Shield in Hand

Chapter 29 of Daughters of Andraste

Kate lay on her back, staring up at the now-bright sky. There was a little patch of rainbow directly overhead, a kind of small, circular prism set against the clouds. Kate had never seen anything like it.

The Maker crafted such curious art, Kate mused. He hid his themes in the most far-flung corners of nature. To her right, a drop of dew held a similar rounded rainbow. The wispy clouds overhead brought to mind foam upon sea waves. And there, that bank of clouds rather resembled a pile of rocks. The whole heap appeared ready to tumble down upon Kate’s head and bury her.

Kate welcomed entombment, actually. As it was, she didn’t think she would ever get up again. But even as Kate thought that, a shadow fell over her vision, and a great, horned head blocked out the light.

“No…” Kate moaned, even before the head began talking.

“Come on, boss,” Bull said. “Rest time’s over.”

“I can’t do another round of drills,” Kate told him. “I’ll throw up again. I swear I will.”

Kate swallowed, feeling a sting of acid at the back of her throat. She hadn’t known that if a person ran hard enough, she could cause herself to vomit. Neither had Kate known that standing in a low squat for a minute could make her sweat, nor that swinging a plain wooden staff around for a half hour could make her arms feel like they were going to fall off. Kate would have liked to blame all her weakness on the hike from the mire and the fighting from the day before. But the truth was simpler than that:

“I wasn’t made for fighting, Bull,” Kate said, squeezing her eyes shut. “Casting spells, sure. Turning those spells against someone in a pinch, fine. But this? Bull, I hate this. You attack me and I panic.”

“And you’ll continue to panic until you learn not to,” Bull returned easily. “Get up.”

Kate sighed in frustration, feeling tears prick at the corner of her eyes. This whole morning had felt as if someone had torn a hole in Kate’s already frayed composure. She felt dangerously close to cracking.

“Bull,” Kate said, throwing her left arm over her face. “I really don’t think I can do this.”

This had to be a new low, Kate thought. She lay on her back in a field, wearing nothing but her trousers and a scrap of cloth around her breasts. Her shirt hung on the post of a nearby fence. It had been abandoned within the first five minutes of training. Kate remembered Coll’s words about not being cold unless she died. Kate supposed that meant she wasn’t dead - yet. For in spite of her state of undress, Kate was slick with sweat, covered with grass and dust, and her skin glowed pink from heat.

Her muscles ached, but her pride hurt most of all. When Kate had begun training by lantern light, Coll and the Chargers had set to their drills like it was nothing. But Bull had pulled Kate aside and asked her to show him a block.

He might as well have asked Kate to conjure up a portal to the Golden City. Kate’s arms got all tangled up in the process of showing him whatever it was she’d come up with. It hadn’t been a block, that was for sure. Bull then asked for a parry, and Kate said, “And that’s different…how?” Bull then requested a riposte, and Kate burst out laughing. Bull had replied they’d begin with the basics. And by ‘basics,’ he meant holding the staff.

That was actually much more complicated than Kate would have guessed. According to Bull, clutching the staff in it’s center was ‘dead wrong.’ Running with the staff in her fist was ‘just asking to be tripped up.’ Kate didn’t have the heart to admit that she’d already tripped. Twice before, Kate had accidentally stuck the end of her staff between her legs and sent herself sprawling all over the ground.

So Bull had taught Kate to point the tip of the staff toward the ground, index finger along the length of it and fingers and thumb wrapped to each side. From there, he taught Kate how to twirl the staff out to a ready position. She had learned to hold the staff in her right hand, the weight balanced along the back of her arm and the pointy end over her left shoulder. This was, Kate realized, the same way that Solas and Vivienne dealt with the weapon. She now felt a bit stupid for not having adopted this technique sooner. But then, Kate reasoned, she hadn’t known better.

That part had been fine - interesting, even. But then Bull wanted Kate to run - with her staff held in the proper way, of course. That sounded fine at first. So they had run, stopped to learn a few blocking techniques…and then they kept running. And then they kept running, and running, and running until Kate had thrown up by the barns. Then they’d run some more. Upon returning, Kate had collapsed. She firmly believed that her feet were going to fall off. And now, no doubt, Bull wanted her to run some more.

Bull grabbed hold of Kate’s wrist and peeled her arm off of her face. He looked down at her, his one good eye narrowing.

“Get up, boss,” Bull said.

Kate swallowed another protest, and with it, a mouthful of burning spit. For even as she looked up at Bull, her glowing hand hung over her vision. As if taunting her, the mark crackled. Kate sighed and frowned at the scar.

She might not feel up to this, Kate thought, but that was beside the point. She needed to learn to fight, and if that meant more running, so be it. Somehow, she would have to find the strength to get through this, one brutal training at a time.

“Right,” Kate nodded, struggling to sit up. “You’re right.”

Bull let go of her arm as Kate rolled to one side, scrambled to her knees, then managed to clamber up her staff to a standing position.

“Okay,” she muttered. “I’m up. What now?”

She took a fortifying breath, then looked up to see Bull regarding her with a pleased expression.

“What now?” she repeated.

“That’s it,” Bull replied.

“What? Standing?”

“Yup,” Bull nodded. “Just wanted to see if you had it in you to get back up again.”

Kate looked at him steadily, taking in the qunari’s cocky posture and too-knowing grin. She drew one long, steadying breath.

“Bull,” Kate said. “If it weren’t for the exhaustion, I would kill you right now. I really would.”

“Nah,” he said. “You need me alive. ‘Sides, you’re not the type for murder.”

“I’m tempted,” Kate grumbled, pushing a hand through her sweaty hair.

“I get that,” Bull told her. “But you’re doin’ real good. No, listen boss,” he added, when Kate growled and looked down at the ground. “You’re not a born warrior. I get that. You’re not very strong. Or fast. And your endurance is…eh, it’s okay. About average.”

“I’m hoping there’s a ‘however’ coming,” Kate said, archly.

“But,” Bull said, holding up a hand the size of a dinner plate, “You’re sharp. You hear what I’m saying and you get it. Gonna take a lot of training to get your muscles to catch up to your brain, but your head understands right off.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” Kate said, dryly. “I may be dreadful at fighting, but at least I know that I am. The scholar’s one advantage.”

“That’s more useful than you’d think,” Bull said. “I can train someone to stab a guy or bash him over the head. But I can’t train people to fight smart unless they have the smarts to begin with. It’s gonna take you more time than most, but you can do it. Only, the first thing you gotta learn is to stop worrying about how much it hurts. Just ignore the pain.”

“But it’s a lot of pain,” Kate said. She couldn’t help but pout.

“Yeah,” Bull shrugged. “So what? You can do this, boss.”

Kate looked up at Bull and could tell that he was in earnest. She offered him a weary smile. “Very well, Bull. And thank you for your time. This…well, it’s awful, really. But it’s also somewhat inspiring.”

“I know, right?” Bull said, grinning. “Now, I’ve got just one more exercise for you, if you’re up for it.”

Kate groaned.

“A reward, if you will,” Bull went on.

“I hope it involves sitting down and refreshments,” Kate said.

“Sitting? Sort of,” Bull told her. “But not rest.”

“Blast,” Kate muttered.

“I’m thinking you should test out that new horse of yours.”

“Horse?” Kate perked up at once. “I have a horse?”

“Sure,” Bull said, looking confused. “Didn’t you talk to Dennet yesterday? Figured he would have showed you that mare. He showed all of us, he was so excited about her.”

“Uh, well… I didn’t have a chance to ask about the horse.”

“She’s right there,” Bull said, pointing at the nearby paddock.

“That one’s mine?” Kate exclaimed. “Oh! She’s perfect.”

She was, too. And though Kate was exhausted and all her muscles ached, none of that mattered to her anymore. Kate tucked her staff against her arm as she’d been taught, and strode over to the fence.

By the time Kate reached the paddock, she decided she was positively in love. She set the staff against a fencepost, and reached out a hand. Curious, the mare turned her face toward Kate, her soft nostrils flaring.

“Hullo girl,” Kate crooned. “Oh, aren’t you lovely?”

And she was. The mare’s coat was a light, warm chestnut color, with blond points and a wide, white blaze down her face. Unlike the heavy bays in the paddock, this mare was slim and fine-boned. To Kate’s eyes, she looked like a ballet dancer standing among a crew of farm laborers.

“What are you?” Kate murmured to the mare. “Not a Ferelden draft horse, surely.”

“Never that, your Worship,” a voice laughed. Kate turned her head to see a young woman walking over with an easy gait. The woman had golden-brown skin, dark freckles across her nose and forehead, and her hair was shaved close.

“Miss Dennet, I presume?” Kate asked her.

”‘Seanna’ will do.” Dennet’s daughter grinned, shaking Kate’s offered hand. “And this here is…Oh!”

Drawn by Seanna’s arrival, the mare had come trotting over to interrupt. She stuck her head over the fence and nosed Seanna’s pocket.

“She thinks she’s a queen, this one,” Seanna told Kate, scratching the mare behind the ears. “Watch.”

Seanna reached into her pocket. She shoved the mare’s head away with one hand, and with the other, Seanna held a few slices of apple out to Kate.

“Go on,” the young woman said.

Kate took the apple with a “Thank you,” and held it up for the mare. The beast snorted at this change in her apple-related plans. She sniffed at Kate’s hand for one moment, as if such dainties were entirely beneath her notice. Then, she seemed to reconsider. The mare dipped her head ever so slightly, and carefully ate the apple from off of Kate’s hand. As the soft lips nuzzled her palm, Kate instinctively reached out and scratched the mare behind the ears with her left hand.

As Kate did so, her hand began to glow and spark. Kate froze there, afraid that she would spook the mare. But the horse merely flattened her ears back, her dark, liquid eyes darting to the side to watch the mark closely. The muscles of her shoulders rippled, but the creature stood her ground.

Kate remained still for a moment, then continued stroking the mare’s mane. Slowly - very slowly it seemed to Kate - the mare’s ears turned forward once again. Kate let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding.

“There now,” Kate murmured to the mare. “I feel as if we both passed some sort of test.”

“Ah, see, I knew she’d take to you.”

Kate turned her head to find Master Dennet approaching.

“Hello, Master Dennet,” Kate said at once, hoping the man wouldn’t reveal that he hadn’t seen Kate since the last time she’d been in the Hinterlands, several weeks ago.

“Hello, your Worship,” the man replied, laying a hand on the nearby fencepost. “Well now, I promised you a horse then, didn’t I? And here she is. Was to breed her, but she didn’t much take to the stallion. Seems to think she’s made for finer things than foaling.”

“Can’t say I blame her,” Seanna muttered. Kate quite agreed.

“An’ if you’ll pardon me sayin’ so,” Dennet went on, “I’m going to pass this bit of trouble on to you.”

“Trouble?” Bull asked. The qunari had hung back, but now he stepped forward, drawing the attention of the two Dennets. “You givin’ the Herald a problem horse?”

“No!” Seanna said as her father said, “No, no! Nothing like that.”

“Flame here is well-broke,” Dennet said, glancing up at Bull nervously. “She’s just… Well, look at her. She thinks she ought to be out leadin’ a charge against the Blight or racin’ dragons or something. She ain’t soured, but she’s hot.”

“Hot?” Bull frowned.

“Spirited,” Dennet clarified. “Trained for games, she was. We’ve calmed her down best we could, but she’s hankering for wilder fields than these.”

Kate regarded the mare as the horse munched a tuft of grass. Kate could see what Dennet meant. The mare’s ears flicked this way and that, as if scanning the pastoral horizon for the merest hint of adventure.

What a wild, brave creature, Kate thought. In a way, the horse was a better candidate for Herald of Andraste than Kate was.

“Flame, is it?” Kate asked Dennet. “A rather simple name for such a regal lady.”

“That’s the name she came with,” Dennet told her. “Named by the daughter of the fellow I bought her from. Girl seemed to think the horse had smoke comin’ off her when she raced. Suits her though, with those amber eyes.”

”‘Flame’ it is, then,” Kate said, smiling at the mare. The horse snorted, as if to challenge anyone who would question otherwise.

“What breed is she?” Kate asked.

“Talsin Strider,” Seanna told Kate. “Brought all the way from Antiva.”

The young woman said this as if ‘all the way from Antiva’ was on par with ‘all the way from the moon.’

“Ah,” Kate said. “I should have seen it right off. She’s a credit to her homeland.”

Flame tossed her mane at Kate’s remark and gave a great snuff.

“Now, you said you can ride,” Dennet told Kate. “But if you find her too much to handle, don’t you be shy about pickin’ out a different horse. I’ve got a whole herd of nice, steady Ferelden forders ready. Jus’ have your commander let me know when he’s ready to take ‘em.”

“Oh, yes,” Kate nodded. “I’m sure Cullen will want to do that soon.”

Kate assumed he would, anyhow. As she thought that, another idea occurred to her.

“I don’t suppose I might convince you to join the Inquisition?” Kate asked Dennet. “We could use a horsemaster to help us build our stables. We have fighters aplenty, but no one with that particular expertise.”

“Ah now,” Dennet said, sighing. “I would love that. Once used to trade horses from all over Thedas. But I’m an old man now, with farms to look after and charges and… Nah,” he shook his head. “I owed you one, Herald. You cleared out my lands, but now…”

“You’ve more than paid me back,” Kate assured him.

“Yeah,” Bull put in, “But you need horses, right, boss? I guess I could ask the qunari spies for contacts. And doesn’t Vivienne know some Orlesian chevaliers she could get horses from?”

“Orlesians?” Dennet frowned just as Seanna said, “Qunari spies?”

“We’ll think of something,” Kate said, trying not to grin. She had spotted a twinkle in Bull’s eyes as he spoke. Or, well, with anyone else, Kate would have called it a twinkle. In Bull’s eye, it was more like a trigger attached to a trebuchet.

“Well, now,” Dennet hedged. “Maybe if I…”

“I’ll go,” Seanna announced.

“What?” Dennet frowned.

“Why not, dad?” the young woman replied. “I know as much about the business as you do. And mum was just sayin’ I ought to think about the future.”

“She meant grandkids, girl,” Dennet said, frowning.

“So she’ll have grandkids,” Seanna shrugged. “A whole herd of them. And they’ll all have hooves. She can come visit me whenever. Isn’t that right, Herald?”

“That would be wonderful,” Kate said, liking this possibility very much.

“Aw, damn it,” Dennet frowned. “First the mare, now my daughter. Look, you,” he pointed a finger at Kate, who just raised her brows at him in surprise. Dennet caught himself there.

“Uh, Worship,” he said instead. He looked down at his finger as if unsure how it had gotten there.

“I mean… Look, you,” He rounded on his daughter. “You can’t just go off with the first army to roll through these parts.”

“Why not?” the girl shot back, folding her arms over her chest. “I’ll just be up the hill in Haven. And you know you’ll be up there visiting the stables as often as you can.”

“Perhaps I should let you discuss this privately,” Kate said, recognizing a family spat when she saw one.

“Yeah, you do that,” Dennet said, irritably. Seanna just jutted out her chin.

“Why don’t you take Flame out for a nice, easy ride?” Dennet suggested. “Tack’s in the barn. You can put ‘er through ‘er paces while we settle this out.”

A flutter of anticipation rose in Kate’s chest. Bull was right, she thought. A ride was the perfect way to reward herself after all that hard work.

It seemed that the morning had taken a very sudden turn for the better. The sun shone down on the forested hills, a rosy light flooded the valley, and Kate now felt very glad she’d decided to get up off of the ground.

Cullen crawled out of his tent, armor in place, eyes bleary, and hair…

He reached a hand to his head and sighed. It seemed that his curls were not cooperating today. Most days, Cullen tried to tame them. It was, perhaps, a vain and silly thing to do, considering all the many things that required his attention. But upon joining the Inquisition, Leliana and Josephine had offered to help Cullen with his ‘style’ as they’d called it.

Leliana had given him the hair-straightening tonic, Josephine had commissioned the armor, and well, it did look rather nice on him. Though, wearing the Inquisition-commander armor reminded Cullen of when he was a templar recruit, trying on the full gear of a knight for the first time. He remembered being a teenager and looking down at his thin arms, rattling around in those too-big gauntlets. Cullen had told himself that some day, he would grow into them. In a similar way, wearing the armor of the Inquisition reminded Cullen of what he aspired to.

At that thought, Cullen tugged on the curling strand of gold before his eyes, then tried to comb it back in with the rest of his hair. Today, it seemed that the fight for ‘style’ was a losing battle.

Speaking of battles, Cullen thought, he had an awful lot of work ahead of him. The watch towers required inspection, the patrols needed reviewing, and Cullen decided that he should probably start with breakfast. Or rather, he supposed he should probably start by speaking to Kate. As he’d been drifting off to sleep last night, he’d been thinking of her.

Well, not thinking of her exactly, Cullen corrected himself. He’d been musing on the matter of her training. Iron Bull was quite right: Kate needed both a bodyguard and combat training. Cullen had wondered if he ought to have offered to train Kate along with his troops. He could oversee her progress, and she could help his troops learn how to deal with magical attacks.

But no, Cullen thought, that wouldn’t work at all. As the one with the mark, Kate needed to remain in the field. Cullen, on the other hand, needed to stay with the bulk of the army at the central camps. Now that Cullen thought of it, Bull fit the requirements of both bodyguard and trainer very well. Cullen ought to be pleased that a solution had presented itself to that particular problem. But instead, he felt annoyed that the solution had presented itself as a flirtatious qunari with massive pectoral muscles and no shirt. As for why this annoyed him so much, well, Cullen didn’t want to examine that too closely.

Regardless, Cullen needed to speak to Kate before she left for Redcliffe. He only hoped that he could articulate his thoughts correctly when he did so. He didn’t think he needed notes, exactly, he thought with a smile, but he did have a few things to say to her.

Cullen headed toward the other tents. By morning, the campfires were thin, pale versions of their night-time selves. A few scouts huddled around one fire, cooking eggs in an iron frying pan. Vivienne sat upon her bale of hay, as if she hadn’t moved since the previous night. Her horned hat was in place, and she held a small mirror before her face. As Cullen approached her, the enchantress carefully applied paint to her eyes, as if drawing small wings along her lashes.

“Where is everyone?” Cullen asked her.

“All over, darling,” Vivienne replied, not looking up at him. “Cassandra’s sleeping. Be warned: she’ll take the head of anyone who tries to wake her. Varric, Sera, and the Warden are having a snoring contest, so far as I can tell.”

Cullen listened, and caught the sound of a trio of snores coming from a nearby tent.

“The Chargers are all off in the fields, ‘training’,” Vivienne stopped her painting long enough to make an air quote with the pinkie finger of her right hand.

“Off an hour before dawn and they haven’t returned yet. Hope they haven’t finished off our dear Herald.”

“What, really?” Cullen frowned. He didn’t usually sleep in this late himself, but they had walked for a full day yesterday. He couldn’t imagine how tired Kate must be.

“When you find Herald Trevelyan, let her know I simply must see her before she heads to Redcliffe,” Vivienne pouted as she glanced in the mirror to inspect her handiwork. “When dealing with mages, appearance is everything. She cannot wear mercenary rags to the negotiations. They will judge her poorly if she does. Now, I think I’ve found a few things that might fit her, but it will be a trick to make the outfit work.”

“Where on earth did you find clothes out here?” Cullen wanted to know.

“I’m resourceful, darling,” Vivienne laughed, looking up at him at last. “That’s why you brought me on, isn’t it? Though honestly, commander,” she said, setting down her mirror and makeup, “I find this entire rebel mage business a waste of time, don’t you? Perhaps you can talk her out of it?”

Cullen shook his head. No, he didn’t think he could talk Kate out of it and no, he wasn’t about to try. Rather than explaining this, however, Cullen just said, “Excuse me,” and headed out of camp.

As he crossed the farmland road, Cullen considered the wide expanse of fields. The Chargers could have gone anywhere, but if he had planned to train soldiers, Cullen would have set up on the flat stretch of ground near the stables. He set off in that direction, and upon crossing the farm road, he found that his guess had been correct.

There were the Chargers, already at their training. Cullen saw Coll and a fair-haired, tattooed elf, both swinging magic staves around. There was Krem, his back to Cullen, as he sparred with an elf who wielded dual knives. Coll kept glancing at Krem, up until the point that Coll’s training partner tapped her on the shoulder in order to regain her attention. There were also two other men fighting with swords and shields: a pale, blond fellow and a scarred man.

Cullen paused for a moment to watch them all. They were well-trained, he noticed. In spite of the chilly morning, they wore nothing but their trousers. The women wore some sort of binding around their breasts and the men were all shirtless. Cullen saw all this without really caring about it much. After years spent in the close confines of the templar barracks, he had grown used to seeing soldiers in various states of undress - from full armor to shirtless, like this. He had long ago come to ignore such things. Like holding up a mental shield, as it were, Cullen blocked out the soldiers’ nudity and focused on their technique instead.

And speaking of shields and technique, something caught Cullen’s eye. The two men with shields had begun sparring more and more unevenly. The pale, blond fellow fought well enough, but his sparring partner had begun to flag. Why didn’t the blond fellow say something about it, Cullen wondered? Or maybe the blond didn’t know any better.

Cullen watched the two of them for a moment more, and then found he could keep quiet no longer.

“Oh, for the Maker’s sake, he grumbled, half to himself. Then, more loudly, he strode over to the two of them, shouting, “There’s a shield in your hand! Block with it!”

All of the Chargers stopped fighting at once, looking at Cullen in surprise. Cullen, however, ignored them, walking right on up to the sparring pair and pointing at the two of them.

“If this man were your enemy, you’d be dead,” Cullen told the scarred fellow, waving a hand at the blond man. “He’s going easy on you. You need to get your shield up. At least this high, you hear?”

Cullen demonstrated by holding his own arm up to his chest. The scarred fellow looked at him, gulped in some air, and nodded. “Yes, ser.”

“Something wrong, commander?” A very sweaty Krem came wandering over, sounding breathless. As he spoke, he wiped his forehead with the back of his arm. A short distance away, Coll sighed dreamily and cocked her head at Krem.

“Beg your pardon,” Cullen said. “I know these aren’t my soldiers, but–”

Cullen broke off there. He’d just noticed that Krem had breasts - rather female-looking ones. And yet Bull had introduced him as ‘my man, Krem’ at the campfire last night.

Not important, Cullen decided, blocking that thought aside and raising his eyes back to Krem’s face. He wasn’t here for studies in anatomy. He was here to correct some truly dreadful shield technique. Returning to his purpose, Cullen waved a hand at the sparring partners.

“Just noticed that this fellow has his guard too low,” Cullen told Krem.

Krem frowned at the scarred sword fighter.

“Stitches…” Krem said. “I turn my back for one minute…”

“What’s going on?”

The deep voice of Bull rumbled behind Cullen, and Krem turned to his commander at once.

“Stitches is back to his bad habits, chief,” Krem said.

“Of course he is,” Bull raising a brow. Somehow, the qunari’s good-humored tone held even more censure than Krem’s frown.

“What the Void, chief?” the scarred man grumbled. “I’m a healer, not a fighter.”

“Yeah, well, that one’s a healer, too, and you don’t see her whining.”

Bull pointed at Coll, who beamed at this compliment. Coll glanced at Krem to see if he’d heard. It seemed he had not. Coll scowled instead.

“Grim,” Bull said to the blond sparring partner, “You’re supposed to be keepin’ an eye on Stitches here.”

Grim answered this with a grunt and a shrug.

“You’ll care if he dies and there’s no one left to put your guts back in,” Krem said, as if the blond fellow had actually spoken.

“The shield is just so bleedin’ heavy,” Stitches said, scowling. “I can keep it up for a while, but then…”

“So get stronger,” Bull said, unsympathetically.

“Or try this,” Cullen said, taking a step toward the man. “If you reinforce the shield with your sword arm when taking a heavy hit,” Cullen reached over and placed the man’s hands in the proper position, “You won’t tire yourself out quite so quickly. You shouldn’t be taking all the impact on one arm anyway, unless you’re built like Bull.”

“Ah,” Stitches said, glancing nervously from Cullen to Krem. “Um…”

“Oh, he’s been taught a reinforced block,” Bull said. “He just saves all his memory for herb lore. Tends to forget the rest.”

“Well then,” Cullen said, wishing he hadn’t spoken at all. “It seems I should just let you train your own men and not interfere.”

“No, no,” Bull said. “It’s good for my guys to hear this from someone other than me. Sometimes they think I’m blowin’ smoke. But I know a thing or two about skirmishes.” He gave poor Stitches a pointed look. “Listen to the commander, Stitches, even if you won’t listen to me. You gotta lock this in your mind, you got me?”

“Yeah chief,” Stitches mumbled.

“Alright, back to it, guys,” Bull said. “Unless you got any other pointers for ‘em, commander?”

“Ah, no,” Cullen said. “I just saw the one mistake and called it.”

“You heard the man,” Bull said, jerking his chin. “Fifteen more minutes and then breakfast. Stitches? Block it right this time.” Bull pointed one long, bluish finger at the company healer.

“Yeah boss,” the man said, and he and Grim set into their sparring. They fought much more precisely now, Cullen saw.

“Sorry about that,” Cullen said to Bull, as soon as the soldiers were engaged. “I’m used to calling out errors as I see them. A good habit with my own troops, a bad one when dealing with another man’s soldiers.”

“Nah, it’s good,” Bull said, dropping a heavy hand on Cullen’s shoulder in a friendly manner. Bull paused, rubbed Cullen’s furred mantle, and remarked:

“Hey, that’s fuzzy.”

When Bull let his hand drop, Cullen discreetly took one great step to the side.

“My guys are good, but they’re not perfect,” Bull told Cullen. “You wanna call ‘em on it, go for it. Only remember, they’re trained as shock troopers, not as a legion. I won’t have you teachin’ ‘em to fight while standing in a straight line or some crap.”

“Understood,” Cullen replied easily. He paused, not really wanting to offer this, but wasn’t about to let his pride stand in the way of practicality.

“Likewise, I would suggest the same. If you see anything that needs work in regards to my soldiers…”

“Already ahead of you, commander,” Bull said. “Got a handful of notes for you whenever you want them.”

“Well then,” Cullen said, tightly. How very annoying.

No, Cullen thought, taking a breath. It was good. Cullen couldn’t catch every mistake, after all. His troops could use a second pair of eyes watching them. And Cullen need not take all of Bull’s advice just because it was offered.

“Write it up for me, if you would,” Cullen told Bull. “Just so long as you remember that my soldiers are training to be an army, not mercenaries.”

“Understood,” Bull nodded. He glanced over the top of Cullen’s head, then back down at Cullen.

“You got a solid start here, commander,” Bull said. “I’ve spent enough time around the Antaam forces to know a good general when I see one. Between you and me, the breach in the sky isn’t the only reason I’m here. Your army worries the Qun, too.”

“Oh,” Cullen said. “Thank you. I think.”

At least, Cullen assumed that was a compliment.

“So,” Bull said, “You didn’t come out here just to give my guys pointers, did you?”

“No,” Cullen replied. “I was looking for Kate.”

“Hmmm,” Bull said, knowingly.

“I just need to talk to her about Redcliffe,” Cullen told the qunari. “Field notes, as it were.”

“Uh, huh,” Bull said, watching him closely.

“But I don’t see her,” Cullen said. “I thought she was training with you?”

“Yeah, she was training. It went… Oh, hey, watch it,” Bull said, pointing at the ground behind Cullen. “Boss barfed there.”

Cullen turned to see a nasty greenish puddle in the dust.

“She did what?” Cullen frowned at the mess. “Is she sick?” He didn’t like that idea at all. Though that would explain why she wasn’t with the rest of the Chargers.

“Nah,” Bull shrugged. “Just finding her limits.”

Cullen didn’t like the sound of that. “You do realize she walked all day yesterday?” he asked.

“Yup,” Bull nodded. “That’s why I tried to go easy on her. Only she’s a bit soft. I’ll get her toughed up though. Don’t worry.”

“I’m not worried about that,” Cullen said. “I’m more worried you’ll injure the woman.”

“Living without a challenge is no way to live,” Bull replied. “Besides, you know how it is. You push the recruits hardest on the first day. See what they can handle. Then when they start to crack, you draw back and put the pressure on by increments.”

Bull had a point. That was, in fact, exactly what Cullen did with his recruits. But Kate wasn’t just a recruit. She was…

Well, she wasn’t Cullen’s responsibility, was she? Cullen had soldiers to prepare for battle, and Bull had this training well in hand. Cullen just wished…

Well, he didn’t know what he wished. Anyhow, he wasn’t out here for wishing. He was out here to talk to Kate.

“Well, there’s her vomit,” Cullen said irritably, “But where is Kate?”

“Right there,” Bull said, jerking his chin.

Cullen turned his head, looking in the same direction that Bull did. At first, Cullen saw nothing but a fence, and beyond it, a paddock full of horses. But then he spotted another paddock beyond that. And there, Cullen saw a familiar glint of red-gold hair. Kate rode swiftly across the fenced space, then pulled her horse to a walk, turned neatly, and trotted off in the opposite direction.

“She’s been workin’ that horse for a good half-hour now,” Bull told Cullen. “And that’s after a run on the trails. Wish she had that kind of patience for the staff.”

Before Cullen could say anything to that, Bull cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted: “Hey! Boss!”

The way the giant bellowed, it sounded like ‘Aaae! BAWWS!“. The horses in the nearby paddock skittered away, tossing their heads and glaring at Bull. Cullen almost felt like apologizing to them for the qunari’s manners, but Kate looked up at once. She dismounted, and began to lead her horse up the path. For a moment she was blocked by the fence, and then she stepped out into the sunlight and Cullen saw her in full. Kate’s hair was ruffled by the wind, her cheeks were pink from the ride…

But mostly, Cullen noticed was that Kate wasn’t wearing anything but tight trousers and a scrap of cloth around her breasts.


It amounted to small clothes, Cullen realized. That was essentially all she had on. And he was staring.

That would not do. Cullen snapped his mental shield into place and glanced sharply away. Yet even as he did so, he felt stupid for his reaction. He’d already seen a great deal of skin and sweat and even nipples this morning, and he’d managed to ignore it. But somehow, with the Herald, it was different.

Iron Bull, however, had no such reservations. The qunari strode up to Kate, grinning from ear to ear.

“Looks like that horse is gonna work for you after all,” he said.

“I think she will,” Kate replied, cheerfully. “She’s a feisty one. But once I got her… Oh!” Kate drew up short when she saw Cullen. “Um,” she faltered, then seemed to shrink back against the horse. “H-hello commander.”

It seemed Kate was now aware of her undress as well. Cullen glanced at her just long enough to see that she’d thrown an arm across her chest and was nervously scratching her shoulder. This didn’t do anything to cover up all that exposed skin. So Cullen kept his eyes up when he faced her, his mental shield blocking everything below Kate’s neck.

“Nice work, boss” Bull told her. He held a hand out to Kate, and Kate smacked her open palm against his. What a strange custom, Cullen thought. Must be some qunari thing. At Bull’s gesture, Kate’s horse whickered and shook its head.

“Thank you, Bull,” Kate said. Her smile had gone a bit brittle now, and she kept glancing over at Cullen. She took another a step behind the horse, as if to hide from Cullen’s view.

“Did you need to speak with Bull, commander?” Kate asked Cullen, drawing him back to his purpose.

“Ah, no,” he replied. “To you, actually. Before you leave for Redcliffe.”

“Redcliffe!” Kate exclaimed, her eyes going wide. “Maker’s breath, that’s right. I need to get going.”

“They’ll wait for you,” Bull said. “‘Sides. It’s not even 9 o’clock.”

“Really?” Kate asked, looking up at the sky. “It feels like I’ve been out here all day. But yes,” she added, nodding at Cullen. “Of course we can speak. Just, um, let me settle Flame and then…”

“I got ‘er,” Bull told her, taking the horse by the reigns.

“She’s my horse,” Kate protested.

“And I got her,” Bull returned with a smile.

Kate chuckled. “Alright, just this once. But I refuse to become one of those ladies who won’t take care of her own horse.”

“Knew I liked you, boss,” Bull said.

“What, because I’m not afraid to get manure on my boots?”

“Because you keep standing up,” the qunari replied.

Kate beamed at that. And Cullen found himself instantly uncomfortable with this strange, easy banter. Maybe it bothered him because Cullen often reached for formality when dealing with strangers. Bull, on the other hand, spoke easily, laughed easily, and had already ingratiated himself to the Herald.

“Go on,” Bull told Kate. “Enjoy the rest of the day. It’ll be worse in the morning.”

“And then you had to ruin it,” Kate chuckled. Bull said, “Yup,” and then he led her horse away.

That left Cullen with Kate. A shirtless Kate.

“Oh, Maker,” Kate muttered, glancing down at herself. “Void take it. Where did I put my…ah!”

Kate strode over to the nearby fence, and Cullen made the mistake of watching her as she snagged up a wad of cloth. It took the shape of a shirt as Kate shook it out. She pulled it over her head - or tried to. It took her a few attempts to find the opening for the neck. In the meantime, Cullen found himself staring at the curves of her waist and belly. Her smooth skin shimmered under a sheen of sweat.

Mental shield, he thought, swallowing hard. Mental shield.

Mercifully, Kate got her shirt on quickly. She then turned to him and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.

“So,” Kate said. Her voice sounded as thin as her smile. “You wanted to talk to me?”

He had? Yes, he had. Though at the moment, Cullen couldn’t remember why. Instead, he saw that Kate’s too-big shirt had slipped off one shoulder. He found himself transfixed by the smoothness of her skin, and did not think of anything else for a moment or two. Thus it was Kate, and not his own sense of propriety that called him back to the present.

“Oh, before I forget,” she said, brightly, “Master Dennet has a horse for you. Would you like to see him?”

“I..uh…” he stammered.

“It’s the big Forder right there,” she said, pointing into the nearby paddock. “The one by the tree.”

If Kate hadn’t specified the location of the animal, Cullen wouldn’t have been able to distinguish it from the other large horses in the pen. They all looked the same to him.

“Oh,” he said. “That’s…ah.”

As Cullen watched, the enormous beast lifted its tail and flicked a fly from its hindquarters. The thing was huge, Cullen thought, all muscle and bone and hooves.

“Hendir is Master Dennet’s best gelding,” Kate said, smiling proudly at the horse. “I helped pick him out for you.”

Cullen found that oddly touching. And yet, it made him feel even more awkward.

“I think he’ll suit you very well,” Kate went on. “He’s strong enough to carry all your gear, so when you ride out with the soldiers…”

She turned to look at him now, and her face fell at his expression.

“You don’t like him,” Kate matched Cullen’s frown. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have presumed to choose for you. There are plenty other horses in the barns…”

“No, it’s not that,” Cullen told her, “He’s fine.”

“There’s the mare there, Bright Axe, they call her. Only she’s in heat, so she’s…”

Cullen really didn’t want to hear about mares in heat. And even though it galled him to admit it, he blurted out:

“I can’t ride.”

“Oh,” she said.

Considering how well Kate rode, Cullen felt as though he was telling a painter that he couldn’t see.

“I never learned,” he added, feeling ever more foolish. “Village boys learn to hitch horses to plows and carts, not to ride them.”

Of course, a noblewoman wouldn’t have thought of that. Though it was odd that a mage knew how to ride, Cullen mused. One would think that after so many years in the Circle, Kate would have forgotten how.

“Forgive me,” Kate shook her head. “I had it in my head that templars tracked down apostates on horseback. Obviously, that’s just one branch of the Order.”

“Not mine,” Cullen said. “I spent my years in a tower on an island…” He caught himself there, and did not go on. Kate nodded in understanding.

“Of course, the Gallows wouldn’t have had a stable,” she said. “How silly of me.”

Cullen didn’t bother to correct her assumption. He’d meant the other island tower Circle, but he wasn’t about to name it.

“Templars from noble families are the ones tasked with tracking down apostates,” Cullen told her instead. “Since they can already ride, there’s no need to train them. And they frequently bring their own horses when they join the Order. Saves the Chantry the expense.”

“Ah,” she sighed. “My mistake. Then again, if you’ll pardon my saying so, you may want to learn. You’re supposed to inspire the troops, aren’t you? It won’t be very inspiring if the Inquisition’s general goes rattling into battle on the back of a supply cart.”

Cullen chuckled. “I suppose you’re right.”

“I don’t mean to tell you what to do,” she told him. “But it seems we all have something to learn. If I have to train with Bull, surely you can learn to sit a saddle. In fact,” she added brightly, “Maybe I could teach you.”

She sounded so excited by that possibility that for a moment, Cullen’s heart seemed to expand. He, too, thought that sounded like a marvelous idea, until Kate’s face fell and she wrinkled her nose in frustration.

“Oh, but I can’t though, can I?” she said. “I’ll be out sealing rifts. And you’ll be back to Haven.”

It seemed her disappointment was as catching as her excitement. Cullen also frowned.

“I doubt I could keep up with you anyhow,” he told her, by way of brushing it all aside. “Your riding is very…” He didn’t know how to accurately compliment her without sounding vaguely sexual. So he settled on, “You’re very good.”

“Thank you,” Kate said, smiling once again. “It’s nice to succeed at something after months of feeling completely out of my element. And while Flame’s not thrilled with the mark, she’s decided that she’ll put up with it - and me.”

“She told you this, did she?” Cullen chuckled.

“We’ve come to an understanding,” Kate told him, speaking very primly, as if taking on the manner of her horse. “She’ll act as the Herald’s mode of transportation, and I’m to take her on adventures.”

“An arrangement that benefits you far more than the horse,” Cullen observed.

“There’s no accounting for taste,” Kate replied. “Especially with Antivans.”

Cullen didn’t quite understand the Antivan part, but he smiled politely and didn’t ask for clarification. All this talk of horses and the templars had reminded Cullen of his original purpose. He didn’t much look forward to this, but he knew he needed to say it all the same. So Cullen took a breath, and turned to find Kate regarding him with a questioning expression.

“Is something wrong?” she asked him at once.

“No,” he told her. “Well, not exactly. I just… I did have a purpose in coming out here to find you. But now I worry that you’ll think I…”

Kate’s expression went from curious to worried, her brows drawing together.

“I wanted to talk to you about recruiting the templars,” Cullen told her.

“Oh,” Kate said. “I thought… But of course, you’re still set on recruiting the templars.”

She didn’t just frown, Cullen noticed. Rather, her entire expression shuttered.

“I’m not,” Cullen assured her hastily. “Well, I mean, I am,” he added, when she looked at him doubtfully. “But that’s not what I meant. Not exactly, that is.”

Kate’s expression remained guarded as she folded her arms just under her breasts. That was no good, Cullen thought, and not just because he’d upset her. Rather, when Kate pulled her shirt tight like that, the outline of her nipples became visible through the fabric. Cullen turned away, trying to find some other focal point for his eyes. He settled on a nearby fencepost, and addressed his next words to the worn wood.

“I wanted to apologize,” he told her.

“Apologize?” Kate repeated.

“Yes,” he nodded. “I can’t recall if I apologized. For my part in our argument - the, um, the one in the mire. I think I may have done so yesterday. Or perhaps I didn’t. I can’t recall.”

He was talking to a fencepost, Cullen realized. Maker help him.

“I confess I’m beginning to forget what we said and didn’t say,” Kate admitted. “It was all sort of a mess, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, but I’m not entirely sorry for it,” Cullen said, looking over at her at last. “I mean, better to say your piece and move on and all that.” He felt this wasn’t going quite the way he’d hoped, so Cullen cleared his throat, and then added:

“I shouldn’t have shouted. I prefer not to lose my temper.”

That was an understatement of the first order. But Cullen did not expand upon it. Instead, he said:

“Furthermore, I realize that I should have brought up the matter of recruiting the templars at another time and another place. It should have been done around the war table, with you and Leliana and Josephine and Cassandra and I all in attendance. But pulling you aside in the mire and asking you about it privately? And right before a mission, too. That was bad form on my part. I don’t know what I was thinking. Well,” he sighed, “I do know what I was thinking. I’m just reluctant to say it.”

Cullen turned to find Kate frowning at him.

“And what were you thinking?” she asked slowly, as if not quite wanting to hear the answer.

“I had hoped to secure your agreement,” Cullen told her. “I had hoped to convince you to recruit the templars before we discussed the matter with Leliana.”

“What does Leliana have to do with it?” Kate wanted to know.

“Leliana is determined to recruit the mages,” Cullen said with a sigh. “That’s been her wish for a while now. The Conclave explosion just turned that wish into a mission for her.”

“Really?” Kate asked. “I had no idea she was sympathetic to the rebellion.”

“She has mage…friends,” Cullen said. That was all he said, too. He had no wish to discuss those details either.

“I didn’t realize,” Kate said, wonderingly. “Leliana and I haven’t spoken much about - well, anything, really.”

And now Kate would probably ask Leliana about her pro-mage sympathies at the first opportunity. Cullen refused to worry about that. Leliana wasn’t one to gossip, he assured himself.

“Yes, well,” Cullen hurried on, “Her preferences on the mage-templar matter are clear. Josephine supports the Chantry, but she’s so diplomatic that she’d make friends with either group. She’d probably set out tea and lyrium on a platter to welcome them.”

Kate chuckled at the image, though Cullen regretted his glib words the moment he spoke them. Tea and lyrium wasn’t quite as funny to him as it might have been.

“Cassandra,” Cullen went on, “Well, I can never understand her loyalties. There are times she seems sympathetic to mages and times where she speaks ill of them. Yet, she’s not terribly complimentary to the templars, I find. Anyhow, given the general state of indecision at the war table, I thought…”

He trailed off here and Kate expression hardened. Evidently, she’d cottoned on at last.

“So you supposed that Leliana and I would convince the others to recruit the mages,” Kate said. “And you thought you’d try to talk me out of it before it ever came to a vote.”

Cullen let out a sigh and hung his head. He then looked up at Kate through his lashes.

“Quite so,” he said. “It was badly done of me, and I’m sorry.”

Kate’s mouth dropped open slightly. Then she stammered “I…uh, oh,” and looked away. Cullen inwardly sighed. He supposed he must have upset her, in spite of his apology.

“I’m not proud of that,” he tried again, “but I did think…” But he’d already explained himself, so he supposed he couldn’t do anything but apologize once more:

“I am sorry,” he said.

There was a long pause, in which Cullen thought Kate might say nothing in return. But then, quite suddenly, she turned to him and said:

“Thank you.”

“Of course.”

They held each other’s eyes for a moment, then as if by silent agreement, both of them glanced away. Cullen stared at the fencepost. Kate scratched her shoulder.

And that, Cullen supposed, was their moment of reconciliation. A pity that apology and acceptance didn’t bestow an instant sense of ease.

“For the record,” Cullen went on, when the silence became unbearable, “I don’t want to recruit the templars because I dislike the mages. I’m just worried about that.”

He turned and waved his hand wide as he spoke. Kate followed his gesture with her eyes. She looked at the pastures, at the grazing druffalo, and at the barns, then back to Cullen.

“Yes, well,” he said irritably, “Obviously I didn’t mean the compost heap. It seems Bull and the Chargers have gone. But they’re the reason why I want to recruit the templars.”

“You want to recruit the templars because of Bull?” Kate cocked her head at him.

“Because I know how to train templars,” Cullen said. “Just as Bull knows how to train his Chargers. I didn’t ask you to recruit the templars just to be contrary. It’s because I’m thinking to the future - the Inquisition’s future. I’m the commander. And I know the way templars are trained. I know how they think, how they fight. I know their strengths and their weaknesses, too.”

Yes, Cullen thought silently. He understood a templar’s weakness better than anyone.

“I could make an army out of the templars in two month’s time,” Cullen went on, “No, not even that long. But if we recruit the mages…”

Cullen trailed off there. He couldn’t continue without heading into dangerous ground. Judging from the look on Kate’s face, however, he was already there.

“You think mages can’t fight?” she asked.

“Oh, I know they can fight,” Cullen replied. “They just aren’t trained to fight as a unit. And getting them to that point will be a headache, to say the least. Combining spell training with traditional combat? I’d have to ask for help with that part. Probably from Bull.”

Cullen sighed. He had options there, he realized. He just didn’t like them.

“Would that be so terrible?” Kate asked him. “To ask for help?”

“Well, no,” Cullen said, “It’s just with mages in the ranks, it’s an entirely different game. And then I’ll be constantly worrying about blood mages and possessions…”

Kate made a sound that rivaled one of Cassandra’s expressions of disgust.

“Alright, yes,” Cullen said tightly, “Not all mages are a danger. But the breach– Kate, you weren’t there to see it. Between the demons and the abominations and the abysmal fighting skills, we lost many of the remaining mages in that first day alone.”

“I see,” Kate said. She said this tightly, and Cullen wasn’t sure if she saw at all.

“What I’m trying to say is this,” Cullen told her, “If you’re asking me, as the commander of the Inquisition forces, if I’d rather fill the ranks with veteran knight-templars or a host of untried rebel mages… Well, I know which recruits I’d prefer.”

“Any commander would say the same, I expect,” Kate murmured.

Her eyes narrowed as she considered the now-empty training field, and Cullen couldn’t quite read her expression.

“It’s not that I wish the mages ill…” Cullen began.

“You just don’t want to deal with them,” Kate finished for him, not turning her head.

Cullen wouldn’t have put it quite like that. He couldn’t think how to say it any better, though. Kate scowled at his silence.

“I know I’m not much good at fighting,” she said at last. “But some mages are. Think of Hawke or the Hero of Ferelden. Even Coll is pretty good. And that other apostate in Bull’s– Oh, blast.”

Kate looked at Cullen in alarm. “I wasn’t supposed to mention the apostate. Please don’t say anything.”

In spite of everything, Cullen chuckled. Who on earth would he tell, he wondered? More to the point, who would care?

“Their secret is safe with me,” Cullen assured Kate. “But you can see my concern, can’t you? Farmers may not know which end of a sword to hold, but at least they’re sturdy. Mages are…” He trailed off when Kate’s eyes filled with hurt.

“I didn’t mean…” he began, but he realized he’d already stuck his foot in it.

“Mages aren’t very strong,” Kate said, rubbing her arm with her glowing hand. “Yes, I see your point.”

“I meant no offense,” he said.

Kate shrugged one shoulder. “If the boot fits,” she murmured.

Cullen considered that he ought to have kept his mouth shut. But on the other hand, he realized that he liked speaking with Kate, even when it was difficult to do so. When they argued, he felt like he was sparring a well-matched partner, for she always kept him on his toes. And when they spoke easily, it was quite pleasant. Minutes flew by and Cullen didn’t even regret their passing.

“I hear your concerns,” Kate said, turning to him. “But consider mine: I have to get the breach shut. Somehow, I’ve got to power up this mark, point it at the biggest rift of all, and hope I don’t get killed in the process. That’s my primary concern. Now, you tell me we could get the templars together and weaken the breach? That sounds like tearing the cloth I’m trying to stitch back up. But you tell me that I could have a host of mages at my back, studying the rift and supporting my power? That sounds much better. And considering that if this goes badly, I might not live to try again…”

Kate looked off at the fields, the wind lifting the strands of her hair. And Cullen found he had nothing to say to that. Of course, that would be her first concern. Compared to closing the breach, building the Inquisition army was an afterthought. And to Kate, the aid of the mages would be as familiar and welcome as the templar recruits would be to him. Cullen wondered how he’d failed to think of that before. As he tried to find words to reassure her, Kate turned to him, her expression somehow both thoughtful and troubled all at once.

“I’m with the Inquisition,” she told him. “You know that, right?”

“What?” Cullen blinked at the sudden change in subject.

“I meant what I said,” Kate said. “I stand with the Inquisition. I sympathize with the rebellion, but the mark fell to me. I won’t leave the Inquisition when you need me. I just wanted you to know that, Cullen.”

“Ah,” Cullen said. That pledge of loyalty meant far more to him than he was able to articulate. So he said only:

“I’m glad to hear that.”

“I should like to help the mages, eventually,” Kate said. “Once the breach is closed, that is. Maybe we could intervene with the Chantry on their behalf? Or maybe some of them would like to join us. But whatever we do,” she went on, before Cullen could answer, “it will have to come later. I have my orders: make contact with the templars and the mages. That’s one mission down, one to go.”

“Of course,” he agreed. “And once you’ve made contact with the mages, we’ll return to the war table and decide what to do next. Together. I promise that I won’t try and corner you again. I mean…” he shook his head. “To try and make up your mind for you.”

“As if you could,” Kate said, giving him a cheeky grin. “You’ve made the mistake of giving me a vote, and I plan to use it.”

“To excellent effect, so far,” he told her. “No, truly,” Cullen added, when Kate looked at him skeptically. “You’re the one taking the most risk, Kate. We all know that. Your voice carries the most weight in the Inquisition, and for good reason.”

“Oh,” Kate flinched. “Now there’s a frightening thought.”

Cullen couldn’t tell if she was serious or joking. He smiled at her all the same, trying to reassure her. Kate looked at him searchingly, her eyes studying his face.

“Thank you, Cullen,” she said at last.

Cullen nodded and cleared his throat. That moment of silent examination had made him feel extremely exposed.

“We should probably head back,” he told her. “Vivienne wanted you back at camp. Something to do with clothes, I understand.”

“Just clothes?” Kate laughed. “I would have expected another earful about Grand Enchanter Fiona.”

With that, Kate grabbed her staff - a massive, heavy thing - and twirled it up against her forearm gracefully. Cullen blinked.

“Impressive,” he said, nodding at the staff.

“Why, thank you,” Kate replied. “That’s my best move, and I’m quite proud of it.”

Cullen chuckled. “You know,” he said, as they walked along through the swaying grass, “Vivienne probably will give you earful about Fiona. Just to warn you.”

“Of course,” Kate sighed.

“And yet, you don’t seem to mind Vivienne’s interference,” Cullen observed.

“Why would I mind?” Kate replied with a shrug. “Vivienne is a proud woman who has worked hard for every scrap of recognition she’s been given. She has little sympathy for those who count themselves victims. I don’t entirely agree with her, but I can see her point.”

She sighed, then added, “I also see that not everyone had her opportunities. Or mine. And so here I am, wishing I could help everyone in the world and having no idea where to start.”

“The breach is a start,” Cullen told her.

“True enough,” Kate nodded.

“And the Inquisition is a start,” Cullen added. “I mean, you suggested appealing to the Chantry on behalf of the mages, but why bother with them? Why not look to the Inquisition?”

“What do you mean?” Kate asked, glancing over at him.

“You said it yourself yesterday,” Cullen told her. “The Chantry’s done nothing to help mages. Worse than nothing in some cases. Now they argue over who’s going to be Divine while there’s a great hole in the sky. They’re no help in a time like this. Do you honestly think they’ll help the mages in the future?”

“No,” Kate murmured, frowning at her boots. “I only suggested it because…” She trailed off and shrugged. “Habits of a born-and-raised Andrastian.”

“The Inquisition would be a much better chance for the mages,” Cullen told her.

“Now you want me to recruit them?” Kate asked, her brows shooting up.

“No, not… Truth be told, I was more thinking that we could protect them.”

“Once we have the templars, you mean,” Kate said, dryly. “And so the Inquisition becomes the newest Circle in Thedas?”

“I didn’t mean it quite like that,” Cullen said.

“Didn’t you?” Kate asked, raising a brow.

“No.” Cullen ran a hand through his hair, as if that could make his thoughts clearer.

“I’m just thinking that once the breach is sealed, we ought to… I don’t know. Fix this. The Inquisition can act where the Chantry cannot. That’s why Justinia signed the charter in the first place, why she wanted to recruit an army. With the templars rebelling and the Seekers all missing, the Chantry had lost all its muscle.”

“She planned to strong-arm everyone into peace?” Kate asked him. “When has that ever worked?”

“It worked for the original Inquisition,” Cullen said. “Well, not the strong-arming part. I just mean that the Inquisition could step in when no one else is willing to. I know the first Inquisition had a reputation for being filled with zealots and crazed demon-hunters, but the truth is far more complex than that. There is evidence that the their ranks comprised of mages and warriors both. Of elves and humans and there’s even records of a few dwarves and a qunari among them.”

“So, not unlike our Inquisition,” Kate said.

“Exactly so,” Cullen replied. “The original Inquisition became the templars and the Seekers, but that was later. The early Inquisition simply tried to stop the use of dangerous magic, to track down blood mages and demons and restore order. And they crossed swords with just about every group in southern Thedas in the process. Got into a lot of trouble trying to keep the peace. I did some research after Cassandra recruited me, and the picture that emerges is just fascinating.”

Cullen’s steps slowed as he spoke, and Kate matched his thoughtful pace.

“Did you know, for example,” Cullen said, “that the original Inquisition always conducted trials - ad hoc, of course - but trials, before any execution? And consider, this was in the dark ages after the Tevinter Imperium fell, just after Andraste was executed. It was a chaotic time - far worse than this, if you can believe it. And yet, the Inquisition followed a code and acted with integrity. They managed to bring the world back from the brink of ruin. We could do the same in this age. There’s so much that we could…”

At this, Cullen looked over at Kate. She walked along beside him, staring at him in astonishment. Cullen blushed and trailed off there. Here he was, rattling on about obscure history, and Kate was looking at him as if he’d started speaking a foreign language. Qunlat maybe, or Tevene. He became painfully aware of his own peculiarity.

“Forgive me,” Cullen said. “I didn’t mean to turn this into a lecture.”

“Oh, no!” Kate cried. She reached out a hand, but didn’t quite touch his arm. “Please, go on.”

“I…” Cullen drew back at that. “You want to hear all this?”

“Yes!” she laughed. “I’m sorry,” she added when he blinked at her. “That probably sounds strange. But I like this sort of thing. Lectures are what I do. Or have you forgotten all my notes from yesterday?”

“Your notes, yes,” Cullen grinned.

That was right. He wasn’t the only one who sometimes struggled to find the correct words to say. And Kate seemed genuine in her enthusiasm. This was quite the change from the other times he’d lapsed into lessons on obscure Chantry history around the troops. Cullen felt his shoulders relax a fraction. Accordingly, his mental shield relaxed as well.

Kate blushed and ducked her head. “I only mean that if you have a lesson prepared, I’d love to hear it. My knowledge of early Chantry history is spotty at best. Our Circle Mother was more a prayers-and-silence sort, not a scholar. Where did you learn all this?”

“Brother Genitivi’s books, of course,” Cullen told her.

“Really? I don’t remember reading any of that.”

”‘Pursuit of Knowledge’ covers the basics. But ‘Destruction of Thedas’ has a more detailed account. Around page… oh, sixty or so, is where he gets into the meat of the matter.”

Kate’s eyes went wide and she pressed her hand to her chest.

“And now you’re giving me citations?” she teased. “Be still my beating heart.”

“Yes, well,” Cullen said in mock seriousness, “if you give me enough time, I’m sure I could round up some notes. Maybe write you out a list or something.”

Kate gave a loud bark of laughter, then bit down on her lip in clear embarrassment for the sound of it. She smiled up at Cullen sheepishly, but her eyes still sparkled with amusement - amusement and something else, something warm and elusive that Cullen could not name. It was more than a shared joke. Rather, it now seemed as though Kate had let Cullen in on some great secret. The tangled-up something in Cullen’s chest stirred and swelled and an errant thought sailed right over Cullen’s mental shield and landed feather-light upon his mind:

She was beautiful.

Kate was beautiful.

He felt, in that moment, incredibly fond of her.

And then, Oh, Maker, no.

No, Cullen thought. This was… No. He needed to avoid thoughts like that. He and Kate weren’t arguing anymore, but that certainly didn’t mean… And he ought not presume…

The tangled up something in Cullen’s chest flared hot and squeezed tight. It compressed his lungs and he drew in a sharp breath.

It didn’t mean anything, Cullen told himself. Alright, yes, Kate was lovely, and yes, he rather liked her. But that was all. It wasn’t as if this was a sudden jolt of desire…

Desire, his mind repeated.

Yes, well, Cullen thought, brushing that word aside. He knew something of desire, and this was nothing like. Desire clawed around inside a man’s belly and gnawed at his insides. This was simply a gentle sort of friendly admiration. Perfectly acceptable for the commander to feel such a thing toward one of his colleagues.

And yet, Cullen didn’t feel quite so safe anymore. There was a reason he rarely took furlough, and it wasn’t just the overwhelming work load. Cullen had a tendency to bungle anything approaching small talk. Judging from the look of confusion on Kate’s face, he’d done so yet again. Cullen realized he’d been standing there, staring at Kate for the past minute. Feeling rather ashamed of himself now, Cullen cleared his throat and said:

“Better get going. Still a lot of work to do.”

As if that wasn’t perfectly obvious. As if Kate didn’t already know that. Andraste save him, he should have stuck with talking to the fencepost.

“Of course,” Kate said. Her tone was perfectly polite, but her smile had vanished. “I…Of course.”

Cullen supposed he could have said more, but he could not think of what to say. So they returned to camp in silence - a tense, awkward silence that seemed to stretch longer with every step. The only good thing about the walk was that it allowed Cullen some time to regain his composure. With every step away from the sunlit field, Cullen felt safer, cooler, and more stable. He also felt saddened, but did not want to examine why.

Finally, they came within view of the tents. A scout turned and called out, “Ah, ser!” and Cullen silently thanked the Maker for whoever invented the chain of command. At least in the ranks, Cullen knew what he was about.

“Reports from the supply lines,” the scout said, handing Cullen a sheaf of papers. “And Leliana is on her way, ser. Messages from Josephine are waiting for you as well. Oh, and your Worship,” he added, turning to Kate, “Solas has returned to camp. He’s waiting for you just there.”

The scout pointed to the far end of camp. The bald elf stood near the river, staring moodily at the water.

“I guess Morris was right about him returning,” Kate said, clearly surprised.

“Morris usually is right,” Cullen told her. “It’s frightening, really.”

In fact, Cullen thought, Morris had been right about Kate from the first. Morris had noticed that Kate was pretty. Cullen had noticed it, too, although he’d tried to ignore it. He really ought to ignore it right now, come to that.

“Well, as I was saying,” Cullen said, by way of cutting off that line of thought.

And then he found he had nothing more to say. So Cullen rubbed the back of his neck and wandered away to the requisitions table. An awkward exit to end the awkward conversation, he supposed. Once there, Cullen placed his hands on the table for support, then hazarded a glance over his shoulder.

Kate had moved on. She crossed the camp with her staff still at her side, her hips swaying as she walked. Cullen swallowed, then turned around at once.

Work, he told himself. He had work to do, and he had already wasted a great deal of time this morning. Even though conversing with Kate was intriguing and stimulating…

Best not to think of stimulation and Kate together. Best to get back to his duties at once.

With that, Cullen picked up the reports before him and began to look them over. He would forget about this soon enough, Cullen thought. With the exception of one woman, he had always managed to talk himself out of passing fancies within a week or so. And that one exception was warning enough, Cullen assured himself. He was safe now. He had his mental shield in hand. And he would continue to block with it.