Fear & Surprise, Chapter Twenty

by artrald

Delayed a day. Sorry. On the back-end, what is happening is a combination of (a) lots of larp events (b) vacillation on which bit to do next. DA:I is *huge* in comparison to DA:O and a lot of the plot is gated behind Skyrimesque bits that wouldn’t be fun to write. I’ll think of something.

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*

Arguably, what should have followed our immuring ourselves in a castle in the Frostbacks and scrounging enough supplies for a thin autumn and lousy winter should have been naught save a thin autumn and a lousy winter, possibly with a good three or four months to answer the question ‘so, what now?’ Nobody marches armies in winter, nobody thinks it a great time to ride out abroad; it’s a time to consolidate and story-tell and mend and recover; and roughly speaking, not a bit of it.

The first rift west of the Frostbacks was met by mages out of Montsimmard: our scout’s words were that it was like the sky fell on it. The battle-mages scoured it clean, baked the ground, raised a wall, set symbols on it to keep out passersby, thought themselves far superior to the Fereldans – and then something the size of a horse squeezed itself physically out of the rift, and the only reason anyone made it away from there at all is that the slowest one of them tripped and fell.

And the news that closing the hole in the sky hadn’t fettled it went through the Inquisition like the shock of a charge. Yes, we raised shields, closed ranks and set to: but we really, really had not wanted to.

Regardless of what was opening them – a question that exercised the mages Solas and Dorian to the point that they had chased every single other soul from one of the old towers, and strange lights and noises came from it day and night – it wasn’t just a simple matter of riding out to close them. In Ferelden, by virtue of who and what we were, and because frankly the law of the land was a little less tight, we had implicit permission from Amaranthine and Redcliffe. As if the Maid would tell people off for riding out after monsters; as if Redcliffe would look up from the mages’ war for one moment. But the rifts were now opening in Orlais, and the Empire was highly suspicious of foreigners haring hither and yon across their land, and in Orlais even a holy cause has to have papers. And at least to start with, Cassandra and Cullen were all the way over the other side of Ferelden, and Iron Bull wasn’t the most likely of holy warriors, and the Herald’s reputation was complicated and confused.

What work we could do, actually went fairly straightforwardly. The routine that had served us so well in Ferelden actually worked perfectly well in supposedly sophisticated Orlais. Nightingale’s outriders aroused less suspicion, talked to peasants, put pins in maps; Mynah and her message-birds told the banns what to expect; and where we had to, where we could, the Iron Bull rode out with the Herald of Andraste and brought down the hammer.

Come spring, or if the mages made a breakthrough, we’d hunt down the Venatori, we’d lance this boil. But that winter was simply a matter of marking time.

Lace Harding, Inquisition chief of scouts
Collected Testimonies of the Heroes of the Inquisition
published by Tethras and Sons of Kirkwall

*

Varric had received the bird from Cassandra with the general air of a man who’d assumed the worst some while ago, and had no further room to be surprised – while, yes, it’s good to be right, he really looked like he’d rather not have been. Immediately he made a rather ghoulish request – permission to dig through Templar personal effects at Haven – and I granted it almost before Nightingale had slight doubtfully said that she couldn’t think of anything actually dangerous he could want there.

I didn’t expect him to disappear into our makeshift forge upon his return – apparently all he’d wanted from there was a flask of wine. I didn’t expect him to request a series of increasingly strange things, like a kettle and a set of metal thimbles, or an old pan nobody minded him absconding with; the blacksmith complained vociferously that the dwarf was mad: he seemed to want to boil water with a furnace. Varric emerged a while later with three little metal thimbles full of brightly coloured metallic gunk, and pretty immediately he called on Dorian: and then the two of them came to our war-council looking as grim as death.

“The templars at Haven. You said they were behaving -” Varric made a face – “Oddly. You know, more oddly than to be mounting an attack on a village halfway across the kingdom without any apparent plan for what next.”

I nodded. “Was it the marching through hip-deep snow, or was it the complete disregard for-”

“Right.” He held up the cups in his hands. “So I’ve seen templars behaving strange before. Like, collectively insane, and spare me the jokes. Any individual one looked all right, apart from the one at the top, but you looked at what they were doing all together and they were basically wearing their smallclothes on the wrong end, you know? And again, when I saw it last time, there was this thing where there was way more lyrium around than there should be. Recruiting drive, but no more lyrium buying. Way more templars. Hatred of mages. Insane rhetoric, outright crazy.”

“The Kirkwall Rising.” Nightingale nodded slowly. “Where the Apostasy started.”

“Right.” He threw a glance at Dorian. “So on a hunch, right, I went and cooked down some lyrium out of the sacrament they had with them at Haven. Took it to the magister here, along with a shaving of red lyrium and a scrap of blue that I was saving. See if maybe his bad guy and my bad guy were friends.”

“Uh, still somewhat really very much not a magister, old fellow,” said Dorian. “Anyway – I – think that we might well have struck some sort of metaphorical motherlode. I’d never seen this stuff in the flesh, but it wasn’t that much of a challenge – let’s say I’ve met the style. Remember the vision we had? Pillars of lyrium-like rock growing through bodies we really hoped were dead?” He gave a significant look to the thimble Varric had in his hand.

“You’re shitting me.” I looked at the thing like there was a snake in it.

“Sorry. I wish.” He stroked his moustache. “I have absolutely no clue – and let me tell you, I don’t mean you need to go and get a better wizard, this is my own field here, I’m probably the best there is – I haven’t the utter foggiest how that was done, in the way that a little boy juggling two apples looks at a man keeping half a dozen knives in a flashing figure of eight and has no idea how that’s going on. But what you’ve got -” he shook his head. “So lyrium is called elu’alas in elvish, ‘earthdreams’? It’s not as metaphorical as you might imagine. On a fundamental level the stuff isn’t really real, or at least it’s not entirely – anyway. If the blue lyrium is like a regular confusing jumbled not-quite-sure dream, and the gold is like a vivid and satisfying dream that ends well? The red stuff is a fever-dream, a hallucination. It’s not just terrifying in the moment, it’s unhealthy, it’s – contaminated. Using it for magic would be a terrible idea. Eating it -” he shuddered. “Just no. The contamination would spread.”

Nightingale raised an eyebrow. “Symptoms?”

“Insanity, but if I didn’t know that the templars could do it, I’d have said that of regular lyrium ingestion. Addiction. And -” he waved his hands vaguely – “uh. This is going to sound terribly unprofessional. But – you read in the Chant, about the evils of the past corrupting the Fade-”

Nightingale’s expression was droll. “The authorised Chant says ‘the evil of mankind,’ my dear Vint.”

“Right. Exactly.” Dorian nodded. “That’s exactly what it is. It’s like someone sat there on, I don’t know, a gallows and drained all the bad thoughts out of a thousand criminals and bottled it somehow. It’s not grand and sweeping, it’s little and petty, it’s a little crystallisation of stupid and wrong. If it weren’t for the whole templar thing, I’d say these people would be the perfect host for a spi-” he bit off the phrase – “a demon.”

“So, it’s bad,” I said. “Got you. So what does this mean?”

Varric ticked off on his fingers. “It means that I may know some more people who are our enemies’ enemies; I’ll bring them onside if I can. I’ll make noises at my patron in Orzammar, too, try and get us a proper contribution from the dwarves: a potential alternative lyrium source will have them falling over themselves to aid us. It means that we can’t choke off our enemies’ lyrium supply, because this stuff breeds somehow-”

Felt sick, remembering. “Yeah.”

“Right. It also means they can take anyone who can take up a sword and send them crazy, if that’s any use-”

“The Templars in that valley weren’t behaving like I’d expect just from exposure to this stuff, so my guess is that the Venatori are steering them somehow,” offered Dorian. “Brainwashing -” I didn’t miss the stutter in his voice – “It’s legal where I come from, although most people consider it somewhat infra dignitatem. I’m surprised it’d work on templars; perhaps this hints at a weakness we can use?”

Nightingale shook her head. “There is no gate so high that it cannot simply be opened.”

“You’re not wrong.” He tapped his chin. “A creature of the Elder One’s power and likely background could absolutely have been subsuming the wills of others.”

I frowned. “Isn’t he dead?”

“Rather doubt it, I’m afraid.” He shrugged. “This is, what, the third time that we know of that he’s been flattened, blown to the four winds, turned to ash, otherwise toast?”

“Hey, we didn’t know!” Varric sounded aggrieved. “Never seen Merrill Kirker wrong about something magic. Never seen her – I mean – five years I knew that girl, and while the rest of the time she was the most ham-fisted klutz you ever did see, while I saw her fail pretty hard a couple times, I never once saw her make the wrong call about magic she could see. And she said he was dealt with.”

“Well, looks like you witnessed her life’s one shame.” His moustache twitched. “Say. Do you think she-”

He shook his head emphatically. “I asked. Nothing from her. But she’s not my only friend.”

*

“Question for you, sera.” Blackwall ‘s expression was companionable. An easy man to like. “If it’s not impertinent.”

“Ask,” Cassandra said. “If it’s not.”

“Seen you fight, sera. Against the demons, I mean, mostly. Never seen the like. I mean, I know you must’ve had experience with the Inquisition, but the way you were stalking the big ones, like you know what you’re doing. You got that from somewhere. You weren’t just trained to fight humans. Who teaches that?”

“Apart from your lot, you mean?” She regarded her hands a moment, the light grip on the reins, the gloves she was wearing. “I’m Nevarran. My first posting with the Order was back north.” Note in her voice that sounded surprisingly like a pride in her country that she’d never felt at the time. “A stripling turning up at the court of King Markus wearing a blade, without even the excuse of being a foreigner, had better be able to keep up.”

A raised eyebrow. “And I’m sure you taught them a fancy Orlesian trick or two, but-”

A snort of what might have been laughter if it were funny. “Ser, you misunderstand entirely. Duelling isn’t unknown, but they aren’t Marchers or Antivans to take offence at the drop of a hat. No, my countrymen hunt – and my graduation assignment was to attend the Nevarran court and remind them that soft living didn’t breed soft people. I killed my first drake when I was seventeen; the Templar I was supposed to be squiring for was most put out.”

“Heh. I’ll bet.” They rode on a few more moments. “So, your order. I’ve only ever heard rumours and tales; you’re the first one I’ve actually met. Is it like it’s a deadly secret, or are you just, you-know. A bit on the uncommon side?”

“We’re certainly the latter. And getting less common now that the Lord Seeker sided against the birds of the Divine, although I’ve only heard of half a dozen incidents. I’d be surprised if there were more than fifty of us left, a little over half of whom answer to Nightingale and me.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Fifty? I’d thought fewer. Never seen another one ride up to your gate.”

“There are such things as messenger birds, you know. Tales have it that we’re everywhere, or rather, they should – but we’re far too busy to sit around in one specific place chatting.”

“Mm. So, you’re like the Sunburst Throne’s eyes and ears, then? Sort of secret Templars?”

“Somewhat.” She smiled. “Some of us are better at the secrecy than others, of course.”

“Right. Right.” A pause. “Isn’t it sort of incriminating to have to carry that sacramental stuff around with you everywhere? Or do you just go from chapter to chantry to Circle, like a hedge-knight but religious?”

“No, no. We aren’t Templars, even if we have dispensation to masquerade as their attendants and novices.” She caught his raised eyebrow. “The Seeker initiation is longer, slower and subtler – we recruit from among Templar novices – if you never discover that you are being trained, you do become a Templar. But if you do? If you pick up on what you are supposed to do? Well.” She plucked at her black tabard. “You get to wear a different coloured coat.”

“Suits you.” He returned her smile. Did the man think that she was flirting?

“It had better,” she said. “I’m not changing it. But it is more than wearing the coat, of course. Something about the initiation – surrounded by Templars, you can’t tell, but you develop a sense for the supernatural. Demons and magics cannot fool us. Our dreams are forever filled with the song of the Chant.” Her smile went crooked. “The only nightmares I ever have are the ones I meet awake.”

“Huh. I know that feeling.” Blackwall stared off at the horizon. “Our oath. Sure you have something similar. We swear to defend the innocent. Do the right thing by ’em, when no other bugger would. That’s what being a Warden’s all about, all those lifetimes there ain’t darkspawn to kill. Hedge knight with pretensions, almost, though morals don’t pay as well as tournaments.”

“So, seeing as you’ve asked me. Where did you learn?” The question was automatic. “Seems to me you trained to fight mortals as much as monsters.” More, even. The man put far too much trust in his shield for someone who fought ogres.

His tone was offhand. “Oh, there are absolutely castles and organisation and armies and so on, for most of us – Adamant in Orlais, Amranth Keep in Ferelden. I don’t want you to get the impression that we’re all hedge-knights and upstart peasants.”

“Certainly you aren’t. You ride awfully well for a man born a commoner.”

His smile turned self-deprecating. “Actually, I fight awfully well for a horse farmer. Lost everything to brigands, just a bunch of soldiers some supposedly noble lord turned loose after they kicked Orlais out. Warden saved me from losing what little I still had, took me in in return for a horse and a bit of local guiding and I stuck around.” It was a lie, but that didn’t matter. Everyone knew Wardens recruited from the street, the stocks and the gallows. “But the important bit is the oath. The cause. To be perfectly frank I couldn’t give two shits about the darkspawn.”

“Aren’t you in the wrong profession for a man who doesn’t care about monsters?”

“Never said that, sera. I just don’t see why the ones with the ugly faces should get all the attention, is all.”

*

We called it the armoury. One day it would be. Today? Today was not that day. It didn’t even have a door on. It had a roof, one that didn’t let in the rain; it had four walls and a level floor; it was convenient for the place that had once been the castle’s proper forge, and would be again just as soon as the mages and the blacksmith had worked out how the place had been ventilated. But at least we could store stuff here in reasonable expectation it wouldn’t rust or rot or be eaten by rats or whatever. And it was down here I’d been led. No mountains to climb in here. I mournfully supposed that there were probably stairs.

“Here.” Krem took down a tabard with the Bull’s Chargers livery. “Shove this on you.”

I looked at the thing quizzically. “Trying something new, are we?”

Crooked grin. “More education. Hear you’ve some native talent in this direction as it is, so we’ll save the lecture for later.” He gave me an appraising glance. “You’re a bit clean, but a lady will have my kidneys if I change that. Come on.”

I followed, nonplussed. “So, what are we climbing this evening?”

“Down.” He was clearly enjoying my confusion. “Two rules, this evening. First off, you’re not there to talk. Secondly, you’re nobody special.”

I gave an easy smile that had less than usual to do with Lord Maxwell. “That I can do. My name will be Harry.”

He gave me a slightly funny look. “‘You don’t look much like a Harry; but fair enough. Nobody we’re talking to tonight will have seen you close enough to know your face, and nothing we’re going to hear is something they’d say to it, if you catch me.”

“You’re worried about their loyalty? After all we’ve-?”

A chuckle. “Nice stick, lordship. Now you’ve at least got hold of an end, best to keep hauling – after all, you’re going to be spending the evening sitting down, and best not to sit on it; allons-y, as they say where Harry’s from.”

“No, he’s not.” I leaned a little bit on the accent of my birth, the sharp quick gutter cadence that I’d painstakingly dropped when I was twelve. “Marcher he is. Strong and silent’s not a new thing, y’know?” Harry Osten didn’t keep his back straight; he didn’t walk like he ought to be wearing a cape; he didn’t talk like anybody ought to listen when he opened his mouth. I ran my hand through my hair, pulled the thong out, re-tied it myself, just a little crooked.

“Native talent. I suppose he did say.” Krem blinked. “Okay, Harry. On we crack.”

There still wasn’t much fuel, and what there was was reserved for cooking – the mages’ tethered flames were fine for heat and light, but had a tendency to cover your food in tiny pieces of whatever they were ‘burning’, but at least the people weren’t cold. Solas’ fires were little affairs, looked like a scrappy little campfire, but gave a surprising amount of warmth and burned for an evening and a night on no more fuel than a few blades of grass. Vivienne’s didn’t need fuel at all, and lasted for as long as their magic circle lasted, but gave off precious little heat; we were using them for beacons and lighting. Fiona’s burned stone, trash and anything else that touched the hard-edged vicious little bluish flame, and nobody trusted them, but to a certain kind of mind that made them fun.

And Dorian’s looked just like ordinary campfires, except that they would take rocks as fuel if you left them in there long enough, and they were as flamboyant and colourful as the man himself; and it was to one of these that Krem had led me, and the people sat around it were a motley bunch. There was a mustachioed Vint, one of those Dorian had talked into turning coat; there were three women from Haven in their patchwork kit; there was a hedge-knight from Amaranthine; there was one of Harding’s human outriders, in what was supposed to be black with a white eye on it. And I hadn’t seen Krem sweep up that bottle, but there it was, and anyone with good cheer was welcome, and I was completely unrecognised.

Harry didn’t talk much, but that was all right: he wasn’t some sourpuss bastard, he laughed at the jokes and passed the bottle and his companion was a likeable sort. They were telling war stories, of course, get some enjoyment out of giving the militia recruits a bit of a wide-eyed scare, few knowing looks between the Vint and the hedge-knight, clearly thought themselves the veterans here.

So the man from Tevinter, in his stained gambeson that had once been blue, leaned back and clearly it was his turn for a tale. He’d been one of Alexius’ men, technically a slave of course, but that was half the world away. You join the army in Tevinter because you get to be equal, you get to be one of a brotherhood of thousands; the men fight, the women run the camp and the train, and while the masters might tell you where to march, the brotherhood of soldiers tells you how. You obey your master, yes, but you trust your sergeant like an elder brother. And when the metal meets, you’re glad of your brothers shoulder to shoulder beside you, you’ll face the great thirsty blades of the giants happier knowing your brothers have your back.

Ah, the giants – tremendous fighters, real proper warriors, they. You’d think them thick, more muscles than brains, but one look at Iron Bull tells you they’re not, and his countrymen are much the same. Terrifying fighters – humans against giants is like sending boys against tall broad men – and the worst part is, they think. False retreats, sudden charges – ambushes, ambushes in the middle of a plain bloody battlefield in broad daylight – and they’ll fight in darkness and bad weather and mud to sink a man, and they’ll fight to the last man to defend their leaders and their standards. Even the tal-vashoth, their pirates, their outcasts – leaderless you’d think they’d fold right up, but they still fought like demons, like men possessed.

Possessed, you say?

The militia-women looked at one another and the youngest-looking one spoke. You have no idea what demons fight like, she said, and now it was her turn to look at her fellows and play the veteran. And she told the tale of the day the sky opened. She’d carried a crossbow up the hill behind the templars when the Herald had come to close the Breach. She’d seen the things that had walked out of the thin air, sat themselves up out of the mud, or just opened the eyes of animals or the dead – and didn’t she just have a good memory for what she’d seen and what they’d done.

They saw Harry’s haunted expression and asked him if he had a tale of his own. Krem was ready to cover for him, but he just gruffly told them in short clipped sentences about a corpse trying to pull me into its grave by the ankle; and then Krem stepped in and told something about the Chargers and the previous business they’d done, hired by Amaranthine town when the darkspawn tried to claim the place to live in after the Blight.

And of course that had our Fereldan knight tell a tale of the Maid, because apparently he’d fought in the Queen’s Army at the battle of Denerim and she’d saved his life and he’d saved hers. She hadn’t even known it. His squad had been in the square before the keep when the spawn had come surging in – they’d killed so many spawn they were practically knee deep – they’d been forced back, separated from the keep – and then there’d been a new shock of ’em and he’d thought that was the end. Then, out of nowhere, she’d come. Her and the king, bright blades, grey armour, and they’d literally killed their way through the spawn as fast as a man could run. The way he told it, he and his people had come in after them, blocked the door, and bought the time for them to kill the dragon.

So Krem told a tale of a job in Nevarra – they hunt dragons in Nevarra, and the Chargers were playing beater – only the bloody thing turned and fought. And that’s when Krem had found out the difference between a good boss and a bad boss. Because a bad boss puts you in that place and then expects you to hold the bloody thing off while he goes and winds his crossbow and shits himself. And a good boss does what Iron Bull did then, which was know when a job’s gone south and get your butts out of there.

And this got them nicely talking about leaders they’d had. About idiots with an eye only for their own importance, who’d have a fellow flogged before they’d admit it was their fuckup. About great and glorious warriors who got a lot of good people killed by leading from the front with no thought of those who followed. About the bann who wanted his people to think well of him, so he’d drunk with them and joked with them and made like he was one of them, and had the void’s own job getting them to follow orders, because why would one of their own know any better than they did? About the lady who gathered herself an inner circle, trained them better, gave them the best of everything, trusted their advice, listened only to them – and was then surprised when her whole company told her what she wanted to hear rather than what she needed to know.

About Cassandra, expecting no less of everyone than their best, but asking nothing of anyone that she wouldn’t give of herself – and I learned that they loved her, even as they feared her, because they wanted to be her. About Cullen, and that the general opinion was that they were so very glad he wasn’t the only one in charge, because he wouldn’t leave them a minute to rest that wasn’t just another chance to file into chantry and sing – but if there was anywhere a proper holy man was all right, it was this cause. About the Iron Bull, and the hedge-knight chuckled and asked when would the masters learn that no true leader is ‘just one of the guys’ –

And Krem met the man’s eyes and quietly told of the time they’d been stiffed on supplies, and the Bull had gone hungry till he made it right ‘because he could stand to lose a few pounds’. And the time a dozen of them had been arrested in Gwaren for looking a bit northern around the edges, and the Bull had beat a path to the castle door and practically dragged Bann Cauthrien down to give her constable the hiding of his life. And not least, the way the Bull got his patch on his eye.

Which was to find a half-dozen men beating an innocent youth to death on a Tevinter tavern floor and go methodically about feeding them their own weapons, and took one in the face doing it. And then he gave the lad a job. So, no. Bull isn’t just one of the guys. He’s their big brother, the one you wished you had and didn’t, because there’s only one Bull and he’s here, handling the sharp end for the Herald.

Leading quite nicely on to – The Herald. What was he like?

None of them mentioned Haven. It was just kind-of there, too big to talk about, and of course it was something that everyone knew. No, they talked about the way that he rode, like, he wasn’t used to it. He held a sword like it scared him, or, he had when this had all started. He didn’t talk much to the soldiers, clearly didn’t know much to say. One of the militia-women laughed and said she’d been serving in the inn the day after he patched the hole in the sky – he came down on Lady Montilyet’s arm like he’d never seen a commoner in his life, he actually asked them why they were bowing, made a joke of it.

Oh, said the Vint – one of those, eh?

And he met half a dozen stares hard as steel. The girl from the inn said that the Maker doesn’t only call you if you’re feeling ready, and if ever she thought she was being asked too much, she just remembered that scared face in old clothes that looked almost like he’d borrowed them, remembered what the Maker asked of the Herald, and if he could do it then she could. The hedge-knight said the Bride chose him for a reason, and you’d learn it if you watched him ever. And Krem said something in Tevene, sounded like the Chant.

And the discussion moved on, a trifle uncomfortably at first, but we had a good evening, headed off when it got too late. Back to the armoury, back to dress as Lord Max again, and of course Krem came with.

“So, lordship.”

I sat on a bit of rubble and nodded. “Neat trick, and one I’ll keep around. I get the lesson, as well. Maker put me in charge, and I’ve still got that credit. But only I can keep me there.”

He made a face. “You keep playing at being informal, your lordship. You keep pretending like your funny hat doesn’t matter, like you don’t care what people call you. And that’s fine, right, up until someone wants to trust you with their life and everyone’s around them. It works for my boss, because he already proved what he is.”

And for me it’s more about concealing that, I didn’t say. “And the big stuff, the reason Cassandra and Cullen believe, it’s too big. The problem’s too big and expensive for them, so they’ll tell stories about it, but they’ll follow someone like the Bull, someone they can look up to without straining their neck, if you know what I mean.”

“I do.” Krem smiled faintly. “Works for my boss, right, but think of Cassandra. They don’t follow her because she drinks with them, mostly ’cause she doesn’t. They’d be terrified if she tried. But I’ve honestly heard a man trying to argue that if Cassandra and the Bull sat down to table together, she’d drink him under that table and through the floor below. I’ve heard the same about the Maid of Ferelden, for crying out loud, and she’s no bigger than an itch. You walked out of a story. They want that story. The better you are, the better the story, the better they will be. As you said, the Maker gave them an idea of you. You know what it is. You heard. They imagine themselves in those shoes.”

I laughed at that one. Had to. “They’re bloody welcome to it.”

“I know, right?” He flashed a grin. “But they don’t know that. You’ll never be Cassandra, you’ll never be the Bull. But they’ll never be you, either. Play your cards right, lordship, and don’t forget about them, and they’ll love you for it.”

“No pressure.” Rueful nod. “Another matter, Krem. Something you said back there. There more to that line you gave them, about how the Bull lost his eye?”

Silence. He looked away.

“Sorry. I-”

“It’s not a thing.” He bit the words off, looked off at nothing; I just waited. “That lad was me. What the soldiers were doing, it wasn’t out of line by their lights. Call me a deserter. Let’s just say I don’t exactly agree with our friend of the evening about the virtues of my homeland’s armies.”

“Strikes me as a funny profession for a deserter to go into.”

“Didn’t run away because of the work.” He folded up the tabard I’d borrowed, put it away. “Anyway, old news. It was a long time ago, in another country.”

“And besides, the wench is dead.”

“Yes.” I had trouble reading the fellow sometimes: he said that word like it had kicked his cat. “Best sod off, my lord. Get your fool head down. You’ve got a date with a mountain tomorrow morning.”

*

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