Chapter 1: Lily
Lillian Rose Sumner was her mother’s very clever way of trying to jam not one, but two types of flowers into her eldest daughter’s name. And despite her mother’s best efforts to bless her from birth, she looked like neither lily nor rose. Topped with a pile of unruly ginger curls, Lily was a shortish girl of not quite twenty when she arrived, gawping with wide round eyes at the massive statues that flanked the entrance to the city. She might have been frightened if it weren’t for what she’d left behind – Ferelden, blight-ridden and far less pleasant than the blackened walls that arched high above the ship, nearly blocking the sun as if to suggest it, as well as most anyone else, were not especially welcome in Kirkwall.
The wait at the Gallows only reaffirmed the notion, refugees crowding the iron gates and clamoring their distress to the disinterested Templar that blocked the way. “No room,” he said, again and again, as bored and bland and ineffectual a knight in shining armor as she’d ever seen.
But Lily was patient, and Lily was persistent, and perhaps most important, Lily had her family’s fortune in hand, tucked away upon her person. Perhaps it wasn’t the most secure method of keeping ones funds but she had little choice in the matter. It took a week of waiting, finding safe corners and hidden nooks to doze off in between bouts of persistently and silently waiting at the gates with a pleasant smile and polite disposition. And eventually she caught the guard’s eye and held it, timid but cheerful and not especially shy, and he waved her over to the by now routine protests of the crowd, who made a show of growing impatience any time he let anyone through.
“Five sovereigns,” he said gruffly. “That’s less than I been chargin’ the others, but you’re pretty.”
Lily beamed, and handed over the gold. “Thank you,” she replied, because mother had always told her manners were important.
He looked at her then, took a good look that was just shy of too long-ish for Lily’s comfort, harrumphed. “You got family in there, girl?”
“It’s Lily, ser, and no,” she replied, because mother had always told her it was best to be truthful.
He frowned a careful frown, bushy grey brows knotted together. “Be best if you go find some, know what I mean? Kirkwall’s harsh to a bit of a thing like you.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine, but I’ll keep that in mind, ser,” she replied, because mother had always told her to respect her elders.
With that, he waved her through the gates and off to what she was certain would be a good life, if she had any say in it at all.
And she did, of course. Her family hadn’t been wealthy by any means, but she had enough to rent a little room in the corner of a very imposing woman’s house in Lowtown, provided she kept herself to herself and didn’t bother the family with noise or nonsense. Lily wasn’t much in the habit of either, and was happy enough to have four walls to call, if not home, a temporary solution.
On a bright and busy morning precisely one week later, she rapped politely but insistently on the door of the man in charge of renting stalls and business space in Lowtown, for the thirteenth time. Once in the morning, once in the evening, as his answer in the morning was always “Come back later, I’m busy,” and his answer in the evening was always, “Come back tomorrow, we’re closed.” This time, however, she came prepared, and when he opened the door, she opened her palm, letting him get a very good look at the shiny sovereign that lay within it. He stared at the coin, stared at her, all ginger hair and round curves and slightly too many freckles to be anyone of importance, and quietly opened the door.
Two days after that, Lily set up her very own stall. It had taken quite a bit of arguing, as the man insisted he had nothing at all. “Nothing in Lowtown is available,” he said.
“Surely there must be something,” she replied agreeably, because mother had always told her merchants never, ever gave their best goods the first try, so you ought to try again.
“You don’t have enough money for Hightown, neither, so I got nothing for you,” he repeated.
“Well I didn’t expect Hightown would be in need of bakers anyway – but I’m sure they need them around these parts,” she replied with a determined smile, because mother had always told her it was better to warm a rigid soul with an agreeable temper, than snap it in two from bitter cold.
“Look, the only thing I got is a stall down near the docks.” he finally scowled.
“I’ll take it,” she replied firmly.
“Look, missy, they ain’t really lookin for girls that sell bread down there,” he argued, but started counting coins the second she handed them over.
“Man’s always hungry after a sail,” she pointed out, then grinned, her nose crinkling agreeably. “Besides, they never had my bread.” But she made care not to sound too cocky, as her mother had always told her confidence was one thing, arrogance was quite another indeed.
Lily the songbird, they called her, on account of she sang while she worked, high and reedy and not loud enough to be too obnoxious, but terribly happy to be in business at all. Despite the less than ideal location, she managed to catch the attention of a large group of fishermen the very first day, all of whom bought her bread, all of whom declared, happily enough, that it was very good bread indeed. Three bits for a small loaf, five for a large, she called, day in and day out to passers-by. And they stopped and they bought, rolls and loaves, buns and sweets, the cinnamon ones never lasting more than an hour at best, the most popular thing by far.
The children that ran untended round the dark alleys and narrow streets would often stop by too, smelling her wares and staring with hungry eyes. It took only a fortnight before they all learned that if they came at the very end of the day, just as she was packing up her stall, she’d give them every bit that didn’t sell. Sometimes, Lily wondered to herself if it was all the food they ever got to eat that day, and swallowed the certain suspicion that perhaps she was right.
And every night Lily would return to her room, a small but comfortable nook with four solid walls and a window that overlooked the great tree in the Alienage nearby, a fine room and pretty bit of green, Lily thought. It more than made up for her landlady’s temper and constant arguments with her beleaguered husband.
Lily sat in her room and watched the city below, quiet and biddable as you please, thinking up stories for the elves that laughed and chattered beneath the shade of the tree. And when she was just tired enough, just as the sun had set and the lights in the windows began to go out, she’d curl up on her narrow bed and dream of her mother, fist clenched in her skirts as she watched and learned the tricks of just how long to let dough rise, how to shape loaves just so, how to roll out cookies so thin and crisp they seemed at times like lace or snowflakes, dancing on the wind just before she woke.
It wasn’t the life Lily imagined, far from it, but she liked it all the same.
And the man that rented the stalls in Lowtown was certainly right – they really didn’t expect a baker of all things on the docks, but Lily was right as well in her assessment of the situation, doing well enough to pay for the stall, pay for ingredients, and return each morning bright and early. Only once had anyone tried to hold her up, and the thug very quickly found himself on the wrong end of a half-dozen fists of those who were more than happy to keep her safe – in exchange for an extra sweet roll the following morning.
The gilded Lily they called her, a good-natured joke delivered with fond warmth, on account of she spent most of her time dusted in a fine layer of flour, cinnamon and sugar a constant under her nails. But there were also a stray few that looked on her with lovelorn eyes, tried to court her and inevitably found themselves gently turned away. “Thank you,” she’d tell them, always with a gentle and firm tone so they knew she meant it, “But I’m far too common for the likes of you, and far too busy besides.” Because her mother always told her to be firm but kind, as men’s hearts were often as fragile as their egos, easily shared, easily broken, and a sad thing indeed when they were.
One year later, she met her first qunari.
It was a day much like any other, except that she arrived on the docks to find the mood far more quiet and wary than the day before, and a new gate barring a section of the city, a shadowed figure standing guard. And as it wasn’t her business nor her habit to poke her nose where it did not belong, she continued on her merry way to her stall, setting up her goods and singing the awakening sun a cheerful little tune.
The regulars arrived and bought her rolls in silence, nervous and spending far more time favoring the darkened alley with wary glances than the smile on her face, handing over their coin without a word and hastening on their way. Harold, the youngest of the bunch – though at thirty-four, one could hardly call him young – grasped her arm to get her attention. “Lily dear, you best be findin’ someplace else to sell your wares,” he said, and the worried hush in his voice set her from cheerful smile to careful, puzzled frown.
Yet he insisted, shaking her arm as if to hold the attention which was definitely his and his alone. “You best be findin’ someplace else, quick as you please,” he said again, low and sad and just a little frightened, which scarcely suited him at all. And then he slipped away to join the others, sparing her a worried glance over his shoulder before he was off and away, leaving her to wonder what in the world could unnerve a burly man of thirty-four so.
Lily wasn’t a tall girl. Her mother once called her five foot and a whisker, and though she expected she was a bit taller than that, the fact remained that reaching the tallest shelves in the cupboard always required a step of some kind. Yet when an unfamiliar shadow fell across her stall, she had to crane her neck almost to the point of ridiculousness, she was certain, in order to properly see who had come to call. And to her utter surprise, the person who had come to call was certainly not a human at all.
His skin glistened with the sheen of polished silver, spattered with red and artfully decorative markings, almost exactly as if he were an imposing statue that had somehow come to life and escaped the wealthier half of Hightown. But great dark eyes betrayed him, bright and keen and sharp as they darted over the stall, as well as the soft drift of his snowy hair, gently moving in the breeze. She peered up at him, freckles and wide eyes, curious and still, until she remembered it was time to take the afternoon loaves from the oven, and hastily did so before they burned, setting them on the table to cool. He hadn’t budged an inch, nor had he said a word.
“Hello,” she said, as her mother always told her better friendly than frigid for first impressions.
“You are a baker,” he said, his voice unnaturally low, each word pronounced with careful, precise diction, as if every syllable were a treat to be savored.
“You need a shirt,” she cheerfully replied. “If we’re playing a game of obvious things I mean,” she clarified, but the creature didn’t laugh, merely cocked his head.
He blinked, slowly. “What is this ‘game’?”
That was the moment Lillian Rose Sumner realized that perhaps it was best to ignore much of her mother’s advice for now, as she was fairly certain that never in her life had her mother encountered a silver-skinned horned beast of a painted man in all the years she’d lived. But her mother did always say a person who stopped to look was just a person waiting to be a customer, and that seemed to be quite applicable here. “I am a baker,” she kindly corrected. “Would you like some bread? Three bits for a small loaf, five for a large.”
“What is this ‘bit’?” he asked.
Lily crinkled her nose, slightly nonplussed, but as he was obviously a stranger, and obviously not from around these parts, it only made sense he wouldn’t know. “Currency,” she helpfully replied, but this didn’t seem to make sense to him at all. “Money?” she clarified, but that didn’t seem to sink in either. “These,” she said finally, pulling a few from the pockets of her apron and standing on her tiptoes to hold them up for his bemused observation.
“What purpose are these?” he asked, looming over her and staring at her outstretched palms, taking in the glinting metal discs as if carving them to memory.
“You…trade them. For bread, or…or clothes,” she replied, silently reprimanding herself but also quite adamant about the idea that he very much needed a shirt. “Or a stall, like this one. Or a place to live?” He frowned and she tilted her head, lowered her hands. “You don’t have any bits at all then, do you,” she said, only just slightly disappointed, and he listened carefully to every word, nodded once in reply.
Lily bit her lip, glanced at the cooling trays behind her and came to an abrupt decision. “Here,” she said, plucking one of the smaller loaves that was just cool enough to touch from the tray and holding it up to him.
“I have nothing to give you for this bread,” he replied.
She set her jaw, held the loaf up higher, determined now that she’d made up her mind. “You don’t have to, today. You’re new here. And after all, you didn’t know, did you?” Slowly, he shook his head, and took the loaf, eyeing it with quiet regard before biting into it and chewing agreeably.
“Good, right?” She chirped, not waiting for an answer. “Won’t find better till you hit Hightown, maybe, and even then not I suspect, although I don’t know as I don’t really go up there, I mean my stall’s here and home’s here and there’s not much reason and everything up there is very expensive and I suppose they haven’t got much use fo…” she trailed off, realizing she was not only babbling, but he was scarce paying her any attention at this point, wholly interested in crunching through the delicate, crisp crust her mother had taught her to craft so very well, to the soft, fluffy center, still toasty warm from the oven. He looked a bit, she mused, like the great shaggy rams that roamed the woods near her family’s property in Ferelden. Only with quite a lot less hair, legs instead of hooves and actually, she realized, when it came down to it, it was just the combination of horns and patient expression as he ate.
Lily suspected this was quite possibly the strangest day she’d ever had in her life.
But he finished off the loaf with impressive speed, and although he did not crack a smile, his shoulders relaxed just a fraction and if Lily squinted her eyes just so, she thought perhaps he was pleased. At least he hadn’t spat it out, anyway. She wasn’t even sure what he was, or whether he ate bread, after all.
“You are a good baker,” he said, correcting his earlier statement.
Lily beamed. “Why thank you ser,” and politely offered him another smaller loaf. He stared at it for a moment, canted his head. “Go on,” she said. “I only gave you a little one and that was an awfully small loaf and you’re…not small,” she clarified.
He took it and suddenly turned his head, almost as if listening to some unheard signal. “I must go,” he said, returning his gaze to her. “I thank you, for the bread, baker.”
“Lily,” she corrected. He blinked, in that slow manner that, she was learning, suggested he didn’t understand. “Lily,” she repeated, tapping her chest. “Lily is my name.”
He looked slightly taken aback at that, brow drawn in a great furrow, but nodded. “Lily,” he repeated. “It is good bread. I must go.”
“You’re welcome!” she chirped as he strode off with quiet, measured steps. It wasn’t till he disappeared around the corner that she realized she hadn’t asked his name as well. Ah well. Perhaps for the best, she decided, and went on with her day as usual, slightly perplexed at the lack of people roaming this section of the docks. Perhaps an off day, she decided at the end of the evening, packing up her belongings and waiting patiently for the hushed stampede of small footsteps. It took a bit longer than usual for them to arrive, but the children were terribly pleased to find far more leftovers than usual this time, and she was happy enough to leave them with full bellies.
She made her way back up the long steps to Lowtown, scurrying past the main family quarters and the nightly argument between landlady and husband to the relative peace of her little room. And this time, she stared out the window at the Alienage thinking up stories about the stranger and the odd, surely magical land he’d come from, a land where neither names nor money existed, and good bakers were apparently a pleasant surprise. Mother knew a great deal, and had passed on every last bit of it to her over her relatively short lifetime – but mother had never told her of anything other than dwarves or elves, of that she was certain.
And had Lily glanced down and to the right, instead of staring at the Alienage tree, she might have noticed the dark-eyed stranger and two others, who stood in silence on a rooftop along the other side of her usual view, and watched her with quiet and pointed regard.
Chapter 2: Ashaad
“A lily is a flower.”
Lily perked up, glanced over her shoulder while juggling a hot tray of loaves fresh from the oven, carefully setting it on the table and dusting her hands on her apron. It had been a week since she’d seen hide or hair of the stranger, although rumors had run up and down Lowtown enough to finally reach her ears. It wasn’t the fishermen who’d told her, though Harold looked grimmer with each passing morning he spotted her in her familiar stall. No, it was her landlady who’d finally given her a name for the creature. Or creatures, as it turned out – four nights ago, she’d arrived at her home and quietly scuttled off to her room, but stopped in her tracks at the evening’s argument.
“Demon beasts,” the woman spat, loudly enough to be clearly heard halfway to Hightown, Lily remembered. “They call themselfs what was it, Harriet done told me, koo-naree, that was it – demon beasts and Harriet told me they’ll be lookin’ to conquer the blighted city soon as we turn our backs!” Her husband muttered some kind of halfhearted protest, and her voice pitched up another octave. “Conquer, Thomas – honestly would you look at me when I’m speaking to you?!”
Lily listened long enough to hear Thomas’ mournful dirge begin before slipping into her room. And as she sat at the window, she frowned and supposed, had she given the silver-skinned stranger the most passing of looks with her eyes squinched just so, that he still looked quite a bit more like a goat than a demon. As the landlady had continued to rant ever on, Lily stared out the window, soundlessly forming the word in her mouth – koo-na-ree – and wondering why in all of her mother’s stories and all of the tales of lands faraway, she’d never mentioned such a thing, not to her, not to her siblings, not even her father, as far as she knew.
In fact, the only thing Lily did know for certain was that the stranger hadn’t been unkind, hadn’t threatened her in the slightest, and seemed to enjoy her bread. And although she had no experience with demons or magic or whatever it was that made either of them be, it stood to reason that a demon wasn’t exactly likely to stand around a stall and thoughtfully chew on a loaf of bread. If it had been a demon, she expected there’d at least have been quite a bit more screaming involved. Either way, she wasn’t about to go argue the point with the landlady, as she quite liked her little room and as her mother always told her, a ship sails smoothest on calm waters. But the stranger, whoever or whatever he might have been, hadn’t been back.
Instead, business continued on as usual, subdued for a few days and then as busy as it ever was. At the present moment however it wasn’t quite noon and the street was largely deserted, save for the shadow looming over her stall. And it was one she recognized, craning her neck upward and smiling politely at his dour proclamation.
“A lily is a flower,” he repeated, as sonorous and carefully-spoken as before.
“Yes,” Lily confirmed helpfully. “Yes, it is a flower.”
The creature frowned, his entire face invested in the disapproving scowl. “You are not a flower,” he intoned.
Lily blinked. While this was, she admitted, technically true, she wasn’t quite sure of his point. “No,” she confirmed agreeably enough. “I’m not a flower. I work with flour, though, see?” Beaming, she held up her hands, covered with a fine dusting of the stuff. He did not return her smile, though his scowl faded, instead settling somewhere between contemplation and puzzled bemusement.
“I forgot to ask you your name the other day,” she went on, busying herself with plucking the loaves from where they cooled, stacking them in baskets. “That was awfully rude of me, I didn’t know if you’d come back or not but since here you are well then you can just give it to me now, can’t you?” Lily cast her eyes skyward, squinting at the sun. Not quite lunchtime. Her days had become a near constant rhythm of baking and traffic, predictable but pleasant. And while the horned stranger was fascinating to behold, he wasn’t about to get in the way of her work.
“I am Ashaad.” He delivered this information as matter-of-factly as he’d told her, in all distinct seriousness, that she was not a flower.
“Ashaad! That’s an unusual name. What does it mean? Is that a flower where you come from?” She asked politely. He scowled by way of reply, gave a shake of his head, tossing his horns in evident disgust.
“You are not a flower, and neither am I. I am Ashaad. For the Antaam, the Arishok, the Qunari.” Lily perked up at the unfamiliar word, quickly realizing that in all the outrage and complaints, her landlady had managed to mangle the pronunciation. Or perhaps Harriet had – whoever she was. She’d never met Harriet, but if the woman was anything like her landlady, Lily suspected it was a fine thing indeed that she hadn’t.
“Well no, I am not a flower,” she intoned right back at him, then grinned enough to crinkle her nose. “But I am Lily. It’s my name, silly; it’s not what I am. I’m a human.”
Ashaad continued to frown in an expression she was quickly beginning to realize meant he was thinking very hard. And whatever it was he was thinking, she’d no idea, but she figured he’d tell her soon enough. “You are bas,” he said finally.
“I…well, I suppose if I knew what that was, I could tell you yes or no, but if that’s what you’re calling bakers where you come from, or girls, or humans, then yes I suppose I am.” She glanced from her baskets to him, slightly hopeful. “…did you find any bits, Ashaad?” At the shake of his head, she sighed a wistful little sigh, then handed him a loaf – a large one, this time.
“I have nothing to give you for this bread,” he informed her.
“Yes, we’d established that already,” she replied, then glanced down the narrow road towards the docks. “Just don’t tell anyone else, or I’ll never hear the end of it.”
He took the bread, bit into it and chewed, a flicker of blissful contemplation finally breaking the near-constant scowl. Satisfied, Lily continued setting up her baskets, one eye to the sun and the other on her work, arranging them all in a line just so and stepping back to admire her handiwork. She’d assumed that as he’d gotten some bread, he’d be on his way, but when she finished he still stood there, licking crumbs from the corner of his mouth and staring at her with almost exactly the same look her father had given her when, at age six, she’d enthusiastically declared she’d like to be a mabari when she grew up.
It was all very well and good that he seemed to like her bread, she supposed, but she was also very much in the habit of getting customers during the day, and he wasn’t exactly the sort of creature to encourage good commerce. So she stared right back at him, since he seemed so interested in staring at her, giant metal-skinned horned not-a-demon versus tiny freckled ginger not-a-flower, for what seemed like hours, but was in actuality two or three minutes. Finally, she broke the silence. “Yes?”
He blinked slowly, brows inching together just slightly, inclined his chin. “I must go. Thank you for the bread, baker.”
“Lily,” she insisted at his retreating back. Ten minutes later, a great crowd of dock workers made their way up the streets and kept her busy enough buying a good three quarters of what she’d made that she’d all but forgotten he’d been there by the time they were gone.
“Papa says you’re gonna be a old maid,” Billy announced, grinning up at her as he took the bread from her and bit into it almost the moment it’d left her hands.
“Your papa could stand to learn some manners,” she cheerfully replied, rustling his hair and moving on to the next child. There were thirteen, this time – more than usual. Billy was a regular, and among the many things he’d proudly told her over the past year, his father was a drunken lout and he had no mum. Joseph and Edeline were twins who spent most of their time petulantly sniping at each other, and the rest laughing at the sniping. The day they both started sniping at her was a good day for Lily, as it meant, from what she understood, that they liked her just as much as they liked each other.
Lucy was eight years old and one of four regulars, all friends. Although the four seldom came by together, they rotated often enough, and spoke of each other often enough that she assumed they lived if not together, at least next door to each other.
Then there were the Dunston siblings, orphans who looked out for each other and lived somewhere in Lowtown, though where she couldn’t say – but a group of six children surely must have had somewhere to go at the end of the day, as they always showed up with faces and hands half-heartedly scrubbed, and were cheerful enough despite the lack of mother or father. The Dunstons knew every child in Lowtown, and were friends with them all – they usually introduced any shy newcomers, but not today.
The two smallest children, wide-eyed and heartbreakingly shy, no more than four, maybe five years old, clutched at the skirts of an older girl who took enough bread for all of them and doled it out with a quiet thank you, the three disappearing just as quickly as they’d come, unnamed. Lily watched them disappear, her usual cheery disposition faltering just a little, and hoped they’d come back again.
Sometimes they came back. Sometimes they came back every night for months on end, and then just…disappeared without a trace. Those were the worst days, when one of the Dunstons informed her with solemn eyes that Joselyn or Evie or Justin or Chester weren’t going to be coming back at all, ever.
She remembered all their names, anyway. She didn’t expect anyone else would.
“Where are your Tamassrans?” A familiar voice intoned behind her, and she bit back a scream, whirling on Ashaad. He stood with arms crossed, the familiar scowl entirely gone from his face, replaced by a pensive expression which, if he were a human, she might have called worry. “I have frightened you,” he observed.
“Well yes, it’s not as though hearing a man’s voice in an alley when the sun’s near down is a good thing,” she patiently explained, settling her nerves.
“I am sorry.” He inclined his head, and she nodded by way of reply, glancing down the alley and hoping he hadn’t inadvertently frightened off any other children with his quiet appearance. But there was no one to be found. “Where are your Tamassrans?” he asked again, relentlessly calm.
“I…don’t know what that word means.” Lily bit her lip. Obviously there was a language barrier to be gotten round, but she hadn’t the faintest idea where to begin. Luckily, he seemed to be fine with explaining things to her, although he spoke to her almost as if she were a child in her own right.
“Tamassrans. The ones who watch your children.” The beginnings of a frown were just started to creep upon his face.
“Oh, their mothers you mean?” She asked. The answer got her nowhere, so she went on. “Parents?” Still nothing, though a faint flicker of comprehension crossed his face for just a moment. “The ones who had them,” she clarified.
“Tamassrans,” he said again. “Who watches your children?”
“Well, their parents do, like I said – their mothers usually, fathers are off working. For bits,” she added as a hopeful, subtle reminder that yes, these things did in fact exist.
“Those children were not being watched.”
Lily peered up at him, wondering where exactly he’d come from, that such a thing would be strange to him. “They don’t have parents.”
“Who watches them?” Ashaad insisted, clearly not understanding her at all.
“No one,” she said finally. “No one watches them. Mostly. They watch each other.”
She wasn’t at all prepared for the look of disgust that crawled over his face, staring at her as if she’d grown a second or third head, almost outraged that she’d said such a thing. And almost despite herself, she took the tiniest of steps backward, slightly concerned that he was about to possibly vent that frustration and outrage wholly on her. It was enough to capture his attention, and shake the revulsion from his face; replacing it with the contemplative patience she was growing more accustomed to.
“They had nothing to give you for that bread,” he stated.
“Well no, they’re children. They don’t have money, bits.” Lily replied firmly.
Something in the air shifted, and he took a step forward, suddenly speaking far more quickly, the clipped precision of his words just a little dizzying. “You are a baker. You trade your bread for this currency, these bits, to the men that work here. Yet you give your bread to those children, when they have none of this currency, these bits. Why?”
Lily stared up at him in quiet astonishment. “Because they’re hungry,” she replied, exasperated, the answer entirely too obvious to her. It wasn’t his misunderstanding that was fraying her nerves, it was that he clearly either came from some wholly impossible kingdom where where things like orphans and hungry children didn’t exist, or they did exist, and he simply didn’t realize they were there. She felt herself sliding from her usual cheerful demeanor into an almost hopeless frown, and struggled to keep her temper.
Ashaad blinked, peering down at her as if she suddenly warranted far more intense interest. “You give your bread to me, when I have none.”
Lily took a deep breath, counting backward from ten just as her mother always taught her to do when she was especially frustrated, and offered a tentative smile. “Well yes,” she said. “I expect you’re hungry too.”
He drew his head back, canting it first left then right, examining her as carefully as she checked her loaves for imperfections when she’d pulled them from the oven. “You are bas,” he said, repeating the word from earlier in the day, although he didn’t sound nearly quite so sure of himself this time.
“I am Lily,” she replied, glancing up at the slowly fading sky. “And honestly I really ought to be getting home on account of it’s almost dark and out here is nowhere for anyone to be after hours.” At his continued stare, she gave him a tight, faintly apologetic smile. “Really though the worst people come out at night, and I’ve got a ways to be walking.”
“Go, then,” he said, standing at his full height and craning his neck to peer down the rapidly dimming street. “I have made you late. I will watch, none will harm you.”
“I…well. Thank you,” she said, giving him another polite nod, and made her way down the streets. He didn’t follow, not that she could see. But no one stopped her on the way home either, and she expected that was just fine with her. Lily slipped in through the door, quiet as a mouse, to the snores of the sleeping family – though whether the landlady or her husband snored louder, she really couldn’t say. But her room was suddenly far more comfortable, her bed far more welcoming than peering out the window, and as it was late in the day she decided she ought to skip the daydreaming and go straight to the actual dreaming instead.
She dreamed of her mother, her brothers and sisters, gathered round the great table in the dining room, her father laughing happily over them all as they bantered and bickered. Heedless of the day, the night, the dangers of either, content with the world and their lot in it.
And if her pillow was just a bit damp when she woke in the morning, well, that couldn't be helped.
Chapter 3: Demands
He had the kind of eyes that glinted with devilish mischief, stolen kisses and broken hearts, Lily decided – the kind of eyes mothers warned their daughters about, and for good reason. But there was nothing of mischief in those eyes when he bit into the sweet roll. No, instead he rolled his gaze heavenward and made the kind of exultant noise usually reserved for prayers whispered in the Chantry. “Oh. Oh by the Maker,” he groaned, licking bits of frosting from his fingers and darting an accusatory glance to his companion. “Why didn’t you tell me about this before?” His eyes narrowed in mock suspicion, that glint of mischief returning full force. “You’ve been keeping her from me Varric. You’ve been hogging these things for yourself, haven’t you – Maker’s breath—“ Anything else he might have said was lost in a blissful mouthful of pastry and frosting.
“Don’t mind Hawke,” Varric grinned up at her. “…he’s had a long night. Long enough that, well, you know. It’s morning.”
Lily handed the dwarf another roll, watching the other man from the corner of her eye and doing her very best to avoid smiling too smugly. “Shall I tell him how many times you’ve popped by over the past year and a half, Serah Tethras?”
“Lily,” the dwarf warned, “Don’t you dare. And cut the fancy talk, you know I hate it.” But there was humor bubbling in his words, a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth even as he spoke.
“I’ll be seeing you tomorrow then, Varric?” she smartly replied, flippant and probably far too full of cheek, directing the question at his back as they turned to go. Varric gave her a broad wink over his shoulder, “Save two for me this time, sweetheart? I’ll never hear the end of it otherwise.” He grabbed Hawke by the arm, forcibly dragging him away, much to the dark eyed, dark haired man’s dismay. The two sauntered off, Hawke’s exclamations and accusations loud enough to be heard even after they’d rounded the corner.
Someone told her, at one point or another, that Varric Tethras was a very influential man. She remembered very distinctly that they’d delivered this information in the sort of hushed tones usually reserved for speaking of nobility. But Varric had never made any airs around her, and most certainly hadn’t introduced himself with any of the pomp or grace she’d assumed someone of high station probably had. He’d just…shown up one morning out of nowhere, chimed in with her singing in rough, untrained harmony. And when she stopped, astonished, he had grinned a sly, self-assured grin up at her. “Hello, beautiful! Gimmie the best you’ve got.” She gave him a sweet roll, took the bits and then had the sheer joy of watching him make the kind of faces his friend had made, surprised and enchanted and richly, wholly content in a way that reminded her always of home.
Ever since then, he’d continued to stop by every now and again, never in a regular pattern but always within a week or so to claim one of the rolls, trade a bit of conversation about nothing at all, and disappear as quickly as he’d arrived. He called her sweetheart, or beautiful, but in a way entirely unlike the slightly less than savory fishermen whose eyes lingered far too long where they shouldn’t. It wasn’t some kind of slimy, patronizing wheedle for attention, it was given with genuine affection – rare enough to find in Lowtown, and appreciated.
Particularly now. In the last year or so, the atmosphere on the docks had begun to shift, subtly. Perhaps it was the continuing arrival of refugees from Ferelden, Lily thought. Perhaps it was that the city simply didn’t have room for all the people who suddenly wanted to be in it. The sheer number of children who came by after she’d closed her stall for the evening was almost unspoken proof of her suspicions – children from places far away, or children who had simply been displaced and discarded, forgotten with no family or fortune, no matter how small. She did her best to make sure they all had something in their bellies by the time they went home, but at the same time…
Well. At the same time there seemed to be a lot more people running around Lowtown and gathering on the docks, but none of them seemed willing to pay for things like bread and sweets. Either they had no money, or they were far more invested in…whatever it was that was going on down there. Because something was shifting, Lily could sense it, but she’d no idea what it was. It made her nervous, it made it harder to smile, and it made it harder to daydream, harder to plan.
The qunari had been here all this time, too, and that also seemed to set people off. The more people arrived, the more they spared suspicious, frightened glances at the darkened alley, the great gate, the shadowy figure that stood at the top of the stairs every day. She couldn’t exactly blame them, after all at first glance she supposed there was something unsettling about giant horned beast men who, even after all this time, apparently couldn’t be bothered with things like shirts.
But none of the suspicious and wary people had actually tried to talk to any of them. To be fair, the qunari weren’t exactly reaching out with warm and friendly arms, either. They continued to cloister themselves away, save for a few that could be seen every now and again walking from one alley to another with purpose in their steps and eyes, and no indication of what that purpose happened to be.
Lily had asked Ashaad, once. Only once. He still visited her stall during off hours, once or twice a week, always asked her questions, and never really answered any of hers – not to her satisfaction. And despite the fact that he’d been there for well over a year, he still hadn’t found any bits, nor traded her anything for bread. She couldn’t really bring herself to be upset about that, it had become almost a ritual – he’d show up, she’d offer him a loaf, he would declare, solemnly, that he had nothing to trade, and she’d hand it to him anyway. Besides, he was one of a few people – human, dwarf or otherwise – that would talk to her on a semi-regular basis.
He’d appeared, as he always did, just after all the children – two dozen that night – had left, scurrying back to whatever corner of the city they’d come from with bread clutched firmly in hand. She watched them go, staring down the darkened alley until every last one of them were safely away.
“They grow in number,” he observed from somewhere behind her. He never bothered with greetings. She wasn’t sure if that meant he was being more or less polite, but as he’d never turned down her bread and continued to stop by, she assumed the former, that he’d grown accustomed to her, in his way.
“They do,” she absently replied, suddenly feeling slightly less cheerful. “Not just the children. The city’s growing, really – you’ve seen it, haven’t you?” Lily glanced up at him, questioning. “New boats in every day.” Ashaad nodded, once.
And that was when her curiosity, lingering just beneath the surface, got the better of her. “Ashaad,” she said suddenly, the words tumbling from her mouth like water before she could think to stop them, “Why are you here?” His attention, his eyes, both were already on her, but beyond the patient regard was a hint of curiosity.
“I only mean that, I mean I don’t mean it in a bad way mind, it’s just that you’ve been here, and by you of course I mean all of you, not just you, but you’ve been here haven’t you for what, a year now isn’t it, maybe a bit more I don’t even remember you know every day is almost the same so they start to string together a bit don’t they and it’s always up in the morning baking and the thing is, the thing is people are sort of starting to talk, they talk right there in front of me because I’m not really there mind you not as far as they’re concerned I sort of disappear once they’ve handed over the bits and gotten their bread and sometimes they talk and none of them seem to know why you’re here and then I realized well goodness I talk to you all the time and I don’t know and some of them say you’ll leave eventually and others say you’re here for good and some of them keep talking about conquering which is silly, of course it’s silly because it’s just silly isn’t it and – “ Lily broke off, suddenly stricken with the urge to breathe and biting her lip apologetically. “And...I really thought maybe I should just ask, on account of asking gets answers far better than wondering ever does, doesn’t it?” she finished, somewhat lamely.
He didn’t move, not once, not during the entire litany, still as stone and as expressionless as always, although she imagined once or twice there was a flicker of something in his gaze, eagle-eyed and observant and clearly interested in letting her simply speak her mind, as he hadn’t interrupted her. But when she finished, he inclined his great head to acknowledge, she imagined, the amount of breath she’d just spent.
Apparently all she had to do was ask. “To meet a demand of the Qun.”
“Who is the Qun?” she replied, curious.
Ashaad pulled back, drew himself to his full height, back arrow straight, staring at her with an almost offended, astonished set to his jaw. And for the first time Lily felt well and truly as if she were not only the alien one, but the alien one who had just inadvertently said something incredibly foul, dirty, and disgusting. He looked at her as if she were some kind of bug, an insignificant insect, like one of the painfully loud beetles she detested, or like a dog. A stupid, horrible dog that smelled particularly bad. "The Qun," he intoned, and she nearly flinched at the disdain in his voice, "Is not a person."
It was, Lily remembered with vivid clarity, the single most humiliating moment of her life. And for the life of her, she couldn't understand why – and that made it so, so much worse. Even more so when he snorted, and turned to leave without saying another word.
“Wait! Wait, please, please wait,” she blurted out, a sudden sting to her eyes. Ashaad halted in his tracks, and though he did not turn around, he dared a glance over one shoulder, imperious and cold. “Please,” she said again, heart twisted up inside her, hands clutching the empty baskets. “Please, I don’t…I didn’t know. I’m sorry, I’m very, very sorry, please don’t go I don’t…there’s…” She trailed off, gulping back the beginnings of tears. Lily stared at the ground, wholly ashamed of herself, and not quite certain why she felt so very small, dejected and rejected – and then she heard a step, two, three, and then she was in shadow.
She looked up, quite certain she was possibly the most piteous creature currently in Lowtown and quietly hating herself for it. “Please,” she said again, struggling to regain her composure. “It’s…it’s only that I don’t have many, that is to say there isn’t exactly many people to talk to, and you come by, and you t-talk, and you’re kind, as kind as anyone could be I suppose, being here, and I honestly didn’t mean to offend you it’s just that…I’m sorry.”
Lily trailed off, feeling mostly like an idiot, but Ashaad hadn’t moved away. Instead, he stood, brow drawn together, but the look of disgust was gone, replaced by pensive thought. “Why are you here?” he asked finally.
“I…well I was feeding the children, you know that,” she replied, straightening up just a little and taking a shaky breath, offering him an even shakier, tentative smile.
He shook his head, once. “Why are you here,” he repeated, and there was a curious weight to the question, as if he were searching for some sort of specific answer. Lily bit her lip, not quite understanding the intonation, the emphasis, and tried as best she could.
“Where do you mean? Lowtown? The docks?” He shook his head again, and now she was the one frowning up at him, on account of he wasn’t exactly making sense.
“What do you do?” he demanded, glancing down the street to where her stall stood, closed up for the evening.
She blinked, hesitant to answer, still not quite certain what kind of answer he wanted, but at least he’d changed the question. “I…well, I bake things. And then I go home. And then I get up and I come back here and I bake some more.” For some reason, this got a far better reaction from him – he nodded, satisfied with the answer, and she relaxed just a little.
“Why are you here,” he asked again, his voice gentler this time, leading and patient as if he were speaking to a child.
“Because I’m a really good baker,” she said, almost without thinking. “Because I like baking things. And because people are always hungry. I mean, they always like bread, and rolls, and cakes, and…everything else I’m good at making. And…well it doesn’t make much sense to do anything else then, does it?” Lily blinked up at him inquisitively.
“Why?” he asked, staring at her with complete concentration.
“Well, because – I mean I suppose I could go work for a noble house up in Hightown and bake for them, but it wouldn’t really mean anything then, would it? I expect the pay would be better, but…they don’t need it, do they?”
“All creatures need nourishment.” He said it with utter finality, not a statement, but a certainty.
“Well yes I know that,” she huffed, “But that’s not what I mean. I mean they don’t need it. They could get bread anywhere, anytime, from anyone they wanted, because they have the sovereigns to pay for that sort of thing. But here…here they don’t get good bread, I don’t expect they do, I don’t expect they get much good of anything really. So why would I go up there where one person, maybe two might get to enjoy what I do, when here—“ she swept an arm wide, “—here there are plenty of people who might never get good food, might not even know how it tastes? Why would I share what I can do with one or two or three people in a house, when I could share it with the people that need it the most?”
Ashaad’s stare hardened imperceptibly. “Yet you ask for currency, bits, in exchange for your goods.”
Lily blinked up at him, bewildered. “Well of course I do. How else would I pay for the things to make the bread with?”
He blinked right back at her, slowly, canted his head, examining her with newfound patience. “Under the Qun, such things are provided. Food is made, and food is shared.” he said.
It made very little sense to her at the time. “Then I suppose this Qun must be very nice,” she said, somewhat lamely, almost apologetic. “…it doesn’t work that way in Kirkwall. Or…well, anywhere else, really.”
Ashaad glanced up at the dimming sky. “Go, imekari. The sky darkens. None will harm you.”
Lily wasn’t sure what the word he used meant, but it wasn’t the one he used before. And she went home without another word, undisturbed as he’d said, although she didn’t see him anywhere along the way. She’d tried to ask him again, a few weeks later, about the Qun, but he refused, so she simply handed him his bread and let him go on his way.
But she knew they had a purpose here, now. She knew there was a reason they were here, it wasn’t just that they were stranded here, and they certainly weren’t interested in conquering the city. If they were, they’d have done it long ago, she suspected. Instead, they were content to stay where they were, and make very little contact with anyone else. The next time Ashaad had stopped by her stall, he had another qunari with him – they looked like brothers, nearly identical in stance and demeanor, although the stranger had slightly different horns, and did not look at her, did not speak to her until she handed him a loaf of bread, too. And then he’d looked at her with faint disgust – until he bit into the bread, a flicker of startled appreciation at the taste, the texture. Then, and only then did he turn to Ashaad, and say something in their language – she heard the word bas, and she knew they were talking about her. But Ashaad shook his head, and said another word – kabethari – and the other glanced at her with renewed interest. They walked away without another word to each other or to her, although she caught Ashaad looking back at her just before they made their way down the darkened alley and past the gate to their home.
Since then, she seemed to have gained some sort of reasonable amount of…she wouldn’t dare call it respect, no, but it was some kind of attention or another. It wasn’t overt, she hadn’t earned any smiles, she hadn’t earned any conversation other than Ashaad’s occasional visits, but every now and again she’d catch one qunari or another striding by her stall with purpose, and if she glanced up at the right moment, she caught them looking away. And every now and again, one would wordlessly stop by her stall, and she’d just as wordlessly hand them a loaf of bread if she had one on hand, and they’d be on their way. They never paid her, but it wasn’t as if they were eating her out of house and home, and if they liked her bread enough to come looking for it, she wasn’t going to turn them away.
And she’d gone over that conversation they had in the alley in her head, over and over, repeating the words as she sat and looked out the little window at the Alienage tree, but whatever meaning they held to Ashaad, they meant little to her. Whatever subtle thing had changed between them, she couldn’t pinpoint it. And as her mother always said, a worry was as useful as a knot in a net, and twice as annoying – so she eventually let it go, and simply enjoyed the fact that he still deemed her worth speaking to, even if the conversations were strange.
At least he knew she was there. And the more people flooded into Lowtown and the docks, the less people seemed to notice she existed at all. But the few that did – Ashaad, Varric, Harold, the children – they made it easier to be cheerful despite it all.
Varric arrived again well over a week later, Hawke in tow, dark eyes brimming with, she imagined, hope that she had more of the sweet rolls to offer. And Varric…was decidedly off, dragging his feet and not really wanting to meet her eyes. Hawke took the sweet roll, bit into it with another moan of delight, let Varric foot the bill – and all the while Varric looked as nervous as she’d ever seen him.
Lily took the money, stuffed it in her apron pockets, and fixed the dwarf with the kind of look her mother used to use when she knew one of the children had had their hands in the cookie jar, but none would confess. “All right, out with it,” she said finally. And Hawke nudged Varric just so, and Varric glared at the dark-haired man, and Lily began to suspect that Hawke was, indeed, the kind of man her mother warned her about, only in all seriousness this time, because the look he briefly darted her direction was the kind of look a man gives a woman when they want something.
“Okay! Okay – Hawke will you just—“ Varric glared, then turned back to Lily. “You’ve been here a long time, haven’t you Lily?”
“Bit over a year, what, closer to two now I think? Why?” She busied herself pulling a tray of loaves from the oven, setting them on the table to cool and glancing over her shoulder just in time to see Varric and Hawke exchange a significant look that she was positive she didn’t understand in the least. Hawke nudged Varric again, and he heaved a sigh, turning back to Lily with a gentle, encouraging smile.
“You see everyone that goes by here, right? Down this stretch of road?”
“Yes…” she hesitantly replied.
“Excellent!” Hawke interjected, earning him a glare from Varric and her wary attention. She watched him suspiciously, and he was, as she expected, all full of pleasant smiles and agreeable expression. “Have you ever seen the Viscount’s son down here? At the qunari compound?”
His easy familiarity immediately set her on edge. “I don’t expect I’d know him even if I saw him,” she replied, a cool edge to her voice. She steadfastly refused to meet his eyes and instead directed her attention at the baskets, setting them up on the table one by one. From behind her, she heard Varric hiss something at Hawke under his breath. Lily glanced up long enough to note that the dark-eyed man – Hawke – was watching her with intent scrutiny. Like he was trying to sort her out, pick her apart, figure out how to get whatever it was he wanted.
That really was more than enough, as far as she was concerned, and she set the basket firmly on the table, crossed her arms, and pointedly stared back with the look her mother used when she was waiting for her father to finish his absent-minded rambling about one thing or another and actually get to the point of whatever it was he was trying to say. It more than did the trick – Hawke drew back, awkwardly scratching his neck and looking away. Varric scowled, fit to be tied, and shot another dagger-eyed glare at the man. “Go…find something to look at, Hawke.” He opened his mouth to protest. “I’ll bring you another sweet roll,” Varric added, and without another word, Hawke headed off further down the docks, a hangdog expression on his face.
Lily watched Varric with wary eyes, and he watched her for a full minute before he started talking. “I’m sorry,” he said, finally. “Hawke doesn't really do subtle. He’s kinda like a mabari sometimes – he gets eager and caught up on something and he won’t let up. I told him you wouldn’t know, he said we should ask anyway, it’s…it’s a mess.”
The wariness faded just a little, and she very slowly, very deliberately slid another sweet roll over the counter. “What kind of mess?” she asked. But Varric shook his head, handed over another handful of bits.
“The kind of mess you don’t want to be wrapped up in, sweetheart, and I’ll be damned if he pulls you in. Look, if you see anything strange out here, you let me know, okay?” Varric picked up the sweet roll, sighed with a heavy weariness that sent another sweet roll obligingly across the counter. He dug in his pockets, and she held up a hand, shook her head.
“I expect you could use another,” she said quietly, and went back to her baskets. “Go on, now.”
“Thanks, Lily. Just…be careful out here. You’re one of the good ones.”
And he was on his way, just like that. Lily frowned after him, slightly concerned - she'd never seen him well and truly worried before, not like this. But it was nearly noon, and there were hungry mouths to feed, and that was of far more concern to her than a random man’s errands and a Viscount’s son.
Chapter 4: Seeds to sow
Mild implied violence - nothing explicit.
Oh lily, oh lily the sun’s out and shining,
Oh lily, sweet lily, now where do you go,
To the garden, through the garden and out to yon meadow,
For the day it is early and I’ve se—
Lily blanched, staring down the narrow road and looking for the source of the jeer, but it was nowhere to be found – lost in a crowd of people, but clearly directed at her. It didn’t matter how early she arrived anymore, the streets were always full of people near the docks now, either on their way to work or on their way to bed.
And none of them had time nor patience for a baker’s song anymore, it seemed. It’d been two years since she’d arrived in Kirkwall, and Lowtown, despite her best efforts and utmost cheer, hadn’t seen any improvements. If anything, the place had gotten worse.
“Don’t pay them no nevermind, Lily – you’ve a sweet voice, ain’t never been hard on the ears.” Lily glanced up, offering Harold a tentative smile. He still came by, although by now the rest of his crew had long since moved on, unwilling to visit. Harold told her they’d left for safer waters – better fishing, he said aloud, but she could see in his eyes he meant to say safer waters. But Harold always stopped by, bought more than he could eat, said a few words about his family, asked how she’d been.
He was one of a few that still did. Varric came by every now and again, but his last visit had been well over a month ago – he told her he’d be some time away, something about his brother, an expedition, she couldn’t remember the details. His friend, Hawke, didn’t really speak to her at all. Oh, he spoke at her, politely thanked her for the sweet rolls, devoured them with mad abandon, but he knew better than to ask anything more. She quietly suspected that Varric had had more than one conversation with him on the matter, because sometimes he looked as though he wanted to say something, but a sharp look from Varric shut him up before he’d even begun to open his mouth. So he’d just watch her sometimes, or watch Varric watch her, and wouldn’t say anything at all.
And she felt slightly guilty about that, too, as it wasn’t her habit to make people unhappy. They’d gotten off on the wrong foot was all and she knew it, she knew she’d been cold, but he hadn’t even said hello since that day he interrupted, full of curt questions hidden behind the pretense of friendly smiles. And it wasn't as if they had nothing in common - she'd seen him since then, walking to and from the darkened alley where the qunari lived, every now and again, just striding in as if he belonged there. She wondered if he ever spoke to Ashaad, but she didn't really want to ask, didn't want the answer. All she ever really wanted was an apology. Problem was, he didn’t seem to know it, or didn’t seem to care, or didn’t seem to know what an apology was. And her mother always told her there was nothing so rare, so kind as a sorry delivered without prompting, and as her mother’s advice hadn’t failed her so far, Lily expected it was best that she wait till one had.
So she smiled and she baked and she sang and she moved on, as it seemed easier than dwelling on the world around her, sometimes. It was easier than dwelling on the people that stood around in groups, just around the corner; never heeded her presence but always spoke to each other in low, hushed tones. They watched the other people, the ones that walked by, the ones with heavy pockets, and she knew it wasn’t good what they were saying.
But Lily also knew full well there was nothing she could do about it. So she smiled and she baked and she sang and she tried her hardest to ignore the little ache in her gut that grew just a little more painful every day. As her mother always told her, your life was as good as you were to others, so she tried her hardest to be kind and hoped it would rub off, at least a little.
This, however, this was the first morning someone had told her to shut up, and it hurt, just the tiniest bit, she quietly admitted to herself. More than she wanted to say. But she wasn’t about to let Harold see it, and gave him her cheeriest smile. “Maybe it’s a little early for songbirds,” she gently suggested, handing him an extra sweet roll for his kind words, and for remembering her name.
“Maybe the songbird best be flying away,” he replied, shot her a rueful grin when she stuck out her tongue, heaved a sigh and shook his head with mild reproach. Lily had lost count of how many times he’d told her she should move her stall. Somewhere better, he said. Somewhere higher up in the city. But she shrugged off his words and shooed him away each time – they didn’t need her there, she expected. Here, at least, she could give people what they needed, good food and a smiling face, both equally rare these days.
It was with that in mind that she watched the roads clear as much as they usually did – they were never really well and truly empty anymore, between the beggars and the little groups that watched and planned and the ones that sat around in corners and glared at the world as if it’d offended them horribly. The constant, indecipherable din of hushed conversations filled her ears as she began her work for midday, kneading dough, sifting flour and shaping loaf after loaf for the little stone oven. In hindsight, Lily thought maybe she should have looked up when she first heard the voice.
“Fine day,” the man said.
But she didn’t look up, just kept up with her work, smiled and nodded in pleasant agreement. “Good day for baking – though I suppose every day is a good day for baking, here, doesn’t really rain does it? That’s the only poor time to bake, shifts the oven you see.”
“Got any bread?”
Lily shook her head, shoved the little tray in the oven. “Not just now – these will be done in an hour, maybe a bit longer to cool, but if you come bac—“
“—what about those little sweet rolls you ‘ad this morning? Like to get me hands on those,” he said, and there was a soft edge to his voice that didn’t quite sit right in the pit of her stomach. She finally turned around, and realized the man had made his way behind the counter, eyes on her, glittering with undisguised and thoroughly malicious intent as he grinned with a mouthful of, she dimly noted, perfectly horrible teeth. Unwashed, dressed in a mismatched set of pieces of clothing that he probably hadn’t bought so much as taken, one of the ones that her mother, in all her wisdom, would have simply called a thug.
And not a single person standing nearby seemed to notice his indiscretion, not a one of them glanced her way, the street suddenly full of people who had, apparently, other and better places to be looking.
Lily took a little breath, gave him her best no-nonsense, everything on the up and up cheerful smile and the look that her mother used to give her father when she was very, very busy and plainly wanted him to go away. All business, no fuss, no fear, as her mother always said a crack is at its weakest when you notice that it’s there and she wasn’t about to give the man the satisfaction of nervousness.
“I only make those in the mornings, so you’ll have to come back tomorrow if you’d like one, I can save one for you if you like? But you’ll have to excuse me,” She brushed her hands off on her apron, making the kindest possible little shooing motion at him while keeping her voice as agreeable as she could, “I’d best get these in the oven or they won’t be ready for late—“
Four things happened in very quick succession, so quickly that Lily could hardly remember them later. One, the man grabbed her hands, yanked her close, hissed something about sweets in her ear, close enough that she could smell his breath, rancid and foul. Two, she pushed him away with a little cry, not quite shrill enough to be a full-fledged scream, knocking the bowl of dough from the counter, where it promptly shattered into pieces.
Three, a large figure leapt down from somewhere above the stall, grabbed the thug by the scruff of his neck, lifted him high in the air, and threw him over the counter – he hit the ground flat on his back, wind knocked clear out of him, and thoroughly terrified besides. Lily couldn’t bring herself to speak, made little more than a soft “Oh, oh, oh,” of dismay as Ashaad leapt over the counter, graceful and bristling and utterly, horribly furious, puffed up somehow to near twice his usual size as he stalked towards the thug with slow, deliberate steps, leaving the man with nothing to do but gasp for air and frantically scramble backward.
Four, the little street went absolutely and utterly silent, save for Lily’s soft noises and the hush of skin on gravel as the thug tried to get away. But he had nowhere to go, nowhere to run, nor breath to do anything other than stare, in utter terror, at the great horned creature that stood over him.
“This one,” Ashaad snarled, stabbing a finger at the stall, “Is protected.”
“Y-yes yes s-sorry I’m s-sorry I—“ The thug’s stammered protests were drowned out by a full-fledged and furious roar. He scrambled to his feet, fled, knocking into at least a dozen people who ignored his flight in favor of staring, open-mouthed, at the qunari.
Ashaad turned his head to bark at them, too, eyes dark and sharp and wicked with anger the likes of which she’d never witnessed in her life, and certainly not on her behalf. “She is protected!” he roared again, a shout that echoed down the narrow corridor with utter finality and gave not a single person on the street room, or desire, to protest.
It was as if the street were holding its breath. And somewhere between one moment and the next, it resolved to breathe again, the startled citizens hurriedly making their way to other places they suddenly and urgently needed to be. Ashaad turned, the aggression melting away as he stood at his full and imposing height, and strode back to the stall with serene purpose. He crossed his arms and patiently watched her; face a study of silent stoicism and quiet regard.
Lily could do little more than stare back up at him for a moment, breath caught in her throat. “T-thank you,” she finally found the voice to say, and then blinked, glanced down at the bowl. “Oh no, my bowl—“ She’d scarcely picked up the largest shards when she looked back up and he was gone, just as silently as he’d arrived.
Three hours later, after she’d cleaned up the mess, sold through the noon rush and started another little run for the evening Lily glanced up again to find a new bowl on the counter. Bright blue, like her mother’s eyes, and etched all along the rim with intricate little designs – maybe even letters, she thought – the likes of which she’d certainly never seen before, strange and foreign and utterly beautiful. She craned her neck looking up and down the street for whoever had dropped it off, but there was no trace that anyone had been by at all. “Thank you,” she whispered to the empty street, hugging the bowl to her chest and not quite certain if she were being polite, or politely going mad, then went about her work.
“Did you hear him roar?” Billy tugged on her skirt, wide-eyed. “Did he hurt the man?” Violet asked, as round eyed as the rest of them. “Did he pee hisself?” Little Sam piped up, and the entire gaggle of children burst into hushed giggles.
The Dunston siblings had apparently been very, very busy telling nearly every child in Lowtown about the earlier incident, as there were nearly three dozen waiting when she’d closed up for the night. And she had more than enough bread to give away, as the evening rush hadn’t been quite so busy as she’d expected. Likely, she thought, on account of news of the earlier scuffle had gotten round.
“Yes, no, and I certainly wasn’t paying attention but I wouldn’t blame him if he had,” she replied, handing Sam a loaf and ruffling his hair. The crowd giggled again, more little voices piping up with questions, and she laughed and shook her head, busily passing out food and shushing them all. “—really, I’m fine, everything is fine, and you needn’t go on so, it’s nearly dark,” she reassured the children, shooed them away one by one.
Billy was the last to leave this time, waiting until all the others had gone, hands clasped around the bread, eyes sparkling with wonder. “Do you think he’ll come back?” he asked, almost a whisper.
“He always does,” she replied, offering the boy a gentle smile. “Really, there’s no need to be afraid. They’re just people, same as us. Only…bigger.”
“And with horns,” he grinned.
“And with horns,” she agreed. “Now off with you, your papa’s going to wonder what’s kept you. Scoot!” He ran off, caroling a goodbye over his shoulder, little footsteps a fading echo.
“You are protected,” he quietly intoned from behind her, as she somehow suspected he would.
Lily straightened up, shoulders back, and turned to face him. “Thank you,” she said again, casting grateful eyes up at Ashaad. He gave no sign of anything other than studied observation, but she liked to think perhaps there was just a little warmth lingering in the depths of his gaze. He lifted his chin in the direction Billy had gone. “There are many,” he said, almost a quiet accusation.
“Yes. Well. They’d heard about what happened and wanted to see –“
“—where do they go?” he interrupted.
Lily blinked, peered up at him curiously. He’d never asked her that before. “What, when they leave for the night you mean? Well, Billy goes back to his papa’s house, there are a few that live further up in Lowtown, but the rest…well I don’t know where the rest go. Somewhere to sleep. Somewhere safe,” she added, biting her lip. “It has to be safe I mean, on account of they come back every day and nothing’s happened so I suspect they’ve got a home somewhere.”
“What will they do?”
“I…what do you mean,” she asked. She’d long since decided that any question she wasn’t absolutely sure about, she’d make well and sure it was clarified before she answered it, not wanting to upset him, or worse, insult him.
“When they are grown. Where do they go,” Ashaad said, a faint crease to his brow. “What role, what purpose will they fulfill?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted, face falling just a little. “I suppose some of them will find jobs, somewhere, someone will take them in and put them to work when they’re big enough to work.”
“Who chooses their role?” he said.
Lily thought that over for a moment, thoroughly puzzled as the question wasn’t really the sort of question that was easily understood. “No one,” she answered finally, slightly confused. “They…well, they sort it out for themselves. That’s what everyone does. That’s just how life works. I mean, that’s the sort of thing you play at when you’re little, the sort of thing you just think about, what you want to be when you grow up – it’s not something someone chooses for you, unless I suppose you’re nobility, or your family has a business, or…“ She trailed off. Ashaad looked as stern-faced as she’d ever seen him. “What I mean to say,” she doggedly continued, “Is that nobody picks something like that for you, you just sort of muddle it out for yourself.”
“You have no order,” he said suddenly, scowling.
“Oh no, we have order,” she replied. “I mean, the people that don’t earn as much, they live down here, and the people that earn a bit more, they live higher up. And the people that earn a lot more, and have a good name besides, well – they live up in Hightown. And the people up there, well they’re the ones that make the rules that everyone else abides.”
Ashaad, she realized, was growing ever more irritated as she spoke, and that shut her up entirely, as she didn’t want to offend him. “Under the Qun, your order is meaningless,” he replied – and it was a patient explanation, not an angry one. “In the eyes of the Qun, no one individual is better than another.”
“Well it sounds like you don’t really have to work for anything at all,” she blurted, clapped her hands over her mouth with a little gasp of apology and shook her head. “I-I’m sorry, I mean, I don’t mean you don’t have to work, I mean it’s not…it doesn’t sound like a hard life. A…a…” she fished for the proper word, brow furrowed. “A climb, a fight, a struggle – something you have to work really, really hard to get? I mean—“
“—Shok ebasit hissra.”
She blinked. “Oh. You’ve never said that before.”
Ashaad inclined his great head, at once acknowledging her statement and translating. “Struggle is an illusion.”
Lily canted her head, fixing him with another long, thoroughly puzzled stare. “I’m sorry,” she began very carefully, “But I don’t think I quite know what you mean by that.”
“The tide rises, the tide falls, but the sea is changeless,” he slowly explained, gesturing down the street towards the docks and the water just beyond. “There is nothing to struggle against.”
“But…but we do,” she replied, glancing back the way the children had gone. “They do,” she said. “The children, I mean. I expect maybe they struggle most of all, on account of they…”
“…they have none to guide them.”
“Yes,” she softly agreed. Lily glanced down the alley again, hesitant and suddenly feeling just the slightest bit shy – it was the first time they’d ever come to some kind of mutual accord. She didn’t expect him to step forward, nor did she expect his hand on her shoulder – he’d never made a move to touch her before. But his hand was gentle, and warm, and didn't feel like metal at all, no matter the curious cast of his skin.
“You are protected, kabethari,” Ashaad quietly said, and gently guided her up the street. “Go. The sky darkens. None will harm you.”
“Come by in the morning,” she replied, and made her way home.
She probably ought to have gone straight to bed, but Lily couldn’t help but curl up at her window and stare absently at the Alienage tree, thinking over what Ashaad had said. Something about the sea, and tides, and struggling, and somewhere in the middle the inexplicable statement that struggle was just something that people made up. She doubted that very much; on account of she’d seen everyone around her struggle all her life, from her mother and father to Harold to the children. Ashaad, she decided, must have come from a very strange land indeed, if everyone believed the same thing he did – this Qun that he spoke of, whatever it was, seemed like something out of the fairy stories her mother told her when she was very, very young. Where everything happened once upon a time, and ended with a happily ever after, an unspoken assumption, she’d always thought, that life just went on with nothing to hurt or harm anyone at all.
And in the morning, Ashaad stopped by, just as she asked, and cleared out the entire counter of customers just on account of standing there, but she smiled as cheerfully as ever. “Here,” Lily said, “—and don’t tell me you don’t have any bits on account of I don’t want to hear it.”
“This is not bread,” Ashaad instead stated.
“Well no, it’s a sweet roll,” she replied. “It’s…sort of bread. But better. Go on now.”
And the qunari obediently bit into the roll. He made no sound, but his eyes widened ever so slightly at the taste of cinnamon, soft pastry and warm frosting, slowly chewing as if he’d never tasted anything like it in his life. Lily bit back a giggle, the priceless expression on his face not quite enchanted, not quite content, but definitely surprised, and perhaps not especially reminding her of home, but she suspected it would always remind her of now, and that seemed as good a place as any.
“You," he said, after a long moment of silent, puzzled contemplation, "Are a good baker.”
“Thank you!” She chirped, then shooed him away.
And if she spent the rest of the morning singing, well, no one on the street seemed to mind it much at all, today, or didn't care to protest if they had.
Chapter 5: Panahedan
It would have been nice, Lily sometimes thought, if that day in the market had been a bit of a happily ever after, if she’d remained undisturbed and free to go on about her days. After all, all the rest of Kirkwall could talk about for the longest time was the end of the Blight – it was on everyone’s lips for the better part of a year. It would have been nice if that meant some of the refugees that had taken shelter in Kirkwall would’ve made their way back to the warmth and safety of their homes. It would have been nice if the thugs and various groups of “mercenaries” who were in truth little more than bandits had found someplace else to go, wealthier spoils to plunder.
It really would have been nice, but it wasn’t.
There was a reason everyone spoke of the Blight’s end, Lily suspected, and it was largely because it was the one and only truly good thing anyone could think to speak of. And once the tales had lost their luster and the talk of heroes had begun to fade, there was little left for those in Lowtown to do but look at their own hard-won or hard-lost lives, and realize that perhaps that one good tale was the only good thing they had to tell.
And that one good tale wasn’t about them.
It wasn’t about their suffering, it wasn’t about how hard they’d worked to get where they were, it wasn’t about how they spent weeks at a time with an empty ache in their bellies until they’d finally gotten back on their feet. It wasn’t about the mages that were supposedly pinned in their circles with no room to breathe or grow; it wasn’t about the Templars who spoke of justice and order to those with deep pockets or influence that would listen, and ignored those that needed that justice, that order the most. It wasn’t about the city guard and their lack of a presence in the lowest corners of the city. It wasn’t about the elves that quietly lived out most of their lives in the tiny little Alienage, with very little freedom at all.
No, that tale was about a moment that was supposed to make the world fundamentally better – and all the people of Kirkwall were left with was the slow, dawning realization that better didn’t apply to them.
It was little wonder they were bitter. It was little wonder they were angry. And Lily tried her best to be kind, to smile, to be polite, to let her cheerful nature color at least one little corner of the city, because as her mother always said, kindness and good cheer were like a fine cake, good on your own, but oh so much better when shared between friends.
Harold still stopped by, nearly every morning for two years straight, only missing a week or so when his wife had another child, this time a son. The children came and went as they did, like little flocks of babbling, hungry birds, as good natured and sweet as could be considering their circumstances. Lily tried to patiently pass on every last bit of good advice her mother had given her, as it seemed to serve her well, and would likely serve them even better as the years went by.
Varric returned from his expedition and returned to Lily’s stall, and although his visits were fewer between than Harold’s, he invariably spent more time talking to her than Harold ever did. He didn’t ask her if she’d seen anything strange, didn’t bother her with questions about things she had no wish to know about – or any business to know about, either. Instead he called her sweetheart, and sunshine, took her sweet rolls and asked about her day, asked her about her bread, how she made it, little questions about little things.
“You know, I expect you have bigger and better and more important things to be doing with your day,” she’d teased him, once.
He huffed a little chuckle, gave her a smile that was laden with the weight of the world, a flicker of pain in the depths of his eyes, crinkled at the corners and just a little worn. “Sunshine,” he told her, “Sometimes it’s nice to just…talk about something else for a little while.”
Lily never teased him about it again, after that, but she made extra certain everything she said was as cheerful and interesting as she could possibly make it.
But the city continued to groan and creak and give way from hope of a better world to something…less hopeful, more bitter, more tired, more sorrowful, lost and overwhelmed, mired in its own misfortune with no way to break free. And Ashaad continued to speak to her, every now and again, came by for bread along with his kin, never in plain sight but always just around the corner or out of the way. They watched her, she knew, watched the people of the docks like falcons in an aerie, sharp-eyed and patient and ready to intercede should any be so foolish as to darken Lily’s day. She appreciated it, appreciated them, appreciated Ashaad especially.
He’d speak to her late at night, after the children had gone, tales of things she scarce understood, words that fell like poetry from his mouth, liquid and distinct and nonsensically beautiful in their strange simplicity. It seemed, to Lily anyway, that the qunari came from a land that was far less complicated than Kirkwall could ever be – where a person was a person, did what they did and were what they were, and little else mattered beyond the contentment of doing a good day’s work.
It seemed to her that perhaps a world like that was a far from a world like this one as a song from a shoe, and little wonder the qunari were so confused when they’d first arrived.
Two years had passed since Ashaad told her she was protected that night in the alley, placed his hand on her shoulder with what she imagined was kindness, guided her on her way. When at last she’d handed out the last of her bread that evening, waved off the smallest of the littles and young Billy, who’d made it a habit of being the very last to leave, she knew he’d arrived even before he spoke.
“You know, if you came while I was giving them bread sometimes, I expect they’d quite like that,” she chuckled. “Billy says he w—“
Ashaad met her eyes when she turned around, caught the words from her mouth and cast them aside with one look – a look she’d never seen before, brow etched with deep concern. “The sky darkens, kabethari.”
“I know,” Lily clutched the basket in both hands, got ready to leave. And he stopped her, gave a shake of his head. “…Ashaad, I have to be going home.” Lily glanced up at him again, a funny twist in the pit of her stomach. He gave another shake of his head.
“Come with me.”
And he turned and walked down the narrow, darkened corridor that led to his home. Lily blinked, glanced down the alley, thought for a moment and then quickly scurried after him, up the stairs where the gate awaited. “Ashaad, wait—“
He turned, fixing her with a pointed stare. “You cannot go home, tonight.”
It was certainly not what she’d expected to hear. “What do you mean, I can—“
“—it is not safe. Come.” And he turned and continued, and Lily followed, both curious and delighted and just the slightest bit worried. And perhaps a little frightened as well. The gate was bigger than it looked from the street, iron and imposing and guarded by another qunari, who shared a glance with Ashaad, looked at Lily, then back to Ashaad, sharing another glance. Whatever their eyes had said to each other, it was apparently enough, as the guard opened the gates without another word, letting both of them through.
She wasn’t sure what she’d expected on the other side, but it certainly wasn’t some kind of magical kingdom through those gates. It was more of the same of what was outside, really – high walls and stairs, no real rooms to speak of, narrow corners with cots tucked in, most of the qunari sleeping already. And…there were a lot of them, she realized, a lot more than she would’ve ever guessed.
Ashaad never once stopped or paused, so she obediently trotted after him, following him to a little corner just past the gate and off to the side, where another little cot sat beneath a makeshift tent – only it wasn’t really a cot, she realized, just a bedroll on a few bales of hay. And the tent wasn’t exactly a tent, either – made of…sail, it looked like. The sail from a ship, rope from a ship to bind the sail to broken masts, fishing nets draped along one side. It wasn’t private; it was just out of the way.
Ashaad stabbed a finger at the cot. “You will sleep here.”
Lily blinked, bit her lip and gingerly sat on the bedroll, which wasn’t all that uncomfortable she supposed, just not really where she was expecting to spend her evening. “Ashaad?” she whispered, not wanting to wake the sleeping qunari. “How…long do I have to sleep here?”
“One night,” he replied. “Sleep.”
She didn’t think it would be good manners to argue the point, and he didn’t seem at all interested in answering any questions she might have had. So Lily curled up on the little cot, stared absently at the darkened sky overhead, counted the stars and tried her best to ignore the sinking sensation in her belly – for this was the first time since she’d arrived in Kirkwall all those years ago that she hadn’t gone home to her own narrow bed, and much as she didn’t care for the loud arguments of the family she rented from, she worried for them, too.
Shok ebasit hissra, meraad astaarit, meraad itwasit, aban aqun. Maraas shokra. Anaan esaam Qun.
Lily woke to soft chanting, all around her, the qunari speaking as one. And for a moment she lay on the bedroll, just watching, for the sight before her was certainly nothing like she’d ever seen in her life. All around the walls were the qunari, even more than she’d thought she counted last night, standing rigid and tall, each murmuring the soft words in utter and complete unison so that the courtyard, secluded as it was, rang as if it were one voice, speaking aloud as if addressing the rising sun and daring it to answer. She didn’t dare sit up, didn’t dare breathe at the thought of interrupting the chant, drawing attention to herself. And yet they’d no sooner spoken than the courtyard fell silent, the qunari frozen and still, and then suddenly burst to life, each striding off on his way to wherever it was they went during the day.
All except one – Ashaad, who stood near the little tent in silence as she finally sat up, blinking and combing her fingers through her hair. He nodded once in approval, and then bid her follow, trotting her across the yard to sit, eat some sort of…if she had to guess it was some sort of porridge, not really the most flavorful breakfast she’d ever had but she wasn’t about to complain. And while she quietly ate he sat behind her, combed through her hair with his fingers, plucking out errant bits of straw and weaving it into a tidy plait. At first she thought it strange, but as she glanced around she realized more than one of the qunari that strolled around the courtyard had their hair pulled back the same. Once she’d finished her breakfast, he rose to his feet and bid her follow again, leading her out the courtyard and to her stall. The streets had only just started to wake up.
And before she could think to say a proper thank you, he was gone. So she went about her day, dodging Harold’s questions about the few bits of straw Ashaad’s fingers had missed, grinning when he’d teased her about living in a barn. She didn’t see Ashaad again that day; not even after she’d fed the children, the narrow corridor silent after the last of them had scurried off to their homes, wherever they might be. As he’d said she only had to stay one night, she didn’t really expect to see him again so soon anyway, and dutifully made her way home before the night got too dark.
But the way home was … quiet. The little street was silent, there were no hushed conversations, laughing from lit windows – not a window was lit at all, to her surprise. It was as if everyone had suddenly decided to tuck in a little earlier than usual that evening, which was about as common in Lowtown as a nug in the Chantry. And despite the fact that the sun hadn’t quite gone down, Lily felt her skin crawl just a little at the eeriness of it all.
The door to the little house was unlocked, to her surprise; it pushed right open when she placed her palm on the wood, silence greeting her when she stepped inside. Unnerved, she closed it, lowered the latch and gave it a shake just to make sure it was locked while her eyes adjusted to the darkened room.
No arguments filled the air, no snoring broke the silence. It was as if the house were holding its breath. Lily crept from room to room, surprised to see broken dishes on the kitchen floor, a half-embroidered swath of cloth – a table runner, she remembered – strewn carelessly along the floor in the little sitting room, as if whoever had been working on it stood and simply let it fall from her hands.
“H-hello?” she finally said, nearly startling herself with the sound of her own voice, but no one answered. Aside from her, the house was empty. As a tomb, she thought, more than a little uncomfortable with the silence. Quickly as she could she cleaned up the little kitchen, straightened up the sitting room, all the while sparing nervous glances at the couple’s bedroom door. Surely, she thought, they must be sleeping. Sleeping so soundly they hardly had room for snoring. Surely they were there, just behind…and slowly, carefully, she grasped the handle, turned it, and opened the door the tiniest crack, enough to see inside.
Nothing. The great bed was made, sheets and blankets neatly tucked around the frame as if no one had been there all day. Perhaps they went on a holiday, Lily decided. Perhaps they went on a holiday, and broke some things on their way out the door, left them to clean when they returned. That had to be it. That certainly must be it, she reasoned.
She curled up in her narrow bed, clutching the blankets tightly, and tried her best to clear her head of all the horrible thoughts running through it, falling asleep out of sheer exhaustion.
Lily awoke the next morning very abruptly indeed, as someone flung open the door and strode right into her room with no regard for her presence at all. It was an intrusion she rewarded with a shriek and the clutching of blankets to her chest, wide-eyed and almost, but not quite, as startled as the pinch-faced man who’d flung open the door.
He recovered quickly. “Well lookie here…and just who are you, then?” he said, eyes fixed on her hands, clutching the bedclothes tight.
“Lily, ser,” Lily replied, blinking sleep from her eyes and groggily trying to come to terms with whether or not this was just some kind of unpleasant dream.
“And just what do you think you’re doing here?” he asked, narrowing his eyes and puffing out his chest in an attempt, Lily suspected, to look far more important than he actually was. Behind him, two more men snickered, trying to catch a glimpse over the man’s shoulder, and he shot them both a glare that would’ve melted stone. “Clear it out,” he snapped, and the men abruptly disappeared. “Well?”
Lily blinked again, the slow, sinking sensation that this was very much not a dream finally beginning to register, leaving her cold. “I…I live here, ser – beg pardon ser but who are you exactly?”
“I own this place. It’s mine now. Bought it this morning,” the man sniffed. “Ain’t nobody living here no more. Ain’t nobody living here yesterday, neither.”
She blinked a third time, swallowing rapidly, trying to quash the rising panic in her voice and doing her very best to calmly reply, “I expect maybe you’ve the wrong address? There’s a family living here, husband and wife, they rent this room to me—“ she trailed off, because the man had started clucking with a sympathetic air that didn’t reach his eyes at all.
“They’re dead. Where’ve you been hiding, love? Ain’t nobody lived through that poison went off two days ago, they cleared the bodies yesterday, sold the houses today, and this one,” he said, waving thin, narrow fingers, “Belongs to me now. And everything in it besides.” He grinned. “Lucky this ain’t Tevinter, eh? Might include you, if it were.”
Dead, he'd said. Dead, as if it were a common occurrence, as if it were simply an eventuality that had at last come to pass. Dead, cold and efficient, two consonants, two vowels. A flurry of questions - how, why, where flooded her scattered thoughts, but the rest of his sentence registered very clearly and was cause for immediate concern. “B-but this is my room,” she stuttered. “This is…this is where…what do you mean p-poison, I don’t—“
“—tell you what,” the man said, leaning against the doorframe, watching her with an expression that held little sympathy or concern at all, just cold calculation, assessment of the situation. “You can keep on rentin’ this little room from me, right along like you used to, eh? Five sovereigns a month.”
Lily blanched. “Five s-sovereigns – I was only paying thirty silver a month to them!”
“Rent just went up, lovey,” he leered. “If you can’t pay it, makes no nevermind to me, more than enough people lookin for homes these days. Go on, out with you.”
“Please,” she whispered, a curl of shock sending goosebumps up her spine. “Please, you can’t just—“
His eyes glittered. “I can and I will. Tell you what; I’ll even let you take your things with you." He shrugged. "Doesn’t do any harm to be kind.”
Twenty minutes later, the door to her former home was shut firmly behind her with all due finality. And to her horror the courtyard was crawling with people – people moving in, dozens upon dozens of them, shoving furniture left and right, tossing unwanted things out the windows and doors, things that once belonged, she presumed, to the people that lived there. Treasures, beloved treasures, stories of people whose voices once filled the little courtyard, names upon names upon names to be forgotten and thrown aside like so much ash in the wind.
Numb and wide-eyed, she made her way to her stall, carrying a small bundle that was everything she’d ever owned and tucking it beneath the counter, out of the way of prying eyes and prying questions, setting herself to work. But she couldn’t bring herself to sing, couldn’t bring herself to do more than smile, cheerfully and agreeably as ever to every single person that stopped by, selling her wares as best as she could, all the while thinking of how very much she would give to hear arguments and snoring, stories of Harriet said this and Harriet said that and Thomas aren’t you listening, you impossible man, and wondering where she was going to sleep that night, and the next, and the next.
It was, she reasoned, her stall. She’d paid for it every year like clockwork, and she owned it fair and square, and none could buy it out from under her, and it stood to reason perhaps she could make do and sleep in it. And if she hid beneath the counter, none would see her anyway, she’d be quiet as could be and tucked out of sight.
She tried to soothe herself with those thoughts when she fed the children, watching them go with a hitch of panic in her belly. And for a moment, only a moment, she considered going to the gate, asking if she could go in, if she could speak to Ashaad. But it wouldn’t do to invade their privacy, she reasoned. It wouldn’t do to go begging for charity, not when they’d already done far too much for her. There weren’t enough sweet rolls in the world, she reasoned, and they weren’t interested in bits or silvers or sovereigns at all, and as her mother always said, a kindness was a kindness until you made it a demand.
So she lifted her chin high, made her way back to her stall, put away the baskets and did her best to hide away, knees clutched to her chest and trying her hardest to keep silent and still, choking back quiet sobs and finally letting the tears skate down her cheeks, dampening her skirts and wishing she’d been kinder to the family, hoping they hadn’t suffered much when they went, wishing the tight ache in her chest would ease just a little, enough that she could close her eyes and try to forget where she was.
And she froze every time a shout rang out down the street, trembled when they laughed, cold and cruel and unkind. She froze when she heard footsteps walk slowly past her stall, and her heart raced a little faster when she heard the steps stop. And turn around. And she tried very, very hard to will herself invisible as two legs walked inside her stall, past her, turned round, and stopped again.
“Thought I smelled a mouse,” the man grinned, barked a harsh, staccato laugh, wheezing with days spent too long at the bottle or in the mines. “Here, little mousie…c’mere, ain’t gonna hurt ya.” Something flickered in the moonlight, something metal and sharp and dangerous glinting as wicked as his eyes.
“Go away,” Lily whispered.
The man scowled. “Well that ain’t nice little mousie, ain’t nice at all – c’mere—“ He lunged and she rolled out from under the counter and to her feet, darting away with a stifled scream, his hands clawing at her skirts as she went. She heard the fabric rip and give way, didn’t really care as it meant she was free, and she bolted down the street, terror driving her on.
Lily ran, faster than she’d ever run in her life, steps a frantic patter over pavement, desperately trying to catch her breath, darted round the corner to the narrow corridor, nearly at the steps, eyes wide and frightened and desperately pinned on the great gate above—
But he caught up, grabbed her arm, yanked her roughly back, and she let out a sharp scream that tore through the alley like broken glass. And a snarl answered her cry, a snarl from the guard at the gate – no, not the guard, Ashaad, she dimly realized. He dove down the steps in the space of one breath and the next, lunged and ripped the man from her, leaving her staggering and blinking and light-headed, a sudden warmth blooming on her side, running down her leg like a river.
And it seemed only natural she slip to her knees, for her legs suddenly were so very, very tired; seemed only natural she blinked in surprise, dimly aware of a sharp crack from behind her, of a choked scream cut off before it began. Footsteps. The pavement was warm, comforting, smooth, she slumped over on it, pressing her cheek to the stones and wondering how it’d gotten so dark, so quickly, why she was so cold.
Arms slid beneath her, lifted her, and she slipped her hand from her side to steady herself, dragging a scarlet handprint across his chest, over the markings, breath catching in surprise at stained crimson fingers, the scent of copper sharp and stinging her nostrils. He carried her, step by step past the heavy gates. Lily tried; she tried her hardest to keep her eyes open, staring up in rapt fixation at silver chin, snow-white hair, dark and sharp and concerned eyes that stared right back down at her, fixed on her face and solemn as always. Ashaad, she tried to say, couldn’t seem to force the wind from her mouth to speak. He said nothing, but she thought she saw a flicker of something in his eyes, just before the world went dark and still.
It was as if she were waking from a wholly unpleasant dream, the world fuzzy and indistinct, her eyes nearly glued shut from sleep and crying, the world a soft din of somewhere else that wasn’t here, punctuated by soft voice that trailed to a halt. Lily struggled to open her eyes, struggled to breathe, her side throbbing painfully in time with her heartbeat. Struggled to turn her head, squinting at sunshine that seemed far too cheerful for how she ached.
Bright blue eyes met hers; sparkling beneath jet black hair, kind eyes, warm and open and concerned. And when her eyes met his, the corners crinkled up just so, and he gave her the most beautiful, heartfelt smile, the kind her mother gave her when she’d said something especially clever. “You’re awake,” he said, and his voice, the relief in it was just as beautiful as the rest of him, warm and mellow and soft and so incredibly kind that she could scarcely bear it, tears springing to her eyes. “Shh – don’t be afraid. It’s all right,” he soothed. “You’re in the compound, you’re safe, no one’s going to harm you.”
Lily parted her lips, tried to speak and made the most piteous croak, cheeks flushed with shame. She licked her lips, swallowed, tried again. “Who?” she managed to say before a lance of pain shot through her side, catching her breath in her throat.
“I’m Saemus. And you really shouldn’t try to speak, you’re…hurt.” He grimaced, blue eyes darkening briefly. “The qunari weren’t sure you were going to make it at all, you’ve been out for four days now, had a fever for three, or at least that’s what they told me when I stopped by yesterday. I thought…well I thought you might respond to a friendly voice.” He patted something on his lap – a book. “They’re just fairy stories, fables and the like – silly children’s tales, I know, but everything else in my father’s library was terrifically dull.”
She tried to speak again, but he lifted his hand to hush her. “Shh…don’t. You’re not out of the woods yet. But I’m glad you’re awake, that’s a good sign.” He glanced to his side, flashed a rueful smile. “…and I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve been given something to have you drink, if you woke, and it smells absolutely dreadful. They did say it would help, if that’s any consolation.” Saemus set the book aside and picked up a little cup, blue as his eyes and etched with familiar markings. He slid an arm behind her to raise her just enough and lifted the cup to her lips, quietly urging her not to move too much, to drink.
It was green and it tasted almost as horrible as it smelled, like someone had mushed up a garden or a swamp, thick and barely what she'd call a liquid. Lily tried her best to drink it as quickly as possible, choking it down as obediently as she could manage, relieved and trembling with exhaustion when it was over and he lowered her back to the cot. Saemus gently brushed the back of his hand across her forehead with the smallest of frowns, concern worrying his features. “You’re still warm. That should help – they said it’d let you rest a little easier, too. I’ll stay as long as I can, if…” his mouth kept on moving but his voice began to fade, trailing away along with the sun, her vision blurring and darkening as she slipped back into sleep.
Chapter 6: Meraad
“The little box on the dresser over there, Lily love. That’s the one.” She picked up the box, heavy for something so small, glanced at her papa with worry in her eyes and he did little to ease it, smiled a smile so full of sorrow her heart ached just to look at him. “It’s everything we’ve got – it’s yours now, Lily, it’s yo—“ His body shook with a cough that rattled his bones, and he cleared his throat with a peculiar rattle before continuing. “…it’s yours. I n—“
“No,” she said, the only thing she could bring herself to say. She’d watch them go, one by one, first her younger sisters, then her older brother, then the youngest of them all, watched and breathed and prayed at the Chantry though it did very little good for any of them in the end, not a bit of good at all, watched her mother weep again and again, her father dig a new grave every other day, one by one and she was the only one that hadn’t caught it, hadn’t fallen ill and it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t fair—
“Lily.” He said, stern and uncompromising. “Look at me, girl. Look now.” She looked because she had no choice, looked upon him frail and sick and maybe he was sick all this time she didn’t know but the moment he buried mother, the moment he put her in the ground he started to slip away too. “I need you to – you need to go.”
“Papa I ca—“
“You can and you will. Head north, find a wagon, there’s plenty leaving in droves and I won’t have you, I won’t ha…” he choked, body shaking with another series of wracking coughs. “—won’t. Won’t have you dig your papa’s g—“
“No,” she said again, this time pleading, begging him to stop speaking, stop time, stop dying, stop everything with a single word.
“Lily love,” he sighed, tired beyond measure, “Go on now, remember everything I taught you, everything your mother taught you, and you go my dear, you go and you find your place and you show them, show them all. Make the world bright. Just…make the world bright.”
She stayed another day, and one only, his cries, his pleading for her to leave too loud, too pained, too agonizing to bear. She told him she loved him, voice choked with tears, ran from the door down the cobblestone path, straightened shaking shoulders and did her best to still the tears, took a deep breath, lifted her chin and began walking, because there was little else she could do, little else that could be done.
Make the world bright, he said. She supposed she could manage that.
The second time Lily woke up, she felt a thousand times better – groggy, her side still ached, but not so much as it had before. Someone must have washed her face at some point, her hair was soft again, her eyes weren’t caked with sleep. It didn’t hurt to breathe, she realized, slightly more hopeful and relieved. It didn’t hurt to turn her head, either – which was when she noticed…him.
He was larger than even Ashaad, towering over her even sitting down as he was, hands draped over his knees, eyes half-lidded and deep in thought. Golden clasps adorned his ears, golden hoops dangling from the clasps, golden bands wrapped round a great rack of horns – too many to count, a great golden collar draped hung low around his neck, and he wore far more clothing than she was accustomed to seeing on a qunari, a leather harness, scarlet plates on his shoulders of what looked like finely tooled leather.
Great dark eyes snapped open and alert, pinned hers in their depths and would not let her look away. And she felt that whoever this was, this was someone that was very grand…although Ashaad had said none of the qunari were more or less grand than anyone else, once. “Hello,” she whispered, suddenly feeling very small indeed.
“Shanedan, imekari.” His voice was deep, resonating, even deeper than Ashaad’s had been – it enveloped her ears like a velvet blanket, soothed any trace of fear she might have had. “Are you in pain?”
She gave a little shake of her head, tried to smile. “It’s not so very bad today s—“ She stopped herself, biting back the word before she could say it.
He frowned. “Speak.”
“I…I’m s-sorry,” she replied, taking little breaths between words, “I was going to call you ser, but Ashaad said…he said once, that you don’t think like that, and I don’t want to offend you, but I don’t know what to call you.”
The qunari looked almost pleased by this, an approving glint in his stare. “I am Arishok. I lead the Antaam. The Ashaad tell me you are called Lily.” At her careful, slow nod, the hint of a frown flickered across his face. It was entirely likely, she surmised, that he was annoyed that she was not, as Ashaad had told her so long ago, a flower. “You are a baker. You give bread to my men; you charge them nothing for this. Why?”
Lily blinked, brow furrowing just a little. “Because they’re hungry,” she said.
He didn’t appear to like that answer very much. “Yet you charge other men for your bread. You feed children, children with no Tamassrans to guide them, and you charge them nothing.” He sat back, leather creaking with the movement. “Do you think we are children?”
Her eyes widened briefly. “N-no, not at all.”
“Then tell me.” he asked again, “Why do you feed my people, and ask nothing in return?”
Lily struggled with the words, trying to puzzle out the answer even as she said it. “Because your people don’t do that. Ashaad didn’t know what bits were, even – he had none.”
“You could have refused,” the Arishok said.
Lily gave a little shake of her head. “No, no I couldn’t. I don’t bake things because I want bits, Arishok. I bake because people are hungry, and I’d like to see them fed. There’s no reason people should be hungry, is there?” A part of her thought perhaps that asking the Arishok a question might not be the best idea she’d ever had, but she really wanted to know. There were so many things Ashaad had said over the years that she really wanted to know.
To her faint surprise, the Arishok inclined his head at that. “You are not a warrior.”
“Well no,” she whispered, biting her lip. “I’m only a baker.”
“Armies fall apart; crumble when they have no food to sustain them.” He pinned her under that disconcerting stare again. “The Ashaad said you did not return to the place you call home that evening. Why?”
Tears pricked at her eyes, unbidden and unwanted, and she tried very hard to blink them away, her voice small. “Because it isn’t my home anymore, Arishok.”
“Because someone bought it. It…I was paying a family for the room, and they’re gone...” A sudden chill ran up her spine. “You knew,” she said, hushed. “Ashaad knew. That’s why he, that’s why I was brought here that night, wasn’t it, you knew it happened?”
Once again, the Arishok inclined his head, a deep furrow etched in his great brow. “It was not our doing, imekari. The formula for the poison was ours, yes, but stolen. We knew your home was in the affected district. The Ashaad requested we detain you, I allowed their request.” He continued to stare at her, dark eyes narrowing ever so slightly as he spoke. “You say someone bought your home, yet you lived there. Why would they not allow you to stay?”
The abrupt revelation and equally abrupt change of subject had her head spinning. “They wanted more money. More than I had. I couldn’t stay.”
“Under the Qun,” he intoned, serene and dour in equal parts, “Property is not owned and sold. All are provided for, none are cast out.”
She couldn’t really help it, the tears spilled over her cheeks, her shoulders shook, the faint ache in her side panging every now and again as she tried to bite back sobs. Lily cast her eyes down; twisting her fingers in the woolen blanket they’d lain over her. “It doesn’t work that way here,” she whispered between little gasps of air. “It doesn’t work that way, I try, I do try very hard to live my life—“ Lily bit back another squeak of a sob, folding her arms over her eyes, ashamed. “I’m sorry,” she apologized, not quite sure what she was apologizing for, or to whom, but certain that she should be to someone, somewhere, for everything had gone so horribly wrong— “I’m s-sorry,” –and she’d tried her best to make things right and it mattered very little how hard she tried, she was still here with an ache in her side and no place to call home – “I’m sorry,” – and an Arishok who didn’t seem to understand that this was most certainly not whatever land he’d come from, nor was she in any way anything other than a small, insignificant thing. Not part of the way his people lived their world, not part of the way Lowtown ran its world, endlessly questioned by one and trod on by the other, all the while trying, just trying, to stay on her feet. “I’m sorry,” she sobbed, wondering why, oh why, she couldn’t simply live and make, as her papa asked, the world bright.
A hand rested on her shoulder, a warm, gentle hand, let her gather her breath; let her wipe her tears from her face. And she finally gathered herself enough to look up. The Arishok loomed over her, ran his palm over her hair, face a study of patient thought. “You crave order,” he said quietly. “And you have none. Tangled in a crowd of struggling people, those who resist the tides, struggle against the sea. 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.”
Lily took a little breath and tried her very best to regain her composure, met his gaze with her own wide, red-rimmed eyes, as earnest and honest as she’d ever been. “I just want the world to make sense.”
“Under the Qun,” he said, hand still resting gently on her head, “The world simply is, and is understood, imekari. You are not a soldier, and I am a commander of soldiers. But this does not mean the Qun has no place for you.” He lifted his hand away, sat back again, arms draped over his knees as he stared at her, lost in thought, before he finally spoke again. “The poisoning of your people was not our doing. The loss of your home was not your doing. And yet your people were poisoned, your home was lost, and this city would refuse you.”
The Arishok thought for a moment more, coming to some internal conclusion, the hard lines of his face settling into something Lily could only call serenity. “You will remain here. You will bake your bread for the soldiers of the Antaam.”
Wide-eyed, Lily bit her lip, opened her mouth to speak. “B-but I can’t…I m-mean I’ll run out of…I don’t have the money to pay to feed all of you—“
“—the Qun provides,” he interrupted, pinning her with sharp eyes. “You struggle still. This city has tainted you, but not beyond the Qun’s reach. Submit, imekari. Fall into the sea. Let the tide carry you. Shok ebasit hissra. Struggle is an illusion.”
“M-may I still run my stall?” she hesitantly asked.
At first, he seemed as if he were simply going to refuse her, but he studied her face, considered, then inclined his head. “You may sell your wares. Coin that you earn will no longer belong to you. It belongs to the Qun. It will be used to trade for what wares we need. Supplies you require will be provided, as will a place to sleep. You will be guarded while you work.” His eyes flickered. “The Qun protects its own. You are not a warrior. We will not allow you to be attacked a second time.”
“Thank you,” she whispered. It wasn’t a handsome prince on a snow white steed, but she felt as though perhaps she’d found a happily ever after all the same.
It wasn’t long before she was right back to work, although her schedule had changed, and at first they wouldn’t let her return to her stall as the Arishok said she still needed healing. Lily looked, once, at her side, horrified at what she saw. She’d never had a scar in her life that big, and it was little wonder, she realized, that they thought perhaps she was going to die, and it was every wonder in the world that she still lived. But she was thankful for it, especially in light of how kindly they treated her. Every morning she woke early, before the sun had made more than a dent in the darkened sky, and made her way to a corner of the compound with a small stone oven. She ate some of the porridge they seemed to almost constantly have ready-made, and set to work baking bread. When the sun finally rose high enough for the qunari to start stirring in earnest, they made their way to the corner, took their porridge and took the bread as well, ate their food until, at some designated moment they all seemed to instinctively know, they rose as one, spoke the words she’d heard before.
Shok ebasit hissra, meraad astaarit, meraad itwasit, aban aqun. Maraas shokra. Anaan esaam Qun.
It took a good week before she could remember it all, work her mouth around the foreign tongue, and say it right along with them. The Arishok seemed pleased when she did, said he would allow her to return to her stall. And after they finished their prayer the following day, the qunari went on their way, save two – Ashaad and another, called Karasaad – both of whom waited until she’d gathered the dough she’d set to rise, escorting her out of the compound and down the street to her stall.
They did not bother remaining hidden, flanking either side of the stall and standing, arms folded cross their chests, watching every passer-by with stern, calculated serenity. And she baked the loaves and sweet rolls besides, selling her wares as she always did, far more cheerful and carefree than she’d felt in a very long time. Harold showed up, full of quiet questions, but she reassured him she was just fine, better than she’d been in a very long time, and seeing how sweetly she spoke to each that arrived, he finally agreed – though he looked at the qunari with wary regard, told her to be careful before he left.
That first night, she went to feed the children, reassuring worried faces that she was all right, she was fine, nothing was wrong and no of course she hadn’t left them, she’d never, ever leave them, she was just ill and couldn’t be there for a time. She gave them all hugs and ruffled hair, sent them on their way, taking an extra moment to give Billy a hug – he looked, she thought, as if he were about to cry when he saw her, and very nearly did cry in her skirts just before she sent him on home.
Ashaad and Karasaad stayed a distance away as she passed out the bread, then dutifully followed them back into the compound. Ashaad said nothing, but Karasaad frowned just a little when she followed them inside.
The next day, the Arishok took her aside after she’d made the bread for the soldiers, along the edge of the compound to an opening that overlooked the docks below, and further out, the sea.
“You feed children the bread we have allowed you to make,” the Arishok stated without preamble.
“I do,” Lily agreed. “They’re hungry. Some of them…I don’t think many of them have anything to eat, besides what I give them.”
“I allow you to sell your bread,” he said, glancing down at her, then out to sea, eyes narrowed. “I said nothing of feeding children.”
Lily blinked in surprise. “I only give them the leftover bread from the day,” she pointed out. “I –“
“If there is leftover bread, you have made too much, wasted the supplies the Qun provides. Do you understand?”
“You…don’t want me to feed them?” she said, tentative and mildly horrified. At his nod, she really couldn’t stop herself or keep her tongue still. “But they have no one – they have no one to take care of them, no one to…to teach them, they won’t – how will they know what’s right, what’s good, how will they ever grow to see the good in the world, if they’re afforded none?” She bit her lip as the Arishok pinned her with another sharp glance, afraid she’d said entirely too much.
“The Qun provides for its own. I allow you to sell your wares to provide this…currency that the people of this city trade, for the Qun.” His frown deepened. “These…children offer nothing.”
Lily felt her breath quicken, tried to tear her eyes away, but couldn’t, the words falling from her mouth before she could stop herself. “This city has done nothing but turn them away – they did nothing to warrant it, they aren’t to blame for it. You say they offer nothing, but I don’t expect they even know they ought to be offering anything. It…what’s happened to them, it isn’t their fault. I don’t want to turn them away, they need me, they need someone, anyone, t-to guide them, show them what they could be…”
She trailed off, as the Arishok’s gaze had deepened into something that glimmered with the faintest hint of sympathy, or pity, she couldn’t tell exactly but she couldn’t bring herself to go on. He remained silent, however, just watched her, eyes half-lidded as he did when he was deep in thought, then finally inclined his head. “You do them no mercy. But I will allow this. Additional supplies will be provided, enough for twenty of your loaves. No more. You may distribute them as you see fit.”
“Thank you,” she breathed, utterly grateful.
His gaze sharpened. “I do not do this for them, viddathari. I do this for you.”
Lily blinked, puzzled and suddenly unsettled. “What do you mean?”
His eyes hardened, and he cast his gaze back to the sea. “You have much to learn. Go. The Ashaad and Karasaad await you.” With that, she found herself soundly dismissed. But despite the Arishok’s words, she felt a little better. And when she trotted to her stall, a little later than she expected to be, she still had plenty of customers waiting.
It was better, Lily decided, that first week was nearly the best week since she’d set up her stall. She wasn’t sure why – part of it was Ashaad, and Karasaad, their presence seemed to discourage any ill behavior just by merit of where they happened to be looking at the time. And that meant that everyone who bought bread, though less in number, was far more likely to share a smile, or thank her and mean it. And part of it felt deeper than that, the hitch in her gut that made her worry just a little every day, worry when she counted her remaining coins, wonder how much longer she could possibly keep her stall running when the price of flour and other things was slowly going up…that hitch in her gut gradually loosened like a knot working its way free, fluttering away on the wind.
She didn’t have to worry anymore. It felt wonderful.
Two weeks later, Varric appeared at her stall, daring quick glances at the qunari before settling on her. “Sunshine – Maker’s balls, where have you been?”
He didn’t expect her to laugh, but she laughed anyway, eyes sparkling. “Don’t you worry, Varric, I got myself into a bit of a tangle and got myself right back out of it again.” She bit her lip, glancing to the left and the right. “Well…I had help getting out of it, anyway. And where have you been, I expected I’d see you sooner than this, here – “ she brushed her hands on her apron, plucked a sweet roll from behind the counter and set it in front of him just so. “—is Serah Hawke with you today? I’ve another, if he—“
Varric shook his head; eyes pinned firmly on her, looking neither left nor right, as relaxed and casual as he could be. “Lily…” he said, his voice pleasant but drawn out, her name spoken just like her mother used to do before she was about to be chided. Lily blinked in surprise, nudged the sweet roll emphatically, and he began to eat it, attempted to talk through a mouthful of frosting and cinnamon and flaky pastry, and simply gave up till he was done. “Right,” he said, carefully placing bits on the counter and sliding them across to her. “Lily, can we talk?”
“I expect we can, as we already are,” she teased, but he didn’t respond to her teasing, instead leaning in and bidding her do the same.
“Away from here. From them,” he murmured, giving the slightest inclination of his head to Ashaad, something that did not go unnoticed. Both Ashaad and Karasaad had turned their great heads to stare at the dwarf, and their expressions were not…kind. She glanced at the both of them, then at Varric, then at the dough set to rise, and then at the sky – it wasn’t time to start putting the noon’s wares in the ovens just yet, and there wasn’t anyone waiting to buy at the moment, and it’d been such a long time…she thought for a moment, trying to recall when last she’d seen Varric, well over a month, she realized, her heart twisting just a little. She wondered if he had anyone to talk to in all that time, about little things like how to make bread and how much cinnamon to use with sugar and the something else’s that weren’t of any real importance, but even more important because they weren’t.
“May I?” she asked Ashaad, eyes wide and pleading. “It’s all right, I know him. Nothing will happen to me – he protects me too, don’t you Varric?” she sweetly asked him, and he responded by cheerfully patting the great crossbow he always, always carried. “Bianca won’t let anyone touch her,” he agreed, eyes twinkling. “She gets…testy when people try to mess with my friends.”
Ashaad watched her for a moment, unblinking, then slowly inclined his head. “We won’t go far!” Lily chirped, pointing to a little spot just down the road that overlooked the sea below, still well within sight. Varric gave both qunari a friendly wave and a wink, and made a show of escorting her, crossbow tucked firmly over his shoulder.
And when at last they took a seat and he turned his eyes on her, they were anything but carefree. “Lily, sunshine, sweetheart, what are you doing with a couple of qunari guarding your stall?” He didn’t seem angry, just worried, oh so worried, and her heart ached just a little, wondering just how many times he’d stopped by the empty stall before she’d finally returned.
“They’re protecting me Varric – I live with them now. The Arishok –“ she faltered, surprised at the change in his expression and the sudden clasp of his hands around one of her flour-dusted own. He’d positioned himself, she realized, so that he was facing away from the stall, away from Ashaad and away from Karasaad, so neither could see his face. And once he’d done so, he dropped all pretense, gave her hand a little shake.
“Lily, honey...what did they do to you? Are you hurt?” She shook her head, eyes twinkling with utmost cheer, biting back a giggle. He didn’t know, she realized. And then she realized she was giggling and here he was, his voice so sad, so forlorn, so…worried for her – she hadn’t realized she’d worried him, hadn’t realized there was any in the city who really paid that kind of depth of attention at all. Not to her.
“I’m fine, Varric. I’m – I was hurt—oh no Varric, don’t worry, please don’t worry,” she begged, a twinge of guilt deepening, feeling his fingers squeeze her palm in alarm. Poor Varric, Lily thought, touched that she’d warranted that kind of concern. “Don’t worry Varric, please, I’m fine. I promise – they helped me, got me back on my feet.” She did her best to reassure him with her very most cheerful smile.
Varric peered at her with the kind of intense scrutiny he usually reserved for the crossbow at his side, but his voice was gentle and kind. “Look, I just…I just need you to tell me one thing, sunshine, and I swear I’ll drop it. Are they keeping you there? Do you want to leave?”
She gave another little giggle, freckled nose crinkling as she shook her head. “No – no, Varric, they haven’t hurt me, and they won’t let anyone hurt me – that’s why Ashaad and Karasaad are with me, you see, on account of…” Lily trailed off, biting her lip at his expression, and squeezed his hands, just so. “I’m happy, Varric,” she whispered, the smile never fading. “I expect I’m happier than I’ve ever, ever been. Don’t you worry for me, Serah Tethras,” she teased, and he rolled his eyes, finally answering her smile with a soft one of his own, “Don’t you dare. I expect you’ve enough to worry about without thinking about a silly baker on the docks.”
He heaved a little sigh, gave her a wistful smile, got to his feet and helped her to hers. “Sunshine…the world needs as many silly bakers as it can get.”
“You’ll keep stopping by, won’t you? Don’t let Ashaad and Karasaad bother you, they’re only looking out for me. Besides, I’ve plenty of sweet rolls to make up for, don’t I?”
“Yeah,” he grinned. “Wouldn’t miss our little chats for the world, sweetheart.”
But when he left he spared a glance behind him, and his eyes were worried and sad. Lily gave him a wink and another cheerful grin to arm him, for she suspected wherever he went the rest of his day, it was far harder and weighed far heavier on the poor man than he’d ever let anyone know.
Chapter 7: Asit tal-eb
The next month went by in a blur of baking, and she was delighted when Saemus at last returned one morning, nearly as delighted as he seemed to be to see her, making a show of taking one flour-dusted hand and kissing it like a noble would a fancy lady’s hand, laughing at her no-nonsense demand that he stop that this instant. And when next he arrived, she had a sweet roll waiting for him, to his immense delight and immediate proclamation that he’d never tasted anything quite so fine in all his life. He asked what he’d done to deserve it, and she just gave a little shake of her head and a cheerful smile.
And the Arishok took him aside each time he arrived, quietly speaking with him for long hours, both framed just so in the great opening that overlooked the sea, stray winds sending their hair aflutter in contrast to the solemn expressions both often wore. One day, Saemus came to her, before she was meant to go to her stall, and told her the Arishok requested she come stand as well. So she followed, obediently enough, though she quietly wondered who would watch her stall, or if she’d be allowed to go to it today.
“The words you speak each morning,” the Arishok began without preamble, eyes cast somewhere out beyond the sea. “You speak them well. But do you understand what they mean, viddathari?”
“Yes, sir, Ashaad taught me the—“
“—I do not mean the translation, imekari,” he snapped, stern, and she bit her lip, lowered her eyes. “They are a part of the Qun.”
Saemus nudged her, and she glanced up, startled when he flashed her the smallest of grins, lifting his chin at the Arishok, who had cast his gaze once more to sea. And to her surprise, the Arishok began to speak again, this time in a tone she’d never before heard from the leader, a soft, lilting, reverent thing that caught her so by surprise she nearly missed his first words.
“A vast granite statue stands on an island, holding back the sea. The heavens crown its brow. It sees to the edge of the world. The sea drowns its feet with every tide. The heavens turn overhead, light and dark. The tide rises to devour the earth, and falls back. The sun and the stars fall to the sea one by one in their turn, only to rise again.”
The Arishok turned his eyes on her, capturing her own. “The tide rises, the tide falls, but the sea is changeless. Struggle is an illusion. There is nothing to struggle against.”
Somewhere, dimly, next to her, she felt Saemus’ fingers weave into her own, give her a reassuring squeeze. But she paid it the smallest of heed, the Arishok’s words, his eyes, far more fascinating.
“The deception flows deeper. The statue resists the ebb and flow of the sea, and is whittled away with each wave. It protests the setting sun, and its face is burned looking upon it. It does not know itself. Stubbornly, it resists wisdom and is transformed.”
“If you love purpose, fall into the tide,” he said, leaning in, “Let it carry you. Do not fear the dark. The sun and the stars will return to guide you. You have seen the greatest kings build monuments for their glory, only to have them crumble and fade. How much greater is the world than their glory?”
“The purpose of the world renews itself with each season. Each change only marks a part of the greater whole. The sea and the sky themselves: Nothing special. Only pieces.”
At that, the great qunari fell silent, but kept his eyes on hers, his expression shifting into one of studied observation. “These are but one part of the teachings of the Ashkaari Koslun. These are the words of the Qun, these are the words that define us. Do you understand, viddathari, what they mean?”
Lily blinked, slowly, for a moment – just a moment, she thought perhaps she did, but when she tried to open her mouth, when she tried to say the words, they flew from her head before she could begin to make sense of them, speak them, the flash of understanding there and gone in an instant, leaving her frustrated, embarrassed, almost heartbroken. It was there, right there on the tip of her tongue and before she could capture it, it had fallen away. The Arishok watched her carefully, and despite her frustration, despite the strange flash of sorrow on her face, his eyes glinted with mild approval. “No,” he answered for her. “Not yet.”
“I want to,” she replied, almost without thinking. “Please, I almost—“
“—enough.” The Arishok interrupted, but his voice wasn’t quite as sharp as before. “You. Saemus. You will speak with this one, today. Speak the words, examine their meaning. Show her the wisdom you have begun to observe, and learn from what she has already obtained. You are human, as is she, you share a common bond.” He inclined his head, indicated they were dismissed, but Lily stayed put.
“Arishok—“ she began, and when he turned his great head this time, it was almost with the utmost and worn patience of a mabari being piled on by loving, but entirely too enthusiastic children. “Speak, viddathari,” he said.
“Ashaad once told me – he said you were here for a reason. What happens when you’ve finished that reason?”
“We return to Par Vollen,” he answered.
“And…and me?” Lily asked, just a little worried. She needn’t have worried, though, the Arishok had an answer for that, too, and he gave it to her agreeably enough.
“You, and this one, should he choose to submit, and the other viddathari, will be educated. You will take your place in the Qun. You will be provided for, and you will provide. Asit tal-eb. Go, now.” He waved one massive hand, dismissing them both. Saemus tugged her hand, and she followed, though she spared a glance over her shoulder for the Arishok, who looked suddenly a little tired.
They’d been in the city such a long time, she realized over the next few months, so long, and it was little wonder that the Arishok was tired. Of course he wanted to go home – Kirkwall was, she reasoned, as far a cry from Par Vollen as one could get. Saemus still stopped by, regularly, and on the days he did, she knew she was not to go to her stall. Instead of escorting her outside, Ashaad and Karasaad stood over them both in a little corner of the compound, listened to them speak and kept watchful eyes on them as they talked and shared stories of the city and tried their best to unravel the mysteries of the Qun. Karasaad never spoke, but Ashaad occasionally interrupted them, correcting this word or that one, sparing them a sentence or two, never quite explaining – he said, once, that he was not of the Ariqun, was not trained to teach – but evidently satisfied with their progress.
Lily taught Saemus how to knead the dough, to his fascination – he said he’d never really thought about how things were made before, they simply were, and she chided him gently, told him every bit of everything ever made had a story, a person, hands behind it, names that shouldn’t be forgotten. It was what made things special, she reasoned – it was what made the world a lovely place to be.
“Lily,” Saemus asked her one morning, as the two of them worked on the dough for the afternoon’s bread. “What do you do when I’m not here?”
“I bake here, and then I go to my stall – it’s just down the street, mind, not far – and I bake there, too,” Lily answered, frowning just a little when his hands stopped moving. “—don’t stop kneading or it’ll fall, go on then – I bake there too, and then when the day’s done I feed the children, and then I come back here. So…not so much different from what we do, except instead of talking to you, I talk to everyone else, instead.” She grinned cheerfully, plopping the mound of dough she’d been working on into a bowl and covering it with a cloth before grabbing another large handful and starting again. But Saemus had gone quite still again, brow furrowed, so she took the dough from his hands, checked it, and placed that in a bowl as well, giving him more to knead, but he made no move to start. “What?” she finally asked.
“Children?” It was somewhere between a question and a whisper, as if he couldn’t imagine such a thing existed in all the world.
“Well, yes – orphans, most of them. They don’t really h…” she trailed off, slightly perplexed. “It’s not that extraordinary, Saemus,” Lily informed him, slightly nonplussed. “People have children all the time,” she gently teased.
“Yes, but…here, really? Where do they live?” Saemus replied. He looked…distressed, Lily decided, and she couldn’t quite understand why, but her heart tugged a little at the sadness in those bright blue eyes. How he’d come along fully grown and not even noticed she didn’t know – although given that so many paid the orphans of the streets so little attention, she was hardly surprised. It wasn’t the first time they’d been ignored.
“I don’t know. They never tell me, but they’re happy for the bread and happy to see a friendly face and I expect that’s enough to keep them going, though…I do wish they had more,” she admitted.
“Lily, where did you live?” he asked suddenly, resuming his kneading to her immense satisfaction.
“I had a little room, up in Lowtown – rented it. It was small, but it was nice,” she said, thoroughly involved in folding the dough over and over, knuckles pressing it just so, as her mother had taught her.
“A room? Not a…not a house?”
Lily laughed, shaking her head. “Oh no! I’ve never earned that kind of living – I bake bread, it’s not as if it pays enough for a house down here.”
“But this is Lowtown,” he said, inexplicably puzzled. “Things aren’t as expensive here.”
At that, Lily stilled, giving him the kind of look she usually reserved for strange happenstances, curiosity overcoming common sense. “Are you from Hightown then? I mean not that there’s anything wrong with that of course and honestly I’d assumed you weren’t from around here on account of your hands, mind you—“
“—what’s wrong with my hands?” Saemus blinked, perplexed.
She laughed, shaking her head again in amusement. “Nothing at all, and that’s why – even when I wasn’t here, Saemus, I was working on a farm and you could tell on account of my hands showed it. Still do. See?” She held up her hands, crisscrossed with little scars and well worn. “Yours on the other hand look like…well. Like kneading this bread is probably the most you’ve done with them in your lifetime. So I thought of course you had to be fr…” she trailed off, as Saemus stared at her, puzzled and strangely enough, delighted for some reason she couldn’t quite discern.
“You…have no idea who I am, do you?” he asked, terribly pleased and oddly, relieved. Behind her, Ashaad shifted, and Saemus gave his head a little shake. “I’m Saemus, yes. Saemus Dumar.”
Lily blinked, eyes wide, all thought of kneading dough forgotten and then remembered in horrified embarrassment as she dropped her eyes to his hands, thoroughly invested in working the dough. “The Viscount’s son?” she squeaked, only slightly terrified. “I’ve been sitting here knea…I’ve been making you—“
Saemus shook his head. “No no no – I am, I mean yes of course I am out there.” A flicker of sorrow shadowed those bright blue eyes, and for a moment Lily wondered how in the world someone who had so much – certainly he had so, so much, she reckoned – could be sad about anything at all. And then she very thoroughly chastised herself for ever thinking such a thing as there wasn’t a person in the world above feeling one thing or another, and as she was in the middle of that, Saemus began to chuckle, earning her startled attention again. He watched her with those bright blue eyes, crinkled at the corners just so, and laughed, and she couldn’t help but begin to smile. “Your face,” Saemus gasped, “I’m so sorry but you look exactly like a squirrel caught red-handed in the larder—“ Whatever awkward tension lay between them dissolved entirely in that moment in a flurry of gasping laughter.
Eventually the two of them stopped laughing long enough to breathe, and breathe long enough to start talking again. “I’m not here – I’m not his son, here, I’m just Saemus, as much as you’re just Lily, and I’m happy for that. I’m very happy for that – you’re happy too, aren’t you Lily?”
Of course she agreed.
Less than a week later, two more were introduced to their little group – two elves, solemn-faced and quiet at first, but they seemed as content with kneading bread as they were with discussing the Qun, the prayer they chanted each morning, the way of life as it stood in the compound. It took a little time, but the elves eventually warmed to them, particularly when Lily began asking them about the tree in the Alienage, told them of her little room, told them of how she liked to look at it before she went to bed, that it was the prettiest of things in all of Lowtown. Saemus never told them who he was, just listened to her as she spoke to them, listened to them as they spoke to her, lost in his own thoughts, whatever those thoughts might be. And on the days she went to her stall, the elves went somewhere else – she asked Ashaad, who solemnly informed her they were soldiers, fighters, not a baker like her – and she imagined they must be training then, sparring somewhere out of sight.
There were others, too, Ashaad told her – other elves who had come to them seeking the wisdom, the freedom of the Qun, most of whom were sent out to the coasts to scout or train. She saw them very rarely, and none of them stopped to talk to her. Ashaad told her they had had more time to learn, and were farther along in understanding than she was.
And on a fine day when both Lily and Saemus sat, quietly eating lunch, Saemus glanced up at her, eyes sparkling. “I’ve decided I’m going to stay here,” he said, which earned her immediate and enthusiastic approval. But the joy in his eyes faded just a little, his expression tinged with wistful sorrow. “I have to tell my father. He’s…I don’t think he’ll like it.”
“But you’ve been here all this time, doesn’t he already know?” Lily asked. Saemus shook his head. “He thinks I’m attending lessons – I paid my tutor long ago to turn a blind eye when I climbed out the window,” he grinned, his expression faltering just a little. “Lily…I want to thank you, I do. The Arishok taught me much, but I think…I think I learned more from his lessons by speaking with you.”
“What do you mean?”
“He told me once, said I understood the city as little as my father,” his eyes darkened briefly, but he shook the sorrow away. “—but I think I understand the city far more having spoken with you, and I think that’s what the Arishok meant for me to learn. He wanted me to see the city as he saw it.” Ashaad stirred behind them, and Saemus glanced up at him. “Well it is, isn’t it?” Ashaad said nothing, merely glanced from Saemus to Lily, resuming his staid stance in silence.
“When will you tell him?” Lily asked softly.
“Soon – the next time I arrive, it’ll be for good. You and I can talk every day, then – and we’ll be happy. We’ll be very happy, won’t we Lily?” He asked, his eyes filled with hope.
She smiled, cheerful and kind as always. “Of course we will.” And she meant it – she was reasonably certain he’d be on a different path than hers, that she’d most likely never see him again when at last they reached Par Vollen. But until that time and even after, they’d still be bound together – two from Kirkwall. Nothing special, only pieces – pieces that fell willingly into the tide, and slipped into the sea.
Chapter 8: Nehraa Qun
There is a lot, and I mean a lot of disturbing imagery and violence in this chapter.
Saemus never came back.
It was a good week, with plenty of customers and plenty of friendly faces. But one night she came home, obediently making her way to the compound with Ashaad and Karasaad at her side, only to be told without question that she was to speak to the Arishok immediately. They led her to the side of the compound she didn’t usually go, up the long flight of stairs where he waited, seated on an ornate wooden bench as if it were a throne. And perhaps it was, Lily thought, as he led them all – but the Arishok’s seat was anything but relaxed, his eyes were anything but calm contemplation.
“You will no longer sell your wares,” he stated without preamble, and scowled when she opened her mouth to protest, silencing her with a piercing glare. “You will no longer leave the compound. Viddathari are to remain here until further notice.” She opened her mouth again, and he gave her another glare of warning, but let her speak.
“Why?” she asked. It was a simple question, but both of the guards at the Arishok’s sides exchanged glances that suggested perhaps that was exactly the wrong question to be asking at this particular moment.
“The Qun protects its own.” And the Arishok stood, a step above her and at his full height, towering over her and setting her heart racing in her chest so very, very fast that she was afraid he just might be able to hear it. “You are no warrior, you cannot fight. You will stay here, and you will remain here, until this is resolved. Do you understand?”
“Y-yes, Arishok,” Lily whispered, although she really didn’t understand at all, but the dangerous glint in his eyes made it clear that he was done with questions for the evening.
“Go,” he commanded, and she went, very quietly and very quickly, scurrying to the cot she’d been assigned, and trying to quell the rising sense of panic in her belly, counting stars till she fell asleep.
In the morning, she woke, prepared the bread as always, and found far, far more were at the compound than usual – qunari and elves alike, all solemn, all…waiting, it seemed, for what she did not know. And she handed out the last of the bread, joined them in the morning prayer, curious and slightly unnerved by the passion with which they seemed to speak the words, her voice one with them all.
Shok ebasit hissra, meraad astaarit, meraad itwasit, aban aqun. Maraas shokra. Anaan esaam Qun.
Lily cleaned up after breakfast, unsure exactly what she was supposed to do now that it was done, furtively scanning the crowd as it dispersed, when she felt a hand on her shoulder. “Ashaad,” she breathed, quietly relieved. “Ashaad, what—“
“Come with me.” He intoned, and led her back the way she’d come that morning, to her little cot in the back of the compound, gesturing for her to sit. She did, confused. This was not at all what she expected to do with her day. This was not the way things were. Ashaad sat on a cot across the way, staring at the courtyard in silence for what seemed like hours, but was in actuality two or three minutes before he spoke, his voice quiet and even. “You must remain here, viddathari.”
“Ashaad, I don’t understand,” she whispered, glancing around the courtyard, thoroughly unsettled. “Are we going to Par Vollen? Is that, that demand of the Qun, the one you said, the reason we’re here – is it being met today?”
He gave one sharp nod, scowling at the sky, then directed a glance her direction, capturing her gaze and holding it. “The one you call Saemus is dead. Murdered by bas, by the humans of this city. They sought to place blame at our feet.”
Lily felt the world start to crumble beneath her. “No…no they wouldn’t, they…why?” she whispered, her blood running cold.
Ashaad kept his eyes locked firmly on hers, placed a hand on her shoulder, leaning in as he spoke. “They do not understand the Qun. They remain anchored to their struggle; cling to it, deny the wisdom of the Qun. They have chosen, viddathari.” He shook his head. “It matters little. We wait for the Tome of Koslun. When the Arishok has it, we will leave for Par Vollen, leave this refuse behind.”
She sat in stunned silence, still trying to grasp what she’d been told. Saemus – brilliant, wonderful, Saemus of the kind eyes, kinder smile…all he’d ever done was hope for something better, something brighter, and now he was simply gone. Ashaad rose to his feet, glanced down in the courtyard, then back at her. “Remain here,” he reminded her, and strode off, leaving her to hug her knees to her chest, quietly try to stifle her tears in her skirts, and wonder why anyone would ever want to extinguish a light that had done little more than shine brightly.
From below, she heard the Arishok begin to bark orders – she could not understand what was said, but the mood in the compound shifted, the qunari that remained behind standing taller, agitated, muttering to each other in their own tongue. Some took to the parapets above the compound, arming themselves with spears, and Lily watched them all, wide eyed and worried.
Ashaad returned not more than an hour later, taking long, strident steps, and this time he lowered himself to crouch before her, eye-level, hands on her shoulders and speaking with quiet urgency. “You are to remain here,” he said to her again, giving her a little shake for emphasis. “Remember, viddathari. Remember the words. Remember their meaning, remember the Qun. Speak them with me, now.”
“Shok ebasit hissra,” she whispered, and he joined her, eyes locked with hers, mouth moving with hers as one, their voices united. “Meraad astaarit, meraad itwasit, aban aqun. Maraas shokra. Anaan esaam Qun.”
“There is nothing to struggle against, viddathari. Fall into the tide. Submit. Remain here. Do not leave the compound. The Qun demands obedience, especially today. Anaan esaam Qun.”
“Victory is in the Qun,” she softly repeated.
“Yes. Good. Again,” he said, and she could not bring herself to look away, reciting the words with him, a prayer or perhaps a quiet ward against whatever it was that had gone wrong. She didn’t know how long she sat with him, chanting quietly, before the great gates below opened – only that when the creak of metal was heard, Ashaad suddenly fell silent, lifting his hands from her shoulders, and stood, indicating she remain where she was with a sharp wave of his hand.
Voices spoke from far below – she couldn’t make out what was said, but the entire compound was drawn tense as a bowstring, the air heavy with tension that set her entirely on edge. She wanted to whisper his name, but couldn’t, so she made herself as small as she could and waited, as it was the only thing left to do.
She heard the Arishok, his low, sonorous tones carried through the compound, rising in a question, then falling silent. His voice sounded out once more, then waited – he was speaking to someone, she realized, wanting very much to see who it was, what was happening, but –
The Arishok spoke again, his voice ringing out with finality.
In the span of a single breath, before he’d even finished whatever it was he was saying, the compound sprang into motion, qunari leaping from ground to ledge to rooftop with astonishing grace and speed. Shouts rang out, and some stood their ground, some threw a veritable rain of spears – Ashaad turned to her, lowered himself once more, stared her right in the eyes. “Remain here, viddathari. Anaan esaam Qun. You are protected, here.” Before she could even open her mouth to reply, he was off as well, leaping as the others had, upon a ledge, to the rooftop. He disappeared, along with everyone else, leaving Lily in the suddenly still and silent compound, terrified and alone.
And then the screams began. They began and they did not stop.
Lily slid off the cot and onto the stone floor, scooting back against a wall, knees curled to her chest, pressed her hands to her ears and chanted and chanted and chanted, trying to drown it out, saying the words in time with her heart’s frantic beating, burying her face in her skirts at the acrid smell of smoke and flame, terrified beyond measure and wondering just what had gone horribly, horribly wrong.
They did not come back. Hours upon hours had passed, the sky had darkened, and they did not come back. Lily sat, trembling and frightened, in the eerily silent compound. Slowly, she rose to her feet, aching and tired and hungry and exhausted, made her way down the stone steps. The courtyard was a chaotic wreck, a tangle of torn banners, overturned cots, hay strewn about – and as she rounded the corner to the Arishok’s throne, she bit back a shriek. Bodies were strewn with careless abandon, qunari and human both – Kirkwall guards, she realized, the uniforms still recognizable beneath the blood, so much, too much—
She bolted, heedless of Ashaad’s warnings. She had to get out, she had to get out she was trapped with death and no way to leave, the gates were torn down, blocking her way, rubble and wreckage and she dug with her fingers, scraping against metal and stone, squeezed her body through the blockade and stumbled into the street outside, staggered to a halt, horrified.
The streets were littered with more bodies than she could count. Blood soaked the pavement, stained her shoes, her skirts. And for the first time since she’d come to live in the city, it was well and truly silent, save for a soft babble of odd sounds she couldn’t identify, wet and airy, like bubbles popping, like a wellspring gurgled somewhere in the distance, a persistent trickle of wat—
“Lily – “
She whirled, terrified, but it was only Harold, dear Harold, sweet Harold who stumbled her way, hand clutched to his chest, eyes wide with fright and concern alike, it was he who had whispered her name. “Lily, run – run, run before they come ba—“ Harold’s hand dropped, scarlet staining his skin, his shirt, fell to his knees with a terrible cry and onto the pavement, a knife embedded in his back. He struggled to move, terrified eyes locked with hers, made a half-silent, familiar gurgle and then his eyes saw nothing at all.
And she realized in one horrific instant what the noises were – little breaths, last breaths, more than she could count, a thousand thousand lives like shining lights, extinguished one by one by one—
Lily turned and ran. She blindly ran without sense of direction, ran without any destination, ran and tripped and fell into a mire of corpses and blood, choked and scrambled back to her feet and ran on, round a corner, up the street, to a darkened narrow alley familiar yes familiar and her eyes lit on what lie ahead and she stumbled to a stop, covering her mouth with both hands to choke down the sick, stifle a scream.
They called him Little Sam on account of he was the littlest, not because he was young, because he was short and small and hadn’t had a decent meal since the day he was born most likely. He stared at the sky in blank-eyed wonder; neck set wrong, limbs bent in different directions, a thin trail of blood weeping from the corner of his mouth.
They called her Lucy and she was seldom seen with all four of her friends, but now they lay together, Lucy, Violet, Eliza and Bess, hands clutched tightly, little mouths open in screams they simply couldn’t make anymore, their throats cut wide open, gaping and empty, their blood pooled on the pavement.
Joseph and Edeline were twins who spent the last of their breaths defending each other, fierce little snarls on their fierce little faces, bellies sliced open and entrails strewn along the street behind them.
The Dunstons knew every child in Lowtown, and were friends with them all – looked after each other, eldest to youngest, all in a row, desperately collapsed in a heap of limbs and crimson around the smallest, an arrow through his back and another through his head.
And the others, all the others, so many others, all there, all piled in piles, little blank eyes empty of whatever they could have been, would have been, should have been –
A shadow fell over Lily, and she whirled, staggered and sank to her knees next to Little Sam, gathering him up to her chest and cradling his broken little body, staring up with sheer, unbridled horror at Ashaad. He stood, arms crossed, silver-skinned body caked with blood, his expression endlessly patient, serene, and a flicker of faint disapproval in his dark eyes.
“You left the compound. I told you to remain.” He said it as if it were she that had erred, she that had broken some unspoken rule, she that had done something wrong.
“No.” she managed to choke the word from her mouth, a strangled cry of denial.
“They had no Tamassrans.” he said, his voice calm, devoid of emotion, devoid of feeling, devoid of guilt.
“They were children,” she cried, her voice a shrill, sharp echo in the little alley. From the streets she could hear marching, marching in unison, chanting the prayer, speaking as one, acting as one, marching as one, as if speaking to the sky, and daring it to answer.
Shok ebasit hissra—
“They had no purpose, no path.”
“They were children,” she repeated, unable to formulate anything more, her gut clenched so tightly she felt as though she would snap in two, hugging the empty little shell to her, desperately smoothing his hair, tears streaking her cheeks, blurring her vision, but even through the blur she could see Ashaad’s frown of disapproval.
“This city had already denied them, cast them aside. If they lived, they would have continued to suffer.” He intoned; his scowl deepening as Lily began to rock back and forth, shaking her head, breaking into ragged sobs.
“No, no, no—“
“Parshaara!” he snapped, the sharp, unfamiliar word ringing in her ears, silencing her in an instant. He was across the alley in three long strides, grasping her hair and twisting her head back, pulling a painful, terrified cry from her mouth, eyes set on hers, boring into her own. “This was a mercy,” he hissed. “Would you have them fall into the sea, would you watch them drown?”
A sharp bark came from the other end of the alley, and Ashaad released her, letting her fall to the ground, watching her shake with terrified, horrified sobs. “It is time, viddathari. The Tome of Koslun is ours; the demand of the Qun has been fulfilled. We must go.”
“Why,” Lily cried, the word repeated again and again. He reached for her again, and she shrank away in terror, pinning him with wide, frightened eyes.
His own flickered with marked disapproval, uncertainty, and disgust. “You would deny the Qun. Have you so soon forgotten? Shok ebasit hissra, viddathari.” His gaze hardened imperceptibly. “Asit tal-eb. This was inevitable. Submit.”
But she made no move to stand, no move to follow, just stared, frozen, and began to sob anew, the look on his face, the disgust in his eyes filling her with horrified shame.
Another shout came from the alley, louder this time. Ashaad glanced over his shoulder, glanced back to her, a snarl curling his lip. “Ebsaam asit tal-eb. Come. Now. Or remain here, deny the Qun, deny your purpose, rot in the filth of this city. Choose.”
Anaan esaam Qun.
“No,” she whispered.
Her mind screamed a protest, the chant playing over and over in the street and in her head, reminding her of contentment, of happy days, of freedom from worry fluttering in the wind. Ashaad took a step forward, drew his blade, lifting, staring, eyes narrowed in sickened disgust and contempt, but he did not strike. He stood, frozen, lost in thought. And then he sheathed the weapon, put it away. “Basra,” Ashaad spat, turned on his heel and strode off, following the last of the qunari, the march, the chanting prayer, fading slowly away everywhere but in her head. And then there was nothing, nothing but the ragged sounds of her breathing, sobs, the empty reminder of what had been. Of what could have been. Of what she had thrown away, her breath catching in her throat, a strangled noise of desperation – there were none now, none left, none to feed, none to bake for, nothing to bake for them, nothing to fall into, nothing to slip into the sea was empty and gone and the Qun said not to struggle and she tried so hard to not to and tripped and floundered in the dust and dirt and there were no tides—
Little Sam, Lucy, Violet, Eliza, Bess, Joseph and Edeline, Constance, Stephen, Nathaniel, John, Chester, Nellie, Drake, Edita, Hettie, Alfred, Faith, Posy, Osmond, Hayden, Hollis, Gleda, so many names too many names she had to remember she had to remember remember th—
Lily screamed. She screamed and she screamed and she would not stop.
I was headed back to Lowtown when I found her. Sitting on the side of the street, just…rocking in place, eyes wide and empty and staring at absolutely nothing. I tried to talk to her, I said her name and she wouldn’t look at me, just sat there and rocked, shook like a little dog and made this noise, the kind of noise a man makes when a shank hits his heart, strangled little – it broke my damned heart, all right? I should have been there, dammit. I should have pulled her out of there the second she said they’d taken her in. I should have killed both those damned qunari, should have let Bianca have her way.
I should have done a lot of things in that damned city, but the least I could’ve done was gotten that kid out of harm’s way.
And yes, I took her back to the Hanged Man. It’s not the finest establishment, I’ll admit it – hell, most of Lowtown would gladly tell you that and meet you for drinks there later – but I’d be damned if I was letting her out of my sight again. I managed to talk the owner into giving her a job. It took…well; it took a hell of a lot of talking.
Funny thing, though – the second he got her in the kitchen, she just started putting together dough, didn’t even look at what she was doing, just started baking away, made the best damned bread anyone in that place had ever tasted. She never made a sweet roll again, though. They were her rewards, I think. She gave them away to people that kept her safe, like a sweet thank you topped with frosting. No one kept her safe that day. No one earned a thank you, least of all me.
I gave her a key to my room, I told her, I said Lily if you ever feel like you aren’t safe, you go upstairs, and you lock yourself in there, and you sit there until I come back. I told her I’d always come back. I promised her I’d always come back, and I meant it. Didn’t even know if she could hear me or understand, but I promised anyway, and she took the key and went right back to baking. But I found her up there just once. It was after the Chantry blew sky high, after Hawke managed to kick Meredith’s teeth in. She was up by my bed just sitting on the floor, staring and rocking and her mouth kept moving but nothing came out. It was like she was trying to chant or something, I don’t know. But she was safe.
I paid the owner a small fortune to keep her safe when I left Kirkwall. I don’t think I needed to worry about it; the girls pretty much adopted her at some point and Maker’s balls you don’t want to mess with a nest of angry…right. I had Merrill check on her too, for good measure. And every time I went back, she was there safe and sound, first thing I checked on when I walked through that door.
And yes, I know, you’re wondering why I went to all that trouble.
Look, I couldn’t keep everyone safe. I couldn’t with Hawke. I watched his mother die in his arms and I saw a little part of him die too, that part that maybe would’ve kept Isabela around, kept him from handing her over like a parcel and ignoring her shouts when they dragged her away.
I don’t know what happened in that compound, and I don’t really care. All I know is that for once in that city there was someone warm and alive and full of smiles and songs and stories, and now she’s just stares and silence.
Fucking Kirkwall. It eats the best out of us, spits the worst right back out.
And when all we are is the best, it leaves nothing behind but bones.
Chapter 9: Bull
I didn't even think about whether or not I should bring Lily with me, to be honest. I told her I’d come back for her, but I couldn’t do it. Not after what happened at the Conclave. So I just paid some people and arranged to have her brought to me. Hell, the Inquisition was full of hungry people, people that needed food, and sure Haven might've been frozen over, that damned rift torn in the sky but it was better than being back there. Flissa was a sweet woman, and I didn't really have to explain when I handed Lily over, she took one look and she knew whatever it was, it was bad, and when it was that bad, you just didn't want to ask, because you didn't want to know. And maybe that would've been best for her, if people just kept not wanting to know.
She made it through Haven; I made sure she got to the Chantry when everything fell to shit. Flissa made it too, but she ended up pledging herself to the Chantry after that, and Cabot took over at the new tavern. He gave me some strange looks when I introduced her, but he took one bite of that bread she made and gave her a job on the spot. She settled in to the Herald's Rest, and the tavern girls loved her, watched over her with a fierceness that you just didn't want to cross. Maker help you if you tried.
She had her own room, and every morning she'd make her way to the tavern, she'd spent all day baking, and every night she'd go back to her room, and sure, she didn't talk to anyone, she didn't look at anyone, she didn't seem to see a damned thing, but it wasn't a bad life. It wasn't a bad life.
I keep telling myself that, like if I repeat it enough I’ll believe it.
But there was one thing I didn’t count on, in between all the fighting and battles and Bianca and lyrium and shit. His name was The Iron Bull.
“Hands off!” Liza snapped, tossing her hair and slapping the drunk who sat alone, drowning his sorrows in a darkened corner of the Herald's Rest. “Going home with Eddard tonight.”
“Could always drop him, come home with me,” he leered.
“Maybe, if your prick were bigger than my mam’s thimble,” she shot back. The tavern roared with laughter. “Go on then, off with you, had too much already besides.”
The drunk’s eyes strayed across the tavern to the back room. “Maybe I’ll just take the wee one you got hid then, eh? How much for ‘er? Little f—“ That did it – Liza got right up in his face, puffed up like an angry cat and hissing besides. “You leave her alone. Lily ain’t for you, Lily ain’t for anyone and swear by the Maker you make one move I’ll be wearin that eensy prick on a chain round my neck come morning, see if I don’t,” she spat. He cringed in his seat, suitably humbled, and she huffed off to gather another round.
Bull sat back in his chair, watching the show with a lazy grin. Liza was a good one. Liked to be in charge. Didn’t want to be coddled. Told him so, spent the entire night on top, telling him off, hurling every insult she ever wanted to throw at anyone who ever did her any wrong in his face, and he grinned and he took it and after, when they were through, she thanked him for it. It was just what she needed.
They won. The whole damn Inquisition, beat the crap out of that lyrium-humping vint magister bastard and marched on home to cheers and celebrations. It didn’t surprise him when they began to leave after that. Vivienne was first, right out the damn gates, bolted for Orlais and he couldn’t really blame her too much. She’d done her best to kit out Skyhold like Val Royeaux, and it mostly went unappreciated. Solas was gone because of course he was. There was always something fishy about that elf, but Bull couldn’t never quite figure it out, not entirely. He wasn’t what he said he was, for sure.
Blackwall left with the Grey Wardens, headed back to wherever the hell they went. He kind of figured he’d never see the man again. Sera stuck around, but mostly kept to herself when she wasn't pulling one prank or another on unsuspecting guests. Tied up in all that Red Jenny business, most likely. Bull never really got what all that entailed, but despite her fire, Sera had a good heart. Hell, if she were a little more even-keeled, he'd have made a Charger out of her. Cassandra … ah, Cass, feisty and fierce and he wished, sometimes, that she hadn’t turned him down because he was pretty sure she was – well it didn’t matter much now. She was off to be Divine, of all things, and it was probably for the best because he figured she had the common sense not to screw it up. Hopefully.
Varric stayed put. Sure, he kept saying he was going to head back to Kirkwall, but he kept making excuses for why he couldn’t. Bull figured it was two things – first, he was far enough away from the important people that all they could do was send him letters, and paper was a lot easier to deal with than people making demands. Second, he was working on his next novel, and he didn’t want to take a hike before the thing was finished, wanted to stick around, didn’t want to miss a detail of where it all went down. Bull was kind of looking forward to reading it.
Cole stuck around, too, haunted the place like a ghost, scared the piss out of people mostly. And of course Cullen stayed, Leliana stayed, Josie stayed – they all had shit to do. The Inquisition won, sure, but they still had a hell of a lot of work to do, mopping up what was left behind. Rifts to be closed. Demons to be slain.
Dorian left for Tevinter. He barged into Bull’s room at the crack of dawn a couple of weeks after they'd finished Corypheus off, gave him a stilted, awkward goodbye, said he had to go fix things and make them right. Bull couldn’t really blame him, either – he saw that one coming, saw it for months. The Inquisitor gave him an example of what could be done with the world when you were fierce and determined and didn’t take shit from anyone, and Bull gave him the courage to realize he was the kind of man who could do it. Underneath all that pretense and poise was a good man, a good man who could do a hell of a lot for the world. Bull was a little sad to see him go, but shit, he couldn’t deny him that purpose. Hell if he’d go with him, though. Dorian wanted him to, he could see it in his eyes, but for fuck’s sake, a qunari walking into Tevinter was like a mouse just walking up to the trap and jumping up and down on the trigger, begging the damn thing to snap shut. It wasn’t his fight.
Besides, he had his Chargers. They needed him. Or at least that’s what he kept telling himself, letting Krem hold the reins and lead for a while. Kid looked like he was gonna bust right out of his chest when he said so. The Inquisition still had jobs for them, and the boss asked that they stay – that he stay – so why not.
It wasn’t like he had anything else pressing to do.
Bull shifted in his chair, back twinging just a little, and rolled his shoulder, watched the room and drank whatever they brought him.
“Hey, Chief,” Krem said, lolling his head to the right and fixing him with a slightly drunken, cheerful grin, a group of Chargers grinning right along behind him. “Bets are on that Liza takes that drunk’s head off twice more before the evening’s out. You in?”
“Nah,” Bull grinned. “Betting’s no fun when it’s a sure thing. You’re pushing out in the morning, right?” Krem nodded; pleasantly buzzed on the mulled wine Dorian had introduced him to at some point. Leliana wanted them to go and quietly stifle some shitheads down just south of Redcliffe, yammering on about the second coming of the Blight, Inquisition brought it on their heads, usual doomsday crap that didn’t take more than a week or so to quash. Nothing special.
“You sure you don’t want to come along?” Krem asked, brow furrowed because of course the kid was worried. All the Chargers were worried, and they tried to hide it. But ever since that day on the Storm Coast they made it a point to treat him exactly the same, and not in that we understand kind of way, in that rigid and restricted way that said hey, shit went down, don’t make any sudden movements, don’t piss off the boss. He couldn’t be angry with them for it – shit, he wouldn’t want to piss himself off either, if he were in their shoes. They weren’t pissing him off, though, they could never do that, and he figured it was just a matter of time before they sorted that crap out amongst themselves.
Bull shook his head, flashed Krem the laziest of lazy grins. “I’ve got plenty to keep myself occupied with here.”
“Plenty of lads and lasses you mean,” Rocky piped up from behind Krem, setting the group off in a round of cheers and laughter.
“That too,” Bull agreed, sat up a little straighter in his chair. “For fuck’s sake, what are you all doing here if you’re headed out at the crack of dawn? Get home and get some sleep – ask Dalish when you get there how much fun it is to ride the ponies when you’re nursing a hangover, she’ll tell you.”
“Yes, mother,” Krem drawled, pushed himself out of the chair. “Right then, Chargers, move your asses, all bets are off and we’ll just have to ask Liza about it when we get back. Move out!” He glanced back at Bull, raised a brow. “Want me to cover the tab, Chief?”
“I got it,” Bull rumbled, waving his hand and settling back into his chair.
Not more than a half hour later, she caught his eye, like she always did. Ever since Haven – couldn’t miss it, tiny little thing, freckles and hair like fire, just his type. He had his pick of pretty much every man and woman in Haven after he arrived, the whole damned town was all tripped up in him and he couldn’t really blame them. He got the same in Orlais, too, some shit about being exotic, rugged, charming – it made it so damn easy to figure out who was doing what to whom, where, and why, so he played into it. Why not?
Except her. And that set off every warning bell in the book. She didn’t look at him, didn’t look at anyone really, didn’t seem to notice anyone was there. Except that she did. He walked into that tavern; she’d suddenly slip into the back room. He walked up to the counter, and she’d disappear from sight. For someone who didn’t seem to notice anyone around her, she was really, really good at making sure she was nowhere that he happened to be.
And if that didn’t scream spy, he didn’t know what did. So he went to Leliana with it and she laughed in his face, told him if that was the kind of spy work he was up to, she didn’t know if she could work with him at all. Said Varric brought her in at some point, vouched for her. Implicitly, she said, and when she arrived they looked up her records because of course they did, found she had no family, no home, last residence the Hanged Man in Kirkwall, nothing out of the ordinary at all.
So he went to Flissa, because Flissa never lied to him, never lied to anyone. She didn’t know how, and even if she did her eyes would’ve been a dead giveaway. And Flissa gave him the saddest look, shook her head, clucked her tongue at him for asking. “It’s only because you’re big, I expect,” she said sweetly, patting him on the arm. “Varric never told me what happened, but...well, you’ve seen her. Someone did something to her, and I don’t rightly think I want to know what. I’m sure she doesn’t mean to hurt your feelings, poor thing.”
So he went to Varric. And that dwarf pinned him with a look that could set a stone on fucking fire, shouldered that crossbow of his, stabbed a finger at him and told him in no uncertain terms that if Bull didn’t leave her the hell alone, he’d be using his sack as a quiver.
And Bull believed him. Holy shit did he believe him.
That was the conversation that convinced him he should just leave her be, so he did. Besides, as the months went on there were actual spies in the camp to quietly get rid of, actual things to be doing, missions to go on, allies to make, things to do, all to close that gigantic damn hole in the sky. And they did it and the place got wrecked and they moved the hell on and somewhere in the middle of it all he forgot about her entirely.
But she made it to Skyhold, because she appeared again not long after the tavern opened, always there just out of the corner of his eye. Most of the time when he was there he kept to the back of the room, behind the stairs, tucked mostly out of sight because he figured two things – first, it was a good place for watching people. They never saw him unless they were looking for him, and the tavern was a great place to pick up on what was going on, what was really going on, because it didn’t take a hell of a lot of whatever Cabot was selling to loosen tongues and make people talk. Second, because he figured eventually she’d stop hiding, if he stayed out of sight and made no move or indication he noticed her at all.
She didn’t, but she didn’t seem bothered by the fact that he was there, she just did her thing. And her thing was baking the best fucking bread he’d ever had. He’d been to some of the finest houses in Orlais, with chefs ushered in from all over the world, men and women who probably trained for years to make tiny little cakes and plates of food with ridiculously small portions positioned artfully like they were sculptures instead of, you know, something you shoved down your throat and shat later. But there was nothing he had ever had that tasted quite like that bread. It was simple and there was nothing in it out of the ordinary, no spices or seasonings, just…bread. It reminded him of home.
The drunk in the corner said nothing to anyone, just sat and continued to drink, eyes drifting from person to person, narrowed and thinking, and Bull frowned because he knew trouble when he saw it coming, and that man was trouble. But Liza left, with Eddard, grabbed his ass on the way out the door, and the drunk made no move to follow them, so Bull relaxed, settled back in his chair, and went on with watching the world. Why not.
He remained relaxed when he realized people were starting to trickle out, one by one, and that drunk was just sitting where he sat, not making a move for the door. Bull even let his eye droop, feigning sleep, arm draped over his chest. He didn’t really need to; the drunk wasn’t even looking in his direction. He was staring at the bar, into that little back room. And like clockwork she came out, walked across the floor to the door in silence. And the second it closed behind her, the drunk got up, made his way out of the tavern, let the door close behind him.
And the second after that Bull pushed himself out of his chair and strode to the door, jaw set, because fuck that.
He didn’t have to go very far to find them. They were just around the corner. Drunken bastard had her by the arm, yanking her along and she just dragged on behind him, a fact the asshole was bitching about so profusely that he pretty much walked right into Bull’s fist and keeled over with a satisfying thump. And she just stood there, swaying, blinked, and looked up.
For a second, the smallest split second there was a flash of recognition maybe, and then her eyes rolled back and she crumpled, leaving Bull no recourse but to catch her before she hit the ground. He looked at her, looked at the drunk on the ground, looked at the tavern. “Okay,” he said quietly, scooped her up in his arms and carried her off. “Don’t know where you live, but you’re coming with me for now.” And if he accidentally kicked the drunk in the head when he left, he figured no one could really blame him.
Bull sat, crouched in a chair next to his bed, tried to make himself as small as he could. He stared at the woman passed out on it and wondered what exactly he was supposed to do when she woke up. Because she sure as shit wasn’t going to like being there at all. He had just decided that maybe he’d just leave the door to the tavern open; maybe she’d just kind of…wander on out of her own accord like a moth or a fly, when the kid spoke up.
“She’s hurt,” Cole said.
“Cole, what did I tell you about popping into my room?”
“You said not to do it,” Cole answered, and stayed right where he was, staring at the woman on the bed. “She’s hurt,” he repeated. “She needs help.”
“Look, kid, you can do that shit on your own time, okay? I just need her ou—“ Bull stopped talking. She’d opened her eyes, staring at the ceiling with that blank eyed stare, sightless and unseeing and really, really unnerving. Bull darted a look at Cole. “Did you do that?”
“No,” Cole said. He took a step forward, tilted his head. “They called her the songbird once,” he said, distant and calm, “But she lost her song, The Iron Bull. She can’t find it. Fractured, frozen, fraught with fear—“ The woman stirred, sat up without a word.
“Cole,” Bull warned quietly, good eye locked on her, skin crawling. Something was off.
And Cole opened his mouth, began to sing, soft and low and piping. “Lily, oh lily, the sun’s out and shining, oh lily, sweet lily, now where do you go—”
It was like someone flipped on a switch, her eyes widened and she jolted to life, thrashing like a demon, throwing the blanket from her, mouth open in a soundless scream, and turned on him. “Cole!” Bull barked, arm up to protect his eye, but the kid kept right on singing, and she kept on struggling and Bull tried to grab her, restrain her, “Easy, hold on now – Cole I swear to—“ She was a tiny little thing but her arms were strong as hell probably, Bull guessed, from years of kneading bread, and she struggled and she bucked and she flailed like a frightened bird. “Cole, enough!” he snapped.
“Parshaara!” Cole snapped back at him, sightless.
And the woman in his arms froze and went dreadfully, horribly, obediently still, and Bull’s blood ran cold. “Shit,” Bull breathed, staring down at her with renewed horror.
“She knows it, The Iron Bull. She knows it all. She learned it by heart, she was very good. Shok ebasit hissra,” Bull felt it first, felt her lips moving against his arm. “Meraad astaarit, meraad itwasit, aban aqun. Maraas shokra,” Cole murmured, eyes on her, and Bull slowly lowered his arm, and then he could hear her, and that was so, so much worse.
She stared at nothing, nothing at all, her voice paper-thin and soft, a frail, obedient whisper that spoke in cold unison with Cole. “Anaan esaam Qun.”
And then she fell still.
Bull felt his arms tighten, felt the urge, felt it rise up, instinct. Grab one shoulder, grab her head, twist and it’d be over. No. No, that wasn’t him anymore, no matter how much his mind bucked and roared otherwise. Instead, he dropped her, dropped her on the bed and got to his feet and got away, made for the door, clenched his fist, leaned on the doorframe, looking anywhere in the world but at her. At that.
“She needs help, The Iron Bull,” Cole said again, as if it were the most natural thing in the world and not at all creepy as shit.
“Cole.” Bull said calmly, taking deep, cleansing breaths. “I need you to do something for me. For her. Okay?”
“Yes,” Cole agreed.
“Do you know where she lives?”
“Yes,” Cole replied, pleased that he had good answers.
“I need you to take her to her room. I need you to make sure she gets there, and I need you to make sure you don't speak to her. Don’t talk to her, don’t sing to her, don’t…do anything. Just take her to her room, make sure she’s resting, and get the hell out of there. Can you do that, Cole?”
“Yes,” Cole replied a third time, delighted.
“Okay.” Bull said, straightening up, eye on the door and desperately tried to ignore the thing on the bed that sat and breathed and stared and said nothing. There weren’t enough sticks in Skyhold to beat the fear out of him.
Bull’s eye narrowed, and he pushed the door open, cracked his neck, rolled a shoulder, took a deep breath of night air. “I’m going to go have a chat with a dwarf.”
Chapter 10: Home
I had plenty of time to watch the Iron Bull at work while the Inquisition was in full swing against Corypheus. He’d always charge right into the thick of things, never flinched from a fight. And he really, really hated the Venatori, hated Tevinter the most. Those were the times where he’d go from downright joyful at smashing things to stone cold anger. No emotion, just a raw, powerful killing machine bent on tearing those bastards apart. And when I saw those times, I made it a point to tell myself; Varric, don’t ever get on Tiny’s bad side.
That…wasn’t…angry, for Tiny. Not even close.
Varric jolted awake, snapped right out of a wonderful dream where he’d just managed to clean half the Merchant’s Guild out of their earnings with a really good hand of cards and, for some reason, a talking fish, half-convinced the entire Imperial Army had decided to hammer his damn door down with one of those giant battering rams they used at Adamant. He had no idea what the hell time it was, other than that ubiquitous hour he liked to call too damn early.
“Hold on, I’m coming, Maker’s balls,” the dwarf groaned, cursing under his breath, sliding out of bed and yanking on some trousers. Varric pulled open the door, scratching his chest and squinting blearily upward. “Tiny? Look, okay, I’ll admit it, I love you too, but couldn’t it wait till mor…” He trailed off, the joke catching in his throat, suddenly very, very awake. There was a glint in Bull’s eye, a low, persistent growl in the back of his throat, and he was just standing there, breathing, even and very deliberate breaths, in and out, chest rising and falling, every muscle in his body taut and tense. Varric thought he’d seen the qunari angry before, but this…this was on another level entirely. Without another word he stepped aside, let Bull stride right into his quarters and shut the door. He wasn’t sure what he was going to hear, but he was pretty sure he wasn’t going to like it.
He was right.
“I need you,” Bull said, back to the dwarf, his voice far too calm, collected, cold for Varric’s nerves, “To tell me what happened in Kirkwall.”
Varric took three steps back and sat down within arm’s reach of Bianca. “What did you do, Bull,” he asked, warily inching his fingers towards the polished wood.
“Right now,” Bull spat, “Or I’m going to take that crossbow you cradle like a baby and snap it in two, and don’t think I don’t see you leaning for it.”
He scowled. “If you hurt her you’re going to have a bolt through your back befo—“
Bull slammed his fist into the table, and the wood did the sensible thing and just gave up, crunched into splinters that dug into his knuckles. He didn’t really seem to care too much about either the table or his hand, rounded about and his face just seethed with unbridled rage. “I didn’t do a thing to her. I didn’t get in her head and start scrambling it around, I didn’t – “ He paused, and backed off. He took a breath, then two, then five. And then, he sat heavily in the nearest chair, draped his arms over his knees.
“Cole got to her. In my room –“ Varric’s hand tightened on Bianca, and Bull glared. “For fuck’s sake Varric put that thing away I didn’t touch her. Someone in the bar tried to, I clocked him out cold, she blacked out and I didn’t know what to do with her and before I know it I’m in my room, so’s she, Cole’s doing his weird talking shit because of course he is and she…” he trailed off, rolling his eye to the ceiling and taking another deep breath, letting it out. “Varric, who is she?”
Varric heaved a sigh. He’d already done this song and dance once with the Inquisition. Sometimes, when the hour was late and the keep was quiet, he imagined he could still hear the Seeker’s voice ringing in his ears. He wasn’t looking forward to round two, and he wasn’t sure what was worse, Cassandra’s tirades, or the angry qunari. “Look, I didn’t tell Leliana because I didn’t think it was any of her business and Lily wouldn’t hurt a fly – don’t look at me like that, it’s not like I was harboring a spy, Tiny!” He threw up his hands, exasperated. “She’s a baker! I swear it! That’s all she ever was! Had a stall down on the docks, near the qunari compound.” Bull bristled, but kept listening. “The last time I talked to her about it, she said she was living with them. That they were helping her out. Had a couple of guards posted at her stall, kept the rabble away. And she seemed happy enough, so I let her be, and I shouldn’t, and now she’s…well, you’ve seen her.”
Bull sat, thinking, staring at his arms as Varric continued. “I don’t know what they did in there, Bull, I swear to you I’ve got no idea what they did – all I know is when it was all over with, the Arishok took his men, took that relic he was after and took Isabela, and they cleared out, and she was just part of the rubble they left behind.”
Varric had seen many a thing in his lifetime. He’d seen dragons and demons, devils and dreams, wrote them all down for others to read. But he’d never seen a qunari, in all his years, go pale. Bull stared at him like he’d just announced he was pregnant, Solas was the father and they were going to go live in some magical elven city in the sky, his stone-silver skin a shade that more closely resembled clouded glass. It wasn’t pretty. Neither was the look on his face, and it made Varric’s blood go cold to look at it.
“What did you say?” Bull asked carefully, blinking that one good eye, suddenly devoid of all that candor, all that bravado he wore like the shield he flatly refused to carry.
“I said the Arishok took his men, took that relic, took Isabela – mind you, she wormed her way free out of that one, damned if I know how, but she showed up on my doorstep a few years later bitching about Hawke and had a beauty of a tale about why I needed to be in Rivain and you should’ve seen who she had with her, but that’s another story…” Varric trailed off. “This is the part where you’re supposed to tell me to shut up, Tiny.”
And Bull said nothing at all, just stared at him as if he’d grown a second, third, and fourth head. “Look I thought you knew all this, didn’t you? I mean come on, you’re Ben-Hassrath—“ Varric flinched. “Were Ben-Hassrath, sorry. But you know everything, right?”
“How many,” Bull asked through gritted teeth.
Varric paused, frowned. “How many what?”
“How many,” he said, the words deliberately chosen, “Did they have in there? Was she the only one?”
Varric fixed him with a calculated stare. “No, of course not. He took…shit, took at least a couple dozen elves with him when he left, had more fighting for him in the streets. Hell, he almost had the Viscount’s son, would’ve had him if Petrice hadn’t cut him down for being a convert.”
Bull shook his head as if to clear it, good eye focused on nothing at all, clearly lost in thought. And Varric, for once in his eloquent life, had absolutely no idea what to say. He watched Bull, fairly convinced he wasn’t going to attack at the very least, hesitantly set Bianca aside. Cards on the table. Time to place a bet. “Can you help her?”
“No.” Bull replied flatly.
He was lying. Varric knew it. Which meant he was lying badly, which was seven different levels of screwed up. “You can’t, or you won’t?”
“Oh, I could,” Bull said, looked up with that one beady little eye, calm and collected. “But you wouldn’t like it.”
Bluff called. Varric didn’t smile. Wasn’t the time. But he had him.
“Then you do know how,” Varric doggedly continued. “You know what they did to her, you know how to f—“
Bull’s fist slammed into the table again, took a corner off the damn thing. Varric flinched – he didn’t like that table much anyway, but surely it deserved a better fate than that. “Whoa – hey, easy Tiny look I’m not blaming you, you weren’t even th–“
“I don’t know what they did to her,” Bull forced the words out through gritted teeth, the fire back in that eye, and Varric quietly took a second to think over logistics. If he rolled back behind the bed, he could at least get one shot in, maybe two before he got his head popped off like a bottle of expensive champagne. But Bull flexed his hand, lowered his head, and kept right on talking. “I’ve seen this before, or something like it. In Seheron. They call it asala-taar, ‘soul sickness’ if you want the translation, but it’s more than that. Happens to even the best of soldiers, if they aren’t pulled out of there in time.” Bull shook his head. “There’s only so much you can take on that island, the killing, the fighting, before it gets to you. And when it gets to you, one of two things happens – you turn Tal Vashoth, or you get…that.”
Varric kept himself relaxed, loose, and just on the edge of fighting ready. Just in case. After everything that went down in Kirkwall, he never really thought about the idea of Lily getting better. Never even considered it a possibility – shit, he’d just assumed he could make her as comfortable as he could and she’d just…be okay. But if what Bull was saying was true, if this had happened before…Varric allowed himself the smallest shred of hope. “And they’d fix it,” he said.
“Oh, they’d “fix it” all right,” Bull said, eye narrowed, “By sending them in to be re-educated. If they’re lucky, they respond and they get reassigned, or they get to be happy little empty-headed laborers for the rest of their lives. If they aren’t…”
“If they aren’t?” Varric gently nudged, pretty sure he knew what the answer was going to be already.
“If they aren’t,” Bull repeated, meeting Varric’s eye and holding it. “They kill them.”
“Yeah. Figured as much.” He sighed, running his palm over his face. “So basically, there’s nothing you can do?”
“In a situation like this, that’s what you do,” Bull shrugged. “Send her in for re-education. Maybe she’d be happy, maybe she’d be all right, who knows. I don’t because I can’t send her in because of course I can’t, Tal Vashoth now, remember?”
“But you said you could help her,” Varric argued, “You said you could…" He trailed off, realization dawning. "Aw...shit.”
“I could,” Bull agreed. “We could skip that whole re-education crap and get right to the other solution. But I don’t think you really want that kind of help.”
Varric sighed. He figured it was a gamble, a long shot at best, but disappointment was what he got for getting his hopes up in the first place. “Look, Bull, I know…you aren’t involved in any of that mess anymore, I got it. But can you at least – am I doing it right?” He looked up at Bull, suddenly tired, and it had nothing to do with the time of day or night and everything to do with everything else that had happened over the course of his life, which felt, in that moment, like a lot more than he ever really wanted to deal with. “Is she…is she going to be okay?”
And that hardened beast of a man got the softest look on his face, gentle regard tinged with pity. “You did good, Varric,” he quietly replied. “She’ll be okay. She won’t be better, but she’ll be okay. I’ll keep Cole away from her; tell him to knock it off with the helping bullshit.” Bull rose to his feet, threw a glance at the table. “And uh…I’ll find you another one of those. Sorry.”
Varric didn’t really feel better, but he didn’t feel any worse either, so he’d take it either way. But Bull paused at the door, turned around, leaned on the frame. “Hey, Varric,” he asked, right back to his old self, casual and calm and conversational as always.
“That book of yours, the one about the Champion,” he asked, canting his head. “You said in the book that Hawke killed the Arishok when he saved the city. Why the lie? Why not tell the real story?”
Varric grinned. “Because sometimes Tiny, the real story just isn’t as interesting. I mean, which would you rather read about, heroic battles and mighty deeds, or someone handing over a book? One of those is boring as shit, and the other…well, the other sells more copies.”
Bull nodded, eye flashing with understanding, and left, closing the door behind him.
Varric flopped back on the bed, running both hands over his face.
“Sells more copies.” Who was I trying to kid? Him? Myself? Look, I’ll be honest here – there’s only one reason I changed those words around, and it had nothing to do with coin in my pocket. Hawke got it wrong, okay? I said it. Isabela didn’t deserve what he did to her. Yes, she started that whole mess, yes, she took off when she thought she could get away with it, but when you’re running scared and trying to save your own damn skin, you don’t make the best decisions. And despite everything, that girl turned around and came back. She came back to help him, and he turned around and handed her right on over to the qunari. It was wrong, and the worst part was that he knew it, and he did it anyway. It took him years to admit it to himself, but that decision haunted him and probably still haunts him to this day.
When you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, there’s nothing you can do that will make things right and it eats you up inside. So I wrote him a happy ending. I wrote him a way out, a way that made him look good. Because dammit, after all he did for that city, he deserved one. Just one.
Bull lay there, in bed, staring at the hole in his ceiling for what seemed like hours. Blankets still smelled like her – flour and dough, hard work and probably, yes, happiness, whatever that was to her now. No trace of the panicked desperation, the muddled jumble of crap all screwed up in her head. He lay there and thought about what Varric had said, turned it over and over in his mind, looked at it from every angle, like a Ben-Hassrath.
Except he wasn’t a Ben-Hassrath anymore.
And it itched at the back of his mind, every time he sat in that tavern, every time he listened to people talk. Leliana had all but stopped asking him to do any kind of spy related shit after what went down on the Storm Coast, probably figured he didn’t have the Ben-Hassrath, didn’t have the reports, didn’t need to be involved. So yeah, he sat in the tavern. Yeah, he listened to people, and yeah, when people spoke up and said crap that didn’t sound right, he took care of it. Without help, without telling her, without telling the boss, because hey, didn’t matter, right? Tal Vashoth. Free to do whatever he wanted.
Free felt like shit.
He once told the boss that being raised under the Qun was like being a block of stone, slowly sculpted, until one day the dust got knocked off, and you could see who you were supposed to be. He remembered that day – it was a good day, one of the best days of his life, his place in the world was completely clear. And somewhere, somehow, between Seheron and here and now, it all fell apart. He wasn’t pissed that the boss saved the Chargers, he was grateful – they were his men, they weren’t cattle to be sacrificed at the whim of some possible alliance. He wasn’t upset that the alliance fell apart, either – even if the boss had decided to go through with it, it was only a matter of time before that convenience became less of a convenience and the qunari dropped it, he knew. He wasn’t unhappy with his life, he had the Chargers, he had the Inquisition, and he had enough men, women, ale and food to keep him satisfied for a lifetime.
But some days, when he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, he saw years of hard work, dedication and sweat, and couldn’t figure out where that sculpture had gone.
That was the part of the Qun they just didn’t get. Once you were in, it was always there, even if they threw you out – a persistent itch that you just couldn’t scratch, the struggle to appease that order, the inability to ignore the urge. Because once you’d seen the world how it could be, in a way that made absolute sense, it was fucking hard to look at senseless things and see anything but crazy assholes deliberately running into walls, because they didn’t realize the damned door was right there. Sometimes Bull wondered if he would go mad, like the rest of the Tal Vashoth did.
Sometimes he understood why they did, and that scared him more than any demon in any nug-humping Fade rift.
It didn’t matter now. What mattered, what really mattered, was what Varric had said, because it made no damn sense at all. And everything in the Qun made sense. That was kind of the point. Which meant something, someone, somewhere was wrong…and that itch in the back of his head, that sick feeling in his stomach had him wondering if he really wanted to know. So he looked and he stared and he pulled it apart from all sides and put it back together again, because that’s what the Ben-Hassrath did, and even if they didn’t call him one, it was the role he was born to play.
In the morning, Bull trudged down the stairs, feet heavier than usual, and hit the bar for a drink, still half asleep.
“You look like shit,” Cabot said.
“I’ll be sure to let my hairdresser know,” Bull lazily replied, waving a hand at the bar. “Just…give me the usual.” He glanced up in time to see just a glimpse of freckles and fiery hair, tucked out of sight in the back room, and sighed. At least Cole did his job.
“The usual,” Cabot snorted, and passed a tankard over the counter. “Here. Big mug of ‘whatever I opened first.’ House special. Don’t forget to pay your tab, and have a nice day.” He glowered up at Bull. “I’m trying something new. Inquisitor’s orders, he calls it…’being pleasant.’”
“Worked like a charm, Cabot. Just hand me the bill later.” The dwarf waved him off, and Bull made his way back to his chair, settling into it for a long day of listening to other people having long days of doing something, and maybe a nap besides. Definitely a nap, he decided, taking a swig from the tankard and shifting in the chair to get nice and comfortable before nodding off.
“You have to help her, The Iron Bull.”
Bull cracked his eye open, maybe an hour or two later to the sound of Maryden softly strumming away on her guitar. Cole stood there, next to his chair, anxiously twisting his hands and staring towards the back room. “Nope,” he yawned, scratched his chin. “Not my problem, Cole. Already talked it over with Varric. She’s fine the way she—“
There was a soft clink on his blind side, and Bull blinked, turned, and saw her. Just standing there, staring at nothing, but patiently staying put. Beside her on the table was a little plate, and on the plate was a sweet roll. He frowned, glancing from the roll to the woman and back again, cautiously reached over to pick it up. She didn’t move, didn’t look at him directly, just…stood there and waited, almost with blank expectancy, so he shrugged because hey, free food, and took a bite.
It was the most delicious thing he’d ever tasted in his life. Better than the bread. So, so much better than the bread, it had these soft layers and cinnamon that tickled his nose and hit the back of his mouth, sweet frosting that was just the right consistency for sticking to his fingers, forcing him to lick them clean, and he didn’t really mind because it was just the right amount of sweet. It tasted like early summer mornings sitting by a campfire, waiting for Krem to move his lazy ass and get the company up and running, cold wintry days curled up by a fireplace watching the snow fall through the window, like stupid jokes and laughter, pranks and passion and every good day he had ever had in his life. It tasted like the day the last of the dust was knocked off, and he saw his real shape, who he was meant to be. It tasted like hope, like home.
And when he was done, she picked up the plate, staring at nothing at all and left as silently as she came, to the back room.
“You have to help her, The Iron Bull.”
“Yeah,” Bull said, staring after her. “Yeah, I do.”
Varric Tethras was a betting man, always had been, always would be, but only if the odds were right. He knew when he had a winning hand, and he knew when to throw in, give up and go home for the night. Which was why, when the Iron Bull abruptly pushed open his door in the morning, he nearly spilled half a bottle of ink over the latest page he was working on.
“I’m taking her to Kirkwall,” he said, without having to say who or why.
Varric looked up at him, took in the look in his eye, the expression on his face, and grinned. “She gave you a sweet roll, didn’t she.”
Varric Tethras also loved a good story, especially if it had a happy ending, and he was really hoping that this time, this time he was going to get both.
Chapter 11: Dawn
Tiny told me in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t allowed to go on that trip with him and Lily, and I about let him have it right then. But can you really blame me? I let her out of my sight and into a qunari’s hands once, and look what it did to her. I’m not saying Tiny’s like the Arishok and his men – shit, he’s about as far from them as you can get – but Lily didn’t know that. Lily didn’t know…much of anything, really, or if she did, she sure as shit wasn’t letting anyone else in on it. Hell, I didn’t even know how she’d react to going somewhere with a complete stranger. I mean she made the trip from Kirkwall to Haven in one piece, but that trip was with humans in a wagon, that wasn’t with a qunari.
But Tiny looked me in the eye, and he said this was something he had to do alone. Said he didn’t even know if it would fix her, but he wanted to try. Said it was the least he could do, although what he meant by that, well. I’m still trying to figure that one out. I’m not sure what happened between our conversation and when he busted through my door the next day – yeah, Lily made him a sweet roll. And her sweet rolls are amazing; I can vouch for that myself. But they aren’t enough to magically change someone’s mind, especially when he was so dead-set against doing anything not more than twelve hours before.
No, there was something else going on there. Something I didn’t know about. But I wasn’t about to push it, I figured I could save the prying and the questions for when he got back with her in one piece.
So I waved them off the next day. I promised Tiny I’d tell the Chargers where he went, not to worry, and that Krem was in charge until he got back. I told Lily she was going on a trip, and to behave, and to listen to everything that lunk-headed ox said and be good. She couldn't hear me, but it made me feel better, so I guess that's...something.
And then Cole shows up, right when they were riding off. The kid just watches them go, beaming for all he's worth, says “The Iron Bull is going to help her!” like it’s the best news he’d ever heard. And then he turns to me, and he says, “She is going to help him, too.”
I tried to tell him Lily wasn’t really in any shape to be helping anyone. And he just smiled a little wider and said, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget this because frankly, it was a little creepy, “Yes. If he knew she was helping, he wouldn’t let her. He won’t let anyone.”
The Iron Bull sat astride the biggest horse the Inquisition had in the stables, a giant beast of a draft horse called William. He asked Dennet, while they were throwing on the saddle and the rest of the tack, if there was a reason for the name. Dennet just shrugged, said he had a cousin named William who was so tall he had to duck to go through most doorways, so it only made sense to him. Bull understood that entirely, pretty sure there wasn’t a door in all of Thedas he didn’t have to duck under, save for the ones that were grand, ornate, and large not to accommodate taller visitors, but just to impress the shit out of people.
Lily – he had to remind himself to think of her that way – sat in front of him, and he had one hand cupped around her waist, holding her in place while they rode, and the other occupied with the reins.
He didn’t make a habit of riding, really. He preferred keeping his feet on the ground, weapon at ready – and it was seldom he found a steed big enough to carry him anyway. But he couldn’t and didn’t really expect a baker to walk to Kirkwall; it just wasn’t the kind of trip she was used to taking anywhere. William wasn’t the fastest horse in the stable, but he was big enough for the both of them, sweet tempered, and strong enough to make the trip without any complaining. So far, though, it was a really, really quiet journey.
And it was mostly because the only one that could really do any talking was Bull, and he didn’t have the slightest idea what the hell to say. So he spent half the day trying to figure it out, the itch in the back of his mind thoroughly invested in the problem, until his stomach started rumbling and he found a good clearing to stop. At least, he was relieved to find out, she had enough sense to feed herself. It wasn’t like the ones that got hit with the qamek, the ones that needed constant caretakers.
Bull slid off William, patting the horse’s side and reached up to lift the woman down, set her on her feet and had to catch her when she stumbled. He frowned, picked her up, carried her over to one of the nearby rocks and sat her down, took a good look at her legs, and hissed in sympathy. He was right about one thing – she wasn’t used to riding. Not even a little. It hadn’t even been five hours and her legs were screwed up. He cursed under his breath, flicking a glance at her face, but she didn’t really show any signs of pain despite the slightly swollen knees. “Sorry,” he said, finally breaking the silence, and she started a little at the sudden noise, but otherwise gave no indication she’d heard him. “This isn’t really starting off so good, is it.”
Bull heaved a sigh, thinking, and while he was thinking, went ahead and broke out enough food for them both, sat and ate with her in silence, keeping an eye on her and considering his options. Finally, he spoke up again. “Okay,” he said. “I’m pretty sure they packed you more than a couple of skirts somewhere in those saddlebags, and I’m really sorry about that because I’m going to wreck one of them, but you’ll thank me later, I promise.”
Lily said nothing at all, so he set to work.
An hour or so later, he swung back up on William, leather harness crossing one side of his chest, and a makeshift sling crossing the other way. In it was tucked Lily, who didn’t seem to care one way or another, just sat with her little feet dangling, leaned back against his arm. He grabbed the reins in one hand, and flexed his other arm, glanced down at her and grinned. “Blue isn’t usually my color, but hey, look at that, I can swing a sword if I have to. Nice, right?” Bull’s expression faltered just a little at her empty-eyed stare, and he kicked William into motion, glancing down the road.
They rode in quiet silence for another hour or so before he took a deep breath, and began to talk. “So. I don’t know how much you pay attention to the crap that goes on in that tavern, but everyone calls me Bull. It’s short for The Iron Bull – that’s the name I picked out for myself when the Be…” he trailed off, frowning, and started over.
“Okay. Let’s try that again.” Bull glanced down at Lily, who’d made no move to respond, but at the very least she hadn’t fallen asleep, and seemed to be comfortable enough. His good eye softened, just a little, and he started over. “They call me Bull, but that wasn’t always my name. Before I was Bull, I was Hissrad.” He looked away, brow furrowed. “Means “keeper of illusions" - secrets, I suppose, in qunlat – that’s the qunari language. You know a little of that, I know you do, but I don’t know how much.” He sighed, glancing down the road. “Look, Lily – I’m just going to call you Lily because it’s easier, and I don’t know what they called you, if they even called you anything. I may have been a keeper of secrets; I still am, kind of. But this…well, you and I, we’re going to be riding for a while here, and I want to be honest with you, because I think you need that.”
He stared off at the passing trees in the distance, gave a little shrug. “So point blank. No secrets, all right? I don’t know if I can fix you. I don’t even know what fixing you would take. I don’t know…what happened to you, I don’t know what made you the way you are. But I do know one thing – you aren’t crazy. All right? You aren’t crazy. I know that, because there’s no way you could’ve put that kind of…whatever it is you put into what you make, not if there was nothing left in you to do it. And maybe that’s weird as shit. It probably is – probably just as weird as my sitting on a horse talking to myself and hoping you pick it up.” Bull shrugged. “And maybe I’m wrong, and this is a waste of time.”
“But I’m going to be honest with you anyway, because you need that. And because I want to know what happened to you.” His arm tensed, he willed it to relax, willed himself to relax, took a few deep breaths. “Because – and this is important – it wasn’t supposed to happen.”
He frowned again, glanced down at her briefly, tucked her into his arm and held her close, for a moment, looked back at the road while William plodded obediently on. “I think…I think they tried to do something they weren’t supposed to do. And the thing is, it’s not something I’m trained to do, either. So I think the problem we’ve got here, Lily, is that you’re stuck in between who you were, and who they were shaping you to be. Because that’s just what it is, right? That’s what the Qun is all about. Sort of.”
Bull settled back into the saddle, shifting his seat and settling her a little more comfortably. “See, when you’re born into the Qun, like I was, you grow up surrounded by it, shaped by it. You have people that teach you how it works, every single day. You don’t know what life is without it, you can’t even imagine what life would be without it. What life would be if you didn’t know who you were, what you were born to be. You can’t even begin to imagine how hard it would be to figure that out on your own, because you’ve never had to. It just…doesn’t…make sense. The Qun is all about sense, it’s about order. So we’re raised from the moment we’re born to be the people we’re supposed to be – we have people that figure that part out, just by raising us, and they make sure that we go to the right places, the places we’ll work best. The places we’ll be the most productive. And that seems like a good thing, and it is – because hey, usually if you’re being productive, you’re happy doing what you do. The happier you are about doing what you do, the more productive you are, the better you are at it.”
Bull took a deep breath, let it out. “But then there are people like you. Like the others – however many Varric said there were. People that weren’t raised in the Qun, but they see it, they see how it works, and it’s like…magic to them, especially if they’re someplace hard in their life. And they want to be part of it. Those people, we take them in – because of course we take them in – and we try to do our best to make sure we figure out where they need to go. Where they’ll be the most productive, where they’ll help the most.”
“The problem with that is that sometimes, we’re really shit about figuring that part out.” Bull snorted, once, a wry chuckle that died before it had a chance to go anywhere. “Sometimes we get it right and hey, look, productive member of society, perfectly happy to do whatever they need to be doing. Sometimes we get it wrong – and it’s not because we’re trying to get it wrong. It’s because outsiders are strange. You know how I said it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without the Qun? We don’t know. We don’t know what you people go through. We don’t know how things affect you. We don’t know what kind of life you’ve had, we just expect you to let all that shit go. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from living around all of you, it’s that people have a really, really hard time letting shit go.”
“The qunari,” he said, brow furrowed, “Are people that are shaped by their own people, sculpted into who they were meant to be by people that want to see them be the absolute best they can possibly be, for the good of the qunari, the good of the Qun. The rest of the world…your people are sculpted by the things that happen to you. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, no order to any of it, no control, no purpose, you just get banged around a lot and if you turn out half okay, well good for you – but most of the time, you just struggle. You struggle every damn day, fight every step of the way even if you don’t know what it is you’re fighting for."
He fiddled absently with the reins. "And to the people of the Qun, it’s simple – you’re just fighting to be that person that you’re supposed to be, even if you’ve never seen that person in the mirror, even if you’ve never thought about what you were supposed to do with yourself, even if you don’t give a shit about ever finding it. That person, that role, it’s still there, under the surface, like a rock waiting to be polished into something pretty, right? Sometimes you knock enough off that you start to gleam a little, sometimes you never seem to shine through – but the point is, it’s still there, and somewhere deep inside, you know it. You all know it.”
Bull frowned. “And the Qun thinks that all it needs to do to fix the world is show it to you, even if you don’t want to see it. Especially if you don’t want to see it.”
He glanced up, blinked, and grinned. “Hey, look – druffalo, a whole bunch of them, in that field over there, see? Little guys!” Bull lifted his arm, propping her up a little and pointed. To their left was a field of wildflowers, dotted with blues and reds, probably the kind of herbs the Inquisition could use. He made a mental note of the location, reminded himself to jot it down later. And grazing lazily on and among the long grasses and blossoms were, in fact, a lot of druffalo, including a half dozen young ones that couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old, just staggering around having the time of their lives. He glanced down at Lily, who didn’t seem to be looking at them exactly, but wasn’t looking away, just staring, and he sighed, letting her lean back on his arm as they continued down the road.
“I wish I knew what to say,” he said, a wistful rumble that sounded strange even to himself.
They kept riding until the sun was low enough to warrant a stop, and Bull set her on her feet, pleased that this time, she didn’t wobble at all. He started a little campfire, set some food next to her and told her to eat, then went about taking care of William and getting him situated for the evening, setting up the tent, all the while talking about nothing at all. And once he’d finished, he sat down next to the campfire and ate something too, watching the fire crackle and occasionally throwing a glance her direction. When he noticed her shivering, he grabbed one of the blankets, tucked it around her shoulders, nodded once in satisfaction and went back to his seat, staring at the fire.
“You know, there was this one time when I was out with the Chargers – you don’t know who they are, I suppose, but they’re my men. Mercenaries, we get hired to fight things, right? So this one time we were hired by this older Orlesian woman – fancy noble, had a big house, bigger stables, and a giant, rickety old barn at the back of the property. Looks like the thing would fall over if you breathed on it too hard. So she hires us to clean out this barn, says she’s been hearing these funny noises from the place for weeks now, but she’s too old and too scared to go check it out herself, right? Living alone.” Bull grinned. “So I tell Krem – he’s my lieutenant, good kid, maybe you’ll meet him someday. I tell him to lead the mission. He’d been itching to lead, pestering the crap out of me about it for months, and I figured why the hell not.”
Bull stretched, scratching his chin. “So Krem gets everyone together and he’s nervous, I can tell, but he’s doing a damn fine job of covering it up. Has everyone get suited up, full armor, every piece they've got right, makes them line up for inspection,” Bull rolled his eyes skyward, “—just nitpicking the shit out of every. Last. Detail. And we get to the barn, wait until dark, and sure enough, we hear noises. And Krem just hauls back, takes a deep breath and roars this order to charge.”
He barked a laugh, remembering it all so clearly, Dalish, Rocky, Stitches, all of them dressed like they were about to go to war, staring at the barn and then as one, turning to stare at Krem in disbelief. “—like we’re in the middle of some damn battlefield, and not standing at the back of this fancy ass Orlesian estate, staring at a rickety pile of wood. And it took a second for instinct to kick in, but they followed him. Busted the barn doors right off their hinges, ran in screaming battle cries, full tilt right into a nest of kaalok – that’s what we call ‘em in Par Vollen, little hairy bastards with these pointy ears and big fluffy tails, don’t know if you’ve ever seen one but if you did you wouldn’t forget it. Must’ve been at least two, three dozen of the things, and the fuzzy little shits all turned around, hauled their asses in the air and fired off a spray of the most foul-smelling crap—“ He spread his hands, laughing, “—all over every last one of them. Every last piece of fancy gear they owned.”
Bull shook his head, grinning, grabbed the wineskin and took a pull. “Oh, we cleared out the pests all right, but the woman refused to pay us for well over a week, wouldn’t come near us until the smell wore off. I thought they’d never let him live that one down – Dalish skinned one of the things, tied the fur to a rope, used to hang it right outside Krem’s tent so he’d smack himself in the face with it in the morning if he pissed her off.” He snorted. “Don’t know whatever happened to that thing.”
Through it all, she hadn’t said a word. He glanced her way, canted his head, and sighed. “See, he had to figure it out, too. He did, though. Hell, he’s out there leading them right now. And he’s a damn good leader, too. I knew he would be. Helped him figure it out. So maybe I’m not trained to do that kind of shit, not the way the qunari are. But if I see a stone that needs some polish, I try to fix it anyway. Instinct, maybe. I don’t know.” He mulled that one over for a good ten minutes in silence, listening to the crackle of the campfire and staring at the flames.
Eventually he got to his feet, brushed off the dust and took Lily by the hand, led her to the tent. “Come on. We’ve got a long way to go, and we should get some sleep.” The tent was just big enough for the two of them and a couple of bedrolls, which was pretty much how Bull liked it. He let her get wordlessly settled in – at least she seemed to understand things like time to sleep. Bull listened to her breathing, listened to it as it slowed; evened out, waited until he was sure she was out before he nodded off too.
In the morning, she wasn’t in the tent. Bull blinked, bleary eyed, sat up and hauled himself up and out. He didn’t have to go far to find her. She was just standing there, middle of the camp, dawn lighting up her hair like a beacon. Her mouth moved in a soundless and familiar chant, a qunari prayer, and she stared right at that rising sun like she was just daring it to answer her. And when she was done, she stood there for a minute, blinking at sunbeams, then wordlessly walked over and took her seat next to where the fire had gone out.
“Yeah,” Bull said. “That’s…not creepy at all.”
It was going to be a long trip.
Chapter 12: Dream
Lily was having a very strange dream. It wasn’t at all like her other dreams, which were mostly about baking, because she liked baking very much. This one was about a qunari, but he didn’t look like the qunari she knew – he reminded her more of an ox than a shaggy ram, and he had a metal patch over one eye, but he wasn’t wearing a shirt either, just another leather harness, like the Arishok. But the strange part wasn’t his appearance, it was how he talked. He talked like any of her customers would, any of her human customers that was; just as plain as day and not at all solemn like Ashaad.
She wished Ashaad would come back. She’d been waiting and waiting in the compound for what seemed like forever, every time she woke up it was the same, silent and still. She remembered what he said, he said she was protected there, she had to remain there, and she would, as long as it took for him, for all of them to come back and get her. She was trying to be very, very good, stay put, chant just like he taught her to and wait, safe and sound.
But the qunari in the dream was different, and in the dream they were riding on the biggest horse Lily had ever seen, through meadows and mountains and forests. It wasn’t just how he spoke; it was that he spoke to her directly. Nobody really spoke to her in her dreams before. Oh, they’d come by for bread, and sometimes she even dreamt that Varric was there, saying hello, but he never stayed for long. No, this man, this qunari didn’t go away. He stayed there, talked to her, told her stories the likes of which she’d never heard in her life – and he told her about the qunari, which was nice enough of him to do.
She was used to people in her dreams fading in and out, sometimes saying things, mostly not. She was used to baking bread in her dreams, and she couldn’t do it right now, couldn’t find the pieces. She was used to walking in her dreams, not to being carried, but she didn’t mind that so much. It was sort of like one of those stories her mother told her when she was very little, where a prince on a snow-white steed sweeps a princess off her feet, only different on account of it was a very large qunari, not a prince, and the horse was black and brown, not white. And she knew that she was an awfully good baker, but she wasn’t any kind of princess and had no wish to be one anyway.
He kept saying her name, too. He said she wasn’t crazy and that was odd, because she knew she wasn’t crazy and never was. He said he wished he knew what happened to her, and she sort of wished she could tell him about her stall and her home with the qunari in the compound, and about Harold and Varric and all the children and everything else. How she was happy and content, and if Ashaad would just come back, they could go to Par Vollen and she’d get to bake all the time always. Maybe they’d even let her bring the children along, the ones that didn’t have parents. Maybe they could be part of the Qun, too. She suspected they’d like that very much.
But she couldn’t talk in her dreams, much as she wanted to try, and she couldn’t really see very well, on account of people faded in and out of focus, like dreams do. And it was sort of silly to talk to dreams anyway, she suspected, on account of they weren’t real. But she liked the stories, and remembered them when she woke up, when she was in the compound and waiting for Ashaad to come back. She’d have to tell him, when he came back, all the things she saw – she didn’t know if he’d like them or not, but she expected he could answer her questions, on account of it didn’t make much sense to ask a dream what it meant.
It’d been four days, and she hadn’t said a word to him, or even noticed he was there, as far as he could tell. But she hadn’t tried attacking him either, so maybe he was doing something right, Bull thought, or maybe he was doing something wrong because maybe she should have been. He didn’t know, and that was the part that itched in the back of his head just then. The Iron Bull always knew what was going on, always had a sharp eye and always knew how to call a situation, and this was a situation he couldn’t call.
It was annoying as shit. Oh, she wasn’t, she was fine, sat in her sling as quiet as could be, didn’t make a peep or a complaint, and other than the qunari prayer she mouthed in the morning, every morning, soon as the sun came up, she seemed perfectly fine. Only she wasn’t and he knew it and he couldn’t pull the pieces out of her to make her work again.
Bull stared down at her while they rode, somewhere near Haven – he recognized the scenery a little, but avoided the ruins where the little village once stood. Not because he didn’t want to see it – he’d seen way, way worse shit over the past year or so – but because he wasn’t sure how she’d react to it. And as much as he liked hitting things, and didn’t mind things hitting him so much either, he didn’t really want her hitting him again.
Because it made him feel like shit.
He knew he didn’t do this to her, didn’t make her this way, but the qunari did, somehow, and it wasn’t supposed to happen like that. Re-education wasn’t something they had trained him for – his specialty in the Ben-Hassrath was spying, enforcing the Qun, not bringing people into it. And he was aware, keenly aware, that what he was trying to do right now wasn’t right either. If the qunari caught him doing it, he was dead – not just oh, let’s send a couple of assassins and a warning kind of dead, the kind of dead that would have half the Antaam on his ass as soon as they figured it out.
“You know, I didn’t bring you along to fix you.” Bull said, breaking what had been an hours-long silence. “I wish I could tell you I did, but I didn’t. This trip we’re making – we’re going to Kirkwall.” He let that linger for a few minutes, frowning. “And I said I was going to be honest with you, so I will: I was going to go there anyway. You…just happened to get my attention and I couldn’t leave you behind. Not after what Varric said, and sure as shit not after you gave me that sweet roll.” He sighed, rolled his shoulder and went on.
“I don’t know if they told you about this, but the qunari have three people in charge. Well, not quite in charge, exactly, they lead as examples, kind of. The Salasari; they kind of represent everything the Qun stands for, the pillars of the Qun – everything it’s supposed to be. They’re in charge of three different groups,” he went on, not quite sure how far he wanted to tread today. “There’s the Arishok – and I know you’ve met him, or one of them anyway. There’s a new Arishok now. He leads the Antaam, the armies, soldiers. Then there’s the Arigena, she’s the leader of…well, people like you. Craftsmen, bakers – you’d probably fall under her, if you…right. And then there’s the Ariqun, who leads the priesthood – the Ben-Hassrath, like me, and the Tamassrans.” He chuckled. “Yeah, I’m a priest. Don’t look like it, right? The Ben-Hassrath aren’t priests so much as…well, enforcement. We’re the ones that do the re-educating, if people screw up and fall out of the Qun. Well, some of them do. I didn’t. But we also keep an eye on the qunari; make sure everyone is doing just as they’re meant to do.”
“And then there’s the Tamassrans – they raise the children. All of ‘em, in great big bunches. Should of seen the boss’s face when I told him about that one,” Bull chuckled. “It’s different for your people, I suppose, but with the qunari, you have a kid, that’s…well, that’s pretty much the end of the process for you. The Tamassrans take them and raise them from there. Remember I was telling you how the Qun finds your shape? Yeah, that’s the Tamassrans that do it. When I was a kid, I remember I gave them hell – they had me pegged pretty early on as a fighter. Ha! I remember this one day; one of the bigger kids was being a shit to the smallest one in our group, kept pushing him around. So I started a fight. The little guy didn’t do anything to deserve it, he was just little, right? And we got into it, and the Tamassran in charge managed to pull the both of us apart. Not before I gave him a bloody nose for it, but still, she punished us both. But it was one of those days that said that I was supposed to go to the Ben-Hassrath. She told me about it later, when I was ready to leave. Said the Ben-Hassrath didn’t just protect the faith, they protected the innocent, too, and she knew I was meant for both.”
He grinned. “And I guess she was right. Shit, I still do, I guess. Did I ever tell you how I met Krem? That’s when I lost my eye. I was in this shithole of a border town near the edge of Tevinter – I’m guessing you don’t know where that is, but it’s north – anyway, I duck into this tavern, looking for a drink, and instead I find a group of assholes ganging up on this kid. So I jump in, because fuck that, and kind of got between him and a flail. With my head,” he added, tapping his eyepatch. “Recruited him after he and I both healed up. Worth it. They were all worth it. Every single one of them. Bunch of crazy shits, most of ‘em got turned down by other companies, but not me – they always have my back in a fight, and I have theirs. They’re my men.” Bull snorted with satisfaction, glancing down at her briefly. Nothing. So he went on, because there wasn’t much else to do on the road but listen to his own voice and try to dig out hers from wherever she hid it.
“Right. So like I was saying, three groups in the Qun. And when we bring someone into the Qun, we…” Bull trailed off with a faint, soft sigh. “I shouldn’t say we. I keep saying we, don’t I.”
“Did they ever tell you about the Tal-Vashoth, Lily? I’m guessing they didn’t. Not exactly a lot of those hanging around Kirkwall while you were there. Probably some after, but only a few, and I’m guessing you weren’t paying attention by then.” He rolled his shoulder, cracked his neck, and went on, much as he didn’t want to. “The Tal-Vashoth are qunari who no longer follow the Qun. They abandoned it, turned away from it.”
He felt slightly sick, but kept going, grinding the words through gritted teeth. “I’m sure you’re wondering why anyone would deliberately turn away from the Qun. Thing is, they aren’t allowed to, usually. If someone’s caught as a Tal-Vashoth, most of the time, they’re taken back in under the Qun, re-educated. That’s when the Ben-Ha…maybe I’m getting too complex.”
Bull realized, somewhere in the vague explanation, that he’d wound the reins around his hand, clenching them in his fist, the leather digging furrows into his skin, and willed himself to relax. There was no one here. Just her. Just her, and she wasn’t going to say anything. Wasn’t going to do anything, just going to sit there and stare and that was it. No outrage or being judged, and no pity or sympathy. No weird looks, no weird behavior. Just two ears, some freckles and feet.
“I’m Tal-Vashoth,” he said quietly, so quietly he could scarce hear himself say it. “They had me pretend to be one, and I guess they let me pretend too long, because here I am, and they’re out there, somewhere, and I’m out here. On a horse. With you.” Overhead, some big damn bird or another shrieked, coasting high in the clouds and far above the last place Bull really wanted to be. He watched it soar, kept talking. Why not. “I could have stayed, could have rejoined them. Could have sacrificed my men, snagged a cozy alliance with the Inquisition. And they gave me that choice, laid all those cards on the table in front of me and I froze.” He snorted in disgust. “Yeah, big tough guy, big tough decision and I couldn’t make it. The boss– the Inquisitor did. I don’t know if you’ve met him, guessing you haven’t. He’s probably had your bread before, though. Shit, the boss eats as much as I do.”
The itch was back. Bull scowled, grunted, and shook his head, tried to clear it. “I’ll be honest with you, Lily. I don’t think I could have given them up even if I made that choice myself. Krem, Rocky, Dalish and the others – I spent too much time getting to know them to just throw them away. To the Qun, they had no real worth, no purpose, because they weren’t part of the Qun, they didn’t contribute to the Qun. You don’t gain worth until you’re contributing to the world the way it should be, the way the Qun defines it. So they were just soldiers, they weren’t people. That’s where I screwed up, because they were always people to me. Before they were soldiers, not after.”
“Thing is, the Qun is only good if you’re in it, I suppose. Once they had me playing the role of Tal-Vashoth, I had to act like one. Act like everyone else. Like regular people. And I guess at some point that other life, the life with the Qun started to feel far away. Like a dream I was waking up from, maybe.” He felt his teeth scrape together, set his jaw as they rode on, eye fixed somewhere in the distance. “I screwed up. I screwed up because I started to question it. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here. But neither would the Chargers, and I don’t think I want to see a world where they aren’t. So I’m Tal-Vashoth.” He forced the word from his mouth, hated it, hated the sound of it, hated what it meant, hated what it reminded him of. “I’m Tal-Vashoth, and the Qun has no place for me. Not anymore.”
He glanced down, and blinked. She was looking at him. Flat out looking at him, wide blue eyes staring up at him with…he didn’t see an expression, exactly. No emotion in her face. There was a flicker of something there, though, in her eyes, something that said she was trying. “Hey,” he said softly, a wistful tug pulling at the corner of his mouth despite himself. “There you are.”
Lily was very confused. In her dream, the qunari was telling her things she’d never heard before, words she’d never heard before, like he always did – things she suspected she’d be asking Ashaad about later, when he came to get her. But all the while he was talking he was sad, very sad. It reminded her a little of Varric, on the days he came by, when what came out of his mouth didn’t quite match up with the constant grin on his face and she tried to be extra cheerful, just for him.
And she didn’t know what he was talking about, but she’d never let a customer walk away from her stall without a smile and a cheerful thank you, so she expected she could do the same for him, on account of her papa told her make the world bright and there wasn’t anything she could do about that while she was waiting for Ashaad. But she suspected she could do something in her dream, on account of it was her dream and she didn’t really like sad dreams at all. She didn't like the scary ones either, but this one wasn't scary, just confusing and sad.
So she tried her hardest to make herself lift her head, and she tried her hardest to focus on his face, to will the blur away, to bring him in sharp, just for a second, to smile sweetly and say hello. And his face came into focus, and she couldn’t move her mouth. She supposed there was only so much she could do when she was dreaming, and talking was right out. But he looked at her, and he smiled, and it hurt to look at him because, she expected, it wasn’t the very best smile he could give, and then his face went fuzzy and slipped away, and that was that.
But he smiled anyway, and that was good. At least he tried.
Bull watched her eyes dart back and forth over his face, and then slide off of it, back into whatever she was thinking, blank and expressionless. And there went that damned itch in the back of his head again, picking apart everything he just said, pulling it into pieces and staring at it to try and figure out what exactly he said that made her do that. He doubted they’d told her about Tal-Vashoth – she was a baker, not a soldier, and didn’t need to know. Maybe it was just that he mentioned her bread, maybe she realized she hadn’t actually baked anything in days, and it was starting to sink in a little.
That was the part that got to him the most, her routine. Varric encouraged it; made sure she had some place to do it. Made sure she could bake her little heart out wherever she went. And he told Varric that was okay, which was a lie, but it was a lie that made him feel better and Bull didn’t really feel like telling him otherwise, the dwarf was unhappy enough as it was. It wasn’t okay. It was a routine, one she’d either been drilled into, or one she’d drilled into herself. Something to do, something comfortable and safe, and something to look at so she didn’t have to look at whatever it was they did, and Bull didn’t know what they did, but if it pushed her this far, it was bad.
“Lily,” he said, staring down at her, willing her to lift her head back up, but she didn’t budge an inch. “Lily, I brought you with me because if they find you, if they know you’re here, with me, if they knew you survived…I’m pretty sure they’d kill you on the spot.”
His good eye narrowed, focused. “And I can’t let them do that. Because you’re one of those innocents I’m supposed to be protecting. Or was, when I was a Ben-Hassrath. You still are, and I still do. And I don’t know what they did to you, I don’t know what they were doing in Kirkwall, but I want to find out.”
William plodded on, oblivious to the conversation on his back, the people on it, the roles they played, or anything but the road, walking, and getting to wherever they were meant to be. And Bull re-seated himself in the saddle, shifting his weight, glanced at the reins and then beyond. There was more to tell her, more he needed to tell her, but he couldn’t bring himself to talk about it just then.
Late that night, he couldn’t really bring himself to tell her any stories, so he contented himself with pointing out stars, the shapes they made, settled back with her in the grass and just rambled on about nugs and druffalo and one set that kind of looked like the mark on the boss’s hand.
And after they’d eaten, after he told her it was time for bed, he stared at the tent ceiling, counting her breaths, waiting for them to slow, when there was a soft hush of movement, a weight at his side, an arm slung over his belly, a cheek against his chest. He froze, let her settle herself, and she gave him a squeeze and a soft sigh. Slowly, he lowered his hand, smoothed her hair, and her breath finally slowed down, even and quiet. And then he allowed himself to sleep, wondering why it hurt like hell and twisted his guts inside, when all he was trying to do was help.
Chapter 13: Shok
The next morning, Bull made an executive decision. “We’re going to stay here today,” he informed Lily. “William needs a break, and so does my ass. Besides, walking around will do us both some good.” She didn’t say anything or respond, which he figured would be the case. But he didn’t want to stop talking to her, because it was the only thing she seemed to be responding to. So he left William to his own devices, making sure he’d be fine on his own, took Lily by the hand and marched into the woods.
Bull wasn’t looking for anything in particular, he just wanted to think, and walking helped him do it. So he pointed out trees, and interesting rocks, picked leaves and showed them to her, and kept a running conversation going about nothing important. And while he did that, he thought things over.
“You know Lily,” he said finally, as they made their way through yet another copse of trees, “I have a problem here. The Ben-Hassrath trained me how to manipulate people – how to figure them out, get what I want out of them. When it’s a hostile target, you give them what they want – but you aren’t hostile, are you? Not even a little.” He watched her obediently scramble up the little hill past the trees; steadying her once she’d reached the top, and continued on. He didn’t even have to hold her hand, now, she was just following him of her own accord, either because he was beginning to be a familiar face, or because shit, wasn’t like she had anything else she could do. Which was fine with him – he wanted her attention, as much of it as he could manage to get.
“But when it’s someone who isn’t hostile, someone you care about, you give them what they need.” He cocked his head, watching her out of the corner of his eye. “And that’s where I’m having a problem, because I don’t know what you need. And I don’t know what you want, either.” He chuckled. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I haven’t been trying here, but you aren’t exactly giving me anything to work with. I don’t know you, not even a little bit. I know you like baking, I know you worked in Kirkwall, I know Varric likes you to the point of threatening anyone that even thinks about you too hard so I’m guessing you’re sweet, like that little roll you made. And I’m guessing you’re a hard worker, or you were, and you liked that hard work a lot.”
He sighed. “But those are all guesses, Lily. They aren’t really anything I can use.”
They continued on in silence, through another thick copse of trees, sunlight playing through the branches, and he could hear water up ahead. Sure enough, they rounded the next corner and found a little waterfall and a pool beneath it. Luckily, there weren’t any animals around – he half expected they’d run into at least one at an obvious water source, but the place was empty. So he took her to the falls, got some water for them both, sat her down in the grass and took a seat across from her, face to face. Or as much as she’d give, anyway, she hadn’t looked him in the eye since yesterday, gave no indication he was there.
“Lily,” he said. Took a breath for good measure, deep, cleansing, the mountain air was pretty good for that. “I can’t give you what you need, because I don’t know what that is. Which means I’m stuck, maybe as stuck as you are, I don’t know. So I’m going to try something new here, and it’s probably stupid, but hey, if it works great, if not it’s not like you’re getting any better here, so we’ve got nothing to lose, right?” And he took her hands in his, tiny little things, covered in years of labor and work, capable and strong and completely dwarfed by his own.
“I’m going to tell you what I need.”
And she said absolutely nothing at all, which didn’t really surprise him. So he kept talking. “I need to know what happened in Kirkwall.” he quietly began, then stopped, glanced around the clearing. Of course it didn’t really matter, there wasn’t anyone there, they were in the middle of a forest in Ferelden for fuck’s sake. “And you’re probably wondering why I need to know that. I’m a qunari; I ought to know, right?” Bull snorted. “Yeah, right. So I’m going to…I’m going to do something I probably shouldn’t be doing here, but shit, I’m not supposed to be doing any of this so it doesn’t really matter now, does it.”
“Lily, I know what happened in Kirkwall. I know what I was told, I had reports – all the Ben-Hassrath had reports, we all read them, shit, all of the qunari knew what happened. The Arishok died, Lily. He died in a duel with a guy named Hawke – met him, sort of. Didn’t talk to him much. Varric kind of chased me off, figured he had good reason to, but hey. Any man that can go up against the Arishok and come out alive on the other end? That’s not a man you try to kill. That’s a man you respect.”
He shrugged. “And the Arishok was in Kirkwall because he was after this relic – it was called the Tome of Koslun. Maybe they told you a little about it, maybe not. It’s a book, but not just any book. It’s…scripture, if you want to call it that, written by the Ashkaari Koslun. He’s the qunari that founded the Qun, so his writings are really, really, really important, right? Right.” Bull frowned. “See, the book was lost a long, long time ago, turned out Orlais had the thing, and the Arishok was sent to go pick it up and get it back. Only he didn’t get it back, because someone stole it before he could get his hands on it. That’s why he was in Kirkwall, Lily. He was there to get the book – they were all there to get the book. The Ariqun, the Arigena – remember I mentioned them yesterday? Yeah. They wouldn’t let him come back to Par Vollen until he got it. A demand of the Qun, that it be returned. He had to meet that demand, he had no choice.”
His tone softened. She wasn’t looking at him, exactly, but her little hands were twitching in his. It was something. “But he never did. He never went back home, Lily. Hawke killed him before he could make it. And his soldiers – good men, all of them – the ones that came back, the few that came back went in for re-education. Some of them came out again. Some of them didn’t. The whole thing was seen as this giant disaster, really. The Tome was lost, and the qunari still don’t know where the damn thing is. A new Arishok was chosen, and the Qun went on, just like it always did. This was when I was…well, never mind where I was.” He glanced away, scowling. Took another series of deep breaths.
“That’s what we heard. That’s what we all heard. The Arishok attacked Kirkwall, Kirkwall defended itself, the Arishok never made it back, the Tome was lost.” Bull glanced back at Lily, who wasn’t really looking at him, and hunkered down in front of her, trying to catch her eye. “So imagine my surprise when Varric just lets it drop that the Arishok walked right out of Kirkwall with that Tome and that thief in hand.”
He watched her, tried to make eye contact, refused to look away, and gave those little hands a shake for emphasis because it wasn’t like he had anything to lose. “That’s why I need to know, Lily. Because someone, somewhere, lied. Either someone lied to the qunari, told us the Arishok died, or Varric’s a liar, and I don’t think he is. And whoever that liar was, they didn’t know enough to know the Arishok and his men were getting recruits. In every single last damned report that came out of Kirkwall, not a one of them mentioned indoctrination. Not a single one. And in all those survivors that came back from Kirkwall, not a one of them was left with the ability to really talk about what happened there.”
“Lily,” he said, half-pleading, “Lily, I need you to talk to me, I need you to wake up, because I’m pretty sure you’re the only person left that knows what really went on in that compound, what they said, what they were planning, what they did. I don’t know how you slipped out of their sight, I really don’t. But you’re alive. And I know you’re in there, and I know things are scrambled up in your head. I don’t know why. I don’t know if it was something you saw, something they did to you, or something some asshole did, something that had nothing to do with the qunari at all.”
He thought he saw something, a flicker, a ghost of movement, her pupils dilating just so. But there was nothing there. Bull sat back, stared up at the sky and sighed. “Right. Well, it was worth a shot.”
“Come on Lily. Pool’s big enough for two and both of us smell like horse. Bath time, all right?” He didn’t expect an answer and didn’t get one, but she apparently knew enough to recognize the word bath, stood up and started shucking her clothes without a word. Bull shrugged off his harness and everything else besides, suddenly far more invested in getting himself clean than anything else, ducked in the water and found a good ledge to brace himself against. It was a warm day, and the water was warm too, but not unpleasant. As for Lily, she didn’t seem to give two shits about sharing a bath with a qunari, ducking under the water and back out again, mechanically scrubbing at her hair, and pretty much ignoring him.
That was fine with Bull, because he had to think of something else. Some other angle, some other way to get her to talk. So he sat and soaked and frowned, lost in thought and picking apart what he’d said, because it didn’t get her attention. It didn’t get her attention because it wasn’t important. Had to be that. If it wasn’t important to her, then he needed to come up with something that was. And so far, the only thing that had was the thing he really, really didn’t want to talk about. He scowled, scratched his chin, threw a glance her direction. Fine. Fuck it. He was already in deeper than he ever really wanted to be.
“I’m guessing you’re wondering, if I’m Tal-Vashoth, why I want to know about all this crap.” he said without preamble, and she froze for a second at the sound of his voice, then went right back to cleaning off. But she froze so she was listening, which was good. He needed her to listen. “I don’t blame you. It’s a good question. Hell, I’m kind of wondering why I want to know, too. I mean shit; the qunari tossed me out, right, so why would I even care? Maybe I’m going crazy. The Tal-Vashoth do that, they go crazy in the head.” He shrugged. “And I’ve fought them before. I’ve fought them a lot. They are crazy – I thought they were all crazy, until I ended up being one.” he trailed off, scowling and sinking further into the water.
This wasn’t where he wanted to go. He really just wanted to shut up. But she was the key to whatever went down in Kirkwall, and he needed her. “Used to be stationed on an island, big ass island called Seheron – doubt you’ve heard of it. It’s north of Tevinter, and see, the qunari look at that island as their property, and the Tevinter look at it as theirs. And all those people on the island are just kind of stuck in the middle. We were trying to bring all those people under the Qun – kind of like what happened to you. Only not everyone there wanted to be a part of the Qun, so we had to do a lot of persuading. And some people just can’t be persuaded, you know? Even if you hand them all the answers, just give it to them right there, if they don’t understand it, they’ll turn it away.”
“Most qunari serve there a year or two, but it gets too hard for them. Look, I’m not going to sugar coat it, a lot of people died there, every day. And a lot of good qunari ended up deserting the Qun, became Tal-Vashoth, turned on us. I don’t think it was because they didn’t believe in the Qun, I think maybe it was because they…” he trailed off again. Deep breaths. Start over. “Most qunari serve there for a year or two. I was there for what, nine, ten years – I lost track. And I saw more crap go down on that damned island…it wasn’t pretty, Lily. I mean, I heard stories about Kirkwall, read Varric’s book about Hawke, and that place, the way he describes it, it’s a damn paradise next to what I saw.”
Abruptly, Bull rose, got out of the water to dry off, shook himself and found his clothes, talking all the while. “I didn’t understand it at the time, though, how anyone could turn on the Qun. How anyone could…how they could turn on their brothers and sisters like that. What I really hated, though, more than anything else, was that between them and the Tevinter, people kept getting in the way. Good people. Honest people, good workers like you. People like Krem and the Chargers, or the folks in the Inquisition – people that had good hearts, probably. Some of them were just in the wrong place at the wrong time; some of them listened to the wrong people.” He snorted. “Some of them didn’t want to be a part of the Qun, and that wasn’t the qunari way. You join, you submit, you take your place, and life goes on, just how it should be, right? I don’t think they would have told you about Seheron, though. I don’t think they’d talk about the messy parts of the Qun when they’re trying to get people to join, they probably just talk abou…”
Bull trailed off. She’d finally gotten out of the water, gone for her clothes, and he got a good look at her. She wasn’t bad to look at, of course she wasn’t, but he wasn’t really concerned with that so much as the scar that sliced across her side, jagged and nasty and the sort of thing you saw on a combat veteran, not something you saw on a baker. He wasn’t a cook really, far more interested in eating things than making things, but he was pretty sure kitchens weren’t that dangerous. “Hey,” he said softly, catching her arm in one hand, tracing the scar with the other. “Where’d you get that?”
Her eyes snapped to his and she froze in place, glued to the spot, a look of utterly shocked confusion crawling over her face and sending chills crawling up his spine. “Lily,” he said, dropped to his knees, kept the eye contact. “Lily, tell me what you want. Tell me what you need,” he insisted, gave her a little shake when her stare started to slip away, “Come on, stay with me Lily, don’t go, tell me—“
“Ashaad,” she whispered, paper-thin but distinct.
It hit him like a brick wall, his gut twisting with a sickening lurch. “Lily, no,” he said, as gently as he could, shook his head. “The Ashaad you knew, they’re gone honey. They’re gone. They’re not coming back.” And like that, her eyes slid from his, back into the void of whatever it was she stared at all day. “Lily, come on – wake up, Lily, don’t…”
But she was gone. He let her go, took a step back, took another deep breath, and another, and another. “Wait here Lily,” he said quietly. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” And then he walked away, a safe distance away, so he could go punch the crap out of an unsuspecting tree that hardly deserved it.
There were days he hated the Qun. Hated what it did to him. Right now, he hated it for what it did to her, because he was pretty certain she didn’t deserve it.
Hours later, back at camp, he watched her eat, cold and mechanical, and sighed. “I almost had you,” he said wistfully. “Almost.”
So he drank and he stared into the fire because what else could he do, really, and he talked because she sure as hell wasn’t. “Seheron,” he said, running his hand over his face. “Shit. Where do I even start. Look, you know how I told you the Tal-Vashoth are crazy? They were, out there. And back then, I hated them. I hated them for what they were, what they did – how can you turn your back on a life so…purposeful, how could you just shrug that off and say ‘Nope, not for me?’ I couldn’t understand it; all I understood was that the qunari who had done so were sick. Sick, and sometimes scared, and sometimes just pissed off. They were crazy, Lily. Didn’t know who they were anymore.” He cleared his throat, took a pull from the wineskin. “I didn’t get it because when you’re in, you’re in. And when you grow up in it, it’s just…part of you, every part of you, and you can’t see outside it. It’s like I said the other day. You look strange to us, because you’re constantly fighting to find that missing piece, right? Trying to sort it out and you just don’t know how.”
“I think that’s what happens to them,” he said softly. “Maybe when you’re around something for long enough, it just starts to sink in. Maybe…maybe when you see that kind of chaos, people bumping into shit left and right, killing the crap out of each other just for the sake of killing each other, no…purpose to it, no reason, you start to wonder why you’re doing what you’re doing. And when you live in it long enough, you start to wonder if maybe you’re the crazy one.”
“Maybe I was. Maybe I still am. Damned if I know.” The campfire blurred unexpectedly, Bull shook his head, scowling, cleared his throat. “Yeah. So. About that. Nine, ten years, right? Too long, probably. I went a little crazy, too. Did some crap I…yeah. I told them to take me away, Lily. Turned myself in, told them I needed to be re-educated. Because I could feel it starting to slip away, and I'd be damned if I was going to lose it like them. Screw that.” He stopped, paused, deep breaths. He’d taken so many deep breaths between here and Skyhold, it was a wonder he hadn’t flown away by now.
“You know what they did, Lily? They sent me to Orlais, told me to go undercover. As a Tal-Vashoth.” He snorted, the idea of it all suddenly really, really damned funny in his head. “They told me to go spy, send back reports. And here I am, worried as shit that I’m going to go crazy and murder the crap out of civilians, worried that I’m going to be one of those, and what do they do? Send me into a bunch of civilians and tell me to act like one.”
He shrugged, suddenly weary. “So I did. What else was I going to do? I told them I needed to be re-educated, they refused, gave me another assignment, and I hopped to it like a good damn soldier because that’s what you do when the Qun makes a demand. Went in there, got the information they needed, sent back regular reports, working right under the noses of nobles – they never suspected a thing. Because I’m good at what I do. I’m damn good at what I do. Me and the Chargers, we joined up with the Inquisition – you were already there, I remember the first time I saw you. Thought you were a spy, maybe. Sorry. Didn’t know.”
“And they kept right on taking my reports, sent me information back, I passed it all along to Leliana – she’s the spymaster there. I doubt you’ve met her; she doesn’t really come down to the tavern. She knows you, though, or thinks she does.” He managed a grin, halfhearted at best. “She doesn’t know half the crap I do now, go figure.”
The grin faded, his eye fixed on the fire. “And the Qun, the qunari…they had another demand. Told me they wanted an alliance–" He rolled his eye skyward, "–fucking alliance with the Inquisition, just like that. So I took the boss and went to meet up with them, and that’s when it all went to shit. I couldn’t make that decision, Lily. So the boss called it, the alliance went up in one of the loudest explosions I’ve ever heard, and that was that. Tal-Vashoth. Fucking…” Bull clenched his fist, jaw set. “Oh they sent a couple of assassins to let me know. They didn’t kill me, though – didn’t want to kill me, just wanted to let me know where I stood. And where I stood was exactly where they told me to go. I told them about this. I warned them about this. I went to them and told them what they needed to do, and they didn’t do it.”
He glanced her way, watched her watch nothing, lifted his chin. “That’s the screwed up part of all of this, Lily. I didn’t abandon the Qun. The Qun abandoned me.” His eye softened. “And it abandoned you, too.” Bull lifted the wineskin in a mock toast, managed another grin that didn’t quite meet his eyes. “So here’s to us, right? We’re both crazy, or maybe we’re both dreaming and we haven’t woken up yet, I don’t know.” Bull turned back to the fire. His shoulders drooped, and he lifted the wineskin for another pull.
There was a little thump at his side, and Bull looked down in surprise. She wasn’t watching him, still staring off at nothing at all, but her arms wrapped around as much of him as she could manage, clung for all they were worth. Strong little arms, strong little baker. He hesitantly lowered his arm, coiling it around her, held her there and stared off at nothing right along with her. “Here’s to us,” he said again, soft and resigned. “Might as well call it good for now, because it really doesn’t look like it gets any damn better from here.”
Chapter 14: Rain
Bull had a habit of being right about most any situation he assessed. It was part of the thing that made him so good at his job with the Ben-Hassrath, it was part of the reason they kept him in Seheron for so damn long. On any given day, he could read exactly what was going on around him at any given time – his observational skills came in incredibly handy once the Chargers joined the Inquisition, too. He could read people and their motivations as easily as Dorian had devoured roughly three quarters of the Inquisition’s library during his stay. It wasn’t often that he ran into someone he couldn’t read, and if he did, it immediately drew a dozen or so red flags.
He couldn’t get a pinpoint on Lily, but he was pretty sure she was too far gone in whatever shit she’d worked up in her head for anyone to get to her. And he couldn’t have been happier to be proven wrong. He didn’t peg the little baker for a fighter, but she was waging some kind of war in her head, and he was apparently giving her enough ammo that he was getting somewhere. Damned if he knew where she was pulling that kind of strength from, but she kept busting out of that blank stare over the next week’s worth of riding.
“Why,” she whispered one afternoon. He almost didn’t hear it, glanced down and caught her looking up at him.
“Why what?” he gently asked. She repeated the word, a flicker of something close to frustration in her eyes, little hands clenched on the sling, fingers flexing around the fabric. “Gonna have to give me more than that, Lily,” he coaxed, and she slipped away between one breath and the next, lost to the ghosts in her head.
A few days later, William managed to plod his way into one of the smaller villages that dotted Ferelden, little more than a small tavern that offered food and ale and little else, and a couple of smaller houses that likely belonged to the people running the tavern. But the air smelled good and it’d been a while since either he or Lily had had any kind of meal served at a table, anything that wasn't cooked on a campfire, so Bull went ahead and stopped. If nothing else, being in a building would be good for her, he reasoned. Seeing other people wouldn't be a bad thing either.
The innkeeper’s wife was a sweet older woman who looked a little worn, little tired, but mustered them the kind of kind smile reserved for close family, throwing a sympathetic look at Lily and clucking some poor dear’s and sweet little thing’s under her breath. On the one hand, Bull appreciated the gesture, but on the other, the woman was drawing far more attention to the two of them than he would've liked. Thankfully, the inn was largely empty anyway, and when the innkeeper’s wife bustled the plates out for them both they were piled high with extra portions – and he was perfectly fine with that. Hell, one whiff of the food once they stepped through the door and he was starving.
Bull was about halfway through his meal, extra portions and all, when someone slid into a seat across the table from them both. He paused mid-bite, silently cursing, and counted to ten, keeping his expression schooled and calm.
“Gatt,” Bull said evenly.
“Hissrad,” Gatt replied.
And then they stared at each other in a silent game of go-fuck-yourself that lasted a full two minutes before Gatt finally broke and glanced away.
“So, what brings you to the ass end of nowhere?” Bull asked. Josephine and Leliana may have talked up that whole Great Game shit in Orlais, but they’d never seen two Ben-Hassrath have a conversation. Sure, Orlesians thought they were being clever and multi-layered with meaning and shifts in tone – but the Ben-Hassrath gave absolutely nothing away. It was the difference between trying to read a book in a foreign language, and trying to read a brick. He figured Josie would find it utterly fascinating.
Gatt’s eyes smoothly slid to Lily, who sat, well behaved, quiet, and thankfully blank-faced as usual, giving away even less than Bull. “What are you doing, Hissrad?” he asked, light and casual.
“What does it look like I’m doing? Lady’s a friend of Varric’s, from Kirkwall. I’m taking her back there.” It wasn’t a lie. Bull knew better than to try and slide a lie under the nose of a Ben-Hassrath. You never lied to them, you just gave them as much information as needed, and nothing more.
Unfortunately, Gatt was familiar with the technique. He damn well better have been since Bull was the one that taught it to him. The elf gave him a wry smile with absolutely no humor in it and shook his head. “And I’m the new Arishok. Hissrad, I realize we parted on…bad terms,” he said, and in a rare display, actually let some emotion into his eyes – worry, mostly. “But whatever you’re doing, you need to stop.”
“Maybe you should tell me what you think I’m doing,” Bull suggested. “Or do the Ben-Hassrath just miss my pretty fa—“
“Hissrad.” Gatt fidgeted in his seat, the discomfort on his face even more plain to see. Which told Bull he was probably full of shit, but what the hell. “They don’t know that I’m here.”
That got Bull’s undivided attention. He pinned his eye on Gatt, but otherwise kept his face schooled to absolutely nothing. “And?”
Gatt scowled, clearly frustrated, his gaze darting from Bull to Lily and back again. “And I thought you should know that. If they knew I was here they’d have me shipped back to Par Vollen and shoved into re-education faster tha—“
“Yeah, yeah, I know the rules. So why are you here, Gatt?”
A soft clink interrupted the conversation, and they both looked at Lily, who’d quietly knocked a fork off the table, her fingers fidgeting, brow furrowed at the sight of some unseen nothing. Gatt watched her face, his expression unreadable. “What happened to her?”
Bull bent over, retrieved the fork and set it out of the way, shrugged. “Kirkwall did.”
“You really don’t stop, do you?” Gatt barked a laugh, dry and bitter. “You find something broken, something lost, something in trouble and you just have to fix it, don’t you. You can’t resist. Even when it’s a bloody damn hole in the sky, there you are, off to make it stop.”
The elf shot him an almost pained glare. “No. You gave me a life I never even dreamed of having, Hissrad. Something to believe in, something to live for, purpose – I’m not stupid, I know what my life would have been if you hadn’t intervened. You guided me to the Qun, and I’m happy for it. But that’s the difference, isn’t it?” The stare deepened into something far less pained and far more intense. “I’m happy. Yes, I fought – you damn well saw me fight – but eventually I saw the truth of it, and I was happy. And that’s how you helped, then. You led people like me from the dark, lonely places – you showed us the truth of what the world is, what it’s always been. And once we could see it, accept it, we were free.”
Bull rolled a shoulder, glancing at Lily, who had settled into a place of motionless contemplation, gaze fixed at some unseen point far away. “Never stopped helping people, Gatt. The only thing that changed is the name you call me.”
“Hissrad,” Gatt said, leaning forward, brow furrowed. “With everything you’ve done, every bit of truth you’ve given, why did you lie to yourself? You know your purpose. You know your pl—“
“You here to try and drag me back into the Qun, Gatt? Because I think the qunari made it pretty fucking clear where I stand,” he replied, silently cursing under his breath. He couldn’t keep the growl out of his voice if he tried, and Gatt latched onto the only foothold he was given.
“You are upset,” the elf observed, slightly smug. Bull quashed the urge to punch the prim smile off his face. “You know I’m right, Hissrad. You know what your life is supposed to be. You know where you fit in the world, and even if you aren’t part of the Qun, you can’t help but do what you were born to do. Protect, guide, usher the lost and lonely – so when did it change, Hissrad? When did the Qun stop being the answer? Was it Seheron? Did you lo—“
Bull’s fist slammed into the table, startling Gatt, who sat back with a slight widening of his narrow eyes, Lily, who flinched and went completely still, frozen in place like a baby deer, and the innkeeper’s wife, who made the smallest of noises, just loud enough for Bull to hear, a little distressed intake of air, concerned for the state of her table. And he ignored them all but Gatt, leaning forward, fist still clenched. “Don’t,” he growled, low and distinct and meant for Gatt’s ears alone. “Don’t you fucking dare.”
Gatt lifted both hands in mock surrender, clearly out of his element and not willing to push the point. It didn’t matter, he’d pushed it far enough. “Hissrad—“
“The name,” he interrupted, eye glittering with anger held firmly in check, “Is The Iron Bull.”
“Screw your names,” Gatt hissed, rising to his feet and turning to leave. He stopped just before he took that first step, though, stopped and took a deep breath, turned, keeping his words quiet and controlled. “Once, a long time ago, you pulled me from nothing and gave me everything, Hissrad. I bring you a courtesy, nothing more – they are watching you. They are watching carefully. And I don’t know what you’re doing, but if you keep doing it, whatever it is, they will take action. A courtesy, Hissrad. Because whether I like it or not, I owe you my life. Watch your step, and keep your secrets close.” And with that, he was gone.
Bull took a deep breath himself, examining the table, which was thankfully undamaged. He turned to Lily, who was still frozen, barely breathing small, shallow breaths, shrinking into herself in a concentrated effort to be as not-seen as possible. “It’s okay, Lily,” he reassured her, glancing back down at his plate and pushing it away, suddenly disinterested in the food. “We should get out of here. Got a ways to go.”
Even though he'd shown that sudden flare of displayed temper, or possibly even because of it, the innkeeper’s wife packed them another large portion of food before sending them on their way, flapping her hands and worrying over them both with such determined mothering that Bull couldn’t help but smile by the time they managed to get out the door.
Late that night, Bull sat and stared at the campfire, weighing his options beneath starless night and overcast sky. If Gatt were telling the truth, then he and Lily were in trouble. He didn’t really give a fuck about his own skin, but her, on the other hand…her, he was worried about. She wasn’t a fighter. Not in the sense that he was. And if they caught a load of what was going on in her head, it was only a matter of time before she disappeared for good.
Which bothered him on another level entirely, because somewhere between not-his-problem in Skyhold and Gatt’s sudden appearance at the inn, Lily had very much become his problem. He couldn’t pinpoint where it happened, or why, but he hated the idea of leaving her like this. Unfinished, unpolished, half-shaped and discarded, alone.
It wasn’t the kind of life anyone should live – it wasn’t even life, really. It was a purposeless, empty thing, a mockery of what life could be, should be, mechanical and devoid of emotion. Bull glanced at Lily and sighed. You can’t resist, Gatt had said. Maybe he was right, but he'd be damned if he was going to leave her as she was. So Bull sat, weighed his options, picking them apart one by one and putting them back together again, like a Ben-Hassrath, seethed a little inside even as he did it. Screw Gatt and his smug face.
Ashaad, she’d told him. She needed the Ashaad. He knew, vaguely, who had been in Kirkwall and only in the vaguest sense – exact troop numbers were never released, nor was an exact survivor count. He did know for a fact that only qunari had been listed on those reports. No elves. No humans. The only thing he remembered was Varric’s mention of two guards at her stall – one of them had to have been of the Ashaad, then, though why they’d assign a scout to guard duty was lost on him. It made no damn sense. But it was a start.
“Lily,” he began, staring intently at the fire. “The Ashaad – you know them, don’t you. Maybe you think it’s a person, but it’s not, it’s a designation – a rank, part of the army. The Ashaad are scouts. They gather the lay of the land, and the people in it, bring back information for the Arishok, if needed.” He glanced in her direction, curious to see if any of this was sinking in, but she was staring off at nothing, as usual. “I probably shouldn’t be telling you any of this shit; I don’t even know how much of it is classified, but what the hell. What are they going to do, kill me?”
Bull rolled his eye. It was already pretty damned likely they were planning that anyway, if they were watching like Gatt claimed. “So there are the Ashaad, and there are the Sten – commanders, you’d probably call them, and the Karasten. And then there are the Saarebas – mages. I don’t know if you saw them or not. You’d remember if you did. They’re watched over by the Arvaarad. There were a few in Kirkwall, but I don’t know how many exactly.”
Bull frowned. “And then there are the privates and soldiers, the Karashok and Karasaad. They fight, pretty much, no intelligence work or scouting involved. Chances are that most of the qunari you saw were those. Soldiers, military, not qunari like me.”
That did it. To his immense surprise she was not only back to looking at him, somewhere in the middle of it all she’d gotten to her feet. “Yeah, you know those names, don’t you?” He kept his voice low and calm, trying to coax something, any kind of response. “I figured you would. The Ashaad…I’m not sure what the Ashaad were doing with you, unless they were getting information from you. Asked you a lot of questions, didn’t they?” Lily didn’t answer, but she didn’t slip away, either, took a step towards him, and another, and another, until she was standing right in front of him, peering up at him with transfixed fascination. “Yeah. Thought so.” He sighed, shook his head. “Bet you didn’t even realize what they were doing. I mean the Ashaad are no Ben-Hassrath – they aren’t really subtle. I doubt they asked you anything really important.”
She tensed, hesitantly lifted a hand, and he watched her face contort, lips struggling to move, her voice faraway, but less faint than before.
Bull paused, blinked in astonishment. “Y…” he trailed off, watching her silently watch him. Shit, she’d just given him a full sentence. Most of one, anyway. But he let the question sit for a second, thought carefully about his answer – the last thing he wanted to do was shove her right back into wherever she retreated when she wasn’t here. “Do you think I’m not, Lily?” he asked in return. She gave no answer, but she was trying. He could see her lips struggle and twist. “Lily,” he said, gently brushing an errant strand of hair from her face. “Where are you? What are you doing?”
“Waiting.” Bull tried to ignore the curl of faint apprehension coiling up his spine. It was, in a way, even creepier than the crap Cole liked to do. But she was fighting right before his eyes, actively working at looking at him now.
“What are you waiting for, Lily?”
“Ashaad,” she faltered, then repeated. “Ashaad.”
Bull’s eye softened imperceptibly. “Why are you waiting for him?” She couldn’t seem to answer, maybe the question was too complicated, maybe there wasn’t an answer she could give. “Do you think I’m not real, Lily?” he asked again, and again, he got no answer. He bit back a frown, settled instead for an explanation.
“See, the problem with answering that question,” he quietly rumbled, “Is that even if I tell you I am, it doesn’t really matter, does it. It’s not about whether I think I’m real or not, it’s about whether you do. I mean I could sit here and tell you I am until I’m blue in the face, but if you don’t believe it, I might as well not be, right? So I guess I should ask you, Lily, do you think I’m real? Or do you think you made up all this stuff in your head?”
He definitely didn’t expect her eyes to well up with tears. Shit. “Hey, hey now,” he soothed, reaching out to snag her by the waist and pull her close, “You’re safe, you hear me? You’re safe. Safest place in Thedas.”
“No,” she whispered, and it about broke his damned heart.
“Lily. Look at me.” She stared up at him through reddened eyes fixated on his mouth. “No one,” he said firmly, “Is going to hurt you. I won’t let them. And I don’t care if you think I’m real or not. Nothing’s getting by me, nothing’s getting to you. I won’t let it happen.”
Her brow furrowed as she concentrated on his face, and out of the corner of his eye he could see her arm lifting again. Bull froze, held the eye contact, a bare hint of an encouraging grin tugging at the corner of his mouth until her hand came to rest on his cheek. She gave a little gasp, the smallest intake of air when her fingers finally made contact with his skin, hesitantly tracing the stubble along his jaw, the chiseled cut of his cheek. Lily tilted her head, brows lifting with a faint echo of curiosity, fingers coming to rest at the upturned corner of his mouth. “You smile,” she said, hushed.
“I do,” he affirmed, her fingers tickling the corner of his mouth as he spoke. “When I’ve got a reason to.”
Her fingers curled up the side of his face, tracing over the embossed metal patch he strapped over his empty eye, and he could see her question before she said it. “Nothing behind there,” he said. “Just skin and scars.” He didn’t wear the patch for himself, really, he wore it as a courtesy to those around him – the wound had long since healed, but it was ugly and he knew it. The patch on the other hand was distinctive, pretty in its own way. And it served the dual purpose of setting people at ease while making him look like the badass he was. Her fingers persisted, the little furrow in her brow deepening until at last he relented. “Okay, but it’s a little scary,” he warned her, sliding the patch back out of the way and watching her from his good eye for any sign of distress.
He needn’t have worried. Her pupils flared just a little at the sight of what was left behind, but her fingers were, if anything, even gentler than before, grazing over the puckered scar with no revulsion or fright in the least. “It hurts,” she said, a flash of just that glinting somewhere in her eyes.
“Nah, doesn’t hurt anymore,” Bull readily replied. Lightning broke through the sky in the distance, and he glanced up, nostrils flaring. “It’s going to rain – smell that? We should—“ he broke off when he glanced back down and saw her face flash somewhere between perplexed confusion and dawning awareness. “What’s wrong?”
“It smells,” she whispered. “Why does it – I can – “ Lily shook her head, took another sharp breath of air, her hand on his cheek again, trembling palm sliding over rough stubble. Thunder cracked overhead, startling her into shocked silence, eyes wide and frightened.
“Hey,” he soothed, placed his hand over hers. “It’s okay. It’s just rain.” He glanced up as it began to do just that, a suspiciously gentle shower that he was pretty sure was going to turn into an outright downpour in a matter of minutes. As if to prove the point, lightning flashed again, closer now. “We should get back to…”
She was still staring up at him, blinking in shock as the water spattered her face. Her fingers flexed and trembled beneath his hand, but otherwise she said nothing at all. Bull pulled her close, tucked her under his chin and slid the patch back over his eye. “Come on, only going to get colder,” he rumbled, lifting her with one arm and taking her to the tent. She got in and lay down without a word, but he could hear her breathe, shaky and gasping, frightened little puffs of air as the thunder cracked again overhead. “C'mere,” he murmured, snagging her with an arm and pulling her to his side. She slid an arm across his chest, shaking like a leaf and clinging to him for dear life. “What’s wrong, Lily?” he asked.
Lightning tore above them, briefly illuminating the tent’s interior, her hair, wide, frightened eyes that stared up at him with desperation and fear. “Don’t,” she said, flinching at the immediate crack of thunder overhead.
“Don’t what?” Bull smoothed her hair, trying to settle his nerves. It was the longest conversation they’d had to date, although she hadn’t really said much at all. But her next words froze him in place.
“Don’t let me go,” she whispered, a plaintive little cry. “Don’t let me—“
Bull set his jaw, cleared his throat, torn. “I told you I’d be honest, remember Lily? I said I’d tell you the truth, right?” She said nothing, but he could see the faint glimmer of her eyes in the dark. “I can’t keep you here. I can’t keep you from going back to where you were.” She shivered violently beneath his arm, and he tucked her in a little closer. “Lily, listen to me – I’ll be here. I’ll wait for you, all right? I’ll be right here, waiting for you to come back. I’m not going anywhere. I promise.” His guts twisted at the next crack of lightning – he could see her eyes, wild and desperate and slowly slipping away. “Right here, Lily. You hear me? I’ll wait for you.”
Between one breath and the next, she was gone, back to wherever she waited for Ashaad. Bull cursed under his breath, kept her tightly held, suddenly out of options and with little else left to do but sleep.
Lily woke with a gasp, staring at the walls of the compound, her heart pounding as she struggled to calm her breath and take it all in. There, the bedrolls on hay bales, tucked under tents. There, the sturdy walls, the ones that kept her safe, the ones that Ashaad and the others had scaled so gracefully, effortless and weightless. There, the gate, and in the air the sound of silence, clear skies overhead, smoke lazily coiling ever upwards just beyond the wall.
She ran her hands over her skirts, smoothing them down in an effort to relax, remembering the Arishok’s voice, his wisdom, the words he’d spoken. Struggle is an illusion. There is nothing to struggle against. Fall into the tide, let it carry you. Do not fear the dark. The sun and the stars will return to guide you. And they were there, right over her head, she could see them, she could count them if she wanted.
Lily waited, patiently, silently, waited for Ashaad to come back, to take her away, and she knew if she waited long enough he’d return. She promised him she’d wait.
But his face was there, every time she closed her eyes. One kind eye, directed at her, and her alone, his words, his voice in her ear, low and soothing and full of…life, and kindness, and he seemed desperately to want nothing more than to make her world bright. He wanted to help her, he said. He wanted to protect her, he said. He promised her he’d wait.
She shivered, confused and terrified for no reason at all. And despite the clear, star-filled sky above, it smelled like rain.
(Illustration in this chapter was done by the AMAZING Sirius of Siriusdraws on Tumblr, who does some of the most beautiful Dragon Age work I've ever seen!)
Chapter 15: Ashkaari
There is some disturbing imagery in this chapter. Seheron wasn't a friendly place.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.”
Bull, to me, is an endlessly fascinating character. Not because of what he says to you, because of all the things he doesn't say. There's some headcanon in here, and some references to events mentioned in The World of Thedas II, but a lot of it is just things I plucked from the in-between places of all of the stories Bull told in Inquisition. To me, his story seemed unfinished somehow, and it bothered me - and then I came to the conclusion that there was a reason it was unfinished, and it was likely because Bull himself is only willing to share so much, even with his Kadan.
Chapter 16: Talan
She stirred against his shoulder, not more than an hour or two later, stirred and blinked and sighed, cheek pressed to his skin. “Bull,” she mumbled, and the word was like music to his ears. “Your name is Bull.”
“You remembered,” he said. Lily drew back, settled in his lap to stare up at him with fixed curiosity and intense scrutiny, alert and alive and there, all there, all in one piece. He watched her watch him, trying his best to school a neutral expression, barely able to contain himself. He did it. Fuck if he knew how, but he did it – or she did, he corrected himself.
“Varric,” he said, “Is going to shit himself when he sees you.”
And she peered at him thoughtfully, her eyes no longer distant and sightless, fixated and sparkling with just a hint of what he’d call impish charm, sweet little mouth quirked up in a smile that crinkled the freckles dusting her nose just so. “We’ll just have to find a proper tailor and some trousers for a souvenir then.” she said, the very picture of practicality and wide-eyed innocence.
Bull blinked. And then he laughed. He laughed so hard he thought he’d cry, gave her a little shake and laughed some more, finally wiped his eye and shook his head, shoulders still shaking. From the other side of the camp, William flicked an ear, and went back to grazing, the only one present that wasn’t currently amused. “So, Lily,” Bull drawled, canting his head and giving her a good look, “Why don’t you tell me where you’re from.”
It was like turning on a switch, Bull marveled hours later, watching her babble on and on about this and that, animated and alive and telling story after story. She shared bits and pieces of everything and nothing, little stories about herself and life on a farm and placed he’d never heard of, a life that had been, until now, completely tucked away. Busy little thing, hands flitting about like bees over flowers as she spoke. There was a lilt to her voice, a cadence to her words, and she had a weird habit of pulling in her lower lip when she couldn’t think of a word or wanted to change the subject, a little tell that said I’d rather not talk about that right now that was unspoken, but easily read. And Bull just let her talk, asking a leading question in the few rare moments that she actually paused to breathe, content to grin and bask in the pitter patter of her voice as it fell on his ears like a welcome spring rain.
And eventually, she finally petered out and stopped talking enough to take more than a little breath, blinked in bewilderment and peered up at him with those bright blue eyes, pulled in that lower lip and just stared and stared as if seeing him for the first time, scrutinizing every inch of his face like she was trying to commit every scar, every twist of his horn, every scrap of stubble on his chin to memory. “It’s a good name,” she said, finally. “Bull, I mean, on account of you look like one—“ her eyes widened just a hair in horrified realization, “—that is to say I don’t mean you are one of course I mean you’re a qunari and you’ve horns and you’re very tall but you…” Bull chuckled, shook his head and she trailed off.
“This is real,” she said then, half to herself, faltered and glanced away. She tugged her lower lip in her mouth, her expression falling just a little.
“It is.” He confirmed, watched her quietly for a moment. “You okay there?”
“I…yes. I suppose I…how long has it…” she trailed off, suddenly uncertain, and he braced himself because she sure as shit wasn’t going to be happy.
“Years,” he softly replied. “Seven, maybe? Something like that.” Her face fell, busy little hands twisting anxiously in her lap.
“Where have…what…I…” she faltered uncertainly, then glanced up at him. “How did I…”
“Varric,” he replied, brushing an errant strand of her hair back in place. “He took care of you. Took you with him. You uh, well. Missed a lot. A whole lot of crap went down. I’ll spare you the details, pretty sure he’d like nothing more than to talk your ear off and fill you in when we get back. And he’s better at telling stories than I am, anyway.”
“When we get back,” she repeated, brow furrowed. “When we get back where, exactly?”
“Skyhold. It’s a big castle, way up in the mountains – you don’t remember any of that, do you,” Bull said, frowning.
Lily shook her head, half in answer, and half to clear it. “It feels like…”
“Like you were dreaming?” he gently asked. “You were. Kinda.”
She worried her lower lip, brow furrowed and quietly pondering something in her head. He could see the wheels turning, plain as day on her face now that she wasn’t wherever the hell she’d been shackled for whatever reason. And after a moment, she lifted those wide eyes to his. “I’m…still afraid,” she said, brow twisted with concern. “Should I be?”
Bull wished, with all his heart, that he could tell her no. That it would be fine, that she could go back to doing whatever she’d been doing before all of this began. That she was free to go do whatever the hell she wanted to do, bake a thousand loaves of bread for whoever she wanted, head to a farm in the middle of nowhere and just live her life however she wanted to. But he couldn’t. “Probably,” he said, and watched her face fall a little more. “Look, Lily,” he shifted his weight, moved his leg, snagged her round her waist to keep her on his lap. “You remember when I said I’d be honest with you?”
“Yes…” she replied, suddenly wary. She had every right to be.
“I don’t know how long this is going to last,” he admitted, and she dropped her eyes, brow twisting. “Hey now. Look at me.” Bull crooked a finger under her chin. “It could last forever,” he said. “You could be just like this forever.”
“—I’ve never done this before, Lily. I’m Ben-Hassrath – was Ben-Hassrath,” he corrected, grimacing, “—but I wasn’t trained to do this sort of thing. Shit, I don’t even think they have anyone trained to do…whatever it was we just pulled off here.” Bull glanced away, towards the road. “I’m pretty sure they don’t. It’s kind of the opposite of the crap they usually pull.”
“I’m Tal-Vashoth, then,” came her voice, quiet and resigned. She was a sharp little thing. He hadn’t pegged her for that. And when he looked back at her, she was staring at him with blameless eyes, not angry, not sad, just hungry for information. “Like you,” she added, eyes scanning his face for any hint of an answer.
“A little,” he affirmed. “Not exactly. You thought you were in, but you weren’t. So…technically you aren’t, because you were never qunari.” Bull gave her a lopsided smile that was meant to be reassuring in his head. To her credit, she didn’t immediately burst into tears, nor did she start hitting him. She just sat there, little wheels turning in her head, pulling all the pieces apart and putting them back together again until she was satisfied with whatever she’d found.
“Then we can go back,” she said, finally. “To the castle you mentioned, I mean? To see Varric, and…”
“Not yet,” Bull replied with a shake of his head. “We still have to head to Kirkwall.”
Lily’s brow furrowed in confusion. “But why? I mean, if I’m…” she trailed off again, staring at him with renewed interest. “You’re still looking,” she said, realization dawning in her eyes. The accusation hung in the air, no trace of maliciousness, just suspicious and wary. He didn’t blame her. “What are you looking for?”
And Bull shrugged, giving her the truth because she already knew too much as it was. “I don’t know,” he said, canted his head and watched her thoughtfully as he spoke. “You’re just one piece of a pretty big puzzle. Someone went out of their way to hide what happened out there from the qunari. We knew one thing, turns out it was something else. Turns out a lot of the crap we were told wasn’t true. I need to know who it was, and why they did it.”
She was, in fact, far more clever than he’d given her credit for. “But you’re Tal-Vashoth,” she pointed out, and rightfully so. “It doesn’t matter anymore, does it? Not to you.” And that lower lip was pulled in again as she blinked and quietly realized what she’d just said. “I-I’m sorry,” she apologized, lamely.
Bull shrugged, rolled a shoulder and brushed it off, glanced down at his hand. He’d heard worse from damn near everyone in Skyhold after what went down at the Storm Coast; questions people didn’t even realize were raw and personal. Even Dorian had badgered him about it, wry comments and sharp barbs flippantly delivered not out of malice, never out of malice, but meant to tease, to taunt. So, tossed out, are you? I suppose that’s why you seduced me, you needed a cuddle – you knew it was coming, didn’t you? Ben-Hassrath training and all. Bull had just grinned, shrugged it off, let it roll over him like water and given the mage a reason to be sorry later on when it was just the two of them and the bedposts. He understood why he’d said it – Dorian wanted a reason, a word, some kind of quantifier to assign to what they had. Bull never gave it to him. Because he didn’t need it.
He looked up, then, to see Lily watching his every move, every reaction. Just like he’d been watching her, he realized. And she was silent, and still, her lip still tugged into her mouth just so, sliding out as she came again to some kind of conclusion. “No,” she said. “It does matter, doesn’t it.”
He promised her he’d be truthful with her. He didn’t back down on his word. But he couldn’t really say the words, so he just nodded, once, sharp and strong, and her brow twisted in response, clever blue eyes taking it in and adding it to everything else. “It hurts,” she said, softly. “Not…not up here,” Narrow, slender fingers, worn with years of honest work wiggled at her temple, “Here.” And she placed her palm on her chest, a look of anguish flashing across her face stark and honest and gone in an instant, replaced by open curiosity, a little sadness tucked behind it all. “When does it stop?”
“It doesn’t.” Took the wind right out of her sails, and she sat back, shoulders slumped, lost for words for the first time in a couple of hours. He couldn’t lie to her, not about this. “They gave you enough, didn’t they.” It wasn’t really a question, just something he figured out. “Told you enough that you understood.”
To his faint surprise, she shook her head. “I almost had it,” she whispered, brow furrowed, staring at something not quite there – not out of her head, still here, but searching for something she’d lost, something she never quite had at all. And in that moment, Bull realized what they’d done to her in Kirkwall – dangled it in front of her, shown her, opened and exposed it all, and before she could take it all in, they took it away, left her with nothing but the faintest glimpse of that open door to order, to purpose, to sense. She was a civilian, yeah, she was human, yeah, but they started to guide her away from running against those walls like all the others, pointed her at that damned door, and left her to blindly fumble with the knowledge it was there, never quite taking her through it.
And the rest of her life was going to be a search for that thing that she didn’t quite get, that connection she never quite made. It was going to be that itch in the back of her head, persistently pushing her towards doing what she should be doing, never quite connecting, never quite letting her just fall in. Because he couldn’t hand her over. He fixed her. She was free.
And free was going to feel like shit.
She was watching him again, big blue eyes darting over his face like it was a puzzle she just hadn’t managed to solve. And before he could form any kind of response or apology, she lifted her palm to his cheek, traced the worn lines of ten years of bloody battles and countless, pointless deaths, glinting and fixed in one good eye, ran her hand over the stubble he’d let grow, took in his shorn hair, the tangled horns, the glinting patch that covered the mangled scar, traced a finger to the corner of his mouth where it sat, still and without mirth. “You were dreaming,” she said quietly. “Dreaming like me.”
“I was,” he said.
“What happened when you woke up?” she asked.
He promised her he’d be honest with her, so he was. “I didn’t.” He softly replied, and watched her eyes widen with sudden, complete understanding. “I learned how to live in it. Because I had to.”
She didn’t say anything to that, just watched him, canted her head, thinking.
And then she leaned in, to his faint surprise, closed her eyes and before he could say anything she’d pressed her lips to his, leaving them there just long enough to register before pulling away. And she opened her eyes, glanced at him and then away again with abashed and open disappointment. “What was that for?” he asked, lifting an eyebrow.
“It was stupid,” she said, glancing away. “I only thought, I mean, well, in all the fairy stories when I was little there was one about someone sleeping and a prince woke them with a kiss and I thought – and I told you it was stupid and it didn’t work and it wasn’t, well I suppose they’re just fairy stories, aren’t they, they aren’t really real and I don’t, I mean—“
Bull chuckled, the tension broken. He couldn’t help the grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. “You call that a kiss?” he teased, and immediately regretted it. The drop of her eyes, the slow slide of her lower lip into her mouth told him everything he needed to know.
“I don’t expect I…” she began, took a little breath, clearly embarrassed and looking anywhere but at him. “I mean I’m just a common girl mind, and I work, and it, I mean it isn’t as if I never wanted to o-or liked anyone, I was just very busy on account of the b-baking and the food and it takes quite a lot to keep a business running you know on account of there’s the baking and the selling and t-then there’s the bookkeeping and supplies and it’s really quite a lot more than you’d think even if it was just a stall and not a proper shop but I couldn’t really afford a proper shop you see but it didn’t m-matter and there wasn’t really time, or maybe it wasn’t really the right time I expect, on account of…” she trailed off as Bull hooked a finger gently under her chin to get her attention.
“Lily,” Bull murmured. “Stop talking.”
She blinked up at him, slightly perplexed, and finally stopped talking long enough that he could tilt her chin just so, watching her lashes flutter shut, and bring his mouth to hers, dart his tongue over those soft little lips to part them so he could properly claim them. And she tensed, for a moment, as he expected her to do, made the most adorable fucking noise, a little startled mewl before melting in his arms. He was thorough, and gentle, until her lips told him he could be otherwise, then insistent, as demanding as she needed him to be. And when at last he pulled away, she followed, trailed after him for just a moment, lashes slowly fluttering back open, cheeks flushed so rosy that all those little freckles stood out in stark relief. “Oh,” she breathed, wide eyed and watching his mouth with rapt fascination.
“That was a kiss,” he said, more than just a little smug.
Lily didn’t waste any time, dove back in for another round, and he gave her a pleased, encouraging rumble, a low chuckle lost in the press of lips. She was a quick study, clever little thing, demanding as much of him as he did her, pulling away before they both lost their breath entirely and nearly taking his lower lip with her, to his delight. Her eyes scanned his face, searching for something. “Did it work?” she asked, hesitant and suddenly shy.
He grinned, shook his head. “Nah. Looks like all those fairy stories are just stories.”
“Can…” she glanced away, and then back again with renewed interest, blue eyes sparkling with just a hint of impish mischief, “…can we do it again anyway?”
Bull glanced up at the night sky, the hour far later than he expected. “We should be sleeping,” he pointed out. Then he rose to his feet, carrying her right along with him, gave her a little toss that sent her arms around his shoulders to cling for him for support, and made for the tent with a rugged grin. “…but what’s another hour, huh?”
Bull woke up before she did, a little before the sun had properly risen in the sky, glanced down at her with quiet appreciation. It’d been a while since he’d kissed anyone, even longer since he’d kissed anyone who appreciated kissing. And he knew what she’d been trying to do, and it worked, for the hour or so they’d spent quietly devouring each other’s breaths and forgetting, for a little while, about the Qun, the road, the trip ahead, the worries of the world and everything in it, instead just losing themselves in the moment.
Lily stirred, and this time, when she woke and cracked open her eyes, she found him looking at her with open observation, his grin answered by a small, contained, but pleased smile of her own. “Morning, sleepyhead,” he murmured. She sat up, idly patted his arm as she yawned, blinked, and then glanced out the tent flap, almost instinctively reaching for it. And then she stopped, fingers frozen and outstretched, her eyes darting over the canvas, breath held.
“Oh,” she said, after a moment.
He sat up, placed a hand on her shoulder, and she let her fingers fall, staring outside. “I…I expect I…was used to saying it,” she whispered. “I suppose I shouldn’t, anymore.”
“You can, if you want to,” he replied. But she shook her head, closed her eyes and combed her fingers through her hair. Bull watched her, said nothing, because there was nothing he could say. Instead, he sat with her until she was ready to go outside. They ate breakfast in companionable silence, and afterwards, she stood and followed him to help clean up the little camp, asking endless questions about how saddles were supposed to go on horses and where you strapped things like tents and saddlebags.
And once she was back in the sling he insisted she still ride in, not quite trusting her in the saddle despite her protests to the contrary, she settled against him, this time pointing out all the little things along the road he hadn’t noticed before. Asked him questions – about Skyhold, about the Chargers, about his life in Orlais. It was nice, Bull thought, really nice to finally have a conversation that wasn’t one-sided.
Somewhere a mile or two out of Jader, he glanced down, caught her eye and held it. “Still afraid?” he asked.
To his surprise, she shook her head. “It’s only Kirkwall. Nothing left there but memories, I expect,” she replied, watching the road. “Mother always said a memory’s only as real as you let your mind make it.”
“Your mother sounds like a smart lady.”
She grinned up at him then, freckles crinkling. “Yes. Yes she was.”
Once, long, long before The Iron Bull was Hissrad, long before he was even born, the city of Kirkwall stood instead as Emerius, heart of the Tevinter slave trade. And once, a very long time ago, the qunari had even occupied the city, held it for four years and converted all those slaves to the Qun. And after that, the Orlesians swooped in to claim it. And after that, the city decided it had had enough of all the conquering crap, fought for independence and declared itself free. But evidence of the city’s roots still towered over the boat as it sailed down the narrow channel, massive bronze statues that wept into their hands, collars around their necks, withered and helpless and resigned, chained to the city itself.
It was creepy as shit and made his skin crawl, and Bull wondered exactly how someone like Lily could thrive in a place like this. Not that she had. But she stood on the deck of the boat, staring up at the statues with wide-eyed wonder, probably didn’t understand what they once meant to the people of the city. But then, she wasn’t really from Kirkwall, according to the reports Leliana had gathered when Varric brought her to the Inquisition.
The years hadn’t been kind to Kirkwall. Oh, he’d read Varric’s book about the Champion of the city vanquishing the evil nasty Templars and bringing the city to justice, a shining hero, beacon of the good of humanity triumphing over evil, all of that crap. But he also knew what he saw in that man’s eyes when he came to Skyhold. Maybe they didn’t talk much, but Bull could see the man’s eyes. And those eyes told him that Hawke, Champion or no, was a man who lost too much to really ever consider himself a hero, and only wore that title because it was handed to him. It wasn’t something he carried with pride; it was a shackle, cold and iron like the great collars around the necks of those statues, chaining him, just as they were, irrevocably to the city no matter how far he fled. It was a chain that stretched forever.
And once Bull saw that, he didn’t really need to talk to Hawke. Because that kind of man was one he understood all too well.
“We’re passing the Gallows?” Lily piped up, uncertain and puzzled. The building still stood, but the ship made no move towards it, sailing instead towards the Lowtown docks. One of the sailors glanced up with a clear look of where the hell have you been on his face, opened his mouth, but closed it quickly enough with one glance from Bull, hurriedly going back to work without a word.
“You remember when I told you a whole lot of crap went down?” She nodded, and he grimaced at the former Templar stronghold. “Yeah. That’s where most of it happened. Place is under quarantine, probably. Nobody goes in.”
She absorbed that, or seemed to, kept her eyes locked on those stone walls, her expression calm and distant, but she twisted her little hands together as they sailed past. “Bull,” she said, flicking a glance his direction, “Where are we going, exactly?”
“Hightown. I need to talk to the Viscount.”
That got her attention immediately. Her eyes went rounds as saucers, and her breath caught in her throat. “You know the Viscount?” she whispered, awed, and he couldn’t help the chuckle, but shook his head.
“Not even a little. But Josephine – she’s the Inquisition’s diplomat, real good at talking to people. Pulled some strings so we could get in.” Bull scratched the back of his neck, glancing at the city ahead. It was an understatement, to say the least. She had to pull in a dozen different favors, explaining, in that carefully constructed and charming manner she had, that faint lilt that the boss loved, that the qunari were still not widely looked upon with the slightest bit of favor from most of Kirkwall’s citizens, Viscount included. Even, Josie had pointed out, a Tal-Vashoth like him. However, the Inquisition was still riding that aftermath of joyous victory, and Kirkwall was willing to allow him entry. As long as he didn’t try anything, Josie had clarified, frowning at the very notion. He didn’t intend to – the sooner he got what he needed, the sooner he could get away from the stone walls and slave statues and general shitshow and get back to the business of…
Bull frowned. That was a question he could answer later. Maybe. For now, they’d arrived.
Lily followed along beside him, taking quick little steps and staying close enough to be his shadow, all the way up the steps to Hightown. They bypassed Lowtown entirely, and the higher they got, the more nervous her eyes got, the more frantic the twist of clasped fingers. And eventually he stopped, a good three quarters of the way up the ridiculous number of stairs, paused at a landing and took a seat on the little wall that flanked the stairs, let her do the same. “All right,” he said, finally. “You okay with this? You look nervous enough that you’re making me nervous. And that isn’t easy to do.”
There went that lower lip, her eyes widening. “Oh – I’m sorry, it’s only – I mean I’ve never been up here before, it’s Hightown after all and I’m just a bake—“ Bull took her hand, squeezed it, gave her a lopsided and reassuring grin.
“Lily. You’re not. Not today. Today, you’re with the Inquisition. With me.”
“They don’t know that,” she pointed out.
“No, they don’t.” Bull stood, gave her hand another squeeze and pulled her to her feet, grinned a little wider. “So we walk in there like they do, and they will.”
She chewed that over for a moment, took a little breath, straightened right up and nodded, just once, in understanding. Good girl. He kept his hold on her hand anyway. Just in case.
He was expecting Hightown to be at least a little like Orlais, and to his surprise, it wasn’t. Sure, there were fancy houses, fancy statues, but Orlais put it all out there as much for artful display as it did to show off its station and importance. Here, the buildings towered, pretty enough he supposed, if covered with a thin veneer of soot, but the tall buildings and narrow roads weren’t so much artistic as they were suffocating. If you belonged here, it was simply how things were. If you didn’t belong here, the buildings, the narrow maze of streets, all of it was designed to remind you that you didn’t. And that you should get the fuck out.
It didn’t really bother him at all, but every now and again he could feel Lily squeeze his hand, reassuring herself, he guessed, that he was there and nobody was going to sweep her back down to Lowtown.
To the untrained eye, the Viscount’s keep was a grand, overwhelming exclamation point on the standing and wealth of the city. But Bull could see it – the carpets were worn. Dust lingered on expensive furnishings that didn’t shine with the polish of recent care. High overhead, cobwebs clung to the ceilings, shredded and floating, suggesting they’d been there for years. The guards on the other hand were another story. Armor polished, weapons sharpened, at ready for anything or anyone that might threaten the city. He idly wondered who was in charge of the city guard – whoever they were; they were a stickler for detail. He admired it.
Those same guards watched him with wary, suspicious eyes, tracked his every move. Lily’s hand in his did not escape their attention, nor did his easy gait, the smile he plastered on his face. These were men and women that had seen combat. A lot of it. So much, he wagered, that they were constantly on the lookout for it, even when it didn’t exist. But once he explained he was from the Inquisition, asked where the Viscount’s office was and told them he was expected, the entire demeanor of the room shifted to just a little more at ease, like it let out a breath it had been holding. Bull never wore the Inquisition’s banner – he was hired, after all. But it continually surprised him just how much the boss had managed to accomplish in the short time he’d been in charge, how many lives he’d been able to influence.
And currently, that was working in Bull’s favor, something he also appreciated as he climbed the grand staircase, hooking a left and heading up to the Viscount’s office, Lily firmly in tow. He glanced down at her, grinning quietly at the way she marveled over every last thing in the room, diligently schooling herself not to touch anything. He pushed open the door, stepped inside, Lily right behind him, eyes cast down as they passed the guards flanking it.
“You must be the one they call The Iron Bull,” the Viscount said, staring out the window. There were three things Bull noticed immediately. First, his clothes were just as worn as the rest of the estate was. Sure, to anyone just giving the man a glance, he was of high station. But the velvet was just a little too rough, the fine leather a little too soft, suggesting he’d had those clothes for years. And the man hadn’t even looked at him when they walked in, which told him that second – Bull was the only visitor expected that day. Which was weird, for a dignitary. But third, the way he stood at that window, the way he stared out the glass, and the slump of his shoulders told him this was a man who was resigned to his duty, and not out of any particular love for the city. He stood at that window and stared out at what lay beyond the city walls, away from the office, away from the trappings of his station, away from anything or anyone that might engage him in actual business.
“You the Viscount?” Bull asked, ducked his head. Might as well be respectful to the poor sap, even though it was obvious he had no respect for his job, his duty, or his home.
“Provisional Viscount,” the man crisply corrected, finally turning to meet Bull’s eye. His gaze slid to Lily for only a moment, bored disdain shading his brow, before returning to Bull. “I’m guessing, then,” he dryly noted, “That you are not here to conquer the city, as some have hysterically claimed.”
“Not even if you paid me,” Bull affirmed.
“Provisional Viscount Bran,” he said, and stuck out a hand for a dry, limp handshake that pretty much confirmed everything Bull had gathered. “You’ll have to pardon my impudence. It has been a rather trying…”
“Five years?” Bull suggested.
“Quite,” Bran agreed, relaxing with weary relief. “I confess, when Lady Montilyet first contacted me I thought it was going to be about a different matter entirely. The Gallows are still closed off. Red lyrium, ghastly stuff. I’d heard that your Inquisition was quite capable when it came to the business of clearing it out. I had hoped…” He trailed off with a heavy sigh. “It’s little matter now, isn’t it.”
“I can take a message back, if you’d like,” Bull offered, and Bran’s eyes lit up briefly with tired hope. “Things have settled a bit. Might be able to pull some strings. If you’re interested.”
“Consider it done.” Bull shrugged. The boss wouldn’t have a problem with it. Josephine wouldn’t have a problem with it, either – in the end, she’d probably rack up another half dozen owed favors to the Inquisition out of the exchange, and he’d be off the hook for what got him here today.
Bran nodded, falling silent and taking the opportunity to actually take Bull in, brow beginning to furrow with puzzled concern. “That doesn’t answer the question of what you’re doing here now,” he mused. “So, you’ve the ear of Kirkwall’s leader, Iron Bull. I assure you we have no tomes hidden among our city coffers, which raises the question why, exactly, you’re here?”
“I was hoping you could answer that. And a few other questions,” Bull amicably replied, glancing behind him to the open door. Bran lifted a hand, gesturing wordlessly at the guard outside, who obediently pulled the door shut and left them alone.
“Would you care for a drink?” Bran offered, pouring one for himself without waiting for Bull’s reply, and raising a brow at the shake of Bull’s head. “Your…companion, perhaps?”
“No ser, thank you ser,” Lily murmured, giving the most respectful little bob of her head, a little curtsey, eyes cast downward, fingers still entwined with Bull’s.
Bran stared at her for a long moment, brow furrowed. “All right then,” he began, taking a sip of wine and a seat in his chair, sweeping a hand to indicate they both do the same. “Ask. Although I’m reasonably certain I already know why you’re here.”
“Oh?” Bull said, the leather chair creaking as he sat, releasing Lily’s hand. She gingerly perched on the edge of the other chair, crossed her ankles, hands resting in her lap, dainty and poised and still keenly interested in looking at nothing other than the floor. “Why don’t you tell me, then?”
“We don’t have the Tome of whatever it was your Arishok was after. He took it when he vacated the city. And we certainly weren’t interested in reclaiming it, not after he made his displeasure in our affairs known.” Bran sniffed. “Violently,” he added. “The death of Viscount Dumar was more than enough to prove his point and sway any interest from further involvement in qunari affairs, an interest, I might add, that was nonexistent in the first place.”
Bull canted his head. “You say he left. Funny. Everyone always says he was killed.”
“Of course they do,” Bran leaned back in his chair, gesturing with the wineglass. “I don’t know as you’ve noticed, but the city isn’t in the best of circumstances, Iron Bull. It was divided at best, even then. The Champion gave them a reason to unite, to stand together, despite the obvious dispute between the Knight-Commander and the First Enchanter. It was,” he admitted, “A great deal to place on one man’s shoulders, but he agreed to it willingly enough. And the nobles were happy enough to spread the tale and keep Lowtown placated. We already had two heads of notable, powerful organizations at each other’s throats; the last thing we wanted was a civil war.”
“So you just lied to the city,” Bull said.
“Well…yes,” Bran replied, shrugging and raising the glass to his lips. “You could say that, I suppose. But the alternative was a potential revolt, perhaps even the destruction of the city itself.”
“A city doesn’t just revolt if it’s got a strong leader,” Bull pointed out. “And yours was nearly destroyed anyway.”
“We had no way of knowing that would happen,” Bran’s eyes narrowed. “Viscount Dumar was, despite rumors to the contrary, a good man, Iron Bull. He did his best to try and hold this city together, but it chained him in a place where he was unable, in good conscience, to act. To choose a side.” His eyes softened. “His son paid the price for that, and he never forgave himself for it.”
“Did you know him? Saemus, I mean,” Lily piped up from her chair, almost immediately pulling her lower lip into her mouth and darting a guilty and apologetic glance at Bull.
Bran’s eyes slid to the girl, examining her with curious interest. “I beg your pardon—“ he began.
“—it’s only that we heard of him, is all,” she softly replied. “In Lowtown, I mean. That…that he was kind. When we heard he was gone…” she trailed off, eyes fixed on the carpet, a flush rising to her cheeks.
“Forgive me, my dear, but you look familiar,” Bran said, leaning forward with a creak of leather and pinning her with a thoughtful stare. “Have we met?”
“I don’t expect we have, ser,” she mumbled. “I never came up higher than Lowtown. Had a little stall, on the docks, perhaps you saw me there?”
Bull watched the exchange, breath held and quietly cursing under his breath. But Bran, to his surprise, paled just a little, awkwardly cleared his throat. “Ah, no,” he said, settling back in his chair. “You do look a little like a cousin I had.” Liar. Bull hid a grin. A man that covered for his whereabouts was a man who had something to hide. Something embarrassing, probably. They lucked out.
“I did know him. He was kind.” Bran abruptly changed the subject, pointedly ignoring Lily and turning his attention back to Bull. “If you’re not here for the Tome we most assuredly do not have, I can only assume you’re here for what they left behind?”
“Yeah,” Bull agreed, lied through his teeth. “How much was there?”
“Just the banners and the…throne. We did keep both, as a precaution. In case you wanted those back, too.” He opened a drawer, sifting through it, pulled out an old iron key. “They’re all in one of the storehouses in Lowtown, in the foundry district. First building on your right when you get there. I can have a guard escort you, if you’d prefer?”
Bull waved a hand, took the key. “Nah, we got it. Unless you think we’re going to get ourselves ambushed down there.”
Bran eyed him for a moment. “I don’t think anyone in Lowtown is quite so foolish,” he replied with quiet, unnerving sincerity. “I’d advise you to keep your conversations brief, and if anyone asks, mention the Inquisition immediately. Despite all appearances, news has traveled here, and the Inquisitor is respected a great deal. His allies, likely as much, despite your…appearance.”
Bull rose to his feet, Lily quickly following suit and looking very much, from her stance and posture, like she’d like to be anywhere but a moment longer in the stuffy office. “Thanks. I’ll let the Inquisitor know about the red lyrium. Pretty sure he’ll want to send someone to take care of it.”
“And Iron Bull?” Bran said as he reached for the door. Bull paused, hand on the doorknob, glanced back over his shoulder to find the man standing there, ramrod straight and watching him with careful eyes. “Do tell the others that we’ve kept our word. Please. We haven’t spoken of this. To anyone. And please, send the Ariqun and Arigena our deepest respect.”
In his hand, the wineglass was held steady, but the liquid trembled.
Bull froze, the Viscount's words catching in his gut, and turned without meaning to. Lifted an eyebrow, took in the Provisional Viscount, the office, the worn furnishings. “Are you sure there’s nothing else?” Bull carefully asked, keeping his tone as pleasant as possible. “Anything you forgot about?”
“No,” Bran replied, shook his head and set the glass of wine on the desk, sinking back into his chair. “I assure you, we handed every bit of it over when your people came for the ship.” His eyes met Bull’s, and he spoke, again, with utter sincerity. “The last thing this city needs is another war, Iron Bull. We’re well aware of that, and we will continue our policy of silence on the…incident.”
“I’ll pass that along. Thanks,” he said, pushed the door open and walked out, Lily close behind, staring up at him with eyes full of questions. He knew what they all were. He also knew that he didn’t want to answer them.
And he knew, with sinking clarity, that he was too far in to step away, now. He didn’t really have a choice.
“Bull,” she murmured, tried to catch his attention as they walked down the worn carpets and to the grand doors. He grasped her hand in his, mechanically walked out of the keep and down the stairs, through narrow alleys the way they'd came. “Bull,” she said again, following along beside him, giving his fingers a squeeze. “Bull,” she finally insisted, coming to a halt halfway down the steps that led to Lowtown, brow furrowed and demanding.
“Say it,” he sighed. He couldn't stop her if he tried.
“If the qunari came back – after, I mean…”
“They knew,” he confirmed, sat heavily on the stone and stared at the sea below, twin statues of bronze easily recognizable, weeping into their hands, frozen forever and desperate for a freedom they would never, ever attain.
"Pirates tend to...dock in unsavory places."
Bran will never live that down. Ever.
They walked the rest of the way to Lowtown in silence, both quietly going over what they’d just been told in their heads, picking it apart, putting it back together again. Bull didn’t know what Lily was thinking, but he was pretty sure she didn’t grasp the enormity of what was making it hard as hell for him to breathe.
If they knew, then they knew the Arishok came out of there with the Tome, and the thief. The Tome was lost; the thief had escaped, according to Varric. Yet every single report he’d ever read of the incident was clear: The Arishok had been killed. It was a disaster. There were few survivors; those who survived were taken in for re-education. No mention of indoctrination. No mention of converts.
And yet, by his side walked one of, if not the only survivor who had witnessed the whole mess firsthand. Bull felt the itch crawl up the back of his neck again. I bring you a courtesy, nothing more – they are watching you. They are watching carefully. If the Ben-Hassrath were watching, they probably had just about as much of an idea why he was here as he did. But he doubted, sincerely doubted, that they knew that Lily was even involved with any of this. He doubted they even knew what this was. Had they known, they would have had her killed, long ago.
And that meant the reports were lies.
And if the reports were lies, that meant that every follower of the Qun had been lied to. And that made no sense. None at all. He was a member of the Ben-Hassrath. A spy. Part of an organization that specialized in secrets and lies. And he’d been lied to – they’d all been lied to. It made no sense.
Failure under the Qun was worth punishment, but to his knowledge, failure was not and had never been a thing that was covered up. More often than not, a failure was made into an example, something to point at, a lesson for those who wavered in their understanding. Something to ensure devotion, something to make those who lived under the Qun understand that there were consequences for failing to meet its demands. Which meant this…was not failure. It was something else.
It was right there, just in reach, and he was terrified to reach out and grasp it.
But as they rounded a corner and headed up another flight of stairs, Lily suddenly slowed and came to a halt beside him with a soft little noise. He glanced up, followed her eyes to a pile of rubble along the corner, covered in years of dirt and soot. He could just make out what had once been a stone oven, collapsed in on itself, a board that might have been a table, once. Bull glanced back at Lily, who hadn’t taken her eyes from it.
“I…I expect nobody wanted to buy it, after…” she trailed off, fingers sliding from his hand.
“This was yours,” Bull said, realization slowly dawning. “Wasn’t it.”
Mutely, she nodded, paying no heed to anyone that walked by, kneeling in the soot and dirt and digging through it. For a moment, he thought she was going to start crying again, but although he saw a lance of pain flash across her face, she never broke, just rummaged around in the ruins. “What are you—“ he began, and she gave another soft cry. Bull sank to his haunches beside her, focusing on what she held in her hands.
It wasn’t really anything to look at. Just a couple of chunks of bright blue pottery, smashed to bits at some point or another, but she stared at them as if they were the single most important thing in the world. And to her, they probably were, he realized, glancing at the pottery again. The edging had letters etched into it – qunlat. Which meant—
“—it was a gift,” she softly said. “From Ashaad. Only it wasn’t really, was it.” She stared at the chunks of colored clay, brow furrowed in quiet contemplation. “One of my bowls broke, so they replaced it. That was all it was, wasn’t it.”
Bull canted his head, squinting at the pieces. “Looks like it was a pretty good bowl to me,” he pointed out.
“But it didn’t mean—“
“—doesn’t have to mean something,” Bull said, hand on her shoulder. “It just is.”
Lily thought that over, slipped the shards in her pockets, sifted listlessly through the dirt for a minute more and rose to her feet. “It isn’t,” she said. “Not anymore. We should go.” He took her hand, quietly led her away. But she kept looking behind them, until the stall was out of sight.
They rounded a corner and he spotted it. He couldn’t really miss it, it was huge. A monument to a moment of heroism that had never happened at all. A testament to a victory that had never actually occurred, right in the middle of the place that needed the lie the most. The statue stood, tall and strong, arm lifted triumphantly to the sky, one foot clearly planted on the Arishok’s head. Good likeness, too, Bull noted, studying the statue with detached interest. Too bad the whole thing was full of shit. What kind of leader lies to a city, he thought. What kind of leader…
“Bull,” Lily said, squeezing his hand again to get his attention. “Bull, please.”
He glanced down again, and he could see it in her eyes, in her quick, panicked breaths – he shouldn’t have brought her here. She wouldn’t look at the statue, and he understood why. When last she’d seen the Arishok, he’d been alive. Maybe he’d even been kind. He gave her freedom, after all, for a time. Enough to get a taste of it. And in her head, maybe he was still guiltless, maybe he was a victim of unfortunate circumstance, maybe…Bull gave her hand another reassuring squeeze, led her away from it. “My bad,” he replied as they walked. “We’re looking for the foundry, Lily. Do you remember where that is?”
And she paled. Just a fraction. “Yes,” she said, obediently enough, but her voice trembled, her shoulders stiff and nervous.
Bull paused, unsure of what was wrong, and then realized with sickening, sudden clarity what he was doing. Or rather, what he was forcing her to do. Every step they took through these roads was just confirmation that everything she’d been thinking for the last seven years was a lie. A dream, made up in her head. He’d only just gotten her to accept reality, and now he was shoving it down her throat. And none of it, not an ounce of it was even a little pleasant, or good, or kind, or—
He led her into a little corner, knelt down in front of her, and looked her in the eye. “Lily,” he began, soft and kind, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right,” she managed. It wasn’t, and he knew it, and the fact that she was still standing here telling him it was said everything about her he wanted to know. Strong little baker, strong little arms, strong little heart, and his people saw that, took that, twisted the crap out of it. And despite that, she was still standing there trying to do her best to help him. “It’s only t-that, we have to go, I mean, it’s on the way I mean, the…” she trailed off, and there went her lower lip.
“The compound,” Bull finished her sentence for her, silently kicking himself because of course they’d have to walk by it. “We have to walk by the – Lily; do you want to wait here? You don’t have to go with me.” She shook her head, violently shook her head, and he held up his hands. “Okay, okay, bad idea. All right. Look, I’m right here, okay? Right here. Not going anywhere. You start feeling upset, you just let me know.” He stood, took her hand and she tangled her fingers in his and clung for all she was worth, but they moved on. “Point me the right way,” he soothed. Lily straightened her shoulders, took a breath, and pointed down the street, where yet another flight of stairs led upward. “They don’t want to make it easy for anyone to get anywhere, do they,” he grumbled, rolled his shoulder and started walking. “Come on.”
Just before they hit the stairs, she stopped, glancing to the right, up a narrow, shadowed corridor. There was no gate, people walked freely in and out of the area, another little hideaway of shops and homes. Lily stared at it, quiet and almost disbelieving, taking it in, and he gave her hand a little tug to catch her attention. “Was that it?” he asked quietly. She nodded, brow twisted in confusion, and he could understand why. Shit, he couldn’t even begin to imagine what was going on in her head right now. “Do you want to go in th—“ That got him another violent shake of her head, a ragged breath and three steps forward. “Are you okay?” Bull asked again.
“It isn’t,” she replied absently, her voice calm and clear, despite the tension in her shoulders and the iron grip around his fingers. “It just isn’t, anymore.” She threw him a glance over her shoulder, bright blue eyes a little weary, a little sad. “Foundry’s not too much farther.”
“All right,” he agreed. They made their way up the set of stairs, around the corner, through another narrow bend. Bull was lost. Utterly, completely lost. All the damn buildings looked the same for the most part, all the districts, all the weary faces, blending together into a sea of brown on brown. He watched her for a moment, walking alongside him all fiery hair and freckles and stubbornness and determination and wondered, again, how the hell she managed to even survive here.
“It’s right over there,” Lily pointed at one door that looked exactly like every other door they’d passed by.
“You sure about that?”
She nodded. “First door on the right, he said? That’s the one.”
Before Bull could even register the voice or the name, Lily reacted, jolting to a full stop and dropping his hand, eyes wide and uncertain as she turned around. And right after that, a small but sturdy set of fists started pummeling Bull’s side, not enough to really do any damage, but more than enough to startle him. He lifted his hands, stared down at the boy – shaggy hair, worn clothes, not more than nineteen, twenty or so at the most, red faced and determined as his fists bounced off Bull’s hide. “You leave her alone! You leave her al—Miss Lily, run, I’ll—“
“Billy?” Lily whispered. “Billy,” she repeated, and the boy ignored her entirely. Bull stared down at the kid in frank astonishment. It was like being punched by an uncharacteristically aggressive storm of butterflies.
“Billy, you stop that this instant—” That did it. Lily was at full, firm volume, and the kid dropped his arms, took a step back, blinking up at Bull only to be swept up in a fierce, unrelenting embrace that nearly choked him. He stared up at Bull in bewildered, open-mouthed surprise, and Bull answered with raised eyebrows and a shrug. It was enough to at least kind of reassure the boy, who took the opportunity to enthusiastically return the hug.
After a long moment, she finally pulled away, put her hands on the kid’s shoulders, staring up at him with mystified wonder. “You’re tall,” she marveled, and the kid ducked his head, suddenly bashful.
“Papa was always tall,” he mumbled, embarrassed, but managed to recover quickly enough. “Miss Lily, where’ve you been? It’s been years! Did he—“ Billy rankled, shooting a suspicious glare in Bull’s direction. And he looked so much like one of those little yappy dogs the Orlesian ladies liked to haul around that Bull had to actively work at trying to keep a straight damn face.
And Lily laughed. A little giggle at first, then outright laughed, rippling and golden and so like music to Bull’s ears that he couldn’t help the lift of his mouth, the grin that accompanied it. Neither could Billy, who went from suspicion to cheer in an instant, laughing right along with her. Street might’ve been a little dirty, walls a little too high, but in that moment it was like a burst of sunshine hit the narrow passage and set them all free.
Eventually, Billy’s laughter faded and he sobered up. “I’m sorry I never came back,” he said, both apologetic and guilty, “Papa wouldn’t let me, not after…not after all that. And once he was gone—“
“Gone?” she gently questioned, pained concern on her face plain as day.
“The drink caught up with him. Couple of years ago.” Billy mumbled. “Left me on my own. I tried – I tried looking for you, Miss Lily, but they’d said you’d gone, said your stall was empty. So I – well, it’s like you always said, person’s not a person less they got something to be, so I took up with one of the blacksmiths in Lowtown – just round the corner back there,” He pointed. “Apprentice work, honest living, he don’t pay much but I expect I don’t need much long as I’m happy, right? You always said that too.” He babbled on, and Lily just beamed and beamed, and Bull watched her shoulders begin to drop, her demeanor shift. And although he had no idea who the boy was or how he knew Lily, the fact that she was happy was more than enough for him.
“And I remembered everything else, too. Mind my manners, respect my elders, and be honest with people on account of I want them to be honest with me, all of it, Miss Lily.” Billy grinned, awkward and suddenly shy. “I expect Papa…”
“Your papa would’ve been proud,” she whispered firmly, sweeping him into another hug. “He would have been so proud, Billy.”
“I wish I’d done more – he done right by me, Miss Lily. Always did. When all that uproar started with the qunari, he wouldn’t let me leave the house, stood there stone cold sober guarding the door.” His brow twisted with anguish. “I was so mad at him, I wanted to leave, find the others – but when we done found out what happened to the rest of the littles, well. Expect I grew up that day. Had to, didn’t I.”
Bull froze, schooling his face into a perfectly neutral expression, blood running cold. And Lily froze, too, stock still and silent in Billy’s arms. “Miss Lily?” Billy drew back, staring at her with growing concern. “Miss Lily, are you all right?”
Still as a statue she stood, staring at nothing at all, just like that. Bull sank to his knees in the dirt and the dust, hands on her shoulders and looked in her eyes. She was gone, again. He closed his eye, took a deep breath, counted to ten.
And he opened it to find Billy staring at him with unabashed panic. “What did I do, ser? What did I—“
“Nothing, kid. You didn’t do a damned thing.” That little voice in the back of Bull’s head was back, full force, screaming in his ear. He ignored it. “Billy, right?”
“Y-yes ser,” Billy replied. His eyes darted from Bull to Lily and back again.
“The children. What happened to them?”
The kid’s face fell, grim and cold and full of seven damned years of guilt and grief, if Bull was reading him right. “Qunari cut ‘em down,” he said, solemn and wary. “All of ‘em. That’s what they said." The words fell on Bull's ears, bitter and resigned.
"Where are they?" He asked. Soft. Respectful. "She'll want to pay her respects."
"The markers? With the others. Chantry held a service for everyone that died that day," Billy replied. "They’re all there. Up on the hills, just outside of town. North side. It...there were too many for anywhere in town.”
“Okay,” Bull replied, calm and mechanical. He glanced once more in Lily’s empty eyes, then back at the kid. “Right.” He snagged a heavy, jingling pouch off his belt loop, tossed it at the kid and scooped Lily up, cradling her in the crook of one arm. “Here. Take this.”
Billy caught the pouch, eyes widening in disbelief. “What—by the Maker, there’s a fortune in h…I can’t take this ser, wouldn’t be—“
“—take it,” Bull interrupted. “Take it, pack your things, and get the next boat out of here. Tell ‘em you want to get to Skyhold. Inquisition’s always looking for able bodies, and the blacksmith there doesn’t have an apprentice. He’s good, real good; you can learn a lot from him. Besides, he pays better than here.”
“But why?” Billy asked, mystified.
Because you know. Because you know and if they know you know, they'll kill you. Bull pulled a different answer from his head with brisk efficiency. “Lily’s going back there with me, when we’re done here. And she could use a familiar face or two.” He shrugged. “Look, when life hands you something new, you run with it, all right? Just take it. Take it and go. When you get there, ask for Varric Tethras. Tell him you’re a friend of Lily’s, and the Iron Bull sent you.” His eye narrowed thoughtfully. “And if he asks you anything else, just stick to being a friend of Lily’s. Don’t tell him any details, unless you want your private business showing up in a novel somewhere. And trust me,” he managed to force a grin, “You really don’t want that.”
“T-thank you,” the kid stammered, eyes darting from Bull to Lily. “Will she be…”
“She’ll be fine,” he said, not entirely sure if he was reassuring the kid, or reassuring himself. “It’s been a hell of a long day.”
Billy nodded slowly, turned to go. “And kid?” He glanced back over his shoulder, quiet disbelief at his sudden fortune dancing in the depths of his eyes. “Tell Varric…tell him Bull said he was right. He’ll know.” He nodded again, obediently, and dashed off in the direction of Lowtown.
Bull watched him go, started taking breaths. Deep breaths. Didn’t look at anyone else. Couldn’t do it. Instead, he walked with calm and careful steps, across the courtyard, to the iron door. Unlocked it with one hand, cradled Lily in the other. The hinges groaned a protest, hadn’t been used in years, probably. And he stepped through the door, shut it behind him, eye adjusting to the light inside. The dim storehouse held crates upon crates of forgotten things, not nearly as much as it could rightfully hold, tales that the people of the city most likely wanted to forget. Bull couldn't blame them.
He ducked under a doorframe that was far too low, turned down another set of dusty stairs, kept going down. He hadn’t seen it yet. It wasn’t there. It wasn’t—
There. Just at the other end of the room. Banners, blood red and still bright. The bench, worn and wooden, flanked by jagged teeth that snarled at nothing.
Silently, Bull set Lily down, settling her on a crate, hands in her lap. He stepped back, looked at her, took a good damn long look at her because really, nobody else had in so long. In seven years. And then he turned around, took five long steps, curled his fingers around one blood red banner and wrenched, the fabric shredding with a satisfying sound.
Bull drew his axe, growling, lifted it high and brought it down, blind with rage, the sound of splintering wood music to his ears.
He swung again. And again, and it wasn’t good enough. Bull roared, throwing the axe aside and sinking his fist in the damn thing, splinters digging into his skin, and he just didn’t care. It didn’t matter. All he could see was red, the blood red banner, the blood of those children, the blood of Seheron, the blood of his people, poured into this bullshit—
Seven fucking years—
And nobody had even thought to question because of course they hadn’t questioned, if you questioned you were fucking craz—
His mouth opened, teeth bared, and he made another noise, one he didn’t recognize, somewhere between roar and howl of anguish, it was all there, right there before him, blood, and death, and struggle, insurmountable, fear, and chaos, and the enormity of it all, the enormity of it all yawned below him and he was ready, he was so damned ready to charge right in.
“Bull,” came a voice from behind him. He whirled, panting and seething and bristling with rage, only to find a pair of bright blue eyes pinning him in place.
“Don’t.” he snarled, flexed his fists. She needed to go away. She needed to get out, get away, the little voice screamed in his ear.
“Bull,” she said again, patient and quiet and utterly calm. Lily took a step forward, and he flinched.
“Don’t,” he said again, this time pleading.
“Bull,” she repeated a third time, and he whirled, panting and panicked, shook his head.
“You have to get out,” he begged, his voice ragged and foreign, desperate. “You have to go. You have to—“
Tears welled up in her eyes, and she shook her head, just once. “Tell me,” she begged. “Tell me the truth, please.”
And Bull uttered another anguished cry, sank to his knees, stared at the ruined wreck he’d made of the bench, the mess he’d made of his hands. “They killed him, Lily. They killed him and then they covered it up. They lied to us. They lied to all of us.”
He couldn’t look at her. “He wasn’t supposed to indoctrinate, Lily. He wasn’t supposed to convert. It wasn’t his role. It was never his role. And he knew it. And he did it anyway. And he was so…fucked up that he probably thought it was right.” Bull heaved, choked down the bile. “That it was right to do that. To attack the city. To slaughter a bunch of defenseless—“
“Why,” she asked him. It was the same question she’d asked not more than a week ago from the sling on William’s back, when she was still senseless and withdrawn. And he didn’t know then, didn’t know what she was asking. But he knew, now. And it made his blood boil.
“Because he was crazy!” he bellowed, slamming his fist into the bench. “Because he was fucking Tal-Vashoth! They all were! Every—“ splinters flew in the air, “—single—“ he caught another banner in his fist, tearing the thing from its post, shredding it in two, “—one of them, all of them, they were—“
And he stopped, abruptly aware of the pain in his hands and the fact he was punching a damned bench. Like a madman. Like a Tal—
“Ten years,” he choked, panting, blood roaring in his ears. “Ten years in Seheron before I broke, Lily. Ten fucking years of obedience, and blood, and death, and the Arishok – for fuck’s sake, it only took three to break him. Three. Here? A damned Salasari, snapped just like that? That damn easy?” He shook his head, dazed and disbelieving, fingers clenched in the wood and the splinters, crunching the shards into his palms.
And he could see it. He could see it, no matter how hard he tried to look away. The Qun made a demand, the Qun sent the Arishok away, the Qun expected obedience, the Qun got a Tal Vashoth. It got an entire damned fleet of Tal-Vashoth, mad and intent on establishing order by ripping everything apart, by ripping the people of the city from their lives and pushing them into a mockery of what the Qun was. By making, he heaved, a little Par Vollen of their own, or trying to, staring at this damned wreck of a city day after day after day.
But did he really abandon the Qun, the little voice whispered, tickling relentlessly at the back of his skull, or did the Qun abandon him, too?
Bull tore his good eye from the wreckage and finally looked at her, raw with anguish and grief. “They made me,” he managed. “Made me into what I am. I failed them. He failed them.”
“You didn’t,” she protested. “You just…struggled, didn’t you, like you said. That’s all it was. Shok eba—“
“No,” he spat. “No. Hissrad ebasit shok.” They did it. Not him. They turned it inside out, in his head, turned it around. Struggle, Hissrad. Struggle every day. Ignore it, Hissrad. It’s only the world, resisting order, resisting itself. Destroy them, Hissrad. Destroy the ones who question too loudly, the ones who turn from the Qun, from themselves.
Lily’s face crumpled, her eyes welled up with tears. And he couldn’t stop. He couldn’t stop the words anymore. “Who was I killing on Seheron, Lily? Who were they? Men like me? The Qun is everything, Lily,” he choked, gave a great heave and threw the splinters and shards of an empire at the dirt. “Asit tal-eb. It is to be. Order, the way the world intended, like it’s always been. ‘It is in our own power to create the world, or destroy it.’ And they’re destroying it. They’re destroying us. They lied, Lily.” Bull seethed, half angry, half desperate for any other answer, but the truth of it was right there, and he had no choice but to grasp it. “They didn’t lie to save his reputation. They lied because they knew what he did was wrong, and they didn’t want to admit it to the rest of us. Because the Qun demanded he come here. It demanded he stay. It demanded he look at this city, at all these people fucking running into walls. It demanded that he stay here and stare into the face of madness, and ignore it. And he couldn’t. Who could? If the Arishok couldn’t, you tell me who the fuck could?”
“They lied,” he spat, “Because the Qun was wrong and they knew it. And if the Qun was wrong, then who we are is a lie.”
Was it truth? Was it a lie? Was his existence a lie, or was it meant to be? He never meant to leave the Qun. He never wanted to leave it. He turned himself in when he felt it start to give way, and they pushed him further away. Demanded more. Ground him into the dirt, extracted every use from him they could, and pushed him away.
And yet he could feel it still, calling him to every action he took. It coursed through his veins, warm and comforting, reassuring him that it would be all right. That this, all of this, was meant to be. It soothed him late at night, while he sat in the tavern, drank and watched the world go by. It enveloped him like a warm blanket, held him close. It sang to him like a siren's song, his purpose, his role in the world. Just as the Qun had demanded.
You are the Qun, we are all the Qun, and to defend it, to protect it, is to defend and protect us all.
Protect. Defend. And he couldn’t ignore that urge, that itch in the back of his mind. To do so would be to ignore himself. To do so would be to slip into madness. So he protected them. All of them, Qun or no, protected with a fierceness and devotion that could not be denied. He defended them, all of them, Qun or no, because it wasn’t his place to tell them who to be. Who they were. He helped them, because it was the right thing to do, and never asked for help in return. The Qun demanded a life of service, and he served. He served them all, Qun, Chargers, Inquisition, and never really wanted anything in return. Service was enough, it filled him, satisfied him like a good meal. It was always enough.
Somewhere in the middle of it all, she came to him, stood before him, watching him with those bright blue eyes, cheeks wet with tears. “You aren’t going to tell them,” she said. It wasn’t a question, but he answered it anyway.
“It would destroy them. They’re my people.” Some would hold on to the Qun, to the ideals that had shaped a nation. Some would go mad, just like the Arishok. Like him. And they would tear each other apart, rip themselves to shreds over an ideal that he still, still couldn’t help but believe in. Was he mad for turning away, or mad for loving it still? Bull knelt in the dirt and the dust of a dream, frozen and staring at the pieces of a world that was, and looked up to meet her eyes.
No anger. No outrage. No blame. Just freckles and fiery hair, blue eyes that held the secrets that could tear a nation apart, through no fault of her own.
“I can’t, Lily. I just…can’t.”
Warm hands cupped his face, soft lips pressed to his forehead, and it was all he could do to choke back tears. “You’re a good man,” she whispered, slipping her arms around him, holding him as Tama did, when he was just a boy with no sense of the world or his place in it, what it would become. “You’ve always been a good man, haven’t you.”
“I’ve tried," he whispered, breath ragged and raw. "I've tried."
“I expect...I expect you have one last secret to keep, then.”
They stood atop a little hill, somewhere just north of town, where too many markers were planted in the earth, whatever stories they had to tell lost to time. One of them hugged her arms around her chest as if trying to hold herself in, skirt and fiery hair both dancing in the warm breeze as the last hours of the day stretched over the horizon. The other stood just behind, tall and strong, stared at the aftermath of a world, his world, gone horribly wrong, and accepted it, because he had no other choice.
“When I was very little, my mother used to tell me that our life was good because she wanted it to be. That the world what you made of it,” Lily said.
“That’s a pretty qunari thing to say,” Bull replied.
She glanced up at him, flashed the smallest of smiles that didn't quite reach her eyes. “I expect I forgot that everyone else is trying to make their world, too, aren’t they? And nobody’s world is the same. Nobody’s world is perfect, is it, Bull.”
“Nah,” he replied, glanced out to sea, twin bronze statues glittering and inappropriately resplendent in the last lingering rays of sunshine. “But we can try, can't we? Because why not.”
“No names,” Lily said quietly, taking in the graves with measured patience. Sadness lingered on her features, and he wondered if it would ever really go away, already knew the answer. “I suppose I shouldn’t have expected any. Nobody ever remembered their names, anyway.”
“But you did.”
“I did,” she confirmed, slipped her hand in his, brow furrowed in quiet contemplation. “Can we go to your castle now, Bull?”
“Yeah,” Bull replied. “Let’s go.”
I feel like I should probably explain myself.
In Dragon Age 2, if Hawke chooses to hand Isabela over, the statue is still there in Act 3, in Lowtown. That bothered me. And then I read the graphic novels, and realized the canon they chose to follow was the one in which Hawke challenged the Arishok to a duel, and won. I really hate it when the game gives you a choice, and later on just kind of negates that choice, but there was a simple way both stories could be correct. And it made sense, because the Arishok's actions in DA2 didn't make sense, not from everything we've been told about the qunari. Varric even says in Inquisition that the qunari disavowed the Arishok's actions, that when he returned, it was to the "qunari equivalent of a court-martial." I sort of bent that a bit further.
So yes. Headcanon. We still have at least a couple more chapters to go, here, despite the finality of this one. Sit tight.
Chapter 19: The Winds, the Sky, and the World
Lillian Rose Sumner rode on the back of the largest horse she’d ever seen – or, to be fair, rode in a sling wrapped round a qunari riding the largest horse she’d ever seen, off to a castle somewhere high in the mountains and far away. It wasn’t precisely like being swept up on a snow-white steed, but then, she supposed, it wasn’t as if anything in her life was quite like she expected it to be. The Iron Bull certainly wasn’t anybody’s idea of a prince, but then, she supposed, he never tried to be one, and didn’t really need to be, either.
And every now and again between friendly conversations and stories about places she didn’t remember seeing and people she didn’t remember meeting, when there was a quiet lull and they just rode on, comfortable and quiet, she’d look up to see him smiling down at her. A crooked smile, one corner of his mouth tugged up just so, the other, she suspected, weighted with everything he never wanted to say. There were secrets hidden in that smile, some she knew, and a great many she expected she didn’t, and never would – memories he held close, tales he’d never share with another soul. And then there was the secret the two of them shared, the one she barely understood and would never, ever tell. Partially because it wasn’t any of her business anyway, on account of she was just a baker and a common girl besides, but mostly because it would hurt him, and that was the last thing she ever wanted to do.
And every night before they curled up in their tent she’d sit with him at the fire, running her fingers over smooth blue ceramic, the last shards of a little dream she’d built for herself, once upon a time. It was, at one point, the most important thing in her life – the only thing in her life really – and now it wasn’t. It wasn’t anything anymore, and neither was anything else. And for the first time in her life, Lily wasn’t quite certain what to do, and not so sure she really wanted to think about that at all, just yet.
“Bull,” she asked him, one night by the fire, “Can you read this at all?”
He didn’t answer straight away, snatched her by the waist with one stone-skinned hand, hauled her into his lap and plucked the pieces from her palm. He squinted at them in the firelight with his one good eye, piecing them together and giving them a good long look, the kind of look she used to give the oven when it wouldn’t light quite right in the early mornings by the sea. “Yeah,” he said, finally, the ghost of some untold story lurking somewhere in his gaze, great horns canting to the side. “Winds, the sky – it’s part of a line from an old parable – a story,” he corrected, handing over the pieces. “Tama used to tell it sometimes, when I was just a boy.”
“Like a fairy story?” Lily asked, suddenly very interested in hearing it. He chuckled, rumbling in that gentle way he did, and shook his head. "Part of the Qun," he corrected, tucked her close and spoke, his voice shifting to something almost reverent, profound, each word plucked from distant memory and delivered as it was written long ago.
“A great Ashkaari walked the world once, and during his travels he witnessed many things. Deer roamed the vast plains, grazing for a time, and moving on when the meadows no longer bore enough to keep them fed. Locusts lay dormant under the cracked earth, and rose as one mighty cloud when the time came to migrate, to feed, and to grow. One day he observed the empty and abandoned nest of a great bird, straw and feathers floating in the wind. “I see now,” said the Ashkaari. “The meadows grow green and verdant to feed the deer, the earth is solid and strong to shelter the locusts, the nest is built to raise the young; but home is the winds, the sky, and the world.” The Ashkaari moved on, and ever after, when asked where he lived, he would simply say, I exist.”
Bull stared at the fire, some piece of memory or another glinting in his eye. “Basically it means that home isn’t a thing you build. It’s just you. Wherever you are.”
Lily thought about that for a long moment, brow faintly furrowed, the answer both right there and forever out of reach. She wondered if she’d be chasing it forever, or if it would disappear one day, answer and question both. “It seems like a good thing to think,” she said eventually. And he looked down at her and nodded, just once, before returning his gaze to the dancing flames.
“It’s not all bad, Lily. It’s not all good. It just is.”
Bull glanced down in surprise at the sudden weight of ceramic, one piece carefully placed in his palm.
“You can keep that one,” Lily said quietly. “As a thank-you. On account of you bringing me home,” she added, although she didn’t need to. “And because it seems like it’s a nice thing to remember, every now and again, isn’t it?”
His good eye glistened, the smile returning to his face, softer and more distinct than before. “Yeah,” he said, taking in the little shard, the nothing it was, the everything it represented. “Yeah, it is, kadan.” She would have asked him what the word meant, but he kissed her then, picked her up, took her back to the tent and kissed her more, and other things besides, and by the time they finally got round to sleeping they were both too tired and too pleased to do anything more than close their eyes and forget the world for just a little while longer.
But the closer they got to the castle in the mountains, the more Lily worried, and he knew that she was worried without her having to say anything at all. “Hey,” he said one afternoon a few days later, nudging the sling to catch her attention. “We should talk.”
“We've been talking,” Lily helpfully pointed out. She knew it wasn’t what he meant, but it was worth it for the momentary smile before the serious expression.
“Nobody really knows about this. What we were doing,” Bull went on. “Who you are. When we get back, you’re going to get a lot of questions from people. Probably.” He grinned ruefully. “Definitely. Nosy bunch out there. You should know that, Lily. It’ll die down, eventually, but they’re going to want to know.”
“Then I suppose I should just tell them to ask you,” she replied. “I don’t exactly remember what you did, anyway.”
“Good idea.” He trailed off as if there was something else he wanted to say, the moment lingering on. Lily let it sit for a little while, glancing up every now and again to see if he was going to get around to the business of saying it. And she’d just about decided she’d had enough of waiting, crossing her arms in preparation for an expectant stare, when he spoke up again, his voice soft.
“It isn’t just that, though. Sure, some people are going to ask questions because they don’t give a crap about anything but their curiosity. Other people are going to act different. Maybe you won’t know they’re acting different, because it’s not like you saw how they were acting before, right?” Lily supposed that made a good amount of sense no matter which way she looked at it, so she nodded, and let him keep going. “They aren’t going to get what happened to you. Even if you told them – and you shouldn’t,” he added, directing a piercing glance at her, “—even if you did, they wouldn’t understand.”
“Because they’re outside of it all. Too…” Bull paused, searching for the right words to say.
“Too busy struggling to realize they’re in the ocean, I suppose.” she remarked, just loud enough for him to hear. She glanced up to find him staring down at her with puzzled clarity, as if she’d said something remarkably profound.
“Yeah,” he said. “You know kadan, one of these days we can sit down and talk about that, if you want.”
“One of these days,” she agreed, although she quietly thought perhaps it would be just as good for him to say it as it would be for her to hear it. And she suspected he knew the same, although he’d never admit it either way.
It wasn’t love, not exactly, not like in stories with swooning and courting and marriage and happily ever afters. She didn’t expect she’d ever find that, not after all that had happened, didn’t think she’d ever be able to put it all aside and simply be content. That question and answer would be there forever, she suspected, almost there and just out of reach, and he understood that in a way no one else could. No, it wasn’t love; it was just two people, at once very different and sort of the same. Nothing special, only pieces that came together for a time, every now and again, fell into the tide and slipped into the sea. And she supposed that was quite enough for her to be happy, and that was all she could ask for.
“So, Lily – what are you going to do now?” he finally asked her, as they ended their journey back where they began, high on mountain passes that made her just the slightest bit nervous.
It was the one thing she really hadn’t wanted to think about, but there it was, and it needed to be thought about anyway. “I don’t know,” she replied, as truthful and honest as she could be. “I don’t – I mean, I expect…well, I don’t have much of anything now, do I?”
Bull looked up the road and grinned. “Oh I don’t know about that. You’ve been paid for your work all this time. Varric took care of it. He’s probably managed to turn it into a pretty good nest egg by now.”
“Oh,” she said, blinking and wishing he’d told her that a bit sooner than just now. “I…well then.”
“Could probably go anywhere, do anything you want to do,” he said.
Lily thought about that long and hard, as that had never been a possibility before. “Someone once told me ‘Armies fall apart; crumble when they have no food to sustain them.’ So…I expect maybe I ought to just keep baking, oughn’t I? I mean, I’m good at it anyway,” she replied, glancing up to meet his eye. He stared back down at her with the most peculiar expression on his face, but grinned that lopsided grin that said he understood.
“Makes sense,” he agreed.
And just around the next bend she could see it, stone towers stretched skyward, a perfectly grand spectacle of a castle that took anything else she had to say right out of her mouth. She didn’t dare breathe or look away, worried for one small moment that if she did either one it would all vanish before her eyes, like a dream she didn’t really want to wake up from. “You know,” Bull said, interrupting the moment entirely, “I don’t have an army. But the Chargers sure eat a hell of a lot.”
“I’m not a warrior,” she pointed out.
“No, you’re not.”
“I’m just a baker,” she added.
“You just are,” he firmly replied. “And that’s probably enough for everyone that meets you.”
Lily pinned him with an indignant glare that didn’t quite do enough to hide the merry sparkle in her eyes. “You just want the sweet rolls all to yourself.”
Bull barked a laugh, loud and boisterous and echoing back at them from the canyons and the castle walls. “That too,” he confirmed, glancing up and grinning with fierce joy at the sound of happy shouts and the sight of a little group of people enthusiastically waving just ahead. “Come on Lily,” he said, clucking at William and firmly snapping the reins, “I’ve got some friends you should meet.”
And off they rode, not into the sunset, as it was only just past noon, but happily enough all the same.
Chapter 20: Epilogue
They called him Hissrad, once. ‘Keeper of secrets.’ And even though they took his name away, he never wavered in his duty or his role. Oh, some say he failed the Qun, others say he left it behind, but none of them knew that he held the biggest secret of them all behind all those rippling muscles and swagger. A secret that could take down an empire, if he ever let it free, or so he says. But he never would. And in that, he served the Qun more faithfully than even the most devout.
As for the girl, well. She went right back to baking, better than ever, and never found herself wanting for customers or conversation. Sometimes in the early morning hours you could even hear her sing. These days she makes bread, and sweet rolls, and little cakes too, tiny pies and crisp little cookies so thin and lacy you’d swear they were snowflakes. And if anyone asks her where she’s been, she’ll just laugh and smile and simply say “Right here,” and leave it at that.
The Ben-Hassrath never breathed a word. He figured it was because none of them really knew what happened in Kirkwall. And if the rest of the qunari found out, well…sending anyone to do anything would just let everyone know, and it wouldn’t be a secret anymore. So what’s the big secret? Damned if I know. Neither one will tell me; they just exchange these solemn glances and silently turn away to go do other things. Maybe I could find out, if I went looking hard enough – but the looks they share sometimes, when they think nobody is watching…let’s just say I don’t really think it’s any of my business, and I’m happy it’s not.
Are they happy? Sure, they’re happy, as happy as anyone could hope to be. He leads his company, same as he always has, and she’s up to her ears in flour and cinnamon, stories and songs. Sometimes people ask if they’re together, but they never answer. It’s nobody’s business but their own. So maybe it isn’t a happy ending like you find in the fairy stories she loves to read – the ones authors like yours truly never get around to writing. But it almost sounds like it could be one, doesn’t it. The Lily and the Iron Bull.
Bull read over the page again, nodding along with the words. “Not bad,” he said, finally. “Pretty good.”
“I put the rippling part in there just for you,” Varric pointed out.
“You did. Thanks, Varric. It’s a good story. Ending could use a little work, but it’s a good story.” Bull glanced up, hefting the pages in his fingers. “This the only copy?”
Varric drew a heavy sigh. He knew what was coming. “You know it is. The ink’s still wet.” And just as he expected, Bull nodded again, tossing the whole of it into the fire. “Andraste’s ass, that could have made me a fortune, Bull!” His plaintive protest fell on deaf ears. Bull sat back in the chair; arms draped over his knees, and watched the damn thing burn. “Don’t get me wrong, I understand why. I just…”
“Some stories just shouldn't be told,” Bull finally replied, rising to his feet. He clapped a hand on Varric’s back. “So! Got it out of your system now?”
“I’ll never be able to write that again,” Varric mournfully replied, staring at the smoldering ashes of a month’s worth of writing. “Never in a million years.”
“That’s the idea.”
Varric gave him the most baleful look he could muster. “You’re never going to tell me what really happened out there, are you.”
“Nope!” Bull cheerfully grinned, guiding the dwarf to the door and the bustling courtyard beyond. “Come on Varric. I’ll buy you a sweet roll.”
Chapter 21: Notes
Just a few quick author notes:
First off: Thank you for all the kind words. I don't get the opportunity to do a lot of fiction writing, so it's always nice when something is well received. Secondly, for those wondering what happens next, there is now a sequel in progress - Neither A Guest Nor A Trespasser Be. It takes place alongside Trespasser, so if you're avoiding Trespasser spoilers, you might not want to go see it until you're done with your playthroughs. You can get there by clicking the handy little Series link. I've been very busy the last few months with work, but updates should be starting up again shortly.
Second: Illustrations have been added! One so far, for the chapter Rain, with another on the way.
Thanks again for reading!