Fear and Surprise, Chapter Thirty-One

by artrald

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*

Though all before me is shadow,
Yet shall the Maker be my guide.
I shall not be left to wander the drifting roads of the Beyond.
For there is no darkness in the Maker’s Light
And nothing that He has wrought shall be lost.

Trials 5, Chant of Light
Andraste, called Bride of the Maker

*

She hadn’t extracted his word of honour about not running. But on the other hand, she had saved his life. And to be perfectly frank, the risk of still being inside a tent when he decided to bolt or ambush her was more than balanced by the risk of freezing solid while on watch. She’d got his boots off at least, set them to dry by the fire, got as much of the mud off him as she could. If he ran for it in the morning, either he stopped to put them back on or he ran for it in his bare feet. That would have to do.

And the Chant marched through her dreams as it did every night, and then it was morning, and she hurt all over.

“Not raining any more,” his voice came gruffly, and she was awake, and she poked her head out of her bivouac, and no, it wasn’t.

He’d woken up the fire and was sitting the far side of it with his boots on. Met her eyes. And, yes. Some situations you had to bloody laugh.

That was decidedly snow.

She hauled herself out of the tent, every part of her complaining. If he’d gone for her, right then, she’d have been absolutely defenceless. But he didn’t.

“Alive, then,” she rasped. “Not frozen stiff.”

“More or less.” He’d at least got the mud off his face.

“Feel more like talking?”

He hunched his shoulders. “Feel more like a rematch?”

She glowered. “I saved your life.”

“You did.” Conspicuously he wasn’t wearing her cloak. “You could let me go.”

“How likely do you consider that?”

He nodded.

“You could always just talk to me, Thom.” She pulled her other boot on. “Because at the moment, all I’ve got is a wild accusation from an elf I don’t know, and a man who ran rather than answer.”

“True accusation,” he said roughly. “Everything she said. Didn’t know she’d be there till she walked up. I’m a fraud. A con.”

“And that’s what doesn’t jibe,” she said, carefully. Tied the laces. “Gently raised, and a name I’ll recognise, so, right side of the sheets and all. A Fereldan couldn’t dance like that and a Nevarran wouldn’t fight like you do, and you don’t have the coloration for a westerner, so I say you’re from Orlais. Tirashan’s my guess. We found you making right from wrong and never found a single person to say that wasn’t what you did in our absence. You talk like you’ve got the oath of knighthood tattooed on your eyeballs, and as far as I’ve ever been aware you practice what you preach.” He wouldn’t meet her eyes. “So when we find that you aren’t what you said you were – it didn’t fit. This is not the behaviour of someone who’s pretending to be a good man. Why does a man impersonating a knight spend his life not stealing rights but borrowing responsibilities?”

He looked as if she’d been heaping coals on his head. “There’s one truth.”

“Of course there is.” She leaned forward. “Talk to me, Thom. What am I missing, here?”

“A clear pair of eyes.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Tell me, Cassandra, why’d you have to come for me yourself?”

She glared at him; then she scowled at him; then she answered him. “Honour.”

“Honour.” He sighed. “Let’s say that is your missing answer, then. Maybe all the water in the sea won’t fill a bucket with a hole in it.”

“You sound like a classic Warden recruit. Clear you’ve got a secret you don’t want to tell, something that’s worse than what I know you’ve done. It would make sense that you were a Warden. Literally with what you’ve got you could have gone to them and joined.” Still he wouldn’t look at her. “But you didn’t.”

“You think well of me. You still think me a good man.” Finally he looked up. “Would it be so very difficult to remember me for the good I did? Pretend that’s what I was? Let me ride off into the winter?”

“Yes,” she said, simply. “If you wanted to do that, you should have killed me in my sleep.”

A shadow passed over his face. “You think me capable?”

Her dark eyes bored into his. “The man I know is not.”

Deep breath. “All right. All right, damn you.” He nodded to her sheathed sword lying in her bivouac, the hilt where she could reach in a hurry. “You’ll want your weapon in a bit.”

“‘I’ll be the judge of that.”

He nodded jerkily. “So. I was second son, and that means the legions: and as you’ve seen, I have a talent. I made chevalier in the Fourth Legion in the spring of twenty-eight, second in command of a troop.”

“Orvasse.” Cassandra nodded. “An idiot of a comte who thought to maintain his lifestyle by shorting his taxes when the harvests were good. Dirty little war.”

“Aye.” He stared into the fire. “He’d kept certain vassals on his side by taking less from them in turn. Used them against the rest. Used then against us, and all. We’d a dozen manors to pacify who saw us as the hand of a distant tyrant. This specific one was the first my troop were sent to meet. The Comte’s son had the whole manor with him, every one of them, underarms. Our knight-lieutenant made parlay with them before the assault and said that any man, woman or child who raised a hand to the Empress’ justice would not live to see tomorrow. They fought anyway.” He laced his fingers. “Bride judge me, I thought it an empty threat.”

“What happened?”

He tightened his hands on one another. “The door of the stronghouse fell in minutes. A rabble with spears and sticks and little hunting bows is no threat worthy of the name to a Legion company. The Comte’s son called me out – I’d command of the squad that met him. He was hoping to spare lives.” He shook his head. “I disarmed him like he was a child with a stick. He yielded. The peasants surrendered.” He lapsed into silence.

“Defiance of an illegal order is no-”

“Do you think I don’t know that?” he snapped. Didn’t look at her. “Try again.”

She frowned. “To desert, even to turn your hand against a commander in such a situation. It’s forgivable-”

“Those who bring harm without provocation to the least of His children are hated and accursed by the Maker.” His singing voice was absolutely terrible. She could hardly make out that it was supposed to have had a tune.

“Canticle of Transfigurations, first stanza, sixth verse. You think perhaps you know the Chant better than I do?” Her voice was gentle. “The Maker’s law isn’t a rod for the backs of good people-”

“Are you deliberately not listening?” His voice was a snarl. “I didn’t run away. I didn’t raise a hand against my fellows. I didn’t defy an illegal order.” He threw the words at her like blows and that’s how she took them.”I did what I was told.”

Cassandra actually flinched. Closed her eyes. Opened them again, deliberately. “Go on.”

“One of the troop grew a spine,” he growled, “that same evening, after it was done. Never knew which one. Went over our heads. The matter went up the chain of the command and down like a ton of bricks. The lady general decided to make an example.” Deep breath. “Obedience is no defence to illegal orders. The ordinary soldiers were made to dig their own graves. They were hanged, strung up before us, every one of them. She made us cut down the bodies, put them in the graves ourselves, so that no chevalier’s hands would be dirtied. The lieutenant tried to make out it was all my idea and I called him out for it. And the general said very well, then, and so it was that I killed the man who’d been like a big brother to me since I joined the legion, on the floor of our camp, in front of as much of the legion as could watch.” He made a face. “As a nobleman, I would be simply kicked out. Like he’d have been if I hadn’t run him through. They made the mistake of tying me to a stake I could pull up. I ran.”

Cassandra was quiet for a long time, studying his face. No impression of what she was thinking. Then she shook her head as if to clear it.”A Warden? Why not a foreigner, a hedge-knight, a soldier of fortune?”

“You won’t fucking believe me.”

“That’s my lookout. You could’ve chosen to make your new identity anything you wanted. And most people with your upbringing would hardly have known that you were perfect Warden material. What made you pick as you did?”

“That’s not how it happened.” Another bit of wood on the fire. “Look. I met him, all right? A Warden. I was going through another village. There was a fight. Half dozen deserters against this one man. Turned out he was looking out for an innkeeper they’d taken a drunken dislike to. Couldn’t let them have that. And his name was Warden Blackwall. A recruiter.”

“And, what. You stole his cloak and his name?”

“No. He bought me a drink. Got lies about my being a deserter, gave me the talk about finding yourself with the Wardens. I joined up. Gave him a name I’d made up on the spot, and he said that was how he’d got his own.”He huffed out humourless laughter at the irony of it all.”Two weeks later he died, just like I told Lady Kallian. Stupid, stupid fight. Bandits on the fucking road. I avenged him. His last words, something about duty, oaths, ‘swear it, swear to me’. He was incoherent. He didn’t make sense. I didn’t even know where we were going.”

She nodded. “And he looked a lot like you do now.”

“Half frozen, caked in shit, hundred miles from anywhere?” He nodded. “Bit like that. Same beard. And it would’ve been a shame to leave his gear for more of those human lice. Better than any I’d ever owned, and it fit me.” Hunched his shoulders. “Six months I played the knight-errant before I had to say in words that I was a Warden. And -” he looked up – “I did his job. Or thought I did. Told people what he’d told me. Sent them on to Adamant, told them my own little ritual for them was to go the last day’s ride alone, and nobody would judge or hear or know if they decided they’d disappear instead.”

“Couple of years later, there was the Blight. Nobody thought it a little odd, a Warden on his own?”

He made a face. “I rode for Ferelden, but the new king had closed the borders. Lydes had a whole camp full of Wardens. I fucked off smartish, didn’t I? Not as if darkspawn only turned up in Ferelden. I played Warden, down Dirthavaren way. Saved a lot of lives. Dozen villages drank my health. In my head I was just as good as a real Warden.”

“And nobody you ever met had ever met one.” Cassandra raised her eyebrows. “I mean to say, you fooled all of us into the bargain. Right Hand of the Divine and I’d never seen one show their true strength. Did you even know?”

“Looking back?” He shrugged. “It’s been twelve bloody years. Yes, Blackwall was the best blade I ever saw. Yes, he was stronger and better than eighteen-year-old me. Does that mean I knew that the Maid was going to be able to practically snap me in half? No. The tavern tales they told about me, they had me throwing an ox to the ground by its horns and armwrestling an actual ogre. How was I supposed to know I was meant to measure up to that?”

She actually gave her brief wintry smile. “You never thought of coming clean?”

“Oh, what was I going to say? Hey there, recruits, turns out I picked you all up on false pretenses? Sorry about the deception, fellows – I’ve only been playing a Warden for half a dozen years – how’s about you let me play for real?” He spat.

“And the Inquisition gave you a way out. A way to be honestly what you’d always pretended to be.”

He turned dark harrowed eyes on her. “That was my hope. I was going to manufacture an excuse, ‘leave my order’, join yours honestly. And – you -” His voice failed him.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath before answering. “Thom – I – This entire thing right here is my fault. If I hadn’t been so damned willing to see what I wanted you to be -”

“If I’d just simply told you why what you wanted could never-”

“Shut up.” She shivered. “What do I do with you, Thom? Where do we go from here? I literally cannot suffer one person to leave the Inquisition knowing what you do about our organisation. You’d be an utter magnet for our enemies. I can’t just ignore what you’ve done – if nothing else, you’ve honour enough not to let me. There’s a grand total of one penal legion in the whole south and -” she shook her head, helplessly –

“It’s the Wardens.”

“Yes.” She glowered. “The dwarves have the Dead Legion, but no human has ever joined. Tevinter – I’d not permit it.”

He raised an eyebrow, a wordless question.

“Dammit, Thom, d’you want me to say it out loud?” She realised the venom she’d put into that snarl and looked away sharply. “Iron Bull’s people famously accept anyone, and you’d not be a bad fit – but -”

He blinked. “The Chargers?”

“The qunari intelligence service.” Her voice was like winter wind. “The Seekers have an… accommodation with our opposite numbers in the Qun and the Shok. A prescribed maximum number of double agents.” She looked at him sadly. “You’d fit them nearly as well as the Wardens. But if I’d my way, that’s no solution. They’d take you and let you work yourself to death for them. Very good at getting everything from someone that they’re prepared to give.”

“The Seekers, perhaps?” He unlaced his fingers to warm his palms at the fire. “You’ve first-hand experience of how well I dissemble.”

“You’d never be a full Seeker, we start too young. And I’ve a dozen knaves who can pretend to be good people.” She wished he would meet her eyes. “I’ve only got one good man hellbent on telling the world he’s a knave.”

“Your judgement is clouded, Cassandra,” he said softly. “Take me back. Judge me. Not the Herald – this is too grubby to dirty his hands. Nightingale and Osprey and Mynah.”

She snorted. “Nightingale asks why you are still alive, but will accept my retort. Broadly she’s got the ideas I already spoke. Osprey offers the solution I haven’t mentioned and I get up and leave the damned room. A mage in your position wouldn’t still be talking. Mynah -” she shrugged – “If I wanted to abrogate responsibility to my little sister, I’d already have done it. She’s a pragmatist. She says there’s no reason you can’t just go back to where you were.”

He shook his head. “Cassandra, I’ve got to be punished. You can’t let me get away with this. Quite apart from the insult to the Wardens. The insult to you -”

“I already defeated you,” she said. “We had our duel yesterday. I nearly killed you. Did I land you on your head?”

“And that’s enough, is it, to set against for all I’ve done to you under false pretenses?”

“No.” She looked at him straight. “There’s nothing I can prescribe for making someone break their own heart.”

“Cassandra, don’t.”

“You are perfectly aware that I have fallen in love with you, you bloody idiot.” She hissed it into the fire. “Why the hell else d’you think it was me after you, and not Jenny or Nightingale or Osprey? I cannot give you what you want because I can’t bring myself to. I can tell lies all day about honour and right and wanting you back for good honest reasons, but the truth is that your place in my world is with me, and the truth is that in your world the one shred of honour you still have says you can’t be there. You run, I’ll catch you again. I take you back, you’ll – make it worse somehow, find something worse to do to me, go to Nightingale for penance, beat yourself up till it hurts to even fucking look at you. Run off again. Hell and void, I don’t know.”

His eyes were wet. “I wish-”

“Fuck off.”

“Will you let me get a word in edgewise?” He paused a moment, most likely to give her a chance to hit him; she declined. “I wish I didn’t feel anything in – return.” That made her blink fast and look away. He carried on. “It would be better if I could tell you truly that we can’t have what you want.”

She covered her mouth with her hand and bit her lip and made no noise and said nothing and watched him.

“Cassandra, I’ll – I don’t know, I honestly -” His voice threatened to crack. Tried again. “I’m your prisoner, I offer you my parole. My fate’s in your gift. I’ll, if you want I’ll go away. Go where you send me and work for them – for you – whatever. Or if you would rather – The Inquisition.” He swallowed hard. “I hear they take disgraced fools. I hear they need good sword-arms. These are the exact same words I’d have said if I were lying. But there is One Truth.”

“Help me pack up the camp.” She didn’t trust herself to say anything more.

*

“So.” Iron Bull put his hands on his hips and regarded the house-high pile of smouldering rubble. “Much as it feels… unnatural to ask. The Herald, the Maid, half a dozen other people we like, the magic elf and half a fucking dragon on fire went into that.” He looked sidelong at Dorian. “How many are still in there?”

Right now the rain was stopping a foot from Dorian’s head and steaming: waste not want not, and the defences would last until he slept. “Well, it looks like the supposed dragon dropped its form again and ran. It knew there were more mages here, it didn’t know how many, and we had the high ground and had seen what sort of thing could hurt it: it rabbited. Similarly, I caught Solas shifting shape as he leapt, I think it was a bird of some kind he became. If he’s on his way back at all, it’ll be the morning at least, would be my guess.” He picked at the dirt under his nails. “Meanwhile, I’m almost certain that something egregious happened when the rubble fell – although there isn’t an emanation there now, you can tell by the way the bodies up at the keep are staying dead.”

“So, none.”

The mage made a face. “Are you familiar with the concept that ‘true’ and ‘false’ are illusions until measured, that uncertainty can be codified and-” He stopped, because the giant beside him had rolled his good eye and started to turn away. “Fine. Best guess? It’s more likely that you’re right than that you’re wrong, but I can’t promise that one or more of my assumptions isn’t ludicrously off-base or just plain ill-founded. At which point-”

“There’s a qunari proverb for this situation,” Iron Bull said with a twitch of his ears.

Dorian, interrupted in full flow, frowned good-naturedly. “All ears.”

Saarebas zomasxi,” the giant rumbled, and turned away.

“The mage… uh. Third person active present metaphorical continuous, to do with ownership, but that’s a qun mood, so it’s to do with continued adherence to a view or style that doesn’t translate well into Tevene?”

Iron Bull chuckled. “The mage still has a tongue, and seems to be using it.”

“You know, I don’t know whether to be horrified that that concept is one word in your language, or horrified about the implications concerning your treatment of mages.”

“Barbarian.” He nodded to the pile of rubble. “So, I get the lads digging a hole, or not?”

“There’s nothing alive in there, and it’s freezing bloody cold and we’ve been offered a roof.” Dorian pulled his warm new southerner’s cloak about him. “I say we take that offer up before our frozen posteriors actually drop off.”

“Don’t need to tell me twice.” Bull abruptly raised his voice. “All right, people! The wizard says there’s nothing alive in here! Get in, get warm, count noses! Tonight we dine with our Warden friends!”

*

I awoke and this was the Fade. The feeling was actually familiar, and I didn’t know whether to be comforted or horrified. Wreathed in the green light of my brand my feet touched the gravel lightly, and for a moment I felt the sensation of impact on every inch of my skin. My hand didn’t sting, it pulsed, a feeling like a well-trained muscle doing its job.

What stung this time was my right wrist, where Josephine had had hold of me. I looked, expecting bruises.

Not expecting long and sullenly bleeding strips of missing skin in the shape of her delicate fingers. I swore under my breath. Pulled out a bandage from a belt pouch and wound it on cack-handed. Got the knot relatively tight. Bleeding injuries: act then think.

Thought. Looked up.

Spider fuck fuck fuck spider fuck spider giant spider run.

Dozen paces up the slope before I really caught on to where I was. Light at the top. I remembered this place. The scree shifted under my feet as I went as fast as I could. Andraste was at the top of this hill, that’s what I remembered. Been climbing hills every morning for what felt like a lifetime. Didn’t even look back. Running from horrors, don’t look back, don’t look where you’ve been, look where you’re going.

Didn’t seem to be a woman at the top of this slope. Didn’t seem to be anything but light.

I crested the slope, a little out of breath. Looked like I was just on the top of a hill in a plain made of sharp little bits of slate. The light in the place was coming from here, here and the sky, which was the sky of the Fade and beyond that I’d care when not spiders.

No help. Nobody but me and some light.

Andraste’s light, I guess. Maybe it was a beacon, maybe it was something to help her find me. I mean, I hadn’t exactly come here by her will this time. I’d dropped at least Josephine into nightmare with me. In the best case. And nobody else I’d had with me was prepared for this, either. Shit. Live first, beat myself up later.

So I turned, and as I turned I drew. I mean, what the hell else could I do? Longsword is the queen of the arts of defence. I’d only scratched the barest surface in five months’ training. But the very first thing Krem had taught me was to look like I knew how to handle one. The blade came to rest before me in both hands, hilt low, point up, my stance balanced, ready to react or strike in an instant. Looked my opponents in the multifarious horrible eyes and damn near shat myself because

giant

fucking

spiders

But I had a sword.

First one moved, came at me in a leap. Stepped smartly to my right, kept the blade roughly where it was, planted my left foot as I unwound into a big wasteful slice that Krem would’ve kicked my arse for – what, ser, d’you think people don’t wear armour?

Spiders don’t. It went tumbling, cut almost in half. I recovered to a high guard, blade level with the ground, hilt level with my head, like an ox’s horn. The next one struck at me with a wicked forelimb: a lunge sent its stroke wide and severed the limb at the joint, and I pressed the advantage with a flicking vertical chop as I’d been taught and took the thing between its centremost pair of eyes. A third one leapt for me as I recovered and I spitted it, let the thing slide off my blade and threw another wide arcing upward cut into a fourth.

Four of them. Four of the things dead in as long as it takes to tell, four icky spidery corpses rolling down the hill. Their fellows screamed at me and I screamed back. Light at my back. Kept my point up. Breathing hard and shaking and giant spiders and they were – they were – backing off.

Wiped the blade. Put my weapon away. It was mechanical. My hands shook. My head spun. That was the first time I’d ever fought anything on my own and won.

That tiny victory at least afforded me the opportunity to look around. The sky was mostly a sickly green, the colour – now I thought of it – of a rift, the colour the Breach had been, the colour my brand was. There were clouds, grey clouds like the storm that the fight on top of Adamant had whistled up. And where the sun should’ve been, there in the sky, there was the City, the Golden City, the Black City. And light just as bright as the sun was coming from there, from that endlessly foul pustulent encrusted blackened corrupted horror that was at the same damned time the most beautiful thing I’d ever –

I ripped my eyes away from the sight. They stung. They watered. After-images danced. Head hurt. Felt sick. Fell to my knees in the scree.

I don’t know how long I was there kneeling. Eyes closed, head down, just breathing. It all hurt. The Bride was supposed to have been here, Blessed Andraste, she was supposed to have been here to save me, show me home. My eyes stung.

And I prayed, I actually prayed and I meant it. The Canticle of Trials was familiar, so familiar to me now. The templars chanted it every damn time we went anywhere. And to the end of it I added, “Andraste. Bride of the Maker, hear me. I-if I’m really your Herald, if I’ve got the right to that, if I’ve got a marker to call in.” I swallowed. I’d not come here alone and there were spiders out there. The others would have more of a plan. The others would be able to help me. “I n-need to find my friends. I need to get to them. Help us.” I shivered, head to toe. “Help me.”

And the light that had been gathered here at the hilltop descended, and settled gently about my head and my shoulders like a mantle. And I knew – Maker help me, I’d no idea how I knew – that finding them was up to me, but here was a nightlight.

I swallowed fear. I picked a direction. I set off.

*

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