It had been two months since Cassandra last laid eyes on Robert Trevelyan. For two months, his memory had stood in her mind as a symbol of grief and loss. Then for the last week, Cassandra had been nearly frantic to seek Robert out, to find out if there was anything to the rumors that he might be alive.
And now, as Robert stood at the gates, Cassandra found she could not wait another second to have the man back within the walls of Haven. She sheathed her sword and ran forward to help the guards pull the heavy gates open.
At the top of the stairs stood Kate and Cullen, with a host of soldiers and mages behind them. They watched anxiously as the gates groaned open. A moment later, Robert stumbled through. Cassandra, now half-hidden behind the door, scarcely recognized him at first. Limping beside him came another man, dark complexioned and heavily armored. For a moment, Cassandra even thought there was a third person with Robert as well.
“Hullo Katie,” Robert croaked, as he looked up and laid eyes upon his cousin. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“Robert!” Katerina cried in return, and she ran to him. Cassandra let out a breath she did not realize she’d been holding. But before the cousins could embrace, the armored man at Robert’s side fell, pitching face-first into the snow.
“Oh my!” Katerina cried, stopping short and dropping to her knees. “Is he all right?”
“Not really,” Robert replied. Rather than kneeling himself, he simply bent at the waist and placed his hands on his thighs, as if he were a runner at the end of a race.
“We need a healer!” Katerina shouted into the crowd. Her cry was nearly drowned out by the shouts of Cullen, who was directing his troops into place:
“Everyone into formation!” he called into the crowd. “No, I know we didn’t practice for this. Just get with your unit and await further orders. Hurry now!”
Armored soldiers and robed mages ran for the gates, blocking Cassandra’s way. Archers clambered up on boxes or platforms or whatever else gave them a clear view of the valley beyond the walls. Through the noise of boots crunching and armor clanking, Cassandra heard a loud, distinctive, and slightly slurred voice, shout:
“Oi! Healer! Right here! I’m right here.”
With that, the Dalish elf, Colleen, came half-swaggering, half-stumbling out of the crowd with a bottle of wine in her hand. She dropped to her knees beside Katerina, and stumped her bottle down beside her. Cullen glared at the bottle, then at the elf.
“Have you been drinking?” he demanded.
”‘Course I have,” the elf replied, as she gathered light in her palms. “It’s Satinalia and I ain’t a dry shite like you. Don’ give me that look, lad. I’m Dalish. I could heal ‘im plastered, but as it is, I’m scarce scuttered. Hey there, Robbie-boy!” she added, with a wave in Trevelyan’s direction. “Good teh see yeh. What a time fer an attack, eh?”
“What a time,” Robert agreed.
At Robert’s feet, Katerina must have decided that the injured Barris was in safe, if slightly tipsy, hands. Katerina stood and threw her arms around her cousin. Robert immediately wrapped his arms around Katerina and held her close. Cullen looked on with a strange expression. Cassandra found herself similarly frozen by the gate.
She did not want to intrude in this family reunion, Cassandra thought. But more than that, she did not know quite how to greet Robert after all this time. There had been a change in him, that much was clear. He was still very handsome. In fact, he was more handsome than Cassandra had remembered. But Robert was no longer had the air of a cheerful charmer. His dirty, bloodstained clothes hung on of his tall frame, and his eyes had a wild look to them. The first time they had met, Cassandra had compared him to a carefree pirate. Now, he seemed wolfish. This did not make him unattractive, however. Cassandra decided it made him even more appealing than before.
“By the Void, Katie,” Robert said, holding his cousin close. “It’s good to see you. I thought you were dead. I thought I was dead. So many times I might have died…”
“I feel the exact same way,” Kate said, and her eyes were shining with tears. “I thought… But I can’t…” She shook her head, and waved a hand as if trying to force the words past a lump in her throat. “We’re under attack,” she managed a moment later. “We should probably live through that, then talk.” She offered her cousin a watery smile.
“If we do live through that,” Robert said, and when he looked out at the lights, his expression was again haunted. “Damn templars.”
“Templars?” Cullen exclaimed. “Those are templars out there?” The commander’s eyes flashed with fear and fury, even as the lines of his face hardened like stone. At the commander’s feet, the Dalish elf shouted out:
“Oi! Someone get me a vial of lyrium. Not that I want teh feed the stuff to the lad, but if I’m teh revive ‘im… Ah, thank yeh, Lysette.” She stopped her hollering as a female templar hurried to her side.
“Are the templars trying to punish us for aiding the mage rebellion?” Kate asked, ignoring Coll and her patient. “Robert, did they say why they’re attacking?”
“I never got a straight answer out of anyone,” her cousin replied. “Freddy went all red, you see.” As Robert spoke, he craned his neck this way and that as searching for someone in the crowds.
“Freddy?” Kate repeated. But before Robert could explain, a commotion broke out at their feet.
“Oi, oi, oi!” Coll shouted. “Ease up, boyo! You’ve been off that shite for too long to pour it in yer face like that.”
She snatched the vial away from Barris’ grip, for the templar had come to quite suddenly. There was a wildness in his eyes as he lunged for the draught, but in his weakened state, and with both Colleen and Lysette to restrain him, he could do little more than glare.
“Don’t give me that look, templar,” Colleen snapped at him. “I’m savin’ yer life by cuttin’ yeh short. Drink all this and it’ll send yeh inta shock, it will. Lysette, get ‘im into the Chantry. He’ll be no use in a fight.”
“We should send your cousin to the Chantry as well,” Cullen murmured to Kate. “He looks a bit distracted.”
It was true, too. All this while, Robert continued to look about him, as if oblivious to the preparations for battle. But then, quite suddenly, he turned his eyes in Cassandra’s direction.
In that moment, Robert’s entire demeanor changed. His gaze locked on Cassandra’s face, focused and intent as an arrow pointed at a target. He let go of Kate at once, striding toward Cassandra with those long legs of his. Cassandra, for her part, was so startled that she did nothing as he advanced upon her. He was so much bigger than she remembered, so much broader, moved so much more smoothly…
“T-trevelyan,” Cassandra stammered as Robert closed in. “Good to see you…Ooof!”
Robert dragged Cassandra into his arms and pulled her flush against his chest. His tall, rangy body enveloped hers: his arms around her shoulders, his chin rested on top of her head. He smelled of woodsmoke and cedar and sweat. For a moment, all Cassandra could do was try to catch her breath, and allow her heart to thunder away madly in her chest. She felt too embarrassed to wrap her arms around him in return, but was too delighted to pull away.
Delighted? Certainly not. And yet she stood stock still, squashed up against Robert’s chest as he murmured:
“Cassie,” he said. “My sweet, sweet Cassie.” His voice so low that it seemed to reverberate right through her, all the way down her spine and into her belly.
“Cassie?” That was Colleen’s voice, and the blasted elf sounded ready to laugh. “Did he just call the Seeker ‘Cassie’?”
“I thought I’d lost you,” Robert whispered hoarsely, his breath warm and close by Cassandra’s ear. “I thought… Oh, Maker be praised. You’re alright.”
And then gently - so very gently - Robert kissed the top of Cassandra’s head. It seemed to send a frisson of electricity right through her. She felt she might melt into a puddle in the snow. From somewhere beyond the circle of Robert’s arms, Cassandra heard Cullen say:
“I take back what I said about those novels, Kate. Here I thought they were unrealistic, but I evidently don’t know the same kind of people that you do.”
“Believe me,” she replied, “this is a side of Robert I’ve never seen.”
Before Cassandra could process that statement, Robert pulled back, held Cassandra at arm’s length, and studied her face for a moment, as if trying to memorize it. The gold of his eyes was so intense, Cassandra felt she was looking into twin suns.
“I will not leave you again like that,” Robert told her. “I promise you, Cassie. I only wish I had something to show you how much I… Oh, Maker bless you Cole, you wonderful, weird little boy. I’ll pay you back for this, I swear it.”
And with that, Robert plucked a rose out of thin air.
Cassandra mouth dropped open on a gasp. For a moment, she forgot all about the crowd around them, even forgot about the imminent attack. All she saw was that single, perfect rose: red as blood, fresh as early spring.
“How did you…?” Cassandra gaped. But then she looked up at Robert, and found herself captivated once again. His expression was one of utter devotion - a sight even more perfect than that rose itself.
“By Dirthaman’s great swingin’ cock!,” Colleen roared with laughter. “Now there’s a boy what knows his way around a bedroll! We could all take lessons in seduction from him, eh commander?” The elf elbowed Cullen in the ribs.
Cassandra felt as if she’d been warmed by a gentle breeze, only to have cold water splashed over her. Cassandra became painfully aware that she was being made into a spectacle. And all the troops were watching.
Yet, when Cassandra opened her mouth to deliver a sharp reprimand, her harsh words died in her throat. Robert was staring at her with hope in his eyes. More than that, he was alive. And he had brought her a rose. This beautiful, unexpected man had offered Cassandra a beautiful, unexpected gift. She couldn’t find it in her heart to reject him, but neither did she know how to accept. So Cassandra just stood there, silent and stunned and staring at that single blood-red rose.
Robert knew he was making a great fool of himself. He just didn’t much care.
Living for two months on the knife’s edge of death had entirely changed Robert’s perspective. In the past, he had never allowed himself or get too attached to anything or anyone. This might have had something to do with the fact that Robert was always being left behind. Now, however, Robert felt like rushing on ahead. Seeing Cassandra again was like looking down from a hot, rocky cliff side into deep, cool water. Robert intended to take the leap, and damn the consequences.
However, Cassandra seemed a bit uncertain about Robert’s return. Perhaps it was the army at the gates that had her distracted, Robert thought. After all, the last time they’d fought together, they’d ended up separated for months.
“I won’t be leaving your side again,” Robert promised Cassandra, as he pressed the rose into her gloved hand. “This time, we are not splitting up. Do you hear me?”
Cassandra gazed at him for just a moment, then her fingers closed around the stem and she nodded firmly.
“Yes,” she said. “I don’t know about the rest of it. But yes. We must fight together.” She looked so warrior-like in that moment that Robert was tempted to kiss her. “What is our plan?”
But Robert then realized that Cassandra had not addressed this question to him. Instead, she had looked right past Robert and spoke to Kate, of all people.
That was odd. So far as Robert knew, Kate had as much experience in battle as she did with travel - which was to say, none at all. But Kate looked thoughtful all the same, staring up into empty space as if rummaging through her unfathomable brain for ideas. And it seemed that Cassandra was not the only one looking to Kate for answers.
“Your worship? Ser?” a voice called from up on the gates. “They’re settlin’ down just beyond firin’ range.”
This bit of information was addressed to both Kate and that blonde man who stood beside her. The fellow was tallish, though not as tall as Robert, and wore fussy-looking armor and a dark expression.
“They’re doing just as they’re trained to do,” the man said, his voice low and angry. “They’ll wait until they have all their people in place, then rush us in waves. And to think, I might have been the one to train them how to do it.”
Oh-ho, Robert thought, distantly. So this fellow had once been a templar? It seemed the Inquisition took in all types. Funny that Katie wasn’t nervous around the man, though. Robert knew she found templars vastly unnerving. But far from being cowed by the man, Kate turned to the man with a look of… pity?
“I’m sorry this fight came to us, Cullen,” she said, her voice now low and urgent, “But we’re going to need your insight to survive the night. What more can we do to against those templars?”
The man named Cullen shook himself, and his eyes refocused on a spot beyond the gates.
“We have trebuchets,” he said.
If the man thought this information would come as a comfort, he had judged wrongly. Kate gave the commander a doubtful look, while Coll snorted so hard that wine came out of her nose.
“I thought trebuchets were for taking castles,” Kate said, absently whacking Coll on the back as the elf spluttered. “Will they work against a legion of foot soldiers?”
“They would extend our range to where the templars are gathering,” Cullen pointed out. “What’s more, they won’t be expecting it.”
“Ask me arse!” Coll cried, wiping the wine from her face with the back of her tattooed hand. “‘Course they won’t expect it! ‘Cause it’s a header, that plan is. Usin’ them toys what you and Morris built? Tha’s like throwin’ rocks at a flock o’ sparrows and hopin’ yeh hit one. More like, those buggers’ll turn the things against us and flatten the town!”
“Do you have a better idea, elf?” Cassandra snapped. Robert placed his hand upon Cassandra’s back, in an unthinking, soothing gesture. To his surprise, Cassandra didn’t turn and glare at Robert. She may have even leaned into his hand a little.
“Bollocks,” Coll replied solemnly, tilting the neck of her wine bottle at Cassandra in a mock toast. “That’s me idea.”
“Coll, please,” Kate said.
”‘Sides,” Coll persisted, ignoring Kate entirely, “Only two of yer trebber-things work. For sure, didn’t I hear yer Rylan sayin’ that Morris jacked up the northwest one? Set it aimin’ the wrong way.”
Coll pointed her wine-bottle to her left, then arced the bottle overhead to indicate the mountains behind them. Cullen grimaced at her gesture and looked like he wanted to use swear words. To Robert’s surprise however, the man didn’t.
“I keep telling him to let me do the calibrations,” he muttered instead.
“What do you think Katerina?” Cassandra asked Kate, deliberately ignoring the elf. “Should we use the trebuchets?”
Cullen also turned to Kate with a sharp look. “This is your call, Herald,” he said.
Why was the use of siege weaponry Kate’s call, Robert wanted to know? Much as he loved his cousin, he didn’t entirely trust her judgment in matters relating to battle. Robert more trusted the opinion of this heavily-armored man who apparently built siege machinery for fun. But Kate was silent for a moment, then nodded.
“Do it,” she said.
“You heard the Herald!” Cullen shouted, and Robert realized that, indeed, the surrounding crowd had been listening intently to this discussion. “Ballistics units one and two, hurry to the eastern trebuchets and fire at will. Get in as many flights as you can.”
“Send mages with them,” Kate said, tapping him on his furred shoulder. “To help with loading rocks into the um, hanging… bag things.” Kate cupped her hand in what would have, under other circumstances, been a rather lewd gesture. Cullen looked startled for a moment, then nodded as comprehension dawned.
“Right,” he said. “Yes, that will vastly speed up… Yes. Mages!” he shouted, turning to the crowd. “I need mages to help load the slings. Earth-shakers, preferably. One with each trebuchet! Anyone?”
“Here ser!” A few robed volunteers came forward, and Kate paused to talk to them. Cullen stopped to answer a shouted question from one of the lieutenants on the walls and Coll took another pull of wine from her bottle.
“Sure, this is gonna be a show, and make no mistake,” the elf said.
“Maker speed you!” Kate cried to the earth-mages. They nodded and ran off through the gates, their long robes flapping behind them.
“I certainly hope this works,” Cullen said, frowning after the mages.
“Hope in Haven, help in Haven, Herald in Haven,” Cole murmured softly at Robert’s side. “He stands on the hillside and the town looks small from there. So easy to crush. So easy to snuff her light out.”
“No one’s crushing us,” Cullen said sharply to the lad, while Kate turned to Cole and said, “Maybe you should go to the Chantry. The other apprentices are waiting there, if you want to join them.”
“I want to help,” Cole told her.
“Alright then,” Kate said, while Cullen muttered. “So long as he can keep up.”
“Wait,” Robert said, completely taken aback. “You two can see Cole?”
“Oh,” Cassandra said, peering around at the boy. “So there was a second person who arrived with you.”
“You can see him, too?” he asked Cassandra.
“What now?” Colleen asked, looking up from her bottle with a blank expression.
“Ah, thank you, Coll,” Robert nodded at her gratefully. “Makes me feel more sane when at least one of you can’t see him.”
“Oh, you mean the half-spirit, half-boy tag-along?” the elf asked. “‘Course I can see him.”
“Half-what?” Cullen tensed.
“He’s a good sort,” Robert explained, quickly. “Never tries to possess anyone or anything like that. Sometimes I even think he might be a real boy. Funny how all of you can see him, though.”
“Pain pierces,” Cole said, his voice soft. “Breaks down doors. Makes some crueler, makes some kinder. Kate found laughter under waves of sorrow, but Cullen took the longest route to kindness.”
Kate went very still, and the commander’s brows drew together at this pronouncement.
“It makes you angry,” Cole added, gazing at Cullen sympathetically. “It makes you feel ashamed. The templars were supposed to stand for something. You were supposed to stand for something. But if all the templars train to follow, who trains them to lead?”
“Maker’s breath, the boy sounds like you, Kate,” Cullen muttered, flushing and looking away.
“I’m sure I don’t…” Kate began, but just then, there were a great creaking and wooshing sound. Everyone looked up as a streak of fire arced out into the night.
“An’ there we be,” Coll said. “First shot fired, and we’ll be rushed any minute now. ‘Twas nice knowin’ ye.”
Far out beyond the gates, the blast fell down upon the torches, making a little hole of shadow where fire had been a moment before.
“Sweet Andraste,” Kate said in amazement. “They didn’t move. Even as fire came raining down on them, they…” She shook her head and turned to Cullen.
“They didn’t even move,” she said.
“They’re disciplined,” Cullen said, grimly. “They’ll hold rank even when…” He then blinked, and suddenly jerked his head upward, studying the mountains. “Wait…”
“Stone hearts, stone eyes, stone minds and veins,” Cole murmured. “They can’t feel for the change in them.”
Stone, Robert thought suddenly. That was right. These templars were more solid because of their recent diet, weren’t’ they? And had he told Kate about that change or not? Between his climb and exhaustion and the relief of reuniting with Cassandra, Robert couldn’t entirely remember. Well, he thought, best to tell them twice rather than not at all.
“So look,” Robert began. “I don’t mean to be the bearer of further bad news, but those templars…”
“An avalanche,” Cullen said, cutting Robert off.
This was such a non-sequitur that Robert could do nothing but stare at the man. Cassandra, too, looked a bit confused. But Kate gave a gasp of delight.
“Right!” she cried, her eyes wide with hope. “Just like in ‘Snow Falling on Emprise!’ Oh, Cullen, you’re a genius.”
“I was referencing ‘Decisive Battles of Southern Orlais,’ not a Plume novel,” the man replied, though he looked pleased by her praise.
“Plume didn’t write… Oh, never mind,” Kate said. “Will it work? We use a trebuchet to fling a rock at the mountainside and trigger an avalanche. That will flatten the templars in the valley and we can take any survivors in open combat.”
“I likes that,” Coll said, tipping her bottle at Cullen in approval. “I do likes that. Better than me plan o’ bollocks.”
“Yes, and about those templars,” Robert tried again. “They’re red.”
But no one was listening.
“The challenge is,” Cullen said, speaking to Kate. “We need to aim the trebuchet precisely. The northeast one would work best. It’s closest to the mountains.”
“Then let’s go!” Kate cried. “Quick, before they charge… Oh dear.”
Beyond the lake, the torches had begun to shift and flow. A mass of light broke off from the main bulk of fire and began to advance toward Haven.
“Fenharel feck ‘em, but they’re movin’ fast,” Coll said.
“That’s just the advance guard, testing our defenses,” Cullen said.
“Then we’d better make that avalanche happen as quickly as possible,” Kate said. “Come on, Cullen. I’ll cover you.”
“What?” the man blinked.
“Well I certainly don’t know how to calibrate a trebuchet,” Kate told him. “The northeast one, you said?”
“I… Yes. Northeast.” Cullen nodded.
“Leliana!” Kate shouted up to a hooded woman on the walls. “You have command of the gates. Keep the doors open until we get back, and Maker watch over you.”
“Maker watch over us all,” the woman shouted back. “Alright then,” Leliana cried out. “You heard the Herald. All mages and soldiers, hold the gates! Keep them open, but don’t let hostiles through!”
With this, Kate whirled her staff to guard in a way Robert found most impressive, if also rather alarming. That thing had a blunt end to it, which had come perilously close to Robert’s face. Cullen drew his sword, and together, they went racing out into the night.
“But Kate!” Robert shouted. “The templars… Hang it all.”
That was, Robert reflected, the most un-Kate-like thing he’d ever seen his cousin do. Also, if Robert wasn’t mistaken, that was Sister Nightingale up there, holding the gates. Katie had been bossing around the Left Hand of the Divine just now.
This was all madness, Robert thought. This entire night was crazy and wild and desperate all at once. Take this plan of Cullen’s, for example. It sounded like a child trying to stop a group of bandits with a sling shot. Even if they managed to hit a mountain with a flying rock, would that actually cause an avalanche? And even if it did, would it really take out the templars, or would all that snow go sluffing off the mountains in some completely unpredictable way? Furthermore, Robert thought wildly, none of them understood that those were red templars out there.
“It doesn’t matter now,” Cole said, softly. “They’ll see for themselves soon enough.”
Yes, Robert thought. And that was what he was afraid of. He had just escaped these monsters. He had no wish to face them again.
“But you must,” Cole told Robert.
“Arrows, ser?” someone said, handing Robert a quiver. Robert took it, not bothering to ask who had thought to supply him with missiles. He also did not bother to argue with Cole. Right now, this night felt like a dream - a dream where Robert was just one step ahead of things turning into a nightmare.
“They need help,” Cole said, sounding far more peaceful about the situation than anyone had a right to be. “I’m going to help,” he added, and then he drew his dual knives out of nowhere and ran after Kate.
“Alright then,” Coll said, letting her bottle of wine drop heavily to the ground. “Can’t let a spirit show me up. Better follow me eejit friend Kate and keep her alive.”
“You wish to fight while you’re drunk?” Cassandra wanted to know. “That is not wise.”
“Sure, but I’ll sober up real quick,” Coll replied. “See this elfroot here?” She drew a small vial from her pocket. “‘Tis my own concoction. Takes the brown clean outta yeh, but it’s like wakin’ up the day after.”
“Wait,” Robert said, frowning at her. “You’re planning to fight hung over?” In his opinion, that sounded even stupider than fighting drunk.
“Bottoms up,” Coll said, holding the vial up in mock toast. She downed it all in one gulp, then made a face as if she’d licked the bottom of a garderobe.
“YEAaaggh!” Coll cried. “That’s mouldly rank as scutters, that is! And now I’m gone straight crippled with the fear. Feck me,” she gasped, leaning heavily on her staff. “This weren’t how this night was supposed to go. ‘Twas supposed to be me, sittin’ at the fire, enjoying an Antivan red. ‘Twas supposed to be that my boy Krem got offa guard duty and came teh ask me teh dance. But I got no dancin’, now did I?”
Coll raised her head. Her bloodshot eyes filled with rage.
“I got no dancin’,” she growled. “I got two heads on me. And now some templars are teh die fer it.”
She staggered off after Kate.
“I do believe that elf is slightly mad,” Cassandra observed.
“Templars within range!” the archer on the wall shouted.
“Fire!” Leliana shouted. And as arrows sang out into the dark, Robert felt a sudden, terrible realization hit him. Haven, it seemed, was no haven at all. He’d come all this way just to die.
Without thinking, Robert reached out his hand and took the Seeker’s hand in his own. She tensed, but then, to Robert’s surprise and delight, she interlaced her gloved fingers with his and squeezed his hand. In her other hand, Cassandra still held the rose. Robert felt his heart expand even as fear made his insides cold as ice. It was an intense, dizzying sort of feeling.
“I imagine you wish you’d picked a better time to return,” Cassandra said, her voice wavering slightly.
“Not at all,” Robert replied, gazing down at her.
Cassandra’s cheeks went slightly red, and she turned her head away. “We don’t have time for this,” she said, pulling her hand away. “We need to fight. Walls or battlefield?”
And right then, with torches closing in and cries of alarm all around, Robert felt there was no place he would rather be than here at the Haven gates, with Cassandra Pentaghast at his side.
“You beautiful, stunning woman,” he said, the words tumbling out before he could think to check them. “I thought of your face every day - every night…”
“Maker’s breath,” Cassandra grumbled, tucking the rose into her belt and drawing her sword. “Are we going to fight for our lives, Robert Trevelyan, or are you going to spout poetry to me?”
Even though he very well might die within the hour, Robert could not help but laugh.
“I could do both, Cassandra,” he told her, knocking an arrow to his bow and following her out of the gates into the darkness. “If you’d like, I could do both.”
As Cullen ran, his mind raced over thoughts of trebuchets and avalanches and the exact trajectory he would need to hit the mountain correctly the first time. Considering that Cullen had spent the past week instructing his troops not to hit the nearby slopes by accident, he believed he knew the math well enough. This ought to be a simple matter of turning the machine to the left and setting it for maximum distance. At least, Cullen hoped so. Otherwise, he would spend the rest of the night fighting templars - possibly facing down the very men and women that he had trained himself.
There had to be some kind of divine punishment in that, Cullen thought, darkly.
Never mind that, Cullen told himself. He would do what he had to. Right now, he needed to focus on the task at hand. As he and Kate rushed past the south-east trebuchet, the one just outside the gates, Cullen heard one of his soldiers yell:
“Ser! Worship! Further orders?”
“Keep firing,” Cullen shouted back.
“And don’t let the enemy take the siege engines,” Kate added.
“Yes, ser!” came the reply. Cullen turned forward again, racing past the smithy as Kate struggled to keep up with him. For one quick moment, Cullen slowed his pace and looked over at her.
In the darkness, the mark was flickering slightly, casting green light on Kate’s face. Her brows were set in an expression of determination, just as they had been this afternoon when she had faced down the breach itself. This time, Cullen wasn’t even remotely startled when the the tangled something in his chest tightened. In fact, the sensation felt quite appropriate just then.
A moment later, they rounded the corner to where the northeastern trebuchet stood. The crew was frantically backing away, the beam straining under the weight of a large payload, which had already been lit on fire.
“Wait!” Kate cried. “We need to aim for…”
But it was too late. The soldier at the trigger pushed down on the lever, and a flaming rock flung out into the night. It arced like a low-flying falling star, then fell heavily onto the icy lake. There was a BOOM and a crack and a splash, then a scream as a line of torches disappeared quite suddenly.
“Well, that works, too,” Kate mused, cocking her head to the side.
“It will be easier to turn the machine now that it’s empty,” Cullen told her. “You there!” he shouted, striding up to the machine. “We need to turn the trebuchet before the next volley.”
“Ser!” the lieutenant on duty cried in surprise. “Your worship! What…”
“Change of plans,” Cullen told him sharply. “Set the trebuchet aiming north by northeast. Twenty degrees by the compass. Hurry!”
“But ser…” the lieutenant blinked. “That would fire it right into the hill there.”
“That’s the idea,” Cullen said, striding to the front of the machine. “Come now! This direction.”
With this he directed the soldiers take the wedges out from under the wheels, then to push the great machine back a few feet. The great machine creaked and groaned all the while, drowning out the grunts of the soldiers pushing it. Then then pushed the thing forward again, angling the thing toward the mountains and re-setting the wedge-shaped brakes. It was not unlike backing up and re-parking a great, oversized cart in the pitch darkness, Cullen thought. Even with every soldier pushing, it took them a few minutes to manage it.
“That took longer than I thought,” Kate said, wiping her brow, and Cullen was surprised to find she had helped as well. “Oh, Maker,” she added, pointing back toward the gates. “The templars reached the other trebuchet.”
“Hopefully they can hold it,” Cullen said grimly. “You there! Guard the path. And you three! Turn that wheel and help me reset the beam. Someone else get up here and help me with this wheel. Maker’s breath! Have we got any light around here? I can hardly see.”
“Sure, the templars will bring more torches soon enough,” a voice hollered crankily. Coll came stumbling up beside the trebuchet, looking like she’d crawled through the very Void to get there.
Suddenly, bright light flooded the space where Cullen stood. Cullen started, then blinked to find Kate standing right beside him. She had climbed up onto the machine beside him, holding icy-blue light in her right palm.
“How else can I help?” she asked Cullen, and though her voice was calm, the light quavered a little. Cullen felt his ribcage grow warm once again. He gave Kate the briefest of smiles, just a twitch of one side of his mouth, and then turned to the wheel.
“Just hold that light,” he told her. “I still need someone to help me turn this wheel and set the beam. Then the levers lock it into place until we hit that switch and the whole thing fires.”
Cullen wasn’t sure quite why he’d lapsed into something like a training session just now, but he had. Perhaps it was because pretending this was all an exercise was keeping him from fully acknowledging the torchlights drawing ever nearer.
“Got it,” Kate said. She flicked her fingers, sending the light to hover in the air over their heads. Then she grabbed hold of the wheel, as if she was going to help Cullen turn it. Cullen opened his mouth to protest that the wheel was very heavy, but stopped. Instead, he shouted to the team of men at the other wheel:
“Together now! Turn!”
On the other side of the frame, the soldiers tugged at the wheel. Cullen and Kate pulled on their end, but the thing scarcely moved at all.
“Not bad,” a voice rumbled from down below. “Not bad for a trebuchet. I was expecting a simple swinging counterweight, or maybe one of those lumbering pieces of shit powered by two treadwheels. Thought it would take you guys a full half-hour to set the beam. But this is pretty good, commander.”
“So glad you approve, Bull,” Cullen grunted, recognizing the qunari’s voice. “So long as you’re here, can you help with the wheel?”
“Yes, please,” Kate gasped beside him.
“On it,” Bull said, climbing up onto the platform beside them. He placed his hands on the wheel and Kate ducked out of the way. Bull then yanked the wheel so hard that Cullen was nearly pulled off balance. Seeing that Bull had this side well in hand, Cullen ducked around to the other wheel help the soldiers pull.
“Templars headed this way!” Cullen heard someone shout. It sounded like Cassandra.
“Sure I see’ em meself,” Coll replied crankily. “Emma elvarel, what a time fer this shite.”
“Just keep them off the trebuchet!” Kate shouted, and Cullen felt a wash of magic slide over his skin as Kate cast a shield spell on him and the others soldiers.
Then there was a scream.
It was like no scream Cullen had ever heard before. It didn’t even sound human. And then, suddenly, battle flowed over them.
It was like a wave of red light and shadows swept in around the siege engine, but Cullen did not dare look down into those battle-waters. Even when the man at Cullen’s side was suddenly yanked back into the shadows, Cullen didn’t glance back to see where the fellow landed or what had grabbed him. Instead, Cullen had to put his shoulder into the wheel to keep it from turning backward and undoing all their work.
“Bull!” Cullen shouted. “I lost one - no, make that two of my men. We need to hurry!”
At Cullen’s side, an arrow had cut down another of the men, who now slumped against the frame of the siege machine, unmoving.
Cullen heard a roar, and through the timbers of the frame, he saw Bull straining at the wheel. Then the wheel turned, slowly and haltingly at first, then smoothly, then quickly, and Cullen frantically pulled as fast as he could to aid it in its whirring. Then there was a great CLANK as the beam fell into place.
“Hold it there, Bull!” he shouted.
Quick as he could, Cullen scrambled around the frame, climbing the timbers just as a flaming arrow went sailing into the wood where his head had been just moments ago.
“Might want to get yourself a helmet, commander,” Bull said tightly, his every muscle straining as he fought to keep the wheel from turning back.
“Surely your head makes the bigger target,” Cullen returned dryly, ducking down to set the lever to hold the beam in place. Bull chuckled through gritted teeth as two more flaming arrows sank into the frame above their heads.
“They’re gonna try and burn this thing down,” Bull said, letting go of the wheel and reaching for his greatsword.
“It’s coated with spindleweed and lime,” Cullen replied. “Ought to hold it for a while. Bull, I need you to…”
But evidently Bull had just been waiting for his turn to join the battle. Turning from the wheel, the qunari let out a shout and leaped off the trebuchet. His back was bowed for a moment, his greatsword held high, and then he landed on an armored figure in the shadows, and split the templar in two.
Cullen winced at the giant’s viciousness, then turned back to the trebuchet. Only two soldiers remained of the original crew. Cullen pointed down into the underbelly of the machine.
“The sling,” he hollered to them. “We need to reset it.” The two men nodded, and all of them scrambled down under the frame at once. At the same moment, a tree - and actual tree - suddenly shot up through the ground beside the siege engine, sending several armored attackers flying.
“Na din’an sahlin!, yeh great fecks!” Cullen heard a distinctly Dalish voice cry. “An’ that’s me oak up yer arse!”
“That elf frightens me, ser,” one of the remaining siege engineers said, as Cullen dropped down beside him.
“Me as well,” Cullen admitted. “Good thing she’s on our side. Here, get the sling sorted out. Where’s our earth-mage?”
“Dead, ser,” the other soldier said, nodding as he reached for the tangle of rope and leather. Cullen felt his heart sink as he followed the man’s gaze. A robed body lay out there in the blood-splashed snow, glassy eyes staring sightlessly at the sky.
“I need a mage!” Cullen cried out into the field. “Kate! Coll!”
There was a flash of light as ice and fire ran together in a wild explosion. It appeared that a single armored form was trapped inside those dueling elements, just before the horned figure of Bull smashed into it.
“That one was mine!” Cullen heard Colleen cry. “I had him burned afore yeh froze ‘im or smashed ‘im!”
“Slow down, Circles!” Bull shouted. “Save your strength!”
“Save me strength?” Coll snapped, clutching at her staff with one hand and her head with the other. “Save me strength? I was once a Keeper of clan Lavellen, yeh great ox! That is me savin my feckin’ strength!”
She waved her hand and a ring of flame erupted around the battlefield. By the light of it, Cullen now saw the templars not just as shadows upon darkness, but as silhouettes against fire. They didn’t move like humans, Cullen thought, his hand on the frame as he stared out into the night. Rather, they moved like wild beasts, their joints all set at the wrong angles and their limbs elongated or broken.
“Hold your ground!” Cullen heard Kate shout above all this. “There’s another wave coming!”
And so there was. A screech rent the air as an armored figure leapt over the wall of flames. Half-way through it’s leap, however, a root shot up and skewered the templar mid-flight.
“Fenedhis,” Coll gruntd as the armored figure fell. “What feckin’ buzz-kills.”
“Sling’s ready, ser,” one of the soldiers announced to Cullen. The two men held the leather thong out like a hammock.
“Kate!” Cullen shouted from inside the timbers of the trebuchet. “I need a payload!”
Kate did a double take at the sound of his voice, and for one awful moment, Cullen thought he might have killed her. A templar rushed at her while she was distracted. But just as she spotted Cullen under the machine, one of Robert’s arrow struck the templar down. Kate ran for Cullen, never even realizing how close she’d been to death.
“Cullen,” she gasped, “These templars…”
Cullen spoke right over her, pointing at the nearby shelf of rock along the lakeshore.
“Payload,” he told her. “We need a rock,” he clarified, when she merely blinked. “About this size,” he added, holding up his hands as though holding a pumpkin.
“Oh,” Kate said. “I…” She flexed her left hand for a moment, and Cullen saw the green light was flickering wildly in her palm.
“Can you do it?” Cullen asked her, sharply. From beyond them, there were more shouts and screams.
“Of course,” Kate said, stepping back from the siege machine. “Of course.”
She screwed up her face in concentration, and for a moment, nothing happened. Then, quite suddenly, a rock the size of a small barrel came screaming out of the night. It made straight for the trebuchet - and Cullen’s head.
“Maker!” one of the engineers shouted, but the rock stopped just short of impact. Instead it hung hovering in the air right beside the trebuchet, then slowly inched under the machine.
“Sorry!” Kate called. Cullen felt his heart hammering in his chest, but motioned to his men.
“Quickly now,” he said, helping them slip the sling around the rock. “Alright then,” Cullen called, when they had the rock encased. “Let it down easy, Kate.”
The rock dropped heavily to the ground, and Cullen and the two soldiers jumped back against the frame. There was an ominous creak in the timbers above. Cullen glanced up, and saw flames had spread from the templars’ arrows. Fire now licked the timbers of the trebuchet’s frame.
“Hurry!” he called to Kate. “We need to…”
Cullen heard Kate scream in alarm. He looked up just in time to see something like a demon rush at her. Kate snapped her staff out before her, sending up a spray of solid ice. But the demon-thing simply sliced through Kate’s wall with long, clawed hands.
Cullen had no real memory of charging, nor of drawing his sword. All he knew was that one moment he was under the trebuchet, the next moment, he was racing toward Kate. And in the next moment, something slammed into him from the side and sent him flying.
Cullen heard Kate scream his name, saw a flare of blue light flash at his feet. But the shield-spell came too late to cover him. Cullen hit the ground and skidded to a stop. Pain shot through his right shoulder, and his sword flew from his grip.
“Ser!” he thought he heard someone yell. And someone else cried:
Cullen tried to roll over, tried to return to the fight, tried to call out for the engineers to fire the trebuchet already. But something heavy struck his side and he found himself thrown once more. This time, when he landed, Cullen felt as if he’d suddenly been plunged underwater. There was a roaring sound was everywhere and nowhere. Faint clashes came from a distance - he thought he heard Kate’s cry again - and over all of it, Cullen heard the deep, rasping sound of his own breathing. He tried again to reach for his sword, and again felt pain shoot through his arm. Then something slammed into Cullen, pinning him to the ground. He looked up into the night, and saw a templar looming over him, one knee on Cullen’s armored chest. But this was like no templar Cullen had ever seen. Through the slit in a templar’s helmet, Cullen saw his enemy’s eyes. And at that sight, Cullen went cold with fear.
Those eyes were not human. They were not demon eyes either, nor even the eyes of an abomination. Cullen had only seen eyes like that once before: eyes red and glowing, eyes filled with hatred and hurt and longing and betrayal all at once. They were the eyes of someone who looked so long for perfection that they had entirely lost hope. Now, all those eyes looked for was destruction.
They were Meredith’s eyes, and Cullen for a moment thought he was looking into his dead commander’s face. But then the thing inside that mask screamed - a hissing, retching scream, and Cullen smashed his elbow up and into the helmet as hard as he could. The helmet flew off, and Cullen nearly threw up when he saw what lay beneath it. The face was not one he knew. It barely even looked human anymore. Red crystals stuck up from the cheeks like tusks; red crystals hung down from the mouth like fangs. A red crystal stuck from the thing’s skull as if it had been impaled on the stuff and all of that red seemed to glow and stink and it almost sang. The lyrium itself seemed to call to Cullen in a language he once knew, but could not now understand. It tugged at his chest, repulsed him and enticed him all at once. And as he stood there staring, with the templars hands wrapped around Cullen’s throat, two long blades of lyrium began to grow down from the templar’s wrists. They slid out slowly, pressed right up against Cullen’s skin.
Then there was a ‘snick’ of a blade and the templar’s distorted, glowing head fell off to one side. The headless body flopped on top of Cullen, spurting blood from its stump of a neck. With a cry, Cullen scooted back as the thing caught fire. When he looked up again there was the spirit-boy, Cole, with his twin daggers dripping blood.
“You’re welcome,” the boy said, before Cullen could say anything at all. Then he disappeared entirely.
“Cullen, are you alright?”
Kate dropped to her knees before him. Her left hand was both sparking and dripping blood.
“The trebuchet,” Cullen gasped, pointing at it.
“Right,” she said, turning to it. “Oh Maker, look at it burn! Will it even work?”
“Just fire it!” Cullen cried, trying to struggle to his feet.
Kate said nothing, just shot out her right hand. The throw-switch clicked down, and the machine did the rest. The counterweight swooped back with a great WHOOSH and the frame creaked as one of the timbers split. The beam went flying up into the air, and the sling followed it, flinging the rock out into the night.
“It’s not going to make it,” Cullen said, feeling dread sink into him. He could see at once that the trebuchet had been compromised by flame. The missile was not rising high enough, not moving fast enough to reach full range. All of that fighting, and this wasn’t going to work.
“At least the payload caught on fire,” he muttered to himself. Too bad it wouldn’t get to its destination.
“Coll!” Kate shouted, leaping to her feet. “The rock! Help me with the rock!”
Coll turned from where she’d been skewering a templar on a root, and looked blankly at Kate, then saw where Kate was pointing. Suddenly understanding, Coll shot out her hand to the sky. Both the mages now splayed their fingers, as if giving praise to the starless heavens. For a moment, the rock continued on its slow arc, and then, quite suddenly, it was as if something had kicked it mid-flight. It shot toward the mountain, gaining speed, dropping in height….
Then Kate staggered to the ground, clutching at her left hand.
“Ahhhh!” she cried, her voice choked with tears.
“Kate!” Cullen cried. He stumbled toward her, and so he missed the moment when the missile landed. As he fell to his knees beside Kate, Cullen glanced up at the mountains. Had this even worked, Cullen wondered wildly? He had not heard any sounds of impact above the roar of the battle. It was possible he’d dragged everyone out here into danger for nothing.
“Kate-lass!” Coll shouted, rushing over to her friend. “Are yeh alright?”
“It’s pulling,” Kate hissed. “The mark. It’s like it’s trying follow the rock or something. Ah! See? It’s pulling toward the east.”
Cullen looked down and saw that indeed, Kate’s hand was scored deep, as if someone had drawn a knife across it.
“Here yeh are lass,” Coll said, sending some healing magic into it. “Here yeh are.”
“Don’t waste your mana,” Kate hissed. “It’ll just tear again.” She looked up at last, but her face fell when she gazed at what was left of the siege engine. The trebuchet had become like a bonfire, burning in the night.
“Oh, Maker,” Kate whispered. “That was our last chance.”
“But look!” Coll cried, pointing out into the darkness. “Look!”
Cullen looked, his eyes desperately searching the hills. And out there in the night, something seemed to be happening. It was too faint a thing to see clearly in the moonlight - just a sort of shuffling of gray and gray along the mountainside. But then the torchlights were snuffed out, starting in the north and swooping swiftly down to the lake. As when a priestess blows out the confessional candles at the end of a service, the lights went out in rows upon rows. And with the darkness came a cracking, crashing sound like distant waves on rocks. Cullen thought he might never have heard a more blessed sound in all his life.
“Ah-ha!” shrieked Coll. “We did it! We did– Oh, great Mythal,” she moaned, placing a hand to her head. “I shouldna shout like that when I’ve the wine-blues.”
“Yes!” roared Bull, causing Coll to flinch again. “That’s how it’s done!”
“Watch out!” came a yell, and Cullen looked around just in time to see a mad-eyed templar rushing at him. But then something rushed into it - another armored body with short hair and a battle-roar that set Cullen’s hair on end. Cassandra shield-bashed the last templar on the field, then sliced off one of its arm, and stabbed it right through the neck. When she turned around, her armor was splashed with blood.
“Where is Robert?” she demanded at once, not even pausing as she stalked the field. “Where is…?”
“Here,” a voice weakly called, and Cullen saw a rangy figure stumble forward to his knees. Cassandra cried and went running over to him.
“Maker’s breath,” she cried, “Colleen. Come heal him.”
“Sure, sure,” the healer said, still clutching her head. “That’s what I’m here for, yeah? Eh, Falon’din guide these poor sods,” Coll added, waving her hand at the corpses all around. “They’re beyont healin’.”
It was true, Cullen saw. In the light of the burning trebuchet, he gazed out at the carnage around them. Dozens of bodies on the ground, some wearing the remains of templar armor, many more wearing the Inquisition’s colors. Cullen felt numbed by the sight.
“What happened to those templars?” Cullen asked, surprised his voice was so calm. “What changed them?”
“I don’t know,” Kate said, shaking her head. “I’ve never seen anything like them before.”
“I have,” Cullen murmured, but he didn’t think anyone heard him.
“Red hunger,” Cole said, appearing suddenly at Cullen’s side. “Red anger. Red songs sung by red throats.”
“And red shite from red arses,” Coll finished for him, looking up from a body that was too late to save. “Just talk sense, boy. What happened to ‘em? Oh, feck me, I need an elfroot.”
“Help Robert, elf!” Cassandra demanded. “Stop messing about with the dead.”
“Oh, aren’t you a sympathetic one?” Coll said, stumbling over.
“I’m fine,” Robert said, shaking his head as Coll reached out to heal him. “I’m fine. But the templars… I know what happened to them. They… They ate the lyrium. The red kind. That’s what made them like that.”
Cullen opened his mouth, but no sound came out. A wave of emotion washed over him, a sorrow and fury and betrayal so deep that he could not speak.
“They ate the red lyrium?” Kate asked, her voice rising sharply. “As in, they ingested it? As in, they put actual red lyrium in their actual mouths and consumed it?”
“Last time I checked, that’s what ‘eating’ means, Kate,” Robert nodded, clutching his side. “I thought I told you that at the first. Or no. No, I didn’t. Ought to have mentioned it. Sorry. This whole thing is becoming a blur.”
“Stay with me, Robert,” Cassandra told him sharply, as Coll glared at Robert angrily.
“Mythal save yeh, boyo, what a thing to keep to yourself! I have half a mind teh not heal yeh after all. I will heal yeh, o’ course,” she added, when Cassandra scowled at her. “Just don’ feel like it much at the mo’.”
“It hardly matters when we found out,” Cassandra said, decisively. “What Lord Seeker Lucius did to these templars, he must have done long ago.”
“The Lord Seeker gave his face to someone else,” Cole said, softly.
“What?” Cassandra frowned at the boy. “The Lord Seeker did what with his face?”
“The Lord Seeker traded places with an Envy demon,” Robert explained, as Coll let her glowing hands rest. “It was… nasty.”
He shuddered, and Cullen now recognized the signs of one who has fought back against demons. It did not surprise him any more that Robert was acting so erratic and forgetful, if he’d been trying to outrun a monster like that.
“But we killed Envy,” Robert went on. “The templars followed someone else here. Sam… Sam… Sammy something. Some disgraced fellow from Kirkwall. Barris would remember the name.”
Cullen froze in his tracks.
“Not Samson,” he said.
“That’s the chap.” Robert snapped his fingers. “Samson.”
“Samson,” Cullen murmured, as he glared off into the hills.
Of course, it wasn’t as if Cullen could actually spot the fellow in this dark and at this distance. With any luck, the man was dead, buried under feet of snow. But Cullen remembered that rat-like face all the same.
“Is that some friend of yours, commander?” Bull wanted to know.
“No,” Cullen replied, firmly. “Definitely not.”
“Lonely and learned, silent and solemn,” Cole murmured. “You were everything Samson was not. That’s why he hates you.”
“The feeling was mutual, I assure you,” Cullen replied. “But Samson was no leader. Why would any sane templar listen to the man, much less eat red lyrium at his say so?”
“See now, yeh just answered yer own question,” Coll said. “Since when was there ever a sane templar?”
Cullen decided to ignore that remark.
“Samson doesn’t know the oldest songs,” Cole said then, looking up at the distant hills from under the wide brim of his hat. “He follows the Elder One’s music now. All the red templars do.”
Cullen was absolutely certain his heart stopped beating for a moment. Kate went perfectly still, and Cassandra gasped. As for the Iron Bull, he groaned loudly.
“Oh come on! Not that Elderly asshole from the Redcliffe future-dream-thing. He was leading these templars?”
“Is,” Cole said. “He is leading them.”
With this, the boy pointed at the distant hills.
Cullen whirled around, certain of what he would see and dreading it all the same. Far off on the distant mountainside, a single light had appeared in the dark. Then another light flickered into being, and another, and another. Soon the hillside was once again dotted with pinpricks of fire.
“Maker save us,” Kate murmured, her eyes wide with fear.
“Never thought I’d find myself hating the sight of lights in the darkness,” Robert murmured. “That’s got to be blasphemy or something.”
Blasphemy or not, Cullen entirely agreed with the man.
“How could they survive that?” Cassandra demanded. “Surely even red lyrium could not give templars the power enough to breathe under snow.”
“Yeh willin’ teh bet on that, Seeker?” Coll asked her.
“Maybe they were in the Deep Roads?” Robert asked. “Cole said that’s how they got here so fast.”
“See now, and that’s another thing yeh mighta tol’ us, lad,” Coll said, clutching the side of her head.
“Aw, shit,” Bull said, scowling. “Deep roads? Ugh, I hate that about the south. Always a tunnel somewhere.”
“But we searched the place repeatedly,” Cassandra protested.
Cullen shook his head. “No,” he said, dully. “Keran said something about a map with more mines on it. But it wasn’t in the Chantry histories, nor any of the atlases of this place. If there were other paths into this place…”
He couldn’t go on from there. Because if he did, Cullen had to admit that this entire mess might all be his fault.
“Then we fight,” Kate said, fiercely, turning to all of them. “There are less templars than before, right? The avalanche must have taken out the bulk of them. So we fall back to the walls. And we fight.”
“Kate,” Cullen said, her name slipping out of his mouth, and he didn’t even quite know why. Kate paused and looked over at him. In the light of the burning trebuchet, her expression was both fierce and sad. Cullen felt something course through him - something desperate and powerful - and it frightened him even as it comforted him.
“Do you even know what an Elder One is?” Robert asked, sounding a bit punch-drunk as he posed this question. “I could never get a straight answer out of Cole.”
“Wings of dry bone, heart of black sinew,” Cole said in his sing-song voice. “Seeking and searching and soulless. Death is drawing near.”
“Yes, you see?” Robert said, waving a hand. “Just like that. Come on, Cole. Tell us once and for all: What is the Elder One?”
The boy turned then, stared at Robert with pale, vacant eyes and said:
And that was when the dragon came screaming out of the night.
Note: I am not a huge fan of the tactics in this section of the game, but worked with them all the same. For my full nerd rant on siege weaponry in In Your Heart Shall Burn, see here