Title: Old Roads: Quiet Foxes
Summary: Shadows chase a mage and her companions to the Circle of Magi. But when they arrive, they will find more trouble than they imagine... (post-game, Part 4 of "Old Roads", Cullen/Zevran/Amell.)
Spoilers: Oh yes. For everything. Probably including the Awakenings expansion, should it come out while I'm still on this story. (Anders looks promising!)
This story is the fourth Old Roads novella, and it will make little sense if you haven't read the first three stories, which are available on my profile. Same caveats also apply; the setting and I are off in the deep woods together, and we're both a little worse for wear at this point. (It's got sticks in its hair and its trousers have holes. I have a wild and wondering expression on my face and a note in my hand that says hon, you have a deadline on something else, what are you doing all the way out here?) Also, I have drawn inspiration and a couple of quotes from callalili's wonderful "The Sundered Sword" which you should all read before you read this chapter in particular.
That said, onward, and enjoy!
One: The Drowning Deep
The light from the dying fire threw strange, flickering shadows among the tall rocks that they camped between.
Fiann slept at his feet, curled tightly with her nose tucked beneath one hind leg. Next to him sat Jeseth, the largest of the Mabari that they traveled with. The dog sat with ears pricked towards the rocks and the farmland that lay beyond it, occasionally whuffing to himself. Everyone else slept; Cullen had volunteered to take strong watch tonight. It seemed that it was going to be a quiet night—unlike the six nights that had come before it.
Several weeks ago, when they were looking for darkspawn so that Jowan could complete the Joining, they'd had trouble finding any. That was, it appeared, because they had withdrawn and regrouped. The darkspawn were attacking farmholds south of Denerim, and for the last week their work as Grey Wardens had been twofold: to kill darkspawn, and to point frightened men and women to the local bann's castle after their houses were attacked and their fields fired. It was going to be a lean harvest in these parts, this year.
"It's not as bad as during the Blight, by a long shot," Kathil had said that afternoon, cleaning rotting blood off of her blade and grimacing. "But it's bad enough in its own way. I wish Leliana had come with us. Or I'd taken Alistair up on his offer to send people with us."
Cullen glanced over to where Kathil lay, her head on Zevran's chest and a blanket over them both. Beyond them, Jowan was rolled in his own blanket, a Mabari at his feet. On the other side of the fire, the Tranquil mage Shaw also slept, surrounded by the rest of the warhounds. Shadows distorted all of their faces, played strangely over Kathil's pale hair.
He had thought—hoped—that they would be to the Tower by now. The little bag he wore under his shirt was flat, empty of even the finest trace of lyrium dust. He could usually go a week between doses; he had recently been stretching it to a week and a half before the headaches and the itching would drive him to the pouch once more.
It had been fifteen days since his last dose.
He had said nothing. And he didn't even know why, except for the fact that the few times that the subject of his habit—addiction—had come up, the air had grown cold between him and Kathil. He'd thought that he could make his supply last until they reached the Tower. When he had survived the Joining, Warden-General Montclair had mentioned that the Wardens had a small supply of lyrium from the Templars, and were negotiating with the dwarven Assembly to get regular deliveries. "You are not the only full Templar we have ever welcomed into our ranks, and there will be more one day, surely," Montclair had said.
Only then they had gone to Waking Sea and Laurens had handed him over to Kathil and said we wash our hands of him. And even though he had taken up the task of guarding the mage with gratitude, there were still unfortunate things about being a Templar that evidently no mage liked to think about.
Such as the addiction that came with taking raw lyrium to strengthen his talent to seal the Veil.
The shadows among the rocks were twisting, here a fall of translucent hair, there the curve of a breast. The addiction was permanent, as far as Cullen knew. Those who tried to stop taking lyrium died. Which made it doubly stupid that he hadn't told Kathil, or even Zevran. But he hadn't wanted to have even a chance of Jowan knowing that he wasn't operating at full capacity, and he had thought they would be to the Tower before the debt came due. He would have talked to them there.
The shadows writhed.
Cullen closed his eyes.
For I walk in the shadow of the unbeliever, and quail in the hard wind of its wings. Cleave me to you, oh Maker! How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long must I sing with no answer?
There was heresy, and there was sin, and Cullen knew both.
Only now the demons had so much more to torment him with, if they came. (The outline of a breast or a hip, a slim ankle sliding over rough stone, and it was not real but closing his eyes didn't help.) He remembered. He remembered as he had not for years, since the First Enchanter had laid hands on his head and made it all go away, go away so he could survive and serve—
And what good has that service done you, knight? came a familiar voice that made his stomach roil and another part of him harden.
He was no longer a Templar. He was a Grey Warden, and the darkspawn taint burning in his blood should be enough to remind him of that.
Part of you always will be a Templar. And that part belongs to us, knight of the Tower.
This was a thing created in his mind. He was on the road, and the mage he loved and the elf he, well, enjoyed the company of (and if Cullen were honest with himself it was starting to feel a bit like more than that) were here. And Fiann, who was his, and who he belonged to in return.
You have seen what she does. What she is capable of. Her temptations are ever so much worse than yours, my boy. The words come at him, cooing, deceptively soft. And she tempts you in turn. Brings you down to her level. The voice became multitudes. It is all a lie, little Templar, sweet small thing, delicious thing. She uses you.
Cullen was sweating, and he was sure that there was a flicker of violet light around him, the beginnings of a cage. The others had not survived. He had lived Maker knew how long among their rotting bodies, a demon who wore his mage's face speaking to him, tempting him. His mouth was filled with ashes.
This is the closest I have ever come to knowing what it is to be holy, Kathil had said, once.
It was sin and heresy, and as he opened his eyes the writhing shadows reached out and claimed him.
At first, he was not certain why he had woken.
Zevran opened his eyes slightly, careful not to betray his waking. Kathil still slept against him. There was a low sound coming from near the fire—the grumbling growl of a warhound. A shadow moved in the camp.
On occasion, instinct served better than thought. Such as it was now, when the shadow he could only half-see moved abruptly, air whispering against steel. Zevran tensed his arms around his Grey Warden and rolled the two of them, the mage waking with a squeak. Beside them, where Kathil had been sleeping, a sword pierced the blankets and went into the hard ground beneath them.
Cullen swore, wrenched his sword free, and raised the blade again.
No you do not, my friend. I wondered if it would come to this.
He coiled himself and rose by driving his shoulder into the taller man's abdomen, knocking him off balance, and disarmed him in one motion. "You fool," he hissed as he flung away the Templar's overlong blade and stooped to retrieve one of his own. "What are you doing?"
"They must die, the mages, all of them—" Cullen's voice was thin and strained, and his shoulders were rounded as he cast around him, evidently looking for a weapon. He fisted one hand and then violently shook it outward, as if he were tossing seed on planting-day. "They must. Uldred—abominations, all of them—nobody has come, they are all around me, they are all dead!"
Behind him, Zevran heard a soft intake of breath, a shuffle as Kathil staggered. That was the cleansing Cullen had just used, then. "Ow. Dear Maker, this is as bad—no, worse—" Kathil's sleep-softened voice broke off. "Cullen, listen to me. It's not real. None of it is real. Remember?"
Zevran took a step forward, raising his sword. Between him and the Templar a four-footed shadow slipped, growling. Lorn's ears were flat against his head. Behind Cullen, Fiann was raising a fuss, her high-pitched puppy bark counterpoint to Lorn's snarl. Beyond the fire, Jowan's shape loomed, and Shaw among the Mabari.
Well, this is a pretty pickle, is it not?
Cullen took a step forward, halted. Some amount of sense had returned to his expression when Kathil spoke, but now it drained away, leaving behind it a wreckage that Zevran had seen a few times. He had seen that expression before on men older than Cullen, men locked away in dungeons, away from their brethren...and their supply of lyrium. The Templar looked at Zevran, and then at the Mabari who stood between them with his head lowered, but did not seem to see either of them.
It would be so easy to kill him. Though he was armored, Zevran had helped him put on that armor many a time, and he knew all of the places where a blade could slip in between metal plates. He was unarmed. An easy target, and possibly a necessary one. He could strike, and Cullen would be dead between one breath and the next.
His Grey Warden would never forgive him if he killed her Templar, and that thought alone stayed his hand.
That and he was a little unused to killing people he was fond of, these days.
At that moment, Cullen appeared to realize that he was empty-handed, and turned and ran into the darkness, disappearing between two tall rocks. Fiann followed with a confused yip. Lorn stayed where he was, relaxing only slightly, and watched the place where the Templar had vanished.
"That looked like—" Kathil started to say, and then stopped. Zevran turned to her, and saw that she was shaking her head. "Lyrium withdrawal. More than that, though. Cullen mentioned once that Irving cast a spell that took away most of the memories of what happened to him when the blood mages took over the Tower. He was...not in good shape, right afterwards. It looks like that spell failed. But why?"
Shaw cleared his throat. "It is known that persistent spells require a power source," he said in that monotone that all Tranquil spoke in. One of the Mabari looked up at him and whined, cocking its head. "In the case of the rite of Tranquility, it is the lyrium that is used to brand our foreheads. In the case of mages, it is their native connection to the Fade that is used."
"Lyrium," Kathil muttered. "And Templars are addicted. Irving must have bet on him being a good Templar and not stopping taking his medicine. And when he went into withdrawal, the spells on his memory unwove." She raked one hand through her hair, grimacing. "We're only two days from the Tower if we travel hard, but I can't justify leaving the rest of this darkspawn cell undealt with. Zevran, do you think you and Lorn could track down Cullen and bring him to the Tower? The rest of us would probably be only three or four days behind."
Zevran weighed the options. The Tranquil was useless in this case. Jowan, even if Zevran trusted him not to take advantage of a little temporary power over a Templar, was unlikely to be able to convince him to go anywhere—and equally unlikely to be able to talk the Tower into helping him. He knew better than to argue with Kathil about what she thought was her duty, and it was likely that the presence of any mage was going to unbalance Cullen even further.
It was him and the dog.
"I will go and retrieve our wayward Templar," he said. "Let me guess, you would like him in one piece, yes?"
"So would you," she said pointedly, raising an eyebrow. "Try not to kill him, Zev." She came up to him and pulled him close to her. He closed his eyes. She was shaking, just a little, and her body was taut as a drawn bow. She put her face against his neck and breathed in, and her breath tickled on his skin. After a moment, his Grey Warden stopped trembling, and he pressed a kiss to the top of her head.
He thought about suggesting that they forget the Templar, let him make his own way in the world. He was a Grey Warden; there was help available if he knew enough to ask.
But he was driven to madness by what the Chantry did to its men, cruel in its way as everything it did to mages. He would not ask.
So. Hunting him down it was.
"If you fall to these darkspawn because I am not here to guard your back, I will be very annoyed with you, no?" He kept his tone light.
She knew what he meant, and how he meant it; he could feel it in the way her body relaxed against his, her lips against his neck curving into a smile. "And don't let Cullen get the jump on you, or Lorn. I want you both in working order when I see you next. And tell the Tower that if they hurt Cullen, or let him come to harm, that I will tear down the place around them, stone by stone."
He did not doubt that she would.
There was much else that they did not say, might have said but for the knowledge that they were under the gazes of Jowan and Shaw, one suspicious and the other uninterested to the point of incomprehension. He tightened his arms around her and then let her go. The mage dropped to one knee and opened her arms. Lorn came to her, sitting down and shoving his head against her chest with a sigh. She spoke to the warhound in a voice almost too low to hear.
Zevran heard her say his own name, and Cullen's, and take care of both of them, Lorn and Cullen is ill, he might not welcome your company and to the Tower. The warhound whined, and glanced at Zevran. Nothing good ever came of being separated from his human, said the droop of his tail-stub and the urgent nudge of his nose against Kathil's chest. Nothing at all.
"I know," the mage murmured, and her head bent forward. The embers of the fire lent the scene a ruddy, sullen light, deepened shadows beneath her hands on the Mabari's dark fur. "But it is necessary."
The dog sighed, then swiped an enormous, wet tongue over Kathil's face. She squawked, then started laughing and stood, wiping her face with her hand. "I'll help you pack," she said. A few minutes later, they had kissed each other one final time, and Zevran and Lorn were heading into the darkness in the direction that Cullen had gone.
He would have sworn that the Templar had not gone far, that confused by darkness and madness he would move slowly, and stop quickly.
He could not have been more mistaken.
It was so strange to be alone.
Well, not alone. But though the Mabari were friendly, they were not Lorn. She forced herself to be polite to Shaw, but he was not company, as such. And Jowan—Jowan kept his mouth shut. Probably a good idea on his part.
But for four years, even chasing shadows out on the old roads, there had always been Lorn at least, and before that there had been their mismatched company. (And if she had to choose between apostates, she was starting to realize she would have preferred Morrigan's company over Jowan's. The witch had spent a lot of time being irritated with Kathil, but she'd never looked at her like she was disappointed.)
And before then there had been the Tower, and Jowan had been her best friend, and there had been the other mages.
She felt somewhat unclothed, without friends.
It was three days since Cullen had fled, and she thought that maybe she was never going to stop shaking. I should have seen it. Should have known something was going on—why didn't I ask? A simple question and I could have prevented this.
But it was more than that, more than the realization that she had failed her Templar. More than the knowledge that someday, that sword would not be wielded in madness but with grim and deliberate purpose, and on that day she would likely welcome the mercy should she have enough mind left to appreciate it.
More than all that it had been the look in his eyes, the same look that he had given her once through a wall of magic, out of his mind with days of torture. The look that said, you are my weakness, and my strength. The demons had tormented him, broken him again and again, and he had lived in part because he was stubborn as stone and in part because the demons had tasted his feelings for her and found them delicious.
Because she was a child of the Tower, she could still feel shame for what she had done to him.
But not regret. No. Never regret.
Down by two men and a warhound, they had to change their tactics with the darkspawn. They moved more slowly, stopped often to get their bearings. Being able to sense the darkspawn was all well and good, but that was a blade with two edges; if they were not paying attention to the first faint, sickening feelings of the enemy's presence, they could well alert more than they could handle at once. Jowan was good (more than good, and Kathil knew that necessity and pain had been the best teachers there), and the Mabari were a fearsome pack, but Tranquil did not fight, and Kathil was their only blade. She tended to serve as a deadly distraction, letting the warhounds and Jowan take out the darkspawn while their fire focused on her. But while Kathil was difficult to hit, it was not precisely impossible.
"This is why I like to have at least two people who know how to use a sword with me," she grumbled, fumbling one-handed with the buckle of her cuirass. A hurlock's blade had found its way under the light pauldron and into her shoulder, on the scarred side. The tingling feeling that was running down her arm and into the fingertips of her left hand told her that the blade had redamaged something that had been very hard to heal in the first place. What I would not give for Wynne to be here.
The buckle gave, and she shrugged out of the armor. The shirt was harder to deal with, but she got that off, too. The wound beneath was ragged and bleeding freely, cutting across a number of old scars, and she thought she could see bone covered with a wash of blood. It was going to have to be washed out before she healed it.
They had dropped their bags a ways distant from the afternoon's fight with the darkspawn; a tall maple offered shelter from the late summer sun that had grown abruptly fierce in the last few days. Shaw was seeing to the hurts of the warhounds, fortunately few today. Jowan was...
Where was Jowan?
It didn't matter. She undid the lace that secured one of her waterskins to her pack and used her teeth to pull out the cork. She hissed a breath through her teeth as she poured the water slowly over the wound. That was definitely bone exposed in there. "Sodding little hells," she muttered, closing her eyes and reaching for her power. "Why I never got Wynne to show me some of what she did—I had a sodding year and I never got around to it."
Because she had hoped that Wynne would always be around to tend her hurts. Because she had hoped if she'd still needed Wynne, death would leave her alone.
Don't think about it.
Shaw looked up. "If you need assistance, I may provide it," he said. "I can stitch wounds closed, and apply poultices. Such I have been trained for, to tend to the wounds of Mabari."
She experimentally flexed her hand. The tingling in her fingers grew briefly worse. "In a moment, maybe. There's a lot of deep old scar in here. Let's see what I can do with magic."
She put her fingertips on the edge of the wound, and concentrated. Ah, merciful Andraste, this is not good. The spell she had chosen was a simple one, and though the power pooled around the wound, the scar resisted healing. The good flesh in there tried to knit together and pulled apart again, yanked open by scar. She hissed again as the pain in her shoulder redoubled.
There was a hand on her good shoulder, and she flinched away. Jowan was standing there, looking concerned, returned from wherever he'd been gone to. "Do you need help?"
"I'm fine. I've taken wounds before, worse than this. A lot worse." She shrugged his hand off her shoulder and immediately regretted the motion.
"Probably not through that scar, though." He looked at her shoulder, and frowned. "Nasty, that. Archdemon?"
"Believe it or not, no." She saw the question in his eyes and shook her head. "Long story. Same critter that tried to tear my face off. I may have to just get Shaw to stitch it and wear a sling for a few weeks. Being temporarily one-handed isn't pleasant, but it's better than losing use of the arm permanently."
Jowan spread his hands. "Kathil. Just—let me try? I know you don't like my magic, but—"
She scowled, reminded uncomfortably of a certain Grey Warden and Templar attempting to refuse her efforts to heal him. He is a Grey Warden. Let him help. "Fine. Give it a try."
He sucked in his breath through his teeth and looked at her, apparently attempting to decide if her acquiescence was genuine. "All right. Sit over there. I'll get a few things." Kathil went to put her back against a tree, the bark scratching at her bare skin. She wore only a breastband, but if she'd ever had any modesty, it had been beaten out of her during the war.
Her fellow mage returned, going to one knee beside her. He spent a few minutes muttering to himself, a cadence to his voice that was almost familiar. She wondered who he was reminding her of right now, but the thought slipped away from her as he first tapped her elbow and then her fingertips, bringing the tingling feeling in both into sharp focus. "This is a mess," he said. "You're lucky you didn't lose the arm, you know."
"The Chasind who was taking care of me thought she might kill me if she tried to cut it off," Kathil said. Maker, that had not been a pleasant few months. "So she left it on and waited to see if I would die anyway."
"That I can see." His dark brows were drawn together in concentration. "Hold still. This is going to hurt, and badly."
That was all the warning she got before it felt like liquid fire poured into her shoulder and down into her fingertips. She clenched her hand into the grass beside her and ground her teeth, trying not to scream. Jowan was doing something with a paste from a pot, his fingers tugged at the wound in her shoulder, and her whole arm contracted violently, the muscles knotting and twisting.
The pain finally lessened, settled into a sullen burning, and her muscles began to relax. The world swam back into focus, and she wiped her good hand over her tear-filled eyes. "That's as much as I can do for the moment," Jowan said. He had bandages out, and was wrapping her shoulder securely. "I'll put it in a sling for tonight, you need to rest it. I can repeat that in the morning, if we have time."
There was a cold sweat on her skin, and she just breathed and let Jowan finish with the bandages. "You weren't joking when you said that was going to hurt."
"Messing with scars always does." He tucked one end of the bandage under the rest, then grabbed a large square of cloth and folded it in half, fashioning a sling. "But if you'd left it, you probably would lose more use of that arm than you already have."
"As it is, I'm not looking forward to fighting again tomorrow." Maker, these darkspawn. Didn't they have a hole to crawl back into? This wasn't a Blight; why were they being so sodding persistent? All she wanted to do was head to the Tower and make sure they were treating Cullen well, make sure that Zevran and Lorn were both alive and whole.
The duty that cannot be forsworn, she heard Duncan's voice in her mind.
Sod you, Duncan, she thought fiercely. You're dead.
And yet he had the right of it. She'd spent enough time in dereliction of the duty that had not died with the Archdemon. Right now, beating down this group of darkspawn that was less like a cell and more like a small army was more important than running after the three people she loved best in the world. Trust Zevran, and Lorn. They have never failed you before. They will not fail you now.
She realized that Jowan was looking at her strangely. And on another day, she would have cut him to shreds with only a word. Right now, though, she was tired and worried and Jowan had just finished being kind to her, and she didn't have enough energy to return that kindness with spite. Instead, she began to pull her boots off, tugging her legs free of metal and leather. Her fellow mage handed her a shirt. One of his own, not one of hers. At her raised eyebrow, he shrugged. "I didn't feel like digging through your pack," he said. "You all right?"
Sometimes, you just gotta grab your knickers in both hands and hoist yourself up, Oghren had told her once. No use moping and whining if there's nothin' you can do. "I will be. I'm just worried about Zev and Cullen and Lorn." Kathil pulled on the shirt, being careful of her left arm. The tingling had stopped, and the shoulder and arm seemed to be largely in working order—at least enough to let her get dressed. She saw Jowan open his mouth, then shut it again, and mutely offer the sling that he'd made. She pulled it over her head and settled her arm into it. He had a good eye; it fit nearly perfectly. "All right. What is it you want to say to me, Jowan? I know there's something."
He glanced over at Shaw, who had settled down with the Mabari pack and his back against a tree, to all evidence napping. "I just never thought you'd end up with one man, much less two."
"Me, neither." She stretched out her legs and wriggled her toes in her socks, enjoying the feeling of the sun drying the sweat out of them. There was not even the faintest feeling of darkspawn around them. "Funny things happen sometimes. I suppose if they let women be Tower Templars, I might have found myself getting attached to one of them. And Zevran is, well, Zevran. I never did claim not to like men, you know. I just fell in love with Sati first."
Now Jowan was looking...nervous. "Er...you do know that there are sometimes...consequences, when you're sleeping with men? Right?"
She rolled her eyes. "I'm aware. But we're mages. Those sorts of consequences don't usually happen to us. I did have a male lover for most of a year, during the war." She'd never told him the lie she'd told the Grey Wardens about how she'd survived the Archdemon's death. She was going to have to, at some stage, but today wasn't the day.
"Really. And not Zevran, from the sound of it." He gave her a speculative look, and she narrowed her eyes at him. This felt strangely familiar, like the ghost of a friendship raising its head between them. "Look, Kathil. I just..." He stopped, and took a breath. "There are certain things that blood tells me, especially when I'm healing someone. And this is too important not to tell you." He glanced over at Shaw again and saw that the Tranquil was still asleep. He lowered his voice. "Did you know that you're pregnant?"
She stared at Jowan, her mouth opening but no words coming out, shock washing over her.
It was as if she were standing on thin air above a yawning chasm, and the only reason that she was not falling was that somehow the world had not yet realized that she stood somewhere impossible.
Maker help me. What do I do now?
I am writing this one in between chapters of my other project, so updates will be slow. And I want to play the Awakening expansion pack before starting in on the last installment in this series; fortunately, we have a lot of plot to get through before Kathil and company get to Amaranthine. I have a lot of proverbial guns on the mantelpiece here, and I mean to fire all of them I can manage.
My thanks to everyone for being patient!