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The Breakers and the Broken

Chapter Text

It’s funny, the way the world works.

A little apocalypse, and everything changes.

One day, I was nobody. A nobody just like most of us. Just a young and wary Dalish apostate traveling the woods and coasts, learning about the animals and herbs. Making up songs and singing them to myself, honing my magic, and wondering if there was a spell that would either tame my hair, calm the waves, allow me to talk to the halla, or that would enable me to call the wind when I sailed my little boat through the rocky shallows.

All I’d cared about then was living life on my own terms and meeting my own internal, if slightly odd, life goals: Becoming more proficient at mage-fighting from horseback because it looked both elegant and badass. Playing with storms and drawing the magic away from the places where it might harm people or animals, and where it would do the most good. Watching the skies. Reading the raindrops. Progressing further down my path as an elemental mage or ala'syl'ise'man'thanelan (yeah, I know, sorry—sometimes Elven really is a bit much sometimes). Staying away from Templars.

Ours was a world that was crueler than ever to mages… especially if you were an apostate… and a woman.

I acknowledged that danger… and prepared myself accordingly. I’d been hurt before, and cruelly, in a forest the previous year, when I’d been captured by three Templars and held for three days before I’d been able to escape.

The result was that I was rabid on protecting myself as an apostate, and especially from Templars. I was in fact nearly obsessive about maintaining distance. And it had warped my trust in men, and the enjoyment I’d always been able to find with them. Suddenly I no longer smiled at the men I met; I froze, instead, a halla in the forest, scenting danger.

It had been a nightmare, one I refused to remember or countenance. But after that, I’d dedicated myself to self-protection, and the result was that I was as good without a staff (or nearly so) as I was with one. Forget the dangers from whispering demons—I was merciless in my control of the magic I possessed and would never allow myself to be hurt in such ways again. I’d risk the demons in return for the power, anyway. Every fucking time.

No one would hurt me that way again. No demon. No liar. No spirit. No man.

The side effect of all of this intensive study afterward was both strange and distinctive, however; suddenly and constantly, I shed sparks, a blue aura, whenever upset or aroused or moved. It was a biological thing, utterly beyond my control. It did not involve Fade energies, a fact confirmed by our clan’s Second. I was simply elementally magical enough that I occasionally sloughed off the excess, typically when my emotions were at their highest. I wasn’t thrilled at the development as it was simply one more way for me to be an open book to others (since my emotions already defined me and I was already a person who preferred action to talk). However, at least the diagnosis stopped people from gathering firewood whenever I was nearby.

Still, even after my mishaps and new talents, even after the incident in the woods the previous year, I was nevertheless less distrustful of shems, non-elves, than most of my clan. I’d learned more about the world from the dwarf merchants and mercenaries I’d met in taverns than I ever had from my careful, cautious Keeper Taerethi, or her Second, a talented healer named Faellin. Even after the incident with the Templars, I’d held onto myself. I’d still believed the world, as damaged as it was in its recovery after the Blight in my childhood, was good.

But here’s where it gets strange… because it’s about memory. And it turns out that my own memory isn’t so reliable anymore these days. There are these gaps. Blank spots. There are moments when I don’t actually know what I did or didn’t do.

Did I hurt people? Others? It’s possible. I don’t think I would do so deliberately, but I can’t know. And I don’t… not yet.

Just thought I’d warn you.

In the meantime, I just want you to understand me, this—that all of this was my life before, and it had been acceptable to me then. Cherished, even. Safe and (of course) unappreciated.

Then suddenly I’d found myself on a mission. I’d agreed to Taerethi’s request to leave my rainy seashores and to go check in on some vague but important thing, a political meeting called “the Conclave” far off in the Frostbacks. Something to do with the Chantry, but even more importantly, that it might stop the devastation and madness of Templar versus mage that was sweeping across Thedas. She hadn’t actually used the word ‘spy’ when referring to my list of tasks, but it had certainly been implied. My clan was nervous, desperate. There was a scent to the air that nobody liked, a feeling of coming doom. They wanted someone willing to watch, to listen, to speak if given the opportunity, and to come back with information. I agreed. My only request in return was that my people try to consider outreach to friendly shemlens. To try to consider diplomacy before arrows.

Mind you, I didn’t much care for people, either—or gatherings. Or (ugh) talking.

Especially those where Templars might be present. But people didn’t scare me, however. I might dislike them but I’d be able to stand up for us. And my increased powers had made me more assured, confident that I could defend myself even against multiple aggressors if I had to. Bring on the shems, I told myself; I would bring them down. If I had to.

But still. I’d hoped I wouldn’t have to.

And maybe, I’d thought, if I went, I could make a difference. Maybe I’d be able to speak to someone, maybe even help make things a little easier for the Dalish, we who lived so often like rabbits, afraid of their own shadows, fleeing from forest to forest, tossed from one suspicious town or village outskirts to the next. I was not a poet, and in fact I was more comfortable fighting than talking, most of the time, but I was willing to use whatever words I could find, to make a case for some kind of mercy.

***

I showed up to the Temple on the appointed day. Despite my own assurances, I felt my stomach catapult when I saw the crowd about the impressive building, and quailed inside. “Shut up,” I told myself. “Stop it right now.”

My body continued to shiver. Like it knew something I didn’t. Which was, by the way, my body’s default setting for everything. My stupid body and my stupid mind disagreed constantly. And my body almost always won.

The Temple was impressive—massive and real, dauntingly monumental. It stood atop a slightly flattened peak in the Frostback Mountains, appearing suddenly in view when I trudged across the last rise. The thin mountain air was clean and icy cold in my mouth, whistling into my lungs as I finished the last ascent. The Temple was subtly terrifying in its size and scope as I regarded it.

I walked to the outskirts and watched, warily, then saw that there was some kind of official cease-fire happening between the mages and Templars, so I walked up boldly, just like the other mages were doing. I strode right into the mix like nothing could touch me, even though my heart pounded, scowling at the Templars who looked at me with their flat, pale eyes. I looked back smiling and blank. Try it, scum, I smiled. Try me, and let me boil your blood in your very veins. I am good at fire. And I will never be taken again.

I sidled past, carefully, trying to hear whatever I could. I talked with a few mages throughout the morning, but no one seemed to be able to say whether the talks would succeed. Evidently Fiona, the Grand Enchanter, had not yet shown up, nor had several Templar leaders. The Divine was here, along with many high-ranking Chantry officials, but I hadn’t seen her yet.

After awhile, I sat myself near the back of the nave, on a bench in the shadows, and watched the interactions around me. It was hard not to dislike what I saw. So much arrogance, the Templars walking as if their armor made them invincible, the mages, meanwhile, just as brazen. As if taunting, as if tired of shackling their magics and eager to set them free. And then the men and women of the Chantry, who seemed to feel their righteousness put them beyond dispute.

Me, I wasn’t sure I liked any of them. They didn’t look much to me like people who were there to listen.

Meanwhile, as the morning went on, I noticed an older woman who seemed to be high up in the Chantry, but she was dressed simply in white, as a Revered Mother of the Church. She was tired, and had visibly sharp yet kind eyes. But she was often besieged in the midst of dozens of people, voices, supplicants, all with many plaintive requests and petitions. After a few hours or so, at last she sent them away. She glanced around herself, as if marveling at her moment alone, yet as I watched her, she wavered, slightly, as if faint. I hurried over to her and offered her my hand.

“Can I get you some water, mother?” I asked. “Here.” I walked her over not far from my previous alcove, to a spot near the Temple’s entrance, but back against the wall, in the shadows and partly blocked by the columns that marched down the length of the temple on either side. I led her to the bench there, and as she sat down with a sigh, a tall thin man saw me helping the woman, and his outrage was so great it was almost comical.

Ma serannas,” said the woman, awkwardly yet with real care, and I stopped, touched at hearing my own language from the lips of a shem. The man I’d seen, meanwhile, was approaching us, glaring at me fiercely as he looked from the woman, to me, and back.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he cried.

“I was afraid she was going to faint,” I said.

“You do not lay hands on the Divine,” he sneered. “Especially not such as you.”

“She was simply doing me a kindness,” said the woman, clearly and calmly. “Now go away and worry about more productive things, Herriol. Make sure we are prepared for the Conclave. Meanwhile, I would like to talk to this young woman alone for a moment. And, not least, to apologize for your rudeness.” The man grimaced, but acceded, after another dark look at me, and left.

She turned back to me, and sighed. “I am sorry, child, that your kindness was treated with such discourtesy.”

“It’s all right,” I said, and shrugged. “I’m Dalish. We’re used to it.”

“That does not make it right, child,” she said sadly.

“No,” I said. “But it’s the world. Meanwhile, I’m not a child, and if I can help you, I will.”

She chuckled. “You are a child to me,” she said quietly. “How many Springs have you seen?”

“Twenty-nine,” I said. “So as you can see, I am far from childhood. And truly old enough to know who I want to be and where I want to do that.”

“You are fortunate if you already know those things about yourself,” she said. “For most, a lifetime is not enough.” She smiled. “And you are fortunate, I think, for your solitude.” She sighed. “My job is to serve the people, and I do it gladly, but it also means that I must wander through a forest of men to do the Maker’s bidding… and that can become tiring.”

I made a face in spite of myself. “I don’t think I’d like your job.”

“No,” She smiled back. “I do not think you would. I can see from your face that you prefer the air and sky.”

I put my hands to my cheeks and laughed, flushing slightly in embarrassment. “My Keeper says I’m alhasha, a wild thing. She disapproves. I keep forgetting to shield myself from the sunshine.”

“Nonsense,” she said. “You are a rest for my eyes. You almost bring the ocean breezes with you. And… a little fire, too, I think?” Her eye was sharp, and I smiled.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m a mage. Elemental, mostly. But I promise, not a danger to you or anyone here. Unless a Templar tries to take me.”

“No one will touch you, child,” she said sadly. “That I promise. Now, tell me of your magic. Do you enjoy it?” There was something open and likable about her curiosity, almost innocent.

“Of course,” I said. “It’s part of me, of who I am. I know that too many people have been taught to fear it, but there is nothing to fear, if the mage is strong and capable, and skilled in her connection to the Fade.”

“I am glad to hear it,” she said. “I have often wished I could know what it felt like to do magic, but alas, I never had the gift.” Her eyes were back on the crowd before the Temple, where mages and Templars were arguing loudly. She looked tired, grieving, and defeated.

An idea occurred to me. “Here,” I said impulsively, and quietly held my staff, Isenatha, before her. The staff was a handsome one, capped in red ivory and banded with silver. I had carved the headpiece, a crude figure of a dragon, clumsily myself. “Don’t be afraid,” I said. “Just touch it gently, only for a moment.” She didn’t hesitate, but fearlessly laid her fragile pale fingers gently against the staff, just above the slender bands of silver over the golden polished wood. Making sure no one was watching us in our little corner, I concentrated my skill, opening only to the tiniest thread of the Fade. Instantly, a brief and subtle electric light shimmered around us, and us alone, as if we were in a reverse snow globe like those my people sold to the shems cheaply in village marketplaces… The globe expanded, the circle marked and spangled with tiny flashes of silver fire against a fragile bubble of deeper, momentary darkness… a starry night alive and twinkling against the heavens, close enough to touch. Then it faded in a tiny, barely audible clap of thunder. The entire thing had taken less than five seconds, and my new friend looked at me in surprise, then chuckled in delight.

“What was that?” she asked. For a brief moment her face was young and wondering. “It wasn’t just light. I felt something, a power… yet gentle. As if I were alone, and watching the night sky.”

“A funny little spell I came up with as a child,” I said, somewhat apologetically. “Storms and starlight. My two favorite things. There isn’t much practical use for it in combat, but it’s beautiful, and I thought you might like to see it.”

“It is beautiful indeed. I do not understand how you can do such marvels,” she said. “But thank you for that. It was a gift.”

She looked so tired. “Are you feeling better?” I asked. “I can go get one of your people.”

“I would rather talk to you, if you have a moment,” she said.

“Sure, if I can help,” I shrugged, puzzled but interested. “But I’m nobody special.”

She smiled. “Everyone is special to the Maker, child. Who are you?”

“I’m Eliaden,” I said. “Ellie. Of the Dalish, clan Lavellan. We’re concerned about the way the conflicts between the Templars and the Circles have increased lately, so I’m simply here to make a case for peace if I can.”

“I am Justinia. And I am also for peace,” she sighed. “Unfortunately it is easier said than done.”

I hesitated, then spoke firmly, realizing all at once who I was sitting beside. “Mother Justinia—Divine Justinia—this war between the mages and Templars harms more than just the two of them. Caught in between, the common people, and especially my people, the Dalish, are hunted, like rams, like halla. Would you… would you speak for us, if the chance allows you to? To speak for us to continue to live as we have, for us to manage magic and magery in our own ways?”

She thought for a moment, but there was sadness in her face. Then she nodded, but I knew somehow that it was not a nod of agreement, precisely. “I could tell you, child, that I will make a difference for you today. But that is not what my heart is telling me. I can only trust in the Maker, and tell you that I will do whatever I can.”

“Thank you,” I said.

She stood, sighing, and I looked up to view Herriol gathering a new crowd of petitioners, mages, priests, and more, already headed our way. I saw that the shouting mages and Templars were right in the middle, and grimaced.

“I think they’ve found you again,” I said. “But thank you for talking to me. It was nice meeting you.”

Nuvas ema ir’enastela,” she said haltingly, and smiled. I gave her an awkward almost-curtsy in return as thanks.

“Don’t let them bully you,” I said, grinning. “Or I’ll blast them.”

She laughed quietly at that, another twinkle of humor in her eye that made her my age again, if just for a moment. “I don’t know,” she said. “You seem kinder than that.”

“I didn’t say I would kill them,” I explained, embarrassed. “I’d just, um, bruise them a little.” Sheesh. Even the Divine thought I was too soft. Taerethi would have laughed out loud.

She shook her head, smiling, and I knew she understood. “Maker be with you, child,” she said, and then turned and joined the crowd.

I felt a slight sense of sadness, of loss. As if I’d lost a friend, or a potential friend. Even in such few moments.

Then green fire in blackness. Voices. A feeling of obliteration, of hopelessness like nothing I could ever have imagined.

Just so you know… my memory stops there. Right there.

After that, everything goes—well, not black, but dark, fractured and hidden. Blackness and green. A sickly combination as if the world’s very stars had been corrupted against the warm black velvet beyond.

I got a few brief fragments, flashes in the blackness: Somehow I know that I was there, that I didn’t leave. I have the impression that I might have stayed around to see how things progressed. At a certain point, though, I do have a clear image—a feeling of being alone, with me outside as everyone else went inside for the talks. Or I think they did—I’m not really sure.

And that’s all I know.

Because somehow after that, I was adrift in a world of darkness, terror and green fire. And then there was only darkness. Then nothing.

Until awakening, confusion, imprisonment, and loss.

Chapter Text

The next thing I remember, the whole world spun and toppled in a storm of images and impressions I could not understand or process.

When I awoke, the skies were raining green fire, demons outnumbered halla a hundred to one, the Temple was a massive pit of scorched earth, and I was shocked and devastated at the new reality I faced. Everything had changed, the landscape was filled with the bodies of the dead, the sky was a seeping wound, and my left hand had become a perpetual source of crackling green fire.

I was Marked. And marked. Permanently, it seemed.

To say that I hated everything about it would be an understatement.

But beyond the Mark, I couldn’t get over the massive loss of life that had occurred in just moments. When Cassandra had marched us through the remains of the Temple and its devastation—its field of bodies still alight and burning, like terrible candles—I’d had to beg for a moment where I could go off and be quietly sick. I think she’d thought of denying me, but one look at my sickened, pale face, and she’d nodded compassionately. It had been a terrible thing, not just my vomiting up even the faintest memory of food or drink in that hellscape, but the fact that the stink around us was of burning human flesh. When I’d been done being sick, I had surprised myself by bursting into tears, and I’d taken the moment simply to let out all my fear, frustration and sorrow in private. I remember I fell forward, a little, after vomiting, and realized my hand was resting in a pile of whitened ashes, softer than feathers, and still warm. I’d withdrawn my hand but the marks were still there and I’d looked for a very long time at the dust on my fingers, bemused and wondering even as the Mark had crackled green lightning across my palm.

Then I’d felt sick again. Of course.

Afterward, I’d tried to pull myself together when I had returned to the group, but I’m sure some vestige of my misery and shock still showed on my face because Cassandra’s eyes were sharp as I rejoined the group, silently, but her voice was considerably gentler than it had been before.

I remember Varric, the charming and handsome dwarf (such a strange party member, because he was so suave and cosmopolitan), had come over to me then, to make sure I was all right. And right there, we were friends. It was that immediate. You have to love someone who reaches out to you after you’ve thrown up. It’s certainly right up there in the rules of friendship. But they had all been kind, honestly. It probably helped that I am not an actor. I’m just not. I can’t lie. I can’t fake. My face is my face. My body in fact betrays me even if my face doesn’t.

I’m just not a dissembler. It’s not how I’m built. So my heart was certainly in my face, as well as my horror at what we were witnessing, when Varric and Cass looked to me. And for once, that fact served me well. While I will admit that I am constantly embarrassed by the fact that my emotions are visible twenty-four hours per day, this was one of those rare scenarios when it actually worked in my favor. For which I’m still grateful.

Meanwhile, I think that this was certainly the moment when Cassandra truly started to believe my story, and when she knew and accepted absolutely that I had not caused the horrors around us.

Solas, the quiet elven apostate, had meanwhile assisted me in learning that my Mark had actual powers against the terrible rips in the skies. He was an interesting figure—a lithe, graceful man whose baldness actually gave him a kind of elegance and distinction. And his knowledge of lore and magic was genuinely intimidating—when he’d raised my hand to the skies; I was shocked to watch it close the first Rift even as his eyes barely showed a flicker of surprise. The sensation was the strangest of my life—his cool hand on my wrist, with me reaching, with my arm outstretched, and that sense of tension, of physical connection, between me and the sky. Me. Sky. And yet, this power! I could touch it. I could affect it. A palpable sense of connection, as if I were beating it back, saying No to the evil in sheer force of will.

What the hells.

And here’s the thing I haven’t ever been able to tell Solas, or anyone else. That moment taught me something… not just about the Mark or the talents it had conveyed. It taught me about my own approaches to power.

Because, here’s the thing… instantly, immediately, forever… I was hooked. Because I loved closing the Rifts. I loved that feeling of connection between me and the sky. All my life I’d sought for a way to make the intangible, tangible, to touch the sky, to feel raindrops or snowflakes in even more nuance. Now somehow I’d been cursed with an unstable, stinging, cursed, magical Mark. But when I held it to the Rifts and pulled the pieces of the sky back together, I felt more powerful than I ever had in my entire life before.

Moving forward, I’d been able to close other Rifts, and had started to see the process as safe and even routine (aside from all the demons, that is).

Then came the biggest Rift, the originating Rift at the Temple, and when I’d reached up in that gesture to close it, a gesture that had already begun to feel routine, something different happened this time. Everything went black. Again.

Of course. Evidently, this was something I did now. Just fell into darkness at the most inopportune moments.

Because the next thing I knew, I was walking in a darkened wasteland, confused and desperate and utterly alone. No softness. No plants, no animals, no living things. No breath of air. Just darkness and desolation.

Then came the voice, beautiful, commanding and brief. “Come,” he said. “Follow my voice. You must come back.”

I paused, frightened and unsure. There was nothing but the darkness. No wind. No light. No sound. Nothing. Nothing to feel, to react to. A void. No landmarks beyond distant peaks, unscalable to my own eyes. Ash and stone. And no definable texture in the ground beneath my own feet.

No nothing. Not even starlight.

I paused, terrified. I’d heard the stories of our people about the Void. Was that where I was now?

I fought rising panic, spinning on my heel. “I can’t find you!” I said.

“Listen,” said the beautiful voice. “Compose yourself. Be still. Be calm. And then you can find me.”

I paused, and forced myself to listen. “All right. I’m still. And trying. Tell me where you are and how to find you.”

“Good,” said the voice, pleased. “Good. Now follow. Just listen, and follow.”

I began to walk in its direction.

“This way,” he said. “Follow.”

Then I began to run.

“Wait for me!” I cried desperately.

“Eliaden,” said the voice, and it was softer now, almost kind. “You are not alone. Follow my voice. I will call you home.”

I continued to run. And suddenly there was something ahead—a light, an exit, a sense of life. I ran for it with everything I had.

And then I was awake, in a blaze of pale sunlight.

Another confused moment, much like the one after the Conclave, filled with confusion and vague weakness. I was awakened by the pain, my left hand stinging and crackling green fire, and I was suddenly sitting up and panicking before I even knew I was awake. My heart was racing, and I felt nothing except the absolute certainty that I was back in the prison cell. I went still for a moment, trying to calm my breathing, then realized I wasn’t alone.

“Be calm,” said that quiet voice. “An'daran Atish'an. All is well.”

I was in a narrow, yet comfortable bed in a small hut. I looked up, and saw Solas seated not far from me, on a simple wooden chair to my left. He leaned forward as I shook my head, trying to wake myself up.

“You are safe.”

I turned to him in astonishment. “It was you!” I said. “You were the voice.”

“You were lost,” he said. “I am adept in the ways of the Fade. I entered in order to lead you back.”

“With the Mir Da'len Somniar,” I said, remembering.

“The Mir Da'len Somniar?” he asked.

“Follow my voice,” I quoted. “I will call you home. My mother used to sing it to me.”

“Ah,” he said. “It must have been unconscious on my part.”

I shrugged, smiling and embarrassed at having to be rescued. “Thank you for helping me,” I said.

De da’rahn,” he said, smiling slightly. "It was a little thing."

“It was not little to me,” I said.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

I blinked, panicked and confused, trying to remember what had happened… yet again. “I don’t know. I guess… confused. I—did I pass out? Did the demon hit me?”

“You collapsed when you had closed the Rift,” he said. “You’ve been here for three days now.”

“I didn’t hurt anyone, did I?” I asked, panicking again. “You were there. Nobody got hurt?”

“Do not trouble yourself,” he said. “You did well. The Breach is closed. And you did nothing but repair the damage we faced. A few of our soldiers were injured by the demon, but they are recovering.”

“Well, at least people were there to see that I didn’t—” Then I stopped, and stared at him. “Wait. Three days?”

“Yes,” he said. “Almost four, in fact. You had us worried. Truth be told, there was some question as to whether you would ever wake up.”

I put my hands to my face, then grimaced at the faint shock on my cheek from my left palm. Still, it woke me up.

“Three days…”

“I understand that it can be difficult to accept.”

“What’s wrong with me?” I looked down at my left hand, turning the palm upward. “It’s doing something to me, isn’t it?”

“I’m… not entirely sure yet,” he said.

“That’s comforting.”

He laughed shortly, then reached out, and touched the palm with his fingers, his touch cool, almost clinical. “Is it painful?”

“It’s strange,” I said. “Not pleasant. A little bit of electricity. Numb at the center, but I can still feel it. And every once in awhile, it stings. It’s what woke me up.”

Solas’s hand was still touching my palm and wrist, and I felt suddenly shy. Somehow it no longer felt quite so clinical. “I suspect this latest unconsciousness was your body’s way of adjusting to the Mark,” he said, running a finger across the green crackle of my palm. I shivered. “It seems more stable now.”

“Well, I’m glad something is,” I retorted, pulling my hand away. “I’m not exactly feeling the same, myself.”

He tilted his head, considering, then leaned forward slightly. “You remember nothing of what happened at the Temple?”

“No,” I said. “I want to. But all I get is fragments, feelings—darkness, a feeling of terror, and then of safety.”

“Ah, yes,” he said. “Some claimed to have seen you emerge from the Fade, assisted by a shining female figure.” His mouth moved in a slight quirk that might have been humor. “The rumors are already flying that it was Andraste herself.”

“Oh, gods below,” I cried in dismay.

“You would prefer a Dalish deity instead, perhaps?”

“I would prefer the truth, which is most likely neither of those things,” I said bluntly.

He grinned narrowly, the first real smile I had seen from him. “People do like their stories.”

“I like stories too,” I said. “I just prefer the kind where I’m not one of the main characters.”

“Ah, but you are now,” he said. “Whether you like it or not.”

“I don’t like it,” I muttered. But I didn’t seem to have much choice.

***

Solas was right. People did like their stories, and that one rumor, combined with my closure of the Rift at the Temple, for many, had been enough.

Suddenly I was the Herald of Andraste, a symbol of the human Chantry figure whose story didn’t exactly inspire me with a lot of positivity, seeing as she’d been the woman who’d somehow married their God, their “Maker” (abandoning her mortal marriage) and who had then been predictably betrayed by her jealous human husband. Yet that same adoring Maker had evidently also abandoned her to the supreme cruelty of death upon a funeral pyre. Then he’d evidently turned his back on people as punishment for their cruelty.

Me, I understood the Maker’s anger just fine, although it did seem like he’d set people up to function at their worst in this scenario. Meanwhile, I just didn’t get why he couldn’t have done all that after saving his poor supposedly beloved Andraste from one of the worst deaths it was possible to experience.

So far, when it came to their religion, let’s just say I wasn’t a fan. And don't even get me started on the Maker. Ugh.

Not that anyone cared. They just went on kneeling. Stepping away in fear. Or begging me for healing or absolution. I was distrusted, but accepted. Loved as well as hated, feared and revered, and all of it for reasons that had nothing to do with who I actually was.

I had, however, told red-haired Leliana (who seemed to be the leader), Commander Cullen (he of the perfectly waved golden hair), Josephine (the sweet-faced diplomat) and Cassandra, the beautiful dark-haired female Seeker warrior, about my talk with Justinia within a day or two of reaching Haven. Once everything had calmed down, both Cass and Leliana had seemed moved and strengthened by the knowledge that she had been as good, kind and strong as always, on her final day. I remember that Cullen had been slightly suspicious of the spell I had done for the Divine, and had asked me to demonstrate it, which I had done instantly. Then he had sagged in exhaustion, frustration and embarrassment even as the silver spangles faded into the blue mist.

“It truly is just a child’s magic,” said Cass, and I squirmed in embarrassment.

“Yes,” I said.

“Thank you for demonstrating that,” he’d said. “I’m sorry for my abruptness. We’re all a little on edge.”

I pointed wryly at the Mark. “So am I.”

Leliana had reached out toward the fading light behind my dying spell. “She would have loved this,” she said softly.

I shrugged, embarrassed. “It’s just a charm. Something I came up with as a child. It can’t be used in combat. It’s just… pretty.”

Cassandra grimaced. “Too bad you could not have demonstrated something more formidable, something that might have saved her,” she said.

I blushed unhappily, and Leliana sighed, shaking her head at Cassandra. “We cannot blame her.”

“At least, not until we know what happened,” added Cassandra. I trembled slightly and hoped nobody noticed.

“She loved to find things in the world that could delight her,” said Leliana. “I am glad you gave her such a lovely gift.”

I looked at her shyly, hesitating. “She called it that too. A gift. But I wish I could have done more.” I glanced at Cassandra as if in explanation. “I do wish I could have saved her. I’m sorry I didn’t.”

“Well,” said Leliana. She turned the cool violet eyes to me and gave me a grim, slight smile. “Perhaps you can earn the life that was spared to you.”

I swallowed, nodding. “I’ll do whatever I can,” I said.

She watched me closely, then lightened again. I was discovering that Leliana was utterly unpredictable. Suddenly, now, she softened into a smile, a real one this time. “I believe that,” she said.

“Good,” I said, while also mentally sending her an additional fervent mental message: Please don’t kill me.

But I’d understood Leliana’s grief. How could I not? I’d talked to Justinia for perhaps 15 minutes yet she’d already made me want to lay down my life for her. I had liked the Divine so much, and I still thought about her with sorrow. It was strange, stranger than anything, then, that now here I was, working with the two women who had served her most closely, as her Right and Left Hands, to heal the world.

But their group—called the Inquisition—turned out to be about more than mages or Templars, elves or men or dwarves. It was about saving the world, and although there was more Chantry involvement than I would’ve liked, to be fair, it was also about more than religion, and they seemed like a genuinely honorable if volatile bunch.

Even so, it had been a week before I’d been able to bring myself to have a normal conversation with Cassandra, for instance. No matter how kind she was when she wasn’t yelling, I lived in a perpetual, half-paranoid assumption that she would eventually toss me back into a prison cell—perhaps one of the conveniently empty ones beneath the Haven Chantry.

I remember that Varric, the kind dwarf from Kirkwall, had watched me sidle cautiously up to Cassandra outside the sparring area the first few times we spoke about the Inquisition, for instance, and he had looked at me, grinned, and nodded. Later, after I walked away, sweating and anxious and trying consciously not to run, he had motioned to me to join him at his campfire.

“You all right?” he asked.

“I think so,” I said. “I still have all my arms and legs.”

He gestured, grinning, as a few small blue sparks fell from my hair. I shrugged, embarrassed. “It happens if I’m emotional,” I said. “It’s not dangerous, just frustrating. Makes it hard for me to lie to people.”

“I don’t imagine you do much of that anyway,” said Varric.

I laughed. “Not well,” I admitted.

He chuckled back. “Well, Sparks, don’t worry about it. Her bark is worse than her bite.”

I was skeptical. “I don’t know. It looks to me like she has a pretty good bite.”

“Has she glared at you yet?” he asked. “Made her patented Pentaghast disgusted noises?”

“That ‘oof’ noise she makes?” I asked.

“That,” said Varric.

“Yeah,” I said warily.

“Good,” he grinned. “That means she likes you.”

I laughed. “I do like her,” I said. “I can see that she’s a good person. She just scares me a little.”

“That’s our Seeker,” he said, smiling. “She’s only comfortable when she can tell herself there’s at least some small potential for violence.”

“And oh, that’s not terrifying at all,” I said, laughing.

“Not really,” he said. “Try not to worry. She’s one of the good ones. Once she decides you’re in, you’re in.”

Varric was right. Cass quickly proved to be warm-hearted, kind, and unfailingly loyal. I also discovered that the best way to keep her off guard was to flirt with her. It was fantastic—she was even more awkward about it than Cullen, although his role as a Templar had meant that I’d only done it once or twice. (Mainly, it was the hair.)

The whole situation was bizarre. I kept thinking they’d send me home. I’d kept my simple leather satchel packed and ready for weeks in readiness for precisely that—the moment of dismissal. (That, or they’d put me back in jail.)

But they didn’t. They kept… including me. And the strangest thing of all was, I’d found that I liked and valued that inclusion. After a few months of fighting and traveling and risking our lives for one another, my companions had become my friends, and the Inquisition, my new home.

And then, thanks to my own stupid courage just a few months later (I am really, really good at turning my brain off in combat, just so you know), I’d been raised even higher.

I still thought that wasn’t really fair—it hadn’t just been me facing down Corypheus and his final waves of insurmountable attack, but me, Solas, horned Qunari mercenary captain The Iron Bull, and loyal, quiet Varric with his crossbow Bianca. They had stood firm and had been just as willing to die as I had been.

Cullen’s face, though, when he’d realized I was going to sacrifice myself… I think that’s when I’d not only realized how young he actually was, but that he was, Templar or no, a truly good man. The misery in his face that I would be doing this and not him was devastatingly clear, yet he knew he had to lead the villagers out.

“Perhaps you will surprise it… find a way,” was all he’d said at last. And then we’d fought the good fight, me and my brave companions, Solas, Varric and Bull, and we’d beaten back the darkness, until separation and further pain and loneliness on the journey back. When, like a bad joke, I found them in the snow, following the howls of distant wolves, and Mother Giselle, Haven’s Chantry Mother, had promptly gotten everyone together to sing a Chantry hymn—one that ended with them all kneeling to me.

Kneeling.

I hated it. It gave me the shivers. Like I said, I’ve read enough Chantry stuff at this point to know what happens after people kneel to you. Sometime soon, after the kneeling stops, they stick you up on a pile of sticks and burn you to death. Because that’s how much the Maker really loves you!

Nope. Not me. The shems can keep Andraste. She’s creepy.

So yeah, I was horrified, although Solas had been intrigued (and, I suspected, amused) enough to pull me aside to share some information about that Orb that he’d been keeping close to his homespun vest, along with his sly suggestion that I continue to accept the leadership and veneration as something that would also help the elven people. His practically handing our people a castle in my name a few days later—one he’d seen thanks to his excursions in the Fade—hadn’t hurt either.

And here I was, and my roles in this story just kept on changing: The nobody. The Apostate. The Prisoner. Then the Herald. And now the Inquisitor. That was my story.

I had titles now. Multiple titles. And everybody loved me more than ever. And everybody was afraid of me (more than ever). And a lot of people told me all the things I needed to do, and I basically tried to do them while occasionally messing things up in small but spectacular ways.

And now my life was complicated and tangled and more confusing than I could ever have imagined it would be.

I no longer wandered the coasts or forests. Instead I strategized with military and religious leaders, recruited agents, and shuffled through unholy amounts of paperwork. I spent my days with humans and elves, and with dwarves and Qunari alike. In the past several months, I’d faced down all sorts of battles, helped to build our organization, had added allies and agents, and had killed squadrons of Venatori, demons, Red Templars, and murderous rogue apostates. I had also closed dozens of Rifts before we’d faced defeat and rebirth after Haven, reached the castle of Skyhold, empty and waiting as if by magic, and had been met by a world that finally welcomed what we were trying to do.

It was insane. Yet everything had been terrible and confusing but also oddly manageable…

Until my clan was killed.

Chapter Text

Tiny stone rooms had become my life now. So many, many tiny stone rooms.

Gods above, I found myself praying occasionally, please save me from confining, cold and grey little spaces.

But the gods did not reply. And such rooms had, in fact, become a regular part of my days, part of life in a Keep. Skyhold was beautiful, but I sometimes found the weight of all that stone oppressive. And its rooms were, predictably, almost always walled in thick, rough grey stone. They were rooms that swallowed sound, so that voices sounded tinny and dead. Rooms that even—as in the case of the War Room—required the inhabitants to stand at attention for discussion (a requirement I hated, especially after spending days chasing demons, rifts, miscreants, and Venatori in a variety of horrible locations and environments). I resented having to stand for our meetings—it wasn’t so much physically tiring as emotionally grinding. Everyone instantly wanted to leave by the fifteen-minute mark, which meant we didn’t get much done.

But oh, those tiny grey rooms—evidently the shems (or whoever had built the ancient fortresses we held) had loved them. I kept wondering. Perhaps all of the ancient peoples, men and elves and others, had all been tiny and fragile, so perhaps the rooms had not felt so confining. I was slightly taller and heavier than Sera, but I liked being strong and tall for an elf woman, except in these instances. It had stood me in good stead when roaming my cliffsides or forests alone.

Or perhaps it was simply a sign of my difference. One holdover from my time as a roaming Dalish apostate was that I hated being penned in; confined. I couldn’t relax; I always unconsciously positioned myself as the one closest to the exit, and even then, I felt confined and anxious. Tiny rooms with walls of several feet might mean a warmer winter, but they also meant that you were ripe for entrapment.

Birds had cages, but at least they were mostly air. Mine were all made of stone.

This meant that I gloried in some rooms that provided a respite—my quarters, for instance (even if I disliked their shellacked golden, insufferably Orlesian décor, I loved the light and air and openness)—while I found it difficult to stay in others for any length of time at all.

But the War Room, where we met to discuss counsel at Skyhold (at least, at first), was my least favorite room in the fortress. It was small, yet ironically vertical, with a vast, soaring vaulted ceiling. Yet it was still narrow and confining, barely holding the War Table. The table was always the focus—all of the humans surrounding it just looked and felt small, superfluous.

However, the War Table itself was a work of art, an heirloom without price—imposing and incredibly beautiful, a massive three-dimensional map intricately and carefully carved from priceless and ancient wood, and Cullen had been able to save it on the escape from Haven, securing it to a massive druffalo for transport. I was glad it had survived, as I loved touching the table, running my fingers across the polished golden whorls and textures of thousand-year-old wood, of reading its legacy through a tendril of magic from the Fade. That table had been fashioned, long ago, to fight evil. Every time I touched it, I felt heartened, strengthened. It was unquestionably good. It was almost alive.

Then, not long after we found Skyhold, while Josie, Cullen and Leliana and I were meeting to discuss our next steps at the War Table, a dispatch came in for Josie. She read it, and within seconds her face had gone markedly paler. Her brandy-colored eyes flickered to me, then to Leliana, and I felt a sudden hollowness in my stomach. I watched them sharply, on alert.

Leliana looked to her with concern. “Josie?”

Josephine handed the small piece of parchment over to Leliana, who glanced sharply up at me, then passed it to Cullen.

“What? What is it?” I asked.

“It is… difficult news, my lady,” said Josie.

I nodded for her to continue. “All right.”

“It appears that your clan was attacked, along with the elves at Wycome, by soldiers of Duke Antoine.”

I swallowed. “All right. How bad was it?”

Josie looked at Cullen, then hesitated. I saw Cullen take breath, then shake his head. Then he straightened as if facing an unpleasant mission, and as a kind of final answer, he silently handed me the dispatch, his hand ever so briefly at my shoulder in sympathy.

Dear Ambassador Montilyet,

I regret to inform you that a contingent of soldiers gathered from other cities in the Free Marches attacked Wycome and slew most of the elves within, including all of the Dalish clan.

They avoided attacking humans when possible, and were willing to meet with us once their bloody work was done. They professed shock that Duke Antoine had been using red lyrium and insisted that all they knew was that the elves had rebelled and killed the rightful rulers of the city.

This has all been branded a tragic misunderstanding, and the nobles who now rule Wycome insist that they will repay the Inquisition for this horrible mistake.

I await my return to Skyhold at your earliest convenience.

Yours, Lady Guinevere Volant

“They’re all dead?” I whispered.

“I’m so sorry, Ellie,” said Josephine.

“Come,” said Leliana. “You need to sit down.” She took my arm, but I pulled back from her, breaking away.

I felt slow and bruised, but also filled with a terrible humor. “They died because of me.” I laughed, bleakly. “And for such a stupid reason! Because of me! Because I’d been too tired to pick the right strategy!”

“No,” said Cullen.

“Oh, yes,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s all on me. Because I hadn’t stopped to think. Because I chose wrong. And because I wasn’t meant for this. Because I was the wrong choice.”

“That isn’t true,” said Leliana.

I couldn’t stop laughing. I bent over, and Josie came gently over to me, patting me gently. “My lady,” she said quietly, and at last I stopped, still gasping for breath.

“All of them?” I said again. “The children too?”

“Yes,” said Leliana. Her face wore the most terrible expression I had ever seen on it, and that expression was kindness.

I straightened, struggling for at least some kind of calm. “Right,” I said. “Okay.” I bit back anything else I might have said. These were my friends. They were not at fault. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” I said. “I need to—I need to be alone.”

I stood stupidly for another moment at the War Table, then walked in a sort of blind, sleepwalking fog to my quarters. I think Josie might have helped, I can’t remember. I just remember the world going white. I didn’t faint. I just went absolutely numb, then walked off.

My companions showed their support with their predictable kindness, although at first I’d been so raw, so angry, that I had resented any reaction, honestly—sympathy or ignorance, both had made me feel equally terrible. But then I had started to come back to myself, and I realized the quiet generosity and sympathy taking place around me.

Josie and Cullen were the first to visit, both kind and sad—Josie bringing me hot chocolate and talking about a memorial we would put in place at Wycome for my lost people. I was abrupt and rude to her, a memory that shames me now, and I remember that I said I didn’t care, because Wycome hadn’t been their home anyway. But she had simply smiled and promised we would talk about it later.

Then had come Cullen, vulnerable, awkward and worried. I remember that he looked miserable and guilt-stricken, at levels that had reached me even through the layers of grief.

Because I knew something Cullen did not. They had died, whether anyone knew it or not, because I had been unwilling to trust him—Cullen, a Templar, despite the fact that he had been nothing but kind to me since the day we’d met. I’d just been tired, and worried, and I’d thought Josephine’s diplomacy would work better than the show of force Cullen had suggested. And I’d been afraid to trust the advice of a Templar after what had happened to me in the woods last year. Just the sight of Cullen’s Templar armor made me feel slightly queasy on occasion, even now.

“Just remember, if there’s anything I can do…” he trailed off, awkwardly, and I could tell he already wanted to flee the entire situation.”

“Commander Cullen…”

“Yes?”

“I want to ask your—your pardon, your forgiveness,” I said. “I should have done what you recommended.”

“It was a difficult decision, Inquisitor,” he said. “You cannot blame yourself.”

“I do blame myself,” I said. “I haven’t been fair to you. I’ve had… you see, I had a… I had a very bad encounter with Templars a year or so before the Conclave…”

His face fell, and he looked grim. “I’m terribly sorry to hear that, Inquisitor.”

I waved that away. “It’s all right… everyone here is a survivor of something, after all. It’s just that… I didn’t trust you the way I should have. I’m sorry.”

Unexpectedly, his face lightened, surprising me. “Thank you for that,” he said.

“Thank you?” I asked, confused but glad to see the effect my words had had on him.

“Yes,” he said, smiling slightly. “It may sound strange to you, but I understand what you feel here. I had to fight the same battle. I have had experiences with magic and mages that ended in death for people I loved.” He sighed. “Perhaps we both distrusted on each side, and for good reason.”

“I’m sorry about your friends,” I said.

“I’m sorry about what happened to you. And to your clan,” he replied. “But you should know that I have no more doubts, about you or any of the mages who fight with us so honorably.”

“Neither do I,” I said. “I’m just sorry it took so long.”

He smiled. “Just remember that you have friends here. You have a place here.”

“I will,” I said. “And thank you.”

***

That was a curiously terrible yet beautiful few days.

The grief enveloped me like one of my own electricity spells, but so also did their love and consideration. They gave me both consolation and space.

I remember Leliana bearing Schmooples the Second to my chambers, to give me something to hug (and nugs are even softer than you think they’d be, so feel free to envy me because it was a beautiful thing to pet such a funny little creature) and then sitting, silently, watching me hug the little animal, and laugh, and even play with his ears and his funny, floppy little hand-feet. Others had left little gifts of meaning or love at my doorstep—a cluster of daisies from Scout Harding. Cookies from Sera—horrible, inedible cookies that were either chewy or hard as rock, salty in the worst way… and magnificent, because they were so incredibly awful that only Sera herself could have baked them. The henscratched handwritten scrap of parchment with them had read: Sorry about your people. Cookies are stupid. Hope it helps. At the bottom had been a picture of what looked like a bee eating a cookie.

I didn’t eat the cookies (although I tried, I really tried), but I saved the note, along with a pressing of Harding’s flowers.

Then had come a strange, small assortment of pretty yet ordinary polished stones, pebbles and pine needles from Cole, wrapped in a swatch of rough sailcloth. I’d stared, mystified, until realizing they were stones from the paths of my own village, in the place we had stayed the longest. It was a beautiful gesture, but of course I’d collapsed in tears all over again.

Cole had cried too: “I didn’t help the hurt! I tugged on it wrong, and I tangled it!” But I’d hugged him hard anyway and thanked him. He’d been dubious and had really wanted to try again, but I didn’t want him to take the memories he was so certain were hurting me. “Sometimes memories that hurt are still worth having,” I told him.

“If you say so,” he said doubtfully.

Also on the first day after the news, Dorian meanwhile, presented me with an outlandishly beautiful robe, a deep, dark blue that matched my eyes, edged in gold, along with half a dozen bottles of Rivaini wine, and a blushworthy translation of the most scandalous novel in Orlais.

He caught me at a tough moment, as I’d been sniffling and throwing fireballs at my fireplace while surreptitiously trying to see if I could burn away the Mark if I adjusted my barriers in just the right way. As a result, I had a burned left palm (which I’d treated with an elfroot poultice), and an even sorrier fireplace.

Dorian walked in, distributed my lovely gifts, and tried not to stare at the fireplace or my teary face. “Smut,” he pronounced grandly as he handed me the book. “Glorious smut. You need something to distract you, and there’s nothing quite like smut and scandal.”

I stared at the book warily. “I’m not… um…”

“Oh, my dear, deluded little Dalish,” said Dorian, who looked at me with every bit of Tevinter arrogance he was capable of, then shook his head. “Darling, it would be one thing if you were indulging yourself in a little romantic intrigue now and then here in the real world, but since I and everyone at Skyhold know that your one and only date has been with Leliana’s pet nug, you owe it to yourself to at least get a little sin from the printed page.”

I laughed in spite of myself. “All right,” I said. “Thank you.”

Dorian then sat down and proceeded to tell me every single outrageous anecdote he had ever heard for nearly thirty straight minutes until I’d managed to straighten up and stop crying. Then he’d gotten up to leave, but veered sharply, coming over to me and hugging me warmly (I am not a hugger and might have complained, but I discovered in the moment that I might be mourning, but I was not too dead inside to enjoy a hug from Dorian).

“This will pass, dear one,” he said warmly. “Remember that.”

“I will,” I said, breathing deeply and guiltily, because holy gods, that man smelled good.

Then I’d pretended to start sniffling again just to get an extra hug out of it. I regret nothing.

After Dorian, that same afternoon, had come the flawlessly engraved card of condolence from Vivienne, cool and remotely kind, inscribed on heavy pale parchment, along with an arrangement of exotic blooms she had obviously had delivered from Orlais via dragon or some other mysterious vehicle (an effort that touched me, and belied the cool detachment of her gift). I also received the personally autographed copy of Varric’s newest book, delivered by the author himself. “I thought you could use it, Sparks. Something to take your mind off all the gloom and doom.”

“Thank you,” I said. “It means a lot.”

I was angry and grieving, still raw, and I had cried so much that I’d taken to walking around with a wet rag over my eyes for hours at a time… but I still couldn’t have brought myself to be impatient with Varric.

“Sparks, these are good people here,” he said haltingly. “You only have to be alone if you want to be.”

“I know,” I said. “And thank you. I—I promise not to stay locked away up here too long. I just need… a day or two.”

“Understood,” he said quietly. “Just call me when you want a game of Wicked Grace to distract you.”

The next morning Cassandra made her appearance, bringing me a scowl, a bowl of exquisitely shirred eggs decadently baked in cream, butter, herbs and red wine from the kitchens, along with a fresh supply of sumptuous blankets and pillows. She then made me consume said eggs immediately in front of her, and then had surprised me with the world’s most awkward, half-armed and very fierce hug, made even more painful by the fact that she had just come in from sparring and was still wearing full armor. She smelled wonderful and real, like metal, clean sweat, and the faintest ghost of rose petals.

After Cassandra had left, I’d gone to the mirror and laughed for the first time in two days, wincing as I realized that her breastplate had evidently always had little hearts around its borders, and I’d never even noticed.

I only knew it now, because, when she had hugged me, she’d actually pressed a heart shape temporarily into the skin above my shoulder. It had felt like a blessing of sorts, another reminder that my companions were truly that: companions. Loved ones. I was not alone.

Chapter Text

Grief is interesting. The assumption so often is, I think, that it’s somehow a rather delicate thing, an expression of loss, a fragile emotion—the loss of a person where a space remains, as if a tooth has fallen out. Something where everyone mourns politely, and moves on.

Me, I am not polite. Well, mostly not.

And neither was my mourning.

Besides, I hadn’t ever found that to be the case, anyway. Not at its core. Not past the manners or frills. For me grief is rage. It’s anger. It’s not small and it’s not pretty. To be honest, in my experience, at least, it brings out the very worst in us. We become children again, lashing out in anger and sadness, in betrayal that the world could actually be this bad. That’s grief. It’s the reality slamming us down into insignificance again, reminding us that every single one of us will eventually lose those we love. Or be lost ourselves.

And, well, I think we lash out, too, because of the disconnection that is now forever permanent. I was not especially clever, but I was still always a questioning child, asking “Why? Why? Why?” (and of course, “Why not?”) I never had done well with the answers that told me what I could not do.

Either way, death stops all of that. Stops it, well… dead. We cannot finish that last conversation. We cannot tell them we love them if we forgot to do so when we parted. We cannot send that gift we always meant to send (but didn’t). We cannot express that secret passion we may have felt, one afternoon on a cliff, in the rain. It’s all done. Death has ended the conversation for good. There are no choices left and there will be no closure.

So for me grief is frustration and rage, the acknowledgment of a rotten and empty place where a life used to be. The realization that we cannot give the words, the love, the thoughts, the gifts, the kisses, the arguments, the moments. It’s all simply done. And the void cannot be filled; we cannot call them back. All our hopes for those we lost, all our love and enjoyment of their presence in our lives… there’s nowhere left to put it. It now exists only in the past. Each memory to be treasured, burnished like old metal, and regretted because we should have said more. Done more. Savored it more.

My own grief was decidedly unpretty. I had never taken a day off since joining the Inquisition but I now barricaded myself in my rooms for several days not out of petty anger or reaction, but because I was just not fit to be talked to. My rage felt uncontainable; like a fireball barely held in check, and like something that would incinerate anyone it could. So I hid myself away. So that I did not burn my friends.

For this reason, I was more grateful to my companions and advisers for their friendship and kindness than I could have possibly expressed, and yet I dreaded the prospect of returning to work, to the battle at hand. After all, look at what one single decision of mine had wrought. What if it was worse, next time? And then there was the prospect of strangeness again, of all those eyes on me, yet again, as the outsider. And now, my status had changed yet again: I would be the outsider who was the last of her people. And who had caused the death of those same people. It wouldn’t be said by all. But it would be said by some.

So I pulled my rage inward. I stayed silent. And I sent back notes and thanks for every gift I had received, clumsily reaching for the words with the quill clenched in my fingers as best I could set them down (I am not a poet). In ink and in my heart, I thanked them for the space in which to mourn.

A few days after my loss, Solas surprised me slightly by coming to see me in my chambers. It was the morning after the dispatch, not too long after Cassandra.

Solas and I had spoken on occasion since Haven, but there was a tension between us that I wasn’t sure what to do with. The intimacy of his voice in the Fade, the touch afterward… there was something there, but unfortunately I’d blundered into his exasperation and disapproval afterward, getting things off on the wrong footing by being touchy and ready to take offense about my Dalish heritage, and he’d been just as quick to give offense in return.

“Ah, yes, the Dalish,” he’d said with scorn, responding to a conversation about my journeys to the Storm Coast. My clan had disapproved of my wanderings. I had found their overprotectiveness tiresome, but Solas’s reaction, however, was so blatantly angry that I looked up, surprised.

“They were only trying to protect me,” I said.

“Perhaps they were really trying to protect themselves,” he responded, that edge sharpening his eyes and the lines of his face. I was always fascinated when Solas showed emotion. He presented himself as an unruffled surface, but I was beginning to see that there were storms beneath that calm, cool surface—a subtle fire that burned constantly.

“Why do you talk about the Dalish with such contempt?” I asked, temper flaring. “They can’t exactly help what they don’t know.”

“I do not judge them for the knowledge they lack,” he said coldly, “But for the way they nurture and promote that lack of knowledge, that ignorance, as if it is an honorable thing. It is not honorable. It is shameful and sad, and it ensures that they will continue to remain a forgotten and pitiable people, shadows of what they once were.”

“Then help them understand the things they lost,” I answered. “We’ve spoken enough that it’s evident you know much more than they do. Help them, hahren.”

That had provided the first thaw in the ice. He had glanced keenly at me, paused… then sighed. “You must forgive my temper, da’len. If I can answer your questions or help in any way… I will.”

“Truly?”

“Of course,” he said. “I am here to help you; surely, you know that by now.”

I’d hesitated. “Can you…” but I could not finish.

“Can I what?” he asked. I looked away, somehow ashamed of what I wanted.

“Inquisitor… ask what it is you truly want to ask.”

“Can you take away the Mark?” I asked, reddening slightly in shame.

“Ah.” He sighed, looking keenly at me, but did not respond right away.

“Look… It’s not that I’m afraid. I’m not a coward,” I said. “I just… I just feel like it wasn’t supposed to happen to me,” I confessed. “Like I’m not the right person to have it.”

“Right or wrong is immaterial here,” he said. “You have the Mark.”

“But what if I wasn’t supposed to?” I asked “What if I’m making things worse, because it’s me… whereas if it was someone else, like you for instance, you’d make things better? Do more?”

Solas stared for a moment, as if dumbfounded. He actually colored slightly, the rush of blood to his face transforming it so that he looked both vulnerable and passionate, and I found my heart beating just a little faster than it had been a moment before. “That… it’s an extraordinary idea. But it’s not possible.”

I shook my head in confusion and dismay. “I can’t explain it. It just feels hungry.” I hesitated again. “I hate it. It feels like something… like something wrong.”

“I cannot remove the Mark,” he said, and his voice was gentle. “I do not know if anyone can. I suspect not.”

“All right,” I said.

Then I had gone off and cried, quietly, in my hut. I think it was the first time I had realized that the Mark was part of me for good. I was no longer who I had ever been before this. I was new. I had been literally marked. Changed.

On the positive side, however, the ice was broken, and Solas and I had eventually formed a rather wary, slightly formal friendship, although I still couldn’t help but feel that I was not the elf he would have chosen to lead our suddenly famous endeavors (and little did he know, but I agreed with him). He was an agreeable and unfailingly courteous travel companion, however, and we’d managed to save one another on enough occasions that there was something of a familial, if exasperated bond there.

Plus of course, that odd unspoken intimacy since he had called me back from unconsciousness in Haven, when he’d touched my hand, or as when he’d led me, smilingly, to Skyhold. I just wished there was a way for me to get past that glacial formality of his that he wore like armor—armor so formidable—despite its being invisible—that it made Cass’s look like paper.

So it was a surprise when he visited me that day. I’d been ignominiously huddled in my chair, weeping steadily into my blankets and throwing fireballs once more at the fireplace, which was now scorched and blackened. He’d ignored the smell of smoke and my unfitness for company and stood before me, elegant and straight as if he’d been about to lead a galliard at Halamshiral itself.

“Inquisitor,” he said.

Savh Solas,” I said. I tried a smile, but it didn’t quite work. He looked at me, then sighed, and then, surprising me, he reached out a hand. I took it, hesitantly. Not even sure what to do with it. I tried shaking it, and got the ghost of amusement from him again. Even when we were at odds, Solas at least seemed to find me entertaining.

Ar ame ir abelas,” he said quietly. He covered my hand with his other one for a moment, gently, then let go. He sat down opposite me, thoughtful as if searching for words.

“Thank you,” I said. “Ma melava halani.

Nuva lasa su ma enaste,” he said.

“The words of our people,” I said sadly. “I don’t get to hear them much. Although the Dalish rarely use that exact phrase.”

He smiled slightly. “It is an older expression—one not much used among the Dalish.”

“The stupid Dalish,” I said bitterly. Tears again. Blue sparks falling from the end of my messy braid and fingertips. “The misguided Dalish. The misinformed and blindly trusting Dalish.” I wiped the tears away angrily, my fingertips sending tiny shocks along my eyelashes, and Solas handed me a perfect pale white square that I realized was a handkerchief.

I took the handkerchief, although it felt like a sacrilege to mar its perfection. I unfolded it and tried to start mitigating the damage, which was difficult, since I was still crying.

“Do you know?” I asked. “I was the one who counseled them to be a part of the world. I told them to stop hiding. That it was all right to be seen. It was my one condition for going to the Temple.”

I laughed humorlessly. “Well, they were seen, weren’t they? Too bad. If they’d been more traditionally Dalish they’d still be alive, drifting their aravels through the trees, staying nowhere long, being greeted with suspicion and fear, never assuming welcome. Hated. But alive. But they listened to me. They dared to think the world might be a better place.” I covered my face in my hands. “Because I begged them to. I begged them to.”

“Stop,” he said quietly. “Do not judge them so harshly.”

“You did.” Then I tried to wipe the damage away, ashamed at my lack of control, and embarrassed that he was seeing me at such a raw and, probably, childish moment. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t fair. I…”

“Stop,” he said again. “You have nothing to apologize for.”

“Faellin, our Second, had three kids,” I said. “Three kids. Taerethi, the Keeper, she had four—two grown. Oh, and her grandson, Jalynda’s little boy, he was only two! Brithalin. The most beautiful little boy, white skin, black eyes, black hair. And this face, like he could already see the Fade. And there was Mayena, this girl! Solas, you should have seen her, she had such a fire and beauty, she could have changed the world. And a voice that could charm the birds from the trees. Or Jemmid, who was a rogue who could have outshot Varric even at twelve years old. And… they’re all gone.”

He was quiet, for a moment. “Inquisitor… lethallan…” I looked up. He frowned, but not at me. “I have come to believe I may have been, perhaps, a bit unfair where the Dalish were concerned. For my own reasons.”

“What reasons?” I asked bluntly.

He glanced at the fire in the blackened hearth and was silent, his long narrow profile an elegant shadow against the firelight. For a moment, I thought he wasn’t going to answer, but when he looked back over at me in my (I’m assuming) utterly sorry state, his expression softened slightly.

“I went to them, once,” he said. “The Dalish. As an apostate. To offer my aid. It was to do with a minor matter, but they did not accept it. Or me.”

I stared at him, stricken. “It wasn’t my clan, was it? Because, Solas, we’d… Taerethi was good and kind. I don’t think my people would have turned you away, especially not someone of your wisdom and scholarship… they’d have been honored, surely.”

“Be comforted,” he said. “It was not your people.”

“Good,” I said, relieved. I managed an almost-smile.

Ama En’an’sal’in,” he said softly. I sighed. The comfort of the words was almost physical, somehow.

A pause. I listened to the fire, and to the quiet sound of his breathing.

“Your accent, Solas,” I said, shyly. “I always mean to tell you. It’s beautiful. Different from the Dalish sometimes, but yours sounds more right to me. Is that crazy?”

He looked away, and into the fire again. “Not really,” he said. “I speak the Elven of the ancient days, as I have seen it spoken by the ancient ones from the Fade, at the height of Arlathan itself.”

“How horrified they’d be at the world we have now,” I said bitterly.

“Not horrified, I think, but… yes, saddened,” he said, and the utter bleakness in his voice broke my heart. “Our people have fallen far.”

“I wish I could have seen it,” I said.

“Seen what?”

“Arlathan,” I said. “You should have heard Taerethi tell the stories in the evenings. The place where the magic lived, that’s what she called it. As a child, I wanted so badly to go there. To live in a world woven of spell and magic in its very air.”

He drew breath to speak, then shook his head. “A time of wonders,” he said softly. “At least I was lucky enough to see it from the Fade.”

“I wish you could have shared it,” I said impulsively. “Did anyone else see it with you?”

“A friend,” he said. “A spirit.”

“Still,” I said wistfully. “It is comforting to hear you speak our language. So few people here actually speak it at all.”

He smiled, slightly. “You may visit me to hear it whenever you wish,” he said. “I will be happy to speak it with you.”

Nuvas ema ir’enastela,” I said. “I appreciate that.”

“It is a little thing,” he said. “Do not mention it.”

“On the contrary,” I said. “It’s kind of you. Tundra ghi'l ma amahn. Lath'in'iseth.

He shook his head at the compliment, rejecting it. “Ame tela tundra, ” he said. His voice was once more that confident, royal voice I had grown used to. He frowned. “No,” he said quietly again. “Do not mistake my knowledge for kindness. I am not kind.”

“All right,” I said, still confused. There was something here I wasn’t grasping, and I knew it. “But… Solas, still. You came to offer comfort, and that means something to me.”

He drew breath to speak, then shook his head. He stood abruptly, and sighed. “I should leave you to rest,” he said, suddenly awkward.

“Thank you for coming,” I said.

He took a few steps toward the stairs, not responding for a moment. Then he stopped, as if conflicted, uncertain, then he turned back to me abruptly. I looked a question at him and he met my astonished eyes with his own, a glance as ferocious and keen as liquid metal.

“Use the pain,” he said.

“What?” I asked, confused.

“Use it,” he said. “The pain and the loss. The regret and the grief. Even the loneliness they have left you with. Use it, all of it. Let it sharpen you like a blade and hone you to a cutting edge.” There was a flash of pain and resolution on his face and his eyes were grey-green fire. I could not look away, and there was nothing else in the world, only the pain and fury and resolution in equal measure there, startling and yet somehow beautiful. “Forgive nothing.”

“Is that what you do?” I asked, staring.

“Of course.”

And then it was just as quickly gone without a trace. The calm unruffled surface was back.

He sighed, quiet and cold again, the embers banked in the ashes once more. Then he bowed his head slightly in farewell, and left.

I suddenly had a lot more to think about.

But I’d appreciated the visit, those flashes of warmth and kindness—even the unexpected and fascinating glimpse of a Solas whose rigid control had slipped, just for a moment.

I just didn’t know how to tell Solas that I wasn’t a blade. I’d never been a blade. Not even a dull one. I might, on a good day, be a spoon.

But it was best not to speak of it. I would just have disappointed him. You see, I wasn’t a blade, a weapon, a thing of sharpness and decision. Even my best spells had been nothing but diversions and fantasies, tricks of the Fade.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him, or anyone: I’d always been too soft.

Chapter Text

The next message came late in the afternoon, two days after the original dispatch about the massacre of my people.

Yet again, the news was devastating. Like the news of most messages these days, evidently. At least after Haven, and the Breach.

It was another missive from Wycome, this one from the local garrison commander, Bruyston, stating that my people’s bodies had not been recoverable, nor had the bodies of the elves that had died beside them in Wycome. The soldiers had burned them all in a mass grave outside the walls, then buried the remains. Men, women, children. All gone. Not even given a fitting farewell or the planting of the sacred trees or a song to Falon’Din. The halla, the report noted, the soldiers had butchered for food.

Sylaise wept.

Worst of all, for all I knew, the commander who’d written the message had probably been one of those doing the killing. Or ordering it. Along with the graves. The burning. The cover-up.

Before the news, I had actually made some small progress toward normalcy. I’d felt like maybe I was rallying from grief, moving forward even in a small way, back to the land of the living. I’d made some notes on herblore, had gotten myself presentable (well, all right, I’d had my first hot bath in two days, had bundled my tangle of freshly washed hair into a reasonably decent braid—at least, out of my face—and had changed into my favorite halla pajamas). I had even considered going to check with Josie on any outstanding or urgent matters I might have missed in my few days of wallowing.

Then I’d gotten the news (quietly and sympathetically delivered by Josie, as before), had looked around my beautiful quarters, and, struck numb and dumb, I had simply gone to bed.

I was just too sad to do anything more.

Maybe four or five hours later, I heard the knock at the downstairs door, and buried my head beneath the pillows. Then I heard the creak as my door opened and shut, and then the steps on the stairs. The fire was out in my disgracefully ashy fireplace, and the room was silent, but for the heavy, steady footfalls that were now making their way around to the side of my bed.

Fenedhis!” I yelled. “GO. AWAY.”

“Why is it so cold in here?” asked a deep voice. I peeked out to see The Iron Bull standing beside the bed. My Qunari captain, who’d stayed with me at Haven to die if necessary, so that our people could escape. The open, self-proclaimed spy. The funniest person in the room. The smartest, too, although few people seemed to realize that fact.

“I let the fire go out,” I said.

A pause. “I see that.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said dully. “Please. Just go away.”

“Not gonna happen, Boss.” He sighed, and sat down next to me. The bed creaked, but held firm. I scooted away slightly but refused to sit up.

“You not doing so well, Boss?”

“No,” I said, and I couldn’t even cry anymore. I could see him looking at me worriedly, but I simply noted the fact as if it was something that had nothing to do with me. “Just let me sleep some more.”

“I don’t think sleep’s going to help,” he said.

“Come on,” he said, shoving me over. “Come on. Sit up and talk to me for a minute.”

“I don’t want to,” I said. But then he shoved me again, genially, and I forced myself to sit up, crossing my arms on top of my pile of blankets, a little shy with Bull here on my actual bed. Bull, the legendary lover people sighed for across Skyhold. And now I was too sad to even enjoy the exciting forbidden frisson of the realization.

It was strange to me now, though, just the memory of how ugly I’d once found him, so many months ago. I remembered when I met him how strange I’d thought he looked—that powerful, massive frame, the muscles not those of a posturing champion; less beautiful than daunting, utilitarian. The hard, flat edges of his nose, cheek, and jaw. The ruined scarring around his left eye. There was simply nothing textbook romantic or handsome there, nothing pretty or easy. The otherworldly arc of the horns above his face as if he were in fact part devil or demon. But no. Just Qunari. Although that was strange enough.

But I still couldn't stop looking. And then one day I realized, I couldn't remember what I wasn't supposed to like about his appearance. I liked the way he laughed, his tenderness to his people, the way he smiled, the clean scent of his sweat when he fought beside me. He looked like he ought to be dirty, but he never actually was, and the pale skin under the dark stubble was gleaming and beautiful even under its scars.

So I’d started flirting. Sending the occasional obvious signals (of course, being me). Batting my eyelashes when our faces weren’t dirty or covered with leaves or cobwebs and things. No response. We continued to go out on missions, and Bull continued to be essential—genial, funny, supportive, and strong. But he ignored all of my attempts at flirtation to the point that I’d had to accept that, obviously, I just wasn’t his type. The realization had stung a little, but he still managed the little moments of kindness or softness that showed me that our friendship mattered, at least, and that was just as important to me anyway.

And now I had actually had him in my bedroom, and on my bed, and I was wasting the moment. It was truly tragic.

“I’m sorry about your people,” he said. “Those fucking soldiers.”

“Thanks, Bull.”

He gave a humorless chuckle. “Doesn’t help, though, does it?”

“No.”

“Well,” he said. “Either way…”

“Thanks.”

A pause. “I heard about what happened after, too.”

“Bull, they burned them,” I said, trying and failing to keep my voice even.

He was silent for a moment. “It’s different for us,” he said. “Under the Qun. The body—whatever is left, it’s not important.”

“It is to me,” I said. “And it’s not just about that. They killed them. Put them to the sword and then treated their bodies like trash. Men, women, children, all. Did you know? They even butchered the halla. And they think they got away with it. They did get away with it.”

He shook his head. “Is it any comfort at all that it didn’t matter to them at that point? To your people? You can only die once.”

I put my face in my hands, then looked back over at him, curious. “What do you do, under the Qun?” I asked.

Bull sighed reflectively, thinking for a few seconds. “It’s usually a thing. We claim or recover one thing, something symbolic, that stands for them. A sword, maybe, for a soldier; a toy for a child, a tool for a craftsperson, that kind of thing.”

“I like that,” I said. “And do you, I don’t know, put them somewhere, to be honored?”

“Sometimes. Sometimes they’re kept in a more ceremonial way. Other times, though, there will be a moment of remembrance, and then the tool or sword or toy goes on to someone else, to be used with honor, as gesture of respect.”

“The soldiers didn’t even leave them that,” I said bitterly. “Nothing was left.”

“Really?” asked Bull.

“No,” I said. “The children, they—they put them in a pit and… like they were trash…” I had to stop. “They didn’t even give them the rites. No trees, no…nothing…”

“Sometimes, Boss,” he said, slowly and with real bitterness, “The world is a shitheap.”

I fought back tears. “I really want to hit something.”

“I know,” he said quietly. He patted the bed. “You can hit me if you want, as long as you get up.”

I looked him over speculatively. “I don’t want to hit you. You’re being too nice to me.”

“Not for much longer,” grinned Bull. “Now let’s go.”

I threw the covers back over my head. “Bull, I’m really not up for it.”

“You should be,” he said. He pulled the covers back and peered in at me. “What if it was something that could help?”

“It won’t.”

“I think it will. So come with me.”

“I won’t.”

“Think about it,” he said.

“I WON’T.” I glared at him, and a tiny scattering of blue sparks fell from the end of my braid and tumbled to the blanket’s surface before going dim. He gave a ghost of a smile; Bull always did like a battle.

“Look,” I said. “I’m tired. I’m sad. And I’m not going anywhere. Nothing I do is going to make anything better.”

“Up.” He shoved the covers back, in one swift movement, and I yelped in outrage, scampering up to the headboard.

“Fenedhis! I could have been naked under there!”

He snorted. “You weren’t.”

“But I could have been.”

“Honestly, Boss?” he said, shrugging, “I’ve seen it all before. You aren’t that careful about closing your tent when you change at camp. So get up.”

Oh, gods.

Fine. Time for some payback. Swiftly, I tapped into the smallest thread of the Fade, then threw my barriers in place (I’ve always been good at barriers), and thanks to my hours of practice on the Storm Coast, I was even pretty good without a staff. I hit him with the slightest touch of Winter’s Grasp as I rolled to the other side of the bed, then jumped away. Not enough to hurt, just enough to slow… But Bull only grinned, and shook off the ice particles in a shower of glittering drops. Although now there was a decidedly dangerous glint in his eye. “Really?”

I backed away toward the sitting area, away from the potential trap of the fireplace and chairs, eyeing him warily. He moved casually around the bed, then moved closer, and I began walking backwards again.

“I don’t care. Whatever you say, I am not going anywhere.” And I sent a beautifully timed Stonefist right at him.

It should have knocked him over. Except that he was prepared for it, and he stepped aside so neatly that I laughed in spite of myself when it thumped my wardrobe with a massive hit of dirt and rubble instead. The wardrobe creaked, then slowly, sadly, fell over like a wounded animal. Bull laughed.

“Crap,” I said.

“Whoops,” said Bull. “You pulling your punches, Boss?”

“Of course I am,” I retorted. “I don’t want to hurt you. I just don’t want to go anywhere. Which is why no fireballs.”

He grinned. “You can hurt me a little. ” I remembered my crush, and fell flat again, inwardly. No. Stop it.

“I should,” I said. “That was all my good outfits.”

“And you only had three to begin with,” commented Bull, chuckling.

“Unfair!” I cried. “I had at least four.”

But he didn’t fall for the diversion. ZAP. He spun and ducked.

“You wish,” he said, rolling his shoulders loosely, balancing forward slightly as he readied himself for the next attack. It was a beautiful movement, casual yet predatory. “That silver thing of yours was terrible.

I grabbed my staff from its place next to my chair, and the next spell, Mind Blast, was a thing of beauty. It hit Bull full on, and he paused… then shrugged. Dammit. He hadn’t gone even momentarily blank. It didn’t surprise me, really—it would take more than that to confuse a guy who could play Mind-Chess. I threw another Stonefist, however, and it hit him squarely in the chest. He staggered slightly, never losing footing… then grinned. He brushed the crumbs of stone from his chest, a glint in his eye.

“There we go,” he said.

“Thank you.” But my trepidation was real, now. I was growing increasingly nervous about how this could end. The longer this went on, the higher the stakes would be. I hadn’t actually meant to start an all-out battle, but this was shaping up to be a pretty good one. Bull watched me, no doubt cataloguing every little emotion in my face for signs of weakness or future reference.

It was why I loved him. It was also why he scared me to death. He never missed a thing.

“We gonna keep doing this?” he asked, then rushed forward so fast he almost reached me. Gods below, I’d forgotten how fast Bull could move. Panicked, I slowed him with barriers and another hit of Winter’s Grasp.

He broke it without even breaking eye contact, still moving with that catfooted eerie grace. “Nice one,” he said, then laughed to himself. “Ice one.”

I made an exasperated Cassandra-noise. “Oof. Bull. That was horrible,” I said.

“Yeah.” He nodded, pleased. “Right? That makes it even better.”

But I ignored the words because he was circling again, almost imperceptibly, and I continued to get nervous, because now he was between me and the open sitting area… and the exit. I recast my barriers, then attacked again with Chain Lightning in a crackle of blue sparks, trying to balance the impact of the hit so that I didn’t actually hurt him.

“You could almost call it shocking,” I said conversationally.

The blow fell. He froze in a sizzle of blue for a brief second, groaned, then laughed. “I should knock you down once just for that one, Boss.”

I bared my teeth. “Try it.”

“Nah,” he grinned. “What’s a little fire between friends?”

“Aw,” I said. “Friendly fire. It’s so sweet of you.”

“Not quite,” he grinned, then rushed me again. And this time, I frankly ran, using Fade Step to go where I had no right to go in the face of that speed. I’d escaped, but I was breathing heavily. Our positions had swapped—he waited easily near the corner by the desk, while I had the entire sitting-room space and hearth again. I should have felt confident, holding the advantage, but I wasn’t foolish enough to do that. He looked too relaxed, too prepared for the next move. I could see him gauging, judging, noting my weaknesses, and for a moment I was almost scared.

No. Honestly? I was scared. Just a little. There was a pit in my stomach, a nervousness. As if suddenly things had gotten real.

Of course, he saw all of this. “You tired, Boss?” he asked wickedly. “Or just rethinking your options?

I paused, trying to catch my breath, watching him narrowly.

Part of me wanted to give up, call truce. I could see him recognizing that, however, and suddenly my irritation and stubbornness were back, as bright as ever. “Oh, don’t worry about me,” I said, bluffing, casual as a walk in a sunny field, yet just as wickedly. “I’ve got all night.”

I threw another lightning blast at him, and he rolled left, neatly for such a big man, then rebounded to his feet. The electricity I’d sent hit the wine bottle on the table instead (regrettably, one of Dorian’s good ones), and instantly the curtains overhanging the balcony exit went up in blue flame. I stared, appalled, as the room filled with dark blue smoke. Then, in a panic, coughing, I sent the smoke out through the balcony with a rush of magic (balcony doors opening in a whoosh), and he laughed.

“Huh. People will think we elected a new Divine,” he teased. But he’d already used my lapse to move closer. He was back on my side of the bed, and suddenly my awareness of the staircase behind me was more than a little terrifying. I needed to widen the space between him and me, so I sent another Stonefist (purposely mistargeted) so that he turned to the left, even as I darted right, toward the merrily burning balcony, and where I hoped he wouldn’t expect me to go. He took the bait, yet was fast enough that he reached out, narrowly missing me, then I rolled across the desk, putting it between him and me. He grinned appreciatively.

Nice one, Boss.”

But I was trapped once more, and not in a good position. I was also panting raggedly. “Dammit, you’re fast. I can’t be as fast as you.”

He shrugged, that hard gleam back in his eye. “It’s an art.”

Then he charged, with shocking swiftness, right across the damn desk, and I threw myself to the side, then rolled across the bed frantically back toward the sitting area.

Even as I stood, trying desperately to regain my footing, he was there to meet me, catching me efficiently by the braid. I spun against him, stunned, as he chuckled. A pause as we breathed and I realized just how trapped I was. He smelled pleasantly like smoke and leather, and I was pleased to realize he was now gasping too, just a little.

“You done, Boss?” he asked.

I pushed against him and it was like shoving a wall. “Not a chance,” I said shortly, then reflexively sent out a blast of electricity again. He froze again, momentarily, and I broke free, ducking, but even as I turned, he was there to meet me yet again, just as before. Panicked, I parried, then maneuvered away, breathlessly, with Fade Step.

I emerged, whirled and tried to catch my balance (he was still being pretty gentlemanly thus far by not actually attempting to hit me in any way, although I certainly deserved it by now; instead he was still simply trying rather to catch me), but there he was again, parrying.

It was like a dance now, something with its own rules, and always he managed to stay near, always just one step away. It was like he could anticipate what I was thinking, and boom, there he was. It was disconcerting, to say the least. We paused, regarding one another—him calm, me tiring rapidly.

I felt like I’d been hit by a druffalo, while Bull looked as fresh and cheerful as the beginning of a sparkling new day.

It just wasn’t fair.

I thought about my options. I could probably get to the stairs behind me, but that was exactly what he wanted me to do. And he was too close now. No more room for mistakes.

A crackle from the curtains, which were now a merry conflagration over the entire balcony. I eyed it and winced. A few sparks from the blaze were also drifting down and making a mess of my desk below. I just hoped the bookshelves survived. At least my lute was away from the danger zone, for now.

Meanwhile, those hangings were probably priceless ancient heirlooms or something. I wasn’t paid for my role as Inquisitor, exactly, but if I was, I assumed that massive chunks of whatever treasury we possessed would now be allocated to fix it. It was embarrassing.

Watching me, Bull chuckled, low, in that intimate way he had that you could feel in your sternum. We were circling again, no longer facing off with most of the room between us, but with just a few feet or so instead. Now my back was to the greater part of the room. And I now looked longingly at the staircase behind him (I realized in a rush that it might be time for me to simply consider outright escape).

“You do know that Josie’s gonna kill you, right?” he asked. “How are you going to explain that?”

“Grief,” I said conversationally, trying to catch my breath. “Target practice. My Mark malfunctioned.”

“That could work,” he smiled. “But, oh… there go the bookshelves.” Casual and conversational. “You might want to put that out.”

A simple gambit. Too simple. I glanced back in spite of myself, panicked, and even as I realized my error, he’d charged me again, and I simply wasn’t fast enough to step away this time.

The predictable outcome was that somehow, in a confusing succession of perhaps two terrifying seconds, the world turned around and I lost up from down, as Bull caught me in a grasp I couldn’t shake, and in a moment I simply found myself on the floor, with Bull triumphant and panting slightly on top of me.

Oof,” I said.

“You’re it, Boss,” he said. And he smiled.

Oh, gods.

Chapter Text

“Easy, Boss,” Bull said soothingly. “Just breathe.”

I lay motionless, slightly stunned and trying to remember how my lungs worked. Bull, seeing this, grinned and raised himself to his elbows, distributing his weight to his arms and to a slightly bent knee, and allowing me to breathe again. There was still an awful lot of Bull on, over and around me, but at least I didn’t feel any longer like I was in danger of actual suffocation. Besides, it wasn’t as if it was an unpleasant experience. In his own way, as always, he smelled just as wonderful as Dorian.

First, however, I had to try to remember how to catch my breath.

“I forgot,” I said, gasping. “You always think of how to kill everyone you meet.”

“Of course.”

“So this is how you’d kill me,” I said, meeting his eye.

His face went grim, yet almost tender. “Yeah,” he said. “You’re easy to distract.”

“It would be fast, right?”

A slight breath, then he nodded. “Yep. Two hits. Floor. Neck. Done.” He touched my neck, momentarily, to show me the place, a soft, glancing touch of his fingers there that was both warm and clinical, and I went still, thinking about it. The killing blow, demonstrated with so much gentleness. I was very conscious of the floor beneath me, and of Bull, above me. I could feel him breathing too. Even after our sparring, his heartbeat was slower than mine.

“I figured,” I said. He looked so strange—amused, but sad. “Should I say my prayers?” I asked.

He smiled again, and that dark humor was back in his eye. “I’ve never found much use for them.”

“Me neither,” I admitted.

“Really, Boss?” he said. “What about all that gods above and gods below stuff?”

I was still panting. “I run the gamut where the gods are concerned. Better safe than sorry.”

He chuckled, and I tried to continue to find and slow my breathing, which was difficult not just from the exertions but because I was shy under him and suddenly nervous. I had never been so close to him for such a prolonged period before. I felt a prickle of anxiety, but also of quiet power… something had shifted; something about the situation had opened him up, made him vulnerable. It wasn’t just me on edge here. On the other hand, now that we weren’t fighting anymore, the grief was back again, and very close, waiting in the wings.

“So. You gonna get up and come with me?” he asked.

I blinked, hard. “That depends,” I said. “You going to turn back time and give me back my people?”

“Aw, shit,” he said. He sighed.

“I know,” I answered, mournfully. “That wasn’t fair.” But I was sad again. I didn’t want to get up. I wanted to stay here. Maybe to keep fighting Bull. Or just rolling around with him on the floor before the fireplace. Because he was continuing to smell amazing. Like clean sweat, musk, and beautifully worn leather. I mean, I breathed deep and my mouth actually watered. It was crazy. I’d already been dealing with my not-so-private crush, and this wasn’t helping matters. I turned crimson, and found myself both glad and yet privately disappointed that I hadn’t, in fact, been sleeping naked when he found me.

“I don’t suppose we could make a deal?” I asked, trying not to look obvious as I took another whiff. But I saw him notice, though, and laughed as he tried not to smile in spite of himself. Don’t mind me. Just trying to grab what I can from the moment, I thought. And besides, I was so damned tired of crying.

A glint from Bull’s eye. “Like what?”

I thought wildly. “Dawnstone armor? A cool sword?”

“I can get those anytime I want,” he said.

“Faster dispatches?” I asked. “To Par Vollen? Dagna could probably work up something semi-magical.”

“Hmm,” he said dryly. “Not really high up on my priority list.”

“Oh, really?” I asked, and now I was the one with the glint in my eye. Because he was doing a lovely job of dissembling but we both knew he still worked for the Qun. He still reported regularly to Par Vollen. He knew it. I knew it. It hadn’t been an issue yet… but it would be, at some point. That day would come.

Meanwhile, he watched me calmly, obviously reading my mind again. “I’m not here for the Qun,” he said. “And you know that.”

I was silent for a few seconds.

“Or you should,” he added quietly.

Suddenly I wanted to cry again. I was so alone here. I’d lost everyone who’d ever had a memory of me that spanned years. Sure, I liked these people, cared about them. But I’d only known any of them for months. But now they were all I would ever have. Everyone else was gone.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I’m so easy to lie to,” I said, frustrated.

“I’m not lying,” he said.

“Okay,” I responded. I was too tired to argue.

“You should trust me more, Boss,” he said.

“Right,” I said, shrugging in turn.

“But first you should get up,” he said, teasingly, and I managed to smile a little. “Come on.”

“Wait,” I said, desperately. I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t want to move. “The trade. What can I trade? Isn’t there anything? Think.”

“Hmmm, possibilities, possibilities,” said Bull softly, and my entire midsection flip-flopped gleefully.

It didn’t help that I was having a difficult time not getting distracted again. Because here (it has to be said), I was definitely seeing Bull at his best. This was a terrific vantage point. Standing up, he tended to loom, to fill  spaces. I was always seeing him from the side, or from below, with the focus on his bulk, as if he were a self-aware and sentient wall. Here, he was at his most gorgeous—downright splendid—all shoulders, biceps, silky, silvery pale skin, and that narrow wicked smile against the dark beard and hawklike features.

In other words, my previous crush was back with a vengeance, and basically, I was happy to stay here for as long as I could distract him.

Besides… I realized something else, and it shocked me a little—that I didn’t really mind what was happening, that he’d immobilized me. I wasn’t panicking or scared, or flashing back to terrifying occurrences in forests with Templars. I trusted him (or at least, my body did—my mind, of course, was sending out all sorts of alarms and I was doing my best to ignore them). But part of me actually liked it. I felt safe. And then I did get a little scared. Of myself.

Not that I’d tell Bull any of that. Although he was probably reading every one of my expressions and interpreting them anyway.

I tried to maintain my dignity but I was struggling. I haven’t mentioned this fact, but Bull was hot. And I mean, literally hot; he actually seemed to exude heat.

“What possibilities?” I asked, and smiled in spite of myself.

“Ah,” he chuckled. “I’m not so sure that’s a door you want to open.”

Shit. Yes, it is, I thought. I really, really want to open that door.

Except for the part where I was scared to death. Because I still wasn’t entirely sure I could trust him. My divided friend and captain. The guy with two loyalties who acted like they were no big deal. And that was a thousand-word conversation, not a dalliance in the ashes in front of my fireplace.

Meanwhile, Bull just looked at me steadily, as if daring me to back off, and I felt myself go warmer all over in spite of myself—even warmer than before.The worst part, of course, was knowing I was showing every single thing, flushed in a freezing cold room beneath one of the two men I’d felt anything of a spark for in the past eight months. But aside from the humiliation of being so easy to read, it was actually enjoyable… the room was chilly, but proximity to Bull was better than a lit fireplace.

“Stop stalling,” he said. “Come on, let’s go. You lost.”

“Oof,” I said again, frustrated. I'd really gotten a handle on making the disgusted-noise-sound. Cassandra would be proud. “Can’t we just stay here for a minute more? Please?” My voice was sad again in spite of myself.

He let out a slow breath, then adjusted his elbows slightly, and I realized there was really not much I could do with my hands that didn’t involve touching him in some way. My hands curled around his wrists where they held me beneath him, taking my tacit agreement to our current scenario a step further. His skin was like hot silk. I felt shy but he merely grinned again. He didn’t seem to mind. I certainly didn’t.

I took a breath. Holy gods. “You know, Bull…”

“Yeah?”

“You smell really good.” I said. First off, because it was true, and secondly, because I was feeling momentarily brave, and thirdly, because I was absolutely willing to flirt my way out of socializing or leaving this room.

“Huh?” he asked. The look of confusion on his face was the best thing that had happened to me in days.

“Well,” I said. “I mean… I don’t suppose I could tempt you…”

“Yes?”

“… with my feminine wiles?” I asked hopelessly. Somehow I knew I’d already oversold it.

“Interesting,” he said, teasing. “If I thought you were serious… I might take you up on it.” His eye glinted, and he dipped his head closer to look me in the eye. I caught my breath, dropping mine in spite of myself. Waiting and breathless. An impending kiss. I reached up to meet him, but he paused… then stopped, looking at me closely.

I scowled, then sighed, exasperated. He gave that slight smile again, and shook his head. Kissing distance. But no kiss. “Nice try, Boss. But you’re not serious.”

“Yes I am!”

He shook his head, slightly. “Nope. Not in the right way.”

“Right way? What’s the right way?” I asked, frustrated. “Fucking Ben-Hassrath,” I muttered, and he laughed. “You’re just playing with me again.”

“You’re the one who’s playing,” he said, shrugging, and setting off a few more confusing and wonderful feelings at various points along the rest of my body underneath him.

“I’m not.” I started to panic a little, though. Suddenly things were a little too real.

“Hmmm,” he said.

“Well,” I pointed out. “I flirt with you all the time and all you do is look at me like I’m a—a wandering fennec.” I did feel a few seconds of depression again here because, after all, I wasn’t exactly at my most attractive right now, and I knew it—not at this precise moment, tearstained and mussed and tangled and crimson on the floor next to the ashes, dust-bunnies and dust-nugs. It was just a fact. I wasn’t a knockout under the best of circumstances, but now I was suddenly trying to romance Bull, of all people, with red eyes, a sniffly nose, and the weight of the world on my soul. Gah. And he was actually talking about it.

 “Uh-huh,” he said skeptically.

“I’ve been serious,” I said, nettled. “You just never even respond when I do. So now I’m… a little… off balance.”

He thought about it, then surprised me by nodding, a ghost of a smile on his face. “All right, Boss,” he said, amused. “Let me have it.”

“Really?” I asked, delighted and slightly terrified at the same time.

“Really.”

“Okay.” I tried to think of something seductive to say. I ran a shy hand along his arm next to my head, and his skin was, again, unexpectedly soft. My heart sped up. I didn’t want talk; I wanted action. But he was watching me, amused, and so I took a deep breath and prepared my potential charm attacks.

Want to satisfy a demand of the Qun?

Um, no, he probably didn’t.

Is that a dragon in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

Oh, gods save me. No.

Have you read the latest issue of Swords and Shields?

Fenedhis. Besides, he probably had.

Want to watch me… race a horse?

Nope. Not sexy at all.

Flailingly, and finally: Do you like toast? went my idiotic mind. The embarrassing part was, this was still probably my best flirt.

Crap.

I’d once been good at all of this. What had I done back then? I tried to think, reaching back for the confident woman I’d once been. Well, for one thing, I certainly hadn’t talked this much.

His eye, of course, had watched every flicker of every thought with amusement.

Finally, I had to admit defeat. “Dammit,” I said. “It’s too much pressure. My mind’s suddenly a blank,” I said. “I had this thing where I was going to ask you about the demands of the Qun, but then it got weird.”

“That’s all you’ve got?” He chuckled, and I felt it everywhere, and suddenly I got shy again; it all felt a lot too much like sex for me. In the best way. At a certain point, with a guy you trust, and who smells amazing, your body just doesn’t care whether the friction is sexual or otherwise… it’s out of your hands and your body’s making those decisions for you.

“Well, yeah,” I admitted. “I panicked. I had another one about a dragon in your pocket but that one got weird too. They were all disasters after the part where I told you how good you smell. That was probably the high point.”

“You’re flirting, right? This is you, flirting?”

“Yes,” I said sadly. An embarrassing pause. I’d blown it. “Sorry,” I said. “I used to be much better at it.”

“Really?” asked Bull, amused. “What happened?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe too much time alone on the Storm Coast. I lost all my powers of flirtation.”

“Are you sure you ever had them? I don’t think that what you just did remotely qualifies as flirtation,” said Bull, dryly.

“I’ve never been a great talker under the best of circumstances,” I admitted dolefully, “although I do have to point out that I’m flirting by the light of my flaming balcony curtains. You can’t buy romance like that.”

“True,” he said, smiling. That faintest glimpse of tenderness in his face again, as if in spite of himself.

Heartened, I curled my hands over his. “Besides,” I said. “I didn’t even mention how much I like toast. That one’s usually my big finish. Although I already tried it on you at least three different times at camp.”

He burst out laughing, full-on and out loud.

I scowled. “What?”

“Well,” he said. “All this time, see, Boss, I just thought you really liked toast.”

“Liar,” I said, rolling my eyes. “You knew what I was doing. But nice try.”

“Perhaps,” he said, then sighed. "But either way, we have got to get you out more. And speaking of which…”

No, no, no. I didn't want to talk about leaving. I wanted to stay here. I made a face. “Do I get bonus points for admitting it was true?”

“That what was true?”

“That you smelled good?”

“Sure,” he said. “Uh, thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” I said.

Shit. Silence. My braid had begun to unravel, and I tried glumly to blow a big hunk of dark curly hair out of my eye without success and it flopped back into my face. Bull grinned again, then gently pushed it away.

I felt sad again. Everything was a disaster.

“Do I smell good?” I asked. “Come on. Give me something here.”

“Sure,” he said. “You have this scent, it’s a little like strawberries. It’s nice.” And his eye gleamed at me.

Excellent. Feminine wiles for the win!

Unfortunately, he kept speaking. “When you step on them.”

“What?”

“Strawberries. But when you step on them. Like, that crushed scent.”

Oh holy halla. I was depressed again. “Great,” I said. “That’s terrific. I smell like rancid fruit.”

He smiled again. “It’s better than you might think.” He leaned in swiftly and, surprising me, sniffed under my right ear, and the air instantly heated; the unexpected closeness caused me to both shiver and to continue to turn a variety of new shades. Gods below.

“You know, you smell a little like that now, actually,” he said in my ear, his voice low, warm and intimate. My entire body went on alert and I caught my breath. For a microsecond, the faintest crackle of blue enveloped the both of us, and a few feet away, the smoldering balcony curtains burst into fresh blue flame. I shut my eyes but as always, my powers were tied to my body, not to my mind, when it mattered most.

He laughed again, softly and silkily against my neck, and I shivered again, wondering if it were possible to die of lust and embarrassment at the same time. Not a scenario I’d ever imagined for myself. At the same time, I became aware that he was also, in fact, responding to the situation in ways that were beyond even his cool control, because certain things were also happening decidedly lower down. He pulled back slightly, then looked at my lips, then back to my eyes, and I was delighted to see that he was openly thinking of kissing me. I went hot, then cold, then hot again, heart pounding. But neither of us spoke. We were silent, and I listened to him breathing. And to the gentle crackle of my burning balcony curtains.

If our tussle had been a map, we were now in the territory at the edge, the one that read Here there be dragons. These were definitely uncharted waters.

Total triumph. Total panic.

However, in my defense…  It was like asking for a penny and having someone drop two tons of gold from a dragon’s hoard on top of your head. And worst of all, he was close enough that I could envision myself actually doing something I’d always wanted to do with Bull, which was to lick his neck. Which would trigger, probably, a fantastic if disastrous complete and utter point of no return in terms of whether or not this was going to get sexual. (I don’t think a lot of people back off from a neck lick. It's just a fact of life.)

I could actually see that moment, taste it. And he saw it. Every single flicker on my face.

I flushed to my hairline. Again. So my response, of course, was to utterly destroy any possibility that it would occur.

I simply shut down. I was just… I wasn’t prepared to get physical with Bull on an instant’s notice. I needed to prepare myself for these kinds of scenarios. I was panicked. I was in my stupid halla pajamas. I wanted a dress. To brush my hair. To imbibe a glass of wine or two for confidence. Most of all, to be carrying out this entire scenario in joy and humor and open lust, and without the private worry about who exactly his allegiances actually tied him to. Much less with the weight of the loss of my people behind it.

I just needed everything to be different. And then this moment would be perfect.

“Thank you,” I said. “But what are your feelings on toast? Do you like cheese?”

He stared for a split-second, amused and irritated. Then he pulled back, shaking his head, and the air cooled palpably.

“Boss,” he said. “Do you ever know what you want?”

I thought about it. “I used to,” I said honestly. “Not so much anymore.”

He let out a slow breath. “Then figure it out,” he said. He adjusted himself comfortably on his elbows again, and I couldn’t help but agree with Bull. I didn’t know what I wanted. For instance, I had no idea what my goal was here. Did I want him to get up… or not to get up? To stay or to leave? I mean, here we were, Bull and me, lying on the floor, sweaty and snarking at each other. And I admit that while he was heavy and a little stifling, I was certainly enjoying myself. Because there was still an awful lot of “I’m getting horizontal with Bull” going on. Grief or no grief, disaster or no disaster, this was still more fun than it had any right to be.

“So,” I asked. “You didn’t really see me naked at camp, right?”

He grinned.

“Shit,” I said. “Hells and halla. So unfair!”

“Why?”

“Beyond fighting a lot of people and creatures who tried to kill me first, in a variety of ways,” I said, “all I’ve seen in eight months is Solas’s pants on fire, Varric’s chest hair, Vivienne's cleavage, and Sera’s ass.”

“Boss,” he said. “Everyone’s seen Sera’s ass. As in, all of Skyhold.”

The room was going dark and cold again. “I should light the fireplace,” I said, musing.

“Yeah. Sure,” he smiled. “Besides, your curtains are going out.”

The curtains were, in fact, finally dying. I could see them fizzling pathetically over the open balcony, the cold night sky beyond. So much symbolism if I was actually looking for it.

I winced as a big hunk of smoldering, charred curtain drifted down to the desk. The room smelled like old smoke. I felt tired again. “I messed this up,” I said, looking at him steadily. “Didn’t I?”

“Boss,” he said. “Sometimes you actually do make me sad.”

“I know,” I sniffled. “Me too.” The interlude, whatever it had been, was over, and we both knew it. I sighed. “Okay. Now let me up.”

“Are you gonna come with me?” His eye glinted dangerously.

“No.”

“Liar. You’ve already decided to come with me,” he said. “You’re just not quite ready to admit it yet.”

I was silent for a second. “Someday when we are not lying on a floor,” I said conversationally, “Maybe you could teach me that thing where you don’t show every emotion that you have, or in ways that can be seen from neighboring hilltops. Because I would really like to learn that.”

Somehow at the end, it got sadder than I expected.

He smiled, then reached over and tickled my nose with the end of my braid, gently teasing. “I don’t want you to learn that, Boss,” he said. “Now come on.”

“Oof,” I said. Then I wanted to cry again. It had been so lovely to forget for a few minutes, to play games with Bull. But now my grief was back in full swing. A weight even heavier than Bull, and far, far less welcome. “Fine. Okay, you won. Really, Bull. Let me up.”

“Of course,” he said. Immediately, he pulled back and bounced to his feet in a few beautifully controlled movements while I was still gasping slightly, compensating (and grieving) for the sudden loss of warmth, at the rush of cold air, and most of all, for the absence of all-over Bull-ness. Then he reached down a gentlemanly hand. I took it, and he hauled me up.

I tried to get my bearings. He was calm and solid, as if the past ten minutes had never happened, while I was wobbly and confused, swaying and miserable. And freezing again.

“Get dressed,” he said. “It’ll be worth it.”

“But I told you I don’t want to see people.” I said. “Can’t we just stay here and fight some more?”

“Nope.”

“Best two out of three?”

“Nope.”

I thought of a few more options, and I could see him waiting for what those might be. Depressing to be outmaneuvered before you even make a move. I looked around, only now realizing the absolutely disastrous state of my quarters. My bureau and several smaller tables were wrecked beyond usability, the burnt shreds of curtain still fluttered over my balcony door, my fireplace ashes now covered half the room, and everywhere I’d cast Stonefist there was a litter of rubble and dirt.

He was right. Josie would kill me. I sank defeated onto the edge of my bed. Suddenly, the sorrow was back as if it had never left, and even more devastating upon return. The world was back. And I was so, so tired.

He came over to stand in front of me, merciless and kind. “Up.”

“They burned them, Bull!” I cried. I hit him. It was like hitting a wall. And just as painful. I tried again and it was just as pathetic, and I stopped, because this shit was just getting even more embarrassing at every step. “They burned them. Even the babies, the kids, the little ones…” I started crying again. “I don’t have anyone left. Everyone I loved is ashes. So no, I can’t go anywhere. I can’t see people. I just don’t have it in me, Bull.”

He knelt in front of me and wiped the tears away with his thumb. Then he sighed.

“Eliaden,” he said softly.

I looked up, surprised.

“Just trust me, huh?”

He’d never said my name before. Not once, not in the eight months we’d known each other. Never. I’d always been the genial ‘Boss.’ Now he was just watching me, quiet, composed, and waiting me out. Inexorable as time.

Shit. It was the name that did it. As I’m sure he’d known it would. “All right,” I said, relenting. “Fucking Ben-Hassrath. Playing mind-tricks on me.”

He raised an eyebrow, and stood. “But look how well they work.”

“I don’t care,” I said. “Just don’t you even dare think about hugging me.”

“I’m not going to hug you, Boss,” he said, chuckling. “That last hit of lightning was painful.” I ignored him and sighed, then got up and started to grab whatever I could from the disaster around my room to make myself presentable. I threw on the gurtskin slippers that Leliana hated, and shrugged myself into Dorian’s beautiful blue Tevinter robe. I capped it all off with the golden blanket Cassandra had brought me, throwing it around myself like a cape. Bull was waiting at the sitting area near the stairs, and he chuckled as he looked back.

“Um. You going like that?”

I felt a pang of uncertainty, then doubled down. Halla jammies. Robe. Slippers. Blanket. Check. If I was leaving my quarters tonight, this was as good as it was going to get. “Yes,” I said, daring him to say anything else.

“Works for me,” he said, shrugging.

I followed him, then realized we were heading down from my quarters and out of the castle proper, straight out the main hall. When we started down the steps, I quailed. Oh, dear.

“We're going to the tavern?”

“Yes,” he said. “It’ll make you feel better.”

“Nothing will make me feel better,” I said.

“I know,” he said. “Now come on.”

I followed.

 

 

Chapter Text

Bull and I headed for the tavern’s open door. Even from outside, it sounded like a busy night, and I was suddenly feeling less cavalier about my fashion choices. For one thing, I really should have brushed my hair, currently a long snarled braid languishing forlornly over my shoulder. My hair was basically its own small country at the best of times. And this wasn’t one of those best-of-times. A lot of it had escaped the braid, for instance, during my tussle with Bull. And at one point yesterday after a little wine, I vaguely remembered thinking bangs might be a nice change (hence, the chunks of hair in my face at inopportune moments during our tussle). Another colossal mistake.

Fenedhis. I panicked. “Bull, I’m in my pajamas,” I said.

“Yeah, I noticed,” he grinned.

Oh, well. They’d seen me worse. Certainly they would again.

I shrugged and followed Bull inside.

We walked into the tavern, and I felt myself go pale and a bit cold, nervously shrinking away from people’s eyes at first. I regretted my flippant decision to show up as an unholy Dalish mess, but it was more than that. I felt shy, a little cautious of their sympathy. I was still just a touch foreign to a few, after all. Some of the workers on the scaffoldings around Skyhold still dropped things when I walked by, startled and on alert, afraid I’d zap them with the green fire of my left hand. Occasionally, in these moments, I’d briefly thought of scaring them, of raising my hand slightly as if to close a Rift in the very halls of Skyhold. Then I’d felt bad, because if I’d been in their shoes, I would have probably been afraid too… or at least, on alert.

Anyway, tonight was different. It was the Herald’s Rest, and I trusted Bull.

As we entered, I realized it was a busy night indeed at the tavern. Yet I saw no sign of antipathy or judgment in their faces as we entered. Everyone was so quiet, so tentatively kind. The torches shone with bright and golden radiance, welcoming me. The music was muted and warm and lovely, just a quiet song on Maryden’s lute.

Even as we entered, I saw Bull metamorphose slightly, yet again. I was learning quickly that there was never just one Bull. He seemed to have a subtly different persona for every situation. Here, for instance, he was a bit cooler, more remote—almost businesslike, and most of the intimacy from our previous sparring session was gone. Me, I’d still be processing the entire incident and what came after it for the next twenty-four hours… or twenty-four days… but evidently he was back to being his usual bluff, detached self.

However, Bull’s very brusqueness was actually the thing that was keeping me functioning, focused. I walked through the crowd, a little daunted. Bull, however, steered me straight over to a corner (for which I thanked him, silently and fervently) then plunked me gently down at a table next to Krem. While I was still quietly greeting Krem, Bull had already poured from a pitcher on the table into a sizeable tankard and then set it down before me.  Then he sat down opposite me (filling most of the entire other side of the small table). I raised my eyebrows, looking from the mug to Bull, who was watching me expectantly.

“Have a drink, Boss,” he said.

I stared at the heavy, slightly dented mug, puzzled. Even from this distance, it smelled… utilitarian. Pungent. Like the mixture that Cassandra used to polish her armor. Only worse.

I wavered. “Why?”

“Because you need to forget a few things tonight,” he said. His lips smiled but his eye was serious. “And maraas-lok is very good for that.”

“It is, your Worship,” said Krem.

“Please don’t call me that, Krem,” I said, pained.

“Sorry, your W—uh, ma’am,” said Krem, and I laughed. “But have a drink.

“Um,” I said, staring down the mug.

“And just want to say, me and the boys are all very sorry about your people,” he added.

“I know that,” I said quietly. I reached over and hooked a finger through the handle, nudging it reluctantly towards me. Krem grinned at how slowly the mug was moving. Finally, Bull reached over and with a hint of exasperation plonked it inches in front of my face, making a kind of “Hrrrrf” noise.

“Not to worry. Chief knows what he’s about on this one.”

I picked it up and sniffed, then recoiled. “Holy gods that smells bad.”

Bull chuckled. “It is bad. Now drink it.”

Oh, hells, hells, and hilltops.

I drank, gasping as the fiery cold clean liquor ran down my throat (instantly numbing and burning it all at the same time). I coughed, then breathed deeply (when I could manage it), but Bull still wasn’t done. He was still sitting there, waiting for something.

“What?” I asked, irritated, wiping my eyes and gasping for breath. “What now? I’m drinking. What else do you want me to do? I don’t sing and I don’t dance, just to make that clear.”

Krem smiled, poured from a pitcher, and passed me back my mug as smoothly as a dancer, Bull’s one eye was suddenly very grey and very clear as he looked at me.

“Boss,” he said. “I want you to tell me and Krem here and everyone else every single story you can remember about your people. The ones you’ve lost. Every single story.”

And that was it.

As usual when it mattered, I’d lost the ability to speak.

Krem nodded. “That’s why we’re here, Your Worship,” he said. “That’s why we’re all here.”

I looked around, and realized that, yes, they were indeed all there, all my advisers and companions. My friends and family of the past eight months. Leliana and Josie watchful and kind at a nearby table, a red curl of Leliana’s hair curving gorgeously against her pale cheek in the lamplight. Cullen at the bar and fidgeting next to Dorian (who was visibly delighted at the proximity; I could almost hear him purring from across the room). Cole watching sweetly yet curiously in the corner where Bull normally lounged. Viv dismissive and elegant with a glass of pale wine as far from Cole as possible. Varric and Cass at two separate but adjacent nearby tables, Varric lifting a tankard to me with a quiet smile. Sera sprawled next to another table where one of the barmaids was flirting, as Blackwall, across from her, hunched over his mug like an eagle over a potentially tasty rabbit. Scout Harding at a nearby table with the rest of the Chargers; she raised a glass with an open smile as I met her eye.

Only Solas, I’d realized, was not here. I looked around the room again, double-checking, oddly sad at his absence, then caught Bull looking at me, no doubt waiting for me to start the storytelling. I swallowed hard, pausing just to take in the fact that while I’d been barricaded in my quarters, so sure I’d been alone, so certain my grief would do nothing but harm my friends… they’d actually been worried about me. Not because of the Mark (I still couldn’t call it “the Anchor” – it was the opposite of an Anchor to me) or because of my value politically. But because, like it or not, I was one of them now.

I took a very deep, slow breath. This moment.

For a minute or two, the grief for my people subsided beneath the love and gratitude I felt for those here. I saw it all, in a moment of sudden illumination and realization, bright as Veilfire. Yes, I had lost my people. But… perhaps… these were my people too.

The Inquisition wasn’t just something I led, I realized, something that caged me. It was also something that held me, protected me, even loved me. And I already knew I loved them back; that I would die for each one of them.

Now, everyone in the room, I saw, was watching us with a kind of quiet sympathy, even with love. For the first time, I realized, I didn’t have to do this alone. All of these people, some of whom I’d fought beside, some who’d risked their lives for me or me for them; others that I’d yanked out of the fires in Haven, still others who barely knew me—all of them had come here to show me sympathy and support in my loss. I was sorry Solas wasn’t here, but I wasn’t angry; he’d expressed what he had needed to, he’d shown support where he could, and I had more than understood.

I saw it all so clearly. The maraas-lok was doing amazing things for my powers of perception.

I stood up, pulling my blanket around me with as much dignity as I could muster. “Thank you,” I said. “Thank you all.” My voice was a little unsteady, but on the other hand I was still upright. And miracle of miracles, I was still no longer weeping. For the past four days, at least, it was a personal record.

Heartened, I plowed forward. “And, uh, sorry about… this,” I said, gesturing at my ensemble. “I wasn’t expecting to be social.” Vivienne grimaced, Dorian let out a small sound of actual pain, while Leliana rolled her eyes, but there was also a decent amount of quiet laughter that rippled around me, and I smiled, encouraged.

I raised my mug, a little embarrassed to be doing this so publicly. “Now… please join me in a toast to Clan Lavellan.”

“To Clan Lavellan,” they echoed. Everyone raised a mug or glass, then drank.

I blinked hard, then sat back down as fast as I could, face flaming, and silently focused all my energy on the rough wood of the table before me, simply trying to maintain silence and any sense of control. A tiny scatter of blue sparks drifted down from my eyelashes and I laughed in spite of myself.

I took a cleansing, calming breath, then sat up straight. “I have to say something,” I said to Bull and Krem. “So bear with me through a bit of elven.” Then I quietly and rapidly recited the final words to Falon’Din so many of my clan would have known:

Lethanavir, raj’varithelan, ea el’ghi’lan
Ove tel’run alas’enala, i tel’syl tarasylen

Then I breathed again, and nodded to myself in acceptance. It was done. I pulled myself together, even as Maryden began to sing a Dalish Suledin that I had taught her, her voice clear and high and pure, and I saw Cabot wordlessly send over another pitcher.

This time, I drank my mugful and was pleased to realize I couldn’t really taste it anymore. I tossed this one back like it was water, and it was a truly beautiful thing. I wasn’t drunk yet, but the world had gone a little soft, a little muted. And that was perfectly fine with me. In fact, numbness was the best feeling in the world right now. I decided I needed a lot more of it. Even my sparks had gone dark again.

As the quiet talk around us began again, I looked over at Bull and wished I could find better, more powerful words for what I wanted to say. But I couldn’t. “Thanks,” I said at last, trying to imbue it with every ounce of gratitude that I could. “Really.”

“Nahh,” he said, shrugging.

“And sorry about that one shot of Chain Lightning.”

“It goes both ways. You’re probably not gonna be happy with me tomorrow, either.”

“True,” I said wryly. Another ghost of a smile, and for the briefest flash, I knew he hadn’t forgotten a single moment that had happened between us earlier. Then I saw his eyes move to my left.

“The curtains went out,” said a voice, sadly. “So bright for a moment, but they didn’t last.”

I looked up to see Cole standing next to us, watching me closely.  

“Hello, Cole,” I said.

“Hello. You’re better,” he said. “Saner, sadder, but softer.”

“Thank you,” I said. “And thank you for being here for me.”

“You needed it. You needed the help.”

I reached up and squeezed his hand impulsively, and he shrugged. His hands were long-fingered and thin, but strong, and dry and cold, as if he were standing in a chill I couldn’t feel myself. His eyes went unfocused for a moment, and I looked at him with slight concern.

“You wanted something, yet you didn’t take it,” he said. He didn’t move, pale eyes staring at me quizzically. He stood motionless, listening.

“Cole,” I said, exasperated. “Not. Now.

“And now you have ashes in your hair.”

I reached back, frantically attempting to smooth my horrible messy braid. “I do?”

“From the floor,” he said. Even without looking, I saw the flash of Bull’s grin across the table. “And on your back. And they’re in your heart, too.”

 “Um, that,” I said hastily. “Not to worry, it’s okay. I’ll take care of it later.”

“You can only wash some of them away,” said Cole. “Not all. It’s not fair.”

“I know,” I said. “It’s all right. I will do something with them later—the other ashes.”

“Such a strange place to learn a lesson,” he said. “The floor. But you wish you were back there now,” he said, his forehead creasing slightly in puzzlement. “You liked it. You liked it more than you expected to.”

Cole!” I cried, before I could help myself. I did not look at Bull, but caught a glimpse of a slight grin from Krem. Curses.

Do you like toast?” he asked. “Why did you say that? You wanted to say something else. Do something else.”

Deep breaths and Dalish mantras. A split second of boiling air around me, and oh, gods, but at least I hadn’t set anything on fire. Bull burst out laughing, and I resisted the urge to cover my face, dying a little inside. “It’s fine, Cole.”

“It doesn’t matter. It’s all right,” he smiled, relieved slightly as if he’d seen what he needed to. “It worked. You’re better. Cleaner, clearer, the killing blow that calmed…” He cocked his head. “But confused?”

I flushed, not looking around at the rest of the table. Please, oh gods above, give me a Rift. A small Rift. That would be just lovely. And let Krem be watching Maryden and not hearing this. Nope. A quick sideways glance and Krem was very much present, and avidly silent.

“No, Cole,” I said stiffly. “I am not confused. It’s fine. I’m good.”

“No, you aren’t,” he said disapprovingly. He shook his head, narrowing his eyes at me. “It’s very messy in there.”

I glared at him. “In where?”

“In there. You’re all tangled.”

“I’ll brush it later,” I growled.

“No, tangled inside,” he said. “You don’t know what you want.”

Gods below. Bull’s cool businesslike veneer was back, giving nothing away. I reached for another drink, then promptly knocked over my mug, spilling what was left. I righted it hastily, and Krem leaned over and kindly poured me another.

“Cole,” I said. “Listen. Listen, my sweet spirit-boy.”

“Yes?”

“I love you dearly. But please get out of my mind. NOW.”

He looked confused again. “You should relight your balcony curtains. You liked it when that happened. You laughed.”

“COLE.”

He nodded brightly. “All right. But I could help, you know. Help more.”

“Not—right—now,” I gritted. Mythal wept.

“All right,” Cole said, smiling vaguely. He wandered off, and to my considerable consolation, slight guilt and absolute delight, I saw that he was approaching Vivienne’s table next. Viv, meanwhile, wore an expression rare on her calm and beautiful face, and that expression was panic.

I sipped at my terrible mug, then looked up to see Bull and Krem waiting expectantly. Bull was a cipher again, but at least he no longer looked like he wanted to laugh at every single naughty thought Cole had decided to proclaim to the world from the recesses of mind. Instead my steadfast captain was back. I let out a sigh of relief.

“Come on, Boss.” Bull smiled. Varric and Harding came over, pulling a chair or two with them, followed by Josie and Dorian. “It’s a wake. Which means it’s a celebration.” Krem’s brown eyes next to me were kind, patiently waiting.

“So tell us.”

I paused. And then I found myself speaking, haltingly, beneath the music of Maryden’s lute and the conversations of our companions nearby.

“Jemmid was always climbing trees,” I said. “He was the son of our First, Nilos. He liked treetops and caves, and thought he could fly. He could have outshot Sera or Varric… And Mayena, she wove magic into her songs and they were so beautiful that you’d swear the rain would stop to listen…”

Maryden’s cycle of songs wound around us. And I did it. Talked of my ghosts, my shy loved ones who had stayed hidden for so long from the hostile world. I hated to talk. But if that was how I could honor them, then talk of them I would. And so I told every story, relayed every important, gorgeous memory in love and full color, wishing I could have painted them even more fully with magic.

But I did it. I remembered, I told, and I did my best to honor those I’d loved, both then and now. 

* * *

I ended the evening when the night was old or the dawn was, to echo a certain song, on the way… I was escorted back to my quarters by a businesslike and congenial Krem and Dorian (very relieved it wasn’t Bull), as I was more than a little unsteady. However, they were a wonderful help.

I stumbled, only slightly, on the final steps at the top of the external stairs into the keep, then sank down to the steps, exhausted. “So many stairs!” I cried. “Why so many stairs? Skyhold has too many stairs.”

“For once, we are in agreement, dear one,” said Dorian. He tugged my arm, and I stood up again, unwillingly. “Come on, it’s not far now.”

“It’s miles.”

“We’re almost there,” he said. “Up we go.”

“Thank you for the robe, Dorian,” I said. “I wouldn’t have had anything to wear tonight otherwise.”

“Oh… yes.” He coughed slightly. “Well, I’m glad it meant you had something to wear, sweetness,” he said. We kept on trudging through the empty main hall. And yep, sure enough, there was a glow of golden light from under Solas’s door, where he was, no doubt, contemplating the mysteries of the universe or painting more of his frescoes or simply dreaming of the Fade.

On nydha, Solas!” I yelled at that closed door, both as sincere greeting and as a slight “THANKS FOR NOTHING.” With a loud “SHHHHH!” Dorian yanked me by the arm, and I don’t think my feet touched the floor until we’d opened the door to my quarters.

“Thanks,” I said. He glared at me. Poor Dorian. He was starting to look a little worn-out.

We started climbing, and now all that was left were those blasted stairs up to my room. I was fading, so I simply and owlishly concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. For this reason, I almost missed Dorian’s epically appalled expression as we walked through the entry area.

Fasta vass! “ cried Dorian, staring. “Was there an attack?” As for me, I’d expected him to keep walking, so I bumped into him, and he stumbled slightly. Krem chuckled, and stepped neatly around us both.

“Everything okay in here, Your Worship?” he asked.

I was puzzled, then realized Dorian and Krem were both looking around the epic desolation that had once been my quarters. “Oh,” I said, shrugging. “That.”

“What happened?” asked Dorian.

I sank onto the couch by the stairs and put my feet up, yawning. “Bull came to get me. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I was too sad.”

“And what?” cried Dorian. “You proceeded to escort a few of Skyhold’s druffalo through your quarters?”

“No,” I said placidly, smiling. “Silly boy. I threw some spells at Bull. And he tried to catch me. You know what? He’s fast. He’s much faster than I remembered. We had a little friendly fight over whether I would go. It was fun.”

“Josie. Will. Die,” said Dorian, still obviously traumatized.

“What happened to the curtains, your Worship?” asked Krem.

“Oh,” I said. “I threw a spell and Bull ducked. It got one of Dorian’s wine-bottles and everything went up in flames. It was fantastic!” I smiled. “But don’t worry, Dorian, I only exploded the one. The rest are fine. Well, most of them. I drank one.”

“You… exploded my wine? That wine was imported!” he cried. “It—” I think Krem must have given him a look because he stopped suddenly. “Ah… I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

I settled in on the couch and realized that somehow I was falling off, but it was also really fun to look at the room upside-down. Also, at this point, the ceiling was much prettier to look at than the floor, anyway.

“Um, Your Worship?” asked Krem. “Why don’t we get you to bed?”

“Absolutely,” I said. I righted myself, and started to sprint toward the bed, then slid in the ashes, and only a quick grab from Dorian saved me from going sprawling. Krem took my other arm, and boom, there I was, at long last. I grabbed a bedpost and steadied myself. Thank goodness. I could finally collapse.

Dorian looked nonplussed and I could tell he was dreading doing anymore caretaking, so I made a face at him and threw off my robe, stepping out of my gurtskin slippers with difficulty at the same time. Krem, meanwhile, had thoughtfully pulled the covers on my bed back onto the bed from the heap at the end where Bull had flung them.

“Thank you Krem,” I said. Krem smiled.

“You know, Krem, you’re so handsome. People should tell you that all the time,” I said matter-of-factly, then grinned when I realized Krem was blushing. “Dorian too. Dorian’s ridiculous. Sometimes I make up reasons just to get Dorian to hug me.”

“Oh dear,” said Dorian. “We really must address your social life. Evidently one visit from a nug and a scandalous Orlesian novel are not enough.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Everyone was such a big help tonight. I feel amazing.”

“You won’t feel quite so amazing tomorrow,” said Dorian, wincing.

“I don’t care. It’s worth it,” I said. “This stuff is great. I’m gonna buy barrels of it. Barrels and barrels!”

“Just don’t keep them in your quarters,” said Dorian dryly. “You’ll blow up half of Skyhold.”

I shook my head, then did my best to pull myself together, what little dignity I had left. I looked at both of them, then shrugged. “Ma serannas for everything, both of you. But I promise I can tuck myself in. Please go get some rest.”

Dorian did smile then, and he gave me his lowest, most magnificent bow. “Pleasant dreams, sweet Dalish.”

“Thanks,” I said. “You too.”

“Night Your W—” said Krem, who grinned and caught himself at my warning look. The blue sparks were back. “Rest well.”

“Good night, both of you,” I said.

I managed to stay upright long enough until they’d reached the bottom floor, and when I heard the slam of my external door, I collapsed onto my bed and was blissfully unconscious until late into the next morning.

I awoke to a swept and eerily (and surprisingly) tidied quarters. The floors had been thoroughly swept. My wardrobe had been replaced, the fireplace was more or less respectable again, and the remnants of destroyed tables and curtains had been silently removed. (I cringed, slightly, imagining the Skyhold servants and their reactions to my rooms, and even worse, their efforts to sweep and tidy the room without awakening me.)

But there was a pitcher and a clear glass of water by my bedside (perhaps the most beautiful things I had ever seen in my life), plus an ornate red bottle that I recognized as a potion from Dorian.

All of which were welcome, since I’d also awakened to a splitting headache, a surprising number of aches and pains from my battle with Bull the night before, as well as nausea and a sincere desire for death. But on the other hand… I felt cleaner. Able to envision a horizon, at least, where I would move on from crippling grief.

This was my life now. It wasn’t easy. But I would do my best. They deserved it.

All of which is to say… that I might hate being the Inquisitor, but I loved my Inquisition, and I loved it fiercely. These were the best people in Thedas. And if they were stupid enough to pick me to lead them, I would not let them down.

Chapter Text

You know the nights when you feel a sense of freedom, of flight, of unbridled relief? Or, maybe, you just drink a whole lot and put your burdens down for awhile…?

Yeah, okay, that second one. Either way, it’s all wonderful until the next morning, when the Dread Wolf demands payment.

I was certainly paying now. I’d slept deeply, but my dreams had been bad ones, oddly malignant and personal, somehow… There had been plenty of oblivion, but also plenty of fear, too, somehow, as if I’d been back in the darkness Solas had once called me out of, the nameless landscape of the Void. But this time, I hadn’t been alone. Instead I’d felt watched as if by faces from beyond the grave, and I woke slightly exhausted and a little sick.

And then I felt a lot sick, for additional, more concrete, maraas-lok-related reasons.

I was officially awake, if squinting through the greenish fog before my eyes. And I had two important realizations.

First, came that realization I mentioned earlier, that my quarters had been cleaned. Which is honestly a horrible and deeply vulnerable realization to have when you yourself have been unconscious and most likely drooling during their efforts.

Besides, I didn’t like to be waited on, and most of the time had discouraged servants from doing too much with my rooms. I didn’t really need the help, and the entire thing just felt strange. All I could think this morning, therefore, was that Leliana with her supernatural and creepily all-seeing eye had somehow discovered the state of my quarters, and that she and Josie had dispatched this morning’s small yet evidently very silent army to address the damage.

Secondly, I realized that I might want to die. Just a little.

It was starting to dawn on me that maraas-lok, no matter how freeing it might have seemed to be the night before, was actually an insidious poison. It made you feel fantastic and brave and numb at the time, sure, then the next day you’d find yourself sobbing inwardly, incapable of proper movement, and sincerely wishing for death. Like me, right now. When all I was feeling was oh my gods did something die in my mouth my head is killing me please please make it stop. For instance, I may have tried to stand then stumbled five steps and thrown up in the small barrel by my desk that I routinely used for trash, aborted or ink-stained message drafts, or broken lute strings. I won’t admit to it either way, I’ll just say that I would usually rather die than do that, so if I did do it, things were not starting off well at all.

However, I managed to get back to the bedside without crawling. Stay upright, I told myself. Stay upright. Steeling myself for the next steps, I drank down Dorian’s potion from the beautiful ruby-colored bottle, and it actually tasted much better than the maraas-lok had (a little like sweetened juniper berries, actually, along with a minty hint of elfroot). Then I sat still for a few minutes, heart pounding, trying for calmness and waiting for the moment when I would stop feeling like imminent death. After that, accepting that I was in fact still alive, I drank the entire pitcher of water, a little at a time, and the sickness and headache receded enough that I could actually function.

Then I went doggedly through the steps of rejoining the living, and made myself presentable. A bath (at least the servants had left me an abundance of water, and I heated it with an effortless touch of magic), punctuated by occasional prayers to Mythal for relief from my own excesses, then dress, in the form of workmanlike, serviceable leggings, boots, tunic and jacket. Not exactly showy, and a lot of my Inquisitorial wardrobe had unfortunately died a comically slow death in my duel with Bull, but it would do.

I went over to my dressing table next. It was a small, simple piece of furniture that I’d set up in the alcove that had once functioned as a rough, half-empty storage space. I had liked the fact that it was out of the main part of the room, as if it were a secret. Something about the ritual and its simplicity reminded me of my mother, our clan’s Halla-Keeper, who had died of a fever when I was barely twenty. Yet it was childhood I thought of now, and I still remembered the way she had pulled my hair away from my face and smiled, crowning me with bluebells or with the changing leaves of autumn before my father had hastened us out to the chores of the day. “Ma alhasha,” she’d smiled, cupping my face in her hands, and I would reach back and touch her face in return with my small ones. So much love in such a little moment.

As she’d lain dying, so many years later, I had pushed her dark curly hair back from her forehead, the hair that was so like mine, threaded with silver, and I had cupped her face in my hands as she had always done to me, then kissed her forehead. She had opened her eyes, smiling faintly, and once again, as before, I’d felt it, that outpouring of wordless love. And then she was gone.

My father, a good man, if somewhat silent, had died even before my mother, injured by no human or act of war but simply on the hunt, when he’d fallen badly from the halla he rode, striking his head in an unlucky way on a stone. The death had been instantaneous, they said.

At least they’d gone ahead alone, and not at the knives and hands of humans, I thought, Not like the rest of my clan.

But enough of this. Time later for regrets or childhood memories; I pushed them away, then swiftly and carelessly brushed then braided my hair in a long thick, prickly plait over my shoulder, an activity I could have done in my sleep (and sometimes very nearly had) since childhood. As I did so, I noticed my reflection in the small mirror before me.

My eye normally slid right past whatever was there. However, today, instead of looking away, as I usually did, I looked back, frowning as I tried to figure out the woman I saw in its depths.

As I looked, the mirror’s dusty, slightly ashy surface surprised me today, because it reminded me that I was not yet old, no matter how ancient I might feel on this particular morning. It reflected a tanned, oval, slightly roundish face with a disappointingly pert nose (I adored noses on other people and had always longed for a strong magnificent nose). Nice dark-blue eyes, easily my best feature. A faint scattering of freckles. A nicely formed mouth—not lush or wide, but rather one that looked as if it were used to keeping secrets. My vallaslin, which was Ghilan’nain’s  and delicate, its lines curving down my forehead in pale greenish-blue, like a diadem on the skin, as if a bridal crown had slipped. And my hair, a fairly ordinary dark-brown, that always looked rumpled and crumpled and wispy even when bundled or braided, but that was fine too, because it was part of who I was, and it reminded me of my mother.

So this was me, I realized, the good and the bad, all of it. The me who was still here. I smiled, and the woman in the mirror smiled back. She didn’t even look that different from the survivor of a year ago, much less as if she’d barely survived a catastrophic near-poisoning the night before. She just looked a little tired, maybe. That was all.

Then I did a thing I’d always felt compelled to do, even as a little girl. I looked again, but beyond my own image and into the mirror’s distance. I’d always wanted to see past me, behind that image.

Now I could even put a name to that potential and mysterious place after Morrigan had shown me her eluvian here at Skyhold, and taken me to the Crossroads.

Oh, the wonder and magic of it! So many graceful arched surfaces terribly darkened or shattered, yes, but as Morrigan showed me, many still remained whole and shining, waiting to be awakened. Such a beautiful yet sorrowful place it was, with its air of loss and ruin, of palpable grief, with its carven pillars and branches and misty stone pathways. It was as if, for a moment, I breathed the faintest, tantalizing scent of long-ago Arlathan.

I’d wanted to stay there forever, to explore its pearlescent stillness and hidden colors, but Morrigan had only given me a single stroll with her as we talked, a few precious minutes among the curving pillars of the trees.

She’d laughed, though, at how happy I was. I had spun around, looking from mirror to mirror, from doorway to ancient doorway, laughing in spite of myself. So many secrets! Then I had paused, and put my hand tentatively to the polished trunk of one of those strange carved trees that filled this place, its graceful branches curving high above us as if delicately embracing a hidden globe. I had thought I might feel a sense of life or quickening. But it was cold and dead as bone beneath my fingers.

“Be careful what you touch, Inquisitor,” she said, chuckling softly. “’Tis a dangerous place for the unwary.”

“Dangerous,” I echoed. “But so beautiful! And yet…” I paused, then, and Morrigan’s piercing golden eyes looked curiously at me.

“And yet, what?” she asked.

I closed my eyes for a moment, listening. “It feels like death,” I said. “Or rather, like a burial place, a place of tombs.”

“It is dying, ‘tis true,” said Morrigan, her husky voice soft and sad. “One day it may crumble entirely. But once, it was alive. And while it lives yet, there is great power here. And the memory of power, and of things not altogether lost.”

I had been sad to follow her out, but those brief moments haunted me still, those glimpses of staggering power and achievement, of what my people had once been, millennia back. Once we’d breathed magic, once we’d walked between worlds! We hadn’t been slaves, or servants, or half-wild creatures existing warily in the shadows, on the run, potential prey for merciless humans or soldiers.

Mirrors and magics. As a child, I’d always dared myself to look closer, trying for hidden spells, or sometimes simply to pleasantly frighten myself as I peered for a glimpse of the trickster Fen’Harel. Then, always, I’d pull away again, scared, as if I’d dared myself to wickedness.

And now here I was, still daring myself. Then I sighed, and stopped looking at the edges, facing my reflection again directly.

I’d spent so much time avoiding that reflection, especially after my capture the year before. But there I was, and I hadn’t even burst into flame from looking. I was dark and silent, with no sparks to be seen. And I was all right. True, I didn’t have Leliana’s pale, fiery allure. Or Viv’s dangerous perfection and assurance. Nor Josie’s exotic, warm beauty.  I probably wasn’t breaking hearts across Skyhold, in other words. But that was fine with me. It was enough that I could face my image again, here, with something like affection.

It was enough, honestly, that I was still here at all.

 

***

 

I took a day or two to ease myself back into the work. I spent the first day reading a stack of missives and messages that covered three or four days when I’d hidden myself away, while also using the time to try to convince myself that I would ever be able to eat actual food again. I was encouraged by some small success at this, and even tentatively managed to do some sparring for a few hours (my session with Bull had actually reminded me that melee combat was, perhaps, something I should work on), but I didn’t speak to Cass or the few companions I encountered beyond a few words. Still tired, as well as sore and hobbling from my tussle with Bull, I was therefore grateful when they let me proceed in silence.

I continued to recover, more or less, however, and on the second day, I wove my way down to Josie, my headache now mostly gone, with only a ghost of sickness remaining. I hadn’t slept well, yet again, but at least I no longer felt like death was imminent.

As she almost always was, Josie was seated at her desk, with her ever-burning candle and noteboard beside her, alongside a huge stack of notes, books, and messages. I felt a moment of guilt, watching her, knowing she’d given me my days to grieve by silently taking on all of my neglected work for herself.

“Ellie.” She looked up in surprise when I entered, then smiled warmly. “I was actually going to ask if you might be able to meet with me this morning. How are you?”

“I’m good,” I said. “Or… I’m as well as I can be.” The room was warm and welcoming, as always, with its tasteful furnishings, its books and fireplace—everything cultured and lovely and carefully in its place as if this Keep had never been abandoned at all. Then it occurred to me that it probably hadn’t stayed that way, anyway. I sank down in the chair before her gratefully. “For now, that’s enough.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” she said. She looked closely at me. “If it is in fact true.”

I made a face, and she chuckled a little. “Well. I’m trying. But… Josie…”

“Yes?”

“First off, thank you for giving me the time to get myself together. I know how hard you must have worked.”

“You're quite welcome. It was no trouble at all, Inquisitor,” she said, smiling. 

“And… um…" I said hesitantly, caught between a smile and a grimace. "I just wanted to say…” I swallowed, then dived on into my apology so that my words came out in a rush. “I’m sorry about my quarters.”

“Ah, yes, Inquisitor,” she replied. “The damage was… interesting. And significant.”

I started to try to dissemble, looking into those observant, brandy-colored eyes. Then I began to laugh in spite of myself. “Look, Josie,” I said. “I just didn’t want to get up. When Bull came to get me, for the wake, I…” I faded off, then shrugged wordlessly for a second. “I just couldn’t face it.”

Her face went soft. “It is understandable, my lady.”

“So I threw a spell at him, maybe… and we ended up sparring,” I said. “It wasn’t his fault—I was the one who started it. And he was right to get me to go, and I’m glad I went,” I said. “I truly am. And I’m grateful to everyone for coming. But it was… hard to face.”

“And the curtains?” she asked, eyes twinkling.

“Oh, that,” I said. “I threw a spell that went badly. It hit a bottle of wine, then poof. I’ll pay for them!”

She began to laugh in spite of herself, then reached out for my hand. “Ellie… we have found the winds at Skyhold to be treacherous,” she said. “A spark may come from anywhere, for instance, if one is careless with flame.”

I closed my hand around her fingers and tried to look stoic. And failed. “From a single candle,” I whispered. “So much smoke!”

“That is what I understand,” she said, grinning. She gripped my hand, warmly, then let it go. “No matter, my lady, we will take care of the damage in the meantime. We have already made significant strides on the repairs.”

“Josie,” I said. “How do you feel about hugs? As part of the Great Game?”

She grinned outright. “We are highly in favor of them. They provide a valuable opportunity for information gathering, theft, psychological insights, and even blackmail.”

“Wonderful,” I cried, “Because you’re getting one.” And I went right behind her desk and hugged her as tightly as I could. She was soft and accommodating and did not, unfortunately, steal a thing from me as she deserved to do during the moment. But she smelled a little like vanilla, and a flower I couldn’t name. And while she hugged me, I took the moment to whisper, “Sorry about the wardrobe,” and she laughed out loud again.

So at least all of that was all right. I would never have wanted to permanently upset or anger Josie.

When I pulled back, she faced me with that twinkle she almost always had, that glint that somehow all of this was actually and inexplicably fun to her (which I would never be able to understand).

Then the moment was over, and she’d gone sober again, with a slightly worried and hesitant look on her lovely face.

Seeing this, I forced myself back to seriousness. “Oh, no. What’s up?”

“There are a few issues we should discuss, your Worship,” she said. “I was, as I mentioned, going to ask you if you might discuss them, in fact.”

“Now you are worrying me,” I said. “What are they?”

Leliana entered from the War Room, as if on cue, and went to stand slightly at Josie’s left, across from me. I felt myself go chilly and slightly sick. Leliana was wonderful but… so scary. She met my eye, then Josie’s, calm and composed as always. “Inquisitor, we intercepted a message to Bull late last night,” she said. “Something from someone called Gatt.” She paused slightly. “An official communiqué from the Qun.”

I sighed, and Josie, watching me closely, nodded sympathetically.

“Inquisitor, we should talk.”

Chapter Text

I waited nervously for the bad news.

Messages. Stupid messages. Dispatches, notes, questions, and missives. I was beginning to hate them (and the ravens that carried them). They were almost never good.

“Inquisitor…” Josie said. Then she met my eyes, and her voice was warmer, quieter. “Ellie…”

“Yes?” I asked.

Leliana was the one who replied. “The dispatch seems to concern you personally.” I looked at them, steeling myself, and wishing it was about kittens or new chapters of Swords and Shields or other happy things and not about potential betrayals and political machinations. Because we had far too few kittens and far too many machinations. And Cole needed new friends. Damn.

My heart sank a little in a way that had become all too familiar to me lately. Well, I thought wryly, it can’t be about my clan. Everyone I loved is still dead. Then I felt sick again and wished I could take the thought back.

“Okay,” I said. “What’s up?”

“As I noted initially, it was a message to The Iron Bull, from a Qunari formal point of contact in the Ben-Hassrath naming himself Gatt,” Leliana said. “You should read it.”

“All right. Let’s have it.”

Josie sighed. “It may be nothing.”

“It may even be manufactured,” added Leliana in her soft, deceptively pretty voice. “Sent for the purpose of sowing dissension or suspicion within our ranks.”

I frowned. “Well, we know he talks to Par Vollen, at least partly with our blessing. What does it say?”

Josie hesitated slightly, then glanced down at the piece of flat parchment to her right. “It’s fairly detailed. It references recent skirmishes and administrative decisions, and asks for specific updates on future actions. He also—” she paused momentarily—“alerted them to the latest organizational changes after the departure of the Tevinter and Orlesian infiltrators we discovered working together a few weeks ago.”

“And?” I asked. “That’s pretty harmless. It was a fairly public thing, and he does attend almost all of our councils.”

Josie glanced at the message again, then back to me. She took a slight breath (and I was pleased at this, oddly—at the evidence that she was trying to separate herself emotionally), then proceeded calmly. “Your Worship, Gatt thanks Bull for his last update and congratulates him on his progress within the organization, however he comments that the last update did not include as much actual technical information as they had expected. He closes by requesting more frequent communications, and emphasizes that Par Vollen is awaiting news that he has been successful in his…” she broke off.

“What?” I asked, already steeling myself.

“…In his mission to get close to the Inquisitor,” said Leliana quietly, finishing the sentence.

Su an’banal i’em. To the Void with me.

Leliana took the message from Josie and handed it to me. I looked over it, the parchment cool under my fingertips.

“Well.” I read the page in more detail, silently. Then we sat there silently for a few seconds. Then I realized it looked like one of ours. “Wait, this is a translation?” I asked her.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “The original was in Qunlat.” She pulled a rolled piece of parchment toward me—a slightly heavier, darker material, travel-stained and curling—and handed that over as well. I looked at it uselessly, not sure why I was even reviewing it, since I didn’t speak a word of Qunlat. It was as if I had wanted to see the original, to see if I could see the truth or the lie in the lines of a language I couldn’t even speak.

“What is this first word, like a name or a greeting?” I asked, pointing. “Hissrad?”

“Oh, that. It’s Bull’s name under the Qun, I think,” said Leliana. “A kind of title.” She had a glint in her eye that I didn’t like.

“What does it mean?”

The briefest pause. “I believe that it means ‘liar,’” she said dryly. Fenedhis.

I tossed the curling original message back onto the desk and shrugged. “It’s okay,” I said slowly. “I knew he was working two agendas. He hasn’t kept it secret.” And yet… I was still holding the translation, and I looked down at it blankly. I kept seeing our past interactions in a different light. And yet… if anything… the other night, I’d been the one who’d pushed for more, and he had stopped it. Well, mostly.

“Ellie,” said Leliana. “This assumes motives we cannot knowingly ascribe ourselves. Perhaps you should talk to him.”

I looked at her, appalled. “Talk to him? About this?”

“It’s not a bad idea,” said Leliana. “Especially as we’re fairly sure the Chargers are aware of the message and its interception.” She shrugged slightly. “It was out of network, not one of my ravens. Charter was subtle, but Grim saw her take the message. It was one of those situations where detection was unavoidable.”

“Do you think he’s working against us?” Josie asked quietly, meeting my eyes with her brown determined ones.

I thought about it, trying for distance. Objectivity. But all I could remember was the way Bull had stood beside me at Haven—solid, comforting, and joking in the face of our imminent defeat. He’d been willing to die for the safety of the other villagers and he’d never even hesitated, not for a moment, when that decision was made.

I saw it all in a flash. Then I shook my head. “No,” I said to her. “No. I don’t think he’s against us.”

Josie smiled, visibly relieved.

“But that doesn’t mean he’s not working another agenda,” Leliana said.

I nodded reluctantly.

“And either way, it doesn’t make my job any easier,” she added.

“Diplomatically, he is a disaster waiting to happen,” commented Josie. “I shudder at every tour I give to a visiting noble.” She stopped, and looked at me keenly. “But… to give him credit, he may be more than that.”

“He is more than that,” I said.

“Well,” said Leliana sharply. “That is precisely what worries me at the moment.”

“The fact of the matter is… he has made a difference to the Inquisition,” said Josie. “He’s a formidable asset. And many here like and trust him, at least to a degree.”

“Right,” I said, despondent. “To a degree.”

“Which is why it wouldn’t be a bad idea to confront him and see how he responds,” Leliana said quietly.

“How?” I asked wildly. “Bull’s worlds better at all of this than I am. He’s probably better at it than most of Orlais.”

Leliana tapped the curling original message with a slender, pale finger. “Here are the facts: If we don’t say anything to him, we gain little but a suspicion that was, to some extent, already present. But if you talk to him, we’ll walk away knowing more, just from his reactions. If he’s loyal, if he’s disloyal, I think you’ll pick up on it, or at least on the possibility,” she said.

When I started to protest, she shook her head. “Ellie, you don’t dissemble, and you’re not exactly a gifted actress,” she said. “But I believe you do read people well.” I shut my mouth in surprise, then nodded, and she nodded back. “So watch him. See how he replies; you might learn something. Or he might actually make a mistake… if in fact he is working this other agenda.”

Wait. Oh, gods, it was getting worse by the minute. To a very real extent, they were sending me to spy. On Bull.

“Do we put in place additional strictures?” asked Josie. “Perhaps asking him to show us his outbound messages, or removing him from certain meetings?”

I looked to Leliana in alarm, and she nodded slightly in agreement—not to Josie, but to me. “No,” she replied, and I let out a breath of relief. “He has always freely shown us his outgoing messages, and beyond that, I have no doubt that Bull is capable of gathering whatever information he requires, at least as discussed in council format, whether or not he is present. And as I said, he’s an asset.”

“You’re right,” said Josie.

“What if it’s more complicated?” I asked into the silence.

“In what way?” Josie asked.

“I—I don’t think he’s decided yet,” I said.

“Yes,” Leliana said. “That thought had also occurred to me.”

“Then why send me to talk to him?” I asked. I blew my hair out of my eyes. “He’ll just play me again. He’s good at it.”

“Inquisitor, I have watched The Iron Bull closely in his time with us, and Ben-Hassrath agent or not, I think he cares for people,” Leliana replied. “And as you are one of those I believe he has real affection for, I think he might be more honest if the questions came from you.”

I felt my face grow warm in spite of myself, and Leli almost smiled in amusement. Not quite. But the possibility was there.

I looked at the scroll on the desk. “It does pretty openly reference that he’s been ordered to… get close to me,” I managed. And right there, I couldn’t help it—I was sad again. And I couldn’t help but notice as Leliana and Josie exchanged swift, sharp glances.

“Forgive me for asking this,” said Josie. “But has he?” She coughed slightly. “Gotten close to you?”

I hesitated. “Not exactly,” I said, but I found myself turning more colors anyway. Dammit. Leliana actually grinned outright at this point, so I gave up, shrugging helplessly. “Just… it’s complicated.”

“Ellie, you are not exactly subtle,” Josie said, frustrated.

“I know,” I agreed. It was just a fact of the world.

Josie was quiet for a few seconds, thinking, then shook her head. “However… my lady, this scenario compels me to speak. I think… I must use this conversation as an opportunity to advise you to take great caution on such matters,” she said.

Leliana added bluntly, “Caution with anyone you, ah, become close to. For this and a variety of reasons. You may even want us to evaluate such situations before you act, for your own safety.”

Suddenly, I was angry, and for a variety of reasons I couldn’t have defined ten minutes earlier. But now I was sharp, clear, and furious, and I welcomed that anger.

“All right, wait,” I said. “You’re not being quite fair, here, either of you. I’m in an impossible situation. I’ve been in an impossible situation since three seconds after the Temple of Sacred Ashes blew skyward.”

“We know,” said Josie. “We do.”

“No,” I said. “You really don’t. Because while, yes, I am a laughable choice as any kind of politician or diplomat, the fact is that I’ve done the best I could to fulfill the often completely outlandish obligations of that job to support the Inquisition. And I’ve done that despite the fact that doing so has cost me everything and everyone I ever cared about.” I paused and tried to master my breathing. Somehow, I was standing, and (of course) sparking a little, but I didn’t care. Leliana and Josie were both watching me—Josie, with sympathy, and Leliana, inscrutably, and with a watchful, thoughtful expression that reminded me suddenly of Bull.

“I will not serve as anyone’s hapless resident felasil, a jester to be caged, supervised, and trotted out for special events,” I said. “Yes, I have my own ways and yes, I’ve made mistakes, and I admit that this world is still strange to me. It isn’t a life I would have chosen.” I looked at each of them in turn. “But I will not answer to either of you about what I do or not do in my bedroom, or with whom. And I will not come to you for approval on that subject in the future, either.”

“Ellie,” said Josie. “We just don’t want you to get hurt.”

“Right,” I said. “But more importantly, you don’t want me to hurt the Inquisition.” I sat back down, tiredly. “Well, you’re just going to have to trust me that I won’t.”

“My apologies, Inquisitor,” said Leliana formally. But her cool, soft voice was exactly what I needed, and I found myself calming again. “Of course you must handle such matters as you choose.”

“No apologies are necessary,” I said. “I understand.” I sighed. “I do. Besides, as I’m sure both of you are quite aware already, I haven’t had anything remotely resembling a liaison since joining the Inquisition, unless you count my recent scandalous afternoon playing with Schmooples the Second.”

“And whatever ‘didn’t exactly’ happen with Bull,” said Leliana dryly.

I was silent for a moment. This had rapidly become one of the most uncomfortable and embarrassing conversations of my life. “Oof,” I said.

Josie gave me a wry partial grin, and I realized how tired they both looked—how tired we all must look right now.

“Inquisitor…” said Leliana.

“Yes?” I asked.

She gestured at the message I held. “It only asks for information. I would actually say the tone is… dissatisfied,” she said. “I’d even say that the implication is that he has not, perhaps, been fully cooperating.”

“That’s true,” I said. I met her eyes thoughtfully, wondering why Leliana of all people was encouraging me to believe in Bull’s better motives or natures.

I hated this. I was out of my depth, and now I was assuming that everyone around me was playing games whether they actually were or not. Either way, half the time, I probably wouldn’t even really know for sure.

“Ellie. Just talk to him,” Josie said pragmatically, and I shot her a silent look. I kept forgetting how good Josie was at this. Until moments like this one. She might still play with dolls, but she understood people very, very well. Hells, for all I knew, she used her dolls simply to play out complex societal intrigues, machinations, and assassinations before they took place in real-time.

“Ellie,” she said. “He may prove loyal to us. He may in fact be loyal to us.”

I let out a humorless laugh. “As far as we know.”

Josie waited me out, her eyes very sharp.

“I’ll talk to him,” I said at last.

“We would be grateful if you could,” Leliana said.

I nodded, then bade them a quiet farewell, taking the message copy with me as I left. Time to talk to Bull. And to wish—not for the first time, and not for the last—that I was a better player of the Game.

Or that I’d never encountered the Game at all.

Chapter Text

Bull was in his usual place when I entered the Herald’s Rest, slouched in his seat against the far wall as always, casual and confident as a king on a throne. He was listening to a report from Dalish, and beside him were a few maps and papers that he was most likely referencing for our next mission. But I couldn’t help but drop my eyes to them, wondering if there were any other notifications from the Qun there, hidden in plain sight.

The Qun. The stupid Qun. I found myself furious again, in spite of myself. Which probably wasn’t a great idea right before going to interrogate my brilliant and preternaturally intuitive captain about his loyalty. So as I entered the tavern, I did my best to school my face and breathing, pausing near the doorway and composing myself for the conversation ahead. Maryden was singing “Rise,” and it was so pretty I sighed, closed my eyes, and simply stopped to let the music wash over me, the parchment of the message crumpling within my fist. It was one of the stranger aspects to my meetings with Bull here, that always, there would be the distraction of the music, the sad or sweet echo of a ballad as I spoke with him. When I thought of my talks with Bull, afterward, the music was always still there, providing an odd kind of subtext.

Then as the song wound down, I steeled myself, and as I did so, Bull looked up with one of his cool, appraising glances. I went over to him, greeting Krem, quiet in his corner, affectionately as always.

“Hi Krem,” I said, grinning. He smiled back, but with a trace of worry, a slight watchfulness. “Hello, Your Worship,” he said.

“I told you not to call me that,” I said, teasing, but he gave me another of those worried half-smiles in return. He didn’t look angry or mean. Just scared. And then I remembered Leliana’s earlier comment and realized, abruptly, that I might have some worried friends among the Chargers today, or at least, until they saw which way the wind would blow. I had no illusions about how smart Krem was, about how much he saw, or about how absolute his loyalty was to Bull, in any case. Krem was family, willing to die for Bull, and vice versa, and that was that. But I didn’t want to hurt him. Or Bull. Or any of them.

Bull, meanwhile, was still talking over a dispatch with Dalish, but I saw his eye sweep over me and Krem and groaned inwardly.

“I’ll let you know how it goes,” Dalish said.

“Good,” said Bull.

As she turned to leave, Dalish met my eyes squarely, in a look of calm, analytical evaluation. Evidently I wasn’t the only one worrying. She looked at me, nodded slightly, warily, then left. Great. Just great. This day was getting better and better.

I looked at Bull. “Hi, Bull.”

“Hey Boss,” he said, cool and casual. A subtle grin. “You all recovered?”

“More or less,” I confessed, returning the grin. “A few aches and pains, here and there.”

“Just a few?” The eyebrow was up again.

I rolled my eyes. “Maybe more than a few,” I admitted. “How ‘bout you?”

He shrugged. “All good.”

I met his eye. “Can we talk?” I asked.

“Sure.”

I stumbled a little over the next word. “Alone?”

“This business, Boss?” he asked. “Or personal?”

I hesitated slightly. “Business,” I said.

“All right,” he said. “Let’s go.” He stood with that unexpected grace, and made his way, not to the door, but to the stairs heading to the upper floors of the tavern.

“Don’t you want to go somewhere private?” I asked, nonplussed. “This probably needs to be something we discuss alone.”

He paused at the top of the stairs, shrugging. “Look. If you want to be overheard, go talk in a tiny little room with half a dozen exit points. Want to talk in actual solitude? Meadows or rooftops are best. Since meadows are in short supply around here, rooftops it is.”

I followed him out the upstairs exit. A few dozen steps, and within a minute or two, we were alone on the battlements with nothing around us but the winds, the gorgeous inaccessible high places of the Frostback Mountains, and the faintest blue, pale sky above all of it, untouched and miraculous (at least, here). No hint, this afternoon, of poisonous green. You couldn’t even see the sky-scar of the Breach here, the way you could at Haven. It was all perfect.

I did that, I told myself. I did that much.

“So, Boss,” Bull said quietly. “This work for you?”

I caught my breath as he slowed his pace across the narrow, stony corridor of the crenellation, then turned back to me just as I thought he might walk all the way across. But no, he met me in the middle.

We were on the windward side, alone, no soldiers or anyone else around, and I slowed my footsteps as I approached him, trying already to find the words I’d need for this confrontation.

“Yes,” I said. My voice was a little high; I was nervous, and not just at the idea of interrogating Bull; we felt precarious and somehow very high up. Sure, I liked to walk the battlements occasionally by myself, but I usually did so at night, when I couldn’t sleep. In those moments, I wasn’t so conscious of the ground, but of the sky and stars, which always felt so close. Now I felt far from everything, both above and below. Instead, I was poised in the middle and waiting.

But the day was beautiful, and we stood atop the stone world in the clear, pale afternoon sunshine, while beneath us the life of Skyhold continued forward. There was life here now, something wild and unexpected and precious. As high as we were, I could still see the activity below in all its vibrancy and touching detail—little things like the tiny scatterings of delicate leaves by the tavern’s entrance, the pitted areas where the grass was turning gold near the outer walls. All the tiny signs that our fragile and brief summer was winding down, and that autumn was on the way.

Meanwhile, all around us was the faint tumult of the Keep itself—now a truly populous city within these walls, echoing with the peaceful sounds of livestock—horses, goats, harts, even a few druffalo. I could also hear the other sounds that made up our world—the distant murmur of the conversations of the men and women going about their days, selling or buying wares, sparring, teasing, talking, making, breaking, or treating the latest wounded. I could hear the sweet bell-like sounds of hammer on metal at the forge, and not far away below us, the echo of Cass bellowing at her troops before the practice dummies (I smiled a little, because a bellowing Cass was usually a happy one). More faintly, I heard Cullen quietly putting his men through their paces on the lower level, and Blackwall shouting brief commands as he trained his own raw recruits to their first attempts to fight with a shield.

I listened to this flurry of noises and shouts and realized that I was used to them now. Somehow, on some level over the past several months, I had actually become a soldier.

The wind lifted the banners flapping around us, a comforting and homely noise, somehow brave, as they snapped in the crisp breeze; a sound I loved, because it reminded me of the sails of both aravels and boats. The air here smelled cold and clean, but empty, like snow. I breathed deep, gaining strength, and looked up to find Bull watching me and waiting patiently. As always, he seemed to have all the time in the world.

“So. What’s up?”

I took a deep breath. “Someone—Leliana, I think—intercepted a communication from Par Vollen,” I said. “Originally directed straight to you.”

“All right,” he said. His expression hadn’t changed. He was still watching me with his usual bluff, observant expression.

“It offered congratulations and addressed your progress on several fronts.”

“Yeah?” He raised an eyebrow. “What fronts would those be?”

“Matters of diplomacy, strategy, administration… the Tevinter and Orlesian infiltrators…”

“Okay. All routine,” he said brusquely. “Which you already know I speak to them about. And?”

I paused for a second, but even that, I knew, was a giveaway, and I knew he was watching, reading and judging everything I was saying or doing. It was so frustrating to know that nothing I thought or felt would remain only with me, but would be shared whether I liked it or not.

“Well,” I said. “And…”

“Come on,” he said, a ghost of amusement in his face. “And?”

I met his eye squarely, embarrassment be damned. “And on your closeness to the Inquisitor.”

“Show me,” he said, and I handed him the message silently.

Bull scanned it, then made a quiet noise of irritation that came out as a “Hrrrrf.” He looked thoughtful, walked away a few steps, tapping the page, then turned back, returning to stand slightly closer than he had before. As always, I was struck with the sheer charisma of his presence, and my heart thumped a little faster. It would take a braver person than I to go toe to toe with Bull on the chessboard without flinching. And I was not a chess player. Well, not a good one.

He folded his arms across his chest, then met my gaze with his own. He even surprised me by smiling faintly.

“Well, Boss,” he said. “Let me respond with a question in return. All right?”

“Yes,” I said. “Of course.”

“Cards on the table,” said Bull. “Do you think I’m a good spy, or a bad one?”

I answered without hesitation. “I think you’re a very good spy.”

“So… do you think I’d be stupid enough to let people actually talk about what I want or don’t want to happen?” he asked. “Much less write about it?”

“I don’t think you’d be stupid,” I said. “Ever.”

He looked at me, waiting for the follow-up. The wind continued to play up around us, and the temperature had dropped palpably. We were in for a cold night, and I thought of my clean, recently repaired yet chilly quarters with not a little yearning (and dread—not least because my recent habit of fireballs in the fireplace had meant Josie now kept me on strict fuel rations—curses).

“But…?” he asked.

“But… I might think it’s possible for you to have some not-so-brilliant superiors,” I said tentatively. “Who are maybe intent on one specific aspect of your mission, and who might be too eager for information.”

He thought for a moment. “What do you think?” he asked. “Do you think I’m playing you?”

I flushed, suddenly nervous. “It’s complicated, Bull.”

“No.” A harder glint in his eye. “It’s really not.”

“Then…” I stumbled into my answer, even if it hurt me to say it. “Yes.”

“Hmmm.”

“...And no,” I qualified.

“How so?” he asked.

“All right, to answer you…” I said slowly. “I think you do play people.  Sometimes, yes, you do it for the Qun. But also a lot of the time because it’s simply who you are. Other times you do it out of kindness... and sometimes you do it because it’s never good for people to know too much… like it's a habit, maybe.”

I paused, and was more than a little pleased at the surprise in his face. “So yes, sometimes I think you’re playing me… and sometimes you’re not. It just depends on the moment.”

“The other night,” he said quietly. “How about then? With what happened?” Another flash of his eye, darkly, to mine. “Or what didn’t happen?”

I caught my breath. For a split-second I was right back there with him, teasing in the ashes… and regretting every moment of my own ambivalence and cowardice.

“No,” I said at last, unhappily. Sparks had begun falling limply from my braid. Lucky for me, nobody was expecting me to lie.

“But. You’re not completely sure.” He tapped the stone wall next to us thoughtfully with one of his long fingers and considered me with his customary coolness.

I wanted to look away, but didn’t. I nodded, a little unwillingly.

He shrugged. “Look, Boss. I tell them how things are. How you are. The big picture. I’m not exactly writing one of Varric’s novels. It’s harmless.”

“So… how am I?” I asked dryly.

A long, quiet, appraising look from Bull. That glint was back in his eye, and I felt that sinking feeling again, just as I had, right before he’d tackled me in my room, that told me I was about to lose this battle. I might not end up on the floor this time, but in the face of that look, I already saw the future… and I knew I was going down.

He stepped closer—close enough to embrace, close enough that I could feel his body’s warmth, while also scenting that lovely elusive breath of leather and musk that was just Bull. I wasn’t scared; his nearness didn’t feel threatening, but rather as if he wanted me to read and understand whatever he was about to say, and to judge from there.

So I held my ground and waited.

“The truth?” he asked.

“Of course, truth,” I answered, irritated. “Say whatever you need to say.”

“Boss,” he commented, “The truth is, if this was any kind of cold mission of seduction on my part, I could’ve had you on the bed—or on the floor—or anywhere else, and with full consent—a dozen different ways and in a dozen different moments, for a long time now.”

The slightest pause. “Including the other night.”

I went immediately scarlet again. I couldn’t help it. My courage failed me, and I dropped my eyes. I thought about stepping back, and his hand went to my chin and raised it gently. “No, Boss. Not yet.”

I looked fiercely back at him then, owning it, sparks falling like snowflakes from my eyelashes for a split-second, and I shook my head, blinking them away. By all the hells of Andruil…

“Just tell me.” His fingers were gentle but inexorable. “True, or false?” And then he simply waited me out, his gaze still cool and a little amused.

“Fine. True,” I admitted, looking right back. Even so, I was dying a little at having, holy gods, to admit it out loud, here and now, like this. “True.”

He gave a half-nod, smiling, then dropped his hand from my face, and I stepped back, wobbling a little. “So.”

I breathed shakily, then found myself watching the message he held. Then I looked away, trying simply to organize my thoughts again. A slight flash of what might have been sympathy in his face, as he looked back at me.

“Boss, you don’t have a lot of options here,” he said. “I get that. You can choose to trust me, or not. But it’s a choice you’ll have to make. There will always be messages, and there will always be rumors,” he said. “Note them. Use them. Wear them like a badge of honor when necessary and then… forget them.”

I thought about it, and in my mind I saw that imaginary chessboard before us. Me, a pawn. But a brave one. If not always terribly bright. “What was that word they called you?” I asked. “Hissrad?”

His eye didn’t waver from mine. A cool flicker of fire there in the greyness. “It’s my name under the Qun. Or my title.”

I dropped my eyes. “Right.”

“It means liar in Qunlat,” he said, and I looked up at him again, a little surprised at the admission.

“Oh,” I said.

“Which you already knew,” he said. “Right?”

Okay. I was done. No more chess. I turned away in defeat, in total exasperation, and tiredly leaned my forehead against the wall as I struck the stone beside me with my hand. Not hard, but enough to hurt. Why didn’t any of my conversations ever take place simply, on one level, anymore? There were traps hidden everywhere. Words with these people weren’t ever just words.

Meanwhile, the stone had hurt, predictably, and it was chilly and rough under my knuckles. Utterly ungiving. It would be here for a thousand years after I was gone. I flattened my hand against its cold surface, trying somehow to draw strength from Skyhold itself. Solas had said these walls were steeped in magic. Maybe the magic could give me something back, a strength I still feared I lacked.

It may even have actually worked, because as I turned back to meet his eye, I realized that I was angry and frustrated enough not to be self-conscious about his closeness. And as I had earlier, I welcomed the anger because it gave me strength.

“I hate this, Bull,” I confessed. “I hate it. I’m tired of all the doublespeak and gamesmanship, the hidden meanings and secrets in plain sight. You and Leliana and Josie and Solas, you’re all so good at it, you should just have meetings all by yourselves. You can challenge each other on who can say the most while actually saying the least, and whoever does it best wins the prize!”

I caught my bruised fist in the other, regretting my vulnerability, and looked at him angrily. He, meanwhile, no longer looked immovable or emotionless; Bull just looked weary. And watchful, as always. I wondered at it: Was he seeing an enemy’s capitulation, or the struggle of someone he cared for? I could never be sure.

“Boss,” he said quietly. His voice was as always rich, deep and beautiful, something that hit me almost physically, a vibration in my core. “I answer to you. To you.”

I was quiet.

“You don’t have to worry about my loyalty. It shouldn’t be a question at this point,” he said. “We’ve shed blood together. We’ve shed blood for each other.”

“I know,” I said painfully.

“So it’s simple,” he said. “You’ll just have to trust me. Or trust yourself. I think you already know I won’t let you down.”

“How can you say that?” I asked. “Nothing is simple!”

His expression was both grim and sad. “That’s because you complicate things.”

“No. You all want to play games,” I said. “So play them. But play them without me. I’m too fucking tired.” And I was, I realized. Exhausted. I could have lain down right here for an impromptu nap. Those stupid nightmares again. I shook my head and forced myself to focus. Around us, the wind changed abruptly, whipping the banners with a crack against themselves.

“What if I told you that the only game I’ll play,” said Bull, slowly, meeting my eyes, “is the one you need me to?”

I looked back, and unexpectedly found myself at a loss. A brief feeling of free-fall. “Thank you,” I said. “I know it’s not true, but thank you.”

He looked at me sharply again, and I knew somehow that I’d surprised him once more. Then he let out his breath in a slow exhale. “Regardless,” he said, almost regretfully. “That’s a conversation for another day.”

A pause in which we listened to the faint howl of the wind around us. It was growing cold, and becoming increasingly clear that a storm was brewing. Snow, or worse.

“So what do we do now?” I asked, too tired to pretend I was talking only about the message.

He looked at me searchingly, then sighed. As always seemed to happen with Bull and me, the moment was over.

He stepped back, and I could almost see the wall come up.

“You need time,” he said. “I’ve been where you are." I drew breath, and he gave me a hard look. "You know I have."

"Yes." I put my hands to my face, but when I brought them down, he was still calm, inexorable. Waiting.

"You need to take that time," he said quietly. "For you, and those you lost. Time to get your mind straight.” I saw that that enviable detachment of his was back, but even so, I could see his reluctance to hurt me, and somehow that made it worse.

“Of course,” I said, blinking at the realization of what he actually meant. I dropped my gaze, but I couldn’t seem to figure out where to look. Well, that was fast. Now I really regretted not taking action the other evening; the only thing worse than being rejected after sex was being turned away before it had even truly occurred.

“Get some rest,” he said bluntly. “Don’t worry about anything else. And if you can have a drink or a laugh or a fuck without worrying about motives or meanings, do that. Lose yourself a little.”

“Right.” I stared stubbornly down at a goldish, brownish tuft of grass sprouting through the stones at my feet. I found myself nodding automatically. This was shaping up to be a terrific day when it came to my internal list of utterly humiliating conversations. Two of the worst, one after the other, catapulting themselves to the top of my list in a matter of hours.

I looked up as he gave another of his half-smiles. “Besides, in light of the message this morning,” he said. “It’s probably for the best.”

“Right,” I said idiotically again. And I knew my cheeks were still burning, and sure enough, I was sparking a bit, but at the same time, I still had some semblance of pride, and I was going to be damned if I was going to show any sign of sadness or disappointment at his decision. So I took a deep breath, meeting his eye again calmly, and gave him a tight smile.

“Thanks for discussing this with me, Bull. I know it was a difficult subject.”

“Not at all,” he said. Just as courteous, and just as formal. As if we were in an anteroom in Orlais.

“I’ll let you get back to the tavern,” I said. “I’m going to stay up here awhile.”

“Nice talking with you, Boss,” he said quietly, in his usual farewell. He touched my shoulder briefly, surprising me, then walked away a few steps. I leaned forward, over the low place in the wall, and folded my arms atop the stone. I resisted the urge to rest my cheek against it as well, because the coolness was wonderful and oddly strengthening, especially as I felt like I might literally burst into flames of lust, humiliation and loss at any moment.

“Hey,” Bull said. Surprised, I raised my head, turning back to see him paused at the top of the nearby staircase. “I’m still your captain, Boss,” he said. “You want to take down some dragons or bad guys, I’ll be there.”

I found myself smiling back in spite of myself. “I know that.”

"Good," he smiled. Then he left, and I stayed up there for awhile longer, sad and confused by the events of the past few days but also, actually relishing the wind and the cold for the first time since I’d come to Skyhold. I gave myself over to it, breathing it in and letting it numb me all over, until I couldn’t feel the fire of my magic at all. It was wonderful in its way, almost as lovely as the maraas-look of a few nights back.

Then, shivering, I walked with as much composure and calmness as I possessed, back down the stairs. And into the clearing. And over to Cassandra to do some sparring.

Because, now more than ever, I really felt like hitting something.

Chapter Text

The events of the week I lost my clan would have given me enough to think about and process in my usual slow way for a year at least, so I was pessimistic, and a little privately worried, after my conversations with Bull, Josie and Leliana, about balancing all my messy reactions, griefs and concerns in the weeks to come. I was especially not looking forward to worrying about everybody’s secrets or loyalties, and I feared that this was what lay ahead of me.

Instead, everything was normal. Surprisingly so. Or, well, as normal as things got in this strange new demon-haunted, green-tinted world.

I was able to return to my usual tasks, and between the meetings, the strategies, the training sessions, and the missions away, I was able to turn off my brain for awhile and simply act and react as needed. It was the most beautiful thing to just act, to stop thinking. Which wasn’t my strong point, anyway. At least as a prolonged activity.

But people were kind and patient as always, and there was so much to be done that it was usually nightfall before I knew it.

My main approach to life at this point was simply stay busy, to go without stopping—a formula that was exhausting but effective, and the next several weeks went by with surprising smoothness. I was still troubled by growing difficulties with sleep, but I put that down to the natural aftermath of grief and general emotional upheaval.  The truth was, we were all tired. Dog-tired. Dragon-tired. Everywhere I looked, I saw faces struggling with their own challenges, demons, and fears, just as I was. So I just put my head down and worked, resolutely, trying to keep moving forward.

There was much to be proud of—we were accomplishing things. Reestablishing a rule of law, clearing out demons, Venatori, bandits, malignant creatures and more, and in so many places where the people were desperate simply to survive each passing day.

I could take solace in my decisions. We mattered. And Skyhold was prosperous and functional as never before. Each of us, companions and advisers, knew what our roles entailed and what was required.

It was, however, a very strange time. The events of Haven had felt—had been—catastrophic, but in the months since, far more than any overreaching fantastical conflict involving orbs or ancient rogue magisters or unexplained phenomena, what really mattered to me was the simple, effective way we were able to go in and make a town or village safe again. Each night when I went to bed, whether enclosed in canvas tents or in my own newly pristine quarters, when I struggled against guilt or self-doubt or the latest losses among our people, I was nevertheless able to look at what we had accomplished, at who we had saved, at how many demons we had managed to take down.

Honestly, I even felt bad, sometimes, destroying the demons once I’d realized, after Solas’s eloquent explanation, that they were also victims in a strange way—spirits sucked through planes, metamorphosed into demons by the trauma, and dumped in what was, for them, a terrifying hellscape.  (I mean, let’s face it, I kind of understood how they felt. I think a lot of us did.) But if we couldn’t save or transform them back, then at least we could give them a relatively quick obliteration.

Onward, onward and onward. My companions and I were truly a team now—unified and mutually supportive, bickering only as families bicker (well, except for Cole, who bless his strange little heart would never be fully accepted by either Vivienne or Sera—not that he minded).

For a few days after our conversation on the battlements, I’d avoided Bull out of courtesy, and had debated about bringing him on a few key impending missions, but weakening the party because of a little emotional vulnerability on my part just felt cowardly.

So I’d brought him along, and continued to do so in the weeks to follow, and the strangest thing was… that nothing was strange at all. Bull was simply Bull, and I don’t think most of our companions were ever cognizant that there had been anything else beyond comradeship between us at all (whether actual or impending), except maybe Dorian. Or Solas.

Bull had always struck me as being unusually able to separate certain aspects of his life, even perhaps of his inner self, and that enviable ability of his to be slightly different versions of himself in different scenarios was now serving both of us splendidly, because on our missions, he was absolutely unchanged—affable, generous, capable, and protective. Sure, maybe once in a rare moment I’d still caught myself looking, as I had before—but hey, looking never killed anyone, and those moments had been rare away from Skyhold anyway. I quickly found myself falling back into our regular, routine banter again. (I was, however, careful to monitor any gaps in my tent while changing, mostly for dignity’s sake.)

As far as the message from Gatt, Bull and I had never spoken of it again. And following my brief recap of the discussion on the battlements for Leliana, neither had she—or Josie. We’d all agreed to simply watch and wait, until something definitive occurred.

But he was pretty much the same old Bull. Sometimes he and Solas argued, as they always did, about the philosophies and tenets of life under the Qun, and when this occurred I’d always find myself watching Bull and listening closely, waiting to see if anything had changed about his larger viewpoint. But Bull continued to generally (and frustratingly) champion life under the Qun while still also finding ways to admit that he also didn’t really want to see them take over the world—even admitting, further that, okay, it probably wouldn’t be a good life for everyone. In other words, I felt that he continued to walk that narrow precipice, agreeing with all sides while not actually having to take a stand.

At least, not yet.

Eventually, however, I tired of the bickering and when the subject would come up, I’d fix Solas (usually the instigator) with narrowed eyes and loudly ask him to tell us some more of his fantastic, beautiful and cheerful stories about the Fade. Solas would glower back, at least a little (although sometimes he’d also miraculously grant me a glimmer of amusement), then he would launch into another happy story about some doomed civilization he’d had the privilege of watching as they walked, sang, or marched to their deaths.

And now here we were, in the Exalted Plains to close more rifts, heal warring factions, and explore more troubling echoes from the Fade, not more than six weeks after my conversation with Bull. It was just me, Bull, Solas, Varric and Cole, all of us trudging through the pallid afternoon light in a field of dry, bleached grasses and embrium stalks. Massive rock formations rose from the hills around us like giant, precarious funeral cairns. It was a bleak land, yet I found it magnetic—beautiful and sad, as if its hills had retained the perpetual golden softness of afternoon sunlight on a day that would end in battle.

This whole place was like that. I was saddened by the realization that for me, Thedas was becoming nothing more than a giant collection of battlefields and tragedies, both old and recent.

Meanwhile, as we walked together on this particular day, and (of course) after I’d diverted him from another argument with Bull, I listened with the others as Solas finished his latest tale of the Fade, his beautiful voice echoing into stillness.

As always, it was lovely and profound poetry, a glimpse of hearts, lives, and lost echoes. However, also as always, it was heartbreaking… a reminder of how fleeting and transitory our own lives and happinesses truly were. For a brief second I found myself dangerously close to sniffling, sparks scattering plainly from my eyelashes, and Varric looked at me and grinned a little. Psychically, I told him that we had a pact as buddies not to reveal one another’s secrets, and he must have heard me, because he glanced away again with a slight smile.

“It was a good story,” he said with an air of studied casualness. “But perhaps given where we are, this wasn’t the best time to tell it?”

Solas looked puzzled. “Surely tales do not have times or seasons?”

“Aaaaaghghg,” said Bull. “The Fade. The fucking Fade.”

“Every tale has a time,” I said hesitantly. “Don’t you think?”

“Exactly,” said Varric.

Bull was blunter: “Solas, bud, didn’t you ever just walk into a tavern and see where the night took you? Come on. Tell us about that. Inside or outside the Fade.”

“Well,” said Solas. “Such things are private, after all.”

You just don’t want to talk about banging spirits,” said Bull, and I laughed out loud, because Solas not only didn’t respond, he had (rather charmingly and unexpectedly) blushed. It was amazing.

“Why isn’t there a tavern in the Fade?” asked Varric. “Surely there must, in fact, be countless.”

“Perhaps I have not paid the proper attention to such instances,” said Solas thoughtfully. “I have, I admit, tended to seek out glimpses of those moments offering history and import. At least, of late.”

I sighed. Then chewed the inside of my lip, wishing the story had been happier. I’d have been thrilled with an 80% death rate here, for instance. 90% even. Just the idea that someone, anyone, might sometimes triumph. Meanwhile, something about it had reminded me of my dreams lately—that sense of doom and inexorable loss.

And this landscape already depressed me, and we hadn’t even been here for a full day. So Solas’s newest hopeless narrative privately made me want to throw myself in a hole or chew my arm off. While of course also paradoxically wishing he would never stop talking at all, because his voice was beautiful enough that listening to him speak was its own kind of music.

“Thank you for the story,” I said, trying for diplomacy and privately wishing I could find a place to go hug myself and rock back and forth for a little while. “It was very moving.”

“You are most welcome,” said Solas.  Oh, dear. He was so polite.

“I liked that story,” said Cole cheerfully. “I’m so glad he had his toy.”

I looked at Cole sharply. “The dead child?” I asked, puzzled. “The one who died along with the rest in the battle?”

“Yes,” said Cole. “He died, but at least he had his friend. He loved it. He’d have been much sadder without it.”

“Great.” I groaned and tried to remember something happy. Anything. “Someone,” I pleaded, “Please please say something funny.”

Varric looked as sad as I felt. “Chuckles, you have a way with words, but we’re gonna have to talk about your narrative approach. It’s too hopeless. People need something to root for.”

“Backflips,” said Bull. “Your stories need more backflips.”

“He’s right,” said Varric.

“Alas,” said Solas, “Backflips are somewhat rare in the Fade.”

“The toy was nice,” pointed out Cole.

He was right next to me, so I broke off a stalk of embrium and threw it at him. Lovingly. I was heartened when Cole responded with a look of puzzlement in his deeply tired face… but also a grin.

“You threw that at me!” he said, wondering.

“Yes,” I said.

“Why?”

“Because I love you,” I said.

“Oh.” He stopped, pondering, and we stopped with him. This was fine with me. I’d rather deal with Cole’s puzzlements any day than with acres of sadness or terribly tragic Fade stories.

“What?” I asked when he didn’t speak.

He looked up at me, those purple shadows under his eyes striking and very dark. I wanted to hug him then, so badly, then, to protect this haunted skinny kid from the shadows that seemed to strike at his very soul. But I kept my distance. Cole was so vulnerable, but it was challenging to comfort him; he had walls and if you tried to enter those walls, the defences would clang down. It was easier to show him companionship and support from a distance, sometimes.

“Why?” asked Cole. “Tell me why you love me.”

His eyes were so sad. I reached out and took his hand, and he let me, fleetingly.

“Because you see so clearly,” I said. “Because you are so full of love and compassion and you simply want to help.”

“Kid, you’re family,” said Varric, smiling. “She loves you, we all love you. Catch up.”

“Not really. Everyone doesn’t love me,” observed Cole. “Vivienne doesn’t love me. Cabot doesn’t love me. The Skyhold cook hates me. The requisition officers. And I scare The Iron Bull. Scary, strange, stricken, striking…”

“Oh, stop,” I said. “Bull loves you as much as any of us.” I spoke with confidence, and was cheered at Bull’s very slight grin in return.

“Hey,” he said. “Like I said. You’re a creepy kid, Cole. But you’re my creepy kid.”

Our creepy kid,” I amended. “I mean, not creepy. And the Inquisition’s. Overall. But ours. Got it, Cole?”

“Sera doesn’t love me,” added Cole, still speculating thoughtfully. “She really doesn’t love me. Very definitely doesn’t.”

“Well, yes, that is probably true,” said Solas unexpectedly. “But Sera is one of those for whom the list of those she doesn’t love is much greater than the list of those she does.”

“Oh,” said Cole. “What if I gave her a fennec?”

“Well...” said Solas. “Cole… Let us just say that, if she were brave enough, Sera would care deeply for you. Rest assured that it is only her fear that keeps her from it.”

Cole brightened. “A toy. A small, stuffed toy. That’s what she needs. Like the one in your story.”

Oh, gods. We kept on trudging in the quiet afternoon, and somehow we were all sad again. Far off, I could hear the growls of demons, and my heart sank.

Varric rubbed his eyes. He looked tired and glum too. “We’re all tired. Come on, someone. Give me something. Cheer a dwarf up.”

“A guy walks into a tavern with a nug under his arm,” said Bull. I grinned to myself because it was such a typically generous thing for him to do. And he’d never admit it. Of course. “It’s a big nug too.”

“What color is the nug?” asked Cole.

“It’s pink,” said Bull. “Like most nugs. But it’s smart. You can tell.”

Then what happens?” asked Cole, eyes wide and wondering.

“The tavern-keeper says, ‘You’ll have to leave that thing outside!’” said Bull, grinning, that spark back in his eye. “But the nug replies, ‘I would—but he’s the one with the gold!’”

We all let out sounds of despair at that one, then laughed in spite of ourselves.

“It must be hard to be a nug,” said Cole thoughtfully. “Never to have pockets.”

“Oh, Cole,” I said, chuckling again in spite of myself.

“At least it wasn’t a pun,” said Varric.

“Hey,” said Bull, wounded. “Puns are the height of humor.”

I laughed. “What Bull said.”

“They’re really not,” said Varric.”

Bull: “They’re clever.”

The dwarf chuckled. “Not exactly.”

Hrrrrf,” said Bull morosely. “Nobody appreciates puns.”

“You may be onto something, Tiny,” Varric replied with a grin.

“Says the guy who puts somersaults into his swordfights,” grinned Bull.

“Touché,” said Varric, returning the smile.

Solas looked both troubled and thoughtful. “I do not mean to be cheerless,” he said. “To me, there is value in my stories of the Fade. I feel that it is important that we remember them, both for those who were lost and for the lessons they hold.”

“I agree,” I said. “And I love hearing them. But so many of your echoes, of your seeings, are so sad, Solas! Why is it that tragedy seems to mark the Fade more heavily than joy?”

He looked thoughtful for a moment, and actually stopped walking. We paused with him again, looking on as he thought. “Perhaps because tragedy is a more constant and regular part of life than joy,” he said slowly. “It is a condition of existence. Joy, on the other hand, could be considered a more uncommon occurrence, something accidental and rare.”

“I don’t believe that,” I said, frowning. “I don’t believe that at all.”

“I know,” said Solas, meeting my eyes for a moment. Unexpectedly, his face looked ever so slightly mischievous. “It is good, if somewhat puzzling, that you are still able to believe such things, Inquisitor.”

“Oh,” I said, coloring slightly. “Thank you.”

“Sparks has a point, though. Don’t you know any happy stories, Chuckles?” asked Varric. I laughed in spite of myself.

“Ah.” Solas considered. “It would depend on your definition of happy, I suppose,” he said, his voice quiet and beautiful. “Do all happy stories only involve the living? Are all stories that end in death truly tragic? It is the world, after all. And most stories, of course, lie somewhere in between.”

“Not your stories,” Varric pointed out. “When you talk of the Fade, it’s sometimes like you’re walking through a series of abandoned graveyards.”

Solas considered this for a moment. “It is a foreseeable side effect of my obsession. Monuments last longer than lives. Perhaps that is a trade one must expect when walking the Fade,” he said.

“It sounds lonely,” I said. “So many of the rooms and dreams you describe are dead or empty.”

He laughed quietly at this, surprising me. “Whatever makes you think that I was always alone on my journeys? I have made them with others many times over the years.”

Characteristically, as he did whenever the Fade was discussed, Bull looked a little skeptical. “You talking about spirits and demons again, Solas? Or actual people?”

“Oof,” said Varric. Cassandra’s disgusted noise was really making the rounds. Now practically all of us were doing it.

I jumped in hastily. “Wait, we’re not starting that one again.”

Solas was still visibly preoccupied with the criticism of his story. “I am sorry the stories are not happier,” he said. “However, they lived as they believed, and loved… and died… I cannot deny the terrible beauty I find in what I witness.” I looked up, sharply, to see Solas caught against the dark horizon, thinking. That passionate undercurrent was back however, the one that reminded me he was a blade underneath.

“Sometimes, Chuckles, I think you are more comfortable with these stories of aftermaths rather than of the battles themselves because the loss is soft, it’s old,” said Varric. “So it’s easier for you to maintain that distance and objectivity.”

“Certainly,” said Solas. “We walk daily through landscapes filled with blood. Perhaps, for me, sometimes a loss that is centuries old is easier to face.”

“Yeah,” Bull said quietly. “It’d be that way for most people, I think.”

“So many die through the ages without ever being remembered,” said Cole. “It’s good that you remember them. However you can.”

Solas sighed. “We all have our demons.”

Ahead of us, a flash of fire and redness. “Speaking of which,” said Varric, balancing Bianca in the crook of his arm.

We readied ourselves for the fight, so used to these gestures that they were almost automatic. I tapped into a thread of the Fade in readiness, thinking in spite of myself. “Bull’s right,” I said slowly. “Maybe Solas, the next time you go to the Fade, you could let yourself play? Find a tavern. Even if it’s just a memory. Listen to a song you’ve never heard.”

“It doesn’t all have to be penance,” said Varric.

“Right,” I said. “You don’t have to go there simply to mourn what was lost.”

Solas’s sharp glance caught mine again, and I shrugged, a little embarrassed. For a single moment our eyes held, then he echoed my shrug and cast his barriers. It was a gesture more eloquent than words.

Chapter Text

Solas’s stories might be about past tragedies viewed and mourned from the Fade, but in the Exalted Plains, however, the aftermaths of such moments, especially for the elven people, were all too clear to all of us.

We spent several days on this latest trip, and here, more than anywhere I had yet encountered, the tragedy was not so much a memory as a present fact.

The evidence was everywhere, the tolls horrific, both fresh and ancient. If this land had been able to present itself with historical accuracy, its soil and vegetation would, in fact, have been colored crimson with blood. The land practically cried out its agonies in the hundreds of little pockets of ancient or abandoned Dalish culture and landscape that showed themselves the result of violence and genocide.

The landscape showed traces of new and ancient calamities, and so did its people The wary, tentative Dalish we met, for instance, both moved and scared me. They were a quiet, heartbreakingly small clan, but they subtly showed themselves trained and aware at levels that were almost preternatural. I remember seeing an archer in the clan, as we spoke, draw his bow and casually shoot a buzzing horsefly that was bothering one of their small herd of halla. The shot had been a breathtaking example of skill and readiness, and the fly had been skewered in a fraction of a second to a nearby tree. Varric had whistled in admiration at the show of skill, while Cole had edged toward the halla, listening.

“You helped,” he’d said to the bowman. “It’s much happier now.” The elf had stared back at Cole stoically, only a hint of mystification on his tanned face.

I was both heartened and saddened at our visits to the camp. These Dalish were listening to the signs, and heeding them intelligently. But I was depressed by the Keeper’s reactions of exaggerated deference (barely masking the suspicion and wariness beneath), by the taut, silent, unsmiling people in the encampment. The skittish halla. These people would not be taken unawares, at least. But they also viewed us as outsiders, aliens, and always would. Even me.

Solas had been quiet in our visits to their encampment, watching as I spoke to the Keeper and Halla-Keeper in that usual cool way of his that betrayed so little. He had only shown emotion a few times – once, when the Halla-Keeper had complimented my vallaslin (a slight shadow of what might have been distaste crossing his face), and later, I’d noticed a brief look of something that looked like pity mixed with contempt, as he’d watched a small child carrying water from the nearby stream. That fleeting glimpse, however, was enough to send me into a silent and protective fury for the rest of the day.

For this reason, once we’d helped the local Dalish with a few tasks, seeking to earn trust, or even the potential of some future alliance, I took some time to myself, heading off into a small wood just across the riverbank and slightly beyond the Dalish encampment. I’d pretended the need to grab some extra herbs, but as I made my way through the delicate trees, I found myself less focused on elfroot and more upon calming my emotions. It was difficult, however, as this entire place was just the massacre of my clan writ large. And the remaining Dalish were just such a small group. So fragile, so precious, so tied to ritual. Deadly, but doomed. And they were all that was left.

I wandered into a clearing, still thinking about the Dalish, and before I knew it, I’d found a wealth of herbs to bring back. And then I saw it… what I’d really wanted to find… the remnants of the small, crumbling shrine that we’d passed earlier. It was a shrine to Mythal, the all-mother, and while it was disguised to appear old and neglected, I looked more closely and saw that it was, in fact, respectfully maintained. The paint upon the stones showed the vivid graceful lines depicting a dragon, graceful and with head bowed low, and it was fairly fresh. The gentle curving top of the altar held a bunch of fresh elfroot, reverently laid on top.

I was careful not to touch the elfroot, and I added my own bundle of embrium there, then knelt. I wasn’t sure what I was doing… it wasn’t quite prayer and it wasn’t quite mourning… no inner questions or judgments on gods above or below.

Bull had been right. I didn’t know what I wanted. I was a stranger to myself.

It struck me, suddenly, that the Dalish had looked at me like a shem. I had caught the glances and had seen their mistrust, their fierce disappointment in me. Most of them, I now realized, probably viewed me as a traitor. I had joined the shems.

They weren’t wrong. I had, in fact, left that life for good and all. Our visit to the clan here had made me sharply aware, as nothing else ever had… that that life was over for me.

I was Dalish to my core. I always would be. But that was just one part of myself now, not the whole part. The truth was, I did not entirely feel Dalish anymore, and I felt no yearning to return to that life or to rejoin any other clan. There would be no comforting rituals for me, no taut and handsome bridegroom for me, with his vallaslin, tanned skin and clear eyes. There would be no marriage bond ceremony before a clan that had watched us grow to adulthood together. I had no clan, no home, no aravel, no Keeper. And in fact that had been a part of my knowledge of myself already.

Even while my clan had lived, I realized, I had already fled to my own solitude, to the Storm Coast and its wind and rain, glorying in simply being alone. I had not sought help after the brutal attack by Templars, I'd shunned in fact all help or support in the aftermath, my rage swallowing me like moisture on cloth.

Instead I'd fled all contact at all, despairing of the life they'd built, seeing all too clearly how vulnerable they were... and always would be. I'd run, fast and far. And in all likelihood, if it hadn't been for my clan's desperate need, I'd probably still be there on my cliffs right this moment, well on my way to becoming an ancient crone before the waves, mad and untrusting and open to demons and rage.

But then had come the Conclave, and word from my clan, and I'd felt enough to return to do what I could. Because I'd loved them. But I just couldn't live with them anymore. Anymore than I could live with myself.

And so I'd left them. They were not my responsibility, I knew this. But I'd left them nevertheless. And for that reason, how funny that in my last task for them, I'd been willing to face a political meeting filled with people who hated my own, me and them. And I'd only gone because I'd owed it to the Dalish, to my own people, and most of all... I realized... as penance. Because I'd already left. Because I'd known I would not be coming home.

It was so clear to me now, suddenly. I’d been blaming the war, the times, the Inquisition, for my feeling of disconnection and loss.

But the Inquisition hadn’t done it, I realized.

I’d done it to myself.

And so I knelt beside the stones and tried to simply listen in the stillness. It was just edging on dark, and the air was soft and crisp. Snow had not yet arrived here, and the fields and trees were still firmly dressed for autumn. I could hear, faintly, the homely noises of the clan and its camp—the voices and subdued clamor of life, punctuated with the bleating of halla, and that little sound made me so homesick for a second that I couldn’t breathe. Suddenly, I missed my mother so badly I could have crawled into her lap like a toddler.

“Mother,” I said aloud, and I wasn’t sure to which mother I was speaking… to my own, or to the mother of our people. Yet the word gave me unexpected comfort, and I put my hand to the stone altar before me, its coolness a strange yet additional source of realness and support. “Thank you, Mother, for another day in the sun.”

I wasn’t sure of how I felt about the gods. I didn’t, for instance, precisely think Mythal was actually hearing me. It didn’t matter. I’d felt the need to honor them, so I simply stayed and thought, and it helped, a little.

But as I bowed my head over the stones, a rustling of the trees caused me to look up, and there of all people was Solas. He was carrying a brace of hares at his hip, and ambling easily through the high grass. When he saw me, he paused for a moment, then continued over to me. My heart sank a little. We were still often at odds, and most of my decisions in the War Room or our other councils still involved Solas arguing with me on a fairly regular basis, just as we once had about the Dalish. And I was still furious with him—I hadn’t realized how much—over the contempt I’d glimpsed earlier when he’d looked at the Dalish child.

But anger helped nothing and no one, and I needed Solas. So I looked back down at the stones beside me, where my sorry additional bundle of elfroot, embrium, sage and wild onion lay beside me for bringing back to camp (I’d clutched them a bit more tightly than was exactly good for the herbs in prayer).

“Inquisitor.”

“Solas,” I said to the bundled roots, more as acknowledgement than greeting. “Go on ahead,” I said. “Don’t wait for me. I’ll be there soon.”

He looked puzzled. “What is it?”

I spoke coldly. “Please just go on ahead.”

He didn’t move.

“I…” I stopped. Embarrassed at my emotions, I shook my head, then looked back up to meet his eyes, realizing that fury was still with me in spite of myself and my prayer—the anger at that subtle glimpse of his contempt earlier. It didn’t help that I was also anticipating some new slight against my people.

Lethallan,” he said in surprise, pausing momentarily as he neared the altar. He opened his hands and walked toward me, as if to show himself weaponless. “Ha’ma’in,” he said. “Be calm. Put the old knife away.” His voice was quiet and warm, surprising me.

“You judged them today,” I said. “The Dalish. Again.”

He picked his way carefully through the parched grasses in the last few steps until he was standing beside me. He met my eyes, then nodded. “Perhaps I did.”

“You aren’t fair to them.”

“I have already admitted that I may not always be objective when it comes to them,” he replied.

“Neither am I,” I said, and suddenly my anger was gone and sadness was all that was left.

“Well,” he said. “That is understandable.”

I looked back down at the shrine, then slumped, tired, confused and sad in the tangled, knee-high undergrowth. “I’m sorry. I just… I can’t,” I said. “This entire place. It’s a graveyard. New graves, old graves, a thousand years of violence everywhere.”

“Yes,” he said quietly. “The loss, death, and humiliation of an entire people.”

“It’s all around us here.”

“Yes.”

 “Solas. Based on what I’ve seen just in the past two days… you could plant the Exalted Plains for a thousand years,” I said, sparks still falling helplessly from my fingertips… “And you would still be feeding your crops with elven blood.”

He colored slightly. “Yes,” he said. “Here, and elsewhere.” He knelt down beside me and touched the top of the altar gently with a sweep of his fingers. It was an odd gesture, almost a caress.

“It is difficult to face, I know.”

The anger left me, and I sat still and silent. After a moment, he stood, sighing, then reached out to me, his hand to my wrist.

“Come,” he said, turning back toward camp. “You needn’t be alone. Come back to our companions.”

I stood up, but didn’t move. “Solas,” I said, grasping his fingers as he pulled away.

He stopped, looking back at me. “What?”

I spoke hesitantly, meeting his eyes. “I’m not a blade.”

“What?”

“Remember? What you said, after I lost my clan?”

“Of course I remember,” he said.

“Seeing landscapes like this, I wish that I was—what you said. I wish I could do what you suggested. Sharpen myself. Be tougher. Colder. I truly do. But I’m not what you think I am.”

“So you say,” he said quietly.

“So I know. I wish I could be a blade, I do.” I took a breath. “But I’m not.”

A flash—almost of sympathy—but somehow something more complex. “Lethallan,” he said gently. “I do not think you know what you are, as yet. Give it time.”

“You’re wrong. I know what I am,” I said. “An accident.”

A beat of silence, as we listened to the birdsong of twilight. He began to walk toward camp, and I kept pace beside him. The fire was a mere flicker in the distance as the darkness began to descend in earnest.

“Besides,” I said. “If we’re talking of tableware… I’m a spoon.”

He laughed softly, unexpectedly. “Well,” he said. “Spoons are useful things.”

“Yes,” I said. “Try eating soup with a fork, for instance. I’m providing a valuable service.”

“True,” he replied. “But you will forgive me for noting that, yet again, I do not think that is precisely what you are.”

 “You don’t know what I am,” I said flatly, meeting his eyes. “You’ve admitted that. The Mark is something new. So I’m something new.” I hugged myself as the chill of evening began to creep in. “Anyway. You’re just being patient because we’re in ancient places and you’re feeling nostalgic. Or something.”

“It’s possible.” The faintest hint of a smile again. Then he sighed. “It is a difficult landscape to witness.”

“They’re all difficult landscapes,” I answered. “Which one was magical and easy and happy, exactly? Let’s go back to that one—it’ll be fun!”

A faint grin and a regretful shrug. “A fair point.” I smiled, and we continued on toward the distant circle of warmth and flame that was our campsite.

I looked over at him. “So,” I said, with a hint of mischief. “Are you a blade? Really?”

He stopped walking and smiled at me—a smile both subtle and fierce, open yet hidden. “Yes,” he said.

“Is it worth it?” I asked.

He glanced sharply at me, pausing again. “Certainly. If one has one’s goals clearly in mind. Then, yes.”

“Which is your way of saying that it’s lonely, unpleasant, and depressing,” I said, sighing.

“Ah, yes.” He shrugged. “It is a small price to pay for power and self-knowledge. For the ability to do what must be done.

“I wish you could show me how to do that,” I said.

He looked up, surprised. “Perhaps,” he said. “But why would you want such a thing?”

I looked over at the faraway light and warmth of our camp. Then back behind me, toward the distant Dalish torches, the rich crimsons of their aravels still glimmering faintly farther away, through the trees. “I want to be better than I am,” I said. “Stronger. I want to be able to do more.”

“You can do more,” he said, “without altering what you are. After our earlier conversation, I have been thinking. And if you still have the capacity, to feel, to love, those are things to be cherished in such times as these. I would not want to be the one to help you obliterate that with a lust for vengeance.”

“That’s not what you said in my room.”

“No,” he said. “That is true. It is… a complicated question.”

I crossed my arms, thinking. “If it helps… I don’t want to obliterate anything in myself, except a little weakness here and there.”

“Your perception of what is weakness within you may, in fact, not always be accurate,” said Solas.

“Fine,” I said, rolling my eyes slightly. “Don’t help.”

He smiled. “I am always willing to help you; surely you know that. But some wishes are better left ungranted.”

I thought for a moment, then called out to him as he continued walking ahead of me. “Solas.”

“Yes?” he turned back, curious yet calm.

“Could you–could you—help me with this?” I gestured at my braid, which was… yes… sparking blue faintly in the darkening air.

“I see...” he said. “That.” He walked back to me through the high grass, and surprised me by coming up quite close, then he reached out to my braid, and ran his fingers lightly down its length as the sparks scattered, blue and faint into his palm and down my breast.

“I have noticed this curious peculiarity to your magic,” he said, a faint ghost of humor visible. He watched the sparks fall into his palm, then bent his head slightly over them, closing his eyes for a few seconds. He let go of my braid, then looked at me with a trace of surprise. “It does not seem to be connected to the Fade.”

“No,” I said. “Our clan’s Second, Faellin, was a skilled healer and seer. He’d seen it before, or variations of it, and was able to confirm that it wasn’t anything like an open connection to the Fade.”

“That had been my first assumption as well,” said Solas, meditatively. “But I am happy to have been mistaken.”

“So was I,” I said, nodding. “I have no desire to become an abomination.”

He stepped back again. “Well,” he said. “Although it is somewhat rare—I have only seen this kind of thing a few times, myself—I can certainly see that it may not be advantageous for daily life.”

“No,” I said. “It’s absolutely not.”

“Hmm,” he said. “Allow me to think on this.” He turned away from me abruptly in that way of his, and walked back toward the light of our fires. It was full twilight now, with only an occasional fading, fragile ray of sunset now reaching fleetingly through the gentle landscape around us.

As we approached, I could hear wolf-howls far off. Not threatening, but somehow rather tentative and sad. It was a difficult landscape for any creature and I didn’t want to massacre a pack needlessly. “Put on the amulet, okay?” I asked Solas, nervous in spite of myself. “I hate killing them.” I was referring to the Token of the Packmaster, which helped us to harness the wolves, and to avoid killing them.

He nodded, a sparkle of humor in his eyes, which were suddenly very green in the fading light. “I wear it now,” he said. “The wolves will not trouble us. Nor we them.”

“Thank you.”

We shared a few seconds of silence as we finished our walk to our companions. We weren’t far now, and I could hear Bull and Varric’s voices in quiet discussion. Then even as we approached, a brilliant golden hummingbird dipped down suddenly before us, and even as we watched, it hovered, then delicately sipped from an embrium blossom only a few steps from Solas’s path. Watching it, Solas’s face lit up for a brief second in delight, and my fierce and intimidating companion was once again unexpectedly replaced by someone more gentle and approachable.

He paused, watching the delicate little creature fly away even as that final gleam of sunset faded. We paused together a moment, as if to acknowledge the magic of it somehow.

Then he drew breath, slowly, and sighed, as if he had come to some sort of decision. “Da’len…” he said, and his voice was rough with a hint of emotion I could not name. “Lethallan… if you would like my assistance in learning to control or rein in your condition… then I am here to help.”

“Thank you, hahren,” I said. “I would. I really would.”

“Then consider it done. Come and see me when we get back to Skyhold.”

“I will.” I looked up to find him watching me, as if waiting for the response. He nodded, betraying little beyond courtesy, however, but we entered camp in shared, oddly comfortable silence. Bull was seated on a stump near the fire, going over everyone’s weapons as he always did at the end of a day, testing them for nicks or weaknesses. Varric was writing before the fire, his parchment on his knee, while Cole stood apart, gazing tensely into the night air.

“It’s dark,” said Cole.

“Yes,” I said, amused. “But we’re all safe at camp.”

“I’m not talking about the night,” said Cole. “It’s dark there. Somewhere else. Where it shouldn’t be.”

Solas looked up at him with a keen, thoughtful glance. “What is it, Cole?”

“Something… something wrong.”

“Wrong where?” asked Solas.

“In the Fade,” said Cole. “I can almost feel it.”

“In the Fade?” asked Solas. “Are you sure?”

“Not quite,” said Cole. “It’s here and gone, hard to find. Like a bruise that isn’t a bruise yet.” Cole stood rigid and leaning, listening, as taut as a bowstring. The listening, intent expression on Cole’s face scared me a little. He looked more human than usual, but he also looked deathly tired.

“If you are worried, Cole, then so am I. It is worthy of consideration,” said Solas slowly. “A dangerous possibility.” He looked at Cole for a moment, studying him, then back at me. I shrugged, worried, and Solas’s glance went to Bull, who instantly got that “Oh shit, demons,” expression he got whenever you mentioned the Fade.

No sound but the faint howls of wolves, much farther away now than before. I shivered. None of us spoke. We all seemed to be listening for something.

Then Cole spoke, unexpectedly, into the silence: “Solas, you should not have chosen rabbits.” His voice was chiding and sad.

“Hares,” said Solas. “And they were all I could find.”

“Hidden, huddling, hiding… Their dreams are so gentle,” said Cole. “It seems wrong.”

“It is wrong,” said Solas. “But it is the world.”

Chapter Text

Of course, as always, the world intervened. The next few weeks were a whirlwind of travel, fighting, politics, and battles. In other words, daily life in this strange new reality of the past year.

But then, finally, the world seemed to breathe again, and I went to see Solas.

I knocked, and he answered for me to enter in a brisk, preoccupied way. He was bent over his desk when I entered, sifting through a stack of messages and books as if searching for something.

I hesitated. “Is this a bad time, Solas?”

He looked up sharply, then gave me a faint smile. “No, my apologies. I have been preoccupied with Cole's warning. There are echoes I do not like from the Fade itself." He drew breath, looking at my expression. "So. Are you here for our lesson at last?”

“Um.” I took a deep breath. “Yes, if that’s what we’re calling them.”

“Excellent,” he said. “But first, let us see what we are dealing with.”

He came over to me and as before, reached out to take the end of my braid in his hand. As he did so, the few sparks there multiplied for a split second into a dozen or so. He looked amused, glancing over at me as I pretended to be looking resolutely at his frescoes, then he looked back down at the end of my braid in his hand, studying the tiny flickers there.

“Tell me, what seems to cause the reaction most of the time?” he asked.

I shrugged slightly. “Everything.”

“That is hardly helpful.”

“All right,” I said. “Emotion. Particularly anger, I suppose, or fear or grief. Or frustration.”

“Hmm,” he said. “Basic emotions, then. Are they always negative?”

“I guess,” I said. “For the most part.”

“Anger, fear, grief… for the most part?”

Fenedhis. “Well, I guess… they’re not all negative. There’s also…”

“What?” he asked.

“Well, excitement,” I said, flushing.

"Excitement?" A single elegant eyebrow. I cursed him inwardly for his amusement.

"Proximity," I admitted. 

"Closeness," he said, smiling. "In some cases." 

"In some cases," I answered.

Gods below.

“So which emotion is this one?” he asked with a flicker of amusement, gesturing at the end of my braid in his fingers.

I felt myself turning even redder. “Er. Closeness.”

“I see.” Now the mischief in his face was unmistakable, and I grinned back in spite of myself.

He let go of the braid and stepped away again, thinking. “What you want,” he said, “Is to control them, correct?”

“I don’t know about control,” I said. “I mean yes, I just want them gone.”

“Let us start with an experiment,” he said. “We will start by causing the reaction… and then we shall see if we can mute or lessen that reaction.”

Wonderful. I grimaced but nodded. “All right.” I looked down at his desk. “But Solas, we might want to move those papers. I don’t want to start setting things on fire.”

Unexpectedly, he smiled, then nodded. “True. We should take precautions. Very well, then.” In a single, swift motion, he cast Barriers, a beautiful, fluid cast that sent magic shimmering visibly like a dome of white fire across the Rotunda, wall to wall and—I realized—even above us, so that we were truly alone. It was a revelation that made me grateful, as I hadn’t been looking forward to having the lessons witnessed by everyone two and three floors up the tower.

“There,” he said. “Now we can work without fear of harm to ourselves… or to my studies.” I barely registered his words however, as the skill and precision required for the spell had been prodigious, and I found myself gaping.

“Solas!” I said, stunned. He looked back over at me, curious. “What?”

I gestured wordlessly at the beautiful barriers he had cast, shaking my head. “Solas, the power required for what you just did… I’ve never known anyone who could do that. Your connection to the Fade must be extraordinary.”

The slight glint of a smile. “My peculiar connection to the Fade serves me well,” he said. “I am able to open a purer channel than most.”

“You don’t cast that way when we fight,” I observed.

“No,” he said. “In actual battle, I find it’s actually best to conserve energy. But here that isn’t an issue.”

“True.”

He shrugged. “Now come, let’s see if we can create and then manipulate this reaction of yours.”

I made a face. “It’s not difficult.”

“That’s right,” he said, smiling again. “Anger, fear, frustration, and…what was that other one?” He stepped back up to me again, inches away, and I immediately blushed, my braid sparking obligingly on cue. He raised an eyebrow. “Excitement?”

“More or less,” I said. Which simply caused more sparks. Oh fucking hells of Andruil.

“Good,” said Solas. “This is going well.”

I glared at him.

“Now,” he said. “Now try to stop it. Tell yourself the sparks will cease. Now.”

“Wait,” I said. “Do I open a channel to the Fade?”

“No,” he said. “Try to call it up from within yourself.”

Fine. I took a deep breath. The sparks will cease, I told my stupid stubborn brain. Now. A shower of brighter blue sparks promptly spilled from the end of my braid. I shut my eyes and tried to center myself, stubbornly reaching into myself and my magic, trying to find the core. Stop, I told them. Stop.

Predictably, the sputtering blue fire just got worse.

“Again.”

I tried again. Sparks galore.

“Perhaps I should make you angry,” he said, his voice meditative and considering.

“I’m trying!” I said, frustrated.

“Try harder,” he said.

In a flash that was both breathtaking and terrifying, he whirled, and I realized he’d cast Mind Blast at me, an outright attack that I deflected effectively if without grace. Then I glared at him.

“What in the world, Solas?”

“You need to be angry,” he replied, and that hard humor was back in his face. I threw a hit of Stonefist at him in sheer pique, and he stopped it with an exquisite microcast of Barriers (still maintaining those outside of us), so that it fell in a shower of dust.

“You’re fighting it,” he said.

“I’m not!”

 “Are you?” he asked. “I wonder.”

“Wonder all you like,” I said, nettled.

“I will,” he said. “And I still think you’re fighting me. Fighting it.”

Needless to say, my lessons were not off to an auspicious start.

 

* * *

 

The next few lessons were just as frustrating. Solas could create and view the sparks in me, as so many could, but nothing we tried could actually eliminate them.

After another quick trip to Redcliffe a week after my last meeting with him, I tried again, stopping by his lovely rotunda, yet even as he greeted me to enter, Solas surprised me by  casting an attack the moment I walked in. I rolled, catching myself as I fell aside to avoid it, then got to my feet awkwardly.

“Really?” I asked, furious and embarrassed at the fumbling entrance. “Hello to you, too.” As I looked around, I realized his beautiful barriers had already been cast in preparation, and the room was ours alone.

“Well,” he said, with that narrow glimpse of humor I’d come to recognize in him as a near-constant if subtle presence. “I was seeking a specific response.”

I blew the hair out of my eyes and tried not to send fireballs at him. Solas, however, remained unflappable.

“We could talk to Cole,” he said.

“I am not messing around with my memories,” I said with a hard glare. “Cole sees enough. That’s fine. But the rest of my thoughts and feelings I’d like to remain my own.” I crossed my arms protectively, my hands cupping my elbows, even though I hated the vulnerability it revealed. And visibly, Solas seemed to see and respond to that.

“I understand,” he said. His face softened slightly. “It was an impulsive suggestion.”

I dropped my eyes, frustrated and sad. Solas watched me for a few seconds, quietly, then he surprised me by coming forward and laying a hand on my shoulder, the other gently holding the end of my braid. He shut his eyes, and I found myself unexpectedly charmed by the faintest hint of freckles on the bridge of his nose. The realization that his eyebrows were actually not brown, but a dark auburn. I had never been this close to him for a prolonged period before. He smelled lovely, like evergreen, musk and candlesmoke. I thought about kissing him, then I blocked the thought as my stupid braid started shedding that fatal blue glow again.

He stood there for several more seconds, listening to something I couldn’t hear. I found myself wondering how much he could hear within me. It wasn’t fair. Then he opened his eyes and surprised me again by smiling into my face. I was charmed, even if it brought home yet again that I couldn't ever seem to anticipate or read him.

“I have been mistaken,” he said, removing his hand from my shoulder. “You cannot stop this reaction by fighting it.”

“Huh?”

“The sparks exist at all because you fight,” he said.

I knew I looked confused. “So?”

“So fighting will not banish them,” he said. “Instead, you can only stop the reaction by giving in to it, by letting it go.”

“I don’t understand.” I didn’t like the sound of this at all.

“You are at odds with yourself,” he said. “At odds within yourself, I should say. Your heart and mind, your will and magic, your very self, is divided.”

I shook my head slowly. “I don’t feel divided.”

He cast a sharp look at me, but his voice was quiet. “Don’t you?” he asked.

I was silent, suddenly unsure of what to say.

He drew breath, letting his fingers go from my braid. Yet we remained locked within inches of one another, as if he still held me physically.

“When did this first manifest itself, this reaction?” he asked.

I started to step away, but his eyes kept me there. Still, I closed down again for a moment, silent and small. “A little less than a year before the Temple,” I answered. I tried to sound businesslike, factual. “I’d gone to the Storm Coast to train… I wanted to push myself, to become more skillful without a staff. Then this started happening.”

He bent his head, watching me. “And why did you begin this new regimen?” he asked. “What brought it on, this desire to fight without a staff?”

Gods below. I met his eyes levelly. I could not have named the emotions I felt if given a thousand years. “I…”

“Yes?” His voice was flat, but the compassion in his face allowed me to continue.

I held on to the anger. Anger was always a friend. Then I took a deep, slow breath. “Fine. I was captured by Templars," I said, meeting his eyes as if daring him to fight me.

“I see.”

Again, as always, there was no adversary for me there. Just quiet, almost hidden compassion. “It’s all fine,” I said, but my voice was not entirely steady. Not entirely. “I got away. But… I—I didn’t want that to happen again.”

He started to speak, and I could tell he was going to ask me another question, he was going to ask me more, and I steeled myself for it. He was going to want to know everything, he'd want details, and I would not, just not, be able to answer him or anyone, I just wouldn't, and then what? I would simply be weak, and he wouldn't understand.

But then a miracle happened. He drew breath, looked closely at me, his eyes keen as they always were, and seeing too much... then he sighed without speaking... in a soft, specific way. I mean, I could actually see him let the questions go.

Ma serannas, I thought gratefully.

Still, he seemed to hear something more, even in the silence, and he nodded slightly again. “It is as I thought,” he said.

“What is?” I asked.

“Imagine your will, your magic, your mind… all stones. Now jostle them together. Stones strike sparks.”

I caught the image in my mind, and nodded in spite of myself. “Perhaps.”

“In other words, you cannot beat this reaction of yours by fighting,” he said, “but through surrender.”

“Through what?”

“Surrender.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “I don’t care much for the sound of that.”

“No,” he said. The faintest smile lurking perhaps at his eyes. “I do not imagine you would.”

He stepped back. “Come, now. Let us see if you can put it into practice.”

“Oh, gods,” I said.

“Time to get angry.”

“Ugh.”

“Or shall we try proximity again?” he said wickedly, then stepped up close again. I flushed, predictably, and of course, the sparks began to fall.

"Stop that, Solas," I said, irritated. "You've made your point."

"Yes," he said. "But I quite enjoy doing so."

I laughed, flattered in spite of myself. "Really?"

"Perhaps." A hidden smile that was almost demure.

"Maybe you should step away then," I said, my eyes on his. "For science."

"I could certainly do so."

"And yet here you are," I replied calmly.

"Vindirtha?" he asked, quiet and steady. My heart beat faster.

We stood there for a moment, and I realized he was still standing there, my sparks were still falling… and I was secretly enjoying the lesson a lot more than I had expected to.

“Solas,” I said. He was still standing next to me. I could hear him breathing and also feel, on some imperceptible level, that he didn't want to step away any more than I did. 

“Yes?”

“What are you waiting for?”

Another narrow smile. “For you to surrender.”

I burst out laughing. “Nice try.”

“Come now,” he said. “Stop delaying. Will you or won't you?”

I paused, then forged ahead angrily. I was always angry when admitting stuff. "Vindirthem."

"Which means..."

And, boom, somehow the moment had gotten serious. I winced, inwardly scared and a little uncertain. “Surrender.”

“Yes,” he said. His eyes were very steady on mine.

“I don’t like it,” I said.

“I know,” he replied. “But I also think it’s possible that what you do not like is simply the requirement to open yourself up.”

Gods below. I felt myself turning colors again under his observant eye. It was not always pleasant, I realized, to find yourself an object of scrutiny or amusement to men like Solas or Bull. Fenedhis lasa. Why was I always in this same place? Always. The men changed, the situations did not.

“Fine,” I said through slightly gritted teeth.

He nodded, but slowly, the eyes still steady on mine, very grey-green in this golden light of the rotunda. “Thank you,” he said simply, surprising me yet again. He was always soft when I expected him to be immovable, and curiously it reminded me of Bull, a little. Just that feeling of finding yourself in cold or deep water, and out of your depth...

Yet I found myself lowering my barriers again in the face of that quiet calm.

“All right,” I said. “I’ll try.”

I tried again. Stones, stones, stones. Then I shook my head. “How do I surrender to stones?” I asked, frustrated.

He touched my arm again. “Imagine your power is a river. Set the stones free. Let them go and see where you end up.”

“What if I can’t?” I asked, frustrated and angry.

“Then you will remain volatile. Easy to read.”

“I don’t know what that helps,” I grumbled. “It’s not like Venatori are trying to judge me by my moods when they try to kill me. Maybe this isn't worth it.”

He was, eloquently, silent.

“Sorry, Solas,” I said. “I know I asked for this. It is… it’s harder than I expected.”

The slightest pause. A lift of eyebrow. “I know.”

I tried again. STOP STOP STOP. No, wait. GO GO GO.

Lethallan.” I opened my eyes and realized I was standing like Cole, rigid as a tree, fists clenched. He reached out to my fists and shook them gently in both hands. His fingers were as gentle as mine were fierce.

“Stop,” he said. “Let go. If you fight yourself, there are no victors.”

I nodded, but I was having trouble controlling my breathing, scared again in that quiet way. How to abandon a battle I’d been waging for a year or more against myself, after all? But I wanted to trust him. I shut my eyes again.

“What are you seeing?” he asked.

I was silent. Templars, templars, templars, as far as the eye could see. Void take me.

“Tell me.”

“No.”

Lethallan, it is important that you see.”

“You can keep asking,” I said, glaring. “It won’t happen. I won’t talk about that.”

A pause. “You misunderstand," he said. "I do not ask you to share with me what you choose not to. Rather, I am merely directing you on what you ought to visualize, instead. You must let go, even just within yourself.”

His hand was still at my wrist, and I realized he was holding mine in a light caress. But I couldn't. I couldn't do what he wanted. I met his eyes again. Nope. Not now, and probably not ever. But it wasn’t his fault, and I knew that. So I shut my eyes. Templars. Dammit. Again. Templars.

I pulled back from him and covered my face impulsively, frustrated and angry at myself and trying to breathe. A few tiny sparks fell from my eyelashes, blazing hot enough that I could feel their heat before my eyes. I realized this with more than a slight bit of fear, appalled, and opened my eyes wide to see him watching me closely. I caught my breath, panicked; it seemed I was actually turning into fire.

“My friend, I think you need to do this," he said gently. "Not just for social reasons. You need to give your magic... your emotion... a place to go. If you do not... disaster. The magic will find a way."

I took my hands away from my face. I tried to slow my breathing but I was in the midst of a quiet if full-blown panic attack. I nodded instead.

He looked at me with eyes that were as soft and green as the lawns of Skyhold in late summer. "Lethallan. You must trust me,” he said quietly. “You can trust me. I will not let you fall.”

“Promise?” I sounded weaker than I wanted to, but it was honest, and I risked it. In answer, his hands went to my shoulders, tentatively and quietly, and I accepted the gesture because it felt supportive, light, not confining.

“I promise,” he said, with the faintest ghost of that smile again. He nodded and his eyes never left mine.

I nodded back, and there was simply, undeniably, something there, between us. A real pact, of sorts. We were, right now, suddenly on the same side. I saw it, knew it, felt it. He was with me.

"All right," I said, to him, to myself, to whatever gods above or below might be listening. "All right."

Then I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the stones within myself. It was suddenly, almost laughably, easy because there they were, and I knew they were there; I always had, and I could feel them every day, every moment.

“You see the stones now?” he asked. I heard the smile in his voice.

“Yes.”

“Now can you envision what happens if you simply stop fighting, and let them be?”

He was already beside me, but he leaned closer to me again, and I flushed, predictably of course, and he ran his hand down my braid. This time it was a touch that was slower, more meditative, and almost an outright caress. Then, quite suddenly, the bit of leather holding the braid together snapped, and the braid began to unravel. Instead of pulling away outright, he surprised me by keeping his hand there, actually catching a curl around one of his fingers. I found myself disarmed again, and more than a little touched.

Then his amused eyes met mine, cool and calculating above the fray as always, and I shut my eyes... and caught my breath, because, in a magical (more important) sense, something else was happening. I imagined a waterfall, cold and lovely, pure and untouched by sky or heat, and right there, I also suddenly saw the stones of my soul, free and cool, falling there.

Somehow, I realized, I’d done it. I’d unlocked something hidden and protective within myself despite my vulnerability and inner fire. The resulting calm was a physical, tangible thing.

I opened my eyes to Solas’s smile. And to an absence of sparks.

Except, perhaps, for those I was suddenly battling in my heart.

Chapter Text

Another night, another away trip to close a Rift and save a village.

But something terrible had happened at camp.

Even outside the dim circle of our firelight, the blood was visible. And it was everywhere. Blood on grass and pebble, blood in the dirt, old blood and recently spilled, as if the fight had gone on and on. I could smell it burning in the fire, and I could even smell the fresh blood, coppery, in the air.

I felt nothing but raw, total panic. The camp was empty, with no sign of any of my companions.

But the blood. There was so much of it. Nobody could shed this much blood and live. I spun, panicked, trying to find something to focus on. The sky was dark—no stars. The fire was dying. Our tents were in tatters, blackened and smoking, but there was even blood there too. I could hear my breathing, thin and panicked in my throat, whining gasps that were not quite sobs.

Then there was a crackle of sound behind me—a footstep on bracken.

I spun around, but it was only Solas. As he stepped out of the shadows, I had a moment of relief, overwhelming and huge, and rushed  toward him.

“Solas!”

But something was wrong. He wasn’t answering, for one thing. And as he stepped forward, clad in strange armor, I realized that the blood wasn’t just all over the place, it was also all over him.

I got within a few steps then reeled away, stumbling back so abruptly that my boots actually slid into the edges of the fire.

I tried again. “Talk to me. What happened here?”

He shook his head. His eyes were dark and sorrowful, and when he looked at me, the expression there scared me even more than the blood—not because he looked cold or cruel, but because he looked regretful. Sorry. As if whatever was about to happen was necessary.

As he had before in the Exalted Plains,  I saw that he held a brace of hares in his hand. Then he raised his hand, and I realized that it was not the hares Solas held in the snare this time, but a bleeding, defenseless Cole, dangling and dying.

You should not have done this,” Cole whispered. “It is wrong.”

“It is wrong,” answered Solas. The firelight traced the edges of his face in gold. He looked beautiful, sorrowful yet remote, too. As if no plea would reach him. “But… it is necessary. And after all, it is the world.”

He raised his fist, and whispered a single word. Dru. Cole’s eyes did not close, but they went still. He was dead.

And just as Solas raised his eyes sadly back to mine, I realized that around us, in the shadows behind him, stood the templars who had hurt me once, greedily waiting their chance to do so again. They stepped into the firelight and I found myself unable to move, scream or even to look away.

Solas vanished, abruptly, as if swallowed whole by the darkness. And I was still there, alone in the fire’s small circle. I heard the dull slither of a sword being removed from a scabbard… and then the even more terrible, soft sound, the soft slide, jingle, and dull clang of armor dropping to the dirt as it was removed.

And then I was sitting up without even knowing I had done so, disoriented and terrified in my own bed at Skyhold.

The air around me still seemed to quiver, a ringing off the stones in the silence after a sound, and I knew instinctively that I had screamed. My throat still ached slightly in the aftermath.

What… why… by all the fucking hells of Andruil…

I struggled to come to wakefulness and awareness. I was safe. Safe. I could see the soft shimmer of the mountains through my balcony doors. All was silent, soft and dark. There was a small fire in my hearthplace, a friendly and welcoming glow. My halla statue on the mantel. My things around the room, my lute in the corner, all reminding me that I was home. No smell of blood, no shadowy figures. Nothing here to hurt me, after all.

But still I trembled, still my heart pounded and still my breathing wouldn’t slow. I concentrated on calming myself; even in the darkness I could see the faint blue sparks falling from my fingertips and I knew my defenses had not held. I stilled the sparks for a few seconds, but they reappeared, and I closed my eyes, desperately trying to find my calm, cool center.

Breathe, breathe, breathe.

It wasn’t working.

I jumped out of my beautiful bed and looked back at its immaculate golden velvet hangings with distaste.

Nope. I wasn’t going back there. Not tonight.

I threw on the soft blue robe Dorian had given me, and went over to the table beside the balcony doors, pouring myself a cup of wine with a shaking hand from one of the bottles there (Dorian’s presents to me after the loss of my clan had definitely served me well). As I looked out onto the balcony I realized that the world outside glowed white against the darkness; it was snowing out – flakes so light that they did not fall, exactly, but danced – up, left, right, trembling on the air, before resuming their journey downward.

I took a deep sip of the wine, then went out onto my balcony, right out into the snow. I laughed as the snowflakes touched my face, and when I reached up to brush them away, I realized with distaste that I had been crying. I wiped the tears away, then raised my face to the sky, sticking my tongue out like a child. I wanted to feel clean again, clean and cold and clear. I felt the tiny frozen sparks on my tongue as the snowflakes fell there and felt the smallest bit more like myself.

It was a quiet night, and I was in the safest place in all of Thedas, I told myself fiercely. Nothing could hurt me here.

Sure, I could tell myself that. Yet I still couldn’t shake the dream. I felt vaguely sick, as if a snake had slithered up to sink its fangs into me as I slept. Restless sleep had been common with me ever since the loss of my clan, as had nightmares. This, however, had been something else entirely.

I stood in the snow, realizing my breathing had slowed at last. Then I went back into my quarters, staring again at the bed. I was still so tired that part of me longed for nothing more than to get back into it. Then I looked over at the couch in my sitting area.

No. I couldn’t face it. The dream was still too close, waiting hungrily to grab me again and I certainly wasn’t going to let it. I glanced up at the Orlesian timepiece on the mantel. Just past three. Mythal wept—I hadn’t even been in bed two hours. And morning was still long hours away.

I knew sleep was done for me, however, so I brought the cup of wine to my desk and doggedly tried to address some minor correspondence there. It worked… for an hour or so. Then the letters began to swim before my eyes and I realized I was progressively getting more ink on myself than I was on the parchment.

I was so weary. But I just couldn’t shake the dream. I found myself momentarily toying with the idea of running around Skyhold, door to door, looking for anyone else awake to talk to, anyone at all.

I fleetingly wondered if Solas was up, but no… not at just past four, surely. And the dream was still too present. It wasn’t fair but it wasn’t up to me, either. My emotions were the ones in charge and were answering NO to the question “Should I go find Solas?” I thought of Bull, or Varric, but I was a little afraid of appearing weak.  Especially at this hour. It was so late; I’d surely wake anyone I went to. Besides, everyone had seen enough of my tears and worries these past few months. I was more than a little tired of them, myself. I could go up to find Dorian, but again, the thought of braving the Rotunda right now… even its second floor… waking someone just to ask for reassurance... I just couldn’t do it.

Finally, exasperated and too tired and nervous now to actually sleep, I threw on my customary leggings, boots, blouse, jerkin and heavy blue cloak, now travel-stained after all these months, bundling my hair at my neck, then went up to the battlements.

The snow was gentle enough that it was more dry than wet. As I ascended, the clouds parted briefly and the moon showed her face. Suddenly everything glowed, became pale and soft, all shades of blue and white. As if we’d become a thing of dreams, a castle of ghosts. And all around us, ghostlier still, the white peaks of the Frostbacks. And then the moon hid herself again, but that feeling of soft rightness remained.

On a night like this, and it seemed impossible that there could be evil in the world… yet I could feel it, in so many ways. The wrongness of the Rifts still to be closed, scattered across Thedas… the wrongness Cole had mentioned, by the fire… the thing in the Fade. Wasn’t it here now, underneath us, staining the world in places we couldn’t see?

I forced myself away from the thought. There were soldiers about, here and there—walking the corridors or talking softly in the guardrooms, and they simply noted my presence with a respectful nod or a half-salute that I returned with  a smile or wave. Some of them were Templars, proud in their armor and heraldry, and I felt ashamed for flinching a bit when I saw them (and hoped they didn't notice that part of my reaction to them). But I couldn't help it. The highest crenellations, however, were empty and abandoned as they almost always were, so I shoved my hands into my pockets and went up as high as I could, braving the keen, cold wind as it streamed across Skyhold. The wind was fierce up here but it didn’t howl, and with my tough blue Dales loden wool cloak, it was bearable enough.

Down below me, in the courtyards, I could see the small fires of the new recruits and arrivals, and of the healthier recuperating patients who preferred to sleep out of doors by the doctor’s fire (at least, until the heavier snows made that impossible). Even now, I could see a few of the men below rolling up their pallets and escaping into the infirmary to sleep. As I looked across the courtyard, I realized that the tavern’s door and windows were dark. Even the tavern’s people were sleeping at this darkest period before morning.

I tried to shake the nightmare from my mind, but again it was peculiarly sticky and stubborn, like pitch on a bootheel, and I couldn’t quite make it go. I tried to distract myself by reciting all of Cassandra’s names. Then all of the names of my mother’s favorite Halla. Then I looked up at the moon and remembered my mother singing me the Mir Da’len Somniar. I sang it softly to myself in a rusty, quiet voice, looking at the intermittent moon, and I followed it with every single song I could remember from childhood, and somehow I found the peace that had eluded me before. It was slow, but it came.

I then spent the next hour or two walking back and forth on the battlements, occasionally warming myself with barriers or fire spells, and watching as the snow ended and the moon came out to keep me company over an impossibly perfect world. I walked, and thought, and willed the white stars and the cold winds to wipe the ugly taint of the dream from my skin, and then when morning came, I did my best to force myself to find some kind of solace and comfort from the thin new dawn.

It almost worked, too.

Almost.

***

Then, as soon as the sun was decently high, I went to see Cole.

I always went to check on Cole each day, usually in the evenings, but now I really needed to know he was all right—it was a visceral thing. So I dashed down a few cups of the strong black tea we imported by the barrel from the Carta (bitter and flavored slightly with juniper), then, shaking off the previous long night with a conscious effort, I shoved a piece of coarse brown bread into my pocket and went down to the Herald’s Rest, frankly running the final steps to the second floor of the Inn in my worry and eagerness.

As I ran up the steps, I heard voices, and paused when I realized that Cole wasn’t alone in his usual shadowed spot. Cole stood in his corner, as he usually did, but now the stocky, skinny body was very straight and motionless, hands at his sides and his eyes raised beneath the wide brim of his hat to something I couldn’t see. Beside him, watching closely, was Solas.

“It’s there,” Cole said. “I can almost see it now. It’s blighted, black and burning. But very strong.”

As I reached the top of the steps, Solas turned his head to greet me, and I stumbled momentarily, chilled. Then I shook my head, angry at myself and setting the dream aside with an effort. This was beyond silly—I trusted Solas, and besides, Solas was easily the one person at Skyhold who loved Cole most. The dream had been an ugly lie, nothing more.

Still, I didn’t want to interrupt, and hesitated, looking back at the stairs and wondering if I should go. Yet even as I did so, Solas gave me a nod of greeting, stepping slightly away from Cole. “Hello, lethallan,” he said in a low voice. He hesitated for a brief second and his smile vanished. “Are you all right?”

I managed a smile in return. “Of course,” I said. “Just tired.”

“Then please join us,” he said. “I’ve been concerned about the fears Cole expressed, so he is attempting to help me pinpoint any anomalies in the Fade.”

“Anomalies?” I asked, following. I felt beaten and slow, like I hadn’t slept in a month. Which, I realized, wasn’t all that far from the truth.

“Yes,” said Solas. “And last night, I felt it again, what Cole described. A bruise beneath the skin of the world.”

I shivered in spite of myself. “Then you do think there’s something to what he said before? That there’s something evil in the Fade, somehow?”

“I do,” he said.

“It’s there,” said Cole, beside us. “It’s there. It’s there.” Solas stepped back beside him, watching him attentively, and I approached as well.

“I believe you,” I told Cole.

“As do I,” said Solas. “And I think whatever it is, it has been doing its work for some time now.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” he said. “It may be an uncomfortable thought, but it is one we must conscience. For instance, what if the Rifts above are only one part of what we face? What if there are Rifts elsewhere… in the Fade? Below, as well as above?”

My heart sank as I realized the potential ramifications of it. “Is that a possibility?”

“It is,” he said. “For instance, Inquisitor… how would you say you have been sleeping the past few months?”

I gave a shaky laugh. “Badly,” I said. “Now that you ask. Really badly.”

“As I thought,” said Solas.

“Well,” I said. “I just thought it was the loss of my clan. Or, until…” I trailed off, uncertainly.

“Perhaps,” he said. “But I think it is more than that. Think back. Has there been a difference in your dreams, in your rest, these past months?”

“Yes,” I said immediately. “Yes. There’s been something strange about the dreams. They’ve been different, intrusive somehow. And getting worse.”

“See?” he asked.

“I do,” I said. I looked back at Cole, who still stood alert, poised and listening. “In fact, last night …” I trailed off, debating on whether to reveal it, then stopped. I just couldn’t. There was something oddly shameful to me in having dreamed it at all.

When I looked back at Solas, his eyes were watchful and narrowed in a frown of concern, as if he were listening for words unspoken as well as spoken. “What is it?” he asked.

“Nothing… My dreams last night,” I said, fumbling. “They were just… bad. Especially bad.”

Cole surprised me by speaking, then. “She saw it. Something crawled out of the Fade and spoke to her.”

“What is he describing?” he asked me.

I saw again the vivid images of the night before and shut my eyes reflexively against them, shaken. “It was ugly, Solas,” I said. “Like nothing I would ever normally dream.”

“Yes,” said Solas. “As if sleep has become your enemy. As if it is no longer a place of rest.”

I stared from him to Cole and back again, thinking. “Yes, that’s it.”

He nodded. “I have spoken to many on this, and as far as I can tell, it is the same for every man, woman and child at Skyhold.”

“Truly?” I asked. Somehow, I found this vaguely comforting.

“Look around you,” he said. “Have you not seen it? Look closely and all you will see among our people, aside from the Children of the Stone, are exhausted faces and shadowed eyes.” I looked around the tavern and realized that he was right. I’d assumed my own bad dreams and lack of sleep were simply the common and predictable after-effects of grief, but I realized now that everyone was visibly, palpably weary—even from here I could see the tiredness on the faces of Maryden, Cabot, Krem, and Sutherland, as well as the many others around us. I’d noticed the fatigue of all my companions lately, and remembered that even the usually impervious Bull had seemed visibly worn out on more than one occasion over the past month or two.

I looked back at Solas, truly worried as I realized the implications. “What is it?” I asked. “What can we do about it?”

“This is why I’m talking to Cole,” he said in a quiet voice. “In addition to mages, who seem most affected because of their connection to the Fade, Cole has also been increasingly affected. I am not only concerned for his welfare, but I also hope that he may be able to help me to explore or resolve whatever is happening.”

“Wait, Solas. You walk the Fade better perhaps than anyone alive,” I said. “How have you been sleeping? Have you been able to see anything in your travels?”

He sighed. “In truth, I have not been journeying the Fade as much as I am used to lately,” he said. “I put it down to a variety of everyday causes, assuming it was through preoccupation, or battle, or that I was simply weary or perhaps slightly distracted.” His eyes met mine briefly at that, and there was that subtle glint of humor along with the something else, whatever it was, that was there when we looked at one another now. I smiled back, glad to have replaced that terrible dream-Solas with this much warmer and more preferable real version, then Solas broke the moment, looking back to Cole.

“Cole, when you reach for it, what can you feel? Can you get a sense of actual location?”

Cole closed his eyes, surprising me. “I’m closer. Closer. It’s still far away but very big, a storm of blackness that hides something at its center… a pit, a drop into darkness. It’s so big that now I can almost see it. I’m crawling up beneath its feet, closer and closer, a little fennec… a shade it can’t quite see…”

“Keep going,” said Solas.

“I go. I crawl,” said Cole. “And yes… it’s… there. Faintly, fallen, forceful. Far away but gaining. Greedy and groping…” Sweat beaded his pale forehead, and I could see the pain in his face, the lines of pain, not age, in the young face.

“Creep forward,” said Solas. “Where is it? What is it?”

“Almost at the edge, almost visible. A presence. Darkness, hate, vast as the Void,” Cole said, gasping. He turned himself, surprising me, and I saw that he was facing North—no, Northwest—clear as an arrow in a quiver. “It’s there,” he said. “There.”

“Where?” asked Solas.

“It sees me!” gasped Cole.

Instantly, the light dimmed around us, a falling shadow both indoors and out. It was as if the abyss he had spoken of had opened up, and it was now real and vast beneath us, a muffling fog of faint, cold rage. Around us, the conversation in the tavern hushed slightly, and downstairs, Maryden’s fingers stumbled on her lute, her song trailing into silence. After a few heartbeats, I heard footsteps beside me, heavy and quick, and I looked up to realize that Bull was standing near us, on the stairs, tense and shaken, looking from Cole to me to Solas with visible concern.

For a few seconds, I knew what Cole knew—we all did. We were suspended over the drop, caught in the moment before the fall. And I knew we all felt it, a threat that had been such a part of daily life we’d never realized we were living it each and every day. Until now.

The horror of it, the wrongness of it, was terrifying. I bent over, sickened, trying to maintain my equilibrium.

“Be calm,” said Solas, his voice quiet and cool and unafraid, and even though he was speaking to Cole, I held onto that voice like a lifeline, as I had once done in the Fade itself. “Use your stealth. Be the shadow, a little thing beneath its notice. Hide yourself.”

“Yes,” gasped Cole. “I can do that. I disappear…”

“Good,” said Solas.

I could feel the shadow lift slightly. That sense of awareness, of attention, was fading again.

“Boss…?” said Bull.

I stood up again, forcing a deep breath. “It’s okay,” I said. “Or I think it is.”

“Whatever that was,” he said slowly. “It was not, at all, in any way… okay.”

“No,” I admitted. “You’re right.”

He didn’t answer, just stood where he was, his eye flickering from Solas to Cole.

“You are safe again?” asked Solas.

“It has lost me,” said Cole.

“But you can still see it?”

“Yes,” Cole whispered.

Solas’s gaze remained focused on Cole, absolutely unmoved and showing no sign of discomfort, intense as a line of green flame. “That’s it. What else can you sense?”

“Pain,” said Cole. “Betrayal. Pain and panic, loss and grief, immeasurable… I can almost touch it…”

Solas’s face was grim, but his voice was soft, calming. “Keep going.”

Cole began to shake, visibly. “It’s… it’s close.” He lifted his hands, pawing slightly at the air, and I shivered again. I knew without words that Cole was scuttling along again, something small and defenseless, under the eye of a thing that could shake the foundations of the earth.

It was too much. Too risky.

“Stop,” I said.

“Not just yet,” said Solas.

“I want to see,” said Cole. “I’m so close!”

“Keep going,” said Solas. “What is it? What is its name?”

“I…” he began, then his hands reached out again, clawed. I could see the veins in Cole’s temples and forehead, pounding beneath the thin pale skin, and I became terrified that this effort would hurt him in some permanent way.

“Cole, stop.” I reached out and lightly shook his shoulder. “Stop. You don’t have to do this.”

Cole’s eyes snapped open.

Solas eyes flashed to mine, his face tight with anger. “Inquisitor. You should not have stopped him.”

“Yes, I should,” I said. “It was hurting him.”

“I would not have let it harm him,” said Solas.

“It already was,” I answered. “Harming him.”

He drew breath to speak, then shook his head. “I’m not asking him to do anything he doesn’t wish to do,” he replied.

“Cole would happily walk through fire for you, Solas,” I said. “As you well know. You ask too much.”

“He doesn’t,” said Cole.

I shrugged helplessly, then Bull spoke up again, beside me, on the stairs.

“Solas, look at the kid,” he said.

Cole was still breathing heavily, still tense and immovable, frozen in place, still half-reaching in spite of himself.

Solas’s eyes met Bull’s and he shook his head. “You felt it, did you not?” asked Solas. “A threat to shake the very foundations of the world.”

“Of course,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, more slowly.

“And is that a threat we should just ignore?” His eyes shifted back to mine.

“No,” I said. “No. But…”

“Wait. I want to help,” said Cole, his voice stubborn as a child’s. He was still gasping a little, and I looked at him with real worry.

“I know,” I said. “We all know that.”

Solas turned back to Cole. “Can you see anything else?”

“No,” said Cole. “It’s gone now. Faint and fragile.”

“You did well, Cole,” said Solas. “Thank you for the effort.” He looked at me again, as if in spite of himself, and under the subtle weight of that keen judgment I felt again that twinge of regret that we were at odds, as we so often were. His worry, frustration, and disappointment were plain.

“Solas…”

He folded his arms and looked back at me without expression. “Yes?”

I groped for the right words, fumbling. “If Cole is our only connection, then surely we must protect him?”

“Yes,” he said. “Of course.”

“He’s all we have, and he may be more fragile than he knows,” I said. “More fragile than you know.”

“Your dreams are lying to you,” said Cole, interrupting us. He looked into my eyes and shook his head. “Solas would never hurt me.”

“What?” Solas looked from Cole to me, openly surprised. “What is he talking about?”

“It’s nothing,” I said, reluctant to go into it. “Just a dream.”

“She dreamed I was a hare,” said Cole. “A rabbit in your snare. Our camp was a place of blood. And then the bad men came.”

“Cole!” I said. Shit.

Solas’s eyes flashed to mine, dark with astonishment, and I felt myself go warm with an odd feeling of shame and embarrassment. “It was just a dream,” I said. “It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not something I would ever choose to dream, Solas.”

He nodded, but he was obviously still shaken in some way I couldn’t understand. “It was just a nightmare,” I said again. “I don’t believe that you would do any of those things. I—I never could.”

He hesitated, then spoke. “Thank you,” he said in a quiet voice. “I appreciate that you would say that.”

“Because it’s true,” I said.

“I’m not a hare,” said Cole. “Solas would never harm me.” His pale eyes met mine and the gentleness there caused me to catch my breath, because I could see that he knew his next words would hurt, and I badly wanted him not to speak them. “And he would never let the templars hurt you again, either.”

I shut my eyes reflexively, but the images were there again before me in an instant, reality and nightmare all mixing together and I had forgotten to breathe all over again.

And then Cole was still speaking, and things got much, much worse. “I can see it too. Fear and firelight, you tried to make yourself small,” said Cole. “You—”

“No, don’t.” Frantically, I met Cole’s eyes and held up my hands. I felt cold, as if all the blood had suddenly left my body and I was somehow back in the snow. “Don’t do that,” I said.

“You fought hard, but it wasn’t your fault, and…”

“Cole, don’t,” I cried. “I don’t want you to say one more  thing, not one more word—”

“But it hurts, it still hurts you, and I could help—”

“Cole, DON’T,” I yelled. He looked at me, confused and hurt, and I felt worse than before. I lowered my voice with an effort. “Just don’t. Please. It’s mine. It’s not yours to share.”

“But I could help…”

Solas, watching me, turned back to Cole. “Cole, please. You must remember—not every wound can be repaired, no matter how much you would wish to help.“

I breathed deep, struggling for something else to focus on. Sea. Snow. Stones. Sparks. Schmooples the Second. The last one seemed, to work, and after a few seconds, I was calm again. I sneaked a glance around and realized that yep, Bull was still here, too, and watching the entire show with his usual discerning eye. Terrific. Just another instance of the Inquisitor falling to pieces again. Publicly.

“I didn’t mean to yell at you, Cole,” I said. “I know you wanted to help.” I sighed. I felt ashamed, both for losing my temper as well as for my show of weakness, but Solas’s face showed nothing but warmth and concern, mixed with that slight sadness I couldn’t understand. “Anyway. The dream just got to me. That’s all.”

“Can I talk again?” asked Cole.

I laughed in spite of myself. “Yes,” I said.

“I just wanted to tell you that you don’t have to feel bad,” said Cole. “The dream didn’t come from you. It came from somewhere else. They wanted it to hurt.”

“That does help, Cole,” I said. “It does. Thanks.”

“Seheron,” said Bull, in a quiet voice. I turned to look at him, and his mouth was grim. “For me it was Seheron… Seheron, and demons, and…” his voice trailed off. “Fuck it,” he said, and he met my eyes and gave a bitter, twisted smile that broke my heart a little, because I knew from inside exactly what it felt like to give a smile like that.

“The Iron Bull, they tried to put the memories back differently, tried to change you,” said Cole, tentatively. “I could help you, too.”

Bull shook his head. “Nope, kid, don’t worry about it. Whatever they did, they did what I asked them to do.”

Cole looked dissatisfied with this, but stayed silent.

“So it appears that we are, in fact, under attack,” said Solas. “When we are at our most defenseless, and by someone or something who twists what we fear most.” His voice was slightly rough, whether with emotion or tiredness.

I looked at him again, then spoke up tentatively. “Did you dream anything? Last night?”

“No,” he said. He looked puzzled by that fact, but also slightly concerned. “Not at all.”

“Lucky you,” I said, smiling, but he didn’t smile back.

As for me, the emotions of the past few minutes had completely drained me, so I rubbed my eyes fiercely, trying to wake myself into some semblance of alertness and usefulness. When I looked back up, I realized that Bull had left his spot on the stairs beside us. And that Solas was still standing there, somewhat at a loss, and thoughtful.

“Are you all right?” I asked Solas.

“Yes,” he said. “Do not concern yourself. I’m primarily concerned that you yourself are well, and Cole, Bull, and all at Skyhold, despite what you are suffering.” His eyes met my own, and his expression softened again. “Or, rather, what you are suffering all over again.”

“Yeah,” I said, shrugging and trying for lightness. “It’s not exactly fair.”

“I think that is the point of the attacks,” said Solas.

I hesitated for a second or two. “On my dream…” I said. “Does it help, knowing that it wasn’t actually mine?”

“Yes,” he said. “Of course.”

“I wouldn’t have said anything,” I said. “I’m sorry Cole said something.”

“There is no need for apology,” he said. “We cannot help our demons. Or our dreams.”

“Well, I can’t, at least,” I said, wryly, and was rewarded with a ghost of a smile before he turned back to Cole. Cole, meanwhile, had relaxed, but he was also now swaying slightly in his exhaustion, the purple shadows under his eyes more stark than ever before. Looking at Cole, Solas’s face flushed a little, whether in worry or shame, I couldn’t know. But he reached out to Cole and gestured to him gently.

“Come, Cole,” he said. “Enough for one morning. You must recover your strength.”

I heard a clatter to our right, and saw that Bull was now striding back up the stairs and hauling a handful of chairs with him, easily carrying two in each big hand. He set them down, then gently shoved a few over by Cole and Solas, then slid another to me.

“Sit,” he said in his deep voice. “Everyone needs to rest.” His eye flickered to mine and there was a faint glimmer of worry there that cheered me. Bull, the caregiver. “Sit, Boss,” he said. “Take a breath.”

“He’s right,” I said to Cole. “Let’s all have a seat.” I scooted my chair left, further toward Cole’s corner (trying to avoid the cobwebs), then dropped into it gratefully. Bull did the same, pulling his slightly to the right of me, over beside the bannister, as Solas and Cole remained momentarily standing.

“The Iron Bull, I don’t need rest,” Cole said stubbornly. “I’m a ghost, a dagger, a spirit that helps.”

“You are more than that,” I said. “And you know it.”

I don’t need rest,” he said again.

“Yes, you do,” said Solas.

“Rest, little guy,” said Bull. Cole gave a tiny smile, almost in spite of himself.

“Listen to us,” I said to Cole. “You may be a spirit, but you’re also a growing boy.” Solas’s eyes flickered to mine again here, and I could not read his expression for the world. Sadness there, and also something like acceptance. But at least we were once again on the same side.

“Yes,” he said. “They are right. You must rest.” He slid a chair behind Cole and gently guided him into it. All at once, Cole allowed it, knees bending abruptly and comically as he sank down onto the chair’s hard surface. His legs splayed out like a child’s, but he tipped his head back, obviously more comfortable, and sighed deeply.

Watching Cole was making me dangerously sleepy again, now, too. I could have slept where I sat. To distract myself, I glanced around us, at the bare, slightly shabby little corner with its one small chest. “Cole, we need to talk again about giving you your own space. A room of your own,” I said. “Not just a cobwebby alcove.”

“The spiders help,” said Cole. “And I don’t need a room. A word doesn’t need a room. A song doesn’t need a room.”

“You’re more a warrior than a word,” said Bull. “And a warrior needs a room. And a place to put his stuff.”

“Exactly,” I added. “You’re a fighter, a rogue, an assassin. An assassin needs a room. Even if you just use it to stand in the corners.” Cole wrinkled his nose, and I was pleased to see Solas’s faint smile. Bull actually laughed softly.

“Maybe,” said Cole. “Maybe, a place to dream, so that my daggers can dart and dance better from the shadows.”

“Meanwhile,” I said, “rest if you can.”

“Yes, rest,” said Cole. “Rest.” He closed his eyes for a moment, tilting his head back against the chair. Downstairs, Maryden had begun singing “Enchanter,” and it was beautiful and haunting as it always was, and I felt strengthened, simply by listening to it.

We sat in silence, Solas pondering some thought as he looked at Cole, and Bull sitting forward, hands on knees, obviously processing everything that had just occurred. “So… Boss,” he said. “What next? We have to do something.”

“We need information,” I said. “We need to know what it is, what it wants.”

“Thanks to Cole, I have a potential direction, if not a location,” said Solas. He looked at Bull. “Is this something we could put your people onto exploring? What happens below may echo in the world above, and we need people on the scene quickly, not a slow battalion of troops.”

“Of course,” said Bull. “We should coordinate it with Red.”

“Yes,” said Solas. “And based on my initial judgments, we’ll need to be sure to send your mage.”

I coughed politely. “Archer.”

Bull grinned. “Right, Dalish.”

“And someone who is fluent in Orlesian,” added Solas.

“All the Chargers speak it, to some extent,” commented Bull. “But Krem’s is flawless. They’ll be fine.”

“And they must be on their guard,” said Solas.

“Of course,” said Bull. “So where in Orlais am I sending my guys?”

“Back to the Dales,” said Solas. “I’ll have more specific information over the next day or so, I hope.”

“I’ll talk to them, start them planning,” said Bull. “They might even be able to meet up with that company we sent to Chaldecy. Cullen sent them ten days ago and they should be wrapping up.”

“How long will it take the Chargers to prepare?” I asked him.

“Day or two,” he answered. “We’d originally been planning to send them back over to Emprise du Lion for reconnaissance, remember? But if Corypheus is no longer the greater threat, we’ll need to change our plans.” He got up, gave us all a brief, worried, smile, and went back downstairs.

I cast a troubled look at Solas. “The Dales?”

“I think so,” said Solas. “Or somewhere close… I do not think Cole’s first awareness there was a coincidence.”

“Agggh,” I growled.

“What?” he asked.

Another threat,” I said. “More battles.” I shrugged my shoulders. “More Rifts.”

Solas looked back at me, the impersonal mask gone again for a brief moment. He looked preoccupied and worried. “You should rest, lethallan,” he said.

“I will,” I said. “At some point. We both should.”

He looked amused, surprising me, then I realized what I’d said. “Oh. I mean… not together, just…”

“I see the sparks are back,” said Solas, with that subtle hint of mischievous wickedness. “We may need another lesson or two.” Gods below.

I quieted the sparks with a thought, then glanced over to see Cole smiling, almost like a child in his sleep. “That’s good. It’s much less tangled in there now,” he said.

“Where?” I asked, looking around wildly.

“You,” he said.

I looked up to see Solas’s amused eyes on me in the shadows, and I felt myself turning even redder.

Stop that,” I told Cole.

“Stop what?” he asked, puzzled.

“Never mind,” I said. “Just get some rest, okay? You need to rest.”

“And we,” said Solas, all business again, “need to call a council meeting. As soon as possible.”

Chapter Text

“Oh, my dear Solas,” purred Vivienne. “This is rich, even for you. An enemy in the Fade itself? You must be thrilled, darling.” She shrugged. “By all means, go and get it if you must.”

“Vivienne,” said Leliana. Her voice was quiet but we all heard the warning.

“Well, really, Leliana,” said Vivienne. “It’s not as if he doesn’t want to go. He’s positively panting to. We all know it.”

“Wait,” I said, alarmed. “Go? Go where?”

“The Fade, my precious girl, please do try to keep up,” said Vivienne.

I scowled at her then looked the question at Solas, who held up a hand as if to pacify me. “One thing at a time,” he said.

“I don’t like the sound of this,” I said.

Solas drew breath, but it was Leliana who spoke. “Inquisitor, wait,” said Leliana. “We’ll get to that point later.”

“Because if it were up to me, aside from the Chargers’ reconnaissance, I’d say that nobody should go anywhere until we know what we’re dealing with.” I looked to Leliana. “Right?”

It was the day after our conversation with Cole, and we were – the vast majority of the Companions, anyway – meeting in the new War Room, up high in the Easternmost tower of Skyhold.

It was airier and larger than the War Table chamber, able to accommodate more people, and windowed on all four sides. The room itself was clean and spare, with a functioning hearth and an ancient table Cullen’s men had dragged up and reassembled from the lower levels of Skyhold. It was actually larger than the War Table itself, and like most of the things we’d found here, it was ancient in ways I couldn’t even begin to fathom, pitted with runes and markings that looked to me to be both Elven and dwarven in origin. The wood was so old it was hard and shiny, like stone, and with a kind of shine to the surface that reminded me of amber. The chairs, sturdy ironwork, were from a different period, and possibly Rivaini in make, according to Josie, but beautifully shaped, with scrolled arms and feet.

We still used the War Table when necessary for actual military strategy, but for meetings and councils, this had become the new place, and I was grateful for the lightness, openness and air. We could see the Frostbacks for miles here, and I didn’t feel suffocated, as I so often did down by the War Table itself.

Now we had a roomful of companions and advisers gathered, and Solas’s news about the Fade threat had not gone over well—even if everyone, confronted with the realization, had shown a kind of instant, vivid recognition when the subject was raised. Especially after the palpable tremor of the day before, the day when the world had gone momentarily dark.

We were under attack. And in this deeply unsettling new way that seemed to destabilize the very ground beneath our feet.

We all knew the truth of it, and that we’d been living that truth for months. All I saw around me were exhausted, weary faces. Even Vivienne looked tired, and her voice (and her temper) were sharper than she usually allowed. As for me, I’d hobbled into the room feeling about ninety years old. The days without sleep were beginning to get to me, and the past day or two since talking to Cole, Bull and Solas had been the most grueling yet. After talking with Leliana, Josie and me, Solas had worked with Cole again a few more times, much more gently, and he had cautiously achieved a little more information. I’d met with Solas and Dagna, and had also snatched a nap or two where I could, but without much of a feeling of restoration. The truth was, I hadn’t been able to achieve any significant stretches of sleep, no matter how desperate I was for it—each time I’d tried, I’d pitched down into darkness again, with that instant sensation of plummeting into dread, and had opened my eyes, tense and terrified. The sensation that we literally could not trust our own sleep or dreams was already beginning to tell on me—and on all of us.

We had now set up this council with as many advisers as we could assemble on short notice. Dorian had already met with Solas earlier, and, declining the meeting, was now half-buried in a pile of books and research in the library.

“Ellie, my little Dalish darling,” Dorian had said, with that wit and warmth that he always had, even in his current exhaustion. “You know how the meeting will go. They’ll all just argue. I’d much prefer to skip all that nonsense and simply try to find out what this is. I’m far more useful to you here.”

“Fine,” I said, making a face. “Be a coward.”

His grey eyes twinkled warmly at me. “You just envy me because I get to skip it and you can’t.”

“Yeah,” I admitted.

“I know you do,” he said, with a keen glint I’d come to realize was empathy. Then he’d given me a brief hug and headed off to his pile of books. At least I’d taken the opportunity, as always, to inhale deeply, because Dorian hugs were near the top of my very short list of life’s pleasures, damn it, and I wasn’t going to waste the moment.

Asking Blackwall to the meeting had been a far more stilted and awkward conversation. I liked him, but there was something in him that seemed to hold himself separate from the rest of us, even after several months. When I spoke to him about the council, he was abrupt and ill at ease, even more so than ever before, and he’d looked especially haunted and tired. The dreams were getting to all of us in our different ways, I realized. However, he had finally agreed to attend because of his potential value in working with our troops, especially the newest recruits. Cullen and Cass would need his input as we figured out strategies and next steps.

Sera, meanwhile, had utterly refused to attend, Cole wouldn’t have come even if I’d wanted him to (which I hadn’t—after all, he’d probably just have taken the entire group on another tour of Eliaden’s Magical Inner Damage—definitely a scenario I’d have liked to avoid again in the future), while Varric had looked both worried and thoughtful. “I’m not much good on Fade stuff,” he’d said. “Can you leave me out of this one?” So I had. “You owe me one,” I told him, and he’d grinned. “Next time we play Wicked Grace,” he said, “I’ll go easy on you.”

“Deal,” I’d smiled.

But everyone else was present. And now here we all were, a drained, anxious, preoccupied bunch despite a beautiful winter afternoon at Skyhold. The golden light flooded the snowy peaks around us, shimmering on the recent snows and glancing through the windows to illuminate and warm the tired faces of my companions.

Only Leliana, Bull and Solas looked their usual calm selves, as did Dagna, who was as pretty, cheerful and curious as always, round-cheeked and eyes sparkling. For once, I envied the fact that dwarves didn’t dream. Meanwhile, Solas’s surface was as composed as it usually was. While we were all showing signs of wear, and while Solas’s eyes, and Leliana’s, were perhaps slightly more shadowed than usual, the signs of exhaustion were far more subtle in them, and in Bull, than in the rest of us, and I suspected it had something to do with willpower.

Josie sighed. “Ellie is right,” she said. “We need information first.”

Cullen looked worried as well, and scratched his flaxen curly head distractedly. “Well, I can make discreet inquiries using my troops, of course,” he said, “although Leliana’s network will probably be more effective. We can at least verify for certain that we are the only receivers of these nightmarish ‘sendings.’” In the rich and fading late afternoon light, he looked almost comically handsome, but then I saw that the shadows under his eyes were more prominent even than they usually were, and I felt a pang of sudden sympathy. Cullen, I knew, was someone like me, and like so many of us at Skyhold—someone who’d already been fighting his own inner demons even before these attacks. It seemed especially cruel to me that those whose sleep had already been troubled could now find little to none when they needed it most. How horrible, I realized, that just as I was probably dreaming Templars, Cullen was almost certainly dreaming attacks by mages.

Then I tried desperately not to yawn and ended up doing so anyway (thus immediately triggering a series of yawns and then dirty looks from around the table).

“The first thing to note is that this is indeed a credible threat,” said Solas. As usual, Vivienne’s jibes hadn’t seemed to affect him at all. If anything, he just looked faintly, royally amused. “Dorian is researching it now, and has even come across similar tales in the past, either from this same presence, or from others like it. Morrigan has also found some possible echoes in her grimoire.”

Morrigan nodded tiredly, pushing her heavy dark bangs back from her pale face, bracelets jingling.

“So what do we know?” asked Leliana.

“From my talks with Cole, we can infer many things, at least, even if we are certain of little.” Solas’s voice was precise and cool. “That it is a malignant presence in the Fade itself. That it may be harnessing Rift magic of some kind. That it is sentient and aware, and acting with malice. That we are being actively targeted, and through the simple weakness of the need for sleep, and dreams.”

“Really,” said Vivienne dryly. “We know very few if any of those things at all.”

“I believe it,” I said. “I’ve seen Cole access it twice. He’s tuned to it, he feels it, sees it and hears it. I believe it’s a real threat.”

“What that thing thinks it feels or hears is anyone’s guess,” said Vivienne in a cold voice.

“You may not like Cole or approve of his place in the Inquisition,” said Solas. “But I think we must listen to what he says on this.”

Bull spoke up for the first time. “I believe it too,” he said. “Even if I’m not happy to hear we’re facing more Fade shit.” He’d been in a corner as he often was at these things—quiet and in the shadows, leaning back, away from the group. Now he rocked forward, elbows on the table. “Cole was pretty convincing, even that first night by the campfire. And you should have seen him yesterday. Yeah. The threat’s real.”

“However… Solas…” Josie looked puzzled. “How do we know we are the targets at all?”

“Through magic and Morrigan’s access to the Crossroads, we travel Thedas widely and constantly,” said Solas. “Yet I see none of the weariness in the towns and villages we assist that I see here at Skyhold, or at this very table. There is grief or trauma among the people, especially in those areas hit hardest by the fighting or Rifts, yes, but not like this. It appears to be confined to us, to Skyhold itself, perhaps.”

“Wait,” I said. “But it follows us. I’ve had the dreams even at camp, even on our travels.”

“So have I, I think,” said Bull. He looked unhappily at Solas. “I’ve been able to block them out, to some degree, but yeah, me too. It’s not just happening at Skyhold.”

“As have I,” said Cassandra, her lips tight, her cheekbones perhaps sharper and more shadowed than usual. “Such dreams as I would describe to no one. They pull my private fears and regrets from within me, then warp and twist them, attempting to infect all I hold dear in the light of day.”

“That’s it,” Blackwall said, startled. “That’s exactly it.” He looked nervous and ill at ease, and, if possible, even beardier when he was tired than he did in regular everyday life.

“As we can see… It is specific and personal,” said Solas. “And very dangerous, if true.”

“As Solas mentioned, there are in fact tales of such things,” said Morrigan, her golden eyes narrow and shadowed in thought. “Even in my mother’s grimoire, there are strange accounts of ancient ills, disturbances in the Fade unseen by mortals above.”

“Dagna,” said Leliana. “Can you create any items using your particular skills to help us to address this?”

“Can you track the source, for instance, even in the Fade?” I asked. “Or stop the–the nightmares, the sendings? Block them out?”

Dagna beamed around at us cheerfully. “I’m pretty sure I can,” she said. “I’ve been talking to Solas about what’s happening, and there are a few things I can try to do. Solas has the notes.”

“Another thought,” said Morrigan. “’Tis possible that this thing actually inhabits our own world, and merely attacks from the Fade itself through some kind of dream-apparition or reflection.”

“It is a definite possibility,” said Solas.

“All the more reason to seek it out,” said Cassandra, “to see if it has left any kind of a trail in the living world.”

“I’ve got my guys on it,” commented Bull. “Cole gave us an initial direction, so my Chargers are gonna go do a little careful scouting in the Dales, just to see if they can uncover anything.”

“The Dales?” asked Blackwall. He twisted his hands, and I noticed that he was constantly fidgeting, as if unable to keep still.

“Yes,” said Solas. “That is, at least, a direction worth exploring.”

“And we have people not far away, who can easily join the Chargers on their journey,” added Cullen.

“As far as tracking it,” said Dagna, “I have some ideas.”

“Ah, yes, Inquisitor, which brings us to you,” said Solas. I looked up, surprised. “Dagna thinks we may be able to track the presence using the power of the Mark.”

“Really?” This was news to me—it hadn’t been expressed as an option when I’d talked with Dagna earlier, but it was encouraging. Already, we were finding new potential solutions, so I allowed myself a faint moment of optimism.

Solas nodded. “You may be able to be a resource for her there, if, as I suspect, the entity is using Rifts or Rift Magic. Your Mark may enable you to feel or create some sort of connection with the sender.”

I looked to Dagna. “Of course I’ll help,” I said.

“Goody!” she said, grinning. “I get to play with the Anchor again!”

I could already see her eyeing my left palm and I rolled my eyes. “It’s not nearly as much fun for me as it is for you.”

“I know,” she said. “But I can’t help being excited.”

“At least one of us is,” I said. She grinned.

“Finding and tracking this thing is of the utmost importance,” said Solas. “Even more so, if, in fact, as Cole suspects, it is in reality still quite far away, and still testing its powers while attempting to approach us.”

“It’s traveling?” I asked. My heart sank. “That’s not good.” We were all of us already exhausted. If the real battle hadn’t even reached us yet, things were grim for the Inquisition.”

“I’m guessing this means that the nightmare sendings will only get worse?” asked Leliana. “Stronger as the days go on?”

“Yes,” replied Solas. “Until we can learn how to block them, or to defeat or disempower the sender.”

“Aw, crap,” said Bull.

“What he said,” I echoed, and Josie grinned a little. “That’s not good.”

“Eliaden, once again you demonstrate your rare talent for stating the obvious,” said Vivienne.

I shrugged. “It’s a gift.”

“Regardless,” said Solas. “It is a concern for many reasons. While our dwarves will not be affected by what is happening, others will find themselves under considerable strain, acutely so.”

“Then we shall need to account for this with greater attention to detail across Skyhold, from the servants, to one another, to our troops themselves,” said Cassandra, nodding. “Especially the troops. Tiredness leads to errors.”

“And those errors can be fatal for soldiers,” said Cullen.

“And mages,” I said, looking at Solas in frank dismay as I realized the ramifications of what they were saying. I had forgotten his comment of the previous morning until now. Holy gods.

He saw the realization hit me, and nodded.

“And mages,” Solas echoed. “In fact, especially for the mages. We are being attacked through the Fade. Mages are tied more strongly to the Fade, day and night, than any others.”

“Yourself included,” observed Leliana. “It would stand to reason that you, Solas, as a mage and frequent traveler of the Fade, may actually be in more danger than anyone here.”

“I am exercising restraint and caution where my journeys are concerned,” said Solas. “And thus far, I have not encountered any direct attacks at all.”

“That can change,” I pointed out.

“Vigilance is undoubtedly necessary,” he answered. “And I shall continue to exercise it. But as far as I can tell, I believe that my abilities in the Fade have actually made me less vulnerable to these attacks, not more so. I am aware of the presence, but am able to block it out, thus far at least.”

“That is exactly what I was hoping to hear,” said Leliana.

“Meanwhile, my main concern about the mages is that this also means that the danger for Abomination goes up,” continued Solas. He glanced at me, and I could tell he was reluctant to finish the thought. But he did anyway. “A tired mage is a careless mage.”

“Oh, wonderful,” said Viv, her voice dripping sarcasm. “As if we hadn’t enough problems already.”

“Great,” said Bull. “Weather forecast: Snowy, with a chance of demons.”

Not funny,” I said.

“I’m not laughing,” answered Bull, and I threw him a dirty look.

Leliana cut through the banter, her voice as soft and cool as always. “In other words, we’ll need to implement a return of some kind of watch system on our mages? Is that what you’re saying?”

“What?” I asked, startled. “He’s not saying that. You’re not saying that, Solas, right?”

He drew breath, then hesitated, thinking. “I had not been thinking in quite that direction,” he said. “I confess that I was simply thinking that we could caution the mages to simply be watchful among themselves.”

“See?” I asked. “That would be fine.

“I don’t know about that, Boss,” said Bull.

Leliana sighed. “I think we’re going to have to explore more stringent options,” she said. “An Abomination could be catastrophic. On a number of levels.”

“I agree,” said Vivienne. “Especially given the number of apostates in our midst in recent months. Who knows how strong their defenses are against Abomination?”

 “Wait,” I said. “You’re not talking about armed guards, watches on mages, implementing the Circles again?” I asked.

I looked, panicked, to Solas, and he looked back at me… then back at Vivienne, thinking. He shook his head. “No, that wasn’t what I was recommending,” he said. “More a system by which the older mages watch the less experienced ones.”

“See?” I said, glaring at Leliana. “What he’s recommending is more than enough.”

“Oh, please. It needn’t be a matter for drama,” drawled Vivienne. “Surely a simple watch to safeguard our people is something Cullen’s people could assist us with.”

“Wait.” I looked from Vivienne to Leliana and tried to hide my panic. “Most of the mages who fight with us actively chose to do so in order to escape the surveillance of Templars.”

“Perhaps rather than armed surveillance, we could simply note that our soldiers will need to be watchful and on their guard,” said Josie, trying as always to make peace.

“On their guard?” I asked. “It’s the same thing. You’d be putting a watch on the mages.”

“Yes,” said Leliana.

“No,” I said. “It’s not the right move. And it unfairly singles out the mages simply for their magical abilities.”

“Magical abilities that can open a path to demons in a heartbeat,” said Bull heavily.

Leliana looked directly at Solas. “Do you truly not believe the mages should be watched? Was it not, in fact, the reason for your concern?”

Solas didn’t speak right away. “Yes,” he said with visible reluctance. “At first, yes. I just didn’t think Templars or soldier involvement would be necessary.”

“Because it isn’t,” I said.

“Ellie,” said Cassandra. “I know you have reason for concern, but are you not being unfair, in your own turn, to our soldiers? They are honorable. They will only do what they are asked to do, to protect our people.”

“That’s how it would begin,” I said. “But what it comes down to is that all of the mages who make a mistake, who misfire a simple spell in sparring, risk their lives.”

“Ellie, think,” said Leliana. “A single Abomination within our walls could be catastrophic.”

“I understand,” I said. “But there’s surely got to be a better solution than swords and guards.”

“Inquisitor, and magic,” said Cassandra. “Remember that we do have other abilities to dispel or protect beyond swords, both Seeker magic as well as Templar.”

“Right,” I said. “But still… those mages who show the slightest signs of tiredness, or sloppiness, you can’t tell me they won’t fear panic or paranoia by those set to watch them. They will be judged.” I felt sick. “By guards who can also act as judges and executioners on the spot, all rolled into one.”

Really, my dear,” said Vivienne. “I don’t understand all the fuss you make on this topic. You were never even a Circle mage yourself, after all.”

I looked at her coldly, and was pleased to see a faint but visible trace of surprise cross her face. “I may not be a Circle mage, but I have my own reasons for distrusting Templars with too much power,” I said, then instantly felt ashamed when Cullen dropped his eyes.

“Sorry, Cullen,” I added hastily. “I am. And It’s nothing on you. Or our Templars… I know they’re honorable.”

“I know,” he said quietly.

“But this is dangerous,” I said, trying again to make my point. But I was so tired that all my words felt thin and strained, edged in hysteria. “It’s dangerous because it’s not balanced. One side has all the power, one side has none. I’ve seen this before,” I said. “We all have.”

“Ellie,” said Leliana. “It must be said that I do not want any hasty action taken at any time. Just for our people to be mindful of the dangers.”

I looked around the table and realized the entire room was against me. Regretfully, but absolutely.

“Sorry, Boss,” said Bull. “But I’m with Red on this. If it takes a little vigilance to keep people from demoning out on us left and right, I’m all in favor of it.” I glowered at Bull, but he just looked back with his usual implacability. I could even see he felt some sympathy, but that wasn’t going to change his mind.

“Wait,” said Solas. “Listen.” He met my eyes levelly, and I could see him silently trying to plead with me for calmness. I tried, but still found myself blinking and looking away. Templars and mages, all of it starting all over again. “Listen,” he said again. “Perhaps—perhaps a watch system would only need to be in place until Dagna and I can come up with a way to combat or block the sendings.”

I was silent, trying to remind myself that his point was utterly reasonable—that, in fact, all of their points were understandable. But all I could see was a cage.

“Meanwhile,” said Leliana. “As noted, what we need most right now is information. Bull’s people are already working on initial reconnaissance, and I will use my network where I can. Solas, I’d like to talk to you about doing further exploration with Cole, and perhaps into the Fade, on your own, as well.”

“You can’t be serious,” I objected. “The last thing we need right now is to send our expert on the Fade into the one place where he may be more vulnerable than anyone else right now.”

“I’m not though,” said Solas levelly. “I may be the one person who can travel the Fade with assurance of safety, in fact.”

“That’s a big question mark,” I said.

“Perhaps, but I think it is worth the risk,” he said.

“Of course you do,” I retorted. “It’s one more mystery in the Fade. You want to go.”

A faint glint of what might have been anger. “I am more than capable of judging which risks are worth taking for myself,” he said.

Sparks. I shut my eyes and made myself calm.

“No one’s talking about doing anything drastic yet,” said Leliana. “We’re just evaluating the options.”

“We need to know what we’re dealing with,” said Solas. “And we should certainly attempt to seek out its potential weaknesses. I will work with Cole to see what we can uncover… but I will also do carefully.” I could see in his face that he was trying to give me something on this, and that he was also thinking of our conversation with Cole the other morning.

“All right,” I said. I was still angry, but struggling to tamp it down. “Fine. I think you’re wrong, and I think it’s risky, for you and Cole both. But of course it’s up to you.”

“I’ll act with caution wherever possible,” he said.

“Just please be careful with Cole,” I said. “I think he’s more fragile than he knows.”

Lethallan, I will be careful. You have my word.” As he spoke, I saw Viv’s head turn sharply as her glance, amused, slid speculatively from Solas to me (Leliana doing so more subtly, with just a shift of the eyes), and I groaned inwardly. Solas, however, looked utterly unconcerned as usual.

“All right,” I said. “Thanks.”

“Let’s assign duties,” said Leliana. “We’ll need to inform people of the risks, but do so in a reassuring way. We’ll also want to set up shorter shift schedules to encourage rest.”

“Yes,” said Cassandra. “A good idea, for soldiers and civilians alike.”

“Me and the Chargers can help with that,” offered Bull. “Before they head North.”

“That’s a good idea,” said Leliana. “Please do that.”

“Got it,” said Bull.

“And Morrigan and Dorian will explore possible counterspells while Solas and Cole get more information, carefully, in the Fade,” added Josie.

“Solas, will you be working with them on potential barriers as well?” I asked, remembering his particular and formidable skills with them.

“Of course,” he said.

“Meanwhile, my lady, if you have any spellwork or suggestions that might be of assistance, ‘twould be most helpful to receive them,” said Morrigan, looking to me. I gave her a smile, strained as it was, in appreciation of the courtesy. “I’m not sure how much help I can be,” I admitted. “I’m so focused on elemental magic and lack your actual knowledge and lore. My skills aren’t as precise as yours—but I’ll certainly try.”

“You are most welcome to join us if you think of anything,” said Morrigan.

“I will,” I said.

“Next…” said Josie. “Leliana, Cullen and Cassandra will talk to Fiona and set up a subtle mutual watch system over the mages… perhaps using a combination of dwarves, the new Seeker trainees under Cassandra, and Templars?”

“That seems prudent,” said Cullen. I clenched my fist hard enough that the fingernails bit.

“Great,” I said. Nobody bothered to respond.

Cullen continued: “And Cassandra and Blackwall will work with me to talk to our soldiers on potential dangers, as well as on what to look for.”

“In addition, Dagna will be working with Solas and our other mages on ways for us to perhaps ward or protect ourselves from these nightmare sendings, preferably with something that will ward the entire Keep,” added Josie.

“Look… on the guards,” I said, interrupting Josie and looking at Cullen and Cass. “Pick carefully, all right?” I asked. “Pick those who strike you as being the most cautious and sound of judgment. Please.”

“I intend to,” Cullen said.

“We shall do so, Inquisitor,” said Cass. “Have no fear.”

“Thanks,” I said.

Vivienne shrugged her elegant shoulders. “As far as I’m concerned, a little additional oversight will simply be a past-due and welcome reminder for our mages,” she said. “Far too many of them have grown sloppy and complacent.”

I shut my eyes and tried to think of happy things, like nugs, nugs with their funny little hand-feet!, then opened them to see Vivienne’s knowing eyes on mine.

“Darling you do take things so much to heart,” said Vivienne to me. “I worry about you sometimes. It’s charming but no doubt terribly inconvenient.”

“I’m fine,” I said.

“Of course you are, my dear,” she said.

“Viv,” said Bull suddenly. “Why the mood? Sera still flashing you her ass?”

“Bull, darling,” said Vivienne. “Those bony little hindquarters of hers are only her dim and inept way of paying me tribute. I couldn’t find it more delightful.”

“Glad to hear it.” His eye twinkled at her, and she softened slightly.

“Meanwhile,” she said airily, “I’ll expect a formal apology, Bull, dear.”

Bull’s smile broadened. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Written,” she said.

“Of course,” he replied.

“Thank you, darling.” I always liked watching Bull charm Viv, and if I hadn’t been so angry and frustrated, I’d have found it as adorable as always. Now, however, I just wanted out of this room.

They looked up to find Leliana waiting, quill paused over her notes. “Now that that’s settled,” said Leliana archly (and I swear, I saw Vivienne shiver), “meanwhile, Ellie will work with Dagna and Solas to see if we can harness the Anchor as a way of searching out the Rifts in the Fade for the source, while the rest of us do what we can to keep things here in the Keep running smoothly.”

“We should also create a significant number of spare sleeping and healing draughts,” said Solas, “to help our people deal with the stress and to assure that they are able to rest.” His eyes met Vivienne’s. “Enchanter, perhaps that is something with which you could assist us?”

Vivienne gave him an icy smile. “Of course, my dear Solas.” It was a brilliant idea, as Vivienne’s potions were easily the best at Skyhold—she had a peculiar talent for them. Dorian’s were nearly as good, but Vivienne’s were not only effective, but scary-fast—she formulated them in half the time it took the rest of us to do so.

“One thing,” said Cassandra. “I am sorry to ask this. But for our mages, or for those of you among us who train or spar with our fellow mages, it might be prudent for us to know which mages are newest to their powers, or who have demonstrated less control, training or skill.”

“Do you really think the mages would tell us that?” I asked. “When it will simply put more pressure on those targeted?”

“It is a regrettable situation, but I agree that it would be wise of them to do so,” said Cullen.

“I hate this,” I said. “I think it’s going to be messier than it sounds in this room, too.”

“Ellie,” said Josie. “Our people will be careful. We are one group, one cause, as the Inquisition now. We are no longer mages and Templars. We will remember that.”

“We shall,” said Cass.

“On the question of the mages and their abilities…” Solas spoke, heavily and with visible distaste. “Given our current situation, I’d suggest consulting the mage trainers, as well.” His eyes flickered to me but I did not look back, keeping them fixed on the table before me. I said nothing, but I could feel my cheeks blazing furiously so I simply tried to take calm, even breaths, counting down the seconds until escape.

Leliana took a deep breath. “All right, everyone, stay observant. And do what you can to rest. We still have an awful lot of battles, demons and Venatori out there to fight, as well, and the last thing we need is to do so compromised and weary.”

“Fiona’s face,” sang out Vivienne. “Truly, I cannot wait to witness it.”

And with that, the meeting was over, and I was free. I pushed back my chair and struggled to extricate myself without tripping over anything (or breaking into a run). I slid the chair back to the table with a  clatter, cursing inwardly, then, avoiding anyone else’s eyes, I walked quickly from the room, even as the others were still rising to their feet.

And once out of the room, and out of eyesight… I ran.

Chapter Text

Someone was singing a Chantry hymn, softly, not far away from me. I wanted to find it irritating, since the Maker and I still weren’t on very good terms, and part of me wanted to just sit silently and feel angry... but it was too pretty. Gradually, I felt the melody ease my worries and even pull at a few of the knots inside of me. I still didn’t like the Maker, but surprisingly, people singing about him was still weirdly cheering, in certain circumstances.

After the meeting, I’d somehow found myself in the Skyhold garden. I’d burst through the door to find that the light was fading, the air was relatively soft, and I had stumbled into the one place where I might be able to slow my heartbeats and find peace beyond the rage. It was the perfect antidote. So I walked beneath the trees and tried to clear my head even as the last red rays of the afternoon filtered down through the spindly branches.

Even in winter, the garden still held a surprising amount of life, and through a combination of doubled walls, warm air currents, barrier spells and care, we were still able to grow specialty herbs and plants for use in unguents, poultices, and potions.

As the last rays had rapidly faded from twilight to full dark, I had busied myself for an hour or two with the latest crops of felandaris and dawn lotus we’d planted there, trying both to calm what I knew was an irrational anger, and partly to allow myself to think. The day was cold, the wind calming and clean on my hot face, and soon I found myself less angry than sad.

We’d come so far from that initial conflict and cauldron of tension last year. Mages and templars in the Inquisition supported each other with ease now, but that would change once again. Now we’d lose some of that ground we’d gained.

It was going to happen again—the worried, distrustful looks from soldier to mage, the constant, quiet alertness as men waited for a mage’s magic to go dark…

And worst of all, that threat was real. For younger mages, especially, or those less sure of their connections to the Fade, exhaustion could and probably would lead to some Abominations. It was almost a certainty.

The woman singing the Chantry song was ambling slowly along the garden, and as the song finished, I realized it was Mother Giselle herself, who had been so instrumental in helping us garner early Chantry and Hinterlands military support. Unlike most of us, her face didn’t reflect tension of any kind, but was instead placid and calm, although there were subtle signs of tiredness around her eyes and mouth.

“Hello, child,” she said. “I hope I—and my song—do not intrude.”

“No,” I said. “It was very pretty.”

“It was about Shartan,” she said. She sat down on the stone bench beside me, and sighed. “Do you know the stories about him?”

“I know just enough to know what he suffered,” I said shortly. “Why is it that the Chantry always seems to like martyrs better than it liked the living people they were before?”

“I prefer to think the two aspects are linked,” she answered. “That the Chantry, rather, honors the sacrifices of the people so that they are remembered and not forgotten. As with Shartan. Or Andraste. And many others.”

“Well, when it comes to Shartan, I can’t help but think of the Maker had a strange way of repaying devotion… and that doesn’t even get into his performance as a divine husband to poor Andraste,” I added.

“You blame the Maker for what happened to Andraste?” she asked. She didn’t look offended, just curious.

“I don’t believe in the Maker,” I said. “But if I did, I’d blame him. Andraste didn’t deserve to die like that.”

“Millions in our world die in ways they do not deserve, and always have,” said Mother Giselle. “Should it have been any different for Andraste?”

“Yes,” I said. “Because of the whole marriage thing!”

She surprised me by chuckling. “The Chant is not about the divide between the deserving and the undeserving,” she said. “And the Maker’s love did not protect Andraste just as it cannot protect the Chantry brother killed by the thief in the city, the warrior on the battlefield, or the merchant who dies of a common fever, alone and helpless.”

“The Maker has a habit of turning his back,” I pointed out. “He basically dared people to take out Andraste, then walked away, punishing millions who had no part in what happened to her.”

“I prefer to think that the Maker has been trying to teach us a lesson,” she answered. “One it may take centuries for us to learn.”

“I appreciate your point of view,” I said. “But… Mother Giselle, you have to know by now that I’m just not a good mark for conversion. I don’t like the Maker. I honestly prefer the gods of my people.”

“Why?” she asked. “Are the elven gods more just, more fair, or more present? I would truly like to know more about them.”

“Just the opposite,” I said. “I like the elven gods, most of all, because they’re gone. They did terrible things and wonderful things, and then they got betrayed and locked away. Or so our stories told us. And it was probably the best thing for everyone.”

She thought for a moment. “Perhaps they are not, in fact, gone,” she observed. “Would that be a comfort to you?”

“No,” I said honestly. “I don’t really care… except, I guess for Mythal, the all-mother. And maybe for Ghilan’nain, who was beloved by my mother.” Then I stopped at the visible kindness and patience on her delicately lined face. “Look, Mother Giselle—you’re being very nice to me and I’m being unforgivably rude,” I confessed. “I’m just not very good company right now.”

“You seem to be in distress,” she said quietly. “If I can help, I will.”

“It’s fine,” I said. “I just… I’m…”

“What is it, child?”

“We had to make some decisions today for the Inquisition,” I said. “Decisions I disagreed with. And I know that my feelings on this are wrong—I know it. I just can’t seem to change how I feel.”

“Perhaps your feelings simply need time to catch up with your brain,” she said gently.

“That’s a new one,” I laughed. “For me, it’s usually the other way around!”

“These are not usual times,” she answered. “And you have had much to do.”

“Well, and that’s the other thing,” I said. “The more I’ve thought about that, the more I’ve wondered… maybe I shouldn’t be doing this at all. Maybe I am the wrong choice. We ought to pick someone else and just drag me out to close Rifts and things.”

“Do you really believe that?” she asked.

I blew the hair out of my face, frustrated, then shoved it back behind my ears. “No,” I said. “Not exactly.”

“But you fear it.”

“Of course I do.”

“Knowing your beliefs, forgive me if I bring up the Maker again,” she replied quietly. “But it seems to me that He judges us not on whether we are the best person for each job we are given, but rather on how hard we attempt to do what is right within the confines of the task.”

“I’d like him to judge both,” I objected. “He should judge both.”

“I have seen how hard you work,” she said, “you and all our good people here. You are attempting to do all you can.”

“You don’t know that I’m doing that,” I argued. “I could be a horrible person for all you know.”

She chuckled. “And are you?”

“Sometimes,” I said ruefully. But something about her kindness got rid of the last of my anger and bad feelings, somehow, and I put my fingers to massage my temples for a second or two, wanting nothing more than to curl up next to a pot of elfroot and sleep for weeks. “Okay, no. Probably not. I’d just like to be better than not-horrible at all of this.”

She patted my hand, then rose to leave. “You are doing your best,” she said. “It is all anyone can ask of you.” She smiled. “Meanwhile, know that the Maker loves you.”

I grimaced. “I don’t love him back.”

“That is all right,” she said, smiling.

I gave her a faint smile. “But I very much appreciate your talking to me.”

“Of course,” she said, with a slight and courtly nod. “Meanwhile, I am always here if you need an ear.”

“Thanks for the talk,” I said. “And the song.”

She left, and I stood, stretching, and realized that I’d been able to shake off, at last, my snarl of emotions after the earlier meeting. So I washed up hastily from a water jug in the garden, trying to make myself at least borderline presentable, then decided that if I was going to face sleep tonight, I might as well go get a pint and some company, and trudged back over to the Herald’s Rest.

However, as I left Skyhold and descended the front steps, I realized that Charter was ahead of me, dashing at top speed into the tavern. My heart sank, since hurry hardly ever implied good news.

It was a fairly full evening in the tavern, but a quiet one, with most of the occupants either talking quietly or drinking alone.

As I entered, looking for Charter, I noticed that Lace Harding and Cullen were seated not far from the bar. The sight cheered me a little – Cullen worked too hard, so it was nice to see him take a moment for himself. Even if he was probably allowing himself the moment because he was also officially working, strategizing with the Scout after the afternoon’s discussions, as well. Lace, meanwhile, was pretty openly delighted, her freckled face perhaps slightly pinker than usual, so I filed that knowledge away, inwardly pleased at the potential pairing, because Lace and Cullen would be not only adorable, but formidable. It would be difficult to say which of the two was more dedicated to the Inquisition.

However, even as I looked, I saw Charter approach Cullen and whisper a few quiet words. Cullen’s face was troubled, and he rose to his feet instantly, and quietly headed out the door. Charter, meanwhile, headed over to approach Bull, who was off in his corner talking to Grim, Krem, and Dalish, his eye occasionally wandering appreciatively to Ditan, the buxom redheaded barmaid who’d been serving them, while Varric, I saw, was sitting at a table alone, a few sheaves of parchment scattered before him.

I debated going after Cullen, then as I paused, Bull saw me, and waved me over.

“Hey, Boss.”

Charter gave me a strained smile. “I was looking for you, my lady.”

“Tell me,” I said.

“It’s not good,” said Bull. “We just got news about Chaldecy.”

“The village in the Dales?” I asked. “The one we sent the troops in to help?”

“Yeah,” said Bull. He looked sober.

“What about Chaldecy?” I asked.

Charter sighed. “It’s gone.”

“Gone?” I asked.

“Village, troops, all,” said Bull. “We don’t know what happened yet, but there’s nothing left but bare ground.”

I felt that sinking feeling again, as if the ground was no longer to be trusted, but nobody else seemed to be feeling it but me. “How many were there? In the village?”

She sighed. “Seventy-two souls, my lady. From what we know.”

“And how many soldiers did we send?”

“A party of sixteen,” said Charter.

Eighty-eight people. Sylaise wept. I swallowed hard and looked around frantically. “I should go back in,” I said. “Talk to Leliana.”

Bull shook his head. “Cullen’s aware—he’s off to go talk to our people and to the families of those who left. There’s nothing you can do right now, Boss. Nothing. Sit down, have a pint of something, and let it go.”

I hesitated, then looked to Charter, who shook her head slightly as well. “Tell Leliana where I am, in case she needs to speak with me,” I said. “Will you do that?”

“Of course, my lady,” she said.

I left them, somewhat at a loss, then went over to the bar. When I passed, I realized there was a full table of Templars off in the alcove beside the bar. They were laughing quietly among themselves, and I found my inner temperature rising to flammability... even though I knew these were not bad men. They were soldiers. Dedicated, part of the Inquisition. People I knew, waved at, said hello to. People I cared about.

And yet as they sat there laughing quietly among themselves, all I could do was wish each and every one of them dead.

It was unfair of me, but there you go. That’s what happens when someone hurts you. If they’re wearing a certain thing, you may someday see that thing and yep, you’ll hate that thing (and the person in it), at least at moments… forever.

Then the moment was gone, and I realized that my moment had passed, and I had been unfair in my anger. But… well. I felt the way I felt. And now I felt sad. And a little sick.

Cabot gave me a look that said the world would probably end tomorrow and that he was okay with that.

“Inquisitor?” he asked.

“Cabot. So, what would you say’s the current mood?”

“Apprehensive,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “I guess so.”

“Also pretty fucking petrified,” he added.

“That’s very helpful,” I replied. “Thanks for that.”

As always, sarcasm simply bounced off Cabot and died silently.

“What’ll it be?” he asked.

“A pint of ale,” I said. I didn’t love ale but it sometimes made me sleepy, and I was willing to try anything at this point.

Cabot shrugged, then silently poured me a mug of ale, which I promptly took over to Varric’s table.

He looked up as I approached. “Hi, Sparks,” he said.

“Want company?” I asked.

“Actually, yeah,” he said, smiling. “I was trying to do a little writing but it’s not gonna happen.”

I sat down with him, and sighed.

“Bad news?” he asked. “I saw Charter.”

“It didn’t go well in Chalcedy,” I said.

“Shit,” he said. He sighed, heavily.

I blinked back the sudden urge to cry. “Yeah,” I said. “A whole village, plus sixteen of our people.”

He shook his head as if to clear it. “That’s terrible. Demons? Venatori? Rifts?”

“Nobody knows,” I said. “Yet, anyway.”

“Damn,” he said. “I’m sorry to hear it.”

“Yeah.”

“Doesn’t help though, does it?”

“No,” I said, staring down into my tankard.

He gave me a few moments of quiet, and shuffled his pages together, looking dissatisfied. When I looked over, he shrugged.

“You can’t take it so hard, Sparks. It’s war. We have a long haul still to go.”

“I know,” I said. “I do. It’s just not always easy.”

“Meanwhile… speaking of which,” said Varric. “You don’t seem to be living up to your name lately.” He grinned a little.

“What name?”

He gestured at my hair, which I’d simply tied back from my face hastily after the garden, not even bothering to braid it. It was now a slightly straggling, windblown mess streaming down my right shoulder, and I laughed as I realized what he was talking about. “Oh, the sparks.”

“What’s the story?”

“I’ve just been working to, um, control them a bit,” I admitted.

“With Solas?”

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s been helpful. By the way… he’s a much stronger mage than most people here know, I think.”

“Well, that’s something, I guess,” said Varric. “I mean, if we’re gonna fight monsters from the Fade, at least we’ve got a guy on our team who knows more about that place than anyone.”

“That’s true,” I said.

“Which reminds me—” he began.

There was a slam from upstairs, and we looked up, startled to see Sera stalking down from her room with an expression that would have curdled milk.

“Uh-oh,” I said.

“No kidding,” said Varric.

Sera trotted down the stairs nimbly, then straight over to where Varric and I were sitting. She was carrying a bottle of wine in one hand, and had spilled a few purple drops on the bodice of her dress. Her hair was sticking out in a surprising number of new directions, and she was frowning so deeply her eyebrows almost met.

“So. You,” she said, gesturing at me with the bottle before plonking it down onto the table. She climbed over the back of a chair and sprawled onto its front as Varric and I both watched, fascinated.

“Hi Sera,” I said.

You,” she said again. She scrunched up her beautiful face even further, and I smiled, amused in spite of myself. She glared at me then, so I did my best to wipe the smile away.

“Hey. Stop frigging laughing. I’m here because I have only one thing to say.”

“Okay,” I said. “Go for it.”

“Fuck. Crap. Creepy. Wrong. Arses and arseholes. Stupid nothings I can’t hit with arrows. Not right!”

“I know,” I said.

“Well, what kind of an answer is that?” she asked. “Because it’s not okay, none of it!”

“I know,” I said. “I promise we’re trying to figure it out.”

“So you say,” she said. “So you say, but everything’s going to shite, innit? Shite. So what’re you doing about it? That’s what I want to know.”

“We’ll fight it, Sera,” I said. “As soon as we figure out how.”

“Fat chance,” she muttered. “Not fighting bloody hard enough.”

I noticed the circles under her eyes, dark as bruises, and suddenly I understood what was happening. The fear was there beneath the rudeness, and the tiredness too. A scared Sera would be a mad Sera—every time. It was my favorite reaction to fear, for that matter, myself.

“Sera, you’re having the dreams too?”

She met my eyes, hesitating, then gave a jerky nod, as if she’d almost wanted to shake her head, but had then decided to be honest anyway. “Some.” She took a swig from the wine bottle, then wiped her mouth. “Bloody stupid ones, too.”

“I know it’s tough,” I said. “But we’re working on it.”

“Well, who’s working on it, yeah?” she asked. “I mean, if we have to depend on Elfyshits, we’re all in for it.”

I laughed in spite of myself. “I trust that Solas knows what he’s doing. He and everyone else on our side.”

She eyed me for a moment. “Thought you were smarter than that.”

“Sera…” I sighed. “I know you don’t like Solas, but he knows a lot about this stuff. He can help.”

“So you say,” she said. “Looks like I touched a nerve. You going all elfy on me?”

“No,” I said. “I’ve always been elfy. You know that.”

She swigged again, then grimaced. “Guess I keep hoping you’ll snap out of it and come to your senses.”

“That’s not happening,” I said.

“Look at that,” she said. “Nerve number two. Touched.”

“No,” I said. “I’m just tired. We’re all tired.”

“So fix it. FIX IT, so we can all get some rest,” she said accusingly.

I put my hands over my face. “Sera…”

“And you know, you shouldn’t be sitting here,” she said. “You need to be working on making this Fade thing right. That’s what you ought to be doing. Right this moment.”

“Sera,” Varric protested. “We’re all under strain. Sparks has a right to have a drop of ale with friends, okay?”

She gave an exasperated sigh. “If you say so. Just make it a fast one.”

“I will,” I said.

She got up, shrugged, then stalked over to Maryden as Varric and I looked at each other. Varric grinned.

“Well,” he said. “Nothing like a little extra pressure.”

“It’s fine,” I said. I realized with dismay that Sera was now pointing at me, so evidently she was trying to get Maryden to play a set of songs that would inspire me to leave and get back to work as quickly as possible.

Sure enough, Maryden began to play “Oh Grey Warden,” and I made a face. She knew it was my least favorite of Maryden’s melodies, so evidently Sera’s diabolical plan was working. I debated going up and telling Maryden to play “Sera Never” ten times in a row, but that would just annoy the entire tavern and enrage Sera, and worst of all, Maryden would probably end up with her lute over her own head.

So I distracted myself with a sip of my ale, instead, and instantly looked at Varric, appalled. It was thin, brown, and incredibly bitter. “Ugh.”

Varric gestured at my mug and chuckled. “It’s not a good batch,” he said. “Still, it’s better than no ale at all.”

“I’m not sure of that.”

“What you were saying before Sera came over,” said Varric. “Why change it, though? The sparks?”

I looked back at him and shrugged slightly. “Well… It’s not always fun being an open book,” I admitted.

“Huh,” he said. “Yeah, I can see that.”

I took a sip of my ale and made a face. It really was terrible. Then I gestured at the pages before him. “More adventures in Hightown?” I asked.

He chuckled. “No,” he said. “More Swords and Shields.”

“Really!” I cried, delighted. “You have no idea how much another installment would boost morale right now.”

Varric grimaced. “You aren’t telling me that you read this shit too?”

I laughed. “Everyone reads it, Varric.”

“You’re not serious,” he said.

“I am utterly serious,” I said, smiling at how openly dismayed he looked. “Everyone. Me, Bull, Cass, Josie… everyone… Well, except maybe Sera,” I admitted. “Although you never know. We should ask her.”

“All my hard work,” he said, “and it’s the smut that gets the readership.” He sighed, looking more than a little appalled.

“No, wait,” I said. “I can cheer you up on this. I really can.”

He looked unconvinced. “How?”

“With four little words,” I said.

“Now this I’ve gotta hear,” he chuckled. “Let’s hear them.”

“Vivienne reads it too.”

He burst out laughing. “No!”

“Yes,” I said. “Oh, yes.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yep,” I said. “I caught her about a week ago. She gave me a smile that would have frozen boiling water then said she was only reading it because it was always good to know what the riff-raff were amusing themselves with. My dear.

Varric laughed, then drained his mug. “All right, you’re right. That cheered me up.”

“So you realize,” I said, “that you have to keep writing it.”

“Yep,” he said. “I got it.”

Ditan, the pretty redhead who’d been flirting with Bull earlier, came over and poured more ale into Varric’s mug while I shook my head at her questioning look. “Not for me,” I said. “Thanks.” I saw her get another appraising look from Bull and was inwardly pleased at my almost total lack of jealousy. Maybe there’d been a faint twinge, but that was all. Krem saw me look over, meanwhile, and smiled and met my eye. I waved, then I looked back to Varric, who was twirling his quill in his fingers, looking down at his pages.

“It’s quiet for so many people, isn’t it?” I asked, looking around.

“Yeah,” he said. “People have a lot to think about.”

“True.”

Maryden began to sing “Rise,” and although it was lovely as always, I shivered a little in spite of myself, then took another sip of ale. Yep. Still horrendous. But I sat back and relaxed for awhile, and Varric and I simply watched and listened for several songs, making occasional small talk and with me glancing over as he jotted down the occasional sentence or two on his pages, secretly dying to know what would happen next. I did get a glimpse of the words 'passion,' 'kiss,' and 'lover,' which made me absurdly happy (in part because I was picturing Cass's ecstatic reaction to yet more romance), so I was surprised to realize that an hour or two had gone by peacefully before Varric broke the silence in earnest.

“So.” Varric glanced over at Bull’s little group, then to Maryden, then looked back at me with a sharp, knowing expression. “I take it this afternoon’s meeting didn’t go well.”

“Yes and no,” I said thoughtfully. “It actually went fine, all things considered. I just… I’m a little concerned about a few…” I hesitated, keeping my voice low… “logistical aspects.”

He sighed. “I heard. I take it you’re not too crazy about the new watch system.”

“Maybe I’m not,” I said.

“Still,” he said. “I don’t know what else we can really do.”

“I know,” I said.

“You think the threat’s real then, whatever’s in the Fade?”

I looked at him squarely. “Yes. Yes, I do.”

“Well… shit,” he said. “We never seem to get a break, do we?”

I smiled. “Not really.”

“Is there anything I can do?” asked Varric. “Although I’m not sure how helpful my connections in Kirkwall or with the Carta would be on this.”

“No,” I said. “Although it wouldn’t be a bad idea to check your network for the latest rumors – not just on the Fade, but the Venatori, Corypheus, and all that. You never know – this could be just one part of something bigger. In fact, it almost certainly is.”

“Sure,” he said.

I sipped at my horrible ale again (still nursing the same awful single mug), then closed my eyes for a moment. The past few days had been brutal, and pacing on the rooftops hadn’t exactly been a terrific substitute for rest.

“You should get some sleep, Sparks,” said Varric. I shook myself and stood up.

“Thanks, Varric,” I said. “I think I’ll give it a try, at least.”

I turned to go, and Varric’s voice followed me. “Hey, listen, I started to tell you before, but Solas was looking for you earlier.”

I remembered the tensions of the afternoon’s meeting, and sighed inwardly. “Thanks,” I said.

I left to go find Solas.

Chapter Text

My footsteps echoed as I reentered Skyhold.

Even after all these months, I was still awed at simply walking back into the Keep, a little intimidated by that timeless arch of stone over my head even as I felt it beneath my feet. A thousand years of immovable granite below and above. I walked that stretch of hallway and every time, I felt powerfully, weirdly, mortal. This place would stand when I was no longer even the most distant of memories.

I found it both terrifying and reassuring. Especially because I was increasingly realizing that I truly loved Skyhold—me, an elf from the woods and coasts! I’d always been scared of stone. I still remembered how awed I’d been by the Temple the year before, on the mission from my clan. How big it had seemed, and how cold.

And yet here I was. And I loved our fastness in the mountains. Somehow, I’d gone from nervousness and fear, to outright love and fierce possessiveness. There was something special and magical here, something pure in its strength and beauty, in the brave banners, still tattered, that had flown when we arrived. In the mysterious yet handsome paintings, furnishings, and accoutrements we had continued to discover ever since our first day, so many of them useful and functional beyond all logic. I even loved its mystery – the occasional discoveries of ancient elven writings on walls, the dwarven runes on furnishings and in corners, the mysterious blasted lower regions near the prison cells, the sense of boundless strength and health to the castle despite its great age. Even the delicate remnants of faded tapestries and banners were fascinating to examine, although so many crumbled at the touch of a fingertip.

And best of all, Skyhold had become a real home to me… or it was finally starting to. I still missed my sea and storms but nevertheless, I’d found I could love more than sea and forest, and was in fact a little embarrassed to be this utterly in love with mountains and snow, with sharp, cold landscapes—landscapes I’d once hated, although I’d recognized their beauty.

But not anymore. I now welcomed the lofty heights, the safety, even the cold winds, as they’d somehow purified me in new and magical ways I was not just able to endure, but to embrace. I felt as if it was something to do with a magic within Skyhold itself. I’d swear our spells were cleaner here, clearer. My own magical abilities were easier for me to control. Somehow, if my emotions, sparks and inner flames had threatened to consume me, the high, snowy currents of air that twisted through our mountains and our Keep had helped to keep me sane and quiet, and safe from what I hoped was just a figurative potential combustion.

I was still too often cold, almost constantly so. But I’d nevertheless begun to find a strange enjoyment in the chill.

Low torchlight and quiet voices. Most doors were dark. Although, as always, even at this late hour, I was cheered that there were people about. Guards. Emissaries. Gossips. Poor people seeking answers and support. Wealthy emissaries seeking favors. Soldiers reporting in. Ravens flapping from the heights. Alongside, of course, the last carpenters and craftspeople who’d been working day and night to make Skyhold a glory of Thedas again.

As I walked the huge main corridor, I saw a faint glow of golden light, and sure enough, through a partly open door, there was Solas, a few torches burning low in his quiet rotunda, the round tower study aglow  as he stood meditatively before his frescoes.

I headed to the doorway, and entered quietly but not silently, knocking tentatively as I shut the door behind me.

So quiet. As always, the round room was beautiful; glowing and exquisite, everything in its place, so stark and graceful, all glowing warm walls, fresh flowers and polished wood and burnished surfaces; the few furnishings immaculate. And then those painted frescoes, warm and vivid, flowing from moment to moment around the room… rich and secretive and somehow powerful.

Solas didn’t respond right away, absorbed in the latest painting. He stood, straight and pale and still, almost glowing against the stormy darkness of the piece. Then, as I watched, he painted a perfect flowing grey line onto that castle standing in shadowy dark landscape, adding instant complexity and richness. Of course.

“You’ve added so much,” I said.

He whirled, instantly on alert, and I stepped back, hands in the air as a gesture of peace. “Ir abelas,” I said. “I thought you heard me knock. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

He relaxed, and smiled ruefully. “Not at all. It’s just the lateness of the hour. I did not expect company. Andaran atish’an. Please, by all means, come in.”

“Only if I’m not disturbing your work?” I asked. “No need to stand on politeness.”

“I rarely do,” he said. “You should know this about me by now. Please come in, lethallan. I’m grateful for the distraction.”

I entered, then paused a little awkwardly, not sure of what to say next. I glanced up above us, in spite of myself, to see the slight transparent golden shimmer of his barriers above us.

“Yes,” he said, following my eyes. “We can speak privately.” I let out a deep breath. It was always a relief to know our discussions wouldn’t be witnessed by those on multiple floors above us.

“You came to look for me,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “You were… I knew you were unhappy.” He looked, for the briefest moment, almost surprised at himself, as if he hadn’t meant to speak so openly.

“Thank you,” I said, and meant it. Then I found that I was at a loss, until Solas’s voice broke the silence.

“You were angry with me,” he said. A very slight smile around the eyes. He spread out his hands. “Again.”

“No,” I said, then met his eye, unable to hold the lie. I decided to be blunt.

“Okay,” I admitted. “Yes. Mages and Templars… there’s already been enough blood to cover Thedas.  I… I’m just scared that we’re back in the same place we started from.”

“But we are not actually back in that same place at all,” he said. “And surely you must know that I like this no better than you do.”

“But you agreed with them,” I said, then stopped. Now I was the surprised one—I hadn’t known I would say it, and now I wished I hadn’t sounded so accusing. But there it was.

“I had to,” he said, simply. “Because it was the right thing to do, no matter how much I abhor the necessity.”

“But…” I said, then trailed off. I couldn’t even think of anymore points to make. I knew he was right. I was just so tired. And I just still really wanted to argue. A lot.

“I know how you feel,” he said. “I do. But you must separate yourself from how you feel at such times if you are to survive this. Your emotions must, at least on occasion, become immaterial.”

“Survive?” I asked, a little confused. “Survive what, the war?”

“No,” he said. “The task of leading it.”

“And how do I do that? Beyond what I’m already doing, or what any of us is already doing?”

He looked amused again. “You master yourself. You accept that you must learn control… and of more than your magic.” He hesitated, then spoke. “I think you know this already… which is why you fear doing so.”

“Solas,” I said, narrowing my eyes at him. “This sounds an awful lot like more ‘surrender’ talk.”

“Perhaps.” Another shadow of a smile.

“I didn’t come here for another lesson!”

“Nevertheless,” he said bluntly. “If wisdom is offered, you must at least consider its value.”

I put my fingers to my temples for a few seconds, frustrated and trying to push away an incipient headache, then sighed. “Fine. I’m too tired to argue with you. Besides, you’ll win anyway.”

When he gave me the usual glimpse of humor, I found that I couldn’t stay irritable and prickly, so I turned away from him and distracted myself by looking around at his paintings. We’d been so busy I hadn’t really concentrated on looking at Solas’s latest few fresco panels, and I caught my breath as I looked. His progress in the months since we’d arrived at Skyhold always amazed me; he’d gotten the murals more than halfway around the room, now. The amount of work he’d accomplished was impressive, and I felt self-conscious again (me, I still hadn’t unpacked half my meager belongings into the bottom-most drawer of my newest replacement bureau in my quarters, even all these months later).

“Do you need to keep working?” I asked. “I’ve heard these must be done quickly, before the plaster dries.”

He smiled, a warm one that reached his eyes. “Actually, I’ve just finished this one.” He stepped back, regarding it critically. “Yes, I think it is done.

I looked at it, then walked around the murals in turn. The frescoes themselves were dark, rich and commanding all immediate focus. I followed the circle of the room’s dark walls, slowly, soaking them all in again. “They’re really beautiful, your paintings,” I said, gazing at each recent panel, impressed at the complexity and color. I was mesmerized as always by the complex, jewel-like hues and vivid images. The signs and symbols, the shadowy figures and animals, the sense of a thread just beyond understanding.

Ma serannas,” he said. “I find it a pleasant diversion, a way to calm myself after our travels.”

“Wait… It is a story,” I said, turning even more slowly to take it all in. And then the pictures flowed and I saw it now, or almost, as if for the first time. The narrative, the progression of it all. Even if only for a moment. “Your story?” I asked. “Is it your journey here?”

“No,” he said quietly. “It’s yours.”

“Mine?” I looked back at the panels, confused.

‘Yes.”

I paused, a little daunted by the weight of it. So much history. And me, dropped into the middle of it all. Although, thinking about it, I guessed Varric and plenty of others at Skyhold probably felt the same way. I laughed a little, without knowing I would do so.

“What is it?” he asked.

“It will sound silly,” I said, hesitating.

“Tell me.”

“Just… that your pictures remind me that I’m only here because of a fluke… a single decision. I’d wanted to do something for my clan, even though I’d mostly left them by then,” I said. “I’m obviously not the best choice for spycraft, but I went to the Conclave as a favor to my Keeper… and now here I am.” I gestured at the frescoes. “And now I’m looking at paintings of events that I never could have imagined being part of.”

“It is always so in such times,” he answered.

“Your paintings are comforting in a strange way,” I said. “I may be an accidental participant in these great events, but I’m certainly not the only one.”

“Of course not,” he said.

“Either way, it makes for a pretty story in paint,” I said, smiling. I reached out and touched one of the older panels, carefully and delicately, with my fingertips. Cold stone. A slight sense of slickness from the delicate paint coating it at all. I concentrated, opened a tiny thread of magic, felt a slight shiver… and there it was. A quick impression and illumination. “And there’s more, right?” I asked. “It’s almost as if you’re showing the story from elsewhere… From the Fade?”

“Ha. Perhaps.” He gave one of his rare laughs, a short sound I’d come to find endearing, as if laughter was somehow awkward for him.

I turned to look at the newest image, the one he had been standing before when I’d entered—a disquieting landscape in which a stylized castle—Skyhold, I quickly realized—stood lonely and pale within the teeth of the pale encircling mountains. The castle stood beneath a single beam of old sunlight, fragile and thin, breaking through the dark clouds above it, tiny banners waving brightly and bravely. Far away… but not far enough… a distant, inky black shadow spread fingers of darkness like a spill of filthy black water toward the Keep across the flat lands before the Frostbacks.

It was beautiful, but I shivered. That shadow was something real, and even its replica in paint chilled me. When I shut my eyes and envisioned it, it felt physical, like dark blood spreading beneath the thin skin of Thedas, obscene and deadly. I feared it even more than I feared demons, or Blights, or the men who’d hurt me. And I hated its ability to reach into my fears and twist them.

I realized suddenly that I was holding my breath, and that he was watching me.

I exhaled, slowly. “So. It really is on the way.”

“Yes,” he said. “But not swiftly. It is still relatively far from us.”

 “That’s something,” I said.

“For now,” he admitted.

I tried shrugging off my fear. “Meanwhile, I can’t believe you do all this every night,” I teased. “So much detail and so many layers… instead of sleeping?”

“Not every night,” he said. “But as I require little sleep, it is certainly calming. And often, even illuminating.”

“You’re shattering my illusions,” I said. “I would think you’d want to spend as much time as possible each night in the Fade… or that you would have, until these attacks on us began.”

He went cool again, unexpectedly. “Am I a common Lyrium addict, then, running for the Fade as others run to drink or drug?”

“No,” I said hastily. “That wasn’t what I meant at all.”

He folded his arms. “Then what did you mean?” His voice was formal again. No wonder he was so good at barriers; they defined him. And in that beautiful voice of his, in which courtesy became yet another language; yet another barrier.

I took a breath, trying to put my thoughts into words. “I don’t think you understand how unique it is, this gift of yours,” I said.“For most of us, the Fade’s just… dreams… At least before they’d become corrupted, like they are now. And even what we mages visit to test ourselves is pretty thin and bleak.”

I met his eyes, and drew breath. “It’s different for you,” I said. “From what you’ve described to me… for you, the Fade is alive. A world you can explore whenever you choose to.” His expression changed, subtly, from anger to curiosity, even as I gestured at his frescoes. “And you can shape that world when you’re there, right? Paint the memories just like these frescoes… Can’t you? And then walk there?”

“Perhaps. To a degree,” he said. “It is more complex than it appears.”

“I can’t really imagine it,” I admitted. “But all I know is… if I could do that… I would rush toward every sleeping moment I could find. That’s all I meant.”

He nodded slowly, and I was relieved as his face relaxed again from its narrow watchfulness. “It’s true. And I’m sorry to have reacted so quickly.”

“It wasn’t meant to be a judgment.”

“I know,” he said, and with that glimmer of sympathy, although it was faint. For a moment, he seemed to allow himself to feel and show his own tiredness. “We are, all of us, weary and on edge.”

“Yes,” I said. “All the more reason that when I hear your stories about the Fade, I simply wonder if it isn’t sometimes hard to leave. You get to escape whenever you want to, just by closing your eyes. Not all of us have that luxury.” I couldn’t quite keep the longing out of my voice.

“Ah, yes.” He looked at me steadily then—one of those piercing glances of his, in which I knew I was being acutely seen, and shook his head. “You’ve been asked to bear much, lethallan. No wonder you’re tired.”

“So are you,” I said, “So is everyone. Besides, I’m fine.” But even as I said it, I found myself battling another yawn. Curses. “I am.”

“Really?”

I dropped my eyes. Fenedhis. “Mostly.”

“Ah,” he said, smiling. “Mostly.”

“Mostly meaning yes,” I glared.

“Well,” he said. “Mostly fine is still a matter for some concern.”

I was silent.

“Don’t you think? So much depends upon you.”

“Gods below.” I shoved my hair back from my face impatiently. “You have no idea how much I wish people would stop saying that!”

“It is true, nevertheless.”

“Even when you say it, it feels like a curse,” I said, frustrated. “May you learn. May the Void eat your soul. The eyes of Anaris see you. So much depends on you. May the Dread Wolf take you.

A glint of humor again, at that. “Well,” he said. “It isn’t meant to be. I promise you. Certainly not as such.”

“Sera would tell you to shut it,” I muttered.

Another hint of a smile. “Undoubtedly.”

“Look,” I said, meeting his eyes. “You’re tired. I’m tired. We’re all tired. And you heard what I dreamed the other night. It was incredibly real. And ugly. And it’s come back two more times, along with some other terrible moments I’d rather not repeat, each time I’ve tried to grab so much as a nap.”

“I am working with Dagna,” he said. “I think we can eventually create a barrier around Skyhold that will allow us all to rest,” he said. “At least temporarily.”

“That would be a relief,” I said. “For so many of us.”

“Meanwhile, I may walk the Fade, but I can assure you that I do so with care. There are some dreams I avoid just like the rest of us,” he said.

“You do?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” he said, his eyes on mine. His were unexpectedly grey in the soft golden light of the rotunda, a clear, dark silver like the stones beneath a shallow stream, only the barest glimmer of green in the depths, and they were also direct and steady. The connection was as always a kind of miracle in its own way—that feeling of fearing an antagonist and then finding a friend, instead.

“All right,” I confessed. “I keep thinking that reacting to the dreams is weak.

“Of course not,” he said. “You saw The Iron Bull when we met with Cole, for instance. I have played enough chess with him to know that he has formidable mental defenses. And yet he, too, has been affected. We cannot help but react emotionally on some level to this. It’s why the attacks pose such a formidable threat.”

“Then… truth,” I said. “So… I’m not always fine. It’s been challenging.”

“Since the loss of your clan, in fact?”

“I guess,” I said, surprised. I remembered my conversation in the garden with Mother Giselle.

“What is it?” he asked. He stood very straight and still in the torchlight, his face as open and warm and listening as I had ever seen it. So I answered honestly, even though I knew he wouldn’t like everything I was about to confess.

“Sleep’s never been easy in the best of times here for me,” I said. “Because it’s all on me. Don’t you see? One wrong step and it’s all over, thanks to me, the Dalish on the pedestal… Or the gallows, because half the time I’m still simply waiting for the drop. One more mistake. But it won’t just be me who pays, but everyone I’m trying to save. Just like my clan paid. Or the people of Haven. Or Chalcedy. Or our soldiers.”

“It’s war,” he said, with the barest implied cool shrug. “People die. You will have to become accustomed to such losses.”

“Or we find someone better,” I said. “To echo Cass... What does my leadership matter if I’m not willing to give it up? And I am. Especially if I’m not the right choice to lead us. Maybe it’s a question we need to be asking.”

He met my eyes in that sudden, quiet blaze of intensity I was becoming used to. “You are only willing to give it up because you never wanted it to begin with.”

I blinked, a little taken aback. “I’m trying to be honest.”

“No,” he said brutally. “You’re trying to get rid of a responsibility you never wanted in the first place.”

I felt myself go warm with something that felt like shame, and I turned away from him. I found myself looking at the mural with the dark tower at its center, the howling wolves at its borders.

He had stepped closer, and his voice was soft. “Lethallan… you have to make this right with yourself. This is no longer temporary. You are the Inquisitor.”

I turned back, slightly ashamed of my hesitance. “Even if I don’t want it.”

“Whether you want the responsibility is irrelevant,” he said. “It must remain that way.”

I shook my head. “Do you want to know my latest dream? I tried to grab a nap earlier. And fell instantly into a hellscape where we had failed. Like the Conclave. But multiplied by thousands. Everyone was dead… all over again. Not just the Conclave, or my clan, or Chalcedy or Haven… It was Skyhold. The Inquisition. And then I watched as all of Thedas went dark. And it was my fault.”

“It was a dream,” he said. “Insubstantial and unreal.”

“It’s funny that you of all people would say a dream is unreal!” I pointed out.

He ignored me and continued onward. “It is merely another attack, as with a weapon, an arrow, a sword. Something you must learn to evade, to defend your mind against. Something sent by a malevolent presence seeking to undermine your belief in yourself.”

“Well, it’s working,” I answered. “Besides—it may even be right. Beyond the Mark, there is no real reason for me to have a seat at this table at all, much less a leadership role. I’m just an accident of time and place, after all. It could have happened to anyone.”

“Nonsense,” he said. “You have already shown yourself to be far more than an accident of time and place.”

“Oof.” I made a frustrated noise. Cassandra would have been proud.

“You have earned your position here on your own,” he added, smiling at my frustration. “And the vast majority of the time I think you’re doing exactly what needs to be done. Do I always agree? No. But you are sometimes more willing to trust to others than I, and perhaps your trust will be rewarded. Or so I hope.”

I stared at him, confused. “You can’t actually think that. It’s impossible. You’re being nice.”

“I do think that. And I am rarely nice,” he said, and that hint of wickedness was very much present. “As I would think you would know by now.”

“That’s true. You’re not…”

“Nice?” His eyes glinted with definite mischief, and I flushed in spite of myself.

“You aren’t nice,” I admitted. “Thankfully. Not in the sense that you spare my feelings. I respect that. I have to. Meanwhile, I want your opinion. If there are things I can improve, things I can do better… I’ll do them.”

“Eliaden, I do not think I have the answers you seek,” he said in a quiet voice. “I wish I did.” I met his eyes; he so rarely used my name, and the intimacy disarmed me. His eyes were dark and steady, and I was finding it suddenly hard to remember how to breathe properly. Then, almost at the same time, we both looked away, awkward and strangely shy. And yet, even now, I could feel us leaning toward one another... pulled as if by an invisible thread. Then stopping. Remaining separate. As if we could not bring ourselves to close the gap. He stepped away again, slightly, back toward the latest painting as I remained poised in the center of the room.

Then one of the torches guttered, and the room became momentarily darker. I jumped a little. Suddenly, Skyhold felt fragile. Small and precious and lonely, like it looked in his latest panel. Like a tiny spark in a Thedas that was fast becoming a wasteland.

“Solas, people are dying,” I said into the silence. “Dying every day. And yes, I question myself. Because I’m failing. For each village we save, another goes dark. For every life we save, another is lost. So when you look at it that way, the respect and luxury, the worship I get… it’s grotesque.”

“Those same people would die if anyone else were standing where you stand,” he said imperiously. “Perhaps many more, in fact.”

“That’s an easy answer,” I said bitterly. “Too easy.”

Lethallan, I do not give easy answers,” said Solas. “And I do not deal in platitudes. Surely you know that about me by now.”

“The people of Chalcedy might disagree.” I’d kept thinking about it. A town I’d never heard of before three months past. And now, that was a name only… a village that no longer existed at all. Like Haven.

“The people of Chalcedy owe their deaths to the darkness, not to you. The Inquisition did its best to save them,” he said gently. “You have done all, in fact, that anyone could have done.”

“You believe that?” I asked, and I was embarrassed to hear the shakiness in my voice.

“Truly,” he replied softly. As if he knew his answer, and his respect, were gifts I badly needed. “Believe it.”

“That’s… Thank you.” I glanced down in relief, suddenly realizing I was trembling, heart racing. I was just… so tired. I reached out for his desk to steady myself, inches away—only to realize that I was just a little farther away than I’d expected. The ground felt suddenly soft, unreliable.

Yet even as I reached out for the desk, I instead found Solas next to me, and close, his face narrow and concerned. I hadn’t even noticed his approach. He took my arm, steadying me.

“Wait…” I pulled away, and tried to shake my head to clear it. “Wait, give me a minute. I just… I was going to say something. And it was probably really good.”

“I know,” he said quietly. “But you’re tired.” He put a strong arm around my shoulders. “So for now, come, let’s sit.”

“Wait, I… just…” I felt vague, not entirely myself. I half-turned back again, clumsily, for the desk, as if it were some essential yet impossible touchstone, but he steered me away smoothly and calmly.

“No,” he said quietly. “No arguments, just come.”

 

Chapter Text

Solas gently walked me over to the couch in a nearby alcove even as I was automatically thinking up more of my usual arguments. Then I suddenly discovered that I was too tired to argue. Besides, he was right. I followed.

As I went with him, I found myself momentarily distracted by how near he was. He was only slightly taller than I; he didn’t tower, like Bull, yet like Bull (albeit in an entirely different way) he smelled wonderful; in Solas’s case, like pine needles, musk, candle smoke and paint. I blinked the sleep from my eyes, and when I opened them, we were standing before his dauntingly immaculate golden couch.

I stared at it, not entirely sure I would be capable of actually relaxing there. “Um,” I said. “Does anyone ever actually sit here?”

“Do not be silly.”

“It was a perfectly good question!”

He actually smiled at this, briefly, then sobered. “Nonsense,” he said. “Please. Sit for a moment. You are tired out. You need sleep.”

And then I was seated and safe, facing him, and he was looking at me with slightly more than mild concern.

“All right,” I said. “Thank you.” I hugged myself, embarrassed by my weakness yet disarmed by the homely reference to being ‘tired out,’ unsure of how to react to this sudden gentleness and closeness. As always, Solas defied expectations. He was inherently mercurial, constantly shifting somehow so that I could never predict him. However, the couch was certainly surprisingly comfortable despite its golden untouchable perfection.

I took a few deep breaths and the world seemed to come back into focus. Then I slapped my hands lightly against my face, forcing myself to clarity and awakeness. Solas looked irritated but amused (the two expressions I’d begun to realize that he wore regularly when around me), then shook his head.

“You should rest!” he said. “Not torture yourself back to wakefulness.”

“No… Thanks. I’m much better,” I said. “And I will try to sleep soon, I promise. But…”

“Of course,” he said ruefully. “What now?”

“But nothing. Only… I don’t suppose you have anything to drink?” I asked. “I saw Varric at the tavern a little while ago, and all they had was possibly the worst cup of ale in all of Thedas.”

He grinned unexpectedly, and his narrow face became young and mischievous. “Ah. Half a moment!” he said, and went off to one of the rotunda’s odd little nooks and alcoves, returning within seconds with a dusty bottle and two pale teacups the color of bone. It was a very dusty bottle indeed, so I found myself hoping for good things within its depths. The greater the dust, in my limited experience, the better the wine.

“As you can see, as a matter of fact, I do.” He pulled the small, light table next to his side of the couch forward before us slightly, then set the teacups there. He sat down beside me and opened the bottle adroitly with a twist of a dagger produced from his belt, only pausing to throw me a questioning look as I laughed again.

“Wine,” I said. “In teacups. Forget Josie, Solas. Vivienne would die.”

He smiled again, then winced slightly in spite of himself. “I know. And, it’s ironic, actually, as I cannot abide tea. But goblets are still surprisingly scarce at Skyhold. You can imagine Josephine’s exacting standards when it comes to selecting the proper tableware.”

“So that’s why you won’t drink the elfroot teas I make at camp,” I said.

Lethallan,” he paused and looked directly at me, somehow imperious and regretful at the same time. “Honesty compels me to admit to you that your elfroot teas are, in a single and somewhat unfortunate word, repellent.”

“Ouch,” I said, and he actually smirked. “They’re not so bad.”

“They are,” he said in mock sorrow. “Believe me when I say that the tainted dregs from the Void would taste less foul.”

“They’re just potions!” I protested.

He shook his head, still teasing me subtly. “Now, come, Inquisitor. You have many useful skills. Potion-making is, alas, not among them.”

“They aren’t supposed to taste good,” I argued. “I could add other things—honey, maybe. But it’s not about taste. They’re supposed to heal you.”

“I shall stick to my own methods,” he said. “Toasting and then grinding the elfroot is just as beneficial, and far less bitter.”

I was struck by the mental image of what Vivienne, Bull or Varric would say if I walked along our travels openly chewing grasses and assorted herbs, and laughed out loud. “I’ll have to try that,” I said.

“Or not,” he said pointedly, with another subtle glimmer of humor. Dammit. Mind-reader.

“Or not,” I agreed. “I’m just glad you don’t have the same feelings about wine.”

“Not at all,” he said, as he handed me a cup. I took a sip gratefully. Then a deeper one, delighted, trying not to gulp it like the backwoods heathen I was. Dalish wine had been a rarity for me growing up, and I’d never liked it much, as it was often sweet and syrupy. My past year or so with the Inquisition, however, had taught me a little more about wine, and I had managed to develop a taste for it.

But this was something else. The wine wasn’t just unexpectedly good, rich and complex, as dark in color as the crimson of deepest heart’s blood. It was glorious. It was velvet and smoke and sweetness made liquid.

“Sorry,” I said, laughing at him over the surface of the cup. “Please stop me if I start inhaling it. It’s just… it’s lovely.”

He gave me another half-smile at my surprise. “It’s good, isn’t it?” he asked. “I thought you would like this one. I don’t open them often, but Josephine sends me down a few every week or so.”

I looked at the dusty bottle, a little puzzled as the thought occurred to me. “She must have sent this one down a very long time ago.”

There was another slight change in his face at this—another one of those quiet indefinable moments of humor, almost sly, that sometimes eluded me with Solas. Something private. “There was dust everywhere in those first few months of restoration,” he said, shrugging. “Meanwhile, they are appreciated. I think it is Josephine’s attempt at appeasement for all of the noble visitors she parades through here as she entertains them with their obligatory tours of Skyhold. As a result, I now have a surprisingly fine cellar of superb Tevinter, Antivan and Orlesian vintages.”

“But you don’t drink them?” I asked.

“Not often,” he said. “I am watchful of such indulgences, few as they are.”

“Well,” I said, “this one’s wonderful. Even for Skyhold, this is something else. Thank you.”

“Good,” he said, and that soft approachability was back in his face. Almost a tenderness. “And perhaps this will even help you sleep.”

I paused, finding myself unexpectedly shy. “Thank you—for this.” I looked up to find him puzzled, as always. “We’re so often at odds, you and I… I don’t want to be.”

Solas sipped at his own wine, thinking, then looked back at me, genuinely puzzled. “How are we at odds?” he asked.

“We argue frequently. Don’t you think? We don’t often… agree…”

“But I just told you mere moments ago that I do agree with you more often than you think,” he replied.

I laughed. “It doesn’t always feel that way.”

“I suppose not.” He smiled, another full one that genuinely reached his eyes. Again, I was struck by how young he looked when he did so, and I found myself wondering exactly how old he was. His face was ageless, and with its long, elegant planes, he could be anywhere from 35 to 50. I knew I would never bring myself to ask.

He clinked his cup to mine, and I grinned in spite of myself. And there it was, another of those unexpected moments I prized between us—an easy and comfortable silence. A gift. I let my eyes wander from him to the room again, sipping the wine and simply enjoying the feeling of turning my brain off for a few minutes.

“You’re very good at it,” I said, gesturing at the walls around us.

“At what?” he asked playfully. “Wine? Arguments? Frescoes?”

“All of the above, I guess,” I said. “Although yes, I was specifically thinking of the paintings. But, well, more than that,” I said. “You’ve made this place your own.”

He looked away from me, frowning as he looked up at the room around us. “I suppose it’s natural to me,” he said. “I’ve traveled so much, and so often, I’ve become adept at settling in quickly wherever I need to be.”

“I wish I could,” I admitted. “I’m terrible at it. I can barely stand my own quarters.” I sighed. “Even before the nightmares, I’d honestly rather go nap in the library.”

“Or walk the battlements at night,” he said. I met his eye, surprised.

“Yes,” I said, oddly self-conscious. “Sometimes.”

“A bit more than sometimes,” he said dryly. “There are few secrets when it comes to life in a castle, and I believe the soldiers have noticed your nightly walkabouts. Although I do understand that your quarters are… formidable.”

“But they’re awful,” I admitted. “Everything’s… um…”

“What?”

“It’s all covered in gold,” I said miserably. “Orlesian, I think. Thanks to Josie. And Viv.”

“Really?” He asked. There was once again that spark of mischief in his face, a roguish sharpening of chin and cheekbone. “Everything?”

“Yes,” I admitted. “And I do mean everything. It happened after, um…”

“Yes?” he obviously knew the story, but was waiting to hear if I’d share it.

“Fine,” I said. I could feel myself turning red. “I may have destroyed my rooms. A little. When my clan died.”

He chuckled. “Oh, yes, Inquisitor. I heard about that. Your battle with Bull. What happened?”

I caught my breath, then realized, glumly, that I was most definitely sparking the tiniest bit. I quieted them, and looked back at Solas. "He came to get me, and I hadn't wanted to come down to the tavern," I explained. "I sort of ended up sparring with him over it."

Again, the slight hint of mischief, but with something more serious underneath. "And who won?"

"Bull," I admitted. "Who do you think?"

A slightly weighted pause. "I've meant to ask," he said. "About you and The Iron Bull."

"We're friends," I said, meeting his eyes directly. "He's been a good captain and companion to me."

"I see," he said. "On a few occasions, perhaps, I'd thought..."

"No," I said, and gave him a brief, open shrug. "We flirted a little, once or twice, not long after we reached Skyhold. But that was it—friendship was the right outcome."

"You trust him then?" he asked slowly. "Even in the face of his continued loyalty to the Qun?"

"It's a fair question," I said. I sipped my wine and thought for a moment. "Yes, I do," I said at last. "I think he's loyal to us."

"I am not quite so optimistic when it comes to the Qun," he answered. "But I hope you are proven correct."

"We'll see," I said. "Meanwhile, he's almost certainly breaking half a dozen hearts at the Herald's Rest even as we speak."

"One would assume so," he said, and I laughed a little in return. But his expression had lightened, and I felt secretly pleased at what it told me.

"Anyway, we sparred for awhile and destroyed my room,” I said. "And—"

"Fire spells?" asked Solas, interrupting.

"Mostly lightning and Stonefist," I admitted. "I didn't want to actually hurt him, after all (although gods below, I wish I had your talent for barriers). Then I did eventually give up and go with him down to the tavern."

He drew breath to speak, then, but hesitated instead, as if unsure of himself. When he spoke, it was with more awkwardness than I was used to from him. "You must forgive my absence then," he said. "I am more at my ease here."

"I know," I said. "And I knew it at the time. And I appreciated your coming to talk to me the way you did." He looked a little cheered by this, sipped at his wine, and I went on. "However, despite destroying pretty much everything in it besides the bed and desk, within twenty-four hours, my room was perfectly clean, and within a week, everything in it had been replaced. Only now it was all gold. I mean, even more gold than before.”

“Floors? Chairs? Candlesticks?”

“Floors, chairs, candlesticks, cabinets,” I assented. “And the rugs, drapes, tapestries, bed hangings, and pillows.”

“Toothbrush?” he asked. “Chamber-pot?”

Everything,” I nodded, teasing him back. “Believe me. It’s awful. I’m surprised they didn’t requisition this couch. It would have fit in perfectly.” I sipped some more of the amazing wine as he considered a golden toothbrush or chamber-pot, then seemed to shrug it away as yet another example of the strangeness of life at Skyhold.

“Ah, well. You’ll get used to your quarters,” he said, shrugging. “To all of it. Far more quickly than you might expect.”

“Wait, what happened to the sympathy?” I demanded.

“Sympathy!” he said, amused. “For luxuries! You can’t be serious.”

“You could fit half my village into those quarters.” And suddenly I found that I was no longer joking, but sad, and it was like swimming unexpectedly into chilly water. “Or you could have, once…”

“No matter.” His voice was cool, commanding and royal. Unapologetic. “You must acclimate, as I mentioned before. Simply require it of yourself. Ultimately, it is just a room, like any other.”

“I do try,” I said. “I’m just not used to it.”

“You are not used to leading the equivalent of a world political power either, and yet you have shown yourself able to do so,” he said bluntly. Up went the eyebrow again. “In fact, for some time now, Inquisitor, I’ve wondered if you’re not actually simply afraid to admit you might actually be good at it.”

“Well,” I said slowly.

“Yes, lethallan?” A definite slight and enjoyable maliciousness there, along with the familiar spark of combat.

“Possibly,” I felt myself turning colors again for a variety of reasons, not least because I was realizing that I really enjoyed Solas when he decided to be just a little bit wicked. “Some parts.”

“That would change everything, wouldn’t it?” he asked.

“Fine. Stalemate,” I said, grinning in spite of myself. “I was just making a comment. About how much I hate my stupid quarters.”

“I know,” he said. “I do. But, if you will take my advice, you must accept them. Showing that kind of weakness can be dangerous.”

“Why?” I poured a little more wine into the cup and then mentally congratulated myself when I didn’t spill it all over him or me. (My standards for etiquette were not high at the best of times.) “You sound like Leliana or Viv,” I said. “Like it’s all a game.” I took breath. “None of this should be a game.”

“I understand that,” he admitted. Then he paused. “But they’re not entirely wrong.”

“How?”

“Because,” he said. “Take this reluctance to sleep in your quarters. I am quite sure it has already been a matter of quiet concern for Josephine or Leliana.”

I stared at him, openly puzzled. “Why in Thedas would they care whether or not I sleep in my quarters?”

“Think,” he said roughly. “You’re expressing something public. You’re showing the rest of the world that you very clearly do not feel at ease in your role as Inquisitor. And that’s dangerous.”

“But of course I don’t. It feels like a lie,” I said, frustrated. “How can it not?”

“You’ll have to find a different way to deal with it,” he said, and it wasn't a suggestion but a command. “A way that is less self-indulgent. You know you are strong enough to do so.”

I opened my mouth to respond, then shut it again, and he laughed softly.

“You must be weary, lethallan,” he said. “I am not used to such silence when I debate with you.”

“Let’s stop debating,” I said. “I mean… Solas, aren’t you tired?”

“Then what do you propose?”

I looked at him steadily. “You could tell me how you got that scar on your forehead,” I said. “Or you could give me another lesson in proximity.”

It wasn’t world-class flirting. But at least it wasn’t “Do you like toast?”

The barest hint of a knowing smile, almost predatory. “Perhaps I could,” he answered. He set down his cup. 

We were so close. I found myself noticing again the delicate freckles across the bridge of his nose. The hollow of his cheekbone. The dimple in his chin. The shape of his mouth, which was beautiful but also set, as if determined to keep secrets. An impassioned Solas was still a rare experience for me, and once again, as before, I found myself distracted and charmed. And even as I thought this, right at that moment, he turned back to me and his eyes met mine, darkening as he caught me looking. As I looked back, my heart stopped for a split second, plummeting, and we leaned wordlessly toward one another.

Then from far above us came the frantic rustle of wings from the Rookery, even through the barriers, and the spell was broken. He pulled back, even as I mentally ran through every elven curse word in my repertoire.

“Well,” he said into the silence, meeting my eye with amusement. Mind-reading again.

“I hate those ravens,” I said, exasperated, and his mouth quirked in another half-smile.

More faint fluttering from above us. The ravens were now obviously targeting me on a personal level.

Then I found myself stifling a yawn and gave up. I still wanted to kiss him, but I wanted sleep even more than that. I carefully set down my cup on the table beside us (with exaggerated carefulness, as if I would break it with a thought). The cup clinked and teetered, and I felt Solas’s calm hand steadying it. He set it slightly away from us even as I struggled for clarity. Suddenly, with no warning, and for another brief and horrifying instant I felt that softness below us, that abyss of nothing but emptiness, as if the floor of the Rotunda were nothing more than a pit.

“Eliaden, hamin.”

I’d meant to flirt a little more, in spite of my tiredness. Instead the floor shifted, the shadows crept, and I found myself terrified beyond words. “I don’t,” I managed. “I don’t want to, Solas.”

“Why?”

I leaned forward, my arms around my middle, my breathing gone harsh. “They’re there, waiting. I can’t.

He touched me then, finally, his cool hand to my cheek. “Listen to me now. Listen,” he said. “What if I told you that you can sleep safely here?” His voice was raw, worried, but also instantly soothing, and as always low and beautiful. “You know that I am skilled at Barriers, and that applies both inside and outside the Fade. I can protect you.”

I blinked at him in surprise. “You—you could truly do that?”

“Yes,” he said. “The question is, would you let me?”

I hesitated in spite of myself, caught between an instant yearning that was side by side with an immediate anxiety of a different sort. “It would mean… that you’d be in my mind?”

“In a manner of speaking,” he said.

I thought about it, then realized how late it must be. The Keep was silent (even the ravens, for the moment), and the little ordinary sounds of the nighttime beyond us were even further muffled beneath his barriers. The only immediate sounds were the crackle of the nearby torches and our breathing.

He saw my uncertainty, and spoke quietly. “I know it is an uncomfortable idea. However, you would be able to control what I have access to,” he said.

“Meaning, some doors would remain shut if I wanted them to?” I asked.

He nodded. “Precisely.”

I shut my eyes for a moment and tried to envision it. And of course, every image I wouldn’t want seen, every nightmare, thought or memory I’d want to lock away, was instantly present. And there were so many! I remembered what Cole had said. Even with a few locked doors, the inner me was still a pretty tangled mess, and I just wasn’t sure I was ready to let anyone else rummage around in there. Least of all Solas.

Then I remembered the nightmares and shivered.  I opened my eyes again, abruptly, only to realize that I was looking directly at his latest mural again, the one of the darkness seeping beneath the Fade... and creeping toward Skyhold.

"All right,” I found myself saying, not taking my eyes from that darkness. “I will.”

“You will?” he asked. He sounded as surprised as I was.

“Yes,” I said, and nodded at him, if a little shakily. Gods below. What was I getting myself into?

His brows drew together in a slight frown. "Although perhaps we should discuss this another time," he said. "There is the matter of the wine."

I laughed out loud in spite of myself. "Solas, I appreciate that," I said. "But I've had two half-cups of wine. I promise you that I am still very much in my right mind."

"All right," he said.

I was learning to read him well enough, however, that I could still see him judging and analyzing so I looked at him mischievously. "Although I wouldn't mind a little more if I have to get used to the idea of letting you inside my thoughts," I said. Then my stomach flip-flopped in real nervousness as the reality of it hit me. I felt more than a little apprehensive.

“Do not be nervous,” he said. The ghost of the smile was back. "You can trust me."

“Easy for you to say," I answered. "You don't know what a mess it is in here." I allowed myself to lean back and shut my eyes for a moment. Only for a moment. At least we were easy with one another again; I hated feeling his frustration or worry. “You know, I may have been unfair to this couch,” I added. “It’s more comfortable than it looks. It can’t help that it’s gold. It’s very nice in spite of that.”

Rest,” he said gently, again. “You should rest.”

“I will,” I said, the lure of sleep stronger than ever beneath that voice. But I could feel the potential nightmares tugging, and shrank, still, from the idea of sleep. I shook myself awake yet again. “Just not quite yet.”

He sighed. “You do not make things easy.”

“You wouldn’t want me to,” I said confidently, and he laughed under his breath.

“True,” he said. Then he sobered. “All right,” he said, and his voice was firm, as if he had come to some decision. “Then let us at least address something else. Show me where you escape to.”

“Where I—?”

“Yes,” he said. “When you walk the heights of Skyhold at night.”

“All right,” I said. I took a deep breath, then stood. “Let’s go.”

 

Chapter Text

We were standing on the battlements, in one of my favorite high places, a narrow open corner that was shielded from the wind and yet accessible, homely. There was only me, Solas, the air, the mountains, and the stars. As was common up here now and then, there was no one else visibly about; the few soldiers manning the heights were most likely huddled by the fires in their guardrooms.

So here we were… alone, and tentative. Not quite shy, just still careful with one another, somehow.

The wind was high, but it was not quite as cold as it ordinarily was lately, and I was grateful. Nevertheless, it strengthened me as it almost always did, and I felt sharply, keenly awake.

“This is where you come?” he asked. “When you cannot sleep?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s empty and quiet here. Even quieter now.”

“It is indeed,” he said. He turned on his heel, looking at the glimmer of the white peaks around us in the darkness. I raised my face upward to the stars. They glowed, white and shimmering, against the warm black velvet of the night sky, more clear and bright than I’d ever seen them. And as I looked, I noticed again the sheer variety of them, how they were not all simple spangles of pure white fire, but that they were in fact burning in subtle flames of blue, crimson, and gold—even more brightly than they had done the night before. A net of jewels suspended against the void, and behind them the even more distant stars—the purple mists of farther reaches still. I’d never seen so many stars at once, both near and far, and in the brightest there was a tremulous rhythm visible, almost a heartbeat, delicate yet determined, a sense of distant whirling movement, as if they were alive. I laughed.

“Look at the stars!” I said. “I’ve never seen them like this before. Never so many or so clearly, and the colors are so bright! Like mage spells.”

“They are lovely,” he admitted. When I looked at him, however, I realized he was looking at me, and not at the stars at all.

I warmed in spite of the chill. Suddenly I was tired of waiting, tired of the distance between us.

I went over to him. I felt euphoric and powerful. I wanted to play with him, to draw him out, to make him admit softness.

“On a night like this, you can see why I would come up here,” I said, teasing. “I’m tempted to bring up an actual bed. I could get the soldiers to move one up here. Then I could just lie down and look up. I wouldn’t even need to sleep!”

He was silent for a moment, and I looked back from the glory of the sky to find him frowning.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I understand why you come here, lethallan,” he said. “However, as I said before, you must not continue such self-indulgences.”

His quiet assurance that he was right irritated me, suddenly. “Why not?” I asked. “We have to meet these attacks in whatever ways we can. Just as you do in the Fade. So yes, I come up here, and I look at the stars, I take a breath…”

“But it’s more than that,” he said dryly.

“Yes, maybe,” I said, frustrated. “Fine. I try not to think about what I could have changed, should have changed… what I should have done.”

“Even though that is all you are actually doing?” he asked. “How in fact does this help? You, or them?”

I stared at him, stricken. “I—I don’t know.”

“I think you do,” he said slowly, and as he spoke, he approached me, and the movement caught me off guard. There was something graceful and yet predatory there—not menacing, but watchful. Absolutely uncompromising. I backed away a few steps in spite of myself, and he stopped, his eyes still clear and very steady on mine.

“Well?”

“It does help, because—” I began, but then the realization hit me at the same time I spoke. That I was lying.

He watched it hit me, the realization. We stared at one another, and I was grateful that his face was not smug or victorious, just subtly compassionate.

“You’re right,” I said. My voice didn’t sound entirely like mine.

He nodded, slowly. In answer, his voice was somehow two things at once—compassionate, and cool, cutting steel. “Listen to me, Eliaden. You cannot keep punishing yourself this way. You have been doing so since the loss of your clan. And you will not survive it.”

“My people are dead,” I said. "All of them."

“Mine as well.”

I stopped abruptly, meeting his eyes. “Really?”

“Yes.” His face was calm, but somehow I could feel the effort it cost him to remain so.

“Solas. Who—who were they?”

“Just lost,” he said. His mouth tightened. “Like yours. The details do not matter.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. Any other person, I would have embraced instantly.  Not Solas. He was, of course, good at barriers. Damn it.

Serannasan Ma,” he said.

Ara melava son’ganem,” I said. I was gratified that the words, the language, hit him and seemed to reawaken that warm Solas I’d wanted to reach. Not the cold noble above the fray but the man of flesh and blood before me, who’d tried too hard and lost. His eyes found mine, in a full silent heartbeat of anguish and shared pain, hiding nothing. It was like the moment in the tavern the day before, when I’d seen the inner hell of my own visions, and he’d tried to comfort me with just his eyes. Now our positions were reversed, and I felt helpless at how little I could offer him in the way of comfort.

He sighed, almost reluctantly. “Regardless. The losses do not matter—and we cannot allow them to.”

“Yes, they do,” I replied. “They have to. Thousands in Thedas suffer every moment. Thousands more are dead, for no better reason than they were in the wrong place at the terribly wrong time. We can’t fail them. If I can’t bring back my clan, at least I can make sure their deaths mattered.”

He took breath to speak, then shook his head, looking once more out to the pale beauty of the far-off mountains, their snowy peaks glinting beneath the old moon. 

"Solas..." I said.

He faced me again, and came forward near enough to touch. As always, he confused me because there was so much tenderness alongside the frustration.

“Go ahead and say it,” he said. “Whatever it is you wish to say.”

“All right,” I said slowly. “Solas... Isn’t it possible that your paintings, your frescoes, are your version of running to the battlements? Maybe I’m not the only one avoiding sleep.”

“I sleep, when I need to, and well enough,” he replied. “Because I have let them go. At least, for now.”

“I wish I could,” I admitted. “You make it sound so easy.”

“You will,” he said quietly. “You’ll have to.”

Another silence, both awkward and yet intimate, as so many were with Solas. But I was becoming used to them by now. I raised my gaze up to the sky and stars, glorying in the wind and silence, then looked back to Solas to find his eyes upon me again.

“Inquisitor, let me ask you… your people,” he said.

“Yes?”

His voice was quiet, yet tensile, hard as steel. “If you could bring them back… tell me, would you do it?”

“In a heartbeat,” I said. I found that my fists were clenched, and tried to relax. And found I couldn't. A split second, and they were gone... my people... all over again. I yelled at myself inwardly but still, it was as if I'd seen demons ahead and now was the time to prepare for the attack. I'd reacted physically, scared and angry all over again.

Solas paused. Then he reached out a hand and put it gently over mine. A silence in which we both simply stood in the cold air, under the brilliant stars, and breathed. I took a deep breath, and relaxed my fist beneath the caress. He took my hand quietly in his.

When he did this, it was like an acceptance of something we hadn't spoken of, this thing between us... but now it was real, tangible. His skin and mine. We were together in this. And I agreed. I never even questioned it. It was simply the next step.

And we both knew it. 

I was trembling, just a little, at the realization. Solas, predictably, was not. He continued after a moment, and his voice was quiet. “I promise that I do not mock you by asking this, lethallan.”

“All right.” I forced myself to breathe slowly, and curled my fingers around his, grateful for the outreach. I was confused; happy for his attention and vulnerability, yet angry at myself for the display of such obvious tension. 

“But… would you bring them back?” he continued. “Even if it meant sacrificing yourself?”

“Of course.”

He hesitated. “Is there any limit to what you would not do, in that scenario?”

“I don’t know,” I said slowly. “I can only pay with my life once, after all.”

“What about the lives of others?”

“Innocent others?” I asked.

“Perhaps.” He sighed. “Yes. Undoubtedly.”

“No,” I said, recoiling. I pulled away from him without even knowing I would do so. “Of course not,” I said, half-angry. “In that case, the dead can stay dead.”

“I suppose so.” But his face betrayed a slight disappointment, and I sighed.

“Don’t you see? It’s bad enough I’m paying for lives lost already,” I said quietly. “How could I possibly accept additional innocent lives in trade for those already at peace?”

“I see.” His face gave away nothing. He simply looked at me, composed and calm, as always.

I shook my head, frustrated. “But you don’t. And as I cannot do that,” I continued, “Any of it, and as I cannot bring them back, and as my life or death does nothing to change that, I leave the magnificent horrible bed that I am still alive to sleep in and yet do not deserve, and I come up here to this stupid place of silence and–and–oh damn it all…” I was suddenly near tears.

“It’s all right,” he said quietly. “I should not have been so insistent.”

“I would do anything to bring them back,” I said, and the tears came again. For the first time in what felt like forever, I just wasn’t strong enough to stop them. I was too tired. Just too fucking tired. Better just to cry it out. Even with Solas here, embarrassing as that might be. “Anything, except—except hurting someone else to do so.”

Solas’s face was visibly stricken, and he came closer. “Venavis,” he said gently. “Ir abelas. Stop torturing yourself.”

I sighed, defeated, turning back to him. “Damn it all,” I whispered. He bent his head to hear me and was now very close. I could feel his breath warm upon my cheek. “I’m tired,” I admitted. “Everything’s a battle with you and me, and I don’t want that. I’m just… tired of fighting.”

“Perhaps it is not me you fight against,” he said, “But yourself.”

And before I could answer, he was kissing me, his lips soft and insistent and warm. I made a small sound of surprise, and we both went very still for a split second, the wind whirling around us in the night air, as if time itself had stopped. Then he kissed me again, and I was struck motionless and dumb with fire and desire and wanting, my heartbeat thundering in my ears and my skin warm, prickling with magic. I gave myself over to it, kissing him back, first hesitantly, and then with increasing urgency, ignoring the momentary tiny scatterings of the sparks from my hair and fingertips. And even as I did so, he laughed against the kiss as if in surprise or pleasure and his arms went round me, a bittersweet moment, unexpected and lovely.

Several seconds followed, of breathless exploration and heat. Mouths and tongues and touches and an utter lack of distance. I was no longer even remotely cold.

Then he pulled back slightly, a flicker of humor in his eyes. “It seems our lessons were not entirely successful,” he teased.

“Not entirely,” I admitted, smiling back at him, reveling in the chance to be so open, to tell him things with my words as well as with my eyes. His were open very wide, and very soft. But still the tiniest bit wicked.

“What was that about curses?” he asked. More wickedness. “May you learn?”

The air around me went volcanic, and his eyes flashed. I knew I’d gone crimson and yet… no matter. I could match that, and did: “So teach me, then, hahren.”

In answer, his mouth met mine again, his lips gentle yet firm and insistent, and it was better than the wine, better than I’d imagined it might be. So much I'd wanted, so many times, and right here. For this moment only, through some moment of grace, we had closed the gap and were no longer opposed and wordless, yearning.

Until I felt him draw breath, and pull away, even as I leaned forward to continue it, to prolong that connection for as long as possible. For a moment, he paused, hesitating, still caught in the kiss. Then he ended it first. As I’d known he would.

“Wait,” he said. His hands were on my shoulders, holding me at arms’ length, but gently. “Wait.” Now he, too, was flushed, both of us breathing a little fast. I didn’t move. And I didn’t want to.

“Don’t,” I pleaded. “Don’t start thinking, Solas…”

His eyes flickered darkly to mine and for a moment only, there was a hesitance, a hint of eager strangeness to his expression. As if there was something he wanted to say, but that he wasn’t sure of exactly how to say it.

“You’re doing it again,” I said. “Thinking. Take it from me, it’s overrated.”

His expression softened further, and that slight hint of mischief was back in his face. “Da’mis,” he said. “You are impossible,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said, laughing back, secure in my power in this moment. “I’ll take it as a compliment.”

 “It is,” he said. “However…”

“Don’t,” I pleaded. “Don’t, Solas. Don’t.”

And before he could say more, I stepped forward again, bravely, right into his arms. I felt him freeze, uncertainly, caught between caution and yearning. It was oddly touching; I knew he wanted me, just as I wanted him. There was no hesitation in me at all on that fact. And yet he fought it.

Then, after a pause, and almost in spite of himself, his arms went around me again, his arm pleasing and enfolding iron at my back, and I knew I’d made the right choice.  I leaned into him, my hand at his neck and my lips at the perfect blade of his ear. “Just a moment, Solas,” I whispered. “Please. Just give me this one moment more with you here, under the stars.”

The entire sky seemed to wait with me, breathless and gorgeously suspended. Nothing else but the whirling stars and the chill winds, as if the storm within us had become something magical and external.

I brought my lips to the silky skin of his neck, and kissed him there. He drew breath, as if to speak. I whispered quietness, gentleness, release… then ran my mouth from where his jaw met his ear, to the delicate hollow of his throat, slowly, then drew back. Then all of a sudden, some barrier inside of him seemed to break. I could feel him let go and give in to it. He made a sound, a growl from low in his throat as if he were cursing under his breath, then he kissed me back. This time it was rougher, hungrier, more demanding; he led, I followed, answering eagerly even as I lost myself to it.

For a few more moments, a few more heartbeats, he allowed it… no more. Then the moment ended. Again.

He pulled back and away, abruptly.

Done.

A wall fell. Even as I drew breath in response, the air rushed back into the space between us and whoosh, like the sweep of a spell from a mage’s staff, somehow all the heat and warmth between us was gone, and I was left reaching for emptiness.  We were separate again, both warm and awkward and panting, facing each other.

“I—I apologize,” he said. “I have spent too much time alone.”

Su an’banal i’ma. Don’t you dare apologize,” I said, low. “Not for this.”

“I merely wanted…” Then he stopped, and straightened. “No,” he said. “No. You’re right. I won’t.” He shook his head, got up and went restlessly over to the other side of the parapet. As he did so, I felt the loss of his presence on a physical level. Then I suddenly felt that sense of wrongness again, of a rottenness beneath the world, and it terrified me.

“Solas?”

“Yes,” he said. He leaned forward, toward the wrongness. As he had, moments ago, leaned toward me. He evidently felt some kind of strange pull there… me, I just felt scared by it, and bereft. “Yes,” he said again. “I feel it as well. Whatever it is, it is awake again, and hungry.” He looked off, and I realized he was peering intently Northwest, just as Cole had been. I wondered if he could sense something I could not.

“I don’t see anything,” I said, frustrated.

“It is not something visible,” he admitted. “Not yet. But now that I have become aware of it, I can feel it.”

“Then turn away from it,” I demanded. “And come back to me.”

He sighed, and faced me again, composed and elegant and courteous as always. “I am still here.”

“No,” I said, inexplicably sad. “You’re fucking gone again.”

“I promise you that whatever you may think, I am very much here.”

“Liar,” I said softly, and he smiled a little, and came back over to me, close enough for me to feel the breath from his mouth and the heat from his body. I wanted so badly to reach for him again, but refrained. For now.

“I am sorry. But you must see that I acted impulsively,” he said in a quiet, slow voice I could almost visualize as designed to calm me down. “There are no safe places anymore, and this was dangerous. It was wrong of me, especially here, and you so tired.”

Fenedhis. It wasn’t wrong!” I said decisively. “Not a moment. Except for the part where you stopped.”

He surprised me with a silent laugh, and I stopped at his expression, indignant and amused.

“Wait… what do you mean by ‘especially here?’”

“Eliaden,” he said, smiling. “Mahn ele?”

“We’re on the—”

Chapter Text


“—battlements,” I said.

I sat up with a start.

I realized that I’d been lying on Solas’s golden couch, and he was sitting beside me, watching me, that glimmer of humor as well as worry also there in his expression.

“You made me sleep?” I asked, confused. I sat up and rubbed my face with my hands, curiously vulnerable to realize that he'd been watching me that way. My hair was a long, tangled tumble around me and I felt strange and off-balance. A few seconds ago I’d been kissing Solas under a cold wind and a glorious starry sky; now here I was, a sleepy, confused mess on his golden couch.

“You fell asleep,” he answered quietly. “And you were so tired; I did not have the heart to wake you. But you also seemed in need of comfort, so I… followed.”

He paused, and my heart sank. I knew the next sentence would almost certainly be frustrating or disappointing or upsetting.

“Don’t,” I said. 

He frowned slightly, his brows drawing together in puzzlement. “What?"

"Just wait.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Because this,” I said. And before he could finish, even as he tried to speak, I leaned right in and kissed him again, a fumbling, sweet moment as I caught his mouth with mine. It was a brief, charged contact that had blood and breath behind it, that was actual and impulsive and not at all dreamlike. But that was still wonderful.

Then I pulled away and had the rare pleasure of seeing Solas truly and utterly at a loss. He stared at me in such a combination of open surprise and frustration that I laughed in spite of myself, delighted that I, for once, was not the one off-guard.

“What... why did you do that?” he asked.

“I didn’t want it to be a cheat, something only in a dream,” I explained. “See, if kissing you is going to have consequences—and I’m sure, Solas, that you’re about to say something to completely destroy the moment—then at least let it be for something that actually happened...”

He laughed, then shook his head slightly. “You are the most impossible creature!” he said again, and while I was still formulating a reply, between one breath and the next, he brought his hands to my face, and kissed me roughly back.

A miracle.

It wasn’t like the Fade. It was better, warm and panting and vulnerable, all heat and realness and awkwardness. After several seconds, I felt myself falling and realized I was back against the golden couch and beneath him, and that it was exactly where I wanted to be. He deepened the kiss, and when I opened my mouth beneath his, I tasted the faint lingering sweetness of the wine on his tongue as it fleetingly met mine. Again, it was actually better than the dream-kiss had been—slower, hotter, all breathless fire and passion, and that feeling of gorgeous urgency, like magic in the blood.

When he pulled back again to look at me, we were both breathing quickly—me motionless beneath him and waiting, he once again still and controlled, at least on that inscrutable, apparently cool and composed exterior. Then I ran my hand slowly down his chest, pausing at his heart, and smiled to realize that it was beating just as fast as mine, even if his face was calm. Me, I was anything but calm. I reached for him, pulling impatiently at his tunic, and he drew back even further, that slight shadow of playful humor very much present in his eyes.

“Inquisitor," he said, amused. Then bent to give me a brief, soft kiss, just as teasing as his voice, before he pulled away. "Nothing to say?"

“I don’t want to talk,” I said.

In answer, he brought his hand to my face, and ran a delicate thumb across my lower lip. A tiny flash of blue sparks, a not-unpleasant subtle shock of electricity, and I shut my eyes, feeling hot and maddened with desire and frustrated, as always, at my transparency. I’d tried so hard to hide my feelings… and here they were nevertheless. Betraying me as always.

When I opened my eyes, he was smiling.

“And even after all of our lessons, a shower of sparks for a kiss,” he said. “One certainly has to wonder what might occur if things went further.” Caught off guard, I flushed immediately, even as he laughed softly, surprising me again. He kissed me again, harder, and I felt myself go hot, then cold, then hot again. I was suddenly very conscious of the long, warm, pressure of his body along mine. I shivered, and there was a slight crackle of blue around us. Oh, gods below. 

Solas pulled away for a moment, amused, his face mischievous and then unexpectedly soft, as if what he saw in my own moved him. Then his eyes darkened and he bent and kissed me again, and yet that kiss, still, was a tease, a slow, delicate taunting that both gave and held back. When he pulled back again, I reached for him, frustrated when he pushed my hands gently away.

“Patience,” he said.

“I’m not exactly good at patience,” I admitted.

“I am quite aware of this, lethallan,” he said, and even as I started to reply, he kissed me, slowly and deliberately, teasing again, his mouth both soft and hard at once. And once again I lost myself and forgot anything I’d been about to say. A silky falling into touch and emotion and magic. And I gave in. I wanted to.

Then the kiss ended. As we caught our breath, I could see him poised between wanting and caution.

And finally... caution won; I could see it happen as he mastered himself. He pulled back from me once more, and sighed.

Despite his visible reluctance, his face was cool again, and subtly resolved. I sat up, trying to straighten myself up even as I battled a strange emotional mixture of satisfaction and confusion, of desire and worry, and most of all, of fear at what he would say next.

“Eliaden, I…”

I met his eyes. “Yes?”

“I’m not sure if this is a good idea.”

“It is,” I said.

“I just—perhaps you must trust me on this,” he said roughly. “That it would be kindest not to begin at all.”

“But we did begin,” I said.

He surprised me by dropping his eyes from mine. He looked hesitant, at a loss. “Especially in light of these latest threats and dangers, I am simply not sure if…” he trailed off.

I’m sure,” I said. “Let me be sure.”

He was silent, looking around at his own frescoes as if seeking a lesson there. But when his gaze found mine again, the silent longing there broke me a little.

“Solas,” I said. “Please, please stop thinking.”

“It is easier said than done,” he admitted.

“What was that word?” I asked, meeting his eyes with mischief very much in mine.

He smiled. “Surrender.”

“Maybe I’m not the only one who needs to learn it,” I said.

He reached out and pushed my hair back from my shoulder, then touched my cheek.

“It has been a long time,” he said in a quiet voice. “I would ask you to be patient with me.”

I made a face. “Patience again.”

Another subtle decidedly wicked glint of amusement. “It has its rewards.”

Gods below. I wanted to throw myself at him once more, but I laughed instead. “So I hear.”

He sobered. “So will you give me that, then? Patience, and a little time?”

“Of course I will,” I said. “Whatever you need.”

He nodded, slowly. “Then…”

“You’ll try?” I asked.

He hesitated for the barest fraction of a second. “Yes,” he said.

I suddenly didn’t feel tired anymore, but met his eyes delightedly even as another flash of electricity crackled blue around us, along with a decent room-sized crash of thunder. The faint golden shimmer of his Barriers around us went dark, swift as an extinguished torch, golden particles falling like stars for the briefest instant around us. Solas glanced above, momentarily startled, then back to me in amusement.

“Oops,” I said, sheepish.

From far above us came a growing chorus of piercing, indignant caws and rustlings, and I realized with dismay that I’d probably disturbed most of Leliana’s ravens on the third floor. Along with, probably, everyone else on the second floor library as well.

 “Well, Inquisitor,” he said with a smile. “Whatever lies in store for us, one assumes that it will certainly not be boring.”

For once, I was too happy even to argue with him.

Chapter Text

For the next few weeks, my footsteps traced a regular pattern from my quarters, to the Undercroft, to the Rotunda, and back again, varying only now and again to visit the courtyards, the Tavern, or the new War Room.

But it was always the Rotunda that shone and drew me. And Solas.

We navigated our new intimacy carefully, and by degrees. He had agreed to dance, but it was as slow, precise and mannered as a pavane, and as varied.

Sometimes we touched. Sometimes, we did not. And yet, still, somehow, there was an unspoken eroticism to that, too. Just as in a dance at court. When you want to touch but can’t. When all you can do is look. It’s intoxicating because the next touch, the next pressure of lips or hands or body, may occur in the next beat. And all you can do is wait. It’s part of the dance, the pattern. Part of what you agree to when you step forward into the movement.

Mind you, it still wasn’t sex. But it was something.

Meanwhile, I was a bigger mess than ever, a tangle inside and out, as Cole would say, a-swirl with emotions and sparking even when people asked me my preferences simply on tea or bread or which tunic I’d chosen to wear that day. Although, to be fair, I was also getting better and better at dimming those sparks, even if I couldn’t stop them from appearing entirely.

It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced—and, granted, those experiences had been limited to a few fierce and very Dalish scenarios. Always before with lovers, I’d been the person dancing for the borders, teasing, the one capable of leaving from beginning to end. I’d been the person secure in my ability to keep love and sex exactly where I’d wanted them. I’d never been cruel or withholding (it wasn’t in my nature), but I had nevertheless felt, at least, on some level, secure in my power.

Not here. No longer.

Sometimes, I’d enter and he would see me at his threshold, paused and hesitant. In those moments, he would look up, meeting my eyes in a single dark glance, and then cross the room to me so swiftly that in seconds I would find myself against the slight, cool curve of the wall beneath his hands, warm and panting from a kiss as demanding as if I were sustenance and he were starving. We’d give in to it, at least for the moment, and it would be everything I wanted, until we were both trembling with it, and breathless, the heat blazing up in him as if he, too, were a creature of fire, the wanting and magic thrumming on my skin and answered in his. Yet, always, still he would pause, and break the moment… often teasing me as he pulled away with a slow caress of his hand from waist to hip… or with an elegant lift of an eyebrow as he cooled and withdrew into his customary reserve, and I… I was left flushed and wanting, confused and yet tantalized.

Other times, however, he was too far for me to reach, as distant as the sea I missed so deeply, and sometimes even farther, as far as the pale stars. He would be formal and separate, dispassionate and cold—as if he had never touched me at all.

And while I was becoming better at reading him day by day, I never seemed to get better at understanding how to predict his moods. I could never anticipate when he might be playful and warm, telling me tales of the marvels, peoples and moments he had seen in the Fade. Or when he might be businesslike and calm, his barriers both literal and figurative around him. There wasn’t a discernible pattern.

This didn’t anger me; I was fascinated, intrigued, and willing to be patient. I was in love.

Worst of all, I was in lust.

Even if Solas’s beautiful barriers were still in place. At least, for the moment.

However, increasingly, each time I left the glow of Solas’s little golden tower, his sanctuary, I felt a sense of loss. I realized one evening as I walked away that I had paused after closing the door behind me. And that I had always done so, because I didn’t want to leave. It was a physical thing. I wanted him so badly my hands shook with it.

But I had to tread carefully, especially since the problems of the world around us had not fallen away simply because we had found one another. If anything, the nightmare sendings were worse than ever, and even Solas himself had begun to be subtly affected by the constant pressure and menace. He was tense, somehow conflicted, and despite the visible warmth and love that blazed forth from him in the rare moments I treasured—despite the desire that was so often a tangible thing between us, that knowledge that he wanted me as much as I wanted him—I felt that our relationship danced on a blade’s edge.

And so I left him to his solitude and never turned back, even when I wanted to. Even if, with every night that passed, I wished so badly that he would come to me in my rooms, to take what solace he could. Yet as a week or two passed, I began to realize that, much as he might wish to do so, he would not.

I might offer him what he wanted, and I did, openly. But he was holding back.

And I had made a promise.

So I held to it. Which meant that we were together, but still apart. But I was stubborn. And Dalish, which meant that if I loved, and where I loved, I would do so with the steadfastness of nature herself. I was even learning patience (or a reasonable facsimile), even if I wasn’t doing so where I most wanted to, under his hands.

I could wait for him. I would wait.

Meanwhile, when I couldn’t sleep, or when nightmares woke me, I refrained from my former nightly walkabouts, remembering Solas’s observations to me, although I missed them. Standing on my balcony—even lovely as it was—just wasn’t the same, somehow. I felt hemmed in, trapped. But I kept my eyes on the peaks and stars, and stayed, knowing Solas had been right.

Then I came back in and wrote my missives, or read a little of the intrepid Knight-Captain and her many romantic adventures in Varric’s latest Swords & Shields, or made my way with more than a little shocked amusement through a few more pages of Dorian’s hilariously racier (but much more terribly written) scandalous Orlesian novel. Or I pored over the latest communications with Par Vollen—Bull had continued to share them wordlessly with us, both sides of the conversation, since the events of the late Summer. Lately, the communiques from the Qun had begun to display a slightly worrisome frustration—they kept asking what we were doing about the rifts, about Corypheus, and they didn’t seem to understand the importance of the Fade threat at all. This—I could tell when we discussed the messages—was a matter of at least some concern for Leliana. However, they were continuing to trust Bull, as far as we could tell, and so far they were abiding by the advice and reports he sent back in return. The Qun seemed very far away, and we had more important things to worry about.

If there were no more reports to read or updates to write, sometimes I’d even play my poor neglected lute (which was only slightly singed after my battle with Bull) simply so that my fingertips stayed tough, although I was so out of practice that I fumbled through the more complex pieces my mother had once taught me, and that realization of my own loss of ability stung more than I’d expected. But I played, doggedly, until my fingers hurt, and slowly, as the weeks passed, the notes began to return with more assurance.

No matter what I did, however, the time would arrive when I’d begin to feel the inexorable dull slowness and exhaustion I couldn’t push away anymore, and that moment would come that I could no longer ignore, and that all of us so avoided and dreaded, nowadays…

The moment when it was time to try to sleep.

It should have made me feel better to know that we all dreaded it, but it didn’t. It felt dark, sharp, oddly personal. Like – not an attack against Skyhold, so much as an attack against me.

Which I quickly realized was the genius of the magic.

We did our best to battle it, even as we searched for answers. I’d learned a trick from Solas, for instance, that he had shared with the other mages as well, which was that if I cast Barriers as I was falling asleep, this would sometimes seem to deflect the sending, or at least mute its power temporarily. Eventually, though, the barrier would dissolve, the nightmares would get in, and I’d awaken, heart racing, and never ever after getting as much sleep as I wanted.

But the solution worked, to a degree. Mages who were friends or lovers would also assist one another in shifts, casting and recasting the Barriers to achieve at least a few hours of rest for the sleepers around them. And to further maximize this trick, many at Skyhold had begun sharing rooms for convenience’s sake (and sometimes for simple comfort), while Leliana had also set up several rooms as communal sleeping areas, for those who wanted them, so that mages were able to cast barriers over several rooms at a time, in shifts, for brief periods. If we felt strong and whole, we could recast again, each spelling the others and allowing multiple short stretches of sleep, however troubled.

It worked, to a degree. However, the routine itself became exhausting, and we found that the rest was still fitful. The barriers seemed to cut us off from the healthful and renewing powers of the Fade… right when we needed those good dreams most.

As for me, I considered taking part in the communal sleeping spaces but felt somehow that it wouldn’t be good for morale, and I was also (admittedly) desperate for any solitude I could get when it came to my life at Skyhold. Even if it meant I slept little. And while I had the affection of Skyhold’s one resident walker of the Fade, I felt strange about asking Solas for the rest and safety he had promised, only seeking him out now and then for another rare and strangely beautiful visit to the Fade under his protection. For one thing, we were still a little new and tentative with one another, and for another, most of all, I wanted to honor my promise to give him space and time to become accustomed to whatever we now were.

Meanwhile, the nightmares continued, the tiredness was universal, and Skyhold more than ever felt like a small ship, infinitely precious, tossed on a shadowed sea. And the sendings were only getting stronger as the monster grew nearer with each passing day.

It was the same with all of us. Mages, Templars, rogues, warriors, servants, and more… we, all of us, thirsted for sleep. Even the dwarves were exhausted because it was they, separated from the Fade, who were having to pick up the slack. So sleep had become a constant and popular topic for all, increasingly so, and certainly we all spoke of sleep yearningly and wistfully, recalling our most satisfying slumbers or dreams, the decadent nights when we had slept as long as we’d wanted to… as long as we’d wanted to. Already, it felt like an impossibly long time ago, a dream.

Sleep. Even the word was seductive. Sleep.

We were like starving men in the desert, wistfully reminiscing about our favorite meals.

And it was taking its toll.

The new watch system had been implemented, although not without some grumbling on both sides. The mages, already exhausted like all of us, felt singled out. The Templars felt an oddly similar sense of being targeted as the designated villains, when all they felt they were serving was a simple need for guardship.

Adding to the complexity of the situation was the fact that, freed from the strictures of confinement and religious aggression, mages and Templars at Skyhold had begun to mingle freely (a fact I’d rejoiced in), but this now meant that there were deep and intersecting new relationships between both the watchers and the watched, perhaps even going beyond those in the circles. Because here, for the first time, they were genuinely equal, and love was not discouraged, but allowed.

Still. The watch system complicated things, although so far all had proven loyal, worthy and brave when it came to those requirements, on both sides.

But I knew the task was a heavy one for everyone, and we were all nervous and on edge, hyper vigilant.

Not long after the new system had been installed to watch the mages, I’d come upon Fiona practicing battle magic, tirelessly attacking the targets in a low corner of the courtyard, in a fireproofed clearing of dirt and stone. Beside her were two of the younger Circle mages from Redcliffe, a dark, beautiful young human woman named Vensi, and a fair-haired elf named Wysten. Both were among the youngest mages at Skyhold, and I recognized them from Cassandra’s list of those felt to be least in control of their powers.

I paused, watching as Fiona threw a flawless series of fireballs at the figures (faster than I could have done), then watched as first Vensi, then Wysten, imitated her efforts. The girl’s cast was beautiful and sure, but the boy’s was shaky and ill-aimed. Fiona spoke quietly to him, but even from here I could hear the steel in her voice.

“Again,” she said. “Focus, then release.”

The boy drew breath, then cast again, and this time the spell was straighter. Not as beautiful or as controlled as the girl’s, but much better. Fiona smiled.

“Now you shall cast Mind Blast at one another, and I want you to call upon your own strength, your focus and your magic to repel the attack. Wysten, you first.” Looking nervously at her, Wysten breathed deeply, then cast Mind Blast at Vensi, who parried it with visible difficulty and a slightly awkward spin of her staff. She went momentarily blank, then bent forward, panting.

“Now you,” said Fiona, and when Vensi had caught her breath, she sent a beautiful Mind Blast against Wysten, who countered it with a surprisingly strong cast of Barriers. Yet just as Fiona opened her mouth to praise him, he dropped the spell a bit too soon, then went rigid and blank in the last seconds of the spell’s aftermath.

Fiona gave a grim smile. “That was not bad,” she said. “But you are working too hard, Vensi, and Wysten, your response was careless and could have cost you your life. You can tap into the Fade with the smallest motion—with a needle as easily as with a sledgehammer. Here, boy, cast it again, at me.” Wysten cast again (and the improvement in his second castingwas notable), and yet Fiona did not even flinch nor raise her staff. She closed her eyes momentarily, peacefully, and there was a shimmer of pale fire. Then she looked back at them and gave a small grin, obviously untouched by the spell at all.

“You see the difference,” she said.

“Yes,” said Wysten, a bit hesitantly.

“No,” said Vensi.

“I will give you an example,” said Fiona. “Have you ever observed someone running a short distance beside someone who is walking serenely and covering the same ground? One expends energy recklessly and uselessly, while the other conserves energy and achieves the exact same result.”

The girl looked excited. “I understand it now,” she said.

“What we are working on is tension,” said Fiona. “You must learn to master yourselves and your spellwork, to achieve control. This does not mean, however, that you must work yourselves to exhaustion.”

As if to illustrate this fact, she turned, and casually as an archer with an arrow, she released a beautiful stream of electricity at the farthest target. Another bullseye.

“Nicely done,” I called out. Fiona looked over at me, then turned to the other two mages. “Continue the practice,” she said, and strode over to me. When she reached me, I saw that she was slightly breathless from her efforts.

“That was beautiful,” I said. “Especially the elemental work.”

She pushed away her short dark hair from her brow. “Thank you, Inquisitor,” she said brusquely in that arresting low voice of hers. Funny how the accent that was so soft with Leliana was all edges with Fiona.

“It is good of you to help teach them,” I said, gesturing at the young mages.

“I am simply doing what I can to be ready and vigilant,” she said. “Under the resumption of the watch system, it seems my fellow mages and I must prove ourselves strong once again.”

I felt myself go warm with embarrassment. “Fiona, I didn’t want this,” I said. “But I do agree with the council’s decision to be cautious—for all of us to be careful and cautious.”

She looked at me coolly, her narrow, heavy-lidded eyes glittering in the pointed face. As always, she reminded me slightly of a cat, and did again here, as she regarded me a few seconds before responding. “Yes,” she said. “I had heard that. I suppose I should thank you for even attempting to champion our cause, my lady.” Her eyes flickered to Yalena, the Templar on duty across the clearing from her, then back to me. The female warrior was tall, strong and impassive, with pale eyes and a mane of red-gold hair, but while she appeared to be watching the entire sparring area, there was, nevertheless, the sense that she was in fact on alert and watching all of us carefully, Fiona most of all. I grimaced in spite of myself.

“No,” I said. “No need for thanks. I care about the mages here; I’m one of you. I’ll continue to do what I can.”

“Well,” said Fiona, her eyes flicking back to the Templar and then over to me again. “As always, we will take whatever support we can.”

She glanced back at the two mages, who were continuing their casting at the targets, then flipped her staff restlessly. I admired the ease and fluidity of the gesture. Only when you were this close to her did you realize she was a woman in late middle age, or even possibly older—certainly old enough to be a parent of grown mages herself. She was not conventionally beautiful, Fiona, but she was exotic and interesting; she drew focus. She was one of those people who, I had begun to realize, may be passionate and determined, but it is not fire so much as ice, with enthusiasms that somehow remain remote and slightly chilly. As a former First Enchanter of the Circle, I had found her both intimidating and admirable. Now, however, I saw the marks of exhaustion in her face, the dark circles beneath her eyes, the faint lines in her face that had not been there when she had first joined us. She pushed her hair away from her eyes, sweating even in the winter air, and I noticed her hand trembling visibly.

“Fiona,” I said. “Why don’t you take a break, go get some rest? You could probably all use the break. And your opponents will still be here when you come back,” I added, trying to joke.

The joke fell like a stone. Fiona had never, as far as I could remember, demonstrated even the slightest implication that she possessed a sense of humor, and she wasn’t going to start now.

Her eyes met mine, cool and judging and slightly bored. “Feel free to do so yourself, my lady,” she replied. “However, I have standards to meet, and students to teach. We must be prepared for whatever comes.” She strode back over to the dummies and targets, speaking softly to the boy again, and this time, she was evidently helping him to connect to the Fade and find his focus. Vensi, too, closed her eyes and tapped into the magic, and I was heartened by how quickly they were obviously adapting their skills under her training. Even as I watched, Fiona demonstrated a Barriers cast (the boy grinning with delight at how easily she did so), and the two younger mages both cast their own, and with much less awkwardness than they had seemed to show before. Fiona’s emphasis on focus, on losing tension (versus increasing it) was obviously working.

I watched for a moment more, admiring their visible progress, then turned away to go back to the Undercroft for my next several hours with Solas and Dagna as we searched for answers.

We were making strides… maybe we could finally come up with our solution, and give us all some much-needed rest.

Looking back at Fiona, still tireless and determined in her stone enclosure, doing so once again under the familiar and vigilant eye of a Templar… my heart sank.

But I had to keep hoping. I had to. We would succeed. I would allow myself to envision no other outcome.

Chapter Text

The two weeks that followed the Council were frustrating and exhausting, but we were, in fact, beginning to see results. Which was a good thing, because, in the face of even those few additional weeks, it had become apparent that, here and there, people were simply leaving us, unable to stand the strain. Not many, but enough to be noticed—a merchant here, a minor visiting noble there, or sometimes, simply one more mage, farmer, or soldier would simply vanish quietly in the night, and no one could quite remember when they had last been seen.

I was frustrated by these losses—both for tactical reasons, as well as (far more overwhelmingly) for personal ones. I mourned each departure and felt it keenly as a failure on my part. Especially since those who left had done so despite facing a daunting and arduous journey alone through the Frostbacks at the height of winter. They'd chosen a strong possibility of death over one more nightmare, and even as I hated the fact that they'd chosen such extreme measures, I understood that feeling myself. I had to. My own nightmares had continued to be a source of horror for me, and they would have been unbearable in their endless repetition, but Solas had shown me how to recognize when I was dreaming. This delicate lucidity meant that, much of the time, I at least now knew when I was being held by the dreams and could then (theoretically) wake myself up before the dream progressed too far. Not always... but sometimes.

As always, we'd shared this potential aid, too, with others at Skyhold, but it was difficult and variable to master. Elven mages seemed to have the highest ratio of success with it, but even then, the skill wasn't easily or dependably accomplished.

Meanwhile, the Chargers had thoroughly scouted the Dales in the areas Solas had requested, starting up near Arlathan Forest and then proceeding Southeast as they retraced the entity's trail. Krem had sent back a number of useful reports and missives, and while most of these had been matter-of-fact and accommodating, his latest dispatch had been more than a little disquieting. For the first time, Krem’s businesslike tone had revealed a palpable sense of worry as he closed his report:  

It appears that the the nightmare sendings are now physically affecting the towns and villages in its path. Following Dalish’s examination of the scene at Chaldecy, we are certain that the village’s destruction was due to the creature that attacks us in the Fade.

Also, while villagers we encountered in missions across Thedas were not showing signs of awareness or discomfort from the sendings, it is a different matter for those farms and villages in the path of the entity’s travel toward Skyhold. We are now finding that people are haunted and afraid, their sleep troubled by something they don't understand. I’m not even sure it’s a deliberate thing—Dalish suspects it is a side effect of the creature’s magic, not the object of it, yet even so, it may be feeding on what it passes beneath. We fear more destroyed villages as it continues to gain speed and strength.

I will continue to update you and the Chief as we learn more.

CREMISIUS ACLASSI

Hells. Now it was eating villages. Between this and our subtly dwindling forces, we were going to have to work faster.

And we were trying.

Day after day, Solas and I worked with Dagna, Dorian and Morrigan, and no matter how exhausted we all were… our work was paying off. Morrigan was in and out of the Crossroads, searching out ancient elven artifacts in temples and ruins Solas had glimpsed from the Fade that were not even accessible by ordinary means, while Dorian had been using the network with her supervision to travel all over Thedas hunting volumes and works of scholarship. He had in fact—at last—found references to artifacts in Tevinter that had been capable of shielding whole Keeps and castles. He had then spent the past few weeks searching diligently for the source—the spell that would give us something to actively work with.

Then one afternoon, Dorian entered with a sigh, throwing down a massive and intricately bound volume with a bit more than his usual flourish.

“There, my precious ponies,” he said grandly. “Don’t say I never did anything for you.”

The book landed on the worktable in a faint cloud of dust, while we all went over to look at it. This one was ancient—visibly so—cracked and fragile, dusty and far older than any other he had yet found. It was also above and beyond anything of its kind that I had ever seen, even here at Skyhold—a real ancient tome of the Tevinter magisters (snakes everywhere, even on the binding). It was gorgeous at first glance, all leather and gold and magnificent tooling, as much art as magic... but there was something awful about it too. I reached out a hand, then pulled back when I felt the encircling enchantments. The sensation was unpleasant, as if I’d touched something that was slimy and cold.

Meanwhile, Dorian had opened up a nearby bottle of wine with a neat and practiced gesture, and he drank thirstily from it, straight from the bottle itself. He looked tired and travel-worn, but jubilant, all red-rimmed eyes (the better to set off the silver of his irises), and shadows (the better to set off his cheekbones). In other words, still beautiful, of course. But that was the blessing and curse of being Dorian. His beauty would survive anything.

However, the more I looked, the more there was something odd about the volume's cover. It was too pale for leather, especially after so many centuries. "Dorian," I said hesitantly. "The book's cover. Is it leather, or...?"

He grimaced. "No, Inquisitor. It is not precisely leather."

I made a face right back. "Oof."

Solas, however, stared down at the book with eyes blazing. “You found it,” he said.

“I should hope so,” said Dorian. “Otherwise I’ve just spoilt a perfectly marvelous entrance.”

Dagna reached out to touch the book, the gesture both tentative and reverent, wincing a little, but the scientist in her won out. Solas reached forward, then pulled back with a frown. I realized he wasn't doing so out of distaste for the book's cover (or not only so), but more because of its magical wardings and enchantments.

“Congratulations, Dorian,” I said. He came back over, bottle in hand, then caught me in the act of leaning over to sniff him appreciatively. "It's terrifying, but... it's also amazing."

“Naughty, naughty girl,” he said knowingly.

I blushed. "You know me too well," I chuckled.

He met my eyes gleefully, then looked tiredly at Solas, all that gaiety still there and dangerous. “Well, come on, my elven friend. Open it up.”

“These warding spells are… how to express it? Unpleasant,” commented Solas.

“Of course they are,” said Dorian in amusement. “They’re meant to be. This is a work of ancient Tevinter magic at its highest, and some would say, darkest, period. Caution is definitely advised. But I have total faith in your abilities to take care of such trifles.”

Solas surprised me by grinning slightly. “Why did you not take care of it yourself?”

“My dear apostate, as you can see from the magnificent wreckage of my current attire, I have been traveling as swiftly as possible to simply get this here in one piece. I found it in a rather disagreeable spot and was obliged to make a fast exit. I was able to scan its contents enough to be reasonably certain that the spell we seek lies within, I did a quick series of purification spells to take most of the edge off, then I simply figured we would be more than capable of handling the rest of the situation here.”

Solas reached out, met Dorian’s eye with a hard glance, then efficiently dispersed the volume’s encircling spellwork with a deceptively casual gesture of his hand—a swirl of magic into a closed fist. There was a small puff of smoke, and the smell of something rotten. Solas’s eyebrows drew together as he regarded the book. “Hmm,” he said. “Not quite gone.” He motioned for us to back away and he cast again, something that looked curiously to me like a variation on one of the Templar actions to dispel magic. This time there was a larger, more definitive puff of smoke, and the book seemed to shrink, ever so slightly, in size. Solas’s face changed subtly in that way he sometimes had—to the smile hidden beneath the sober exterior.

“Nicely done,” said Dorian. “I told you it wouldn’t be a problem, silly boy.”

Solas opened the ancient volume, and flipped more rapidly than I expected through its faded, yet magnificently illuminated spells and arcane histories. He whispered a word, then the book pages rifled themselves, then finally settled open to a page that glowed eerily in the shadows of the Undercroft.

“There,” declared Dorian. “I told you. Read it and rejoice, children.”

“You really found it!” Dagna cried. Dorian winked at me and I bowed to him formally in appreciation, as Dagna snickered, then gave the world’s most adorable curtsy.

“Solas isn’t going to bow,” I said to Dorian. “Just so you’re aware. You’ll have to make do with us.”

Dorian’s full lips curled in a half-smile. “It’s just jealousy. But as the resident Vint, I reserve the right to allow it. In the proper circumstances, of course. Although I admit that I’d give the world for a curtsy from Solas.”

“So would I,” I admitted, and Dagna giggled again.

Solas, however, was singlemindedly focused on the page’s contents. He ignored all three of us and stared, then drew breath, leaning forward over the page as his lips moved feverishly. Then he straightened.

“Good work,” he said to Dorian. “You’ve found what we needed.”

Dorian smiled. “Pavus to the rescue. Always happy to help. It only took me two hundred and fifty-seven volumes and eight arduous days of travel to find it, but your appreciation is touching, and—”

“Excellent,” interrupted Solas. “Now let us see what we have.”

“Solas,” said Dorian, after the briefest pause. “Promise me you will never, ever go into diplomacy.”

Solas looked up at him, puzzled. “I promise,” he said, then bent forward over the book. I burst out laughing in spite of myself, then leaned forward to see what he was reading, as well… and then I forgot to laugh anymore as I caught the gist of the spell on its pages.

Solas was right. This was it.

This. The purpose of the spell was instantly accessible, plain within the very first few diagrams: that of enspelling and protecting an entire castle.

Dagna edged forward neatly past Solas to take a look, as well. “Oh, I do love theoretical magic,” she said. “And this one’s delightful!”

“It is very clever,” Solas admitted. “And most definitely not just theoretical. It is an approach I had completely forgotten, although I have seen it before, long ago. It is not Tevinter in actuality, of course,” he noted, “but Elvhen in origin… as so many turn out to be…”

“Of course it is…” said Dorian, dryly.

Solas ignored him. “However, the most important thing is that it would work.

“The spell confirms it,” said Dagna. “Everything we’ve been thinking… it’s possible.” She picked up the elven artifact from the worktable before her and meditatively spun the orb there with her small hand. “So now we'll finally be able to create something vibrational,” she said. “Like the Veil.”

Solas looked at it and frowned. “Yes,” he said. “Very much like, although with specific and complex variations.”

“Wait, how?” asked Dorian.

“Well,” she said, “The Veil itself is nothing but a massive, stable, endlessly renewing vibrational pattern. A giant barrier. It’s very pretty, magically speaking. I can’t imagine the power involved in its creation.”

Solas drew breath to speak, but Dorian stared at her in surprise. “Don’t tell me you’ve actually seen it? The Veil?”

She looked puzzled. “Of course.”

Dorian looked both fascinated and interested, and his grey eyes narrowed. “What an odd feeling that must be for a dwarf.”

Dagna shrugged. “No stranger for me than analyzing an enchanted sword or artifact,” she answered. “Sometimes where magic’s concerned, things are more than things, and I can see past the edges. The Veil is just a bigger edge.”

“It is a good comparison,” mused Solas. “We have this spell as a kind of foundation, to create a magical field or shell of sorts surrounding Skyhold. It addresses the challenge we have been unable to meet—one that goes beyond the divide of the Veil and that becomes something truly multifunctional. This is the first thing we've found that is capable of creating a sustainable vibration that covers, hides and protects the entire keep. So the field must be large, it must be strong, and easily renewed."

"And it must not only repel the attacks from the Fade, but provide the potential for offensive use, as well," I added.

“Exactly,” said Dagna. “Which is why the Anchor is so important.”

Everyone looked at me, and, surprised at the sudden shift, I laughed without meaning to. “Oh. Hi,” I said, waving my left hand so that it left a green blur in the air. Dorian laughed, and Solas gave a swift, slight smile.

Then an idea seemed to strike him. “Wait,” said Solas. He let out his breath, slowly, nodding as the revelation hit him. He came over to me and took my hand, turning it gently over so that it lay in his, palm up.

“We know they’re tracking us with the Mark,” he said. “Tracking her.”

“That’s what we’ve suspected,” said Dagna.

“But it’s more than that,” said Solas. “It’s the same idea.” He ran his fingers lightly and slowly down my upturned palm, and a hint of the green fire followed as, in a graceful movement of his hand, the trembling fire swirled in the air and held for a moment, suspended there, flickering and pulsing and turning endlessly in a tiny globed barrier. I of course immediately shivered, went warm, and had to still my incipient sparks.

It was even more embarrassing because Dagna and Dorian were watching with open interest and amusement. “Elven magic seems to have gotten sexier than I remember,” said Dorian, and I blushed harder.

Stop that,” I whispered, and Solas met my eye all too knowingly, then looked back to the others. Our relationship was hardly a secret now, anymore than its beginnings had been hidden in the previous weeks. I’d follow Solas with my eyes, or meet his own in a blaze of that intense green-grey fire, and the world would fall away… and only then would I realize that Dagna was grinning, Morrigan was smirking, or that Dorian was awaiting an answer from me, shaking his head with a sardonic smile. Solas took it all in stride, as here. As always, I was the one who couldn’t seem to hide my feelings or reactions.

Now, however, Dagna was more focused on the magic, nothing else. “Yes…” she said. "It's a similar magic, after all."

“And with similar principles,” said Solas. He still had that keen, excited look that he had when faced with a problem that had a solution, and I smiled.

“Yes,” she said excitedly. “Which means we can use this same spell for adaptation.”

“The Mark,” I said hesitantly, realizing what they had seen, and putting it together with what I myself had felt from the Mark as a part of me. “It’s vibrational too. Magically speaking. Right?”

“Exactly,” said Solas. “An endlessly repeating frequency of sorts, that I suspect is renewed at the moment by your own innate magical abilities. Which means that we can use your Anchor fire as part of the greater spell—which Dagna and I believe will hold the key to hiding the Mark's presence entirely, and it may also eventually allow us to trace the entity in reverse." He was still holding my hand, absently, so I tickled his palm with my finger and was rewarded with one of those glances of his, amused and sharp, then he looked back as Dorian came forward, his eyes on the tiny green flame still floating and flickering in the air before me.

“So the elven artifacts can in fact be adapted from Veil reparation, to hiding Skyhold?” asked Dorian.

“With the spell you found? Of course, if we have enough of them,” said Solas.

“Right. We're basically creating a smaller, more intense version of the Veil,” said Dagna. “One that functions on multiple levels.”

“What does it look like?” asked Dorian. “The Veil?” You could tell he’d been dying to ask.

“You can’t exactly see it in its natural state, of course,” said Dagna. “It’s more sensory, something heard and felt. A giant barrier that trembles in just the right way, keeping everything separate. But I’ve come up with a box, a series of overlapping magical enclosures and external lenses that translate the vibration into something visual and it’s so pretty! Like rainbows that breathe.”

“So. We cast the spell on each of these artifacts of my people—at least three or four, probably more,” Solas said, the smile dawning in his eyes as he touched the artifact with an elegant hand. "And Skyhold is protected. And hidden."

I bit my lip. "And it will also be adaptable?" I asked, meeting Solas's eyes. "Like we hoped, based on Morrigan's ideas? Something we could use as a weapon, as well? At some point this thing is going to actually get here and we're going to have to fight it."

"Based on what we've seen thus far," said Solas, "I think we have a few months to prepare for whatever battle we'll have to wage here. Perhaps more. The entity's progress is slow and not altogether consistent."

"Will completely hiding Skyhold buy us more time?" I asked. "Removing a clear target while it is still so far away?"

"That is my hope," said Solas.

"And yes," said Dagna, "The wards will work offensively as well as defensively, at least in theory."

"I think, as you say, that the offensive aspect is where Morrigan's notes from her mother's Grimoire will make the difference," added Dorian. 

Dagna looked thoughtful. "She should be back soon from her latest search for artifacts," she said. "We're definitely amassing a collection of useful tools... and weapons."

"Good," I said. "I'll inform Josie. In a larger, more general sense, it's something that she can let people know about—our progress on this, that we have plans and tools and solutions. I think it could be a huge help from a morale standpoint. Maybe it will convince those tempted to leave to hang in there a bit longer."

"My, my," said Dorian. "Someone's becoming quite the politician."

I felt my face warming, not entirely sure it was a compliment. "It's a good thing, Dorian. Especially in light of the fact that people are leaving..."

He waved a hand at me in graceful reassurance. "It wasn't a criticism, love. It's just hard to watch one's little nestlings grow up," he teased, and I smiled back, relieved. 

“It would not be self-sustaining,” mused Solas. “We would need mages at each artifact point, re-enspelling them for at least a few hours each day. We would also need to replenish the Anchor fire occasionally as well.”

“But that’s nothing compared to what we’ve all been enduring,” I said. “I’m sure we’ll have plenty of volunteers.” I thought of the tired mages and ceaseless Barriers each night, and of an exhausted Fiona, training the mages and fighting ghosts in the clearing, battling her own internal demons under the Templar’s watchful eye.

I looked back at the green fire Solas had drawn from my hand. “What do we do to keep it from finding me—finding us?”

“Whatever we create here should repel attacks, and also mask you completely,” said Solas. He looked to Dagna. “Correct?”

“I think so,” she said. “If it works like I think it will work. In my head, I mean. What I come up with. It should shield us pretty effectively from any further attacks.”

“But then on missions,” I said. “Can we create something smaller, that hides us at camp? I have to be able to get back out there again. Not just to try to address the Fade threat before it gets closer to us here, but also—there are so many rifts still to close. I need to be out there in person.”

Dagna smiled and pointed at Solas’s exquisite little micro-barrier, the beautiful little globe of green fire still floating in mid-air. “Sure,” she said. “We keep exploring talismans, and hopefully use one of Morrigan’s discoveries, something I can alter. Or as a last resort, I could try to create something small, like a rune or a trinket. We'd use a combination of metal, magic, lyrium, and Anchor fire to create something you can wear or carry. And your own magic will keep it alive and working while you wear it."

I bit my lip. "Like a backfire?”

“Almost,” said Solas. “It would be more a nullification of the Mark’s vibration. A temporary stillness.”

I thought about it. “But I’d have to take off the artifact when I close Rifts, correct?”

“Yes,” said Dagna. "Or turn it off... if I can find a way for you to activate and then deactivate it."

“Ah,” said Dorian. “So we won’t want to camp too close to a Rift site, even one we’ve closed, as the entity would be able to guess our proximity.”

Another thought struck me, and I looked excitedly to Solas. “Would it dampen the Anchor completely while I wore it, whatever it is? Could it cure me if I wore it all the time? Interrupt whatever it’s—” I paused in spite of myself, and he stepped closer to me.

“Interrupt what?” he asked gently.

“Whatever it’s doing to me,” I finished. “Could what we create here stop whatever the Mark does to me, in the long run? Because we both know it is. Doing something.”

Dagna looked away, visibly unhappy. “Inquisitor…” She sighed.

I looked from her to Solas. “What is it?”

He met my eyes and didn’t look away. “The answer is no,” he said. “I believe the Mark would still be active, just… paused. But the strain of the power held in check would build. It would not be something that would work long-term.”

“All right,” I said, puzzled at their reactions.

“But that’s not all,” said Dagna. “It did occur to me, and Solas and I have discussed it, especially given our concerns about its eventual effects on you.” She looked at Solas again, and he sighed as he looked back to me, taking my left hand again in his.

“If it works as we suspect, whatever we create,” he said, “would probably in all likelihood increase the power of the Mark at other times, as well as its instability. We are not sure, but our fear is that the longer you wear it, the more punishing the aftermath may be. Imagine a river when a dam is released; it is the same principle. If this is the case, instead of running steadily as it does now, you see, it would be changeful and mercurial, building up pressure and then burning hotter and stronger after the disruptions it experiences due to the talisman. Or so I surmise.”

I felt a little sick, and exhaled slowly. “Which means it’s going to keep doing whatever it’s doing,” I said.

Dorian frowned, then met Solas’s eyes. “That’s an awful lot of ‘ifs,’ dearest, so please do keep that in mind.”

“Well,” I said. “The bottom line is, if the talisman works, it will also continue to hurt or even kill me faster than the Mark itself already is.”

“Eliaden,” he said, then stopped.

“No… No. I understand,” I said. I was embarrassed at the way I’d gotten us so off-topic. “This isn’t what we should be talking about—we need to focus, to concentrate on creating the wards. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“We’ve been exploring solutions, Inquisitor,” said Dagna, her eyes very blue and warm as she looked at me. “Maybe we’ll find something.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “It’s not something we should concern ourselves with right now, anyway.”

Solas hadn’t moved, however. He was still looking down at my hand, then something broke in his face for a fraction of a second, a flicker of something private, pained and royally furious. “Fenedhis,” he swore.

The raw emotion in his face shook me. For a moment it was as if we were back in the privacy of his tower room, alone in the glow of the torches and paintings—his world, ours, alone and separate. Where there was nothing and no one else. He brought his hand to my face in a fleeting caress, brushing his thumb across my cheek.

“It’s all right,” I said, attempting to lighten the moment, nonplussed at the gesture.

“It is not all right,” he said, then leaned forward, surprising me, his cool hand at the my neck. He kissed me, swiftly, albeit with a satisfying completeness, then brought his lips softly to my right ear. “Mith’ar,” he whispered, then pulled back to look at me. The briefest flash of that hidden green fire in his eyes, and I nodded.

“I know you’re with me on this,” I answered. “I do.”

"We'll find a solution to the Mark," he answered. Another brief kiss, and a split second where everything seemed to fall away, as it always did.

Then he dropped his hand and turned back to the others, cool and calm again, even if I’d turned red in spite of myself, as it was the first time he’d ever kissed me in front of the others. Dagna’s mouth was open, her eyes delighted, and I grinned. Dorian’s gaze merely flickered from me to Solas and back again, sympathetic and yet thoughtful.

“I’m guessing this issue with the Mark also limits the amount of time I can spend away from Skyhold,” I said, thinking aloud.

“Morrigan can continue to help us minimize your travel time using the Crossroads,” said Solas.

Meanwhile, Dorian shrugged, and took another swig of wine, then wiped his mouth. He looked both amused, irritated and worried all at once. “Hmm... You know, dear heart, I have a passion for drama, and the two of you are adorably doomed and delightful together, but the fact is, we don’t actually know it’s doing anything to you,” he said. He was doing a very good job of attempting a facsimile of his usual lightness, and I loved him for it. “Anything harmful, anyway...?”

I shrugged, touched and lightened in spite of myself, both at Solas’s caress, as well as at his rare moment of openness and acknowledgment. I was also affected by Dorian’s unconcealed worry for me, and somehow, those seemed more important than the reminder that the Mark was physically harming me. “It just is,” I answered. I looked at Dagna, and she nodded soberly. “I’ve always known it. And Solas and Dagna have both talked to me about the possibility before now. Besides, I can feel that it's harmful, sometimes. I just can. Like it’s hungry."

Dorian grimaced. “Lovely.”

“I know,” I said. “It’s not something I’m exactly delighted about, myself. But it’s not happening quickly, at least, whatever it’s doing."

"And it should remain so, as long as the talisman is used sparingly," Solas added.

"Besides," said Dagna. "We'll need the Mark to be active in order to use it to trace the entity's progress."

"True," I said. "But that's not the point right now either.”

“Which is?” asked Dorian.

“Progress,” I said emphatically. “We have the spell, thanks to you. The artifacts, thanks to Morrigan and Solas. We can start work on the barrier for the castle. Something that actually protects us all. And then… we can all finally get some sleep.” I looked at each of them. “So, in other words, today was a really good day.”

“True,” said Dorian, grey eyes twinkling.

“But we’ll need a lot more artifacts,” said Dagna, thinking. “And more opportunity for testing, for trial and error.”

“Thanks to Solas, Morrigan can continue to get what we need,” I noted. “She’s been especially good at accessing and bringing them back, which gives us plenty of information to work with when we need it. And I can continue to work on ways to strengthen the wards and protections, maybe integrating some herblore or additional elemental magics, as well.”

"In other words," said Dorian, decisively. "We have work to do."

"Well," I said, smiling back at him. "At least now we know what to do next."

“Then let us proceed,” said Solas. "And without delay."

 

Chapter Text

Another night, another exhausted grasp at sleep. Or at least, at the frantic, fear-tossed little catnaps that passed for sleep at Skyhold these days.

I was slumped over my desk, half-dozing in a disquieting haze of blood, memory and shadow. Some part of my mind was lucid, awake enough to know that I was simply experiencing another nightmare sending, but it wasn't quite enough. I still couldn't seem to get out of it. And yet the shadows couldn't quite attack, either. The dream was paused.

So I just stood there, breathing in the dream-winter darkness that did not end, terrified by the shapes at the edge of the firelight. Frozen, caught, and waiting, waiting, waiting...  for a blow that never fell. It was almost worse than when the dreams proceeded forward.

But then someone was, thankfully, shaking me awake—a hand on my shoulder, gently. And yet it seemed all to be a part of my dream.

“Inquisitor... My lady.”

All in a rush, I was fully awake. I startled, lurching back in my chair and knocking my papers, goblet and inkwell off the desk as I reached out clumsily in confusion. Launched into the air, the inkwell spun in a lazy circle from my desk to the floor below, the ink spiraling beautifully all the way down, like a spell from a staff. A few scattered blue sparks followed the ink before they disappeared (I could almost hear them hiss into the pooling ink).

Still, I was momentarily pleased that at least I hadn’t released a destructive crackle of electricity in surprise—that my attempts at self-discipline were actually working. I'd take every little step of progress I could.

Meanwhile, slightly embarrassed, I turned to see Morrigan standing beside me in the semi-darkness and realized she'd been the one to awaken me. I shook my head to clear it, even as she stepped back slightly, understandably cautious against any further reactions I might have (especially understandable given that it was me, the overly sparky mage).

I took a deep breath and realized where I was and what was happening. The fire in my hearth was low, and it was dark, but not late, not quite full dark. The room was cool, but not yet cold. In the dwindling grey light from my balcony, Morrigan's beautiful pale face glowed slightly against the deeper darkness of my quarters, the golden eyes watching me warily from under the fringe of tousled black hair.

“Morrigan," I said, rubbing my temples for a moment. "Forgive me... I was startled. It's good to see you back."

“I was most sorry to awaken you, Inquisitor,” she said. As always, she somehow looked both haughty and hesitant, as if she wanted to care for nothing… and yet could not quite do it.

I sighed, relieved, and waved my hand apologetically. “And I'm sorry for the overreaction,” I said. "Even when it feels like I barely sleep, every awakening feels like a potential attack."

"Yes," she said. Her face softened with something like sympathy. “The dreams. I know this feeling all too well. As if the boundaries themselves between waking and sleep itself are corrupted."

I rubbed my face impatiently with my hands. “Yes,” I said. “And I’m getting damned tired of it."

"As are we all," she said softly. Despite her exotic beauty, which was undiminished, the lack of sleep was as telling in her as in all of us, and her face showed the same palpable weariness we all saw in each other each day—the pallor, the shadows under the eyes and the determined and constant effort required to push back against exhaustion. While Solas, Dagna and I had been working on solutions in the Undercroft, Morrigan had been traveling ceaselessly back and forth through the Crossroads, pushing herself for discoveries every bit as diligently as Dorian, and I'd barely seen her for days as she searched for the artifacts that might result in Skyhold's shield against the nightmares.

I looked down at the patterns of the spilled ink, whose spirals were strikingly clear on the soft golden rug on the floor beside me, and made a rueful face. “I’m a little on edge," I admitted. "Honestly, I hadn’t meant to fall asleep at all.” I smiled at her. "Which is why I'm glad you woke me up. I had work I still wanted to do this evening. Besides, you got me out of the dream, for which I'm grateful."

Morrigan followed my glance, then smiled. She reached out a delicate hand, and twirled her fingers in a graceful circle above the puddle of ink. Within seconds, the ink had misted and coalesced, and even as I looked, it shot back into the inkwell, which righted itself smoothly before me, floating.

“We are all of us, my lady, on edge,” she replied. “Or so t'would seem.” 

I laughed softly, delighted, and set the inkwell back on the desk, away from harm. “Thank you for that,” I said. “I’ve never seen that done in quite that way! I find it difficult to be that precise unless the spell is elemental.”

She chuckled. “So you could have frozen the ink with ease.”

“Yes,” I said, chuckling. “Or lit it on fire. But kinetic movement like what you did here… I’m terrible at it.”

“It was a small thing,” she said, shrugging. She took a half-breath and then seemed to soften, slightly, into someone approachable and vulnerable. “Some would see such an action,” she admitted, “and call me nothing but a hedge witch.” For a moment, her eyes flashed pale yellow. “Like the Templar at your door downstairs, mayhap.”

“Morrigan,” I said. “You are an enchanter whose powers are equal to or greater than those of almost any other mage here. Surely you know that by now.”

She gave a faint smile. “Well,” she said. “’Tis kindly said.”

“But I’m sorry about the Templar,” I said. “You must know how much I dislike the need for them.”

“Yes,” she said. “And I am doing my best not to mind or pay attention to them overmuch.”

“Good.” I stood, then looked around, desperate for even a cold cup of tea, then looked back to Morrigan. “Please, Morrigan,” I said, smiling. “Please do come and sit for a moment. You can give me a chance to wake up and be more polite.”

“Politeness,” she said with only the barest trace of edge to her voice, “can be a rare and precious thing, surely. Especially for such as me.”

I chuckled. “As one of the Dalish,” I observed, “who are not always treated with politeness ourselves, I would agree.”

I gestured for her to sit in one of the two wing chairs before the fire (these latest ones covered in shiny, stiff gold cloth, like every blasted other thing in my quarters), and she hesitated for a moment, then sat. I went over to the little table near the balcony, and felt the side of the teapot there. Still warm. Evidently, I hadn’t been asleep long. So I poured the remainder of the pot into two teacups and carried them back to Morrigan, where she was looking thoughtfully at the mantel above the fire.

She took the tea from me without looking away from the mantel. “Your halla statue,” she said musingly. “It is quite a fine one.”

“My mother carved it for me,” I said. “Long ago, when I was a child.”

Morrigan sipped, then grimaced. “Speak not to me of mothers.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “Your nightmares?”

“Yes,” she said. “My own figures, most unfortunately, quite prominently in my own sendings. Our lives are inextricably linked. So every moment of fear, betrayal, loneliness, every moment of shared horror, the terrible things I witnessed in that small shack in the Korcari Wilds, the men I lured for her... their seductions and inevitable endings at my mother’s hands… they replay for me nightly.”

“Morrigan…” I said, openly appalled. I had heard of Flemeth’s powers but had never met her, as yet, myself. (Even if I’d secretly been dying to do so.)

“It was long ago,” she said dismissively. She looked back into the fire. “Yet how odd it is, then, that despite the horrors in my memory, it is her disappointment in me that preys upon me most, in the end.” For a moment, she wore the strangest expression, one that was both furious and frightened, and yet there was the barest flicker of yearning too. All at once, she was hesitant and young, a child wishing for approval. I wondered if she even knew that yearning was visible at all.

“The nightmares are terrible,” I agreed in a quiet voice, not sure how I could be of comfort but wanting desperately to do so. “It’s worse that in every case, they seem to attack us where we’re most vulnerable.”

“I take it you yourself do not dream of Flemeth, my lady,” she said with a ghost of humor.

“No,” I said. “Just of an especially bad attack from a few years back. It was..." I hesitated slightly. "It was brutal... and difficult for me to recover from."

The golden eyes met mine in a moment of all-too-clear recognition. "An attack?"

"Yes," I said, as evenly as I could. "A capture. It was a few days before I could get away."

"Blast and damnation," she said wearily. Then she sighed. "It is too often so, with we women, is it not?"

"Too often," I said.

"And now you relive it in dreams," she said.

"Well," I answered. "Sometimes, for extra fun, I’ll dream of the things I fear for the Inquisition, for Thedas. The whole world laid waste.”

“And you see them over and over again,” she said.

“Yes,” I admitted.

“As do I," she replied softly. "And what I see, among the many moments of fear, doubt, guilt, and violence in my past... is the moment when I tried to kill my mother.”

I drew breath, then looked at her sharply. “Gods below,” I said.

She smiled, but there was no humor in it, just bitterness. “Gods? Wherever they are, if I believed in them, I would say they judge me,” she said.

“Why did you try to kill her?” I asked. “Was it what you said—the things she did, the things you saw?”

She sighed. “At the time, I thought ‘twas self-defense,” she said. “I believed she was going to try to possess me, to take my body from me as her newest vessel. She is an ancient and powerful witch, and I became convinced that she had survived those many centuries by inhabiting the forms of her daughters.”

“And that wasn’t true?” I asked.

“In truth, I do not know,” said Morrigan. “But I sent a friend to kill her, coward that I was, a Grey Warden.”

I was excited in spite of myself. “The Hero? Maerithel?”

“Yes,” she said, smiling. “Mae. Who went to the swamps to confront my mother, and yet who did not in fact kill her, in or out of her dragon form.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“She spoke to Flemeth, admitting my mission yet asking mercy for me, and I believe my mother, realizing the injustices that she had perhaps done to me in childhood, gave her the Grimoire I had desired out of some vague attempt to rectify certain wrongs.”

“So there was no battle after all,” I said.

“Oh yes,” said Morrigan. “That night, while I was alone at the small and solitary camp that was our appointed place, as I was waiting for my companions to return, the dragon herself descended upon me in all her wrath, and we fought, magic against flame, alone in the darkness.”

“You fought your mother?”

“Yes,” she said. “With every spell at my disposal, with every hideous shape, with every ounce of rage I possessed. Until she left me bruised and bloodied, defeated, and gazed down at me in contempt.

“‘Next time you want to kill me, my girl,’ she’d said. ‘At least have the courtesy to attempt it yourself.’ And then she’d left, with nary a backward glance, but I saw…”

“What did you see?” I asked.

“She wept,” said Morrigan.

“Oh,” I said. I couldn’t imagine the right response to this, except that it was terribly sad.

“Yes,” said Morrigan. “As she turned away, she wept. Then transformed into her dragon-self and went aloft in an instant. And I have not seen her since.”

“Did you tell the Warden what had happened?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “She had attempted to do me a kindness, to save me from my own darkness. So I hid my wounds and when she gave me the Grimoire, I did not let her know that I knew the truth. I merely thanked her.”

“In your nightmares,” I asked. “Does your mother finally kill you? Possess you?”

“No,” she said. She hesitated, then spoke: “I kill and possess her.”

I exhaled, slowly, as she gave me a small, cold smile. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t imagine.”

“It is gracious of you to allow me to speak of the sendings,” she said. “I have had to hide much of it, for fear of frightening my Kieran.”

“Is he all right?” I asked, concerned. I had a soft spot for her little boy. He was as pale and dark-haired as Morrigan, and yet so curiously gentle, with a kind of calmness that seemed to flow from him to anyone around him. “Are the nightmares affecting him?”

“He handles them quite well,” she said. “’Tis a puzzlement to me, but due to his own unique powers, he seems to see them almost as nuisances. He is aware that they come from outside himself, like insects on glass, and so he simply chooses not to hear or acknowledge them.”

“Too bad it is not a teachable skill,” I said. “But it must be a relief for you.”

“True,” she said, with a slight, if tired, smile. “One of the few at the moment.”

"You should take a break," I said. "Get some rest."

"I shall do so, eventually," she said. "At least the Crossroads keep the journeys themselves efficient."

"I envy you sometimes," I confessed. "You get to see so many inaccessible and ancient places."

She made a motion as if to sip her tea, then stopped. Her expression grew ever so slightly impish. “So, Inquisitor...” she said.

"Morrigan, please call me Eliaden," I said.

"So, Eliaden," she said, raising a perfect eyebrow. “You and the elven apostate.”

“Yes,” I said. "Solas."

“He is powerful,” she said. “I have learned this from our work together these last weeks. And I appreciate that he hides that power… and what he is truly capable of, I suspect. It is never wise to reveal too much.” She sipped her tea again. “But I would be wary of that one, myself. He has secrets.”

I shrugged. “Don’t we all?”

She glanced away, thinking. “Yes, I suppose so.” She looked into the fire for a few seconds, then back to me. “His pride is what would concern me,” she said. “He is no follower, although he does his best to pretend to it. That one will have leadership or nothing.”

“He is… different in private,” I said.

“He is a man,” she said dryly. “They always are. And yet the essential paradox remains.” She hesitated, then continued speaking. “You are the Inquisitor,” she said. “He will follow you, perhaps, but only to a point.”

“I know,” I admitted. I found myself having to quiet my sparks at the openness of the admission, and Morrigan relented with a slight smile.

“Well,” she said. “Perhaps I judge too harshly. I have been known to do so.”

She took another sip of the tea, and I chuckled at her wry face.

“I'm sorry, Morrigan,” I said. “I've recently become aware that my teas are... perhaps... an acquired taste.”

She grinned in visible relief. “Thank you,” she said. “Now I shall not have to pretend to finish it.”

I felt a little depressed. I should, by all accounts, probably stop making tea.

When she looked back at me, the humor and poise was still there, as well as, I realized, a hidden excitement. “Eliaden… I have appreciated the refreshment..." She punctuated this with a slight, ladylike cough. "And the chance for us to speak so,” she said. “But pleasant as it has been, that is not why I came here, much less why I awakened you.”

Her face seemed to sharpen, and I saw the triumph in it. For a moment, the Witch of the Wilds was very much there in her expression. I forgot my tiredness and met her eyes eagerly. “What is it?”

She reached into the small pouch at her girdle, and held out her hand. On her palm was a small, slightly glowing metal circlet, of a reddish hue that was not entirely due to the flames of my fireplace.

“I believe, my friend, that I have found our talisman.”

 

Chapter Text

Solas reached out to the small and delicate object on the table before us, the piece that Morrigan had discovered, and his hand actually trembled ever so slightly.

Saota,” he said, almost to himself.

“What?” I asked.

We’d been working in a fever for the last few days with several of the ancient elven artifacts Solas and Dagna had altered, and after some experimentation, Solas and Dagna had been able to infuse two with enough power that a sleeper could rest within their influence for brief periods, impervious to outside attacks from the Fade. We were close—Dagna felt we’d have multiple renewable working artifacts, and real wards covering Skyhold, within a week or two, maybe less. A week or two… and then we could all rest.

And now Morrigan had found the artifact we needed, so that I would be able to go out to close the rifts that still awaited me out there.

It was so ordinary. A deceptively simple and delicate circle that was plainer than the plainest bracelet of Val Royeaux.

And yet there was power in the talisman. We all felt it. Solas ran his fingers over it, gently, in a soft, meditative caress, and even as he did so, it changed color momentarily, shifting briefly from its glowing warm crimson, to a color like white gold, like a pale and clean new moon. And then back again. As if he'd wakened a sleeping pet.

“It’s beautiful,” said Dorian. “Surprisingly so, for such a simple thing.”

“Yes,” said Solas in his quiet voice. “It is a beautiful find. And you are right, Morrigan. I think it will serve for what we need.”

“Aye, I thought it must,” said Morrigan. “To me it seemed both powerful and ancient.”

“It is both,” said Solas. "You did well to uncover such a thing."

“What is it?” I asked. When I touched it, there was the barest sense of warmth despite the chill in the air around us, as if it were somehow alive. I noticed, almost absently, that the piece did not change color for me as it had done for Solas.

“It is enchanted silverite, shaped into what was called a bond-piece,” said Solas. “A saotem’fan. They were used for both good and evil by our people, long ago. But they were jealously guarded among the ruling class, and most were destroyed.”

Dagna’s eyes were sharp and very bright. “It’s a connection point,” she said. “Or it was, right?”

“Yes,” said Solas. “They were used between friends and lovers, a way of maintaining awareness of the other’s presence—most frequently of all, between those who joined themselves in the bond of marriage.”

“A locator, then,” mused Dorian.

“In a manner of speaking,” said Solas. “But much more than that. The bearer of a paired set could enchant it with a variety of options, including many for shared awareness.”

“Shared awareness?” I asked, puzzled.

I was delighted to see him flush, slightly, a subtle yet definite darkening color across his high, slanted cheekbones. “A sharing of thought, or of emotion… or of sensation,” he said. He met my eyes again, briefly, and at the slightly wicked glint there it was my own turn to blush.

Dorian laughed aloud. “Too bad we don’t have the other one,” he said, looking pointedly from Solas to me. I gave him a dirty look, and he laughed harder. “Oh, Ellie, you may surprise me yet.”

Dagna, meanwhile, was ignoring all our bantering. She simply stared down at the shining circle as if her eyes alone could pierce its mysteries. “I could make one,” she said meditatively. “A more dwarven variation. But… another one, to act as the sender, that worked in rotation with one of the globed artifacts. This one would be the receiver, extending the wards and the muffling of the field.” She glanced at me. “And stilling the Mark.”

“That was my thought as well,” said Solas. "Will what you create be useful for potential communication with, or tracking of, the Inquisitor, as well?" 

“I'm not sure," she said. "It's just... that it might not work both ways,” she said, “If I have to create it myself, something dwarven. In that case, I worry that the receiver couldn’t send back much, if anything, to the sending-piece. But I do think it would hide the Anchor while you were away, protecting you and whoever you were with. You would become invisible to the Fade.”

“How were they used for evil?” I asked Solas, curious.

“The saotem’fan were relatively rare, yet all the more popular with the highest among the nobility, the slave-owners among the Elvhen,” he commented. “They were not only talismans of connection but also symbols of status, frequently used to bond awareness between a master and an especially valuable slave, for instance. From my journeys in the Fade, I saw powerful elf-mages who used them both for control and punishment.”

I shivered a little at the thought of it. “How? How did they use the—the connection aspect?”

Solas gave a cool, slight shrug. “To inflict pain, fear or arousal. To summon a sexual favorite, or simply to monitor for thoughts of escape, rebellion, or disrespect.” He sighed. “And they could also be enchanted to react to such things by the mage possessor. So a slave who thought of escape would experience pain. Or a bond-mate who thought of unfaithfulness might experience a similar unpleasantness. Or the slave might experience these things simply in attempting to leave a designated area.”

“Wonderful.” I looked at it with distaste, then I registered what he had said more fully. “Wait… I didn’t know we enslaved ourselves,” I added, puzzled.

“Oh, yes,” said Solas. “Arlathan was a place of marvels and wonders, but it was also a place of cruelty and subjugation. Whatever was done to the elves, they did it all to themselves... before anyone else.”

“That is what my own research has shown me, as well,” added Morrigan. I caught Solas giving her a respectful if slightly sour glance, and chuckled inwardly.

“Charming,” said Dorian. “Although I suppose it might make some of my countrymen feel slightly better about themselves.”

Solas glanced sharply at him, and Dorian shrugged. “Or not.”

“I’m not feeling especially good about Arlathan or Tevinter right now,” I retorted to both of them, tired of the bickering. “What matters is that we have the missing piece.” Solas and Dorian paused, looked at me with slight surprise, then both stopped speaking. I grinned at Morrigan, enjoying the moment.

“Exactly,” said Dagna. “Although there are certain supplies we’ll still need for next steps.”

“True,” said Solas. “The saotem’fan must be altered, delicately, yet without breaking the original bonds of magic in order to function.”

“Lyrium, do you think?” asked Dagna. “Or would that kill it?”

“The smallest trace, perhaps,” mused Solas.

“What about using felandaris in the enchantments?” I asked. “Of both the artifact and the sending device? It should increase barrier resistance, and we have plenty on hand.”

“Ellie has been quite the little herbalist lately,” said Dorian, smiling. "We've also upgraded both our sleeping draughts and those for energy after her latest research."

“Well,” I admitted. “I thought my use of herblore from a more apostate or Dalish perspective might come in handy. And it’s where I’m strongest, in terms of actual knowledge.”

“Excellent,” said Solas. “Adan mentioned some increased effectiveness lately, but I hadn’t been aware of your new ingredients.”

“Don’t worry,” I said, chuckling. “Vivienne is still responsible for making the actual potions themselves, not me.”

Dorian grimaced. “I take it you’ve experienced her teas?” he asked Solas.

“Oof,” said Morrigan, as Dorian chuckled.

“Unfortunately, yes,” answered Solas dryly, and Dagna laughed.

“They’re not that bad!” I cried, but it was obvious the room was against me.

“Don’t forget the elfroot,” said Dagna.

“She never does,” said Solas, and everyone laughed again, even Morrigan. There was suddenly a party atmosphere to our gathering. We had solved it. We would be able to give everyone the sleep they so desperately needed.

“It’s true,” I admitted. “But anyway... we do have a fair amount of felandaris on hand, if it might improve the enchantments in this case.”

Solas smiled. “A good suggestion, da’mis.”

“And we have plenty of silverite,” Dagna mused. “And lyrium.” She touched the circle before us again, almost reverently. “So we have everything we need.”

“Looks like it,” I said. I was sparking, but I was too excited to care.

“I’ll get to work,” said Dagna.

Dorian looked from me to Solas.

“I think this calls for a celebration,” he said grandly. “Why don’t you all join me in the tavern? We can raise a glass together, as we so deserve to do.” When he looked to Morrigan, however, she gave us a brief smile and shook her head.

“It is a most kind invitation,” she said. “But I must go. I have a little boy to tuck into bed, and barriers that must be cast to keep him safe.”

“Good night, Morrigan,” I said. “And thank you again." I hesitated, suddenly shy. "Will you... would you come again, another time?”

She gave me warm smile, quickly seen and gone. "Perhaps," she said. "It it a welcome thought. And now good night." She departed, gracefully, and we all stood silent, somewhat at a loss.

Then Dorian glanced at Dagna, turning a charming and pleading smile her way in its greatest power. “Well, what about you? Come raise a glass before you bury yourself in work again, sweet Dags, hmm?”

Dagna surprised me by blushing, and then I realized why. She didn’t want to go. She wanted to stay here and work.

“Come with us,” I said, pleadingly, and she bit her lip, looking longingly at the bond-piece. Then I looked at Solas and found myself struggling against another smile when I read the conflict in his expression. I didn’t know what was funnier—his dread of going to the tavern or his attempts to hide his real desire to stay here and work on the solution so close at hand.

“I…” he said.

“I know,” I said. “You want to stay here and work.”

His expression lightened, and he looked visibly relieved, even as I laughed. Something changed in his face, then, something almost like regret, but it was too swift for me to identify clearly. Then it was gone, and he was simply cool and smiling again, already eager to get back to work. “Thank you, vhenan,” he said, and he leaned in for a soft kiss. I tried to ignore the fact that Dorian was watching (and, as always, found us so entertaining), but the sparks fell anyway.

Ma nuvenin,” I said. I couldn't help but tease him, a little. “Have fun.”

“Come and see me afterward,” he said. “If you are not too weary.”

“I will,” I said.

“And now,” said Dorian, “to the drink.”

Chapter Text

“Cabot, my good man!” called Dorian.

I watched him with both trepidation and amusement. We'd settled ourselves into a table at the tavern, and he'd been instantly very much the noble Tevinter, as he was again in this moment. “Another round!" he cried. He was in tearing high spirits, and I found myself grateful that he didn't spark, like me, or he'd have fired the roof of the tavern already in his exuberance.

It was a crowded night, as if everyone at Skyhold had caught our optimism... or perhaps they'd simply wanted to find escape of their own. The serving girls and men were busy, and even Cabot was making a circle of the room this night. Even as I watched, Cabot came over with a tolerant, thinly veiled amusement as he poured a second serving of wine into our tankards, finishing one of the two bottles he carried. It was a thin Rivaini red that was sour at first, but it had a surprising hint of sweetness in the end, when you least expected it. It was miles better than the ale I’d had the last time I was here, and I greatly approved.

"Thanks, Cabot," I said. 

"You're quite welcome, Inquisitor," he said, gifting me with a faint grin that was a work of art in its subtlety. But I smiled back—Cabot was someone whose respect was a badge of honor, and I appreciated both his wit and his quiet service to the Inquisition, day after day, providing our people with a figurative haven for escape now that their literal one was long gone.

Right now, Cabot's face wore a combination of alertness, intelligence and veiled concern... expressions all mixed in with the paradoxical belief that nothing would ever surprise him again... except when it did. This combination of surprise and acceptance was something I understood, and it was one of the many reasons I liked him as much as I did. 

Although I did wish he talked more. I knew he'd come from Orzammar, but he was inscrutable and quiet on that front. It seemed that, as far as he was concerned, in many ways, only life now mattered, nothing else. Since then, beyond the tavern, our brief talks, or his occasional extended and cryptic chess matches with Bull, I knew nothing at all. He'd seemingly decided that his life had started with the Inquisition.

But, well, in so many ways... so had mine.

I felt a strange kinship over the fact.

“Here. Take the other bottle,” said Cabot. His eyes met mine. "Just make sure the Inquisitor gets a few glasses," he added, with the faintest hint of a smile, as he glanced back to Dorian. I grinned as he set the fresh one pointedly by Dorian with a thump (Dorian plainly delighted by the development) then he retreated back to his usual place behind the bar, presumably to dazzle the patrons with his impressive if occasionally depressing vocabulary skills.

We were seated at a table off to the right side of the Tavern, directly opposite the door and not far from where Krem normally sat (and just the sight of his empty chair made me feel slightly bereft). There was no sign of Bull in his usual spot this evening, but the place was filled to the brim with tired Skyholders seeking a moment of escape and companionship, and Maryden’s music was welcome even if sweetly muted thanks to the low murmur and hubbub of the crowd.

Even if we hadn't just solved something wonderful for our people, it was, truly, a nice evening to be at the Herald’s Rest. A good night simply to breathe, to pause, in which to view the ways in which our people mixed and socialized with one another, barriers dissolved. Merchants and scholars, Fereldans and Orlesians, servants and nobles, dwarves and elves and humans, and even a few Templars and mages... they were all here, and all connecting, brave in their vulnerability and willingness to be goofy and embarrassed thanks to a pint and a song, all tentatively raising a glass together.

It felt strange not to see Bull or the Chargers, but Varric was scribbling off in a nook and chatting with Josie, while, off to the left, Cassandra was sipping a glass of wine with Cullen and Harding, gesturing emphatically as she (obviously) described a recent battle.

Dorian took in all those little moments around us, then sighed. I looked a question at him, and he gave me a sweet smile. Suddenly and despite his beauty, he looked as tired as me, pensive and almost sad. Yet that eternal buoyancy still sustained him. "Congratulations, darling," he said. "We did something good today."

"We did," I said. "So... why don't you look happier?"

"I am happy," he said. "We just have a lot more to do. We've accomplished Thing Five or Six... out of a thousand."

I grimaced, and he gave me the faintest ghost of a smile. "Yes. So you see... it's rather a bit concerning to think about."

"So don't think about it," I replied, a little too loudly. "Just for tonight."

"Ah. It's perhaps slightly easier said than done," he admitted.

"Please, Dorian," I said. "You said yourself you need it. We all do."

"Yes," he replied. "However, I find myself ambivalent on the actual execution."

"Hey, you were the one begging for a night out," I said with a smile. "So let's talk about something else. The latest Orlesian novel. The latest scandal from home. Something fun."

"They're all so tedious, dearest," he said. "All the same stories that end all the same ways."

I shrugged. "So talk about other people, other stories." The music paused, and I watched as Maryden, still singing, deftly and subtly tightened a lute string, her face calm and her hands practiced and graceful. I was not so good on the lute, but I loved watching a real artist, and Maryden was one of those. In seconds she had tightened the string and proceeded with her song ("Once We Were") and most of the tavern hadn't been aware of the break at all.

When I looked back, Dorian’s grey eyes were on me, and they were very keen and all too perceptive. I quailed inwardly, knowing exactly what was to come. And I'd opened the door for him just beautifully.

Gods above.

"Speaking of which..."

“All right,” I sighed. “Let me have it.”

“So... how’s love with our resident hobo apostate?” he asked.

I gritted my teeth. “I really wish Vivienne would stop calling him that.”

“Now, dear one, you know I’m only teasing because I love you,” said Dorian. His handsome face softened. “But really. It’s been far too long, we’ve been entirely too busy, and at last, I must have details. The moment when it went from all those burning glances we’d been witnessing for weeks, to actual passion! The declarations! The touches! The ancient elvenness of it all!”

I scowled, and he chuckled again. “Forgive me, Ellie, but imagine my delight that you actually had a close encounter with someone other than our Nightingale’s faithful nug!" His face softened. "You needed it, sweetness. Even if, well, it could be argued that your choice is rather humorless and tiresome.”

“He’s not humorless!” I protested. “Or tiresome. And the humor’s just, um, suble. Come on. You know this. It’s there, but it’s quiet. He can be delightful.”

“Delightful?” he chuckled. “I suppose it’s a matter of taste. Although he does have a slight dry wit. Pompous. But present.”

“How can you say this?” I demanded, a little hurt that he couldn't see the wonderfulness of Solas. “When he’s been working night and day beside you to help solve this situation and protect Skyhold?”

“I appreciate his efforts and respect his abilities,” said Dorian. “More than you know. However, Solas is not exactly a warm and fluffy bunny. I’ve met ice cubes with more personality. Let’s just say that it is not a match I would have anticipated.”

“Dorian,” I said acidly. “Please try to speak a little louder. I don’t think the entire tavern heard you.”

“Heard what?” asked a deep voice, and there were Bull and Blackwall standing across from us, bottle in hand. Dorian, coasting on wine, goodwill, and a rare victory, looked delighted.

“Pull up a chair!” he cried. “We're celebrating! And best of all, our sweet Eliaden was just about to give me the full report on her burgeoning romance with our quiet elven mage.”

"Ugh." I stilled my sparks, but nevertheless, yes, it was actually possible for me to blush even further. Which I promptly did.

"Really?" Bull looked amused. Things between me and Bull were perfectly friendly by now, but that didn’t mean I wanted him privy to my romantic life in full and glorious detail. Or anyone, for that matter. And yet, here we were.

I covered my face with my hands. “I just wanted to celebrate,” I mumbled, even as Bull and Blackwall pulled up a few chairs. The only saving grace was that poor Blackwall looked even more awkward than I felt.

“We are celebrating,” said Dorian. “It’s just that we can celebrate more than one thing at once, certainly.”

"Huh." Bull looked at us closely, suddenly all business. I jerked to attention, observing him narrowly. It was disconcerting, yes, but... well, I loved that, the razor-sharp difference between the soft, sweet guy and the master strategist. It was fun to watch, if slightly off-putting. “What is it?” he asked.

“We think we’ve figured out the wards,” I answered, glad to change the subject. “A barrier system for all of Skyhold.”

The immediate brightness, the sheer relief, on both men’s faces, Bull's and Blackwall's, was wonderful, and I instantly lost my former self-consciousness at the sight.

“Really?” asked Blackwall. “You don’t say.” I was pleased to realize the Grey Warden was actually smiling, and I clinked his tankard with mine. Blackwall always surprised me; I always thought of him as being somehow ancient yet mighty, yet the skin around his eyes was unlined, rosy and young, and I realized with surprise that he was probably not much older than Dorian—and probably of an age with Bull.

“Thanks,” I said. “We’ve been working nonstop. And we think we’ve figured it out.”

Bull exhaled slowly, his face lighter than I’d seen it in weeks. “That’s very good news, Boss.” He tapped my tankard with his own as well, softly and with an almost comical carefulness. I'd noticed this about him before—as a big man, he was capable of a huge array of responses. He could be blunt and brash, smashing the entire area of effect if required, or reaching out to salvage some small flowering plant or fragile creature. There was always this sense of control, either way, of a physical machine capable of absolute obliteration, and that his control of himself was a tangible thing. It scared me (rarely). But I liked it, and I did again now.

“Any word from Krem?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” said Bull. “They want us to reconnoiter with them in a week or so. If it’s safe to do so. There’s a rift that needs closing, but more than that, there’s something Krem thinks we should see.”

He looked disquieted for the moment, and I sobered as I met his eye, appreciating the fact that he was letting us see his concern openly. I knew it was a gesture of trust. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Aw, nothing. Although it'd be great if you can get back out in the field, Boss."

"I can," I said. "I can definitely do that, at this point. But what else?"

"Okay." The slightest pause. "Well. So... Par Vollen’s been a little insistent,” he said. “A little antsier than usual. Again. I’m getting more ravens on a weekly basis.” He paused. "Maybe... a lot of ravens. More than I should be."

“Why?” I asked, genuinely mystified. “The reports are going back to them, surely?”

“Of course,” he said. “But I don’t think they quite understand the gravity of what we’re dealing with here, with this Fade threat. They keep asking me about Corypheus. Nothing else. Just him. Like they think we’re off picnicking and chasing hares, pursuing some minor distraction, when if anything, it’s the other way around. He's not our main worry. I knew that before, and I know it now.”

"I agree," I said softly.

"Because it's true," he said in a quiet voice. "But you have to be here to know it."

A pause. I thought about it, and what to do.

“Have you talked to Leliana?” I asked, hesitantly.

“Red?” he asked. “Yeah, she’s aware. And I’m continuing to keep them informed. I just hope they don’t become a nuisance.”

I nodded. “Keep me posted if there’s anything we need to do,” I said.

“Will do,” he agreed.

"Thanks," I said. "I'll do what I can." At that, Bull's eye met mine, and there was that brief and yet searing moment of connection I'd somehow felt with him all these months, still bright and present, if no longer charged with that other direct and blazing sensual aspect I'd seen before... and I was grateful for it now. I might doubt many things in our turbulent Thedas. But despite his divided loyalties... I just could not doubt Bull.

He gave me another subtle half-smile, a gift from Bull, and I raised my mug. Dorian, however, was having none of this.

“But enough of the Qun,” cried Dorian. “Let us talk about our triumph today!”

“Because it was glorious!” I cried, and took a sip of the wine. Yep. Still lovely. And another sip. Well, maybe more than a sip. Because it was amazing. Even Solas would've approved.

“It was,” he replied. “You see, Bull and Blackwall, while you’ve been training warriors and managing recruits in the crisp open air, we’ve been battling the odds as the loveliest little misfit magical collective you can think of, trapped heroically in the depths of the Undercroft for days at a time. So many hours of work and enchantment—and sparks!” A swift, humorous glance at me. “And now at last, we’re only steps from the solution! And then, hopefully in just a few more days, we can all get some much-deserved rest. After you express your eternal worship and gratitude, of course.”

“I never thought I’d see the day when I valued sleep over sex,” said Bull, musing. “But that day has definitely arrived.”

“Speaking of sex,” said Dorian, grinning, and meeting my eyes with his merry pale ones, which were so striking against his beautiful russet skin. Oh, no no no no. “Let’s get back to the real subject at hand: While you’ve been bedding a significant population here at Skyhold, Iron Bull, and while I’m happy to say I’ve had my own occasional romantic adventures here and there as well—our darling Inquisitor has finally taken the leap at sex with Solas.”

“Oh, gods below,” I cried, then tried to drink all the wine in my tankard as fast as possible.

“Maybe she doesn’t want to talk about it,” said Blackwall. I mentally blessed him and made a note to stop teasing him about his beard.

“She wants to talk about it,” said Dorian.

I glared at him. "Seriously?"

“Besides,” Dorian said, and I realized he was, first off, absolutely drunk, and secondly, that all bets of silence were off. In other words, yeah, I was in trouble. “ Besides... you ought to see the two of them together. So elven and solemn and passionate! The hidden glances! The shy touches! The sexual tension! The Dalish endearments! But so tragic. No fun at all.”

“The endearments are not Dalish!” I said haughtily, struggling for dignity. “But elven. Also, my Tevinter friend, you have had enough for one evening...”

“Oh, pish posh," said Dorian.

"Dorian!" I cried, outraged.

"Drunk or sober, do you see what I mean?" he asked.

Yeah,” said Bull, grinning.

“Let’s just say that Sera would retch at the sight of them,” said Dorian.

“Hey!” I said. “We’re not that elfy.”

Dorian merely looked at me, dark eyebrows raised in a perfect arch of incredulity. Damn him.

“Well, okay,” I admitted.

"Yeees?" asked Dorian. I would kill him later. KILL him. But... well, for now... honesty was okay with me. I met his eyes and managed not to throw fireballs.

“We’re..." I drew breath, then plowed forward. "Okay, yeah. We're pretty elfy. You utterly Tevinter ass.”

“As I said,” he smiled.

“Yeah, but we’re not tragic,” I added, scowling.

“Tragic?” asked Bull. His voice was deeper than before, solemn and worried, and his eye caught mine, snagging mine and holding it. Before that intensity, I flushed, unexpectedly. “Tragic how?”

Dorian frowned. “Well,” he said, meeting my eyes (and suddenly the smirk was gone, the light joking quality, and he was simply quiet and concerned, even possibly more sober momentarily). “It turns out that, um, our dear Inquisitor’s Anchor may not be, exactly, beneficial to her health.”

It was like he'd dropped an anvil onto the table. Shit.

"Wait," I said. "He's overstating things. None of this is new. We're all good." I exhaled slowly and tried to be casual, shrugging. "Look. It's fine. It’s not like it was a secret,” I said. “I’ve always known it.”

Bull’s face didn’t change, but he somehow grew sharper and more focused. “And?”

“Nothing,” I said, exasperated. “Some of the solutions we’re implementing may… speed that up a bit.”

Bull made a vague rumble but said nothing, simply glancing back from me to Dorian and back again, his expression closed but forbidding. "Hrrrrmmfff."

“I’m truly sorry, my lady,” said Blackwall.

“It’s all right,” I said hastily. “Please, it’s fine. It’s nothing to worry about. At least not right now.”

“And I must say,” added Dorian. “That Solas seemed quite upset about it, to his credit.”

“We’re not tragic,” I tried again. “We’re…”

“Yes?”

“Serious.”

“My dearest darling warrior-queen,” said Dorian. “That is what concerns me. You amused Justinia with a child’s spell at the Conclave. You stood on a table at Halamshiral to give a toast to the Orlesian court and may or may not have recited a Dalish limerick…”

Bull chuckled. "I forgot about that," he admitted, grinning. "Good times."

“It was a poem,” I muttered.

Dorian continued forward, undeterred. "You wore halla pajamas and a blanket to a public wake..."

"It was a very nice blanket!" I cried. "A ridiculous blanket. Seriously. And it was so gold it crackled.":

"You sent King Alistair a cheese wheel the size of a druffalo for his birthday—”

“He likes cheese!” I protested. “Everybody knows that.”

“I merely observe that it is, perhaps, a surprising match.”

“I’m not an idiot, Dorian,” I said, stung. I felt a little depressed for a moment, the felasil again. “Contrary to all appearances. And I’m certainly fully capable of being serious when the moment requires.”

“You mistake me, my pretty one,” said Dorian, and his voice was soft.

I met his eyes angrily. "Some celebration this is. You don't even credit me with the ability to choose my own lovers."

"Hear me out." His voice was soft, so I didn't explode the bottle at my table or make a scene. But I felt despair, anyway, inwardly, hidden as best I could (even if it wasn't a talent of mine). I adored Dorian. Buit if he hated my connection with Solas, this was not a small thing to me.

"We were supposed to be celebrating," I said, meeting his eyes. "You're being unfair."

"Yes," he said, glancing briefly at Bull, who nodded for reasons I could not understand. I yelled inwardly in frustration at this additional evidence of an entirely unfair prejudice against Solas, but waited. "But I am your friend," he added. "I am allowed to worry. And when you will not talk to me elsewhere... perhaps this pub will do."

"Oof," I said, more than a little angry. This was not a night of forgetfulness, but of remembrance, for all the wrong reasons. Still, I looked up and met Dorian's beautiful eyes squarely. "All right then," I said. "I await your critiques. Mock, chide, joke, you ass. Fire away. I'm yours."

“Sweetness, I do not wonder what he sees in you," said Dorian. His voice was gentle in reply, and stopped short any reply I might have made in haste. "Rather," he said, meeting my eyes unexpectedly, and the fierce glint of grey met mine and I paused anything else I might've said.

"Ell," he said. "Listen. You wrong me. I simply wonder what you see in him.”

Meeting that silver gaze, the affection there stopped me from the sharp retort I’d been about to give. Then Cabot came over and set down another bottle, and (cheering inwardly) I poured another tankard for courage, then took a deep breath. “All right. I see lots of things. For one thing, he’s beautiful,” I said, speaking slowly and thoughtfully. “And he’s different in private, not what you expect. He’s brilliant and passionate, not cold at all—in fact, very much the opposite. And there’s humor there, and playfulness. We talk about things, and argue about things, and it’s poetic and maddening and yet like no conversations I’ve ever had before.”

I paused, slightly. “And when I’m with him I…” I found I could not look at any of them, and wished I hadn’t begun the thought. I stared into the curiously beautiful depths of my tankard, into the crimson swishes of wine there, like blood. But drinkable. No harm done. Just to me.

“What?” asked Bull.

“I… lose myself,” I admitted.

Sparks galore. Bull smiled. Dorian chuckled outright. Me, I died a little. Again. Damn, damn, damn. When would I get to hide my stupid self? Why was everything a battle for transparence, for honesty? We lived in a world in which nobody was honest. Well, except me. The notoriously awful liar. 

So I did what I could. I covered my show of emotion by taking another drink. And then two more.

“Ah.” Dorian considered for a moment, and I could see him weighing another onslaught of devilish humor and whether I would survive it. I, meanwhile, had steeled myself with wine and gazed back steadily.

"Yes?"

Abruptly, he relented. I watched it happen. As if he suddenly remembered where he was and who I was. Dorian's face lost its mischievous expression, and he gave me quite a different smile, a softer one even as he touched my hand with is. “On the other hand, my darling,” he said, almost reluctantly. “It is good to see you appreciated. And I see the way you look at him… and the way he looks at you.”

I startled in spite of myself. “How does he look at me?” I asked, before I’d even known I was going to do it. But I couldn't help it. "How?"

Dorian smiled with only the faintest smirk at the edges. “Like he’s afraid to wake up. As if he’s afraid to lose you,” he said. “So as such, the romance has my approval. You may continue.”

“Thanks so much,” I said dryly, even if I was still trying to process what he'd revealed to me. “I appreciate your permission.”

“You know,” said Dorian conversationally to Bull, and I was dismayed to see that the devilish sparkle was back in his eyes. “They’re even, dare I say it… actually a little sexy together.”

Bull chuckled softly, while Blackwall looked deep into his tankard as if hoping to see his future written there. I was amused to see that I wasn’t the only one blushing.

“Really?” asked Bull. “Does she talk about toast?”

That did it. I took another swig of the wine and wished myself far, far, far away. No change. Once again, my magic was letting me down. And worse, I knew I was a little tipsy from all the sips I’d taken to avoid embarrassment, and probably moments from further humiliation as a result.

“This is unfair,” I said into the depths of my tankard. “I don’t know why it’s so shocking.”

“What?” asked Bull, chuckling.

“One bad flirt and I’m branded for life!” I cried.

“It was a very bad flirt,” said Bull. “Seriously, Boss. In fact, it was several.”

“This doesn’t surprise me at all,” commented Dorian.

"Whatever," I said. I frowned, then brightened. “Solas likes the way I flirt.”

“Really?” asked Bull.

“Absolutely.”

“What did you say?” He really looked interested. 

“I told him I wanted a lesson in proximity,” I said smugly, and was irritated when Dorian snickered.

However, Bull looked pleased and impressed. “Not bad. You’ve definitely upped your game, Boss.”

“Thank you,” I said, grinning back. “I thought so.”

A pause. I could hear Maryden singing “Sera Never” and found myself hoping that Sera wouldn’t hear this time. It was such a happy tune, and a few people had even gotten up to dance.

“So how is it?” asked Dorian.

“How’s what?” I asked, confused.

“The sex. We’re all dying to know.”

“Oh…” I choked a little on my wine, and it was hard to say which more alarmed Blackwall—Dorian’s question, or my reaction.

I’m not dying to know,” said Blackwall hastily. “Just so you know, my lady.”

“I appreciate that, Blackwall,” I said. “I’ve always liked you.”

“Thank you, my lady.”

“Come on,” said Dorian.

It’s a horrible thing when you know a blush is happening. And that there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop it.

Dorian took one glance at my face, then met Bull’s eye, appalled. “Oh dear,” said Dorian.

I put my face down on the table. It felt cool against my cheek.

“No,” said Bull. “You don’t mean that…”

“They haven’t done it yet,” said Dorian.

“Please just let me die here,” I said into my arms, my voice muffled.

Dorian hauled me back up by the back of my tunic.

“Sorry, darling, it was just a shock.”

“So who’s the holdout?” asked Bull, amused. “You, or him?”

I grinned at him in spite of myself, the wine giving me that infinite and brief confidence I'd only experienced otherwise in battle. “You’re probably thinking it’s me,” I said loftily. “Well, it’s not. I am very much in favor of sex and have been throwing myself at him for two weeks now.”

“Okay,” said Bull, his mouth quirking slightly. “Good to know, Boss.”

Dorian laughed. “The fact that he doesn’t want to sleep with you is really not something to brag about, sweetness.”

“Oh, he wants to,” I said with confidence. “He does. He really does. Also, this wine is terrific, by the way.”

I reached for the bottle again but Dorian moved it deftly. “Perhaps let’s take it a bit slower on the wine, darling?”

I sighed. “Look. Everything’s fine. We’re just taking it slow.”

“Boss,” said Bull, and for a brief moment that dangerous glint was back in his eye. “You’re in the middle of a real live apocalypse. If you have the chance for some happiness, or simply to bounce on someone’s mattress and take your brain away… Do. It. Go and get it.

“I know,” I said. Suddenly I was depressed again. What was wrong with me? It was a worthy question. I found myself suddenly near tears, and terrified that they'd show to the table.

“Speaking as a bystander,” said Dorian, who surprised me by coming to my rescue, “I do think our quiet elven apostate will succumb eventually. The endearments have been increasing in volume. For instance, what was the thing he called you today?” he asked me. “That word?”

I stared at him, forgetting my own emotion and struck by the reminder. I hadn’t even caught it at the time. “Vhenan,” I whispered. I blinked my wet eyelashes. No reason for anyone else to see what the questions had cost me. "He said vhenan," I said again, more steadily.

“What?” asked Bull.

I struggled to act casual. “He… he called me vhenan,” I said. “It means ‘heart,’ or ‘home.’” I felt myself grow warm again. “It is… it’s a special word.”

“Well,” smiled Dorian.

“Well, that’s encouraging…” said Bull, and I looked up, surprised to see him smiling. He appraised me openly for a moment, then he looked back to Dorian. “I don’t pretend to understand what’s going on there, exactly,” he said to him. “But I think I like it.”

I stared at him.

Dorian surprised me by smiling as well. “So do I.”

“You like what?” I asked, directing the question at them both.

“That you’re happy,” Bull said. “I don’t think I’ve seen that before.”

“Oh,” I said, at a loss, but pleased in spite of myself. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it,” he said, with that swift flash of his eye to mine. Then he grinned and called for another bottle and the world was normal again.

Vhenan,” added Dorian wickedly, and he ducked as I threw my empty tankard at him.

Chapter Text

The magic flared with a rush like the promising sound of wingbeats, a delicate green bubble of fire, gorgeous in its precision… then faded away around the artifact.

Boom. Dead.

Depressingly… done.

Needless to say… this was not the outcome we had expected.

Fasta vass!” Dorian shook his head, the dark curls falling into his pale eyes so that he looked even more like a romantic hero. Even in despair and exhaustion, he was beautiful beyond the dreams of most mortals, and I grinned in spite of myself at the careless generosity of it all.

Meanwhile, Solas’s eyes, very blue today, met my desire for beauty in another way as he fixed them on the now-motionless artifact. He looked at the globe in the device's core even as it died and went motionless and dark again, and his gaze beneath the straight dark brows was as intense and precise as one of Fiona's fire spells.

“We’re doing everything right!” Dorian said. “Everything, as far as I can see.”

“The language is old,” I said, attempting to comfort him. “Even the smallest inadvertent inaccuracy or change in our Tevene translation may be what’s causing it.” I looked the question at him, and his mouth tightened.

“I translated it myself,” said Dorian. “It is archaic but not unintelligible. Ancient Tevene, and I know it well. What we’re doing should work. According to every word we can see on the pages.” He sighed again. "It should work."

But it wasn’t working.

The truth was, we’d started celebrating, perhaps, a bit too early.  Because the spell, so beautifully understandable on the pages of Dorian’s ancient book, refused to fully cooperate when it came to activating the artifacts to operate at a steady, sustainable level. Instead, they started brightly, yet with the slightest irregularity to the rotation… and then died. Some aspect, some movement or interpretation, was still off, unfathomable to any of us. We’d been doing everything right; everything was apparent and clear, as far as we could see.

And yet… nothing was sustainable.

“I wonder...” said Solas, still staring down from the artifact, to the pages of the spell.

I tried to imagine Tevinter centuries back. It wasn’t that hard. It didn’t feel all that far from a year ago, truth be told. In my mind, I saw a shadowy chamber, a forbidding figure, a spell… a ritual, maybe. I shivered. After all, a slave, or slaves, would surely also have been present. I felt, unsurprisingly, no sudden wish to travel there.

“What if it’s the conditions of the spell that are different somehow?” I asked. “Where would they have cast it then? Would they have done anything different?”

“Time of day, setting, temperature?” asked Solas. “It’s possible. This is, after all, a unique enchantment.”

Morrigan looked thoughtful, and ran a finger lightly over the now-quiet artifact. “’Tis a good question,” she said. “Master Pavus?”

“Hmmm,” said Dorian. “Well, the manuscript seems to date from 1020 to 1030 TE or so…”

“So, pre-Chantry, as you suspected,” said Morrigan. “When conditions may have been quite different from those we present.”

“Ancient Tevene or no, there are no references to specific conditions,” answered Dorian, puzzled and irritated. “The spell should give us everything we require.”

“Well,” I commented. “If it was Dalish, we’d have more information.” I was perversely a little pleased inwardly to see that both Solas and Dorian looked disgruntled at this, and laughed. “We notate settings and seasons when it comes to spells.”

“A fair point,” chuckled Morrigan. “And the elves know much. But it is getting late…”

“Once more,” said Solas, interrupting. “Once more. And I shall try, in this particular attempt, to add an elemental twist to the spell, so that this, perhaps, will sustain the rotation.”

He cast the spell again, this time with a graceful, slight corkscrew spin of his staff. And once more, the pale green fire flared brightly and the fragile, curved barrier-shape appeared above it in miniature… then died.

We all looked down at the already slowing artifact, and made various noises. I sighed. Morrigan growled. Dorian made a sound like “hrrrrrrm.”

Same result. Nothing. Solas’s latest variation was one of dozens we’d attempted over the past few days. And once again, it had failed.

We just couldn’t figure it out. The spell would begin gorgeously, the artifacts would spin, and then… they’d just go dark. As if the spell lacked a power source we couldn't quite see or envision. But what?

We were, however temporarily… stuck. Right on the cusp of victory.

Solas sighed, and finally took his eyes from the artifact. “It is late,” he said. “And weariness profits none of us, especially weariness on top of weariness.” Still, his hand moved restlessly over the artifact's orb, as if he could not rest until it did what he commanded. Moved by his tiredness even more than my own, I went over to him and put my hand over his, quieting him. His eyes met mine again, and he nodded slightly, as if in acceptance. Then he sighed, and as he did, so did we all. We were beyond tired, and the hour was late.

"He's right. We should rest," I said.

“True,” said Morrigan. She looked even paler than usual, and I felt suddenly sorry for her, balancing both child and research these many hours.

“Morrigan,” I said, hesitantly.

“Yes, my lady?” she asked.

“You know... you could bring Kieran to the Undercroft next time,” I said. “If it helps. On long days. And we can find him things to do in the meantime as well, to keep him entertained.”

She looked startled, then gratified me with the rare flash of a full smile, the golden eyes warm and appreciative.

“Truly?” she asked.

“Of course,” I said. “I don’t know why I didn’t mention it before. You shouldn’t have to be apart from him for so long as we work this out.”

“Kieran is an observant child,” added Solas. “His insights may even prove beneficial in the long term.”

“Does he like toys?” asked Dagna.

Morrigan looked thoughtful. "He enjoys the little stuffed Orlesian toy Leliana gave him. And Blackwall made him a wooden bear of which he is quite fond." She shrugged. "I did not have toys, myself, so I am somewhat at a loss where they are concerned."

“Hmm," said Dagna. She pulled out a tattered parchment of notes, as if it might help. Not a blueprint, I realized, but an inventory list. I looked over and saw Dorian grin at the realization, as well. "I make toys all the time. I wonder what he'd like."

I laughed in spite of myself. "Dagna. You make toys?"

Her eyes narrowed in laughter but I could see she was puzzled by my question. "Of course I do," she answered. "You cannot solve large problems until you work out the small ones." Her wide eyes met mine. "Isn't that true?"

I flushed, embarrassed, suddenly, at my cynicism. "You're right," I said. "Ignore me."

Morrigan, meanwhile, watched with a steady inscrutable expression, then she seemed to soften as she realized Dagna's genuine enthusiasm. “My son does not spurn the idea of a toy from time to time,” she confessed, brilliant eyes narrowed. “What of it?”

“Well,” said Dagna excitedly. “I have this new device that would allow him to draw in the air with lines of different-colored smoke. Or I can simply give him one of my flying constructs to play with.”

Morrigan stared at her, somewhat at a loss, realizing that Dagna had not been teasing her in any way. “Flying constructs…?”

“Here,” said Dagna, and she ran up the small flight of stairs to the deep storage chest by the door. “Like these.” She pulled out a cleverly jointed, purple toy dragon and waved it at Morrigan. “Give him this and see if he likes it!”

“Give him…?” asked Morrigan, hesitantly. Yet even as she did so, her jaw dropped, as Dagna gently tossed the tiny purple beast in the air and it promptly began to beat its wooden wings heavily over to Morrigan. I laughed in sheer delight as the little toy flew high and then low, dipping and then soaring. It reached her shoulder clumsily, perching awkwardly, and Morrigan caught it with her hand just before it tumbled off. The little dragon promptly looked genuinely embarrassed, covering its face with a purple wooden wing.

“Do you think he’d like it?” asked Dagna, anxiously. “I can send him something else. A talking puzzle. A crystal dog that fetches. But that one's got a lyrium core. Oh! And I have a new scabbard that spawns a blade every time you draw. But… it’s not as much fun.”

“No, no need, my friend.” Morrigan’s smile broke out again, warmly, even as she folded the frail wooden wings down carefully and wrapped it in a piece of soft cloth. “He will love it,” she said. “I thank you. I will take it to him this very eve.”

“Sorry about the wings,” added Dagna. “I’m still working them out, so she can't fly far.”

“’Tis no trouble,” answered Morrigan, still staring at the intricacy of the lovely little creature. "Nevertheless, 'tis quite charming." I restrained myself from asking for one for myself. At least, in public.

“Dagna has the right idea,” I said matter-of-factly, wrenching my eyes from the toy. “We can try again in the morning. Let’s all get some much-needed rest.”

“I may do some more reading,” said Dorian. “I want to make sure I’m not missing something.”

“Dorian,” I said softly. “Get some rest. Get under a Barriers cast and get some sleep.”

“Yes, yes, little one,” he said, frustrated, before giving me a wan smile. “I will. I just want to check a few more things… recheck them…”

“We can do some more research,” I said. “Tomorrow. And try again. Tomorrow.

Morrigan shoved her heavy dark bangs away from her sweaty forehead. The room was close and warm for winter, as we’d overfueled the fires throughout the chamber both for enchantment purposes (and for something to do). “The Inquisitor is right. I for one shall do so,” she declared. “Me, and my new pet here,” she added with a smile. “Tiredness breeds mistakes. I intend to go for a walk in the garden, to spend some time with my son, and to address the dilemma again on the morrow.”

We straggled out of the Undercroft into the blessed coolness of the wide and airy main Skyhold passageway, and I found myself walking into the Rotunda with Solas before I’d even realized where I was going. Dorian, too, was with us through the entry, until he turned to the stairs up to the second level without a farewell. As he did so, I could hear him muttering, “It should work. It should work. Vishante kaffas. It should work.”

“Good night,” I called, but he didn’t answer. Faintly, as he climbed the staircase, I heard the words again, in a sigh, a whisper, a fear: “It should work. What am I missing? It. Should. Work.”

I knew how he felt. What were we missing?

We had the solution.

What—what—what—was wrong?

I turned back to see Solas standing motionless in the center of the golden torchlight beside his desk, shoulders slumped. I’d never seen him so visibly beaten before. So drained.

Looking at Solas's beautiful frescoes alive on the walls around us, I suddenly remembered my long-ago talk with Bull on the battlements, and how I’d pressed myself against those walls and called upon Skyhold to strengthen me. Something about that memory struck me, and I went impulsively over to a clean patch of wall, where no fresco yet lay. Cold, clean stone, overlaid with thin smooth plaster. A surface apparently smooth but pitted by the years. Readable to the fingertips.

“Solas," I said. "Come here—I want to show you something.”

He looked up, then shook his head slightly, as if to clear it. “Yes, vhenan?”

Above us, the ravens rustled the Rookery, and I smiled in spite of myself. It felt as if they wanted to be noticed. Perhaps they were simply tired too. For the tiniest of moments, I loved them.

“Come here,” I said. “And I’ll show you.”

He looked the question at me, and I relished this small moment of victory as he looked mystified. "You'll show me?"

"Yes," I smiled. "Or, rather, Skyhold will."

His eyes met mine. Not distrustful, just... curious. "And how will it do that?" he asked.

I smiled. "Trust me."

 

Chapter Text

Visibly intrigued by my request, Solas came over to watch me, his straight, heavy auburn brows drawing together over his eyes in mystification. I took his hand and flattened it gently against the chilly stone wall under mine, then I slowly pulled my hand away and watched him, waiting for his reaction.

He stayed there for a moment, his unmistakable profile as pale and pure as marble against the shadows beyond, before he stirred, almost as if waking from a dream. “What is this?” he asked, the corner of his mouth moving in a half-smile as he glanced over at me.

“It’s something I do sometimes. Something I’ve discovered,” I said. “Skyhold. It’s like… it knows. There’s…” And then I faltered in spite of myself. 

I looked back to his eyes and saw the waiting softness there. “What is it?” he asked quietly. "Tell me."

I hesitated, then responded honestly. “I know it sounds crazy,” I said. “But… there's magic in these walls. If you need strength, this place... it’ll give it back to you when you need it.”

He looked down for a moment, then away, watching his fresco of the pooled shadow to our left, the image of the danger approaching Skyhold, almost as if he expected the painting itself to move.

"Sou'i've'an," he said with a sigh, as if it were both a condemnation and a blessing in a single word. Then he turned away from the shadows to glance back over at me again, a sudden bloom of color high on his cheekbones in some emotion I couldn't define.

His hand was still lightly on the wall, his fingers spread, gently, as if testing the surface under his fingertips. His hands were beautiful, long-fingered and strong, with flattened joints and squared fingertips. As I watched, I was unexpectedly caught off guard, mesmerized as I so often was, simply by watching him. I felt a confused desire to be that surface, waiting for that touch of his hand. I wanted to be the one to give him strength. To be touched and to be known.

Meanwhile, Solas looked at his hand against the wall and froze, motionless—as if caught in some memory of his own.

"What is it?" I asked.

The slightest pause. "Nadas," he said. "Or, no—not nothing. You simply surprised me."

I grinned. "I like surprising you. You aren't exactly someone who goes around looking astonished at things, after all."

His face lightened, and that solemn, almost brooding expression vanished. "Little do you know, da'mis," he said, smiling. "Believe it or not, I am frequently astonished at the world in which I find myself."

"So am I," I said ruefully.

"But tell me—Skyhold, the power you sense. How did you discover this?” He raised his hand, then ran it lightly down the cool surface of the wall, more slowly this time, then pulled away as he turned to face me more fully.

“I—it’s something I began to do sometimes,” I said. “When I was new here, and scared… or when times have been hard, or frightening, I’ve reached out, rarely, just a few times, as if for strength, and it always feels as if Skyhold is waiting, trying to give me something back.” I hesitated. “There is magic in these walls. I know it sounds childish, or silly... but I feel something… it’s elemental and it’s real. Skyhold responds.”

“It is not foolish,” he said. His voice was rougher than usual—tired, almost angry. "It is not foolish," he repeated more softly. He turned away from me for a moment, pivoting as if to walk away… then turned back, neatly as a deft move of dance or magic, and I saw that he was irritated, in some hidden way that had nothing to do with me. At himself, perhaps, although I could not understand why.

“It is real," he said. "You are not mistaken." A hint of a tired smile played at the corners of his mouth.

I found myself smiling well, in spite of his momentary grimness, pleased and surprised at his acceptance of my theory. “Then I’m not crazy?”

“Not at all,” he said. "It is, in fact, an ancient magic whose knowledge has been lost. Or so I have seen in the Fade.”

I pondered what he said, trying to think of everything I'd ever known of magical sites and their powers. He stood easily where he was, the tiredness still apparent in his face, but with that ease and sense of agelessness, as if he could wait forever, as if he would not give in to his own exhaustion where questions might be asked or answers given.

"Ancient magic..." I echoed.

"And you have recognized it," he said, stepping back closer to me, so that we faced each other beside the organized chaos of his desk. His eyes met mine. "Tell me how." Never dependable in their color, Solas's eyes were now very grey, almost silver. Hints of gold in the center of the iris thanks to the torchlight. Sometimes those eyes looked bottomless, unfathomable; yet now they were young, accessible, a stream one could wade in without drowning.

So I did. "All right," I said, smiling. "I give up. I don't know how. I just... knew it. So explain it to me."

He reached up and placed his hand on my left shoulder, then let his hand drift down toward my heart, which, of course, instantly galloped. He didn't respond to this beyond a slight gleam in his eye, and instead tilted his head slightly, as if listening beneath the silence or trying to figure something out. I was strongly reminded of our former lessons together, and now, as then, that little hint of wickedness was back in his face as well, that enjoyment of combat.

“Your magic is stronger than you admit, as are your instincts,” he said. “It is useless and counterproductive for you to attempt to hide those facts... so why do you do so?" 

I caught the hint of amusement in his face and scowled, stepping back from his hand. "Fenedhis." Despite my best efforts, I felt myself go warm at his words and knew that cursed blush of mine was visible. Yet still... I somehow couldn't bring myself to answer right away. Just a few, faint sparks before I could quiet them.

"Come," he said, smiling as if I'd answered him. "Tell me why.”

Fine. Brutal honesty, then. “Among  the Dalish,” I said, “I…”

“Yes?” he asked.

“I kept my magic secret,” I admitted. “For as long as I could. It was my el’las’in. Mine and mine alone.”

“But why?” he asked.

“I didn’t want to be a Keeper,” I said. “Or a leader. I… I was terrified when I realized I was a mage. All I could see was a trap.”

“You felt no joy in the power itself?” he asked.

“Ye-es,” I said hesitantly. “When I was alone. Of course. And I loved it. But I knew to be discovered would mean that I would almost certainly be tied to a formal role within the clan. Or sent away to serve another one. And I wanted neither of those things.”

“Really?” he asked. “No power? You wanted none at all? It would have been so easy…”

Gods, no,” I answered, horrified. “Much less a life planned out and handed over like a jail sentence, a punishment.”

“I see,” he said. I was not so sure he did, however, watching his face. 

“Do you really?” I asked.

“I am not entirely sure,” he replied.

I shrugged. “I just didn’t want it.”

“Truly?”

“Yes,” I answered. “I didn’t want a future with the clan. We had Taerethi and Faellin, you see, who were wise as well as powerful..." I swallowed, in spite of myself. Suddenly their faces were so clearly before me—even gone... even after all these months. I tried to calm myself, and his eyes, still very silver in the dim light, gave me what I needed.

After a moment, I was able to continue. "I had no wish to challenge their roles or change the status quo, nor did I want to inherit their roles. I always knew I would leave one day. So the magic terrified me because I knew the likelihood was that I’d be trapped into a function I’d never wanted. For the good of the clan.”

I laughed in spite of myself. “Of course, this was before the Mark.” I heard my voice and realized that I didn’t even sound bitter anymore.

“How long were you able to hide it?” he asked.

I remembered back. Closed my eyes.

For mages, memory is magic—instant, sweet as nectar or as hot and coppery as blood on the tongue. And so I saw it all again in a flash: The grey-green leaves of the trees above me, the shelter and canopy, the sound of the rain against the leaves, how I’d go and practice in the deepest parts of the forest, alone. The exhilaration of each new discovery accompanied by the constant fear that someone else would see. And yet, the burgeoning knowledge of what I could do, those flashes of power, mine alone. Mine.

“I think I was about fifteen,” I said. “I'd managed to hide it for four years or more at that point, so I… when the realization of my powers came out, I was already nearly grown. And everyone knew I wanted to leave by then, so there was no issue with my staying a few more years, until my coming of age, although perhaps there would've been, in other clans."

"And then?" he asked.

I shrugged. "And then I left.”

"And yet," said Solas, "you do not seem to glory in solitude, as some do."

I met his eye and grinned. "Well," I said. "I don't make an art of it. As some do."

The slight lift of an eyebrow as he gave me the half-smile again, sharp as daggers. "Let us just say that you seem to enjoy the company and bustle of Skyhold more perhaps than I."

"I do," I said. "And I also like being able to leave it behind." Then I chuckled again. "Although I'd give anything to see you in the Herald's Rest, in the moments when Bull is roaring and the entire place is singing the Chargers song and Sera's dropped half a bottle of wine down the stairs and Varric and Cassandra are arguing about the Knight-Captain's latest heartbreak in Swords & Shields..."

He looked amused again, then stepped back close to me, as if waiting for a secret.

"You were telling me why you left," he said quietly.

I met his eyes, and nodded. "I simply... left. At that point, everyone knew it was all I wanted, and they were kind enough to allow it. They could have been difficult about it, citing the greater good, but my clan was a gentle one. I wanted to see the world, and they supported that dream. Life in the clan felt so... furtive. And so I left. I became a true apostate. I wandered for several years, practiced my magic, returned periodically to my clan in short visits, and began studying herblore on the Storm Coast."

"I see," he said. "And you continued to hide your magic through necessity as an apostate."

"Yes," I said. "And I was able to do so for several years without incident. For some years, at least." I glanced almost subconsciously over at the fresco of the mages and templars, then back to Solas. "Hiding my powers—it just became a habit. I suppose I’d gotten used to the idea of my magic as something private, as something for me to conceal or excuse. Which was just as well, especially when I found myself in towns or villages. I had a very handy bit of netting and canvas that fitted well over the head of my staff, and a few words of concealment turned it into a bundle of harmless fishing equipment, certainly not unusual for the area.”

"I understand the necessity to hide your power away," he said. "But there is danger in it too. As in the parable about the man who limped as part of his disguise... until he discovered that he could no longer walk without it."

"I know," I said. "It's always a danger. A pretended weakness can all too often become a real one."

“Well,” he said. “Whether hidden or brought forth to the light, the fact remains that you yourself are strong,” he said. “Stronger than you like to admit. There is…”

“What?” I asked, both interested and half-afraid to hear his judgment.

“There is a—a wildness, really, to your magic,” he said. “It is, like your sparks, unusual to an elemental mage of your years.”

“You talk as if I’m a da’len,” I laughed. “You aren’t exactly in your dotage, yourself.” Then I sobered. “I have abilities, and I do acknowledge them. But… I didn’t study. Life away from Circles or formal tutelage means you are potentially weaker for what you don’t know. So I’ve been a little intimidated here, careful not to make assumptions.” I glanced up to the shadowed second level of the Rotunda high above us, where the library was. “One thing my time in the Inquisition has given me is an appreciation for lore,” I said. “I am ignorant on so much actual scholarship. I can always learn more.”

He smiled. “Scholarship is one thing, ability is another.”

I was quiet for a long moment, pondering this. "Thank you," I said.

"I do not give the compliment idly," he said. 

"I know," I replied, then hesitated. “So you believe me when I say there is a magic in these walls.”

“Oh, yes,” he said. There was the faintest thread of sadness in his voice that I could not quite understand.

I turned and stepped back over to the cool and waiting wall of the Rotunda where it shone, pale and clean in the golden torchlight. Up close, the illusion of perfection faded slightly, and I could still see the texture of the stone beneath the creamy plaster, and how its surface was gently pitted with age..

“So if you believe me," I said, "then humor me and ask this place to give you the strength you need in this moment.” I raised my right hand to the wall's surface before me, feeling as if I were touching the cool skin of some massive sleeping beast. There was, as always, a sense of life there.

Solas came over to stand beside me, so that we were facing the wall shoulder to shoulder, then reached back again with his left hand, and spread his fingers on the stone. We did not touch, but my fingers vibrated lightly in the space beside his, as if waiting for magic.

He surprised me then by inhaling deeply, then closing his eyes. Listening. Waiting. Even as Skyhold waited.

I should have closed my own eyes, but I didn’t want to. I just wanted to watch him, to stand this close and to breathe his scent and to watch the torchlight on his eyelashes.

An indefinable and strange moment. There was an odd hush—not a charge or spark of magic, exactly, but a subtle and silent sense of energy… more an infusion than a rush. A feeling of focus, as if our hands were the epicenter of some quiet breath of power.

And then the castle seemed to breathe again around us. Expanding slightly and relaxing once more, as if we'd briefly wakened my sleeping beast from its dreaming and now it slept again.

We stayed as we were for a moment. Then, after a moment, he drew breath, and looked up to catch me watching him.

“Did it help?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said smiling. He sighed again, but this time it was somehow a positive one, a healing release of tension. He looked back to our hands, so close, yet separate against the pale plaster, and he moved his hand so that it covered mine.

Then he dropped our hands, still linked, and turned to kiss me, his lips silken and sweet and slow. I smiled and leaned into him, and his arms went around me.

Ma serannas, vhenan,” he whispered. He brought his lips to my hair, my ear, my neck, his arms tightening as if he wanted to bury himself in the embrace. 

De da’rahn, love,” I replied, shaken. “It was a little thing.”

“Not to me,” he said. “Not to me.”

 I leaned up to whisper back. "Nor to me."

Chapter Text

After I left Solas, I grabbed a few hours of sleep in my ridiculous golden bed.

I still hated all the gold, but I had larger problems at the moment, and sleep was the main objective—one purer than any decorative issues.

Then I woke up, stupid with sleep and momentarily confused by what was, ironically, a run-of-the-mill nightmare in which I battled a rift that simply wouldn’t close. It wasn’t even one of the sendings. Just stress. And tiredness. And every combination of the two I'd been living for weeks.

As I awoke, I saw above me, against the golden hangings, the softer gold of my barriers, still very much in place, like a fishing net of ages past, primed to catch the fish of dreams. And yet it had missed the simple fish of my very own pedestrian nightmares. How appropriate.

A glance over at the Orlesian timepiece showed me that it was still not terribly late—I’d barely slept two hours, even if it felt like years had passed since the day before.

It wasn’t just the nightmare, though. I’d also remembered, at least subconsciously, that I hadn’t gone to check on Cole, something I tried to do most evenings, especially now as the tension increased around us. I’d gotten him to take the empty room above his former little ledge for himself, the one on the top floor of the Herald’s Rest, but he still spent most of the time in his old corner, although I’d been cheered to see that he’d at least moved his daggers, chest, and little bits of treasure into the room itself. The bed, however, accumulated dust. He just did not seem to understand quite how to sleep on one, quite yet.

I was concerned for him—we’d been under the constant pressure of the nightmare assailant, little sleep, and mental attack for so many weeks now, and I always worried about how they might have affected him, how they might have marked Cole if he’d let them in. I knew already how easily he could keep those feelings close.

And sure enough, when I went into the tavern and up the stairs into the shadows, there he was, standing rigid and motionless in his usual gloomy corner. The Herald’s Rest was busier than I was used to at this hour, but then again, we none of us could sleep, so Cabot was at least doing a constant and roaring business as people sought to find relief in other ways.

Cole stood in his frequent place, bone-pale against the shadows, the shadows under his pale eyes a darker purple than ever before. He stood as if in pain, his head stretched on the skinny neck and cocked slightly to the side as if listening to something only he could hear. He was always too quiet, too isolated and too alone. Watching him, I wanted nothing more than to go make him lie down and sleep, but I remembered his initial reaction to his new room, and reminded myself that it would probably take time.

It had been funny, though, trying to get him to take a space for himself. After the moments with Bull and Solas, I’d gotten Josie’s help and we’d prepared his new room as a surprise. After cleaning away the mess—the destroyed furnishings and other elements, the shredded paintings and discarded weapons, it was spacious, if a bit pockmarked like most Skyhold rooms were, leaky around the edges and chilly where the wind got in. But it was warm with a constantly tended fire, and the servants had pitched in to clean and straighten it, adding several chests and bureaus for Cole to use (I’d insisted on this, remembering how he’d liked to hide away his prized belongings), removing the ax from the bedframe, and replacing the ancient bedtick with a fresh new one.

The bed had been trickier than anticipated. At first, we’d tried feathers, thinking it would be more decadent for him, but upon receiving his gift from me, now neat as a pin and dressed up in pillows and warm princely coverings, Cole had ignored the room’s remaining slight disarray with equanimity, but he had then focused on the big, immaculate bed, frowning.

“So many feathers!” he’d said, confused.

“I… what?” I’d asked.

“Too, too many,” said Cole. “They can’t fly. The birds are sad.”

Sigh. So much for feathers.

We’d then taken away the featherbed, and replaced it with a fresh bedtick stuffed with straw, meadowsweet and lavender. So far, Cole hadn’t complained. Yet. Although I wasn't sure he'd ever actually lain there at all.

And yet. I hoped he sometimes slept there, even if I wasn’t sure he did. How did one take care of a young man who effortlessly understood the most intimate and adult concepts he pulled from our minds but who was, yet, as innocent and fragile as a child when he looked at the world itself? How could I care for this strange boy, who was still half-spirit or more? Who disliked food, refused sleep, and who simply spent most of his time either listening to the insides of our heads or in waiting for the catastrophe we all knew was on its way?

Worst of all, I wasn’t sure how much longer that childlike quality, that innocence, could last, either. Just as the people of Skyhold could feel the war getting closer, the sting of evil magic far too near our fragile keep, Cole seemed to feel it in a more personal way. A way that hurt more.

I hated that.

As I came up the stairs, stumbling slightly in tiredness, I was relieved to find him in his corner (sometimes he was hard to find, and if he was roaming around Skyhold’s kitchens or battlements, it would take hours to track him down). And at least he’d allowed the empty chairs Bull had brought to remain in his little corner, which seemed for all the world to be waiting for the next gathering around our spirit boy. It wasn’t as good as the bed. But it meant he lived here. It was his place.

And here he was. The favorite cat of the Skyhold kitchens, a tortoiseshell with orange eyes named Pumpkiny, was crouched near Cole, furry round face against his shin, sleeping deeply. I looked up to the windowsill to see another Skyhold cat, Ashy, black as pitch and with beautiful emerald eyes, sprawled on a crate, toes outstretched and eyes fixed on me as a potential interloper. Cole had named both, feeling it was important to name both as adjectives, for what they seemed to be.

"But what about what they are?" I'd asked.

"That's up to them," he'd said, surprised. "We're not supposed to know. Unless they tell us."

Now the cats guarded him, gently, and the evening was quiet enough that I could hear their breathing—and the slight purr of Pumpkiny against Cole's leg.

When I looked closer, I knew why the cats were close. Cole looked bad. Tired and skinny, less real and solid. Pale and blue around the edges. My heart sank. I could tell that this was going to be a challenging visit, and it was no more than I deserved. I just hated that he'd been in pain.

I started by trying to make a subtle noise. A scuffle, a step. No response.

"Cole?" I asked, soft as a breath.

As he sometimes was, Cole’s face was closed, stubborn, beneath the comically wide hat and the tangled pale hair. Almost angry.

“Hi Cole,” I said, louder. “It’s me.”

A pause, then he spoke softly. “”Yes… it’s you. But is it you?”

I blinked, confused. “It’s me, Cole.”

“The real you? I see so many things these days,” he said. “Nightmare things. Nasty things. You could be something else, someone else, something fearful and fierce and far.”

I hesitated, then sighed. “Look inside,” I said. “You’ll see how messy it is. You’ll know it’s me!”

I waited, uncomfortable and slightly tense in spite of myself. Such an odd feeling, opening my mind up to someone. Even with Solas, I was able to hide more. Not so with Cole.

Who was listening, thinking, now. His eyes narrowed, and that abstract, cold, searching expression crossed his face.

Another pause. Then Cole’s face relaxed, suddenly. A sigh and a smile, warm as Summer and just as welcome.

“It’s you. The templars, the silence, the flames. I know your nightmares. They’re yours.”

“They’re mine,” I answered. “It’s really me, Cole.”

“It’s really you,” he said happily. “Even if you won’t let me help.”

I grinned. “Are you all right?”

“Maybe,” he said. “But can’t talk now.”

“Why not?” I asked.

He didn’t answer. Downstairs I could hear Maryden singing, Cabot’s voice, conversational and low. Bull’s big, low laugh in response. Sutherland not far away, off by himself with another soldier, studying feverishly for his next training session with Cullen’s men. The low murmur of the crowd below us.

As I listened, I realized that Solas had been right. I enjoyed solitude… but I also enjoyed leaving it behind.

“Cole,” I said. “Please. Just a moment or two, okay?”

At last, he responded. “I’m not all here,” he said. His voice was light yet cold. Dispassionate, factual. “Part of me is far away. Fast, far and frightened. I have to listen,” he said. “But it’s too loud. Too loud. Dark and deafening, drowning everything else out.”

“What’s too loud?” I asked.

“Its hate.”

“Hate,” he said again. “Real and cold. Like daggers or drums,” he said. “Catching and cruel. We shouldn’t be able to hear it yet, so high away here. But I do.”

I reached up, gently and carefully, to touch him on the arm, tentatively. I knew he did not like to be touched, so I was moved that he allowed it.

“Cole,” I said.

“Yes?”

“Thank you for working so hard,” I said. “For listening so hard. But, look… will you do something for me tonight?”

The pale eyes, so grey they were almost white, met mine. “What?”

“Stop listening. Just for a little while.”

“I shouldn’t. It’s on its way.”

“I know,” I said. But it’s not here yet. It’s still far, right?”

The faintest nod, almost unwilling. “Yes.”

“You don’t have to listen alone. We’ll help you,” I said. “Remember that. We’re working on weapons, shields. Things to help keep it out.”

“It will get here,” he sighed. “And there’s already so much hurt to heal.”

“You help those you can,” I reminded him. “That’s all anyone can do.”

“It’s not enough,” he said. “Even here. There are not enough cats to dance, so high in the mountains." He glanced down. Pumpkiny slept on, but Ashy extended his toes again, delicately, as if to demonstrate that he could indeed dance for all of us. I smiled.

"Our cats are dancers," I said softly. "They would dance for you."

"Not enough," he replied. "And not enough turnips to burn in hearthplaces. Spiders can only spin so fast.”

“And you hurt for all of them,” I said quietly. “Maybe you should give yourself a break.”

“Can’t do that,” he said sadly. “Can’t. Just as you can’t.”

I bit back what I was going to say, then listened as I realized that Maryden’s song was ending downstairs, a lovely flurry of soft, strummed notes on her lute. I listened as she finished the song, then inspiration struck me—something I could do that might soothe him. I bit my lip, then looked at him for a moment. “Look. Cole, I’ll be right back, okay?”

“All right,” he said, with that strange occasional indifference of his.

"Look," I said. "Don't go anywhere."

Cole nodded almost imperceptibly, the full purplish eyelids almost fully closed above the pale moonstone eyes. His hands were shaking slightly. Even as I watched, Pumpkiny rubbed his round cheek against Cole's leg, and I saw him relax. The shaking stopped.

And my heart cracked, just a little...

"Be right back," I told him, letting the cheer in my voice cover the worry beneath. "There's something I'd like to try."

I departed downstairs, on a simple mission. Hopefully, Maryden would help me fulfill it.

 

 

Chapter Text

I went quietly downstairs to Maryden, who was taking a break and a pint of small ale with Bull and the redheaded Ditan over by his corner.

Maryden's hazel eyes (a light brown with green glints) were shadowed like most of ours were these days, but I wondered if her music wasn’t a kind of buffer or protector on its own, somehow, because there was nevertheless a peacefulness to her expression that was rare at Skyhold. She was an interesting series of contrasts—she looked soft from far away, and her voice was soft too—yet also strong, sweet and tuneful. But when you got up close, there was an edge to her. She was dark-haired, and she had a straight, thin nose and imperious high, hollowed cheekbones. She held her eyes and mouth slightly narrowed, as if she would see you and judge carefully what she thought.

She was beautiful when she sang, but if you passed her in the street, you might never recognize her at all because her charisma, so potent in song, was utterly absent, hidden away. Even so, she carried herself with a brittle artificiality I'd found it difficult to get past at first, but then I'd begun to like it, and even to respect it. Mages are not the only ones adept at barriers. She was cautious in a time when caution was smart, and she could play her lute like an angel. Many of her beautiful songs I’d never heard anywhere else, and it hadn’t taken us more than a few discussions late at the Herald’s Rest for me to realize she’d written most of them herself, often interweaving in histories or lessons that went beyond tale-telling.

“Maryden. Could I borrow your lute for a few moments?” I asked.

I saw her hesitate for the barest second, and sympathized. There is nothing more beloved to a musician than an instrument. “I’ll understand if you don’t want me to,” I smiled, “but I really will bring it back safely. I’m just going upstairs for a song or two.”

She bent her head a little, smiling, and I could see the subtle relief there. “Of course you can, Your Worship.”

“Don’t call me that,” I reminded her, teasing, and she chuckled softly, then handed me the instrument, which I took carefully by the neck. It was a beautiful lute, hand-carved and possibly even elven in origin from the flowing scrollwork on the neck and bowl. I took it carefully, fearful of banging it against a stool or table.

Turning away, I raised the lute above the nearby tray of mugs, but still only barely missed, and that mostly thanks to Ditan, who slid them smoothly and safely out of reach.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Not at all,” she said, then shrugged warmly. “I have become adept at navigating obstacles."

"Because the Chargers are adept at creating them," said Bull.

Ditan rolled her eyes eloquently, and I laughed again.

"I'd say it's more a communal effort," added Varric, and I startled, then realized he'd pulled a table over by Krem's corner, and was scribbling in the lamplight, the rough wooden surface littered with pages.

"Varric!" I cried in spite of myself, and his eyes gleamed behind the delicate and precious imported lenses he only wore for writing when he was really tired. . "At your service."

"I didn't know you were here," I admitted.

"The talent of the storyteller," he said, smiling. "We stick to the shadows. That's the only way to witness all the really good stuff."

"I'm glad you're here," I said.

"I'm not," he said. "Krem owes me for our last game of Wicked Grace."

"I'm sure he'd much rather be here," I said.

"True, he replied."

I turned back toward the stairs, edging past Varric's table, and saw Bull’s glance go to the lute, amused. “You training to be a bard now, Boss?” he asked.

“No,” I said, grinning back. “Just trying something stupid.”

He lifted his mug. “Then you’ve got my full support.”

I turned away to rejoin Cole, nodding to Maryden. “I’ll be back shortly.”

“Thank you, Your Worship. I'm delighted to have a moment or two more for poetry when least expected,” she said. “And to share a drink or two with these fine folk.”

"Excellent," I replied.

I climbed back up to Cole’s gable-space awkwardly with the lute, and seated myself beside him, feeling ancient and out of breath. Funny how, if you were tired enough, even that short run of stairs felt twice as long as ever before. And twice as high.

Here up in the shadows again, Cole was exactly as before, still tense and listening, but I saw his eye, glowing moon-pale, glance back from under the wide brim of his mud-colored hat when I returned.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Just a small gift,” I said.

He looked puzzled. “A gift. But I don’t know how to play. My fingers don’t dance that way.”

“I’m not giving you the lute,” I laughed. “It’s Maryden’s. I’m giving you the song, silly boy.”

“Oh,” he said. Tiny hint of a smile.

“I don’t suppose you’d let me sing this to you in your room?” I asked, pleading just a little. I really didn’t want to do this out in the open. “You could lie down. Cover up. Get comfortable in your nice new bed!”

“Why would I do that?”

“It’s a lullaby. You know. A song meant to help you rest. You’re tired.”

“So are you.”

“I’m not as tired as you,” I said.

He looked both mystified and irritated. “I don’t like to lie down. I can’t hear as well.”

“Why not?”

“Because one of my ears is on the pillow and all I can hear is feathers.”

“What if you lie on your back?” I asked. “With both ears open?”

Another appraising glance from those big eyes behind the tangled yellow bangs. “But then I’d have to look at the ceiling.”

“What if I put up a barrier?” I asked. “To protect you?”

“No,” said Cole. “They make my ears pop.”

“But…”

“Save your magic," he said flatly. "You’ll need it later.”

Silence. And a distinctive chill in the air. Within the silence, Cole reached into the alcove and pulled forth a spider, a small ordinary little specimen, swinging it on its thread of silk for all the world like delighted child on a swing. If a spider can communicate joy, this one was doing so. I stared, charmed and astonished, then met his eyes. Down at his feet, Pumpkiny watched the swinging spider intently, his furry face solemn and orange eyes narrowed. I chuckled in spite of myself.

 “Cole,” I said quietly. “Will you really not go rest, even if I ask you to?”

“I can rest better here,” he said, low and stubborn. His eyes never left the tiny swing of the spider on its silver thread. “Besides, I can go to the Fade on my own. I don’t have to sleep.”

“Cole,” I said. “Your body is tired. Solas would ask you to listen to it.”

“My fingers do shake sometimes,” said Cole, watching his hand swing the spider. “My knees too.”

“When your body does that,” I said. “It needs to sleep. You are more than a spirit now. You can’t ignore the needs of the flesh.”

He looked at me in confusion. “The spirit is just as important, yet you yourself ignore it.”

I was momentarily silenced by this, confused by it. “Do I?”

“Yes,” he said. “You’re very bad at it.”

“Well,” I said. “Let’s compromise. I’ll play you a song and you’ll listen, and maybe we’ll both feel better. Your body and my spirit.”

“Maybe,” he said. He looked skeptical, to say the least.

“Good.” I sat down and began turning the pegs, tuning the lute lightly, just a few tweaks here and there. Maryden liked her G’s a bit sharp for my own ears. But the lute was a joy to hold, better than mine, and the sweet sound of the gut strings was richer, more bell-like, than that of my old battered lute in my quarters. I smiled, slow and expansive.

A song was suddenly waiting in my mind and fingers. An old song. One that was rarely sung. And yet... so perfect. I was delighted, like a child over chocolate.

I leaned back in my chair, making the lute comfortable. “Now for a nice lullaby.”

He grimaced immediately. “Songs, for babies. Soft things, for the sweet and swaddled.”

“Sometimes,” I said, “softness can help.”

“Yes," he said. "For mothers and cats. For rabbits and fennecs and children."

"Others too."

"If you say so.” He still stood rigid, stocky body thrumming and upright, tense and listening.

I sighed. “Cole, will you sit at least?”

As if in answer, surprising me, he reached out a long, slender arm to the low, blackened ceiling. His finger, very white against the shadows, touched the beam of the roof, dark and rough with age where it met the wall, and stayed there, steady and pale, as the spider ran up its thread and over to the wall. It scuttled from his finger, then up into the deeper darkness for safety.

Cole watched it, more peace in his face than I had seen yet since meeting him. Then he turned and met my eyes.

“I’m sorry. You offered me a gift,” he said quietly. “I’d like to hear your song.”

“Thank you, Cole,” I said.

I glanced back up at that quiet, dark corner behind him before I knew I was going to do so, and Cole surprised me by laughing out loud. And yet, I couldn't help it. Somehow,Cole had gotten me invested in yet another creature at Skyhold, because I was now actively hoping the spider might hear it too.

But that was life with Cole.

Chapter Text

A song for Cole. Suddenly, I felt oddly nervous. How many songs had he heard from the Fade over the centuries, after all? Over the ages?

I ran my fingers lightly against the delicate lutestrings in a few final adjustments, tightening the pegs here and there. Testing and teasing. The soft gut strings always feel like nothing under your fingers until minutes later they feel hard as arrows to the unprepared. To me, they felt like home. Like the rough welcoming prickle of homespun rope against your palms when you pulled it tight around a cleat as the sail filled with sweet salt air. Or like a spell that—even before I saw the outcome—I knew had hit its target.

The tuning complete, I strummed the lute softly, trying to make friends with it even as my fingers stumbled a little over the opening chords. It truly was a beautiful instrument, even better upon the playing that I had expected it would be at first glance. Richer and more delicate than the one than I’d played before, back in my forests, and the faint bell-like tone I’d discovered was even more pronounced if played softly.

It was strange to be playing an instrument foreign to me, and I felt momentarily guilty, as if I were being unfaithful to my old beaten lute with the driftwood pegs and inlaid mother-of-pearl that the Inquisition had found for me. Even though Maryden’s was worlds nicer, I still felt that my own battered instrument had a richer sound. Maryden's was flawless but perhaps a bit cold. Me, I preferred flawed but warm. Faellin would have met this thought with a grimace. "Still hopeless," he would have said. And I would have smiled.

I took a deep breath and sat back, ready to play, as Cole perched himself, birdlike, on a chair beside me. I was always touched by the way all of Cole's sufferings seemed to show themselves in that starveling face, the bony nose and ears, the wide eyes, even in the big feet and hands of the adolescent. As if part of him were still a child. An immortal in a mortal form, and one who hadn't even reached full manhood—all edges, knees and elbows, gawky and yet contained, hunched over his feet, still tense as a hunted hare. With the big battered hat a kind of umbrella over all. I tried to imagine Bull's reaction to a Cole who'd grown a foot next year, as he surely would, and grinned. 

"Are you comfortable?" I asked.

"Yes," he said, his face slightly puzzled. He still looked like a hare awaiting the dive of the hawk, hunched and tense as if awaiting a battle and not a song. But... well... it was something. Not exactly relaxation, but it was better than watching him stand in pain and tension. And I was cheered further when he angled himself a bit toward me, as if in spite of himself.

I ran my left hand through the fingerings, and tried to strum the right softly, working to remember the chord progression my older friend and teacher Faellin had taught me on the Storm Coast so long ago, the one he’d teased me for being obsessed with, called “Darling One, or "Eral Then'ara'sal'in," among the Dalish.

And then I thought of Mamae.

The song was a funny thing. Trickier to play than you'd think, beyond the usual folk song. Simple on top but complex beneath. Chords and strums and lovely little melodies beneath the voice. I'd talked about it with my mother, had even sung it for her. But it wasn’t a song I could literally remember my mother singing to me. And yet, the first time I’d heard it, I swear I’d heard her voice. And that remained with me each time I played it, that it was not a song from me, but from her.

Either way, I’d loved it instantly, hearing it from Faellin when I was fifteen, and on the edge of so much change. Faellin had played it for me in his grim way on a rare sunny afternoon, and with a technical precision and heaviness and beauty that had made it feel like a pronouncement from the Creators themselves. I still remember the way he'd seemed embarrassed to sing it at all, and yet, artist that he was, he hadn't been able to help himself.

The song had resonated with me deeply even on first hearing. The notes underneath had sounded like rain, like time passing, and that tension in conjunction with the melody itself as it flowed above had somehow created the feeling that the lullaby was not about the world as it was, but a dream of the world as it should be.

In other words, it was a beautiful lie.

I'd loved it instantly. And despite his protestations that it was old and tattered, I had clamored for all the pieces he'd had of the song. First gratified, and then later annoyed, Faellin had been reticent, far more so than my mother. "It is not a song that is often sung," he had commented gruffly, shoving his dark hair out of his eyes, his tanned, stoic face disapproving almost as if in spite of himself. "It is a song of love, not for casual sharing."

I'd asked my mother about it afterward, as we wove together strands of dried elfroot to hang from the ceiling of our aravel. It was warm and cozy in our little hallowed space despite the wet and cold day without. She'd grinned, then sobered. "For Faellin," she had said, "Love is a mighty occurrence, something rare in years. A secret to be prized and cherished, only viewed at midnight, from the depths of a box for safekeeping."

"Faellin is a good man," I protested.

"Of course he is," she said. "But he fears softness."

"What?" I asked. "Why?"

"Leadership is a complicated thing, sweetness," she replied. "He feels that strength is what he should project to clan and Keeper. Not weakness."

"Love isn't weakness," I said.

"Some hold love tight to themselves, as something hidden," she replied. "For others, it is much simpler. A constant thing held in sunlight."

"What does that mean?" I asked, bewildered.

She smiled. "It means, sing it when you wish. But never do so lightly."

I wrinkled my face, trying to figure it out. "But he acted like it was secret. And I can't see how. It doesn't even mention the gods."

"Not obviously," she answered. "Still, it is an old song, and it undoubtedly holds glimpses of past mysteries now unremembered, as most ancient things do."

I still remember how excited I'd been at the potential of this, at the glamour of lost secrets. "Does it? Hold secrets?"

"Darling one," my mother replied, teasing me with the title so that I threw a bunch of dried elfroot her way. "The tragedy of the Dalish is that we will likely never know."

The sadness of it caught me, unprepared and surprised. I stared at the elfroot stalks slipping from my lap, catching them too late. Together, we picked up what I had dropped. The plants were so fragile when dried. I brought one to my lips, then to my nose, in spite of myself. That fragile scent of mint, darker than other mint plants, more bitter. But still pungent and lovely and healing.

"I still don't know why Faellin wants to hide a song about love."

Her blue eyes met mine, then—sharp, kind and far too perceptive. Then she took the bundle I had made and began to add it to her rope of herbs. "It's ironic that you would say so, alhasha, little wild one, as you yourself often hide the love you feel. Would you agree?"

I scowled, knowing I was turning colors and that she could see. Then I dropped my eyes from hers in acknowledgement. "Feelings aren't songs," I muttered. "Some things are private."

"Some things, or all things?" she asked.

I flushed further. I recognized that feeling of feverishness or incipient magic, and I pushed it away before it could be detected. "Some."

"You love our halla," she answered, "but you only visit them in the evenings. You love the sea but only go there alone. You love the fields but only when you can lie in the grass and twine the embrium in silence. And you love the forest but only when there is no one between you and the trees."

"I'm not always alone," I protested. "Mayena and I work often on our music together. Faellin teaches me much. And I bring Jemmid with me to fish."

"I'm not judging you for your solitude," she said. "I'm simply showing you that you are more like Faellin than you realize."

I remember still how silent I was, how it hurt that I couldn't express how sometimes other people made me feel more lonely, not less.

"I want to share more than I do," I admitted.

"Then share," she said. "What is there to fear?"

I thought of my gift for magic, still hidden from my mother and the clan. I wished for the gift of eloquence, to describe what held me back. Instead, I reached, awkward as always, for a way to say what I felt. "I feel so much," I said. "But I can't seem to express it."

"How so?" she asked.

I could not meet her eyes. "You know how it is. I'm different. I do not always seem to keep to the ways of the People. I say the wrong things. People laugh. I don't want to be the constant felasil. I would rather not speak than be mocked or laughed at."

My mother's hand ruffled my hair.

"I know, sweetness." Her hand was gentle, even as she stuck a strand of elfroot into my braid. "And I love you for your difference. Nevertheless, my daughter, I have had to realize that you would rather tell your secrets to the sea than to me."

"I want to tell you things," I said, low.

"I know," she smiled. "And you do. You tell me what I need to know, and in a thousand ways. I do not require you to share every corner of your world, Elia, or every minute of your days."

"Mamae... do you want me to tell you more?" I asked, afraid I was letting her down. But inwardly I was already cringing at the concept.

"No," she responded. "What you tell the sea or the sky, the wind tells me, but selectively. They keep your secrets well. I know enough to know that you are well."

I lowered my head, to see steady drops of water falling somehow on the elfroot in my hands. My mother reached up and wiped the tears away with a gentle hand.

"I can't think of the right things to say," I confessed. "I say too much or too little. I show too much or too little. Never in between."

"I know," she said.

"I don't mean to hide things."

"This is my lesson to you, da'len. What we hide," she said gently, "is every bit as important as what we show. Your love for Lanthe, the boy who helps our Jalynda catalog the Great Bear hides, for instance, is all the more important because you feel it is something to keep secret."

"I don't love him!" I said, stung.

"But you like him. Or your eyes do," she said gently.

"I like looking at lots of things," I snapped.

"Oh, Elia," she said.

I paused, then spoke into the silence. "It's useless for me to speak," I said. 

"Why, love?"

"He doesn't love me," I said bluntly.

She busied herself with the elfroot again, but her eyes met mine, sharply, before focusing back on the plants. "I'm sorry, da'len."

I sighed. "I'm not. It's better for me to know now, than to find out later. At least now, I can protect myself."

She reached a hand to my face, caressing it gently with her cool palm. "Now do you see? Do you not understand what Faellin fears with disclosure? A single song can reveal secrets, change worlds, awaken loves, cause or avert wars."

"I still don't see why he hides it," I said. "He's big and brave and strong. A leader. Everyone loves him. He has nothing to fear."

"Doesn't he?" she asked. "The highest often fall hardest."

In answer, I sang:

"For night is short and love is long
And dreams the right of each one born"

"But dreams are secrets too," she said.

There was something in her face, a seriousness and an intensity, and I realized how much I'd missed. I saw, in a flash, all the little things, the distance and tension between Faellin and his wife... and remembered the subtle glances between him and the handsome human who sometimes brought us supplies... and felt an overwhelming sense of kinship and pity. My mother watched my dawning awareness, then smiled, but it was not quite a happy smile.

"Oh," I said.

"And now you know," she said quietly. "For some, love is a secret, hidden in the heart."

"It isn't our business," I said. I felt a little angry at myself. Angry at the Dalish, too, for our insistence upon expedience, duty.

"Faellin's secrets are his own," she said quietly. "I merely wanted you to see why he might find music, and love, a private thing."

"I'd never tell anyone," I said clumsily. "His secret, I mean."

"If that is all you have taken from my words," my mother responded, dryly, "You have missed the halla for the hoof."

***

I'd gone forth confused but still determined. I'd wanted to find the roots of the song, its heart. And after amassing what I could, Faellin had listened to me play it back to him, after many weeks of practice and my mother's warning, and he had smiled here and there... then frowned in the end. "You have a sense for the emotion of the song, but you will never be a master," he'd said gruffly. "Your fingering is good, but your sense of rhythm is lazy, approximate. A song must move faithfully within the barriers of the time allotted."

I'd laughed at him, wanting to put him at ease, even if I could not admit the secret I had realized about him. "Perfection is paralysis!" I'd teased. "The waves fall on the sand in a way that is regular but not binding. A second's delay loses nothing."

He'd scowled at me even harder. "A second's delay in a song is catastrophe. And you are not the sea, to be so excused."

I'd smiled and conceded at that. I wasn't seeking to be a bard and would certainly never play the halls of kings. But I still loved the act of playing, of singing and playing feelings too hard to speak. Besides, if I was playing, I wouldn't have to speak. Always a plus.

And yet, he'd never spoken of the song to me again. So I'd searched outward. After learning the song, I had then amassed the rest of the verses from the many taverns I’d visited, listening in the shadows. There was simply something timeless and true to the melody that spoke to me. 

It was funny to me now, to look back and hold a lullaby so closely to me, when I had sung it to my mother, and not the reverse. But in my mind, I still heard her voice move in its melody. And sometimes, when we grieve, that is enough for emotion to take root.

Or so I’ve always told myself. Either way, every time I’d heard it since, I’d felt her soft hands, heard her voice, smelled the elfroot. The truth of my soul and blood were greater than that of logic. My mother had always understood that.

So was it just a song? And did it matter?

No. For me, it was magic. I’d given it power. I’d come to associate it with my mother, irrevocably, with she who’d called me her hallain, her alhasha. Whose hands had soothed me when I was feverish. Who had gifted me with the magic she had never admitted within herself, she who could heal the halla with a gentle touch, who could save everyone but herself.

Almost all of the songs, for me, I’d suddenly realized after the loss of my clan, fumbling as I’d tuned my lute and remembering times lost, had indeed led back to my mother.

And so this above most, second only to the Mir Da'len Somniar, had moved me deeply to this very day. And gods help me, I wanted to share it now. Because there was something lost in Cole that cried out to the something lost in me. To the uncertain girl I’d been once.

I began, edging softly into the opening, making a few small adjustments as I did so. Then I drew breath, and sang.

Music takes courage. And my voice wasn’t that of a real singer, but I could carry a tune, although when I began it was edged in tiredness. Even so, I was surprised at how young I sounded (so much had happened since I had last heard myself sing, I was constantly shocked to find myself still young of body at times). I wasn’t anywhere near the singer Maryden was. Or Leliana or Josie. But I got the words out and hoped they were enough:

Go to sleep, my darling one
In Southern stars, the eaves are greyed
For sun has gone and time has come
For us to wander in the Fade

So wander, wander, safe and strong
And never wonder on the morn
For night is short and love is long
And dreams the right of each one born

The spirits dream of buttered bread
Of snores and bores and tenderness
While mortals dream of tears unshed
And ancient days surrenderless

Gone now the roads our people fled
Yet still we dream of ancient things
Of elven woods and wolves of dread
Of lore and blood and dragons' wings

But here we are, my darling one
We’re safe at home and here we’ll stay
To find the answers that we seek
And live to fight each wicked day

Cole stretched and turned, easily, as if the chair were a bed. And watching his eyes drift closed, I impulsively added another verse, haltingly coming up with the rhymes that would speak to Cole alone. Even as I watched, Ashy came over like a living shadow and leaped gracefully into Cole’s lap.

Our cats are dancing for the mice
The turnips burning in the grates
And all our loves will well suffice
To drown the very loudest hates

I was gratified when he relaxed visibly, his thin hand under his cheek. “I like that,” he muttered. “The dancing cats. The turnips too.” I looked down to see that Ashy had moved downward when Cole moved, and that both attic cats had entwined themselves at his feet. And somewhere, I knew, a friendly spider was listening.

So go to sleep my darling one
As spirits listen from the Fade
And do not cry when day is done
Or think that we are all betrayed

Though you may wander far alone
And under grim and stormy skies
Your courage is your cornerstone
And morning sun will be your prize

Somehow, as the song progressed, it was sneaking into my feelings, betraying me by weakening all the bricks and mortar at my inner edges. I began to feel a bit afraid. I couldn't stop singing. The song was something that lived on its own now, in a way, and I had to keep it going. My voice wasn’t wonderful, but it was serviceable, and I was proud that I was able to remember most of the complicated fingerings, faking it when I didn’t. If my mother had been here, I would have told her I finally understood; that some songs are not meant to be sung lightly. Still, I smiled as I quietly began the final verse and looked over to see him stretched out in the chair, cheek under hand, legs sprawled, eyes flickering closed, mouth open. He looked all of ten years old.

At the same moment, I looked up to see Cullen paused in the doorway from the battlements, on his way down to the lower tavern. He was smiling a little, and I flushed with embarrassment. But there was, in addition to the mischief, an indefinable look of remembrance on his face. It wasn’t a look of love or emotion, precisely, but more of loss and memory; still, I looked away, embarrassed to have been caught like this, and plowed on through the song’s final refrain, red as a beet, as always (and praying inwardly that I wouldn't spark and scorch Maryden's pretty instrument):

So go to sleep, my darling one
And if you waken, do not weep
For evil’s lost ‘fore it’s begun
And a new day rises as we sleep

So wander, wander, safe and strong
And never wonder on the morn
For night is short and love is long
And dreams the right of each one born

Cullen met my eyes and nodded to me as I looked up, sheepishly, but he didn’t move until I finished out the final notes, embarrassed in spite of myself. Even so, the lute was so lovely under my fingers that I reveled in the final chords, in the last run of delicate notes that ran up and high, as if to give the listener hope.

Then there was just that after-moment, the almost-silence that comes after a song, when the notes are still ringing in the air. And I felt happier than I had felt since the first kiss from Solas. Whole. And sadder too. As if every grief I'd ever felt was present with me, now, here in this room.

And then the true silence came.

I looked back up and Cullen was still there, waiting out those final seconds. I tried to look threatening but failed, expecting teasing, but he only shrugged then gave me a small, sweet smile, and went down the stairs to the tavern, without speaking at all. I felt touched and sad and happy all at the same time, as if I’d glimpsed the child in Cullen standing there, and I knew the image was a true one.

Meanwhile, another boy was sleeping here, before me. And that was all I’d wanted to accomplish.

I'd broken myself to bits for so many smaller reasons, and for so long. We were a world at war. What did it matter, if I spent some sparks to remind a boy of his worth and magic?

And what did it matter, in the end, if I’d broken another little bit of my soul to do so? 

Chapter Text

There was silence now, but a good silence—the hush after the end of a song.

And now, with the lullaby ended and Cole quiet, I wanted nothing more than to find a peaceful place myself. I stood as quietly as possible, surprised to find that I was actually near tears. I felt strangely out of sorts—contented, but somehow sadder than I'd expected. But Cole was resting and quiet now, so it had been worth it.

“Thank you,” Cole said sleepily.

"You're welcome," I said softly, then stood, raising the lute silently from beside me so that I did not knock against anything. I wasn't worried so much about the chairs or railings, but I didn't want to harm a cat or spirit... or a friendly spider, for that matter.

He smiled softly. “It’s better now. Quieter. I liked your song. And the music. So many minds are silent.” Then he seemed to curl in on himself, to pull the shadows closer to him. “Good night,” he said. “Good night, sleep tight.”

“Good night, Cole,” I said quietly. And on impulse, I turned quietly and cast Barriers above him, just as a gesture of love. Just because. Just as a hasty, messy, one-handed cast, but hoping they’d keep out the darkness even as they'd so often helped me and the others at Skyhold. It wasn't necessary, as we had mages casting Barriers higher up throughout the night and day, but it made me happy to see it. And when I did so, both cats, orange and black, simply looked at me and almost nodded... as if approving yet also wondering why I was interrupting their guardianship. Their quietness shocked me more than anything else had in these moments, as I'd expected them to try to flee from the magic.

“Cole’s not here,” he said dreamily. “And you need to get some rest. Don’t worry about me. We’ll talk later. Probably.”

“Good night,” I said, and, smiling, tiptoed back down the space to the stairway. And yet, once there, I paused. Something in the song had gotten to me, pulled out a vulnerability, a memory of my parents and clan, that I hadn’t expected. I felt a little wary, as if I were soft and young, easily hurt.

I felt raw enough that I debated leaving through the battlements, but couldn’t quite allow myself to sneak away like that. And I debated saying something further. But there was nothing he would understand. So I steeled myself and continued to the stairs.

As I passed Sera’s room, however, her door opened and she poked her spiky beautiful head through and smirked, sticking her pointed pink tongue out at me. “Can’t give any of us a good night’s rest, yeah?” she asked.

I made a face and stuck my tongue out right back. "Nope."

“Kidding,” she said. “Nice song though. Stupid, but nice. Liked the bit about the turnips. But don’t make it your day job.” The door slammed shut.

Back down at the central area, Cabot and Cullen (now relaxing at a table) were soberly staring down into their mugs as I entered and quietly handed Maryden back her lute. I sent out a wish from my soul that nobody’d heard. That those stairs were high enough, far enough. Perhaps they hadn’t all heard it down here, anyway, even if Cullen had caught me.

I steeled myself, took a deep breath, glanced around, and… oh dear.

Bull was still slouched in his usual spot, with Ditan and Maryden beside him, a king in the shadows, talking quietly and soberly. Then he caught my eye sharp as a glint from a swordblade, and grinned, and I knew immediately that the sound had carried. Oh, by all the lives of fucking Fen’harel.

I knew it. I should've fled, taken the coward’s way, exited by the door upstairs. Too late now.

“That was interesting, Inquisitor,” said Cullen. Oh, gods. Sparks. Sparks were definitely appearing.

Bull chuckled, although the humor was at odds with that sharp sober swordmetal eye of his as it met mine. “It was,” he said. “Very nice. We’ll bring you with us the next time the Chargers need a musical distraction for a mission.”

“Excellent,” I said, a little tired but amused and willing to play along. “Consider the song an application for membership. How many people, after all, can offer a combination of battle magic and musical accompaniment?”

"Exactly," he said dryly. "We're in dire need of magic. Especially since the Chargers have no mage."

I laughed at that, and he let me off the hook. I started to pass by Cabot, then his quiet voice stopped me.

“So let me get this straight,” said Cabot. I met his eyes with slight trepidation, then couldn’t hide my delight as I watched him pour me a healthy dose of golden elixir from a bottle on the table. A concoction I knew to be metheglin (Cabot’s bark was far, far worse than his bite).

"Yes?" I asked.

“You have magic," he said. "Actual magic. A thing on your hand that can fix rifts in the sky. You lead the Inquisition, which is fast shaping up to be a world political power…”

“Yes,” I said. “Although it's not as fun as it sounds.” And then I couldn't wait for his response, I flatly grabbed the mead and sniffed it. Ambrosia. Like honey and wine and spiced nectar and every sunny day you ever loved. I took a huge sip and it tasted even better than it smelled. Oh, gods above. 

"Still," he began. "You—"

“Cabot,” I said, interrupting him. “I think you may be a god.”

“You're not the first to say so," he said, dark eyes twinkling. “And it is, after all, a superb distillation.”

“But.” I met his eyes, and smiled inwardly when I raised an eyebrow, realizing it was something I had taken from my time with Solas.

“But,” he said. “Given your numerous political and magical advantages... your solution to Cole’s troubles,” he said, enunciating very distinctly, as if I were a privileged and noble guest, “is to sing to him?”

“Er,” I said. Then I looked up, and was surprised to see Cabot's mouth quirking in something that might be a smile. I resisted the urge to pinch myself.

"I like it,” he said.

“You do?” I asked. Somewhere, Cullen gave a snicker that turned into a cough. I glared at him. “I mean, thank you.” My insides were suddenly warmer. The mead was like liquid sunshine. Thinner than expected but rich on the tongue, pungent and smoky, heavy with spices and honey. And it was very, very good.

"Even if it was a somewhat odd choice," he added.

“Look. I just wanted Cole to sleep,” I said, irritation getting the best of me. And tiredness.

Cabot shrugged. "And you did that. Cheers."

“Just so,” said Ditan.

“Yes,” said Cullen softly. “Perhaps it was, also, a pleasant reminder of times past.”

“I'd hope you might write the lyrics down for me, Your Worship?” asked Maryden.

“I—Um… yes. Of course,” I stammered. “I would love to hear you sing it.”

“Nonsense, Inquisitor,” said Cullen formally. Too formally. Shit. Everyone would hear about this tomorrow by ten. Guaranteed. No, nine. Eight. Shit, shit, shit. That impish twelve-year-old was very much back and dancing in Cullen’s eyes. I spied a rag used to wipe tables nearby, and threw it at him.

He ducked, neatly. “Well,” he said, slightly sheepish, and becoming more human for a moment. “It was unexpected.”

"Unexpected is good," I said.

"Perhaps," he said.

"Oh, fenedhis," I said, irritated. "You need to get rid of the word 'perhaps.' You use it too much."

"I take care in the words I choose," Cullen replied. "No harm in that."

"Perhaps," I said. "Or perhaps not."

He laughed aloud, the laugh ringing through the tavern, and for one of the few times that I could remember since Haven. "Fair enough,” he said, then relented. “I am cautious, certainly. And perhaps I should admit that my sister used to sing that song. Mia. Different lyrics, I mean. But... It reminded me that I should write her.”

“You should,” I said, and he smiled. Cabot poured me another mead. I restrained myself from proposing marriage, and sipped instead.

“Perhaps I will,” Cullen said. “Besides, it’s always good for us to discover these little talents.”

You’re one to talk,” I retorted. “What about you, Ser The Night is Dark?” He gratified me by blushing in his stead, and I laughed.

“Hey, Boss,” said Bull. “Here’s an idea—the next time we encounter a Rift, you can just sing to it. Forget all that fancy hand shit. And Cullen can back you up.” I was irritated but then more than delighted at Cullen’s suddenly sour expression.

“Meanwhile, how about an encore?" asked Cabot.

I glared at him, then a stray whoosh of magic may or may not have escaped my fingers and knocked down a tray of mugs over at the bar as Cabot looked around, confused, before glancing sharply back at me with a knowing smirk. Meanwhile, Bull laughed, and Cullen just looked puzzled.

“What was that?” he asked.

“Must've been a breeze,” I said, shrugging the joke. I managed to look demonstrably ignorant, but honestly, the levity was getting to me. I felt a little tired and sick, suddenly, and turned quickly for the door, trying to ignore Vian, the Templar on watch there (of course). I drank the last sip and turned to go.

"So Cole's asleep?" asked Bull.

"Yeah," I said. I turned back to face him.

"Then it worked," he said, raising a glass.

"It did." I raised my empty glass back to him, then started to turn away.

A slight pause. "Then why do you look sad?"

"I'm not sad," I said.

"Tell that to your face," he replied.

"I'm fine," I said. I shrugged, and managed what I felt was a decently believable smile. "Music's a funny thing."

But suddenly, it was all too real. He was right—I was sad.

So I bade everyone farewell and fled. I made it outside and into the snow. The night was late, and cold, and quiet. The faint crackle of torchlight. The tramp of soldiers on watch up on the battlements. The swirl of wind and magic. I looked up into a sky that was heavy and dull. No stars. Just snow, and wind, and memories.

And me, here, alone.

I was relatively sober, but I still felt as if I were under a spell. I wished Solas were here, but Rotunda felt curiously far away... and of course, I probably wouldn't have been sad if he'd been there. But then, he'd always disliked the tavern, and rarely went there. It was silly for me to wish otherwise, especially when he was just steps away from me now.

And yet I couldn't bring myself to return just yet. I couldn’t stop thinking about the song. I couldn’t stop thinking of my mother. Of Faellin and my clan. Of Haven. So instead of going over to the Skyhold steps as I'd planned, I found myself walking around to the side of the building, to the little darkened alcove next to the practice dummies, where I could be alone. I couldn't face that long walk down the Skyhold hall to my room just yet—that long walk where, as always, I'd be watched, judged, whispered about. 

Here, it was blessedly quiet. Save for the faint strains of music, as Maryden began a new song within the tavern, there was no other sound in the world but the wind.

Why had I sung that for Cole? The one song that had comforted me, so often? And now it seemed even sadder than I had ever anticipated it could be. 

Go to sleep, my darling one...
and never mind that you won't wake up. 

I couldn’t answer my own question. But somehow, something in me broke a little, regardless, and still in the grips of a grief I couldn’t quite understand or measure, I rested my forehead against the cold stone of the Herald's Rest and cried.

I wondered again, as I had so many times these past months, if there was the slightest chance any of my friends in my clan had lived. Faellin, who had taught me so much, whose voice I still heard on the song itself. His children, who had been so joyful and filled with promise. My friends and loved ones, or even those clan members who'd annoyed me or shamed me. Distant cousins, friends or rivals. Not a chance.

Then I wondered how many children had heard that lullaby and believed its words, that we were all safe. That doors kept out the monsters.

“Hey.”

I caught my breath and looked up to see a silhouette, tall and quiet against the torchlight, and who'd walked up unheard. Horns a diagonal line as he tilted his head in worry against the falling snow.

I sighed inwardly. Bull. 

Chapter Text

“You okay, Boss?”

I allowed myself a mental sigh, and stopped myself from backing further into the shadows. Then I wiped my eyes hurriedly, straightened and stepped away from the wall, trying to make my voice brisk. "Sure. Absolutely."

"Uh-huh," said Bull. He evidently saw plenty, though, even from a few steps away, because his voice was low, calm and completely disbelieving.

"See, it's..." I said, then waved my hands helplessly, and found myself spilling a few more tears. Terrific. "It's just..." I simply couldn't think of how to define why I was upset. All my potential words sounded ridiculous to me.

He understood anyway. "The song."

"Yes." I found myself transfixed by the accumulation of snow on the featureless face of the straw figure beside me, and somehow even that looked sad, so on impulse I brushed it away.

"And... now you're petting the practice dummies." He shook his head. "You're hopeless."

"I promise not to sing to it," I flared. "You can go back in."

"I could, yeah," he said. A gleam of his eye as it met mine, and I caught my breath. "But... do you want me to?"

I was silent. Then I turned back, leaned my head against the wet, frozen stone, and tried to think of something brilliant, eloquent and clear, even if nothing came to mind. I'd thought Bull had been relegated to someone amused and distant months back, where he belonged, but here he was again, right when I needed clarity. It was both lovely and frustrating at the same time. Because, well, Bull could provide that better than almost anyone I knew.

I still didn't know how to respond to his question. So I let honesty take over. "No," I admitted.

He sighed. Then he walked over to me, boots crunching softly in the snow. Proximity to Bull was, as usual, like having a cheerful bonfire nearby, and I shook my head as I watched the snow melt upon his bare torso. As almost always, he was shirtless except for the harness. Shirtless, high in the Frostback Mountains in the midst of a blizzard... and evidently perfectly fine with that.

"How is it that you're not freezing?" I complained.

He grinned. "The Qun keeps me warm."

"Ugh."

"Kidding, Boss."

"Right." It's hard to glare at someone when you're a slightly weepy mess, but I did my best.

"Well, fine, that, and my natural resilience," he replied. I rolled my eyes, and he simply looked amused. "Let's just say that changes in temperature don't affect me very much." Snowflakes were meanwhile still hitting him then melting instantly. You could almost hear the tiny hiss as each snowflake hit that silver-pale skin and then instantly became water.

"It's amazing," I said, sniffling. "Watching the snowflakes hit you. They melt right away."

He chuckled. "What can I say? I'm hot."

"It's almost hypnotic."

"Of course it is," he said.

I chuckled, and felt a little better almost immediately. "I didn't mean it that way."

"Your loss," he said, with a flash of the narrow smile. 

"I know," I said.

"You think that," he said. "But you don't really know."

"And yet," I said, "I must try to carry on." I was amused at the flirting, even though I knew it was just to make me laugh.

"Put it in a song," he said wickedly, and I threw a clump of snow at him. It hit him on the metallic surface of his eyepatch, along with a clot of ice. He grimaced, and brushed it away. "Shit."

"Oops," I said.

He held his fingers delicately over the eyepatch for a moment, and I realized he was warming it.

"You okay?"

"It's weird, that's all," he admitted. "That particular spot."

"Sorry," I said. "I didn't actually mean to hurt you." I sneaked him a grin. "Much."

"I know." He dropped his hand and shot me an answering look that I couldn't quite interpret. So I covered with questions, which were always helpful.

"Does it hurt?" I asked. "I always wonder if it hurts." I reached up impulsively, touching the spot before I knew it, the warm skin of his cheek below the cold metal, and he flinched slightly. He did not brush my hand away, but took it in his own warm one, and then quietly returned it to my side.

I flushed scarlet, instantly, at the transgression. I had no right to touch him, and knew it. His voice, however, stayed casual.

"Not really," he said. "Most of the time. But with ice or a freezing spell, if it happens to hit directly, there's sometimes a twinge from the scar tissue. It's unpleasant. Reminds me of things I can usually ignore."

"Like... what used to be there," I said hesitantly. 

"Yeah, that." An eloquent twist of his mouth. "Otherwise, I don't think about it. It's just like that eye is closed. It's funny the way something can be numb and hurt at the same time."

"I know what that feels like," I said. "A little."

He gestured at the Mark.

"Yeah," I said. I raised my left palm and looked at it with hatred. My parasite.

He made a noise halfway between a sigh and a grunt, and we simply stood there, companionably silent together. I paused, listening. From inside, I could hear Cullen laughing again, and it cheered me inexplicably. At least someone was feeling better.

"So," he said, leaning casually against the tavern wall. That utter assurance of acceptance that was almost elegant. "You gonna tell me what's going on with you?" 

I glared. "I already told you."

"Yeah," he said. "The lullaby."

"It just... brought up some things."

"Like what?"

"Stupid things, mostly. Little things. Like... I miss my people," I said. "Even if I ran from them the first moment I got. And I—oh, it's embarrassing, but I admit it—I miss my mother."

"It's not stupid," he said.

"She's dead," I said. "Like everyone else. It's completely useless for me to miss her."

He took a breath, then breathed out a slow puff of white in the night air. "That's what the songs are for," he said, surprising me. "Sometimes." I looked at him, and he raised his eyebrows. "We've all lost people."

"Seheron?" I asked.

"Well, beyond that, actually," he said. "There've been times the Chargers were a larger team," he added. "It's ten years after all. Before Dalish there was Kaleth. Before Grim, there was Jonesy. We had another warrior too, to back me up — a former Crow, named Kense." He sighed. "Not everyone survives."

"I'm sorry."

"It's okay." He shrugged, a hard shrug and an awkward one. As if it hurt. "We sing the song, we raise a toast. Life goes on."

"Well," I said. "I sang my own song and now a part of me is a kid all over again. And I'm tired of... of..." I trailed off.

"You're tired," he said. "That's what it comes down to. We all are. It's okay to say so."

"Not for me."

"Yeah, actually, it is," he said. "Even for you. Maybe even especially for you."

It's funny how your emotions can blindside you. Because, somehow, that's where I lost it again. I just looked at him, surprised and potentially outraged, then covered my face as the tears came back. I gave into it for a moment (just for a moment), my cheek and forehead hot against the refreshingly cold stone of the tavern. Skyhold didn't give me anything this time, not that I could feel. But then, surprising me, I felt Bull's warm hand on the back of my neck. Which of course immediately got me to crying a bit more, before realizing the absurdity of my situation—Bull witnessing my inevitable disintegration. Again.

I was a disgrace. The Dalish are not, after all, exactly a tearful people. We are stoic. Strong. Some would say impassive.

But then again, maybe that's why I ran away. I was certainly none of those things.

So cried, then got control of myself, took a deep breath, sniffled, and straightened myself up. He dropped his hand as I stepped away, and the fleeting impression of intimacy faded... the touch once more brief and impersonal, merely friendly.

"Ma serannas. I mean—sorry, Bull."

"Not necessary, Boss."

Fenedhis. I made a determined effort to steel myself, shook my head and cleared it. None of this was helpful. None of this was helpful. I wished, once again, and in a sudden and piercing realization, to be in the Rotunda, with Solas. For clarity and silence and magic. I wanted power, surety, knowledge. Not to be weeping in an alleyway next to the poor constantly skewered practice dummies that suddenly felt all too metaphorical.

"I hate this," I said. I watched my breath float in the cold air like magic, like pale barriers. "I hate that it never seems to end. It's just... one disaster after another."

"Well, yeah," he said quietly. "That's war."

"You're not having hysterics," I pointed out. "You're calm. Always. Like it's easy."

His face was sober and expressionless, a perfect mask again. "Spend a decade or two with the Ben-Hassrath. Fight for another decade in Seheron," he said. "Feelings are dangerous. And distracting."

"Without feelings, you might as well be dead," I replied, suddenly irritated.

"I'd rather be alive. And numb," he replied, each word a chip of ice. "They're hard lessons, but you learn them. And you learn them well. You have to."

"So you cut out your heart," I said angrily.

The silence of the falling snow in the pause as I waited. "No," he said quietly, and something in him seemed to relent. His low voice hit me in the sternum as it sometimes did, vibrating there, an almost physical thing, and I recoiled from the intimacy of it. "Oh, no, Boss. You lock it away."

"Really?"

"Sure."

I wanted to touch him again, and refrained. Even in friendship, Bull required boundaries, and he'd reminded me of that already. And then I pondered what he'd said, watching the snow on the stones, the fragile scattered straw before us. Sometimes, everything looks like code. Like an answer. And then I kept with the questions in spite of myself. "Does the Qun make it easier for you, then?"

"Not really," he said, his voice dry with something that was almost humor. Not quite.

"I should learn to do that, though," I said. "Compartmentalize. At least, a little."

"I don't think so, Boss." He breathed out, slowly, not quite a sigh. "And would that really be something you'd want to learn?"

"Yes," I whispered.

The briefest pause. Then: "It's a common lesson, and you always regret learning it. Always. Cassandra knows. So does Blackwall. And Solas," he said.

I looked at him in confusion. "Solas isn't a warrior," I said.

"Yeah, he is," said Bull. "And he wouldn't want you learning those lessons either."

"What if I need them?" I asked. "To do my job?"

Silence. Bull just looked at me.

And I glared at him. "Would you be just as silent," I asked, "if I were a man?"

"Yes," he replied.

"You would?"

"Of course."

I met his eye squarely. "I have to be able to do what's required."

"Sometimes. And sometimes you need the right person for the right job," he said. His words were flat and factual, like chips of wood. "You need the right tool, you choose the right tool."

"A liar when I need a liar, you mean."

"Or a warrior when you need a warrior," he said. "Or a killer."

The snow fell into the silence again. Then I was able to speak. "I'd never ask someone to do something I wouldn't do myself," I said. "That's cowardice."

"That's war," he said again. His eye was bland and grey, his expression equally unreadable. "But I'm here to help when you need it."

"It was just a lullaby!" I said, suddenly angry again, then I gave him a light shove. "I wasn't asking for advice on world peace!"

"I'd give advice," he said bluntly, and shoved me in return, even more lightly, just enough to make me take a step back. But his face was stern, and almost angry. "Where it was helpful." A pause. "Where I thought you'd listen."

I stumbled again when rebalancing, and he caught my elbow and steadied me. I proceeded to try to straighten myself up further, then realized I was sparking again. 

"I listen," I said quietly. "I do." Then I wiped the tears away with my sleeve, and even managed to smile when I saw Bull not-so-subtly trying to find a handkerchief on his person, and failing.

"Let's just say I think you try," he said, and at least he was smiling again. 

He looked soft suddenly, a little vulnerable—like he had back after our tussle in my quarters. Accessible. So I dared to speak further. "It's just... that you're all so good at it..."

"At what?"

"Being alone."

He looked at me sharply. "You should go take your mind off things. Get some real comfort," he said. "Go to Solas. Allow yourselves some time away."

"I will..." I said, avoiding the unspoken part, that I'd be distracting Solas in bed. Gods below. Luckily, Bull didn't need to know everything, dammit. "But he's good at it too. Being alone."

Another direct look. "Yeah," he said at last. "He is."

"I love him," I said. "But he's better at it than any of you. He—" I hesitated, then plowed onward. "He doesn't need anything. Even me."

"Yes, he does," he said. "he needs you. Even if you don't think so."

My eyes filled with tears again unexpectedly in sheer relief, and then the sparks blessedly took over. I preferred sparks to tears. The tears were getting old.

"How do you know?"

He shrugged. "I know. Ben-Hassrath training, remember?"

The snow was slowing now, falling almost weightlessly, as it had in that midnight moment on my balcony, after the first nightmare attack. I was all right now, and able to find humor in my own foolishness. I scooped up a little more snow from atop the nearest practice dummy, then cheerfully rubbed the snowflakes over my warm face. The sensation was wonderful and bracing, not harsh, and I felt awake and capable again, even if I probably resembled a side of beef.

"Enough!" I said, grinning at Bull's bemused expression. "I should let you go back in. You've listened to enough craziness."

"But it's always entertaining," he replied. "You okay?"

"Thanks," I said. "For listening."

His expression was both kind yet dismissive. "You needed a friend."

"I'm always a mess with you," I admitted. "Tell me why that is."

He shrugged. "You trust me."

"Even if I shouldn't."

"That's your take."

"Ben-Hassrath mind-reading asshole." I touched his hand, though, to take the sting away.

"That's me." He smiled, seeming to understand the affection behind it, and I laughed in spite of myself. I looked up and around us, realizing the snow was lessening.

"It's just..."

"What?" he asked.

"I shouldn't have sung that particular song," I said. "It was... private. I should have sung something else. Not something that hurt."

"What does it matter if it hurts?" he asked, surprising me. I met his eye and his face was as immovable as stone. "Was it the right song for Cole?"

I let out my breath slowly. "Yes..."

"Then it was the right song."

I nodded, unable to reply.

"But," he said more gently. He took a step forward, then stopped, as if there were a barrier between us. Which I guess there was. "I'm sorry we teased you."

"It wasn't that," I said, glad to keep the words going. Somehow, something had changed here, reawakened something, and I felt awkward with it, almost as if I were being dishonest, which was ridiculous in every sense.

"How?"

"Well. Rather," I said. "It's more just... that everyone who ever sang that particular version of it with me is dead. Everyone who knew it is gone now."

"Not anymore," he said. "You've started something new."

I brightened. "That's true."

A pause. He stepped away, and we walked back into the courtyard. He paused outside the Herald's Rest, then reared back, tilting his head and stretching easily, face lifted to the tiny feathers of falling whiteness.

“Why don’t you come back in for some company?” he asked. "Another glass, some talk. We'll make you feel like crap some more, and you can break a few more mugs. You'll feel better."

I wavered, then shook my head. “No. I'm better now,” I said. "Thanks.”

He nodded. "Sure." He looked at me for a moment, gave a slight movement of his shoulders that was not quite a shrug, and turned back toward the tavern. "And go see Solas. Stop thinking so much."

"I will," I said.

As he stepped into the outer eaves of the tavern, however, he paused, surprising me, his face listening and thoughtful. Dimly, I could hear the sweet voice of Maryden, muffled from inside and yet curiously clear in the cold winter silence, lifted up on "Enchanter." I remembered my friend Faellin singing carefully through the song that had inspired that one, a soberer one with Dalish lyrics about loss and yearning. I remembered the way he would almost chant the lyrics, low and soft. So many times, he'd seemed to want to turn a love song or a lullaby into a lament. I'd always thought he'd been wrong to sing things that way but maybe he'd been right after all.

Bull's expression caught me, and I paused, watching him curiously.

"What is it?" I asked.

"My Tama," Bull said. Quiet and low, but louder and clearer than the snow on the wind.

"What?"

He sighed. His voice caught me, the emotion. That rare sense from him that, for once, he did not know what he was going to say. He looked thoughtful and still, his face unreadable in the shadows.

"My Tama sang to me," said Bull. "For a little while. Or so she told me later."

"Do you remember it?" I asked.

The wind surged, and for a few seconds of howling snow, the song from within the tavern was lost. "Almost," he said at last. 

"Do you want to remember?" I asked.

He thought for a moment. "I don't know."

"Maybe Cole could help..."

He chuckled at that. "Not gonna happen, Boss." He gave me another brief, amused quirk of his mouth. "But like you said... music's a funny thing."

"Yes, it is."

He shook his head, brusquely, visibly and determinedly clearing the cobwebs. "Night, Boss."

"And to you," I replied. "Good night."

He didn't reply, just flashed a slight grin, then went back inside, wiping the wetness of the snow from his shoulders as he went.

I turned back to the Skyhold steps, blinking the snowflakes from my eyelashes and cheered in spite of myself at Bull's idea that the song would have a new life now. Although I doubted that my addition of cats and turnips would show up in whatever Maryden might sing.

Still, you never knew. Music was a funny thing.

Chapter Text

And then… everything changed.

We’d succeeded. For the first time in forever, something had finally gone right.

As a consequence, I was now standing before Skyhold’s main entrance, high on the front steps and wearing one of my least-favorite but most imposing armors. It was a cold, clear sunny morning that was a minor miracle unto itself, because it turned the punishing snow of the previous few days into something like ornamentation, like treasure shining silver. But that wasn’t all. There was a kind of brightness to the day that went beyond the sunshine itself and seemed to be rooted in something magical.

And maybe it was. Because the day for the launch of the Skyhold barrier had come, and we finally had a spell with which to finish it.

Of course, as such things so often do, the solution had come with almost laughable ease. Our little group of magical-misfit-scholars had been working late into the previous night, when Dorian, more from tiredness than drink, had turned away from the ancient elven artifact spinning feebly before him and knocked over a near-empty bottle of dark Rivaini wine. The bottle had promptly shattered on the stone floor before any of us could react. Always the gentleman, Dorian had begun picking up the pieces himself before Morrigan, amused, had neatly used magic to dispose of the mess much as she had done in my quarters weeks before. Dorian had turned back to the artifact and shoved the globe away from himself, tiredly, only to watch it hum smoothly to life before our eyes. And then it began to glow.

“What,” asked Solas, more openly astonished than I’d ever seen him, “did you just do?”

Dorian met his eyes with equal wonder, then looked down to the table before him. Solas did so at the same moment, and, seeing the small bloody smear on the front of the artifact, both of them began to laugh—Dorian, in a ringing, clear laugh, and Solas, in his quieter way.

“Of course,” said Dorian. He looked back over to Solas, a gleam in his pale eye. “You see it, of course.”

“Exactly,” said Solas, amused rather than offended. “If rather crude, magically speaking.”

“Alas, it is the nature of Tevinter to demand the lifeblood of its citizens in a literal, as well as metaphorical, sense,” Dorian proclaimed.

“But… we explored that,” I protested.

“What, sweetness?” asked Dorian, looking up from the artifact almost absently. Of course he was unmarred. Even exhaustion only emphasized Dorian’s beauty, the slight shadows beneath his cheekbones or the slight redness of his eyes emphasizing the silver of his irises, and the paleness of his skin only providing greater contrast with the dark curls framing his face. It was ridiculous.

“I said,” I repeated patiently, “We explored that already. So why is it working now?”

“Right,” said Dagna. “Because that’s true. It was one of the first things we looked at.”

Especially when things didn’t work,” I said.

“Well, we’d certainly hypothesized blood on the staff, from the enchanter or from (back in the day, at least) a single or even mass sacrifice,” explained Dorian. “You’re not wrong.”

“So we didn’t think far enough,” I said.

“Precisely,” he said, his mouth moving in a half-smile. “We considered it. Yet we never, more’s the pity, explored direct contact on the artifact itself,” he added, still staring down at the beautifully spinning object before him. “I should have remembered that it would have been the basis of almost any powerful spell at that point, especially something involving protection of a Keep itself. Blood, blood, blood. Only blood and brick and stone! How utterly, utterly predictable. And obvious.” He sighed.

“Well, ‘twould seem that the stories are true, then, and that, to quote Solas, your ancient magisters preferred a cruder magic,” said Morrigan, her golden eyes narrowed.

“Darling,” said Dorian, “never let it be said that my people were subtle.”

“’Tisn’t a trait of my own people either, Dorian.” Morrigan said archly. “My mother gloried in spreading the stories of the Witch of the Wilds, after all.” She waved a languid, red-nailed hand in his direction, and he smiled.

“Either way,” said Dagna, always the practical one. “Since I’ve had the other bond-piece ready for days now, we’re all set.”

“If later than we’d ever expected to be,” said Dorian.

“Gods below,” I said, rubbing my eyes, still slightly stunned that we’d accomplished something at long last. “It’s enough that we did it. Dorian, you did it.”

“No, you were right the first time,” he said softly. “We did it. Every person in this room had a hand in this magnificent undertaking.” Then he shook his head, looking triumphant and yet also utterly frustrated at his own blindness. “Besides, I’m not fit to call myself a Vint,” he said wryly. “If they hear of this back home, I shall never live it down. Vishante fucking kaffas!”

Solas met my eyes and then, with a wry smile, he allowed himself to fall onto the bench beside me where I was practically hugging the worktable in exhaustion, and when he rubbed his eyes and then sighed, he seemed living and vulnerable for the first time in days. It was as if he could finally allow himself to admit his own exhaustion. But his face was vivid and young, his expression as ruefully amused as Dorian’s.

“I believe this calls for a toast,” said Solas. “If you happen to have another bottle nearby, Dorian, that is?”

Dorian was happy to oblige him.

***

And so here we were, with all of our people, and it was a beautiful morning as I stood above the Skyhold steps beside Solas, Dorian, Morrigan, and Dagna.

Four adapted elven artifacts had been set at external points around the Skyhold battlements, with the fifth artifact (the primary conduit for the others that we’d taken to calling “the keystone”) set at the midpoint landing of the front staircase, where my official instatement as Inquisitor had once taken place (I always privately thought of it as my ‘coronation’ and then felt guilty, but that was what it had felt like more than anything else – an unexpected crowning). Our workmen had created a small, raised column for the artifact, and now it sat like a jewel in a setting, spinning serenely, only awaiting final activation. With the crowds of our fellow people of Skyhold both around us and gathered in masses above and below, Leliana, her green eyes sparkling in the winter air, stepped forward.

“People of Skyhold,” said Leliana. “You have been brave and steadfast, honorable and unshakable, both in facing Corypheus and the rifts in our skies, as well as in meeting his forces, and in our latest battle, against this new threat from the Fade these past weeks. And we salute you for it.

“We know how difficult these weeks have been. You’ve faced the most difficult enemy of all, over and over again – your own fears. And you have triumphed.

“For this, we thank you. And we honor you, each and every one of you,” I said. “We honor the mages, who helped us discover the solutions we needed, and who submitted to these weeks of supervision and support with grace. We salute the Templars, who did so with respect, affection and honor. We honor the dwarves, who supported us through an unimaginable crisis with their strength. And most of all we honor you, the people of Skyhold. For your belief and patience, for your indomitability.”

Then she looked, pointedly, at me, and I stepped forward as well.

“Thanks to that belief, to YOUR belief…” I said. My voice sounded less sure than Leliana’s, and I pitched it slightly louder, trying to match the gravity of the moment. “Thanks to your belief, and to your hard work and patience, we have come up with a solution, a shield for our Keep that will allow each and every one of us to finally get some rest…”

The artifact before Leliana was already spinning; it just needed two more steps.

Solas stepped forward in his quiet way, relaxed and confident as if he were standing in a solitary meadow. He was wearing the new bond-piece Dagna had created (the twin to the original, that I now wore constantly on my left wrist), and now, I watched as the bond-piece glowed palely, and as he slowly and delicately released a spell in a glowing arc of white above the merrily spinning orb. The magic did not fade away so much as separate, as if into a white-jeweled net surrounding the spinning orb. For a moment, I felt an echo in my own bond-piece, and when I looked down at my left wrist, the bracelet there now glowed white as if in sympathy. For a moment, I felt a dizzying sense of power, as if the only limit to my magic was the horizon before us, and then the sensation dissipated, and I merely felt elated and joyful.

The moment had come. Solas glanced back over at me, and nodded. I looked down into the crowd, smiling to see Josie’s open excitement and exuberance, Cassandra’s expression of fierce elation, and so many other expectant and happy faces. Bull stood toward the back of the crowd, arms crossed, watching and judging it all. I couldn’t read his expression; he didn’t look either pleased or worried, but there was something taut and waiting in his expression, and his eye was fixed unblinkingly upon the artifact itself.

“Now,” I said simply. “We’ll use the Mark to protect our Keep as well as to heal our sky.”

The crowd cheered faintly, but most just watched in tension and suspense. The spinning was steady and perfect, exactly as Solas and Dagna had hoped. Exactly as it had been in our trials in the Undercroft. The blood was fresh and would not need replenishing for two or three days; we’d informed Leliana and our small team of advisors, and for now had decided to let Dorian add the small touch of blood required every few days, as it would only be as much as the swipe of a bloody fingertip on each artifact. Solas himself, while not against the magic, would not do so because it would hamper his access to the Fade, and I, for similar reasons, had also asked to be excluded from giving blood. But so far Dorian was fine with it, and Morrigan had also consented to acting as a backup blood source if needed.

I stepped forward, glancing to Solas, Dorian and Dagna, who nodded their approval for me to proceed. I raised my left arm, the Mark blazing from my palm so all could see, then I stretched my hand over the artifact, palm downward, and gazed intently down at it, focusing all the power I could on that shining, spinning, delicately webbed circle.

The Mark blazed in a crackle of green fire, and the artifact answered. The globe spun faster and faster, then steadied, pale beams of green light emanating elegantly from the central artifact to the other four across Skyhold, point to point to point.

When the last connection was made, there was a thunderous flash, and all at once the heavens above Skyhold were now enclosed in a shimmering curve of pale and faintly poisonous jade. I flinched for a moment; it was as if we’d abruptly been swallowed by a rift and were now deep in the belly of the Fade, still waiting to feel the sting of flame and demon teeth.

The crowd gasped, but my eyes were fixed so intently on the barrier they I couldn’t see anything else. I disregarded everything, everything, but the sight of that faint green glow, so focused that my eyes were watering in the brilliant light. Would it hold?

Oh, gods above.

Please. Please. I wasn’t even sure of who I was praying to. But there was no question that I was doing so.

And the magic held.

The barrier was complete, the seal sending a sudden and slightly disconcerting shock through each of us as everything went muffled. My ears popped as if I’d ascended a mountain in an instant.

The crowds cheered. The relief, the difference, was palpable. We were cushioned, shielded, locked away like a precious jewel from a jealous thief. The difference in pressure and tension was so marked, so instantly tangible, that more than a few people lay down, right where they were, to sleep.

I let out my breath, slowly, in a relieved exhale. We had done it.

I turned back to the others, glad to step once more into the background. Dorian gave me an elated grin, then straightened and strode gracefully down the steps into the crowd. Dagna, I saw with amusement, had quietly turned back to Skyhold, and I knew she was already pondering her next invention.

Then I then noticed Solas’s mouth tighten slightly as he looked above us. As he did so, I realized how strange the Barrier sensation actually was. The air was deadened, heavy and muted. Sounds were slightly thin and tinny. The colors looked strange to me, washed-out in ways that were not entirely due to the greenish light above us. And yet the relief, the sense of freedom, was unmistakable.

Then I looked at my hand and even the crackle of the Mark seemed weaker, more subdued. I thought for a moment, then, curious, I tried to reach for my magic, for a wisp of the Fade.

And at first, there was nothing. Nothing.

No connection. No Fade. No teasing, almost-whisper of demons feather-soft within my mind. No sign of that whispered and tempting susurration I’d heard around the edges of my consciousness ever since I’d reached for magic and found it as a child, ever since my own magic had appeared.

But no. Nothing.

I tried again. And again, with a tangible push of effort… and only then did the brief werelight flicker in my hand. I looked back at Solas, who nodded.

“The new shield will bring its own challenges,” he said quietly. “And yet, our safety would be worth far more inconvenience than this inconsequential strangeness.”

I nodded. “But… you have to call it the Shell,” I said, correcting him. “Not shield. Shell. It’s like an oyster, see, and Skyhold is the pearl.”

“It’s a pretty simile,” he said, smiling.

“Almost as pretty as your new ornament,” I said, amused, touching the bond-piece around his wrist where it lay in a strong, elegant oval. Where mine was faintly patterned when active, almost like a vallaslin in the faintest whorls etched upon its surface, his was simple and plain, a single, broad and beautiful line of silver with a faint coppery glow borne from the enchantment. He glanced down, and his eyes sparkled with mischief.

“Oh, yes, our bond-pieces,” he said. “It appears we are well-matched,  you and I.”

“We are,” I smiled. “Even if I like mine better.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Mine feels subtler,” I said. “I tried yours while we were testing Dagna’s reproduction and it was too much. Maybe it’s just because of the Anchor, but I prefer my own.”

“I like it,” he said. “It’s direct and clean. There is an elegance to it.”

“I thought you’d like it.” I ran a finger over the arc of silver over his wrist, and was amused when it almost purred under my fingertip, then turned an even paler color under my hand, like starlight.

“It seems to like you,” he said, with visible, if subtle, enjoyment.

“Well now that our bond-pieces get along,” I said archly. “It seems there’s nothing further to hold us back.”

“In what way?” he asked.

I chuckled. “You know. We should see if Mother Giselle would like to officiate the ceremony,” I said demurely. “Just to make things official.”

I’d hoped to scare him with the tease, but he only raised an eyebrow. “Official?”

“Well, of course,” I answered. “It’s the natural next step.”

“Ah,” he said. “I see.”

“You were expecting a longer engagement?” I asked.

And then his eyes crinkled and I knew the game was up. And I couldn’t help it. My snicker turned into a real laughing fit.

“And to think,” I said, shaking my head. “I’d actually hoped to scare you.”

That mischievous shadow, the wicked noble I sometimes glimpsed in his face, was back, and he grinned, then leaned over to whisper, his breath warm against my ear. “I’m delighted to be bonded to you, da’mis. Although we have yet to discuss who will play the role of lord and master in that scenario.”

I went instantly crimson, and now he was the one who laughed, softly and with his eyes never leaving mine. I’d even managed a few sparks despite the muffling effects of the Shell.

“Fennec got your tongue?” he asked.

I shook my head. “No. Although it ought to get yours.” I met his eyes sardonically. “So, so much talk!”

He looked at me and his eyes were today wide and awake and as blue as the wintry sky above us. “It is not just talk.”

“So you say,” I teased again.

He took a breath, and I laid my finger against his lips. “Solas,” I said. “Hush.”

He looked at me curiously, and I looked straight into his eyes… and told the truth as plainly as I could. “Today,” I said. “My gift to you… is that you do not have to tell me all the reasons patience will be further required on my part.”

He reached up and encircled my hand with his, then turned the palm to his lips, and kissed it. I fleetingly wanted to tell him to stop doing that, but also did not want him to stop, so I remained silent, deciding to take what gifts were offered to me. “You are too generous with me, vhenan.”

“I’m not,” I said. “And never on a day like today. Generosity is easy. So be happy with me.”

He stood there, speechless still, and to tease him, I made as if to walk away, but then he pulled me back into his arms and kissed me, right there in front of all the crowds below (even if, granted, half of them were too busy celebrating themselves to pay attention). I leaned into it, losing myself in that feeling of lightness and happiness, of desire that was also magic in the blood, my hand upon his neck. Yet, even as I did so, I felt  a strange disorientation, a profound isolation and darkness, as if I were plummeting in free-fall… and then all I felt was, once again simply the warm, demanding and all-encompassing feel of his lips against mine.

I drew back and looked at him, but he hadn’t seemed to feel anything out of the ordinary, himself. He leaned back in to prolong the kiss, that silky echo of touch he always returned for in that way I loved, then pulled away to glance above us. “I must go and view the barrier from above, as a whole,” he said softly, and I was amused that I could see his impatience and curiosity, the fact that his mind had already moved forward from the quandary that was me. “There may be ways for us to further improve it or even to increase its reach. Do you mind?”

Vara,” I said, smiling. “Go.” The moment of strangeness was over, and that exhilaration, that holiday feeling, was back. He gave me another brief smile, then turned away, and I watched him ascend into the cool darkness of Skyhold.

When I turned back, leaning against the stones before me, I realized that I was not alone.

“Well,” said a soft and musical voice beside me. “A job well done to all of you. We are deeply in your debt.” I looked over to see Leliana, delicate in the winter light, looking pale and composed as always, and now with a satisfied expression like the cat that had licked the cream. She was now viewing the dissipation of the crowd with an affectionate, if slightly bemused, expression. Cabot and Sutherland had expertly wheeled one of the barrels out from the tavern, and even as I watched, the people of our castle were toasting the delicious change in pressure, the feeling that we had truly stopped the nightmares.

“There are,” said Leliana, “going to be a truly astonishing number of misplaced smallclothes upon the morrow.”

“Probably,” I said, grinning.

But the tiredness was also finally telling on people, even in the midst of so much joy and exuberance. Even as I watched, Sutherland crumpled slightly against the barrel, and Cabot was now quietly helping him back to his feet, to escort him inside.

Now some Skyhold citizens were heading back into the Keep, or off to the courtyard below. But plenty of other people everywhere were also frankly dozing or sleeping where they stood. Cassandra herself had gone over and flopped down on the bench in her practice corner, while Bull turned and lifted Sutherland from Cabot’s arm as effortlessly as if he were a child, and then went quietly back into the Herald’s Rest, Cabot following after. Lace, meanwhile, was talking to Cullen at the bottom of the Skyhold steps, both of them with a mugful of ale and looking as if they’d just heard about the complete eradication of the Blight.

I started forward, startled and worried at how many had fallen to ground right where they were. Leliana’s hand stopped me. “They are safe where they are,” she said softly. “We will watch them all.”

I relaxed again, and allowed myself a sigh. The change in pressure was amazing.

“It’s like a blanket,” I heard myself saying. “It’s kind of too much blanket, magically speaking, but it’s a nice blanket.”

“You know, Inquisitor, I was going to suggest a meeting in the war room to celebrate,” said Leliana, wrinkling her pert nose ever so slightly. “But look at us. To be honest, what we need, what everyone truly needs, at this point, is some rest.”

“That’s true,” I said, smiling.

She then shocked me by giving me a small, affectionate and ladylike shove, and I looked at her quizzically.

“What was that for?” I asked.

“Stupidity, Inquisitor,” she said in that exquisite accent. “Stupidity.”

“I—what—?” I always felt slow around Leliana, so this was just one more moment.

She chuckled at my expression.  “My lady,” she said. “It seems I must be blunt. So I shall: Go and get some rest. I do not wish to see you again for a full day or more. Preferably two.”

I gaped at her almost comically. “Oh.” Then I remembered the artifacts. “We’ll need to set the mages on a schedule,” I said. “To charge the artifacts. And you know about the blood schedule—Dorian is handling that, very quietly, and I won’t need to hit the keystone with the Mark for three or four more days, so—“

“Eliaden,” she said. “Idiot.” She used the Orlesian pronunciation, which both charmed me and cut more deeply.

“Ouch,” I said.

“Well,” she said, grinning. “I do mean it with love.”

“And knives,” I said, shaking my head at her.

She smiled. “Not for you.” I restrained myself from a full-body shudder. She merely pursed her lips and shook her head, her face charmingly framed by the points of her bobbed red hair where it met her jawline, vivid in the winter sunshine. “But this is certainly where you should please go away.”

I remembered how many daggers she probably carried, and nodded automatically. “Ma serannas,” I said. “Thank you.”

“You are quite welcome, my friend,” she grinned, and suddenly she looked like a teenager. “I am merely puzzled as to why you are still standing here.

I stared at her again like the foolish elf I always seemed to be in her presence.  And then I turned and did what she ordered. I half-ran, half-stumbled, breathless in my excitement and laughing at my own clumsiness as I went up the remaining Skyhold steps, down the long, cool echoing shadowy emptiness of the main hall, and (at last) pushed open my door and went up, up, up the winding steps and across the floor of my own quarters, finally to reach my ridiculous, horrible, wonderful golden bed. Despite the fact that I’d always found all that gold hideous and in terrible taste, I had never loved it more.

I collapsed, then sighed into the softness, my cheek against the cool silk, my body’s overwhelming tiredness reminding me that I was still alive before that awareness simply faded away, receding into a haze of blissful slumber.

I remember nothing after that. Not for fifteen delicious hours.

I only know that, blessedly, I did not dream.

Chapter Text

So the pause in the shadows was over, and the world was once more with us.

And to that world we must once more offer protection. It was why we were still here, after all. It remained a pretty sober charge, yet after our long ordeal (a siege, I later realized, of minds as well as hearts), it was so pleasant to return to routine, to travel with my companions, even if we were still at war. How terrible, in its way, to be happy just for the air, even if the smoke we breathed was tragic.

Even if the shadows ahead seemed darker than ever. Even if we continued to fear our own dreams.

Nevertheless, it was a gift. The world was again open, and beautiful, and waiting, and I wanted to run right to it.

And my companions followed me.

We’d planned on going directly to Chaldecy, but the rift activity was even more urgent; in the two weeks that followed the creation of the Shell, I must have closed a dozen rifts. It was tiring work. Yet as always, I loved that moment of rift closure, that sharp rush that was like a door shutting on a high wind from a stormier place. It was clear. It was something accomplished. Something absolute. Every rift closed was a visible way for me to see that, yes, I had made a difference. I had done something. So much simpler than Inquisition treaties or paperwork or meetings or uneasy alliances.

Even the fighting felt clean and clear—it is easier to fight a demon than a mortal, after all. You are not left with a corpse, with the reminder that what is before you was a person, once, who may have had loves, friends, a family, maybe little ones.

Demons were easier. Although it was a thought I was careful not to express to Solas. I had a feeling he might be slightly prickly on the issue.

But we were getting things done again.

Meanwhile, our people were safe. The Shell was doing its job. The magic held.

And so we left its safety, and sought to protect our people and end the rifts once more. We spent most days of the two weeks to follow traveling back and forth through the Crossroads, thanks to Morrigan’s research.

On this occasion, we paused for a few moments in the Crossroads, and I grinned in spite of myself at the luxury of it, welcoming the push of brilliant, vivid light and color, in the graceful branching pillars and mysteriously shimmering mirrors. I knew it wasn’t pleasant for everyone, and that most of my companions didn’t see what I did, the beauty of it (the Crossroads was dim, grim, shrouded and grey for non-elves).

I looked over, and saw that Solas’s eyes were closed and his face was quiet. I was flooded with a deep sense of joy and acceptance, of rightness. This was how things were supposed to be.

Then I looked over and saw Morrigan’s pallor, Varric’s sweaty face, and that Bull had doubled over, hands on knees, breathing evenly and slowly, as if by will alone, and my happiness faded.

“Come on,” I said, “Morrigan, let’s go.”

She led us in a straight line, unerring and certain, to the proper eluvian for the mission. It was a smaller one, off in one of the dustier corners, but shimmering still with life and magic. Even as we did so, I saw Sera breathe deeply, as if for sustenance, and then look around warily, as if afraid we had seen her. She met my eyes and I slid mine past her, pretending not to see. Now was not the time for me to call Sera out on the fact that, yes, she was still an elf. Which meant the Crossroads was a beauty and a blessing she would never admit.

We had places to go. After all, we had these treasured, singular routes open to us, carefully chosen by Morrigan, even when many of the other working eluvians remained stubbornly mercurial and even wholly closed to us.

“The network itself is not mine,” she reminded us, as we approached the latest eluvian. It was our longest travel in weeks, and we were all nervous but excited at the distance. “I cannot say who rules its powers, but suffice it to say that it is not me. I am only able to wrest entrance to a few now and then, scattered and forgotten enough that they are regularly passable. Someone else, someone far more powerful, has the key to most of these doors,” she admitted. “And yet we must make do where we can, and ‘tis easy enough, even so, in these times, to get within traveling distance of most of our targets.”

“Still,” added Bull, grinning. “If elf-mirrors mean a shorter walk, I’ll take it.”

“So will I,” added Varric merrily.

“Me too,” I added. “It’s fast.”

“Even if some of us feel queasy doing it,” added Varric. “Not being an elf, I mean.”

“It’s not that bad!” I protested.

“Not if you’re an elf, at least,” commented Bull, echoing Varric, and I laughed.

“Well, I’m an elf and I don’t like it. Walking’s fine with me. Or… I don’t suppose we could fly?” asked Sera. “I wouldn’t mind flying. Just occasionally. Not all the time, so we’d get all posh about it, so to speak. Who wants glass that might let anyone anywhere?”

“I’d ride a dragon,” Varric said, laughing. “Just once. For the story I could tell.”

“Dragons are better than mirrors,” Sera muttered. “Dragons don’t use magic. Dragons don’t lie.”

“Sera the dragon,” teased Bull. “Sera, the fire-breather!”

“Not hardly,” grumped Sera. “I don’t breathe no fire. Don’t fly neither, none of that shite. Just said I wouldn’t turn down a lift from a dragon now and then. Better that, than glass nobody can trust.”

Solas spoke into the silence, and his voice was gentle. “You distrust it, Sera,” he said, “because it is pleasant to you, correct?”

“No,” she gritted, glaring at him.

“If you were asked about your feelings for this place, you would not admit, still, to the magic and color you can see?” he asked. “And the safety or comfort you feel in them?”

“Don’t trust magic,” she gritted. “Color isn’t nothing but color. Isn’t comfort.”

“It could be,” said Solas softly. He turned and met my eyes, a glance like a cool beam of magic. I smiled. Then he looked back to Sera. “It could be, child, if you let it.”

Bull stood quietly next to the shifting silver colors of the mirror, waiting patiently, merely watching the play between Sera, and Solas, and me.

“We should go,” he said.

“I will,” she said. “But he should stop talking to me.” She gestured at Solas, who shrugged, almost indefinably.

“Next time, we’ll go by dragon, Buttercup,” grinned Varric.

I laughed. “I wouldn’t turn one down either,” I added, trying to keep the peace. “A short ride, at least. Just to get where we’re going. But I trust the glass. We have to.”

“Stupid!” she spat. “You’re elfy, you. You like the mirrors. I don’t.”

I stared at her, surprised. “I don’t like them, even if I am elfy, Sera. But if they help, I’ll use them.”

“Thought you were different,” she said, rasping, her eyes huge and very dark on mine. As though I were betraying her. “Thought you weren’t like them.” She was breathing hard, as if from running a long way.

“I’m not,” I replied, surprised, wrinkling my nose at her. “What’s wrong with you?”

She was silent.

“Sera,” I said gently. “Things are better. We have the Shell. Things… are better.”

She met my eyes, shook her head, then frowned. I stepped forward, then tentatively put my hand on hers. “Sera, Sera, Who Was Never… what is it?”

“Not that stupid song!”

“It fits,” I smiled.

“Sorry. Sorry.” She met my eyes, then softened. “I’m being a shit and you don’t deserve it. But I don’t like this. And don’t like mirrors. I’m still tired.”

“Me too,” I admitted. “But surely we can joke now and then. Slay a few dragons.” Even as I watched, she began to calm herself, to guide herself back to equanimity. Then she met my eye with half a sparkle, both serious and apologetic.

“No point in talking dragons now,” she groused. “Especially when Bull’s killed half of ‘em.”

“But respectfully!” Bull protested. “With great respect!” I was delighted to see Solas actually lose composure at this, turning away to chuckle. Cass and Varric, too, were laughing quietly.

“Tell that to the dragons,” said Sera.

“Hey!” I protested. “I was being hypothetical!”

“More like stupid,” she growled.

“Sera,” I said quietly. “Not today, okay?”

She glared at me, as Bull raised an eyebrow. “What now?”

“Sera!” Then I struggled to soften my voice. “Just… what is it?”

She glared again. “You’re listening to elfyshits, that’s what.”

“To me,” said Solas, quietly.

I managed to look genuinely confused. “Yes,” I said honestly. “Sure I am.”

“So.”

“Sera,” I said, struggling a bit. “Solas is your friend. And mine. He helped us with the Shell. He’s why we can travel again—him, and Dagna and Dorian and Morrigan. Be fair.”

She met my eyes fiercely but said nothing. Yet even two weeks after the Shell, I could see the nightmares in her face.

“Sera. We’re all still tired,” I said flatly. “Still getting over the dreams. Let’s just leave it at that.”

A pause in the silent dark. She looked at Solas, and somehow I could not interpret the glance between them. It was filled with loathing, and yet also with acceptance, sympathy, and grudging understanding. Sera, meeting his eyes, nodded slowly.

“I’m not myself,” she said, faltering slightly.

“You are yourself,” he said just as quietly. “You are merely farther from her than you have realized.”

 “Bollocks,” she said succinctly.

“What in seven hells?” asked Bull, his confusion plain on his face. He looked from Sera, to Solas, to me, then back to Sera.

Sera smiled at his confusion, but it was not quite a happy smile. Then she met my eyes, and somehow she seemed both reassured and apologetic at what she saw there.

“Sorry,” she muttered. “I’m sorry.”

I met her eye coldly… then relented.

I couldn’t be angry at Sera for long. I understood her, who had struggled so long, and against so much. Who hated the root of who she was, the magic at her core. Who feared the very love in her own heart, and who was only angry when confronted by her own fears.

For myself, I understood Sera – it wasn’t always comfortable to travel by eluvian, but it was efficient, and Morrigan was right that it was vital to our current situation. Even with the occasional hurdles of time and travel, we managed to go swiftly and neatly where we needed to go, dampening fires and helping towns to either defend or to recover.

Sera may have argued, but the world, terrifying as it was, was open to us again, and I gloried in it. I would have accepted far worse travel than the eluvians and our own legs, truth be told. Just being able to walk and talk, to feel the breeze, to inhale the scents of forest or storm or sea, to leaveSkyhold and live… it was wonderful beyond recent imaginings. I hadn’t realized how penned-in I’d felt until I was once more able to leave. Skyhold was a lovely place, a far high place, and we’d had air aplenty, but somehow it had still felt like the air of imprisonment.

Yet now, at last, we were truly free to come and go. So far, Skyhold was safe. And so far, I seemed to be able to travel dim and hidden and anonymous, thanks to Dorian’s magic and Morrigan’s bond-piece. Best of all, the etched circlet upon my wrist seemed to be doing its job, protecting me from the malevolent presence attempting to track us.

That wasn’t to say it was easy, exactly. Just strange. And just another new challenge in this very strange world.

I was now living with a piece of jewelry as prisoner, as eavesdropper, as a companion I could not identify.

It was metal as thought, terrifying and intimate. I could never have imagined living with such a thing.

But of course, that was before the Mark. I’d learned to imagine many things since then.

As if in answer, the bond-piece went cold on my wrist as we came close to the eluvian, and I grimaced. Ignore it.

I ignored it. We had things to do, battles to fight.

We stepped into the mirror once more.

Chapter Text

I stepped through the silent, dreamlike brilliance of the Crossroads, then stumbled slightly at what I found on the other side of the glimmering glass.

I had emerged into a green and rocky world, softly illuminated by a patchy grey sky. At first, the noise was almost overwhelming, a general cacophony, until I realized all I was hearing were the birds and insects, so loud after the ghostly pearlescent silence of the Crossroads. Trees marched in every direction ahead of me, due West, in shadowed forests that appeared even darker in the rare broken rays of late afternoon sunlight.

The sky was high and oppressive all at once, the color of old ashes, and the air was cold and very sharp. However, that wasn’t the difference; the air was also cold at Skyhold, after all, so high in the Frostbacks. And yet this was somehow a completely different kind of chill—heavier, older, one that seemed to settle instantly into my very bones.

I pulled myself together, breathing deeply in the little trick I’d often employed on the iciest days at Skyhold, embracing the cold, welcoming it into myself as a way to acclimate. Then I shivered, recovered myself and stepped carefully onto the scrubby, yellowing turf. I looked back to see Bull emerge from the eluvian with his quiet, heavy, businesslike tread, followed by Sera, who had been so eager to get it over with that, hurrying forward, she tripped and fell against his back, and he chuckled, catching her easily with his big hand before she fell. After Sera came Varric, exiting with calm and nimble steps, looking around keenly as he did so. Then came Morrigan, gliding through as serenely as a queen. Then Cass, who was bringing through the group of several Inquisition soldiers who were accompanying us this time. She was grumpy and breathless because she had rushed them straight through the mirror, Crossroads, and eluvian—either too fast or not fast enough, as one of the human soldiers immediately went over to a nearby shrub in order to vomit quietly in reaction to the Crossroads. Cass looked both sympathetic and embarrassed, and when she met my eyes, I slid my eyes past, pretending not to have seen.

Last of all came Solas, who stepped through with a quiet ease and curious subtlety. If I had not been watching, I would not have known he was there at all.

And now we were in Brynnlaw, and as I turned in a circle, I saw the great white peak to the North, alone in a vast plain, with its massive summit disappearing into the grey mist of the sky. The “other” White Spire, the mountain set in the vast plain of Northern Antiva. I felt like I'd wandered into myth. This was the farthest north I had ever been, and I looked around curiously and eagerly, drinking in the landscape in more detail. Morrigan’s discovery of this eluvian had been almost miraculous, as it had brought us only steps from where we would need to be, both to view the progress (and perhaps origins) of the Fade entity, and to close several rifts Solas had located before journeying south to check out the events of Chaldecy and beyond.

We were free again, and I was finally seeing lands I could only have dreamed of back with my clan. I'd never really clearly imagined Antiva, a place I’d always vaguely pictured, through Josie, as being vague, vivid and colorful. And yet this was nothing like that; it was a harsh landscape, even forbidding, yet beautiful in its way too. Beautiful and tantalizing.

Because Arlathan Forest was near.

Arlathan.

I said it silently to myself, and the syllables almost quivered on my tongue. The one place I’d always longed to see. No matter if it was simply a cluster of trees today or the sad whisper of forgotten magic. It was our place—the place. The place of the elves. Where, once upon a time, we had lived lives of impossible length, beauty and complexity. Where elves had ruled all of known Thedas. I didn’t care so much about the ruling bit, but I did love the idea of answering to no one. I thought of the elves I’d seen enslaved, cringing in cities, or trapped in alienages, eyes carefully downcast, and my fist tightened.

Poor Sera. I was indeed discovering that I was, in fact, what she called "an elfy-elf." I'd discovered it in large part due to Solas, and yet it was more complicated than that—because it was about me, too, and my desperation to connect with something lost. It was why the plight of my people could still bring tears to my eyes, and the fact that I was this close to our ancient home made my blood warm and my body hum with a different kind of magic—a knowledge, I would swear, of where we were meant to be. I thought of my silent father, who had spoken the word Arlathan so rarely, as if the very word was a taste he could allow himself only in the briefest of moments (but then my father had always been one of those people more comfortable with sacrifice than with plenty—luckily, my mother's warmth had filled those gaps).

I gazed to the Northwest, then down the tree line to the West, straining my eyes in hopes of seeing something special. Anything that perhaps might only be accessible to elven eyes—some sense of the lost majesty and beauty I so badly wanted to find.

Nothing.

Just the tops of the far trees in the grey air, marching away into shadow, and stubbornly impenetrable.

I looked away to see Solas’s gaze on mine. I gave the smallest shrug, and he gave me one of those subtle smiles with his eyes that showed me he understood what I was feeling.

Meanwhile, Cass was directing the soldiers to line up, as we would have a brief march to the new campsite (I smiled when I saw her quietly slip her waterskin to the soldier who had been sick after the eluvian). Even as they began to walk, I followed so eagerly that I had trouble not walking right up on Cass’s heels. Sera, too, I saw, was walking quickly and purposefully, wanting simply (I knew) to get where we were going, the slight traces of misery still showing vividly on her face; with the dirt smudges and tearstains she looked for all the world like the orphan she had once been. But I knew she would have hated my noticing her sadness, and my sympathy even more, so I said nothing.

The march was an easy one, unhurried and yet silent despite the cold, which usually made people chatty. The soldiers looked nervous and some looked pale and sick even an hour past the emergence from the Crossroads. Cass spoke quietly more than once to those who lagged, and it reminded me of the long walk I had taken with her after she had discovered me at the Temple all those months ago.

Solas walked alone, not far from me. He looked thoughtful and a little sad. Last of all of us, walking in calm, measured strides, was Bull.

After a few miles, we reached the new campsite that had been set up in advance by the Inquisition soldiers. Located right next to the Forest itself, it provided us with a good spot to rest for the night, to assess what Cole and Solas had both noted as the likely first real-world appearance of the Entity, and from there we could move on South, then Southwest, to assess the situation at Chaldecy, where our people had disappeared.

I was a little nervous about following the Fade Entity’s path, but in spite of that, I was still secretly delighted to realize we would be this close to Arlathan Forest itself. I felt more than a little fear, then shook it away from me. There were secrets to discover here. I wouldn't let superstition stop me.

And yet… I was here, finally here. We were so close now that the eaves were a scant few hundred yards from us. The trees, densely packed, seemed to be an odd mix of evergreens and deciduous varieties, and the contrast between the tall straight trees with their naked branches bare beneath the sky with the thicker, denser evergreens in all their greys, greens and blues, still thickly clothed even in the bitter air, was striking.

The tents were already up, so I went hastily over to toss my pack and staff inside the one I wanted, as I wanted to share with Cass, not Sera (Cass snored, but she was by far the easier tentmate), and I wanted to get possession of the cot nearest the forest, just to see what I might hear, as Cass wouldn’t care a fig about which cot she had. When I entered, I was delighted to see that Cass had already chosen the cot nearest the fire, dumping her weapons unceremoniously on the folded bedding so all was clear. I tossed down my pack on the other cot against the thin material nearest the eaves of the forest, then thanked the soldier nearest me.

Suddenly, even as I exited, I felt an unexpected surge of chill from the metal around my wrist, and then a swift, inexplicable change as the metal heated to near-boiling.

Gods below.

I clapped my hand over it, and tightened my lips, counting the seconds and pacing myself before panic. When I looked up, Solas, who was almost directly across from me and carefully adding wood to the fire pit, was looking at me with a raised eyebrow.

I went right over to him. “Feel this,” I said. He grinned a little, but then put his hand over the circlet, and raised it again, surprised.

“Hmm,” he said, then lowered his hand again. “Does it hurt?”

“Almost,” I said, somehow angry with it. It hadn’t quite harmed me, but it was disconcerting, and when Solas gently moved it upon my wrist, I could even see the slim band of slight redness there. Not an actual burn, but close.

I looked at him. “Is yours doing anything strange?” I demanded.

He shook his head, and I reached over and put my hand over his own wrist. True to his word, the bond-piece was cool to the touch, exactly as it should be on a winter’s day. I grimaced.

He looked at my hand on his wrist, then touched it gently with his. “I believe I may know what you are experiencing,” he said.

“What?” I asked, frustrated. “What is it? It does this all the time.”

“It happens to you frequently?” he asked, a glint in his eye.

“Yes,” I admitted. “I haven’t said anything. At first—” I hesitated.

“At first, what?” he asked. Not quite smiling, but as if daring me to finish.

“At first I thought it was my connection to you,” I said. “So I didn’t want to question you about it because I felt that would be… I mean, you have…”

“What?”

I shrugged. “Your barriers are pretty firmly in place,” I said. “I wanted to respect that.”

He blinked, as if surprised, then his mouth quirked warmly. “I understand. And ma serannas, although you need have no fear on that front. I have experienced very little transmitted from you to my own piece.” He ran his finger lightly along the circlet, and I met his eyes flatly.

“You don’t feel anything from me?” I asked, eyes narrowed.

“No, I do not believe so, beyond the occasional surge of emotion here and there,” he answered.

But even as he said it, he looked away. Then he met my eyes with a small, reflexive and impersonal smile that gave nothing away at all. “In truth, I’m a little disappointed.”

I dropped my eyes, not willing to call him out on suspicion alone. “So am I,” I muttered.

A half-smile. "You must be more patient with me, love."

I still felt sulky and rebellious. "Oh, gods, not patience again. I hate patience."

"I know," he said. "But I quite enjoy watching you wrestle with it."

He lifted my hand in his, and lightly kissed the soft skin on my inner wrist where the bond-piece had burned me. I crackled in a flash of subtle blue electricity, and he laughed softly, his breath warm against my skin. Then he let go, dropping his hand from my wrist, and I realized the caress had been as much a comfort as a diversion. He would not answer me directly; not on this. Instead, the scientist was back, the colder Solas, the man who analyzed.

“As I was saying... it is not me, vhenan."

"Then what?"

"I suspect, in fact, that what you are experiencing is the protective reaction of the bond-piece when the entity we seek attempts to locate or act against you in some way.”

"It's... protecting me?"

"Of course," he said. "That is what we designed it to do."

"I didn't realize it would feel so... so personal," I admitted. Already the intense heat was fading away, and the moment had passed. I took a deep breath, then turned back to the camp-building in progress. When I looked back, his face was blank and inscrutable again. Courteous as a casual acquaintance I might pass in a hallway at Skyhold.

“Who are you sharing with this time?” I asked.

The facade wavered; he looked puzzled, dismayed, and honestly confused, and I realized he must think I was still talking about the bond-piece. “Your tent,” I said, laughing out loud, and pleased in spite of myself to have set him off-balance.

His face lightened, and he smiled warmly. “Varric,” he said. “I always enjoy our conversations, so it should be a pleasant sojourn.”

I wanted to joke about sharing a tent with him but somehow it would have fallen flat, and I knew it. So I simply smiled. "Varric will be pleased," I said. "And no doubt, have to answer half a dozen other questions about his people," I chuckled.

"I'm quite sure he would tell me if my questions were an inconvenience," he said, and I laughed again. "Of course he would," I said. "He likes your questions."

"Inquisitor?" I looked back, and an Inquisition officer was shuffling through pages of requisitions with an exasperated expression. I parted from Solas with a smile, even if my thoughts were still roiling from the bond-piece... and from Solas’s reactions.

And from the lies, of course.

***

Which brings me to… Well, I should probably talk about the bond-piece.

Living with it, day in and day out, was a curious experience, and one I could not have imagined when I had blithely touched the small circle of metal when it lay, once upon a time, in Morrigan’s hand.

Solas had observed that it was used for connectivity between people, that it could be both a matter of power, control or pure sensuality.

I’d rather naively assumed that this connection wouldn’t be an issue for me—after all, the paired corresponding bond-piece that Dagna had manufactured for Solas to wear wasn’t a truly elven creation, and it had been designed simply to connect the power of the Mark from me, to Solas, to the artifacts that powered the Shell. And to then reverse that flow only in a kind of dampening field, just enough to hide the Mark's presence when I traveled.

However, beyond that—because our paired set was not a true one—incomplete in terms of those offered by the ancient elvhen who had envisioned such pieces, Solas had anticipated that he wouldn’t get many, if any, emotional impressions or transferences from me, and that I would get even fewer from him, as the connection (even if it existed) would not flow that way. It had been created to be a sender; it had been designed to flow from the artifact network, to me, to him. Not back to me beyond dimming the flame that made me visible.

Or so we'd thought.

When I had expressed reservations—I did not, after all, want to share every single thought or feeling with Solas, no matter how much I might be growing to feel for him—he had responded that as with all magical situations, we could also work to become adept at insulating ourselves if necessary for privacy. It would only be another kind of barrier, after all. I'd been amused and a little frustrated, yet again, at the reminder of how good he was at barriers, when I'd always been terrible at them.

And yet… experiencing the bond-piece on my wrist as a part of my constant life was nothing like what I had anticipated. For one thing, it was powerful, tangible, alive, and it constantly made its presence known. It was something odd and wholly apart from me, and I never forgot it. Sometimes it was a matter of temperature, out of the blue and utterly incongruous. As it had done here at camp today, it might glow strangely hot or cold, and for no reason I could figure out. It seemed unconnected to anything outside myself. In the air around us, it might be winter, but on my wrist it would be summer itself, its delicate tracings glowing warm and coppery. And the rest of me would shiver, and wonder what exactly I’d gotten myself into. Other times, those tracings would glow silver-blue, faint and cold, even in the warmest firelight.

It was fitting, somehow, given my current inner turbulence. I'd always thought of myself as a simple person. I was not necessarily subtle or complex. For most of my life, I had always been a person whose outsides matched my insides. And yet no longer. Not for a year now; not since the Mark. I was surrounded by people who were adept at subterfuge, who hid themselves as a matter of course, and it seemed to me that I'd caught some of that, somehow. I was no longer quite simple, or trusting. Inside I might well be hot, or cold, while my skin reflected a different reality. Here and now, my heart might want one thing, while my brain feared or distrusted that thing.

Nothing was simple now. Nothing had been simple, of course, since the explosion and my ridiculous ascension as the potential savior of all Thedas.

The only new element in all of this was that now this circlet around my wrist seemed to be in tune with the parts of myself I was trying to hide. And it seemed to be built to remind me of how little I knew myself at all, body or mind.

But this was actually the least of the challenges of my strange new ornament.

On other occasions, you see, the bond-piece was a tempestuous, fitful and strange beacon not of simple temperature, but of strangeness, of heart and pure emotion. A heart I would swear was not mine at all.

Sometimes, the circlet gave off actively antagonistic vibrations, as if I’d been possessed by someone bleak, off-putting and angry,  and I swear I felt those emotions seeping into the bones of my wrist and entering my blood (on those days, I had started to realize, belatedly and at last, the importance and joy of being able to bite your own tongue even to blood when silence was best). Still, at other times, it felt as clean and keen and joyful as a wade through a cold summer stream in the mountains. A joy in life, in being alive, that I'd never before stopped to acknowledge. A hunger for all things sensual.

As these occurrences made themselves known to me, I was both fascinated and slightly scared; I could never predict what the bond-piece might do or what it might make me feel. I just knew that all of this felt outside of me, separate and wholly unconnected to how I myself was actually feeling.

The temperature changes seemed to occur in the early days when my own more emotional ones had been locked away. I might want to scream and did not do so (congratulating myself on that fact after a particularly deadly council with Vivienne’s honeyed poisoned tongue), but if I didn’t, the bond-piece would heat almost to physical harm. And if I refused to further allow myself any outlet to my emotions, it turned deadly cold.

It was fascinating, or, rather, it would have been if it hadn’t been so connected to me. I only knew that when it wasn’t fluctuating in my heart or brain, the bond-piece was  curiously present, hot or cold on my wrist as if clamoring for attention from outside of both.

Sometimes (the only way I can describe it) it just seemed like something alive, but outside myself, with its own opinions and reactions. Like something cold, detached and listening. I didn’t ever feel that it was harmful or malevolent, exactly—just that it was rather judging in personality (and rarely approving). It was as if I wore a piece of jewelry all the time that was, well, semi-occasionally possessed by Leliana. Or, on the bad days, Vivienne, of all the blasted people it could have chosen. Viv. She of the poisonous glance and tongue. Certainly I could be forgiven for finding it intimidating, since braver creatures than me had been known to faint just at knowing Vivienne was within 100 leagues of them.

I’d certainly enjoyed the mystery of it, in the early days. I’d been puzzled by its changefulness but also genuinely amused. Truly I was no longer the Dalish fisher-mage of the coast, because I was now in real danger. I had begun to find politics and subterfuge, gods help me, genuinely interesting. Even charming. And... now, even in my jewelry choices. The bond-piece didn’t care if I wanted to run screaming from politics, it simply provided power and ignored my own fears and tremblings. As one of those who would normally have passed this war unnoticed, it was an intimidating and discouraging revelation.

So I ignored it, as best I could.

Until I couldn’t.

See, every once in awhile, the bond-talisman felt not just alive, but vulnerable. Alone in my quarters, I even tried to scrawl down how it felt, but I was never quite able to capture it... no matter how hard I attempted to do so. The emanations I received were sharp and shattering:

Like something in pain.

Like someone in need of comfort.

Like a cry for help.

Like a message I couldn’t read.

Like a plea for absolution.

Like something that knew me.

Like something that loved me.

Like something that wanted me.

Like something that hated me.

Like something that expected refusal and hatred.

Like something waiting.

Like something alone.

Like something lost.

Like something… dying.

Like something dead.

Like something that wished to die but that was not yet dead.

Like something irrevocably alone.

When these moments came, they filled my being with emotions that were so fierce I could taste them like blood, coppery and warm on my tongue.

This wasn’t just magic, or a misfiring bond-piece—not just the messy magic and emanations of an enchanted object. I was a great liar to myself but I wasn’t able to take it that far, because, let’s face it—I was receiving something real. Real emotions, real feelings, not from an object or long-ago past, but from a person, alive and sentient. Real. And in unimaginable pain. The bond-piece was merely the messenger.

So.

The question I desperately wanted to ask, which was also the word that I wanted so badly to speak, went unspoken. I did not call him out directly. I never said his name.

I did not ask, “Solas?”

I wanted to say it but could not bring myself to do so.

I could do nothing but allow the emotion in acceptance and silence—to allow, react, and then, where I could, to attempt to reach back, to reassure or to connect, to say, “I am here.” If it was him, to offer comfort in the only way I thought he might allow. And so I sent it back, the feeling—all the feelings, as powerfully as I could.

But I never got any response. No response at all.

And yet daily I was met with that cool and perfect surface, with the visage of a man who might be mercurial—warm beneath my hands or cool and competent, but I certainly didn't see any sign of the agony I'd glimpsed. He was simply... Solas. A mystery I would never solve but that I delighted even in attempting to read.

So, just like I’d done today, I accepted the lies he told me without ever revealing my awareness of his secret. I’d become used to lies, after all. I was surrounded by men who cared about me, daily, and who nevertheless lied as easily as breathing. Bull did it. Even Varric did it. So did Dorian. Blackwall did it too, but his lies seemed to be lies of silence and omission, as if he’d bite his lip bloody before speaking, which made me feel for him because his struggle was so visible.

Cullen did it too, but badly, which was unexpectedly and oddly charming. I found it refreshing that in my nest of liars at least, one person’s lies were so terrible we both simply grimaced and moved on when they occurred.

Not Solas of course. Solas’s lies were as graceful as Leliana’s, as smooth as Bull’s, as impenetrable and cool as marble.

Like the ones he’d given me today—that he didn’t get anything back from my bond-piece. He smiled and lied and I knew it. I knew it.

And so I simply gave Solas my silent acceptance—even if he never quite seemed to know what a gift it was that I was giving him—the gift of knowing he lied and that I accepted the lies as willingly as the truths.

The world we lived was hard, bleak and terrifying. If Solas had to lie to me to function, who was I to judge? I saw the lies, accepted them, gave my own lies back to him (mostly of courage and certainty and confidence) and continued on to the next moment, beating back death and darkness every bit as black as the shadows beneath the eaves of Arlathan Forest.

Keep your secrets if you must, I told the bond-piece. I whispered it again now in the chilly air of Brynnlaw. And instantly felt better. No matter if Solas heard, the words were spoken. Keep your secrets. I have my own.

Chapter Text

The evening fell quickly, seeming to creep on inky fingers out of the nearby forest, but there was a cheerfulness in the air around us too, in spite of the forest’s grim reality. We were all so happy to be out and traveling again, so despite the darkness that was still such a large part of our world, the freedom had gone to all of our heads. We’d all breezed our way into camp, joking even after a long day of preparation and travel. The incident in the Crossroads felt forgotten, and Sera, still visibly ill at ease after the eluvian journey, nevertheless gave Solas a brief, small smile when he handed her a mug of honeyed tea from the officer pouring out refreshments.

“Sure you don’t want it?” she’d asked playfully, and he’d met her look with that hint of unpredictable humor, his face going mischievous. “No, Sera,” he said with a sparkle in his eyes (they were very grey today, pale and clear as the mist itself). “You take it.”

“Too right,” she said, and sipped it greedily. “Who doesn’t like tea? You’re a weird one, you.”

“Yes,” he said, still with that sharp amusement. “I am indeed.”

I'd barely taken notice of this little exchange, so eager I was to see more of the forest that was so tantalizingly close. I ran off a few steps, the moment we arrived, heading impatiently toward the eaves while Bull helped the soldiers make camp and Varric frowned at me.

As I walked quickly past, Bull looked up, dropped the chest he carried, and shook his head. His face was grim. Beside him, Cassandra reached out, nodded, and grabbed my arm, pulling me back. “I wouldn’t, Boss.”

I pulled against her and she wouldn’t let go. “Stop. I won’t go far,” I said. “I just want to see it!”

Varric dropped a satchel heavily beside us, and rolled his eyes at me, massaging his shoulder absently. “Of course you do.”

Bull's eye had a flinty look and his voice was hard. “It’s not a good idea.”

Cassandra's was equally flat. "Inquisitor. No."

“But…” I looked back at the lure of those trees, the soft darkness, the green smell… there were mysteries there, I knew it. “You don’t understand. It's fine. I won't do anything stupid. I just want to take a look!”

Her grip on my arm softened then, and she let me go, looking to Bull and then Varric even as I growled. “I do understand,” Bull said. “You want to go look at some of that ancient elven crap you love..."

I glared at him, and he shrugged. "But," he said, "now’s not the time to go alone. You forget why we're here? You wanna go in, go in. With a guard. With protection.”

"Bull is right," said Cass, sighing.

I rolled my eyes again. You did not visit your ancient homeland with a guard of well-meaning but thick-headed guards. You went in alone. Maybe with a companion. Bravely and with humility. Everyone knew that.

Varric sighed. "Don't be foolish, Sparks."

I glanced back over at the forest, then admitted defeat. "Fine."

Cassandra surprised me then, by responding further. "Look. Bring Solas with you,” she commented practically. "If you must go."

"Of course," I said. Then I looked back over to where he'd been with Sera, only minutes before... and they were gone.

I felt unbelievably frustrated, and flagged a requisition soldier. "Where'd he go?" I asked. "Solas?"

"I think they've gone hunting, my lady," he said. "Sera, Solas, and a few archers." I spun around again in exasperation, only to see no sign of any of them. "I could have gone with them," I murmured, then sighed, giving up the fight. 

"Come then," said Cass, and her voice was kind. "We have much to do in the meantime as it is. The forest will wait."

I followed her, and did my administrative duty as Inquisitor. So, so much paperwork! Scrawling my messages and updates to Leliana, meeting with Bull and the soldiers, just… so much ink, so much discussion, so many maps. By the time we’d gotten the camp set up, written messages, sent ravens, and solidified the schedule for the next few days’ marches, twilight had fallen. Solas and Sera had returned with the soldiers after taking down a good-sized deer, and within half an hour it was neatly butchered and prepared for cooking at the fireside. And I realized even as the darkness lengthened that it would be too late for me to visit the forest tonight, and that I would have to do so early the next morning.

At last, the camp was set and our plans were laid. With Cassandra polishing her armor in our tent (muttering all the while about the latest tiny dents that the blacksmith’s apprentice hadn’t been able to hammer out), I changed hastily into a warm sleep-outfit that I could still seen in around camp – in this case, a pleasantly ancient grey cambric tunic over black woolen leggings and boots, and comfortably worn Dales loden blue wool cloak. Then I bundled my braid up and out of the way and emerged into the firelight.

My companions were seated comfortably around the campfire on neatly hewn logs, with Varric and several of the soldiers toasting bits of the venison and bread on sticks. There was also a pot of stew burbling off to the side, but it would not be edible until the next day, at least.

I wasn’t surprised everyone was socializing this evening. Sometimes on away trips, we kept to ourselves, everyone in their own thoughts or tents, but not tonight. We were excited to be out again, and free, so there was a holiday feeling, but also with that electricity of potential battle to come.

Bull was testing the edges of a fair stack of weapons with a practiced thumb, his harness a pile of leather straps on the ground beside them. As always, he seemed impervious to the cold. Sera was checking her arrows, still thrumming with the strangely tremulous, nervous energy of her breakdown in the Crossroads. She ran her hands over the soft feathers of the fletching at the ends of each of her arrow shafts almost compulsively. She wore a badly stitched plaidweave overshirt that hung to her knees (whoever she’d pilfered it from had evidently been Bull’s size, or nearly), her legs bare in spite of the chill, her long slender feet pushed into the grass before the edge of the fire circle, toes upraised to the warmth there. The air was pungent with woodsmoke and evergreen, but it was also keen and cold, and the warm fire was welcome.

Solas was seated just to the right of my tent, listening silently as Sera and Bull debated. I came out and quietly took a seat next to him.

“I’m just saying you can’t know, you daft tit,” said Sera. “You can’t. Anything can be demons. Anything at all. So I don’t know as how you can even do all your RAWWWWR merc stuff when anyone you fight could be a demon, and probably is. And we sit here playacting like things are fine.”

“You can’t spook me,” said Bull, shrugging with a half-smile. “I fight demons all the time.”

“Ha,” said Sera. “They could be there. Inside. Hiding. All demony and waiting, like. Don’t tell me that doesn’t scare you.”

“Well, it’s not like I’m happy about the idea,” he said, grinning. “But I’ll still take ‘em down.”

“But you’re not hearing me,” said Sera, frustrated. “They’re demons. They’re on the other side of the Veil already. What if they don’t die the way you think they do?”

“Well, that’s not a fun thought,” said Bull.

“That’s just what they want you to think.”

“Maybe,” he said. “But I’ve done it for a long time, a decade or more. And I’ve seen all the kinds – desire demons, pride demons, sloth demons, you name ‘em. And no matter what they were, they still went down under my ax. So you can’t scare me, Sera. I may hate ‘em but I’ll still fight them. If something’s hiding in demon-form, I’ll kill it twice if I need to.”

“You have not seen ‘all the kinds,’” commented Solas quietly. “There are as many varieties of demon as there are depravities in the heart.”

“Trust you to chime in,” complained Sera. “You prob’ly had tea with ‘em every day and twice on Sunday.”

“You are so certain of our difference,” said Solas.

Then she met his eye and smiled a little. “Well, maybe not tea.”

“Perhaps not,” said Solas equably. “Meanwhile, I merely note that demons are not as simplistic as people tend to think. They are frequently simplified or misidentified outright.”

“Certainly a possibility,” said Bull. “They didn’t exactly tell me their names when I was chopping them into pieces. It wasn’t a social situation.”

“What if it was?” asked Solas. “What if you’d had other choices beyond, as you say, ‘chopping’ the demons you encountered?”

“Bullshit,” said Bull. “You’re just as deadly as any of us. Don’t preach at me for not asking a demon its middle name.”

“I would not do so,” said Solas. “I respect your courage, The Iron Bull -- even more so, when faced with what you fear most.”

“Thanks,” said Bull. “But it’s not like I’m afraid. I just have a healthy respect for things that can appear out of nowhere and burn my face off.”

“I’m simply saying that a demon may not perceive the situation as you do,” said Solas. “What they see and sense can be surprisingly different from our own perceptions.”

“This I would like to hear more of,” said Cassandra from behind me. She entered the firelit circle and sat next to Varric. She had evidently washed up hastily and now she shook droplets of water from her face, running her wet fingers through her hair so that it stood up in black spikes. Her cheeks were flushed in the chilly air. “I have always wondered what it was the Spirit of Faith saw, for instance, when it saw me from across the Veil.”

“I imagine it saw what I see,” said Solas. “A strong woman who is rare enough to be honest, brave, and uncorrupted by power. To a spirit with similar qualities, you would have a kind of radiance even across the Fade.”

I was charmed to realize that Cassandra was blushing, while simultaneously wearing an expression that said if anyone commented on it, she would be forced to remove body parts.

After a moment, she looked back at Solas. “I would like you to explain that more to us, if you can.”

Solas looked thoughtful, then smiled, a slow smile that reached his eyes. “If you wish me to do so,” he said.

“I do,” she said courteously. The barest hint of a smile back at him, and I warmed inside. This was what I treasured… the knowledge that my companions were companions in earnest now, after so many months. I remembered a time when Cass would have gone out of her way to avoid Solas, to belittle Cole, to suspect Bull, to snarl at Varric. No longer.

“Careful, Seeker,” said Varric with that flash of a smile in the firelight. “People might think you’re losing your edge.”

“Solas is well aware of my edge,” said Cassandra.

“Isn’t everyone?” I asked, and she shook her head amiably at me, refusing to be goaded.

“Even so,” she conceded.

“I cannot tell you what an individual spirit or demon might see or do anymore than I could tell you what an individual living person might choose to do," said Solas. "However, in the Fade, there are certainly marvels at every turn, and color, mood, perception, science, magic all blend to create a space that is miraculous and splendid and constantly changing. But that is how we see it, we visitors to its world. But the miraculous is nothing to them and cannot compare to the lure of real flesh and breath, which fascinate and draw them because the flesh contains the spirit in ways they cannot understand or access. Magic and air are nothing to a spirit, and they do not appease a demon… or a corrupted spirit because…” said Solas, his voice rich and slow. “As I’ve noted before, spirits wish to join the living above all else. And – as I’ve also said –”

I broke in, smiling. I already knew the answer. “A demon is the violence of that wish upon the world.” He met my eyes, and nodded.

“But violence is not the only way for connection. There are gentler ways,” he said. “As with your spirit of Faith, Cassandra.”

“You said there were many more demon types than we tend to know,” said Bull. “Why?”

“Too many mortals,” said Solas, “seem to see demons as simplistic reflections of a tiresome short list of living frailties and whatever mortals regard as sins – however small, blameless, or inoffensive they actually are.”

“Mortals?” I asked, caught by the word.

“Physical beings,” he said. “I should have been more specific.”

“I always wondered,” said Bull. “Why there were sloth demons—I mean, the fact that lazing around was so offensive and sinful that there were demons named after it.”

“Not really,” said Solas, smiling. “It is certainly not an ideal way of life, but if one prefers an inactive existence, or a gluttonous one, for instance, there is nothing actively evil about doing so, although you or I might find such a life monotonous and unprofitable.”

“That’s what I thought,” said Bull.

“Wait,” said Sera. “Not enough. Where’s all the murder demons? Rape demons?”

“She has a point. Or the hunters?” I asked. “The nobles who killed my people for sport?”

“They are already represented,” said Solas. “In Pride (and arrogance). In cruelty, driven by spite, hatred, rage, fear, despair, or (worst of all) curiosity and ennui. In those who chose an intention to inflict pain, or harm, upon another. In bigotry, which is fear masquerading as pride. Or in lesser-seen demons—greed, envy, vanity, vengeance, or deceit.”

Bull raised an eyebrow. “Deceit, huh?” I thought the word Hissrad but didn’t say anything… or look at him.

“Of course,” said Solas.

“No. Go back. None of that… it i’n’t rape,” said Sera. “It i’n’t murder or beating down on people, neither. Those need to be separate demons.”

“Perhaps they are, sometimes," he said. "It is a cycle of sorts. The living learn cruelty from what they see in the world. Spirits and demons, avid over the thin spots of the Fade, do the same.”

“I bet they do,” she said. “I once saw a rich git knock aside a poor kid in the streets in Denerim. Getting into a carriage. And as he’s stepping up, he kicks her, so she falls between the wheels. And then the carriage starts, and rolls right over.”

We were quiet.

“I am sorry, Sera.”

“Ugh, I hate this. So where’s your bloody spirit-world justice then?” she flamed. “What’s the demon for that? He’s rich and safe and she’s gone, dead on the stones. Just a bug, squashed.”

“There are many demons to reflect this, Sera, depending on what drove the man,” said Solas. “Pride or envy, hollow and temporary. Rage, despair, a bottomless hunger. All those drove him.”

I saw her breathe shakily, and realized how open and raw she was being, how vulnerable, showing us something she rarely revealed to us back at Skyhold.

“A demon simplifies the impulse at the core,” Solas continued, quietly. “The one I see most often among them is envy. Envy or pride that translates to the idea that the world is fair, and a certain amount is owed.”

“Still not seeing nobles stomping on heads or raping little girls,” said Sera.

“And theft,” said Solas, heavily. “That is the simplified impulse I see above all. And yet again that too comes down to arrogance, envy, selfishness that all lead to theft. Theft of life, of light, of innocence, of free will.”

“So you’re saying there aren’t really sloth demons after all?” asked Bull. “Or pride demons, or desire demons, and other things like that? That the labels come from us?”

“Not precisely,” said Solas. “The Chantry has done its part to ensure that millions define their own sins in precisely these terms, and the demons and spirits sense such emotions and oblige by following suit.”

Bull settled back, glowering and unhappy. “Figures. Criticize the Qun all you want, but we don’t fuck with spirits.”

I met his eye sharply. “Don’t you? You rewrite or empty people’s minds. How is that not spiritual?”

Bull met my eyes levelly. “We don’t rewrite their spirits.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” I said. “But I don’t think the Qun puts a lot of stock into spirits.”

“The Qun’s about the greater balance,” he replied. A little too smugly for my tastes.

“Sure it is,” I said, trying not to look too sour. His mouth quirked, but he declined the battle. “For some.”

Solas waited for us to quiet, then continued. “I am merely noting that demons shape themselves… after mortals and their thoughts, according to their judgments of their own failings and hidden desires. After whatever they hide as most shameful about themselves. If the Chantry did not teach so many to hate themselves for their lack of industry, then perhaps there would be fewer sloth demons, for instance.”

“I see,” said Varric.

“Life in the Fade,” said Solas, “is existence on the cusp. If you are a spirit or demon (although there is less difference there than you might believe), you hover, trembling, on possibility. You are shaped by the consciousnesses of those who visit, dream, or approach you. Just as we in life are changed by those we encounter, as well.”

The circle was silent, pondering this.

“But… no,” Sera said. “It’s not safe and it’s not right. And you’re all daft. And blind.”

She stood up as if to leave, and Varric reached out to her. “Hey.”

I caught the shine of tears in her eyes, and went over to her, concerned. “Sera. What is it?”

“I can’t stand this. There’s something wrong,” she said. “Something wrong. I felt it even before we went through the mirror and now it’s worse here than ever. We’re sitting on somethin’ rotten and wrong, close enough to taste the ashes, and you all sit around the fire like the world’s fine and life’s a party.”

Absolute silence from our companions. One of the soldiers made a sound halfway between a laugh and a gasp. Cassandra looked at her sharply. "Please check that we are restocked on water for tomorrow's march," she said evenly, and the woman nodded, then left the fireside to go over to the other officers at the opposite side of our camp.

Meanwhile, Cass simply watched Sera, thinking and not moving. Bull threw his skewer of meat into the fire uneaten, his expression grim.

I felt unsure, caught off guard. Whatever Sera was feeling, I wasn’t getting even a hint of it. Nothing from the Mark, from my powers, from the bond-piece (still securely set with the special clasp Dagna had added to dampen my Mark each time I traveled from Skyhold). I looked over to Solas, who met my eyes and shook his head almost imperceptibly.

“Well, you’re right, we definitely know the world’s not fine,” I said to Sera. “But we’re finally out of Skyhold. We can find what’s happening… whatever’s wrong. We can find it and fight it, and try to fix this.”

“You can’t fix this,” said Sera. “I feel it. See it. There’s a pit below us all the time, and it’s dark there. Darker than anything here. And there’s somethin' inside that darkness, see, and it’s coming for us. One word from it and we all fall down.”

I felt a chill in my center that had nothing to do with cold winter evening breezes and everything to do with old nightmares and Cole’s words not so long ago at Skyhold. “Sera…”

“It’s comin' for us. For all of us,” she said frantically. She looked at Solas, and her face was drawn and accusatory all at once. “And you know it.”

And then the ground trembled, ever so slightly, beneath our feet.

Chapter Text

And then the ground was quiet again.

“What the hell was that?” asked Varric.

Somehow, now we were all standing, taut and waiting.

“It appears,” said Solas, “that much like Cole, Sera is able to sense whatever is hunting us.”

I put my hand to the bond-piece. Nothing. “But was it close?” Sera wasn’t the only one. I felt the beginnings of panic myself. “How could it be close?”

Solas paused, halfway between me and Sera, and half-lit by the fire. He closed his eyes and for a few heartbeats, he was just… gone. Pale in the darkness, still and listening. Then he opened them, and his expression reassured me even before his words.

“It is far from us,” he said. “What we just felt was an echo, in fact, from far away.”

Bull exhaled slowly. “Well. That’s something.”

“I’d guess, though,” said Varric, “that we wouldn’t want to be wherever the source of that was.”

I found my heartbeat returning to normal as well. Across from me, Cassandra seated herself again, and I noticed that she was not exclaiming or shrieking. She simply had a finger to her wrist. Counting the heartbeats, all quiet control. A telling and subtle little detail—Cassandra checking her own physical reactions when danger loomed.

Sera meanwhile was still standing there beside me, eyes huge, her skin so pale it was greenish beneath the tan. Her breaths were gasping—loud in the quietness. She bent over, hands on knees. In the overlarge shirt, she looked like the urchin she must have been once.

Solas went over to her, and his voice was gentle. “Sera.”

She looked up at him. I was surprised to see him put a hand on her shoulder. And, unusual for Sera, who I’d already noticed was careful with her space, allowed it.

“You are safe,” he said. “You understand?”

“Yeah,” she whispered.

“Calm yourself. You are alive, and whole,” he said. That voice that could be as cool and dispassionate a layer of ice on a dark pond, yet here like warm silk, like a cast of Barriers you could actually feel against your skin. “You are protected. Nothing can harm you.”

She was recovering, and gave a shaky laugh. “Says you,” she rasped.

He smiled slightly. “I do say.”

“For now,” she said. “'Til I call you names or fill your bedroll with bugs.”

“No,” he said. “Hear me. When you need help, I shall provide it. You are safe from the abyss when you are with me, do you understand?”

She nodded.

“This is not about magic,” he said. Still that soothing, reassuring voice. “I believe it is simply a talent that you have, that may be manifesting. Like your ability to see into the Breach. The two may even be linked. Do you understand?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Means I can see the arse-ends of nowhere in two ways now, and they both shit balls.”

“Come back,” said Varric. “Come on, Buttercup. Let’s have a drink. Everyone sit again. We seem to all still be here.”

He made his way resolutely over to a small cask nearby, and Bull, seeing what he was up to, helped him to open the ale cask and pass around the battered pewter mugs we traveled with, half of them so bent they tilted upon level surfaces.

I sat back down, and Solas joined me again. I squeezed his hand as everyone else got situated. “That was nice of you,” I said in a low voice.

“It was necessary,” he replied, and I made a face.

Varric raised a mug. “Everyone better?”

“Not really,” growled Bull.

“Me neither,” said Sera. She drained her mug, and Varric filled it silently again.

“We are all right,” said Cassandra. “We are still here. I will raise a glass to that.”

“So will I,” I said, and then I did. And then we all did. Even Sera.

And then we ate a little, and talked more, and the moment finally passed.

***

The talk turned, almost irresistibly, to spirits again.

"It would seem to me," said Cassandra thoughtfully, "that what we saw tonight is a warning, perhaps, that the Fade is no longer safe, Solas."

"The Fade is never safe," he replied. "But it can be useful, if one is careful and cautious."

“No,” Sera said again. “Doesn’t tonight show it again? It’s easy for you lot, oooh, bloody spirits, oooh how interesting, ooooh how enchanting, but they won’t go after you most of the time, right? They probably love you.

“Sera,” I broke in. “Plenty of us go to the Fade and come back again. The problem isn’t the Fade. It’s the world. Here and now.”

“But he acts like it’s safe,” she spat. “His precious Fade. It’s not safe.” The ale had helped a little, but she was still on edge.

“But… nothing is safe,” I replied, tentatively. “Not really.”

“I myself am not so,” said Solas gently. “I take my own risks there as any of us might do.”

“Still,” she said. “We’re not you. And if we’re not you, and we go there, they’ll eat who they can get. Just like they do here.”

“Sera!” I said, and she met my eyes, then glanced away. “You, you’re his now. You only listen to him.”

“I do not,” I said angrily. "And I belong to nobody but myself."

“Tell that to him,” she replied, and I felt myself flush again, in anger and sympathy both.

“I don’t understand why you’re mad at me,” I said quietly. “Tell me what it is.”

She covered her face with her hands, rubbing at her eyes. “I know things’re better without the dreams now, most of the time. But I can still feel somethin’,” she confessed. “It’s worse if I look at a rift. It’s like… being pulled towards a pit.”

“You are being pulled,” said Solas.

“I knew that,” said Sera. “But why?” Her face was hot and flushed, like an angry child’s, and I realized she wasn't just upset, she was also well on her way to full-on drunkenness. She stared out, did not look at any of us, nor at Solas, then back down at her bare feet.

“Truthfully, I do not know,” said Solas. “It may be a simple matter of magic that is tuned to a particular pitch… as if it is a sound only you can hear.”

“Well, I don’t want to hear it,” she said.

“I know,” said Solas. “I will try to come up with a way to help you, if I can.”

“As if you’d do that,” she retorted, then bit her lip.

“Yes,” said Solas in a quiet voice. “I would.”

“Yeah. I… all right. Sorry.”

“Accepted,” said Solas. “You must understand, I simply wish to protect those I can from mistaken violence or vengeance... Most spirits are innocent and do not deserve violence or fear.”

“You talk like they're people.”

“Spirits are people, Sera,” he said gently.

“Still,” she said. “They just show up, yeah? They're not born.”

“I see what you ask,” he said. “Spirits are born... in a delicate shift in energy, a stir of thought, emotion, color, and light... And then they appear, a flame of Faith, Wisdom, Compassion, Courage, or some other positive essence, each fragile and bright with new purpose.”

“Have you seen a spirit born, yourself?” asked Varric. “Actually seen one born?”

Solas smiled. “Many times. Each beautiful and unique and the color of a different blossom or petal, each delicate as mist, delighted at its new existence. It is a beautiful sight, one to be treasured among experiences in the Fade.”

“Sounds adorable,” said Bull in a dry voice. “Until it goes wrong and becomes a Pride Demon. Or worse. And it abominates a mage, or starts incinerating innocent people.”

“Spirits are as complex as any people,” said Solas. “And each one, like each new infant in your world, holds the possibility for a thousand choices…” Bull’s eye gleamed momentarily, but he did not speak. “For each, the question exists: will it end its days as a good and noble being?”

Your world, huh?” asked Bull. “Interesting choice of words.”

Our world,” said Solas. “Although it is true that I have come to look upon the Fade as a second home.”

“Good and noble according to whose definitions?” countered Varric.

“According to its own,” answered Solas. “As with any of us. Will it stay true or become something corrupted and polluted? Faith to Pride, Purpose or Love to Desire?”

Bull chuckled. “I don’t see what’s so wrong with Desire,” he said.

“Nothing,” said Solas. “Until it becomes twisted into obsession, or worse.”

“It’s the only demon I always feel bad about taking down,” Bull added, musing. “It’s just bad manners for someone to try to fuck you right when they’re also trying to crush you like an insect. Feels impolite to refuse. And even more so to cut ‘em in half right in the midst of sweet nothings.”

“Not me,” said Varric. “Down they go.”

“Nor I,” said Cass. “They will occasionally try to tempt me, and I simply meet their attempts with my sword, no matter how seductive they may appear to be.”

“So just another Saturday night then, yeah?” asked Sera, giggling a little shrilly, and Cass gave her a look that would have incinerated most other beings. Sera retreated into her mug again, and I wondered how much more she would be able to drink while still remaining functional.

“Wait, Cassandra,” said Bull. “I want to hear more about these Desire Demons of yours. Rose petals and poems? Or straight on to Swords & Shields?”

“Come on, Seeker,” grinned Varric. “Give us a few details.”

Cassandra looked wildly around her as if expecting a friendly eluvian or portal to appear. Her high cheekbones were now flushed, and her dark eyes fiery. “I will not,” she said icily. “My Desire Demons are my own. And I do not hear anyone else sharing theirs.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” said Bull with a chuckle. “Asses. Tits. Redheads. I’m pretty much equal-opportunity on Desire Demons in any form, everybody knows that.”

“That is true,” admitted Cassandra.

“Varric’s just looks like Bianca,” I teased.

He grinned back. “Or the occasional saucy Knight-Captain.”

“We know what hers looks like,” said Sera, pointing a finger at me. I rolled my eyes, then gave Solas a half-smile.

“Mine,” I said, “Appear in a variety of forms.”

Sera’s gaze turned to Solas. “And Elfy’s here, his would be the only Desire Demon in history to appear as a city or a ruin or some shite, ooooh oooh Arlathan, ooohooooh elven glory!”

“Very perceptive, Sera,” said Solas.

“It’s true, Sera,” I said, teasing. “Although actually I just have to say something in elvish. Gets him going every time.”

“Yes,” he said casually, the firelight catching his eyes. “I especially enjoy phrases like, “Vaslasa, ara'lan.”

Surprised, I let off sparks, and everyone laughed, but my insides were meanwhile doing a slow flip.

“What’s that mean?” asked Sera, glowering.

“Er, Elven glory,” I murmured. Everyone laughed again.

Stones, stones, I thought, calming myself, even as Solas laughed softly. He leaned over to me and I whispered “You. Are. Evil.”

“Patience,” he said, low, then kissed the palm of my hand, where the Mark crackled. “And yes, thoroughly. I thought you knew.”

“Ew,” cried Sera. “Not in public!” I was too busy studying my feet and waiting for the flush to subside, but Solas smiled at Sera, cool and contained as always.

“Sera, now that you are calmer, I do believe this is another imminent sign that your latent mage abilities may be getting stronger.”

“No it’s not!” she cried in alarm. “Shut it, you.”

 “You deserved that, Buttercup,” said Varric.

“Demons and spirits, spirits and demons,” mused Bull. “I don’t know what you find so fascinating, Solas. Just makes me want to hit something again. Or get hit.”

“And here I thought you’d become more open-minded,” said Solas. “You’ve become quite comfortable with Cole.”

Now it was Bull’s turn to look self-conscious. “Cole’s different. He’s, you know… Cole’s family.”

“But he is not so different at all,” said Solas. “Which was my point.”

“So every demon was a spirit once?” I asked. I’d pulled myself together again, more or less.

“Most,” said Solas. “There are some demons, however, who seem to have always been what they are. Almost always the strongest. And their wants may be complex. They may even wish to do what they see according to their own moral codes as good or righteous things. Not every demon is evil as you and I define evil.”

“How does that happen?” asked Varric. “Spirits getting corrupted and going demon?”

“What I wish to know,” said Cass, “is the reverse. Whether demons may be changed by a positive or selfless contact with a spirit, and so they in turn return back to spiritual form…”

“Spirits are shaped by their surroundings, by the souls they touch,” explained Solas. “Ennobled, moved, inspired. Imagine the Fade not as a separate place but rather as a reflection of the very world around you now. It is in some ways merely a different kind of eluvian.”

I felt the spark of some awakening understanding within me, and was surprised to hear myself speak aloud. “So they are with us, watching and listening… and as we grow and change, we enrich them… or doom them?”

“Exactly, vhenan,” he said. “And it goes both ways. Just as they may inspire or doom the weak among the living.”

“But you’re not talking about here,” protested Varric. “You’re talking about the Fade. For some of us the Fade’s not exactly relevant.”

“A room you cannot enter is still a room in which important things may be occurring, Master Tethras,” said Solas.

“Sure,” said Varric. “Maybe. But it may also be a room nobody should enter at all.”

“So they shift faster if we meet them in the Fade, is that what you’re saying?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied. “It is their kingdom, after all, where they are most free… and we are most vulnerable.”

“Your kingdom too,” I said, and he raised an eyebrow.

“I hold no illusions about my powers there,” he said. “They pale in comparison to those of native spirits, or to the temptations they offer within its borders. Their very perceptions may exhilarate you, awaken you, or doom you (or them). To live in the Fade is to be alive and alert to possibility in an endless and fertile, ever-changing world. Every second that passes may be a moment or a century. For the dreamer who visits, every decision you make there may solidify who you have always been, or it may redefine who you are when you awaken – or who you might become.”

“’Tis true,” said Morrigan softly, and I looked up, startled to realize that she was seated in shadow on the other side of the fire, her face pale and somehow sad. She must have come out after the tremor in the ground. “I am no elf and no dreamer, yet I have felt myself called within my dreams, knowing there were paths open for me to walk if I had the courage.”

“Did you?” I asked.

“I did, once,” she said. “Long ago. When I was young, and foolish, and willing to spend lives, including my own, to gain the knowledge I sought. And I saw—”

She broke off as in a subtle breath of wings, a silent shadow crossed our campsite, and I looked up to meet the deep amber eyes of an owl overhead even as we heard its mournful cry. Morrigan glanced up, and shivered.

“What?” asked Varric.

“Even as a novice with only brief access in my dreams, uncertain and shifting, I saw demons and terrors, some that haunt me still,” she said. “But I forced myself to keep going, and as I did so, I began to feel… watched. And somehow, known. Something began to shadow me on my travels. Something sweet and small, almost innocent, childlike. I could feel no harmful emanations, only warmth and kindness. It was a friend. I trusted it. It wrapped me in warmth and companionship as surely as any mortal ever has. Sometimes I could hear a whisper of advice or guidance—words with no breath behind them—and I delighted in my secret partner. And I continued to plunder for the lore I wanted. I stole from those who befriended me. I acted without compunction or honor, the lore was all I sought. I became greedy and complacent, certain in my arrogance. Still came the voice to help and guide me, albeit more tremulous now, as if afraid of what I did. Sometimes it whispered warnings and I heeded them not. I merely ignored its fears and would not listen. I thanked it and mercilessly sent it onward, bidding it to find me more treasures, heedless of the hidden dangers.”

“Or of its safety,” said Solas.

“Yes,” said Morrigan. “T’would be a fair statement. And indeed it eventually began to grow strange and fey. And then one night as I reached greedily for a powerful enchantment only accessible in dreams, I heard a whisper behind me, and when I turned around, I…”

She stopped, and sighed. I looked over and saw Varric, rapt and waiting, wrapped up in the story.

“What did you behold?” asked Solas. His voice was both gentle and cutting. “How had you changed it, the little spirit that had tried to help you so often?”

“What? What’d you see?” asked Sera, eyes huge.

“Myself,” she said. “It was myself I saw, standing behind me, with eyes of red, and even as I looked, it shifted into a great burning creature and I knew that my little spirit was gone and that a Pride Demon now walked in its place.”

“Shit,” said Bull.

“No kidding,” said Varric.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I ran from it,” she said. “And forced myself to the safety of the waking world.” She paused.

Solas’s face was quietly sorrowful. “But that is not the end of the tale, is it?”

“No,” sighed Morrigan. “I know that it is still there. And I believe it waits for me.”

“Hey, cheer up,” said Bull. “You’re living and traveling with your very own anti-demon army.”

“True,” smiled Morrigan wanly.

The circle was quiet. I plucked a piece of venison from my stick, now thoroughly charred and chewed it thoughtfully. The moment, however brief, had cast a pall.

I saw Varric look from Morrigan to Solas, then he leaned forward. “How is Kieran? Did he like Dagna’s toy?”

Her face lightened, and she smiled. “He loves it,” she said. “He is coming into his mage powers, and when he goes to bed it flies around his bed beneath the barrier until sunrise.”

“A boy with his own dragon,” he mused. “Next thing you know he’ll be looking for a quest, a beautiful maiden, and a sacred oath.”

“So far, his sacred quests have mainly involved sneaking cookies out of the Skyhold kitchens,” said Morrigan.

“Pride-cookies!” shrieked Sera, who had downed two more mugs of ale very, very quickly, and we laughed again.

Solas looked around the circle, registering each face, almost as if memorizing the moment. His face was soft, almost young.

“Do not despair, witch,” he said softly. “You may yet be victorious. I have seen much of the Fade. And I believe that if the demon had wanted to take your life it would have already done so.”

“That is little comfort,” said Morrigan. “But I will take from it what I can.”

“One never knows,” said Solas. “Perhaps there was enough of it left to repent of its path, and to let you go. I have known demons who would have done so.”

“Really?” asked Bull, doubt plain in his voice and face. “Would it do that? Let her go and not make a meal out of her?”

“Even a spirit can feel pity or grief,” said Solas. “Or regret.”

“A spirit, maybe,” said Bull.

“Spirit or demon,” said Solas. “It matters less than you might think.”

“If you say so,” replied Bull.

“Hey, everybody loves a redemption story,” Varric said.

Bull smiled. “Especially if it’s somebody else’s.”

There was a quiet thud, and we all looked over to realize that Sera had passed out.

Chapter Text

I wasn’t remotely sleepy. I was too wound up, both by what had happened with Sera, and by Solas’s fireside comment.

Vaslasa, indeed. As if I hadn’t told him in a hundred ways already that I’d surrender whenever he wanted me to. If he would.

I turned over again, frustrated, and stared at the ceiling of our tent. Dammit, Solas.

Then I heard a sigh, and turned over again the opposite direction. Looking across at Cassandra’s cot, I realized that she, too, lay open-eyed, staring upward. It was raining, a comforting sound after the drama earlier in the evening, but for once it wasn’t making me sleepy. Or (evidently) Cass either.

There were advantages and disadvantages to having Cassandra as a tentmate. In our many previous excursions I’d shared tents both with Sera (a whirlwind of arrows, “shite shite shite” exclamations, a terrifying number of empty wineskins, bottles, crumbs, and pranks) and Viv (terrifying, calm, and so polite that the politeness itself was insulting). However, Cassandra had been a predictably precise (if slightly military) roommate from the first – kind, awkward, funny, and generally impenetrable. However, our nighttime chats had brought us closer, and as time had passed, she had begun to share more with me, gradually admitting her continuing addiction to Swords & Shields (and, I suspected, all of Varric's works), and she had even eventually shared a little about her strange childhood and the losses of her parents and beloved brother, Anthony.

I liked sharing a tent with her, and we had grown easy together. I enjoyed the chance to get past Cassandra’s often formidable barriers, to glimpse the woman beneath the armor.

Now we both listened, as the rain seemed to close us into the tent, into our own world, as rain tends to do.

Cassandra was lying on her back, her eyes fixed above her. “Inquisitor… Eliaden… do you sleep, or do you wake?” she asked, her slightly husky voice hesitant and soft in the darkness before.

“I’m up,” I answered, and she looked over and chuckled, then turned over to face me completely.

“I must confess to sleeplessness,” she said.

“Me too,” I said. “What is it for you? Is it the—the thing that happened earlier?”

“I do not know,” she said. “I am weary. And yet incapable of sleep.”

She was facing me now, cheek on hand, fitful torchlight outside casting shimmering patterns on the canvas of our shelter inside. We were in a little warm space, safe under the Barriers cast I’d done before bed (we were still doing them nightly mainly out of habit),  filtering in through the rain to show her thoughtful and somehow young in the dim golden light, a halo lighter than the dimmest lamp, but in that light, even with the scar, she looked all of fifteen.

“We can talk a little,” I offered.

“That would be most kind of you.”

We paused, listening to the drum of the rain on the canvas. I got up and tugged my cot farther up, out of the way of the slow leak (the barrier I'd cast was fading), then hopped back hastily under the blankets. Cassandra chuckled.

“Do you think that we pay for our mistakes?” asked Cassandra. “Or our choices, such as they are?”

“Yes, of course,” I replied. “I think it’s the nature of life for us to pay.”

“Pay for what?” she asked.

“Everything, I guess,” I said. “To me it’s just the way the world works.”

“It is a cruel reality,” she replied.

“But life is cruel,” I admitted. “I guess I believe in a larger balance. It’s not like I’m alone. Look at the Chantry.”

“You mean the Maker, then,” she said. Her voice was dry. Firm. Secure in her own belief.

I pillowed my own cheek on fist and looked at her. The rain continued to drum lightly, and I could also hear the flap of our canvas and the faintest dying crackle of our fire outside. A brief murmur, distant and undistinguishable, of the two soldiers on watch.

“I don’t know,” I replied softly. “I don’t believe in the Maker.”

“Then your Creators, then,” she said. “Yes? Your elven gods. What do they think?”

“Hmm…” I drew a slow breath.  “I’m not sure I believe in them either. But I guess… Elgar’nan and Mythal would insist on payment... on judgment and then swift punishment, I think…”

“And the others?”

I smiled. “Andruil would want us not to pay, I truly think. Or, I don't know... for everyone else to. She hunted her own people, after all. The others…  I don’t think would care much either way. Maybe Falon’Din, who shepherds us in death...”

“Nothing else from the rest of your gods?” she asked.

“Not really,” I smiled. “Although I guess Fen’Harel would have laughed softly at every one of us who thought we were able to escape consequences. And then mocked us for it.”

“Why?”

“Because,” I said, thinking, then hesitating. “Because… he’d know consequences always come in the end. And he would probably find that cruelly funny.”

Her dark eyes were very wide in the fading barrierlight. “He does not sound very pleasant, this Fen’Harel of yours…”

“No,” I said, shrugging. “He’s not. Although there is a peculiar sense of balance to him, as with the tale of the Slow Arrow. He’s the biggest believer in payment of them all. My Mamae said that he smiles at the death of the hare at the teeth of the fox, but that he also smiles when the hare gets away. Each time a predator takes its prey, Fen’Harel is there. Every time a mother tells her child a bedtime tale to make them feel safe, each time a warrior lies bravely about the severity of a wound, Fen’Harel smiles at the lie. That’s the wolf. Each time the world is cruel, he smiles... And yet. He also smiles when it’s fair, because the balance pleases him. Or so my mother said. But even so, she was careful to keep her steps behind his statues and out of their eyesight.”

“If your mother was right, then he smiled tonight at Sera’s terror,” she said.

I shivered. “Yes... I think he did.”

“I do not think I would have liked to be a Dalish,” said Cass, dryly.

“No,” I said, smiling. “You would have hated it.” I paused, then grinned at her. “But they would have loved you for your bravery.” And your beauty, I added, silently, smiling as I kept it to myself. I didn’t think Cass actually liked being beautiful, so my mentioning it would simply annoy her.

"Balance," sighed Cassandra. "It is the idea of balance that is the true children's tale. It is cruel when we discover that there is no such thing."

"Probably," I said.

Cass made a frustrated sound in reply, then turned away from me as if to sleep. So I was surprised when she spoke again, muffled and almost shy. “I talk of cruelty,” she said, “as if I myself had not been party to it. But of course I have.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked, puzzled.

A longer pause than I expected.

“I was cruel to Varric,” she said. “After Kirkwall. I judged him too hastily.”

"What did you do?" I asked.

She bit her lip. "I interrogated him, which was of course appropriate... in the beginning, at least. I wanted to know about the Champion. I believed she could be of service to us in the darkness we saw ahead."

"That's not so bad," I said.

"No," she said. "But then I returned. I had let him go. But Most Holy would not rest; it was as if now, I believe, she foresaw her own death. And so we went back and took Varric prisoner on behalf of the Chantry. We took him away from Kirkwall and he spent many months at Haven instead."

"Did you imprison him?" I asked.

She blinked, slowly. "No. He was honorable. He gave us his word he would not flee, and he never sought to do so. Instead, he wrote his books and his letters. Managed his contacts among his people. And occasionally had long talks with the Divine herself. At one point, he presented her with signed editions of all of his books." She smiled. "I think she liked him very much."

I smiled too. "Then perhaps he understands."

She shut her eyes. "I would not have understood. I would not have forgiven. We took him from his home. Imprisoned him, interrogated him, called him a liar."

I found myself on uneasy ground. "But he was lying."

She surprised me by grinning. "Yes. But only out of loyalty and friendship. To protect the Champion from a justice he had already seen would be too demanding. From us."

"You're right," I said.

"Still," she said. "He was kinder in response than I deserved. I who would have split the mountains themselves for vengeance at the time. He is able to be kind. I am not so. I have never been."

"Cassandra," I said. "You were in a difficult position. Perhaps all you can do is forgive yourself. I'm sure Varric has."

The ghost of a smile. "I do not think he has," she said, "although he hides it well. But who can blame him?" She sighed. "Certainly not I." The briefest pause. “And then I committed the same offense with you, after the loss of the Most Holy and the explosion of the Temple.”

I blinked. “Oh that,” I said. “It was so long ago. And you certainly had reason to suspect me. When you realized the truth, you acted very honorably about it, I thought.”

Another pause.

“There is something you do not know,” she said. She turned her head on the pillow to look back at me, her short dark hair curling cutely and unknowingly in tufts above her head. But her gaze was unblinking. Only a faint gleam in the barrierlight and vague firelight filtering into our tent.

“About what?” I asked.

“About that day,” she said.

There was a shine to her eyes, even in the darkness, and I caught my breath. “What is it?”

A longer pause. She closed her eyes, and for a moment I actually thought she had fallen asleep. Then she opened her eyes again.

“Among those who died at the Temple,” she said flatly. “Was my lover. A mage. A man named Regalyan D’Marcall.”

I caught my breath, and for a moment could not bring myself to reply at all. “How… how long had you been together?”

“We knew each other for many years,” she said. “He helped me once, in fact, when I was much younger... in foiling the plot against Divine Beatrix. We became close afterward.”

I couldn’t stand to stay lying down, and swung my legs around to sit on the side of my cot, shoving my straggling hair back from my face. “Wait.”

She didn’t move, just watched me, almost amused. “What is it that troubles you?”

“The man you loved died the day you found me? In the explosion? And you thought I did it? Fenhedis, Cassandra! No one would have blamed you if you’d simply run me through with your sword a few times before asking questions!”

“But that would not be justice.”

“I know,” I said. “I just… it seems unfair that you had to be so closely involved, so quickly. No wonder you hated and feared me.”

“Let us just say that I was determined to find the culprit,” she said.

I shook my head. “I admit that I thought you were harsh at the time. But now, looking back, it seems like you were a miracle of restraint.”

“It was my responsibility,” she said, shrugging. “Both as a Seeker and as the Right Hand of the Divine, I was already familiar with painful choices.”

I looked down at the dim dirty canvas floor of the tent. I kept seeing those tortured dead ones, the ashen desolate field we’d passed through after the Conclave, people burning like terrible candles that had not yet been blown out. Had we passed Regalyan, there? Had he been one of those lost ones in our path? I tried to remember if Cassandra had looked around but I had barely been able to face them, myself. I rubbed my face with my hands and wanted to cry. And cast a few fireballs.

Cassandra watched this display, then, finally, making another noise (this one a gentler “oof” variation), she sat up as well. “Inquisitor. Calm yourself.”

“I’m just so sorry,” I said.

“By the Maker,” she said. “If we are going to talk about this, then I shall need to fortify myself.” She got up and grabbed a wineskin from her neat pile of gear at the foot of her cot.

She came back to her cot, uncorked it, and drank. She looked the question at me, and I shrugged a yes, then she passed me the skin so that I could drink as well. The wine was thin and harsh, but warming in the cold air and drum of the rain. I handed it back to her.

“Thanks,” I said. “Maybe it will help us sleep. And… about… ir abelas. I’m just... I'm just sorry.”

“I know you are,” she said. “And for a time the grief was difficult. As you yourself know all too well.”

I nodded. We passed the wineskin back and forth again while she thought about it.

“It is always the case with loss. I am better now, and I see more clearly,” she said. “Pain is nothing if not a good teacher. As with Anthony, now I simply seek to honor Regalyan’s memory, while attempting to maintain… a better sense of patience, perhaps.”

“Does Varric know?” I asked. “About your—about Regalyan?”

“No,” she said. “And I do not wish him to.”

“But it would just help him understand… what you had been through… why you were being so tough on everyone... I’m sure he would forgive you if he knew.”

She was silent for a moment. “I do not need forgiveness,” she said. “I just need to remember that I am capable of cruelty, and that it is not a side of myself I wish to nourish.”

“Cass, nobody thinks you are actually cruel,” I said.

“Truly?” she asked, arching a perfect eyebrow. She sipped the wine again. She wiped the mouth of the wineskin carefully with her thumb after she took each drink, and the gesture was disarmingly neat and ladylike.

“Truly,” I said. Then I took another sip as well. “They just think you’re…”

“Yes?”

“Hasty,” I said, grinning. “At times. Passionate about your feelings... about what you believe.”

She narrowed her eyes. “You would not say that they fear me, then?” she asked.

“Oh that,” I said. “Yes. They absolutely do.”

She burst out laughing, and I joined her.

“Thank you for that encouragement, my lady,” she said dryly.

“Well,” I said. “It’s true.”

She shrugged, chuckling a little. “I suppose it is a useful quality in a warrior.”

“I still think Varric should know,” I said.

“Do not tell him,” she gritted.

I glared at her.

She glared back.

Then she took a sip from the wine, and I sighed. “All right. I won’t.”

A pause. She looked at me, and that softness was back, or maybe the wine was having its effect. “Eliaden, my friend… When you lost your clan… was there anyone… special... that you yourself may have lost?”

I thought about it. “Yes… and no,” I said at last.

She looked at me, and I remembered that life, vivid and whole before me again, all in a flash. As if I'd never left. So often, now my past was a dream to me now.

“A man I’d loved in my clan," I said. "But we wanted different things. I’d always dreamed of leaving, and he’d wanted nothing more than to stay there forever.” I shook my head. “But it was long over when—when the clan…” I trailed off, and she nodded.

“I see,” she said.

I hesitated. "I—I do keep going back to one moment. A moment in the rain, on a cliff. If I had spoken my feelings, things might have gone differently."

"Ah," said Cassandra. "But you did not speak."

"No," I said. I shrugged. “Anyway, there’s not much to tell, as far as men go. A few men, a few moments in taverns or forests." I smiled. "Anyway, my attachments don’t tend to last. Nothing like you and Regalyan, it sounds like.”

“It had been over for years,” she said. “Long before the Conclave.”

“Still. You remained close?”

"Yes," she admitted. "And we would still meet... sometimes."

She was quiet for a few seconds, then her eyes met mine, dancing with mischief. “And now," she said, "there is the matter of our mysterious apostate.”

I smiled but remained silent, part of me still fuming over Solas’s earlier teasing.

“Well?” Her brows drew together and her lips pursed in frustration. “What? Nothing? Truly?”

I sighed. I wasn’t as good at doing noisy ones as Cass was, but I tried. Then I took a very large swig of wine.  “All right. What do you want to know?”

She waved her arms enthusiastically, and I leaned back to avoid a smack in the face. “What? You must tell me. Describe it! Was it a long, wordless, romance of unspoken yearning? The inevitable call of passion from body to body?” she asked, her eyes sparkling, cheeks pink. “A slow heat? Or a sudden, impulsive declaration of love?”

I laughed. “A little of both.”

“And?”

“He… we… it was late," I mumbled. "He’d been helping me with my—my sparks…” I flapped the end of my braid at her, and she smiled. “Then, one night we were talking and… it just happened.”

“Ugh.” She shook her head. “A writer you are not. Because now whatever romance there was, you have killed it dead.”

I gave up, then grinned in spite of myself, enjoying the newfound friendship between us, my feelings of freedom and mischief, and the fact that the bond-piece was suddenly warm against my wrist. A talisman and a promise and… something else. As if he were here, now in this room.

I took another sip and passed it back. “All right, all right,” I said. “He kissed me in the Fade. For the first time. If you must know.”

“The Fade? You mean, in a dream?”

“Yes,” I said. “He took me to the roof, and we looked up at the stars, and we talked together, and he kissed me, and…”

Her expression was so hopeful that I barreled through my shyness. “He kissed me, and I remember the stars were like… like many-colored lamps… all these different little flames, and I guess he must have done that for me. And the wind was warm in spite of the snow, and he kissed me again, and, well, we may have done that for a little while... and then I realized where I was…”

“And?”

“He laughed that I hadn’t known I was dreaming…”

“Yes? And?”

“I woke up," I said. "And then, when I woke up, I kissed him again, as fast as I could.” I laughed. “I almost knocked him over.”

She grinned. “Why?”

“So he wouldn’t take it back.”

“Ah,” she said. “You mean, upon awakening?”

“Yes,” I said. “I knew he would.”

She smiled. “You were right to do so. I have seen this in him.”

“What?”

“He is one of those who will fight against his own perception of duty.”

I laughed. “Figures that you would understand that.”

Now it was Cassandra’s turn to blush, even under the dim barriers-light. “Perhaps I do.”

“Anyway, that’s it.”

She smiled, but the smile was touched with wistfulness. “A kiss in a dream. I wonder if you know how lucky you are at this moment.”

I smiled at her, touched by her generosity when she herself had lost so much. “I do.” 

She sighed happily, corked the wineskin, then lay back on her cot, her eyes fixed on the fading light of the barriers above us. “I shall have to remember that,” she said. “It sounds most romantic.”

“Cass,” I said.

“What, Inquisitor.”

“I really want to give you a hug right now,” I confessed.

“I would prefer that you did not,” she said, but she smiled. “Go to bed, Inquisitor.”

I lay back down, pulling my feet out of the way of the leak as the rain, quieter now, drummed on the tent. I still worried about many things, but I also felt safe, and soft, and blessed. Only a few yards away, Solas was listening to Varric’s breathing and (I knew) thinking of me. My bond-piece nevertheless tingled against my skin, and I felt my skin heat, even in the darkness.

The world shook. Somewhere, all too near, the darkness waited. Everything these days felt tenuous and broken, as if Thedas was going to all the hells of the Void. But I was still in it, and with people like this woman, who had managed to curb her rage even in the face of unimaginable loss.

“Cass,” I said again.

What is it now?”

“You really ought to fall in love again.”

She snorted, but then she laughed, and rolled over onto her side, away from me.

I pulled up the covers and did another cast of Barriers, mostly to watch the slow drip of gold specks as they fell around me like stars.

My eyes closed. Just when I was almost asleep, I heard her speak again.

“Perhaps,” she said softly, as if to herself. “Perhaps. One day.”

Chapter Text

One day.

Or any day.

A day.

I was fishing with Jemmid and Mayena, on a half-cloudy day of mist and quiet. Nothing really special about it. And yet infinitely special.

Was it real, or the Fade? I didn’t care.

This was the kind of day I’d missed—a day like a thousand others, damp and chilly and unremarkable. The kind of day that was perfect for fishing, for finding little treasures on the shore. For catching a glimpse of the sleek backs of whales, for listening to the seabirds, for catching a delicate floral glimpse of a shy anemone or starfish in a tidepool.

The blissful sense of serenity, of ordinary nothingness… a day on the waves, not too much chop. A day without fear, caught in the rush and surge of the the sound I loved best: the slow, soft sigh of the sea.

Mayena sang a song of finding while stringing together the seashells she had gathered as a gift for her sister, and I smiled at her high, pure voice as it lifted in the early morning air. Beyond her, the Eastern sky glistened like the pale burnished insides of an oyster shell. It was light enough to see, but barely. To the West, the sky was still dark.

But this was the time.

And then we were rewarded with that telltale twitch on the line, and Jemmid met my eyes with a delighted grin as he pulled back on his stick to reveal a glistening plump fish. A fish, so soon! I sent a silent prayer of thanks to Andruil as Mayena added the fish to the bucket in our small boat, then Jemmid checked the string, then baited his hook for the next cast. Above us, the gulls cried and I breathed deep of the salt air that was like no other scent on earth. It—

My sea, I thought, smiling. But then the light seemed to vanish, and there were manacles on my wrists, burning me, and I was trying to explain, “I didn’t do it, it wasn’t me, I would never do that...”

I opened my eyes. Blackness. My tent. Not the jail where I’d first found myself. Just the quiet sound of Cassandra’s breathing nearby. And darkness—not even a remnant of my barrier was left.

No sea. No Jemmid. No Mayena.

I shut my eyes again. I could still hear it, that maddening beautiful sea-sound I had missed so much at Skyhold. When I opened them again, I was awake in the darkness, and memory had come rushing back. I remembered where I was—and that I was far from the sea I’d loved. And that there was nobody left alive from my life then to string seashells with, anyway.

The sound I’d been dreaming hadn’t been waves after all, but the wind through the trees. I breathed deep, trying to catch the innocent and elusive delight of the dream. Such simplicity and brightness in those colors, scents, sounds…

And now I was here, farther North than I’d ever imagined being. The air was still cold—even more bitterly chill than it was at Skyhold—heavier, darker, and seeping into your bones somehow. But it was wonderful to smell the clean, free air of the world, the scent of the trees, and I felt the rush of excitement remembering the closeness of the forest. Arlathan Forest, a stone’s throw from me, directly to the West. Secrets surely waiting, and we also weren’t that many miles from the Drylands to the Southeast and to the Northwest, the island of Seheron itself. Directly North, the fabled White Spire mountain, shouldering into the sky as a tall and lonely presence yesterday in the red light of sunset.

I turned one way, ear to the wall of my tent, and heard only the quiet of the night, the quiet rush of the swaying trees. No sign of dawn, so I must have only slept for a few hours.

I luxuriated in the awareness that it was still night. I snuggled beneath the blankets again. They smelled comfortingly of woodsmoke and horse and old leather. I fleetingly wished, for Solas to join me, but he was housed in the tent opposite with Varric and (I knew) would have decorously ignored my invitations for him to join me. And besides, the cots were functional but a bit on the flimsy side (how did Bull handle them? I wondered—double-cots? One super-sized cot?). And there was no way I was going to be engaging in bedroom shenanigans anyway—not with the whole camp within direct earshot.

Not that Solas had shown any signs of capitulating lately, anyway. Even with his cool proposition last night before the campfire. I recognized it at this point: more teasing. But also… it was less calculated than that. He would reach, but then withdraw.

I sighed, clenched my fists, and wondered if I was being foolish for hanging in there. Solas kept me at arms’ length. Literally. He wanted me, but he would not act.

But I'd made my choice. Something in Solas spoke wordlessly to me, body and mind and heart and soul. It wasn’t something as superficial as shared language or cultural experience, about being one of the elvhen, it was something different… I just knew who he was. And I’d seen his strength and his terrible isolation; I’d seen the man within—so different from the calm exterior. Inside Solas was a distance and a depth you could travel for centuries and never fully know.

But I wanted to.

Meanwhile, here we were...

Since we'd known we might otherwise be on a potential convergence course with the entity, we had not gone directly toward Chaldecy in the first part of our journey yesterday, but had instead mimicked the travel path the Chargers had taken, going in a carefully circuitous route Northwest from Wycome, toward Arlathan Forest, and then by tomorrow we would head back down again, circling once more, but moving carefully Southeast. We wanted to explore its path while also giving the entity as wide a berth as possible, and I’d still found myself looking around, my skin prickling uneasily as we walked together across the fields and gentle terrain. It was as if the ground itself were simply an illusion, and we walked on the surface of a great sea, and just beneath, at any moment, a great and monstrous sea-predator might emerge, all sharp teeth and darkness. It. Whoever was hunting me. Us.

We’d made all those assumptions, of course, before last night’s unsettling reminder of its power and strength, even at a distance. I wondered if what we’d felt meant that another village had disappeared, like Chaldecy. Before we’d left Skyhold, Cole had reported that it had seemed to veer to the East, into Antiva, at least for the moment. The timing was good for us to reconnect with the Chargers and hopefully save the vestiges of the lost village, while also learning whatever we could about its origins near Arlathan Forest.

Yesterday afternoon we’d simply arrived so late… I’d seen so little.

And even now, there was so little time.

And yet, I’d been fascinated by the glimpses I had been able to steal, only yards away from our little circle of tents and fire.

Most of what we’d been able to see upon arrival the day before in the fading light had been a vast, brooding shadow, of forests that felt both grim, angry and alert. The trees were obviously massive even from our campsite—centuries of growth or more, with seamed, blackened trunks, as if they were covered in ancient, wrinkled skin that had been burnt in the fires of something beyond time, and into rage. The leaves were fragile and delicate, a greenish-grey the color of old moss, and indeed the moss hung thick from the branching limbs high overhead, creating soft green and black cathedrals of hushed silence.  There was an almost tangible magic to it, brooding and intense, seeping from the forest boundaries and eaves, as of an anger and a despair that had soaked into the very earth and undergrowth itself, that clung to the leaves of the trees, that whispered the names of the lost and seemed (I would swear) even from afar to remember… to sigh… we were magic once.

But it was beautiful, for all its tragedy. Beautiful and sad and silent.

And waiting.

Waiting for me.

I hadn't been able to visit yesterday when I'd wanted to. But now it was dark, and quiet, and certainly acceptable for me to sneak away on my own time if I so desired. Even if Bull might not be delighted with the idea. What he didn't know wouldn't hurt him.

While I was thinking this, I realized suddenly that one part of the dream was still with me—the bond-piece around my left wrist was again hot to the touch, a blazing circle not quite hot enough to burn. I put my fingers over it and wondered.

As we’d left Skyhold, I had brought down the small clasp that Dagna had added to the shining circle of my bond-piece. The clasp essentially turned off the Mark’s power, hiding me from the entity while we were away from Skyhold. I’d so far only released it in short bursts along our trip, both to close a rift we’d passed on yesterday’s march, and also an additional time, before bed, to let off the tension of accumulated power. I felt no ill effects from this, as yet – it didn’t feel that much different to me than wielding the power consciously in combat. Just, as always, these occasional strange bursts of heat, emotion or coldness from the slender circlet, like the one I’d felt earlier upon arrival. And again, here and now.

I felt drawn… called, by a voice that only I could hear.

Fully awake now, I threw on my clothes, terrified of losing this pre-dawn grace period, then grabbed my dragon staff for company and protection. When I exited the tent, the camp itself was dark, beyond the staring Inquisition guard who saw me, half-saluted, astonished, then turned back to her duty.

No more waiting. I headed into the massive trees.

When I got to the very edge, I stopped. There was magic here, magic thick as mist, ancient and as pervasive as the cold. My heart was pounding. I took a deep breath to center myself, and then, in a desperate whisper I hadn’t expected, I said the prayers of my people to Mythal and Andruil, the prayers of mercy and of the Vir Tanadhal.

And then I plunged into the forest itself.

As I walked beneath the eaves, I realized that the evergreens were mostly firs and spruces, while the bare trees were beeches, tall and straight and shining ebony in the mist. The trees were closely packed and the forest itself seemed to exude an air of mystery and ancient secrets. I ran my hand softly along the trunks I passed—most were so huge that it would have taken all the members of our company, hands joined, to encompass the trunks. The contrasts were striking though—the firs looked glossy and strong, while the spruces were huge, old and intimidatingly dense. They also looked rather mossy, drooping and sad, with trailing long green branches like the grey-green beards of very old men. Beside the ancient spruces, every once in awhile, I’d pass a more twisted kind of tree, silver-pale and curving almost as if in physical agony, and I realized that these, too, were evidently a kind of beech.

The forest was oppressive, and yet it was surprisingly pleasant to walk through. Some forests are unpleasant hiking, with closely-spaced trees, thorny undergrowth, or tangled roots on uneven ground. But these trees were so massive that there was a surprising amount of air and space within which to walk, and the ground was gentle and welcoming, with scattered leaves and mosses above spongy dry turf even in the chilly air of winter.

I had been walking for only a little while—surely not longer than half an hour—before I saw a dim flash of grey-green light before me, off slightly to the left. I veered back in that direction, and within moments I had passed beneath the trees into a vast open clearing.

I stopped, awed. I was walking in ashes, softer and deeper than the ashes after the Conclave, ashes like soft feathers ankle-deep.

I was at the edge of the open space, and within the clearing, nothing lived – no tree, no creature, no blade of grass. Nothing. It was an immense and regular circle of soft flat blackness that went beyond soot, or charcoal, or ashes and was simply some indefinable combination of all those things. It was even worse than what I had seen at the Temple of Sacred Ashes all those months before.

At the center of the circle, a pale figure shining with subtle radiance, as if bathed in moonlight.

Solas.

He was facing me, standing straight and calm and at attention. His eyes flickered to me, registering no surprise, then back to the ground before him. As I grew nearer, I realized he was casting a spell.

I watched as he spun, and in a sudden, smooth moment of savage grace, whirled his staff in a three hundred and sixty degree arc around him. It was almost as if he were casting Barriers, but in this case, pale blue fire followed the line of his staff, then covered the clearing around us in a brief glow like sapphire flames.

Then the glow faded.

Wait… not entirely.

I realized that there were, in fact, living things within the clearing. All around us.

A sea of round, glittering eyes was approaching, visible in the pale light of Solas’s staff, and every one of those glowing eyes was fixed on Solas. And me. Within the strongest light, the circle of eyes nearest his staff, I saw the bright eyes of foxes, wolves, and other canines, and in a ripple of movement I realized they were… bowing to him. Showing him tribute in some odd way known only to animals. I shivered at the wordless beauty of it, the sense of absolute communion.

Then he raised his staff, and in a flash of pale light and a rush of storms and unearthly cries, the air was full of what felt like a thousand wings, circling and circling up into the night sky, along with a pounding of the earth beneath my feet as the animals fled lightly, as the wings dispersed… and then silence.

I could not move. I could only stand rooted in fascination and wonder, watching even as he met my eyes with that calm and impassive stranger’s face… as if he was waiting for something to happen.

And then it did. The night retreated as lines of pale white and silver and blue etched a phantom forest, complete with animals, creatures, birds, and insects. It was whole and shimmering and alive around us now. The trees that had stood here were back, etched in white silver as ghosts. Then just as quickly as it had appeared, the phantom forest began to flow and change, and there was a roaring in my ears, a white fire obliterated everything around us before sucking back in upon itself, as if pulled into a pit. Or no, not a pit. An abyss.

An abyss in midair, shadow-hearted with impossible darkness, and edged with a splintered black chaos like teeth.

It was only feet from Solas, a darkness that seemed to eat everything around it, and then I realized that even in this echo of magic… it was eating everything around it. I watched as a moth fluttered near, then was sucked into the malignant glow. Then it was gone. And now the abyss was moving, approaching Solas, so I began to run, to stumble toward him.

He stood where he was, unmoving, as if only mildly curious about the gaping maw of the blackness before him. He even leaned into it, his staff glowing blue, a tiny light against its nothingness.

I ran faster but he was so far, and I was so tired. Something new was happening, a screaming that seemed to come only from within inside my own head, a screaming from within the abyss.

The fire, a virulent green now, collapsed upon itself then roared outward, and when it hit my eyes a blindness took me, a roaring in my ears that was even louder than the screaming had been. I felt myself falling, and then there was only the silence of the dark.

Chapter Text

When I awoke, I was lying on something cool and soft, but still fighting against a rising panic. Disoriented and heart pounding, I found myself lurching upward in terror before I’d even properly awakened. Arms surrounded me, gently, even as I struggled, then lowered me back to the softness beneath us.

“Wait. What… I—” I pulled back, gasping, bewildered and terrified. “Wait. Am I in the Fade? How do I know I’m not in the Fade?”

“You are not in the Fade,” he said. I was lying down again, with Solas’s voice, low in my ear. Solas’s hands on my shoulders. “Eliaden. Hush. You are safe.”

I tried to calm myself but I could see the momentary fresh scatter of sparks… and… yes, Solas. Above me, calm and reassuring. As my heart slowed, I realized that it was quiet again. Just Solas and I, on, I realized, the cold grass of the verge beyond the charred clearing.

“Calm yourself, vhenan. You are safe and whole. There is no danger.”

I held my breath, then released it, as slowly as I could, deliberately drawing it out. And as I did, I forced myself to let go, and allowed my whole body to relax beneath him. And yet… there had been an odd sound to his voice. The slightest tremor, and this brought me back to the present more than anything else could have done.

“What happened?” I asked.

“The spell was cast and faded.”

“I keep forgetting your gift for understatement,” I said wryly.

“I was trying to determine what happened here," he said. "The spell was able to tell me much. However," and his voice softened, "I am sorry it had such an effect on you."

I rubbed my eyes and shook my head, still trying to orient myself. “Is it dawn?” I asked, still a little confused. It was so dark. How could it still be so dark? And yet…

He chuckled, surprising me. “No,” he said.

I realized what had puzzled me—It was too bright. “Then why can I see you?” I asked. “And why do you look like that?”

“Like what?”

I wasn’t going to say it, but he looked raw, shocked out of his usual calm. He wasn't inscrutable, pale, cold. He was slightly breathless, flushed, visibly concerned. Nevertheless, he reassured me by giving me a wan smile, and his answer came without further prodding. “You can see me because when you awakened, your sparks put in a rather more spectacular appearance than usual. You may have singed a few trees in the vicinity, for instance…”

I grinned guiltily, realizing that my hair and fingertips were still sparking faintly blue. “Oh.”

“And I imagine I look as I do, vhenan, because it's taken me some time to awaken you and to ensure that you are all right. You fell like a stone.”

“I did?” I felt that bewilderment return. “I don’t—wait, the shadow. That thing. Solas, what was it? What happened?”

“I was executing a spell of replication and remembrance,” said Solas. “I wanted to see if it would tell me anything about what happened here, and it provided a kind of reenactment, as you saw, of how and where the entity emerged from the Fade. However, I did not know that it would be so violent, even when seen as pure echo. For that, I apologize.”

"Why were the animals there?" I asked. "What were they doing?"

He looked puzzled. "The animals?"

"As you were casting the spell," I said.

He smiled, but it was a sad one. "They sensed what I was recreating," he said. "And I believe, came to offer help. The entity has destroyed much that was beautiful here and elsewhere. Animals are more intelligent than they seem, especially in places of old magic."

I lay where I was, watching him. As with Bull, from below, the view was even better. Here, he was all piercing eyes beneath the heavy, dark brows, the cleft chin and long nose, with that touching slight crookedness that added a kind of brutal poetry to the graceful lines of his face. And that well-shaped mouth that looked like it was used to keeping secrets. I had to glance away so he wouldn't catch me gazing. “Did it knock me out? The spell?”

“To be honest, I am not entirely certain,” he said. “I thought you fainted. Perhaps you were more susceptible to the echo because of the Mark. Or perhaps you were reacting to some dark lingering echoes from the ashes themselves.”

He reached over and plucked something from my braid, gently, as if flicking a blossom from a maid’s hair in midsummer. Except we were in this place, where no blossoms were.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Ashes,” he said. “Just a few.”

“Ashes?” I echoed. I sat up, alarmed and suddenly frantic, and before I knew what I was doing I’d undone my braid urgently and clumsily, yanking away the leather bindings and brushing the ashes hastily away with my fingers. They left streaks on my fingers I could see even in the darkness.

“Wait. Solas… am I covered in them?” I tried to run my hands through my hair; I could not quite hide my panic, then brought my hands down my body, too, roughly trying to brush myself off. I hated and feared the idea of them all over me.

“Hush.” He caught my hands in his pale strong ones, stilling them as if they were frightened birds. For the first time, I noticed the faint freckles on his skin there… beautiful and somehow fragile… and that his fingers were longer than mine, the index and middle fingers curiously the same length. “All is well,” he said.

I made a panicked sound, a half-hiccup/gasp that I couldn’t quite stifle. “I’m—I’m just tired of ashes,” I said. “We’ve seen too many of them.” I kept seeing the abyss of my nightmares, kept remembering my talk with Cass, thinking of what lay ahead of us, surely, in Chaldecy. So many living beings… my clan... Reglan... and even here… surely my own people from long ago were also little more by now, whether earth or dust… or cinders and charred hopes.

“Just say they’re gone.”

He looked at me for a moment, and I must have been sparking, because his expression was so clear, and the softness and emotion on his face shook me all over again. As if in answer to my thoughts, he ran his hands lightly and firmly through the mass of my hair where it spilled over my shoulders and down my breast. The subtle humidity had caused it to tighten up, so that it curled around his fingers, and he smiled. I smiled too. Even my hair seemingly wanted more of Solas than he would give.

“There is nothing,” he said. “Nothing at all.”

“Really?”

He held up his hands, palms pale in the darkness. “Look,” he said, his voice gentle but with that slight undercurrent of subtle humor. “Just a few streaks, that’s all. And then… no more ashes.”

I realized he was still pretty much on top of me, and I went still—not wanting to move, or to alert him to this sudden shift, as it would almost certainly cause him to retreat again (I would have endured real physical pain in silence for him simply to stay where he was).

So I simply pretended to look. In actuality, all I could see were the arresting long planes of his face, edged in the faint blue pulse of my sparks. “Yes. Ir abelas.”

He shook his head. “No need. We have all seen too many ashes,” he sighed.

“It probably seems silly to you,” I confessed.

“My love,” he said. “I do not find it remotely silly. We have all seen too much death.”

I relaxed, and then his mouth quirked, that shift from grimness to softness that I could never predict. His hand went to my face again, and he ran his thumb lightly over my bottom lip, distracted, almost musing, his eyes following his fingers. I felt myself heat up almost instantly, but said nothing.

“Although, I will admit that it is one of my favorite things about you,” he mused. He leaned in, pushed my hair away from my neck, and kissed me just above my collarbone. At the predictable sparks, I felt him smile against my neck.

“What is?” I wondered. But I was distracted. He was still playing with me, bringing his lips from my throat to my mouth, cheekbone, temple, and earlobe, light as a butterfly’s wings. Stones, stones, I thought. Then I laughed at myself. Because I didn't want to be calm. I didn't want to breathe. I wanted him.

“Your… lightness. What you call… your silliness.”

Oh, fenedhis. “Ugh.” I made a face. “I don’t want you to love me for that. I want you to love me for my dignity and grace and my incredible battle magic.”

He pulled back, and it was his turn to smile. Gods above.

“Two out of three?” I suggested, and he chuckled under his breath. Then he kissed me again, gently, then with increasing hunger, and after returning it for a few moments following him forward not to break the connection, I lay back again to look at him, interrupting the moment and waiting him out. If he felt like teasing, as he usually did, then two could play as well as one. But he seemed to want to please me, and followed forward even as I went back, then drew his thumb lightly along my cheek, twirling a curly tendril of my hair in his fingers.

“I’ve never seen you this way, you know,” he said, smiling. “You always bind it away.”

“If you visited me in the evenings at Skyhold,” I said, “You would see me this way. Twice-mended sleep-garments and all.”

“Really?”

“They’re surprisingly seductive,” I said. “Everyone says so.”

He laughed softly, but ignored the gambit. “You seem much improved,” he said. “Feeling calmer?”

“Yes,” I said. “And… well, no. Not after last night at the campfire, and certainly not after this.”

“I would not have let anything harm you,” he said.

“I know.” It was true; I was calm, and the fear had mostly receded, replaced already by simple desire… but still… I couldn’t get that virulent presence out of my mind. Or the stunning display of magic that had called its echo forth.

And then I smiled. “I said that to you once. At Haven. Almost those exact words.”

“I remember,” he replied. “I have never forgotten it.

I shifted a little beneath him, then met his eyes without blinking. “Solas, that spell you cast…”

“Yes?”

“There isn’t a mage at Skyhold who could’ve performed that enchantment,” I said quietly. “Not Dorian and not Fiona. Not even with a dozen other mages to back her up.”

The barest hesitation. “You have seen me accomplish more complex magic before… in private,” he said. “Surely you understand why, as an apostate, I am not more open with the others about my abilities.”

“But why—”

“Questions, questions…” he breathed, his voice low and intimate. He shifted so that he was now fully on top of me, his lips and tongue tracing a delicate line from the hollow of my throat to where my heart beat beneath the skin, pausing.

I knew what he was doing… and I still didn’t care. He could distract me this way all he wanted, and I would fucking let him.

“You know…” His breath on my wet skin. “I enjoy your questions, vhenan.”

I was torn between lust and irritation. “You don’t!” I growled. “You just enjoy not answering them.”

He raised his head, and even in the darkness I could see the shine of his eyes.

“I answer,” he said. “Thus.” And then he brought his lips to mine, as softly as the touch of ashes, and then more, and more, and more. Lips and teeth and tongue. A softness that burned into me, and stayed, thrumming, and moved with my blood. As completely as if he’d never kissed me before. And I was lost. As always.

I closed my eyes. Again. “And thus.” I gave in, and opened my mouth again to meet the kiss more completely, the heat and softness of it… and then he paused again, after a teasing touch of his tongue, rearing his head to look into my eyes, his lips inches from mine, his breath as warm as if it were my own.

“And so you see, love,” he whispered. “I give you answers when I can.”

I thought about it. I did see. I saw all too well. No answers at all.

So I closed my eyes and turned my face away, wanting simply to deny him as even the smallest countermove, but his hands turned me gently back to him, and he met me anyway. The kiss. His lips on my face, the roughness and silkiness of his skin against mine. And then back again. And then the pause, maddening and delicious as always. His mouth and nothing else. I drew breath to speak, and instead found my sparks returning; a subtle crackle of electricity shimmered across my skin, and his, shocking us both pleasantly. I shivered.

He shivered too. Then he laughed, low, then kissed me again, now more softly, teasing and probing, and I let myself fall fully into whatever he would give, my hand at his neck, his skin almost as hot as the bond-piece at my wrist, his hands slowly following the lines of my hip and breast, mine tracing the line from his neck, to his chest beneath the rough fabric of his tunic, to the firm curve of his lower back.

Enough waiting. “I want to feel you,” I said, frustrated, and I pulled off his tunic impatiently, Solas laughed softly as I struggled to get it over his head without tearing it. He hesitated again for the briefest moment, then allowed it, the taut, lean lines of his body stark and pale against the darkness, as if he were a flame himself, and then I laughed in triumph, and he returned to me even more hungrily than before.

Until he pulled back to regard me, his eyes on mine, caught between speaking or moving, and I know I looked up at him the same way. It was a test of wills. I saw him waver, draw breath, possibly to speak, to tease, to laugh, to end the moment once again.

Oh, no you don’t. Not this time, my love.

Words were my enemies, but I knew my hands, my body, my mouth. I trusted them more than my own voice. Let them wage this silent war for me. I pulled him down to me and kissed him back, hard. Two could play at those games. I moved against him. I took his mouth, owned it as he had owned mine—hard, soft, gentle, rough. Slow and slower. I could damn well tease too.

I gave it all back, all and more, and felt him laugh softly against my lips, as if he knew what I was doing, and welcomed the battle. I moved my hands, bit his lip softly, that full bottom lip that seemed to me to signify his sensual side beneath that severe upper one—and he returned to me again, his mouth more insistent than ever, his body trembling slightly beneath my hands.

And then I pulled away, and smiled. Because now we were two of a kind; I was not the only one who wanted, who felt and waited.

He watched me, panting slightly, his eyes dark in the shadows and against his pale skin. The softest movement of his hands as he met my eyes. The faintest spark of mocking in his eyes. Yet he said nothing. Just breathed, and watched me… and as I had done before, I gave in to the simple pleasure of a male body above me, breathing and heated and wanting. Even if we were not joined. Except that I knew already that Solas would not allow me this victory. I smiled again, but this time in a kind of rueful defeat. I heard my breaths in the cold air, faster than his, and knew that he had beaten me yet again.

I wanted to deny the break, to deny his fears. I reached for him, shifting beneath the welcome weight of his body so that I could feel him, and he laughed, rocking forward, and kissed me again. And moved again above me, as if to remind me of what I could not have, and for a moment I was almost blind with wanting. We were so close. All it would take would be his cooperation—two quick movements and he would be where I wanted him to be… where I needed him to be. I reached for him, bringing my hand low, below his belt to the hardness there, to where he rose to meet me… and then he pulled my hand away, his breathing now as harsh as my own.

There was nothing but the sound of our breathing, and the sound of the trees; that restless oceanic surge as they bent beneath the wind in the forest, and it was the same sound I heard in my body and blood and nerves beneath his hands. It was still very dark, and there were no stars. But thanks to my sparks, I could see him. I could feel my heartbeat in my ears, mimicking in a lonelier way the rush of the forest around us. I could feel the tremble in his hands and thighs.

And then he sighed... and spoke my name.

Chapter Text

There was a tidal, roaring rush of unquiet wind, like the moment before the storm. Solas was silent, then reared back, his eyes sweeping the massive dark circle of the trees around us, and the subtler, paler night sky above us. No stars here. No lamps circling for my delight. Just the night.

Everything was the same. But it wasn’t. We were at our very own Crossroads.

I didn’t move. I simply waited.

He watched the forest; I watched him. He raised a hand slightly, moved his fingers in sequence, and I realized it was a minor spellcast; a small, comforting golden dome descended, the faint glow of Barriers around us brightening a small circle upon him, me, the grass, and the ashes.

And only then did he meet my eyes again. And then he sighed. “We should return.”

"Oh, gods below…"  I felt the faintest prickle of frustrated tears in my eyes. “Not again.”

“I…” he spoke softly. "You must understand..."

“Stop,” I said. “You can’t. You can’t keep doing this.”

“Doing what?” he asked.

“You know what,” I said. “I know you do. Don't pretend like you don't.” And then my grief and frustration surged, and I tried to shove him away, hard, so that I could run, so that I could escape into the darkness of the trees where I would not be able to see how far he still was from me, and always would be; where he would not be able to see how much that hurt me. I began to cry in earnest, then, hating that too, and I shoved him again, harder. But my hands only met the firm, smooth skin of his chest and shoulders and would not, quite, obey me. Because it was my hands on his skin, and that was what I wanted. The battle was lost before I'd even begun to fight.

"Hush," he said, and pushed my hands away, returning forward so that I was lying once more in the soft grass, his body pinning me gently beneath him.

You hush," I said angrily. "If all you're going to do is lie to me." His eyes glinted, and I met them evenly. No blushes or sparks in sight. "And to yourself. I won’t be your toy.”

I didn't care about the tears now. I always welcomed anger in moments like these. Anger was easier than tears, and cleaner than shame. “I won’t be played with, picked up or dropped on a whim. It’s unfair.”

“Listen,” he said. “Vhenan, listen. Listen.” His hands were gentle, moving lightly from palms to wrists; he was not truly holding me down, but he knew that I would allow him to do so nevertheless. Some part of this, I realized, was still play to him. I wondered if he himself knew it.

“Fine,” I managed to laugh bitterly, then shrugged beneath his hands. “Talk. Dirth ma. But do so, and it is fully possible that when you're done, I’ll walk back into camp and I'll begin a different life. If I have to.”

“Just wait. Listen to me, love,” he said. “Will you give me that?”

I shut my eyes. My heart was still hammering in my ears, my blood rushing hot, then cold. “Maybe,” I said. I thought of the waterfall of my mind; the stones there, calm and cool, but I could not summon the serenity I longed for. I was sparking, but didn't care. I let them fall, and went quiet, feeling tired and heavy and dull, the tears seeping slowly and steadily into the hair at my temples, warm and then cooling fast in the night air even beneath the fading barrier he'd cast.

“Now is not the time,” he said, “for such decisions. You are tired, and frightened, and not yourself.”

“Just stop,” I said tiredly. “Don’t bother lying. To yourself or me. It’s a waste of both our time.”

Silence. And then I listened to his breathing as it caught… then released. Not… quite…  a sigh.

"You're right," he said quietly.

“But if you’re a liar,” I admitted, “Then so am I. I can’t threaten you as if I'd leave you."

He looked surprised and moved, then drew his brows together, seemingly genuinely mystified. "Why?"

"Because I can’t.”

“And why is that?”

I yanked my hands away from beneath his, then covered my face with them again.

His voice was quiet. "Will you tell me why?"

“Because, gods above," I managed. "I love you too much.”

He pulled my hands away, gently, so that he could look at me. His eyes were wide, and very soft. “That is a weapon,” he said quietly. “That we both wield.”

I laughed without humor. Right into his face. “Please. Nothing cuts you. Everything cuts me.”

He froze, then shook his head. "So you think," he said roughly. "But weep again, and ask me to do nothing.”

"I—" I started to reply. I looked at him warily. "Truly?"

"You are so observant, my love," he said. "How can you miss so much?"

I was quiet, not completely daring to understand him, only looking. He was right. I knew how to watch people, how to read them. But somehow I couldn't seem to read him. But now I looked again, and I saw the high color on his cheekbones even in the darkness, the vestiges of want, worry and love; that heightened level of emotion that he was usually so careful to modulate.

At my expression, he nodded. “And you are right. I am being dishonest,” he admitted. “Ir abelas, I—I find myself on uncertain ground.”

I met his eyes, then chuckled, even if I was also still a little angry and cautious. “Truth at last.”

He smiled, raising a perfect eyebrow. I sparked, deliberately, so that I could see him beneath the fading barrier, and the smile softened. Yet I could still feel that we were poised on that knife-edge between what I wanted, what he wanted… and what he would allow.

“I find myself torn,” he said. A voice not for the bedroom, but for the council chamber. Still, that distance.

“How?” I asked.

Isala…” he breathed. “Perhaps I am torn between… duty and desire?” he asked. “I do not entirely know.” He sighed. “Eliaden, you tempt me, you must know that by now."

"How?" I asked. "How do I know? When you run from every moment of closeness? As if I'm somehow a subject for shame?"

"You are not."

"Then tell me how."

He smiled, a private smile that burned somehow. "Well," he said. A soft, practiced sweep of his hand down the line of my body. "You must know. You do tempt me. To—to laugh, to feel, to—play.”

I actually managed a laugh. “Oh, yes,” I said, more bitterly than I expected. “You’re very good at that. Playing with me. Making jokes only when it’s safe, like last night.”

He moved forward and brought his lips to my ear, warm breath teasing me as if whispering secrets. “I do not play with you, vhenan,” he said.

“Yes, you do,” I said, struggling not to allow him to distract me. But I felt every touch. “That’s all you do. Play. Wind me up and watch me spin around like a toy. Like one of those little Dalish vanahasals we used to sell to gullible villagers.”

“I do not mean to—wind you up,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter if you mean to or not,” I said dryly. “If it’s what you do.”

He drew breath; I awaited the excuses to follow, then marveled as he made none. I felt how tired I was, and let the silence be. I would not fight him any longer. Even to assist him against himself.

My love, it should not be up to me to make you want me. Either you will or you won’t. Take me willingly or let me go.

And then the bond-piece blazed hot... and then went cold.

Little sign at all from Solas, of course, save perhaps a tightening of his mouth. I met his eyes again, stoically. “It’s been months, Solas,” I said. “Months. And all the world is violence and darkness... we live under the threat of constant death. It might end for us any day.Yet you won’t—you won’t give me that comfort. Let me in. I would understand if you just needed time, if it was…” I felt myself stumbling, fumbling for words… “I would understand if you were not accustomed to—to closeness. But you are. We both know this. More than accustomed… you know it's true.”

He smiled then, almost in spite of himself—a narrow, confident smile that made me want to ravish him. I closed my eyes. And then opened them. His eyes were darker now than the darkness around us. I felt myself wanting to fall again, but I made myself finish what I had to say.

“And so… you play with my desire. And with your own. And then… you draw me in again,” I said. “Make me think you want me.”

He was silent. But his right hand moved softly where it lay on my waist, as if in spite of himself, long fingers flattening across my stomach beneath my tunic. A reluctant caress.

“And then you stop,” I said.

He stopped, and I savored the irony of it.

“You always stop.”

Silence.

“And I’ve accepted it,” I said softly. “Tried to be understanding… But, see, then you make a joke like you did last night, making me a joke.” My breath was harsh even in the slightly muffled air under his Barriers cast. “Our companions, everyone… they all think we’ve been lovers for months.”

He was silent, his hand moving again, slowly, softly, down almost absently from my midsection to hip, as if still needing to touch, to fondle. To prolong our connection.

“There are things I cannot—cannot—say to you now,” he said at last. “For your own protection. There are matters I cannot share with you or anyone.”

“Fuck your secrets,” I said bluntly. “Keep them. Keep every single one of them. I don’t want your secrets. I don't care about them. Go talk to Leliana. Or Bull. I don't want politics."

He drew breath to speak, but remained silent. I forged onward: "I do want you. If you’ll give me that much.”

And at last I had the satisfaction of seeing Solas wholly lose control.

He stared, then laughed aloud, the laugh ringing across the clearing even through the barrier. Even the ashes around us must have shifted.

“Oh, da’mis, you never fail to surprise me.”

I smiled, then shrugged. "Laugh, then. I'm being serious."

He quieted, then looked down at me for a long breath. And... another miracle, as had happened so long ago in the Rotunda, when he'd first kissed me back. As before, it was as if I could actually see the barrier fall within him. I felt him tense above me, then, surprisingly, relax.  He dipped low to me, his body firm and encompassing and yet without threat. And then his voice and breath met my ear.

“Then tell me what you want, my love.” His voice was low and calm... and maybe just a little broken. I recoiled even as I rejoiced. I took the moment. Breathed. And thought.

And then I answered as honestly as I could, wishing my words were less clumsy. “Just let me be... close to you. Give me something.”

“And what if that were not possible?” he asked.

“It’s simple,” I said in a low voice. “I want you. If you don’t want me, tell me. And let me go.”

He went very still, as if I had surprised him.

Another series of heartbeats, waiting; another rush of potential storm above. Then his fingers intertwined with mine, curling slowly, like soft steel. Binding us both. As if he could not help himself.

Then he sighed in a sound that was almost a sob, bending down to me even as I was wholly beneath him again, and this time, when he kissed me, there was something new, something different. Emotion from him as well as from me. No more teasing. He was showing me something. His lips trembled, even as they sought mine hungrily, and then paused.

“I do want you,” he whispered.

I cried back, softly and in real pain, “No. You don’t. Or you wouldn't taunt me like this.”

“I do.” He kissed me again, fiercely. “I want you.” I shut my eyes, knowing I would weep again, and he surprised me by kissing my eyelids, and the tears there. “I want you.” Another slow slide of his mouth. “I want you.” And then he touched all the other places the tears had marked my face with his tongue, licking away the salt and sadness. As if he would brush away all evidence of them.

And then my mouth again. “I want you.” 

I went curiously calm; felt myself poised high above the world, both loved and doomed. He would either save me or let me fall. When I responded, my voice was not my own. “Then prove it.”

He reared back, then shifted, slightly, running a hand down my body, watching me as he did so. “What would prove it to you?”

I met his eyes steadily and without blinking. “Be with me.”

He met my eyes, and that slight mischief was back. And the hesitance I was already all too familiar with. “I cannot… I cannot wholly be with you that way… yet,” he said. And yet, I allowed myself to feel a distant potential spark of hope. Something was different.

“Can't, or won't?”

That glint of humor returning, sharpening his features. “The two are the same.”

“But…” I said slowly.

Tath, thusast… ” he said, smiling, drawing out the words. “Still, love. You are right. And I will give you what I can.”

For several seconds I forgot how to breathe. Then I nodded slowly. “Then… I’ll take whatever you give me.”

He made no move. He simply looked at me, considering, and I allowed it, even if I wished desperately not to have been created as a person whose thoughts were merely a pane of glass for him gaze into at will.

But I was. I always had been. And somehow, I was realizing, this was even part of my power over him. Looking down at me, his face went soft, and then in one swift, graceful movement, he bent forward, bringing his hands back up to my own, but in a way that was not demanding, but teasing. Time slowed. I moved my hands under his, experimentally, to see what he would do. His glance went from my wrists to my eyes and there it was again, that sense of recognition. Of something new and known that was not new at all. As always, I felt no hint of actual threat or violence, just that indefinable sense of exquisite control. A power I could accept or reject freely, but that would insist on recognition.

The wind slowed. My heart seemed to stop, too.

"Gods help me," I sighed.

A full second of silence. Then: “I will do nothing you do not wish me to do,” he said. “You know that by now.”

I was quiet. And then I nodded. “I do.”

I dropped my eyes, felt the fresh scatter of sparks and looked up to see him smiling. The bond-piece at my wrist blazed up again, and I laughed. He saw me looking, and chuckled softly. Then he shifted slightly on top of me, his left hand traveling again, exploring me with deliberate slowness... down, down, then back up. And I suddenly found it difficult to concentrate.

“Ah. But you see, we must be plainer on this, vhenan.”

“What?" I asked. I was preoccupied with the tightening of his thighs and the slow slide of his hand. "What do you want me to say?”

“I think you know.” He stopped, and watched me, amused.

I knew what he meant. I had not blushed when I’d openly propositioned him, but I felt myself do so now, like a cup filling with warm wine.

“Surrender.” My voice, low.

“Yes. That.” His voice was low, too, but urgent. Not soft. Fierce and commanding, part of the night air. “Tell me that you will surrender to me, body and spirit.”

I felt a chill of recognition that was equal parts wanting and fear... well, not quite fear, but apprehension. He was asking me for complete trust. I breathed, not quite a sigh, and he waited.

He knew me. He had all the time in the world.

And then I answered. 

“I will,” I said slowly. “But you already knew that.”

“Did I?” he asked. I could see I was telling him something new.

I laughed, and now he looked amused and discomfited too. “Solas. I have been telling you that since the first moment we spent in the rotunda,” I said. “I've said it every day since then. It's you who weren't listening.”

The slight movement of his mouth that was not quite a smile, mocking and assured. Then he sobered, and there it was—the sharpness of desire I’d so wanted him to unmask… and the grim seriousness beneath.

"And so we come to it,” he said. “Ar iselena na vaslasa, ara'lan.”

I could feel the strong clamp of his thighs against my body, his hands upon me, the weight of him, and it was a feeling beyond desire and something like fate. I would give him whatever he wanted, because it was whatever I wanted, too.

Ir vaslasa, ara'lan,” I said shakily. “I will submit to you.”

The air around us seemed to contract, to wait. And even the trees seemed to quiet.

He met my eyes, his own still so very dark, as if he already read my secrets.  “And I to you,” he said, and kissed me, slowly and silkily, as if we had an entire night ahead of us, a life. I let out a breath that was not just a sigh, but a letting-go of all tension. He was with me. I simply closed my eyes and gave in.

After a few seconds, he broke the kiss and pulled back slightly, still straddling me, and when I opened my eyes, I saw that he had cast Barriers again, still small and gentle around the two of us, the soft candle-flame-web dancing around us in the night air, shimmering sparks of gold as they fell, and began to fade around us. Living representations of seconds lived and lost. And us in the ashes beneath.

“And I will repay that trust,” he said, softly. “Never fear, love.”

He leaned forward again, kissing me in the sensitive place beneath my ear, his teeth gentle at my earlobe, then moving his lips down my neck to the hollow of my throat. He pulled back, watching me, and moved his left hand then, finally—slowly, softly, teasing and exploring, his fingers warm against my bare skin, moving from throat to breast (a sly flick of his thumb against my nipple, so that I caught my breath), and then to belly, circling, teasing, first soft, then more roughly. I felt my heart hammering in my ears, my breath quickening already, and he smiled (as I'd known he would), then bent down, bringing his mouth wherever his hand had been.

And then he stopped again, watching me, and I gave a frustrated laugh, and reached for him. "You're too slow," I said. He arched away from me, then, like a halla from the hunter. 

"On the contrary," he said, and the wickedness was on full display. "I am precisely slow enough."

I made a frustrated Cassandra-sound, and he laughed softly. 

I was panting already. "Damn it."

He moved his hand again, his eyes never leaving mine. Low, lower, lowest. I gasped. Then he paused. Again. I opened my mouth to speak, and then, at the lift of his eyebrow, remained silent. And then his hand moved again.

"You're learning."

"Yes," I managed, breathlessly. "I'm... oh, gods... a good student."

Then he moved his hand again, away, and I laughed, frustrated, and he only smiled, bringing his mouth back to mine. When he broke the kiss, he moved his hand again, exploring my skin as if he had all the time in the world, down my body, down again, and again, where his hand went, he followed with his mouth. I gasped in spite of myself; I felt both hidden and revealed, both naked and clothed, and realized that what I had mistaken for a Barriers cast had actually been a spell that made our clothing as inconsequential as mist. I could touch him now, even as he could touch me. But he would not let me touch him long, no matter how I reached for him, until he paused, my breathing ragged in the night air, his own calmer and more controlled. And then he brought his hand down to me again, a slow, slow rhythm, the flick of a thumb, pausing, moving, pausing... and... I was no longer remotely in control of myself. And then the pause again.

I panted into the night air, as always searching for him, then looked up at him, suddenly afraid of my own vulnerability. I could not read his face. There was something I was missing here—an almost-sadness, an almost-fear... a mysterious and profound sense of loss. And yet he had never looked at me with so much open emotion.

It should have been a victory, but I was terrified instead.

I saw him register this, my fear, and he shook his head, then brought his mouth to my throat. I made a low sound there, and it was as if he drank it from me. I could feel his mouth, his breathing, the rhythm of his hand, his tenderness and his insistence all in touch and rhythm and… in my surrender, finally. To which I’d agreed all along, and did again now.

And then he stopped, drawing back and watching me—me breathless, and he only slightly less so. His eyes went to my wrist and to the bond-piece there.

“If you allow it,” he said quietly, “and if I do also… you can… share with me what you are feeling.”

“I will allow it,” I whispered.

"Saota," he said softly, and his eyes flashed blue.

An instant rush of sensation, of emotion so intense that I was suddenly almost incapable of thought. We were now in the midst of a shimmering mist, barely perceptible, that cloaked us both in a kind of living vibration.

He watched me, then bent his head, his lips now moving against the taut smoothness of my lower belly again, and then brought himself back up to kiss me. I took his mouth, bit his lip gently even as I felt him smile. And then he moved his hand again, silkily.

 "You said you were not good at patience," he said softly. "Are you still?"

“Oh, hells, hells,” I managed, and he chuckled softly. But something else was happening, too. Something beyond the simple fact of touch or taste… I was sharing what he was doing to me, each touch and taste… and he was feeling it. I found myself in a soft vortex of emotion and sensation unlike anything I had ever imagined.

“You didn’t answer me, love.”

"No. Gods, no," I gasped. "I'm not. I'm not. You know it. Especially not with you."

 "I promised myself even then that I would teach you," he said.

I laughed, raggedly. "You waited long enough."

A pause, while he watched me without blinking. “Then we shall have to explore that further."

“Fine.” Oh, gods. I closed my eyes. “I don’t care either way,” I said, refusing to admit I was panting.

“You cannot lie to me, vhenan,” he said softly. 

And again he played with me, his hands, lips, tongue, and me. Low, lower, lowest, silkily, his fingers cool and adept and teasing against my flushed skin. The sensations continued, not just of touch but of something beyond touch, of the enchantment and intensity that only magic could provide. A brief glimpse of emotions that sent me soaring and then plummeting; a heightening of touch, of joy, of sorrow, of sensation, of exhilaration. Of desire. Of acceptance. And all the while, he watched and waited. Watched my breathing quicken. Watched me shiver at this or that touch; watched me try to hide my depth of feeling from him.

But I couldn't. Because of the bond-piece. Because of that incredible vulnerability of the knowledge that I could not hide any of it from him. That he was feeling it all. His eyes never leaving mine.

And then, tantalizing and slow... not his hand where I wanted him, but his mouth and tongue. Touching, exploring, teasing.

When he paused again, I was blind with wanting, ready to kill him simply for stopping (potential fireballs at the ready). And then he returned to bring his mouth to mine, and I relented, and welcomed it; my taste and his, his touch and mine. Still joined.

And then he reached for me again, his hand going where his mouth had been, all the while never breaking the kiss. Slow, fast, slow again. Slowest. And that was the cruelest, and the best. And I then I was falling to pieces, putty in his hands. So much for dignity.

“Oh,” I said softly, and shuddered against him. “Oh.” A simple sound of wonder and revelation, and he drank it in, his eyes on mine, direct and steady, as if memorizing the moment, and he leaned forward to kiss me, tantalizingly feather-light, as if from a distance. And then more, a little more, then a little less. And then more again. And more. And with full possession. Now it was his turn to bite my lip gently, and I sighed as a gentle wave of darkness seemed to move through me that was both pleasure and oblivion. And then he moaned as well, and relaxed against me, and I felt everything he felt too, and within me bloomed a fierce sense of triumph that I had at least gotten him to show me this much. Now the forest could hear both our breathing in the silence. Both of us lost and breathless.

And then he smiled, and raised himself to look at me. Already, only seconds past oblivion, there was that cool sense of control. I felt a brief and humorous fury that he could hold himself so detached in such instances, then simply tried to catch my breath.

“So," he said, only panting slightly. "I assume you will be patient.” The satisfaction of the victor on the battlefield. I was meanwhile struggling to maintain any semblance of calmness. I leaned forward into him, but he pulled back to continue to watch my face.

“I will,” I said. “For you.”

“Then,” he said. "Let us play."

He bent his head to me again, and I gave in to him entirely then, to him and to the storm inside. The storm that mirrored the sadness and beauty and chaos of the forest around us.

But I could not hear the forest anymore. There was nothing but him. Nothing at all.

Chapter Text

When we returned through the forest, the sky was just beginning to lighten around the edges, greenish-pale in the East.

We were quiet together. It was dark save for the small circle of the green magefire I called forth in the top of my staff, to guide us. I felt calm, sated, somehow clear as glass, as if his spell still lingered upon me and it was not my clothing that was insubstantial now (although that spell had faded) but my body itself. I felt no lingering sense of shame or disquiet—if anything, I felt strangely powerful. He may have mastered me; but in my own way, I had also mastered him. I was content.

As we walked, there was an ease between us that I had never experienced with him before. He touched me frequently—my hand, the small of my back, the back of my neck. Soft, subtle moments of contact, little companionable touches to keep us linked, not separate. Each touch another little brush of magic, a subtle tease, a further communion.

When he reached out again, I took his hand lightly in mine, swinging it between us like a child would do. Around us continued that beautiful tidal rush of the wind in the trees—the one constant sound to this ancient place.

I realized he was humming something to himself, and I laughed, and stopped him.

“What’s that you’re humming?”

He paused, surprised. “I was not aware that I was.”

“You were,” I said, delighted.

He chuckled, then looked at me. “An old song," he said. "But I cannot imagine why I was doing so.”

"The Ballad of Fen'Harel," I smiled. "My mother sang it to me sometimes." I sang, softly:

There was an Elvhen Prince of old
A wand'ring in the Fade
He wore the mantle of the Wolf
And deep in dreams he strayed.

To him the spirits gave their trust
As 'tween the worlds he strode
And even the Forgotten Ones
They'd greet him on his road

He got that slightly wicked look I loved, and sang back, so low it was almost an undertone, under his breath:

Yet wolves can have strange humors
Some, they laugh before they feast
And these won't slay the easy prey
But taunt the strongest beast

I was charmed. He had never sung for me before, and his voice was, predictably, rich and beautiful. “You should have sung for Cole, not me,” I grinned at him.

He did not smile, although his eyes warmed, and he kept on with the song:

One day, the Trickster sprang his trap
And split the waking world
He threw down the Forgotten Ones
And to the Void they hurled

The gods, his friends, he locked away
In prisons in the Fade
And though it left him lonely, still
The wolf would not be swayed

Despite the grim story (which I'd known since the cradle), I answered:

My mother said the Dread Wolf knows
What’s really in your heart
The quickened bow, the sharpened blade
The hidden, prideful part.

We sang the final lines together, in the old way, voices low and teasing, the song’s rhythm in our footsteps, fingers linked:

So if to vengeance, you should turn
Beware the path you take
For in your heart, that pride may burn
As you both sleep and wake

Then he surprised me by continuing on:

Yet still the Prince he walks alone
Few dreams now left to tread
His secret heart now turned to stone
A watchful wolf of dread

His lips curved slightly at my surprise. "You sing it with different words," I said. "I've never heard those before."

"I have heard many songs within the Fade," he said. 

"Is there more?" I asked.

"There is,” he said. “But it becomes sad.” He paused. "Or, rather, more so."

“Then,” I said, teasing. “It doesn’t exist and we won’t sing it.”

I stepped forward on the path, then realized he had stopped, his fingers still holding lightly to mine. I looked back at him. “Vhenan,” he said.

“Yes, ara’lan?”

He came to me quietly, closing the distance again. His eyes on mine, and very green at this moment in the faint magelight. “You are… happy?”

I looked into his eyes, saw there the pain that was never quite far from him. I didn’t smile; it was deeper than that. But he saw what I was feeling. “Yes,” I said. “You gave me a gift.”

He caught his breath, then, watching me, seemed to relax again. Then he nodded, and put his arms around me, sighing, and I breathed him in. He smelled wonderful, like pine needles, wool and leather, like sex and musk with the faintest hint of clean sweat, and just underneath that, of the vestiges of that plain herbal soap that we stocked at Skyhold, bought from the Dalish clan back in the Exalted Plains. His hands, meanwhile, roamed me more slowly and freely than he’d allowed himself before, and I grinned against his neck as the bond-piece went hot.

He turned his head, his lips warm and teasing again at my ear. “Ar isalan na.”

I grinned, enjoying this fleeting sense of power. “Good.”

After a moment, we turned again toward camp, and I could see the warm orange flicker of firelight reflected on canvas ahead of us.

We had reached the eaves of the forest. I was tired, and ready to return, but I couldn't help myself from looking back into the shadows.

“Part of me wishes we could stay,” I said, hesitant.

“I know,” he said.

“There’s certainly bound to be more to learn,” I said. “About the entity.”

He shrugged. “True. But I learned much, and my hope is that after Chaldecy, we'll know enough now to proceed, and to do what we can for those injured or in its path.”

I started to step forward, and this time it was his voice that stopped me. “My love..."

I turned and looked back at him, surprised. "Yes?"

"I must ask you for one other small thing.”

I raised my eyebrows. Of course. The barriers were going back up. “How small?”

“What… what happened here… it must stay… out here. We—it cannot occur at Skyhold.”

I sighed. “Why, Solas?”

“Will you accept this if I cannot tell you why? No matter how unfair that is… yet again?” he asked.

I shook my head, but it was not a denial, and I knew he saw it. “This is something you need from me,” I said. “Another boundary.”

“If you like.”

“Then I will accept,” I said.

Ma serannas,” he said.

"It is a little thing," I answered, trying to joke... but my voice wasn't quite light enough.

He watched me in the magelight, then sighed, and touched my cheek. He smiled, but there was sadness in it, too.

“What?” I asked.

“You are too good to me,” he said softly. I laughed, and he bent in and kissed me then, roughly and thoroughly, and for a moment I was back in the ashes with him.

We drew apart, and I glanced one last time at the path behind us. "So much for Arlathan."

When I looked back to him, his eyes were on mine, waiting for me, steady and very dark. “Arlathan is ours, my love,” he said, and his voice was soft, and low, and fierce. “And I will not forget.”

Chapter Text

The world had intruded again, but the heedless joy of my time with Solas was still with me, and I held onto it as tightly as I could.

We were silent as we reentered the camp, with Solas quietly turning toward Varric’s tent, then turning back and brushing his lips in a brief final caress behind my ear. I smiled, and he lifted an eyebrow with the wickedness I loved, then I turned and made my way across to Cassandra’s tent. I felt light, weightless—happier than I could remember being in a year or more. When I looked back, compelled in spite of myself, Solas was just turning away, as if he, too, had looked back at me, and I smiled inwardly.

Then the soldier on watch met my eyes, and the hastily smothered smile and quick spark of humor there made me think I’d better get into my tent as fast as possible, to try to fix whatever I looked like. If the gods were kind, Cassandra would still be sleeping.

Alas, the gods were not kind.

Not only was Cassandra not sleeping, but she was seated on her cot, facing the entrance to the tent, reading, her small candle-lamp burning beside her.

When she saw me, her jaw actually dropped, and a look of exasperation as well as definite humor crossed her face.

“Maker’s breath,” she said, shaking her head.

“What?” I asked, figuring I might try to brazen it out. “I went for a walk.”

She laughed. “You obviously have not seen yourself, my lady.”

I glanced down, realizing my hair was still loose and was now a heavy, tangled mess that contained more than a few ashes, as well as grass and leaf fragments, whatever Solas had said. My clothing was dotted with grey-black streaks of ash, and, oh gods, my tunic was unbuttoned a good deal lower than I usually allowed it. Evidently, Solas had gone roaming a bit farther than I'd realized before his spell had manifested.

Fenedhis,” I muttered, then tried to dust myself off hastily. When I turned around to grab the brush beside my cot to address the usual catastrophe of my hair, however, a gasp and a snort behind me made me turn back to face Cassandra, who was shaking her head.

I made a face at her. “What?

“My lady," she said delicately. "You have a – a love bite on your neck, and there are grass stains all over your back.” She paused briefly, but I could sense the impending laugh. “I would suggest that you change before you exit the tent again.”

I dropped gratefully onto the cot, then discovered I didn’t really feel embarrassed about it. “Oh... well,” I said, laughing.

“Evidently," she said, her voice dry with humor, and her dark eyes very warm, "it was quite a walk."

I met her eyes and grinned, stretching. I was feeling loose and relaxed, and suddenly very, very pleased with myself. “It was.”

“Where did you go?”

I hesitated. “Into the forest."

Up went the arch of that perfect black eyebrow against the pale skin. “How far?” she asked.

“Pretty far,” I said. My voice was as innocent as I could make it, and she glared at me.

“Weren't you... cold?”

I smiled even wider. “No. It was warm where we were.”

Really, my lady?”

I struggled to keep my expression sober. “Eventually.”

"Even after the rain?"

"The rain was light," I said. "It didn't seem to penetrate the forest, at least not hours later."

"And you were... warm," she commented again.

I laughed in spite of myself. "Yes."

I could see that she was beginning to feel discouraged, but her hopeful nature would not let her quit. "Would you even say..." she said, her face brightening, "that you were... hot?"

I shrugged, trying to look mysterious. "Maybe."

We looked at each other, me expressionless for a full three seconds. And then I broke down, and then frankly fell over sideways on the cot, laughing. I was a Dalish disgrace. But I'd always known that.

"Maker preserve us," she snapped, throwing her pillow at me as I struggled to regain my breath. "How terrible you are. And I must say, I never knew you had this shameless capacity for cruelty."

"Sorry, Cass, but your face..." I gasped. She watched this display then shook her head, chuckling a little herself as I sobered and sat back up. “I do not suppose you wish to tell me more?” she asked, still watching me with an expectant expression. She didn't sound terribly secure that I would answer positively.

I didn't. I shrugged.

Ugh. You are no fun at all,” she said.

I grinned at her, then relented. "Look. I’m not giving you details, if that’s what you’re asking for.”

She flushed, the red dusting her high cheekbones intensely for a moment, then fading back to ivory. Almost immediately, she was cool and proper again, the camaraderie gone. "I see," she said. "I had not looked upon it as a private matter. Forgive me, my lady."

Oh, gods below. I shook my head to forestall that forbidding coolness. "It's just..."

"Never mind, Inquisitor," she said.

But she looked so sad (I wondered if she knew) that I gave in. "All right," I said, "All right. I'll tell you, and only you." Then I shrugged and shook my head. “Look... we… took a moment, that’s all. It just happened.”

What happened?” she asked. I was pleased to see the open curiosity was back.

"I went into the forest," I said. "And when I arrived at a clearing, I found Solas there, investigating the origins of the entity. And..."

"And?"

I smiled. "And then he found me."

She caught her breath. "And?"

"And then we found each other."

"Go on..."

This time, her expression was hopeful enough that I laughed again, a little shy. “Fine," I admitted. "And it was wonderful. Love and sex and magic and the wind roaring through the trees like a storm around us.”

She sighed, her eyes fixed dreamily into the middle distance. Then they sharpened and found mine again.

"I take it that this does not happen often, this... sex, and magic, and storm, of yours... for instance, at Skyhold?"

"He..." I hesitated, watching her face. Then I saw beyond the curiosity to the real friendship and compassion there. Impulsively, I decided to confide in her, at least a little.

"Solas can be—he can be difficult to reach," I said. "He's passionate and caring, but not—not given to closeness. He's cautious that way."

"This does not surprise me," she said quietly. "He seems... a private man."

I thought about it. "Yes."

"Even, perhaps... cold?" she asked. I could tell the question embarrassed her.

But I met her eyes readily. "No," I said in a quiet voice. "I know it seems that way. But he's the opposite, if anything."

"Truly?" she asked.

"Yes," I said. "The coldness is simply for protection, I think. It's—it's a mask. Like his distance."

"And yet—my friend, you yourself do not have this hesitation?"

I was genuinely surprised. "Of course not. The world's full of death and fire and demons. If we can take a night together, why shouldn't we?"

She paused again. "I simply wondered, after your—experiences with the Templars..."

"Oh." I was touched at her sympathy, and her delicacy. "Yes, I have my nightmares," I said. "But... for me, at least... no. It was not that kind of hurt. I am—able to seek closeness. With men I trust."

"I am glad of it," she said simply.

I smiled at her. "Ma serannas."

She sighed. "And yet... perhaps he himself hesitates because of his own experiences as an apostate," she said.

I thought of his hints and mysteries, and had to agree. "Maybe. There are still things he won't reveal to me, or admit. He's... very guarded."

"And for good reason. After all," she said. "It was not so very long ago, my lady, that I would have considered it my sacred duty to drag you both back to the nearest Circle."

I narrowed my eyes and a few sparks sizzled on the canvas at my feet. "It would've been fun to see you try," I gritted.

She only chuckled, relenting, and I realized she'd been teasing. "Those were different times," she said. "Although I am sure you would have put up a fine battle, my friend."

I tried to glare at her again, but simply found myself amused. "Besides," I said. "Solas might surprise you. He's the best mage I've ever seen."

"And you do not think you might be biased in this opinion?" she asked.

"No," I said. "His powers are extraordinary."

Her eyes sparkled. "His... powers?"

I felt my temperature rise, and she chuckled. I suddenly found the dirty canvas floor of the tent highly interesting. And yes, there were the sparks. Again. "Maybe," I said.

"Oof. You cannot leave it there, surely," she said. "Have mercy!"

"Fine." I grinned sheepishly. "When I'm with him... even if I were not magic, Cass, I swear I'd still... feel sparks. Fire."

"You are saying this honestly?"

"I am being honest. In fact—look..." I felt myself grow warm again. "I... may have singed a few trees nearby. At certain points." 

She looked delighted. "Really."

"Really," I said. “And that’s all I’m saying.”

She sighed, happily. “I am grateful that you spoke of it at all.” She chuckled. "I thank you for sharing with me, my friend. I will not break your confidence."

I smiled back. "Thank you for listening."

She grinned, then waved me away with an imperious hand. “Now go. Please clean yourself up, my lady. You look far too satisfied for someone awakening alone in this gloomy place, with a dead village ahead of us.”

I glanced at the line of our tent and saw, panicked, the fading darkness there. So, as hastily as I could, I threw off my half-demolished tunic, threw on a clean one, then grabbed a rough cotton swatch for a towel, and kissed the top of Cassandra’s head (prompting another classic oof noise). I then half-ran, half-scrambled over to the nearby creek for a hasty, freezing-cold washing up, triumphantly sneaking back into my tent before there was much more movement around camp. The soldiers saw me but that ship had already sailed.

Meanwhile, by the time I emerged from my tent the next time, I had washed, changed, and rebraided my hair into its usual workmanlike plait, and felt that I was back on familiar ground, and ready to face the day’s march.

I was pleased that when I sedately entered the campsite, I was calm, freshly outfitted (and buttoned all the way up), and felt both disguised and prepared for the day’s travels. Varric was sipping something hot from a mug, as Bull and Sera sat near him, Bull donning his harness while Sera laced up her boots. The soldiers were redistributing the blades Bull had tested the night before, chatting idly.

As I plunked down on my log-piece, grateful for the mug of tea the guard handed me, the atmosphere was silent. The usual pre-battle quiet. Then Varric looked over at me, glanced back again swiftly, then gave me his trademark handsome crooked grin.

“Well, hello Sparks,” he said. “Looks like someone had a good night.”

I looked up, surprised. “What? I got some sleep.”

“If you say so,” he grinned, and raised a mug to me.

Oh, dear. Dread Wolf take me.

"It's a beautiful day," I said, narrowing my eyes. "I'm allowed to be cheerful."

"It's miserable, cloudy, and we're marching to a dead village," he said.

"But other than that," I said weakly. "Things are looking up?"

I saw Bull glance over at me, that hazel eye very grey today, and in one quick, summing glance, he looked both entirely aware and amused, and before I could catch myself, I had glanced down, checking for signs that might have betrayed me. When I looked back up, he was grinning, and I made a face then ignored him. Although I was grateful that he, at least, said nothing.

Solas, meanwhile, emerged from Varric’s tent looking completely composed and calm, as he always did.

Still, as he came over to the fire, Sera looked from Solas to me, then wrinkled her nose. “Ugh. What is wrong with you people? Bangin’ bits when the world’s ending?”

I had been wrong earlier. Evidently I still did, in fact, remember how to blush.

 

Chapter Text

We marched to Chaldecy soon after sunrise, following the scorched path of the entity, a massive something whose fury I could not imagine measuring. Every once in awhile, there’d be another echo like smoke and electricity in the air, like a lightning strike gone weeks old. But it wasn’t smoke that subdued our spirits, it was malice. You could taste it. Even the streams we passed were bitter with it.

We arrived at Chaldecy in mid-afternoon. The day had been cool and pleasant – a little warmer than the day before, and with little to accost us. We’d encountered no people and few animals, and only one rift, easily closed and with its demons easily dispatched.

At the rift, I had welcomed the chance to release the energy from my mark in the fight. Due to the interlude the night before with Solas, I had forgotten to release the Mark’s energy. So this was the first time I had yet felt any kind of pent-up energy and pressure from the Mark, and it was also the first time that feeling had become actively unpleasant. As if the green flame needed somewhere to go, so it sought me out inside, hungry and feeding. I was careful afterward to release the energy more frequently using the bond-piece so that I would not encounter such feelings again. And yet I also felt, briefly… a sense of searching. Of hunger. Of something seeking me out as surely as if I were the target of a compass needle.

And then we came to Chaldecy.

Or what had once been Chaldecy, weeks before.

I’d expected desolation, but even the clearing in the forest the night before had not quite prepared me for the devastation we faced here.

For one thing, the village was gone. Just gone, and in its place was yet another burned place, one identical to the clearing I had seen in the forest. Yet this one was, if possible, even greater in size, ashes ankle-high and still floating, gently, on the breeze when stirred.

The burned place encompassed everywhere the village had once stood, and while the ground was blackened in the wake of the entity’s wrath, we could still see lighter places in the ashes – squares and circles and rectangles – where homes and buildings had once stood. Perhaps most disturbingly, even from outside the clearing, we could see that little things had survived the ravages here and there – a carved toy that looked like it was made of dragonbone, a dented goblet, perhaps silver, not far from it. Farther down what had once been the main street of the village, I could see a piece of what looked like twisted iron, perhaps from a wagon wheel or joining. Only a few steps away from us, I noticed the shine of something else in the ash, and realized with a twist of pain that it was a piece of buckler, the Inquisition mark plain to be seen even from here. At one point, at the edge of the burned perimeter, I realize I was looking at a gauntlet… no… a hand. I looked away and felt sick.

And yet, terribly, outside of the village proper, the land was untouched. Neatly ordered fields stretched  out in fenced squares, waiting for Spring, tended by sad-faced Crownaughts with painted canvas faces and hands. There were even a few animals, here and there –a  few sheep and cows, and two horses.

Solas looked at the desolation, then shook his head at me, and looked at Cassandra. “Keep everyone away,” he commanded. “Everyone.” She nodded. He fixed his eyes back on the burned ground intently, then he walked its borders for several hundred steps, slowly and thoughtfully, his right hand out from his side as if reading echoes from the ground, palm flat as the blue fire released, then returned.

When he came back to us, his face was grave. “I would not step on the burned ground itself,” he said at last. “At best it will be unpleasant, and at worst it may still be actively harmful. It almost feels as if there is a kind of poison here, something heavy and still dangerous.”

When he met my eyes, he shook his head, and I glanced at the bond-piece in spite of myself. “Can you feel anything?” I asked.

“Almost,” he said. He held out his hand again, sure and firm, waiting the spell. But waiting only. I watched, and was tempted to flip the catch on my bond-piece. To listen, even for a moment or two. “Should I?” I asked.

Bull and Cass came over to us, watching Solas for his response.

“We cannot hear anything for certain,” admitted Solas. “But there are echoes here that I do not like.”

I looked at them, then back at Solas, who nodded reluctantly.

“So I should try,” I said.

“I wish I knew the right answer,” said Solas, slowly.

“Perhaps just for a few seconds,” said Cass.

“Right,” said Bull. “Let’s face it, the odds are that whatever happened here is long gone.”

I carefully flipped the catch on my bond-piece, and held my hand out over the burned ground beside us. I closed my eyes, listening, and just for a moment, I felt it – something huge, something that snagged my magic, caught like a piece of silk against a jagged edge. After about six or seven seconds, too scared to sustain it longer, I flipped the catch back, shaking my head.

“Nothing?” asked Cass.

I shrugged. “I felt something… something… but I don’t know what it was.”

Cass and Bull stepped away again, Cass motioning to some of the soldiers. Meanwhile, Solas and I were careful to avoid the burned area entirely. I noticed that Sera looked pale and shaky again, and went over to her. “Sera.”

She looked up at me sharply, then with a subtle gratitude in her eyes when she saw I wasn't going to mock or tease her. She managed a shaky grin. “It’s bad here,” she said. “Bad like before.”

Solas came over to us. “Sera,” he said. “More than any of us here, you should take care. Stay away from the ashes. Stay as far back as you can.”

“Don’t need to tell me twice,” she muttered, and ran off to where the Inquisition soldiers were consulting with Cassandra, their eyes returning distrustfully and repeatedly to those acres of blackness.

As we reached the outskirts of the village’s southernmost corner, Solas raised his staff skyward, and as we’d previously agreed, sent up sparks high above us, like blue flames that flapped slowly in a circle over the village, like spectral crows. A soldier had already released a raven earlier, so between the two signals, Krem and the Chargers should be here soon.

While we waited, we investigated what we could around the outlying fields and clean spaces surrounding Chaldecy, and Cass sent two of the soldiers off to bring back the horse and sheep we’d seen. It was good to distract them--they'd lost friends here, companions. Better to keep them busy than staring at death.

I walked a few feet from the edge of the burned space, fascinated in spite of myself. Was it like what I had witnessed in the clearing? Had that been why I had fainted—some echo of magic or poison?

I turned around at the sound of voices, and realized that Krem and the Chargers had arrived, and were talking quietly with Bull. I ran up, wanting to give Krem a hug, then realized from their sober expressions that now was probably not the best time for that. And it probably wasn’t leaderlike of me to do that anyway.

“Welcome back, Krem,” I said, and his brown eyes met mine, and he smiled, the worried expression never leaving his face, even with the smile.

“Hello, Inquisitor,” he said. “Bit of a somber place to meet. I wish we had better news.”

I knew what the look on his face meant, and my heart plummeted. “No sign of the villagers? Or of our troops?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Far as I can tell,” he said, “They all died, and instantly, when whatever that thing is surfaced.”

“Nobody survived?” I asked slowly. “Nobody?”

“Well,” said Krem. “Grim found a dog, not far from what must have been its house.” I looked over to see a sad-faced, big-boned mabari shivering next to Grim and whimpering softly despite his best efforts to calm it. I looked more closely and realized there had been another rescue after all beyond the dog – Dalish was holding something in her arms.

“Wait,” I said. “A child?” Almost desperate for good news, I started to go over to it, and Krem stopped me.

“Inquisitor,” he said. “Not yet. We need to talk about what we found.”

“A rescued child is something,” I said. “We might even find the family.”

“I’m not so sure we rescued this child,” said Krem. “Not completely.”

I looked at him, puzzled. “What do you mean?”

Bull shook his head, then nodded at Dalish. “Bring her over,” he said quietly.

Dalish came over to join us, her flaxen hair tousled as if it reflected her inner self. The child, who appeared to be about three years old, was curiously calm in her arms. It was a pretty thing, with a curling cap of black hair, beautiful brown skin, and light green eyes. Rift-eyes.

Bull ruffled the toddler’s hair, and it looked up at him curiously. “Baba,” said the child, looking at each of us with that curious calm. “Baba.”

I remembered Faellin, remembered the children of my village, and realized what she was saying. “She’s hungry,” I said. “I think.”

“We’ve fed her, never fear,” said Krem. “It’s the rest of it we don’t know how to handle.”

“What rest of it?” I asked. There was something here I wasn’t getting.

The little thing looked at me, and again, it was as if she could see through me and past me. No emotion. No whimpering for food or Mother or toys. I shivered before that pretty blank, round little face, and even before Krem spoke, I knew what he would say.

“My lady, this child is Tranquil.”

I pulled my hand back, horrified. Then touched the child. Soft hair, and that satin baby’s skin. And yet I was no comfort.  I looked back at Krem.

“You’re sure?”

“Dalish is sure,” he said quietly.  “And that’s not all. There are two other villages you need to be aware of—Seleny is confirmed gone,” he said. “And we fear Waelburg, slightly to the North, was also affected.”

“Are they burned up too?” I asked.

“Not exactly,” said Krem. “Not Waelburg, at least. Evidently the entity wasn’t close enough for that.”

“Then did it kill the villagers?” I asked.

In the corner of my eye, I saw Solas go still and cold.

 “No,” he said. I saw his eyes go to Bull, then back to mine.

Bull shook his head. It was like he already knew. Beyond him, I could see Sera. Who was watching the little girl and crying. Openly. Holding onto a wineskin. And weeping as if her heart would break.

Sera had known.

“Then what?” I asked, dreading the answer.

“It made them Tranquil,” he said. “Every last man, woman, and child.”

 I started to reply, but then there was another tremor in the earth beneath us. And then the demons came.

Chapter Text

It was astonishing how quickly everything changed.

One moment, silence.

 Just us, and the chill yet quiet aftermath of loss around the burned village. As if we had all the time in the world to mourn the Tranquil child… and the loss of the village, and our friends.

Then, apocalypse, fire, terror.

Demons, demons everywhere. The air heated, instantly and terrifyingly, the way it did when I closed  a big rift – suddenly, get enough Rage or Pride Demons in a certain proximity, and the air seems to boil, you’re pouring sweat, and you feel like you’re moving in slow motion. It’s even weirder with Despair demons in the mix, because you get these blasts of freezing-cold desolation; ice-cold sadness.

There were so many demons, in fact, that I couldn’t seem to make my brain work. I was caught in momentary worry and guilt – had I done this? Called them somehow by freeing the Mark? I was reacting by sheer instinct, feeling stupid and slow, casting physically and automatically, simply throwing a whirl of freezing or dispelling enchantments here, a stream of fireballs there, trying desperately to keep a clear circle around my companions and myself. The air smelled burnt, and tasted like iron, in that strange way it seemed to do when demons attacked.

I spun, casting Barriers around us as swiftly as possible, feeling that connection instantaneously with the Fade, the inrush of power and force. Even as I cast, I saw Solas effortlessly whirling his staff for an even wider and more powerful Barriers cast as demons churned from the ground beneath us, and most especially from the burned earth in unbelievable numbers. At the same time, even as I watched, Krem took the toddler from Dalish, and brought her back behind three or four Inquisition soldiers, the skinny mabari following silently.

I was still casting spells, especially a succession of Barriers, Dispell and Mind Blast, as best I could, everywhere the demons were and my companions weren’t. As I looked over, I saw Sera stagger slightly, the tears still running down her cheeks, but her expression was cold, professional, intent as she gracefully flipped her bow from her back and into her hands. Instantly, the arrows flew. On the other side of the clearing, I heard the familiar and oddly comforting thwok thwok thwok of Varric’s crossbow as he mowed down demons with Bianca, his arms pulling, loading, pulling, tirelessly, as if he could fight until the end of the world.

Even as I centered myself again, I saw Cassandra, who had positioned herself quietly before me, sword and shield a blur, and I felt both touched and terrified, as I always did when a companion put their bodies between me and danger. Not far away I could hear the snarling of the mabari and the shouts of the soldiers, and risking a glance back, my heart lurched as I saw the dog hurling itself at any demons who approached the child. I saw Krem move forward, shield upraised, and watched as the dog seemed to understand him in a moment, moving fluidly back directly beside him, and before the child, who showed no sign of fear, only that terrible, bored blankness. I threw a mad cast of Barriers at them, then faced back toward the main attack.

Demons, demons, demons, demons. Fucking demons. Shouting from my companions, me whirling my staff, each move heavier, each twist of my body slightly more tired, my own breath panting and loud in my ears. A Rage Demon reared before me, massive and burning like lava, head bowed in a terrible mockery of a cowled figure, claws outstretched, and I obliterated it with a satisfying cast of ice then Stonefist, but even as it crumbled, two more seemed to appear from nowhere, almost beneath my own feet, and I stumbled backward, casting Barriers reflexively as I did so.

I felt an arm pull me back, and realized Solas was with me. I caught my breath, and he met my eyes with an impersonal, blade-sharp smile—as if the battle was merely the antidote to the grief of the vanished village.

“Stay back,” he said briefly. No hint of the lover, just the companion, and I welcomed it. “I’ll pull back,” I said, and spun away from him to the perimeter, where I could continue to slow the demon onslaught.

The break allowed me the chance to look more closely at the ashes before us. I looked around and realized the pitch-black ground was still churning.

“Solas!” I cried. “They’re coming from below!”

He cast a massive Barriers again, and the movement from the burnt ground slowed, but I was still appalled at the churn and numbers… I looked harder, then realized something in my left palm was itching. Itching, stinging… that elusive sense of connection I’d almost caught before… like…

And then I sensed it.

This was an attack by the entity. And… still… there was something… familiar…

And then I knew. A thread of the Fade, a connection, a feeling like lightning, a shock. A physical shock.

A rift.

Ignoring the mayhem around me (and which I knew or hoped my companions could handle), I ran forward to the edge of the burnt clearing and held out my hand, flipping the catch on my bond-piece, instantly opening myself to the power of the Mark. Unleashed, it beamed out from me in a thrum of green magic, piercing and fierce, and I sighed as I felt myself connect to the rift beneath the ashes. As always, I felt an almost shameful pleasure in this moment, when I could empty the power of the Mark into a rift, pouring my magic into an abyss that would eventually explode. This was what I was here to do.

I held out my left palm, trembling, ignoring nearby demons and trusting my companions. As always, there was a curious vulnerability in it; in ignoring the combat, ignoring the mayhem, so that I could do what was most useful. Close the rift and end the demons.

Even as I continued, I saw Sera’s arrow hit a Rage demon before me. Another reared up and swiped fiery claws, catching me with a glancing blow on my left arm and I staggered back, crawling in the ashes, then I cast Barriers and within that blessed, cool quiet, I held out my hand again doggedly. More distant barks from the mabari. A calm, clipped command from Bull that cut through the chaos more effectively than a raised voice. More connection, and I felt the rift continue to shrink. It was massive though, bigger than any I had yet encountered since the Breach itself. And so, so far down. So far down.

Oh, gods, gods, gods. Gods below.

Something hit me on the back of the head; it felt like a glancing blow from a mailed fist. I staggered forward but ignored it, hand outward, magic pouring. It was working. I felt the near-boiling presence of another demon, and gasped, but continued stubbornly. Someone kept hitting me little, irritating blows from behind, and I shrugged forward, irritated, even as it threw me before the ever-new mass of demons. Then I heard the high sweet singing of a sword and shook my head, looking up to see Bull, who met my eyes even as he smoothly shoved back the Inquisition soldier whose backswing had hit me. He raised his eyebrows in a question, and I realized he saw my injuries, and me with my hands in the ashes, but I nodded back, and he nodded, trusting me, and showing nothing but a distant professional acknowledgement in his expression even as he stepped back and clove another demon, this one a Despair Demon, in two.

I looked forward again at the new wall of Rage Demons and, irritated, threw a few fireballs (just out of sheer anger and frustration), then forced myself to stop. I wanted to fight. I wanted to throw fire and devastation. I wanted to kill those who wanted to kill me and those I loved. And then I gave myself a breath. A full breath. And talked firmly to myself.

Stop. Stop.

Stop, Ellie. Stop.

Connect.

I breathed.

And then connected again with that mysterious rift magic… with that green star so far beneath the surface of the blackened earth.

A new demon swept fierce claws across my face, and I felt the blood flow even as I pulled back. A Pride demon. As if we didn't have trouble enough. Disoriented and retching from the pain, I ignored it, even as I heard the sing of Bull’s sword to hack at it, even as Cassandra dove in against it below. Around me was the silence of Barriers, and I realized Solas must have cast it for me.

Silence and space. Slowness and spells.

Just me, just me and the rift now. Nothing mattered now, not the blood on my face, the pain in my cheek and arm. Just me and the rift.

“Come to me,” I whispered, and held out my hand.

Connection. An escalating thrum and pulse of green power. High, higher, highest. A magical rope connecting me to the other side…

And then, suddenly, I found myself reeling in a blast of pitch darkness, just when I was ready to close it. A blackness deeper than any night I’d ever encountered. Of hate, unexpected and personal. A moment of annihilation. Like falling into the Fade.

YOU.

The rage and recognition terrified me. That voice. I knew it. I’d heard it in my nightmares. And I knew that it knew them all, every one. It had already seen me, judged me, read me like a book. And it could crush me like an ant. I fought against the pull of the Fade, against darkness or unconscious nightmare. I would not allow them.

The voice spoke again: YOU.

No, I thought. Not me!

I remembered Cole, crawling in terror beneath a creature that could stop the heartbeat of the world. I did not want this thing's eye on me.

All I wanted was to run.

And then it laughed—a laugh that was a physical attack, like being cut by a thousand shards of black ice.

But I answered anyway: “Yes,” I said. “It’s me.”

And waited for the echo, heart pounding in a whirlwind of flame and chaos.

Chapter Text

The entity's laughter hurt.

Everything hurt. I was still caught in a between-space, between Void-dark and brightness, between nightmare and the dying glow of those green rift-flames.

I was falling through nothingness and I stretched, terrified, afraid as always that I’d somehow become lost in the Fade. My greatest secret fear—greater even than Templars, somehow...

It felt as if I’d fallen into a pit, through the burnt earth and into darkness. I stretched out my left hand, panicked, seeking with the Mark, stretching to connect again with that elusive snap that felt like home, that would save me. I wanted to close this connection, to stop the chaos. I found the connection and felt my free-fall stop as sharply as if I'd hit ground. My teeth clicked together as I hit the end of my fall, then bounced back up slightly. My connection to the rift had tethered me, as if by a slender green rope. I began to struggle back up, to follow that green flame back up to the surface. 

Forget this. Give me demons. All the demons.

But everything else was still dark.

The voice spoke again.

"YOU."

"Yes... it's me,” I admitted, as if to something guilty. "Yes."

Then I tried to rally. This was something that spoke; it was alive and thinking. So I strove for some kind of connection. This was a rational being. I tried again. “Why are you doing this? PLEASE STOP. You’re hurting people. Killing people. And worse.”

The voice again: "SUCH A WEAK LITTLE LITTLE SPIDER. UNWILLING TO PAY THE CONSEQUENCES. BUT I SEE YOU."

I recoiled.

"I am no spider."

More black-ice laughter.

"YOU BEAR A POTENT STINGER, LITTLE MORTAL..."

I flailed, confused. "The Mark?

More laughter like bitter ice.

"A STOLEN TOUCH, NO DOUBT..."

"I stole nothing."

"YOU STOLE DIVINE POWER. IT IS SELF-EVIDENT IN THE MARK YOU BEAR."

I flared, angry. "I stole nothing!"

Low chuckle in the ether. "YOU BEAR THE TOUCH OF AN ORB, LITTLE INSECT."

"Me?" Then I remembered those earlier discussions with Solas. Oh, right. An Orb. The orb. "I don't have it," I gasped.

"IT MATTERS NOT," laughed the presence. "YOU STILL USE IT TO DOUSE THE DIVINE FLAME. TO EXTINGUISH WHAT SHOULD LIVE."

"It was an accident," I cried.

The presence was merciless. "YOU ARE STILL TO BLAME."

I tried again. "Then don't blame them. Don't hurt them. Punish me if you have to."

More laughter.

"VERY WELL." More frozen knives, and the pain was so acute I felt myself writhing in the whirlwind. "AS YOU DESIRE."

I felt myself collapsing, crumpling in upon myself, flailing at the end of the tenuous thread still holding me in the physical world. Perhaps I was, in fact, a little creature to be crushed. I felt like I was being crushed now. I could not even grasp for words; all the world was a red glow against my closed eyes. Just pain and more pain.

And then it ended.

"A TASTE, ONLY," it said. "BUT YOUR TIME WILL COME, LITTLE SPIDER."

"But why?" I gasped.

A pause.

"YOU WILL KNOW. AND THEN BURN IN THE FLAMES OF MY VENGEANCE."

I reached, terrified, confused, and as grasping as a child: "Why? At least tell me that!"

"THEN YOU WOULD REFUSE ME?

Terrified, an ant in the hurricane, I sent back, feebly, "I refuse you nothing. Except the deaths of blameless innocents."

"YOU WOULD DENY ME MY SACRIFICES?"

"Yes. I would. I do."

"THEN YOU DO DENY ME. AND YOU ARE MY ENEMY."

"I am not your enemy! I simply want to understand!"

And then another blast of frozen hatred.

"SUCH ARROGANCE, LITTLE ONE. WHEN YOU SHOULD WORSHIP ME."

"I cannot worship what I cannot name," I managed. "Tell me who you are."

"WHY SHOULD I SPEAK, DA’LEN? WHEN I SHOULD ALREADY FEEL YOUR PRAYERS?"

A curious blast of hate, cold, vengeance... and (utterly surprising me) a kind of warm yearning…

The yearning deepened, and I felt the emotion fill me. And then I realized it for what it was... love. Regret.

I felt an odd peripheral sadness, almost grief.

"Hahren, ir abelas."

A hesitation in darkness. I felt it pause.

"Ir abelas," I managed again. "Please. Ir nulam."

I strove onward.

"Please. End your attacks. I will listen." I hesitated, then impulsively spoke again. "You do not have to be alone."

The rush of grief intensified. So intense I could not do anything more than let it wash over me for several seconds. I was caught within it, reeling and terrified and confused.

"I WILL ALLOW YOU A SACRIFICE."

I recoiled, instantly. "I will sacrifice no one."

"YOU WILL," said the presence. "OR ALL OF THEDAS WILL PAY THE PRICE."

"I will not."

"YOU WILL GIVE ME THE WOLF YOU WILL YOU WILL YOU WILL YOU—"

The thing’s words were running together now, a gabbling nonsensical torrent of hatred and denial that was growing louder and louder within my head. Desperate to drown out that overwhelming sense of rage and hate, I raised my left hand yet again, Mark outward, simply wanting to end that voice and its terrifying poison in my mind.

A hush, a thrum, the welcome familiarity of magic. Then the culmination, even above its shriek of rage.

"NOT YET NOT YET NOT YET NOT YE—"

Even as I drew breath to respond, I felt myself tumbling upward again through the darkness, and then I was back in the light, and the ashes, and the scorched earth.

A gorgeous, freeing and beautiful blast of light and closure. Almost a click. Something that definitive.

And… done.

And then I, too, was mortal again, and tired, and quiet. I fell back against the earth and ashes in the chilly air, spinning, exhausted and exhilarated and, well, grateful for the silence.

"I WILL BE WATCHING," came the voice, as if from afar. Calm again, but with that undercurrent of poison. "I WILL AWAIT MY SACRIFI—"

"No more," I cried inwardly, and flipped the clasp back down on my bond-piece even as I tumbled to earth.

But nothing answered. The voice was gone. And so were the demons. Although I could feel that the victory must have occurred only seconds ago; the air was still just below boiling.

But I was safe. We were safe.

Silence. No sound, now, but the still-gasping breaths of my companions, the faint whines of the mabari, slightly distant from the sound.

I rolled, then ended flat on my back, bruised and bloody, and staring up at a grim cloudy sky. But the connection was severed, the rift was gone, the demons were ended. I heard my indrawn breaths, harsh against the silence, even as I heard the rough karrack, brief and crisp against the air, of a hawk overhead, gliding motionless, wings outstretched. Its deep eyes met mine, and then it was gone.

I drew another shaky breath, and realized Solas was already beside me, a knee in the earth, his hand on my face.

"Vhenan," he said.

"Oh, gods, I'm back in the ashes again," I said, weakly, trying to joke. And then I cried. 

Chapter Text

After we had defeated the demons on the scorched earth of Chaldecy, we marched South for a few more miles—a ragged, stumbling march that we hoped would allow us to avoid any additional or random attacks by the entity. Then we halted, collapsed, and held a sort of emergency war council, both to analyze what had happened, and for me to share the few terrifying moments of communication I’d encountered.

I had recovered from my encounter with the entity, more or less, and had managed to pull together both my dignity and my courage. Now we were sprawled in a slight clearing for a hasty council on the other side of a low hill from the main camp. Some of us were seated on camp chairs or packs, and others, like Bull, perched on barrels or even on the rocky ground itself. We were all of us exhausted and bruised, convening slightly away from the soldiers and Chargers, where Krem was helping Stitches to oversee medical treatment for the wounded, and Grim, Rocky and Skinner were giving out food and drink for all while we paused.

Cassandra dropped down next to me, limping slightly. My cheek still hurt from the demon’s claws, as did my left shoulder, and I ran my fingers over the wounds from temple to cheekbone, still fiery ridges even after healing. I felt a little ashamed to wonder at this moment how bad the wound might be. Cass glanced over, and gave me a slight smile, and I saw that she understood what I was doing.

“It is not a permanent wound, my lady,” she said quietly. “Just a few cuts, already fading with the magic Solas used. I do not think it will scar much, if at all.”

“Thanks,” I said, both embarrassed and grateful. “I should have better things to worry about.”

She touched her own face with her fingers, that distinctive scar above her jawline, then grinned ruefully. “Well,” she said. “Still, I understand the concern.”

"Forget my scratches," I said. "Is your leg all right?"

She shrugged. "It is nothing. I twisted an ankle a bit when defeating that Pride demon. The injury is slight."

"I'm glad."

She hesitated, then spoke again. “So it is true, my lady?” she asked. “That the entity spoke to you?”

“Yes,” I said. I glanced reflexively down at my bond-piece, half afraid the voice would come back.

Across from me, Bull had situated himself on a barrel near a rocky outcropping, a mug of ale beside him, while Sera had remained standing, pacing back and forth behind Bull. Solas stood a few steps away from Cassandra and me, still and quiet, deep in thought. Varric was seated on a duffel, fiddling with the tension on Bianca’s draw, and he sighed as he looked at me.

“So what did it say?” asked Varric. “This voice.”

“It’s angry—enraged, really,” I said. “And it’s powerful. It asked for worship. It seemed to know me, to know about the Mark.”

I hesitated slightly, and Solas looked at me.

“And what?” he asked.

“And… it's wounded.” I said slowly. “It seemed—I think it is angry because it has been hurt, somehow.”

“Hurt,” he mused.                                        

I shrugged. “Or so it implied. It felt… personal, to me.”

“And its powers appear to be growing,” said Solas. “It can attack from the Fade, as we saw with our nightmares and now with the Tranquil child, and it can destroy whole villages upon the earth itself, as here. From what we have seen in Chaldecy, it may even be able to create and manipulate rifts, allowing for massive demonic attacks as well.”

“So we need to rethink our defenses at Skyhold,” I said, and my heart sank.

“And offenses,” added Bull.

“And what we must do to protect ourselves and these people in the meantime,” said Cass.

“But how?” I asked.  “That little girl…”

Solas’s quiet voice cut through my emotion to the calm center of the question. “There is hope for her. We can offer care and the potential for a cure.” He met my eyes with that usual cool, level gaze. Coals banked, no heat for now, just my companion. His changeful mage’s eyes quite pale, almost grey. “But either way, for now we must prepare to deal with more Tranquil.”

Sera let out a sound of objection – nothing big, not a sob or cry, but she was visibly trying to rein in her emotions. Solas's eyes flickered to her, and then back to me. And then, almost reluctantly, back to Sera.

“What is it, Sera?” he asked.

She stopped pacing and took a moment, pausing just beside Bull, and I could see that she was attempting to calm herself. “Somethin’s still wrong,” she said. “It’s hard for me here. Hard in a new way, like the mirrors. Everything hurts and it i’in’t right.” Her eyes met Solas’s. “You know what’s happening. I know you do.”

Solas met her eyes. “Sera…” he said. “Lethallan." I looked up, warmed and surprised at his use of the word to Sera. I had never heard him use it with her before. "As I mentioned before, I simply ask you to be cautious. I believe you may be coming into some powers of which you were not previously aware. They may only be latent, subtle. Just keep communicating with us, and with me, if you will, on what you feel. We will do our best to help you through it.”

She met his eyes fiercely, then nodded. For a brief moment, her face was gentle again. “All right, then. You. For now.”

Solas smiled back, and I laughed as Bull reached up and patted her on the back, gently. "We've got you, Sera."

She grinned at him, then stuck out her tongue. "At least, until the demons come back, right?"

He rolled his eyes, and I was cheered when Sera snickered outright.

Solas, characteristically, had observed most of this with a subtle little half-smile, then looked back to me, sobering. “Meanwhile, the road before us awaits… It will take some adjustment for us, for all of us. But we must prepare for Waelburg. This will not get easier as we proceed.”

The conversation turned to our next steps, and while some were in favor of marching on again immediately, we ultimately decided to allow everyone to sleep for a few hours. It was a decent compromise, so we ended the discussion swiftly, and everyone prepared to make the most of the brief rest. Meanwhile, my eyes met Solas’s, and he turned abruptly and walked away from the clearing, and I followed. We circled the hill and ended up alone on the rocky ground, even as the golden rays of afternoon sun fell on Solas’s face.

I turned to him, opening my mouth to speak, and he surprised me by pulling me tightly into his arms. I met the embrace wholly, allowing my tiredness and stress to show in ways I hadn’t before the rest of the group.

He pulled back, and touched my cheek where the claws had swiped me. “How is it?” he asked. His fingers glowed slightly, and I smiled at his concern.

“It’s much better,” I said.

The healing touch turned into a brief caress. His eyes met mine steadily. “You are all right?”

I shrugged. “Not really,” I said. “I’m not sure anyone is.”

“It’s understandable.” He took a breath, then shook his head. “You disappeared,” he said. “And yet I could not feel you in the Fade.”

“I don’t know where I was," I admitted. "It almost felt like I was somewhere in between.”

His eyes sharpened on mine. “There is something you wanted to tell me, love.”

“Yes,” I said. And suddenly all the urgency was back, and it was as if I could feel that presence again, and hear it in my head.

“Solas,” I said. “The voice. It wanted worship. As if it were some kind of god. As if it believed it. And—”

I hesitated, and I saw Solas’s eyes flash to mine. I knew he already knew what I was going to say. “What is it?”

“It spoke elven,” I said unhappily.

“Is it possible,” asked Solas. “Whether it spoke this way to you because you yourself are elven?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s possible.”

“But you don’t think so,” he said quietly.

I shook my head. “It used words only we would use. It called me da’len. Solas, this thing, could it be an actual god? One of ours? Or believe that it is? It spoke of vengeance. And sacrifices.”

“It may,” he said.

I felt frustrated, suddenly, at his avoidance. “You know more than you're saying. So tell me.”

He looked amused. “You first.”

I gave him a half-smile, then sobered again. “Fine.” I bit my lip. “I didn’t want to share about the possibility of its being elven right away. It’s like the Orb… I don’t want it hurting the People in some way.”

“I see.”

“And… it offered me a sacrifice,” I added.

“It what?” he asked. He looked genuinely startled.

“I called it hahren," I answered. "I tried to placate it. I apologized if we had harmed it. And then... for a few seconds... it seemed to feel pity, and it offered me a sacrifice,” I said. “For ‘the wolf.’ Or it said Thedas would burn.”

"Ah," he said slowly. And then he was quiet again. Then he spoke again, his voice sharp. "Show me."

I reached out and he encircled my wrist with his hand. His eyes flashed blue, as they had done back in the clearing. "Saota," he said.

Once again, I was back in the midst of the still whirlwind that was Solas, and he was somehow also back within my awareness, back in the memory. I heard the voice again, felt myself falling to the end of that fiery green tether into darkness, only this time Solas was with me.

When we reached the moment where I had closed the rift, he let go, and the darkness receded. I opened my eyes, still slightly dizzy and disoriented.

“So what is it?" I asked. I met his eyes squarely. “Come on. Do you know who it’s talking about?” I asked. “Could it be one of the sentinels, like those we’ve met at the temples?”

Solas shook his head. “Possibly, but I do not find it likely.” He shrugged. “It may indeed be ancient, and in fact may be older even than the sentinel elves, outraged from the Fade by an offense from millennia past."

"Really?"

"Certainly." He paused. "In fact, the greatest likelihood is that it is focusing on someone long gone, and who no longer exists.”

I started to reply, and then an odd thing happened. He was perfectly calm, but there was this trace of stiffness, and he had, momentarily, turned away with his whole body, and I remembered that awkwardness from before. Watching him, I went still, and strange. It was as if the fear and battle and tiredness had all combined into a kind of caught awareness. I saw the lie again, saw it clearly.

He looked at me quizzically when my silence continued.

“What is it?”

I drew breath to speak… and then stopped. I knew. He would not tell me. His eyes went very clear as mine met them.

“I’m tired,” I said. The day was finally telling on me, and I felt close to collapsing in simple exhaustion. “I’m going to get what rest I can before we move on.”

I turned away, and he touched my shoulder. I turned back.

“That is not what you were going to say,” he said.

“No,” I said. “But right now I hurt all over, and it’s been a very long day.”

A pause.

"You will not tell me?" he asked.

For a brief moment I was amused, glorying in the fact that for once I was the one keeping secrets, however small they might be. Then my hand went to his wrist, to the bond-piece, and he smiled, then met my eyes again. "Saota," he said softly.

You carry so many secrets, I said. And you carry them close. I could feel the chill wind on my skin, and didn't know whose skin I was feeling. Him, me, both.

I keep them only to protect you, he replied.

What about the entity? I asked. You know more about it somehow. I can feel it. Or it knows you.

It is possible, he admitted, that it is an enemy of mine from the Fade. Or rather... an enemy of our People.

That's what I was afraid of, I said. Do you know the name of the entity?

I cannot guess at this point, he said. Then I felt him retreat. A slight sense of closure, as though he were ending the connection. There was more here, but I knew he would not give it. The brief moment of real sharing was over.

Ar lath ma, I thought with regret, then sighed inwardly.

When I opened my eyes, he had half-turned away from me. Then he turned back, and kissed me softly. "Ar tas lath ma, vhenan," he whispered, and when I pulled back, I was smiling in spite of myself.

"Now you should rest," he said.

“We all should."

I squeezed his hand, briefly, then let go, and returned ahead of him back to the camp.

I collapsed into a bedroll near Cass and the others while the sky was still light, and felt the struggle as my head tried to process the discussion with Solas, while my body had relaxed into near-coma... and my heart was still close to pounding at all the horrors we knew we would encounter ahead (and how I could not truly prepare for them). I forced myself to ignore my pounding heart. To shut off my eyes, my brain, my sparks. To make myself accept my own powerlessness.

I did the best I could, and slept. A little, but a little was better than nothing.

And then when I woke, we made the march South to Waelburg.

We were still tired (honestly, more so after our brief rest), our ranks were ragged, and our hearts were low after Chaldecy, so every step felt heavy to me. We were going from tragedy to more tragedy; there was no happy ending ahead of us, no chance of real victory here. I already wished myself back to Skyhold, back to that slightly stale muffled air under the Shell. I usually disliked my opulent golden bedroom, the crackling, uncomfortably stiff blankets, but now all I  wanted was to be back there, burrowed deep, and sleeping for a week.

But I couldn’t. We couldn’t. And so I lowered my head, steeled my heart, and trudged alongside my companions.

The terrain was tricky—rocky and uncomfortable for walking, with scree and gravel that made each step uncertain and treacherous. At one point, my foot slid on a small stone, and I stumbled briefly, only to find Solas beside me, his arm steadying me. I turned and met his eyes, which were very present now, and warm. For a brief moment it was as if I were standing still, embraced and held by him again under that slanting beam of sunlight. A sensation as real as the gravel beneath my feet; a moment of piercing, quiet communion. And then he dropped his hand from my elbow, and we trudged on.

And then, at last, Waelburg. The brightness of too many torches. And where we could immediately see that something was very wrong indeed.

Chapter Text

Chaldecy was bad. But Waelburg was worse.

I could not judge it with my head, only with my heart. I was only glad we had taken the break to prepare.

Marching through fields and rocky landscapes, tired as we were, we’d moved easily toward the next village, even with a wounded toddler, troop members, and a single, skinny, traumatized dog.

The mabari had become a favorite of everyone's already, its pain somehow personal to all of us. It was one of those dogs that follows you with its eyes, mutely, offering love in that selfless way of animals. Even after a few hours in which its shivering had not abated, and even when its howls had continued to awaken all of us even during our brief rest… it simply exuded this sense of indomitability. It would not stray from the traumatized little girl. It knew its one job was, in fact, to keep her safe. And so we loved him. Even when he whimpered at every step toward Waelburg from Chaldecy.

And of course… the mabari was right. When we approached Waelburg, tired and scarred, we found something worse than Chaldecy.

Not the remains of a village.

But a perfect village in every way. Untouched. No ashes. No heat in the air. No demons.

Nothing but silence.

We reached the village perhaps an hour before midnight, all of us tired beyond tired and moving automatically.

Our first glimpse across the fields was oddly surreal, almost magical. As we approached, I saw a strange glow before me, and rubbed my eyes. And yet it was still there.

“Does anyone else see that?” I asked.

“It is the village, no doubt,” said Cassandra. Her voice was edged with tiredness.

“It’s so bright,” said Varric. “It’s bright for this late in the evening.”

“Too bright,” said Bull.

We trudged onward, and soon we were close enough to see the brilliantly illuminated village and its buildings silhouetted against fire somehow. And we could now see that there were shadows moving back and forth before those flames.

People.

As we neared the outskirts, our soldiers, discomfited by the eerie silence and flickering shadows, drew their swords.

“Weapons away,” said Cassandra calmly. That soft, instantly recognizable metallic sliding sound as our soldiers complied. I heard Bull echo the command, softly, to the rest of the Chargers as well.

I soon realized what the brightness was: Torches. Torches had been lit all along both sides of the road, straight into the village thoroughfare. Torches had also been lit, I saw, outside of each and every building before us. There were also bonfires at the perimeters. The village was bright and blazing before us as we approached.

And as we approached, there was a shadow on the road.

The shadow was a man—a man in the road before us. He was seated and calm, visible in the torchlight. Head bowed.

I stepped forward, and found Krem beside me.

“Hello,” I said. He looked up at me, and I realized he was young, not much older than Krem.

“Are you all right?” asked Krem.

“I appear to be perfectly well,” answered the man, and he raised his chin to meet our eyes. Again, as with the child, that perfectly blank expression. Black hair, golden skin, light blue eyes. And he emanated… nothing. No emotion. No warmth. No coldness. Nothing at all.

“We are here to help you,” I said quietly.

“I do not believe that I require help,” said the man tonelessly. Those wide blue eyes met mine with perfect equanimity. “I do  not feel the need for food or drink, and I feel myself in no physical danger.”

“But…” I began.

Solas surprised me by breaking in. “We are glad to hear that you are safe,” he said. “Are all of your fellow villagers safe, as well?”

The man’s pale eyes moved to Solas with perfect trust. “Yes,” he said. “We are safe, those who still live.”

“Those who still live?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “Some of us have died due to weariness, scavenger, or circumstance.”

“But…” I said again, and then stopped myself. The man’s face never changed. I wanted to scream, to do something to shake the man out of that careless stillness.

Solas put a cool hand to my wrist.

Vhenan. We should proceed forward. We can help this man once we know what we are dealing with.”

“My lady,” said Cassandra. “He is right. Let us go into the village.”

I nodded at both, then started to reply, then saw Sera. She was staring at the man, eyes like arrows, not judging or angry, just focused. I had never seen her this way. Her grey eyes narrowed.

“Sera…?” I asked.

“He’s still there,” she said. “Inside.” Then she shook her shaggy head, and rubbed her eyes. “How  do I know this?” she asked.

“You know how,” Solas replied.

“Shut it, you,” she whispered. She was still watching the man before us.

“Sera,” I said. “You can stay here. You don’t have to come into the village.”

Her eyes met mine in relief. “I don’t?”

“No,” I said. “It doesn’t look like we’ll need to do any fighting. Just stay here. Watch for us, along with Dalish and a few soldiers.”

I hadn’t realized how tense she was until her shoulders slumped in relief.

“S’okay?” she asked. Her voice was rough, like she was still remembering how to speak.

“Of course,” added Cassandra, behind me. “We need soldiers at the perimeter. Please, Sera, stay and watch for us.”

She breathed a long, slow breath. “Nutters. Nutters, all of you,” she said. But she smiled. “I’ll stay here and keep an eye out.”

I patted her shoulder, and she shoved me, then the rest of us walked forward, slowly and carefully, through the bright, bright torchlit road, and began the walk toward the market square ahead.

As we began, I turned a concerned glance to Solas. “Do you feel anything here?” I asked. “Anything like what you felt at Chaldecy, in the earth, in the burned places?”

He strode forward, palm outstretched, blue fire blazing at the earth. He paused for a moment only, then turned back to face us.

“No,” he said. “I do not.”

“You don’t?”

“No,” he said. “Whatever danger was present; whatever occurred here, has passed. We are safe to enter without risk to ourselves.”

We walked the long street, traveling slowly and carefully, afraid of jostling these strange, still, delicate beings. There were people all around us. Most of them were motionless—seated, standing, some even lying on the ground. Others seemed stuck on a specific task or tasks—I saw a man not far from us chopping firewood. There were piles all around him. He had no more firewood to chop. And so he was, I saw, breaking up everything in the vicinity. Wood. Furnishings. His hands were bleeding.

“Krem,” I said quietly. Krem looked over at the men, then looked back at me, compassion in his handsome face. “Get the soldiers, the Chargers, to quiet people like that man. Give them water and food. Make them rest and stop working.”

Cassandra was near me, and I saw her meet Krem’s eyes, and nod. Krem melted back from me and over to the man with the hatchet.

We were still only halfway down the road toward the square. Closer by, Bull’s face brightened, and he went forward to a middle-aged man, who stood in the shadows just off the dusty main street, brown eyes heavenward.

As we approached, I realized with a thrill of happiness that the man was one of our soldiers—one of those feared lost in Chaldecy. He was still wearing the vestiges of his Inquisition armor. I remembered him. Carlo. He had been a latecomer to the Inquisition, arriving not long after Haven.

“Cass,” I said, motioning. Her eyes brightened.

“You need help, buddy?” asked Bull. Cass came up quietly beside us.

The man met his gaze. No smile. And yet… there was again this almost beautiful sense of innocence. Blankness.

“I need no help,” said the man. “My needs are met for now.”

“Can you remember what has happened to you?” asked Solas, pushing forward with that intensity I loved.

“Carlo,” said Cassandra quietly. “We are here to help you, my friend.”

Carlo paused. He had wide eyes, almost golden. Very intense and yet abstract. He met Solas’s eyes and did not look either interested or puzzled. Just… patient. Then he looked at Cassandra again.

"Seeker Pentaghast," he said.

"Yes," said Cassandra. "And I am here to help you. Can you tell us what happened here?"

“I was sleeping,” said the man. “I had been tired. On watch. We had gone ahead to send messages and then Chaldecy was gone. So we went forward and came here."

"Who was with you?" asked Cassandra.

"Rogen, Alexander, and Jordan," he said. "I believe they are still here somewhere."

"Thank you," said Cassandra. "And then what?"

"I was here," he said slowly. "I was thinking about the messages and worried that we had no raven. I fell asleep. And then something happened. I do not know what. I only know that when I awakened, I knew I no longer needed to worry myself about the raven.”

“My friend,” said Solas. “We may be able to restore you to yourself. Your emotions.”

Carlo looked thoughtful. “I do not think I wish to go back. I believe I am happy as I am,” he said. “Happy to leave such pain and emotion behind.”

Solas flinched. And it was so visceral that I found myself glancing away, wishing I hadn’t seen it. It was too personal, too painful. And then he recovered himself. He thanked Carlo quietly, then moved over to us and shook his head. As before, meanwhile, Cass directed a few soldiers to make Carlo comfortable, and we continued on.

We kept walking. Then, as I looked around us more closely, I saw the bodies. Everywhere, the dead. A body here beside a doorway. A body there beside the counter of a store. A body slumped across the table of the tavern. One of several. Bodies in the streets. All so clear, so vivid, beneath those blazing torches.

The flames could even fool the eye; it was hard to tell who was living and who was dead. Some of the dead looked alive, and some of the living, lying there so still and silent… seemed dead until they moved.

And in every single case, their eyes were open—wide open, blinking slowly and deliberately. As I looked around, as we walked the main street, I began to realize the one common feature between all of the Tranquil we saw: No one was sleeping. Not one of them. The heavyset man watching us calmly from where he lay on the curb across the way. The skinny boy who stood by a stack of crates near the counting-house. The handsome, plump middle-aged woman who sat in a rocking-chair outside a storefront, her hands empty of industry or duty, calm in her lap. The old man with his back against the wall to my left, his matted grey hair loose around his face. The child to my right, a grown child of perhaps ten or eleven, a girl with pale dirty hair and that rich golden Antivan complexion. Doing nothing but standing. Watching us.

But nobody sleeping. None of them. None but the dead.

“You see it,” said Solas. His voice was quiet and sad.

“Yes,” I whispered. “They don’t sleep.”

“What?” asked Bull.

“They don’t sleep,” I said. “None of them.”

No sleepers but the dead.

Only those peaceful, bright eyes looking at us, from the forms of the supine, the sitting, the standing. Everyone else was a corpse.

Solas strode forward to a girl standing beside the storefront at the edge of the square. A red-haired woman lay dead only feet away, in the street. The girl stepped around her to approach us. I blanched in spite of myself, but of course, she didn’t notice, and if she did, it didn’t matter. Not to her.

The girl herself was strong and proud, perhaps nineteen. She had lovely deep brown skin and black, blank eyes, and curly hair like mine that was a river of black curls gathered in a leather thong, and that streamed in a tail, now matted with dirt, down her back.

“Greetings,” said Solas.

“Hello,” replied the girl.

“Can you tell me your name?” he asked her.

“My name is Daris,” said the girl. Looking closely at her, I realized that she was filthy. Her skirts were stained with mud, urine and what looked like blood, and she was shaking, almost imperceptibly, all over. She was tired to the point of illness, a weariness beyond exhaustion.

Solas looked at me, saw my shock and emotion, and nodded. He turned back to the girl, and his voice was gentle.

“Daris, how long have you been standing here?” he asked.

She looked down at herself. “For several hours, I think,” she said.

“Do you feel any pain or discomfort?” he asked.

She thought for a moment. “I can feel a tremor in my knees and hands,” she said. “And a general physical weariness.”

“Could you sit down and rest?” I asked. “And perhaps speak with us? We would be grateful.”

I perched on the worn wooden bench outside the store, just a few feet from the doorway, beckoning to her. She looked it, then sat next to me, delicate and careful as a princess among subjects. Solas remained standing, his eyes watching her, watching everything around us. When she was seated, he approached her again, stopping respectfully a few feet away.

“Do you feel better?” I asked.

Daris tilted her head, thinking. “I thank you,” she said. “I am much improved. I was not aware of my need to sit until you mentioned it.”

“Can you tell us what happened here?”

“We are here,” said Daris. As with Carlo, and the man in the road, she expressed nothing but calmness. She did not move her mouth, or her eyes, or her body, beyond the movements of speaking and seeing. Her hands were limp at her sides. There was no emotion at all in her for us.

“Yes,” said Solas. “But something has happened to you. Are you aware of that?”

The girl went still, but it was a relaxed stillness.

Then she looked at him.

“Yes,” she said. “Something happened.” She cocked her head slightly, as if listening to unseen music, considering. “I believe it was twenty-seven sunsets past.”

“That’s very helpful, Miss,” said Krem. “Thank you. Can you tell us more?”

“What happened on that particular day?” asked Solas.

 “I was here,” said the girl in that level, even voice. “I was near the stove, washing up, and Mother was in the store, and Father was home sleeping after a delivery to Wycombe.”

I couldn’t seem to be useful. I just stood there, transfixed and listening. And then I found myself speaking: “And what then?”

Daris met my eyes. Just like the child in Chaldecy. Blank, beautiful, trusting.

“I was near the stove,” she said again. “I was… I was washing a dish in the washtub.”

“And what then?” I asked.

“There was a tremor in the ground,” she said. “A deep shaking that lasted several seconds. The wind roared. And then something happened. I do not know what. But I put the dish down. And suddenly everything was different. All my doubt was gone. I felt nothing. I was calm.”

“You didn’t see anything?” I asked.

“No,” she answered. “Nothing at all. Nothing beyond the ordinary. I saw the birds outside our kitchen window. I remember seeing the dish in the washtub, feeling the warm soapy water. And then the ground trembled, and somehow I was no longer myself. I had been afraid, earlier that day, of the soldiers. Of the mages finding us. We had heard so much about the conflicts.”

“Thank you,” I said. I tried to keep my voice soft, to emulate Krem, and Solas. “But then, everything was different?”

Something new happened. The girl did not smile, but it was as if, in some terrible way, she had. There was a subtle relaxation. She looked at me, eyes wide. “Yes,” she said. “I was not afraid anymore.”

I could not answer.

“What happened next?” asked Cassandra, who had stepped up silently beside us.

The girl Daris met her eyes still with that open, complete vulnerability. Somehow, in her, it was even strength. Nothing could touch her.

“I walked through my home,” she said. “And then I stood, quiet, for many hours. Perhaps days. Time did not matter. I felt no need to move. And then my father awoke and walked before me. He had been cruel before, sometimes, I remember. But now it did not touch me. He walked past me and I felt no fear. I felt nothing. He pulled some jerky from the line my mother had run, and then he ate it. He ate it in the kitchen right in front of me. He met my eyes. I met his eyes. He never changed. He ate. And then he left. My mother has never come back. I walked around our home. Sometimes I would also eat of the jerky from the line. When I was thirsty, I drank from the washtub but it made me sick. And then I stood. And stood. And thought. And eventually… I came into the street.”

“Why?” I asked. I couldn’t help myself.

“The jerky was gone,” she said, simply. “It had been maybe seven, eight days. I felt hunger. I ate the oats in the pantry for a few more. They were difficult to chew but sustainable. And then I went into the town.”

“What did you see?” I whispered. I already knew the answer.

“My mother,” she said. “Dead in the street. She is not far from us. I have not seen my father since the first day.”

I paused, but had to ask. “Daris, why the torches?”

She thought for a moment. “Some of us remembered liking the light. I myself remember disliking the darkness. And so we began to put up torches. We felt that it was a logical and good thing to do.”

“It was,” I said. “It helped to lead us to you.”

“That does not surprise me,” said Daris.

“You were wise to light them,” said Cassandra.

“The light was useful,” said Daris.

“It was,” I said lamely.

“Thank you for speaking to us,” said Solas.

“You are welcome,” answered Daris. “I will be here if I can be of further service.”

We started forward, and Cassandra turned back to the girl. “Thank you, Daris,” said Cassandra. “Now there is in fact a further service you can do for us, if you will.”

“Of course,” said Daris.

“Please rest for a few moments. And then when you feel stronger, please gather all of the people in your village in the square,” said Cassandra. “Gather them and allow them to sit or rest as needed, you among them, and we will be back shortly so that we can help to relocate and care for you.”

“Thank you,” said Daris. “I will aim to be of help.”

She bowed her head, and it was as if a light had gone out. We no longer existed for her.

Walking through the village, we saw the same pattern repeated over and over again. Simply walking the village’s main thoroughfare was to realize tragedy in the largest scale. These people were all innocents, blank and childlike, devoid of emotion or self-care. Serene and calm they might be, but their handicaps went deeper than a loss of emotion. They no longer felt compelled to protect themselves or others.

The village was not large, so we had walked it easily within half an hour. Then we began to separate the living, and to care for them, sending them all to the square for rest and care. Most of the dead had seemed to die nonviolently, either of exhaustion, sickness, or exposure, although two had appeared to die from snakebite and another from an untreated head wound.

I set soldiers and party members to corralling the Tranquil villagers, and to making sure they were fed, bedded, and cared for. We also sent soldiers into each of the dwellings, because the Tranquil no longer felt any impetus to care for children or pets, which presented a whole new set of problems—and new dead bodies, including two infants, that had upset me so much I'd had to walk out quickly in order to maintain composure. The Tranquil toddler who had survived Chaldecy now had over a dozen other Tranquil children to keep her company, plus over 65 grown villagers and soldiers.

By the end of that very, very long night we had rescued and assembled 79 people for the travail back to Skyhold, including Carlo and the three other Inquisition soldiers who had gone forward for messaging and diplomacy, plus nine horses, two ponies, eight cows, four dogs, two nugs, three cats, and a child’s tame fennec. Dalish and Grim had assembled baskets for the smaller animals. Everyone else was dead. We fed, watered, then gently questioned everyone. Toward dawn, we had cared for everyone who still lived, setting out pallets for all. Even if they could not sleep. We set soldiers to watch them, and continued investigations.

Nobody had any insight into what had happened to cause their Tranquility. And none of them cared. None of the Tranquil, at least. Bull, Krem and Cassandra efficiently and compassionately quieted them, animals, people and all, and ordered them to rest for the few pale remains of the evening. They agreed.  It was all they knew how to do.

And then we all tried to rest, although nobody slept. Not even the animals we had rescued.

Nobody.

And I was all out of weeping, myself, but nevertheless… I knew, that night, that some of us wept. Because we, at least, could still feel something.

Even if we didn’t want to.