It was Satinalia and everything hurt.
Kate lay in the dark, eyes closed, taking stock of all her many breaks and bruises. Her ribs hurt. Her back hurt. Her right knee throbbed. Her head felt like it had been walloped by a hammer and she strongly suspected she’d broken her arm in at least two places.
Still, Kate thought, she had survived. Pain proved she wasn’t dead. That had to be some sort of miracle.
Thank you Maker, Kate sighed.
So much for the good news. The bad news was that Kate was not only wounded, but stuck in a hole under Haven. She also had no idea how long she’d been lying here, unconscious in the dark. Kate vaguely remembered hearing music, but perhaps that had been a dream. All she knew now was that her friends were out there, running from red templars and most of them were wounded. She had to find them, Kate thought. She had to raise her head and…
“Owwww,” Kate groaned.
Whatever else she did, she would have to do it slowly. Just that one movement had hurt like the Void. Kate took a moment to catch her breath, then tried again. She started by opening her eyes.
Kate had expected to find herself in pitch darkness, but to her surprise, the cave was awash in a faint blue light. The air about her was damp and smelled faintly of storms. When Kate carefully turned her head to one side, she saw a shimmering pool of liquid just beyond her reach. It looked like crushed starlight upon the stone.
It was lyrium, Kate realized. One of the vials must have fallen out of her pocket and shattered.
Better not let that go to waste, Kate reasoned.
Kate rolled onto her side, her ribs screaming in protest. She paused there for breath, then shrugged her shoulder and inched toward the puddle. Pain shot through her arm, causing her to gasp. Kate squinted her eyes shut. Then she sucked in a breath and shuffled forward once more. Again came the pain; again came the gritting of teeth.
By inches, Kate edged over to the pool. She stretched out her neck and stuck out her tongue, like a baby bird angling for a worm. For a moment Kate hovered there, wondering if lyrium could freeze. She certainly hoped not. She had heard warnings about licking lamp-posts in winter, after all. But she needed healing and there was lyrium for the taking. So Kate put her mouth to the puddle and drank.
Energy jolted through her, hard and foreign. Kate shuddered, and forced herself to swallow. Maker, she hated lyrium, Kate thought. It was like drinking liquid iron. It granted power at the expense of sensitivity to the Fade. She couldn’t imagine why templars voluntarily drank the stuff.
Still shaking, Kate squeezed her eyes shut. She tried to imagine her veins dispersing that energy into her wounds. She focused on her throbbing head, then on the pain in her neck. Kate willed the lyrium to sooth her cracked ribs, to warm her freezing toes. That was as far as she got before the power faded. Then Kate levered herself over the lyrium once more.
Kate lapped at the puddle on the ground, carefully avoiding the shards of the broken vial. With each drop, Kate pushed healing magic into her back, her legs, her hands. Her right arm was still throbbing, but Kate knew she didn’t have mana or talent enough to heal the shattered bone. When she found herself swallowing more dirt than liquid, Kate decided she was done. She drew her legs up underneath her, and turned her attention to the mark upon her left hand.
Corypheus had called this an ‘anchor,’ Kate thought. And now, it actually looked like one. Before, the mark had flicked over Kate’s hand as a glowing green glob. Now, it had fully settled into her body, as much a part of her as vein or bone. It shone through her skin as a vibrant tracery, reminding Kate of an illustration she’d once seen in a book on Rivani folk-magic. According to the lore of palmistry, Kate’s life-line had been extended, as well as her wealth-line. Her love line was completely obscured by the glow.
How curious, Kate thought. She could even make the mark dim entirely. It responded to her will now, just like her own magic. She wondered if Corypheus had realized what he’d done. In trying to take the mark from her, he’d given her control over it. The thought made her lips curl in a sly, satisfied smile.
Take that, Elder One, she thought.
A shout echoed through the tunnels, and Kate looked up sharply.
Or not, she thought. It seemed she’d celebrated too soon. That had not sounded like a human voice. That had sounded like one of those red templars. Kate’s heart began to hammer. She did not want to get trapped down here with those monsters. She had control over the mark, but glowing veins would do little against attackers.
Stay calm, Kate told herself, breathing deeply. If someone had gotten into this tunnel, that suggested that there was a way back out. All Kate had to do was find the exit. Kate looked around, and saw only one tunnel leading out of this chamber. She also spotted Keran’s sword nearby, it’s edge glinted green in the light of the mark. Kate snagged the blade with her left hand, then realized the weapon was completely useless to her. She had never trained with blades, and her right arm was broken anyhow. Still, it seemed wrong to leave the sword behind. Kate stared down at the weapon for a moment, then slid the blade into her belt loop. Gingerly, Kate pushed herself to her feet.
Though her head spun and her feet felt heavy as stone, Kate stumbled off into tunnels. She dared not waste power on an illumination spell, so she held her left hand out, using the mark to light her way. The result was most unnerving. Weird shadows loomed before her; weird shadows crept in behind her. The walls were close around her, and the air smelled musty and damp. Kate’s felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She imagined that someone - or something - was trailing her, just waiting to strike.
Shivering now, Kate made herself shuffle along, never stopping or looking back. Down one tunnel she went, through a room and on into yet another passage. This led to a largish chamber. There were several doorways here, all leading off into narrow passages. One door was shored up with wooden boards. Boards meant mines, Kate thought, and that seemed as likely as way out as any. She chose that path and headed onward. The tunnel listed slightly left for a time, and then Kate stumbled out into yet another chamber. It, too, was surrounded with doorways, and the passageway furthest to the right was lined with wooden boards.
Wait, Kate thought with a frown. Was this the same room as before? Was she going in circles? Maker’s breath, this was no good. Kate’s sense of direction had always been poor, her tracking skills non-existent. She struggled with pathfinding even when she had maps and landmarks for guidance. Underground and in darkness, she felt completely helpless. What was more, Kate already felt exhausted. So much for the healing power of lyrium.
Still, she had to keep moving. The longer she wandered down here, the more likely she was to run into an enemy. Kate chose a different passage - the one directly in front of her, and hoped it led her onward. After a moment, Kate found herself breathing easier. This looked new, she thought. The passage here was square in shape, and it led to a natural culvert. This led to a long, narrow room, and on into a mine-like tunnel. A few minutes later, Kate stumbled into a bright, airy space. The cave was roughly circular in shape, with icicles hanging all around and snow drifting in the corners. Moonlight streamed down from an opening in the high ceiling.
Well, Kate thought, coming up short. This was definitely new. It was a pity she had no rope, or she might be able to climb out of here. Still, Kate reasoned, if that was moonlight, then she must have left buried Haven behind. It shouldn’t be too much further now. Kate looked around the room and saw several tunnels, all leading off into uninviting shadow.
Lovely, Kate thought grimly. Another crossroads. Still, she meant to get out of here, even if she had to try each passage in turn. With a sigh of determination, Kate limped forward into the room.
Something else limped into the room as well.
They had been hiding just inside the opposite tunnel: demons in long robes and red templars in dented armor. There were at least half a dozen of them, and they had spotted Kate before she spotted them. Kate gasped; the demons shrieked. Their voices were high-pitched and bloodless.
The templars and demons rushed for her. Kate stumbled back. Her right knee collapsed and she fell backward onto the stone.
Pain shot through her arm and ribs, but the fall probably saved her life. An arrow flew through the air where Kate had been a moment before. The templars were running for her, the demons streaming in… Frightened and unthinking, Kate flung her left hand out before her and willed for ice.
She got fire.
A blaze shot out from Kate’s palm, causing the demons to shriek and the red templars to hide their eyes behind their glowing hands. And in that moment, Kate felt the strangest sensation in her left hand. It came from the mark - a sense of stronger power, just waiting to be unleashed.
So Kate unleashed it.
A rift split the air, small and precise and roaring in intensity. Kate cried out in surprise, shuffling back on her bottom. She pressed herself herself up against the cave wall, curling away from the thing she’d created. She had not meant to summon that, Kate thought wildly.
As she watched, the fade-tear sucked the demons into the rift, lifted the armored templars right off of their feet. The roaring grew louder. Kate’s ears popped violently. She gasped as the vortex whirled and crackled, as the templars and demons were pulled into the rift. The creatures screamed and spun and shrank, folding up on themselves in mid-air. Their long fingers clawed at the single shaft of moonlight.
The rift disappeared with a soft pop. All that remained was Kate, her glowing mark, and the quiet. Kate blinked.
“Holy Maker,” she whispered.
Kate held up her left hand and gazed in amazement at her palm. What was that? The mark had just destroyed a small host of demons and templars in one spell - a spell she hadn’t even meant to cast! And where in Andraste’s name had she sent them, Kate wondered? Had she sent them to the Void? Bodily? Kate couldn’t imagine what a handful of red templars might do in the Fade. Or had she killed them? Or perhaps she’d crushed them, or transmuted them into some other form, or…
Whatever she’d done, Kate had taxed herself to the limit. Fatigue hit Kate in a wave, and she sank back against the wall of the cave.
Oh help, Kate thought, dimly. Great power came at great price, or so the Circle enchanters always said. It seemed they were right. After channeling that energy, Kate felt like her body was ready to collapse.
No collapsing, Kate told herself. She had friends to find, friends to save. She had to find them tonight, if possible.
Kate groped for the lyrium vial in her pocket. If ever she needed the stuff, it was now. But Kate’s hand came away empty. She’d lost the lyrium, Kate realized with a groan. She wasn’t certain if the bottle had fallen out of her pocket during the battle, or some time during her stumbling in the passages. She didn’t see it anywhere nearby. Worse still, when Kate looked around the room at the possible exits, she couldn’t remember what door she’d come in from. She was well and truly lost now.
No, Kate thought. And her thought swiftly turned to a prayer:
Please Maker, Kate begged, I understand I’ve had more than my fair share of salvation already. But please, just help me find my friends. Just help me…
At first, there was no answer. Kate’s eyes began to close. The room went dark and fuzzy, the moonlight grew dim. A long way off, Kate thought she heard another echoing scream and then…
And then Kate heard music.
Kate squinted into the room, but saw no one there. Still, the sound was unmistakable. She heard a song, and it was just like the song she’d heard while battling Corypheus. It was a curious tune, both lilting melody and somber incantation at once. It made Kate think of a child, dancing and laughing in the Grand Cathedral. The song also made Kate think of home, yet that image made less sense. For it didn’t make Kate think of Trevelyan House or the Ostwick Tower or any place she’d ever been before. Rather, it made Kate long for a home she’d never been to, a place she couldn’t even picture in her mind. But it made her think of her friends. She pictured Coll’s laughing face, and Robert’s knowing wink, and Cullen, quiet and appraising, wearing just the hint of a smile.
Kate felt her strength return. She felt magic surge within her once more. Her head cleared, and she now realized the music was coming from the passage just to her right.
Should she follow the sound, Kate wondered? It seemed an absurd method of navigation. Yet, what other choice did she have? She didn’t imagine the red templars were playing such music. They did not seem the symphonic type.
Though it struck her as slightly mad, Kate rose and followed the song. On and on she walked, trying to hum the tune as she went. She never could quite catch the melody, however, and finally fell silent. Kate wandered in near-darkness, through chambers and passages, through places where light filtered down from cracks in the rocks above. She passed through places where the darkness was so thick it seemed to press in around her like a shroud. It seemed to her that where the tunnel was darkest, the song grew the sweetest. And then, just as the melody rose on a crescendo, Kate saw light before her. She picked up her pace, hopping and stumbling down the tunnel, rushing for the end of the caves. She stepped out into the night, and there Kate discovered the source of the song:
It was not music. It was a storm.
Kate’s heart sank at the sight. Swirling snow greeted her. Moonlight illuminated a landscape of silver-gray drifts. Kate blinked her eyes against the biting wind, fighting a cry of frustration. What was this, Kate thought angrily? She thought someone - a refugee, a mage, perhaps even the Maker himself - had been leading her out of that underground maze. But now Kate found the ‘out’ was as dangerous as the ‘in.’ Instead of walls and tunnels, Kate stood in a labyrinth of empty mountains and unseen ravines and riotous weather. She couldn’t go out into this storm. She’d catch her death out there.
But even as Kate thought that, she heard another scream. The sound echoed from back inside the tunnel - another demon wail.
Wonderful, Kate thought. She was trapped between cave and wasteland, unable to go back, unwilling to go on. She dared not rely on the mark to save her a second time. Besides, what help was a mark against a storm? And which was worse, Kate wondered? Being ripped apart by demons in the dark, or freezing all alone in the mountains?
As she stood there wondering, the music returned. Now it sounded from out in the snow, as if someone were playing the tune in the gale.
Kate gave a short laugh of disbelief. Was this some sort of test, she wondered? If so, Kate thoroughly disapproved. She didn’t like unannounced examinations. They always struck her as vaguely unfair. Kate frowned, looking back toward the tunnel. Go on or go back, Kate wondered? Going on seemed like an insane leap of faith.
Kate stopped at that.
Well then, Maker, she thought. Onward it is.
Kate turned toward the storm and squared her shoulders. In her left hand, she summoned up a tongue of fire. It danced above her green-glowing palm, bright and cheerful against the night. Kate let it grow into a small blaze, so that she held a little fire in her hand. This would keep her warm, Kate reasoned, a portable furnace to stave off the chill. The music grew louder, beckoning her on into the dark.
Kate followed, guided by song and shielded by flame.
Cullen stood on a hill above camp and stared out into the night. The mountain landscape was still and quiet. Not a snowflake had stirred since the storm ended hours ago. Cullen shrugged his shoulders against the cold and tried to think of something - anything - that might keep him busy until dawn.
Pitch tents, he mused? No, that was already done. The make-shift camp below was as large as a small village by now. Distribute rations? Unnecessary, he thought. No one had much appetite at present. Perhaps he should see to the wounded? No, no. The healers had things well in hand. They had already asked him to stop wandering around the sick-tents aimlessly. So Cullen had come up here, waiting for the scouts to report back from their search through the mountains. All able-bodied soldiers had been sent out to scout the passages, and to look for possible survivors. Not that anyone expected there to be survivors. But still one had to look, because…
Well, one had to look.
Cullen swallowed hard.
Firewood, he thought. Yes, they definitely needed more firewood. He could go collect some. This wasn’t exactly a job for the commander, but everyone could do their part, yes? Those campfires would need more fuel eventually. Of course, he thought, that would mean returning to camp. That would mean listening to the people weeping in their tents, looking at the shocked and stricken faces. That would mean he would have to face the same loss, the same guilt, the same wonder as to where everything had gone wrong…
No, Cullen thought, shaking his head. He didn’t have time to wonder about these things. He needed to get back to work. Perhaps not firewood, then. Perhaps he would just get his reports and find a nice quiet spot to go through them….
Wait, no. His reports had all been buried with Haven. They had been buried with Kate.
Maker, Cullen thought, swallowing hard. Just thinking Kate’s name made his chest hurt. Just thinking of her…
He would start new reports, Cullen told himself. With this resolution firmly in mind, Cullen turned on his heel and began marching down the hill. He would begin by finding a paper and a pen - that search ought to keep him busy for a while. Then he would write out lists and…
Kate wrote lists, his mind decided to remind him. Cullen stopped at that, coming to a halt in the snow.
Damn, he thought, squeezing his eyes shut. When he thought of how hard she had worked these past few months, when he thought of her face…
No, he told himself. He could not do this. He could not fall idle. It was disrespectful to her, and it would be fatal to him. He had to keep moving. He needed to make his feet move…
Yet his feet would not move. Cullen’s entire body felt heavy and cold. But when he opened his eyes, he saw that someone was moving toward him. Cassandra came stomping up the hill, looking over her shoulder every few feet to glare back down at the camp. She reached him, frowned, and said without preamble:
Cullen did not have to ask her what she meant. “Not yet,” he replied. He wished he had a different answer.
Cassandra gave a long sigh. She came to stand beside him and Cullen turned as well. They now stood looking up the hill, toward the direction the Inquisition had fled from. The hillside was smooth and white, for all their bootprints had been wiped away by the earlier storm. It would make them hard to track, Cullen thought. He supposed that was a good thing.
“What now?” Cassandra asked him, bluntly. Cullen pinched the bridge of his nose. Andraste’s tears, don’t ask me that, Cassandra, he thought. But aloud, he simply replied: “Wait.”
Cassandra huffed in disgust. Cullen decided to change the subject.
“How is Robert Trevelyan?” he asked. “And Colleen? Are they stable?” If Kate was gone, the least he could do was ask after her friends, Cullen thought. At his question, Cassandra scowled.
“Alive,” she replied. “Sleeping.” She sniffed, then folded her arms stiffly over her chest.
“I am now ashamed that I did not stay behind with Katerina,” Cassandra announced. “I worried overmuch about her cousin, when it is clear he was not the priority. I should not have allowed …”
She broke off there and shook her head. “But why was I so worried?” Cassandra murmured, so soft Cullen almost missed it. “I scarcely even know him.” She shook her head, then concluded:
“Robert Trevelyan makes me make no sense.”
It was an odd statement. Yet, Cullen felt he was in no position to judge. This night had made everyone act in strange ways. Cassandra had left the battlefield. He had been forced to flee. And Kate had given her life to save them. That had been the strangest act of all.
And the bravest, Cullen thought.
He felt a sudden pricking at the corners of his eyes. Surreptitiously, he ran a hand over his face, checking for tears. When his glove came back dry, and he let his hand drop.
“We all wish that battle had gone differently,” Cullen said, when he could speak again.
“Yet most of us survived,” Cassandra replied.
“Most of us,” Cullen agreed, quietly.
“But not her,” Cassandra said.
Cullen felt his throat go tight. He willed himself to breathe in and out. Cassandra sighed and stomped her feet in the snow.
“How will we manage without the Herald, I do not know,” she said. Cullen did not reply. He could not.
Then, from below, came an odd sound. A panting noise echoed up the hill, followed by shouts. Cullen turned to find a small crowd of people racing up the hill toward him and Cassandra. It was Colleen, Cullen saw. She was followed by Solas, who was followed by Krem. Trailing after came Iron Bull and Leliana.
“Coll, you must rest!” Solas cried after the Dalish elf. “The Herald would not want…”
“Kate can speak for her own self,” came the sharp reply. “An’ she will, once I find her in this storm…” Coll stopped short of Cullen, blinking out into the dark.
“No storm,” she said, nodding. “That’s good. Alright, someone find me a halla. Or a horse. A horse’ll do. I’ll go lookin’ for her. I find her and heal her…”
The elf swayed on her feet and fell heavily onto her bottom. Krem scowled and ran forward to lift Coll up by the armpits.
“Come on, Coll,” the mercenary said. “You only just got healed.”
“An’ I’m gonna use me health to find me Kate,” Coll replied, clutching at Krem. She stumbled in the snow and nearly fell again.
“A more stubborn woman I’ve never met,” Solas muttered.
“You spend all yer time in the Fade,” Coll sneered. “Yeh don’t know real women.” Solas did not reply to this. Instead, he came to Krem’s side and tried to help Coll to her feet.
“Feck off, you,” Coll said. She struggled to rise and bat away Solas’ hands all at the same time. “Oi, templar,” she called to Cullen. “Where’s your search party?”
“Out,” Cullen replied curtly. “And no, you may not join them in your state.”
And even though he fully anticipated the elf’s anger, Cullen still flinched when Coll shouted: “In me state? Feck you! That’s shite! All of this is shite! Like you,” she snarled, pointing at Solas. “You’re shite! Feckin’ coward, runnin’ away from Kate an’ takin’ me with yeh.”
“It was Morris who saved you, elf,” Cassandra corrected her.
“Feck ‘em both!” Coll snapped. “We shoulda stayed in Haven!”
“You would have died,” Solas replied. His voice was calm, though his eyes narrowed. “Your friend has saved your life.”
“Kate saved bollocks!” Coll shouted back. “I don’t care about me life, I care about me friends! An’ you templar,” she cried, pointing up at Cullen. “Yeh great geebag-scratching durgan’lin of a Chantry arse-licker! Runnin’ teh save yer own skin, not carin’ about anyone but yer troops…”
Cullen pressed his lips together and willed himself not to react to the Dalish’s jabs. The woman was grieving, he told himself. The woman was Kate’s friend…
“Let me go lookin’,” Coll insisted, struggling to rise. “I’ll bring our Kate back. You’ll see.”
“You can’t even walk, Coll,” Krem pointed out. The elf fell into the snow yet again with an elvish curse. Then she huffed a braid out of her face and began to crawl.
“I’ll go how I must,” Coll announced.
“You’ve gotta admire her spirit,” Krem murmured, looking to Iron Bull.
“Surprised it hasn’t killed her yet,” the Bull replied.
“Mistress Coll, you must rest,” Leliana told the elf. “We need every healer we can get, and with you still injured…”
“I’m not injured!” Coll yelled.
“Come on now, Coll,” Krem said patiently, crouching down beside her as she crawled along. “Don’t get yourself killed for nothing.”
“It ain’t nothing!” Coll cried. “It’s Kate! She’s still out there. She has to be.”
But judging by her desperate tone, Cullen suspected like Coll didn’t quite believe that. And though he tried to ignore her, every word Coll spoke felt like a knife to Cullen’s gut.
“She’s waitin’ on me,” the elf said, pointing out into the dark. “An’ I’m not gonna leave her. I can’t leave her. Who’ll look out for her if not me? Not you lot, that’s for feckin’ sure! You all used her fer yer rifts and then threw her at a monster! Like a bone tossed at a dog! That’s how yeh treated her. It’s you what killed her, templar,” she said, speaking directly to Cullen now. “I saw yeh do it! You left her teh die in Haven. Yeh ran when yeh should have stayed. So if you’re gonna keep me from Kate now…”
“She’s buried, elf!” Cullen shouted at last.
Cullen reached the end of his patience, and the words fell hard from his lips.
It was as though he’d set of another avalanche. Bull hung his head; Leliana’s eyes flashed sorrow before she turned away. As for Coll, she stared at Cullen for a long moment.
Then Coll burst into tears. She curled in on herself, her tattooed face covered by her tattooed hands. Krem tried to reach for her with a whispered, “Come on now…” But Coll recoiled from him. She raised her face up to the sky and she screamed into the night.
“Maker,” Cassandra said, as if embarrassed. Solas flinched and looked away. Leliana gazed on in silent concern and Krem tried to reach out to touch Coll’s shoulder. Iron Bull just muttered “Shit.”
Cullen fled. He turned on his heel and began marching up the hill.
He could not watch Coll cry, Cullen thought. He did not begrudge the elf her sorrow, but neither could he bear to witness it. As it was, Cullen felt dangerously close to suffocation. His hands shook, his teeth tingled. He felt a pain in the bridge of his nose and an aching in his lower back. It felt like withdrawals, Cullen realized, and that terrified him.
He had survived battles before, Cullen thought. He had survived torments far worse than battles. Yet he’d always had a draught of lyrium to stabilize him in the morning. It’s bright energy had numbed his pain and softened the hard edge of memory. But to face this loss without it - without any comfort…
Cullen stumbled a few feet further before his feet stopped moving. Coll’s muffled sobs echoed from far behind him, but Cullen remained silent. He stood there, below the rise of the hilltop, and looked up to the vaulted heavens. Tears gathered in Cullen’s eyes, but did not fall.
What happened now, Cullen wondered? What happened to the Inquisition? What happened to his scattered and leaderless troops? And what happened to him? What use was a commander without a fortress, without an army, without a mission?
And what would he do without Kate? The question had Cullen’s chest aching once again. The woman had stood at the center of everything the Inquisition had done. Now she was gone. Now her spirit wandered the Fade, seeking the Maker and his Bride.
Surely the Maker would find her, Cullen thought. The Maker would gather Kate to his side. For her sacrifice, Kate deserved nothing less. It was the living who deserved pity, Cullen thought. The living were left to dwell in darkness, alone and empty, praying for dawn.
Prayer, Cullen thought. There had to be comfort in prayer. He’d sought comfort in the Chant many times before. It had been his refuge when all other walls failed. And now, Cullen reached for that bulwark again:
“Though all before me is shadow,” he whispered. “Yet shall the Maker be my guide…”
The words seemed to stick in his throat and the tune fell flat. Cullen thought the verse in his mind instead, and the music rose in his mind:
Maker carry her to your side. Let not your servant be left to wander the shifting roads of the Fade alone…
His prayer ended there, at least in lyrical form. Instead, music rose within him. What Cullen felt went far beyond words. He imagined himself holding his insides up to the starry heavens, begging for the pain to stop. In reality, his hands remained fisted at his sides, his brows drawn, his head tipped upward. He stood there for a long time, and the night became cold around him.
And then Cullen heard music.
At first he thought it was just in his mind - just his memory of the Chant. But then Cullen thought he heard a sound out there in the night. He looked up and saw light growing swiftly along the hillside above him. That was not the sunrise, Cullen thought. The night was too dark and the light came too swiftly. If that was torchlight, it had to be a whole company of soldiers approaching. But before Cullen could think to draw his sword, the source of the light revealed itself.
Cullen’s mouth dropped open in amazement. His arm fell limp to his side.
A pillar of flame blazed before him, like an arrow pointing down from heaven. Standing inside the inferno was a woman. Flame danced over her body as if she stood upon a pyre, but she was not consumed by it. Rather, it cocooned her, protected her. Her bright, short hair whipped about her face, and her left hand glowed with a pulsing green light.
Cullen felt his heart pounding. It wasn’t possible, he thought. He wanted it to be possible, but it wasn’t actually possible…
The flames began to fade, and the woman’s face shone visible in the moonlight.
Cullen heard his voice before he realized he’d shouted, was running before he even realized his feet had left the ground. His arms pumped the air, his feet pounded up the snowy incline. Because it was her, he thought wildly. It was her.
It was Kate.
From the shouts behind him, Cullen guessed that the others had noticed Kate as well. But he had a head start. He reached Kate just as the flames faded entirely. Kate was left standing there, dim and frail as the smoking wick of a snuffed candle. She swayed on her feet, then dropped heavily to her knees. Cullen skidded to a stop in front of her. He knelt there in the snow before her, kneecap to kneecap.
Then Cullen threw his arms around her and drew Kate up against his armored chest.
“Ow,” Kate hissed, but Cullen scarcely heard her. His heart was hammering and his hands were shaking at Kate’s back. The tangled-up something in his chest seemed to have caught Kate’s fire, for he felt burning hot. Cullen’s mind was whirling with questions of ‘how’ and ‘why’ and prayers of thanks and gratitude. But all he whispered aloud was:
“Hi,” Kate whispered back.
Her breath was soft and warm by his ear. Cullen shuddered, though not from cold. He drew back, holding her at arm’s length. Once again, he found he could not form words. But this time, the emotion silencing him was not sorrow, but a reverent, grateful joy.
“I found you,” Kate told him. She sounded weary, but also quite pleased with herself. Cullen blinked back tears, but found himself running his thumb along Kate’s dry cheek.
“That you did,” he said. “Found me and saved me. I mean…” He cleared his throat. “Found us. Saved all of us.”
Kate opened her mouth as if to speak, but she didn’t get the chance. Someone came stumbling over and slammed heavily into the snow beside her, whooping loud enough to deafen anyone.
“Kate! You great lucky feck!” Coll snared her friend in her tattooed arms and gave her a tight hug.
“Coll!” Kate cried. “Thank the Maker you— Ow, ow, ow! I’m broken, Coll. My arm’s broken. Please be careful.”
“Sorry lass, sorry!” Coll said. She immediately pulled away to inspect Kate’s arm. “Ah, feck me but I’m wantin’ teh hug yeh and heal yeh and hit yeh all at once,” the elf said. “Only I can’t do none on ‘em. Oh, Kate-lass! I thought you were dead! I was bawlin’ me eyes out and… Ah, look on yeh! You’re shiverin’ with cold!”
“Here,” Cullen said. He quickly unwound the mantle from around his waist and took his cloak from off of his shoulders. He wrapped it about her shoulders, taking care not to jostle her injured arm.
“That’s right,” Kate said, blinking at him dazedly. “The armor comes off. You look so much smaller without it.”
And you look far too frail in the snow, Cullen thought. But rather than say this, he fluffed the fur about her face and began to peel off his gloves. He handed the gloves over to Kate, who took them with a soft “Thank you.” She put them on, and they were far too big for her. Cullen felt a strange surge within him. Seeing Kate wear his clothing was doing odd things to his insides.
“I thought you were buried,” Cullen told her, ignoring these feelings and tucking the mantle around her shoulders. “Cole said…”
“Cole said?” Coll rounded on Cullen. “The feck are you gettin’ yer facts from Cole and speakin’ ‘em like they’re true? Everyone knows yeh can’t take a spirit’s word on it. They’re always sayin’ one thing and meanin’ ten things else.”
“He seemed quite direct in this case,” Cullen frowned.
“Well, I was buried,” Kate put in. “Sort of. I fell into a hole - a tunnel. Took me a while to find my way out.”
Coll gasped, grabbing Kate’s good arm. “Feck me, Kate! That were a close call.”
“Too close,” Cullen agreed tightly. To think that the only thing that had saved Kate was an open pit and random chance. Or was it perhaps something more, he wondered?
“Thank the Maker,” a voice whispered behind him. It was Cassandra, and Cullen looked up to see that everyone else on the hillside had crowded in around them. Krem and Bull were both grinning, Cassandra looked completely stunned. Leliana had tears in her eyes, and gazed at Kate with something approaching reverence. Only Solas stood at a distance, wary and watchful.
“The Lady of Sorrow, armored in Light,” Leliana whispered, “Holding in her left hand the scepter of Redemption…” She broke off, then pointed at Kate’s still-glowing mark. “I told the world you were chosen by the Maker,” the Nightingale murmured. “Yet I did not truly believe.”
“It was a lot like something out of the Chant, wasn’t it?” Krem chuckled nervously.
It was, Cullen thought. But he didn’t speak this thought aloud. He trusted in the Maker’s plans. He always had. But over the years, Cullen had grown wary of ascribing divine meaning to any one event. It might be that this was providence. It might just be very good luck. Cullen could never tell the difference between the two. Though where Kate was concerned, providence and fortune always seemed to run together.
“Sure however yeh did it, yeh won, Kate!” Coll shouted, casually draping her arm over Kate’s shoulders. “You won! ‘Gainst a feckin’ magister no less! Ah, and here’s me missin’ all the good stuff at the end! They say there was magic talk an’ everyone was terrified. Oh, but healin’!” Coll cried, as Kate slumped to one side. “Look at you! You’re a sight…”
“I’m more than a sight,” Kate replied breathlessly. “I feel quite woozy. Please excuse me everyone, but I think I’m about to pass out again…”
If she wanted everyone to panic, Kate had said exactly the right thing. Coll tried to summon a healing spell, only to be shouted at by both Krem and Leliana. At the same time, Cullen reached for Kate, saying, “Let me carry you.” But his recently-healed right shoulder twinged in protest and he grunted in pain. “I will get her,” Cassandra said, reaching for Kate, but Iron Bull just snorted and said:
“Come on, guys. Seriously?” The qunari gathered Kate in his arms before anyone could object.
“Whooop!” Kate cried, grabbing onto Bull’s harness with her left hand. “You’re carrying me like a baby.” She blinked at him, her eyes unfocused, then looked down at the snow below. “I’m a very long baby,” she added as an afterthought.
“Yep,” Bull smirked. “Come on, boss. Everyone is going to be glad to see you. Let’s turn this shit night into something to celebrate.”
Bull tromped away down the hill toward camp, with Kate bundled safely in his arms. The others were left to scramble after. This, Cullen thought with annoyance, was becoming something of a trend with Bull. He hoped it did not continue.
“Did you see her?” Coll laughed to Solas, her voice carrying over all the hillside. “She was like that shem Andraste with that spell of hers! Oh, these Chantry folk are gonna shite themselves now! You just watch.”
“I am watching, Colleen” Solas replied quietly. “I’ve been watching.”
Kate’s head was still pounding, and she felt decidedly dizzy. She recalled only fragments of her journey here: memories of snow and wind and the occasional light in the dark. She had walked for a time, then woke as if from sleep and started walking again. And there had been fire. Kate had cast a spell, of course. She remembered that part clearly. But she should have run out of mana after a few minutes. Instead, the flames had burned without ceasing. The blaze had grown and encircled her. At times, the light even seemed to carry her through the darkness. And there had been music. Kate remembered music.
The music had led her to Cullen.
Thank the Maker for Cullen, Kate thought dreamily. She snuggled into his mantle, breathing deeply. The fur smelled of pine and sweat. Kate liked the smell very much. She sighed, relaxing into a boneless state of relief. Iron Bull’s steps rocked her as if she was in a cradle and she was certain Coll was trailing after her. Everyone was alive and well and…
Wait. Robert. Was Robert alright? Had she asked about Robert?
“Robert?” Kate asked, her voice rough and groggy. Iron Bull answered her, his voice rumbling right by her ear.
“He’s okay. He’s sleeping.”
Kate sent up a silent prayer of thanks and gratitude. All she said aloud was: “Yay.”
Bull snorted at her weak cheer. Kate nuzzled more deeply into Cullen’s cloak. From nearby, Kate now heard voices. They came as gasps, cries of alarm and whispers of “She returned!” and “…shielded in flame!” “…Andraste herself…” and “…sent by the Maker…”
“No, no,” Kate murmured, trying to turn her head to the crowd. “Not sent by the Maker. Just saved by Him. Saved by the song…”
“They won’t believe you,” Bull told her. “They wanna believe your crazy-ass goddess dumped you down on the hillside, so they’re gonna damn well believe it.”
“Prophet,” Kate corrected. “She’s our crazy-ass prophet.”
“Yeah, but you’re the one everybody’s gonna turn to, boss,” Bull said. “Your god and his prophet have been way too quiet for ‘em. They’re lookin’ to you.”
“No,” Kate winced. “That’s blasphemy. Don’t want them looking to me.”
“Too bad, boss,” Bull snorted. “You’re the one who stopped a monster.”
“I just stood back up again, that’s all. Like you told me to.”
“Of course you did, boss,” Bull said. As he spoke, he laid Kate gently upon something soft and warm. A bedroll, she realized a moment later. She relaxed upon the blankets, here eyes still closed.
“How many lived?” Kate asked, hoping to get more information from Iron Bull. “How many did we save?”
A different voice answered her:
“Two hundred and twenty-six,” came the clipped, Ferelden reply.
Cullen, Kate thought, smiling. Though her eyes remained closed, she turned her face toward the sound.
“Two hundred and twenty-six?” she repeated.
“There are more out in the field, of course. Several hundred out in the Hinterlands. But that’s a head-count of the ones who made it to this camp. That means eighty-four dead or unaccounted for in the fighting.”
Kate’s smile faded.
“We’ll hold a memorial,” she told him. Cullen didn’t answer that. Kate took another breath, and asked:
“Are we safe here? Any sign of Corypheus?”
“Sure, but that’s our Kate,” Kate heard Coll’s voice say. “Dragged in half dead and she’s still wonderin’ about all the details of the assignment, wonderin’ if she passed the test.”
“I think I did pass,” Kate murmured, thinking of her choice back there in the storm.
“Passed?!” Coll laughed. “Kate, yeh fecked up a magister tonight. I’m thinkin’ yeh passed any test anyone ever set yeh. Now as for healin’, they say I’m not supposed to do magic for a day or so…”
“And they’re right about that, Coll-dear,” a new voice spoke. “If you heal your friend, you’ll undo all the work that Solas and I did for you. Please do be calm and try to rest.”
“Ah, feck. Alright,” Coll grumbled.
“Is that Vivienne?” Kate murmured.
“The same,” the enchanter said. She laid a slim, warm hand on Kate’s brow.
“I’m glad you’re okay, Vivienne,” Kate said, slurring her words.
“Andraste bless you, darling,” Vivienne replied. “What you did for us tonight… Lydia would have been so proud of you.”
“Lydia,” Kate murmured. After all this death, she’d almost forgotten about the loss of her mentor so many months ago. But maybe Lydia would be proud. Maybe Lydia knew about Kate’s actions in Haven somehow. It was a nice thought.
Thank you Maker, Kate thought absently. I wish it had all gone differently, but still, thank you…
Maybe that was odd, Kate thought. Perhaps it was strange to wish for a different path and accept the journey all the same. But at the moment, she was too tired to reason differently.
“Good Maker, darling!” Vivienne cried at her side. “What did you do to your arm? You there, please. I’m going to need several injury kits if you don’t mind. Plenty of warm water. Hurry now.”
Warm, healing magic flooded Kate’s side and she found herself growing even more drowsy. Kate forced her eyelids open. She spotted Vivienne beside the bed. The enchanter’s face was regal and serene in the light of her healing spell. A short distance away, Coll grabbed Krem by the arm and pointed to Kate in excitement. The mercenary grinned. Behind them both, Solas frowned. Cassandra and Leliana were talking together under the awning of the tent, and Iron Bull shooed away a crowd of onlookers.
Then Kate spotted him. Cullen sat on the ground, leaning against the tent-post. One of his legs was out before him, the other bent at an angle with his elbow propped upon it. His face was cast in shadow, so Kate could not see his expression. Kate smiled at him weakly, and let sleep take her.
Cullen did not remember falling asleep. He scarcely remembered sitting down in the first place. So when he woke to feel something creeping up his shoulders, he started at once. Cullen reached for his sword, but found his scabbard was empty. He groped about for a hilt.
“It’s just me!” a voice whispered.
Cullen blinked, and the tent came in to sudden focus. A candle stood on a nearby table, giving the space a glowing light. Far brighter was the web of green lines before him. It was Kate’s hand, and there, kneeling over him, was Kate herself.
Cullen pushed himself up to sitting at once. The events of the night came back to him, and Cullen shook his head.
“How long have I been asleep?” he asked her pressing his thumb and forefinger to his eyes.
“A few hours, I think,” she replied. “It’s not quite morning.”
“You should be resting,” he told her, letting his hand drop.
“I was,” she said. “Only I had a nightmare. Fire and suffocating and… Never mind. I woke and saw you lying on the ground and I thought you might want this.”
Kate held something out to him. It was his furred mantle, Cullen realized. She had been trying to cover him as he slept. Cullen felt unaccountably warmed by that. It seemed quite intimate, really.
Kate handed Cullen his cloak and his gloves as well. He folded the cloak over one arm and slipped the gloves into his pocket.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Thank you for lending them to me,” Kate replied politely.
“It’s nothing,” Cullen said. He drew his knees under him so that he was kneeling. He and Kate now sat as they had before on the hillside, kneecap to kneecap. But here the ground was bare and warm, and the candlelight flickered over them.
“Oh, and there’s this,” Kate said, reaching for something and setting it before her. “It’s Keran’s sword. I ended up with it, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I thought perhaps…”
She trailed off as Cullen took it. The hilt felt heavy in his bare hand, and sorrow rose within him.
Poor Keran, he thought. That boy had survived so many near misses in the past. To die now…
“Maker guide him,” Cullen murmured.
Kate watched Cullen, her eyes shining in the candlelight.
“He was brave,” she said, softly. “They were all so brave.”
Cullen swallowed against the tightness in his throat.
“They were,” he agreed.
Cullen considered the templar-issue weapon. It looked exactly like the one he’d lost down in Haven. He stared at it for a moment longer, then slid the blade into his own scabbard. It fit perfectly.
“I lost my sword in the battle,” he told Kate. “So as a matter of practicality… Of tribute…”
He didn’t know quite how to explain it, but Kate nodded all the same.
“I think Keran would have liked that,” she said. She looked at the sword a moment longer, then looked sharply away.
“I’m so sorry about Keran,” she said softly. “I’m so sorry I didn’t save him. I’m so sorry about all those eighty-four…”
“That wasn’t your fault,” Cullen told her, firmly. “You were the one who got us out of this mess. If anyone is to blame here, it’s me.”
Kate looked at him in surprise.
“How was this your fault?” she wanted to know.
“I ought to have prepared better,” Cullen said. “Built walls for a start. Haven was no place to make a stand.”
“You can’t blame yourself for that,” Kate said, reaching out a hand as though she might touch his shoulder. “Corypheus had a dragon, Cullen. And he had an army of red templars. How in Andraste’s name were you supposed to plan for that?”
“All the same, it should not have happened that way,” Cullen insisted. “You should not have been left behind.”
“Left behind?” Kate blinked.
“In Haven,” Cullen clarified. “While I fled with the others.”
Kate cocked her head slightly to the side.
“But that was the plan, Cullen. We both agreed to it.”
Cullen opened his mouth, but no further words came out. Kate raised her brows expectantly, as if to say ‘Well wasn’t it?’
And just like that, Cullen felt as though she’d lifted a heavy weight off of his shoulders. He hadn’t even realized he’d been carrying that load. For when that second avalanche had buried Haven, Cullen had felt crushing guilt descend upon him. Josephine and Leliana had Cassandra had been busy elsewhere. He alone had carried out Kate’s plan. He alone had signaled for her death.
At least, that was how it had felt. But now that Kate had returned, the story read differently. His actions had not been not cowardly and reckless. Rather, Cullen had carried out his half of a joint mission. He had been part of a bigger picture, a bigger plan. He and Kate had shared the burden of command together - and they shared the guilt of command, too. It was a heavy responsibility, but Cullen wasn’t carrying it alone.
“Thank the Maker you returned,” he said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Without you… Well, this was terrible, but it could have been much worse. You saved us, Kate.” He paused, then added, slowly, as an afterthought:
“You saved me.”
Kate looked away and tucked a strand of flyaway hair behind her ear. “It was nothing,” she said. “I mean, you know how it was. It just sort of… happened.”
“I do know and it didn’t just happen,” Cullen said, determined to make her see. “Look, I’ve been rescued a time or two before. Usually by mages, come to think of it. Ironic, that. But those mages were always on their way to some other quest. I was just lucky that they passed my way. They saved me by chance. But you, Kate. You’re the first person who ever tried to shield me or protect me or…”
Cullen didn’t know how to conclude this rambling. He now wondered why he had brought it up in the first place.
“You didn’t have to do that,” he finished.
Kate looked at him as if he were daft. “Of course I did, Cullen. You’re my friend.”
“I…” Cullen felt something crash into him.
“And you would have done the same if our positions had been reversed,” Kate persisted. “I know you would have.”
“Of course,” Cullen said, his throat tight.
“Of course,” Kate agreed. “It’s just what friends do.”
Is that what friends do, Cullen wondered? If so, he’d never had such a friend before. By that reckoning, Kate was easily the best and closest friend that Cullen had ever known. She was also good company. She made him laugh. And when he talked to her, he occasionally forgot his learned formality and slipped into something comfortable and connected. And yet, Cullen thought, friendship alone could not explain all that. For when he was around Kate, he felt his chest go tight and hot, and his nerves sort of tingled. When she was around him, he felt… What was it exactly? He felt…
There it was, Cullen thought. He felt. He felt things for Kate - a lot of things. Confusing things. He felt attraction and admiration and respect and trust as well. And all these feelings were mixed together so peculiarly that he had little hope of sorting them out. He hardly even knew what to call this thing that had grown up between them.
It might be more than friendship, Cullen thought. But it was no less than friendship, either. And out of respect for Kate’s friendship, Cullen dared not say anything that might make her feel uncomfortable. He wasn’t about to muck things up just because he felt a lot of complex, confusing things on this complex, confusing night. Whatever this was between him and Kate, he did not want to lose it. He did not want to lose her.
Kate smiled at him then - a wistful sort of smile. Cullen had the sudden impulse to reach out and stroke Kate’s cheek.
Blast, he thought. Speaking of things that might muck this up…
“I should get going,” he said, standing abruptly.
“Oh, I…” Kate scrambled to her feet as well. “Will I see you later?” Her voice sounded a bit strange - less like that of the Herald and more like that of an uncertain girl.
“Of course I will,” she said a moment later, wincing at her own question. “We’re both in the Inquisition and I, er… Thank you, Cullen.”
She held out her hand, as if to shake his. Though Cullen had no idea what she was thanking him for, he automatically replied, “You’re quite welcome,” and took her hand in his. But Cullen wasn’t wearing gloves, and neither was Kate. And he remembered this just as they touched, skin to skin.
Fire swept through him. The heat began in his fingers, ran swiftly through his wrist, up his arm and burst inside his chest. Cullen took a short, sharp breath, for in that moment, the feel of her was burned into his nerves and into his mind. Kate’s hand was warm and rough, which surprised him. But he supposed her callouses must have come from training, and though she favored ice spells, she was still flesh and blood. Tantalizingly so, Cullen thought. He was now vividly aware of the heat of her.
Cullen attempted to smile, but it probably came off as a grimace. He tried to squeeze her hand lightly, but the movement came off jerky. Kate gave Cullen a startled look and quickly pulled her fingers away. She folded her hands primly before her, glowing left hand in the newly-healed right.
“Well then,” she said, a bit breathlessly. “That was very, um… Well. I suppose I ought to get some rest and you… You probably ought to get some rest, too.”
“Er, yes,” Cullen said. He flexed his right hand at his side to try and stop it from shaking. He quickly stepped away from Kate and into the doorway. The night air was cool at his back. Cullen gave Kate a short, formal bow.
“Until dawn, Herald,” he told her.
Kate wrinkled her nose. “Oh, please don’t,” she frowned. “Please don’t call me that. After everything we’ve been through…”
She said no more, but Cullen nodded all the same. She was right, of course. After everything they’d been through…
“No titles,” he agreed. “Until dawn then, Kate.”
Kate gave him a soft look - a wondering look. Cullen wanted to read into it, to see admiration and feeling there - but he dared not. So he merely held Kate’s eyes as she replied:
“And you, too, Cullen. Until dawn.”
END PART 1
Thank you all SO much for joining me on this fanfiction journey. Whether you followed this story as it progressed or just discovered it now (whenever ‘now’ may be), thank you for reading!
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