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A Kissing Book

Chapter Text

Cassandra sat upright and got out of bed. Well, she tried to. The actual event that occurred was less sitting up and more moaning and retching. Leliana was past chastising the Seeker for getting up and simply handed over a bucket.

“Perhaps you should rest a while longer,” she said, her face utterly bland. Cassandra hated her sometimes. “I have things I must do today, but I have asked someone else to attend to you while you rest.”

Cassandra heard the dwarf’s cheerful whistling before he opened her door. “Leliana, must you really--” The left hand smirked at her and was gone. In all their years serving the Divine, Cassandra still had yet to figure out how she did that.

The Seeker glanced around, quickly moving her battered copy of Swords and Shields from her nightstand to underneath her pillow. The motion made her nauseous again, but it was worth it if Varric never found out she read the stupid serial. It was bad enough that she couldn’t hide the information from Leliana.

Varric opened the door. He had left the stupid crossbow in his quarters today, at least. “Hello, Seeker,” he said. “I heard you could use some cheering up.” He was carrying something in his arms, a bundle of pages as of yet unbound into a book.

“What is that you’re carrying?” Cassandra silently cursed herself. She was not interested in what the dwarf was carrying, she just wanted Varric to leave her alone and allow her to sleep off this horrible illness.

Varric grinned at her. “It’s not finished yet, but it’s going to be a wedding present.”

“For Cullen and Cadash?” Cassandra had clearly spoken too much and was punished with a violent fit of coughing.

“Mmhm.” Varric handed her a handkerchief, brown eyes oddly gentle before he began puttering around with a teapot. Cassandra would have laughed to see him so domestic had it not felt like a rage demon had taken up residence in the back of her throat. He poured her tea and added honey from the pot in her windowsill-- courtesy of Sera, oddly enough. Of late, the elf seemed to have actually started to respect her. She wondered if the elf was maturing or if she herself had simply started going soft.

Varric said nothing more, settling into the armchair Leliana had vacated by the head of the bed. Cassandra sighed and settled into the pillows with her tea, relieved at the dwarf’s uncharacteristic silence.

Varric pulled out a pen and ink pot, balancing the bottle on the arm of the chair. More silence, broken only by soft scratches of quill to parchment. Cassandra resettled herself on the bed.

The silence stretched on.

“Well?” Cassandra snapped.

Varric looked up from his work, his face arranged into a perfect semblance of surprise. “Yes?”

“You’re a storyteller. Read it to me.”

Varric chuckled. “Are you sure, Seeker? It’s pretty fanciful. Thought you might not like stories like that after what happened with the champion.”

“Only because I have nothing better to do while confined to my bed.” She most certainly did not think about the romance serial hidden under her pillow. The one she would not be rereading were she left to her own devices. “...And as long as it is not a romance,” she added hastily.

“A romance? or a Romance? Because the genres are two very different--”

“You know,” Cassandra cut him off with a disgusted noise in her throat. “A kissing book.”

Varric grinned. “How about I skip the kissing parts? Stick to the action and adventure.”

“Do what you must.” Cassandra settled herself with a huff and gestured for Varric to begin.

Chapter Text

Varric capped his ink bottle and and thumbed through to the first page of his manuscript. “Alright. The Princess Bride, by Varric Tethras.”

Cassandra rolled her eyes. “Clearly.”

“Hey, Seeker, if you want me to tell you a story, you have to let me tell it right,” He scolded.

“This was entirely your idea. If you wish to leave, I certainly will not stop you.” She glared at him, leaning back on her pillows. “Now continue.”

He smirked and didn’t correct her. “As you wish, Seeker. So, The Princess Bride, by Varric Tethras. Chapter One.

Cullen was raised on a large farm in the country of Ferelden.

His favorite pastimes were riding his horse, and tormenting a farm girl who worked there. Her name was Buttercup Cadash, but he never called never that.


He looked up at Cassandra. “Isn’t that a wonderful beginning?”

“I’m not going to flatter you for two sentences, Varric.”

“Hey, this is two sentences more than anyone else has heard.”

“Fine. It is a very good beginning.”


Cullen was a good landowner, and provided for the people who worked in his fields and lived in his woods. He spent his days riding around his holdings, enjoying the sun on his golden hair and the way his cloak flopped dramatically behind him when he galloped. He always cut a regal figure on horseback.

No one knew this more than Cadash, a dwarf who worked on his farm. She watched him every day as he rode out, and brought him water every night when he returned. He thought she was very beautiful, and enjoyed her attention immensely. However, he was always painfully tongue-tied in her presence, tripping over his words and forgetting her name, and sometimes his own, as well. The only way he was able to complete a sentence was by ordering her about.

“Farm girl,” he would say, “polish my horse’s saddle. I want to see my face in it by morning.”

She would always respond with a smile and say “As you wish.” Never anything more.

One day, Cullen looked into her shining green eyes, and was amazed to discover, that when she said “as you wish,” what she meant was “I love you.” This made him even more nervous, and he wasn’t able to talk to her for a week.

Even more amazing was the day he realized he truly loved her back, and the day a month later when he was able to tell her.

And the day a month after that when he was able to say it without stuttering or turning as red as his cloak.


Cassandra made a disgusted noise.

“Let me have my fun, Seeker. And besides, you know that’s really how it happened.”’

“It just seems like we're coming to the happy ending every quickly Varric. I thought you said this would not be a kissing book?”

“Wait, Seeker, just wait.”

“I am waiting.”

“Try doing it more patiently, then.” Cassandra was not at all mollified by Varric’s indulgent smile.


Together at last, Cullen began to plan their wedding, but Cadash refused at first. “I want to be worthy of you, my love.” She told him. “I want to make my own fortune, and treat you the way you deserve to be treated.”

She packed her few belongings and set out to make her fortune trading with Tevinter.

It was a very emotional time for Cullen. He was afraid, that having found his love, he would lose her to the Waking Sea or to the Very Evil Magisters.

He knelt by her side and clasped her hands, “Please don’t leave, Buttercup.” He begged. “I fear that I will never see you again.”

“Of course you will, dear.” She kissed him deeply and looked into his eyes. “Hear this now: I will always come for you. I swear it by the Stone. This is true love, Cullen. You think this happens every day?” She kissed him again, picked up her bags, and walked away. Cullen watched her until she vanished into the trees.

He still spent his time riding, but he no longer took joy in it. Every time he returned to his farm and Buttercup wasn’t there to greet him, to take his cloak and smile up at him, he felt more empty and alone. His one consolation was the letters and treasure she sent home every week. He read her letters each day, and kept the things she sent. He watched as her wealth grew, but it was cold comfort without her there beside him.

One day, instead of the usual letter, word arrived that Cadash’s fleet had been attacked by the Dread Pirate Isabela, who never left captives alive. When Cullen learned of this, his heart was broken. He closed himself up in his room, never leaving to ride or be with his friends. For days, he neither slept nor ate. He vowed to himself that he would never love again.


Cassandra made a disgusted noise.

“It’s for their wedding, Seeker. It has to be at least a little romantic.”

Chapter Text

Cullen spent the next five years living quietly on his farm. He managed his lands carefully, giving full attention to all of the needs and complaints of his tenants. His sadness at the loss of Cadash made him harsher than was necessary, sometimes, but he always believed he was doing the right thing. In a perfect world, that’s what matters.

And so, most of his farmers and servants loved him, and they all respected him. Over the years, his fame as a just and honest man spread throughout Ferelden and into the Free Marches. A powerful Marcher, the Lady Humperdink, learned of Cullen and asked him for his hand in marriage.


“Humperdink is a terrible name, Varric. What woman would be named that?”

“Are you telling the story, Seeker?”

"No, but it’s just so... implausible!”

“More so than Cassandra Allegra Portia Calogera Filomena Disgusted Noise Pentaghast?”

“Shut up, Varric.” Cassandra huffed and settled herself more firmly against the pillows.


As I was saying, Lady Humperdink wanted to bring Cullen and his land under her influence, and knew that his own honorable reputation could offset her own, less stable, hold on her lands in the Free Marches.

With the power that she would gain from a marriage with Cullen, Lady Humperdink was poised to control the majority of the great walled city of Dirkhall and its surrounding lands. Cullen knew this, and over time began to consider her suit more seriously, taking into account the benefits she could provide for the people in his care-- that is to say, he was taking into account the threats she had made against his people should he refuse her. As the years passed, the hope that he carried in his heart, that his beautiful Buttercup was still alive somehow, was beginning to fade. But even as he prepared himself to accept Humperdink’s proposal, Cullen was wishing he had another choice.

It was not that Lady Humperdink wasn’t beautiful--she was. She had curling blonde hair that shone bone white in the afternoon sunlight, and eyes that glittered like mountain ice. She was never anything less than a gentlewoman to Cullen while she courted him, but he was not a fool, and knew she treated her people with cruelty and dispassion. Still, Cullen hoped with time that he could soften her heart and help her people live better lives. And at least his people wouldn’t wake to find all their crops on fire. Probably.


“Varric, Lady Humperdink sounds awfully similar to the way you described knight-commander Meredith.”

“Sometimes art imitates life, I guess.”

“That is hardly respectful to the memory of a departed madwoman.”

“It’s funny, Seeker, you’re saying that like I ever respected her.”

Cassandra did not stifle a snort at that. Doing so would have been ridiculous. If her throat was clogged, well, she could always blame her illness.


So it was that exactly five years to the day after he had learned that his Buttercup was lost to him forever, Cullen stood before the people of Dirkhall, in the huge courtyard before the Chantry. He was watched not only by the eyes of the people, but the towering bronze statues that stood in every important part of the city. The lifeless eyes of the statues seemed to be judging him from on high, seeing this marriage as the sham it was, even as the people of Dirkhall gazed upon him in adoring wonder.

And Cullen was a sight to see. His hair gleamed like burnished gold in the sunlight. His favorite red cloak had been replaced with shining armour, a ceremonial sword strapped to his side. He heard someone whisper that he looked like a prince out of a storybook, honorable and brave. He felt cowardly and false.

He looked up as a trumpeted fanfare announced Humperdink’s arrival on a balcony high above him and the people of Dirkhall. She looked out over the courtyard with a satisfied smirk he could see even from far below. “My people, a month from now, our country will have its nine hundredth anniversary of our revolt against the villainous Tevinter Imperium and the cruel control of the mages who rule it. On that sundown, I shall marry a knight who was once a simple peasant land owner like many of you.” She gestured grandly to Cullen, who stepped forward and performed his most courtly bow. “But perhaps you will find him common no longer.”

The people cheered and clapped for Cullen, but his emptiness, ever-present since the loss of his love, consumed him. He did not love Humperdink, and never would.

After the ceremony, Cullen went riding far into the Planasene Forests, hoping to clear his head. He rode for hours, as though with a fast enough horse he could escape his problems once and for all. The paths were unfamiliar to him, raised in Ferelden as he was, and Cullen soon became utterly lost. He kept riding, pushing his horse harder than he knew he should, doing his best to leave his many problems behind him. In the morning, he would play the courtier and fulfill his duties, but tonight he rode and mourned for Buttercup and the dream he was leaving behind for good.

He did not slow or stop until he was forced to pull up his horse as he came across three people standing in the middle of the path. “A word, messere.” Said one, a bald, sour-looking elf. “We are but poor, lost circus performers.” The second one, a human who clearly grew a mustache to hide his baby face and wore only half a shirt despite the freezing climate nodded vigorously. The third, a battle-scarred Qunari with rippling muscles and eye-watering pants, wore no shirt at all. His voluminous pants certainly looked like he’d ripped apart a circus tent to make them. The three were a motley crew indeed.


“I will be interested to hear what Dorian thinks of this passage,” Cassandra remarked dryly.

“I wouldn’t have made it out of Kirkwall if I didn’t know how to duck a fireball, Seeker. Now pay attention. We’re getting to the good part.”


The elf began talking. Cullen soon learned it was rare for him to stop doing that. Finally, he directed a question to the still-mounted knight. “Is there a village nearby where we could find some food? This Qunari eats enough for three.”

The Qunari looked slightly affronted but said nothing, and Cullen returned his attention to the elf. “No,” he said, “there is nothing nearby… not for miles, I think. I’m lost myself.”

“Then there will be no one to hear you scream,” the elf answered.

Before Cullen could draw his sword or tell the elf he was being unnecessarily dramatic, he was immobilized by a spell from the human, and the Qunari grabbed him roughly off his horse. They were apparently impatient with the elf’s theatrics as well.

“You know, Solas,” the human commented as the Qunari stuffed a still-immobile Cullen into what appeared to be a burlap bag, “this whole kidnapping business would go a lot more smoothly if you told us the plan beforehand instead of giving us cryptic hints long after we could have made best use of them.”

The elf--Solas, Cullen supposed--fingered his wolf jawbone necklace and sniffed disdainfully. “Our attempt seems to have proven successful despite you and your companion’s...notable intellectual limitations.” The Qunari glowered at him, but followed the bickering pair to a small boat floating on a tiny secluded dock on the nearby coastline. He paused briefly to ensure that Cullen was able to breathe, which meant rearranging him so his head stuck slightly out of the bag. If he weren’t beginning to fear for his life, Cullen thought he might find his situation a bit humorous.

The Qunari patted Cullen on the rear through the sack. It was probably meant to be a comforting gesture but the force of his huge hand knocked Cullen sideways and gently rocked the boat. “It’s all right, big guy. Not too long of a boat trip. ...You don’t get sea sick, do you? Dorian does something awful and I can really only play nursemaid with one of you at a time.” The human sniffed disdainfully this time.

Cullen heard the sound of ripping fabric, and saw the elf attach a strip of Highever weave to his horse’s saddle. Dorian squawked at the elf “That’s my robe!”

“You may borrow one of mine.”

“Yours are made of Plaideweave! I’m getting a rash just thinking about it.”

The Qunari looked at the elf shrewdly as the horse bolted into the forest. “So we’re starting a war with Highever, then?”

“Indeed,” the elf sniffed. “Once the horse reaches Dirkhall, the fabric will make the Lady Humperdink suspect that the Couslands have abducted her love. When she finds his body dead in the Coastlands, her suspicions will be confirmed.”

“You never said anything about killing noncombatants.” The Qunari said uneasily.

“I’ve hired you help me start a war, that usually does involve some death.”

“No, you hired me as a bodyguard. I don’t think it’s right to kill an innocent man.”

The elf rounded on him with an icy glare. “Am I in a fade dream, or did the word 'think' just pass your lips? You were not hired for your brains, you hippopotamic land mass!”

Cullen was fairly certain he saw lightning crackle between Dorian’s knuckles, but neither he nor the Qunari said anything.

“I agree with the Iron Bull.” The human said in a carefully controlled voice.

“Agree with each other all you like, you will be following my orders while you are in my employ.” He swept imperiously up the gangplank to the little ship, leaving the Iron Bull and Dorian to load Cullen and some other sacks, alone.

They prepared to set sail, chatting quietly out of Cullen’s earshot. As they cast off into the Waking Sea, their conversation got louder, clearly pitched to be overheard.

“That Solas,” Dorian said, with a quick grin at Cullen, loosening the immobilizing spell enough for him to move to a more comfortable position “sure can fuss.”

“Fuss, fuss,” the Iron Bull hummed thoughtfully, “At least he’s far too prim to cuss.”

“Probably he means no harm.”

“He’s really very short on charm.”

Dorian stretched out near the tiller, resting his hand elegantly on the rail of the boat. He regarded the Iron Bull with a smile a bit too wide to be coy. “Ah, you have a great gift for rhyme.”

The Bull made a show of flexing his muscles. Cullen felt both inadequate and intrusive. “Hmmm, some of the time.”

Solas spun around from his seat by the prow of the boat. “Enough of that!” He hissed at the others. “Concentrate on you jobs if you please. I would not wish to drown with only you fools for company.”

Dorian made no point of acknowledging him, but did shade his eyes and look southward, out to sea. “Bull!” He called, “Are there rocks ahead?”

Not even bothering to look into the water, the Qunari responded, “If there are, we’ll all be dead!”

Solas actually put his book down to glare severely at them all, even Cullen, who was still magically prevented from speaking. “Stop that rhyming, and I mean it!”

Bull grabbed a small cloth bag from one of the packs and held it out to Cullen. “Anybody want a peanut?”


Cassandra sighed and settled in. This was going to be a long story.

Chapter Text

“Hey Boss,” the Qunari, whom Cullen had learned was called the Iron Bull (article included), called out. “I think we’re being followed.”

“Inconceivable!” Cried Solas. “No one from Highever knows what we’ve done, and no one from Dirkhall could have gotten here so quickly.”

“Perhaps is just a local fisherman out for a pleasure cruise. At night. Through demon infested waters,” Dorian submitted dryly.

“Yeah, that makes way more sense,” said the Iron Bull.

It had been hours on the open waters, and Dorian’s containment spell had loosened considerably over that time. Whether or not the ship Cullen could just make out behind them really was following theirs, he decided it was likely his best chance, and he tipped himself out the side of their boat and began to swim, hoping to get out of range before Dorian could immobilize him again.

The water was preternaturally cold, especially for the summer, and Cullen felt frozen and defeated before he’d swum more than a few strokes. He was a determined man, though, and he kept swimming all the same. That was when he heard the shrieking.

“You hear that sound, Princess?” Solas called.

“I thought you were ‘too enlightened’ for gender-based humor,” Bull grumbled.

Cullen ignored Solas, who ignored the Iron Bull. Solas continued, undaunted. “Those are despair demons. They always get louder when they have a chance to feed on mortal happiness.”

“Eugh,” said Bull.

Cullen kept swimming, feeling more exhausted each time he raised his leaden arms.

“They’re quite fascinating spirits, really,”

“Demons,” Dorian interrupted. In contrast to Bull, who frowned as though he wanted to pull Cullen back aboard and wrap him in a blanket, and Solas, who looked frantic at his cargo’s attempted escape, Dorian was supremely unconcerned by the man floundering through the Waking Sea.

“There are subtle nuances among spirits that require--”

“Demons,” the Iron Bull echoed.

“Either way they are fascinating creatures. Their presence in this part of the sea alone suggests a number of--”

“Look, Boss,” Bull said. “If you don’t shut up, I’m going to follow him over the side in a second.” He jerked his horns at Cullen, who was still doggedly paddling away.

Just then, a despair demon swooped towards Cullen, its ragged form exuding frost. Cullen could see ice crystals in his labored breath. The creature swooped towards him and---


“You know Cullen doesn’t die at this part, right?” Varric asked

Cassandra made a disgusted noise. “Of course I know that, Varric. I am not a child. You still have a number of pages left.”

“I’m just mentioning because you’re starting to get all worked up over it, and that’s not good for you when you’re sick. And besides, I could have killed him then. The rest of it could have been a touching eulogy and an account of Cadash moving on. Like in part five of Swords and Shields when I--”

“You wouldn’t dare!” Cassandra cried unthinkingly. She immediately flushed bright red. She had forgotten, of course that she, Cassandra Pentaghast, did not know what happened in part five of Swords and Shields. Or part one, for that matter. Certainly not part seventeen, which Cadash had convinced Varric to write personally as a “special favor to an anonymous party.”

Thankfully, Varric seemed oblivious to her slip-up. “Where was I?” He asked, thumbing through the manuscript. He looked unbearably dear, squinting at his manuscript in the weak window light and clearly in need of reading glasses. They would probably slip down his thrice-broken nose and need to be pushed up all the time. Cassandra tried not to think about it; for some reason contemplating it for too long did odd things to her stomach. “Ah, yes. ‘Do you hear that sound, Princess?’”

“You read that part already,” Cassandra grumbled, then coughed.

Varric sighed. “Look, I wrote this part out on one of Ruffles’ cocktail napkins. It’s disorganized. Bull punches the demon in the face and hauls Cullen back into the boat. What more do you want from me?”

Cassandra wanted to tuck the wisp of hair that curled out of his ponytail behind his ear. “That is more than sufficient,” she said.


Anyways, shortly after dawn, the south bank of the waking sea came into sight. Solas leapt up, startling the other three on the ship. Cullen, who had finally dozed off, was very upset. His shirt was still wet and cold.

“Look there!” The elf pointed imperiously to the thin dark stip visable on the horizon. “We are approaching the Cliffs of Insanity!”


“There is no such place!” Interjected Cassandra. She swatted Varric on the arm, and he almost dropped his manuscript. Served him right, she thought. If he made up ridiculous names for non-existent places, he deserved to be startled once in a while. “Aren’t they supposed to be headed towards the Storm Coast?”

Varric rubbed his wrist and glared at her reproachfully. “Artistic license, Seeker. And I will stop reading if you hit me again.”

They glared for a silent minute, and then Cassandra subsided. Arguing took a lot of effort. It also sloshed her tea.


The Cliffs of Insanity are the tallest in Thedas. They rise straight from the Waking Sea, seven hundred feet at their tallest point. They guard the lands of Highever from attack by the sea and to the best of my knowledge, have never been scaled. This was where Solas the elf had decided to sneak Cullen into the realm of the Couslands.

However, Cullen and his three captors had not lost their tail during the night. The vague shape of the other boat had solidified into a sailboat, smaller and faster than theirs. Cullen couldn’t see anyone crewing it, but it definitely was gaining on them as Solas directed Dorian to a small inlet in the cliff. Its sails were black.

“He’s almost on top of us.” Dorian observed. “I’ll bet he’s using the same wind we are.”

Solas gave him a disparaging glance and said “It doesn’t matter. Iron Bull, pull us ashore here. Hurry up!” He snapped, when the Bull was slow to jump into the cold water. “Dorian! Move that thing,” he gestured to the rudder. “And that other thing!” He waved in the general direction of the sail.

“Which thing do you want me to move, Solas?” The Tevinter asked in a suggestive voice, making the Iron Bull chuckle. Solas ignored him.

The Iron Bull jumped out of the boat, landing in water up to his chest. He grabbed the rope Dorian tossed him and hauled the little boat partway up the rocky beach. As Solas clambered off the listing structure, the Bull lifted first Dorian and then Cullen off the deck and onto solid ground. Cullen sat gratefully on the ground, glad that it wasn’t swaying the way the boat had during the night. Dorian’s legs were apparently just as wobbly as Cullen’s own, and he clung to the Iron Bull for support. In fact, he clung much longer than really seemed necessary.

While the others regained their land-legs, Solas hunted around the bottom of the cliff, occasionally glancing anxiously over his shoulder at the approaching sailboat. After a moment, he uncovered a large rope coiled behind a stone. With an expression of concentration, he sent one end snaking up the cliff, eventually out Cullen’s sight. When Solas released the spell, Cullen assumed he had fastened the rope to something at the top of the ciff.

Solas tuned to Cullen. “Only the Iron Bull is strong enough to climb up the Cliffs of Insanity. Your would-be rescuer will have to sail for hours before he reaches a place that he can scale.” He bent down and tied Cullen’s hands with rope for the first time, and then hauled him roughly to his feet.

“You keep assuming the rescuer’s a man,” Bull pointed out. “Seems kind of sexist to me.”

“This from a man whose barbarian people don’t even allow women to fight.”

“Not entirely true,” Bull protested mildly.

Solas slipped on a patch of ice coming back from the rocky outcropping. Cullen was the only one close enough to hear Dorian’s murmured “Oops.”

After some discussion and much arguing, Cullen was strapped to the Bull’s back, and each of the others clung to his horns. Solas settled himself daintily on the closest thing Bull had to a clothed shoulder, while Dorian plastered himself --out of necessity, of course-- against the Bull’s shirtless torso.

The Bull began to haul himself hand over hand up the rope, alternately complaining about their weight and boasting of his own strength. It gave Cullen the impression that he could have lifted far more, but didn’t particularly want to. His muscles could, in exactly one person’s account, have been described as ‘rippling.’

Cullen glanced down only once- a mistake, of course, the height was dizzying- but caught a glimpse of a disproportionately small, masked figure dressed all in black leaping out of the other boat and crossing quickly to the bottom of the rope. A dwarf? He had a momentary flash of hope that it was Buttercup come to rescue him before he realized how stupid that thought was. She was dead. The Dread Pirate Isabela had killed her. His only consolation was that, if Solas were to be believed, he would be reunited with her very soon. It was almost worth death for the relief of not having to marry Humperdink.

Solas was concerned at the dwarf’s appearance and smacked the Iron Bull on the shoulder. It hurt like a Pentaghast. “Climb faster!” He commanded. The Bull didn’t put much effort into obeying, instead continuing his steady ascent.

Dorian looked down some time later. “He’s climbing!” He cried, “Or she is! Or they are… either way, they’re gaining on us!”

“Inconceivable!” Solas spat. “Climb faster, you useless grey lump!”

The Bull looked hurt. “I thought I was going faster.”

“You were supposed to be this colossus! You were this great legendary thing! And yet he gains!”

Bull looked truly concerned for Solas’ mental health for a moment. “You understand that I’m carrying three extra people, while she’s got only herself.”

“Ugh! Inconceivable!”

An eternity later, they reached the top, and Cullen was once again very relieved to have his feet on solid rock.

They had come up into the ruins of a watchtower built on the edge of the cliff, and Cullen saw the rotting remains of a Grey Warden banner fluttering in a corner. The place must have been abandoned after the last blight, he thought. It was truly deserted then, unlikely to be near any towns or chance of rescue.

Solas took a small knife from his belt and began sawing at the rope they had climbed. It jerked and frayed beneath his hand. His two employees looked at him with matching expressions of growing amusement.

“Er, excuse me, I don’t mean to thwart my own rescue attempt or anything,” said Cullen awkwardly, “but aren’t you a mage?”

“So?” Solas asked irritably.

“You could just burn through that instead of sawing. It seems like it would get rid of a lot of problems.”

Solas torched the rope with perhaps more vigor than strictly necessary. Dorian and Bull outright guffawed behind him.

Dorian looked over the edge of the cliff. “Whoever they are, they are still climbing.”

The Bull joined him. “She’s got very good arms.”

“As good as mine?” Dorian looked affronted.

“Of course not.”

“What is that they’re wearing?” Dorian said after a moment of contemplation. “All black? And a mask? With those boots?”

Solas was livid. “He didn’t fall? Inconceivable!”

Dorian looked away from the Bull for a brief moment. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”


“Varric,” Cassandra said, “I was under the impression that Solas was very intelligent, even if he did turn out to be a traitor.”

“Well it’s my story, and I’m pissed off at him. If someone wants to look good in something I write, then they shouldn’t piss me off or hurt my friends.” Cassandra felt... inspired by his loyalty, she decided.

“Am I a sympathetic character in your stories, Varric?” She couldn’t stop herself from asking. It was vanity, and another emotion she couldn’t quite name, but she was suddenly very concerned about the way Varric portrayed her.

Varric was quiet for a long time. “I haven’t been able to write you convincingly, Seeker.” He took a sip of tea and then laughed to himself. “I just can’t get the righteous conviction down.”

Cassandra scoffed at him.

“Seriously, Seeker. If I write someone as honest and morally unimpeachable as you are, nobody will believe it.”


“You, take him and come with me.” Cullen was shoved roughly at the Iron Bull. “You,” Solas pointed to Dorian, “Stay here and finish him off. If he falls, just hurry up and follow us.”

“I’m going to duel them as a knight-enchanter,” Dorian told him.

“We are starting a war here! We don’t have time for you to hack at him like some sort of backwater infantryman!”

Dorian rolled his eyes and adopted a put-upon expression. Cullen was starting to think they might actually be delaying Solas on purpose. “But it’s the only way I can be truly satisfied!” He cried operatically, throwing his hand over his eyes. “If I do it any other way it’s over too quickly!”

Solas seemed to be done with arguing and set about trying to physically push Bull forward. They all took a moment to consider the stupidity of that action before the Bull finally hefted Cullen over his shoulder. “You be careful now,” he told Dorian. “People in masks can’t be trusted. Just ask the Orlesians.”

Dorian scoffed and blew the Bull a kiss as they walked away. Cullen, resting against Bull’s shoulder like a sack of potatoes, felt a shuddery movement that could have been a snicker.

Dorian was not a patient man. The moment Bull, Cullen, and Solas were out of sight, he began prowling the edge of the cliff, watching the masked person below him, their fingers gripped like iron to the rock face. “Hello down there!” He called.

“Er, hello,” a distinctly female voice answered. Dorian would have to remember to rub it in Solas’ face.

“Slow going?”

“It’s not the quickest I’ve climbed a sheer rock face,” she(?) told him dryly. “And I don’t mean to be rude, but it really isn’t as easy as it looks, so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t distract me.”

“Sorry.” Dorian paced for a bit. “Are you sure you can’t go any faster?”

She’d advanced a few feet.“If you’re in such a hurry you could lower a rope or something, make yourself useful.”

“I do have some rope up here. I’m not sure you’d accept my help, though, since I am only waiting around to kill you.”

“That does put a damper on our relationship.”

The mage pouted for a moment, but was struck by an idea. “I promise not to kill you before you reach the top.”

“No thanks.” The dwarf scrambled onto a ledge just a few feet below. “You’ll just have to wait.”

“Ugh, fine.” He paced for a few more seconds. “I could give you my word as an Altus..?” He offered.

“Does that work anywhere beside Tevinter?” She was very caustic.

“It doesn’t work in Tevinter, either.” Dorian sighed. “I swear on the soul of the only decent human being I have ever known, Felix Alexius, you will reach the top alive.”

The dwarf considered for a moment. “Throw me the rope.”

Together, they managed to haul her over the top of the cliff. They both sat heavily on the rocks.

After a moment, Dorian turned to the black-masked dwarf. “I don’t mean to pry, but on your journeys have you encountered a magister with six fingers on his right hand?”

“No. Sorry. Are you trying to order one?”

Dorian gave her a wry smile. “Not exactly. I’m looking for my father.”

The dwarf made a sound that could have been construed as ‘interested,’ and Dorian launched into his tale. “Felix and I were students together and... friends for many years. My father disapproves of many aspects of my life and person, but none so vehemently as the person with whom I fell in love. He constructed a blood magic ritual that would change the very nature of my soul, and he selected Felix as an... unwilling donor.” Dorian smoothed his moustache in an attempt to avoid the dwarf’s eyes. “I escaped. Felix was not so lucky.”

“So you’ve sworn revenge.”

Dorian nodded. “When I find him, I will say, Hello. My name is Dorian Pavus. You killed my Felix. Prepare to die.”

“Your Felix?” the Woman in Black asked. “Not your friend or your lover?”

“He was both of these things and more to me. There is no word in any language that can describe all of that. Trust me, I have had a long time to think about it.”

“I’ve heard of a Quanri word in my travels, that they say can encompass all of these things.”

Dorian cleared his throat and blushed immensely. “Er. Yes. It’s ‘kadan,’ I believe. I’ve... heard of that. But, um... it is not a word that I associate with Felix… because of… Well. Because of the Iron Bull, actually.” he chuckled nervously. “Never thought I would say that. But it’s the truth and here we are.”

“You love him? The Qunari you kidnapped Prince Cullen with?”

“I suppose I do.”

“You should tell him. Take it from me. True love is... difficult to come by.”


“You are writing this from experience?” Cassandra asked. “You and Bianca, I mean?” She prompted when Varric’s head jerked up to gaze at her inscrutably. “I know you regret letting her go.” She kept her voice admirably even as she asked. His stare was very intense.

Varric relaxed a little. For some reason it did not make Cassandra more comfortable. “Not exactly, Seeker. Let’s call it divine inspiration. Not everyone can be lucky enough to have their true love announce themselves by dragging them off and bashing them about the head.”

“Of course not,” Cassandra answered stiltedly. “That only happens in stories. It would be far too convenient to ever happen in real life.”



Varric cleared his throat into the silence and began to read again.


Dorian jumped up and conjured a spirit sword, eager to change the subject. “Are you ready, then?”

“Whether I am or not, you’ve been more than fair,” the Woman in Black answered.

“You seem a decent woman. I hate to kill you,” Dorian remarked.

“You’re not too awful for a Magister,” the Woman in Black answered. “I hate to die.”

“I’m not a--you know what, never mind. Let’s begin.” Dorian leveled his sword and assumed a starting position.

They took a few passes at one another, their swings going wide intentionally just to get a feel for their opponent’s style. Soon, however, Dorian lunged and the fight began in earnest.

“You are using Debonshire’s defense against me, eh?” Dorian asked.

“I thought it fitting, considering the rocky terrain.” The Woman in Black’s voice was relaxed and mild, as though this were merely her morning exercises and not a duel to the death.

“Naturally, you expect me to attack with Herrandric.” Dorian followed her movements, edging her uphill by the power of the wide swing of his blade.

“Naturally; but I find that Granidor cancels out Herrandric, don’t you?” the Woman in Black simply leapt off the end of the small rock face, looking up to await Dorian’s answer.

“Unless the enemy hasn’t studied his--”


Varric broke of reading at the sound of Cassandra’s irritable grunt. “What?”

“None of those are real techniques, Varric.”

“Well, artistically--”

“They have nothing to do with swordplay, daggers, or even magic. You just made up names off the top of your head,” she accused.

“Seeker, I fight with an automatic crossbow that I named after an ex-girlfriend. What do you want from me?”

“Proper research!” The exclamation was loud enough to hurt Cassandra’s throat and more tea had to be poured before Varric could settle back with the book again.


Dorian did a stunning flip as he leapt off the rock face after the Woman in Black. “You are wonderful!” he cried, for lack of a better, more researched, term for the techniques she used with her twin daggers.

Dorian was backed towards the sheer drop of the cliff, gasping for breath, his spirit sword beaten back under the onslaught of the Woman in Black’s relentless daggers. “Your technique is flawless,” he said between heaving gasps. “I admit it, you are better than I am.”

“Then why are you smiling?” The Woman in Black asked.

“Because I know something you don’t know.” He answered, “I am not a Knight Enchanter.”

Dorian’s spirit sword disappeared with a puff of magic, and the next thing the Woman in Black knew, she had crumpled to the dusty ground, unable to combat the sudden winding tendril of panic. She could feel the ripping claws of the start of a necromancy spell, clearly one meant to blow her frail, mortal body apart with nothing but a gesture from the Tevinter man. Her daggers clattered to the ground, too far away for her to reach them in time.

The Woman in Black started to laugh. “You’re amazing,” she told him. “I’d probably say something wittier if certain people weren’t such sticklers for well researched swordplay.”

“Then why in Andraste’s name are you laughing?” Dorian snapped.

“There’s something I ought to tell you,” she wheezed.

He leaned closer. “What?”

“Nothing, I just wanted to distract you for a moment.” She threw a fistful of knockout powder into the mage’s face and he slumped to the ground, alive but unconscious.

“Please understand, I hold you in the highest respect,” she told the mage, who was now gently snoring, his mustache coated in dust. The Woman in Black took off, following the path that the others had taken.

Chapter Text

The Iron Bull stood in the middle of the path, watching the ruins of the watchtower anxiously. He could just see it, there at the edge of his vision. He wondered if Dorian had killed the Woman in Black yet. He refused to consider the possibility of any other outcome. The idea that Dorian would lose and die was, perhaps, the only thought to which Solas had correctly applied the word “inconceivable.”

A sudden movement drew his attention- a figure was leaving the ruins and heading directly towards them. “Solas.” He said. Cullen could feel how tense he was. “Can you see which of them it is?”

“It’s the man in black.” Solas told him. “Dorian must have lost.”

Cullen fell into the dirt as the Iron Bull’s shoulders crumpled.

Solas wrenched him upright, but otherwise seemed unconcerned by Bull’s reaction. “We’ll go ahead. Finish him off your way.”

“What’s my way?” Bull asked, his voice dull and listless.

Solas sighed. The elf had not officially been made aware that Bull and Dorian were lovers, but they hadn’t exactly been subtle, either. “Get behind that boulder. In a second the man in back will come around that curve. The minute his head is in view, hit it with a rock.”

“My way is not very sportsmanlike.” Bull said to himself as Solas dragged Cullen roughly away. Another day, that would have bothered him. Today, his only concern was that it wouldn’t really hurt enough if it was over that fast. He stepped behind the boulder and picked up a rock.

When he heard footsteps, he aimed and threw with such force that the rock shattered on impact. Had the thing that killed Dorian been an elf or a human, its skull would have been in several pieces decorating the rock face behind them. As it was, the dwarf ducked and rolled. That was all right. Bull liked killing people better this way.

“I did that on purpose,” Bull lied as he stepped around the boulder, “I didn’t have to miss.” He picked up another rock.

“I believe you.” The woman, of course it was a woman, answered him.

“I’m going to kill you now.” Bull told her, advancing. “This won’t be sportsmanlike.”

“OR,” the Woman in Black said, backing up a few paces. “I put down my daggers and you put down your rock and we talk this over like civilized people?”

Bull chuckled, the noise grating in his throat. “Silly girl. Who told you the Tal Vashoth were civilized?” He lunged for her. She must have underestimated his speed because a simple kick connected enough to knock her flat. Bull threw his second rock, but she rolled out of the way.

“I didn’t kill him!” she yelped as he advanced on her. ”Dorian’s not dead!”

Bull paused. “Well, he didn’t kill you. He’s usually pretty good at following through on that sort of thing.”

“He had an unfortunate meeting with a face-full of knockout powder, but nothing lethal.” The Woman in Black rolled between his legs and came jumping up behind him. “He should wake up in another twenty minutes or so.”

Bull turned and charged at her, but with less lethal intent than before. He did still mean to fulfill his contract with Solas, but maybe she didn’t have to be dead, just... slightly maimed or something.

She dodged, and Bull ran into one of the large boulders around them. “You’re quick.” He acknowledged grudgingly. Damn rouges.

“Are you even trying?” she asked curiously.

“I just want you to feel like you’re doing well.” Bull said kindly. “I hate for people to die embarrassed.” He wasn’t feeling very kind.

“Why are you wearing a mask?” He asked after they traded ineffectual assaults for a few minutes. For all her jumping and dodging, the Woman in Black didn’t seem to be tiring as quickly as Bull. “Were you burned by magefire or something? You don’t sound like you’re from Orlais.”

“That would be worse than disfigured by magefire, I think,” she answered. Damn it all if Bull wasn’t starting to like her a little bit. “No, it’s just that they’re terribly comfortable. I think everyone will be wearing them in the future.”

Bull was feeling charitable enough towards the Woman in Black that he did not say “bullshit” out loud. He did hate for people to die embarrassed, after all. And he was slightly out of breath, but she didn’t need to know that.

She leapt onto his back, wrapping her tiny arms around his throat. Granted, it was difficult to choke a Qunari the size of the Iron Bull to death, but the Woman in Black really put her back into it. Bull responded by putting his back, and the dwarf clinging to it, into the rock face with a great deal of force.

She groaned a bit, but held on. Bull tried it a few more times, crushing her heavily against the rocks. Her chokehold was magnificent, though, and the Bull could feel his vision darkening at the edges. He readied himself for a final blow, when he realized the Woman in Black was speaking in his ear.

“I’d hate for you to die embarrassed,” she told him, “so I won’t kill you. But there’s something I ought to tell you.” Bull wondered if the lack of air was affecting his hearing. She wasn’t making any sense. “Before I defeated him, Dorian told me something.” Bull fell to his knees, gasping for breath. “He told me he loves you.”

“He loves me?” Bull whispered, and then passed out.

“I do not envy you the headache you will have when you awake,” the Woman in Black told him, rolling him over with no small amount of difficulty, “but for now, rest well, and dream of pretty mages.”


“Varric, why does Bull sound surprised when he hears that?”

“What are you talking about, Seeker?”

“When he hears that Dorian loves him. He repeats it like it is a question. Does Bull not know that Dorian is in love with him?”

“You mean our Bull, or the one in the story?”

“Either,” Cassandra answered.

Varric shuffled his papers in thought. “Well,” he responded finally, “the story’s really just beginning, isn’t it?”

“That’s not an answer.” Cassandra was annoyed. Varric was unsurprised. “Varric, I’m serious. You can’t have Dorian confessing his love in the story if he hasn’t done it in real life.”

Varric sighed. “Look, Princess. Dorian is the one who told me to include the subplot. He told me he wants Bull to know he’s not ashamed. Whether he meant that he loves him or not, I don’t know, but I don’t think that’s the kind of shit Sparkler says about just anybody.”

“That’s very… romantic.” Cassandra did not sigh. She wondered if someone would ever make a... gesture like that for her. She watched as Varric scribbled some notes, feeling oddly wistful.

Cassandra went over the conversation in her head. “Wait, Varric… Did you call me ‘Princess?’”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Seeker.” Varric avoided her eyes.

“No, I am certain you did. Why would you do that?”

Cassandra had been keeping her room hot to draw out her fever. Varric looked flushed in the firelight. He tugged at the (unnecessarily low) collar of his shirt and cleared his throat. “It was a slip of the tongue, that’s all.”

“How exactly does one’s tongue slip that much, Varric?” There was a flighty, nervous pressing inside her ribcage. If Cassandra did not know better, she might have thought it felt like hope.

Varric determinedly did not catch her eye and kept reading.


At the Gray Warden tower on top of the cliffs, Lady Humperdink dismounted from her horse. Close behind her came her Tevinter ally. Come recently to court, the Magister had proven himself to be a staunch ally in her fight to bring the disparate Free Marches under consolidated control. The power and political clout he offered outweighed the potential danger of his magical abilities. As a templar, she could always smite him if he got out of hand, as well. As for the accusations of hypocrisy that his presence had inspired, well, she was more than accustomed to stamping out dissenters.

Lady Humperdink knelt and examined the marks on the ground. “There was a mighty duel fought here,” she told the Magister and her retinue. “It ranged all over this tower; the combatants were a rogue and a knight-enchanter of considerable skill.” She enjoyed the impressed expressions of her lackeys.

“The loser ran off by himself, and the winner...” she surveyed the area, “followed those footprints. They are headed towards Highever.”

“Shall we follow both of them?” asked the Magister.

“The loser is of no consequence. Only the Lord Cullen matters.”

“Could this be a trap set by your enemies?” The Magister inquired.

“I always think everything could be a trap,” she told him, “which is why I’m still alive.”


The Woman in Black caught up to Cullen and the elf after some time. Realizing that he would never be able to outrun her, the elf had spread out a small lunch on a flat rock, with two glasses, plates, and sets of cutlery. He had sat Cullen beside him, blindfolded, and was holding a knife the the Prince’s neck.

The Woman in Black approached cautiously, Solas watching her with sharp eyes. “So it is down to you and it is down to me.” He said dramatically. The Woman in Black held her hands out to show she was unarmed, and took another step. “If you wish him dead, by all means, keep moving forward.” The elf pushed his blade up against Cullen’s neck, and the Prince flinched away from the sharp metal.

The Woman in Black stopped advancing immediately. “Let me explain…” she began.

“There’s nothing to explain. You are trying to kidnap what I have rightfully stolen.”

“Perhaps an arrangement can be reached,” the Woman in Black ventured.

“There will be no arrangement.”

The Woman in Black watched him closely for a moment. “Then it appears we are at an impasse.”

“I’m afraid so.” The elf didn’t look too disappointed. “I can’t compete with you physically, and you’re no match for my brains.”

“You’re that smart?” She didn’t seem impressed.

“Let me put it this way.” He gestured with his free hand. “Have you ever heard of Brother Genetivi? Baron Havard-Pierre D'Amortisan? First Enchanter Josephus?” The Woman in Black nodded. “Morons.” The elf said dismissively.

“In that case,” the Woman in Black responded, “I challenge you to a battle of wits.”

Solas looked at her sharply. “For the prince?” he asked, and the Woman in Black nodded. “To the death?” She nodded again. “I accept!” He sheathed his blade and poured wine into the goblets on the rock.

“Thanks for the wine,” the Woman in Black swallowed the contents of one cup, “wrestling Qunari is thirsty work.”

The elf wrinkled his nose at her as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “I could have poisoned that, you know.” He told the dwarf.

“I’m sure you could have.” She placed two small jars on the table and unsealed them. “But you didn’t.” The jars had no labels and contained identical-looking green paste. “One of these jars contains vitaar, deadly poison to any non-Qunari. The other holds harmless elfroot paste, an ingredient of vitaar, but not the poisonous one.” The elf picked up each jar and examined them, but could see no difference. The woman took them back and shuffled them about out of sight before placing one on each of the plates between them. “All right, which is the poison?” She asked him. “The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both paint a stripe across our face, and find out who is right... and who is dead.”

Solas considered the jars for a moment, and then exclaimed, “But it's so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of woman who would put the poison onto her own plate or her enemy's? Now, a clever woman would put the poison before her, because she would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the jar in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the jar in front of me.”

The Woman in Black poured herself more wine. “Have you made your decision then?"

“Not remotely. Because vitaar is Qunari, as everyone knows, and the Qunari are a people entirely savage, and savages are used to having people not trust them, as you are not trusted by me, so I can clearly not choose the jar in front of you.”

“Truly, your intellect is dizzying. But I think you’re stalling. And also a teensy bit racist,” she added, frowning.

“You would,” The elf scoffed. He considered the Woman in Black. “You've beaten my Qunari, which means you're exceptionally strong, so you could've put the vitaar on your own plate, trusting on your strength to save you, so I can clearly not choose the paste in front of you. But, you've also bested my Tevinter, which means you must have studied, and in studying you must have learned that man is mortal--”

“Is that something that really takes a lot of study to figure out?” The Woman in Black interrupted. “I mean, I don’t have your charming elvhen perspective, but people die all the time in Orzammar. I should know. They send the casteless to clean them up.”

“ you would have put the poison as far from yourself as possible, so I can clearly not choose the jar in front of me,” the elf finished, scowling deeply.

“You're trying to irritate me into giving away something. It won't work.” She told him.

“It has worked!” He laughed suddenly. “You’ve given everything away! I know where the poison is!”

“And where is that?” She asked, unruffled.

“It’s-- Look! A dragon!” He pointed over the dwarf’s shoulder.

“I don’t see any dragon,” the Woman in Black said, looking over her shoulder in confusion.

Solas hurriedly switched the jars while she was distracted.


“That would never work, Varric.”

“It’s literally the oldest trick in the book. Of course it works.”

“You cannot just blurt out a distraction to get out of trouble with someone!”

“Your copy of Swords and Shields is sticking out from where you hid it under your pillow,” Varric said blandly.

“What?” Cassandra squawked. She frantically reached to tuck it back down, though the damage was likely already done.

“As I was saying...”


“Well I could have sworn,” Solas mumbled blithely. He snickered.

The Woman in Black may have rolled her eyes. It was difficult to tell in the shade of the mask. “What’s so funny?” She asked.

“I’ll tell you later,” Solas said, still snickering. “First, let’s each take some vitaar. Me from my jar and you from yours.”

Very seriously, with a look of triumph, he lifted the jar on his plate and spread a thimble’s worth of vitaar across his cheek. With a nod, the dwarf spread just as much across her own.

“You chose wrong.” She told him.

“You only think I chose wrong, that’s what’s so funny! I switched jars when your back was turned.”

The Woman in Black sighed. “I was really hoping that this would kill you before you could talk more.”

“You committed one of the classic blunders! The first, and most famous, is never get involved in a land war in Seheron, but only slightly lesser known is don’t match wits with an elvhen when DEATH IS ON THE LINE!” He was still laughing when he keeled over and fell to the ground, dead.

“Oh, thank Andraste,” Cullen whispered.

“Are you alright?” The Woman in Black asked, pulling the blindfold from his eyes and cutting the rope around his wrists.

Cullen nodded mutely, only talking once he had been ungagged and a waterskin held to his lips. “And to think,” he croaked, “all that time it was your jar that had vitaar.”

The Woman in Black snorted. “They both had vitaar in them. Who in the void carries around jars full of half finished vitaar?” she chafed his wrists to get the blood flowing again and continued. “I spent the last few years building up an immunity to Qunari vitaar.”

“Why on earth would you do that?” Cullen had to ask. “It’s so… specific.”

“I’ve been acquainted with some interesting people.”

“Who are you?” Cullen asked warily, taking in her scars and daggers. The dwarf was clearly a criminal, perhaps a member of the Carta. Cullen was not sure that he was any safer with her than with the Elf. Less bored, undeniably, but perhaps not safer.

She must have noticed his scrutiny, but pulled him roughly to his feet. “I’m no one to be trifled with,” she said severely. “That’s all you need to know.” She grabbed onto his arm and started walking, and Cullen was forced to follow. He had clearly only traded one captor for another.


The Lady Humperdink reigned in her horse and advanced cautiously among the large boulders. The marks on the ground told the story quite clearly. “Someone has beaten a Qunari.” She told the Magister. “There will be great suffering in Highever if Cullen dies.”


Cullen wasn't sure how long they'd been walking. A few hours at least. When the Woman in Black paused to let them both rest, he sat on a rock and decided to try to reason with her. "If you'll release me, whatever you ask for ransom, you'll get it, I promise you." Humperdink's money was the only thing she could be after.

The Woman in Black laughed derisively. "And what is that worth, the promise of a man like you? You're very funny, Highness."

Cullen glared at her back. "I was giving you a chance." He informed her. "It does not matter where you take me. There is no greater hunter than the Lady Humperdinck. She can track a falcon on a cloudy day. She can find you."

She was quiet for a moment. "You think your dearest love will save you?" she asked eventually. She sounded even more scornful than before.

"I never said she was my dearest love," Cullen said, thinking of sweet, lost Buttercup. "But yes, she will save me. That I know."

"You admit to me you do not love your fiancé." Her voice was flat. "Are all humans so fickle?"

"She knows I do not love her."

"Are not capable of love is what you mean." The Woman in Black stared straight ahead.

"I have loved more deeply than a killer like yourself could ever dream."

The Woman in Black raised her hand as if to slap him. Cullen flinched back, furious but afraid. "That was a warning, Highness." The dwarf was angry. "The next time my hand flies on its own, for where I come from, there are penalties when someone lies."


"Varric, that is unacceptable." Her voice scratched, but she ignored it. "If you're setting up the Woman in Black to be a hero, she can't go around abusing her prisoners for no reason!"

"Every hero needs their flaws, Seeker." Varric sipped from his teacup, infuriatingly cool.

"Senseless violence is not a flaw." She responded. "It is unvaliant and cruel."

"Seeker, remember our first meeting? You almost stabbed me. You did stab my book, which is almost as bad." Cassandra felt a rush of shame. She did remember. And Varric had been her prisoner then, just as she was objecting to now. "Not to mention all those times since that you've threatened to kill me. Not that you're the only person ever to try, but I do take your threats the most seriously."

She stared at the blanket, twisting it in her hands. She wanted to say something, but had no idea what. They were quiet for a while as Varric heated water for more tea. Cassandra felt the silence between them like an accusation. It was unbearable. "Varric--" She began, but didn't have the words to go further. He turned to look at her. The tried again. "Varric, I'm... sorry." She finished lamely.

He looked incredulous. "Why, Seeker, are you admitting that the path of righteous fury is not always the best?" He laughed. "Let me savor this moment, no one will ever believe me!"

"No, you ass," Cassandra's cheeks were hot. She hated being laughed at. "I'm trying to apologize for hurting my friend!" She blurted.

Varric stopped laughing and came over to the bed. She had to look down at him, and he smiled as he handed her a newly-steaming teacup. "Apology accepted, Princess." He returned to his chair and picked up the manuscript.


Lady Humperdink prodded the elf's body with an expression of distaste. She examined the smear of paint on his cheek. "Vitaar," she declared, "but an unusual blend." She gestured to her people to dispose of the corpse. "And here are the Lord Cullen's bootprints. He is alive, or was an hour ago. If he is otherwise when we find him, I shall be very put out." She remounted her horse and turned to follow the trail.


Cullen was tired and out of breath when Woman in Black let him rest again. Well, really she knocked his feet out from under him and sat him roughly on a rock, but he was glad to stop walking in any case. She might be short, but the dwarf was fast.

They were at the top of a steep ravine, and Cullen realized that they’d been heading south all day. The sun, nearing the horizon on his right, was illuminating the distant trees of the Fallow Mire.


“Varric, this is too far, even for you.” Cassandra leaned forward. “You do know that it is impossible to cross Ferelden in one day, don’t you?”

“Of course I do, Princess.”

“Then why don’t you write like it?” Her ire was checked by a coughing fit.


The Woman in Black surveyed the ravine, as well as the way from which they had come.

Cullen rubbed his hip, wondering if it would bruise where she had shoved him into the rock. “I know who you are,” Cullen told her, “Your cruelty reveals everything. You’re the Dread Pirate Isabela, admit it!”

“With pride.” The Woman in Black presented him with a mocking curtsy. “What can I do for you?”

“You can die slowly, cut into a thousand pieces.”

“Hardly complimentary, Highness, why loose your venom on me?”

“You killed my love,” Cullen snarled. He looked around for a branch, a stick, anything he could use to help exact his revenge.

“It’s possible,” the Woman in Black was still infuriatingly calm. “I kill a lot of people. Tell me about this love of yours. Another noble like this one? Rich and cold?”

“No. A farm girl. Poor and perfect. With eyes like the heart of the Emerald Graves.” He sighed, realizing he had no hope to attack her now without weapons to use to his advantage. He had not seen her fight, but he doubted either Dorian or the Iron Bull had gone down easily. “She was sailing on the Waking Sea, your ship attacked, and the Dread Pirate Isabela never takes prisoners.”

“True,” she agreed affably, “I can’t afford to make exceptions. Once word gets out that a pirate has gone soft, people begin to disobey you and then it’s nothing but work, work, work all the time.”

“You mock my pain!”

“Life is pain, Highness! Anyone who says different is selling something.” The Woman in Black sighed and paced a bit on the edge of the ravine. "I remember this farmgirl of yours." She told Cullen after a moment. "She died well, you know. No blubbering or bribing, but she did ask to live. She simply said, "Please... please, I need to live." Cullen stared at the ground, wishing the Woman in Black would stop talking. He did not want to hear about his beloved's death. She continued, regardless. "It was the "please" that caught my memory. I asked her what was so important for her here. "True Love", she replied. And then she spoke of a man of surpassing beauty and faithfulness. I can only assume she meant you. You should bless me for destroying her before she found out what you really are."

"What do you mean by that?" Her dismissive tone angered Cullen. He had no weapons, but he would not allow her to insult the memory of his Buttercup. "What am I?"

The Woman in Black rounded on him, eyes flashing and jaw tight."Faithfulness she talked of, Ser, your enduring faithfulness. Now tell me truly, when you found out she was gone, did you get engaged to your Lady Humperdink at the same hour, or did you wait a whole week out of respect for the dead?"

Cullen glared back, unafraid. If she killed him, so be it. “You mocked me once, never do it again! I died the day you killed Buttercup!” She took a step back. "And you can die too, for all I care!" Cullen planted his hand on the Woman in Black’s side and shoved, sending her toppling down the hill into the ravine.


Out of a haze of five long years of resignation and bitter grief, Cullen’s memory stirred. “Oh my sweet Buttercup,” he whispered, and threw himself down the hill after her.


“That is preposterous, Varric,”

“I agree.”

“No, you cannot tell me that anyone would be foolish enough to throw themselves into a ravine on a romantic wh--You agree?” Cassandra stared at him. “Then why did you include it?”

Varric smirked. “Because it really happened.”

“It did not!”

“Well, not all the masks and dueling and such, but one time I was out in the Hinterlands with Curly and the Inquisitor--who does not like me calling her Stabby, by the way-- and Cullen accidentally elbowed her. She fell down a hill, and I swear to you Princess, his idea of a solution was to just throw himself after her."

Cassandra snorted. “That does sound like Cullen, now that you mention it. Theirs may be a romance for the ages, but the Commander can be a bit… undignified.”

“You mean that Curly isn’t the suavest guy around?” Varric clutched his chest melodramatically. “If someone heard you, Princess, just think of the scandal!”

Cassandra watched him laugh, pleased with herself. It occurred to her that Varric had never laughed at her jokes before. She always seemed to be ordering him around, instead.

Chapter Text

Lady Humperdink saw the two figures briefly before they vanished over the edge of the ravine.

She cursed and turned her horse. “They disappeared. The kidnapper must have seen us closing in. Which might account for his panicking into error. Unless I am wrong, and I am never wrong, they are headed dead into the Fallow Mire.”

“Should we follow them?” Asked the Magister.

“No.” She kicked her mount into a trot. “It’s not likely that my sweet Cullen will survive this. But we shall circle the mire and set a guard. I won’t give up hope yet.”


Cullen rolled down the steep hill, tumbling head over heels to the very bottom. He landed flat on his back, winded. After a moment, he opened his eyes and found Buttercup leaning over him. Her mask was gone, lost somewhere during the fall, and she laughed as he embraced her.

“Can you move at all?” She asked, breathless with joy.

“Move?” Cullen sat up and pulled her into his lap, wrapping his arms tightly around her once more. “You’re alive! If you want, I can fly.”

She leaned into his chest, but said seriously, “I told I would always come for you.” She sounded sad. “Why didn’t you wait for me?”

“Humperdink was threatening our people. I was trying to honor your memory by protecting them.”

“I’m not dead, though.” She protested.

Cullen leaned back to look her in the eye. “Buttercup, you were. Your ship was captured, your letters stopped coming. I held onto the hope that you still lived, but it seemed impossible.” He saw tears welling up in her beautiful green eyes. He wiped them away. “I should have known to expect the impossible from you.”

She sniffed and pressed her cheek against his hand. “Death cannot stop True Love,” she joked weakly, “only delay it for a little while.”

With more warmth and conviction than he had felt in five years since he had lost her, Cullen swore, “I will never doubt again.”

Buttercup placed her hand gently against his face as well and pledged with her eyes as well as her words, “There will never be a need.”

She drew him towards her and kissed him deeply, vowing that she would never hurt him again. Cullen pulled her closer, afraid that if he let her go she might vanish again, that this might be a dream and if he woke--


“--Princess, are you crying?”

Cassandra froze, traitorous handkerchief in her hand. “...No. It’s just the...cold. My… nose is blocked.”

A terrifying grin spread across Varric’s face. “My writing made you cry? Andraste’s tits, no one’s ever going to believe this!”

“I am not crying, Varric!”

“Okay, okay,” he held up a hand, still grinning. “Well I guess we’ll just skip the kissing part, then. You did say you didn’t want to read it.”

“I-- No, of course not.” Cassandra clenched her jaw and allowed Varric to skip ahead. The inquisitor would let her reread the chapter later, anyway. Alone.


Cullen and Buttercup raced along the floor of the ravine. The fog of the Fallow Mire loomed ahead of them. As they entered the first wisps of fog, Buttercup laughed. “Your pig fiancee is too late! Just a few more steps and we’ll be safe in the Fallow Mire!”

Cullen was less thrilled. “Is this really the wisest idea? We’re not well-equipped. I don’t even have a sword.”

Buttercup tossed him a spare dagger from... somewhere, and Cullen caught it with minimal fumbling.

“You’re just saying that because you don’t like zombies.”

“I think that is a perfectly reasonable aversion!”

The fog shrouded them completely, and the last light from the sun faded as it slipped below the horizon. Cullen and Buttercup walked hand-in-hand, so they would not be separated.

“It’s not so bad.” Buttercup said. Cullen made a sound of disagreement and disgust as he stepped in… something slimy. “I’m not saying I’d like to build a summer home here,” she continued, vaulting over a rotting log, “but the trees are actually quite lovely.” She landed with a moist squelch before offering Cullen a hand over.

They kept mostly to the path in front of them, and it joined with a wide but decrepit thoroughfare after a while. They kept heading south, working their way along the mossy rocks. It was slow going, at and one point Cullen slipped, falling into brackish water that reached above his knees. Cadash pulled him back onto solid ground, but there was a hand gripping his ankle when he stood up.

Cullen fell over again with a very courageous shriek and kicked at the undead creature that was crawling out of the water. Buttercup dispatched it with a dagger to the face and helped him back to his feet. “Well, that was certainly an adventure. Startled a bit, were you?” Cullen nodded, straightening his cloak and trying to regain some dignity. “The Fallow Mire certainly keeps you on your toes.” She said as she dealt swiftly with a second staggering corpse.

They continued their trek, careful to avoid disturbing the water. Buttercup could tell that Cullen was nervous in the Mire. “This will all soon be but a happy memory.” She told him, “Because the Dread Pirate Isabela’s ship, the Siren’s Call, is anchored at the southwest inlet. And I, as you know, am Isabela.”

“How is that possible, if she’s been raiding the coasts of Ferelden and the Free Marches for twenty years and you’ve only been gone for five?” Cullen had to ask.

“I myself am often surprised by life’s little quirks.” Buttercup smiled up at him. She seemed much more talkative than she had been before she left. “You see, what I told you on top of the hill was all true, about me saying ‘please,’ and Isabela remembering.” She casually stabbed a zombie that had been slowly lurching towards them. Cullen flinched. “It intrigued Isabela, as did my description of your love and the ethereal beauty of your facial scars.”



“Manly facial scars?”



“...Isabela let me live until she had looted my ship and come to a decision. She said, ‘All right Buttercup, I've never had a valet, and my cabin is always such a mess when I want to have visitors.... You can try it for tonight. But I'll most likely kill you in the morning.’ I never really believed that line, though. She was much too sweet to hurt anyone. And there was the fact that it went on for three years. ‘Good night, Buttercup. Good work. Sleep well. I'll most likely kill you in the morning.’ Every night, like she was following a script. But it was a fine time for me. I was learning to fight, play cards, knit, anything anyone would teach me. Isabela and I eventually became friends. And then it happened.” She paused to untangle a creeping vine from her boot.

“What happened?” Cullen asked.

“I met the most dashing dwarf in the world. He was an archer, a storyteller, a rogue and a gentleman.” She grasped Cullen’s hands between her own. “It was the only time I considered betraying my vows to you-- he was irresistible, Cullen, the whole crew fell for him…”



“Oh, all right. Kill-joy.”


“And then it happened. Well, Isabela had grown so rich, she wanted to retire. So she took me to her cabin, and told me her secret. ‘I am not the Dread Pirate Isabela’, she said. ‘My name is Merrill. I inherited the ship from the previous Dread Pirate Isabela, just as you will inherit it from me. The woman I inherited it from was not the real Dread Pirate Isabela either. Her name was actually Isabela, but that was just a silly coincidence. The real Isabela has been retired fifteen years and living like a Queen in Antiva.”

“You see,” Buttercup continued as they clambered over an old wall, “the important thing is the name. No one would ever fear the Dread Pirate Buttercup. So we sailed ashore, took on an entirely new crew, and Merrill stayed aboard for a while as first mate, all the time calling me Isabela. Once the crew believed, she left the ship, and I have been Isabela ever since. Except now that we're together, I shall retire and hand the name over to someone else. Is everything clear to you?”

“No,” said Cullen. They had come across a section of path that had been completely washed out between one dry-ish island and the next. Cullen focused on disturbing the water as little as possible as he crossed it, hoping to rouse fewer walking corpses. As he opened his mouth to ask Buttercup a question, he felt the ground shift under his boots. In the time he took in breath to shout, he had sunk up to his shoulders in sucking mud and dirty water. Buttercup reached for him in panic, but he vanished entirely in a heartbeat.

With no time to make a better plan, she grabbed the trailing branch of a willow tree. A few sharp tugs confirmed it would hold at least her weight, and Buttercup dove into the filthy water, kicking strongly downwards.

She grabbed Cullen around the waist and tried to swim upwards, but his cloak dragged her down. She could feel her own lungs beginning to strain and Cullen was already going limp when she finally broke the surface of the water. They lay on the bank gasping for a long minute, clinging to each other.

“I really need to learn how to swim.” Buttercup muttered to herself. “What sort of hero can’t swim?”

“We’ll never succeed.” Cullen tried to wring out his cloak, but threw his hands up in despair when all he accomplished was dumping water on his lap. “We might as well die here.”

“Never,” Buttercup said, holding him firmly by both hands. “Look, what are the three dangers of the Fallow Mire?: Zombies, which come out when the water is disturbed, so we can avoid that; water pits, and you were clever enough to discover what those look like, so in the future we can avoid them, too.”

Cullen frowned, water still dripping from his curls to the tip of his nose. “But Buttercup,” he said, “what about the D-O-U-S’s?”

Buttercup scoffed. “Dragons of Unusual Size? I don’t believe they exist.”


“What exactly is an unusual size for a dragon, Varric?”

“I don’t know, Princess. How big was that asshole that nearly killed you in Crestwood? Really big? Really fucking big? You’re the Pentaghast, you tell me.”

She remembered, or rather didn’t remember, that particular dragon. She had stepped in a puddle and been electrocuted to jerking unconsciousness through her armor. She still did not know who had dragged her out of the pool, but she doubted the experience of saving her life had been a pleasant one. “I suppose this is the sort of thing I should have come to expect from you by now,” Cassandra said dryly.

“Well, Princess, it’s not like you could expect any less of me.”

Cassandra opened her mouth and then closed it again. How could he believe that? How could he not know she didn’t believe it? Especially when she-- when she-- With a great deal of mental discipline, Cassandra forced her thought to remain unfinished.

Varric sighed and pressed blunt, ink-smeared fingertips to the space between his eyes, just above where his nose had been broken and healed crookedly. “Smaller than a High Dragon? But bigger than a baby.”

Cassandra tried to say something kind, really, she did, but Varric was the one who was kind to people, the one who always had the words. His fingers left a purplish smudge of ink above his nose. It looked foolish. Cassandra never ceased writing without being certain she had scrubbed all the ink off of her hands, but Varric didn’t even seem to notice it. Such things were not important to him. “Congratulations, Varric, you have described ninety-five percent of all dragons.”


Buttercup was suddenly smacked to the ground and pinned beneath a large, scaly claw. The dragon hissed, purple lightning crackling along its teeth. Her arms pinned at her sides, Buttercup was helpless. Cullen ducked its massive brown-and-white striped tail as it lashed around, drawing the dagger Buttercup had given him.

The dragon raised its head and screeched in triumph, and tried to kick at Cullen with a back leg, but he threw himself to the side just in time. Its body was brown, but the head, with two massive horns curving forward around its skull, was a light purple. Buttercup would have thought the color was pretty if it wasn’t about to kill her. Its eyes, tucked under jutting, scaly brows, were red and beady.


“Varric, dragons don’t have ‘brows’.”

“Would you rather I said ‘the Northern Hunter’s supraorbital process,’ Princess?”

Yes, thought Cassandra. I would have everyone know how intelligent you are. “No,” she told him, “I would prefer that you speak like yourself.”

She coughed and hoped she wasn’t blushing. She was new to kindness-- It stretched uneasily across her back, like a silk dress designed for a woman with much daintier shoulders.

“Then hush,” he told her, but he was smiling. It crinkled the ink smudge still sitting between his brows.


The dragon loomed over Buttercup, its jaw open and ready to devour her in one bite. She braced herself for a sharp, bad-smelling death.

It didn’t come. The dragon screeched again, this time in pain. It swung its head back and forth, trying to dislodge Cullen, who held on for dear life. He gripped the sharp ridges on the dragon’s neck, trying to stab the little dagger into the beast’s jugular. Buttercup watched, still pinned and hating it, as he almost lost his grip. The dragon’s neck started to glow as it readied another burst of electrical energy. Cullen finally worked the dagger between its scales, and the beast collapsed.

He ran over to Buttercup, and raised the heavy claw just enough for her to wriggle out of its powerful grip. She threw herself into his arms, crying with relief, and abruptly crumpled to the ground.

“What’s wrong?” Cullen knelt beside her, brow creased in worry.

“Just a bit of a flesh wound,” she gasped, “the dragon got my side.” Cullen moved her hand and saw a deep gash where the dragon’s claw had pinned her. Cullen took his dragon-slaying dagger and ripped his cloak into long strips. He carefully bound her side, hoping the bleeding would slow soon. Despite her protestations, he lifted her up in his arms and continued to walk. He could see a current beginning to move the still waters of the swamp, and followed the running water towards the sea.


“Oh thank the Maker,” Cullen whimpered as they staggered out of the Fallow Mire at last. His relief was short-lived, however, as the sound of pounding hooves began to echo throughout the clearing fog.

“Surrender!” Called the figure on the lead horse. Buttercup raised her daggers and placed herself between the riders and Cullen.

“You mean you wish to surrender to me?” She asked. “Very well, I accept.”

The Lady scoffed. “You have one more chance. I do not suffer fools gladly.”

“Your darling fiancee, I presume?” Buttercup asked, raising an eyebrow at Mere--


Varric frowned and scratched out a word on the parchment.


--at Humperdink.


Cullen saw Humperdink’s forces arrayed around them, arrows trained on Buttercup.

Buttercup spat at the feet of Humperdink’s horse. “Death first!”

“Do you promise not to hurt her?” Cullen asked frantically.

“What?” asked Humperdink.

“What?” asked Buttercup.

“What?” Demanded Cassandra.

Varric pointedly ignored the outburst and kept reading.

“If I go with you, will you promise not to hurt her?” Cullen repeated.

Lady Humperdink put a hand over her heart. “May I live a thousand years and never hunt again.”

Cullen stared her down, searching for honesty in her eyes. “She is a sailor on the pirate ship Siren’s Call. Promise to return her there.”

“I swear it will be done.” Said Humperdink. Cullen looked down at Buttercup, and she turned to whisper to her Magister. “As soon as we are gone, take the dwarf back to Dirkhall and throw her in the Pit of Despair.”

“I swear it will be done.” He replied, smirking.

Cullen grabbed Buttercup by the shoulders, careful of her wound. “I lost you once, and it almost destroyed me. I can’t lose you again, Princess. Not when I can save you.” He leaned down to kiss her goodbye, but Humperdink swept him up onto her horse, and galloped away.

Buttercup watched until they were out of sight, and then turned to the Magister. “Come, Ser,” the Magister said. “We must get you to your ship.”

Buttercup sighed and rubbed the bridge her nose. “We are people of action. Lies do not become us.”

“Well spoken, Ser.” He said. A cruel smile slid over his features, but he did not move.

Buttercup watched him warily. “I cannot help but notice that you have six fingers on your right hand,” she said.

“What of it?” The Magister covered his hand in a protective gesture.

“Your son is looking for you.” A blast of force magic hit her and she crumpled to the ground.


Meanwhile, the Iron Bull gazed apprehensively at the edge of the Fallow Mire. “Oh fuck no. Not even for a dragon,” he said, and then began the long trudge around, searching for signs of Dorian.

Chapter Text

Buttercup fought her way back to consciousness, only to find herself strapped to a cold metal table.

“Where am I?” she croaked.

A pale man with stringy black hair entered her vision. His eyes were tired and bloodshot, and she could see his hands shaking as he set a bowl on the table beside her. Her pulse sped up-- blood magic?

“The Pit of Despair,” he croaked, his voice scratching and harsh. Buttercup shuddered at the terrible sound. He coughed, hacking into his hand.

“That’s a bit on the nose, isn’t it?” Buttercup asked.

The man scowled at her. “‘m not in charge of the naming around here,” he all but whined, “‘m just s’posed to let you know the rules.” His voice sounded much more natural after the vigorous coughing.

“Apologies,” Buttercup answered, attempting to crane her neck from its place on the table to get a look at what the man was doing with the bowl. “So what exactly are these ‘rules?’”

“Let’s see,” the man brought a cloth from the bowl to the wounds at her sides and shoulder. Buttercup smelled antiseptic. Perhaps not blood magic, then? “Don’t even think of trying to escape. The chains are far too thick. Don’t dream of being rescued, either. The way in is secret. Only Lady Humperdink, Magister Pavus, and I know how to get in and out.”

“So I’m here until I die, then?”

“‘Till they kill you, yeah.”

“You know I’m really uncomfortable with the emphasis you’re putting on that semantic difference.”

“You’re probably going to be uncomfortable with a lot of things pretty soon.”

“So it’s to be torture, then?” Buttercup asked.

The man nodded.

Buttercup scoffed. “I can handle torture.”

The man shook his head.

“You don’t think so?”

“You survived the Fallow Mire, so you must be very brave, but no one withstands--” and here the man’s eyes grew very wide, as though his words alone could not impart the greatness of the horror, “--The Machine.”


“‘The Machine?’”

Varric shrugged. “Okay, so admittedly even I thought that one sucked.”

“Deathly criticism coming from the man who named his torture chamber ‘The Pit of Despair.’”

“Brilliant editing coming from a bestselling author.”

“I suppose it is a better name than some of your euphemisms for genitals.”

Varric laughed. “Oh, those? I come up with those by pulling random scraps of paper with words on them out of a box. I told you, Princess. Nobody reads Swords and Shields.”

“Perhaps it’s best they not, if you insist on continuing to refer to the Knight-Captain’s ‘tumescent shores.’”

“Well clearly you’ve already proven your standards of naming higher than my own, Princess, so can I move on?”

“If you must,” Cassandra huffed.


Cullen was morose. He was also despondent, and despairing, and very, very sad. He knew he had made the right decision, bargaining his freedom for Buttercup’s life, but now he seemed to feel empty all over again. He’d lost her once, and then found her… and given her up, all on his own. He had no one to blame for his situation except himself.That made it worse, somehow.

He shut himself up in the rooms Humperdink had given him- lavish, beautiful apartments decorated with fine tapestries and fanciful paintings, but no windows. After a day, he went in search of a window to brood at, and wandered the halls in a cloud of gloom. He could hear the servants and courtiers whisper to each other when he passed by. They wondered why he looked so sad, when he was soon to marry the most powerful woman in the land.

Once night, he heard Humperdink and the Magister whispering, but they fell silent as he came closer. They watched him pass by, head bowed, cloak trailing behind him. He did not stop or even turn to look at them.

“It is the plight of the mages that upsets him so.” he heard Humperdink tell the Magister. “He is such a sensitive soul.”

“Of course,” the Magister replied. They sounded sarcastic and mocking, and Cullen hated them.


That night was Cullen’s last night of freedom.The next day, Cullen and Humperdink were married. Cullen met the people of Dirkhall again, this time as their Lord.

Humperdink addressed the people of Dirkhall again from her lofty balcony. “My people, in the words of the late Viscount--”


“Stop right there, Varric.” Cassandra interrupted, severely distraught. “You wrote that wrong-- He doesn’t marry Humperdink, he can’t! He truly can not. Varric, he’s actually getting married to Buttercup! How is this an appropriate wedding gift? And in the story-- after everything he and Buttercup went through, it isn’t fair! It’s not just!”

Varric, true to infuriating form, chuckled into his tea. “Well, who says life is fair? Where’s that written, Princess? Hardly anyone really gets to marry their one true love.”

She ignored him. “Varric, you have written your story incorrectly.” She stared at him with all the haughtiness a Seeker of Truth and tertiary Princess of Nevarra could muster. “Now get it right.”

He stared back. “Which one of us is the massively successful best-selling author, beloved of the Orlesian court and the whole of Ferelden?”

He twirled his quill between his fingers like a dagger. She refused to let herself be distracted by the deftness of the movement.

“Is it you, Princess?”

Their staring competition continued.

“Do you want to stop here, Princess? I wouldn’t want to upset you while you were sick.”

“You wouldn’t dare! Varric, if you don’t keep reading, I will… I will stab every copy of your books that I can find!”

He wasn’t phased.

“I will insist the inquisitor take you with us the next time we go bear hunting.”

Varric remained unmoved.

Cassandra would deny it to the point of bloodshed if he ever brought it up outside the room, but she backed down.

“Please keep reading Varric. It can’t end here. Real life might not always have happy endings, but this story does, right?”

“This story is based on real life, Princess.”

She made a disgusted noise. “Barely.”

“I’m just saying, life isn’t fair. It’s fairer than death, that’s all.”

“So what?” Cassandra snarled.

“So sometimes the hero doesn’t end up with the right girl.”

“And why not?” The noise tore from Cassandra’s throat. It sounded nothing like her normal voice, though whether that was due to her cold or the emotion she could not say. She was on the verge of tears now, and could not explain, even to herself, why.

“Because maybe she doesn’t love him back!” Varric bit out. The edges of the parchment crumpled under his hands. He paused and made a conscious effort to smooth them. When he spoke again he was calmer, sounded almost resigned. “Or maybe she does--could have--did--but things just don’t always work out the way we want them to. It just happens that way sometimes, and you have to be okay with it, take what happiness you can. Because life isn’t fair, Princess. Not even in storybooks.”

Cassandra had not calmed down. She glowered at him like banked embers. “So make it fair. The quill is in your hands.”

Varric glanced at the quill, at his ink-stained hands, and gave her a wry smile. “I know this won’t make any sense to you from where you’re sitting, but I’m only an author. I don’t have the power to give just anyone a happy ending.”


“My people,” Humperdink said from her lofty balcony, “In the words of the late Viscount, ‘love Dirkwall as I loved her, and there will be joy.’ I present to you, Lord Commander Cullen!”

Cullen walked out into the crowd once more, in his shining armor, and a new brilliant red cloak. He wore a gold band upon his head now, an affectation Humperdink had insisted upon, it glittered in the sunlight, and once again, he heard the people whispering. He looked so regal, they said, so handsome and brave. They bowed low as he strode out among them. All except one.

A dark-skinned woman in elegant robes stood proudly in front of Cullen, defying anyone who might see her kneel. “Boo!” The woman did something far too stately to be called yelling. Instead, she spoke clearly, loud enough to be heard all the way in the back of the kneeling crowd, and Cullen felt her disdain for him seep through his pores and worm its way into his very soul.

“Boo!” She enunciated again. “Boo!”

“Why are you doing this?” Cullen asked when he had recovered enough to speak.

“Because you had love, darling, and you gave it up.”

“But they would have killed Buttercup if I hadn’t done it!” Cullen protested.

The woman inspected her nails before sparing a glance upwards again. “All you are telling us, my dear, is that your true love lives, and you marry another. True love saved you in the Fallow Mire, and then you treated it like garbage. Perhaps that’s all you are: the King of Refuse, the Lord of Putrescence.” She raised her voice to include the crowd in their exchange. “Bow down to him if you wish, bow to the Lord of Slime, the King of Filth. Boo!”

She advanced on him, repeating the names. “Rubbish! Filth! Slime! Muck! Boo! Boo! BOO!”

Cullen sat up in his bed, sweat on his brow and a shout on his lips. It was ten days ‘till the wedding. He knew he had saved Buttercup, but Cullen’s nightmares were growing steadily worse.


“Thank you, Varric.”

“This doesn’t mean the ending will be entirely to your liking, you know.”

“But there’s still hope. They’re both alive, anything can happen.”

“Yes, I suppose there’s always hope.”


The words of the regal woman stayed with Cullen when he woke, shaming him. He went to Humperdith with an ultimatum. She was sitting at her desk, writing reports, and smirked at him when he came in. She had him trapped and helpless, and she knew it.

“It comes to this.” He declared. “I love Buttercup. I always have. I know now I always will. If you tell me we must marry in ten days, please believe that I will be dead by morning.”

She looked at him with perfectly acted concern, but did not put down her pen. Cullen thought about how much he would hate being married to her. “I would never wish to cause you any grief, Cullen. Consider our wedding off.”

Cullen stared at her. Perfectly calm, she turned to the Magister. “We returned this, er, Buttercup to her ship, correct?” The Magister nodded seriously. “Then we will simply alert her. Cullen, are you certain she still wants you?” Cullen nearly punched her, but she continued, oblivious. “After all, it was you who did the leaving in the outside the Fallow Mire. Not to mention that, uh, pirates are not known to be people of their word.”

He did not let her raise any doubt within him. After all, he had sworn to Buttercup he never would again. “My Buttercup will always come for me,” he told her firmly.

Humperdith didn’t seemed concerned. She steepled her fingers and watched him over them. “I suggest a deal. You write four copies of a letter- whatever you like, I won’t even read it. I’ll send four of my fastest ships, one in each direction. The Dread Pirate Isabela is always in the waters outside Dirkhall this time of year. We’ll run up the white flag and deliver your message. If Buttercup wants you, she will return, and I shall bless your union myself. If not, please consider me as an alternative to suicide?”

Cullen nodded. He would never love her, of course, but he supposed Buttercup would prefer him not be dead. And anyways, she was coming for him. He had faith in that.


Humperdink and Magister Pavus left their horses on the path, and continued on foot into the unmarked brush. Humperdink used her sword to hack a clear way through the briars, taking out her frustrations on the innocent undergrowth. Slightly more cunning, the Magister regrew the plants magically, hiding their path.

He let her slay a few more leafy demons. “Cullen is a rather winning creature, I suppose. Manly, of course, and Fereldan, but I can see the appeal.”

Humperdink shot him a withering glance. “The people are rather taken with him, I suppose. It’s odd, but when I hired that elven apostate to dispose of him, I thought I was clever.” She snorted. “But it will be so much more moving when I strangle him on our wedding night. Once Highever is blamed, the city will be truly outraged. They will demand we go to war.”

She smirked as Magister Pavus ran his hands over a tree, looking for a particular knot on a particular branch.He muttered to himself in Tevene while he searched for the secret door.He made a noise of triumph once he finally found it, a door opening in the trunk of the tree as if by magic. “Are you coming down to the Pit?” He asked Humperdink, like he was inviting her for a stroll through the gardens. “The dwarf has her strength back, I’m starting her on the Machine tonight.”

She sighed, regretful. “Halward, you know how much I love watching you work, but I simply don’t have the time. I have my city’s nine-hundredth anniversary party to plan, my wedding to arrange, my husband to murder, and Highever to blame for it. Not to mention some pesky rebel mages to oppress. I’m swamped!”

“Get some rest,” the Magister advised her, “if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.” He descended down into the tree, the door closing behind him. With the barrier between them, each dropped their cordial act. For all that they were using each other for mutual gain, the villains despised each other.


“And this is where I might put in a torture scene. If I can find a way to make torture light. It’s been a challenge.” Varric shuffled through his papers to find the next section.


Five days before the wedding, Humperdith summoned Yellin, the captain of the guard into her office.


“What sort of name is ‘Yellin,’ Varric?”

“Well I decided to call him that because he’s always--”

“If you finish that sentence, I will smite you.”


Yellin valued honor, and believed Humperdink honorable. He valued truth, and believed her truthful. He saw Humperdink as the solution to the villainy and lawlessness that plagued the city of Dirkhall, though he might not have supported her had he known all her plans. Knowing this, she kept him ignorant, and he was as obedient as any templar on the lyrium leash.

She motioned him to her desk, and he approached with gratifying reverence. “My spies have intercepted a troubling communication.” She told him. “You recall the villains who kidnapped the Lord Commander Cullen?” He nodded vigorously, shaking his fist in a comical expression of anger. “They did not act alone. More agents of Highever have infiltrated the city. They are gathering in Darktown, that hive of filth, and are planning to murder Cullen on our wedding night.”

He looked at her askance, “My own spy network has heard no such news, my Lady.”

He looked about to question her further, but Cullen appeared in the doorway. “Is there any word from my Buttercup?” He asked Humperdink, ignoring Yellin. Humperdink was momentarily struck by how similar the men looked, though Cullen seemed superior in nearly every way. Aside from his annoying propensity for independent thought.Yellin was far preferable in that regard.

“No, darling,” she said, for Yellin’s benefit. She had no doubt that he gossiped with the men under his command. “It is too soon yet. Patience.”

Cullen glared at her. “She will come for me. I have no doubt.”

“Of course.” Humperdink resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Cullen left and she turned to Yellin. “He will not be murdered. On the day of the wedding, I want Darktown cleared, and every inhabitant arrested.”

Yellin balked slightly. “Even the families? The children?”

“It’s for their own good, Yellin. If we collect innocents as well, then we are only protecting them from the monsters in their midst. In fact, it might be best to form a Brute Squad, to help people understand that we are acting in their own best interests. That mercenary group that’s been hanging around, maybe?”

“It won’t be easy, my Lady.”

She waved him away tiredly. “Try ruling the world, sometime, Yellin.”

The day of the wedding arrived, and even with the muscle he had hired for the Brute Squad, Yellin had his hands full carrying out Humperdink’s orders. He had just finished smiting and corralling a group of mages into a cart when his lieutenant came to report in.

“Have you completed your task?” He asked stiffly. He was fairly certain that there were apostates among the mercenaries he had hired, though none had advertised as such.

“Almost, Ser. There’s a ‘Vint giving us some trouble.”

“I’ll deal with it.” He gestured to the cart driver to move.

He rapped on the last closed door in Darktown. It swung open easily. Inside, Yellin found a man nursing a bottle of wine. The ‘Vint barely acknowledged him, instead staring at his reflection on the bottle and stroking his moustache mournfully.

“I am waiting for the elf.” He told Yellin. “He owes me money. I will not budge.” He looked at the guard captain blearily. “Didn’t I already kidnap you?”

“What? No, I’m hear to clear Darktown. You’ll be getting up now please.”

“No of course not, he had better hair.” He took a long pull from the bottle. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I will not move.”

“The Lady Humperdink gave orders.” Yellin protested.

The mage, for he was a mage, apparently, called fire to his fingers, and glared at Yellin with unfocused aggression. “So did Solas. And the job went wrong, and I lost everything I’d gained since. So I went back to the beginning. Here, in a filthy Fereldan tavern. And I shall stay here until someone comes to get me-- not you-- or until I pickle myself with cheap alcohol.” He pointed a flame at Yellin, keeping him at bay.

“Ser, if you don’t come quietly I will call the brute squad.”

The door opened behind the guard captain, and it felt oddly as if the room became much smaller. A huge gray hand pushed him to the side. “I’m on the brute squad,” the owner of the hand said.

“You are the brute squad?” Yellin asked.

The Iron Bull shrugged. “Close enough.” And tapped him lightly on the head. Yellin went down like he’d been kicked by a bronto.

“Bull,” Dorian breathed.

“Kadan,” Bull answered, and fell to his knees right there in the doorway. Dorian stood and took an unsteady step towards him. “I find out you love me and then you run off to kill yourself in this shithole?” He asked.

Dorian fell. Bull caught him. Bull, it seemed, always caught him.

Dorian righted himself, holding Bull’s horns for balance and looking deep into his eyes. “Bull, I may vomit soon. We should leave.”

The Iron Bull nodded and scooped Dorian into his arms. “Together, then,” he said firmly.

Dorian nodded, already half asleep. “Always, Amatus.”

Bull battered his way through the rest of the brute squad, quite an achievement since he could not use his arms.

He found an out of the way hovel in which to nurse Dorian back to health. The Iron Bull took greatest care to help his lover through his drunkenness.


“Varric, the last time Dorian got truly sloshed, Bull dunked his head repeatedly into buckets of hot and cold water before force feeding him soup.” She took a sip of tea. It was cold.

“Isn’t that what I just said happened, Princess?”


“Well, caring looks different on different people.” He twirled his pen. “For instance, for Cullen and the Inquisitor, it’s ridiculous pet names and slaying zombies together. For Dorian and Bull, it’s buckets of hot and cold water.”

“What about for you?”

Varric just smiled and handed her his teacup. It was still warm. He got up to pour another cup for himself.

Chapter Text

When Dorian was mostly recovered, the Iron Bull told him what he’d missed. His story was frequently interrupted in a tearful and passionate manner, so the summary is this: he’d gone back to the ruined tower and followed Dorian’s tracks but had lost them in the night. He’d circled the Fallow Mire and returned to Dirkhall, where he hung around the palace hoping that he’d hear something about his missing lover. Upon hearing about Lady Humperdink’s order to clear out Darktown, he followed the brute squad, getting people away from them rather than letting children be rounded up into Humperdink’s dungeons. It was by happy coincidence that he’d found Dorian in the little hovel.

“I also heard some news that you want to know,” He said once his tale was complete. Dorian looked up from his porridge with foggy curiosity. “Your father is in the city, as an advisor to Lady Humperdink.”

Dorian, still rather weak, fainted into the bowl. He came to quickly, wiping oats off his moustache with distaste. “Let’s go kill him.”

“Woah, woah, woah.” Bull put a heavy hand on Dorian’s shoulder, completely preventing him from getting up. “You’re in no condition to be killing anyone, Kadan. You can barely even stand.”

“I can stand!” Dorian squawked indignantly, but wasn’t able to demonstrate this ability, since Bull was still leaning on him.

“Besides,” Iron Bull continued as if he’d never been interrupted, “The palace gate is guarded by thirty templars.”

Dorian groaned. “How many could you handle?”

Bull shrugged. “Eight easy, ten at a stretch.”

“That leaves....” It is important here to mention that Dorian was normally quite good at math. It was unusual for him to have to count on his fingers, much less bend over his own toes as he was currently doing. “Bull, where did my boots go?”

“You told me you sold them for more Chasind Sack Mead,” the Bull answered promptly.

“That does sound like me,” Dorian sighed. “And I could hardly defeat twenty even if I had proper shoes.” His face veered dangerously towards the porridge again.

“Easy, there, Kadan.” Bull caught him again. “What we need is a plan.”

“Our plan is always the same: set everyone on fire.”

“Don’t forget hitting them with a giant axe. But that’s not a plan for thirty men. That’s a plan for maybe sixteen.”

Dorian huffed. His shoeless ankles had a tan line. “We need the Woman in Black. She could’ve figured out how to beat thirty.”

“So we’ll find her.”

“Where do you suggest we start looking?” Dorian snapped.

Bull shrugged. “Hey, I didn’t say this was a perfect plan. We either need to get ahold of her or enough lyrium to kill a team of bronto. But either way we’ll get you where you need to go, kadan.”

“Let’s do it.” He stood with determination and barely wobbled.

“We don’t still know where she is, and you still don’t have shoes.”

“Don’t bother me with trifles.” Dorian waved him away. “After twenty years, my vengeance is within my reach. There will be blood tonight!” He strode out the door, and immediately strode back in. “Amatus, I have stepped in something vile. You will carry me to somewhere we can purchase shoes, and then there will be blood!”


Humperdink was sharpening her favorite sword when Yellin returned. He knelt with gratifying humility and waited for her attention.

She basked in the unquestioning loyalty, and then commanded him to report. “Darktown is empty, my Lady. Thirty templars guard your castle gate.”


Varric waggled his eyebrows. “That’s a euphemism, Princess.”

“I’m ignoring you, lecher.” Cassandra huffed.

“Aw, but I was going to offer to guard your gate!”

“My gate has a very sharp sword already, thank you.” She was not flustered.


“Double it. Cullen must be safe.”

“As you say, my liege.”

“Speak of the Damsel, and he may appear,” Humperdith murmured as Cullen stepped into her doorway. She rose and went to him. “My dulcet darling,” she purred and took his hands. He leaned back a bit in distaste. “Tonight, we marry. Tomorrow, my men shall escort us to the coast, where every ship in my armada waits to accompany us on our honeymoon.” Yellin sighed dreamily somewhere behind her.

“Every ship but your four fastest,” Cullen said with a worried look. “The four you sent with letters to Buttercup.”

“Of course, of course.” Humperdink said, trying not to roll her eyes while Cullen was looking directly into them. “Naturally, not those four.”

Yellin tried to slip quietly out of the room, but accidentally slammed the door behind him. Cullen and Humperdith both startled, and Cullen took the opportunity to drop her hands. He did not step away though.

“You never sent those ships, did you.” He looked very disappointed. “Don’t bother lying.”

“Oh thank the maker,” Meredink answered. “The lying was getting simply exhausting.”

He glared at her with expressive contempt. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. Buttercup will still find me.”

“You are a profoundly silly man.” She told him.

“Yes.” He stood tall, and though he was not quite tall enough to loom over her, she was reminded that he was a competent commander and respected warrior. “I may be silly, and idealistic. I may be a fool, and sometimes an oblivious idiot, and I may have noodles instead of hair--”

“Is there a point to this?” She had to ask.

Cullen coughed awkwardly. “Yes. I was saying that I was a fool not to have seen sooner that you are a coward, Lady Humperdink, a power-hungry coward, with nothing but a heart full of fear.”

She glared back at him. “I would not say such things if I were you, my Lord.”

He laughed at her! She was furious. It took much of her self control not to run him through then and there.

“Why not? You can’t hurt me!” He truly was an oblivious idiot. She was holding a very sharp sword at that moment. “Buttercup and I are joined by the bonds of love! And you cannot track that, not with a thousand Mabari. And you cannot break it, not with a thousand swords.” He stood his ground even as she raised her hand. “And when I say you are a coward, that is only because you are the slimiest weakling ever to crawl the earth.”

“I would not say such things if I were you!” She snarled, and dragged him roughly through the halls of the palace to his windowless rooms. She thrust him inside and slammed the door, locking it savagely.

She stormed through the castle and out to the stables, where she grabbed a saddled horse from a soldier. She rode it out into the woods, pressing it harder than was healthy. Her fury blinded to her all else, though she would not have cared much anyway. She was kind of an asshole, is what I’m getting at here.

She blew through the hidden door in the tree, and down the steps it concealed, into the Pit of Despair. Buttercup was laying, hooked up the Machine, in the center of the room.

“You truly love each other,” Humperdink snarled, “and so you could have been truly happy. Not one couple in a century has that chance. And so it’s fitting, in a way, that not one woman in a century will suffer as greatly as you will." And then Humperdink wrenched The Lever--which has, of course, already been introduced to the narrative--all the way to fifty. Which, as we all know from the previous mentioning of The Lever on The Machine in the last torture scene, is the highest it can go and is most certainly fatal.


Cassandra glowered at him.

“Just... It’s a first draft, Princess. All right?”

“As you say.” Varric thought for a moment he had actually seen Cassandra smirking at him.


This is not a happy section, no matter that it is written for a wedding, and so I will not go into details, but suffice it to say that Buttercup suffered a great deal of pain, that her agony went on for hours, perhaps even days, and then it stopped. But that was not a happy thing, either.


Above ground, at the same time, Dorian had finally chosen a pair of shoes.

“Do you hear that sound, Bull?” He asked as they exited the shop.

“No.” Bull had stood too near a Gaatlok cannon more than once in Seheron. It was honestly a miracle he still heard anything.

Dorian rolled his eyes. “That’s the sound of ultimate suffering.”

Bull rolled his eye. “That’s not a hearable sound, Dorian, that’s--”

He stopped short of telling Dorian anything more about the moments on the Cliffs of Insanity when he had believed him gone. The new openness in their relationship did not mean that all things should be shared at once. Better to wait a few days. Months. Maybe a few years would be best.

“My heart made that sound the day Felix died. The Woman in Black makes it now.”

Bull paused a moment and listened hard. He did hear a sort of faint little noise that could best be transcribed as “WAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAAAUUUUUUUUGHH!”



“Sorry. ‘a faint noise that could best be described as embodying the very notions of pain, agony, horror, suffering, discomfort, torment, throb, sting, bother...’” Varric drained his tea.

Cassandra made a disgusted noise. “Well clearly you chose ‘waaaaugh’ because it was the most poetic.”

Varric beamed at her. “Was that a joke, Cassandra? An actual joke?”

Cassandra didn’t even mind the teasing. She was too busy trying to remember if Varric had ever said her name aloud before.


“Okay,” The Bull shrugged. “Let’s say that’s the sound of ultimate suffering. What on earth makes you think the Woman in Black is the one doing... that?”

Dorian made an equivocating sort of noise. “Her true love is marrying another tonight. Who else has cause for ultimate suffering?”

Bull was rolling his eye again. Dorian scowled up at him. “I seem to recall someone saying something about ‘not a perfect plan but we’ll get there?’”

Bull chuckled at that. “All right, all right. After you.” He bowed to Dorian, less than half mockingly, and attempted to follow his heart through the crowded lowtown market.

Dorian did not make it very far before realizing the milling crowd was a problem. “Amatus, could you...?” He gestured broadly.

The Iron Bull took a deep breath and then bellowed, “WHO WANTS TO LEARN ABOUT ACHIEVING VICTORY UNDER THE QUN?”

“Thank you, darling,” said Dorian, and they marched arm in arm through the deserted market square.


Dorian was able to follow the sounds as far as the forest around the city of Kirkhall, but there they choked off and fell suddenly silent.

He and Bull wandered frantically through the trees for a long time, and at length came upon a desperate, unkempt looking man. He was rooting through the underbrush for elfroot and deep mushrooms, a wheelbarrow beside him.

Dorian snuck up and grabbed him roughly by the shoulder. “Where is the Woman in Black?” He demanded.

“Kadan, are you sure he even knows? He’s just some guy we found in the woods.”

Dorian paused. The man’s bloodshot eyes looked a little panicked. “He does. I can feel my father’s foul magic upon him.”

“Alright.” Bull came up beside him, and glowered menacingly at their captive.. “Answer the question.”

The man didn’t speak.

“Bull, jog his memory.”

Bull did his best: he tapped him on the head. He went down like he’d been kicked by a bronto.


“That’s exactly the same thing you said before, Varric. Word for word.”

“Hey, rough draft, right?”



He went down like he’d been smacked on the head by a Qunari. “Sorry, Dorian. I didn’t mean to jog him so hard.”

Dorian rolled his eyes and continued to search.

They searched for hours. Long enough for Dorian to grow desperate enough to attempt something no agnostic necromancer in their right mind would ever dream of doing. Dorian knelt down and began to pray to one of the only two beings he had ever had faith in.

“Felix,” he whispered. “Oh Maker, this is foolish.” He stood and then promptly knelt again. “Felix, I know you never believed in revenge, but I do. You were always the noblest of us, but there are some things that must be answered for, and I--” Dorian broke off, unable to continue any longer.

The Iron Bull put a steadying hand on Dorian’s shoulder and went to his protesting knees right beside his lover there in the clearing. “Felix,” he said, his voice stumbling but clear, “We’ve never met, you don’t owe me anything, but you were Dorian’s true love before he was mine. You were a good man, or so I’ve heard, and you took care of my heart before it made its way to me. So I think I owe you something for that.... I owe you everything for that. And you may not need this, but Dorian does. And if I can’t do anything else for you as long as I live, I swear I’ll give Dorian everything he needs. So please, if you’re out there in... spirit or whatever, guide us to the Woman in Black. Help me give Dorian what he needs.”

Dorian was crying when Bull finished. He was crying so much, in fact, that his tears nearly blinded him to the presence directly in front of them.

“I’m not Felix,” said a voice from under a floppy-brimmed hat, “but I can help. I like to help.”

“Uh, yeah,” the Bull said, stunned, “yeah I guess that would work too.”

“This way,” the spirit boy said, tugging on Dorian’s staff.

“Where are we going?”

The boy shrugged. “We’re listening to the hurt.”

“What a marvellously specific answer,” Dorian grumbled, but he followed the pulls on his staff deeper into the trees nonetheless.


“I’m glad I was in your story, Varric. I’m glad I could help.”

Varric practically levitated out of his chair. Cole caught his tea cup before its dregs could spill onto the manuscript. “Andraste’s pillowy tits, Kid! How long have you been there?”

“That is an excellent question,” Cassandra grumbled, flushing hotly at what in her thoughts the spirit boy might have “overheard.”

“Not long,” he answered. “I heard my name in your thoughts. I’m sorry. I meant to help. I can make you--”

“No!” Varric and Cassandra snapped as one.

Varric sighed and rubbed his eyes. He really did need reading glasses, Cassandra thought. “It’s fine, kid. We just... weren’t expecting you is all. You don’t have to make us forget.”

“I can’t do that anymore,” Cole said slowly, staring at him. “I was going to make more tea.”

“Oh... Uh, yeah, that’s good. I think we’re due for another pot.”

“You were thirsty, but you didn’t want to stop reading. Silent, spellbound, her eyes on me, only on me, words so familiar I barely have to glance at the pages, Am I taking advantage? Does she notice that I--”

“The tea leaves are on the shelf there, kid,” Varric said hurriedly.

“Varric,” said Cassandra. Varric’s head shot up and he gave her a guilty look she could not properly interpret. “Why is it that even Cole has a part in this story yet I do not?”

“She doesn’t know?” Cole asked, his blue eyes huge in astonishment. Varric ushered him from the room and finished preparing the tea himself.


“Well,” said Bull, surveying the corpse of the Woman in Black (who was now wearing a green shirt, which made the identifier quite confusing), “she’s dead.”


“Varric, you read that wrong!” Cassandra accused. “What does Bull mean ‘she’s dead?’ Buttercup cannot be dead! Did you write another dream in? Is she faking?”

“Do you want me to read this to you or not?”

“It just seems unfair!”


“Dead? That just seems unfair!” Dorian tried electrocuting the corpse, just in case she was faking. “No, Amatus. I believe you are right. Very dead.”


“Who gets Humperdink?”

“What?” Varric asked.

“Who kills Lady Humperdink? At the end. Someone must do it! Is it Dorian?”

Varric did not actually manage to stifle his snort. “Nobody kills her. She lives.”

“Andraste’s pearly nipple rings, Varric, what are you reading me this garbage for?”

“Seeker, did you, the Right Hand of the Divine, just say Andraste’s--”

“I am perfectly aware of what I said, Varric.”

Varric raised his eyebrows and continued reading.


Dorian tapped his foot consideringly, then began a sort of hysterical giggle. “So. She’s dead.”

Bull nodded. Dorian was taking the news... suspiciously well.

“Bull, how much money do you have?”

“Ten royals. You?”


“Going shopping?”

Dorian shrugged. “I just hope it’s enough to buy a miracle. Pick her up, we have some distance to cover.”

He followed Dorian out of the city and into the forest outside Dirkhall. There they found a small hut with a small garden. Dorian knocked boldly on the door.

“Go away!” Yelled the closed hut door.

“Are you the Miracle Morrigan who worked for Empress Celene all those years before Humperdink ousted you as an apostate?” Dorian replied.

“Someday someone will summarize the negative events of your life so succinctly,” snapped the woman on the other side of the door.

“So that’s a yes, then,” Bull dropped the corpse on the ground. Dead dwarves were much heavier than they looked and even his arms were getting tired after all the carrying people he had done today.

“Lady Morrigan,” said Dorian with a courtly bow bow, “We need a miracle. It’s very important.”

“No!” The tiny window in the hut door slammed closed.

“Just take a look?” Dorian pleaded.

“Why would you trust an apostate like myself in any case?” Asked the door. “I might kill the very person you need me to miracle.”

Bull snorted. “That would be hard, as she’s already dead.”

“Is she now? Fascinating.” The door opened to reveal a woman of surpassing and yet oddly creepy beauty. “Very well, bring her in.”

Bull laid the Woman in Black on Miracle Morrigan’s table. The witch poked and prodded at the corpse, said some spells over it, did some tests, it all looked very impressive and magical. After some time, she stepped back, and Dorian and Bull waited anxiously for her verdict.

“I’ve seen worse.” She said. “You could raise her easily if you need a fighting zombie. I don’t see why you bothered bring her here to me.”

Dorian scoffed. “As a trained necromancer, I could do that easily, yes. But we would prefer to resurrect her, and not some possessed, shambling corpse.” He stroked his moustache elegantly. “Also, do you mind hurrying up? We’re really in a terrible rush, and I know you’re putting on a show for us.”

She glared at him. “Do not rush me.‘Tis not easy work, conjuring miracles. Rush me, and who can say what may go awry?” She turned back to Buttercup, lying on the table. “Do you have coin?”

“Fifteen royals.” Dorian replied promptly.

She made a disgusted noise worthy of a Penteghast. “I’ve never worked for so little! Well, only once, and that was to defeat a Blight. 'Tis a noble cause, that.”

“This is a noble cause, Lady!” Dorian clasped his hands together. “Her husband is crippled, her children are starving!”

“You are a terrible liar.” She informed him drily.

“Please. I need her to help avenge my friend, murdered fifteen years ago.”

“‘Twas a better story the first time. Now where’s that bellows cram?” She snorted and turned to rummage in the stacks of occult items on her shelves. “I suppose she owes you money? ‘Tis what it always seems to be. Well, I shall ask her.”

“Ask her?” Bull interjected. “But she’s dead! If you’re going to be summoning spirits, please let me step outside first.” Morrigan found the bellows she’d been looking for.

“Oh, you are the expert here, are you? It just so happens that your friend is only mostly dead. There is a rather large difference between mostly dead and all dead.” She placed the instrument into Buttercup’s mouth and began working it, forcing air into the dwarf’s lungs. “Mostly dead is still slightly alive, you know. Now, with all dead, there’s only one thing you can do.”

“What’s that?” asked Bull.

“Go through her pockets and look for loose change.” She removed the bellows from Buttercup’s lips and tapped her lightly on the cheek. “Hello in there!” She called, “What is so important to you, that you’re still holding on? Why are you still here?” She enunciated her words carefully, as if talking to someone very hard of hearing.

Buttercup began to breathe, and let out a sound that did not much resemble words. Morrigan leaned closer. “Please repeat that.” She said. Buttercup did.

“True love!” Dorian exclaimed. “You heard her. You cannot ask for a more noble cause than that.”

Morrigan stood up and smirked at the other two. “Of course,” she told them. “True love. ‘Tis always about true love with these heroic types. And a noble cause, indeed. Even I could not deny it. Except of course, that she said ‘to blave’ which as we all know means ‘to bluff’, yes? So you were all playing cards, and--”

“Liar!” Morrigan sighed as a scruffy-looking elf woman appeared from a back room. “Liaaaar!” She bellowed.

“Quiet, witch,” Morrigan grumbled.

“I’m not a witch, you are!” The woman responded.

“Gentlemen, meet my lovely wife Sera,” Morrigan’s voice was resigned.

Sera, it seemed, needed no introduction and continued at the top of her voice. “And after that shite you just said, I’m not so sure I wanna be that, anymore! She said true love! Maker’s balls, Morrigan! True frigging love! We’ve spent three flipping years in the woods and piss, all ‘we’re hiding from this,’ ‘we’re fighting that.’ What about helping people with important stuff like food and true fucking love?”

“Are you done, Sera?” Morrigan sighed.

“She’s afraid, you know.” Sera told Dorian and Bull.”She’s been practically pisisng herself out here in a swamp ever since Humperdink started in on her.”

“Don’t say her name! You promised me you would never say that name!”

“Do we sound like this when we argue, Amatus?” Dorian asked Bull.

“What, Humperdink?” Sera asked. “You don’t want me to say Humperdink?”

Morrigan shuddered.

“We’re much more refined, kadan,” Bull told Dorian. He was lying.

“Humerdink, Humperdink, Humperdink!” Sera began chasing Morrigan around the hut while the witch covered her ears. “True love laying here dead on the frigging table, and you won’t even say why you won’t help!”

“I cannot hear you,” Morrigan told her.


“Morrigan! Morrigan!” Dorian tried helplessly to get her attention. “This is Cullen’s true love! If you heal her, we can stop Humperdink’s wedding!”

She stopped cold. “Sera, hush.” Sera glared and pouted, but was quiet. Morrigan watched Dorian. “If I help you, Humperdink suffers?” She looked like she might be considering it.

“Humiliations galore,” supplied Bull.

“‘Tis truly a noble cause, then.” Morrigan paused, considering. “Give me the fifteen royals.”

Sera cheered.

Morrigan began the laborious process of creating a miracle pill. It involved three cauldrons, four candles (three black and one striped white and blue) twenty minutes of chanting in an obscure Chasind language, and for Sera to stand on her head. Dorian was enraptured. The Iron Bull looked very skeptical for the entire time, but held his tongue.

Finally, she coated the pill in chocolate.

“That’s it?” Bull asked. “That’s a miracle pill?”

Sera nodded. “Chocolate coating makes it go down easier.”

Bull side-eyed the Woman in Black’s corpse. “I’m sure she’ll appreciate that.”

“She shouldn’t just go jumping into lakes and shite for a while after, though.”

Dorian nodded seriously. “What about fighting thirty templars?”

Morrigan and Sera looked at one another and shrugged. “‘tis no worse an idea now than it was yesterday.”

“Well, Goodbye. Thank you for everything,” Dorian said as they were given the pill in a tiny silk bag and exited the hut.

“Think it’ll work?” Sera asked Morrigan as they (well, she) waved goodbye to the trio.

Morrigan snorted. “‘Tis a bean covered in chocolate. If it works then I’m Mythal’s daughter.”

“Right. No idea what that means.”

Morrigan sighed. “It means,” she said slowly, as though she were explaining something to King Alistair or a very stupid mabari, “‘Twould take a miracle.”

Chapter Text

Bull and Dorian kept to the shadows and back alleys, hoping to avoid awkward questions from guards. However, Dirkwall under Humperdink’s rule was such a scummy city that no one bothered to question the shady people literally carrying a corpse through the streets. Seriously, she just ruined the whole area, and I’m saying that as someone who realizes that it was kind of a shady city in the first place, but Meredith really--ahem. Anyways....

They made it to the gates of the palace with no trouble, but it was there that the plan encountered its first minor hiccup.

“Bull!” Dorian hissed, “there’s rather more than thirty templars!” Indeed, there were more than fifty armored and alert soldiers standing guard outside the only entrance to the palace.

“What’s the difference?” Bull was far less concerned. “We’ve got her.” He rearranged his hold on the dwarf and fished for the miracle pill in his pocket. “Help me here, Kadan. We’ll have to force feed her.”

Dorian turned away from fretting about the templars and assisted him in working the pill down the unresponsive throat of the Woman in Black (who was now wearing green). They watched her expectantly for a moment, but she showed no change.

The Iron Bull prodded her gently. “How long is this supposed to take, again?”

“Your guess is as good as mine.” Dorian looked concerned. “I hope it’s soon, the wedding starts in half an hour. Our window of opportunity is rather small.”

They sat the dwarf against a wall and waited. After a long moment, her eyes snapped open and focused on the two of them with aggressive intensity. “I beat you each apart,” she growled, “I can take you both together!”

Dorian slapped a hand over her mouth so that the templars wouldn’t hear her. She glared furiously and bit him. He glared back.

“Why can’t I move my arms?” She demanded.

“Well,” Bull said, “you’ve been mostly dead all day.”

“We had Miracle Morrigan make a pill to bring you back to life,” offered Dorian.

She watched them with suspicion. “Who are you, anyway? Are we still enemies? Why are we in this alley? Where’s Cullen?”

“Let me explain,” Dorian began, and then stopped. “No. There’s far too much. Let me summarize. Cullen is to marry Humperdinck in little less than half an hour, so all we have to do is get in, break up the wedding, steal the damsel in distress, and make our escape. After I kill Magister Pavus.”

“That doesn’t leave much time for dilly-dallying, then does it?” She wiggled her fingers triumphantly.

“You just flexed your fingers! That’s wonderful!” Bull cooed. Before he had become Hissrad and then Tal-Vashoth shortly thereafter, he had been seriously considered for the role of Tamassran. Cats and babies are difficult to come by in the mercenary life, so he didn’t get the chance to coo as often as he liked and relished every opportunity.

Dorian, who knew this, scowled at him indulgently. The Woman in Black, who didn’t, scowled at him in the more usual manner. “I’ve always been a quick healer.” She said in a questioning tone. She wasn’t used to massive Qunari treating her like a toddler. She looked at Dorian, who seemed the more reasonable of the two at the moment. “What are our liabilities?”

“You just turned your head! That’s fantastic!”

Dorian shook his head. “Well, there is only one gate and it is guarded by…” he peeked around the corner, “sixty men.”

“An what are our assets?”

“Er....” Dorian coughed delicately. “Your brains, my magic, and his strength.”

“Don’t forget my stunning good looks, Kadan.”

“I forgot his powerful stench. That might be enough to kill five men on its own.”

The Woman in Black Who Now Wore Green sighed. “That’s it? Impossible. With a month to plan, maybe I could come up with something… but this?” She shook her head despairingly.

“You’re regaining fine motor control at an astounding rate!” Bull continued to baby talk her. “Doesn’t that make you happy?”

“My brains, his sparks and your muscles against sixty men, and you think a little head jiggle is supposed to make me happy?” She snorted, but Bull just smiled beatifically. “I mean, if we had even a wheelbarrow, that would be better than what he have now!”

Dorian turned to the Iron Bull. “Where did we put that wheelbarrow the rather peaky-looking templar was carrying?”

“With the peaky-looking templar, I think. The herbs should still be there too.”

“You left out magic herbs, a dead templar, and a wheelbarrow when you gave me this list of assets?”

Bull shrugged. “I mean were you expecting us to list everything we had, from his staff to my holocaust cloak?”

“You have a holocaust cloak?” Dorian and The Dwarf Formerly Known as The Woman in Black hissed in unison.

Bull grinned. “It’s made of dragon webbing. It doesn’t really fit me, but I found it at Morrigan’s and I liked it so much Sera let me keep it. She said Morrigan wouldn’t mind, just some old stuff of her mother’s.”

“Alright. Let’s go get this wheelbarrow. Bull, you will have to continue to carry me.” She paused. “I will also need a blade of some sort.”

“Why?” Asked Dorian, “You can’t even lift one.”

She smirked. “That’s hardly common knowledge, is it?” Her head lolled awkwardly to the side, and Iron Bull carefully righted it. “Thank you. Now, there may be problems once we’re inside.”

“I’ll say.” Responded Dorian. “How do I find my father? Once I do, how do I find you again? Once I find you again, how do we escape?”

Bull turned the dwarf’s head away from Dorian and gave him a scolding look. “Don’t pester her. She’s had a hard day.”

“Right, right, of course.” Dorian agreed with fond exasperation. In fact, the dwarf had drifted off slightly, exhausted by the work of regaining her life.

With Bull carrying The Woman in Green (No Longer Black), they crept away from the palace.

“Bull?” said Dorian after a moment, his voice softer and less confident than usual.

“Yes, Kadan?”

“I hope we win.”

Bull smiled. “We will. We’ve got you.”


Cullen gazed morosely at the tapestry that most resembled the outside, since he didn’t have a window to stand at. Humperdink stood behind him, arranging his cloak into regal folds. Attendants hovered around, twittering like birds about fabrics and flowers, candles and crowds. They were planning his wedding, and he wanted nothing more than for them all to burst into flame.

“You don’t seem excited, my little lion.” Humperdink murmured.

Cullen scoffed. “Should I be?”

“Grooms-to-be often are, I’m told.”

He spun around to glare at her. His cloak whirled dramatically. “I do not marry tonight.” He hissed. “My Buttercup will save me.” He strode out the door, brushing past Humperdink and her courtiers.

She smirked and followed him. She admired the drape of his cloak and the shine of his hair and considered what a tragic corpse he would make. Very tear-jerking. The public would be roaring for revenge. Perfect.


The trio of unorthodox heroes fetched the wheelbarrow, and The Woman Formerly Known as The Woman in Black (Dorian was thinking of either asking her name or perhaps coming up with some sort of representative symbol) came to and explained the plan.

“You want me to do what without magic?” Dorian squawked.

“The templars will likely suppress any magic you try to use, and even you are no match for sixty of them. Matches and tinder are the safest bet.”

Dorian frowned elaborately at the equipment laid before him. “How do I...? Not that I don’t know, of course, but if you might refresh my knowledge...?”

Not one of them would say, in the event of future retellings, that of the fifteen or so minutes remaining until the wedding ceremony began, five of them were spent teaching the art of lighting matches to the scion of House Pavus.


The Chantry was stuffed to the gills with decorations and guests. Humperdink had decreed that her wedding day would rival Andraste’s, and her rather blasphemous standards had been completely fulfilled.


“Which wedding?” Cassandra asked.

“What? Princess, did you fall asleep or something? Cullen’s and Humperdink’s.”

“No, Varric, which of Andraste’s weddings is she comparing it to? Her earthly wedding to Malferath or her heavenly one to the Maker? Because at least one of them was likely quite humble.”

“Uh, the Maker, I guess, shit. I don’t know, it was an analogy.”

Cassandra huffed at him but said no more. Apparently, specificity in blasphemy was not as offensive as Varric’s tendency to kill off her favorite characters multiple times in the same book.


The wedding was fancy, expensive, and what a beautiful wedding it would have been. What a shame poor Cullen’s bride was a terrible, terrible person. A real asshole. The kind of asshole where you just have to take a second to marvel at the--


Cassandra gave Varric a look.


--anyways, the bride is a jerk is what we’re going for here. In a break with tradition, Humperdink had selected a Chancellor rather than a Revered Mother to preside over the ceremony.


“Why?” Cassandra asked.

“Sera paid me five royals. You’ll find out.”


The man was dressed in spectacularly ornate robes, and looked profoundly uncomfortable in front of the massive congregation. Or, at least, that was what Cullen assumed. It was hard to tell through his thick beard.

Cullen waited morosely at the altar as Humperdink processed up the aisle with much pomp and circumstance. She smiled widely at him as he took her hand, fierce and triumphant.

The Chancellor cleared his throat, and the crowd quieted. “Mawwaige.” He intoned, and stopped to spit out the bits of beard that had gotten into his mouth. “Pardon. Marriage is what bwings us…” he sputtered again. “Togevver…” he began to get flustered. “Today.”

Humperdink looked murderous.

“Mawwaige, that bwessed arrangement,” he continued. “Like Andwaste and the Maker, you are here to join each ovver in that dweam within a dweam…”


Outside the Chantry, frantic last minutes changes were being discussed. “Are you sure you want him to say Isabela?” Dorian asked in a whisper.

“It does carry a certain reputation with it that is useful for us,” The Woman no longer in Black replied from where she hung with arms looped around Dorian’s neck.

“Are you implying I can’t pull off an Isabela? Kadan, I’m hurt.” The Iron Bull’s mock-wounded gesture nearly toppled him from the wheelbarrow.

“I’m just asking because his voice is rather distractingly masculine.”

Neither The Woman in Green or The Bull in The Holocaust Cloak was able to stifle a snort.

“Oh, do shut up. Say the Dread Pirate Buttercup for all I care, you cretins.”

“That’s not a bad one,” Bull mused.

The Woman in Green snickered. “Actually that’s perfect. Feel free.”

Dorian, feeling quite put upon thank you very much, began wheeling Bull out towards the waiting templars.

“Stand your ground!” Yellin cried very commandingly as the horned, ten-foot rolling orange monstrosity approached the crowd of templars.

The Iron Bull cleared his throat before shouting, “I am the Dread Pirate Buttercup! There will be no survivors!”

They were a good twenty feet from the first of the templars, who were backing away uncertainly. “Now?” Dorian grunted. Bull was heavy.

“Not yet,” The Woman in Green replied.

“My demon army is here, I am here, but soon, you will not be here!”

“I thought we decided on Qunari legion,” Dorian whispered.

“Oh, right,” said Bull. “My Qunari legion is also here! The Dread Pirate Buttercup takes no survivors!”

They were ten feet away. The soldiers had their swords out, looking fearful. “Now may I set him on fire?” Dorian was gasping with effort.

The Woman in Green nodded against his shoulder. “Light him.”

Dorian struck a match, and after a couple of tries managed to catch Bull’s holocaust cloak on fire. The alchemical substance Buttercup had concocted burst into a varicolored volley of sparks and flame.

Privately, Dorian thought his lover looked a bit like a carnival attraction. The Iron Bull thought he looked sort of like a dragon. “All your worst nightmares are about to come true! Legion of Demon Qunari! NO SURVIVORS!”

The templars quailed and broke formation.


The sounds of battle filtered through the heavy doors of the Chantry. The crowd began to murmur confusedly, and Humperdink gestured to the Magister to investigate. The Chancellor spoke louder, but this caused the feathery bits of his impressive beard to be sucked slightly into his mouth on every inhale. His speech continued to be impeded, but in the face of Humperdith’s thunderous wrath, he chose not to stop talking.

“Wuv,” he said, meaning, ‘love’, “Twue wuv, will fowwow you forevah…”


“Varric, I’m not sure that’s really how beards work.”

“Well, I wouldn’t know, Princess, I shave mine for a reason.” He shrugged. “I’m just fulfilling a request from a friend. When Sera says make Blackwall look silly in your story, who am I to say her nay?”


The wheelbarrow continued to roll forward and the flames rose up above Bull’s horns. “The Dread Pirate Buttercup is here for your souls!” He howled like a demon.

“Stay where you are!” Yellin screeched desperately as his soldiers deserted him. “Fight! Stay where you are!” Suddenly alone before a towering column of fiery horror, he gave up and bolted back towards the gate.

He cut the rope holding up the portcullis, hoping it would protect him long enough to unlock the gate and get inside. However, Bull ripped of the holocaust cloak and simply stepped forward to catch it, which, frankly, was a lot scarier than the ambiguous demon creature had been.

The terrifying trio backed him up against the gate, and if the dwarf leaned on the wall, he was too busy staring in fear at the Qunari.


“So tweasure your wuv,” the Chancellor said, getting a bit misty over his own speech.

Humperdink, anxious about the integrity of the Chantry door, hissed at him. “Get on with it. Skip to the end.”

He looked dismayed, but did so. “Have you the wing?” he asked.

Humperdink raised Cullen’s hands up impatiently. “Here comes my Buttercup now.” He hissed at her.

“Your Buttercup is dead.” She told him. “I killed her myself.”

Cullen stared her down, unconcerned. Death couldn’t stop true love. Buttercup had told him so. Had proven it once. Could prove it again. “Then why is there fear behind your eyes?”


“Give us the gate key.” The Woman in Green commanded.

Yellin was very afraid. In fact, he was pretty sure he was about to die. It would make a fitting end for the day, really. He’d thought that being posted outside, away from the ceremony would make it easier to stomach Humperdink’s wedding to another man.

“What key?” He managed. He would never betray her. He’d never told her the truth, had never been able to put into words the feelings that he had… But he was willing to die for her, to give up his life to protect her love and her dream. Maybe, if she knew what he had done, she would finally understand…


“Varric, you’re making this Yellin very sympathetic. I feel almost bad for him.”

He froze and cleared his throat before responding. “Well, a villain is more interesting with a bit more depth of motivation, you know? Gotta make them… believable… or something.”

“It’s very sad that he’s been in love with her this whole time, years perhaps, and was never able to tell her.”

“You think?”

“Yes. He should have been less of a coward and owned up to his feelings.”

“It’s not always about being a coward, Princess. She never would have loved him back. Sometimes the bravest thing is knowing when someone has to be left free to find their own happiness.”

“I am not certain I understand.”

“No,” Varric sighed. “You wouldn’t.”


“Bull, tear off his arms.” The Tevinter told the Qunari in a bored tone.

“Oh,” Yellin said. “You mean this gate key.” Humperdink wasn’t worth it. Maybe he could find a nice ex-templar and settle down with her somewhere.


The ceremony was almost over. For both Cullen and Humperdith, it could not end soon enough.

“And do you, Ser Cullen,--”

“Man and wife, say man and wife,” Meredink growled.

“Man and wife,” the beardy chancellor mumbled feebly.

Humperdink dragged Cullen to his feet and out of the chapel. In the hall, she handed him off to a trio of guards. “Escort my husband to the honeymoon suite.” She instructed. “I’ll be there shortly.” She whirled and hurried down the corridor towards the sound of fighting. Cullen listlessly allowed himself to be led away.


Dorian, Iron Bull, and the dwarf (Dorian felt that at this point it would be awkward to admit that he didn’t know her name) fought their way through the palace with relative ease. Even disadvantaged by an inability to move her feet, the dwarf was effective in battle, dispatching templars with throwing knives and the occasional flowerpot.

As soon as one group was dealt with, they always quickly found more, but it was a surprise when they turned a corner to find a man who was not a templar. Bull and the Woman in Green (and now red, from when she let a soldier get a bit too close) had no trouble, but Dorian did not provide any assistance. He stared at the newcomer with an expression somewhere between heartbreak and hatred, and the man stared back.

“Hello, father.” Dorian breathed, or perhaps growled. “My name is Dorian Pavus. You killed my Felix, prepare to die.”

The last guard hit the ground with a groan and a wet thud, and the Magister turned and fled.

Dorian gave chase, but Magister Pavus darted into a passageway and slammed a door shut behind him. He locked it and rushed down a curling flight of stairs.

Dorian reached the door and tried frantically to open it, but it held fast. Giving up on the handle, he threw himself bodily against the wood, hoping to break it.

“Bull!” Dorian screamed as the door refused to budge. “Bull! I need you!”

Bull spared just enough time to arrange the dwarf (he felt kind of bad that he hadn’t asked her name) against a suit of armor so that she might not die in his absence.

“Don’t move,” he told her.

“Bull, he’s getting away!” Dorian sounded close to crying.

She had scarcely opened her mouth when Bull was gone.

Bull did not pause as he charged down the hallway, simply smashed himself into the heavy oak door. It burst open to the sounds of splintering wood. “Be careful, kadan. I love you.” He thought he had said it softly enough to not be heard, as he had done many times before when his heart rushed into danger, but perhaps he was more winded than he thought. It was also possible that Dorian was simply finally ready to hear him.

Either way Dorian, already three steps into the stairway beyond the door, turned and gave Bull an agonized sort of look. “And I you.” He sounded as though the words were being ripped from him. He reached to touch Bull’s cheek for barely a heartbeat before he turned and ran after his father.

It was rushing, or perhaps the distraction of the Iron Bull’s confession, or maybe even the honorable nature and sense of fair play Dorian insisted over and over he did not possess, but no matter the cause, Dorian was greeted at the bottom of the stairs with not magic but a dagger flung directly into his gut.

Dorian gasped, stumbled, and slid redly down the wall. His father stood over him with a disappointed expression. “You’ve failed.” Halward Pavus told his son.

Chapter Text

Bull stood at the top of the stairs as Dorian hurried down, wondering if his lover would need his help. The best tactical decision, he concluded, would be to help the dwarf, since at least Dorian was able to move. The little rouge may be able to defend herself, but would probably appreciate assistance with things like stairs and doors. He was good at doors.

He turned away from the splinters of his last door conquest and headed back to the dwarf. Or, at least, to the place he had left the dwarf. It was definitely the same intersection of corridors, he recognized the terrible lamp and the groaning bodies on the ground.

Bull poked the most conscious-looking guard. “Hey, where’d that dwarf go?” The woman groaned. “Green shirt? Garrotted your friends with your shoestrings? Ringing any bells?” The guard fainted. He’d barely even touched her this time.

Bull looked around, at a loss. Damn dwarves, always disappearing. “Well, shit.”


Cullen closed his door firmly, hoping that the guard wouldn’t try to come in. He sat down at the fancy vanity that Humperdith had given him-- and what more evidence did he need that she’d make a terrible wife for him, he was much better off with a sturdy writing desk, the kind that never wobbled-- and stared morosely at his reflection.

From a drawer, he took out a small box, one of the few things Meredink had let him bring to her castle. He opened it, and considered the sculpted image of Andraste inside the lid. He took the dagger out of the box and turned it over in his hands.

“There are so few perfectly sculpted chests in the world. It would be a shame to ruin yours,” said Buttercup, lounging idly on the vast canopied bed.

“Buttercup!” He cried passionately, and ran over to her, dropping the dagger. “Oh, Buttercup, darling!” He peppered her face in kisses, looking deep into her eyes. He could see her love for him shining in her smile, and--


Cassandra made a loud gagging noise.

“Is that a reaction to the writing, Princess? Or just congestion?”

“What makes you think it is not both?” she grunted.

Varric sighed and skipped a few paragraphs ahead.


Dorian braced himself against the wall and pulled the dagger out of his gut. He wondered briefly if that was the right call, since he had no healing magic and was now bleeding rather heavily, but decided that such details were unimportant.

Halward Pavus had turned away from him in a show of disdain. Keeping one hand pressed against his wound, Dorian gripped his staff and began to lever himself upright. “Hello, My name is Dorian Pavus. You killed my Felix. Prepare to die.”

“Good heavens,” said Dorian’s father, “are you still trying to win?”

Dorian dropped the knife onto the floor and staggered upright. He did not look at the blood on it, but he could smell it even from standing. It had smelled the same way the last time he had stood face to face with his father.

“We’re too much alike, you and I,” Halward continued. “An overdeveloped sense of pride.” Dorian took a step forwards.

“It’s going to get you into trouble someday,” Magister Pavus told him, and brandished a lightning bolt at him.

Dorian didn’t even produce a barrier against his spell so much as knock it out of the way with his staff.

“Hello, my name is Dorian Pavus, you killed my Felix. Prepare to die.” Dorian staggered and almost fell, but he continued forwards. His father threw more spells, but he deflected them, his magic working on instinct rather than form.

“Hello, my name is Dorian Pavus, you spent years making me feel worthless. Prepare to die.” His father backed up a step, staff held defensively in front of him.

Dorian locked eyes with him and saw a flicker of fear. “Hello!” He roared, and relished how is father flinched. “My name is Dorian Pavus, you chose your reputation over your son. Prepare to die.”

“Stop saying that!” Halward’s teeth were bared in a snarl, his robes singed by the fire he was throwing at his only son. Dorian vaguely wondered if Halward would resort to blood magic again. It would seem fitting, for Dorian’s father to try to kill him with the same foul magic that had driven them apart. And there was so much blood, ready and waiting for a hand more desperate than Dorian’s own.

“Hello, my name is Dorian Pavus, you made me believe I was worthless. Prepare to die.” He threw a blast of static that pinned Halward in place, muscles contracting jerkily as the electricity surged through them. When the spell ended, Halward fell back, gasping. Distantly, Dorian realized that he had to finish the fight quickly; he was still bleeding.

He came up against the wall of the dungeon, and Dorian advanced until he held the tip of his staff against his father’s throat.

“Please, my son.” Halward gasped. “Don’t do this.”

So, thought Dorian, this is revenge. His hand slid along his staff, his blood slick and tacky and reeking. Inexplicably, Dorian thought of his harrowing. What he had desired had been so different back then.

“Offer me money.” Dorian growled.

“Yes,” The Magister whispered.

“Power too, a seat in the Magisterium, promise me that.” He watched Halward’s eyes, wondering if he were even capable of recognizing remorse any longer.

“All that I have and more. Take the house title. Please.”

Before he was twenty-three, Dorian Pavus had believed that blood did not have a scent. “Offer me everything I ask for.”

“Anything you want.” Before he was twenty-three, Dorian Pavus had believed a lot of things.

“I want my father back, you son of a bitch,” Dorian snarled, and jammed the blade of his staff into Halward Pavus’ gut.


Varric set the manuscript down and took a deliberate sip of tea. Cassandra noticed that his hands were shaking slightly.

She thought about family, about Kirkwall, about the second to last lie Varric had ever told her.

“Varric,” she started gently. “When Dorian thinks ‘this is revenge,’ was that--”

“Leave it, Princess.”

Cassandra nodded. “I’m sorry. I was just--”

“I know,” Varric said quickly. “It’s fine-- you’re fine-- I just... needed a breather.”

Cassandra licked her lips. “So,” she said at length, “Tell me what happens with Cullen and Buttercup.”


Cullen looked down at his beloved with concern marring his chiseled forehead. She lay still, watching him, but did not embrace him with as much passion as he had expected.“Buttercup,” Cullen whined, “why won’t you hold me?” He pressed her closer to his heart.

“Gently,” she replied with a slight squeak.

“At a time like this, that’s all you can think to say? Gently?” He was a bit inscened, but also concerned. Then he remembered that he was married, and his heart dropped like a stone. He began to cry. “Oh my sweet Buttercup, I’m so sorry! Will you ever forgive me?”

“Please calm down.” Buttercup sounded a little strained. “Why do you need forgiveness? You’ve been a prisoner, everything you’ve done in this castle has been coerced.”

“I got married, and not to you! I didn’t want to. It all happened so fast.” He searched her gaze for a scrap of forgiveness.

“It’s not your fault. I don’t blame you at all.”

“How could you still love me after I’ve betrayed you so?” He wailed.

“But you haven’t!” Buttercup could see she wasn’t getting through to him. She tried a different approach. “My precious noodle, you aren’t married. You didn’t betray me, it never happened.”

“What?” He sniffed, in a manly way.

“Coerced consent is not true consent. You were only agreeing to save the lives of your people. Anyone can see it wouldn’t be a marriage of love and trust. And even if the ceremony was legally binding, the whole blackmail aspect could get you an annulment at most courts in Thedas.”


Buttercup sighed. “I’ve been studying law on my pirate ship. Cullen, did you say ‘I do?’”

“Why does that matter?” asked Cullen. He, after all, had never been involved in a wedding before. Buttercup had performed ceremonies for a number of couples among her crew since becoming captain, and was now quite well versed in both secular and Andrastian international marriage law in Thedas.

“I’m asking you if the cleric said ‘do you take this woman to be your wife’ and if so did you say ‘I do?’”

“Er, no,” Cullen answered, blinking. “We sort of skipped over that part.”

“Well then, not only were you forced to participate the stupidest marriage ceremony I’ve ever heard of, but there are clearly no actual laws governing marriage in this conveniently anarchic city-state. The only thing that matters here is your word, and you didn’t give it. Seriously, if this woman is going to force unsuspecting peasant landowners to marry her after their true loves die two times in a row, she ought to at least consider amending her nation’s laws so that it’s legally possible.”

“Oh.” Cullen did his best to come to terms with this. He found it far preferable to having Meredith as his lawfully wedded wife, but a bit unsettling all the same.

“It never happened.” She said in a consoling voice. “Wouldn’t you agree, Lady Humperdink?”

Cullen spun around, and found Humperdink glowering in the doorway. “A technicality.” She scoffed. “And soon mended. But first things first,” she drew her sword and advanced on the couple. “To the death, Pirate.”

Cullen stood between Humperdith and his beloved, ready to face death for her. Again. “No!” Buttercup said, pushing him none-too-gently to the side. She leveled an ice-cold glare at the Lady of Dirkhall. “To the pain.”

Knight-Commander Humperdink halted, an angry, confused look on her face. She had been about to monologue, and was thrown off by the interruption.

“To the pain means this: if we duel and you win, death for me, because you are terribly dull and lack the creativity to imagine anything worse than dying. If we duel and I win, life for you. Because I have died twice now, or so my beloved tells me, and I know there is a lot in the world that is far worse. So life. But life on my terms: the first thing you lose will be your feet. Below the ankle. You will have stumps available to use within six months. Then your hands, at the wrists. They heal somewhat quicker. Five months is a fair average. Next your nose. No smell of dawn for you. Followed by your tongue. Deeply cut away. Not even a stump left. I hope you like drinking broth. And then your left eye—"

And then my right eye, and then my ears, and shall we get on with it?" Humperdink snarled.

Wrong!" Buttercup’s voice rang harsh across the room. "Your ears you keep, so that every shriek of every child shall be yours to cherish—every babe that weeps in fear at your approach, every woman that cries out 'Dear Sweet Andraste, what is that wretched thing?' will reverberate forever within your perfect ears.”

Buttercup, Cullen decided, had gotten quite a bit darker since becoming the Dread Pirate Isabela. Glancing down the length of his lover’s dagger at the woman who had fully intended to marry and then strangle him for entirely political purposes (he wasn’t completely clueless), he decided he was really quite okay with it.

“Why don’t we not?” suggested Humperdink, her voice trembling slightly.

“Coward,” Buttercup scoffed affably, but nodded. “Sit there,” she flicked her dagger towards the chair next to the vanity. Humperdink sat. “Tie her up, Cullen. Make it as tight as you like.” Cullen did so without hesitation.


“Varric, why is there rope just lying around the bedroom? What possible purpose could that serve?”

Varric choked on his tea. Coughing and spluttering, he set the cup aside. It had long since gone cold, anyways. “How about I tell you when you’re older, Princess?”

Cassandra made a disgusted noise.


When Humperdith was safely tied up, the door to the room burst open. Cullen reached for Humperdink’s sword, but it was just Dorian. Well, Dorian, his blood covered staff, and a great deal of blood that Cullen was fairly certain was meant to be inside of the mage’s body.

Cullen, Buttercup and Humperdink all stared at him. “You’re bleeding on my carpets.” Humperdink sniffed.

Dorian ignored her. “Where’s the Iron Bull?” He asked, in a voice far more even than seemed reasonable. Cullen envied his acting ability.

“He went to help you. Left me all alone fighting four templars in the hallway with a flowerpot and a pair of shoelaces.”

“Where is he now?” Dorian asked.

“Oh, I see how it is, nobody cares about poor old Buttercup,” Buttercup muttered.

“Who’s Buttercup?” Dorian asked.

“Are you serious?” Humperdink grumbled. “How are you supposed to be one of the heroes? Even I know her name by now.”

“I brought her back from the dead and now you trouble me with minutae? Where. Is. The Iron. Bull?”

“I guess we should go find him.” Buttercup rolled off the bed and landed on her feet, wincing heavily. Cullen rushed to her side.

“What’s wrong, Darling?” He cried.

“Well, she only came back to life an hour ago.” Dorian looked peeved. “Of course she’s not at full strength.”

“Hah!” Crowed Humperdink. “I knew it! I knew you were bluffing! You could never have defeated me in combat, I knew--” Cullen held a dagger to her throat.

“Darling,” He sounded strained, “You had a wonderful plan, but may I please just kill her?”

“No, Noodle. Whatever happens to us, I want her to live a good long while with her cowardice.” She grinned at Humperdink. “Beaten by a double-dead dwarf. I never even drew a blade.”

“Hey Dorian!” A voice called from the open window. “Dorian!”

Dorian let out an exasperated sigh that sounded far too much like “Oh, thank Andraste,” to convince anyone properly and lurched to the window.


Even from thirty-odd feet up, Cullen could see Bull’s grin shining through the darkness. “Dorian look what I found. Four white horses!”

“My darling kadan, I know that you are quite endearingly stupid but surely even you can tell that one of those is a druffalo.”

Bull shrugged. “I’m a romantic.”

Dorian sighed. “Well, we ought to decide what to do about this before we come down. Also, I realize it is a matter of minor concern, but I may soon die horribly of blood loss, or at least lose consciousness.”

Bull squawked in consternation. “Stay there, Kadan. I’m coming upstairs.” He bellowed. A moment later his huge horned head poked through the window. “What?” He said to the four sets of incredulous eyes. “There are probably templars on the actual stairs. This seemed fastest.” He handed Dorian a healing potion. They gawped at him. “Okay, I had a holocaust cloak, made of dragon-skin, and the healing potion is what surprises you?”

“My love,” said Dorian woozily, “you’ve finally done something right.”

“I won’t let it go to my head.” He beamed.

Humperdink was furious. “I had this tower specially designed to be unscalable!” She raged in her chair.

“You did a good job,” Bull patted her on the head. “It took me much longer than usual.”

“You took your sweet time on those windy cliffs.” Cullen groused.

“Maybe I just need to be...properly motivated.” The Iron Bull waggled his eyebrows suggestively, but the lone eye fixed on Dorian was soft and fond.

The Iron Bull wrapped a warm arm around his heart. “Are you feeling better, Kadan?”

“If my robes weren’t so sticky, I would venture to say nearly I’m all right.” Dorian leaned against him. “If a bit tired.”

Humperdink gagged obnoxiously. So did Cassandra. “Do shut up.”

“So,” said Buttercup briskly, “We still have a slight ex-wife problem. I still think we ought to dismember her.”

“If we kill her there’s fewer loose ends,” Bull submitted.

“Plus, I really want to kill her,” Cullen added.

Buttercup shrugged. “Let’s put it to a vote, then. All in favor of murder?”

Chapter Text

“I've been saying it so long to you, you just wouldn't listen. Every time you said, 'Farm Boy do this' you thought I was answering 'As you wish' but that's only because you were hearing wrong. 'I love you' was what it was, but you never heard, and you never heard.' ~ William Goldman, The Princess Bride

“Well, obviously, they have to kill her.” Cassandra was distressed. “It’s self defense!”

“Is it?” Varric asked skeptically. “She’s tied to a chair.”

“Well, self-preservation, at least,” Cassandra sniffed. “Besides. She is an asshole.”

“Not everyone has as well-honed a sense of self-preservation as you do, Princess.”

“And not everyone is as dangerously soft-hearted as you, either!”

“Not everyone,” said Varric slyly, “but you are.”

“I--ugh. Just keep reading, you pest. I’ll pour the tea.”

“As you wish.”


“Murder.” Bull and Cullen chorused.

“Do I get a say in this?” Humperdink muttered. “Because my vote is in favour of clemency and forgiveness. In fact, if you don’t kill me, I’ll give a full minute’s head start before I call the guards.”

Dorian looked at her with disdain. “You are an extremely ineffectual villain. Honestly, if you were the best ally my father could find, I did him a favor putting him out of his misery. Can you even cackle maniacally?”

“She really can’t.” Cullen supplied. “I heard her try once. I’m pretty sure I could do better.”

Humperdink looked extremely offended. “I should have killed you myself!” She raged.

“There, that’s much better!” Dorian looked a little proud. “I think with a bit of time she could be a decent --”

“That’s really not the point.” Cullen rubbed the bridge of his nose. “The point is, if we don’t kill her, she’ll be out for revenge. She’ll hunt us to the ends of the earth, she’ll never give up.”

“Yeah, Cullen has a point,” Bull grunted. “Tying up loose ends and all that shit.”

“As loathe as I am to abandon my truly wonderful plan for dismemberment, it would mean living the rest of our lives with Humperdink breathing down our necks.”

Cullen and Bull nodded. Dorian’s mouth twisted into something oddly like regret.

“So what?” He snapped.

“Excuse me?” Buttercup said.

“So what?” Dorian repeated.

“What are you talking about, kadan?” Bull asked him.

“So what if she follows us?” Dorian demanded. “We beat her once--more than once, come to think of it--we can do it again if we have to. And you want to kill her for what? Vengeance? Convenience?”

“Yes?” said Buttercup.

“Bullshit,” said Dorian.

“So what’s your plan? Leave me tied up here like a coward?” Humperdink sneered.

“Are you... arguing against us letting you go?” Cullen asked.

“Er... I well, there was an opportunity and I...” Meredink cleared her throat. “Carry on.”

“I’m saying,” Dorian glared daggers at the interruption, “that perhaps brutality is an act of cowardice; perhaps bravery is about learning to live with the uncertainty and the regret, bearing them so someone else doesn’t have to. Maybe being merciful is the bravest decision.”

“It was a lovely speech, Dorian, really,” said Cullen, “but Humperdith is a crazy lady and I think it’s really best for all involved if we just kill her.”

“I agree with Cullen,” Buttercup was flopped over her lover, a certain ostentatious possessiveness in her demeanor. Dorian supposed she had earned it; she had died twice for the man, after all. Maker only knew why.

Bull gave Dorian a considering look, taking in his bloodied robes, his tall gory staff, the gray-green eyes that looked so old and so young at the same time. “We do nothing,” he said, finality in his tone.

Buttercup shrugged. “Well, we’re out of time.” She could hear the footsteps of approaching guards in the hallway. “Let’s get on those horses.”

Humperdink gathered breath to shout to her troops, but Dorian cast a sleeping spell on her. “Why didn’t you do that sooner?” Asked Cullen.

The Bull, tired of waiting, swung out the window and climbed swiftly down the tower. “No guards yet!” He called back to them. “Come on down, Princess, I’ll catch you!”

“If this is how I die,” Cullen told Buttercup, “I will come back from the Fade and haunt you.” He jumped out the window, praying to the Maker that he made it into the Bull’s outstretched arms. The fall seemed to take an eternity, but the Bull caught him. Cullen disguised his shaking legs by taking to bridles of two of the horses.

Bull shrugged. “Apparently, coming back from the dead isn’t as hard as you’d think. I’m counting on that when the crazy lady knifes, us, anyways.”

Buttercup paused on the window ledge, and looked back at Dorian. He looked a little lost. Their true loves were on the ground below, but he hadn’t moved since Cullen leapt out the window.

“Having second thoughts?” She asked. “I’m sure if you wait long enough Humperdink’s soldiers will behave towards you in a cowardly and brutal fashion.”

He rolled his eyes and refused to rise to the bait. He did finally step towards the window. “What’s next?” He asked.

“Running?” Buttercup suggested. “Fleeing? Catching the tide and getting out before the coast guard is alerted?”

“And after that?” His hands were tight on the windowsill as he stared out into the uncertain night. “I’ve been in the revenge business so long, I have no idea what to do with the rest of my life.”

Buttercup glanced down at Cullen and The Iron Bull, each waiting for the two of them under the window, then up to Dorian and smiled. “Have you ever considered piracy? You’d make a wonderful first mate for the Dread Pirate Isabela.” With that, she toppled out of the window, suspended above her future and her true love waiting below.

The end.


“Varric, what sort of ending is that?” Cassandra cried.

“What do you mean what kind of ending is that? It’s the ending. The only one. That’s why it has a definite article. The end.”

“I mean that is not how you are supposed to end a book! Humperdink is alive and we don’t know if Cullen and Buttercup made it to the ship. Does Dorian recover from his wounds? Is he with Bull now? Who is the Dread Pirate Isabela?”

Varric sighed. He had forgotten, had no idea how he had forgotten, but he had forgotten that Cassandra believed in happy endings. The author could work all they wanted to make her sweat and perhaps sometimes some of the wrong people would die, but in Cassandra’s world justice would win the day when all was said and done. The Right Hand of the Divine believed in happy endings with the sort of fervor that the Chantry normally reserved for the pyre of Andraste.

“Look, Princess, I’m just a writer. When the ink runs out, I’m not in charge of what the characters do after. I don’t know if they make it. I couldn’t even tell you if the Iron Bull catches Buttercup when she jumps out of the tower.” He looked at her face, so crestfallen and blazing still with a painful sort of hope and the kind of honesty Varric could never, ever understand. She had looked at him in just the same way when he had finished the story of Kirkwall. That tale was long since gone but perhaps he could give her this. Perhaps he owed it to her.

She watched him, anxious. “I don’t know,” he told her, “but I’m certainly allowed to guess. So, did they make it? Was the pirate ship there? You can decide for yourself if you want, but I say yes. I say it was, and they got away, and Cullen and Buttercup got married and Dorian and Buttercup healed and got their strength back and the four of them had their share of adventures and more than their share of laughs. But that doesn’t mean they got a happy ending, either. Because Dorian and Bull bicker a lot and Curly’s gonna lose his good looks eventually. And maybe one day Tiny loses the other eye in a fight or some brat apostate whips Dorian with magic and Buttercup never quite sleeps as soundly as she lets on because maybe the sky cracks open and there’s this crazy magister or maybe she’s just worried because Humperdink might be on their trail. I’m not trying to make their wedding gift have a sad ending, here. I’m just saying, for the umpity-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all. And the important thing is that you have someone to share that crapfest with. That’s all a happy ending is, when you come down to it.” The entire time he spoke, he refused to look at her.

Gently, Cassandra took his hand. Varric thought about all that nonsense on bravery he put into the last chapter. He would have to rewrite every last sodding word of it.

“I think that is a wonderful ending,” She told him. “I just don’t understand why you didn’t write any of it down.”

“Well, there’s a kissing part I didn’t read you because you wanted me to skip over that.”

Cassandra flushed. “Perhaps... Perhaps I do not mind if you describe it a little. It’s the last kiss, I suppose it must be a decent one.”

Varric looked unaccountably nervous and for reasons that mystified Cassandra, he leaned forwards, setting the book aside. “Well,” he told her, his breath stirring the air around her lips, “I’m still working out the exact description, but I think it goes something like this.” And he showed her what he meant.

Since the invention of the kiss, there have been five that were rated the most passionate, the most pure.

This one, in Cassandra’s admittedly biased opinion at least, left them all behind.

From the instant their lips broke apart to the moment in which Varric’s warm brown eyes met hers, there were approximately one thousand years in which Cassandra thought about the right thing to say. When she opened her mouth, she asked a question instead. “Varric… Will you come back tomorrow? Perhaps tell me another story?”

Varric smiled as though he knew what she meant.

“As you wish, Princess. As you wish.”

“It appears to me as if we’re doomed, then,” Buttercup said.
Westley looked at her. “Doomed, madam?”
“To be together. Until one of us dies.”
“I’ve done that already, and I haven’t the slightest intention of ever doing it again,” Westley said.
Buttercup looked at him. “Don’t we sort of have to sometime?”
“Not if we promise to outlive each other, and I make that promise now.”
Buttercup looked at him. “Oh my Westley, so do I.”