Fear and Surprise, Chapter Twenty-Seven

by artrald

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*

There’s a deal that you’ll have heard about the Wardens, about the people you want to stand among and beside. About what we are at heart, about what we swear to, about what we believe, about what we do. And despite the best efforts of the people who brought you here, you’ll still be believing half of it, and I’m afraid to say that the greater part of it is bullshit, rank and utter.

You’ll have heard that we swear to defend the innocent, uphold the weak, do what’s right no matter the cost. You’ll have heard that we see the world dirty and want to make it clean. You’ll have heard that we have the strength of a bear and the quickness of a scalded cat and you’ve already seen we can drink anyone under the table. You’ll have heard that we’re the Maker’s gift to the world, the best knights on life. You’ll have heard that we’re heroes, and let me tell you, if you want to be that, there’s the door.

But even when you cut out the goo and dribble and the outright lies – that’s not what we are, that’s just who we happen to be. The Wardens exist for one purpose, and one purpose alone. Dumat. Zazikel. Toth. Andoral. Razikale. Lusacan. Urthemiel. The Old Gods of Tevinter, the Forgotten Ones, the Dark Ones, whatever name anyone else thought up. We know them as the archdemons. The Vints, the Dalish, the Chantry and the Wardens, every history we have, says there are seven of them. And the Blights have risen five times, and at the heart of each one an archdemon.

We exist to end them. That is what we are, simply: weapons, for a war that may not even be in our shortened, hardened, dirtied lives. The rest? The strength, the speed, the skill, the light that I know each one of us has within us? They are just the trappings of a good weapon.

I ask no oath of you.

But there will be two more Blights.

Kallian Dener
speech to candidates before Joining, 9:38 Dragon

*

“The Wardens.”

Nightingale nodded briskly, nimble fingers tracing out a dozen castles that she’d marked on the map with green pins. “Wardens, Raven. Of our supposed Warden contacts, has a single one answered our letters?”

Cassandra leaned on the table. “They train in the Deep Roads, Nightingale. It would be more suspicious if every letter returned.”

“Mm. But none of them, truly none at all?” She tapped a castle she’d marked twice. “And in the meantime, not a sniff of red lyrium at the chantries, at the seminaries, within our own distribution networks? All the templars sighted have been avoiding confrontation, or ours? No money where it shouldn’t be, within the Chantry. And then, the ledger.”

“You set too much store by that.”

“And have I been wrong, ever, save in matters of degree?” The redhead’s eyes flashed. “The ledger. Tracking simply lyrium purchase – why, it goes in, it comes out, it finds its place, it trickles eventually to the Circles, that much is as always. But it is distorted -”

“Of course it is. There are half a hundred chantries who no longer have nearly so many templar sacraments to-”

“Allow me to finish. It is distorted, but not as expected. The Larchands. The Peuves. The de Courceys. Minor houses, mostly, agricultural ones, those without mage contacts, those who do not usually send the third child they bear to the Templars.”

“The ones from whom the officers of the Wardens have been drawn for centuries.”

“Are currently walking around in enchanted masks, or wielding rune-struck blades, or suddenly seen to comission a new house in the capital.” She nodded. “The only link that makes sense is the Wardens: they are not associates in business, they are not confederates in politics, they were on both sides of Gaspard’s little spat.”

“They aren’t buying lyrium?”

Nightingale shook her head. “Too smart for that. They buy exactly as much as is required – but, tell me, Raven. Whence all this money? A man whose own suit of armour has never fit him properly because his father was four inches taller commissions a brand new dwarven harness for his son’s appointment to the legions? A lady who borrowed a gown for the Empress’ summer ball wears a brand new amulet of feather-falling when she’s a-hunt? A man who pawned his last jewels three years ago pays back his bankers with a chest of gold he claims he slew a dragon for? No. It is not credible.”

“Not to mention that I’ve seen more gold in magpies’ nests than drakes’ hoards, and we all would have heard of a high dragon being slain, what with there being all of five of them in the south.”

Mais oui.” She took out a fresh, green pin. “Then Adamant Fortress is never without Wardens. But d’you care to know how much lyrium they bought from the Carta this winter?”

Cassandra folded her arms. “Exactly no more or less than usual, I’d wager?”

“You’d lose.” Her teeth glittered. “None. Not a drachm. The Wardens of Orlais have seven mages that I know of, and two ex-templars who are rumoured still to be in communion. You are telling me they have no lyrium? I have a bridge in Orzammar to sell you.” She tapped the pin to the Wardens’ stronghold. “We should speak more thoroughly with our own Warden, perhaps?”

“He’s given us little enough to go on, beyond the fact that his order are already out there solving problems-”

Solas, who had been watching the exchange quietly, cleared his throat. “You might wish to ask someone other than an itinerant hedge-knight.”

Cassandra cast him a scowl. “Blackwall can be trusted every bit as far as you can, you know.”

The elf raised a hand in a conciliatory gesture. “For sure – but he’s hardly likely to have sight of the inner workings of the Wardens. I spoke of Nightingale’s contact, the Maid of Ferelden; surely the famed adventurer would come at an urgent request from her old friend Leliana.”

Nightingale raised an eyebrow. “She’s not answered my post. It is as if every letter I have sent to a Warden has fallen into a hole in the ground.”

He shrugged. “If I could produce her, by magic, say.”

“Then the question would arise, as with Varric, why this came to light only now?”

“Do I, too, merit a black eye for providing critical information?” His tone was light. “But no, I shall answer for myself: I sent for her two weeks ago, the moment I acquired the capability. I received word the day before yesterday that she rode for Skyhold in the company of my agent.”

“Go on, then: what did you promise them?”

“The thing about employing a cat for an agent is that they take payment in fieldmice: and as for the Maid?”A brief elvish smile. “The message I sent was in a dialect of Arlathani older than the tree she was born under. She comes because she feels religious obligation, and without the expectation of gain.”

“You spoke for the Maker?”

He chuckled. “I am glad you think you appreciate the irony of me bringing a holy warrior to a holy cause: but no. She’s a true daughter of her people, and scratch any of them deep enough and you’ll find a heathen. All I did was invoke the authority any of my people has over any of hers, and human ranks and titles may go and hang.”

Cassandra raised an eyebrow. “This is the first I’ve heard of this being a holy cause for the elves, rather than simply a matter of pragmatism.”

He mirrored her. “You think those things are not the same? Corypheus said, in words, in my hearing, that he intends to dethrone my gods and cast them down, and you ask what my motivation is? Do keep up, Seeker.” Another such smile, or possibly a smirk. “She arrives tomorrow. I’ll tell the servants?”

*

I don’t quite know what I’d expected. An elf dressed as a human, I suppose, with a miniature little sword and shield, perhaps a bow-case on her back – everyone knows that if elves fought, it’d be with bows – maybe she’d be all in green, like a better-dressed version of Jenny? Not sure. Fereldan nobility, she was, so that meant armour as travelling garb and court wear: I’d have used words like ‘slim’ and ‘sharp’ and so on, or possibly imagined black and grey leather; maybe I’d expected her to look something like the woodcut in Hawke And The Maid, an underdressed and overproportioned beauty in sparkling chainmail that draped like samite cloth –

The figure that rode into our courtyard couldn’t even have been mistaken for a human. I’d seen dwarven soldiers once before in my life, real ones, with their massive slablike armour and their casual strength, and it was of those that I thought as I saw her – though no dwarf I’d ever seen had that grace, as she swung herself easily down off her unremarkable mouse-brown pony as if she weren’t plated from neck to toes in rune-carved steel. She’d a knight’s belt on, but no baldric for a sword, and I noted dimly that I could see at least four of her knives from where I stood at the top of the steps up to the great door: as if to dispel all doubt as to who she was, she pushed back the hood of her dark grey cloak. Pretty, the tales got that right. Flaming red hair, cut short enough to keep the tips of her ears bare no matter what. And she was a little under five feet tall.

Pleasantries and introductions over – did the mental image accommodate a fishwife’s accent, and a nearly complete disregard for ceremony? – and we took counsel in the solar. She greeted Nightingale like a long-lost sister, calling her Leliana, and it was like the age simply lifted from our spymistress: she slipped into the role of a younger, happier creature like an old familiar shirt, and attached herself smiling to the elf like she was worried she’d go away again.

Kallian’s brow creased the moment she saw our map. “Tell you this for free, you’re running a bloody funny war.”

“You aren’t wrong.” Josephine smiled smoothly. “We take aid where we can, and as you can see, we’ve a broad base of support-”

“Pins for allies?” She leaned over the table.

“Pins for interesting things of any kind. Red for places that need action soon.” Nightingale pointed out a series of reports of possible rifts. “Even in winter, there’s always something to-”

“H’m.” She traced the red pins north from Haven to the coast, across into Orlais, south and west from Lydes. “It looks a great deal like ‘what needs action’ is one of our old roads. Older than the hills, like, the People built the hills round it. Led right across southeast Elvhenan, from our capital in Arlathan to Dirthavaren and the West Dales.” She drew an arc on the map with her finger. “What did the Dalish say when you showed them all this?”

Pause.

“Huh.” She shot me a dirty look. “So your foes look like they’ve a powerful taste for old graveyards. But we’ll come back to that.” Put her back to the table and leaned on it. “We’ve got business, Herald. Message that came to me spoke of urgent need, said there wasn’t a thing I was doing, not a thing at all, that could be greater. The messenger you used, I trust. So I put my second in charge, I hot-foot it here through chest-high snow, and what do I find but a bunch of knights prettied up like little Orlesian dollies. Not a monster at the gate, not a demon at the door – unless you’ve got shriekers climbing up out of your well?” She flashed pointed elven teeth, met my eyes. “What’s on fire, ser?”

So, this was going to be one of those. “How much do you know about our cause?”

“I’d been in the Deep Roads, but Morrigan brought me up to date. Ancient evils; counterfeit lyrium; mad Vints; magic that’s either very new or very old. And a hole in the sky that opened about – uh. Four months ago, and its little friends. And you shut the big one with the help of basically every magical power in the South, and the little ones didn’t stop. Miss anything?”

“The part where those green pins there are the people Nightingale – Leliana – fingered for counterfeit lyrium trading. Know any of them?”

Nonplussed. “You call halfway across the kingdom to ask me to use my noble… contacts…” She tailed off. “Now that place I know, I stopped there on the way to Adamant when the Apostasy happened. And that one, we had a recruit from there who expected me to put him to work cleaning armour for ten years. And – h’m. What’s in your counterfeit lyrium?”

“Madness,” Nightingale answered. “Evil. Foulness.”

“Uh-huh. Presumably it drives you insane to use it.”

“Templars used it in their sacraments and Kirkwall happened. Templars used it in their initiation and became nearly unstoppable monsters.”

She nodded as if the Seeker had been talking about the weather. “But the templar rites went off, right? The magic happened, or whatever, like it was real lyrium? Presume the stuff is cheaper, more plentiful?”

“That’s right. Not perfectly certain how you get it, but my money’s on human sacrifice or something equally congenial.”

She blinked. “You mean to say that they’ve found a way to stabilise blood magic?”

Cassandra’s eyebrows went all the way up. “What does a commander of the Grey know of the finer points of maleficence?”

Sigh. “Lady Seeker, if you doubt my purity, I know where the door is: do I use it?” Pause. “Right, then. Is that what our enemies have?”

The tall woman nodded.

“And I assume you’ve already asked Warden Blackwall about these places.”

“He’s a front-liner. Knows nothing of the Wardens’ sponsors.”

She made a face. “I meant it about the door, and about using it. You asked one Warden, got an answer you find suspect, now you’re grabbing a second opinion and without letting us confer. My brothers and sisters are under suspicion and you only told me by omission?” Her voice hadn’t risen, it had frozen into an inhuman hiss. “Leliana, ma falon, what the fuck?”

Nightingale raised her hands. “I swear, Kallian, this is not that. If we’d wanted a Warden to answer charges, we wouldn’t have let you see the extent of our knowledge: you know how I work.” She practically radiated honesty. “In seriousness, my friend. Blackwall we trust also, but he just didn’t know anything.”

“My arse, he don’t.” She stood up, made for the door. “I’ll speak to him, in private. Now. Somewhere without ears on the walls.”

Nightingale took the matter in hand: they left. “Charming lady,” I started to say when the door had slammed: there was genuine alarm in Josephine’s eyes as her finger flew to her lips.

*

It was Blackwall who opened the door into the solar, and he looked like he’d seen his own ghost. Nightingale followed, and she did an odd thing: she was making sure she was standing behind the Warden-Commander, and her hands were open and by her sides, and she didn’t take her eyes off the elf for an instant or blink more than she had to.

And Lady Kallian was coldly and palely furious. I’d never seen an elf that angry before. “Blackwall,” she said without preamble. “Where did you train?”

“On the road. Ferelden and Dirthavaren, mostly.”

“This is plausible,” she said in my direction, and her voice had fangs. “I trained on the road, for example, and after the Blight the Orlesian border was no longer shut to Wardens. But go on, Blackwall. Who was your training master, and why?”

“His, his name was Sowter.” He looked from her to me and back. “There were three Wardens in the party I noviced with and he was the senior, so he handled my instruction.”

“Irregular. Teaching novices the first steps is the job of a junior. What are the Wardens for, Blackwall?”

“To, to defend the innocent and the weak, sera. And so to fight the dark-”

She really hadn’t liked those words. “Enough. Let me ask differently – Tell the Inquisitors the oath you swore when you joined the Wardens. The exact words, best as you remember ’em.”

He moistened his lips. “Sera, that is a secret of our order-”

“Speak,” she snarled.

He turned to her, the expression on his face more pleading than anything else. “My lady, I-”

“Can’t,” she finished. “Tell them. Let them hear it from you. Tell them why you can’t.”

“I said, my lady-” and his words rang false – “It’s a secret of the Wardens.”

“Yes, it is, and I’m telling you to tell the Herald of Andraste and the Lady Seeker.”

He wouldn’t meet Cassandra’s eyes. He shook his head.

Kallian narrowed her eyes. “When and where were you invested a Warden?”

He hesitated. “In the field, sera, in ‘thirty-one, it was against the Comte d’Orvasse. Ser Sowter fell, I’d distinguished myself. He, he heard my oath as the last thing he-”

The Warden-Commander moved nearly too fast to see and the breath whooshed out of Blackwall as he folded up around her tiny fist. An instant later she had him down on his knees, a hand twisted into the neck of his shirt, and in that same instant Jenny was between me and the scene, hand to a knife’s hilt. Cassandra, too, had stepped forward. Nightingale had melted into the doorway. And the only sound was the rusty scrape of Kallian’s voice. “Liar. Fraud. Impostor.”

Cassandra’s eyes blazed, but she didn’t move. Josephine, ostensibly half-hiding behind me, had drawn a stilletto where the Warden-Commander couldn’t see. And Blackwall said nothing.

“Now, of course,” she said coldly, “you’re going to drop him in it. Never, you’ll say, never could you have known what he was and wasn’t. Never could you have known you’d been gulled for a pack of coneys. Shocked, you’ve been. Betrayed. How could he.”

“I could say instead that we were stupid enough to invite you here in the knowledge that this would happen?” I spread my hands. “I mean, it’s not like anyone in this room knows you well enough to think you might be suspicious of a pack of humans you didn’t know.”

“You ain’t even close to funny.”

“No, Sera Kallian, I’m not.” Maker’s Bride, I thought, don’t fail me now. “One truth, and I’m telling it. I can hear in your voice there’s not a single damn chance in the world that you’re mistaken, and that means I went before the Empress of Orlais in the name of Andraste herself with a lie on my lips.” I knew not to look her in the eye. “That’s the truth.”

Kallian remained still for a long moment. Then she let Blackwall go with a casually violent shove that nearly knocked him sprawling. “What does the Inquisition do with traitors?”

“It depends what traitors have to say for themselves,” said Cassandra, and her eyes hadn’t left Blackwall.

Who shook his head mutely.

“Well, you heard him.” Kallian put her hands on her hips. “For my part? He showed up to Amranth Keep with those words, I’d fucking conscript him, and then he’d be sorry. But one reason and another, that’s not happening. You got a use for the sorry carcass, he’s yours.”

I looked at the man who I’d called comrade and he looked away. I glanced to Cassandra and she shook her head minutely, I’d no idea what she wanted me to do.

Fuck it. There was a drill for this. Knew it from my old life.

“Guards,” I said, loud enough for them to hear, and the door sprouted two of our people. “Escort Ser Blackwall to the cells to await our pleasure.”

He went quietly. Cassandra’s eyes followed him, she balled her fists, but she didn’t move to follow.

“Just to warn you, Herald.” Sera Kallian tilted her head at an inhuman angle as she looked up at me. “Joining the Wardens, if your heart ain’t pure, it’s messier than a headsman and a little slower but it’s even more of a sure thing.” Her green eyes were piercing. “You get what I want?”

I nodded, a little nervously. “I do, sera.”

“Good.” She turned back to the map. “Now, then, ser, where were we? I recall right, you were in the middle of accusing my order with working with your enemies.”

And, well, that ran fresh ice in my gut. I opened my mouth, but no words came out. Josephine filled in smoothly. “Nothing of the kind, my lady. We were merely meaning to ask whether perhaps-”

The elf shook her head. “No, no. It’s not beyond the bounds of the possible, ‘specially if they got the speech from Corypheus’ side about red lyrium, rather than asking their local chantry first like no Warden did ever. You think you’re the only people with problems?” She leaned over the map. “No rifts or possible rifts in lands of Warden sponsors, I note. And you’ll have had no Wardens seen at any of the rifts.”

“Save the fake one,” I said with hardly a trace of a stammer.

She nodded. “Every Warden in the south is busy this winter. I’m practically betraying the order just being here. I mean, Commander Clarel of Orlais might just about have sent a Warden to watch you, if there was a true danger in you I couldn’t see – if the Chantry wanted to arrest every mage we had, say. Anyway, you’re not and she didn’t. But as I said.” She bit her lip. “Stabilised blood-magic. A source of lyrium Bhelen Aeducan’s got no claws into, that don’t come with strings about where we use it and what we clear out. Not the money, the power.”

“Maleficence,” said Nightingale softly. “Have you changed so much?”

And Kallian rounded on her in a flash and a flicker and actually hissed. “Ma falon. You summon me under false pretenses. You insult my order. Turns out you’ve been abusing our name for months and it’ll likely be fifty years before anyone in Orlais trusts a Warden to be neutral again. And that is the second time you’ve accused me personally of being something you know full well I’m not. I am one single solitary fucking remark from walking out that door, and at this point the only thing keeping me here is the sneaking suspicion that someone has taken what I’ve given my whole fucking life to and gutted it to string their fiddle, and you might know where I can find them. So please. Go on. Go right the fuck on. I think you were accusing me of something?”

And Nightingale didn’t back down. She just nodded to the green pin over Adamant Fortress. “Not you,” she said simply.

And it was like a shadow passed over Kallian’s face. “Aye,” she said. “You know the tale, right? In the First Blight, who the Wardens came from?”

“Tell us.”

“The Empress got us together and she said, stop this thing. Stop it however you can. Bring down the sky and cast the mountains to dust and run the seas with blood, only make this thing not be. Right?” She looked from one of us to the other. “And now, it didn’t take that, back in the First Blight. Not quite. But we remember. And the Chant’s words against maleficence, they have a funny wording. They have a permission in them. Not telling any of you lot anything, I’m sure-”

My confusion must have been obvious on my face, because Nightingale spoke. “Some would say that the darker arts could be within reason permitted if a greater evil is being prevented. If all the costs are known and paid willingly. If they are not turned against the Maker’s children.”

“Aye. And you’ve known this, you’ve always known.” Her voice was bleak. “It’s why the Wardens have a bit of a reputation, for all that we’ve saved the whole world half a dozen times. Back us into a corner and we will do anything, anything at all. We know our cause is right. We know we can trust our people, whatever we see ’em doing. And that’s why we’ve never failed.”

“And you’re backed into a corner right now?” I frowned. “You’re telling me there’s another threat we can’t see?”

“I’d tell you. I would. I’d paint it a hundred foot high on the walls of my town and send a bird to every crowned head in Thedas, but I was overruled by every other voice we have. My lips are sealed. Our problem, our solution.” Real bitterness in her voice. “The Maid of Ferelden ain’t even allowed to tell the Arlessa of Amaranthine, if you get me. Just answer me this. Corypheus, your enemy. I mean, Morrigan gave me out a lot of words, but I want to hear them from you. Just the short version, the soldier’s version, the one I could tell my people. Who is your enemy?”

I looked to the Seekers. Nightingale gave me a tell-her-everything sort of a nod. “He’s one of the magisters who opened the gates to the Maker’s city, the ones cursed to be the first darkspawn. I mean, that’s what the tales say, I know what that sounds like, I know it’s a bit hard to-”

“No,” she said roughly. “No, it ain’t. No, that fits like hand in bloody glove. And I go to Commander Clarel with those words and she turns round and says I’ve been had by a bunch of silver tongues, and she fobs me off and goes right back to -” She turned violently away, stared down at Nightingale’s map like it was personally responsible. “Tomorrow I ride for Adamant. If I’m right, if it’s as bad as it could be? We’ve got to cut this off at the neck. I’ll do it by myself at need, but I don’t imagine your principles should let me-”

“Anything we can provide is yours,” said Nightingale, and her eyes dared any of us to give that the lie.

*

She made herself do it personally.

This was her own failure. A good-looking man had turned her head with a few fine words and made liars of the lot of them. The rest of the Inquisition had trusted him because she – Lady Seeker, Right Hand, professional interrogator and witchfinder – had not seen fit to pry into the background of the man who fit everything she –

A curious, muffled noise penetrated her thoughts. She recognised that noise. She knew that noise very well indeed.

It was the sound of someone trying to call for help through a properly tied gag.

Because, she snarled to herself as she found the spare key to the cell door and hauled it open, of course the man would fucking run.

They knew nothing, his guards, except that he’d been too strong, too good, too cursed fast. They’d hardly seen what hit them. A little of her anger escaped her lips and one of the guards actually fell to his knees again and told her how much it was his fault. She left them without a word.

Most of the way to the courtyard before anyone else found her. Iron Bull again. Started the whole not-this-again routine, so she told him what was going on in enough words to make him shut the fuck up and tell her that the man was gone (of course he was, idiot).

And the qunari didn’t have a door to bar, here, and he didn’t have a point, and she saddled her horse, and the next one to try was Nightingale. Caught her at the stable door by the wrist, out of breath, said they could send outriders, that this was what outriders were for; called her ‘sister’.

Fell on her back.

Cassandra left Skyhold and only slackened her pace when she felt her horse falter. She could see him. She could bloody see the bastard, still riding, miles ahead down the steepness of the winding road west and her bloody horse limped even after she’d pried out the stone from his bloody shoe.

The outriders overtook her an hour later, Nightingale with them.

More bloody words. It was the way she wouldn’t stop walking, wouldn’t look away in case he vanished.

And eventually Cassandra said to her sister Seeker whether it was an order the Herald would have her disobey, or a polite request.

And she took from them a mount that hadn’t been nearly lamed by an idiot trying to tear down a mountainside at top speed, and she rode on alone.

*

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