The boy collapses into ash.
It happens so fast that Dorian barely sees it. They burst into the room in time to see the demon rear up, the firelight throwing zigzag silhouettes of its claws over the walls. Then there’s a new source of fire in the room, fierce and red, and the Herald lurches forward with a cry of ‘Connor!’ and then –
His outstretched hand snatches at dust. Connor disintegrates, taking the demon with him, and everything is quiet.
Dorian swallows. His throat is dry, and it’s nothing to do with the heat from the glowing lyrium. Glancing at his companions, he sees that Leliana’s withered face is turned towards the floor. The dwarf – Varric, Dorian thinks Trevelyan called him – whispers, ‘Shit.’ The bearded Warden shakes his head and mutters, ‘Poor bloody kid.’
And Trevelyan kneels on the floor in Connor’s ashes. He says nothing. He only reaches forward, very slowly, and runs his fingertips through the grey dust.
The silence lingers for a few heartbeats before Leliana jerks her head towards the door. ‘Come on. We must keep moving.’
Trevelyan doesn’t move. Doesn’t lift his head, doesn’t turn around. And two words break from him. ‘I can’t.’
‘You can. You will.’ Leliana half snarls it. ‘You are the one who said you could put this world right. You are the one who said it was an accident, that it wasn’t real. Stand up and prove it.’
Varric looks at her, and even behind the lyrium clouding his features, Dorian sees him frown. He lifts one hand and makes an appeasing gesture – and Leliana, to her credit, lets out a sharp huff, but says no more.
Trevelyan keeps kneeling. Then the silence and stillness are broken as his shoulders shake, and he lets out a single, ragged sob.
The Warden – Blackwall or some utterly Southern name like that – moves as if to step forward, then stops, and grunts. He glances at Varric, and then at Dorian, as if willing one of them to offer the comforting words he doesn’t seem to be able to utter. Or maybe he wants to put a comforting hand on Trevelyan’s shoulder, but knows he can’t. Not with the lyrium clotting his flesh.
Dorian breathes in and takes a step forward. He’s not exactly skilled at this comforting business, but they need Trevelyan in working order, so he has to try. He sticks his hands into the pockets of his robes, rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet for a moment, and says, ‘You couldn’t have done anything to save him.’ And then, on a whim, adds, ‘Levyn.’
The Herald stops trembling. His hands, still resting in the ash, clench into fists.
‘That’s not my name,’ he says.
The words are barely more than a whisper, but in the silent room, they ring out as loudly as that demon’s roar. Dorian frowns, and again, he shoots looks at the others. Leliana is staring, her expression steely. Varric’s lips part a little. Blackwall has gone very still, and his fingers have strayed to the griffon insignia on his armour.
‘I can’t do this. I can’t save Redcliffe. I’m not – I don’t deserve – ’ The words dissolve into a muddle of gasps. ‘You – all of you, here, trusting me to fix it – and I can’t. I’ll just mess it all up again. It’s all I ever do. I try to help and I try to get things right and it always – always –’
He throws his hands up to his face, clasps them over his mouth, and lets out a few sharp, breathless sobs.
Varric edges forward. ‘Hey, Disaster, listen –‘
The sound of the nickname just seems to make the Herald sob louder. He shudders, and finally brings his hands away from his face.
‘I’ve been here before,’ he says. ‘I’ve ruined Connor’s life before. I was here ten years ago and I gave him nightmares that’ll never go away, and he thinks – he thought – he’s got Redcliffe’s blood on his hands, but he hasn’t. I have. It was my fault. Everyone who died here – everyone mourning a wife or a husband or a parent or a child or a sibling, it’s because of me, because I didn’t know what I was doing and I – I should have known better and – and now Connor. I almost killed his father, and now I’ve killed him.’
Leliana still stares at him, impassive. Dorian looks between Varric and Blackwall, hoping that one of them might have some idea of what the Herald’s talking about. He didn't research the history of all Ferelden's backwater villages before he came here, after all; he was rather preoccupied with the small matter of stopping his former mentor from ripping time apart.
It’s Blackwall who finally speaks. ‘You mean, during the Blight… I’ve heard stories. The boy tore open the Veil, and demons attacked the town –’
‘He tore it open because he wanted to save his father. Like that magister wants to save his son. I suppose that’s all it takes for Redcliffe to be put through horrors – father and sons who love each other, and a stupid mage floundering in between.’
With one hand, he snatches up his staff – not to do anything with it, apparently, just to have something to hold on to. ‘I – I poisoned the arl. That’s why Connor made a deal with a demon, to save him. That’s why all those people died. And I poisoned the arl because Teryn Loghain’s men told me I had to. And I listened to them because they saved me from the Templars, and I was scared and starving, and I knew I’d be made Tranquil if they took me back to the Circle. And I ran from the Circle because they were going to make me Tranquil. And they were going to make me Tranquil because there were rumours that I’d been using blood magic. And there were rumours about me using blood magic because it was true.’
He whirls around, scattering dust, and thrusts out his marked hand. ‘You can’t see the scars, can you? From where I cut open my skin to use the blood magic. This – this thing covers them up, like it never happened, and all anyone sees is the magic that’s making people call me the Herald of Andraste. They don’t see the scars. They don’t know who I really am. Andraste would never choose me, after everything I’ve done – haven’t you listened to the Chant of Light?’
His arms wrap around his staff, and he hugs the weapon against his chest. ‘Foul and corrupt are they who have taken His gift and turned it against His children. They shall be named Maleficar, accursed ones. They shall find no rest in this world or beyond. And I haven’t. Why should I?’
Leliana opens her mouth to speak, but Blackwall beats her to it. ‘I… is there a Levyn Trevelyan? A real one?’
This meets with a short, bitter laugh. ‘No. I invented him. After I ran.’ He lifts his head, meeting the Warden’s eyes. ‘One of your people fixed my mess. A Warden. The Warden. He told me to run while I could, so I’d be safe. He said he didn’t want the Templars to take me again. But he - he knew me, he knew that if he let me try to help I’d just make it worse. Maybe that’s the real reason why he told me to leave.’
‘You knew him?’ Dorian has a feeling it’s not only the cloying lyrium that makes Blackwall’s voice hoarse. ‘You knew the Hero of Ferelden?’
‘I knew him. I betrayed him.’ He lifts one arm, brushes aggressively at his eyes with his sleeve. ‘Firion Surana was my best friend. He looked out for me since we were six years old. I tricked him into helping me escape and then I left him behind for the Templars to punish. He found me in the dungeons, and then he let me go. He shouldn’t have let me go.’
He looks between them. Almost defiantly. ‘You see? That’s who I am. You know.’ He flings these last words at Leliana, who’s still standing, arms folded, saying nothing. ‘You recognised me from almost the moment you saw in Haven. Why did you let me stay? Why trust me with any of this, when you know what I’ve done, what I do to the people who trust me? Firion trusted me. And Lily trusted me. And Connor trusted me. And look what I did to them. Why did any of you ever trust me? I’ll just make it worse. I always make it worse.’
At last, he falls silent. His lips still move, shaping what Dorian thinks are the words ‘I’m sorry,’ again and again, but no sound comes out.
For a moment, nobody speaks. Then Leliana beats the end of her bow against the ground. ‘Stand up.’
The Herald looks at her as if he hasn’t even registered what she said.
‘Stand up,’ Leliana says – and, to Dorian’s amazement, strides over to him and holds out her hand.
She’s Blighted, but not lyrium-poisoned, so Dorian doesn’t move to stop the Herald as he places his hand in hers and lets her pull him to his feet. He stands there, still staring at the floor, staff hanging loosely from one hand.
‘Firion once told me,’ Leliana says, and while her voice is still full of steel, it might just be steel that’s a little blunter than before. ‘Evil doesn’t worry about not being good. You have blundered. You have caused suffering because of your short-sightedness, and because you did not know all that was going on. I have done the same. Maybe everyone here has done the same. And now you have a choice. You can let your guilt crush you, and kneel in the ashes of the things you burned forever. Or you can stand up and fight to make amends for what you have done. And if you are good enough to feel guilt, you have a duty to make amends.’ She waves her hand at the place where Connor vanished in flame. ‘You told me this world could be undone. If that’s the truth, that boy can be saved. So save him.’
The Herald doesn’t look up, doesn’t meet her eyes. But he nods.
‘Firion trusted you.’ Leliana’s voice is – well, it’s certainly not gentle, but it no longer sounds like a snarl. ‘He cared about you, even after everything. You owe it to him to be someone he would be proud of. You owe it to yourself.’
She steps back and marches towards the door. The Herald still doesn’t move.
‘Come on,’ she snaps.
He still doesn’t move – but Blackwall does. A half-step towards the Herald, a restless clasp of his hands together.
‘I know what it is to have blood on your hands,’ he says, slowly, as if he’s picking every word with utmost precision. That’s more than Dorian expected from someone who could have a picture of himself in a dictionary under the words Southern lummox. ‘What you did… it wasn’t out of greed. You didn’t mean to hurt anyone. That’s more than… other people can say.’ He closes his eyes, and his fists clench for a moment at his sides. ‘Even to tell us the truth takes courage that most don’t have. Back when we knew you, we trusted you for what you did, not who you were. And I – I trust you to fix this. I thought – the world was dying and you’d been dead a year and then – you appeared. That’s a fucking miracle if I’ve ever seen one.’
The Herald swallows, and finally lifts his head.
‘He’s right.’ Even with red shards pierced through his skin in a dozen places, the dwarf seems to have it in him to grin. ‘I’ve known people who’ve caused just as much chaos as you, Disaster. Everyone’s got shit they hide. Everyone’s got blood on them. And some of them don’t regret it. It’s been a long time since I got thrown into that cell, and I - I feel like I’ve had this poison in my head forever. It's... it's hard to think about anything that happened before. But… I remember that you tried. Even if you messed up a lot, you tried. Heroes like that… they’re the best kind.’
Something tugs at the Herald’s mouth that might just be a smile.
It’s Dorian’s turn, isn’t it? He searches for words, comforting or moving things that might be of some use, and finds nothing. So instead he just smiles and says, ‘And if it helps, I have complete faith in you. You’re a rather satisfactory mage. You know, for a Southerner.’
And the Herald laughs. It’s just one single, twisted gasp, and it only lasts a second. But then he straightens up, relaxes his lifeline-grip on his staff a little, and draws in a breath.
He doesn’t say anything. Perhaps his lips shape words, and Dorian thinks they might be, ‘No more running.’ But aside from that, all he does is to look at them all in turn, do his best to smile at each one of them, and walk towards the door. He’s still shaking a little, and his face is still haunted, but his stride doesn’t slow.
They leave the room together, and none of them says a word about the Herald’s outburst. And in the end, it would have been wasted breath if they had. Blackwall and Varric march out together, one sword and one crossbow against a tide of demons, even though the Herald begs them – no, please, no one else should die because of me. Leliana stands firm, their last line of defence, arrows singing out until suddenly they’re not, but Dorian grabs the Herald before he can run back to her and shoves him through the whirlpool of writhing green –
And then it’s as if his breakdown never happened. Blackwall and Varric are there in the throne room, whole, well, and completely ignorant of their Herald’s secret. They’ve forgotten completely – or rather, they never even knew about it at all.
Dorian, though… he remembers, even though technically he never heard it either. So he understands why the Herald stares at the ground and shuffles from foot to foot when the King decides to pop up. King Alistair, thankfully, is less observant than Leliana, and doesn’t seem to associate the nervous mage trying very hard to sink into the revolting Fereldan carpet with the man he and his fellow Warden once sent running from Redcliffe a decade ago.
But Dorian remembers, so he understands why the Herald doesn’t look at Alexius with any fury or hatred. He understands why the Herald keeps glancing at Varric and Blackwall on the journey home, as if to make certain they’re still there. He understands why, once they’re back in that charming little rustic ball of ice that masquerades as a village, the Herald asks for some time alone before he gets to work on the Breach, and trudges off towards the tavern, alone.
So Dorian follows. He’s rather in need of a drink himself, to tell the truth. It’s been a long, interesting day.
He finds the Herald in a corner, staring at a tankard without making any effort to drink from it. When Dorian slides into the seat across from him, he looks away.
‘You’re lucky to have been raised on this swill,’ Dorian remarks. ‘It means you don't know what you're missing. If you want to increase morale in your Inquisition, I’d recommend some more fashionable uniforms first, and then proper beverages are next on the list.’
This makes the Herald’s mouth twitch ever so slightly.
‘So,’ Dorian says. He takes a long sip from his ale (he isn’t going to insult his tongue by bringing it anywhere near the monstrosities that the Fereldans call wine), and shoots Trevelyan-who-isn’t-Trevelyan a smile. ‘How are you bearing up? It’s not every day that you live through an entire year in under twenty-four hours.’
The Herald looks down. ‘I’m trying not to think about it.’
‘That’s what the drinks are for.’
Not-Trevelyan gives Dorian another half-smile, and lifts his tankard to his lips.
‘They don’t know,’ he says, as he sets it down. ‘Leliana knows, but Varric and Blackwall – it’s like they never heard any of it. I suppose they didn’t.’ He swallows. ‘I should tell them. But they don’t want me, they want Levyn. If they knew who I am – what I was, what I did – they’d send me away. Or maybe send me back to Redcliffe, so Arl Teagan can have me executed. That’s what should have happened ten years ago. I would have…’
He sighs. ‘I would have accepted that. Or if they’d sent me back to the Circle and I’d been made Tranquil, I would have accepted that too.’
A sick feeling twists around Dorian’s insides. 'You can’t be serious, surely. You'd lie down and let yourself become... I know your southern Templars tell you that's what you deserve if you make the slighest mistake, but -’
‘Fighting them only ever made things worse. That was why I turned to blood magic. I thought I was going to be made Tranquil.’ There’s no bitterness or anger in his voice – just heavy, weary resignation. 'I wanted anything that would give me an edge, anything that made me a better mage… and then I thought I could just turn my back on it and it’d all be forgotten.’
Dorian opens his mouth to speak, but not-Levyn cuts across him. ‘There was – there was a girl. Lily. I took one look at her and I decided I’d never use blood magic again. I decided I was going to escape and have a life with her, outside the Circle. Live on a farm, have children, be at peace. But I couldn’t leave unless I destroyed my phylactery, and I couldn’t do that alone, so… I asked my best friend for help. I lied to him. I used him.’ He shakes his head as he utters the word used, disgust clear in the motion. ‘And when the Templars caught us, I tried to use blood magic to protect them, and Lily – ’
He stops. Bites his lip.
‘She turned away. She hated me. I tried to get her to leave with me, but she wouldn’t, so I ran. Like a coward. Leaving the two people I loved most behind to be punished for my own crimes. And when Firion found me in that dungeon in Redcliffe… he said I needed to get somewhere safe, so I did. I mean, I’d tried doing things for myself, and I’d just screwed everything up, and he always knew what he was doing so I listened and… ran. Again.’
Dorian nods, hoping the Herald can see in the gesture that he understands, that he doesn’t blame him. He understands trying so hard to be who you are, and finding yourself clawed at by the world, dragged back by thoughtless hands. He understands what it’s like, to be threatened by a ritual that could destroy your very identity, and to be willing to do anything to avoid it. And he understands running. Dear Maker, he understands running.
‘So where did Levyn Trevelyan come from?’
His companion still doesn’t smile, but his eyes brighten a little. ‘The first thing I ever did that had some meaning. While I was running, I found a group of refugees on the road, running from the Blight. I joined them, travelling north – I just wanted to get out of Ferelden. Didn’t tell them I was a mage. But then we were ambushed by darkspawn, and I… just stepped in front of them and fought. I told myself, do one thing right, for once, and keep these people alive. And I did. And they were so grateful that they promised not to tell the Templars. And I took them north and protected them until they could take a ship to the Free Marches. Every single one of them lived, because of me. Because I’m a mage.’
He meets Dorian’s eyes. ‘I know that what the Circle would have done to me was wrong. I know that I did… everything I did… because of things like the Harrowing and Tranquility that shouldn’t exist. But the things I did because of that fear - they were wrong. I knew better, and I did them anyway. That was why I changed my name – it wasn’t just to keep the Templars off my scent. Levyn was someone new, someone who’d think through what he did. Maybe Levyn could get things right. And when the rebellion started, I knew I had to fight with them, so other mages wouldn’t do what I did because they were terrified of the Harrowing and the brand. I ran into some mages from Ostwick, and one of them was a Trevelyan. A real one, a noble. When I told her I couldn’t let anyone know I came from the Fereldan Circle, she didn’t ask me any questions. She told the other mages I was a distant cousin and let me use her name. And then she died at the Conclave.’ He closes his eyes. ‘Another friend I let down.’
‘And that’s how you ended up here.’
The Herald laughs mirthlessly. ‘When Cassandra dragged me outside, showed me the Breach and asked if I was responsible… I honestly wondered if I might be. With my history, it seemed probable.’
He lifts his tankard and takes several long, slow gulps. ‘I know I should tell them. Leliana agreed to keep it secret. But the others… Cullen used to be at the Fereldan Circle, but he hasn’t recognised me. Yet. No one else knows. And I should tell them, but then I’ll have to leave, and I don’t want to. Maybe it’s selfish of me, but I’ve never felt better about myself than I do now. All those refugees I helped in the Hinterlands, and all the rifts I’ve closed and demons I’ve killed… I feel like I’m worth something. And maybe I could change things. Help the mage rebellion, put and end to the Circles. I used to think the world would be better if I’d never been born, and now I think… maybe that’s not true any more. And that’s something, isn’t it?’
There’s no need for the pleading look he gives Dorian. Only someone with absolutely no conscience could tell him no.
‘Oh, absolutely. I for one would prefer to have someone around who can close those rifts. Finding decent robes is a nightmare here in Ferelden, and I’ve already lost a set to demon slobber.’
Another mouth-twitch. Perhaps Dorian will get him to smile, if he keeps trying.
‘For what it’s worth,’ he says, ‘I’ve seen people in Tevinter use blood magic, or –’ He tries to ignore the chill that settles in his gut when he thinks of his father – ‘or threaten to use blood magic for far more despicable purposes than the ones you did. You didn’t ask for my silence, but you have it, for as long as you choose to keep this secret. And seeing as I’m the only person who knows, aside from your rather terrifying spymaster – ’
Dorian stops. Suddenly, this is awkward.
‘Well,’ he says. ‘If you need to talk. I’m…’
He doesn’t finish, but relief floods the Herald’s face. ‘Thank you.’
Dorian looks at him, at this nervous, weary mage who’s been beaten into the ground by the ridiculous way mages get treated in these lands, and knows with a fierce certainty that this man is never going to collapse in tears on a floor again. Not while he’s around.
‘I do have one question,’ he says. ‘If you’re not Levyn Trevelyan… might I ask what your name is?’
A long pause. The Herald purses his lips, and breathes in deeply. ‘Jowan,’ he says. ‘It’s Jowan.’
He says it like its something unpleasant. Like something he’s tried to bury, something he never wanted to hear again.
So Dorian grins at him again. ‘A pleasure, Jowan.’
And at last, the Herald smiles.