Bull blearily woke the next morning before she did, still fast asleep and firmly tucked into the crook of his arm. She hadn’t moved a muscle since she slipped away, fell asleep. He yawned, scratched his chin with one hand and adjusted his other arm around her before re-settling himself, closing his eye and silently going over their conversation again and again in his head. He picked apart her facial expressions, her words, the way she’d touched his face as if trying to confirm his very existence somewhere in her head. Whether or not he was real.
The important part, he eventually decided, wasn’t whether or not she believed he was real; it was why she felt it necessary to ask that question in the first place. Something, somewhere, had gotten flipped around in her head, tangled her up inside, bound her to the spot and left her like this. And it was looking more and more likely that she thought whatever it was she slipped away to, wherever that was – the compound, he guessed, since she was waiting for the Ashaad for a reason he had yet to determine – she thought that was reality.
Which meant every last second of the last six, no, seven years it had been since the qunari left Kirkwall was nothing more than a dream to her. It explained why she didn’t really talk that much; it explained why she didn’t really look at anyone, either. Why she was acting so damned mechanical all the time.
Except for the bread. It was simple, uncomplicated, but nothing about that bread was mechanical or cold. The woman who made that bread wasn’t a woman who was snarled in her own mind, she was sweet, caring, the kind of woman who had a sunny smile for every person she met. The kind of woman that some farmer somewhere would marry and cherish every single day. That bread tasted like kindness, like laughter, like every ounce of love in her little bones had been poured into every last delicious crumb. And that sweet roll, that was just…Bull’s stomach rumbled. He’d do just about any kind of unpleasant crap he could imagine for another one of those things.
And he was letting it get him off track, he told himself. For whatever it was worth, all that emotion she had bottled up inside, everything she had tucked away…maybe that was where she put it all. It made at least a little sense.
But it didn’t explain why she’d had that violent, sudden reaction to Cole, though. All he did was sing a little song. All he did…
He woke her up, Bull realized. He snapped her out of it between one moment and the next, half a verse of some little song he plucked from her head and she must’ve realized she wasn’t dreaming – and from the way she reacted to that realization, whatever sent her into her head was bad. Really bad. Beyond anything Varric could’ve imagined. Part of the rubble they’d left behind, Varric said. Like she’d been discarded, no longer of use – and that made absolutely no sense. There wasn’t a logical reason that just they’d leave her there, none at all.
And that line of thinking only brought the disquiet in his gut again, the longer he thought about it, chased it around in circles and tried to puzzle it out.
Lily stirred at his side, and he cracked his eye just enough to observe her, kept his breath even and calm. She lifted her head, squinted at the tent flap, took in a sharp little gasp of air and darted a glance back at him, staring with rapt fascination and just a hint of something else – worry? Not fear, she wasn’t frightened of him. But she pulled away a moment later, quietly dressing herself and heedless of his observation, slipped out of the tent without a word.
Bull sat up, certain what he’d find beyond the tent flap, and he wasn’t wrong. She stood, staring up at the rising sun, chanting quietly, but he could pick out the words anyway. He’d heard them and said them a thousand thousand times himself over the course of his life.
That was the other concern. Whatever drove her into her head, she was still fiercely, tenaciously, obediently devoted to the Qun – or whatever she’d been told the Qun was. Whether or not she understood the words she said, he didn’t know. But she spoke with all the conviction of the Antaam, and it worried him more than he really wanted to admit.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” he rumbled in her direction, and for the first time since they started their journey, she looked at him when he spoke.
“You waited,” she said, quiet and contained. He resisted the urge to cheer, settling for a grin instead.
“Promised I would, didn’t I?” Bull shrugged, went about the business of making sure none of the food had gotten soaked the night before. “I don’t take promises lightly. I told you I’d be here. And I’m here. And,” he added, “I have breakfast. Eat up – long ride ahead today. We’ve got maybe a day or two before we get to where we’re going.”
To his immense satisfaction, she did as she was told, but she was far more aware, focused as she ate, blue eyes darting back and forth from him to the fire, to the tent, to William, who was happily grazing under a tree and ignoring the both of them for now. And when she was done eating, she glanced around the little camp, almost as if bewildered to find herself still in it. “…where?” she asked, finally.
Bull grinned inwardly. He was waiting to see if she’d bite, if she was there enough to even think about asking. “Jader – it’s a city over on the coast of Orlais. We’ll be leaving William there for a while. Can’t walk to Kirkwall, there’s a sea between here and there.”
Lily froze. Bull cautiously watched her eyes, but she was still there. She hadn’t slipped away, she was just taken aback. It wasn’t exactly the reaction he was looking for, but it was better than sliding back into nowhere. “Lily. Hey, Lily, over here.” She blinked, turned her head. “What’s wrong?”
“Kirkwall?” she said.
“Yeah, remember? I told you that’s where we were headed.” She tensed, and for one unsettling moment it looked like she might bolt, but she settled for sitting down, brow creased. “What’s wrong, Lily? You’re from Kirkwall.”
“In Kirkwall,” she softly corrected, perplexed and clearly uncomfortable.
“You…” He stopped, thought for a moment, searched for the best way to say it. “In Kirkwall. Right. Maybe you are, wherever it is you go where you aren’t here. But you aren’t, here,” Bull pointed out. “We’re fixing that, okay? We’re going to go there.”
“I have to wait,” she said abruptly. Bull rolled his shoulder, got to his feet and approached her, cautious and calm, settled down on his haunches and looked her in the eye. She didn’t move a muscle, not quite gone, but not quite there, either, somewhere distant and in-between. It was an expression he hadn’t seen before, which made it immediately interesting. And since she seemed to be up for talking, he figured he might as well try and ask.
“Why, Lily? Why do you have to wait?”
“Fall into the tide,” Lily said, her voice faraway, as if repeating something someone had told her long ago. Or maybe yesterday, in her head. He couldn’t tell. “Submit. Remain here. Do not leave the compound. The Qun demands obedience, especially today. Anaan esaam Qun.”
“Today.” He snatched on the word, grasped it and gently tugged, pulled her in on silken strings. “Why today, Lily? What happens today?”
“We wait for the Tome of Koslun,” she softly replied. Her eyes still didn’t quite meet his, fixated on someone else, someone unseen, above him and to the left. “When the Arishok has it, we will leave for Par Vollen, leave this refuse behind.”
His breath caught in his throat. “Okay,” he replied, not quite sure how to process that. “Okay,” he repeated, glancing around the camp, getting to his feet, taking down the tent. Lily stayed where she was, sat quietly and obediently, lost somewhere in her head, as if listening to someone else speak. He absently scratched the back of his neck, mulling over that information. He finally had a piece – why she was waiting wherever she was. But it barely made sense to him. There was no logical reason for her to be stuck there, of all places. No logical reason to be trapped in her own head.
“Okay,” he said finally, as he finished strapping their belongings to William, slipped the sling around his neck. “Come on Lily. Time to go.” She stood, mechanically, slipped into the sling without a word, settled against him, cheek pressed to his chest as William plodded down the road, leaving the camp behind.
Bull alternated between watching her and watching the road, keeping quiet and for damn good reason. She didn’t realize what she’d given him, the thing he needed most – context, finally, some damn context for what was going on in that messed up little head of hers. It was that day, the day the Arishok confronted Hawke. The day the Arishok had supposedly died. The day he didn’t, in fact, die, but walked right out of Kirkwall with the Tome of Koslun and the thief who had taken it in hand.
And once he had both of those things, he left, taking with him only the qunari, apparently, according to the reports, and leaving everyone else behind, including Lily. Either that or he took the others with him, and…he didn’t want to think about the possibility of what had happened to them. So here he was, on a horse, with a girl who was unimportant enough not to be remembered and ushered along with the rest of the Antaam. On the one hand, it made sense – she wasn’t a warrior. She wasn’t a prospective soldier, she wasn’t a fighter. Not by a long shot. Oh, she had strong little arms to be sure, but those muscles were cultivated in kitchens, not in combat.
On the other hand, it was an absolutely heartless thing to do to her. Bring her in, bring her close and then just dump her like garbage? No. That wasn’t the way of the Qun.
Bull set his jaw, kept his good eye pinned remorselessly on the road ahead. It meant she was just a civilian. Like any civilian in Seheron, just trying to make some kind of honest living for herself and stay out of harm’s way. And just like any number of civilians in Seheron, she managed to get between the qunari and what they were after, and got hurt in the process. Not by Tal-Vashoth, not by Vints or fog warriors, by the followers of the Qun.
It churned in the pit of his stomach, made him sick. But what ate him alive was what came next, what he knew he had to ask. What he knew he had to do. There wasn’t any way around it, if he wanted her out of her head, if she had any hope of living some kind of normal life instead of this crap she was slogging through now. So Bull bit back the bile rising in his throat, rolled a shoulder, gritted his teeth and steeled himself.
“We need to talk,” he said abruptly, glancing down at her. To his immense satisfaction, she looked up at him, peering with absent-minded concern at his face, fingers idly plucking at the fabric of the sling. “Atta girl,” he rumbled. “Eyes on me, all right?”
“You remember all the things I’ve told you about the Qun, Lily? All the different parts, the way it works, the different people and pieces in it.” She nodded, slowly, and Bull exhaled a heavy sigh. “Okay. We’re…look, Lily, there’s this thing the qunari do, when they bring someone into the Qun – it’s called indoctrination.” Her little brow furrowed at the lengthy word, and Bull felt the corner of his lip tug up despite himself. “Yeah. Fancy word. All it means is that we – that they,” he corrected, grimacing inwardly, “That they’re teaching people. Finding their place, their shape, their role. Whatever you want to call it.”
He couldn’t keep looking at her. He couldn’t say the words eye to eye. So Bull glanced down the road to watch where William was going while he spoke. “When someone wants to convert to the Qun, they go through this process – re-education, they call it.”
Somewhere down the road he imagined a flicker, a memory of days long gone. Of civilians marching single file, empty-eyed and soulless, watched over with tender care by the Tamassrans who had taken the spark of rebellion from them and crushed it, along with any semblance of who they’d been before the qamek. It made them forget everything – made them nothing more than empty tools. It was better that their struggle be crushed from them, better that it be plucked from their heads. Better that they live a life free of anything but what their nature bid them do. It was a last resort, final and absolute.
And he knew that, when he turned himself in. He knew what re-education did. He fully expected to be one of those tools. It would be better than the man he’d become, it would be better than looking at all those faces every single day. Than seeing all those bodies, the people he couldn’t save. Better than the questions that kept coming back to haunt him.
He never told the boss what the saar-qamek did. He told the truth, that he’d been dosing himself with the antidote. He didn’t mention the antidote actually had a small dose of qamek in it. And he never told him why. Part of it was just in case of an assassination attempt, sure, that was truthful enough. Part of it was because even in small doses, it took the edge off. Made him forget for a little while, the look on Gatt’s face when Bull sounded that horn and called the retreat. Made him forget for just a little while, the sound of that dreadnought detonating into nothing, right along with that chiseled, perfect statue the Tamassrans had finally finished carving into a whole and complete being with the utter knowledge, the understanding of the world, and his place within it.
The assassins tried to poison him to make him forget what they made him, but he’d already done that long ago, abandoned Hissrad, embraced The Iron Bull.
He shuddered, shaking his head, continued to speak because he had to. He had to. “These converts, they’re indoctrinated into the Qun – they learn, they’re taught what it is, how to live under it. How to exist, what role, what task they’re suited for. Who they’re meant to be.”
“So I have to ask you, Lily, because I don’t know. I wasn’t there.” Bull took another deep breath. “Were you a convert? Were you…did you go to the qunari, did you ask them to be part of the Qun?”
“No,” she breathed. He glanced down, surprised, to find her staring up at him, perplexed.
“You didn’t - did they ask you?” She gave the barest shake of her head, her face a faint reflection of his own confusion. “Then how did you – why were you there, Lily?”
Bull watched her eyes slowly slip to somewhere far away, cursing under his breath. But she was talking, still. “Tangled in a crowd of struggling people, those who resist the tides, struggle against the sea.” She murmured, and his blood ran cold. “You try to relax, to submit, to fall into the tide, to let the sea carry you, but this city, this…mire prevents you from doing that which your nature commands. Submit, imekari. Fall into the sea. Let the tide carry you. Shok ebasit hissra. Struggle is an illusion.”
“Lily,” he said, his voice ragged. Bull cleared his throat, tried again. “Lily, who told you that?”
“The Arishok,” she whispered.
Fuck. He took a great, shuddering breath, somewhere between gasp and sigh. “Oh, Lily.” Bull closed his good eye briefly and tried to quiet the voice in the back of his head, the ice crawling up his spine.
“Think real careful for me, all right? This is important. Did he tell you anything else?” She nodded, still confused and faraway. “Did he – did any of them, did they give you lessons? Teach you about the Qun?” She nodded again, brow furrowed, and Bull’s heart sank.
“You’re not going to like…” Bull trailed off, thought very carefully about what he was about to say, and forced the words from his unwilling mouth. “I said I’d be honest with you, Lily. Remember?”
“Yes,” she finally replied. He looked down to find her once again staring back up at him, fixated on his face. His eye softened.
“The Qun exists in the way it does for a reason. Every person in it has a place, a purpose. Under the Qun, you serve in the role you were given. Everything you are, everything you do, it’s dedicated to that purpose. To go outside that purpose is to disrupt the Qun, deny it, and disobey it.”
Ah, Ashkaari. Do you see it now? Look in the mirror, stand tall, and strong, and clever. You are the Qun, we are all the Qun, and to defend it, to protect it, is to defend and protect us all.
“Lily.” Bull said her name again, not to get her attention, but to remind himself why he was doing this. “The Antaam are meant to – they’re military. They do as the Qun demands. Gather intelligence; protect relics and artifacts, things that are precious to the Qun. They fight, yeah, but they also hunt down the things, people that threaten the Qun’s authority. Do you understand?” She stared up at him, open and trusting and he felt like shit for what he was about to say. But he had to say it.
“Lily…they don’t convert people. That isn’t their role. That isn’t what they’re trained for. They aren’t supposed to indoctrinate anyone. That’s the role of the Ben-Hassrath. Of the Tamassrans, of the Ariqun.” Lily blinked, brow just beginning to furrow. The dots hadn’t quite connected in her head, so Bull carefully drew the lines for her, heartsick.
“When I said what happened to you wasn’t supposed to happen, that’s what I meant, Lily.” He told her, as gently as he possibly could. “You were never supposed to – you should never, ever, ever have been converted. Whatever they told you, whatever they did to you, it was wrong. It wasn’t just wrong because you’re…you’re stuck. It was wrong because it…it was against the very nature of the Qun. Do you understand?”
Her face twisted into something wavering between fear and desperation, tears welling in her eyes. “No,” she whispered. “No—the Qun has a place—“
“Yes, yes it does,” he soothed, tucking his arm around her and pulling her close. “It has a place for everyone. But it wasn’t the duty, the purpose, the role of the Antaam to tell you that. It wasn’t what the Qun demanded they do. They didn’t know what they were doing, and they shouldn’t have been doing it in the first place.” Bull brushed his hand along her hair, set his jaw. “They used you, Lily. Maybe they were playing a game, maybe they thought they were above the Ariqun, I don't know. But what they did to you, it never should have been done.” She was sobbing now, high, keening little gasps, shuddering against him, and each piteous little cry broke his heart just a little more. “I’m sorry,” he faltered.
It had to be done, he told himself, jaw set. She had to know. She had to know. Somehow, that didn’t make it feel particularly right.
The rest of the day passed in silence. She spent the afternoon staring at nothing, not quite in that faraway world, but not quite with him, either, relaxed against him and waging some kind of war in her head. He could see the wheels turning whenever he glanced down, and he figured it was better to just let her sort it out for herself – he’d already pushed her farther than he wanted.
That, and he couldn’t really bring himself to say anything else. The wheels were slowly beginning to turn in his head, too, and he didn’t like the direction his thoughts were taking him. Tal-Vashoth, they’d called him. Born under the Qun, raised in the Qun, living by the Qun until he could no longer deny what was right in front of him, until he had to turn away, because they gave him no other choice.
Part of him wondered, had wondered ever since that day high above the ramparts, if they only sent two assassins because they still respected the service he’d given and wanted to spare his life. Part of him wondered if they only sent two assassins because they wanted him to live, wanted him to struggle with the knowledge of what he’d done, what he’d left behind, every single day of the rest of his life.
He stopped to make camp when the sun started to dip in the sky, sliding off of William, letting Lily settle herself while he set up a fire, took care of William and set up their tent. She said nothing to him, nothing at all, but her eyes followed him as he moved, wounded and raw and torn with a million questions she probably couldn’t bring herself to ask just yet. So he carried on, dug out something to eat for the both of them, put down a blanket and took a seat, eating in silence and staring into the flames, listening to them crackle and spit.
It didn’t help her. Not a second of it helped her at all, he knew. He knew because he’d been there before, between sense and madness, with just enough sense to ask someone, anyone, to catch him before he broke.
“The boss called me a good man, once,” he said, nodding quietly at the fire. “Said I was a good man, said if the Ben-Hassrath didn’t see it, then it was their loss.” Bull shrugged. “I don’t feel like a good man right now, Lily.”
She sat, staring at the fire, a little more lucid – she didn’t look at him, but he could see her eyes darting from flame to flame. Distant, but present, measuring the world around her. Wondering where she fit. He recognized that, too. “Come here,” he said softly, patting the blanket beside him and not really expecting her to do it. But she surprised him again, stood and sat down as asked, hugging her knees to her chest and pointedly not looking at him. But she was listening.
“I knew someone like you, once. Made food for a living, these little things, fish wrapped in bread. Not bread like you make,” he pointed out, “It was flat, so you could wrap things in it. Tasted good, though. He was a nice guy, talked to him every morning.”
Bull glanced in her direction. She was watching him now, out of the corner of her eye, wary and withdrawn, but paying attention. Good. He wanted her to pay attention to this. “So, one time, I’m asking about his bad back and I see he’s nervous, trying to tell me something with his eyes. Next thing I know, his assistants draw knives and come at my team.” He picked up a stick, poked the fire while he spoke, tried to keep his voice casual, conversational. Draw her in. “The rebels had forced him to poison my food. I’d seen how nervous he was, so I hadn’t eaten anything – couple of my guys weren’t so lucky. We killed the rebels; I lost two to the poison, another to knife wounds. My friend with the fish wraps died with a knife in his throat. Close-quarters fight. He was caught in the middle.”
“And that man never did a thing to anybody, wouldn’t have done a damned thing to anyone if there weren’t rebels in his ear.” His voice hardened. He couldn’t help it, all he could remember was the blood and the bodies and his friend, stuck in the middle. “And damn it Lily, I think…I think that’s when I started to hear this little voice in the back of my head. It said you know, if the qunari weren’t there, there wouldn’t be any rebels in the first place.”
He glanced in her direction again, and this time, this time her eyes met his, wide and blue, grief flickering somewhere in their depths. “Yeah. I know. When you hear about the Qun, when you live under the Qun, it seems easy, doesn’t it? Like every worry in the world you ever had is just…gone. Seheron showed me something else. I didn’t like it – I still don’t like it.”
This was a story she needed to hear. It sure as shit wasn’t a story he wanted to tell. He’d tried, every now and again, he’d mentioned it to the boss once or twice, but he never gave him the details. He never gave anyone the details. What purpose would it serve? None, none at all. Not when there were more important things to do. Worlds to save. But here, sitting right next to him, was the one fucking person in Thedas who needed to hear it. “Next week, we were out on patrol, one of the local women comes screaming down the street.”
He paused, brow twisting at the memory. “This isn’t a good story, Lily.” There was a little thump at his side and he glanced down to find her leaning against him, cheek pressed to his skin as he spoke. Despite himself, he smiled wistfully down at her, the smile fading only a moment later as the memories set in, his good eye occupied once more with the flames. “The woman…she’s crying, hysterical, all she can say is the school, the school – so I calmed her down as best as I could, took my men and we went charging in.”
It wasn’t a big building. It was just two rooms, one for the classes, one for meals, a narrow hall tucked between. He remembered the silence, the strange absence of chatter. He remembered vividly the look on Vasaad’s face when he found them first, always ahead of the main unit, just ahead of Hissrad, and in that moment regretting his eagerness. “We didn’t need to charge in. They…they were dead.” Vasaad’s face was devoid, empty of emotion. But there was a tick in his neck, angry and pulsing with every body he laid eyes on. And there were a lot of them, almost two dozen along with the teachers, all gone, laid out as if they’d just gone to sleep. “Every single last one of them, all the children, and the teachers. These tiny little – they didn’t do a damned thing,” he managed, through clenched teeth. “They didn’t do a damned thing but live—we figured it out. It was the poison. Same poison my friend with the fish wraps had used, same damn shit and it was qunari. It was Tal-Vashoth.”
Vasaad had barely kept himself in check, but the others, the others all looked to Hissrad with questioning eyes, haunted eyes, eyes begging for someone to guide them. The same kind of eyes that he imagined all those children had had, asking questions, learning, growing, and becoming what they needed to be. And now they wouldn’t. Fuck that.
He didn’t ask for permission. Technically, he didn’t need to. It was just an investigation. That’s all it was supposed to be, that’s all he told them it was, later. “I didn’t have orders to do what I did, I didn’t really care, either. I took my men and we tracked down the Tal-Vashoth responsible, tracked them to this hideout, this stronghold out in the jungle.”
The air was thick and humid, and they didn’t know how many Tal-Vashoth were inside, but he didn’t really care. They needed to pay for what they’d done. For the man who’d never done anything other than make good food. For the teachers who were just trying to raise little minds into strong, complete men and women. For the children who had done nothing more than eat their lunch, trusting in the adults around them to teach them, take care of them, and keep them safe.
Vasaad was just as angry as he was, and just as loathe to show it. He went ahead of the group, just ahead of Hissrad, said he’d scout the place out. But he knew better, despite what Vasaad had said. Vasaad just wanted to be the first one to kick someone’s face in. “And we stepped through that door and one of the last friends I had that hadn’t been murdered was just that – fucking murdered, right in front of my face. Arrow right through his throat and he was just…gone.”
Bull blinked, slowly. “Vasaad. His name was Vasaad. He was a good man.” It was a split second, too late to do anything to stop it. Vasaad went through the door, he was right behind him when the arrow hit. He remembered the sudden spatter of heat on his face, the last, strangled cry, the sound of Vasaad’s body hitting the ground. And then he didn’t remember much of anything at all. “Lily, I…snapped,” Bull said, his voice soft and faraway. “I don’t know how else to describe it. Almost what, ten years of watching the same shit play out, over and over, and it never stopped – that was the worst part, Lily, it never. Fucking. Stopped. Nobody learned any lessons out there. Shit, between the Tal-Vashoth and the Vints and the fog warriors it was all anyone could do to stay sane.” Bull shook his head, brow twisted with anguished confusion. “What kind of life is that? What kind of life was that for those children? That’s…that’s all I could think of, all these empty little bodies, all these tiny little lives, wasted, and all I could do was tear those responsible into pieces just as small.”
“I went in my head, Lily. I went in my head and instead of making bread, I killed people. I tore them apart. And when I snapped out of it, I just couldn’t think of a damned reason to keep doing my job.”
“None of it made sense anymore. None of it…that’s when I started questioning, Lily, and I could feel myself slipping out of it, away from the Qun. Because what kind of order, what kind of purpose is there in slaughtering innocent people before they’ve even begun to learn, to grow? They never got to find out what they were meant to be – if this is what my people were turning into, if this is what Seheron did, if it just churned out Tal-Vashoth and death and…just what was the fucking point? Was this the demand of the Qun? Were they?”
“I-it was a m-mercy.” Bull glanced down at the faint, stammered, horrifying declaration, abruptly snapped out of the memories and brought back to here and now. Lily sat there beside him, curled back into herself and shaking like a leaf, like a damned leaf, all the blood drained from her face. Pale and terrified beyond all reason, tears streaming down her cheeks, tense and taut as a bowstring just on the edge of snapping.
And slowly, Bull began to realize she was telling a different story, something from her head, something she was staring at. “Lily…”
“Little Sam…Lucy, Violet, Eliza—“ She choked on the names, rising to her feet and stumbling towards the fire.
“Lily, what are you doing—“
“Bess…Joseph and Ed…E…Edeline, Constance…S-Stephen…Nathaniel…John—“ Her eyes were wild, unfocused, darting from one unseen spot to the next with every strangled name.
Bull got to his feet, cursing at himself. He’d pushed her too far. She was somewhere else now, and he had to pull her back. “Lily, stop. Stop. Who are they?”
“They were children,” she cried, and collapsed into piteous, hysterical sobs, each one punctuated by another name, sparks of anguish that sent electric shocks up his spine. “Chester,” she sobbed. “Nellie – Drake – Edita – Hettie – Alfred – Faith –“
Bull grabbed her, twisted her around to face him, hands on her shoulders, and gave her a little shake. “Lily!” he snapped, “The names, Lily – who are they? What happened to them?”
She froze, her eyes – so helpless, so alone, pinned to his with sudden desperation. “Parshaara,” she whispered, and his blood ran cold, bile rising in his throat. “This was a mercy. Would you have them fall into the sea, would you watch them drown?”
He recoiled, shrinking away from her almost instinctively. This was madness. He was looking into the face of fucking madness and it was staring right back up at him. “No,” he managed through a mouth that had gone completely dry. “No, Lily. No that’s not right. They wouldn’t do that. That’s in your head sweetheart; you need to get out of there, that’s just nightmares—”
“Don’t let me go,” she begged, weeping so profusely, shivering so violently he was afraid she might snap in two. He ignored the shrieks of the voice in the back of his head, hooked a hand around her waist and pulled her in, tucking her under his chin and wrapping his arms around her both to comfort and to muffle the frantic sobs, rumbling soothing noises and wordless reassurances to calm her down.
“Lily. Lily, listen to me. Come on, look at me,” he coaxed, rubbing her back, letting her cry herself into empty silence, feeling her shoulders slowly relax, her body shift as she lifted her chin to stare up at him so lost, so bewildered that it took all of his reserves to calm himself down. “Look at me. That’s not right. That’s not real, Lily. That’s not real. They would never, ever do that.” He sat, settling her on his lap, face to face, breath to breath. “Listen to me. Lives are precious, Lily. They are the lifeblood of the Qun; they are never, ever wasted. Ever.” He brushed an errant strand of hair from her cheek, brow drawn in concern and wondered who had ever told her such a thing, who had – other merchants, maybe, other humans, people who were terrified of the qunari. The people that looked at them like beasts, maybe.
Or maybe the Antaam did, the little voice said. Maybe they wanted her to stay, it said. Maybe they didn’t know how to convert her, so they just forced her to—He pushed the unsettling thought from his mind, concentrating instead on her.
And she relaxed, slowly, little by little, kept her eyes locked with his. He could see her struggle; he could see how much she wanted to believe him. Bull thought it over, tried to go over the possibilities in his head. Maybe she had been waiting, and they took her away – someone came in and yanked her out of there before the qunari could find her. The Antaam had taught her some things, and they weren’t meant to teach her anything – it was entirely possible that she was little more than trained by the time anyone else found her there. Trained to sit, and stay, to not move, and moving her had done…this, whatever this was. He felt sick at the thought.
“Lily,” he said, very, very gently, “You don’t need to wait anymore. It’s okay. The compound – you’re in the compound, aren’t you?” Slowly, she nodded, a flicker of fear in her eyes. “There’s a way to get out, isn’t there. A door, a gate, something—“
“I have to wait—“
Bull shook his head, stroked her hair. “No, you don’t. I won’t let you go. I promise you, I won’t let you go. But you have to come to me, sweetheart. I can’t pull you out of there. You have to come to me.” He watched her eyes drift to nowhere, kept talking, heart pounding. If this worked, Varric was probably going to kiss him when they got back to Skyhold. If it didn’t – he pushed that thought from his head. “Get up, Lily. Look for the gate. I’m right here. Come on.”
He remembered waking up. It was like being in a fog, sightless and alone. The first thing he heard was a heavy, ragged sound that he realized was his own breathing. And then, the crystalline plink of blood hitting metal, dripping from his axe. And then the smell – copper, metallic, flooded his nostrils and the fog bloomed red, everywhere, on the walls, on the floor, on his chest, running in rivers past his feet. The walls, coming into focus, stone spattered with crimson spray. It was just his breathing, he slowly realized. No one else in that room was breathing. They were in too many pieces to do that.
You are the Qun, we are all the Qun, and to defend it, to protect it, is to defend and protect us all.
This was not protection. This was not defense. What took out those children, the teachers, the man with the fish wraps, Vasaad, countless names, countless lives, was madness. What took out the Tal-Vashoth was madness. And in that moment, he looked at his axe, he looked at the parts and pieces and he wondered when, why his purpose had twisted somehow from protection to destruction, and why, under the Qun, they were one and the same. And for a moment, a scant moment, he understood why the Tal-Vashoth turned from the Qun – because this was reality, not the peaceful hills of Par Vollen. Reality was blood, and death, and struggle, insurmountable. It was fear, and chaos, and the enormity of it all, the enormity of it all yawned below him. He teetered on the brink, too frightened to move, afraid if he made a sound, breathed too hard he’d fall right in.
They arrived to find him standing there, frozen and staring at the pieces of a world that was, and he looked up to meet their eyes. “Take me in.” he said, lifting his arms. “I can’t. I can’t anymore. I just…can’t.”
Lily struggled in his arms, twisted and squirmed, struggling, he knew, with the weight of what he’d given her, holding it in her hands like so much sand, watching it slip away. And at last she broke against him, breathing ragged gasps and weeping again, not hysterical, not frightened, like a summer rain in his arms, coming home to rest. “I’ve got you,” he soothed, stroking her hair, rocking back and forth. “I won’t let you go.” She wept for all she’d likely lost, all she’d never see again, the woman in the mirror that never quite got to be what the Qun demanded she become. And somewhere in the middle of it all, she fell asleep in his arms, leaving Bull to stare at the fire and wonder why it seemed that even under the Qun, those that deserved it the least had to pay the greatest price.
Lily dreamed. She didn’t dream of the compound, didn’t dream of Kirkwall at all. She dreamed of summer fields, grazing druffalo and clear blue skies. It was warm, there, the sun high overhead, the meadow unnaturally vivid and bright.
“It’s strange, isn’t it?” Saemus said, chuckling at the little ones. They didn’t run so much as stagger with steadfast determination in the direction they wanted to go. “We take what, a year or two to learn to walk, but they can’t be older than a week or so, can they?”
“They stand up right after they’re born,” Lily replied, smiling absently at them and glancing his way. Dark hair, bright blue eyes, just like her mother's, wide and astonished at the very idea such a thing could exist. Of course he’d be astonished. She didn’t suspect they birthed many animals in Hightown. The very idea of the Viscount’s son trying to coach a druffalo through the process was absurd enough that she giggled despite herself.
“How do they learn so fast?” he asked, grinning at her.
“I don’t expect they do,” she replied, returning the grin with such merry, fierce resolve the freckles on her nose crinkled, “I expect they’re just born that way.”