bad, actually,” he said, with a slightly cocky smile. “I trained with a greatsword for years. I don’t know how well that would translate to mauls, though.”
“This can’t be right,” Kate said, ignoring them and frowning at the letter. “Because here it sounds like Korth is challenging me and Cullen both. Later, he issues the challenge to me alone. But then he turns around and says he won’t fight a mage. So…who does he want to fight? I can’t tell if Lysette transcribed this incorrectly or if there’s some kind of mistake.”
Cassandra snorted. “All the more reason to rush the place quickly and forget this duel foolishness.”
“If I’m the one challenged,” Kate mused, ignoring the Seeker, “then I get to choose my champion, not Korth.”
“What, so now you don’t want me with you?” Cullen said, his brows furrowing. “We already decided that we’re together on this, Trevelyan.”
“No,” Kate assured him quickly. “We are, I promise you. But something is wrong with…”
She trailed off, cocking her head to one side.
“He did it on purpose,” Kate said, realization dawning. “He’s deliberately trying to trap us.”
“I think we already knew that,” Cullen said wryly.
“No, look,” Kate said. “He makes no mention of his shield-siblings. He should have told us how many people he has with him. And I’m sure Lysette would have included that information if she knew it. Any soldier would.”
“That’s true,” Cullen agreed. “More likely, she and the others are in that room there, kept out of sight so they don’t have any information to give.”
“But Korth should have told us how many retainers - shield-siblings, rather - that he has with him,” Kate said. “There must be an equal number of witnesses from both sides. Otherwise, it is not a legitimate reckoning. See,” she said, stabbing a finger at the letter, “He’s already cheated. But I’m guessing that he did it on purpose so that we wouldn’t know how many people we were allowed to bring.”
“So in other words,” Cullen said, “He’s cheating us in order to trick us into cheating back.”
“And then he’s honor-bound to drop all negotiations entirely,” Kate agreed. “But he did it like this so that he can claim we were the ones who dishonored the reckoning.”
Cullen snorted. “Well then. My opinion of this fellow went from complete derision to annoyed, yet grudging respect.”
“Eh,” Harding shrugged. “Wait until you see him, commander. I think you’ll settle on derision.”
“Well,” Kate mused, “At least, I think that’s what Korth is doing. It could just be that Lysette misunderstood him. It’s not at all like the Avvar to be quite this underhanded. Even the villains in the novels… I mean, shield-reckonings are serious things.”
“I still say we should storm the keep,” Cassandra said.
“And I still say that’s likely to get our soldiers killed before we can reach them,” Cullen said.
Kate thought a moment, and a wonderful, yet terrible idea suddenly occurred to her. It would be risky, but given the layout of the keep, it just might work.
“Wait a minute,” she said, holding out a hand, “We could shadow the shadows.”
When everyone looked confused, Kate pressed on, saying, “In Chief and Challenger…” Kate caught herself, then shook her head. “I mean, in one of the books I read…”
“Chief and Challenger?” Cassandra interrupted. She stared at Kate with wide eyes.
“Uh…” Kate froze. Cassandra couldn’t know that was a romance novel, could she? Surely not. She was a Seeker, for the Maker’s sake.
“Are you saying,” Cassandra said, very precisely, “that you got all this information about the Avvar from a book by Portia Plume?”
Or maybe Cassandra did know that it was a romance novel.
“Um, yes?” Kate said, making a face. Then she couldn’t help but ask:
“Have you read it?”
“I, er…yes,” the Seeker said, looking away.
“What, really?” Kate asked.
“It was for research,” Cassandra said, turning red. “I don’t remember the details of the shield-reckoning, though. More the part after…”
Kate bit her lips to keep from laughing aloud. It seemed that she and the Seeker shared the same taste in ‘research materials.’ Somehow, that made Kate feel a great deal better.
“I think I’m missing something,” Cullen said, frowning at each woman in turn.
“I think we are,” Harding agreed, though she sported a smile. “I also think I’m gonna have to look this book up when I get back to civilization.”
“No!” Cassandra cried.
“Anyway,” Kate said, determined to keep Cassandra from revealing the kind of book they were talking about. “We can use this. Plume based the reckoning in her book off of the tales of Tyrrda Bright Axe’s grandson. I read about that in Avvar Tribes of Southern Ferelden,” she added, lest Cassandra think Kate’s knowledge had entirely been cribbed from romance novels.
“Really?” Cassandra said, eyes widening. “I didn’t know that. I don’t suppose it was true when he…” She trailed off, casting a glance at Cullen. “Never mind,” she said, crisply. “We can discuss that later.”
“Right,” Kate nodded. Cullen now looked doubly confused.
“But in…” Kate caught herself just in time, “Uh, in another book, they shadow the shadows. So if we use those two tricks together…”
“Yes,” Cassandra nodded. And from the way the Seeker’s eyes lit up with understanding, Kate guessed at once that Cassandra had also read The Augur Who Loved Me.
“Yes,” Kate repeated, smiling.
“I still think I’m missing something,” Cullen said.
“Hear me out,” Kate said, setting the letter down on the table and reaching for the map of the keep. “I think there’s a way to beat this Hand of Korth at his own game…”
Cullen had no idea what history books Trevelyan and Cassandra had been reading, but he had to admit, their plan was a good one. It was clever, cautious, and best of all, there were multiple contingencies in case something went wrong.
In Cullen’s experience, something always went wrong. That was the primary reason why he wasn’t so keen on this next part.
“Alright then, armor off, you two.”
Cullen glanced over at Scout Harding. The dwarf looked awfully cheerful about this part of the plan. But considering that Harding was cheerful about pretty much everything, Cullen doubted that the scout had any personal interest in seeing the Herald and the Commander strip down to their trousers and undershirts. The dwarf turned from where she’d been peeking around a line of boulders at the road ahead, and placed her hands on her hips expectantly.
Out of the corner of his eye, Cullen saw Trevelyan take off her pack and shrug out of her jacket. He quickly looked away and concentrated on removing his own armor. He wasn’t going to watch her, he promised himself, just like he wasn’t going to imagine what he’d imagined this morning. Because when Harding had suggested that Trevelyan might enter the match bare-chested…
Maker, Cullen thought, drawing back from that idea. What an wretched way to start a mission. This whole morning had been nothing but awkwardness and strain and more awkwardness. Cullen had lain awake half the night thinking over that disastrous meeting with Trevelyan. Some hours before dawn, he had fallen into a fitful sleep. He had woken just as grumpy as he’d gone to bed, and headed to his work in the early morning.
For a time, he’d managed to lose himself in his work, but then Trevelyan had shown up. At her bold, unapologetic greeting, Cullen had felt… He didn’t quite know what to call it. It was a warring sort of feeling. On the one hand, he felt a deep desire to explain himself to Trevelyan, to make her see that he’d been reasonable and rational when all the templar Order had gone mad around him. On the other hand, Cullen now felt a deep, gnawing sort of guilt - deeper than usual, that is. He had been a part of all that misery in Kirkwall. Perhaps nothing could ever excuse that crime. Perhaps no amount of service to the Maker could atone for his blindness. Perhaps Trevelyan had seen that he was beyond redemption.
No, Cullen thought irritably. Surely there was some good he could yet do, even if he did it at odds with the Herald. Though right now, she seemed focused enough. He respected that she’d set aside their fight and moved on. He’d half expected her to bring it up. But instead, there she was, considering the keep from afar, eyes narrowed, full lips pursed in consideration. In times like this, Trevelyan looked quite soldierly. More than soldierly, she looked…
Better not think on her looks, his reason cautioned him. For when Trevelyan had started talking about the details of a shield-reckoning - about going bare-chested, of all things - Cullen’s mind had done a sort of stutter-step. At the word ‘topless’, a host of images crowded his vision. Cullen’s eyes had instantly gone to her chest, approximating size and guessing at skin tone and putting it all together in the most likely scenario. There were times when Cullen cursed his ability to judge terrain so well.
And someone had seen him ogling Trevelyan, which embarrassed Cullen even more. Harding had watched the whole conversation with great amusement. Even now, the dwarf seemed to think this was all very funny. She stood there, regarding Cullen with a smirk. A fork of lightening split the sky, and thunder rumbled out a warning into the bog.
“Well,” Trevelyan said. She wadded up her jacket and stuffed it into her pack. “This doesn’t look much like the setting in Chief and Challenger. More like Midnight in the Brecilian Forest.“
“Oooh!” Harding said, brightly. “I’ve read that one! It was scary.”
“It was,” Trevelyan agreed.
She sounded nervous, Cullen thought. She also looked very pale. Of course, that may have been the effect of the rain. Her usually bright hair was dimmed and darkened by the wet, and her lashes were like black spikes around her eyes.
Cullen wasn’t surprised that she was nervous. The mire had them all on edge by now. It had taken the entire morning to march just a few miles. When anyone disturbed the water - which was very easy to do in a swamp - a handful of lurching undead had come crawling out of the muck. The rotting corpses had stumbled after the troops, intent on attacking with bows and arrows - or with their decaying fingers. Thankfully, it wasn’t terribly difficult to deal with the undead. Enchanter Vivienne had frozen them in place and Cassandra had cut them down with her sword. But it had been time-consuming to tip-toe through the mire, and a bit alarming to know that a foot in the water might mean an arrow to the head. Because of this, it had been decided that Vivienne would remain here with a few soldiers and keep the exit clear. As for the plan going forward, a lot of that depended upon Korth.
Cullen set aside his gauntlets and began to unwind the furred mantle from his armor. Then he detached his metal shoulder guards, his breastplate, and unbuckled his leather jacket. He pulled that over his head, leaving on only his undershirt. When he looked up again, it was to find Trevelyan staring at him with… interest?
Cullen felt his face heat. Maker, surely not. Surely he had just imagined that look in her eyes. Now, Trevelyan simply seemed determined as she walked toward him. Cullen held his ground, wondering what she was on about. Trevelyan drew close. Cullen swallowed and his hands clenched into fists.
“I’m with you,” she whispered.
A breath half-escaped him, caught somewhere between his throat and his lips. “Wha-?”
“I know we don’t have time to talk,” Trevelyan went on. “And I know that after what happened yesterday, and what I said… But our people need us. I’m with you. On this mission at least. And later…” She trailed off there.
Later what, he wondered? Her whispers came fast and low, her breath was soft and warm beside his ear. Cullen felt his gut grow tight in response. But at the same time, his fingers uncurled, and his hands hung heavy at his sides.
“I didn’t know,” he whispered back.
The words were out of his mouth before he had thought them through.
“In the Gallows,” he said, looking down at her. “I didn’t know. Truly, I… I know you don’t believe me, and I know you think I ought to have… But I didn’t.”
He concluded this incoherent offering with a choked sort of sound. No other words would follow. Even that small concession terrified him. In that moment, Cullen felt as if all the ghosts of Kirkwall lurked just under the water of the mire. If he said anything more, those ghosts might very well rise up and attack him. It was an irrational thought, but the image haunted his mind. Cullen felt desperately exposed, and it had nothing to do with being out of his armor.
Trevelyan looked up at him with furrowed brows, and Cullen couldn’t tell if she was confused by him or disgusted with him or just worried about the mission.
“We can speak of this later,” Cullen managed. He swallowed and looked away from her searching eyes.
Trevelyan nodded, her expression still unreadable.
“Are you ready?” she asked him.
“I have to be,” he replied, and together they set off into the rain.
They had a clear path to the keep ahead, Kate saw, and Andraste save her if it wasn’t the most ominous road she had ever laid eyes on. There were stone cairns set at intervals along either side and thick, heavy chains hung between each cairn. The approach made Kate think of a rotting ship at the end of a long, rickety pier. She started drawing closer to Cullen, then realized what she was doing. Kate paused, then got as close to Cullen as she could without touching him. She decided that she’d rather stand by the former templar than walk alone.
Hargrave Keep was huge, much bigger than she’d imagined. As they went creeping towards it, Kate felt quite small. Even Cullen seemed smaller now without his armor on. He was still impressive, Kate had to admit. She hadn’t failed to notice his broad shoulders or the few faint, gold hairs that peeked over the neckline of his shirt. She supposed those hairs partially answered at least one of her mind’s unhelpful questions. But now, as they neared the outer gate, Kate realized Cullen looked rather vulnerable without his furs and metal on. He was flesh and bone, just as she was. And Cullen was about to pit his flesh-and-bone self against a rogue chieftain and a really big maul.
The gate loomed before them, the spiked ends of the portcullis hanging down like iron teeth set in a gaping mouth. Kate shuddered as they passed through the opening and then entered an inner courtyard. Walls and wooden walkways soared up around them on all sides. The place was a warren, Kate thought. She didn’t remember any of this from the maps. And now, she felt a sudden worry that perhaps this wouldn’t work after all.
“You have the flares?” Cullen murmured. The sound of his voice was so unexpected in the rain that it caused Kate to jump. She sucked in a breath, then nodded.
“Yes, of course. They’re in my, um…yes.”
“They’re in your what?” Cullen demanded, though he hissed these words quietly. “Maker’s breath, you didn’t leave them behind, did you?”
“I have them,” Kate shot back irritably.
“Where?” Cullen pressed.
“In here,” she hissed, pointing at her breasts.
Cullen stared at her chest for a moment, then flushed and looked quickly away. “Oh.”
“Well it’s not like these pants have pockets,” Kate muttered, blushing as well. “I had to stuff them into my corset.”
“Cor…” he seemed to choke. “Alright. Sorry I asked,” he trailed off, muttering.
“I still think I should cast a spell,” Kate added, speaking more because she was embarrassed than because she really wanted to revisit this. “Fire for the red flare, ice for the blue…”
“The scouts are expecting a flare,” Cullen reminded her. “The scouts are used to responding to flares.”
“The scouts could get used to responding to magic, too,” Kate mumbled, but Cullen wasn’t listening. Now that they’d reached the other side of the courtyard, they could see that the portcullis was down, blocking the path.
“Huh,” Kate said, drawing up short as well. “I guess they aren’t expecting us.”
Cullen turned around, searching the walkways and walls. “There has to be a control somewhere,” he muttered.
Just then, Kate saw a movement.
“Cullen,” she said, cringing into him.
“I see them,” he replied, barely moving his lips.
“They’re trailing us.”
“Yes,” he murmured. “Pretend not to notice them.”
That was kind of difficult to do when Kate did notice them. She tried not to shudder as an archer ducked into an alcove just above them.
“Ah,” Cullen said, pointing back at the walkway above the main gate. “The controls are up there.”
“I’ve got it,” Kate said.
“No,” he said, sharply. “We shouldn’t split up…”
But Kate had already stretched out her right arm. She curled her fingers into a fist and drew her arm down in a pulling sort of motion. The handle far above their heads dropped down, and the portcullis behind them raised up.
“Well,” Cullen said. He blinked at her in surprise. “That’s convenient.”
“Magic often is,” Kate returned. But just then, the portcullis that led back to the mire suddenly fell shut.
“Except when it’s not,” Kate muttered. “Well, there goes our way out.”
“Damn,” Cullen hissed. “They’re connected. Can’t raise the one without closing the other.”
“That’s not good,” Kate said, belatedly realizing that she was stating the completely obvious.
“Can you switch the controls back once we’re through?” Cullen asked her.
“It’ll be noisy,” Kate pointed out.
“Nothing we can do about that,” Cullen told her. Jerking his head, he nodded at the path onward. Kate fell in step beside him at once, trying to ignore the shadows that lurked behind them.
Cullen kept his eyes on the towers, noting every movement that seemed more than just the patter of the rain. He and Trevelyan walked more quickly now, under the second gate and into the inner courtyard. Once there, Cullen motioned his head at Trevelyan. She gave him a worried look, but she raised her hand and waved it all the same. Behind them, the inner portcullis went sliding down into place with a great groan, and they were blocked in.
Of course, Cullen thought, this whole place was corralling them up and in. There were wings off to both sides, but the high walls about them kept them from being able to reach those upper walkways. High in the crumbling towers, the unlit windows looked like empty eye sockets. And even though Cullen had seen Ferelden ruins before, he found his heart beating faster and faster as they walked. He told himself that was just a function of the mission. He always found himself with his heart pounding, his hands shaking slightly. He would be fine once the actual battle began. Then his training would take over.
Unfortunately, Cullen thought, he was worried about Trevelyan. He was fighting a very strong impulse to send her away and keep her out of danger. But Korth had asked for her by name, so she was necessary to the mission. Cullen still wished he could keep her out of this. She was already looking even more shaky than before.
Before them, the ground rose swiftly on a hillside, and then headed up into a flight of stairs. The inner keep now loomed beyond that, with walls as stark and gray as steel. When they reached the steps, Trevelyan took a step closer toward Cullen and shuddered.
“We’re going to be alright,” he reassured her.
Kate was certain Cullen was lying. She had this horrible, nagging feeling that something was about to go wrong. Andraste’s tears, but the Veil was so thin in this mire. She had thought that would lessen as they got away from the boggy places where the undead were. Instead, the Veil felt weakest here near the great hall. Of course, that weakness was all relative. Paper-thin to tissue-paper-thin wasn’t much by way of comparison. It was probably just her imagination, anyway.
Just then, Kate glanced over her shoulder and spotted another movement in the shadows. She flinched, then turned her head back to the keep. The braziers out front were lit, Kate saw. The dull embers glowed eerily in the overcast light of the late afternoon. It seemed the Avvar were waiting for them. And if all went to plan, Kate told herself, then Cullen was right. They would be fine, and there was nothing to worry about.
Oh, Kate thought. What was she thinking? She was about to try and pull off a plan that she’d cobbled together from some old history books and a trashy Avvar romance novel, for the Maker’s sake. There was no way in the Void that this was going to work. For all the ‘serious’ books she read over the years, Kate realized that she had also devoured an awful lot of fluff, too. The fluff must have softened her mind.
“This isn’t going to work,” Kate whispered.
“It will work,” Cullen murmured back. “It is already working.”
“Are you sure?” Kate looked up at the stairway before them and it seemed to stretch on forever.
“At times like this, you have to trust the people you’re working with,” Cullen returned. He paused, then cast her a wry half-smile. “It’s one of those things they drill into us in templar training.”
Kate didn’t have enough energy left to respond to that statement. She felt as if she were using up all her resolve just to place her foot on that staircase and climb the steps after him.
“Mages are rarely trained to work together,” Cullen went on, murmuring to her as they climbed, “That’s why you’re not used to relying on anyone but yourself. But the scouts have our back. Stick to your part and we’ll be fine.”
Kate nodded. Stick to her part. She could do that.
Before them was a long, narrow passageway made of stone. The roof of it had long since crumbled, leaving the space open to the sky, but the walls along it were high and slicked with rain. Kate could see the hint of a large room beyond, lights flickering there in eerie welcome.
“And don’t forget,” Cullen added, as they reached the top step. “You have a weapon.”
“Yes, I know,” Kate nodded. “My magic.”
“No, not the magic,” Cullen said, stopping for a moment at the top of the stairs. “That staff. You mages never get trained to use them properly, but…”
“I can fire a mage staff,” Kate said, defensively. Alright, so she couldn’t twirl the thing in the fancy way that Solas and Vivienne did, but she could still get power from it.
“I don’t mean fire it,” Cullen said, shooting her a pointed look. “I mean use it. I can’t count the number of times a mage might have survived a battle if they’d just used that giant hunk of wood as a weapon. But you mages never think of it as a quarterstaff, because you weren’t trained to do so.”
He added that last bit in a mutter, and Kate just stared at him. She took a breath, both to calm her nerves and to help her process what he’d just told her. Firstly, Cullen had just said that he’d been in battles where mages had been cut down for lack of proper training. He may have even been the one who did the cutting-down of those improperly trained mages.
But secondly, it felt as if he was giving up some big secret by telling her this. In the Circles, mages were trained to control and leash their powers. Only in rare cases were they encouraged to use them. That Cullen would suggest a way for a mage to be more powerful flew in the face of everything Kate knew about templars.
“Anyhow” he went on, “what I’m saying is this: if you find yourself in a corner, remember that you’re carrying a big stick.”
Cullen was ready to see this done. The missing soldiers had been here for over five days, Trevelyan was visibly trembling, and it was time to finish this.
Evidently, whoever was inside of the great hall believed this as well.
“The Hand of Korth seeks your destruction!” Cullen heard someone shout. “Behold, how the sky-tearers come to accept their punishment.”
Cullen was about to remind Trevelyan that this was her cue, but the moment she heard the taunt, she straightened her shoulders and her eyes narrowed. Trevelyan cast a quick barrier spell over the two of them before shouting down the hallway:
“Is this how you greet those who answer your challenge? You know little of honor, chief’s-son-in-borrowed-titles. Let us settle this boldly: not with words and breath, but with blood and bone and a proper reckoning.”
“Andraste’s tears,” Cullen whispered to her. “Do you rehearse this stuff?”
“Um, kind of?” she whispered back. More loudly, she called:
“We enter this place of proving, and demand to settle the terms of your challenge before we begin the fight.”
They stepped into the great hall, and Cullen’s eyes instantly scanned the room. The place had once been a proper feast-hall, he could see, with beamed ceilings and heavy iron chandelier. The roof had long since fallen, however, leaving the place open to the sky. It looked like the cracked rib cage of a corpse.
Korth stood in the great hall before them, and Cullen quickly sized the fellow up. He was easily half again as wide and tall as Cullen was, and as Harding had warned, he carried an enormous maul. Korth didn’t appear to be wearing any armor, but it was hard to tell under all the white mud that he’d smeared over himself. The man looked like an overwrought statue, liberally covered in bird droppings.
“The Veil is weak here,” Trevelyan hissed at Cullen, so quickly he almost missed it. Cullen didn’t like the sound of that, but he nodded all the same.
“Be careful with your casting then,” he replied. He then added, “I see two archers hiding in the corners of that raised space behind him.”
And there were also the Avvar trailing them, Cullen thought. But he didn’t say this, for now Korth came lumbering forward, his maul on his shoulder.
“Don’t question my honor, spirit-siphoner,” Korth sneered at Trevelyan. “This is a reckoning between warriors, not the fade-flinging of your weak lowland spell-casters.”
But even as he said this, Cullen noticed that Korth seemed to shift nervously. He glanced over to his left, as if warily watching the gallery that ran along either side of the keep. Cullen didn’t turn his head, but he, too, glanced at the galleries. Cullen saw nothing there, however.
“If we are to reckon properly,” Trevelyan said, haughtily, “Then you must deliver a proper challenge, chief’s-son. Your challenge was sent to me and Commander Cullen both. Thus we have arrived to battle you, together.”
As Trevelyan had predicted, this startled Korth. The giant man sputtered, and mud went flying from his lips.
“You cannot challenge me as twin-blades. I do not accept it.”
“You challenged us both,” Trevelyan replied. “Unless your scribe wrote wrongly.”
“She wrote wrongly,” Korth said quickly. “I challenge you sky-tearer. I challenge you and shall make your army-commander’s blood answer for it.” With this, he hefted his maul from his shoulder and pointed it at Cullen’s middle.
“But you challenged me,” Trevelyan said, “So I get to appoint my champion. Or maybe I won’t,” she added, holding up her left hand and pretended to examine her nails. “I think I would rather fight you myself. The mark of the skies against your maul? It will be a reckoning shorter than any in your histories.”
As she spoke, Trevelyan turned her hand over, allowing the mark to start glowing and spitting sparks. Cullen had to admit, it was an effective threat. Of course, he knew that her mark didn’t work like that. Korth remained ignorant of this fact, however, and the Avvar’s eyes grew wide.
“I will fight none but the warrior of the armies,” the big brute said.
And that, Cullen thought, was his cue to speak:
“Oh, really?” he drawled. “Well then, I accept your challenge. And we’ll be fighting with sword and shield. There ought to be some old ones lying about here,” he added, nodding at the debris in the hall. “Go find something your size. Make sure it’s not too rusted.”
“I…” Korth clutched at his maul and gaped at them both.
“Is something wrong?” Trevelyan said, with false concern. “You did say you were challenging the warrior, didn’t you? So that means Cullen has the right of weapon-choice. If you challenge me, then I’m fighting you with my magic. Which death do you prefer?”
Korth’s mouth opened and shut several times as he lathered himself into a fury. “I will do neither, lowland-liars! I fight your commander with this maul, and I will feed his body to the bog-fishers when I’ve done with him!”
“Promises, promises,” Cullen tsk-ed, shaking his head.
“You will do no such thing,” Trevelyan said, striding forward boldly, “Until you offer him a proper challenge. Otherwise, you have violated the terms of our deal, er…broken our bargaining. I trust your shield-siblings -” she shouted those two words to the rafters, “are all true tribesfolk. They will act with shield-honor, and remove themselves from this place peaceably. They will not allow even you to dishonor your father’s name…”
But here, it seemed that Trevelyan miscalculated. For no sooner had she said the word ‘father,’ than Korth bellowed with rage and rushed at her. Cullen barely had time to get his shield up, but could not reach Trevelyan before Korth’s maul came swinging. It hit Trevelyan full in the chest, and she went flying back down the hallway like a rag doll, hit the stones and skidded slowly to a stop. Cullen watched in horror, feeling as though Korth had knocked Cullen’s guts down the hallway as well.
Korth laughed, his voice mixing with the rumbling thunder overhead. And in that moment, Cullen saw nothing but lightning and fire. He whirled back on the Avvar, and with a roar, he launched himself at the giant.
Kate rolled over onto her stomach, coughing and gasping for breath. She and Cullen had debated whether casting a barrier spell would technically be a violation of the terms of a reckoning or not. Cullen had argued that an augur-averse Avvar would likely not notice her subtle magics. In this case, he had said, it would be better to bend the rules and be safe, than to follow the rules and be sorry.
Kate was glad she’d agreed. If she hadn’t cast that spell, her ribs and lungs would have been crushed. Even with the cushioning effect of the barrier, it had knocked the wind of her. She scrambled to her feet and snatched up her fallen staff.
In the center of the hall, the battle raged without her. Korth’s maul was dropping over and over again in heavy, hammer-like blows. It made Kate think of a drunken woodcutter, who couldn’t quite figure out where the stump had gone off to. As for Cullen, he was circling around Korth in a fluid, deadly dance, dodging away and then striking with quick cuts to Korth’s massive body. Korth’s white mud coating was crossed through with multiple lines of red blood, but Cullen appeared unharmed as of yet. More than unharmed, the former templar fought as if he was possessed. And because of that, Cullen didn’t see the archers in the distance taking aim at him.
“Cullen!” Kate cried in warning.
She shot a shard of ice from her palm at one of the archers, then tried to hit the other with a blast of ice from her staff. Neither attack did much damage, but it was enough to throw off their aim. Their arrows clattered harmlessly off of the walls behind Kate. Kate began to gather her power to put them out of commission entirely.
But it seemed Kate’s spell had distracted someone else as well. Cullen turned at the sound of her voice, and Korth had used that opportunity to line up a stronger blow.
“Watch out!” Kate cried.
Kate cast another barrier spell over Cullen, and not a moment too soon. Korth’s maul came crashing down, and though Cullen managed to get his shield up, he staggered back under the weight of the blow. Kate could see that the archers were taking aim in the distance, and she felt panic wash over her. Her barriers couldn’t possibly hold under this redoubled assault. Cullen couldn’t hold up under such an assault.
Kate tried to decide if she should risk casting at the archers, or if she should save her power for barrier spells. Then suddenly, one of the archers fell, crumpling as though made of paper. An arrow stuck from his throat, and in that moment, a familiar snarl tore the air. Kate whirled around to find Cassandra sprinting into the room, with Harding scampering right behind her. The dwarf nocked another arrow to her bow, and Kate saw her take aim at the second archer. The enemy archer fired first, but his arrow pinged harmlessly off of Cullen’s barrier spell. Kate gathered her power and cast another barrier on Cullen and Cassandra both. Harding’s second shot took the remaining archer in the stomach, and the fellow folded in half with a groan.
“Excellent timing, Harding,” Kate said, feeling relief and hope flood her.
“Hey, it was your plan,” Harding said, drawing out another arrow. “The Avvar followed you guys in and we followed them. Got the jump on them as they were getting ready to get the jump on you. They’re all tied up in the courtyard, by the way. Scouts are sitting on them.”
Kate just grinned. Trust the people you’re working with, Cullen had said. Well, Kate thought, he had been right about that. It seemed she was no longer a lone mage. She had an entire army to rely on, and that was an incredible feeling. Behind them, Kate saw a few more scouts file into the room, bows at the ready. Cassandra and Cullen circled Korth, shouting for his surrender.
Korth kept flailing his maul wildly. He looked to the galleries, as if searching for reinforcements that weren’t coming. Harding shot him neatly in the leg, and the great Avvar staggered. Then Cullen bashed Korth with his shield, and the brute stumbled. He tripped backward over some lose rubble, and fell. Cassandra circled around to one side of the Avvar as Cullen circled to the other. They held him at sword-point and Cullen jerked his chin at the fallen man.
“Now then,” Cullen said, in a tone so cold that Kate scarcely recognized it as Cullen’s voice. “Where are our soldiers?”
“Widris!” Korth bellowed in reply.
“That had better mean ‘yield’ in Avvar,” Cullen shot back, “because right now the only thing that will save your life is your complete surrender.”
Kate had never seen Cullen look so dangerous. But she didn’t think Korth was trying to surrender. Maybe he was crying out to one of the Avvar gods? Her suspicion was confirmed when the Avvar shouted even louder:
“I give them to you, Widris! Take them as your battle-gift, from my hand to yours!”
With that, a shadow detached itself from the darkness of the gallery, and Kate gasped. For a moment, she thought it was a god, for the Veil seemed to shrink and twist. But then Kate realized it was no spirit, but a man - a man in a dark cloak, with a knife glinting in his hand.
“Rogue!” Harding cried, pointing her arrow at the new arrival, but Kate shot forward, gathering all the magic that she could muster.
“No!” she shouted, “Blood mage…!”
But the knife had already fallen. The mage - Widris, Kate supposed his name was - exposed a forearm lined with cuts, and swiftly slashed the knife into his own skin.
Cullen and Cassandra turned to face him, but in that moment, several things happened at once. Korth lunged and grabbed Cullen’s leg and bit him. Cullen let out a shout of pain as the Avvar’s teeth closed around his leather-clad calf. Cassandra reached out her sword hand toward Widris and Harding loosed an arrow. But all this was blasted away in a tremendous burst of dark blood that exploded through the keep like a tidal wave.
Kate threw her hands up. Without even thinking, she pulled the Veil in front of herself like a screen. The force of the blood-blast went shooting around her. Kate could feel the hot splash on her face, could feel the trailing gust of wind. She felt the Veil shrink and coil like oil and water together, but she herself was untouched.
When Kate opened her eyes, she saw that all her allies had been knocked down by that blast. Cassandra, Cullen and Korth lay in a dazed tangle, and their reinforcements lay unmoving against the wall. A short distance away, Harding rolled over onto her back and let out a groan. Only Kate and the blood-mage were standing.
“His plan was feeble,” Widris said, waving at Korth dismissively. “And yet, it was effective. For here it is: the mark of the skies, delivered to up to me like a sacrifice.”
“I don’t know what you think you’re doing,” Kate shot back, gathering power as quickly as she could, “but you attacked the wrong Inquisition.”
“I attacked no one,” the mage said, with false innocence. “I simply waited and watched, coaxed and clung. I hid in the shadows, whispering at this oaf’s mind. I knew he’d draw you here, knew he’d give you to me. A power like this cannot be wasted on a little girl like you. It should be mine. It must be mine!”
With this, Widris launched himself at Kate, and blood and fire exploded around her. Kate cried out, drawing both a wall of ice before her and a barrier around her. Her startled spells used up nearly all her power, yet these protections were instantly singed away. Kate scarcely had enough time to cast another barrier on herself before Widris was casting again. Widris was an incredibly powerful mage, and the blood magic was making it worse.
“No!” Kate heard someone yell. It sounded like Cullen, alarmed and anguished. Kate ran for the corner of the room, ducking behind a stone pillar just as another blast went off behind her.
“Herald!” Kate heard Harding yell.
“Find our soldiers!” Kate shouted back at her.
“You will fall!” Kate heard Widris shout. He was circling toward her and from a loud shout in the center of the room, Kate guess that Korth had also reared his horned head once more. When Kate glanced around the side of the pillar, she saw Cullen and Cassandra were dashing out of the way of Korth’s maul. Harding was frantically gathering up her dropped bow and scattered arrows.
“Find the hostages, Harding!” Kate shouted again. “Get them out of here!”
Widris rounded the pillar and raised his hands at Kate. But instead of running, she Fade-stepped herself right at him. Kate slid through the Fade, skidding past Widris in a whirl of cold wind. Her spell deposited her at the other end of the room. When she glanced over her shoulder, Kate saw Widris staring down at his frosted limbs in a daze. Kate gulped in a breath, taking stock of where she’d landed.
She now stood on the raised dais at the far end of the hall, with two dead archers lying on either side of her. From here, Kate saw Cullen battling Korth. Cassandra had gone after Widris, but with a flick of his hand, the blood mage sent a flare of fire in the Seeker’s direction. Cassandra barely got her shield up in time. On the other end of the room, Harding ran as fast as her little legs could carry her, headed for a door set into the wall.
Just then, Cullen let out a roar. Kate looked up to see him charge Korth, striking the Avvar in the face with his shield. Korth went down like a felled tree, and Cullen jumped on top of him, one knee to the Avvar’s broad chest. Cullen placed his sword at Korth’s throat, and Kate saw his lips form the word, “Surrender.” From this distance and with the storm raging overhead, she could not hear Cullen’s voice.
Kate had no idea what Korth said back, but Cullen grimaced and slashed his sword to the side in a killing blow. Korth’s muddy body flailed, and Cullen staggered back. He let out a sigh, then turned his attention to the blood mage.
“Surrender,” he shouted, now pointing his bloodied sword at Widris. But the mage just laughed.
“You’re surrounded and bested,” Cassandra yelled at the blood mage. “As a Seeker, I can…”
She stretched out her arm, but got no further than that. Her arm was instantly bent back at a sharp angle, as if twisted by an invisible force. Cassandra cried out in pain, then went flying across the room as if struck. Cullen ran for Widris, but the mage shot fire from his palm. Cullen rolled to the floor, angling his shield up to block the inferno.
“Cullen!” Kate shouted, but her voice was drowned out by a roll of thunder overhead. She could have used another fade-step spell to throw herself between Widris and Cullen, but Kate realized that would be foolish. Instead, another plan formed in her mind, and she started running for Widris as fast as the slippery stones would allow, gathering energy as she went.
From where he lay on the floor, Cullen readied himself as if to spring, but Widris just raised an arm. It looked like the opening moves of a dance. At the same time, a stream of blood flowed into the air from Korth’s split throat, swirling in a rush toward Cullen. Cullen gasped and drew back, slashing at the blood as if it were a snake.
“Oh, so the warrior doesn’t like blood?” Widris sneered. “You seemed so eager for it a moment ago. Well, then, warrior, let’s see how you deal with this…”
Widris drew his hands up, the blood gathering before him in a whirlwind. Kate could feel the Veil thinning, could feel something - wraiths, demons, she didn’t know which - pressing at the other side.
Cullen gave an incoherent cry and threw aside his shield. He shot out his left hand, and Kate stumbled to a stop. She recognized that motion, and anticipated what came next: the Holy Smite of a templar. Lightning split the sky overhead, and in that burst of light, Kate thought, for a moment, that Widris had met his end.
But then the moment passed. Thunder rumbled out over the keep, the rain continued to fall, and Widris was still alive, still drawing forth blood and power from Korth’s body. There was no blue-white blast from the lyrium in Cullen’s veins. Instead, Cullen blinked at his outstretched hand, as if astonished to find that nothing had happened.
Widris threw his head back and laughed. Kate had no idea what had gone wrong, no idea how Widris had countered Cullen’s templar powers with his blood magic. But now, Kate saw her opening. As Widris gathered the swirling blood into a small sphere before him, Kate stalked up behind the blood mage, rain pouring down her face into her eyes. She drew on her own power, honing her will to a fine point, and then…
Kate swung her staff with all of her might. She connected with her target - Widris’ head - though it were the ball in a game of rounders. The mage stumbled forward, landing on his knees, and all the swirling blood he’d commanded splashed ineffectually to the soaked stone floor.
Kate just stood there for a moment, her body still half-twisted in the follow-through of that blow. She was shocked that had worked so well. Widris scrambled to his knees, turning to Kate with hate in his eyes.
“You!” he screamed. “The mark is…”
Kate didn’t let him finish. She funneled all her magic directly into the wet ground, letting the spell race through Widris like a charge. Then, at the last moment, Kate clenched her fingers and the spell solidified. Ice exploded through the blood mage’s veins in sudden crystallization. Widris let out a sound that began as a scream and trailed off as a choked whisper. His last breath ghosted up into the rain as a mist. An ice shard stuck out of Widris’ mouth from his mangled throat, a hundred more like it pierced through his skin like fractured bones.
Kate swallowed back bile at the sight of her handiwork. She then lifted her eyes to see Cullen, backed by Cassandra, Harding, and a knot of Inquisition soldiers. Every eye in the room was on Kate.
Cullen’s stared at her with wide eyes. His hair was plastered to his head from the rain. Likewise, the rain had slicked his shirt to his chest, and where it wasn’t stained by blood and gore, the material had gone completely sheer. It now occurred to Kate that this scene was like something right out of a novel. But it wasn’t a romance. Rather, this was like something out of the horror novels that Coll favored, with dead bodies and blood everywhere.
Kate supposed that made her the monster in this tale: the powerful mage that everyone feared. For surely, that was what they were thinking. Everyone looked at her as if she were a stranger.
“I…” Kate began, not sure what to say.
“Maker’s breath,” Cullen said, striding over to her. Kate flinched as he approached, but when he drew near, Cullen reached out with his empty left hand and grabbed her by the shoulder.
Kate gasped, startled by the touch. His hands were freezing, but so was her arm, so it felt like numb on numb. Cullen pulled her into a embrace, his sword arm loosely wrapped around her back. Kate’s heart leaped as she found herself held tightly against his solid chest, his warm breath at her ear. The only coherent thought that went through Kate’s head at that moment was a stunned, Oh.
But before she could fully comprehend his touch, Cullen let his right arm drop, carefully keeping his sword away from her. He then stepped back, still holding her by the shoulder with his other hand.
“Are you alright?” he demanded.
“Fine,” she gulped. “I’m fine.”
She wasn’t fine, Kate thought. She was muddled and shaking and felt like she had just crawled to shore after a long swim in dark waters. But she was alive, and Cullen was alive, and come to think of it, everyone was alive except for Widris and the Hand of Korth and those two archers up there. That was amazing, really.
“We did it,” Kate said, astonished at the outcome.
“You did it,” Cassandra said, coming up behind Cullen. Cullen immediately dropped his grip on Kate’s arm, and Kate had only a moment to catch her breath before Cassandra threw her arms around Kate. The Seeker’s breastplate crushed Kate’s chest for a moment before Cassandra set Kate back on her heels.
And then, before Kate could think, Harding had her arms around Kate’s waist, the rescued soldiers were all standing about her. Some patted Kate on the back and some dared to offer her a hug. Then they were hugging one another and Cullen and Cassandra, too. Cassandra smiled wider than Kate had ever seen, and Harding cried out, “Hey, don’t crush the dwarf!” as two soldiers embraced right over the top of her head. Kate found herself smiling, then chuckling, then laughing between hugs. She had always thought soldiers were rather stiff and stand-offish. But she now realized that after a battle, all that changed.
“I can’t believe you came for us,” someone said.
That was all the warning Kate had before yet another person wrapped their arms around her. Kate had no idea who she was hugging until the person drew back. Then a familiar face smiled up at Kate, eyes shining.
“Lysette?” Kate blinked. “Lysette!” she said again, and now she drew the woman in for another fierce hug. After everything that had happened here, Kate was grateful to see one familiar face from Ostwick, even if it was a templar’s.
Actually, Kate thought, as she let Lysette go and drew back to stare at the woman, that was unfair of her. The distinction of templar and mage didn’t matter here - not in this keep, not in this moment.
“I can’t believe you came for us,” Lysette was saying. “I honestly don’t know if I would have done the same in your place, Trevelyan. Ah, I mean, my lady. I mean your worship. I mean…”
“Kate,” Kate told her. “Call me Kate, alright?”
She glanced over Lysette’s shoulder and added, “That goes for all of you. No more of this ‘Herald’ and ‘Worship’ business, alright? I’m Kate. We nearly died out here, but we lived instead, so it’s Kate.”
Kate wasn’t at all sure if that made sense whatsoever, and she wasn’t even sure if half of the soldiers were listening. But Lysette was listening, and she nodded and smiled.
“Kate,” she repeated, solemnly.
Cullen also was listening, Kate noticed. Throughout all of this, he had remained a short distance away, giving out one-armed hugs and telling the soldiers,“Well done.” And yet, Kate now realized he kept looking back at her between each of these interactions. Kate wasn’t sure what that meant, exactly. She was trying to avoid his gaze. After everything that had just happened, she felt…odd. It wasn’t just the way the Veil was shifting back into place around them and the way her hands still stung from the impact of the wood staff against Widris’ head. She felt as if something was pressing at her heart, pinching and poking…
Then Kate realized there actually was something pressing at her heart. Or at her breasts, rather. Kate chuckled once, then burst out laughing. Beside her, Lysette looked on, confused.
“What…?” the templar began.
Kate reached into her shirt, rummaged around in her corset, and pulled out a handful of crushed tubes made from heavy paper.
“Should I send up a flare now, Cullen?” she gasped out before laughing once more.
Cassandra giggled and covered her mouth with her hand. Harding and the rescued soldiers erupted with laughter, and Cullen flushed and looked away, a shy smile on his face. He then glanced back at her and gave a shrug.
“I suppose we can forgo the flares,” he said, his tone deadpan.
Kate snorted loudly, and everyone laughed even harder at her reaction.
“Good thing those didn’t go off inside your shirt,” Harding pointed out.
“Oh, Maker, no!” Kate cried, pressing her hands to her chest defensively. The soldiers burst out laughing again, and Kate grinned and shook her head at Harding.
“At least you survived,” Cassandra said, ever practical, and ever returning to the point. She turned and at Widris. “I suppose we need to deal with the dead now. Should we just burn the corpses?”
“Maybe we should let the living Avvar take care of the dead ones,” Kate mused, still pressing her arms to her chest.
“You mean to let the Avvar go?” Cassandra asked, turning to her in surprise.
“They did surrender peacefully,” Harding said, nodding her head back at the hallway which led to the mire. “I think they were kind of glad we showed up, honestly.”
They were probably tired of living in a bog with the Hand of Korth as their leader, Kate thought.
“Haven has no good place to put prisoners,” Cullen agreed. “But let’s question them first. Gently, of course,” he added, casting a quick glance at Kate. He cleared his throat and turned to address the soldiers.
“Alright then,” he said. “Time to head back to camp, everyone. Make sure to stick together and stay out of the water.”
A chorus of ‘aye, ser, ‘and thank the Maker’ and even one ‘yes, dad,’ accompanied this. Lysette gave Kate another fierce hug and then headed out of the room after her troop. Kate smiled after the templar, then leaned heavily on her staff and let out a breath. She felt like she was about to fall over. Now that the laughter had died away, Kate was left feeling depleted and raw again.
“You sure you’re alright?”
Kate glanced up to see Cullen take a hesitant step toward her.
“Give me a moment and I will be,” she said, with a half-smile.
She assumed that he would leave her behind and follow the others, but he didn’t. Instead, Cullen took another step toward her, reaching up to rub the back of his soaked neck with his free hand. The movement drew his shirt across his muscles, and Kate quickly looked away.
“How’s your leg?” she asked. To her own ears, her voice sounded brittle and overly bright.
“My leg?” Cullen repeated, blinking down at himself. “Oh, my leg. Well, I’ve got teeth-marks in my best trousers and I’ll be sporting a rather strange-looking bruise for a couple weeks. Other than that, I’m fine.”
Kate chuckled. “Good thing you got to wear pants to this shield-reckoning,” she joked. “If Korth had wanted you in a loincloth, then where would you be?”
“I… What? A loincloth?” Cullen nearly choked on the words, and Kate then realized that probably sounded either really stupid or really inappropriate.
“Ah, I just mean…” she winced at her own awkwardness. “That was supposed to be a joke. Not very funny, I know.”
Cullen met her gaze, and in that moment, something lit up in his eyes. Kate didn’t quite know what it was, but it was warm and intense and Kate looked away almost at the same moment that Cullen did.
“W-we should probably follow everyone,” Kate said. She looked around at all the corpses.
“Maker, yes,” he agreed.
They headed out of the room and into the hallway, an awkward silence falling between them. As they reached the end of the hall, Cullen cleared his throat.
“So, um, about our, uh, conversation yesterday…” he began.
“Maker’s breath, not now,” Kate groaned.
Cullen looked over at her sharply just as Kate realized she’d said that out loud. She slapped a hand over her mouth, feeling a fool. For Cullen’s face showed a wounded expression before he turned away.
“Ah,” he muttered.
“I mean…” she corrected hastily, “We can talk about it. We probably should talk about it. But not now?” She hadn’t meant for that to be a question, but it came out as one.
“Can we please talk about that later?” Kate asked instead. “I just want to spend an hour where you and I are both alive and on the same side.”
Cullen winced and hurt flashed through his eyes.
“I always thought we were on the same side,” he murmured, his voice rough. “But I suppose… Never mind.”
“No, that’s not what I meant!”
Maker’s breath, Kate thought wildly. How was it that with Cullen, everything turned out to be so much more complicated and confusing than she planned? The rain drizzled into the courtyard around them, and further down the path, the Inquisition soldiers were filing away into the gray mists of the mire. Cullen headed down the steps, away from Kate. Kate froze at the top, feeling a kind of panic steal over her.
“Cullen!” she cried after him.
For one awful moment, she thought he was going to leave her alone. He descended one more step, then stopped. Kate let out a sigh of relief. Then he turned on the spot, facing her, and Kate realized it was her turn to speak again.
Kate swallowed, unsure of what to say, unsure of how she ought to say it. Something had happened during that battle, something that went deeper than trust or reliance or any of the things that she and Cullen had talked about before going into the keep. Kate didn’t know what to call it. The Avvar probably had a name for it: battle-camaraderie or fight-friendship or some such. It wasn’t a link forged by polite nothings and small talk, but of real conflict - both the conflict they’d faced together and the conflict they’d weathered between them.
But Kate didn’t know what to call this sudden bond. She could scarcely even face it.
“Perhaps we should go with the others, Trevelyan,” Cullen suggested.
“Kate,” she blurted out.
Cullen frowned at her.
“It’s Kate,” she told him. She took a step closer, placing herself on the same stair as he.
“I want you to call me Kate,” she said, looking up at him.
“I… I’m not sure that’s proper protocol.”
“But after I yelled at you and you fought for me… I mean, for us…” Kate imagined she probably sounded like an idiot, so she stopped there.
“Please,” she said. “Please call me ‘Kate.’”
Cullen’s lips twitched, and then he looked up at her. Kate felt her breath hitch, but she forced herself to meet his eyes. His expression remained guarded for one moment more.
And then, like the sun coming out from behind the clouds, the storm in Cullen’s eyes passed. Kate sucked in a breath, realizing that this was rather like the ending of one of her novels. Here was the hero, bare-chested - or, well, nearly so. And here was the lady, and they both stood victorious and soaked in rain.
But Cullen’s eyes didn’t burn with lust in the way the novels talked about. Rather, he seemed to regard Kate with a mix of wariness and hope. Yet even as she watched, those emotions shifted again. Cullen now regarded Kate with a slight smile - and with something that looked an awful lot like respect. That, Kate decided, was an expression she valued far more than anything out of an Avvar romance. She wondered, honestly, how she’d managed to earn it, in spite of everything that had passed between them. She was certain she was looking at Cullen with a similar expression.
“You let me call you by your given name,” Kate went on, feeling breathless now, but feeling like she ought to say something. “It’s only fair that you should call me by mine. Besides, if you keep calling me ‘Trevelyan,’ it makes me think you mean my father and…”
She broke off, embarrassed by her own rambling.
“Please,” she said. “I’m just Kate.”
Cullen nodded, looked down, then looked back up at her through rain-spiked lashes.
“Alright then,” he said.
Cullen waved a hand at the stairs before them, Kate fell into step beside him. Then Cullen said, again, low and hesitantly, and very near to her ear:
Chapter Credits - aka, all the fine people who inspired avvar!Cullen and romancenovel!Cullen