Fear & Surprise, Chapter Nineteen

by artrald

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*

‎Ma chere Severina,

It is with not a little excitement that I write to you today. The official announcement will not truly be until the spring, but I felt simply unable to keep an old friend in the dark so long – my dear, we are re-opening the high pass through the Frostbacks to the south-east of your demesne, the one the dwarves used in the time of Drakon the First. I write this letter from the highest tower of Skyhold Keep: we are to be neighbours!

I am correct, am I not, that your family is still in the enchantments trade? Only I was reading our map, yesterday, and I could not help but notice that our road is like to be the very quickest route from the Imperial heartlands to Redcliffe, Calenhad and Orzammar – in short, my dear, it nearly cuts a third from the travel time, not to mention the avoidance of the tariffs at Amaranthine and at Halamshiral. (Between you and me, Severina, I have always thought it bordered upon daylight robbery to tax you twice for your trade.)

Ourselves – well – here is the part I am truly proud of. The citadel’s masters are Chantry through and through – Seekers and Templars and neither man nor lady of business between them. They have literally no idea of what count as fair rates and ‎no conception of the value of goods unless it is waved under their nose. I mean, Maker forfend that we should propose to cheat them – but they think like generals and priestesses and not like merchants, and thus one might find a succession of terribly interesting arrangements should one have the wherewithal.

For example, this month they are worried about their stocks of food: and rather than purchase some, they have the general’s instinct that trades in kind are always better. Indeed, when I tentatively broached the idea that tariffs might be waived in exchange for the odd shipment of supplies, say, and access to a market to buy more – Lady Cassandra wanted a handshake deal on it that day, as if the goods were mine to offer!

I enclose the rates upon which I have her signature: by my numbers, this works out at nearly a ten per cent reduction on the duty payable at Amaranthine alone, and of course, the goods need never go anywhere near Halamshiral at all. And lest you worry about the legalities, my dear, let me set your mind at ease – it is exactly the same from a legal standpoint as accepting goods from the Anderfels with a Grey Warden stamp. I should like to see them accuse Cassandra Pentaghast of smuggling with a straight face!

Do feel free to pass this opportunity on to a friend or two, my dear. The only reason everybody isn’t doing it is that I’ve only told a select few – I am sure I can trust to your good sense concerning the best distribution of this information.

letter from Josephine Cherette Montilyet to Comtesse Severina Delaval, written in the autumn of 9:40 Dragon

*

“Ah, Lord Maxwell.” Josephine looked up from the makeshift trestle that she was using as a desk. It was completely beyond me how she continued to look so good, even in a plain brown smock with her hair scraped back and caught in a simple thong – “Good of you to drop by. I have a couple of things for your seal, if that’s in order.”

The wax was right there, and despite everything I was still wearing that spare Trevelyan signet: I busied myself. “So,” I said, “what am I signing away today?”

“Nothing incriminating,” she said, businesslike. “A denial of rumours that we are dead; a polite little note to Queen Anora apprising her of the situation; a couple of invitations to smugglers and would-be tariff dodgers.”

“Mm. All quite innocuous, really.”

“I do my best.” She watched me pour out the wax, press the seal. It was curiously mundane. The kind of thing I did before a mountain fell on me.

We both opened our mouths at once: she shut hers. Then looked at me when I didn’t talk. Eventually she raised her eyebrows. “Yes?”

“I, uh. Just wanted to.” Words. Sometimes they’re hard. “Apologise.”

The response was quick enough to have been practiced. “I can’t readily imagine for what.”

“My lady…” Couldn’t see anything in her liquid brown eyes other than barred gates and high walls. Trailed off. Tried again. “I didn’t have your permission.”

She dropped her gaze quickly back to her work. “I shouldn’t think that’s how it’s expected to work.”

“I just – My life was mine to risk, I’m not anybody: Lord Maxwell is. He isn’t just mine. He’s got, you know. Responsibilities. And I didn’t think of that.”

“It worked out,” she said, neutrally, her eyes still downcast. Picked up her quill with a precise little motion. “I’m quite certain that it would be impossible to take ‘Lord Maxwell was abrogating his responsibilities’ from the people’s testimonies of the retreat from Haven, and I’m sure nobody would hear that from me.”

“I didn’t come in here to talk to the people.”

“No,” she said, and frowned at her letter. “I imagine you didn’t.”

“I’ve given offense-”

“No, you haven’t.” She didn’t even glance in my direction. “Will that be all, my lord?”

“Uh. Of course.” Out of my depth. Entirely out of my depth. I stood up, somewhat awkwardly. “I suppose – I – should be about my business.”

I caught her sigh as I was halfway to the salvaged cloak that was serving her as a door. “Maxwell, stop.” Did what she said, put my back against the archway. “What was it like? Walking out of that?”

I put my head back against the stone. “Cold. Lonely.” Deep breath. “I really – there was a point when – Let’s just say that’s the second time in my life I woke up and didn’t bloody expect to.”

She raised an eyebrow. “That was the point you’re supposed to say something romantic, you know. For the bards’ sake, if not anybody else’s.”

I coloured slightly. “My lady, I-”

“Oh, never mind.” Her expression was unreadable. “Don’t think me ungrateful. You saved us; you lived; the way things turned out, we couldn’t have orchestrated your performance better if we’d tried. Any reason I might have to be – it isn’t with you I’m displeased, and it isn’t your problem. But…”

“Go on?”

“Well – the next time the Blessed Andraste calls on you for something, I suppose you could try and encourage her to give my poor nerves a moment’s consideration?” Her tone of voice wasn’t quite right to be joking.

Fake joke, forced smile. “I’ll be sure to mention it.”

She nodded mock-seriously. “After all, our transitory welfare is so very important. I’m nearly sure that’s how the Chant goes.”

“It is, though,” I said. “Isn’t that kind of the point?”

She bit her lip, looked down. Moment before she spoke, soft voiced. “How do you do that, Max?” She laid down her quill again with a little click. “How d’you – every single time I underestimate you -” she shook her head. “Yes. All right? I know.” She met my eyes. “I need to get over myself. I’ve dealt a dozen times worse to a dozen different people in the Divine’s service. I’ve broken households and brought people low and taken people’s homes and given them far worse than a few days’ trek starving in the snow, and for no more or different cause than ours – and if that’s acceptable then this is acceptable, and regardless I’ve no right to let less than a week’s – transitory – I’m sorry.” She clasped her hands. “You have things to do, and-”

“Rather believe I’m doing them,” I returned her gaze flatly. “I’ve got a duty to you, my lady-”

“You’re quite permitted to use my name, you know.” She made herself smile, forced lightness into her voice. “I’m relatively sure that we can tolerate the familiarity.”

“All right, but – As a leader, as the Herald, as a friend, I hope – hell. Even if all it is is a-a half self-interested obligation to make sure that House Trevelyan is around and useful to House Montilyet. A noble has responsibilities as well as rights, and I did actually volunteer for this set. I – forgot some of all that. I won’t do that again if I can help it.”

“And I suppose my part of that bargain is to try not to lose any more sleep or bite any more nails over what might stop you keeping that promise.” She nodded softly. “Or any others I might consider you’ve made.”

“I haven’t forgotten.” I swallowed. “I, uh. Don’t think I physically could.”

“Careful, Max. That was almost a compliment.” That perfect, beautiful smile was fake. I was beginning to recognise it. The mask had slipped; the mask was back. My audience was over.

*

Cassandra reined in her mount. It was a pleasure, a pleasure and a charm to ride with a group who actually knew what they were doing, for once. Cullen and Vivienne, she knew well, but Blackwall’s inclusion was a bit of a gamble, and for once that had paid off. Wherever he had learned his skills, he rode like a seasoned chevalier – indeed, better than most she’d met. It wasn’t just that they’d made excellent time: Cassandra might never have been cut out to be an outrider, but  knight or no, there was something about the road that made one smile.

Therinfal never had been pretty. The keep was Tevene, impractically high and pointed; the walls were Orlesian, and nothing seemed to quite fit; tall and imposing the redoubt sulked, hunched over its town like nothing so much as a drake jealous of its kill. And something, of course, was wrong. Vivienne mused that why couldn’t they go somewhere nice, for a change, and Blackwall said that at least there weren’t darkspawn.

Well, if she would bring a Warden.

Wasn’t just darkspawn that weren’t there, though. It was the month of Harvestmere: every chimney should have had its own thin trail of smoke, every home’s hearth should have had a fire. The road should have been bustling, or at least the gates should have been closed tight against some threat – it was enough to unship their shields and loosen their blades and keep wary eyes out, it was enough for Cassandra and Vivienne both to mutter that there wasn’t a rift there that they could see.

Nothing.

They went unchallenged at the open gate. The town could wait. This place had been the de-facto headquarters of the kingdom’s templars, and the gate stood open and the battlements were empty. Surely they hadn’t left their castle entirely unattended?

She let Cullen take the lead: he was the one who’d been here before. He dismounted quickly and the sheer ordinariness of tying up his horse was incongruous. Vivienne muttered that she couldn’t hear anyone alive, but a mage’s senses aren’t what they could be around templars. Poked briefly around the stables – empty. Not a horse, not a groom. Nothing.

It was Vivienne who spotted the spill of blood.  Someone had died here. More than one someone, now they were looking for it. Little sign of a struggle. And as Blackwall pointed out, no bodies. Darkspawn would have torn everything apart and burned it. Bandits would surely have left more sign of a fight.  A rift and the corpses would be here still and walking. None of the blood was templars’, she said – no lyrium in it.

Both gates of the gatehouse swung unevenly open at a touch, and shouldn’t have. Still no sounds. No people. Still nobody on the walls. Had Corypheus taken every single person, Templar or no? The forge was cold – blood here, too, like someone had fallen across the anvil itself, and the mage said it was a couple of weeks old. It was all making a picture that wasn’t other than chilling. At least the Inquisition had taken no for an answer, had –

Movement. Vivienne pointed up to a tower window – Cullen and Cassandra, templar trained, closed on the mage with their shields raised against arrows, while Blackwall simply got his head down –

Silence.

Fine. Something in the keep. Chilling pictures and worrying inferences could wait until the place wasn’t dangerous. Cullen led the way, and rather than find out whether Blackwall had the Wardens’ famous habit of arbitrarily grabbing the vanguard the moment there was action to be had, Cassandra brought up the rear. The place was well-designed, keep and castle both – if there was anybody in there with the idea that this would be a good day to ambush them, they had absolutely perfect ground, but they’d be in for one hell of a surprise regardless.

Cullen knew where he was going. The inner ward, at the foot of the tower – someone had put sand down on the bloodstains here; the rain had mostly done its job in washing them away, but it was still quite clear. There had been executions, right there, and not a few. The templars had cleared the whole inner ward and gathered here and watched.

The doors were still unbarred, the halls dark and silent. Their footsteps echoed on the stone. They came wary into the great hall, and Cullen curled his lip, traded a glance with Cassandra darkly. This was supposed to be the Maker’s place, the Maker’s hall: the great gilded lectern of the Chant was here, but the book of the Chant was closed, and no voice kept up the Chant, and the very silence itself was blasphemy. And it couldn’t have been an attack. It could have been no kind of outside force. Because the Chant was the heart of the fortress. If the book was still here, and it was, then this would have been where any stand would have been made, and not while any of them drew breath should there have been silence here.

There had been a Seeker here. That was the bit that made Cassandra feel sick. Lord Lucius had come here, or at least, the Seekers’ agents had had no evidence he was anywhere else. Maybe he’d even been here when the decision to leave this place was taken. And he’d allowed this. The executions – perhaps there was a reason, one couldn’t tell without more information. The march on Haven – it was wrong, it was against the Maker’s will, but you could see how someone would get the impression that it was allowable. But this? Nobody who had studied even one week in a Chantry anywhere from the frozen south to the sun-baked north, from the eastern ocean to the Anderfels, nobody could look upon orders to deliberately allow the Maker’s house to fall silent and not seen an unforgivable desecration.

If they’d been here seeking charges to lay against the masters of Therinfal – with whom? – if they’d been here simply to discredit – they could have stopped right here and gone home, if not satisfied, then at least successful. This sight alone, five years ago, and the leadership of the templars of Ferelden would have been on its knees before the Sunburst Throne for judgement.

Quick steps to the lectern, and Cassandra broke its chain and took up the tome. It was ornate, it was unwieldy, it was heavy: she slung her shield to carry it. But it was that or open it and sing. Either this place wasn’t a chantry,or it wasn’t silent. She didn’t miss that Blackwall raised an eyebrow. Charitably,  that might have been an impressed look – though what a pass to come to, that one is thought better of for doing what any of the Maker’s children ought?

Spiral stairs. Best place for an ambush. None came. The window they’d seen something at was in the quarters of the inner circle, but the place was quiet, the doors latched – all but that one. The servants’ door, quietly concealed – the hinges were bust. Far side, a poky little room – broom cupboard, back stairs, and the dumbwaiter – and it was full of broken furniture. They’d piled things against the door, tried to barricade it, and it had been kicked down.

Vivienne put a sudden finger to her lips, stepped forward absolutely noiselessly into the room – the hatch of the dumbwaiter was open a crack, and she pulled it suddenly open. And a startled little face with pointed ears disappeared rapidly downward from view.

Aneth ara, ma falonne!” She might have learned her elvish in Montsimmard, but it was hopefully intelligible. “Mai na! Eni atisha an!

A pause. A soft voice, a young man’s, came from the shaft. “Harel’an da.” If a rabbit could talk, this is how it would sound. “Sena t’shem.”

Sulais vien.” The alien syllables stuttered off her tongue. “Em’ma eravhenne da.”

“Aye? Era’vhen… la chevalen Orlain da?” There was uncertainty in that voice. “Bloody chevaliers and a mage, and you try and call me friend?”

“Well, I can tell you whose friend I am not.”

“Prove it,” the voice hissed. “You’re a mage? Show me.”

Vivienne whispered a word and flicked her fingers, and the dull glimmer of the room’s lightstone burst into sunlit radiance. “I am Vivienne de Fer, of the Inquisition.”

“The who?”

“The Templars are our enemies.” Damnation, but that was painful to hear. “They attacked us at our home. We stood them off. We came to look for the rest of them, and we found Therinfal empty.”

“You uh.” The elf appeared again, slowly. His eyes were big. “You… fought them?”

“And we are still alive. These are Cassandra, Blackwall and Cullen, knights of the Inquisition. Who are you, ma falonne?”

“Tarry Haiver. I was a scullion here.” His eyes darted around the four of them. “Do you – do you know? When are they coming back?”

“I don’t think that they ever will be.” Her voice was grim. “I don’t know how many of them ran away. The terrain wasn’t friendly.” (There is one truth. Cassandra quietly admired Vivienne’s ability in telling it.)

“Dread Wolf.” Guilty glance, but they didn’t call him out for the heathen oath. “I – I’m not sorry, milady.” Seeing no disapproval in their faces, he ventured further – “Murdering caivhen shems got what they deserved.”

Vivienne held out a hand to help him out of the hatch; he ignored it. He was filthy; they could barely recognise the Chantry livery he was wearing. “Tell me,” she said gently. “What happened here?”

His eyes darted to the corners of the room, the routes out. He didn’t want to step away from the hatch; they gave him space. “They uh. They – how much d’you know?”

“Let’s say I just about know the Templars have a castle here.”

“Right. Right. Always said this is the last holy castle, but it was a backwater, right?” He looked firmly at the floor. “But templars been coming here for months, riding in from all over the whole kingdom and sticking around, but that was all right. They brought their people with ’em, we made room, we had the whole place running, everybody who’d been here to start with got a bit more important, all good. Anyway,when the place was, like, nearly full,a bunch of bigwigs came to see the Grand Master, talked to him for a long while. Heard one of them was a Holy Seeker, so we was all getting everything just so. And when they’d finished they made a big speech, got all the templars in the great hall, talked to them all.”

“What did they say?” Cullen frowned.

“What do I look like, a book? It was all big words and Orlesian and so on and I wasn’t there. But they was cheering him long and loud. Anyway, next morning they had the gates opened, the big ones all the way, and they went down to town and I don’t know what they said, but up into the castle came, like, everyone. All the shems, all the People, all of everyone. And they gathered up and a dirty great shem stood up and they said quiet for the Lord Seeker and he gave a speech.” The elf ran his hand through his ratty hair. “And he said about a holy cause, whole world had gone mad, full of -” he stopped dead and looked straight at Vivienne and went quite pale.

“Go on,” said Vivienne quietly. “I give you my word as an Enchanter, if you offend me then I shall do no more than leave.If you anger my knights then I shall not allow them to harm you.”

The elf gulped. “Right. He said the mages had corrupted the Chantry-” and he noted the firm set of Cassandra’s jaw as he said it, and didn’t more than stutter – “a-and the Templars had to become holy enough to face them, and he s-said this meant everyone, said we could all be Templars if we wanted to be holy, we could all drink and take up the blade. Every knight and squire, every scullion and villein, every man and woman and child would be-”

Cullen’s swearword was louder than Cassandra’s; she gave way to him. “Children?” He curled his lip, and little Tarry took half a step to put Vivienne between the two of them. “A child cannot become a Templar. It’s not just -” he glanced at the outsider Blackwall, carried on regardless – “It’s not just against the Rule, it’s physically impossible. The initiation doesn’t take.”

The elf nodded. “The kids, they just sent ’em away if it didn’t. Put ’em out into the night. But that wasn’t the half of it,” he said, darkly.

“Tell me they didn’t,” Cassandra growled. “The sacrament is poison to your kind.”

“Don’t need to tell me that, milady.” He looked up from the floor. “They lined everybody up and they had great chalices of the stuff. You stepped forward, you said the words in Orlesian, repeated them after the -” he stepped literally into Vivienne’s shadow, trying to hide from Blackwall’s thunderous expression – “I swear, milord, I’m not lying, I’m not!”

“No,” growled the Warden. “No, I’m sure you aren’t. Go on, boy. It’s not you I’m wanting to break in half.”

A nervous, jerky nod. “They drank, everyone did it. And -” He swallowed hard. Went on. “Some of ’em, they threw it up, or they fainted o-or whatever, and they said that the Maker had judged ’em unworthy and they took ’em away. They gave it to Vhena, the hahren, and she just, she fell over and foamed at the mouth – and they -” His voice went. Deep breath. “We ran, those that could, we hid. They found us. Most of us.” He wrung his hands. “And I-I didn’t see, but everyone they thought was unworthy. They took ’em away and I, after they left I s-saw the bodies. In the midden.”

Vivienne spoke softly. “How many of you are left?”

“Maybe half a dozen of us got out that night. Ran to the town, told everyone. The shems, the ones who hadn’t gone up to the castle, the elders, the kids, they ran. We -” he looked down – “I don’t know. We went back, because they had our hahren.” He shivered, top to toe. “The others left when they learned she was dead. Vir atishan, they said, but I just think they was scared. I stuck behind to do for her, and for the others. Couldn’t just leave them lying on that heap.” He sniffed. “I stole their poor bodies away, one by one. Laid them out in the kitchen garden. I don’t think anyone saw, or I don’t think they cared. Then they left. All of them. They took everything they could. I think I’m alone.”

Cullen frowned. “It’s – dammit. This should be – it’s impossible.”

“Milord, I’m telling you -”

“No, I mean -” his lips moved silently a moment – “Entire cauldrons of sacrament. Inducting a templar isn’t easy – you can’t just give them a tiny sip. To take a couple of thousand people on at once, you’d – they should have used up their whole supply five times over, just that night. There’s a reason we didn’t just start recruiting new templars for the Inquisition, we wouldn’t have been able to support the ones we had. There isn’t supposed to be that much lyrium in the kingdom.”

“I have a notion,” said Vivienne. “You saw the stuff, right, Tarry? You saw what they were drinking?”

He nodded. “Stank like hot metal.”

“That’s the stuff,” said Cullen. “You don’t forget it. Normally it’s mixed into wine. The first time, not so much.”

“It would have been coloured,” said Vivienne. “It would likely have shone like brushed gold-”

“Not like gold,” said the elf, and Vivienne nodded. “It was bright red.”

“Maker’s sacred breath of creation,” Cassandra breathed. “Cullen, tell me I am wrong. What would the sacrament look like, taken in red wine, say?”

“It’s black.” Cullen frowned. “I’ve seen red Templar sacrament precisely once before.”

“Kirkwall?”

“The new recruits, the Circle guards and the Knight-Commander. The ones who took more than the bare minimum.”

“That’s what I was…” Her mind was racing. “I… think we owe Varric an…” She turned to the others. “Vivienne. Blackwall. Go with Tarry, take the castellan’s quarters apart. I want correspondence. They had black-market contacts, I want to know who. Cullen, with me. Lyrium store. Now.”

*

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