Varric wasn’t a poet, and he wasn’t one of those so-called ‘literary’ writers that you could find lounging around in some nobleman’s salon. You could smell those posers a mile away, what with their sneering attitudes and their faux despair, their continual complaints about ‘the state of the medium these days,’ and their horror at ‘the regrettable popularity of genre hacks.’ Whenever Varric met those clowns, they always managed to find some way to name-drop the Chantry-sanctioned publication their work had once appeared in. Maker forbid you have the gall to say you preferred serial mysteries or broadside adventures or – horror of horrors – romance. Make a mistake like that, and those writers would be all over you, pointing out the superiority of their ‘intriguing metaphysical juxtapositions’ and advocating ‘a robust disavowal of the ordinary trappings of plot and character.’ They’d tell you that their greatest ambition in life was ‘to write beautiful sentences.’
Write beautiful sentences? Without a plot to put them in? What did that even mean? That was like saying you wanted to sing beautiful notes without bothering with a song. More to the point, who wanted to read that kind of shit? Two hundred pages of self-important prose all cobbled together into some plotless mess? In Varric’s opinion, it was the literary equivalent of jacking off in public.
So yeah, Varric wasn’t a Writer with a capital ‘Wruh’. But he was a storyteller. And if that made him a pariah in the Val Royeaux set, fine by him. So he was going to ignore that nagging letter he’d gotten from his publisher - the one saying that The Tale of the Champion needed a ‘more literary’ sequel - and he’d keep doing as he did. Because first of all, The Tale of the Champion wasn’t literary on purpose. Varric tried to think of a ‘literary’ way to relate Isabela’s dick jokes, and came up with nothing. Secondly, a sequel? To that? Come on. The whole world was living the sequel. Besides, Varric thought, if there was one thing he knew about storytelling, it was that a good author left out all the boring bits.
And everything since Hawke had left? Pretty boring bits.
Take this Inquisition, for example. Sure, there had been that business with the Conclave and Haven and Corypheus and all that. Those events weren’t exactly a snore, but they weren’t the kind of thing you could set down in a story. No one would believe Varric if he said what had really happened, and furthermore, a good story needed an exciting central character. The Inquisition folks were nice and all, but none of them were starring-role material. Take Inquisitor Duchess for example, all serene and diplomatic. She’d do fine in some Orlesian romance, but she didn’t exactly fit in an adventure plot. Then there was Commander Curly, who managed to make every conversation as dull as dirt. Cole was a kick in the pants, but Varric couldn’t even begin to guess how to write a story from a spirit’s point of view.
Nah, Varric mused. No one here had that ‘it’ factor: that relatable, hard-bitten something-or-other that made for a true folk hero.
Because none of them were Hawke.
When Hawke was around, Varric thought, life itself read like the very best of stories. When Hawke was around, everything had been adventures and laughs and drinks at the pub and jokes penciled in on the margins. Well, at least things had been that way until Hawke had started shacking up with Anders. Once the apostate had moved in, Hawke hadn’t had much time for her dwarven friend. But that lapse aside, Varric had been with Hawke through dragon fights and belching contests, through battles and heists and simple, quiet moments that he still played over in his mind.
Maker, Varric missed her. Biggest mistake he’d ever made, letting Hawke leave Kirkwall all by herself. Well, maybe it wasn’t Varric’s biggest mistake. That would probably be that business with Bartrand and the red lyrium. Or maybe Varric’s biggest mistake was failing to kill Corypheus the first time around. It made Varric sick to his stomach to think that all this Breach shit could be traced back to a cocked-up mission of his and Hawke’s.
But if there was an upside to all this craziness, it was that Varric would soon be reunited with Hawke, and the two of them could set things right. Did that outweigh all those deaths in Haven? Shit no. But Varric would take his silver linings where he could. The past five days on the road had been driving him crazy. This entire trip had read like the minutes from a Merchant Guild’s meeting: all schedule and formality and a lot of blowing wind. Commander Curly, in particular, was in a fine mood. He was surrounded by maps and soldiers and the Inquisitor and Ferelden mud. The mages were all showing off for each other, the scouts were gossiping like mad, and normally, this would have been Varric’s favorite sort of vacation. Perfect story-fodder.
As it was, Varric didn’t much care. He’d grown sulky and withdrawn, spent most of his time watching the road ahead or staring into the campfire. He didn’t feel like making small talk or making friends. The only thing he wanted was to see Hawke again.
But today - today - Varric was in the home stretch. Last night, they’d reached the outskirts of Crestwood. The weather had been terrible, and the lakeshore smelled like a compost pile. Varric had been tempted to set off for Hawke at once, only Commander Curly had ordered everyone to stay close to the camp - something about undead and bandits and a dragon up in the hills. Only a few scouts had been allowed out into the storm.
So rather than sneaking off to find Hawke, Varric had sent Plucky with a message. It was probably against Inquisition rules to borrow the camp bird without permission. But Varric had wanted to warn Hawke that the Inquisition was on her doorstep. Or cavestep. Whatever. Besides, Varric figured that Hawke could use the company. She was probably feeling pretty lonely, hanging out in a cave all by herself.
As for Varric, he’d tucked himself into his tent last night, but he’d scarcely slept a wink. The pounding rain hadn’t exactly been a lullaby, and he kept worrying about Hawke, alone out there in some chilly, Maker-forsaken hole.
And now it was morning. Soon Varric could set off to find his friend. Only two things stood in his way: a bunch of bandits in a keep – and this endless siege-planning meeting:
“Are you all getting this?” Cullen asked.
Varric rolled his eyes. Of course they were getting this. At present, all the scouts and mages and soldiers - all thirty-something of them - stood packed around the requisitions table. A mess of maps and notes lay on the surface, pinned down with wet stones. Overhead, a canvas awning did little to keep out the wind or the rain. Commander Curly’s hair was going wild: he had little droplets all through his frizz.
“Now, to review,” Cullen said, leaning forward over the table and pointing at the map. “Rion’s team will maintain the supply lines. Ella’s forward team will take out the doors, then the first wave of soldiers will sweep in and secure the outer courtyard. Lysette? You and your soldiers will claim the forward ramparts. Barris, you’ll march in then and secure the lower inner bailey. Charter’s team will take the upper inner bailey, and Iron Bull?” Cullen looked up. “You and I and the Inquisitor will finish with a sweep of the rear ramparts.”
“Got it,” Bull said. The qunari stood so tall that his horns stuck up into the awning. The twin points shaped the canvas into a private pavilion around his head.
“Alright then,” Cullen said. “Any further questions?”
Andraste’s ass, Varric thought. They had been going over this plan since breakfast. Surely no one had any questions.
Damn it. There was always that guy with questions.
“Permission to change my assignment. ma’am. My team’s assignment, that is.”
And of course that was Rion. The pale, pockmarked guy with angry eyes was a real pain in the ass. Varric almost felt bad for Curly, having to deal with that ego all week.
“What?” Kate frowned, as Cullen demanded: “Why?”
“I just don’t think that sitting with the packs is the best use of my team’s talents.”
“Oh, Maker,” Varric heard Lysette grumble.
Varric agreed. What was with this guy? Rion was acting like they’d asked him to clean the fortress garderobe or something.
“Your company is not ‘sitting with the packs,’” Kate told Rion. “You’re making sure our supplies and horses stay safe.”
“And you’re the rear guard against corpses shambling up the road,” Cullen added. “But if you can’t handle that…” He trailed off meaningfully.
“We can handle it,” Philip, Rion’s second-in-command, assured both Commander and Inquisitor. “We can handle it,” he added, speaking to Rion through gritted teeth.
“Of course we can handle it,” Rion said. “We’re the Bad ASS. We’re front line guys. And that’s why we should be on the front lines. Not like…” He trailed off there, then tried a different tack:
“We could assist Ella’s team,” Rion said. “Take down the gates. Help neutralize traps and hostiles and such.”
Captain Ella gave Rion a look that could have frozen the lake. Varric remembered Ella from back in Kirkwall, when the dark-skinned, black-haired woman had been a frightened, chubby-cheeked apprentice. Hawke had saved this chick from the Gallows - and then from Anders. As per usual, Justice had freaked out and gone on a killing spree. It seemed that a brush with death and subsequent freedom had left an impression on Ella. She didn’t look like she’d back down from anything now - not a bunch of bandits, and certainly not a blowhard like Rion.
“I think my Sexy ASS can handle it,” she said, placing a hand on her hip.
Several of the soldiers laughed, and Cullen visibly bit back a smile. Normally, Varric would have been cracking up over a delivery like that. But he was too distracted by Rion’s stupidity. This idiot was eating up their time.
“Okay then,” Varric said. “So if we’ve all got our assignments…”
“I need you on the supply lines, Rion,” Cullen said, speaking right over Varric. “Once we’ve got a dry roof over our heads, we’ll be able to set up a proper base of operations. And everyone will want some supper.” Several people in the company nodded at that.
“So Rion,” Cullen continued, “Can you guard the horses?”
Philip looked at Rion pleadingly. Rion looked to Kate, but she just raised a brow as if to say, ‘Well?’
Rion deflated. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Ser,” he added, glancing at Cullen.
Varric rolled his eyes. Had Rion thought that Duchess would take his side over Curly’s? Just because Rion and Kate were both from Ostwick? Yeah, good luck with that. Inquisition Mom and Inquisition Dad had been a unified front since day one on the trail.
Of course, Varric mused, Duchess and Curly probably didn’t realize that the scouts were calling them ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ behind their backs. They also didn’t seem to realize that they were the subject of some pretty juicy gossip. One scout swore she’d seen Mom and Dad holding hands down by the lake. Varric found that doubtful, given how standoffish Curly was. But he supposed anything was possible. Either way, he didn’t much care. There was only one human that Varric was interested in at present.
Hold on a little longer, Hawke.
“Right,” Varric said. “So we’ve got our plans and…”
“Now remember,” Cullen cut over Varric. “These brigands have refused to surrender peacefully. They must be neutralized with force.”
Aaugh! Varric thought, ready to throw his hands up in the air. Would Curly never stop? Besides, these bandits had been terrorizing the area for months. Bastards deserved everything coming to them.
“One final thing,” Cullen added. “One of the hostiles is a mage. Be cautious.”
“So what?” Varric blurted out. “We have eight mages. And if we had Haw…”
Varric realized that Cullen was glaring at him. He stopped himself there.
“Never mind,” he muttered.
“Mages make a battlefield unpredictable,” Cullen said, his eyes narrowing on Varric.
“You mean enemy mages,” Kate corrected in an undertone. “Enemy mages make battles unpredictable.”
“Right,” Cullen said, glancing over at her, apologetically. “Right, enemy mages. The point is, be cautious.”
Everyone in the company nodded at that. Even the mages nodded at that. Rion made a wry face of agreement. Varric sighed.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “I’ve got it. We’ve all got it. Now can we go?”
“Are you in a hurry to fight bandits?” Dorian asked, looking down at him.
“Sure,” Varric said, casually as he could. “Aren’t you?”
“Not particularly,” Dorian said, looking around. “Can’t we wait until it stops raining?”
“It never stops raining here,” Charter told him.
“I was afraid you’d say that,” Dorian sniffed. That sniff was not one of distain, but the result of a runny nose. Nearly everyone had caught cold, even the healers. Hawke probably had a cold, too, Varric thought. He glanced out into the storm and frowned.
“Alright,” Cullen said. “Anything else?”
Varric held his breath and crossed his fingers, hoping no one would say anything.
“I don’t want to kill the dogs.”
This came from Cole, who materialized suddenly at Varric’s side. At his words, several people looked over and blinked. The rest of the company remained oblivious to Cole’s presence.
“I… Ah.” Cullen frowned. “Yes, scouts saw mabari in the keep. I’d rather not hurt them, either,” he admitted.
“Hey, those are Ferelden war dogs,” Bull said. “Even qunari know you don’t fuck around with Ferelden war dogs.”
“They’re good dogs, Bull,” Cole said.
“Good at killing, maybe,” Charter put in. “They have armor and fangs and… everything.”
“Mabari will follow their masters’ orders or die trying,” Cullen told Cole. “The only mercy is to put them down.”
“Their masters are already dead,” Cole said. “The bandits took the dogs. Made them hurt, made them hungry, made them hate. The dogs sleep alone in the stables and have nothing to eat but garbage.”
“Oh, how awful,” Kate frowned. “Do we really have to kill them?” she asked Cullen.
Under the awning, the scouts and soldiers either looked similarly sympathetic, or vaguely confused. Evidently, some of them were missing the Cole-half of this conversation.
“We could sleep them,” Captain Ella suggested, before Cullen could answer. “Spell them and muzzle them.”
“Yes. Do that,” Cullen said. He rapped his knuckles on the table, then pointed into the crowd. “Rion, change of assignment. You’re with Ella on dog-duty. Philip, you’re in charge of guarding the supplies.”
“Yes, ser!” Philip said, eagerly snapping off a salute.
“Dogs?” Rion asked.
“Everyone else, your assignments are unchanged.”
“Dogs?” Rion asked again.
“Dogs,” Cullen repeated.
“Sure,” Rion said. “Muzzle war dogs. Why not?”
“Good,” Cullen said. “Any other questions? Once we hit the road, we’re in it.”
Varric willed everyone to stay silent.
“Varric wants to get going,” Cole informed Cullen. “Charter thinks this plan is complete overkill. Iron Bull wanted to storm the keep last night all by himself, but he held back out of respect for you.”
Cullen raised a brow. “Noted, Scout Charter. And thank you for your forbearance, Bull.”
“Hey, no problem.” Bull shrugged.
“Alright then,” Cullen said. “Move out!” He clapped his hands together. With the thick gloves on, they made little more than a ‘thwap.’
The company broke as one, bumping into one another as they headed out into the rain. Iron Bull turned, then swore - “Kadanshok defransdim vashedan!” - when the awning caught on his horns. Bull extracted himself from the canvas, then replanted the tentposts that he’d torn free. He bent double, shuffled out from under the awning, then straightened with a sigh. Bull shook his massive head, and wandered off toward the road. Dorian followed after, looking highly entertained. Barris followed as well, looking sulky.
“Iron Bull doesn’t fit here,” Cole observed.
“Neither do I,” Varric said. “But medium-sized people tend to make medium-sized assumptions.”
“I made myself medium-sized,” Cole said.
“Wise choice. I’d do the same if I could.” Varric paused, then thought better of it:
“Nah,” he said. “Shorter is stronger. People tend to underestimate you.”
“Like Hawke,” Cole said.
“Yeah,” Varric said. “Like…”
But Cole was already gone. Varric found himself alone under the awning.
Wait, Varric thought. What had Cole meant by that? ‘Like Hawke?’ Either Cole meant that Varric was underestimated, just like Hawke was underestimated. Or maybe Cole meant that most people underestimated Varric - and Hawke was one of them.
Well, it was sort of true, Varric thought. After all, Hawke had never realized…
“Ah, shit,” Varric muttered to himself. It didn’t matter. None of that mattered. The point was, he would see his friend again soon. That was worth any amount of boredom or battle.
Varric checked the sights on his crossbow, then turned to join the scouts marching up the muddy road.
At least Cullen could plan a siege.
He couldn’t have planned for a number of other things, starting with this dreadful weather. Naturally, Cullen had anticipated storms. It was Ferelden, after all. But he hadn’t expected a total deluge, complete with roads so flooded that they more resembled shallow rivers than proper walkways. Further, Cullen hadn’t expected it would be so dark. Thick clouds rolled overhead, making the noonday hour look like twilight, and the perpetual rainfall registered as a constant crackle to his ears.
Cullen also hadn’t planned on this headache that now assailed him. He was doing his best to ignore the pain, but his temples were throbbing. Though that may have been caused by the other thing he hadn’t planned on: Cullen had woken this morning, checked his log book, and found that he’d scribbled a load of nonsense in there last night. He’d promptly scratched out the entire entry. Cullen had been tempted to throw the offending pages into the morning campfire but he’d worried that someone might ask him what he was up to. Anyhow, he certainly hadn’t planned for his personal feelings to get so out of hand again.
Worst of all, Cullen knew that he could not plan for Hawke’s arrival. He didn’t know when or where a meeting would take place, nor could he anticipate what information the Champion might bring with her. In fact, Cullen rather feared that when Hawke appeared, the whole of Crestwood would spontaneously explode.
But if Cullen could not plan for Hawke - or the weather or his physical pains or even his own feelings - he could at least plan a siege. Thank the Maker for that. Because as it was, these bandits were dug in deep, and they weren’t as stupid as Cullen had hoped. They’d reinforced the ramparts, and right now, their archers were hailing down arrows with remarkable speed.
Still, the Inquisition troops held firm. For while Philip, Barris, Iron Bull and the Bad ASS team remained around the bend with the horses, everyone else had marched right up in view of the keep. Captain Lysette had all the soldiers in tortoise-shell formation, and Charter and her scouts crouched under their canopy of shields. Cullen stood with Kate at the front of the crowd, Cullen with his shield and sword drawn, Kate with her arms held high over her head. Waves of blue light shimmered from Kate’s fingertips, and a massive shield spell flickered over the whole of the company. Rion had taken up the left flank of the spell, and two of Ella’s Sexy ASS mages helped Kate maintain the right and rear of the barrier. All around them, arrows zipped down from the ramparts, pinging off of magic and iron shield alike.
Not bad, Cullen thought, looking up at the shield above. Not bad at all. Especially impressive, considering that Kate and Dorian had worked out this spell just last night. From the inside, the barrier looked like a giant, shimmering bubble. Then again, it wasn’t entirely perfect. Kate winced with every arrow that made impact.
“You alright?” Cullen asked her.
“Fine,” Kate huffed. She sounded as if she was hiking or jogging, not standing there with her hands upraised. “Just feels prickly. Experimental modifications… and all that. You know how… these conjurations go.”
Cullen didn’t, actually. But he didn’t ask for clarification. Instead, Cullen turned his attention to the fortress gates, where the true siege was going on:
Dorian and Ella stood before the castle doors, summoning up a roiling ball of fire between them. Cole stood with them, shrouding the two mages in a strange, greenish mist. The bandits remained oblivious to the sappers at their gates. Instead, the defending archers focused all their attention on the road.
Exactly according to plan, Cullen thought, as arrows clattered ineffectually to the ground. Now all they had to do was to patiently wait for the doors to explode.
“Think this’ll work?” Cullen heard one of the huddled scouts ask.
“Pssh,” came the reply. “Curly planned for everything. Guy makes ‘careful’ into an art form.”
Cullen looked over his shoulder. That was Varric, of course. The dwarf stood under Ser Lysette’s armpit.
“We’ll be fine,” Varric went on. “It’ll take forever, but we’ll be fine. If my Kirkwall friends were here, though,” he added. “We’d be done already.”
“If your Kirkwall friends were here,” Cullen said, dryly. “They would have burned this place to the ground.”
“But we’d be done,” Varric pointed out. “Eh, I wish we were done. This place is creepy.”
Cullen felt slightly offended at that. “It’s home,” he muttered.
“Reminds me… of the Fallow Mire,” Kate breathed at his side.
“Crestwood’s not at all like…” Cullen stopped himself there. Storms? Undead? A crumbling keep full of hostiles?
“I suppose that’s an apt comparison,” he admitted. “Only there are no Avaar here,” he hastened to point out.
“And also…” Kate panted, “Siege plan’s not based… On a romance novel.”
Kate slanted a smile at Cullen. Cullen chuckled at the private joke.
“Actually,” he told her, “I got the idea for this raid from a book by Eleanor Feather.”
Kate did a double-take. “Really?”
Cullen managed to keep a straight face for about two seconds. Then his lips twitched, betraying him.
“You’re teasing me,” Kate’s eyes narrowed.
“Maybe,” Cullen said. Kate huffed in reply.
“Well,” she said. “I guess you won’t need… the flares I stuffed down my corset.”
Cullen started, glancing over and down at Kate’s armored chest. “What? You didn’t…”
“Maybe,” Kate said, mimicking his earlier tone. Cullen matched her sly look with one of his own, but then –
Cullen heard a snort. It was a very loud snort, and it came from Varric. Cullen’s smile faltered. It seemed he had an audience. He’d had an audience all week, blast it.
“Ah, um, no, actually,” Cullen said, clearing his throat and trying for seriousness. “This plan is not based on a novel. It’s based on Brother Genitivi’s Decisive Battles of the Towers Age.”
“Ah,” Kate nodded. “Military romance, then.”
“M-military romance?” Cullen repeated. “That’s not a thing… is it?”
“Sure is,” Varric said, because of course, the dwarf just had to butt in. “Popular genre, too. Sunnan Brockman writes that stuff. Also Lorna Lee, Tyler Stephanie…”
A shout from Ella had them all looking forward to the gates. The summoned fireball was now half as large as the doors of the keep. Ella swept her hands out to form a barrier over herself and Dorian and Cole.
Maker’s breath, Cullen thought. What was he doing getting distracted by talk of novels? This wasn’t the time or place for… whatever this was. He had work to do.
Military romance, indeed.
“Ready!” Cullen shouted back. To the company around him, he shouted: “Shields up!”
Kate grunted as she straightened her arms over her head. The shimmering above them grew brighter, and the air took on a faint, rainbow sheen. The soldiers huddled together, the shield-wall tightened. Cullen held his own shield at the ready, and then…
“Fire in the hole,” Varric muttered.
The front doors of the castle burst open in a blast. Great chunks of stone wall and oaken door went flying into the air. The debris came crashing down over them, landing harmlessly on Kate’s barrier. From inside the shield, the muffled clatter reminded Cullen of hail on a Chantry roof.
“It worked,” Cullen said, looking up at the scattered mess.
“Don’t sound… so surprised,” Kate breathed. Her hands shook as if she’d felt the impact of that blast through her fingers.
“Hey Curly,” Varric called from behind them. “Hope you guys brought along some spare doors. We ruined that pair.”
It was true. Smoke curled from a great hole in the wall, and three figures stood in the breach. One of them was laughing.
“Ha-ha-ha!” Dorian cried. “How’s that for Tevinter siege work?”
Cullen had to admit, it was pretty good. He himself preferred weaponry to spellcraft. But Dorian’s magisterial training had allowed Dorian and Ella to act as portable blasting cannons.
Mages make a battlefield unpredictable, Cullen thought. The old templar proverb was true. Only this time, that unpredictability was a boon for the Inquisition, and a nasty shock for the other side.
“First wave, forward!” Cullen shouted.
The company moved as one, debris hovering over them as they marched up to the breach in the wall. As soon as the company had cleared the floating wreckage, Kate let out a long breath. Stones and splinters of wood dropped heavily to the ground behind them. Kate then threw her arms wide, and another wave of shimmering magic passed over their heads. Kate stumbled in that moment, staggering as if she’d just picked up a sizable stone.
“Can you handle this?” Cullen asked her.
Kate blew a hank of rain-slicked hair out of her eyes as she stumbled along. “Just don’t ask… For combat spells after,” she puffed.
Cullen didn’t plan to. And it seemed he wouldn’t need to. For as the company marched into the forward courtyard, Cullen saw that the battlefield was exactly as he’d expected it to be:
Dark, rain-slicked stone walls ringed them in on four sides. There was a structure in the corner - stables, probably. The wood was too rotted to be of any use. The courtyard was flanked by four bastion towers, each with doorways set into them, allowing passage around walkway that ringed the space. There was no way up to that walkway from down here on the ground. Evidently, those bandits had gotten onto the ramparts through the tower doors. On the opposite end of the paved space, there was a tall, wide archway. The doors were thrown open - (Careless, Cullen thought) - showing just a glimpse of a rainy courtyard beyond. That was the only way forward.
Exactly as I expected, Cullen thought. One had to appreciate the predictability of Ferelden design.
And as Cullen expected, the archers up on the ramparts had not thought to flee. Instead, the three of them - no, five of them - had fanned out along the walkway, the better to aim down at the courtyard below. But though arrows zipped down from above, nothing got through Kate’s barrier.
Right then, Cullen thought. Our turn.
“Inquisition archers!” Cullen cried. He heard a rustling sound, as all of Charter’s embedded scouts reached for their arrows. At the same time, Cullen spied a movement in the archway opposite. Two bandits came running into the bailey, then stopped in surprise when they saw two dozen archers, soldiers, and mages standing in a giant hole in their wall. One wisely turned to run. The other raised his maul and charged.
At Cullen’s order, Charter and her scouts burst from under Lysette’s shielding. Varric was among them, his crossbow primed and ready. There was a shout of: “They’ve broken through! Send for the–!” but that warning was silenced. Cullen heard the zip!-whip! of Inquisition arrows, the tat-tat-tat-tat-tat of Varric’s crossbow, and over it all, the wild whooosh of mage-fire. There were screams and wails and a horn blew and Cullen heard a loud “Ha-ha-ha!” that came from Dorian. One of the bandits got away through the bastion tower doors, running to warn the rest of the castle. And through all this, Kate stood stock still in the courtyard. She held the entirety of the barrier spell upon her shoulders, as Rion and the other mages engaged the enemy.
Then, there was silence. The bandits were all dead: either lying in lumps at the base of the wall, or with limbs dangling down from the walkway overhead.
Hmmm, Cullen thought, taking a look around. Maybe this plan was a bit of an overkill.
“To the ramparts!” he cried all the same. “Move, move! Ladders up!”
Two soldiers came running forward, slid out a telescoping ladder - modified Qunari design - and set the ladder up in the corner of the courtyard. And now they had access to the ramparts, Cullen thought in satisfaction. Always good to bring your own key to a locked door.
“Up to the walkways!” Cullen ordered. “Secure this courtyard! Someone check those storerooms there!”
While Charter’s scouts strode through the courtyard, Lysette and her soldiers climbed up onto the ramparts above. As they fanned out, another brave, stupid bandit came charging through the archway into the courtyard. The fellow screamed an impressive battlecry, but he didn’t get far. Varric shot him, Charter shot him, half the company shot him, and Dorian hit him with twelve bolts of flame. The bandit fell to the ground as a burnt pincushion.
Definitely overkill, Cullen thought. Ah well, better safe than sorry.
“Ramparts clear, ser!” Cullen heard Lysette call.
“Storerooms are empty, ser!” a scout shouted, as she came back out into the courtyard.
“Courtyard clear!” Charter added in.
“Well done, everyone!” Cullen shouted back.
Very well done, Cullen thought to himself. He gazed around at the small army with pride. Maker’s breath, that had been flawless. Even Varric had taken this seriously.
At Cullen’ side, Kate let her hands drop. The barrier burst, and Kate visibly wilted. She bent double and placed her hands on her knees.
“Good work,” Cullen told her.
“Mmmuuhhhnnn,” Kate replied. She didn’t sound like she had breath for anything more.
Then, above the driving rain, Cullen heard a new sound: barks echoed from the stairway ahead. The sound grew louder and louder.
Right, Cullen thought. The dogs…
“Rion!” Cullen cried, striding forward to meet the new threat. “Ella!”
“Everyone else, get back!” Cullen called.
The two mages strode forward to join Cullen, Rion in his impractical robes, and Ella in her combat gear. Cullen placed himself in the middle of the courtyard, and not a moment too soon. Two enormous shapes came flashing through the archway. They didn’t look like dogs at all, Cullen thought - more like short, self-propelled suits of armor.
“Sleep them!” Cullen cried.
Both Rion and Ella flung their hands out wide. One of the dogs stumbled, as if its foot had gone suddenly numb. The other one didn’t even flinch. It just kept coming, all metal and muscle and a mouth full of teeth.
“It didn’t work!” Cullen heard Rion cry.
“You need more power!” Kate shouted behind them. “The armor… And mabari willpower…”
The dogs leaped – “Ahhh!” Rion screamed – and then…
The dogs bounced back as if they’d hit something, then fell to the ground with a whimper. Cullen glanced over and saw that Kate had her hands out before her. Once again, she’d summoned a barrier shield. Only this time, she looked like she was about to faint from the effort. Cullen whirled back to the dogs.
“Cast again,” he ordered.
“Damn things are impervious,” Rion snapped. “Only managed to sleep its foot.”
“Add your power to mine,” Ella said, but Rion wasn’t listening. He flung his arms out wide again, and another wave of light passed through Kate’s shield and settled on the dogs. The limping dog shook its head and sneezed. The other one snarled in fury, its mouth dripping with foam.
“I said add your power to mine!” Ella cried. “Damn it, Rion…”
“Want me to shoot ‘em?” Varric called from somewhere to Cullen’s right.
“More hostiles! Commander! There are– Ah!”
Cullen looked up, and saw a flurry of movement on the ramparts. It seemed that a trio of bandits were trying to come through the upper doorways of the bastion towers. Cullen heard another round of zips and tat-tats and more of Dorian’s gleeful laughter.
“Dorian!” Ella snapped. “Get your sparkly ass over here and help me!”
“Bit busy at the moment!” Dorian shouted back. A flaming bandit fell from the ramparts, landing with a sickening crunch. The dogs skidded sideways, yapping frantically at the burning corpse.
“They’ll come back with reinforcements if we don’t press on!” Charter shouted. “Permission to kill the dogs and move forward!”
“Give us a moment!” Cullen cried back.
“I can’t hold this… for much longer…” Kate bit out. Her arms were shaking, and the dogs were now pacing on the other side of her rippling barrier.
“Ella! Rion!” Cullen shouted. “Last chance! Sleep those…”
“Ahhh!” Kate cried. At the same moment, her shield flickered away. She fell to her knees, and the mark on her hand started sparking wildly. The dogs shrank back for a moment - the limping one with wide, fearful eyes, the foam-mouthed one yapping madly - and then both mabari seemed to realize they were free. The foam-mouthed dog charged - Cullen saw Rion go down in a screaming flurry of robes and fireworks and flashing armor - and the limping dog lunged for the kneeling Kate.
Kate screamed and covered her head with her hands, but Cullen got there before the dog did. The dog slammed into his shield with enough force to send Cullen stumbling to his knees. Cullen tried to get his feet under him, but the dog whirled around in place, and then slammed into him again.
The dog took him to the ground. Cullen fell flat on his back, his head cracking on the cobblestones. He found himself pinned under his own shield, his vision blurred and doubled, his head ringing as though he’d landed inside of a Chantry bell. For a moment, Cullen couldn’t breathe - the dog’s weight crushed his chest, a mouth full of teeth snarled over him. The smell of rancid dog-breath fanned his face, sour as turned milk and garbage. The dog’s claws scrabbled on his shield, the dog’s teeth yapped at his neck, and then…
“Back! Get back!”
There was a flash of lightning - not blue-white lightning, but a bunch of weird, greenish bolts - then a ‘Yip!’ and more scrabbling, and the dog-weight was gone. Cullen sat up with a sudden “Uff! He shook his head, got his shield in front of him again, and then took a look at where the dog had gone.
For a moment, Cullen thought Kate was talking to him. But then he realized that she was talking to the dog. She had placed herself between Cullen and the mabari - and she didn’t even have a weapon. Cullen now recalled that she’d left her staff with the pack horses.
“Kate, back away.” Cullen scrambled to his feet, nearly blacked out for the sudden dizziness that fell over him.
But Kate did not move.
“Good dog,” she crooned. “Nice dog. Mother had a dog once. Just a spoiled Orlesian terrier. Not nearly so clever as you, you sweet killer mabari.”
The sweet killer mabari began pacing before her in an uneven cadence. It limped back and forth, its broad head low to the ground. And then Cullen realized that Kate wasn’t entirely unarmed after all. She held her left hand out before her, and green light flickered in her palm. The dog limped away from her, growling as it retreated. It seemed that the mabari did not care for Fade-magics.
“Nice puppy,” Kate went on, still in that soothing voice. “Good dog…”
Was she trying to scare or calm the dog? Cullen wondered. But then he saw that Kate had her right hand hidden behind her back. Her fingers were curled in a loose fist, and a ball of light had begun to form within the cage of her fingers. Cullen guessed at once what she was doing, but he didn’t want to take any chances.
“Kate, get behind me,” Cullen ordered. The dog hunkered down low. It was either ready to surrender – or ready to leap again.
“Good…” Kate murmured.
“Kate…” Cullen warned.
“Dog!” Kate cried, as the mabari jumped.
Cullen lunged for Kate, but she flung her right hand forward at the same time. Her spell shot under Cullen’s guard, sending a ripple of light into the air. The light hit the mabari mid-flight, and the dog dropped as suddenly as if it had been hit with an invisible hammer. Its armored body landed upon the stones with a heavy thud. The dog looked as if it had crash landed in a nap.
Kate collapsed as well. She sat down in a puddle and didn’t even care. She just hunched there, hands on her knees, breathing hard.
Cullen stumbled to her side. “You alright?”
“That,” she panted. “Was a lot of effort… For a dog.”
“Indeed,” Cullen agreed. He absently laid a hand on her shoulder. Kate just as absently patted his hand.
“Wait!” Kate cried, suddenly twisting around. “Rion! Ella! Did they…?”
“They’re…” Cullen turned at once, looking to see what had become of the other dog-battle.
Then he let out a laugh. He really couldn’t help it.
“I know,” Ella groaned from a few paces away. “Believe me, I know. But I was going for power, not precision. Then Sparkler got caught in the middle, and well…”
Ella waved her hands helplessly at the heap of bodies before her. Rion, Dorian, and the foam-mouthed dog were all lying in a tangled pile of limbs and armor. All of them were asleep, and all of them were snoring. The sound echoed the thunder overhead.
“I sleeped them all,” Ella sighed.
“So you did,” Cullen agreed.
But where Dorian and Rion looked quite peaceful, that foam-mouthed mabari still looked vicious. Its eyes had rolled back into its head in sleep, so that only the whites showed. Cullen grimaced at the sight of it.
“That one needs a muzzle,” a voice said softly at Cullen’s side.
Cullen turned his head to see that Cole had materialized at last. And just where had the spirit been all this time, Cullen wanted to know? Cole might have helped them with that skirmish just now.
“You didn’t need my help,” Cole replied to Cullen’s unasked question.
Cullen wasn’t so sure about that. The dog rescue had nearly gotten Kate injured, had given Cullen a bad bump on the head, and two of their best mages were now out of commission. More than that, the Inquisition now had two angry dogs to train.
Though from the looks of it, Cullen thought, that foam-mouthed dog might have to be put down. Some creatures were just too far gone to save.
“This one isn’t,” Cole told Cullen.
Cullen rolled his eyes. He didn’t have time for this.
“Just get the dogs muzzled,” he told Cole. “Are they alright?” he asked Ella, waving at the pile of slumbering mages.
“Oh, they’re fine,” Ella said. “I’m the one who tweaked my shoulder, trying to lift that dog. Thing’s as big as a pony, and Rion’s as skinny as a beanpole. Can’t get ‘em sorted out myself.”
“Scout Brooke!” Cullen called for the big soldier in Charter’s company. “Move this dog, will you?”
The man came lumbering over, and Cullen turned his attention to the archway ahead. He couldn’t make out much more than blurry shapes through the rain, but it seemed there was a barricade in the courtyard beyond. That hadn’t been there a few minutes ago. Apparently, the Inquisition was enjoying a brief reprieve as the bandits planned an ambush.
Fair enough. Cullen had anticipated ambushes.
“Is everyone else alright?” Cullen shouted, turning to make a quick visual sweep of the battlefield. “Any casualties?”
As he spun, Cullen’s vision went double again. He squeezed his eyes shut in a long blink and wiped the rain from his eyes.
“Everyone’s alive, ser,” he heard Charter call.
Well that’s good, Cullen thought, opening his eyes again.
“All troops, prepare to press on!” he called, pointing at the archway ahead. “Reform position and await further orders! Someone send for Barris! And mages…” Cullen’s gaze dropped to Dorian and Rion and he frowned. He sighed, then turned and looked at Kate, who was still sitting in her puddle of rainwater.
“Can you cast another barrier?” he asked her.
“Oh,” Kate said, sounding both dazed and disappointed. “Uh… Sure,” she nodded. “Sure. Yeah, I think… Sure.”
“Is that a yes?” Cullen asked, reaching out a hand. Kate let him help her to her feet, then she leaned heavily on his arm.
“Sure,” Kate said, still in that dazed, almost drunk sort of way. Cullen frowned at her. Maybe he’d better leave her here in the bailey.
“That sounds like a ‘no,’ Duchess,” another voice put in. That was Varric, wandering over to give his commentary. Cullen decided to ignore the dwarf.
Just then, Barris and Iron Bull came marching up, along with half of the Bad ASS team. But as they approached, both Barris and Iron Bull turned to look at the sleeping mages. Or rather, both of them turned to look at the sleeping Dorian. Both Barris and Bull cocked their heads, but where Barris shook himself and immediately turned his attention back to Cullen, Iron Bull continued to gaze at Dorian. Bull’s craggy face broke into a fond sort of smile.
“Orders, ser?” Barris asked. He gave a crisp salute to match his crisp tone.
“Get ready to press on,” Cullen replied. “Has anyone seen Kate’s…”
“Staff?” Iron Bull supplied, still looking at Dorian. “Yep. Here y’are, boss.”
The qunari held the weapon out, and Kate accepted it with a mumbled ‘Thanks.’ She planted the pommeled end on the ground like a standard and leaned upon it for support.
“So,” Varric said. “One courtyard down, two to go?”
“Three to go,” Cullen corrected.
“Two, isn’t it?” Bull said, finally tearing his gaze away from Dorian. “The next courtyard is a bi-level, so technically…” He raised his hand from waist-height to shoulder height, then shrugged. “Yeah, it doesn’t matter. Point is, we’d better go. ‘Cause if we don’t…”
“Hostiles on the ramparts!” Cullen heard Lysette shout. He looked up to see that the doors to the bastion towers had opened, and a group of bandits were trying to fight their way onto the space above.
“If we don’t, that sort of shit will keep happening,” Iron Bull said, pointing up at the walkway above.
“Persistent for bandits, aren’t they?” Varric said thoughtfully. He held up his crossbow, and looked through the sights. “Eh, Lysette’s fighting too close. Hey Lysette! Put your shield up and back off!”
Varric’s order was lost in the shouting. And now Cullen heard another cry:
“Ser, we’re taking fire!” It was Charter, yelling from the doorway. Cullen whipped his head around to see that the barricade in the next courtyard was crawling with bandits.
Blast it all, he thought. They’d taken too long with the dogs. Foolish last-minute changes to the plan. Still, the Inquisition had the advantage by far, and the bandits were clearly desperate. He could easily salvage this.
“Barris, go help Charter ward off that attack!” Cullen snapped. “Varric, have you got a clear – ?”
There was a Whipppp and a Thunk and then:
Cullen never finished his question. A bloodcurdling scream echoed off the stone walls, and Cullen spun around in shock. That scream was so loud, it sounded like it had come from right behind him.
Actually, Cullen realized, it had come from right behind him.
It had come from Cole.
“NO!” Cole’s cry now turned to snarl, and he looked up at the ramparts with fury in his eyes. “NO!”
“Cole, what’s wrong?” Kate asked.
“That’s wrong,” Varric said, pointing at the ground.
Cullen looked down, then felt his stomach lurch. The limp-pawed dog lay dead at Cole’s feet. A single arrow stuck out of its soft, unarmored belly. Rain matted its fur, and blood ran out onto the cobblestones.
“They shouldn’t have done that,” Cole said, his voice somehow both mild and mad. “They shouldn’t have done that.“
Then he was gone. Rain fell on the space where Cole had been standing a moment ago, pattering down on the cobblestones and the dead dog alike.
“Shields up!” Cullen said, stepping in front of Kate. “They’re aiming at the Inquisitor.”
“Uh, I’m gonna assume they were aiming at the dog,” Varric said. “Don’t think the kid would’ve been so pissed if that’d been an accident.”
“Why would they shoot the dog?” Kate wanted to know.
“Vindictive dipshits don’t like to share their toys?” Bull suggested.
“That’s awful,” Kate said.
“Hell of a shot though,” Varric said, sounding impressed. “I mean, they’re assholes, but that was a hell of a shot.”
Cullen had scarcely been paying attention to this conversation. On the ramparts above, those dipshit, asshole archers were still battling with Lysette’s soldiers.
“We need to take those bandits down,” he said. “Iron Bull! I need you to you…”
But before Cullen could complete that order there was a flash on the ramparts. A sound rang out across the courtyard - a kind of whhhipppp or a whissh, like the sound of scissors slicing. There was a shout from Lysette: “Holy Maker!” - and then a scream that cut off on a strangled gurgle:
Then a bandit went flying into the air, pinwheeling off of the ramparts with limbs splayed. The body went up - up - then changed direction and began to fall. The bandit landed on the paving stones before them with a gruesome crunch.
“Gahh!” Kate cried. The corpse was staring up at the sky with glassy eyes. Its throat was nothing but a mangled mess of bloody tendons and loose flaps of skin.
“Holy shit!” Varric gasped. “Did Cole do that?”
“Yep,” Iron Bull said. The qunari stood smiling up at the ramparts, his eyes shielded against the rain. His expression was that of a proud father. “Aw, hey look. He shanked the other guy, too.”
Cullen peered up at the ramparts, but all he could see was Lysette, a scout, and one last bandit. He heard a scream, then…
The last bandit on the ramparts went flying. This one spun sideways, like a skipped stone. It hit the roof of the rotting stables, and crashed through the timbers with a nasty splat.
“Sweet Andraste,” Kate said. “Cole’s going on a rampage, isn’t he?”
“Looks like it,” Varric agreed.
And now the screams were coming from that barricade in the courtyard ahead. Cullen couldn’t see much through the rain, but he heard Charter shouting:
“No! Hold your position! I don’t know what’s going on but… Maker’s breath!”
This time, a body went through the archway. Or toward the archway, anyhow. The body hit the top of the doorway with a smack, then fell straight down like a stone.
“Maker’s balls!” Cullen heard Charter shout. “What the Void is going on?”
“Cole is going on,” Varric shouted back. He sounded like he wanted to laugh. And sure enough, when he turned to Cullen, the dwarf’s expression was smug.
“There goes your siege plan, Curly,” he said.
Cullen shot Varric an angry look. Iron Bull whirled around, his good eye wide and excited.
“So hey, um, Cullen? Boss?” Bull asked. “If Cole is off the rails and this siege plan is going to shit, do you think that maybe I could… uh…?”
The giant hiked a thumb over his shoulder. He looked like a child on Feast Day. Only instead of asking for presents, Iron Bull was asking to storm the castle. Kate looked to Cullen, and Cullen shook his head.
“This was supposed to be a group training exercise,” he told Bull. “It was supposed to be…”
“Aaaaahhhhh!” Another scream came from inside the next courtyard, and another body went flying from behind that barricade. Cullen sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Just… Watch out for the mage,” he said. “There’s a mage in there, if you recall.”
“We recall, Curly,” Varric said.
“Really?” Bull grinned.
“Yes, yes, go on,” Cullen sighed.
“Yas!” Bull cried. He punched his gray fist in the air. “You coming, Varric?”
“Obviously,” Varric replied, as they both took off running for the archway. “But we’d better be keeping score.”
”‘Course we’re keeping score,” Cullen heard Bull shout back. “Not fair though, seeing as how Cole got a head start…”
Cullen shook his head, then looked over at Kate. She wrinkled her nose as she looked around the body-strewn courtyard.
“It will be faster this way,” she pointed out.
“Yes, but we won’t always be able to do things this way,” Cullen replied. “Not if the enemy knows how to reinforce a keep, not if they’ve had any degree of training. Most sieges are the result of careful planning and precision and Yes Scout Charter, what is it?”
Cullen spun around angrily as the elven scout came running up to him. Charter looked angry as well. Her hair was plastered to her forehead with rain, and she pointed at the archway behind her.
“Ser, what happened?” she demanded. “Why are those two breaking ranks? And who’s in there throwing bodies around?”
“It’s Cole,” Cullen explained. “Cole took off and Iron Bull and Varric wanted to go and basically this strategized siege plan has turned into a free-for-all. And yes,” he added, “I know what you’re going to say. The plan was complete overkill from the start.”
Charter blinked. Her lips quirked in a faint smile. “Ah,” she said.
“But I don’t want to hear ‘I told you so,’” Cullen warned her. He held up a finger to stall her.
“Wouldn’t dream of it, ser.” Charter turned to Kate.
“I told him so.”
“You did,” Kate agreed.
“Excuse me? What did I just say?”
“I was talking to mom, not you.”
“Mom?” Kate repeated. She glanced at Cullen in confusion. Cullen had no idea, so he just shrugged.
“New orders, ser?” Charter asked, not bothering to explain.
“The rest of the plan is unchanged,” Cullen replied, determined to salvage some semblance of a siege from this mess. “Sweep through the fortress, secure the structure. Make sure we don’t miss any storage rooms or secret passages. We need to account for every hostile in the place.”
“Need to clean the bodies off the floor, more like,” Charter said.
Cullen didn’t disagree. “No broom closet left unchecked,” he told her. “Go on then.”
“Yes, ser!” Charter turned and walked briskly back to the archway, hollering as she went: “Listen up, you lot! That boy Cole and the qunari and the dwarf went off to do our work for us! But don’t get sloppy now! Look alive. Scouts on the ramparts, soldiers on the ground. Follow me…”
With that, the troops pressed on into the fortress and the fog.
“Looks like we’re ahead of schedule,” Kate observed.
“So we are,” Cullen agreed. He took a look at the remaining wreckage of the courtyard. There were bodies everywhere, but they were all bandit corpses. The only fallen Inquisition soldiers were Rion and Dorian. At present, Ella crouched over them, her hands glowing as she tried to conjure a spell to wake them up.
“We might as well send for Philip,” Cullen said. “You there!” he called to a scout. “Call for the supplies, will you?” The scout nodded, then went running off through the breach in the wall.
“We’ll need a pyre soon, too,” Kate said. She looked at the dead dog with a frown.
“Good point,” Cullen told her. “I think there’s dry kindling in the…”
“Cullen!” Kate hissed. She was looking at something over Cullen’s shoulder, and he spun around at once.
Something - no, some one was trying to sneak out of the storerooms. The someone was a skinny, dirty-looking man in soaking wet robes. Either he had been hiding in the storeroom all that while, or there was a secret passage in there.
“Ah,” Cullen said, drawing his sword.
Kate threw her hands wide, but the barrier she conjured was a feeble, rippling little thing.
“Ella!” Cullen cried, striding forward. “Lysette! Hostile!”
The robed man stood frozen, as if he was a startled deer. He took in Cullen, Kate, and Ella, who had come running to cut him off. Then suddenly, wildly, he went running for the gates.
Cullen chased after him. The man threw his hands out behind him, and a shower of ice went flying from his fingers. Ella countered with a whip-like flash of fire, and the icicles fell to the ground. With a second, whip-like flame, Ella caught the man around the legs. He tripped, and went down face-first.
“Well then,” Ella said, strutting up to him with a flicker of fire in her palm. “Guess we found that missing mage.”
The mage groaned as he rolled himself onto his back. He looked up at Ella, his eyes going wide as he took in the fire. He then looked to Cullen, and at Kate, too. The mage snarled. He looked more like a mabari than the mabari, Cullen thought. Then, so suddenly Cullen didn’t have time to react, the mage cast a sweeping wave of light over them all.
Cullen tensed, expecting fire or lightning or ice. Instead, Cullen felt a gentle, breezy sort of sensation blow into him. It was like getting a face full of fluff, or goose down. Cullen shook his head, and looked down at the now-trembling mage. The fellow looked startled, as if he’d expected something else.
Cullen snorted to himself. So much for the bandit apostate. He went to step forward –
Cullen went down like a landslide.
Limp, and boneless, he crashed to the ground, his head cracking on the stones a second time.
But he didn’t feel it.
He didn’t hear it either. In fact, Cullen now heard nothing: not the sound of rain, nor the sound of thunder, nor the tramp of the Inquisition soldiers’ feet as they ran toward him. Cullen could see the mage was laughing at him, but he couldn’t hear the sound. Then an arrow hit the mage in the chest, and the mage’s mouth opened on a scream. Cullen didn’t hear that, either.
And now someone was rolling Cullen onto his back. Kate leaned over him, her face low to his, her mouth moving. Cullen thought he recognized the shape of his name on her lips. But he couldn’t hear it, couldn’t hear anything, couldn’t feel anything - not Kate’s fingers as they brushed across his face, not his arms as they lay limp at his side - not the rain falling into his unblinking eyes, nor the cold nor the wet, nor anything at all. In a panic born of peace, Cullen looked at the world outside of his body and found he felt…
Nothing. Nothing at all.