In the light of the setting sun, the humble huts and barns of Master Dennet’s farm had a golden glow to them. Kate looked out at the fields, where several large druffalo stood grazing in the long grass. She heaved a heavy sigh and shifted the pack on her back.
At that moment, Cullen came striding to a halt beside her. Kate’s breath seemed to stride to a halt as well.
Such a foolish reaction, Kate thought. She ought not be nervous every time Cullen came into view, but she was.
She probably should have spoken to Cullen after they had returned to the mire camp. But with the blood and the rain and the memory of Cullen’s arms around her, Kate hadn’t been able to face it. She’d been avoiding him ever since. She wasn’t proud of that.
But while she and Cullen were no longer in open conflict, they had hardly smoothed things over. Kate wasn’t even sure if they could be smoothed over. How did one smooth over the mage-templar war, after all?
But she ought to try for some sort of reconciliation between herself and Cullen, Kate supposed. Maybe they would never be able to pretend like before, but surely they could get to a point where they could work together without that fight hanging over them. That seemed the responsible, Heraldic thing to do. And Kate had a plan. She just hoped her plan worked.
Cullen stood beside her, and the silence had grown strained again. Kate took a deep breath for courage, then cleared her throat and said:
“It’s a fine day, don’t you think?”
She was speaking of the weather. How predictable. Still, it was a start. Cullen nodded and said: “The roads were mercifully dry.”
A few scouts went stomping past them and Kate couldn’t think of anything else to add to that. Kate thought a moment more, then offered:
“You know, a week ago, this place seemed very wild to me. But after spending a few days in the Fallow Mire, the Hinterlands seem like Val Royeaux by comparison.”
No sooner had Kate spoken than one of the druffalo lifted its tail and an enormous pile of droppings fell from its behind. Each turd was as large as a brick.
“Quite cosmopolitan,” Cullen agreed, dryly.
Kate laughed. Or rather, she made a ghastly snort, sounding rather like a druffalo herself. Cullen looked at Kate in amusement, let out a single, surprised laugh, and then frowned and fell silent. Kate swallowed at once, and stared down at the toes of her boots.
And now they were back to the awkward tension. Wonderful.
The bulk of hiking party caught up with Kate and Cullen just then. The soldiers looked a bit red in the face and winded. Vivienne strode up to Kate’s side, her face glistening with perspiration. The enchantress stamped her mage’s staff into the road as if claiming the spot with a flag. She took one sharp breath and wrinkled her nose.
“Charming,” Vivienne pronounced, in a tone that indicated she thought the farms were anything but. She looked at the pile of druffalo droppings, then over to the crossroads. A large tree spread its leafy branches over the road, and dappled shadows played over the dust and muck alike.
“I do hope the Inquisition camp is upwind of this place?” she asked.
“The camp is down the hill and past the stream,” Cassandra said, not breaking stride as she continued along the trail. “I will show you.”
“Lovely,” Vivienne replied. She closed her eyes briefly, probably bracing herself against the smell, and continued on. The scouts followed after. Cullen adjusted his pack, as if to continue on as well. Kate swallowed.
This was her chance.
“I’m going to go check with Master Dennet about the horses,” she announced. “Cullen, could you please accompany me? While I am familiar with horses, I may need your professional opinion when it comes to their military use.”
“What?” Cullen blinked at her. “I, er, yes, I suppose…”
Better and better, Kate thought wryly. That invitation had come off about as casual as a Orlesian funeral. But at least she’d found a reasonable excuse to get Cullen alone. Not that she wanted him alone for any other reason than to get things cleared up, she assured herself.
Cullen nodded toward the barns. “Shall we?” he asked, taking a step in that direction.
“Actually…” Kate said. She glanced down the road at the retreating backs of the scouts. Cullen turned to her with a raised brow.
“Actually,” she said, steeling herself. “I wanted to speak to you privately.”
“Ah,” Cullen said, softly.
Well then, he thought. Here it comes.
He had begun to wonder when - or if - Kate would try to speak to him about their argument in the mire. After a full day of silence on the trail, he had begun to think that perhaps she planned to avoid him entirely. But now it seemed she had simply been waiting for the proper opportunity to corner him. From a tactical point of view, Cullen had to admit that it was very neatly done. From a personal point of view, however, Cullen felt himself growing decidedly uneasy at the thought of being cornered by Kate at all.
Strange though, how easily he’d come to call her ‘Kate,’ Cullen mused. The familiarity was perfectly acceptable, he assured himself. He referred to most of his associates by their given names, after all. And if Kate was comfortable with such an intimacy - er, informality, rather - then Cullen was fine with it, too. He only wished they could settle this lingering tension between them as easily as they had settled upon their titles.
The last few days had left Cullen feeling decidedly off-kilter. Arguing with Kate had been awful. Leaving that argument to fester had almost been worse. But more than that, the battle in the mire had left Cullen feeling shaken. When Kate had killed Widris in a flash of bloody ice, Cullen had been stunned. He hadn’t any idea that she could do something like…whatever that spell had been. He’d felt dizzy with relief and immensely proud of her and utterly exhausted as well. And in the middle of all that, Cullen had looked over at Kate and realized that she had gone deathly pale.
Cullen knew that look. Green soldiers frequently went into shock after their first battles. And so, Cullen had reacted instinctively. He had rushed to Kate’s side, drawing her into a soldierly sort of embrace. It was what he would have done for anyone in similar circumstances, he assured himself. He certainly hadn’t meant anything untoward by it. He hadn’t even held her for more than a second or two.
But then, when he let go of her, something had happened. Cullen hadn’t realized how cold he was until Kate was no longer warm against his chest. He hadn’t realized that his arms felt weak from exertion until she was no longer within the circle of them. And strangest of all, Cullen felt like something - some fragile, fluid thing that he didn’t even known he had in him - had gotten all tangled up in that embrace. When Cullen had pulled away from Kate, that something had unfurled from him like a thread.
It made no sense at all, Cullen thought, and neither did what had followed after. A minute later, he had stood with Kate, alone in the ebbing storm. And in that moment - Maker, he still recalled it with perfect clarity. The rain had soaked her shirt, molding the fabric to curves that were hers and contours that came from her corset beneath. Her hair had made a dark frame around her face, her lips had trembled slightly from the cold. And in that moment, Cullen had the sudden impulse…
No. He caught himself there. It had been an impulse, and he’d quickly put it from his mind. He’d put it from his mind several times now, in fact. This time, he hoped such thoughts would stay put. He had decided to look upon Kate as a colleague of sorts. True, she was a colleague that he didn’t get along with very well at present, but such thoughts had no place in that kind of arrangement.
And considering that Kate was his colleague, Cullen had a very simple goal at present: he needed to get to the point where he and Kate could work together without further incident. The soldiers were bound to notice any hostility among the leaders of the Inquisition. It would damage morale if the troops thought that the commander and the Herald could not get along. To that end, Cullen would do well to approach this like any other ceasefire.
“Very well,” he said, turning to Kate. “Did you want to take a walk around the farms, or…?”
“After today’s hike, I think I’d rather sit.” Kate matched his business-like demeanor with her own.
“Alright,” Cullen replied.
Kate shrugged off her pack and headed for the nearby stone wall. When she reached it, she set down her pack and practically collapsed beside the road. She placed her back to the wall and stretched her legs out in front of her. She let out a moan and Cullen found himself responding to that sound in a most unwelcome way.
To cover his reaction, and because it looked like Kate wasn’t going anywhere any time soon, Cullen walked over to the stone wall as well. Behind it, an old, gnarled tree shaded the crossroads in an umbrella of green and gold leaves. Cullen took off his pack, then sat down in the same posture as Kate. The moment his legs were stretched out into the road before him, he, too, let out a moan. That really was such a relief after all the walking.
“How far did we travel today?” Kate asked him, her words were conversational, though her tone was stilted. “I feel as if we ought to have crossed into Orlais by now.”
Cullen highly doubted that Kate had pulled him aside to quiz him on geography, but he answered her all the same.
“Twenty miles,” he told her. “And that road does cross into Orlais, incidentally. Scout Harding found it. It’s an ancient elven highway. Or Tevinter, maybe.”
“One of the two, surely,” Kate said, smiling a little. “Everything old in Thedas is either elven or Tevene.”
“Yes,” Cullen chuckled. “At any rate, we now have a road through the Frostbacks that doesn’t go over the major passes.”
“Huzzah for Scout Harding,” Kate said.
“Hear, hear,” Cullen agreed.
Kate smiled, and Cullen looked away quickly. He didn’t need to see smiles like that when things were likely to get very uncomfortable in a moment or two.
“So,” he said, a bit more sharply than he meant to. “You wanted to speak to me.”
“I do,” Kate replied. She answered so in so business-like a fashion, Cullen guessed that she was as ready to set aside pleasantries as he was. “I ought to have done so before, but the scouts…”
“Understood,” Cullen nodded. Yes, that would explain why she’d avoided him. He supposed he was lucky that no one had overheard their original argument.
Beside him, Kate withdrew a piece of paper from her pocket and began to unfold it.
“What’s that?” Cullen asked her.
“It’s my list,” Kate replied.
“My list of what I mean to say to you. I have a great deal on my mind, naturally. It seemed prudent to write it all down so that I didn’t wander off topic again.”
“You have a list?”
“I do,” Kate said, primly.
Sweet Andraste, Cullen thought. This was so much worse than he had thought. True, their conversation in the mire had been nothing short of disastrous, but did Kate really need a script in order to speak to him? Cullen knew he could be a bit short in his dealings with people, but he hadn’t thought he came off as quite that rigid.
“That’s a lot of notes,” Cullen observed.
From here, he could see that Kate’s writing was large and rounded. It slanted along the paper as if her hand had scrambled to keep up with her brain. Cullen could not decipher a word of it.
“I grouped my thoughts into three main categories,” Kate informed him. “And I’ll try to make it brief. I assume you’re busy, and I don’t want to take too much of your time.”
Maker save him, Cullen thought. She must think him the most inflexible humbug in all of Thedas.
“I will make time for this,” Cullen informed her. Unfortunately, he came off sounding stern, which hardly helped his cause.
“I don’t suppose you’d allow me to read your agenda?” Cullen asked her. “Just so I know what I’m in for.”
“I suppose,” Kate replied. “I don’t know if it will make much sense to you, though.”
Kate handed the paper over. Cullen took it, straightened the folds and read. He didn’t get far before he frowned.
“That’s ‘thanks,’ ‘mire,’ and ‘dock,’” she corrected.
“Apo…plexy? Partwhole? I don’t… How can you read this?”
”‘Part,’ dash, ‘whole,’” Kate said, pointing. “I guess the dash sort of ran together with the ’t.‘”
Cullen continued down the list, finding each word made less sense than the last. Was that supposed to be ‘templars’, he wondered? She’d written ‘tempters.’ And he had no idea what she meant by ‘Heraldraste.’ This wasn’t a list so much as a string of completely unrelated words, half of which were crossed out. If this was an agenda, it was like nothing Cullen had ever seen. The only encouraging item was a hastily scribbled ‘find some common ground ??’ at the very end. At least that was not crossed out, Cullen thought.
“Maker, and I thought Rylen’s handwriting was bad,” he murmured.
Kate snatched the paper back from him.
“I scribbled this down by moonlight,” she informed him. “And I was in a hurry to get to bed. I may have neglected to use my best penmanship.”
“You wrote this out last night?” he asked.
“I did,” Kate sniffed, setting the paper out before her once again. “I wanted to be prepared this time.”
“Well, yes,” Kate said, flushing a little. “The last time we spoke, I went rushing in with no organization, no thesis statement…”
“Thesis statement?” Cullen’s brows rose.
“I knew I wanted to speak to you about Kirkwall,” Kate explained. “I had heard all sorts of awful rumors. And then with the things Varric told me…”
Of course it all went back to Varric’s stupid book, Cullen thought. He wondered if he would ever live that down.
“I planned to ask you the truth of the matter,” she went on. “I really did. It was all supposed to be very professional and rational and mature.”
Cullen glanced over at Kate, trying to gauge her expression. He couldn’t decide if he wanted to be amused at her supercilious tone or frustrated by the thought that she had planned to corner him about Kirkwall from the start. Either way, he realized that he never could have avoided an interrogation about Kirkwall. He wasn’t sure if that made him feel better or worse.
“So you made a list,” he said.
“Yes, I made a list,” Kate said. “It’s not all that strange, is it?”
It was a little strange, Cullen thought. He didn’t say that, however. But Kate apparently read his expression. Her brows drew together and the corners of her mouth tightened, leaving the center of her mouth in a pursed sort of pout.
“Alright, maybe it is a bit strange,” she said, tightly. “Please indulge my Circle mage foibles. I’m not used to arguing with handsome templars or smoothing things over after. I need some notes, alright?”
Cullen blinked at her in astonishment.
“H-handsome?” he managed, before his throat felt like it entirely seized up.
Kate’s eyes widened briefly before she looked down at her list.
“Hence my need for notes,” she muttered. “Maker. And I’m the one they sent to the Conclave as a delegate…”
She trailed off and pretended to study the paper with great interest. Even with her face averted, however, Cullen could see that her cheeks had turned a deep crimson.
Cullen swallowed, fighting a smile and another feeling besides. He wanted to tell Kate that he was the last man in the world to judge someone for misspeaking. However, he was so flustered by the compliment, that he couldn’t say anything at all. He had occasionally endured flattery in the past, and it always reminded Cullen of a hook with a line attached. This, however, left him feeling pleasantly warmed. But Kate evidently had meant nothing by it, for she was trying to regain her composure and pretend like it hadn’t happened. She snapped the list out before her and read in her crisp, aristocratic accent:
“Item one: thanks.”
Thanks? For what? Cullen wondered. Maybe she was being sarcastic. But when he turned his head, he saw no signs of mockery. Kate was a bit red in the face, but that was all.
“Oh yes,” she said, nodding at her notes. “I wanted to say ‘thank you’ for the fight in the mire. Not our argument, I mean. I wanted to thank you for all that you did for the lost soldiers.”
“I was just doing my job,” Cullen told her, feeling uncomfortable with this first item already.
“Well, I’ve never done anything like raiding a keep before,” Kate informed him. “It was horrible and frightening and… Well, I’m sure it would have been far worse without you there. So thank you.”
She sounded like she was addressing a lecture to a classroom, Cullen thought, for all that she was sitting in the dust beside a country road.
”‘Docks,’” she read. “Oh yes. I wanted to thank you for that time we spoke by the dock in Haven. I’m not sure if you recall, but the morning before I left for the Hinterlands, I was very upset about losing my cousin, Robert. You were very kind to me, and I wanted to thank you for it. So: thank you.”
Even though she said this in short, terse statements, Cullen found himself touched by her gratitude. He hadn’t thought Kate remembered that morning.
“It was nothing,” Cullen told her.
“To you, maybe,” she replied. “I was overwhelmed and grieving and it meant a great deal to me.”
She said this in the same way she might say, “I was on my way to the scout camp when I stopped to pick some elfroot.” And here Cullen had been worried that this conversation might become somewhat unprofessional. If anything, it was uncomfortably impersonal.
“Item two,” Kate went on, crisply. “Apology. I owe you one.”
Cullen had not expected an apology. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected of this conversation, really, but he certainly had not expected that. He wasn’t even sure what she was apologizing for.
“I have several sub points here, naturally,” Kate went on.
“Naturally,” Cullen murmured. He supposed he was about to find out.
“Now, at the conclusion of our argument, you said that I wasn’t Andraste, and that I had no right to judge you.”
Cullen cringed to hear his words spoken aloud.
“I only meant… I was angry then.” Maker’s breath. It sounded like he should be doing the apologizing when she put it like that. Maybe that was her point, he thought, the suspicion beginning to form in his mind.
“Well, you were right,” Kate said, with a one-shouldered shrug. “I’m not Andraste. Thank the Maker for that. Furthermore, I’m not your superior officer or commander or whatever. I’m not your subordinate, either. In fact, I’m not sure what I am to you…”
Cullen swallowed. He didn’t know either, and he was not about to follow that line of thought right now.
“I guess what I’m trying to say is,” Kate went on, “I am certainly entitled to my opinion, but it was out of line for me to offer it in the manner that I did. Additionally, my appraisal - the one I ought to have kept to myself in the first place - was clouded by anger and mired in multiple logical errors.”
“Exactly,” Kate said, grimly, “Makes it all the more embarrassing. I do try to be clear in my reasoning, you know. But anger and exhaustion render me a bit more…”
“Human?” Cullen suggested.
Kate blinked. “Just so.” She shifted uncomfortably at that, then looked to her list.
“Rumors,” she read. “I owe you an apology for relying overmuch on rumor and hearsay when accusing you. I had intended to hear your side of the story and add that to my understanding of what happened in Kirkwall. In failing to do so, I did not commit a logical error per se, but it was nothing like quality research. Even Varric’s testimony is not an infallible source.”
“It’s not,” Cullen told her firmly. He was relieved to hear that she saw that Varric was not the most reliable of narrators.
“He does speak well of you, you know,” Kate told Cullen. “So does Cassandra, come to that.”
“You asked Cassandra about me?” Cullen asked, stunned to hear it. Kate blushed a little, but she nodded.
“We were speaking about Avvar novels…er, about the mission. The conversation turned to how well things had gone, and from there to how well you had done in taking down that Korth fellow. I happened to ask Cassandra how she came to recruit you for the Inquisition. In addition to telling me the story, she said - and I quote: ‘Cullen is the most principled man you will ever meet.’”
Kate said this with a reasonably accurate rendition of Cassandra’s Nevarran accent. Cullen felt quite flattered by the compliment. Cassandra was not one to mince words.
“While Cassandra is undoubtedly more sympathetic to the templar Order than I am,” Kate went on, “I value her opinion. And both she and Varric believe that what you did for Kirkwall speaks highly of you.”
“And yet, you don’t,” he said, watching her closely.
“I didn’t say that,” Kate said, not meeting his eye. “It says something.”
“Something,” he repeated.
“Alright. More than something. It’s…remarkable.”
Cullen snorted, “High praise, indeed.”
“Well, it followed nine years of serving Meredith and helping her rise to power in the first place,” Kate said, snappishly. “What do you want me to say? ‘Yes, well done for the turning point. Wish it had come a bit sooner.’ Next item: the part-whole fallacy.”
Cullen opened his mouth to protest. But before he could say anything, Kate continued on:
“Now, the part-whole fallacy,” Kate told him, “occurs when one assumes that an attribute of one part of a group is also an attribute of the whole of the group, or visa versa.”
“I’m familiar with the concept,” Cullen said, annoyed at her teacherly tone. “The Circles have libraries, you know.”
“Oh,” Kate said blinking. “Well, that makes this easier. Though logic textbooks are hardly a common choice of reading material.”
“I’m a singular man,” Cullen drawled. Kate looked at him briefly, then flushed and looked back to her list.
“So, the part-whole fallacy, is it?” he asked, when she did not go on. “I can only assume that you mean to argue that the templar Order is is wrong to imprison all mages simply because a few of them resort to blood magic. And that’s not the point of the Circles, is it? The point is to train mages, and to protect them from possession. Possession is a danger for all of them.”
Kate’s eyes narrowed at once. “Of course you would completely overlook the fact that you have to deal with a demon in order for said possession to take place. Thus, it remains an instance of the part-whole fallacy, because of the introduction of that variable.”
“And yet…” Cullen began, but Kate spoke over him.
“You have one attribute - namely, the potential for possession - and that applies to all mages, yes. But you also have another attribute - namely, the possibility of falling prey to possession. Not all mages…”
“There are mages who are not strong enough to resist,” Cullen warned her.
“And that is yet another attribute that only applies to particular mages, not to mages on the whole. Thus, you’re arguing that if one mage in one-hundred falls, that all of them ought to be locked up. It’s still the part-whole fallacy.”
“I doubt the people of Thedas would appreciate knowing that their safety is of less concern to the Chantry than an an academic exercise,” Cullen said, scowling.
“It’s not just an academic…Ugh!” Kate dropped her list to her lap on a shout. She let out a breath and closed her eyes.
“No,” she said tightly. “I told myself I wasn’t going to argue with you today.”
“Fire away,” Cullen told her, readying for the worst.
“This isn’t about academics, Cullen,” Kate said. “This is about people. Mages are locked up and abused on this vague worry about blood magic, when the truth remains that most mages aren’t talented enough to be more dangerous to the general public than any recruit with a blade.”
“Most of them aren’t,” Cullen agreed. “But if you had ever seen an abomination…”
“Which I have,” Kate spoke over him.
“But you haven’t seen what I– What we templars have seen.”
“Haven’t I?” Kate returned. “I’ve seen the aftermath of failed Harrowings, Cullen. And it doesn’t change the fact that the logic is absurd. Mages are potentially dangerous, but that’s no excuse to beat them and lock them in the cellars and make them utterly desperate.”
“Well, certainly not to beat them, but…”
But Cullen stopped there. Because just then, something flickered in Kate’s eyes.
“Did they beat you?” he asked, before he could help himself.
Kate looked quickly away. “The Circle at Ostwick was about a mild as they come,” she replied. “The point is not whether I escaped such mistreatment, but that such mistreatment was so common as to require escaping. And that is the trouble, Cullen. You don’t cage the average person just because of their potential. And yet, that’s exactly what’s done to mages. We are locked up for what we might become, not what we are. And thus,” she went on, when Cullen looked like he might speak, “Thus, the Order’s very existence is based upon the part-whole fallacy. With such an illogical basis, it’s no wonder the templars fell into chaos.”
Cullen found himself caught between concern for Kate and exasperation for his own sake. Of course Kate would see his life’s calling as nothing more than a logical error. But at the same time, she had evaded his questions. That spoke volumes. Most likely she had been mistreated, Cullen realized.
A sinking feeling settled within him, borne of guilt and compassion together. But before he could ask her about it, Kate continued, saying:
“Look, my intention in bringing up the part-whole fallacy was to apologize to you.”
“Was it?” Cullen asked, doubtfully.
“It was,” Kate told him. “I meant to say that I fell prey to the part-whole fallacy in regards to you. You were a Kirkwall templar, and you were a part of the Chantry. I know there is an argument to made about following orders and all that, but…”
“I’m not making that argument,” Cullen interrupted her, “And I’m not trying to hide behind the shield of the Chantry, either. I regret that I failed to protect the mages under my care. The fact that I was following orders at the time is no excuse.”
“Oh, I…” Kate broke off, blinking at him. “You really believe that?”
“Of course I do!” Cullen said. “I told you this yesterday - er, before. Whenever it was that we spoke. Not that you were listening to me,” he added with a grumble. “But yes, I should have stood by my principles no matter the cost. In the end, I did. Not that it seems to matter to you.”
Kate pressed her lips together. “I see,” she said, softly.
“Maker,” Cullen muttered. “If this is your idea of an apology, I’d hate to see what you count as accusation.”
“Well, if you didn’t get me off topic, it would be an apology,” Kate snapped.
Cullen raised his brows.
“Sorry,” she said, stiffly. “But really,” she went on, not sounding sorry at all, “You do keep interrupting me.”
“Did you intend to speak with me, or talk at me?” he wanted to know.
“I intended to say that I should not have expected you to answer for the Order. You are responsible for your actions alone. Or inaction, as the case may be.”
“Inaction,” Cullen repeated.
“Well?” Kate replied, raising a brow.
Her tone stung. That expression of hers stung as well. But before Cullen could think of anything to say in reply, Kate returned to her list once more.
“Anger. Right. I took my anger out on you. It’s a lot easier to yell at you than at the Order. And you’re less likely to smite me for shouting.”
Cullen drew back at that thought. “I would never smite you. That’s not even…”
“That was supposed to be a joke,” Kate said. “Clearly, it didn’t come off as well as I’d hoped.”
Cullen cocked his head. “Did you actually write that joke down on the agenda?” he asked her.
Kate flushed and turned back to her list. Maybe it was his imagination, but Cullen thought he saw the word ‘smitejoke’ written just below where her finger rested on the paper.
“Anyhow,” she said, “I was angry at the Order. And you took the brunt of that anger. Apologies.”
It didn’t sound like an apology to Cullen’s ears. He could tell that she was still furious. He recognized it in the set of her shoulders, the tightness in the corner of her mouth. As someone who had spent years living under the heavy hand of impotent rage, Cullen knew the signs of it very well.
“But you’re not just angry at the Chantry,” he said. “You’re angry at me, too. Aren’t you?”
Kate bit the inside of her cheek to keep from responding. She wished that Cullen would not ask her direct questions like that. The answer was yes, of course she was. But that sounded rude, and she hesitated to say it aloud. Yet there Cullen sat, waiting for her to respond. Kate found it most provoking.
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes,’” Cullen said. He sighed and scrubbed his gloved hands over his face. “Right then.”
Kate felt she ought lie about her anger, or at least politely hedge around the truth. But Cullen wasn’t asking for that, now was he? He wanted to know what she thought. And so Kate found herself admitting:
“Alright, yes. I know I shouldn’t be pointing fingers, but really Cullen, you were part of a system that’s very…” She tried to think of a word for it, but could come up with nothing better than, “Wrong.”
What an epic failure in vocabulary, Kate thought. Kirkwall was a great deal more than ‘wrong’, but that word would have to do for now. When she fell silent, Cullen drew in a sharp breath.
“Kirkwall was wrong, certainly,” Cullen said, letting his hands drop. “But you must understand that the templars’ mission was to…”
“No!” Kate interrupted, sharply. Cullen blinked and her, and Kate had to admit she’d startled even herself.
“I know what their mission is,” she told him. “The templars drill it into the mages as often as they drill it into their own recruits. I’m well aware that people like me are supposed to be locked up to protect people like… Like them.” She waved her hand out at the farmlands. “Believe me, the Chantry’s part-whole fallacy was recited to me over and over in all its illogical glory.”
“Did it ever occur to you that templars aren’t just jailers?” Cullen asked her. “It isn’t about these people or those people.” He waved a hand at the farmland and then back to Kate, mimicking her gesture. “It’s about protecting the world from magic. Protecting mages, too. I wanted to help them. I want to help them,” he added.
“Do you have any idea how patronizing that sounds?” Kate said, rounding on him in annoyance. “As if we were children who couldn’t take care of ourselves.”
Cullen let out a huff. “Alright, yes,” he admitted, “I’m sure that’s how it looks to someone as talented and capable as yourself. Obviously, you’re not the kind of mage that anyone needs to worry about. But you didn’t start out as capable as you are now, did you?”
“That’s a backhanded compliment if I ever heard one,” Kate said, frowning at him.
“The fact remains that magic is dangerous. Given enough power, a single mage could tear the world in two.”
“And a crazy person with a sword could do the same!” Kate retorted. “By the Void, you don’t even need a sword. Just get enough people on your side, and they’d tear up the world with their bare hands if they had to, just like with Andraste. Anyhow,” she concluded, with a wave of her hand. “The Chantry leaders aren’t really concerned about containing magic, as evidenced by how quick they are to use it for their own purposes. I’ve long suspected it has more to do with the elves.”
Cullen drew up short at that. “The elves?”
“Exactly,” Kate nodded. “Why do you think the Chantry wants mages locked up? And I mean really now - not the argument about blood magic and danger.”
When Cullen just looked at Kate in confusion, she answered her own question:
“The Chantry says it doesn’t want another Tevinter. Yet in Tevinter, it’s not the mages who rule. It’s certain families of mages, or so I understand. The problem is the same there as it is here. Magic is the great equalizer. Or, well, not really an equalizer. A chaos-maker. The poorest slave could turn out to have the greatest magic. And the idea of a poor human peasant rivaling a king for power? That’s alarming. But an elf? The Chantry can take swords out of elven hands - but not their magic. And if elven mages overthrew the alienages, then where would the nobility be? Most families would lose their servants and the cities would lose their primary source of cheap labor. Consider that the Chantry’s income largely comes from tithes and donations from the nobility. They might call it piety, but it looks a great deal like maintaining the balance of power, don’t you think? As my father always says, ‘Follow the money.’”
Cullen gaped at her, his mouth opening and closing a few times before he finally sputtered: “W-well.” Kate suddenly realized what she’d monologued and squeezed her eyes shut.
“That…None of that was on my list.” She opened her eyes and shook her head. “That would be from a half-formed thesis that I’ve been writing in the back of my head. Not one I’ll be putting up for publication any time soon, as you can imagine. I’d rather not get the Tranquil’s brand, thank you very much.”
“You think you’d be branded for saying that?” Cullen asked her.
“Are you joking?” Kate said, turning to him. “Of course I would!”
Cullen’s brows furrowed and he looked away sharply. “Maker,” she heard him mutter.
“Yes, precisely,” Kate said, waving her list at him. “You know it’s true. Speak of justice and the Chantry brands you a rebel. Suggest an anti-Chantry theory - even if there’s reasonable evidence for it - and they’ll jail you for it. The entire situation is maddening. And no, I don’t have a better solution for protecting against the dangers of magic. And yes, I do recognize that mages require proper training. I did like the learning part of the Circle, I must admit. But the Chantry’s mage solution is no solution at all. It makes me so angry that I just want to…”
“To what?” Cullen asked, softly.
Kate broke off there, gritting her teeth. “Nothing. It doesn’t matter.”
“What is it?” Cullen asked. He looked right at her, and Kate couldn’t say it.
“I lost my place on the list,” she muttered, looking at the paper in her hand.
“Forget your list.” Cullen shook his head. “Maker knows I’m not going to turn you into the Chantry for what you said. What is it you want to do?”
“I hardly know! That’s the trouble.”
Kate turned and scowled at him. Of course a templar would find it easy to talk. He had not struggled all his life to put his feelings and frustration into words. Then again, Kate mused, maybe he had. It wasn’t like the Circles encouraged templars to think for themselves.
“The truth is, I’m angry at myself,” Kate spat, before she could think better of it.
“What?” Cullen blinked at her.
“Ugh,” Kate groaned. She leaned her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. Cullen found himself completely confused.
“But you did nothing,” he said.
“Exactly, Cullen,” Kate said, wearily. “I did nothing. Other mages fought and died. They stood up for what they believed in. But me? I did nothing. Like a good researcher, I observed the problem from afar,” she added, frowning at the paper in her hand.
“I allowed the Circle to convince me that my connections to the Trevelyans would keep Ostwick safe,” Kate told him. “I let my parents convince me that I was showing the world how good and well-mannered mages were by dancing at parties and serving tea. And maybe that worked for a while. Until it didn’t. Because what good is ‘safe’ when the world is burning? What good is ‘good,’ when no one can agree on what that means anymore? I should have done something.”
Cullen sat there in the silence that followed her outburst. He considered his next words carefully, for he feared Kate wouldn’t like them at all. Even so, he ventured:
“I can understand that anger,” he told her. “I feel it for myself as well.”
She looked over at him doubtfully. Cullen held her gaze.
“That’s almost exactly what I said to myself after Kirkwall fell. I kept thinking that I should have done something. But then I couldn’t think what I would have done or when I would have done it. Similar regret, very different circumstances.”
Kate sniffed, and Cullen saw there were tears in her eyes. He expected those tears to fall, but they didn’t. Somehow, she blinked them back.
“Why did you do it?” she asked him, a waver in her voice. “Why did you help Meredith all those years?”
Cullen’s words turned to ash in his mouth. He’d wondered when they’d get back to this. “Kate…”
“Don’t ‘Kate’ me,” she said. “Don’t ‘Trevelyan’ me, either. Just answer the…” She caught herself, shaking her head hard.
“I am trying,” she said. “Really trying to understand how someone who seems so honest and… and charming…”
“Charming?” he gaped at her.
”…can be the same person who was a jailer of Kirkwall.”
“Charming?” Cullen murmured to himself.
Maker’s breath. First ‘handsome,’ and now ‘charming.’ If she wasn’t so obviously furious at him, these compliments might have gone to his head.
“That’s off script,” Kate said, tightly. “Obviously. Look. Can you just…I’m trying to understand what happened in Kirkwall.”
“Good luck with that,” Cullen replied. “I’m still trying to understand it.”
“You have no reason for joining Meredith?”
“The simplest one of all,” Cullen returned. “I was transferred there.”
“You’re not from Kirkwall?” Kate blinked at him.
“I…er, no,” he said. “I’m Ferelden. I thought you knew that.”
“Oh,” she murmured. “That would explain the hair…”
Cullen decided to get away from that line of questioning. He didn’t want her to ask about Ferelden and come to learn that he had first served in Kinloch Hold. Considering that this was Kate he was dealing with, she’d probably read all about the Fifth Blight and what had happened at the Ferelden Circle during that time. He had no desire to speak of it, nor to endure her pitying looks should he simply fall silent and stare at his boots.
“I was sent to Kirkwall,” he told her instead, “and no, at first I didn’t notice anything was wrong. It’s like anything. Add fuel to the fire by degrees and no one feels the heat rising.”
And he was so blinded by anger and rage at the blood mages of Ferelden he hadn’t realized he was roasting in the flames of the Abyss. But he couldn’t say this to Kate.
“I suppose I should have done something sooner,” Cullen went on. “But I didn’t. I’m not so quick to abandon loyalties that I would have quit my job over the very first suspicion I had. I believed in the principles of the Order, even if those principles were entirely betrayed by Meredith’s actions.”
Kate gaped at him. “Maker’s breath, do you know how that sounds? You talk about principles, but what about the mages?”
“Of course I cared about the mages,” Cullen said, frowning at her, but Kate wasn’t listening to him.
“Even now,” she went on, angrily, “you want me to recruit the templars to the Inquisition’s cause. Why? Because you worry about what the Lord Seeker is doing with them. But they chose to follow him. They were the ones who abandoned their lofty ‘principles.’ And yet you don’t think twice about the mages in Redcliffe, do you? Because you still don’t see mages as people.”
“Maker’s breath,” Cullen muttered, rubbing his hands over his face. “That blasted line from that blasted dwarf’s blasted book is going to dog me for all of eternity. I never said that.”
“But you think it,” Kate said.
“I do not.”
“You know what I think Cullen? I think that Kirkwall was like a sinking ship.”
“You’ll get no objection from me on that comparison,” Cullen drawled, letting his hands drop into his lap.
“And I think you were too busy with your own survival to care about any of the other passengers. All you can talk about is how difficult the Gallows were for you, how hard it was to rebuild. It’s like you didn’t even notice how the mages were dashed on the rocks when the ship went down or drowned because they were trapped in the hold. All you can say is ‘Damn it all, I had a long swim to shore.’”
Cullen stared at her for a moment, his temper spiking. He wanted to tell her that he was bloody well still swimming, but that wasn’t what made him angriest.
“Is that what you think?” he snapped. “You think I don’t care enough? Well, I’m sorry that I lack a flair for your dramatic metaphors. But I assure you, Kate, I took note of every person I failed to save. Those drowned souls of Kirkwall are on my mind constantly. I see their faces in my nightmares, hear their voices…”
Cullen choked on those words. He bit down so hard his teeth clicked together. He had the sudden urge to rise to his feet and walk away. Kate and her lists be damned. If his legs weren’t on the verge of going numb, he would have done just that.
“And what would you have done differently?” he fired off angrily, fighting back with his words since using his legs was out of the question. “How would you, in all your infinite wisdom, have fixed the problem of the Gallows? Only, before you answer, remember that if you’d been a templar like me, you’d have been bound by the rules of the Order, sworn in service to the Chantry, groomed since childhood to follow orders…”
Kate muttered something to herself. It sounded suspiciously like “indoctrinated, that’s what it was.”
“Oh, and let’s not forget,” Cullen added, even more irritate now. “If you failed to do your duty, you’d be reprimanded, locked in your rooms for days, denied your lyrium until you complied…”
Kate’s eyes went huge. “They did that?”
“Of course they did!” Cullen cried, too annoyed to stop himself. “They call it a ‘disciplinary measure’, but we all knew what it really was. Spend more than a day or so without the stuff and you’re shivering in some corner, wondering how you can possibly go on without…”
Cullen trailed off, realizing what he was admitting to her. He stopped there and gritted his teeth. Well, so much for keeping that embarrassing image to himself.
“Sweet Andraste,” Kate murmured. She looked dumbfounded, and that infuriated Cullen as well. It wasn’t like mages were the only ones the Chantry bound and leashed.
“All I mean to say is this,” Cullen managed at last, his voice hard as flint, “It’s not as if I remained at Meredith’s side because I had nothing better to do. It was my job, my assignment, my entire life. And I…”
He didn’t know how to finish that statement. So he just said what he’d said before:
“I left all that for the Inquisition, Kate. I don’t like looking back, not even to pay my debts of shame. Perhaps it offends you that I don’t explain myself better, but there it is. I imagine you have a lot of things that you’d rather not speak of in your past as well.”
Kate stared at him for a long moment, then let out a long breath.
“They truly did that to you, with the lyrium?”
“I should not have said that,” Cullen said tightly.
He supposed that now was a perfect time to explain that he wasn’t taking the stuff anymore, but for whatever reason, Cullen found that he didn’t want to. He didn’t want her pity, or worse, her expression of horror at the thought that she was dealing with a templar in the middle of withdrawals.
“Maker,” she murmured, staring at him. “That sounds awful.”
Cullen let out a low, bitter laugh. It was all he could manage, everything considered.
“Is that why you didn’t stand up to Knight-Commander Mer…?”
“Please don’t” Cullen said, cutting her off, shortly. “I don’t like to talk about lyrium. And I made foolish choices of my own. I was stupid and blind, just as you said.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Didn’t you?” Cullen returned, looking right at her. “Maker knows I mean it when I say the same things to myself.”
Kate stared at him, her brows furrowed in an expression of pity. Cullen found it quite difficult to endure, so he looked away and stared at the fields and farms further along the country road. A few golden leaves fluttered down over him, landing on his outstretched legs.
“I don’t like being this angry,” Kate said, softly. “It makes me feel like I’m a spirit of rage all on my own. No demon necessary.”
Cullen gave a bitter snort. He could well identify with that feeling.
“I can see how it all connects together,” Kate went on. “The reasons why. The histories and the might-have-beens. I can see it and understand it and it still makes me so angry. I can’t imagine this war between templars and mages was what Andraste intended.”
“I’ve often wanted to ask her about that,” Cullen agreed.
He hazarded a glance at her, and saw her list lay in her lap. Her expression was vulnerable and thoughtful and Cullen suddenly felt desperate to make her understand.
“I didn’t join the Order because I wanted to cage people,” he told her, the words tumbling out before he could take them back. “I just wanted to protect people. More than that, really. I wanted…”
Kate didn’t move a muscle, but continued to watch him closely. Maybe she was trying to understand after all. Cullen gazed right back at her as he tried to explain:
“There were a handful of templars who guarded our village Chantry. As a child, I was in awe of them. Those men had strength and confidence unlike anything I’d ever seen. Every other grown-up I’d met was a farmer or a shopkeeper or a merchant. They worried about the weather and the state of the roads and seldom talked of anything else. They never looked up from the ground. But those templar knights were well-read and clever and they kept their eyes up on the horizon. I kept thinking that they saw something beyond the village - something no one else could see. I wanted to find out what it was.”
“And did you?” Kate asked, when he didn’t go on.
“It was purpose,” he told her. “They had a cause to fight for. I thought the Order could give purpose to me as well. I begged the templars for years to train me, and eventually, they did.”
“How old were you?” Kate asked, inclining her head ever so slightly.
“Eight when I first knew I wanted to be a templar. Thirteen when I left for my training.”
“That’s awfully young to be thinking about purpose,” Kate observed.
“Yes, well,” Cullen shrugged one shoulder. “I fear I was always this serious.”
Kate gave a small chuckle. “If you’d known me as a child, you’d know I’m in no position to judge.”
Cullen smiled back at her, and then his smile faded.
“It took me a while to catch up to the other recruits,” he told her. “I was no squire, after all. But I did well in the end - aided by my single-mindedness, no doubt. For a while there, I thought I’d made something of myself. But looking back over the years, my desire for purpose got twisted and I…”
He looked away, unwilling to even think of Kinloch Hold.
“I couldn’t give it all up so easily,” he said, speaking to the fields. “I didn’t want to admit I’d come so far from my goal - all in the pursuit of that goal. What I did in Kirkwall wasn’t right. I see that now. I followed orders and I took my lyrium and went on patrol when I was told. I may not have hurt people with my actions. But I hurt them by my inaction. I know that, Kate,” he said, looking over at her. “I offer no excuses for it. I’m just here to offer my sword arm.”
“To whom?” Kate asked, looking back at him steadily.
“To whom are you offering your sword arm?” she repeated. “The Inquisition? The remains of the templar Order? What purpose are you fighting for now, Cullen?”
An excellent question, he thought.
“Protection for those who can’t protect themselves,” he replied at once. “That’s all I’ve ever intended to provide. I’m ashamed that I ever…”
But he couldn’t finish that thought.
“That sounds like a good purpose,” Kate murmured. Cullen found he still couldn’t look at her.
“Maker,” she said, softly. “You say things like that, and I…” She broke off and said no more.
“What?” Cullen asked her.
“Nothing,” she told him. “It sounds completely stupid, even in my head.”
“Indulge me,” Cullen said, raising a brow.
Kate pursed her lips, then sighed. “I feel like I’m being disloyal to all the other mages in the world if I forgive you,” she said, looking right at him.
Cullen could do nothing but stare at her.
“That sounds awful, doesn’t it?” Kate said, looking down at the paper in her hand. “And why should I care about all those rebel mages anyhow? It’s not like they cared about me. They made their vote for freedom and let the rest of us deal with the mess. But then, I can’t entirely blame them. They did as they thought best and I… Blast,” she murmured, shaking her head. “Stick to the notes, girl. Stick to the notes.”
“Forget the notes,” Cullen told her. “That’s what you truly think.”
“I don’t know what to think!” Kate told him, waving her hand wide. “What happened in Kirkwall was awful. How can I possibly overlook that? And yet, you helped the mages in the end. How can I not admire that? According to the stories, you’re half villain, half hero. And now you’re saving soldiers and protecting people and searching for purpose and I can’t help but admire you. But I don’t know what part of you is you. You seem like a decent person, Cullen. It hurts me to think you were ever any less than the man you are now.”
Cullen stared at her, so stunned that he couldn’t speak at first.
“Well,” he murmured after a moment. “That’s…well.”
What could he say to that, Cullen wondered? It hurt him that he’d ever strayed so far from his ideals. And yet, even as Kate’s words pained him, they gave him a measure of hope. True, she disapproved of his actions in the past. By the Void, Cullen disapproved of his actions back then. But if Kate thought him a good sort of person in the present, then maybe he wasn’t beyond redemption. He often worried that he was. Yet perhaps there was hope for them in the future.
Hope for him in the future, Cullen corrected himself. Obviously he and Kate had no future of… Well, they were just allies, weren’t they? Rather tentative ones at that. Still, they were on the same side. That had to count for something. They’d completed their mission, had now debriefed properly. It was a good start, all things considered. Cullen had known officers far less intelligent and principled than Kate. If he could just get used to her unsettling intensity, this might be a very effective working relationship indeed.
“Maker,” Kate muttered beside him. “Years of rhetoric classes and lessons in deportment and listen to me now. I get to talking with you and I forget all my manners. Look, I’m trying to make things right here. Please excuse me if I make it all worse. But I was trained for the classroom, not the battlefield.”
“I can see that,” Cullen replied.
“It’s embarrassingly obvious, I daresay,” Kate said, flushing and looking at her list.
“No, it’s just…” Cullen tried to think of how to say this in a way that would not offend her. “It’s easy to pick up a sword and fancy oneself a warrior. But the only effective way to fight is to be smart about it. The lecture hall can be more useful than you think.”
“Now you’re just flattering me,” Kate said.
“Flattering you?” Cullen had never been accused of that before.
“I was simply trying to fix this,” Kate said. “Make everything neat and easy and organized. But between a mage and a templar…”
She shook her head and sighed. Cullen felt his gut twist.
“You think that’s impossible?” he asked. The words came out short, tight.
“I hope it’s possible,” Kate said, looking at him with such sincerity that he had to believe it. “But I have to confess, this isn’t easy for me. I’m nervous around templars for a start, and the whole thing with Kirkwall…”
Cullen frowned, and Kate looked quickly away. “Well, I suppose you feel the same way about mages,” she muttered.
“Not about you,” Cullen said.
The words were out before he had time to think them through. Yet Cullen found they were true. He didn’t think of Kate as a mage. He think of her as not a mage, either. Rather, she was just… Kate - the woman with the lists and the ever-changing facial expressions. Right now, her countenance was one of flattered surprise.
“Oh,” Kate said, blinking. “Um… Thank you?”
Cullen didn’t know what to say to that. ‘You’re welcome’ didn’t sound entirely appropriate. Instead, Cullen cleared his throat.
“I suppose I ought to say that I’m not all that nervous around you…” Kate began.
“Are you?” Cullen wanted to know. “Nervous around me?”
“No,” she said. “Not anymore.” The admission seemed to surprise her.
“Ah,” Cullen said.
Well then, he thought. That was good, wasn’t it? She did not fear him - always a good start among allies. Cullen supposed he ought to be pleased with how this conversation had turned out. For his part, he had gotten the opportunity to explain himself. He’d said more than he meant to, in fact. According to Kate’s list, this conversation was done. The commander of the Inquisition and the Herald of Andraste were allies once again. Anything else was superfluous, surely.
And yet, Cullen felt that he was missing something. It was that final item on the list, he realized: ‘common ground’, as Kate had named it. Cullen glanced over at Kate’s lap, but could not read her writing from here. They had not discussed that point - or had they? Certainly he and Kate had a number of things in common. They shared a history with the Chantry, shared frustrations about that history, and they’d both had formal logic training besides. But that wasn’t what Cullen had hoped for. It came as a surprise to find that he’d hoped for more.
But before Cullen could think on that, an unexpected figure came stomping up the road. At first, the elf appeared as a skinny whirlwind topped by black braids, then took shape as Kate’s fierce Dalish friend, Colleen. She huffed as she walked, pointing a finger accusingly in their direction.
“Where in feck have yeh been, Kate?” The elf shouted, striding to a stop. “I’ve been all over these fields lookin’ fer yeh!”
“Coll!” Kate said, looking up in surprise. Her friend appeared angry already, but when Coll caught sight of Cullen, her eyes narrowed even further.
“What. Teh feck. Are yeh doin’?” the elf demanded. This question was punctuated at intervals as Coll gasped for breath.
“Nothing,” Kate said, quickly. “We were just talking.”
Or they had been earlier, Kate thought. Because for the past minute, she and Cullen had just been sitting in uncomfortable silence. Kate had tried to think of something more to say, but had failed utterly. Even her list had been of no use. For really, there was no list nor logic nor any conversation could undo the past. Kirkwall would always be there in Cullen’s history. He would either make amends for his mistakes or he would not. Such choices were up to him, not Kate.
And maybe that was the real problem, Kate realized. She could not make Cullen repent of his past. Nor could she erase the terrors of Kirkwall or the battles of the past year or the Conclave explosion or any of it. Kate couldn’t even control what missions that the Inquisition assigned to her. She could only choose her allies: rebel mages, desperate refugees, a group of Chantry heretics…
And perhaps also this soldier who sat beside her.
With this thought, Kate glanced over at Cullen. The sunlight glinted on his hair and armor, the wind fluffed that odd fur ruff around his neck. At the sight, Kate felt something twist up inside of her. She felt suspended there, beween judgement and acceptance - and something else, something hesitant and hopeful that Kate didn’t want to investigate at all.
“Talkin’, were you?” Coll snapped, drawing Kate’s attention away from Cullen. The elf’s glittering eyes searched Kate’s face.
“Yes,” Kate said, precisely as she could. “Just talking.”
She tried to stand, but found her legs were wobbly. Coll strode on over, and held out a hand to Kate. As soon as Kate took it, the Dalish yanked her to her feet with surprising force. Kate nearly toppled onto Coll. As for Cullen, he climbed to his feet, using the wall for support. It wasn’t the most graceful maneuver Kate had ever seen from him, but he managed it all on his own.
“The Seeker said you’d gone to the barns,” Coll said, still scowling. “So off I go to greet yeh. But yeh weren’t there, so off I was, racing all over the farms…”
“Oh, Coll, I’m so sorry,” Kate said. “I had no idea…”
“So then I starts to panic,” Coll went on. “There are bandits and demons and templars in these woods, Kate.” She addressed this last bit at Cullen, whose face remained impassive.
“We were here the whole time,” Kate told her. “You probably couldn’t see us tucked down against the wall as we were.”
“Tucked down were you?” Coll repeated.
“Cullen and I just had a few things to discuss,” Kate went on. “We’re done now.”
”‘Cullen,’ eh?” Coll said. From the way her lip curled, Kate imagined that Coll was preparing to unleash ‘Teh Stink Eye’ upon him.
“And what were yeh discussin’ with this templar that look yeh so long?” Coll demanded.
Maker’s breath, Kate thought, rolling her eyes. Sometimes Coll could be as protective as a mother hen. But before Kate could think up a suitable answer, Coll reached over and snatched the piece of paper in Kate’s hand.
“What’s this?” Coll asked turning it over and looking at it.
“Hey!” Kate said, grabbing at it. But Coll held the paper away and unfolded it.
”‘Apology’?” Coll asked, reading Kate’s handwriting far too easily. “‘Common ground’?” Her black brows snapped together. “Ah, feck me. Not again, Kate.”
Kate responded by snagging the list and shoving it into her pocket.
“Kate-lass,” Coll said, firmly. “Yer an eejit.”
“Yes, thank you, Coll,” Kate replied. “You can stop now.”
But, of course, Coll didn’t stop.
“Come on now, Kate,” the elf said. “What did I tell yeh about fightin’?”
“Don’t plan it, just throw punches,” Kate recited. “But Coll…”
“I told yeh,” Coll said, shaking her finger in Kate’s face. “None of this writin’-it-out shite.”
“Wait, what?” Cullen frowned. Coll snorted and waved a tattooed hand.
“Kate does this bollocks every time she wants to impress a body with her great plannin’ and persuadin’. Brought me one of ‘er scrawly little lists once after we’d had a row. Laughed for days about it, I did.”
“You tore the list up,” Kate reminded her.
“Didn’t yeh try this on yer cousin once, too?”
“When I was ten,” Kate mumbled. “Robert just said I was being boring and climbed a tree.”
Cullen pressed his lips together, and looked down at the ground. He appeared to be smiling. Or laughing, maybe.
“And here I thought you considered me a stick-in-the-mud,” he said.
“No, nothing like that,” Kate protested at once.
“Well, yeh are a stick-in-the-mud from what I hear on you,” Coll said. “A right jackboot up the arse.”
“Coll!” Kate cried, blushing to the roots of her hair.
“Oh, get on with you. It’s only the truth I’m sayin’. And here’s the truth about Kate, templar,” Coll added, speaking to Cullen in a stage-whisper, “She’s just as bad if yeh let her be. Has too many rules in her. Rules of magic, rules of shem society, Chantry rules, too. Chances her out when she can’t find rules to follow with people.”
Cullen’s questioning gaze shot to Kate over the top of Coll’s head, and Kate fought the urge to throw her hands over her face in utter mortification.
“And our Kate isn’t much of a fighter,” Coll added, “but she’ll beat the hell outta yer patience. Talkin’ circles around yeh with her so-called logic.”
“Will she?” Cullen asked, his lips twitching in amusement.
“There is no such thing as so-called logic, Coll,” Kate said precisely, as she focused her attention on straightening the sleeves of her jacket. “There’s just logic and the lack of it.”
“Yeah, well, yer lackin’ something when ya drag out yer lists,” Coll said. “Just talk to a body like a normal person. Yeh got to stop overthinkin’ all the things. Oi, templar,” she added, slapping her hand against Cullen’s stomach, “Tell me yeh didn’t just sit there and let her read that list at yeh. Yeh got her talkin’ plain, right?”
“I…I believe so,” Cullen said.
“Yes, Coll,” Kate mumbled. “Cullen and I spoke at length.”
“And yeh talked plain?” Coll asked Kate, wanting to be clear on this point. “Throwin’ punches with no plan, like?”
“Yes, Coll,” Kate said. “I failed to remain calm and said things I shouldn’t have.”
“Grand then!” Coll said, beaming at Cullen. “Good on you, templar, if you endured Kate’s givin’ out. It’s a rare sight, ain’t it, to see her in a temper?”
But Coll did not really seem to require an answer to that question. She cut Cullen off, saying: “This was about yeh bein’ from Kirkwall, wasn’t it? Well I hope Kate set yeh straight about all that shite yeh pulled afore yeh did teh right thing.”
She glared at Cullen and poked her finger in his stomach.
“Maker’s breath, Coll,” Kate said. “You can’t just…”
But then, hadn’t Kate taken Cullen to task in a similar way? She couldn’t very well criticize Coll for doing the same.
“She certainly did,” Cullen told Coll. “Consider me set straight.”
Coll raised a slim, dark brow at his deadpan tone. “Well now. Here I thought you were a right dry shite. But you’re quite the smartarse, ain’t yeh?”
“Coll,” Kate hissed.
Coll stared up at Cullen for one long moment, her eyes narrowed and her tattooed face scrunched up in consideration. He stared right back, though the corner of his mouth quirked upward for the briefest moment.
“Yer not a total feck,” Coll pronounced at last, nodding solemnly.
“Thank you,” Cullen replied.
“Well then!” Coll said with a bright, beaming smile. “Let’s get on with it. And any friend of Kate’s is a friend of mine. Even if yeh are the feckin’ knight-captain of feckin’ Kirkwall.”
Cullen’s surprised expression grew even more surprised when Coll punched him on the arm. He must be awfully strong, Kate thought, for Coll’s blow didn’t phase him one bit. The scarred side of his mouth curled again as he smiled at Coll. When he turned that smile to Kate, she felt her heart flutter strangely.
Well, she thought, looking away. Good. This was all very good. At least Coll would no longer give Cullen the stink eye - she hoped.
“On we go, then,” Coll said, waving a hand at them both. “After dealin’ with Kate’s lists and harpin’, I bet you could use a drink, eh templar?”
“I don’t drink,” Cullen told Coll.
“Don’t be daft,” Coll returned, as if he’d said he didn’t breathe. “Now come with me, Kate-lass. The others are all waitin’ on yeh back at the campfire.”
Coll grabbed Kate’s arm and began dragging Kate down the road. Kate looked back over her shoulder to find Cullen scooping up the packs - both his and Kate’s - and placing the straps over one shoulder.
Sorry, Kate mouthed at him when she caught his eye. Cullen just grinned at her and inclined his head, as if to say, ‘it’s fine.’ Kate then turned her eyes to the road, lest she stumble as Coll hauled her along.
“I didn’t get the shem into bed, by the way,” Coll told Kate.
“I…what?” Kate asked.
“No Krem-shem for Coll,” her friend said, pouting. “But I’m working on it. I’ve got that he likes women, though. One of the other Chargers said so.”
“You didn’t just proposition him?” Kate asked, surprised.
“Not this time, Kate,” Coll said, wagging her finger in the air craftily. “A special strategy for a special fella. Got a plan, I do.”
“I hesitate to ask,” Kate said.
“Aren’t I all about impressing him with my military prowess? Figure a merc shem would want a warrior lass.”
“But you hate fighting,” Kate reminded her. “Almost as much as you hate the outdoors.”
“Yeah, but he doesn’t know that,” Coll said. “And I can fight, when I put me mind to it. In fact, ought to tell yeh ‘bout that. Yer missin’ scouts up on the coast? Dead. So we went after the arselicks what did it. I challenged their leader to single combat…”
“You did what?” Kate gaped at her.
“And I beat him!” Coll said proudly. “That old root spell, ya know. Oaken enema, I used teh call it. Worked as well as afore. His merc band pledged their loyalty to me. Blades of Hessarian or somesuch. I don’t want ‘em, so I’m re-giftin’ ‘em. Sent the contract to the Nightingale. Did you know she’s been reading my mail?”
“I…” Kate’s head was spinning now. “Wait. Back up. You challenged a merc band…”
“Just the leader with the dogs,” Coll shrugged, as if she did this sort of thing every day. “‘Twas all real feral-like. Reminded me of the days when… Well, anyhow. He died. I won his men. Only, haven’t I gifted ‘em to your Inquisition? ‘Cause what am I going to do with crazy shem mercs? I ask yeh. Only one shem merc I want!”
She laughed loudly, then turned and pointed a finger at Cullen.
“Don’t pass it around,” she said to him sternly, “but that Krem fellow is mine.”
“Poor lad,” Kate thought she heard Cullen say.
“Um, that’s…great, Coll,” Kate said.
Coll waved a tattooed hand. “Isn’t it though? Ah, and the best is yet to come, surely.” She waggled her eyebrows suggestively.
“Well then,” Kate muttered. “I’ll be sure to knock before I enter your tent.”
Coll grinned. Kate tried to smile back. Normally, Kate found Coll’s stories about her various sexual exploits very amusing. But with Cullen following behind them, this was much more awkward. Especially when Coll announced:
“Oh! And that Iron Bull, Kate? Has a thing for red-heads, he does.”
“How nice for him,” Kate said, seeing at once where this was going.
“Don’t play coy Kate,” Coll said. “Keep an open mind.”
“I try to keep my mind open, Coll,” Kate said, pitching her voice low so that Cullen couldn’t hear her. “Doesn’t mean I have to open other parts of my anatomy to match.”
“But I might be able to get you laid, Kate,” Coll protested. “Unless yeh…?” She trailed off, hiking a thumb over her shoulder at Cullen.
“No!” Kate cried, eyes wide. She resisted the urge to look over her shoulder. She didn’t think that cough from Cullen was in response to what Coll had just said. If only Kate could ignore the way her face had gone flaming hot right now.
“Maker, Coll,” she hissed on a low whisper. “We’re not… We’re just… We’re…”
“Say no more,” Coll said easily - and at a volume far too loud for Kate’s peace of mind. “We’ll find yeh someone for a tumble, Kate-lass. Don’t worry about that.”
She adored Coll, Kate thought. Really she did. But sometimes her friend was just too much.
“Though if yeh ain’t fer the templar,” Coll went on, as if they were discussing the weather, “Give the Bull a ride. Fella’s got toys in his pack, he does.”
“Come again?” Kate blinked.
“That’s the idea, Kate!” Coll said, cackling. “That’s the idea!”
Coll dragged Kate onward, with the sound of Cullen’s boots falling heavily in the silence behind them.