In which Cullen arrives only to leave, and Rob finds Orzammar both strange and sadly familiar.
Previous Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 22: Satisfaction Brought It Back)
Thursday, 12 August, 9:30 Dragon
Rob had been almost sad to leave Soldier’s Peak. Even Morrigan had relaxed … though both she and Raven had gone up at different times to talk to that creepy old mage, Avernus. Rob thought of asking why, but had decided he was better off not knowing.
It was still strange, adjusting to his sister’s eclectic foreknowledge.
She’d been stunned when they reached a village busily rebuilding after darkspawn broke a dam and flooded the town. Rae stared at the mayor, a guy named Dedrick, while he apologized for not having lodgings for them. Later, she’d told Rob she’d forgotten about Crestwood since the games wouldn’t show it for years … but the darkspawn hadn’t caused the destruction; the mayor had done it himself, to kill off Blight-sick refugees. Rob had wanted to go confront Dedrick, but she’d stopped him, saying the man’s time would come.
On the flip side, she’d been utterly unsurprised the next day, when they’d run off some of Loghain’s men attacking a lone soldier. It turned out the guy had not only been at the Battle of Ostagar, but had been a personal guard of the late king. Just before dying of his wounds, he’d given Aedan a key to vital private correspondence the king left behind; Rae just nodded.
But she’d been a bundle of nerves this morning, because their plan for the day was off the grid of her prior knowledge. Aedan had planned a brief stop at Kinloch on their way to Orzammar, to check on the mages’ fighting strength and pass along the method of bespelling messenger birds. So, Rae had set up a meeting with Shanna and Cullen. As they rowed over to one of the smaller islands near the Circle tower, it was hard to say who was more on edge, Rae or Alistair.
She’d arranged to meet here instead of in the tower, thinking it might be easier for Cullen to see Alistair in an environment he’d never known prior to the demons combing his memories. Cullen had agreed to bring Shanna and Connor, along with a light lunch. Rob had expected a bag with a few squished sandwiches and a seat on a convenient rock—but if one thing could be said of Cullen, it was that when he set out to do a thing, he did it properly.
A large blanket was spread neatly in a warm patch of sun, holding a basket so full of sandwiches, fruit, and pastries it nearly overflowed. Cullen smiled faintly when, after greeting everyone, Alistair immediately poked through the contents. “Grilled cheese!” he exclaimed happily, and Raven laughed, knowing Alistair’s fondness of cheese in any form.
Shanna snorted. “I oughta say so, Ser; ‘e asked for ‘em special, and only told me ten times to make sure they was in there.” Cullen shot the little elf a glare, but she was unrepentant as usual. Raven hid a smile and hugged the girl, who sat beside her on the blanket.
“So, Connor,” Alistair asked, settling down between Rae and the boy, “How have you been settling in?”
The quiet boy jumped at being addressed, his shoulders hunched, eyes only slightly less haunted than when they’d brought him back from Redcliffe. Rob felt for the kid, but he couldn’t quite shake the memory of him standing in the great hall, talking in a voice that wasn’t his own and making Bann Teagan hop around like a moron. ‘Not Connor’s fault his mother’s an idiot,’ he reminded himself sternly.
“It’s been all right, Ser,” Connor began, but the corner of his mouth quirked upward when Alistair raised an eyebrow in mock reproach. “I mean, Alistair.”
“That’s better,” the Warden said approvingly, ruffling the boy’s hair. “So everyone’s been kind to you?”
“Well …” His eyes darted to Shanna. “One of the older mages has—had—family in Redcliffe, and …”
The girl’s eyes took on a fierce gleam, and her hands balled into fists. “Stupid git thought ‘e was gonna ‘ave some words for Connor, but me an’ Petra ‘ad some words for ‘im instead.”
“Shanna has been a great friend,” the boy said. “The others … have mostly left me alone.”
“We’re lucky to have our Shanna, aren’t we?” Raven asked. Connor smiled, Cullen scowled, and Shanna grinned archly, which made everyone else laugh.
“Speakin’ of friends, you really saw Sera in Denerim, Lady Raven?” the girl asked. “She was all right?”
“We really did. Sister Leliana met her first; she caught Sera trying to pick her pocket.”
Shanna’s eyes went round as saucers. “She didn’t!”
Rob grinned. “She did. Hope she gets better at picking targets if she’s gonna keep that up.”
“Always did ‘ave more nerve than sense, that one,” Shanna snorted. “But I’m glad she’s all right. Do … d’ya think she’ll ever wanna see me again?”
Raven considered her answer for a long moment, and Rob approved; the kid was too bright to accept meaningless platitudes. “I don’t know, Shanna,” she said finally, before her eyes shifted to Cullen. “When people go through something painful or scary, it can be hard for them to remember who their friends are. But I think Sera knows you’re still you, and not what the magic made you. She just needs time.”
Cullen looked away, his expression shuttered, and Alistair winced. ‘Good time for a new topic,’ Rob thought. “So, Cullen, you’re back to training?”
The templar brightened at the change of subject. “Yes. I finally have leave to spar with the others again.”
“So soon?” Raven fretted and Cullen bristled, but before he could retort, Alistair chimed in.
“Cullen’s tough, Rae; he can handle it. When we were recruits, he broke his arm after a fall from a tree. The next day, the stubborn arse was training one-handed; said it gave him a reason to focus on his shield work.”
“Really?” Rob asked, impressed.
“Yes, the story is true,” Cullen said dryly, “though he failed to mention it was his fall from a tree, onto me.”
“Pssh, details,” Alistair said with a grin.
“He’d been tossing his shirt up in the air after practice on a hot day, and it got stuck in a tree, so he climbed up to get it. But then he was so impressed with the view he decided to go higher to take in the scenery.”
“In my defense, it was a lovely view. And I’d have been fine if my foot hadn’t slipped. I was lucky though; a thirty-foot drop and all I got was a few bruises.”
“Good thing you had something to break your fall,” Cullen deadpanned.
“Yes, wasn’t it?” the Warden replied brightly.
Raven was looking back and forth between the two men with a smile. Rob decided the three of them could use some time to talk. “Why don’t I take the kids and the dog for a walk, work up an appetite, and then we can eat that mountain of sandwiches?” Hohaku woofed his agreement.
Cullen opened his mouth as if to object, but glanced at Raven and apparently thought better of it; he nodded at the two children. “Stay where I can see you,” he admonished. Connor shrank into himself, while Shanna simply rolled her eyes, but they nodded.
“As you command, Ser Metalbritches,” the elf tossed over her shoulder as they walked away. Rob tried not to laugh and mostly failed.
“So, how are your lessons going?” Rob asked Shanna when they were out of earshot of the others.
She stuck her tongue out. “Lessons is—are—boring. I’d rather talk about them pretty halla yer friend drew. Do the Dalish really keep ‘em as pets?”
“I’m surprised you even found the Dalish,” Connor said softly, speaking up for the first time of his own volition. “Father says they stay hidden from humans.” A shadow crossed his face at the mention of his father, and Rob took that moment to kneel in the soft sand.
“Hey, your dad really is gonna be okay. My sister is super smart and knows all kinds of stuff, plus she’s got information from this guy named Genetivi, who—“
“Brother Genetivi?” the boy asked, eyes wide. “We have all of his books in the library at home. He’s the one finding a cure for Father?”
“The very same,” Rob said.
Shanna snorted. “I told you that a hundred times; ‘ow come you listen now that ‘e says it?”
Connor searched for a diplomatic response, and Rob helped him off the hook. “Because I’m bigger than you, Shanna-bug. What you gonna do about it, huh?”
Laughing, she launched herself at him, and he hoisted her up on his shoulders. Hohaku stood beside Connor, shoving his nose under the boy’s hand, and for the first time, he saw the happy child Connor Guerrin might have been if life had been kinder.
The boy flung a stick, and the dog happily chased after it. “We had Mabari at home,” he said wistfully.
“I know,” Rob said. “Alistair told us he used to sleep in the kennels and take care of them.”
“He slept … in the kennels?” Connor said, horrified. “But … but he’s a Grey Warden!”
“But ‘e weren’t one then, yeah? Just a kid like us.”
“Yeah,” Rob hesitated. “I, uh, get the feeling your mom didn’t like him much.”
Connor rolled his eyes. “She likes my Father, Uncle Teagan, and the Chantry, and not much else. When I … when my magic started, I wasn’t sure she even liked me. She acted like I did it on purpose.”
“If it helps, Leliana says your mom’s family has mage blood from way back, so if it’s anyone’s fault, it’s hers. But there isn’t fault, really; it’s just a thing you were born with, like having blue eyes or writing left-handed”
“Except writing left-handed doesn’t kill people,” he replied in a weary voice that belied his years. Hohaku nearly toppled Connor in his haste to press his furry head to the boy’s chest in comfort.
“Listen, kiddo” Rob said, putting Shanna down and laying a hand on Connor’s shoulder. “Back home, I trained to be a soldier. I learned a lot of things that could hurt people really bad if I wasn’t careful, or if I got mad, or stopped thinking straight. It’s scary sometimes, even for me, and I have a lot more years of practice at dealing with it. Sometimes I think about people we’ve fought, that I’ve hurt, and wonder if I should’ve done anything different. But you know what I figured out? Having the ability to hurt people isn’t what makes you a bad guy. Choosing to hurt innocent people on purpose is. You didn’t do that.”
“I did though, I … I let the demon trick me, and—“
“And you should never have been in that position,” Rob interrupted. “The Circle’s got issues, but at least they wouldn’t have left you all alone with no one to help you. If your mom hadn’t done what she did, you’d have been here getting trained, and the demon wouldn’t have been able to get you. If anyone is to blame, it’s her, and my sister made sure she knew it.”
Rob snorted. “Oh yeah. Rae rarely loses her temper, but when she does, she lays it all out. By the time she was done, everybody was about ready to blame Isolde for everything up to and including the Blight itself.”
“I don’t hate my mother,” the boy said in weak protest. “She’s still my mother. But she … she acted like how I looked was more important than what I really was.”
“Shems,” Shanna scoffed, shaking her head.
Alistair, Rae, and Cullen seemed cautiously cordial after they’d spoken, but then the templar casually dropped a bombshell as they finished lunch. “Oh, I should mention … the Knight-Commander has decided the apprentices will be safer elsewhere, at least until the Blight is over. Within the next week, I will be escorting them to the Circle in Kirkwall.”
“You din’t say we was goin’ away!” Shanna protested. Connor simply looked afraid.
“You’ll be fine,” the templar said dismissively. “Kirkwall’s Circle is one of the largest in Thedas. There will be more children your age.”
“Cullen,” Raven said. “I’ve heard a lot about Kirkwall, so I want to make something clear: I expect you to look after Shanna and Connor just as carefully there as here.”
He frowned. “Don’t be ridiculous. Kirkwall has a reputation for order.”
“Kirkwall’s reputation is exactly what I’m afraid of,” Raven glared. “It would be easy for two small children to be lost in the shuffle. I trust you to keep them safe.”
The templar’s jaw clenched. “Am I to nursemaid these creatures the rest of their days, then?”
“If that’s what it takes,” Raven said, voice full of steel.
Shanna, surprisingly, looked wounded. “If you don’t want us creatures around, fine. I don’t need to be chasin’ you around makin’ sure you eat and such anyway.” She rose in a huff, stomping off into a nearby meadow with Connor and Hohaku trailing after. Cullen watched her go with confusion, as if he couldn’t comprehend she might have grown attached to him.
“Probably good for them to leave Ferelden right now anyway,” Alistair said in a conciliatory tone. “We’re doing our best, but…”
“How bad do you think it’ll get?” Cullen asked.
Raven looked struck by a thought. “That reminds me, Cullen … before you go, you should write to your family. Smaller villages are being overrun. You said they’re in Honnleath, right? They won’t be safe there.”
Cullen’s brows knit in consternation. “I haven’t written since … since everything. But I suppose you’re right. I’ll advise them to move elsewhere.”
“South Reach was safe when we came through,” Raven noted, before going off with Alistair to play with the children and the dog. The smile they shared when she took his hand spoke volumes.
“So,” Cullen said after a time. “It seems the two of them have become close.”
“Yeah,” Rob grinned. “It’s good to see them happy, although they’re so cute it’s nauseating.”
“Good, that’s … good,” the templar said, his eyes unreadable. “He deserves to be happy.”
“Everyone deserves to be happy. Some people just take longer to figure that out than others.” Cullen looked at him sharply, but Rob didn’t elaborate. ‘Let Goldilocks chew on that one for a bit,’ he thought.
“So Kirkwall, huh?” He pretended a casual air, wondering what Marian’s new hometown was like.
“Yes, it will be an improvement. The Circle there is properly managed. Knight-Commander Meredith has a reputation for maintaining discipline.”
“Ah, so she’s a hardass,” Rob said.
“I … what?”
“Commanders are supposed to be strict; it’s a given. So if one gets a reputation for being strict, it means they’re so strict it’s outside the norm. It’s noteworthy.”
“Well I … I’m sure she has good reasons. Kirkwall is a large Circle and they have a higher than average incidence of blood mages,” Cullen said, nettled.
“Huh. So what you’re saying is, there’s a commander who’s on everybody’s case and ready to punish the slightest flaw … and in a total coincidence, more mages lose their shit and go all glowy and bad. Interesting.”
“That isn’t—the mages are the problem! The Knight Commander is simply doing her duty!”
“Sure,” Rob said mildly. “Sounds like this Meredith chick is a strong leader, and she cares about her job. But … some thought Uldred was a strong leader who cared for the mages, and look how that turned out.” Cullen opened his mouth and closed it again, lost in thought until Rob shifted topics. “Anyway, I know the lovebirds have been worried—how are you, really?”
“I’m fine,” he said crisply.
Rob raised an eyebrow. “Right. You know, I had this drill instructor once. Guy had a yell that would carry to next week. One night, I woke up to piss and heard a muffled version of it, so I went to check. Turns out he’d seen some serious shit and got nightmares sometimes. He acted like it was no big deal … but he thanked me for checking. For listening.” He chuckled. “Course, he also said if I told any of the other guys, I’d be doing push-ups ‘til I was ninety, the cranky bastard.”
Cullen pondered his words for a long moment and relented. “Physically, I’m almost back to normal. And … and my nightmares have eased now that my lyrium levels have fully evened out.”
“Cool. Just be careful with that lyrium shit, man. Rae says it can really mess you up.”
Before he could reply, a stick went flying past them, narrowly missing their heads. “Oops, sorry!” yelled Alistair, running after it.
Friday, 20 August, 9:30 Dragon
Orzammar was an experience Rob would never forget. Not since they’d arrived in Thedas had he been so thoroughly aware he was in another world. The heart of the dwarves’ underground kingdom sat in a vast cavern, magma lighting it from far below. Buildings were carved directly into the stone, intricate masonry contrasting sharply with natural rock formations.
And of course, there were the dwarves. Rob was used to his height; at six feet he was usually at or over crowd level back home, though humans in Thedas seemed to skew a little taller (and more fit, something Rae attributed partly to the game artists, and partly to the lack of junk food). But here … even a full head shorter than him, Rae was tall compared to the dwarves, and Rob felt like a hulking giant.
But despite the strangeness of the place, they got stuck dealing with everybody else’s problems the minute they got there, as usual. The dwarven king had died, and nobody could agree on a new one. For a change, the Warden actually listened to Rae’s advice, taking her, Alistair, and Leliana up to the oh-so-subtly-named Diamond District to meet the VIPs.
Afterward, they went to a Proving, a tournament where dwarves fought to settle disputes or show their skill. Rob had mixed feelings about it. Despite the rules and precautions, people could die during the events. They wore armor, which was more than could be said for a boxer or MMA fighter on Earth, but they also wielded giant swords, axes, and maces. He had to admit, though … it was exciting to watch.
One fighter showed up weaponless. “What’s she doing?” he gasped. “She’s gonna get clobbered!”
“Oh, she is a Silent Sister,” said Leliana. “They are an order of female warriors. As the tale goes, many years ago, Astyth the Grey wished to become a soldier, but women were forbidden to fight. She tried to argue her case, but no one would listen, and finally, she cut out her tongue to show she was done talking. For a year, she saw no one, spending every day honing her skills.”
“At last, she appeared at a Proving, slipped past all the fighters, and stood weaponless in the arena. A guard tried to remove her, and she dispatched him with her bare hands. Intrigued, the king ordered more and greater of his warriors against her, and she bested each one, until finally she faced the reigning champion. He strutted about, mocking her ability, and making crude remarks about a woman’s place. But when the fight began, Astyth flowed across the arena like a dancer, moving with matchless speed and grace. She evaded the champion’s blows with ease, so often the crowd began to laugh at him. In a towering rage, he charged at her, death in his eyes. At the last moment, Astyth adjusted her stance, and the champion ran into her fist with such force it cracked his skull. He fell, dead, and his blood pooled at her feet.”
“Astyth waited then, expecting execution. Women, after all, were not permitted to compete. But due to her courage and skill, the King declared women would be accepted as soldiers from that day forward. Astyth herself became his chief bodyguard, and when she later died saving him from an assassin, she was made a Paragon, the highest honor the dwarves can bestow. To this day, a small order of women continues to remove their tongues in Astyth’s honor, dedicating themselves to a life of combat.”
Pondering the bard’s words, Rob let himself feel a little superior; people in his world had freedom of speech. They didn’t have to do something crazy like cut out their tongues to make a point. But the logical voice in his head—which sounded annoyingly like his sister—swiftly reminded him of all the protests, hunger strikes, and hardships people back home endured just to be heard. Sadly, it seemed resistance of the powerful to anything that threatened the status quo was a universal constant, thwarted only by those with conviction. Rob looked at the unarmed woman in the arena with new respect, and cheered when she handily defeated her opponent.
Saturday, 21 August, 9:30 Dragon
Aedan chose to support Prince Bhelen as the next king. They’d heard rumors of the man’s treachery, but Rob assumed his sister knew them to be false. When he asked her in private, though, he was stunned to learn otherwise. “No,” she said, troubled. “It’s true; Bhelen’s a snake. He tricked his own siblings into attacking each other, leaving one dead and the other exiled.”
“What?!” he exclaimed. “Christ, Rae, why are we helping an asshole like that become king?’
“Because he’s the better choice,” she answered miserably. “Harrowmont, the old king’s adviser, is a decent guy. But as king, he reinforces their awful caste system, seeing no problem with sentencing a whole class of people and their descendants to permanent poverty. And he isolates Orzammar even further from the rest of Thedas. Bhelen, on the other hand, works toward getting rid of the caste system, and is more willing to work with outsiders. So yeah, he’s a bad person, but it turns out, a good king.”
Rob snorted. “So we’re voting for the lesser evil, huh? Feels more and more like home.”
“It’s one similarity I could’ve done without. But I suppose at least here I can know how it turns out.”
After a long moment, he said, “You know, seeing the future doesn’t seem to make you very happy. Makes me glad I haven’t read those files you gave me.”
She raised an eyebrow. “So what you’re saying is, better me than you? Thanks; you’re a pal.”
“Oh come on, Rae. Even if I read the cheat sheets, I wouldn’t get the implications of half of it. I don’t know it all in and out like you do. But we both know that wouldn’t stop me from having opinions, and probably mouthing off about them at the worst possible time.”
“Ugh. I really want to argue, but you have a point.”
“Of course I do,” he grinned. “This is why you should just admit I’m always right.” At the rude gesture she threw him in reply, he burst into laughter.
Next Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 24: A Rock and a Hard Place)