by R2s Muse
Disclaimer: The Dragon Age setting and its characters belong to Bioware. I'm just borrowing!
A/N: A new long fic started well before many DA: Inquisition details were known, Fool's Errand will follow what's now a slightly AU tale exploring why Cassandra thought Marian Hawke could stop the war and the plan for convincing her to do so.
Special shoutout to the Cullen Thread's Page 1000 celebration, especially since my idea for this story germinated almost three years ago on the old, old Cullen thread.
Extra special thanks to my awesome beta, meanieweenie! Cover art by the talented Chenria.
UPDATE: New illustration by JerHopp linked in my profile!
Chapter 1: Interrogation
The heavily armored men dragged him roughly down a long half-lit hallway. The surface of the ancient stone floor was uneven, having been worn down by the feet of countless slaves and prisoners. He didn't bother trying to keep his feet any longer, preferring to let the guards do the work and tax themselves. An empty victory in a war long lost.
The hallway ended at a heavy oaken door bound in iron and flanked by two sputtering torches. The firelight glinted off the swords of mercy on the guards' breastplates as one man banged on the door.
A clipped command answered them through the door. "Come."
The guards heaved open the door and pulled him into the darkened room, setting him on his feet at last while his leg irons clanked in protest. The room was shrouded in shadows and lit only by a bright spot of light trained on an empty chair.
A woman with short, dark hair stood next to the chair with her feet planted and her arms crossed. The black eye and white sunburst on her dark armor told him almost everything he might care to know, were he to care. Seeker of Truth. Cassandra Pentaghast, it dimly occurred to him. Cool and calm as porcelain, her heart-shaped face betrayed no emotion. Her dark eyes were almost black in the dim lighting as they raked him over.
Of course, he knew what she saw and didn't wonder at the faint disgust that curled her lip for a moment. The bright light made the gaunt hollows even more pronounced under his eyes and where his collarbone stood out from the frayed neckline of his ragged tunic. An unkempt reddish beard obscured his face and his hair fell in tangled red-gold curls to his shoulders. His lean muscles now seemed stretched over his broad frame, making him look undernourished and wiry inside the ill-fitting rags he wore. Nevertheless, he stood tall, unbowed after his years of detention.
"Remove his restraints. Then leave us," she told the guards.
They quickly complied, unlocking the chains from his ankles and wrists and then quietly shutting the door behind them.
"Sit down," she said.
Out of habit, he focused on a neutral spot above her head where the dust motes hung in the air. The bright light drew iridescent blue highlights in her shiny black hair, almost like a raven's wing. He couldn't remember the last time he saw a raven.
When he didn't comply, she repeated, "Sit down, please." The please actually caught his attention as little did anymore. Her face remained expressionless, but there was a telltale pause before the word. Cassandra Pentaghast must not use the word often.
He waited and did nothing. Another tiny, yet meaningless, insurrection. The only kind left to him.
He had to resist the urge to massage some normal feeling back into his wrists
She studied him coolly and finally, a flicker of annoyance passed across her face, revealing her calm expression to be only a facade. "Fine. You may stand as you wish. But, I had hoped to have a more relaxed conversation this time, Cullen."
The former Knight-Captain felt a distant flutter of surprise that her informal address could still rankle after all this time. Stripped of his rank, his standing, his freedom, all he had left was his name, such as it was. He continued to ignore the proffered chair.
"So," she started in an agreeable voice. "I have gained more information about the strange happenings here in Kirkwall since our last interview. Ultimately, it seems that your account of Meredith's madness was accurate. Her eccentricities were indeed caused by the rogue magic in that lyrium idol recovered from the Deep Roads."
She paused for a moment, but he still said nothing.
"Frankly, your story of statues coming to life in service to a flying, glowing abomination was too fantastical to be believed over the cold hard facts that you had turned on your superior officer in support of a known agitator, this Champion of Kirkwall. And, yet, it appears that such peculiar occurrences have been afoot in Kirkwall for many years now.
"The part I still do not understand, however, is how the Champion escaped." She paused again, watching him carefully. He still did not respond, although a small muscle in his jaw began to twitch involuntarily.
"I understand that your orders were to arrest her, and yet following the battle, you instructed your men to allow her and her companions to leave. Can you not shed more light on this for us?" she said in a bright reasonable voice that belied the hard intensity of her eyes.
Finally, Cullen's eyes shifted briefly to her face, considering what sort of response he could give. The silence lengthened.
Then, as if out of nowhere, a woman with short red hair stepped out of the shadowed corner of the room where presumably she'd been standing all along. Only Cullen's long years of training stopped him from physically starting at her sudden appearance. Her blue eyes were fringed with dark eyelashes and her face might have been described as sweet if it weren't for the studied lack of emotion she displayed. He felt a flicker of recognition but couldn't immediately place her.
She gave a brief, friendly smile that did not reach her eyes and said in a strong Orlesian accent, "Oh, but we now know a bit more than this, no? Was it not true that you were, in fact, her friend? It is this friendship we are here to discuss today."
The woman stepped further into the light. She was dressed in dark travel leathers, a contrast from Cassandra's heavy armor. The Orlesian approached him and motioned to the chair. "You will not sit?"
When he merely stared at her, she made a moue of disappointment and then sat down herself. She lounged back in the chair, giving the appearance that she was relaxed even though her eyes were cautious and alert.
"I know that you have not been rewarded for your truths over these past three years, but I would like for you think of this as your chance to set the record straight." The red-headed woman smiled again, obviously thinking that she would set him at ease with this cold upturn of her lips.
He remained silent, not seeing any benefit to rehashing the old memories, the veracity of which even he himself had begun to question over the years.
"If we find what we seek, we may even be able to . . . modify your sentence." Cassandra said grudgingly.
Cullen's eyes darted between the two women and his tongue wet his dry and cracked lips. "What exactly do you want to know?" he finally asked, his voice creaking from lack of use.
"How well did you really know Hawke? What were your interactions like? Did she trust you?" Cassandra asked.
Cullen's eyes flashed as he was assailed by an rogue surge of long-forgotten emotion. He quickly suppressed it and his brow furrowed a bit as he puzzled over this strange line of questioning. He had considered Hawke a friend, but that was long ago. They had never been close. They had worked together several times over the years and he had always thought very highly of her. He told them as much. They interrupted him from time to time with questions about the details of some of his dealings with the Champion, and he answered to the best of his ability, his response short and clipped, almost to the point of being rude. Not that it mattered.
Oddly, most of their questions focused on his personal interactions with Hawke, which was starting to make him a bit uncomfortable. He had no idea what Hawke actually thought of him personally. He hadn't interacted with her socially, given her status as both the Champion and a noble, but he could vaguely remember a time when once he would have liked to. However, he kept these traitorous thoughts to himself.
"Hawke had earned my respect, and Meredith was subverting the true purpose of the Order. That was why I supported the Champion. And, why I ultimately let her go. At the time, it was the right thing to do." His tone was neutral, his words curt.
"But, would you say she trusted you?" Cassandra repeated, obviously not getting the answers she was looking for.
"Honestly, I don't know. We fought on the same side on several occasions and the battlefield breeds its own brand of trust." Cullen wasn't sure what else he could say.
Cassandra seemed to consider his response for moment, so the other woman got to her feet and took over the questioning. "What were your interactions with her companions?"
Cullen shrugged. "I believe I've met some of them."
The room fell silent as both women stood with arms crossed and watched him. In another life, he might have fidgeted under the scrutiny, but he was now accustomed to waiting, patiently and incuriously. After three years of sitting in a prison cell, with no hope of release, he could easily wait them out 'til they deigned to continue questioning him. What were a few minutes when he'd gone weeks without saying a single word?
However, he realized he actually was curious now, an unfamiliar feeling now that his days merely blended into one another. Discomfited, he decided instead to act on his curiosity.
"So, do you now believe I acted in the right against Meredith?" he asked dully, still not able to summon up any real hope.
"From what I have learned from the dwarf Varric, indeed, it seems your actions were warranted in some sense. Although, you still were insubordinate," Cassandra said.
"So, does this mean I might have my sentence reduced? Or, even be released?" He heard his voice break as he tried to beat back the hope that threatened to burst through.
The women exchanged a glance and then nodded to each other over some private understanding.
"Let us not get ahead of ourselves," Cassandra said.
The red-headed Orlesian added, "The Maker and the Divine have plans for you."
Cullen's foolish spark of hope was quashed, his fantasies of freedom slipping away again. Of course, they wanted something.
The Orlesian started to pace slowly before him. "You know, the world has changed since you were imprisoned. Perhaps you've heard the murmurings. Thedas is at war. The Circle of Magi is no more, with the mages having finally declared their freedom. The templars now hunt and destroy them, while the mages no longer scruple to use their power to fight back. There have been significant casualties on both sides as well as those caught in the cross-fire. Divine Justinia seeks a peaceable solution, before the war consumes us all."
"Then why not simply order the templars to quit the field?"
The Orlesian stopped her pacing, becoming very still except for the agitated flaring of her nostrils. "The Order no longer recognizes Chantry authority. They have broken the Nevarran Accord."
That revelation almost shocked him. That explains a few things. He had noticed fewer templars around the Gallows, fewer people he recognized, more guardsmen from the city. More fear. Now he could see why they were so desperate.
Cassandra stepped in. "We need someone from outside the conflict. Someone respected by both sides who can make them listen. Who can convince them to come to the peace table and find a better way for Thedas. We need the Champion. However, she has been missing these three years since she left Kirkwall that night. Vanished without a trace. We want you to find her. Find her and convince her to help stop this madness."
Silence fell in the room once again, although Cassandra's words still rang in Cullen's ears. Such a mission obviously meant leaving his cell. Leaving the Gallows and Kirkwall. Leaving behind his shame, if that were even possible. But did it really mean freedom?
The women watched his reaction closely, still careful to reveal little themselves. Again, they waited for him to speak.
"Why?" he said at last.
Cassandra still watched him impassively, but the Orlesian's face crinkled up in confusion at his question. "Why save Thedas? Why bring us back from the brink of chaos?" the red-head asked.
Then Cassandra smirked. "Why should you do this? Cullen, do this, and you will earn the Divine's blessing and forgiveness. Do this, and you may regain your templar title and commission."
Now he was truly curious and he didn't like it. The Seeker continued to smirk at him, knowing she now had his full attention. He studied the two women, hating that they had piqued his interest in their schemes. Schemes that had nothing to do with him. What did he care if the world destroyed itself?
He felt a faint twinge of guilt at this thought, like he was exercising a muscle he had not used in too long. But, it wasn't enough to make him want to get involved in this nonsense. On the other hand, he wasn't yet sure what he'd be willing to do for freedom. It had been too long since he'd considered it. He decided that it couldn't hurt to know more first.
He licked his lips nervously again. "What makes you think I could find her?"
The women shared another long look. "Let's just say, we have reason to believe that will be the easy part," the Orlesian said with a little smile.
"And, why would she agree?"
Cassandra snorted. "A hero of her caliber, ignoring such an opportunity to make a difference in the world? She has taken on far less noble missions."
Something still didn't quite add up. If this was such an easy task, then why did they need him? "This is hardly worth my freedom. What else?" he asked, suspicion coloring his question.
"She will need help in this task," Cassandra replied. "You will join her. Help her if you can."
"We need someone on the inside," the Orlesian added. "Someone to accompany her. Help direct her. Someone who can be the eyes and ears of the Divine without alerting anyone to our direct involvement."
His eyes narrowed as he started to realize what they really expected from him. "You want me to spy on her."
"Spy is such a crude word, don't you think? Perhaps you should think of yourself as her guide. No one can interfere with the success of this mission. Not even the Champion herself. The Chantry will do whatever is necessary to end the war. You will be our divine instrument." The Orlesian's voice rang out with these words, like she truly believed they would be doing the Maker's work.
He snorted. Divine instrument was a nice way of saying that, whatever his sins during this mission—and they clearly would be many—he would ultimately be forgiven. And, probably posthumously. "So, you want me to do your dirty work. Why can't the Divine intervene directly?"
The guarded look crept into the Orlesian's eyes again. "There are rumors afoot that the Divine has developed a sympathy for the mages. This is why we need an outsider. The negotiations will be delicate and we must avoid such slanderous perceptions tilting the balance." Despite the woman's intimation of slander, her reaction nevertheless suggested that these were more than just rumors. If the Divine really had sided with the mages against the templars, well then the world truly had changed while he'd been away.
"You really expect her to stop a war. One woman." It wasn't really a question, but it betrayed his growing interest.
"It can be astonishing what one woman can accomplish. Take the Hero of Ferelden, for example. Whom I believe you know?" The red-haired woman studied him intently as she said this, sparking another memory, the feeling that they'd met before, but he still couldn't place her. Yes, he had known Solona Amell, but that was another lifetime. He wasn't about to discuss her with these women. He looked more carefully at the Orlesian, finally realizing that she was older than her delicate features suggested upon first glance. And, more cunning. Who was she in all of this?
Acknowledging his silence with a tilt of her head, the woman continued. "Anyway, Hawke will not be alone. She will have you, no? You are our insurance policy against failure." The Orlesian gave him another mechanical smile.
Cullen didn't like the way she said the word failure. "What if the war can't be stopped? The mages are unlikely to give back such hard-won freedom. This is a fool's errand."
"You had better hope that is not the case. Your future, indeed all of our futures, depend on it."
Cassandra added, "Ensure the mission's success, and you will earn you reward. Your reinstatement. Your permanent freedom."
He almost smiled at the irony in her words. Templars were never truly free. Nevertheless, it had to be better than what he had now. He supposed anything was. He couldn't think just yet about the real implications of such a future. Only that it would get him outside again. Dying in prison or beneath the open sky? That choice was clear.
"So will you do this? For the Chantry? For Thedas?" the Orlesian asked.
He nodded slowly but knew that he did it for himself alone. "I will."
"Good. Cassandra will give you whatever details and resources you might need. When next we meet, in this life or the next, may we all be at peace." She then turned on her heel and headed to the door.
As her hand fell on the latch, Cullen was surprised to hear himself ask, "Who are you?"
She paused then looked at him over her shoulder. "I am Sister Nightingale, and I will be watching." Then she was gone.
Varric had to squint into the bright afternoon sunlight after the dimness of Cassandra's makeshift base at the Gallows. Her latest invitation had been significantly more gentile than the first, seeming to actually allow him the option of refusing her request for an interview this time. She'd even said please. So he had come to the Gallows and listened to her renewed entreaties for help in finding the Champion. His answers, however, had remained the same as during his initial interrogation two days before: he couldn't help the Seeker.
While his eyes adjusted, he looked around the Gallows' courtyard, unconsciously doing his usual threat assessment. Standing somewhat forlornly in the middle of the courtyard was someone he hardly recognized, despite the fact that the man had once been a familiar sight out here.
Varric approached him, eyes still trying to confirm what his head had trouble acknowledging. "Cullen?" Varric was shocked at the man's changed appearance. Once a shining testament to templar perfection and tidiness, Cullen was now a hollow, grimy mess. Thin and gaunt, he was wearing an ill-fitting, mismatched set of clothes, but no armor. Thrust without scabbard through his old, worn belt was a dull-looking sword that was badly in need of sharpening. It was also clear that it had been some time since he'd encountered a razor. Or a bath. Varric gave a low whistle. "Andraste's ass, what hole did they drop you in?"
Cullen looked back at the Gallows with hooded, expressionless eyes. "I don't think you can see it from here," he said dully.
Varric wasn't sure if the man was intending to make a joke or not. "By the Stone, what did they do to you? You haven't been in prison this entire time, have you?"
Cullen's eyes squinted up to the sky briefly. "They let me out in the yard every month or two." His voice was still inflectionless but much rougher than Varric remembered.
Varric was horrified as he tried to imagine what the man had been through. "Was this all because of what happened with Meredith?"
"It seems so."
"I . . . You know, words don't often fail me, Templar, but today they do."
Something flashed deep in Cullen's eyes. "Fail indeed, dwarf. I am no longer a templar."
"Ah, my mistake." He gave another low whistle. "Cullen, you look like you've been chewed up and spat from the Abyss itself. Did they just let you go?"
"It seems they are now in possession of the truth about why Meredith really died. I am . . . free . . . to go." Cullen suddenly sounded so lost, his face creased in confusion, that Varric had a flash of guilt. But then, who could ever have guessed that setting the record straight with Cassandra would have resulted in the man being set adrift in this way?
"Look, where are you headed?" Varric asked.
In response, the man looked out across the harbor surrounding the Gallows, eyes focused on the horizon, and did not immediately answer. Varric made some quick decisions.
"All right, you're coming with me. First we'll get you cleaned up and travel ready. Then, we're heading out of town."
Cullen frowned. "Where to?"
"I'm meeting some old friends." Varric clapped him on the shoulder. "And, we don't want to be any later than we already are, so let's get going."
Sister Nightingale smiled. She and Cassandra stood side by side at the window, watching the former templar and the dwarf talk in the courtyard below.
"I hope you know what you're doing, Leliana," Cassandra said.
"Trust me," Leliana said. "The dwarf was lying. He knows exactly where the Champion is. He will now want to alert her. And, Cullen has nowhere else to go. The dwarf will lead him right to her."
"But do you think Cullen can do everything that needs to be done?" Cassandra was frowning down at their divine instrument.
"Oh yes. You just need to have faith." She smiled as the dwarf clapped the taller man on the arm and started to walk away. After a long look around the Gallows courtyard, Cullen turned to follow.
Without taking her eyes of them, Leliana added, "I met him briefly in Ferelden once, you know. I've seen the depth of his fear, his capacity for hate." She looked over at Cassandra. "Did you not see his eyes when we first mentioned the woman Hawke? She is responsible for his years of incarceration. He befriended her, supported her against Meredith, and in return, he was punished while she left Kirkwall without a backward glance." She looked down again at the mismatched pair as they disappeared out the portcullis to the harbor. "When the need arises, I don't think he would have a moment's hesitation in betraying her."
A/N2: Chapter 2: The Taste of Freedom will be posted within the week or so, maybe sooner, where we'll get to see how Cullen adjusts to the outside world again. I hope to keep updating this on about a weekly basis. Thanks so much for reading!
UPDATE: Chapter 2 still coming soon... once its illustration is done. tee hee heee!