“Maker of the world, forgive them! They have lived too long in shadow without your light to guide them. Be with your children now, O Maker.” Theo’s lips moved along with everyone else, but he didn’t speak the words. The Chant was supposed to be pure. It was supposed to be spoken out of the overflow of the heart.
His heart was overflowing, alright, but not with the love of the Maker, or devotion to Andraste. If he spoke what was in his heart right now he’d probably be struck by lightning.
He sat through the evening’s sermon, trying not to yawn or fidget with the nervous energy that built up after a day of riding and then being forced to sit still through the hours of sermons that followed. He glanced to the right, where his tent was; inside was his bow and quiver and a stack of sticks he’d gathered at the last water stop. He’d never be permitted target practice, but if he could at least just strip the bark…
“Amen,” his uncle Declan, seated to his left, said loudly, and Theo muttered “Amen” just as everyone started to get up and head toward the center of the camp for the evening meal. “Did you hear one word of that sermon?” Declan asked.
“Heard, yes. Listened, not particularly.” Theo couldn’t even try to look ashamed. “Why? Do they plan to quiz me once we reach the Conclave?” He turned to head for his tent, but his uncle grabbed him by the shoulder, strong fingers digging into him.
“Do you know how many people are envious of you right now?” Declan asked. “You will be in the presence of the Most Holy herself, at one of the most chaotic times in known history. Everything we know has been turned on end. The Most Holy has agreed to hear both templars and mages and make her decision on the future of both under Chantry rule. And you will be there.”
Of course Declan, and his other uncle, Cadan, would be in awe of their opportunity to attend the Conclave. Both had been in the templar order since they were teens. The third and fourth sons of the Trevelyans, both were expected to serve the Chantry: same as Theo, the youngest child and third son of this generation of Trevelyans. But Theo was no mage, nor was he in templar training, as his mother had forbidden it. He had nothing at stake in this venture, and as such, was miserable.
“You’re not going to be quizzed,” Declan said at last, releasing his grip on his nephew and sighing. “But the sermons are designed to help us all prepare ourselves for the Conclave: spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally.”
“Fine, I’ll listen better next time,” Theo said, but the words sounded hollow and elicited another sigh from his uncle. “I’m going back to my tent. You may want to set my guard early in case I try to escape,” he added, stalking back to his tent.
It was an unfair barb and he knew it, but he was so frustrated. If they just rode during the day, it would be one thing. But there were frequent stops, and at those stops the Revered Mothers went around blessing people and taking confession. Some had even expressed concerns for Theo’s health, as he always seemed to be ill during rest breaks. He was going to have to find a new excuse to avoid them. When they rode, very few people spoke, or at least not like friends on a trip or in a tavern might. There was a lot of quoting the Chant, and lively debates about it, and serious discussions about the events in the world at large since Kirkwall. He hadn’t grown up with the other Chantry brothers (most of whom were orphans or from middle class families), and no one seemed interested in talking with the Bann’s youngest son. And they didn’t ride much faster than a leisurely walk most of the time. He longed to spur his horse into a full gallop and just ride toward the horizon.
It was like the trip was being prolonged to torture him.
Also an unfair assessment, but he’d never been more unhappy in his life.
There was no running away, he’d known that much from the start. He didn’t have enough underworld knowledge to make it in any city underbelly. He looked like a rich man’s son who had no clue what he was doing, and unfortunately, that assessment was quite fair. But beyond that, his uncles rode close to him during the day. And the first night, Theo had gotten up to relieve himself in the middle of the night, only to find a watchman stationed close to his tent. He’d thought the man a perimeter guard until he felt the guard’s eyes on him, then heard his step in the bracken… then passed him as he headed back to his tent, pretending to keep watch.
His father couldn’t be arsed to care about him, and yet had taken great pains to instruct the Trevelyan convoy to keep Theo in line. If he felt tears, he wasn’t sure if they were from sadness or anger.
The next day was much the same, as they headed west toward Kirkwall. “I hear Kirkwall’s dangerous this time of year,” he told his uncle Cadan as they rode side by side.
Cadan laughed. “No one can accuse you of having no sense of humor,” he said. “As dangerous as Kirkwall may seem this time of year, the sea is far more dangerous.”
“Hence why we didn’t just sail from Ostwick.”
Cadan nodded. “That, and none of us really fancied the idea of being aboard a ship for at least a couple of weeks. Most of us Chantry sorts don’t have the legs for a calm sea, let alone the rough ones,” he added.
But that night’s sermon said what Theo’s uncle hadn’t been. “Our steps started from Ostwick, but our journey began in Kirkwall,” the Revered Mother said, a mournful tone in her voice. She bowed her head and an acolyte walked between the rows of travelers, swinging a censer. Theo tried to stifle a cough as the pungent incense hit his nose and mouth and sounded like a choking nug. “We pray for the repose of Elthina’s soul. We pray for the lives lost when the Chantry was destroyed.” Lots of mumbling around him. “We pray that the Maker will open our eyes and prepare our hearts to do the work of him and his Bride, blessed Andraste.”
This was a regular sight-seeing trip.
“Pilgrimage,” Cadan corrected him, when the Revered Mother shot a nasty glare in his direction later during dinner. “Why must you keep fighting this?” he asked. But he didn’t appear angry. Theo knew the expression well: he was frustrated, uncertain of how to deal with his stubborn nephew.
“This wasn’t my choice. I think I can fight as much as I’d like,” Theo told him.
Cadan sighed and set down his hunk of bread. “We don’t always get to choose, Theodane. The Maker chooses for us. And we can fight it and be miserable, or accept it and work to fit into His will.”
“Did the Revered Mother tell you to say that?” Theo asked. He pushed his bread around in the gloopy brown stew.
“Would it shock you to know that I truly believe that?” Cadan asked with a half-hearted grin. “Perhaps it was easier for me because Declan and I went into training around the same time. We were not so alone as you feel. But this is the way of things. There’s a certain freedom, or a peace that you achieve by knowing that you’ve submitted to the Maker and have pledged to do His work.”
Theo ran his hand through his hair and sighed. Intellectually, he knew what his uncle was saying. Emotionally, he couldn’t see or feel this as peaceful or free. “I’ll… at least think about what you’ve said,” he finally told Cadan, who was watching him intently in the firelight. “But it doesn’t help that Kirkwall is known as the City of Chains.”
Cadan sighed, but he still managed a smile. “You are so much like your father,” he said. “I know you don’t think so,” he called after Theo, who stood up and started to walk away. “But you’re both more stubborn than a herd of donkeys.”
“You’ve got the donkey part right when it comes to Father,” Theo muttered, so Cadan couldn’t hear.
Much as he didn’t want to admit it, Cadan’s pep talk had helped some. Theo realized that not even his older siblings had seen Kirkwall yet. If his parents had been to Kirkwall, it was before his birth. He would at least get to see more of the world than the narrow confines of Ostwick.
He knew they were getting close when they broke for camp earlier than usual, and the sermon was short. That night dinner was eaten quickly, and the rest of the evening soldiers and templars spent polishing their swords and armor. Grooms spent their time currying the dusty horses. Theo saw to his own horse, enjoying the methodical work of grooming his gelding. The horse whickered softly as he worked to detangle the mane, and scratched behind its ears. He moved on to the hoofpick, biting his lower lip as he dug clods of dirt out. By the time he was done his chestnut horse was softly gleaming in the setting sunlight, and Theo himself was filthy.
It was still relatively warm, and they’d made camp next to a creek. The camp was bustling with people preparing themselves to enter Kirkwall the next day, so no one noticed when he slipped off further downstream. He followed the creek around a bend, where it opened up into a pool with a rocky beach that was shielded by some brush and small trees.
Theo glanced around and tugged off his dirty clothing, and then waded into the middle of the pool as quickly as he could. It was colder than he expected, but being cold was better than anyone stumbling on him completely nude.
It was quiet here, with only the birds chirping the last of their songs for the day and the sound of the creek bubbling over the stones. The initial chill faded and the water felt good. Theo ducked below the surface. He opened his eyes. Beams of sunlight filtered through the clear water and danced on the stones. It was so quiet and peaceful down here, far more peaceful than any Chantry.
The peace was shattered when two feet entered the water, not far from where Theo was submerged. There was momentary panic as he realized that he couldn’t stay underwater forever, but had nowhere to hide if he surfaced.
Just shy of drowning, there was no way out of this other than coming up for air and being seen.
He blinked the water out of his eyes and pushed his hair off his forehead as he surfaced, just keeping his head and shoulders above water. “Oh! I saw the clothes, but thought someone had gone into the woods. I’m sorry!” It was one of the grooms. He’d stripped down to his smallclothes and was standing, up to his calves, in the water. He blushed, his sandy hair sticking up in spikes like a hedgepig. He was as embarrassed as Theo was, and Theo found it absolutely adorable.
“It’s okay,” Theo said, not quite meeting the groom’s eyes. He bit his lip and felt his cheeks grow warm. The water was cool, but there was still a strange, hot tingling in his groin that he wished he could ignore. “There’s plenty of room. I can just go over here…” He stepped backward and his foot slipped on a mucky rock. He spluttered as he tried to regain his footing, splashing the groom in the process.
“Hey! That’s cold!” the young man complained, but he was still smiling and had inched a little closer.
“What’s your name?” Theo asked him.
“Tristan.” He took another few steps forward. The water was up to his knees now. “And… Andraste’s arse, I’m so sorry, you’re the Bann’s son.”
Dammit. Theo sighed and shivered a little. “You can call me Theo. Besides, aren’t we all on this journey to serve the Maker? Doesn’t that make us all equal in His sight?” he asked ironically. He may have struggled with what he believed, but he’d had a good education and had an excellent memory.
Tristan finally broke into a grin. “When you put it that way, it makes sense.” He waded in until the water was over his hips, then sank down up to his shoulders at the same level as Theo. “Maker, but this feels good,” he said, closing his eyes. He ducked under the water for a moment and when he came back up, his hair spikes had flattened. He tossed something back to the shore and Theo realized that it was his smallclothes. “Wasn’t sure if I’d be stumbling on one of the sisters or maids,” Tristan explained. “Figured some modesty would be proper, right?”
“Right,” Theo agreed, though when he’d found the pool the thought hadn’t really crossed his mind.
“Though if I had stumbled upon one of them sisters…” Tristan winked and something gnawed at the pit of Theo’s stomach.
“Yeah, lucky it was just me,” he said, turning his back and scrubbing at his arms and shoulders. He didn’t want Tristan to see his face reddening with shame and dismay.
“I’m not disappointed,” Tristan said after a moment. “If it’s… not too bold to say.”
Butterflies fluttered in Theo’s stomach. The fluttering descended into his groin. “Um, not too bold at all,” he said, back still turned. His breathing came a little faster. He heard Tristan move toward him in the water. The currents swirled around his legs and backside and he splashed water on his face to cool himself down.
“You’re not built up like those templar types,” Tristan said, voice closer. “They get all muscly from all that sword swingin’ and shield bashin’. But you’re not all stringy like the brothers.”
“I’m not a brother,” Theo told him. What was he? He wasn’t quite an initiate, but not a full brother. Even in the Chantry he didn’t have a place. He stretched out his arms and craned his head to look behind him. Tristan’s eyes were on his back and shoulders. “But I’m probably the best damned archer you’ll ever meet.” He grinned.
“Gotta have some good aim to shoot,” Tristan said, matching Theo’s grin.
“Like this?” Theo cupped his hands just below the surface of the water and squeezed. A jet of water hit Tristan in the face.
“Oy! That wasn’t funny!” he cried, but his brown eyes were sparkling. Suddenly he swept his arm across the surface of the pool, sending a drenching wave over Theo’s head.
Theo splashed back. Tristan laughed and sent another wave of water his way. For a moment Theo forgot about the impending Conclave and the Kirkwall pilgrimage and the fact that he was simultaneously someone and no one, depending on what was convenient for people. He was Theo, having fun in the water.
The splashing stopped, and Tristan had disappeared. Theo looked around, but then felt a mighty tug on his ankles and he went under. He came up, coughing and gasping, to see a sodden Tristan laughing at him. “Not fair,” he said with a pout.
“Gonna do something about that, then?” Tristan stared him down and Theo’s gaze was drawn to the curve of his lips.
“Maybe?” he asked, leaning toward Tristan, his heart pounding in his chest and his hands tingling. He bit his lip. Tristan didn’t move--or he did, just a little, slightly closer.
“Ser Theodane!” Theo swore and slipped backward again, fumbling for his footing along the rocky bottom. His uncle’s squire Christopher stood on the bank, head turned away. “Your uncles request your presence. I’ve brought you clean and dry clothing,” he said, setting the bundle on the shore and walking a short distance away.
Theo sighed. Tristan turned away so he wouldn’t see Theo climb out of the water, and remained there until Theo was dressed. “Tristan, I--”
Tristan turned at last and smiled. “I know. This never happened.”
“That wasn’t what I meant--”
Tristan shrugged. “Doesn’t matter, does it? But all the same, thanks for sharing the spot.”
Theo sighed and turned to follow Christopher. For one moment he’d forgotten about all of this. For one moment he’d been free, and it felt wonderful.