“Read it again,” Cullen said, stone-faced, praying he had heard wrong
Josephine sat behind her desk, eyes wide with that same alarmed disbelief he felt, but she nodded just the same, cleared her throat, and began to read.
The Wardens are compromised. A Magister of the Venatori, Livius Erimond has infiltrated their ranks and convinced them their only chance of ensuring an end to the Blights before the Calling consumes them is to raise a demon army and march upon the Deep Roads and kill the Old Gods before they can be corrupted. What we stumbled upon appears to have been the first attempt at the binding ritual. Erimond instructed a small group of Warden mages to each kill one of their fellows, some sort of blood magic ritual to draw and bind a demon. More concerning: while the ritual places the demon in the thrall of the mage that bound it, it also binds the mage to Corypheus. The familiarity of this is not lost on me, I remember Redcliffe too well. We have dispatched the ‘test group’, but Erimond has escaped. Hawke and Stroud have scouted south on Stroud’s hunch and have found the Wardens occupying an ancient stronghold called Adamant. I do not know the name, but I imagine at least one of you does, and Stroud’s face when he spoke of it tells me more than I wish to know. We return for Skyhold at once. We must plan, and we must plan quickly.
Josephine laid the missive down gingerly. “This is...dire.”
“Adamant has been unbreachable for centuries,” Leliana said, her voice cold and hushed like a dagger in the dark.
“Centuries ago they did not have trebuchets,” Cullen said, striving for a confidence he did not in any way feel. “We need sappers.”
“I believe one of Bull’s Chargers is a sapper,” Leliana suggested. “And we have Dagna. That is at least a start. I will do some digging, see who else we have that may be of use.”
Josephine began rifling through papers on her desk. “I believe I may be able to call in a favor for siege equipment. Not all nobles deal purely in coin and gossip.”
“That just leaves us with enthralled Wardens and demons,” Leliana muttered darkly. “They could house over a thousand men there.”
The pain in Cullen’s head flared, a sharp pulse at his temples. “Our Templars should be prepared. Our people should be prepared.”
“The Inquisitor returns with haste,” Josephine said. “Two weeks by horse relay, perhaps less. That gives us some time to prepare.”
Cullen scowled. “Another five to make the march back out there with enforcements, and that’s on top of preparations. Andraste preserve us, Erimond could fill Adamant in that time if he has enough mages among the Wardens.”
“How many of your remaining Templars are at Skyhold, Commander?” Leliana asked.
“Nowhere near enough. I will send word, recall as many as possible to Skyhold.” He turned on his heel, gripping the hilt of his sword, and made for his office.
Unbreachable. Maker, if only the walls were their only worry.
* * *
Preparations had to be made, even before the Inquisitor’s return. Cullen sent dozens of letters, ordering an immediate return to base for every Templar they had in the field. The numbers were considerably less than he cared for, barely over fifty all told, with perhaps a half dozen veterans among them. A rueful little voice nattered in his ear, reminding him if they had only gone to the Templars, if he had the full force of the Order at his disposal…. But of course, he didn’t. The choice had been made. And given the actions of the demon Krem said had been impersonating the Lord Seeker, sending the Herald into Therinfal Redoubt would have been like driving a lamb into a slaughtering pen. It was not the alliance he regretted, it was the loss.
And so the week went, a flurry of activity and too-little sleep. The headache persisted and brought with it a faint, charred smell that followed him as he went about his duties, craning his neck to search for signs of smoke. The itch came soon after, bone-deep and low, something that made him want to twist and squirm in his own skin. Cullen was too disciplined for that, too stubborn.
But he moved, and he kept moving. He paced constantly. Inspections doubled. A sand pit was hastily constructed near the practice yard to give the men some idea of what they might face if the fight took them outside of the fortress walls. The time he spent in the sparring ring jumped dramatically. And even there he was restless, moving and rolling and driving aside the less practiced with an alarming ferocity. None were injured, but more than a few soldiers left the ring with their practice weapons cracked and their heads hung in exhausted defeat.
His soldiers bore his agitation. The staff on the other hand were less equipped to handle it. He was short with them, an irritation that grew steadily worse as the week wore on, until it was a fight to keep his fool mouth shut before he berated some poor maid for doing their job too close to him, or a runner for slamming doors they swore they had not touched. Overworked was the polite whisper. Arsehole was the less polite version, and he couldn’t claim it was unearned. His behavior was regrettably noted. None seemed to mark the reason behind it, save for Cassandra who kept a wary, albeit distant, eye on him, but said nothing.
The thirst returned soon after. A familiar addition, and one he considered to be no great concern. Cullen had long since learned to ration his water. And if his tongue worried restlessly over too-dry lips and his throat ached with the need for something colder, cleaner, bluer - well, what of that? Pain was pain, and he could take it. And he did. More and more each day. Until the headaches were inescapable and his joints felt like fire and broken glass. The remedies helped, when good sense came to him in the grounding guise of Aadhlei’s voice and overrode his pride, urging him to finally send slips to the infirmary for the potions that would dull the pain, or settle his stomach enough to keep half a hurried meal down, or to sleep for longer than an hour at night without jerking awake to the muffled sounds of phantom explosions.
And so he endured. He had little choice else. The cost of failure was far too high. It was a well-worn slog, horrible but at the very least predictable, until the ninth day.
Morning found him pulling on his armor, hair combed but face unshaven, fighting to still the tremors in his hands enough to buckle on his breastplate. A missive had arrived by raven the night before declaring the Inquisitor had just passed Halamshiral. Four days left, three if she kept up the relay. There had been no direct letters since she had left the Western Approach, and he could not claim that he did not feel their absence, or hers. It had been well over a month since she had left Skyhold with Hawke and Stroud in tow. He realized with a glum sort of wistfulness that this was almost certainly the longest they had spent apart since they had met.
Yet the relief he expected with the news of her return was nowhere to be found. Instead all he felt was a cold, creeping dread that snaked its way through his gut like a wire. She would return, and she would look to him with trust in those soft green eyes that had shaken him free of so many nightmares, and she would expect him to give council. And what did he have? A migraine and a rather impressive case of the shits. Fine council, indeed.
Cullen froze. The voice was clear and harsh, a mocking sneer. And Maker, it sounded close. Close enough that Cullen fancied if he turned he would see the Knight-Commander’s eyes, steel shot through with red, mere inches from his own.
“You’re dead,” he said, voice taut. He pulled his gorget over his head and set to fastening it down. “At least have the decency to be silent.”
You called me mad. My own Knight-Captain stood against me. And for what? To protect blood mages. And now here they stand again. Weak and foolish Wardens turning to blood magic to save their own skins. They will paint Thedas red in blood and lyrium and it will be on your head.
And then the room was gone. All around was chaos; the steel-on-steel clash of combat, the sizzling crack and pull of magic, but even that was drowned out by the sounds of pure panic and carnage .
The choice was yours, Knight-Captain. Blessed are those that stand before the wicked and do not falter. And when have you done anything but falter?
Cullen pushed his fists against his eyes. Skyhold. Not Kirkwall. Look up.
Cullen lifted his head, desperate, searching for the skylight that was - should be there. It wasn’t. Above him hung a slate-grey sky, thick with smoke and storm clouds, tinged red where the fires burned highest. Kirkwall was burning. Again? Still? Maker, did it even matter? Kirkwall burned and he had let it happen. Had, in point of fact, helped build the pyre.
The world flickered like a candle flame in a sudden draft and Kirkwall was gone. High stone walls surrounded him, a sprawl of putrid, pulsing flesh climbing up it like diseased ivy. He could smell it, the sweetness of its rancidity almost enough to mask the old-copper scent of blood. And the blood was everywhere. Bodies lay in mutilated piles around him, some mangled beyond recognition, but others were still painfully familiar. Farris’s head regarded him with bland, slack-jawed terror from the end of a spike, one eye rolled up to the ceiling. A few feet away, from the base of a pile protruded an arm, surprisingly whole, with smooth skin broken by a long pink scar that stopped near the elbow. ‘A bandit with a broken dagger,’ Annalise would tell anyone that listened, but the reality of it had been a clumsy fall into a stack of pottery.
Cullen’s stomach twisted, gorge rising. He saw all of it through a shimmering haze of violet, a barrier, a prison. They had stuck him here to watch the slaughter. How many had been cut down before his eyes? How many torn apart? How many left broken and begging for death for hours before their pleas were granted?
He felt a spasm wrack his body, making him shake and rattle in his armor like a specter in a ghost story. Lyrium withdrawal, his first true taste of it, etched into his mind with blood and screaming.
You couldn’t save them , Meredith spoke up in a voice like ice. What makes you think you can protect the men that serve you now, or that posturing maleficarum that calls herself Inquisitor? You were a failure even with the lyrium in your veins, you are a fool to think you could be more without it. You lead them into death, boy. That’s all you know how to do.
“NO!” he roared, fists lashing out to strike the barrier and finding only empty air and darkness.
Skyhold, he told himself desperately. Not Kirkwall, not Kinloch! Damn your eyes, Rutherford, look up! Find it!
Again he craned his neck up, conjuring the image of the window in his mind. Greens and browns and blues, tall trees and running dogs and the sky beyond it. On its heels came the afterthought of Aadhlei standing beneath it, the sunlight in her hair and the light touch of her fingers on the inside of his wrist, a scent of herbs clinging to her hair and faint lilac on her skin.
One moment there was only darkness above him, thick, black, and endless. The next moment he was staring up at the skylight above his bed, glinting prettily in the first pale gold of morning.
Cullen crumpled to his knees on the floor of his bedroom, hung his head, and wept.
* * *
The wind cut cold across Skyhold’s battlements, chilling the sweat that stood out stark against Cullen’s face as he caught sight of the line of horses speeding toward the front gate. He wavered, swaying on his feet, the pounding in his head increasing threefold. Aadhlei rode at the forefront, he recognized her not by her mount but by the shade of her cloak and the staff strapped to her back. He had held out some shred of hope that the sight of her might bolster the last cracking remains of his resolve, that he might find strength enough to endure for her sake, if not for his. Maker, he had hoped….
Meredith’s voice rang out in his head, cold and sharp as a surgeon’s blade. Your pride will be the death of her.
It was in his head. It was only in his head this time, and he knew it. But even that could not stop the twisting in his chest. There was no comfort here. No comfort anywhere. A small sound, weak and defeated, escaped his lips in a rush of white vapor.
Though his knees felt hot and loose and ready to buckle, they bore him swiftly enough down the stairs towards the place where the Seeker stood, testing a fresh blade. “A word please, Lady Cassandra. I require your...opinion on a matter.”
She regarded him coolly, casting a brief glance to the gate as shouts of the Inquisitor’s approach rang out. “I don’t suppose I need to ask what this is about.”
“In private,” he half-snarled, jerking his head toward the door of the smithy. “Please.”
Cassandra gave him an assessing look, then nodded grimly. “As you say.”
Cullen strode ahead, shoving the door open with enough force to startle one of Harritt’s apprentices into dropping the sword he was grinding.
“Out,” Cullen said, pointing at the far door.
“Begging your pardon, Commander?” Harritt said, his eyebrows hovering about halfway up his bald head in his surprise. “All due respect, ser, but this is my-”
The apprentices were out the door before Harritt had even the chance to toss the half-forged steel back in the embers. He followed, begrudgingly, bitching under his breath as he went.
As the door shut behind him, Cassandra spoke. “The answer is no.”
Cullen turned on his heel, wobbling. “Do I have no say in this at all?”
“If I thought it necessary, Cullen, I would have relieved you of your command already. That I have not should be the only answer you need.”
“Maker’s breath, will you just listen to me?”
She folded her arms, scowling. “Very well, Commander. I am listening.”
“I,” he faltered almost immediately, pride again taking control of his tongue. He set to pacing in front of the forge, sweat pouring down the sides of his face to pool under his armor. Maker how could he sweat, he was bloody freezing . Slowly the words ground out of him. “I cannot do this.”
He began to unpack it, or at least he tried to, giving a halting index of symptoms and incidents. Try as he might, he couldn’t quite find the words to explain the worst of it, dancing around the visions and voices and memories with all the care of a wounded animal trying to hide a lame and mangled leg. When he had finished as best he could he turned again to Cassandra, breathing a little too raggedly, hoping to see some shift in her face, some sign she understood.
“I do not believe your concerns to be unfounded, Commander,” she began.
“However, I do not believe it warrants your resignation or replacement.”
“What?” he spat, incredulous.
“We face our first true test of battle as a unified force against Corypheus soon. It is understandable that you might begin to doubt-”
“This is beyond doubt , Seeker. If I am made to lead our people into battle in this condition we will fail. Our people will die. The Inquisitor will- I cannot let that happen! I will not!”
Cassandra’s scowl deepened. “You asked for my opinion and I’ve given it. What more do you expect of me?”
“I expect you to keep your word,” Cullen sneered, rubbing at another sudden spike at his temples. “It’s relentless, I can’t-”
“You give yourself too little credit,” she said.
Another time he might’ve seen it for what it was - a compliment, a confidence in his abilities. But he was too fogged with pain and the nattering of too-close memories. The sweat was in his eyes, stinging, and the smell of fire and steel lit up his nerves.
“If I’m unable to fulfill what vows I kept, then nothing good has come of this. Would you rather save face than admit-”
The door behind him swung open quietly, the faintest squeak of a hinge, and he wheeled at the sound. “I said get OUT!” he roared.
And then his eyes cleared, and all his fire died. Standing in the doorway, wind-chapped and exhausted in her stained travelling clothes, was Aadhlei. She stared at him for a long beat, too shocked to speak. Coward that he was, he couldn’t bear the thought of what she might say when her voice returned. Cullen hung his head and stalked out the door, too ashamed to look at her, mumbling in a low and ragged voice: “Forgive me.”
Part of him was sure she wouldn’t. Another part of him, small and painfully bitter, was sure she would. He could not say which was worse.
“And people say I’m stubborn!” Cassandra shouted after Cullen as the door shut.
Aadhlei stood staring at the door, thunderstruck. “Maferath’s balls, Cassandra, what was that about?”
The Seeker folded her arms with a sigh, arranging her face into a rough semblance of her usual irascibility. But there was an unusual, uneasy edge to it, the expression ill-suited to her face. Cassandra was worried.
“Cullen told you of his decision to stop taking lyrium?”
“He did. I can’t say it’s a decision that hasn’t worried me, but it was clearly important to him.”
The image of him came to her, bent over his lyrium kit. Some go mad, others die. A cold little knot landed heavily in her stomach.
Maker don’t you dare, she thought, and swallowed hard. “Am I to take it the attempt is going poorly?”
“Most attempts do,” Cassandra said with a sad shake of her head. “He is ill, yes. He pushes himself too hard. He always has, but more so now. The man has not stood still since we received word of Adamant. He has seen two Circles fall, and more than his share of demons because of that, even before Veil was breached. He is afraid that he cannot protect our people, or you, from what we will face. He is a stubborn man, driven, but that same stubbornness has twisted in on him.”
“He thinks he can’t do it without the lyrium,” Aadhlei said. For all his anger at the Order, Cullen still held - and, she suspected, always would - an unflagging loyalty to the people that served in it. The Templars were instruments crafted with a purpose, and even as he shed the chains the Order imposed he still sought that purpose, still sought to prove they could do the good he’d been raised to believe in. But now the Order was all but shattered, and so few Templars still stood that had not been cut down in the war or stained with red lyrium.
A familiar wave of regret twisted through her. Thoughts of Therinfal Redoubt and the things they had found in its deserted halls clutched at her with a thousand tiny hooks, each one a bright and burning red. For the thousandth time, she wondered if there was more she could have done, if there had ever been a chance….
Too late for that, she told herself. It’s done, let it lie. She dropped her head, letting the straggled mess of her hair hide her face. All the wear and worry of the past two weeks seemed to be landing in her at once. And above it all sat a new weight, a heavy, pressing concern that what was wrong with Cullen was beyond her ability to help.
Pulling her focus back, she realized Cassandra was still speaking, either unaware of the her distress or electing not to acknowledge it. “Cullen has the chance to break that leash to prove that it is possible, to himself and to anyone else who would follow,” she said, more than a little pride in the words.
“What can we do?” Aadhlei asked, trying to brush away her tears as discreetly as she could.
“Not we, Inquisitor. I have done what I can. He wants me to recommend a replacement for him. I will not. It is unnecessary, and quite frankly it would destroy him. He has come so far, and weathered so much already, I will not take this chance away from him simply because he is afraid.”
Cassandra took a step back, spreading her hands. “I cannot claim to know what he needs, but I know that he is capable. He can do this, he just needs reminding. And he needs care that he is too stubborn to seek out on his own. In that I must defer to you. You are the healer. And your bedside manner is certainly preferable to mine.”
Aadhlei sighed, long and tired. “We were to gather at the war table in an hour. Please inform Josephine and Leliana the meeting is postponed until we may all attend.”
“As you say, Inquisitor,” Cassandra said. The Seeker regarded her a moment longer, mouth pursed. “May I ask you something?”
Aadhlei nodded, barely listening. Already she was running down remedies in her head, trying to think of things to say, things to do. Anything that might help.
“There have been rumors around Skyhold for some time. About you and the Commander. I knew that he had long held you in high regard, but tell me, is it true? Are the two of you-”
“Would it be a problem if it was?” she asked, words worn to a needle-sharp point.
Cassandra gave a slight shake of her head, a strangely satisfied look on her face. “No. He needs someone. As do you, I suspect.” She cast a quick glance over Aadhlei, as if finally taking in the state of her. “I don’t suppose telling you to get some rest before you see him will do any good.”
A short, barking laugh escaped her. “Maker, as if I could sleep after - no, Cassandra. No it would not.”
“Then go. I will see to the council for the time being.”
The sight of him stayed with her as she rushed up to her quarters. Ashen-faced and shining with sweat, making for the door on legs that bore him up through strength of will only. The worst of it had been that jagged catch in his voice as he’d passed her, muttering for forgiveness. The shame in his voice, the defeat, had been overwhelming.
Her traveling clothes hit the floor in showers of dirt and sand. Every inch of her ached. Exhaustion left a tingling thrum in her limbs that made it feel as if she was still on horseback, rattling around in the saddle. All she’d held onto on the long, punishing ride back to Skyhold had been the promise of a hot bath and the thought of Cullen’s arms around her again. She hadn’t written. Not once since they rode out of the Western Approach. There had been no time. All the world for her had been fitful sleep and hoofbeats. Maker, she regretted that now.
What if I can’t fix it? Wounds she could heal. Breaks she could mend. Maker’s sake, she could even stitch up holes in the sky these days. But what could she do for wounds she couldn’t see? When the break was not a bone but something deeper and far more essential. When his body was tearing itself apart for want of a thing that poisoned his mind. What then?
Her mind kept returning to his words the day he’d told her about the lyrium - some go mad, others die - worrying over them again and again like a tongue on a loose tooth.
“Maker, don’t you dare,” she said aloud. Pointing a shaking finger skyward, she called up in a stern but breaking voice, “You hear me? Go kick over someone else’s ant hill. Or better yet, get off your omnipotent arse and do some fucking good for a change!”
Steady, child. Kenna’s voice, cracked and kind. You’re no good to anyone all twisted up.
Aadhlei braced herself against her desk, a strangled sob caught in her throat. Kenna, her foster mother, had taken ill one winter, not long before the war broke out. A cough came creeping in with the sharp winds and settled deep in her lungs. No remedies would touch it, no matter how hard Aadhlei tried. As the weeks wore on and her condition worsened, Aadhlei grew desperate. In the end she had given Kenna a sleeping draught to keep her settled and, in one last frantic attempt to save her, she had tried to heal her by magic. A powerful spell, not dangerous, but strong . The sort of thing she had always been discouraged from using, lest she risk drawing the attention of the Templars that roamed the village from the Chantry.
And it did nothing. But she was stubborn, a bull-headedness fuelled by love as much as fear, and she had refused to see the truth of the matter: Kenna was old, and Kenna was dying. And so she had kept on trying again and again, pouring magic into the old woman’s flagging body until she had run herself dry, collapsing out of sheer exhaustion.
When at last she woke, Kenna was dead. Her first failure. The first taste of real loss.
Hardly your fault, poppet. There are some hurts in this world that aren’t yours to heal. But that doesn’t mean you give up, and that doesn’t mean you sit about and do nothing. So you steady up, now. You’ve work to do.
“Aye, mum, so I do,” she muttered.
She threw open her wardrobe, breath shuddering through the tears that flowed steadily down her cheeks, grasping half-blindly for something clean and uncomplicated to pull on. A small pile formed beside her - things that were an ungodly mess of buttons, laces, and buckles - before she pulled free something ivory-colored and lace-trimmed. Either some form of fancy night dress or a long chemise meant for more formal wear. “Fuck it, that’ll do,” she mumbled, pulling it over her head. If it stained, Maker knew she could afford to have it replaced. Her apron hung near her potion cabinet and she tied it on rapidly, stepping into a pair of soft leather slippers and thumbing the catch on the cabinet.
Inside was an odd mish-mash of prepared potions. There were still a few bottles of the basic tinctures she’d mixed up for Cullen, and she scooped them up. Three squat bottles of a purplish-red liquid sat lined up on the far right side. Midnight Oil, she usually called it, something she’d put together to keep herself going when sleep wasn’t an option. A bad thing to make a habit of, but a help when necessary, and right now it was deeply necessary.
Aadhlei grabbed two of them, considered, then took the third as well. She cast a long, hard glance at the small wooden box on the bottom shelf, the one she kept a few lyrium potions in. If worse came to worst and she had to heal him with magic, if he’d even allow it, taking one now might not be a bad idea. Yet she had found herself almost unwilling to take them after Cullen had confessed he had given it up. It felt wrong somehow, offensive, almost, knowing what the substance had cost him.
In the end she decided against it, closing the door a little reluctantly. A faded green shrug lay across the back of her desk chair, and she slipped it on, too hurried to drag on a proper cloak. She pulling her big leather satchel off its peg, stowing the tinctures and two of the potions inside, and slung it over her shoulder.
Popping the cork from the third potion, she knocked it back swiftly and set off down the stairs for the Commander’s office.
The path felt like a gauntlet, deflecting staff and redirecting messengers with short barks of “Later,” “Fine,” and “On my desk.” Solas, looking worn enough himself after the journey back, regarded her perplexedly from his desk as she passed him, making with more than a little haste for the door to the catwalk. The coldness of the air hit her like a physical blow. The nervous buzz in her limbs subsided bit by bit as the potion began to take effect, but it did little for the tight coils of tension that wound up her back and around her ribs, squeezing tighter as the cold sank into her. Maker, why hadn’t she thought to take a damned cloak?
Unthinking, she pushed open the door to Cullen’s office without knocking. A mistake, to be sure, and hardly courteous to boot, but she was still too unnerved for the sake of courtesy, and now too cold to want to linger on the doorstep. As the door swung open she heard Cullen’s cry of frustrated anger and a flash of movement and brought the large, heavy bag up like a shield, ducking her head behind it. Something collided with it hard, ricocheting off to splinter against the door frame. The remnants of his lyrium kit lay scattered at her feet, a small shattered phial of crystalline blue glinting prettily in the weak torchlight.
“Maker’s breath!” Cullen lay half splayed against his desk, breath short and eyes wild, the momentum of his throw and the shock of her appearance knocking him off what little balance he still had. “I’m sorry! I didn’t hear you enter, I didn’t, I would never, are you -” He let out one long, shaking breath as she lowered the satchel and he saw she was unharmed. A fraction of the shock drained from his face, but what replaced it was a look of such utter misery it hurt her to look at. “Forgive me,” he said again.
Kicking the broken box away, Aadhlei closed the door, considered, then bolted it and crossed to do the same to the others. The last thing he needed was another interruption. “Talk to me, Cullen,” she said, willing her soothing voice to service, the one she kept in reserve for the sick or gravely injured. “What’s wrong?”
The creases in his brow deepened, shoulders slumping. “No, you’ve been riding for days. You don’t have to-” he began, and then his legs finally gave out and he collapsed against the corner of the desk with a groan. Aadhlei rushed to him, taking his weight, waiting for his breathing to slow and whatever spell had gripped him to pass.
“Aye, I do,” she said. “Come on, you need to sit.”
“I never meant for this to interfere,” he said as she eased him into his chair, sounding so small it was as if he was a child in armor, waiting to be punished for his failure.
“It’s alright, Cullen. But I need you to talk to me, and I need you trust me, alright?” She swiped a hand across his brow, felt the heat of fever under a slick of sweat. It gave off a sour smell, but beneath that Aadhlei realized she could smell the faintest scent of burning, like a lightning strike. “Are you in pain?”
He hesitated. Then, again, so very small, “Yes.”
“Everywhere. All over. My joints are on fire. And my head. ”
“Dizzy? Sick to your stomach?”
A nod. “Both.”
She began unbuckling his vambraces and pulled off his gloves. His hands were like ice, and covered in that same thin, slimy sheen of sweat. “Squeeze my hand, hard as you can.” He began to mutter a protestation and she put a finger to his lips. “Meant what I said. Hard as you can. Tougher than I look, remember?”
He nodded against her finger. The hand closed, squeezed just barely as firm as a handshake, then shook violently.
“You feel hot or cold?”
“Freezing,” he said. As she moved her hand from his mouth he caught it, pressed it desperately to the side of his face, and closed his eyes. “Forgive me,” he said again. Not just an apology now, but an appeal.
Aadhlei bent double, pressing her forehead to his, feeling the fever baking off him in waves and not shrinking. “There is nothing to forgive, Cullen.”
She did not expect him to laugh, or the for that laugh to sound so hard and bitter. He pulled away sharply, letting her hand fall.
“You should not sound so sure.” There was a horrible, manic sparkling in his eyes, feverish and wild. “You have no idea the things…you asked me once what happened in Ferelden’s Circle. Shall I tell you? It was taken over by abominations. One of the senior mages, Uldred, decided a Blight was a fine time to push for an independent circle. When the Grand Enchanter refused, Uldred and his ilk resorted to blood magic to get their way. We shut the Circle down so the maleficars could not escape, but that only trapped us in there with them. The Templars were slaughtered or corrupted. Most of the mages who would not bend the knee to Uldred’s coup were bent with blood magic or killed outright. Demons took care of much of the rest. My friends were cut down in front of me.”
A haze fell over his eyes, not dimming their fire but making it distant, and Aadhlei shivered. She had treated enough soldiers now to recognize that look, to know where he had gone, and that all she could do was hold on and wait for him to come back.
Cullen took a long, measured breath. Then another. A third breath, sharper and shallower, and Aadhlei thought briefly of a man preparing for a deep, sudden dive. “I was tortured,” he said in peculiar, toneless voice.
The word hung in the air, pendulously, like a body on the gallows. It seemed to hold such a foreign weight on his tongue that she wondered truthfully if he had ever said it aloud, ever allowed the admission of such a deep and private injury to be spoken.
“I don’t even know how long. Days, I think, but it felt like years. No food, no water, no lyrium. Demons scrabbling at my head. Or maybe it was the maleficars, I can’t be sure. I cannot be sure of much. It’s all…I...they tried to break my mind and I - how can you be the same person after that?”
He carried on, barely blinking, seeming to breathe only to keep the words moving. “For years I was nothing but fear and anger rattling in a suit of armor. Still, I wanted to serve. What else was there for me to do? And they sent me to Kirkwall. Maker help me, I thought I knew then. I thought I knew what needed doing, who needed protecting. I thought I knew who the enemy was. Meredith used that against me. Told me what she wanted me to hear and hid what she knew even I would oppose. I was her bloody lapdog for years while she abused the Mages - abused our people for standing up against her - and she used us to do it. And the Chantry did nothing. Not for anyone. Andraste preserve me, neither did I. I trusted my Knight-Commander,” he said, his face contorted in revulsion. “I aided her, for god’s sake! I defended her! By the time I saw through her, when the lies were finally too large to swallow and I saw the fear in the eyes of our charges for what it was, it was too late. It all happened again. Kirkwall’s circle fell. Innocent people died in the streets.”
At last his eyes focused again and locked onto her with a desperate ferocity. “Can’t you see why I want nothing to do with that life?”
“Of course I can,” she said, striving for a soothing patience, but her voice shook with tears she could barely keep in check. She wanted to help, she always wanted to help, but what cure could she offer for this? What remedy for wounds of conscience and memory? She sucked in a breath, trying for reassurance, for understanding. “Cullen, you don’t have to-”
“Don’t!” He turned his head away, throat working.
He wants the blame, she realized with an awful sinking in her chest. Wants disgust and anger, not sympathy. It’s all he thinks he deserves, especially from a mage .
The urge to reach for him, to give some kind of comfort was overwhelming, but she kept her hands locked on the edges of his desk, the knuckles slowly turning white. Not yet.
“I’m not going to blame you, Cullen,” she said softly. He winced, too raw for softness, but she kept on. “If that’s what you want of me, then I’m sorry, because I can’t do that. I won’t. When they sent you to Kirkwall, they didn’t send a Templar, they sent a man who was scared and wounded and looking for someone to blame. And that made it very very easy for the wrong kind of people to hook their fingers into you and get you to follow. That you’re trying to do better now, that you’re trying to change and make up for that - and bloody well succeeding at it - takes more strength than I think you give yourself credit for. And that it hurts you so deep says you have far more goodness left in you than you think. In my experience, bad men have little time for remorse.”
She reached out a tentative hand and laid it on his arm. He flinched, hard, and she drew back immediately. “Whatever happened before, you’re not that man now,” she told him. “You told me once that you joined the Order because you wanted to help people. And that is all I’ve ever seen you do. You’re a good man, Cullen Rutherford. If you want my forgiveness, for whatever it’s worth, you have it. But you’ve come far enough that maybe you should try to forgive yourself, too.”
A strangled sob escaped him and he twisted away. As if finally unable to bear her kindness any longer, he launched himself to his feet and set to pacing, unsteady but frantic.
Aadhlei’s heart sank. Wrong, wrong, Maker help me I got it wrong.
“How can you - why aren’t you angry?” he cried thickly. “How can you say such things - how can you even stand to look at me? Can you not see the blood on my hands? You should be questioning what I’ve done, the decisions I’ve made! Blessed Andraste, how can I atone for something when I can still feel it happening? I thought it would be better without the lyrium, that I would gain some control over my life, but these thoughts won’t leave me,” he said, harsh and strangled, a scream made quiet.
He fell to an anguished babbling, words falling from him faster and faster. His hands tugged at his hair, raking it into wild, ragged furls. Tears cut fresh tracks down his cheeks. It was a terrifying contrast to the controlled demeanor he had always upheld, but the small part of her, the part that spoke patient truths in Kenna’s voice, was almost relieved at his frenzy. A bone that had set poorly would need to be re-broken again before it could be set true. Break clean, Cullen , she thought, hopeful now in spite of her fear.
"Blessed are those that stand before the wicked and do not falter. I cannot falter. I cannot. How many lives depend on our success? Adamant waits for us, a demon army in its walls, and I am meant to lead our people into that! I must send you into that! And I do it hobbled for the sake of my own selfish pride! I swore myself to this cause - I will not give less to the Inquisition than I gave to the Chantry! I should be taking it!”
With that last he lashed out finally, fist driving into the bookcase with enough force to crack the shelf and send books scattering to the floor. For a moment he simply stood there, teeth bared and hand bleeding, and then he slowly folded, the fight and fire extinguished all at once. “I should be taking it,” he said again in a voice heavy with defeat.
There it is.
She crossed to him slowly, and this time when she touched him - feather-light, a question of permission made with fingertips - he did not recoil. “Cullen. Listen to me. Forget the Inquisition, forget the war. Is that what you want?”
A look of horror settled on his face. “No. Maker, no. I want to be free of it. I need to.” Desperation and exhaustion shook his voice ragged, but his eyes seemed clearer and more focused.
“Then do not put your neck back in that leash for our sake. Please, Cullen. You can do this. I know you can.”
Cullen pulled his hand away from the broken shelf. A ragged gouge cut across his knuckles. He stared down at the trembling mess of his hand with a furrowed brow, listening to the gentle patter of his blood against the stone floor. “The sickness I can take,” he said slowly, “but these memories have always haunted me. Even with the lyrium. If they become worse, if I am not strong enough to endure it-”
“You are,” she said, and carefully cradled his bleeding hand. “I have never seen a match for the strength in you, Cullen. If anyone can do this, it’s you.”
He hitched in a watery breath. “I’m sorry. I did not want to - I was afraid let you down.”
“You never could. I’m proud of you. But I will not stand by and watch you suffer and do nothing. You don’t have to do this alone. Let me help you, Cullen. Please.”
Something settled in his face then, something like gratitude, and he seemed all at once steadier with it.
“You’re still here,” he muttered in a wondering voice.
“Aye, so I am.”
He leaned into her with a shuddering sigh, and Aadhlei thought she had never heard such a singularly relieved sound in her life. He nodded, forehead rocking against hers. “Alright,” he muttered.
Aadhlei shouldered her bag again and pulled Cullen tight to her hip. “Come on, lean on me. Let’s get you to bed.”
This is probably the most edited thing I've ever written, which I hope ended up being a good thing.
He was steadier now, but even with her support she could feel the amount of effort it took to move as his own fatigue finally set in. The stairs took an age, one slow, labored step, and then time to breathe. Then again. And again. She let him rest against the wall when they reached the first landing, wiping the sweat from his face.
Upstairs, his bed was made but the stove cold and dark. Aster croaked at her reproachfully from his cage in the corner. Aadhlei steered Cullen toward the edge of his bed and folded his already swollen hand in her own. “May I?”
He nodded, and she pulled a trickle of magic, letting it build slowly, watching his face for a reaction. Cullen sighed in heady relief as his hand knit up and rested his forehead against hers. “You feel like rain,” he murmured.
The words left an aching in her chest, fierce and deep, and the tears she’d fought so hard against welled up all over again. She pressed his now healed knuckles to her lips and restrained a nearly overpowering urge to draw him into her arms and into a wash of magic until he was well. But still she felt her own exhaustion pressing in on her, and knew how brief her second wind would last if she burned through it all now. She didn’t dare risk it.
Instead she kissed him, once on the mouth and once on his forehead. “Sit down, Cullen, rest easy a moment while I get a fire going.”
She filled the belly of the stove with wood and kindling and spent perhaps a touch too long trying to stop her hands from shaking enough to strike the flint from the tinderbox without fumbling it. He needs you, she reminded herself, filling a copper kettle from the pitcher in the corner and setting it on to boil.
Cullen sat slumped on his bed, resting heavily on the palms of his hands.
“Can you stand?”
He looked up, dazed and drained, but still present, and nodded, pushing himself up onto shaking legs.
“I need to get you out of this kit. I will try to be quick.” She tugged at his mantle, pushing it off his shoulders.
As she began work on the buckle of his heavy belt, Cullen gave a whistling chuckle. “I’m afraid this is not quite how I pictured this happening.”
“No, nor me,” she said, leaning his sword against the bedside table and easing his vest over the armor. He froze, shocked into clarity for the moment, his gaze heavy. Of course they’d both thought about it. Of course they had. But there was a difference between thinking it and saying it. Or hearing it, for that matter. She smiled a little sheepishly. “A conversation for another time, I think,” she said, face beginning to burn, and set to work on the buckles of his armor.
He helped a little, or at least tried to. Twice he had to stop, leaning on her for support and closing his eyes against a fresh wave of dizziness, pressing his lips - hot and dry and cracked - against her temple. Underneath his tunic was soaked in that sour-burned sweat, and Cullen shivered violently as she peeled it away.
It took every bit of her willpower to give no reaction. Faint, silvery-white lines ghosted across his his upper arms, more on his right than his left. A thicker, more prominent line streaked across his left collarbone down across his chest to disappear into the fine hair that swirled inward toward his sternum. Another, far more wicked-looking scar curved up along the right side of his ribcage almost to his armpit. Even as skilled a fighter as he was the scars should have been expected, but seeing the reality of it left her unsettled. Cullen always seemed practically (unbreachable) invulnerable inside his armor. She knew different of course, from both reason and experience. The first time she had met him in the Temple ruins he had been wounded. Yet there still remained some air to him in or out of combat that suggested he was nothing quite so simple as human. More a fair-haired fortress built of bone and sinew. A reminder - another reminder, in this case - of his vulnerability felt deeply and fundamentally offensive; an index of things that should not be.
She shook herself a little, forcing herself back to task. Kit off, wash him down, get him into bed. When she moved her hands towards the lacings of his breeches he grabbed her wrist and shook his head. A deep, mottled blush spread across his face and chest.
“No…,” he rasped, suddenly quite hoarse. “I would…I would rather….”
“Yes, yes of course,” she muttered, mouth dry. “I didn’t mean to...shit, balls, sorry.” Her face felt nearly as hot and feverish as his. She twisted around him, turning the bedclothes down. “Just sit yourself, let me get your boots.”
When all was done she pulled a clean cloth from her bag, dampened it in the washbasin, and washed him down quickly. His skin was hot but even as he fought to still it, she could feel him shivering. She urged him to lie back, arranging the pillows to prop him up a little. The kettle on the stove let out a bubbling chuff as she pulled the covers up over him.
“Rest awhile,” she said. “I’m going to make you up something, should set you right.”
From the looks of it, the table by the stove only ever seemed to see use for the odd cup of tea. It was still quite bare, save for an iron trivet, a few cups and spoons, a small tea chest, and a round earthenware crock she could only assume was filled with sugar. Aadhlei pulled the kettle off the stove and set it on the small iron trivet and opened her satchel. She’d kept in touch with the physicians and knew which of the remedies he’d asked for while she was away, what worked and what did not, and had been adjusting them every time she returned. Those, however, were usually separate remedies, small things to be taken as needed. Now he needed all of it, and she needed several manner of things to play nice together in a single cup.
She sang under her breath as she worked, an old song to clear her head. Another thing of her foster mother that lingered. A memory like the scent of dark licorice root and rosemary soap and the guidance of old, gnarled hands as she cut and crushed and measured leaf and root. Aadhlei set the tea to steeping, alongside a second cup in which she added the tinctures she had brought to a bit of brandy. Tucked in a fold in the bag was a small hourglass, and she set it at the ready on the table.
Still humming, she set about lighting the candles in the room. His armor still needed to be hung, and he did his best to direct her in the task, laughing only a little when she struggled to fasten the breastplate properly to the dummy. Despite the frustration, she didn’t mind much. It was too good to hear him laugh.
Aster croaked at her again from his cage, a positively sullen sound. The door to it was open and he hopped onto the ledge as she came close. He pecked at her when she reached up, a reprimand for her absence.
“I know, I know.” She reached up again and this time he let her scratch gently at his feathered head. “I’m worried about him, too,” she added in a low voice.
Aster regarded her curiously. And then, to her great astonishment, he spoke. A strange, slightly buzzing sound, but unmistakably words. “To work?”
Aadhlei blinked, sputtering laughter. She’d heard that ravens could be taught to speak if given time and training, but had never witnessed such a thing. She glanced over her shoulder at Cullen. “Is this your doing?”
Cullen’s eyes were alarmingly wide. “I had no idea...Maker, he can just do that?”
“It would seem so.” She turned back to the raven. “No work for you tonight, pretty. This job’s mine to do.”
Aster ruffled his feathers as he settled back onto his perch, a motion that seemed all at once content and a little grumpy. “Maker’s breath,” he rasped.
“This is your influence,” Aadhlei said, a mock accusation.
“I cry your pardon and throw myself at your mercy, Inquisitor.”
She laughed again, stroking the back of her fingers against the white feathers on Aster’s breast.
“I think he missed you,” Cullen said, watching their messenger friend fluff out comfortably at the attention.
“I missed him, too. These past two weeks would’ve felt less punishing with the sight of him at camp.” She paused, a little pang of regret needling her heart. “I should’ve written. Even just a line or two. I’m sorry I didn’t.”
“What would you have said?” Cullen asked in a low, curious voice as she fastened the door shut and gently covered the cage.
Aadhlei turned to face him and all at once found herself a little lost. The light was beginning to wane and the dim fire of the candlelight gave a strange sheen to his pallid face. But in his eyes it danced, turning their dark amber to something like low-burning embers. He was watching her with an eager attentiveness, as if committing the moment to memory, and her with it.
“That I missed you,” she said. “So much that it hurt. That the only thing that made the nights bearable was thinking of you. Thinking that I was a little closer to having you in my arms again.” A small chuckle. “And that, when I returned, I was half likely to kiss you at the gates and let propriety be damned.”
The smile she hoped for didn’t come. His face was impassive, nearly solemn. “I would have been glad to hear that,” Cullen said slowly. There was a shadow in his eyes that had nothing to do with the fire light. “But I...I do not think I could have written back. Not the way I have been. It is hard for me to find anything gentle in myself like this. It is just....just dark, and I would not give you that.”
“You needn’t hide from me, Cullen,” she said softly. “I would have all of you. Even the dark.”
There was a gravity in her voice that seemed to shake him, and for a moment he turned away, thumbing sweat and tears from his eyes. And then he gazed up at her, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth, achingly sweet in its tenacity. “I’d never heard you sing before,” he said, changing the subject clumsily. “I should have known you’d sound lovely.”
She took the shift in stride, sitting carefully on the edge of the bed and gently wiping at his forehead with the washcloth. She had no wish to overburden him tonight. A heavy heart was difficult enough to carry, she knew. For that same heart to be full was staggering, and more than a little frightening.
“It was Kenna’s way,” she said. “She taught me healing. Always sang when she worked. I suppose it stuck. Such things often do.”
“There is still so much about you I don’t know,” he said, brushing his knuckles against the side of her arm.
Aadhlei wound her fingers in his, more than happy to be a distraction. “I’m an open book, me. What would you know?”
He chuckled, a little more of that stoniness fading from his features. “I don’t know. Suppose I didn’t think this through. Always seems to happen where you’re concerned.” The fingers that twined with hers were restless and fidgety as he thought it over. “Tell me something of your childhood. Something fond, something good.”
She considered for a moment, chewing thoughtfully on her lip. Her childhood was a complicated matter at the best of times, and while it had certainly not all been awful, there was still little in it that felt good enough and whole enough to be worth sharing.
“When I turned twelve I was given a pair of gifts from my foster mother," she said at last, grasping at the first memory she found with a root that was both deep and good. "The first was a book of elven - words and phrases and small stories she’d had some of the local serving girls and farm hands help cobble together. I tried to teach myself to speak the language from that book ‒ no real idea what it was supposed to sound like ‒ so you can imagine how effective that was. When I first met the Dalish, my elven was so bad they all laughed at me like I’d taken a knock to the head. Not sure it’s improved as much as I’d hoped, either,” she added with a laugh.
Aadhlei reached up, tapping at the pendant that hung from her neck on a fine chain. “This was the other gift. Kenna told me it was my mother’s, my real mother’s, but it wasn’t. No elf that gave up an infant to humans could have afforded such.” She unclasped it, holding it up. Dangling from the chain was a small heart-shaped leaf cast in mellow gold. She turned it over to show a raised stamp under the bail. “She had a ring with this stamp on it, too. Human make, not elven. But the leaf, it’s elfroot. She had this made for me and told me a story so I would feel a little less alone. And it worked. There was a long time after she died where I was on my own, hiding and scrounging, when just about the only comfort I had left was in this and the reminder that, at least once in my life, there had been someone who cared.”
She took his hand, turned it palm up, and folded the necklace into it.
His face fell. “I cannot take that from you,” he protested, trying to push it back into her hands.
“Do not fight me on this, Cullen,” she said, voice still light and measured, but the order was clear. “You take this. You keep it close. And when the memories get bad, when it’s hard to remember where you are, or when, maybe this will help. Maybe it’ll remind you the same way it reminded me that there’s somebody in this mess that cares about you.”
Cullen opened his mouth to speak, eyes shining in his pale face, and all at once she could see the words he meant to say painted boldly across his face. Half-panicked, Aadhlei quickly put her hand across his lips.
“No, Cullen, I’ll not have you say anything, not just now. Not when you’re half burned up with fever. Wouldn’t be fair to either of us.”
Hurt flared in his eyes, sharp and quick, then died away until all that remained was a soft shadow of guilt. The hand she held across his mouth shifted, stroked gently across his unshaven cheek as if in apology, and then fell away.
“Tea’s ready,” she said.
Her hands trembled a little as she mixed the brandy into the tea. He’d nearly said it. The words had been so plainly written in his eyes there was no question. I love you. Maker, she wanted him to say it. Wanted to know what those words would sound like in his voice, to know what it felt like to receive them from one who meant it. More than any of that, she wanted to say it back. The words seemed to always hover just on the tip of her tongue these days, terrifyingly close, a confession simply waiting to tumble out whenever he looked at her too long.
But Creators, not like this, not now. Not from a sickbed.
The scent of rosemary filled her nose again, but this time it barely covered the smell of sick and slow decay that lurked beneath it. She felt the clammy, wrinkled skin of Kenna’s forehead against her lips as she made prayers to any god that would listen.
Love you, mum. I’m sorry I never said it before.
Shuddering, she scrubbed at her cheeks, willing the memories back where they’d been buried.
Cullen had her necklace wrapped around his hand, the leaf pressed to his mouth like a Chantry sister’s prayer beads.
“Drink this,” she said, clearing her throat to hide the thickness in her voice.
He frowned at her, a tinge of concern in his features, but took the cup obediently in unsteady hands and drank. At the first mouthful he grimaced. “Oh Maker. It’s like a hot toddy but angrier.”
“That’s the embrium. Also the brandy. Down the hatch, that’s no taste to savor.”
He grumbled in agreement and downed the rest as quickly as he could.
As he passed the empty cup back his fingers folded around hers and held her a moment. “If I have upset you‒” he started.
“You’ve done no such thing.”
“The things I said before‒”
“Are nothing you owe me apology for.”
He stared up at her, eyes searching her face intently. Whatever he found there seemed to soften him and that woeful look in his eyes abated a little. “I do not understand how you can...how you can still look at me the way that you do, knowing what I’ve done.”
“Nothing you have said tonight has changed the way I feel about you,” she said, each word slow and deliberate. “Your past does not trouble me, not the way you think.”
Frowning, he traced along the side of her face with a calloused but gentle fingertip. “Something has,” he said.
She leaned into the touch with a sigh. “It hurts to see you like this, that’s all,” she said. A small confession with more yet lurking behind it. “I would protect you from it if I could. Maker, I wish I could. Do not mistake me, I would not have you hide your suffering for my sake. But watching someone I… someone I care about suffer, it touches on an old hurt. I’ll say no more about it the now.”
Cullen only looked up at her with that same furrow in his brow. She stroked at it, thumbing away sweat. “Quit that. Worrying’s my job tonight. Your job is resting.”
She started to rise and Cullen tugged at her sleeve. “Where‒”
“To have a word with the guards and let them know you are not to be disturbed,” she reassured him.
Impossibly, he seemed to pale further. “I cannot,” he began, trying to push himself up, but his limbs refused to hold his weight and he fell back again, closing his eyes tight against a fresh wave of dizziness. “They will...do not tell them I am ill. There will be talk.”
Aadhlei straightened, squaring her shoulders. “I seem to recall some ceremony or other with a big sword that would suggest the guards work for me now. As such, I think I’m allowed at least one ‘do as you’re fucking told’ a month, wouldn’t you say?”
“I suppose you are,” he said, and there was a ghost of humor in his voice.
“That goes for you as well, Commander. You are off duty until morning, is that clear?”
“As you say, Inquisitor.” And this time he did smile.
She bent and placed her hand to his chest, feeling the thump of his heart beneath her fingers, its tempo abruptly jumping at the contact. There was a thrill to the touch, to the intimacy of it, but a comfort, too. The rhythm of his heart was patiently reassuring; a steady reminder of his perseverance. “I’m not leaving tonight, Cullen. I mean to look after you.”
“Thank you,” he muttered, and pressed her hand more firmly over his heart.
* * *
The first dosage lasted only three hours. It helped, or seemed to, at least. The shaking calmed, as did the sweating, and Cullen drifted off for awhile. Aadhlei scribbled notes, checking over him carefully as he dozed, keeping careful eye on the hourglass to mark the time. He talked in his sleep. Mostly nonsense, but as the sweat began again to bead up on his brow his mutterings became darker and hissed through gritted teeth.
Higher dosage, she thought, adding fresh wood to the stove. Perhaps elderberry instead of the spindleweed might‒
Cullen gave a short, shuddering groan that cut off abruptly. Worried, Aadhlei turned to see him thrash the covers away, swinging his feet off the bed. His face was pale and pinched, his mouth pressed to a thin, tight line. A life spent in an orphanage looking after the other children had left her quite familiar with that look, and she grasped a nearby bucket - fast, but not quite fast enough. Cullen stumbled forward, colliding with her as she rushed forward, knocking them both to the floor, prompting a startled rustle and squawk from Aster’s cage. He wrenched the bucket from her just barely in time and retched into it violently, rocking on his knees. She steadied him, rubbing his back as his muscles locked and his stomach emptied.
He stuttered once, spit, then retched again. “Sorry,” he panted when it finally passed. “Maker. Sorry.”
“It’s alright,” she said, stretching up to fetch the washcloth again. Cullen fell back on his haunches, wobbled, and landed unceremoniously half on his ass and half on her, shoving her back against the edge of the bed. Aadhlei craned her neck just in time to avoid getting bashed in the nose by the back of his head.
He gave another bevy of muttered apologies as he sagged against her and she eased his head to her shoulder, wiping his face down. “Didn’t want you to see this,” he groaned.
“I have seen much worse than this, Cullen. Don’t fret. You tell me when you’re ready to move, alright? We need to get you back into your bed.”
His hands came around, groping for hers and pulling them weakly. “Can we stay? Just for a moment. I need…” His head lolled against her shoulder, eyes shut tight. A trickle strayed down from the corner of his eye, but if it was sweat or tears, she couldn’t say.
“Yes. As long as you need,” she said. There was still a cup of water on the bedside table and she groped for it, pressing it to his lips to wash away the taste of sick. When he finished she set it aside and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, careful to keep the Anchor pressed against herself and not him.
“Is it always this bad?”
A faint shake of the head, limbs beginning to tremble again. “No. Every few weeks. Worst I’ve had.”
His eyes closed. An almost imperceptible nod.
She held him a little tighter. “Do you need to talk about it?”
The shake of his head was more like a shudder. “Just...just this,” he whispered, drumming a nervous tempo on her arm. “Please. I can’t.”
“Whatever you need.” She shifted, trying to pull her knee out of his back and find something more comfortable for the both of them. Cullen settled against her with a grateful sigh. His weight left her pinned, the bedframe digging into her back, but she thought little of it. She had spent far too many years sleeping rough with all manner of roots and rocks jabbing into her back and sides. This was nothing.
His hand found her leg, curling against the bare skin of her calf. “There has never been much good in my life,” he whispered. “And now that there is, I cannot bear the thought of losing it.”
Aadhlei kissed the corner of his jaw below his ear in the bracket of a sweat-damp curl. “The world will not be rid of me so easily. Neither will you.”
A shudder ripped through him, head to toe, and Aadhlei had the strongest feeling it had nothing to do with the lyrium. “Let me say it. Please.”
Her stomach clenched. “Cullen. I already know.”
“I have to say it,” he said, finding a little strength to grip her arms tight. “If something happens ‒ to either of us ‒ and I never have‒”
“In the morning,” she whispered into his ear and he was not the only one shaking. “When the sun’s up, when you’re better, you tell me then, not before. Promise me. Not before.”
With a little effort he turned, wrapping his arms around her waist and laying his head against her chest. “I promise,” he said, squeezing.
Silence stretched on, long enough for her to suspect Cullen had drifted to sleep in her arms. She had time to wonder a little that this was the first time she had ever held him properly with no armor between them, huddled together on the floor of his bedchamber as he burned his way through a lyrium fever. But then he spoke, soft and puzzled and very much awake.
She laughed, stroking his hair. “That’s a question will only lead to heartbreak and headaches. Best to avoid it.”
“No,” Cullen said, raising up to fix her with alarmingly clear eyes. “Why me? You could have anyone. And yet‒” He trailed off, voice breaking.
“I could say the same of you,” she said, trying for humor. “Commander of the Inquisition’s forces dallying with some backwater healer that fell out of the Fade.”
It was mostly in jest, the sort of self-deprecating nonsense she always used to deflect a compliment around her companions, but she saw it land with him, saw it stick. He knew she meant it.
“You are the single most extraordinary person I have ever met.” He took her hand - her left, where the anchor thrummed gently like a second heartbeat - and threaded his fingers through hers, lacing them palm to palm. Her necklace dangled between them, glinting green-gold from the light that escaped their hands. “And this,” he said, “has nothing to do with it.”
With tears prickling the corners of her eyes, she kissed him, resting her forehead to his. “And you ask why,” she said with a laugh that shook just a little too hard. “Maker, you’re daft. You remember the day in front of the Chantry? I’d just come back from the Hinterlands. Half the people there thought I was a murderer. The rest just saw another mage ‒ someone they wanted to hurt, or was afraid would hurt them. And the first thing I found was you standing in that awful little knot of angry people, staring down the Chancellor. You wouldn’t budge for him. Not an inch. He would’ve been happy to see me burn as a heretic back then. And you stepped up, put yourself between him and me, and once he scurried away you took me aside to be sure I knew you were on my side. No one had ever done that. No one had ever protected me without making sure I knew that they could stop, could and would toss me to the wolves any time they wanted. You made me feel safe, and I’d never known that before.”
Her fingers traced the lines on his face, an early gift from a life that had been far too unforgiving. “The world has been cruel to you, and it might’ve hardened you and misled you, but you never let it make you cruel in return. You have the strongest heart, Cullen. That’s all I’ve ever seen in you. A good man who has worn himself bloody trying to do good - to stay good.”
“Maker, you almost make me believe it,” he muttered, voice breaking. His free hand tangled in her hair as he kissed her, tight-lipped and desperate, over and over. He drew a breath and with great effort swallowed the words that surfaced. “In the morning,” he said instead.
“In the morning,” she echoed. “You need to sleep.”
His legs were steadier as she helped him up and eased him back into bed. Calmer now herself, she mixed a second dosage with a few small adjustments, a little more assured that this should in all good theory do the trick.
He drank obediently, as before, then snaked an arm around her.
“Stay,” he said.
“I told you, I’m not leaving.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. The arm that curled around her pulled her closer. “Stay,” he said again.
She laughed a little, high and breathless. “Cullen I haven’t bathed in anything larger than a bucket for two months.”
“I don’t care.”
The thought of lying with him in the softness of a bed and the comforting circle of his arms was unbearably sweet, a surprisingly chaste fantasy she had craved for so many months. The exhaustion she had staved off with potion and panic was suddenly roaring back to life, her limbs going leaden. She needed another dose, and soon.
“I can’t,” she said, nearly pained. “I won’t be able to keep awake.”
“Then don’t,” he said simply.
“I’m here to look after you,” she insisted. “I cannot do that in my sleep.”
“Then don’t,” he said again, with the sort of maddeningly reasonable tone she used so frequently. It was strange to be on the receiving end of it herself. “I know you. You’ll have slept only as much as you needed to keep from falling from your saddle for two weeks straight. You need the rest as badly as I do. Stay with me. Please.” A beat. A little warmth returning to his features. “I have missed you.”
Aadhlei sighed, and swore she felt some of that spiraling tension release with the breath. “I missed you, too,” she murmured. She gave a small nod, a little more of the borrowed strength slipping out of her. “Alright.”
Cullen pulled her flush to him, a long line of gently trembling muscles beneath the woolen blankets. His mouth found hers as he rolled, dragging her across him and onto the other side of the bed with an encouraging show of strength. Only the shaking of his arms and raggedness of his breathing belied the effort the show had cost him. He kissed her steadily and drowsily as she settled against him, finding the places where they fit together.
“Goodnight,” he muttered against her mouth when at last his breathing had calmed again.
“Goodnight,” she said, her hand against his cheek. He was warm still ‒ Maker, he was always warm ‒ but no longer hot. The fever, it seemed, was breaking. A little relief bloomed in her as her eyes slipped closed and she fell asleep almost at once.
Cullen slept steadily, if not quite soundly, the rest of the night. Each time he stirred or muttered something in his sleep Aadhlei came awake with a guilty start, afraid to find his fever roaring back to life or to find his heartbeat fallen suddenly still while she slept. Her fears proved unfounded each time, and she lay there watching him sleep in the dying candlelight, trying to calm her own foolish panic enough to drift off again.
He still spoke in his sleep, vague mutterings that followed the strange courses of his dreams. Once he muttered her name, a soft, strangled sound of distress caught in his throat. “Right here,” she whispered, pressing in a little closer. His tension broke with a soft sigh of relief, hands sliding up her back to grip her shoulders and pull her in until her head lay against his chest. She could hear his heartbeat, his breathing - a sound like distant waves and a deep, steady drum. It soothed her, lulling almost at once back to sleep.
Aadhlei woke when the first morning bell rang out, more than a little dazed, and found her arms empty. Faint light filtered in from the window above and she could see Cullen in the corner in front of the washbasin by candlelight, finishing the last of his shave with a wooden-handled straight razor. He was still stripped to the waist but he had pulled on clean trousers, his hair a damp mess of mussed curls. A thin line of gold glinted around his wrist and Aadhlei could just make out the shape of a tiny golden leaf against his skin.
“Morning,” he said, laying aside the razor and toweling off his face. “I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“Hm. The bell, not you,” she muttered, rubbing at her eyes.
He crossed to her quickly, kissing her before she could even push herself up off the bed.
“How do you feel?” she asked, running her hand across his face. A smell of faint soap and liniment hung on him. But she saw with no shortage of relief that the dark crescents beneath his eyes were fading, and there was color again in his cheeks. A little worn still, perhaps, but no longer dire.
“Better, thanks to you.”
Aadhlei waved that away, a practiced deflection as she pushed herself up. “You did the hard part, Cullen,” she said, a rough truth masquerading as modesty. “All I did was make tea.”
Cullen shifted with her, sitting on the edge of the bed. “You stayed,” he said, a little wonder in his voice again. “That’s more than I would’ve ever hoped for. I’ve never told anyone what happened at the Ferelden Circle. I was afraid to let you see that. Any of it. I didn’t...I did not expect you to stay once you knew that side of me. No matter how much distance I’ve tried to put between my past and myself. I did not dare hope that you cared for me enough to stand it.”
“You underestimate how stubborn I am in my affection, Cullen Rutherford,” she said. “And you are a far better person than you give yourself credit for.”
A slight, rueful shake of his head. “I know who I am.”
She caught his hand, squeezing. “So do I. And I am quite fond of who you are. Nothing you’ve said or done has changed that.”
“That is more a relief than I can tell you.” He took a deep, steadying breath, and met her eyes. “I cannot change the past. But it led me here. To the Inquisition. To you. I can make that mean something. I will. ”
And suddenly he was all warmth; his expression, the color of his hair, the tone of his skin, the shaded amber of his eyes. All of that trained solely on her was so much she nearly felt faint with it. His hands, broad and calloused and hard, came up to trace the sides of her face with astonishing gentleness. The second before his mouth opened she remembered the promise he had made the night before, and her heart gave a sudden tripping stumble.
“I love you.”
There it was. He spoke with marvelous ease, no catch of fear or nervous confession. He knew she knew it already. He only wanted to say it. The words themselves were somehow soft. Sweetness without sting; a rose without thorn.
Tears sprang to her eyes immediately, spilling down her cheeks and over his thumbs. She drew in a breath, a touch too sharp and tremulous, and she saw the smile on Cullen’s face begin to falter.
“Don’t you apologize, and don’t take it back. Don’t you dare,” she hissed, clutching at him fiercely.
“Never,” he sighed, gathering her up. She felt his hands on her back, thumbs rubbing circles along her spine. “I love you,” he said again, a rumble in her ear that made her breath hitch.
Slowly, Aadhlei kissed her way up the side of Cullen’s neck, over the smoothness of his jaw to his mouth. “I love you, too,” she said, the words catching awkwardly in her throat.
A smile broke across his face, bright enough to hurt, and the thought raced across her mind, Sunlight, Maker he’s like sunlight.
Everything seemed to settle then. A gentle shift, some part of her that had always seemed misaligned finally finding a place where it fit. And now finally allowing herself to see it, to feel it without the constant fog of doubt clouding her head, she realized how neatly they did fit together, how comfortably. Something in her chest seemed to be expanding, as if finally allowing the words to be spoken had let them take root, and in so doing a garden had set to blooming in her ribs. Joy , she realized. Another word she could put a feeling to at last. Love and joy, Creators, that was a wonder.
She was laughing dizzily into his mouth and he was still kissing her. Was it this way for him as well? Her hands swept his face and came away damp with tears, and she thought it must be so after all.
“Maker, you are…” he trailed off, shaking his head. “Why wouldn’t you let me say it before?”
Aadhlei felt the smile on her face falter and fall, felt Cullen’s hands tracing the lines of hurt that took its place. “Not important,” she said, dragging the smile back with a shake of her head.
Cullen’s eyes searched her face, suddenly gravely serious. “No. Don’t do that. It is important. I’ll not have you shoulder my burdens and not let me help you carry yours as well.” He kissed her again, gentle and warm like a promise. “Talk to me. Whatever it is, I will listen. I would have all of you, as well,” he whispered, giving her own words back to her.
And there were the tears again, a hot pressure behind her eyes as her nose filled with the ghost of rosemary. She trailed her fingers down his hand to his wrist where her necklace sat and wrapped her fingers around it.
“Last night was not my first vigil at a sickbed,” she said. The words came slowly, dug up like old bones unearthed from the place she’d buried them. “The last one was my foster-mother. And she did not survive.”
“Maker. I am so sorry. I didn’t know.”
She smiled thinly, shrugging. “Not the sort of thing that comes up in polite conversation. And it is...hard to speak of. She was old, and she was ill. And I was stubborn and foolish, much as I am now, so I tried to heal her.” Aadhlei shook her head. “I had gone with her more than once to help ease a passing. I knew what it looked like when a body was too old and worn to hope for recovery. When all that’s left is to give what comfort can be afforded. I suppose that’s what scared me the most. I knew she was dying, and I knew I could do nothing to stop it. So of course I did anyway.”
A laugh escaped her, dry and mirthless, and she sagged a little, pulling away. Cullen’s hands trailed across her back and down her arms to her hands, folding them up in his own. She squeezed them gratefully.
“I cannot explain to you what it’s like. To cast until you are drained. Past a point of weakness and exhaustion and to keep pulling it through you, pouring it out. The harder you pull, the more you feel it. It’s like your armor wears through and suddenly you have raw magic tearing across your nerves. Trying to close the Breach the first time was like that. Maker, it hurts. All the way down to your bones. But I did it. I wrung myself dry trying to fix her, and I collapsed. When I woke, she was...she had already...I didn’t even get to say goodbye.”
She was crying properly now, face twisting as she finally came to the point that had speared her so soundly. All at once her heart felt treacherously heavy and unmoored, as if it might simply tumble overburdened from her chest. “I couldn’t say it, Cullen. Last night, void take me, I couldn’t . I was too scared for you. If I told you and then you never woke up-”
If he spoke then, Aadhlei heard nothing. She only felt his hands pull her close, clutching her to him, and the press of his lips against hers. “I’m here,” he said, brushing away more tears. “I’m well.”
“Thank Maker and Creators both for it,” she said. “Stay that way. That’s an order.”
Cullen laughed a little, rough and wavering. “As you say.”
He shifted forward and past her, groping one-handed at a drawer on his bedside table. He muttered quietly in frustration, searching blindly, then gave a small exclamatory sigh against her shoulder.
“I had intended to take you somewhere for this, but events seem to be sprinting at us a good deal faster than I expected. There is a lake not far from Honnleath, where I grew up. As a child, whenever my siblings became a bit too much to bear I would go there for a bit of peace. The last time I went there was the day before I left for Templar training. My brother, Branson, he found me there. He gave me this.”
Cullen opened his hand. In the center of his palm lay a silver coin stamped with the solemn face of Andraste. “It just happened to be in his pocket, but he told me it was for luck. I’ve carried it with me since. Templars are not supposed to hold to such things. Our faith should see us through.” The word ‘faith’ was sharp on his tongue, a word tested until it had splintered.
“I would not have pegged you for a rule breaker so young,” Aadhlei said, a smile slowly returning to her face.
“Until recently I was quite good at following rules. Most of the time, anyway. This was the only thing I took from Ferelden that the Templars didn’t give me.” He folded it into her hand. “Humor me a little. There is so much I have survived that I should not have. I would not have called that good luck until now. We do not know what you will face before the end, and with Adamant….” He sighed sharply. “A little luck can’t hurt. Besides, I cannot take something from you without giving something back,” he added, gesturing to where her necklace lay against this wrist.
Aadhlei turned the coin between her fingers. “You’re more a romantic than you think, Cullen Rutherford,” she said, pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth. “I’ll keep it safe.”
Cullen’s expression shifted, a thought occurring to him suddenly, and he sighed. “There will be talk. You were here all night. You told the guards... Maker.”
“Does that bother you?”
“If you had asked me yesterday morning...last night changed many things,” he added softly. Cullen fell silent a moment, considering, then slowly shook his head. “No, not anymore. I would still rather my- our private life stay private, but there is little I can do about that in a place such as this.”
He looked up at her sharply. “Does it bother
There has been talk about us for some time, but this will be...I did not intend to...I don’t think I was thinking very clearly when I asked you to stay.” He colored brilliantly, stammering. “Not that I regret it! I’m glad that you did, I only-”
She laughed, shaking her head. “Cullen I meant to stay regardless. I told you that.”
“There will be assumptions. My thoughts about you might not always have been honorable, but my intentions …”
Aadhlei raised a curious eyebrow.
The flush across his cheeks deepened and he dropped his head to her shoulder. “I...sweet Maker.”
She laughed and kissed the top of his head. “You’ll have to tell me about those dishonorable thoughts sometime.”
“Andraste preserve me,” he whispered, “you are still in my bed.”
“So I am. Would you have me leave?”
Gooseflesh rippled up her arms as he nuzzled into the curve of her neck. He kissed her there, a brief press of his lips, and her eyes fluttered shut against it, the sensation far more overwhelming than it had any right to be. “No,” he murmured. “But I don’t know...if…if you-”
Outside the bell rang out again and Cullen all but jumped out of his skin.
“Maker, I’m going to be late. Inspections. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I have to,” he stammered, pulling away with great reluctance and scrabbling to pull on his gear.
“I need to clean up,” Aadhlei said as he shrugged on his mantle, gesturing at the table still laden with her unpacked kit. “Go on, I’ll find you later.”
“You’d better,” he said, stooping for a hurried kiss.
“I love you, ” she said as they parted.
He slowed, that warm, flustered smile on his face again. “I love you, too,” he said, and kissed her again. It was enough to make her toes curl, and Aadhlei tapped her fingers insistently on his breastplate.
“Mmm, greedy!” she chided, a little too breathlessly. Maker, if they didn’t stop they were never going to leave the damned room. “Go!”
He smirked at her, actually smirked, the first time she’d seen that look outside of the practice yard or a chess game, and it sent a pleasant shiver through her. As he made off down the stairs his face settled into a smile, a proper one, and Aadhlei felt her heart lighten a little more.
The guards marked her as she left Cullen’s office. The slightest double-take before clapping their fists to their breastplates in salute. As she walked away she heard one of them whisper to the other, “I told you. You owe me five royals.”
Muttering a handful of prayers, she hurried her step, holding her head as high as she dared. Sweet Maker, the war council was going to be a living nightmare.