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From the Beyond

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Aaaaaand, post…

I clicked the “submit” button on my finished blog entry and pushed back my chair, rising to get another cup of coffee from the kitchen. It was one of those mornings – I had already accidentally deleted an e-mail from the owner of one of the websites for which I wrote daily articles; my most recent entry on a new Dark Ages weapon find in eastern England was littered with typos; I’d stubbed my toe on my chair leg twice; and I hadn’t even had my mandatory second cup of caffeine yet.

I had seriously pondered just going back to bed and writing off the whole day as a loss.

But, as I wandered into the kitchen of my apartment, I was glad I hadn’t. The window beside the refrigerator allowed a decent view of the city park next door, and it revealed a beautiful and clear summer day. After I poured another cup full of coffee, I meandered over to the casement and looked out at the baby-blue sky, cloudless except for a single jet contrail that streaked across it like a giant backslash.

Something soft then brushed against my bare foot.

“Hey, Maddie,” I said, glancing downwards.

My three-year-old calico flopped down on the top of my foot and was rolling over and over. I sighed and acquiesced to her begging for attention, lifting my foot to rub her exposed tummy and flank. Maddie loved belly rubs.

Ow!

When I did them right.

Maddie traipsed away after nipping at my big toe like she hadn’t done anything wrong. I sighed again, peering at the spot to make sure it wouldn’t start bleeding. Maddie was most certainly an aggravation, but she was my aggravation, and I loved her dearly. Ever since I had moved from my mother’s house after my parents divorced, Maddie was my only company. My online jobs barely brought in enough money to feed the both of us, but I wouldn’t give her up for the world.

I took a stale donut from the half-full box beside the microwave and ate it for a late breakfast, washing it down with the rest of my coffee before heading to my room to get dressed. I felt antsy, like I needed a walk or something, and so I decided to head down to the park for a while. I put on a faded pair of jeans and my favorite blouse – a forest green peasant top with billowy sleeves – and then slipped into my black ballet flats. It was a tad humid, so I pulled my wavy hair back into a tight ponytail. My hair was the type that, if the atmosphere was the least bit damp, it would frizz like Hermione Granger’s and look twice as ridiculous. Despite its difficulty, though, I wasn’t planning on cutting it anytime soon; I rather liked keeping my nearly-curly chestnut tresses just past my shoulders in length. It prevented my rather long neck from looking too skinny when I did wear it down. Or so I believed.

Taking only my keys and phone with me, I said bye to Maddie and left the apartment, not planning on being out more than an hour or two. I couldn’t stay longer than that even if I wanted to; the Irish part of my heritage ensured that I somehow burned to a crisp even in the shade. Thus, my life was mostly an indoor one, sitting in front of a computer screen, with only brief jaunts out into the sunshine.

On the way out, I texted a friend of mine who lived two floors above me in the same complex, Abigail. She was a student at the local college but was able to take summers off. She worked weekends at the coffee shop a block away, while her boyfriend, with whom she lived, worked at the computer store every other day and as an online help technician besides.

Hey, u want 2 meet up @ the park?

I was outside of the complex and halfway down the sidewalk before she replied.

Sure. 1 sec. Showing bf how to do Astrarium puzzles.

I smiled to myself, continuing my walk so I could pick a bench for us. Abigail and I were both avid Dragon Age fans, and she had managed to pull her boyfriend into the series, too. She and I were still playing Inquisition in our spare time, even after beating the game and all its DLCs several times over, and we hungrily devoured any and all news on the next installment. She had told me on more than one occasion that she wanted to make a character to romance Blackwall, but as far as I knew, she was still chasing everyone’s favorite ex-Templar.

But I couldn’t say anything, because I was doing the exact same thing.

I had just found a nice bench under a giant oak when I heard something that sounded like the distant wailing of police sirens. That wasn’t anything new, of course, so I paid little attention.

Until it became louder and louder…

Brow furrowing, I looked up to see a massive cloud of debris billowing into the sky in the distance, the loud bang from its creation following after the upwards spray that just kept going and going. Eyes widening, I realized that the massive upward motion of debris was getting closer as it also got taller, rippling across the horizon in a wave. A rumbling vibrated through the ground and into my feet. Deep down, I knew that it wasn’t a simple explosion or even a demolition. It was an eruption

And it was headed straight for me.

“Oh my God…”

I felt the words leave my lips, even though I couldn’t hear them over the roar of the earth breaking apart. In my panic, I dropped my keys and phone and turned to run, though it was entirely useless. Whatever had happened, it was already too late.

For everyone. Including me.

I didn’t see the eruption uproot the apartment complex behind me. I didn’t see the ground begin to crack underneath my pounding feet. I didn’t see that the opening earth beneath me glowed green.

The last thing I remembered from my time on Earth was being vaulted into the air at impossible speed.

And then everything went black.

------------------------------------------------------

The first thing I became aware of after that was that I hurt all over. It felt as though someone had stuffed me into a washing machine and kept it going for hours on end. Everything hurt, from my skull to my toes. I was also cold, my clothes wet with…water? Sweat? Blood?

I slowly peeled my eyes open, afraid of what I might see.

And what lay before me was unlike anything I had ever seen before…or was it?

Where the Hell am I?

It was a desolate landscape of nothing but green-tinged wet stone, slick with what I assumed was water, judging from the appearance – the same substance I also assumed had dampened my clothes. The sky was tinted a similar eerie green hue, with hints of some other colors. I looked about and found myself plastered to a twisting column of rock perhaps twenty feet off the ground, the only thing preventing me from plummeting down the column being the tiny ledge my feet were planted on.

Am I dead? Please tell me this isn’t Purgatory. Or Hell. Because this isn’t Heaven, for sure.

I pinched myself. Checked my pulse. Breathed on my hand. Nope, I was alive and very much awake. Or so I was convinced. So, had the world ended, and this was what it looked like now? It certainly had felt like the world was ending…

I looked up, and to my great surprise saw rocks suspended midair, a particularly large island floating in the distance, with what looked like buildings on top of it.

Wait, this looks like…

“Oh my God…”

My voice ended in a squeak, and my breathing quickened as I looked around, memories of playing “Here Lies the Abyss” swimming to the forefront of my mind.

“Oh my God…this can’t be real…this can’t…”

But it looked for all the world like I was in the Fade.

I could feel my heart pounding in my throat, beating as if it were trying to escape my ribcage and flee my body all by itself. My grip tightened on the slick stone behind me as I looked about my person again and again, my eyes confirming over and over what my brain both feared and desperately denied was true.

“I’m crazy…I’m dreaming…I’m insane…I’m dead…I…”

I screamed. I couldn’t do anything else. I screamed and screamed, the sound torn from my throat and echoing across the stony landscape. Some part of me hoped I would scream loud enough that I would wake myself up and I would sit up straight in my own bed in my own apartment on my own real world and I would realize to my great relief that no, I was not trapped in a goddamn video game!

That was the stuff of fanfiction, for crying out loud! That wasn’t reality! It wasn’t possible!

But every sense of mine told me otherwise. I was in the Fade. It was very much real…at least now. For me. And as the last echoing remnant of my final scream faded in the distance, I suddenly realized that I was also very much in trouble. The tears that spilled from my eyes abruptly halted with my overwhelming panic, and my sobbing gasps threatened to turn into hyperventilation.

If there were demons here, then I really would be dead. Soon, if I couldn’t find a way out.

And if this wasn’t Thedas during the events of Inquisition, there would be no way out at all.

I struggled to control my breathing. I could think later. After I found safety. Thinking didn’t matter at the moment. Survival did.

Breathe, Tamsyn…breathe. Breathe in…breathe out…

I swallowed and gathered my focus, noting that my throat was raw from my bout of screaming. Then, looking down, I tried to formulate how exactly I was going to get off of this giant rock column. My flats were certainly not made for climbing, especially not on wet stone, but I had to try.

I slipped on the first step, and another scream flew from my mouth but was abruptly halted in my throat after I didn’t keep sliding. Instead, the sole of my foot stuck to the stone as if held there by gravity, even though it was bent backwards on a vertical surface. Suddenly, I remembered how the scene with the Inquisitor and Hawke in the Fade had looked, and I realized that, if this really was the Fade, gravity truly meant nothing here.

It was whatever I needed it to be. Whatever I imagined it to be.

Feeling a bit daredevilish, I let go of the rock and held my hands out to my sides. I still stayed put. Despite my earlier panic, a grin spread across my face, and I began to awkwardly shimmy down the rock.

Then, I took an actual step.

And the world turned with me. Up became behind, forward became up, down became forward, and behind became down all at once as the scenery rotated. The rock I had been leaning on was now beneath me and I, quite disoriented, fell face first onto it with a yelp and a smack.

Uhhhhghghhggh!” I snarled in frustration, my hands balling into fists as I yelled, “I hope there’s a damn good punch line coming!”

I was too flustered to realize I had just quoted Varric Tethras.

Wiping wet chestnut curls out of my eyes where they had come loose from my ponytail, I stood and continued walking. I was angry. And anyone who knew me when I was angry knew that was when I was most determined to get a job done. I didn’t stop until I had reached the base of the column, and the world righted itself again. Thankfully, I had expected it, and I didn’t fall over a second time. I huffed out a breath of relief and put my hands on my hips as I looked around again.

Now…how to get out of here?

Nothing but grey-green stone loomed everywhere. Pathways and tunnels in the rocks led in every direction. Anything could have been hiding in the shadows, and I had no weapons…no way to defend myself. Nothing except…

…my imagination.

Remember your lore, Tamsyn.

I chuckled to myself at the irony.  How funny was it that the stuff that meant absolutely nothing in the real world was vital to survival here? What was worthless before had become more valuable than gold. If this really was the Fade, then I should have been able to influence it somehow, if I concentrated hard enough. I closed my eyes and thought solely of my need to find safety, wherever that was. Somewhere outside the Fade, and preferably in the real world.

Though, if the real world was gone…

Safety. Safety. I needed to find my way out of the Fade and to safety…

I opened my eyes. At first, I thought nothing had changed, and I sighed, throwing my hands into the air in exasperation. But then, in the distance beyond one of the rock tunnels, I saw a small bobbing light.

And it was getting closer.

I tried to shut out my fear and control my urge to run as the thing neared. It was a little sphere of almost blinding white light no larger than a softball, and for a moment I wondered if it was some sort of demonic lure, like the light of an angler fish. But when it did absolutely nothing but float there in front of me, I began to think it was a friendly spirit of some sort, drawn by my need for help. A wisp?

“Uh,” I began, not quite believing I was going to start talking to it, but having no other real option. “Hey, little…um…one?” Spirits were technically genderless, so I couldn’t legitimately use “guy.”

Trust me to be trying to address it properly when it wasn’t even supposed to exist.

At my voice, the thing seemed to perk up. Or at least, that’s what I thought bouncing in the air and glowing brighter meant.

“So, uh,” I looked around to make sure nothing was sneaking up on me while the wisp was distracting me, before cocking my head and asking, “can you show me a way out of here?”

The wisp stilled, dimming a little. Then, after a few seconds, it brightened again and bounced.

Even after its affirmation, I hesitated. Spirits rarely did anything without wanting something in return, or so I thought from what I had read about them. I wondered what it was getting out of all this, or what it wanted me to do.

“Do you…want something in exchange?” I finally asked, praying to all heavenly powers to have mercy on me.

The ball of light grew still again, and I heard my own words echoed back at me: “Do you…want something in exchange? Can you show me a way out of here? Hey little…um…one…”

I blinked. “You want to hear me talk.”

The wisp bobbed again.

A wave of relief washed over me. I nodded, “Talking. I can do talking. Show me the way and I’ll talk all you want.”

And so it did. It floated away, following its own peculiar whims as it flitted around rocks and under archways, but generally leading me in a relatively straight path. All the while I chattered away about mundane things from the real world I knew it couldn’t warp into a weapon of some kind – my cat, my laundry, my wardrobe, what I had for breakfast. It made no noise of acknowledgement that it understood anything I said, but if it made it happy and got me out of that hellhole, I was more than willing to talk my head off. I kept looking around as I did, fully well expecting some demon to come along and try to destroy or corrupt both of us, but this region of the Fade was surprisingly quiet.

Perhaps they didn’t know how to handle a being from beyond the Beyond itself. Or perhaps this little wisp had more protective power than I thought. Either way, I wasn’t about to complain.

At last, the glowing ball stopped in the middle of a relatively clear area, where a shimmering ribbon of green light hovered mid-air. A rift, I thought. I was still hoping against hope that wherever the wisp led me would cause me to wake up in my own bed with Maddie curled up asleep at my feet. That I would find out this was all just a really elaborate nightmare born from an overactive imagination. That I would actually just be going home

The wisp seemed even more curious at the tears that welled up in my eyes, floating up so that it was level with my face. I smiled despite myself. It was almost cute.

“So, that’s it, right?” I asked quietly. “Thanks, sweetie. There needs to be more nice little spirits like you.”

Before I could react, it suddenly bounced forward and touched me right between my brows. I jumped as it felt as though I had been shocked, the flesh briefly going numb from the impact. I rubbed at it, and when I blinked, the wisp was gone.

Uh, oh…

What had it done? Was that just its tiny way of saying goodbye, or had it…done something?

I didn’t feel any different. After a few moments of standing there, I decided it must have been the former. At least, I hoped it was the former.

My thoughts were broken, however, by sudden eerie sounds behind me, and I suddenly remembered the need to leave this awful place, the almost placid atmosphere created by the little wisp now gone. Steeling myself, I faced the ribbon of light, took a deep breath, and then stepped into it, praying to whatever deity would listen not to dump me somewhere terrible.

There was a brilliant flash, and I stumbled forward onto soft ground. I squinted hard against the light, which was so much brighter than where I had been. Whirling around, I saw that the ribbon of Fade green was still there, suspended in the air behind me. It was most definitely a rift.

As I looked about, quickly taking in my new surroundings, my hopeful heart sank – sank like a stone when perhaps almost every other Dragon Age fan would have thought it should have swelled with delight. The looming, snow-covered mountains, the copses of firs, the curly-horned rams that bounded up the grassy hills and crags...it was all so familiar. Too familiar. Heart achingly familiar.

I was alone in the Hinterlands. In Thedas. Perhaps forever.

The world spun violently, and all went black again.

Chapter Text

I awoke to the sound of fabric flapping around, a soft rustling, birdsong, and distant voices.

I could feel myself lying flat on my back, whatever it was beneath me not quite soft but not quite hard either. The air was cool and crisp around me, and I shivered, despite being underneath some sort of blanket that was so heavy it was weighing my feet down. My spine was killing me, and almost every square inch of my body was still sore, but at least I felt drier than I had before.

It was a few minutes before I worked up the courage to open my eyes. When I finally did, I saw dull red fabric above me, illuminated by sunlight from the other side. A tent. I slowly turned my head and saw where the flap was fluttering back and forth in the steady breeze, and beyond I could see bright grass and the occasional flash of metal. I looked down. I was lying on a stiff cot and covered with some sort of fur. Bear? It was dark and thick and coarse and smelled a bit like pine and heather.

As I felt of the fur throw on top of me, I realized my forearm was bare and covered in bruises. Eyes widening, I peeked under the blanket. I was still wearing my own underwear, but someone had removed the rest of my clothes. Glancing about, I finally found them tossed into opposite corner, and as I squinted at them, I understood why; they were filthier than I had initially thought, covered in awful green slime and completely ruined. I sighed. There went my favorite shirt.

I flopped back against the unforgiving pillow under my head. There went everything.

I closed my eyes, trying to remember what the Hell happened.

Had we been attacked? Had some stupid know-it-all scientist screwed up with a mini black hole or some shit? Had a supervolcano finally blown its lid? Did the world really end, or did a hole just get blasted in my part of it? Was Abigail dead? Was Maddie? Were my parents and family? Had they been dumped in some fictional fucking world too? Or was I the only one who had managed to escape death somehow? Why was I even alive?

There were too many things I didn’t know. Too many things I didn’t understand. There was still some vestige of me that hoped and prayed I was dreaming and would wake up in my bed or even a hospital somewhere any moment now. And yet the longer I heard myself breathing, felt and saw and even smelled everything around me…I knew.

I knew.

Everything I loved was gone.

“My God, this can’t be real…”

My eyes suddenly welled with unstoppable hot tears of emotion, and no matter how hard I tried to hold it all back, the dam burst. I rolled onto my side, biting my bottom lip to keep myself quiet as I sobbed into the pillow. My bruises hurt like Hell when I moved, but my heart hurt even more. I cried for them all…my family, my friends, my sweet little Maddie. I cried and cried, burying my head deeper into the hard pillow and clutching at the straw mattress while all the panic and fear and grief and anger that I had bottled inside poured out. Despite my attempts to be quiet, I couldn’t help sniffling and huffing loudly with the force of my sobbing, and I was sure someone would burst into the tent upon hearing the noise. And yet, to my great surprise and relief, no one did. It felt as if I were crying for hours on end, with tears enough to fill a swimming pool.

Finally, when I could cry no more, I rolled onto my back again and sighed, releasing the built-up tension with my breath.

My mother was a woman who had been forced to roll with the punches all her life, and she had raised me to do the same. It was time for me to roll with the punches. I was here. I was alive. Those were facts. And now, I had to move forward, no matter what happened. My mother wouldn’t have wanted me to give up.

I wasn’t about to disappoint her.

I swallowed, drying my eyes and sniffing as I regained composure. Blinking a few times, I cleared my head and forced myself to think on the present. I was in a tent, but what kind of tent? Who did it belong to?

I looked around again for clues. The red of the canvas made me think of the Inquisition. If someone had found me in front of a Rift, it only made sense that I would be brought to an Inquisition camp, if the organization even existed yet. Had it already been expanded into the Hinterlands? How far along was the world?

I sighed again. No way to know that without going outside. I kept scanning my surroundings. Beside me was a rickety old wooden stool with a wash bucket on top of it. Propping myself on my elbow, I peered inside the bucket at the still water within, hoping I was still really me and not some fantasized version of myself.

Round chestnut eyes stared back at me, with matching half-curly, half-wavy brown hair framing a square face. Slightly upturned nose, thin lips, light peachy complexion…no elf ears.

Yep, still me.

The blanket had fallen down around my waist, and I glanced down at myself once more. The same purple-green bruising on my arms extended down my ribs to my hips and, it seemed, to my knees and ankles as well. Whatever fall I had suffered after the blast had really banged me up. I was lucky not to have broken any bones. Hell, I was lucky to even still be breathing. I survived an apocalyptic explosion, a trip through the Fade…

Not unlike someone else in this world.

I chuckled a bit. Who had found me and what did they think when they did? I wondered if people were going to put me on a pedestal like their Herald of Andraste.

Come to think of it, that probably wasn’t a bad idea.

They were going to be suspicious of me, that was for certain, if they weren’t already. Perhaps even fearful. That they had cleaned me up and put me to bed to rest and recover was a good sign, but what if that changed? I needed protection if I was going to survive in this world, and the Inquisition was the best bet. But they needed useful people for the cause, and at the moment, I was certainly not that.

I had absolutely no combat skills. Despite my love of history, I had no idea how to wield any sort of medieval weapon like those in Thedas. Not even a knife or dagger. I was not the most tactful of people, so diplomacy was out of the question. I was also prone to being clumsy as an ox, so stealth was out, too. I had no idea how to ride a horse, and though I was neither bone thin nor heavyset, I wasn’t in shape either, and so I had no physical stamina to speak of. If I was going to be a soldier or even a messenger, I would have to be trained, first, in almost every area imaginable.

And, to be perfectly honest, the prospects of having to engage in combat scared the crap out of me.

I had nothing to offer. Absolutely nothing.

But then, my eyes widened as I realized…

I know the future.

I had played this story a dozen times or more. I knew the ending and how to get there. That alone was worth something, right? It had to be worth something. My brow furrowed as I thought hard about how to approach this idea. I couldn’t imply I was a seer or whatever…that would get me locked up; at best they would think me an apostate mage, and at worst that I was insane. It would also be a total lie, and I was terrible at lying.

The only other option was to tell them exactly what I was. But how was I supposed to convince someone like Cassandra Pentaghast that I was a person from another universe who knew what was going to happen because Thedas was a fictional world in a “novel” where multiple endings were possible and I had read the “book” several times over? She would clap me in irons on the spot, calling me mad, a liar, a charlatan, or all of the above. No one would believe me.

I threw myself back down on the cot in frustration and yanked the fur up to my chin, racking my brain to find a way to be honest with these people. I wasn’t the type to be able to lie and keep it up forever. Even if I went to all the trouble to create a fake identity for myself, there would inevitably be aspects that people, especially people like the Inner Circle, would see right through. I needed to tell the truth in order to establish myself as trustworthy.

I needed to prove myself.

That was it. I would tell them something that would happen, then it would happen, and they would know I was telling the truth. I just had to convince them to give me a chance.

But then a nagging fear started gnawing at me. What if my very presence in the world threw everything off? What if my being there caused unforeseen events to occur that jeopardized everything?

I shook my head. One step at a time, Tamsyn. Right now, I had to find a way to ingratiate myself with the upper tier of the Inquisition. The rest I could worry about afterward.

“How is she?”

I suddenly heard a low voice outside the tent, and my heart leapt in my throat. It sounded like…the male Inquisitor? British accented. I wondered if this would be the Bioware default worldstate.

“Sleeping I think, milord,” Scout Harding’s voice answered. “But it’s been a while since I put her to bed, so she could be awake.”

Before I could do anything, the flap suddenly opened, and Harding’s head popped in. Her catlike yellow eyes met mine briefly, and she ducked back out.

“She’s awake.”

“Good. I’d like to talk with her.”

Uh oh…

I clutched the fur blanket tightly as the tent opened wider, and the Herald himself stepped within. A human. He was tall, head brushing the top of the tent, and his broad-shouldered form and silvery scale armor told me straight away that he was a warrior. His thick hair was dark brown, almost black, layered to the base of his neck and brushed straight back, though it was loose enough it fell forward a bit as he dipped his head. He had a tanned complexion, his face square-jawed with a strong chin. His eyes, rimmed in dark lashes, were a soft olive green, and they smiled with his mouth as he saw me. His nose was a bit long but chiseled, not yet broken by combat, and his lips were full. Somehow, between his appearance and his demeanor, he struck me as a mischievous yet well-meaning sort…a roguish knight, as it were.

That would work in my favor if true.

“There you are,” he said softly as he approached, dragging another stool from the corner to my bedside and sitting a respectful distance away. “How are you feeling, madame?”

“Sore, but well,” I replied honestly, smiling a little sheepishly in response. “I’m guessing you’re the one who brought me here?”

He nodded, “I am. It is good to hear you are feeling all right. You were quite a mess when my companions and I found you lying in front of that Rift. You were lucky one of the demons from the Fade didn’t try to possess you…we had a Templar and mage both examine you.”

I didn’t want to know what that entailed.

“Yeah,” I agreed, glancing away. I found his piercing green gaze hard to meet. “Thanks for saving me, by the way.”

He inclined his head, “No thanks are needed, of course.” He paused, and then added, brow furrowing, “What is your name, if I may ask? Your accent sounds…a bit dwarvish?”

I couldn’t help but laugh. Yep, that American accent no doubt made me sound like a dwarf or a qunari.

“I’m Tamsyn,” I said finally, proffering my hand to shake, “Tamsyn Ashworth.”

“Tamsyn,” he repeated, taking my hand carefully. His grip was light, almost as if he were afraid of accidentally crushing my fingers. “Maxwell Trevelyan.”

“The Herald of Andraste?” It was more of a question than a statement. I wanted to be sure that my arrival hadn’t changed anything of immediate importance…

He chuckled as he released my hand, “That’s what they tell me.”

My relief was, perhaps, a bit too obvious, and I quickly covered it with another question, “So you closed that Rift, right?”

He smiled a bit and looked down at what I knew was his Anchor hand. “That I did. It won’t be a problem any longer.” He cocked his head as he looked back up at me. “Though, I do have a question about that. How exactly did you get there? I mean, I thought I was the only one who had been unlucky enough to experience such a thing as falling out of the Fade. But when we found you, everything changed.”

Oh boy. Here we go, I thought. I glanced away again, unable to meet his eyes without my stomach feeling like it was going to invert itself. Even though confessing to the Herald would be much easier and likely yield better results than doing the same to Cassandra or anyone else, I was still more than a little nervous.

“You’re…not going to believe me,” I answered, releasing a shaking sigh.

“Hmph,” he propped his elbows on his knees and peaked his fingers under his chin as he looked at me, which let me know right fast that he wasn’t about to give up on me. “I somehow survived the explosion at the Conclave, got branded with an unknown magical anomaly, survived being thrown into the Fade, and went from prime suspect to savior in the course of a single day. Try me.”

I looked back and smiled again, raising a brow as I replied, “All right then, Ser Herald. You asked for it.”

I then took a deep breath and continued, “I’m not from Thedas. I’m from another world entirely.” When his brows slowly rose and his eyes went wide at my response, I kept going, taking advantage of his surprise. “A world that ended, and the apocalypse of which threw me here.”

“You’re mad,” he breathed after several moments of silence, leaning back and away from me, and yet I could see in his eyes that he was torn. I knew he didn’t want to believe me, and yet his very recent experiences told him I could be telling the truth. He had seen my clothes, heard my strange accent…he knew I was unlike anyone he had seen before. The movements of his eyes betrayed everything he was feeling, wide and unblinking as they were.

“Told you,” I replied, hoping my wry smile would hide my own nervousness as I paused and frantically tried to strategize the course of the conversation. “But how am I mad when you’re not even supposed to be real.”

“What?”

“That’s right,” I continued, my smile widening. “Where I’m from, Thedas is entirely fictional.”

More silence. At length, he shook his head, “I…no. I think you must have caught a rock or two in the head. That can’t be right.”

“Can’t it?” I insisted. “You yourself have experienced the unbelievable. Why is it such a difficult thing to consider that someone else has, too?”

“I…I don’t understand. How can this be fictional to you when it is real to me and to everyone else here?” He shook his head again, his expression a mixture of frustration and incredulity, “That doesn’t make any sense at all!”

I shrugged indifferently, “One man’s dream is another man’s reality, I suppose.”

He was silent again in response, looking down at the ground between his feet. I had to give him a final push. If he teetered any more towards disbelief, he would abandon me entirely. And I couldn’t let that happen.

I sat up on the edge of the bed, holding the fur carefully in front of myself to preserve my modesty even as I leaned forward, “Look. I’m just as baffled as you are, Herald. I can’t reason this out any better than you can. But what’s done is done, and I am telling you nothing but the truth. I am the only survivor from my world, and I can’t help but think I’ve been sent here for a reason. Maybe I’m here because you need me. Maybe your Maker has sent me to help you.”

He looked back up, skepticism written all over his face. “How? You speak of fanciful impossibilities and expect me to believe them, and then insist that you can help me, too?”

I winked, “The story of Thedas’s Inquisition is a book I’ve read before, Ser Trevelyan. Many, many times. ‘Fanciful impossibilities’ are something you’ll learn to get used to.”

He stared me in the eyes long and hard before realization slowly swept across his countenance. “Maker…you know what’s going to happen…how this ‘story’ ends, don’t you?”

Oh, thank God, I’ve almost got him…

“That I do,” I replied. “As a matter of fact, this story has several endings, depending on what choices you make. But I can guide you to the best and happiest of them all, if you’ll allow me.”

He continued staring at me for several moments before abruptly standing and running his hands through his hair, pacing back and forth in his anxiety about what to do and what to believe.

“I know you have no reason to believe me, but you have to trust that I am telling you the truth,” I pleaded, desperate now. “Herald…there is no way I can make it in this world without aid. I need your help and the protection the Inquisition offers. I will do whatever I can in return if you just let me stay with your people. All I have is knowledge, but I will give it and gladly.”

He didn’t answer immediately, remaining facing away from me. I wanted him to believe what I had said so badly, but how could I honestly do that when I wasn’t even sure I believed it myself? I swallowed heavily and could feel the tears welling up in my eyes again. I was positive that this was my one and only opportunity not to end up killed in less than a month via a hundred possible gruesome and terrible methods. If this was somehow a second chance for me granted by the powers that be, then it would be a piss poor waste of it if I ended up dead anyway within a fortnight.

Then, finally, he turned back.

“I…need to speak with my companions about this,” he said at last.

“To Cassandra?” I asked, hoping my usage of the Seeker’s name would help influence him, especially considering he had not mentioned who was traveling with him.

His brows rose, and then the corner of his mouth quirked upwards a bit. “Yes.”

I smiled, “I eagerly await her response, then.”

------------------------------------------------------

They argued for an hour or more.

As I suspected, Cassandra in particular thought I was bloody insane. I overheard her shouting about how, at best, I was trying to make a fool of them by manipulating the esteemed Herald…trying to steer the course of the whole Inquisition with my influence in order to achieve my own ends. Well, she was right about that part, but she was wrong about the reason. I really did want them to have the best ending possible, and if I could help bring it about, then I was going to try my best to make it happen. If they would let me.

But then, much to my surprise, I heard Varric light into her.

“You know what, Seeker…what if she really is telling the truth? You made the Herald a prime suspect, too, and look what happened.”

“How dare you?!”

“I dare quite a lot, actually. And you know I’m right. If she really has survived some sort of apocalypse and by some miraculous twist of fate managed to end up here, then don’t you think we should at least cut her some slack?”

“Even so, she could still be lying about what she knows, Varric.”

“Yeah, she could. And so what? I probably would too, in her shoes. She’s trying to be valuable to people who wouldn’t otherwise give two shits about her because she’s scared for her life. It doesn’t take a genius to see that.”

And then, suddenly, I heard Solas’s voice. The elf had, up until this point, been completely silent. I felt myself shiver involuntarily as he spoke…

Oh my God…

If he knows that I know that he’s…

Oh shit. Oh shit, shit, shit!

“Perhaps we should bring her back to Haven with us. Now, after a great deal of trauma has been dealt her, is likely not a good time to either confront or interrogate her. Let us take her to the other founders of the Inquisition and have her tell her story to them. Perhaps even let her prove herself…ask her for the knowledge she claims to have and see what she offers you. If her words do match up with events, then we will know her for an honest woman, yes? If not, we can send her on her way from there.”

A painful silence followed. All the while, my brain was screaming at me for being such an idiot. I knew Cassandra would have been with the Herald, but I was somehow too stupid to think of Solas. If he saw me as some sort of threat, if he knew I knew he was Fen’harel, he could off me to make sure I stayed quiet…maybe after toying with me for a while, but eventually he could decide I wasn’t worth the risk. Or maybe he would delight in watching me squirm for years as I kept secrets from them all, his included. I foolishly hadn’t considered all the things I couldn’t tell them in order for events to play out as they should. Things like his being their true enemy.

Oh, Tamsyn…you’ve done it now.

“Give her a chance, Seeker. It’s all she’s asking for.” I heard Varric say quietly.

After a moment, Cassandra sighed, “Herald, what do you think?”

There was another long period of silence before I heard his baritone voice reply, “After all that’s happened to us these past few weeks, I think it’s foolish to question her too much. I think we should give her a chance.”

Ugh…”

Scout Harding then spoke up, “I should get her some clothes, then. Her others were ruined.”

Relief flooded me, and I bent over, my head on my knees as I thanked all heavenly powers for their mercy. They were going to give me a chance. They were going to take me to Haven.

But despite this small victory, I wasn’t out of the woods, yet. In fact, I could be stepping right out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Chapter Text

It was several minutes before Scout Harding entered the tent, a bundle of clothing in her hands, along with a couple of belts and leather bags draped over her arms. Her cat-like eyes smiled at me over the pile before she set it all down on the stool Maxwell had dragged forth and then secured the tent flaps closed behind her. “Tamsyn, right?” she asked as she buttoned the closures, standing on her tiptoes to reach the topmost ones.

“Right,” I replied as I watched her, more than a bit curious as to why she was going to stay there with me.

She turned back towards me and gestured to my filthy blouse and jeans in the corner, her tone apologetic. “Sorry about those…looks like they’re well beyond redemption at this point. But I don’t think they would be of much help where you’re going anyway.” The dwarf then moved to the pile of clothing on the stool, “I tried to scrounge up some replacements for you, as well as a few things you might need that are more appropriate for travel in this climate.”

I could feel my cheeks reddening a bit in subconscious embarrassment. I hated accepting charity, even when I needed it. “That’s…very generous of you.”

She gave me a crooked smile, “No worries. We got a lot of garment donations from local merchants and nobles, and we’ve put together some relief packs with supplies to help the refugees in the area. If what the Herald says about you is true, you’re just as much a refugee as the rest of the people here.” Beckoning me forward with a wave of her hand, she added, “I thought you might need some help getting dressed after all you’ve been through.”

Cautiously setting the fur blanket aside, I frowned as I moved to get up. “I don’t think-agh!

My lower back caught the minute I stood, my knees would barely straighten under my weight, and my thighs felt like they were on fire. I pitched sideways, and Harding quickly moved forward, catching my elbow to steady me and giving me a look that said I told you so.

“Yeah, thought that might happen,” she commented as I slowly straightened, wincing hard and grunting as every joint in my lower body protested. Lying down for so long apparently had done more harm than good…

“The Herald seems eager to get back to Haven, so we should probably hurry up,” Harding remarked after I recovered, turning to retrieve the first article of clothing from the pile and handing it to me. “These might not fit so well, just a fair warning.”

With that, I fell silent and let her help me into the clothes she had picked out. First was a pair of supple leather breeches, dark brown and surprisingly comfortable, although a bit loose in the waist and a tad long. Harding corrected the former issue with a broad leather belt that not only helped hold them up but also hid the bunched waistline. She then assisted in getting my feet into a pair of knee-high leather boots, scrunching the breeches a bit to keep them above my ankles. They, too, were a bit big, and I anticipated blisters before all was said and done. While she laced up the boots and tied the strings, I shrugged into a loose, collared, beige linen tunic that almost reached my knees. The v-neckline was a lace-up style, and, if left loose, would have shown a great amount of skin, so I made sure to secure it closed; I had never been keen on showing cleavage, and I wasn’t about to start.

After finishing with the boots, Harding stood up and stepped back, cocking her head at me as if evaluating her fashion choices. “Not as bad as I feared,” she finally said jokingly before noticing the very long sleeves that loosely hung off of my hands. Smirking, she turned back to the stool, “Got something for that, too.”

“You anticipate everything, don’t you?” I teased.

“I certainly try.”

She then produced a pair of leather bracers that she secured around my forearms after I pushed my sleeves up to their proper length. “There,” she said. “That’ll keep them from falling down again.”

After that, she gave me a brown leather vest, held closed in the front by three brass buckles, and then a heavy woolen cloak, lined with some sort of dark fur, that pinned on my left shoulder with a plain enameled brooch. Stepping back again after I adjusted the cloak, the dwarf looked me up and down and nodded approvingly. “That’ll do. No one else would ever know it doesn’t all fit right.”

I gave her a sheepish smile as I pulled my falling hairband out, re-smoothing my hair back from my face and drawing it all into a tight ponytail again at the back of my head. She watched in fascination as I tightened it, and I wondered what on earth she was staring at when I remembered that elastic was something totally alien to Thedosians.

“I’m keeping this,” I said with a deadpan expression as I pointed at it. I wasn’t about to give this little thing up. I had spent too much time searching for hairbands that wouldn’t break too easily or tear through my hair. It was all I had left of the conveniences of my home world, and I made a mental note to be extra careful with it from here on out.

“I can see why,” she replied, her voice slightly tinged with awe.

After a moment, she handed me a shoulder satchel and a backpack, both leather. As I donned them, I noticed they were already heavy with items, and she explained, “There’s healing poultices, potions, and bandages in the smaller pack. The big one has some essentials, food rations, and a blanket. There’s also a fresh waterskin in there…filled it from the spring this morning.”

I shifted the packs on my shoulders and glanced down at myself. I’d never worn this much leather in my life. “Thank you, Scout Harding,” I finally said, dipping my head to her in sincere gratitude.

She gave me a wry smile, “No need to thank me, madam. All this is courtesy of the Inquisition and its supporters. Help us put an end to all this chaos, in whatever way you can, and you’ll more than pay us back.”

At that, she opened the tent flaps again, and I followed the dwarven scout outside, squinting against the bright afternoon sunlight. As I anticipated, the entire camp stopped what they were doing and stared as I emerged. I tried not to stare back, despite the temptation. That all of this was reality was still difficult to digest…

Solas and Cassandra were already seated atop two horses, and Varric was just clambering onto a smaller mule’s back. I deduced that they must have already been to visit Dennet, though whether or not the horse master had committed his herds to the Inquisition remained to be seen. I would have to pay close attention to their conversations to find out; I wasn’t about to ask directly and cause more of a stir just yet.

“She’s ready to go, Herald,” Scout Harding remarked to Maxwell, who was finishing adjusting the girth on his own horse’s saddle.

He turned and glanced over his shoulder at me, “Right. There are not enough horses for you to ride on your own, Tamsyn, so you’ll have to ride with me.”

I nodded in understanding, honestly glad that the Herald had decided to let me share the saddle with him; I wasn’t sure how any of his companions would have reacted to such a thing. Furthermore, I didn’t feel the need to inform him that I was actually ignorant of how to ride and therefore needed to be paired with someone else anyway. I felt a twinge of jealousy as I watched him give his horse’s tack and saddlebags a final look over; I had always wanted a horse, ever since I was a little girl, and I always wanted to know how to ride, but I never had the opportunity to learn. For one thing, our family never had enough land or money to support a horse, and for another, riding lessons were both too far away and too expensive.

At last, he mounted up and then reached down to offer his hand to me, keeping the stirrup empty so I could use it to help hoist myself up. That in and of itself was going to be a feat – I was only 5’4’’, and the Herald’s horse was obscenely tall, making the stirrup about level with my chest. Moving forward with determination, however, I took his hand, allowing him to assist me into the saddle behind him; this constituted an awkward jump on my part in conjunction with Maxwell practically tossing me upwards by my arm. I couldn’t help but let out a tiny yelp as I stretched my aching muscles and banged a bruised knee on a heavy buckle on the saddle.

“Are you all right?” he asked, seemingly genuinely concerned that he might have hurt me.

“Oh, no, it’s fine,” I said as I adjusted myself in the seat, suddenly very conscious that the size of the saddle forced me to practically mold my thighs to the back of his legs. “I just uh…heh…still have some bruises, is all.”

“All right, then. Settle in and hold on tight. It’s going to be a long ride.”

I curled my fingers around Maxwell’s belt just as he clucked his tongue, his horse suddenly lurching forward rather abruptly. Even the animal’s walk was brisk, I noted, and I gradually became accustomed to the swaying rhythm while the Herald navigated out of the camp and onto the open road. As we went, I swallowed heavily, trying not to let everything overwhelm me. Despite knowing where we were and where we were headed, the newness of it all kept hammering at me in waves – the sights, the smells, the feelings…even the sounds. I took in a deep breath of crisp autumn air to calm myself and found some stability in the familiarity of it. Autumn was my favorite season, and I favored cooler temperatures over warmer ones. At least I had that small blessing here, for now.

After what seemed like hours of riding in almost complete silence save for the clopping of the horses’ hooves, Varric at last broke it, the first one out of the three companions to gather the nerve to speak to me directly.

“So, uh…Tamsyn, isn’t it?” he asked.

I half-turned in the saddle so I could see him out of the corner of my eye. “Yep.”

He chuckled, “All right. I’ll admit, I’m little hesitant to test you so cheaply, but I have to know how much you’re really aware of…so, who am I?”

I paused. I had to answer in a way that would deter suspicions that I was some sort of spy who had merely done her homework. I had to say something only they would have been privy to.

After a few moments, I finally replied with a slight smirk, “‘Varric Tethras. Rogue, storyteller, and occasionally, unwelcome tagalong.’”

Almost immediately, Maxwell stiffened in front of me, his head turning quickly to the side in surprise, and I couldn’t help but feel a little smug. Only the present company should have known that line.

“Ok,” Varric answered at length, his words coming out slowly. “That’s just…that’s creepy. I’m officially disturbed.”

“She did say that she knew this story well,” Solas remarked, a hint of amusement in his tone.

“Yeah…a little too well, apparently.”

“I imagine that it must be rather disconcerting,” the elf continued. “Waking up in a strange realm that you thought for certain was merely fantasy, only to find it all very much real. Is it the fulfillment of a dream or a nightmare, I wonder?”

Great. So he was going to analyze me like a peculiar specimen in a petri dish. Better than some things he could do, I supposed.

“I…don’t really know, yet,” I replied at length, punctuating my answer with a heavy sigh. “I guess I’ll have to wait and see.”

A few moments passed before Varric added, “You know, I can’t get over the fact this could actually happen to begin with.”

Maxwell chuckled, “I’m sure Tamsyn can’t, either.”

“No, really. I mean, think about it. That means I could wake up one day and find myself in Hard in Hightown.”

Ugh,” Cassandra groaned.

“You’re just jealous you couldn’t be thrown into the Tale of the Champion.”

“I’m not sure ‘thrown into’ is the correct terminology to use here,” Solas mused aloud. “Considering she mentioned an event of apocalyptic proportions, then perhaps it would be more accurate to assume that her reality was replaced with this one, rather than to suggest she was somehow propelled from first one and into another.”

Agh,” Varric huffed in frustration, “I still don’t get it. I mean, at least my books are set in Thedas, so if it were to happen to me and those stories in particular, I wouldn’t be hopping worlds. But how can someone’s reality – everything they know – suddenly be replaced by someone else’s imaginary creation?”

“I suspect that the instability of the Fade had much to do with this,” Solas replied. “That is where imagination holds the most power, after all.”

Cassandra sighed loudly, “If what she says occurred is true, then I doubt there is any point speculating how it happened. We must deal with the here and now, and we have more pressing matters to be concerned with. I think that is what we should be discussing with her, if she can help us.”

“Right,” Varric snorted, “Because let’s not try to figure out the root cause of a problem that could happen again.”

“Perhaps we should leave this for another time,” Maxwell said suddenly, his tone bearing a note of irritation.

They fell silent again.

Dusk came more quickly than I expected, and it wasn’t long before we were forced to stop and make camp in a wooded area north of the Hinterlands. There were only two tents between them, and I ended up being assigned the tent with Solas and Cassandra. As I helped pitch these tents and gathered wood for a fire, I amused myself by wondering which of the two would try to kill me in my sleep first.

And then I remembered Solas’s Dreamer abilities.

I gritted my teeth as I arranged the firewood on the pile at the center of camp.

Stay out of my head, you charlatan.

It was rations for supper as we sat on the ground before the fire – a salty jerky of some sort and twice-baked bread. I didn’t know what either was made of, but it tasted like heaven; my coffee and donut had worn off hours ago. We ate in continued silence, and I had a feeling they would have been a lot chattier had I not been present. I didn’t have the courage to meet their eyes for fear they might take some sort of offense or see it as an opportunity to question me, and so I kept my gaze on the embers for a long while. Part of me hoped that my quiet demeanor, relatively normal behavior, and willingness to stay out in the open would ease suspicions about me somewhat.

But then I realized I needed to relieve myself.

I wasn’t too shy about it, really; I had been camping enough with friends and relatives that I was fairly comfortable with doing it outdoors. Deciding it best not to announce such a need to the world, I got up with purpose and began striding towards the edge of camp, bent on finding a suitable place where no one would see me…

“Where do you think you’re going?”

I should have anticipated Cassandra’s obstruction. I knew the way she was. But there was something about the way she said it that finally set me off. I loved her character in the game, but in this reality, her undying suspicion and her unhealthy habit of jumping to conclusions was fostering a dislike that was going to be difficult to push past, despite the fact I understood where it all came from.

I spun on my heel to face her, giving her a sarcastic smile as I looked up at her. She had already closed the distance between us and had been about to turn me around herself. “Oh, I dunno…” I began quietly, before yelling so loudly it echoed around the forest: “How about going to find a bush!? Take a leak!? Have a piss!? However you people say it!?” When her eyes widened in response, I added, with no small amount of vitriol, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know I had to announce my personal business to the world before going to do it!”

As I turned back and stomped through the brush, not caring if she continued to follow me, I could hear Maxwell chuckle lightly. A breath of silence followed, and then…

“Well, you did ask, Seeker.”

“Shut up, Varric.”

Chapter Text

I stared into the darkness above me for what felt like hours. There was no way for me to tell time, though, and I knew that mere minutes spent waiting would seem a thousand times longer than they really were.

We all retired to our tents well after sundown. No one undressed, partially to stay as battle-ready as possible and partially because the Fereldan night air was borderline unbearable, even with the bonfire nearby. I wrapped my cloak tighter around me and pulled the moth-eaten blanket up to my chin as I lay on my back on the hardened dirt, and I wiggled my toes in my oversized boots as I tried to stave off the numbness that was growing in them from the cold. My back was aching again, my knees were stiffening, and my nose was constantly running from the chilly air.

How could they honestly sleep like this?

I liked to think I wasn’t the pampered sort, especially not the kind to complain about conditions I could do absolutely nothing about. But much to my own shame, I found this state of affairs incredibly difficult to deal with. Maybe it was because I’d already slept so much earlier in the day. Or maybe it was because of my overactive mind refusing to let me rest. But one thing was certain – I was the only one out of the five of us who had trouble getting any shut-eye that night, judging from the sounds that plagued me for more than half of it.

I was positioned at the edge of the shared tent, with Cassandra next to me and Solas on the other side of her. The Seeker herself snored like a buzz saw, and in between these raucous inhalations, I could hear the elf’s heavy exhaling from his own deep slumber. So perfectly in rhythm were the two that I began to think they were doing it on purpose just to annoy the Hell out of me. On top of that, beyond the tent, I could hear Varric and Maxwell snoring in tandem, and underneath that were the cacophonous voices of nocturnal animals - crickets, frogs, owls, and the like – droning on and on in an endless hum.

Suffice it to say, I had never wanted a pair of earplugs so badly in my entire life.

I must have finally dozed off from sheer exhaustion, though, because the next thing I knew, I was being shaken awake by Cassandra’s not-so-gentle hand.

“Tamsyn…Tamsyn! Wake up! We must be leaving.”

Mmhmmmm?

I groggily opened my eyes to find the Seeker kneeling over me, brow furrowed in an expression of displeasure.

Because, obviously, I was supposed to wake up with the rest of them like absolute clockwork after listening to the Insomniac Symphony Orchestra all night.

I bit back the pain that stabbed at my body once I woke enough to get up from the ground, refusing to be seen as a whiner, and then helped them break down the tents. Breakfast was the exact same fare as dinner the night before, naturally, and eaten while packing up.

When we were finally ready to leave, Maxwell offered to share his mount with me again, but I refused this time.

“Thanks, Herald, but I think I need to do some walking,” I said. “My joints are too stiff and my muscles too sore to keep sitting. I need to stretch them out a bit.”

“All right,” he nodded in understanding, even as Cassandra glanced at him with a disapproving look, likely thinking I was going to try and escape – like I could actually outrun a horse. “Just let me know when you need a break.”

With that, we continued onwards on our journey to Haven. It was easy enough to keep pace with the horses; they ambled on at a steady walk, not once changing gait. The “road” was little more than a wide dirt trail, but it was clear enough and flat enough to be easy on foot travelers. It would have been easier had my boots actually fit, and as I predicted, after a few hours into the journey, I could feel my heels begin to blister. I wasn’t about to ask Maxwell for a ride, though. There was a part of me that didn’t want to accept any more help, even if I needed it. I knew I couldn’t survive without the Inquisition’s aid right now, but that didn’t mean I wanted to forever remain a damsel in perpetual distress, asking for assistance over every little problem or inconvenience.

The journey was quiet, save for the jangle of harnesses and the huffing of the horses. No one said a word to me the whole time. Or to each other, for that matter. I wondered if they had been like this before I arrived, or if my presence really had put a damper on their social interactions. Despite these thoughts, I appreciated the relative silence. The diurnal wildlife was certainly less vocal than their nighttime counterparts, and the soft rustle of the autumn breeze and the distant sound of melodic birdsong were oddly comforting to me after a long night of harsh noise.

I occupied my mind with counting bushes and trees of the same species that lined the road. Letting myself slip back into my grief and disbelief by thinking of the why’s and how’s of the explosion would only plunge me headlong into tears again, and so I did everything I could to distract myself from doing just that. Once I thought I saw a rabbit bounding up a craggy hillside, and I spotted more than a few rams grazing on precarious ledges. The jagged mountains towered ever nearer, the vegetation growing sparser the closer we came and the ground slowly becoming covered with patches of snow.

And then, I saw it.

We had traveled just enough that the sharp peak of a mountain in the distance no longer hid the Breach in the sky from view. I couldn’t help but let out a gasp of surprise as I finally beheld it. Its existence only pounded the reality of the situation into me, harder than anything else had done thus far, and I was forced to swallow down the panic that clawed at me again.

Yes, Tamsyn, it’s real. Just like everything else here is real. Now deal with it.

I had to move on. For my sake, and everyone else’s…so I desperately tried to convince myself.

Haven shouldn’t be much farther…

I inhaled deeply, the cool air stinging my lungs as I expanded them to their fullest capacity and then let out my breath slowly. My most difficult trial was just ahead. Convincing the Herald to bring me along was one thing…convincing the advisors to keep me in the Inquisition was an entirely different story.

The advisors. I winced.

The Herald seemed to believe me somewhat, so that was in my favor. But Cassandra was yet suspicious of me, and so that would cancel out Maxwell’s opinion – he wasn’t the Inquisitor yet, and so his influence was limited. No doubt Leliana would consider me suspect as well. I could see it already…a flurry of ravens sent into the skies and a contingent of scouts slipping into shadows all over Thedas to find information about me, a smooth-talking woman who was no doubt a spy sent to influence the reborn Inquisition and bend it to the will of some nation or other nefarious power.

I chuckled to myself and rolled my eyes. Sister Nightingale could certainly try. But she would turn up nothing.

Josephine? If she was the same Josie I knew from the games, she would probably offer sympathy similar to Varric’s. She might chalk me up to being more than a little crazy, perhaps due to some unknown trauma I couldn’t explain properly, and take pity on me. Her belief in my tale would likely hinge on a correct prediction or how well I delivered my opening speech to them. If I spoke eloquently enough, I could deflect a charge of insanity, but that would also make the others uneasy.

And then there was Cullen. I obviously didn’t pose a physical threat, so I doubted he would care one way or the other about me, unless he took sides with Leliana and grew concerned about how much I would discover regarding their defenses. Honestly, though, he would probably think me some crazed madwoman best left in the care of the Chantry sisters and kept well away from anything important.

I sighed, keeping my eyes on the toes of my boots as I continued walking. All I had to do was convince them I wasn’t crazy and to give me an honest chance. Whatever happened after that I could deal with as it occurred…right now, I just need to not be turned out of the village and left to my own devices. Or stuck in a dungeon somewhere.

Yeah, that would be fantastic. The question was – could I actually pull it off?

Only one way to find out…

The only problem was, here there was no saving and reloading. There was no trying again. I had one shot to do this right. If I blew it, it was game over. These thoughts sobered me as gates came into view in the distance, spanning the width of a narrow pass.

“Here we are,” Maxwell announced.  “Just a bit farther past those gates is Haven.”

I nodded, a knot of dread twisting in my stomach. “I know.”

“We must call a war meeting as soon as we arrive,” Cassandra added. “There is much we must discuss.”

“I agree,” the Herald replied. “I’ll try to catch the first runner I see.”

I swallowed. No chance to breathe, then. Straight to business. Yippee.

I needed some honest rest, a bath, and a hot meal. My feet throbbed from the hours’ worth of walking I had done, and my stomach was about to eat itself from the lack of filling food. But the pain somehow assured me I was alive, and it also served as a reminder that I needed to keep my wits about me and pay attention to everything. I couldn’t afford to make a mistake. Not now.

Two guardsmen had been stationed at the gates, already garbed in Inquisition armor. They saluted the Herald and the Seeker and opened the gates without needing to be told. They paid no attention to me as we passed through, and I was suddenly rather thankful that Scout Harding had provided me with some native clothing to wear in place of my filthy clothes from Earth. If I didn’t open my mouth, no one would suspect I wasn’t one of them, and perhaps they wouldn’t even then. I resolved to use this to my advantage whenever possible.

As we continued on, the pathway widened out again, and I could see the tall palisade wall of Haven over the next rise. The Breach in the sky above, now incredibly large, looked like a stationary hurricane on the horizon. The knot of dread balled in my stomach, coupled with my hunger, was beginning to make me sick. And I grew even sicker when we rounded the bend of the path, and I could see Haven’s troops training in the distance.

“No runners yet,” Maxwell remarked. “I’ll have to inform the Commander directly, then.”

Alarm darted through me. I pulled my cloak tighter around myself, as if it would protect me from more than just the chill air. I needed something to do with my hands…they were trembling with my nerves.

They’re not going to kill you, Tamsyn, I tried to reassure myself.

At least, I hope not.

And then, I spotted him. Commander Cullen was fully immersed in supervising the shield technique of a very young recruit, so much so that he was not aware of the approaching party. As we drew nearer to the training area, the companions pulled their horses to a halt; Maxwell and the rest dismounted, and several grooms quickly ran over to retrieve their steeds, leading the tired horses towards the stables for food and rest. I chuckled to myself as I felt a bit of envy.

The Herald politely waited for Cullen to finish his work with arms crossed atop his armored chest, and Cassandra lingered at his side, hands on her hips. I kept well behind them and out of the way, saying absolutely nothing.

Then, Solas approached the Herald and caught his attention. “If you no longer need me for the time being, I shall be heading to my cabin, Herald,”

“Of course. Thank you again for your help.”

 “No thanks are needed, Herald.” As he passed me, the elf gave me a sly smile that was hard to read, and I almost shivered. I had yet to get a good read on how he felt about me, and that made me nervous.

At that moment, Varric sidled up to Maxwell, too. “I think Chuckles has the right idea. I’m going to go get a stiff drink and put my feet up for a while. Join me later?”

“Sure thing, Varric.”

“See you then, Herald.” The dwarf inclined his head and turned for Haven’s main gates behind Solas. However, before he departed, he glanced to me and gestured for me to lean down towards him. Curious, I furrowed my brow as I complied, and then was pleasantly surprised as he clapped me on the shoulder firmly and gave me a wink. “Good luck, Tamsyn.”

I smiled back, strangely warmed by this gesture. “Thanks, Varric.” His words did much to make me feel better about the whole thing, and my nervousness was almost banished. I continued smiling after him as he walked away.

When I straightened and turned back towards the training area, however, I was greeted by the imposing stature of Commander Cullen approaching Maxwell at a purposeful pace, having finished his work with the young soldier. All the confidence Varric had given me vanished in the space of an instant.

Maker’s bloody damn breath…

Everyone had thus far looked just like their in-game personas, just…better. Realistic. Really realistic, not as-realistic-as-fake-graphics-can-get realistic. And Cullen was no exception.

Don’t stare…

But it was so incredibly difficult not to. He was tall…able to look Maxwell in the eye, but only an inch or so taller than Cassandra. I hadn’t anticipated actually being intimidated by him, this ex-Templar I felt I knew well after so many playthroughs of every game in the series. But I was. Extremely so. He walked with purpose, carried himself with authority, and looked every inch the role he had been given. And he was also gorgeous. I mean, he had always been some semblance of gorgeous, but now?

I could feel a blush already rising in my cheeks, and I immediately focused my attention on the toes of my overlarge boots, willing the redness to go away before he noticed. There was a reason I had yet to romance any other character in the game. And that reason compounded the anxiety that now threatened to send me screaming over the mountains in panic.

Here I was, living a Cullenite’s dream, and ready to pass out from emotional distress.

“Ah, Herald. You’ve returned,” Cullen greeted Maxwell as he neared. “Mother Giselle arrived a few days ago with information for Sister Leliana. Good work. Have you other news from the Hinterlands?”

“I do, Commander,” Maxwell replied with a nod. “I’m in the middle of securing horses for the Inquisition, but more efforts are required to stabilize the area before Dennet is willing to part with the entirety of his herds. I can tell you more in a council meeting.”

“There are also other matters of import to discuss,” Cassandra glanced my way with a hard chocolate-brown gaze, consequently directing Cullen’s attention to me. I was suddenly filled with the overwhelming desire to punch her.

“You have a new companion?” the Commander inquired, directing the question to Maxwell but keeping his eyes on me. I clenched my teeth to quell my nerves and met that amber stare, straightening and inclining my head ever so slightly to him in acknowledgment.

“Not precisely,” Maxwell answered hesitantly. “Tamsyn here wishes to contribute to the Inquisition, but her position is…well…” he trailed as he failed to grasp the proper words.

“Something to discuss in the war room,” Cassandra supplied.

“Right,” Cullen nodded after an awkward moment, glancing back and forth between me and the Herald. “I will pull together my information and meet you there shortly.”

------------------------------------------------------

And so here I was at last.

Maxwell and Cassandra rolled out the maps on the makeshift war table of Haven’s Chantry while I looked on, silently pressed to the door-side wall near the corner – on the right when entering the room. As I watched them, I could feel my heart quickening and my palms beginning to sweat. Taking in a deep breath, I let it out slowly, trying to ease the tension that was building inside me.

Just be yourself and tell them the truth. Keep calm, keep cool, don’t be rash, but stand your ground.

Blatant brazenness would likely get me nowhere at best and in the dungeons at worst. But that didn’t mean I didn’t have a right to get visibly angry if they really pissed me off. I wasn’t about to be pushed around or scoffed at, either – despite my various fears, I wasn’t meek, and I wasn’t about to pretend that I was. They had to know I meant business…that I really wanted to help and that I refused to be brushed off.

“…send a letter to the Marquise about it.”

At that moment, I heard Josephine approach the room and enter, followed by Leliana and Cullen. The Ambassador and Commander didn’t even notice me as they passed by me on their way around the table. Leliana, on the other hand, did catch sight of me from her corner, and she stared at me for a long moment before turning her attention to Cassandra, her hands behind her back.

“We have a guest?”

Cassandra glanced my way again, then back at Leliana with a nod of affirmation. “We do.”

By then, Cullen and Josephine had both noticed my presence too, and they gave me cordial nods of greeting, to which I answered with a small smile.

Maxwell sighed loudly and pulled the door shut. “We…have a lot to discuss. So I suppose we should just jump right in.”

“Yes,” Cassandra agreed. “And due to the nature of the issue, it is probably best to leave the matter of our guest here for last.”

At that, they proceeded to launch into a deep discussion about the state of the Hinterlands, the construction of watchtowers for Dennet, various troop movements and caravan escorts through the region, the prospects of contacting the Grand Clerics, the state of Mother Giselle’s allies, and everything else I expected they would talk about at this stage of the game – pardon the pun. Their topics confirmed that it was definitely early-game world conditions; the Herald hadn’t even made the trip to Val Royeaux, yet, and scouts had only barely returned from the expedition into the marshes after the missing soldiers. I listened carefully to these reports, noting that they seemed to forget about me entirely once immersed in their conversation. I was thankful for the chance to “disappear” for a moment and collect my bearings, allowing me to better gauge how I could fit myself into the current scenario.

But then, far too soon, I became the center of everyone’s attention.

“Well, I think that leaves only one thing more,” Maxwell said, gesturing for me to approach to table. He gave me an assuring smile, but it did little to help.

“Yes, our mysterious guest,” Leliana replied, turning her appraising gaze to me again. “I do wonder why you let her hear so much of our plans, Cassandra.”

The Seeker, too, looked at me. “Perhaps that is best left to her to explain. I…still have difficulty understanding her situation.” She retreated from the table a few steps and scratched the back of her head, as if ceding the floor to me.

Maxwell nodded as I tentatively approached. “I agree. I’m still a little fuzzy on it all as well. It would likely help to hear a full explanation once more.” He chuckled a bit and continued, putting a hand lightly on my back as if to physically support me, “Everyone, this is Tamsyn. We rescued her when we found her unconscious outside a rift in the Hinterlands. It turns out that, much like myself, she somehow ended up in the Fade and, fortunately, found her way out. When she regained her senses, she told me that she wishes to join our cause.”

The advisors exchanged looks of surprise and curiosity, and then returned their attentions to me, seeming at once impressed and concerned.

“That is…very interesting...” Leliana said at last, her tone musing. “But how did she manage to find herself in the Fade to begin with? I think we can understand your being there at this point, Herald, considering the nature of the Conclave explosion.”

“And that is where Cassandra and I get more than a little confused,” Maxwell sighed again, inclining his head to me, seemingly granting me permission to speak. “Tamsyn?”

I felt my eyes widen automatically, and any pre-planned introductions I had conjured before the meeting died in my throat as all eyes latched onto me expectantly. I glanced at my audience, taking a deep breath before answering.

“I’m…” I cleared my throat nervously. “Ahem…I’m, uh, not from Thedas.”

“Not from Thedas?” Cullen repeated, one brow quirking upward.

“So, beyond the seas?” Josephine’s suggestion seemed laced with eagerness. It was hard not to laugh a little at her enthusiasm regarding foreign cultures.

The smile that pulled at my mouth was a sheepish one. “No. Farther than that. I’m…I’m not from this world.” I bounced on my toes a little as I pulled my hands behind me to hide my nervous wringing of them. “Beyond ‘the Beyond’, as it were,” I added with a chuckle.

Utter silence followed, so oppressive I could feel it weighing down my shoulders. Maxwell’s expression was unreadable. Cassandra looked as though she had just eaten a lemon. Leliana’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped open a bit. Josephine’s eyebrows very nearly hit her hairline.

“You’re joking,” Cullen replied, his hands flexing on top of the pommel of his sword as he stared at me flatly.

“I’m not,” I replied shortly, my defensiveness rising far sooner than I had anticipated at his curt response. “Believe me, I wish this were one big joke, but it isn’t.” I could feel my hands balling into fists behind me, hidden by my cloak. “All I can tell you is how I got from there to here, and yes, the explanation is one that’s difficult even for me to swallow. Even so, you need to hear it if you are to understand what I can offer you. You will find that I am a very unique and valuable asset.” I marveled at how much easier the words came when I was angry.

There was another pregnant pause before Josephine said lightly, “Perhaps we should hear her explanation before we judge her too harshly.”

When no one offered anything else, most of them practically glaring at me at this point, I continued with a waver in my voice. “So yes, I’m from another world…a world that got destroyed by some cataclysmic event. I don’t know exactly what happened. All I remember is hearing an explosion, a large one, behind me. And when I turned around to see what it was, the ground was being uplifted, like an eruption, coming at me impossibly fast. Buildings were destroyed in an instant. I started running. I don’t know why, it was stupid to even try. But I did. The last thing I remember of it all was being thrown into the air from the force of it, and then I blacked out.”

I took a deep breath, holding onto the edge of the table for support. “When I finally came to, I was in a place I later discovered to be the Fade. I don’t know what happened between the time I lost consciousness and the time I regained it to get me there. It just did. Something tells me I hit a lot of things on the way, though.” I pulled the side of my collar down far enough that they could see the massive purple bruising on my shoulder. Josephine hissed in a breath, and Leliana’s brows rose. I readjusted my clothing and added, “I found my way out, thankfully. Through a rift, as your Herald said. When I came out on the other side, I passed out again. And then I woke up in an Inquisition tent.”

I wasn’t going to tell them about the little wisp of a spirit that helped me get out of the Fade and booped me, just in case Cullen or Cassandra decided it did more than give me a friendly boop. Maybe it had, and I just didn’t know it yet…

“If what you say is true,” Cullen began, his eyes squinting at me slightly, “then it is a miracle you managed to survive all of that.”

“Yes,” I replied simply with a nod. “It is.”

“But that still doesn’t explain why you wish to join with us, or what you can offer us, unless it is to repay the debt you owe the Herald for your life,” Leliana observed, her shadowed gaze almost unblinking under her hood.

“There is that,” I nodded in acquiescence. “But more importantly, as I’ve already told the Herald, because of where I’m from, I’ve been privileged enough to see this story before. I know the tale of your Inquisition, and I know how it ends.”

“And this is where she really loses me,” Maxwell remarked, rubbing at the back of his neck.

 “I’m sorry, I’m not sure I understand your meaning,” Josephine said, cocking her head at me. “You’re saying that you’ve essentially seen what happens in our world ahead of time? How?”

“It sounds like a type of magic that not even we have encountered before,” Leliana commented, her tone carrying a note of awe.

“It’s not,” I said, shaking my head emphatically so no one would get the wrong idea. “Where I’m from, magic doesn’t even exist.” I sighed loudly in frustration, throwing my hands in the air and letting them slap my thighs. “The thing is, this world, Thedas, is, where I’m from, part of a work of fiction. Like a book. That’s the only way I know anything about any of this.”

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Cassandra shook her head.

“I know it doesn’t. It doesn’t make any sense to me, either. But it’s the truth,” my voice rose in pitch, and I punctuated my words with a pounded fist on the table. “This world…all of you…have never been real to me until now. Until now, Thedas belonged in a work of fiction that people where I’m from read for entertainment.”

A hiss of exasperation came from Cullen, who looked as though he were ready to climb over the table and strangle me. “Why are we entertaining this madwoman?” He asked Cassandra, who silently jerked her thumb at the Herald in response. Maxwell gave her a flat glare.

I’m not mad!” I barked, my impatience ultimately getting the better of me. “You know what I am? I’m someone who just lost everything she knows and loves, found herself in a place that isn’t supposed to be real, and now has to figure out just what the Hell she’s going to do with herself! Who has to live with whatever fucking disaster destroyed her home and now has to find a way to survive longer than a fucking week! Can you at least understand that simple fact?!”

That brought their snide interjections to a halt for once.

I took a few breaths and continued, “I’ll tell you what I told your Herald. I can’t survive here. Not on my own. And I’d very much like not to die at the hands of bandits or marauders or qunari or rebel mages or rebel Templars or just some random fucking animal that decides it wants to have me for lunch! All I want is the safety of the Inquisition. And in return, I am willing to give you some semblance of certainty regarding how this story goes. It’s all I have.” I shrugged and shook my head resignedly. “I can’t fight, I can’t spy, and I sure as Hell can’t be diplomatic, as you no doubt can tell. But what I can do is tell you what choices you have and what will happen if you make those decisions. That’s got to be good for something, right?”

Leliana pressed her lips together as she leaned forward onto the table. “And how do we know you’re not a spy who has crafted a very elaborate tale for us to swallow?”

“You don’t,” I replied with another shrug. “Not yet. But when you send out courier after courier and raven after raven trying to find information on me and turn up absolutely nothing, then maybe you will believe me.” I crossed my arms as a wry smile tugged at the Nightingale’s lips. It was then I knew she was going to gladly accept the challenge.

Josephine sighed, turning to her colleagues with her quill in hand. “If my opinion in this matter counts for anything, then I will say that I do not believe Tamsyn is either a spy or a madwoman. I’ll admit, my experience with both is a bit…limited. But I have been exposed to a great many sorts of people in my life, including the deceptive and the insane. These are not descriptors I would apply to her. I think we can rest assured that she is being as honest as she can be, considering the situation. She obviously both desires our assistance and wishes to compensate us for it. Should we be so eager to dismiss her?” The Ambassador cast me a small smile, and I couldn’t help but smile back, thankful that at least one person in the room was willing to give me a chance.

“Varric and Solas both seemed receptive to the idea that what Tamsyn says happened could have actually occurred, however unbelievable it may seem.” Maxwell finally rejoined the conversation. “And, honestly, something she told me not long after we found her rings true – we’ve seen events occur lately that we all thought were impossible until now…how is this situation of hers any different from all that?”

I felt my mouth drop open, and I was more than a bit shocked at what I heard. So he had actually taken my words to heart, then? Wow

Cassandra sighed heavily, putting her head in her hands. “So…if we are to assume that Tamsyn is absolutely correct in her assessment of what happened to her, and she hasn’t been driven mad by the Fade…if this truly is a narrative that she has somehow read before…”

“Then she also knows who our antagonists are,” Leliana supplied.

“Right,” Cullen agreed, brow furrowing. “If you know the future, then why not just tell us the names of our enemies and be done with it? We could end this conflict much sooner.”

I shook my head, “Because then the Inquisition might not succeed. Your victory depends on knowing the right information at the right time, and not before. The temptation to spill it all now is certainly great, yes. But then I would no longer be aware of the future, because at that point, everything would change.”

“Her very presence here could change things,” Josephine said suddenly, her hazel eyes a bit wider as comprehension dawned. I internally cringed. I kind of hoped no one would pick up on that part…

“What do you mean?” Cullen asked.

Josephine’s brow furrowed as she thought, “It would be like a person going back in time to events with which they originally played no part. Her very presence here could alter the history of the world.”

“Right,” I said with a slow nod. “This story, as it usually goes, has no Tamsyn in it. Now that I’m here,” I gestured to myself, “I’m the only one who can make sure this story stays on the right path.” I nervously laughed and added, “Or, well, you could also solve it by killing me, sure. But then you wouldn’t have any guidance at all.”

“No one here is going to kill you,” Maxwell assured.

“But it’s your perception of the right path,” Leliana observed. “Stories can often be warped to support the opinion of the author who wrote them to begin with.”

“True,” I said with a bit of a smile. “But you must believe me when I say I want the best resolution possible for everyone in the Inquisition.”

“You’ll forgive me if that is a bit difficult to take your word for, at the moment,” Cullen replied tersely.

“I know. I understand, and I do forgive you,” I answered, glancing down at the table. I was getting really tired. “I know how it looks, and I know how it must feel having someone tell you all this. If I were you, I’d be suspicious, too. Have your people look into my background, if it makes you feel better. Keep me under lock and key for a while. But please,” I implored, “give me a chance to prove myself. I promise that I will not steer you wrong.”

“But,” Cassandra said suddenly, her eyes betraying the first inkling of curiosity she had displayed thus far, “If this is like a story to you, then your knowledge has a limit, correct? You cannot see past the supposed ending?”

I nodded, “That is correct. At some point, I won’t be able to provide any more advice, as I won’t know how events will pan out past a certain point. I will let you know when that time comes, but right now, that time is a long way off.”

“How long?” Leliana pressed.

I shrugged, “Three or four years, give or take.”

Cullen heaved a heavy sigh, brow furrowing as he rubbed the back of his neck and closed his eyes. Josephine had focused her gaze on her tablet, but wasn’t writing anything. Leliana exchanged looks with Cassandra and slowly shook her head. After a few moments, Maxwell at last broke the almost unbearable silence, “Solas suggested testing her. Letting her give us information on future events and seeing if her word holds true. If it does, then we will know she is being honest.”

More silence.

“Well then, Mistress Tamsyn,” Josephine finally said, turning her full attention to me. “You have heard the state of the Inquisition. You know where we are and where we can go at this point. How do you suggest we move forward?”

I took a breath, glancing between Cassandra and Maxwell. Here it was. The first test.

“You both will need to go to Val Royeaux to face the Grand Clerics. There you will find Revered Mother Hevara waiting on you, preaching to her flock. She will denounce you, and she will insist on your arrest, but the…guests, she has in mind to do so will turn on her. There will be a face you recognize but don’t know truly, Seeker, and you will leave with more questions than answers. There will also be opportunities to gain more allies in the capital, so keep your eyes open while you’re there.” I turned to the rest of them, “That is what you need to know thus far.”

“Hevara,” Leliana remarked with a dark scowl. “I have heard that name. She is one of the most ardent seekers of the Sunburst Throne. She has been scrambling for support ever since hearing of Justinia’s death.”

“Is she a threat?” Cullen inquired.

“No,” I replied with a shake of my head. “Once she is brought down a peg by the people she wants to do her bidding, she will no longer be a person of significance.”

“I must say,” Josephine commented, brows raised, “this is all becoming rather intriguing.”

“Yes,” Leliana replied. “Now all that remains is to see if our ‘friend’ here is telling the truth.”

“Only one way to find out,” Maxwell said pointedly, raising his brows at Cassandra as if asking for her final say on the matter.

At last, after a painful pause, the Seeker sighed her resignation. “All right. Tamsyn…you may stay with the Inquisition here in Haven. For now. But know that you will be watched.”

My relief was so overwhelming that I nearly collapsed where I stood. I let out a pent up breath and leaned on the table for support. “Thank you,” I breathed, feeling my arms trembling as they attempted to hold up my weight. “Thank you so much. Thank you.”

“Our meeting is now adjourned,” the Seeker continued, heading for the door. “I will be speaking with each of you individually before we make plans to leave for Val Royeaux.”

With that, they slowly began filing from the chamber, avoiding my gaze, whilst I remained standing where I was. I certainly wasn’t going to fight them for the doorway while tensions remained so high. I felt Maxwell clap a hand to my shoulder with a bit of a chuckle, “I suppose congratulations are in order, then. Welcome to the Inquisition, Tamsyn.”

The clink of metal followed him as he, too, left, chased by the soft swish of Josephine’s satin garb and the creak and clank of the door as it closed behind them all, leaving me standing alone in the makeshift war room.

Welcome to the Inquisition.

Even as I replayed those words over and over in my mind, scarcely believing they had actually been said, I didn’t feel very welcome at all.

Chapter Text

I stayed in the war room for several minutes, waiting long enough for the others to disperse and even leave the Chantry entirely. I wanted to be alone for a while, without people leading me about or checking up on me. I knew Haven well enough. I didn’t need supervision or help finding my way around. But, unfortunately, I knew they thought I needed to be watched, and I fully expected to be tailed by one of the Nightingale’s scouts as I finally garnered the nerve to leave the chamber.

I opened the door tentatively and peeked out, only exposing my head and shoulders past the casement. When I saw that no one was in the near vicinity, not even Mother Giselle, I breathed a sigh of relief. The closest people to me were a pair of gossiping lay sisters in an alcove near the entrance. They likely hadn’t heard a thing.

Taking a deep breath, I slipped fully out of the room, pulling my bags and cloak tighter to me and striding down the main thoroughfare towards the open Chantry doors like I had every right to be there and knew exactly what I was doing. Which, of course, I did. On both counts. I didn’t look around, didn’t meet anyone’s gaze, and didn’t glance over my shoulder to see if someone really was following me. I wasn’t going to give the Nightingale the pleasure of seeing me act nervous or paranoid…that would do nothing but help solidify my guilt in her eyes.

When I finally made it back outside, I noticed that the sun was dipping low behind the mountains, the Breach just a little brighter in the dimming sky. It would be getting dark soon, and with the dark would come the cold – probably colder than even the Hinterlands had been. I needed to find a shelter where I was welcome and proper food, and just the thoughts of the latter set my stomach to growling loudly again. That hot meal I had been thinking about on our arrival now preyed fiercely on my mind, and I turned towards the leftmost path from the Chantry, letting my sore feet lead me through the settlement and straight to the Singing Maiden.

I could hear the laughter and music before I even entered, spilling from the open windows, and it brought a smile unbidden to my face. That such a merry atmosphere could be cultivated at all with the world falling apart at the seams – it spoke of either great resilience or great thick-headedness. Or both. As I approached the nearest door, I felt like I could really use some of whatever it was that was in there right now. Something to make me forget the mountain of crap I had fallen into. I eased the door open and ducked inside quickly, so my entrance wouldn’t be quite so obvious. Within, the tavern was filled with scouts and soldiers, most of whom looked like they had just returned from their patrol duties, judging from their wind-bitten features. One of the troops nearest the door gave me a nod of acknowledgement, which I politely returned, but he said nothing at all to me. The rest of the patrons were too engrossed in their conversations to even notice me, and Maryden’s playing in addition to the constant hum of voices masked the creak of the door hinge.

So, it was apparent that no one had gone running around the village screaming who and what I claimed to be quite yet. That was good. It meant I would at least have a tiny bit of peace and quiet before word got around. Maybe a day or two, if I was lucky. No doubt some overly-curious blabbermouth scout or town biddy would pick it up from the Herald or one of his companions or even the advisors and go on the gossip-fest of the ages. But, thankfully, that hadn’t happened today.

Just as I was looking for a place to sit, I saw a hand wave out of the corner of my eye. Varric, alone at a small table near the crackling fire, saw me and was gesturing for me to join him. Smiling, I gladly obliged.

“There you are,” he said as I approached, and I dumped my bags at the feet of the rickety chair I plopped into across from him. “I thought Cassandra might have decided to have you for dinner or something.”

“I was beginning to think she was going to myself,” I answered with a quiet chuckle as I pulled the chair closer to the table.

“So, tell me,” he leaned forward, peaking blunt gloved fingers underneath his square chin. “How’d it go? Are they letting you stay?”

“For now,” I replied with a sigh. “The Herald followed Solas’s advice and let me tell them a few things about their current tasks and what to expect in the future. They’ll be going to see if what I said comes true, soon. Or you will be, rather.” I smiled wryly. “Another trip with the Herald is in order.”

His brow rose, “Really, now? Where to?”

“Val Royeaux.”

Shit.” He grabbed the tankard at his elbow and tossed back the remaining contents.

“Yeah.”

“You coming with?”

I shook my head, “Probably not. Honestly, I wouldn’t be much help there anyway, and I think Sister Nightingale wants to keep an eye on me.” I glanced around, leaned closer, and whispered, “Well, more like murder me in my sleep if I so much as look at someone the wrong way.”

He chuckled. “So…she thinks you’re a spy.”

“Willing to bet my oversized boots she does,” I nodded affirmatively. “She’s going to be in for a shock when she finds out I’m not, though.”

“Yeah,” he sighed, leaning back in his chair. “You know, no one in their right mind wants to believe this Fade disaster not only punched a hole in our world but someone else’s, too. Enough to zap someone from said other world into ours with knowledge about…well, apparently almost everything that happens.”

I sighed again. “It’s not that comprehensive all the time, though. I can’t tell you when Corporal So-and-So from Wherevertown digs his morning latrine.”

He laughed heartily at that, and then nodded slowly in understanding. “Because you said it’s like a story, right? So that means you know all the important plot points, but not the day-to-day details of all the, ah, extras.” He gestured around at the patrons.

I nodded in agreement.

He huffed out a breath and shook his head in disbelief. “I honestly still can’t get my head wrapped around what you’re saying happened and how you know what you know about all this. But I’m smart enough to realize that just because I can’t understand it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I’ll admit, up to this point, I’ve been caught halfway between thinking you got hit in the head one too many times and actually believing you. But the more I hear you talk, the more I’m inclined to go with the latter.”

I smiled, honestly warmed by his words. “Thanks, Varric. It’s good to-”

I was abruptly cut off as my stomach then decided to growl loudly enough for the both of us to hear it over the noise of the tavern. I felt my face immediately grow hot as it reddened in embarrassment, but Varric merely chuckled. “Someone’s hungry, it seems.”

“Yeah,” I replied, glancing at the bar, “I guess I got so wrapped up in everything I forgot about it for a bit. I was…” I trailed, suddenly realizing that, out of all the supplies I had been given by Scout Harding, none of it included coin. “Oh, crap. I don’t have any money.”

Varric shook his head. “Don’t worry about that. Ruffles has everything sorted out already. No need to be concerned about food when you’re around here. Flissa!” he called. Once the barkeep raised her head from her work, he added, “A bowl of your famous stew and some ale for the lass?”

When she nodded in response, I felt myself flush even more. “You’re being awfully kind to a near-total stranger.”

“Just trying to put myself in your shoes, Tamsyn,” he replied with a smirk. His eyes looked a little distant as he added, “Something I do a bit too much, I think. It’s become something of a detrimental habit of mine.”

It was then that Flissa suddenly approached with a bowl of stew and a mug of ale in hand. She smiled broadly at me as she set both items in front of me, “Enjoy, miss.”

“Thank you,” I replied with an equally broad smile, and the barkeep dipped her head to me before returning to the counter.

The food smelled heavenly. It was steaming hot, straight from the kettle, and as I inspected it with the wooden spoon I’d been provided, it looked to be a mixture of hearty broth, vegetables, and some sort of meat. “Hope you like leeks and potatoes,” Varric commented. “We have a surplus of those right now.”

“What’s the meat?” I poked at a particularly large and dark chunk, edged with fat.

“Ram. It’s the only thing we have in steady supply at the moment.”

My brows rose. I’d never eaten anything remotely like ram meat before, but I wasn’t about to turn my nose up at it.  Immediately after I took the first bite, I was hooked for life. It was delicious, and once I started, I couldn’t stop shoveling it into my mouth in a rather un-ladylike fashion. It reminded me of my uncle’s deer stews and chili. That man was practically addicted to venison…

Was…

Varric must have noticed the look on my face, as he suddenly said quietly, “Bringing back some memories, eh?”

I swallowed heavily, not lifting my gaze from the bowl. “Yeah. Didn’t expect that.”

He grunted his understanding and fell silent again as I finished up. I forcefully shoved the memories back and didn’t stop eating until the wooden spoon could gather no more liquid. I then pushed the bowl aside, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, and took a giant gulp from the tankard without thinking. Thankfully, the ale tasted like it had been watered down, so it wasn’t too hard to swallow. It had a strange aftertaste, but I wasn’t going to complain about something that had been given to me.

Herald!

The chorus of voices…well…heralded Maxwell’s arrival at the Singing Maiden. I looked up from my tankard to see him enter the tavern sans armor, and I noticed he looked somewhat smaller without all that gear on him. He acknowledged the soldiers and scouts with polite nods, though he seemed a bit embarrassed by all the attention.

Good to know he didn’t bask in it.

The patrons went back to their drinks rather quickly, and as the Herald made his way over to our table, dragging up another chair, Varric teased, “And here I was thinking you weren’t going to show.”

Maxwell sighed heavily, “Cassandra kept me occupied for quite a while with travel plans.” Glancing my way, he met my eyes with his olive green stare and added, “I didn’t want to say it with the others within earshot, but I think you handled the meeting rather well, Tamsyn.”

“Thanks,” I offered him a sheepish smile. “It was tough, I’ll admit. Especially after the Commander started looking like he wanted to kill me.” I recalled the feeling of hostility that had permeated the air towards the end of the council meeting, and I self-consciously took another gulp of the ale. I was fairly convinced that Cullen hated me now, along with Cassandra, and it hurt my heart more than a little.

“Naaah,” Varric shook his head. “Curly wouldn’t kill you. He’s just…a little tired of all the magical bullshit going on. Can’t say as I blame him. I’m getting there myself.”

“I think we all are,” Maxwell replied before returning his attention to me. “Honestly, Tamsyn, I think you’re safe here. Cassandra and Leliana want to watch you, yes. But I’m all but certain it’s just to make themselves feel better, at this point. They still have trouble believing your story, but I don’t think anyone sees you as a true threat. If they did, you would be in the dungeons and not here.”

“And what about you, Herald?” I asked, curious as to his own thoughts on the matter. “Do you believe me?”

He answered me with a wry smile. “I shall reserve judgment until after we return from Val Royeaux.”

Ergh,” Varric groaned. “And here I was hoping Tamsyn was just bullshitting me about that.”

Maxwell leaned back in his chair. “Unfortunately, not. Josephine has made arrangements for us, and Leliana has sent scouts ahead of us to gauge the situation. Apparently an interesting turn of events will take place there, according to Tamsyn. And, more allies will be there, you said?”

I nodded, offering a small smile as I remembered the notes from Vivienne and Sera in the Orlesian square. “Keep an eye out for a messenger and an arrow.”

“A messenger and an arrow,” Maxwell repeated slowly, his eyes wandering upwards as he mentally stored the information. He pulled his hands behind his head, and I could see the Mark pulsing faintly on his left palm.

“So what kind of allies?” Varric inquired probingly, “Political? Religious? What are we talking about, here?”

I smiled. I anticipated this sort of pressing would happen a lot over the course of my tenure with the Inquisition.

“You’ll see,” I winked.

The dwarf’s lips quirked into another smirk, “Ah, figures. Can’t tell us everything ‘cause it will change the story.”

Maxwell chuckled a bit at the remark, but I didn’t. I was afraid that was going to be a tension point between me and everyone else. Especially in regards to some later events…

“Oh, before it slips my mind,” the Herald suddenly leaned forward again. “Tamsyn, Josephine requested you come to her office at your earliest convenience tomorrow.”

“Really? What about?”

He shrugged, “Logistical matters, I’m sure.”

“In other words, ‘lodging, a uniform, and a salary,’” Varric clarified.

“Likely,” Maxwell agreed. “If everything develops as you say it will in Val Royeaux, then I believe you’ll be considered an additional advisor to the Inquisition, at least in some capacity, and I think Josephine wants to be certain to pay you appropriately. I also told her that you need some clothes that actually fit you,” he looked down at the squished toes of my boots. “Perhaps even some armor.”

I felt my brows rise at the suggestion. “Armor?”

“Yes. I know you said you couldn’t fight. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need protection.”

“Especially if you’re good enough at this prediction thing that Max here wants to drag you everywhere with us,” Varric winked back at me.

“We’ll see about that,” the Herald chuckled again.

At that, I suddenly yawned, and I quickly put a hand in front of my mouth so as not to be rude. The events of the day – and a half night’s worth of listening to their snoring – was catching up to me rather fast. Maxwell noticed this, and he looked to Varric questioningly. “Is there a place Tamsyn can sleep until Josephine arranges something better for her?”

“Haven’s pretty packed, but there’s several cabins with multiple cots in them,” the dwarf replied at length. “No one’s assigned to those, so I’d say you could just pick a bed and crash. Or you could try the Chantry if you’re not feeling brave enough.”

I yawned a second time, and my head felt a little light as exhaustion settled in. “I’d rather not get in the path of the advisors again if I can help it,” I said sleepily. “I’ll uh…try the cots. If I wake up dumped face-first on the floor, I’ll know I did it wrong.”

“Well,” Maxwell gave me a small smile, “If anyone gives you any trouble, just tell them the Herald said you could retire there.”

Varric laughed wickedly, “Oh that’ll shut ‘em up.”

I hummed a bit in amusement as I picked up my bags and stood. “Well, Varric…Herald,” I nodded to each of them in turn. “I think I need to answer the call of sleep. Thank you both so much for…well, everything.”

“Sleep well, Tamsyn.”

“No problem. Get some rest.”

At that, I left the tavern to find one of those cot-filled cabins they spoke of. The late evening air already had a distinct bite to it, and I shivered as I navigated the streets of Haven, my breath puffing out in little clouds. All the while, I thought of how supportive Maxwell and Varric had been, thankful that they had been so trusting of me and so willing to help me out, even if they did find my story unbelievable. I kept replaying the war council meeting over and over in my mind, knowing that if I had been in their shoes, I would have been just as suspicious as Cassandra and Cullen and Leliana had been.

I could only hope that I would eventually be able to win them all over.

Chapter Text

When I finally awoke the next morning, it was already so late that everyone who had been in the cabin when I had stumbled to bed the night before was long gone. I was honestly surprised that no one had tried to wake me up at dawn, but I was thankful they hadn’t. I had been completely and utterly exhausted from the previous days’ events and needed to catch up on rest if I was to keep going. And I had to keep going. No matter what happened, I wouldn’t give up. I wouldn’t.

Once I was awake enough to focus, I rummaged through my bag to see what other supplies I had been given – the “essentials” Harding had mentioned. Soap. Various tiny but rather crude tools, including a small knife that looked like some sort of razor. A bone comb. Some fine powder I assumed was the equivalent of toothpaste when mixed with water. Taking the comb, I pulled out my ponytail and carefully brushed through my tangled hair, frowning as I realized it was getting a little on the oily side. Not being able to shower was going to be hell.

I spent at least ten minutes combing through the matted mess before it was at last somewhat presentable. As I finally pulled the curlyish hair back up with my trusty elastic band, taking great care not to stretch it too far, and smoothing down the frizz with my hands, I realized I was probably going to be lucky if I got to bathe once a week, at least while here in Haven. I would have to ask Josephine to be sure, but I was pretty certain that utilizing washtubs every day was not going to be a possibility.

Better get used to smelling like a pig, Tamsyn.

I grimaced. Hopefully, I didn’t smell too badly yet. I remembered Maxwell telling me that Josephine wanted to talk to me, and the last thing I wanted the Ambassador to realize was the fact I hadn’t bathed in days. The very thoughts of it made my cheeks redden in embarrassment. God, this was going to be hard to get used to…

After I packed up everything again, I noticed there was a basin in the corner with some water in it. I approached it, but I didn’t use the contents to wash my face. Rather, I used it as a makeshift mirror to check and see if I looked all right before heading out into public. I frowned at my reflection. “All right” was just about the extent of it. My hairstyle was too harsh without makeup, really. My face was already etched into an expression of pure misery. There were dark circles under my eyes. A faint bruise I hadn’t even noticed before was already turning green-brown on my cheekbone.

Shaking my head, I forced myself away from the basin and out into the open world. Now was no time to be fussing over my looks. I could worry about baths and appearances after I was secure enough in my position with the Inquisition to be able to do so. Right now, even with Cassandra’s permission to stay, I wasn’t so sure that I was.

As I left the cabin, I noticed that Varric was not at his place at his fire near the center of the settlement. Frowning, I wandered towards Solas’s part of the village. The elf wasn’t there either. Maxwell must have already left for Val Royeaux, then. Huffing out a breath, I hoped against hope that my “prediction” would really come true, and that my very being here hadn’t messed all that up. My welfare depended on my being right. If I turned out to be wrong out of the starting gate, I would be in deep trouble.

Sighing in resignation, I turned to head towards the direction of the Chantry to get this meeting with Josephine over with.

But then I realized I needed to pee.

How did Thedosians use the “privy,” as I recalled the protagonist calling it? Using a bush would be the logical answer if in the wilderness, but here? Did they have outhouses in Thedas? I thought I remembered Blackwall mentioning something about a village latrine before. Perhaps Haven had one? Surely if they didn’t before, someone had built one. Or two. Or three. There was no way they had indoor plumbing, so that had to be it. And considering the amount of people, they had to have more than one if they didn’t want a line at the door…

I chuckled to myself. Just follow the smell, right?

Surprisingly, it actually didn’t take that long to find. The latrine – or at least the one I encountered – was, in fact, very similar to an outhouse in appearance, positioned on the edge of the village near the mine. Lucky for me, no one else was near it at the time, and so I quickly ducked in and latched the door before someone else could claim it. I held my breath and did my business as quickly as I could. It wasn’t as unpleasant of an experience as I had feared, though it wouldn’t do any good to gripe about it; I didn’t have any choice. I just wished I had easier access to soap and water.

Hoping no one had been waiting on me, I quickly opened the door and left the privy, only to charge right into a soldier who had been reaching for the handle to test it. And, as luck would have it, I didn’t just run into him…I tripped on his boots and knocked him down, landing right on top of him. My cloak tangled in my legs, my bags went flying, and we fell in a heap with yelps and a rattle of armor.

“Whoa, Maker…mph!”

“Shit! Oof! Sonova-”

We both grunted loudly on impact. Landing with my full body weight chest first onto a steel breastplate was no fun. Not at all. But my physical pain was quickly replaced with the sting of humiliation as I scrambled to get off of him…

…and recognized the face underneath the helm as that of none other than Knight-Captain Rylen.

Frickin’ Rylen.

Oh, shit…

“Oh, my God! I’m so sorry! So, so sorry!” I apologized profusely, certain my entire head was going to spontaneously combust from the intensity of my blushing. “I had no idea anyone-”

“Easy, lass, easy! It’s all right!” he laughed a little, getting back to his feet with far more grace than I had before I could even offer to help him up. “I’m the one who should be sorry…I was a bit too intent on getting to my destination…”

“So was I,” I replied, quickly bending to retrieve my bags to hide my face. “I’m really, really sorry, ser.”

“It’s all right, lass. You weren’t hurt were you?”

“No, no, it’s fine!” I reassured, my own laugh a nervous one as I straightened my clothes. “Are you ok?”

“I’m fine, yes. No worries, as I said.”

“Good.”

I spun on my heel and barreled for the Chantry before he could say anything else to me, very nearly in tears from sheer embarrassment. Great. I just plowed right into Cullen’s second-in-command. I could hear it now: “Hey, Commander, you know that new girl?” “The crazy one who claims she’s from another world?” “That one. She ran right into me and knocked me to the ground racing to get out of the privy, of all things.”

At least it hadn’t been Cullen himself. If it had been, I think I would have expired on the spot.

The village went by in a blur. Once within the darkness of the building, I ducked into a side alcove to recover my composure, taking deep breaths to calm myself. It was just an accident, and a silly one at that, and yet I felt like any wrong move could be the end of me. I tilted my head back and closed my eyes, forcing the hot tears that threatened to spill down my cheeks to recede. I fidgeted with my bags and cloak again and then cleared my throat before emerging from the alcove and heading for Josephine’s office door. Time to get this done.

I knocked gently, the sound terribly loud in the quiet Chantry, and I heard a muffled “Come in” in answer.

Carefully, I opened the door and peeked inside. Josephine was bent over her desk, scribbling away intently at whatever diplomatic task was before her. When she did not look up at my entrance, I said tentatively, “Um…Ambassador?”

Her hazel gaze lifted at last, and she seemed slightly surprised when she saw me. Once she did, though, she smiled warmly and beckoned me forward, “Oh, do come in, Mistress Tamsyn. I was hoping you would drop by.”

I hesitated a moment, honestly taken aback by her welcoming demeanor. She had been nice enough at the council meeting, but I thought perhaps she would have second thoughts later. Apparently not.

The door slowly creaked shut behind me, and I noticed Minaeve was absent as I carefully made my way forward. Josephine set aside her work and gestured to an empty chair opposite her. “Do sit and make yourself comfortable.”

I nodded and obeyed, dropping my bags beside the chair as I sat down.

“I feel I must congratulate you on your success in convincing Lady Pentaghast to let you join the Inquisition,” the Ambassador said as she procured fresh parchment and stacked it atop the miniature lectern on her desk. “She has expressed concern that you are not what you say you are, but she has not changed her mind about you, either. In fact, it was she who told me after our meeting that I make proper accommodations for you as soon as possible. That is what I was hoping to arrange now.”

My brows rose. So Cassandra was more inclined to believe me than she had let on. I was certain that the Seeker would never have instructed Josephine to make specific arrangements for me unless she truly wanted me to stay. Josephine must have read my thoughts from my expression, as she added, “Don’t be fooled. Despite what Lady Pentaghast said yesterday, you have made quite the impression on her. I do believe her eagerness to leave for Val Royeaux with the Herald this morning was more because of your implications, rather than our pressing need to deal with the Grand Clerics. If your words prove true, I would venture to say that she will be more than grateful for your continued assistance. As will we all.”

I smirked, recalling how Cullen and Leliana had reacted, and I asked skeptically, “Are you sure about that, Ambassador?”

She chuckled, knowing exactly what I meant, and then sighed as she shook her head. “Cullen has a similar mind as Cassandra, and if she trusts you, then I have a feeling he will grow to accept you as well. Do forgive his brusqueness at the meeting...he has been rather strained as of late. As for Leliana,” she looked off into the corner, “she is still a bit suspicious, and she has sent her agents to find information on you. But she knows as well as I do that you wouldn’t have so brazenly challenged her to do so if there was anything incriminating to be found. She has all but told me that she knows you aren’t a spy, she is just…taking precautions.”

“To make herself and everyone else feel better about it all,” I supplied.

“Yes,” Josephine sighed, propping her elbows atop the desk and peaking her fingers under her chin. “At this point, we can do nothing but take you at your word. I will admit, it is difficult.” She paused, thinking about her words before continuing, “But, I imagine that it is difficult for you, as well. I cannot fathom how you must be feeling right now. Thus, I feel it necessary to try to put your mind at ease, if I can.”

I nodded appreciatively, glancing down at my hands before asking, “So…you really believe me, then?”

She smiled gently, “I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. I will await Cassandra and the Herald’s return before I make a firm decision, of course. You understand.”

“I do. Like I said before, if I were in your shoes, I’d be very suspicious, too.”

Her smile widened, “Perhaps you would not be as terrible a diplomat as you believe. Being able to put yourself in someone else’s position is the first step towards becoming a successful negotiator.” She lifted her quill and dipped it into her inkwell, adding, “But on to business, shall we? I will need to have you added to the Inquisition’s official roster if I am to provide you with all the necessities due your position with us. Your full name, please.” She bent over the parchment again as she awaited my answer.

“Tamsyn Alexandria Ashworth,” I said slowly. Because of the angle of the lectern, I couldn’t see if she was spelling it right or not, and she didn’t ask. I supposed it really didn’t matter all that much. There probably weren’t a lot of Tamsyns in the Inquisition.

After a few moments of scratching, she continued, “And your age?”

“Twenty-nine.”

She paused, and her brow furrowed as she thought. “I don’t suppose your calendar is anything like ours, is it?”

“It’s got twelve months like yours. My birthday is the seventeenth of the third month.”

“Ah.” She nodded and scratched away again on the parchment. “So, the seventeenth of Drakonis.” She looked upwards at the ceiling as she counted. “9:12 Dragon, had you been born here.”

More scribbling.

“And what is your rank?”

I hesitated. “Our, ah…our titles work a little differently where I’m from. Here I’d just be…well, I guess just a commoner.”

Her brow furrowed as she scribbled some more, but I could read no judgment in her mannerisms. “What occupation, then?”

Another pause as I formulated how to describe it to her simply. “I used to write. Small stories. Articles. Like in a periodic publication.”

Her brows rose as she took note of it, her quill bobbing over the paper. “I see. You have a formal education, then?”

I smiled proudly, “I do.” Suddenly struck by impulse, I added, “I attended a university as well.”

“You did?” she seemed even more surprised at that, and I grinned, conveniently omitting the fact that it didn’t require noble patronage like I was fairly certain it did in Thedas. I hoped her knowledge of my education would gain me favor somewhere. Maybe.

“You shall have to tell me about it sometime,” she said as she continued writing, adding details to her report.

“I’d love to.”

We both fell silent for several long moments as she scratched away, the parchment quickly filling with ink as she, I assumed, wrote down instructions or descriptions for whomever she was going to send the paper to.

“Now,” she said at length, pausing her writing. “I’ll be giving you the empty cabin adjacent to the Herald’s, formerly occupied by Marquise Cécelie and her daughters. It is the most recent vacancy in Haven and likely the most suitable for you.”

I felt my eyes widen in surprise at her words. I had been expecting to be assigned to a specific bed in a cabin much like the one I had awoken in that morning – if not that exact one. Not be given a whole one to myself.

“A…a whole house? Really?”

She gave me an affirmative nod, “Of course. Unless you want someone else to share it with you?”

“Oh, no! I mean, not unless you have to,” I replied with a nervous laugh. “I’m…well, a pretty private person, really.”

Josephine grinned knowingly, “I thought so. It is apparent that, should Cassandra be pleased with the results of the Herald’s mission, you won’t function as a mere courier, scout, or soldier here, so it stands to reason you should have a residence of your own with some measure of privacy. I imagine you will be handling some delicate information that requires you to be unobserved for a measure of time.”

“T-thank you!” was all I could say. It was a rather lame expression of the level of gratitude I felt, but it was all that would come out of my stupid mouth…

She continued her writing, likely making the assignment official. All the while, I couldn’t believe my luck. Things were looking up after all. I wondered…

“So, uh…Ambassador? What do you do about baths around here?” I asked, finally garnering the nerve to inquire about such a thing. I was hoping she wouldn’t think it a selfish question, or that it came from a pampered person with no grasp of just how thin their resources were spread. I hoped she understood…

She stopped writing and looked up at me with surprise in her hazel eyes. “Oh, that. Well, as you can tell, the surface water in the area is frozen solid almost all year,” she looked visibly uncomfortable at the mention of it. “But I have been told that the well has a plentiful supply, and, from what I’ve learned, the locals sometimes even use the snowmelt. Do you wish one to be drawn for you?”

I blushed. “If it’s not too much trouble…”

She shook her head emphatically, leaning forward at me a little. “Of course not. Despite our rather dire financial straits at the moment, we cannot have cleanliness go neglected. We must remain presentable at all times, and we must also maintain good health; the Commander in particular is adamant that he will not have disease spreading amongst the ranks, and so we have all made personal hygiene a top priority. Our servants are paid well to attend to the hygienic needs of our people. We even have our own chandlers here in Haven, with regular distributions of soap amongst the troops. It is nothing like Orlesian or Antivan products, mind you, but it will do the job.”

I felt my brows rise in surprise. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. “Oh, well, that’s…better than I expected, really.”

The corner of Josephine’s mouth turned upwards just a bit. “We are not as barbaric as our opponents make us out to be. Our funds may be stretched, but I ensure that every coin goes towards the benefit of our people.” She scribbled a bit more and then set her quill in the inkwell, pausing for a few moments as she let the ink dry. “I will make note for someone to ready a bath for you this afternoon. In the meantime,” she folded the parchment and handed it to me, “if you will, run this by Quartermaster Threnn. She will then see about getting you a proper uniform made.”

“All right,” I took the paper carefully and then cautiously rose to leave, “Thank you again, Ambassador.”

She dipped her head, “Of course, Mistress Tamsyn. Now, if you will excuse me.”

I half-bowed and gathered my bags, quickly leaving the room so she could resume her work, but not before peeking through the window to make sure I didn’t plow right into Mother Giselle or Minaeve on the way out. I could feel my face flushing again at the memory of my collision with Rylen.

Once outside the Chantry, I made a beeline for Threnn at the requisition table, noticing that Leliana was not at her tent. I waited a few moments as the Quartermaster finished speaking with a delivery boy before approaching her with Josephine’s parchment in hand.

“Yes, you need something, miss?” Threnn asked as I neared.

“Ambassador Josephine said to give you this,” I answered simply, extending the paper to her.

Her brow furrowed as she took it, unfolded it, and quickly scanned its contents. “Right. Welcome to the Inquisition, Tamsyn. I’ll send some instructions down to the forge. A messenger will come ‘round to find you when they’re ready to get your measurements.” The quickness with which she said it indicated that there was to be no further conversation with her about it.

“Thank you, Quartermaster,” I replied with a dip of my head.

“Aye. Maker go with you.”

“And you.”

With that, I turned away from Threnn’s requisition table and began making my way towards my new residence, eager to dump my bags there and have a few moments to myself to absorb everything Josephine had told me. Then maybe I would head to the Singing Maiden for something to eat. Take a long walk around the village while I waited for the servants to bring the bath water…

I inhaled deeply and let out a slow breath as my footsteps felt just a bit lighter. Maybe, just maybe, things would be all right after all.

Chapter Text

I sat at the foot of the bed in my new cabin, my bags on the straw mattress beside me, and looked around.

Not too shabby…

It was fairly bare at the moment, partially because, I assumed, it had been stripped of contents when the Marquise and her children left the village. It was one large room, the single bed shoved against the rear left-hand corner, facing towards the door. In the middle of the back wall was the fireplace – currently cold. A small table with two chairs sat at the center of the room, and another, smaller table and stool had been placed under the window on the right-side wall. There was a slightly warped, standing mirror with a copper frame in the corner opposite the bed. Another window on the left-hand wall gave me a view of the Herald’s cabin, and two more windows bordered the door. Each had its own pair of shutters that could be closed from the inside.

And that was about the size of it.

The bed itself was covered in a large deerskin over the straw, and the blanket on top of that was comprised of furs of some sort. No pillow. I wondered if this was how the Marquise had slept, or if she had taken her own bedclothes with her. If she was an Orlesian like I thought she was, then I wouldn’t have been surprised at the latter.

As for myself, I didn’t care. In fact, the charming little cottage was already working its way into my heart. It was cozy, neat, and gave me privacy I otherwise wouldn’t have had. It just needed a few more personal touches, and it would be like a new home.

No, it was my new home.

I felt tears prick in my eyes again. Mom would have loved a little cabin like this. She always liked small and simple. Rustic. And this was certainly all of those things.

I huffed out a sigh, closing my eyes and trying not to cry again. It was so hard to not curl up into a ball on that tiny mattress and bawl my eyes out for the second time since I arrived in Thedas. I still felt like I hadn’t properly mourned; I had shoved all the grief that I should have been expressing behind a wall. And yet, at the same time, I felt like I had to force myself to move on. To keep looking forward. Whatever had happened to good old Earth, there was nothing I could do about it. And there was no point in speculating how anyone might have died or throwing around “what-ifs”. I was smart enough to know that.

What I regretted now was lost opportunities. Things I should have said while I had the chance. To Mom. To Abigail. To everyone. But now, that chance was long past.

I bit my lip, taking in a deep breath.

If this was some sort of second chance for me, then I wanted to do it right, this time. I would learn from the past. Learn from my mistakes. I wouldn’t repeat them. And I wouldn’t waste this new shot at life.

And that meant not wasting time grieving over a world that wasn’t even mine anymore.

I swallowed my tears for my old home, determined not to let them surface again.

For the next hour, I took a slow walk around the village, remaining inside the walls for the time being. All the while, I memorized the location of key facilities – the privies, the healer, the merchants, even the guard posts. This version of Haven was a bit larger than had been in the game, and I suspected Skyhold would be the same way. There were lots more people, too, and the sounds of their voices and varied activities created a solid din of noise that buzzed in the air. No one seemed to pay me any mind as I looked around; I guessed that newcomers were a common sight in and around Haven, especially fresh joiners to the Inquisition.

After I had circled around the perimeter of the village and found myself back where I started, I headed towards the Singing Maiden to grab something to eat. I remembered that I had skipped breakfast in my haste to get Josephine’s meeting over with, and my stomach was growling particularly loudly by the time I finished my walk. Noticing the tavern was fairly empty at this odd hour, I took the same seat I had occupied the day before and gladly accepted what the barkeep had available at the time. As it happened, Flissa had made rather delicious-looking sandwiches from day-old bread loaves and finely-chopped ram meat, smothered in gravy made from the juices of the leftover stew. As I anticipated, it was simple, but to die for.

At least I knew I’d eat well here.

I made sure to swipe up every last bit of gravy that dripped onto the plate with the thick crust so as not to waste anything, and on my way out, I complimented Flissa on her cooking skills. She blushed rather intensely, but thanked me before occupying herself with cleaning a dirty flagon. Once outdoors again, I noticed it still wasn’t too far into the afternoon, yet, and so I decided to take a peek outside the walls. The gates were open, with people coming to and fro rather regularly, and so took a seat on the bottom step, close to the edge and out of the main path. Once settled, I looked about to take note of the village surroundings.

Again, everything was almost the same as in the game, just…bigger. The stables in particular were much bigger, already housing several horses for the primary members of the Inquisition; I wasn’t sure just where horsemaster Dennet was going to put all those extra mounts when he ultimately arrived. Beside the stables, the forge took up a larger area, and there were many more workers there, all hammering away at anvils or sewing freshly-tanned leather.

In the opposite direction of the forge, I noticed there were also many more tents and a far more expansive practice area. The soldiers training there were divided into several squadrons of about thirty men and women each. Every unit was overseen by an officer, sometimes another soldier and sometimes a Templar. Cullen himself was supervising one as well. All of them were doing something different, making the whole situation very much a case of organized chaos.

I watched them all with mild interest for a time. One unit was performing calisthenics, the officer in charge barking repetitions. A lot of the moves looked like ones I would do in a gym back home…pushups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, that sort of thing. Two other units were occupied with weapons training, mostly with practice swords. Cullen’s unit was finishing up more advanced practices involving group cover and wounded comrade retrieval. Behind them was a line of archers taking shots at dummies that were backed up against a snow bank.

After a while, Cullen dismissed the unit he had been overseeing and reached for a waterskin at his hip. As he took a drink, his head turned in my direction, and for some stupid reason, I impulsively waved at him with a slight smile on my face. He stopped, noticing me, and he lowered his waterskin, but he didn’t return the gesture.

My smile faded.

Internally, I was cursing myself, even as I tried to casually look away, staring holes into the cliffs beyond the frozen lake.

What in the hell were you thinking? You’ve been in Haven less than two days…he’s not going to be friendly to you…

I had all too conveniently forgotten the fact that I was still thought of as, at worst, a Fade-touched madwoman and, at best, a helpless damsel mooching off of the Inquisition’s goodwill. But stupid me had seen a familiar face turn my way and automatically reacted like I would to someone I had known for years.

Technically, I had known him for years. But he didn’t know me.

Stupid idiot…

I huffed loudly and stood, yanking my cloak tighter around me and stomping off in the direction of the stables, turning my back on the training area so my eyes wouldn’t accidentally fall on the Commander again. I focused on the crunching of pebbles and snow underfoot so I didn’t have to listen to the berating thoughts screaming inside my mind. I kept my head down and my eyes on the path; I might have passed a couple of scouts on the way, but I wasn’t sure. When I finally stopped, I found myself on the bridge across the ice-covered river, looking up at the Breach that hovered where the Temple of Sacred Ashes had once been.

I shivered as the wind picked up and chilled me, and I sniffled as it bit at my nose. Knowing me, I probably looked like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by now. Fereldan I was not.

The Breach swirled and swirled, like a glowing hurricane in the sky, and I was oddly calmed by the movement…like watching a lava lamp, I supposed. It struck me as odd to feel that way about something that had initially signaled the destruction of the world, but because of the Herald’s dumb luck, was now just a reminder of an unfinished job. Frowning, I wondered how long he would be gone. The game hadn’t really indicated the time it took to get to Orlais, and I remembered the actual size of Thedas being debated, especially amongst the fans. I guessed maybe one to two weeks before he and his comrades returned from Val Royeaux. If so, that would feel like a long time, especially with the lack of trust amongst the Inner Circle and nothing constructive to do to take my mind off of it…

“Mistress Tamsyn?”

A questioning voice broke me out of my thoughts. Glancing to my left, I saw an elven woman looking at me with large green eyes.

“Yes?”

“I am to tell you that your bath is ready, mistress,” she answered me with a bow. Before I could even thank her, she then spun on her heel and quickly strode away, likely to deliver another message or return to whoever she reported to.

An eagerness filled me, and I quickly followed after, heading straight for my cabin to investigate.

When I finally arrived, I noticed that some furnishings had been added while I was gone. Two pillows had been set at the head of the bed, and an extra blanket lay folded on top of the mattress beside my bags, which remained untouched. The wooden bath tub, lined with a cream linen cloth, had been set in front of the fireplace, which now crackled merrily with orange flames. Candles had been placed on every available surface and lit, casting a warm glow anywhere the light of the fire didn’t reach. The whole place looked much cozier than it had before, and I felt myself smile at the sight.

The door didn’t have a lock, but it did have an iron bar latch that I secured to make sure no one barged in on me.  I then made my rounds to each of the windows to close and latch the shutters. Once satisfied no one could disturb me, I quickly undressed and loosened my hair before approaching the tub with my supply bag in hand, dropping it beside the towel that lay on the floor. The tub was filled almost to the brim with water, and I dipped a finger in to test the temperature – warm, but not too hot. As I tentatively stepped into it, I could see myself in the warped glass of the mirror in the corner, and I winced as I noticed my skin was still blotchy with dark bruises all over my body.

I slowly sank into the water, an audible sigh escaping me. As I eased into a sitting position, the water rose until it almost overflowed. Despite this, I managed to dunk my head under to wet my hair without making too big of a mess; whatever dripped onto the floor, I was sure the warmth of the fire would dry out. I leaned backwards and stretched my legs out, spending a few moments merely luxuriating in the bath as its warmth seeped into my chilled bones and numbed the bruises somewhat.

The next thing I knew, the water was getting cold. I wasn’t sure whether I had fallen asleep or not. Frowning, I rummaged in the supply bag for my soap, withdrawing what I assumed was the razor with it. I looked at my legs. I was certain that this item was probably intended for men, as I guessed that Fereldan women weren’t accustomed to shaving their legs – that sounded like an Orlesian and Antivan thing. But I wasn’t Fereldan, Orlesian, or Antivan, and I certainly wasn’t going to go around feeling like a barbarian because of the local medieval culture.

So, I gritted my teeth and attempted to shave my legs.

Attempted being the key word.

I, being the modern person that I was, had been accustomed to using an electric shaver all my life, at least on my legs. So, suddenly having to utilize this rather dangerous-looking method was intimidating to say the least. But I had to try.

I cut myself several times before I was finished. Five, to be exact – three on one leg and two on the other. I don’t think I ever used so much profanity in one sentence before. Each slice in the flesh bled profusely, enough to make me concerned that whoever fetched the bath water was going to wonder just what exactly I had done with it. I tossed the razor aside. Grumbling and hissing all the while, I bathed and washed my hair, rinsed, and then stepped out to towel myself dry. The amount of blood on the cloth made it look like I had murdered someone. And I just knew the servants would have a good gossip about it.

I wrapped myself in the spare blanket and sat before the fire to help my hair dry. I had already made up my mind to stay in the cabin for the rest of the evening; there was enough food rations in my other bag to keep me fed until morning. My first full day in Haven, though nothing remarkable, was exhausting, and I didn’t feel like heading out into public again. The Nightingale’s Eyes would have to wait until tomorrow to resume their watch.

And I knew they would.

Chapter Text

Knockknockknock.

“Mistress Tamsyn?”

I struggled to wake up upon hearing the insistent banging at the door and the calling of my name.

Knockknockknock.

“Mistress Tamsyn?”

“Just a minute!” I managed to call back through the lingering haze of sleep. “Call” being a loose term, mind you; it sounded more like the moan of a dying cow. I was not a morning person and never had been…not without at least two cups of strong coffee in my system. Fat chance of getting any of that here.

I had fallen asleep the night before still wrapped in the blanket I had dried myself in, with the other one draped on top of me. Carefully, I slid out of bed and padded my way to the door barefoot, holding the blanket tight around me for modesty. Unlatching the door, I opened it and peeked out just enough that my face was exposed.

“Ye-whoa!

The person knocking had just lifted her hand to do so again and almost knocked me right in the nose. She immediately shied away to avoid hitting me, and it was then I recognized her as the same elf who had let me know about the bath the day before. She looked down and focused on her slippered feet, stuttering out her apologies, “Oh! I-I’m terribly sorry, mistress, I-I didn’t think-”

“It’s okay…no worries,” I reassured her, realizing just how much I sounded like Rylen at that moment. “What is it? Do you need something?”

“Oh, well,” she shuffled her feet a bit and gave me a lopsided, nervous smile in response, tucking a lock of dark hair behind her pointed ear. “I just was sent to tell you that the tailor is ready to take your measurements at your earliest convenience, mistress. That’s all. Good day.”

With that, she quickly bowed to me like she did the day before and turned to leave, but I stopped her on a sudden impulse.

“Hey, wait…what’s your name?” I called after her.

She turned back, looking completely and utterly flabbergasted at hearing the question. Her eyes were wide as she answered, “I…ah…my name is Lea, mistress.”

“Lea?” I repeated. When she nodded affirmatively, I smiled and answered, “Thanks, Lea. And you don’t have to call me ‘mistress.’ Tamsyn’ll do.”

Her green eyes grew even wider; she was obviously not expecting such treatment from a shem. I studied her quickly as she stood there in shock, and she didn’t look to be physically abused; she was clean, apparently well-fed from her stature, and she didn’t bear the marks or posture of a servant who had been ill-treated, at least from what I could see of her. But she did carry herself with the same meek deportment of most oppressed city elves who had served humans for generations.

I didn’t want her to feel like she had to behave like that around me. I wanted her to feel like my peer, especially if she was going to keep delivering messages to me – not like I was someone she had to bow and scrape to just because I was human. Someone who actually saw her as an equal, not a lowly servant.

“A-As you wish…Tamsyn,” Lea finally stammered out before spinning on her heel and striding away, her gaze focused on the ground in front of her. I watched her a bit before closing the door again. She somehow reminded me a lot of myself: the embarrassment at a near-offense, the overwhelming need to not make a mistake. I may not have been able to make myself feel better about all this, but if I could somehow set another’s mind at ease, I’d gladly settle for that instead.

I dressed myself quickly, deciding to go ahead and go down to the forge. Best not to keep the tailor waiting, I thought. I didn’t know the time, but from the position of the sun in the sky, I assumed that it was fairly early in the morning. Maybe six or seven AM? Even at that, judging from the noise outside the cabin, it seemed everyone in Haven had awoken well before me. I sincerely wished there was some means of telling time here…a sundial or an hourglass or something

Once dressed, I left my cloak and bags on my bed and stepped out, headed for the gates. Along the way, I caught a glimpse of the back of Cullen’s furry mantle, and I watched as he headed past the inner palisade towards the trebuchets that were currently being constructed.

Little bit too soon for calibrations, then, I thought with a smirk before continuing on my way.

The smithy was abuzz with activity, just as it had been the day before. Apprentices ran to and fro, ferrying supplies to the craftsmen and finished equipment to armor and weapons racks. Hammers struck anvils in an almost musical rhythm, accompanied by the slosh and hiss of freshly forged blades being plunged into troughs. I dodged a few workers as I searched for Harritt, assuming he would give me details, but the master smith was nowhere to be found. After a few minutes of glancing between hurried workers, I heard a small voice ask, “You need sumpn,’ miss?”

I looked about to find this person, but couldn’t see who had addressed me. That was, until I felt a tug on my breeches, and I finally looked down. There stood a pie-faced young boy, his countenance spattered with freckles and smeared with soot. He peered up at me with liquid, sapphire eyes and a lopsided smile as he waited for my answer.

“Uh, yeah,” I replied, unable to keep from smiling back at him. He was adorable. “A messenger sent for me. She said the tailor was ready to take my measurements. Do you know where they are?”

He nodded emphatically. “Yes’m.” Then, he wordlessly turned away, and I followed as he led me around to the front of the building beside the forge and pushed his way inside. I peeked in after him to see a heavyset woman, perhaps in her thirties, sitting in a creaky wooden chair with a pile of woolen breeches in her lap and a needle in hand. She glanced upwards upon hearing the door open, and she squinted at the boy.

“What’s it, lad?”

“Missus needs measurements.”

“Oh, right. Let her in and run along, now.”

“Yes’m.”

He ducked out, and I tentatively entered the one-room house, letting the door shut behind me. The woman set aside her work and stood, looking me up and down. “You Tamsyn?”

“Yes, ma’am, I am,” I replied with a dip of my head.

She grinned, and I noticed one of her front teeth was missing. “Nice to meet you. That’s my boy, Sean. He helps keep everyone headed in the right direction at the forge.”

I nodded in understanding. “He seems like a nice kid.”

She chuckled heartily at that. “He is, Maker bless ‘im.” She then gestured to me with a wave of her hand as she turned towards a table behind her, stacked with papers and equipment. “Go ahead and strip to your smallclothes, miss, and I’ll review what Threnn sent over.”

I glanced around to gauge how private this was going to be. The windows were shut, at least. I just hoped no one decided to walk in on us. Huffing out a breath, I did as bade, quickly removing my oversized clothes and dropping each piece to the floor for lack of a place to put them.

“Right…let’s see…aha. So you’re in need of…a uniform, a set of nightclothes, two casual wears, and a breastplate? You must be higher up on the ladder to be gettin’ all that.”

I froze halfway through pulling one pants leg off, eyes wide from registering just how much I was going to get out of this one clothing order. Josephine must have added those extra pieces on her own. “Ah…well…I don’t know about that, really,” I finally answered. “My position is, um…as of yet undetermined.”

As I straightened, wearing only my underwear now, she turned back towards me with a piece of chalk, shears, and yarn in hand. I raised my eyebrows. So that was how she was going to measure me?

“All right, miss. Raise your arms. I’ll be done before you know it.”

She didn’t lie. The woman took measurements of the circumference and length of almost every part of my body faster than I could even register it happening…each time done by marking the string with the chalk and then cutting it to the appropriate length with her shears. I noticed she put the cut pieces of yarn on her table in a very specific order, likely to remember how to label them later. Thankfully, she didn’t remark on the fading bruises that yet covered my body, or the scabby slashes on my legs.

“Right. All done,” she said at last, a significant pile of yarn on the table. “You can put your clothes back on now. We’ll get on this as soon as we can and have a messenger let you know when you can pick it all up. Don’t expect it until next week sometime, though. We got a lot of breeches to repair and uniforms to sort out.”

“I understand. Thank you.”

I dressed myself once more and headed back outside – quickly, so I could free her up for another job. I hadn’t even cleared the threshold of the small building when my stomach growled loudly, demanding satiation. Noting the time, I realized this was the first opportunity I would have to obtain a proper breakfast since arriving in Haven. To the Singing Maiden, then…

But when I entered the tavern, I was greeted by a larger-than-usual crowd. I briefly wondered if it was due to the time, but it took only a few minutes of listening to chatting soldiers standing around waiting for a seat to find out the real reason why – eggs.

It hadn’t occurred to me that such food was not already here, until I remembered that Varric had mentioned ram was the only meat currently available. Now, it seemed some nearby farmers with their prized laying hens had at last arrived in Haven to support the cause, and the off-duty soldiers were scrambling to get some of their produce before they ran out that morning.

Pardon the pun.

Realizing the troops and workers both were probably starved for some semblance of a “real” breakfast, I hung back in the rough line, letting others go ahead of me until I heard Flissa’s call that they were out of eggs. When I finally made it close enough to put in my own request, I only asked for bread and a little ale to wash it down; I didn’t need as much as they did, with what little I was doing around the place. Just enough to stop the hunger. I received my order quickly, and I was just looking around to find an empty space when I at last spotted one…

At Rylen’s table.

He must have sensed someone looking at him, because he immediately lifted his head and spotted me through the throng, waiting for an opening to be free. He then lifted a hand and beckoned for me to come over. I felt my cheeks heat up, but I obeyed, dodging a few scouts to slide right into the chair opposite the Knight-Captain.

“Hey, thanks,” I said, pulling my chair in with the scraping sound of wood on wood. His Inquisition helmet lay beside him on the table, his dark hair an unruly mass and falling into his face as he looked down at his plate, which was filled with eggs, a chunk of bread, and what appeared to be sliced sausages.

“Not a problem, lass,” he replied at length, stabbing a few scrambled eggs with his fork. He didn’t seem to know me at first, which had me a bit relieved. I didn’t want to relive the embarrassment of the privy incident if I didn’t have to. But when he looked up again, he seemed to recognize me in full at last, and I gave him a sheepish smile in response as I inwardly winced, bracing for his inevitable teasing.

“Well, now,” he remarked with a chuckle, “Fancy ah…running into you again, eh?”

I pressed my lips together. “Couldn’t resist, could you?”

He laughed aloud, then. “Just ribbing you a little, lass. No hard feelings.” He then extended a hand to me over the table, “Rylen.”

No titles. Smiling politely, I took his proffered hand. “Tamsyn.”

His gloved fingers had barely closed over mine when recognition dawned in his grey-blue eyes.

“So you’re that girl who says she’s from the Beyond, aren’t you?” he asked after a breath, giving my hand a slight shake.

I squeezed back before letting go and replied with a sigh, “Yeah. That’s me. I’m guessing the Commander told you all about me already.” I tore off a piece of my bread as I awaited his answer, the force of the motion betraying my annoyance at the direction of the conversation.

“All that he understands,” Rylen clarified, returning his attention to his breakfast. “Which is, admittedly, not that much.” He and I both took bites of our respective meals, and the amount of silence that followed led me to believe he would say nothing more about it. But then, after a minute, he leaned forward at me with a knowing look and asked quietly, “So…where are you really from, hmm? We’ve got people from all over, I don’t think they’d judge you too badly.”

My gaze was flat as I met his, and I swallowed the dry hunk of bread I’d been chewing. I had to take a sip of ale to get it down fully before answering, “Where I told the Commander at the council meeting. I’m not lying…Knight-Captain Rylen of Starkhaven.”

He leaned back, and the friendly softness of his expression began to melt away. Everything about his countenance became a little sharper, even his mouth, and the tattoo down the bridge of his nose seemed only to emphasize its slight hawkishness. I could see the doubt in the glitter of his eyes, though, so I kept going. I figured at this point there was no harm showing off a little, and I knew whatever I told Rylen would get back to Cullen in a heartbeat. Perhaps it would get them all to thinking a bit more and assuming a bit less…

I looked down at the table as I tore off another bread hunk. “You’re the son of a stonemason…joined the Templars to make something of yourself. You rose through the ranks rather fast, and when the Kirkwall disaster hit, you were sent there to help with the relief efforts. You met Cullen there, and when Knight-Commander Karsten decided to rebel against the Chantry, you and your friends remained loyalists and were later recruited into the Inquisition by the Commander himself.” I paused and added, “Oh, and your favorite dish is Starkhaven’s famous fish-and-egg pie.”

His brows rose, and he stared at me a good few moments as I chewed my second bite of bread. His grey-blue gaze studied me intensely, and I suddenly had no problems imagining him at a Circle Harrowing. Then, his eyes narrowed and he answered, “Any spy worth their salt could have found all that out.”

I washed down the bread again. “Yeah…but what spy in their right mind would give themselves away like that?”

“One trying to convince me they’re from the Beyond.”

“Will it help to tell you you’re gonna get your own fort someday?”

He blinked. I smiled. Crack that doubt, Tamsyn.

“In the Western Approach…?” I added, tearing off more bread.

“What? You’re…you’re crazy,” he said, shaking his head as he forced himself to refocus on his meal, obviously wanting desperately to ignore me at this point. Even so, I could tell that he was perturbed by what I had said, and not in the sense that he thought I was a liar. His mannerisms betrayed worry and uncertainty, not anger or lack of acknowledgment.

“So I’ve been told.”

He fell silent, then, half-heartedly poking at the eggs on his plate. Deciding it was probably best to make an exit right about now, I quickly finished my bread and ale and stood. “Well, thanks for sharing your table with me, Knight-Captain. I do appreciate the hospitality. Better finish those eggs before they get cold.” I pushed in my chair, and he didn’t even bother look up at me. Leaning forward, I added, “Oh, and you might want to pass along that information to the Commander and think about what it might mean for your little Inquisition. Maybe it’s not going to be quite so little after all, you think?”

With that, I left.

------------------------------------------------------

For the next week or so, I tried to maintain a low profile, doing little but remaining in my cabin where I would bother no one. Remarkably, the general populace still hadn’t associated me with “that girl from the Beyond,” like Rylen had, meaning the good Knight-Captain had likely kept his mouth shut about it to everyone but Cullen. Which, as far as I was concerned, was a good thing. People in Thedas were a superstitious lot, I knew. Medieval-level superstitious. Meaning, after some of them found out about where I claimed to come from, they would either shun me, try to kill me, or both. The longer I could go without either problem to contend with, the better.

Nothing of note had occurred in that week, and that suited me just fine. I had finally settled into a routine, eating three meals a day at the Singing Maiden, taking a bath every few days or so (which the servants managed entirely on their own), and things were beginning to look all right for me. Comfortable, even.

But, of course, that’s when I noticed something a little different about myself.

I wasn’t dreaming.

Anytime I lay my head down to sleep, I would drift off to utter blackness, and the next thing I knew, it was morning again. At first, I had chalked it up to sheer exhaustion during my first few days in Thedas; I knew that if I got tired enough, even back on Earth, I wouldn’t have dreams. But after nearly a week with no dreaming at all, not even the slightest little bit, I began to get suspicious.

Was it because I wasn’t born in Thedas? I wasn’t naturally connected to the Fade, so I didn’t dream there? It seemed as logical an answer as any. It was a puzzle, and yet, at the same time, if true, it was also something of a comfort; if I didn’t dream in the Fade, I wouldn’t be exposed to demons as much. And maybe it meant I was safe from Solas’s snooping, too. At least, I hoped. In any case, I decided to keep this bit of speculation to myself, along with my encounter with the little wisp in the Fade. They didn’t have to know every little thing about me.

Speaking of snooping, it was exactly a week from the day when the Herald and his company had departed for Val Royeaux that I received a summons from Leliana via a messenger. I had been sitting on the ground outside my cabin with my eyes shut, just enjoying the clear, crisp air that presaged the approach of winter and the feel of the warm sun on my face, when I heard the sliding grind of pebbles under boots that signaled someone was approaching.

I opened my eyes to see a scout heading towards me. He smiled slightly as he neared, his pace casual and unhurried, and though I couldn’t tell much about his face for the armored hood he wore, I could see even from a distance that his eyes were a striking electric blue.

“Tamsyn?” he greeted me, stopping a few paces away.

“Yes?” I stood, brushing the dirt off of the seat of my pants and taking a deep breath in anticipation.

“Inquisition Scout Strider,” he inclined his head as he introduced himself. “I’ve a message for you from Sister Nightingale. She requests that you meet with her at the lake within the next hour. She said it was of great significance to you.”

Uh oh.

“All right then…Scout Strider,” I nodded my thanks with a small smile, trying to hide my anxiety. “I’ll go see her right away. Thank you.”

“Of course,” he dipped his head, mirroring my smile with his own.

I sighed heavily as he left, trying to shrug off the nervous butterflies in my stomach. I had a feeling this would go one of two ways…really good, or really bad. And I could only pray to the powers that be for really good. Steeling myself, I strode for the gates to get it over with, hoping for a more pleasant conversation than the one I feared would occur. I assumed it had something to do with her ongoing investigation about me, and thus I expected the meeting to be less-than-friendly.

I found her at the edge of the lake closest to the forge, her back to the town as she looked out at the mountain-ringed expanse of wilderness across from the settlement. Her arms were crossed, and she didn’t turn to look at me, even as I knew she heard me near, my oversized boots crunching earth and snow.

“Sister Nightingale?” I asked tentatively. “You requested to see me?”

“Yes, Tamsyn. I felt it only right to let you know that I have ended my search into your background,” she answered as I cautiously drew up beside her, her eyes remaining focused on the snow-covered crags as she spoke. “You were correct; my agents could find nothing on you. And believe me, it was not for lack of effort.” She paused, and then added, “So…that means you have either covered your tracks so well that I cannot find a trace of your true origins, or you are telling the truth about what happened to you. In all honesty, the former is harder to believe than the latter. But the latter…disturbs me greatly.”

I felt myself smile a bit, a weight lifting from my shoulders at her words. “I can’t say your news doesn’t give me relief, Sister Nightingale, despite the fact I know I am innocent. But, if I may ask, did you ever really believe I was a spy? I mean, Josephine told me that you had your doubts because of my…well,” I chuckled a little, “lack of finesse.”

That made her crack a small smile, and she glanced sideways at me with her sharp blue eyes, “Yes, well…the best spies are always successful at convincing others they are not capable of performing espionage in the first place. But honestly? My gut told me that you weren’t one, and I was certain that it was right. And yet I couldn’t ignore my head telling me that I had to make sure. There is too much at risk here for gut feelings to be proven wrong.”

“And that bit about the Fade rift didn’t explain some things? I mean, what spy in their right mind would go so far as to risk being attacked by demons to get close to the Inquisition?” I asked.

She sighed. “Our enemies are capable of and willing to perform a great many outlandish feats to get to us. To hear of a spy doing such would not be surprising in the least.”

I raised my brows and glanced away. I certainly wouldn’t be one of those people – no amount of money granted by any patron would convince me to plop down in front of an open rift and risk death or possession just to infiltrate an enemy organization.

“In any case,” she turned towards me fully then, “We will have to wait and see what Cassandra says about the Herald’s mission to Val Royeaux before we can know how to proceed with your contribution to the Inquisition.”

Suddenly, there was a distant caw, and Leliana looked upwards in the direction of the sound, squinting against the sun. “Ah! Looks like there is something now…”

She held out her gloved forearm, and a raven plummeted towards us from above in a rush of wings and raucous cawing, a tube-like leather holder attached to its legs. Once it landed and Leliana relieved the bird of its cargo, it took off in the direction of the Chantry with another noisy flap of ebon feathers. I watched silently as she then opened the tube and withdrew two pieces of rolled parchment, which she unfurled with a curious gaze.

“Hmm…” she mused quietly as she absorbed the contents. “Well…that is…” After a few moments, her thin brows rose, and she looked at me long and hard, an unreadable expression on her pale face. Then, glancing back at the parchment, she shook her head slowly, as if in disbelief. “You have certainly made both Cassandra and the Herald rather anxious. I would explain, but I think it is best you read their letters yourself.”

She extended the papers to me, and I took both pieces carefully. But when I focused on the words written there, I found they were utterly indecipherable. The parchment was covered in runic symbols scrawled in black ink, some larger than others, some sloppy and some neat, but I had no clue as to their meaning. My stomach plummeted to somewhere around my feet. I had no idea I wouldn’t be able to read the so-called “common tongue,” the most common language of Thedas. This was bad. This was really, really bad.

“Sister,” I began, eyes wide as I looked back up at her, “I…I can’t read it.”

Chapter Text

“You can’t read it?”

The Nightingale’s tone betrayed her own surprise as she repeated my words of shock. Honestly, I should have known this was going to be a possibility. But for some reason, the thought had never crossed my mind until now. The fact that I had not been faced with reading anything until over a week after arriving in Thedas was something of a miracle in and of itself.

“No,” I said quietly, shaking my head as I thrust the papers back at her, their fluttering edges a sign of my tumultuous emotions. I could feel my cheeks burning in embarrassment at my own lack of foresight. This new revelation had set me back quite a bit; I couldn’t afford to have future long-distance messages read to me out loud all the time because I couldn’t read them myself. What if someone tried to trick me? I’d never know the difference. I could easily be duped if there was no one trustworthy to reinforce what was conveyed to me via word of mouth.

“But you have been formally educated, from what Josephine tells me…so you can read and write, yes?” Leliana asked as she took the papers from me with a gentle hand, and I noticed she was regarding me with a much softer expression than I had yet seen her wear. Did she actually feel sorry for me? The woman whom she just now gave up on uncovering as a spy? The woman whose very existence in this world she had a tough time accepting?

I swallowed hard. “Yes, but not this.”

She stepped back from me and glanced away, looking thoughtful as she slowly rolled up the parchment again, the vellum scraping softly against her leather gloves. Then, suddenly, she turned back to me, and I could see the gears working behind her eyes.

“In any case, this new information requires a meeting in the war room. The others need to know about the contents of these messages just as much as you do, and we will also need you to tell us exactly how we can proceed from here, especially considering it seems we will be heeding your advice much more in the future. Let us take two birds with one stone, no?”

I felt my eyes widen. Leliana was just inviting me to an actual war room meeting. In an advisory capacity. Without the Herald present. And she was hinting at more meetings to come.

Had I done it? Had I proven myself innocent? The fact I couldn’t see what the Herald and the Seeker had written for myself made my literacy situation all the more frustrating.

“You’re serious?” The words slipped out before I could stop them. I knew it was dumb to question her too much, but it was just so…

A smile pulled at the corner of her mouth, as unnerving as it was encouraging. “I am. If nothing else, these letters prove that Cassandra trusts you, now. And if she does, then so do I.” She huffed out a sigh and added, “It is time we set aside our suspicions and move forward…we can work out the challenges that your presence presents our faith and common knowledge later.”

If my eyes got any bigger, I was sure they’d fall out of my head. The surprise no doubt etched onto my face must have been a humorous sight, as she chuckled and added, “This is what you wanted, no? To be trusted enough to help us plan ahead in exchange for your security?”

“Well, yes, but…”

I halted as she gave me a knowing look. “You didn’t anticipate it being quite so soon. I understand. But these letters should dispel any lingering doubts anyone might have about you. I hate to keep you in suspense, but if I am going to have to read it out loud to you, I don’t wish to repeat myself later when explaining matters to the others. Come. To the Chantry, then.”

I wordlessly followed in the Nightingale’s wake as she began striding with purpose for the gates. All the while, I could barely hide my elation that things were beginning to work out after all. They were actually going to trust me and let me help them, despite their doubts and fears…it seemed nothing short of an absolute miracle. I couldn’t wait to hear what Cassandra and Maxwell had written. Everything I had said would occur in Val Royeaux must have indeed happened – that was the only thing that could have convinced them.

It wasn’t a minute before we passed the sparring area, where Leliana briefly paused and called out, “Commander!”

Cullen was observing what appeared to be a parry training routine between two lines of recruits, and he immediately looked our way upon hearing the spymistress’s call. Even at this distance, I could tell he was glancing between us curiously. She answered his quizzical expression with a simple, “War room! Urgent news from the Herald!”

Brows rose and arms unfolded. A quick nod to the Templar lieutenant at his side, and he was off, heading towards us with lengthy strides. Leliana kept going and I followed close behind her, but I knew the commander would catch up to us in no time at his ground-eating pace. Keeping my eyes ahead of me, I felt my stomach flop like a fish in a net, and I wondered if Cullen had been made aware of the Nightingale’s abandoning of her research on me yet. Despite Josephine’s reassurances, I was certain that the good commander would be the last person to actually trust me to be what I said I was. And, for some reason, that made me almost irrationally nervous.

To be honest, bad memories of the first war council meeting still lingered in the back of my mind. I knew then they’d all be leery of me, of course; I had expected it and had tried my best to steel myself for their inevitable reactions, up to and including the possibility of being thrown behind bars. And yet, the simple fact of being declared a madwoman by the commander had irked me…riled me faster than Cassandra’s disbelief and Leliana’s suspicion combined. I didn’t know why – the Herald and Rylen had said it to me, too. But there was something about the finality with which Cullen had suggested it, writing me off as not just crazy, but some sort of joke…

Or maybe it’s just because Cullen said it.

I swallowed. I could hear the crunch of his footfalls and the tiniest jangle of the chains at his ankles as he followed behind me. I didn’t turn to look, and he didn’t say a word, but I could feel his presence there, like a wall at my back.

Maybe it was simply because it was him. Maybe it was because I had gotten too used to the soft and sweet side of his character I had seen through his romance arc countless times. Maybe it was because, this time, he was real, and what he believed about me would make or break whatever relations we had during our tenure together. There would be no going back and replaying. There would be no reloading a save.

We kept walking through the village, and I was almost unaware of the journey as I kept thinking. What did I expect our relations to become, given time? Merely professional? Or actual friendship?

Or…romantic, even?

I blinked. He would certainly be available, given the world state, if things stayed close to their in-game parameters. But I wondered if that freedom was, at the same time, a limitation; perhaps he was meant to be a bachelor forever if unromanced by the Inquisitor, unpaired with anyone. That made my heart pang a little. He didn’t deserve to be alone, cut off from love forever.

And what I wouldn’t give to be the one to keep him from that fate…

My thoughts stunned even me. I shook my head a little to clear it and pressed my lips tightly together.

Get real, Tamsyn!

I forced myself to refocus on the present. Right now, he was only an acquaintance, if that. I’d be lucky if we ever considered ourselves friends at this rate, especially considering how many secrets I had to keep and what disasters were coming down the pike – ones I knew about and couldn’t dare share for fear of the world-changing consequences.

You know…like Corypheus’s ever-looming attack on Haven.

I inwardly shuddered at the deep fear that boiled in my gut. He was going to hate me. God, they all would. No matter how much I adored Cullen’s character, he would never feel the same way about me once certain events took place. That I was sure of. If I managed to hold on to my advisory position after the fall of Haven, it would be another miracle.

But then, I felt that voice of reason whisper in the back of my mind.

They’ve given you the benefit of the doubt so far…you could have been in irons for a week, but you weren’t. You were given a house, baths, new clothes, and free rein of the camp.

That was the one thing that gave me hope. Despite my worries about how the advisors would react to me, they had, in all actuality, been very good to me. Doubtful about my words and intentions, sure, but not enough to imprison me. I prayed with all my might they would continue to be open-minded and understanding, even through the tough times.

And maybe, just maybe, I could get through this ok.

I exhaled, trying to shrug off my tension with my breath as we entered the Chantry, and it took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. Mother Giselle gave us a smiling nod as we passed her, but said nothing to us. As Leliana paused to retrieve Josephine from her office, Cullen continued on and into the war room, but I stayed outside of it, unwilling to enter and endure the awkward silence that would surely ensue with just the two of us there alone.

Once Josephine left her office, her face bearing an expression of almost uncontainable curiosity, the rest of us entered the war room at last. Each advisor took his or her respective position, and I carefully made my way forward, filling the space Maxwell would have had he been there. It felt very strange, standing in the same place my characters had so many times in my games. Experiencing it in reality was nearly overwhelming, and I pulled my hands behind my back to hide their anxious fidgeting.

“Well,” Cullen began at last, looking to Leliana with mild interest, “now that we are all here, what is this about?”

“Yes, what news from the Herald?” Josephine asked, cocking her head at the Nightingale.

Leliana unrolled the parchment she held once more and nodded to me, “It’s probably best if I just read these aloud to you, especially since we’ve discovered that Tamsyn here cannot decipher the King’s Tongue. She deserves to know what is said here as well, particularly considering it has such an impact on her future.”

Cullen cast me a raised eyebrow of mild interest while Josephine’s lifted in surprise. “You cannot read the common language of Thedas? I suppose you feel lucky you can understand us at all.”

“We will work something out later,” Leliana replied. “For now, I’ll begin with Cassandra’s letter, since it reveals the most about the current situation.” She smiled wryly and added, “And I’m not omitting any word.”

Then, clearing her throat, she began to read:

Leliana,

The girl was right. About all of it. Revered Mother Hevara was waiting on us at Val Royeaux, just as Tamsyn said she would be. And she did try to apprehend us, too. Thank the Maker her plan failed. But what Tamsyn didn’t tell us was that she would try to use the damned Templars to do it.

The face that Tamsyn said I would recognize but not truly know? Lord Seeker Lucius Corin. He was leading the Templars in the city. Apparently, they had been recalled there at Hevara’s request. But just as Tamsyn said, he refused to do her bidding. Instead, he abandoned Val Royeaux, but not before one of his followers punched the Revered Mother to send a clear message. I cannot say the woman didn’t deserve it for her hubris, but the way Lucius and his men conducted themselves was unbecoming of them. This is not the man I once knew as Lord Seeker, nor the quality of men and women he should be leading. They are thugs, not Templars.

Lucius himself denounced both the Inquisition and the Chantry. He refused to speak to us of closing the Breach, claiming we would do nothing but fail. Instead, he led his Templars from the city, on the premise of earning true respect and independence for the Order. I fear it is not that simple. The rant he spewed at us before he left spoke of the need for power, and I sense that he is gathering the rebel Templars together in order to consolidate it. But I cannot guess where he is going in order to do so.

Our trip did bear fruit in other areas, however. After the Lord Seeker’s obnoxious display, we were approached by Grand Enchanter Fiona, no less. She has invited us to Redcliffe to talk about the Breach and enlist the help of the rebel mages instead. I do not know if this is a better course of action than investigating the Templars. I would like to discuss it more upon our return, which should be soon. By the time this letter reaches you, we will have already left for Haven again.

The Herald also garnered a few more allies, as Tamsyn suggested he would. First Enchanter Vivienne of Montsimmard and an elven rogue who calls herself Sera. I do not have much to say regarding either of them at the moment. I am sure that the Herald will elaborate further in his own report. Needless to say, we have obtained more helping hands, and that is something that is always welcome.

Speaking of such, I will be honest with you, Leliana. I do not know if Tamsyn really is what she says she is. I cannot know for certain whether or not she is a woman from another world any more than I can know for certain that Lord Maxwell Trevelyan is the Chosen of Andraste. But now, I do believe the same thing about her that I believe about the Herald – that the Maker has sent her to us to help us. That she is the right person at the right time. We need her. We need her foresight in order to succeed. To prepare ourselves for the trials that lie ahead and to make sure we do not stray from the Maker’s path. Why else would we have been blessed with someone who knows what the future has in store for us? Her knowledge, however she knows it…we need it.

Give her an advisory position. Ask her for help. And most of all, listen to her. We will speak of this more when we return.

~ Cassandra.

At last, Leliana stopped reading, and the war council was suddenly very quiet – so quiet that I could hear the subtle moving of the loosely-slung scabbard at Cullen’s sword belt and the swishing layers of satin as Josephine shifted from one foot to the other.

“Well, I do believe that settles that,” the ambassador said at last, nodding in acknowledgment to me.

“Yes,” Leliana nodded. “I also feel it pertinent to say that I have halted my investigation into Tamsyn’s background. I made the decision before receiving Cassandra’s letter, of course, so that should help reassure you that I do not believe Tamsyn poses a threat to us.”

At that, Cullen sighed, and he looked at me directly in the eyes, nearly knocking me over with the intensity of his gaze. “If you have the trust of the Left and Right Hands, then you have mine as well.”

“And mine, of course,” Josephine added with a smile.

They were silent again, as if awaiting my answer, and I suddenly felt incredibly overwhelmed. I glanced between them all, swallowed heavily, and nodded back, “Thank you. It means a great deal to me. That you trust me. I promise you, just like I did before…I will do my very best to steer you right.”

“These allies that Cassandra mentioned,” Josephine turned her attention to Leliana, which caused Cullen to take a step backwards to allow her to speak to the Nightingale without being physically obstructed. “Did she say First Enchanter Vivienne?”

“Yes,” Leliana affirmed, switching to the other piece of parchment in her hands, “and a rogue named Sera. The Herald’s letter explains what happened with them in more detail. It also mentions you specifically, Tamsyn.”

My brows rose, but before I could respond in any other way, she started to read again:

Inquisition,

Cassandra is giving you an official report on our activities in Val Royeaux, but I thought I would add a few notes regarding our new allies.

I think Tamsyn will be pleased I found her messenger and arrow.

The messenger brought me to the estate of Madame Vivienne de Fer. She calls herself the leader of the “last loyal mages,” and she has offered her magical talents to the Inquisition, as well as her extensive knowledge of Orlesian politics. I think she will prove to be a valuable asset to the cause, although I am concerned that she may later attempt to use the Inquisition for political clout. I recognize her mien as that of one with unceasing ambition. She was rather…insistent that she be allowed to join our cause. Perhaps Josephine and Tamsyn can offer insight?

As for the arrow, it led me on a merry chase, and the trail ended at an elven woman named Sera. She supposedly has a group of “Friends” who can provide us with valuable information on what she calls “big people,” which is apparently anyone with a noble title. Their full name is, according to her, the “Friends of Red Jenny.” It sounds like a borderline criminal syndicate, but I thought they might provide Leliana with an advantage we would be foolish to refuse. Sera herself has also joined the cause, and I must say that she is very nearly mad. But she seems to have good intentions, so that’s something, yes?

Madame Vivienne and Sera have joined us on our return trip from Val Royeaux and are eager to introduce themselves.

~ M. Trevelyan.

P.S: If it helps, I have already asked both of them about Tamsyn. Neither knows of a woman by her name or her description, so I don’t think she could have arranged this ahead of time. I think she’s telling the truth.

P.S.S: Solas is babbling more about the Fade than usual and is rather anxious to speak to Tamsyn when we get back.

I pressed my lips together upon hearing about Solas. I bet he is, I thought. Better prepare for trouble…

“Madame Vivienne is indeed an adept player of the Game,” Josephine said at length. “Though, she is also a rather controversial one. The age at which she became Enchanter was scandalous, and her subsequent relationship with Duke Bastien de Ghislain even more so. Further, she has turned the normally laughable position of Imperial Court Enchanter into a rather serious one. She has the ear of Empress Celene herself, which has made her a valuable ally to many in the court. For that reason alone, it would be unwise indeed to refuse her aid. But it would also be unwise to think she would not use her position with the Inquisition to her advantage.”

I nodded, confirming Josephine’s words. “Yes, she will use her connections with the Inquisition as political leverage, sooner or later. But the Inquisition itself won’t be harmed from it. She will just further her own status.” It felt a bit awkward jumping into the conversation again without being asked for my input, but it seemed only natural that I do some affirmation if their assessments were on the mark.

“If the First Enchanter is openly guiding the Loyalist mages, then her joining us could actually grant us more credibility,” Cullen remarked, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he spoke.

“Yes,” Leliana agreed, “which brings us to the avenues Cassandra mentioned. On the one hand, we could try to pursue the Templars further. Find out what the Lord Seeker is doing and why, and if we can convince him to help us.”

“I can’t imagine what he might be thinking,” Cullen observed. “He seems to have lost all reason.”

“Lady Cassandra mentioned that the Lord Seeker seemed to be after a position of power,” Josephine added. “An alliance with a stronger Inquisition might satisfy his ego…perhaps after we secure a few more alliances with established nobles? Of course, we would only negotiate after he brings his Templars to close the Breach.”

Cullen shook his head, “That is all entirely speculative, at this point. I’m not sure the Lord Seeker could be persuaded at all. He already publically denounced us. How would more noble alliances change his mind?”

Josephine gave him a wry smile, “The promise of connections can change many a mind, Commander. Especially an ambitious one.”

“What do you say, Tamsyn?” Leliana asked. “Can the Templars be persuaded?”

I huffed out a breath, “They can. But you could also seek out the rebel mages. Both parties can resolve the issue of the Breach equally as well.”

Cullen’s brow furrowed, “So you are saying there are two paths to choose from? How is that possible? If this whole situation is like a book to you, then how can there be different routes to the same outcome? That sounds unlike any book I’ve read.”

“I…well…it’s complicated,” I finally managed to answer, feeling my cheeks heat up with my anxiousness. “Suffice it to say, the reader can choose many different paths at different points along the way. Some lead to the same ending. Others lead to slightly altered results. That’s why I said in our first meeting that I wanted to help you achieve the best outcome possible. There’s actually a variety of ways this story ends, with different endings for many of you.”

“And you want to help us reach what you think is the best ending…for each of us? Not just the Inquisition as a whole?” Leliana’s brow was raised in surprise.

“Yes,” I nodded emphatically.

“And for now, you are certain that pursuing either the mages or the Templars will result in the permanent closing of the Breach?” Josephine inquired.

“Yes,” I confirmed. “Though, I have to say…you’ll need quite a bit of influence to approach either group to actually seal the deal. Grand Enchanter Fiona’s invitation is one to talk…nothing more. No agreement will be reached immediately at Redcliffe, just like there was no agreement at Val Royeaux with the Lord Seeker. The Inquisition’s reputation will have to be built up a bit more for either side to feel they can no longer just give you lip service. That task will fall to the Herald.”

“I’m curious…why can’t we go after both? Why does there have to be a choice?” Leliana asked, her head cocked a little in a manner that reminded me much of the nugs she liked to raise.

“Aside from the fact that bringing the core groups of the rebel mages and rebel Templars back together here in Haven could result in a massacre?” Cullen replied flatly.

“Well, there is that,” I said with a slight chuckle in acknowledgment of his very legitimate concern. “But mainly, it’s a matter of timing. It just so happens that two…very important events will take place roughly simultaneously regarding the mage and Templar strongholds. The Herald has to be at one of them, and there will be no time for him to get to the other before…” I sighed, “Well, before the other meets its fate.”

“‘Meets its fate’?” Josephine repeated, her eyes widening over her tablet’s candle. “Meaning that whichever side isn’t chosen…?”

“Is destroyed,” Leliana supplied. “That is what you mean, isn’t it?”

“More or less, unfortunately.”

“What is going to happen?” Cullen pressed, looking me right in the eye again. God, it was hard to keep secrets when he did that. It made me feel so tiny and exposed, all at the same time.

I sighed again, frustrated that I couldn’t explain it better. “Something disastrous, obviously. But I’m afraid I can’t supply details. Not now.”

Why can’t you? We could save more lives…”

“And change the world to the point I could no longer predict future events,” I reminded them. “So I’d be utterly useless.”

“I would be thankful that she is telling us anything at all, Commander,” Josephine observed pointedly. “She came to us willingly. She could just as easily have gone somewhere else and left the Inquisition to its own devices. Instead, she came here to help us.”

Cullen’s lips thinned, but he fell silent.

Leliana crossed her arms. “So you’re saying we ultimately have to choose which side we want to save and which we want to abandon?”

“Pretty much,” I nodded. I felt like a bobble-head with as much nodding as I was doing.

Silence. All three advisors looked one to the other. I could tell they didn’t like this at all; the air was heavy with tension. In an attempt to clarify, I took a breath and added, “Since the Breach is closed either way, you’re really deciding not only who you want to ultimately save, but also visibly support. The eyes of every Thedosian government are on you right now. Who you choose to side with and preserve alongside the Inquisition will reflect on the organization as a whole.”

“So if we choose the Templars,” Cullen mused aloud, “we would garner the trust of everyone who respects them.”

“The people respect what the Order stands for,” Josephine corrected, “but not necessarily these Templars who are currently following the Lord Seeker. Cassandra herself said that these Templars were little more than thugs.”

“Not all of them are that way, though,” I said, leaning forward on the table with the tips of my fingers. “There are many Templars among them who are just…lost. They’ve nowhere else to go. Even more have been essentially coerced by their fellows into going along with the Lord Seeker’s orders.”

“And what about the rebel mages?” Leliana asked.

“It’s much the same situation,” I answered. “Although the Inquisition is more likely to get an overwhelmingly negative response from the general public if you choose to go with them.”

“It would most certainly set us in opposition to the Chantry even more than we already are,” Josephine agreed. “However, it would also suggest that we are striving towards change.”

“But not necessarily in a good way,” Cullen remarked. “We might make people feel less safe, and we’d be back to square one trying to earn everyone’s trust.”

Leliana looked at me. “In any case, how long do we have to make this decision?”

I shrugged again, “It depends. There is quite a bit of expansion and support work that needs to be done, and you also need to gather a few more allies. All that can only be handled after the Herald gets back.”

“Well, then,” Josephine glanced to the others, “I suppose we’ll have to continue our discussion when they return. In the meantime, we can think about our options and which approach is most appropriate.”

The Nightingale then turned to the ambassador. “Josie, let’s go to your office, shall we? There’s something I want to discuss with you.”

“Of course,” Josephine answered with a grin, making her way around the end of the war table. They both then made to leave the room, and I turned to follow after them, when, of a sudden, Cullen stopped me.

“Tamsyn, I would like to speak with you for a few moments.”

Uh oh…

I slowly turned back around to face the commander with a tentative smile. He still stood in his spot across the table from me. The door closing behind me was almost excruciatingly loud as it slowly creaked and clanked shut, and I approached the table again hesitantly.

Here I was, alone in Haven’s war room with Cullen Rutherford. If this was a fanfiction, who knows what would happen now…

“Yes, Commander?”

His grip flexed on the pommel of his sword. “If we are to work together as colleagues, then I feel there is something I must get out of the way.”

He paused, then, glancing away with brow furrowed, and I knew from his mannerisms that whatever he was about to say was either well-thought out beforehand, or he was struggling to come up with the right words on the spot. In either case, I knew that had to be somewhat important from the way he was acting.

“I…actually wanted to apologize.”

My brows shot upwards, and I reflexively blurted, “You what?

The corner of his mouth twitched a bit in amusement. “In our first meeting, I’m afraid I didn’t behave quite like I should have. I immediately dismissed you as a madwoman, or at the very least, a liar. Not that several of the others didn’t do the same, but even when you explained yourself, I didn’t want to entertain the possibility you might be telling the truth. I was callous, and…inconsiderate of your recent experiences. Even if I did not understand your circumstances, or found them unbelievable, that did not mean they were untrue. I am sorry if I caused you any more grief than you have already suffered due to my lack of tact.”

I knew I was staring wide-eyed at him at this point, but I couldn’t help it. I had expected nothing like this. I tried to answer, and it was as if my vocal cords had ceased to function. At last, though, I managed to stammer, “I-I…well…thank you. I mean, I can’t say it didn’t worry me a little, but…thanks.”

He dipped his head. “I won’t apologize for my actual suspicion, however. You know why we must be careful.”

I nodded in understanding, “Yeah. I mean, it’s not every day someone stumbles out of the Fade from another world with claims of knowing what the future holds.”

“Thank the Maker,” he chuckled, and I found myself sheepishly grinning back at him.

He began to move around the war table, indicating his desire to leave, but I found myself rooted to the spot, watching him in expectation. After a moment, when he was almost around the end of Josephine’s side of the table, he asked casually, “So…if this really is like living a story for you, I can’t help but ask – how does fiction compare to reality?”

My response was almost immediate. “It doesn’t.” But then his paused stride and raised eyebrow made me realize just how ambiguous that sounded, and I hastily added. “It’s better. Much better.”

I was treated to his infamous smirk, then, and it suddenly felt as if I were standing two inches from Harritt’s forge. He was literally a foot away from me, wasn’t pissed off at me anymore, and was actually joking with me.

I swear to God, if he doesn’t leave the room soon I’m going to die.

“Good to know we are living up to expectations, then,” he finally replied with another dip of his head.

At that, he turned and pushed through the doorway, leaving me to stand in the war room alone, watching the door slowly close once more and struggling to come to grips with what exactly had just happened.

Chapter Text

Cullen was almost completely out of the Chantry by the time I regained my senses enough to move from the position in which my feet had been firmly rooted. When I finally pushed through the door to the war room myself, I noticed Minaeve jogging to catch up with him and calling for his attention, a huge stack of papers in her hands – research for the troops, no doubt. I wondered what sort of toxins and diseases she had taken notes on lately, probably from the beast remnants Maxwell had brought back from the Hinterlands…

“Tamsyn?”

A soft voice pulled me out of my thoughts, and I suddenly noticed Mother Giselle looking at me rather curiously, the gold of her hat glinting in the torchlight.

“Oh, uh, yes, Revered Mother?” I asked, wondering what it was she wanted. I hadn’t expected to be approached by her.

She suddenly smiled, a small nod indicating that my answer was an affirmation that she had gotten the right person. “Simply a message to pass along – Sister Leliana and Ambassador Josephine asked me to tell you that they would like to meet with you as soon as you are free.” She gestured to Josephine’s closed office door.

“Oh, I see,” I replied. “Thank you, Revered Mother. I will go talk to them now.”

“Of course.”

I bowed a little to her, as I thought was polite, and she inclined her head in kind. I then turned and made for the office, wondering what was on the two women’s minds so soon after the meeting. When I entered, I saw they were both on the opposite side of Josie’s desk, heads close together, speaking in hushed tones. Upon hearing the door open, they suddenly and simultaneously glanced up at me, Josephine offering me a warm smile of greeting.

“Ah, Tamsyn. Do come in. We were just discussing the matter of your literacy. Or, rather, the lack thereof.”

“Yes,” Leliana nodded. “We have both agreed that it is something we need to remedy, and quickly.”

I sighed, letting the door fall closed again behind me. “It is a little worrisome.”

“Indeed,” Josephine agreed. “It is a weakness we cannot allow to continue. There will be times when we need to communicate at long distances, and we do not want to have to rely on anyone else to deliver that message to you.”

“It’s too risky,” Leliana added as she straightened, crossing her arms. “For all of us.”

I pulled my hands behind my back, glancing between them. “Well, what do you have in mind? I don’t exactly have a shortage of time, but the rest of you,” I laughed a little, “that’s another story.”

“First, we need to see what it is you do know how to read,” Leliana said, beckoning for me to come closer. “That way, we can better judge how easy it will be to teach you. There are several alphabets and scripts in Thedas. Perhaps if we approach it from what appears closest to your own language, it will be easier for you to manage.”

“The Commander was right about one thing,” Josephine remarked, taking a fresh sheet of parchment from the stack on her tablet, “We are lucky she can understand us at all. To think her verbal language and our spoken common just happen to be the same…”

Leliana’s eyes sparkled in the torchlight in obvious amusement, and she cast me a wry smile as she answered, “Well…if this is all a story she’s read before, then that makes sense, no?” I mirrored her smile at her keen observation. Then, I realized that Cullen’s point had likely been the same sentiment that confused Leliana so much when I told her I couldn’t read the writing on the letters – I had been speaking the common language the whole time.

The spymistress’s words seemed to momentarily stun Josephine into silence, her mouth briefly hanging open as comprehension dawned within. It was an unusual expression for the ambassador to display, but quite brief; she quickly realized her unlady-like appearance, closing her mouth so abruptly I thought I heard her teeth click. Then, shaking her head as if to clear it, she pushed the blank paper and her quill-and-inkwell towards me. “Here. Write a few words in your tongue and let us see how it looks.”

“Okay,” I answered tentatively, gingerly taking the elegant black feather pen in hand. I thought for a second about what to write before carefully dipping the tip of the pen into the ink and scratching out rather awkwardly in printed English: My name is Tamsyn Ashworth.

Cringing at my handwriting, I carefully put the pen back in its well and turned the paper around so that they could see it clearly. “Not my best for sure, but-”

I was cut off as they exclaimed as one: “That’s Orlesian!” Their voices were practically squeals, bouncing off of the stone walls and making my eardrums dance in my head.

“‘My name is Tamsyn Ashworth!’” Josephine read aloud, her hazel eyes wide and an uncontrollable grin spreading across her face. I found myself just as shocked and excited as she was, glancing between the two women as I was completely at a loss for words. They could read it? Really? I could write…Orlesian, apparently?

“Common tongue in the Orlesian script…Tamsyn, you can read. Just not the common alphabet,” Leliana explained, her own smile equal parts surprise and mischief, with perhaps a dash of suspicion flashing for but an instant before it vanished.

“Maker….this is absolutely astonishing!” Josephine whispered, her voice tinged with awe and excitement as she read the words to herself again.

“And it certainly is convenient,” Leliana added pointedly, moving around the ambassador’s chair and heading towards the near bookshelf. I watched as her slender gloved finger passed over a few spines before she ultimately withdrew a tome, flipped through a few pages, and then turned to me, extending it towards me. “Here…can you read this?”

I took the book carefully. Its cover was weathered brown leather, stamped in flaking gold with the Chantry sunburst. It smelled old. The scent was wonderful, instantly recalling memories of my old university library. I opened the book to its first page, eyes scanning the thin parchment, and I felt a smile spread across my face.

“The Chant of Light,” I replied, my smile widening as I read aloud, “‘New Cumberland Edition, distributed at the behest of Her Perfection, Divine Justinia V.’ Well, Sister Nightingale, I can definitely read this.”

“Excellent.” Leliana then moved towards the door, striding with purpose. “That will make this much easier. One moment.” She pushed out of the office, and I wondered where on earth she was going and for what reason. I briefly glanced back at Josephine with a questioning look, and the ambassador merely shrugged, obviously unaware of what the spymistress was thinking. After a few moments, the Nightingale returned from the room across from the office with yet another book in hand of similar size and craft. This tome she proffered me as well, explaining, “This is the Chant in the common tongue, the same edition as the Orlesian one. It should be a direct translation.”

“A brilliant idea!” Josephine observed as I took the second book, understanding now what Leliana intended. “You can read them side by side…”

“…and learn much faster,” I supplied, flipping through the first few pages.

“Which you will need to do,” Josephine continued, her tone becoming serious. “Despite the fact you can write in what just so happens to be Orlesian script, the common tongue is common for a reason. It is the most accessible language in Thedas, and its writing system is the most widely used method of communication…utilized for everything imaginable, from correspondence to road signs.”

I closed the second copy of the Chant and hefted both books into the crook of my arm. “So, who uses the Orlesian script, then?”

“Primarily nobility,” Leliana replied. “It is a prestigious practice in the upper class; a sign of education and culture. It is also a convenient way to ensure that nosy servants are unable to decipher the contents of the letters they pass back and forth.”

“But don’t the Orlesians have their own spoken tongue as well? In addition to their alphabet?” I asked, “If I recall, it is very similar to another language from my world. Not the one I was born and raised speaking, but one I was taught a little bit of.” Native Orlesian, as I understood it, was practically the same as French, with maybe a few variations here and there. It was definitely in codex entries, and I remember Maryden had even sung it in Val Royeaux, as alternate variations to her usual songs. I knew a little French from college. Maybe that would help somehow…

“Oh?” Leliana’s brows rose, “And what does that language sound like?”

“Well…” I grimaced as I struggled to remember what I had learned during the pitifully few French courses I had taken, and I slowly pulled together a sentence from my foggy memory. “Um…Parlez-vous ma langue?

At that, Leliana shared looks with Josephine and shook her head in disbelief.

“So she can speak Orlesian, too.”

“Not very well, mind you,” I clarified, “I never was good at that language. French, it’s called, in my world.”

“This is very interesting,” Josephine remarked, scribbling away on her tablet as she took notes on the situation. “Tamsyn, you are in a unique position to deal with Orlesian nobility in a way that could help the Inquisition immensely.”

A bemused and knowing expression flashed across the Nightingale’s countenance. “Thinking of adding her to your ranks of diplomats, are you, Josie?”

“With some training, Leliana, I think it is a definite possibility.”

I coughed nervously, “Uh…I think I’d rather just stick with learning common for now…”

Leliana chuckled at my reaction, “Yes…let’s not thrust you into the middle of the Grand Game just yet. I will look around and see if there are more books with direct Orlesian and common translations. If I find them, I will be sure to send them your way.”

I nodded my gratitude. “Thank you so much, Sister Nightingale. I will study these as often as I can in my spare time, and I promise you that I will take care of them.”

“Good.”

At that, I turned and made for the door, but when I was halfway out, Leliana called for me to wait. I turned around again, and she closed the gap between us quickly, lowering her voice as she bent closer and added, “Before I forget…this knowledge you have. I know we cannot stop people from talking, and written communications between us can always be intercepted, but I feel it is a card we should try to keep close to our chests. If our enemies were to know about you, and what kind of information you can provide to us, who knows what lengths they would go to in order to capture you. Or even kill you. Just something to keep in mind.”

I nodded quickly in my understanding. I knew exactly what she meant. She wanted me to keep myself to myself as much as possible. The fewer the people who knew about where I was from and what I knew about this world, the safer I would be, and thus, the safer the Inquisition would be as a whole. It was a sobering thought that added more gravity to the situation, but I knew she was right.

But despite the meeting ending on such a serious note, I left the Chantry with a lighter heart than I had felt since I arrived in this strange, unbelievable, and dangerous world. I was now an official advisor for the Inquisition, and I was on my way to being literate and possibly fluent in not just one Thedosian language, but two.

Go me.

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I spent most of the afternoon holed up in my cabin with the two copies of the Chant of Light, vigorously studying each line by line. Now that I had something to do, something important that would help both me and the Inquisition, I was eager to get to work. And I had little time to waste.

Unlike the “Orlesian” script, otherwise known as the Latin alphabet in the real world, the common tongue was a system of streamlined runic letters. I remembered reading somewhere that common had originated from Thedas’s various dwarven tongues and evolved over time, and so I assumed that its alphabet was the same way, with added generations worth of simplification. I noticed right away, though, that it was not a direct letter-for-letter translation when put side-by-side with Orlesian. The common tongue appeared to have standalone and combined runic letters for entire words and even certain phrases. I ended up going back and reading the same stanzas over and over again just to get a grip on when runes were merely letters and when they were entire words. By the time my evening bath rolled around, I hadn’t even gotten through Threnodies 3 yet, and my head was throbbing.

This was going to take a while to get the hang of, for sure.

The next morning, after eating an early breakfast at the Singing Maiden, I planned on diving back into my studies with renewed vigor. But upon returning to my cabin, I found a rather large, loosely-wrapped parcel waiting for me on my bed. As I closed the door, I cocked my head curiously, wondering what it might be and who it was from. And then I remembered.

My clothes.

Hurrying over, I excitedly pulled at the loose paper wrapping to see what was inside. I couldn’t wait to put on something that actually fit me instead of the baggy, oversized garments I wore now. It would be fantastic not to have shoes that rubbed my feet raw every day, or sleeves and breeches that had to be held up by other articles of clothing…

On top of the pile was the promised breastplate, perfectly polished and flashing brilliantly in the sunlight streaming through a crack in one of the shutters. It was like the ones the foot soldiers wore, just without the gorget or the mail to wear underneath it. I passed my hand over the Inquisition emblem that was engraved upon it, and I felt a smile pull at my lips. I couldn’t believe something like this was real and that it was mine.

Setting it aside, I looked further to find a thin cotton nightgown, off-white in color, with a wide boat neck and an empire waistline. It had loose long sleeves, and the skirt of it reached to my ankles. There were no embellishments, not even buttons or ties, but I didn’t care; it beat wearing only my underwear to bed any day. Next was the first casual garment – a simple chemise and surcoat with a pair of basic doeskin slippers. The linen chemise was light brown and, like the nightgown, bare of adornments save for the small line of plain buttons on each forearm. The surcoat, on the other hand, was of much heavier russet wool, lined with a dark brown fur on the inside. Both articles had been cut to my ankles just like the nightgown, presumably for ease of movement. Or so I wouldn’t soil them as quickly.

After the first casual set had been folded the second – a brown linen tunic very similar to the one I already had, plus a pair of dark green woolen breeches and brown knee-high boots, also made of soft doeskin like the slippers. All entirely functional; no excess adornments, just like everything else.

And then, finally, I reached the uniform itself. Heavy and consisting of many pieces, it had been placed on the bottom of the pile. There was a high-collared waist-length jacket, much like Threnn’s, made of thick charcoal grey wool, quilted and trimmed in what appeared to be tawny rabbit fur for warmth. The matching dark grey breeches were made of some kind of leather, almost exactly like those that were part of the Inquisitor’s outerwear. Tucked underneath these main pieces were two burgundy satin sashes – one to wear across the breast from shoulder to side, and the other for tying at the waist. At the very bottom was a pair of black leather gauntlets, cut to forearm length, and supple black leather boots like those worn with the formal attire at Halamshiral: thigh-high, with reinforced knees and decorative silver buttons down the outside of each calf. There was even a pair of softer woolen stockings, to be held in place on my legs by tiny garters. And to top it all off was a matching wool pillbox-style hat trimmed in the same fur as the jacket. The fur itself was cut into a V on the front so that the Inquisition logo on a silver pin was clearly visible there.

I took a step back from it all, realizing I was grinning like an idiot as I immediately started stripping down to my underwear. Not a second more would I wear these oversized hand-me-downs, as much as I appreciated Scout Harding giving them to me. The only things I planned on keeping were the belt, bracers, and cloak; the rest would go to the tailor to be fitted for someone else or used as scrap material.

Once down to my smallclothes, I paused for a moment, thinking about which outfit to wear. It was still early in the morning, and I still had work to do. Work for the Inquisition.

Uniform it was.

The breeches were form-fitting to say the least. Though I was happy they weren’t too long and actually sat at my waist without the need for a belt to hold them up, they were also quite snug. I looked at myself skeptically in the mirror, turning this way and that, my eyebrows rising further with each angle. Yep, I definitely had a butt in these. A butt that the jacket wouldn’t be able to hide like my tunic had before. I wasn’t sure exactly how I felt about that…I’d never voluntarily worn tight leather pants like these before, certain that I could never pull off the look. Perhaps even literally.

Sighing, I moved on to the jacket. I noticed there was no undershirt to go with it, but then I realized that it was quilted enough I probably didn’t need it. The padded shoulders and high collar did much to improve my appearance, hiding what I had always considered my absurdly long and skinny neck. Then, trying to remember how they had looked on the formal attire, I put on the sashes – first the one that crossed from my left shoulder to my right side and pinned together, then the second one that wrapped and tied on top, hiding the waistline of my jacket and keeping the wind from getting in the gap.

After, I donned the stockings, secured them in place with the garters, and pulled on my boots. If my feet could have sighed their relief, they would have. Having shoes that fit felt absolutely divine. Having well-made shoes that were snug, warm and soft – but also sturdy – was utter bliss. I spent a good minute just walking around the cabin, relishing the sound of durable soles on wood and the streamlined feel of the leather that encased my legs. I could definitely get used to this.

At last, I pulled on the gauntlets, marveling at how well they fit. Once they were properly in place, I wiggled my fingers; surprisingly, they were flexible and taut enough to write in. Experimentally, I moved to take one of the books from the table where I had been studying the day before and opened it, flipping through the pages. It was a little difficult not being able to feel the parchment on my fingers, but the leather didn’t get in the way of turning the leaves.

Giddy with excitement, I turned back towards the mirror, smoothing my ponytail and grinning at my reflection.

I had gone from the look of a ragged refugee to a professional in a single change of clothes. I actually looked like I belonged with the Inquisition now. Not to mention the cut was flattering, and so were the colors. I briefly wondered why the ensemble wasn’t the customary dull orange and green of the soldiers and scouts. Instead, it was closer to the official Inquisition colors of charcoal and red. And was the design all Josie’s decision or the tailors’? Or Threnn’s, even?

A sudden knock at the door broke me out of my thoughts. Straightening everything a final time, I hurried over to the door and opened it…

…and I was immediately greeted by a certain scout’s intense electric stare.

“Oh! Scout Strider!” I exclaimed. Jesus, did he realize that his eyes were like a damn slap in the face? “I, uh, wasn’t expecting a visit. What do you need?”

He smirked a bit in response to my surprised greeting, and I was close enough now to tell that he had ruddy cheeks and a splash of freckles across his slightly crooked nose. “Not precisely what I need, Lady Tamsyn. I think this is more a matter of your needs. If you would, come walk with me to the practice field and I’ll explain along the way.”

I blinked. “Oh…all right then.”

Curious, I stepped out of my cabin, closing the door behind me and then following in the scout’s wake. He wasn’t much taller than me, but he covered ground quickly, so much that I almost had to jog to keep up with him. I supposed that explained his alias.

“Sister Nightingale said that she was concerned about your lack of combat capabilities,” he began as I caught up to him, taking huge strides to maintain a position beside him. “She asked that you be trained in archery, as she believes you would be well suited to it and would prefer such a method of self-defense. Much more so than melee.”

What?” I blurted out, eyes widening as I looked sideways at him in utter astonishment.

He chuckled then and asked, “Is that about the training itself or the reasoning behind it?”

“Both!”

He led me down the entry steps and smiled again, “Sister Nightingale said that you mentioned not being able to fight. She thought that you would have an aversion to training with close-quarters weaponry and would feel more comfortable learning to defend yourself from a distance. She’s an excellent judge of that sort of thing, you’ll find.”

“Yes, I get that part, but…you’re saying I don’t have a choice?”

“I’m afraid not, Lady Tamsyn. Both the Nightingale and Commander Cullen insist you know the rudimentary arts of personal combat. If I may be honest, it seems they fear for your safety now that you have joined the upper echelons of the Inquisition.”

My brows nearly hit my hairline.  I knew Leliana was already concerned about my origins and knowledge getting out to the enemy, but…did they expect me to become a target so soon?

I didn’t have much time to contemplate this, however, as Strider continued, “The Commander, naturally, openly disagreed with the Nightingale’s assessment.” He leaned closer as he walked and added quietly, “You didn’t hear it from me, but he’s arranging a trainer from his own men to meet with you sometime later today. He believes you should be practicing with melee weapons much sooner.”

I sighed. Great. So Leliana and Cullen were already fighting over how to teach me self-defense and I had no choice but to follow their whims. Oh well. Not like I had much else to do between war council meetings besides get a handle on the common tongue. Part of me wondered if Josephine was going to insist on some sort of “training,” too. Something like How to BS a Noble 101.

At last we reached the archery practice area, which consisted of a small row of targets behind Cullen’s main training ground. All the other marksmen were conveniently absent, either already gone for the day or yet to arrive. That made me feel a tad better knowing the only one who was going to witness my epic failure today was Strider. Unless Cullen took a break from his work to watch me.

I felt my cheeks burn. Dear God, please don’t let that happen.

“One moment,” Strider said as we stopped in front of the targets, about twenty feet away from them. He moved to where a number of supply crates were stacked, and he produced a rather simple looking bow as well as a quiver of practice arrows. Then, approaching me again, he proffered both items to me, the arrows rattling a little as he did so. He noticed my apprehension as I gingerly took them, and he laughed a little. “It’s all right, Lady Tamsyn. You’ll be an expert in no time, I’m sure.”

But if the results of that morning’s session were any indicator, Strider had just told me the biggest, fattest lie I’d ever heard.

After running me through the basics of proper posture, anchoring, and all the other technical aspects of bowmanship aside from just drawing and firing, he let me thoroughly embarrass myself by making me empty the quiver into the targets in front of me over and over again. So there I was, awkwardly fumbling for arrows in my gloves, struggling to repeatedly draw the string (even though he told me the weight was the lightest they had), and trying my best to aim correctly but somehow managing to screw it all up. Any time I did hit one of the targets, it seemed to be a stroke of pure luck. Countless times the arrows went skimming on either side and even above the damned target, and when they did hit, they hit the outer rim, barely hanging on to the packed hay and waving in the breeze.

It would have been comical had the situation not been so serious. My first honest attempt at learning to defend myself in this world, an endeavor that was deemed entirely necessary by two of my colleagues, consisted of me being completely incapable of hitting the center of stationary targets twenty feet in front of me. For all of my efforts, I had earned absolutely nothing but aching and burning shoulders, quivering arms, and blazing cheeks from frustration and humiliation.

Strider, bless his soul, was infinitely patient. With every round, he offered encouragements, bits of advice, and friendly reminders. After the final round came to a blessed end, two hours after we had begun, he approached to take the bow and quiver from me and offered reassuringly, “Not a bad first practice, my lady.”

By that time, I was too incensed to watch my tongue. “Bullshit. That was fucking terrible and you know it.”

He chuckled, “Believe it or not, I’ve seen worse.”

“Were they blind?”

“You certainly would have thought.”

After he had stowed away the bow and quiver, he squinted upwards at the sky and then asked casually, “Singing Maiden for lunch?”

I felt my brows rise. He actually wanted to have lunch with me despite witnessing my easily-flustered self put on a display of utter incompetence?

“Sure,” I replied with a shrug, slowly turning and walking side-by-side with him out of the practice area. Thankfully, it appeared Cullen and his lieutenants were still immersed in their work, though who knows how often they had paused during the course of those two hours.

“Excellent.”

We went in silence for a few moments, the only sound the crunching of the dirt underfoot. I was still too upset with myself to feel like speaking very much. We had reached the gates of the settlement before I took in a shaking breath and finally asked, “So, Sister Nightingale wants me to do this every morning?”

“Every morning,” he confirmed with a nod, his eyes fixed on the path ahead as he answered me. “Prior to this, my mornings consisted of message running, as you probably remember. Now, though, I am to meet with you for practice around the tenth hour every day.”

“And which do you prefer?”

“Honestly? This. At least I feel like more than just an errand boy.” He paused a moment, brow scrunching as if he realized how condescending that sounded, and added, “Well, not that errand boys don’t do important work around here. But it’s not very exciting.”

“And watching me butcher the fine art of archery is?” I snorted.

He chuckled lightly again. “Actually, I rather enjoy the teaching process. It’s exciting to watch someone go from novice to expert with just a bit of guidance…to know that you helped someone learn something important and helped them grow as a person.”

“Oh.”

I fell silent again, and we had nearly reached the tavern when I remarked curiously, “So, I imagine the Nightingale can keep you rather busy. What else do you do besides train me, now?”

He sighed. “Well, in the afternoons, I’m part of a regular patrol that goes out around the Temple ruins to check for demons. It’s just a precaution, actually. Nothing ever happens. Or at least, it hasn’t yet, thank the Maker.”

I nodded in understanding, “That’s good.”

We entered the tavern then, Strider holding the door for me as I ducked inside. The Singing Maiden was packed with patrons because of the time, but we managed to squeeze our way through the crowd to a table in the corner before anyone else called dibs on it. There was an overwhelming odor of leather, polish, and sweat, above which hovered notes of braised meat and alcohol. Lunch itself consisted of a chunk of roasted ram and dark bread, which we both devoured ravenously. Neither of us spoke during the meal, preferring to immerse ourselves in satisfying our growling stomachs for the time being. That was, until I lifted my tankard to take a drink and nearly sloshed it all over myself because my muscles were shaking so badly.

I felt my cheeks burning again as I clamped my other hand onto the mug to keep it still while I took a sip. When I looked up, Strider was fighting back laughter, his ruddy countenance getting even redder as he bit his lip to keep his mirth contained. The tankard thunked loudly as I set it back down on the table none-too-gently, and this just caused Strider to laugh harder.

The look…on your face!” he wheezed.

“Shut up!” I hissed, but was unable to keep myself from laughing in response to his mirth. It was rather funny. In a pathetic sort of way.

That just caused him to laugh out loud, then, the sound bursting out of him. Strider pushed back his armored hood, and I noticed that he had a shock of messy dark brown hair, matted from his headgear. I shook my head, waiting for him to finish before I finally remarked quietly, “Yeah, I know. It’s terrible.”

“I’m sorry,” he managed to gasp out, “I really am, I just…I didn’t expect that practice to weaken you quite so much.”

“Yeah, well, neither did I. Hence my face.”

“Really, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t laugh,” he said apologetically, taking a steadying breath and straightening in his chair as he recovered, “But…perhaps you should.”

My brow rose at his words, and he explained, “You were very upset earlier, during your practice. And that, in turn, hurt your performance. Your emotions made you miss that target more than your lack of experience did. Instead of being angry, laugh at yourself. Allow yourself that moment of humor at your own expense, and then resolve to get better. And you will get better.”

“I…” I trailed. I certainly didn’t expect this to become such a profound teaching moment. Strider had gone from laughing at me to trying to make me feel better about myself in the space of two seconds.

I didn’t have much time to contemplate this change in tone, however, as someone’s shadow suddenly passed over the table. I looked up to see another, similarly garbed scout standing there, staring between us, a sort of absentmindedness in his expression. Unlike Strider’s startling electric blue gaze, this man’s was more of a soft periwinkle hue, and his eyes were almost unnaturally large.

“Um,” I began, hoping to prompt the scout.

“Jim!” Strider interjected, “What are you just standing there for, man?”

Jim. The scout’s name was Jim.

Dear God in Heaven, sweet Maker, Andraste’s flaming knickers...

He was real. Scout “Jim” was real. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“Oh, I was uh, ahem,” he cleared his throat loudly, and he looked somewhat agitated. “Just waiting on Lady Tamsyn here to finish her thought. I’ve been told I interrupt too much, sooooo…” he rocked back on his heels a little and bounced as he offered me a sheepish grin.

This is hysterical.

“No, go ahead…Jim,” I replied, trying desperately to hide my amusement. “I uh…lost my train of thought.”

“Oh, well…right,” he dipped his head to me. “Commander Cullen requested your presence. He’s on the practice field right now.”

Strider glanced back at me with a knowing expression, and I nodded in understanding. Time for more training. I stood, then, giving Jim a smile of thanks, “All right. I’ll be there shortly.”

Jim spun around and disappeared into the crowd as I turned back towards Strider, pushed in my chair, and added, “Good luck on your patrol, and I guess I’ll see you tomorrow?”

Strider grinned, “You bet. See you then, my lady. I look forward to it.”

I then left the tavern with both curiosity and apprehension balling themselves up in my stomach. Jim was already long gone, but I suspected I would be seeing much more of him in the future. I still found his name to be highly amusing; how funny was it to have such a silly fandom headcanon very much affirmed? I shook my head. If he somehow managed to conduct himself according to those same headcanons, then the poor man would never catch a break. Ever.

Hurrying out to the training grounds again, I found Cullen with arms crossed, as he was wont to do, seemingly in a deep discussion with a female soldier of roughly the same stature as Cassandra. They stood together near his tent, away from the main throng of recruits, who were being overseen by Rylen and a few other officers at the time. As I neared, Cullen glanced my way and offered me a small smile and nod of acknowledgment. As I smiled back, the expression automatic, I could feel my cheeks heating up despite my concentrated effort to keep my emotions in check.

Damnit, Tamsyn, stop it!

“Ah, there you are,” the commander said at last, reaching sideways and holding the flap of his tent open, “let us talk for a moment in private. Corporal?”

I couldn’t help but be a bit surprised at his words, but then I realized the soldier was going to be there with us after she ducked into the tent first. I followed behind her, and Cullen entered last. It was a tad cramped, but we managed to each find a place to stand without getting in anyone’s way. The soldier took her place near the cot in the corner, Cullen stood in front of a small table and stool that functioned as his desk, and I kept near the entrance, my hands behind my back. I tried not to let my eyes wander too much so as not to be rude, but I did notice the veritable tower of books at the foot of the cot and the many crumpled sheets of parchment that had been kicked to the back of the tent.

“I saw you practicing with Strider earlier,” Cullen began, another smile pulling at his lips, “so I assume you already know about Sister Nightingale’s concerns.”

Shit. He saw. Great.

Biting back my embarrassment, I nodded and replied simply, “I do.”

“They are mine as well,” he continued, propping his hand atop the pommel of his sword. “Unfortunately, I believe her solution of easing you into combat by introducing you to ranged weaponry is…” he paused, lips pressing together momentarily as he thought about how to formulate his explanation, “not necessarily a mistake, but not the wisest plan of action. I know she doesn’t think you would be suited to melee, and perhaps it is something that you are indeed averse to. But be that as it may, you must to know how to defend yourself in close quarters. A bow is useless if someone breaks into your cabin and is on top of you before my soldiers can reach you, or if someone surprises you in combat if the Herald decides to take you with him on his missions. A few seconds’ worth of holding off an attacker with another weapon – even your fists – could mean the difference between life and death.”

I felt my brows rise at his suggestion. “Are you…expecting me to be attacked?”

He sighed. “Word will get out sooner or later about what you are. When that happens, you will be a target for capture and even assassination. Even with as much security as we have here in Haven, I cannot guarantee that our enemies won’t find a way to reach you. A guard will be stationed outside your door each night, but that may not be enough. And in the field, the Herald and his companions cannot watch for you and themselves, too. There is a great possibility you could be caught unawares, and without this training, you would be helpless to stop your assailants. Such a weakness can’t be ignored.”

He gestured to the soldier, who nodded to me and offered a warm smile of greeting, her dark brown eyes sparkling in the shadow of her helmet. “Tamsyn, this is Corporal Delia Rothe. I would like you to train with her every afternoon for the foreseeable future. She will help you find a weapon you feel comfortable wielding and then train you to utilize it to the best effect. Because you are not a rank-and-file soldier, I felt it pertinent not to incorporate you with the recruits. Instead, you should focus on individual training that is less centered around group situations and discipline and more on personal safety.”

Turning to the Corporal, he instructed, “Just concentrate on finding a weapon today. That will take long enough. You can begin in full on the morrow. I’ll expect a report on your findings by the end of the day.”

“Yes, ser,” Delia replied with a salute.

Cullen then brushed past me with a final nod of what appeared to be encouragement, and I was conscious of the slight scrape of his vambrace against the sleeve of my jacket as he exited his tent without another word, leaving me alone with my new trainer.

After a few moments, I sighed, “I came here knowing it was the safest place for someone like me…and now, apparently, even that’s not enough.”

Delia chuckled, and her accent was distinctly Fereldan as she replied, “That’s his mother hen side showing. Everyone and everything in Haven is part of his nest, and if he senses a weakness anywhere, he fusses and frets until it’s fixed to his satisfaction.”

I found myself smiling in amusement at her assessment. And how accurate it was.

“He is right of course,” she added. “You should know how to defend yourself properly. But I know the Commander is also covering his ass. If anything were to happen to you, Lady Pentaghast would demand to know why he allowed it and then tan his hide for him.” Noticing my expression, the corner of her mouth turned upward, and she explained, “He told me enough about you for me to understand that you’re damn near as valuable to the higher-ups as the Herald himself. You’re an asset, and an important one. They lose you, and he’d never forgive himself for the failure.

“But now it’s my job to make sure that never happens,” she gestured to the tent opening, “let’s go and see what works for you, then, shall we?”

Unable to do anything else, I nodded my acquiescence and ducked out of the tent, Delia right behind me. As we entered the training ground proper, she pointed to a series of barrels, close to where Cassandra usually sparred, and I meandered that way, letting her take the lead as I slowly approached them. The corporal patted the open-topped barrels and beckoned me to come closer, “Right. Take a peek in here and try a few of these on for size. Hand-to-hand and dagger training is a given, but we need to pick something good for the field.”

I leaned over the barrels and looked inside each of them. Within these barrels had been piled numerous practice weapons of varying sorts. Most of them were wooden, but were crafted to resemble the length and weight of their real and deadly counterparts: shields and bucklers of every size, quarterstaffs, swords of numerous lengths, axes with both one head and two, maces, flails and hammers…a few could even be assembled from multiple pieces to form practice spears, halberds, and glaives. I spent the next half hour or more withdrawing one after the other, testing the weight and the feel of them in my hands.

But after going through almost every replica there, I began to feel Leliana was right all along. No weapon felt as good in my hands as the bow had earlier, despite my failures during the practice session. Each melee weapon I withdrew just felt…wrong. They were too long, too short, too heavy, too unwieldy, or some combination thereof. Even shields didn’t seem right to me, as I distinctly lacked the strength, stamina and coordination to handle two separate items in my hands at once.

Just when I thought I was going to scream from sheer frustration, Delia suddenly spoke up with hand uplifted while peering into one of the barrels, “Wait, you missed one.”

She then reached farther down into the barrel and pulled out what looked to be the standard sword I had discarded not five minutes ago, but the blade wasn’t as long – perhaps two feet all told. It was certainly longer than a dagger, but it was distinctly shorter than the other swords I had tried swinging around. Extending it to me, she explained, “Some call it a shortsword. Others insist it’s a long dagger. Either way, it’s light, it’s quick, but it gives you a little more reach than a simple knife. I’ve heard blades of this length are popular with fighters in Tevinter.”

I took it skeptically, but as soon as my hand curled around the grip, something just…clicked. It was like it belonged there. It fit. It worked. It was right. And it felt so strange.

“Ah, there it is,” Delia remarked with a knowing grin. “I’ve seen that look before. You just found your battle partner.”

I couldn’t help but smile back. “I…guess I have.”

“Right,” she nodded, “I’ll go put in an order for a proper one with Harritt. We don’t stock many of them, as they’re not a popular choice with the men. Since that’s it for the day, I’ll be spending my afternoon planning a training routine for you. Tomorrow, I’ll start teaching you how to use it.”

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That night, after an evening’s worth of studying the Chant of Light again, I lay in bed thinking about what all had happened to me in such a short time span. In the course of two days, I had gone from a limbo-like state, completely uncertain of my future, to incredibly busy, my schedule now filled with studying and training routines and with an established “career” ahead of me.

Advisor Tamsyn Ashworth of the Inquisition, trainee of bow and shortsword, scholar of the Chant of Light and avid student of the common tongue…

Ha! Who was I kidding? I was a walking anomaly who just happened to be somewhat useful and who the Inquisition’s top tier was desperately trying to transform into some semblance of competent.

I rolled onto my side and hissed at the soreness of my shoulder, cursing my poor fitness. I should have remembered to stretch after archery practice. Actually, I should have remembered to do it beforehand, too. And I would have, had I actually been thinking. But for some reason, good old bumbling Tamsyn was just stumbling around all day in some dazed haze halfway between awestruck and clueless. And all I had been worried about was what Cullen thought of my ineptitude.

Think!

All of the busywork and training aside, I had to mentally prepare myself for when the Herald returned and I was needed in that war room again. I had to get ready for Vivienne and Sera and whatever questions, concerns, and trouble they might raise. And I especially had to get ready for Solas…

…because God only knew what the Dread Wolf was going to throw at me when he got back.

Chapter Text

Before I could fully ready myself for the next stage of the game, as it were, naturally, life just had to throw me another curveball in the form of my monthly cycle. Naturally, I hadn’t thought of it at all until it was almost right on top of me, but I was lucky enough to have advance warning in the form of the telltale lethargy and foggy-headedness the next day. Thankfully, preparation was solved quickly by an early morning visit to the healers, who apparently had already worked out a brilliant system to provide for the women of Haven in the form of a steady supply of old rags and small vials of elfroot tonics. These materials I quickly took back to my cabin and stowed away like treasured gold for when the storm finally did break.

And a day later, it did.

During those two days, despite my lassitude, I managed to start a regular routine with Strider and Delia, the latter of who began to train me in hand-to-hand, dagger, and shortsword techniques, her plan having been approved by Cullen. Thankfully, neither practice lasted more than two hours at once, so I had a bit of time to breathe before and after each. I ate breakfast at approximately seven in the morning, and then I trained with Strider from ten until noon, at which time I broke for lunch. After that, I met with Delia from about one until three in the afternoon. Later, I studied the copies of the Chant of Light until supper, which I took at roughly six in the evening. The rest of the night, then, I had to myself to do as I pleased.

Honestly, my now-established schedule wasn’t as packed as some, but I still had a lot to digest and learn. I ended up both mentally and physically shattered by nighttime those two days, and my feminine problems didn’t help matters at all. I was irritable and perpetually fatigued, and no amount of sleep seemed to help either of those two issues.

And then, the Herald finally returned.

I had been heading to the practice field to meet with Strider, biting back a grimace as the elfroot tonic I had used that morning before breakfast had yet to kick in. The herbal concoction had successfully taken the edge off of my cramps the day before, and had also managed to simultaneously ease the muscle pain from my practices, but it was nothing like the medicine available back on earth; the underlying ache and tension was always there, lurking under the surface and keeping me short of temper.

As I thought about my situation on the way to the training grounds, I realized that the tonics the women were given were probably watered down quite a bit to make supplies last longer, especially considering most of the stock of elfroot went to powerful healing potions and poultices for wounded troops. I briefly wondered if there was anything else I could take that would help me, like an herbal tea or something to relax me, and I had half a mind to ask Josephine or Leliana about it…

But just as I reached the archery grounds, the distant sounds of approaching horses filled the air, breaking me out of my thoughts and turning my attention from Strider, who awaited me with bow already in hand. I glanced to the dirt road that wound its way around the town’s palisade, and there, clopping and snorting through the snowy pass, was the Herald and his companions…Vivienne and Sera accompanying them on additional mounts. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the glint of Cullen’s vambrace in the sun as he waved an officer over to take his place on the practice field, and I knew a war room meeting would be called very soon.

“Herald’s back,” Strider observed as I meandered over, and we both continued to watch as the party continued further towards Haven’s stables. “I suppose you’ll be needed soon, then.”

“Yeah, probably.” Honestly, I wasn’t sure which I preferred right now, the meeting or the training. Both were likely to try my already thin patience.

“Right. Let’s just forget practice, then. Your shoulders could probably use the break, eh?” He playfully punched my upper arm to punctuate his words; it hadn’t been a hard punch at all – in fact, he had likely held back on purpose because he knew I was sore – but it still hurt like hell.

Owowowow!”I inhaled and squeaked at the same time, dancing away from the scout and glaring at him as I rubbed my touchy arm. He merely laughed lightly and shook his head at me, apparently still amused at my physical weakness. Had I not been in such an irritable mood that morning, I might have shared in his amusement; I was in poor shape and I knew it, and attempting to become a combat expert practically overnight was a laughable endeavor in and of itself.

But alas, I wasn’t able to laugh at myself today.

I straightened my uniform, dusted myself off, and made a beeline for the stables, where the companions were now dismounting and shedding extra equipment and weaponry. There was a loud commotion and a chorus of voices as attendants and soldiers happily greeted Maxwell, taking the steeds and welcoming everyone back. As I approached, Varric gestured to catch the Herald’s attention, the latter in the process of removing the plain Fereldan soldier’s helmet he wore. As soon as Maxwell was free of the thing, he shook his head to loosen his matted hair and then glanced my way with those stunning olive eyes of his. He had grown a decent shadow of a beard during his absence, indicating he hadn’t shaved every day.

“And there’s our helper from the Beyond.” The Herald flashed me a brilliant smile. “It is good to see you again.”

Despite how bad I felt, I couldn’t help but smile in return. Maxwell’s grin was infectious, and his warm welcome did wonders to lift my mood. I dipped my head politely as I replied, “And you, Herald. Welcome back.”

“Looks like the Nightingale didn’t murder you after all,” Varric joked, looking me up and down as he took in my new uniform.

“She wasn’t going to murder her anyway, Varric,” Cassandra said curtly before sidling up to me, her hands behind her back. She nodded in acknowledgement to me, and I saw her take a breath before she added, “Tamsyn…I would very much like to speak with you later, if at all possible. In private.”

I nodded, having expected something like this upon her return. “As you wish, Seeker.”

She huffed out a sigh. “First, though,” she motioned to Maxwell to get his attention again, as he was continuing to disarm, handing his sword and shield to the attendants from the forge. “Herald, we should call a war council meeting immediately. I will gather the others and meet you at the Chantry.”

“Of course. I’ll be there in just a moment, Cassandra,” Maxwell answered.

I watched for a moment as the Seeker turned and walked away, striding with purpose past the stables and towards the gates, and Varric followed not far behind, muttering something about a drink. But then I heard Solas’s voice as the elf replaced Cassandra at my side, and I glanced back to him as he spoke. “Ah, Tamsyn. It is good to see you have been treated well in our absence. I would also like to talk with you later this afternoon, if you have the time and the inclination.”

“He’s rather eager,” Maxwell remarked as he shed his scale mail coat, “I think if you keep him waiting much longer, he’s going to positively burst.”

 Solas’s expression was one of slight mirth as he shook his head, “There are matters of greater import to deal with for the time being. I would not keep you from them. You know where to find me when you have a moment.” With that, he too followed in Cassandra’s footsteps towards the gates, no doubt headed to his cabin to rest after the long journey.

“So…you’re the weirdy one.”

Sera.

She lingered along with Vivienne, waiting for the Herald to take them both to the town proper. She was looking at me with a rather sour expression on her face, her nose wrinkled. I noticed she kept several paces away from me, her arms crossed and her toes pointed inwards. Beside her, Vivienne watched me with hawk eyes, garbed in her pristine white robes and her elegant horned hennin.

“Sera!” Maxwell scolded, brow furrowed at her lack of tact.

“What, she is! And you can’t say she isn’t!” the elf retorted defensively.

“The circumstances of her arrival are rather unnerving, I must agree,” Vivienne remarked. “Although I can detect nothing supernatural about her.”

Sera squinted as she looked up at the mage who towered above her. “Can’t you talk normal?”

Vivienne raised a thin brow as she peered down at the rogue, “I think that would be a more appropriate question directed at you, my dear.”

Pshh.”

“All right you two,” Maxwell finally approached, at last freed of all his encumbering gear. “Let’s get you both to the ambassador. I’m sure Josephine will be eager to meet you.”

At that, the Herald began leading us towards the town proper. I followed at a good distance behind so as not to make the newcomers more uncomfortable than they already were. I felt myself bristling at being talked about like I wasn’t even there, but I decided it was best to just let it go, instead walking in silence. Maxwell pointed out various landmarks to the two of them along the way, including the Singing Maiden, the sounds from which had Sera’s ears practically perking up with interest.

“It is quite a....quaint, little place,” Vivienne remarked about halfway through the village, her tone characteristically supercilious. “One can only wonder why the Hands of the Divine chose this of all places for the Inquisition’s headquarters. It is hardly what one would expect of a proper military organization.”

“Can’t all be in lofty towers and sparkly palaces, you know,” Sera scoffed.

“Careful, dear, your ignorance is showing.”

Unlike Sera, I knew exactly what Vivienne meant, and I couldn’t help but agree with her observation. The First Enchanter was subtly pointing out the town’s obvious lack of defensibility against forces larger than bandit raiders, despite the number of troops and the palisade wall.

“Considering the events that led up to the founding, I’m fairly certain it was a matter of necessity, not choice,” Maxwell said. “We just haven’t had the time or the permissions to relocate elsewhere.”

The group fell silent, then, and it wasn’t long before we reached the Chantry. Once inside, after letting my eyes adjust to the harsh change in lighting, I saw Cassandra and the advisors approaching at casual pace.

“There you are,” Leliana greeted us, her eyes flicking my way beneath the shadow of her hood. “And Tamsyn, too. Good. We have much to discuss regarding your trip to Val Royeaux.”

“Yes, we do,” the Herald answered with a nod, “Although, first, let me introduce Madame Vivienne de Fer, First Enchanter of Montsimmard.”

“A pleasure and honor, First Enchanter,” Josephine offered a polite dip of her head, her smile a welcoming one.

“The honor is mine, I am certain,” Vivienne replied, inclining her own head in answer.

“And this is Sera, of the Red Jennies,” Maxwell added.

The elf glanced between the advisors curiously. “So you’re the Inquisition, yeah? Like I told the Herald, show me the baddies and I’ll pin ‘em with arrows for you.”

“We appreciate all the aid we can get,” Josephine replied, her smile widening. Gesturing behind her, she continued, “Come, let us add you two to the official roster. I will meet the rest of you in the war room in just a moment.” At that, both of the newcomers brushed past us and followed the ambassador as she led them to her office in a swirl of blue and gold satin.

After but a moment of silence, Cullen addressed Cassandra and the Herald as he turned back towards the rear of the Chantry. “We read your letters. Your findings in Orlais present us with two options we can pursue to the same effect of closing the Breach, and Tamsyn here has enlightened us regarding both paths. Unfortunately, there is a lot to consider before we come to a solid decision. And it won’t be an easy choice to make.”

The rest of us followed after him, accompanied by a chorus of rattling metal, creaking leather, and swishing fabrics as we all walked together, something I might not have been so acutely aware of  at any other time in the month. I took a breath and exhaled slowly as I fought a wave of fatigue that washed over me. I had half a mind to steal a chair from Josie’s office to bring into the war room with me…

“I am eager to hear what you have learned,” Cassandra replied, watching as Josephine ushered Vivienne and Sera into her office while we passed them by.

“As am I,” Maxwell added, “any clarification you can offer will be welcome. After that mad display at the capital, I’m not sure which way we should go with this.”

Cullen held the door and we all entered, each taking our places around the table. I occupied the same space I had at the very first meeting, between the Herald and where Josephine usually stood. It took a few minutes to assemble the maps and markers, and by the time we had finished with that, Josephine had arrived.

Once we were all gathered, the advisors proceeded to brief the Herald and Cassandra on what had occurred at Haven and the surrounding environs in their absence, including my new role as advisor, troop movements, and scouting events, as well as their thoughts about the situation in Val Royeaux. They also imparted everything I had told them previously in surprising detail, even reinforcing the fact that the looming choice between the mages and Templars was now reduced to a matter of political maneuvering more than anything else. Thankful for not having to do much of the explaining this time around, I merely offered nods of affirmation to their words when either Cassandra or Maxwell glanced my way, remaining silent for much of the meeting. Lethargy swept over me in waves, and I leaned one hand against the war table as I listened to them talk.

As the conversation went on and didn’t require my particular input, I found myself focusing less and less on what everyone was saying and more and more on their body language, which I hardly had time to do before without seeming rude. Just their subtle movements were incredibly enthralling to me, as it reminded me that they were all very much real now. The echoing of their voices in the stone chamber, and their gestures and other mannerisms, brought life to these personas I knew not a month ago as nothing more than crafted characters in a fake world. Now they lived and breathed…and I was here among them.

It was the little things that captivated me most. The way Leliana’s head cocked at Josephine whenever the ambassador spoke, or how she pulled her hands behind her back when Maxwell addressed her. The way Josie shifted her weight from one foot to the other, putting her quill hand in the small of her back or at her hip when not in use. The way Cullen treated his loose-slung sword as a convenient arm rest, one thumb occasionally rubbing the curve of the pommel as if it were a worry stone. As I continued observing them, only half-heartedly listening, I noticed that the Seeker was none-too-pleased at the decision the Herald would ultimately have to make, judging from her crossed arms and slightly backwards lean. Maxwell himself couldn’t hide his own disquiet at the thought, visibly swallowing, his lips pressed tightly together while Josephine elaborated on the impact the choice between the mages and Templars would have on the public view of the Inquisition.

Once everyone had had their say, there was a pregnant pause, and the air seemed heavy as quiet settled over the room. At last, however, Maxwell looked to me, in his gaze a question, as if asking for final words on the situation. Glancing to the others, I took a breath and said, “Well…it’s really all up to you now, Herald, since you’re the one who is essentially acting as representative of the Inquisition. You’ll eventually have to decide who you feel would be most worth investigating, whose support you value most, and how you think the Inquisition should be seen. Not something that has to be decided right now, of course. But it’s coming. Likely sooner than you would prefer.”

Honestly, it was sooner than I would have preferred. It meant that Corypheus’s attack on Haven would probably be in a month’s time or less. Maybe a tad more if the Herald dallied in the Hinterlands or at the Storm Coast, or even at the Fallow Mire, from which the demand had only recently arrived of a ransom for Cullen’s missing soldiers, if I had heard the earlier briefing correctly.

“I’m thinking I should go ahead and make a trip to Redcliffe, just to hear what Grand Enchanter Fiona has to say,” Maxwell said at last, scratching at the back of his head as he thought. “I have some business to conclude in the Hinterlands, anyway. Among other things, I need to finalize the acquisition of our horses now that those watchtowers have been constructed.”

Cullen noticeably inclined his head in approval at that. No doubt the Commander was eager to obtain Dennet’s mounts as soon as possible for the ease of transport of both supplies and men.

“You say nothing will be concluded there anyway, right Tamsyn?” the Herald asked, eyes fixated on a war table piece.

“That is correct,” I confirmed, “but it will give you a much better idea of what’s going on there, so you’ll have an easier time making a decision later on.”

“Good,” Maxwell nodded. “That sounds like a plan. But I’ll let the crew rest a day or two before heading out there. It’s been a hard journey to Val Royeaux and back.”

Leliana shifted in her corner of the room. “In the meantime, I will continue my attempts to track down where the Templars have gone and find out what the Lord Seeker’s true intent might be. We will need all the information we can get if we are to ultimately choose who is worth saving and who will be discarded.”

“Not a choice I’m exactly eager to make,” Maxwell murmured quietly, rubbing at his stubbled chin.

There was a moment or two of silence, and then the Herald made some closing decisions regarding minor side missions of no significant note before the council was finally dismissed. I hung back while the rest filed out, and so did Maxwell for a brief moment; he spoke a few low words to Cassandra, and she nodded in understanding, returning her attention to the war table as he left, leaning over the map of Orlais. Remembering the Seeker’s request, I thought it would be pertinent to go ahead and get this conversation over with, now that the room was empty save for us. After the door slowly creaked shut, I approached her cautiously, hoping she was all right with talking now.

“You said you wanted to speak with me, Seeker?” I asked. “Now seems as good a time as any.”

“I…yes,” she replied, straightening stiffly. By the hesitance in her voice, I knew she was conflicted about whatever it was she was going to say. True to her in-game persona, her tone betrayed her internalized emotional struggle, just like Cullen’s did.

“I wanted to officially welcome you to the Inquisition,” she said at length, awkwardly extending a gloved hand to me. I took it tentatively, and she shook mine with a gentler grip than I expected. After releasing me, she added, “I had my doubts about you, in the beginning, and if I am honest, I still do. But that no longer matters. You have proven that you are willing to help us with your knowledge, however you may have obtained it. And I am of the mind that we cannot afford to look a gift horse in the mouth.”

She sighed, turning away, her gaze fixating on the table again, although I was certain she wasn’t paying attention to anything there. “When you came here, Tamsyn, I was afraid of what you told us. I was afraid of what it meant, for the Inquisition and for the world. And I was also afraid that you wouldn’t guide us to hope and success, but instead to ruination through deception. I feared your intentions for us, and that you were an agent working against us somehow. But I feel I must tell you personally that those fears are gone.”

She turned back, her eyes meeting mine. “On the way to Val Royeaux, we spoke of you. The Herald asked me what I believed in my heart, and it took me a long time to find the answer. I thought about it all the way there, about what you said, and I prayed to the Maker for guidance. And then, when everything played out just as you said it would…” She trailed, paused a moment, and then shook her head. “I knew immediately that we needed you. Just like we need the Herald. The assistance that both of you can provide us is unique, and I cannot help but think that you were sent to us for a reason.” She glanced away again, silent as she thought a bit before continuing, “I remember you told us there is only so much you can reveal to us at a time, so you may continue to provide us hints on what is to come. You said you regretted not being able to tell us more, and I cannot say it isn’t difficult to accept. But I do understand.”

Turning away from me again, she took a few steps towards the door. “I can only hope that you are wise in choosing what to say and what to keep to yourself.”

As she opened the door and departed the war room, then, leaving me to my thoughts, I said quietly, “So can I.”

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After eating lunch at the Singing Maiden at the usual time, I went to practice with Delia; despite my feeling rather badly, there was no reason not to go. I wasn’t about to use the problem every other pre-menopause woman in Haven had to endure as an excuse. And, truthfully, the training was a welcome distraction from the wider problems of the world and my own smaller issues. Delia, like Strider, was a patient instructor, and I found myself easily immersed in learning the tricks and nuances of combat, even if I was still scared to death to actually have to apply it in some manner in the future.

Once practice was over, however, I knew I couldn’t put off my meeting with Solas any longer. I feared that not going at all would tarnish what seemed to be remarkably decent relations between us, and I couldn’t afford to have him suspicious or hostile towards me. That would only make things ten times worse.

No, I needed Fen’harel to be amicable towards me for as long as was possible…for my sake, and everyone else’s.

Taking a deep breath upon reaching his cabin, I raised my hand to the door and knocked rapidly upon its surface, the sound hollow.

“Yes?” was the muffled reply.

I hesitantly opened the door and peeked inside. “Solas?”

The elf glanced up from a table on the near wall that was littered with notes, books, and alchemical ingredients. His brow was deeply furrowed as he bent over the parchment beneath his hand, but his expression softened upon seeing me standing in the threshold. Smiling slightly, he waved me in. “Ah, you’re here. Good. Do come in and have a seat.”

I entered, quickly closing the door behind me, and I was greeted by a subtle smoky, floral scent inside. Solas put down his quill and turned in his chair, gesturing to a stool on the opposite wall, which I pulled forward a bit and plopped down upon. “You wanted to talk to me?”

He nodded. “Yes, I do. I have been thinking about your situation for some time now. I must say, I have studied the Fade for many a year, and I have never heard of anyone coming through it from another world. It is a puzzle, to be sure, but I believe I have begun to piece it together. I assumed you might wish to hear my thoughts on the matter, so that you may understand the why and how of it.”

I swallowed. I honestly didn’t know if I wanted him to share these thoughts with me or not. For one, I couldn’t trust that anything he told me wasn’t for the sole purpose of furthering some hidden agenda. For another, I was a little sick of thinking about my origins. Any time my mind wandered to the topic, it brought nothing but heartache. And now, when I was already on a rollercoaster of emotions, wasn’t really a good time to bring it up again.

“Well, I was hoping to put this all behind me as soon as possible, actually,” I said finally, clasping my hands atop my lap.

“I understand,” he nodded slowly. “Still, perhaps it will offer you some closure and peace of mind. If I am correct in this, it is rather…final. That alone may be of some comfort, oddly enough.”

I sighed my resignation. “All right. I’m listening.”

He inclined his head. “I shall try to make it brief. You said that this world is a story to you, a work of fiction, where you are from. To others, such a statement would make your situation sound all the more unbelievable. For me, however, it provided a key to figuring out just how you got here.”

He shifted in his chair, “A book, specifically one of fiction, is a product of imagination, yes? It is first thought of by its creator, and then it is made into reality by putting those thoughts to parchment. Thus, imagination is the center of creation. The same can be said of magic itself…at least, in this world. It, too, is a product of the imagination. A mage imagines a fireball, and his magic manifests itself as such through that mage’s willpower. Do you follow?”

I nodded.

“The tie between it all is the Fade, and it is in the Fade that the imagination has the most power. It functions as both a wellspring and a bridge. There, reality is reflective of the mind, most notable when one is dreaming. You experienced a very important thing when you arrived here from your home world: you traveled through the Fade first.”

“I did.”

“And that, I believe, is the very crux of it,” Solas leaned forward, his eyes intense as he continued his explanation, “Whatever calamity struck your world, it impacted the fabric of reality itself, tearing through it and allowing access to the Fade beyond, outside the realm of dreaming. Tell me…were you thinking of our world – this story of yours – at the moment of or shortly before this event occurred?”

My eyes widened in realization. I had. I had just been texting Abigail about Inquisition when all of this started…

“Yes,” I answered quietly, beginning to understand where he was going with this.

He smirked. “Ah. Then that makes even more sense. Imagination is a powerful thing, Tamsyn. It has the power to create worlds and to transport one to others. Figuratively as well as literally, so it seems. Let me be clear – I do not think that this world was created from the dreams of the author who wrote about it as you know it. Rather, I believe it is the opposite: the story you know was written from the dreams of the one who touched this place in his or her mind, reinforcing my theory that the Fade acted as an already extant conduit between worlds at the moment of your home’s apocalypse.”

He propped his elbows on his knees and peaked his fingers underneath his chin as he continued. “It is my belief that the strength of your imagination is what allowed you to touch the Fade at the moment of this disaster, thereby saving your life. It was the Fade itself that both made your author privy to this world, and it ultimately pulled you into it when your reality was destroyed.”

As he finished, I leaned backwards against the wall of Solas’s cabin. This…this was a lot to absorb, and it was more than a bit difficult to wrap my head around it all. But I had to admit, the situation was starting to make a little more sense.

A little.

“So, what about other people?” I asked. “There were a lot more people than me who read about Thedas. Why didn’t they get pulled here, too?”

He shrugged indifferently. “Perhaps they have. Thedas is more than just the Frostbacks and the Hinterlands, as you are well aware. It is possible more of your kind are here and that they have survived just as you have. Or, perhaps not. Such a propelling of the body from one world to the next could very well hinge on the willpower of the individual in question, just as the strength of a mage depends upon the very same. I am less certain about these technicalities.”

My brows rose, and I held my breath as I realized that more people just like me could be in Thedas doing God knew what. If that was the case, then this could get really, really messy really fast. I hated to be so heartless, but I actually hoped it wasn’t true. Because if it was, then my job could get a lot more difficult.

“In any case,” Solas added, “perhaps it is best that your world has been destroyed by whatever happened to bring you here. A callous suggestion, you no doubt think, but hear me out – I do not believe reverse transportation is physically possible. Even if there were some remnant of your world left, I am certain that there is no way for you to return to it. It is better that the hope not exist at all than it remain and haunt you, tempting you into dangerous acts in an attempt to go back home.”

I sighed again, rubbing my temples with my forefingers as my head began to throb. “So…you essentially told me all of that to tell me that yes, what happened was possible and no, I can’t go back. Sounds like something you should be explaining to the others and not to me.”

“I have discussed it with the Herald already, and I am sure he will share it with the rest in due time.”

“Good,” I said, shifting in my seat. “Maybe everyone can accept all this for what it is, now – a terrible accident.”

Solas gave me an enigmatic smile. “To many, your presence here is much more than that. It is something about which they have already made up their minds. But it also presents challenges that are difficult for them to overcome.”

“Why, exactly?” I found myself asking, “Does the Chant not allow for other worlds or something?”

He was silent for several moments before answering, “I’m afraid I cannot speak for Andrastians on the matter. Personally, it challenges everything I know about the Fade and its connection to us. Yet, in a strange way, it also simultaneously affirms it. It is but a guess, but perhaps those who believe in the Maker feel the same about it – it shakes faith to the core, but it also reinforces belief in a power beyond this world. Perhaps, many worlds, for that matter. At any rate, it is at once discomforting and marvelous.”

He smiled again, then, and I felt so conflicted about it. I knew what he was and what he planned on doing, and it colored everything he did, even his attempted kindnesses. But I couldn’t show it.

I stood. “Thank you, Solas. I appreciate it. It helps…really.”

“I am glad,” he answered, slowly turning back towards his work at the table. “If you need to, I will be more than happy to discuss this matter with you again whenever you so desire.”

At that, I gave him a polite nod and left the elf’s cabin, all the while wondering why he wanted to tell me all of this so badly and whether or not he had really been telling the truth…

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I was on my way back to my cabin after eating supper that evening when I spotted the Herald leaning against the outer wall of his own residence, looking up at the emerging stars overhead. As always, the twilight hour was crisp and clear, and now even colder than usual as winter continued its steady march towards us. I tucked my gloved hands under my armpits as I walked, shivering a little as a particularly icy breeze swept through the town and pierced even through my lined jacket. Haven was perpetually at freezing or below temperatures in the autumn, it seemed, and I suspected it would fall close to zero degrees Fahrenheit at the peak of winter. That wasn’t a good sign for later events…

As I reached the trio of cabins near the gates, Maxwell saw me approaching at last and offered me a small smile, raising a hand in greeting. “Good evening, Tamsyn.”

“Good evening, Herald,” I replied, a puff of misty breath following my words.

He then gestured to his cabin door, “If you aren’t too busy, perhaps you’d care to share a drink with me?”

I slowly stopped in my tracks, wondering what he was thinking. “Well…sure, Herald. Why not?”

He held the door for me and I quickly ducked inside. As he entered behind me, I noticed his cabin wasn’t too different than mine. The hearth was crackling with a merry little fire, so that it was pleasantly warm, and the cheerful glow did much to improve my mood.

He moved past me to the mantle, plucking a tapered bottle from its surface. “The ale at the tavern is watered down, and, to be honest, rather horrid. Though I do understand Cullen doesn’t want his soldiers turning into drunken fools.” He turned the bottle over in his hands and read the label before continuing, “I bought this in Val Royeaux for when the occasion called for something a little stronger than what the Singing Maiden offers. I think that occasion is now.” There were two pewter cups on the wooden table nearby, which he ushered me towards as he easily popped the cork on the wine. I took a seat while he poured us drinks, pulling off my gloves and laying them on the table beside me.

He set the bottle aside and added, “And perhaps it will help with ah…you know.” He gestured to me oddly, and I raised one brow in confusion.

And then my eyes widened as I realized what he meant. He knew?

His full lips pulled into a knowing grin as he sat across from me, the chair creaking a bit under his weight. “I have an elder sister. Trust me, I recognize the signs,” he leaned back and took his cup in hand, “She used to take an extra glass of brandy to bed a few days out of every month. When curiosity got the better of me and I finally asked her about this habit of hers, she said it helped her sleep during the worst of her symptoms. Maybe it will do the same for you.”

I couldn’t help but smile in response as I gratefully took a sip. The flavor was a bit like Pinot noir. “Thank you, Herald, I appreciate the gesture.” After he nodded in response and took a drink himself, I added, “Although, I sense you wanted more than to just share some wine to help me sleep better?”

He sighed, crossing his ankle atop his knee as he set the cup back down. He looked off into space as he gathered his thoughts, his brow softly furrowed. I waited patiently, taking another sip of the wine and trying to relax as I watched him. There was something preying on his mind. Or perhaps a great many things.

“I was hoping to talk with you about…well, all of this, really,” he replied at length, his olive gaze returning to mine. “It looks like the others are going to be pulling you in all sorts of directions. Understandable, of course, given both your unique perspective on matters and your circumstances. But I feel I need to ask you about a few things before…before matters become more complicated than they already are. And I lose the chance to speak with you.”

I offered him what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “You won’t lose the chance to speak with me, Herald. I know it seems like everything is going to be a continuous whirlwind of activity, but you’ll always have pockets of time to breathe now and then.”

He smiled back a little, pausing and taking another drink before inquiring, “Dare I ask who the protagonist of this story of yours is? Because right now, it feels like everything is centered on me.”

“It does,” I said simply, sipping the wine. “And you are, of course.”

He chuckled to himself, but it wasn’t a mirthful sound. He shook his head, tilting his cup as he looked down into it. “So the tale of the Inquisition revolves around the Herald of Andraste…” he trailed, his gaze wandering to the glowing slash on his palm. “Is there anything to that? Really? Or is it just something that makes the events of the Conclave and this ‘Mark’ easier for the public to swallow?”

I paused, thinking. “A little of both, probably. People jumped to conclusions, sure. But no one will ever really know for certain. Not even you. It’s all faith, Herald. You either believe…or you don’t.”

He huffed out a breath in frustration. “I don’t know what to believe.”

“Neither do I,” I said quietly.

At that, his expression softened a bit. “We’re two of the same kind, aren’t we? Both of us got thrown into this without asking for it. Both of us experienced what everyone thought impossible. You don’t know exactly what happened to get you here. I can’t remember the events surrounding the explosion. And now, here we are, the both of us together steering the course of the Inquisition, and everyone thinks we were somehow guided here by the Maker.”

I took another sip of wine and leaned backwards in my chair. “The only difference is that I’m expendable and you’re not.”

He drained his cup and shook his head again, looking at me curiously. “How can you say that?”

“Because it’s true,” I answered flatly. “I already said it before; this story revolves around you, not me. If I wasn’t here, it would happen more or less the way it’s supposed to. Now that I am…I actually run the risk of fucking everything up. One wrong move and everything is thrown off. That’s one reason why I have to be involved now…to make sure everything goes right despite my being here. And even then, I could slip up.”

I drained my own cup, and he refilled both. “I don’t envy you.”

“Nor I you, Herald,” I replied in all seriousness. “Not at all. Things will get much harder before they get easier, that much I can tell you right now. Starting with this choice between mages and Templars.”

He snorted. “Mages and Templars and more mages and more Templars…I’m with Varric, I’m sick of both of them.”

“And now life is forcing you to choose sides.”

His Anchor hand tightened around his cup, the eerie green glow reflecting off of the metal. “I don’t want to have to choose. I don’t want to reduce one side or the other to mere pawns and let the remaining side die because I can’t be in two places at once. One side gets used while the other gets destroyed…who can do that and walk away with a clear conscience?”

I smirked. “I didn’t say it was going to be easy.”

“I know. I get it…I have to do it. And I’m going to have to live with it whether I like it or not. Because that’s how the story goes, right?” His tone was more than slightly bitter, and he knocked back the second cup of wine in one large swallow. I remained silent, sipping my own drink and pondering what I could say.

“There’s a lot more to it, isn’t there?” he asked softly, gaze wandering into the shadows again.

I nodded. “Yeah. A lot more. I just…can’t tell you about it yet. Soon…but not yet. The story just needs some more development.” I paused again, and in an attempt to turn the conversation towards a more positive note, I added, “In the meantime, you’ll at least have some new allies to seek out. Leliana will ask you about one. Probably sometime tomorrow. The other should have a representative coming to talk with you before you leave for the Hinterlands again. If you see a Tevinter mercenary with a giant war hammer and Free Army armor, don’t ignore him. He’ll be hanging around the Chantry trying to get someone’s attention in order to establish a contract with his company’s leader.”

His only answer was a slow nod as he absorbed my words.

“There’s one thing about it,” I finished my second cup and pushed the pewter vessel away, “you won’t have any shortage of people helping you. No matter how lonesome the road and how heavy the burden seems, Herald, you’re never alone.”

He met my gaze again, and a small smile pulled at the corner his mouth. He looked at me for several moments, and then said finally, “I want you to know, Tamsyn, that I appreciate what you’re doing. You didn’t have to help us. You could have walked away from that tent in the Hinterlands and found your own path, away from all of this. But you chose to come pursue the Inquisition. I know you believe it for the selfish reason of protecting yourself, offering the only thing you thought you had of worth in return for your safety. But I think it was more than that. You may feel like you’re merely expendable, but I, for one, am glad you are here.”

I felt quite warm then, from the wine or his words I couldn’t tell at that point. I thanked him, and it was then that I rose from my chair, gathered my gloves, and politely bid him goodnight, heading back to my cabin to find some much-needed rest.

And after all that had happened that day, after all that had been discussed, the one thing I fell asleep thinking about was how blessed the Inquisition was to have such a kind-hearted Herald.

Chapter Text

“And fire.”

Thwack.

I blinked. My jaw dropped.

Bullseye – the first since my archery practices had begun.

I did it!” I squealed, unable to prevent myself from bouncing on my toes in my excitement. I had been steadily improving, but this particular success had come practically out of nowhere. It was actually rather accidental, but I was still nothing short of elated.

Strider chuckled, grinning widely at me. “So you did! Now you just have to keep doing it.”

“Fat chance of that.” My nose wrinkled as I glanced at him.

He shook his head slowly. “No ounce of optimism in you, is there?”

“Nope.”

Strider then plucked the arrow out of the target. “Let’s not ruin the mood and just leave it at that, shall we? Don’t want to end the session on a sour note. Besides,” he gestured behind me, “looks like you got a messenger waiting for you.”

I glanced over my shoulder. Lea was standing not far from me, some folded papers in her hands. She smiled at me and dipped her head, but remained at a distance. I shrugged off the quiver and handed both it and my bow to Strider, giving him a friendly farewell before turning around and approaching the elf, rather curious as to what she had to deliver.

“Hello again, Lea,” I greeted the elf with a friendly smile. “You have something for me?”

“Yes mis - uh, Tamsyn,” she said, catching herself before calling me ‘mistress’ again. “Two written notes and a message from Master Tethras.” She handed me two of the pieces of sealed parchment and continued, “He’s arranging a Wicked Grace match at the Singing Maiden tonight and wanted to know if you would like to participate.” She leaned to the side and raised her voice a little to add, “You too, Scout Strider.”

Strider didn’t even glance up from where he was stowing the practice bows. “The last time I played with that lot, I lost my whole week’s wages to four Songs…you can tell the dwarf I’ll come for drinks but not for cards.”

Lea straightened again and smirked at me. “Strider’s a sore loser.” Judging from her words and her tone, it seemed she was either a player or observer of these games, too.

“Sounds like,” I chuckled before answering, “I’ll admit I have no idea how to play, but if I can make it over to the tavern without someone dragging me off for whatever reason, I’d certainly love to be there.”

Lea grinned, seemingly pleased, and nodded her understanding. “I’ll let him know, mi – Tamsyn.” She caught herself again and shook her head, wincing at what she perceived was a repeated error. “Old habits, sorry…”

“No worries at all, Lea.” I smiled again. I was just happy she seemed to be more comfortable speaking with me.

She quickly dipped her head once more. “Right…see you later, Tamsyn. I’ll fetch you when the game starts.”

And with that, she spun on her heel and strode for the gates.

I meandered out of the practice area, skirting around where Cullen’s soldiers clashed and yelled and took orders from a barking Rylen, all the while gingerly breaking the seals on the notes and unfolding them, careful not to let the chill wind catch them. The first was in the common tongue, and I resisted the urge to hold off reading it until I returned to my cabin; squinting at the runic letters, I slowly but surely made out the contents, forcing myself to exercise my newfound knowledge:

Tamsyn,

I won’t be able to train you for a few days. There’s been some trouble along the route to Redcliffe that requires more seasoned officers to handle. The Commander says he won’t assign a replacement, so you’re free for a few afternoons. Enjoy the time. You deserve it. You’ve been working hard.

Harritt passed word along that your sword and dagger are ready to pick up at the forge. Keep them on you at all times. Commander’s orders.

Corporal Delia

I refolded the note and sighed. I couldn’t say that wasn’t a bit of a relief, even though it did make me a tad concerned for Delia. I’d been practicing my ass off these last few days, and my body was not happy with me. Maybe I would have the opportunity for a nice long soak in the washtub at some point…

As I switched to the second note, I was prepared to slowly decipher it, too, until I found it had been penned in an elegant Orlesian script.

Lady Tamsyn:

You are cordially invited to tea with Madame Vivienne and Ambassador Josephine in Haven’s Chantry immediately following evening prayers. Hors d'oeuvres will be provided.

Ambassador Josephine Montilyet

Raising my eyebrows, I refolded the second piece of parchment and tucked both into the sash around my waist. Well, for someone who was still very much an outsider here, I sure wasn’t lacking for a social life. As a matter of fact, I was getting more attention now than I had back on Earth. Whether or not that was a good or a bad thing I had yet to decide…

I was lost in thought as I walked towards the forge to pick up the weapons Delia had ordered for me. I appreciated the Inner Circle’s attempts to be friendly and include me in their social affairs. I really did. Yet, at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel that they were going to start pushing me for more information…quite possibly information that I honestly couldn’t provide for them. Now that they believed, or were trying to believe, the fact I knew about future events, could they accept disappointment when I wouldn’t be able to give details about everyone’s personal lives?

Varric, as a novelist, understood my situation more than most. He had understood from the very beginning that I would know more about some things than others – about more people than others. Maxwell and even Cassandra seemed to understand, too, or at least were trying to. But what about everyone else?

I was less worried about Varric’s invitation than I was about Josephine’s, particularly because the latter included the presence of Vivienne. Madame de Fer would do anything to gain more leverage in court to keep her illustrious standing; she was a master of the Game, and no pawn on the board was safe when the Queen was in play. I reminded myself that she would not be above using me to her advantage, all the while trying to spin it as if I were to gain from the whole affair.

Orlesians.

I huffed out a misty breath, slightly amused at my own suspicions. Maybe I was worrying too much. Making something of nothing. Maybe she really did just want to break the ice a bit. But that seemed something of a stretch coming from the Iron Lady.

Speaking of iron, the forge was more alive than ever when I arrived, the air filled with the rhythmic clanging of mallets against metals of various sorts and the familiar hiss of hot weapons plunged into water troughs. Metallic smoke stung my nostrils as I approached, and the heat of the fires instantly banished the wintry chill in the air. The Breach flickered a little, and I glanced that way; the air around it was foggy, making the greenish glow look even eerier, and I noticed that the cloud cover was gradually increasing. I shivered. Would there be fresh snow soon?

“‘Ello missus. Need sumpn’?”

At the sudden sound of a familiar voice, I glanced downwards to see Sean with his hands on his hips as he looked up at me, his shirt soiled with soot from his dirty fingers.

“Hello, Sean,” I smiled at the head tailor’s boy. “I got a message that my weapons were finished. Do you know where they are?”

He visibly perked up at hearing me say his name, smiling broadly, and he nodded emphatically in answer. “Yep.”

Off he ran, first to Harritt, to whom he spoke a few words and then to the back of the forge where the master blacksmith pointed. As Sean proceeded to sift through a massive stack of open crates, Harritt slowly wandered towards me, wiping his blackened hands on his apron.

“You must be Tamsyn, yeah?”

I nodded. “I am.”

“Sean’ll have your blades here in a moment. You had the shortsword and dagger set, right?”

“Yes, that’s it.”

“Good,” he replied. It was then that Sean jogged up with a slender box crafted from rough pine in his small hands. Harritt ruffled the boy’s hair in thanks as he took the box from him and then set it on the nearby rock wall, motioning me closer. As I neared, he withdrew two matching black scabbards, one with a belt and one without, from the straw bed inside the box. Turning towards me, he tucked the shorter one under his arm and held the longer one flat across both palms. “This here’s your shortsword. Not a lot of people around here using these. The scouts favor daggers more than anything else, and the soldiers are more accustomed to longer swords.”

He then took hold of the scabbard and the hilt of the sword and pulled it out of its sheath to show me the blade itself. It was slender, plain silver steel polished so much it shone like a mirror. It was also ever so slightly broader towards the tip than it was near the crossguard, giving it an elegant shape that reminded me of some Roman gladii I had seen in pictures. The crossguard was just a bit wider than that of a typical gladius, though, more like Anglo-Saxon or Norse swords, but without the usual ornamental knotwork. It sported a spherical pommel and a short, black leather-wrapped hilt, just long enough for my hand.

“So there she is…Farris over there made this one,” Harritt pointed to a blonde man hard at work at an anvil in the back. “Mountains around Haven’s got some fine iron, so you can trust the steel is good. You can thrust and slash with this mind you,” he indicated the sharply tapered point after the broad leaf of the blade, “Farris took the design from some old Vint schematics in an arms manual. Should fill your needs quite nicely.” He then slid the blade back into the scabbard with a schickt! and moved to belt it around my waist, reaching around me and securing it atop the sash before adjusting the sheath to the appropriate angle at my left side. “There. How’s that fit?”

I reached to grab the hilt and pulled the sword free, marveling at the light weight, and then sheathed it once more. The motion came easily, not at all uncomfortable to perform, and the blade both departed and returned to its place in the scabbard with remarkable fluidity. I grinned my satisfaction. “It’s excellent!”

Harritt’s eyes sparkled as he smiled under his mustache, “Good. Now,” he removed the smaller dagger from under his arm. In both color and style, it matched the shortsword, but its shape was more like a Scottish dirk, and its blade was less than six inches long. “This one’s for your boots. Or anywhere else you can put it.” To demonstrate his point, he pulled at the strap on my right boot that held the knee pad in place, easily tucking the small scabbard behind it and securing it there with a tiny clip at the scabbard’s mouth. “There.”

He stepped away again, and I glanced back up at him with an appreciative nod. “Thank you. I hope I don’t have to use them, but…it’s good to have them.”

He inclined his head. “Maker willing, if you do, they’ll save a life.”

Maybe even yours, was the unspoken addendum.

------------------------------------------------------

When I finally left Harritt’s forge, it was already time for lunch at the Singing Maiden. I didn’t remove my weapons, instead taking the time to get used to their added presence at my side and leg. Not that either one was that much of a burden; they were surprisingly lightweight. Still, they were noticeable, but it wasn’t a bad thing. It was strange, really. I’d never felt the need to possess a weapon before coming to Thedas. Now that I was here, though, especially with Cullen and Leliana’s legitimate concerns, just having these blades on my person made me feel safer, even if I was still inexperienced and rather terrible at using them. Delia’s comment about my working hard, despite its intent as a compliment, had only served to remind me of just how terrible I was…

I had resolved to head back to my cabin for some peace and quiet before the events of the afternoon when, suddenly, I spied Cullen in a rather unusual spot, his fur mantle instantly recognizable even from a distance. He sat at a table outside, his back to the Singing Maiden, positioned near where Varric’s tent was pitched. He was perched on a rickety chair far too small for his large armored frame, and across from him sat Solas on a similar seat. As I drew nearer, curiosity getting the better of me, I noticed they were both engrossed in something on the table before them.

A chess game.

My eyebrows hit my hairline. A chess game. Between Cullen and Solas.

Whoa.

That was a surprise.

I was drawing a little closer, wondering how the match was going, when Solas looked up, hearing my approach. His deeply furrowed brow visibly relaxed as he recognized me. “Ah, Tamsyn. Is there something you require?”

Cullen, too, abruptly glanced up from the game when my name was spoken, seemingly expecting me to request something from either of them. The Commander was silent as he awaited my answer, but his face bore an inquisitive expression, and he appeared ready to leap out of his chair if needed.

“Oh, I…ah…no,” I managed to stammer out, suddenly feeling guilty somehow for interrupting them. “I was just a little curious as to what you two were up to out here.” I laughed a little anxiously, paused, and then suddenly asked on impulse, “Do you uh, mind if I watch?” Some part of me was wondering why I had asked such a silly thing, but another part of me deemed it necessary to observe this battle of wits for myself.

At that, Solas gave Cullen a questioning look, to which the Commander shrugged indifferently and cast a welcoming smile my way, one that threatened to turn my knees to jelly.

Damnit…

Forcing back a blush and quickly glancing around for another chair or something, I realized that the nearby rock wall partitioning the upper level of the village from the middle would provide a perfect view of the game. Quickly moving around to the side of the table closest to the wall, I jumped up and perched on the stone edge, my legs dangling down. I resisted the urge to self-consciously swing them back and forth like a child. Or Cole.

From my new position, I took a good look at the board: thankfully, it appeared to be the normal horizontal chess format, not that weird hexagonal setup Cullen would eventually have at Skyhold. The pieces were rustic, carved black and white stones, the designs much like the little marker statues in Ferelden…vaguely Celtic in form. As I noted the state of the game, I realized they must have either just started, or they were both taking a really long time to make their moves. Neither had lost any pieces yet.

“You know how to play?” Cullen asked me as he returned his attention to the board. He shifted in his chair, and even in the increasingly cloud-covered sky, his polished pauldrons caught the sunlight and nearly blinded me.

“Yeah, actually, I do,” I replied, awkwardly blinking away the fading spot on my vision.

Solas smiled a little as he examined his pieces, “You should try your hand against the Commander, then.”

“Oh, no,” I chuckled nervously, my stomach fluttering at the mere notion of such a thing. “I know better than to challenge someone who can hand me my ass on a silver platter.”

At that, Solas and Cullen both laughed heartily, and the former answered, “Wise words, Tamsyn. Although, you never know when luck might favor you.”

They both fell silent, then, and so did I, watching intently as they continued their game. I found myself especially curious to see how this played out; I wondered if, like Solas’s future verbal match with Iron Bull, this one would be symbolic somehow. I felt obligated to pay attention, feeling certain this might mean something someday, and that I might need to remember it…

The game seemed slow at first, but then moved more and more rapidly towards what I predicted to be the inevitable outcome, based on their strategies. They both soon realized what the match’s result would be, too, their acceptance evident on their faces as they anticipated the conclusion long before it arrived, but they both played it out to its end anyway…

A solid draw. A pair of kings alone.

“A good game, Commander,” Solas said at length, rising from his chair once the match reached its conclusion. “You played a solid defense.”

“And you a clever strategy,” Cullen replied with a respectful nod.

“Now, however, I must return to my studies. I do believe the Herald is planning a rather extensive outing in the next few days for which I must prepare.” Solas gave us both a dip of his head as he turned to go, “A good afternoon, Commander, Tamsyn.”

We bade him farewell, and I watched the elf leave until he disappeared behind a cabin, wondering what Fen’harel had gleaned from this little game and what he was thinking. After a few moments, though, Cullen broke me out of my thoughts with a gesture to the now vacant chair opposite him. “Would you care for a game, Lady Tamsyn?”

Knowing him as I did, I should have expected such an offer, but it still caught me completely off guard. A thousand questions rushed through my mind: was this merely a friendly bout or was it a way to judge me? Was it just courtesy or did he really want to play against me? And then there was the way he said it. I’d been called Missus, Mistress, and Lady all since arriving in Thedas and by many a person, but there was something about the way “Lady Tamsyn” rolled off of Cullen Rutherford’s tongue that made the name I borderline detested sound positively regal.

“I uh…well, I…I suppose so,” I finally replied, my cheeks burning. I hoped they weren’t as red as they felt like they were. “I mean, so long as I’m not keeping you from your work or anything.”

“Not at all.” Cullen shook his head at me, shifting in his chair again and resettling his weight with the slight clink of metal and creak of leather. “Paperwork is handled for now, and Rylen has the men for today. I’m merely passing the time until the next crisis requiring my attention rears its ugly head.”

“Oh…well, all right, then.”

Hopping down from the wall, I quickly slid into Solas’s former seat, adding, “It’s been a while since I played, though, so it might be a quick match, I’m afraid.”

“How did you learn to play, if I may ask?”

His question was casual, obviously intended to make small talk while he reset the pieces on his side of the board. But it accidentally pressed upon a deep wound that had yet to heal…one that I had tried desperately to forget about but apparently couldn’t banish from my mind as quickly as I would have liked.

“Well-” I began, but my throat constricted so tightly I lost my voice and the answer was choked out of me. For a few moments, it was as if I had lost the ability to speak as memories flooded forth at his question, my heart positively aching and my eyes hot with tears that very nearly spilled down my cheeks. No…not this again. I told myself I wouldn’t do this again. It took all of my strength to bottle my emotions back up again, my voice wavering despite my best efforts as I finally managed to croak out, “My mother, actually. She taught me.”

The lengthy pause coupled with the obvious change in my tone caused him to glance up with a rather concerned expression writ on his face. And then, suddenly, it was replaced with the visible awareness that he had dredged up something quite personal. He self-consciously looked back down at the board and shook his head as if berating himself for causing unintentional harm. “I’m sorry, Tamsyn. I didn’t mean-”

“No, no,” I stopped him hastily, forcefully swallowing back the urge to cry when I realized he would blame himself if I did. I wouldn’t let him do that. “There’s no way you could have known, Cul - Commander. It’s…it’s ok.” I sniffed a bit and took a breath to help calm myself. Where had all that come from so suddenly? “Honestly, I didn’t expect all these feelings to come rushing out at such a simple question…”

“I understand what you mean,” he remarked quietly, although he didn’t look at me when he said it. I knew he was remembering what happened to him when PTSD struck unexpectedly with overpowering memories of Kinloch. It made me feel weak in comparison.

I cleared my throat and started resetting my own pieces. “Anyways, yeah…she’s the one who taught me how to play. Way back when I was little. We played together a lot back then.” I smiled a bit at the perfect row of black pawns in front of me. There was something almost comforting about it. “But then I started beating her every time we pulled out the board, and we eventually stopped playing at all. Didn’t see the point when I’d just win again.” I shrugged. “It’s been years.”

I sighed. The board was all set now. Since he was playing white, the first turn was Cullen’s, and I noted that he moved a knight right out of the starting gate. Whether or not that was to be considered an offensive or defensive move, I wasn’t sure. He leaned back in his chair as he awaited my turn, honey eyes flicking from the board back to me.

“I would offer to elaborate on my own learning experiences from my youth, but it seems likely you already know all that…judging from what my second-in-command tells me,” he said, a small smirk pulling at the corner of his mouth. I wondered if this was an attempt to lift my mood, or at least distract me from my earlier thoughts. In either case, it was working.

I mirrored his move with my own knight, smiling a little bashfully as I recalled that day with Rylen in the tavern. “Did I scare the good Knight-Captain too badly?”

Cullen chuckled, “The man spent an entire half hour debating with himself out loud in my tent before he completely gave up trying to understand how you knew all that and what he should think of it.” He paused, moving another piece, and then added, “Rylen isn’t hostile towards you at all, if you’re worried about that. He’s just finding your existence a bit difficult to comprehend at the moment.”

“Yeah, I know. It’s got to be creepy knowing someone is aware of intimate details about your life without ever having met you before,” I nodded in understanding, progressing a pawn. “Suffice it to say, I got tired of being called crazy and decided to throw some proof I was telling the truth out there. I can’t say it wasn’t my intention to rattle him a little bit with said proof.”

He slid a bishop forth about a third of the way across the board, and I felt forced to re-evaluate my choices. As I quickly took note of my options, suddenly worried about the state of the game, Cullen leaned forward, propping his elbows on the table and his fingers under his chin. “I might regret this question, but I must ask – how much do you know about us? As individuals, I mean, not solely regarding the Inquisition.”

I sighed, progressing another pawn as I didn’t see any other viable path. “Honestly, it depends. Everything I told Rylen is everything I know about him. As far as your family life goes, Commander, I know only a little more.”

“Such as?” One eyebrow rose. I should have known he wouldn’t let me just leave it at that. Apparently, curiosity was eating at him.

“Well, your chess skills, for example. I know you have an older sister, Mia, and that she taught you to play. I know you practiced with your little brother, Branson, until you could beat her. I also know you also have a little sister named Rosalie. Mia, though, has always been your biggest supporter out of your siblings, despite beating you so much at chess and bragging about it. She’s the one who helped get you into the Templars, after all.”

He looked down at the board, and I fell silent. I could tell he was lost in thought, as his fingers lingered for several moments on his queen before he slid the piece forward.

“What else?” he asked at length, voice much quieter.

I swallowed nervously, hopping my knight over a pawn, and I wondered why he was pressing me so much. My best guess was that he’d feel more comfortable when he knew exactly how much I knew about him. “Well…about your family, not much more. Only that they were forced out of Honnleath when the Blight hit and…yeah.” I cut myself off before I mentioned the loss of his parents.

“I see,” he replied, and I found his subsequent expression difficult to read.

You, on the other hand,” I gave him a little smile, took a stabilizing breath, and went on. “I know about the little boy who dreamed of being a Templar and whose dreams finally came true. I know even more about the living nightmare you endured at Kinloch Hold, and the days spent in recovery at Greenfell, and the hardness fostered within you at Kirkwall, at the hands of Meredith.” I watched his face as I added slowly, “And I also know you agreed to come here so you could leave all of that trauma and darkness behind you. So I will say no more of it again. Not unless you really want me to.”

He looked up again and met my eyes with his own, and it felt as though they were boring straight into my soul. I still couldn’t tell exactly what kind of expression he wore, but it was apparent that he was experiencing mixed emotions. His gaze felt strange – warming in that I was sure I’d blush as red as a pomegranate at any moment under its weight. But also sharp, like a sword…or a beam of light.

“That’s…” he finally began, but trailed off and cleared his throat. “I’m beginning to understand just how exactly Rylen felt that day.”

I gave him a sheepish grin, “You did ask, Commander.”

“So I did.” His dry response bore a note of regret.

We were both silent for a few moments, he seemingly lost in thought, before he mused aloud, “So, to put this in perspective…since you know all this as a story from some book, I can only assume the amount of information to which you have been exposed is proportionate to the significance of the character in question. And, at least compared to Rylen, you seem to know a great deal about me.”

“Comparatively, yes,” I agreed with a grin. “Meaning you are quite important, Commander Cullen.”

He chuckled again and shook his head, finger resting atop a rook. “I’m not quite sure what to think about that. Or if I agree with such an assessment.”

Suddenly, as he pondered his move, I felt rather wicked. This was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up…

“Important enough to have your own healthy fan following, even.”

His brows rose, and his gloved hand froze on the rook midway through moving it. “‘Fan following?’” he repeated, as if unsure of my meaning, incredulous, or both. I was fairly certain it was the latter, however. Cullen was many things, but stupid wasn’t one of them.

My grin widened, “Especially among the lady readers. If you were back where I come from instead of here, I’m sure your army would consist mostly of adoring women.”

At that, he seemed to suffer a spontaneous coughing fit, turning away as the entirety of his face reddened to match his coat. “I, ah…” he cleared his throat rather loudly as he tried to recover his composure, “I see. Well…that is…quite interesting…”

Priceless.

I couldn’t help but laugh to myself as he forcibly refocused his attention on the board. Refraining from offering my own opinion about his character, I instead decided to leave him in the dark about how I personally felt about him, at least for now. No need for him to be aware I was actually part of that adoring army of his. At least, not yet.

And how do you feel?

The question hovered in the back of my mind as we continued our match in silence. The answer was difficult to pin down. Oh, there was no denying I found him attractive; reality somehow made him more handsome than even in the game, and every direct look or soft word threatened to reduce me to a puddle of fangirl where I stood. Everything about his mannerisms and speech was quintessential Cullen, and there was no doubt that his character was just the same as the one I had grown to adore.

But now…now there was even more to it. Commander Cullen as an NPC was different than Commander Cullen as a real, living, breathing person. The former was predictable – merely dialogue lines and scripted behavior. The latter was not. The latter had every complication that a real person had. The latter had experiences and sentiments and choices and desires that the game couldn’t even begin to cover. He had a life…a life about which I already revealed I knew next to nothing, despite what all I had told him I knew. Of his thirty years, I had really only been exposed to snippets.

It was then I was struck with the fact that I didn’t really know Cullen at all. Not this Cullen.

“Shit!”

Right when I moved my king, I realized I had fallen into his trap – a rather obvious one to anyone paying attention, but, of course, I hadn’t been. He had handily pinned me with one of his knights, a bishop, and his queen, and there was no way out.

Checkmate.

I shook my head and fell back in my chair. “You got me, Commander. Can’t say as I wasn’t expecting it. Though, it would have helped if I hadn’t let my mind wander off…”

He offered me a small smile of reassurance. “Still, you played well for having not done so in years.”

The compliment coupled with that smile nearly struck me dumb…all I could manage to say in return was a tiny “Thanks.” God, I wish this man didn’t turn me into such a blushing idiot.

As we reset the pieces again for other players, he added softly, “I must admit, I haven’t been my best today, either. It has been…mmh…difficult to concentrate…”

His quiet grunt of pain and his brief pause to rub at his temple made me look up. And then I remembered.

Lyrium withdrawals.

Was that why he had been playing? A distraction?

Either the withdrawals were relatively mild at this point, or he was good at hiding them, or both, resulting in my completely forgetting about them until now. I felt more than a little stupid for not thinking about it yet. As he resumed his task, I looked away, and for a brief moment, I didn’t know what to say or what to do. Did I dare reveal I knew about his quitting lyrium, on top of everything else I had hinted about? Or would he see that as too private? Would he be reassured or angry by my knowing? Was it too soon? I wanted to give him some hope, and yet, at the same time, I was afraid of how he might react…

Hoping I wouldn’t regret not keeping my mouth shut later, I swallowed heavily as I replaced the final piece on my side of the board and then said quietly, “It will get better.”

His brow furrowed deeply as he abruptly glanced up, and his gaze was sharp again as he squinted at me. “What?”

“It will get better,” I repeated, looking him straight in the eyes as I said it. “I promise. It might not seem like it sometimes, but it will.”

His gaze remained locked with mine, and a whirlwind of thoughts could be seen flickering in his golden eyes as his expression subtly shifted in reaction to my words. His brows knitted once more ever so briefly, the corners of his eyes wrinkling as he narrowed them so slightly it was barely noticeable. Then his lips pressed together almost imperceptibly, but the downward turn of the corners of his mouth gave the action away. A muscle twitched in his neck. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed. All of these signs told me he understood. I didn’t have to explain any further; he knew I knew.

And then, suddenly, his countenance relaxed, and he looked tired – so very tired – as his amber stare finally left mine, drifting to the ground for a moment. He let out a long sigh through his nose as he placed the last white pieces back where they belonged and stood with a rattle of metal. He lingered there but a moment, looking down at me while the glow of the breach hovered above his head like a flickering halo.

“Thank you, Tamsyn.”

The words were quiet as he turned away, slowly walking towards the stairs. I stood and watched as he descended them and continued for the gates beyond, all the while tiny flurries of snow began to fall and swirl in his wake.

I resolved then that, no matter what our relations turned out to be – good, bad, or indifferent – he would be spared from the ravages of lyrium. He would be free from those chains.

I’ll make sure of it.

Chapter Text

Trying not to worry too much about how Cullen might feel about my awareness of his lyrium withdrawals, I left the table to return to my cabin like I had intended to do before I had been distracted by the chess match. On the way there, I made up my mind to change into something a little more casual in preparation for Josie’s tea party. The chemise and surcoat set seemed the most appropriate garb to wear for the occasion, even if it was probably too Fereldan for Vivienne’s preferences.

Oh well. Madame de Fer would just have to deal with it.

The dress itself was fairly comfortable, though the simple slippers were not quite suitable for walking outdoors in Haven’s current climate, so I exchanged them for the boots that went with my other casual wear. Remembering Delia’s note, I clipped the dagger to the shaft of one boot and belted the shortsword over the surcoat. It actually didn’t look that bad.

Deciding to forgo an actual supper so I could politely partake in whatever Josie had prepared for Vivienne and me, I stayed in the cabin reading some more of the Chant until the Chantry bell began to ring, calling for evening services. Prayer services in Haven were held both morning and evening to accommodate the sheer number of people in the town; those who couldn’t make it to one due to their schedules usually went to the other. The morning ceremonies took place before I woke up each morning. Evening prayers, on the other hand, were held roughly the same time I usually took supper. It was not long after these evening bells that I stood, pushed in my chair, and grabbed my cloak, pinning it at my shoulder. I ran my fingers through my hair to fluff it a bit – it was down for the first time since I arrived in Thedas – and then, satisfied I was ready, I left the cabin, slowly making my way towards the Chantry.

It didn’t take me long to regret the decision to leave so early. The air was frigid, and the flurries that had begun to fall earlier in the day had finally thickened into actual snowflakes, lazily falling to the ground and gradually covering areas that saw little or no foot traffic. A puff of wind here and there would occasionally transform the soft snowfall into dancing swirls of fine white dust before returning the flakes to their slow vertical descent. I immediately threw the hood of my cloak over my head to keep my hair from frizzing upon contact with moisture.

No longer than it took me to walk from my house at the gates to the upper tier of the village, it had become quite uncomfortable to be outside, and the snow just made things worse, seeping into my clothing as it gathered and half-melted. The bullheaded part of me, however, refused to let me turn around and go back. The Chantry doors were already closed when I got there, and I didn’t want to disturb the opening of the services, so I ducked underneath Leliana’s tent for temporary shelter until the ceremonies ended, hoping the Nightingale wouldn’t mind my being there; she wasn’t in the vicinity at present, at least not that I could see, but I had no doubt she would return soon. She never abandoned her corners for long.

I sat on a small stool beside a stack of crates and waited, pushing the hood of my cloak back down from my head and smoothing any stray hairs caught by the cloth. Sure enough, not two seconds later, Leliana appeared, heading from the direction of Solas’s cabin, her expression one of first curiosity as she saw a visitor under her tent, and then one of surprise.

“Oh, it’s you,” she said, ducking into the tent with a sheaf of papers in her gloved hands, “I barely recognized you from a distance, Tamsyn. I thought perhaps you were a Fereldan dignitary of some sort until I saw your features.”

I blinked a she began reading over one of the pieces of parchment. I didn’t know what to make of what she said. Was that a compliment or not?

Leliana paused her reading, glancing back to me momentarily and remarking casually, “You should wear your hair down more often.”

“Should I?”

“Of course. It would be the envy of many. There are Orlesian noblewomen who would kill for natural hair like yours right now.”

I smirked. “And how long would that last?”

She chuckled, returning her gaze to her work. “Perhaps a season. Two if you are lucky.”

“It’s a little strange being in a dress,” I added after a few moments, brushing a few stray melting snowflakes from the crimson surcoat. “I thought it was better than my uniform for the Ambassador’s meeting later, though.”

“That’s right…Josephine is hosting a little get-together, isn’t she? With Enchanter Vivienne? And she didn’t even invite me,” Leliana replied with feigned offense in her tone, shaking her head as her blue eyes rapidly flicked across the surface of another report.

I grinned. “I’m sure you could always sneak in and steal one of her hors d'oeuvres when she isn’t looking.”

“Don’t tempt me.”

There were a few moments of silence before I added, “I hope you don’t mind me staying here until services are over.”

“Oh, not at all.” She paused for a moment, and then continued once she finished the second report, “They should be over, soon. Prayer services in villages like Haven are always much shorter than those in grander places, like Val Royeaux. There, they take weeks to go through the whole Chant of Light.”

“That sounds remarkable,” I said.

“It is.”

It was then that a muffled sound came from beyond the Chantry doors; the people within were singing. It started off soft, barely more than a hum, the sound too muffled to make out individual words. But then it grew, slowly and steadily, and the emotion behind it built, layers upon layers of lovely harmonies one on top of the next. As I listened, I found myself staring at the doors, almost as if I could see right through them to the congregation within. Louder and louder they sang with each subsequent verse, until I could feel their voices in the ground beneath my feet, vibrating my bones. They were no trained choir, but their voices were still captivating. They poured their hearts into their Chant, and it was powerful.

The congregation’s singing mesmerized me as the snow continued to fall quietly all around. I closed my eyes and let the music consume my senses, allowing myself to pick out the deep and smooth basses and baritones, the angelic tenors and sopranos lilting high above them. Even if I couldn’t understand what they were saying for the layers of thick stone between us, it was still one of the most wonderful things I had ever heard in my life. A wave of serenity washed over me, and every muscle in my body suddenly went limp, having been almost perpetually tense ever since my arrival in this world. A kind of calm I had never felt before wrapped itself around my soul like a warm blanket. I felt contentment. I felt acceptance. And maybe even hope. I felt…safe.

I began to think that if this really was sung all over the world at the same time like the Andrastians wanted it to be, then the Maker really would come back. Whatever he was.

Suddenly, and far too soon, the song came to an end, trailing into nothingness, and the world felt a little emptier at the absence of it. I opened my eyes, feeling as though I were awakening from a deep slumber, and it was then I noticed that Leliana was watching me with a half-smile on her face.

“What?” I asked, my cheeks heating with my self-consciousness.

“Oh…nothing.”

------------------------------------------------------

In a matter of minutes, the Chantry had emptied of its entire congregation, the people within swiftly returning to their duties, just as they did every evening. To my surprise, I saw a handful of both templars and mages amongst them, who had joined the Inquisition in the immediate aftermath of the Conclave disaster. Interesting, I thought. They could pray together. That was a good sign. I was quite thankful that I had yet to see any burgeoning riots between them since I arrived in Haven. Considering how volatile the two sides usually were, I began to wonder if something was wrong. Perhaps these weren’t as radical as some in their respective ranks.

Or, perhaps someone like Cassandra had given them a good talk.

Either way, it was nice to see a distinct lack of conflict between these two eternally opposed forces. It was a sign that the baby Inquisition was actually working.

As I entered the Chantry and made my way towards Josie’s office, I glimpsed her at the end of the nave, near the war room door, her golden satin blouse shimmering in the torchlight. It wasn’t long before the Ambassador noticed my approach and beckoned to me with a warm smile. “Ah, there you are, Tamsyn. I was just about to call a runner to fetch you.”

We both entered her office, then, and I could smell the freshly-brewed tea already. Vivienne was perched on a bench on the wall near the door, her legs crossed elegantly and her clasped hands in her lap. She looked up at me when we entered and offered a strangely warm smile of greeting, her dark eyes sparkling in the low light of Josie’s quarters. “Good afternoon, Tamsyn. It is good of you to come. I do hope we can use this opportunity to get to know one another a little better. I have heard so much about you already.”

“It would be my honor, Madame Vivienne,” I answered politely, taking a seat on another bench on the opposite wall from the Enchanter. “If I remember right, we did not get the opportunity to talk when you first arrived.”

“Alas, we did not,” she said, the corners of her mouth turning down into a slight frown, “and I am afraid my mood was less than hospitable that day. I do hope to rectify my rather dispassionate response to your presence by giving you my undivided attention now.”

Right. I knew exactly what she meant: I was “unnerving,” in response to Sera’s calling me “weird” straight to my face, and that was coupled with her practically ignoring me for the rest of the time she was near me. I remembered all that quite well. How nice of her to try and blame her patronizing attitude on her mood. She had to realize I knew better than that.

I merely smiled at her in response, all the while thinking, Bullshit.

Josephine, who had busied herself pouring the tea at a small table near her desk, then asked me, “How are you settling in to Haven, by the way? Is everything to your satisfaction?”

“Very much so,” I replied. Truly, I felt I had nothing to complain about.

“That is good,” the ambassador approached with two small teacups on saucers, one of which she extended to me, and the other she handed to Vivienne. We both carefully took them (Vivienne with a small clack of her perfectly-manicured nails), at which point Josie turned back around to fetch the pewter plate of Hors d'oeuvres beside her teapot and added, “I’m afraid Leliana has had no luck finding more translated works for you to practice reading. I trust your studies are going well, though?”

I graciously accepted one of the little snacks she offered us – tiny sandwiches cut into bite-sized squares – and nodded. “Yes. In fact, I was able to read a note Corporal Delia sent to me earlier today.”

“Excellent!” Josephine retrieved her own teacup before half sitting on the edge of her desk.

“What’s this about translations?” Vivienne asked, sipping at her tea while I politely ate the mini sandwich I held in one hand.

“In short, Tamsyn here is having difficulties with the language,” Josephine clarified. “As it so happens, her native tongue matches Orlesian in script, which allows her to read some of our texts. Unfortunately, she has no knowledge of anything close to the common tongue in appearance, and so she has been forced to learn it by reading direct translations of Orlesian and common tongue literature side-by-side in order to be able to communicate with and understand the average Thedosian on paper.”

“I see,” Vivienne replied, cocking her head at me. “Perhaps I can be of help, then. Bastien has quite the expansive library. I could have word sent to find volumes in both common and Orlesian and have them brought here for you to read.”

I had just taken a sip of my own tea; it was black (sugar and cream were no doubt scarce in Haven), and it had a robust flavor, almost like coffee. I swallowed it down quickly at Vivienne’s suggestion, answering, “Oh, you don’t have to do that!”

Reminding myself that Corypheus’s attack was going to happen relatively soon, I knew that the likelihood of those books surviving both the travel to Haven and the subsequent onslaught was slim and none. But I couldn’t tell them that.

“Really, it’s dangerous to get them here, and I wouldn’t want to risk them being destroyed or damaged somehow. Not that I don’t appreciate the offer, First Enchanter,” I added hastily, “but as a lover of books myself, I can’t justify their possible ruin for the sole sake of getting my feet under me faster.”

Vivienne seemed to absorb my words for a moment before she finally smiled slightly. “Eloquently put, my dear.”

“I still think it would be advantageous to train you in the ways of a diplomat,” Josephine remarked. “You wouldn’t have to participate in the Game if that is something that intimidates you…I could find countless projects for you outside of Orlais.”

I visibly shuddered. “Honestly, between the concerns Cullen and Leliana have shared with me, even if I wasn’t apprehensive about communicating with the people already, I’m not sure I should jump into exposing myself to the rest of Thedas quite so quickly, Ambassador. The Inquisition has been kind to me…and incredibly understanding. But the rest of the world?”

Vivienne set her teacup down on her saucer with a definitive clink. “Tamsyn, we know where you came from, of course. But the rest of the world doesn’t have to. I believe there is still time to adjust how word spreads regarding your contributions to the Inquisition.”

My brow furrowed, but before I could ask what exactly she meant, Josephine suddenly stood, setting her teacup aside rather excitedly. “That’s right! There have already been whispers around the camp about your telling future events, of course, but barely anyone aside from our Inner Circle is aware of how exactly you know the things you do.”

“We could use that fact to our advantage,” Vivienne added, nodding knowingly. “Let them talk about your abilities, provided we keep your origins a tightly-kept secret. It adds a layer of mystery to you, my dear…as well as fear. A fear we can easily manipulate.”

You would know all about that, wouldn’t you, I thought as I sipped my tea.

“It is, perhaps, a bit unsavory to you,” said Josephine, as she apparently noticed my expression. “But if we are to locate the Divine’s murderers after the Breach is closed – as you say it most certainly will be – then we will need leverage in order to find them, yes? Whoever it is that managed to slip past our defenses at the Temple of Sacred Ashes must be well-connected. And well-hidden. If mere rumors about what you can do for us can help in any way…”

I raised an eyebrow, feeling more than a tad concerned. “And doesn’t that work against what Cullen and Leliana want? I mean, if we want people to know what I can do, then doesn’t that raise the risk of someone attacking us? Or sending assassins after me?”

“I wouldn’t say it raises the risk, no,” Josephine shook her head. “Even if people remained unaware of your knowledge of future events, you are still an Inquisition leader, and therefore, a target. Just like Cullen, Leliana, the Herald, and myself.” At that, she took a sandwich for herself and chewed it thoughtfully, as if reflecting on what she had just said.

“And anyone else of particular note who chooses to join our side,” Vivienne observed, no doubt noting the danger to her own person for joining the Inquisition. Turning to me, the Enchanter added, “Unfortunately, if we are to foster the image that you aren’t a person from the Beyond, then you will need to start acting more like you belong here.”

At that, both of my eyebrows rose. “Pardon?”

Josephine sighed, “According to Leliana, you’re still acting rather…submissive around the camp. You are a fellow advisor of the Inquisition, but that doesn’t seem to be the case to anyone who looks at you. I’m not saying that you should act imperiously, but your position of authority should be visibly evident to others.”

“In short, it is rather obvious that you are a complete stranger to us,” Vivienne clarified.

I sat back against the wall, glancing at the dark corner of the room and polishing off my tea.

Well…shit.

The Enchanter then shifted in her seat and leaned forward, adding, “Allow me to say this, Tamsyn: you have incredible potential. You may not believe it yet, but you are a powerful woman with the capacity to influence the entire world. Your reach can and will go much farther than this camp and even this organization. Just like the Commander, Sister Nightingale, and the Lady Ambassador spread their influence across nations with troops, scouts, and envoys, so will you, whether you do it purposefully or not. You must start thinking about that…what it means for you and for the rest of Thedas, and how you can use it to ensure your security far beyond the lifetime of this Inquisition.”

A heavy silence followed, and I bit my lower lip as I absorbed her words.

But just because I can, doesn’t mean I should.

------------------------------------------------------

The moment Lea knocked on Josie’s door to retrieve me for the Wicked Grace match was not a moment too soon. Josephine apologized for keeping me so long, Vivienne told me it had been a pleasure, and I retreated from the office with a half-bow before nearly running out of the Chantry. I was walking so quickly that Lea almost had to run herself to keep up with me.

“I’m guessing that wasn’t pleasant?” Lea asked, once we were past the Chantry doors. I noticed the snowfall had slowed considerably. Maybe it would stop soon.

Letting out a long and loud sigh, I finally slowed my pace. “It was uncomfortable, to say the least.”

“Oh,” Lea said quietly before adding, “well, maybe this will help get your mind off things for a while. At least, that’s Master Tethras’s hope.”

“Always looking out for others,” I remarked with a half-smile.

“So it seems,” Lea agreed. “He’s a rather nice dwarf, really. If you didn’t know his name, you would never think he was famous.”

I laughed to myself at her words, and we walked in silence after that until we reached the Singing Maiden, the only sound that of our boots rustling in the fresh snow and crunching over pebbles and dirt. Then, while holding the tavern door for me, Lea suddenly asked, “So, you said you didn’t know how to play Wicked Grace, right?”

I quickly ducked inside, and she followed after me. “Right. No idea.” I was immediately struck by the smell of fresh stew and ale, and I knew those tiny sandwiches of Josie’s weren’t going to last me long.

“That’s all right,” the elf smiled broadly at me, “I’ll teach you. You can watch me play.”

I chuckled, “All right, I’ll do that. Thank you.” Glancing around at the thick crowd within the tavern, I added, “Are you good at it?” I noted that Strider was already there, standing in the corner near the entrance with a full tankard in hand, which he raised slightly at the both of us in greeting when we looked his way.

At my words, Lea thought a moment and then nodded. “I like to think so. Better than Strider, for sure. Right Strider?”

The scout glared. Lea and I both laughed.

The Singing Maiden was packed. There were many a soldier and scout there, as well as messengers and laborers, all talking and drinking together after their work had been finished for the day, taking the time to wind down before crashing and starting all over again in the morning. Sera, oddly enough, was nowhere to be found, at least as far as I could tell, and I wondered where the non-elfy elf had run off to. Perhaps she was already at work making mischief around the camp. Or maybe she was firing arrows into the Breach…

“Hey, look who it is!”

I heard Varric’s cheerful voice over the din from across the tavern, and he smiled broadly at me as he made his way over to us. “Good of you to make it, there, Fortune Teller. We’ll get started in just a few minutes. In the meantime, grab a drink and a seat if you like.”

Fortune Teller. Not the worst nickname in the world.

He pushed past me, then, ostensibly to speak to someone else, and I was making my way towards the counter to do just as he suggested when I noticed Knight-Captain Rylen standing farther down the bar. After I placed my order for ale, the templar immediately caught my gaze, and he lifted his tankard in greeting before meandering towards me, his stormy eyes flicking towards the ground before returning to my face. It was then I noticed just how tall he was; even when I had plowed right into him, back when I had first arrived, I hadn’t really had the chance to gauge his stature. He wasn’t as broad as Cullen, but he could likely look the Commander straight in the eye. Me, I was almost craning my neck upwards at him when he stopped right next to me, close enough that his sleeve brushed mine.

“So, ah, Tamsyn…fancy seeing you here at this hour.”

“I could say the same to you, Ser Righteous Templar.”

He snorted. “Right. You have a moment to talk before the game?”

“More than,” I replied, watching as several of the patrons began rearranging tables and chairs.

“Good,” he drained his tankard and set it on the bar for a refill. “I wanted to say sorry for calling you crazy that day at breakfast. That wasn’t quite professional of me.”

I wrinkled my nose at him and pressed my lips together. “Cullen tell you to say that?”

He rolled his eyes. “Oh, like I can’t make a decision to do the right thing on my own, right lass?” He shook his head, his helm glinting in the firelight. “Look, I realized I said something stupid and want to rectify it. On my own. Not because of morale, or unity, or public image, or any of that. This isn’t an official apology, it’s a personal one. I was a bit of an ass. And I’m sorry.”

I sighed. “Water under the bridge, Captain.”

He blinked, seemingly surprised at my short and quick response. “Oh, well…all right then. That’s good. Because sitting across the card table from an antagonist would’ve made things a little awkward.”

“You’re playing?”

“Damn right I am. I need something to get my mind off that recruit who somehow keeps hitting himself in the face with his own shield.”

I didn’t have time to ask him about that bit, because Varric was ushering all the players to the tables that were now pushed together to accommodate everyone. I took my seat next to Lea, who seemed eager to get started. “You’ll learn quick, it’s not that hard. It’s mostly luck,” she said.

That part didn’t reassure me much. I wasn’t exactly the luckiest person. Or was I?

The tables had at least a dozen people sitting around them, now. Once everyone was settled, Varric dealt out the cards, ribbing Rylen a little for quite possibly neglecting his duties, to which the Knight-Captain snorted. I watched as the draw deck and discard pile was created, as well as a mound of bet money. It was a standard card game setup; everyone got five cards and drew and discarded a card each turn to try and create a decent hand. Lea explained that they would go until someone pulled the Angel of Death card and all players had to immediately show their hands. The more matches of suits, the better, and some suits were “worth” more than others.

As they played, Varric insisted on sharing stories. He went first, of course, describing memorable events from the Herald’s recent trip to Val Royeaux.

“I shit you not,” he said at one point as he tossed a card into the discard pile, “the Seeker nearly punched a juggler in the face when he wouldn’t get out of her way fast enough to suit her.”

Strider chuckled, “That reminds me. Not long after the Blight ended, there was a huge festival in my hometown – acrobats, sword-swallowers…you name it, it was there.  Well, the local Mother didn’t approve of it. Not at all. Especially not with those scantily-clad dancers they had.” He took a swig of his ale and shook his head at the memory. “She goes up on the stage when she thinks one of the performances is over and starts preaching to the audience when all of a sudden her hat goes up in flames.” Everyone at the table oohed simultaneously, eyes wide. “Turns out, the fire-breather had come up behind her and decided to show the good Mother exactly what he thought of her sermon.”

Varric snickered, “I can’t imagine that ended well.”

“It didn’t,” Strider sighed, looking a little wistful. “We didn’t have a festival like that again.”

“Where are you from?” I asked, curious as to which town Strider called home.

“Rossleigh,” he replied, taking another drink from his tankard. “It was hit badly during the Blight, but we rebuilt quickly. Couldn’t do much of anything else.”

There were murmurs of agreement from several understanding Fereldans around the room. They knew exactly what he meant.

“Angel of Death,” one of the playing soldiers said suddenly, tossing the card onto the table.

Groans were heard all around as hands were revealed. Lea didn’t win this round, only having a pair of Serpents and Songs. The victory instead went to…wait…Jim?

Son of a…

Scout Jim himself had been sitting so quietly at the table that I hadn’t even noticed him, and he had won the first round of Wicked Grace. I was so in shock that I barely registered Varric’s next comment as he gathered the cards and shuffled the deck.

“Just let me know if you want to be dealt in, Tamsyn.”

I blinked. “Oh, well…thanks, Varric. But not tonight, I don’t think.”

“Suit yourself.”

Rylen chuckled as he looked at his diminished pile of coins. “Seems she’s smarter than most of us here. Myself included.”

The game went on for three more rounds, Varric and the others exchanging more tales all the while. I, on the other hand, remained fairly quiet, content to just watch Lea play and listen to their stories. Each round, Lea kept her bets modest, so that she didn’t lose much. She won only one out of the three; the other two went to a messenger boy Varric had called Bryant. In the end, Lea came out ahead by only a silver, but that was more than good enough for her.

At last, when the game was finally over and everyone had to leave, we all set the tavern back in order, returning tables to their former places and clearing them of cards, steins, and anything else that had been scattered across the room. Varric stayed and chatted with several of the remaining soldiers, but both Rylen and Lea departed almost immediately to prepare themselves for the next day’s work, giving me cordial farewells before ducking out of the Singing Maiden.

All the while, I lingered for a bit, listening to the conversations as I took the time to look around the tavern. There was a guest book on the table near the bar-side door, and I meandered over to read the names. They were all in the common tongue, but thanks to my recent reading practices, I could actually decipher them. I passed my hand over the parchment, feeling the different weights of dried ink under my fingertips and smiling at the various notes some people left behind. On impulse, I took the inkwell nearby and carefully unstoppered it, then dipped the old quill that lay beside the book into the ink and slowly signed my name in the runic letters I had learned. Then, satisfied with my signature, I replaced the writing utensils and stepped back. It was something of a silly act, and yet it gave me an immense feeling of satisfaction.

That feeling ebbed when I realized it would likely not survive the coming storm.

------------------------------------------------------

When I slipped out of the tavern at last, the snow clouds had finally parted again, revealing the bright light of Thedas’s full moons in the star-speckled sky above. I had forgotten there were two of them; this was the first time since I had arrived that I had such a clear view of the night sky. Most times I was already in my cabin when the moons rose. For a moment, I stood looking at the incredible expanse above – thousands of stars spattered across shades of blue and violet and obsidian black…impossibly deep.

As the tavern continued to empty, I decided to head out of the gates for a small walk to relax and clear my head before bed. The night seemed so peaceful, especially with the newly fallen snow blanketing the landscape in shimmering white under the light of the moons. It looked like the landscape from a Christmas card, and it was so bright out that torches were hardly needed, the stark scenery bathed in cool silver glow.

The only people out this late were guardsmen patrolling the streets and sentries perched atop their watch platforms adjacent to the palisade wall. A few scouts milled about the stables, but the nearby forge was quiet and the training grounds were empty. As I kept walking out towards the frozen lake, I was completely alone…and it felt good.

I approached the old wooden pier that stretched outwards over the outer edge of the lake, carefully making my way to its end to look out at the rim of mountains ringing the valley. It was really cold, now. I pulled my cloak tighter around me and shivered, my breath leaving me in very distinct clouds of mist. For some reason, though, I didn’t care. The more I stayed out in the chill, quiet night, the more I realized I needed this.

I looked up again at the vast expanse of stars overhead and found myself lost in the depths of the void in which they sparkled. Everything was so clear and crisp, made even sharper by the coldness of the late autumn, mountain air. Not even the Breach could fade the brilliant heavens here, like the city lights did back on Earth, reducing the sky to a few stars in a sea of black. No, here the night sky could not be diminished by anything, manmade or otherwise.

How sad that my first real view of space was granted in a universe not my own.

Suddenly, my sense of wonder was overridden by an overwhelming feeling of sadness, stronger than anything I had ever experienced before. It was heavy…no, crushing, its oppressive weight stifling the air from my lungs. I began to breathe faster, trying to get more air, and I could feel myself beginning to shake. At first, I wondered where it was all coming from, just like I had at the chess match earlier…

And then, it clicked, my mind understanding what was going on even as my body succumbed. It was all catching up to me. All the trauma…all the pain. I couldn’t keep myself from grieving any longer, no matter how badly I wanted to.

That first cry in the cot in the Hinterlands wasn’t enough. Prioritizing my need for survival and trying to hold back my mourning with logic was doomed to fail. My sudden emotional reaction at the chess table should have been a sign that the shoddy dam I had built inside was springing a leak…that the wall I had built to keep my emotions in check was crumbling down…that I could no longer pretend that moving on from losing my friends, my family, and almost everything about my life was going to be as easy as focusing on quests and war table missions for the next few years.

The wail that burst from my throat was almost inhuman, echoing around the mountains and bouncing off of the stone walls of Haven. Unable to hold myself up, I collapsed on the pier, my knees sinking into freezing slush as I gasped for air and keened my sorrow. I was sobbing harder than I had ever cried in my life. It felt as though someone had kicked me in the stomach over and over, like someone was strangling me and ripping my insides out through my mouth. The tears flowed so hard and fast I was blinded, and I could feel the trickling tracks freezing on my cheeks. I could barely breathe for the force of my cries. My hands were claws clutching at my cloak, pulling it tighter and tighter around me as I bent forward, unable to sit up straight. The night watch must have thought I was truly mad, but I didn’t care. Couldn’t care…

“Tamsyn!”

Oh, shit…

“Tamsyn! Are you all right?”

Cullen’s voice. His feet pounded the snow heavily behind me, the sound becoming deep and hollow as his weight landed upon the wood of the pier. I couldn’t bring myself to turn and look at him. I was still sobbing uncontrollably and struggling to breathe, desperately trying to blink away the tears fast enough to clear my vision, but to no avail.

“Tamsyn! Maker’s breath, are you hurt? Did someone…”

He trailed as I didn’t respond, and his movements were cautious as he drew up next to me, kneeling on the snowy pier at my side. Silvery metal flashed through the blur of my tears – his sword was in his hand. He thought someone had actually physically hurt me…had run to my defense…

“No! No…” I managed to say, though my voice was so strained I wasn’t sure he understood me, so I shook my head emphatically.

“Ser! We heard a scream. Is something wrong?”

“No, Allain,” I heard Cullen say to soldiers who had run up behind us, his blade scraping loudly in its scabbard as he sheathed it, “Return to your posts.”

“Yes, ser.”

I put my face in my hands. I wanted nothing more in that moment than to curl into a ball and disappear. Feeling tiny, devastated, and completely alone, I folded in on myself, fingers still clutching at my cloak as I trembled from the intensity of my pain and the chill of the night.

“Tamsyn? Maker…what caused this?”

Cullen’s voice was soft and coaxing, as if he were speaking to an injured animal or a frightened child. It was a difficult tone to ignore. Despite the embarrassment I now felt on top of my sadness, part of me wanted to throw my arms around his neck and never let go.

My breath came out in trembling gasps, and I lifted my head, but not to look at him; instead, I focused through my tears on the icy crags ahead of me, across the lake. When I finally found my voice, I croaked out, “It’s…all gone. It’s just…gone…gone forever…”

He was silent for a few moments. Then…

“You never let yourself grieve, did you? You tried to hold it all back.”

Fresh hot tears spilled out at hearing the truth, and I nodded, even more ashamed for being so foolish.

“It hit me…so hard…” I finally said, closing my eyes to try and stop the flow. “And it hurts…it hurts so much…”

Even through my clothing, I could feel the presence of his hand on my back…the slightest push in it, as if to keep me from falling backwards. “Come. Let’s get you out of the cold. You will catch your death if you stay out here.”

He remained still, though, until I at last gave a reluctant nod. It was only then that he slipped an arm around my shoulders and slowly guided me to my feet. He kept his arm there, physically supporting me as he turned me towards the gates and walked me back to the village. My vision was still sporadically blurry, the cold air stinging my sensitive eyes, and I occasionally stumbled along the way; it was quite possible I tripped over his toes, but if I did, he gave no indication of it. Instead, he quietly but insistently pushed for my cabin, not stopping until we were both inside and the door fell shut behind us. I could only guess what the door guard, who was only there at night, must have thought.

Inside, the fire was crackling merrily in the hearth, and it was so much warmer than the outdoors that my face stung painfully at the contrast in temperature. I had finally managed to stop crying, but it seemed the tears were half-frozen to my skin and eyelashes.

“Let’s get this soggy thing off of you,” Cullen said quietly, unpinning the cloak, his lips thin as he frowned at it; it dripped with slushy snow a third of the way from the bottom. Blinking a few more times, I watched as he took it to lay it before the fire so it could dry out. Without its heavy weight around my shoulders, though, I hugged myself, feeling somewhat vulnerable as I tucked my hands under my arms. Sniffling a bit, I looked around and glimpsed the full washtub right behind Cullen. Someone must have had it filled before the Wicked Grace match. I would be lucky if it was still warm.

Before I could think about it much more, though, Cullen had come back over to me and was steering me towards a chair at the table in the middle of the room. As I plopped down wordlessly, I noticed him pulling his gloves from his hands and tossing them on top of the table before moving towards the washtub.

What is he doing?

Honestly, I couldn’t understand why he was still here. He had made sure I hadn’t been attacked, escorted me back inside, but why was he still tending to me? Taking my cloak off, making me sit down…what was all this about? My fuzzy, grief-stricken brain had trouble making sense of it all. My brow furrowed he bent to test the water with a finger before dipping the wash rag into it and wringing out the excess. He then straightened and approached me with the rag in hand. “Look at me.”

Blinking, I obeyed, tilting my head upwards. Quickly, but gently, he wiped away the icy tears that had gathered in my eyelashes and glued themselves to my cheeks with the tepid cloth. Then, setting the rag aside on the table, he gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “There. Do you feel a little better, now?”

“A…a little.” I nodded, watching as he silently moved to the other chair and sat across from me. “Thank you, Commander. You…you didn’t have to do this…”

“It is no trouble,” he shook his head. “I can’t imagine what you must be feeling, but I…” he trailed for a moment, glancing away. “I think I can sympathize.”

I huffed out a sigh, “I don’t know what happened. It…I didn’t expect everything to just catch up to me like that. I was fine earlier today. I know I got a little down talking about my mother, but…I thought it was just a passing thing. And then I had tea with Josephine and a pleasant time at the tavern with Varric and the others…I…”

I leaned with my elbow on the table and put my head in my hand. “It just hit me…like the whole world just…fell right on top of me.”

The chair creaked as he shifted his weight. “The way I see it, you were too afraid for your life before now to properly mourn. Your survival took priority over anything else you might be feeling. Once you truly felt safe…truly comfortable…you finally let go.”

Silence. I swallowed as I absorbed his words. It seemed as good an explanation as any.

“Sometimes this doesn’t feel real,” I said after a moment. “Like I can’t have lost absolutely everything. But I did. It’s all gone. And sometimes I just feel so alone. So helpless.”

At that, he leaned forward, and I looked up into gorgeous amber eyes, half-lit by the fire from the hearth. His brow was furrowed as he replied, “You aren’t helpless, Tamsyn. You are a survivor. You came here, determined to make things work. And you have. You are learning our ways and how to live here. Josephine tells me you are studying the written language. Strider and Delia both have good things to say about your training.”

I snorted my incredulity, glancing away briefly, but he shook his head. “Don’t doubt yourself. You are stronger than you feel now. Mourning what you have lost doesn’t make you weak.”

My tongue was dry as I searched his gaze. I wondered if he had had a similar talk with soldiers before. Or other templars. Or maybe even himself.

“And you aren’t alone,” he added quietly. “You have us to talk to, anytime you require it. Josephine, Leliana, the Herald, and I…we will make time for you if you need it.”

Almost overwhelmed, I looked down at my lap. Taking a deep breath, I began, “I…thank you. And I’m…I’m really sorry about all this. I didn’t mean to-”

My words were halted in my throat as he held up a hand to stop me. “There’s nothing to apologize for. You needed help. You offered me a bit of hope today, Tamsyn. It is only right that I return the favor.”

I blinked. “You’re…you’re not mad at me? That I know about…”

“And what if I was?” he asked with a shrug. “There’s nothing I can do about it, and I can’t exactly make you forget, can I? Besides,” he added with a small smile, “I’m rather glad that you admitted it. You didn’t have to be so forthcoming with your information earlier today. I appreciate that you were honest with me.”

I smiled back, suddenly feeling incredibly warm despite my jaunt out into the cold.

“But, if you are settled for now, I think I shall take my leave and give you some peace and quiet.” He cocked his head towards the bath, “And if I were you, I would take advantage of that before the water cools completely.”

He stood, slowly pushing in his chair and retrieving his gloves, but before he turned away from me, he inclined his head in farewell. “Good night, Tamsyn.”

“Good night, Commander.”

And with that, he finally left the cabin. But before he got out of earshot, the door slow to fall shut behind him, I heard him tell the guard, “Willem, ensure that no one bothers her for the remainder of the night unless the village is burning down. Not even messengers. Understood?”

“Yes, ser.”

I smiled again, feeling a sense of calm and peace fall over me once more. Then, after a few moments, I glanced at the bath and decided I would heed Cullen’s advice.

Frozen Tears

Chapter Text

What an idiot.

You can’t just decide you’re going to ‘get over’ something like that.

Such a fool.

What did you expect?

Moving on isn’t that easy, stupid…

These were the self-deprecating thoughts that beleaguered me before dawn the next morning, when the haze of grief had finally lifted after but a few hours of incredibly hard sleeping. They consumed my mind in an incessant buzz, replacing oppressive bereavement with debilitating embarrassment that left me unable to continue my rest. Despite Cullen’s comforting words, despite knowing the Inner Circle would try to help me get through it if I just asked them, I still felt so lonely. No one would be able to fully comprehend what I had lost, even if they were sympathetic – not even Cullen, with all he had gone through. No one but someone just like me would be able to know how empty I felt. This grief was something I had to get through by myself…however long that took to do.

But that doesn’t mean you should keep your feelings bottled up.

You should talk to them.

You shouldn’t have held back for as long as you did.

Maybe you wouldn’t have subjected the Commander to that display.

You really are an idiot, aren’t you?

Ughhh!

Seething with self-loathing, I spun and kicked the frame of my cot after finishing my most recent round of pacing about my cabin. Pain exploded in my big toe as the heavy wood fully resisted the strike. I hopped up and down on my uninjured foot and spat curses, praying I hadn’t broken anything. At least the sharp, stabbing sensation and subsequent throbbing of my toe silenced my thoughts for a few blessed moments…

But it wasn’t nearly long enough.

“I appreciate that you were honest with me…”

That one phrase of Cullen’s kept coming back to haunt me; it replayed in my head over and over.

I sat on the edge of the cot and put my head in my hands. Cullen had no idea that his words of gratitude made everything that much harder on me…

I couldn’t forget that Corypheus’s attack on Haven was coming soon – in about a month, give or take a week or so, if I judged travel times accurately. The Herald would go off on his trip to do last recruitments for companions, visit Redcliffe to talk to Fiona, and then come back to make one final decision on the mages or Templars before pursuing one or the other in full. And after that…

Cullen was going to kill me.

But there was no way I could tell him about the attack. I just…couldn’t. Everything – the big enemy reveal, the near loss of hope and the escape through the mountains, the discovery of Skyhold, the raising of the Herald to Inquisitor status, the recruitment of Hawke and the resulting drive to find Corypheus and defeat him – everything hinged on the descent of Corypheus’s minions on the town and the sense of impending doom that would come of the attack. If I breathed a word about Corypheus to anyone, if they were in any way prepared for the assault, then the whole plotline could go awry…to the point that I might not be able to fix it.

As cruel as it sounded, the people of Haven had to experience that terror and loss, realize that their delivery to safety was only made possible by Maxwell’s brave act of self-sacrifice, and subsequently trust that their Herald of Andraste really was an agent of the Maker’s will. The Inquisition had to believe that about him, or it wouldn’t work – Maxwell wouldn’t be Inquisitor. If I gave them any heads-up, it would take the shine away from him…perhaps even cast it on me.

And no way in hell was I going to be the Inquisitor.

But these are people you’re talking about…

This wasn’t a game anymore. Just like I kept reminding myself, this world was real and so were its inhabitants. Strider, Delia, Lea, and little Sean…they were all real. Flesh and blood. And they would also be in very real danger, along with everyone else in Haven. Could I honestly keep my mouth shut about it all, knowing their lives would be on the line? Knowing they might die in the attack if I didn’t say anything?

I bit my lower lip so hard my teeth almost broke the skin. Did the end truly justify the means? Was keeping the Inquisition on the right path a valid reason for my silence…and their possible deaths?

“But it’s your perception of the right path…”

“I can only hope that you are wise in choosing what to say and what to keep to yourself….”

Leliana and Cassandra’s words swam to the forefront of my thoughts, making me sick to my stomach. I began to feel as the Herald must have felt that night we shared wine in his cabin; I didn’t want to have to reduce these people to mere pawns for the sake of the story, and yet…

Suddenly, a subtle shuffling sound broke me out of my heavy thoughts, and, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a small note sealed with wax slide under the door. No knock and no call; perhaps the messenger was continuing to heed Cullen’s words. Brow furrowing, I rose from the cot, wincing at the pain in my toe that reminded me of my recent act of stupidity, and meandered over to the piece of paper on the floor. I picked it up and broke the seal, curiosity piqued as I unfolded it and read in a swirling Orlesian script:

Lady Advisor Tamsyn,

This is to inform you that your current earnings for your tenure in the Inquisition are

Sixty silvers and fifty bits

and will remain in Inquisition coffers until such time as you deem it necessary to withdraw funds and/or your service is terminated.

To make a withdrawal, please speak with Ambassador Josephine Montilyet or send an inquiry to her office.

Sincerely,

Ela Virel, Accountant and Scribe to the Lady Ambassador of the Inquisition

I blinked. It was, in essence, my first paycheck.

It made complete sense that Josephine would retain the coin until it was needed. It saved time, effort, and was much less risky for everyone. I tossed the notice on my bed and made a mental note that if I ever needed my own cash for anything, I would have to see her first in order to get it. For a moment, I wondered what in the world I would actually have to spend it on; I already had everything I needed without any money at all…

But then I remembered I would need every last bit of it if I was kicked out of the Inquisition after Haven.

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Damn, Tamsyn.”

Strider’s impressed whistle came after the fifth bullseye in a row.

My brows rose as I slowly lowered the bow, still focused the target. “You’re not the only one surprised.”

“Well, honestly,” Strider cocked his head, “you look like you’re wishing that target was someone and not something. Maybe that has a lot to do with it.”

I glanced down at my booted toes. The one I had hit had finally stopped throbbing, although it was still tender. “Yeah. Not in the best of moods this morning.”

The scout chuckled as he moved to the target and pulled the arrows free from the straw. “Perhaps you should come to practice pissed off at someone every day, if it helps your performance that much.” He shook his head and continued without looking at me, “Strange…if you are upset at yourself, you miss more than you hit. If you’re upset at something or someone else, you hit dead on every time.”

“Sounds like me, all right.”

After he collected all the arrows, he continued, gesturing with the handful of them in his fist as he spoke. “In any case, I was thinking about your progress. We’ve been gradually increasing the length of your shots, and you seem to be doing better with greater distances, now. How about next time we add moving targets into the mix?”

My expression was flat as I glared at him. “You’re kidding me.”

He grinned, gesturing for my equipment. “I’m not.”

At that, I sighed loudly in response and thrust my quiver and bow at him. It wasn’t like I had much of a choice in the matter anyway. “Well, Strider, I think you’ve indeed found a way to make me pissed off at someone every practice.”

He took them, still grinning, and then bowed at the waist. “I, as always, live to serve, Lady Tamsyn.”

Smartass.”

At that, I suddenly saw someone approaching us out of the corner of my eye. When I glanced that way, I realized it was Varric. Upon meeting my gaze, the dwarf gave me a friendly nod of greeting. “Hey, Fortune Teller. Just letting you know, the Herald’s about to head out.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the stables. “If you’ve got anything he needs to be made aware of before this next expedition, I’d head on over there before he leaves. He’s in a pretty big hurry, last I heard.”

I nodded. “Got it. Thanks, Varric.”

“Not a problem.”

I then gave Strider a polite farewell, spun on my heel, and headed in the direction of the group gathered near the forge, where they were arming themselves for the journey. It seemed Maxwell was taking Solas, Vivienne, and Sera with him for this one. By the time I arrived at their gathering place, the companions themselves were already mounted and waiting on the Herald to finish gathering supplies. Cassandra, still garbed in her simple daily attire, stood nearby with her arms crossed, looking on. As Maxwell finally climbed into the saddle, fully armored, I tentatively approached and I gave him a friendly wave to catch his attention.

Thankfully, the Herald’s helmet didn’t inhibit his vision too much, and as soon as he noticed me, he nudged his mount closer. The horse was literally champing at its bit, snorting and tossing its head, its breath leaving its flared nostrils in puffs of misty air. I was suddenly struck with how heroic the Herald appeared in this moment, sitting atop his fiery steed, the scaled armor on his sleeves shimmering green occasionally from the light of the Breach.

“There you are, Tamsyn,” he said, keeping the rein taut as he held his horse steady. “We were just about to leave for the Fallow Mire.”

“So Varric told me,” I replied, moving beside Cassandra and craning my neck upwards at him, “What’s the plan?”

He shifted his weight in the saddle, buckles and armor clinking and rattling with his movement. “The plan is to investigate the Avvar situation in the bogs before Cullen’s soldiers are beyond saving, then head north to the Hinterlands to pick up Dennet’s horses and find this Warden Blackwall for Leliana, and, after that, journey to the Storm Coast to meet The Iron Bull and his company before coming back south to Redcliffe in order to meet with the Grand Enchanter.” He sighed, the sound hollow and metallic in his helm, and then added, “Any last minute words of advice before we depart?”

I glanced at my toes as I thought about what I could say. Honestly, there wasn’t much I could impart at this point – nothing all that worthwhile, at least. After a moment, I looked back up at him and answered, “Well, the Fallow Mire’s got undead in addition to the Avvar. You probably already know that from the scout reports. But here’s a word of caution: don’t touch the water unless you absolutely have to. The motion draws more of those undead out of the bogs, and they’ll swarm you if you’re not careful. Matters are being made worse by Fade rifts in the area. Take care of those, and the undead should lessen a bit. Plus, you don’t want to have to fight both demons and demon-possessed corpses for long.”

Ughh!” Sera’s faced screwed up in an expression of obvious disgust, and she visibly shuddered atop her pony.

“This sojourn of ours is already sounding positively lovely, Lord Trevelyan,” Vivienne remarked dryly.

“As for the Storm Coast, watch out for darkspawn,” I continued. “Take care of them from a distance if you see them, and don’t let their blood get anywhere near you – it’s how the Taint is transmitted. You shouldn’t have too much of a problem with them, though, so long as you meet Iron Bull quickly and then head straight back for the Hinterlands.”

“Of course,” Maxwell nodded, his helm flashing in the sun. “I’ve no plans of lingering anywhere any longer than absolutely necessary. I anticipate this trip to take roughly three weeks, barring complications.”

“I would expect those, given the state of Fereldan,” Cassandra warned. “So perhaps it is safer to assume you will be gone a month.”

“Or longer, if the weather is nasty,” I added. “The Storm Coast and the Mire both are particularly messy right now.”

“Then we cannot waste any time,” Solas observed.

“Indeed,” Maxwell agreed, adjusting his hold on the reins. “If that is all, Tamsyn, we will be off, now.”

I shrugged and half-smiled, “That’s it, I think. We’ll see you soon, then, Herald.”

“May the Maker guide you,” Cassandra said, inclining her head to the Herald respectfully.

“And you, Lady Cassandra. Lady Tamsyn,” Maxwell replied, mirroring her gesture before putting his spurs to his horse at last. Off the comrades went with a loud cacophony of jangling harnesses, neighing horses, and pounding hooves, clods of snow and dirt lofted in their wake. Cassandra and I watched them go until the tails of the band’s mounts disappeared around the bend, headed towards the mountain pass that led to the Fereldan foothills. Then, when they could no longer be seen, the Seeker turned to me and suddenly gestured ahead of her, inquiring, “Walk with me? I would like to speak with you for a few moments, if you have the time to spare.”

I was a bit surprised at her question, wondering what it was she wanted to talk about, but I merely shrugged in response, having nothing better to do at the moment. “Sure. Lead on, Seeker.”

She nodded and began heading towards the frozen lake, skirting about its edge as she moved past the training area and into the woods on the far side of the camp. As I followed her, I could hear the distinct sound of saws and the felling of trees in the distance; it seemed the Inquisition was making great use of the logging stand out there. The occasional ram, caught grazing in the snowy copse, bounded away the moment we drew too close, and squeaking and snuffling nugs darted out from around rocks and under overhangs, cocking their little heads at us in curiosity before scurrying right back into their hiding spots.

At last, we reached a high, stony outcropping overlooking the village, and Cassandra sat quietly on its edge as she observed Haven from afar. Curiosity piqued, I brushed away a spot of snow on the rocks and slowly sat down beside her. “What’s on your mind, Seeker?”

She sighed, and she was quiet for several more moments before she finally replied, “A great many things, Tamsyn. It seems I cannot silence all the voices in my head, lately.”

I nodded in understanding, crossing my legs at my ankles where they dangled over the rocky ledge. “I know the feeling.”

Cassandra fell silent once more, seeming to gather her thoughts. Then, at last, she looked down at her steel-clad feet and began, “I must believe the Maker is guiding us…that we are following his will by supporting Andraste’s Herald, and that we are doing the right thing by being here, standing against the Chantry’s bullheaded stubbornness.” She paused, returning her dark gaze to the village. “But there is some part of me that still questions it all. I cannot help but think that what we have done here will change the future in ways that will hurt us more than will help us, in the long run.” She sighed again, more heavily this time. “Perhaps I worry too much. But the last thing I want is for the Inquisition to be remembered as a force that did more harm than good for the people of Thedas.” She looked up at me, her lips pulling into a smirk as she added teasingly, “You do realize this is partially your doing, don’t you? It is your presence here that compels me to overthink everything about the future.”

I chuckled at her words, knowing she didn’t mean to insult me. “Yeaahhh, sorry about that…” I said with a grin, which she briefly reflected in amusement before glancing away. After a moment or two, I added reassuringly, “Don’t worry, Seeker. As far as I know, the Inquisition will be remembered as the force that set things right when everything in the world was going wrong.”

“And you are here to make sure it stays that way,” Cassandra remarked.

“I’ll certainly try my best.”

We were both silent for several moments, watching the residents of Haven going about their business in the distance. But then, suddenly, she asked, “Tell me…does your world have a Maker, too?”

I was so surprised by the question that it took a minute to find an answer. “Well…it’s a little different per religion, and we have – uh, had – many of them. Several religions had a Maker-like figure. Or ‘God’ as we called him, among other names. Others were more pantheistic…like the religion of the elves here. But our God was similar to your Maker.” I blinked, and my brow furrowed. “Is? Was?” I shook my head, honestly unsure of what tense to use, now. “Anyway, to answer your question: for some people, yes.”

At that, Cassandra’s expression shifted to one of intense contemplation, and she looked beyond me at something in her mind’s eye. “That is…oddly comforting to hear,” she said at length. “Perhaps they are one and the same.”

I raised my eyebrows at her suggestion. “That…would definitely be interesting, if true.”

Her voice was tinged with something akin to wonder. “It certainly makes things seem much, much larger than they are, doesn’t it?”

I snorted, “And smaller, now.” When she seemed confused at my answer, I added with a chuckle, “I mean, considering one of his worlds just exploded.” I paused, huffing out a breath. “Or maybe it didn’t, I honestly don’t know for sure. Solas seems convinced that even if there was something left of it all, I can’t go back to it now.” I pressed my lips together and pulled my knees up, hugging my legs to my chest. “And, more importantly, that I shouldn’t try.”

She nodded solemnly, “That, I agree with.”

More silence. We watched as guards changed, training units swapped, and couriers ferried messages and parcels to and fro throughout the town. Then, at last, Cassandra looked sideways at me and said quietly, “The Commander told me about last night. Not precise details, but enough to let me know that your grief hit you hard. I am sorry.”

I swallowed. I had hoped she wouldn’t mention what had happened, or that maybe she had been blissfully unaware of it all. The latter had been unlikely, however, as my scream had been loud enough to rouse the guards…

Before I could remark, she went on, “I may not have experienced precisely what you have, Tamsyn, but I have felt that kind of grief before. The kind that chokes, and blinds, and crushes. You will push past it, eventually. But it will take time. And you will always feel as though some part of you is missing.”

I resisted the urge to say “I know,” as it would unleash a barrage of questions about what I exactly knew about her grief. It was obvious she was remembering the loss of Anthony, and how hard the tragedy of his death had hit her: how it had filled her with an all-consuming rage and desire for revenge that couldn’t be quelled until she’d been made Tranquil unawares. I inwardly snorted; there was yet another thing I had to keep to myself until just the right time…

“I do not know how religious you are, Tamsyn,” Cassandra continued, “but if you are, I know recent events must have tested your faith greatly. I pray the Maker grants you the strength to push past this great tragedy of yours, and that you find your peace of mind.”

With that, she slowly got up, brushed off her pants, and began to head back towards the village. I, however, remained sitting, absorbing her words as she walked away. My soft reply was more to myself than to her.

“Yeah. Me too.”

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Three days after the Herald had departed on his journey, I finally started to hear the whispers.

At first, they were small things, barely noticeable: heads nodding in my direction, accompanied by knowing looks; stares as I walked by; murmuring behind hands. But that quickly escalated into full-blown gossip bandied about anytime I was seen in Haven, the blather paused just long enough for the magpies spouting it to feel comfortable I had gotten out of earshot before resuming it at an even more rapid-fire pace. Unfortunately for them, my hearing was rather good.

That, and they really weren’t trying very hard to hide it.

“There she is.”

“That’s the one they say can see the future.”

“Hear Samill tell it, she fell out of a rift just like the Herald.”

“You think she’s like him? Chosen?”

“I bet she’s a liar.”

“I bet she’s a mage.”

“I bet she’s possessed.”

The expected rumors about me, of course. But then there were also the rather humorous suggestions that people ask me about their futures, as if I knew the fate of everyone in the town.

“…ask her.”

“No, you ask her!”

“I’m not asking her! You do it!”

Of course, I knew this had been coming. But it didn’t make it any easier to deal with. In all actuality, it brought back recent fears of people here growing paranoid and trying to kill me. Hopefully, the weapons that were clearly visible on my person would quell any desire to raise a hand against me. Yet, as Leliana told the Herald countless times in my games, an angry mob would do me in just as swiftly as a blade.

Despite these worries of mine, though, I tried to hold my head high and ignore it all, going about my business as usual.

But then, I was met with Roderick.

I had just been leaving the Singing Maiden to go to my renewed blades training with Delia, who had returned from her mission to the passes the day prior. There, amongst a gaggle of Haven’s residents, was the Grand Chancellor himself. I knew he must have been indulging in the growing gossip about me, because as soon as he glimpsed me leave the tavern, he spun and began marching in my direction.

Don’t show fear, Tamsyn. He can do nothing to you.

“You there!”

I stopped in my tracks – slowly, so as not to look surprised – and stared him down as he headed towards me, his fists balled at his sides. Hyper-conscious of my own body language, especially since the recent talk I had with Josie and Vivienne, I didn’t back away, instead standing my ground with my  feet planted and pulling my hands behind my back.

“Yes, Chancellor?” I asked innocently.

My tone only served to enrage Roderick further, judging from how red his cheeks flushed as he drew near – the color clashed terribly with his scarlet tabard. He halted a good few paces away from me, though, obviously not willing to come within arms’ reach. He was a small man in reality, I noted, almost even with my own height, perhaps an inch taller. Some part of me wondered if that contributed to his grumpy nature and over-inflated sense of authority…

You! You are the one who perpetuates this farce of ‘knowing the future’,” he spat, his eyes flashing as he spoke, “cheapening this already heretical charade of an order even more than it already is. How very telling that their upper echelon has taken a charlatan such as you in as one of their own. Perhaps it is a sign that they are deceptive and lustful for power as you. Or perhaps it is confirmation of just how sordid and misguided the followers of the so-called ‘Herald’ truly are.”

Damn.

As a storm of emotions rose within me in response to his words, I found myself sparing a glance to our now-rapt audience. Judging by the size of the crowd that was lingering around us, I understood right away that he wanted to use me to discredit the Inquisition in the eyes of the villagers and everyone else who supported the cause, especially after his attempt to do so prior to the Herald’s departure for Val Royeaux – an event I had not witnessed – had failed. I knew if I didn’t say the right thing now, he might very well succeed in his endeavor, particularly if people thought that someone who knew the future was far less probable than a person being Chosen by Andraste…

Raising an eyebrow at Roderick and swallowing back my burgeoning anger at his utter ridiculousness, I said as calmly as I could, “You know, Chancellor, I find it rather telling you consider yourself so knowledgeable of the Maker’s will. You insist that the Herald, the leaders of the Inquisition, and I are frauds, but you, on the other hand, purport to know the truth about all of us when you, in fact, know positively nothing beyond your own unfortunate misconceptions. Your behavior, I think, is evidence of hubris in the extreme, and just as deceptive and misguided as you so fervently claim we are. But, I do acknowledge your bravery of calling me a liar to my face. I appreciate that.” I punctuated this last sarcastic statement with a polite inclining of my head, just to drive home the fact that I wouldn’t be intimidated by his accusations.

In the almost deafening silence that followed, I wondered briefly why being incensed made it so easy for me to talk like that…

I could tell it was taking all of his willpower not to launch into a mad tirade against me. His face was crimson, his chest heaved, and his fists shook with the strength of his anger. At last, though, after a few moments, he asserted, “No one can know the future! That is the realm of the Maker alone! Anyone who claims to have such knowledge can be nothing but a liar!” He briefly glanced around to the onlookers, then, as if seeking confirmation. When his gaze returned to me, he sneered, “I thank Andraste that you came here, however, because you are a crystal clear sign that the Chantry is right to denounce everything that the Inquisition is.”

Murmurs rippled around us, whispers hissing through the air. There were so many, I could not catch any distinct words, but I knew that if I didn’t say something fast, Roderick would win, here. I was scrambling for the right words to counter him when, suddenly, I caught a flash of metal and a splash of crimson beyond the crowd…

Cullen.

Someone must have fetched him when the people began to gather, possibly sensing another burgeoning riot. I smiled to myself, then, as I returned my gaze to Roderick, and I found within myself the courage to deliver one final punch. Lifting my chin, I answered him loudly and with all the authority I could muster:

“Your attempts to diminish the Herald will always end in failure, Chancellor. He will rise towards the heavens, and the Inquisition will rise along with him. And you and the Chantry can do nothing to stop it. That, you will find, is nothing but the truth.” Although you won’t live to see it, I thought, before adding, “I must thank you, however, for continuing to demonstrate just how desperate you and your fellow priesthood are to rid yourselves of any opposition…and just how far you will stoop to accomplish such. I think that is a crystal clear sign that the Chantry has indeed failed its people, and that the Inquisition is sorely needed.” I crossed my arms and smirked at him, “Now, I’m not sure this conversation has accomplished much of anything, and likely was not what you had expected. But, if nothing else, at least we are clear about where we stand in regards to one another, right Chancellor?”

He was utterly silent, then, and the voices grew louder and louder all around us like the humming of bees in a hive. I thought Roderick might retort something, but he seemed to bite it back, instead turning from me and cutting through the audience at a brisk pace, disappearing beyond. Immediately afterwards, Cullen began barking orders for people to return to their duties, a few soldiers helping them along. I stood there, a little stunned by what had just happened and taking time to absorb it all as the crowd slowly dissipated.

And when at last the Commander turned to head back for the gates, his hand on the hilt of his sword, he glanced my way and granted me what appeared to be the tiniest nod of approval.

I had never felt so validated in my life.

Chapter Text

Cassandra’s words had me thinking about my faith for much of the remainder of the day, seeping into my thoughts even as I trained with Delia, and especially as I continued my reading from the Chant of Light that evening. Back on Earth, I never would have entertained the thoughts of God being the same as the Maker. One was from a real religion, the other was entirely fabricated (even if it did reflect reality, in a sense). Now, though…

Simply put, my current situation turned everything I thought I knew about the universe on its head, including my faith. I was finding myself just as challenged in that regard as Cassandra and the others.

I was raised Christian, although my family and I went to church regularly in my early childhood, and we stopped going entirely by the time I was a teenager. We still celebrated Easter and Christmas every year, though, and we all engaged in prayer and read the Bible on occasion, particularly around the holidays. About the time I started going to college, however, I noticed my beliefs aligned more with a sort of soft deism rather than an actual Christian denominational doctrine. The presence of God seemed more than a little far away, to me. I was okay with that, though. It made perfect sense, at the time.

Now, nothing made sense. Nothing. I had no idea what to believe. This whole thing had indeed struck a blow to my faith, and I was left struggling in the aftermath. Was Cassandra right in suggesting that God was actually the same thing as the Maker? I was in a fictional world made reality; did that mean the fictional Maker was real, too, now? Were any of Thedas’s religions really right?

Had any of Earth’s been?

Did it even matter anymore?

Needless to say, I was more than a little troubled by it all.

When night fell, after dinner, I found myself wandering out to the lake again, watching as the stars began to emerge and the rosy remnants of the afternoon sun gradually faded to a soft, purple-grey twilight. Even though I knew I should probably keep my stint out in the late autumn air brief, my uniform was much warmer than my dress – and I’d finally worn my hat – so I didn’t feel quite as chilled in the evening air as I had the night I had been overwhelmed with crushing grief for my lost home and family.

This time, thank goodness, I had no fear of feeling that way again. I felt much better, and as I stood on the old wooden pier and the sky above me steadily darkened, I was able to look up at the heavens overhead and feel only peace, not sadness or emptiness. Though I had no misconception that my grief was gone entirely, it was absent for now, and I was glad.

I inhaled a deep lungful of frigid air and let it out slowly, a cloud of misty vapor escaping my lips and wafting away as it dissipated. Tension left with it, and for a few moments, I stood in solitude and blessed silence as the night enveloped the mountains.

At least, until I heard the heavy crunch of feet in the snow behind me.

I knew who it was before I ever turned around, the clink of small chains with every step and the slight jangle of a scabbard on its belt giving him away.

“Need something, Commander?” I asked, glancing over my shoulder to see Cullen approaching, his off-hand casually resting atop the pommel of his sword. At my sudden question, he looked a bit surprised, as if he hadn’t expected me to recognize him by sound alone, and he suddenly and rather awkwardly stopped in his tracks.

“I…no, Tamsyn, not at all.” He shook his head. “I just thought perhaps I would ask if you were all right.”

Such words of concern from him really shouldn’t have shocked me, but somehow, they did. It had been four days since the incident, and I hadn’t seen much of the Commander during that time. I had assumed he had done much like I had attempted to do – put the whole thing behind him and left it there.

“I’m fine, thanks,” I finally answered, adding with a bit of a nervous chuckle, “Don’t worry…I didn’t come out here to break down sobbing again.”

My poor attempt at humor backfired.

Cullen’s brows shot upwards, his eyes widening. “Maker’s breath…no! I-I didn’t mean to suggest…that I thought you might…” He trailed and sighed, shaking his head as one hand went to the back of his neck in his telltale sign of anxiety. He then started to turn away as if to leave, “It’s…been a long day. I think I need-”

Shit! Stupid, stupid!

“No, Commander, wait!” I rushed forward to halt him, my heart pounding in my ears. “Please…I was just trying to be funny and obviously failed.” I could feel my cheeks blazing, and I was certain they were glowing neon pink in the growing darkness. Curse my idiotic sarcastic sense of humor!

To my great relief, he turned back towards me with one brow lifted as I continued, “I know what you meant. And I really, really appreciate your concern for me. I really do.” I gave him an earnest smile and nod to emphasize my words. “Thank you.”

His subsequent expression was difficult to read; it seemed to be an equal blend of surprise, gratitude, and curiosity, but it was hard to tell for the shadows. Taking a breath I added, “Honestly, I didn’t thank you properly for helping me that day, either. That you were there for me,” I paused, swallowing a lump of emotion in my throat as my stomach churned. “It means a lot. You didn’t really have to do what you did, but you took the time to make sure I was okay. And I really needed that. So…thank you. Again. Sincerely.”

At that, he took a step towards me, and a hint of a smile pulled at the corner of his mouth, one that made my nervous stomach fluttering turn into outright flopping. The harsh, silvery radiance of the moons overhead threw his chiseled features into high relief, and God, did he look like a Grecian statue in that lighting.

“I did what I thought was right,” he said, finally, his voice soft. “I must admit, afterwards, I was afraid I had done little to actually help you. It is good to hear my efforts were successful.” He looked away briefly, “I have been wrong about the right thing in the past.”

I offered him a small smile of my own. “Well, you were right about this, Commander.” Then, gesturing beside me, I asked, “Stay a bit and talk?”

My sudden invitation surprised even me. Where the hell did that come from?

But even more surprising was when he didn’t turn it down.

He glanced back over his shoulder at the sea of tents near the training area. “I…have a few moments to spare,” he replied at length, sauntering up next to me on the pier. His polished armor flashed brilliantly as he moved. It took all my strength not to turn and stare at that perfect profile of his…

We both looked out over the frozen landscape side by side, then, and that was when I felt a wave of complete serenity wash over me, like it had outside the Chantry – a stark contrast to how I felt when he had approached me in the war room that time. It was more than a simple sense of peace. It was…comfort. It made my cheeks burn, and yet it also made me feel stronger somehow. It seemed silly – he wasn’t even that close to me, physically. Another person could have easily wedged themselves between us on the pier. Still, I was keenly aware of his presence.

Was it really Cullen, or just the fact I had someone beside me I felt I could trust? I didn’t really know. All I knew was, deep down, I didn’t want that feeling to go away anytime soon…

“There was something else I meant to tell you.”

Cullen’s voice broke me out of my thoughts, and I shook my head to clear it as I answered, “What is it?”

He glanced down at me as he continued. “Earlier, when you were talking with the Chancellor…I want you to know you handled it admirably.” He shifted his weight and looked back out at the landscape. “That man has a way of bringing out the worst in people. When I got word of the gathering from a courier, I feared what he might provoke you into saying or doing.”

I laughed a little, “In your words, Commander, ‘he’s toothless.’” That made his gaze shift back at me, his moonlit eyes squinting curiously as I repeated words from a conversation I hadn’t been personally privy to. Shrugging, I added, “Besides, I can’t really do much of anything. And I doubt he believes anything I say, either.”

“Yes, well…still. He is a not-so-welcome reminder of what we’re up against, and not just in the Chantry. Don’t let him get to you. It’s what he wants.” He paused, flexing the gloved fingers that grasped his sword. “Your responses to his goading may not do anything to affect relations between you, but they do reflect on the Inquisition.”

“You’re telling me this?” I teased, pointing at myself.

He chuckled lightly, “Just because you already know doesn’t mean you don’t need a reminder.”

Touché, Commander.

He was silent for a few moments, and then…

“You said you still had trouble believing all of this is real,” he said quietly. “If I may be honest, it is the same for me. Believing you are real, I mean. And by extension, the world you come from. Not this,” he gesticulated at the area around us. Then, frowning, he muttered, “Although this is hard to believe too, sometimes…”

He trailed and then turned to me fully, both hands draped atop the pommel of his sword, now. “But what happened to you the other night. What you experienced. That…that was real. I felt-” he halted suddenly, and I could see him swallow hard. “It was proof.”

I felt my brow furrow as I absorbed his words. “Proof I’m being honest or…proof I’m just like everybody else, after all? Not a demon or something but an actual person?”

Maker,” he shook his head again, glancing away from me as he ran a hand through his hair in frustration. “I didn’t intend to imply that I thought you weren’t human, it’s just…”

“I know, I know,” I sighed. “You’re not the only one struggling with that sort of thing. I mean, to me, everyone here was just a name on…you know, um…a page before I arrived.”

Technically on a screen. But that was overcomplicating the situation beyond what was necessary.

“And now,” I threw my hands in the air, “they’re real. Every last one of them. And more besides. Not characters anymore. People. It’s tough. I get it, I do.” I said, crossing my arms. And then, I smiled at him in what I hoped was a reassuring manner. “But talking through it helps.”

A ghost of a smile flickered across his lips in response. “It does.”

Huffing out a breath, I glanced at the lake and then back to him. “You know, speaking of talking, I should probably make something clear. To you and to myself. And out loud, so I can’t just change my mind about it later.”

His brow lifted inquisitively. “And what is that?”

My lips pressed together. “That other world is gone. Period. That other Tamsyn…well, she’s gone too. Not entirely, of course, but you get what I mean.” I took a breath, held it, and then went on, “Whatever I was before all this? It doesn’t matter. Not anymore. Where I come from doesn’t matter. From now on, I’m a human in Thedas, so I’m Thedosian. And I’m Inquisition. That’s what matters, now. I’m not separate from you…I’m one of you. And not just because I have to be. Because I want to be.”

The corner of his mouth turned upwards ever so slightly, and he inclined his head. “As you say, Lady Tamsyn.”

I nodded, and it felt like it was more to myself than to him. It was a nod of acceptance…and finality.

“But enough about me,” I said at length. “What about you?”

He looked puzzled. “What?”

I gestured to him generally, “How are you doing? You know…with your, ah, situation.”

He blinked. “Oh. Right,” he glanced downwards, briefly poking at a snow-clad pebble on the pier with the toe of his boot. “I am…it is manageable,” he replied simply, looking back up at me. “But…thank you for asking. I do appreciate your concern.”

I nodded slowly again, leaning against one of the posts on the pier. No details. That was fine. I wasn’t going to press him. All that I cared about right now was that he was getting through it all right on his own, and for the time being, he seemed to be. We stood in silence for a moment after that, and I shivered as the cold began to seep deeper past the quilted layers of my uniform.

“Let me…just ask you this one thing.”

His sudden addendum surprised me, and I looked at him quizzically. “I’m all ears.”

He sighed heavily, his breath leaving his lips in a cloud of mist. “How bad is it going to get?”

“Oh…” I said softly as he met my gaze, and I suddenly felt like I was being latched onto from the inside out. He really wanted to know the truth about how it was going to be. And I couldn’t lie to him.

“Honestly? Bad,” I said at last. “Some days it will feel as if you can’t bear it anymore. Like you can’t go one more day without the stuff. But you can. You will. Any time you feel that way, remember why you’re doing it. And remember what I said before, at our game: it will get better. Promise.”

His eyelids slid closed for a moment. “I…understand.”

Silence. As I tried to think of what else to say, the thoughts that had been haunting me lately about Corypheus’s attack started bothering me again. Maybe I should impart just a little something…

Tell him. Tell him now. You have him here. You’re pretty much in private. Just tell him. Tell him!

“So, uh, can I ask you something?” I began, swallowing back the lump that had suddenly returned in my throat at the thoughts of the conversation I wanted to start.

“Of course.”

I tried desperately to control the waver in my voice. “What’s the day?”

His brow furrowed slightly as he recalled. “It’s the twenty-fifth of Kingsway. The last week of the month.”

I paused. “And, um…what number is the month, again?”

“The ninth.”

“So, next month is Harvestmere, right?” I asked. My hands were starting to tremble, and I pulled them behind my back to hide it.

“Correct.”

Tell him. Tell him now. Do it. Do it while you have the chance. Do it while there’s still time to prepare.

“Lots of changes happening soon, then,” I said, punctuating my remark with a nervous chuckle.

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

Tell him! Do it!

“We’re uh…” I cleared my throat. “We’re not going to be staying here forever, you know.”

He shifted his weight with the quiet creak of leather and the tiniest clinking of metal. “I had anticipated that. Haven is no place to house an army, of course, and we’re growing rapidly. We’ll have to find a sponsor in order to establish a proper base for us, but I’m afraid that is a matter for Josephine’s expertise, not mine.” He smiled a bit, and then added, “Speaking of such, the last I heard, she had some correspondence headed my way sometime this evening.” He glanced back towards the training grounds. “I should return to my tent to see if they are there.”

I smiled back. “Of course…don’t let me keep you, Commander. I’m sorry for distracting you as long as I have.”

“It is no trouble. And I rather enjoyed our conversation,” he inclined his head again in farewell. “A good night to you, Lady Tamsyn.”

“You, too, Commander.”

I watched then, as he walked away, slumping against the pillar I was leaning on, all the while cursing myself for my cowardice.

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You should have told him while you had his attention.

My failure to inform Cullen about the terrible events I knew were coming nagged at me all through the night and into the next day. I knew I needed to tell him something, even if only just a little hint. Something to keep the blow from hitting quite so hard. Something to keep so many people from perishing. Because I knew that if I didn’t…

A hard blow hit my shoulder, and I suddenly found myself supine on the field, Delia standing over me with her practice weapon at my throat.

“Someone’s distracted.”

My lips thinned as I squinted at her, her helmet blinding me as her head blocked the sun directly above us. “You don’t say.”

She snorted and took hold of my arm, pulling me to my feet with ease. Jerking her head at a natural pile of rocks nearby, half dusted with snow, she added, “Come on, let’s take a break. Maybe you can regain your focus after you rest a bit.”

“I sincerely doubt it.”

Nevertheless, we both headed to the rocks and hopped up to sit atop them, watching the other troops train with Cullen and Rylen. Delia took off her helmet, revealing a short crop of auburn curls that gleamed with sweat in the sun. She took a kerchief from her breeches pocket and mopped her brow, her chocolate-brown eyes focused on the throng of sparring warriors before us.

Oop, the coat’s come off,” she remarked, nodding in Cullen’s direction. “You know things are serious when that thing’s gone.”

I looked to where she was indicating, and indeed, the Commander had shed his outer coat, revealing the vest he wore underneath, wrapped atop his cuirass and tucked under his belt. His armor flashed brilliantly in the sunlight as he tried to more clearly demonstrate a particular maneuver to one of his confused recruits. There was such energy and power to his movements, and yet they were so gracefully controlled that I was left slightly in awe of him.

He also seemed so much less bulky without that fur mantle on his shoulders, but no less physically imposing. Indeed, with his form-fitting cuirass, his impressive physique was even more obvious – broad-shouldered but slim-hipped, well-muscled and yet sleek; that lovely, subtle upside-down-triangle shape to his torso. He was positively beau-

Stop it!

I quickly tore my gaze away to halt the blush burning in my cheeks, and I sincerely hoped that my trainer hadn’t noticed the crimson that surely flushed my face. Thankfully, as I glanced back to her, I noticed she still seemed focused on the recruits. Sitting this close to her and able to see much more of her features with her helmet off, I realized she was older than I had initially estimated at first glance. Judging from the subtle lines on her face, she appeared to be similar in age to Leliana. It had me wondering what she did before she arrived here in Haven.

“So, Delia?”

“Hmm?”

“How did you join the Inquisition?”

She sighed, pulling up a knee and clasping her hands atop it. “Well, it starts a long time ago, actually. I used to be a caravan guard for merchants in Ferelden between Gwaren and Denerim, along the Brecilian Passage. Dangerous route, that, but it pays good coin. Made many a silver on that road.

“When the Blight hit, though, King Cailan called for all able-bodied men and women to fight at Ostagar, and I couldn’t justify keeping doing the same old when the country was in danger. So, I headed for the nearest recruiter, joined the king’s army, and was assigned under Ser Cauthrien.” She paused, glancing towards the ground, and then continued, “I’d been ready to die that day, fighting for my homeland against the Maker-cursed darkspawn. But, it wasn’t to be. When the moment for battle finally came, Loghain called a retreat and I, being under his lieutenant’s command, could do nothing but obey her…or so I believed at the time. When we got back to Denerim, our unit was promptly disbanded.”

She was silent for several moments, and her dark gaze swept over the settlement as she delved into her memories. “I knew I had to obey orders, but I felt guilty about it. When I heard about how the Wardens had waited for us, and how the king died,” she shook her head slowly, “I felt like I failed my people.”

I cocked my head at her. “You didn’t fail them, Corporal. You didn’t really have a choice in the matter.”

She snorted, “Didn’t I?” Her gaze was sharp as she met mine. “I could’ve stayed behind. I could have disobeyed that traitor’s orders and instead stayed back to help the king like I went there to do.”

“You would have died.”

“But perhaps my honor would still be intact,” she replied quietly.

I didn’t really know what to say to that, and so I fell silent again. There were a few more long, quiet moments before she continued. “Anyway, after the Blight, I resumed my old trade. I had been in Seggrit’s employ, guarding his wares here in Haven when the Conclave blew up.” She then looked towards the Breach, and I looked with her. “I decided this was my chance to redeem myself. So, I signed on for the Inquisition. I did a few gate guard stints before the Commander assigned me as a trainer, and,” she tossed her hands upwards as she turned back to me, “that’s that.”

“Quite the story there, Corporal,” I said with a half-smile.

“To you, maybe,” she replied. Then, after a breath or two, she asked, “So, they say you know about the future of all this. Do you know if I’ll be able to make up for failing that test of loyalty at Ostagar?”

I was quiet for a minute, thinking of how to word my answer so she wouldn’t be disappointed. I didn’t want to flat-out tell her I had no clue what her future held. Thus, I let my gaze wander to the troops again briefly before glancing back to her.

“Stick with the Inquisition, and I’m pretty sure you will.”

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That night, I had just changed into my nightgown and was preparing to go to bed when I suddenly heard a frantic, high-pitched voice outside my door, accompanied by the deeper tones of Willem, the young soldier who stood regular watch there after dark. Frowning at the commotion, I moved to the door, unlatched it, and opened it a crack to see what all the fuss was about. To my great surprise, there stood Sean, big tears streaming down his reddened face while Willem was kneeling before him, trying to make sense of what the boy was saying through his crying.

“Sean! What in the-” I started.

Missus!

I was cut off as the boy practically knocked Willem over trying to get to me, throwing his arms around my leg. “Missus, it’s Ma!” he wailed, pulling at the skirt of my nightgown as he begged. “She’s in trouble! You’re the only one who can help her!”

Willem stood and cast me a concerned look, his hand on the blade at his hip, but I answered his questioning gaze with an affirming nod. We had to go see what was wrong and help if we could. “It’s all right, Sean. We’ll go. Just let me get my cloak right quick…”

“Please, Missus, hurry!” Sean pleaded.

I scrambled to get my cloak, throwing it about my shoulders so I wouldn’t freeze to death in my nightgown, and then rushed out of the cabin, jogging at Sean’s heels. Willem followed close behind me, his booted feet crunching heavily between my lighter steps on the pathway. “Something doesn’t sound right, madam.”

“No, it doesn’t,” I agreed as we tailed Sean out of the village’s gates. What in the world could have happened to the master tailor that only I could help with? It didn’t really make any sense…

I didn’t have time to say anything to the gate guards, but they should have been more than a little concerned at the sight of us running to the house adjacent to the forge. All three of us were puffing out clouds of white fog with every breath in the cold, and my slippers were already soaked from the snow, my toes protesting at the icy wetness.

Even at a distance, I could tell the door to the house was open inwards, and I could see the orange light of the fire spilling onto the ground outside. Sean was the first to get there, and when he did, he let out another cry, backing away in fear as he wrung his little hands in distress. His terror broke my heart, but it also made it pound in worry. What had happened? I heard Willem’s sword exit its sheath at the boy’s frightful noise, and as I reached the doorway, I carefully peeked around the casement.

I gasped. There, face down on the floor, lay the master tailor in a pool of her own vomit and blood. Even in death, the woman’s eyes were wide in terror, and her face was eerily discolored. On the table was a mug of ale that had been overturned, the contents spilled across the surface and yet dripping onto the floor in a steady trickle. I edged forward into the room, looking down at the horrifying sight and shaking my head in disbelief. It looked like she had been poisoned.

“Oh my…Maker. Sean…I’m so-”

The door slammed shut. Sean screamed. Willem cursed. I suddenly felt a large and rough arm seize my torso from behind, wrapping around my waist. Before I could even cry out, one gloved hand simultaneously clamped on my mouth and tipped my head backwards, exposing my neck to the sharp blade that flashed before me in the firelight. A scream rose in my throat, but didn’t make it past my assailant’s hand, the thick leather muffling the sound.

“Hey, what the-get off of her!

Willem shouted as the door slammed open again, the wood cracking against the wall of the building. I struggled against my attacker as the blade hovered dangerously close to my neck. I writhed and kicked and dug my fingers into his arm as I tried desperately to keep his knife hand away from me. Then, I managed to open my mouth and bite down on the finger that pressed between my teeth. There was a grunt, and I slipped towards the floor as the hold on my waist slackened, the edge of the knife nicking the flesh just under the hinge of my jaw as I fell onto my knees. I scrambled away, flipping over in time to see Willem tackling my assailant to the floor…

…an Inquisition scout.

Guards!” I cried as loudly as I could as Willem wrestled with the scout. “Guards!

It was then I saw Sean standing in the open doorway, paralyzed with fear.

Run, Sean! Run! Go get help!” I screamed, desperately trying to snap the boy out of it, but to no avail.

The door is open! You should run, too!

But somehow, I couldn’t move, either. I was entranced by the deadly fight unfolding before me, unable to help and yet unable to leave. I glanced around, desperately trying to find anything that I could use as a weapon and praying someone would come in time…

The duel happened so quickly I could barely register what was happening. Willem and the scout rolled about, both trying to gain an advantage over the other. They knocked into the table, toppling it over and sending the contents flying. They slipped in blood and vomit, armor banging against the floor. They grunted, huffed, and cursed, grappling with one another. One moment, the scout held Willem against the floor by the neck, and the soldier’s face turned scarlet as he fought to keep the scout’s dagger away from him. The next, Willem had flipped them both over, struggling to move his sword, which was but inches from his opponent’s jugular and held just in check by the scout’s free hand. Both attempted to keep the other’s weapon hands immobile long enough to strategize another move…

And then, there was a loud clatter as Willem’s sword skittered across the floor towards me. In a split second, the soldier’s wrist was somehow sliced to the bone by the scout’s dagger, and before I could even react, Willem’s throat was slit by the subsequent slash of the attacker’s blade, having been exposed over the gorget of his cuirass.

NOOOO!

I screamed as though I was the one who had been sliced open by that deadly edge.

Willem’s blood gushed from him, his eyes wide as desperate gasps came out as gurgles; his young life ended in a matter of seconds. He collapsed onto the floor, unmoving beside the tailor’s body, and in that moment, I felt white hot fire searing through my veins and burning in my eyes.

You fucking son of a bitch!” I roared, jumping to my feet and seizing Willem’s sword from where it had slid near me. My assassin charged me, then, hoping to get a killing blow in before I could get my guard up. I spun to the side at the last second, his dagger barely missing my torso, and, unable to halt his momentum, he crashed into the bolts of cloth piled against the wall where I had been lying.

The sight of the bodies on the floor filled me with an unbridled rage. This time, it was I who charged at him, pouring all of my strength behind Willem’s sword. The scout easily dodged the blow, though, and the blade sliced only cloth as he clambered out of the mountain of bolts. He then seized the edge of my cloak and threw me down onto my back, jumping atop my torso as I tried to wedge the sword between us…

“What in the Void is…Tamsyn!

Rylen!

I had never been so happy to hear that familiar Starkhaven brogue. That voice alone saved my life. In an instant, the scout jumped from me as quickly as he had landed on top of me, and before the Knight-Captain and his accompanying soldiers could block the doorway, he raced past them and into the night, fleeing the camp at lightning speed. Someone beyond my sight must have moved as if to give chase, but Rylen stopped them. “Stay back!”

“Yes, ser.”

Sean had vanished.

The Knight-Captain, his sword still in hand, rushed forward into the house, concern writ all over his rough features as he knelt at my side. “Tamsyn! Andraste’s ass, what happened? Are you all right? Are you hurt?”

Safe…

It was only then that I realized I was very nearly hyperventilating, my eyes wide as I could only blink in response to my rescuer. My heart was about to pound out of my chest, beating painfully against my ribcage, my blood roaring in my ears. There I was, half-lying on the floor, with two murdered people beside me, and I had very nearly joined them in death. Willem’s sword vibrated in my hand as I clutched it, my knuckles white and straining against my skin. The tail of my cloak was now soaked in the poor soldier’s blood. I was barely aware of a slight tickle and sting from the cut under my jaw, and I glanced downwards to see my own blood staining the front of my nightgown from the wound. My movement seemed entirely too slow.

“Ser…?” Two soldiers’ heads peeked around the doorway, as I had done.

“Go get Cullen and quick. Fetch Sister Nightingale, too,” Rylen answered, slowly sheathing his blade but not taking his stormy eyes off of me.

“Yes, ser!”

As they left to obey his orders, he then took my hand – the one clutching Willem’s blade – and gently coaxed me into letting go of the weapon, prying my fingers one by one from the hilt. “It’s all right, Tamsyn. You’re safe now.”

The blade fell from my hand with a loud clatter, as I suddenly dropped it. My whole body trembled, and hot tears began to pour down my cheeks, unstoppable, blurring my vision. My breath came out in frantic gasps; I couldn’t calm myself down. I tried to sit up fully, but I reeled, nearly falling straight backwards…

It was then that I felt Rylen’s arms suddenly slip under my shoulder blades and knees, lifting me from the floor as he stood in one fluid motion and moved to leave the cabin. His breastplate was cold and hard against my side, and I grasped at the straps that held it in place as though they were lifelines. All the while, he murmured phrases in an attempt to soothe me: “Easy, lass…It’s all right…You’re safe…We’ll get to the bottom of this…You’re okay….It’s going to be all right…”

But his words were muffled, as if he were speaking through a wad of cloth in his mouth. Outside, when he addressed someone coming towards us, his voice seemed very, very far away…

And then, everything went black.

Chapter Text

The pungent fragrance of herbs and incense tickling my nostrils pulled me out of the deep.

My eyelids slowly fluttered open. Sunlight streamed through a window on the wall opposite me, stinging my sensitive eyes and making me hiss as I blinked against the brightness. I was lying on a small cot underneath a heavy woolen blanket, my cloak gone, but my nightgown still on. Someone had removed my soaked slippers, too. Frowning, I squinted as I didn’t know precisely where I was. I was in Haven, of that I had no doubt, but I didn’t recognize the room…

“Hey there, Fortune Teller.”

I slowly turned my head to see Varric sitting on a stool at my bedside, looking down at me with a gentle and reassuring smile on his face. He looked tired, though, dark circles framing his eyes. “You feeling okay?” he asked quietly, leaning a bit closer, one dark-gloved hand propped on his thigh. It was then I noticed Bianca’s stock over his shoulder. He wore his heavy armored coat overtop his usual scarlet linen shirt, and I caught the scent of old leather and smoke as he shifted his weight.

“Yeah,” I croaked out, my throat parched. Swallowing, I glanced around at my surroundings again. “Where am I?”

“Adan’s,” Varric replied. “Rylen brought you in here after you passed out. Mother Giselle, Ruffles, and I took turns watching you while Curly, the Seeker, and Sister Nightingale ran around the camp like headless chickens all night.” He chuckled dryly, “It would have made for a nice comical scene in my next book if it hadn’t been so damned tragic.”

“Adan’s?” I repeated, initially puzzled as to why I had been brought to the healer’s cabin for just a nick, or for fainting in Rylen’s arms…

“That little cut of yours,” the dwarf elaborated, pointing at my neck. “Rylen and the Nightingale both feared poison on your attacker’s weapon. Adan did his best just in case, but it looks like it’s all right after all. Not even a scar, I think you’ll be happy to know.”

I slowly sat up, lifting my hand to where the scout’s knife had sliced into me. Sure enough, the skin was smooth.

Poison,” I repeated, the scene from the previous night coming back in a rush as my hand fell back to the blanket. “That’s what happened to-”

“Yeah,” Varric cut me off and nodded knowingly, “that’s been passed around the camp twice over already, and it’s working on its third circulation as we speak: Mistress Ferguson’s ale was poisoned and a soldier got murdered in cold blood, all because you were targeted for assassination by a traitor from the Nightingale’s own ranks. Since you were brought here, Curly’s added new sentries all over the place and changed every single patrol and guard schedule, the Seeker’s taken all the rosters for vetting purposes, and Sister Nightingale has sent her best out to track down the bastard that did it before he gets too far away.”

“What about Sean, the tailor’s son?” I asked, my thoughts wandering to the poor frightened boy. He was probably scarred for life, now. “Where is he? How is he doing?”

“The lad’s with the sisters in the Chantry, last I checked,” Varric answered. “After Giselle finally calmed him down, she managed to get him to explain what happened, but Curly and Sister Nightingale both want to hear your side of it.” He glanced at the door. “You, ah, might want to get that over with as soon as you feel able. Between the two of them, they’ve almost walked a trench into the ground from here to the war room checking on you.”

I nodded slowly in understanding, a wave of sadness washing over me as I remembered the master tailor and Willem. I felt guilty for both their deaths, but especially for Willem’s. He wouldn’t have died if he hadn’t come with me. And neither one of them would have if I hadn’t been here, where I didn’t belong.

“It’s my fault…” I whispered hoarsely, fingers clutching the blanket where it bunched around me.

“No, it’s not, Fortune Teller.”

“Yes it is!” I snapped, my eyes brimming with tears again as I looked at Varric. “They wouldn’t be dead if I wasn’t here. I should be the one dead, not them!”

The dwarf slowly shook his head at me, his warm brown eyes gentle as he reached forward and patted the top of my hand. “Don’t talk like that, Tamsyn.”

I glanced down at my lap, feeling the tears tracking down my cheeks. Upon seeing them fall, he stood from his stool and edged closer to the cot, opening his arms wide. “Come here,” he said gently.

I could do nothing but obey, leaning sideways into him as the tears flowed. He then wrapped his arms around my shoulders and pulled me to him in a tight hug. It was then I realized that it was the first time I had been hugged in…well, since before I had fallen into Thedas. That simple fact alone made me cry even harder, my sobs muffled as I turned my head into his chest. All the while, he patted my shoulder with a heavy hand and rocked me a little, letting me cry my eyes out from the trauma I had endured the night before.

“There, there, Fortune Teller. We all know who’s really at fault here, and it’s sure as shit not you. It’s a traitor agent the Nightingale calls ‘Butler.’”

His words were meant as a comfort, but they made my blood turn to ice in my veins.

Butler.

Butler, the traitor agent whose fate the Herald was supposed to have a hand in. Butler, who could singlehandedly turn the Nightingale to coldness forever, now that Maxwell wasn’t here to stop her wrath…

My tears suddenly ran dry as panic seized me. I pushed back from Varric and tossed the blanket off, swinging my legs over the side of the cot. “My God…I have to find Leliana. Now.”

“Whoa, there! What’s the…hey! You’re forgetting your-” he called after me, but I was already out of the door before he finished half-heartedly, “shoes…”

Barefoot, clad only in my nightgown, its front still bearing a faint bloodstain from the scratch Butler had given me, I rushed through Haven, accosting the nearest courier. “Where is the Nightingale?”

“I…ah…at her tent, ma’am…”

“Thank you!”

No doubt the poor messenger was bewildered by the incident, but I cared very little about what anyone was thinking about me right now. I had to get to Leliana before she started on a road from which she couldn’t return…

I hugged my arms around my torso and tucked my hands under my armpits, ignoring the rough pebbles and frigid snow underfoot as I jogged towards the Chantry. Sure enough, the spymistress was leaning over her table in her tent, intently studying a map she had unfolded on its surface. Not bothering to be subtle in my approach, I called, “Leliana!”

She glanced up, looking rather surprised when she saw me running towards her. “Tamsyn! Are you-”

“Fine,” I said quickly as I ducked under the tent, dismissing her concerns with a frustrated wave of my hand. “What are you doing about Butler?”

She cocked her head at me. “I see Varric told you already. Don’t worry, your attacker will not-”

Huffing in irritation, I seized both her shoulders, leaned closer, and repeated, “What. Are. You. Doing. About. Butler?”

Her blue eyes locked with mine as her brow furrowed in irritation, and it was then I noticed she had central heterochromia, brown ringing her pupils – I hadn’t been close enough to see it before now. She briefly looked as though she wanted to forcibly remove my hands, the corners of her mouth turning downwards as she glanced at one of them. To my surprise, she didn’t, however, instead replying tersely, “I sent word to my agents to strike him down when they find him.”

No!

I released her, hissing as I turned away and ran my hands through my messy hair. I was too late.

Or was I?

“Is this a problem?” she asked, a bit of a challenge in her tone as well as a note of bewilderment.

Yes, it is!” I said, whirling back around, a rock grinding into the sole of my foot as I did so. “You’ve got to rescind those orders! You have to tell them to capture him, not kill him!”

Her arms crossed atop her chest, and she shook her head in disbelief, “Why? Tamsyn, he killed two of our people and nearly killed you-”

“Yes, I know, I get it!” I cut her off, “he’s a traitor and a murderer. But he also has a reason for his actions and probably has someone he’s working with. He was a friend of yours, right? Then you know how good of an agent he is…and you can still use him in prison. Instead of making this just a revenge kill, use what he knows. And maybe find out why your friend turned from us.”

“What does it matter that he was once a friend?” she glanced away, glowering down at the map beside her. “He obviously is so no longer. He is a danger to us all, and he doesn’t deserve mercy for his crimes.”

“Leliana,” I said quietly, waiting until she looked back at me before continuing, “You are starting down a dark path. And if you let these orders go through now, you won’t be able to go back. You will become something you and everyone else around you hates.” I paused, scrambling for something to convince her. “Someone the Hero of Ferelden wouldn’t recognize.”

That seemed to get her attention. Her eyes widened briefly, and she looked down at the ground, silent.

After a few seconds of nothing, I added, “Do you remember what I told you? Back when I first got here? That I want the best possible ending for everyone?”

“Yes. I do,” she answered shortly.

“Well, this crap with Butler is part of that. And if you believed me then, you must believe me now.”

More silence.

Please, God…Maker…somebody…help her see reason…

At last, she sighed heavily, turning back to her table and leaning against it, as if for support. Then, after a moment, she replied without looking back at me. “Fine. Have it your way. I doubt my agents will find Butler before I send out new ravens. I will change their orders, and Butler will be detained, but not killed, since it means so much to you. Now,” she glanced back at my bare feet, “I would go get some proper clothes on. Since you are up and about already, I will call for a meeting in the war room while you do that. We need to hear your side of this story and brief each other on what has been done about it since last we spoke.”

Her tone left no room for further argument. All I could do was silently nod my thanks and understanding and go to do as she bade, praying all the while that I had dodged a bullet and saved her from herself.

------------------------------------------------------

After returning to the cabin, refreshing myself, and discarding my nightgown for my uniform, I felt as though things were returning to some semblance of normal. And, indeed, new visitors to Haven who had yet to hear the gossip sweeping like wildfire through the town might never suspect that anything had gone wrong the previous night.

To the rest of us, though, there were already clear and visible signs of the event’s effects on the populace. There weren’t as many people standing around chatting. Everyone stayed on the move, hardly pausing to say anything to anyone. There certainly were more patrols, as there was never a moment when a soldier wasn’t visible on every street, walking its length with a hand on their weapon. Moreover, there was now double the number of guards at every entryway, even in broad daylight. Two had been stationed outside my cabin. Two more were now on the inside of the main gates. And, on top of that, four had been positioned at the Chantry’s doors, two on both sides.

Interestingly enough, there were no scouts to be found anywhere.

Thus, I knew before I ever reached the war room that the other advisors were taking this threat extremely seriously. Varric had not been exaggerating in the slightest.

I opened the war room door to find the others already inside at their usual positions around the war table, hunched over scrolls and stacks of parchment. Cassandra stood with them on the near side of the table, her hands on her hips as she surveyed the paperwork before her. All of them glanced up when they heard the door open, the Seeker turning around to face me, and they each bore grim expressions. Everyone looked completely exhausted, especially Cassandra and Cullen. Both had dark circles around their eyes from lack of sleep, and Cullen in particular was looking a little pale. His normally meticulously-styled hair was disheveled, likely from being run through repeatedly with his gloved fingers.

“Tamsyn,” Cassandra said as I entered, a note of surprise in her voice. “How are you doing? Are you all right?”

I huffed out a sigh, pulling my hands behind my back as I slowly approached the war table, the door creaking as usual as it fell shut behind me. “As well as I can be, considering I was almost murdered last night,” I replied, my sarcasm leaking out with my words.

No one laughed.

“I think I speak for all of us when I say that we are incredibly sorry for what happened to you last night,” Josephine said, her tone distinctly different than her usual. All optimism and eagerness were gone. “We obviously demonstrated a lapse in judgment, and we most certainly have paid a heavy price for it.”

“We made the mistake of trusting those close to us too much,” Leliana remarked. “We have learned the hard way that not even friends we thought we knew before can be trusted. Not anymore. The Inquisition has changed everyone.”

“We all knew and were prepared for the fact that we would become targets, but I do not think any of us anticipated that we would be marked for assassination by one of our own,” Cassandra added.

“Regardless,” said Cullen, “it is apparent that security measures are not as tight as they need to be. This would not have happened, or at least, would not have been as deadly, had the village been properly safeguarded from enemies both without and within.” He sighed, rubbing the back of his neck, and then continued, “That is my responsibility, and I apologize deeply for my failure. It will not happen again.”

“The blame is not yours alone to shoulder, Commander,” Leliana added, turning towards him. “I should have been aware that my agents, even after being hand-picked for their loyalty, could and would turn on us given the right circumstances…and I should have known who in particular would be likely to do so. I have also been far too lax. That will be remedied.”

I took a moment to absorb their words. They were taking this hard. None of them had blamed me, and yet, somehow, I still felt at fault.

“I…” I began, looking down at the edge of the table, “Thank you for your words. I…I can’t help but feel this is my fault, too. If I just hadn’t been so stupid…” I put a hand to my forehead. “Anyway…Varric and Leliana said you all wanted to hear my side of it, right?”

“That would help us, I think, yes,” Cassandra replied. “Right now, all we have are the accounts from the tailor’s son and Knight-Captain Rylen. As you can imagine, the first is rather muddled, and the second is severely limited. You are the only other person still alive who witnessed almost everything that occurred.”

I nodded my understanding, took a deep breath, and then began.

“It all started right when I was getting ready to go to bed last night. I heard a commotion outside my door. Sean was talking with Willem. When I opened the door to see what it was all about, Sean rushed at me, crying, begging me to go with him. He implied something was terribly wrong with his mother, saying that I was the only one that could help her. He couldn’t be consoled until I went with him. So,” I took a breath, “I decided to do just that. Willem suspected something was amiss, and so did I, but I had no idea…”

Emotions flooded back with my words as I sifted through my memories, recounting everything that had happened in sequential order. Forcing back these overwhelming feelings, I barreled on, “Sean led us to the tailor’s house. The door was open. He was the first to get there, and he cried out when he saw what was inside. Willem drew his weapon, then. I, being so stupid, had left mine at my cabin.” I shook my head, distinctly unable to look at Cullen and sighing before continuing, “I peeked inside to see the boy’s mother dead. It looked like someone had poisoned her ale. I decided to get closer to investigate further, and that…” I swallowed hard, “That was when the fight started.”

“Take your time, Tamsyn,” Josephine said gently.

I nodded again, closing my eyes as I recalled the next part. “The next thing I knew, the door slammed shut. I think my attacker – Butler – had been hiding behind it, waiting for me. I felt myself pulled backwards, and a hand clamped on my mouth, just as I saw a dagger coming for my neck. I fought back, trying to get away, trying to keep him from slitting my throat. Then Willem must have kicked the door back open. I heard him shout for my attacker to let me go. About that time, I managed to bite Butler’s hand. He let go enough I could slip to the floor and crawl away. And then…”

I opened my eyes. Everyone was watching me intensely, Cullen most of all. They stood unnaturally still as they listened, as if frozen in place.

“Willem pounced,” I said, fighting back tears. “He and Butler fell onto the floor. They wrestled, both trying to kill the other. It happened so fast…I…I was trying to find a weapon. I called for the guards…I saw Sean just standing there, and I shouted at him to run, to go get help, but he couldn’t move, and neither could I…” A tear trickled down my cheek. “It was all so fast, and just like that,” I tossed a hand in the air, “it was all over. Butler sliced Willem’s wrist, his sword arm, through to the bone.” At that, Cullen winced and glanced away, immediately understanding the consequences. “And before Willem or I could do a damned thing, Butler slit that poor soldier’s throat…”

It was then that sadness and guilt finally choked me, rendering me unable to speak anymore. A sob wracked through me, and I covered my mouth with my hand as the tears poured out at the memory of my guardian’s senseless death. I gasped and shook as I tried desperately to rein in my sorrow enough to bring the tale to its conclusion, and I felt Cassandra’s gauntleted hand on my back, through my jacket, as she attempted calm me.

Taking a big breath, I focused on one of the pieces on the war table and finished. “I…I grabbed Willem’s sword from where it had landed near me…I stood up and I willed myself to fight that bastard. But…all the training in the world couldn’t have prepared me for a fight with one of your scouts. He tossed me to the ground like a doll…and I had been seconds away from becoming Butler’s third victim when Rylen came.”

A few moments of silence, and then Josephine nodded slowly, “And we know the rest.”

“So we do,” Cullen said quietly.

Cassandra glanced to Leliana, “It seems all of this started when Butler managed to convince Sean that Tamsyn could somehow help his dying mother.”

“Do you think that perhaps Sean was in on this?” the Nightingale asked.

Josephine looked incredulous as she peered around Cullen at the spymistress, the candle on her tablet flickering with the movement. “Leliana, you honestly think the boy had something to do with it? Killing his own mother and setting up Tamsyn?”

“He was involved, and so, naturally, he is suspect, to a degree,” she replied simply. “Tamsyn seems to know him a little better than we, hence why I am asking her.”

“No,” I shook my head, sniffling as I willed the tears to go away. I was tired of crying. “No, Sean is innocent, I’m positive. He was scared to death…he wanted someone to help his mother so badly…” I took in a shaky breath, meeting Cullen’s eyes across the table. “I was the one who was stupid enough to just blindly follow him. I should have known better. The tailor was dead already. I should have found Leliana or anyone, no matter how long it took…no, I was too much of a fucking bleeding heart, and look what happened!” I hung my head and leaned on the war table for support. “Willem died because of me!”

“No, Tamsyn, he did not,” Cullen said firmly, a slight rattle of his scabbard accompanying his words. “Look at me.”

With great effort, I managed to raise my head to see the Commander leaning across the war table at me, his brow furrowed and a fire in his amber eyes that was very nearly frightening. “Willem was following my orders. He was instructed to protect you at...all…costs. He did as he was told,” he jerked a thumb at himself, “as his commanding officer told him to do. His death is my responsibility, not yours, Tamsyn. Never yours.”

“It is no one’s fault but the one who murdered him,” Cassandra added.

“We just enabled the environment in which he could succeed,” Leliana observed pointedly.

Cullen and I both retreated from the table, then, and I swallowed as I glanced to each of them in turn.

“According to Mother Giselle, there will be a funeral service tomorrow morning at dawn for Mistress Ferguson and Willem,” Josephine said at length, her gaze sweeping over the parchment on her tablet. “A pyre is being constructed as we speak, and I will be sending notices throughout the village this evening.”

“I will inform the men,” Cullen said with a nod.

“I have collected all rosters for inspection,” Cassandra glanced at Leliana, “They are awaiting your review.”

At that point, the Nightingale looked to me, “As for myself, I had already ordered my agents to track down Butler and kill him on sight, but Tamsyn had me retract those orders.”

What?!

The response was a chorus of incredulousness from the others, and they looked at me as though I had three heads.

“Instead,” Leliana continued, her gaze not leaving mine, “she wants him apprehended, imprisoned, and interrogated, but not killed.”

“I assume this has something to do with what you know about the future?” Cassandra asked, turning to me with her brow lifted.

“Something personal regarding me, apparently,” the Nightingale answered for me. “I am humoring her…for now.”

At that Cullen added, “As you probably already know, I’ve changed our guard shifts to rotating schedules so that they are more difficult to memorize. I’ve also stationed new and more sentries at almost every major location in the settlement, with increased patrols in between.”

“Good,” Cassandra nodded. Glancing to me, she continued, “Perhaps between all our efforts, we can prevent such a disaster from occurring again.”

“I’ll be honest,” I said quietly, “That attack came as a surprise. It wasn’t part of the story I know.”

“Speaking of surprises,” Cullen pointed at a piece of parchment on the table with red and white ribbon on the broken wax seal. “I have received a letter from a Templar recruit under the Lord Seeker’s banner…Knight-Templar Delrin Barris. He was at Val Royeaux, and he was thoroughly embarrassed by the Lord Seeker’s behavior.” Cullen shifted, his hands resting atop his sword’s pommel as he glanced at Leliana. “Among other things, he has divulged the location of where he and his fellows were taken. They have holed themselves up in Therinfal Redoubt, on the eastern side of Ferelden.”

“The Seeker fortress?” Cassandra’s brow furrowed. “But, no one has been there in years. It is old, decrepit. It was abandoned because it could not be kept in working condition anymore. What would be the purpose in going there?”

“Why would you take your loyal men to an abandoned castle in the middle of nowhere?” I asked.

“To keep their activities from being observed,” Leliana supplied.

“According to Ser Barris, the officers among the Templars have sequestered themselves away from the recruits, and he senses that it isn’t to discuss what to do about the Breach…or anything remotely related to it, for that matter,” Cullen added. “He explains that the officers are conveniently ignoring what they swore to stand against in favor of some unknown pursuit that they won’t share with the rest of the men. Barris is tired of waiting, and he is suspicious of the Lord Seeker’s intentions. He is now taking the initiative and approaching us in hopes we can convince their leaders to do the right thing and face this threat to us all.”

I nodded, “The Herald’s alternate source of assistants is becoming clearer, and his decision between the mages and Templars to help him close the Breach will be Barris’s answer. I can’t say much right now, but once Lord Trevelyan returns, I can elaborate more on Ser Barris’s situation. I will say this, though – it won’t be stable for much longer.”

“What do you mean?” Cullen asked, brow furrowing.

I sighed, “It’s…complicated. Suffice it to say, Barris’s assumptions are correct. The officers among the Templars there aren’t concerned with the Breach at all. They are forming a plan that will serve only their own interests. The rest of the Templars are just there to provide strength and act as yes-men once that plan is finally enacted.”

Cullen’s frustration at the situation was written all over his countenance. The Templars’ inaction regarding the Breach greatly bothered him, and the fact he could do little about it bothered him even more. Josephine, taking note of his mannerisms, turned towards him and remarked, “There is some good news, however. We have received a letter from the Herald. It arrived just this morning by raven. He says that your soldiers have finally been released from the Avvar’s clutches, and that they are already on their way back here under Scout Harding’s guidance.”

“Thank the Maker,” he replied, looking visibly relieved. “That will greatly improve morale.”

The ambassador then looked around Cullen at the Nightingale. “He also says that they are now heading to the Hinterlands to finalize business arrangements with Horsemaster Dennet, as well as to seek out this Warden Blackwall for you, Leliana.”

“Good,” the spymistress nodded, “If the Herald can find this Warden, then perhaps he can put our minds at ease regarding their involvement with the Conclave.”

“Warden Blackwall will be there,” I said, earning a surprised look from Leliana. “It’s the Herald’s choice whether or not he ultimately joins us here in Haven, but he will be present for Lord Trevelyan to speak to. I have a feeling that he will be coming back with the Herald, though, to officially join the Inquisition.  Alongside Iron Bull and his Chargers.”

Cassandra shook her head and smirked, “We’re attracting all sorts, are we not?”

“Indeed,” Josephine chuckled, “but as long as they are here to help, that is what matters.”

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After the meeting was over, I found my trainers waiting on me outside the war room. Strider and Delia both recommended that I give myself time to recover from my ordeal, telling me to come back to them when I was ready to resume practices. Thankful for their leniency, I resolved to do just as they suggested, and for the rest of the afternoon and well into the next morning, I stayed holed up in my cabin, if not sleeping, then merely studying the Chant. There was something oddly soothing about working with the texts and getting lost in the various nuances of translation from Orlesian to the King’s Tongue. I was rather proud of my progress; I could read most of the King’s Tongue on my own, now, with help only once in a while from the Orlesian version.

Knock, knock, knock.

The rapping upon my door came shortly before noon the following day, suddenly breaking me out of my readings. It had been pleasantly quiet and peaceful before then, no one sliding messages under my door or talking too loudly outside. The presence of Cullen’s new guards thankfully warded off any loiterers around my cabin, and so the only sounds the whole morning had been the distant hum of activity in the village and the occasional birdsong or call of a raven. Spending time to myself in such tranquility had done much to soothe my frazzled nerves and that, plus my blessed inability to dream, had also allowed me to push the attack farther behind me.

“Come in, the door’s open,” I called. I left it unlatched during the day, just in case someone needed to see me in an emergency.

When the door swung open, then, creaking slightly, I expected to see a courier of some sort. Maybe even Leliana. Instead, I saw Cullen ducking into the cabin and letting the door fall closed behind him. He held something in his hand, although I couldn’t tell exactly what it was.

Immediately dropping what I was doing, I stood to greet him, as I thought was polite. “Commander,” I said with a smile. Though I tried not to show it too much, it warmed my heart to see him again…

“Lady Tamsyn,” he inclined his head to me in response, moving slowly forward before stopping a few paces away. “How are you faring?”

I nodded, “All right. Is there something you need, Commander?”

He glanced away, pressing his lips together before returning his gaze to mine. “You probably remember that Willem and Mistress Ferguson’s funeral services were this morning,” he began. And indeed, I did. “Since then, Rylen and I have been debating about what to do regarding Willem’s personal effects.” He sighed. “The man has no family. All of his relatives were either killed during the Blight ten years ago or shortly following. Thus, there is no one left alive amongst his kin to leave his belongings to. Most of his possessions were issued from the Inquisition, and all of those will go back into circulation at the armory, but this,” he lifted the hand that held what I now saw was a long parcel, “this is not ours.”

He moved closer, letting the rough, dark cloth that loosely bound the bundle fall away as he held the object out in across both his palms. There, in Cullen’s hands, was Willem’s sword, freshly polished and sheathed in its scabbard, both a belt and baldric folded with it. It was the first time I had actually taken a good look at it. All told, it was about a foot longer than my own sword, with a gently curved crossguard only barely wider than the blade itself and a smooth, acorn-shaped pommel – all shining silvery steel. The blade was actually rather broad, judging from the width of the scabbard in which it was housed. Its short grip, made only for one hand, was wrapped in plain brown leather that matched the sheath. Overall, it was rather ordinary, but it was still beautiful in its own way.

“According to those who knew him well in the ranks, this sword was a family heirloom,” Cullen continued, eyes scanning the length of the weapon in his hands. “Apparently, it was passed down from Willem’s great grandfather, who forged it during the Orlesian occupation of Ferelden. Rylen and I both felt it was too sentimental to just throw onto the racks at the smithy. So, I decided to ask you if you would like to have it.”

I felt my mouth drop open, and for a moment, I had no idea what to say. I was completely stunned by the gesture.

“If you don’t want it, you don’t have to take it, of course,” Cullen added hastily, “but I thought you might…”

His words died in his throat as I cautiously reached forward and lifted the whole bundle from his hands…carefully, gently, as though it might crumble in my grasp.

“Of course I will take it, Commander,” I replied, my voice barely a whisper as I felt fresh tears stinging hotly in my eyes. “I will wear it always. To honor his memory. His sacrifice. Even if I never use it, I will still wear it.” It was a promise, and I meant it.

At that, Cullen put a hand on my shoulder, looking me in the eye. “Willem’s sacrifice wasn’t in vain, Tamsyn. That you yet breathe is proof of that. He fought and died to keep you alive. And he succeeded. Rylen may have been the one to scare Butler away, but it was Willem who bought the time he needed to come to your aid.” He glanced down at the sword and nodded. “Wear it well.”

I nodded slowly, swallowing back the tears and smiling at him. “Thank you. I’ll strive to be worthy of it.”

Seemingly satisfied with my response, he turned, then, and was halfway to the door when I added abruptly, “And Commander?”

He looked back over his shoulder, his hand braced on the hilt of his own weapon, “Yes?”

I took a breath. “Thank the Knight-Captain for me, would you? I couldn’t when I was rescued, and I don’t know when I’ll see him next. If you could just…pass along my thanks for my life, I would be grateful.”

A smile pulled at his lips, “I will, Tamsyn.”

And with that, he left, and I remained watching until the door fell closed once more in his wake.

Chapter Text

Thwack…crack!

The arrow loosed from my bow pierced the broken vase dead center, raining pottery shards all over the freshly-fallen snow. With no more targets left to throw, Strider tossed his gloved hands upwards and shook his head with a slight smile, almost in disbelief. For the past week, I had been practicing with Strider’s moving target method, which consisted of him throwing useless bits of junk into the air and me shooting them down. It had been incredibly difficult at first, but I knew I had to succeed. Butler’s attack left me determined that I would not be defenseless again. Under any circumstance.

In addition to my shortsword and dagger, I wore my own modest bow now, custom crafted by the bowyers at the forge, with a quiver of thirty arrows atop its sheathe. Slung from its baldric across my back, beside the bow and quiver, was Willem’s sword. It wasn’t a practical position from which to draw a blade, but my hip was already occupied by my shortsword, and I didn’t really plan on wielding the longer sword unless I had to. It was more of a symbolic gesture than anything else. Still, it was a weapon, and if I was forced to use it, I would.

Moreover, I had also made it a habit to wear my Inquisition breastplate atop my uniform every single day. Though it was less likely that someone would try to attack me in broad daylight, I still felt it pertinent to get used to wearing it. Its weight, like that of my weapons, wasn’t a burden, and instead was comforting; knowing there was a layer of fine steel acting as a barrier between my vital organs and the outside world was more than a small reassurance, especially given recent events.

Strider’s gesture for my bow broke me out of my thoughts. I handed the practice bow and quiver to the scout, and he gave me a nod of approval. “I think you’ve improved more in the last week than you have during your entire training put together there, Lady Tamsyn.”

I sighed a misty breath, smoothing my hair under my hat – now a necessary accessory with winter looming near – as he turned to stow away the practice gear. “I don’t want to be a crying damsel, Strider. No one else will die for me. The next time something happens to me, I’m going to save myself.”

He glanced back at me mid-movement, and his brows rose under his hood. “A bold declaration.”

“It’s a promise,” I replied shortly, my hands on my hips.

He squinted, his sharp eyes piercing as they met mine. “And you’re sure you can keep that promise?” he asked, the skepticism obvious in his tone as he turned back to his task.

Before I could answer, there was a raucous cawing and a rush of wings as a huge raven landed on my shoulder. I stumbled sideways in surprise at the sudden arrival of the winged messenger, but somehow resisted the urge to bat the bird away from me. Bound to its leg were two rolls of parchment, which I quickly removed from it with a firm tug of the leather band on its ankle. Once free of its burden, the raven immediately took off, cawing again in its flight as it headed towards the Chantry.

“Do they have to do that right in your ear?” I winced, rubbing the side of my head as my eardrum throbbed from the volume of the noise the bird had made.

“Just wait ‘till they wake you up in the middle of the night standing on your chest, staring at you with those beady little demon eyes and making that racket,” Strider remarked dryly as he walked past me towards the gates. Something told me he was speaking from personal experience. “See you tomorrow, Tamsyn.”

“Yeah, see you,” I said absently as I unrolled the first piece of paper I came to. The message written upon it, conveniently penned in Orlesian script, was rather short.

Tamsyn,

Butler has been captured. My agents say he put up quite the fight before he was finally disarmed and surrendered. Farrier was killed in the brawl. I hope this mercy of yours was worth the loss of one of my best.

I have sent along correspondence regarding the Herald’s progress with this note. It is not worth calling a meeting over, but I felt you should stay informed.

~ L

I let out a pent-up breath. The Nightingale’s ire was palpable. Apparently Farrier couldn’t be saved, regardless of the fact Butler had been exposed in an entirely different way than he had in the game, thus sparing the former scout’s life for a time. Shaking my head and trying not to think about it, I moved on to the next piece of parchment to find it filled with messages in the common tongue, the runes of varied sizes and styles. I squinted as I concentrated on exercising my new language skills with this new challenge.

Leliana,

I have just received another letter from the Herald. Warden-Constable Blackwall has indeed been found and has decided to join the Inquisition. However, according to what the Herald has said, this Warden knows nothing about the disappearance of his fellows. Apparently, he is just as curious about the matter as you are.

~ Josephine

That is not precisely a comfort. Though I am glad he has decided to join us, the fact he knows nothing about the Wardens’ vanishing from Orlais and Ferelden leaves me even more concerned. Was he left behind on purpose? Kept in the dark for some reason? Or have we simply found him first? We must have more answers.

~ L

If he is telling the truth. This is the Wardens we are dealing with. They are a secretive lot, and I do not think they would divulge such secrets willingly.

~ Cullen

I will speak with him personally when he arrives.

~ Cassandra

The Herald seems to believe Blackwall’s claims of ignorance, but I agree it would be wise to ask him more questions when the party returns.

Also, Commander, the Herald mentioned that Horsemaster Dennet has now officially pledged his herds to the Inquisition. You should know that it will take some weeks to fully prepare the mounts for travel, however.

~ Josephine

Understood. We will also make preparations for their arrival and ensure the roads are secure for transport. Dennet’s herds will help bolster the Inquisition’s forces immensely. We cannot afford to lose these mounts to bandits along the way.

~ Cullen

Once I reached the end of the informative exchange, I rolled both pieces of parchment back up and sighed again, glancing out over the village and the troops training in greater numbers before it. The plot was advancing rather steadily, now. Once the Herald found Bull, he would be on his way back to Redcliffe to talk with Fiona. If weather held, I presumed that it would take a little over a week for Maxwell to finally get back to Haven.

And then, things would start to get just a wee bit intense…

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I had yet to tell Cullen about the coming attack.

As the person in charge of Haven’s forces and security, he was the one who needed the information more than anyone else at camp. But anytime I tried to think of a way to tell him about it, my stomach churned until I felt as though I would vomit.

My dilemma preyed on my mind day and night, during almost all of my activities, entertaining or otherwise. Nothing could fully distract me. Josephine had given me a new book – an Orlesian play – to read for fun, and I couldn’t enjoy it for the nagging thoughts hovering in the back of my mind. She had even hosted a few more afternoon teas, and I found myself barely engaged in her talks, answering her friendly inquiries with minimal responses. Varric arranged Wicked Grace matches every other evening, which I attended with Lea, but despite the laughter and stories shared, I couldn’t find any comfort in their company…not when I knew they could very well be dead within a month if I didn’t say something.

It didn’t help matters that I was lacking in opportunities to talk with the Commander. He was busier now than ever before, now that recruitment numbers were swelling dramatically – the promise of good money and an end to chaos tearing up the land, as well as the Herald’s increasing renown, brought many into the Inquisition’s fold, particularly its forces. And there was no way I was going to barge into Cullen’s tent or interrupt his training exercises only to find myself tongue-tied and stammering and wasting his precious time.

On top of that, as if I didn’t have enough to worry about, thoughts about the Herald’s decision between the mages and the Templars were beginning to haunt me, too. I was certain that, upon Maxwell’s return from Redcliffe, he would want to pursue the mages. It was only natural. It was the closer target, and it would also be the situation he knew most about after seeing Fiona and Alexius. On top of that, once he found out what had happened to Fiona and the other rebels, he would not want to let that Tevinter presence fester. Not if he had a brain in his head.

But if he did side with the mages, as I fully expected him to, then that would leave the good Ser Barris and his loyalist Templars to die.

“Who can do that and walk away with a clear conscience?”

Maxwell’s words from the night we had spoken in his cabin echoed in my mind as I agonized over the next war table meeting, and I realized I fully shared in his sentiments. I began to think I had been a fool to keep my silence about the true extent of the Templars’ situation at the last gathering. I should have told it all to them then if I wanted to make sure Ser Barris and his fellows would avoid their grisly fate.

But perhaps…

Perhaps there was a way to save them, yet. Maybe there was still time. If I told them about what was happening at Therinfal Redoubt, even if Maxwell chose the mages, perhaps I could convince the advisors to at least send a letter to Barris to tell him to get the hell out of there before they turned into Red Templars or were killed.

Maybe I could make a little difference after all.

If I could just find the courage to open my mouth and talk…

Chapter Text

Four days later, word came from the Herald that Iron Bull and his Chargers had joined the Inquisition.

Five days after that, they all returned to Haven at last.

The town was significantly busier than it had been a month prior. More people were here than ever before; between the refugee pilgrims, the hired workers, the merchants, the messengers, the visiting nobles, the new recruits, the established soldiers, the scouts, the handful of remaining mages and Templars, and the Chantry members, Haven was nearly overflowing. The constant noise of activity that was inescapable even in my cabin, before merely a low drone, was now almost a roar. Moreover, so many new visitors to the camp and joiners to the Inquisition brought additional sights and smells too, threatening to send one not used to such hubbub into sensory overload.

There were the Orlesians with their gaudy garments and pungent perfumes; the Fereldans with their barking dogs (mabari and hunting hounds both); the dwarven merchants and other vendors with their encumbered, rattling carts and groaning, sweaty brontos (the latter of which were some of the most bizarre and primitive-looking creatures I had ever seen up close and personal)…all these new people and animals and various odors atop the never-ceasing hammering at the forge, the neighing of old draft horses and mining ponies, the yelling and clashing of the troops outside the walls, and the usual distinct scent of Haven that was a mixture of heady pine, musty leather, hot metal, and wood smoke.

It was almost more than a body could take and stay sane.

But despite this strange enigma of orderly chaos that had become the modus operandi for the infant Inquisition, the return of the Herald and his company was an event that couldn’t be missed. It was like watching a shark swim through a school of fish: Maxwell’s party suddenly appeared riding around the walls towards the stables, and the travelers on the dirt road parted to watch them pass, wide-eyed and gaping. Soldiers not engaged in training with Cullen or his lieutenants gathered in groups to gossip. Nobles and pilgrims peeked out of the gates to get a glimpse of the fabled Herald and his comrades. And there I was, in the middle of it all, sitting atop one of the pedestals flanking the main entrance.

Accompanying Maxwell, Sera, Solas, and Vivienne were Iron Bull and his Chargers, as well as Warden Blackwall. The latter rode behind Maxwell, griffon helm gleaming in the early afternoon sun. The Bull and his mercenaries followed in their own group after the main party, with Krem riding a fluffy painted horse alongside the Chief himself, who merely walked. I followed them all with my gaze as they clattered and clopped before the gates on their way to the forge area, but I stayed put for now. I knew there would be a meeting called soon enough.

A movement out of the corner of my eye made me glance back to my right. As if he had read my mind, Cullen was heading towards me from the training area, his coat blown behind him with the strength of the uncomfortably-chill wind. I hopped off of the pedestal as he approached, and he gave me a quick nod of greeting. “Tamsyn. I’m going to gather my reports and head for the war room. If you would, inform the Herald that he should meet us there as soon as he has a moment.”

“Sure thing, Commander,” I replied. As he then turned from me for his tent, I dodged a merchant’s cart rolling into the town and began walking towards the forge. Iron Bull’s Chargers were already dismounted and disarming themselves, and as I neared, Krem waved to me to get my attention. Seeing as the Herald still seemed a bit busy with his own gear, I meandered towards Bull’s lieutenant. “Yes?”

“Cremisius Aclassi,” Krem said with a salute, “Lieutenant of the Bull’s Chargers. I see your uniform…are you someone in the know around these parts?”

I chuckled at his choice of words. “Probably one of the most ‘in the know’ people you can find here, Lieutenant.”

He smiled and jerked a thumb at the others, “Excellent. We’ve recently arrived with the Herald to help with the cause. Could you do us a big favor and point us in the direction of the nearest tavern? I think we could all do with a drink to wash the dust from our throats.”

Behind him, there was a chorus of agreement from the Chargers.

I grinned. “You’ll want the Singing Maiden. Only tavern in town. It’s right about the center of the village, second tier, nice big iron maiden sign above the doors. You can’t miss it.”

“Right,” Krem nodded in understanding, another, broader smile of his own spreading across his face, “Thank you. I suppose we’ll see you around, then.”

I stepped aside to let the rowdy group pass. “Welcome to the Inquisition.”

As the company cleared out and the rest of the companions finished stowing their equipment, I leaned sideways against one of the wooden posts outside the forge. Vivienne was the first of Maxwell’s companions to turn away from her tasks, and as she strode towards me, she gave me a slight smile. “Well, Tamsyn…it turns out you were right about everything again. You, my dear, are certainly an asset we cannot afford not to have with us. I don’t mean to imply that I doubted you for a moment, but I must admit that I had secretly hoped you were wrong about the conditions in the bogs.”

I smirked at the Enchanter. “What? No rainbows and unicorns in the marshes of Ferelden?” I was partially teasing her, but also partially jabbing at her.

“Not a one,” she replied dryly before sauntering past me, the faint smell of some flowery perfume wafting in her wake. Likely an attempt to cover the smell of soggy leather.

And it was then that Solas approached me. I plastered a smile to my face in an attempt to hide the wave of anxiousness that swept over me, though I doubted its effectiveness. I had been rather happy with him out of the village. It meant he couldn’t ask me any questions or try to find me in the Fade at night. Some part of me wondered if he had already been attempting that, and whether or not he could find any trace of me, despite my lack of dreams.

“Ah, Tamsyn. As you are likely already aware, our trip to Ferelden has indeed borne fruit,” he remarked, sparing a glance to the Breach as it shimmered with energy. “We have new allies, as you’ve no doubt seen,” he gestured to Iron Bull and Blackwall, who stood talking with Maxwell, “and we have also done much to stabilize the Veil.” He then turned back to me, and his brow furrowed, “However, it seems a dire situation has arisen in Redcliffe. You know more of this, too, do you not?”

I felt my own brow furrowing a little. Was what he saw there bothering him? And if so, why? “I do.”

He seemed satisfied with my answer. “Good. The Herald and your fellow advisors should know every detail possible before proceeding. That this is a dangerous and disturbing development is no exaggeration.” He turned back for a moment to watch Maxwell and the others, and I saw a muscle in his jaw twitch. Did Alexius’s time magic really worry him? Or did he see it as a mere threat to his own future plans? A possible weapon to be used against him at some point? Was that why he saw it as dangerous?

The fact I couldn’t have answers to these questions irked me.

“Yeah, this next meeting isn’t going to be the easiest one,” I finally said, turning and leaning back on the post and bringing one foot up under me.

Solas glanced back to me. “My advice? Do and say what you must to see the Herald through. You are in an advantageous position, Tamsyn. You have the power to change the world to suit your whims and the opportunity to save many lives. There are many who would be envious of such.”

“Are you?” The question was out before I could stop it, and I suddenly felt my heart skip a beat.

That silenced the elf for a moment, and I couldn’t read the expression that momentarily flickered across his face…the shimmer of something that danced behind his pale eyes. Finally, he replied musingly, “I will admit…if I could go back in time, to the beginning of the story I know, and change everything according to what I understand about the world today, I would do it without a moment’s hesitation.”

I slowly nodded, then, focusing my gaze on the toe of my boot. I believed him.

He then wordlessly left my side, headed for the gates, his footsteps soft in the snow, and it was only then that I dared look up again. Sera, I noticed, was now nowhere to be found, having slipped away sometime during my conversations with Vivienne and Solas, and I began to wonder if she was actively avoiding me. Judging from her initial reaction to me, she was probably treating me a lot like she would Cole…

“Lady Tamsyn!”

Maxwell. He bore a friendly grin as he approached, Blackwall and Iron Bull following behind. “May I present Warden-Constable Blackwall and The Iron Bull? Fresh joiners to the cause.”

I grinned as I looked between the two men. Blackwall was slightly shorter than Maxwell, but Iron Bull towered over the Herald. I felt miniscule next to the giant qunari. “A pleasure,” I said, giving them both a small bow, my weapons clinking with the movement. I recalled Vivienne and Josephine telling me I needed to act with more authority, and so I added, “Advisor Tamsyn Ashworth of the Inquisition, at your service.”

Blackwall seemed to smile a bit at my introduction, “We’ve heard much about you, my lady.”

“That we have,” Bull added with a slight nod of acknowledgment.

“Been saying things about me, I see?” I teased Maxwell.

The Herald chuckled, “Only good things, I promise.”

“Of course,” I pointed to the path ahead, “War table meeting is being called. Cullen’s already on his way there and gathering the others.”

A solemn expression then fell over Maxwell’s countenance like a shadow. “Right. We have to talk about Redcliffe. Gentlemen, if you would, come with us. We’ll have to register you with Josephine to officially add you to the Inquisition’s payroll.”

And then, just like we had done when he had returned from Val Royeaux, we walked to the Chantry together to get down to business at last.

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“This is…not good.”

Josephine’s quiet words were a bit of an understatement.

Maxwell, after reporting on the stabilization of the Fallow Mire, the establishment of camps on the Storm Coast, and the continued closing of rifts in Ferelden, finished briefing the advisors on what he had witnessed at Redcliffe. Once his account reached Alexius, Felix, Dorian, and the Venatori, the room filled with palpable tension.

“This invitation, Herald,” Cullen began, his knuckles prominent through his gloves as he gripped his sword’s pommel, “This is a trap. It can be nothing else. And if you are captured in that castle, then there will be nothing we can do to get you out. Redcliffe Castle is famous for its impregnability.”

“That is not entirely true, Commander,” Leliana replied knowingly. “There is a secret escape route for the family, accessible via the old mill on the edge of town. Using it to get to the castle is how the undead ravaging the village were stopped during the Blight. Those tunnels are likely still open, and if we can access them, we can lay a trap of our own.”

Maxwell’s brows rose, “That sounds like a viable option.”

If it goes according to plan,” Cullen replied, his skepticism evident on his face. “We are dealing with Tevinter, here, and with mages who have somehow found a way to distort time. Who knows what other defenses they have put in place in addition to the castle’s already formidable fortifications? I say we leave this for when we are better prepared and pursue the Templars. At least they-”

Forget the Templars,” Leliana interrupted, her tone firm a she shook her head. “That these Tevinter mages have indeed warped time itself and secured themselves in Redcliffe enough to oust the Arl from his own castle and enslave the rebel mages…”

“…and also come far enough into Fereldan lands that the Avvar tribesmen mistook our soldiers for Tevinter operatives…” Josephine added pointedly.

“…then this is a threat we cannot ignore,” Cassandra finished, arms crossed atop her breastplate. “We cannot abide yet another magical anomaly endangering the world. Whatever the Lord Seeker is doing with his pet thugs, wherever he’s doing it, likely pales in comparison to this.”

Oh, how wrong you are, I thought.

“We don’t know that,” Cullen answered tersely, unceremoniously dropping Barris’s letter onto the war table. Turning to Maxwell, he explained, “While you were gone, a Knight-Recruit contacted us. The Templars are at the Seeker Fortress of Therinfal Redoubt, in the mountains on the eastern side of Ferelden. The recruit’s name is Ser Barris, and he has approached us, asking us to persuade the officers amongst the Templars to see reason and make the Breach a priority, as they refuse to listen to him.” Cullen glanced to me, “Tamsyn said she would elaborate on the situation unfolding at the fortress once you returned. So,” he gestured in my direction, “perhaps we should hear what she has to say before we make our final decision on the matter.”

All eyes now fell on me, and I felt my gut twist a little. Nodding, though, I cleared my throat and thought carefully about what I should mention before I began.

“The Venatori presence in Redcliffe is, of course, a significant threat,” I agreed, glancing between Cassandra and Leliana. “But don’t discount the situation with the Templars either. Just because you don’t know much about their doings at this point, doesn’t mean they’re less of a threat than the Tevinters.” I took a deep breath, “Despite this not being part of the story I’ve been privy to, I’m about to let you know just what is happening at Therinfal, so you can better make your choice. If you had decided to pursue the Templars anyway, this information would come as a complete surprise, and you wouldn’t get a chance to deliberate on it like you are now regarding Redcliffe.”

There were butterflies in my stomach, now. Swallowing hard, I looked at Cullen, and I found it difficult to meet his eyes. “You remember what happened to Knight-Commander Meredith, right?”

“All too well,” he replied, brow lifted. “Why do you ask? Is she related to this in some way?”

“Well,” I laughed a little, more from anxiousness than humor. “Let’s just say that the officers amongst the rebel Templars have been hard at work creating more like her. You know there were Templars who envied her level of power. And they still do.”

At that, Cullen’s head twisted around at me, his amber gaze fixed on mine. His mouth was pulled into a frown, his brow heavily furrowed, and the corners of his eyes squinted together as they had when we had played chess that time, when I had told him his withdrawals would get better. A cord in his neck twitched, I could see his jaw clench, and I knew he knew what I was getting at. But that didn’t stop him from starting in a deadly tone, “Tamsyn...are you telling me…”

“Red lyrium,” I said simply, deciding to cut straight to the chase. “The officers in the rebel Templars’ ranks are drinking red lyrium. And if they aren’t stopped soon, then Ser Barris and his loyalists are next. Persuasion first, and if that fails, then force-feeding. If they put up a fight, they’ll be killed.” Glancing to Maxwell and then back to the Commander, I finished, “Bottom line: if the Templars aren’t chosen, then they’re all destined to become the same type of abominations Meredith turned into, only worse.”

“Maker damn it all!” Cullen hissed, a hand first rubbing the back of his neck forcefully, then curling into a fist at his hair as he jammed his eyes shut in frustration. Crimson flushed his neck, revealing his barely-bottled fury to all present. Leliana seemed to subconsciously lean away from him, though her face remained expressionless.

“That…that isn’t good either,” Maxwell’s eyes were slightly wide, and he shook his head slowly as he absorbed the information.

“So is that what the Lord Seeker intended?” Cassandra interposed, her tone one of both disbelief and outrage, “To take them away and force them to become…what? His personal army empowered by something we barely understand?”

“That’s just the thing,” I continued, throwing my hands upwards. “What’s at Therinfal Redoubt isn’t the Lord Seeker. It’s an Envy Demon wearing Lucius Corin’s face. It’s the one making the red lyrium army. And none of the Templars there are even aware of it. Not even the officers. They think they’re still working for Lucius. In the name of a higher power.” I couldn’t tell her that the real Lord Seeker was still out there, collecting the other Seekers for his own apocalyptic goals.

At that, Cullen looked ready to explode. Disgust, rage, and anguish all contorted his features in a vicious snarl, and his amber eyes were alight with his fury. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but nothing came out, and so he spun on his heel, facing the wall while running a hand down his face. Josephine and Leliana both exchanged looks of concern while Cullen’s back was turned, and even Cassandra seemed a bit worried. I knew he was angry. Mostly at the choice that had to be made and the folly of the Order he once loved so much. But I knew he was also angry at me. I could feel it. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

Turning to Maxwell and trying to push those thoughts away, I continued, “Remember when I said that this choice between the mages and the Templars as your allies to close the Breach would save one side and leave the other to its fate? That one side or the other would be destroyed? Now is the time for your choice.” I pointed at the war table marker for Redcliffe, “Either save the rebel mages from their Tevinter masters and leave almost all the remaining Templars in southern Thedas to become a red lyrium legion,” I then pointed to the marker that denoted Therinfal Redoubt, “or rescue the Templars and leave the rebel mages to remain slaves of the Venatori and their machinations.”

As Cullen moved back towards the table, face now stony, Maxwell looked completely at a loss for words, his olivine eyes wide and his mouth agape. He quickly corrected himself, however, closing his mouth and swallowing heavily before shaking his head at me. “I…but…I thought this choice was clear before, but now…” His eyes flicked between all of us, as if searching for help. “I can’t make that kind of decision! That’s…this is too much to ask!”

“But you must,” I said firmly, “It’s your life on the line in both situations, and you have to be the one to either meet the Templars at Therinfal, facing this demon head-on to save them, or accept the invitation from Alexius to rescue the mages. Only you can do these things. No one else can.”

He hissed his frustration, running a hand through his thick, dark hair. “Why? Why me?”

“Because you’re the Herald of Andraste,” Josephine reminded him gently.

“The Ambassador’s right,” I said, “That’s precisely the reason. Alexius will only negotiate with you for the rebel mages, because you’re the Herald. And only you can stop the Envy demon at Therinfal from mutating or destroying all the Templars there, because the demon will only respond to the Herald. You have to pick one side to deal with the Breach, and be willing to accept what happens to the other side after you make that choice.”

“Mages joining with the Venatori doing Maker-knows-what with fucking time magic, or a legion of red lyrium-swilling warriors following a fucking demon masquerading as the Lord Seeker…which catastrophe do I decide for us to deal with later?” His tone was dark and bitter and mirthless.

“The obvious choice is to pursue the mages,” said Leliana, “If the Templars are so weak that they cannot detect when a demon is playing them, then perhaps they are more of a liability than an asset.”

“The same could be said of the rebel mages who allowed themselves to be enslaved by a Tevinter magister promising safety,” Cassandra quipped.

“You also severely underestimate the power of demons,” Cullen snapped, hand flexing atop his sword. “And an Envy demon is no common foe.”

Both situations are dire, but it is apparent that regardless of how we feel about either side, we must come to a decision, and soon,” Josephine interjected, raising her voice in an attempt to put a stop to the argument before it escalated further. I knew it was of no use, however. Tempers were flaring and blood was boiling, just as I expected it would.

“I say the biggest threat is having a red lyrium army to deal with after the Breach is sealed,” Cullen said firmly, one finger hitting the war table sharply as he emphasized his words. “One of Meredith was bad enough, but potentially hundreds? We do not have the manpower to stand against that. Not even with King Alistair’s forces aiding us.”

King Alistair. It was the first time I had heard about the Fereldan monarch in this worldstate, and I filed that information away for reference as I continued listening to the debate.

“And a legion of Tevinter-led mages armed with time altering magic and fueled by desperation would be a better crisis to face, Commander?” Leliana replied, brow cocked at Cullen.

“That’s not what I meant!”

Enough!” Cassandra barked, slamming her gauntleted fist on the table. The harsh crack of metal on wood sent everyone jumping out of their skin, including me, my heart pounding in my ears.

A heavy silence filled the air after that. Six pairs of eyes glanced first to one person, then another, glittering in the light as they flicked around the room. Cullen’s breastplate shimmered as he took a deep and steadying breath and let it out slowly. Leliana’s lips were thin, and her gaze was fixed on the war table, though on which piece, exactly, I wasn’t sure. The candle flame on Josephine’s tablet flickered as she let out a sigh through her nose, shaking her head and focusing on the parchment clipped to the board.

Maxwell then bent forward, leaning with both hands on the war table for support and hanging his head. In that moment, he seemed so overburdened…overwhelmed with the weight he was carrying. I felt incredibly sorry for him, even though I was simultaneously glad I wasn’t the one in his shoes.

“There has to be another way,” he said without looking up.

“Except for the fact that if it indeed must be you and only you to handle either the mages or the Templars personally, then you cannot be in two places at once,” Josephine added. “Hence why you must choose.”

“So I’ve heard,” the Herald remarked dryly, still unmoving.

More silence.

After a moment, I let out a long sigh of my own. This was it – the time to propose my plan for the Templars. It was now or never.

“There may be something we can do,” I said at length, which caused all eyes to instantly latch onto me, and I found it difficult to meet them, so intense were their gazes at that point. “Even if it isn’t in the story as I know it. If you’re comfortable not being aware of the ramifications of following the story I know to the letter and facing the possibility I may not be able to help you…”

“With all due respect,” Cullen interrupted curtly, “Hang the ‘story.’ If you have a way in mind to save more lives and to make this choice easier, then tell us.”

In his eyes I found no gentleness. I didn’t have to look at Leliana or Cassandra to know they felt the same way as he did. I swallowed heavily and took a deep breath.

“So…here’s my idea,” I began, turning to Maxwell – the other trapped person in the room. “If you want to go to Redcliffe, go to Redcliffe, since it’s closer. Meet with Alexius at the castle with Dorian and let Sister Nightingale and the Commander provide reinforcements through the secret passage. But before you leave Haven, send a letter to Ser Barris. Tell him to get his loyalist friends – everyone he can trust – out of Therinfal, if he can. Tell him whatever you have to in order to convince him to abandon ship, but without causing him to confront the fake Lord Seeker.” I glanced to Cassandra. “That’s a fight they can’t win. Not right now. If they are able, they need to make a run for it. And they can come here for safe Haven. Uh…” I laughed nervously, pulling my hands behind my back, “pardon the pun.”

At that, Maxwell finally straightened in full, brows lifted as he looked to the others, “Well…that’s better than doing nothing at all, I think.”

“Indeed,” Josephine nodded her agreement, a reassuring smile on her face. “It may not save all the Templars, but it has the potential to save many.”

Cullen shifted his weight, his scabbard clinking as he heaved a heavy sigh. “It’s not the ideal solution, but it is, as you say, better than nothing. Considering the circumstances, with both time and distance being an issue, I’d say it is the best plan we have. Andraste, preserve us.”

“Leliana, how quickly can you get a letter to Barris?” Cassandra inquired.

“My swiftest raven will have it to him in two days’ time,” the Nightingale replied, no doubt in her voice.

Maxwell reached for Ser Barris’s correspondence where it lay on the table. “I will personally pen the letter and have it ready for you by evening.”

She inclined her head to him, “I will have it sent the moment you bring it.”

“In the meantime,” Cullen added, “We should prepare for an infiltration of Redcliffe Castle. Sister Leliana, if you would meet me later after evening services to plan our movements?”

“Of course, Commander.”

“Good,” Cassandra said, visibly satisfied now that a solution had been found. “Now that we finally have a strategy, let us get to work. We have little time to waste.”

And at that, the meeting was adjourned at last. I was thankful; the whole situation had me on edge, and I felt myself trembling a little from anxiety. Eager to escape the war room and its almost oppressive atmosphere, I followed the Herald and Cassandra for the door, but before I could leave, Cullen suddenly called out to me.

“Tamsyn, before you go, I would like to speak with you for a moment, if you can spare the time.”

Uh oh…

“Of course, Commander,” I replied, my stomach doing a nervous flop as I turned back to face him with a small, friendly smile. Josephine politely brushed past me, as did Leliana, and the door groaned and clanked shut behind them, leaving the two of us alone in the war room together. Again.

In the heavy silence that followed, I pulled my hands behind my back again to hide my fidgeting, resisting the overwhelming urge to anxiously smooth my hair under my cap and straighten any crooked clothing. Fortunately, Cullen seemed calmer than he had been upon first hearing about the Templars’ dire situation, but I was still afraid of what he might say. I knew from the way he looked down at the table instead of at me, the shadows deepening on his face and sharpening his features, that he was still upset at me. No doubt that was what this was all about.

“You knew about the red lyrium at Therinfal,” he finally said quietly, confirming my suspicions.

His words made my mouth and throat suddenly go dry. “Yes,” I said simply after a desperate swallow to alleviate the parched sensation, my voice cracking a bit.

“You knew last week and said nothing. Why?” That last word was filled with emotion, and I could sense that he felt betrayed.

I took a breath. “Because I needed to wait and make sure Maxwell was going to take the path of the rebel mages instead of the Templars. If he took the Templars’ path anyway, then there wouldn’t be any need for-”

“But you still could have informed us sooner!” he retorted, his voice very nearly a growl. “We could have let Barris know he needed to flee Therinfal a week ago! He and his comrades could have already been on their way here, and then there would be no need for the Herald to risk his life at Redcliffe!”

“And then it would-”

“Alter the story too much, yes, we’ve all heard that argument before,” Cullen interrupted, his molten-gold eyes flashing dangerously in the torchlight as he half-turned from me, tossing a hand in the air. “Have you thought, perhaps, that the reason you’ve landed here is so that you can alter the story? For the better?”

For a moment, I couldn’t say anything. He had a good point. But he still didn’t understand…

“If I alter the story to the point that I don’t know the future, then I have no way of knowing if the outcome really will be better at all. It could be a total disaster,” I finally managed to say, the words wavering a little as they tumbled from my lips. “That doesn’t benefit anyone.”

His eyes narrowed at me as he suddenly bent over the table towards me, one hand on Orlais and the other on Ferelden, the crossguard of his sword smacking the wood with the abrupt movement. He looked like a cat poised to pounce. “You’re telling me that having the opportunity to save lives that would otherwise be lost and taking that chance isn’t a better course of action than letting them die because that’s the way the ‘story’ goes?”

There was something about that posture of his that irked me. I could feel my hackles rising, my fists clenching. I wasn’t going to be backed into a corner. I wasn’t going to be a frightened deer. No. I could be just as much of a lion as he. I was an advisor to the Inquisition, too, just like he was. Just like Leliana and Josephine.

And just like them, I wasn’t going to back down from what I thought was the appropriate course of action.

I closed the distance between myself and the table and mimicked his stance, planting my hands on the maps, the arrows in my quiver rattling on my back. I leaned towards him, too, eyes refusing to leave his. And when I finally spoke again, my voice was barely more than a low hiss.

“Look, I don’t like this limitation any more than you do, Commander, but at least you’re not the one who has to live with keeping it all to themselves every day. Who wonders every single night before you fall asleep if your simple presence is going to make someone you care about die some untold amount of time down the road!” I smacked the palm of my hand on the table. “Damn it! When one simple event outside the normal bounds of the narrative might make matters ten times worse than they already are, and then you have to live with ruining everything forever!”

Someone you care about. Oh, dear…did I really let that slip out? I hoped he hadn’t fixated on that phrase, but something about the way his eyes flicked this way and that and the way his furrowed brow twitched as he looked at me suggested he was thinking about something I had just said…

I stopped briefly, then, and despite my own anger at this confrontation, I was suddenly aware of our very close proximity. Both our hands were mere inches apart, and my face was near enough to his I could swear I felt the heat radiating off of him. That very sensation threatened to stifle the newfound courage that had bubbled up inside…

Trying desperately to keep my momentum going, I barreled onwards before he could interrupt me again. “No, I don’t like the idea of people dying for the sake of the story. It’s callous. It’s terrible. It is. But there are going to be tragedies, Commander. There are going to be things that none of us can prevent. No matter how hard we try, and no matter how much we’re aware of.” My thoughts immediately strayed to Corypheus’s impending assault, and I was tempted to just go ahead and broach the topic now, while we were already at loggerheads, but something stopped me. “It’s a hard truth to swallow, I know. But we’re going to have it poured down our throats whether we like it or not.”

Silence hung between us, then. I watched as his expression slowly melted into something unreadable, and his eyes drifted from mine back down to the maps. He stood as Maxwell had, head bowed for several moments, before finally pushing back from the table, returning his hands to the pommel of his sword. He said nothing at all, seemingly steeped in deep thoughts, though I could see his Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat. Was he swallowing back emotion, a response, or both?

I straightened, too, then, my voice a little softer as I continued, “Commander, please…I need you to promise me that whatever happens and whatever comes our way, you will trust me to know what I’m doing.” His eyes met mine again at that, shining somewhat more intensely in the torchlight. “That you will trust Maxwell and me to get us through all the trials that lie ahead. I told you I wanted to the best outcome possible for everyone in the Inquisition, and that hasn’t changed. That is my only purpose here, and there is nothing else that I want. You have to trust me to do that.”

I was practically begging at this point, pleading with him to believe me. He seemed to sense this, as his shoulders suddenly relaxed, his pauldrons shimmering a bit with the movement. He put his head in one hand, rubbing at his temples with his thumb and forefinger and sighing a long, heavy sigh. “All right, Tamsyn. All right. I will…try.”

He was tired. That much was plain. Tired and frustrated. I needed to leave him in peace. And so, I made for the door once more, turning back only to add, “Besides, if you believe Maxwell and I were sent by the Maker, then you must also believe that the Maker gave us the wisdom to know what to do and when.”

And with that, I left the war room and Cullen behind, striding through the empty Chantry with my own words still ringing in my ears.

I felt as though I were walking a tightrope. One slip, and it was all over.

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That evening, as I headed to the Singing Maiden for dinner, I was struck with pre-cycle cramps again and, along with them, the fact that I had been in Thedas over a month. More like a month and a half. It certainly didn’t feel like it. Even though I had adjusted well enough to life in this new world, I still felt terribly unprepared for a real crisis. Especially for the one that was to come very, very soon. That bothered me greatly. Because if I felt that uneasy about something I knew was going to happen, then how would I feel about a true surprise? Even worse than Butler’s attack? Could I handle that kind of curveball?

As I thought about the argument I had with Cullen earlier that day, I suddenly realized that I was honestly afraid of any surprises. As much as I wanted to keep the story on track for their sakes, I had to admit to myself that I also wanted to keep the story on track for mine. I didn’t want to even attempt to deal with anything I didn’t know was coming, because I knew there was a great possibility I would be clueless as to what to do in such a situation. I’d be totally useless, not just to them, but to myself

Was that selfish of me?

I shook my head, clearing these thoughts from my mind as I entered the tavern. It was decidedly emptier than I expected, but once I caught sight of Iron Bull by the fire with a tankard in hand, I thought I knew why. The Chargers sat at most of the occupied tables, laughing and carousing as they were wont to do. Krem, I noted, was standing on a chair as he narrated what must have been an enrapturing story, judging from the faces of his listeners. Opposite them, in the far corner, were Varric and Sera, playing cards, a pile of coins between them. The latter rogue glanced up at seeing me enter, but then suddenly put a hand to her forehead, as if to block her view of me. I frowned, wondering what her problem was, before I remembered she probably thought I was like some sort of demon; I was a creepy thing that wasn’t supposed to exist.

Ah well, she wasn’t far off the mark.

Remembering Maxwell’s story about his sister, I made sure to request an extra ale when I ordered my food – more ram stew with a chunk of fresh bread. Then, as soon as I turned around with my meal in hand, I saw Bull wave me over to his table.

“Why don’t you join me there, Tamsyn?” he said, gesturing at the seat opposite him. “I’d like to get to know you a bit better, if that’s all right with you.”

Shrugging, I made my way over to his table and plopped down, scooting the chair up closer. “Sure, I don’t mind. What do you want to know?”

“Well, one question, really. It’s been bothering me ever since your Herald told us about you.” He set his tankard aside and propped both elbows on the table’s surface.

“Fire away,” I said, taking a drink.

“You did make all that crap up about knowing the future and reading about us from some book and being from another world just so you could save your own ass, right?”

Despite my rather sour mood, his words very nearly made me spit my ale. I clamped my hand over my mouth as I half-choked, spluttering before I managed to swallow, and then outright laughed aloud, my face burning. He half-smirked as I recovered, but the look in his one eye told me he was actually serious about the question. Holding up a hand in apology, I replied, “Sorry, sorry. That was just delivered so humorously. Okay, you’re right about me saving my own ass. But I was telling the truth, too. Really.”

Hnngh,” he growled, pushing back in his chair and crossing his arms. “First magic holes in the sky and now future-telling people from other worlds…” He glanced away, staring at the wall for a long while in total silence. Then, he finally shook his horned head and glanced down at me, adding quietly, “So…that means you know about my other bosses, right?”

I had just taken a bite of bread, so I covered my mouth politely as I answered, “Yes, I do. Say no more.”

“Well, I have a feeling I should keep quiet about you. If they were to know about you on top of everything else, they might just decide to go ahead and launch a full-scale invasion to save the world from all this unexplainable magical Fade bullshit.”

I swallowed, the Dragon’s Breath operation swimming to the forefront of my thoughts. “Yeah it would, uh…be best if they didn’t.”

“Yeah…thought so.”

At that moment, a shadow neared our table, and I glanced up to see Blackwall approaching with a tankard and bowl in hand. “Mind if I join you two?”

“Sure, go ahead,” Bull replied. My mouth was full of stew at that point, so I merely nodded.

Blackwall seated himself beside Bull, groaning a bit as he eased himself down. “Cold does nothing good for the joints, eh?”

“Yeah, whatever you say, old man,” Bull teased.

“You’re no spring chicken, there, qunari,” Blackwall quipped.

At that moment, there was a roar of cheers. Glancing in the direction of the sound, I saw Maxwell enter the tavern, plucking his gloves from his hands. I thought he might grab a bite to eat himself, but instead, he headed directly to our table, dragging up another chair and sitting at the end. We all nodded to him respectfully in greeting as he sat, the scent of leather and pine accompanying his arrival.

“Tamsyn, I just had Leliana send off Barris’s letter,” he said, slightly breathless from the cold. “It should reach him soon. Let’s hope he can actually heed its words and flee Therinfal.”

“Let’s hope,” I echoed, staring down into my stew.

“We’re also leaving for Redcliffe the day after tomorrow,” the Herald continued, turning to Blackwall and Bull, “Cassandra has already expressed an interest in going, and I’m thinking of enlisting Varric and Solas as well. I thought perhaps you two could use a chance to grow familiar with Haven and rest after your travels.”

“That’s appreciated, Herald,” Blackwall said with a nod.

“You got a plan to get into that castle with some backup?” Bull asked.

Maxwell shifted in his seat, “Cullen and Leliana are working on that as we speak.” At that, he glanced back to me, “Any words of advice, Tamsyn?”

I pushed back my bowl and sighed, meeting his inquisitive gaze. “The most important thing you can do is listen to Dorian Pavus. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s a good man.” I paused, thinking about how I could word the dark red future I knew he was going to see. Then, leaning closer, I continued quietly, “You’re going to see some terrible things. It’s going to look bad…really bad. It’s going to eat at you, and you’re going to feel desperate. You’re going to feel like all is lost. But you can’t give up. The world really does depend on you, Herald. You have to succeed. And in order to do that,” I leaned back in my chair, “you must listen to Dorian Pavus. Trust him as you would any of us.”

His eyes searched mine as he tried to understand what I was saying, what I might be hinting at. Out of the corner of my own eye, I could see Bull and Blackwall exchanging looks. Perhaps of concern, but I couldn’t tell. Then, finally, Maxwell nodded in acceptance. “All right. I’ll be sure to do that, then.” With a sigh, he stood and put his chair back where he found it. “I’m going to go ask Varric if he wants to join us, and then I’m going back to my cabin. I need to catch up on rest if I’m going to be back into the field so soon. A good night to you all.”

“Good night, Herald.”

“Thank you, Herald.”

And with that, Maxwell left the three of us in somewhat uncomfortable silence.

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After the Herald had left our table, I exchanged proper pleasantries with Blackwall (during which, thankfully, he didn’t pry for how much information I knew about him). Not long after that, though, I, too, excused myself and left for my cabin, having finished my meal and both drinks. The day was quickly catching up to me, and that on top of my mood left me with little desire for anything other than my usual dreamless sleep.

I lay awake for some time, though, thinking about the war table meeting and how upset Cullen had been with me. He had every right to be, and I felt crushing guilt enveloping me. I had told him to trust me to know what I was doing. But honestly, I wasn’t sure if I trusted myself…

I thought about how long it had been since Cullen had given me the date. If my calculations were correct, it should have been around the fourteenth of Harvestmere by now. I nodded to myself; that sounded about right, judging from what future Fiona would say in Redcliffe once Maxwell was thrown into the midst of In Hushed Whispers. Only two more weeks left in the month. And if everything went according to plan, then Corypheus would arrive by that time.

It was too soon. All too soon. Time flew by far too quickly. And all I could do was buckle up, hang on for dear life, and hope for the best.

Chapter Text

Considering how upset everyone had been at the war table meeting, I figured it was best to hide in my cabin for the entirety of the following day, save for meals, even though doing so meant I had to send lame excuses to Delia and Strider to get out of my training sessions. Luckily, I saw no one of import during those brief outings to the Singing Maiden, and so I was able to put the argument I had with Cullen farther behind me.

Sort of.

Despite burying myself in the Chant and practicing runes (Josephine had given me my own quill, inkwell, and stash of parchment at one of our last evening teas), that quarrel still haunted me, just in a different way. Now I was afraid I had truly jeopardized our friendship. Or whatever it was we had right now. It was more than acquaintanceship, for sure, but only just. It didn’t seem strong enough to call actual friendship. But camaraderie, maybe? Mutual respect at least? It was such a delicate thing, it was difficult to name.

And now, I feared that little thing had been shattered.

Even though I was something of a Cullenite (though the term seemed almost unfitting considering the current circumstances), and that fact likely wouldn’t change anytime soon, I wasn’t fool enough to think that Cullen and I had a chance of being anything more than friends. It was just the way it was. Someone with his sense of protectiveness and devotion to doing the right thing would never completely trust someone who insisted on keeping secrets about events that would harm people in the future, no matter the reason. I had asked him to trust me, but I knew he probably wouldn’t. Maybe eventually grudgingly accept what I felt I had to do, but never trust me. Hell, if I were in his shoes, I wouldn’t be able to trust me. But before our little argument at the war table, I had just the tiniest hope we could at least walk away from this whole experience on friendly terms.

Now, I wasn’t sure that was possible anymore.

It was sad, really. It hurt. And this sorrow and pain was a dead weight on my shoulders as I brushed my teeth the morning of the Herald’s departure. The powder from the supplies Harding had given me I mixed with water into makeshift toothpaste, and it worked well enough, even if it did taste horrid. The only other downside was that I had to use my finger as a brush, and it was more than a tiny bit abrasive. Still, there was something therapeutic about it, and I found myself thinking a lot when I brushed my teeth, this morning being no exception.

I was forced out of my thoughts, however, when a loud knock came at my door.

Taking a quick drink from my waterskin to rinse my mouth of the pasty substance, I hastily moved to the door and opened it a crack. “Yes?”

To my mild surprise, Lea stood there, a note in her hands. Smiling broadly, she extended it to me with a small dip of her head. “Message from Sister Nightingale for you, Tamsyn.”

“Oh,” I slowly took the parchment from her, brows raised. What was this about? “Thank you.” Then, suddenly remembering what day it was and what events were planned, I added, “Hey…has the Herald already left for Redcliffe?”

She nodded in affirmation. “At dawn. They seemed to be in an awful hurry.” She briefly glanced back at the Breach before returning her jade gaze to me, cocking her head curiously. “Is it uh…is it true that’s going to be gone for good, soon?”

I gave her my best reassuring smile, “Yes, it will. The Herald will see to it.”

She smiled back widely, “Good. I’m glad, and I can’t wait.” She paused for a moment, and then added determinedly, “Then the world will see.”

I blinked as she turned and strode away, quickly disappearing into the bustle of activity that swarmed just outside the gates. Her reaction seemed to startle more than just me, because one of the guards cleared his throat rather awkwardly. After a breath or two, though, I smiled to myself and murmured, “Maybe they will,” before retreating back inside. I had a feeling Lea meant that the world would see that the Herald really was sent by the Maker to help them. I had spent enough time at card games with her that I was certain she was Andrastian…perhaps not the most outwardly devout, but Andrastian nonetheless. Having Maxwell’s future success against the Breach confirmed, or even just hinted at, seemed to boost her confidence immensely.

If only I could boost the Herald’s confidence in the same way, with as little words.

I hadn’t spent much time around Maxwell at all, but from what I knew of him thus far, he seemed entirely conflicted about his purpose and his circumstances. On the one hand, he appeared to be a good-hearted man fully willing to do his best to help people – to help the Inquisition succeed. On the other hand, though, he seemed doubtful that he really was Maker-sent, and that this whole “Herald of Andraste” title was a bit overmuch. He was already feeling overburdened, I could tell from the last meeting, and I wondered if he would feel differently about it all after the coming attack…

Shaking my head, I turned my attention to the note from Sister Nightingale, breaking the wax seal and unfolding it to read her usual neat script:

Tamsyn,

I have interrogated Butler. If we are to take his word for it, he acted of his own accord in response to the recent public display between yourself and Chancellor Roderick. Butler is convinced you are a fraud and a threat to the Chantry, with which he has aligned himself in opposition to the Inquisition.

I am not sure he has acted without sanction, however. We will be investigating the members of the Chantry here in Haven, including Roderick. I will inform you when we know more.

~ L

I refolded the note and stood there for several moments, feeling ill at ease. Despite Josephine and Vivienne’s hopes that my reputation as someone with knowledge of the future would be a potential weapon against the Inquisition’s rivals, something to use to their advantage, it seemed all it was doing right now was earning me enemies among our own.

------------------------------------------------------

Arggghhh!

I audibly growled my vexation, a cloud of hot vapor leaving my lips as my umpteenth arrow missed its target during practice that morning.

Instead of flinging trash skyward and having me shoot it down, Strider was now throwing things in a sideways arc for me to hit, and for some reason, this simple directional change made all the difference in my performance. Before, I was taking out targets one right after the other – the sound of the arrow leaving the string and striking broken pottery almost hypnotically rhythmic. Now, I was missing every single time again. It was as if I had been put right back to square one, and I was more than a little frustrated at this significant setback. I rubbed my arm furiously as Strider collected my arrows; he had given me a bow with increased draw weight, and I was sore again on top of everything else…

“Keep trying,” he encouraged gently, handing back the projectiles he had gathered from where they had landed into the snowbank ahead of us.

“Maybe if you didn’t throw the things so bloody damn fast,” I said, snatching the practice arrows from his gloved hand with feigned ire, “It wouldn’t be quite so difficult.”

“Right, because your target’s going to slow down for you just so you can hit it,” he quipped with a smirk.

“Oh, just shut it already and toss!”

I whirled towards the sound of Sera’s voice, eyes wide in surprise. She was standing right beside me, almost as if she’d been there the whole time, her bow in her hand and an arrow knocked.

“Wha-”

“I said toss!” Sera repeated, the irritation at being questioned obvious in her voice. I noticed her bow was knocked with real arrows, not practice ones.

Strider held up his hands in surrender, electric eyes wide and brows lifted before he bent and picked up a fallen pottery shard. In the space of a mere second, he flung the fragment forth and it exploded into dust, the arrow leaving Sera’s bow faster than I could register it happening.

“Keep ‘em coming, yeah?” said the elf, her bow already leveled for another shot.

For the next minute, Strider was hurling bits of garbage one right after the other. Anything and everything he pitched was shot down midair, no matter the speed or size. At one point, Sera even threw herself into a sideways roll and fired at a kneeling position. All the while, I watched with my mouth hanging open. I mean, I knew she was good, but this

When Strider finally ran out of things to throw, he was grinning from ear to ear. “Damn…we could use you as a scout, madam.”

“Name’s Sera,” she replied shortly as she straightened, returning her bow to its sheath on her back and moving to retrieve her fallen arrows. “Madam’s for big people. I’m just people. And no, that’s not what I signed on for.”

Strider shrugged, “Suit yourself.”

“What I always do,” Sera retorted as she quickly plucked the arrows from the snow and dropped them back into her quiver. Then, turning back towards me, she added, “You see now, yeah, Weirdy?”

My brow furrowed. “Uh…no…?”

She rolled her grey eyes at me, then seized my arm and pulled me back and forth in an exaggerated manner, “Mooooove. You’re standin’ like a statue. Target’s moving, you move, or you’ll never get it. Now do you see? Or do I need to get a picture book?”

I glanced back at Strider, and he shrugged again. “She’s got a point, really.”

“‘Course, I do,” Sera scoffed, “I’m not stupid. Unlike some people. And I don’t waste my time saying stupid things.”

I put my hand on my hip, and pressed my lips together as I asked Strider, “So you were planning on telling me about the moving bit at some point, right?”

He sighed and nodded, “Yes, but I thought it was best for you to figure out how to lead-”

“Well, it wasn’t working, was it?” Sera interrupted, pushing past me and continuing on towards the gates. “Time for a new plan or Weirdy here’ll be dead before she learns how to fight proper.”

I stood there watching, a bit wide eyed, as she marched away, wondering what in the world all that had been about. How long had she been watching me practice, and why was she so concerned about my training speed? After a breath or two, Strider broke the relative silence with a chuckle, “Apparently we’re going too slow to suit her.”

I sighed resignedly, “Well, if so, she’s got a point about that, too. We should pick up the pace.”

As Strider drew up beside me, he glanced sideways and squinted, “Are you expecting to be thrown into battle so soon, Lady Tamsyn?”

Unable to meet his striking gaze, I took a breath and glanced down at my toes, wiggling them in my boots.

“Sooner than I’d like, that’s for sure.”

------------------------------------------------------

Later, at lunch, I found myself sharing a table with Iron Bull again. Many of the tavern’s patrons were giving him a wide berth, and I didn’t want him to have to eat by himself, so I was the one who asked to join him this time.

“Sure,” he agreed, gesturing to the seat opposite him, “So how are things going? Any interesting news to share?”

I shook my head as I sat with my plate of ram roast and potatoes, “Not yet. There probably won’t be anything until the Herald returns.”

“Figures,” Bull replied, stabbing a few potatoes with his fork. “The Herald’s making everything happen. Not that people here aren’t doing that, too,” he gestured generically at the tavern, “But he’s going out there in the wide world, closing rifts, meeting people…the face of the whole thing. Problem is, the Inquisition doesn’t just need a face. It needs a head.”

I nodded in understanding as I took a bite of ram. He was right, of course. It just wasn’t the right time for it, yet.

“You advisors are planning that out already, aren’t you?” he asked before shoving his forkful of potatoes in his mouth.

I shook my head no, still chewing. The meat was a little tough. Might have been an old ram this time.

At that, he grunted his disapproval, taking a gulp of ale. “You should. If everything goes as your Herald says it’s probably going to…and the way you apparently know it’s going to…then the logical next step is to find the bastard that put it in the sky to start with, right? You’ve got everything you need for now, sure, but when that time comes, you’re gonna need a leader for direction, and the sooner you get that sorted out, the less scrambling you’ll have to do later.” He tore a chunk of ram meat from the whole with his fork and waggled the laden utensil at me pointedly, “Otherwise, you’ll all just be butting heads like this thing used to.”

I swallowed the meat I’d been chewing and chuckled. “That’s true.” Washing it down with my own drink, I added, “So, do you have any ideas for a leader, since you’re bringing this up? I understand you’re the rather observant type, Iron Bull. Who do you think fits the bill for Inquisitor?”

He smirked. “But if you’re what the Herald tells me you are, you already know who’s going to be the Inquisitor, don’t you?”

I smirked right back at him. “I do. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to hear your thoughts on the subject.”

He leaned backwards in his chair, looking thoughtful for a long moment before answering me. “Most would probably say Cassandra is the likeliest candidate. But from what I’ve seen and heard of her so far, she’s too hot-headed. She the type of person who comes across as impulsive, and then spends too much time contemplating those impulsive acts after the fact. Am I right?” he grinned at me like the Cheshire Cat.

I nodded in affirmation. His observation was pretty much spot on.

“Still got it,” he chuckled to himself, polishing his nails on the strap of his pauldron, which made me smile. “Red might be candidate number two,” he continued, “but I think she’d turn people away, not attract people to the cause. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that she doesn’t have the intelligence and reach…she’d have to have that in order to be your spymaster. She just doesn’t have the charisma. Although, something tells me she’s going through a rough time emotionally, and that might be affecting the outward persona she’s projecting to everybody else.”

I took another sip of ale, “Yeah. You probably already know this, but she is grieving for the Divine pretty hard. She took Justinia’s death rather personally.”

He nodded slowly in understanding. “Not the kind of someone you want spearheading the movement to find the Divine’s killer, then.”

“Precisely,” I agreed, taking a bite of roasted potatoes.

“So then you have Cullen,” he continued, leaning forward a bit and propping his elbows on the table. “I’ve watched him drilling with the troops…the man’s got skill. He’s also got leadership ability on his side. You can tell he has the hearts of his men already, and that’s half the battle.” He sighed, “Unfortunately, he’s limited to that arena. He’s got the demeanor of someone who doesn’t like wasting time with people other than his soldiers – I’ve already seen him go the long way around the village just to avoid a gaggle of Orlesian ladies. He’s comfortable giving and receiving orders, and that’s about it. Not exactly Inquisitor material.”

“Keep going,” I said, nodding as I continued to eat.

“You,” he began, “seem like someone already in over her head. You’ve got the burden of knowledge, and that’s more than enough to bear at the moment. You’re happy to stay here behind walls and troops and just help out however you can, hoping whatever you feed everyone is enough to keep them satisfied. You don’t want to be a leader, and certainly not the Inquisitor, even if you do know how things are going to go. Am I right?”

I was very nearly stunned at the accuracy of his assessment.

“You are, yes,” I said simply, taking another sip of ale to hide the brief flush in my cheeks.

“Of course I am,” he chuckled. “So that leaves the Herald. Like I said, he’s been the one out in the field, talking to the people, saving people, closing the rifts and fighting the demons no one else can go up against. He’s been carrying the message of the Inquisition not by pen and parchment but by presence. And he’s also been recruiting, not just soldiers and scouts and whatnot, but groups. Factions. He’s got Viv and her enchanters, Sera and her Jennies, me and the Chargers. Even though he doesn’t necessarily have the Wardens, he has one of them, and that alone carries some weight around here, especially after the Blight. And now he’s going after the rebel mages. Yeah, you all agree to it, but he’s the one out there with the final say. Because he’s already the Herald.”

“He seems more than a little troubled by all of it, though,” I remarked. “I’m not sure how he likes the responsibility that’s been foisted off on him already.”

“Of course he doesn’t like it,” Bull replied, “But the key thing is – he does it anyhow. Like I told him yesterday…the leaders among the qunari we pick because they can make tough decisions. That’s something that Maxwell has already been doing. In a way, you’ve encouraged him, maybe without even knowing you’re doing it. By laying out options on the table and having him choose because he’s the one sticking his neck out all the time, he’s been the one directing this whole thing all along. Even if, inside, he’s screaming. He does it anyhow.”

“So,” he concluded, picking up his fork again and digging at the lump of roast on his plate, “If anyone’s going to be your Inquisitor, I’d be willing to bet money it’s going to be the Herald of Andraste.”

I nodded slowly as I absorbed his words, and I offered him nothing more than a small smile in response.

------------------------------------------------------

That afternoon, after my sparring session, Delia, Rylen, and I found ourselves watching a particularly intense training session among some of the other troops. Ever since the attack, Delia had begun incorporating martial arts into our routine, including escape maneuvers. I was sore all over, now, particularly my hands, and I flexed my fingers to ease the dull ache in my knuckles.

The three of us stood together on the edge of the grounds, the two officers chatting idly while I looked on in silence. Just because I wasn’t engaged in their discussion didn’t mean I wasn’t listening, though, and I found their attempts at small talk rather cute. Judging from how many times I had caught Delia sparing a glance at Rylen on the practice field during our sparring sessions, I was fairly certain she had something of a crush on him. Rylen, too, seemed a bit less assertive around her, just the slightest hint of shyness in his responses to her questions.

Yep, I ship it.

The urge to turn towards them and smush the two together, then, was almost overwhelming.

But squashing that urge was the splendid sight before us…

Autumn was quickly transitioning into early winter – it was cold enough out to see your breath in distinct clouds of white vapor, the air was so frigid that breathing too quickly would set your lungs on fire, the water troughs at the smithy had to have the ice broken out of them every single morning now, despite being adjacent to the undying coals of the forge…and yet Commander Cullen Stanton Rutherford of the Inquisition was training with his troops entirely shirtless. He had stripped every article of clothing and every bit of armor from his upper half and was left only in his breeches and boots. He didn’t even wear his gauntlets to aid his grip.

And I, being the woman I was, couldn’t keep my eyes off of him.

As expected due to his current lifestyle and choice of career (and as I suspected ever since watching him entirely too closely the last time), he was quite physically fit, with a well-muscled chest, back, shoulders, and arms that would have most viewers either seething with jealousy or swooning with delight. He did not, however, look like some professional bodybuilder or wrestling champion, a fact for which I silently thanked the powers-that-be – God, the Maker, or whoever had blessed him with his marvelous build. No, he had the body typical of a soldier. And it was this body, with both its hardened planes and softer dips and valleys, that had my gaze trailing from his collarbones down to his lovely natural four-pack…

I wasn’t the only one staring, either. Those troops who weren’t being put to the test at the moment had a great number among them with their eyes glued to the Commander, too…and not for the purpose of learning technique, judging from how many gloved hands were hovering in front of mouths as their owners chattered away in groups.

He was trying to get some of the more raw recruits to see a particular feint-slash-block combination, taking each of them one-on-one in order to demonstrate, but it required a bit more coordination than some of the poor newbies had at the moment. I thought one young man in particular was going to have a nervous breakdown when he kept dropping his weapon after the Commander batted it away with ease. Cullen himself was looking increasingly irritated by the minute, his normally almost infinite patience with his troops obviously wearing a bit thin today. Even though he didn’t seem to be that tired from his own repeated maneuvers, he still appeared to be breathing rather heavily, and his skin was somewhat pale. Predictably, he ultimately dismissed the recruits and turned to stow his practice sword and targe at one of the large oaken barrels on the edge of the field, running one hand through his damp locks as he went.

Unthinking as I was, I figured these were just the symptoms of a long, hard day’s work for him, particularly if he hadn’t slept well. Had I been paying attention, though, I would have taken these things as the clear warning signs they were…

Suddenly, Rylen’s wolf-whistle pierced my thoughts like an arrow. Whirling around in surprise, I was met with his sly grin and a wink, the subtle wrinkles at the corner one grey-blue eye crinkling briefly. Beside him, Delia was fighting to keep from smiling at me, her arms crossed atop her chest and her lips pressed together to stifle her laugh.

“What?” I asked, but immediately regretted doing so.

“Ohoho!” Rylen chortled gleefully, sparing a glance to the Corporal, “‘What,’ she asks so innocently…as if we haven’t noticed her outright ogling the Commander there for the past five minutes.”

“I wasn’t ‘ogling,’” I retorted, mustering my best offended tone in a desperate attempt to be convincing.

Even though I totally was ogling him.

“Sure you weren’t, milady,” Delia teased with an eyeroll, giving the Knight-Captain a knowing look.

I could feel myself turning red even as I opened my mouth to utter another denial. But before I could speak, Rylen continued with a shake of his head.

“Wasn’t the only one, if she was. There’s a few I know I’ll be testing personally tomorrow to see if they really were paying attention, or if they found more value in gawking at their commanding officer than they did watching a lesson that could save their lives.” He then grinned widely, “That’s after I inform Cullen of just how many I saw go all slack-jawed in the ranks when his shirt came off.”

“That’s terrible!” Delia scolded. “You know how he is about that sort of thing…”

“I do,” Rylen chuckled, “and that’s precisely why I’m doing it.”

Although I was inclined to agree with Delia about teasing Cullen regarding his legion of admirers – a legion that was only going to grow – I kept my mouth shut, thankful for the quick diversion from my own inappropriate amount of attention to the Commander’s person. I was even more thankful when a messenger suddenly jogged up to Rylen and motioned to get his attention.

“Ser! The food caravan started from Jader, but their escorts are only going halfway because of pay. They’re requesting a company meet them around Orzammar and bring them the rest of the way here.”

Rylen sighed, “All right…let me see if I can’t round some people up. Corporal?”

“Right ser,” Delia nodded and then turned to me, “Work never ends around here, does it? Tomorrow, then, Tamsyn.”

“See you then, Delia,” I said, watching as the two of them strode for the gates after the courier, probably headed to the tavern to scrounge up volunteers before checking the rosters.

Heaving a sigh of my own, I spared a glance back towards the practice field, and my breath caught in my throat.

Cullen was sitting on a crate by his tent, head bowed forward, hands in his hair. And it didn’t look as if he was just taking a moment to breathe. Something in my gut told me he was ill.

I knew I was probably the last person he wanted to see right now, but I couldn’t just go back to my cabin knowing something was likely wrong with him. Steeling myself, I straightened my clothing and smoothed my hair under my hat – a seemingly habitual thing for me whenever I got agitated – and marched towards him, my hands subconsciously curling into fists. I made sure my footfalls were audible in the dirt as I approached, not wanting to startle him.

He didn’t look up as I neared.

“Commander?”

“Yes?” His response was almost breathless.

More than a little alarmed, now, I cautiously moved closer and knelt in front of him. “Commander, are you-” I started to ask, but then amended the question. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s,” he began, but then shook his head and dropped his hands so he could see me. “It’s nothing…I just…”

But the pallor of his face told me it was anything but nothing. His eyes were dulled and wandering, apparently unable to focus on me for very long.

“Come on,” I said suddenly, standing and gesturing to his tent, “let’s get you inside.”

“Tamsyn, this doesn’t concer-”

“You’re damn right it concerns me,” I quipped, his attempt to brush me off quickly raising my ire. “Now come on. I’m not leaving you alone like this.”

He set his jaw and managed to muster a rather intimidating glare, but with reluctance, he slowly rose to his feet. When he wobbled, I instinctively moved to support him, one arm going around his back, my other hand on his chest, ignoring the physical proximity as best I could. I could feel his heart hammering against his sternum, below my palm, and I could tell even through my gloves and jacket that his skin was feverishly hot. His breath was shaky as we ducked into his tent and I helped him walk to his cot. It was significantly warmer within, and I noted a strange brazier near the entrance – lidded and crafted so that the meshed basket would prevent any stray embers from setting the nearby canvas of the tent on fire.

“Maker, you’re burning up. What happened?” I asked, briefly wondering at how easy the Thedosian invocation came to my lips. “Did you let yourself get sick or…” I trailed, realization dawning as he slipped out of my grasp and onto the bed. “The lyrium. It’s the withdrawals, isn’t it?”

Cullen sank onto the cot like a limp sack of potatoes, hands on either side of him and gripping the edge until his knuckles were white. “I…I don’t know. It all started earlier today. All of a sudden, it was too hot…too cramped…so I took off my armor. But then it wasn’t enough, and…” he trailed, holding his head again and taking a shuddering breath.

Judging from that response, it almost sounded like a combination of things, more than just the withdrawals. His feeling hot and cramped, enough for him to have to remove his armor to alleviate it, made me remember his claustrophobia. Perhaps he was suffering from something PTSD-related in conjunction with the withdrawal symptoms? A panic attack caused by a bad memory? A nightmare from the night before? Had one event triggered the other?

“Do you want me to fetch Adan?”

“No!” he blurted, shaking his head, but then immediately regretting the movement as he reeled. “No, no…it’s…”

“Right, yes, I get it,” I interrupted, a little more harshly than I intended, but I was irritated at his need for secrecy. “No one needs to know but us, I know.” I sighed, trying to think of what I could do to help without alerting the healer. “Do you feel dizzy? Lightheaded? Do you have a headache?”

“Maker, yes,” he groaned, fingers kneading at his scalp. I assumed he meant all of that, then.

I bit my lip. I wasn’t sure elfroot would help, but if it alleviated pain, then maybe it would do something for the headache, at least?

“You need to lie down,” I said, pointing at the head of the cot. “This isn’t going to pass without rest if it hasn’t already.” I wasn’t a doctor, and I hadn’t the slightest idea how to treat lyrium withdrawals, but I had dealt with enough fevers in my life to know what to do about them, at least.

After a moment, he nodded in acquiescence, slowly swinging his legs up onto the cot and stretching out. Turning around, I added over my shoulder, “Stay put, Commander. I’ll be back shortly.” I then headed out of the tent with the intentions of going to my cabin to fetch a tonic from my stores. But one step out, I slammed right into a courier who’d been reaching to open the flap. His clipboard flew out of his hands, and the messenger himself fell flat on his rear on the hard ground. I quickly recovered from my stumble and moved to help him up, pulling him to his feet by his arms, retrieving his clipboard for him, and muttering apologies all the while…

…until I saw his periwinkle eyes nearly aglow under the shadow of his hood.

“Scout Jim?”

He nodded.

Suddenly struck with an idea, I seized his shoulder and implored, “Scout Jim, it’s good you’re here. I am in grave need of your help.”

“Help? From me?” his brows rose impossibly high, his eyes impossibly wide. “Wha-uh…what’s the matter, my lady? What can I do?”

“I need you to run to my cabin and fetch an elfroot tonic and a clean washrag,” I said, gripping his shoulder firmly to keep his attention as his eyes flicked over my shoulder towards Cullen’s tent. “The first will be in the big pack by my bed. The second will be in a stack on one of the tables.”

“Tonic and rag,” he nodded once in affirmation. “Got it! But,” he glanced at the tent again, “is the Commander all right? Is he hurt?”

I shook my head. “He just overworked himself. And that’s what you’re going to tell anyone else who asks about him or wants his attention this evening. Once you get back, I want you to stand guard outside and keep any busybody from disturbing him.” I released my grip, thrust the clipboard at him, and crossed my arms. “He’s simply done too much and he needs rest. Anything that needs to be dealt with can be seen to tomorrow. Send couriers with messages for him to my cabin instead. You can drop off whatever it was you were bringing for him there, too. You understand?”

He nodded again emphatically.

“Good. If anyone gives you any flak about it, tell them Lady Tamsyn ordered it,” I finished, remembering to make a show of my authority. “Now get going!”

“Yes, milady!” he saluted smartly and dashed off, nearly tripping over his own feet as he scrambled for the gates. All the while, I smiled to myself. He was good for something, at least. I just hoped he didn’t drop the supplies in his haste to obey my orders.

I ducked back into the tent to see Cullen with one arm behind his head, the other draped across his stomach with its hand clenched into a fist. His eyes were squeezed shut, a grimace plastered on his face. I was actually really concerned, now, as the color was almost entirely drained from him. He shivered, and I felt myself automatically going for the blanket at the foot of the cot. His eyes opened once more, then, and when I gave him a questioning look, he nodded, allowing me to drape the blanket over his legs and help him pull it up over half his torso. He still wore his boots, but I figured he didn’t care about that at this point.

“Water?” he rasped, and I glanced around for something to bring him. His waterskin lay on the pile of armor atop the small chest at the foot of his cot, and I snatched it up, uncorking it and proffering it to him. When he struggled to rise enough to drink, I bent to help him, holding the skin to his lips. He drank like a man dying of thirst until he drained the whole thing dry. Only when there was not a single drop left did I take it away, replacing it where I had found it.

“Andraste’s mercy,” he groaned as he eased back down, wringing his hands even as they trembled. “How can I be freezing and on fire at the same time?”

“You’ve a fever, Commander,” I said, “on top of your withdrawals. You’ve probably been pushing yourself too hard lately.” It was then I noticed just how dark the circles around his eyes were, and I squinted in suspicion. “You haven’t been sleeping well, have you?”

“I,” he began, and then shook his head, “No. I…I can’t. I haven’t been…at all.”

I pursed my lips. “How long?”

“Two…two nights in a row.”

Shit! You’ve got to-”

Before I could finish, though, the tent flap opened, revealing a red-faced and breathless Jim. “Lady Tamsyn! Your items, as requested!”

I quickly rushed over, snatched the rag and vial from the overeager Scout, and thanked him before physically turning him around and pushing him back out lest he get too much of an eyeful. “Good man, Jim. You know what to do now, yes?”

“Yes, milady! Of course, milady!”

I let the flap fall shut and then secured it closed so no one could enter after that if they tried. I was positive I wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon, and I didn’t need anyone intruding even if they somehow managed to convince Jim to go away. Knowing that particular Scout, though, I doubted the Maker himself could budge him. Turning back towards Cullen, I popped the cork from the vial of elfroot tonic and offered to help him with it. “Here. This should do a little something for that headache of yours.”

It took only a second for him to drink it down, and as he plopped heavily back onto the pillow, I set the empty vial aside. Then, moving towards the shallow bucket perched on a barrel by the desk, which served as a makeshift wash basin, I removed my leather gloves and threw them atop Cullen’s desk before wetting the rag in my hands.

“Why are you doing this?”

The question was so faint I barely heard it over the natural roar of Haven. Why indeed? I could have just as easily fetched a healer anyway. Or left him alone as he had asked. No, instead I was here, tending to him like I was a designated caretaker. As I soaked the rag in the cool water, the sloshing and dripping filling my ears, my thoughts wandered to the night he had brought me in out of the cold, gently wiping the frozen tears from my face with a similar rag…

“Because it’s the right thing to do,” I said after a moment, squeezing out the cloth somewhat and turning back to him. I took the stool from in front of his provisional desk and dragged it to his bedside before sitting down next to him, leaning forward and pressing the damp rag to his forehead. He hissed in a breath at the contact, and it was only a few seconds before I felt the heat permeating the cloth, as if I’d never even dunked it in the water to start with.

“We’ve got to get this under control,” I said firmly, and that was fact. It didn’t matter how he felt about it, his fever couldn’t go untreated. “Try to relax.”

There was a rigid nod, and I could see he was trying to control his breathing. I removed the cloth and waved it a bit in the air to re-cool the fabric before flipping it and pressing it to his forehead again. That somehow elicited a chuckle from him, and at my quizzical look, he remarked, “I haven’t been treated like this since I was a child with a particularly bad cold.”

I smiled a bit, “I take it you haven’t been ill often?”

“Fortunately,” he said. “This is the first time in years.”

I stood, going back to the basin to wet the rag again. As I did so, I thought about what he had said, about it being two days since he had slept fully. It had also been two days since our meeting…

“Was it me?” I asked as I wrung out the cloth.

“Pardon?”

“Our meeting,” I said, returning to the stool and putting the rag to his forehead once more. “You said you hadn’t slept in two days. Did I cause it?”

His brow furrowed under my hand. “No.”

I dropped my gaze to the mattress. “Are you sure?”

“It wasn’t you, Tamsyn,” he said, more firmly this time and with the slightest hint of annoyance as his amber eyes flicked my way. “Or anything you said.” There was a pause. “You know already why I can’t sleep.”

I huffed out a sigh, pressing the cloth to his temples with my fingertips. I could feel his pulse beating a tattoo under my thumb.

“The nightmares,” I supplied. “You didn’t want to sleep because the nightmares got bad again.”

“They’re always bad,” he corrected. “Just this time, they were worse. I couldn’t…”

“You have to try and rest anyway,” I said quietly, flipping the cloth over in my hands. “You can’t go without sleep and then push yourself so hard on the training field and with your paperwork and whatever else. I know you don’t want to experience those terrible visions another night, I know you wanted some relief, but if you don’t try to sleep anyway, you’ll kill yourself.”

I rose to dampen the cloth again, and when I returned, I made as if to move to his neck, but then stopped myself just inches away. “Um…is this okay?” I didn’t want him to feel choked or violated in any way, even though I knew he knew I was just trying to take care of him.

“It’s fine,” he said shortly.

I nodded my understanding, then, gently holding the cool rag to his pulse for several moments before wiping down his collarbones. I stopped there, though, suddenly conscious of our proximity and very nearly distracted by the wall of his chest and the trail of dark blonde hair there – something I had somehow managed to shove to the back of my mind until now. Fighting to keep a blush from rising in my cheeks, I settled on the stool and withdrew the rag, occupying myself with folding it neatly. “Are you feeling any better, yet?”

A ghost of a smile flickered across his lips as he pulled the blanket higher to cover his arms. “More cold than hot, now. But yes. A little.”

“Good,” I smiled. “Try to sleep, Commander. I’ll be here.”

“You don’t have to stay.”

“I know,” I said, standing and moving the stool back to his desk to give him some space, then crossing my legs as I sat again. “But I want to.”

An unreadable expression crossed his face at that, but it quickly melted away as he let his eyelids slide shut. It seemed he was tired enough to truly rest now, and so I said nothing more, hoping that the drone of the village and the comfort of company would let him fall asleep easily. I knew the possibility of him having a nightmare was great, and I wanted to stay in case his fever spiked afterwards. Or if it spiked anyway.

I bit my lip as I thought about it all. I knew if I could dream here, I would be having nightmares too, and I really wouldn’t be in a position to criticize him for not wanting to experience that. I had a difficult enough time pushing the memories of my attack and of my trek through the Fade behind me during the day. Sometimes I could still see Willem’s face as he died, still hear the god-awful sounds I had heard in the Fade. These things would most assuredly haunt me at night if it were possible. And there was no shortage of demons who would love to use those memories as weapons against me, either. I felt pity for Cullen, who had to deal with reliving such terror every single night, the memories of his torture never leaving him even after all this time, and the absence of lyrium amplifying everything that had been numbed over the years. In a way, despite the bizarre nature of my dreamless sleep, I felt incredibly lucky in comparison.

For hours I sat there, occupying myself only by straightening the errant piles of paperwork on his desk and reading the reports that lay on top of each. I watched him carefully, and when he finally slipped into a deep slumber I knew would bring repair to his system, the sound of his steady breathing becoming clearer in the quieter night air, I relaxed a little. Still, I elected to stay, despite my growling stomach, knowing that until he broke a sweat, it wasn’t over.

Despite my best attempts to stay awake and watch over the Commander, though, I eventually felt the dark shadow of sleep pulling at me, too, and I dozed off at his desk without knowing whether or not his fever had finally broken.

Chapter Text

When I finally woke, the first thing I became aware of was a slight heaviness pressing down on me. My cheekbone dug painfully into my forearm, and my legs were asleep from my thighs down, prickling and tingling when I shifted my weight. Slowly peeling my eyelids open, I took a deep breath and inhaled the wonderful scents of old wood and parchment…

Everything came back in a rush. Realizing I had fallen asleep sitting at Cullen’s desk, I sat straight up and glanced towards the cot.

He wasn’t there.

My heart leapt into my throat. Had he gotten worse? Had he gone to the healer? And had I missed it all like an idiot because I couldn’t stay awake? My eyes trailed to the footlocker at the foot of the cot. His armor was gone…

And then, I heard it.

“Again! Sound off!”

Yes, ser!

“One!”

Two!

“Three!”

Four!

Waves of relief crashed over me as I heard Cullen’s distinct barking of cadence beyond the tent, the collective shouts of the soldiers following his rhythmic calls. He’d made it out the fever and was back to work. As I sighed to ease my panic, my attention returned to the heaviness around my shoulders. Curious, I looked to find the source, and my brows rose in surprise.

He had draped his blanket over me, presumably to keep me from getting too cold.

I smiled. No, beamed. And blushed.

Shaking my head, but unable to stop grinning ridiculously, I stretched and slowly stood, shrugging off the heavy fabric. My grin quickly faded when my numb legs protested the movement mightily, making me wince as the feeling gradually returned to the nerves. I hissed in a breath as the limbs “woke,” leaning a hand on the desk to let off some of my weight for momentary relief from the maddening sensation. When my legs finally adjusted enough for me to walk without screaming or falling flat on my face, I folded the blanket and replaced it on Cullen’s bed. Then, I went back to the desk to retrieve my gloves and my hat, the latter of which had slid off of my head when sleep had overtaken me.

But when I moved my gloves, I noticed a piece of parchment had been folded and tucked underneath them. Or at least, I thought it had; I didn’t remember throwing them on top of any paperwork. Pulling the paper out from under the gloves, I carefully unfolded it to see only two words written there in a tight, slightly slanted Orlesian script:

Thank you.

~ C

I looked up from the parchment, slowly refolding it with eyes wide. Cullen had given me a thank-you note. And had kindly written it in Orlesian, so I would have no trouble at all understanding him.

My inner fangirl squealed so loudly Cole could probably hear it all the way across Ferelden.

I opened the note once more and indulged myself by reading it again, shamelessly studying the handwriting and admiring how neat it was. It wasn’t like Leliana’s smooth and evenly-spaced cursive, nor was it as swirling and embellished as Josephine’s practiced penmanship, but it was still very pretty. It was such a stark contrast to the blockiness of the runic letters he had written in his chain correspondence with the other advisors.

I shook my head and smiled to myself as I absorbed this information. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that Cullen might know how to write in Orlesian just like Josie and Leliana, but it made complete sense, now that I thought about it. The Chantry originated in Orlais…it would be not unlike Catholic priests knowing how to read Latin. There were probably mandatory lessons with the Orlesian Chant of Light during Templar training.

Folding the note a final time, I tucked it into my sash for safekeeping. I was relieved to know that Cullen actually appreciated me staying to take care of him and didn’t appear to be angry at me for ignoring his initial protests against my aid. I knew it was rather difficult to refuse help when truly ill, even when verbally objecting. But I had feared that, afterwards, he would be upset that I couldn’t mind my own business, and that I invaded his personal space. I was glad to see that didn’t seem to be so.

Still, it didn’t erase the fact that I had invaded his personal space. Memories of helping him into the tent flooded back – the feeling of his muscled back and chest beneath my gloves, and of his heart thumping powerfully below my palm. My mouth went dry and my cheeks flushed hotly at the thought of it. Swallowing, I reached for my gloves, pulling them on and trying desperately to direct my mind away from the formerly shirtless Commander whose tent in which I was still loitering. Huffing out a sigh, I made sure I was presentable, smoothing my hair under my hat, and departed for my cabin.

When I emerged, Cullen was still barking cadence to the troops, who were engaged in calisthenics while fully armored. I walked quickly past the training area, not giving anyone on the sidelines a chance to talk to me; I didn’t want to have to explain myself to any curious minds that happened to witness me leaving his tent.

That might cause some problems.

The sun was blindingly bright today, already high in its arc overhead, and I noticed, then, that I had slept late enough to completely miss Strider’s practice. I cursed inwardly; he’d surely ask me about it tomorrow. Or today, even, if he could catch me.  I’d tell him the truth, of course, but I’d have to keep it minimal.

Then, suddenly, my stomach growled rather obnoxiously, as I had now been without both yesterday’s supper and this morning’s breakfast. I glanced longingly in the direction of the Singing Maiden, but shook my head “no” to myself and wrapped my arms about my torso, ducking into my cabin instead. I couldn’t eat just yet. I still had one more thing to do regarding last night’s events.

To my great relief, it seemed Jim had done just as I asked and directed all messengers for the Commander to my cabin. When I entered, I found a sizeable stack of parchment waiting for me on my table. They were all folded, though, and so the volume of the stack made the amount of paperwork appear much larger than it really was. Still, it was an impressive pile of correspondence for the Commander to have to sift through. I almost felt bad for having temporarily withheld so much information from Cullen, some of which might have been time sensitive. But then I reminded myself that, in his state, he couldn’t have handled it anyway.

After refreshing myself a little, I moved to the table and sat down, preparing to write a note for Cullen that I would send by messenger along with the rest of the letters. I pushed aside my work with the Chant, procured a fresh piece of parchment, and thought for a moment, quill poised in midair. Should I write in the common script or Orlesian? Cullen had gone out of his way to write in a tongue I could easily understand. Thus, after a breath, I decided I would do the same. Slowly and carefully, I dipped my pen into my inkwell and scrawled out a small message for him in my best runic letters:

Commander,

Due to last night’s events, I had these letters directed to me. I did not want you to have to worry about them while you were indisposed.

~ Tamsyn

Laying the quill aside, then, I blew on the parchment to dry the ink. I had debated signing with a title of some sort, to make it more professional, but I wasn’t quite sure what to put, and so, ultimately, I just left my name. The others signed only their names all the time, so hopefully it wasn’t impertinent.

Of course it’s not impertinent. You’re an advisor, too!

I sighed heavily as I stood and folded the note and then collected the messages, remembering how I had acted towards Jim when ordering him to help me. In retrospect, it felt incredibly awkward, as it seemed so pretentious. Why was it so difficult to accept the fact I was on equal footing with the rest of the Inner Circle and that I needed to behave that way?

You’re an advisor too, Tamsyn. I reminded myself. You’re an advisor, too.

But despite trying to drill that fact into my own head, I doubted I would ever grow comfortable with it.

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After I had made sure the Commander’s backlog of messages would reach him, I headed to the Singing Maiden for an early lunch at last. I was positively starving, and the wonderful smell of freshly baked brown bread and roasted meat that wafted lazily from the tavern made my mouth water. When I entered and allowed my eyes to adjust to the dim lighting, I noticed that the establishment was much less busy than usual, and so I took my food – Flissa’s signature stew – and found a secluded table in the far corner to enjoy my meal in relative solitude.

That was when I noticed a few looks.

I hadn’t been aware of them at first, being as preoccupied with eating as I was. But when I finally lifted my gaze from my bowl for the first time after sitting down, I noticed a pair of soldiers glancing at me from time to time as they talked in hushed tones across the room from me. One of them, the one whose face I could see the most clearly, would smile occasionally. Actually, it was more like a smirk of amusement.

Did I have stew on my face?

I wiped tentatively at my mouth with the back of my hand. Nothing came off. Frowning, I self-consciously straightened my hat and tugged at my breastplate, desperately trying to somehow both alleviate the situation causing such stares and return my attention to my stew while ignoring the gossips. That was made more difficult, however, when a stray glance revealed another group of soldiers with their eyes wandering in my direction.

It was hard to keep eating when I kept thinking there was something wrong with my appearance. Thankfully, however, a welcome distraction arrived shortly thereafter in the form of Blackwall. After spotting me from where he stood at the counter, the not-Warden wandered casually over to my table with his lunch in hand. “Do you mind some company, my lady?”

“Not at all.” I gestured at the chair opposite me, where his bulk would conveniently block the view of some of the staring soldiers. “Go right ahead.”

“Thank you.” He slid into the seat, sighing heavily as he settled his weight with the distinct creak of leather. “Ah, you’ll forgive me, but I don’t exactly know how to properly address you,” he added.

“Oh,” I blinked at him, wondering why that was a concern for him. “Just Tamsyn is fine. I think I would prefer it, really. I mean, after I officially joined the Inquisition, people started calling me ‘Lady Tamsyn,’ but I think that’s for the same reason you’re asking me about it. I don’t have a title other than Advisor for the Inquisition.” I paused, and then added with a snort, “And I’m certainly not nobility.”

He chortled at my addendum. “Very well, Tamsyn. Although, I probably will continue to address you as ‘lady,’ for the most part. You are, after all, higher in the chain of command than I am, and old habits are hard to break, as the saying goes.”

“Not a problem,” I replied, dipping my bread into my stew and letting it soak up some of the flavorful broth. “It doesn’t bother me.”

“Good,” he said, smiling behind his beard. Afterwards, we ate in silence for several moments before he glanced up. “You seem quite well-settled considering you haven’t been, ah, here very long. How are other people taking it?”

“As well as you can imagine,” I smirked after swallowing a chunk of bread. “First I was crazy. Then I was either crazy or sent by the Maker. Now I’m just ‘that weird girl we can’t explain but she knows the future so use her to your advantage.’” I squinted at him curiously, “Why, how are you taking it, Warden Blackwall?”

His brows quirked a little at the question. “As well as you can imagine,” he replied, echoing my answer, which elicited a chuckle from me. “I have to admit, it’s difficult to wrap the mind around someone like you actually existing. Then again, it’s also difficult to wrap the mind around the Breach existing, but it does all the same.”

“Sound logic,” I remarked, spooning the last of my stew into my mouth.

He nodded. “I think it helps that you’ve meshed with our way of life so well already. Makes your origins easier to overlook. Or even forget about.”

“My thoughts exactly,” I said with a wry smile. “I figured running around screaming ‘I’m from another world’ all the time wouldn’t exactly do me any favors.”

He gave a quiet hmph of amusement at that and returned to his meal. I finished off my bread, too, and so we both sat in silence for several more moments. It was then I noticed yet another group of soldiers in the tavern with eyes straying in my direction. I could feel the tips of my ears getting hot, and I couldn’t stand it anymore.

“So, Blackwall, can you tell me something?” I began, wondering if he had any clue as to what was so damned fascinating to these people who couldn’t stop looking at me.

“Hmm? Sure, what’s on your mind?”

“Why are all these people staring at me?”

At that, Blackwall’s brows furrowed heavily, and he glanced around at the taverngoers, who were suddenly aware of being watched and abruptly focused their attention back on their food. He seemed quite perplexed for a moment, his expression one of puzzlement. “Well, I don’t rightly…” He started before he trailed off as realization seemed to strike. It dawned across his face as he slowly turned back towards me, nodding to himself. “Oh…I think I know what this is all about.”

“What?” I asked, eager for any clarification at this point. “What’s the matter?”

He sighed and leaned across the table, lowering his voice to barely above a whisper. “Apparently word has gotten around camp that a young lady went to the Commander’s tent yesterday evening and didn’t come out all night. I didn’t catch a name at the time I heard the rumor being passed around by some guards, but judging from these looks you’re getting, they must think it was you. And, ah,” his grey-blue gaze dropped to the table, “you can imagine how wagging tongues have interpreted that.”

My eyes widened and my mouth dropped open, my spoon clattering in my bowl. “Oh my God…”

The soldiers thought I had slept with their Commander.

My face fell into my hands with an audible smack of leather against skin. My cheeks were on fire, and I felt like I was going to throw up. I was so stupid and caught up in the moment that I hadn’t anticipated something like this, and I bloody well should have. I hadn’t cared about anyone watching me help Cullen into his tent or setting Jim as a guard at the time I had done it. I had been briefly concerned this morning when I had left, but I was thinking more along the lines of trespassing where I didn’t have any business being. I had managed to naïvely forget about all the other possible implications my presence there might have to observers.

Those who had not asked Jim had just assumed they knew what was going on. And probably some of those who had asked Jim thought he was just covering for the Commander or feeding lies I told him to tell…

“It’s not really any of my business,” Blackwall added, “but if it’s a false accusation…”

“That’s the problem,” I whined, one hand plopping atop the table, causing the dishes to rattle. “I did go to his tent last night and didn’t come out until morning, but I didn’t sleep with him!”

As Blackwall’s expression shifted to one of curiosity, I explained, “He was ill! He overworked himself and didn’t want a healer, and I couldn’t, in good conscience, leave him alone with a high fever!” Even though I left out the details of why exactly he was indisposed, it was still the blunt truth of the matter.

At that, Blackwall grunted his understanding, “I see. So you stayed with him to make sure he came out of it all right. A truly innocent deed, but one that’s gotten misconstrued by those who don’t know the details. And now it’s putting you both through the grind of the rumor mill.”

“Yes,” I said, putting my face back in both hands. I almost wanted to cry. Cullen was going to kill me if he had to deal with the repercussions of this, I just knew it…

“Would it help to say the rumors aren’t exactly negative in nature?” Blackwall added tentatively.

What?” my voice was muffled behind my hands, but I pulled them down slightly so I could see him over my fingertips.

“Well,” he grinned a little, “judging from what little I’ve heard, most seem to think it’s something of a good thing if the Commander…ah…”

“Got laid,” I finished flatly. “Which, he didn’t.”

Blackwall chuckled, “I believe you, Tamsyn.” He then turned serious again as he continued, “But I’m sure that does nothing to change the fact your reputation is still on the line for as long as these rumors are alive. The Commander may not fall in the eyes of the public as much, but I’m honestly not so sure what they think about you in this falsified situation.”

Great. Just great. What was I going to be, now? The slattern who finally gave General Uptight a good night? I slid down in the chair and put my forehead on my arms, wanting nothing more than to sink through the floor and disappear.

“If it’s any consolation, my lady,” he reached forward and patted my elbow consolingly, “rumors like these usually go through the mill fairly quick. In a few days, they’ll probably forget all about it.”

“Good,” I replied, not lifting my head.

Because I sure as hell wouldn’t.

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As if the day couldn’t get any worse, following an intense practice with Delia that had a somewhat larger audience than usual – and during which I had worked very hard to make myself pass out from exhaustion – I received an invitation to tea with Josephine, Vivienne, and Leliana that evening.

I was almost positive that all three of them had already caught wind of the same rumors that Blackwall had, and I certainly didn’t want a lecture on decorum or to spend my time there getting needled for information about something that hadn’t happened. But I felt in my gut that was exactly how things were going to go down.

I went to the Chantry that evening with a knot in my stomach that refused to go away, along with sore muscles and a burgeoning headache.

Part of me didn’t know why I was so upset about the rumor going around about Cullen and me. People were going to talk. People were going to make up things and gossip about false information, and no one could really stop them. That was just common sense. No matter if they though it was true, I knew it wasn’t true, and so did Cullen. Plus, wasn’t it better for morale to go up a little bit through sharing a silly rumor than it was to go down with the knowledge that the Commander had actually gotten ill from overworking himself? That sounded like something Leliana would say about it all…

Even so, it was something that could be used against us – at the very least, to drag our names through the mud and discredit us. After all, we were talking about the same society where it was perfectly fine for nobles to cheat on a spouse so long as one wasn’t discovered doing so, but the very instant word got out, it was all “tut-tut-tut…destroy them!” The act itself wasn’t frowned upon, no – it was the matter of getting caught. And, for all intents and purposes, true or not true, Cullen and I had gotten “caught.” All because I wanted to heed his desire for secrecy and yet still help him recover…

Damn it…

When I finally entered Josie’s office, the Ambassador, Leliana, and Vivienne were already there with teacups in hand. They looked up together when I walked in, all giving me small nods of greeting.

“Am I late?”

“Of course not, Tamsyn,” Josephine reassured me from where she stood by her desk, pouring a fresh cup and extending it to me, “We just decided to start a little early.”

“Oh,” I said quietly, accepting the tea with a tentative smile and perching on one of the side chairs near the door. In an attempt to appear oblivious regarding the current calamity, I asked casually, “So, what shall we talk about today, ladies?”

“First,” Leliana began, setting her cup and saucer aside with a small clink. “Yes, we’ve already heard the rumors, and yes, we’ve already enacted a solution, so you need not worry yourself with it.”

My mouth dropped open, and I nearly let the cup and saucer slide out of my hands in shock.

“Jim was quite helpful, you see,” the Nightingale continued. Her enigmatic smile, which I assumed was intended to be one of amusement, was actually more than a little disturbing to witness. “You were fortunate that you decided to use one of my most honest scouts last night.”

Painfully honest, if I may say,” Vivienne remarked from her usual chair.

“He told us all about what happened with the Commander,” Josephine elaborated. “Of his sudden illness, and how you employed him to fetch items to help the situation…”

“You did a good thing, darling,” Vivienne added, “even if it was a bit neglectful of your own image. But you shouldn’t be punished by a vicious public for selflessly helping one of our own through a difficult time like you did.”

Josephine nodded her agreement. “Especially if that vicious public is our own soldiers and workers.”

“So,” Leliana crossed her arms as she leaned back against the Ambassador’s desk. “We decided to start some rumors of our own…rumors that the lying gossips spreading the word about your supposed night with the Commander are, in fact, purposely trying to sabotage our work by besmirching our good name. That they are, quite possibly, Chantry plants ordered to bring scandal to the Inquisition’s doorstep.”

Vivienne took a sip of her tea and elegantly returned her cup to her saucer, almost without sound. “That is to say, Tamsyn, that I think your problem will dissipate in no time.” Gesturing to my own tea, then, she added, “Do drink up, my dear, before it gets cold.”

I was stunned…too stunned to say anything for several awkward moments, during which I took a rather unlady-like gulp of tea to fill the void. At last, though, after clearing my throat, I found my voice.

“I, uh…thank you,” I said, glancing to each of them. “I mean…in retrospect, I probably didn’t handle it in the best way, but…thanks. I really appreciate the help.”

“I would advise you be wary of your surroundings in the future,” Vivienne replied as I drained my cup with my next drink from it. She was right. It was already almost cold.

“Agreed,” Josephine added. “Though the concern you no doubt had for the Commander’s privacy and the morale of the soldiers is appreciated.”

Knock, knock, knock.

The sudden rapping on the door had the Ambassador’s brows arching high. “Come in!”

After her answer, the door opened rather forcefully, and Cullen himself ducked in, immediately locating me with his sharp amber gaze. Pin-drop silence in the office followed.

Shit. He knows now, too, I thought, feeling my palms breaking out into a sweat in my gloves. The other advisors may not have been that disappointed in me, but that didn’t mean the Commander wouldn’t place the blame for the gossip in the ranks firmly on my doorstep.

“I’m not interrupting anything too important, am I?” he asked, looking between us.

“Not at all, Commander,” Josephine replied, her smile warm and welcoming. “What do you need?”

“Just to talk with Tamsyn…if you have a moment?” his gaze flicked back to me questioningly. I glanced to Josephine, and she merely nodded her acquiescence. Beside her, I could see the corner of Leliana’s mouth curling upwards ever so slightly.

Despite the tenfold return of my anxiousness, I excused myself as politely as I could – trying desperately to ignore the looks exchanged between the women as I left – and followed Cullen out of Josephine’s office. I listened to her office door slowly creaking closed behind us, the rhythmic thump and jangle of the Commander’s footsteps in front of me. We were halfway out of the near-empty Chantry when he turned into one of the shadowed side alcoves, out of the way of the main thoroughfare.

“Are you…are you feeling better?” I asked to break the awkward silence that hung between us, my voice feeling unnaturally loud in the quiet stone hall even though I was almost whispering.

“I am, yes,” he replied, his voice just as hushed. And indeed, he did appear to be better. Much better. The color had returned to his skin, and his eyes were bright and clear, illuminated even in the shadows from the torchlight. “The fever broke in the middle of the night, thank the Maker, and my headache is gone.”

“Good,” I said with a sheepish smile. “I’m afraid I wasn’t aware of it when it happened, despite my intentions of making sure you pulled through all right.”

“I saw where you fell asleep at my desk.” His voice was still quiet as he spoke, and he shook his head. “Tamsyn, you didn’t have to stay that long. You didn’t have to stay at all, much less set a sentry and keep the messengers at bay.”

I shrugged, “Well, Jim was there and available, and I didn’t want him or any other nosy busybody bothering us, so…”

He chuckled a bit, “I wondered for a moment why I found him asleep on the ground outside under one of the braziers this morning. Then I realized you must have put him there, and didn’t tell him when he could leave.”

My cheeks heated. I had neglected to tell him that. Woops. It was a wonder he hadn’t frozen to death.

Cullen sighed. “Regardless…you found my note, I know, but I would like to tell you again in person: thank you. I appreciate what you did.”

“Well, uh…you’re quite welcome, Commander,” I said. “Like I said, it was the right thing to do.” I paused, scrambling for something else to say to make this less awkward. Giving a nervous laugh, I added, “You know, I was actually afraid you might be angry at me when you recovered.”

“Angry? Whatever for?”

I bit my lip as I let my gaze fall away from him, unable to meet his eyes. “Well, you did seem irritated at me at first, and then I went and started ordering you around, and I invaded your personal space, and-”

I stopped abruptly as he put both his hands on my shoulders and squeezed firmly in order to silence me. “Tamsyn…it’s all right.”

I blinked up at him. “Are you sure? I mean…” I trailed, guilt eating at me. “You know about the rumors, right?”

He sighed heavily once more as he released me, his eyes rolling towards the ceiling. “Yes. And if there is anyone I should be angry at, it’s the soldiers who started such a rumor and not you.”

Utter silence followed. I had to admit, I was somewhat surprised at his reaction. So, he wasn’t upset at me after all for sparking such talk amongst his men?

He must have sensed my astonishment, as he continued, “They are soldiers, Tamsyn. They think of family and home and the cause, yes, but they also think a great deal about, ah, personal affairs…” his hand went to his neck in his signature gesture of bashfulness. “Perhaps too much,” he added flatly, “and it’s not enough to share tales of their own exploits, but they have to make them up for entertainment as well.” He dropped his hand and shook his head again, “That they start rumors about me is expected, even if it is a breach of decorum. But dragging you into it is the outside of enough. I can only hope Leliana’s solution to the issue returns quick results, because talking to them would only fan the flames.”

Remembering what the others had said to me just a few minutes prior, I shook my head. “I should have been more mindful of how it would look. I’m sorry; this is mostly my fault, really.”

At that, his brow furrowed heavily, his golden eyes searching mine. “It is not your fault, Tamsyn. If anyone is to blame, it is I, for putting you in that situation to begin with. You were right…I should not have neglected my health because of my fears. Had I not, you would not have had to help me in the first place.”

After a moment of holding that soul-piercing gaze of his, my only answer was a sigh, putting my forehead in one hand. Was this going to be our thing, now? Taking the burden of blame off of each other all the time?

Before I could say anything more, he withdrew a folded piece of parchment from his vest. “In any case, I have something for you that might cheer you up. I interrupted your meeting because I thought perhaps you would like to know about this before the others. Especially since you had so much to do with it.  Here,” he said, extending the parchment to me with a small smile pulling at the corner of his mouth, stretching his scar ever so slightly. Oh, how that smile made me weak, and I forcefully focused my attention on the piece of paper, hoping the shadows hid my glowing cheeks.

I froze though, when I saw the familiar red and white ribbon under the broken wax seal.

A Templar letter. Could it be?

Eagerly opening the parchment, I found a slanted runic script awaiting me, and I squinted as I slowly read the contents within:

Commander Cullen,

We have left Therinfal, following the advice of your Herald. There was a struggle at the gates, but we managed not to suffer any injuries among our own. I will tell you more when we arrive.

We are headed to Haven, and we should arrive in a week’s time, if we push our horses. I hope your base is prepared for two dozen more Templars.

~ Knight-Templar Delrin Barris

My mouth fell open, my eyes widening in disbelief. Once I processed that this was indeed real, that it was really happening, I could barely contain my elation, and as I looked back up at Cullen, it seemed he shared in my excitement, his smile widening.

“It worked!” I nearly squeaked as I tried to keep from outright squealing my delight in the noiseless Chantry. “It…It actually worked! They’re coming! Here!

He chuckled at my reaction. “Yes, they are. That’s two dozen lives you rescued from the machinations of an Envy demon. Well done, Lady Tamsyn,” he said, obviously pleased that his former Order could be salvaged in some way after all. For a minute, his face positively glowed with pride. But then, that glow faded somewhat as he added somberly, “Though I wish there were more, I suspect the others left behind are already…too far gone to be saved.”

I nodded, immediately sobering. There were still going to be Red Templars, but there would at least be two dozen fewer to spread the infection, now.

“However,” he continued, “we mustn’t forget that this is a significant victory for us. Barris’s men will add much needed reinforcements to our ranks. The only problem now is going to be integrating them with the rebel mages once the Herald returns with them from Redcliffe.”

I chewed on my lower lip again. I had neglected to think about that part. Something told me that Barris and Fiona might butt heads if they weren’t kept separated. And if not them, then most certainly their underlings. “They have to work together,” I replied firmly, and was met by a nod of agreement from Cullen.

“They will. We will find a way.”

Chapter Text

Two days later, the Herald returned once more.

It was as if the entire settlement held its breath as Maxwell, Cassandra, Solas, Varric, and Dorian all rode into the village, followed by the entirety of the rebel mages who had taken refuge in Redcliffe. I watched them arrive from a distance, standing on a wooden tower behind the palisade alongside one of the watch guards. It was snowing again, thick and fast this time, and I had to squint to count their number as their silhouettes moved through the grey.

There were at least three dozen mages that I could see, with Fiona leading them, their heads and shoulders bent forward against the heavy snowfall. There could have been more, and I knew Fiona would likely call more rebels to us…those who were yet hiding in the wilderness. Many of the mages who accompanied the former Grand Enchanter still wore their Circle robes – however tattered, faded, and stained – with heavy cloaks draped about their white-dusted shoulders and using their twisted staves as walking sticks. They were a bedraggled lot, wearied by travel and stress and cold. But there was something else there, too…something in the way they walked that betrayed more than just physical fatigue or emotional exhaustion.

Behind them was another small group – the contingent Leliana and Cullen had sent to support Maxwell and his companions. There, sandwiched between two soldiers, hands shackled and his head bowed in defeat, was Gereon Alexius.

Instead of meeting the group at the stables, I instead elected to head for the war room to get out of the elements. The other advisors appeared to be of the same mind, as I saw Cullen squeezing past the crowd at the gates right after I descended the watch tower, and in the distance, near the Chantry, I caught a glimpse of Leliana as she quickly strode past the campsite for the doors. Cassandra would no doubt direct Maxwell to the war room herself, and I could save meeting Dorian and Fiona for another time.

When I ducked into the Chantry but a minute later, I let out a long and shivering breath. It was miserably cold out. The temperature had always been below freezing in Haven ever since I arrived, plummeting an untold number of degrees lower at night. But now, with winter slowly creeping around the Frostbacks like icy fingers, the air outside was almost painful…especially when the sky was blanketed with thick clouds, like it was now. The snow swirled around my ankles as I pushed open the heavy, creaking doors, and I was just moving to close them behind me when I saw Cullen jogging to catch up. I hesitated long enough for him to slip inside beside me before quickly pulling the doors shut again; the Chantry itself wasn’t that warm, but it was better than the outdoors by simple virtue of sheltering from the biting wind and stinging snow alone.

“Thank you,” Cullen said breathlessly, nodding to me in greeting as we both continued on into the Chantry, walking side-by-side. There was snow stuck in the fur of his mantle and in his hair, and his nose was pink from the cold. Nevertheless, he seemed to be in good spirits, a faint smile curling the corners of his mouth upwards.

“Excited by the Herald’s return, there, Commander?” I teased.

He chuckled lightly. “Perhaps. I am eager to see the Breach dealt with. Once we ensure that is no longer a threat, we can finally focus our attention on hunting down the bastard who created it, and afterwards, return some sense of stability to the world.”

“You have an awful lot of men, now,” I observed, remembering just how many troops I had seen on the grounds. It was an impressive number. “Enough to almost be called a small army, in fact. What do you plan on doing with all those soldiers once the demons are beaten back?” I knew full well what was really going to happen with them, but I was curious as to what the goal originally was before Corypheus’s attack…

“Well,” he began, gaze fixed somewhere ahead of us as we traversed the Chantry’s interior, “outside of our efforts against the Divine’s murderer, the primary order of business would be to stamp out the marauders taking advantage of the chaos and secure the roads in Ferelden, the Empire, and the Marches. Until they are clear, food and other supplies cannot safely be transported to the areas that need them most, and until we do that, the people will continue to suffer. We should take note of any damaged infrastructure and do what is necessary to keep travel smooth and uninhibited until the respective nations can handle their problems more effectively.” He paused, and then frowned a bit as he added, “We will also need to deal with the Envy demon left behind at Therinfal, along with whatever fallout this red lyrium mess has caused. We cannot afford for that madness to continue unchecked.”

He slowed to a halt outside Josephine’s office and glanced sideways at me as I drew up beside him. “You know what we’ll be doing, though, don’t you? Rylen said something about you telling him he’d have his own fortress in the Western Approach someday.” His eyebrow cocked at me. “That would require manpower even greater than what we have here. And certainly more resources to maintain. Are you saying that our hunt will take us that far? Into the desert wastes?”

I sighed, nodding in affirmation as I let my gaze fall towards the floor. “Yes. And then some. Make no mistake, Commander, this isn’t just a hunt for some apostate on the loose…this really is a war.”

“Truly?” he asked, and I looked back up at him to see both surprise and concern written in the furrow of his brow and the squint lines that emerged at the corners of his eyes. “Then you are also saying that some sort of ar-”

He stopped as Josephine’s office door suddenly opened and the Ambassador stepped out, followed closely by Leliana. I silently gave thanks to the Maker for this interruption, because he was getting dangerously close to making me spill the beans about Corypheus’s army.

“Ah! There they are!” Josephine said, giving us both a bright smile. “Are we ready?”

Yes.”

Cullen and I answered at the same time, making us both look at each other with wide eyes and apologetic expressions.

“Well,” Leliana chuckled, “I think it is safe to say they are both in agreement. What do you think, Josie?”

Josephine, too, stifled a small laugh. “I think you are right, Leliana.”

Cullen cleared his throat loudly as we filed into the war room, then, taking our places and waiting for Cassandra and Maxwell to arrive. No one had any reports to speak of, and so I assumed the meeting would serve solely to gather information about Redcliffe and the mages, as well as develop a rough plan for the Inquisition’s next move.

We didn’t have to wait long. The heavy booted steps of the Herald and the Seeker were audible for several moments before they entered, and when the door finally slammed open, I saw that they hadn’t bothered removing either their armor or weapons yet, save their helms. Both of them were red-faced from the biting cold.

“It…is done,” Cassandra said wearily, leaning on the war table for a moment to catch her breath. “We have our mages.”

“We gathered that from the message you sent ahead,” Leliana replied, pulling her hands behind her back. Glancing to Maxwell, she added, “Welcome back, by the way.”

Maxwell looked at me, and then at the rest of the advisors, his lips thin as he pressed them together. He looked caught halfway between bewildered and furious. “That was insane. Absolutely, positively, nugshit insane.”

That was one way to put In Hushed Whispers.

“I assumed your letter was brief because you prefer to elaborate on the situation here,” Josephine replied. “It must be quite the story. We are all eager to hear what happened.”

Madness is what happened,” Maxwell said tersely, running a gauntleted hand through his already messy hair and just messing it up further. “That time magic…it…Alexius.” He shook his head, closing his eyes tight. “Alexius was angry when your forces showed themselves. He tried to open a rift right there in the throne room and Dorian…Dorian did something to try and stop him and we were thrown into the future.”

Cassandra and the advisors all looked back and forth between each other, the Herald, and me, but I kept my mouth shut about it. The need for “I told you so” right now was unquestionably zilch. Judging from Cassandra’s expression of utter disbelief, Maxwell hadn’t even told his other companions about what had actually happened yet.

“The future?” Cullen asked incredulously, cocking his head at the Herald. “How is that poss-”

“I don’t know, and quite frankly, I don’t care. Regardless of how it happened, it happened, and we were lucky to find a way to reverse it and make it back alive,” Maxwell replied shortly, a muscle in his neck jumping as he spoke. I felt my brows hit my hairline. Obviously he hadn’t taken that little experience too well…

Utter silence followed. Cullen braced both hands on the pommel of his sword. Josephine averted her gaze and pulled her quill hand behind her back. Maxwell took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Not looking at me as he put his forehead in his hand and rubbed his temples, he said quietly, “Tamsyn…if you know this part in detail, tell them. I can’t bear to…”

“All right,” I said, nodding my acquiescence, “It’s fine. I can tell them.” Then, turning to the others, I continued where Maxwell left off.

“The Herald and Dorian were both zapped a year into the future in the dungeons of Redcliffe Castle, a future that reflected what would have happened had time continued on without them.” I paused, “In this dark future, the Breach was reopened and grew until it allowed the Fade to merge with the real world. Demons ran amok, abominations along with them, and formed into an army marching across the world, conquering all who stood in its way. Red lyrium overtook the land,” I glanced to Cullen, “helped along by the corrupted Templars.”

“But what about us? The Inquisition?” Leliana asked, her blue eyes slightly widened as she absorbed this information like a sponge.

“Gone,” I said simply, sparing another glance to Cullen, whose expression was unreadable. “Its forces were crushed after launching wave after wave, dashing itself to pieces against the walls of the castle, all in the vain hope of saving the Herald.”

“But surely King Alistair-” Josephine began, looking at me over the flickering candle of her clipboard, but I shook my head.

“Dead, along with the rest of Ferelden’s army.”

Leliana looked baffled now. “But what about Empress Celene?”

“Assassinated,” I explained. “The Empire was the first to be overrun by the demons and destroyed.”

“You had long been killed, Commander,” Maxwell said to Cullen, his voice raw as he found the courage to speak again. “By all accounts, your head was on a pike atop the gatehouse – a trophy for the Venatori.”

Cullen visibly swallowed, a muscle clenching in his jaw, and yet his face bore an almost stoic expression of acceptance as he replied, “I would rather have been dead than live in such a world.”

“As would I,” Cassandra agreed solemnly.

“You, Josephine,” Maxwell continued, “were nowhere to be found. I was…almost glad of that.”

“But everyone else left alive,” I added, glancing to Leliana, “was captured and tortured.” I waited to see if Maxwell wanted to elaborate. When he was silent and instead nodded at me to continue, I barreled onwards, “Red lyrium and the Blight. The Herald’s comrades and you, Sister Nightingale, were all infected with it. Experimented upon like animals.”

At that, Cassandra and Leliana visibly recoiled. “Why?” the latter asked, “Why would Alexius and his Venatori do something like this? Why conquer the world only to simultaneously destroy it with plague and poison?”

“They are more than just extremists,” I explained. “They’re fanatical zealots who have dedicated themselves to the service of a being they call the ‘Elder One.’ They worship him as a new god, and he has pledged to restore ancient Tevinter and replace the Maker, but through twisted methods that only bring about destruction. A sort of reverse cleansing, I guess. The Venatori are his tools,” I crossed my arms, choosing my words carefully so as to avoid describing the army too much. “Just as Alexius was, manipulated by false promises.”

Cullen’s lip curled in disgust as his hand flexed atop the pommel of his sword, “And what kind of promise of anything claiming to be a god would be enough to destroy the world in exchange?”

“His son,” Maxwell said quietly, leaning forward onto the table with just his extended fingers. “His son, Felix, was infected with the Blight in an attack not long ago. This Elder One apparently made a promise to Alexius that Felix would be spared from death. And so Alexius pledged himself to the Elder One’s service in return, doing his experiments with time magic at his orders and coming to the south to find a way to go back in time.” He chuckled mirthlessly, lifting his gaze to Leliana, “For all the good it did him…after we rescued as many of the imprisoned as we could, you slew Felix right in front of him.”

“I…did?” she asked, her lifted brows betraying her surprise.

Maxwell pushed off from the table, gripping the hilt of his sword at his hip. “Yes, you did. You had changed. You had been tortured the most out of everyone there. Apparently, your blood has significant resistance to the Blight. They used it as fuel for their experiments. I interrupted a…session…when I found you.”

Josephine peered around Cullen at the Nightingale, mouth agape. “Maker…Leliana…”

“You had lost all faith,” the Herald continued softly, his gaze falling to the old maps spread before us. “And yet you refused to acknowledge the Elder One as the new god. When we found our way back to the throne room and Dorian began to reopen a rift back to the present, you stood with the others to buy us time. With Cassandra and Varric and Solas, even as corrupted with red lyrium as they were.” He shared a glance with the Seeker, whose own mouth had fallen open, now. The Herald’s gaze drifted from her to Leliana as he added, “You all died. And you, Sister, perished saying the Chant one last time.”

The room fell silent again, and everyone shifted uncomfortably. Clearing my throat, I asked, “So, uh…out of morbid curiosity, Herald…was I there, too?”

“Oh, yes,” he said, his gaze dull as he met mine. “You were there. You were kept like a pet at Alexius’s side – a symbol that not even someone who could apparently divine the future could stop the Elder One. They had cut out your tongue and blinded you…and you were led around on a chain like a dog.”

That…sounded oddly fitting. And more than slightly disturbing. I grimaced, and Josephine clapped a hand over her mouth as she closed her eyes in shock. I almost regretted asking, now. There was yet more nightmare fuel I was thankful wouldn’t work on me…

“Well, Herald,” I sighed, “now you know why you are so important. Why everything comes down to you. Without you and your efforts for the Inquisition…that future comes to pass. If you die, so do we all.”

“There is something I don’t understand,” Cassandra said, shaking her head as she looked around Maxwell at me. “The time magic. What was that for? Why was Alexius forced to keep experimenting with it? Why does this ‘Elder One’ have an interest in using it?”

I pulled my hands behind my back. “Because the Elder One wanted to go back in time, before the Conclave, in order to kill the Herald, thus destroying any possibility of the Breach ever being closed.” At that, Maxwell nodded his confirmation, likely remembering the documents he had uncovered in the dark future. “Thankfully, Alexius never found a way to do that.”

“So this Elder One,” Cullen interjected, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, “Was he just taking advantage of the Breach’s existence in order to bring chaos to the world, or did he actually create it?”

I smiled. Now they were catching on. “The latter. And he’s working on the army of demons and the red lyrium plague as we speak.”

“So in order to stop him from bringing his plans to fruition, the first thing we must do is ensure that the Breach is closed and quickly,” said Leliana.

“Which brings us to the matter of the mages and their assistance,” Josephine turned to Maxwell. “If I may ask, how did you come to the arrangement to bring them to Haven?”

“They were conscripted,” he replied simply.

Whoa. That was a surprise.

Conscripted?!” Leliana repeated incredulously. “But…” a sneer suddenly twisted her lips as she shook her head and positively glared at Maxwell. “Herald, you should have consulted us…”

“There was no time for that, Sister!” he retorted, striking the table with his fist. “King Alistair arrived at the castle not two minutes after we restrained Alexius and immediately exiled all the rebel mages from the kingdom. We had to enlist them before they scattered to the four winds!”

“But conscription? Forced servitude?”

“They cannot be trusted to act on their own,” Cassandra said firmly.

“They let themselves be enslaved by Tevinter, allowed him to lay claim on a Fereldan castle right under the nose of the reigning monarch and put the entire world at risk by doing so,” Maxwell added pointedly.

“They were desperate,” Leliana replied. “And desperation makes people do strange things. Dangerous things. Just look at what Alexius did out of desperation for the life of his son.”

“But that doesn’t excuse it,” Cullen countered sharply.

“Alexius would have let the world burn for one life,” Maxwell hissed. “And to the Void with the rest of us! He was so blind that he didn’t see that Felix was dying anyway, that the Elder One was just postponing the inevitable. Not only that, but he was also running out of chances, because his time experiments kept failing.”

“Simply put, the rebels have already proven they cannot be responsible with freedom, either won or given,” Cassandra concluded.

“And now you’ve thrown them right back in the situation they fought to escape,” Leliana said, unable to hide the pure disgust in her voice. “I thought better of you, Cassandra.”

“We were put on the spot, Leliana. We had to make a decision, and so we did. I couldn’t think of a better plan at the time,” the Seeker answered.

“They aren’t going to a Circle, Sister Nightingale,” Maxwell replied.

“And we won’t mistreat them,” Cullen explained, “They will be put under guard, yes, but-”

“Regardless of how it plays out,” Josephine interrupted firmly, “the mages will not see the Herald’s actions here as a boon. We will be lucky if we maintain control over them, and the situation will most certainly deteriorate. It is not a matter of if, but when. There will be another rebellion if this decision stands.”

Cassandra shook her head, “None of that matters, now. The only reason we involved ourselves with the rebels in the first place was to close the Breach. Now that we have them here, we must see that it is done, and soon. The mages must cooperate with us, no matter how they feel about it. We can bicker about image and politics later.”

“Fiona mentioned it would take a few days to prepare the mages fully for something of this magnitude,” Maxwell added. “They will also need proper lyrium potions to bolster their mana.”

“We will have to bring out our stores, then,” Josephine said with a sigh, scribbling some quick notes upon her tablet. “Perhaps even obtain more directly from the dwarves.”

Leliana’s gaze flicked back and forth between Maxwell and me. “We should also look into these other things you saw. The Breach was not this Elder One’s only tool, and like it, we must ensure they are rendered impossible to utilize. The assassination of the Empress would dissolve the greatest force in the south of Thedas, and the formation of a demon army would destroy us all, Breach or no. That’s not counting this red lyrium threat you mentioned.”

Cullen shook his head, “That will take time to organize, and so long as the Breach is still our primary threat, we should focus on it first. Spreading our forces too thin will only ensure our defeat.”

“Agreed,” I said, encouraging the concept of tackling one crisis at a time. “Once the Breach is closed, then you can worry about the demons and the Empress. And tracking down this Elder One.”

It was true, of course. And it was exactly how things would go down. But it didn’t make me feel any better about keeping the looming battle that bridged those two Inquisition foci a secret…

“Very well,” Maxwell sighed, closing his eyes briefly. “Later this evening, I will go fetch all of the documents I recovered from the dark future so you can look over them at your leisure. They’re in my saddlebags right now.”

“I will also have a word with Fiona before interrogating Alexius,” Cassandra added.

“Good,” Cullen said, his gaze lingering on mine. “We will need all the information we can get.”

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My head was throbbing after the meeting was finally dismissed. I hoped getting out of the stuffy war room and back into the cold air would help ease it. Leliana and Cullen had stayed behind to continue discussing how to approach the Breach and what to prepare for, while the rest of us departed to other business. I was halfway out of the Chantry, however, when I heard Maxwell call from behind me, “Tamsyn?”

I turned around. Jesus, the man looked absolutely tortured. His expression was one of barely-concealed emotional pain. I knew in my gut what he wanted to ask me before the question ever left his mouth.

“Please,” he said, sparing a glance back at the war room and shaking his head, “may we talk in private? I need to…” He trailed, gesturing almost helplessly.

“Of course. I understand, Herald,” I replied gently.

Maxwell,” he snapped, before softening his tone and repeating, “Just…Maxwell. I tire of this title I’ve been given and would like to hear someone call me by name for once.”

I dipped my head respectfully, “As you wish…Maxwell. Lead the way.”

We departed the Chantry, then, but we’d only taken a few steps when we encountered Dorian. The Tevinter Altus apparently had been waiting for Maxwell under Leliana’s tent, as it was yet snowing, and he threw the hood of his cloak atop his head as he emerged to approach us.

“There you are,” he greeted us with a friendly wave. “It went well, I hope?”

The Herald nodded, “We’re getting ready to close the Breach, but it will take a few days.”

“Understandable,” Dorian remarked. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to take a look at it up close myself, before then.”

“Go right ahead. I’m sure Sister Nightingale would let you join one of the next scouting patrols, and I’m certain Solas wouldn’t mind going with you if you need explanations,” Maxwell replied. “Perhaps you can learn something we could use to our advantage.”

“Every little bit helps,” I agreed beside him.

At that, Dorian’s gaze fell on me, and he smiled slightly as he looked down at me, “You must be Tamsyn. It is good to see you as you should be, and not as we found you in that horrid future.”

I smirked a little as I replied, “Yes. It’s very nice to still be able to see and have my tongue intact where it belongs.” Smiling earnestly then, I proffered my hand for him to shake, “A pleasure to meet you at last, ser Dorian.”

He took my hand firmly, “Likewise! I would also love to speak with you about your…situation. Sometime after this immediate crisis is over, of course. According to what your Herald tells me,” he gave Maxwell a nod of acknowledgment as he released my hand, “you, too, are a victim of someone dabbling in terrible magical arts. I would like to help see to it that what happened to you doesn’t happen to anyone else. I’ve had about enough of world-altering disasters, and I’d be willing to wager you have, as well.

“But for now, I don’t want to waste your time…time that could be spent relaxing before the next catastrophe hits.” He waved his hand to shoo us. “I would suggest finding someplace out of this wonderful Fereldan weather and getting some rest. You are very much entitled to it, after what you’ve been through.”

“I will try, Dorian. And perhaps you should heed the same advice,” Maxwell replied, inclining his head.

At that, Maxwell and I continued on, and I breathed in a deep lungful of frigid air, letting it out slowly. Snowflakes stung my face as we walked, and when we finally reached his cabin, I gratefully ducked inside, pleasantly surprised to see his fireplace already crackling merrily. No doubt the servants had seen to it as soon as they heard of his arrival. He kicked the door shut behind him and ran a hand through his hair to clear it of snow, while I brushed it off from my shoulders.

“Please, go ahead and sit. Make yourself comfortable,” he said wearily, gesturing to the table. I quietly obeyed, taking the same place I had the last time we had talked and shared drinks. I watched as he deftly removed the scale mail coat he was wearing and unceremoniously tossed it atop the armor stand in the corner. He jerked the gauntlets from his hands with violent motions, throwing them onto the side table near the stand.

“I can’t do this, anymore, Tamsyn. I just…I can’t…” he said at last, dragging out the chair across from me and practically falling into it. “Please…tell me after the Breach is closed, my part in this will be done at last…”

Gone was the noble eloquence from our previous private meeting. Now, his words were raw with fatigue and emotion, very nearly trembling as he spoke. The events at Redcliffe had taken their toll, and he was struggling to cope with what he had seen, that much was plain. He bowed his head as he put it in both his hands, his elbows propped atop the table.

“I’m sorry, Maxwell,” I said at length, “but it won’t. If anything, your part will only get bigger.”

At that, his hands formed claws in his hair, and he raked his fingertips through the dark brown locks. “I don’t understand. Why? Because of this…thing?” he held his Marked hand before him, practically snarling at the glowing gash in his palm.

“No. It’s deeper than that, now. Much deeper.”

His olivine eyes met mine, and I could see the pain in them, pain so deep it made me hurt to look at him. He dropped his hand to the table with an audible smack.

“I saw…” he swallowed thickly, grimacing at the memories that were no doubt almost overwhelming him. “I saw…terrible things at Redcliffe. Horrible things. What little you told me in the tavern could never have prepared me for…that.” He said, his eyes focusing on the wood of the table. “I did what you said. I listened to Dorian. But Maker…there were so many times I wanted nothing more than to run…to shut my eyes and deny everything I saw as a dream. A nightmare.”

“There is no shame in feeling that way. What matters is the fact you didn’t give in. That you persevered in spite of it.”

He shook his head. “I don’t want this…I don’t want the world to depend on me like this. I can’t take the weight. If one slip, one failure, results in that…”

He fell silent, and my eyes drifted to where his Anchor hand lay. After a moment, I gestured for it. His brow furrowed, but he allowed me to take it in my own. I wrapped both of my hands around his, and even through my glove, I could feel the subtle hum of the Mark under my palm.

“You can do this, Maxwell,” I said, giving him the best gentle smile I could. “You won’t fail. You know why?” I squeezed his hand reassuringly, “Call it fate, chance, the Maker, whatever…the powers-that-be decided the world needed you right now. And that means you will be the world’s savior and the Elder One’s doom, no matter what. Unless the Maker really does want to destroy his own world, you can’t fail. We’ll get through this. Together.”

He searched my eyes for a moment before dropping his gaze again and chuckling slightly. “Are you sure about that?”

“As sure as I can be,” I said, letting go of his hand and leaning back in my chair. “But I’m not saying it isn’t going to get worse before it gets better.”

“Naturally,” he replied dryly, looking off for a moment and then glancing back at me. “What is it they say back in Ostwick? The sunrise is most beautiful after a stormy night?”

I nodded in agreement with such a proverb, “That sounds fairly accurate, yes.” Then, rising from my chair to leave him to his thoughts, I added, “Don’t worry, Maxwell. No matter how far away it seems, the dawn will come.”

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Four days after the mages arrived in Haven, they were ready to make their attempt to close the Breach with the Herald.

The weather had thankfully cleared up during those days, and so the morning was beautiful and sunny, the only disturbance in the heavens being the glowing maw of the Breach itself. The atmosphere was crisp and clean, the sky above impossibly blue, and the wind barely there, only occasionally ruffling through fur and hair and turning cheeks pink with its icy bite.

Excitement permeated the air so thickly that it almost felt as though I had downed an energy drink in one go. I was outright jittery, and so was everyone else. Only, unlike them, I was jittery for an entirely different reason. They were jittery because they wanted to see the Breach gone at last. I was jittery because I knew that this was the last moment of peace we’d have before utter terror that night…

All training had been canceled, resulting in a much larger than usual number of people milling about the village. But while everybody else in town gossiped, visited friends, ate, drank, and were otherwise enjoying their time off, I was packing my bags. I spent my morning stuffing absolutely everything I owned into the leather satchel and backpack Harding had provided when I had first arrived. In the smaller satchel I put my personal hygiene tools and soap, potion vials and poultices, quill-and-ink, parchment, and the books Leliana and Josephine had given me. In the larger backpack, I tightly rolled up all of my casual clothing and shoved them inside, along with my spare blanket, plus the stack of clean washrags, my bandages, and the extra food rations I had left over. Unable to fit it in the bags, I refilled my waterskin with fresh water and hung it from my belt beside my sword. I wore my breastplate and all of my weapons, but as I donned them on top of my uniform, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was still vulnerable, and I began to wish I had been issued some extra armor – namely, a helmet.

I had just put my bags beside the door – to make them easier to grab when the assault came – when I heard shouting outside. Brow furrowed, I felt my heart begin to race, fluttering like a bird in a cage. Had something happened? Something I hadn’t anticipated?

Jogging outside and clambering up one of the watch posts, I saw them, and my mouth dropped open in awe.

Holy…

The Templars had arrived.

They came trotting through the snowy pass and around the walls like knights on parade, their horses snorting and blowing clouds of mist in the cold, hooves kicking up snow. Most of them wore helmets, the styles varied depending on their nation of origin and their rank, and their silvery armor shone blindingly bright in the sun. Some rode two to a horse, and in these cases, it appeared to be a warrior paired with a rogue for the mounts to better stand the weight. They were but two dozen hardened veterans, and yet they had all the visual impact of an army of hundreds.

And I suddenly felt like a giddy little girl at a Renaissance fair and seeing “knights” for the first time. True, there had already been Templars in Haven, and I saw them on a regular basis, usually in transit between the Chantry and the training grounds. But many of them merely wore their Chantry robes for errand work, and one or two here and there wasn’t nearly as impressive as a whole armored outfit of them.

I watched as Cullen was summoned out to meet them, and Cassandra went with him. Then, moments later, some mage fetched Fiona from where she stood near the trebuchets, and the former Grand Enchanter followed suit, hurrying out of the gates in a flurry of swirling robes.

Uh, oh.

There was no way I was going to get in the middle of that mess. Knowing that the Commander and the Seeker were more than capable of handling the situation on their own, I resolved to stay out of it. Instead, I slipped from the watch post and began my own personal quest…something I had been thinking about for the past four nights. I might not have been able to warn about the impending attack, but I could try and make the Herald’s job easier.

I had less than twelve hours. I had to make it count.

My first destination was the Chantry. Not a few paces into the door, however, I was stopped by a familiar voice.

“Missus?”

I glanced to the right. There, Sean was sitting on a bench in the shadowed alcove, swinging his legs back and forth. It had been the first time I had seen him since the day his mother and Willem had been murdered. His face was immaculately clean, now, as were his clothes, and it appeared as though he’d been given a haircut, his auburn locks combed and straight instead of messy as they had been before the attack.

“Hey, Sean,” I said, smiling broadly at the boy as I made a hard right turn and headed straight for him like I had been all along. “How are you doing?”

“Okay, I guess,” he said, looking up at me with his big sapphire eyes. They were dimmer than they used to be, and I knew the weight of grief was still heavy on his small shoulders. “You, missus?”

I knelt in front of him. “I’m doing all right, Sean. Thank you very much for asking.”

He gave me a lopsided smile.

I smiled back and tweaked his loose pants leg a little. “Looks like the sisters have been taking good care of you.”

He nodded. “They’re nice. Mother Giselle’s like Grammama, only quieter, and she doesn’t hit me with a wooden spoon.”

My brows rose. “Your grandmother hit you with a spoon?”

“Only when I stole her cookies before she said I could have any,” he said guiltily.

“Oh, I see.”

He was quiet for a few moments, looking away briefly. Then, he said in a soft voice, “I miss Ma.”

My heart shattered into tiny pieces. “I know you do, Sean. I’m so sorry I…I couldn’t help her.” I forced back tears that were welling in my eyes. He had truly believed I could have saved her, and I felt so horrible for letting him down, even if he had been fed a lie.

“It’s okay,” he said, looking back up at me, “Mother Giselle said the hooded man tricked me.” He glanced away again, and the way he hung his head, the way his expression shifted to such a downcast mien, screamed that he was guilt-ridden for having so easily swallowed Butler’s story.

At that, I gently put my hands on his shoulders, struggling to control the emotion that threatened to spill out. “Sean, listen to me.” When he looked me in the face, seemingly puzzled, I continued, “It wasn’t your fault. Don’t ever think that it was your fault, okay? You were so brave. You went to get help, and you did everything you could.”

His impossibly deep blue eyes stared into mine for a moment, and then he slid off the bench and into my arms, throwing his hands around my neck and hugging me with all the strength he could muster. I hugged him back, unable to keep a tear from leaking down my cheek, but wiping it away quickly so he wouldn’t see. I held him for several minutes, until he couldn’t squeeze me anymore, and then, when he finally pulled away, I grasped him by the shoulders again and looked straight into his eyes.

“Now, I want you to do something for me, Sean,” I said, demanding his attention.

“What’s that, missus?”

I swallowed. “I want you to stay in the Chantry today. There are some things that are going to happen…big things. Things you don’t need to be outside for. It’s going to be dangerous, and I don’t want you to get hurt. So stay here with the sisters, all right?”

He blinked at me. “The big hole in the sky’s gonna be closed up, innit?  Mother Giselle said the Herald was going to go today.”

“Mmhmm,” I said. “And there’s no telling what’s going to happen after that. So do me a big favor and stay here out of harm’s way, okay?”

He nodded emphatically.

“Good.” I stood and ruffled his hair. “I have some things I need to do, now, so I’ll see you around, all right, Sean?”

“All right, missus.”

And with that, he hopped away and ran past me, past the waiting Mother Giselle, and into one of the Chantry’s side rooms. As he disappeared, I turned my attention to her, who just so happened to be the person I came to the Chantry to see in the first place.

“It was good of you to speak with him,” she said quietly, glancing in the direction he had taken. “He has been feeling terrible guilt ever since his mother’s death. It is natural, of course. But I was hoping perhaps you could put his mind at ease, since you were the one he originally sought to aid him.”

I nodded. “I’m glad I finally saw him. I actually wanted to give him some space after the incident, but then after that…” I trailed off, lifting my hands and letting them drop against my thighs.

“I understand,” Mother Giselle said with a dip of her head. “Our work here in Haven never ends, and there is little time to think of anything outside our duties.”

“Speaking of duties,” I said, taking a breath and putting my plan into motion, “after the Breach is handled by the Herald, I was thinking perhaps you could host a special service for everyone in Haven? To give thanks to the Maker for our victory, and to Andraste for her Herald, of course. No doubt people will want to celebrate, but,” I paused a little for effect, “we should also remember how close we all came to losing everything to this disaster.”

Giselle cocked her head at me curiously, and for a moment I was afraid she might question me. But then, at last, she gave me a slow nod, replying, “That is a sound plan of action, my lady. I will think of a few passages to reflect upon, and after the Breach is sealed and everyone returns to the village, I will summon the citizenry to the Chantry.”

I smiled, “Very good, Mother Giselle, and thank you. I am eager to hear your service.”

“And I am eager to deliver it.”

With that, the both of us bade each other farewell and went our separate ways, she to her office and I to the Singing Maiden to advise Flissa to water down the ale extra tonight. My excuse? So the ale supply wouldn’t run out as quickly and there wouldn’t be hangovers for Adan to deal with in the morning.

I balled my fists as I walked, and I hoped against hope that this would work, even offering a prayer to the Maker. If I could just make sure the soldiers weren’t drunk off their asses and that most of the people would already be in the Chantry, then maybe the losses of life would be minimal. I was especially worried about the civilians, among who there were more children than just Sean. Many of them helped their mothers and fathers in their tasks for the Inquisition, functioning as couriers between their parents and their immediate superiors. It made me sick to my stomach to think of them dying to Corypheus’s forces. I had to do what I could to save them.

Even if it meant changing the story a little bit.

------------------------------------------------------

The moment of truth came far too soon for my liking.

I stood with Cullen, watching the Breach swirl slowly in the distance. Maxwell had departed an hour prior with Cassandra, Solas, and the mages, including Fiona. The rest of us back at the village held our breath as we waited, watching and praying for the Herald’s imminent success. Leliana, Josephine, and Mother Giselle all observed from above the gatehouse, while Cullen and I stood outside the gates near the training field.

Cullen had put his soldiers on high alert, in case there was fallout from the closure…or if the endeavor was completely unsuccessful and the magical activity resulted in an unexpected effect. As such, archers were grouped on the towers, soldiers stood guard at the gates, and all the Templars in the settlement were on stand-by, as well as healers from the ranks of the Inquisition’s mages. The Commander himself had donned full battle regalia, his complete armor not unlike that of his incarnation in Heroes of Dragon Age – a game Abigail had once let me watch her play on her phone; he wore plated gauntlets now, full greaves strapped over his boots, and layered tassets hung from his belt. He also sported his lion helm, a piece more magnificent in person that it had been in the game trailers. The fanged maw of the lion shadowed his face, but such shadows made his fiery amber gaze all the more intense as it reflected the light from the nearby braziers.

Barris and Rylen stood beside us, both fully armored as well. The former I had learned to distinguish from the rest of his comrades by the distinct angular structure of the wings on his helmet. His helm was fashioned like the ones in Kirkwall, but the wings were taller, their tips bent inwards rather sharply. He was also one of only three who preferred a tower shield to the smaller heater shields. It was on his tower shield that Barris leaned casually as he waited, the frame of the steel-reinforced wood flickering green with every faint pulse of the Breach.

It was early evening, the sun just having dipped behind a mountain, resulting in a pinkish-orange sky that was quickly darkening into a muddy mauve hue. All of us puffed out visible clouds of mist with every breath, so that we all looked rather like steaming tea kettles. The forest around us had fallen silent, and the noise of the village had quieted to a low hum as the people of Haven glued their eyes to the sky.

And then, it happened.

Far in the distance, where the ruins of the Temple of Sacred Ashes lay, a brilliant burst of green shot like a rocket towards the Breach, spiraling upward in a rope of magic from Maxwell’s Anchor as he connected with the hole in the Veil. An audible gasp rippled through the spectators, including myself. There was a bright pulse from the Breach, then another, and then…

A sound like a whipcrack resonated around the mountains, the whole sky seemed to shudder above us, and then the glowing maw of the Breach finally winked out, leaving only the yet-swirling cloud cover behind.

Another collective gasp and then a roar erupted from the rapt audience, the people cheering their joy to the heavens. They clapped, whooped, and hollered, the soldiers and Templars pounding their shields and pumping their fists in the air in victory. Some fell to their knees in thankful prayer, others jumped on their comrades and hugged them fiercely. I couldn’t help but smile a little at the sight.

“Maker’s breath,” Cullen murmured, tilting his helmet back to get a better view of the healing sky, “It really worked!”

But while everyone else breathed a sigh of relief, thinking the danger was finally over, I knew it had only just begun…

Chapter Text

Everyone was drinking. Everyone. No one had bothered to wait until Maxwell and the others returned from the Temple of Sacred Ashes. The companions, the mages, the Templars, the servants, the messengers, the soldiers, the scouts, and the Chantry sisters…everyone in the village caroused, laughed, danced and sang in celebration of the Herald’s success. Maryden struck up merry tunes on her lute while nobles, commoners, and merchants alike swung each other arm in arm before the fires and braziers, not a single person desiring to stay indoors or to keep to themselves this night. Those who weren’t dancing craned their necks up at the heavens in wonder as the clouds that had been gathered by the Breach’s powerful vortex slowly but surely dissipated into nothingness, leaving the whole sky a darkening purple lit only by glittering stars and the emerging moons. It was the first time in months they had seen the night sky without that eerie glow looming overhead.

I tried to join them and enjoy the merriment while I could – to soak up the last bit of happiness before disaster struck. But while joy and relief filled their hearts, mine was filled solely with dread. I was the only soul there unable to share in their mirth, and instead of being swept up in the revelry, I found myself almost smothered by the sea of bodies around me. The sheer number of people in the streets was suffocating. All the faces I knew had vanished in the crowd, leaving me feeling at the mercy of the strangers who merrily plied me with drinks and pulled and tugged at me to dance with them. Every time I refused a tankard, whoever offered it gawked at me as if I had three heads, and those with whom I declined to dance looked terribly offended.

Desperate to escape the jostling, boisterous crowd, I pushed for the upper tier of the village, uncaring as to who saw me beating such a hasty retreat. When I finally made it to the overlook near Leliana’s tent, I was almost gasping for breath. The nigh overwhelming smells, the incessant noise, and the constant movement – it was enough to make me nauseous, and the anxiety slowly building up inside did nothing to help.

I inhaled a great lungful of cold winter air and let it out slowly, my eyes wandering over the raucous crowd below. Over near the gates, I saw where the advisors were gathered to greet the Herald as soon as he returned. Cullen, his helm now under his arm, had long dismissed the Templars and soldiers after Strider had sprinted back to confirm the Herald’s success and to report the absence of demon retaliation. Barris lingered with them, he too unhelmeted, and chatting with the other three. Rylen I saw occasionally weaving in and out of the mass of people, clapping soldiers on the back and smiling broadly. They all looked so much happier than I had yet seen them. To know that happiness was about to be stolen from them in a terrifying way…

I wondered if anyone had noticed that I now had my pack secured to my back and my satchel slung across my body, cinched tight enough that it wouldn’t flop about if I had to fight. I wondered if they noticed that I couldn’t keep my eyes off of the mountains in the distance. If they had, no one had said a word to me about it, instead preferring to lose themselves in the celebration. It seemed Flissa had heeded my words, as no one was falling-down drunk yet. But they were still trying their damned best to get there.

Then, suddenly, the gates opened, and Maxwell and his party finally returned, broad smiles on all their faces. They were met with an even louder roar from the crowd, the sea of villagers moving towards the gates to swarm their Herald with thanks and congratulations. The people lifted him up on their shoulders, even as armored as he was, cheering and singing his praises, laughing and crying. I wondered if he realized now just how much he meant to them. That whether he believed it or not, he was their Herald of Andraste, and now would forever be such…

But despite the smile that tugged at my lips, my heart began to beat a little faster, and I could feel a cold sweat breaking out on my arms. My eyes kept flicking back to the mountains, over the frozen lake, my breath quickening. Maxwell was back, and so it wouldn’t be long, now.

Come on, Giselle, come on…ring the damned bell…

“Not enjoying the celebration?”

I nearly jumped out of my skin. The voice belonged to Lea, who was looking at me with a bit of a puzzled expression before my reaction caused her reflective green eyes to widen. “Oh! I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to startle you!”

“It’s okay!” I shook my head, offering a nervous smile in response as I lifted my hands to reassure her. “It’s okay, I’m just…a little anxious, is all. I don’t really like crowds all that well.”

It wasn’t a lie, exactly…

“Oh,” she said, her gaze briefly flicking to the celebrants before returning to mine. “I saw you push your way out of all of it. I thought someone might have said something to you. I know not everyone is happy you’re here, even if you really did foretell the Breach’s closure. I was going to ask you if everything was all right.”

I took in a trembling breath and nodded. “It’s fine, thank you, Lea. And I really do appreciate you coming to check up on me. You’re a good friend.”

At that, she positively beamed. But before she could say anything more, the Chantry bell began to ring at last, summoning the people for Giselle’s service. Its rich tones echoed around the village and the mountains, the sound strangely comforting, even when I knew it would never ring again.

“Oh, that’s the bell for prayers,” Lea observed, glancing upwards at the belltower. “Are you going to join?”

I cleared my throat. “Ah…I might. But I’ll let everyone else get a chance at a good seat first.”

Lea smiled. “All right. I hope to see you there. Mother Giselle gives lovely sermons.”

She then turned and made her way to the Chantry, much to my relief, and I let out a shaky sigh. After she disappeared within, I looked back towards the crowd. Many of the people began walking towards the upper tier upon hearing the bell, too, including the companions and advisors, who now surrounded Maxwell. Some of the citizens, however, were ignoring the summons, and my stomach knotted up. Shit…

My anxiety increasing tenfold, I found myself bouncing on the balls of my feet in anticipation as I watched the painfully-slow crowd finally reach the Chantry. Come on…come on…hurry up…

As the people began to file within, still laughing and chatting away, another shadow neared me from my left, and I glanced in that direction to see Chancellor Roderick approaching me, a cross between a sneer and a snarl plastered to his face. Great. Just what I needed.

“I hear this particular service is partially your doing,” he said as he stopped a few paces from me, pulling his hands behind his back. He addressed me with his usual hauteur, which grated on my nerves so badly I wanted to deck him then and there. “I wouldn’t have figured you for a devout Andrastian, considering your perpetuation of blasphemous lies.”

I narrowed my eyes. “There are a lot of things you don’t know about me.”

“Or, perhaps,” he added, his tone one of false musing, “you have indeed won a victory here and are reveling in the fact you can now manipulate the Chantry to your own whims, hmm? If so, then congratulations are apparently in order,” he finished bitterly.

“You’ll never get it, will you, Chancellor?” I said with a loud sigh of irritation.

He opened his mouth to respond, but then stopped, his firelit eyes glittering as they drifted upwards over my shoulder.

“Is the Chancellor provoking you again?”

Cullen’s stern voice came from behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and saw that beside him stood Cassandra and the Herald. A little farther back were Josephine and Leliana. All of them had their eyes fixed on Roderick, a few with raised brows. Past them I could see more people trickling into the Chantry, slowly but surely…

“No,” I answered simply, giving the Chancellor a pointed look as I turned back towards him. “Not. At. All.”

He smirked at me, but a rush of ebon wings abruptly wiped it off his face as a raven soared directly over both his head and mine, landing on Leliana’s waiting arm. She wasted no time in removing the note from the bird’s leg, and it flew off immediately, cawing loudly. We all watched curiously as the Nightingale’s blue gaze swept over the parchment, and she glanced to Cullen. “The scouts are pulling back, Commander. I’m not going to send them out again until we know-”

Her voice died in her throat as another bell rang in the distance, and all eyes heads turned towards it; unlike that of the Chantry, its sound was tinny and erratic, as though whoever was yanking on its cord was an absolute madman. I recognized it immediately as the village alarm bell. Its shrill peals echoed throughout the settlement and were answered by screams of panic from the people remaining in the town proper, many of whom were still too far away from the Chantry and began to scramble for the closest shelter. I involuntarily clutched at my hat and hissed in a breath. Shit! No!

“That’s one of the watch guards,” Cullen observed aloud, drawing nearer to the edge of the overlook.  Then, suddenly, he spun on his heel, his face a flinty mask as he marched past us, eyes alight with fire. “Maker’s breath, what now? To arms!” he bellowed, and I felt it vibrate in my bones as he summoned his soldiers with the power of his voice alone. The soldiers weren’t the only ones who heard it, either; the volume of noise had increased from the direction of the Chantry, and I could see people peeking out of the doors to get a better view, those who had yet to make it inside freezing in their tracks with eyes wide like startled deer.

Leliana, Josephine, and Maxwell all exchanged looks of surprise and concern as the Commander strode quickly past them and continued his summons, the Herald silently chasing after. The companions and the Bull’s Chargers had gathered together at the sound of the alarm, too, and they gave each other puzzled shrugs before following in Maxwell’s wake. I could hear them expressing their confusion and incredulity as they went, but I couldn’t make out the words.

“Someone get the rest of the civilians in the Chantry.” My voice trembled with my uncertainty as it came out. I was torn between doing it myself and pursuing Cullen…

“Tamsyn?” Josephine’s voice was tentative.

“What in the Maker’s name is going on here?” Roderick demanded.

I said get the rest of the civilians in the Chantry!” I snapped, sick of his challenges. At that, his indignant expression melted into what appeared to be actual worry, and he hesitated for only a moment before turning and heading into the village proper.

“Tamsyn, what’s going on?” Leliana inquired, her brow furrowed heavily under the shadow of her hood as she squinted at me.

Glancing between the other two advisors, I shook my head, “There’s no time to explain. Please, you have to trust me…just make sure the civilians get into the Chantry and stay there!”

At that, I began to run through the village towards the entrance. Leliana may have heeded my words – I didn’t know for sure because I didn’t look back – but Josephine followed me, her slippered feet almost soundless in the dirt behind me. “Tamsyn, please, what is happening? What kind of danger is this?”

I didn’t answer as a group of soldiers rushed to meet us from the direction of the Singing Maiden, hands on their swords. “We thought we heard shouting, and…and there’s the alarm! What’s going on?”

I stopped in my tracks just long enough to issue orders of my own, Josephine nearly running right into me. “Hurry! Muster every soldier, scout, mage, and Templar who hasn’t heard the call to arms and meet the Commander at the gates. Go, go!” I knew that was Cullen’s rightful command to give, not mine, but there was no time for protocol. Not now.

My heart pounded in my chest so hard I thought it might crack my sternum as I approached the already large group quickly coalescing at the gates – the Herald and his comrades, the Chargers, Rylen, Barris and his Templars, Fiona and a few of her battlemages, and more and more soldiers and scouts answering the summons, Delia and Strider among them. Cullen was running his free hand through his hair, apparently having just finished listening to the breathless watch guard before him give his report on the unfolding crisis.

“Commander!” Josephine called, rushing past me with silks rustling. No doubt she felt she could stop the imminent conflict with her words. And against any normal foe, she might have succeeded.

“There’s a massive force approaching,” he said, shaking his head at her as he pointed into the distance, “the bulk of it is over the mountain. I can’t get a set number, but it could be anywhere from hundreds to a thousand.”

“Under whose banner?”

“None,” Cullen answered grimly, although his sharp gaze was fixed on me as he said the word, not the Ambassador…

“None?”

I glanced towards the mountains, my heart leaping into my throat as I finally saw it: the first pinprick of torchlight like a dancing firefly on the mountain ahead. And then another. And then two more. And then ten more.

“Tamsyn, who is our attacker?” Cullen queried. “Do you know?”

I pulled my bottom lip between my teeth, unable to keep from chuckling mirthlessly at how no one had anticipated this sort of thing, even out of the foe who had created the Breach in the first place. “Think, Commander. Who just had his mages and many of his tools for spreading red lyrium jerked out from under him…whose hole in the Fade is permanently closed now, too. Who do you think would react with this kind of force?”

“The Elder One,” Maxwell breathed as more soldiers, Templars, and mages rallied around us, oblivious as to what the Herald was talking about. But it wouldn’t be long before they understood all too well.

“But he couldn’t have had time…” Josephine protested. Although, one look back at the mountains confirmed that yes, he indeed had the time. The peaks were now so full of torches, they appeared as though they were laced with Christmas lights.

Suddenly, a strong hand seized my shoulder, and I whirled back to see Cullen’s blazing golden eyes only inches from mine, now, our noses almost touching. His gaze was unblinking as he growled darkly, “You knew…”

I swallowed. The low rumble that vibrated through me was fueled by anger, but in his words I also heard a note of pain…pain at what I knew he felt was betrayal. Pain that was reflected in the intensity of his amber stare.

“Yes, I did,” I confessed, my voice wavering. Had Cullen’s bulk not completely blocked my view of both Maxwell and Josephine, I would have seen both their mouths drop open as they realized this impending attack wasn’t a surprise for me as it was for them.

“How many are there?” Cullen demanded, his grip downright painful even through the thick layers of my jacket.

“A lot.” It was the truth, at least, but I knew he wouldn’t be satisfied with it.

Tamsyn!” he shook me fiercely, his expression betraying his desperation. “How. Many?” he repeated firmly. “I need to know, now!

My answer was quiet as I let my eyes drift away. “More than you could ever have prepared for, Commander.”

Another growl as he released me.

Bang!

An explosion beyond the gates. Cole. It was unmistakably his voice that followed, begging for entry. As Maxwell rushed forth to investigate, blessedly drawing Cullen away from me, I took advantage of the distraction and turned to Josephine. “Ambassador, get to the Chantry, quick! Take anyone still hiding in their homes with you! There’s no time to waste! Gather anything and everything of importance!”

“But…”

Please!” I begged. Her hazel eyes were wide and full of emotions as they searched mine, but she finally nodded, turning and running back up the steps behind us in a swirl of blue and gold. At that, I finally followed Cullen and Maxwell out of the gates to see Cole pointing at the far ridge, surrounded by the bodies of the Venatori advance party he had just massacred…

And there, standing overlooking the valley, was the Elder One and Samson…

and Calpernia.

My mouth fell open in utter shock. No…no!

Newton’s Third Law came to mind, loud and clear: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” We had saved both mages and Templars. Now both Venatori and Red Templars were attacking Haven. All because I decided to change course from the usual story.

I tried to tell them…

“This isn’t supposed to be like this!” I said, unable to keep my silence, the enemy army now flooding through the valley ahead of us. It would be upon us in minutes. “Not both of them!” I glanced to Cullen, “This is bad…there will be corrupted Red Templars and Tevinter mages to deal with here.”

“Cullen?” Maxwell glanced to the Commander, who jammed his lion helm back on and wiggled it briefly to adjust the fit as he returned his eyes to the enemy.

“Haven is no fortress. If we are to survive this, we must be the ones in control of the battle. Which means we must strike the first blow.” Cullen indicated the pair of trebuchets that now stood tall and proud outside the walls, the mighty engines that would taste combat only once in their short lives. Following the Commander’s gaze, Maxwell’s lips pressed together and he nodded once in understanding. He removed his own plain helm from where it was lashed to his belt and settled it on his head, and then drew the sword at his hip.

Briefly, Cullen moved closer to me and spoke in a deadly tone as he shrugged his shield onto his arm, his shadowed amber eyes like smoldering embers as they met mine. “When this is over, you and I will have words.”

I have no doubt, Commander, I thought.

Then, drawing his sword from its scabbard with the long and ominous scrape of metal, Cullen bellowed at his men a string of orders that rang against the stone walls with the timbre of his voice.

“Trebuchet contingents forward! Load and fire at will!”

Ser!” They sprinted forth, scrambling past Maxwell and me to begin loading the siege engines.

“The rest of you, stay with the Herald and guard the trebuchets! Fortify and watch for advance forces!”

Yes, Ser!

“Archers, fire at will at any foe in range!”

Ready, Ser!” came the answering cry from the walls.

“Mages!” he turned to Fiona, who had mounted the walls with her fellow spellcasters, “You have free sanction to engage the enemy with whatever spells you have at your disposal!”

At your command!

“Templars, focus-target any mages but otherwise stay on the defensive!”

“As you will, Commander!” Barris responded nearby as he gathered his fellow warriors together, securing his helmet and drawing his own blade.

And then, tall and proud, Cullen raised his sword aloft and shouted: “Inquisition…with the Herald! For your lives, for all of us!”

An answering roar erupted from the soldiers at Cullen’s rallying cry, but my voice was not among them. There was no heroic music in the background to inspire courage, no autosave to go back to if I made a mistake. The only drumming I could hear was that of my own heart, and the clattering beat of swords on shields as the men and women around me worked themselves into a battle frenzy.

My heart skipped a beat, and my breathing seemed unnaturally loud. This was real. Too real. People would die here. Now. And I might be among them before it was all said and done.

The others surged forward with an earsplitting war cry, but I turned against the tide and ran through the village gates again. It was not to retreat, however, even though part of me was screaming for me to get my ass to the Chantry with Josephine before I was killed while being stupid. I thought of Willem, who died so that I might live, and something powerful welled up deep inside, flowing through my veins like liquid fire until my fear ebbed almost completely away; I’d be damned if I would sit idly by while more brave men and women gave their lives so that others like me would survive.

No, I would stand and fight with them. I had never before in my life been in such a situation – forced to kill or be killed, and my already nauseous stomach flopped like a fish inside me. Yet, gritting my teeth so tightly they hurt, I drew my bow from its sheath on my back and clambered up a watchtower alongside Sera, who seemed rather surprised to see me when I emerged on the platform next to her. I knelt behind the top of the palisade where the tower butted against it, nodding to her in acknowledgment.

“You fightin’ with us, Weirdy?”

“You damned right I am,” I said grimly, pulling an arrow from my quiver and knocking it. I only had thirty…I had to make them count.

As the torches grew ever nearer and continued multiplying in number on the far slopes, Maxwell shouted orders to the companions who had come out to support in the melee, Blackwall and Cassandra creating a choke point on the path to the stables alongside Rylen and a few of the Templars. The Herald, Cullen, and Barris created another one closer to the first trebuchet, the soldiers at their backs.

“Stay here in case they break through!” I heard Iron Bull shout to the Chargers behind the gates, before he ran to join Maxwell, his massive axe in hand.

“You got it, Chief!”

Sweeping my eyes over the storm of activity, I saw where Varric had taken up a position near the gates, leveling Bianca. Dorian, Vivienne, and Solas all stood nearby, their staves humming with magic as they prepared themselves to provide support from afar. Cole hovered in the background, daggers at the ready, already coated in the blood of the Venatori. On platforms lining the interior of the wooden palisade, alongside the archers, were Fiona and her mages, their hands and staves also primed with magic to be unleashed as soon as the first foes revealed themselves. The air was alive with anticipation, and it seemed the whole world held its breath.

It didn’t take long. The soldiers were scrambling to load the trebuchets with stones, dousing the rocks in oil and setting them alight, when the vanguard of the Red Templars finally arrived. The corrupted warriors, ridden with pulsing red crystals punching through their armor like twisted branches, emerged from over the snowbanks around the lake in a wave of silver and crimson.

“Hold!” Rylen cried to the soldiers around him, urging them to stay defensive and stand their ground, even as a few backed up a step or two.

“Fire!” one of the archers yelled on the walls.

My ears were filled with the twang of bowstrings and the subsequent whistle of arrows streaking through the air as the marksmen on the walls let loose their volley and knocked again. Bianca’s distinct repeating song could be heard underneath the high screech as Varric released his signature rhyming triplet.

Now…

I rose over the palisade, Strider’s words swimming to the forefront of my thoughts.

Take a breath, hold, and fire on your exhale.

My eye quickly latched onto a Red Templar charging around one of the giant pavises in front of the trebuchet, only a sword in hand – no shield. Drawing tight to my cheekbone, I held my breath, aimed, and let loose, expecting to miss by a mile…

…but to my great surprise, my arrow found its mark in his shoulder with a faint, dull thud, sending the man reeling on impact. Rylen then leaped to take advantage of the wound, sword slicing the foe’s head from his shoulders and ending him in an instant, spraying tainted blood in the snow.

I blinked. That was it. If I could just do enough damage to give the soldiers an edge…

Filled with determination, I knocked again while searching for another target. Unfortunately, the arrows – even as many as there were constantly screaming through the air now – did little damage against most of the warriors that were yet converging on the village. Mixed in with the Red Templars were Venatori brutes with massive tower shields, advancing almost unchecked as our arrows embedded themselves harmlessly in wood and thick armor.

But then the mages joined the fray.

Fireballs sizzled through the air all around us, exploding into the vanguard and sending bodies flying, along with clods of snow and dirt. Shimmering ice manifested beneath the feet of the invaders as Vivienne unleashed her own power in the form of potent ice mines that threw the stunned enemies into the air with the strength of their explosions. More arrows whistled overhead, finding their marks in the now vulnerable enemies, and the soldiers rushed to finish the job before the warriors returned to their feet, stabbing brutally through joints and into exposed necks. A gladiator – whose naked leg was unprotected as he lay on his back – was my next target, and I fired…

…only to hit him in the throat instead as he launched himself upwards to try and stand.

Whoom!

The first trebuchet finally let loose its load with a mechanical rattle and a massive rush of air, the flaming projectile slung by the arm and arcing mid-flight, disappearing beyond the treeline in the distance. It was a magnificent and awe-inspiring sight to see, but the soldiers’ cheers of success were quickly drowned out by the cries of the enemies and the incessant clashing of steel on steel; those who had managed to survive the mages’ onslaught and the marksmen’s rain of arrows now fully engaged the defenders on the ground, swarming the area before the gates.

Whoom!

The second, southern trebuchet loosed its burden, another stone soaring like a meteor through the twilight sky.

“Another wave!” someone yelled in warning, almost unheard for the roar of battle.

The marksmen and mages focused their attention on the fresh wave of combatants clearing the snowbanks, unable to help those fighting the surviving Red Templars and Venatori without subjecting them to friendly fire. I quickly knocked another arrow to help, but even as I drew and shot into the new line of enemies that had been exposed, I couldn’t help but let my eyes stray to the chaotic fight below.

As arrows, fireballs, and now arcs of lightning soared over them, our own warriors pushed the enemies back, little by little, inch by inch. Blackwall and Cassandra made short work of anyone attempting to skirt around the forge, their shields bashing heads as much as their weapons skewered through torsos. Someone had even let loose the few war dogs we had from the kennels, and they, too, joined the battle. Darting around the rocks, the canines leapt at throats and tore at any exposed flesh, frenzied by the scent of blood and flame.

Maxwell and Iron Bull stood back-to-back, the pair fighting a circle of Venatori warriors that had managed to surround them. Bursts of purple, telltale signs of Dorian’s magics, glimmered ominously among the slain nearby, reviving the bodies and turning them against the Inquisition’s enemies. Solas, too, was putting his magic to good use, manipulating the very rocks and even warping the Veil itself around the battlefield to pummel the Red Templars into a pulp. And flitting between them all like a shadow blinking in and out of existence was Cole, all flashing daggers as he was first here, then there, stabbing into every weakness he could find and spraying the snow with fresh blood.

Closer to the near trebuchet, Rylen, Barris, and Cullen dueled mostly-human Red Templars as the soldiers around them battled more gladiators and brutish thugs. The three men fought faster almost than the brain could comprehend, blades whirring in silvery arcs and trailing ribbons of scarlet with each strike. It was then I suddenly recalled Cullen’s snippet of dialogue mentioning that Templars were among the best warriors in the world. And if I ever doubted his words before, I doubted no more.

They were absolute hellcats, fighting with power and fury behind every blow and parry, but their ferocity was focused to a laser precision. No energy was wasted. No strike was in vain. They almost appeared to dance below us, moving in tandem as if giving each other unspoken instruction. It was mesmerizing to watch, if gruesome, the snow beneath their feet turning crimson with the blood of their foes as the enemies fell, one by one.

“Look out!”

Before I could react on my own, Sera shoved me down behind the cover of the palisade. A tattoo of hollow thunks resounded against the wood adjacent to our heads as a volley of arrows from the Venatori embedded itself into the wall. Unfortunately, some of our own weren’t so quick. There was a chorus of death cries as several of the archers and mages dropped from the walls, struck by the enemy’s answering barrage.

Shit!” I cursed. This wasn’t good…

“You’re gonna have to do better than that, you pissbags!” Sera screeched, immediately returning to knocking and firing at lightning speed.

As I peeked back over the palisade, I saw the enemy numbers growing with frightening rapidity as more and more Venatori and Red Templars began to flood over the snowbanks. I realized that Sera had the right of it; abandoning accuracy for speed, I decided to start drawing and firing without picking a target first, knowing from the sheer density of the throng charging for the settlement that I was going to hit at least something. But now that the enemy was answering with its own archers, I was forced to duck behind the palisade after every shot, which still slowed me considerably. We needed more arrows in the air, and fast.

The mages, erecting wards now, seemed to realize this need for more firepower, and that was exactly what they provided. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as electricity flowed from their fingertips, crackling through the air and discharging amongst the enemy lines. There, it bounced between the invaders, resulting in bloodcurdling screams as those struck by the combined lightning spells were instantly electrocuted. And yet the foes still kept coming, the deaths of their comrades seeming to only embolden the survivors…

Whoom! the north trebuchet fired again. The smell of burning oil stung my nostrils, even from this distance.

And then came the spellbinders.

Their protective magical shields washed over the new ranks, nullifying the arrows that rained down upon the enemy by causing them to clatter harmlessly away. Fireballs and spikes of ice launched from the walls dissipated to nothing upon impact, the might of the Tevinter mages effectively rendering all our efforts useless as the next wave of attackers rushed the trebuchets.

Templars!” came Barris’s call.

I had yet to see the signature abilities of a southern Thedosian Templar being put to practice. But now, I had a front-row seat. Breaking from melee as quickly as possible, our Templars converged one by one on the Tevinter spellbinders, seeking them out like bloodhounds on the scent. They effectively confronted the mages in pairs, the spellbinder nearest the north trebuchet surrounded first. From one Templar’s sword came a brief flash of white-gold, and of a sudden, everything magical about the Tevinter went kaput – their spellbook dropped to the ground, the magic of their staff abruptly winked out, and their personal ward vanished like someone had flipped a switch. Before the mage could even react, a second Templar ran them through to the hilt. This pattern continued at astonishing speed with the other spellbinders, swiftly weakening the protections on the enemies, until suddenly, a flood of pale blue light washed outwards from Ser Barris’s armored form, and the scintillating wards broke apart in a shower of sparks.

“Push them back!”

A roar erupted from the soldiers as they surged forward to meet the unprotected new line, which almost drowned out the hoarse shouts from the Herald for the companions to follow him. The southern trebuchet had ceased firing.

Oh, shit…here it comes…

Steeling myself, I redoubled my efforts, the repetitive motion of drawing and firing my bow becoming rhythmic as I emptied my quiver into our foes. I had no idea if I was helping anymore, but I knew that a retreat was imminent, and my bow would no longer be of use anyway. Cullen and Rylen rallied the soldiers, charging into the fray, their blades a blur. Slowly but surely, the wave of attackers seemed to ebb, the half-changed Red Templars and the Venatori quickly put to the sword by the concentrated rage of the Inquisition, though not without cost. As the men moved forward, I saw the bodies of several of our own among the dead of the enemy, now, and even though their faces were none I recognized, my heart twisted in my chest.

Though I knew only minutes were passing, it felt like hours as the battle raged on, Venatori marksmen and Templar snipers cornered against the rocks, lyrium-laced warriors and leather-clad gladiators sliced to ribbons by our soldiers. Just when the last of this wave of attackers was defeated, there was another whoom! as the arm of the southern trebuchet swung once again...

…and everyone watched, open-mouthed, as the arc of the flaming projectile struck the far mountainside.

The avalanche.

It broke with an ominous crack, thundering down the slopes at devastating speed, snuffing out the torches of the continuous flow of enemies that yet streamed through the passes. The screams of the dying could be heard echoing even over the roar of the rocky torrent, and as their cries reached the ears of the defenders, answering cheers of victory swept through the soldiers in the field and on the walls, nearly deafening me.

But I did not cheer with them. I swallowed thickly, my tongue dry, my eyes riveted on the sky as an ominous shape suddenly came into view high above, approaching at an astonishingly fast clip on torn, bat-like wings that grew larger and larger…

“Everyone off the walls!” I screamed.

No sooner than the words had left my mouth, Corypheus’s dragon swooped out of the sky towards us, unleashing a stream of scarlet fire from its terrible gaping maw. It struck the southern trebuchet first, splinters and soldiers flying as the siege machine was blasted into matchsticks. It didn’t close its jaws as it then veered for the town, spilling its terrible flame onto the defenders on the walls before they could dive for cover. Inhuman howls came from those struck by the dragonfire as the palisade exploded, sending sharpened wood flying into buildings and bodies into the streets below.

The cheers immediately gave way to screams of terror. In an instant, Cullen almost completely lost control of his troops, the archers and mages scrambling from the walls for shelter from the dragon that completely changed the tide of battle. No longer were we the ones with an advantage. The Elder One had decided to move in for a checkmate…by wiping the pawns off the board.

“Shite! Frigging shite!” Sera cursed, an expression of utter panic writ on her features, “What do we do now?”

“Get in the Chantry with everyone else you can grab!” I yelled, pushing her towards the ladder, “I don’t care how fucking cramped it is in there, tell them to make room!

“Right, ‘cause stone! Got it!”

I quickly descended after her, scrambling for the gates to reach Cullen. Before I could even take two steps, though, Corypheus’s dragon made another pass, unleashing a second stream of red-lyrium-laced flame upon the town. I threw myself out of the way of the searing and crackling blast, crashing to the ground where I was nearly trampled by the stampede of retreating soldiers now pouring in through the gates. If someone hadn’t shoved their way towards me and jerked me to my feet, I might very well have been crushed under the tide.

“You all right there?” Krem asked loudly, eyes wide in his helm.

“I’m fine!” I yelled over the din of the withdrawing men.

Forcing myself to focus, I pushed past the soldiers to where Cullen was recalling all the troops back, my shoulders struck by pauldrons and shields all the while and nearly knocking me down again; I’d have bruises for sure. Over the Commander’s barking orders, I could hear the screams of the horses in the stables as they caught fire…

“Move it, move it!”

Maxwell and his comrades sprinted through Haven’s doors to bring up the rear, then, and Cullen and Rylen both hauled them shut behind the company with a heavy clang. The Herald bent forward, hands on his knees as he gasped for air, and many of the other companions were in the same shape, sweating and red-faced.

But before anyone could catch their breath, the dragon made yet another pass, blasting into the palisade above us and showering flaming wood everywhere. We plastered ourselves to the stone walls of the gates to avoid being hit by the debris, Cullen jerking me by the arm and behind his shield to cover us both from the hail of fiery splinters.

“Tamsyn, what in the Maker’s holy name…” he cursed gruffly, his grip hard on my wrist as we knelt in the dirt. I was so close to him, I could smell leather and sweat and something woodsy.

I met his eyes, chuckling breathlessly. “I fucking told you it was more than you could prepare for, didn’t I?”

Chapter Text

The instant the splinters ceased pelting Cullen’s shield with metallic pings, he quickly lowered it and hauled me back to my feet in one fluid movement, his armor rattling. “We need to fall back to the Chantry! It’s the only thing that will stand against…” he shouted, but stopped briefly as his narrowed gaze followed the shrieking dragon flapping overhead, “that…beast!

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell everyone ever since this began!” I yelled over the noise; we could barely make ourselves heard for the sound of the houses falling apart and the din of the soldiers. I briefly wondered if anyone would bother giving me credit for huddling the people in the one place that could withstand a dragon’s breath before the dragon itself ever made its grand entrance…

Maxwell pointed towards the village’s heart. “Go! Get the soldiers to the Chantry, and we’ll cover your retreat!”

Cullen shook his head, the curvature of his helmet flashing in the firelight. “I stand with you, Herald. Let’s make them work for every inch!” Then, drawing his sword again, he bellowed to his men, “Retreat to the Chantry!

His command was followed by a chorus of “Retreat to the Chantry! Retreat!” echoing throughout the settlement as the word was spread like wildfire from those troops nearest us. Many of the soldiers already appeared to be fleeing in that general direction anyway, but there were others who were yet attempting to reorganize themselves in the streets, forming in groups with what were likely higher-ranking officers. Upon hearing Cullen’s order, though, they broke apart, falling back bit by bit as they headed for the already full-to-bursting Chantry. I honestly didn’t know how so many people were going to fit in that place, or whether or not they had room for both the civilians and Cullen’s troops, too, but at that point, I really didn’t care if they just started stuffing everyone in the stairwell to the dungeon – I knew they wouldn’t be staying there very long…

As we moved back up the first set of village stairs, watching for signs of the enemy, I glanced skyward; Corypheus’s dragon seemed to be satisfied with the chaos it had caused, circling around the far peak like some giant half-dead vulture. A third of Haven was now on fire thanks to that damned thing, the flames jumping from roof to roof at astonishing speed and consuming the buildings like dry tinder. My cabin, and that of the Herald, was already consumed in an inferno. The conflagration filled the air with smoke and embers, and my lungs and eyes already burned from it. An astonishing amount of heat emanated from the blaze…so much that I was sweating in my jacket, even with it being so cold out.

We began falling back ourselves, making sure no one was left in front of us to be picked off by the advancing forces, and there was such a lull in the fighting that I thought perhaps there might have been a change in tactics. But then, I caught sight of a mountain of red crystals clambering over the burning palisade wall, followed by a series of massive fireballs blasting apart more of the splintered wood to make a wider point of entry. Even more struck the gates, rattling the massive doors on their hinges, tongues of flame licking between them and underneath. I knew, then, that the fight was far from over. In all actuality, it had only just begun…

The waves we had fought off before, as formidable as they had been in number, were mere cannon-fodder to the Elder One and his generals. Now that Corypheus’s dragon had succeeded in breaking down Haven’s walls and the Inquisition’s army was scattered and on the retreat, Samson and Calpernia were pressing their advantage and sending in their true forces – fully transformed Red Templars and much, much more powerful spellcasters – to finish the job.

“Chargers! To the Chantry!” Iron Bull shouted, hefting his gigantic axe in hand, but keeping his one good eye on the enemy that now forced its way past the palisade.

“But Chief!” I could hear the worry in Krem’s protestation. I knew he knew we needed every sword we could get just to hold back the tide.

“Just do it, Krem!”

No answer as the Chargers obeyed at last, and the only sound from them was their heavy footsteps quickly fading behind us. I knew I should have run with them. I knew I should have heeded my own advice. But something stopped me. Instead of following the Chargers to the Chantry with the rest of the soldiers, I drew my sword and dagger, joining the defensive line of the Herald and his companions, Cullen, and Rylen, as we faced the ever-advancing foe side by side. Vivienne had moved near Cullen, Rylen, and I to provide magical support on our end of the village, alongside Varric, who held Bianca at the ready. Maxwell, Cassandra, Bull, and Solas took the other end of our little vanguard, keeping on the left hand side of the settlement as we backed for the second set of stairs. Dorian and Blackwall held the center, with Cole hovering in the background. Sera was absent, presumably holed up at the Chantry with Josephine and Leliana, perhaps even giving them a synopsis of the fight so far.

All the while, the Venatori and Red Templars kept trickling through the holes in the defenses in an endless stream, until they finally forced us to stand and fight. Shieldless and vulnerable, I tried to keep behind some sort of cover, shouting warnings from my position whenever I could. Though warriors were still the main foe to face, I noticed archers and even mages attempting to get a good vantage point from which to start raining spells and arrows on us and on the backs of the retreating soldiers. Varric maneuvered to pick off these marksmen as soon as they exposed themselves on the ruined platforms, and Dorian and Solas slung lightning and flame respectively at the spellbinders, keeping the enemy mages so occupied with their own self-defense that they didn’t have an opportunity to ward the warriors. All the while, our own melee fighters engaged the Venatori and Red Templars swarming the entry level of the village, and once again, the war cries and clashing of weapons filled my ears.

This time, I found my eye drawn to Maxwell. He’d been caught without a shield, as he hadn’t taken one with him to close the Breach. That didn’t seem to bother him one bit, though. Instead of sticking to one hand to wield his sword, he frequently switched back and forth between one hand and two, making the change even mid-fight with ease. His fighting style was like a blend between Cassandra’s and Iron Bull’s, aggressive but also calculated. He moved quickly to put his foe on the defensive and pushed to keep it that way, harrying each enemy until they made a fatal error. Between his prowess and that of his fellow warriors, they kept the Venatori from pushing us backwards too quickly, and the brilliant flashes of elemental energy from Dorian, Solas, and Vivienne did much to impede the enemy forces’ efforts to advance.

Thus, I thought we were doing better than expected. But, as luck would have it, when we finally reached the area around the Singing Maiden, disaster struck.

Most everyone else was still occupied with fending foes off at the foot of the second flight of steps when I heard a yell from my left. I whirled in that direction, and standing over two wounded soldiers between the burning tavern and the inner wall, was Delia. There she dueled a pair of Venatori warriors in an attempt to keep them from slaughtering the men at her feet. They had somehow managed to skirt the outer edge of the village on the mountain slope and had snuck to the rear of the retreating troops to pick off stragglers. The soldiers over whom she stood appeared to have been hit by falling debris from the tavern, blood trickling from their faces and down their necks. One of the soldier’s legs was twisted at a horrific angle, and his eyes were squeezed shut as he clawed at the dirt in agony. His comrade beside him looked delirious, his pale gaze wandering everywhere.

Delia was good, but one of her opponents was getting very close to flanking her. My eyes wide, I dashed forward with weapons at the ready, hoping to stop one of the Venatori before…

Time seemed to slow. I was already too late. Delia went too wide with her shield in an attempt to disarm her opponent, her sword arm too far apart to close the gap, leaving her open for a counterattack. It was only for a split second, but that was all it took to end it. One challenger rushed for her exposed underarm, the point of his gladius piercing through her torso and emerging behind her collarbone. The other then followed with a brutal strike to the side of her head, his hammer crashing into her helmet with a sickening crunch.

She was dead before she hit the ground.

DELIA!

The roar that burst from my throat didn’t even sound like it belonged to me, primal and raw and throat-skinning with its force. In that instant, something in me snapped like a twig. The stomach-clenching terror, the overwhelming anxiety, and the burn of adrenaline all pumping through my veins reached its peak. I felt like my blood would literally catch fire, my eyeballs searing hot in their sockets. Memories of the moment of Willem’s death flashed through my mind, and I gritted my teeth so hard my skull ached.

What happened to me after that, I didn’t know for sure. All I did know was that I wanted Delia’s murderers dead. My cry distracted them just long enough for my assault to catch them off guard. I leapt at the nearest Venatori, blades poised. Both of brutes were nothing more than walking target dummies, and I saw nothing about them but weak points – weak points I now was determined to exploit. It was a terribly stupid thing to do, considering how little armor I wore, but something had conveniently made me not care anymore.

My sword and dagger both struck the first in the neck, just above the top of his breastplate, spraying blood as I cut his jugular and the blades sank deeper through his throat and spine. I jerked my weapons free as he collapsed under me from his death-blow, and then, shifting my grip on my shortsword, I rushed the second. He had no shield, and so his defenses were limited. I slashed at him, and he parried with his hammer, the shock of it rattling my bones. But before he could move away, I sliced open his wrist with my dagger, his bracer too short to protect it fully. He cried out, the hammer dropped to the ground like a rock, and I surged forward.

The Venatori abruptly grabbed me by the throat with his uninjured hand, squeezing with terrible strength. But somehow, in my near-blind rage, I barely felt it. My dagger struck again, this time stabbing through his exposed bicep on the arm that held me at bay. He stumbled back with a yelp, and the instant he released me, I slashed in a backhanded motion with my sword, the tip striking him in the neck between his helmet and the gorget of his cuirass. More blood as I severed his carotid artery, and he fell to the ground…

“Tamsyn!”

The muffled call of my name was barely audible, everything drowned out by the overwhelming sound of my rapid breathing in my own ears, like my head was underwater.

“Tamsyn!”

I turned with brow furrowed, trying to find the source and briefly glimpsing Iron Bull already hauling one of the wounded soldiers over his shoulder while Maxwell and Rylen took the other more delicately…

Tamsyn!

The world went sideways as something crashed into me. Hard. I cried out, first my shoulder exploding with pain, and then my other arm crumpling awkwardly underneath me as I hit the dirt and rolled. I reeled from the collision, and as I quickly tried to reorient myself, somehow still maintaining my vice grip on my blades, I saw Cullen’s familiar boots not a foot from my head. He was scrambling to recover his balance, a hulking Red Templar looming over us. My eyes widened as I realized I had foolishly let it advance until it was almost on top of me, and it was the Commander himself who had collided into me to push me out of its way. But before Cullen could ready his shield against this new enemy, the giant mace of the Red Templar slammed into the Commander’s breastplate with a sickening crack, sending him sailing backwards into a mountain of crates and barrels that splintered on impact.

No!” I screamed, my heart in my throat.

Not him, not him, Jesus, not him! I thought as I struggled to get to my feet, ready to tear the Red Templar to shreds, even though I knew my strength was no match for that of the corrupted knight.

But I couldn’t move. This time, I was paralyzed as my brain couldn’t process what to do. I had no idea how to even begin attacking the hulking monstrosity that was bearing down on Cullen right before my very eyes...

And then, I saw a glint of silver, flashing through the air so quickly I couldn’t see where it came from. The monster reeled backwards, and I saw a dagger hilt protruding from its chest, the blade embedded into a distorted lump of flesh that had burst from the confines of the monster’s breastplate long ago when it had first morphed from man to beast. It roared an inhuman howl of pain and rage as Cullen clambered up from the pile of shattered wood. There was another twinkling glint just before he hurled a second dagger, again causing the Red Templar to stumble backwards from the impact. Just these two daggers bought the Commander enough time to return to his feet and ready his sword against his attacker once more…

Suddenly, though, a storm of ice came out of nowhere, whipping in a vortex around the Red Templar with such intensity that I felt my own fingers begin to numb. I rushed to Cullen’s side and backed away with him as the magical blizzard engulfed the monster, turning scarlet crystal a muted purple – the handiwork of Vivienne. My eyes flicked here and there to find her, and I finally spotted the Knight-Enchantress at the same overlook where I had stood less than an hour earlier. A knowing smirk twisted her lips as the Red Templar slowly froze in place, rooted to the spot by the magical ice that spread over the ground…

…and then, just as abruptly, the corrupted beast exploded in a shower of ice and crystal as a magical conflagration burst around it, fire shattering ice: the result of teamwork between Vivienne and Solas, who now stood near her on the ledge, a similar smirk on the elf’s face.

I didn’t get a chance to see much of anything else, though, because Cullen was suddenly dragging me by the arm with his free hand, his shield having dropped to the ground when he was hit by the Red Templar’s mace. He ran with me, bent forward somewhat, his other hand still grasping his sword.

“Fall back! Fall back! Move!” he barked to the companions, who heeded his command, turning and running for the Chantry.

Thus we withdrew, the enemy still coming from farther behind, but now pushed back enough to buy us a minute or two of respite, or so I thought. The companions shouted for entry, and the mighty Chantry doors were opened by a pair of soldiers just enough to let us all in, Cullen and I bringing up the rear.

And there, in our faces, was Roderick’s angry countenance.

“Commander, I demand to know-”

Thunk!

My mouth dropped open, my eyes wide in shock as the Chancellor’s words died immediately…and so did he.

Maker!

Gasps and screams of fright ripped through the people within. As if fate itself had decided that Roderick would perish sooner rather than later, an arrow whistled just above my head, the wind from it knocking my already-loose hat completely off, and embedded itself in Roderick’s skull, right between the eyes. My heart skipped a beat as I realized then that I would have to tell them about the escape route now…

Before I could react further, though, Cullen jerked me behind the cover of the heavy door.

Retribution for Roderick’s murder was swift. Dorian snarled and hurled an arc of lighting from his staff through the crack in the doors, blasting the sneaky Venatori marksmen who had managed to chase us to the upper tier of the village, but it was too late for the Chancellor. He fell to the floor as the doors then closed once more, the weary soldiers manning them leaning against the heavy wood. Lay sisters rushed forward with expressions of horror writ on their faces, prayers to the Maker spilling from their lips as they knelt over the Chancellor’s body.

A pause as everyone caught their breath, putting away weapons to free their hands as they leaned forward on knees or against walls. It was then and only then I realized I was still clutching my blades, and they were both bloody to the hilt. My hands were trembling as I quickly sheathed the weapons, returning my sword to my hip and my dagger to my boot. I noticed that my gloves were also spattered with blood on the fingers, and I tried wiping at them to make it a little less obvious.

Danger still lurked beyond the Chantry walls, but here, behind a layer of thick and sturdy stone, the illusion of safety allowed me to relax just enough to finally let the adrenaline subside. As it slipped away, however, it was replaced by stomach-rolling nausea. I remembered the fighting, the blood, the sight of Delia’s death, and now Roderick’s. My tongue felt swollen and dry in my mouth, and I tasted bile in the back of my throat as I watched the sisters carry Roderick’s corpse away, through the dumbstruck crowd.

Willing those thoughts to leave me until later, I swallowed hard and I took in the sight before me. The people were packed into the Chantry like sardines – in the walkway, in every alcove and niche, and in every side room. There was no space left without a body in it, and I guessed that there were likely over two hundred crammed in the building, all total. Most people sat in the middle of the main hall, but more stood lining the walls. The healers among the mages tended to the wounded soldiers as best as they were able, Chantry laypersons passing around bandages and tossing small potion vials over heads. Barris and the Templars clustered in one corner, the remaining mages and Fiona in another, Krem and the Chargers in yet another. Sera jumped over a few people to rejoin the companions near the front of the Chantry, and Maxwell and Rylen eased their way through the throng from one of the back rooms as soon as they saw us enter.

There was a long scraping sound as Cullen sheathed his own sword at last, and my attention was suddenly drawn to where he leaned against the wall next to me. He was so quiet I had forgotten he was there, and as I looked at him, I finally saw the extent of damage done to his armor, where the Red Templar’s mace had struck. It had made a fine dent in the metal, crunching it inwards just below one of the odd sharp hooks on his gorget. Though it didn’t look that bad at first, I knew that the full extent of the damage was invisible to outside observers; there was no telling how much trauma such force had caused, and if he didn’t feel it already, he certainly would as soon as his adrenaline rush faded.

“Are you all right?” I asked, unable to keep silent about it. Outwardly, he didn’t appear to be in too much pain, but…

“I’m fine,” he replied curtly.

“Commander!”

Leliana and Josephine rushed forward, pushing through the crowd that now hummed worriedly around us. The Nightingale had her bow and quiver strapped to her back, and Josephine was laden with satchels of varying sizes. The latter’s hair was falling down from her bun, and she wiped her bangs away from her face.

“Sera told us there is a dragon,” the Ambassador said, her voice wavering as she glanced between Cullen and me.

As if confirming that fact, there was a rumbling roar directly overhead, and more shrieks of panic came from the citizenry, while others tried to shush them. There was little time to talk…

“We’re cornered, and there’s too many,” Maxwell said as he shook his head, his visor lifted to reveal his face, which shone with sweat.

Cullen pulled his own helm from his head, running his hand through his damp hair, “I’ll be perfectly honest with you, Herald. There is no way we can fight out of this.”

“I think we all came to that conclusion a long time ago, Curly,” Varric remarked dryly, picking at the fingers of his gloves.

“He’s here for you.”

Cole’s ethereal voice had all heads turning towards the spirit with expressions of bewilderment and apprehension on their faces.

“Cole’s right,” I said, speeding the conversation along as I heard another muffled roar above us. “The Elder One is here for the Herald. But we have a way to stop him.”

“Then tell us!” Cassandra snapped, her dark eyes flashing dangerously. “And stop keeping secrets!”

“All right, but listen to me!” I said, raising my voice and glancing between them. When I was certain I wouldn’t be interrupted or challenged, I continued, “The trebuchet. The last one should still be standing. Use it on the mountain above the village and bring another avalanche on top of the army.”

Maxwell cocked his head at me, his brow furrowed heavily as he processed my answer. “But…to do that we’d bury Haven.”

“And kill ourselves in the process,” Dorian said flatly, crossing his arms. “That’s not precisely the goal I had in mind when I decided to come to this frozen hole.”

No,” I hissed, shaking my head back and forth. “There’s a way out, a way we can escape. Roderick would have told you, but,” I gestured to the back room where the sisters had taken the Chancellor’s body, “he’s dead, now, so I have to be the one. It’s the summer pilgrimage route…surely someone else besides Roderick knew about it.”

“The tunnels,” Leliana murmured quietly, her eyes widening as understanding dawned across her face.

“What?” Josephine looked at her quizzically.

“You remember, don’t you?” I turned to the Nightingale, whose eyes latched onto mine as I addressed her. “The passages the Hero of Ferelden took to get to the Temple of Sacred Ashes. They’re still there, under the mountain. It’s a way to escape into the passes behind the town. We just need someone to buy us enough time to get through the tunnels to safety…” I trailed, glancing to Maxwell.

“…by using the trebuchet to halt the enemy advance,” Cullen finished, his own widening gaze meeting the Herald’s, as if he were seeing the man for the first time. “With the Herald as bait for the Elder One.”

“What do you think, Commander?” Maxwell asked after a moment, swallowing visibly. “Will it work?”

“If the way is not obstructed,” Cullen replied, glancing to Leliana for confirmation.

“We have mages,” she said firmly.

“That you do, darling,” Vivienne remarked. “There will be no problems with anything impeding our progress, I can assure you.”

“But that leaves no option for you, Herald,” the Commander continued, his firelit eyes flicking back to Maxwell. “Unless…” he trailed, uncertainty flashing across his features.

“Don’t worry,” I said, giving Maxwell a small smile. “He has the Maker on his side. He’ll find a way.” I tried my best to say it convincingly; it wasn’t just the villagers I had to persuade, it was Maxwell himself, too. Especially now.

“You’re certain?” Cassandra asked, her rage having already given way to trepidation.

“Positive,” I replied with a nod.

At last, Maxwell shook his head, “We have no time to keep debating. I’m going to trust you on this one, Tamsyn – it’s the only plan we’ve got.”

Sighing, Cullen gestured for two soldiers. “You two! Go with the Herald to load the last trebuchet. Get back here as soon as you’re finished and follow the last of us, understood?”

“Yes, ser!”

Turning back to Maxwell, he added, “We’ll give you a signal to fire once we’re above the tree line. Try to keep the Elder One occupied until then.”

The Herald nodded once in understanding, and then, glancing to his companions, added, “Solas, Varric, Cassandra…I want you with me until I get to the trebuchet and have it ready. After that…just make sure to get the soldiers back to the others in one piece.”

The three glanced to each other, knowing what he meant to do.

“Andraste protect you, Herald,” Josephine said quietly, at which Maxwell’s expression softened a bit, and he offered her one last reassuring smile before turning to the doors. Then, visibly steeling himself, he lowered his visor and pushed through, his chosen comrades following at his heels.

Only a breath of silence followed after the Chantry doors clanged loudly shut behind them, something strangely final about it. Then, turning to the gathered people, Cullen barked loudly, “Inquisition, through the Chantry now! Follow Sister Leliana! Quickly!”

A growing roar filled the building as the previously-quiet occupants all began talking at once.

“Take anything of value and all the supplies the Ambassador and Mother Giselle gathered together!” Rylen added to the Commander’s order, shouting over the noise. “Move, move!

At that, we advisors, followed closely by the Herald’s other companions, began pushing through the throng to lead the escape. All the while, the people scrambled to their feet, grabbing anything and everything they could get their hands on. The wounded were supported by their comrades, or if they couldn’t walk, were carried in some way – a few riding piggyback, while others were toted in a fireman’s carry. Soldiers and Templars ducked into the side rooms, picking up open crates and chests and bags of various materials. I thought I glimpsed Strider in the back, past the lay sisters, rolling up the maps and tucking them under his arms. Josephine quickly instructed two men to carry a massive lockbox from her office. She swiftly entered after them and emerged promptly with a blanket draped around her shoulders like a shawl and the war room chest in her hands. All this before Cullen or Leliana or I ever reached the door to the dungeon.

“There were renovations done to the Chantry on Justinia’s orders,” Leliana explained as we quickly descended the steep flight of steps, her voice echoing on the stone, “the most recent ones were finished at the end of the summer, right before the Conclave was to be held in August. The tunnels running from the Chantry were sealed off, but Roderick must have visited prior and taken a path to the Temple of Sacred Ashes through the old passageways.” She paused before adding, “Hopefully, there’s nothing more standing between us and safety than a simple stone wall.”

The building shuddered again with another roar of Corypheus’s dragon, and a chorus of anxious shrieking came from the refugees, reverberating overtop the thunderous sound of everyone’s footsteps on the flagstones as they followed us down the stairs.

“We’ll have to do this quickly,” Cullen remarked, his shadowed amber gaze lifting to the ceiling as dust fell from it with the vibration.

“Agreed,” I said, “The Herald can’t hold off the Elder One forever.”

We picked up the pace, then, almost moving at a jog as we traversed the undercroft behind Leliana, the rest of the Inquisition on our heels...

Then, as we passed by the cells, I saw where Butler and Alexius were being held, and I could hear Rylen’s voice echoing behind us as he shouted at some soldiers, “Get them out and bring them with us, but keep them under watch.”

“Yes, ser!”

I bit my lip. Alexius I wasn’t sure about, but I certainly had no problem with leaving Butler behind in his cell while the whole village collapsed around him. Unfortunately, it wasn’t my decision to make, and I pressed my lips together as I contemplated the fact that my attacker would be sharing the same camp as me and the rest of the refugees. I didn’t think he deserved that courtesy, even if I had kept Sister Nightingale from killing him at first.

At last, we reached the very back of the dungeon, where a wall much fresher than the rest of the structure stood. Vivienne pushed forward without even being asked, her poise and grace never once wavering as her heels clicked sharply on the stone. Leliana gave her a questioning look, and the First Enchanter glanced over the wall but for a singular moment before lifting her hands. A pale blue glow radiated from her slender fingertips, eliciting a gasp from the non-mage members of the evacuees who were close enough to see her casting.

Even after all the magic I had seen that day, I, too, was in awe as Vivienne made short work of the wall. After only a breath or two, the stones shuddered and separated one by one, as if they each had a mind of their own, sliding sideways with sharp grinding and clacking noises. They parted like a curtain being pulled to the sides of the room until the tunnel beyond was revealed in full. A blast of frigid air followed, threatening to extinguish what little light flickered in the dark of the dungeon. Vivienne lowered her hands and turned around then, an unmistakable expression of pride on her features as she smiled at Leliana, and more gasps followed from the spectators.

“Oh, thank the Maker,” Leliana breathed, and I couldn’t help but grin.

“Told you,” I said quietly.

Josephine lifted her hand to her mouth in surprise and relief, shaking her head at the sight before her, “So you did, Tamsyn.”

“Grab the torches!” Cullen shouted, “Everyone move quickly! We have no time to waste!”

The crowd behind us began to buzz with excitement, now. A way out. An escape from destruction. There was hope after all. The throng pushed forward again, propelling us at our previous pace. Maker help anyone who tripped or fell behind, as I feared they would be mercilessly run over by the desperate populace bringing up the rear. Cullen took one of the torches passed to him by a soldier as we broke into a jog in the dark tunnels beyond the dungeon. The floor and walls of the tunnels were damp, and the musty odor of mold tickled my nostrils as we went, along with the smell of burning oil from the torch Cullen held above our heads. Despite the light of the fire, the way ahead was still shrouded in shadow, and yet we pushed onwards. Hesitation was not an option.

The air was thick with anticipation. With every turn we expected something terrible to come out of the dark and try to impede us, but instead, we were simply greeted with more tunnels and more darkness. I prayed we wouldn’t reach a crossroads anywhere along the way, because we had no time to debate about which direction to take. Maxwell depended on that signal flare…

Then, suddenly, Leliana’s voice rang out, “Look, there!”

I squinted, and peering beyond her slim physique in the shadows, I saw light. Natural light.

“That’s it! Go, go, go!” I yelled.

We ran for the exit, the tunnel widening and opening like a yawning maw into the pass behind the village, icicles draping the mouth of the tunnel like the fangs of a dragon. The landscape dipped upwards sharply, and we scrambled through the thick snow, charging forward. As soon as we broke above the trees, able to see behind us, I looked back.

And there, through the thinning treetops, I saw Haven burning.

“The flare! Fire the flare! Do it now!” I shouted.

At that, Leliana drew her bow and knocked an arrow. “I’ll need someone to light this!”

We rushed after her, Cullen following closely with his torch in hand. The Nightingale quickly found a clear spot, unobscured by the tall evergreens that were sparser the farther up the mountain they grew. Then, briefly dipping the arrow tip into Cullen’s torch long enough for the shaft to catch flame, she aimed towards the sky and fired.

Everyone stopped, gathered, and watched with bated breath, craning their necks to see the blazing village between the trees. One second passed. Then two. Then ten.

Come on, Max, come on…

And then, past the haze of smoke and the glare of flame, the arm of the trebuchet swung, its load soaring upwards like a meteor. There was an echoing crack as the rock struck the mountainside above Haven…

…and then the roar followed – the unimaginable roar of a landslide twice as large as the first one the Herald had unleashed upon the Elder One’s army. It rumbled through our feet, vibrating our bones as it tumbled down the mountain, gaining speed as it went. We watched, mouths agape at the terrible sight of Haven being crushed beneath the avalanche, wiped from the earth as if it had never once existed, the Elder One’s dragon taking wing with a burden in its claws. And then, after a few moments, there was nothing but eerie and oppressive silence blanketing the mountain.

Soft gasps followed as the refugees realized what had happened. And then, with tears shining in her hazel eyes, Josephine whispered softly, “The Herald…”

Chapter Text

We had no choice but to walk.

Not long after we began our journey, I came to an unfortunate conclusion: I hadn’t really understood just how much warmth Haven had actually harbored, as frigid as the town was out of doors, until there was no heat to be found anywhere. At all. There were no blazing braziers to sidle up to anytime one chose to do so; no buildings to conveniently shield one from the chill of the wind as it whistled through the valley and into the streets; no welcoming rooms to which one could retreat at any moment, heated by merrily-crackling fires with walls insulated by tapestries and floors covered with fur throws and rugs. None of it.

As I trudged along with the rest of the evacuees, puffing out clouds of white mist with each breath, I realized I had foolishly taken all of those conveniences for granted. I had dared to be annoyed at the cold biting at my nose or the brief numbness of my hands, both of which were easily banished after only a few moments of standing in my cozy cabin. I had dared to think I was suffering in the slightest, all because living conditions in Haven were colder than what my modern HVAC-pampered ass was accustomed to.

Now, I was certain I knew true suffering.

We kept hiking across an incline on the flank of one of the mountains, searching for a safe pass and a spot to make camp well away from the village, in case our enemies tried to pursue us…although Cullen was convinced that they would think us all dead after the avalanche. At least for now. Blasts of arctic air rippled through the tall firs, piercing through our jackets and coats as if we wore nothing at all in these frozen wilds. I shivered almost uncontrollably, my arms wrapped tightly around myself. My hat – retrieved from the floor of the Chantry as we rushed to the dungeon – did little to help my ears, being too short to cover them, and they ached with the icy wind rushing into them. My lips, chapped by the constant wind, became rawer and rawer as I licked them over and over again, despite knowing better. I bowed my head against the punishing gales, blinking rapidly as my eyes were burned and dried. These unceasing and agonizing sensations succeeded in numbing my brain to any thoughts besides those of survival; recent memories of Haven’s siege flashing through my mind and worries about the future gnawing at my heart were batted away each time they surfaced by the overwhelming feeling of utter misery.

And as if all that wasn’t enough to endure, a blanket of snow physically impeded our progress, thick enough to slow us down but not packed tightly enough to prevent us from sinking through to our knees with each step. It numbed legs and feet, made muscles stiff with the cold as it seeped through our clothing, and resulted in many of us slipping and falling flat on our faces by concealing uneven ground, rocks, and twisting roots beneath it. Those who didn’t wear thick boots, fearing frostbite would take their toes, found themselves carried by the others who were able. Josephine was among them, toted along by Iron Bull, but not by the Lady Ambassador’s request. As one would naturally expect, she had initially protested against it, despite the fact her flimsy satin slippers and stockings were soaked through. But Leliana had finally insisted – quite firmly in fact – that Josie take Bull’s generous offer.

And that was that.

Though, considering how little time it took for her to curl into the qunari’s broad chest, clutching her blanket tighter around her, I was convinced she hadn’t regretted giving in to the Nightingale’s order.

I traveled at the head of the group, following a few paces behind Cullen and Leliana. Once in a while, I would pause and look back to see if everyone was still trailing in our wake. Most of the Herald’s companions were on my heels, Bull and Vivienne the closest. If I squinted, I could see Solas, Varric, and Cassandra bringing up the rear, indicating they had indeed managed to duck into the Chantry before Maxwell had fired the last trebuchet. They looked to be busy ensuring that no one fell behind, although I imagined Cassandra wanted nothing more than to charge to the head of the train of citizens and accost me or the other advisors. Between us, the soldiers and Templars still managed to shoulder their burdens of equipment and other supplies and hike through the knee-deep snow at the same time, while everyone else huddled together to stay warm. The mages, I noted, kept to themselves on the outer edges of the group, led by Fiona. In the middle, the few handfuls of children clung to their parents or to the skirts of the lay sisters, Giselle at their head.

All the while, the air was filled with the sounds of crunching snow, pained grunts, weary huffs, shivering breaths, weak sniffs, and rattling armor. Yet, while this noise never ceased, no one among the former inhabitants of Haven said a word to each other, and I assumed they felt much the same as I – too miserable, weary, and emotionally drained to even speak.

That was, until Leliana addressed Cullen ahead of me, barely audible above the growing howl in the peaks high above.

“Commander, you should get that taken care of.”

Cullen, who had put his helm back on and discarded the torch that had guttered out in the wind long ago, merely grunted. “Not until the others are seen to, first.”

I noticed he was hissing slightly with each exhale, his head bent forward but his torso rather rigid as he trudged onwards. I winced, seriously worried about the extent of his injury, now. As I remembered where precisely he had been hit, and took into account how he had moved since then, I was convinced he was suffering from a fractured rib…perhaps the topmost two. If so, this trek through the snow was causing him agony with every breath and every step.

And you caused it by being stupid.

Crushing guilt pressed down on me, and it made my already fatigued state even worse. I was finally falling from the heights of the adrenaline high I had experienced during the battle, and with every movement I felt faint. We’d been going for at least half an hour, now, nonstop. Maybe even an hour at this point…

Suddenly, my knees buckled under me, refusing to move. I could barely feel my legs, and I crumpled into the snow, sinking to my hips in the white sea. It wasn’t but a moment, though, before I felt someone pulling me up again, tossing my arm over their shoulders and supporting me as we stumbled forward together.

Rylen.

“I got you, Tamsyn,” the Knight-Captain said breathlessly, his voice tremulous from the cold. I glanced sideways to see dried blood caked to the side of his face, a cracking, near-black rivulet running from a deep slice across his cheekbone, just below his temple, adding to his already impressive number of scars. I hadn’t remembered him taking a hit in the battle. But, then again, everything had gone by in such a blur…

Rylen then raised his voice and shouted ahead, “We need to find a stop soon!”

“We’re almost to a good place,” Leliana yelled back. “Just a bit farther!”

And indeed, past the hunched forms of the Spymaster and the Commander, I could see a denser grove of evergreen trees than the sparse smattering of firs we had been trekking past, which would provide some modicum of shelter from the incessant wind. These trees were grouped on flatter terrain, the ground leveling out now that we were some distance away from the mountain, with what appeared to be less snow accumulation, judging from the clearly visible rocks and fallen logs.

Or maybe they were just big.

In any case, it would be an excellent place to rest and get our bearings, to build a fire on the edge of the woods and warm ourselves before the weather turned fouler than it already was. Relief flooded me, and Rylen seemed to feel the same, judging from his weak laugh. “Ah…look at that. We’re going to make it after all, eh, lass?”

“Yeah…yeah, we are,” I replied, managing a weary smile. “I think.”

------------------------------------------------------

Perhaps half an hour later, three blazing bonfires had been built out of brush and lit by a few of the mages. Blankets and other articles were pulled from the supplies and draped around those who wore the least amount of clothing; not everyone had heavy outfits like the fur-lined uniforms of the soldiers, and many hadn’t had a chance to grab cloaks or other coverings before Corypheus’s army had descended upon Haven. On top of that, Fiona had her mages begin approaching the travelers to warm frozen hands and feet and to offer healing services to those who needed them. But, as I feared might happen, there was a bit of a kerfuffle as they did so, some of the more superstitious and phobic members of the citizenry objecting to being merely touched by the mages.

That was put to a complete halt once Cassandra suggested rather loudly that the healers and surgeons be prepared to perform amputations later.

I had already informed Leliana of the blizzard that was on its way. Though she wasn’t saying much lately, especially to me, she did make sure everyone understood that this was only a temporary stop while she searched for a safer place to shelter during the coming storm. The Nightingale then busied herself with her ravens, whose cages the soldiers had managed to save at the last minute, and was scribbling out messages as fast as she could, sending them out to the closest Inquisition encampments with supplies and brontos to spare. While waiting for word back from these outposts, she ordered several of her scouts out to inspect the passes in the mountains around us, one of which I learned headed towards the Temple of Sacred Ashes – the summer pilgrimage route Roderick had mentioned.

Roderick. Images of his and Delia’s deaths were flashing vividly in my mind, now that the warmth of the fires had banished the cold and returned thoughts other than that of easing my misery to my brain. Memories of the battle came rushing back, and I felt my face twisting into a grimace as I stood before one of the bonfires, holding my palms out towards the yellow-orange flame.

I could still see their faces, etched with their final expressions as the light left their eyes. I could still smell the metallic scent of blood, along with the stench of burning oil and choking smoke. I could still hear the cries of the dying as though they were screaming in my ears, over and over and over. I could feel the sickening sensation of my blades slicing into flesh, as if my hands yet held them and yet cut into my enemies…

The world spun and acid hit the back of my throat. I shoved my way through the crowd of people, stumbling behind the trees and holly shrubs, the noisy hum of the refugees gradually becoming fainter and fainter and my crunching footsteps growing louder and louder as I went. I coughed once before finally vomiting my stomach contents into the snow. The sheer force of it pushed me to my knees. My ears burned, and I broke out into a cold sweat. I heaved and heaved until there was nothing left, and still I kept heaving, sputtering and gasping for breath. I was so consumed by the violence of my retching that I barely registered someone was behind me, holding my hat and my ponytail back from my face as I puked my guts out.

“You, too, huh?”

A gust of wind cooled the sweat on my face as I wiped my mouth and twisted my head around to look over my shoulder. There stood a young soldier, perhaps no more than sixteen or seventeen years old, his countenance a sickly green hue that I had no doubt my own face had taken on, too. He looked down at me with concern in his dark eyes as he abruptly let go of my hair and handed back my hat.

I nodded, taking a deep, calming breath to steady myself. “Yeah…I…” I started to explain, but then stopped, instead saying simply, “Yeah. Me, too.”

He chuckled nervously. “Don’t tell the Commander, would you?” He jerked his thumb back at the encampment. His tone was jesting, but his expression betrayed his true worry of what Cullen would think of him if the Commander knew one of his soldiers had thrown up from the gruesomeness and stress of battle.

I knew Cullen wouldn’t be that unkind…that he knew good and damned well what happened to soldiers during and after battle. But I didn’t voice my thoughts. Instead, I tried to joke back, smiling weakly. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”

His brows lifted momentarily before he offered his own lopsided smile and nodded emphatically. “Your secret’s safe with me, milady.”

And with that, he awkwardly about-faced and hurried back to camp before he was missed. As I watched him disappear, some part of me hoped the lad would end up on guard patrol at Skyhold, and not out on mission somewhere. I unhooked my waterskin from my belt with trembling hands and stood on wobbly legs, smacking the skin against my thigh when I noticed the contents had turned to slush from the cold. I rinsed my mouth, spat, and drank again, the cool water doing wonders for my uneasy stomach. Then, taking another calming breath, I replaced the skin, resettled my hat, and made my return in the soldier’s wake.

When I walked back into the camp, though, I immediately noticed that Cullen was not far away, immersed in a discussion with Harritt. Though he was facing the smith when I approached, I saw his eyes flick sideways at me as I moved into his field of vision. My heart skipped a beat, and the urge to turn away and retreat nearly overwhelmed me. But part of me knew he would follow me anyway if he really wanted to speak with me, and so I steeled myself and stayed put, pretending to simply be seeking the fire’s warmth again. As I glanced in his direction again, I noticed was missing his breastplate; the quilted gambeson he wore underneath was visible, the damaged piece of plate now in Harritt’s hands. I could hear the smith talking quietly with the Commander about the state and repairability of his armor, and it seemed Cullen was more than a bit miffed at what Harritt had to say.

“…silverite. Can’t fix it right, though, until we get to a proper forge. If we get to a proper forge. Best not get into a fight until then, if you can help it. In the meantime, I’ll see what I can scrounge up from what the Nightingale’s people bring to us.”

“I understand. Thank you.”

“Sure thing, Commander.”

The two men nodded to each other, parting ways, and Cullen, just as I expected he would, made a beeline for me, his helmet swinging where it was lashed to his belt.

“Tamsyn, we need to talk. Now.” He jerked his head in the direction of the deeper woods. I swallowed and wordlessly followed as he turned on his heel, knowing he’d likely drag me out there if I didn’t go voluntarily. This was probably the “having words” part he had promised me before the battle earlier. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I didn’t have much of a defense against the onslaught I knew was coming...

Hoping to diffuse the situation a little after a few moments of walking in utter silence, I said quietly, “About your wound, Commander…”

“It has been treated. I will be fine.”

“Oh,” I replied, noting the clipped tone. He was definitely still pissed. “Well, I have some elfroot potions in my pack if you’re in-”

“I’m fine,” he repeated, more firmly this time.

I knew and understood perfectly well why he was angry, but something boiled inside my veins at that, and I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. “You’re obviously not, considering you’re being rather short with me.”

He spun around, amber eyes blazing like fire, and I halted in my tracks, my sore stomach flopping with nerves. He was outright glaring at me, his brow deeply furrowed, his hair curling and falling loose onto his forehead from the sheer number of times he had run his fingers through it in frustration. I could practically feel the ire emanating from him, even with several paces between us, and I was certain that if his fur mantle could rise like hackles, it would.

“And why shouldn’t I be short with you?” he retorted sharply. “After what just happened in Haven?” he pointed in the direction from which we had come. “After you withheld information from me, knowingly and willingly, and allowed good men and women to die? You knew!” He repeated his charge from earlier, turning his finger on me. “You knew and you just…” he trailed, shaking his head in incredulity and tossing his hands upwards, seemingly in an absolute loss for words.

“I already admitted to you back there that yes, I did know,” I said, crossing my arms and glancing back over my shoulder, borderline paranoid that someone would overhear us like the few soldiers had at Haven. I honestly wished he would stop saying that over and over again before the rest of the refugees figured out I could have “foreseen” the attack too and decided to hang me as a traitor for not telling anyone about it. “What else do you want me to say, Cullen?”

I immediately felt my cheeks heat as his name rolled off of my tongue, I realized it was the first time I had addressed him that way. I had tried sticking to his title before that moment. It seemed the most professional thing to do. Saying it out loud to him, now, and having it slip out so easily…it felt…

“I want to know why!” he growled.

His hand flexed as his piercing gaze locked on mine, and my throat suddenly went dry. My mind momentarily drew a blank as my heart pounded, and I felt my mouth opening and closing several times before I got anything to come out.

“It’s…it’s complicated…” was all I could muster.

The silence that hung between us seemed to last an eternity, his eyes never leaving mine. At last though, he snorted derisively as he echoed, “It’s ‘complicated’.” He shook his head again, and his lip seemed to curl in disgust. “It’s always complicated with you isn’t it?” He closed the distance between us, lowering his voice to a deadly tone. “You said you wanted the best possible outcome for everyone in the Inquisition. You said you wanted to help us succeed, and I believed you.” Those last words came out thick with emotion, and the look of betrayal in his eyes was back, twisting my heart into a knot. “And now look. You knew of a direct attack far in advance, and you did nothing!”

But I hadn’t done “nothing.” I could feel my own anger rising at his accusation, anger that banished my nerves and gave me the courage to defend myself.

“Let me tell you what I’ve done, Commander,” I growled back at him, poking the front of his gambeson as I looked up into his face. “If it weren’t for me, the Templars the Herald managed to save from Therinfal would have either had red lyrium shoved down their throats or been slain like animals and unable to help us! If it weren’t for me,” I pointed behind me, “this camp would be less than half this size because two thirds of the citizenry would have fucking burned alive in the village! You would have been blindsided even more than you already were. All of the civilians would have been out in the open instead of in the Chantry before that dragon arrived!”

His eyes narrowed and darkened. “The Revered Mother called the service-”

Because I told her to!” I hissed, my thumb clonking dully against my breastplate as I pointed at myself. His eyes widened somewhat at that revelation, but I didn’t give him a chance to respond. “I was the one who organized that! I was the one who told her it would be a good idea, because yes, I knew the dragon was coming and yes, I knew it was the only place anyone stood a chance of surviving the onslaught! And I knew we had to go there anyway because it was the only way out! And then,” I pointed at the bow on my back, “I stood on those damned walls with everyone else and emptied my fucking quiver into those bastards to help buy us time and hold them back! So maybe, instead of bitching about how much I didn’t do, maybe you should stop and think about what I did do for one…damned…second!”

A muscle in his jaw twitched, and I saw the column of his neck tense as his eyes searched mine. At last, after a few tense moments during which I felt like he was sifting through my very soul, he huffed out a breath and looked away. “Your efforts immediately before and during the battle are appreciated, Tamsyn. And I thank you for it. But don’t you realize that it never would have had to happen in the first place had you informed me enough time in advance? Had you told me an army of that magnitude would assault Haven…had you told me about a dragon…”

“…you would’ve questioned me until I told you too much, and I knew that, too!” I finished, voice rising in my vexation. “Don’t you realize, if I…”

He smacked a hand to his forehead. “Yes, the story, the Maker-damned story! I get it!

“No, you don’t!” I retorted, shouting at him now. “You’ll never get it! You’ll never understand!”

He raked his fingers through his hair, audibly hissing his irritation. I clutched at my hat in my frustration, pacing back and forth in the snow and quickly wearing a path through it. “You don’t know…just how delicate everything is. You saw Samson…yes, that was Samson!” I repeated the fact after I briefly glanced up and saw the flicker of interest in his expression; I supposed that his suspicions were confirmed just then. “And beside him was Calpernia, the leader of the Venatori. If we had gone with just one side to rescue, the mages or the Templars, then it would have been one or the other. If we stuck with solely the rebel mages, it would have been just Samson and his Red Templars. If we stuck with solely the Templars from Therinfal, it would have been just Calpernia and her Venatori. But because we broke away from the story…”

I paused, catching his gaze again and holding it as I continued, “Because we saved some Templars along with the rebel mages? They both came. In a force twice as large as would have come otherwise. And because of that, I’d say we’re damned lucky that my plan to get everyone in the Chantry ahead of time worked. Do you see now, Cullen?” I implored. “Everything I do, everything I change, will have an unexpected result that we’ll have to find some way to counter. And the next time, it might not be so small in comparison.”

Silence as we stared at each other for several moments, each trying to break through to the other…both of us trying desperately to make the other see our points. At last, he chuckled mirthlessly. “So, this is it, then? I’m supposed to simply accept the fact that you are in charge of how much I get to know, and consequently, who lives and who dies?” He shook his head again, slower this time, and visibly swallowing. “I already served under someone who thought they had that authority and kept my silence about it for too long. I will never be silent again.”

My eyes widened in utter shock. How dare he…

“I am not fucking Meredith,” I said through gritted teeth. “So you can drop that goddamned analogy right now.”

A flash of surprise in his amber eyes, then. Had he forgotten I knew all about her? I watched as the panels of chain in his gambeson shimmered with the rise and fall of his chest. We were both breathing out fine clouds of mist in the cold air, and already I was feeling the deep chill seeping back into my bones after so long away from the fires. Weariness fell over me, and it came out in my voice as I dropped my gaze to the snow.

“I asked you to trust me, and you promised me you would try,” I said quietly. “What happened? I told you there would be tragedies, didn’t I? Things we couldn’t stop no matter how much we knew? You know as well as I do that if it didn’t happen at Haven, then it would have happened somewhere else, under circumstances I didn’t know a damned thing about,” I looked back up at him. “Isn’t it better that I was able to save more than would have been saved had I not told Mother Giselle to hold that Chantry service?”

A long moment, and then a heavy sigh. Of exasperation, surrender, or merely fatigue, I wasn’t certain. “You’re impossible.”

This time, I was the one shaking my head at him. “Cullen…you act like I don’t care. Like I don’t give a damn about what happens to these people, but you’re wrong. I lost a good friend tonight in Corporal Delia Rothe. And I saw her avenged.” There were hot tears in my eyes, which I fought with all my willpower to keep from spilling onto my cheeks, and my stomach rolled like the sea on the Storm Coast. “I killed the man who murdered one of the few people here who didn’t treat me like I’m some sort of…some sort of freak!” A twisting pain accompanied that last word, and it must have made itself evident in my voice, as his expression suddenly melted into…what?

“I will never be able to forget that moment,” I added, voice barely above a whisper, “just like I will never be able to forget the sight of Willem dying for me.”

I could feel my anger and defensiveness slipping away, giving way to guilt. Grief was crashing over me in overwhelming waves, nigh unstoppable in its power. I felt those losses so keenly, perhaps because I had already lost so much. I wondered just how much more I was capable of losing before I went mad from it all…

“And then you charged in and almost got killed, too!” I tossed my hands upwards. “Why did you do that? Why did you save me?”

Cullen’s brow furrowed at me in obvious bewilderment. “What? Tamsyn, I-”

“The Red Templar,” I interjected. “It would have killed me. I never would have known what hit me. Why did you bother saving me from my own stupidity? Delia probably died because of me, and I almost los – you almost died, too.”

“Tamsyn…”

“I know. It’s because you save people,” I said, not giving him a chance to answer, because I knew the answer already. “It’s what you do, now. What you always wanted to do.”

I turned from him, then, swallowing the lump in my throat and forcing back the hot emotion in my eyes as I marched towards camp again. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be brave enough to change the story and help you save more.”

He was right. He was right, and I knew it. And no amount of excuses I threw at him would erase the fact that I could have done more than I did. I knew he probably thought I was a coward. And if he did, he was right.

The story be damned…I could have done more.

------------------------------------------------------

It wasn’t long before we were moving again, this time to a deep ravine between two mountains, which would suffice in protecting us from the blizzard slowly blowing in from the south. Leliana informed us that Scout Harding was heading our way through that same pass and would meet up with us with all the supplies from one of our nearby outposts, as well as several pack brontos. The people weren’t eager to trek through the snow again – and to be honest, neither was I – but hope for more blankets and supplies lifted spirits a bit. And so we went on.

I took my place behind Cullen, Leliana, and Cassandra again, not saying anything unless spoken to, and for a long time, we walked in utter silence. After a time, though, Leliana asked for confirmation that the Herald would have made it out of Haven alive. After I reaffirmed that yes, he would, she began sending out scouting parties to find him, heading back where we had come to search for signs of the Herald or where he might have escaped to.

A half-hour later, the clouds began to cover the sky in earnest as the blizzard approached, and the temperature dropped even more. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before Scout Harding and her men met with us, four brontos carrying all the tents, furniture, and other supplies they had gathered together. It was then we began to establish a base camp in earnest, pitching what tents we had, building more fires, and setting up various locations for resources and intelligence. A makeshift war room tent was erected on the outskirts, along with a command tent for Cullen, a scouting tent for Leliana and her ravens, and a surgeon’s tent for the wounded. There weren’t enough tents for all of us to shelter under, however, and so the rest of them were pitched for the civilians and children while the soldiers and other forces remained in the open, huddled near braziers and bonfires.

After helping to distribute our extra blankets and food supplies amongst the refugees, I found myself sitting on a log that had been dragged in front of one of the fires. I unbuckled my bags and dropped them on the ground at my feet, sighing in relief as their burden was finally gone. They weren’t all that heavy, really, but after hours of carrying them, my back was positively aching.

Honestly, everything hurt. My legs, my arms, my back…my head. I was exhausted, so tired I was shaking. But even so, even with it surely being past midnight now and well on the way towards morning, I couldn’t even think about sleeping. I was too nervous. And even if I hadn’t been, the howling of the wind around the mountains as the snowstorm finally struck was enough to keep anyone from sleeping. I craned my neck upwards at the impossibly tall peaks, and though snowflakes swirled around us now, and the wind was strong enough to whip the tent flaps and make the fires dance, the full brunt of the storm seemed to miss us – if only barely. Somewhere in the middle of all that, I knew, was Maxwell, fighting for his life…

Heavy crunching footsteps broke me out of my thoughts, and I looked over my shoulder to see Rylen approaching from behind. He gave me a polite nod as I saw him. “Mind if I join you?”

“Go ahead,” I said simply, gesturing to the space of log beside me.

He sat, then, removing his sword belt and drawing the blade. It was yet stained with blood, and as he withdrew a cloth, a bottle, and small stone from a pouch on the belt, I realized he was going to set about caring for the weapon. I watched, strangely fascinated as he cleaned, sharpened, and polished the sword with speed and efficiency. Judging by the blank expression on his face as he bent over the blade, focused on his task, it seemed the work was somewhat cathartic for him. His wound had been healed, I noted, his skin cleaned, a line of fresh pink flesh now where the bloody slash was before.

He was almost finished when I remembered I had left mine dirty in my scabbards. I wasn’t an expert on the subject, but surely it wasn’t good for them to keep them that way…

“Uh, Captain?” I asked tentatively.

“Hmm?” he responded without looking at me.

“Can you teach me how to do that?”

That finally made his stormy gaze flick upwards, one brow quirking. “Your weapons need cleaning?”

I nodded.

“All right,” he acquiesced, gesturing for them. “Give them here and I’ll show you.”

I pulled out my blades and carefully handed them over to him, and when he saw their stained edges, a shadow crossed his countenance. His voice was quiet as he remarked, “Oh…that’s right. You, ah…you killed those ‘Vints, didn’t you?”

It didn’t take a genius to know he was remembering Delia’s death and my subsequent attack on the Venatori who had murdered her. He had been close by when it happened – there was no way he could have missed it.

“Yeah,” I replied, just as quietly. “I did.”

He nodded slowly, turning my sword over in his hand, his throat bobbing as he swallowed. “I’m sorry, Tamsyn.” Condolences. I knew from the tone.

“Me, too.” I said.

I wasn’t sure if he and Delia were as close as I thought they might be. Perhaps they merely had crushes, never realizing they had both held the same feelings for each other. Or maybe not. Maybe I was seeing things, and they were just friendly with one another. But, in any case, it was apparent that I wasn’t the only one who was mourning her loss.

Clearing his throat, Rylen then busied himself with working with my sword and dagger, demonstrating how to properly clean dirty weapons and how to sharpen and polish them to prevent rusting. In an effort to banish the sadness from my thoughts, I forced myself to focus on his words and instruction and to commit them to memory. Among other things, he listed a myriad of whetstone types that were appropriate for sharpening, and he also noted which ones he personally liked for their ability to maintain an edge. I tried my best to remember them all, as well as their places of origin for when we could requisition supplies again.

“Wish we didn’t have to sheathe the damn things bloody,” he muttered at length, “but what can you do?”

One final wipe on the dagger and he proffered them both back to me. “There you are. Your scabbards may cause issues, what with grime still in them. If that’s the case, you might have to have a new, clean pair made. That’s the price for having to stow them away right after a fight.”

As I thanked him and sheathed them once again, he stood with a groan and gave me a firm clap on the shoulder, “Right, then. I need to see the Commander about some patrols. Stay warm.”

“You too, Knight-Captain.”

He left, and I sat in silence again, watching as everyone else milled around, just as tired as I was and yet, also like me, unable to find rest. I saw Strider managing Leliana’s ravens in their cages on the edge of camp, cursing loudly when one of them pinched his finger. I thought I glimpsed Lea, too, busy running errands and fetching various items for the healers, who were still working on the worst of the wounded. Sean, I was happy to see, had huddled with the other children and the lay sisters amidst a pile of furs and blankets, and Giselle was kneeling with them. Harritt seemed to be trying to do what work he could on Cullen’s armor with a hammer and a pair of tongs.

Suddenly, there were more crunching footsteps approaching from behind me, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cassandra sit down beside me, her armor jangling slightly. She huffed out a breath – in weariness or exasperation I wasn’t quite sure – and held her hands palm-out in front of the fire, staring into the flames.

“Going to question me, too, Seeker?” I finally asked with a sigh, wondering if she was going to give me the same “why” treatment that Cullen had earlier. I honestly didn’t want to repeat all that again.

I kept my gaze on the fire as she looked at me and replied simply, “No. I am not. I have heard enough about it all from the Commander. We just finished speaking, as a matter of fact.”

Silence. Well, then.

She crossed her arms and pulled her feet back against the log, raising her knees and resting her elbows atop them. “I must admit,” she added after a moment, “I still have difficulty understanding you. But as much as my mind might object, given what just occurred, my heart tells me you are not a woman who would seek to harm us. Not intentionally. Josephine thinks so as well.”

Thank the Maker for small miracles, I thought.

“I also know you did what you thought was right, at the time. And I can only hope that it was,” she continued. “You made your choice based on events you know have yet to come. Based on the story you have been privileged to know. It is something I have to keep reminding myself of. I do not envy you.” Chuckling, she added, “Maker knows what I would do in your shoes.”

More silence. Part of me was surprised Cassandra hadn’t verbally thrashed me like Cullen had. But I also knew that she was a woman of great faith, and I wondered if she hadn’t done the same thing to me as she had done the Herald – convinced herself that the Maker had put us both here for a reason and allowed herself to question little regarding our actions because of that. If so, I wished I could share that same confidence about myself that she seemed to have.

“Cassandra…can I tell you something?” I asked quietly.

“Of course,” she replied, looking sideways at me again.

I let out a breath slowly, meeting her curious brown gaze. “I’m afraid.”

Surprise was evident in her arched brows. “What of?”

I swallowed. “I’m so scared…all the time. I already lost everything once. I’m so afraid of losing everything again. I know the path to success, and…I don’t want one mistake to mess all that up. Forever. We’ve only got one chance.”

She nodded in understanding. “Hence your caution.”

“Yes.”

She looked back at the fire. “The Commander told me you lost your mentor in the battle, and that you avenged her death. For what it’s worth, I am sorry that you had to endure both.”

“He hates me, doesn’t he?”

The question came out before I could stop it. I should have just thanked her for her sympathies and left it at that. But no, my big mouth just had to let out the fact I was worried about what the Commander thought about me. I didn’t even really know why I was worried at this point.

Her brows furrowed together as she glanced to me. “Who? Cullen?”

I nodded again, feeling a blush creeping into my cheeks. Damnit.

She returned her eyes to the fire once more, silent for several moments before she answered me. “That…is a strong word. I would not say he hates you. Disappointed in you? Perhaps. But not hate. If he truly hated you, I do not think he would be silent about your remaining here.”

Looking down at her armored toes, she added, “If you know the Commander as well as I think you do, then you also know he is the type of man who takes the burden of every tragedy upon his shoulders. I think he blames himself for this as much or even more than he blames you. He feels he should have been able to prepare Haven for any attack, with or without being warned ahead of time. I was the one who put him in charge of the security of the village. He thinks he failed me, and everyone else, by not being able to hold our base.”

“I told him then it was more than he could have ever prepared for,” I said.

She nodded. “I have told him as well. The truth of the matter is that there was nothing he could do against a dragon, even with all the preparation in the world, short of moving us to a castle…which we could not. That was what truly changed the tide of battle against us. Part of him understands. But another part of him remains in denial. And I think it always will, despite our reassurances.”

She huffed again. “But, in any case, there is no time to dwell on the past. What’s done is done, and we cannot afford to let the enemy take advantage of our vulnerability. We must find a way to move forward. Still, without the Herald here…” she trailed, and then looked back at me. “You said he would find a way out of that mess, didn’t you?”

“I did.”

“But where is he?”

I gave her a small smile. “You’ll see. Have a little faith, Seeker.”

As if on cue, a chorus of shouts suddenly erupted from the edge of camp. Leliana, Cullen, and Josephine all rushed out of the war tent, searching for the source of the commotion. Soldiers and civilians both stood, pointing towards the mountain behind us, expressions of disbelief on their faces, and the whole camp stirred and buzzed with excited jabber. There, barely visible past the hazy fog that had settled over the land after the blizzard had swept through, was a flicker of Fade green, moving back and forth in the distance as if in rhythm with someone’s footsteps.

At that, Cassandra, too, rose to her feet, her dark eyes wide in realization.

I smirked. “Told you.”

Chapter Text

No one in the camp could sit still. They barely could before, but they certainly couldn’t now.

Maxwell’s name – or his title, rather – was on everyone’s lips, and his miraculous survival was the only thing anyone wanted to talk about. They had witnessed him sacrifice himself for their sake, and against all odds, they had also witnessed his return. To them, it was nothing less than a resurrection, and proof positive that he was both guided by the Maker and protected by Andraste. A good thing, as it all but clinched his position as Inquisitor.

Despite the seemingly miraculous return of the Herald, however, Maxwell was very much on death’s doorstep when he finally reached the camp, his skin as pale as the snow around him, his lips turning blue. From what I could see of him, he had completely lost both his helmet and his sword, and his armor was dented and spattered with blood, some of it his own. It was caked on the left side of his head, and black and blue bruising also covered that side of his face from his temple to his jaw. There was no telling what kind of damage he had sustained that wasn’t visible, but it was apparent to all who beheld him that he had taken quite a beating.

He was ushered into the surgeon’s tent and fussed over by the healers and lay sisters, who had braziers brought near and commandeered any blanket that could be spared. Several even gave up their cloaks and other coverings for the Herald’s sake, and he was stripped of his soaked armor and wrapped in these various mantles like a mummy. All the while, I kept to myself and out of the way, more than happy to let the advisors’ and companions’ attentions drift elsewhere and disappear for a while, just as I had when I had first arrived in this world…

Besides, I needed to make sure the spotlight remained on Maxwell, not me. And the easiest way to do that was to make myself as inconspicuous as possible by keeping my mouth shut.

An hour later, after extensive treatment, Maxwell was resting with Giselle at his side, the Revered Mother watching over him as he slept. The healers had done all they could for him, and so now, sleep was his only option. Occasionally, I saw Giselle dip her head, her lips move in silent prayer. Otherwise, though, she sat still as a statue on her stool, watching his breathing as the color slowly rose again in his cheeks and lips.

Though the advisors and Cassandra had already stormed away from at least one heated discussion before the Seeker had come to sit with me, their arguments were renewed in full now that the Herald was back, their grief and sadness and shock giving way to anger and desperation. Just as before, they had tried to keep their voices down for morale’s sake, but passions and frustrations overrode self-control, and I didn’t even have to strain to hear their debate all the way from where I sat near one of the fires.

“…must find someplace to take these poor people. We cannot wander in the wilderness forever.”

“No one here is disputing that. But where, pray tell, do you suggest that we go?”

“For all our pandering to nobility, we haven’t managed to curry enough favor for anyone to grant us any shelter out of the goodness of their hearts, have we?”

“We have the Herald of Andraste with us, now. To turn him down would be political suicide amongst the faithful who believe in him.”

“Yes, and what about the two thirds who still don’t?”

“That is true. And even if someone did manage to muster the courage to help us, who would have a place large enough to comfortably accommodate two hundred or more?”

“I…do not know.”

“Right, which puts us right back where we started.”

On and on and on they went, arguing themselves into circles. I knew they were trying desperately to come up with some sort of plan, and that under normal circumstances, they wouldn’t be at each other’s throats like this. But fear and worry was turning them against each other.

Part of me wondered why they hadn’t asked for me, yet. I had anticipated that they would, if for no other reason than to give them some peace of mind. And yet, another part of me was thankful that they hadn’t. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in on the planning again so soon, not with the recent calamity still lingering in everyone’s minds. Not only that, but still another part of me suspected they now thought I was of little use to them, especially if I wasn’t going to make significant alterations to avoid disasters like Haven happening again in the future. They didn’t realize, like I did, that Haven was a one-time occurrence, and that everything would be mostly downhill from here, despite some dips and swerves at times.

A movement out of the corner of my eye returned my attention to the surgeon’s tent, and I saw Giselle slowly rise from her stool at the Herald’s bedside, presumably to give the advisors a report on the Herald’s condition. But, instead of heading to the war tent like I thought she would, the Revered Mother walked towards me. A small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth as she approached, even though she looked utterly exhausted, like everyone else in the camp. Dark circles had settled under her eyes, and her brow was yet pinched in worry, just as it had been all night.

“Lady Tamsyn,” she greeted me quietly, perching on the log next to me, “I wished to tell you…I know what you did. Back in Haven.”

My eyes widened briefly as I realized what she was referring to, and I swallowed heavily, looking down at my feet where they were crossed at the ankle. “Did the Commander tell you, too?” I asked. I hadn’t seen her in the war tent or talking with Cullen out in the open.

“No,” she said gently, shaking her head. “I knew before, when you first asked me to hold the service after the Herald’s victory against the Breach.”

I blinked in surprise. “You…did?”

She nodded, the corner of her mouth twitching a bit, as if she wanted to smile wider, but just didn’t have enough energy to summon it. “Yes. I must admit that I know little of your circumstances. But I do know, like so many of us here, that our leaders look to you for guidance because they believe you have been blessed enough to know the events of this Inquisition’s future. And because of this, I felt the instant you told me that you must have approached me for a deeper reason. Not to merely suggest a few verses of the Chant be sung in the honor of the Maker and his Bride. I could not anticipate what actually transpired. But I felt wary, nonetheless, and I took your words as not a suggestion of what I should have done, but what I was required to do.”

I was silent, absorbing her words. I was rather stunned that she trusted me that much…like it seemed Cassandra did. Was it faith? Or merely intuition?

“I wished to thank you for what you did,” she continued after a moment, looking into the flames ahead of us. “I have overheard your peers conversing on the subject. As I understand it, a great number of us who are here now would have perished, had it not been for your foresight. You saved many lives, and because of this, it is apparent to me that the Maker sent us a blessing when he guided you to us, just as when he guided the Herald to our side. And it is apparent to many of the others here, as well.”

She sighed. “But for those who lost loved ones in spite of your efforts, they will never know why you could not save their dear ones, too. And so, they will always blame you for their tremendous loss. I have done what I can to remind the people that the Maker’s hand is in all things, especially those things that we do not understand. That before the Maker’s light could be spread across the world, Andraste herself had to be subjected to the flame. But that does not make the pain of grief any less severe, of course, and from this pain will grow resentment.” She looked back to me, adding, “It is only human.”

“And what do you think, Revered Mother?” I asked, curious as to her personal thoughts on the matter. Did I not do enough in her eyes, too, despite what I had managed to do?

She cocked her head at me, like she had in the Chantry that day, and she was silent for several moments before she replied gently, “I cannot fathom the burden that you carry and how heavy it must be upon your shoulders. But I do believe that the Maker sent you to us for a reason, and that you alone know how best to use your gift. Thus, I cannot judge you based on your actions, or the lack thereof, because they are based on a future I know nothing about.” She rose to her feet once more, looking down at me with something almost resembling pity in her eyes. “I can only pray that the Maker continues to guide your decisions. It is all any of us can do.”

I nodded my thanks, staring into the fire. Why did I feel as though, despite what she had said, she was still dissatisfied with my actions? Was it just my guilty conscience talking?

“I must return to the Herald, now. But know that you have my support any time you require it,” she said at length, moving away from the log and back to the surgeon’s tent with nary a sound.

As she left me to my solitude once more, I didn’t feel comforted by the conversation. Instead, I felt more ill-at-ease than ever before. It affirmed what I had been worried about earlier when I had argued with Cullen – that people were suspecting me as someone who was going to put the Inquisition into jeopardy, perhaps even on purpose. Those flames had been kindled long ago by Chancellor Roderick in his public rant against me – as evidenced by Butler’s fanatical reaction – and it seemed they would not die out after his death. If anything, they had been stoked by events at Haven, and, as Giselle had said, would only build from here, personal loss adding to the bonfire.

She was warning me…warning me that I was on thin ice, and that despite believing me to be somehow “blessed” by the Maker, I could very well find myself on my own stake and burned, just like Andraste. She was telling me outright that she was influential, but she wasn’t that influential, and even though she was in my corner, she couldn’t stop a mob.

A clammy sweat coated my palms inside my gloves, and I felt like I was going to puke again.

“Hey there, Fortune Teller.”

Varric’s voice. I glanced up to see him approaching with two pewter mugs in hand, something steaming inside both. He bore a wry smile on his face as he proffered one to me. “Here, this’ll help keep you from freezing to death.”

I took it tentatively, peering inside. I wasn’t aware we had drinks in our supplies. “What is it?”

“Water,” he said flatly. “Sisters and Flissa have been melting snow and boiling it. It’s the only thing we’ve got to drink. Tastes terrible, but it’ll heat you up on the inside, at least.”

I sipped it, made a face, and then sipped again.

“So, you were right,” he said after a moment, half-sitting beside me on the end of the log. “The Herald made it back to us after all.”

“Yep,” I said simply, taking another sip.

“You know he had to,” Varric continued. “If this is a story, then this is far too soon for our protagonist to bite it. I mean, he is our protagonist, right? He seems pretty convinced, from what you’ve told him. Plus, he’s got all the hallmarks of one. Unexpectedly going from wanted man to savior? Check. Possessing the sole method of saving the world from utter destruction? Check.”

“Facing down the enemy in a heroic moment of self-sacrifice?” I added.

Check,” both of us said at once.

That brought a brief chuckle of mirth out of him.

“Yeah, his story’s far from over,” he remarked, somewhat to himself. “The only question is, does it end in victory or tragedy? Or both?”

“My lips are sealed,” I said with a wink.

“So I gathered,” he replied quietly, my attempt at continuing the levity obviously falling flat. I watched as he took a drink and grimaced. He looked down at the ground, then, and his expression shifted to something hard and stern. “Just like they were about Haven, huh?” he said.

I blinked. Dear God, that came out of nowhere. So he was upset about me not saying anything, too. For a second, I was so stunned I didn’t even know how to react. But then, I realized he had a lot of gall to criticize me for keeping my mouth shut…

Raising an eyebrow, I retorted sharply, “Because you would know all about keeping secrets for the good of those you care about, wouldn’t you, Varric Tethras? Those people you want to protect?”

His head abruptly jerked sideways as he looked at me, brown eyes wide in incredulity, and his expression betraying his thoughts before they were ever voiced. “Oh, shit…”

“Mmhmm,” I hummed, taking another sip from my mug and watching him over the rim with narrowed eyes. Then, lowering the cup once more, I added quietly, “I could have spilled the beans about you-know-who a long time ago. But I chose not to. Because you had to see the Elder One – Corypheus – yourself, so you could be the one to make the decision to bring your old friend back into this. Now, though?” I smirked, “Now you know what you need to do, don’t you? And I don’t need to tell anyone anything myself, do I?”

His lips pressed together as his eyes drifted from mine. “Yeah…”

“Maybe you’ll understand how I feel, now,” I said, before slamming the mug on the log with a dull clunk, rising, and leaving Varric to think long and hard about what I just told him.

Head and heart both aching, I wandered from the warmth of the bonfire, then, feeling the chill of the night air envelop me as I moved only a few paces away. I relished the sting of the cold as it seeped through my jacket, helping wipe the thoughts from my mind. It was good for something, at least, despite its deadliness. I kept going past the war tent, away from the hubbub, but I slowed once I reached the very edge of the camp. There, standing by myself in ankle-deep snow, I looked up at the sky. The stars were coming out, now, twinkling brightly in the void above, only occasionally obscured by the transparent wisp of a cloud in the wake of the blizzard that had moved through an hour before. It looked like the moons were trying to peek out, too.

Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“He doesn’t hate you.”

My eyes snapped back open and I whirled. There was Cole, sitting on top of an old crate that had been salvaged from Haven’s Chantry. He didn’t even appear to be looking at me when he said it.

“What?” I found myself asking. Cole could read my thoughts, too?

His head tilted upwards, and he peered at me with his ghostly blue eyes from under the rim of his overly-broad hat.

“‘I can’t understand…I can’t, but I want to…have to…need to,’” he recited, tapping the leather-clad heel of his foot against the crate with hollow thunks that punctuated each short phrase. “He’s afraid of what you mean. For everything.”

My pulse began to race. I knew, deep inside, who he was talking about, but I had to have clarification anyway. “Who’s afraid, Cole?”

He blinked, cocking his head a little. “Cullen,” he said simply, confirming my hunch. He looked down again at the white snow under the crate, and my heart continued to pound in my throat as he went on. “Faith fragile and frail, flickering like the dying candle at the Lady’s feet. He speaks the words from memory, but he isn’t sure why anymore.” His tapping increased in speed as he closed his eyes and listened. Looking past him, I could see where Cullen had retreated to his command tent, bent over the table with a map unrolled upon it, but not actually looking at what was set before him. He seemed deep in thought, his brow furrowed in worry.

Cole’s ethereal voice returned my attention to him as he continued. “The aged Sister with the roll of heavy parchment, smacking my hand as punishment…the lingering sting after the strike…‘Trust in the Maker, boy, and do not question’…Trying and trying to trust again and trusting too much.”

I took an involuntary step back. “Oh, um…ok, Cole. I think…I think that’s enough.”

Hearing Cullen’s thoughts spilling from the spirit’s lips felt like more than a small violation of the Commander’s privacy. Still, I had to admit that it was more than a little enlightening, and I knew why Cole had done it. He was attempting, in his own unusual way, to ease my troubled mind.

But then, before I could say anything else, I heard it at last, piercing through the low hum of the campsite, demanding attention…

Shadows fall,

and hope has fled.

Steel your heart,

the dawn will come…

Mother Giselle’s smooth but powerful alto voice drew me back into the camp, as if by a thread. I found myself walking slowly, quietly, listening intently as she sang the only Thedosian hymn I knew.

“…The night is long, and the path is dark.

Look to the sky,

for one day soon,

the dawn will come…”

I proceeded into the camp just enough to see Maxwell standing outside the surgeon’s tent, the Revered Mother at his side. He was watching in awe as the people began to gather near, drawn, like I was, to Giselle’s singing. The hum of activity abruptly died down, replaced temporarily by silence.

“…The shepherd’s lost,

and his home is far.

Keep to the stars,

the dawn will come…”

Leliana joined, voice clear as crystal from where she sat next to Josephine outside the war tent, and then slowly but surely, the rest of the camp followed suit. Just like I had outside the Chantry in Haven that one memorable evening, I could feel their voices in my very bones as they sang, vibrating the ground beneath my feet, seemingly causing the earth itself to tremble with their power. Their faith. And Maxwell felt it too, olivine eyes sweeping over the crowd with both surprise and awe in their depths. Maybe something else as well, once some started kneeling before him…

“…The night is long,

and the path is dark.

Look to the sky,

for one day soon,

the dawn will come…”

Even over the others, I could hear Cullen’s silken tenor lilting through the air as he joined just when I expected him to. I involuntarily shivered at the sound; Maker, it was beautiful, and given what Cole had just told me, it made my heart twist in my chest. At the end of the refrain, our eyes met across the camp, and I smiled at him as I joined in, too, compelled by…well, I wasn’t quite sure what, exactly.

I wasn’t a good singer. In fact, I was rather terrible at it, and it was idiocy to even contemplate singing by myself. But here, in the midst of over two hundred people lifting their voices to the heavens, I felt fairly confident I wouldn’t make anyone’s ears bleed, so long as I kept quiet enough.

“Bare your blade,

and raise it high.

Stand your ground,

the dawn will come.

The night is long,

and the path is dark.

Look to the sky,

for one day soon,

the dawn will come.”

As the hymn finally drew to a triumphant close, cheers erupted from the singers. In one fell swoop, any lingering despair seemed to vanish entirely. Hope was restored with but a gentle reminder from the good Revered Mother that better days would come. That the sun would indeed rise again, even if it was hours away. I had to admit, it helped even me, and being a part of that singing somehow lifted a weight from my shoulders.

I found myself on tenterhooks afterwards, though, knowing Solas would speak to Maxwell about Skyhold soon enough. Or what we would later find out was Skyhold. But then, seconds passed. And then minutes. The Herald was still by himself, leaning on the tent post, lost in thought.

My brow furrowed, as I didn’t see the elf anywhere near Maxwell’s side, as he should have been. Glancing around, I searched and searched until I finally spotted Solas’s setup on the far side of the encampment. He sat cross-legged in the snow in front of a small fire of his own, entirely unmoving and paying absolutely no attention to anyone else around him.

He wasn’t getting up.

I waited some more, expecting him to rise at any time. And yet he did not. Instead, the elf remained sitting on the ground with his eyes closed in meditation.

Shit!

What the hell was he pulling?

I thought and I thought, trying to understand why Solas wasn’t talking with Maxwell now. My heartbeat pounded in my ribcage as I racked my brain. What had I done? Was it something I said? Was it because so many people lived? Was it because…wait a minute. I needed to think like Fen’harel. What would Fen’harel do about all this?

And then, suddenly, it clicked.

It was me. Just me. That was it.

He didn’t have to tell Maxwell, because he was fully aware that I knew what was going to happen next – what the Inquisition needed to do. If I just happened to tell them about Skyhold instead of him, he wouldn’t have to be the one to admit to knowing the location of the castle. He was relying on me to do his guidance job for him, all the while ensuring that no one figured out he was aware of the fortress’s location the whole time. At least, as long as I didn’t spill the beans and reveal his knowledge myself. Or maybe he was wanting me to lead them somewhere else entirely…

At the very least, though, I was certain that Fen’harel was hoping to use me to help cover his tracks.

I gritted my teeth. If that really was the case, then there was no way I was going to let him get away with that. I knew two elven words that I prayed to God or the Maker or whatever would scare the shit out of him, just as I had scared Varric earlier. And I was going to use them, even if doing so put my own life at risk.

Steeling myself and marching across the camp, I headed straight for where the elf sat ignoring everyone around him. He heard my approach far ahead of time, opening his eyes to see me practically stomping through the snow. His brows rose as he saw me, and he slowly stood as I approached, a look of concern sweeping across his face. I wanted to slap it off of him.

“Tamsyn, is there something-”

He was cut off as I closed the space between us and leaned in, hissing so quietly that only his ears would hear.

Tarasyl'an Te'las. Show them.”

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Probably less than half an hour later, I stood with the rest of the advisors, Cassandra, and Maxwell at the war tent. The Herald had just finished informing everyone that Solas had found a place to take us, and that we should prepare to leave at dawn. Which was, in all actuality, only a few hours away, at this point.

“Solas tells me he has you to thank for jogging his memory, Tamsyn,” Maxwell said, nodding in acknowledgement to me. Even though he was obviously still exhausted from his ordeal, the Herald already looked much better than he had when he had first stumbled into camp, the healers’ work and the bit of rest he had gotten doing wonders. The side of his head was still heavily bruised, but the discoloration was a little less black and a little more brown and green. The blood had been cleaned from his hair and gear, the latter of which he had wasted no time in putting back on as soon as he was able.

I felt my stomach do a little flop, recalling the look on Solas’s face after I had coerced him into doing what he should have done all on his own. “I, uh…yeah. I did,” I said with a bit of a nervous chuckle.

“And did Solas tell you where, precisely, this place is?” Cassandra inquired, leaning on the table as she looked at the Herald.

“Only that it is to the north,” Maxwell replied with a sigh. “He seems to think it best left as a surprise, for some reason.”

“I see,” Cullen remarked flatly, his amber eyes flicking pointedly in my direction. Everything about his tone screamed that he was sick and tired of so-called “surprises.” And I couldn’t say I blamed him.

“In any case,” Josephine said wearily, “if we are going to be traveling again tomorrow, I suggest we try to get some sleep before we break camp.”

“Agreed,” Leliana nodded.

“And how, exactly, would you suggest we do that?” Cassandra asked. “No one has any bedrolls, and we…”

Her words were lost as mere droning in my ears as I remembered something. Glancing back over my shoulder, I saw the tent where all the children huddled together. They seemed to have no problems sleeping, and neither did the husbands and wives who held each other as they sat with their backs to tent posts and crates…

“I’ve got it!” I said suddenly, an idea popping into my head. Admittedly, it was kind of a dumb idea, but it was an idea nonetheless. Something they didn’t have at the moment.

“What?”

I wordlessly rushed out, heading for my bags, which still lay, untouched, near my place by the fire. Then, running back to the war tent, I opened the large backpack and pulled out my blanket, moving to the near corner in front of a line of empty crates that had been used to transport materials from the outpost. Nearby, there was one of those fancy braziers like Cullen had had in his tent back at Haven. It was beside this brazier and before the crates that I spread the blanket out, to protect from the chill of the ground.

“Tamsyn, what are you…” Maxwell began.

I grinned mischievously, pointing to the blanket. “Cuddle pile!”

Silence. And then…

No.”

The response came from Cullen and Cassandra simultaneously, which made the rest of us look to them with expressions of slight amusement on our faces.

“So you want us to just…sit on the ground and huddle together?” Maxwell asked, his brows arching high.

I shrugged, giving him a sheepish smile. “That’s the idea, yes.” When they all blinked at me, I huffed in exasperation and tossed my hands upwards. “Look, we don’t have enough blankets or tents of our own, the bedrolls are all occupied in the surgeon’s tent for the wounded, who most certainly need them more than we do, and we can’t very well sleep in front of the fires without taking up space for other people. Not to mention it’s dangerous.” I paused, and then added, “The only other way we can safely get some rest without freezing to death is to huddle together for warmth.” Hoping to encourage them, I moved towards the crates and began unbuckling my weapons and breastplate.

“It’s…not a bad idea, really,” Josephine conceded, sparing a glance to the others.

“It’s a terrible idea,” Cassandra snorted, crossing her arms.

“I agree,” Cullen said dourly. “This is ridiculous.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Maxwell remarked with a grin as I stowed the arms and armor into one of the crates. “I could think of worse things than cozying up to several lovely ladies for a few hours. Couldn’t you?”

That elicited a small chuckle from Leliana, “The Herald has a point.”

“Well,” I said, plopping down onto the blanket with my legs stretched out in front of me, leaning back against a crate, and patting the empty spaces to either side of me. “If no one has a better plan…”

Josephine sighed, setting her tablet on the table and blowing out the candle. “Well, I am certainly not wasting any more time debating the matter. As of now, it is our only option, and it is one of practicality, is it not?”

At that, the Ambassador neared and settled down on my left with a swish and rustle of satin, scooting close enough that others could fit on the blanket next to her if they wished. Once she relented, Leliana did so as well, silently unslinging her bow and quiver and stowing them away like I had my own weapons before sitting on Josie’s other side. That seemed to be enough encouragement for Maxwell, who removed the most uncomfortable pieces of his armor, and then inclined his head to Leliana as he approached her. “Sister Nightingale, if you don’t mind?”

“Not at all, Herald.”

He then seated himself on the edge of the blanket to the left of her. There was still plenty of space on my right, and I looked up expectantly at Cassandra and Cullen. “Come on now, be good sports.”

Leliana nodded, grinning as she glanced to me. “Yes, if we have to do this, so do you.”

Ugh.” Cassandra rubbed at her temples before sharing looks with Cullen. The way they stared so intensely at each other made it appear as though they were having some sort of telepathic duel, daring one another to make the first move.

Who ultimately yielded surprised the hell out of me.

“Fine.” Cullen sighed heavily, striding forward, unbuckling his sword belt, untying his helm, and discarding both in one of the crates behind us with a loud clatter. As he settled on my right, his tassets rattling with the movement, I looked back at Cassandra to keep from making eye contact with him, and I could have sworn I saw a glint of triumph in her dark gaze. When she finally joined us, the Seeker took her place on the other side of the Commander after removing her own sword and putting it with Cullen’s gear.

“Now,” I said, hugging my arms around my torso and pulling my hat over my eyes as I found a somewhat comfortable position, leaving the rest of them to do as they liked. “Everyone settle in, snuggle up, and try to get some shuteye before we have to move in the morning, all right?”

Afterwards, I must have listened to nearly half an hour’s worth of awkward apologies and squirming before darkness claimed me at last.

------------------------------------------------------

When I finally awoke, it was with a slightly sweet and woodsy scent filling my nostrils and my cheek buried in something soft and warm from my body heat. An unknown heaviness pressed on my right shoulder and the top of my head, and…

…and someone’s arm was around my waist. Or maybe there were two…

It took a moment to remember how exactly I had fallen asleep the night before, and I willed myself to remain still in an effort not to wake anyone as my eyes popped open. Judging from the chorus of soft snores in my ears, everyone else piled around me was indeed still asleep…

A blur of black and russet almost completely filled my vision, my left eye the only one able to see anything else. That, coupled with the softness I felt under my right cheek, told me that I must have snuggled into Cullen’s mantle during the night. The heat that was already creeping up my neck intensified tenfold when I realized that the fragrance I smelled must have been his signature elderflower and oakmoss, and underneath those aromatic overtones was the faint and mustier odor of leather and metal and sweat.

But what was that weight on my head?

My eyes widened as I felt warm and steady puffs of breath ghosting over my ear and lightly blowing the little hairs that had come loose from my ponytail.

It was Cullen’s chin. Cullen’s chin was on top of my head.

Not only that, but I could feel where the crest of his spaulder was digging into my back as his arm was wedged between me and the crates. As my brain tracked the slight feeling of pressure through my jacket, I realized – his left hand was draped loosely on top of my left hip.

This was not at all what I had expected.

I swallowed, my tongue insanely dry and swollen in my mouth. Slowly and tentatively, I tilted my head down ever so slightly in an attempt to see what that additional weight around my waist was, hoping and praying all the while I didn’t disturb the Commander enough to wake him up. I paused after my movement, listening to his breathing. The soft snore that followed gave me relief, and I strained my eyes downwards, then. At first, I saw my left hand, covered by my fallen hat, resting on my thigh; my right was effectively pinned between mine and Cullen’s legs.

And then I glimpsed the shimmer of gold.

Josie?

It looked as though the Ambassador had turned sideways in her sleep and curled her arm around me, slipping it under mine. That must have meant that the heavy weight on my left shoulder, which rendered my whole left arm almost completely numb, was her head.

Great.

Here I was, seemingly the only one of them awake, and there was no way on the Maker’s green earth I could extricate myself without rousing the rest of them. And I was getting hot. And extremely uncomfortable. My back was killing me, and so was my neck, and…

The weight then suddenly lifted from the top of my head as Cullen’s rolled sideways, and I stifled a surprised gasp. After a few seconds, though, he didn’t move any more, and the continued steadiness of his breathing indicated he still wasn’t close to waking fully.

Well, at least that frees me enough to look around…

I peered around Cullen. There was Cassandra, also curled into the Commander’s fur mantle, her mouth hanging open. Her armored hand was palm-up atop his thigh, probably where it had fallen after dropping from his chest. Looking to my left, I saw Leliana snuggled into Josie from behind, her hood half-pushed back as she had buried her head into the Ambassador’s puffed sleeve.

Maxwell, though, was gone.

My brow furrowed. Had he just woken up early, or…?

I glanced to the tent opening where pinkish light was filtering through. It was dawn. Beyond the tent, I could hear the buzzing drone of activity as the villagers and soldiers stirred and…

Oooh…

With my nose finally out of Cullen’s mantle, I was able to smell something other than herbs and armor. The aroma of some sort of meat roasting wafted through the tent flaps with the breeze, and my stomach began to ache with hunger, my mouth watering. The hunters must have caught some game to cook.

And then, I saw a shadow approach the entrance to the tent, and one flap opened ever-so-slightly to reveal the Herald’s dark-haired head as he peeked inside. There was a half-grin on his face as he looked at the pile of sleeping advisors, and that grin widened when his green gaze met mine. With that look, I knew he was feeling much better – he was probably quite excited about Solas’s plan and likely eager to get moving.

Help me!” I mouthed silently, hoping he would do something to gently stir the rest of my peers.

Eyes glittering with mischief, he shook his head and immediately ducked back out of the tent.

My mouth dropped open. Sera had to be getting to him.

He was going to leave it to me to wake them up, then. I would have been rather cross at him had it not been so hilariously just, in a way. After all, I was the one who got myself into this mess. And now, I could get myself out.

Sighing, I gently poked at Josephine with my elbow.

“Ambassador?” I said quietly, barely above a whisper. “Ambassador Josephine…time to wake up…”

Josie groaned into my shoulder.

“I know, I know. Come on, we’ve got to get going,” I added, a little louder this time.

Another groan, and she buried herself deeper into my arm. No one else made even the slightest sign that they were awake, not even Cullen, who I could have sworn would have heard me by now. Had I not known just how exhausted they were when we fell asleep at last, I would have thought they were all in on some sort of wicked prank as revenge for my stupid idea.

At that moment, my stomach twisted with hunger, sickeningly painful, and I had enough of being quiet. Steeling myself for the reaction, I said, loudly and clearly, the only other thing I knew that would spring Josie into action besides the lure of Carastian candies…

“Josephine Cherette Montilyet, you are late for a meeting with-”

WHAT?!

The Ambassador sat straight up, eyes wide and hair sticking out at odd angles from her now loose bun. Her sudden movements caused her to smack Leliana right in the face, and her shriek had Cullen lurching forward and slapping at his side for his sword, which was no longer there. This threw Cassandra rather violently off of his shoulder, and the hand which had been on my hip jerked up to whack me in the side of the head.

Ow!

“Oh, no!”

“What is the-”

“Oh, I’m so sorry!”

The chorus of complaints and apologies stopped as abruptly as they started when everyone realized where they were.

“The Herald!” Leliana exclaimed, glancing to the empty space to her left as she vigorously rubbed the blossoming red spot on her forehead where Josephine’s knuckles had struck her.

“He’s up,” I reassured, hissing as I straightened my back and rolled my neck, at last completely free. “He refused to wake you all himself, hence why I had to do it. Sorry for the panic, by the way,” I added, smiling sheepishly at Josie, who gave me a rather flat glare as she desperately tried to smooth her hair.

“Surely you could have found some other way to wake us all,” she replied, huffing as she realized she would have to redo her whole hairstyle to make it some semblance of presentable.

“I tried!” I protested.

“Not hard enough,” Cassandra remarked dryly.

“At least you weren’t the one tangled up in the middle, Seeker,” I quipped as I pulled my hat over my head.

“It was your idea,” Leliana reminded me.

“And let’s not do it again,” Cullen added sourly, wincing as he stiffly rose to his feet.

“Oh, come on,” I teased as I stood beside him, using the side of a crate for support. “You liked it and you know it.”

“I did no-”

We were cut off as Maxwell suddenly popped into the tent again. “Ah, you’re awake at last! Good!”

He entered fully, smiling broadly and glancing to each of us – and throwing a mischievous wink my way. “Everyone’s already ready to go, for the most part. We just have to break down a few more tents, including this one.” He turned to Leliana and continued, a bit more seriously, “Sister Nightingale, another outpost reached us just an hour ago with more supplies per the request of Scout Harding, and some of the hunters managed to bag a few rams, so we have more than enough food to go around.”

“That is excellent news,” Josephine breathed.

Maxwell nodded. “Suffice it to say, we’re all a bit eager to see this place Solas mentioned. He said it would be a few days before we reached it, though, even if we walked from sunrise to sunset.”

“Then we’ve no time to waste,” Cullen said, strapping his sword belt back on. Nodding to the rest of us, he added, “Let’s move.”

------------------------------------------------------

After breaking down the remainder of the camp and grabbing a quick (and greasy) breakfast from what was left on the ram spits, we finally set out on our journey to Skyhold, with Solas and the Herald as our leaders.

For two whole days, we traveled through the Frostbacks, following the natural valleys between the towering mountains that surrounded us on all sides. From dawn until dusk, we traversed snow so blindingly bright in the sunlight that it was impossible to look at it without seeing spots. All the while, we headed steadily north-northwest, using the position of the sun in the clear sky and what maps we had for guidance. As we followed the path of least resistance, I noticed that we were, ever-so-slightly, going higher and higher in altitude, and the air was becoming thinner as we went. We persisted on nothing but leftover ram meat and boiled snowmelt, plus two nights’ worth of huddling in blankets and furs with beds of fir branches hacked from the trees around us and magically sparked fires for warmth.

Miraculously, these were also two days during which not a single soul dared to bitch about Templars or mages – not even the Templars or mages. They had somehow struck an accord, if an uneasy one, and seemingly put bad blood behind them, realizing that they were not each other’s greatest enemy anymore. Just traveling together like we were, a ragtag group of survivors with nothing but the clothes on our backs and a single thread of hope to follow, hammered the memory of the fall of Haven into our minds and etched the name of Corypheus, the Elder One, on our brains as our true foe; we were reminded of it every time we looked at each other…every time we saw the pack brontos laden with the last of the Inquisition’s supplies and every time we saw bloody bandages and soldiers carrying crippled comrades.

At last, in the early morning of the third day, we found it.

I walked on my own at the head of the group, between Solas and the Herald and the rest of the advisors and companions…well, save for Josie, who had been put atop one of the brontos to save her feet, along with a few other bootless villagers. Our two guides had disappeared around a rocky outcropping farther ahead, as they had countless times before, and I fully well expected for them to reappear again back out in the open, still walking into the valley in front of us.

But this time, Maxwell sprinted back from around the rocks, kicking up snow in clods. A grin was plastered to his face, his eyes alight.

“Commander, you have to see this!” he called, gesturing eagerly for Cullen to join him.

I looked back over my shoulder to where I knew Cullen was, and he looked at me with a puzzled expression. “Go on, Commander,” I said, waving at him to go ahead and fighting to keep from grinning myself.

He hesitated for a split second before jogging past me to catch up to the Herald, and I followed suit, my heart pounding under my sternum. I was almost trembling with excitement to see what I knew Maxwell had found, and I wondered just how Cullen was going to take this discovery. No doubt he would later wonder why neither Solas nor I had told him about this either…but for now, I was hoping this would ease the sting of the loss of Haven, if only just a little bit.

We clambered up the slippery, snow-coated rocks behind Maxwell, where Solas yet stood, a small smile on the elf’s face as he nodded to each of us. The look he shared with me as I brought up the rear, however, was somewhat less amicable as that smile gradually melted away. He silently stepped aside as I brushed past him in the Commander’s wake, and I tried my best to ignore that not-so-subtle change in his expression.

“Maker’s breath!” came Cullen’s signature swear.

I finally drew up beside him and Maxwell, and my jaw dropped. There, perched atop the rocky plateau in the distance, ringed by the tallest mountains of the Frostbacks, was Skyhold. And it was more beautiful and awe-inspiring in person, even as dilapidated as it was, than I had ever anticipated. With its enormous square towers and massive stolid bridge across that perilous ravine, its might was evident even from this distance. Everything about it was a warning to potential attackers: you shall never have me.

“Think you can do something with that, Commander?” Maxwell asked after a moment.

Cullen nodded slowly as he held his gauntleted hand over his eyes, their irises golden in the light of the morning sun as he drank in every detail of the dawn-bathed fortress that lay before us. I watched as a hint of a smile pulled at the corner of his mouth, and I couldn’t help but do the same.

“Yes, Herald. I believe I can.”

Chapter Text

An hour and a half later, I set foot on Skyhold’s bridge for the very first time.

Cullen, Solas, Maxwell and I had quickened our pace and increased the distance between us and the others, eager to see Skyhold up close. We had passed numerous tall watchtowers along the way to the castle, set as sentry posts at regular intervals on the winding road that led to Skyhold’s sole entrance. The path, which at times seemed little more than a goat trail, descended first into the flat, empty valley that would later host the Inquisition’s army, and then ascended again along the flank of the mountain we had just rounded. The fortress itself, already formidably large from the distance at which we had first glimpsed it, was even larger now, the first gatehouse looming above us. As we approached it, I realized it was a good thing the portcullises had been left open and had not fallen down with age, or we likely would have been unable to enter the stronghold at all.

I stared up at the first such gate as we passed underneath it, feeling dwarfed by it. Even with the portcullis suspended roughly halfway in its tracks, it was still a good twenty feet overhead, and this gatehouse was the smaller of the two. The blocks were in surprisingly good shape for their age…which could have been anywhere from several hundred up to a thousand years old. I attributed it partially to the dryness of the mountain climate, but the magical nature of the whole site might also have helped slow natural weathering.

Wow…” I breathed as my eyes drifted from the gate to the stones underfoot, unable to stay silent in the presence of such awesome architecture. The bridge flagstones were solid and strong beneath our boots, our footsteps echoing around the archway above us. The others of our company were yet far enough behind us that their droning chatter couldn’t drown out the sliding crunch of grit under the soles of our feet.

“It certainly appears to be nothing short of impregnable,” Maxwell remarked, his voice barely above a whisper, as if he was afraid talking too loudly would cause the whole bridge to fall apart under us. I shuddered at the thought.

“That it does,” Cullen agreed as we emerged on the other side of the gatehouse, beginning our journey across the bridge proper. “Anyone who would try and assault this place would be a madman.”

“Hence, it seems, why it has withstood the test of time as well as it has,” Solas observed, his staff tapping on the stone with every other step.

“Yes,” the Commander said, his eyes never leaving the castle before us as he continued to analyze it for defensibility and weaknesses. His brow furrowed deeply as he took in everything. “Those crumbling walls at the rear there aren’t collapsing from damage, but instead from erosion and neglect. That much is evident.”

I, however, couldn’t help but look out at the ravine over which the bridge spanned as we progressed across it, and my stomach lurched. Though the bridge itself was wide enough for two wagons to pass each other without touching, it still felt incredibly narrow and dangerous to me, especially considering there were no side walls or guard rails. I found myself wanting to hurry the others along, the fear of being suddenly blown over the side by a rogue gust of wind growing with each passing second. Part of me wondered how the people who had built this place had done so safely, first having to find a way to reach the rocky outcropping Skyhold was perched upon to begin with, and then having to build the defenses on top of it…

I swallowed as I realized that it was quite plausible that this bridge spanned a graveyard.

Maxwell, seeming to sense my anxiousness, edged a bit closer to me and remarked with a slight chuckle, “A long way down, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I squeaked, not intending for my voice to come out as constricted as it did. I wasn’t normally afraid of heights – or at least I didn’t think I was – but the virtually endless drop to the valley floor below threatened to change that.

“Don’t worry, we won’t let you fall.”

I whimpered my doubt.

The moment we reached the drawbridge of the inner gatehouse was not a moment too soon. Unfortunately, I was given yet more to worry about; the drawbridge obviously spanned a gap in the stones intended to hamper would-be besiegers – if lifted, attackers wouldn’t be able to hammer against the drawbridge for a five foot long hole preventing anyone from getting close to it. Despite its great age, the drawbridge needed to be sturdy enough to support our weight – and the weight of more than two hundred behind us – for us to enter the lower courtyard safely. The four of us glanced one to the other, realizing the riskiness, before we swiftly crossed it together. All the while, I kept up a mantra in my head as our boots thudded rhythmically against the thick wood.

Please don’t be rotted…please don’t be rotted…please don’t be rotted…

Of course, I knew the Inquisition had to get into the castle somehow. But that didn’t mean some poor sod couldn’t be a victim of the fortress’s state of abandonment before everyone else realized they needed to repair something first. The game never showed the initial entering of Skyhold.

At last, however, we reached solid ground on the other side, dirt underneath our feet, and I audibly sighed my relief. No more bridges, no more iffiness. Just pure solid earth.

We were here at last.

“Does it feel…warmer, to you?” Maxwell remarked as we passed under the second portcullis and entered into Skyhold’s lower courtyard. Indeed, in just those few steps, the temperature seemed to have risen at least a few degrees, if not a dozen…enough to feel somewhat pleasant to my wind-chilled cheeks. The air seemed less thin here, too, and breathing became much easier. Birds loudly twittered their indignation at having their peaceful, unique ecosystem disturbed by us intruders, flitting away from the nearest trees with winter-dead leaves floating in their wake. Having such wildlife, trees, sparse grass, and even unmelted puddles at this altitude – whilst the rest of the mountains around us were almost entirely bare – made the specialness of Skyhold all the more apparent. Though I had seen this place countless times in my games, seeing it in person and experiencing the enigma of the fortress for myself brought a smile unbidden to my face.

“There is magic here,” Cullen said quietly, stopping as he glanced around the abandoned courtyard, his hand on the hilt of his sword. And even if I hadn’t known ahead of time that those words were true, I would have believed him. If I closed my eyes and concentrated hard enough, I could feel it myself…a hum just on the edge of perception – a soft tingling in my bones that faded the longer I stood there, acclimating to it. No doubt the constant commotion of the inhabitants would drown out the last vestiges of that sensation once the Inquisition was fully established here, blending in to the thrum of activity. But for now, with just us four here, it was definitely noticeable. I could only imagine how it felt to someone trained to detect it, like Cullen. Or to mages like Solas.

“This place is magnificent,” Maxwell breathed as we cautiously proceeded further into the courtyard, craning our necks upwards at the looming towers surrounding us and the imperious keep ahead. “How did you find out about it, Solas?”

There was but a moment’s pause. “I am certain that Tamsyn could put the situation to words better than I, Herald,” the elf finally replied, glancing my way as he leaned on his staff. “After all, she is the one who kindly reminded me of it.”

I fought to keep my face impassive as I met his gaze. His words only reinforced the hunch that he was trying to put everything off on me.

“Oh, no, Solas,” I answered with a smile. “You are the expert on this particular subject, not I. I may have known we would reach this place eventually, but you were the one who actually found it, as it were.”

At that, Solas’s expression was unreadable, and Cullen loudly huffed his irritation, lips thinning as he turned around to face us. “Regardless of who can explain it better, we could have stood to be informed about this place much earlier than immediately following an attack on Haven by a supposed darkspawn magister.”

“Maybe,” I conceded, crossing my arms as I looked up at him. “Or maybe after suffering great tragedy is just the right time for the Inquisition to find a place like Skyhold. Things often happen in a certain order for a reason, you know.”

“Agreed,” Solas added with a nod. “Timing is everything. Something that, as a strategist, you well realize, Commander.”

There was a brief moment of silence before Cullen sighed his resignation and continued on ahead of us, armor rattling with each step. I spared another glance to Solas, wondering where in the hell his mind was at and why he was vacillating back and forth between supportiveness and near-antagonism. I had to admit, I no earthly idea what he was up to. And I wasn’t really certain if I wanted to find out.

------------------------------------------------------

The following hours were filled with the same organized chaos that I had learned to live with in Haven. Skyhold was explored as much as was currently possible by what scouts and engineers we had on hand. Leliana had already sent a few handfuls of her agents into the environs surrounding the castle to ensure the immediate area was safe, and that no outside force would object to our taking the citadel for ourselves. After judging much of the place perfectly habitable – the rest pending significant improvements to the existing structures – the engineers had gone about selecting appropriate buildings in the courtyard for temporary housing for all of the refugees, as well as quarters for the soldiers. Much of the main keep, it seemed, would have to be cleared of rubble and rats before it could be used for anything. And in the case of the undercroft, a rather large nest of giant spiders had to be forcibly removed by Cullen’s soldiers, the webs burned away by nothing less than the fire of Fiona’s mages.

Most of this information I gleaned from overhearing the workers and other refugees as they passed word to each other during the day. The advisors and other leaders of the Inquisition, once everyone had gathered together, had quickly split up to divvy out orders to their respective forces and take official command of this new bastion. I, on the other hand, had elected to keep my distance and merely observe, seeing as I couldn’t help with much else at the moment. Everyone had things well-in-hand at this point, and I would only be underfoot if I tried to contribute.

Cullen was busy walking what battlements were currently accessible and inspecting the towers and other defenses with one of his lead engineers. He wasn’t difficult to spot at any given moment, his armor glimmering blindingly in the sunlight wherever he stood. I watched him briefly from time to time, noting that he took only a few moments to absorb the gorgeous scenery before launching himself back into work. He had his table set up in the middle of the lower courtyard in front of the keep stairs, and it immediately functioned as his new base of operations. There he remained for much of the remainder of the day, poring over what I could only assume was reports, rosters, and maps.

Rylen, meanwhile, had taken direct control of the troops for the time being, commanding them to prepare two of the stable towers to utilize as makeshift barracks and establishing a loose patrol and guard post schedule. He divided them up two at a time, giving them torn slips of paper, presumably to use as reminders of their posts and other assignments. What soldiers weren’t put on guard rotation appeared to be busy unpacking the largest of the supplies and equipment from the brontos, and a small squad led by one of the lieutenants disappeared into the decrepit keep, ostensibly to scour the dark halls for more unsavory denizens lurking in the shadows.

Similarly, Barris, with his cadre of Templars, had taken to helping the refugees unpack food and distribute more everyday supplies, as well as clearing out rotten timbers from the courtyard and future tavern and using them for bonfires. Fiona and her mages also assisted in these tasks, at least as much as they were permitted. As conscripts, they couldn’t act as freely as they might have as full allies, and thus they mostly kept to themselves as I did, waiting for formal orders from either Cassandra or one of the other advisors. Minaeve and her Tranquil assistants stayed with them.

Leliana was fully occupied managing her ravens and penning orders, no doubt in continuous contact with her scouts in the field, as well as taking full stock of every dark corner of the castle as her agents reported back on the situation in the rest of the stronghold. Her birds flew to and from her chair-and-barrel setup with almost stunning regularity, their caws an endless, raucous song as they zoomed above our heads like ebon darts.

And between them all, in a swirl of blue and gold, was Josephine, flitting first to one of the few nobles who had lingered at Haven and survived the onslaught, then to a few of the merchants who had also been caught in the village when Corypheus had struck, then to the other leaders of the Inquisition for confirmation, and back again, all the while scribbling away on her tablet. No doubt she was taking stock of not only everyone’s immediate needs, but also their current moods and priorities; as Ambassador, she couldn’t afford not to have her finger on the pulse of all levels of the Inquisition, from the servants to the noble patrons. And she certainly needed to know exactly how they felt about the Inquisition now in order to shore up its political and social weaknesses.

We had nothing with us to measure the proper passage of time, but this flurry of activity lasted well into the afternoon. People stopped their tasks only for a moment to grab a bite to eat or to take a small break near one of the fires in the courtyard. During all this, I had ultimately settled on a stool in the corner near the wall stairs beside the gatehouse, occasionally eating from what was left of the old rations Harding had given me. But once everyone seemed to finally settle down for the evening in the courtyard, towers, and armory, I found myself wandering up to the battlements to see the surrounding landscape myself.

The mountains were bathed in the orange and pink glow of the late afternoon sun, the light reflecting off of the patches of ice on the crags and the frozen river below. I had just thought the mountains around Haven were tall; the peaks surrounding Skyhold were the tallest I’d ever seen in my life. I had seen the great Rockies of the United States from a distance once, when I was little, and they seemed like nothing compared to the mighty Frostbacks that cradled Skyhold like a treasured prize. They just kept going up and up and up to dizzying heights. It was a breathtakingly beautiful and awe-inspiring sight to behold, albeit stark and unforgiving. Barely a tree dotted the flanks of the white-clad peaks, and I had a feeling that there was little significant wildlife to be found here save the occasional ram or raptor bird.

I approached the crenellations cautiously, tentatively leaning against one of the weather-worn merlons. Like the bridge, there were no safeguards to protect one from falling through the crenels if one slipped or was accidentally pushed. I felt my stomach flutter a bit in anxiousness and firmly positioned myself behind the merlon, leaning into it. Strangely, I almost instantly felt better, and my brow furrowed as I ran my hand over the slanted surface of the stone before me. I could sense that distant hum of magic again, thrumming faintly…faintly…below my gloved fingertips. And it seemed to reassure me.

Safe. You are safe here.

We were. No one would be able to take this place. At least, not in the several years the Inquisition would occupy it. I took in a deep breath and steadily released it as my eyes traced the mountain range ahead of me, realizing that life would slow down a little, now. And that was a good thing. I needed time to recoup. To strategize. To think about everything that had happened recently and what I needed to do…where to go from here. Hopefully, since I didn’t plan on running around all over Thedas like the Herald, I would have that time and then some. I was perfectly happy staying right here, in this castle, from now on. There was no safer home for us all, at the moment.

And that’s what I honestly, truly wanted Skyhold to be, for as long as the Inquisition would have me. For as long as it existed. Home.

“It seems you had the same idea I did.”

I was suddenly broken out of my thoughts by the sound of Maxwell’s voice. I turned and looked over my shoulder to see him coming up beside me, his hands behind his back as he approached at a leisurely pace, the scale of his armor glinting in the last rays of the sunset. He casually leaned on the merlon to the right of mine and looked around at the frosty scenery before us.

“Such harsh beauty,” he said softly, shaking his head in awe at the sight. “Almost enough to make you forget that terrible night, isn’t it.”

I could feel a small smile pulling at the corner of my mouth as I nodded in agreement. “Almost.”

Silence. For several moments, there was nothing but the droning activity of the people behind us and the occasional howl of the wind as it gusted through the peaks and around the towers of the castle. Then, Maxwell turned his attention to me once more. “You said earlier that perhaps we were meant to find this place now, after what happened at Haven.”

“I did,” I said with another nod, wondering where the Herald’s thoughts were leading him.

“I was thinking about that and…” he trailed, his brow furrowing. “Back when we were still traveling here, Solas implied that this castle was waiting for someone to come along to claim it for their own.” He visibly swallowed. “Is that…that isn’t hyperbole, is it? This place was really meant for us to take and hold as our own?”

Ah. So he wanted to know if the discovery of the fortress was truly fate. Sighing, I glanced to the mountains, and then replied, “Well, more or less, it was. It’s obviously been abandoned for a long time, and so it’s actually been free for the taking ever since it was last vacated. But the very fact it was empty when we needed it most…” I shrugged. “Think of it how you like. But it does look like we were meant to be here, doesn’t it?”

His gaze drifted to the landscape again. “I can’t describe how it feels,” he clapped a hand firmly to the merlon, closing his eyes as his fingers spread against the stone. “How being here feels. Everything about this place…it seems…right.” He opened his eyes again and squinted as he stared into the distance, and I knew he wasn’t actively concentrating on the scenery now as he gathered his thoughts. “Up until now, I was beginning to doubt the Maker had a hand in anything at all. Everything seemed entirely up to chance,” he tossed his hands upwards. “Mere luck. But now, after being guided to this place and being presented with a new beginning in the face of this enemy we have – a second chance for most, and a third for me – I’m not sure I can convince myself all this is merely coincidence anymore.”

I didn’t say anything to that, but I couldn’t help but smile at his words. Maybe his faith was strengthening, now, and with it, his courage. I sensed he might be undergoing a spiritual awakening of sorts, much like many of the refugees were experiencing, and one that was absolutely required if he was going to take the mantle of Inquisitor, which he needed to take very soon.

After a few more quiet moments, Maxwell continued with a heavy sigh. “You’ve probably already heard this before, and I know you must be tired of hearing it by now, but no one, including myself, wants to believe that people had to die to get us here, to this point….that it was somehow necessary. That death and destruction was the Maker’s will.” He shook his head, “Is it even possible to accept? I don’t know. But, for my part, after finding out what could have happened without your help at Haven, I don’t think I can criticize you for what you did or didn’t do, regardless of the losses we still suffered.”

I felt my brow furrow at his words. It sounded like he was trying to reassure me that he didn’t hold anything against me, even though Haven was still a bitter pill to swallow, especially after what he had to suffer to get out of that mess. But knowing his character and that of the others, and the reactions everyone had had already, it was something that, honestly, seemed to be too good to be true. Perhaps he was merely trying to put the past in the past, regardless of how he really felt? Forcibly move on?

I smirked. “Did you decide that before or after Mother Giselle talked to you?”

He met my gaze, then, a curious expression flashing across his face. “You do not believe me to be speaking the truth about how I feel on the matter?”

I swallowed a hard lump in my throat as I looked away, my eyes fixating on the merlon in front of me. “It’s easier to believe that everyone is going to be upset with me all the time, regardless of what I do. Because it’s what makes the most sense. You should be yelling at me like the Commander did,” I said. “You should be telling me I didn’t do enough. Because I didn’t.”

Another sigh. “I am not angry with you for what happened. As a matter of fact, I feel…” I trailed, struggling to find the words. “Well, I’m not sure how I feel, precisely.” He looked down at the stone and absentmindedly brushed off some grit from its surface. “Ever since the Conclave, my life has been more or less out of my hands. I’ve been following the whims of the Inquisition because it’s the only thing I can do. I don’t remember what happened during the Conclave, and I’m certain I had no purpose being there other than to represent my family’s interests. Afterwards, even after I was exonerated by Cassandra, it seemed only right that I stay and try to pick up the pieces. To do what I could to make things right in case I really did do something wrong I didn’t remember doing.” He looked down at his Anchored hand, then, and even though the Mark didn’t shine through his glove, I knew he could feel it there. “And that was before you ever came along.”

He half chuckled, a look of amusement crossing his features. “Then, after the Breach was finally closed, I had hoped to get something of a break. Maybe a chance to breathe and reorient myself…to think about what I was doing here and where I wanted to go with it all. I remember you telling me I would be in opposition to the Elder One you informed us about – and who I heard about again in the dark future at Redcliffe – but I had no idea it would be so soon. And now, I am, apparently, his ultimate nemesis. Because I somehow unwittingly took his primary way of reaching the Black City again.”

He sighed once more and ran a hand through his thick hair. “All of that is to say, everything that has happened to me in the past few months, whether you were here or not, has been entirely out of my control…unexpected, filled with surprises, and heaping more responsibility on my shoulders than I could have ever wanted in my entire life. Honestly,” he shrugged, “what you say and do at this point has little to no effect on how I feel about any of this, because I have a feeling the results would be the same for me no matter what you tell us. I’m a leaf drifting in a storm…going wherever I’m taken. And Maker’s guidance or no, I have no idea if any of my control will ever be regained, at this point.”

I winced, knowing that being Inquisitor was just going to make him feel worse about the lack of control over his life. Damn my stupid hyper fixation on my own despondency; the Herald needed some reassurance, himself. I was about to open my mouth to do just that when, at the edge of my peripheral vision, I saw a scout approaching us from the direction of the wall stairs. I turned to him, and periwinkle eyes gave him away as Jim.

“Lady Tamsyn,” he said, a little breathlessly as he nodded respectfully in my direction. “You’ve been summoned for a meeting with the other advisors, immediately. And um,” he looked to Maxwell, adding, “they told me to tell you your presence wasn’t required, Herald.”

Maxwell’s brows rose. “I see. I can only assume it doesn’t involve rifts or Corypheus, then. Well,” he clapped his hand on my shoulder with a broad smile, “best not keep them waiting, right Tamsyn?”

Wonder if that’s code for ‘sucks to be you.’

I chuckled. “Right. See you later, Herald.”

“And you, Tamsyn.”

With that, I turned and followed Jim, who led me from the wall and into the courtyard. As I left the Herald behind on the battlements, I wondered what this meeting was all about. We kept going, passing through the throng of loitering refugees and not stopping until we neared where the advisors and Cassandra waited by the door that led to what would soon become the Inquisition’s prison. Jim wordlessly gestured ahead at them with a small bow and then spun on his heel to go back where we had just come from, presumably to fulfill another set of orders. I continued on, approaching the advisors with a tentative smile.

“You, uh, sent for me?”

Cassandra nodded, gesturing for me to come nearer. “We did. Come, let us speak in private.”

They turned and headed into the would-be prison, and I followed closely on their heels. Cullen held the door open for the rest of us before bringing up the rear, and our footsteps were loud on the dank steps as we carefully descended the stairwell. It was not unlike our recent escape through the Chantry dungeon, and memories of our flight from Haven briefly flashed through my thoughts as we continued down the stairs. Torches had apparently already been lit by the scouts or soldiers, and moisture shone on the walls, and there were patches of lichen clinging to the smooth stone. The temperature dropped steadily as we went, and I shivered involuntarily, though the sound of my breath was already almost drowned out by the distant roar of the waterfall under the castle.

When we finally came to a halt in the cell room, spreading out into a rough circle, I glanced to the others. “So, what’s this all about?” My voice echoed rather obnoxiously against the stone, and I grimaced at the sound.

Cassandra sighed, crossing her arms and shifting her weight onto one foot. “I will get straight to the point. Now that we have a base of operations again, we agreed we needed to resolve a rather important matter. There is much that must be done before we can decide where the Inquisition will go from here, but the most imperative is to choose an Inquisitor.”

“We need a leader,” Cullen continued, draping his hand casually over the pommel of his sword as he spoke. “Someone who can direct our efforts. It isn’t that we cannot handle various situations on our own. We most certainly can. But we all have our different ways of approaching matters, and sometimes we can only agree to disagree.”

“Which gets us nowhere,” Cassandra observed.

“As is only natural, we are all committed to our own ways of solving problems,” Josephine elaborated. “And there will always be issues that arise outside of our areas of expertise.”

“In short,” Leliana summarized, pulling her hands behind her back as she usually did during these meetings, “we each realize that none of us here can be the Inquisitor, due to these simple facts: we are too focused in our methods, and we do not have the public personas and backgrounds required for such a position.”

“And some of us simply do not desire the responsibility for ourselves,” Josephine said with a pointed glance in Cassandra’s direction.

The Seeker briefly caught the Ambassador’s gaze and offered her a sharp glare in return before addressing me. “That leaves only two others who could possibly be our leader. You, or the Herald.”

I raised my eyebrows in surprise as I glanced between them. They were actually putting me in the running? Oh, no. No, no, no…that wasn’t going to happen. Not in a million years.

“Both of you have been instrumental in the decision-making at the war table,” Josephine explained, a small smile pulling at her lips as she turned to me. “You, Lady Tamsyn, have given us guidance and reassurance, because you know what is to come. And Lord Trevelyan has made the choices needed in order for us to proceed with our mission.”

“It is obvious, then, that without the both of you, we would not be where we are,” Leliana continued. “Thus, you are both the closest things we have to a leader, right now.”

“But before we start discussing our possibilities further, is there anything you would like to make us aware of, at this point?” Cullen asked, shifting his weight from one foot to the other with a slight jingle of metal and chain.

“Yes, I do,” I said firmly, bent on ending my candidacy immediately. “The Herald must be the Inquisitor.”

Leliana smirked as she exchanged knowing looks with Cassandra. “I told you she would say that.”

“We anticipated that would be your answer,” Josephine echoed. “Although, might I ask the reason why you eliminate yourself so quickly?”

I sighed. “You know why. You already said it earlier. The Herald has been the one ultimately making the decisions around here.” I looked at them each in turn as I continued, recalling my old conversation with Iron Bull. “It’s his neck that’s been stuck out time and again. It’s the Herald the people want to talk to. It’s the Herald that has been the face of the Inquisition the whole time. And now the people see him, practically without a doubt, as a man who has been guided by the Maker not once, but twice. You saw them kneel before him at the camp days ago. There isn’t any doubt who must be the Inquisitor…who has already been the Inquisitor all along, just without the formal title.”

“And, if given encouragement, you still wouldn’t take the position yourself instead?” Cullen inquired, his golden gaze piercing as it met mine, unquestionably judging me and everything I said.

I shook my head emphatically. “No. Definitely not. I am not a leader. There’s no way this bumbling mess could be a successful Inquisitor. Trust me, in my whole time in Thedas, even with me knowing about the position being up for grabs, I’ve never wanted it for myself. Never once thought of having it.” I tossed my hands upwards. “Look, I can barely handle what responsibilities I do have. I’m more than happy to just keep doing what I’ve been doing. Even if it does draw a little ire from time to time.”

They all looked at each other, and then Cassandra nodded. “Then it is decided.”

“I will make the arrangements for the coronation immediately,” Josephine said, rapidly scribbling notes on her tablet, her thin black quill feather bobbing violently with the movement of her hand.

“We can have the ceremony tomorrow, if he is willing,” Cassandra proposed.

“He must be,” I said simply. “The Herald of Andraste must be the Inquisitor, else we will fail. That’s just that. And it falls to you to convince him to say yes.”

“Also,” Cullen interjected. “We mustn’t forget our plans to investigate this so-called army of demons that the Elder One wishes to employ. As soon as we have the coronation ceremony out of the way, we will need to make arrangements to address this threat before it can be used against us.”

And the possible assassination of the Empress.” Leliana added as she nodded her agreement. “Both of these dangers could easily spell the end of Thedas should the Elder One manage to enact them. Despite this new haven of ours, we are still very vulnerable.”

“I have already sent messengers to warn the Empress of the threat upon her life,” Josephine replied. “Though…I have yet to hear back from them. I know there are naturally delays, sometimes, but I must admit that the lack of communication regarding this issue is worrisome.”

“I will have my agents follow up,” Leliana said.

“And what of Dennet’s horses?” Cullen asked, turning to the Ambassador. “I do realize you said it would be some weeks before they were ready for travel, but…”

“Oh, that’s right!” Josephine exclaimed, scribbling more notes. “I will need to send a raven to tell him to reroute to Skyhold. He has yet to begin transport of the mounts, but the last I heard, he should be ready to bring them very soon. I will need to let him know where we have gone in the aftermath of the attack.”

“We’ll also need to inform our merchant caravans of our change in location,” Leliana observed with a sigh. “I have a feeling our messengers will be running themselves silly for the next few days.”

“Speaking of merchants,” Cassandra added, “we will also need to secure a steady supply of lyrium for the Templars. Ser Barris informed me they have a cache that will last for roughly two more weeks, but after that, they will need access to more.”

Josephine’s pen scribbled again to take note of the request. Once she finally finished, she drew a deep breath. “Well, that is…certainly quite a lot to accomplish.”

“And we have no time to waste,” Cassandra said firmly. “This Elder One will find out where we have gone, sooner or later, and we must not let the monster gain the upper hand. If we do, we are doomed.”

------------------------------------------------------

When we emerged from the dungeon after the meeting, I noticed that nighttime was quickly falling over Skyhold. Several more fires had been built from the broken wood scavenged from around the castle, and it was around them that most of the people gathered, eating what was left of the ram and rations that had been distributed amongst them. The sky above was fading from lavender to deep navy, and the stars and moons were beginning to shine brightly upon the castle. Even though the fortress itself was warmer than the outside world, it was still chilly after the sun dipped below the mountains, and everyone pulled out blankets to wrap around themselves as they talked and listened to Maryden play cheerful tunes.

Vivienne, I noticed, was leaning back on the wall of the keep stairs, a little away from one of these fires, her dark eyes distant as though she was lost in thought. Realizing I hadn’t spoken to the Knight-Enchanter in a while, I decided to head her way, curious as to what the Iron Lady was thinking of right now.

“Hello, my dear,” she said as she regarded my approach. If she was weary at all, I wouldn’t have known it, as she yet carried herself with quiet and indomitable grace, her face a mask of calm stoicism. “How are you faring?”

“Well enough,” I said, watching as the other advisors passed me by and quickly dispersed amongst the crowd. “Honestly, it could be a lot worse.”

“Of course it could, darling,” she said with a nod of agreement. Then, pausing, she added, “I won’t waste my breath repeating what you are already well aware of. But suffice it to say, there is more than enough blame being thrown around here, and more guilt being shouldered than is either necessary or appropriate.” She looked at me pointedly, and I very nearly wilted under her sharp stare, knowing she meant me, too. “We mustn’t waste our precious energy bickering amongst ourselves about whose fault the fall of Haven was. That gives our foe an advantage we cannot afford for him to have.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It does.”

“The most important thing we learned from Haven was the name of our enemy,” she continued. “Now that we know it, the people finally have a target upon which to focus their righteous anger, for first the death of the Divine and now the loss of their home and loved ones. And focus it we must. But, for now,” her expression melted from one of sternness to one of kindness faster almost than I could register, “I would advise that you try to get some better rest, tonight. We can worry about all this more tomorrow.”

“Oh, well,” I replied awkwardly, “Yes, we can.”

She smiled, “Oh, and Tamsyn? A word of advice.” She gestured to my uniform, “In the morning, do consider changing into something more presentable. I’m sure the laundresses could see to that for you.”

I glanced down at myself, suddenly very aware of the blood stains on my gloves, a few small spatters of it on my sleeves, and the mud caking my boots. Grinning sheepishly, I nodded. “Right. I’ll uh…I’ll do that. Good night, Lady Vivienne.”

“Good night, my dear.”

And with that, I quickly turned away, feeling the Enchanter’s eyes on my back as I skirted the edge of the crowd. Trust Madame de Fer to criticize the condition of the outfit I’d worn into battle and think my first priority should be to see it cleaned, I thought.

I hadn’t gone very far, though, before I saw Blackwall standing with arms crossed somewhat apart from the rest of the group, his eyes occasionally scanning the throng of people. Like Vivienne, he seemed lost in thought, although he glanced my way when I approached.

“Ah, Lady Tamsyn,” he said, dipping his head in polite greeting. “Do you need something?”

“Not really,” I said, briefly glancing to the multitude of refugees around the nearest fire. “I suppose I’m just checking in with some people who are free. Seeing how everyone is doing, that sort of thing. There’s not much else to do at this point.”

“I see. I’m as well as I can be, all things considered,” he replied. “What about you? Word is you’ve been taking some heat for your decisions. Or the lack thereof.”

Ugh…

“Word travels fast with this bunch,” I muttered.

“Hah,” he barked in amusement. “That it does.”

“I’m all right, I suppose,” I said with a sigh. “A little unsure of myself, if I’m honest. But all right.”

He grunted and nodded as he absorbed my answer. “I’ll admit…I’m not certain what to think about recent events and your role in them. But I can’t know what’s going on in your head, or why you’ve said the things you have and kept silent about the rest. And because of that, I honestly can’t say one damned thing to you about it. I just hope you know what you’re doing.”

“So do I,” I said quietly.

“What I can say is that fucking darkspawn is going to pay a heavy price for what he did,” he continued darkly. “You look at these people,” he pointed at them, “and you see vengeance in their eyes. He thinks he’s going to be a god?” He shook his head, “He’s going to have to cut down every last one of us in order to make that happen. Including me.”

There was a moment of silence, and he took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Ah, but that’s going to have to wait until at least tomorrow, isn’t it? For now, if there’s nothing else, I think I’m going to grab something to eat. If you find yourself hungry, you’re welcome to join me.”

I smiled at his kind invitation. “Thanks, Blackwall.”

“Sure thing, milady.”

He melted into the crowd then, seeking out his supper, and I continued on my journey around the edge of the crowd, searching for someplace to light for a while. Near the dilapidated building that would soon become the Herald’s Rest, Iron Bull and his Chargers were immersed in a card game, sitting atop small crates that had been dragged up to overturned barrels. Above them, her legs dangling from the half-rotten roof of the soon-to-be tavern, was Sera, watching the game with a half-smile on her face. Not far away, off to himself, was Varric, busily writing away on folded parchment that had been spread out atop another barrel, his head in one hand as the other paused its scrawling. A raven waited to be given its burden, perched on the barrel’s rim.

Curious as to what the dwarf might be up to with such a serious expression on his face, I cautiously approached him. “Hey, Varric,” I greeted him tentatively. I wasn’t sure how he was going to take my presence after I had essentially threatened him and bit his head off a few nights ago.

He glanced up. “Oh…hey, Fortune Teller.” His tone was weary and slightly irritated.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Doing what I know I need to do,” he replied gruffly, returning his attention to the paper after echoing my words from that night.

“Ah,” I said, realizing he meant he was writing to Hawke. I briefly wondered just how close the Champion was and how quickly they could get here. Deciding not to say anything more, I turned to go elsewhere, when I suddenly heard him speak again.

“Just…tell me one thing, Tamsyn.”

I glanced back. “What’s that?”

“I’m not going to regret this later, am I?”

I paused, thinking about the events to come. Then, giving him a shrug and a shake of my head, I replied honestly, “I don’t know, really.”

“Figures,” was the muttered reply as he put his face back in his hand.

“Hey,” I smirked. “I just tell you about the choices you can make and their possible consequences. I can’t tell you whether or not you’ll actually feel good about them later.”

That finally made a small smile pull at the corner of his mouth, but only briefly. Taking it as my cue to leave at last, I turned away again and looked for the stool I had left by the wall stairs, wondering if it was still vacant…

I didn’t have time to find out, though, because I was suddenly approached by Solas, who materialized out of the throng of people to approach me.

Crap.

“Tamsyn, might I have a word?”

Double crap.

“Sure,” I said with a smile, hoping it didn’t appear too forced.

With nerves clenching in my stomach like a vice, I followed the elf to a somewhat secluded area beside the armory, where we could talk without being disturbed. It was much darker this far away from the central fires, and Solas’s greyish eyes glittered strangely in the paler light of the moons. His cream-colored tunic nearly glowed even in the dim lighting, but his features were thrown into high relief with sharp shadows, lending him an almost malevolent appearance. I did notice that he had come without his staff; was that meant to be a reassurance, I wondered?

“So, what’s on your mind, Solas?” I asked, eager to get this little meeting over with.

“Firstly, I wish to apologize for any brusqueness I might have displayed towards you in the past few days,” he began.

My brows rose. “Really?”

He smiled a little. “I was surprised that you knew of this place at all, even considering the substantial amount of information you seem to have about the future of the Inquisition. I must admit, I was slightly suspicious of how you might have discovered Skyhold and its elven connections, especially considering I had only just discovered its location in dreams, myself. I suppose I found it all rather…coincidental.”

Sure you did, I thought. No, it was more like he was worried just how much I knew regarding those elven connections. And him. But he was dancing all around that part…

“I am curious, however,” he continued. “Why did you not merely tell the advisors yourself, if you did indeed know about Skyhold all along?” Pausing, he added hastily, “And I do not mean to pass judgment on you for not doing so. I simply wonder why you insisted I be the one to inform the Herald of the castle’s location.”

I swallowed.

“Oh, well,” I stalled a bit, struggling to think of what to say under this sudden pressure and feeling certain I was going to start sweating any minute now. “You have a role to play in this, too, Solas. And finding Skyhold is all part of it.” I gestured to him to emphasize my words as I barreled on. “The people needed to see you and the Herald leading them to this place, not me. That was a rather important thing, really. And I was just aware you found it in dreams and wanted to give credit where credit is due.”

He studied me for a moment before replying, “I see. In any case, I respect your decision to subtly direct the Inquisition, rather than take the reins yourself. It is, perhaps, a much less damaging way to approach the situation.”

I grinned a little nervously, tucking a stray curl behind one ear. “Yeah. That’s what I thought.”

He nodded, seemingly in acceptance. “Well, that is all I wished ask you about, unless you have something else you wish to discuss?” He raised one brow quizzically.

“Oh, not at all!” I said, “Don’t let me keep you.”

“Of course,” he answered. “I am glad we were able to clear the air on a few things. Until next time, Tamsyn.”

“Good night, Solas.”

I watched, then, until he disappeared into the crowd once more, and as soon as he was out of sight, I felt like I was going to pass out right where I stood.

Chapter Text

Following a meager supper, I slept that night in the would-be armory, curled up in one of the far corners. Or, at least, I tried to sleep. Rather unsuccessfully. I had hoped the outcome would be the same as when I had slept all huddled up with the other advisors, too exhausted to be roused by anything other than outright yelling.

Alas, that was not the case.

I shared the large room with at least half of the other refugees, including the Chantry sisters and the children, which made for a situation not unlike the very first night I spent in Thedas and resulted in the exact same burning desire for a pair of earplugs. What with the chorus of snores and the nigh-endless fretting of the young ones, it was a miserably restless night, and I ultimately rose before dawn, feeling worse than I had before I attempted to go to sleep.

I wasn’t alone in my agony, however, and by the time I had gotten fed up with waiting for dawn to break, several of the other refugees had already left the building, creating gaps in between the snoring bodies of the others who yet remained lying on the floor. I tried to be as courteous as I could, weaving carefully around these people on tiptoe and hugging the wall as much as possible before finally slipping through one of the doors to find a place to change clothes. Even though I hated to admit it, Vivienne was right – my uniform was in a sad state after all that fighting and traveling through snow and mud, and as part of the upper tier of the Inquisition, I had to keep up appearances as much as I was able…at the very least to help establish some sense of normalcy for everyone else.

After hunting and hunting for a secluded place to undress, I finally managed to find a dark and unoccupied building near one of the towers – probably the future surgeon’s wing, if I remembered right. I closed the creaking door behind me and found that I could see just fine through a hole in the roof. Stripping down as fast as I could, I quickly threw on my chemise and surcoat, swapping my uniform boots for the other, smaller pair that originally went with my tunic. The outfit was a little wrinkled from having been stuffed so tightly into my pack and kept there for days, but it looked better than I had expected. I wasn’t anticipating a fight being drawn here, and perhaps my changing into a dress would be a comforting sign to the others that we could relax just a bit.

Now I just need a bath…

But there was little chance of that anytime soon.

I had to do some rearranging to fit my weapons and breastplate into my pack; Willem’s sword and my bow stuck out of the open top, and I had to tie my quiver to the straps on the bottom. Finally, though, I managed to make it work. I really needed someplace to keep my belongings so I didn’t have to haul them everywhere I went.

When I emerged at last with my hair combed, a fresh change of clothes on, and my dirty uniform in my hands, I began my next small quest that morning – the search for the laundresses. After a few minutes of looking around the courtyard, I finally found my target near one of the bonfires that had been tended to throughout the night. There stood a group of women and a few children, piling garments and other pieces of cloth onto a pile next to a giant tub, gathering everything together that needed to be cleaned. As I gratefully dropped off my uniform with them, I wondered what exactly we were going to do about a reliable water supply…

It was a fact that, on top of everything else, we needed to quickly establish an efficient system for washing clothing and other fabrics, and this was connected to the rather immediate need for bathing and waste management…something that, just going off of what I knew from the game, seemed to be something of a conundrum – there had been no latrines in the in-game version of Skyhold. Of course, this was because they weren’t required in a game where no one ever went to the bathroom. But they were most certainly needed in real life, and with over two hundred people within these walls, they were needed right now.

Fortunately, others had already long been on top of that issue, and for that, I was extremely glad.

According to what bits I learned from those who were already awake and active that morning, Skyhold had something akin to garderobes already built into the castle. Each tower had one of these small closet toilets, which apparently emptied into the running water beneath the fortress’s foundation, which was released with the waterfall under the prison. This was, from what I understood, the outlet for a massive hot spring, something which was rather shrewdly suggested might be a contributing factor to the unique ecosystem of the castle. It wasn’t exactly the greatest thing to think about – human waste being dumped down the mountain like that – but at least it was more sanitary than a stagnant moat or cesspits.

In addition to carrying the waste of the inhabitants away from the castle, the spring underneath the mountain also supplied the fresh water for the occupants’ usage, drawn from the source itself upstream from the waste management, of course. An intact manual pumping station for this hot water was adjacent to what had been settled on as the kitchens, and it was from this still-functioning pump that servants now busied themselves bringing water for washing the clothes of the refugees, forming a loose line of people weaving in and out between the workers and soldiers and stonemasons.

Suffice it to say, with all that activity in the courtyard, it was difficult to find any familiar faces to talk to. I occasionally glimpsed one of the Herald’s companions, either helping with more lifting and fetching or standing idle with a piece of old dried meat or hardtack in hand. But mostly, the swarm of people around me was comprised of serving men and women and other construction workers busy attempting to transform Skyhold into a suitable place to live, bit by bit, piece by piece. There really wasn’t much left for me to do but to watch, stay out of the way, and be ready in case the other advisors, Maxwell, or Cassandra needed me.

At roughly midmorning, however, I sensed something was afoot. There were expressions of excitement and curiosity on everyone’s faces as Inquisition scouts suddenly materialized throughout the crowd of people, gathering the attention of anyone who was available to listen. I soon realized I was witnessing the preparations for Maxwell’s coronation as Inquisitor. I wasn’t sure if those informed knew that was the planned event, yet, and no one had approached me specifically to explain anything. But whatever they had been told sent a spark of energy rippling through the throng of people, and the air had become thick with anticipation.

And then, I saw the advisors group together on their own near Cullen’s command table, speaking almost in a huddle before catching the attention of Maxwell, who had emerged from one of the guardrooms flanking the gatehouse. It was just like the cutscene from the game, and I couldn’t help but feel odd at the precise replication of it.

Here it comes, I thought. This event would change the course of Thedas forever, and I was about to be witness to it. For real, this time.

Deciding to get out of the courtyard and find a better position from which to watch the impending show, I picked up my skirts and headed to the walls beside the crumbled future tavern. I then mounted the wall stairs and quickly climbed to the battlements where I could observe the coronation more clearly. Already, I felt less stifled and more comfortable, able to breathe easier; bad memories of being nearly suffocated at the celebration at Haven had surfaced in my mind as the people slowly assembled for the ceremony, and I had no desire to repeat such a situation again.

Before long, Cullen’s soldiers began to gather together, followed by the general citizenry, who chattered away excitedly, obviously wondering what was about to occur or what they were going to be told. I saw everyone spilling out from the towers and the walls and the cleared buildings in the courtyard, even the kitchen of the keep. They all congregated as Leliana took her place on the landing of the keep stairs, the ceremonial sword of the Inquisition lying flat in her gloved hands.

I watched as Cassandra led Maxwell up the stairs to where the Nightingale stood waiting. Though they were talking, I couldn’t hear what they were saying from this distance. Briefly glancing back down at the crowd, I saw Cullen and Josephine already standing with the soldiers and citizens. A chorus of gasps rippled through that crowd as Leliana slowly approached and proffered the sword to Maxwell, who looked completely and utterly shell-shocked as the people fell silent around him. For a moment, I wondered where in the world the Nightingale had gotten the blade to start with, but then I recalled that massive lockbox Josie had rescued from her office during our flight from Haven, and I realized it must have been in there…

Even with the wind that almost perpetually howled around the walls, it seemed it was quiet enough to hear a pin drop in the courtyard below. Maxwell tentatively passed his fingers over the hilt of the ceremonial sword before he finally took it in hand, watching as the silver of the blade shimmered in the morning light. Everyone was looking at him expectantly, no doubt waiting for him to say something inspirational. The Herald cast his olivine gaze over his rapt audience, appearing to steel himself as he took a deep breath.

“This Inquisition has always been about protecting the innocent people of Thedas,” he said, his voice ringing loud and clear on the stones of the fortress, the subsequent echo of his words cementing his speech as a proclamation, a vow. “And it will always be such. We must stand together in the face of this evil, for the sake of our families, and our homes…for the sake of our world. No longer is this about mages and Templars,” I noticed he picked out Fiona and Barris in the crowd at that, “no longer is this merely about retribution for the Conclave or the murder of the Divine. This is war, and it is war against a darkspawn with every intention of becoming a god and with the power to destroy the entirety of Thedas. It falls to us to ensure that he does not succeed.”

He paused for a moment, and he briefly glanced my way. I wondered what had made him able to find me so swiftly, with me being so far out of the way as I was. But then I remembered I was wearing a red surcoat; of course he’d be able to see me with ease. I smiled as encouragingly as I could when he turned my way, giving him a small thumbs-up.

Maxwell hefted the sword in hand, then, speaking almost to it instead of the crowd as his attention drifted away from me once more. “You have all put great faith in me as your Herald,” he said, his voice retaining its strength as he continued. “And as your Inquisitor, I will do my best to make sure that your faith hasn’t been misplaced. I will lead us to victory against Corypheus, and together, we will bring peace to our troubled land.”

My brows rose. That was indeed an inspiring little speech for such a tentative Herald…and it must have been exactly what everyone needed and wanted to hear, because Cassandra was beaming, and I could tell Leliana was smiling even from where I stood on the walls. Maxwell glanced between the two women, as if looking for confirmation that he had done the right thing, and the Seeker herself stepped forth to address Josephine.

“Have the people been told?”

“They have!” the Ambassador called over the noise of the crowd, which had begun to stir again in excitement, “And soon, the world!”

“Commander, will they follow?”

Cullen immediately spun to the audience behind him, which had packed between the stairs and the gates like sardines. It was then I noticed his breastplate was in place once more, as it flashed brilliantly in the sun with his sudden movement.

“Inquisition, will you follow?” he asked, pacing in front of them like a great cat, each subsequent question stirring them up into a near frenzy as they roared their responses. It was difficult not to let myself get caught up in that excitement. I could feel the energy vibrating in my bones, and I held my hands behind my back to keep them still.

“Will you fight?”

Another roar, fists pumping into the air.

“Will we triumph?”

The shouting was almost deafening, now, even from where I was, and I wondered how in the world the Ambassador and Commander could stand being so close to the source. Josephine was grinning from ear to ear with pride as she watched Cullen draw his sword, the sound of it drowned out by the crowd.

“I give you your leader, your Herald, your Inquisitor!

He spun back and saluted Maxwell with blade thrust skyward, and the people went insane with cheers and whoops as the Herald answered with his own ceremonial sword in a mirrored gesture. I couldn’t stop myself from smiling at that point, immensely proud for Maxwell and knowing that, even if he might feel hesitant about this new role so abruptly bestowed upon him, I knew this kind of support from the people would help give him the strength he needed. I grinned so broadly my cheeks hurt, and as the audience clapped for their new Inquisitor, I clapped with them, offering my own congratulations, even if they were lost in the din.

“In-quis-i-tor! In-quis-i-tor!” the people chanted over and over, the mountains around us ringing with the sound.

Take that, Corypheus.

------------------------------------------------------

I let the crowd disperse and the advisors and Maxwell disappear within the keep for a while before I decided to leave the walls and the courtyard – no use fighting that mess, and I wanted to make sure Varric had time to speak to others without me interrupting them; I glimpsed the dwarf following the small group towards the main hall, and I knew he’d be dropping hints about Hawke’s impending arrival before long. I briefly wondered if the Champion had already arrived and had somehow managed to enter the castle unnoticed…

After a half hour or so, though, I thought it pertinent to begin familiarizing myself with the innards of Skyhold, so I wouldn’t be quite so lost later on if I needed to move anywhere quickly. Climbing the steps of the fortress’s keep felt almost fateful as I approached the yawning doorway into the hall, and I found myself in awe of the place once more. When I entered the throne room at last, my eyes slowly adjusting to the awkward lighting, I noticed that the other advisors, Maxwell, and Cassandra were nowhere to be found, likely having already headed to the war room or somewhere else…maybe even the undercroft. I was slightly thankful for this situation, as it left me free to do what I liked for the time being.

And so I did.

The tall glass windows at the rear of the hall had cracks spiderwebbing across them and were smoky with dust, shattered panes fallen out and glittering like diamond shards on the floor in the light of the sun. One of the large, antique chandeliers was still occupying the middle of the floor, rusted, too heavy to be moved by just one person. An ancient rug on the dais, dulled by time, was filled with holes and tattered on the edges. I looked up and high, high above, through the hole in the half-rotted roof, I could see a small tree growing from where its seed had planted itself in the mortar of the bricks some untold number of years ago.

But if I knew Josephine, those things would be seen to before too much longer. Dignitaries and nobles would be arriving on the heels of the refugees, and there was no time to waste transforming Skyhold from ruin to magnificence. It wasn’t just a practical matter of making the place a home – it was the political matter of renovating it into a headquarters. There would be new stained glass to order and install, all manner of impressive thrones to build, heavy drapes and embroidered banners to weave. And in addition to decorating the place, it would be a lot of jobs for the refugees, and they would likely be glad for it, especially since such work would allow them to stay at the relative safety of the castle.

After acquainting myself with the main hall, I began my expedition down the side corridors to see the other rooms and chambers of the castle. And it all just kept going and going, as if into eternity. Every time I rounded a corner, there was more to see. It was apparent that Skyhold was much, much larger here than it ever had been in the game, both outside and inside, and every step down its musty halls cemented that fact. It was also made clear rather quickly that, in the real life version of this citadel, no space within the walls was wasted.

There were rooms everywhere on the interior – everything from smaller closets and garderobes to larger meeting and assembly rooms, washrooms, and other useful chambers with purposes yet to be determined. There were storage rooms, cellars, and even a small barracks for the soldiers stationed in the castle. There was so much more, and it was utterly fascinating. If it weren’t for the other curious people with the same idea as I had passing by me every once in a while, I would have felt like Lara Croft or Indiana Jones exploring some impossibly large and mysterious ruin all by myself.

Most interesting to me, though, was the fact that this unwasted space extended into the Inquisitor’s tower, too.

The tower itself was a long way up, just like I remembered. But there was nothing about the version from the game that suggested there were any rooms in it other than the Inquisitor’s quarters at the very top. Here, though, there were many, many more rooms below that topmost suite, accessed by the same spiraling wooden staircase that ascended a narrow stone shaft. Every twenty feet or so was a level platform that allowed access to these rooms. According to a fresh notice tacked to the main hall door, though, all the chambers in the tower were inaccessible at the moment, the staircase and the rooms themselves requiring further inspection before usage. The engineers feared instability and rot in the wood that wasn’t immediately visible, and so the area was closed off to the general public for now.

However, the rooms above the garden, I learned later, were perfectly habitable, and there were many more lining the walk than there had been in the game. Ten doors (of varying conditions) led to small rooms perfect to be used as quarters for the Inquisitor’s Inner Circle, and Josephine wasted no time in assigning them to us while the tower was in the process of being inspected and renovated. She summoned us by messenger that afternoon and allotted the rooms to us in the following order from the battlements to the keep: Maxwell, me, herself, Leliana, Cassandra, Varric, Solas, Vivienne, Blackwall, and Dorian.

Cullen, according to the Ambassador, had opted to stay with his troops in the tower barracks until his future office tower could be properly restored, and Iron Bull insisted on staying in a tent with his Chargers in the courtyard for the time being. Sera hadn’t been available to give an opinion on the matter, and Cole, of course, needed no sleep or any special quarters.

And thus, our new sleeping arrangements were established before I had to brave the smithy again, thereby saving my sanity.

After supper, I was all too happy to go to my new room, even as poorly furnished as it was. I had already paid it a small visit after being assigned to it, and it had an old straw bed, a rotten chest, and an ancient dresser still intact in one corner. The beds had already been checked for pests and fungus, and they were, so I had been told, miraculously free of anything unsavory. I had my doubts, really, but by the time I was ready to go to bed, I found I didn’t actually care that much anymore.

To my great surprise, though, when I finally swung the door open that evening, I found Lea inside, busily polishing away at the dresser with a rag and a pot of oil or buffing wax of some sort. The old bed had been made with a deerskin covering as a barrier against the straw, a plain wool blanket overtop, and a half-stuffed pillow at the head. On top of that, it appeared as though the walls and the floor had been scoured clean of dust and moss since the last time I had seen them…

Lea nearly jumped out of her skin at hearing the creaking door hinges, her already large green eyes widening even larger – so much that their reflective nature became blindingly apparent in the candlelight. I met them questioningly as I closed the door behind me, plopping my bags on the stone floor.

“Oh! Tamsyn!” she exclaimed, her cheeks flushing a little as she put her hands behind her back. “I wasn’t expecting you to be here this early!”

I squinted at her, sparing a brief glance at the tiny, frosted glass cathedral window beside the door. “Early? It’s almost night, Lea.”

Her mouth dropped open. “Already?” she looked back at the dresser. “But I was just taking out the rotten pieces only…oh, dear.” She smiled weakly in her self-consciousness as she turned to me again. “Time flies, as people say.”

I looked around the room again and then cocked my head at her curiously. “Have you been working at this all day?” I began to wonder if her new job here at Skyhold was as a cleaning servant, and the thought left me ill at ease…

“Not all day, no!” Lea shook her head emphatically. “Lady Josephine only assigned me as your chamber and handmaid after the coronation earlier.” She waved the rag in her hand and grinned as she added, “The first order of business was to get this place some semblance of liveable.”

It was my turn to hang my mouth open. Chamber and handmaid? So Lea had been given the job of being my personal servant? Cleaning my rooms and being my attendant? A series of indescribable emotions and half-formed thoughts raced through me at that moment, rendering me momentarily speechless. I didn’t need a servant, and I especially didn’t want one of my newest friends to be one for me. And I particularly detested the idea of Lea being given a stereotypical elven role…

I honestly didn’t know how to react to this news. I shut my mouth abruptly and glanced away, desperately searching for words. Surely Josephine hadn’t been so ridiculous and insensitive?

Lea must have sensed my unease, as she broke the heavy silence hesitantly. “Do you not want me to...” she began slowly, but then trailed off. Her tone was one of wariness and slight disappointment, and that had me all the more troubled.

“No, no!” I said quickly as I shook my head, trying to somehow make amends. But then I realized how she might take that particular response, too, and I added hastily, “I mean, that’s not to say I want you to be my servant or anything, but if you want the position…or, I mean…if, ah…”

I trailed off, too, panic seizing me. I was making a mess of this. How to tell her I didn’t want or need a maidservant and that I didn’t want her to be stuck in that situation, even if Josephine told her to be there, but without insulting Lea herself?

Then, quite abruptly, she cocked her head and looked at me, and her mouth formed into a silent O as she seemed to realize something. “Oh…You’re worried I don’t want the position of being a serving woman, aren’t you?”

My cheeks were on fire now. I had no idea how to handle this. I silently nodded my response, unable to say anything else.

To my great surprise, she laughed aloud at that, the sound a sharp bark in the small chamber. “Oh, Tamsyn…I asked for this position!”

My eyes widened, and I suddenly felt even more embarrassed that I hadn’t thought of that possibility myself before now. “You did?”

“Of course!” she admonished me, her expression almost one of utter bewilderment. “Right after the ceremony was out of the way, the Ambassador continued her assignment of domestic workers around the castle. It was a project she started yesterday. Lady Josephine called us together, and because there is so much to be done anyway, she wanted to know what sort of work we preferred to do before assigning tasks to people who didn’t know or care.”

She set her rag and pot of polish on the dresser and crossed her arms. “Before we got here, I was already doing much of the work of tending to yours and the Herald’s cabin while you were out and about in Haven, in between message runs around the village. After I thought about it, I realized I had my fill of courier work and decided I wanted to stay indoors as much as possible from now on. When she asked me for my preferences, I told her I wanted work in the keep, and she suggested this job as something that might be suitable. I liked the idea, so I took it.” She shrugged and then added, “And if you want to know, I specifically requested to be assigned to your quarters.”

I blinked. “Really?”

“Of course!” she replied with a nod. “I like to think we’ve become good friends in the time we’ve known each other…you seemed to think so, too, back in Haven.” She pulled her hands behind her back again. “I just hated the idea that our friendship might wane because of our duties keeping us from talking.”

She sighed, reaching out and picking at the rag on the dresser as she continued, not looking at me while she spoke. “You’re the first human who’s treated me as an equal. Besides Lady Josephine, of course. You were the one who finally broke me out of my ‘mistress’ and ‘master’ habit…the one that was hammered into me ever since childhood.” She returned her gaze to me. “Despite our titles and our various jobs, we’re all part of the Inquisition now, and each of us just as important as the rest. Even when Lady Josephine says as much to us all the time, it was still a hard thing to become accustomed to at first…but now I am. I’m not unhappy with this work.”

I lifted a brow. “And you’re sure she’s paying you well for it?”

“Oh, Maker, yes! More than I could have ever dreamed!” she exclaimed. Shaking her head, she continued with a broad smile, “Don’t worry, my friend. It’s fine. More than fine. We have a limited staff right now, someone has to do it, and better it be someone who doesn’t mind doing it, right? Besides,” she waved a hand at the room, “you’re not that messy, comparatively. Once we get this place all cleaned up and organized, there practically won’t be any work for me to do at all.”

She paused, and then stepped a little closer, worry furrowing her brow as she added in a lowered voice. “There’s also the matter of safety to consider, Tamsyn. Butler is still held prisoner, and his ideas haven’t died with his jailing. There’s more than one person who’s had bad thoughts about what you are and what everyone claims you can do…what you profess you can do.”

She glanced over my shoulder at the door and then back at me. “I don’t know how much experience you’ve had with these sorts of things, but you should know that your chambermaid and your handmaid – or both, as I happen to be – are the people who are closest to you, because they know your habits and where you are at any given time. I don’t trust anyone else but myself to be this close to you. I’m not sure anyone would try anything with other members of the Inner Circle present. But here? Alone?” She shook her head once more, letting me fill in the blanks.

That was something I definitely hadn’t considered.

“But,” she turned back to the dresser, straightening it and retrieving her cleaning tools. “That’s enough of that. I’m sure you’re ready for rest now. I’ll leave you to it, then, and come check up on you in the morning. If that’s all right?”

I nodded, “That’s all right. Thank you, Lea. I appreciate it.”

She beamed. “Of course. A good night to you, Lady Tamsyn.”

“Good night.”

And she was gone, closing the door quietly behind her.

For a few minutes after she left, I simply stood there, thinking on what she told me. I couldn’t help but be a slight bit worried. Perhaps it wasn’t so bad to have the ever-observant Lea as my handmaid, after all.

------------------------------------------------------

Morning arrived much too soon.

I slept so much better than I had the night before, even on the old bed, but it didn’t last nearly long enough to suit me. Dawn’s light had barely peeked through the small window when I heard the not-so-distant noises of construction – hammers, saws, picks, and the intermittent grunts of workers as they set about restoring the castle’s keep. Unable to sleep through that no matter how exhausted I was, I changed from my nightgown to my Fereldan dress again, completed my morning routine, left a note for Lea in case I didn’t see her, and departed for the main hall.

Already, scaffolding was being built to reach the highest areas of the walls. Workers passed tools to each other in buckets attached to ropes, and several people were dragging palettes of sand bags into the keep. I cringed and moved to the middle of the hall, staying well away from the edges to avoid anything that might be accidentally dropped or randomly fall on my head…

“Fresh shipment of apples this morn, milady,” I heard a voice say at my elbow. I turned to see a middle-aged woman holding a large basket in her arms, which was filled to the brim with small, bright red apples. “Would you like one?” she asked, extending the basket towards me as much as she could for the weight.

“Oh, thank you!” I said, taking one in hand and nodding graciously in thanks to her.

Continuing on, I saw Dorian leaning against the wall next to what would become Varric’s regular haunt, the hearth beside him crackling merrily and lending the unfurnished hall a much warmer atmosphere.

“Ah! Look who it is!” he said, smiling warmly as I approached the Altus. “And how are you this fine morning, Tamsyn?”

“Still exhausted, but well,” I said, turning the apple over in my hand. “And you, Ser Dorian?”

“Eager to see where this takes us,” he replied, uncrossing his arms and gesturing at the hall. “Your Herald…or should I say, your Inquisitor…fully accepted me into the fold yesterday. Now I suppose I can officially say I’m ‘one of you’.”

I grinned, “Congratulations, then, and welcome to the Inquisition.”

“Thank you,” he answered with a nod. “I must say, aside from all the sneers and glances and curled lips, the south has been more welcoming than I expected. It’s a rather pleasant surprise.”

I laughed a little. “It was for me, too.”

His smile turned wry, one side of his mustache curling upwards with the movement. “I actually wanted to talk with you about that, if you’re willing. The Elder One’s attack rather rudely delayed the opportunity to do so until now. I’d like to have at least one small discussion on the matter before another disaster prevents me from doing so.”

I indicated to the door with my apple hand. “Walk the battlements, then?”

“As good a place as any, I suppose,” he agreed, inclining his head politely before we both wandered out of the main hall and into the courtyard.

We walked in silence, me eating the apple all the while, until we reached the gatehouse walls, where we could watch the soldiers and workers coming and going across the bridge. There were more caravans visible in the distance, wagons laden with construction supplies and other goods.

At last, Dorian halted and began, “Well, now that we have less of a chance of being overheard, I’d like to ask just how it was that you came to be here, if you’re willing to share the tale. The Herald was a bit vague when he told me about it, although I think he did that more out of respect for your privacy than a lack of understanding on the issue.” He leaned against a merlon. “Still, I would like to know, if for no other reason than to get a handle on just what kind of magic was involved that brought you here.”

There were a few moments of silence as I chewed a last bite of apple before finally answering him. “My world was destroyed, Dorian. As much as I’m aware, there’s nothing left of it. What I saw,” I shook my head slowly. “The ground under my feet erupted. Everything was going up.” I gesticulated with both hands for emphasis, still holding the core of the apple. “Even if, somehow, there was something left, the debris cloud alone from something like that would have plunged the whole planet into an ice age. Blanketed the sky with dust so no sunlight could come through. No crops, people being unable to breathe…” I shook my head again, faster this time. “It was green. That’s all I remember. The ground opened up green under me. And then I blacked out. And when I woke up, I was in the Fade.”

“And then you managed to find your way out through a rift, correct?”

I nodded.

“Remarkable,” he breathed in awe. Glancing at me, he added seriously, “A terrible tragedy, of course, and you have my sympathies for your loss. I cannot imagine how that must feel. But it is also remarkable. Simply because it has never been done before. At least, not to anyone’s knowledge in centuries’ worth of arcane scholarship.”

He paused, and then continued, “And what really gets me about it is that this world is supposed to be part of a work of fiction for you. And yet, it has now been made your reality.” He cocked his head at me. “That, I think, beats experiments with time traveling ten times over.” He chuckled a bit, and then his thoughtful gaze swept over the mountains. “I wonder what Alexius would make of it, if he knew about it all.”

I sighed. “I’m still not sure I understand it, myself. Solas tried to explain his own theory, and it makes sense…” I looked down at the apple core in my hands. “But, at the same time, it seems like such a stretch.”

Dorian looked back to me and smirked. “Perhaps it is, and perhaps it isn’t. One never knows for sure with these things. Especially with the Fade involved.”

“Solas seemed to think it was my imagination that saved my life,” I said. “That it pulled me here.”

“Imagination does play a large part in the Fade, and with magic in general,” he nodded. Then, smiling more widely, he joked, “Maybe you willed us all into existence. Maybe you’re the Maker after all.”

I snorted. “There’s a thought.”

He was still grinning as he returned his attention to the mountains. “Funny, isn’t it? Here we are, both of us knowing what the future could hold if things pan out a certain way. I’m trying to ensure that what I saw doesn’t come to pass. You are doing the exact opposite. And yet we both want the same thing. The only question remaining is how many tripwires get thrown in our path along the way.”

I chuckled, leaning against a merlon as I watched the passersby on the bridge below us.

“Knowing my luck? A lot.”

------------------------------------------------------

After my little talk with Dorian, I spent most of the morning continuing to wander around Skyhold, watching everything slowly but surely falling into place. Josephine was still flitting around the fortress like a tireless hummingbird, flashes of her gold satin blouse visible every once in a while in the crowd of workers and refugees. Occasionally, I spotted Cullen in much the same manner, but Leliana had disappeared entirely, as had Maxwell. Part of me wanted to seek them out and talk to them, but another part of me wanted to leave them be and let the sting of Haven ease up a bit more. This transition period would be relatively short, and I would be back in on war meetings soon enough.

It wasn’t long before the smell of a ram cooking on a spit in the courtyard summoned me back outside. Flissa was working miracles again, it seemed, serving up portions of the meat alongside roasted potatoes, and I managed to grab a bite early on, before the soldiers and scouts began to crowd the poor cook and smother her. As I quickly finished eating and glanced around, though, I saw Rylen standing off to himself, immersed in his own plateful of food. Seeing as I hadn’t had the opportunity to actually talk to the Knight-Captain in a while, I decided to try and remedy that.

“Hello there, Knight-Captain,” I greeted him as I neared.

He glanced up. “Oh, Tamsyn. Something you needed?”

“Oh, no!” I said. “I just wondered if we could talk for a moment. If you have the time, of course.”

“Sure thing, lass,” he replied, lowering his plate. “What about?”

I sighed. “Well…I just wanted to thank you.”

His brow rose. “Oh? And what for?”

I tossed my hands upwards in a shrug. “Just…the times you’ve helped me. First, you saved my life from Butler, and I have yet to properly thank you for that,” I said. “And then you hauled me out of the snow to make sure I didn’t fall behind, back when we were fleeing Haven.” I grinned. “You seem to have made something of a habit of swooping in to rescue me. I figured I owed you at least a formal acknowledgment and appreciation of your help.”

At that, the Knight-Captain chuckled. “No need to thank me, there, Tamsyn. I did what anyone should do in those circumstances.”

He paused, finishing off his food, and then added, “You know, this may just be my Templar training talking, but for the longest time, you’ve reminded me of a Circle apprentice.”

I looked at him incredulously. “What?”

“Not because you have magic, of course,” he elaborated hastily. “I know you don’t. But just the way you’ve interacted with others ever since you dropped out of Maker-knows-where.” He glanced off, pausing before he continued. “Most Circle mages, when they first arrive at their towers, have trouble finding out where they belong in this new world of theirs. They’re shy, unsociable, practically frightened of their own shadows. But after a time, once they have a chance to adjust, most of them learn to live – and even thrive – in that world. Slowly growing in strength and confidence, making new friends, building their own small families, so to speak, even if they aren’t blood kin. And just from what I’ve observed of you, you’ve been much the same.” He grinned mischievously. “You seem much more comfortable now than you did when you first ran into me outside of Haven’s privy…”

“Damnit, Rylen, give it up already!” I hissed, punching him in the arm. But not too hard.

“Ha! See what I mean?” he replied with a barking laugh.

And I did. Communicating with everyone, including Rylen, had become so much easier. In the grand scheme of things, I had barely spent any time in Thedas at all – barely two months. And yet I was already interacting with a good number of the Inquisition as if we were good friends. And a rather large part of me sincerely hoped that we were.

As I thought, my eyes wandered over to Cullen’s table, where the Commander himself sat, leaning back in his chair, legs stretched out before him as he held a quill in one hand and parchment in the other. Rylen followed my gaze and gestured in Cullen’s direction with his fork. “Commander’s busied himself with writing letters to the families of the fallen.” He nudged me in the arm with his elbow. “Might be a good time for you to go and talk to him. I think it would do you both some good.”

He then smiled wickedly as he looked down at me out of the corner of his storm-blue eye and winked.

My cheeks went blazing hot. “Rylen…”

“Go on,” he shooed me with his empty plate. “Go and have a nice chat with him while you’ve got the chance. In the meantime,” he huffed, “I’ve work to do…soldiers to supervise and training schedules to review.”

He then began to turn away, and I took a half-step after him, my boot splashing loudly in a shallow puddle. “But-”

“Don’t ‘but’ me, lass,” he replied with a chuckle, not bothering to look back. “I’ll see you later.”

I could only gape after him as the Knight-Captain strode off, leaving me standing there more than slightly bewildered and wondering whether I should follow his advice or just ignore it.

I glanced back to where Cullen was immersed in his work, seemingly oblivious to me looking across the courtyard at him. I wondered what Maxwell had told Leliana regarding the soldiers lost at Haven if Cullen already had the scroll with the names of the fallen. Knowing the Inquisitor, I was certain he had said the right thing. But I made a mental note to visit the Nightingale sometime later, just to make sure.

The Commander had finally shed the extra armor pieces that he had worn since the battle of Haven, now wearing only his repaired breastplate and cuirass, spaulders, and vambraces once more. He seemed much more relaxed this way, though the deep furrow in his brow told a different story. His hair, having been days untreated with whatever he used to keep it combed straight back from his face, was now curling around his forehead in golden locks. It was then I realized I was one of the only ones to have preserved my personal belongings – everything else had been lost, including the Commander’s pomade or hair gel or crème or whatever. I briefly wondered where his lyrium kit was being kept, because surely it was too large to carry around in his pocket…

Shaking my head, I closed my eyes and took a deep, steadying breath. I really didn’t need to bother him. I really didn’t. I’d actually been halfway avoiding him ever since the attack, as much as the situation would allow. He didn’t seem to be that angry with me anymore, but the level of friendliness we had before had yet to come back…and, honestly, I wasn’t sure it ever would.

But if Rylen was encouraging me to talk to Cullen, then maybe he knew something? If there was anyone besides Cassandra who could properly gauge the Commander’s mood, it was most certainly his second.

Huffing out an exasperated sigh, I strode forward towards his table. He looked up when he heard me walking through the sparse grass, and he set down his paper, leaning forward expectantly as I approached.

“Tamsyn,” he greeted me with a slight nod. “Is there something you require?”

I hesitated. I should just leave him be.

“Just a moment to talk, if that’s all right,” I finally replied, against my better judgment.

“It is,” he answered, to my great surprise, gesturing to a nearby stool. “I could use something of a distraction right about now.”

I slowly approached and perched on the stool, the scarlet surcoat pooling above my ankles. “How are you doing?” I asked cautiously.

He sighed heavily, propping one elbow atop the table and leaning his head into his hand. “When I signed on for this position, I never imagined I would have to lead an actual army against a darkspawn magister, of all things. Developing squadrons to handle rogue mages and Templars and bandits…I was prepared to handle all of that. But this?” He shook his head and fell silent. Then, he added in a slightly quieter voice, “Those corrupted Templars at Haven. I thought I’d seen all that red lyrium could do when Meredith went mad in Kirkwall. Now, it seems that was only the beginning…”

Cullen trailed off, wincing as he rubbed his temples with two gloved fingers. Withdrawal symptoms? I was surprised he hadn’t experienced them visibly again until now. I was certain he would have had them during our flight from Haven, or suffered a nightmare when we had slept in the same tent, but he had done neither. Maybe the adrenaline had prevented the withdrawals somehow, and perhaps sleeping in the company of others had actually kept his nightmares from haunting him.

In any case, it was evident that all of it was coming back now that we were settled in at Skyhold.

“Rylen told me you were busy with some letters to the families of the fallen,” I said tentatively. “Why don’t you let me take some of them off your hands?” I suggested, cocking my head at him.

He paused his rubbing and quirked a brow upwards at me. “You want to?”

I hesitated, glancing away as I thought for a moment. “I…yeah, actually, I do.” It seemed only right, after all. I had tried to help save everyone, but I had failed. I needed to do something to help make up for it.

His eyes held mine for a brief second, making me hold my breath in anticipation, before they dropped to the silver scroll casing on the table beside his inkwell. “I haven’t written the Corporal’s family, yet. If I remember right, she has a brother still alive in Denerim.”

It didn’t take a genius to figure out he was talking about Delia. I nodded. “All right. Why don’t you just sit and relax for a minute and I’ll write it for you.”

He pushed the quill, inkwell, and blank parchment towards me with one hand and I immediately took up the pen, biting my lower lip as I thought of how to compose an appropriate condolences letter. I’d never written anything remotely like it before, but I knew right away it needed to sound both professional and personal, somehow. If it sounded too distant and impersonal, then people would view the Inquisition just like every other massive organization in Thedas – too far removed from the common folk to actually care about them.

Then, a sudden inspiration rushing through me, I dipped the quill into the ink and began to write.

To the Rothe family:

It is with a heavy heart and deepest regret that I must inform you of the passing of your kinswoman, Delia Rothe. A valiant warrior and Corporal for the Inquisition, Delia gave her life defending the innocent people of Haven from the forces of the darkspawn magister, Corypheus. Words cannot express how much her death has grieved us all, and together we mourn the loss of a good woman and a dear friend.

I realize that nothing I say could possibly help ease the sting of this terrible news, but know that she and the Rothe family will be in our thoughts and prayers, and her sacrifice will never be forgotten.

May she walk forever at the Maker’s side,

Tamsyn Ashworth – Advisor to the Inquisition

I didn’t realize I was actually holding my breath until I finished the last sharp, runic letter. And I had no idea I was crying until a tear dripped from my cheek and hit the parchment. Shocked, I dabbed at it quickly with my thumb before the moisture could settle into the paper, blinking as my vision blurred a bit, and I felt myself redden as I glanced up at Cullen. He was looking at me with such a gentle expression, his brow knitted ever so slightly in concern, and I wanted nothing more in that moment than to throw my arms around his neck and bury my head into the thick fur of his mantle, to hide my face from the world…

Stop it!

Instead, I cleared my throat to banish those thoughts and passed the parchment to him with an awkward smile. “How’s this?”

He took the paper from my hands almost gingerly, and I watched as his golden eyes flicked from word to word while he read. When he finally reached the end of the letter, the corner of his mouth twitched ever so slightly, but I was unsure of its meaning; so many of his expressions were difficult to interpret, something I had learned over the course of the many conversations and meetings we had together since I arrived. He remained silent for a moment after, but at last, he set the letter down on the table in front of him and nodded slowly as his gaze returned to my anxious one.

“That will do, Tamsyn. Thank you.”

Chapter Text

I wiped my silent tears away, and, for at least an hour or two afterwards, I assisted Cullen in penning similar letters of condolences to more families of the Inquisition’s deceased, though none of them had quite the same personal note as the one for the Rothes, simply because I hadn’t known the fallen as closely…or at all. Still, I tried my best to make them as heartfelt as I could; it was cathartic, in a way, and it gave me my own small bit of closure. It was as if my own personal apologies were enclosed in the letters I wrote, my grief and regret regarding the imperfect outcome of the attack flowing out with the ink and setting there as it dried.

The Commander was quiet after that, and so was I, somehow not needing to say anything more to complete the task before us. We worked in an alternating fashion as we completed letters for each family name that was listed on the scroll Leliana had given him, allowing us both to take a mental and physical break between each one. Despite having to share writing materials, though, time passed rather quickly, the bright sun steadily continuing in its arc over our heads. Before long, all of the letters were finally done and ready to send out via the Nightingale’s ravens or her surefooted couriers, and as I returned the Commander’s pen to his inkwell and gave the last letter a final look over, I felt certain that, had I not done what I did at Haven, there would have been many, many more than there were…

When we finished up, sound rushed back into my ears with near deafening force, and I was once again aware of the roar of constant activity in the courtyard that I had somehow managed to block out as I worked so intently. It came as almost a relief, in a way; it seemed I hadn’t lost the ability to summon concentration in crowded areas, at least when it came to writing. Maybe that was something of a good sign.

With all of the correspondence sealed and stacked in hand, Cullen pushed back his chair in the grass and slowly stood with a groan, wincing as he stretched. For some reason, I averted my eyes from his languid, almost cat-like movements as if I was witnessing something private, and I fought to keep from blushing. Even half-garbed in armor, he moved with marvelous fluidity, and that made it all the more entrancing to watch. But then, glancing to where I still sat, he re-caught my attention with my name, leaning forward onto the table.

“Tamsyn, when you asked me why I saved you back at Haven, I distinctly remember you answered the question for me,” he began quietly, his voice almost a whisper. His amber eyes latched to mine, rendering me unable to look away from him as he continued. “You told me I must have done it because I save people.” The corner of his mouth curled upwards, seemingly in amusement. “That may be so. But I would like to pose something to you, in return.” His brow furrowed, then, as he turned serious, and his eyes briefly narrowed at me as he added. “Ask yourself why you truly thought I shouldn’t have.”

In the utter silence that followed, I watched, wide-eyed, as he straightened, casually resting his unoccupied hand on the pommel of his sword. “I don’t expect you to share the answer you find, when you do,” he said. “It’s…merely something I want you to contemplate, sometime.” And at that, he simply nodded his polite farewell, turned, and began walking towards the keep.

I stared after him for several moments, unsure of how to take that suggestion. I couldn’t believe he had given our argument so much consideration, given how busy he had been in the past few days, and I felt my stomach churn a little as I already began considering his words. But then, sighing heavily as if to release an invisible weight from my chest, I stood abruptly and shook my head.

Later. I’d think about it later.

Smoothing my skirt, I looked around. Skyhold was like a kicked anthill, and it was difficult to find anyone in all that chaos. But suddenly, I caught sight of Maxwell walking atop the battlements and was about to try and catch up to him when I heard someone call out to me.

“Lady Tamsyn!”

I turned towards the voice, brow furrowed. There, heading towards me from the keep stairs, was Strider, and I felt my eyes widen in surprise. In the flurry of activity since the attack on Haven and the discovery of Skyhold, I hadn’t had the chance to speak with him.

“Strider!” I waved back, giving him a broad smile of greeting. Noting that he wore his full gear, including a full-to-bursting pack atop his back, curiosity spurred me to ask, “What’s going on?”

He closed the distance between us, drawing up beside me as he glanced around at the busy courtyard. “I’m glad I found you,” he said, smiling back. “I don’t have a whole lot of time to chat, but I thought I should let you know that the Nightingale has reassigned me. For the foreseeable future, I won’t be stationed at Skyhold.”

My brows rose, and my mouth dropped open. “What?”

He nodded, pressing his lips together. “It’s not much of a surprise, honestly. She wants more agents in the field now that we have an official base that’s far more defensible than Haven ever was. There’s less of a need for trainers and extra hands for security and more of a need for eyes and ears out there.” He gestured generically to the mountains with a gloved hand. “We’ve got to get an idea of where this Elder One ran off to, and with how many numbers still at his disposal, and that means more people spread out through Ferelden and the Empire.”

I nodded slowly in understanding, but feeling a little sick. Strider was far more vulnerable out there. There was no telling what kind of enemies he would face. Venatori, Red Templars, demons…

“Suffice it to say,” Strider continued, “I can’t be your trainer, anymore. But considering how well you performed during the defense of the village, I can’t say you really need that much at this point.” The corner of his mouth turned up in a wry smile. “Practice, yes. But you’ve got a handle on most of the concepts already.” He clapped a hand on my shoulder reassuringly. “If you still think you need it, though, I’m sure the Nightingale could arrange something.”

“It’s not going to be the same,” I said, not relishing the idea of having to get used to someone new training me. I had greatly appreciated Strider’s patience…and even his smart mouth, on occasion.

“Of course not,” Strider replied with a snort. “No one trains like I do. But sometimes, different is better.”

After the moment of silence that followed, I sighed again, glancing away briefly to swallow down my emotion. “All right, then. I guess it’s goodbye?”

“I suppose so, Lady Tamsyn. It’s been an honor to be your teacher.”

Despite my valiant attempt at maintaining control, I nearly burst out crying then and there. He must have seen the emotion welling in my eyes, because he suddenly reached forward and pulled me into a tight embrace, the smell of leather and dried elfroot tickling my nose. “Don’t worry. We might end up seeing each other again before this is through. And if we do, I’m sure we’ll have many a good story to share.”

I chuckled, squeezing him back with all my strength. “I’m sure we will, Strider.”

At last, he let me go, straightening his back and giving me a last friendly grin. “Until then, though…Maker guide you, Lady Tamsyn.” He pressed his fist to his chest in a salute, which I answered with a slight bow.

“And you, my friend.”

And with that, Strider finally departed Skyhold, his namesake long strides carrying him through the castle gates, past an incoming wagon of supplies, and onto the bridge that spanned the plunging ravine below. Pushing past workers and jogging up to the wall stairs, I picked up my skirts and climbed them two at a time to stand on the battlements, watching him leave. It seemed such a lonely journey for him to take. There he was, going out into the snowy wilderness by himself, and though I knew he was a competent Scout, and he was likely headed straight for an Inquisition camp somewhere, I couldn’t help but fear for his life.

The sharp wind whipping my skirts and hair all the while, I watched until Strider was but a speck disappearing on the winding trail in the distance, past where the encampment for the Inquisition soldiers would be established once the castle could no longer support the growing troop numbers. Then, when I could no longer see a trace of him, I slowly turned away with a somewhat heavier heart.

“Tamsyn!”

Yet another call of my name broke me out of my thoughts. Turning back towards the walkway to my right, from which the sound of my name had echoed, I squinted, holding my hand up to shield my face from the blinding sun. Maxwell was coming my way, and with him was Varric…

And Garrett Hawke. Mage Garrett Hawke, judging from the staff on his back.

As the Champion sauntered along the battlements towards me, between Maxwell and Varric, I realized I was looking at Bioware’s default male Hawke to a T: black hair and beard, brown eyes, scarlet blood smear across his nose. He had a wiry build and was taller than Maxwell by a few inches, and that was saying something, because the Herald was already tall, at least to my short-ish self.

It seemed like almost everyone in the Inquisition was taller than me, except some of the elven women and the dwarves…

Smiling as he approached, Maxwell greeted me rather cheerfully. “It’s good I could catch you before you disappeared in the crowd again. There’s a friend of Varric’s you should meet. Even though you probably already know about him…this is Serah Hawke,” he said, gesturing to the Champion. “Hawke? This is Lady Tamsyn. She is one of my advisors.”

“Ah, yes,” Garrett dipped his head respectfully, extending his hand for me to shake. “Varric’s told me a bit about you. You’re the Inquisition’s very own Prophet, aren’t you?” he asked.

I took his hand, and he shook it with a rather firm grip as I replied, “Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far with it…” I trailed as I glanced at Varric, who gave me a smug smile in response. “But yes, that’s me.”

“Wonderful!” he grinned broadly, relinquishing his grip. Then, rubbing his hands together in anticipation, he asked eagerly, “Tell me, then…what’s for supper?”

“It…doesn’t quite work like that, Chuckles,” Varric remarked flatly.

A purple Hawke, then. This was going to be rich.

I bit back a snort and crossed my arms. “Well, I’m sorry to say that if it’s the same as it was last night and the night before…it’s roasted ram. And potatoes. More potatoes than ram. Or maybe just potatoes if our hunters aren’t lucky.”

At that, Hawke looked more than a bit let down, and Maxwell chuckled as he shook his head. “Our Ambassador is working very hard to change that rather limited menu as soon as possible. I think more for her own sanity than anything else, at this point. As stoic as she attempts to be about it, I don’t imagine aristocratic Antivan palates are at all compatible with the Fereldan hunter’s fare we’ve been forced to eat in recent days.” He sighed. “The last I heard on the matter, she’s having trouble convincing food caravans to make the journey here.”

“I can see why,” Varric observed, jerking a thumb at the ice-coated peaks behind us. “No one wants to risk a cart full of the scantest fall harvest in years taking a tumble down one of these mountains.”

“Or becoming food for red lions and bears,” I added. Then, scrunching my brow together, I clarified, “The people or the vegetables,” to which Maxwell answered with an amused yet understanding nod.

Hawke barked out a laugh. “Ha! Imagine a wagon getting so close to the castle they can see it and then losing their load down one of those ravines. You’d be hunting for the cabbages for weeks,” he jested, sparing a glance over the walls at the valley below. “Although, with all the snow about, they should be saved from rot…”

“The Frostbacks have no shortage of snow, it seems,” Maxwell agreed. “And as beautiful as it is, it makes me long for warmer climes.”

“You ought to feel right at home, though, Chuckles,” Varric remarked as he elbowed Hawke.

At that, the Champion looked down at the toes of his armored boots and answered quietly, “I’m not sure I know what that is anymore.”

Uncomfortable silence fell around us, then, punctuated only by the occasional caw of Leliana’s ravens. Varric seemed to immediately regret his words, but when he opened his mouth to say something, nothing came out. I swallowed, glancing away and unsure of what to say or do myself at that point. Then, finally, Maxwell gathered the nerve to break the awkward pall.

“Well, I shouldn’t dawdle. There are many things I must attend to, and I should go take this information of yours to my war council,” he said, pointedly glancing to me before inclining his head to Hawke. “I must say, it was a pleasure to finally meet you, Champion.”

“Likewise, Inquisitor,” Hawke replied with a mirrored gesture.

“Right, let’s let the Herald do his thing, Chuckles,” Varric said. “You mentioned you’re not leaving for Crestwood until morning, so how about a game of Wicked Grace later tonight? It’ll be just like old times.”

“Of course, Varric, how could I not?” Hawke replied, grin flashing under his beard once more, the shadow that had draped itself around his shoulders almost miraculously vanishing.

“Great!” said Varric, “I’ll make arrangements. You and Fortune Teller here are invited, by the way,” he added to Maxwell.

The Inquisitor and I both smiled. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything. Until then, Varric.”

“See you, Inquisitor, Tamsyn.”

And with that, we separated, with me occasionally glancing over my shoulder to see Hawke and Varric walking off across the battlements together. I silently followed Maxwell down the wall stairs and towards the keep for the first official war meeting since we had arrived at Skyhold, all the while wondering just how long it would take for Cassandra to throttle Varric after catching word about the Champion’s arrival.

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The War Room was now easily my favorite spot in Skyhold.

It seemed it was one of the first places to get extensive treatment from the workers and servants, the dust and dirt scrubbed from the high windows and walls, and the war table polished to a high shine. Like everything else about the castle, it was much bigger than it seemed to be in the game, utterly convincing me that the tree from which it had been cut so many centuries ago must have been something akin to a giant redwood. It was also currently the only piece of furniture in the room besides the matching root chandelier that hovered overhead. The old wax candles molded to the wood remained unlit, as bright sunlight streamed through the thick glass panes, sufficient to illuminate the chamber from wall to wall. No rugs, tapestries, or banners, and so the room was rather bare and somewhat cold. Still, it brought a smile to my face to see it in person. I could foresee much time spent here in the future, poring over reports…

Once the maps were unrolled and all the pieces and markers were in place atop them, I stepped back and let Maxwell fill in the other advisors on what Hawke had told him about his Warden contact in Crestwood; it had quickly become the natural way for me to participate in these meetings, remaining silent until someone asked me something specifically or looked at me expectantly. Or I heard something that needed instant clarification.

In the interim, I watched their reactions to the Inquisitor’s words. Leliana in particular was quite intent on what the Inquisitor had to say, her straightened posture and lifted brows betraying her interest as she listened to Maxwell speak. Cullen’s expression was, as expected, unreadable, although the initial mention of Hawke’s name elicited a raised brow and a slight glance in Josephine’s direction. Returning my attention to the Inquisitor, I realized this was the first time we were holding a meeting without Cassandra present, and I wondered if the Seeker had managed to get her hands on the dwarf yet…

“The Champion suggested I go meet his contact in Crestwood as soon as possible,” Maxwell concluded at last. “He seems certain that he can provide some answers for the Inquisition regarding the disappearance of the Wardens and their possible connection to Corypheus.”

“Although I am pleased that the Champion has come forward with this information, Lady Cassandra is not going to be happy with Master Tethras,” Josephine observed, taking notes after the Inquisitor finished. Her lips were pressed together while she wrote, her black-feathered quill bobbing rhythmically.

“She’ll likely murder him if she can get her hands on him,” Leliana replied, shaking her head as she turned her attention to the papers in her hands.

Cullen sighed, shifting his weight from one foot to the other with a slight jingle of chains. “I must say, I am rather surprised that Hawke showed up here at all. But…then again,” he paused, seemingly thinking for a moment before he pinched the bridge of his nose. “Perhaps I’m not…”

Leliana shuffled through some of her paperwork. “In any case, we also have a few reports of rifts appearing in Crestwood, and my scouts say there is an undead problem manifesting there, which is threatening the safety of the village. They may be connected. That is another good reason to pay a visit, and soon.”

“Agreed.” Maxwell nodded his understanding. “We’ll make preparations for our departure on the morrow and then leave the following morning.”

“Understood, Inquisitor,” Cullen answered.

“While we are here, we should also discuss the situation with the Empress,” Josephine advised, peering around Cullen at Leliana.

“Yes,” the Nightingale agreed, meeting the Ambassador’s look with a small nod. Turning her attention to Maxwell, she added, “It turns out that our messengers to the Empress are being intercepted, and we have not been able to determine who is doing it. Someone is determined to prevent communication from the Inquisition from reaching her, and thus far, they are succeeding at every turn.”

“Which means we need to enact another plan, and quickly,” said Cullen, one hand flexing on the pommel of his sword.

“I think I have just the thing,” Josephine replied as she flipped to a specific page on her tablet. “The Empress is holding a ball at the end of the year. It will be a grand masquerade, arranged for the purpose of conducting peace talks with her cousin, Grand Duke Gaspard. It has been arranged by his sister, Grand Duchess Florianne, and it will be hosted at the Winter Palace, in Halamshiral. If the announcements are any indication,” her eyes quickly swept over one such pamphlet, and her brows rose, “it will be a marvelous affair indeed. Everyone who is anyone in the Empire will be in attendance.”

“What better time and place for an assassin to strike than in the midst of such a crowd?” Cullen observed.

“And what better way to make a statement than to do it in front of her entire court?” Leliana added.

“If we want to prevent that from happening,” Josephine continued, “then I am afraid we will have to make an appearance there as well.  Our presence alone could be a deterrent, but it may also present an opportunity to catch whoever is working with Corypheus to eliminate the Empress.”

“I see,” Maxwell replied, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “How long do we have?” He asked at length.

“Well, let us see,” Josephine flipped to another page. “It is the twenty seventh of Harvestmere, yes? And the ball is to be held…” she flipped back to the announcement, “the thirtieth of Haring.”

“To see in a new year of peace, perhaps?” Cullen suggested. “It sounds like something she would attempt to accomplish on such a date.”

“Or so the Empress hopes,” Leliana replied with a nod of affirmation. “I am not certain that Gaspard will agree to such a truce, however. Especially now we have word that another faction is attempting to gain influence over the situation.”

“So we have two months, or thereabouts,” Maxwell said, his hand moving to the back of his neck as he fixed his eyes on the war table.

“Yes,” the Nightingale confirmed. “And in that time, we must somehow secure an invitation to the ball.”

“As well as have something appropriate made for our attendance,” Josephine added.

“And have a plan to protect the Empress while we’re there,” Cullen concluded.

They all looked at me, then, obviously waiting for some sort of advice.

“You’re on the right track,” I said simply. “As for your invitation, you’ll want to go through Gaspard.” When Leliana and Josephine both opened their mouths as if to protest, I added hastily, “I know, I know. It’ll look like the Inquisition’s choosing sides in the civil war. But trust me, Gaspard is your only bet of getting in. Sure, he’ll want to use his connection to the Inquisition as leverage in the peace talks, but he won’t be able to actually go very far with it unless the Inquisitor lets him.” I glanced at Maxwell, who nodded in understanding. “You just need him to get past the front door.”

“If you say so,” Josephine said at last, letting out a hissing breath through her nose as she shook her head and took notes. “I will send correspondence to him as soon as time will allow.” Pausing, she added, “Speaking of which, Commander, we just received word from the Marquis DuRellion.”

“Oh?” Cullen asked, though his tone was one of trepidation, not curiosity.

She nodded. “He wishes to construct a memorial at Haven to honor our fallen. He will need assistance with obtaining workers for the project, however. I can easily raise the coin to have them hired on contract for the Inquisition, or we could use volunteers from our own ranks.”

“I’m sure we could find soldiers willing and eager to participate in such an endeavor,” Cullen answered musingly, glancing to Maxwell for confirmation. “On your order, we will take whichever action you prefer, Inquisitor.”

Maxwell inclined his head to the Commander. “If you can spare the men, I think it would be most appropriate to have our own there involved in the construction.”

“Agreed,” Cullen replied. “I will pass word along, Josephine, and you will soon have your men to send to the Marquis.”

“Excellent,” she said, scribbling away once more.

“One more thing,” Cullen continued, speaking to Maxwell again. “Varric recently brought up his growing concern regarding the red lyrium deposits at the temple and Corypheus’s connection to it, and he has mentioned seeing other deposits elsewhere around Ferelden during your travels. I agree that this is an alarming issue that merits a deeper investigation, not only because of its corruptive nature, but also because it is obviously being actively weaponized by one of Corypheus’s generals.”

“Samson,” Maxwell said with a nod. “You told me of him.”

“Yes,” Cullen’s voice was almost a hiss of disgust. “It would behoove us to find out how he is using this weapon to create his army, and how we can cut off his supply to keep him from rebuilding his ranks. Unless…” he trailed as his amber gaze drifted to mine questioningly, and the way he looked at me out of the corner of his eye, brow lifted, somehow dismantled almost every bit of composure I possessed in one fell swoop.

And we all know that swooping is bad.

“Oh…ahem,” I coughed, feeling rather hot and stifled in that moment. “Yes, that…that would be a wise course of action.” I swallowed hard, desperately trying to recover as I clenched my hands behind my back. “You are correct. The only way to cripple the Red Templars is to cut off their lyrium supply, but that means you need to both find a way to keep it out of their hands indefinitely and then safely dispose of it.”

“Meaning we need to first locate the handlers and suppliers, and then destroy as much as possible,” Maxwell said, his eyes wandering as he thought. “I’m certain we can find a way to accomplish that, but I’m thinking we will need more leads than just the pockets of red lyrium we’ve found poking out of the ground.”

“We have already dispatched scouts to assist with that,” Leliana elaborated. “So far, it appears as though our intelligence is pointing towards Orlais, but we will need more information before we can proceed in earnest.”

“All right,” Maxwell said, rubbing the back of his neck again with a heavy sigh as he let his gaze drop to the maps before him. “In the meantime, we’ll do our best to destroy what we find when we find it. Until we locate Samson’s primary means of harvesting and refining this lyrium, we can at least be a bit of a thorn in his side.”

“As you say, Inquisitor,” Cullen answered.

At that, Maxwell glanced to each of us at last and took a breath before formally ending the meeting.

“Council dismissed.”

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I was the first to leave the War Room on the Inquisitor’s heels, my boots thudding on the ancient, vaguely dwarven runner that carpeted the stone floor of the hall. The rubble from the crumbling outer wall had been pushed back enough to make a safe walking area, but had yet to be completely cleared, reminding me that renovation work was slow; we had only been at Skyhold for a grand total of two days, after all. A blast of frigid air gusted through the gap in the stones, enough to plaster my skirts to my legs and messing up my hair. As I brought up my hands to smooth it all back down, I noticed Maxwell was already far ahead of me, probably heading for his companions to begin arrangements for their outing to Crestwood.

I passed through Josephine’s office, which, at the moment, was a bare shell of what it would become – only a simple old table to serve as her desk and no adornments on the walls. Pushing through the inner door to the main hall, I turned to head back for my room for a bit when I heard a voice almost in my ear.

“What are you?”

I whirled around. There, standing next to the wall and picking at his gloves, was Cole. The spirit cocked his head at me curiously, awaiting an answer, but I was entirely clueless as to what to say to a question like that.

“I…uh…” I cleared my throat. “I’m Tamsyn,” I replied, as if it were obvious.

“I know,” he said, no note of irritation in his tone at my answer. “But you’re not like the others. You’re not like…anyone. It’s confusing.”

“What do you mean?” I asked with brow furrowed, glancing over my shoulder as I moved closer to the wall next to him. Thankfully, there really weren’t any people in the hall to hear us at the moment. All the workers who had been clinging to the scaffolding before were conveniently absent now. Perhaps Cole had unwittingly frightened them off…

“I listen and I hear people,” he said, his voice taking on that ethereal note whenever he tried to explain something. “I hear, here and in their heads. Voices quiet, but always whispering, always.” He paused. “Dwarves are quieter, like Varric. Their song is farther away. It’s more work to listen. But you’re different than them. I can hear you here. But I can’t hear you in your head. It’s-it’s silent.”

My brows rose. Well, that was interesting. “You can’t hear my thoughts?”

“No.”

Another pause. So Cole didn’t know what I was thinking, and I couldn’t dream. What could that mean?

Curious, I asked, “Then how did you know, back at camp, that I was worried that…” I trailed off and glanced over my shoulder, glimpsing a flash of russet fur disappearing beyond the hall’s double doors. Still, I whispered as I finished, “that Cullen hated me?”

His answer was immediate and simple. “I read your body.”

Well, that wasn’t creepy. “Oh.”

Sighing, I kept my voice low and leaned close, almost having to duck under the brim of his hat to see his icy blue eyes. “I’m not from here, Cole. Or the Fade. I’m from beyond the Fade. Another world.”

He blinked. “Like here, but not here?”

“Well…yes,” I answered at length, not really fully understanding what he was thinking, but just rolling with it.

“But if I can’t hear you, how can I help you?” he asked, his tone indicative of frustration. So that’s why he was asking. His innate Compassion was fearful he couldn’t be of help to me and wanted to know why, as if it were an obstacle to be jumped.

I tried to smile reassuringly. “I don’t know, Cole. But if I figure it out, I’ll be sure to let you know.”

He was silent for a few moments, and then…

“All right.”

And he was gone. Just a blink, and he vanished entirely, as if he had never been standing there at all. And I was left there by the wall, alone, not knowing exactly what to make of that strange little conversation.

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Instead of heading to my room as I had initially planned on doing, as soon as I recovered from my talk with Cole, I decided to cross the hall and find Leliana in the rookery. Best to talk with her now while I was thinking about it.

I ascended the spiral stair carefully, dodging a few scouts with messages along the way. The library was apparently being taken care of by Fiona’s mages, and they had completely immersed themselves in categorizing the ancient tomes left behind by the previous inhabitants, as well as cleaning the existing bookshelves.

Continuing on upwards, I noticed that the ravens’ cages were still lying on the floor, tended to by Leliana’s trusted handlers. The room was filled with squawking and the sound of wings flapping, as well as the musty smell of the birds themselves.

I spied Leliana reading another report next to her future shrine to Andraste, and as I approached, she glanced over the top of the parchment and fixed her sharp eyes on me. “Tamsyn. Is there something you need?”

“Just a moment of time to talk, if you can spare it,” I said, coming to a halt a few paces away and glancing around the room again.

“I can,” she answered simply, pulling her hands – and the parchment – behind her back.

Struggling to think of a way to word my question, I began slowly, “The Inquisitor. He did speak with you about the scouts at Haven, didn’t he? The ones you ultimately withdrew to protect?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Yes. What of it? Is this another decision of mine you find fault with?”

“What did he say?”

She studied me intensely for a few moments before she replied, shaking her head as she glanced away from me. “He told me I did the right thing. That our soldiers aren’t expendable, in his words.”

“He was right,” I said. I was relieved that was indeed Maxwell’s answer, although I had a sneaking suspicion it had been.

Her eyes returned to mine, her expression evidence of her irritation, and as she crossed her arms, I felt suddenly vulnerable under that stare. “I’m not sure I agree. I don’t think we can afford to be quite so idealistic in times like these. They knew what they signed up for. They knew they might be asked to sacrifice their lives for the greater good. We cannot afford to hesitate or to act on emotion. Both could cost us everything.”

Silence. It troubled me that Leliana had been hardened so, and it made me wonder just how good of a person Justinia really was. I wondered how I could help reverse the process that had turned the Nightingale so cold. How I could help the Inquisitor change her outlook on the world.

“May I ask you something else?” I asked eventually.

“Yes.” The tone was clipped.

“Who is the Hero of Ferelden?”

A moment more of silence before Leliana sighed her exasperation. “She is dead, and her name was Lyna Mahariel. Why? I thought you were aware of these things.”

Ah.

I smirked. “Well, that’s just it, Nightingale. The Hero of Ferelden could actually have been any one of a number of people – a human noble of the Cousland family, a Circle mage, a noble or casteless dwarf, a Dalish or a city elf. Male or female. And they could have been alive or dead, even today. Who the Hero was depended on where Warden-Commander Duncan was at a particular time at the outset of the Blight – and it just so happens he recruited a Dalish woman and doomed the others to death.”

“And this is significant why?”

“Because it demonstrates the importance of choices, Sister,” I said, subconsciously leaning forward as I answered, as if that might help convince her. “Duncan’s simple choice of where to go that week decided who the Hero was going to be, whose life would be saved while everyone else’s was snuffed out.” Her eyes squinted ever so slightly at me as I barreled on. “Because Mahariel lived, every other candidate for Hero died. Once Duncan made that choice, there was no turning back, even if he wasn’t aware of the ramifications of his decision at the time. And just like his choice over ten years ago, our choices here, now, will change our lives and the lives of everyone around us forever, whether we know it or not. And that means everything, all the way down to thinking that it’s okay to sacrifice some soldiers for the greater good.”

Silence stretched between us. I could almost hear the blood pumping in my ears, and my hands clenched into fists as I continued.

“I know you’ve spent much of your life involved in the Game, in some form or fashion,” I said, glancing away briefly in my nervousness. “But as much as the Orlesian court would like to think that people are merely pawns to be pushed around a board for their purposes, they’re wrong. No matter how subtle the moves, no matter how elaborate the plan, no matter how skillfully executed, they’re wrong. Despite Orlais being the birthplace of the Chantry, they certainly like to throw away the lives of the Maker’s children on some selfish whim, in revenge for some perceived offense or to gain a political advantage.” I spat those last words. I hated every ounce of the Orlesian Game, and I didn’t really care if she didn’t like it. I shook my head with disdain, my voice filled with conviction as I added, “The Inquisition…we’re supposed to be above that, not part of it.”

She paused, her lips thinned, and then she abruptly turned from me, her head bowed forward. Perhaps she was praying for the Maker to grant her the strength to keep from killing me. I dared not break the silence again, frozen to the spot. Maybe I’d gone a step too far…

But then…

“Tell me something, Tamsyn. Is there a version of this world where Justinia lived? In your book?”

My eyes widened. I had a feeling she wanted to know if someone’s choice, somewhere along the line, had made a difference in life or death for her beloved mentor. Even if it was just a small one. I felt a little twinge of guilt at that, knowing I couldn’t give her the answer she wanted to hear.

“I’m sorry, Sister. But no.”

Chapter Text

Thinking it prudent to leave before the Nightingale decided to feed my eyeballs to one of her ravens, I left her to her thoughts, silently slipping back down the stairwell to the main hall. As I descended, one hand holding my skirts while the other braced against the cold wall for balance, I felt my hip pop uncomfortably, and I was suddenly made aware of just how sore my legs were. In fact, they’d been sore ever since our trek from Haven, but I’d had my mind on so many things during those days, it had been astonishingly easy to forget about the constant discomfort.

I was beginning to understand Cullen’s approach to his withdrawal symptoms.

Unfortunately, the endless stairs of Skyhold served as fantastic reminders of aches and pains, and I felt myself longing once again for a warm bath to soak in and relax my muscles and joints…

Upon finally reentering the main hall, I noticed some of the workers had already returned, climbing up the frighteningly-rickety scaffolding to reach the topmost areas of the walls and even farther to the broken roof. Others were on their hands and knees on the floors, scrubbing the stone. Most of the fallen debris and broken glass was gone, now, the only thing remaining in the way being the ancient chandelier, which had yet to be touched. Skirting around one of these busy workers, I began to head back in the direction of the garden side stairs towards my room. But then I caught a sudden motion out of the corner of my eye, and glancing that way, I glimpsed a gaudily dressed and masked Orlesian woman headed straight towards me, gesticulating wildly with white-gloved hands.

“You there! I require assistance!”

Her shrill voice was thickly accented and slightly muffled due to the full-face mask she wore, which was crafted much like a porcelain doll face, complete with a red heart painted on the lips and lines of tiny blue dots beneath each eye opening. Wrapped about her head and neck was a cream lace scarf, on top of which perched a robin’s egg blue hat, fashionably cocked, with a bunch of what appeared to be quail feathers pinned to the front by a large gold brooch. She wore a matching blue satin gown with gigantic puff sleeves and a ruffled hoop skirt (as was currently popular in court circles), punctuated with cream-colored bows all the way to the hem. Judging from the spotlessness of her attire, she hadn’t walked here...or ridden horseback, for that matter.

I turned to face her fully, admittedly a bit concerned by the franticness of her gestures, though I reminded myself that Orlesian nobles tended to think every little thing was a total disaster. “Yes, what is it?”

She rushed over to me in a swish of satin and the quick click of heels. As she neared, a loud floral perfume assaulted my nostrils and made my eyes water. I could feel a sneeze building within seconds, and I fought desperately to stifle it, blinking rapidly.

“Who in this wretched pile of rocks can tell me where to find Madame Josephine?” she demanded with a slight whine in her tone, obviously affronted at the current state of the fortress, despite the fact it was a recently-discovered ruin. Then, looking me up and down, she said, “You are a maidservant of the castle, are you not? Tell me where the Ambassador is, and I will tip you well.”

My brows rose at that. I fully realized I wasn’t wearing the most lavish clothes in the world, but I was wearing a nicely-dyed surcoat with fur, for crying out loud. And she still thought I was a maidservant?

Well, of course she would. My clothes were Fereldan in style – backwoods and poor, to an Orlesian noblewoman of any standing.

Thoroughly miffed, I crossed my arms. “You can find her past that door,” I said, nodding my head in the direction of the hall that led to Josephine’s office and the War Room. Giving the lady a wry smile, I added, “And there’s no need for pay me for information. I have no need of your coin. I am, after all, an Advisor to the Inquisitor and Herald of Andraste.”

I could tell by the way her hazel eyes slightly widened behind her mask that she instantly realized her mistake. But true to one who had been trained in the art of smoothing ruffled social feathers, she dipped into a very slight and quick curtsy and replied, “My sincerest apologies, Madame. It appears I am unfortunately mistaken regarding your station. I thank you very much for your kind directions. Still,” she paused as she straightened again. “Might I offer a bit of advice?”

No, was my immediate thought. But instead, I replied with fake interest in my tone, “Of course.”

“Do tell your clothiers that the Inquisition will not get very far dressing themselves like dog lords,” she said flatly, before marching towards the door I had indicated, her cloying perfume wafting in her wake.

As she disappeared behind the creaking door and it clanged shut at last, I noticed Maxwell had been silently standing a few paces behind her, and he filled the space that she had just been occupying with a slight smile on his face.

“Charming woman, yes?” was his sardonic remark, olive gaze glittering in the light from the windows.

“Oh yes, positively delightful,” I said sarcastically, rolling my eyes and adding in my best Orlesian accent, “Eenqueezeetoor.”

He snorted. “That’s entirely too accurate, Tamsyn.”

“Well. Maybe I’d do well in Orlais, after all,” I replied with a smirk.

He chuckled, gesturing at my dress. “Apparently only after you stop outfitting yourself like a ‘dog lord,’ though.”

I sighed and looked down at my dress. I honestly didn’t think it looked that bad, even if it would naturally be the subject of Orlesian scorn. And it had been made by Mistress Ferguson…or at the very least, on her orders. So it had sentimental value, if nothing else…

“Walk with me?” Maxwell suddenly asked after a moment, to which I nodded in agreement, curious as to what he wanted to talk about.

Fortuitously, he began heading in the exact same direction I had been going before I was intercepted by the Orlesian noblewoman. As we went, I noticed Maxwell had yet to change into anything as comfortable as what I wore now, instead remaining in his basic scale-mail coat. It clinked lightly with each step, the scales flashing in the torchlight. Perhaps he was like Cullen and more comfortable in armor than anything else.

When we finally stopped, it was along the small walkway overlooking the future garden, in front of the bedrooms Josephine had assigned us. For now, the garden was overgrown and full of shrubbery and crumbling stone, and so there wasn’t much to see. And yet the Inquisitor looked out over the small courtyard anyway, his distant eyes obviously focused on things not really out there in the brush, but instead inside his own head.

Inquisitor Trevelyan,” he said slowly, mulling over the words as he put his hands on the wall. “I wanted to ask you, Tamsyn…did you have anything to do with that?”

I leaned against the wall beside him, thinking a moment before I answered. “Not really. Well, I confirmed it was the right choice to make, of course,” I amended. “But the other advisors and Cassandra honestly did it all by themselves.” My brow furrowed at him. “Why?”

He took in a breath and shook his head. “I just…never expected myself to ever be put in a position like this,” he said, forcefully sighing out his exhalation. He glanced down at the stone under his gloved fingers. “When Cassandra approached me yesterday, I could never have guessed it was to bestow the mantle of Inquisitor upon me.” He paused, thumb rubbing at a spot on one of the bricks. “I’m not sure how I feel about it all, just yet. They seem convinced I’m the right man for the job, but I’m not so certain. I don’t feel ready for this.”

“Well,” I said after a moment, “you’ve already been doing the job, really. Now you just have the title to go with it. Besides,” I added reassuringly, “that little speech you gave wasn’t bad at all for your first. You’ve got everyone behind you, that’s for sure.”

He chuckled lightly, one corner of his mouth turning upwards and the corner of his eye wrinkling. “So I’ve been told. Still, with that title, the weight of responsibility feels even greater than it did before. Before, I was just another agent of the Inquisition, despite the fact I was the only one with the means to close the rifts and the Breach.” He shook his head again, “Now, I’m the leader and figurehead…the one everyone in the world imagines when they speak of the Inquisition.”

I glanced over the tall trees in the messy courtyard. “I’ll be honest…it will make things easier. But it will also make things harder, too. You’re still the one going out there and poking around for clues. Inquisitioning, as it were. But you’re also the one with the biggest target on your back, and not just because you’re the Herald anymore.”

He smirked. “I’m apparently also charged with keeping my allies from ripping out each other’s throats on top of everything else. They’re looking to me to solve their personal problems, now.”

I cocked my head curiously. “Has Cassandra pounced on Varric, yet?”

He chuckled again. “Ohhhhh, yes. The dwarf now has quite the shiner as a trophy, I’m afraid. I sent him to the healers to get patched up just before I came back to the keep.”

I winced. I couldn’t imagine how it felt to be punched by the Seeker. “Oh, dear. I suppose he didn’t take that well.”

“Not at all,” Maxwell said. “And she didn’t take well to being deceived for the past year.” He paused for a moment, and then asked, “Any advice on how to mend that situation, by the way? Beyond keeping those two sequestered in their own regions of the castle for the foreseeable future?”

I shrugged and shook my head. “Just give them some time. They’ll work it out. And, uh, keep an eye on Cassandra. Take note of her hobbies,” I said with a wink. “That might just give you an idea on how to fix things.”

“Her hobbies?” Maxwell’s brow rose skeptically, “She has hobbies?”

I snorted. “Yes, Inquisitor, Cassandra has hobbies. She does do things other than beat the stuffing out of practice dummies, despite evidence to the contrary.” I grinned. “Just don’t make fun of her when you find out what one of her favorite hobbies is.”

He looked abashed. “I would never.”

“Good,” I said, giving him a wry smile. “Wouldn’t want to end up with a shiner like Varric’s, would you?”

“Most certainly not.”

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It wasn’t long after Maxwell departed for the main hall again that I returned to my room. But as soon as I opened the door, I saw Lea there, folding some rags atop the dresser, and…

I gasped as the door shut behind me. There was a tub in the middle of the floor, lined with cloth and full of steaming water. It wasn’t as big as the one I had at my cabin in Haven, but it was a bathing tub, nonetheless.

“Oh! You’re here!” Lea said as she glanced over her shoulder at me. “And here I was just about to fetch you.” She finished her folding and turned around fully, gesturing at the tub. “Well, you already know now, of course, but I managed to pull a bath together for you. I know how much you enjoy them after a long day, and figured you deserved a little respite since we’ve finally settled down here.”

“Lea, you absolute dear,” I said, rushing over to her and hugging her tightly, making her squeak in surprise. I just as quickly released her, my wide eyes fixed on the water. “How did you manage to get this? And how did you get it all the way in here without spilling it?”

She grinned devilishly, leaning forward and whispering as though she had done something truly terrible. Or illegal. “I stole one of the washtubs that came in on a supply wagon from one of the nearby camps. I filled it at the pump myself and had a couple of the off-duty soldiers carry it for me. The clumsy louts nearly dropped it at the landing in the hall, but they finally got it here.”

I grinned back. “Thank you so much. I’d better use it right away before the water gets cold.”

She nodded, collecting a rag, tucking it into her belt, and then heading for the door. “Excellent. I’ll be on my way, then. Back to the kitchen…for something the Ambassador is planning, I think. Maker knows there’s certainly no shortage of things to do around there.”

“Just promise me something,” I said suddenly, stopping her.

“Oh?” she turned back. “What’s that?”

I pointed at the tub. “Once I’m done, you’ll have it taken back to the pump and filled for you, too?”

She smiled wickedly again. “I was already planning on it. If you hurry, I can squeeze it in before Wicked Grace this evening. And then maybe we can both go to the game without feeling like filthy nugs.”

She then turned to leave once more, but when she reached the door and took hold of the handle, she stopped and added hastily, “Oh, I almost forgot…I took the liberty of unpacking your things and organizing them in the dresser for you.” She pointed at the ancient furniture that adorned the far corner. “I’ll admit, it’s a bit stuffed at the moment, but it’ll have to do until we get more furniture in here.”

“Thank you, Lea,” I said, surprised at how much she was taking upon herself. “I really do appreciate it.”

“Of course, Tamsyn. Enjoy your bath.”

As soon as the door clicked shut, I began stripping down, tossing my clothes into a pile on the floor. Dipping one foot into the linen-lined tub, I audibly sighed my contentment when the warm water enveloped it.

It’s going to be so difficult to hurry, I thought.

As I sank fully into the soothing water, leaning backwards into the wood, I noticed that all my personal bath items had already been conveniently laid out on a cloth on the floor within arm’s reach. Smiling at Lea’s thoughtfulness, I quickly got to work taking care of my hygiene – washing my hair, bathing and shaving. Though my soap sadly had little to no scent, it made a thick lather that cleaned quickly, and I was thankful to still have it. Shaving had also become much easier than when I had first begun using the dangerous little razor I’d been given, and I managed to shave both my legs and my underarms with no incidents. A little rawness, maybe, but no cuts. I just had to be careful and steady.

Finally feeling like a civilized human being for the first time in days, I reluctantly got out of the cooling bathwater and dried off with a towel Lea had left for me, wrapping my hair up in it when I was done so I could dress myself without the wet locks sticking to my skin. I had just finished putting my underclothes back on when a sudden knock came upon my door, and someone slid a piece of parchment through the gap between it and the floor.

“Message,” the voice called, and then I heard the courier’s footsteps fade away as they returned back the way they had come.

Brow furrowing, I reached down and took the paper in hand, recognizing the golden wax key seal as Josie’s. Breaking it and unfolding the paper, I read the Ambassador’s neat penmanship.

Lady Tamsyn,

You are cordially invited to a small dinner in my office this evening at six of the bells. I do hope to see you there.

Sincerely,

Ambassador Josephine Montilyet

I shook my head as I smiled. Josephine was still ridiculously formal, even with well-known associates. And what was this ‘six of the bells’? We didn’t even have a working clock or a Chantry belltower here. How in the world was she estimating time? I glanced at the window. Judging from the color of the sky and the angle of the sunlight streaming through the glass, there was, perhaps, only an hour left until approximate time she had in mind.

Sighing, I refolded the paper and set it atop the dresser, beside which lay what remained of my supply of parchment, my books, and my quill-and-ink. I then searched through the drawers to find where exactly Lea had put everything. There were six drawers in total, three on each side. In the top left, she had put my breastplate and weapons; below that, she had neatly folded my tunic and green breeches, along with my belts and old leather bracers; and the bottom left drawer held my spare blanket. In the top right, she had put all my spare rags I used for feminine hygiene, as well as my bandages, poultices, and potions; below that, she stored my empty bags; and the bottom drawer was unused. My nightgown she had draped across my bed, which she had also straightened up in my absence.

Wondering what precisely to wear to Josie’s little dinner, I ultimately decided to swap my dress for my unworn tunic and woolen breeches. The latter were, similarly to my uniform trousers, quite form-fitting, and so they easily tucked into my knee-high boots. The brown linen tunic, though rather loose and reaching over halfway down my thighs, actually fit rather well once I cinched it at the waist with the broad leather belt Harding had given me. Overtop the cuffs of the loose sleeves, I secured the leather bracers, and though I didn’t have a mirror in my room yet, it seemed to be a rather smart-looking outfit, the shades of brown with the splash of dark green complimenting both each other and my hair color. It certainly showed off my figure better than the dress and surcoat, average as it was; it was even tighter than my uniform.

Like the collar of my old oversized tunic, this one was lace-up, too, and I self-consciously pulled at the strings until the V of skin below my throat wasn’t visible at all, tying them off with a loose bow. My hair still damp, I brushed it out and pulled it back into a tight ponytail with the hairband I now wore as a bracelet. It was a miracle I hadn’t lost or broken it yet. Along with my underwear, it was the only convenience of my old life I had left, and as I smoothed my hair and adjusted the band at the base of the ponytail, I briefly wondered which I would lose first…

I really could use a mirror, I thought as I looked down at myself, twisting around to see my backside and making sure the tail of my tunic wasn’t stuck higher than the front or something equally as embarrassing. I fidgeted with my collar and sleeves and hem a few more times, and then, sighing again, proceeded to return to the main hall for this dinner the Ambassador had conjured.

Better early than late, after all.

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“Ah! There you are, Tamsyn. Please, have a seat!”

Josephine greeted me cheerfully when she finally entered her office, and I noticed Leliana and Cullen were both with her. I had been waiting there in the empty office for perhaps fifteen minutes, leaning against the wall. The fire had been recently stoked and was roaring in the hearth, casting long shadows against the dark stone. Another rickety table had been pushed up to the Ambassador’s makeshift desk, and four chairs had been arranged around them, creating a larger area for us to sit around. The tables were, unfortunately, of two different heights, and the candlesticks that had been placed on either end were mismatched, one of pewter and the other of brass.

Bless her, she was trying so hard.

Cullen and Leliana passed me with polite nods and took their places on either side of the higher table on the farthest end, while Josephine and I seated ourselves at the shorter one. That put me beside Leliana on the outside edge, near the hall, while Josie and Cullen had their backs to the wall behind the desk, the Ambassador sitting directly across from me. Once we were settled, she nodded to someone who had apparently stopped behind me, and I suddenly saw a wooden plate full of food being set in front of me with a simple wooden fork on the side.

“Oh! Well, this is…” Leliana trailed as she examined the meal set before her. Cullen raised his brows when his own dish was put in front of him, but Josie was all smiles.

It was ram. And potatoes. And apples. The exact same thing we’d been eating the last few days. But the ram was chopped and salted, the potatoes were mashed with meat juices poured over them like gravy, and the apples appeared to have been caramelized and turned into something akin to applesauce. I looked up and exchanged silent glances with Leliana as the serving woman poured us each pewter mugs full of water, and I could have sworn I saw the Nightingale trying desperately to suppress her laughter.

Yes, Josie was trying so very hard.

“Enjoy your meal!” said the serving woman in a jovial tone before she finally slipped from the room, the door creaking behind her and then leaving us in silence.

“This is lovely, Ambassador,” I finally said with a grin and a nod of appreciation, taking my fork in hand.

“Yes, thank you,” Cullen added, removing his vambraces with the slight clink and rattle of buckles and setting them beside his mug. “It is apparent you spent a great deal of effort arranging this for us.”

At that, Leliana finally burst out laughing, slapping her gauntleted hand to her mouth.

Josephine scowled at the spymaster. “Leliana,” she said, the final syllable of the Nightingale’s name coming out almost like a child’s whiny protestation. It was accompanied by the Ambassador not so subtly kicking at Leliana’s armored shin under the table. I glanced Cullen’s way to see his firelit amber eyes gradually widening as they flicked between the two women. Judging from the way he was slightly leaning away from the Ambassador, it seemed he was trying to decide whether or not he should vacate the premises before things escalated further.

“I’m sorry,” Leliana finally managed to say as she desperately tried to compose herself. “It’s just…”

“I understand that it is the same thing we have been…forced to consume in recent days,” Josephine replied slowly, obviously trying her best to use tactful words. Maxwell had been right. “But I am trying to make it some semblance of adequate. Besides,” she added, straightening her sleeves and picking up her own fork, “I thought our first attempt at a formal dinner would be a pleasant way to catch up with each other. To discuss how we are settling in and how we plan to proceed. Perhaps even relax and enjoy ourselves for the first time since running for our lives only days ago,” she emphasized with a sharp glare at Leliana.

“Such a sentiment is much appreciated, Lady Ambassador,” Cullen reassured her, no doubt attempting to smooth her ruffled feathers. “Regardless of the fare.”

“He’s right,” I said, stabbing into the meat on my plate. “That we have the luxury of having a dinner like this, no matter the food, is a blessing.”

At that, there were nods and words of agreement all around. We tucked in silently, then, mostly keeping our eyes on our own plates, and we were halfway through our meals before Leliana looked up questioningly.

“Where is the Inquisitor, by the way? Did you not invite him?”

Josephine sighed, sipping from her mug. “I did, but he said he was busy making plans for the outing to Crestwood and could not attend.”

“Speaking of which,” Cullen said, glancing sideways at the Ambassador, “what is he going to do about mounts? In order to reach Crestwood in a timely fashion, I mean. We lost almost all of our horses in the landslide at Haven.”

I paused with the last forkful of potatoes in my mouth, wincing at the memory and the implication of how the animals had perished. I had conveniently forgotten about that part. We had a good number of steeds in those stables already, along with many of our hunting hounds in their kennels. No doubt the loose war dogs and mabari had been lost, too. There was no way they could have outrun that avalanche.

Josephine smiled, “I took the liberty of obtaining several of the carts and their horses from the caravans that have arrived in the past few days. I offered the merchants and drivers employment here at the castle as compensation, and so there was no longer need for either wagons or anything to pull them. Still,” she sighed, glancing back at her plate, “they are poor mounts for soldiers and scouting parties.”

After a moment, though, she added, “Thankfully, I received word today from Master Dennet that he and his best horses are on their way to Skyhold. Your Corporal Vale assured me in an accompanying message that they are under safe escort, and they should be here in the next few days. He has said that the upper tier of the Inquisition will have first pick from his stock.”

“Excellent,” Cullen replied.

My heart skipped a little in excitement. “Upper tier” meant me, too, I reminded myself. I could finally have a horse of my very own! I felt like a little girl again, very nearly squealing on the inside with giddy anticipation.

But then, after a moment, I realized that it was foolish for me to feel that way. I couldn’t ride, and there was no point in me having a horse when I couldn’t use it – it would be taking up a resource someone else needed, and with everything spread so thin, I couldn’t justify doing something like that because of my own selfishness.

And so, I crushed my own hopes.

Trying my best to hide any disappointment in my tone, I casually scooped some apple onto my fork and said, “I’m afraid I’ll have to pass on that opportunity, Ambassador.”

What?” All three advisors looked at me as though I had three heads. Of course they would think I was nuts. What person in their right mind would pass up on not just the famed horses of Master Dennet, but the very best of those famed horses, to boot?

I suddenly paused with my fork midway to my mouth. “I…” I hesitated, trying to find the words as I slowly lowered the fork again. “Well, I mean…there’s no point, really.” I laughed a bit nervously, though I wasn’t sure why. “I, uh…I can’t ride.”

Leliana glanced to Cullen, and the latter’s brow furrowed inquisitively. “ ‘Can’t’ as in ‘don’t know how’?”

I nodded silently, leaning back in my chair and feeling a little ashamed at the confession. Transportation in Thedas was limited to foot travel, horseback, wagon or carriage, and ships. If one was landlocked, only the first three were an option, and unless one was noble or a farmer, the third option was highly unlikely. That restricted most people to foot travel and horseback, and unless one wanted to take hours or even days longer than was necessary to get from one place to another, knowing how to ride was essential, even if it was just a mule or an old cart horse. This applied to virtually everyone except perhaps alienage elves, dwarves, and privileged nobility in cities like Val Royeaux. Comparatively, I was woefully ignorant, and it meant that I could not travel without aid.

Feeling the need to explain, I clarified hastily, “We did have horses where I’m from. I was just never taught how to ride. They were…luxuries, of a sort. Very expensive to maintain. They were mostly for the wealthy to hunt or race or compete with, or for cattle ranchers who required them for work. None of which was me.” I shrugged and gave a nervous smile, “I mean, the little girl in me always wanted a pony, but…I just resigned myself to it being a silly dream. I never needed one for my day-to-day life, and my family never could afford one, so…” I trailed off, unsure of what else to say.

“I am sorry, Tamsyn,” Josephine apologized, exchanging looks with Cullen. “We do not mean to judge you for your circumstances or your lack of knowledge on the subject.”

“Of course not,” the Nightingale affirmed. “Although this does present a bit of a problem.”

“I could remedy that,” Cullen said suddenly, leaning forward a little. I felt my mouth drop open in response. He was volunteering to teach me? Personally?

Leliana smiled slyly and nodded at him. “Yes, this does seem like something in your purview, Commander.”

“A matter of security, of course,” Josephine agreed, peering at me over the rim of her mug as she sipped at her water again.

There was a little flop in my stomach as I registered the looks on both Leliana and Josephine’s faces.

I’m in trouble…

I was fully aware of my dumb gaping at Cullen, but for what seemed like the longest and most embarrassing moment, I couldn’t make myself say anything in response. When I at last spoke, it was with a feeble and halting, “You-you’re offering to teach…me?”

His smile was one of gentle amusement. “If that is something you want.”

“Oh no, Commander,” Leliana corrected with a shake of her head. “It’s something she needs. If not you, then someone else will have to teach her. She cannot go with this skill unlearned.” At that, she lifted her eyebrow and looked at me pointedly.

“I did until now,” I protested, though I was unsure as to why I was doing so. Wasn’t this something I had always wanted?

“Yes, but you never had a need to go anywhere outside our base,” Cullen replied. “That could change. And you need to be prepared for such a change, should it occur.”

I suddenly felt rather small under the heaviness of their gazes. “And you’re sure it won’t be any trouble, Commander?” I asked, knowing I would feel immensely guilty if I found out I was taking up precious time because of my ignorance.

“Not at all,” he said with a soft chuckle. “I’ll be teaching you how to ride, not how to fight on horseback. It won’t take many sessions for you to learn the basics, and those are the most important right now.” He shifted in his seat, armor clinking slightly. “Besides, recruitment numbers are currently rather low, and so there’s no better time than the present. Once we establish recruiters in more settlements and spread word of our move to Skyhold, I will be increasingly occupied with training and logistics.”

“Oh,” I said quietly, realizing that I really had little choice in the matter, now. “All right. Thank you.”

He nodded. “We’ll begin as soon as Dennet’s mounts arrive, then.”

At that, the conversation blessedly turned from me and back to recruitment opportunities, relief measures, and other shipments on track to be delivered to Skyhold, and so I let myself slip into silence, concentrating on finishing my food before it got cold. But I couldn’t focus on the sweet taste of the caramelized apples on my tongue for the thoughts screaming in my head.

Cullen is going to teach me how to ride a horse. Cullen Stanton Rutherford is real and is going to teach me how to ride a real horse. Dear God, if someone pinches me and I wake up and find out this all really was a dream, I’m going to be so pissed off…

I pushed my plate back when it was finally clean, taking a rather large and unlady-like gulp of water while trying to refocus on the chatter between the other advisors. It seemed that the perfumed lady in blue who had so kindly advised me about my attire had been one Comtesse de la Forte, and she had just recently lost one of her country estates to the conflicts between the Freemen of the Dales and the participating members of the War of the Lions. She had donated any salvageable furniture and supplies within to the Inquisition, on the promise that peace would be brought to the region so that she and her family would eventually be able to rebuild their lost summer home.

“Though I am certain these Freemen may pose a threat to the Inquisition at some point, for now, I am pleased to simply focus on a task as simple as retrieving furnishings,” Josephine remarked. “It is something of a relief after that dangerous retreat from Haven.”

“The dangerous retreat that took place all of five days ago,” Cullen reminded, his eyes drifting downwards as he rubbed a temple with two fingers.

Five days. Just five days. It felt like a year had passed since then. It was a testament to how quickly the Inquisition was moving…how we were all forcing each other to keep going forward, no matter how weary we were.

“How is everyone faring?” Leliana asked, her tone gentler than I had heard come from her in some time.

Josephine sighed in response. “Well enough, I suppose. I still have terrible dreams of that night, but…” she trailed, glancing down at her lap. “I will recover. There are some who were not so lucky.” Pausing, she looked back up at the Nightingale. “You?”

“I am well,” Leliana agreed simply, turning to Cullen. “What about you, Commander?”

“I will admit, the days have been long since our retreat from Haven, but ultimately, I must agree,” he replied. “I am well enough.”

“And our forces?”

He, too, sighed. “I won’t lie. Our soldiers were dispirited shortly following Corypheus’s assault. But after Trevelyan’s coronation, they have gained a new sense of purpose. They are eager to bring the fight to our enemies, but I’m afraid we’re not yet ready to take on our true foes. We don’t have the numbers or the skills for that, right now. Until then, we’ll need to keep our forces occupied and focused in their efforts, or we risk losing their enthusiasm…and with it their morale.”

At that, Leliana turned to me. “And what about you, Tamsyn? You may have known all of this was coming, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t suffered your own personal trauma, or that it is somehow less severe.”

“Yes,” Josephine added, meeting my gaze. “The Commander told us the attack on Haven was your first experience in personal combat. I know such things can be…haunting.” She cocked her head at me, leaning forward a little as she asked, “Are you well?”

I huffed out a breath, looking down at my plate. “I…actually have been able to put the whole thing behind me faster than I expected.” Probably because I can’t dream about it, I thought. “Honestly, I’m not sure if that is a good or a bad thing.”

“I’d say being able to move on so quickly is a good thing,” Leliana observed.

“Though you fought well,” Cullen added, “let us hope it is the only time you are forced to do so.”

“Oh, she fought well?” Leliana’s brows rose at Cullen’s choice of words. “That seems high praise, coming from you, Commander. Do tell. Perhaps we can use such a story of valor to our advantage.”

His brow furrowed. “It was when she slew her trainer’s killers. I don’t imagine it’s a tale she would like to revisit so soon.”

I shook my head. “It’s…fine. Besides, it was a stupid thing to do. Delia was already dead. I couldn’t save her. I let myself give in to emotion and nearly died as a result. And I put your life at risk, too,” I added, pressing my lips together as I looked at Cullen.

He smirked, “I said you fought well, not that you fought with a level head. Your maneuvers were performed with precision, even if you did foolishly throw yourself into further danger in the process.”

“Wait, you nearly died and put the Commander at risk, as well?” Josephine repeated incredulously, turning to Cullen for clarification. “You never told us that part!”

“No, you didn’t,” Leliana added, her brows arching high as she glanced between Cullen and me. “We had no idea the incident was so dire. We could barely see anything from the Chantry for all the fires and the smoke…What happened with the two of you?”

“Oh, it was rather dramatic, actually,” I said, feeling a sudden urge to take advantage of this little opportunity to both tease Cullen and stroke his ego a bit. Too, it was obvious the two women wanted to hear a story of derring-do from the attack in order to use it as Inquisition propaganda, and I was more than willing to give it to them. “In fact, you can’t get as dramatic as what happened in that instant in the best Orlesian theatre.”

“Oh, Maker,” Cullen cursed, putting his head in his hand, “It was not that-”

Hush. Yes it was,” I interrupted, casting a wicked grin his way as Leliana and Josephine gave me their undivided attention. “Like I said, I was a bit idiotic. I gave in to blind rage after seeing the Corporal fall to two Venatori while she was trying to protect a pair of wounded soldiers. I have no idea what came over me, and at the time, I didn’t care about anything other than seeing those bastards dead. The Commander is right; it was foolish. But in that moment, all I wanted was vengeance, and so I took it.”

“You singlehandedly slew the two Venatori who murdered the Corporal,” Leliana supplied.

“Yes. But I stupidly neglected to pay attention to my surroundings, and there was a Red Templar quickly bearing down on me without me ever being aware.”

Josephine put her hand to her mouth with a soft gasp, her eyes widening.

“I thought I heard someone calling my name, but I wasn’t sure where it was coming from,” I continued, glancing at Cullen, who had closed his eyes with his head still in his hand – from embarrassment or reliving the memory, I wasn’t sure. “And then I felt something hit me, really hard. I took a tumble…and when I looked up, I saw the Commander’s boots in my face. There he was, standing over me while this hulking red lyrium monstrosity charged both of us.”

“He knocked you to the ground,” Leliana said with a chuckle. “What a gentleman.”

“Oh, my!” Josephine breathed, her eyes still wide as she propped her elbows on the table and her chin atop her hands. “What happened then?”

Cullen groaned, but I ignored it.

“Well, he tried to get his shield up, but the Red Templar was too fast. He took a hit in the chest that sounded like a whipcrack and went flying backwards into some crates. Splinters exploded everywhere.”

“So that’s how he got that wound,” Leliana remarked, glancing at Josephine.

“I did not fly,” Cullen retorted, his golden eyes glaring as he finally looked back up at me.

“You flew,” I repeated defiantly. “You were tossed clean off your feet, I saw you.”

“And then?” Josephine was practically demanding at this point.

“So there was the Red Templar, trying to go after the Commander. I had no idea what to do…I was frozen in place with fear. And then, all of a sudden, I see this flash of silver, and the thing goes reeling backwards,” I said, snapping my fingers to emphasize the quickness of the throwing knives. “I look and I realize there’s a dagger suddenly sticking out of the Templar’s chest, buried up to the hilt. I glance back to the pile of broken crates and what do I see? The Commander rising back to his feet like a phoenix from the ashes and throwing another dagger, buying himself more time.”

“Very nice, Commander,” Leliana nodded her appreciation of such a maneuver at Cullen.

“Oh, that is rather dashing,” Josephine remarked, casting the Commander a smile.

“Of course, Vivienne and Solas finished the Templar off themselves after that,” I said, concluding the tale. “But regardless…the Commander did save my life. In a rather courageous fashion, I might add.”

Heroic,” Josephine amended. “He not only put himself between you and harm’s way, but he also fully took the punishment of a strike meant for you.”

“Like something out of books,” I agreed, grinning at Cullen, whose ears were turning pink.

“Yes!” Josephine said excitedly, almost bouncing in her chair. “It is the stuff of romantic legends! And I am most certainly writing it down for circulation amongst the masses. With that, and the tales of the Herald’s deeds, they will come flocking to our recruiters…”

“You’re joking!” Cullen protested. “You can’t-”

“I’m not, and I most certainly can, Commander,” Josephine retorted sharply, meeting his gaze fearlessly. “Try to stop me, and I’ll add more embellishments.”

His mouth dropped open. “‘More’? You’re already planning on embellishing it?”

“And why not?” Leliana asked, eyes twinkling with mischief. “We know the truth, and that is enough, no?”

Cullen smacked his hand to his forehead and groaned again.

“Andraste preserve me. Tamsyn, what in the Maker’s name have you done?”

Chapter Text

When we finished at last with Josephine’s little dinner and couldn’t legitimately put off other duties any longer, we began to clean and straighten her office so that the Ambassador could continue her work that evening in a neat and orderly environment. Cullen readjusted the tables, Leliana and I the chairs, and Josephine herself took the dishes in hand to return to the kitchens; she wanted to offer her own personal thanks to the staff for doing their best with so little, and the rest of us asked her to pass along our gratitude as well. The Lady Ambassador then disappeared into the throne room in a graceful swirl of shimmering gold, and the Nightingale just as quickly vanished down the hall to the War Room, mentioning something about checking on her agents’ positioning near Crestwood before going back to her rookery.

Thus, rather suddenly, Cullen and I were left alone together. Again.

It’s almost like they planned it, I thought, unable to prevent myself from growing a little suspicious of the two women…

“I’m honestly hoping they’re bluffing about spreading that tale,” Cullen muttered after a moment, breaking me out of my thoughts. He bumped his hip into the newest table to make sure it was flush with the throne-room-side wall, the wood’s sharp whine against the stone loud enough to make me wince in discomfort. The construction work in the keep had long ceased for the day, and so the quiet that followed was almost deafening.

I couldn’t help but chuckle a little at his words, the sound echoing in the relatively empty room. “I’m almost certain they’re not. But even if they do exaggerate it a bit,” I said, crossing my arms atop my chest, “the base act is still the same. You put yourself in danger to save my life.” I paused, meeting his eyes even as doing so made butterflies flutter faintly in my stomach. “Regardless of how you see it, that’s nothing short of heroic, Cul-Commander.”

Stay professional, I reminded myself, although it was increasingly difficult for me to keep from addressing him by his name, for some reason.

Cullen was silent for a moment, glancing towards the hearth, his throat visibly bobbing as he swallowed. I watched, seemingly unable to tear my gaze away from his eyes, even with his face turned slightly away from me. I marveled at how reactive his irises were to lighting; sunlight and bright candlelight pulled the golden rays to the forefront, and shadow softened them to a deep and dark honey, but it was flickering flame that brought out that selfsame fire in his eyes – that warm amber hue that made it difficult to breathe…

He hissed out a sigh and shook his head, briefly letting his eyelids slide shut and breaking the spell his gaze had put me under. “Twisting my deeds into histrionics to lure people to us-”

“-isn’t that much different than Chantry tales inspiring young children to join the Templars,” I finished, raising my eyebrows at him.

His eyes narrowed as he returned his gaze to me, and his lips thinned. “Precisely. And neither informs the potential recruit of the true danger involved,” he said, his tone laced with bitterness as it dropped into a near growl. “Romanticizing feats of arms may make for valuable entertainment, but it also leads well-intentioned fools to their doom.”

He wasn’t just talking about potential Inquisition recruits, either. He was talking about himself, too.

Damn.

I was silent for a moment at that, the only other sound the crackling of the fire in the hearth and the slight clinking of Cullen’s armor as he shifted his weight. My eyes drifted from him to the flames, and then back again as I thought about his words. He had a point, of course. He didn’t want recruits into the Inquisition who weren’t fully aware of what they were getting themselves into, and Leliana and Josephine’s plans obviously were in conflict with that desire.

At last, I sighed and shrugged. “Well…regardless of what the Ambassador and Spymaster decide to do with that story, I told it because someone needed to hear it. I never properly thanked you for saving me, and it warranted recognition.”

The hard angles of his face seemed to soften a little at that. Pausing, I glanced down at my toes and added, “Remember what you said earlier? What you told me to contemplate?”

“Yes,” he said, his tone quieter. “Why?”

“I…don’t have to think about it, really,” I answered, looking back up at him. “I know why I thought you shouldn’t have saved me. And even though I know you told me I didn’t have to share…I think I want to.” I took a breath. “It’s because I thought I wasn’t worthy of being saved. I…didn’t make the right choices at Haven. I didn’t act soon enough. Delia died with so many others, and I honestly thought it was my fault. And…” I paused, feeling a lump of emotion form in my throat. “I thought if I was so stupid that I couldn’t do the right thing, then…then maybe I deserved that Red Templar’s strike.”

Silence stretched between us again, and it was heavier, this time. It felt like a weight on my shoulders, pressing me down into the stone beneath my feet. Cullen shifted again, draping his hands atop the pommel of his sword, as he had a habit of doing.

“I know,” he said finally.

My brow furrowed in confusion. “Uh…what? I mean…what do you mean, ‘I know’? How did you…?”

A flicker of a wry smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, and there was a flash in his firelit eyes. “I knew exactly why you said what you did. I knew the moment you said it five days ago. I just wondered if you were fully aware of the reason, yourself. And if you weren’t, then I wanted you to come to that realization, so you could face it.”

I felt my mouth open, and then closed again. And then everything just…clicked.

Of course he knew. Of course he understood. Cullen Rutherford knew all too well the feeling of being unworthy of a second chance…the guilt of not acting sooner. He knew exactly how I felt, and he had wanted me to confront those feelings head-on…to recognize that I truly hadn’t wished I’d been left for dead. That instead, I merely wondered why someone else thought I was worthy of being redeemed when I knew I had failed so miserably.

Had he forgiven me, in his own way?

Suddenly, I jumped as the door to the main hall creaked open, and Lea’s head poked through. Her large eyes flicked between Cullen and me, and she asked tentatively, “Oh…I’m sorry. Am I interrupting anything?”

“Oh, nothing that important,” I said, sparing a glance to Cullen. “What is it?”

“Well,” she said with a brief grin and nod to the Commander. “I just wanted to let you know the game starts soon, if you’re coming. It’s near the building they’re fixing up as a tavern.”

I had nearly forgotten about Varric’s Wicked Grace match. “Oh, right! I’ll be there in a minute!”

She nodded again in understanding and ducked back out, closing the door behind her.

“Well, it, um… it looks like I have a game to get to,” I said with an awkward chuckle. The transition from solemnity to levity was rather abrupt, and the interruption in our conversation was difficult to smooth over.

“And I should be returning to the barracks tower,” Cullen replied. “Although,” he took a stride or two nearer. “Since we seem to be heading in the same direction, perhaps you would allow me…?” he trailed his question, dropping his nearest hand from his sword and proffering his crooked elbow.

He was offering to escort me to the game.

Heat bloomed in my neck and cheeks, and I knew I was blushing fiercely, most likely visible even in the light of Josie’s hearth. Bitter or not, jaded or not, it seemed nothing could take the chivalric and gentlemanly nature out of Cullen Rutherford. And just like I had used that nature to flatter him pink during dinner, I firmly believed he was now using it to turn those tables on me.

“I would be honored, Ser Rutherford,” I managed to reply at length, miraculously without stuttering. I bowed a little at the waist, then slipped my hand into the interior bend of his arm, noting the feel of supple leather beneath my fingers - part of the quilted gambeson he wore.  And yet, despite the thickness of those layers, I could still detect the flex of muscle beneath them as we began walking together through the door and into the hall.

We walked in silence for a few moments, heading for the entrance to the keep, and I noted there was no one else in the throne room now save us. We skirted around the scaffolding, eventually emerging in the evening air, our breath leaving us in misty clouds, even with Skyhold’s warmer microclimate. My footsteps were quiet in comparison to Cullen’s, whose strides were punctuated with the usual jingle of chain and the rhythmic clack of his scabbard on his belt, which became more pronounced as we descended the keep stairs. In the distance, near the ruins of the future Herald’s Rest, I could see a gathering of people coalescing around barrels and crates and old tables, backlit by a roaring bonfire, and I thought I spied Varric in their midst.

I had just politely slipped from Cullen’s side, opening my mouth to offer a few parting words, when Hawke emerged from the shadows near the prison and began sauntering towards us. Both Cullen and I stopped in our tracks, and the Commander shook his head as the Champion neared.

“Why is it no surprise to see you in the midst of all this chaos, Hawke?” Cullen’s voice came out in a low, rasping growl that set the hairs on the back of my neck on end.

“The same reason it’s no surprise to see you in the midst of a bunch of religious fanatics,” Garrett quipped back with equal contempt.

I tensed, glancing between the two men, unsure of how this situation was going to resolve itself. I looked back at the group gathered for cards, and Varric met my eyes, but merely grinned at me, seemingly oblivious to the brewing hostility between Cullen and Garrett…

But then, suddenly, the two men broke out into broad smiles, taking easy strides towards each other, reaching out, and clapping their forearms together with the sharp sound of metal striking metal. They grasped each other’s arms with a firm shake, and as they did so, relief flooded me. Sighing, I allowed myself to smile too. They were on good terms after all.

“It’s good to see you again, Knight-Captain,” Hawke said with a slight inclination of his head.

“And you, Champion,” Cullen replied, nodding as he pulled back. “Though, I no longer go by that title. I know it’s probably difficult for you to believe, but I left the Order for good when Seeker Cassandra recruited me into the Inquisition.”

“Honestly, I don’t use mine much anymore, myself, so I understand,” Garrett chuckled. “And as for your leaving the Templars, Varric told me about that in one of his letters. Something along the lines of ‘the world is coming to an end,’ I think was what he said. And it seems he wasn’t far off the mark,” he shook his head, briefly glancing towards the dwarf and his company in the distance. “But in all seriousness, I think it’s a good thing you did, considering how the rest of your former fellows seem to have gone utterly bonkers.”

“Yes,” Cullen said, shaking his head slowly as he rubbed the back of his neck. “First the rebellion, then the red lyrium…Maker, as if things couldn’t get any worse than they already were.”

Hawke crossed his arms. “You’d have thought what happened to Meredith would have been a warning sign. Last I checked, any sane person would see getting turned into a statue by the stuff as a massive deterrent.”

Cullen laughed mirthlessly, his hand dropping to his side. “Apparently not. From our sources, we’ve gotten word they’re not just using it to empower their weapons. They’re imbibing it like regular lyrium, and in higher dosages.”

Hawke visibly shuddered. “Andraste’s tits,” he cursed, then added, “Varric told me some Templars were persuaded from the rebel ranks and joined the Inquisition. Do you think they were headed down that road, too?”

“Now that we know who is behind the spread of the red lyrium from Kirkwall, without a doubt,” Cullen answered. “They were all meant to be mindless soldiers for this Elder One, commanded by someone you probably remember, Champion.”

“Oh?” Hawke’s eyebrows rose. “And who is that?”

“Samson.” The name came out almost as a snarl.

“Samson?” Garrett repeated, his tone one of incredulity. “As in, the same Samson I helped get off the streets and back into the Order?”

“The very same,” Cullen confirmed. “He is Corypheus’s general, and it is evident he holds the Red Templars under his sway. He was there when the Elder One descended on Haven. I thought I recognized him,” the Commander gestured to me, “and Tamsyn confirmed it.”

The Champion whistled. “Now that is something. You know, back in Kirkwall, I never would have imagined you being pitted against him. Commander Cullen versus General Samson…that’s going to make a fine story for the history books.”

I could see Cullen’s lip curling at the thought of more stories. But before he could reply, Varric’s call suddenly echoed across the stone.

“Hawke! Fortune Teller! You coming?” the dwarf waved beyond the throng of attendees.

“Right,” Cullen said at length, glancing between us. “You two have a get-together to attend. I’ll not keep you from it any longer. If you need me, I’ll be in the barracks. Champion, Tamsyn,” he nodded to us before striding off into the darkness past the armory, the shadows quickly swallowing him.

------------------------------------------------------

Ostensibly, most of the people who attended the match that night had done so for the sole purpose of meeting the famed Champion of Kirkwall in person, though I saw several familiar faces and regulars from Haven, besides Lea and Varric. Scout Jim had returned to play several rounds, as had Knight-Captain Rylen, and even the whole of Bull’s Chargers joined in the fun – though not without bemoaning the lack of liquor.

Varric opened the game with a few non-betting rounds to warm everyone up, in which I participated but ultimately lost. Once the betting with real money started, I withdrew to simply observe, knowing if I tried my luck then, it would only result in disaster. Amusingly enough, the minimal amount of coin on