This was a shite way to begin the morning, Coll thought.
Here she and Kate were, sitting on a bench in Redcliffe, looking out on the remains of the so-called mage rebellion. There were people milling about, Coll saw. All of them wore robes. All of them were pretending to go about their business. Of course, all of them were really whispering and staring at Kate. Their attempts to hide it just made it even more obvious.
Kate sighed heavily and ran her glowing hand through her hair.
“I’m trying not to make this comparison,” Kate said. “But I can’t seem to help it. Right now, Redcliffe is looking a great deal like a Circle tower. Walls all around and mages inside.”
“And the ranks and the robes and nasty sneers and whisperings in corners,” Coll agreed. “Ah, just like we never left, it is.”
“I thought that the mages would wait for us,” Kate said. “They wanted an alliance. They asked for an alliance, didn’t they?” She trailed off, looking back over her shoulder at the building behind them. The Gull and Lantern tavern looked a bit shabby in the bright sunlight.
“Maker,” she said, squeezing her eyes and turning back to stare out at the village. “How on earth am I going to explain this to the Inquisition? How am I going to explain this to Cullen?” she added, more to herself.
Coll shrugged. “Simple enough,” she told her friend. “Say, ‘Oi, shems! Sure, but the rebels got stupider than afore.’ Real easy, right?”
“Real easy,” Kate repeated, but she didn’t look like she believed this. Coll frowned as a suspicion grew in her mind.
“And why are yeh worryin’ about what yer Cullen will say?”
“Just…” Kate began, then shook her head. “No reason,” she said quickly. Too quickly, by Coll’s reckoning.
“He ain’t givin’ you trouble, is he?” Coll wanted to know. “For sure, the other day, it looked like he wanted teh…” Coll then made a gesture that she’d learned back in her Dalish days. The meaning translated well enough, for Kate went quite red in the face.
“No!” she cried. “No,” she said more evenly. “Nothing like that. I’m sure he doesn’t intend that.” Coll gave her a doubtful look.
“He doesn’t, Coll, he doesn’t,” Kate went on. “Truly,” she added, in a tone closer to bitterness, “if you’d seen me talking to him this morning, you’d know that was the last thing on his mind.”
“Mythal save your awkward self,” Coll said in sympathy. “What’d ya do this time?”
“What? Me?” Kate protested. “Why do you always assume…?” But then she sighed and shrugged.
“I was just trying to be friendly, but I think I confused him. Or bored him, perhaps. We were talking about Brother Genetivi…”
“Sure, but I’m bored already,” Coll said.
“Well, there you are,” Kate said. “So no, Cullen’s not… Anyhow, it’s nothing.”
“Doesn’t sound like nothing,” Coll suspiciously.
Maybe it was nothing to the templar, Coll thought, but Kate’s pride looked bruised from where Coll was sitting. And Coll knew that Kate would be no fun at all if she started moping and mooning over some tight-assed templar who’d never give her a tumble. Far better to give Kate a good shove in the direction of that beefy-titted qunari’s bedroll. Or maybe that beareded warden, come to think of it.
“Eh, don’t worry on it,” Coll said, patting Kate on the shoulder. “Most like, yeh scared the man off with yer wit. Yeh do that, yeh know.”
“My wit,” Kate said, pursing her lips. “Right. I’m sure that’s why Cullen avoided me for the rest of the morning. Wouldn’t even look at me when I left. Oh well,” she added with a sigh. “It doesn’t matter. It’s not like I have time for…” Kate trailed off, looked at her hand and finished with: “Anything.”
Kate’s marked hand glimmered faintly, as if it were a lighted pulse, beating green blood from the Fade world to this one.
“That’s ain’t botherin’ yeh, is it?” Coll asked, nodding at the mark.
“What?” Kate asked. “No, not really. Not since that first day I woke up.”
“I meant more what came with it,” Coll said. “Yeh were a body to take all the world’s ills on yer shoulders afore this. That mark only made it worse.”
Kate nodded absently and Coll frowned.
“Listen on me, Kate,” Coll said. “Yeh should never borrow more trouble than yeh made yerself. That’s how I figure it.”
“Well, it doesn’t much matter if I made the Breach or not,” Kate replied. “I still am the only one who might be able to close it.”
“Sure, sure,” Coll nodded. “Jest don’t take on yeh more than that. These mages aren’t your burden, for all I can see you worrying about them. Just focus on the troubles yeh do have.”
“I know that,” Kate said. Then the frowned. “But I can’t help but worry about them. I thought we’d be allies at the very least, not…”
“Not dealin’ with Vints over mages as if they was chips in a game of Wicked Grace? Sure but it’s got me steamed, too. Yet I’m not dwellin’ on it any longer than I must. These eejits got themselves into this mess. An’ they’re Fiona’s problem an’ not yers.”
“But she gave them up,” Kate said, dropping her hands into her lap in exasperation. “She acted like she didn’t even know me.”
“Eh,” Coll replied. “Sure, but she must be goin’ daft.”
“Or maybe she was just too frightened to think clearly,” Kate said. “She did mention that Alexius ‘showed her a vision’ that chilled her blood. I mean, he must have said something to scare her. And would I have done the same in her place? Watching the frost roll in, and with so little money and so many to feed… Would I have done the same?”
Coll rolled her eyes at this very Kate-like display of self-doubt.
“No,” Coll snorted in reply.
“But if pressed, if I had no other option…”
“You went to the Conclave, Kate,” Coll pointed out. “Yeh didn’t hide here. Or have yeh already forgotten how yeh got yerself into this mess in the first place? Not that I’m complainin’, mind,” Coll added. “Now as Krem’s shown up, this is the most fun I’ve had in years.”
“Glad to keep you amused, Coll,” Kate said, absently.
“Oh, and yeh do,” Coll agreed, patting Kate on the arm. “Sure, but isn’t that the reason I picked yeh to be my sidekick in all things?”
“I’m your sidekick, am I?” Kate chuckled, and Coll was relieved to see her smile.
“Sure but yeh are,” Coll said. “I’m grooming yeh to be my familiar, just like the keepers of old had.”
“I’d make as good a familiar as you would a keeper,” Kate replied. Coll snorted at that. They grinned at one another, but then Kate’s smile faded. Determined not to allow Kate to succumb to melancholy, Coll elbowed Kate roughly in the side.
“Sure now,” Coll said, “You know what I’m thinkin’ on at this moment?”
“Krem?” Kate asked, raising a brow.
Coll cocked her head. “Well now that yeh mention it, I am picturin’ how he looked all sleepy this mornin’, his face still red with the pillow-wrinkles in it. Ah, such a fine face it is, too.”
“Krem seems sweet,” Kate agreed.
“Stand off, Trevelyan,” Coll said, pointing a finger at her friend. “The lad’s mine. But no, as I was thinkin’ on it, all this Tevinter business reminds me of the first day I landed in the Ostwick Circle.”
“Magisters, rebels, secret messages, a perfectly blue sky,” Kate nodded meaningfully at the clouds above. “Yes, I can see exactly why it reminds you of that dull, stormy night in Ostwick.”
“Come on now,” Coll said. “Is that all you remember? The weather?”
“I recall you made quite a stir,” Kate replied.
“Ah, sure but I remember it like it were yesterday,” Coll said, settling in to the tell the tale properly. “There I was, marched inta the great hall durin’ dinner. All the eyes of all the mages suddenly turned and stared upon me.”
“It was tea-time,” Kate corrected. “Only a few dozen of us were gathered at that hour.”
“And there were candles everywhere,” Coll went on. “Thought I’d be blinded by the light of ‘em I would. Real candles, too. And yeh mind, we Dalish don’t keep bees. The hives annoy the halla something fierce. So we don’t get wax for candles, and we can’t buy ‘em neither, since they’re so dear, they are. We go by the sun’s light, campfires, or we do without.”
“I don’t remember there being any candles,” Kate said.
“Sure but you wouldn’t,” Coll scoffed. “So used to that waste yeh were. And all that silver! And the food! I’d never seen cakes like that. Was enough food to feed our tribe for a month, for certain. ‘Tis why yeh grew so tall, Kate, I’m sure of it. Yeh musta stuffed yer noble face until yeh had nowhere teh grow but up.”
“I’m not sure that’s how food works, Coll,” Kate laughed.
“True enough,” Coll nodded. “Otherwise, most shems would be tall as trees, rather than wide as barrels. An’ it explains this lot here, come to think on it. How was Fiona supposed to manage a rebellion when she couldn’t provide a regular tea-time?”
“True,” Kate murmured, looking out at Redcliffe once more.
“Somethin’ for the Inquisition to keep in mind,” Coll said, cheerfully. “Stock up on them little sandwiches with the cucumber and cream cheese and everyone will be happy. But back to me story. So there I was, in the great hall. And there’s the whole of the Ostwick mages at dinner…”
“The few dozen at tea, yes.”
”…and they’s all whisperin’ and pointin’,” Coll said. “Just like these mages here in Redcliffe have been doing to us. And here’s me, proud and glorious, in spite of the miles of chains about me neck.”
This, Coll noticed, brought a slight smile to Kate’s face.
“Miles of chain, was it?” she asked. “I recall that a single templar marched you into the hall. Your hands weren’t even bound.”
“So there I was,” Coll said, pleased that Kate was listening well to these deliberate exaggerations, “I’m lookin’ like a goddess of war…
“Looking rather like a drowned badger, I’m sorry to say,” Kate said, getting into the retelling.
“And I’m covered in the blood of the past keep…Er, of me enemies,” Coll quickly corrected herself, but not quite quickly enough.
“Blood?” Kate drew up short. “I recall you were muddy, but did you really have blood on you, Coll?”
Coll considered saying more, but decided to keep some of these details to herself. “Yeh know I’m teasin’ there, Kate,” she said instead. Kate didn’t look like she bought it, so Coll when quickly on:
“And all the Ostwick Circle mages start pointin’ and whisperin’ and starin’. Sayin’ things like, ‘paint face,’ and ‘savage.’”
“They were abominably rude,” Kate said, pursing her lips. Coll was glad to see that Kate seemed to have forgotten the mention of keepers and blood. “I felt ashamed to be standing among them in that moment.”
“And sure, but aren’t most mages like that?” Coll replied. “Take Linnea back in there,” she added, hiking her thumb at the tavern. “That hag ran off from Ostwick for teh be a rebel and now what is she? A Tevinter lackey. And proud of it, too, the wench.”
“That was an unfortunate meeting,” Kate said, frowning. “Honestly, I didn’t realize she disliked me so much.”
“She’s a nasty slag,” Coll said dismissively. “Not even that good a tumble, for all that pretty face.”
“Wait,” Kate’s head whipped around. “You…slept with Linnea?”
“Rubbish, she is,” Coll said, waving a hand. “Couldn’t get off a druffalo with a bale o’ hay. So as I was sayin’, there’s me, all alone in that crowd of whisperin’, pointin’ robes. Even the First Enchanter won’t speak to me. And out of all of ‘em, what mage stands up and greets me civil?”
Kate inclined her head in acknowledgment.
“Come on now, Kate,” Coll prompted. “Who among ‘em did the greetin’?”
“It was just simple manners,” Kate said. “I’ve stood on the edges of too many ballrooms…”
“It was yerself, Kate,” Coll interrupted her. “Don’t be modest about it neither. The mages were too afeared of ‘teh Dalish’ to speak to me. They were afeared of me ‘hedge magic.’ And I imagine they were afeared because I was prettier than anybody they’d ever seen.”
“That was it, of course,” Kate said.
“And yet,” Coll went on, “Pretty as I was, yeh walked up to me all the same. I’m givin’ yeh the stink-eye, and still yeh greeted me, Kate.”
“I didn’t realize that you were giving me the stink eye,” Kate told her. “I thought you were about to sneeze. That’s why I offered you my handkerchief.”
“Oh, is that why you did it?” Coll said. “At the time, I though it was some token of shem greetin’. Later, I figured yeh’d wanted me to wipe me face clean. But back to the tale, Kate: there’s me, angry and cold and feelin’ so small against all them candles and fine silver. I’m lashin’ out with me eyes, since me hands are tied. And you just looked at me and said: ‘I’m Kate. Welcome to Ostwick.’ Just like that, yeh did. And then yeh said - I remember it well - yeh said: ‘I look forward teh what we’ll learn from ye, messere.’ Like I was a visitin’ queen or somethin’. Like I was there on purpose.”
“I wanted you to feel welcome,” Kate replied, as if this were something anyone would have done. Coll knew full well that it wasn’t, and that’s what made her smile.
“And do you remember what I said back?” Coll asked. “I said, ‘Sure but yeh’ve got more freckles on yer one face than I’ve seen in me life.’”
“Yes, I remember that,” Kate said.
”‘Twas dead rude of me,” Coll said. “I regretted it straight after, but I couldn’t take it back.”
“I wasn’t offended,” Kate told her. “Well, I was a little offended. But I knew you were just lashing out at me. So I tried to be nice in return.”
“But yeh weren’t just nice,” Coll said, pointing a tattooed finger at Kate. “I woulda hated yeh fer ‘nice.’ Yeh looked me square in the eye said, oh, how did yeh put it? Yeh said: ‘Oh, to be sure I’m a most freckled wench. I’ve been stealin’ more from all the mages of Thedas. And when I’m done, me power will be unmatched. And then they’ll rue the day they mocked the ginger girl.‘”
“Exactly what I said,” Kate replied, dryly. “To the letter.”
“Whatever yeh said, it were delicious deadpan, it were,” Coll said. “I laughed so hard at that.”
“You cracked a smile,” Kate said. “The merest hint of one.”
“And then yeh asked me to join you and Lydia fer tea. Yeh waved a hand at the table, and yeh had books there. I recall that. Books. Four of ‘em. Right next to the jam jar. I thought, ‘What kind of place is it that a body can sit down and read a book and eat a cake and not fear the storm outside?’”
“That’s why you didn’t mind staying?” Kate asked.
Coll did not miss the probing look in her eyes. And though Coll might have waved it off, she felt it was a bit late for some of these secrets now. She need not get into all the muck of the past, Coll reasoned, but it wouldn’t go amiss to tell Kate at least one part of the truth.
“I didn’t mind stayin’,” Coll said. “But then, didn’t I knock on the door to start it all?”
“What?” Kate asked, cocking her head to one side.
“I knocked at the door,” Coll explained.
“The big door,” Coll said, raising her hand up to indicate a distance over her head. “The one at the end of the long bridge out to the island.”
“The gate?” Kate gaped at her. “You knocked at the Ostwick gate?”
“Sure I did,” Coll nodded.
“You… You knocked at the gate? You wanted to come in?” Kate stared at her.
“And why wouldn’t I have wanted so?” Coll replied. “I was on the run, Kate. And afore yeh ask, no I don’t want to say what from. But I was runnin’, and Ostwick seemed as safe a place as any.”
“But…” Kate shook her head. “Alright, as you’ve said before, no questions about the past.”
She managed to silence herself for all of a second before she burst out with, “But Coll, the templars said…”
Kate stopped herself there, trailing off into silence. “They said nothing,” she murmured. “We all assumed they had captured you in the woods or something, but they didn’t, did they?”
“Course they didn’t,” Coll snorted. “I had to bang on the door to get ‘em to open up. Then I handed over me bloody staff and walked right in. But it sounded grander on the templars if they’d dragged in a Dalish apostate all by themselves. So they let yeh think it and I let yeh think it, when really, it weren’t that way at all. “
Kate opened her mouth. Coll dreaded the many questions her friend might ask, but Kate just said:
“Really, Coll. You might have told me this.”
“I might have,” Coll agreed. “I didn’t.”
Kate pursed her lips. “Was it worth it, though? You were free out there. And to give it all up…?”
Coll’s brows snapped together at once.
“Here now!” Coll interrupted. “Don’t you go comparin’ me teh this lot, Kate. I didn’t stand up fer ‘Mage Freedom,’ then go makin’ meself a new prison. I didn’t sell meself into slavery in exchange fer bread. Ostwick was freedom for me, Kate, and make no mistake about that.”
Kate drew back. “I don’t understand,” she said, frowning.
Of course she didn’t, Coll thought, and now Coll couldn’t decide if she felt relieved that she was finally telling Kate some of this, or if she regretted that she had gone down this conversational path. But as ever, Coll wasn’t one to dwell on her choice for long. Coll hadn’t dwelled much on choices the day she’d thrown herself upon the mercy of the Ostwick Circle, either. She’d just done it, and lived with the consequences ever since.
“Yeh don’t understand,” Coll told Kate. “Most shems don’t. Most elves neither. But roamin’ from wild place to wild place ain’t a freedom if yer forced to it. The woods become walls sure as any city. And a clan can be chains as much as any prison could give. Maybe if I was stayin’ with me birth clan, it wouldn’t have been so bad. But as it was…” Coll shook her head.
“Them’s stark stories there,” she said, deciding not to tell them just now. “Point is, Kate, I came teh the Circle to be free. Free here,” she added, tapping her tattooed finger to her tattooed forehead. “Free in me mind. And as I walked out over that long bridge to that tower gate, with the winds whippin’ all around me, I kept thinkin’ this one thought to meself. I thought: ‘There’s books in that tower, Colleen. There’s years of learnin’ in there. Shem learnin’, and learnin’ of the People, too. So it won’t be a prison, unless yeh let it be.‘”
Kate’s frown had become less concerned, and more considering, so Coll went on.
“When first they took me inta that great hall with the dinner or tea or what have yeh, I thought I’d gone wrong. All those mages, pointin’ and whisperin’. They had fear in their eyes, just like all the elves in me old clan. But then this skinny girl with all the freckles in the world stands up out of her chair. She’s not wearin’ fear like they are. She asks me teh tea, asks me if I want one lump o’ sugar or two. And here’s me, never knowin’ the taste of sweet in all me life.”
Kate cocked her head, listening closely.
“Then yeh handed me a cup and said, ‘How’s the weather out there?’ And I said, ‘wet as a paid whore.’”
Kate burst out with laughter. “That’s right. The First Enchanter looked like he was about to faint from shock.”
“And so he did,” Coll grinned. “But you didn’t. You laughed so hard yeh made a snort with yer nose. Like yeh did just now. That’s when I decided you were to be my familiar.”
“Because I laughed at your dirty jokes?” Kate chuckled.
“Because yeh had the laugh in yeh to begin with, Kate,” Coll said. “Because right off, I could see that you had walked a steeper path than the rest. Yeh’d lived outside the Circle walls fer a time. Yeh knew that mages and templars were just one kind of folk, that the Circle wasn’t all there was to the world.”
Kate held Coll’s gaze as Coll shrugged and waved a hand at Redcliffe before them.
“The mages chose these walls ‘cause walls are all they know. But you have a mind what thinks beyond walls. And sure, but isn’t that why these Chantry shems call you their Herald? They could point yeh at the rifts in chains, Kate. Instead, they’re followin’ yeh as though you have all the answers.”
“Andraste help me,” Kate said.
“An’ if she exists, I’m sure she will,” Coll replied. “But teh point of it all is this: You and me, we’re not like these mages. So don’t you go worryin’ that you’ll up and betray yer Inquisition or turn coward or whatever it is you’re fearin’ on. Yeh won’t do it. You don’t have it in yeh to.”
“That’s…” Kate looked a bit too stunned to speak. “Well, thank you, I suppose. Only I don’t think these mages can be entirely blamed for…”
“Eh, just take the compliment, will yeh?” Coll said. “And remember, if yeh ever change in the least, I’ll beat the crooks outta yeh, I will.”
Kate swallowed hard, her eyes filling with tears at the corners.
“Thank you, Coll,” she said. “That’s very comforting.”
“Ah, sure, but what are friends for?” Coll replied. And she punched Kate hard in the arm.
They sat there for a moment or two more, looking over the secret note from Alexius’ son, wondering why the young man had invited them up to the Chantry for a meeting. Coll was sure it could be nothing good, and Kate looked worried about that, so Coll quickly changed the subject. Coll told Kate that she would rather have received such mysterious summons from Krem, rather than a dying Vint.
Just then, the tavern door slammed open. A motley crew of men wandered out, and Coll and Kate turned to them at once.
“Was it wise to eat so much before an ambush?” Blackwall asked Bull, frowning at the qunari’s belly. Even from here, Coll could see that Bull appeared to be a few months pregnant from all the food he’d eaten.
“Is it wise to discuss an ambush out in the open?” Varric said in return.
“We are not certain if it is a trap,” Solas pointed out.
Coll rolled her eyes, as she did every time that Solas spoke.
“Of course it is,” Bull said, loudly. “And it’ll be nothing to worry about. You can see a Vint ambush a mile away. It’s all the flashy robes they wear.”
“Yeah, but they’ve got mages,” Varric said. “And in my experience, the gang with the best mage is the one left standing, ambush or not.”
“Ah, thanks fer the compliment, love,” Coll said, buffing her fingernails against her jacket. “Sure, but we’re bound to be fine, if that’s the case. Don’ know about Vints, but between me an’ Kate… An’ him, I suppose,” she added, hiking a thumb at Solas. She took some pleasure in the way the pompous elf bristled for a moment before pretending to ignore her.
“Let us make way to the Chantry at once,” Solas said. “If we are to help free the mages here…”
“Free them?” Blackwall interrupted. “Didn’t they ask for Tevinter to take them in, as it were?”
“Take them indeed,” Solas scoffed. “Oaths made in fear ought have no binding tie. If there is any way to free the rebels here, then we must seek it out.”
“Dunno why we should bother,” Iron Bull grumbled. “This is why you can’t trust mages. They’ll do just about anything when their backs are against the wall.”
“That’s true of most anyone,” Kate said, shooting Bull a speaking look.
“Indeed,” Solas agreed. “Desperation is the worst jailer of them all.”
“Alright then,” Coll said, grabbing her staff and eying the Chantry at the top of the hill. “If you boys are done with your lazin’ about, then let’s go see what’s waitin’ on us in the Chantry.”
“Maker’s breath! It’s you!”
Robert scrambled to his feet. Or he tried to scramble to his feet, anyhow. Outside of his cell door, the boy in the wide-brimmed hat stood in a shaft of sunlight. The boy’s head was down at first, his hat shielding his face from view. Then he raised his head, stared at Robert with wide, pale blue eyes.
“You just about gave me a heart attack,” Robert said, trying to calm himself with the sound of his own voice.
“Your heart isn’t attacking you,” the boy replied, frowning in confusion.
“No, I…it’s an expression,” Robert said.
“Oh,” the boy replied. He nodded once. “A lot of people express things I don’t understand. Especially here. But then, they’re all changing out there.”
“Changing?” Robert asked. “Who’s changing? How?”
“All of them,” the boy replied. “Lots.”
That was right, he thought. This boy was mad. Funny how he’d forgotten that. But then, Robert felt that he was going a bit mad down here. He didn’t quite feel like his mind had cracked, exactly. It was more like he had a hole in his mental pocket and his thoughts were slipping out like so many coins. The demon hadn’t returned after it’s last visit, and two days alone in the dark… Or was it four? Anyhow, Robert had completely lost track of time. He had nothing to do, and there’d been very little food. But then, Robert wasn’t sure if he kept nibbling at the same crust of dried bread or if a new one kept appearing each day. But it wasn’t exactly like he could complain to the management, Robert reflected. Likely, neglect was a good thing at this point.
“A very good thing,” the boy suddenly said. “They’re eating the stone up there.”
Robert blinked. He didn’t think he’d spoken his thoughts aloud, but maybe he had.
“The stone?” Robert asked. More likely, he thought, the templars were feasting off their ill-gotten gains. Freddy, for example, seemed the sort to go in for nasty Orlesian delicacies. Nug fingers or deep mushroom and anaise pies and stuff like that.
“Freddy doesn’t eat at all anymore,” the boy said. “He wants to be like stone: hard and hewn and heavy.”
“Yes,” Robert said, cringing, “I don’t really want to think about Freddy’s stones or his hardness, thank you very much.”
“It’s all rotting up there,” the boy added, sadly. “Moss on the walls, mold on the bread. Anger glowing, creeping out of every pore. The growth is killing them.”
“Ah,” Robert said. “So, the templars…all have food poisoning?”
At least, that was Robert’s best guess as to what the boy meant by his ramblings. Well, if that was the case, Robert thought, maybe it was better to skip breakfast this morning.
“Poison of the head. Poison of the heart,” the boy replied. “They ate orders for so long, the red was easy to swallow.”
“Not food poisoning then,” Robert said, trying to understand.
“One shut his mouth to the meal, opened his mind to the questions. His green eyes saw too much. They plan to punish him for it. Ply the pain and press out pity. He’s afraid he’s already turned, but he hasn’t. Not yet.”
“I…” Robert cocked his head to one side, then shrugged and gave up. “No,” he said decisively. “Can’t translate that one. I say, boy,” he added. “Here’s something I’m curious about. Are you real, or a figment of my imagination?”
It would do well to know, Robert reasoned. So long as he was trying to understand the lad, he might as well know if he was dealing with another mind, or with delusions in his own head.
“Your imagination is real,” the boy told him.
Robert nodded sagely. “I’m insane then. Good to know.”
“You joke about it to make yourself less scared,” the boy observed.
“And it works for me,” Robert agreed. “Also, I adopt increasingly precise manners the more uncomfortable that I feel. It’s the one concession to the Trevelyan upbringing that I’m willing to make. You could hang a Trevelyan over a fire by the toes and they’d make sure to cough into their handkerchief while you did so.”
“It’s armor for your mind,” the boy said.
“Well, as long as I’m trapped in my mind, might as well make it fortress-like,” Robert replied.
“We’re not in your mind now,” the boy said.
“Aren’t we?” Robert asked. “Fair enough. So long as we’re chatting, maybe I should call you something other than ‘boy.’ Is it customary to name one’s hallucinations, I wonder? Let me think. You look like a ‘Tim’ to me. Or a ‘Tom,’ perhaps. Something short. Common.”
“I’m Cole,” the boy told him.
“That works,” Robert nodded. “Well, Cole, what should we talk about today? Speaking of food will just make me hungry, so…”
“They’re coming,” the boy said suddenly, looking up at the ceiling in alarm.
“Not quite what I had in mind,” Robert sighed. “I was thinking of reflecting upon beautiful women.”
“I’ll bring help,” the boy said, looking at Robert solemnly and sincerely. “I’ll be help.”
And with that, he disappeared.
“You’d be more help if you stuck around,” Robert murmured to the empty dungeon. But then, it was fitting that even his hallucinations were of the flighty sort. Robert was now realizing this was the longest he’d ever stayed in the same place since he was a teenager.
Robert stood, looking out at the dungeon, listening to the quiet. It was unnerving, that quiet. Robert didn’t trust it. The quiet could be an empty keep, or the quiet could be his own mind, silencing the world above.
Surely they wouldn’t leave him here to starve, would they? Maker, he hoped not. What a horrible way to go.
Then, suddenly, there was an explosion above. Or, at least, that’s what it sounded like. The dungeon door banged open, the loudest sound Robert had heard in ages. And it was real, too, not the strange, echoing sound of demon-laughter down the corridors of his mind. Robert heard heavy boots descending the stairs, heard the crunching sound of metal armor banging against its own parts. And then, four templars emerged into the dim light of the dungeon.
Robert made a face. Well, there was someone he had hoped never to see again.
“Why hullo there, Freddy,” Robert drawled. “How are your stones treating you today?”
If Freddy heard Robert’s question the templar ignored it, as did the other templars with him. So Robert propped his shoulder up against the wall in a nonchalant pose.
“Fancy meeting you all down here,” Robert said. “Sorry that the place is in such a state, but you know how it is. Difficult to tidy up when one’s incarcerated.”
“Oh don’t worry, Trevelyan,” Freddy said. “I’m sure I can make myself comfortable.”
To Robert’s dismay, Freddy wandered over to a table covered with a sheet. The sheet had probably been white, once. Now it was blotched with old red stains and had turned a dingy brown.
Freddy drew back the sheet, and one of the other templars lit a torch. In the sickly light, a dozen strange objects glittered on the tabletop. The metal shapes looked vaguely like a blacksmith’s tools. Only, Robert was positive they weren’t blacksmith tools. Or at least, they wouldn’t be used as such.
“Ah,” he said, determined to hide his fear as best he could. “Good set, that. We keep one just like it at home.”
The templars all paused and looked at Robert. Two of the templars wore helmets, so it was hard to gauge their reaction. Freddy shook off Robert’s remark with a sneer. But the fourth fellow, a dark-skinned man with striking green eyes, looked decidedly troubled at Robert’s words.
“Are you sure about this, Ser Stanhope?” the green-eyed templar asked Freddy. From where he stood in his cell, Robert laughed.
“Oh Freddy isn’t sure about anything,” Robert said. “That’s what makes him such a good templar. He never stops to think things through for himself.”
The green-eyed templar looked at Robert briefly, as if uncertain whether Robert was joking or serious. Robert realized at once that this young man was a potential ally, or at least, he was a sympathetic audience. And Robert wasn’t about to play the victim before an audience. He decided he’d much rather play the role of the wrongly accused gentleman. To that end, Robert extended his hand through the bars.
“Robert Trevelyan,” he said, making as if he meant to shake the young man’s hand from all the way over here. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
The green-eyed templar just stared at him.
“Freddy really ought to have made the introductions, you know,” Robert went on, “but it seems he’s a bit busy at present.”
“T-Trevelyan?” The young man gaped at Robert. “You’re a Trevelyan?”
“One of the many,” Robert chuckled. “I take it that you’ve heard of my family.”
“I… Sort of.” It looked as though the young man was torn between bred-in-the-bone manners and the clear oddity of being addressed by a potential torture victim. Freddy cut off any reply the templar might have made with a wave of his hand.
“Shut up, Trevelyan,” Freddy said to Robert. “This is my party now, and we’ll be following my rules.”
“The rules of good etiquette trump the rules of everything else,” Robert replied, sounding as snobbish as his Great-Aunt Lucy did whenever she recited that proverb. “Though, as you can see,” he added to the green-eyed young man, “I’m a bit at odds with etiquette at present, since I have no refreshment to offer you. You can drink from the leaky pipe here, but the taste takes some getting used to.”
The green-eyed man now looked even more uneasy. Robert took heart. The man had sympathy in him. That was an opportunity to scuttle the templar guard, and surely Robert could use it.
“But again,” Robert pressed. “I didn’t catch your name, Ser…”
“Barris,” the fellow said, absently. His brows drew together, and he once again turned to Freddy to whisper something. This time, Robert did not quite catch all of it, but he did hear the words ‘spire’ and ‘Val Royeaux.’
“Did we meet in Val Royeaux once?” Robert asked, determined to keep the conversation going. This was as much to connect with the Barris fellow as it was to distract Robert from the fact that Freddy was laying out some rather nasty-looking instruments in a row.
“I don’t believe I’ve been there in…I don’t know. Five years ago, perhaps? Was forced to go on pilgrimage with Aunt Evelyn. My cousin, Kate, wanted to go, but she couldn’t of course. Something about mages being too dangerous to parade them about the capital or something like that.”
This seemed to get a reaction out of Barris. He glanced sharply at Robert, and then nervously at Freddy.
“He’s a traitor and a liar,” Freddy said to Barris. “Don’t let his manners fool you. He’d knife you in the back if given half the chance.”
“I’ve never knifed anyone in the back,” Robert replied. “I would gladly duel Freddy for his treatment of me lately, but I believe in civility. As for you, Ser Barris,” Robert added. “I have no quarrel with you.”
“He’ll do anything to escape,” Freddy told Barris in an undertone. “Don’t listen to him.”
“Why of course I will,” Robert agreed easily. “However, I have good reason to do so. You see, Barris, it’s like this: I recently met a most beautiful woman by the name of Cassandra Pentaghast.”
“Cassandra?” Barris stared at Robert, wide-eyed. “You mean Seeker Cassandra?”
“The very one,” Robert nodded. “Recent events made us quite close, you understand.”
That was a lie, obviously. Robert didn’t imagine Seeker Cassandra even remembered him after all this time, but it wouldn’t hurt to pretend they were intimate. After all, if this fellow was a templar, he might be impressed by such connections.
“The courtship was going well, I thought,” Robert said, still keeping an eye on Freddy’s progress with the tools. “Then I got dumped in here. I hope Cassandra’s not angry with me for my long absence. It’ll cost me a fortune in flowers to smooth things over at this rate.”
“He’s mad as a hatter, this one,” one of the other templars remarked from beneath his helmet. Barris looked at Robert, then at the templar, and back again.
Robert realized he was walking a dangerous path. He needed to sound charming and clever, not deranged and rambling. However, all this time alone in the dark and this dealing with demons had put him off his game. And the presence of those spidery metal tools rattled him something awful.
“Not mad,” Robert replied, trying to stay calm. “Just a man in love. Tell me though, Ser Barris. It seems you’re not entirely comfortable with whatever they have planned for me.”
“I, um…” Barris began.
“Stop trying to butter him up, Trevelyan,” Freddy said. “He’s the one who will be pulling the answers out of you.”
With that, Freddy slapped a long, slender tool into Barris’ hand. It looked rather like a pair of tongs, only sharp at the end. Robert shuddered, as did Barris. And then, quite suddenly, Robert remembered something that Cole-lad had said:
”‘Ply the pain and press out pity,’” Robert recited. Barris continued to look at the sharpened tongs and he swallowed. Robert, from his cell, said loudly:
“I gather this is the officer training for the templars, is it? I hear that once they suck out your soul, you never even miss it.”
Barris looked at Robert sharply. And in that moment, Robert was overwhelmed with fear. Yet the fear was not for himself. Rather, Robert felt he couldn’t stand to see Barris give in to his orders. If Barris became like Freddy, if Barris ‘pressed out the pity,’ then…
Well, Robert didn’t know what then. But he wasn’t about to find out. Instead, he felt he must make Barris understand what was going on around here.
“He fears he’s lost already,” Robert heard a quiet voice say. “He fears the draughts have drained him all away.“
Robert didn’t entirely understand what the Cole-voice was telling him, but it had the ring of truth to it. All of Robert’s plans and pride went straight out the window, and turned to Barris in desperation.
“Barris,” Robert said, looking right at the young man, “Don’t do this. You’re not lost yet, for all that you fear you are. You’re not drained away.”
Barris blanched, his eyes going wide as he stared at Robert in disbelief.
“How did you…?” he began.
Freddy said nothing, but snapped his fingers at the other guards. Or, well, Freddy made a snapping-like gesture, but heavily gloved as his fingers were, no sound came from them. The helmeted guards advanced on Robert’s cell. Heedless of their approach, Robert gripped the bars and spoke to Barris alone.
“Barris,” Robert said, urgently, “Whatever they say, don’t do it. They can’t be trusted. Ask him about Haven, Barris. Ask Freddy why he was just standing there as the whole place went up in flames.”
Barris now looked back and forth between Freddy and Robert as if they were tossing a ball between them. Meanwhile, the other templars jammed a key into the lock on Robert’s cell.
“Ask Freddy about who he’s working for,” Robert went on, “Because I swear to you, there’s a demon running around here and…”
But that was as far as Robert got. The two templars opened the door, and before Robert could even think of running or fighting, they had him by the arms. They dragged Robert out of his cell, then threw him to the floor. Weakened as he was, Robert sprawled across the stones.
Barris made a sound of protest. Robert glanced up, his cheek against the floor, and fixed his eyes on Barris.
“It was an envy demon,” Robert told the young fellow. “It’s still around here somewhere.”
“Envy?” Barris repeated.
“He’s mad,” one of the helmeted templars said. It was a woman’s voice, Robert heard, and cold as the stone floor.
“Indeed,” Freddy agreed. “You’ll have to press him hard to get anything out of him. Get to it.”
“Envy,” Robert said again, looking right at Barris. “That’s what’s running everything around here. Not surprising, really. Freddy’s sick with envy. Lots of templars are. Always wanting things they can’t have…”
“Shut up, Trevelyan,” Freddy said, kicking Robert in the thigh. Robert winced at the impact of armored boot on his leather-clad leg. That would leave quite the bruise, Robert thought.
“This is your last chance to prove your loyalty, Barris,” Freddy said, rounding on Barris and sticking his gloved finger in the young man’s face. “You questioned your superiors one too many times…”
“Did you now?” Robert asked hopefully, “Bully for you, Barris.”
“But that will not stand here,” Freddy said, talking right over Robert. “This man is a traitor, and he knows what happened at the Conclave. The Lord Seeker wants him questioned.”
“The Lord Seeker?” Robert asked in surprise.
Why on earth would that lofty fellow take an interest in him, Robert wondered? Before Robert could ask, the two helmeted templars grabbed Robert by the arms, and dragged him up to the oddest angle. He wasn’t quite standing, wasn’t quite kneeling. Robert tried to struggle, tried to stand upright. Yet, the templars were like living manacles. As they held him fast, Freddy walked over to Robert, and leered into his face:
“How did the Herald survive the explosion?” he asked Robert.
“How did the who do what…?”
The question ended with a crunch as Freddy punched Robert in the face. The whole world exploded in stars and a sudden, sharp ringing. When he came to again, Robert was staring at the floor, where a splash of blood stained the stones. He couldn’t see out of his left eye, and Robert desperately hoped he hadn’t lost the use of it.
“Stanhope!” Robert heard Barris saying. At least, he thought that was Barris.
“This is how it’s done, boy,” Freddy replied. “I’m just softening him up for you.”
Robert winced, not much liking Freddy’s definition of ‘soft.’ Robert’s head was ringing, his face burned, and over all this, Robert heard Cole’s voice again:
“Empty tables, empty beds, empty stables. Suits of armor with no heartbeats. Bodies with no soul..“
“Cole?” Robert whispered. He tried to lift his head, but did not see the boy’s face.
“Now ask him about the Conclave,” Freddy was saying to Barris. “Ask him why he was there, or you’ll be right there beside him.”
“He can’t speak if you break his face,” Barris shot back.
“He’s caught between duty and pity, between envy and pity.” Robert heard Cole’s voice say. Or maybe it was just the voice in his own head, Robert thought. “His father needed only the elder son. Sent Barris away to the templars. He wants to go home with honor.“
“So Barris is weak to envy as well,” Robert murmured to himself. “Are all the templars here like that?”
“Yes,” he heard Cole reply. At the same moment, Robert felt, rather than saw, Barris kneel before him.
“Look here,” Barris said, his voice low and nervous. “There’s a host of accusations leveled at you, Trevelyan. If you’ll just answer our questions, we won’t… Maker.”
Whether that ‘Maker’ was directed at Barris’ own crisis of conscience or over the wound on Robert’s face, Robert didn’t know. Instead, he replied, in a near whisper:
“My father never wanted me either, you know.”
Robert couldn’t see Barris’ reaction, but he thought he heard a creak of armor as the man stiffened.
“I get why you’re afraid to walk away from this lot, Barris. But this won’t bring your family honor. You know it wouldn’t.”
“I…” Barris began.
“Shut it, you!” one of the templars shook Robert roughly from behind. “Go on, Barris.”
“He wonders how you know that,” Robert heard Cole say. “He wants to ask you. He wants answers - to this. To all of it.“
“The Herald is an enemy of the Order,” Freddy told Robert.
“Good for him,” Robert replied. “Shows good judgment.”
“Uh,” Barris said. “It’s…”
“The Herald has approached the mage rebellion for aid,” Freddy put in.
“Makes sense,” Robert nodded. “The enemy of my enemy and all that.”
“He saw her in the market square,” Robert heard the Cole-voice say. “He wanted to follow the mark on her hand. But he’d been taught to march. He didn’t know how to stop his feet from following.“
“Are we talking about Barris or this Herald person or what?” Robert asked Cole. It felt a bit strange to be asking his hallucinations for clarification, but the Cole-part of him seemed more insightful than the rest of Robert.
“The Lord Seeker wants to know what the Herald knows,” Freddy said, evidently unable to keep from running this interrogation. “What’s she up to, Trevelyan? How much does she know about our plans?”
“So it’s a she, is it?” Robert shrugged. “Is she pretty?”
“Uh…” Barris said, as Freddy just shoved Robert once again.
“Answer the question, Trevelyan.”
“Which one?” Robert wanted to know. “You’ve asked half a dozen now, and none of them make sense.”
“Questions on questions on questions,” the Cole-voice rang out in Robert’s mind. “The Elder One is marching this way, seeking answers.”
“Elder One?” Robert asked. “What on earth is an ‘Elder One?’”
Freddy may have known the answer to that. Or maybe he didn’t. Either way, his face crumpled into a sneer. Quick as a shot, he punched Robert in the stomach. Robert heard a rib snap, then felt pain explode in his side. The two templars dropped him, and Robert fell to the floor. Then more blows landed, on his back and his side. Robert heard Barris cry out in alarm. Robert tried to cover his head, his neck, his belly all at once, but there was just too much of his tall body for Freddy to lash out at.
“Stanhope!” Barris cried. “Stop!”
“Pain, prying, pitying. He wants to help, but he doesn’t know how,” the Cole-voice whimpered.
“Why don’t you help?” Robert shouted. At this point, he no longer cared that he was begging for aid from his own mind.
But then, as Robert saw stars across his vision and heard his own voice shouting in pain, the blows suddenly stopped. Robert heard a strangled gasp. His hands came away from his face, and he looked up to see Freddy staring down at his side in shock. A blade fitted neatly between the breastplate and backplate to Freddy’s armor, and blood ran from his side.
“Maker’s breath!” Barris exclaimed. The other two templars drew their swords.
“I thought he was unarmed!” one of them cried.
“I am unarmed!” Robert protested, holding up his hands.
And so Robert was. But Cole wasn’t. As Robert watched, the boy stalked closer to the helmeted templars in the torchlight. And then, as the other templars lunged at Robert, Cole struck. One of the guards - the female one - screamed, high and long and shrill. She stumbled forward, then pitched face-first onto the ground. Cole’s second knife was buried hilt-deep in her back.
Robert gasped. Barris swore, and the other helmeted templar launched himself at Robert with a roar. Before he had taken one step, however, blood exploded from his throat. Cole had retrieved his second blade and used it to slice his neck open. The second helmeted templar fell before the first. And Robert found himself staring at his blood-stained rescuer.
“Cole!” he gasped.
Well, Robert thought, absently. It seemed Cole wasn’t so imaginary after all.
And yet, neither Barris nor Freddy seemed to notice Cole. Instead, Barris lunged at Robert, but Cole shoved Barris aside. The boy was slight, but Barris hadn’t seen the attack coming. He went sprawling to the floor as Cole grabbed Robert by the shoulder.
“Hurry,” the boy said.
That was all he said. Just ‘hurry,’ in a voice low and intent as ever, but not particularly alarmed.
Robert didn’t need to be told twice. Cole half-dragged, half-led Robert over to the dungeon stairs and helped him hobble up the steps. As they scrambled up, Robert realized that this was going to be the shortest escape attempt ever made. Even as they reached the top of the stairs, even as sunlight filtered into the hallway in a bright promise of sky, Robert heard Barris behind them, shouting for reinforcements.
Then, suddenly, Robert and Cole were at the top of the stairs. There was the courtyard. And there, right before him, stood a group of templars. They were recruits, it looked like, and all of them were staring at the doorway to the dungeons, murmuring nervously.
“Shit,” Robert hissed, coming up short. The templars looked right at the spot where Robert stood. Behind him, Robert could hear Barris, pounding up the steps.
Without missing a beat, Cole tugged Robert to one side. Barris rushed right by Robert. Robert felt a slight breeze as the templar passed.
“What the Void?” Robert blinked. Barris had run right by him. And then, as Robert watched, Barris hurried out into the courtyard. The other templars breathed a collective sigh of relief when they saw Barris.
“Are you alright?” one of them asked Barris. “We heard you’d been taken into the dungeons.”
“I was asked to question a prisoner, but he escaped,” Barris told them. “Have you seen anyone come this way?”
The templars all shook their heads, and Robert’s mouth just dropped open. He turned to look at Cole.
“But…” Robert said, softly.
It was a small, knowing sort of smile, and in that moment, Robert understood. Or no, he didn’t understand in the slightest, but he got the gist of it at least. Cole was some sort of mage, gone mad in a templar dungeon, and he’d saved Robert with his knives and his hiding-magic.
Or something like that, Robert supposed. He didn’t care about the hows or whys of it at present. Robert just hoped that the magic would last.
“They won’t see us until I want them to,” Cole assured Robert, quietly.
“Then don’t want them to,” Robert replied.
“Trevelyan is still in there with Stanhope? Maker’s breath! How did I miss him?” Barris turned around and waved on the other templars.
“Hurry now,” he said, “Stanhope is wounded!”
And with that, he led the other templars back into the dungeons, and back down the stairs. Robert drew away as they all passed, close enough to touch. Cole just watched them quietly.
“Stanhope’s an ass,” the last templar in line said to the one before him. “Frankly, he deserves anything that’s coming to him.”
Robert, in spite of the pain in his eye and his rib, smiled at that.
“That’s an officer you’re talking about,” the other templar said back.
“So what?” came the reply as the conversation trailed off. “All the officers are acting odd lately. I’m beginning to think…”
And then they were gone, and Robert was left in the doorway with Cole. He didn’t know quite what to say to the boy except:
“You asked for help,” Cole replied, as if that were sufficient reason.
“So I did,” Robert answered. And regardless of the oddity of the circumstances, Robert was willing to follow the boy to freedom.
Or, Robert thought, maybe he wasn’t free at all. Maybe he was still being tortured down there, and his mind had split in two and run up the stairs.
“No,” Cole said. “You’re really here. If you were imagining all this, your ribs wouldn’t hurt so much.”
“Good point,” Robert conceded. “Now we need to get out of this place.”
Cole nodded his head in agreement.
“I’ll help,” he promised.