Fear and Surprise, Chapter Thirty-Five

by artrald

Previous

Up

Next

Note to readers. I *plan* to continue writing until F&S is finished, but I also plan to be on paternity leave for two weeks of the next month. So, we’ll see!

*

Jenny heard the knock at my door and didn’t need to say it was Josephine. I wiped the last of the soap off my face and contemplated leaving my shirt off for just long enough to have to catch the one Jenny threw at me. Left the laces undone at my neck, anyway. Maker, but it had been good to sleep in something that was at least approximately my own bed last night.

“Come,” I said, and ran a hand through my hair, which sprung immediately back to the state of a dandelion clock in a thunderstorm; my lady fair, of course, looked immaculate in a blue gown that would have been everyday on someone else, and a raised eyebrow at Jenny was enough to get the elf closing the door from the outside.

“Council, Max.” That smile was nothing more than another part of the outfit. “I thought you might accompany me.”

“I’m late?”

“I’m early.” She put her back to the door. “I supposed that you might want to talk to me about what happened at Adamant before we discussed it with -” She saw the guarded expression slam down on my face and stopped in midstream. “You’ve said precisely nothing where I could hear it. You discussed what you saw only with the Warden-Commander, and you looked like you came out of there carrying half the world on your shoulders, and you’ve said not a word since, Max: talk to me.”

Sigh. I went and sat down on my bed rather than have to meet her eyes. “I don’t know if I’ve got the right.”

“I must confess, that’s a new one.” Quizzical eyebrow. “You weren’t ordered to keep something a secret?” Just too long a pause, in which I didn’t answer – “And you do know that Lady Kallian has no right to give you orders, for all that she saved the world once?”

“No, it’s not that, I – just.” I didn’t look up at her. “I saw everything you saw in the Fade, Josephine, and I’m absolutely prepared to talk about that, but it’s – not all that I saw.”

“Divine Justinia’s last words. A blessing, I’ll, some other time I will give you an explanation of what she said to me. It’s important to me, but not important, if that makes sense – but – the real matter is the things that you heard and I didn’t. The secret knowledge, the, the prophecy if you want. And you could tell that woman about it, but you can’t tell me?” She didn’t pout, but she was clearly thinking it.

If she was too grown-up to pout, then I was too grown-up to rise to it. “I asked a question. I – got an answer. She asked me if I truly wanted to know and without thinking I said that I did, and now you want to know, and -”

She bit her lip. Came and sat down next to me. “That bad?”

“It’s… not what you think. I – Damn it, Josephine, I don’t want to know this. I could quite happily go through the rest of my life never having learned it. I asked Kallian for advice because she’d guessed it herself and she told me, in as many words, to fuck right off.”

Soft voice. “Is it your intention to disquiet me, Max?”

“You are doing that on purpose.”

“And you are scaring me.” She turned to look me in the eye. “At least tell me that this nebulous horror isn’t immediately and – directly -” She tailed off, seeing my expression. “Tell me.”

“After all I said, you just…?”

“Did you expect me to leave you to deal with it on your own?” She had sat down really very close to me, hadn’t she. “You’ve met my attitude to the possibility of coming to harm in the line of duty. D’you not think that perhaps I’d be prepared to lose a little sleep over doing what is quite literally part of my actual job?”

I looked into those deep brown eyes and – frankly – sank without a trace.

And told her.

*

It was a foul spring. The snows were late, the storms were fierce, our supply lines were still tight, and to top the whole story off the rifts were starting to take a new and disturbing turn. The first time we met a rift that was at the centre of an apparent camp of bandits, we went in expecting nothing more than zombies: and if the group hadn’t had Cassandra at its head, nobody would have made it out of that ambush at all. For it turned out that the red templars could survive the presence of a rift just fine, and that warriors outfitted for fighting the walking dead are made more than a little unhappy by archers.

And as for what the camps were for – to their purpose I cannot speak, but there’s no rational reason to be doing what they were doing, which I’ll leave at ‘like the rifts always had been doing, but deliberate and organised’. The things we saw will stay with us forever. I suppose that the downside of being part of a battle between good and evil is that you get to see the bad side first-hand. And we would be short of strong drink until our supply lines cleared up in the spring.

But of course, by making use of the rifts for their own purposes, our enemies had made themselves visible. Our own supplies might have been tight, but so were theirs: even the red templars had to eat. And what they likely called ‘living off the land’ was to us nothing more than banditry, pillage and depredation, and apparently they had not considered that we might take the time to stop and talk to those they robbed: it is unsurprising how quickly a reputation can be built off the back of riding to the rescue.

The Herald and his people led from the front, an inspiration to us all, but the most oblivious of us could see the stress was showing. They returned from Adamant haunted, visibly aged by what they’d seen there: and as to what that had been, they said nothing at all, save that the Wardens were not our foes but could not be relied upon for aid.

And there was no talk of dragons save in rumour.

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

*

Krem tossed me a waster, casually, and I caught it just as casually. Wood, core of lead, heavy and familiar in my hand – hell, I knew these blunted weapons better than my own longsword. I asked Krem, once, if there was something that made a knight better than a common soldier, some legacy of breeding or blood that I’d of course be lacking: he just gave a cold little smile and said a few thousand hours’ practice. And yes, yes it really did. I only had maybe a hundred hours behind me now, but already I could feel it. Every day you aren’t too exhausted to, you get one of these out and you beat the crap out of a padded bit of wood called a pell. Anyone worth their spurs will tell you the same. It’s not about learning how to fight – it’s about equipping yourself to do so. The best way to get strong enough, fit enough to swing a sword- well, it’s no surprise that it’s to swing one. And now, with a hundred hours behind me, Krem and I set to side by side rather than him standing there and taking the piss like he used to.

Get to training beside someone, you’ll get to talking to them. Especially when you aren’t out of breath the entire bloody time. “So,” I said, as we got ourselves into a rhythm. “Why d’you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Live like you do.” I realised how that sounded. “As a man, I mean.”

He snorted. “Wondered how long it’d take you.” The pell shook. “Might ask you the same thing, Max.”

Wince. I mean, Krem did have bigger arms than me. “Thank you ever so much. I guess I did deserve-”

“No, you don’t get it. That way you just felt? Just right then, when I hinted maybe you were only just pretending to be a man, when you got all ready to be pissed off?” He struck another sweeping sequence of blows with a skill there was no way I could match. “Imagine getting up every morning and feeling like that.”

I just kept up the steady rhythm of the drill, kept my hands moving while the words sank in.

“I…” Thwack. Hey, that was a pretty nice blow. “I suppose that kind of… I mean, Tevinter’s funny about what men and women can and can’t do, aren’t they?”

“Funny. Yeah.” He narrowed his eyes. “Man break shit, woman make shit. Woman is for love, man is for hate. Universal brotherhood, universal sisterhood, never the two shall meet. Maker-appointed and glorious and what d’you know but the magisters say it’s the way of the natural world. Unless you’re a magistrix, of course, ever noticed that? The mistress went through the youth of the village and picked the dozen tallest for the legions. You think it mattered that I’d got myself fitter and stronger than any of the others, even back then? They made me a damned nurse.” He flowed from one routine to the next and I followed ineptly. “And incidentally, ser, if you cut your poor lilywhite finger then you already know not to run to me, I’m pretty much the worst medic the Maker ever made. But it got me access to the doctors who did medical checkups, and to dead guys who looked a bit like me.”

“So you…?”

“There was a plague to go with the little uprising we were fighting, I took my chance. Faked my death and the miraculous recovery of some poor bastard without a family or living friends. Bit extreme, but it was that or end up braining someone rather than wash another damn bedpan. Paid the doctor off. You know.” Thwack. “The fucking usual.” Thwack. “Next morning was the first day of the rest of my life.”

“You never thought of going to Ferelden, Orlais, the Free Marches? I mean, nobody’s telling Cassandra or Nightingale they can’t-”

“And yup, there’s the other one.” He snorted. “It’s not the soldiering, Max. It’s being who I am. It’s getting up in the morning and putting on my own damn clothes. Besides, you know, I’ve got a nationality.”

“Mercenary isn’t usually considered a-”

“Mercenary? I’m qunari.” There was a pride under that that I hadn’t heard before.

“Aren’t you a little short for a giant?”

“Funny.” A third routine. He slowed it right down and I kept the rhythm with him. Slow speed is all about control and accuracy. Kind of hard when you’re as out of breath as I was. “Eventually someone found out what I was doing, asked for money I didn’t have to shut his mouth. I shut it another way. Ran. I told you the story about how I met Iron Bull. And he offered me a job and a place. Aqun-athlok. It’s the word for what I am. You understand? You understand what it is that I’m saying?”

“That they have a word.”

“Yeah.” Another smooth movement that I struggled to copy. “And it was common enough that Bull didn’t even blink. It’s just a thing, like… I dunno…”

“Hair colour.”

“Yeah. That sort of thing. Where he comes from, it just happens. No big deal, no aggro, no nothing, just like – having bright red hair. So there we go, Max. That’s me. Bright red metaphorical qunari hair.” He finished the series of half-speed blows, flourished the waster in his hand, cast me a glance. “And that’ll about do for warm-up. Back to the start, full force now, full speed.”

*

The room came to attention as I came in to sit in the big chair, and damn, but that would never stop feeling strange: and like I was a kitten being brought a lamed mouse by its mother, they brought out ‘a man that they’d have me pass judgement on’. And Nightingale introduced him as Thom Blackwall, never of the Grey Wardens, and it was a moment before I recognised him, what with him having had a good close shave and his hair in a queue, and another moment while I realised that everyone involved was deadly serious.

There wasn’t a charge, because there wasn’t a law: they’d brought him here for a religious judgement as if I was a revered mother. I mean, Cassandra was as high-up a nun as you could physically get. Leliana, too, didn’t she have Chantry authority? Come to that, what about the mother of the castle chantry? And here they all were coming to me for judgement?

Well, yes, idiot. Did that not somewhat come with the title? You could alternatively tell them it was all a lie? No?

So there I sat trying to gather all my moral faculties as Blackwall started to tell his tale, right from the beginning, looking into the middle distance, digging what he clearly thought should be his own grave in a clear and honest voice, telling a tale I’d already read. On one side of him Cassandra, and clear it was that all she wanted was me to back up a decision she’d already made and thought was obvious. On the other side Nightingale, and she too had judged the man already, and it wasn’t clear she agreed with her sister Seeker. Josephine had retreated behind an unreadably blank expression: my guess was that she’d refused to weigh in.

And you know what? One piece of advice I got from the Maid, one thing that she trusted her judgement on. About truth, and when to tell it. And here they were clearly expecting me to sit there and take direction, and put their words in my mouth and lie that I was in charge? Well? Fuck that. They wanted me to pass judgement? Fine. I’d do it. You know, actually do it. Like some kind of authority figure. Like I deserved to sit in this chair.

The man didn’t much pay attention when I held up a hand for quiet, not till I raised my voice. “Blackwall, stop.”

He snapped to attention. “My lord.”

“You’ve rehearsed this speech.” I leaned on the arm of the big chair.

“My lord, I swear that every word I spoke is the truth.”

“I didn’t say it wasn’t. But you’ve thought this over, what you’re saying. It’s all about a litany of crimes you’ve committed and people you’ve betrayed? You’re accusing yourself? Offering no plea of mitigation?”

He nodded. “Broadly, my lord,that’s right-”

“Your worship.” Cassandra glared at me, at him, at the room in general. “Thom has come of his own free will to confess before you, and at no small personal cost; you’ll do him the credit of hearing him out.”

“As I was saying.” I ignored her cold stare, no matter that it made the hair stand up on my neck to do it. “Ser, let me get this straight in my head, let me understand what you are asking me. You come here with your story, you come here in company of Cassandra and Nightingale to tell me your story and have me decide what to do with you, judgement before Maker and Bride, is that about straight? You tell me what sort of person you are and I get to say what that means, and you’ll live by that and they’ll write it all down?”

Mostly he looked nonplussed. “Yes, ser.”

“And you accuse yourself.”

“That or run, ser, and I’ve been convinced I’m done running.”

“In other words, you’re not asking me to be kind. You’re not asking me to help. You’re asking me for what’s coming to you.”

“I am, ser.”

“Because you didn’t like the last answer you got.”

“Yes, my lord,” said Blackwall. I caught his glance at Cassandra, I caught her knuckles going white. Pretty clear what had happened here. I was breaking the tie. That’s why she hadn’t told me what they wanted to happen in advance.

They’d come to me to get these words said by me before our gathered people, and it mattered what I said, this was a man’s life we were talking about, and if I put a foot wrong then not only would bad things happen but this would be the last time: but it was like a kind of madness had come over me, and the only way on was forward.

I looked a little wildly to the omnipresent little clerk sat in the corner. “And you’re going to write this all down, are you? Whatever I say, whatever happens. This is going into history. Everything I say from this chair, am I right?” Poor bastard just nodded, wouldn’t look up, stared down at his tablet. Not fair of me to pull him into it. “Write this, then. Thom Blackwall, you come here and tell your story and lay these accusations against yourself: and will anyone here say that they are not true?”

So Cassandra saw her chance and swooped. “Lord Herald, this man has drawn sword beside the Inquisition more times than I care to name.” It wasn’t about the words she was speaking. It was about her authority here. “He stood at your very side against Corypheus’ assassins, and were it not for him then the Empress would in all likelihood be dead.” It was about the fact that in truth, she had the power: in truth, I was simply here to lend credence to it all: in truth, this was a game played between her and Nightingale and I wasn’t a player, I was a piece. “And yes, he posed as a Warden: but he did not steal their privileges, but rather borrow their responsibilities. And without the advantages and the support that that order provided, he did a Warden’s-”

“Lady Cassandra,” I said, and she shut her mouth. Screw this. She wanted predictable and polite, she shouldn’t have dropped this on me. “You speak for the character of a man that I already know. As you say, I’ve fought beside him myself.” Well, more behind than beside, but the point stood. “But you do not give the lie to anything he comes here to lay before us?”

She looked at him. Back at me. “You know perfectly well that I cannot.”

“Then I really don’t feel we need to hear the whole of the tale again.” I sat back in the big chair and looked the man in the eyes. Only way on was forward. “Blackwall, I have already heard your story, and nobody has given me any reason to believe it is false, and you’re not asking them to. And I must tell you that there is no room in the Inquisition for-” I just kept going, if I stopped then I’d lose them – “for a murderer, for a deserter, for an impostor, for a thief, for a liar. What one gains, another has lost. The Maker sees these things with a heavy heart.” I saw it in his eyes. This was what he wanted me to say. This was what he wanted to hear. He bowed his head.

Josephine’s eyes had widened; Cassandra stepped angrily forward and in the corner of my eye I saw the paranoid Jenny tense. “Lord Herald, I tell you-”

“Cassandra, it’s all right-” Blackwall’s voice was drowned straight out.

“It’s damned well not. Maxwell, this-”

“I’m not finished,” I said, and she practically snarled at me.

“Thom is one of us. One of the Inquisition. What truth is this judgement supposed to illuminate?” She kept up her approach and Jenny was suddenly there, keeping no further from me than was the lady knight, eyes very wide, not blinking, hands out of sight. “Do you throw away a blade that’s rolled an edge? Do you cast aside a horse that’s thrown a shoe?”

And I stood, and I looked her in the eye. “Cassandra. Stand aside.”

“This isn’t a damned game.”

“I. Know.”

A pause long and cold enough that I could almost hear Jenny planning how to get me out of Cassandra’s way.

And then she stepped aside, but I dared not relax yet. I walked past her, down from the dais to stand eye to eye with Blackwall, and as I did, he went to kneel to me. Dry mouth. I stopped him. “Thom Blackwall. You’ve told us a tale of a man who’s nothing that we might want. A man who you yourself wouldn’t want part of this Inquisition. A man not fit to do the Maker’s service.”

“That’s right, ser.”

I couldn’t believe I was doing this, but it felt… inescapable. And nobody seemed to be stopping me. He bowed his head and I sharpened my tone. “Look at me,” I said, and he did. Bride knows what he saw. “All right. Now let me tell you a tale of my own. A tale of a man who opened his eyes one day and saw what he was, and tried to make it all better, but things didn’t go his way. Ser, I know what a scoundrel looks like, and it doesn’t look like a man who rides in my gate half-dead to try and save the lives of some people he didn’t know from Andraste. It doesn’t look like a man who actually outright volunteered for front-line duty, it doesn’t look like a man who put his body between the Empress and a fiend he knew was more than his match. And it doesn’t look like a man who the Seekers of Truth can trust to prosecute at his own damned trial.”

“That’s…” He wouldn’t look away, but he shook his head. “Ser, you’ve been listening to Cassandra, that’s not me you’re talking about. It’s just who I’ve been pretending to be.”

“I know. Bride be my witness, I know what you mean.” Deep breath. “But I need to know one thing more from you. Because there’s no room in the Inquisition for the man whose tale you told me, and the question is simply this. Are you prepared to let him go?”

A long pause. He swallowed hard. Didn’t look at Cassandra. Didn’t move a muscle. Eventually he unstuck his throat. “With your blessing, ser, I’ll try.”

I nodded. I’d read about how to do what I wanted. I’d never seen it done. Back home, they somewhat made a point of not having these. “Then kneel.”

And the first knight invested into the Inquisition was Thom Blackwall, and with Cassandra’s sword. And from that day I was their leader.

*

Next