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The Sordid Tale of Meryell Verlen

Chapter Text

"You are Dalish. And clearly away from the rest of your clan."

"Whot?" exclaimed Meryell, her native Ferelden accent thickening as she jerked around to glare at the other elf. "I'm not fucking Dalish."

What's-his-name smiled - fucking smiled - and gestured towards his own face, saying, "You have what they call the vallaslin."

"And," Cassandra - she remembered her name simply because she wanted to remember who deserved shit back on them later - noted sternly, her eyes tightly narrowed, "that is what all information about you that Leliana could gather pointed to. According to what records were left from the Conclave, you arrived with a group of elves from Clan Lavellan."

Meryell growled - because this shit was supposed to have been a simple job - and snapped, "Just because I'm wearing their shit and walked in with them doesn't mean fuckwhat. I saw 'em on the road heading in, drew shit on my face, and - bam - easy pass in. I'm from fucking South Reach."

"In Ferelden?" Cassandra asked in surprise.

"You know another South Reach, Seeker?" queried the dwarf, Varric. He was an author and a smartass. She liked books and was a fucking smartass herself, so she actually deigned to remember his name.

Snorting, Meryell fumbled at one of the packs on her belt and pulled out one of the oil cloths she kept around for her blades. She crouched down and dunked the whole thing into the snow, swishing it around a bit to melt some, then stood back up with it in hand. Looking right at the three of them, she scrubbed it underneath her eyes and to the sides to get rid of the swooping branched pattern she'd carefully drawn there with a bit of charcoal from her last fire outside the Conclave. Honestly she hadn't expected the Dalish to buy it when she'd approached them but she'd told them she was from Clan Adahlfen, the very clan that the Hero of Ferelden had been aided by during the Blight. Her city-bred accent gave her away as not being true Dalish but it had been easy to spin a tale of escaping her alienage and proving her worth to the clan.

Now she sort of regretted that they'd bought it hook, line, and sinker with whatever the fuck was on her hand.

Certain she was done and not really caring if she wasn't, Meryell shoved the cloth back into her pouch just as said thing flared and sent arrows of pain arching up her arm. "Satisfied?" she snapped, taking a little bit of pleasure from the stunned look on Cassandra's face but instantly losing it at the smug smile on what's-his-name's. "Good. Then we can move the fuck on. I'll close this shit, maybe die or maybe not, and then I can fucking go back home. Or wherever."

Turning on her heel, she plowed onward, not really caring if they were following or not. By the time she reached the slope of the hill that would lead them onward, she heard the sound of crunching snow underneath their boots.

"So," came what's-his-name's voice from right fucking behind her, "you are a mystery then." How in the Maker's soggy asshole had he snuck up on her?

Rolling her eyes skyward to ask silently for patience - she wasn't religious but fuck sometimes you just had to ask - Meryell hissed, "Whot, you want to fucking solve me now, hahren?" She sneered the title at the end with the same loathing she'd given to the hahren of the South Reach alienage before she'd left that piss-pot behind her. He obviously took it as the insult she intended it to be by the subtle twitch of his ears and the narrowing of his eyes. Good, that proved she could get under his skin.

"Only because I enjoy a mystery, len'alas."

She whipped around at that, jerking one of the knives off of her belt and jabbed the tip up hard against his smarmy chin with a snarl. Ignoring the exclamations from the others, she hissed, "Just because I'm a city elf, hahren, don't mean I don't know shit. Best beware, elsewise...ar tu na'lin emma mi. So don't call me a dirty child again." The words didn't flow the way they were supposed to because of her accent but she didn't really care. And she certainly wasn't about to tell this asshole how she knew more Elven than a foul-mouthed alienage brat normally would.

His eyes narrowed at her words and he intoned quietly, "You wish to make an enemy of me, da'len?"

"Fuck no," replied Meryell honestly. "Making an enemy of a mage is fucking stupid. I just don't like your smarmy holier-than-thou attitude and I will call you on your shit. Seems like you need someone to." Withdrawing her blade, she sheathed it while glowering at him as she added, "You saved my ass. I appreciate people who save me."

When he arched a brow, she laughed and said, "Honest!"

What's-his-name just frowned for a moment before saying quietly, "My statement stands. You are a mystery."

"Yeah, yeah," she said with a flippant wave of her hand as she turned to move onward. "Just don't think you're going to solve any mysteries and get into my pants. I don't fuck my own kind."

"I do not..."

"Enough." Cassandra's voice snapped across their group with the clarion jolt of command and they moved onward in what Meryell dubbed blessed silence. She didn't like the woman at all but she could appreciate a lady who could make a man shut his damned mouth.

Chapter Text

"Herald of fucking Andraste," grumbled Meryell as she rested her elbows on her knees, perched high on one of Haven's walls. "What utter shite. All of you poor sods, scuffling in the dirt for answers 'cause you're too piss scared to think straight. Fuck all."

She really needed to get a message out to Folke, let him know the shit storm she'd somehow gotten herself a part of, but she couldn't do it with that fucking redhead handling the birds. Soon as she did that, the woman would have the in she needed to start digging into her actual past. And right now she wanted her stumbling about at a loss for information more than anything. Seemed like just the sort of thing the woman needed to keep her on her toes.

And her past wasn't the business of anyone but her own fucking self.

Snorting a laugh at the thought of the cold spymaster in a right tiff, Meryell wondered if the usual message lines would be still active in the area. Normally when they did a mission and had members of the company out on their own or in pairs, someone would come in and set up either drop points or hire some poor sod to play message boy. There had been one at the Conclave, though he was probably dead now with everyone else and her last message confirming she'd obtained two of the items on the list might or might not have made it out. What she couldn't remember was where the next available sod might be for her to slip a message through without the fucking spymaster being the wiser.

Redcliffe was probably her best bet since it was one of the more populous places in the immediate area. Unless one had crept into Haven with the destruction of the Temple but she doubted it. If there had been one, they had probably high-tailed it back to wherever they'd come from.

Whichever way she figured out how to get a letter through, she'd go ahead and start writing it as soon as she got hold of ink and paper. She could probably swindle both out of the Ambassador all easy like without any questions asked.

"Hey, Mystery!"

Jerking at the word that had been such an annoyance days ago in that long ago seeming conversation with what's-his-name, she leaned forward to look down the wall. Varric stood beneath her, wearing only the half-open red tunic he'd worn underneath his coat despite the chill of the weather, and waved a deck of cards in one hand. "You up for a game of Wicked Grace?" he called up to her with a grin.

"Depends on what's at stake!" Meryell replied, rocking idly back and forth atop the wall. "I don't play without wagers, Varric. And don't fucking call me 'Mystery'."

"Alright, I'll think up another nickname."

"What about my favorite word?"

She could see Varric's eyes twinkle and he hummed loud enough that she could hear, rubbing his chin in mock thoughtfulness before shaking his head. "No, no, Fuck is a terrible nickname even if it is your favorite word."

Oh, yes, she could get to like the dwarf. He was probably the one decent person she'd met in this whole cock-up so far.

Barking out a laugh, Meryell said, "Fine, fine. But I have to approve the nickname."

"I could just call you Merry..."

"And I'll stab you in the kidney, dwarf."

Varric held up his hands in defeat then waggled the deck of cards at her again. "Stakes are drinks in the tavern," he said, finally answering her first comment to the question of playing. "Just us playing though."

Grinning, Meryell turned and descended the wall, her fingers and bare toes easily finding again the little ledges of the stone that had allowed her to scale it in the first place. As she dropped to the ground, she commented, "That's 'cause no one else around here seems to have a fucking fun bone in their body."

He just shrugged then looked down at her feet and she wiggled her toes against the cold ground in response. Varric then shook his head, saying, "You and Chuckles are mad to walk around without shoes on in this weather."

"Chuckles?" she queried.

"Solas."

She just frowned at him and tilted her head slightly to the side, the name not ringing a bell in her memory. Varric blinked at her then gestured at her left hand as he commented, "The elf that kept that thing from killing you?"

"Oh!" Meryell then burst out into full-on belly laugh before she leaned towards him to say, "I didn't ever make note of it. His smarmy know-it-all act knocked his name right out my fucking brain 'cause I don't deal with that shit. I've just been calling him what's-his-name in my head but Chuckles is so much better."

She then leaned against the wall and lifted one leg, bracing her shin above her other knee to show him the hard calloused soles of her feet. "And to answer your comment," she noted with a wry smile, "I broke my feet in to major shit years ago. Not always enough money in the alienage for fucking shoes."

Varric nodded at that - though there was that little tightness around his eyes that most folks had when she made a comment about how shite alienage life really was sometimes - then he grinned. "You can use it if you want. Seems like you get under his skin far more than anyone else around here."

"I call assholes on their bullshit. S'part of my charm."

"It's part of your something, sweetheart, but I don't know if it's charm," he replied as he gestured towards the tavern.

Meryell gasped theatrically and grabbed mockingly at her chest as they started walking in that direction. "You wound me, Varric! For that I'll have to take everything of yours in this game."

He laughed at that and grinned at her, saying, "You can try."

Two hours later Meryell was victoriously perched on a barrel outside of Haven in the soldier's encampment, her blood humming with all the Ferelden ale she'd consumed and Varric's shirt draped voluminously about her shoulders. She laughed as she kicked her bare heels against the wood then lifted the bottle that she'd acquired while the barmaid had her back turned to her lips. Playing Wicked Grace with Varric and having the soldiers in the tavern egg them on had made her feel considerably more at home at Haven than she had only hours before.

Cassandra and the spymaster and the rest of that lot, they weren't like her. They were all so damned other, like the humans in the higher parts of South Reach growing up. Varric and those soldiers, those were her people.

It made her feel like she was back with the company, if only for a moment.

Suddenly melancholy at that thought, Meryell lowered the bottle and wrapped both hands around it. As she tapped her fingernails idly against the glass, she became aware of a shape moving towards her out of the dark and narrowed her eyes to try and make out who it was. Even with all of the alcohol in her, her eyes were still plenty sharp.

She caught a tall silhouette, the glint of armor via the light of one of the nearby dying fires, and then the billowing ruff of fur. The Commander. There wasn't any other person in Haven that wore fur that boldly.

"Evenin', Commander," she called out gaily, laughing lightly when he jumped and his hand went to the sword at his hip. Man always at the ready, even when he didn't have to be. Spoke well of the way he handled himself and his men, to her. "S'only little ole me."

She couldn't see him blink in the dark but was certain he did in the instant before he quietly asked, "Herald?"

Snorting, Meryell lifted her right hand with the bottle still clutched in it to gesture towards him. "No," she snapped sternly, "none of that shite. I'm not no fucking saviour."

There was silence for a moment then the Commander chuckled, a low, rusty sort of sound that made her think of the oldest hands in the company who'd seen too much battle for any sane man but kept on fighting. "Our men," he intoned in a gentle voice, "would argue with you on that, I dare say." She saw him tilt his head then, dying light catching the blonde of his hair. "M'lady?"

"That's 'cause soldiers need a thing to fight for in a fucking cock-up of a battle like this," she said sternly in response. "Been around 'em since I was ten and five so I know how they work. They can view me like that if it gives 'em peace but ain't fucking having that shite from you lot. You all know better than to look at me like that." Meryell then grimaced and replied to his query of the title, "Fuck no."

"Is that were you learned how to cuss better than some of my men?" he asked and she could feel the amusement oozing out of him.

Laughing, she replied, "Knew how to cuss before I was out of fucking swaddling cloths, Commander. South Reach's alienage is a piss pot mess." She then cocked her head up at him, felt her eyes swim, and closed them as she waved the bottle in his direction. "Sit fucking down. Yer too damned tall and I'm sloppy."

A leather gloved hand closed over hers abruptly, the material chilled from the weather but she could feel the warmth blazing underneath despite it. Man was a fucking furnace. She glared at him at the touch and he inclined his head slightly before saying kindly, "In that case, shouldn't you be abed?"

"Ain't done with the night yet," replied Meryell with her toothiest grin. She slapped her free hand down on the barrel next to her and continued, "Sit! Need to sober up before I do shit."

"I dare say this will not help," he pointed out as he squeezed her fingers lightly around the neck of the bottle. The Commander then released her hand and settled onto the barrel next to her with a smile as he added, "Though I think if I tried to take it from you, I'd have a knife somewhere I didn't want it."

She flashed another grin at him and lifted the bottle to her lips. "Thigh," she said as she lowered it. "Easiest place from my height."

"Contemplating my demise already, Her...m'la...sorry."

Taking a little pity on the man since he had been nice enough since she'd woken up in Haven - he'd even showed a little smirk when she'd said a jab at Cassandra and the spymaster's expense during one of their little meetings - she said, "Meryell. Never Merry. I will fucking knife you for sure then."

"Meryell," he said and she couldn't help the little shiver that ran up her spine in response. Maker's balls, if she weren't sloppy drunk and trying to get out of this whole cock-up as fast as she could, she'd probably try to coax him back to her cabin for a bit of fun. Then again, the Commander didn't seem like the sort for a simple roll in the hay.

He'd tried calling her m'lady for fuck's sake. That was a gentleman if anything.

And gentlemen didn't fuck rude knife-eared girls from alienages.

His voice saying something brought her out of her thoughts and she focused on it enough to catch the end of him saying, "...ou should call me Cullen."

"Cullen," repeated Meryell, letting the syllables roll off her tongue slowly. Good name. Good man. She'd actually deign to remember his for good reasons.

He nodded then said, "May I ask a question, Meryell?"

"Am I under orders to answer, Cullen?" she shot back with a wicked smile.

He blushed - fucking blushed - before answering, "You aren't under my command so no. The...ah...conditions of answering are up to the discretion of the lady." His eyes gleamed a little wickedly in the dark as he added, "Should we find a lady somewhere about, of course."

Meryell felt a grin - a true, honest grin - stretching her mouth and she leaned towards him to purr, "Oh, I could like you, Cullen. Varric was totally wrong when he said you had no sense of humor." She then straightened and gave a mocking half bow towards him, just low enough to count but not enough to make her head start to spin. "Ask your question, good sir."

Cullen smiled and leaned back against Haven's outer wall before asking, "I wasn't told much about you other than the fact that you weren't actually Dalish as Leliana had first thought. Can I inquire as to the truth?"

"Question for a question!" she crowed as she jabbed a finger at his upper arm, her fingernail catching the very edge of the spaulder that covered most of that area. Smiling up at him, she said in a softer tone, "Seems only fair."

"I'm probably going to regret this but...agreed."

Well. She hadn't honestly expected him to take her up on the offer.

Shaking her head, Meryell said, "Well then. In answer to your question, the truth is fucking complicated. And I ain't telling the whole of it 'cause I don't want anybody mucking about in my past, 'specially not that woman."

"Your secrets remain your own with me, Meryell."

She blinked at him, more than a little surprised by the honesty in his voice because she was perfectly used to people like the spymaster, who used secrets to get things done. Fuck, she'd been that person once or twice. Anyone in her world that normally told her they'd keep her secrets, was lying in order to get them for a future backstab.

The Commander wasn't a part of that world though. Didn't mean she was going to spill everything.

"Thank you," she softly said before lifting the bottle to her lips. Then she let out a slow breath and said, "South Reach was home once. Years ago, before...well, before lots of things went to shit."

"Before you were ten and five?" he queried gently.

"Was in a gang then. Did some odd jobs for a mercenary company pulling some shite around the Arling," Meryell continued even as she nodded in confirmation to his query. "Got some of their people out of a right fucking mess and then got an invitation. Wasn't anything left for me there 'cept alienage life and possibly ending up in a noose 'cause of my choices. So I joined 'em and a job led me here."

Cullen blinked and shifted slightly as he asked, "You were at the Conclave for a job? What.." He then paused as she smiled at him and laughed, sheepishly lifted a hand to rub at the back of his neck. "My apologies. It's your turn for a question, isn't it?"

"Technically you're ahead two because of that 'ten and five' question but I'll give you a pass for now," she said with a wink. Laughing, Meryell asked, "Since we're going with origin stories, how'd you get here, Cullen?"

"Ah. Well. I was born in Honnleath, it's southeast of here just a little more than six days of riding at a decent pace. At least it was years ago, that all may have changed since the Blight." He paused, brow furrowed slightly, then shook his head. "I wanted to be a Templar from very young, wanted to help people, and I was taken into formal training at thirteen. After that...well. Suffice to say that I've served at two Circles and neither turned out to be what I thought they would. Cassandra recruited me from Kirkwall a few months ago and after everything that had happened I felt that it was the better course to help people than to remain with the Order."

Andraste's flaming tits, good as a word didn't cover the man.

She had no chance of coaxing him into bed. None.

Shaking her head, she said, "I wasn't aware that Templars could just leave the Order. Thought the Chantry assholes kept a pretty tight leash on their dogs. No offense meant."

"None taken," he replied with a tight smile. "I'm well aware of how the Order is viewed, especially now since a large portion has broken with the Chantry, as well as our own...their...abuses of authority."

Suddenly feeling starkly more sober than she had only a few minutes ago, Meryell flicked her eyes down to the vambraces he wore on his arms that were currently resting on his thighs. He noticed her gaze and turned them slightly, revealing the Sword of Mercy stamped into the steel, before chuckling.

"A reminder," Cullen intoned in a low voice. She decided to let it lie. Folke had always said that she didn't know when to stop pushing for answers but she certainly did. It was just that most of the time she didn't fucking care enough to stop.

"We were hired to retrieve a list of items," she said, changing the subject and answering his second question. "Mostly rare books kept in the Temple's library but also magical items that were supposed to have been brought by several of those attending.."

"So," he said slowly, "you're a thief."

Meryell shrugged at that and replied, "When a job calls for it. I'm not fucking ashamed of what I am, Cullen. There are some shitty company's out there but not mine. We never take jobs just to do harm, never shed blood unless it is absolutely necessary, and never harm innocents. So if you've got something against that go ahead and fucking say it."

"I just...what...Maker's breath, that's not what I meant at all, Meryell!" exclaimed Cullen breathlessly. "I don't...Maker." She watched him, eyes narrowed, as he bit his lip nervously before he finally seemed to steady. "I'm just trying to understand you. Not judge."

She just stared at him, more than a little ashamed that her sudden burst of anger had gotten away from her and now sat in a heavy, choking knot in the center of her chest. Usually when people said thief it meant they thought the worst of her and the company. And she had to defend them against that sort of shit. They were her family, the only family she had left.

"I," she began then stopped as the heavy height of the shame threatened to choke her. After a moment she wrenched control back and whispered, "I'm sorry, Cullen. I'm not...fuck, I'm not used to people being nice."

He nodded slowly and after a moment said softly, "Tell me about them."

Meryell choked on a laugh because how could she tell such a good man about the former murderers and thieves and really bad (but still somehow good) men and women that were all she had in the whole of Thedas? Then she remembered the bottle in her hand and drained the rest of it, bringing back the burn of the alcohol in her blood, before she let the now empty container slip from her fingers to the ground. A moment later the stories were tripping from her lips and he listened, really listened, and the hours slipped away from her until she was stone cold fucking sober and dawn was creeping over the horizon.

"Oh Maker's soggy asshole," she groaned as she realized the time. Then she shifted slightly on the barrel and whined at the pins and needles that lanced through the whole of her lower half. "Fuck. I can't feel my ass."

Cullen laughed despite the fact that he seemed to be in the very same predicament as her and she got caught up in the sound, an honest dorky little bray of a laugh that made her want to join in almost immediately. Maybe it was how tired she was or the fact that he listened or just being able to get a little of the stress of being away from the company off her chest by talking about them but she gave in. They ended up collapsing against each other, giggling like a pair of fools, and she was certain she saw a pair of soldiers doing a morning patrol looking at them like they were mad.

Finally they managed to get a hold of themselves and shakily stood, working out the stiff muscles of their bodies. She shivered in the chill of the morning air after a moment and pulled Varric's shirt a little more tightly about herself, which wasn't hard as the dwarf was more than twice as broad as she was. The shirt itself just wasn't all that thick of fabric and even doubling it up didn't help stave off the cold.

"Well," she heard Cullen say and focused her attention on him, narrowing her eyes at his somehow sunny grin. "Would the thief do me the honor of allowing me to escort her back to her cabin?"

Meryell blinked at him then found her own mouth stretching to match that grin. It was the question of a gentleman, to be uttered towards a lady, but he said it to her and he called her thief.

"Not sure just how much of an honor it is," she replied, "but the thief will allow it."

His smile seemed to widen as he offered his arm and she willingly locked her arm into his - mostly because otherwise she might fall down. And partly because fuck she wanted to. She could at least appreciate him even if she could never coax him into her bed.

As they walked slowly through Haven in the light of dawn, he bent his head just enough and whispered in the very tip of her ear, "It is enough of an honor for me." She felt her ears twitch in response, felt molten heat jolt to life between her thighs, and very nearly said fuck propriety and fuck decency too. All she wanted was to drag him into that cabin and ride him until their thighs were raw and their breath coming in hard gasps that dispelled all efforts at talking.

She needed to fuck something now, even if it was her own bloody fingers.

Biting her lip, Meryell somehow managed to say a decent goodbye to the man and threw the bolt once she was inside her cabin. She stripped in record time and flung herself into bed, the fingers of her right hand already sliding inside her wet cunt before she was even entirely under the covers. All it took was a few thrusts and the thought of him above her with all the weight of his heavier human form bearing down on her, of his breath ghosting along the shell of her ear, of his face buried between the crux of her thighs, and she was writhing in orgasm. It was fucking bliss for a matter of moments.

Then reality came crashing back down as she lay panting in the aftermath.

No one wanted a dirty alienage whelp like her for a partner. Maybe for the occasional tumble but never for more than that. She never expected more, never sought it, because it was surely never to be.

No one wanted a knife-eared bitch.

Meryell closed her eyes against the thoughts, refusing to acknowledge the tears pricking at the corners of her eyes, and curled up underneath the covers to try and get some sleep without thinking about good men who didn't deserve to be dragged down into the muck with her.

Chapter Text

"Curly!"

Maker's fucking breath.

Cullen twitched at the addition of the curse, something he'd never - no, that was a lie, rarely was more truthful - said either to himself or aloud. He'd heard it plenty of times during his training and more so during the years he'd served but never - rarely! - used it. Mostly because he didn't feel the need to and compensated curses with a withering glare that made others back down.

And he knew exactly who was to blame for it getting into his head now.

Their Herald, who was absolutely nothing like what one would think someone given the title Herald of Andraste would be, was to blame. Meryell was as sharp-tongued as she was sharp-witted, drank pint for pint with his men, and played a mean hand of Wicked Grace from what he'd overheard. He'd learned a great deal about her only a few nights ago, when he'd come across her sitting on that barrel outside of Haven and joined her because she'd asked. It was a bit pleasing to know things that Leliana didn't given the spymaster's penchant for digging for ever last bit of information she could find.

Meryell was also like flotsam in the river, uprooted from all she knew and washed downstream into the unknown. He knew that particular feeling all too well.

"Andraste's ass, Curly, slow down!" snapped Varric's voice from behind him. He sighed, having hoped that if he kept walking the dwarf would just give up but Varric was persistent if nothing else.

Coming to a stop, Cullen turned to arch an eyebrow down at the dwarf and asked, "Must you continue calling me that?"

Varric just grinned in response despite how hard he was breathing from trying to keep up and replied, "You only just became a decent enough sort to earn a nickname from me, Curly. It's an honor!"

Snorting, Cullen rested both hand on the hilt of his sword and shifted to stand with all of his weight on one leg. "Your idea of honor," he intoned slowly, "and mine have very different definitions, Varric."

"Bah. Who cares. I think it's an honor and that's what matters."

Rolling his eyes skyward, Cullen silently asked for strength before asking, "What do you want?"

"Me? I don't want anything, Curly, just looking for a bit of gossip."

"I don't gossip, dwarf."

"No," replied Varric and he jerked his head downward, glaring at the dwarf as heard suggestion lacing his voice, "but there's plenty of gossip about you and our newly beloved Herald."

Cullen started to open his mouth to tell the dwarf that it wasn't his or anyone else's business about what was between him and Meryell but stopped himself. That would have been playing right into Varric's story greedy hands. Instead he snapped his teeth together and glowered, summoning up the full force of the glare he'd worked on for years.

Varric, to his credit, didn't flinch underneath it but the dwarf had followed Hawke around for the better part of a decade through shit that Cullen didn't even want to begin to fully comprehend. He knew enough about a few of Treva Hawke's exploits and those were enough to make him falter just a bit.

Taking a deep breath, he said, "I would greatly appreciate it, Varric, if you didn't feed whatever gossip there might be about Meryell and I."

"Oh. You're already on first name basis, Curly?"

"What?" hissed Cullen, unable to stop his damned skin from flushing in response to the sudden embarrassment surging through him. "It's not...I...Maker's breath, she asked me to!" Looking down at Varric, he found the dwarf waggling his eyebrows at him and flinched before spitting out, "She didn't want to be called Herald. I'm not one to disrespect a lady's wishes."

"Mmhmm."

"Varric."

"Oh, I believe you, Curly!" The dwarf then grinned up at him and lowered his voice as he said, "But don't expect me to believe that you don't feel something for her. I've seen you eyeing her."

Cullen closed his eyes at that, lifting a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose in an attempt to stave off the headache he could feel coming. Thankfully it was just the normal sort and not one induced by his withdrawals, so it wouldn't be one of the ones that had him hiding in his tent from the smallest amount of light for a few hours.

"I'm worried about her," he growled after a moment, dropping his hand. "She's..." He'd promised her that he wouldn't spill her secrets but that didn't mean that he couldn't push Varric in a certain direction with her. They were already going in the direction of friends but he knew that of anyone, the dwarf was someone good to have at your back. And he could take a good guess that Meryell felt like she didn't have anyone here she could put her back up against. "She's more fragile than she seems."

"Oh, I know," commented Varric, his eyes gleaming with something Cullen had never seen the dwarf direct towards him. Respect. "Hawke was the same way when we met."

Huh. He'd never imagined Hawke as being one of that sort but he'd never gotten to know the apostate that well during the time they'd both been in Kirkwall. Mostly because in the early years he'd still been too wounded to lend more than grudging respect to her alongside a healthy bit of fear and too busy in the later trying to keep the Gallows from falling around his ears while trying to save as many of his charges as he could from the wrath of his fellows or Meredith.

Shaking himself, Cullen looked down at Varric and asked, "Guard her back in the field? I know the plans stand for you all to head into the Hinterlands as soon as the scouting report from Harding comes in."

"You think I wouldn't, Curly?" Varric asked. "I've got to protect my new Wicked Grace partner."

Of course the dwarf would put it that way. He'd learned a little of how to read the vague, dancing around speech that both he and Hawke tended to use.

"Good. I'll rest easier knowing that."

Varric chuckled before saying, "You do like her."

He could feel the heat crawling up the back of his neck again and hoped to everything that his fur hid the bulk of it. Resisting the urge to rub his neck, Cullen replied stonily, "Watch your words, dwarf."

"Oh don't worry, Curly. I think she's been eying you too."

With that the dwarf strode off, whistling an off-key Chantry tune that would have made Cullen wince if he hadn't been distracted by the words he'd said. She had been eying him? Had she? He'd thought that night that they spent talking that there had been something there during the morning hours, when she'd shivered on the way back to her cabin. By and large, he'd tossed it aside as his imagination after reality had come crashing back when he'd woken up in his tent later that day.

After all, who could care for a half-broken lyrium addict?

Chapter Text

"Kill these wolves, Herald. Find my druffalo, Herald. Cut my grass, Herald. Suck my fucking dick, Herald."

"No, no," commented Varric wryly, sounding out of breath from behind her as they climbed yet another fucking mountain, "tell us how you really feel, Swears. I don't think I quite caught it."

Meryell growled through gritted teeth in response, which drew a rusty laugh out of the dwarf and one of Cassandra's noises of disgust from further behind her. Though the latter was probably more about her language than Varric's comment.

It had been nearly a month since they'd left Haven for the Hinterlands and almost two months since the whole cock-up at the Temple of Sacred Ashes that had led to her being claimed the Herald of Andraste. At the beginning of their trip, she was utterly certain that this was some sort of test from Cassandra and the spymaster that she was supposed to utterly fail. She'd been fairly convinced that both of them thought her a fuckwit.

As soon as they'd hit the Crossroads and became embroiled in the fighting, Meryell had firmly grabbed the reins of the little group and tugged. People were suffering and she wasn't going to fucking have it, not if there was a single damned thing she could do to stand against it. She saw the chaos there and deliberately went from person to person that had gathered there, taking note of names and the things they needed while silently thanking the company's old quartermaster Morys for teaching her years ago how to keep things straight in her head as well as remember them clearly. For Vale and all of his men, she had suggestions of what they could do in the meantime before she was able to bring back the things that were needed.

Then she'd led her little core group and a small selection of some of the Inquisition soldiers that had accompanied them to the region out into the middle of the damned war between the mages and templars and took both camps by fucking storm. The trust that she'd felt with the company wasn't there but the feel was there, especially as she and Cassandra got the hang of working around each other in the field. She still didn't like the woman as a person but fuck all if she ever wanted to face her in a knuckle down, drag out fight. Meryell was good with blades. The Seeker was a force of fucking nature with a shield.

Her decade plus of experience with the company continued to come in handy after that and she secured supplies, forged allegiances, and cussed her way up and down the hills while killing a whole mother fuck of people. Varric probed her for exactly how she was such a good leader but she just scoffed at him, saying that she was an utter shit leader. Cassandra pressed the same point, stating once point blank that they had expected her to not be much more than a figurehead, and she'd told her that it was true and she couldn't organize an orgy in a brothel. Chuckles had just lurked on his own side of the fire fucking watching her and she'd snarled curses at him in Elven every time she felt her skin crawling with his gaze.

Now they were climbing the hills towards Redcliffe and she could feel all of her left arm jolt with pain from fingertips to shoulder. The mark sizzled across her palm, feeling like it was splitting her skin open despite the fact that she knew it wasn't. Hurt didn't describe the pain she was in.

"Rift!" she snapped and reached over her shoulders for her daggers while mourning the loss of her old gear at the Temple. If nothing else, she had to contact the company so she could get her spare harness sent. After too many years with the same rig, changing her draw pattern up was screwing with all of her motions in battle.

No, no, she didn't need her damned fucking extra harness. She intended on helping them close the Breach since she was the only one who fucking could and then she was gone. No more, no less.

After eleven rifts and far too much of everything else, they fell instantly into pattern as demons spilled forth from the shifting green tear in the Veil. Cassandra charged at the enemy behind the closest, drawing the attention of the latter and turning it away from the group. Meryell took that one first with Varric, her blades tearing into its core while he slammed poison tipped crossbow bolts into its skull above her head. Then she dove to the next closest one, hampering it with her blades enough that Varric could kill it with a few well placed shots or Chuckles could slam home a ball of force into it while Cassandra held the attention of them all with sword and shield. It was basically rinse and repeat after that point.

That's the way it should have gone, anyway.

Instead Cassandra missed her charge because the demons moved too fucking fast and had to compensate with a spin that brought her shield smashing in a downward swipe into the closest demon skull. Meryell felt sluggish as she darted forward then immediately faster as soon as she stepped into the same space as the demons. The mark flared, fresh agony sizzling through it and making the skin all along her arm twitch while her whole body screamed that something was fucking wrong.

A demon's claw caught her marked arm at the elbow as her pain wracked limb faltered through a strike and tore her flesh open from joint to joint, elbow straight down to wrist. Meryell spat in its face on instinct and slammed her other dagger home into its skull all the way to the hilt. As it dissolved back into the Fade, she darted forward despite her left hand being limp now, her dagger fallen point first into the ground behind her as she streamed blood in her wake. She kept moving because you never ever fucking stop in a pitched battle and all too quickly she forgot the wound as the fight rushed over her, making it feel as if she wasn't wounded at all despite her useless arm.

It was all breathe and kill and survive now, a constant repetition of those words as she sliced her blade through demonic hamstrings and spun just short of stepping into the rage of one of Chuckles' blizzards.

And then, it was over.

Meryell swayed, light-headed from blood loss, and dropped her other dagger. With her free hand she gripped her wrist, not thinking about the warm wetness of her own blood slicking her fingers and the palms of her half gloves, and somehow focused enough to push the mark at the rift. As it snapped shut, she blinked slowly at her bloody hand and the gash that had flayed open her arm and breathed, "Fuck me blind."

Then her eyes rolled back in her head just as she realized she was falling backwards like a cut tree and then there was blessed nothingness.

Consciousness came back painfully slow and the first thing Meryell heard was the sound of two people arguing while trying not to raise their voices.

"You knew this, Commander, and did not tell us?"

"I told her that her secrets were safe with me, Cassandra. I don't break my word once I've given it."

"This is something we should have known! To have a mercenary as the Herald..."

"She is no different than she was when you left for the Hinterlands!"

"There are few who would follow her knowing her past, Cullen."

"And I will run to be at the head of that obvious gathering of fools who see a good woman and not some caricature of a sellsword."

Meryell managed to crack open her eyes at that statement, which made her feel warm to the core and guilty at the same time. She was not a good woman. How had she left him think she was? She didn't deserve such praise from him.

Cullen stood with his back to her and he seemed somehow...smaller? She could barely see Cassandra from the way he was standing, nothing more than her mud spattered boots and pants visible between his legs. But why did Cullen seem smaller?

Cassandra made a noise of disgust then her head tipped around his shoulder, her eyes darkening with obvious distaste. "She wakes," commented the Seeker, her Nevarran accent slightly sharper than it usually was. "I will return to the Chantry to see what Leliana and Josephine have thought of to fix this." The door of the cabin slammed shut in her wake as she spun on a heel with all the fury of a small storm and Meryell couldn't help the small groan that rattled out of her throat.

Just when she and the Seeker were starting to tolerate each other, they somehow discovered her past. Cullen hadn't given up her secrets though so how had they known?

"Are you alright?"

Refocusing, Meryell blinked as she realized that Cullen was leaning over her, his forehead creased with the telltale signs of concern. Trying to smile, she realized suddenly why he seemed smaller than usual - his face wasn't framed by the red-black ruff of fur like it usually was. Instead his chest plate was bare of both it and the red and gold fabric that was normally wrapped around him...because it was laying on top of her.

Panic welled up in her throat, fighting for dominance against the sudden heat in her belly and she wanted to fucking scream.

Good men didn't want to fuck dirty elf girls.

She chanted it silently like a mantra as she licked her dry lips and rasped, "How the fuck?"

The lines of concern on his face loosened then and she knew why: the company had the same rule as any group of soldiers - if you can still curse, you'll probably fucking live. He chuckled and asked, "How did you get back to Haven or how did they find out?"

"Both," she replied.

"Let me get you some water and something to eat first then I'll tell you the whole story. You've been unconscious for more than a week and with all the blood you lost Solas has been worrying about the rate you were getting it back since we haven't been able to get much of anything into you while you've been out."

As he rose, Meryell croaked, "You don't have to babysit me, Cullen. I can..." She stopped as he pressed a finger to her lips and resisted the temptation to taste him because he wasn't wearing those fucking gloves of his. His skin was even warmer than it had been that night when he'd joined her on the barrels and she wanted more. Maker's swollen prick, she really needed to take a man to bed.

The problem was the only man she really wanted in Haven was far too good for her.

"It's not babysitting," he said gently, removing his hand quickly as a blush rose up his neck, a sight she could see much easier without the fur in the way. "I want to be here."

He left before she could say anything else and Meryell let out a little huff of breath after he was gone. Part of her wanted to dance because all signs said he wanted her but the jaded half of her took a swift blade to that optimism. Cullen was merely being kind and kindness didn't mean that he cared for her in any way bedsides friendship.

As she continually reminded herself, good men didn't fuck knife-eared bitches. It had been proven to her time and time again as well.

Wiggling her shoulders experimentally as a distraction, she slowly pulled her left arm out from underneath the blankets to get a look at it, noting absently that she was wearing only her small clothes and a loose shift that didn't fall much lower than her breasts. There was a line of freshly healed pink running from her wrist to her elbow and she could feel it stretch as she bent her arm to get a look at it. She wondered if the muscle had been damaged and if she was going to have to work it back up to strength.

As the door opened against, Meryell practically threw her arm down onto the bed in a sudden fit of absurd panic and immediately regretted everything. Pain lanced through her arm but it was blessedly not the pain that the mark spawned. No, it was just the normal pain of healing muscle and flesh but it still fucking hurt.

Blinking past the sudden tears in her eyes, she frowned as Varric entered her cabin with a tray balanced in one hand and a book tucked under his arm. He grinned as he saw her and said, "Special delivery courtesy of Curly. Hot tea and broth straight from the kitchen. He got dragged into that mess in the Chantry and I offered to bring this to you."

The dwarf sat the tray and book down on the small table near the door then moved towards her. "Come on, Swears," he said warmly though she could read strain in all of his bearing. "You've got to sit up to eat."

Grunting as he flipped her blankets down - which took Cullen's fur away from her - she grumbled, "I can fucking sit up on my damned own, Varric." As soon as she shifted her left arm and put the slightest pressure on it, she deemed that statement utterly fucking false. Varric wasn't having no for an answer anyway so she just let his large hands move her about and when she was finally resettled, he tucked the blankets back up around her waist. Making sure that the ruff of Cullen's fur was right up against her belly, which was bared by her shift.

She froze, staring at him in terror, and he blinked at her in honest confusion. "Swears...what's wrong?"

"You know," she breathed, not able to get anything else out.

"No, sweetheart, you're going to have to enlighten me because I'm completely in the dark here."

Meryell swallowed and curled her fingers into the warm fur as she bit out, "Cullen, Varric."

The dwarf blinked for a moment then stepped close to the bed, one of his hands large enough to cover both of hers as his other hand curled around her upper arm. "Curly likes you, Swears, anyone can see that," he said gently. He then frowned at her and breathed, "And that scares the shit out of you. Why? Come on, Swears, talk to Uncle Varric. What's wrong?"

She tried to keep the words in, wanted to sew her own lips shut to keep them inside but she was weak.

Bowing her head so she didn't have to look him in the eyes, she breathed, "Good men don't fuck knife-ears."

Varric growled and then the hand that had been on her arm was on her chin, callused fingers gently forcing her head back up and around to look at him. Meryell expected to see what she always saw in people's eyes - that yes, that's true - but there was only a painful sadness in his. His voice was low and rough with emotion as he asked, "Who told you that, sweetheart?"

She didn't remember the first time she'd heard it. Had it been Brandon, who she'd lost her maidenhead to at fourteen after a successful theft had left them giddy? Camden after she'd joined the company, who'd bitten her ear so hard he left a permanent scar and made her flinch from men touching them? The nameless Orlesian stable boy she'd ridden in the hay loft after her first solo job for the company, who'd made her fly before bringing her crashing down by calling her rabbit? Or did it trace back to her father and her younger self the first time she bled and his gently spoken words about how shemlen were not to be trusted with her heart because they wouldn't understand her?

Meryell stared at him open mouthed with not one answer to give.

A heavy weight pressed down on the side of the bed then and she was pulled into Varric's chest. He wasn't as warm as Cullen but he was steady and solid and Andraste's dripping cunt she needed someone like that at her back. She sank against him, tucking her head underneath his chin and loosened one hand from the fur to curl her fingers into the fabric of his tunic. One of his hands cupped her bare back at the base of her spine - yet somehow wasn't sexual at all - while the other ran lightly up and down her back over the surface of the shift as he started to hum randomly. He couldn't keep a tune probably to save his life but the vibration rumbling through her via contact was soothing. It reminded her of being sung to sleep by her father when she was still a little girl.

After a moment Meryell asked softly, "You hug a lot of half naked women, Varric? You seem very comfortable."

He chuckled then replied, "Remind me to tell you a few of the more salacious stories about Hawke. The real stories."

"Real stories? You mean to say that you, Varric Tethras, lied in one of your books about how events happened?"

Varric did laugh at that one. "Didn't I tell you I'm prone to extragant lies?" he asked. Then he gently pushed her back so he could look down at her, saying, "No matter what the rest of them say or what anyone says, there's nothing wrong with you, Swears. And we may not be your company but Curly and I've got your back."

Tears welled up in her eyes at his words and Meryell dove back into his arms to hide her face against his tunic. He just hugged her close and after a moment she was able to mutter, "I'm usually not like this."

"Chuckles said you'd probably be acting a little strange when you woke up. You lost a lot of blood in that fight, Swears. Scared a few years off my life too when he wasn't sure you were going to make it for a bit."

She flicked her ears in annoyance at owing the other elf her life again. Sighing, she muttered, "I'll actually have to thank the masvian. Fuck me."

Varric chuckled, a deep rumble that shook her whole body, and said, "I think Curly would be upset if I had my merry way with you, Swears."

Meryell felt the heat of a blush in her cheeks at the thought of someone - especially Cullen - being upset about her sleeping with someone else. She'd never had someone want her before, not anyone that she was attracted to. There had been elves in the past who'd made approaches and tried to win her over but she'd learned what she craved in a man when she was still a skint-kneed alienage brat. It had been a South Reach guardsman, one of a pair on the usual rounds in the alienage, and she'd been thirteen sitting in the low branches of the vhenadahl. He had been young, handsome, all broad shoulders and height, and he'd smiled up at her as he caught sight of her in the tree. No elf had caught her eye since that day.

But she had only given her body to men that wanted only the one tumble since that day. She had perhaps listened too well to her father that once. Now she wasn't sure how to break herself from thinking that she was only worth the time of those who used her.

Her whole body shook and Meryell slowly pushed away from Varric, leaning back to she could see his eyes. "How," she began and the words tried to catch in her throat but she wouldn't let them, "how do I do this?"

"I'm afraid I don't have an answer to that one, Swears. I've written a few romances but real life never turns out that neat." He smiled then and said, "Just be yourself, sweetheart. Curly likes it, swears and all."

Varric's face then went stern as he gently grasped her chin and darkly rumbled, "And do me a favor, Swears. I don't want to ever hear that slur come out of your mouth again. No thinking it either."

Meryell nodded and murmured, "I'll try."

"Good." Varric then tilted his head towards the tray and said, "Now that that's settled, you're going to eat. I think if I let you go hungry after all the work he did getting it, Curly would gladly set me up in place of one of the Seeker's training dummies. I even brought a book to read to you."

At the thought of him all trussed up and wide-eyed in place of one of Cassandra's much abused dummies, a laugh burst out of her. She shook her head and softly asked, "What fine novel did you bring to read me, Master Tethras?"

"None of that now or you don't get to hear a word," replied Varric with a waggling finger as he extricated himself from the bed and helped her scoot back to her spot against the headboard. He brought the tray over and carefully situated it on her lap before he retreated to the chair that had been moved next to her bed - likely by Cullen or Chuckles originally - settling himself in it with book in hand. "As for what it is, only the best for you, Swears."

Meryell smiled then leaned forward, inhaling deeply the steam still rising from the bowl. After a bit of finagling with her weak arm, she managed to lift it and drank straight from it. The taste reminded her of the alienage when it had been home and not just somewhere with a roof and a bed. After a moment she pulled it away from her mouth and asked, "Tale of the Champion?" with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.

"Much as I like to talk about my own work, no. I actually delved into the Chantry's library and found a copy of the Adventures of the Black Fox, so I figured I should rescue it before someone decided it wasn't fit to be anywhere near the building."

She'd read all of the adventures years ago when she'd snitched a copy of one of the variations of the book from a South Reach shop and owned two actually honest copies that she'd purchased with her own coin during a job in Val Royeux and somewhere in the backend of Antiva the whole once the company had gone there. All of those copies were, of course, back at the company headquarters in the Free Marches, nice and secure in her chest.

She wouldn't tell Varric any of that, of course.

Smiling to herself, Meryelle finished her broth and water as Varric began reading and just pushed the tray down to the end of the bed instead of interrupting him. As the first of the Black Fox's adventures came to an end, her eyes started to droop and she slowly inchwormed her way down the bed, careful to not put too much pressure on her marked arm. It didn't take long after that for sleep to take her, the warmth of the bed and the rumble of Varric's voice lulling her easily down into dreams, and she woke later to a different voice reading the book aloud.

Blinking slowly at Cullen, who had replaced Varric in the chair next to the bed and was actually not wearing his armor, Meryell held her breath. He looked remarkably relaxed sitting there in just trousers and a roughspun tunic that looked like it had seen better days, one leg bent to prop a dust covered boot on his knee. Judging by the renewed light in the room, he'd stirred up the hearth when he'd come in and the golden glow of the light washed over him, highlighting him from behind. She flicked her eyes up to his face, watching the movement of his scar and mouth as he read for a moment, then trailed her gaze on upward and...oh.

That was why Varric called him Curly.

Instead of the neat, ordered lines his hair was normally in, there was a riot of blond curls on his head. It made his hair seem shorter in comparison to its usual length and she could see why he had tamed it into a different look as it wasn't very becoming of the Commander of the Inquisition to have the equivalent of a girl's golden ringlets. Not with a soldier's eye for personal pride anyway; her own mercenary bred eye was more focused on how well you did your damned job and less how good you looked doing it. To each their own though.

Meryell smiled and nuzzled her nose into his fur, which had been tucked up around her face snugly, before saying softly, "I think I like your hair better this way, Cullen."

He startled, the boot propped on his knee bouncing to the floor as he sat up straight while snapping the book closed. A hand rose to touch his head and he groaned before muttering, "Maker's breath."

"Oh come on. You're a soldier, you can curse better than that."

Cullen flashed a disgruntled look towards her but she'd succeeded at her goal: distracting him from worrying about those pretty curls. After a moment he intoned shortly, "Maker's. Fucking. Balls," while a fine embarrassed flush crawled up the back of his neck and turned his ears red. It was adorable and hearing the word fuck come out of his mouth made her toes curl with want.

Grinning proudly at him, Meryell chirped, "Good effort but needs some work before it's up to my considerable standards."

"I bow to the thief's greater experience in such a field," intoned Cullen in a purr that would have made her knees wobble if she was standing. He then scooted forward in the chair and asked, "Are you alright?"

"Sore," she replied, "but I'll live thanks to Chuckles. Though I think you still owe me a fucking explanation."

He inclined his head slightly at that and proceeded to explain in the quick, simple words of a man used to giving orders quickly that the letter she'd intended to have delivered to Folke via the Redcliffe contact had been discovered when Chuckles and Cassandra had stripped her out of her bloody leathers. She closed her eyes at that information, cursing her own foolish pride that had had her tucking it close to her heart, and then sighed as she buried her nose in Cullen's fur. The spymaster had all of the information she needed now to find anything on Meryell, including tracing her back to South Reach as she signed her letters with her surname. Which meant they could track her so long as she kept ties to her company or to her own name.

All of her plans for escaping after the Breach was closed were as good as fucking dust.

"Damn the Maker's soggy asshole to the fucking Void," she cursed. "Fucking shite."

"I'm fairly certain you can't do that," Cullen said gently, causing her to open her eyes and look at him. He was smiling down at her as he continued, "Though given what I've learned about you, Meryell, I'm certain you'd try to make it happen."

"Fucking succeed too," she managed to hiss triumphantly despite not feeling it at all. It felt like there was a sudden void in her chest, like a sucking wound that was dragging her inevitably under.

His smile remained and he reached out with a tentative hand to brush back a lock of her hair, his fingers coming close to but not quite touching her ears. "I believe you," he intoned softly. She shivered at the contact and this time when that phrase echoed through her mind it hurt a little less. Still there, still causing her caution, but she held on to what Varric had said about the man next to her liking her. Cullen pulled away then, settling back into the chair and idly waggling the book at her. "Shall I continue?"

"Please," she replied and didn't even try to hide the choked emotion in her voice, a mix of the void in her chest and the war against herself.

Cullen just nodded then scooted his chair closer, finding his place again before he laid his right hand on the edge of the bed, palm up in silent invitation. As he started to read, Meryell slid her own hand out from underneath the covers to grip it tightly, clinging to the contact like it was a safe port in a storm.

Chapter Text

Meryell stood silently on the other side of the war table from the leaders of the Inquisition, her arms crossed and eyes focused into a hard gaze that flicked from one to the other as they spoke. The spymaster was furious that something had gotten past her, Josephine was worried about the few allies they had balking at being tied to a mercenary group (even though they weren't at fucking all), Cassandra was bristling because she saw it as betrayal, and Cullen was eerily silent. Well, eerily silent to everyone but her as they'd discussed how he should act at this meeting while she was still stuck in bed regaining her strength.

She dearly wanted to just scream at them but she waited. Waited until the worst of their anger burned out, until they thought her perhaps a little cowed by their rage. She was good at waiting.

When they finally shut up, Meryell looked at Cullen, who gave her a subtle little nod, and then she took a breath.

Calm. Keep your head. Treat it like a job.

If she treated it like a job, she probably wouldn't attempt to stab anything.

"Now that we're done with the yelling part of the program," she began snidely, "let's start this over and I'll answer one question at a time. Josephine, you can start."

The ambassador looked a little shocked but she quickly recovered and tapped her fingers against whatever paper she had sitting atop the writing board that was her almost constant companion. "Your letter," she said softly, "was addressed to a man named Folke. We've come to understand that he and yourself are members of the mercenary company known as the Fangs of Vimmark."

Meryell arched an eyebrow because there wasn't a fucking question there and nodded slowly.

"May I inquire as to how many years you've served with them?"

"Not something you can find out?" she asked with a smirk, cocking her head slightly towards the spymaster. Honestly, she probably shouldn't be prodding the other woman but if there was one thing she hated it was people who worked solely in secrets alone. Anyone who delved that deep into other people's shit had the tendency to not be all that stable and what she'd seen so far of the spymaster spoke of a woman treading the line between killing for good reasons and killing blindly for the cause. It was one step from religious zealotry and she'd rather kill a zealot before they got the idea to stab her in the back.

Josephine flashed a tense smile as the spymaster stood in silent reply and hurriedly said, "We attempted to contact the Fangs but, upon our asking about you, they returned only silence."

Shrugging, Meryell explained, "Normal protocol. I was out on my own on a job and they probably think I'm fucking dead given that the job involved getting into the Conclave. That and the company doesn't just blindly trust anyone asking about our own." She shifted her weight onto the balls of her feet then back to her heels before she continued, "As to how long I've served, over ten years. I joined them in 9:30 just before the cock-up at Ostagar wiped out the King's army. Did one job in Ferelden then we high tailed it out of the fucking country."

"You were lucky," commented Cullen quietly, barely enough of a vocalization for anyone else to hear. Meryell had elf ears, though, and she'd honed her hearing over the years to make sure she heard everything that she could. He sounded...wounded. She filed the comment quietly away for later and cocked her head at Josephine.

"That is all for now. Thank you, Herald."

Growling at the title, she tilted her head towards Cassandra.

The Seeker snorted before asking, "Who is this Folke you wrote to?"

"My...mentor...for lack of a better term," Meryell replied. "He's a hedge mage."

"A hedge mage!"

She could see Cullen shift his weight at Cassandra's repetition of the term and sighed. "He has enough magic to be dangerous but not enough to bring demons down on his head. Just enough to tweak the nose of the Maker, as he likes to say." It wasn't like Folke being a hedge mage was a big deal. Even with her avoiding his smug ass for the most part, she'd gotten the fact that Chuckles hadn't been trained by the Dalish or a Circle, which also put him into the particular category.

Cullen actually snorted at the turn of phrase and seemed to relax a little - but enough - and said, "Scholars call it arcanist derangement when one is a hedge mage. It's claimed by and large by many of them and the Order that those with it often have short lives."

"If Folke were here he'd tell you that's straight bullshit," commented Meryell. "And then he'd go on a long ass fucking spiel about all the ways that the Chasind and Avvar deal with magic better than we do and just make you want to stab him in the throat so he'll shut up."

“Common topic?” he asked with a hint of a smile.

Favorite topic.” Meryell then looked at Cassandra again and asked, “You want to know anything else about him? Favorite food? Whether he sleeps naked? The size of his co-"

No,” interrupted the Seeker fiercely.

Smirking, she turned her attention to the spymaster and said coldly, “Your turn.”

The other woman didn't bat an eye at her tone but just stood there looking at her with those hooded blue eyes. Then she smiled - and it was a cold smile, the sort that sent ice down the spine - and asked in her lilting Orlesian voice, “Do you still plan to abandon us once the Breach is sealed?”

“I'll remind you,” replied Meryell with a clenched jaw, “that you and Cassandra told me I could leave whenever I liked. If the Breach is closed, you don't need this shit on my hand anymore, right?” When no one immediately answered her, she snarled, “Right?!

“We cannot answer that question because we do not have an answer,” pointed out Cassandra. She then planted her hands on the table and leaned forward, dark eyes accusing. “And what if rifts remain after it closes? You would merely abandon those who suffer from their presence simply because you feel the need to run away?”

Fenedhis!” snarled Meryell, her temper bucking against its leash but she held it. “I am no hal’am’shirelan! I owe you and your Inquisition nothing! You imprisoned me, declared me something I most certainly am fucking not without even waiting for me to wake up, begged me and blackmailed me at the same fucking time to stay and help you, and when you find out what I am you sneer behind my back.” She straightened to her full height, which wasn't all that impressive but Folke had taught her how to make her presence felt when it needed to be. And she remembered, oh fuck did she remember, the words her father had said every night with her, their own little prayer as he had abandoned the Creators and both had never deigned to believe in the Maker like her mother had. We are the last of the Elvhenan, and never again shall we submit. They were spawned from Dalish words, from a world she'd only known bits and pieces of thanks to her father, but they had made them theirs. She would not bend a knee to these fools who couldn't even deal with her fucking past. Not without her legs being fucking broken.

“I will not stay,” she growled, “where I am by and large not wanted. I will return to my family, because make no mistake that my company is just that, and we will close the rifts ourselves before I do such.”

Cullen looked almost stricken at her words and she was so close to taking them back. He was one of the two things actually bearable in this situation and she wanted...Maker’s aching cock, she actually wanted to see if that unspoken thing between them could be something more. If she could be something more than a momentary tumble in a man's bed.

But she would not, could not, stay where she wasn't wanted. She'd done it from eleven to fifteen and she had sworn the day she walked out of South Reach at Folke's side that she never would again.

Silence reigned for a long moment then the spymaster said in a low voice, “Then we should work to trust each other better.” She'd expected those words of Josephine, of Cassandra, but not of the cold-tempered keeper of secrets. “I suspect,” she continued mildly, blue eyes a little less dark than they had been before, “that we sometimes forget that you are a person and not merely a symbol. The exception being our Commander, of course.”

Cullen coughed at the mention of his name and lifted a leather-clad hand to rub the back of his neck. Meryell knew that gesture now and knew too that, though she couldn't see it because of the fur being in the way, he was blushing in that exact spot.

For some reason that motion - all too familiar since he'd spent the majority of his free hours with her recently - calmed her temper. Taking a deep breath, Meryell let her arms fall apart and leaned into the war table, looking steadily from one of them to the other, starting with the spymaster and working her way down to Cullen. "You want my help," she began, "you deal with my shit. You deal with my past, my language, my job, and my fucking family without saying shit. Non-negotiable. This is who I fucking am and I will not change it unless I feel the need to damn well do so. Now..." Trailing off for a moment, she turned her attention to Josephine, "I'll pen another letter to Folke about this shit, clear up me being marked dead in the rolls. My first suggestion would be if you want to keep control of how people find out about my past, we hire my company."

"Of course," said the ambassador with a sharp nod. "I imagine even with one of their own working with us, they would not deign to give their skill over to us freely."

"Fuck no. Arnald's a decent man but he doesn't do charity work. He might give a discount from the usual wage of hiring the whole company because it's me and no one's hired the whole company in years."

Josephine's eyes gleamed in anticipation. "I look forward to conducting business with him. I assume he leads your company?"

Meryell nodded then rotated a finger in the air before pointing it at Cassandra, having counted Josephine's inquiry as her question. "Your turn."

"We are still playing this incessant game?" the Seeker asked with a sigh. After a moment of silence in response she said, "Fine. You have said you were born in the South Reach alienage. What of your childhood?"

The question was like a sucker punch, burying itself under her ribs and burrowing up into her heart. Meryell had to take a deep breath, fighting against the imaginary pain, before she spoke.

"I was born in 9:15 during Drakonis, the first birth to survive that year in the alienage. My childhood was...normal...to what one might find in any alienage. In 9:26, a coughing sickness took hold of the city but it festered in the alienage. My mother died of it and, after it was gone, my father was murdered during the recovery for his coin. The hahren took me in but I was angry, bitter, always fighting him, so I joined a gang at thirteen. Two years later Folke and his partner hired us to help them gather information for a job and then gave us the recruitment spiel after we hauled their asses out of the jail. I've been with the company ever since.”

That was the least she would tell the three women. None of them were trusted enough yet to know any more and she wouldn't say anything unless confronted about it. Though there was probably little that even the spymaster would be able to find given that the only records kept in alienages were births, deaths, and marriages. They would find nothing about who her father or mother were unless those that knew them still lived and those were few and far between.

It was more comforting a thought than the one she'd had upon waking days ago, when fear had blinded her and made her forget. Her life with the Fangs was open. The years before that still had a chance to escape a close perusal.

Shaking the thoughts off, Meryell looked to the spymaster again. The other woman just smiled, saying, “You have already answered the only question I wished to ask,” and she filed that statement securely under creepy.

“Anyone else then?”

“Not at this moment, Herald,” Josephine replied, ignoring her immediate mutter about finding a new fucking title, and continued, “Since you have been ill there has been some news. The clerics are gathering in Val Royeaux and Mother Giselle believes you should attend to speak to them.”

“You want me in the same general area of a bunch of piss skirts who'd rather see me in chains or dead? Ambassador, I might end up killing them on principle.”

“If they're like Chancellor Roderick,” Cullen commented with just the slightest upturn of a smirk, “I doubt anyone would mourn them. We'd have to find some way to get you out of jail, of course.”

Meryell grinned at him while the other women looked more than a little confused. Obviously he didn't show his sense of humor to a great deal of people. "I'll save forcing the Inquisition having to break me out of jail for when it wouldn't be Val Royeaux's dungeons. Y'ever been down there? Utter fucking piss. Now Ostwick, they have a nice jail."

Josephine managed to look pale despite her dark skin at that comment and asked, "Just how many times have you been arrested?"

"More than you want me to tell you. So," clapping her hands together, Meryell asked, "when do we leave?"

"When you are well, Herald,” replied the ambassador in a delicate tone. “Solas made it very clear that it would take at least three weeks from your waking for you to be travel ready. Luckily for us, the clerics convene in five weeks, which leaves enough days for your journey to Val Royeaux with extra to play with.”

“Fucking Chuckles,” growled Meryell but she wasn't going to openly argue that she wasn't in top form. It had taken several days for her to even get the energy to get out of bed and she grew tired incredibly quickly still. She'd discovered that fact by trying to practice her fighting forms to strengthen her arm yesterday and had ended up in the floor, having to crawl back into her bed. She just wasn't going to tell Chuckles that he was right. Thanks for saving my ass, sure. You were right about me being as weak as a fucking kitten was right out.

Sighing, she nodded and said, “Fine.”

“Good. We shall take the time you are recovering to plan.” Cassandra crossed her arms then and asked the room, “I believe that is all for today, correct?”

“Yes,” replied the spymaster as she leaned a hip against the table. Meryell caught her eyes as the woman continued, “I await your letter to your company, Herald.”

“I'll have one in a few days,” she replied in a clipped tone while narrowing her eyes. This time she was going to write the damned thing in the company codes which annoyed the shit out of her. She loathed the fucking codes the company had developed decades ago during their inception that allowed them to pass missives without worry of someone intercepting delicate information. The spymaster reading mail that she didn't want her to read wasn't going to happen again, so she'd suffer.

Trying to shake the sudden anger off, Meryell looked at Cullen and asked in a more pleasant voice, “Good ser, may I ask for an escort to the tavern?” She ignored the odd looks the question garnered her from the three women, choosing to focus solely him. Her eyes focused on the way his scar twitched with his lip, how his eyes glinted with some silent bit of humor - what had he thought of there, she did wonder - then he was coming around the table with his arm canted towards her.

He inclined his head just slightly and murmured in a low voice pitched for her ears alone, "Of fucking course." And he didn't even blush while saying it.

Bursting into laughter at him playing her vulgarity against her playing his politeness, Meryell locked her arm into his and they strode out of the war room without another word. As soon as the door closed behind them, she sighed and leaned a little more into him as a sudden wave of exhaustion rushed up on her. Leather-clad fingers pressed warmly against her hand and then Cullen asked, "Are you certain you want to go to the tavern?"

"Certain as fuck," she replied, trying to sound sure. "Just...tired. Fuck, I hate being this tired."

"You shouldn't fight it, Meryell," he said gently as he pushed one of the doors of the Chantry open and they stepped out into the slightly chilly night air. "It's your body trying to tell you what it needs."

Huffing out an exasperated breath, she muttered, "I know." Shaking her head, she turned to look up at him. "I don't deal with being sick well. Not even when my parents were alive."

He hummed in response and they walked in silence for a moment, making their way through the village towards the tavern, before he spoke again. "Your parents," he said, "you've never spoken of them before."

"They're not a topic I like to think about often." Closing her eyes, Meryell impulsively leaned her head against his arm, thankful that he'd apparently decided to forgo his armor today and was wearing only his coat with it's fur over his tunic and trousers. Speaking softly, she continued, "I watched my mother die, shaking and choking on her own spit, unable to do anything but sit in the furthest corner of our home and hope that I wasn't next. There weren't even any tears left at that point. I'd spent them all when the Arl sent men in who piled up the bodies and burned them in a corner of the alienage days before. There weren't even any left weeks later when I found my father dead only a few feet from our door.”

His arm tensed underneath her cheek as she spoke and she was certain now that it wasn't where he'd seen the conversation going. When she got tired, however, she had a tendency of getting melancholy. Another reason why she hated to be at the point of exhaustion.

Cullen opened the door of the tavern then and the soldiers who were in residence greeted them with a hearty call of their titles before they drifted back to what they had been doing. Only one more reason why she preferred spending her time with these men and women rather than some of the others in the budding Inquisition. They knew when to keep their fucking mouths shut.

"Here, sit," he offered, pulling out one of the two chairs against the wall at one of the few corner tables with his free hand and delicately steering her into it. Meryell fell gracelessly as directed and she could see it made Cullen smile as she tilted her head back while he scooted her chair across the floor so it was closer to the table. "A drink for the thief? And perhaps whatever Flissa has in that pot hanging in the hearth?"

"Please. You've drunk with me enough now to know my preference."

She leaned her elbows on the table, chin propped against both hands, and watched him as he crossed the room. He spoke freely to every soldier - and the few scouts who were also present, she now saw - as he went, sure and steady as you please. She envied that poise and wondered if it had come naturally to him or learnt during his years as a templar. What she had was mostly what the Antivans in the company called bravado and what everyone else had dubbed the brassest set of balls you've ever seen on a woman. And half of that was fueled by that angry little girl from the alienage who'd had her family stolen from her.

Fucking melancholy.

Meryell sighed, rubbing her fingers into her temples, then sat up as Cullen returned with two mugs topped with froth and a bowl of steaming stew. Her stomach growled as the delicious smell of boiled vegetables and meat hit her nose and immediately dug in as soon as the bottom hit the table. He laughed as he took the seat directly next to her at the other wall-backed chair - a habit they'd discovered when they'd shared the first night of many once he'd actually taken her up on the offer of drinking with her before she'd gone into the Hinterlands a month ago - and leaned back to sip at whatever he'd gotten to drink.

She finished the stew in what was probably record time, draining even the juices left in the bottom of the bowl, and then promptly scooted her chair closer to him. Snatching up her mug and taking a sip, Meryell curled her feet up into the seat and leaned sideways into Cullen's chest with an audible thump, drawing a chuckle out of him. The warm, heavy weight of his arm fell across her shoulders and he laughed before softly saying, "This will no doubt spawn even more rumor, dear thief."

She resisted the urge to shiver and laid her head back against his shoulder, smiling up at him. They had sat like this only a few times but she could foresee it becoming more common. His staying with her during his free hours lately had prompted a great deal of touching between them. It was never anything untoward or too forward, just her reaching out for comfort or him somehow anticipating that she needed touch. She'd never have taken him for that much of a touch-heavy type but sometimes it felt hungry. Like he was a man who'd starved himself of human contact.

Which, to be honest, she was the same way.

And somehow - she wasn't quite sure how and didn't want to examine it too closely - this, whatever this was, was working. She still wanted him and sometimes she caught the tail-end of a guilty stare as his eyes flicked away and came so fucking close to saying something but she knew enough about herself (and made enough guesses about him) to know it wasn't the time. Cullen was, for now, her friend and that was enough.

He was the one thing in Haven she could honestly trust that she could put her back up against and not be let down.

"So?" Meryell chirped with a smile as her head lolled against his shoulder. "We know what we fucking are, yeah? Let 'em gab. They need to see us being people for the same reason as I don't care about them calling me fucking Herald."

Cullen's face was slightly flushed - whether with drink or embarrassment was a mystery - but he nodded just the same. His arm tightened around her shoulders and he hummed before replying, "Yes. We know what we are."

"And what are we, Cullen?"

He laughed then turned his head to press a slightly messy kiss against her temple, making her flush with a mix of sultry heat and friendly warmth at the gesture.

"Fucking amazing."

"Damn right we are," she growled as she clinked her mug against his. "To being fucking amazing."


Dearest Asshole,

I'm fucking alive, you twat, so take me off the damned dead roll. You know I don't appreciate you doing shit without asking my permission.

You and the company probably haven't heard of the Inquisition or the Herald of Andraste yet other than the letters they sent. Well, fun news, I'm the one carrying the latter title. You're probably laughing your fucking head off at anyone putting a religious title to me, so take a minute before you blow your heart, old man.

Short story, shit went cock-up at the Conclave. Arnald’s going to have to return the up front pay to our client from the coffers ’cause it and all my gear went up in flames with everything else. If he bitches, tell him it was the price for me not being fucking dead.

I'd tell you more but the Inquisition has a spymaster who handles the birds and I'm hooked to town from an injury so I can't reach our contact in Redcliffe. You know I hate these fucking codes. Cramps my damn hand. I'll fill you in on the whole bit of nugshit the next time I see you, which'll be hopefully soon.

Don't twist Arnald's arm too hard getting him to accept the ambassador's offer of employ, old man. You'll hurt his manly feelings.

Oh, and bring my shit with you?

Fuck you, Poppet


Poppet,

I ought to wring your neck bloody, you little shit. You know I wouldn't have supported the captain adding you to the dead unless I was certain you were supposed to be there. I fucking searched for you, trying to trace your charm. Gil and Demut did too.

You'd be surprised what the company's heard. Captain's a little wary of accepting the offer given what Boots rambled on one night about the history of the Inquisition but he's going to do it anyway. Coin's coin, as we say. And it's you vouching, girlie, so Arnald's inclined to listen. He did, in fact, bitch about having to give away coin though.

As for them calling you the Herald of Andraste, who thought up that piece of buggery? Obviously they don't know you well, my girl.

Now, I'm holding you to telling me the whole story when I see you next. Right after I squeeze the sodding life out of you. Don't scare me like that again, Poppet.

And, yes, I'll bring your shit. Fucking things I do for you.

Your Dearest Asshole

Chapter Text

Roughly three weeks after everything had been settled in the Chantry, he watched her ride out of Haven under her own power again with Cassandra and Varric alone at her back - because they dared not take Solas with them to Val Royeaux as an open apostate. And Cullen still didn't know what word to put to what's spawned between them since she arrived in Haven three months ago.

It's a friendship but...it's more than that.

During those first few weeks of her being in Haven after their initial conversation, they'd had drinks several times after she'd coaxed him into the first. He'd learned the crude (but never cruel ) tint to her sense of humor over Ferelden ales and Anders whiskey during that time and become comfortable enough to gift her with a few comments that showed his own. Tales of her company - but never of her past except in the vaguest of terms - had spilled from her lips and he'd even told a few of his own stories from the rare happy moments he'd had within the Order. She'd given him a handful of recommendations one night on an alternate method of handling some matters with his men, things she'd learned the hard way in her first years with her company she'd said, and he'd taken them to heart since not all of those under his command now were templars . They had talked and talked and talked and sometimes just sat in companionable silence in the tavern, drinking whatever they chose that night while watching the other patrons mill about in their own little worlds.

Then she'd disappeared for a month with little between other than the curse filled reports she sent back in - he'd often had a laugh at those with her notations about fuck this merchant, he's a twat or why are there so many damned fucking bears in these woods . And he'd missed her with a fierceness that stole his breath the night he'd realized he was expecting her at his tent, teasing him out for another drink with her, and known a moment later that it wasn't coming.

It wasn't just blind attraction was what he had realized in that moment. Not just the idle infatuation he'd started to believe it was, like that he'd held for Kath Surana before his whole world had dissolved into flames and death and nightmares all those years ago. That was perhaps what had terrified him a little in the darkest hours of the night, that he'd thought of her like Surana who had haunted his dreams for so many years before the last dregs of youthful attraction had burned away against the heat of his rage.

Meryell wasn't anything like Surana anyway.

Kath had been pale and lithe, a tiny little thing with big solemn gray eyes and pale golden hair that fell in long waves down her shoulders who he probably could have lifted with one hand. His nineteen year-old self had thought once that she would break under too much pressure but he'd never known the truth of that except in his nightmares, where he tried again and again to strangle the memory of the demon that had worn her face and failed, because she'd been one of the first mages to die. Recalling finding her broken body in the library curled around an apprentice she'd tried to protect had been the only thing that had saved him during those days.

Meryell, on the other hand, was short but she wasn't tiny . A decade and some with a blade in either hand had turned her into a coil of muscle under sun-darkened skin, a bit of controlled fury and storm that lived behind a wicked smile and a sharp tongue. Her eyes, a copper flecked green that reminded him of the trees that had surrounded his parents home when the leaves began to turn for winter, were always sparking with that fire that was her own. She wore her dark brown, nearly black hair short, in a shaggy mop of hair that bore the distinctive signs of being cut with the blade of a dagger. And the him of now, all thirty years and too much blood and death that felt sometimes like it coated his lungs, was certain that he could never break her. It was more likely she'd break him first.

And then she'd come back from the Hinterlands, unconscious and bloody and broken in the back of a wagon with Cassanda in a full fury that was focused on Meryell , Solas nearly wrung out at the end of his magical capability from keeping her alive, and Varric with so many shadows in his eyes that for one moment he thought he was back in Kirkwall. Cullen hadn't even asked Cassandra what was wrong then. He'd shrugged off the shadows the dwarf brought, snapped something at Solas about lyrium and sleep, and then he'd carefully picked Meryell up and headed to her cabin.

All he'd had in his head then was that she was injured, his friend, his whatever she was , was hurt and he didn't know for certain if the rest of those around them were going to keep her safe at that moment.

He'd seen her sorted into her bed himself, pointed Adan in her direction to see what little he could do since he was the only healer they had, and then stormed into the Chantry to find out what had happened since that was where Cassandra had headed. What had ensued after that between the four of them could only be described as a bloody row and he'd been honestly surprised that it didn't come down to blows. In the end Cullen had said his piece about the matter (which consisted of her past being her business) and then left the women to whatever they wanted. His focus in the days after that had been solely on Meryell and her recovery.

When she'd finally woken up, it had been a huge weight lifted off of his chest - even with the brief argument with Cassandra and the subsequent longer argument about what to do with the new information they knew about her that he'd gotten dragged into while trying to get Meryell something to eat. He'd stayed with her as often as he could while she recovered, usually just in the evenings when he was working on the day's paperwork, sharing various anecdotes about the day between reading sections from the Adventures of the Black Fox after he was done. It wasn't until after she was up and around again, when they were heading to the tavern after the rather confrontational conversation in the Chantry that he realized how their relationship had changed in that time.

They were still in that zone that was designated as friendship but they were very comfortable with each other for a pair that had only known each other for just past two months. Him offering her his hand that first night when she'd woken up and her taking it had changed something. Suddenly she'd started reaching out to him at random moments and he found himself doing the same. After so many years of avoiding touch, he found himself craving it from her. And it had been the most natural thing in the world to drop his arm around her shoulders when she'd leaned back against him in the tavern, all warm and safe and decidedly not broken .

In the three weeks after that conversation, they'd fallen back into their pattern of drinking together in the tavern on most nights. There were also other nights that he'd find her in his tent with a bottle she'd plundered from the tavern - usually Ferelden ale - and two of the tin cups that his soldiers used. Those nights were spent sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on his rug covered floor with their backs against his desk, quietly talking through the night in the darkness where few would disturb them. And there had been the bare handful of occasions where he had been the one to procure their choice of drink for the night as well as the cups, waiting outside her cabin for her to arrive.

The talk he'd commented on happening was in full swing around Haven by the end of the first week but, as she'd noted, they knew what they were and the opinion of others mattered little in the grand scheme of things. Despite a lot of their behavior saying otherwise, they were just friends. Very close friends but friends nonetheless.

No matter what he felt personally , he wasn't going to allow that to scar that relationship.

And, as her friend, he was worried about her safety. It would take them six days to ride from Haven to Jader where they would be able to take ship, which would be roughly another four days for their arrival in Val Royeaux. None of that amount of travel was counting the possibility of bandits, the condition of Gherlen's Pass, the state of the Waking Sea at the time of year, or any other number of possible issues that could rise up. Not to mention the very people she was going to reluctantly talk to were calling for her head as a heretic.

Shaking his head, Cullen sighed and watched her little group until they had disappeared after taking a bend in the road that led out of Haven. He could do nothing now except pray for her safe return. It was harder than he'd expected, though, to turn away from the last place he'd seen her and to get back to work training their latest group of recruits.

Not even an hour later, he heard the sound of hoof beats on the road.

For a split second he thought it was them coming back but that was quickly cast aside because there was far too much noise. Three horses, even at full gallop, wouldn't make as much noise coming down the roadway as whoever was coming along now.

Orders were on the tip of his tongue, ready to snap out to his men for them to organize against a possible attack, when one of Leliana's scouts abruptly appeared at his elbow. "Ser!"

"Report," he growled. "Who's on the road?"

"Fairly large force, Commander, mostly horses with a few wagons - though those are further back. No banner but most of them are wearing badges of a tan field with what looks like a black crescent on it. We couldn't get too close with the trees so thin at the edge of the roadway to see much detail."

"Black crescent?" repeated Cullen. He then asked, "Upright, larger at the top and narrows to the bottom?"

"Yes, ser."

Fuck .

"Go find Leliana and Josephine and tell them I need them on the field. Or, if they can't make that in time, in the Chantry in thirty minutes," he ordered. "Tell them the Fangs are here." When the scout hesitated, he bellowed, " Now! "

As the young man bolted, Cullen sighed and lifted a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. How ridiculous was it that an hour after Meryell had rode out of Haven, her company would come riding into town? Shaking his head, he waved at one of his lieutenants, Joane, who was standing nearby to take over the training. As soon as she stepped into place, he gripped the hilt of his sword and headed away from the training grounds to stand in the center of the road at the edge of what was ostensibly his domain.

The first of the company came around the turn in the road at an easy lope and as they approached, one of the riders in the lead held up a hand that had the rest slowing their mounts to a stop. That rider and three others continued forward from the group, heading towards him at a sedate pace. Cullen sensed someone stepping up into his personal space just behind his left shoulder and waited until they spoke to know who it was, preferring not to take his eyes off their newcomers.

"Figured since they have four coming, you should at least have someone behind you, old man," came Rylen's rakish voice from over his shoulder. "Your Herald would knife me in the night if I let anything happen to her favorite drinking partner."

Cullen snorted quietly at that, asking, "She tell you that herself?" Then he realized what Rylen had called her and fought against narrowing his eyes in outrage. "And she isn't mine , you sod."

He could practically feel his friend's grin and sighed before focusing his attention away from the man standing at his back to those approaching, three of whom had dismounted a respectable distance away and left their mounts with the fourth while they moved forward. Now that they were closer he could make out a bit about their appearance and had a decent guess as to who they were. The man in the lead was older, perhaps in his early fifties judging by the silver in his short black hair, but obviously still fit by the shape of the well-used chainmail that he wore. He had the facial features that even Cullen recognized spoke of noble breeding and wore on his face what he vaguely recalled Leliana explaining once as a servant's mask, just enough to cover his eyes and the top part of his cheeks. This then was Arnald Seraine, leader of the Fangs of Vimmark and once a Lieutenant in the Imperial Army.

Meryell's commentary about the man painted him as the sort he'd like to know. Arnald had led the company since she'd joined it and it was his efforts that had turned it into what she knew of the Fangs of Vimmark. He was a man who insisted a job be done well, she'd told him, with no bloodshed unless necessary and no harm done to anyone uninvolved. Leliana, on the other hand, gave him a report of a cold man who ran his mercenary company with an iron fist. He'd also learned that the Seraines were an old minor noble family in Orlais but that Arnald, the second son of the previous generation, had been discharged from the Army after being accused of raping the daughter of a Comte during said noble's party. Of course, he'd asked Meryell about that particular incident and she'd gone into an angry spiel about the spymaster having to have her finger in everything before explaining that the spoiled daughter had wanted Arnald's attention, going to her father with a story of rape when he'd spurned her. So Arnald had been discharged from the Army and, despite believing his son, his father had disavowed him of his inheritance but had let him keep his name and the mark of his kin.

The woman on Arnald's right side was undoubtedly Dogtooth Zarru, his second in command. She was a tall, broad woman of undeterminable age who towered over both of her fellow mercenaries and would probably be close to Cullen's own height with her hair hanging in thick strands festooned with bright beads. Close-fitting armor of heavy iron hid most of her skin from sight but what he could see was marked with a myriad of tattoos in dark ink that just barely stood out from the dark color of her reddish-brown flesh. Even after Meryell had explained it, he still wasn't sure why she was called Dogtooth by the company.

And it was Cullen's guess that the man on Arnald's left, who wore very light leathers with what was obviously a dusky blue mage's coat thrown over them, was Folke . The man looked to be in his forties (which made Cullen feel a little wrong for his interest in Meryell simply given her relationship with the man, despite the fact that she was only younger by four years) and had his thick black hair pulled back into a low tail at the base of his neck. There was an x-shaped scar across the man's right cheek, the lines badly puckered in the way that he knew told of a wound made with magebane on a blade and allowed to let fester. He'd seen it used to torture a mage once in Kirkwall just after the Qunari uprising and had forbidden its use after that - though few had actually obeyed that order since Meredith had promptly overridden him. It was a curious wound and made him wonder who exactly Folke had tangled with to receive it.

The trio stopped a full sword lunge length away from him and Arnald inclined his head respectfully before asking, "Commander Rutherford, I am to assume?" His accent was not as strongly Orlesian as it might have been in his youth, now scattered with different influences from all of the variety of people in his company, but it still had the even politeness of a noble education.

"I am," replied Cullen.

"Excellent. We were hoping it would be you we'd see first and not this Ambassador Montilyet who wrote to us with your offer of work." The man grinned rakishly before continuing, "I never had much love for nobles even when I was one. Now I'm certain you know my name already but manners are manners...and I dare say I don't want my mother, Maker rest her soul, rolling in her grave. I am Arnald Seraine, Captain of the Fangs of Vimmark. This lovely lady is Zarru, my second-in-command, and the grumpy looking gentleman trying to peer over your shoulder is Folke."

The man in question abruptly stopped arching up onto his toes, which brought a low chuckle from Rylen, and then Folke pointedly growled, "I'm sure he knows who I'm looking for."

"I do." Cullen then sighed and said, "Unfortunately, you've arrived just after she left. Meryell has gone to see to something of importance to the Inquisition in Val Royeaux and will be gone for at least a few weeks."

As Folke started to open his mouth, Cullen hurriedly continued with a slight smirk, "She bid me give you something in particular, ser, when you arrived. A letter."

"Oh?" growled Folke. "Poppet has something so important to say to me that she can't even say it to my face? Well, come on then, boy , let's have it."

Rylen made a distinctly un-Knight-Captain like noise from behind him and Cullen let his mouth twist into a full smirk as he did as requested, handing Folke the letter. He, of course, hadn't read the letter despite her leaving it unsealed because he respected her privacy but he could take an easy guess that whatever she wrote to Folke would be laden with curses.

The man immediately barked out a laugh as he flipped open the letter and shook his head, his expression going from grumpy to a more jovial one in an instant. He flicked the letter at Arnald and the man gave an imperious sigh before he read it, snorting before he folded it up and gave it back to the mage.

"That's certainly our girl," commented Folke with a smile. "No doubting that tongue."

"Indeed," agreed Arnald. He then looked at Cullen and said, "The Fangs are nearly one hundred and twenty men strong, Commander, and we have all our own tents and gear that we brought with us to serve. Tell us where to set up and we'll fall in line with your men."

Nodding respectfully, Cullen gestured at Rylen, saying, "My second, Rylen, can show your men the area we've cordoned off for you. After that, I can take you up the hill and introduce you to the Ambassador and our Spymaster." Obviously the two women had chosen the second option he'd given Leliana's scout since neither had yet to appear on the field.

"Spymaster?" repeated Arnald, his dark eyes gleaming from behind his mask, which Cullen noticed bore tiny green vines along the edges with just the hint of purple dotting them against the tan leather the mask was made of. Grapes, he guessed? Leliana hadn't detailed what the Seraine crest was in her report but she had...ah, now he remembered. They were known for their vineyards because they supplied a particular type of grape for winemakers so the decoration was likely the symbol of his house. "I do love talking to a good spymaster."

"That is because you are a good spymaster," Zarru commented dryly, the first thing she'd said through the entire conversation. Her accent was stronger but still reminiscent of that Rivaini pirate that had followed Hawke around Kirkwall for a time. Her eyes, which were a dark blue that spoke of something besides Rivaini in her bloodline, flicked to Cullen then she inclined her head towards Arnald. "I can see the camp to order, Captain, if the heathen here will assist. Since his little girl is not present, he has no reason to be wandering about without a leash."

For a moment he thought she was serious but judging by the way Folke just flipped his middle finger at her, this was her usual way of talking to the hedge mage. Arnald seemed to be resisting rolling his eyes at the pair of them.

"See it done, Tooth. Folke, try and be good."

"Fuck you, Captain," snapped the mage even as he saluted and turned to follow the woman back towards their mounts and the fourth figure who held them. Rylen arched an eyebrow at Cullen then followed them, immediately striking up a conversation with Zarru about exactly what supplies and men they had that needed settled.

Arnald rolled his eyes skyward and muttered, "Andraste give me strength. The man is going to be even more insufferable than usual." He then looked at Cullen and asked, "I'm going to hope you have somewhere for the men to drink. It's the only way we'll survive Folke's sulking until his girl comes back."

"We do," he replied, "and I already told it's proprietor, Flissa, to be ready to handle an influx of patrons." Cullen then grinned as he added, "I also have two bottles of Antivan brandy in my quarters that have Folke's name on them, courtesy of Meryell. She said that he would require them to get over his first round of sulking since she wasn't going to be here when the company arrived."

The man threw back his head in a broad laugh at that, shaking his head and dabbing at his eyes after a moment. "Oh, that girl," he said fondly, "she knows the man well." He then cocked his head to the side and peered up at Cullen. "Seems she knows you well too, Commander."

"We've become friends," he replied simply before gesturing towards Haven's front gate. "Shall we walk? I will answer any questions you have as we go."

" Any? "

Perhaps any was not the right word he should have said, suddenly recalling the man's second saying he was a spymaster, but it was too late to take it back now. So he just nodded and said, "So long as it would not compromise the Inquisition or Meryell."

Arnald hummed loudly at that and they walked for a moment in silence, taking the first steps up into Haven proper, before the man said anything.

"You call her by her name and not this Herald of Andraste business that everyone else seems to have taken to," was the first thing that came out of the man's mouth and Cullen found himself liking the man more if the question went where he thought it would. "Why do you do such?"

He respected a leader who sought to protect those beneath them.

"Originally because she asked me to," he replied matter-of-factly. "At that time I still called her Herald to others but that changed as we became friends. Now I call her only by her name, to remind those who might think otherwise that she is a person and not a tool to be used. She is no sword to be sharpened and then cast aside when she has gone dull."

Vehemence had crept into his words at the end and Cullen found Arnald watching him closely, the man's eyes narrowed behind his mask. After a moment the Captain said quietly, "I respect a man who can see the worth of a woman. Even more so a man who is aware that he was a weapon and has broken with that, refusing to let those under and around him be viewed as he once was. I have been that man." Arnald then held out a hand, adding, "I believe we are well alike, Commander Rutherford."

"Cullen," he insisted as he grasped the man's hand wrist-to-wrist in the more common grip of warriors and gave one firm shake.

"Arnald then." The Captain then frowned and asked, "This business in Val Royeaux...is it dangerous?"

Sighing, Cullen replied, "Not outwardly. She left with the intent to reach the city by the time the remaining clerics meet to try and talk with them, to get them to see that the Inquisition isn't the enemy of the Chantry they seem very willing to paint us as."

"A diplomatic mission is not the sort one sends Meryell on."

"Oh, I am all too aware but she is, despite how she hates the title, the Herald. She accepts the men and women who serve using it only because, as she stated, they need something to believe in."

"And yet," Arnald commented with a small smile, "you sent her anyway."

Cullen grinned as he replied, "Perhaps I'm hoping that she'll come back with the news that the clerics won't dare take her on for fear of her wicked tongue."

The man laughed heartily in response to that comment, nodding several times before he spoke again. "Oh, the girl might do just that. But, back to serious questions, how is she?"

Now there was a loaded question that he still felt was prodding a little at just how close a relationship he had with Meryell.

Staying silent for a long moment, they were passing where Threnn had set herself up outside the Chantry when Cullen finally replied, "She misses her company. Our soldiers remind her of all of you but they aren't the same. There's no close camaraderie with them. It's not an easy thing to garner when you've been placed so seemingly far above those who would have once been your equals. I've experienced the same with a few other templars that I served with since taking over here."

"She's misses her family ," he added quickly a moment later.

"Aye," Arnald said quietly. "Meryell has always been a soft-heart about the company like that. Folke too. Fuck, I suppose even I am a bit like that. It is all we have, so we hold to it tight."

Cullen just nodded, feeling guilty suddenly that he still hadn't written back in response to Mia's last letter. It was just sitting on his desk, pinned in place by a hefty rock that was also holding down several other documents underneath the letter. Family had once been as important to him as it was to Meryell but Kinloch...what he'd gone through there had wounded a great many parts of his self. A higher lyrium ration numbing his senses and Kirkwall hadn't helped either in the years after that. What was his excuse now?

Shaking off the thought for later, he moved a few steps ahead and pushed open the Chantry door, motioning for the older man to precede him inside. The captain's mouth quirked up into a smile and, as Cullen followed him inside, he asked, "What do you think of her?"

"Meryell?"

"Have we spoken of any other?"

"No," replied Cullen with a slight smile as they walked towards the door that led to their war room. He noticed that Mother Giselle was watching him and the other man curiously before he looked at the state of the door ahead of them. It was standing half open, which was the indication that someone was inside but was still open for interruption. Then he shook his head and answered the question in full. "She is...well, you perhaps know better than me that there are many word to describe Meryell."

"True," agreed Arnald. He then stopped just before the door and turned to frown up at Cullen as he folded his arms across his chest. "That was not the question I asked, however."

Nodding, he said, "No. No, it wasn't."

The man arched an eyebrow and Cullen sighed, lifting a hand to nervously rub at the back of his neck before he could catch the gesture.

"I think she is far more than many here think of her. She is more than the Herald of Andraste, more than a mere sellsword, more than just an elven woman with a sharp tongue. She is..." He searched for a word to describe her but there was, in the end, only one thing that did her justice. "She is Meryell ."

Arnald hummed low in his throat, dark eyes lidded beneath his mask in what might be heavy thought, then smiled broadly.

"She is Meryell indeed," he said before moving on into the war room and Cullen suddenly let out a breath he hadn't been aware he'd been holding. Suspicion tickled the back of his mind as he followed the man, realizing that he felt like he'd revealed more than he'd intended. He then heard Arnald greet Leliana and Josephine with a simple My ladies and turned his attention to the man in time to watch him right himself from a deep, formal bow.

Josephine was smiling at least. Leliana, on the other hand, was stone-faced.

He was constantly surprised at how long she was holding on to her grudge at Meryell for managing to keep her in the dark so long. Even Cassandra, who hadn't been pleased when the truth had come out, had reconciled with the other woman before they'd left for Val Royeaux. Leliana held onto it like a mabari in full battle lust.

"Captain Arnald Seraine," said Cullen, figuring that introductions were up to him since he'd brought the man in, "meet our Ambassador, Josephine Montilyet, and our Spymaster, Leliana."

" Enchanté ," said the man with a smile as he folded his arms behind his back with the fingers of one hand clasped over his other wrist, standing with his feet shoulders-width apart and his back straight. "The Fangs of Vimmark are at the disposal of the Inquisition."

Josephine inclined her head slightly before saying, "We are delighted to have you, Captain Seraine."

Arnald held up a hand quickly, saying, "Just Arnald or Captain, if you will, my lady. Or both, if you've the mind. I may still hold my family name and wear the colors but I try not to make overt use of it."

"Understood, Captain. May I ask how many men came with you?"

"The company is at one hundred and twenty-four men strong," replied the man as he settled back into his stance. "One twenty-five if we count Meryell amongst our ranks but I imagine that is well over with..."

"I see no reason why it should be," Cullen interrupted. He then narrowed his eyes at Leliana over the man's shoulder as she started to open her mouth and gave a sharp jerk of his head. Now was not the time to argue the semantics of Meryell's position between her company and the Inquisition, particularly with the person in question not present . Thankfully she seemed inclined to listen but her lips pursed into a firm line that went white with pressure.

He was no doubt going to get an earful after this meeting.

Arnald nodded towards him respectfully then turned his attention back to Josephine.

"We have with us a full compliment of mounts - horses mostly with a few others thrown in - as well as tents, equipment, and other supplies. I can have my second, Zarru, and our quartermaster, Conlin, compile a complete list for your perusal in under a week."

"Oh, that isn't necessary, Captain..."

Leliana held up a hand to still Josephine's words and smiled, saying, "That would be greatly appreciated, Captain Arnald. May I request a list of your members as well?"

Cullen narrowed his eyes at the request, wondering what exactly she was up to, but Arnald just nodded his head as he said, "Of course, my dear espionne." He wasn't certain what the Orlesian word meant but it was the first thing that had brought a smile to the redhead's face in some time.

"I may perhaps enjoy working with you more than I expected, Captain," she said in a suddenly more pleasant tone. "I was unaware that you were so...observant."

"Indeed, my lady," Arnald replied with a slow smile. "There are many things about me that cannot be found out except from the members of my company...and the Fangs are not easily bought or threatened into giving up our secrets."

"I will keep that in mind."

Cullen darted a glance at Josephine, suddenly feeling like he was on the outside of a very intricate dance, and her pleasant smile didn't reassure him at all. He liked the man but he was very uncomfortable with the way that he and Leliana were talking to each other. It made the hair rise on the back of his neck and his palms itch to grasp the hilt of his sword, like the feel of a place on the edge of descending into a fight. Like Kirkwall during that last year.

The Captain nodded and swept into another bow, saying, "Well, I merely wished to make my introductions. If you ladies will excuse me, I should be getting back to my men. Ambassador, Spymaster, Commander...good day." His eyes caught Cullen's as he left and he read the warning there. Tread carefully , the man's gaze said and he nearly stated aloud that he already knew that.

But perhaps he didn't know just how carefully he should be treading.

As the door closed behind the man, Cullen rested his hands on the pommel of his sword and said, "He seems an honest man."

"He is a mercenary captain, Commander," reminded Josephine.

"Meryell trusts him."

"And we are to trust her?" asked Leliana. "Especially about a man that my sources say the exact opposite of what she speaks of him?"

" I trust her," growled Cullen.

She narrowed her eyes at that before saying sharply, "You trust too easily, Commander."

"Mayhaps," he acknowledged, merely because he had trusted too easily in the past. He'd trusted his Commanders to do right, trusted his charges to do right, trusted his brothers and sisters to do right, and had all of them blow back in his face with equally horrendous consequences that had scarred his soul. Cullen then leaned towards her as he clenched his hand on his sword and growled, "But better to trust easily and be scarred by betrayal than doubt and find yourself alone because you trusted no one."

Leliana bristled in anger, her eyes flashing underneath her hood, and he knew he'd struck a nerve.

"And yet," she said firmly, "you are more likely to be alive with the latter. I thought with your particular experiences, Commander, you'd have learned that lesson."

Cullen gritted his teeth at that and spat back, "Apparently I'm more hard-headed than you thought."

"Clearly."

"Enough!" snapped Josephine suddenly, looking between the two of them in exasperation. "We are better than this...this... infighting! What sort of example do we make to our followers acting like this? You are both above this sort of childish behavior. Act like it. "

The fact that they'd made the normally unflappable Ambassador snap at them made Cullen realize just how far the ridiculousness had gone and that he had two choices: continue on his current path or retreat. He'd been in enough battles in his life to know when he should take which.

"You're right, Josephine," he said stiffly as he straightened. "I apologize for my behavior."

Josephine just shook her head and replied, "I need no apology, Commander. Simply endeavour to act better. Both of you. "

"Josie," began Leliana but the other woman held up a hand sharply.

" No . I have not said anything in the hope that you would get over this ire you have with the Herald but obviously given that it has begun to spread to others I cannot continue to take that path. You are angry that she was able to keep secrets from you, I understand that." The Ambassador's stern voice softened then as she finished, "But, my friend, she is the only person who can do something to save us, to close these rifts. We know what she kept secret now. Make peace with it."

"Or?" asked Leliana archly.

Cullen raised his brows at her tone and looked at Josephine, who's face had fallen at that response. She bowed her head over her ever present writing board before replying quietly in a steely tone, "Or I shall have to take matters into my own hands and find the Inquisition a Spymaster who can work with the Herald."

Leliana took a step back at that, shock in her eyes, then she recovered her composure enough to pull her aloof mask back around herself. "I see. I will...think...upon it, Josie." She turned and walked out then, striding right past Cullen and onward towards the doors of the Chantry. He watched her go, more than a little shocked by how things had turned.

As Josephine's board clattered onto the table, he shifted his attention back to her and found the Ambassador standing with one arm wrapped around her waist and her other hand shakily folding over her lips. Concerned, he moved around the table and reached out to gently grasp her elbows, feeling her shaking. "Are you alright?" he asked softly.

"Hmm?" she replied, her unfocused eyes clearing and blinking up at him. "Oh. Yes, Commander. I'm fine."

"One doesn't square off against Leliana and come out fine , Josephine. Not even if you win the bout. I should know."

She chuckled softly at that and nodded.

"Yes, I suppose you do. I merely...I did not expect her to continue like this. She is...she is much darker than she was when we originally met years ago. When she asked me to join the Inquisition, I did not glimpse this part of her."

Cullen just nodded and let his hands fall from her elbows now that she seemed steadier as he said quietly, "We try to hide the darkest parts of ourselves from those we care about." As Josephine's dark eyes tilted up at him, he shrugged slightly. "I struggle with the same thing."

"You and she are more alike than you know, Commander."

He snorted then changed the subject, not wanting to veer down that path. The Inquisition was his chance to be better , not to be reminded of all he'd done wrong. "You can call me by my name, you know," he commented lightly.

Josephine just smiled at that and reached to pick up her writing board, setting it back into it's usual place before she said, "Perhaps one day, Commander."

Nodding, Cullen tipped his head forward slightly and said, "Good day, Ambassador." He knew a dismissal when he heard one. And the silent asking for privacy.

"And to you, Commander."

He turned and left the war room then, striding straight out of the Chantry and back down towards his domain. As he reached the field, the tenseness that had gathered in his shoulders and back started to relax, and he breathed a heavy sigh before turning his eyes back to the road leading out of Haven.

The next three to four weeks until Meryell returned were going to be long . He could feel it in his bones.

Chapter Text

"What the fuck," spat Meryell as she watched the Lord Seeker's retreating back at the head of the templars trailing him, "crawled up his ass and died a decade ago?"

"He was never inclined to ambition and grandstanding. I do not understand."

Turning to look at Cassandra, she asked the warrior, "You know him well?"

"Lord Seeker Lucius," replied the woman, "took over the Seekers of Truth two years ago, after Lord Seeker Lambert's death. He was always a decent man." She shook her head and muttered on, "This is very bizarre."

"Huh."

"Perhaps he can be reasoned with," continued Cassandra, her eyes still on the slowly disappearing figures.

Varric scoffed openly and Meryell sighed before saying, "You don't reason with a man like that, Seeker. That's a man who's so far into zealotry that he can't see the way back out. You heard him." She scowled after that before finishing, "The only thing you can do to stop a man like that is put a knife in his damned gullet."

Cassandra took in a sharp breath before hissing, "Herald, we are in the middle of Val Royeaux. You cannot speak of...of...murdering the Lord Seeker in the open!"

"I'd consider it a service to the fucking whole of Thedas," replied Meryell with a shrug. "Man like that...he's only going to lead what's left of the Order to ruin." A few months ago that wouldn't have hurt her much, before when all she'd had to do with the templars was that they sometimes came after Folke or one of the other mages in the company. She didn't count the ones that were in the company because they weren't templars anymore at that point. Most of the templars she had met were assholes who by and large hadn't taken a hint until steel got drawn. Since meeting Cullen, however, she'd come to see a new side to them.

Oh, they could still be bastards all right. But some...some could be decent.

"Y'know, Swears," mused Varric, "sometimes you scare me."

Grinning over her shoulder at him, she chirped, "Only sometimes?"

He laughed and Meryell chuckled before she turned away, heading towards the stage where the woman still sat on her knees breathing hard. As the woman looked up on her approach, Meryell saluted with two fingers and greeted, "Your Shiny Skirtness. Seems like your much lauded templars didn't do you much good in the end."

"I am certain that pleases you, elf," replied the woman, her tone more weary than it was cold.

Meryell's eyes narrowed at the silent insult and then Cassandra stepped up to say, "We came only to speak with the Mothers. This is not our doing."

"And you had no part in forcing our hand, Seeker Pentaghast?" demanded the woman. "Now we have been shown up by our own templars and my fellow clerics have scattered to the winds." She then turned her eyes towards Meryell, saying, "Tell me one thing, if you do not believe you are the Maker's chosen, then what are you?"

"A bitch with too much curiosity who just so happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time," replied Meryell, ignoring Cassandra's little offended intake of breath and getting a bit confused by the noise Varric made. He had an issue with her swearing at Chantry's officials? She then rolled her eyes and crouched down, peeling off her left glove to reveal the Mark. "But I've got this thing and I can just maybe help close the Breach and put a stop to all of this crazy shit going on. I like normalcy, Shiny Skirt, and I'd like the world to get back to that way. No more, no less."

The woman blinked at her for a moment, eyes flickering back and forth between the Mark and her face, before she said, "That is...more comforting than you might imagine."

Snorting, Meryell pulled her glove back on as she asked, "Even with all the curse words? Everything I learned from the Sister that visited the alienage when I was a girl made me think that your sort didn't approve of foul language."

"There is a time and place for everything. Even those words."

"Huh." Meryell nodded almost respectfully to the woman then stood up, jerking her head towards the other priests standing around. "Hey, you lot, take Shiny somewhere comfortable. Honestly, leaving her sitting on this splintery stage...what sort of clerics are you, the shitty kind? Come on, hop to, hop to!" As the pair jerked into motion, she grinned down at the woman before stepping away.

"Thought you didn't like the Chantry, Swears," commented Varric as they walked away from the stage.

"Hate the lot of their prissy pants," she replied before glancing back at the stage. The woman was upright now, shaking as she leaned between the two young men who'd accompanied her, and watching them walk away. Meryell inclined her head slightly to her before turning away again with the words, "I hate folks who beat up on those weaker than them more though. Fuckers like that need to die slow. Fucking nughumping son of a bitch!"

She jumped sideways towards Cassandra as something flashed past her from above with a low whistle and got abruptly grabbed about the waist by the Seeker. The other woman slung her around like she weighed nothing - which, while she wasn't in Cassandra's weight class, she wasn't by any means light - and pulled her shield up in a defensive position over both their heads. Meryell blinked for a moment as she caught her breath then called dazedly, "Varric?"

"Yeah, Swears?" came his voice from somewhere behind the nearby shrubbery and she let herself relax a little.

"What the fuck."

"Looks like arrows, sweetheart."

"Arrow," corrected Cassandra as she cautiously lowered her shield, her eyes sweeping the landings above them. "There seems to have been only one."

Meryell frowned and slowly approached the arrow, circling around it cautiously for a moment. Whoever had fired it was good and had buried the tip of the shaft into the seam between two of the worn stones of the yard. And obviously wanted their attention since there was a note carefully curled around the arrow and tied with a little bit of red ribbon.

Freeing the note, she straightened and read aloud, " 'People say you're special. I want to help, and I can bring everyone. There's a baddie in Val Royeaux. I hear he wants to hurt you.' Huh, color me surprised. 'Have a search for the red things in the market, the docks, and 'round the cafe, and maybe you'll meet him first. Bring swords.' It's signed..." Her eyes went wide and a slow grin spread across her face as her ire at being shot at got mostly erased. "Friends of Red Jenny! Oh, Jennies. What a fucking treat! Come on, we've got to sort this."

"You're excited about this?" queried Varric at the same time Cassandra demanded, "Who are these people?"

Meryell just grinned and extended her arms as she exclaimed, "The Red Jennies! Only some of the best sort to have around when there's some high-ass prick jacking off on the lowest in a city. At least here in Orlais and sometimes in Ferelden when they're not working for their own means. The Marcher ones are more about keeping the streets tidy than anything. I've met a couple while working, usually when we were both after the same asshole. They're the sort of folk you want on your side because if they're on your ass you tend to not last long."

Cassandra wrinkled her nose and began, "I do not think..."

"Seeker," interrupted Varric, "she's right. I've never met one personally but I've certainly heard about what the Jennies do. Hawke and the rest of us did some of that street cleaning in Kirkwall for them. We want them to not want to kill us." He then paused, grinning, while gesturing at Meryell. "Plus, look at Swears. She looks like a kid in a candy shop with all the gold in the world."

Meryell laughed and tucked the note away, saying, "Well, come on, let's get on it. I want to find this...oh, hel-fucking-lo." She blinked at the elven woman in robes who was suddenly approaching them and asked aloud, "The fuck is a mage doing here?"

"Grand Enchanter Fiona!" exclaimed Cassandra, effectively answering the question.

So not only a mage, the mage from Meryell's limited understanding of what had been the structure of the Circle. Folke didn't have much experience with it since he'd taught himself what little he was capable of but the mages he was closest to in the company, Gil and Demut, had both been Circle taught. Gil had had decent things to say about Ferelden before the Blight, which was when she had high tailed it out of the Tower, and Demut had escaped Starkhaven when its Circle had burned. She hadn't had decent things to say about the Circle during the little she even spoke of it and everyone in the company had the good sense to leave her past where it lay.

"And you're here because?" she asked, folding her arms and tilting her chin up in a challenging pose. The older elf gave her an appraising look and Meryell saw a grudging bit of approval there.

"I heard of this gathering and I wanted to see the fabled Herald of Andraste with my own eyes," replied Fiona. As Meryell snorted, the woman continued, "If it's help with the Breach you seek, perhaps my people are the wiser option."

"Well, here I am in all my travel dusty glory," Meryell said grudgingly at the hated title. She didn't mind the way the Inquisition soldiers said it so much anymore - they'd turned it into something to be proud of almost, like a badge of honor - but the way the Grand Enchanter said it...it made her skin crawl. There was something not right about this whole situation. "By the way, why the fuck weren't you at the Conclave? Shouldn't that have been right up your alley?"

"She was supposed to be," intoned Cassandra, her voice accusatory. "And yet, somehow, you avoided death."

Fiona remained unflappable in the face of the Seeker's ire and Meryell gave her props for that alone. The woman had balls.

"As did the Lord Seeker," pointed out the woman. "We both sent negotiators in our stead in case of a trap." She then shook her head as she continued, "I won't pretend to be glad to live, Herald, Seeker. I lost many good friends that day. It disgusts me to think the templars will get away with it and I'm hoping you won't let them."

The accusation hit Meryell like a knee to the gut, making her think of Cullen and everything he felt for the Order, and she asked, "So you think the templars are responsible?"

"Lucius hardly seems broken up over his losses," Fiona sneered. "If he's concerned about them at all. You think he wouldn't happily kill the Divine to turn people against us? So...yes...I think he did it." She then smiled coolly as she finished, "More than I think you did it at any rate."

She couldn't fault the woman that particular piece of logic. The Lord Seeker did seem exactly like the sort that would do just that if he thought it would bring his goals closer from what she'd seen of him so far.

"Fair enough," she acknowledged. Then she narrowed her eyes at Fiona and asked, "So...are the mages going to get off their arses now and help us?"

"We are willing to...discuss it...with the Inquisition at the least. Consider this an invitation to Redcliffe. Come and meet with the mages, an alliance could help us all. Au revoir, my dear Herald."

As Fiona turned and walked away, Varric muttered, "Did anyone else get a really creepy vibe during that conversation?"

"Oh fuck yes," agreed Meryell, not taking her eyes off the woman. "She's genuine but...something's up. I dunno what but there is definitely something not bloody right about this whole thing. Too damned convenient."

"I agree," said Cassandra sternly. She then sighed and said, "Shall we investigate these Red Jennies of yours quickly? I would like to begin our return to Haven before night fall."

"Best to bet on tomorrow, Seeker," Meryell replied as she started towards the cafe that the note had mentioned. "This could take some time."

Time turned out to be hours past dusk when the city was dark.

They had followed the trail of their mysterious Jenny and as Meryell pushed open a pair of doors, she instinctively jerked back to avoid the fireball that came flying towards her face. "Fucking shitebag!" she cursed, glaring at the Orlesian fop standing in the middle of the open courtyard.

"Herald of Andraste!" exclaimed the man before he posed - fucking posed - where he stood. "How much did you spend to discover me? It must have weakened the Inquisition immeasurably."

Meryell blinked at the man, working her jaw silently through a collection of words that she wanted to say but they wanted to come all at once and not one at a damned time like proper. She turned her head to look at Varric, who shrugged before hefting Bianca, and then over at Cassandra, who made her signature noise of disgust as she freed her sword from its sheath. Then she looked back at the fop and sneered, "I have absolutely no fucking idea who you are other than the mother fucker who just threw a fireball at my face."

The man curled his lip underneath his mask at that.

"You don't fool me! I'm too important for this to be an accident. My efforts will survive in victories against you elsewhere."

Oh, she was going to gut this asshole like a sodding fish. On the mere fact of him being a stuck up prick, not to mention that he'd tossed a fireball at her. He'd thrown down the gauntlet first so far as she was concerned.

Meryell then jerked her head around at the sound of a man dying from their left and noticed that the man had turned as well. She blinked at the slight form of the young blond elf standing there in patchwork leather armor that covered some truly garish looking fabric that made up tunic as well as pants and then started laughing at the girl's immediate words.

"Just say 'what '."

"What is the...grrk!"

The fop toppled with an arrow in his throat and Meryell sighed before she strode out towards the girl, saying, "And here I was going to gut him open like a fish at market. Good shot though."

The other elf grinned at that before saying, "Sorry! Squishy one but you heard me right? Just say what. Rich tits always try for more than they deserve." She then moved towards the now corpse and tugged out the arrow. "Blah, blah, blah. Obey me! Arrow in my face."

"So," she continued, "I see you followed all the notes well enough." The girl then trailed off as she tilted her head to the side, which let Meryell observe that her blond hair was hacked off short in uneven patches the same as hers. Definite pattern of someone who'd gotten used to dealing with life on their own. Then she noticed the girl's nose wrinkling in disgust as she drawled, "Aaaaand, you're an elf. Hope you're not too elfy."

"Swears? Elfy?" said Varric from behind her as Meryell just blinked at the girl. The dwarf grinned as she turned to look at him after a moment before continuing, "I mean, I know you know some Elven, Swears, which would normally make you elfy but I've met elves from the alienage that are a lot more elf-like than you are."

"Thanks, Varric. I think."

"Alienage?" repeated the girl.

"South Reach," answered Meryell. She then cocked her head to the side, recognizing the girl’s accent as clearly as Ferelden as her own (though she herself was like Cullen in that she had some obvious Marcher influence from years spent there). "Denerim?"

"You're good!" The other elf then waved her hands as she said, "The most important thing is: you glow? You're the Herald thingy?"

Rolling her eyes, Meryell replied sourly, "That's what they're calling me. So...you're the Red Jenny? The one that shot the arrow at us? And who was that idiot?"

The girl cocked her head to the side, a grin growing on her face as she asked, "You already know about the Jennies?"

"Worked with a few during my years. You ever heard of the Fangs of Vimmark?"

"You're a Fang! Never met one of your lot before but I've heard of you. One of you helped whats-his-name in Jader take out that bastard who was taking kids off the street like he was helpin' them and doing terrible shite to them." She then shrugged and continued, "And I don't know this idiot from manners. My people just said the Inquisition should look at him."

Cassandra huffed from behind them and asked, "Your people?"

Meryell tilted her head to the side as she said, "The servants. The working poor. The homeless. Anyone that gets spit on by most by those who think themselves better. They shit on the little folks who they think can't do anything and the Jennies step in to even the score."

The girl just grinned before gesturing at a large crate, saying, "Name's Sera. This is cover. Get round it. For the reinforcements." She broke off for a moment and her grin became even brighter. "Don't worry, someone tipped me their equipment shed. They've got no breeches."

Finding herself grinning right back at the girl, Meryell freed her daggers from their sheaths as she tumbled into cover at the almost absurdly perfectly timed sound of boots on the cobblestones. A quintet of guards wearing everything they owned except their pants came around the corner and she couldn't help it. She burst into giggles as soon as she sprang out of cover once one went past her, burying her blades keep into his kidneys.

"You are such a child!" exploded Cassandra as the woman slammed her shield into another guard's face, drawing a fountain of blood from his shattered nose as he stumbled backwards.

"Only when it's appropriate, Seeker!" she shot back with a laugh as she spun herself around the back of the collapsing guard towards another who was rushing at her. Her first strike clattered against his armor but her second came in low while he was grinning at her, slicing the inside of one of his thighs open right up at the groin. Meryell darted away as blood poured from the wound while he fell to the ground as his leg gave out. She'd been taught her anatomy well, just the same as any in the company.

He'd be dead in minutes.

Turning to survey the rest of their attackers, she saw that one was already down via arrows from the girl, Sera, as well as Bianca's bolts. Cassandra had already downed the one she'd slammed in the face and swiftly took out the last who'd gone after her in what looked like a last ditch attempt at doing something. Tugging at one of her pouches for a cleaning rag, Meryell swiftly wiped the blood from her blades and sheathed them before she smiled at Cassandra. The Seeker caught her look and snorted before making her disgusted noise as she shook her head.

There was a little twitch at the side of her mouth though.

She'd almost gotten the ever serious Seeker to fucking smile. It might just be her new goal in life now, since she'd actually come to like the woman since those first days after the Breach's opening.

"Friends really came through with that tip!" exclaimed Sera with a smile and a giggle. "No breeches!" She then looked right at Meryell and said, "You're a strange one, Herald, but...I like you. I'd like to join."

"You want to join the Inquisition?" Cassandra asked in surprise.

The elf nodded sharply as she looked over at the other woman, responding with, "You need people, right?" She then shifted back to Meryell as she continued on. "I want to get everything back to normal. Like you?"

"Like me," agreed Meryell, as she'd said the exact same thing earlier. She almost turned to look at Cassandra but decided against it. The Seeker had been happy to let her make the decisions by the time they'd finished up in the Hinterlands - before she'd gotten her arm torn open by a damned demon - so she was going to run with it. If Cassandra wanted to fight about it, the Seeker surely would. Extending a hand, she said, "I think the Inquisition could find great use in the Red Jennies."

"Grand!" exclaimed Sera. She cocked her head for a moment before she grinned and reached out to take the offered hand, shaking Meryell's whole arm fiercely for a moment before she let go. "You've got people that'll buy things right? 'Cause now I've got all these breeches...anyway, Haven. See you there, Herald!"

With that the girl turned and left, leaving them in a courtyard with six dead bodies.

"Swears?" Varric said in a slightly cautious voice.

"Yeah?"

"You attract the strangest people."

Meryell just laughed at that, saying, "You know that includes you technically, right?"

"Pff," he replied, flapping a hand blithely, "I was already with the Inquisition. Doesn't count!"

"You were not with the Inquisition," Cassandra hissed. "You were loitering where you were not wanted."

Varric grinned and waggled a finger at the woman before he said, "Ah, but don't forget, Seeker, I turned out to be useful." When she made only her disgusted noise in response, he chuckled before speaking again. "Anyway, Swears, we should get out of here. All that commotion is going to draw the city guards eventually and the last thing we need to do is get arrested. Curly and Ruffles would both have a fit."

Nodding, Meryell said, "Alright, let's go. There'll be no catching a ship tonight but we can be on the docks bright and early to find one that can take us back to Jader. So I guess it's back to the tavern."

"Ugh," was Cassandra only comment to the plan and Varric just nodded.

Shaking her head at them, Meryell headed for another set of doors that let out of the courtyard and took a minute to orient herself after opening them. She was already thinking of drinks and bed and the company that came with the former (but not the latter)...but not a one of those was in Val Royeaux.

They weren't even a minute into their trip home and she was already counting the time until she could settle into a chair at The Singing Maiden with a bit of whiskey in her glass and Cullen's warm presence at her side. She could practically hear his voice in her ear, all quiet commentary about this man or that woman and what their story was. It was their game she'd come up with to pass time, giving people stories that weren't their own, plus it kept both of their minds going on other things. That was her own excuse for it anyway, so she didn't think too much on the handsome man that half of Haven already thought she was bedding.

The man she had to now go tell that his former Order was looking more and more out of their minds.

That thought brought any happiness she felt to a screeching halt and Meryell groaned quietly to herself. She suddenly wasn't looking forward to the return trip at all.

Chapter Text

Meryell knew something was different as soon as they entered the little area within the Frostbacks that Haven was nestled into. There was more smoke down below them than there had been when they'd ridden out, which meant more fires in the soldiers outer camp. More fires meant more men. More men meant...

"Fangs!" she exclaimed and, without thinking of her two companions, gave her horse a swift nudge with her heels. The sturdy Ferelden Forder that Master Dennet had gifted her sprang forward like a shot into a greedy lope that ate up the road and she ignored Cassandra and Varric's exclamations of surprise from behind her. Those fires were her company.

Her family was here.

Folke was here!

A wide grin spread across her face as she thundered around the curve in the road, drawing attention from the men and women that were being drilled by Rylen in the main training area. Meryell rode right past them and down into the camp that was marked with the company banners as she shouted, "Rise up, dusty war dogs!"

"Climb the Vimmarks high!" came back an echoing shout from a group that was gathered around the largest central fire in the camp and then the Captain's voice sang out from somewhere nearby, "There was a company, they rode for the sea!"

Laughing merrily, she flung herself out of the saddle as she belted out the next part of the chant alongside the rest.

"O ho, fangs all out!"

"There was a company came home again," sang out Arnald again, though this time he was closer. Meryell turned to look for him as she sang the next line.

"Captain's brought us back around!"

The Captain was abruptly in front of her, a wide grin splitting his face. "And what do you think they brought back now?"

Meryell just grinned back at him and let her voice ring out the loudest with the O ho, fangs all out line. He winked at her before he continued, "There was diamonds, there was gold," right before he dragged her into a warm bear hug. She readily accepted the affection since the Captain didn't give it all too often and hummed happily into his shoulder where her face had settled.

"Captain's brought us back around!" sang the rest once more and the song was as abruptly done as it had started. The rest of the company started to press in around them then and Arnald released her to hold up both of his hands.

"Fangs!" he belted out in a parade ground voice. "Our Meryell's returned to us! Where's the company welcome?"

"HO!"

The shouts around her rattled her bones and Meryell loved it. She closed her eyes as the vibrations of their voices sang through her, feeling the close camaraderie that she'd been trying so hard to find amongst the Inquisition instantly back again with them around her. It was almost enough to make her feel well and truly soppy without one drop of alcohol in her.

Almost.

Chuckling, Arnald continued, "You lot could do better but I suppose we'll take it. Now, you all know the gist and you know how to run yourselves. Make your greetings and make sure your shit gets done or else I'll sic Tooth on the lot of ya!"

"So quickly to turn to me, Captain!" rang out Zarru's amused voice from somewhere in the ranks. "Are you certain you don't want to retire?"

"I'll retire when I'm dead. Ain't that right, war dogs?!"

"AYE!" shouted the lot of them and Meryell made certain that she raised her voice with them. The crowd immediately began to disperse after that, various members of the company coming up to her to give her a simple slap on the shoulder or the warm mutter of Welcome back and Glad you're not dead. She took it all in stride for a moment before she turned a serious eye to Arnald, who just smiled and jerked his chin towards Haven's main gate.

"He's up in the tavern, which is where he's been when I haven't sent Gil up to drag him down for drills." The Captain's face then went starkly serious as his voice dropped in volume. "Man was near lost when he thought you were dead, girl. Try not to actually get yourself there?"

Smiling despite the sudden clench of her heart at what her supposed death had put Folke through, Meryell smiled up at him. "That's what you lot are going to be around for now, yeah?" she asked and laughed as she earned a sharp snort from him.

"Still a smart ass whelp, I see."

"As if I'd change, Captain. You'd piss yourself if I was suddenly different after a decade of bullshit."

Arnald barked out a laugh and she turned to leave at that, only to have his hand catch her arm. His dark eyes shifted behind his mask to somewhere behind her - where she was vaguely aware that Rylen had picked his shouting of orders back up - before he said, "The Commander is a good sort. Honorable man."

Wondering where this was going, she cautiously nodded. "He is. Best I've met here."

"Mmm. And he's smitten with you...but I think you already knew that, didn't you, girl?"

Meryell ducked her head, trying to hide her eyes by the fringe of her hair that fell over them, and began, "Arnald..."

"No," he hissed sharply as he stepped forward to grasp her other arm and gave her a little shake. "Don't you Arnald me, my girl. I can see it as easy as anyone else here, though a lot of them seem to already think you and the Commander have fallen into bed.”

“We haven't.

“I know you well enough to know that. So I'm going to go ahead and ask before Folke gets a chance: are you giving it serious thought? You deserve happiness as much as anyone, girl.”

Arnald didn't know her as well as Folke did and he certainly didn't know all of her issues but he knew enough. He'd always made sure he knew something about everyone that served in the Fangs since he'd taken over the captaincy so he knew enough about her to know she had a difficulty with relationships. That and her joining at fifteen had left her as the proverbial company baby for years, so he and the older lot had always looked after her in their own ways.

Meryell sighed before replying, “I want to try.”

Arnald nodded sharply at that and released his grip on her, saying, “That's all you need do. Now, go give both of your men a hug and have a drink with at least one or both of them tonight. From what I've seen, I think they both need it.”

Frowning with concern at his words, she demanded, “What's been going on while I was gone?”

“Ask your Commander, girl. Now aller, aller.”

“Fine, fine. I'm fucking going!”

Meryell turned away with Arnald’s chuckles ringing behind her and retrieved her horse, which was still standing patiently where she'd leapt off of it. Clucking softly to the beast, she led it towards the stable and found Varric leaning against one of the fence posts with an amused smile on his face. “That was an interesting tune, Swears,” he commented as she moved past him into the small stable where they stored their tack. “Specific to your company?”

Nodding, she replied, “From the first days of the company. One of the founding members was a former pirate and he adapted some of the chants from his sailing days to the company to make our first marching songs." As she looped the horse's reins around a high hook and then bent to unbuckle the saddle, she continued, "That one has always been one of my favorites. Which is probably why Arnald chose it."

"Didn't feel like that was all of it."

"It wasn't." Meryell glanced at him and laughed as she saw the curious look he was giving her. "I'm not going to sing it for you now if that's what you're fucking thinking!"

"Oh, come on, Swears," wheedled Varric.

"Nope," she replied with a sharp pop of her lips. As she hefted the saddle and pad from her horse's back, she added, "Given that the company is with us now, you'll hear it at some point. And I only sing for two reasons anyway."

The dwarf arched his eyebrows at that and she smiled mysteriously, letting her comment settle for a moment because the way she said it usually gave the impression of something more than innocent. She settled the saddle on its rack and tossed the sweat-stained pad aside onto the pile that was to be washed before being used again, waiting for the inevitable response. It didn't take long at all before he sputtered wordlessly.

Varric asked, "That's it? You're seriously just going to leave me hanging?"

"Hanging?" repeated Meryell as she turned to drape her arm across her saddle. Looking at his face, she smirked, saying, "Why, Varric, are you under the impression that my 'singing' is a euphemism?"

He opened his mouth, gaping at her for a moment, then his eyes narrowed as he lifted a hand to waggle a finger at her. "That was just mean, Swears."

"You're the one who went somewhere dirty."

"Sweetheart, it's not my fault when you say something like that that way."

Meryell tipped her head back to laugh and decided to take a little bit of pity on the dwarf. Moving back to her horse, she picked up one of the halters and fitted it on underneath the bridle before she began to remove the latter. As she freed the bit from the horse's mouth, she explained, "I sing with the company and when I'm alone."

Varric huffed at that, saying, "Well, that wasn't half as interesting as what I was thinking."

"What were you thinking?"

"Well," he drawled, "Rivaini always made the comment that she could play a man like a fiddle. Thought that your singing might be a similar euphemism."

"Oh no," Meryell said with a shake her head as she hooked a lead onto the halter of her horse and moved to hang up the bridle. She then turned her head to look at him and smiled slyly. "When I have a man underneath me, neither of us has enough energy to do something as distracting as singing."

He blinked at her for a moment before he laughed, saying, "You are going to break Curly."

"Nonsense. I want Cullen in one piece." She immediately felt a hot flush run over her at that and stopped so quickly her horse nudged against her with a snort. Lifting her free hand to lightly touch her lips, Meryell breathed, "I..."

"Swears?" asked Varric. "You alright?"

"I just..." She swallowed hard and looked down at him, saying quietly, "I don't admit I want something a lot, Varric. Especially not a man. At least not in the way I want him." Normally she felt uncomfortable talking to someone else who wasn't Folke so openly about this sort of thing but Varric had - like Cullen - been friendly to her since everything had started. And he'd been the one there when she'd had that little panic attack involving Cullen after she'd woken up.

The dwarf just smiled up at her and gave her a pat on the arm that she almost dared call fatherly. "Don't worry so much, sweetheart," he commented warmly. "It'll all work out."

Arching an eyebrow, Meryell started moving again down the hill to the hastily built fenced in area at the edge of the frozen lake. As she opened the gate and nudged her horse inside after releasing it from the lead, she stepped back to stand next to him in silence for a moment. Then she folded her arms and growled, "You have fucking money running on us getting together, don't you?"

"Only amongst the inner circle."

"Varric!"

"You want to know the odds?"

Meryell worked her jaw for a moment, trying to find anger at him but only discovered amusement. Mostly because betting on inane things like folk getting together was a constant amongst the company. Just another bit of familiarity amongst the members of the Inquisition...though, she guessed that she was doubly that now with the Fangs taking coin from the Inquisition now.

"Are they in our favor?" she asked.

Varric just grinned and replied, "Three-to-one odds of it happening. Even Chuckles put in a coin towards you two getting together."

"Chuckles?"

"Mhmm."

Flinging up her hands, she said, "Alright, that's enough for the day. I'm going to go find Folke and have a fucking drink. Oh, and try not to get murdered as he's no doubt wanting to strangle me by now." She turned immediately after finishing and walked off, hearing Varric chuckling behind her as she headed towards Haven's gates. Several heads nodded to her as she went alongside murmurs of Welcome back, Herald and she remembered to give them all at least an acknowledging nod in return.

As she pushed open the main door of The Singing Maiden, several of the off-duty soldiers inside immediately took up a cheer of Herald! as they lifted their mugs. There were also a few faces from the company amongst them and they each smiled before pointing her towards one of the corner tables that was back towards the tavern's second door. Nodding her thanks, Meryell glanced towards the dejected looking figure who was slumping across the table's surface with one hand curled around a battered wooden cup with the other around an empty bottle then headed towards Flissa. Jerking her head in his direction as she leaned across the bar, she asked, "What's the fucker in the corner drinking? Whiskey, wine, rum?"

The tavern's owner smiled at the sight of her and exclaimed, "Herald! Welcome home!" before she sobered and shook her head. "That man's been a sorry sight since those mercenaries arrived, Herald. The Commander told me you knew him!"

"He's my father. Essentially."

Flissa took that comment in easy stride, unlike some who immediately looked at her ears before commenting that Folke couldn't be her father. She then reached underneath the counter and pulled out a twin to the empty bottle at the man's table, saying, "It's some sort of wheat whiskey that's popular in the Marches." A cup quickly joined the bottle and as Meryell reached for her coin purse, the other woman held up a hand. "No charge for you tonight, Herald. We'll call it even if you can get him in good spirits. A man that down generally brings down the whole of a tavern."

"Whatever the Inquisition is paying you," commented Meryell as she picked up bottle and cup, "they should raise it."

"Pff, I just know how to keep folks in drink. Now shoo!"

Taking the exit, she turned and walked across the bar in several sure strides before slamming bottle and cup down on the table with enough force that it rattled the two closest tables. Folke bolted upright, his eyes narrowed furiously and a flicker of fire gathered around his fingers as the hand around the bottle came up. As Meryell dropped into the chair across from him and deftly poured whiskey into her glass before grabbing his to do the same, his hazy eyes cleared just enough to bring his hand down.

"Poppet," he growled, voice made dark by alcohol. His fingers then tightened around the cup before he lifted it to toss the whole glass back. She nodded and lifted her own, sipping slowly because while wheat whiskey was Folke's preferred for getting shitfaced on the cheap, it wasn't hers. The clear shit that was made in the Anderfels from wheat (which they called feuerwasser) was her preferred when she wanted to get drunk and drunk quick.

His fingers were around her wrist then, gripping tight enough to bruise even through the leather vambraces she wore and her half-gloves. Slowly, Meryell lowered her cup to the table and grabbed his wrist in her hand, leaning across the table to get in his face with her teeth bared.

"You wanna fight, old man?" she snarled and his eyes sparked. Folke's other hand grasped her chin and that was when she heard one of the soldier's murmur behind her something about stopping it. One of the company immediately told him to settle down because this was their way. She didn't give them any more than a cursory listen, however, knowing the company members in the tavern would keep any of the Inquisition soldiers from doing something stupid. Her focus was Folke.

He stared at her for a moment, his grey eyes dark and hazy, then he growled and rose enough out of his chair to press a kiss against her forehead that was more teeth than lip. "You fucking whelp," he growled into her skin. "I thought you were fucking dead. Charm didn't work, couldn't find it on your end from mine, and I...fuck. Demut had to take it away from me. If I had more power, I might've had a demon stalking my sleep with offers to find you."

Meryell closed her eyes and shivered at the depth of emotion in his words. And the thought of him falling to a demon had her heart pounding in fear. Lifting her other hand, she cupped his scarred cheek, feeling the familiar wound that he'd earned because of her underneath her palm, and whispered, "Ir abelas, baba."

Folke huffed out a breath in response and released her wrist, shifting the hand on her chin to cup her cheek as the other hand came around to frame her face. "Lanastathe, ara vherain," he softly replied, his drunken tongue having trouble around the words despite his competence with Elven while sober. He then kissed her forehead again, this time more softly, before he muttered, "Evune helped me plant a tree for you. Said that even though you weren't Dalish born and didn't believe in her gods, that she thought it would help lead you home to us if we planted it with some of your things."

The thought that he'd done the Dalish rite of death for her had Meryell all choked up with sudden emotion. Mostly because she'd always liked the idea and had done it (though it was with flowers and scraps of fabric) for her mother alongside her father and then later for her father alone. Clearing her throat past the sudden lump in it, she asked, "What'd you bury?"

"One of your old tunics and that knife you broke saving my life that first year."

"I kept that knife for a reason."

Folke just nodded. "And I buried it for one," he replied starkly. Then he finally pulled away from her and stood, wobbling slightly. As Meryell rose hurriedly to brace him, his hands closed around her wrists again and pulled her close. "Let's head elsewhere, Poppet. I think this lot have seen enough emotion for the day and I'm not going to let our own see me cry. Or you."

Nodding, she tossed back the rest of her cup before picking them and the bottle up in one hand with some finagling. Then she tucked her shoulder under Folke's arm, wrapped her arm about his waist, and said, "Come on, old man. Let's go see my cabin."

Several hours later, which were filled with her filling him in on the gaps since they'd seen each other last and what had happened with the Inquisition, Meryell sat at the table in her cabin with a bottle of whiskey - her own favored version that was barley based, not that shit Folke had been drinking. She'd finally had a chance to get out of her gear and get a bath after he'd passed out in her bed, now wearing close-fit breeches that left her legs bare from the knee down and a long, loose tunic that had a wide neck. Yet, she still hadn't seen hide nor hair of Cullen since she'd arrived in Haven.

After Folke had passed out but before her bath, she'd gone down to the field but had found Rylen and one of Cullen's lieutenants in charge of training. And the Knight-Captain hadn't had an answer for where the Commander was except that he'd said he had business to see to earlier in the day. Cassandra hadn't seen him either since they come back and she'd even went to ask Josephine if she'd seen the man. The Ambassador hadn't had an answer either. She'd even poked her head in his tent to no avail.

Now it was dusk and she was starting to get worried.

Sighing, Meryell lifted one leg into the chair and propped her chin against it for a minute before she reached out to grasp the bottle. As she poured another generous portion into her cup, there was a knock at her door. She froze, nearly overfilling her cup, then remembered herself and righted the bottle as she rose from her chair.

Padding across the floor to the door, she opened it and found Cullen there. He was wearing only a tunic, trousers, and boots underneath his coat and looked utterly spent by the way he was heavily leaning against her door frame. The riot of curls that she'd only seen that one night were in full force except where they were clinging to his forehead, which was broken out with sweat despite the fact that it was so cold outside. He blinked slightly feverishly at her, obviously not having expected the door to open, and said very quietly, "Oh."

"Andraste's dripping cunt," breathed Meryell in response as she reached out towards him. He tried to push himself away to stand up straight but she was quicker and grabbed a handful of his coat in one hand while the other rose to press against his forehead. "You are burning up! And shaking!" She could feel the minute shakes where her knuckles were pressed against his chest in the curl of her grip on his coat, an almost constant rattling that was caused by more than cold from the weather. He certainly didn't look like he'd been out in the weather long enough to have caught even a chill.

"It's nothing," he said hurriedly. "I shouldn't...you shouldn't...I didn't..." Cullen closed his eyes as he lifted a hand to press two fingers hard against his temple before he ground out, "You just got back?"

"A few hours ago," she replied. Glancing over her shoulder at Folke's unconscious form, she knew he wouldn't be up for a good long while and little would disturb the alcohol soaked sleep he'd sunk into. So she tugged at Cullen's coat and was more than a little surprised at how easy it was to drag him forward a step. He had more than a few good inches of height on her as the top of her head barely came up to his collarbones and likely more than twice her weight in muscle mass alone. In a down and dirty fight she knew how to use that mass against him or if she really needed to get out of a fight. To be able to move him when she'd barely used any force, however? That meant something was seriously wrong.

Cullen blanched and muttered, "I shouldn't..."

Meryell narrowed her eyes and hissed, "Cullen, you either come inside my cabin and fucking sit down or anyone still awake in Haven is going to be witness to the rather embarrassing sight of me dragging you inside after I knock you out for arguing with me." He blinked several times at that before he sighed and nodded wearily, which prompted her to tug at his coat again. This time he came when prompted and she closed the door behind him before pushing him gently back against the door with, "Stay there."

Crossing the room to the hearth, she grabbed the iron poker leaning nearby and stirred the fire back towards life before tossing two new logs onto it. Meryell then carried the chairs from her table over to sit them in front of it before she returned to Cullen and grabbed his hands. She was surprised to feel calloused skin in her own instead of the leather of his gloves and instead of the heat that normally radiated from his palms, there was an almost oppressive cold. Grimacing, she said, "Come."

"Folke?" he weakly asked as he followed her. He then dropped - not sat, dropped - into one of the chair's when she pressed him into it and groaned as he leaned his head back against the back, his eyes falling closed.

"Drunk off his fucking ass," she replied before dragging her chair forward, settling herself right in front of him. Her knees were tucked inside his own that were spread wide and she felt a blush rising into her cheeks at where her mind went because of that position. Shaking herself, Meryell leaned forward and started pushing his coat off of his shoulders, trying to tug him forward so she could free it. Cullen had turned into dead weight, however, and she didn't have the strength to both pull him forward and keep him from completely falling to the floor. Grumbling wordlessly between her teeth, she got up and leaned over him with one hand braced against his chest and the other rising to cup his cheek. "Cullen? Are you still with me?"

"Tired," he replied softly, the letters of the word sounding like they were tumbling against each other. He then lifted his head and smiled wearily, saying, "I missed you."

Now she was blushing, she could feel the heat in her cheeks.

Meryell smiled, though, and cautiously stroked her thumb across the jut of his cheekbone. "I missed you too," she breathed, feeling like it was almost too close to admitting her feelings. It wasn't too close because friends missed each other when they were apart but that wasn't how she meant it. She then cocked her head to the side and asked, "Are you falling asleep on me?"

Cullen shook his head mildly initially then he sheepishly nodded. The skin between his eyebrows then wrinkled as he muttered, "Haven't slept in...I dunno. Headache. Nightmares. Didn't..." He paused to lick his lips and closed his eyes. "Didn't want to you to see."

"Didn't want me to see you like this?"

"Yes."

"That doesn't explain why you showed up at my door then," she noted.

He shrugged his shoulders at that, saying, "You...you make it easier. Even when you were gone."

Meryell wanted to ask what exactly she made easier but if he hadn't really slept in days then getting the man horizontal was more important. She could ask questions later. "Okay then," she said before shifting her hands to his shoulders and pulling as hard as she could. "Come on then, Commander," she continued as he grunted at her efforts. "Unfortunately I can't offer my bed but there's a nice rug right here on my floor."

"I should..."

"Leave?" she pressed. "As if I'm going to let you fucking leave on your own. And with the state you're in, I couldn't get you down to your tent on my own. Oh, and I'm certainly not going to go wake up Rylen or anyone else in order to get you there. So it looks like you're stuck with me."

Cullen blinked fuzzily at her for a moment before he sighed and sat forward with some effort. His movement allowed her the space to push his coat off fully and as she bent to free it from his arms, he leaned forward into her. Meryell froze as Cullen nuzzled into her throat and shakily said, "Cullen."

"Mmm," he mumbled in response.

"What are you doing?"

He froze and she could feel him intake and release a ragged breath against her neck. Then his lips moved, brushing feather-light across her skin, as he replied, "I don't know."

She moved her hands back to his shoulders and straightened to pull away from him. Then immediately blushed as she realized that him half-slumped in the chair with her standing in front of him had his face at the level of her breasts. Some little part of her noted that later for possible future reference while the rest fought between embarrassment and that old sentence that continued to follow her despite all efforts otherwise.

"Come on," she said hurriedly, glad that he wasn't in a state to notice her blushing. "To the floor."

Cullen groaned but obediently scooted to the edge of the chair, doing little more than sliding off of it onto his knees. She stepped away to move the chairs back to the table and when she turned back, he'd managed to get himself flat on the rug in front of the hearth. Moving back towards him, Meryell knelt by his feet and carefully removed his boots to set them aside, which didn't elicit any sort of response from him. She picked up his coat from where it had somehow landed on the floor and impulsively slung it around her shoulders, letting it hang free towards the floor as she went to crouch by his head. As she pressed her hands against his forehead and neck to try and judge how hot he was, Cullen opened his eyes.

"You're still feverish," she commented. "I should find something to cool you down."

He just shook his head and replied, "Isn't...it isn't fever."

"You want to explain what the fuck it is then?"

"Later?" he replied and it was more question than actual response. Sighing, Meryell nodded and settled herself onto the rug next to his head, tucking her bare feet underneath his coat and up against the heat of his arm. She leaned above him for a moment, chewing on her lip thoughtfully, before she reached out with the other hand to slowly run her fingers through his curls. They were slightly matted and sweaty but the contact drew a low groan out of Cullen that had her entire body tightening at the thought her drawing that sound out of him with more than a mere hand in his hair.

He shifted, his other hand coming across his body to touch her leg, and he breathed, "I'm sorry."

"Telahna," Meryell said as she continued to run her fingers through his hair. "Era, vhen'an'ara. Sleep, Cullen." As his face relaxed into sleep she wasn't certain what had prompted her to call him that in particular but...well, it was true, wasn't it? Hopefully he wasn't conscious enough to register the words she said and she could avoid him asking in the morning.

Looking down at him, she frowned before asking softly aloud, "What is it that you won't tell me? What do you so fear me knowing?" He had said that he didn't want her to see, which meant that there was something that he thought he had to hide from her. Something that gave him headaches and nightmares. And yet those were better when he was around her?

Sighing, Meryell closed her eyes as she continued her ministrations, muttering to the memory of her father, "You were right about one thing, babae. Shemlen are strange creatures indeed." She was determined that she would solve the mystery of this one though. Even if nothing ever came of this still nameless thing between them, she could still help Cullen shoulder his burdens.

That was what a friend did, no?

Chapter Text

He was not in bed.

Cullen blinked a few times as the realization hit for several reasons. The first was the fact was that there was a hearth to his right, the embers inside of it off only just putting off enough to make the chill of the morning bearable. Second was that he was obviously on the floor not only from the hard surface digging into his shoulder blades despite whatever he was laying on but his proximity to the wooden beams of the ceiling. Third was that there was a warm presence curled up against his left side and that arm was also numb.

If the first two hadn't thoroughly cemented the fact that he wasn't in his own tent, the third on it's own would have. And he had a feeling he knew exactly who that presence was.

Turning his head and looking down, it was indeed Meryell molded against his side with most of her body hidden underneath his coat. Her dark head was pillowed on his shoulder - likely the reason his arm was asleep - and he was vaguely aware of the sensation of her hand clutching his own. One of her legs was also tossed over his, almost high enough to be uncomfortably close to...things...but not quite. He still shifted as his cheeks blazed, rolling onto his side to try and keep her thigh from bumping into the half-hard length of his morning erection.

It was doubly embarrassing when her sleepy mind seemed to take his movement as invitation and snuggled closer, which put her even closer. Cullen swallowed hard and started to move to try and extricate her, resting his right hand on her shoulder, when a chuckle from across the room made him freeze. Slowly he turned his eyes towards Meryell's bed, where Folke sat reclined with a book in hand and a pair of narrow spectacles balanced on his nose.

"Good morning, Commander," commented the hedge mage mildly.

"F-Folke," he replied and cursed inwardly at the damned stutter over the mage's name. He wasn't some nineteen year-old boy anymore! And Meryell was no girl child! Why in the Maker's name did he feel like they turned back into such around Folke?!

The man chuckled and sat up, folding something into the pages of the book before he took off the spectacles and tucked them away inside his coat that was tossed over the end of the bed. Clasping his hands together, he leaned his elbows against his knees and pursed his lips. "Normally," began the mage conversationally, "this is where I threaten to set your blood on fire or gut you like a fish if you hurt my girl."

"Normally?" echoed Cullen, hoping his voice wasn't loud enough to wake Meryell.

"Well, I think you are well aware as a former templar that I simply can't set your blood on fire given my abilities. So I'll have to settle for the gutting you like a fish threat."

"You think I'll hurt her?"

Folke's eyes narrowed at that and he growled, "I think every man in her life but me, the Captain, and her blood father have hurt my girl irreparably. You aren't the first man she's wanted in her bed...but I think you might be the first in a long while that she's wanted to stay there. Even though she didn't say that out loud, I know my girl."

Cullen flushed at the insinuation, flustered at the warmth in his belly posed by the idea of always being the one Meryell woke up next to. He then clasped his right hand behind his neck, rubbing the overly hot skin there in embarrassment, and said softly, "I would never deliberately hurt her." Part of him wanted to ask what those other men had done, if they had hurt her physically, then decided he didn't want to know. The rage the mere thought kindled in his heart was enough to make him want to strangle a man.

If he had not been aware before that he'd fallen for the woman next to him, he would have known right then.

"If you do, you'll find me and a whole angry company of brothers and sisters at your door, Commander," Folke hissed. He then eased himself off of the bed and carefully padded across the floor in only his stocking clad feet, bending to stroke his fingers through Meryell's hair. She made a pleased noise, one that sent Cullen's heart to pounding and made his groin clench up, and then the mage's gaze caught his. "The company may be our family, Commander Cullen, but she is my asha'lan, my daughter. I take blood from those who hurt her."

He flicked his eyes down to Meryell's sleeping face and then Cullen lifted his gaze back up to meet Folke's. “In the event that I possibly harm her," he said quietly but firmly, "I will willingly surrender myself to your revenge, ser mage."

Folke's eyebrows rose at that and his mouth moved into what looked like the start of a whistle but he stopped himself before the sound could leave. "A templar giving himself into the hands of a mage, eh?" he queried.

"Meryell made note that you have...what was it...just enough magic to tweak the nose of the Maker?"

Now the mage laughed and he straightened before saying, "You're a good sort, Commander. You should tell her about the lyrium though."

Cullen gaped up at the man and Folke just laughed quietly.

"You think I don't know lyrium withdrawal just because I never lived in a Circle? We've had templars in our ranks many a time, Commander, and all of the mages are taught how to help them through it as best we can. Even ones as weak as me. I've a few teas and poultices I can make for you and I can probably bother a few of the stronger varieties of potion out of Gil. She's got a soft spot for you Ferelden lot since she was in the Circle there."

Staring at him for a moment and trying to intake all of the given information, Cullen finally simply said, "Thank you. And I...will. Tell her, that is. Soon." Likely today given the state he'd arrived in last night. The nightmares had come back in full force only a few nights after she'd left and the headaches had followed it, coming on slowly at first until they were full-on migraines through most of the day. It was why he'd set Rylen and Joane to training the men, excusing it as needing to catch up on paperwork. In reality, he'd spent those hours between trying to sleep and drinking in an attempt to dull the pain because his eyes swam too much to actually do any paperwork.

It had only been a few hours judging by the weak light coming in from outside the cabin but he already felt better rested. Not up to his usual par but...better. The headache from withdrawal still pulsed at his temples yet it was weaker than it had been the day before.

"Good," Folke noted with a smile. He then turned to walk over to where his boots were sitting at the end of Meryell's bed, pulling them on with the quick motions of a man who has rarely been anything but long on the road. As he finished, the mage picked up the book he'd been reading, tossed his coat over his arm, and said, "Good morning, Commander," before he strode to the door and left.

Cullen just stared after him for a moment before he let out a huff of breath and let his head fall to the rug beneath him with a rather surprisingly solid thunk. As he winced, he felt Meryell shift and she uttered a low grunt as she blinked open her eyes. He blinked down at her, not knowing quite what to expect from her, and started to open his mouth but she beat him to saying something first.

"You look better."

"I feel better," he said with a small smile. Then he immediately flushed when she gave a wriggle and extended a hand out from underneath his coat to touch the backs of her fingertips against his forehead. When she smiled, all pleased, he asked jokingly, "Do I have permission to rise, healer?"

Meryell snorted and disentangled herself from him, sitting up to start combing her fingers through her unruly hair. Instantly Cullen missed the contact, missed the heat of her body...but he did appreciate the pin-and-needle sensation of blood flow returning to his arm as he opened and closed his numb left hand several times. After a few moments he managed to sit up and scrubbed his not currently useless hand across his face, grimacing at the feel of the thick stubble on his cheeks. His hands had taken up shaking so much in the last few days that he hadn't dared risk shaving lest he end up inadvertently slitting his own throat.

She must have noticed his focus as Meryell turned towards him to say, "You look like a critter took up residence on your face."

He blinked at her before scratching his fingers through the stubble again, not having thought it was that thick.

"You haven't been shaving?" she asked then and Cullen just shook his head in response. Even as he knew now that Folke and the company had dealt with former templars - which meant Meryell had done the same - he still didn't want to tell her what he was putting himself through. He didn't want her to look at him with pity or, Maker forbid, disgust. With talk of lyrium came talk of templars and that invariably led to what he'd done as one.

The things he'd ignored. Had allowed. Had said. The things he had once believed without a shadow of a doubt of all mages, even ones as weak as Folke.

He did not want to see the affection in her eyes turn to disgust.

"Can't," he found himself saying thickly. He wordlessly held up his right hand where she could see it, the fine shakes already causing the appendage to shiver.

Her eyes narrowed and then Meryell asked, "What the fuck is going on, Cullen?"

"I..."

The words caught in his throat and Cullen sat there staring open mouthed at her for a moment, his throat convulsing with the effort to both speak and not at the same time. He then impulsively reached for her hands with his, curling his larger fingers around her smaller and stroking his thumbs across the calluses that lined the curve between her own thumb and forefinger. Meryell's fingers tightened around his own and she leaned forward, her voice gentle as she asked, "Talk to me?"

"You will think the worst of me," he breathed as he bowed his head over their joined hands.

"How about you let me make my own fucking judgements?"

"Because I know," he exploded, surprising himself even with the force of his shout. She seemed surprised by his outburst but not scared and Cullen looked away from her in shame. The word was thick on his tongue but he somehow managed to choke it out. "Lyrium."

"Lyri..." began Meryell only for her voice to abruptly fade out. Her hands twisted around his as she freed them, her calluses dragging at his own as they caught against each other, and his heart dropped in his chest that everything he thought was coming to pass. Who could truly care for a lyrium addict, after all?

Then Cullen found his face being dragged upward by those same hands and her copper-flecked eyes were wide with fear as she stared at him.

"Felasil," she hissed in Elven as her gaze darted over him, looking for what he knew not. He didn't imagine that that particular word meant anything nice either. "You suffer through withdrawal without anyone else knowing?"

"Cassandra knows," he offered weakly. "She is...she is watching me." Technically Rylen also knew but he'd guessed while Cassandra and Meryell were the only people he'd told outright.

"Well I'm glad someone had the good fucking sense the Maker supposedly gave the lot of us to do so!" snapped Meryell. Her sudden ire then faded away and he was left looking at the fear in her eyes again, with absolutely nothing he could do about it. She stroked her fingers lightly across his face before she said softly, "I'm certain you know the risks but...why? Can I ask at least that?"

That was a question Cullen could answer.

"Because the Order was no longer something that deserved my loyalty."

“No,” Meryell said fiercely, “that's why you left the Order. I asked why you stopped taking lyrium. I know full well that the Inquisition could keep you supplied so access wasn't the issue.

Closing his eyes, Cullen just focused on his own breathing and her fingers that were still stroking his cheeks for a moment. He had to, had to take that time to find the words he needed. The words she needed.

She was his friend, his...something that was maybe more than that.

Meryell had told him things she'd shared with no one else in Haven. Did she not deserve the same in return?

Licking his lips, Cullen began by saying, “Lyrium is what keeps us bound to the Order, leashed to it and the whims of the Chantry as much as a mage is bound by us and their phylactery. To break with the Order really and truly, to be free of those chains, I had to stop. Even though it could kill me or worse. I would not, could not be bound to that life any longer.” He paused and shuddered before adding, “It took too much from me already. It betrayed utterly what I thought it was, what it stood for. I could not continue to serve knowing that.”

“I was...Kirkwall changed me, it made me who I am but before that I…” He let his voice trail off as he swallowed thickly. “You weren't in Ferelden during the Blight. What did you hear about the fall of the Circle at Kinloch?”

“Nothing,” she replied. “Not really until, oh, the beginning of my third year in the ranks? That was when Gil found us. Before that was that it fell, the Wardens saved it, and anyone who'd been inside the Tower had died.”

A dark chuckle rumbled through him at that. It was true, though, wasn't it? There had been two very distinct Cullen Rutherford’s in Ferelden that year: the one before the Tower’s fall and the one who survived it. By and large, they weren't the same man.

“Is that what they say?” he found himself commenting with more than a bit of venom. “I understand them wanting to protect those of us that did but denying anyone survived seems a bit excessive.” Shaking himself, he moved on and asked, “And what does...Gil, was it...what does she say about it?”

He tried to remember the name, the face, of the mage as he recalled suddenly Folke mentioning that same mage as having been from the Ferelden Circle. There was nothing though, no recollection of her at all.

“That the Tower was taken by demons,” replied Meryell, her voice firm but her fingers quivered against his face. “She was one of the few who managed to make it to the door before the templars sealed it. After that, all she knew was the aftermath. That the First Enchanter somehow survived but no other mages held at the top of the Tower did, that almost everyone she knew who had been trapped was dead from either mage or Warden, and that one…” She trailed off, voice dying in her throat, and he watched realization bloom in her face.

“Meryell,” he breathed.

Her fingers stroked across his face, nails scraping harshly through his stubble as she lowered her hands to rest them heavily against his shoulders. She was shaking now, he could feel it through the press of the heel of her palms against bone, and he took action without thinking. Grabbing her hips, Cullen lifted her bodily onto his lap while ignoring her little gasp, swinging her around so she sat sideways across his legs, and wrapped his arms around her. One arm held her tight to him, his right hand hooked around her hip, and the other pulled her upper half fully to him. He dropped his head to her shoulder because otherwise he was too close to her face and let out a ragged breath.

She fit. Like she was made to be right there.

After a moment, Meryell’s hands tangled in his tunic, clutching tight as she whispered in a matter-of-fact tone like she was directly quoting Gil, “One templar, trapped at the top of the Tower outside the Harrowing Chamber, survived. Tortured by demons, they say. He was young and the sort that could have been one of those templars mages don’t fear, one of the truly good ones. They changed him, they made him hate us, and no one did anything about it. It was part of why I escaped.”

Cullen shuddered at the words but caught particularly at the last. No one did anything about it. No, no one had, not until he’d drawn his sword on a terrified apprentice who hadn’t done anything wrong and had shouted down the Tower. That was when Greagoir had finally taken action and sent him to Greenfell where he’d weathered out the last half of the Blight. Yet...it was the way Meryell quoted it.

The Tower had had many occupants during his first year there but not so many that one couldn’t feasibly know everyone who lived there by sight if not by name. Gil had known enough about him (even if he couldn't recall her off the top of his head) to say that he could have been one of the good ones. And them doing nothing for him - which Greagoir had not because Greenfell hadn’t really helped and they'd waited until he'd nearly attacked someone until they did anything - had been part of why she’d left.

That he had meant so much to a mage when he had been at his worst...Maker, he didn’t know what to think of that.

So instead he just nodded his head against Meryell’s shoulder and said hoarsely, “Me.”

Fuck.

“As much as I know you love that word, that does not even begin to describe it.”

That made her giggle, high and loud and edging towards hysterical, and then she asked, “Kirkwall?”

Cullen blinked before lifting his head to say, “You don’t think that was enough for today?”

Meryell shifted then, pushing herself just enough away from him that she could look into his eyes. He looked down at her, idly thinking that it would be so easy to kiss her right then and there...but no. No. They were not there. Not yet.

But...maybe? She wasn’t running away as he feared or looking at him in disgust.

So maybe...maybe someone could care for a half-broken lyrium addict.

“Would you tell me if we left this room and I asked you in an hour?” she pressed. “Tomorrow? The day after that? Tell me truly, Cullen, would you fucking drag this...this horror back out after putting it away again?”

There was only one answer to that.

“No.”

She nodded sharply and then shifted, for a moment making him think that she was going to rise. Instead she brought a furious blush to his face as she slid one leg across him so she was sitting astride his lap and scooted back forward to wrap her arms around him. He could instantly feel the heat of her pressing down on him even through her breeches and his trousers and felt his body react, cursing silently because she surely felt it. There had never been a comparison with any others - he hadn't done that sort of barracks game - but he knew that he wasn't small down there.

Meryell slowly tensed and he started to open his mouth to apologize but she just said, “Well...this probably wasn’t my brightest fucking idea.”

He swallowed thickly before replying, “No. Probably not.”

“Part of you doesn't seem to mind all that much though.” She said the words softly, almost too low for him to hear them even with how close they were. Cullen looked down at where she was leaning against his chest, finding her looking up at him with a gaze that was both coy and nervous at the same time. His cock twitched in response to that look and he cautiously ran his hands up her legs until he could grasp her hips with both. She gasped and trembled in his lap, her face flushed, her pupils blown wide.

“No,” he replied and it came out more growl than anything. “I don't mind, Meryell.” Then Cullen dragged in a deep breath and lifted her hips, moving her just enough back that she wasn't sitting on top of his groin. “But I think,” he continued, “that neither of us is ready for a relationship. Much as we may both want one. And I don't want you to think that you're just some notch on my bedpost. You're more than that.”

He fully expected her to disagree but found her instead nodding in response as she took several deep breaths. “You're right,” she said. “I...I know I still have things to work through.” Meryell bit her lip when she said it and her perched astride his lower thighs with her lower lip caught between her teeth just made him all the harder. "And...thank you. For saying that about bedposts."

If he had less self control or respect for her, he'd probably have pinned her to the floor and taken her right there if she was ready and willing just from that look. Instead he just nodded, smiled, and pushed the thoughts about doing just that back away to the depths of his brain.

Cautiously, he lifted a hand and brushed some of her ragged locks of hair behind her ear, one finger idly tracing the topmost edge of the pointed flesh. She flinched, just barely as though she was holding herself back from more, and he noted that to ask her at a later date. Quickly he moved his hand down to her cheek, cupping it as he asked, “Maybe we can help each other?”

Meryell smiled and pressed into his touch, her voice soft as she replied, “I think I'd like that, Cullen."

"Good."

She laughed at that then pulled away, rising effortlessly to her feet with his coat swinging around her. Cullen bit back a laugh at the way it hung on her frame, the fur practically swallowing her and the folds of red and gold reaching past her knees. Then his traitorous brain thought of how it would look with her wearing only that while standing above him like she was and he very nearly groaned as his cock pressed hard against the laces of his trousers.

"Having trouble?"

Flicking his eyes up at her, he growled, "You know exactly what kind of trouble I'm having."

Meryell just arched an eyebrow, attempting to feign innocence but he'd seen the look she was wearing right now plenty of times. She was pleased that he was so uncomfortable. Pleased at the effect she had on him. Then she laughed and reached out to him with both hands, saying, "I'll stop teasing."

Snorting, Cullen grasped one of her offered hands and pushed off of the floor with his other as she braced herself and pulled him upright. As he straightened, he smiled down at her while running a hand through his hair and silently cursing the state of it.

"It's not all you, trust me."

"Oh?" she asked, eyes lighting up with curiosity. "And here I thought you a fucking saint, Cullen. Are you telling me that there's a little bit of a dirty mind hiding in that pretty head?"

Growling at the word 'pretty' - which was the favorite word applied to him lately by some, particularly Leliana and Josephine - Cullen reached out to touch her hips and slowly push her back against the nearest wall. She let out a gasp as he tucked a knee between her legs and bent enough so he could press her bodily against the wall. It wasn't comfortable but he didn't think that he currently had the strength or stability to lift her with withdrawal still wracking his limbs.

Meryell arched her neck, as if inviting him to have access to it, her breath coming in harsh gasps, and he leaned in close. Slowly he breathed out against her skin, trailing the tip of his nose along her neck, before pressing a chaste kiss against the jut of her jaw. Cullen closed his eyes as he breathed, "I am no fucking saint, Meryell."

"Fucking noted," she hissed before turning her head to sloppily kiss his forehead. He took that as his moment to stop and pulled slowly away from her despite everything in him screaming take her take her in response to her body's pliant reaction to his own. Cautiously, he held her steady with one hand while he leaned the other against the wall so they could both regain their bearings.

After a moment, he said, "Kirkwall."

"Uh-uh, wait a moment," replied Meryell, holding up a hand for him to stop. She then ducked shakily underneath his arm and moved to her bed, tugging the covers back into some semblance of order since Folke had used them and tossing the myriad pillows she seemed to have towards the head of the bed. As she climbed onto it and lay back against the pillows, his mouth went abruptly dry even though he knew nothing was going to happen.

"M-Meryell..."

She gestured almost imperiously towards him, like a queen upon her throne, and then patted the bed. "Lay down," she instructed. "You can tell me about Kirkwall while I see if I can do something for your head."

Cullen frowned and she quickly said, "You're squinting."

Now that she mentioned it, the slight haze of want and need faded and behind all of it he felt all of the aches and pains come back. His head was pounding fiercely, pain radiating outward from his temples and the base of his skull, and suddenly the bed looked like the most inviting thing in the room. Not that it hadn't already since Meryell was on it but now it was doubly so.

Sighing, he moved to the bed and cautiously climbed onto it, laying on his back a decent distance from her. Meryell immediately scoffed and tugged at the neck of his tunic, urging him closer to her. "I don't bite," she scolded. "Not unless asked."

"Maker's breath," breathed Cullen at that comment before he scooted up the bed. He finally lay just below her, his head almost practically in her lap, and asked, "Here?"

"Yes," she replied before shifting slightly so she could sink both hands into his hair. He groaned at the contact, eyes fluttering shut, and found himself arching up off of the bed without even thinking about it, pressing his skull upward into her hands and trapping them against the bed. She laughed and he blinked open his eyes to find her leaning over him, her mouth quirked up into a smirk that made him want to kiss her all over again. "I can't do anything if you have my hands, vhen'an'ara. Now, where is it worst?"

Smiling, he forced himself to relax, laying flat again. Cullen then gestured vaguely towards his temples, saying, "There," before he tucked his hand underneath his head to where the thick bone of his skull ended. "And there."

"Normal places for headaches then," noted Meryell as he let his arm fall back to his side. "Both about the same level of pain?" He nodded and she hummed before saying, "Alright. Folke had me help out a few of our former templars in the company when he didn't have an extra set of hands or one of the other mages. Sometimes this shit works...sometimes it doesn't. Depends on the templar."

"Either way," Cullen said with a slight smile up at her, catching her eyes, "I think I will be better because it was you doing it."

She flushed at that but smiled as she moved her hands through his hair, careful not to pull too hard on the curls that inevitably would be surrounding and trying to trap her hands. Her fingertips then brushed over his temples, calluses snatching at the skin briefly before they settled and she put on the slightest amount of pressure as she began to rub her fingers in small circles. He groaned as the very edge of his headache lessened and then vaguely heard her press, "Kirkwall, Cullen."

Nodding just slightly so as to not upset her ministrations...he started talking. From the beginning, from the very moment he stepped off the boat that had brought him from Ferelden to the Free Marches, he told it all. Including all the worst parts.

Meryell commentated through the whole of it, either by laughing at whatever she thought was funny, humming just low enough that he could hear to keep him going when he paused, or making ribald comments that nearly rivaled that pirate of Hawke's every once in a while. Halfway through, she'd moved her hands to where she was cupping the back of his head in her palms and worked her fingers in the same fashion over the aching spot at the base of his skull. By the time he was done, recounting when Cassandra had found him still working to help the city recover as he could, she had one hand back at his temples and the other pressed to the top of his head, her fingers stroking back and forth across the curve of his skull.

"Well?" he asked, almost expecting her to move or to tell him to get out. With the things he'd done in Kirkwall, he expected it.

Meryell, as usual, did not do what he expected.

She merely hummed and leaned over him again, pulling her hands from his hair so she could frame his face with them. As her fingers stroked across his cheeks, he blinked at her from upside down and asked, "Meryell?"

"You are sa itathe telsilaan," she said softly, her expression fond. When he wrinkled his nose in confusion because he didn't understand a bit of Elven, she laughed. "One who has seen much trouble. But...that doesn't make you anything less. You are still the Inquisition's Rajelan, it's Commander."

“The things I've done…”

“Cannot be erased,” she interrupted. “But you know that. You are not trying to erase what you did or what happened to you. Cullen, you are trying to become better and any who fault you that are fool's not worth even fucking knowing.”

Shaking his head, he impulsively reached up to cup her cheek, delighted when she did not pull away but instead pressed into his touch. “Whatever did I do,” he asked softly, “for the Maker to send me you?”

Meryell wrinkled her nose at that but she knew he believed just as he knew she did not. “Maybe,” she replied, “we both just got lucky.”

“Maybe.”

His stomach growled then, echoed by hers a moment later, and they stared at the each other before bursting into laughter. At the same time there was a knock on the cabin door and she called out a hearty Enter before Cullen could catch his breath. Thankfully it was Folke, who probably wouldn't be too weird about the situation he found them in.

“Been talking all day, have we?” he asked as he closed the door and swung around to show he was balancing a nearly overflowing tray in the other hand. “It's nearly sunset.”

Sunset!” exclaimed Cullen, sitting up to look out the high window above the bed. He could indeed see the darkening sky now, something that he hadn't noticed changing the entire time since he'd woken up. “My men…”

Folke waved a hand flippantly before he used both hands to set the tray on the table. “Never fear, Commander, I very quietly informed your second that you were indisposed today. He seemed to take that in easy stride, made some comment about Hoping that shite he's putting himself through gives up soon in that dashing Starkhaven accent of his, and was on his merry way.” The man grinned at them then pointed the forefinger of both hands down at the tray. “Now, I've got a portion of that stew from the tavern, a few sandwiches made of...something...that I filched from the mess tent, a jug of water, a bottle of my girl’s favorite whiskey, and a whole loaf of Demut’s sweet apple bread.”

“Dem made apple bread?” exclaimed Meryell, clapping her hands together like an excited child. “Fuck, Folke, how did you get a whole damned loaf away from her?”

“The usual way to get anything out of Dem: bribery.” The mage then smiled and added, "Now I'm going to get back out of your way so you can continue whatever you were doing on the bed. Oh, and Commander, I included a little box to make one of those teas I was talking about. I think my girl can show you how to make it."

"Shoo, baba, and let me take care of my Commander."

"Your Commander? Oh, well that moved rather quickly didn't it, girlie?"

Meryell's eyes narrowed and Cullen chuckled before he leaned over and kissed her cheek in another of those impulsive moves that had been happening today. "No, it didn't," he replied to Folke's comment as he watched her blush, "but that doesn't negate that I am hers."

"Cullen," she breathed softly, her eyes showing some emotion that he couldn't quite put words to.

Folke let out a low whistle before saying, "Well well...I know when I'm not needed. Be good, da'lenen. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

That comment dragged Meryell's attention away from Cullen and she turned towards Folke to snarl, "Get the fuck out, you buggering busy body!" The mage just laughed in response before he ducked out of the cabin, closing the door securely behind him. As his footsteps faded, she rubbed the tips of two of her fingers against the bridge of her nose. "He's a damned menace."

Shaking his head, Cullen touched her knee to draw her attention back to him. When she finally looked at him curiously, he said gently, "He loves you."

"'Course he does," she replied, "I'm fucking amazing."

Laughing at that, he nodded. "That you are."

Meryell's blush, which hadn't entirely gone away, returned to full strength at that comment and she hurriedly scooted her way across the bed. She then turned and held out both hands, saying, "Well, come on before all of this shit gets cold. How's your head? Did it help?"

"Some," he replied. The ache in his temples was certainly less though the pressure at the base of his skull hadn't lessened all that much.

"I'll make some of that tea then." As she moved across the room towards the hearth, she asked, "Is it always...is it always as bad as this?"

Frowning as he moved to climb off the bed, Cullen replied, "No, this is actually one of the worst times it's been since I stopped after leaving Kirkwall. Normally, though, it's not all that bad. Usually I just get one reaction to the lack of lyrium, not almost every one of them at once." Walking over to the table as he finished, he arranged the chairs next to each other before he began portioning out the food, using a knife that Folke had apparently also included on the tray to cut the sandwiches in half. There wasn't another bowl for the stew, he noticed, but there were two spoons.

He hadn't noticed how dark it was in the room until the firelight bloomed from behind his back, making his shadow dance along the wall that held the door. Then a hand lightly touched his back and Meryell leaned past him to reach for the jug of water as she said, "He's lucky I keep those tin cups, otherwise we'd both be drinking out of this." When he arched an eyebrow at her and flicked his eyes towards the whiskey bottle - which was what he'd expected her to grab - she chuckled. "Water first with food, then tea for you, then we can break into the whiskey."

Chuckling in return, he said, "Fine, fine. I follow the thief's obviously superior knowledge of these things."

"Damned right."

They smiled at each other as they settled at the table, elbows bumping periodically and their knees pressed up against each other from the way he'd set the chairs. The first thing to be devoured were the sandwiches, which turned out to be slices of mutton with something spread on the inside of the bread that neither of them could identify (but was delicious). As they finished those, the kettle whistled and Meryell rose to get it, returning to swiftly put together the hot water and tea leaves from the little box Folke had left in his empty cup. When she sat back down, it was with her legs casually tossed across his lap, and he rested a hand on one bare shin when he didn't require both hands for the bowl of stew as they passed it back and forth between each other.

"Now," Meryell said, as they finished and she reached for the small cloth wrapped package on the tray, revealing it to be the aforementioned bread, "the proper way to eat Dem's apple bread is with milk but that's one of those things the Inquisition seems short of. So we'll just have to make do."

"I'm sure it'll be fine," he replied as she watched her use the knife to cut two slices off the end before taking the one she handed to him. He sniffed lightly before raising it to his mouth, catching the warm scent of freshly baked bread (despite the loaf now being cold), apples, and cinnamon. As he bit into it, Cullen closed his eyes and hummed in pleasure.

"Good, yeah?"

"Fucking good," he corrected.

Meryell laughed, shaking her head as she said, "I am such a bad influence on your language! You didn't cuss a lick until I came around, did you?"

Shrugging, he replied, "Not really," before he picked up his cup and cautiously sipped the hot liquid. It was a bit more bitter than the tea he remembered from his childhood or what he'd made himself in Kirkwall (he preferred a healthy portion of sugar in his but he'd make do without for now until he could ask Folke if that might interfere with the tea) but as it ran down his throat to pool in his belly, he did lose the very edge of his headache. Blinking down at the cup, Cullen took another drink before saying, "Folke knows his stuff.”

“As annoying as my baba can be sometimes, he is very skilled with what meager talent he possesses. And he says his mother was Chasind which is how he learnt all of the herbal remedies he knows that no one else does.”

Blinking, he tilted the cup slightly towards himself before asking, “Does that include this one?”

As Meryell nodded he let out a huff of breath. He supposed it wasn't surprising in it's own way since the Chasind had their own mages.

Then he turned to look at her and said, “Baba. What does that mean?”

Chuckling, she replied, “It's Elven for father. We may not have met until I was fifteen but Folke took care of me in the company. He also wasn't like the hahren at the alienage who wanted me to just forget everything my babae, my blood father, taught me. Folke wanted to learn it too and he wanted me to know whatever I could use to my advantage since well…” Meryell trailed off as she waved a hand before finishing, “You know as well as I fucking do that elves in Thedas are treated like shit.”

“I do,” he agreed. Then Cullen frowned and noted, “I was under the impression that the elves in alienages didn't know much Elven, that that was purely knowledge among the Dalish? Mind you, I don’t know much about the life of elves in alienages other than seeing what I did in Kirkwall on the occasion that my duties took me there."

Meryell just smiled. "That's the normal way of it. My babae, he was Dalish born and only came to the South Reach alienage because he was captured by templars."

"Templars?" he repeated, surprised. "What did templars have to do with a random Dalish elf?"

"If I tell you, it goes no further than us?" Her nose wrinkled and her lip curled as she snarled, "I don't want that el'u'verelan to know anymore about me than she already does. Not until she learns to stop digging so deep that she scrapes bedrock."

"Ehl...ooo...ver...eh...lan?" Cullen echoed cautiously, trying to sound out the word exactly as she said it. "I'm not sure what the translation of that is but I'm going to guess by the anger in your voice that you're talking about Leliana."

Sighing, she nodded. "Yes," Meryell answered. "There is no word for spy or bard in Elven so the equivalent I've always used is secret taker." She then smiled and added, "You would be my el'u'amelan, my secret keeper."

"Ehl...ooo...am...eh...lan," he said slowly before he leaned in close to her, his fingers stroking idly across the skin of her bare leg as he moved his hand back to it. "I told you that your secrets remain your own with me, Meryell. I still mean that. Do you doubt that now?"

"Din! No! I don't...I trust you, Cullen. I just..." Shaking her head, she continued, "I'm not...I'm not used to talking about them, about my parents. After I left South Reach I tried to put it behind me, everything that happened. When I spoke of them to you after that meeting before before I left was the first time I've talked about them I've at least five years. And that's being fucking generous."

She paused for a moment, biting her lip, and he just watched her while continuing to gently stroke her leg. Meryell then wrapped her arms around herself after running a hand back through her hair, making it spike wildly upward as she stared off into nothing.

"My mamae dying the way she did and then finding babae in the street...I was eleven that year, Cullen. I never had anything but them. Mamae was born in South Reach but my mamaela - my grandmother - she was from Highever, brought in for one of those arranged marriages to my babaela that they do in the alienages to keep blood fresh. They died when I was still little, too small to even remember them. And babae was Dalish so, even knowing the name of the clan he was originally from, there was no guarantee of ever finding them again since clans always travel."

"Who took care of you?" asked Cullen gently, feeling his heart ache for her. Even with the years between, the death of her parents still seemed to weigh on her so much. Which, to be honest, was a thing he could understand entirely given that he had only in the past few years come to actually realize how disconnected he'd been when Mia had written him of their parents deaths during the Blight. It was only recently that he had honestly mourned them.

She shrugged one shoulder before replying, "The hahren gave me shelter and food but...beyond that I took care of myself. You asked about babae and the templars though."

"I did," he replied, "but I want to hear it all. I should if I am to be your...eh-loo-am-eh-lan, yes? Did I pronounce that right?"

"Vin. Yes." Meryell then smiled. "And you're a little slow at it but otherwise correct. Elven takes time to learn. It took Folke several years before he could even properly string together a sentence." She then took a breath before saying, "My babae..."

"Templars."

"Yes. He was a youth not many years older than I was when I joined the Fangs and out beyond the clan's camp with his best friend. They got a little too close to a village and, as some humans are wont to do, someone told a tale to the templars about them doing magic. I'm sure there was a fucking slur in there because fuck all if some can't call us something polite half the time. Anyway, they caught my father but not his friend and took him to Kinloch to be tested for magic."

Cullen nodded slowly before saying, "And when they discovered he didn't have magic, I'm guessing a patrol dropped him off in South Reach at the alienage while on their way to a reported mage child."

She dipped her head in a nod before she continued.

"The hahren of the time took him in. Babae tried to escape many times to try and make it back to his clan but eventually the hahren made the point firm that by then they were probably long gone. That was when he abandoned his family name."

Blinking, he said, "Wait...Verlen isn't your actual family name?"

Meryell chuckled darkly as she replied, "No. Babae was originally Terys Arauven from the Suinasvenla. Verlen means taken child. So he became Terys Verlen, mamae became Sarra Verlen when they were married, and I am Meryell Verlen. Sometimes I'll use Arauven for a job when I don't want people tracking me by my real name or even my mamaes original name, Ivun. "

“Why not permanently change it?”

“Because…” She paused for a long moment then continued, “Because it was the name babae chose. To take the one he abandoned fully felt too much like a betrayal.” Meryell then grinned brightly at him. “Plus it's fucking hard for anyone who's not versed in Elven to say. You got off easy, Rutherford.”

Chuckling as he nodded, Cullen decided to steer the topic onward. “So being that he was Dalish, your father taught you Elven.”

Nodding back, she said, “And Dalish teachings. Mamae didn't approve of it - she thought it a foolish thing to hold onto the past as tightly as the Dalish do - but she let babae have his way.” A smile flashed across her face, bright as a star and gone as blindingly fast as it had appeared, but he caught it. Cullen swore right then that he would figure out how to summon that smile more often. “It was our secret language, mine and babaes.”

“Did the hahren know how much it meant to you? When he took you in?”

"He knew. Everyone in the alienage thought he still held onto the old ways as they called them." Meryell snorted before she continued, "They were ever so wrong. My babae came to realize just how detached the Dalish have become, how proud and arrogant they sound, as he saw both worlds. So he taught me only the teachings that he thought best and strove to make something better. That's what he always told me: whatever you do, ara dharlin, make it better than what came before.

Smiling, Cullen softly said, "It sounds like he was a smart man.”

She just smiled back sadly in response and murmured, "He was."

Rubbing her leg for a moment in silence, he asked, "That Elven he called you...arr-a...da...har...lin. A pet name?"

Meryell laughed at that and replied, "Oh yes. A very Ferelden pet name at that." He cast her a confused look at that response and she laughed all the harder for a moment before she spoke again. "Ara dharlin is essentially baby hound."

Cullen felt a grin stretching his face at that and laughed as he said, "Pup! Your father called you Pup!" He remembered his own father calling him and his siblings that and knew personally that it was a common endearment amongst his own countrymen. Hawke had used the name for her own younger brother in his hearing once or twice, before and after Carver had joined the templars.

"I told you it was very Ferelden!"

"I apologize for not believing the thief's word," he intoned seriously while trying to quell his laughter, inclining his head respectfully towards her. Then he cocked his head and asked, "Does Folke have one for you?"

Nodding, she replied, "Ara vherain. My lion cub. Because I was...oh, what was it he said...as fierce and fearless as any mountain cat when we met." Meryell then smiled tightly at him and asked, "Off topic...we still have that bottle of whiskey. And you seem to be done with your tea."

Cullen nodded slowly, considering whether he should stay to drink some of that bottle with her. He didn't want to leave by any means but...he had spent one night already and the vast majority of a day inside her cabin. Albeit part of it was in recovery from his withdrawals but still...the sensible part of him felt it was time wasted when he could have been doing something else (even if logically his withdrawals wouldn't have allowed him to do so).

The more emotional part was content to stay. Not the least because Meryell was warmly tucked next to him with her legs in his lap. And it surely wouldn't hurt for him to stay longer.

Turning his cup upside down, he tapped it against the tray Folke had brought to try and dislodge the tea leaves that clung to the inside. Seeing it wasn't going to happen, he brought his other hand up from where it was resting on her leg in order to help with scraping the now slightly gunky leaves from the cup. That done, Cullen sat it in front of her with a smile.

"I think whiskey is just the thing after today," he replied.

She beamed at him in response and leaned forward to grab the bottle, pouring a hearty portion into each of their cups. Picking hers up, she held it up and out towards him as she said sharply, "On'vun!" Cullen blinked at her for a moment before he picked up his own cup and clinked the side against hers, guessing that the word was an Elven toast.

"Cheers," he said with a smile before lifting his cup to his mouth. Meryell grinned as she did the same and as they both set their cups back down on the table, he asked, "Was that a toast?"

"It means good life," she replied. Then she twisted her right leg in his lap to dig her toes against his side before saying, "And since I gave you a story about my babae, I want to hear a story about yours."

Arching his eyebrows, Cullen asked, "Is it story for a story tonight, dear thief?"

"Perhaps," she replied with a cocky grin that was all teeth.

"In that case I think you're a bit behind but I suppose I'll be magnanimous and ignore that. For tonight at least."

Laughing, Meryell gave him an exaggerated bow from the waist up. "Why thank you, kind sir."

"I like to think I'm generous," he shot back with a grin. When he got a giggle in response, Cullen launched into one of the earliest memories he had of his father where he and Mia were both small enough still to ride on his shoulders at the same time and Branson wasn't even born yet. That story led to another and another and then he paused to let her tell one that something he'd said had reminded her of. Then he'd begun another as she refilled their cups for the third or fourth time, followed by her having another...and the night continued like that until the fire was banked low on the hearth, the whiskey bottle was empty, and his alcohol fuzzy brain registered that the first rays of light were filtering in through the high windows that faced the east.

"Maker's breath," he muttered as he wiped a hand down his face. "I can't believe we...Meryell?"

Turning, Cullen felt as if the whole world softened just that little bit. Meryell was still upright in her chair but she was sound asleep, her head turned towards the back and her mouth just a little open to let out the occasional tiny snore. She looked as at peace now as she had during those last days he'd sat with her while she was still bed-bound from her injury.

But that chair was going to murder her back.

Carefully extricating her legs from his lap, he rose to his feet and wavered for a moment before he refound his balance. For a moment he pondered whether his plan was really a good idea then shrugged the doubt aside. He felt better now being drunk than he had earlier while sober. Certainly well enough even with withdrawals to pick her up.

Cullen cautiously slid his arms underneath her and Meryell shifted, mumbling nonsense that may or may not have been Elven in her sleep but she didn't wake. He let out a breath of relief and lifted her, carrying her easily across the cabin to her bed. As he laid her down he realized that she was on top of her blankets but his coat was tossed over one of the headboard posts, though he wasn't sure exactly when she had taken it off. When they were on the bed?

Shaking his head, he tucked it around her and brushed hair away from her face a little clumsily. Impulsively, he bent to kiss her forehead and as he pulled away found a callused hand cupping his face.

"Stay," Meryell breathed, her eyes still closed, seemingly asleep beyond the fact that she'd just spoken. Cullen blinked down at her, ready to refuse, to state that he really should go back to his tent.

That, of course, wasn't what came out of his mouth.

He blamed the alcohol and exhaustion. And the fact that he rather honestly didn't want to leave.

"Yes, dear thief," he murmured. She made a wordless happy noise and released him, wriggling her way a little across the bed to make room for him. He paused for a moment before he climbed onto the bed and lay on his side, just watching her for a moment before he reached out to loop an arm around her waist. Meryell gave a little exhalation as Cullen dragged her across the bed so she was tightly pressed against his chest and opened her eyes to look at him.

"Nydha," she said softly. "Good night, Cullen. Son era. Sleep well."

Smiling, he pressed a kiss to her temple then buried his nose in her hair as he closed his eyes, breathing, "Son err-ah," back at her. Meryell let out a little huff of laughter in response, turning her head to the side and tilting it back so she could bump her nose sharply against his chin. Her breathing then evened back out and he knew that she was asleep once again.

Cullen smiled and let his own breathing slowly even out, feeling himself already drifting towards the yawning abyss. He could only hope that all of the talk of the day didn't summon any more of his old nightmares as talking about what had happened to him was wont to do. In the end, he didn't need to worry about it.

When he woke hours later, Cullen realized that he had slept without dreams or nightmares for the first time in too long.

Chapter Text

“You lookin’ for your pa, girlie?” asked Harvard, one of the company’s oldest veterans, as Meryell strode up into the space around the main campfire. He was probably in his seventies by now with a heavily scarred face and close-cropped white hair that showed off an equally scarred scalp. Harvard was still as smart as a whip, though, and while no longer capable in a full-on fight, he still served the company as the main face of those who whipped new recruits into shape. She recalled her own time under his hand with a certain fondness as he'd had a soft spot for the foul-mouthed brat she'd been a decade ago.

That and he'd gleefully added to her already considerable bank of curse words.

“For once I'm not, Vard,” she replied before dropping into an open camp chair that had been left around the fire. “I'm actually hunting for the Captain. Got a question about another company for him.”

“Another company?” piped up the broadly built blonde Astrid, who was sitting on the ground next to Harvard with her back propped against a cut tree that served as a bench. She paused in the sharpening of the axe head in her hands to look up and arch an eyebrow playfully. “You're not thinking of getting rid of us already are you?”

Shaking her head at the Anders woman’s question, Meryell replied, “As if you fuckers would go if I did.” As Astrid chuckled, she continued, “There was a member of their company here apparently because his boss wants to work with the Inquisition. I figure if they're decent we could always use more hands.”

Harvard nodded in response before growling, “What's the name, girlie? Maybe I remember them.”

“Bull’s Chargers. It sounds familiar but I've never heard of them directly that I can recall.”

“Nah, don't know that one.” Harvard then smiled as he added, “Was a member of a Chargers once. Just The Chargers, nothing else to it. Captain of that bunch was a shit kicker.”

“That the one you knifed in the back before you joined up with us, old man?” asked Astrid with a wry smile and a wink at Meryell. It was no secret in the company that Harvard had been a war dog long before he'd joined the Fangs. If you had trained under him, you had heard at least ten of his tales before the first bout to test your ability was done.

He grinned back at her, saying, “No, no, you're thinking of the Red Flame. What a fucking tosser he was. Started crying before I even had the knife out of my sheath…”

“And it was my eating knife to boot!” said Meryell and Astrid together with broad smiles on their faces. Harvard scoffed fondly at them then flipped an age-spotted hand in a shooing motion at Meryell before pointing back the way she came.

“Captain's up with your Commander,” he said, finally answering her initial question. “Talking strategy or whatever shit the in charge lot do to tell us grunts on the field where to go. Now get out of here before you cause more trouble.”

“Trouble? Our Meryell?” repeated Astrid mockingly as Meryell stood up.

“Lass, if I were twenty years younger I'd beat that smart mouth right off yer ass,” growled Harvard.

“Oh please,” Meryell commented over her shoulder as she started to walk away, “you could beat her right now with your eyes closed, Vard.”

“Don't tempt me to beat your ass, girlie!” Harvard called after her. “Your pa wouldn't give one lick if I did!”

Laughing, Meryell turned to walk backwards a few steps as she called back, “Of course he wouldn't! He'd help you do it!

Hearing the two of them laughing knowingly behind her as she spun back around made Meryell smile. She needed to spend more time in the camp than she had been. Just talking to Harvard and Astrid for that short amount of time had soothed the ragged itch inside of her that had formed during that time without the company at her back.

Work came first though.

Sighing and thinking longingly of the day when she was no longer bound to the whim of the Inquisition, Meryell headed back the way she'd come and turned left as soon as she reached the exit of the Fangs’ camp. The line of the Inquisition soldiers tents began only a few steps from there and all she had to do to reach Cullen’s was walk up that line to the end situated right by the training field.

As per usual during the day, the man had one whole flap of his tent tied back despite the chill in the air. She knew why he did it - it made their Commander seem more open in the eyes of those who served - but it was still ridiculous in the mere fact that it was probably only weeks away from starting to snow since they were at the base of the Frostbacks.

She could see Cullen and Arnald inside as she walked up, both men leaning over a map that was laid carefully out over the Commander's heavily encumbered desk. Ducking her head slightly to enter, Meryell sidled in along the wall and smiled when they both noticed her. “No, no,” she said sternly with a quick wave of her hand, “you two keep on with whatever you're doing. I'll wait until you two get done.”

Cullen chuckled before asking, “Which one of us are you waiting for?”

“Need to ask the Captain a question,” replied Meryell with a smile. She then tipped her head across the tent and added, “I am going to claim your cot for my own purposes though. Just until you two are done.”

“Of course, dear thief.” Cullen smiled and inclined his head slightly, saying, “Thank you for at least informing me of your temporary theft.”

“I'm nice like that to people I like.”

Arnald snorted, shaking his head as he commented, “Not if you are playing a joke upon some poor fool.”

Meryell just shrugged, having no reply to that because it was true, and promptly made her way over to Cullen’s cot. Other than the difference between cot and actual bed, it was made up much like her own with thick blankets to protect against the chilly air that seemed a permanent feature of Haven. There was also a heavy pelt draped over the end of the bed, a darkly furred and shapeless thing that had the same red streaks in it as the fur of his coat.

Settling on top of the blankets with her bare and dirty feet hanging off the edge of the cot, Meryell laid down on her side. Propping her head up on one hand, she watched the two men as they discussed something about troop movements and supply lines in low voices that weren't meant to be carried far for fear of being overheard. It probably didn't matter so much given their current circumstances but it was a good habit to keep. Falling out of that particular habit could end up meaning the difference between life and death for someone that served under them if the wrong ears heard it.

Laying there listening to them plan reminded her of her earliest days in the company back when she'd still been running mostly on rage and bravado. She'd sneak into the rafters of whatever room in headquarters the meeting was happening in, sprawling out across two or three and just listening to the inner workings. It had started as keeping herself informed of what was going on because she hadn't been used to being partially in the dark. The gang in South Reach hadn't really had a clear cut structure, so they'd all pretty much just kept each other informed of what they were all doing and that had left her scrambling when she'd been told there was shit she wasn't allowed to know as a new recruit. Then, as her relationship with Folke had grown, she'd started sneaking in simply because he was included in most of them and she'd been a greedy little shit when it came to his attention.

She'd fallen asleep in those rafters so many times and had been fucking lucky she'd never fallen out of them and broken anything. Arnald had been angry with her for a while about it, sentencing her to embarrassing punishments like dumping chamber pots for a day or mucking out the stables. They'd kept up that pattern for months until he finally realized it was a lost cause and stopped bothering. That and she wasn't the sort to blather secrets about everywhere, which was probably his biggest incentive.

“You eavesdropping again, girl?” came Arnald’s voice then, breaking her out of her reverie. Meryell grinned up at him in response as he stood looking down at her and shrugged before sitting up.

"Once a habit, always a habit," she replied with a smile. The she noticed that Cullen had disappeared and asked, "Did he give us the tent?”

Nodding, the Captain replied, "Said he needed to get back out on the field anyway. Man could give Harvard a run for his coin in hard work.”

Meryell just smiled in response to that because to do otherwise might be revealing too much of the blond man. She'd seen enough of the world in her years to know the difference betweenworking hard and burying oneself in work. Cullen certainly had the passion of the first in regards to his job but he also used it as a sort of self-punishment for the sins of his past. After hearing that he'd been that poor fucking templar from Gil's story of the Tower and him personally giving her the entire recap of his years in Kirkwall, she could see why he pushed himself.

Didn't mean she liked it any but she understood it. And she knew the Captain did too because he usually always saw more than he let on, he was just pulling spymaster shit on her.

"Anyway, you had something you needed me for?”

"Got a question," she replied. "Inquisition related. Sort of."

Arnald grinned at her as he asked, "Do I need to get down on my knees then, Your Worship?”

"Fuck you, Captain.” Rolling her eyes, Meryell added, "You can't fucking grovel at my feet anyway. You're Orlesian and thus born with a stick up your ass.”

That made him laugh and he shook his head before sitting down heavily next to her on the cot, clapping her warmly on the shoulder. “I always forget how I miss your mouth when you're gone, girl,” he said warmly. “Now, what's the question?”

Smiling at the comment, she replied, “I met a member of another company this morning. Apparently their captain wants to join the Inquisition, so they've invited us to come see them in action. Name sounds fucking familiar but I can't place exactly where I heard it. Don't know shit about them either other than what I got out of their man.”

Arnald arched an eyebrow expectantly and she snorted before supplying, “Bull’s Chargers is the name of the company. The man of theirs that came said their boss is a Qunari and that they mostly operate in Orlais and Nevarra.”

Abruptly Arnald’s eyes widened behind his mask and his mouth opened in an ‘o’ of realization. “That company,” he murmured softly after a moment. “I've heard of them, though never in much detail. The Iron Bull - apparently it is said with the article - is said to be a good captain but doesn't hold to the title like most. Just calls himself the leader of his Chargers.”

“What about his men?” asked Meryell. “Would it be worth bringing them in?”

“That you'd have to see with your own eyes, girl. You know that.”

“Well I was hoping you'd help me skip that fucking step.”

“Now now,” mock scolded Arnald, waggling a finger at her. “You know me better than that.”

She promptly blew a raspberry at him and he laughed back at her.

“They're a small bunch from what I hear,” he then said, getting back onto topic. “Forty or fifty strong at the most. Still impressive for a group that hasn't been active that long. Fangs are lucky that we have as high as numbers as we do since most companies don't last as long as we have.”

“Well,” drawled Meryell as she winked at him, “we have had a pretty bitching captain for the last decade or so. He's done the company right, so I hear.”

“That so?”

“Mmhmm, everyone says so.”

“Everyone now?” repeated Arnald with a wry smile. He then chuckled before clapping her on the shoulder again as he stood up and said, “I'm going to send some of ours with you when you head out to meet the Chargers.”

Frowning up at him, Meryell asked, “You thinking I'm going to see trouble in the Storm Coast, Captain?”

Shrugging slightly, he replied with a grin, “One never knows what one may face. Plus a show of force is always good when meeting up with another company.” His grin grew wider, shifting a step sideways into menacing, as Arnald added, “And it marks you firmly as one of ours. I'd hate for The Bull to get the idea that he can poach you.”

“I don't think he's going to try and poach the Herald of Andraste,” she noted, sneering the title venomously.

“He's Qunari. Even the ones who don't follow the Qun anymore don't worship Andraste. Not to mention he's a captain even if he doesn't claim the exact title. We're always on the lookout for new blood.”

Shrugging slightly Meryell said, “Fine, I'll take a lot with me. Can I have Folke?”

Arnald sighed, acting like he was thinking about it for a moment before saying, “Just don't get into trouble.”

“Us? Trouble?”

“You, he, and trouble go hand-in-hand, girl. Have since the day he brought you back from Ferelden.”

Meryell grinned as she stood up from the cot. “You wouldn't have us any other way, Arnald,” she commented warmly.

“Perhaps with a little less trouble,” he replied with a smile as he turned to head for the tent’s open door. “I'm getting too old for some of that shit you know.” As she snorted in response to that, he laughed and ducked out the door.

She stood in Cullen's tent for another moment, just listening to the familiar sounds of the training ground. Then she squared her shoulders and strode out of the tent, smiling at Cullen as she passed him while pondering how exactly she was going to convince Josephine and the others to possibly hire another mercenary company.


“It always this damp?” asked Sera as they strode away from the first campsite that Harding and her forward team of scouts and soldiers had set up. “I think there's mold in my breeches.”

“It's the sea,” Meryell explained without looking over her shoulder at the other elf. “Makes damp air all over the fucking place. There are a lot of places like this to the south of the Vimmarks.” Pointing towards the mountains in the distance, she added, "It'll be less icky once we get over that way. We're fucked right now since we're right by the water.”

"So you're saying I just got to put up with it?”

"Pretty much.”

"Grand,'’grumbled Sera and now Meryell did turn her head but only to smile at Folke who was walking next to her at the head of their group. He chuckled in response to her look, shaking his head slightly. Knowing him he was probably thinking the same thing she was: that Sera sounded exactly like she and every non-seaside-living Marcher that had ever joined the company in their first days at headquarters. Headquarters itself was between the base of the Vimmarks and the sea in an old Tevinter keep so it was always damp at best from the water or miserably hot at the worst heights of Marches weather. You either adapted or suffered through silently as complaining made you the target of every prank or tedious outside work someone higher up the chain of command could throw at you.

"So these Chargers are supposed to be where along the coast exactly?" asked Folke, changing the conversation to what they had come to the Storm Coast for in the first place.

"Not far from camp was my understanding," replied Meryell. "According to their man, they heard something about Tevinter mercenaries operating out here. Hence the invite to see them in action.” She then cocked her head to the side, saying, “Have you heard of their company, baba? Arnald had but Harvard and Astrid hadn't.”

Snorting, Folke replied, “I have. Though that's mostly because I have to pay attention to more than magic; ask Gil or Dem or any of the rest and they'd be clueless. Too much reliance on finger waggling.” He wiggled his fingers at her as if in example and when she grinned, continued,”Old Harvard's good for companies who've existed as long as ours but new one's...well, you learn about those in the field, not training the whelps. And you know as well as I do that Astrid is more interested in cracking skulls with that axe of hers than anything else. Not your best folk to ask for information, asha’lan.”

“And what have you heard of them, Ser Folke?” asked Cassandra from behind them. Meryell turned back towards the Seeker with an arched eyebrow at the addition of the title and found the woman’s gaze pointed downward as she tightened the leather straps securing her shield to her arm. She heard Varric chuckle from his spot further back along their group where he was walking with Sera and the trio of company archers that Arnald had assigned to them.

Ser?” exclaimed Folke with a laugh. “Andraste’s dimpled ass, Seeker, I'm not worthy of a title.”

“You are the Herald’s father.”

Meryell grinned at Folke as he rolled his eyes, saying, “That shouldn't afford me any different treatment than anyone else. I'm a mercenary, Seeker. Not to mention I'm a mage.”

Cassandra sighed before saying, “I meant it as a term of respect.”

“Now respect I like but I think we can do that without calling me ‘ser’.”

There was a long pause then Cassandra asked, “Then what do you wish to be called?”

“I think my name works well enough,” replied Folke. He then jerked his head around, eyes narrowed, and abruptly extended an arm to stop Meryell’s forward movement. “Someone laid a glyph here.”

“Whot?” asked Sera from somewhere behind Cassandra. “You got some kinda magicky sense or somewhat?”

Smirking, Folke replied, “Something like that, girlie.” He extended a hand then, his eyes fluttering closed, and Meryell shifted her weight back to one leg as she watched him. Folke might have been weak in power but in ability and finesse he was one of the best mages the company had. She'd always loved watching him work, even from their first meeting back in South Reach. He made magic look like art. “Only an alarm. Probably laid them out all over this fucking hill if the location the Chargers gave you is their base camp. Easy to disable thing.”

Meryell started to nod then jerked her own head around, ears twitching as she caught the bare edge of the sound of steel against steel. A dying man's scream followed and that was perfectly audible to all of them.

“I don't think that'll be necessary, Scar,” commented Varric mildly. Folke just grunted in reply before he twisted his hand into a claw in mid-air and tugged backwards, his fingers glowing briefly before it dissipated.

Turning his head, he pointed out, “Best not to let them know we're coming anyway. Let's go, girl.”

Meryell grinned and drew her daggers, reveling in the fact that it was now the same motion she'd grown familiar with over many long years. Her weapon harness, which situated one blade diagonally across her back via straps that circled her chest and the second horizontally at the small of her back, was probably in need of repairs but it had done its job so far. Eventually she'd get Harritt to make a new one or see if Conlin had another set in the stores.

“Cassandra,” she called out, loud enough for everyone to hear her but not so loud as to alert those nearby, “you take point. Bernard, Karan, you go with her. Make us a fucking shield wall and plow these bastards over if need be. Sera, Varric, Pod, Tanya, Lortho, stay up the hill at range.” Turning to grin at Folke, she asked, “You with me and Hart, old man? I'll protect Cassandra's back and you two handle Bernard and Karan?”

“With your troublesome ass like always, Poppet,” he replied with a smile that was all bared teeth. Then he jabbed his thumb over his shoulder at the two other company mages, saying, “Roddy and Bel can cover all our asses with barriers to make sure we don't bleed all over the place.”

“I'll remember to let yours slip for half a second, Folke,” joked Roddy as he cracked his knuckles.

“Oh, darling, don't tease.”

Shaking her head at their familiar antics, Meryell idly spun her daggers in her hands before hissing, “Let's move. We've got Tevinter assholes to kill.”

“I'm glad you clarified that with assholes, Yeller,” commented Lortho as he unslung his bow from across his back. As Meryell turned her head to look at him (mostly to glare because she hated when anyone used that particular nickname), the Tevinter archer grinned at her. “I'd hate to think you were talking about me.”

“You were born in Nevarra, Lor,” muttered Pod as the elf bumped his shoulder into the taller human’s.

“Still counts!”

“Are they always like this?” asked Cassandra in a low voice as she brushed past Meryell’s shoulder to get ahead of them, bringing her shield up to bear as she drew her sword.

Chuckling, she grinned at the Seeker before replying, “Nope. Sometimes they're worse.”

“May the Maker preserve us.”

They broke free of the trees then and directly down a casually sloping hill that lead right down to the beach was a fully pitched battle. Judging by the looks of it, the Chargers were handling it alright but it seemed like the battle could shift all too easy. Ahead of her the three warriors had some sort of unspoken communication and set off, Cassandra at the head of of a three person arrow. The green light of barriers flickered over them and, as Meryell felt the warm touch of the magic across her skin, she bounded after them with Folke on her right and Hart, a slim little bare-faced Dalish elf, to his.

She grinned as Cassandra plowed into the back of a Tevinter mercenary, sending the poor fool staggering forward right onto the blade of one of the Chargers. Following close behind the warrior, Meryell mostly kept her blades clean except for the two foes that Cassandra swept off their feet before casually continuing on like the battlefield storm she was. She took out the downed men quick and clean and kept pace with the Seeker as she lead them across the field through the hail of arrows coming from the rest of their group up the hill.

It didn't take too long for the sound of steel and the smell of magic to start fading away as the battle winded down. Then a deep voice boomed across the field, almost as loud as Cullen's training field voice that carried over the sound of clashing steel and could be heard all the way up to the Chantry. “Chargers! Stand down!”

She took a step back right then as she pulled her daggers out of the chest of a rogue who'd tried to sneak up on them and collided with heavy steel as she did a quick glance around the battlefield. Cassandra let out a grunt in response but didn't move as she asked, “Are you well, Herald?”

“Just making sure your backside’s protected, Seeker,” replied Meryell with a grin. She then straightened away from the other woman before bending to wipe the ichor on her blades off on the elaborate bit of cloth the Tevinter rogue had wrapped around his leathers. As she sheathed her blades, she turned to look for the source of that voice.

Obviously it had been the Chargers’ captain and he was quite obvious as he towered shirtless except for a piece of leather shoulder armor over everyone else on the field.

"Folke!" Meryell called out as she eyed the Qunari. As she waited for him to walk over she reached out to touch Cassandra's shoulder. "Stand by me?" she asked.

The older woman blinked at her before saying, "Of course. I trust your judgement in this, however, if that is why you…”

"No, no," exclaimed Meryell, waving her hands in front of her. "You're purely Inquisition and Folke's company. Since I'm between the two, I'd rather have you both next to me. That and it cements me where I'm at so the Iron Bull doesn't think about trying to poach me like Arnald kept insisting might happen.”

"You believe he would?"

"Not really but I learned long ago to never doubt the Captain. More than half the time he's fucking right.”

Cassandra just nodded after that and fell into step at Meryell's left - where her shield would be most effective if she needed it on the off-chance to provide cover - as Folke stepped up to her right. With them behind her, Meryell strode forward to meet the Iron Bull as he finished ordering the man who'd come to Haven with the work offer to let the throatcutters finish up before breaking open casks.

“So,” said the big Qunari as he sat down rather lightly for a being of his size on one of the large rocks that sat on the beach, “you must be the Inquisition.”

“Damn. Did the great big old badge give it away?” commented Meryell with a grin, referring to the iron and serpentstone pin that was worn by most of the lower members of the Inquisition. She'd ‘confiscated’ one early on from the supplies for Cullen's soldiers and attached it to the harness she'd pulled off a dead body on that initial run to the Breach. Josephine had wanted her to have something more obviously marking her as the Herald but she’d shot that swiftly down, saying that she wasn’t going to take any special treatment just because of some shit on her hand.

She was a fucking merc and she’d wear the same damned thing the Inquisition soldiers wore to identify themselves. It gave her the occasional opportunity to just blend into the background too and just be another face in the crowd, which was an aspect that she liked.

The Iron Bull responded to her sarcasm with a broad smile and a deep chuckle before saying, “I think I might like you, Herald of Andraste.”

Grimacing, Meryell hurriedly said, “Please fucking don’t.”

“Whatever you say. Come on, then, have a seat. Drinks are coming.”

“Drinks, you say?” commented Folke brightly and she dug her elbow into his ribs as she moved to sit down on the crate that the Iron Bull gestured towards. He grunted in response and flicked his fingers at the tip of her right ear - his oldest gesture for showing when he was annoyed at her - before he claimed the barrel that was also nearby.

“I will stand,” commented Cassandra as she came to settle behind where they sat, her feet braced in the wide, steady stance that Meryell had seen the woman drop into many times when she was bracing for a charge. She caught the Seeker’s eye and when the woman’s mouth twitched just so, she smiled before turning her attention back to the Qunari right as the man who’d brought the offer strode back up so the Iron Bull could introduce him as his lieutenant.

“Good to see you again,” he commented with a nod towards her. He then straightened up and said, “Throatcutters are done, Chief.”

The big Qunari leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, before saying, “Have ‘em check again. I don’t want any of those Tevinter bastard getting away.” Then he smiled, adding, “No offense, Krem. Or to your Tevinter.”

Snorting, Meryell replied, “He’s never even seen Tevinter. We never pay his complaints any mind anyway.”

Her comment made the man Krem snort a laugh before he said, “None taken, Chief. Least a bastard knows who his mother was. Puts him one up on you Qunari, right?” The last was said as he turned to walk away and she heard Folke chuckle from behind her. Already Meryell could tell that the majority of the Chargers would probably get along with the Fangs just fine.

Another Charger abruptly appeared with three mugs in one hand and a larger in his other. He grinned at them, flashing mostly missing teeth, before he handed the largest mug to the Iron Bull with a comment of, “For you, Chief.” Then he turned and offered the other three to them, which Meryell took with a smile as she blatantly ignored Folke immediately tossing his back in almost one gulp. As Cassandra refused and the Charger walked off with the shrug, drinking from the mug himself, she leaned forward towards the Qunari.

“So,” she began, “that was a nicely done attack. Looked like it could have backfired on you from where we were standing though.”

“Could have,” replied the Iron Bull with a smile, “could not have. What matters is that it didn’t.” He shifted then, resting his weight on one elbow so he could gesture towards Cassandra with his other arm. “You have an impressive team yourself. Though a bit larger than what I was suspecting.”

“Oh?” asked Meryell, smiling as she took a sip of what smelled like ale.

“Yeah. Knew you employed another company but I didn’t think you’d be travelling with them.”

Folke let out a bark of laughter as he leaned forward, saying brightly, “Is tel eolas!

Telahna, baba,” she replied, reaching back to swat him across the knee. He continued laughing as she said with a smile, “The Inquisition doesn’t just employ another company. They employ my company.”

Both of the Iron Bull’s eyebrows went up, the left one making his eyepatch move with it, and then from beyond them Krem’s voice rang out, “Told you, Chief!” Snorting at the man’s shout, the Qunari leaned both elbows back onto his knees as he shook his head.

“Krem told me straight up he thought you were a merc. My own sources told me a lot but they didn’t reveal that part. Good on your spymaster for keeping that under wraps,” he commented with a sharp nod. Then he moved his hand enough to gesture towards her, continuing, “You really know what we’re worth then. I assume you’ve already talked with your ambassador - what’s her name - Josephine?”

Smiling, Meryell nodded and took another sip from her mug. “Just waiting on me to get back to our camp so I can send a bird back to Haven with the confirmation.”

The Iron Bull nodded before saying, “Let me sweeten the pot for you. You aren’t just getting the boys...you’re getting me.”

“You?” repeated Folke, surprised.

“You need a frontline bodyguard. I’m your man,” explained the Qunari. He then paused to look at Cassandra, who was standing with an almost bored look on her face, and commented, “Not that your current one isn’t impressive. But, whatever it is - demons, dragons? The bigger the better for me.”

Meryell could certainly agree that having the big Qunari around would be extra helpful for her. Especially since she could probably easily hide behind him without being seen, which wasn’t quite a feat she could pull off with Cassandra.

“And,” continued the Iron Bull as he sat down his mug and stood up abruptly, “there’s one other thing. Might be useful. Might piss you off.”

“Let’s have it,” she said sharply.

“Ever hear of the Ben-Hassrath?”

Frowning because that sounded awfully familiar but she wasn’t anywhere near an expert on things related to the Qunari, Meryell turned to look at Folke. When he shrugged in return, she flicked her eyes towards Cassandra before returning them to the Iron Bull as the other woman shook her head slightly. “Sounds fucking familiar,” she replied, leaning back so she wouldn’t hurt her neck looking up at him, “but can’t say that I recall anything about them except they’re a Qunari organization.”

“Qunari spies,” explained the Iron Bull. “That’s them. Or, well, us.”

Us?” repeated Cassandra, a note of incredulousness in her voice. Meryell held up a hand towards the woman, silently hoping that their still somewhat tentative trust held, and motioned for the Qunari to continue. He nodded gratefully and quickly explained about the Ben-Hassrath being concerned about the uncontrolled nature of the Breach (she ignored Folke’s muttered comment of Them and everyone else on Thedas) before continuing to his being ordered to join the Inquisition. As soon as he made mention of getting reports and sharing them, she frowned but let him finish.

“Alright,” began Meryell slowly, “three questions.”

“Only three?” asked Folke and she reached back to swat him on the knee again.

Turning her attention back fully to the Iron Bull, Meryell began to tick off on her fingers as she spoke. “One, what do you send in these reports back? Two, what’s in the reports you get that’s worth us taking you on? And, three, what the fuck are you doing telling us that you’re a damned spy straight off?”

The big Qunari just laughed in response before replying, “You don’t hide from something called the Inquisition. Best to be up front about it.”

Snorting, Meryell smirked at how long she’d kept secrets, at how she still held secrets (to her knowledge, at least), and how infuriated that had made the spymaster. “You’d be surprised how long you can hold out,” she commented wryly.

He arched a single eyebrow in response before shaking his head.

“To answer the other two, there’d be enough to keep my superiors happy. Nothing that’ll compromise your operation. Or, now that I know they’re yours, your company. The Qunari mostly want to know if they need to launch an invasion to stop the whole damn world from falling apart.”

Folke snorted, interrupting with a muttered, “If this shit keeps flowing downhill, we might welcome a fucking lot of Qunari on our side.”

“Let me send word of what you’re doing,” continued the Iron Bull, “and it’ll put some minds at ease. Good for everyone. As for what I get in reports, there’s enemy movements, suspicious activity, intriguing gossip. Mostly a bit of everything.” He gestured with one hand slightly before he went on. “Alone, they’re not much but if your spymaster is worth a damn, she’ll put ‘em to good use.”

Not surprised at all that he knew the Inquisition spymaster’s gender, Meryell said, “Oh, she’s worth a damn. Not really sure which sort of a damn but whatever. I’d like to point her in another direction than the one she’s got sighted up my asshole right now so your reports might just be my ticket to that. So...”

Trailing off, she leaned forward to sit her mug on the ground before standing up, extending her right hand out towards the big Qunari. As he took it, carefully winding much larger fingers and palm around hers to finish the clasp, she commented with a grin, “The Bull’s Chargers are in.”

“Excellent!” exclaimed the Iron Bull. He then turned and shouted down the beach, “Krem! Tell the men to finish drinking on the road. The Chargers just got hired!”

“What about the casks, Chief?” came back the answering shout as the Tevinter stood up on a rock. “We just opened them. With axes.

The Qunari shook his head before replying, “Find some way to seal them. You’re Tevinter, right? Use blood magic.” The casual use of one of the more (according to Gil and Demut, anyway) forbidden uses of magic made Meryell arch her eyebrows then she focused back on the Iron Bull as he turned back towards her.

“We’ll meet you back at Haven,” he commented before turning to wave an arm sharply towards his men. “Chargers! Let’s move!”

She folded her arms, just watching them for a moment, before she turned to look at Folke and Cassandra. “Well?” she asked.

“It’ll be fucking interesting to say the least,” he commented before draining the mug in his hand. Meryell narrowed her eyes at him because she was pretty sure that was her mug since he’d finished his early but let it lie. “I think the Captain is going to have his work cut out for him with that one.”

“As will Leliana,” noted Cassandra dryly.

Snorting, Meryell said, “Fuck, Folke, Arnald’s going to have a damned ball with this shit. He loves spies. And anything that makes that el'u'verelan’s life harder is something I’m fond of it it’ll keep her off of me.”

“That el’u’verelan,” commented Folke as he stood and draped an arm across her shoulders, “is supposed to be working for you.”

“Leliana and the Herald,” began Cassandra as they started to move towards where the rest of their group had settled, apparently having been supplied with mugs of ale themselves, “do not get along.”

Meryell frowned before saying, “Cassandra, you and I need to have a talk about the definition of things because we do more than not get along. Sometimes I’m half certain she’d knife me in my sleep if it wouldn’t hurt the chances of closing the Breach.”

Shaking her head, the Seeker smiled. “Nonsense,” she said lightly. “For you, she would at least have the courtesy to kill you where you can see her.”

Blinking several times and stuttering in her tracks, she gaped at the back of the older woman’s head for a moment. Only Folke’s arm across her shoulders kept her really moving forward until she regained her momentum.

“You do have a sense of humor, Seeker!” exclaimed Meryell.

“Sense of humor!” repeated Varric, having caught wind of their conversation now that they were close. “The Seeker? You sure about that, Swears?”

Laughing as Cassandra let out her now all-too familiar noise of disgust, Meryell reached out to grab Varric’s shoulder and bring him up against her free side. “Of course,” she commented as she rested her arm lightly across his shoulders. “You trust me, right?”

“Of course. You going to tell us about what happened?”

“On the way back to camp,” she answered with a smile. “We’ve got a bird to send back to Haven that there’s another company in the Inquisition’s employ.”

Chapter Text

“Herald, may I speak with you?”

“Well,” Meryell drawled in response, not looking up from carefully re-wrapping the hilt of one of her daggers, “technically we're already talking but I suppose we can continue.” As soon as Cassandra let out an annoyed huff of breath in response, she sighed and lifted her eyes enough that she could glance briefly at the other woman's face. “Seeker, you are seriously going to have to get used to sarcasm if you're going to keep hanging around with me and Varric.”

Cassandra scoffed, saying, “We do not hang out, as you say. And perhaps you and he would do better to be more serious.”

“Being serious just makes you fucking boring.” Meryell tugged the leather around the hilt tight and held it with her thumb while she stretched out her legs. This freed up her other hand to move the pile of various sized bits of leather she'd been working with off of the step in front of her cabin door where she'd sat to work. “Take a load off, Seeker. I get the distinct feeling that whatever conversation you want to have is going to be a long one.”

For a moment she didn't think the other woman was going to take the offer but she finally sighed and sat. When she didn't immediately speak, Meryell turned her attention back to her dagger, giving the woman a moment she obviously needed.

“There are,” Cassandra finally began, “some rumors going around Haven. Normally I do not listen to such things but it is...a popular topic.”

Snorting, Meryell noted, “The Seekers can't be all that different from any other military type organization. You should know as well as I fucking do that soldiers like to gossip. So whatever you're worried about I wouldn't sweat it.”

“Even if it is you and the Commander?”

Suddenly regretting where this conversation was possibly going, she growled, “Especially if it's me and Cullen."

"Then you are not together.”

Depends upon your definition of together, Meryell thought wryly. They certainly weren't together in the traditional sense but she had no intention of taking another man to bed. And Cullen had literally said he was hers. They just...each had things they had to work out before anything could be officially stated. Though they'd been taking daring chances lately with their friendship, touching much more intimately than they'd dared before but never venturing across the line that made it something more.

That probably hadn't helped the rumor mill.

“No,” she replied honestly. “We're not together.”

“And why not?”

“Because...wait,” Meryell blinked, pausing in her work to turn and look at the other woman. Cassandra wore her disappointment openly on her face and she almost couldn't believe that the hard-line trotting Seeker might just be a damned closet romantic. “You actually fucking want us together?”

Sighing in response, Cassandra leaned forward so her elbows rested on her knees. “While we have not gotten along these months…”

“I'm going to call that the understatement of 9:41.”

The other woman's lips twitched before she continued, “I have found that I respect you. You have a...tenacity...that I have seen in few people and you are always the first to help those in need.”

“I’ve been the person in need for a lot of my life,” Meryell pointed out. “I know where most of them are coming from.”

“You did not have to yell at those clerics in Val Royeaux to help or to hunt down those templars in the Hinterlands who had killed that woman's husband. Nor any of the other things I have seen you do.”

Her jaw clenched as she said in return, “I just do the decent thing, Seeker. My babae taught me that.”

Cassandra just nodded and said, “That decency is what Thedas needs.” She then smiled - a real, honest smile - as she added, “That it comes from a foul-mouthed Elven woman who had no reason to stay with us but did makes it even more astounding.”

Narrowing her eyes, Meryell pointed out, “You as good as blackmailed me, remember?”

“You said that once before.”

“You don't remember you and our shivdark spymaster telling me pretty much that without the dubious protection of the Inquisition I would have fuck knows who or what darkening my doorstep?”

Cassandra had the good grace to look ashamed at the reminder. Which was good because she damned well should feel bad about it. Then she asked quietly, “Would you have stayed if we had not?”

Meryell's temper flared and she turned her attention back to her dagger, focusing again on carefully wrapping the leather around the hilt. “I guess we'll never know now,” she growled in reply.

“I did not mean…”

“Doesn't fucking matter anymore,” interrupted Meryell. “I'm here and I'm sure as shit not running. Not while folk are getting hurt.”

“It matters between us,” Cassandra noted softly. When she looked at the woman curiously, she just shrugged casually. “If we are to work together and do so well, it does matter.”

Sighing heavily, she came to a stop in her work again and leaned back on the step so her shoulders were resting against the closed door. Meryell pursed her lips for a moment, considering what to say to the woman next to her. A lot of her initial anger towards Cassandra had faded since she'd gotten into this piss pot of a mess. She liked her well enough and certainly respected her skill in a fight. That tiny bit of her that hated being backed into a corner though still chomped at the bit and held on tight to that bridle of anger, trying desperately sometimes to fight for its head.

Like right now.

“I don't take kindly to threats or ultimatums,” she finally said as she closed her eyes. “Maybe it's the Dalish in me.”

“I was under the impression that you were not Dalish.”

Meryell tensed, silently cursing her own slip of the tongue. Then she just sighed before replying, “Rule one of working a job: lie your ass off if need be to get off safe. Plus my own personal rule of don't tell strangers what's my own damned business.”

Cassandra scoffed and asked, “Herald, how are we to trust you if you show no trust in return?”

Cracking open an eye, she answered, “You've gotta show some trust first. So far I haven't seen a lot of it directed towards me except from Cullen, Varric, and the soldiers.”

“You think I do not trust you?”

Meryell nodded and the older woman sighed before saying, “I do not trust easily, Herald. We perhaps have that in common. I will note, however, that I will not turn my back in a fight on those I think I cannot trust.”

Blinking at the other woman for a moment, Meryell thought of their recent fights, where Cassandra relied on her blades, Varric’s arrows, and Solas’ spells to keep her back protected. Then she thought back further to those first days in the Hinterlands (and before while fighting their way to the Breach that first time) that Cassandra had deliberately fought either beside her or facing her. It was a fighter’s trust, a warrior’s trust, but it was trust nonetheless.

“Well,” Meryell began slowly, “it’s not exactly what I was talking about but...I suppose it's a place we can start from.”

“Then we shall start now,” Cassandra said firmly. “I never meant you staying with the Inquisition to be blackmail, Herald. Leliana I cannot speak for but to back you into a corner was never my intention.”

Smirking, Meryell fiddled with the end of the strip of leather before asking, “Not even when you thought me guilty?”

“I wanted the truth. I have learned that it cannot be gained through means of force yet sometimes I forget that lesson.”

“Varric?” she queried.

“Varric,” agreed the other woman in a tightly clipped tone. Cassandra then said, “You are good for him.””

Varric?” asked Meryell even though she knew full well that wasn't what was meant. And Cassandra knew she knew too by the smile trying hard to play about the other woman's mouth. Sighing, she asked, “Going back to the original topic...why does it matter so much to you? Other than you being a closet romantic.”

“Keep that to yourself,” snapped the woman. Cassandra then softened her voice as she asked, “What has Cullen told you of his past?”

Why?

“It determines my answer.”

Sighing, Meryell replied, “He barely touched Kinloch. One of the mages who joined the company during my third year with them was at the Tower during its fall. I related the basics and he confirmed them. I didn't...I didn't ask him to go into greater detail. I've heard what demons will do to people if let loose. I don't need help imagining how they might have tortured him. As for Kirkwall, he told me everything.”

Cassandra’s eyes widened in surprise then she recovered herself, saying “Before the Mage - Templar War, Kinloch was one of the greater examples amongst both Seekers and templars for why we must be vigilant. That Cullen survived it when so many others - many of whom had served the Order for far longer - did not speaks to his strength. And if he told you all of what happened in Kirkwall, you know how the city forged him into the man he is today.”

“Break,” corrected Meryell. “I know how that city and that fucking crazy bitch he had to serve under tried to break him.”

“And failed.”

"There are many ways to break a person, Seeker," she replied. "Sometimes all you have to do is start the cracks." Turning her head to look at the other woman, she added, "I know about the lyrium too."

Cassandra looked surprised by the statement but she covered it decently well as she nodded before saying, "I believed he could do it in Kirkwall and I believe he can now. He has a chance to prove to himself - and others - that it can be done." She paused as she looked away, off to the right where the halls of Haven stood between them and the field were Cullen had already been running the Inquisition soldiers through drills for hours. "Mages have always made their suffering known, but templars never have. They are bound to the Order, mind and soul, with someone always holding their lyrium leash. Cullen can perhaps change that for others of the Order."

"He's not the first to succeed," commented Meryell quietly, drawing the Seeker's gaze back to her. She jerked her chin towards Haven's wall but further towards the left of where Cassandra had been looking, where the Fangs had their camp set up. "There are four former templars in the Fangs right now and we've had at least thirty since I've been with them. We've had them come to us, stumbled across them on the road, and even had one in the full throes of withdrawal sold to us by this blackguard of a merchant that the Captain very happily knifed in the back."

Pursing her lips, she continued, "I've seen them come to us still full to the brim with lyrium and lost to madness. Some recover, most don't. Those that do serve the company out of thanks, either until the effects of so many years on that shit catch up or they decide to leave after the five years of service that the Captain asks of them. If they keep sober after that or go back to the Chantry, I don't know. By and large, though, they're lower ranking members of the Order, not the sort that'd be much of an example. Not to mention a lot of them have been kicked out for one stupid damned reason or another."

Cassandra blinked at her before saying, "You and your company continue to surprise me, Herald."

Meryell just grinned at that.

"One day we're going to teach you that mercenary doesn't necessarily mean bad, Seeker."

"I think perhaps I may be beginning to look forward to that day."

"Good," she chirped brightly. Then Meryell sobered and lowered her voice to say, "I care for him, Seeker, more than I've done for a man in a long while. Even if nothing comes of what's between us, that won't change." If they were going to trust each other, she might as well start with something starkly honest.

Smiling, Cassandra inclined her head just slightly before saying, "I am glad to hear that, Herald. Now...I believe I interrupted your work." Standing up, she finished, "Thank you for taking the time to speak to me."

"It's what friends are supposed to do, yeah?" asked Meryell.

"Friends?" repeated the Seeker, sounding surprised by the word.

Shrugging, she answered, "Well, I figure if we're going to try and trust each other, we might as well try to be friends as well. I tend to trust my friends the most."

A slow smile spread across Cassandra's mouth, making the scar on that side of her face curl, and then the Seeker nodded slowly.

"I have few I would call such but...I believe I would be honored to call you 'friend', Herald."

"And maybe one day you'll actually call me by my name?" chided Meryell with an arched eyebrow.

"Perhaps," replied the Seeker in an unreadable tone before she turned away. The smile that had stayed on her face as she said that, however, gave Meryell hope that perhaps one day she'd be done with this fucking Herald nonsense.

Friends with Cassandra Pentaghast...would wonders never cease?

Snorting to herself, she bent her head back to her work, intent on getting all of her various blades back to fit shape before they headed out again.

Chapter Text

Come to the Singing Maiden when you get free tonight,” read Cullen after tugging down the note that had been pinned to the open flap of his tent. “Be ready to relax. Oh, and leave your armor in your tent.”

The handwriting was Meryell’s, he recognized it easily after seeing it so often on the reports she sent in from the field. However, the drawings underneath the text were obviously Sera’s work. Both were naked figures having quite a good time and, judging by the fur over the shoulders and the ridiculously over-proportional cock on one as well as the large tits and exaggerated pointed ears on the other, they represented himself and Meryell. The doodles also did what he assumed was their expected job of making him think about her naked, which immediately caused an uncomfortable tightness in his pants as well as an embarrassed flush across his face because Maker only knew how long it had been pinned there.

Sighing at the scribbles, he ducked into his tent and tossed the letter onto his desk to figure out later what to do with it. He then shrugged out of his coat after loosening the ties and unhooking the clasps that secured the heavy mantle to his armor, idly amused that he wasn't even thinking of denying her request. Back in Kirkwall he'd had to be practically dragged out of the Gallows on the rare occasion of his non-business visits to the Hanged Man in Lowtown. Though that hadn't lasted long as no one had cared to approach the aloof Knight-Captain (or Meredith's Pet, one of the unsavory titles attached to him) after Samson had been ejected from the Order. He'd never gone back until Rylen had arrived in the city and dragged him out on the worst nights of rebuilding, though even then it had been more chore than anything else.

He actually looked forward to spending time with Meryell in the tavern.

By the time he finished stripping off his armor and hanging it on the stand situated in the corner of his tent, the tightness in his groin had thankfully dissipated. Cullen shrugged back into his coat, wrapping it loosely back around himself before he closed the open flap of his tent and headed towards the Singing Maiden.

There was one soldier standing outside the tavern door as he approached, a permanent post that he had set up on the rare chance that anything happened inside. He hadn't spent much time at taverns himself but he'd seen plenty of men come back to the Gallows bloody because they were full of drink and could no longer curb their tempers. The woman - Laurence was her name - grinned at him before asking, “Y’come for the game tonight, Commander?” in her thick Starkhaven accent.

Cullen frowned, immediately taken aback, and asked, “The game?”

Laurence blinked in response before replying, “Aye, ser. Herald set up a game inside, taking over the whole tavern from what I can tell.”

“The whole tavern, Laurence?”

That suddenly explained why there had been so many on the streets of Haven during his walk. It hadn't seemed all that odd on his way up, mostly on the fact that he wasn't often inside the town this early in the evening, but now he realized how odd it had been. This early his men and Leliana’s scouts would have mostly still been occupying the tavern and not milling through the streets. “I'm sure the men had something to say about that,” he commented mildly while wondering how in the Maker's name Meryell had convinced soldiers to give up their drink for a night.

“Oh no, ser,” she replied. “All she had to do was say she wanted to have a game with some of the inner circle and her company and we were glad to let her have it.” Laurence then shrugged casually and grinned sheepishly at him. “She may have promised to pay for all our drinks one night as well.”

Now that, Cullen thought, was probably the larger bit of motivation for his men. He couldn't discount them doing it just for Meryell though because she'd asked politely (for her, at least). They respected her because of the casual manner that she treated them with and the fact that she'd sit shoulder-to-shoulder with them to have a drink or meal. He knew it was a product of a decade with mercenaries that were more family than simple colleagues, most of his men assumed it was just the way she was.

Shaking his head, he warmly said, “Then if everyone is getting a night to themselves, there's no reason why you shouldn't as well. I doubt that there will be any kind of fight tonight.”

Laurence just raised her eyebrows, her eyes wide, and he knew why. He was normally firm with the duty schedule and anyone that wasn't at their post was immediately punished with one of the more embarrassing camp duties. Him changing his opinion on that for even the few hours left in her shift was a shock for the both of them.

“Unless you want to hold your post,” began Cullen, immediately chuckling when Laurence shook her head frantically.

“No, ser!” exclaimed the woman. She brought one arm up across her chest in a salute before saying, “I'll come back before changeover with Edan so he doesn't have a heart attack.”

“Dismissed then, soldier.”

Laurence saluted again before she gave a sharp, “Ser!” and walked off. Cullen watched her go, smiling as caught a hint of the wide grin on her face, before he reached for the tavern door.

He was instantly greeted with a boisterous array of noise as he stepped inside. Sliding his eyes around the tavern to assess what was different. Flissa was at her normal place behind the bar but the woman was relaxing back in a chair with a book, a smile on her face as she sipped something from a glass. That told him that her presence was merely to either see that no damage was done to her tavern or to control the supply of alcohol that was arrayed across the bar. Both was also an option.

A shout of “Curly, you actually came!” from Varric dragged Cullen back to the rest of the tavern’s occupants. Someone had dragged two of the tables together in a line and there were people crammed around almost every edge of it. Varric was sitting on the side facing him, expertly shuffling a stack of cards, as he went back to telling some story he'd been embroiled in telling before Cullen’s arrival. To his right was Arnald, his eyes still hidden behind his mask and on his left was Sera, looking more than a little drunk already. The old mercenary Harvard was seated to the Captain's left, followed by an empty chair that took up that end of the table.

The big Qunari that headed the other mercenary company Meryell had convinced them to bring under hire was taking up the other end of the table, though that was more out of sheer size than anything else. Next to him sat Rylen,who saluted him with a grin, and on his right was…

“Josephine?” queried Cullen, surprised to see the ambassador not only in the tavern but in this particular company.

The Antivan woman turned in her seat and he abruptly saw that she too was shuffling a deck of cards, handling them with a skill equal to Varric's. “Hello, Commander,” she greeted.

“No titles!” boomed the Qunari, lifting a tankard that was at least three times the size of the others on the table in the air. “Those were the rules.”

“Rules?” repeated Cullen as he flicked his gaze to the last player at the table on Josephine’s right. Folke grinned up at him as he looped one arm over the back of his chair and nodded.

“No titles,” came an all too familiar voice from behind him then. “No rank, no file, no bullshit.”

The Qunari - whose name he now recalled was the Iron Bull (the article was important according to what Meryell had related the night she returned) - laughed loudly before saying, “I promise I won't shit on the tavern table, Boss.”

“You'd be cleaning it up if you did,” came Flissa’s stern voice from behind the bar, the woman not even looking up from her book.

Cullen turned to face Meryell then and found her standing directly behind him, smiling. “I'm glad you came, Cullen,” she softly murmured as she reached out to take his gloved hands in hers. He abruptly cursed habit having him left them on then swallowed as she took it upon herself to slowly relieve him of them. “I think it's going to be an...exciting...night.”

Turning his head back towards the table, he noticed that the only two empty chairs were at the end of the table between Folke and Harvard. “Exciting, huh?” he asked softly, wondering what exactly she had planned besides the game.

“Mmhmm.”

As he looked back at her, Cullen's breath caught in his throat at the affection in her eyes and the seductive edge to her smile as she finished slowly pulling the glove off his left hand. Normally this sort of attention to him was reserved for the dark confines of his tent or the solitude of her cabin. It hadn't yet gone anywhere besides teasing with the occasional daring touch but standing in the tavern with Folke right behind him was entirely different from the norm. Working hard to control his breathing, to keep it steady and even, he growled under his breath, “You are an evil woman.” Because judging by the gleam in her eyes, she was doing this deliberately to him.

“Yes,” she confirmed as she freed his other hand, tucking his gloves into her belt before entwining her fingers with his. With a smile that could only be described as shit eating, Meryell replied in a bare whisper, “And yet you seem to enjoy every second of it.”

“It's you,” he replied honestly.

“Lovebirds!” rang out Folke's voice, interrupting whatever an abruptly blushing Meryell was opening her mouth to say. “Are we going to play or what?”

Baba,” growled Meryell as she rolled her eyes and released Cullen's hands to step around him, striding towards her adoptive father. He turned to follow her as she grabbed the hedge mage gently by the hair and pulled his head back to where she could glare down at him. “You are ruining a moment.”

“It’s my duty as your father, ara vherain,” replied the man with a practically identical shit eating grin. Folke then turned his head, gray eyes meeting Cullen's own, saying, “Sorry, Commander.”

“Titles!” boomed the Iron Bull.

“My apologies. Cullen. Are we ready to play now, asha’lan?”

Meryell growled before releasing Folke's hair, lightly smacking the back of his head as she dropped into the seat next to him. “Yes,” she grumbled in exasperation. Then she turned and smiled at him, patting the seat of the chair next to her. “This one's for you, vhen’an’ara.”

Cullen caught Folke's raised eyebrows at the Elven word and wondered once again what exactly it meant. Usually Meryell didn't say it until he was drifting into sleep, the last thing his mind heard as they laid (fully clothed) at each other's sides on the occasion that they fell asleep together. Making a mental note to ask her later, he moved towards the chair, asking, “What exactly are we playing?” as he sank down into it. He then flicked his eyes at Meryell as she tucked her legs into his lap before curling one hand around the leather of her boot where it covered her left ankle.

“Diamondback, Curly!” replied Varric with a grin before he finished shuffling the cards in his hand and sat them in the middle of the table. As Josephine joined her stack to it, the dwarf continued, “Swears was wanting a game of Wicked Grace but when I learned that everyone here knew how to play Diamondback I insisted we do that instead. Although…” After his voice trailed off, Varric locked eyes with Cullen.

“I'm wondering where you learned Diamondback, Curly.”

Arching an eyebrow, Cullen replied, “You don't remember?” As the dwarf looked immediately confused, he chuckled and shook his head. “Maker's breath, Varric, I learned it from you!”

“Me?” repeated Varric. “I didn't…”

“9:32,” pressed Cullen. “You got roped by a man into teaching the group he was with how to not lose their shirts.” That particular learning experience had been prompted by Samson learning that neither he nor anyone else with them that night knew the rules to the game. Being too drunk too teach them himself, he'd bribed someone slightly more sober (ie: Varric) to do it instead.

“Maker's knob, Curly, you were there? Were they all templars?”

Smiling at the dwarf’s panicked tone because he knew Varric was thinking of the fact that Treva Hawke had been in full form at her little table in the Hanged Man that night, Cullen chuckled. “Off duty,” he noted wryly. “Hawke was perfectly safe anyway,” he added as the dwarf still looked worried. “Even then I wouldn't have let her get arrested.”

Even the still far too bitter and broken man he'd been then had recognized that Hawke was better off outside the Circle than in. Not only for the town but for her. And he would not, no, could not be responsible then for clipping that woman's hard earned wings.

“That's more reassuring than you know, Curly,” murmured Varric. He then recovered his good mood and, after rubbing his hands together, proclaimed loudly, “Let's get this game started. Everyone draw a card…”


“Ha! I win!”

“Tha's a Queen King!” argued a slurring Folke as he leaned heavily on to table. He lifted a finger to point it at Rylen as he said, “Does’n beat a King King.”

“Folke,” scolded Arnald, the man's cheeks flushed with drink but his voice still firm. “I think you have your hands confused.”

“Do not.

Cullen arched an eyebrow as the table descended into utter childishness at that point as Folke and Rylen settled into an argument about which way the rankings of the winning card pairs went. Arnald shook his head at the argument and rose, saying, “I believe with that I am done for the night. Good night.”

“Nigh’, Captain,” murmured a sleepy voice from his lap and Cullen looked down to find Meryell awake, blinking slowly up at him. She'd slumped over onto him, fighting a losing battle against sleep, three hands ago and he'd turned in his cards at that point. It had only been himself, Varric, Folke, Arnald, and Rylen then anyway as Josephine and Harvard had begged off several hands ago, the Iron Bull was dozing in his chair, and Sera had long ago slid out of her seat to snore at them from the floor. That and he knew he wasn't in the same playing league as any of them anyway. So he'd merely settled back into his chair and carefully shifted her to where she was leaning against him.

After the first hand after that, she'd shifted to lay in her chair with her head in his lap and one arm curled around the back of his knees (a position that had very nearly given him a heart attack while at the same time forcing blood to areas it really didn't need to) while her legs ended up in Folke's. The hedge mage hadn't even blinked at the shift and had just shifted his legs where her own wouldn't inadvertently slide off.

So Cullen had tried to relax his rapidly pounding heart and had ended up watching the last two hands with his fingers idly running through her short hair. As she looked up at him, he curled his fingers against her scalp to drag his nails lightly up the back of her skull. Meryell practically purred at the contact, her back arching upward...and he was abruptly, ridiculously hard.

The things this tiny whirlwind of a woman did to him

She seemed to notice his...predicament...as well and her eyes came more alert, desire and mischief swirling in them. As he watched her, she carefully canted her head backwards further into his lap and it was just enough to put pressure on the bulge in his pants. Thankfully it was mostly hidden underneath the loose folds of his coat.

“Problems?” she asked softly.

Growling darkly, Cullen curled his fingers into her hair again, this time gripping the strands securely. She gasped - just a little breathy exhale - but he was watching her face. That and they'd been doing this teasing dance long enough that he knew the signs of her own arousal. Besides the wide dilation of her copper-flecked eyes, her cheeks flushed, her mouth dropped open, and her long tapered ears twitched twice. Always twice.

He wanted to pick her up and carry her off to her cabin, to have those muscled legs that he admired wrapped around him as he buried himself in her. Wanted to feel her teeth against his skin and return the favor in kind, to leave plum colored marks across her sun-darkened flesh and satisfy that urge to say without words that she was his. To know that he was the one she wanted in her bed, in her life, and never doubt that fact again.

Cullen wanted her more fiercely than he'd ever wanted anything in his thirty years. Not even wanting to become a templar compared to this.

Yet now...now was still not the time.

She had her issues - ones she still hadn't shared with him - and he had his.

So...for now...the dance had to be enough. Sitting with her like this, touching her back-shoulders-legs with clothes between his hands and her skin, sleeping beside her, drinking with her laugh in his ear and her warmth underneath his arm...it had to be enough.

With a deep breath, Cullen yanked his desire and emotions back under control. It was harder than it had been years ago in Kirkwall when he'd finally embarked on the rather dubious endeavour of bedding a woman. Though then he'd been fighting fear and rage at every step, working hard to not see the pretty, lonely widow who Rylen had convinced him to see (after learning he'd never taken a woman to bed, because when had there been a good time for him to learn that lesson) as that monster from the Tower. Now he was fighting more than that, fighting desire and need, and it was hard.

But never let it be said that Cullen Rutherford didn't rise to a challenge.

“I think it's time for bed,” he murmured and watched her eyes soften as he loosened his grip on her hair. She smiled and nodded, understanding, accepting, and he...Maker, he did not deserve this woman.

And yet he, the broken man, the failed templar, the lyrium addict, he had her.

Carefully he gathered her up in his arms, Folke not even noticing as her legs were removed from his lap as he was still arguing with Rylen, and stood. Varric, of course, noticed them and the dwarf winked at him before he turned his attention back to the arguing men, saying that he was the dealer so he made the rules. Cullen turned away as that statement started another argument and walked out the front door of the tavern with Meryell in his arms.

There was a fresh guard at the door - Laurence’s replacement - and the boy stared at him open mouthed as he exited. He couldn't blame him as it wasn't every day that one saw the Commander of the Inquisition's army out of armor and flushed with drink, carrying around the obviously drunk and sleepy so-called Herald of Andraste. Still...the boy managed a salute.

“At ease,” Cullen said softly. He then turned back to look into the tavern and noticed that Flissa had abandoned her post behind the bar at some point, probably taken to her own bed. “Keep an eye on this lot and make sure they don't cause trouble.”

“Y-yes, ser!” stammered the boy, saluting again.

Now Cullen realized he didn't even recall the young man's name despite Laurence saying it earlier. He knew him - he knew every man and woman that served under him thanks to how small their forces still were - but his alcohol and desire fuzzy brain wasn't helping him.

“Edan,” breathed Meryell, shifting enough in his arms that she could smile at the boy. “Thank you.”

The young man, Edan, blushed bright red and ducked his head, saying hurriedly in a stammer, “I-it's n-no trouble, H-Herald. Just d-doing my duty.”

Smiling, Cullen nodded to the boy and then strode off into the night, heading towards Meryell’s cabin. The woman who resided in it wiggled in his arms, trying to get somehow closer to him, until she had her face pressed against his throat. By the time he reached her door, he was breathing hard and fighting against just slamming her up against it once they got inside.

Instead he calmly opened it, stepped in, and proceeded to deposit her on her bed before taking several steps back. Meryell sat up on her elbows and watched him, her eyes bright and a truly sultry smile playing about her lips. Her hair looked disheveled thanks to his attention to it earlier and he wanted her so strongly he saw stars.

“You are an evil woman,” Cullen reiterated as he locked both hands at the back of his neck, rocking back and forth as he tried to work off steam.

She just smiled at him and scooted over on the bed before crooking a finger at him. “Yes,” confirmed Meryell. “Now get over here and lay down.”

“Is that...wise?”

“Unless you were planning on doing something else, fuck yes. I just want…” She trailed off and suddenly Cullen was looking at the woman who echoed that lonely little girl she'd once been, the girl who'd lost her whole world in one fell swoop and hadn't dreamed of finding another. “I just want you, Cullen.”

Kissing her he could resist. He could resist the strong desire to take her to bed. He could resist his thirst for her. His thirst for lyrium.

Cullen could not, would not, resist that broken tone in her voice that screamed to him don't leave me alone. Because he knew that empty ache all too well.

Shrugging out of his coat, he tossed it over the back of a chair and hurriedly removed his boots. Then he slowly padded over to the bed and carefully removed hers, setting them down by the bed as she crawled under the covers but left them open for him.

Sliding in next to her was an exquisite sort of torture and his body reacted instinctively as she molded herself against him. Cullen wrapped his arms around her, wanting her closer, wanting her everywhere, and buried his nose into the hair at the crown of her head. Meryell pressed a kiss against his throat, her breath heavy as she flattened both palms against his chest.

“I am here,” he murmured, and it was an oath, a promise. “I'm not going anywhere.”

She relaxed against him and as her breath evened, Cullen wondered what had happened to this brilliant woman in her past before he followed her into sleep.

Chapter Text

"I would ask you a question, da'len."

Sighing, Meryell glanced out of the corner of her eye at Solas, who had abruptly brought his horse up alongside her own. Feeling one of her ears flick in annoyance, she replied, "Sure, Chuckles. I suppose I can be fucking charitable today. What's the question?"

"I have recently learned your last name is Verlen . I merely wonder why it is that you carry such a name."

"You know what it means."

"I do," he replied and she ground her teeth together at the pride he said that with. The very little conversation that she'd actually had with the other elf had revealed that he was exactly what she'd first assumed: proud of his knowledge and all too willing to call the Dalish fools for their lack. She'd stopped talking to him as soon as he'd turned up his nose at her rather snide comment about how he should maybe teach them what they had gotten wrong instead of just standing around being a fucking prick about it.

Solas didn't call himself Dalish but he had every inch of the pride that most of them did.

Meryell turned her head towards him and arched an eyebrow as she asked, "And you assume that I don't?"

"I assume nothing of the sort, da'len. Given that you seem to have a fair grasp of our tongue, I surmised that you knew its meaning." He smirked as he paused before finishing, "I merely asked why you carry such a name."

Narrowing her eyes at him, she growled, "Pala adahl'en, masvian."

Solas' ears twitched but his smirk only widened as he said, "You certainly have a grasp of the insults.

"Dhava 'ma masa . "

"Enan harthathe prones Rajelanes viraju."

Snarling, Meryell spat, "Varathe ish tor or min!"

"They always like this? Talking in Elven and the like?" she heard Sera ask from behind them where she and Cassandra were riding. The Seeker merely grunted affirmatively, which caused the archer to blow a very loud raspberry in response.

Rolling her eyes skyward at the conversation of the others, Meryell growled, "Cullen's job is leading the Inquisition's forces. Nothing more, nothing less. The next time you fucking imply that he has any other job, particularly implying that I'm somehow above him when I'm sure as fucking not , I am going to stab you."

Solas arched an eyebrow at her for a long moment before saying, "Ah. I was to understand that you had come to an agreement with the Commander. Ir abelas, da'len."

"Din," she replied shortly. Glancing back towards their companions, Meryell sighed heavily before she said, "My babae took the name Verlen to replace his own. He was Dalish and then he wasn't because humans can be bastards to our kind. That satisfy your curiosity, Chuckles?"

"Indeed. Though I wonder at why you so strongly protested to being Dalish some time ago."

"Because I'm not ." Shrugging, Meryell went on, "So I've got Dalish blood. So fucking what . Being Dalish doesn't make a damn lick of difference in the alienage, especially not when my father abandoned most of the ways because it makes them assholes. That what you want to hear, Chuckles? You're right, the Dalish are shit."

Flicking an ear, Solas said, "I do not recall saying the Dalish were shit ."

She started to open her mouth to reply when Sera yelled from behind them, "Might as well have, Egg!" Snorting at the younger woman's nickname for the mage, Meryell shook her head while she tried not to laugh at the look of absolute outrage on his face. She was so happy suddenly to have brought Sera into the Inquisition if it meant more annoyance for the smug bastard.

"Not in so many words," she noted wryly, "but if you read between the lines..." As she trailed off, Meryell shrugged. "Come on, Chuckles, you talk about them like they don't know shit but won't help them to correct their mistakes."

He let out an offended sounding little huff of breath before asking, "And my refusal means I believe them to be such?"

"From where I'm standing? Yeah."

"I see."

Solas went silent after that and Meryell shifted in the saddle of her Forder, assuming that he'd be silent for the rest of their trip to Redcliffe to finally see why the Grand Enchanter had come all the way to Val Royeaux to see her. Her assumption was wrong.

"Da'len ."

"Fuck's sake. What is is now, Chuckles?"

She turned her head at the immediate silence in response to find the other elf frowning at her, his brows furrowed seriously. Rolling her eyes, Meryell feigned politeness and asked, "What question can I answer now, hahren ?"

"You mock me."

"I'm trying."

Solas sighed heavily then asked, "Why do you keep the name? If I may inquire?"

Meryell turned away from him, focusing on the road ahead as she answered stiffly, "Because my babae chose it. That's the last I'm going to say on it."

"So you seek to honor his memory."

"Something like that."

"I see," Solas said airily. He then paused before adding, "You are...more...than I initially thought, da'len. "

As she started to open her mouth to reply, Sera suddenly barged between them on her horse, practically cackling as she cried out, "Stop trying, Eggy! Glowy Bits is already spoken for by her Cully Wully!" From behind her, Meryell heard Cassandra let loose with a withering sigh as the archer rode away from them and laughed, shaking her head at the pair of them.

Solas sniffed delicately as he watched Sera's disappearing form and muttered, "Charming."

"Indeed," agreed Cassandra. "I think we should follow her so as to make sure she doesn't kill herself."

"You're probably right," conceded Meryell, shaking her head. Then she grinned over her shoulder at the Seeker, childishly calling out, "Race you to the Jenny!" before she put her heels to the side of her Forder. As the horse beneath her leapt forward into a hard lope, she heard vaguely heard the other woman say something to Solas before the two of them followed her.

Maybe now with having to spend their time catching up to Sera, she wouldn't have to answer any more damned questions.

Chapter Text

“Herald!” exclaimed one of the Inquisition soldiers in the so-called Outskirts camp that overlooked the Crossroads as they rode in after leaving Redcliffe several hours before. “There's a message for you.”

Sighing because this probably meant they were going to be delayed on their way back to Haven instead of just long enough to water their horses, Meryell swung down from the saddle of her Forder. “From who?” she asked as she reached out to take the folded paper in the woman's hand.

“The Nightingale, ser.”

Fighting a grimace - purely on the fact that it was bad form for the lower ranks of the Inquisition to see their leaders at each other's throats - she took the letter and unfolded it to reveal the spymaster’s elegant hand. Skimming it quickly, Meryell sighed before she ducked into the largest of the camp’s tents. There was one soldier inside, a dark-haired young man who was freshly out of his armor judging by the still wet looking sweat stains on his tunic, and he twitched at the sight of her but didn't immediately jump up to salute her. Which was a good thing given that he probably would have spattered ink all over the map that he and the others at this post worked so hard to keep up to date.

“Herald,” he greeted, finishing whatever he was noting quickly and starting to rise. Meryell quickly waved him back down with a quick slash of her right hand.

“Stay fucking seated, soldier,” she scolded. “You look dead on your feet.”

He smiled gratefully as he sank back into his seat and asked, "How can I help you, Herald?"

Holding up the letter, Meryell smiled and replied, "Just need to figure out where this is pointing me. You lot heard any shit about a Warden here in the Hinterlands?"

"There was..." The young man held up a single finger and dug into the stack of papers to his right on the table, flipping through them hurriedly before he let out a pleased noise. "Ah! From Upper Lake two weeks ago. They sent us and the Nightingale a report of a man wearing Warden armor in the area around Lake Luthias."

Stepping up to the table, Meryell flicked her eyes across the map but she'd never been very good at reading upside down. It was one of those things that made jobs for the company difficult sometimes though there was nothing for it as trying made her eyes swim. Thankfully the soldier reached out to tap his finger on the sketch of a lake towards the bottom of the map.

"There," he said firmly, "Lake Luthias. It's where you cleared those Carta out of an old thiag weeks ago, Herald."

Now she knew where she was going.

Tucking the letter into one of her belt pouches, Meryell nodded and grinned at him, "You're a fucking life saver, soldier. What's your name?"

"Treno, Herald."

"You're under Commander Cullen?"

"Aye, ser."

Smiling, she said, "I'll put in a good word for you when I get back to Haven. Now get your ass into a bed before you fall out of that chair. Herald's orders."

He laughed and nodded, slowly standing up to salute her. "Aye, ser," he repeated, his voice warm. "Thank you, ser."

Flipping a hand errantly at him, Meryell turned to leave the tent, trusting that he'd see himself to bed since she'd ordered him there. The soldiers and scouts had a tendency to follow whatever she said to the letter, which had been more than a little off-putting at first. Nowadays she was finally starting to get a a little bit used to it and it certainly helped when she saw some of them pushing themselves too hard.

Striding over to where Cassandra was tugging the saddle off of her own horse, she said, "Got another fucking recruiting job before we go back."

The Seeker just arched an eyebrow as she turned and dropped the saddle along with its pad onto the ground. As she turned back to the horse, running her gloved hand down it's neck, she asked, "What is it this time?"

"Believe it or not, it's a Warden."

"A Warden?"

Nodding, Meryell replied, "Apparently our dear el'u'verelan was wrong when she said all of the local ones had disappeared." She then noticed Solas nearby, his ears twitching, and pointed at him. "Not a fucking word, Chuckles."

The bald elf just smiled and noted, "I was merely going to comment that your word choice was...apt...for the spymaster, da'len."

"Enough of that Elven shite," sneered Sera as she bounced past him and over to Meryell. "We got somethin' else to do?"

"Seems like," she replied shortly. All-in-all she understood Sera's opinion towards Elven culture - she shared some of them she'd learned, particularly that the Dalish and Solas were stuck-up knobs - but sometimes her words grated. The language and what habit she kept had deep meaning to her and she had tried to explain that to her fellow rogue.

It had mostly gotten across.

Meryell then continued, "According to reports, he's at the nearby lake. Lake Luthias."

"The one with the thiag overlooking it," commented Cassandra.

"That one."

Solas stepped forward, his eyebrows drawn down low, and asked, "And this Warden is there? Why have they not already approached him?"

"Because, Chuckles," replied Meryell with a roll of her eyes, "apparently that's my job."

"Well," he drawled lazily, "you are the Herald of Andraste."

Narrowing her eyes at him, she growled, "I will stab you, masvian." He just smiled in response - that smarmy, know-it-all expression that she hated - and Meryell shifted her attention immediately back to Cassandra. "It's still fucking early so we can rest a few hours then head that way, spend the night at Upper Lake before we go hunting for this Warden...fuck, what was his name?"

Tugging the letter back out, she unfolded it and skimmed for the name before reading it out loud.

"Warden Blackwall."


Warden Blackwall was as shifty a bastard as Meryell had ever met. He wasn't shifty in the way of a bad thief trying to find out where you hid your valuables or a psycho clinging to the edge of madness who made overt commentary.

He was shifty like some of the company was when admitting past crimes.

Like Folke had been that night long ago when she'd accidentally called him baba for the first time and he'd told her her wasn't worth being anyone's father because of the blood on his hands.

Kicking at the boot of one of the men who'd attacked the Warden and his so-called recruits, Meryell snorted. They were common thieves judging by the ill-fit of their gear and that had been confirmed by Blackwall's statement about the unarmored men he'd been 'training' when they'd walked up taking back what was stolen. She then flicked her eyes up at the man and stated firmly, "So you've not got one fucking idea where the other Wardens are."

Unlike a lot of people, he didn't seem at all taken back by her cursing. There wasn't even a twitch from that impressive black beard he sported. So, he wasn't just some loner who was good with sword and board, as Harvard had always termed wielding a sword and shield. He was a soldier...or had been at one point.

"No," replied the man. "I haven't seen any other Wardens for months. Mostly I travel alone, recruiting."

Meryell flicked her eyes in the direction that his 'conscripts' had gone before arching an eyebrow. She wasn't an expert but she'd read enough about the heroes of the Blight and their Order to get a grasp of how things worked. Wardens didn't just temporarily conscript folk.

Once you were conscripted, that was it.

“And tossing poor sods into the piss?” asked Sera. “That part of Wardening?”

“I was in the area recruiting. Fought some demons and that's when I heard about the stealing.” Blackwall turned to look in the direction his ‘recruits’ had gone and the look on his face was that of a man who's done something terrible that he knows he can't ever correct. “They had to do what I told them to, so I told them to stand. Next time they won't need me.”

Sera snorted in response and Meryell could see her nose already curling up into a sneer. Holding out a warding hand to stave off whatever comment the younger elf might have, she pressed, “So where might the other Wardens have gone? Surely you've got one place they might have headed.”

Shrugging, he replied, “They might have retreated to our stronghold Weisshaupt up in the Anderfels. Other than that, I don't know where they might have disappeared off to. If they did...I usually stay outside of towns and the like. Probably why I haven't heard anything.”

Meryell glanced sideways at Cassandra, who was standing an arms-length away with her arms crossed. The older woman turned her head towards her, one eyebrow arched, before saying, “Then this...detour...has not been helpful at all.”

“That might be warring for your top spot as the understatement of 9:41,” commented Meryell wryly. She then turned her attention back to the man and said, “Thanks for what little you could give us, Warden Blackwall.”

As she turned away, ready to tell everyone to head back to the Upper Lake camp, Blackwall gruffly said, “Inquisition!”

Spinning back around on the heel of one foot, Meryell arched her eyebrows curiously at the man as he approached her with the oddest expression on his face. “Warden?”

“Look, I imagine you've got your hands full with all of this...well, shit, to put it properly… going on, what with the Divine’s murder and the hole in the sky. Thing like that...thinking the Wardens are gone is almost as bad as us being involved. So if you're trying to put things back right, maybe you need a Warden. Maybe you need me.”

If she were someone else she might not have realized what that odd expression on his face was in that moment. Were she true Dalish or had never left the alienage or even if she were human by some chance of fate, she might not have seen.

But she was herself, thief and killer (if the need called for it), and Meryell knew that look like it was a longtime lover. She'd seen it on her face, on Arnald’s, on Folke, on Cullen most recently, and more as Arnald had practically built the Fangs on people like that.

Folk who'd done wrong and couldn't wash the blood off their hands yet still, still strove to do one thing right.

Who was she to deny a man that chance?

Extending her hand towards him, Meryell met Blackwall's eyes with her own. His were gray and they, above all else, confirmed everything his face had screamed. Demut had told her long ago that the eyes were the keys to a person, whether you were having a conversation or facing them across the blade of a weapon.

As his hand enclosed her own - a heavy grip that reflected the use of the two-handed sword slung across his back - she smiled.

“Welcome to the Inquisition then, Warden Blackwall.” She then tipped her head towards to her left, adding, “We've got a camp just down the hill and a spare horse or two. If you've got nothing to settle, you're welcome to ride back to Haven with us.”

“I know the camp,” he said with a slight smile. “Got some things hidden that I need to get but I can meet you there in a few hours.”

“We'll see you then, Warden.”

With that Meryell strode off and the others fell into step behind her as they made their way back around the lake towards camp. Thankfully they all waited until they got to the other side of the lake before saying anything.

“You really want that one?” asked Sera as she stomped alongside Meryell through the lake's shallows. “He's trouble.”

Turning to grin at her, Meryell noted, “We’re all trouble, Sera.”

“Ha! Too right!”

Cassandra cleared her throat before saying, “The Warden seems to be an accomplished fighter. Even with the Fangs and the Chargers augmenting the Inquisition forces we can't afford to turn away a steady blade.”

“Agreed,” commented Solas. He then added, “Though you know he hides something, da'len.

Meryell turned a flinty gaze back towards the bald elf, staring at him for a long moment before she shifted back forward at Sera’s muttered Don't let Egg get to you, he's just pissed I threw lizards in his bed roll. Snorting softly at her fellow rogue’s antics (she'd guessed it was Sera causing the commotion this morning), she spoke firmly in a voice that would carry back to him.

“We've all got shit we hide, Chuckles. You, me, Varric...name a name and they've got something they want to hide. Seems to me like that makes him a perfect fucking addition to this piss pot mess.”

Chapter Text

"Magister," repeated Cullen slowly. "There is a Tevinter Magister occupying Redcliffe Castle."

"Yes, Commander," confirmed Cassandra in a clipped tone.

“And another Magister warned the Herald that this is some sort of plot to trap her?”

“Not a Magister,” corrected Meryell as she leaned her hip against the map table, her eyes focused on the marker that had been placed over Redcliffe on the map of Ferelden. “We use the term as a sort of blanket word for all Tevinter mages but Magisters are all members of the Magisterium, one of the ruling legislative bodies. Judging by our friend's fine clothes, manners, and the fact that he had a Magister as a mentor, he's probably an Altus. Still high class but he seems to have enough fucking sense to know that the usual blend of Tevinter we think of down here isn't the way to go.”

Cullen arched his eyebrows at her curiously and she shrugged one shoulder as she flicked her eyes briefly up from the marker while grinning at him. “We've never worked out of Tevinter but I got interested in their culture after Boots gave me the Chantry rote on how they were all evil slave-owning blood mages. It's rather hard to find books about them that don’t follow that vein though so I never went much deeper than general society."

"Boots?" repeated Josephine.

"He's the company historian. Don't ask me where he got the fucking name, man's been a Fang since long before I was born. Not to mention fucking irrelevant to our conversation."

Meryell then sighed and continued, "It's also not just a trap laid by a Magister. There's this...time magic...which, while useful in a pinch to stab the shit out of a demon or two, is twisting the Veil even more than the rifts already are. Now, I'm not a mage but I've listened to Folke, Gil, and some of the other company mages talk a lot about magic. Rule one: you don't fuck with the damned Veil." She paused to hold up a hand with two of her fingers already extended and the others curled into her palm before she extended a third. "Plus there's apparently a cult after me because of whatever this piss on my hand is. And, going back to the initial points: the fucking bulk of the whole damned mage rebellion is indentured to a Magister and said Magister has kicked out the rightful Arl of Redcliffe." The final two fingers of her hand extended as she made those two points and then she let her hand fall back to where she could tap her fingers against the table.

“Now," she finally finished, "I may not like nobles, mostly because a lot of them seem to be fuckwit's - present noble company excluded..."

Josephine smiled at the comment while Cassandra rolled her eyes, though Cullen could see her mouth twitching as if she wanted to smile. He was still astounded by the fact that Cassandra and Meryell had become as friendly as they had because he certainly hadn’t expected it.

"...but I've always heard the Guerrins were a decent sort. And I'd like to not have a Tevinter force have a foothold in my home country."

"Those are all fair points," Cullen began, fearing that he knew where this was going. With her second father being a hedge mage and her lack of fear around magic, he could easily see Meryell leaning towards going to the rebel mages. Especially since before meeting him she didn't seem to have had a very favorable viewpoint of templars in general, at least not for those that were still willingly serving. "Yet it still stands that even with your company and the Chargers, we simply don't have the manpower to take the castle. So either we find another way in, or we leave Redcliffe for another day and go get the templars."

"And let Redcliffe remain in the hands of a Magister?" hissed Cassandra. "That cannot be allowed to stand!"

Feeling a headache starting to come on, Cullen rested his hands on the hilt of his sword. "Redcliffe Castle," he began, trying to keep his voice as level as possible, "is one of the most defensible fortresses in Ferelden. It's repelled thousands of assaults. Going in there is a death sentence." Turning to look at Meryell, he finished, "I won't allow you to throw your life away. Not while I have breath."

Her eyes widened and she started to open her mouth but Leliana beat her to speaking. "If we do not do something, Commander," the spymaster said firmly, "we will lose the mages and leave a hostile foreign power on our doorstep!" She then smirked and added, "I know that you have been away for some time but I expected you to want to defend your home country."

Gritting his teeth together at her words because he remembered her being in that group that found him in Kinloch and she knew what had happened to him, knew why he had asked for reassignment - any reassignment - outside of Ferelden after he'd been deemed fit for duty again. This Leliana and that Leliana, however, were as different as him and his past self.

Narrowing his eyes at her, Cullen gruffly replied, "The Breach is the priority here, not Ferelden."

"As it stands," interrupted Josephine before the spymaster could speak in retaliation, "we cannot assault the keep. An Orlesian Inquisition's army marching into Ferelden to assault one of its foremost towns would provoke a war, no matter that we were attempting to roust an enemy from its nest. Our hands are tied."

"The Magister..." began Cassandra, sounding almost wounded by the news.

"Has outplayed us," snapped Cullen firmly. He then caught Meryell rolling her eyes and turned to look at her. "Meryell?"

The elf shook her head at him idly before she looked around at all of them, saying almost snidely, "I like how we argue over the semantics of attacking Redcliffe Castle when I never said a damned thing about attacking the fucking keep. And are we forgetting that I have a cult following me?" She raised her hands up into the air in obvious exasperation as she exclaimed, "Cults just don't go Oh, I'm sorry that we're ruining your day, we'll just go find someone else to stalk and disa-fucking-pear!"

Silence reigned in the room for a moment and Cullen, despite everything in him screaming don't because he feared her bringing the mages to them along with all of the risk of possession and blood magic and fear that could come with them, asked softly, "Then what was your plan?" He trusted her, he reminded himself, enough that he'd told her in the vaguest way about Kinloch and all of Kirkwall. That trust should extend to trusting her with this.

And yet he feared - desperately feared - being surrounded by so much untrustworthy magic.

Meryell tiled her head towards him, her eyes narrowed and full of question. It took him a minute to realize that she was silently asking if he was okay and he shifted his stance as he felt abruptly awkward at being so easy to read. Then he jerked his head a bare inch to the left and then the right in a sharp gesture of no.

She pursed her lips in response then began to speak of her plan despite looking like she wanted to suddenly interrupt the meeting and drag him aside. Not that he would have argued with her if she wanted to as just thinking about being surrounded by mages was making him feel somewhat claustrophobic.

"Redcliffe Castle is just like any other noble's," she explained with a casual shrug. "They've all pretty much have some sort of fucking secret passageway built into them, it's just a matter of finding it. I can't tell you the times that we've had a job to find some fuckwit who thought he was safe just because he was all holed up in his precious keep only to turn around and find us behind him. Find it and we can sneak in all easy like and get rid of the Magister before any of his lackeys notice that shit is up."

"You continue to surprise me, Herald," commented Leliana suddenly. "Such is almost the thinking of a bard."

"Surprise you," asked Meryell with a smile that was all teeth, "or infuriate you?"

The spymaster simply tilted her head to the side, her gaze flitting over to Josephine for a moment, before she replied, "Surprise." She then continued, "There is a passage underneath the castle, designed as a method for the family to escape if the need arose. It is too narrow for our troops, but we could send agents through...provided that we had a distraction."

Meryell snorted and Cullen felt his throat try to close up in terror as he realized where this was going. As she darkly joked, "Is this a way to try and get rid of me?" he tried to retain his composure.

In the war room, they were not Cullen and Meryell despite him continuing to call her by her name. They were Commander and Herald here and he needed to remember that. He had to remember that, especially given that he'd already made one comment that as good as shouted his feelings to the sky.

Struggling around his suddenly thick tongue and the fear tightening his throat, he managed to say, "It's risky, but it could work. If we indeed do go to the mages..."

Meryell let out a heavy sigh and leaned on the war table, her palms flat on the edge of the map of Ferelden as she stared down at the two most prominent markers currently placed upon it's surface. She stood there in silence for a long moment before she looked up at Josephine and asked, "Have we heard anything from the templars?"

He just barely caught the surprised jerk of the three other women in the room out of the corner of his eyes as his own mouth fell open in shock. Josephine, of course, was the first to recover and managed to answer the question.

"Since it seemed that status is what the Lord Seeker wishes," she began, "I have been reaching out to some of the noblest houses in Orlais to approach him with us. If they arrived with us to demand the templars help in closing the Breach, it might be enough to get us inside."

Meryell pursed her lips and he found himself entranced by the motion until he realized she was looking at him, amusement in her eyes. Blinking, he looked around to see the same in the eyes of the other women and coughed, before asking, "Yes?" He did, however, resist the urge to grab the back of his neck.

She continued to give him that amused look as she said, "I asked if you thought that might work, Cullen. Would a bunch of noble pissers demanding action get a rise out of the templars?"

He frowned in response, lifting a hand to rub the leather of one gloved finger across his lower lip as he contemplated his answer. "It would depend upon the Knight-Commander. Or, in this case with the Lord Seeker, whoever is leading them," he replied honestly. Closing his eyes, Cullen let out a quiet breath because the remainder of his answer was going to lead to them going for the mages. He would not keep it from her despite that fact. He would trust. "If I had ended up in a similar situation in Kirkwall, I would have been moved to at least listen to the complaints of the nobles. Commander Meredith, however, did end up in several such situations and, that I am aware of, did little to either answer their complaints or even acknowledge them."

Meryell nodded her head at his answer before saying, "Then...I say we go to the mages. Though if we want to keep fucking arguing about it, I'm willing to hear any other reasons for why we shouldn't." His heart sank at the reality that his brothers and sisters - no, his former brothers and sisters, he was no longer a templar - were to be abandoned. "But...I have a side project."

"Side project?" repeated Cassandra.

Nodding, the elf lifted a hand from the table to rest it on top of one of the markers - the one for Therinfal. Cullen stared at her hand for a moment then slowly dragged his eyes up to her face and found a dearth of sympathy that he hadn't expected in her eyes as their gazes locked. She didn't particularly like templars but she wanted to do something for them despite that.

For him.

As his heart swelled with affection for the woman, Leliana stepped forward to rest two fingers of each hand lightly on the edge of the war table and asked, "What does this...side project...of yours involve, Herald?"

"A small force," replied Meryell, "to go to Therinfal."

"The Lord Seeker," began Josephine but her voice trailed off as the elf shook her head sharply.

"Fuck him," she growled. "He doesn't want shit to do with the Inquisition, so let's let him have his way. I bet, though, that not every templar that followed him has the same view of us. I sodding bet you that a fuck sight of them only went because it was the only course of action they thought they could take." Meryell lifted her hand from atop the marker then and jabbed a finger down onto the map's surface in front of it, growling, "So someone goes there and stands outside that damned gate and talks to them. Tell 'em they've got choices."

Leliana leaned forward slightly as she stated, "And you believe some will come."

Suddenly Meryell's eyes were locked with his again and Cullen felt his mouth try to twitch into a smile as she spoke again.

"If we send our Commander, yes."

Blinking, he stared at her for a moment then burst out laughing because of course he was the choice to go. Rylen was only a Knight-Captain, he had a scattering of Lieutenants and Corporals as well as several unranked members of the Order who'd followed him from Kirkwall, and whatever remnants had escaped the Conclave that had joined them. Other than that there were only the former templars amongst the company. As Meryell had explained to him, however, any that had come to them had been disgraced or expelled from the Order, so they were out.

And he...he had been Knight-Commander (if unofficially) of Kirkwall for four years.

"It is not a terrible idea," Cassandra said slowly.

"Oh fuck you, Seeker," snapped Meryell but there was no anger behind her tone. Cassandra also merely brushed the comment off with a snort instead of the outraged response that they all might have witnessed months ago. Further proof of that strange sort-of friendship that the two women seemed to have formed. She hadn't moved her gaze from him, however, and asked, "Well?"

Cullen just looked at her for a moment in silence, contemplating his answer. Really, though, was there any other answer but yes? Especially since he had given her an answer that led to the Inquisition officially taking on the rebel mages as their allies if possible? And if he could give some a different path than the one they were on, did he not have an obligation to do so? If not obligation, desire to do so?

Smiling at her, he answered, "I will go."

Meryell grinned brightly at him in response and the fear-driven knots that had coiled up in his chest loosened just that little bit, enough that they weren't as choking. It would be hard...but he would endure. He had survived Kinloch and Kirkwall, after all.

He would trust her, would trust the decision the five of them had come to, and he would try to save at least a portion of the Order.


Not unexpectedly, he found Meryell sitting in the darkness of his tent later that night when he had finished seeing to the start of the preparations for his trip to Therinfal. Cullen stopped in the doorway for a moment, staring at her bare feet (which was all he could via the light of the full moon), then he let the flap of the tent fall behind him. As darkness fell again, he set about removing his armor to place on his stand and waited for her to begin the inevitable conversation.

"I'm sorry."

Stiffening because an apology was not the first thing he'd expected to hear from her, Cullen finished settling his breastplate on the shoulders of the armor stand. Then he turned and carefully made his way over to his cot where she was sitting, going by memory. She, thankfully, opened her eyes as he got close and the cat-like gleam of her green eyes helped him to find the edge of the cot so he could ease down onto it. Their thighs pressed close against each other automatically and he wrapped an arm around her waist to pull her even closer.

"For what?" he asked softly.

"Going to the mages."

"Meryell..."

She shook her head and closed her eyes again, cutting off his only indicator of some of her motion until his eyes adjusted to the darkness. "I was watching you," she admitted. "You fear magic, Cullen. And I'm going to be bringing that here.”

He abruptly realized that she was apologizing for causing him pain. For making him remember when he'd been at the mercy of magic and demons.

Sighing, Cullen brought his other arm up and found her shoulder in the dark, following the line of it up until his fingers curved around her jaw. She let out an unsteady breath as he pulled her close, tucking her head underneath his chin. Then he felt her turn her head and she breathed out shakily against his throat as her fingers curled into the fabric of his shirt.

They sat like that for a long moment before he spoke softly.

“I fear magic untrained and unwatched,” he explained. “Left to their own devices, a lot of mages don't have the capability to stay the course. They fall prey to demons or use their abilities to ill ends.”

“You don't fear Folke and he never had a teacher.”

“Your baba is one of the more sensible mages I've ever met. He doesn't count amongst those I'm most wary of.”

Meryell chuckled, saying, “First I get you cursing, now I've got you speaking Elven? What next?”

Chuckling along with her, Cullen noted, “You also have prompted me to accept mages and nobles in some small way via Folke and your Captain.”

“Arnald would beat me if he knew you thought him a noble because of me.”

“I'll endeavour to keep such things between us then, dear thief.”

That made her laugh but it didn't take long for Meryell to become sober again. He felt her other hand running softly up his side then across his chest, unable to stop his muscles from jumping at the unexpected touch. Then her callused fingers and palm were cupping his cheek and he looked down into her gleaming eyes as she leaned away from him.

Years ago he had found the reflective properties of elven eyes off putting. Even with Kath, he'd been unsettled when she'd look at him and her eyes glowed because it made his instincts scream demon. Now, with Meryell, he found it more fascinating than anything else.

"What are you thinking?" he softly asked. When she didn't immediately answer, instead stroking her fingers across his cheek before she shifted her hand enough that she could press her thumb against the scar on his lip, Cullen cupped her cheek in his hand. "Meryell?"

"I'm thinking that I don't want to fucking hurt you but I'm going to because the thing that's going to hurt you makes the most damned sense to do," she replied, her voice wavering. She shuddered in his arms and he frowned before grabbing her face in both of her hands, forcing her to look right at him.

"I will be fine," hissed Cullen, though that was probably far from the truth. He'd suffered from frequent nightmares in Kirkwall - though that number hadn't gone down much since then. In fact, they were worse when he was in the heavy grip of one of his harder bouts of withdrawal. Of course, in Kirkwall he'd had the benefit of his lyrium-fed abilities to keep him from stumbling over the edge into straight panic.

Now he didn't have that ability.

Lyrium still lingered in his body (as evidenced by the fact that he could still feel casting) but it wasn't enough for a smite. He knew that because he still sometimes tested his abilities and while the mental muscles still worked, there was no longer anything there to move. The thought of not having that ability and being surrounded by mages had his heart suddenly pounding in his chest, his pulse jumping in his throat, and he knew that Meryell probably felt one or the other.

Swallowing the sudden fear, Cullen repeated in a softer tone, “I'll be fine.”

Meryell's eyes narrowed up at him before she growled, “You are the most stubborn fucking man I've ever met.” Then her expression softened as she rubbed her thumb across his scar, ending the motion with the digit pressed against his lips. “Promise me that if…”

He cut her off by abruptly moving to cover her hand with his own, tugging it down just enough that he could press a kiss into her palm. As her cheeks flushed, Cullen murmured, “If I am uncomfortable, I will make it known. To you, at least.”

“Is that a promise?”

“Yes, dear thief, it's a promise.”

That seemed to placate the woman in his arms and she leaned back into him, tucking her head underneath his chin once more. Cullen huffed out a breath as he wrapped his arms around her then tilted his chin to kiss the top of her head.

“Be careful,” he urged softly, thinking of all the ways that her trip to Redcliffe could go badly. At best she could come back with nothing to show for the journey. At worst they could lose her. He could lose her.

If that happened before he even had a chance, he didn't know what he might do.

Dirtha’vhen’an,” she muttered against his throat in reply. Without him having to ask, she immediately translated, “I promise, Cullen.”

“Thank you.”

Chapter Text

 

Fear - unbridled, ridiculous fucking fear that had no place yet still lingered like a plague - choked her throat, trying to throw her over the already shaky line between sanity and madness as she rode hard towards Haven ahead of the others.

That future she'd experienced with Dorian in Redcliffe hadn't been real. Varric and Cassandra riding behind her with their eyes and voices clear of the effects of red lyrium was proof enough of that. The bright blue of the sky, that her hand didn't burn like there was fire in the veins underneath her skin, or that they had ridden out of Redcliffe with the village intact and the castle itself in the hands of the Queen, all of these were proof that that terrible nightmare was in fact just that. Yet the fear still ate at her.

Fear that she would return to Haven and find the worst of news involving their Commander. Her treacherous mind had come up with many a scenario on the trip back to Haven: dead by a templar sword, slain on the road by bandits, ambushed by the templars and force fed lyrium, or a dozen other imaginings each worse than the last. It had done the same for every other member of the Inquisition and member of her company as well (including every soldier and scout she knew the face of but not the name) but Cullen...Cullen was the worst.

Until she saw them all safe and whole and alive, that fear would keep eating at her.

She rounded the last curve in the road and Haven’s walls rose up, steady as ever, to her left. Ahead she could see soldiers drilling on the training field and could make out the mismatched armor of company members amongst them as the veteran fighters had agreed to help teach the green Inquisition members. The sight stilled a little of the fear before it rose up hot and choking again as she saw silver steel and dark hair standing watch over the field instead of fur and blond hair.

Somehow Meryell retained enough decorum to slow her horse and steered the heavily breathing beast towards Rylen. The former Starkhaven templar saluted her with a clenched fist over his heart before saying, “I'm glad to see you returned, Herald. Sorry to say that the Commander's not back yet. Sure you expected him and not me on the field.”

Trying to swallow past another surge of the choking fear with Cullen’s corpse dancing behind her eyes, Meryell replied, “Not your fault, Captain. Any estimation on how much longer he'll be away?”

“Can't say, messere. Sorry...Herald.”

“I'm practically a Marcher myself merely from how long I've lived there, Captain, so I don't mind the common forms of address. Better that than calling me fucking Herald.”

He grinned up at her - a lopsided sort of expression that twisted the tattoos lining his chin. “Noted, messere,” Rylen commented warmly and she couldn't help but smile back in return since he'd actually listened to her. “As for news about the Commander, messere, you'd have to go see the Nightingale. I know she's been keeping in contact via her birds but beyond that I haven't heard much.”

Before Redcliffe she'd have curled her lip at the prospect of having to go to the spymaster for anything. Now she wanted to go almost merely to see her face whole again and not wrecked by torture.

She still didn't like her but the elu’verelan had sacrificed herself for their escape. It may have meant merely an end to that horror of a fucking life for the future's spymaster but it had been more than that. That Leliana had given them the time they needed to escape and the chance to make things right. If she could stop her from digging so deep into her own secrets, Meryell might just like the woman under the mantle of spymaster.

Or, she could just go looking for Cullen herself. She was a decent tracker and he'd been travelling with a mixed troop of templars, soldiers, and scouts along with Blackwall and Sera. They'd leave tracks even with the scouts who knew fieldcraft covering them behind them. All she had to do was trade horses, point her nose towards the east, and go.

It would calm every fear she had.

The second she was decided, Meryell felt a heavy hand come down on her shoulder and turned to look into the Iron Bull’s sole eye as she was slightly taller via her horse. “Hey, Boss,” he rumbled. “You're sitting here thinking awful hard. Didn't even notice the Captain telling you he had to go or the rest of your crew coming in.”

He then paused before asking, “Not thinking of riding out after the Commander, are you?”

Distressed at being so easily read, Meryell tilted her chin back and snapped in response, “And if I am?”

“I'd suggest you talk to that redheaded spymaster of yours first.”

Stiffening in the saddle, she did curl her lip now, snarling, “What if I don't want to talk to her?”

Bull started to open his mouth then immediately closed it as suddenly from behind Meryell came the Captain's voice - her Captain's voice.

“Then you'll do as you're fucking ordered, girl,” he snapped in a commanding voice as he closed one hand around her horse's reins just under his chin. She instinctively went straight-backed at the tone, long ago having been set into the pattern of obeying that particular voice no matter what.

Grinding her teeth together, Meryell ground out, “Arnald…” only to have him snap the fingers of his other hand right underneath her nose.

Captain,” he hissed.

Bowing her head in response, she echoed in a murmur, “Captain.”

“Better,” growled Arnald. He narrowed his eyes up at her for a long moment before he spoke again. “I read the report your Seeker sent back ahead of you, girl. Sounded like it was a shit hole of a job despite your success in getting the mages on the Inquisition's side. Y'need rest after a pisser of a job like that and I know our lot beat that lesson into your head. So get off the horse.”

Fear choked her again and Meryell turned to look back towards the road, softly beginning, "But I…” before Bull stepped into the path of her vision and Arnald laid his freehand on top of her right knee.

“Get off the horse, girl.”

Dragging her eyes away from the road, Meryell meekly nodded, unable to do anything else past the lump in her throat. As she slid down from the saddle and hit the ground with a jarring thump that shook her from bottom to top, she felt her knees wobble. Arnald’s firm hand on her back a moment later and her grip on the saddle were the only things that kept her from collapsing.

“Fuck talking to the spymaster,” commented Iron Bull suddenly. “I think you need bed, Boss.”

No!

The cry was out of her mouth before she could stop it, far louder than she'd intended but fear had driven it out of her lungs like a hound loosed to hunt. She felt Arnald’s hands on her shoulders then and he slowly turned her to face him, lifting her chin with two fingers as she tried to tuck her face into her chest.

“Meryell,” he rumbled softly, “what happened in Redcliffe?”

She froze, staring at his eyes, and slowly shook her head. “I can't. If I sleep I'll...I'll…” she trailed off, unable to complete the sentence with the words. She hadn't managed more than an hour of sleep every night on their way home, her dreams haunted by the all-consuming red light that swallowed up everything and everyone she held dear. “Just...let me go talk to Leliana.”

“Since when do you call her by her name?”

Since she looked at me with the face and eyes of a woman dead and yet still lived. Since she gave her life so I could live.

“Since fucking now,” replied Meryell, reaching for annoyance and rage in an attempt to fight the fear that was causing her hands to shake. She stepped away from Arnald then and he let her go, though she could see worry still reflected in his eyes. “I just…”

Halting, she closed her eyes before finishing weakly, “I just need to see that everyone's okay, Captain.” Without waiting for either of them to respond, she started walking.

Meryell made a slow round of the soldiers encampment, smiling at every face that was warm and alive. She then made her way into the Chargers camp, which was positioned at the wedge between the back of the soldiers and the Fangs, and just counted heads because she didn't know them well enough yet for anything else.

Walking into the Fangs camp, she called names and greetings as she went, returning them in kind. She asked about absent faces and went over the rolls again and again in her head until she'd accounted for practically everyone.

She walked to the blacksmith and chatted briefly with Harritt and his workers, running her fingers over the pristine ridges of the Inquisition’s eye on a breastplate to cement that reality over the battered and broken ones she'd seen in the future.

Dennet happily told her about the newest requisitions of the stable and they talked briefly about where the company got their own mount's from.

Then she mounted the steps up into Haven proper and began making her rounds of the streets. She smiled at everyone out and about, spoke at length to Seggrit about how business was doing, checked in with Flissa to make sure no one was bothering her, visited Adan to tell him that they'd bought up some herbs that Haven didn't have while they were in Redcliffe, inquired several minutes with Threnn about Inquisition supplies, and finally finished her minor rounds with Mother Giselle inside the Chantry, asking about the clerics and healers that they had.

Meryell poked her head into Josephine’s office and then ducked back out when she saw both she and Minaeve looked heavily involved in their work.

Almost there. Just...just one more.

Exhaustion hit her as she stepped into Leliana’s tent and Meryell gasped as she felt her knees buckle. Rough, callused hands caught her and she felt leather and chainmail press against her cheek as she was manhandled into a chair. She heard her title - that damned, miserable title - and then a moment later the unbelievable.

Meryell, here. Drink this,” said Leliana and she realized that the woman was pressing a cup into her hands.

“Not poisoning me, are you?” she asked, trying to cover her moment of weakness with a deflection.

“Not today, Herald.”

Meryell frowned at that, her eyebrows wrinkling, and asked, “Why not?” She then remembered that Arnald had said he'd read Cassandra's report about what had happened in Redcliffe - the report she'd sent to the very woman in front of her right now - and she shook.

One callused hand cupped hers where she had them curled around the cup, lifting it easily up to where the rim touched her lip. Meryell inhaled the scent of warm cinnamon, apples, and the richness that came with a long-steeped dark tea and looked up to lock her eyes with the spymaster’s. Leliana’s blue eyes were utterly missing the hard, flinty look that had accompanied them for her tenure in Haven up until this moment. The eyes looking at her now were starkly sympathetic and that was what finally pushed her to lifting the cup to drink from it.

As the warmth curled down her throat and into her belly, she softly asked, “Why suddenly so kind?”

“Because what you witnessed was a terrible thing,” replied the other woman. Leliana then turned towards one of her many tables and picked up a heavy looking piece of parchment. She ran her fingers along the edge before she spun back around on a heel and extended it towards Meryell. “This is the last letter I received from the Commander. It came two days ago.”

Fear clutched at her gut, her throat, her hands, and Meryell just stared at her for a moment. Then she took another sip from the cup, the heat of the tea helping to draw her back to reality, and lowered it with one hand as she reached for the letter with the other. She flicked her eyes across Cullen's careful hand - so different from her scrawl but he'd had the benefit of a Chantry education where she'd only had what her parents knew - before finally finding what she sought.

Sera has been most useful in helping to find ways for templars who want to join us to escape the Redoubt since the Lord Seeker barred the gate. She does, however, report that this last run may be her final as they seem to be hunting down her entrances. That and those who've joined us report that their superiors are acting increasingly erratic. I loathe to leave the Order like this when there are no doubt more within who need aid but I have successfully completed the task Meryell recommended for me.

We will wait another day after I send this letter in case of others then begin making our return to Haven. Over three dozen templars will be accompanying us, though I will question each on our return trip to make sure that they will be able to serve alongside the mages.

Relief made her sag in the chair Leliana had sat her in and her hands shook again. It wasn't him there next to her but it was enough. Enough that she could finally rest.

Licking her lips, Meryell held the letter back out towards the other woman before saying, “Thank you.”

Leliana merely inclined her head before turning her attention back to her tables and...whatever it was that she did in this tent. Without looking over her shoulder she said, “Finish your tea, Herald. I have one of my runner's looking for your father.”

Nodding, Meryell tipped her head back, resting the base of her neck against the top of the chair's simple wooden back. After a moment she closed her eyes, just listening to the sound of papers shuffling inside the tent and the bustling noise of Haven in full swing coming in from the wide open door flaps. She sat like that for a long time before she opened one eye and focused on the back of Leliana’s hooded head.

“I was actually happy to see you, you know,” she commented softly. As the other woman froze but didn't turn, she went on to ask, “Cassandra related what happened in her report?”

“As well as that mage you brought back with you could describe. He told her a great many things about that so-called future.”

Meryell nodded absently then asked, “Did it mention your part in everything?”

For a moment she didn't think the other woman was going to answer, then Leliana turned to lean against the table she'd been working at, bracing her weight on her hands. “In brief,” she replied. “I believe Cassandra was waiting for all of us to be present again before a full debriefing about what happened was done.”

“Makes sense.”

“It does. What does not is why you were happy to see me.”

Sitting up, Meryell drained the rest of the now cooling tea and extended the cup towards Leliana. As the other woman took it, she replied, “They had tortured you, done unspeakable fucking things to you...and yet, you resisted. For no reason that I could grasp other than that you weren't going to give those bastards one inch of fucking satisfaction.” Shaking her head, she continued, “You helped us for revenge, to see them pay, and I thought for a while that it consumed you. Then, when the cards were down and our lives were trotted out on the fucking line, you stepped up and held it so we could escape.”

Leliana arched an eyebrow and said, “That should not surprise you.”

“That's not what surprised me.” Reaching around to brace a hand on the back of the chair, Meryell rose on still shaky legs to stand in front of the other woman. Catching her eyes, she finished softly, “What surprised me is that after all that horror you turned and looked at me with hope in your eyes for one fleeting instant right before you took the step forward to stand between us and the horde coming to destroy us. You...she...earned my respect and my gratitude for that but I am so very fucking glad you aren't her.”

“And yet I am.”

Could be,” corrected Meryell sternly. “I sure as shit don't plan to die anytime soon so that world, timeline, whatever won't ever happen. Things are just starting to get interesting after all.” She then smiled at Leliana, saying, “If you weren't such a secret-hogging zealot, I think I could like you, elu’verelan.”

Leliana arched an eyebrow before asking, “Is that word a compliment or an insult?”

“It's a descriptor,” replied Folke before Meryell could as he entered the tent. Though she'd already spotted him down in the Fangs’ camp, some of her fear abated again at the sight of him. “And an accurate one,” he added before turning to hold out his hands to her. “Come, ara vherain. Evune has been helping me put your cabin in order and you look like you desperately need to be in bed.”

The fear of the nightmares - of seeing them die or half-consumed by red lyrium like Fiona had been in that future - lanced through her and Meryell took a shaky step towards him. Leliana’s hand caught her elbow at almost the same time that Folke caught her hands and she shuddered in their grips as they kept her upright.

“I don't...I…”

“Leliana,” said Folke firmly over her as her voice trailed off, “may I ask a favor?” Meryell assumed that the spymaster nodded but she didn't see it as the woman released her elbow while Folke slowly pulled her in against his chest. “Send one of them down to the Fangs camp to our healers tent. There's a particular sleeping draught that one of our mages makes. Just have them say it's for Meryell - not the Herald, they have to specifically say it's for Meryell so they get the right one - and bring it to her cabin.”

“I'll see it done. Herald…” Meryell turned her head to look at the woman, her cheek pressed against Folke's shoulder, and saw there was still sympathy in her eyes. Then they cleared, that hard look coming back, but the hand Leliana rested briefly on her back was gentle. “Be well. We need you in this as much as anyone else.”

Before she could say anything in response, the spymaster had turned back to her tables and Folke was steering her out of the tent. He then paused in front of Threnn and quickly divested her of her dagger harnesses in a few swift moves before tossing them on the quartermaster’s table with a query about getting them cleaned up and returned to either the Herald's cabin or the Fangs’ camp. Then he swung her up into his arms and Meryell wrapped her arms around his neck as she buried her face against his jaw. She breathed in his scent - faint hints of lyrium and herbs alongside the leather and sweat that came from common exertion - and finally felt the last of the tension drain out of her body in one fell swoop.

Mostly because Folke smelt like home.

Meryell was in a bit of a daze after that, exhaustion having finally fully caught up to her now that she'd stopped fiercely guarding the proverbial gate. She was vaguely aware of them reaching her cabin and registered Evune’s vallaslin - honoring Andruril, she had learned the patterns from her father's teachings - above her as she was divested of armor and then clothes. Then it was just Evune there (because Folke respected her privacy despite knowing she didn't care about family seeing her naked) as she ran a warm wet cloth across her skin in lieu of a full bath to wipe off some of the sweat and grime. It seemed only a moment later that her father was back and helping the older elf finish putting a loose pair of pants and shirt on her before they both tucked her into bed.

Evune pressed a kiss to her forehead and murmured, “On nydha, daassan.” Meryell smiled tiredly in response and settled heavily into the bed as she watched the other woman leave, somehow fully registering the lingering hand that she rested on Folke's shoulder.

As he walked over and settled on the edge of the bed, leaning back against her curled up knees with one arm behind her back to brace himself, she softly asked, “Did you and Evune come back to your understanding?” They'd been dancing around each other for years, her adoptive father and the former Dalish woman, since long before Meryell had even joined the company. She knew they'd shared each other's beds many a time (she'd literally walked into Folke's room back at headquarters plenty of times to find them still abed in a tangle of limbs) but they'd never made it anything official. They just called it their understanding since neither of them were committed to settling for a single relationship (mostly because Evune didn't care to be tied to one lover's bed and Folke had pointedly said that Meryell was the main lady in his life).

Chuckling, he replied, “After we thought you were...well, I won't go back into that. So, yes, for the moment she's letting me warm her bed again. Though I'm working on that dashing Captain your vhenan’ara has.”

Unable to stop her flush, she murmured, “You heard that. At the game.” Then she registered his other words and blinked at him several times. “Baba, I'm pretty sure Rylen doesn't swing that way.”

Folke just grinned and reached forward to brush hair back from her face. “I have good information that he does. You know I can't resist an accent...minus Orlesian.” And he thankfully didn't make another comment about how she referred to Cullen.

“No offense to the Captain,” she said with a small smile, quoting his usual words that followed that whenever he said it.

“Aye, no offense to the Captain.” He then held up a little wax stoppered phial that was half filled with a murky pond scum colored liquid, shaking it slightly at her as he said, “The spymaster’s runner came through with the sleeping draught while Evune was cleaning you up. Do you still need it?”

Fear flickered through her again but thankfully now Meryell was so fucking bone breakingly tired that she barely felt its touch. Her mind, however, it could go so many places once she drifted into the Fade and there it could reach her. So she just nodded and Folke smiled before pulling his belt knife to pop off the seal before he slipped an arm around her shoulders to lift her up enough to not choke on it. As the potion made its way down her throat - which even felt slimy - she freed a hand from her blankets to reach for his.

With their fingers entwined, she asked softly, “Don't leave me alone.”

“Never,” replied Folke, as he leaned over to kiss her forehead. Meryell just nodded in response and curled over deeper into her bed and rubbed her face against the pillow, already feeling the draught start on its work. It dragged her under moments later and she went willingly, completely trusting her father to guard her dreams.


Nearly two weeks later, a scout found her in the blacksmith and alerted her to movement of a large, mostly templar force on the road with the Commander at its head. Meryell immediately dropped the new blade she'd been working on with Harritt then froze, an apology tumbling out of her mouth automatically at the disrespect to the weapon (a lesson that old Morys had taught her). He just waved her on with an understanding smile and she bolted for the stable next door.

Without bothering with a saddle, she just slipped a bridle over her Forder’s head and swung up onto its bare back. Urging him out of the stall and down the road, Meryell felt a quiver of the fear that had haunted her on the way back to Haven. It was considerably weaker, helped by so long back amongst the bulk of the Inquisition as well as knowing he was right there, but it still itched at the back of her skull.

As soon as she swung her horse around the bend in the road, though, she heard Sera shout, “Glowy Bits!” and saw the three of them riding at the forefront of the group. Blackwall was even smiling, which was odd for the normally rather serious man. Probably over feeling like he'd done something for the good.

Then her eyes fell on Cullen and relief crashed into her like a fucking bronto. There were new scuffs on his armor that hadn't been there before and a bandage on one cheek but he was whole and there and he was smiling at her.

Urging her horse forward, she fell in between him and Sera and - ignoring the exaggerated kissy faces the younger elf was making - reached out for one of his hands. He didn't pause at all in curling his fingers around hers then she watched him frown, worry creasing his brow.

“Are you alright?” he asked. “Cassandra, Josephine, Varric, and Leliana all wrote me on the way back telling me that they were worried about you. Leliana, Meryell. They all said that something happened in Redcliffe?”

Shaking her head, Meryell said firmly, “I'm fine. I don't want to talk about that right now. We'll tell Josephine to set up for the full talk about it this afternoon. Right now…” She trailed off for a moment, thinking of him alone, of him leading an assault on Redcliffe Castle to find her, of him dead on the battlefield, and tightened her grip on his hand.

“Right now,” she finally finished, “I just want to be with you.”

He obviously was still worried and had numerous questions but Cullen just nodded as they rounded the bend in the road. Then he leaned over to peck a kiss against her temple and murmured, “I would like that, dear thief.”

No matter that she had to face that horror again later, to relate the things that had happened, Meryell felt utterly content. She was alive, he was alive, Haven was alive, and they were still in whatever this fight was.

And she could face anything knowing that they were all safe.

Chapter Text

“I would like,” shouted Meryell as she pulled both daggers out of a dead templar's side, “to have one fucking minute to celebrate what's supposed to be our sodding victory! This is not a hard request to fulfill!”

“Apparently they didn't get that particular notice,” drawled Dorian as he came to a stop next to her, nudging a toe at the fallen templar’s helmet. She hadn't spent much time with the mage since Redcliffe but what she had had been damned entertaining. They'd had an instant connection, hitting it off right off the bat the first time they'd sat down without a crisis in the way. Redcliffe had formed a bond between them and right now she'd rather have his magic at her back over Chuckles’.

Plus Chuckles was at least somewhat of a healer. She'd been thinking about other people too, not just herself when she'd picked people to come with her.

“There was a notice?” yelled Varric from the other side of the trebuchet they were defending, firing Bianca at the steadily approaching templars. Cassandra made a disgusted huff from where she stood flicking blood off her blade ahead of him, making the dwarf grin. “Now you've got three of us, Seeker.”

“Do not remind me, Varric.”

“Incoming again!” shouted one of the soldiers at the trebuchet and Meryell nodded in quick recognition. She and Cassandra fell quickly into habit with the other woman standing in the middle of the path they were taking towards them and her ready at her back. Varric climbed to high ground on top of the trebuchet’s base and she heard Dorian muttering what sounded like Tevene curses from behind her as he laid down some sort of glowing glyph on the road, the magic flaring bright before it faded away to a duller glow. Around them were other Inquisition soldiers and scatterings of both the Fangs as well as a few Chargers who also readied themselves for the next line of enemies.

“Holy Maker,” she heard Varric utter then and her stomach dropped, nausea filling her as she saw what he saw coming towards them.

The first set of enemies they'd faced had just been normal looking templars. Silver steel armor (though it looked like it had all seen better days, unlike their own templars) and swords that were supposed to serve the Chantry. The second set that was coming at them now were fucking twisted.

Eyes glowed red from behind the slits of helmets, open-faced helms showed off skin glowing eerily with veins of red, and some had horrendous looking spikes of red lyrium erupting through flesh and steel.

This was what the Templar Order had become. Fucking horrors.

Remembering Fiona half-fucking-eaten in that cell under Redcliffe and finding Varric and Cassandra infected with it made Meryell see red herself. It was red lyrium. These men and women had taken it by choice or by force and now they were at her fucking gate trying to kill her people.

She wasn't sure when exactly the Inquisition had become something more than just a job but it was.

“Inquisition! Take them out!” she bellowed and it seemed like every throat around her roared in answer. Everything went in a blur from there as her focus narrowed, becoming nothing more than sticking mostly to Cassandra's back. She danced around the woman's shield, darting forward through narrow openings to stab her daggers up through gaps in armor or slice the tendons in exposed legs, before sliding back behind cover. A few got lucky and scored glancing blows on her but it wasn't anything major.

She had been working hard at getting faster to avoid a situation like that demon tearing her arm open happening again.

As soon as the second wave was down, she heard a familiar voice shouting her damned title as they ran down the hill behind them.

“Herald! Herald!

Turning she saw the young man who'd been standing post at the tavern door the night she'd taken it over for Diamondback. “Edan! Get the fuck down!” she exclaimed, seeing him on the hill above them, right in sure sight of their enemies. His eyes went wide in response and just as he turned to jump down, an arrow caught him in his unprotected throat. At that point his feet slid out from under him and he slipped down the hill to crumple in a tangle of limbs at the bottom.

Meryell ran to him and knew as soon as she crouched down that he was a goner. The arrow had taken him clean through the throat, probably severing a major vein on its way, and he was already bleeding profusely as he tried to still talk to her.

“He-Herald,” he coughed, flecks of blood spewing from his lips. “Sou-south tre...buchet...needs…”

“Don't speak,” she urged him and the boy just grinned at her, flashing bloodstained teeth as his eyes started to go hazy.

“Dying...ma’am,” Edan managed. He reached out blindly with a wild flail of one one arm and she caught his hand in a fierce grip, squeezing tight. “S-send…’em...to the...fu-fucking...Void!”

Meryell watched him die then, watched the light leave his eyes, and she nearly screamed out loud. Even with as long as she'd been fighting and watching people die...watching a child (even one old enough to go into battle) die had never gotten any easier.

Standing up, she took her daggers back in hand from where she'd stabbed them into the frozen ground and saw the next wave coming. And all of them - her team, Fangs, Inquisition, and Chargers - were looking at her.

“You heard the lad!” she roared, as loud as any sergeant drilling new recruits. As she took her place back behind Cassandra, Meryell finished viciously, “Let's send these bastards to the fucking Void!”

Anger at being attacked made a damned good incentive. Anger that came from watching someone you knew, at least in passing, that made it a fucking imperative to see some payback.

Thanks to that, the third wave went down almost as soon as they'd clashed and then Meryell was swinging around to face Astrid at a tug on her arm. The big blonde had blood streaming down half of her face from a head wound but there was enough blood painting the head of her axe to say that she'd won most of the fights so far.

“Get your ass over to that trebuchet,” she growled. “We'll hold the fort here.”

In the middle of pitched battle was no time for questions and she certainly had no regard for rank and file other than the Captain. None of the company did. So she just bared her teeth in a smile, slapped Astrid’s armored shoulder, and growled, “Fuck them bloody.”

“Only way I know how, girlie!” Astrid spun away then, shouting, “Fangs! We hold here! You with us Chargers, Inquisition?” As they answered her with wordless shouts of confirmation, Meryell motioned to the others before she started sprinting up the hill towards the south trebuchet.

The fact that Cassandra managed to match pace with her in much heavier armor and bearing a shield just confirmed the formidable force of the woman.

As soon as they reached the trebuchet, Meryell launched herself at the back of the closest templar archer who'd helped kill their men who'd been posted up there while Cassandra roared at the other templars standing over the bodies. She stabbed her dagger into the archer’s exposed neck that wasn't covered by his leather helmet and jerked back from the blood that sprayed out of the wound, turning her head away and closing her eyes. Fuck only knew what red lyrium might do to the blood of those it infected and she in no way wanted to test the theory by swallowing some of it.

Spinning away from his falling body, she fell back into place behind Cassandra and they quickly wiped the floor with the rest of the templars. Meryell jerked her head up at the trebuchet, attempting to calculate its proposed trajectory, and quickly realized they'd been turning it to aim at the snowy mountain sides that surrounded Haven. Bury the bulk of the enemy and they might just have a chance to walk away from this shit show.

“Cover me!” she snapped out, stabbing her daggers into the edge of the trebuchet as she climbed up onto it. Sheathing them covered in blood would have been a bad idea and she needed them ready.

Grabbing the wheel that she knew turned the big machine, Meryell growled as she threw all of her weight into moving it. Once she got the wheel turning it became easier and, thankfully, her body was too keyed up on battle to feel the inevitable burn in her muscles. She vaguely heard the others fighting and resisted looking, focusing fully on buying them some time.

There!

Feeling the wheel lock into place, she kicked out at where she knew the other wheel to fire the trebuchet was, refusing to take her eyes off of the snowy sides of the mountain and the torches of the force that was arrayed against them. The big machine shuddered underneath her as the mechanics of it sent whatever had been loaded into it whipping through the air and she bit her lip as it hit high on the mountainside with little more than a nearly invisible puff of yellow fire. For a brief moment she didn’t think that it had done anything at all then the whole side of the mountain started sliding downward in a great rumbling cascade of snow and ice and stone, gaining momentum until it plowed into the templar army in a thunderous crash that nearly deafened her.

Meryell just blinked before she punched a fist in the air and howled victoriously to the heavens, “Suck it, you fucking shitebags!” For a moment it felt like cheers came from everywhere in response...and then the shadow fell over her accompanied by a roar that split the air like thunder. Bile rose in her throat immediately, nausea and gibbering fear warring for dominance in her belly, and she took one step to grab her daggers before leaping off the edge of the trebuchet without even looking to see if anything or anyone was in her way.

Only one fucking creature in the whole of Thedas made that profile in shadow.

Only one made that terrible shrieking noise.

She’d hoped to never see another in person ever a-fucking-gain.

The fireball hit what seemed like seconds after she’d cleared the trebuchet and, instead of hitting the ground running, Meryell tucked her legs so she fell immediately into a roll. Heat blossomed across her back and the heavy main beams of the machine went skyward as she felt smaller shards and splinters pepper her armored shoulders and arms as well as the unprotected back of her head since she’d left her helmet in her cabin.

Using her continuing forward momentum, she went from her forward roll directly onto her feet and got as much distance from the trebuchet as quickly as she could to avoid getting hurt by it. Only then did she turn to look for the rest of her team and relief rushed through her before the fear came back.

“A dragon?” exploded Dorian as he walked backwards towards her, looking none the worse for wear except for the splinters he was trying to shake out of his robes and the mussed lines of his normally carefully coiffed hair.

“Good eye, Sparkler!” Varric was bleeding from a shallow cut to his forehead but Meryell could see that it was only superficial and nothing that needed particular worry. Other than that, he seemed fine.

Cassandra was at her side then, saying quickly, “We are not prepared to face such a foe, Herald. Retreat is the only option,” and she remembered abruptly the conversation with her about the Pentaghasts being dragon hunters. If the woman from the family that had prided themselves for years on hunting the very thing that had just turned back the tide of the battle against them an instant after they'd won it said to fucking run, Meryell wasn’t going to argue.

“Back!” she shouted as she started moving back down the hill. There probably weren’t any Inquisition soldiers near enough to hear her but she still made it as loud as she could just in case. “Get inside the gates!”

Haven was on fucking fire when they came down the hill from the trebuchet.

Meryell took it all in with one glance. What tents had been left down where the Fangs, Chargers, and soldiers had made camp after the first quick initial takedown to save what they could had been made were either ablaze or trampled. She could see the last of a line of wagons heading further down the hill towards the gate down that way, its back protected by a line of hard-eyed archers who kept their foes at bay with a hail of arrows until they reached the safety the heavy gate would provide. Members of the Fangs were clearing the burning stables as quickly as they could, simply opening gates and driving the occupants within out with poles or just freeing panicked mounts from the halters that were securing them. If they were lucky, they’d be able to eventually retrieve them - providing that they and the mounts survived.

Then she realized that Harritt was beating on the door of the house that was connected to the forge, kicking and punching it furiously, and bolted towards him. “What the fuck!” she exploded as she grabbed his elbow in a tight grip.

“I just need inside, Herald!” replied the man.

“Is it worth your life, Harritt?” she bellowed in response, resisting the strong urge to just shake the man. Haven was coming down around their fucking ears and he was trying to get into a burning building instead of away from it.

He just tilted his chin up as he answered, “It’s worth a lot of things.”

Meryell drew back her lip in a sneer before snapping, “Cassandra! Door!” Thankfully the warrior didn’t even question the statement, just strode up to the door with the same determined expression that she wore when facing down their enemies, and kicked it hard enough to rattle teeth. The door flew open and she slapped Harritt’s shoulder before snarling, “Don’t fucking die. That’s an order!”

“Aye, Herald!” he said with a sharp nod before he dove into the building.

Jerking her head at the others, they plowed through the chaos in front of the stables and she saw Cullen standing in front of the one open wing of the main gate, his voice bellowing out over the immediate area.

“Move it, move it! Gustav, move your fucking ass! Morgan, Alex, that means the same damned thing for you!

Any other time but right then she’d have at least smiled at him cursing.

Sliding into place opposite him at the gate, Meryell waved her team onward before shouting herself at the others she could see, “Move! Move for your lives, you sons of bitches!” Several more, including Harritt, ran between them and then she felt Cullen’s fingers grip her shoulder as he grabbed the inner handle of the gate with his other hand. Normally it would have been too heavy for him to move on his own but the wild energy of a life-or-death situation was a bitch of a thing.

She swung around the other wing of the gate right before he pulled it shut and helped him and two soldiers haul the bar down over them both, for what use it would end up being in the face of a dragon or what was left of the army. He was already moving the moment it was secure, shouting, “Everyone back to the Chantry! It’s the only place that might hold against that...that beast!

Halfway up the stairs, he turned to look at her and she saw despair in his eyes.

“At this point,” he said, still in that commanding tone, “just made them work for it.”

Reaching for his arm as she stepped forward, Meryell gripped his bracer hard and hissed, “Cullen.” She couldn’t have him giving up now. He was as much of an important figure in the Inquisition as she was, he was the face that soldiers looked up to, and he couldn’t show them how despairingly bad everything was.

His eyes locked with hers for a moment, jaw tight and lines around his eyes set into tense crinkles, before he growled, “Clear the town. Make sure everyone gets to the Chantry.”

All Meryell could do was nod and let him go and hope that he got what she had been trying to say without words.

“Clear the buildings!” she snapped to her team as she took the steps up to the first main level of the town in three big leaps. “Clear the streets! Get everyone up to the Chantry! Now, now, now!” Her first target was a building that was clearly occupied by someone judging by the cries for help. She kicked twice at the handle of the door and managed to smash it inwards, diving inside before it even had a chance to slam against the wall.

“Herald!” cried Seggrit from the floor, the man choking on smoke. She rushed to him, kicking a burning bit of wood out of the way, and got down to put her shoulder underneath his. His hand scrabbled at her opposite shoulder before it held and he thankfully was able to stumble alongside her (because Maker knew she wasn't strong enough to tote a fully grown human man on her own). As soon as they were out the door, two Inquisition soldiers took him from her, and she sprinted full on towards the fight she could see going on just beyond the gate that led to the last trebuchet.

She cut the hamstrings of the archer trying to fire into the melee and saw Cassandra fighting back-to-back with Lysette, one of the templars who'd already been with the Inquisition before Cullen's trip to Therinfal. The two warriors swiftly cut down the rest of their foes and then they were off, pounding up the stairs with the rest of the stragglers.

Turning her head to the right, she saw Varric and a Fang helping a limping Flissa around the corner of the tavern. Dead templars were splayed out on the ground in front of the Singing Maiden as it burned, tainting memories of so many nights spent there.

“Meryell!” came Dorian’s voice from just above them, from the raised ground where Threnn and the spymaster had their territory. “Quartermaster is clear!”

“Healers?” she snapped back, already moving towards the tavern to climb the hill to where Chuckles usually stood and where Adan had finally been able to take back his actual job after they'd recruited more healers.

“I'll meet you there!” shouted the mage as he disappeared from sight.

Meryell gritted her teeth as she saw flames rising from Adan’s hut, knowing that there were explosive pots - pots she'd fucking taught him how to make - sitting right in the center of the open area between the cabins. She practically leapt up the stairs, flinging out an arm at Cassandra as she saw a crumpled form to the left of the pots. Lysette dove past her towards Adan’s crumpled form just as Dorian appeared from around the corner of a cabin to do the same and she spun towards Solas, who was holding a barely visible barrier around the pots to keep the flames from setting them off.

Sweat was beaded on his forehead, though whether it was from heat or effort was a mystery, but he smiled grimly at the sight of her.

Dalen,” he greeted, voice low as his eyes did not stray from the pots.

She didn't even think. There was no smarmy response for this, no snark, no cold words worth saying as Haven burned around them. He was saving people - saving her people, though fuck knew when she'd encompassed them all in that bubble - and that was enough.

“Hold, hahren,” she said in a tone that brooked no argument as she sheathed her daggers with no mind for the consequences. His eyebrows twitched before he nodded, his fingers stretching out even further as the barrier turned a darker shade of blue that made it more visible. Swinging around beside him, she gripped his elbow and watched the others as they got away, slowly walking him around the pots. As soon as they were clear, she growled, “Drop it and run.”

She'd give credit to the proud fucker; even though they disliked each other, he listened. The barrier fell and she heard the pained shriek of several of those horrors as they got caught in the conflagration. It made her bare her teeth in a smile and think, Serves you right for fucking with us.

Meryell still had her hand on his elbow as they ran into the Chantry moments before two soldiers slammed the door shut, closing off the sounds of battle to a muffle. And yet, somehow, it was worse inside.

Armor scraped against stone as soldiers and scouts and mercenaries paced, civilians huddled in frightened knots back towards the war room or in the wings of the main hall, children sniffled in confusion as their cries were muffled by their parent or guardian. Tension was high and as she leaned over, bracing her hands against her thighs to catch her breath, she could feel it thrumming. Like a mandolin with its strings drawn too tight or someone singing an off key pitch.

“Poppet!”

She straightened to meet Folke and found him looking at her in horror. Remembering the blood that had spattered her, she reached out to close her fingers around his hands as they rose with faint green light dancing around them. “It's not mine, baba,” Meryell insisted. “Save your magic for someone who needs it.” As he grimaced in response, she bounced up onto her toes to kiss his cheek, breathing, "Eth, baba. Din telsilen."

"I always worry about you, ara vherain," he replied, grabbing her head just long enough to plant a kiss on her forehead. Folke then turned and clapped Solas on the shoulder, causing the elf to look at him askance as he said, "Come on, Chuckles. There's wounded in the ambassador's office and we didn't get a lot of mages skilled at healing in here during the chaos."

She watched them go for a moment then turned as a wheezing noise pierced her ears, surprised at the sight of that asshole of a cleric Roderick sitting a chair with one hand clasped over the very obvious hole in his side. As Meryell took a step towards him, she became aware of the boy who stood up from a crouch next to him, all patchwork clothes and a ridiculous hat that covered straw-colored hair and from under which blinked the largest blue eyes she'd ever seen in a human.

"He tried to stop a templar," the boy stated matter-of-factly, his voice so calm and even in the chaos of the Chantry that it set alarm bells off in her head. He turned his head to look down at the cleric as he finished, "The blade went deep. No healer can help now. He's going to die."

"Ch-charming boy," coughed Roderick, blinking his eyes several times before he even seemed to see her. "Herald, I..."

"Meryell!"

She jerked her head around at the sound of Cullen's voice then looked back down at Roderick, saying quickly, "Hold that thought." Then she turned to the boy, taking in the shoulder sheaths that rode on his back with two wicked looking dagger hilts extending from them, and ordered, "You keep an eye on him." Honestly she didn't know where he'd come from, had never seen him before...except she had. He'd been the one at the gate, the one who'd announced that the Elder One was coming for her and had pointed him out as he rose up on one of the hills overlooking Haven with that man that Cullen had known the name of. Cole.

As she shook her head in confusion, the boy said, "I will watch. He has something important to say." Before she could ask what the fuck he was talking about, a hand gripped her elbow and Meryell turned to look up at Cullen.

His eyes - the amber usually as warm and inviting for her as the rest of him now starkly cold - caught hers as he pulled her away from Roderick and Cole into the center of the room, his voice low so as to not be overheard. "Our position is not good," he said quickly. "That damned dragon stole back whatever we earned with that landslide. And we've barely got a quarter of our forces here in the Chantry, not enough to even pretend to hold resistance against what's outside."

"A quarter," she repeated softly. Because a good portion of the Fangs, Chargers, and soldiers had started on immediate damage control as soon as the alarm bells had started ringing. Most of them had gone then in the initial takedown, protection for the civilians that they'd practically tossed into the wagons alongside random gear and foodstuffs. It had been the first order that they'd given out and she'd ordered Arnald herself to make sure that everyone in that caravan stayed safe. He'd taken the bulk of the Fangs with him to see it done since they'd never intended on holding Haven.

The original plan had been to distract long enough for them them to get away. That damned dragon, which no one could have suspected would appear, had completely massacred that plan.

Shaking herself, Meryell looked up at him and asked, "What options do we have left?"

"So far as I'm aware," he replied, "there's still the last trebuchet. Another landslide would bury them."

"And fucking Haven," she stated sharply. Closing her eyes, she muttered, "What the fuck does this Elder One want?"

"You."

She and Cullen both jerked away from the soft voice and Meryell stared at Cole, who stepped up so he stood between them now. His eyes, however, were on her as he said, "He doesn't care about the village or the people. But he will kill them to reach the Herald."

"Me?" snarled Meryell. "Maker's fucking balls, I'm just a damned mercenary."

"No," said Cole firmly. "You are the Herald. You ruined his grand plan and now he is angry." His youthful face them twisted, one side curling up into a sneer that was disturbingly like the distant expression she'd seen on that thing outside. "Break the elf they have risen up and they will fall. Break her and they have nothing. Break the Herald. Break the pretender." Then he shook himself, eyes wider than ever, and softly finished, "I don't like him."

"You don't like him?" exploded Cullen for a moment then he calmed himself, his jaw clenched so tightly she could see the muscles in his neck and cheeks straining. Then he looked at her and his eyes softened a fraction. "There are no tactics that make this survivable. Causing one last slide..."

"Burying Haven," she interjected with a calm she didn't feel at all.

He just nodded before responding with, "We're dying, but we can decide how. There are many already tonight who haven't gotten that choice."

Denial of that statement wanted to spill from Meryell's lips but she knew the score as well as he did. The Chantry was a dead end and the only thing they could do from this point was to make the bastards work for it.

"Not the only thing," came Cole's voice, light and oddly ethereal. She turned to look at the boy and he was standing behind Roderick, holding the man upright in the chair with a gentle grip on his shoulders. As his eyes caught hers, he smiled and said, "I told you he has something to say."

"Chancellor?" questioned Cullen as Meryell took a tentative step forward. The man's head lolled on his shoulders in response and he coughed before nodding several times.

"There...there is a path," he managed to say, the pain obvious in his voice. "You wouldn't know it unless you'd made the summer pilgrimage as I have. The people..." Roderick shifted in his seat, pressing his hand more firmly down on the wound in his gut, before he slowly rose to his feet with the aid of Cole. His eyes were feverish as he sought Meryell's and she flinched a little at his next words. "The people can escape. She must have shown me. An-Andraste must have shown me so I could...tell you. If this simple memory can save us, this could be more than mere accident. You could be more."

Ignoring the last words about a being she didn't even believe in and the title she'd never fucking wanted, she caught onto what he was talking about. There was a secret passage that could be used to enable everyone else to escape. Everyone but her.

Someone had to stay back as a distraction and to fire the trebuchet. And whatever that thing out there was, it wanted her.

Abruptly her jaw clenched involuntarily, teeth grinding, and Meryell felt fear start to rise up inside her as she tasted bile on the back of her throat. This was no simple mission for the company, not one to take flippantly and handle with ease. It wasn't even one of the ones that was rife with danger, that were treated with utmost seriousness until they were done and over and could be safely joked about.

She was going to fucking walk out there and face that thing.

To save them.

Fighting the fear rising up, she growled between bared teeth, "Cullen, get them out." She caught his jerk of surprise out of the corner of her eye and Andraste's dripping cunt she hated it. He'd stayed the Commander from the start of the attack until now and she needed him to keep that mantle on. He couldn't be the Cullen who sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the tavern with her or the one who brought alcohol to her cabin for late night talks or the one who made her feel like a good man could love a knife-eared alienage brat. She needed him to be the Commander.

"Cullen," she began but then he was dragging her away from Roderick and Cole, his hands on her shoulders as he hauled her over to one empty corner of the Chantry. Meryell tried to resist, to dig in her heels, but found that she didn't really want to.

If this...if this was going to be the last moment she spent with the man...

Closing her eyes in a furious attempt to hold back the tears suddenly threatening to fall, she reached out for something to hold on to. Her hands found his armored forearms, the metal icy against the fingers exposed by her half-gloves, and she felt the edge of the flames that framed the Sword of Mercy stamped into their surface.

"Meryell," he breathed, his voice low and broken. "You cannot..."

"Everyone dies if I don't," she hissed back, shuddering helplessly. In the back of her mind she knew that this was the last thing they should be doing right now - they should be strategizing the escape, should be figuring out who would help her with the trebuchet - and not...this.

She didn't honestly know if she could bear the goodbye.

"I..." His voice cracked then. Cracked like he was a youth on the cusp of manhood, and that was when she opened her eyes. Cullen was half bent over in front of her, his hands on her shoulders the only thing that seemed to be holding him up as he bowed his head and shook. The tears welled at the sight and she blinked furiously against them before finally surrendering to the inevitable as he lifted his head to look at her, his own eyes half-blinded by moisture. "The Maker cannot bring you to me and then take you away," he breathed. "He cannot be so cruel twice in one lifetime."

Meryell realized distantly that he was talking about Kath Surana, the mage he'd cared for in the Tower. She was one of the few things he'd shared from that time. One of the only good memories, he constantly said. Then she jumped, startled, as he was pushing her backwards into the closest wall. His hands moved from her shoulders to her hips and abruptly she was in the air, her toes no longer able to even touch the ground as he lifted her up before he used his whole body to press her against the wall. Instinctively, she wrapped her legs around him and dug her fingers into his mantle now that his arms had moved from underneath her grasp.

"Cullen..." she gasped but he shook his head, both hands coming up to frame her face as he no longer needed them to hold her.

"You will come back," he said insistently. She started to shake her head but his grip stilled the motion, forcing it to die stillborn. "No. Do not give up, Meryell. I...I should not have given up at the gate. You tried to tell me that. Do not give up now. Please. Please."

He leaned forward so his forehead rested against hers and let out an unsteady breath as he murmured, "I need you, Meryell. Please."

She could not leave him like this. The Inquisition needed its Commander. And if...if it required her to lie...then so be it.

Taking a deep breath, Meryell untangled her fingers from his mantle and brought her hands up to his face. She ran her fingertips along the stubble of his jaw, heart jumping with his surprised intake of breath, and then cupped his cheeks in her hands. After that, with their foreheads already pressed together, all it took was a simple tilt of her neck to bring her lips in line with his.

His lips were chapped from the cold air outside but they radiated as much warmth as the rest of him. On the outside they tasted like cold, like smoke, like steel, and she felt the impulsive urge to taste his mouth if only for a moment. If this was to be the last, then she would know what she could never have again.

Meryell opened her mouth testingly, kissing his lips once, twice, in that way before his opened in turn. She dipped her tongue within and tasted the tavern's stew and her favorite whiskey and the warm cinnamon of Demut's apple bread that they'd been sharing in a quiet corner before this night had gone to absolute shit. And there was a flavor and a smell there that was all Cullen, warm and masculine.

It was a slow kiss, an exploratory first as well as a cementing of the other into memory. And all it made her want was more.

When they finally pulled away from each other, Meryell felt her surety waver as he breathed, "Come back to me, dear thief."

Her thumb found the scar on his lip - the scar whose story she still hadn't yet heard - and his amber eyes seemed to reach down into her for an answer that she was powerless to resist despite everything within her screaming that she absolutely should not give it.

"I will, vhen'an'ara," she whispered brokenly.

Was it a lie to make him feel better, to make him retake the mantle of Commander and lead?

Or was it a truth that she almost found herself fucking believing in?

Meryell didn't have another moment to decide as the Chantry shook from an impact that could only be the dragon and suddenly her feet were back on the floor. Not bothering to wipe her tears away as she bolted back into the center of the room, she shouted, "I need volunteers to help me with the last trebuchet!"

Dorian was abruptly at her side, still disheveled but grinning down at her as he said, "A last ditch effort to save us, darling?"

"Last ditch is probably the best way to describe this fucking plan, yeah. You don't have..."

"Ah-ah! It is not our first seemingly impossible mission, now is it? Come now, we'll go over there and be back in moments. Don't worry so much, dear."

Meryell couldn't help but smile despite the fact that she could taste the lie in his words and touched his arm gently. "Thank you, Dorian," she breathed.

"I'm with you too, sweetheart." Varric wrapped a steadying arm around her waist and she leaned gratefully against the dwarf's sturdy frame. "I've got your back, Swears."

"As do I," proclaimed Cassandra as she strode up with the same fierce determination she showed on the field. Meryell then watched as the warrior turned to Cullen and said, "Commander, you will see everyone to safety?" Her eyes flicked immediately to his face and found him watching her without even bothering to look at the other woman.

"Yes," he replied, back under control. Back to being the Commander. “We'll fire a signal once we're clear.”

As with her, no one made a comment about the redness of his eyes or the obvious tear tracks on his face that he didn't bother to wipe away.

The Chantry shook again, harder this time, and she abruptly stepped forward towards him to take his hands in her own. As he blinked down at her, she said firmly, "Take care of Folke. He...he will fight you. He will try to come after me."

Cullen's confusion cleared then and determination settled over his face. She'd given him two tasks now: get their people to safety and make sure her father stayed alive. She knew he wouldn't let her down in either if he could help it.

"Remind him," she added, her voice breaking abruptly as her emotions skittered out of her control. "Remind him of my charm. Remind him to look." She'd told him long ago about the variety of charms that the company had used for as long as she recalled to identify their members and keep track of them. Folke was the genius behind the things and the architect of every single coin or fang or belt buckle or whatever that each Fang chose to use as their token. Her original had been lost or broken during her time in the Fade that she couldn't recall (at least that was her assumption as that was what had made everyone think she was dead) and one of her father's first orders of business had been crafting a new one out of an ancient Ferelden coin that he had in his possession.

"I will," he promised. Then he blinked, his calm exterior nearly disintegrating entirely before he dragged it back up, as he said, "Be safe."

Unable to reply past the sudden lump in her throat, Meryell just nodded and turned towards the Chantry doors. Two of the soldiers lifted the bar that secured it closed and she drew her daggers with only a slight tug as Cassandra stepped in front of her with her shield at the ready. At the same time from behind them, she heard Folke's voice call out unsurely, "Ara vherain?"

Resisting the urge to reply, Meryell clenched her jaw and crouched, ready to move forward as soon as Cassandra did.

"Meryell! Meryell!"

Folke's voice was breaking and with it her heart. He had already thought her dead once and now...now she was willingly going to what was probably actually going to be it.

"NO!"

The Chantry doors were open then and Cassandra bolted out with a shout meant to distract whatever was waiting for them on the other side. As Meryell followed, she dared a glance back and met her father's eyes around Cullen's shoulder as the younger man held him back from reaching her.

"Ir abelas, baba," she breathed before she jerked her gaze away.

And then she ran, feet pounding into the snow as she followed Cassandra through the enemies that had invaded Haven as the Seeker made a determined path. She could barely hear their inhuman growls or the still raging fires or her own harsh breathing in her ears.

Folke's bellow, his attempt to negate what he was seeing, rang through her ears in a terrible echo.

She was a fucking terrible daughter.

“Get the trebuchet ready!” commanded the older woman when they finally reached it, her shield catching one of the soldiers who guarded it in the teeth with a shattering crunch. Meryell moved automatically, sheathing her daggers in one smooth motion without a second thought to the fact that she probably wouldn't be able to draw them again before she threw her weight against the wheel.

It seemed like the trebuchet moved in slow motion, as if it were taunting them in their last ditch effort to make sure someone survived this fucking shit storm. She screamed at it, throwing out every curse she knew in one endless stream while she listened to her companions, her friends, fight for their lives and those who were working even now to escape Haven. When the wheel finally clicked into place where it needed to be, Meryell jerked her head skyward at that now familiar screech.

“Move!” she shouted as she leapt from the platform, waving her arms frantically at the others. If they weren't near it, maybe they could save the trebuchet, could still get a chance to fire. If they didn't, they were all fucked. “Go, go!

They raced ahead of her, none of them looking back, and she watched them keep going as an explosion from behind her - more damned fire pots going off - blew her off of her feet. She hit the ground hard and rolled before coming to a stop braced on her forearms with her face nearly buried in muddy snow-water.

Get. Up.

Pushing herself to her feet, Meryell had enough time to turn and see the monstrosity from the hill coming at her out of the flames from the pots and the dragon before her arm was wrenched upward into the air along with her body. She barely registered the dragon landing hard behind her, cutting off that route of escape or rescue, as she focused on the thing’s hideous face.

It was - had been - a man once. Spikes of red lyrium burst out of his face, mostly on the side that wasn't covered by the remnant of a dark hood except where one curved out from the line of his jaw on that other side. He had armor on his body but it was less like he wore it and more like it was part of him. And he was tall, almost insanely fucking tall, far taller than even the Iron Bull but it was like he'd been stretched more than being that way naturally.

“Pretender,” he growled in a booming voice as she dangled by one arm. “You toy with forces beyond your ken. No more.”

Meryell grimaced as she felt the weight of her body already wrenching her left shoulder out of socket, the muscles straining to stay where they were supposed to be. Too long in this position and it might never recover its full mobility.

“What the fucking fuck are you?” she spat in response.

“I am the will that is Corypheus,” replied the thing. He then lifted his other skeletal arm into her vision, revealing a metallic orb with intricate carvings across every surface in his other grotesque hand. “I am here for the Anchor. The process of removing it begins now.”

“The what?” exploded Meryell before her marked hand exploded into absolute agony, her fingers spamming wildly. Yet she had felt this pain before: the pain that made it feel like her hand was splitting open, like fire was in her veins. It had been exactly like this in the future and she bared her teeth in a grimace to fight crying out like she had then when they tumbled into that timeline.

“It is your fault that I am here, ‘Herald’. You interrupted a ritual years in the planning and, instead of dying, you stole its purpose.”

Her hand burned, the green glow becoming even brighter, and she groaned behind her teeth - the only sound she was determined to make.

“I do not know how you survived,” said the thing, “but what you flail so ineffectually at rifts, I constructed to assault the very heavens. And you used the Anchor to undo my work! The gall!

Meryell was barely listening as red light like that that flickered and pulsed around the orb he held burst from the gash that wasn't a gash on her palm. She was burning, her whole arm afire thanks to both the position she was hanging in and whatever he was doing to the mark. A howl of pain rose up in her throat and she just barely - barely - fought it down, keeping it contained within her. Her mind was a haze of agony but she managed to snarl, “What the fuck do you want? What is this damned thing?”

He sneered, lip curling in a starkly human gesture, before replying, “It is meant to bring certainty where there is none. For you, the certainty that I would always come for it.” It shook her then and Meryell was unable to stop the scream that tore its way out of her throat as she felt something tear in her shoulder. As her cry faded away into heavy, frantic breathing that was edging towards panicked, the thing lifted her up to where their faces were level. “I once breached the Fade in the name of another, to serve the Old Gods of the Empire in person,” he went on. “I found only chaos and confusion amongst dead whispers. For a thousand years I was confused but no more.”

Despite the fact that she didn't believe, she knew the stories the Chantry told. Her mother had told them to her, reciting them with the same gravity that she had the Chant every morning and night.

This thing that called itself Corypheus claimed to be one of the Magisters that had broken open the Fade and sundered the Maker's seat in the Golden City.

One of the first darkspawn was holding her aloft by her arm like she weighed nothing.

“I gathered the will to return under no name but my own,” it continued, “to champion withered Tevinter and correct this blighted world. Beg that I succeed, for I have seen the throne of the gods, and it was empty.”

“Good,” growled Meryell, realizing as she spoke that her lungs were straining, weakened by her position as much as her shoulder. “Never believed in the Maker anyway.” She then spat what liquid was in her dry mouth at the thing’s face and added with a snarl, “And I sure as shit don't believe in you.”

Her spittle didn't seem to bother the thing one bit but her words hit some sort of mark. That hideous face twisted into a sneer and then she was flying through the air, all breath leaving her lungs from the further feeling of tearing in her shoulder and down the left side of her back. She didn't even have enough air left to gasp or cry out in pain as she smacked hard into the supports of the trebuchet before falling to her knees on its platform. Meryell sucked air in in long, shuddering gasps and managed to pull herself upright with one arm because she had to. Before this thing stole the opportunity it had given her.

“The Anchor is permanent,” he announced as he slowly approached, the damned dragon pacing behind him. “You have spoiled it with your stumbling.”

Wheezing for a moment, she spat towards him again weakly before baring her teeth in a smile. “Fuck off, gasbag.

The thing didn't even acknowledge her words, seeming like it was speaking aloud to itself more than her now.

“So be it. I will begin again, find another way to give this world the nation - and god - it requires.”

Over his shoulder she saw the flare then, a flaming arrow rising high in an arch from further up the mountain. Her breath caught, her body shook, and she closed her eyes for a bare moment to accept that she might not make it.

Then Meryell opened her eyes as she heard the thing speak about him not allowing a rival to live and snarled, “You arrogant fuck. You think I'm here to stop you?” For once he looked surprised and she continued fiercely, “I'm here to save them, asshole.”

She then turned to kick out at the locked wheel that held the firing mechanism, setting it loose as she shouted, “Dhavama masa!

And then she ran.

Meryell ran like she was back in South Reach outrunning the Guard despite there being nowhere to go. She wasn't going to let that thing have her corpse though. Her body was hers and fuck anyone that thought they could have it even in death.

Leaping from a gap formed in the fence on the raised section of land where the trebuchet stood, she expected to land on snow but instead hit creaking wood and froze. The mine. Cullen had told her about it once, about how they intended to investigate the ancient shafts eventually once they got extra fresh wood to make needed repairs.

Oh no.

The wood underneath her feet gave way and Meryell was unable to help the scream she uttered as she fell, reaching back towards the frozen, fire-licked sky before darkness fell as the landslide hit.

A moment later she hit the ground and the darkness took her as well.

Chapter Text

She's so cold.

Shivering and frostbitten with snow plastered to the leather of her armor, the fabric of her pants so stiff with ice that it's a wonder she managed to keep going...but she is alive. Cullen tightened his grip around Meryell as Cassandra reached towards her, refusing to relinquish her if he was asked to, but the Seeker only gently touched a snow covered shoulder before she began snapping out orders to those that followed them away from the edge of their final camp for the night.

"Folke," he managed to growl as they made their way back through the snow, trying to ignore the way she shuddered in his arms. The mage had barely been gone an hour after so many spent standing at the edge of camp, muttering under his breath and casting one spell after another until even Cullen could feel him pulling only dregs from the Fade, having being dragged off forcefully by one of the Fangs’ elves and he knew he needed to see Meryell more than he himself had. Cassandra turned her head towards him, her eyes wide, and she gave one quick sharp nod before she was gone from his side.

Cullen paid her no heed after that, his attention set upon one of the two larger tents they had which had been set up for the sole use of the healers and the injured. As he ducked inside with Meryell in his arms it was like the whole world stopped for a moment. Then one of the mages - who was a Fang given the black lion tooth that hung from around her neck on a thick leather cord, one of the many varieties of badges that the company had - stepped forward barking orders. She set the rest to the task of getting a bed ready or scuttling off to see to the same things that Cassandra had sent folk running for before slowly approaching him.

"Commander," she said softly, "I'm Gil."

The name rang a bell in his head but it wasn't important enough to distract from the woman in his arms.

"Where?" he asked, assuming she knew what he meant. He was a Fereldan despite not having been home for over a decade and they had a saying that a true Ferelden winter laid permanent frostbite onto the souls that survived it. One of the first things they needed to do what get her free of her clothes and armor.

Gil gestured at a nearby cot that was free of any sort of bedding and he swiftly moved to it, carefully lowering Meryell down. She made a noise in her throat, a bare and broken whine that cut him to the core, and he immediately jerked off his gloves to start pulling at the frozen buckles of her weapons and armor. To his surprise, Gil merely took his aid in stride and worked in concert with him, her magic humming against what was left of his senses as she cast several spells over Meryell's body. For once, he didn't mind magic being cast in such close proximity to him.

By the time they got down to Meryell's boots - he removing them inch by careful inch while Gil worked low-level warming spells into the elf's flesh - Folke burst into the tent. The mage's grey eyes were wild with dark bags underneath them and he was in full disarray, utterly missing his coat and armor and wearing only a light tunic that couldn't possibly be keeping him warm. "Ara vherain," he breathed and started to rush forward only to be drawn up short by Gil snapping out his name in as sharp a tone any of Cullen's lieutenants.

"Calm," ordered the woman, never moving her eyes from where her hands were carefully working over Meryell's right ankle to free it from her boot. Folke stared at her, his nostrils flaring, then he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Cullen watched the mage center himself while he waited for Gil to finish her work and only looked away when she nudged him with her shoulder.

As he eased her boot off, finally freeing her from the last of her outer clothing, Cullen couldn't help the gasp that escaped him as the mage next to him carefully removed one of Meryell's socks. Frostbite had done its heinous work upon her toes, turning them as white as the snow with cold blue blemishes, but Gil merely flicked her fingers at him, saying, "It looks worse than it is, Commander. Trust me. I've healed more than my fair share of frostbite from a Ferelden winter."

She bent over her patient's feet again as she said, "Get her out of the rest of those freezing clothes, gentlemen. And I mean all of them. Be careful with her left shoulder, though. I've repaired some of the damage but it's going to need a lot more work than I can give it tonight. Frostbite and heat are our priorities right now.”

Cullen froze for a moment at the thought of Meryell naked but it was swiftly drowned underneath the seriousness of the situation. He stepped forward at the same moment Folke did and they quickly did as Gil had ordered, tossing the frozen clothing on top of the pile of armor and other gear. Then he heard the mage say he should probably leave and clenched his jaw around an immediate and furious no.

"Gil," spoke up Folke, his eyes narrowed, "let the Commander stay. We can use him."

After the cold shoulder the mage had given him after he'd held Folke back from following Meryell out of the Chantry, Cullen was more than a little surprised at the statement. He'd been certain the hedge mage wouldn't want him anywhere near his daughter again.

She frowned, her brow furrowed, and turned to look at him. Her eyes gave Cullen an appraising glance - but it was the appraisement of a healer, not the lecherous sort of appraisement that he was often the victim of nowadays - and then she turned to arch her eyebrows at her fellow mage. "You sure you want him in bed with your daughter?" she asked, setting Cullen's cheeks aflame with embarrassment.

Folke just chuckled in response, saying, "He's already said he's hers, Gil. She's as good as claimed him herself, though not in so many words."

Idly he thought that the mage probably wouldn't be saying that if he'd witnessed their parting in the Chantry. That kiss had...no, best not to think of how many things it had both said and left unsaid.

"Well then. You'd best strip yourself, Commander." She then winked as she added, "Though you can keep your under things on. Our Meryell tends to not appreciate others lusting too much after her things."

"Maker's breath," muttered Cullen, wondering what exactly was wrong with all of the women around him. He then turned to look at Folke, asking, "Just what am I doing?"

When Folke went so far as to step around Gil, who was still working her magic on Meryell's feet, and Solas, who had appeared like a ghost to pick up one of the elf's hands to let his magic flicker over the half-frozen digits, Cullen had a bad feeling. The mage looked up at him with serious grey eyes for a moment then drew him a few steps away from the others and those who were still on the far most secluded side of the tent making up a cot piled high with furs.

"As I'm certain you've noticed, Commander," the mage began in a low, tight voice, "the effort of your body burning off the lingering lyrium in your system makes you run hot. Certainly hotter than any of us in camp except for maybe that Qunari." When Cullen nodded tightly in confirmation, Folke continued, "Magic can heal her frostbite but Meryell still needs heat to re-regulate her body temperature. Honest heat because magic can't do it on it's own, which is why Gil cast only a minor heating charm on her core and even lesser ones on her limbs. Magic can get her to a recoverable level but you can help bring her past that."

The thought of all of her skin bare against his had Cullen's pulse jumping and he closed his eyes, shaking his head against the images that summoned. There was no place for that sort of thing in their current situation.

When he reopened his eyes, Folke was smirking at him.

"Time to get naked, Commander. Once Gil and Chuckles there get done with their work, we need to get her into the bed. With you."

That made his cock twitch and Cullen growled, "You're enjoying torturing me a little too much, Folke."

"Oh, isha'len, if you're going to eventually be part of the family then you've got to get used to that."

He narrowed his eyes at the mage, wondering what that particular word meant while trying not to blush at the rest of the sentence, then rolled his eyes skyward to ask the Maker for strength. Then he quickly unbuckled his belt before unfastening his coat and shrugged out of it, handing it over to Folke, who was still standing next to him. As his hands mechanically went through the familiar ritual of unbuckling his armor, Cullen focused on that and not the idea of lying in a cot with Meryell. He sat each piece carefully down on the ground next to him and by the time his last bracer was placed there, Gil was calling over that they were ready.

Glancing at Folke, Cullen flushed as the mage waggled his eyebrows at him before he tugged both his padded gambeson and tunic over his head in one motion. The rush of cold air across his skin was all too soothing for a moment but he knew full well that it would do little to actually affect him other than giving him eventual frostbite if he wasn't careful. He'd had the full warning to not be an idiot by the one healer that the Gallows had left after Meredith (who'd thankfully seen at least one templar attempt to break from lyrium) and never assume that he wasn't cold just because he didn't necessarily feel it and he'd taken that to heart.

"Commander, help us move her," called Gil and he strode over as he let the fabric drop on top of his armor. Gil and Folke had Meryell's legs carefully lifted between them with the stronger mage still working gently swirling spells over the elf's feet and he moved to lift the rest of her easily into his arms. They carried her across the space of the tent to the made-up cot and lay her carefully down onto the furs that had been used to cover the canvas bedding.

Cullen stepped back with a frown as she was settled, worrying at his lower lip with his teeth as it certainly didn't look like he'd fit there with her, then jumped at a light strike on his arm. He turned his head to blink down at Gil, who was glaring up at him.

"You either get in that cot, boy," she growled, "or I'll go find that Qunari. I'm sure he'd be more than happy to be completely naked next to his boss."

Bristling at the thought of the Iron Bull climbing into bed with her, Cullen stared right at the mage, not at all surprised that she'd followed the same line of thought as Folke had. He continued to deliberately stare at her as he stepped out of his boots and shucked off his pants, furiously trying not to blush and failing miserably. Now Gil did give him one of those lecherous appraising looks before she laughed and gestured him towards the cot as she turned to head back to the rest of her patients.

He started to call after her, to ask if Meryell didn't need more spells, then stopped himself. Instead he moved around the cot to climb in behind her, focusing as he'd been taught to feel out magic as a way to distract himself as he did so. He barely acknowledged the feel of her bare skin sliding against his or the cold that still radiated out from her as he concentrated. It took much longer than it would have months ago when he was still taking a lyrium ration but his senses did eventually waver into existence and stretch out. In a situation like earlier with a mage casting right next to him, he could easily still get a sense of their power. After a while, however, that faded and he had to work to reach out and test whether a spell was still ongoing.

Satisfied as he found that there was still magic working on healing Meryell, Cullen let out a relieved sigh. Then he nearly jumped out of his skin when Folke said, "You look very distracted for a man who just climbed into bed with a naked woman."

"You delight in sneaking up on people, don't you?" groused Cullen as he wrapped an arm around Meryell, letting his focus fade away along with the sense of the magic at work under her skin. Drawing her back against his chest, he bit back the groan that begged for release as he felt her skin against his and wished desperately that this was being done in better circumstances.

Not in a healer's tent.

With Meryell very much conscious and aware of the proceedings.

Folke snorted and moved forward to tug the pile of furs at the end of the cot over them, tucking the ends firmly around Meryell's face before he cupped her cheek. He then smiled and replied, "Only because you make it so easy, Commander." The mage then sobered, his mouth drawing downward into a deep frown that made the man suddenly look his age and more while causing the scar on his cheek to stand out starkly. "Watch over her for me, Commander. I...I forgive your actions earlier because I know she asked you not to let me follow. That is a conversation I will have with her later."

"You have my word." He wasn't going to say he was sorry for stopping him. She had asked him to protect her father and he hadn't been about to forsake what might have possibly been the last thing she'd ever asked of him.

"'Ma serannas," breathed the mage before he leaned forward and kissed Meryell's forehead. "Son era, ara vherain."

The first words Cullen didn't know as he hadn't heard Meryell say them but she had explained what the others meant. Before Folke could turn and walk away, he said, "Son err-ah, Folke," well aware that his pronunciation of the words wasn't anywhere near as good as the mage's or Meryell's. But the look on the man's face when he looked at him, the abrupt loosening of tension in his shoulders and the way he smiled easily for the first time since Cullen had spotted him during their interrupted celebrations, that made up for any way he might have said it wrong.

Folke just nodded to him then and was gone, leaving Cullen alone with Meryell on the now mostly empty side of the healer's tent.

He lifted his head for a moment to watch them going about their work, then sighed as he let it fall back to rest against the furs. Meryell then shivered, her whole body shuddering against his own, and he didn't even try to fight the reaction it caused. Instead he plainly ignored it as he drew her even more firmly back against his chest and tucked his knees up underneath hers as best he could with their height difference. Already he could feel the heat building around them as the heavy furs were keeping in the heat he put off and knew it was going to get oppressive.

For her, though, he'd suffer.

Leaning his head against hers, Cullen pressed a gentle kiss to the back of her neck, murmuring two lines of Transfigurations that suddenly flared through his mind.

"Unshaken by the darkness of the world," he quoted softly into her skin, closing his eyes as her still somewhat damp hair tickled his nose, "She shall know true peace."

He could only pray that, upon Meryell waking, such would be true.

As the words left him, Cullen finally felt the iron control he'd held himself under for so long waver. He'd lost all of his composure in the Chantry hours ago and no one had said a damned thing but he'd still felt shameful for it. In Haven’s need, he'd cast aside concerns about the health and safety for the people for one's focused solely on the woman in his arms. And not merely for what she was to the Inquisition, it was for what she was to him.

She'd made him finally start to believe that someone could care about him. Could see him as more than a sword. Could...perhaps...love him. And he'd almost lost her.

He would have carried on probably. Shouldering burdens and moving forward was practically his job given how many times he'd done it over the years.

Yet, he would have been a shadow of himself if she hadn't limped out of the snow as he stood there between Cole as the boy recited cold, so cold, look for light, look for warmth, look for him and Cassandra as she spoke the Chant under her breath. He hadn't dared pray then, for fear that if he did there would be no answer.

Meryell Verlen had imprinted herself on his soul. She had changed him just as surely as lyrium had, as Kinloch, as Kirkwall. Only her changes were for the better.

Cullen felt his shoulders shake involuntarily and then the lump of a sob tightened his throat. Tears blurred his eyes a moment later and he closed them before burying his face against the back of her neck, remembering last minute to avoid her injured left shoulder. His whole body shook as he breathed in and out in great shuddering gasps, her scent so strong in his nose the only thing that kept him silent.

He hadn't felt like this since he'd found Kath’s body in the Tower. Only now...now he could feel the grief as well as the relief. Now he did not have to be the stalwart templar, the rule-abiding Knight-Captain, or the Commander of the Inquisition.

He could be just Cullen in this moment and there was no one to judge him for it.

So he laid there, shaking and shuddering with silent sobs until he was finally - blessedly - drained of energy. Sinking deeper into the cot, Cullen pulled Meryell as close as he could, and let out a long breath across the back of her neck.

“Thank you,” he murmured aloud as he felt sleep rising up in a wave to crash down on top of him to drag him into the Fade.

“Thank you for not taking her from me.”

Chapter Text

It had taken a day after she'd woken up to the pleasant surprise of a mostly naked Cullen crammed into a cot with her (followed by the fucking annoying realization that she was too hurt to do fuck all about it) to convince everyone that they had to have a meeting. She'd actually tried to do so in the first hours after she'd woken up but exhaustion from both her long walk in the snow and what her healing body was taking out of her had conspired to coax her back into sleep.

Cullen's sleepy kisses to the back of her neck coupled with the warmth of him and the strong, secure, safe loop of his arms around her waist had been a good incentive too.

Now, after spending several hours awake arguing with Folke, Cullen, Cassandra, and everyone else who'd come into the tent to see her, she'd finally convinced them to have a meeting. Mostly by trying to get out of bed (which would have been much harder if Cullen hadn't been kicked out by Gil after she'd been deemed back in a safe zone temperature wise) and walk despite the fact that her feet were still five kinds of fucked up from frostbite. That and Gil had threatened bodily harm to the next person that made Meryell nearly fuck up what healing she'd already gotten, herself included.

Which is what led to a trestle table being carried into the isolated side of the healer's tent that she occupied with camp chairs or crates scavenged from other parts of the camp for anyone who wanted one. Meryell herself had been carefully slid down to the end of her cot and propped up with two pillows behind her back after being carefully bundled into a long-sleeved tunic that smelled like Folke and a hideous fur lined coat that someone had found in the assorted belongings that had made it out of Haven.

She also had Cullen perched behind her on a crate he'd moved right up against the head of the cot. His knees sat on either side of the wooden bars supporting it and he had both arms looped around her waist as he rested his chin on her good shoulder. A precaution, he'd muttered in her ear after he had settled there.

She half blamed Gil. The other half of the equation was him being him.

What she hated was the fact that the position made her all too aware of the fine shakes plaguing his hands and she was unable to do anything to help him. Meryell did make a mental note to tell him to ask Folke if there were supplies in camp for the tea. Or, given the scolding she'd gotten earlier from her baba about making him fear losing her for good, ask Gil if any of her potions made it out of camp in the chaos.

Everyone invited to the meeting - which was the whole of the inner circle with an extended invitation to Arnald and Zarru (since they led the Fangs), Folke (purely because he was her father), and Krem (since he was Bull’s second) - slowly trickled into the tent and she traced nonsense patterns over the backs of Cullen's hands underneath the furs until the space filled up. He stilled her movement himself and pressed a brief kiss to her cheek before he straightened, though his arms never ceased encircling her. It was enough to keep contact (and keep his tremors from being seen) but still give the separation of Herald and Commander that they at least attempted to maintain in the war room.

“All here?” asked Meryell as she flicked her eyes over the group. Varric, Josephine, and Dorian had taken up seats around the table and the rest had scattered around the area. Cassandra and Leliana stood at either side of the invisible boundary line that seemed to lay between her space and the rest of the tent, two almost starkly silent sentinels that seemed to be back to the strangers they’d been in those first hours in Haven. The Iron Bull stood between the former Right and Left Hands, as it was the only place he could without his horns puncturing the top of the tent, and Krem had settled next to the Qunari in the easy, loose stance of a warrior at rest.

Blackwall stood against the tent wall to her left, just down from Cassandra, and had an empty camp chair standing ready at his feet in case he wanted it. Solas had seated himself just down of the Warden, closer to her but not too close, and Meryell wasn’t certain she wanted to decipher the look on his face.

On her right, Sera sat on a crate tapping one foot against the ground, idly spinning a small knife back and forth around her fingers. Immediately next to her Arnald took up one of the last chairs, leaning on his elbows towards her, his brow creased with worry over the top of his mask. Zarru stood silently behind him, dressed in simple dark clothes meant for warmth instead of her normal armor.

Folke, of course, had the very last camp chair and he’d pulled it up right next to her cot on her right side. She could see his knee butting against Cullen’s but neither man seemed to mind, which confirmed to her a little more that Folke’s earlier comment in the day about not having hard feelings against the man for his actions in Haven was truth.

“It would seem we are,” commented Josephine. Then she looked around, frowning as she asked, “Though...was there not a boy?”

“Cole?” Varric queried and Meryell stiffened slightly as she felt weight press against the side of her leg just above her knee. Looking down, she found the strange boy sitting on the floor there, his hat no longer present to hide the veritable bird’s nest that was his fine blond hair. He blinked those big blue eyes at her and smiled childishly.

Savhalla, as’ehn’rajast,” he uttered softly and she blinked at him for a moment before tearing her eyes away from him. She was no mage but he sure as shit wasn't human.

“Accounted for,” announced Meryell, though by the looks on most everyone else's faces they didn't see him. Solas did - he was looking right at the boy - as did Dorian by the sudden tensing of his shoulders. Folke's hand gripped hers underneath the blanket then and she glanced over at him as Cullen hissed in surprise behind her, starting to move before she clapped her left hand over his. “He's not a threat,” she announced, drawing confused looks from those who were unaware of Cole and surprise from those that actually noticed him.

Solas leaned forward at that, his fingers folded together, and asked, “Have you some magical power you haven't disclosed, da’len?”

That made Folke snort and she felt his hand relax in hers. Cullen's hand was still tense under hers and she squeezed it tightly as her father commented, “Only her good sense of people. S’how she knew she needed to save mine and Tobik’s asses when we met.”

“I did tell you not to trust Old Karlan,” reminded Meryell as she stroked her thumb across the inside curve of Cullen's hand. As he finally relaxed, expelling a breath hard enough to tickle her ear, she added, “That fucker was always looking for an excuse to make money.”

Before they could get caught up in the past, she quickly went on, “Now...we need to go over Haven. Everything.”

“We have yet to gather all of the names of the lost,” Cullen noted from behind her. “Until we get better organized or find somewhere else to go, we likely won’t know the full counts for the Inquisition forces.”

“Chargers lost five so far that we know of,” chimed in Krem.

Zarru dipped her head slightly, her eyes flicking down at the back of Arnald’s head, before she uttered thickly, “Twenty-three confirmed amongst the Fangs. Folke confirmed this morning that their charms no longer sing to him. Though given we thought our Meryell dead once too, there may still be hope for some of them. Six more are unaccounted for but still sing.”

“Sing?” repeated Sera, eying Folke from where she sat. “Whot’s that mean?”

“It means,” her father replied as he lifted his free hand to grasp the old coin that hung around his own neck, “that that’s how the magic works. Templars track mages through blood magic; I track each member of the Fangs with my own magic. It’s significantly more complicated, of course, and is one of the two specializations that I actually have.”

“Impressive for a da’erelan,” commented Solas.

Folke just smiled at that and inclined his head respectfully to the other mage. Thankfully that comment didn't segue into a magical theory conversation and Meryell smiled at her father for that small mercy before steering the conversation back to the main topic.

“As important as the names of the dead are,” she began, “there's a lot more going on than any of us know. That thing on the hill, the Elder One...he claims to be one of the Magisters who went into the Fade.”

Cassandra and Leliana stiffened at the same time while Dorian exclaimed, “One of the first darkspawn? Are you certain?”

Meryell looked right at the mage and replied, “That was his claim while he fucking had me dangling off the ground.”

That’s what happened to your shoulder?” asked Cullen.

“Yeah. I'm probably not going to be using my daggers in both hands for a while.” If ever, she added silently to herself but quickly pushed the thought away. Gil kept telling her that the damage wasn't irreparable and she trusted her. Meryell then coughed to distract herself from those thoughts and said to everyone, “Fuck. Let me start at the beginning of that grand conversation. Right after the dragon came swooping down at the last trebuchet and I yelled at everyone to run, a fire pot exploded and threw me off my feet. Next thing I know, that thing is walking up to me out of what's now basically a damned fireball without a scratch on him and hauls me up into the air like it's nothing. That's when the fucking dragon came down and blocked the path.”

Varric grimaced at that before saying, “We were turning to come back for you when it came down, Swears. I think the Seeker was about half-convinced to take it on by herself if the whole damned town hadn't been burning around us.”

Smiling at him, she said reassuringly, “As much as I would have liked to see Cassandra take on a dragon - don't give me that look, Seeker, you could stare a dragon fucking down and I'll have no argument on that - I'm glad you all got out safely.”

Cassandra snorted from her spot in the room. “While I disagree with your assessment of my abilities,” she said softly in the tone Meryell had started to learn was the warrior's version of amused, “I will not argue. I am merely glad that you also managed to get out of Haven.”

“By luck,” muttered Meryell and felt the fingers of one of Cullen's hands curl into the fabric of her borrowed coat. Sliding her hand over his, she continued, “Anyway, while this fucker has me up in the air he starts what's basically a damned soliloquy. I'm pretty sure he was only talking to me about half the time.”

“Does our supposed Magister have a name?” queried Dorian.

“Corypheus.”

Sera snorted and Meryell smiled at her as the other elf said, “Cory-what? What a shite name!” The blonde then leaned forward with a broad grin that belied the fear still lingering in her eyes. “Don't you worry, Glowy Bits, I'll come up with some right proper names to call this tit.”

“I have every bit of trust in your ability to do just that, Sera.”

Meryell then released Cullen's hand and lifted her left hand out from under the furs. The Mark - the Anchor - sparked, flaring bright green light across the whole of the tent and she clenched her teeth against the brief jolt of pain that flickered through her nerves. She heard Folke hiss and turned her head to look at him as he narrowed his eyes at her hand.

“It's,” he began, his voice low and cautious, “different…

“Fucker did something to it,” she replied with a snarl. “Felt like my damn arm was going to sear off. Like…” As she trailed off, Meryell locked eyes with Dorian and finished, “It felt like it did when we fell into that future. And then it got worse.”

As Dorian muttered a Tevene curse that she didn't quite catch, she heard Solas say, “It is different from when I examined it originally.”

“Has it become dangerous?” asked Cassandra.

“No,” replied Folke before he released her right hand and reached for her left. Meryell let him have it and watched him as he cradled her hand in both of his much larger, callused thumbs pressing in on her palm in several spots. As the gash of green light flickered before going dormant again, once more becoming a slightly off-color slash across her hand, he said, “It's like it...grew? Not physically but in power. Like it…”

“Unlocked potential,” supplied Solas and she whipped her head around towards him as her father made an affirmative noise.

Folke nodded, saying, “Yes. Did it do anything strange, ara vherain?”

Grimacing at the question, Meryell replied, “That’s a later part of the story, baba. There’s another one that comes before that.” Gently pulling her hand from his, she clenched her fist for a moment then reopened it. As she did, the Anchor burst into light again and she looked up, seeking out Cassandra and Leliana’s eyes in turn as she growled, “He did this. That fucking thing was responsible for the Conclave, for the rifts, for this shit on my hand, for stealing my damned life...all of it.”

She hadn’t meant to say the ‘stealing my life’ part, had meant to keep those words behind her teeth but apparently her mouth had decided to betray her. It wasn’t untrue, however.

Every other person around her had chosen to join the Inquisition.

She’d come into it with chains on her wrists and at the point of a sword.

Meryell shook her head fiercely and reached out with her right hand for Cullen’s. Their fingers tangled as they pressed palms together and she wanted to tell him that she hadn’t meant the abruptly spoken words...not entirely. Getting the Mark had also brought them together on the same path. That was a thing that she could never regret, even if nothing ever happened between them beyond the kiss they’d shared as Haven was collapsing around them.

“He wants to be a god,” she spat a moment later.

“Tevinter’s always do,” commented the Iron Bull, his amused tone changing the meaning behind the words. Beside him, Krem let out a loud snort while Dorian grumbled a quiet protest.

She couldn’t find the energy to smile at the jibe. Not when she’d been at that monster’s mercy, had heard the madness spilling from his cracked lips. She didn’t want to laugh at the experience.

She wanted to curl up in a corner despite her still sore ribs (which Gil had informed her had been cracked) and fucking cry because this wasn’t just some noble with a grudge they were up against. This was a man (or dare she even call it that) who claimed to have been one of the Magister’s who’d become the first darkspawn. A being who could fucking wear red lyrium like it was nothing and wield control over a dragon. Who had gathered an army of templars twisted by that damned same lyrium to attack them. And who, in a future that no longer existed except in her own memories and Dorian’s, had brought the whole of Thedas to it’s knees in a feat of destruction over a year that would have been impressive given the time frame it was executed in if it hadn’t been so Maker damned terrifying.

Meryell could feel herself starting to breathe harder as panic swept over her.

Fighting demons and closing rifts, that was easy.

How the fuck were they supposed to fight something that claimed it was a god?

How could she keep the ones she cared for and loved safe from that?

She faintly registered Cullen’s voice in her ear, followed by Folke’s, but couldn’t focus on them. There was, instead, only the hammering of her own heart in her ears, drowning out everything around her.

Then cold, half-frozen feeling fingers grabbed onto her left hand and Meryell startled, her eyes darting downward to meet the wide blue eyes of the boy. Cole frowned and clasped his other hand around hers as he said, “Hurting, panic, fear. How do I keep them safe? How do we fight a god?” It was like the words echoed through her skull even as she knew that he was pulling them from her.

Andraste’s dripping cunt, what was this boy?

“Help,” replied that voice in her head, low and soothing. Distantly she registered that she had been bundled close to someone and they were rocking her, muttering a rapid stream of Elven under their breath. Folke, not Cullen, then in that case. That was probably Cullen that she could faintly hear shouting for a healer then.

Cole still gripped her hand between his own and Meryell tore her gaze away from him, burying her face against Folke’s throat as she closed her eyes and choked out a ragged, broken sound. His grip around her hand tightened as his voice echoed through her head again.

“They fear too, choking, tugging downward, threatening to drag them under. What if we can’t? Our forces are broken but we live. The Herald is broken but she lives. My daughter is wounded but she fucking lives. But what do we do now? Where do we go from here?”

And, abruptly, the answer is there.

Old words, half remembered, lingering in the back of her mind, an echo of her mother. A memory of skinned knees and tears softened by soothing words and warm hands bearing the calluses of alienage life. Now, now, my Merry, no more tears. What have I told you about facing problems?

Meryell opened her eyes and found herself clutching at Folke’s shoulder, one eye seeing only the skin of his throat, but the other seeing the worried faces of everyone else around her. And there is the boy Cole, a bright smile on his face as he nods and she hears his voice say, “Yes,” in her mind.

“One foot...in...front of...the...other,” she managed to gasp through clenched teeth against her father’s throat as she felt her body continue to shake.

Then Gil was there, her hands glowing with magic and her eyes full of fury because her patient is not well, and Meryell feels herself falling despite knowing that she really isn’t...but she does so with a smile. It’s not a plan - oh, Maker’s aching cock, it’s not even a shred of a plan - but it’s a direction.

It’s a way forward.

And that’s all she needs.

Chapter Text

“I see you are feeling better, da’len.”

Meryell flicked her ears in silent acknowledgement of Solas’ words. Gil had finally released her after five days with the firm stipulation that she be careful and keep her left arm in a sling to let it finish up its last bit of healing. That and she was to always wear plenty of layers because the last thing they needed was her to get another bout of frostbite right behind the one she’d barely gotten past.

The last had led to a hunt around the camp by both Folke and Cullen for what were deemed suitable clothes for her since her things hadn't made it out of Haven. It hadn’t given her a lot of matching things - which she didn’t care about except that some of them clashed as terribly as Sera’s wardrobe and she’d didn’t not care that much - but it had gotten her a very nice pair of fur-lined boots.

“Better is debatable, Chuckles,” she replied as she realized he’d come to stand beside her.

She’d been looking back down the way she’d come, the long walk through a blizzard that should have rightly killed her. They couldn’t see Haven from their position further up in the Frostbacks but she didn’t need to see it. The memories of the village burning around their ears was seared into her memory for some time to come.

“True.” She did turn to look at the other elf then and arched an eyebrow when she noticed that he was standing next to her not only on top of the snow without breaking it - which was a feat even she wasn’t capable of - but was doing so with his feet mostly bare. The mage smirked, obviously noting where her attention had gone, and said imperiously, “Magic.”

“Of course it is,” muttered Meryell as she shifted her attention back to the hill. “So what do you need, Chuckles? Just come to bother me?”

“Oh the contrary,” he replied. “I came to give you direction since you now seem able to take it given your recovery.”

“Direction, huh?”

She could practically taste the smarm rolling off of him as he answered, “Is direction not what the Inquisition seeks right now?”

Snorting, Meryell replied, “Guess we do.” Turning to face him, she tugged the fur around her shoulders a little bit higher with her good hand to cover the back of her neck before asking, “So what brilliance have you got to share with me that you couldn’t tell someone else before now?”

He merely smiled before turning even more starkly sober than he normally was - which was a damned fine feat for the mage. Solas turned his gaze away from her out towards the calm of the mountain air as he said in a quiet voice, “The orb you described to us in our second discussion. I have...I have seen it’s like in my travels in the Fade if what you told us of how it looked is true. Both it and the power he used against you are ours.”

“Ours?” she repeated with a slight curl to her lip. As she started to say that they didn’t have anything in common, Meryell caught on to what he meant. “Elven,” she breathed. “You mean to tell me that it’s some kind of...ancient fucking Elven magic item?”

“A foci, yes.”

“So basically an ancient power equivalent of a staff or a wand.”

Solas arched an eyebrow and she smirked.

“My baba may not be much of a mage but he does use foci,” explained Meryell. “They’re nothing like what someone like you or Gil or anyone else uses but I know what they are. I’ve listened to all of them plan enough to give to our enchanter to know the general principle.”

The mage gave her what looked like it was almost an appraising look and she stuck out her tongue at him childishly.

“Charming,” he commented wryly. Then Solas clasped his hands behind his back and said, “I believe that Corypheus used the orb to open the Breach. His unlocking of the orb must have triggered the explosion that destroyed the Conclave.”

Snorting, Meryell twitched her left hand underneath the fur. “Still doesn’t explain this Anchor business.”

“I imagine that he meant to wield it himself. Yet somehow you took it for yourself.”

“Yeah,” she muttered, eyebrows scrunching as she fought to think of those hours before she’d awoken in Haven a prisoner. She could remember getting into the Conclave with the Dalish, could recall finding two of the things she’d been hired to retrieve, but after that...nothing. There was still a blank spot in her recollection and it itched like a healing wound. “Somehow.”

She then shook her head before asking, “What happens when folk find out that the thing that took out the Conclave was Elven? Will they care that it was wielded by a Tevinter madman or will the fools turn all of their anger on our kind like they’ve done so many times before?”

Solas shrugged. “I do not know the answer to that, da’len, but I too fear what may come of the knowledge being widespread. There are many who may not care about who wielded it.”

“Yeah,” replied Meryell, her jaw clenching. “I’ve met plenty that would.” She then shook her head and flashed a hard look at him as she said, “Now, enough about the fucking orb. You said direction, so I sure as shit hope you meant an actual one because we can’t stay on top of this Maker cursed mountain.”

The other elf smiled - that damned know-it-all smile - as he replied, “I have undertaken many travels through the Fade, to the now and to the most distant of the past. There are places in the world - places of power, of purpose - that can be put to the use of the Inquisition. One such is very close within our reach.”

He then turned away from the slope that lead downward towards the wreckage of Haven, gesturing vaguely with an arm for her to do the same. As they both turned to face the camp, he pointed off to the north as he said, “Take scouts and go ahead. Be their guide.”

Tired of his cryptic answers, Meryell growled, “Give me a solid fucking answer, Chuckles. Where am I going?

Smirking, Solas replied, “The nearest place to use is simply waiting for a force to hold it. It is somewhere that the Inquisition can build, can grow, can become what it needs to be.”

“I’m not sure that counts as a solid answer but forget it.” Sighing, Meryell briefly touched the fingers of her right hand to her forehead before she asked, “What’s this special place of yours called?”

Tarasyl’an Te’las.”

Wrinkling her nose, she mouthed the unfamiliar name several times to herself before she said hesitantly, “The place of the sky? No, that’s not right. Kept. The place where the sky is kept.” When there was no immediate answer, Meryell turned to look at the other elf and found him regarding her with one of those odd expressions of his that she couldn’t read. “What?

“I have met many Dalish clans, da’len, but few have ever held the vocabulary that you claim.”

Shrugging, Meryell off-handedly said, “Babae’s clan was adamant about keeping as much of the old ways alive as they could. Just so happened that the language was one they held onto decently.” She then frowned and cocked her head at the mage. “Where’d you learn to speak it? No, wait, don’t tell me...the fucking Fade.”

When he just smiled at her, she shook her head and waved a hand at him. Smug asshole.

“Nevermind. It have a name in more common terms?”

Solas slowly nodded before replying, “Those who found it later and built the fortress that sits upon the land called it Skyhold.”

“Skyhold,” repeated Meryell softly, her eyes fixed on the sky to the north. She then turned to look back behind her, back down the hill towards Haven, towards where she’d very nearly met her death. That was the past.

What have I told you about facing problems?

Her mother’s voice echoed in her ears - though only the fucking Maker knew if she actually remembered the woman’s voice correctly, it had been so long since she’d heard it - and she turned away from the slope towards the sky and ever rising ridges of the Frostbacks. In that direction was a hope for the future.

“Alright, Chuckles,” she said after a long moment, “we’ll see if we can find this special place of yours. Not like we’ve got many other options for places to go.” Meryell then jerked her chin towards the open area where a makeshift sort of war table had been set up with a map that Arnald had pulled out of his own belongings that had made it into the wagons. “Now move your ass. You get to come with me to spring this new plan on everyone else.”

Solas chuckled lowly but followed her as she started moving, asking from behind her, “And how shall you explain listening to me?”

Snorting, she replied over her shoulder, “Easy, Chuckles. I’ll tell ‘em that I threatened to gut you with one of my daggers if you were lying. Same as I’m doing right now.”

“I ponder at times how you have managed to make it through life upon threats alone.”

“Oh, it’s not a threat, hahren,” Meryell replied in a low purr. “It’s a promise. I don’t take kindly to being fucked over.”


Almost a week later, Meryell hauled herself up one-handed onto a rock and stood cautiously up into the bracing wind that had been chasing them through the Frostbacks for the past few days. She fully expected to find only snow and rock before them once more but, for the first time in so many days, she actually got a surprise.

Instead of more miles of snow and ice and rock, the mountains suddenly dropped off ahead of her into a valley that was still full of mist this early in the morning. And out of the shifting mists rose the bulk of an ancient keep, its walls just barely painted golden by the first rays of the sun that were starting to show.

Fuck me,” she breathed after a moment.

“The Commander may have an issue with that,” commented Pod as he clambered up next to her. He then whistled a high note and she turned to see his eyes were wide with surprise. “Damn fine find though. You want me to grab that lightfoot of the spymaster’s and see if we can find a way down?”

Snorting at the way he referenced the slight young man who seemed far too small for his proclaimed age of ten and seven years, Meryell replied, “Just find a path that can be traversed by normal people and not mountain goats like you two, eh? Last thing we need is someone breaking their fucking neck.”

Pod flashed her a mostly belligerent salute, his grin twisting the branches of his vallaslin so they showed instead of the ink nearly fading into his skin thanks to the similar shade. Then he was bounding off, shouting the name of one of the other scouts before he clapped his arm around the youth’s shoulders. After a moment, they bolted off together and she shook her head while smiling.

Then she heard the sound of boots scuffing against stone behind her as well as a familiar grunt and turned to find Cullen rising to stand next to her. The wind blew his fur back a little from his shoulders and set his curly hair (which he had stated outright wasn’t a priority to set to rights until they were resettled) into even more of an unruly mess. He sighed dramatically before grinning at her as he tipped his chin towards the keep in the distance.

“I see that Solas was correct that there was something to the north.”

“Vaguest fucking directions ever,” she replied with a smile.

Cullen chuckled and nodded before saying, “They turned out, though.” She watched him as he narrowed his eyes and held up a hand to block a bit of the wind from blowing into his gaze and causing his eyes to water. Watching him assess what they could see of the keep was almost as fascinating at observing Folke at work because she could tell when he was noting something particular. His eyes lingered on whatever it was, narrowing in with an intensity that was more than a little daunting, before they were on the move again.

It made her wonder how often he focused that sort of attention on her when she wasn’t paying attention.

Shaking herself, Meryell realized he’d said something and asked, “What?”

Laughing, he replied, “I said it certainly looks like it has kept together for however long it's been abandoned but there’s no telling until we get closer how badly damaged the insides are. We can only hope it’s a purely stone structure and not largely wood on the inside. If it’s the latter we’re going to have our work cut out for us for a while.” Then he leaned forward and his voice dropped several octaves as he growled, “Whatever were you thinking, dear thief? You were awfully lost in thought.”

“Was I?” she replied airily, turning away from him back towards the keep in an attempt to hide her flush. With the wind, it could be easily excused away as the cold taking hard to her cheeks.

“You were.” Cullen then sidled a step closer to her, one arm wrapping around her waist as he rested a hand lightly above her hip. It was a subtle sort of grip, especially with the layers of clothes she was wearing underneath the fur-lined jacket, that didn’t veer much towards intimacy. Not that anyone in the Inquisition would care as she’d learned that the story of their kiss in the Chantry had spread in hushed whispers, accompanied by the quick recitation of him carrying her icy body into their camp and then promptly disappearing for the rest of the night. A tale of heartbreak and hope was the description she’d heard about it and nearly curled her nose in disgust.

She didn’t mind folks knowing about her relationship with him or them seeing them together but she was damned well against them turning it into some kind of a sappy romance out of one of Varric’s terrible novels. They had their issues and neither of them had the spotless record of the main romantic characters in those sort of books. If someone was going to write about them - and no doubt Varric eventually would - they had fucking better get them right.

Leaning into him, Meryell hummed before saying, “Just admiring your hair.” Despite everything, they still weren't at a place where she was comfortable admitting what she’d been thinking. Maybe someday but not now.

Cullen groaned and shook his head before commenting, “I don't understand why you like it. It's more trouble than it's worth.”

“Maybe that’s exactly why I like it.”

“I really don’t think that’s the answer. And I don't think you were admiring my hair.”

Smiling, Meryell canted her head back to look at him upside down, saying in a sing-song voice, “I'll never tell.” Then she laughed before adding, “I'm not lying when I say I like your hair.”

He suddenly broke into a grin, lifting his free hand with one finger extended. “Ah ha!” Cullen exclaimed victoriously. “And that confirms you weren't admiring my hair at all. Telling me you're not lying is telling me something, so obviously that wasn't why you were distracted.”

“I confirm nothing.”

“Oh no,” he said firmly, “I'm onto you now, dear thief. I'll find out what's going on in that head of yours.”

Laughing at his determination, Meryell said, “Over whiskey?”

Cullen shrugged off-handedly before saying airily, “If I could manage to find a bottle.” She'd learned well in the time they'd spent together that he had a penchant for squirrelling alcohol away (though he claimed she had inspired the habit so he wouldn't have to walk all the way to the tavern for a bottle) and the soldiers had made sure to get the main contents of their Commander's tent in the wagons leaving Haven. Somehow the two bottles he'd had stored away hadn't broken in transit and they'd already celebrated publicly with the inner circle with one on the day she was officially released from healers. Which left one for their own private use. Then he grinned down at her, his voice lowering in volume as he asked, “Tonight in my tent?”

“I wouldn't miss it,” she replied, nuzzling her cheek against the fur of his mantle. “No Inquisition talk.”

“What will be the topic of the night then?”

“Tell me more about Honnleath. And your siblings.” Meryell then froze and asked, “You did send a letter to Mia already, didn't you? Fuck knows that word will get out soon about Haven getting decimated and the last thing I want is your sister storming the gates trying to figure out if you're alive.”

Cullen chuckled and reassuringly rubbed his hand in a circle over her hip. “No,” he replied, “there won't be any storming of the gates happening. I took your warning about not writing to her to heart the first time and already sent a letter when there was a raven free.”

“Good,” she said sternly. She'd only learned about his siblings after that day-long talk of theirs when he'd also told her about Kirkwall, which had softened her outrage at his bad writing habits considerably. Family was a thing she'd always taken seriously and it had only become more so after she'd no longer had any of her own blood. She always did her best to keep Folke informed when she was out in the field and he'd always done the same for her. Meryell had understood Cullen's reluctance to expose his siblings to what had happened to him (especially after explaining that they had become orphans after the Blight) but they'd still deserved more than I'm alive after having to track him down.

“If I am to tell you about Honnleath,” Cullen asked in a somewhat cautious sounding tone, “will you tell me about South Reach?”

Wrinkling her nose, Meryell replied, “There isn't all that much to tell.”

“Maybe not, but I'd like to hear what it was like growing up in the alienage just the same.” She heard more than felt him rub his fingers against her side, the leather of his gloves scratching against her jacket. “I'm curious as to what you were like as a child.”

Snorting, she said, “Depends on when we're talking about.”

Cullen sighed and he lifted his other hand to lightly touch her cheek, turning her face upwards towards his with a gentle press of his thumb against the underside of her jaw. “Dear thief,” he rumbled warmly, sending a jolt of lust straight through her at what delicious things it did to his voice, “haven't you gotten it yet that I want to know it all? That everything about you fascinates me?”

Blinking several times, Meryell softly answered, “It seems I need a reminder.”

“It seems you do. Tonight?”

Fuck. Yes,” she hissed, already thinking of times past when they sat together on the floor of his tent or laid on her bed. When gloves and armor had come off and between drinks they had talked and let hands wander. They rarely dipped below clothes; it was more about learning responses and each other. Such as he'd learned that running his fingers up and down the outside of her thighs would set her squirming in frustration and she'd learned that raking her nails down his back (done initially because he was trying to reach an itchy spot) would make him loose the most delicious growl of pleasure she'd ever heard a man utter. There were a dozen other things found in their painfully slow exploration and she longed for the day they were both ready to delve deeper.

Cullen chuckled and thumbed his finger lightly across the skin of her lower lip, softly saying, “I look forward to wherever we camp tonight them, whether it be in the valley or inside the keep itself.” The rough touch of his gloved hand tugging gently at her skin made her shiver and Meryell kicked her lips in response.

Then she met his eyes again and thought, There. That is what it looks like when he looks at me as intensely as he did Skyhold. It was both glorious and absolutely terrifying to be the target of such an intense gaze.

“Oy, Yeller!”

Pod’s shout had both of them jumping and Meryell turned with a snarl on her lips as Cullen pulled away from her with an abrupt blush gracing his cheeks. “What?” she spat, at both the untimely interruption and the use of that thrice-damned nickname.

The elf that was the target of her ire just grinned back at her, all of her rage just rolling off his back with no effect. He jerked a thumb back over his shoulder in the direction he and Leliana’s scout had gone and said, “The durgen hoarlin and I found you a path that won't kill anyone. Figured you and the Commander would want to know straight off.”

Literally the only thing saving him from her launching herself at him and strangling the life out of him was that it wouldn't do a damned thing. That and the Captain would kill her.

Instead she settled for striding forward to latch her right arm hard around Pod's neck, forcing him to bend slightly to compensate for their height difference. As soon as his ear was level with her mouth, she snarled, "You're lucky I don't want to piss off the Captain, telsilathe. Otherwise you'd be eating dirt right now and I don't mean in the me kicking you face first down into it kind of way.”

"Oh, come on, asa'ma'lin,” Pod groaned back as he lifted a hand to grab her wrist lightly. "Y'know I don't mean nothing bad. Just friendly prodding, same as we always do.”

Nodding in response, Meryell said, "Oh, I know you don't mean anything bad. You've always fucked with me when I've been in a relationship but never harshly or with ulterior motives." She paused just long enough for dramatic effect before finishing, "But you, isa’ma’lin, just interrupted a Moment.”

Sighing heavily, he grumbled, “I'm getting the impression that I'm about to lose a body part over this.”

“Maybe after we've gotten settled.”

Pod chuckled uneasily and tilted his head enough to flick the tip of his ear against hers, a purely Dalish gesture that he and Evune had introduced her to. It was essentially both a way of asking are you okay and are we okay though considerably more convoluted than that. Like most Dalish things, she simplified it down to its most basic.

“The only thing saving me is my eyes, eh?” he asked.

Meryell squeezed his neck briefly before she flicked her ear back against his twice. Once meant you weren't okay, twice meant you were. Simple. Plus it was a nice silent communication.

“Only damned thing good about your fool ass,” she replied before releasing him. Pod just grinned and she reached out to punch him hard in the shoulder before adding, “Go run and find the rest of the bunch for me, isa’ma’lin. Then we can go over this way down of yours.”

He dipped immediately into an overly exaggerated bow, saying, “Anything for our beloved Herald!” She promptly put a boot in his ass in return as he strode off, kicking him forward through a set of skittering steps that he laughing during. Then she turned back to Cullen and found him watching her with open amusement, though one hand still nervously rested at the back of his neck.

It was one of those gestures that reminded her how private of a man he really was, a trait he openly admitted that she somehow managed to sideline more than half the time. He was comfortable when it didn't seem like people were paying them attention but when someone came right up to them, he instantly retreated back to friend from...well, whatever term they wanted to put to what was going on. It certainly wasn't lover but it also wasn't just friend.

Ih-sah-mah-len?” he pronounced tentatively, his tongue stumbling over the unfamiliar pronunciation.

Smiling, Meryell sidled back up next to him and explained, “It means brother. Asa'ma'lin, what he called me, is sister.”

“And...tell-sil-ah-theh?

Tell-sill-ah-they,” she corrected lightly. “Annoyance.”

Cullen snorted a laugh at that, shaking his head. “Oh, yes, brothers are that indeed,” he said. Then he cocked his head to the side and asked, “Why brother and sister though? If I may ask?”

Shrugging, she replied, “We came into the company around the same time. You know the story of how I got there but Pod...well. The way I heard it…”

“Heard it?” repeated Cullen as he interrupted her. “That sounds like you didn't know each other very well at first.”

“Shit, we fought like fucking mad. Ferelden and Orlesian levels of wanting to murder each other from the day we met.” Shaking her head once sharply, Meryell went on, “Anyway, way I heard it, Pod got found half-dead on the way back from a job. Covered in fucking blood with his broken bow clenched in his fingers. One of the oldsters who's no longer with us, Kord, he said he'd never seen anyone that injured rise up and take out a man so fast. Pod was half crazy, wild on battle high and the need to survive, and they had to knock him out to get him back to base.”

Cullen arched his eyebrows and asked, “So what happened?”

“He was a hunter - probably fucking obvious from his skill with a bow but whatever - and new to his vallaslin. Went out on a hunt with several others and they chased their quarry into some ruins. Turns out that giant spiders had taken it over as their home.”

By his sudden flinch, she got the immediate impression that Cullen had tangled with giant spiders at least once. Knowing what she did of Kirkwall and the Vimmarks, it was probably from chasing an escaped mage or an apostate.

“Pod was the only survivor,” she finished as she crossed her right arm underneath the sling holding her left. “We managed to find his clan while he was healing up and they...well, they'd already written the whole group off for dead. And they seemed more angry than pleased that he'd survived. Like he was supposed to fucking die with the rest.”

Gritting her teeth, Meryell continued, “Only reason I was there was Folke had the intent to teach me manners via having me observe the talking. When they said that, he told me to let loose, and I gave those fuckers the whole of my mind. His Keeper said we could have him as they would not allow a coward back into the clan and Folke promptly told ‘em that the company would be glad to have someone that could survive like that and keep going.”

“A loss for them and a gain for the company,” Cullen noted solemnly. He then smiled and lifted a hand, tilting it slightly back and forth. “And it seems a gain for Pod himself if that would have been their mood around him if he'd returned? Was you being involved in the talks the reason you didn't like each other at first?”

“Fuck no,” she replied with a laugh. “That was just the good old shit piss of Dalish dislike for city kin. Nearly killed each other a couple of times until the Captain threatened to murder us both.”

He chuckled and asked, “So how did you not end up murdering each other, dear thief?”

Meryell laughed and just so happened to turn to answer him enough to see Pod returning with Cassandra and Josephine at his heels. Instead of explaining, she let her right hand fall away from gripping her left elbow and lightly tapped her knuckles against his breastplate. “That,” she announced sharply, “will have to be part of our discussion for tonight. Looks like it's time to talk about how we get over there.”

Cullen smiled in response and said softly, “I think I can wait for the rest of that story.” He then held out a hand in a gesture towards them and said, “After you.”

Wrinkling her nose, she asked, “How about with you? I mean, I appreciate the chivalry or whatever but...wait, you always walk next to me after I told you fuck chivalry ages ago.” Stopping abruptly, Meryell scowled up at him. “You just wanted to look at my ass.”

“I admit nothing,” he replied completely straight-faced. There was a gleam in his eyes, however, that told her exactly how much he was lying.

She pointed a single finger at him with a serious expression before smirking and striding off anyway, giving him whatever time he wanted to look. It didn't take him long to follow and when he did, one hand came to rest lightly against the small of her back. Meryell didn't really look forward to another plotting session but if it got them closer to being out of the damned snow, she'd go through however many were needed.

Chapter Text

“They can't be serious.”

Cassandra merely blinked slowly at him in response as he paced in the tower that he'd claimed to be his own office (multiple points of entry that made it accessible to the soldiers and secluded enough to keep his somewhat worsening nightmares from disturbing anyone). She was leaning against the desk that had been moved in, a heavy thing that he currently wasn't even using due to the tower still needing a few masonry related repairs, and shaking her head slightly at him.

“Do you think I have not pointed this out myself, Cullen?” she asked with only slight exasperation.

Stopping in his tracks facing the middle door, he bowed his head and sighed. Out of the four of them, he knew Meryell best and Cassandra was somewhere behind him with their battlefield born trust. Josephine just so rarely had time for anyone that wasn't someone she was plying influence with (time that was even less now in their recovery stage) and Leliana was still a cautious topic for Meryell that the elf didn't trust.

So of course Cassandra was his ally in this argument.

Lifting a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose in a futile effort to stave off the first signs of a withdrawal born migraine already pulsing behind his eyes, Cullen softly said, “I apologize. Of course you did, Cassandra.”

The woman behind him grunted before observing matter-of-factly, “You aren't taking care of yourself again.”

“There's too much work to do,” he growled in response. Between laying out land at the base of the hill Skyhold sat upon as grounds for the soldiery (a task which he'd thankfully had Arnald’s considerable aid in constructing) and organizing patrols around the work having to be done to the keep as well as taking stock of what was there, he'd been run ragged over the first month of their occupation. It hadn't helped that he was more often than not too tired to give little more than a cursory grunt whenever Meryell showed up in his tent. He hadn't the energy to find hers except on the rarest of occasions and she'd taken to showing up in his without a drop of alcohol, silently helping him out of his armor and just curling up in his cot with him to run her fingers through his hair amongst a flutter of Elven words that were soothing nonsense to his ears or the rare Ferelden lullaby.

It was practically the only contact they'd had of late as any other time they saw each other it was Inquisition related. She would occasionally rest a hand on his arm for a moment, smiling up at him before she set off again, and he would sometimes get the opportunity to pull her aside just long enough to hug her against him for a few precious seconds, one of those things that reminded him that she was alive and safe.

“The both of you should know that the whole of the Inquisition won't fall apart if you take a few moments of the day to yourselves,” scoffed Cassandra. He frowned at her words and turned to face her, a little startled that she looked surprised at his confusion. “You didn't know?”

“That she's running herself as ragged as I am?” asked Cullen. Sudden ire flashed through him, his temper wrung to its end by recent events, and he flung up his hands angrily as he snarled onward, “How the fuck am I supposed to know what's going on when I barely see her and, on the rare occasion that I do, both of us are too tired to do anything but sleep?”

He then closed his eyes tightly as pain flared through his head and lifted his hands higher to press two fingers against each temple. Vaguely he heard Cassandra move towards him and when Cullen opened his eyes, she was standing in front of him with a concerned look on her face.

“Go to your tent, Cullen,” she said firmly and despite that look and the pain in his head, he started to open his mouth to argue. In response, she immediately lifted a gloved hand and shoved him in the chest with the heel of her palm.

Stumbling backwards, he managed to catch his balance again but only barely. Mostly it was thanks to the wall behind him as one hand had flung out to catch himself and just so happened to brace against it.

“You cannot even stand, Commander.”

“I can stand fine so long as I'm not shoved without warning,” Cullen spat back but he already knew he'd lost the battle. He'd sparred against Cassandra enough since joining the Inquisition to know when he should bow out.

She sniffed in response and said stonily, “You asked me to keep an eye on you, to give my judgement upon your work.”

Shoulders deflating, he nodded and leaned back against the wall. “Yes,” he replied wearily.

“Then listen to me in this.” Cassandra’s voice then softened as she went on, “The world will not fall apart if you take a single night, Cullen. I thought Meryell had helped you learn that lesson but apparently you both have forgotten it.”

He bit his lip around the words his mouth wanted to say, that nearly dying and sending her to die had rattled them both hard. Cullen knew it, Meryell knew it, yet neither had had a real moment to talk about it. The march to Skyhold had been spent trying not to think about how damned close it had been. Inane conversation had filled their moments and nights instead, talking about company members or their life before the world had been thrown out from under their feet.

And now they both stood on the cusp of falling, toes on the knife edge, and they wanted to name her Inquisitor.

The mere thought made his mind go skittering towards thoughts he didn't want, things he didn't think his already over-labored head could go through, and shook himself. There was one thing though that needed to, no, had to be covered if Leliana and Josephine were determined in their course. He couldn't argue with the placement of the position himself (it was sound logic to set the woman who'd brought them this far in charge) and knew that Cassandra couldn't either because her mind worked in the same sensible way his own did.

Meeting her eyes, he said firmly, “She has to know if we declare it. It can't be a surprise like they want. She'll refuse outright if it is.”

“As we already agreed,” replied Cassandra with a heavy nod. She then flicked a hand at him in a shooing motion, saying, “Go to your tent. I will find a runner to get her or, if she proves stubborn, find her myself and drag her there. Tell her. Talk to her. Sort out whatever this is driving you two. And for the Maker's sake and our own, Cullen, take care of yourself.”

Her voice softened considerably and she even smiled as she finished, “The Inquisition may need its Commander but I believe my friend and I need our friend more.”

Though he didn't quite understand where exactly their friendship had come from, he was abruptly glad for it. Meryell, despite all of her cursing and somewhat rough demeanor, had softened Cassandra just a touch via their friendship. It was something that had also translated over to their own friendship, leaving them in a somewhat more annoying (since she was more often on him about his health) but all-together better place.

“Fine,” he agreed with a sigh. Then Cullen straightened up and pointed at her as he added, “If something goes wrong though…”

“I will assess it, consult with Rylen and Captain Arnald, and then determine if I need to send someone to retrieve you,” Cassandra interrupted in a no-nonsense tone that didn't allow for a single shred of combat against it. “The whole of Skyhold will not collapse without you or her. Go.

Knowing he'd well and truly lost, Cullen shook his head and turned, leaving his office to stride across the walkway that lay between his tower and the bulk of the keep. As he entered the rotunda that sat at the base of what would eventually be the library (it was more empty shelves than anything at the moment), he found Solas in his usual place up on scaffolding with his paints working on whatever project he'd undertaken once the room was clear. What surprised him was that Meryell was laying on the comfortable looking sofa that had found its way into the center of the room, her back towards the closed door that led to the main hall.

Glancing at the mage, who acknowledged him with a half bob of his head without turning away from his work, Cullen made his way towards the sofa. He deliberately scuffed the soles of his boots against the stone of the floor to make noise announcing his approach and was rewarded by a bleary eyed Meryell lifting her head above the arm before he'd quite reached her. Her brown hair, which had grown considerably longer than the shaggy short cut that she'd had on her arrival, was in a wildly mussed halo around her head that hovered in length between her chin and shoulders and told him she'd been asleep on the sofa for some time.

“Hi,” she mumbled sleepily as she blinked up at him.

“Hi,” he replied before slowly dropping to one knee next to her. “I didn't expect to find you here.”

Meryell blinked then her sleepy eyes flicked across the room towards Solas’ back. Then they came back to him as she grumbled, “He may be an asshole but he at least let's me sleep without another fucking missive to sign or whatever other shit piss that apparently needs me to do it. Keeps the lot of them off my back too.”

“You are welcome, da’len,” came the other elf's voice from across the room.

Serannas, hahren.”

Solas snorted and said, “Be careful. That almost sounded appreciative and not the insult you meant it as.”

Meryell wrinkled her nose and growled in response, “Lasa adahl su nar masa, hahren.

“Ah. Now the world shall not end because you actually thanked me. I can rest at ease.”

Cullen blinked several times at what seemed like banter but the idea of these two bantering was a foreign sort of thought process. Neither liked the other and he'd been privy to at least two rants about Solas where the only word he could recognize coming out of Meryell's mouth was his name and the few Elven curse words he'd managed to pick up. He wasn't sure of what Solas’ opinion of her was but he didn't imagine that it was much better than Meryell's of him. They mixed as well as badly mismatched armor or a sword in an ill-fitted sheath.

“Fuck you, Chuckles.” Meryell sat up fully then, running her fingers back through her hair with a grimace as they caught on tangles she obviously hadn't expected. She growled angrily at it before giving up and looking up at him with a grumpy sort of petulant look that was, to put it simply, adorable. Then she asked, “You were looking for me?”

“I actually wasn't,” replied Cullen. “Hence my surprise. I was, ah, hoping to see you later though.” He stalled out his hand as he realized it was rising nervously towards the back of his neck and grumpily flicked it back down to hang at his side. “There's something we should talk about.”

“Something important?” she asked, her eyes looking more awake than they had a moment before. She flicked her gaze towards Solas’ back and lowered her voice as she began to ask, “It's not….u…”

“No,” he soundly interjected, leaning over to take up her hands in his. Her fingers curled around his and he once again regretted his gloves despite the cold.

Shaking his head, Cullen finished softly, “No, dear thief, it's nothing about us.”

Except that was a lie but he wasn't letting his brain go there. Not yet anyway.

Meryell nodded her head just slightly then smiled, fingers flexing against his as she said, “I can meet you this evening…” As he started shaking his head, she frowned. “Not this evening?” she asked in a disappointed sounding tone.

“Not what I meant,” replied Cullen with a smile. Gently tugging at her hands, he lifted her up from her seat and pulled her against him, distinctly not caring about Solas’ presence or anyone that might be above working on the library or rookery floors. Releasing her hands, he slid his arms around her as he said warmly, “I have been soundly told that I should rest. Apparently I've been overworking myself.”

She arched her eyebrows as she leaned into him, her own arms wrapping around his waist though he couldn't feel the embrace through his armor. “Who managed to convince you of that when I've been trying for weeks?”

“Guess, dear thief.”

“Only Cassandra is stubborn enough to take you on and win.” Meryell then grinned wickedly and leaned forward to prop her chin against his breastplate, batting her eyes playfully. “How’d she do it? I need to know for the next time you get all stuck in work.”

Cullen just smiled in reply before softly saying, “She pointed out that you were doing the same thing.”

That made her cheeks color and Meryell abruptly straightened, leaning away from him as far as the loop of his arms would allow. “I'm not doing that much,” she grumbled. “Just making sure everyone's got somewhere to sleep, checking on the Fangs and the soldiers, making sure the kitchens have all of the supplies they need. Same things I did lots of fucking times before.”

“Before Josephine also had you running around doing other things.”

“I'm fine.”

Sighing, Cullen moved one arm from around her as he curled the other more tightly, drawing her close again. As he touched her cheek with his now free hand, he rumbled softly, “Ve-hen-an-ar-rah, you were just sleeping on Solas’ couch in order to protect yourself from anyone wanting you to do something. Solas.”

Meryell went still in his arms and he realized that she was suddenly breathing hard, her eyes wide. Confused, he began, “Are you…”

“I'm fine,” she hurriedly replied. Then she closed her eyes and asked quietly, “Do you...do you know what that means?”

Frowning, thinking he'd perhaps done something wrong, Cullen replied, “No, but it obviously means something since you only say it to me. Do you not want me to use it?”

No! I just...you can use it, Cullen. It's…” She paused to take in a long breath, letting it go in a quick rush along with the words, “If anyone else can use it, I would like to think you can.”

More than a little confused, he asked, “Are you going to tell me what it means, dear thief?” He wasn't about to ask the only other Elven speaking people he knew well what it meant. Mostly he wasn't entirely sure they'd tell him truthfully (Folke probably would) but also because he wanted to hear it's meaning from her. It seemed only proper since she was the one who'd started calling him it.

Meryell smiled then, a little bit of coyness in the expression amongst the still wide-eyed surprise, and replied, “One day.”

Tease.” She laughed - hopefully at his playful affronted tone- and he smiled at the sound. It had become a rarity of late. Cullen then brushed his fingers across her cheekbones as he said, “Come take a break with me, dear thief. Surely there's a quiet corner somewhere in this beast of a keep.”

Her eyes lit up then and she replied, “I know just the fucking place. You need to lose the armor though.”

“I was intending on it.”

“And grab one of Gil’s potion that she gave you for that headache.”

How she managed to always know when he was having the start of a migraine was still a mystery. He was certain that he didn't give anything away until they were at their worst and by then he was usually somewhere secluded. Yet somehow she almost always knew.

Nodding, Cullen replied, “I'll take one as soon as I get to my tent.”

“Good,” said Meryell firmly. She then smiled and continued, “I'll meet you out behind the stables in...half a glass?”

“I'll be there.”

Beaming brightly, she slipped out of his arms then and practically scampered off, no sign of her having been asleep only moments before except for the wild nest of her hair. Cullen shook his head after her and started to follow then paused, looking back over at the back of the bald elf.

“Solas.”

“Yes, Commander?” he asked as he bowed his head over whatever bowl of paint he was currently working with.

Cullen bit his lip and this time didn't stop the hand from rising to rub at the back of his neck. “Thank you,” he began. “For helping her.”

Solas merely hummed in response before saying, “Though we may disagree, I am well aware that we would get nowhere without her. And not simply for the mark on her hand.” As he focused back on his artwork, shoulders shifting as he lifted his arm again, the elf finished, “Never fear, Commander, despite our dislike I shall be at her back.”

“Thank you, Solas.”

“You are welcome. Though I believe you are inching close to missing your meeting.”

Taking the words as the dismissal they were, Cullen bowed his head towards the elf despite his back being towards him and left. Given that his tent was currently set up right in the courtyard just down the stairs from the main keep along with most of the rest of the inner circle, it didn't take him long to strip out of his armor and hang it on it's stand. As he tugged on a new tunic to replace the slightly sweaty one he'd had on underneath everything, Cullen lifted up the lid of a smaller chest nestled down into the bottom of his larger one. Inside were several potion bottles nestled into a custom made padding that protected them from clattering against each other or the sides of the box and breaking. It had been a gift delivered by Folke during the first week after they'd settled into the keep, when his withdrawals had abruptly been so fierce that he'd stayed huddled in his tent for two days under the lie that he had a mild cold.

With two of Gil's potions in him and nearly decimating the supply of tea the hedge mage had given him what seemed ages ago, he'd come out of those two days feeling better than ever. Before the work load of restoring the keep had come crashing down on him in full force.

Carefully lifting one of the bottles out, Cullen uncorked it and cautiously downed half of it, judging it enough for the time being since the migraine forming wasn’t one of the fiercer ones. It immediately went to work, easing the piercing ache throbbing at his temples and the stabbing sensation lurking behind his eyes. He did, however, recork the bottle and tuck the remainder into the pouch on his belt in case he needed the rest later. If he turned out to be wrong, he would want it on him and not a long walk back to his tent away.

Rewrapping himself up in his coat, he left his tent but took longer than he’d expected to get from it to the stable. It seemed like now that he was supposed to not be working, everyone and their damned mother had something they needed him to look at or sign or wanted to talk to him. He directed most of them to Cassandra, a few to Rylen, and told all of them and every runner he managed to catch the sleeve of to spread word that he and the Herald were not to be bothered unless Corypheus himself was at the damned gate of Skyhold.

Given his vehement phrasing of that statement, he’d probably scared a few years off most of them but Cullen couldn’t really bring himself to care.

When he finally rounded the back corner of the stables after barely escaping being dragged into an in-depth conversation with Dennet over whether Ferelden steeds were better stock than others (apparently saying one respectful word about an impressive piece of horseflesh and suddenly he’s an expert according to that man), Meryell looked at him with both eyebrows arched high. And, dare he say, a little bit of caution in her eyes?

“I was beginning to worry,” she said softly.

Cullen sighed and shook his head, reaching out to take her hands in his now bare ones. One gentle tug brought her in close and he explained, “Apparently now that I’m off for the day, everyone wanted to talk to me on my way here.”

“So not putting off coming to meet me out of nerves?”

“No,” he replied with a serious frown, blinking down at her. Where had that question come from? “Why would you think that?”

“I just…” Meryell’s voice trailed off and she sighed heavily, shaking her head as she took a step closer and leaned into his chest. “Nothing,” she mumbled a moment later. “Nevermind.”

“Fuck no, I won't just nevermind,” Cullen hissed back as he lifted both hands to her face, worried even more as he tried to tip her chin back so he could look at her and found resistance. As soon as he felt the pushback, he instantly stopped and leaned down to press a kiss to her forehead as he breathed, “There is nothing wrong with us, Meryell. I am here. I am not fucking leaving.”

Not yet, whispered a traitorous part of his mind and Cullen viciously hushed it with all the fury he could muster.

“I'm sorry,” she mumbled and he stroked his thumbs across her cheeks in response.

“You have nothing to be sorry for.”

“Not even turning into a soppy bitch at the first drop of a hat because my brain is a complete fucker and I’m damned tired?”

Cullen chuckled and replied, “Soppy, maybe, but never a bitch, dear thief.” He then closed his eyes and let out a long breath as he pressed a kiss into her hair. Did he dare admit his own weakness to her? To tell her that he knew the words she refused to say, the ones that her traitorous brain whispered alongside you are not worthy, because he felt that same doubt too?

That on nights when she was not there he woke thinking it had all been a dream? That he had never lightly skimmed the skin underneath her tunic with his fingertips? That the blazing memory of her tilting her head back to take his mouth as he pressed her bodily against the Chantry wall while battle raged outside was false? That she had never settled warmly underneath his arm in the tavern or anywhere else?

That no one would ever or could ever care so deeply for the broken man he really was behind the shield of his duty and oaths and armor?

Could he give that much of himself away?

For her...the answer was undoubtedly yes.

“I know,” was what he managed to speak, lips pressed hard against her scalp and her hair muffling his voice.

“What?”

Sighing, Cullen opened his eyes and leaned back and this time she let him tilt her chin up so their eyes could meet. In the darkened area behind the stable, her eyes were an almost moss green with no sign of those copper flecks that normally caught the light or the telltale gleam that gave her away as an elf as much as her pointed ears did.

I. Know.” He repeated the words purposefully, saying them with sharp inflection in order to get his point across. When Meryell still looked at him with confusion, Cullen asked softly, “You think that I don't have doubts myself, dear thief?”

Her mouth opened, dropping into a soft o shape, and she breathed, “You doubt…?”

“Whether I am worthy,” Cullen pressed on before he lost his nerve, before she thought he doubted them. “Of my position...of you.” Shaking his head, he went on hurriedly, “The things I've done...that I've seen...by all rights I should not be worthy of any sort of affection.”

“Cullen…”

“I am nothing more than a failed templar, a broken down lyrium addict barely hanging on to sanity by my fingernails.”

That seemed to strike something in her and suddenly Meryell's hands were in his hair, dragging him down towards her. He didn't know what he'd expected her to do but slanting her mouth against his, her lips warm and soft, was decidedly not it. The sudden motion rattled his entire head, sending fragmented little jolts of pain through the affected areas but it was nowhere near enough to make him flinch or stop.

Grunting, Cullen shifted his grip on her face, one hand sliding back into her hair to curl his fingers against the back of her skull. His other hand roamed downward as he willingly opened his mouth to hers, fingers dragging across the fabric of the coat she wore against the cold before he found her hip. He pulled her close even as he took a step forward, backing her against the wall of the stable. As she leaned back against it he followed, pinning her there with the weight of his own body.

He lost track of time in the flow of her mouth against his, of her scent - leather and sword oil and cinnamon, though he didn't know where the last came from except that it was her favorite smell - in his nose, the taste of the last thing she'd eaten invading his mouth (something sugary, probably filched from the kitchen), and the pliant feel of her lean, muscled form molding against his own. All of those things almost made him forget the lurking pain from his withdrawals were even there.

When she put pressure enough with her fingers on his head to indicate that he should stop, Cullen didn't want to. If he but could, he felt like he could kiss her forever.

He obeyed her silent request, however, and as he looked down at her, Meryell pressed a light kiss to the scar on his upper lip that sent a shudder down his spine.

You,” she said firmly, her voice very nearly a growl, “are so much more than that, Cullen Rutherford.”

Swallowing, he breathed, “And you are so much more than whatever those fucking voices try to tell you, Meryell Verlen.”

Meryell flushed in response then she smiled, cocking her head to the side as she ran the fingers of one hand back through his hair. Likely completely ruining all of the hard work he'd put into it during his morning routines but hair be damned. He was no longer on duty.

She liked the fucking curls anyway.

“Knife-ear,” she breathed then and he stilled, his breath catching in his throat at the insult. “Bitch. Never anything more than an alienage brat. Not worthy of what I've got. Not even close to worthy of what I want.”

Cullen shook his head and whispered, “Lies. Every one.”

Meryell closed her eyes then and shuddered. When she reopened them and looked at him with tears lurking at the edge of her eyes, he wanted to tell her what he saw. The woman that he witnessed every time she was around him. Who inspired him. Who he cared for beyond words.

Straightening up, Cullen pressed a finger over her lips and asked softly, “Where's your place, dear thief? This is no conversation we should be having behind the stable.”

Blinking at him several times, she abruptly broke into a beaming smile that had him grinning back at her simply from how brilliant it was. Her hand - small and callused but strong - slid into his and she said, “You're right. Come on. We have a bit of a ways to go.”

“Lead on,” he said warmly and Meryell practically bolted away from him at that, dragging him stumbling after her. Literally the only thing that allowed him to keep up with her pace besides her hand in his was the mere fact that his legs were longer.

She led him on a winding path through Skyhold that started in the kitchens and went on a wild route through the lower levels that they hadn’t yet gotten to going over to figure out what to do with them or what sort of repairs they would need. Cullen tried to keep track of where they were going so he might find it again but even he couldn’t keep up with the circuitous route that she was taking him on. Which was ridiculous given the number of troop movements and supply lists that he had memorized. All that and remembering a path through their own damned fortress escaped him.

Then they were abruptly in a large open area that resembled that which was set aside for the eventual permanent location of Harritt and his forge after need for him in a more localized area was no longer required for repairs. It wasn’t quite the size of that location, probably half as wide and slightly more than that lengthwise, and it had a better view. Where the other sat over a currently frozen waterfall and saw only the sides of the mountains that rose up close, this cave-like space looked out towards the valley where the troops were located.

Blinking several times, Cullen took in the cushions that were piled up off to one side of the space where they had a perfect view of the camps. There was also a low table that looked like it had seen better days even before it was repaired hastily with a simple board to replace a missing leg, a box full of what looked like candles tucked underneath it, and a pile of books along with a plain little brass candle holder sat on top of the table. As expected, there were also two clay cups (had she already intended to bring him here?) along with a dark bottle that likely held her favorite whiskey. He immediately asked, “Just how long ago did you find this place?”

“Stumbled on it two weeks back,” she replied with a smile. Then Meryell tugged him along towards the area’s opening, which was edged with a stone railing like the other was but this one was obviously crumbling in places from disrepair. When they came to a stop, she pointed towards the distant camps and said, “You can just make out the Fangs’ banners from here.”

Cullen hummed in response and stepped in behind her, wrapping his arms around her as he rested his chin on the crown of her head. “I see that,” he noted softly, easily making out the tan banners of the company against the icy white of everything else. He then pointed to the empty branches of the trees that were below the opening and said, “Once it gets warmer, you’ll probably see less when they get their leaves in fully.”

“Won’t matter.”

“Oh?”

“I know where they are,” Meryell replied firmly.

Chuckling, he muttered, “That would be your response.” Then he felt her shift in his arms and lifted his head, letting her turn so she could slide her own arms around him before resting his chin back on her head again. When she sighed happily, he asked, “Better?”

She just nodded in response and he smiled, tilting his chin enough to kiss her hair.

“I’m glad.”

As she made an unintelligible noise in response, Cullen softly said, “I meant what I said.”

“So did I,” she replied. Meryell tilted her head back to look at him, her breath coming hard and hot against his cheek as she realized how close that made them since he hadn’t moved. He watched her throat move in a heavy swallow before she said in a quiet voice, “You are a brave man, a good man despite everything you’ve been through.” When he started to open his mouth to protest, her fingers slid over his lips and he immediately ceased his efforts. Instead he met her eyes as she finished, “A lesser man would have never come back from the horrible place that Kinloch took you to. If anything, Cullen, cling to that. That you came back.”

Well.

If there was anything he couldn’t argue against, it was that. Maybe it had been far too late for most of the mages in Kirkwall but it hadn’t been too late for the Inquisition mages or the templars. And he had realized that he’d been treading hard along the line to becoming as much of a monster as he’d considered Meredith at the end. Maybe he wouldn’t have gone as far but...he had it in him. The fact that he knew that terrified him more than a little.

Deciding to turn the tables back on her in an attempt to regain control over the tight coil of emotion in his chest, Cullen lifted a hand to close his fingers over hers and pull them away from his mouth. But not before kissing her fingertips, an action that brought a beautiful blush across Meryell’s face.

“You,” he began firmly, “may have been born in an alienage but that doesn’t make you anything less than anyone else. It took so much strength to survive losing your parents and making it without them until you found Folke. You are a beautiful, brilliant, and altogether terrifying woman and I wouldn’t have you any other way.”

She ducked her head in response to his words and shook before she leaned heavily forward into his chest. Wrapping his arms around her in response, Cullen felt her continue to shake but this was a completely different kind of shaking. Frowning, he asked, “Are you...laughing?”

A snort erupted from her and he burst out laughing himself as she gasped, “N-no!”

“You’re laughing.”

Meryell smacked her hand hard against his chest and hissed, “I’m laughing at us, you fucker.”

“Oh,” he said as seriously as he could while still laughing himself, “that makes me feel better.” When she scowled and hit him again, this time harder, Cullen caught her hand and brought it up to kiss her palm. As she flushed, he asked, “And why are you laughing at us, dear thief?”

“Because…” She paused to tug her hand away from him and wrapped it around the back of his neck, her fingers toying with the unruly curls at the base of his skull that he was never able to fully tame. “Look at us. Listen to us. We’re two of a damned kind with the same sort of fucking issues.”

“So we are.” He then smiled and noted softly, “But didn’t we already say that we were going to try and help each other with our issues?”

“We did,” she replied.

“There we go then.”

Snorting, Meryell shook her head at him before saying, “Well, thank you, good ser, for your help but I think I’ve had enough emotional help for the next month now. How about we sit over there in my rather fucking comfy pile of pillows, have a drink, and you tell me whatever it was that you wanted to talk about in the first place.”

Cullen immediately blanched as he remembered exactly what he’d wanted to talk about and when she commented, “I’m not sure I want to know now,” he shook his head.

“It’s not bad.”

“Well, fuck, I’m not sure I believe that from the way your face went a minute ago.”

Sighing, he pulled away from her and said, “Drink first, then I’ll tell you.” She looked dubious but then smiled and took his hand again, this time leading him across only the short distance to the cushions. As he settled half-upright on them, Cullen watched her as she poured the drinks and then grinned when she turned with the cups in her hands to scowl playfully at him.

“You were looking at my ass again,” she growled.

“Guilty,” he admitted, shifting the cup to his left hand so he could open the right up for her. As she settled against his side, Cullen pressed a kiss against her temple before growling, “It’s a lovely ass. One I certainly hope that I have permission to look at all I want.”

Meryell tilted her head slightly in mock thought and hummed before saying, “Well…” As he arched his eyebrows in response, she turned to smile slyly up at him as he took a sip of his drink. “Only if I can do the same to you.”

As he sputtered in response, she burst into bright laughter, continuing with it as he exclaimed, “You want...I don’t...what?!

“Your ass,” she replied, still laughing. “Seriously, Cullen, leather pants and a man in fighting shape? It makes for a lovely view.”

Staring at her for a moment, he finally shrugged, saying, “I will bow to the thief’s obviously greater experience with the back sides of my own gender.”

Aaaaand?

“And, yes, you have permission to look at my ass all you want.”

When she let out a short cheer in response, they fell against each other laughing for several moments. By the time it finally died away and he was left sitting with his chin resting on top of her head, Cullen was starting to think he was going to avoid telling her. Then the word was in his throat, surging up and out, and he blurted it aloud before he could stop himself or give it further context.

“Inquisitor.”

“What?” asked Meryell.

Closing his eyes and cursing silently, he repeated, “Inquisitor.” Pulling away enough that he could look down at her, Cullen explained, “Leliana and Josephine put forth a recommendation to Cassandra and I to name an Inquisitor to lead the Inquisition.”

Looking confused, she said, “Alright?”

“You,” he said firmly. “They want to name you Inquisitor.”

Meryell sat there for a long moment, her eyes wide and mouth dropped open into an o of sheer surprise, and he cautiously took her cup from an abruptly limp hand just in case she dropped it. She blinked several times, her eyes unfocused, before giving herself a shake and letting out a snort. “You’re fucking joking,” she spat.

Cullen just shook his head and she reached for her cup, tossing its contents back in one swift motion. Meryell then leaned over to grab the bottle again and poured herself a nearly overflowing glass before tossing that one back too. Despite knowing fully well that she could handle her alcohol, he found himself reaching out for the bottle in response to the abrupt motion. She held firm to it, however, and growled at him before snarling actual words at him.

“The el’u’verelan and the air’amelan are serious that that want to name me fucking Inquisitor? Are they insane?” Throwing up her hands, she continued, “I mean, wasn’t it enough of a colossal shit storm for Josephine to try and keep quiet that I’m a mercenary?”

“Perhaps Josephine wants a challenge. It’s not like you’ve helped her story much,” he commented with a smile, earning a casual shrug and a raspberry blown in his direction in response.

Meryell tugged at the bottle and Cullen arched an eyebrow before he relented his grip on it, watching her as she poured half a glass then sat the bottle back on the table. As she settled back into place against him, he tucked an arm around her and made idle circles against the fabric of her pants along her thigh.

“‘Course I don’t fucking help her,” she grumbled testily as she lifted her cup to take a drink. “I won’t deny what I damned well am unless it’s for a job and I’m getting sodding paid to do so. Or if I find it worth the fucking effort to act like whatever I have to. Plus, that was her game, not mine, so no reason for me to play it. It’s not like me being a merc has stopped folks from coming to join up.”

He couldn’t argue against that as he’d had several fighting men leave their posts to come join the Inquisition simply on the fact that they’d heard that the Fangs were involved with it and that rumor said the Herald was one of them. A fact that they’d straight away told him, Rylen, or whichever of his lieutenants had greeted them when they’d arrived in Haven.

“What the shit do I know about leading?”

Arching an eyebrow as he looked down at her, Cullen replied, “Do you really want me to go over the particular qualifications? I already knew them but apparently Josephine thought it prudent to put them down in writing for...oh, what was it...to have irrefutable proof that these deeds were done by her.”

Meryell snorted and asked, “The fucked they do, go get proof in writing from folk?” He kept his expression flat and impassive in response and just stared at her until she looked up to catch his eyes when he didn’t answer. Immediately she started sputtering and exclaimed, “They fucking did. Andraste’s dimpled ass, you’re fucking serious.”

“Cassandra brought a packet with all of the papers to my office,” he explained. “Apparently Josephine, at least, has had this in mind for some time considering she’s been far too busy to organize that much along with everything else she’s been doing.”

“Don’t say that,” she scolded. “I swear the woman sleeps less than you do.”

Ignoring the jab at his sleeping habits - which were worse than they had been in Haven but considerably better than they’d used to be before the Inquisition and she knew it - Cullen continued, “I can’t say that I faulted their logic in naming you Inquisitor.” When Meryell started to open her mouth, her expression furious, he held up his cup-laden hand with one finger extended. “Hear me out, dear thief.”

She glared at him, her jawline tight with anger and her eyes fiercely focused on his face, then nodded just slightly to indicate that she would.

Taking a deep breath and cursing Cassandra slightly in that he had to be the one to have this conversation with her - though she probably would have murdered anyone else unless it was Folke and he probably would have murdered whoever tried to get him to do it - Cullen began.

You freed the mages in Redcliffe from a Tevinter Magister. You brought an end to the fighting in the Hinterlands. You made the decision to help the people there. You made the recommendation that I go to Therinfal to try and recruit what templars I could.”

“Anyone could have done those things,” she growled between bared teeth. “And I had help.”

Shaking his head, Cullen asked, “Who decided to help that woman in the Hinterlands whose husband had been killed by templars? Who decided to recruit Sera? Blackwall? The Iron Bull?” At the mention of the last three it looked like she had abruptly swallowed something sour because he knew full well that she absolutely could not argue with him about those. She'd made the decision to recruit each and every one of them, though the Iron Bull had had all of their input in some fashion given that he came with the Chargers.

Meryell then hissed, “We decided to do most of that field work shit.”

“Because you thought it was a good plan.”

She curled a lip in response then her entire expression fell as her shoulders slumped. “Fuck,” she muttered before turning her head to lean it against his shoulder with her eyes closed. He tightened his arm around her as she softly added, “I'm just a merc, Cullen. I'm a thief and a liar and I'm pretty fucking good at killing people when it calls for it. Not a damned leader. That's not even half what you want in a fucking leader.”

Sighing, he turned his head to press his lips against her forehead in a slow kiss. Then he whispered into her skin, “We'd classify Arnald as all of those things as well, ve-hen-an-ar-rah. You've told me that the whole company calls him one of the best Captains they've had since inception.” Her shoulders tensed slightly underneath his arm at his use of the Elven word but not in the heavy, wire-drawn-tight way that generally signaled fear or flight. It was more the drawing up to a fight sort of tense, like steadying oneself for a confrontation.

“You fucker,” she muttered, “I never wanted this fucking shit.”

“I know,” he breathed back.

“I don't know anything about actually leading. Other than Arnald, we don't have shit for a rank system other than if someone knows more shit than you do.”

Kissing her forehead again, he said, “That's what we're here for, dear thief. To help you. We'd be your advisors. You could even name Folke or Arnald as one if you really wanted to.”

That brought a snort out of her before she muttered, “Better make it Arnald. Folke would just make snide comments under his breath and cast little spells in order to make Cassandra or you twitch at blatant magical displays. I know, I watched him do that fucking shit during company meetings for years.”

Laughing at the idea of the hedge mage causing chaos in the middle of what he was certain was supposed to be a serious meeting (since that seemed the sort Arnald would run), Cullen began, “So…”

Meryell let out a huff of breath before she replied, “I’ll fucking think about it.”

“That's all I ask, Meryell.”

She hummed in response before tilting her head back to butt his chin with her nose, saying softly, “Thank you for telling me. I'd have fucking pitched a bitch if they'd sprung that fuckwhat on me without warning.”

Chuckling, Cullen said, “I told Cassandra the same thing. With less vulgarity, of course.”

“'Course you did, you fucking know me. Maker's aching cock, I really don't have enough alcohol down here to deal with this shit. I only brought the one bottle and it's already half gone.”

"I think I can assist the thief in such a thing.”

“Oh?” she asked airily as she leaned back enough to look up at him. “Can you now, good ser?”

Cullen grinned and replied, “Perhaps. For a price.”

“Oh-ho!” Meryell exclaimed. “We're extracting costs now. And for alcohol, too. I'll make a mercenary out of you yet at this rate, Cullen.”

“Do you want to hear my price, dear thief?”

She nodded and tipped her chin back in a simplified bring it motion that he was familiar with from his own training days as the gesture was common amongst most people who fought. Smiling, Cullen leaned forward so their faces were ever so close together, the side of his nose right up against hers, and immediately heard her breathing hitch and become heavy. His groin immediately tightened with pressure in response and he resisted the abrupt urge to groan as it felt like his pants shrunk.

“What does ser demand in return for his services?” she asked in a throaty sort of purr that didn't help him any.

“A kiss.”

“Is that all?” Meryell queried softly as she tilted her head just enough to bring her lips ghosting across his. He barely registered the familiar double twitch of her ears or the dilation of her own eyes that gave away her own arousal far better than her breathing did through the haze coming over his own brain. Her fingers against his as she pried his cup out of his hands was also a distant impression as she sat it somewhere without moving away from him.

Humming in reply and resisting the very strong urge his body had to just fling her down into the cushions, Cullen replied, “Perhaps more...if the thief is willing.” Things probably wouldn't go beyond where they had anytime before but this time they would be interspersed with the sensation of lips and tongues against each other and that made the whole thing different.

She smiled in reply and kissed him lightly, just a brief peck before she pulled away again. “Mayhaps the thief will simply take what she wants,” she said lowly before lifting a hand to his cheek, running her fingers across his face and then down his throat to his chest in a motion that left an almost fiery sensation in it's wake and a tightness in his throat. Then she abruptly moved, swinging up and onto his lap, and both of her hands were at the back of his neck before sliding up into his hair. As he lifted his own hands to grip her hips, she asked, “What will ser do if she does that?”

“Surrender willingly to her wiles,” he replied breathlessly, his heart pounding in his ears. Then her lips were on his again, just the lightest of touches, and Cullen closed his eyes as he said with a slight whine, “Meryell. I...”

“Shh,” she replied before her fingers curled into his hair to hold tight and her tongue was in his mouth. When Meryell pulled away with a wicked smile on her lips, he briefly entertained the idea that withdrawal might be making him see things. But even his best imaginings weren't like this. They weren't warm and pliant underneath his hands, didn't lean into him to press forehead to forehead, didn't taste like sweets and whiskey, didn't smell like cinnamon and leather and oil. That and the migraine that had started plaguing him was gone, the potion from Gil having done it's job at least for a little while.

Cullen then refocused on her as she said softly, “I think you owe me a bottle now, Cullen.”

He just nodded slowly in response because he was a man drowning, losing himself, losing everything in this woman. She'd heard about Kirkwall from his own lips and knew about Kinloch just enough to guess and she was still there. He wasn't anywhere close to being worthy of her but damn it he would try.

Until she is Inquisitor, hissed that traitorous part of his brain. Then what? What happens when she's your superior?

Refusing to think of that, Cullen hissed, “We'll call it two to make up for me making you panic earlier.” When she smiled, all broad and bright, he tugged her fully down into his lap at that same time as she leaned in to take his mouth again. He promptly lost himself in the sensation of her body molding against his, of the heat between her thighs pressing down against the aching bulge in his pants, and endeavored to let nothing distract him from her for the rest of the day. Even if all he got tonight was nothing more than the familiar feel of her hands roaming his skin and his own on hers, it would be enough.

She was enough.

Chapter Text

“So,” Meryell drawled as she dragged a stool out from under the war table and sat down on it, “what exactly does me being named Inquisitor mean?”

Across the table Leliana and Josephine glanced at each other while Cullen folded one arm across his chest, bracing the elbow of the other against his vambrace so he could use his hand to cover the smile on his face. From behind her, she heard Cassandra snort and knew exactly what the woman was thinking as she'd discussed this whole thing with her and Cullen (together and separately) before she'd even really considered taking it.

Both had expressed faith that she could handle it and swore up and down that both of the other advisors expected her to likely give them mostly free reign. A fucking bad call in general, that was. Inexperienced at leading, sure, but she wasn't a fucking idiot. And it turned out that a decade in the Fangs had taught her a lot about leading even with their chain of command pretty much consisting of Arnald and Zarru (and the former second, Noralt, who'd had the position when Meryell had joined up). Until she'd talked it out with Cassandra and Cullen, she hadn't realized just how much she'd already known; most of it just seemed like good common sense to her. She wasn't about to let anyone get away with whatever they wanted, not even Cullen.

The paperwork was going to be a fucking bitch though. She dreaded it already.

Well?” she asked, arching an eyebrow expectantly.

Josephine coughed before replying, “Well, Inquisitor…”

“Fuck sake, really?” asked Meryell at the new title, completely interrupting the other woman. “No. Fuck no. I'm putting my damned foot down right fucking now.” Wheeling around to look at all of them in turn, she slammed her hand down hard on the surface of the table as she came to a stop. “I won't have any more of this shit,” she growled.

Pointing behind her at the ridiculously large closed doors, she plowed onward. “I'll be Inquisitor or Herald or Andraste's Fucking Wiper out there. Not in fucking here. Not to you. You can call me that outside these fucking doors - though I'd prefer you did it only when we're actually out in the damned public or have some piss skirts here - but in hereI wanted to hear my fucking name.”

Josephine looked outright appalled, Cullen looked like he was barely holding back outright laughter given the furious shaking of his shoulders, Cassandra did laugh out loud, and Leliana looked like she'd swallowed something sour.

“But,” began Josephine, “protocol…”

Hang protocol ,” spat Meryell. “I'll bend to it out there, Josephine, but in this keep I don't want to hear it, not from any of you, unless some noble with a stick up their arse is nearby. There, that's my first ruling as Inquisitor, if I have to make it that for you lot to do it.”

“May we inquire as to why we are hanging protocol?” asked Leliana as she folded her arms, her voice practically dripping with the concept of hanging Meryell instead. At least that's what that tone coming from the el’u’verelan sounded like to her.

Sighing, she planted both hands on the edge of the table and leaned forward onto it. “Because,” she began slowly, “I'm a fucking lowborn alienage brat who never gave a shit about titles until I got told this here's the Captain and his word is law by Folke. I never had a title till now and I sure as shit never wanted one. So…”

Taking a pause to breathe deeply and close her eyes, Meryell asked, “So, can you please call me by my actual name and not any of the titles I absolutely fucking loathe unless otherwise necessary?”

“On one condition.”

Opening her eyes, Meryell stared hard at Leliana and deliberately twitched her right ear.

“Which is?”

The spymaster smiled then replied, “Tell us why it makes you uncomfortable.”

Narrowing her gaze at the older woman, she answered in a short, clipped tone, “For the same reason that Cassandra hates being reminded she’s actually royalty and Cullen doesn’t appreciate anyone calling him a templar. It’s not me. It will never be me. I am me and I won’t be shit for anyone else unless I’m fleecing them for everything they fucking own.”

Leliana gave her a long, assessing look for a moment then tipped her head forward just slightly, her eyes still remaining focused despite the shift in her orientation. “I can...respect...your reasoning. Then, Meryell, shall we begin?”

Flashing a tight smile at the spymaster, Meryell turned her gaze to Josephine and the Antivan woman dipped into a motion that was something between a curtsey and a bow. “As you will, Inquisitor,” she said with a sly smile and a gleam in her eyes that reminded Meryell that the seemingly unassuming woman could be just as conniving as the redhead. She'd been a bard herself once, after all. “It shall be Meryell from now on. Though I hope you will excuse the occasional slip.”

Nodding sharply, Meryell straightened on her seat and turned to look at Cassandra. The dark-haired woman just arched an eyebrow before she smiled and inclined her head as she murmured, “I will endeavour to do as you ask, my friend.”

“I’ll take it,” replied Meryell as she shifted back around. She then smiled and asked again, “Then let’s start again. What the fuck does being Inquisitor mean?”

Three hours later she left the war room with her arm tucked into Cullen’s and the impression that being Inquisitor wasn’t at all different than being Herald. It came with fucking paperwork since it was an official position instead of a largely symbolic one amongst the Inquisition and the stipulation that she periodically cast judgment upon those who’d stood against them and hadn’t died in a bloody mess. That, by-and-large, seemed to be the only difference.

“You look deep in thought,” he commented as they passed through the door that separated Josephine’s office from the main hall. She noted absently that he was steering her across the space that was still largely filled with stacks of wood, piled up bolts of cloth, crates of foodstuff and other amenities, and whatever else had been carted into the keep without a place yet to go, towards the open doorway that led to Chuckles’ rotunda and the library.

Snorting, Meryell replied, “Not really deep. Just thinking about how not different being Inquisitor is.”

Cullen chuckled before saying, “I wouldn’t count my mabari too soon, dear thief. It’s still early.”

“Maker’s cock, count my mabari,” she mused in response, shaking her head. “Fuck, I haven’t heard that since I was still with the gang.”

“Not a lot of Fereldens in the Fangs?”

Shrugging while she waved at Varric at the table he’d seemingly claimed in front of the hall’s fire as soon as it’d been set up, she answered, “Thinking on it, not really. I mean, there are some but it’s not like we all get together and have parties. Folke was born in Ferelden technically but he’s been serving with mercs for so long that he’s like the Captain, bit of an amalgam of everyone in the company. That and his claim of his mother being Chasind and all. I mean, we’ve got a bit of everything so I sometimes hear Ferelden phrases but not enough that it’s obvious. Maybe it’s a regional thing.”

“Except South Reach is nowhere near Honnleath,” pointed out Cullen as they passed through Solas’ rotunda, though the somber visage of the mage was absent at the moment.

Meryell looked up at him at that and asked, “Were your parents both from Honnleath?”

He frowned at that, looking thoughtful as they went through the last doors separating them from the outside. As they strode across the newly repaired walkway that led to his tower, Cullen replied, “Now that I think of it, Ma wasn’t a local girl. Pa always told us that Rutherfords had been in Honnleath for Ages - yes, with a capital - but Ma rarely spoke of her family.”

“Maybe that’s it.”

“Maybe,” he said with a shrug. “Honestly I don't remember where I picked that phrase up. It might have been from back home but it might also have been at the Tower or during training, since we were sent to Denerim for the bulk of it. Maybe I served with someone from South Reach.”

“Whatever way,” she noted airily before he could get distracted trying to figure it out, “we both happen to know it.” Meryell then cocked her head to the side, looking sideways up at him as he opened the door of his tower for her, and asked, “And do you know that you get this little twang of an accent when you say Ma and Pa?”

As his face immediately flushed in response, she laughed and spun away ahead of him, grabbing his hands and dragging him into his office. “No, no!” she exclaimed. “I like it.”

“You likeit,” he muttered, shaking his head as he kicked the door shut behind them. “Of course you do.”

“And why not?” asked Meryell as she paced a step forward, moving their joined hands up to where she could steer him backwards. He obliged with a smile, backing up until his shoulders hit the door and she leaned against his breastplate. “I rather like imagining you as the country farm boy with wild curly hair.”

Cullen just chuckled then asked, “Should I imagine you then as a little girl in pigtails?”

“With dirty knees from climbing things.”

He started to open his mouth, a wicked gleam in his eyes, and Meryell fully expected it to be an utterly filthycomment he was about to make. Then one of the side doors opened and one of the soldiers that served as one of his main aides strode in with a writing board piled up with papers.

“Commander…! Maker's breath!

Turning her head, she nearly laughed as she saw the young man was hiding his beet red face behind his board. It wasn't even as if they'd been fucking doing anything. Literally the only not innocent thing going on right then was going to be whatever she was now not going to be hearing coming out of Cullen's mouth. She managed to hold herself back from laughing, though. Barely.

Instead she smiled slyly up at Cullen and freed her hands from his before tip-toeing two fingers in a walk up his breastplate. “So,” she purred, “I hear the tavern is having its official opening tonight. Inner circle and advisors gets first dibs at the stores according to Flissa.”

Though his neck was red from embarrassment at being caught like they were - even as innocent as it was! - he smirked down at her. “Is that a broad hint at where I should be tonight, dear thief?” he asked, his voice low and warm as he ghosted his fingers over her waist, just barely touching her.

“Perhaps.”

“Hmm. Well...judging by what Jim has there, I get the feeling I'll be late.”

Meryell just smiled brightly in response and said, “Better late than never.” She then arched up onto her toes and he bent forward enough that she could press a light kiss against his bottom lip. “Would the incentive of walking me home be one to get you there faster?” she asked.

Walking her home meant the possibility of further drinks in her tent in the upper courtyard right outside the tavern and wandering hands and warm kisses and the absolute certainty of them squeezing into her cot to sleep heart-to-heart.

Cullen touched a leather-clad finger to her chin, putting enough pressure to have her arching up into another soft kiss, and murmured, “I am convinced, dear thief. I will see you tonight.”

“Holding you to that, vhen'an'ara,” she replied before turning to walk out the still open door Jim had entered through. He lowered his clipboard in time to see her and Meryell grinned as he squeaked her new title and went bolting across the room. Cullen's dorky bray of a laugh - the one she'd honestly fallen a little bit in love with in what seemed such a long ago conversation on the barrels outside of Haven - followed her out the door.

Shutting the door behind her with a smile, Meryell laughed herself silly all the way around what had been repaired of Skyhold’s battlements.

Being Inquisitor wasn't that different from being Herald at all.


“Back already, Swears?” asked Varric as she popped back into the main hall. He leaned back in his chair as he blew dry the ink on whatever he’d been writing and carefully set his quill aside before he fully turned to look at her with an arched eyebrow. “I figured you and Curly would be busy.”

Meryell just smiled and shook her head at the dwarf’s obvious innuendo. Tugging one of the heavy wooden chairs out from under the table, she collapsed into it and propped her elbows on the table with her chin resting on her closed fists. Varric’s bet about them getting together had been rather properly smashed by the events of Haven as every location that had been bet on by those involved as to where they would make kissy faces (Sera’s words) at each other was now under several feet of snow and rock.

Given that no one had even bet on the Chantry - and, again, it being buried along with the circumstances of nearly dying - Varric had expunged that particular bet and let those that had cast bets redo theirs at the same cost as their previous if they so chose.

Of course now the bet was not where they would kiss since that had happened but where and when they would do the nasty (Sera’s turn-of-phrase, again). Literally the only thing that was stopping Meryell from stealing Varric’s list was that she didn’t steal from friends unless they deserved it.

That and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know what the Iron Bull had come up with. Or Chuckles. Or, Maker fucking forbid, what any of the Fangs had come up with because most of them couldn't withstand the temptation of putting down a bet.

Varric, of course, gave her prodding questions every time she actually had a moment to sit down with him nowadays. It was overly obvious and she played along on the rare occasion with a few comments that seemed like she was about to reveal something juicy before completely smashing it to pieces. Those were rare because half the time she got dragged off only moments after she’d sat down to have a breather.

Today, though. Today she was fucking free.

So she propped her chin on her fists and gave him a shit-eating grin as she said, “Of course we were busy, we were having a war meeting.”

After the war meeting, sweetheart,” he pressed teasingly.

“We were having a conversation.”

“Better be havin’ a conversation with yer bodies,” commented Sera as she abruptly plopped onto the surface of the table, sprawling out across it. Her impact very nearly upset Varric’s ink pot and he looked panicked for a moment, reaching for it before realizing that Cole was suddenly there with it in his hands. The boy just smiled and sat it back down before he was gone again, as if he’d never been there at all.

Shaking her head, Meryell said, “We were having a conversation with our mouths.” Realizing a moment later how that could be taken as Sera’s head popped up, she hurriedly added, “With words, Sera.”

“Aww. Does the jackboot need pointers about how to handle your lady bits?”

“Andraste’s dripping cunt, no.”

The younger elf cackled brightly at her curse and propped herself up on her elbows as she crowed, “Should be your dripping cunt, Quizzy!”

Meryell clipped her teeth shut over her immediate response of oh, it does that just fine and turned her attention back to Varric as she felt her cheeks flush with a mix of sudden heat and a smidge of embarrassment. “So,” she drawled, “tavern’s opening up tonight. Flissa is going to do the official naming and everything.”

The dwarf hummed in response before he asked, “Should I get my cards ready for another round of Diamondback? Or are we going to go for Wicked Grace this time?”

“I think Folke was hoping for another round of Diamondback now that we’ve the opportunity. He wants to try to win some of his dignity back from the last game.”

Varric just snorted at that, shaking his head. “Swears, your dear dad didn’t have a shred of dignity after that game was done. He’ll have to work awful hard to win it back.” He then winked and added, “Invite Rylen and we’ll fleece him for all he’s worth. The Captain’s apparently a terrible distraction for him.”

Meryell just laughed and said, “Baba can’t resist an accent...and I can’t resist watching him embarrass the shit out of himself. I’ll see if I can find him on my rounds today.” Turning to look at Sera, she asked, “Are you planning on showing up tonight?”

“For drinks? Fuck yeah.” Sera then pushed herself up into an upright position, her knees spread wide across the edge of the table as she bent to prop her forearms on them. Grinning wickedly, she added, “More chance to tease you and your Cully-Wully too. Always up for that.”

“Buttercup,” drawled Varric with a wry smile, “you're always up for teasing anyone if you have the chance.”

The elf just grinned at that.

“That's ‘cause people make themselves easy targets. Mostly. Quiz and Cully are just good fun since they blush so hard, like we don't all already know they've been getting handsy in the corners.”

“Where our hands go involving each other is no one else's concern,” Meryell noted a little snippily. She was used to the sort of ribbing like what her friends put out given her years with the Fangs but Cullen hadn't even bedded a woman until recent years due to everything he’d been through at Kinloch. He wasn't used to that and so she tried her best to keep her silence on their actual affairs while making it a point that what they did wasn't for anyone else to know.

“Of course, Swears,” assured Varric. He then waved both of his hands at them as he went on, “Now off with both of you. I've got some chapters I need to get finished to send to my editor before he gets frustrated and sends the Carta after me.”

Sera blinked, stopping in the middle of jumping off the table, before she scowled and grumbled, “Sounds like a twat.”

“Obviously you've never worked with anyone from the Merchant’s Guild, Buttercup. They're all twats.”

Smirking as she rose from her chair, Meryell pointed out, “Varric, aren't you a member of the Merchant's Guild?”

He just smiled broadly in response as he replied, “I'm just special, Swears.”

“You're special alright,” commented Sera with a laugh. “Later, Quizzy! Tonight we'll show your jackboot how to please a lady!” With that she was gone, disappearing in a flurry of red and bright yellow plaidweave, and Meryell shook her head several times after her backside disappeared out the wide open doors of the hall.

Varric chuckled, saying, “Buttercup’s something else.”

“She’d actually fit in right fucking well with the Fangs,” Meryell commented. “The archers love her already and she almost out shoots all of them. One word about me and Cullen would get her right in the middle of the bets and teasing that they put out and I swear half the company would declare her an honorary member.” She then clapped her hands together and added, “Anyway, I’ve got rounds to make. I’ll see you tonight, Varric.”

“I’ll be there, Swears.”

Smiling at him, she nodded and turned away, debating whether she should head across the hall to Josephine’s office to invite her or turn right through the door next to Varric’s table to hit up Chuckles (who probably wouldn’t come anyway) and Dorian since his new haunt seemed to be the library. Deciding that starting with Josephine made more sense, Meryell headed that way and poked her head into the office.

The ambassador was hard at work at her desk, dark head bent over stacks of parchment as she stroked the end of her quill idly against her cheek. She then dipped it into her ink pot and made some kind of notation on the parchment before she looked up and saw her. “Inquisitor,” she greeted and Meryell immediately rolled her eyes before stepping into the room.

“You’re seriously going to never call me by my name unless we’re in that room, aren’t you?” she asked as she strode over to the desk, planting her fists on her hips as she scowled down at the other woman.

Josephine just smiled before replying, “It would be improper for me to not call you your title amongst those who come to visit Skyhold, Inquisitor. The walls have ears when nobles are within them.”

Snorting, Meryell noted, “The walls have ears when Leliana is in them, which means they always have fucking ears.”

“Also true.” She then shifted the parchment around on her desk and put her quill away before folding her hands together and resting them on the desk. “So, what can I do for you, Inquisitor?”

Rolling her eyes at the title but knowing that she wasn’t going to get anywhere with the woman beyond her little victory this morning in the war room, Meryell replied, “Nothing Inquisition official. Just that the official opening and naming of the tavern’s tonight and Flissa’s declared that our lot get first shot at the stores.” When she got no immediate response - not even a bat of the eyes - she added with a smirk, “Varric’s planning another round of Diamondback. Though I get the feeling that the goal of the game is going to be how much more money and dignity we can make my baba lose than anything else.”

Josephine chuckled, a soft little sound, and replied, “Given the direction our last game was going before I left and what I heard of the aftermath, I’m not sure there is much further he can fall.” She then sighed and gestured at the papers on her desk before adding, “I shall see how much of this I can get through, Inquisitor, and perhaps make an appearance.”

“No promise needed, Josephine. I’m just informing everyone that there’s drinks tonight.”

The other woman nodded at that and said, “I shall try, Inquisitor.”

Meryell just tipped her head forward in a nod at that, saying, “I’ll let you get back to work then. You’re probably saving all of our fucking hides, anyway, so best not to interrupt that.” That brought a merry little laugh out of the ambassador before the woman waved her away and she went with a smile. With that settled, she headed immediately across the hall and entered the rotunda below the library.

Spying Solas up on his scaffolding, she started to open her mouth then immediately clipped it shut when her eyes drifted past him and saw that a good part of the mural he’d been working on since he’d claimed the area for himself was actually starting to come together. The art style was a kind she’d never seen before, though the only art she’d really been introduced to previously was the sketches that some of the company were good at (mostly landscaping and building plans) and the occasional job they got to filch a painting. It was simplistic but even her untrained eyes could see that he was good.

What he had almost finished was all yellows and oranges with some grays and blacks. There was a half circle of darkness high up towards the rotunda’s ceiling with a red orb inside of it and around the circle were more than a dozen eyes. Below those, a field of gold curved downward in an arch before there was a space and another line of gold from which burst several of what someone unfamiliar might mistake as the rays of a sun. The beam of golden light that he was depicting lancing downward from the orb, however, down through the orange sky that was littered with an obvious rain of yellow triangles, was unmistakable. Even though she hadn’t seen it, didn’t remember anything but the aftermath, she’d heard enough people describe what had happened to know what it was.

The Breach,” she breathed and the elf looked up then from where he was working on the grays and blacks at the sides of the mural - mountains, she realized, as they made the obvious valley that the Temple of Sacred Ashes had once stood in.

“Yes, da’len.”

“You’re painting….what’s happened?”

He just tilted his head to the side before shrugging slightly, just a simple lift of his shoulders, and replied, “I am.”

Meryell frowned and asked, “Why?”

Solas pursed his lips before he gestured with a paint covered hand towards the walls as he asked, “What will be left when the Inquisition is gone? What information will we leave behind? Were we tyrants? Saviors? Will what we did remain in truth or will it be changed as most history is when it is passed down?”

She blinked at him then leaned her shoulder against one of the upright poles of his scaffolding, folding her arms as she replied, “Well, shit, Chuckles. You’re having the hard thoughts today.”

“I always have those, da’len.

“Maker’s cock, hahren, you need to get laid or something to loosen up that stick up your ass.”

He sighed in response to that and Meryell rolled her eyes before she said, “I dunno what’ll be left after. Fuck, Chuckles, I never wanted this shit in the first place.”

“That may be,” he replied. “Now that you are here, however, it should be something you consider.”

Sighing, she grumbled, “I hate the fucking long game.” Then Meryell tilted her head back and found him looking down at her over the edge of the scaffolding. Scowling slightly, she asked, “So why murals?”

Solas just smiled and replied, “Have you never been to the Dales, da’len?”

“Rode through a few times on a job. What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Did you not see the remnants of what was once our civilization there?”

Meryell blinked and then pushed herself away from the scaffolding, turning to look fully up at him. She then darted her eyes past him to the mural and breathed, “History. The old elves, they painted the histories on the walls.”

Solas just nodded and she asked, “So you’re going to paint everything here. The basis of what we did.”

“Very good, da’len.

Snorting, Meryell said, “Evune told me about them when we were travelling through there the first time. Gave me the whole history lesson of the Dales - Dalish and human - since I’d never heard it before. We saw what was left of one after a battle with some stupid bandits who thought they could take us but you couldn’t make out what it was really since most of it had been worn away by the elements. I wouldn't even guess you were doing the same thing with what little was left of it to compare.”

He hummed in response then turned back away from her, her ears picking up the subtle sound of him grinding whatever it was that he used to make his paints. She'd spent enough time dozing in the mage's work room back at the Fangs' headquarters to recognize someone at work with a mortar and pestle. "And what," he asked after a long moment of silence, "brings you to me today?"

"Making rounds to let everyone know that the tavern's opening up tonight and our lot get first dibs at the stores."

She heard him go still and Meryell snorted before adding, "Flissa's invitation extended to all of the inner circle. Which includes you despite the stick up your ass, Chuckles."

"Ah."

"That a 'fuck no'?"

The other elf sighed heavily before he replied, "A simple 'no' will suffice, da’len, but I will not attempt to stop you from adding your particular...flavor...to everything. I respectfully decline the invitation."

Shrugging, Meryell airily said, "No skin off my tits."

He made an awkward sputtering noise in response to that phrase and she laughed before making her break away from him, heading towards the stairs that led up to the second level of the rotunda where the library was. She paused for a moment to breathe in the smell of the books while lamenting the likely permanent loss of her own little collection back in Haven before she started stalking through the floor on the hunt for Dorian in one of the alcoves. Eventually she did find him, curled up with his feet crossed over the arm of a rather plush looking chair and a glass of wine dangling from one hand as he propped the book he was reading up on his knees.

"And what brings you to the library, darling?" drawled the mage without looking up as he turned a page. "Are we to finally strike out from this lovely new location of ours and end up with spiders in our beds again?"

Chuckling at the reminder of the once she'd taken the mage out with her before Haven had been shit kicked into oblivion, Meryell replied, "No, that's for three days from now with me, you, Cassandra, and Sera. Tonight we get first dibs at Flissa's new stores in the tavern."

That had the mage looking up at her, his eyebrows arching slightly, and definite interest in his eyes.

"Ah, so the grand opening is tonight?"

"Yup," she answered with a sharp pop of the last letter.

"Well, I will certainly be there, darling. Never let it be said that a Pavus didn't live up to the expectation that he would arrive somewhere."

Snorting, she jibed, "Or turn up where there's alcohol?"

Dorian just smiled before replying, "That is only a glorious bonus, my dear. I certainly couldn't live with myself if I left everyone without the wonderful presence that is me. Everyone would be far too wounded to continue on with their lives and certainly too heartbroken to drink anything or enjoy themselves tonight."

Meryell flashed him a shit-eating grin at that before saying with a laugh, "You're so full of your fucking self."

"And you adore it, darling," he said with a chuckle. "I'll see you tonight and we will have far too much fun to be legal." Then the mage waggled his eyebrows before saying suggestively, "And perhaps finally get you and your dashing Commander actually into bed together, hmm?"

Fighting a flush, she just sang out, "Promises, promises," as she walked away towards the stairs that led up to the rookery. Normally she wouldn't have even considered inviting the spymaster to anything remotely like the goings on of the night but Flissa had made a point that everyone was invited, so she was going to get everyone.

Mounting the last of the stairs up into the dark top of the rotunda, Meryell looked around for the redhead and found her on the far side of the room. She was bent with a bowed head in front of a small Andrastian shrine, eyes closed and mouth moving silently, and Meryell promptly turned away to give the woman privacy. Religious she wasn't and she spouted what was considered blasphemy half the time but she wasn't going to fucking shit on anyone else's beliefs.

She still respected her mother's own adherence to the faith too much to do that.

When she finally heard the shift of leather and cloth against the wooden boards that made up the top-most floor, she turned back and found the spymaster regarding her with hooded eyes. "I was not expecting it to be you," commented the older woman in a low voice as she crossed back over to the desk that was clear except for a small stack of missives that had obviously come via the hands of scouts or attached to one of the ravens given their small, slightly tatter-edged state.

Meryell just shrugged before saying, "I'm just making the rounds because Flissa practically made it an order that I talk to everyone."

Leliana arched her eyebrows as she sat down in the chair next to her desk, her back deliberately to the wall and not the glass panes of the nearby window. "And this is after you have been made Inquisitor?" she questioned, an odd tone to her voice.

"If you seriously expect me to fucking run by rank and file after a decade in one of the loosest organized mercenary companies in the whole of Thedas, you're one mabari less a kaddis. Our only rank is the Captain. Other than that, you follow whoever knows more than you do, even if they're the newest recruit." She then paused before adding, "Or whoever shouts the loudest. Depends on the hour of the day, really."

The spymaster slowly arched an eyebrow at her before saying, "I am truly uncertain how your company has stayed together this long if that is the manner of your organizational skills but...perhaps it speaks most highly of the Captain's leadership."

"S'been the way it's been for as long as the oldest can remember," noted Meryell airily. She then rolled her eyes and said, "Anyway, not what I came up here for. Flissa's opening the tavern tonight and she said that advisors and inner circle get first dibs at the stores. Hence me."

"I see."

"Come or not, I'm just extending the fucking invitations 'cause it's what I got told to do."

Leliana inclined her head slightly and said slowly, "I will consider it, Inquis...ah. Meryell."

Out of all of them, she hadn't expected the spymaster to correct herself. Or to actually do as she'd asked that morning and call her by her name. The older woman caught onto that immediately and smirked, tilting her head slightly to the side in a fashion that wasn't far off from the mannerisms of her birds.

"You were not expecting that," she noted.

"From you?" Meryell said. "Fuck no. You've hated me from day one."

In response, the redhead immediately laced her fingers together atop the desk and leaned forward to brace her elbows along its edge. "I," she began slowly, "may have...disliked you..." Meryell scoffed in the middle of the sentence, interrupting her briefly but not actually saying anything in response. "...but that has changed over these past months."

"Since when?"

"Since Redcliffe," replied the spymaster shortly. "Though more so since Haven fell."

Frowning down at the other woman, Meryell crossed her arm across her chest and asked, "What changed?"

Leliana just smiled before answering, "I think, perhaps, it is something similar to what you saw in me in that alternate future. We each saw someone else in the other, someone we could perhaps respect. When you went out to face Corypheus without a guarantee of coming back..." The other woman paused and there was suddenly pain in her face, an old pain that Meryell could actually put words to.

It was a pain that tasted like ash and felt like tearing your own heart out of your chest.

The pain of a loss so great, it nearly tore you apart.

Shit, when she'd come up here, she hadn't expected to get into this with the spymaster. She sure as fuck didn't expect to feel sympathy for the older woman but she did. She knew that hurt.

"It reminded you of something," she pressed softly.

The spymaster just smiled sadly before she looked away, out the window next to her through the few panes of glass that weren't stained in muted colors or dulled to blur visibility through them. "Someone," Leliana replied in just as soft a voice. She then stiffened, her shoulders drawing up into an obviously protective and stiff gesture, and Meryell knew the moment was done.

She wondered, though, who that someone was.

Obviously, judging by Leliana's earlier reaction, they'd done something similar to her and gone up against something bigger than themselves without a clear chance of coming back alive. And, she was going to guess, that they hadn't.

Whoever they'd been, the woman had cared for them. Enough that however long it had been between losing them and now, she still felt the pain. Of all the nughumping piles of shit she'd expected out of this meeting, Meryell hadn't expected to learn such a thing.

"Well," began Leliana in a stiff voice, "I thank you and Flissa for the invitation. We shall see, I suppose, if I have the time in the evening to make an appearance at the tavern.

Shrugging, Meryell said, "Make it if you can. If you can't, Flissa will find someone else to drink the wine. Probably Dorian."

"I have no doubt," noted the spymaster with what almost resembled a smirk. "If you'll excuse me, Meryell."

With the second iteration of her name in so little time without a blink of the eye by the older woman, she decided she'd had enough herself even without the dismissal. Flipping a hand idly in an errant little wave, Meryell turned and headed back down the stairs, shaking her head as she went striding past Dorian's alcove. He looked fully reengrossed in his book as she passed, so she continued on back downstairs through the bottom rotunda where Chuckles was still at work and on through it back into the main hall.

Varric glanced up as she passed and Meryell nodded briefly at him before she hustled towards the open doors. The outside world made sense. At least more so than having a remotely civil conversation with Leliana that didn't have to do with that red lyrium drenched nightmare and feeling fucking sympathy for the woman.

Or...so she thought until she stopped at the landing of the stairs that led down from the doors of the main hall and found a full two dozen group of sweat-coated recruits occupying the open area of the upper yard with the Iron Bull, Cassandra, Blackwall, and Arnald arrayed in front of them. Every one of the quartet was wielding their weapon of choice in a blunted, practice format and were covered in dust and dirt with sweat staining their clothes underneath padded armor. The obvious exception of that being Bull because Maker fucking forbid someone find enough fabric to make the big Qunari a shirt that would fit properly. She didn't think even Josephine was equipped to undertake a feat like that nor that the Bull would actually wear said shirt.

Judging by the looks on the recruits’ faces, all of them were being generally terrifying.

“New bloods!” boomed Bull, his voice so loud she swore it rattled the glass in the frames high above her head. “What have we learned today?”

“Don't face Seeker Cassandra without an army at our back, ser!” piped back a random male voice from within the crowd. It immediately broke some of the tension amongst the recruits and laughter came as Cassandra let out a loud snort.

Meryell heard Arnald chuckle as she continued down the stairs before he asked, “Though that statement may be true, it is not an accurate answer to the question of what you've learned. Jenkins.

A young woman in the front line - built like a mountain and so short she might just be mistaken for a dwarf with flaming red hair - snapped to attention with a sharp, “Captain.” That was when Meryell realized that the group of recruits was a mix of Inquisition soldiery alongside a handful of new Fangs, identified by the patches of the heraldry newly pinned to their gear until Folke could craft new charms out of his collection of knickknacks or whatever they brought him if they chose something custom.

Report.”

Jenkins grinned broadly as she replied, “We learned how to take down an opponent bigger than us, Captain.”

“And how do we do that, recruit?” asked Blackwall as he crossed his arms, settling his weight back onto one foot. There was definite laughter in his voice.

The redhead’s mouth stretched wider at that. “You have a harder head than a Qunari, ser.”

Bull bellowed with laughter at that and turned to grin over Cassandra's head at Arnald. That was when she saw that his nose and jaw were awash with not quite dried blood and the end of his nose looked more than a little crooked too. “If you hadn't already nabbed that one, Spy, I'd be fighting you for her. She's going to be a good one.”

“I'm glad you approve,” commented Arnald with a definite smile in his voice. As she finally reached the ground, he snapped out, “Alright, enough for the day, recruits! Get cleaned up and report to your sergeants or captains for the rest of your daily duty. We'll see you back here in the morning at dawn for a run.”

There were immediate groans in response to that and she could sympathize as she'd been on many of the Captain's dawn runs. But every recruit was grinning tiredly as they left, chattering with each other about did you see that one move the Warden did or what about that twirl the Captain used to bring down the Bull or several other variances of similar things.

“Boss!” boomed Iron Bull as he turned and noticed her standing behind them, which had the rest doing the same. “How long have you been hiding there?”

“Only a little while,” she replied with a smile. “I apparently missed the most entertaining part judging by your face, Bull.”

“Hmm?”

Meryell gestured vaguely around her own nose and he frowned before laughing, a fully on thing right from the belly.

This?” he exclaimed. “This is the best thing I've earned in a while. Your Seeker is a force of nature.” Grinning in Cassandra's direction, he added, “If she weren't so devoted to other things, I'd try to recruit her.”

It was a testament to how much time she'd spent with Meryell and Varric that Cassandra merely smiled and said softly, “You may still try but you will not succeed.”

Bull just shrugged at that, saying, “No fun if I know the outcome won't change.” He then planted the end of his war maul - which was still a menacing looking beast even in practice form - on the ground and tipped his chin at her. “So what brings you to our practice?”

“Well,” drawled Arnald, “I know it's not work for the company. We're already planning how to get ourselves down into the Fallow Mire according to the message Commander Cullen sent me this morning. And I hear you're heading to the Hinterlands before you meet up with us there.”

“That's the plan,” confirmed Meryell. “But, yes, no jobs, no messages, no important shit to do.” She grinned as she finished, “Just our lot in Flissa's new tavern tonight with first pick of all her wares. Inner circle and advisors both.”

Arnald arched an eyebrow, to which she added, “Yes, you and Folke technically count as fucking advisors.”

“Excellent!” exclaimed the Captain with a bright smile, his eyes gleaming behind his mask. “I will see you tonight then, my girl. It is certain I should take my own advice and see to it that I get cleaned up.”

He turned to toss his practice sword to Blackwall, who caught it one-handed as Arnald winced from his movement, before he said, “That's going to bruise like a fucking whore, Seeker. Have a care with an old man next time, hmm?”

Cassandra just scoffed loudly before replying, “I am not much younger than you, Captain.” She then smirked - fucking smirked - before she added slyly, “And perhaps you should learn how to dodge.”

Si cruel! Vous blessez mon cœur, Chercheuse, vraiment.

The Seeker just quirked her lips in response and said, “Ce ne serait pas cruel si vous aviez appris à esquiver.” Her strong Nevarran accent gave the words a very different flavor than Arnald’s obviously still Orlesian accent did but she said each precisely with a well-taught firmness. Given her background, the language had probably been one of those things she was taught as a child.

Meryell snorted with laughter at the same time Blackwall did, causing Cassandra to turn to blink at her. “You both know Orlesian?” she asked, more than a little surprised.

“Enough to get by,” she replied with a shrug. “I'm not half as fluent as I am with Elven but I can follow most of a conversation in Orlesian.” Grinning at the Seeker, Meryell added, “I know you told him he needed to learn how to dodge again.”

Blackwall grunted in reply and she cocked her head at him as he looked uncomfortable for a moment before saying, “Spent a lot of time in Orlais once or twice. Half the buggers there won't even give you a glance unless you speak the tongue.” Idly she wondered if his uncomfortable response had anything to do with whatever it was in his past that he regretted so deeply.

Cassandra cocked her head to the side and asked, “Are there any other languages you know?”

Meryell shrugged again before answering. “Astrid taught me a bit of Anders - mostly the curses - and I got a crash course of the same from Lortho in Nevarran and Tevene. Since headquarters is in the Free Marches and that’s where we operate most of the time, I know a bit of the weird pidgin they have. Though that’s mostly street language nowadays.” Turning to look at the Captain, she continued, “But most of the company knows at least one other language at least a little.”

“It certainly makes sending you lot on jobs either,” he commented. Then Arnald held up his hands and said, “Enough, now, enough. I am heading back down to my tent and I will see whichever of you are present in the tavern tonight.”

“Don’t break your feeble legs on the way down the hill, Captain!” called Meryell after him and laughed when he flipped a rude gesture at her over his shoulder. She then turned back to the other three and asked, “What about you lot? Going to make an appearance tonight?”

The Iron Bull snorted then hefted his maul off of the ground and up onto his shoulder as he grinned through the blood on his face. “Miss drinks?” he said cheerily. “I never miss an opportunity to drink, Boss.” Then he frowned and asked, “Tavern going to be open for everyone else? My boys are starting to get a bit antsy.”

“I imagine some of the Fangs are feeling the same,” she commented. “Surprised they haven’t opened their own sort of bar down there in camp.” Then she nodded and said, “So far as I’m aware, the tavern is open for business to everyone tonight. We just get first dibs at what we want before anyone else.”

“Good!” boomed Bull as he turned to stride off. “I’ll let the boys know.”

Cassandra watched him go then turned to say, “I will perhaps show up.”

“Oh, come on, Cass,” chided Meryell with a smile. “I’ll make sure you won’t have to sit anywhere near anyone you don’t want to. Cullen and I’ll protect you.”

The other woman quirked an eyebrow before asking, “And who will protect you and Cullen?”

“Flissa.”

“While she is busy with all of Skyhold wanting to partake of her wares?”

“Woman’s got skills. I believe in her,” replied Meryell.

That made Cassandra laugh and she finally said, “Very well. I will come for one drink. No more.”

Grinning, she replied, “S’all I ask.” Turning to Blackwall, she asked, “You?”

The Warden smiled, though the motion was mostly lost behind his beard, and tilted his head forward into a nod. “I’ll be there. Can’t imagine that there’ll be anyone else there that’ll actually keep an eye on Sera. And it’s been a whole month since I had a pint.”

Snorting at the reminder of the friendship that had seemed to have spawned between him and the younger elf (which she had first witnessed on the walk to Skyhold when Sera had called out a cheerful Beardy before nailing him with a snowball and Blackwall had replied with a gruff Fuzzhead that had made the elf giggle as he’d lobbed one back at her), Meryell said, “Good. I’ll see you both later then. I’ve got to go figure out where in this fucking keep my baba has gotten to.”

“I believe,” replied Cassandra, as she started to walk away towards her tent, “that he has been in the mage’s tower all morning. He said something about an experiment when he stopped by earlier?” She looked to Blackwall for confirmation and the Warden nodded.

Sighing, Meryell grumbled, “Well, shit. I hope he hasn’t blown himself up then.” Flipping her hand at them in a parting wave, she headed towards the tower that had been appropriated by the mage’s upon their arrival. It had been one of the few with three floors and enough space for there to be a great number of cots brought in until something more permanent could be done when they’d first arrived.

Now, almost two months after their finding the keep, most of the mage’s were housed two or three to a room on the two floors that had been cleared out directly below their tower in the battlements behind the armory. There were still cots present in the tower itself but they were now tucked into corners and mostly hidden behind carved wooden screens or heavily laden bookshelves for when a mage was hard at work and didn’t want or couldn’t leave whatever they were working on. It had actually helped as well that a few of the mages had joined up with the Fangs and the Chargers and thus were now sleeping in the valley encampment.

As she walked across the battlements towards the tower, she saw the door was flung wide open and there was a templar standing in it with his back to her. And his sword free.

Memory lanced through her of another templar with a blade, followed by the terrifying run through a dark forest to escape him with a bleeding from the face and mana drained Folke more leaning on her than moving on his own power. Meryell laid a hand on the hilt of the dagger sheathed behind her hips (the only one she wore in Skyhold) and sprinted towards the tower as fear and bile rose in her throat.

The templar turned as he heard her approach and his blue eyes went wide. She registered short, dark hair and a strong jaw before she was level with him and he started to open his mouth. While his features hadn't given him away, his voice immediately gave him away as Ferelden with just a little Marcher influence. The exact sort of accent that Cullen had.

“Inquisitor…!”

Filing her realizations away for later, she snarled, “Why the fucking fuck do you have that sword out, templar?

He blinked then turned fully to the side in the doorway before stepping to the side as he gestured for her to move past. Meryell eyed him for a long moment before she moved into the doorway and her hand immediately tightened on the hilt of her dagger until the leather creaked.

There was a fucking corpse standing in the middle of the first floor.

It was in a containment circle, the purple light of the spell just barely flickering along the lines drawn on the floor in a pattern she'd never understood the meaning of. That didn't make it any less creepy or help the fucking smell coming off of it. On the opposite side of the room were Folke and Demut as well as another company mage, Mort, and a swarthy looking Rivaini mage who had to be one of the one's from Redcliffe. All four of them had their heads together and were passing a sheath of notes back and forth while they chattered to each other.

“You'd think this far away whatever magic is holding it together would dissipate,” she heard Folke say.

The Rivaini man shook his head before saying with a thick accent, “No, no, it permeates the flesh, you see. The magic is in it.”

“It's a demon , you twits,” growled Demut, looking utterly fed up with her male counterparts. Turning her head to eye Folke, she added in her thick Starkhaven accent, “I bet we could take even you, shit for brains, and you'd feel the Veil was thin there.”

Folke gasped theatrically and clasped a hand over his heart in response as he sniffed, crying, “Dem, my darling, you wound me so.”

“I'll fucking wound you, you shithead.”

Mort looked up as Demut reached for the sides of Folke's jacket and spotted her, instantly reading Meryell's mood judging by the look on his face. Taking a hasty step away from the group, he said warily, “Um...Folke...Dem…” When they didn't stop, he started pawing at the Rivaini mage's shoulder as the man now had the notes all to himself to flip through.

“What are you,” began the man only to trail off as Mort gestured past him. He turned to look and instantly went pale (which was impressive for such a dark-skinned man). The pair of them immediately fled across the room out the door that led to the battlements above the still in progress garden and she vaguely registered the templar chuckling from behind her.

Folke and Demut were still utterly unaware that she was there.

Eyeing the corpse again, which she registered was wearing the remnants of what appeared to have once been simple Ferelden clothes, Meryell called out loudly, “Baba.”

“Dem, darling, there's no need to…”

Shut. Up.

Closing her eyes and breathing heavily for a moment to control her rage and old fear, she ground her teeth together before shouting, “Baba!

There must have been some shred of the terror she'd felt earlier in her voice right then because Folke went immediately still. Demut's grip on his coat went limp a moment later before quickly falling away entirely. Everyone in the company knew that when she sounded the slightest bit hurt and someone stood in his way, Folke turned damn near into a battering ram. She hurt and he would freely commit murder on anyone that stopped him getting to her. And the Captain wouldn't bat a fucking eye if anyone was fool enough to get in his way.

"Poppet?" he asked, looking truly concerned. His gray eyes flicked to where her hand still tightly gripped her dagger, darted to her face, then went past her to the templar. Realization blossomed and he quickly strode around the contained corpse, reaching out to her. "Oh,ara vherain. Ir abelas. I didn't think about…”

Meryell stared hard at the scar on his cheek for a moment before reaching out to him with her free hand. As soon as his fingers enclosed her wrist, Folke tugged her forward into his chest and put his mouth to her ear. "Forgive me for being a bad father and forgetting?”

She just shuddered, leaning heavily into him, and closed her eyes as she replied softly,” So long as you forgive me for being a bad daughter.”

His arms tightened around her in a quick hug and he breathed, “Bell’ana.” Folke then pulled away, moving his hands to her shoulders, and said, “I’m assuming you want to talk to me.” When she just nodded in response, he turned to Demut, who had quickly lost whatever anger she had. That was her and her temper though, quick to spark and just as quick to come down. “Dem, get those two back in here and figure out what the fuck this thing is. The soldiers need an answer soon before we send more of them down to the Fallow Mire.”

“We will figure it out,” she replied with a firm nod. Demut then turned towards the templar as Folke started to pull Meryell towards door she’d entered through, saying, “Ser Cutter, would you watch our little...guest...while I go see where our cowards have run off to?”

Meryell caught the edge of the templar’s smile out of the corner of her eye - it was a pleasant one, not at all like the templar she’d abruptly remembered upon seeing him with his sword out at the tower door. As Folke pressed her onward, she heard him say, “I’ll watch it like a hawk.” Then the door closed behind them as her father pulled it firmly shut and his strong hand against the small of her back pushed her back down the battlements she’d come across only moments before.

“I thought you’d gotten past that,” he said after a moment.

Blinking several times, she softly replied, “I thought I had too, baba.” Meryell then shook her head, continuing, “Seeing him at the door when I knew you were in the tower, though...fuck, suddenly all I could remember was our flight through the forest. How scared I was. I thought...I thought...”

“You thought something had happened.”

“I don’t know what I thought.” Closing her eyes, she lifted her free hand to pinch the bridge of her nose as she worked to loosen her now stiff fingers from around her dagger hilt. “Maker’s cock, I didn’t come up here intending to stress out.”

Folke chuckled, saying, “No one intends on stressing out, Poppet. Come, here, sit with me on the wall. That dwarven crew your lovely Anitvan lady hired just declared it sound last week.”

Baba,” Meryell scolded as she let him press her down into a seat on the low wall of the battlement with one foot dangling over the side courtyard between the armory and the back of the tavern, “Josephine is not someone with an accent that you want to toy with.”

“Toy?” he repeated in that tone she knew meant he knew exactly what she was talking about.

“She will eat you alive.”

“No, no, ara vherain,” replied Folke with a broad smile as he sat himself down in front of her, “that is your spymaster.”

Snorting a laugh, Meryell nodded, unable to argue with that. Then she found her hands in his and watched for a moment as he slowly worked his way over her right hand, massaging out the stiffness she’d put into the delicate muscles moments before. They sat in silence like that for a long moment before he asked, “Now...what was it that you came looking for me for?”

“Flissa’s opening the tavern tonight and advisors as well as inner circle get first go at the stores. That includes you and the Captain.”

Folke chuckled at that, saying, “I should hope so with the amount of business that we gave the lass back in Haven.” He then flicked his gaze up at her and asked, “Are we only drinking?”

Snorting, she replied, “Varric has already agreed to bring his cards for Diamondback.”

“Excellent! I can win some of my dignity back.”

Baba, from what I heard about the rest of that night we last played, you are so deep in the hole I don’t know how you’d win that back.”

“Hence why I said some,” he grumbled back. “Honestly, such rudeness towards your elders. Whoever taught you to be such a little shit like that?”

Meryell reached out with her left hand to shove him lightly in the shoulder, to which he feigned serious injury, and replied with a laugh, “You fucking did and you know it!”

“Told you not to follow my example too, didn’t I?” Folke shot back with a smile. He then released her hand to fall to rest against her knee as he looked up and cocked his head to the side. “I take it our dashing Commander will be joining us tonight?”

Smirking and feeling her cheeks flush slightly at the recollection of the moment in Cullen’s still sparse office earlier, she answered, “I gave him quite the incentive to stop working.”

“Mmhmm. And when, Poppet, are you going to explain to him the word that I’ve now heard him calling you?”

Recoiling a little like she’d been slapped in the face, Meryell started to open her mouth then snapped it closed as she jerked her head to the side. Honestly she should have already told him what it meant. Probably should have the moment he uttered it in that unsure way he handled most Elven words, carefully sounding them out with a tongue unfamiliar to the language. Yet...she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

Even with every reassurance from Cullen’s lips, word and gesture alike, she still wasn’t entirely convinced that this all wasn’t going to blow up in her face. Literally every other relationship she’d ever attempted in the past had, so what could possibly make this one any different. That was one of those things that her head whispered in the dead of night, when she was alone in her tent. And every answer she had, it countered with something from those past attempts.

She felt Folke’s hand at the side of her head then, his fingers brushing her far too long now hair back behind her ears with care not to touch them. “He cares for you,” he noted softly.

Nodding faintly, Meryell whispered, “More than he probably should.”

“None of fucking that now,” hissed her father harshly. “You are worth more than trysts in hay lofts and boys who don’t know a damned good thing when they’ve got their hands on it. And that man knows what he’s got in you.” He paused to touch his fingers to her chin and turned her head to face him, his expression gentle. “I’ve told you many a time to not let the words of felasilla bring you down.”

“It’s hard, baba.”

Folke shook his head and leaned forward to press a kiss to her forehead before he whispered, “The best things in life always are, ara vherain.”

Meryell shrugged slightly before asking the question that had plagued her from the first realization of the fact that Cullen liked her as something more than just a friend. “And what happens,” she breathed, her voice cracking slightly, “if he realizes he doesn’t want me?”

You are getting ahead of yourself.” Her father then pressed his hands to her cheeks, forcing her to look at him with a gentle tilt of her head, and stated fiercely, “But, in that event, I have already informed him that I take blood from those who hurt you. Do you know what he replied?”

Shaking her head, she watched him smile and knew with a wild flutter of her heart that Folke approved. And he’d never once liked the few other men she’d attempted relationships with. Not. One. Until now.

“He told me,” he said slowly, “that he would willingly surrender himself to my revenge if he hurt you. A templar surrendering himself to a mage. That man, Poppet, loves you even if neither of you have yet said or thought the word. Remind yourself of that when that foul little mind of yours decides to fuck with you.”

Feeling a smile touch her own lips, Meryell asked, “And promptly tell it where it can fuck off?”

Folke grinned broadly and nodded before leaning forward to kiss her forehead again, this one rougher than the previous. “That’s my girl,” he growled proudly. “That’s my little lioness.”

“Shall I roar too for you, baba?”

“Save the roaring for your Commander, Poppet.” he replied, laughing as she blushed at the obvious innuendo he injected into the word. “And tell him what vhen’an’ara means.”

“Yes, baba.”

Laughing, Folke said, “Now that’s how one talks to your elders!”

Meryell snorted a laugh and rolled her eyes before she swung around to punch him in the shoulder as hard as she could. He immediately tipped over backwards, landing hard on his back on the battlement floor, and let out a dusty sounding cough.

“Is that how I talk to my elders too?” she asked in a faux sweet tone.

“Only when we’re giving you shit,” he replied, winking at her from the floor. They both exploded into laughter at that and Meryell promptly rose to help him up, trying to dust off his coat and failing miserably. After several attempts, Folke finally waved her off and made a muttered excuse that he needed to get back to their little experiment. He kissed her cheek before he left with a smile and she watched him stride off with a far lighter attitude than she’d had only moments before.

Because he was right. Her baba often was about things like this.

Tonight she would do it.

Tonight she would give Cullen the meaning of the word.

And then...well, she would see.

Chapter Text

She was fucking late .

Late because apparently a pair of merchants got into a snit over which place they should be occupying in the lower part of the keep. They had promptly started fighting with each other verbally before descending into a full on fist fight and that had lead to someone going to Josephine. Who had promptly sent someone looking for her because fuck knew that when folks started throwing punches in the keep that the new Inquisitor had to be involved.

To say that Meryell was pissed was putting it fucking simply.

She'd spent the last hours of her afternoon and the early hours of her evening being polite to the merchants alongside Josephine. Of course, once she'd learned the reason behind their little spat, she'd promptly chucked polite decorum out the proverbial window and told both men that they were fucking idiots. To her credit, Josephine hadn't said one thing to interrupt the little tirade she'd followed that up with until Meryell had threatened to throw both of the fools out on their ears.

So, instead, Josephine had negotiated permanent spaces for them that were equal in positioning but far enough away from each other and Meryell had stood off to the side and glared menacingly. As if to say I don't want you here and she's the only thing keeping you from losing coin .

It probably hadn't endeared her to those particular merchants but it had certainly endeared Josephine. And anything that helped their ambassador get more shit done was perfectly alright in Meryell's book even if she had to look like an asshole to accomplish it. Wouldn't be the first time she'd played the part to get something done and she knew how to exude menace with the best of them.

Though it probably helped that these two knew she'd gone up against the thing that took out Haven in one fell swoop and walked away.

Now it was fringing onto full dark and she was only just now crossing the upper courtyard on her way to the tavern from the main keep. Already she could hear the sound of dozens of voices raised in cheerful chatter, the occasional drunken shout, and several that were singing something she couldn't quite make out.

Obvious they hadn't waited for her to start drinking - and she wouldn't have wanted them to, honestly - but she hoped Flissa had at least saved the official naming until she got there. Given that there was no sign hanging outside, which the woman had noted she'd had made with some pride, Meryell guessed that she had waited.

As soon as she pushed the door open, noise hit her like a slap in the face. It set her ears to ringing for a moment, since elven ears were somewhat sensitive to sound, but she quickly recovered. Years of walking into the various celebratory sessions that followed a successful job had done its work well.

“Swears!” cheered Varric from directly ahead of her in the center of the room where a broad table had been placed. There was already a game of Diamondback in full swing, made up of mostly faces she didn't recognize by name. Sera was also present and already looked fucking sloshed but Blackwall was sitting at the little elf’s side so she wasn't worried about the younger girl getting into too much shit. The older man was ruddy in the face from drink but she'd seen him hold his liquor a night or two back at the Singing Maiden. That and she got the impression that their strange friendship was one of older sibling to younger, so she knew he'd make sure she ended up alright.

To her delight, Folke was also already present at one end of the table and Rylen was sitting awfully fucking close to him with the most glorious smirk on his face. She'd happened to grab the Knight Captain on her way down to the lower courtyard to start dealing with the merchants and explained the general plan for the night. He'd laughed but blushed at the same time and suddenly she'd put more fruit on the tree of her baba’s saying the man swung both ways.

Judging by the scowl on her baba’s face, he knew he was being played and couldn't decide if he liked what it had gotten him or not.

“Varric!” she replied in the same tone of voice as she came around the table to fold her arms across his shoulders. “Already started without me, I see.”

“The locals were getting restless,” replied to dwarf with a smirk as he shuffled cards for another hand. “You want in?”

Meryell shook her head and replied, “ Fuck no . I am in serious need of a drink after the shit from earlier and I want to know what Flissa named the tavern!”

He shook his head in reply. “She made is clear that she was waiting on you , sweetheart. Get over there before we start again so she can get the last official shit done.”

“Ser, yes, ser!”

Straightening up, Meryell turned towards where she knew the bar was but couldn't see it from the sheer press of bodies surrounding it clamoring for drink. The Bull, however, was seated in the middle of the unholy mess and grinned brightly as he spotted her.

“Glad to see you made it, Boss!” he boomed out, his voice carrying effectively across the tavern to catch the attention of almost everyone. Including Flissa who was up to her elbows in tankards alongside the taciturn dwarf named Cabot she'd hired to help her run the tavern.

“Herald!” exclaimed the woman with a bright smile. “You're finally here!”

Meryell smiled tightly and replied, “I'm late thanks to Josephine and two merchants with less sense between them than a horde of darkspawn. Now what's the name of the damn tavern?”

Laughing, Flissa merely gestured to Bull in reply and he extended an arm across the bar to the slight woman. She stepped up onto something that Meryell couldn't see behind the counter then she was up on top of it. “Your attention if you please, everyone!” she called out, drawing the attention that Bull had already attracted to her. “As I’m certain you’re all aware since you’re here, we’re celebrating the opening of this very tavern!”

Cheers went up along with a thrusting of mugs, tankards, and cups into the air and alcohol was generally sloshed about in a way that made a rush of curses and giggles break out. Then Bull coughed and the noise banked itself down as he reached through the people to grab Meryell, pulling her towards him. With little effort, he lifted her up onto the counter alongside Flissa a moment later and as she straightened, the woman called out, “And now that our Inquisitor has finally graced us with her presence, I can finally tell you all what our humble establishment will be called!”

Another cheer went up and Flissa turned, smiling at Meryell, as she reached out to tug at the bit of fabric that she hadn’t noticed covering something directly above the bar. As it fell away, her eyes widened as she saw that it was a large wooden sign hanging by two chains from the floor above them. Someone had attached a wooden circle to the center with a carving of a hand with a green flame radiating from the palm set in the center and on either side of the circle were carved the words Herald’s Rest .

Flissa leaned in as the crowd cheered loudly and breathed in her ear, “I named it because you spent so much time in the Maiden in Haven. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

“What else would they tell me?” asked Meryell as she quirked an eyebrow at the other woman.

“That I named it such because Andraste would wish for her Herald to have a place of rest or some other such shite,” replied the woman with a little bit of viciousness. While Meryell knew that Flissa was religious, she’d also learned that the woman didn’t take to fibbery or lies with any manner of tolerance. If she said the way the things were, then they had better well be repeated that way else she was liable to get up in arms. And Flissa up in arms at you tended to get you cut off from alcohol. “I’ve got another copy of the hand to hang outside thanks to your Warden. Got a lot of skill with his hands, that man does. Anyway . I have a bottle just for you of that whiskey you prefer if the Iron Bull will help us back down.”

There was some sort of innuendo in there about Blackwall’s hands and she was decidedly not going in that direction.

The Qunari turned his head at the sound of his name and smiled as he said, “Anything for two of my favorite ladies.”

Meryell snorted as she put her hand in his as he offered it, Flissa’s joining it a moment later as his hands were large enough to hold both of theirs at the same time. As she glanced down to see what the tavern owner had used to step up earlier - it was a sturdy looking crate - she commented, “You only like me because I let you come with me to kill things!”

“And I provide you with alcohol,” pointed out Flissa.

“Which are two of my favorite things,” replied Bull with a broad smile as well as a wink. As soon as they settled on the floor, he picked up the overlarge tankard that Meryell remembered him being handed when they’d met on the Storm Coast and saluted her with it. “This is already a good night, Boss. Watching your father slowly lose his clothes is probably going to be the entertainment of the night.”

At that, Meryell turned around and stared hard at the Diamondback table, where another hand had already started up. Bull was true to his word because, as she watched, her father was pushing himself back from the table to pull off his boots to the delighted looks of both Varric and Rylen. Rolling her eyes, she grumbled, “Maferath’s rotten balls , if he’s already losing clothes this early, we’re all going to get a bloody show.”

“Is it at least worth it?”

Turning to blink at the big Qunari, Meryell replied hesitantly, “I guess? Fuck, Bull, he’s my baba . I may have seen his cock but it’s not like I go looking for it.”

He smirked and leaned on the bar, waggling his eyebrows as he repeated the question a bit more forcefully. “But is it worth it , Boss?”

“Shit. Fuck. I don’t…” Trailing off, she spotted Evune in the crowd of faces and stepped up onto the crate to shout across the tavern, “ Evune! Inquiring minds have a question that you are readily able to answer!” The older elf lifted her eyebrows in surprise and slowly made her way towards them through the crowd, slipping through with the ease of any Dalish hunter worth their bow or blade.

“And what do we have to ask, da’assan ?” she asked when she finally made it to them, leaning her elbows casually on the counter next to the Bull. Meryell grimaced in reply before she realized that Flissa was holding out a bottle towards her and silently mouthed Bless you at the woman. She quickly tugged the cork out and swigged a more than decent mouthful of it before she felt ready to ask the question. Talking about her father’s sexual shenanigans didn’t make her uncomfortable but dear sweet fuck she hadn’t had nearly enough to drink for this to be the first conversation she’d ended up in tonight.

“Is it worth seeking baba bare assed?” she asked bluntly and Evune promptly burst into giggles . Obviously she’d been drinking wine as that was the one thing that made the normally serious woman burst into giggles.

It took a long moment for Evune to regain her composure and when she did, she asked, “By the Creators, who is asking?”

“I am,” rumbled the Bull in response before he jerked his chin towards the ongoing game. “Given he’s swiftly losing everything he’s got thanks to the dwarf and the Captain, I was asking if the show was going to be worth it.”

Watching as the look in Evune’s eyes went from curious to downright scandalous , Meryell said shortly, “That’s it. I’m so done here,” and promptly fled from behind the bar with her whisky. But not before she caught the other elf making an incredibly lewd comment and Bull sounding far too impressed.

She was not half as drunk as she needed to be for this shit.

And, so far as she could tell, her normal drinking partner was still in his office fucking working . Which meant not only no company in whatever corner she decided to sequester herself in but that she couldn’t have the damned conversation that she’d intended to have with him.

Scowling, Meryell made a slow round of the bottom floor of the tavern with her bottle and found it to be, by and large, Inquisition soldiery and scouts other than the occasional Fang face and those playing Diamondback. As she circled back around to where she’d started, she caught a hint of familiar voices coming from the floor above her beyond the cacophony of the first floor and headed for the stairs. As she mounted them to climb upward, she noted idly that Krem had joined the table by squeezing in between two of the other players with a loud clapping on the back that confirmed the two as fellow Chargers and her baba had lost his shirt.

“Darling,” she heard Dorian purr as soon as she stepped up onto the floor, “what fascinating thing is going on downstairs? I’m seeing a rather lot of skin.”

Sidling over to stand next to the mage as he leaned on the railing, a seemingly ever-present glass of wine in his hand, she replied, “That is my baba making an absolute fool of himself. While possibly also engaging and perhaps succeeding in getting the Knight Captain in bed.”

Dorian arched his eyebrows at that. “ Fasta vass . I was utterly unaware your father was inclined towards men.”

Snorting, Meryell noted dryly, “ Baba is inclined towards almost anyone willing to share his bed. He also has a thing for accents.”

“Oh, I do see the draw he finds in the Captain then, darling. While it’s certainly not my thing, per say, I can see how it can be appreciated.” Dorian then turned to lean only one elbow on the rail, smirking as he lifted his wine glass to his lips. “Now,” he purred after he took a sip, “where is your dashing Commander? I haven’t had nearly enough people around to tease into a blush tonight.”

“Still working, it seems,” she grumbled. Not that she blamed Cullen for the delay as he did have an awful lot of work since they’d settled in Skyhold. She understood that some things came first. Mostly it was that she’d had a day that had become decidedly shittier as the hours went by from the almost pleasant way she’d spent that morning. And all she really wanted was to curl up underneath the weight of his arm across her shoulders.

The mage frowned and straightened up, lifting his free hand to waggle a finger in her face as he said, “That won’t do at all, my dear Meryell.”

Blinking at his finger, she asked, “ What won’t do?”

“Why that scowl on your face.” Dorian then promptly swung around to stand beside her, wrapping his arm snugly around her waist and pulling her away from the second floor railing. “Come along, darling. Some of your Fangs are over here telling the most delightful stories of jobs and the glorious shenanigans they have gotten into over the years. And I think you have been desperately lacking time spent with them.”

Meryell frowned at his words but couldn’t deny it. She’d barely had time for Cullen lately, let alone her own company. Shit, she’d only been down to the new camp once since they’d settled into the keep and that had been for the funerary rites they’d held for the dead a month back. She’d cried with the lot of them and they’d spent the night drinking and reminiscing until dawn all of the best and worst things about those they’d added to the dead roll that night. Then it had been immediately back to work with a hangover that felt rather like that avalanche that she’d nearly gotten killed in.

“What about…”

I ,” proclaimed the mage with a broad, vague gesture of his glass laden hand as he steered her along the floor, “will keep an eye out for our dashing Commander, darling. You are to sit right here…” At this point he trailed off as he pressed her right up into the circle of seats and amongst her company. Dorian beamed broadly at them, his smile a weapon that she'd found he readily made use of, and finished, “ And enjoy yourself . Laugh, cry, drink, or whichever combination of the three makes you happy but by all that is holy you need to relax ..”

Asa’ma’lin ,” Pod said warmly as the mage retreated, reaching out towards her as he shifted over on the wooden bench he and Hart occupied. For a moment Meryell hesitated because he had his arm wrapped around the other elven woman's waist in an overly familiar fashion, though she didn’t recall the two of them ever being anything before now. He immediately scowled and hissed, “We're not fucking on the damned bench, sister. Now come sit by me and drink some of whatever you have in that bottle. I get the feeling that you need it.” Hart snorted a laugh in response to his statement and Meryell rolled her eyes before she reached out to take his offered hand.

As he tugged her forward and she settled onto the bench next to him, Meryell cast a glance around the little gathering they had. There were no more than fifteen Fangs squeezed into the seating area underneath the stairs that led up to the third floor of the tavern. Pod and Hart occupied the bench placed on one side of the stairs up against one of supporting columns, while Roddy, Bel, and Urien were crammed into the matching bench on the other side. Two chairs had been jammed up underneath the stairs and one was occupied by the elegant form of the copper-skinned Tyrrania while the other had apparently been claimed by someone currently not present judging by the full mug of beer holding the chair. Astrid and Bernard were at the table that sat immediately on the other side of the support poles, currently engaged in what appeared to be both an arm wrestling match and who could drink their mug dry the quickest. Seated on top of the end of their table was the ever flirting Sancha and the Antivan woman was doing her damndest to gain the attention of Rhiryd who was seated across from her. The big Avvar man, however, had all of his attention focused on the tiny form of Sister Cecilia who was in a chair tucked right up next to him, reading to him in her lilting Orlesian tones.

Lortho turned out to be the occupant of the other chair and as he flopped down after picking up his mug, he grinned at her. “Yeller!” he exclaimed more than a little drunkenly. Judging by the loose laces on his trousers that she could see hanging down from underneath his tunic, his absence was most likely explained by his having to go take a piss.

“Can we not call me that, Lorth?” she asked as she leaned against Pod. Lifting her bottle, she took his advice and downed a hearty swig before she added, “You know I hate that fucking name.”

The Nevarran born Tevinter man grimaced and leaned forward, saying gently, “Sorry, lovely, I forget sometimes that you always hated Camden calling you that.”

Meryell rolled her eyes and grumbled, “Can we not talk about that asshole either?”

Urien snorted from his spot across from her and lifted his cup towards her in a half-hearted toast as he said, “You're the one that told us not to complete our violent massacre of him when he fucked you over years back, girlie. And told the Captain to keep him.”

“I wasn't going to be the reason we lost a good bowman, Uri,” she growled back. “And if anyone was going to murder Camden for what he did, it was damn well going to be me . No one else but maybe Folke gets that particular pleasure.”

“Damned right!” exploded Roddy. “That rat bastard deserves no less.”

“But that ,” interjected Hart in her rough, gravelly voice that seemed so out of character with a slight elven woman who was at least two hands shorter than Meryell, “is not why we are here tonight.” Lifting her mug, she looked around at all of them - including Astrid and Bernard, who had seemingly finished their little match with the former the winner of both - and intoned firmly, “We are here to drink .”

Bel nodded firmly alongside Roddy and Urien then Tyrrania spoke up, gesturing towards Meryell with the elegant motions she hadn't lost despite leaving her noble family behind more than a decade ago.

“And I believe,” she said with a smile, “that we have been given something of a mission by our Lord Pavus.”

Lortho sat up at her words, grinning broadly as he winked at her. “Helping our Meryell, you mean? That has to be it ‘cause she looks mighty down.”

“Indeed,” replied the woman with a sly smile. “Until her...what was the word he used to describe your Commander?”

Meryell scowled a little at the question and took another swig of her whiskey before grumbling, “ Dashing .”

Dashing? ” exclaimed Astrid as she abruptly moved from table to a chair, plunking it down right next to Meryell's end of the bench. The big Anders woman wrapped an arm about her shoulders and growled, interrupting whatever Tyrrania was going to say, “Man’s a warrior , you drunken sots. You don't call a man like that dashing .”

Sancha, distracted by the conversation (and possibly because it was overly obvious that Rhiryd was absolutely smitten with Sister Cecilia), shifted around to their end of the table and giggled drunkenly. She took a second swig from the tankard Meryell hadn't noticed the Antivan woman holding before saying, “Especially when he's such a fine specimen. Have you seen those pants, they are so escandaloso! What I would give to have my hands on that delicious ass…”

That got Meryell's back up and she abruptly said loudly, “That's my fucking delicious ass, Sana, and don't you forget it.” Her declaration had the whole group either immediately bursting into laughter or hissing jokingly like cats.

“Oh, cuchilla , I know full well not to play where I'm not wanted,” Sancha proclaimed with a broad smile. “He has eyes for none but you .”

“Yet,” pointed out Pod, “ you still oogle his ass.”

“I am a weak woman, mi amigo .”

Bel giggled and chirped, “That's most of us!”

“Men as well,” noted Bernard quietly with a smile, the first thing he'd put forth to the conversation. He then shrugged and Meryell caught his eyes as he added, “But, again, the Commander only has eyes for you.”

The nervousness, involving telling him what vhen’an’ara meant that had been following her since the conversation with Folke, was pressed down by their words. She felt buoyed by them, lifted up to giddy heights of pleasure at hearing such things (though that was probably also the alcohol). Fuck, even hearing that others were eying him up, which might have added to the already numerous excuses her mind came up with, didn't touch her.

“Still not dashing ,” piped Astrid, bringing the conversation back around to her original comment.

So dashing,” argued Bel. “You obviously didn't see him carrying her back into camp after they found her in the snow.”

The Anders woman started to open her mouth but Tyrrania beat her to saying something. “We are to speak of good things,” she pointed out. “Not things that may not be quite so fond memories. So our Meryell may enjoy herself, yes?”

Bel looked somewhat cowed by the Tevinter woman's response and Astrid snorted. “Sure,” she growled before releasing Meryell, leaning back in her chair to take a long swig of the contents of her mug. “We can tell you about what the Captain and your ambassador had us doing in the Hinterlands after we joined up?”

As Meryell shook her head in response to the question, Lortho piped up, “Or the Storm Coast! Shit, shit, Bernard, we've got to tell her about that!

“We have time,” the big man rumbled with a smile as he sipped his drink. “I think Astrid’s claimed first dibs to story time.”

“Fucking right,” growled the woman with a sharp nod. She then launched into her story immediately, putting great detail into who went with her, what they were doing, and apparently anything else that seemed remotely relevant (or even irrelevant) to the story.

Meryell smiled and settled heavily against Pod’s side, leaning her head back against his shoulder as she took another drink from her bottle. She let Astrid’s voice roll over her, more paying attention to the familiar timbre than the actual tale she was telling.

Oh, yes, besides having Cullen actually here, this was exactly what she had needed to end the day with. Whiskey in her belly, a warm buzz in her head, and her family (the familiar one of a decade, not the new and nebulous one she suspected was forming out of the Inquisition) around her with true stories and ridiculous lies pouring from their mouths. That was a way to end a day.

Of course, good things - like she had learned long ago - never last. Which is how she found herself on the battlements outside the third floor, leaning over the side with Rhiryd holding her while she puked her guts out all over Skyhold’s walls and Sister Cecilia wiping her mouth with a wet rag between bouts of sick. Bright side, she was mostly sober now.

“There, there, my girl,” the Orlesian woman said in soothing tones as she brushed sweaty hair back from Meryell's forehead. There was little for her to use her rag on this time as Meryell had made the fool mistake of not eating, thus most of what she was doing now was dry heaving. “I think you've got it mostly out now. Rhiryd, be a dove and go find a glass of water? And if he's still sober, that mage Dorian.”

The big man rumbled what Meryell could only assume was an acknowledgement in Avvish and gently lowered her to the floor of the battlements. As Cecilia settled next to her, leaning her over so she could rest her head on the older woman's shoulder, he paused to look at the former Sister with a softness to his dark eyes. At least that's how it looked to Meryell but she was admittedly pretty damn drunk. That could very well have been a look of pity for her. Then he was gone, thumping off back through the open door of the tavern with the heavy footsteps of a warrior utterly unfamiliar with stealth.

Sighing, she closed her eyes and breathed, “Fucking stupid.”

“Yes, my girl, it was,” replied Cecilia as she gently carded her fingers through Meryell's hair. “And I will scold no more than that because you know you did a fool thing.”

Smiling, Meryell turned her head further into the Sister's shoulder. “You're the best sort of Chantry Sister, you know that?”

“Because I scold only when it is obvious you lot have no idea you've done wrong? Yes, I know, dove.” The older woman then asked, “Do you think you could stomach something if I sent Rhiryd to the kitchens?”

The very idea of food made Meryell's stomach roll and she lurched away from Cecilia, her eyes snapping open as she went. That motion didn't help her stomach at all and she ended up hacking bile flavored spittle all over the battlement wall as the older woman held her up from behind.

“No more talk of that then. It is only water for you tonight, my girl.”

Nodding weakly, she slumped back against the woman after hocking one last gob of spit onto the wall. “Fuck,” she breathed.

“There will be none of that either.”

Tilting her head back as now she was settled against Cecilia’s chest, Meryell muttered, “I think I know my limits, Sister.”

“Truly?” asked the Sister with a wry smile. She then looked up and away towards the door at the sound of heavy footsteps returning. Only it sounded like...more than one set? “Ah, I see you found someone to aid our endeavours.”

Thinking it was going to be Dorian, Meryell turned her head slowly in that direction to avoid jostling the sharp pain that was already sparking behind her eyes. Instead she found Cullen standing behind Rhiryd, free of his armor for the night and looking incredibly concerned.

As the Avvar man put the cup of water gently into Sister Cecilia’s open hand, Cullen moved forward to crouch down beside them. He then reached out to pick up her right hand in both of his, bare fingers running over her skin, before saying softly, “You started and ended the party without me, dear thief.”

“You're late ,” replied Meryell pointedly, clenching her fingers around his. She then sipped at the water as Cecilia moved the cup up to her lips, sighing contentedly at the soothing sensation on her throat even as she noticed his expression turning dark.

“Yes,” he replied steely. “There was far more paperwork than Jim first estimated.”

Rhiryd snorted a laugh at that and Cecilia said, “Oh dear. Whatever did you do to the poor dove?”

“Nothing.” Cullen smiled slyly as he added, “But what he thinks I may do to him will last for some time. Hopefully it will be enough of a lesson.”

“Beat him and he will learn,” commented Rhiryd roughly in his thickly accented, still mostly broken Common. Then he made a vague gesture at Cullen before saying to Cecilia, “Let him take care?”

The older woman hummed and looked down at Meryell, gently stroking hairs from her forehead again before she turned towards Cullen. “Have you cared for someone sick of drink, Commander?”

“Myself once or twice,” he replied with a slight shrug of his shoulders. If Meryell had been a little more towards sober, she probably would have paid more attention to the expression on his face when he said that. Particularly since he’d told her straight out that he had never drunk very often until he’d met her.

“We will leave our Meryell in your hands then. I doubt I need to tell you to have a care with her, but I do say only speak of water.”

Cullen just smiled and abruptly Meryell realized she was leaning back against him instead of Cecilia. When had they shifted her around? Shit , when had he sat down and the Sister stood up?  “Upset stomach?” he asked wryly.

The Sister's expression went dark as she replied, “She was a fool and did not eat before throwing herself into drink.” Meryell's stomach rolled immediately at the word eat but she managed to keep it from utterly revolting. The look suddenly on Cullen's face, though, made her wish she was capable of running right then.

He looked so disappointed .

“I see,” he said softly. “Well, I thank you, Sister, for taking care of her. And you, ser.”

“Rhiryd,” grunted the Avvar man as he curled a possessive arm around Sister Cecilia’s waist. He then looked down at her with a somewhat childish expression as he asked, “Book?”

Cecilia laughed before replying, “Yes, my dove, we can get back to our book now. Perhaps you shall read a chapter for me instead of me reading to you?” When he smiled and nodded, taking one of her hands to lift it to his lips and press a long kiss to it, she turned back towards them. “Be good for your Commander, my girl.”

“I’m always good,” grumbled Meryell in response while wearily closing her eyes. As she listened to the pair walk off, she was aware of Cullen sliding his arms around her until he locked his fingers across her belly. For a long moment they sat like that in silence until she slitted an eye open to look up at the underside of his jaw, ever littered with a line of stubble. Very quietly she asked, “Are you angry at me?”

She felt him stiffen for a moment then he relaxed, shaking his head before he bowed it to press a kiss against her forehead.

“No, dear thief,” he replied softly. “Merely a little disappointed that you weren’t taking care of yourself tonight. Supper is important, particularly if you’re drinking.”

Quirking an eyebrow, Meryell opened her other eye and said, “I believe that’s the mabari talking about kaddis.” His neck flushed immediately in response before he growled in frustration and lifted his head sharply back up and away.

“My bad habits,” Cullen grumbled, “are no reason for you to start doing the same. Now, do you think you can walk or am I going to have to carry you?”

Flinching a little because she got the feeling she’d struck a bit of a nerve, she replied, “Carry. Cullen I…”

“Hush, vhen-an-arah .”

“But that’s…”

Shhh ,” he said, more than a little forcefully and she went quiet because damn the man but he was stubborn . Now annoyed and already hurting in the head from her impending hangover, Meryell proceeded to start alternatively squirming and going utterly limp as he tried to pick her up. Cullen kept letting out exasperated huffs of breath in response, which were followed by growls, and then finally a darkly rumbled, “ Fuck it.

Then Meryell’s whole world lurched, her stomach rolled, and she found herself high off the ground looking down at the stones of the battlements. Groaning, she closed her eyes as she realized that Cullen had thrown her over his shoulder once he started moving and the stones started to swim . He merely let out a grunt in response and grumbled, “I care for you but damnit , Meryell, if you’re going to be stubborn, I’ll treat you like one of my men. Hangover or no hangover.”

Clenching her eyes shut and trying to swallow the lump of bile trying to rise in her throat, she hissed, “I don’t think you’d throw one of your men over your shoulder if they were drunk.”

“If I’m the only one sober enough to get them back to their tent, I certainly will.” He then added, and fuck the man , she could hear the smirk in his tone, “And try not to spew down my backside. I have it upon good authority that it’s much appreciated. One of the mages and an Antivan woman from your company were particular to be sure I knew it too before that man, Rhiryd, found me.”

Half of her wanted to do it just to spite him .

The other half was amused because that sounded like he was trying to get a rise out of her via jealousy.

“Nah,” she replied as airily as she could folded in half over his broad shoulder, “I like your ass too much to ruin it, even temporarily.”

He hummed in reply and she was aware of them passing through one of the still abandoned towers that sat between the third floor doorway of the tavern and his own tower. Now his pace was slowing down from the abrupt, almost march that he’d first broken into when he’d slung her over his shoulder. By the time they reached the door of his tower, it was a sedate walk that didn’t do one thing to jostle her.

Then Cullen was sliding her off of his shoulder and carefully depositing her in his chair, an uncomfortable looking thing while sober but apparently fantastic while absolutely limp from drunkeness. He brushed hair away from her face with a gentle touch, old calluses catching her skin, and softly said, “Try not to fall out of my chair, hmm?”

Meryell tried to smile in reply, saying, “No promises.”

He snorted a laugh then pulled away, walking across the main area of the office back towards the door. She heard what sounded like him climbing the ladder she knew lead up to the wooden second floor of that part of the tower and frowned.

“Cullen?” she called out, not certain her voice would reach him with how weak it sounded to her own ears.

“Yes, dear thief?”

“I thought you didn't have a second floor yet.

The last time she'd been in the tower, it had been deemed a hazard and judged in need of serious rebuilding.

“Apparently,” he called back, sounding more than a little exasperated, “Josephine decided that I needed to be rewarded for all of my hard work. That and, apparently as well, you needed somewhere decent to sleep that wasn't a tent given that you're now Inquisitor. Until she finishes whatever her project for you is, that is.”

The fact that Josephine already made the assumption that she would be spending her time in Cullen's bed made Meryell both deliriously warm and embarrassed at the same time. Mostly for him since he was really at his core a very private man.

She had apparently gotten lost in thought because she suddenly become aware that he was half sitting on the edge of his desk, looking down at her with a bemused expression. If she'd felt better, she probably would have arched her back and batted her eyebrows while asking him if he saw something he liked. Instead Meryell just smiled and murmured tiredly, “Hi.”

“Hi,” he replied. Standing up, he then bent over her and slid his arms around her, hands finding her hips and lifting her up out of the chair with ease. “Let's get you into bed.”

“Mmph,” was all the reply she could make as he lifted her high up onto his chest. She did manage to wrap her arms around his neck and tuck her knees about his ribs to hang on before she buried her face in the fur of his coat. His left arm locked around her back, holding her tightly to him as he carried across the room and slowly climbed the ladder.

Meryell turned her head as they crested the wooden floor and found the space to be as simple as she'd expected. There were his two personal chests tucked against a wall, a new armor stand (as the other had been left in Haven) which currently held his normal plate, a small metal brazier burning merrily in the center of the floor with a fresh flame to heat the area, and a small side table with drawers that had a low burning candle sitting on top of it along with a clay cup and pitcher and a book. Of course,there was also the bed but she only saw a glimpse of its battered looking headboard before she was lowered onto the edge.

Suddenly flustered by her state, because she knew she was covered in both spilled alcohol and her own puke in spots, she said, “Don't sit me on your bed, I've got…”

Shhh ,” bid Cullen, his hands already deftly tugging at where her belt was looped around itself. “I have a plan, dear thief. Trust me.”

As if there was any question of her doing just that.

So Meryell tried to relax and let him go about his plan . Relaxing, however, was more than a little hard because his hands were on her. His hands were undressing her . Every touch set her pulse to jumping. Each brush of his fingertips across cloth and leather and the hint of skin had her breathing go fast and heavy.

And she could hear his breathing as it sped up as well, could feel the slightly nervous stutter in his hands that was decidedly not fucking caused by lyrium withdrawal.

As Cullen pulled her shirt up and over her head, a motion that required him to lean in close from where he sat on his knees in front of her as her limbs were all practically limp at this point, he leaned in to press a kiss against her collarbone. His breath was hot against her skin and his lips dry from it still being cold outside but the kiss. Fucking Maker and his flaming Bride, that kiss set her on fire.

He leaned back just as quickly as he'd moved forward and Meryell could see even in the flickering light from the candle that the dark of his eyes were blown wide, nearly drowning out the amber. There was also a naked want on his face and she was ever so painfully regretting every drink of the night now

“You are beautiful,” he growled and she managed a tired smile.

“And you haven't even gotten my breastband off yet,” she commented, words that made that delicious growl she'd discovered when scratching his back ages ago come out. The one that rumbled out from deep in his chest and felt like it rattled her bones.

Cullen's eyes flicked down to the fabric that was the last thing hiding the whole of her chest from him. Her breasts weren't much, kept at barely more than a handful for her own hands due to the life she lived keeping her fairly fit, and most men she'd been with had never paid too much attention to them. Really it had ever only been just enough for them to get their cock inside her. Meanwhile, Cullen looked at her breastband like he wanted to set it on fire .

Another growl slipped out of him and Meryell watched him expel a long, slow breath. Then he dropped her shirt on the floor next to the bed and turned his attention to the her boots. With quick, methodical motions he loosened the leather ties that held her boots close against her calves and slid them off. Her socks - new and ridiculously warm, a gift knitted by one of the women who'd survived Haven - followed and then his fingers were tugging at the laces of her pants since he'd already pulled her belt apart

Breathing heavily, Meryell asked, “Do you want me to…”

“No,” interrupted Cullen with a growl. He flicked his eyes up at her as he tugged the last tie loose enough that he could slide his thumbs underneath the heavy fabric. Then he rose up so his face was nearly level with hers and pressed a soft kiss to her lips as he murmured, “Let me take care of you, dear thief.”

She tried to quirk an eyebrow but wasn't entirely sure she succeeded before asking, “And what exactly does taking care of me imply, ser?”

“At the moment,” he answered as he settled back onto his heels, “getting you out of these clothes.”

“And after?”

Cullen flashed her a look before smiling as he wriggled her pants slowly down over her hips. As he continued working them free, he replied, “As much as I'm tempted to do other things, sleep is the goal for the night.”

Sleep? ” repeated Meryell, a little exasperated. “ Vhen’an’ara , I don't know if I'll be able to fucking sleep tonight after what you've put me through.”

“Lies, you're as good as falling asleep on me right now.”

It was true since she was barely keeping her eyes open even with everything his actions were making her feel but she wasn't about to let that stop her from arguing.

“Nuh-uh,” she said childishly.

“I will not argue with you like a child.”

At that she blew a raspberry at him and he laughed before finally freeing her legs from her pants. As he laid them on top of her shirt, Meryell suddenly felt overly exposed by the fact that she was in only her under things on his bed. In response, she shifted her heavy feeling arms into action, trying to fold them across her chest. Cullen caught her mid-motion and laced his fingers through hers as he pulled them away again.

“You are beautiful ,” he repeated and she flushed.

“You keep saying that but I'm not sure that makes it true.”

He shook his head at that, saying, “ Believe me, vhen-an-arah . You are.”

Meryell shook her head and argued, “I'm tiny . Breasts, body, hips, every bit is fucking sparse .”

Cullen huffed angrily at her before replying, “You are enough for me, Meryell Verlen.” And suddenly it didn't seem like he was talking about her body but about her self doubts.

Squeezing her fingers around his where he'd laced them together, she breathed, “And you for me, Cullen Rutherford.” He smiled at that, all bright and shining but also a little shy, and then lifted their joined hands to press a kiss against the backs of hers.

A moment later he freed his hands and asked, “Do you want a shirt? The brazier never lasts long and it'll get cold thanks to the hole.”

Hole? ” repeated Meryell. She then turned her head to the left and realized that there was a huge section of his wall that was damned well missing . Literally the only thing covering it was a large heavy oil cloth that only blocked half, likely enough to keep rain from getting in. “Josephine didn't fix that?”

“I...I may have asked her not to.”

At the uneasy sound of his voice, she turned to look at him where he'd moved away to his chests, digging through them with his back to her. There was a sudden stiffness to his shoulders and even with as slow as her mind was right then, she connected the dots.

Kinloch . Being trapped at the top of the Tower. Why he usually always kept one flap at the end of his tent untied. It had always rung vaguely of a fear of enclosed spaces but she'd never made the connection until now.

“Oh,” was all she found to reply rather numbly. Rather than going on with that line of discussion because she respected his decision to not talk about what had happened to him, she asked, “Is it a warm shirt?”

He let out a somewhat strained chuckle in response, replying, “Warm enough. Do remember I'm getting into bed with you.” Not only did the words send a thrill up her spine but she was reassured that she wouldn't be cold. She had been deliciously warm in those hours when they'd been jammed together into her cot in the healer's tent after her long walk.

“One would expect nothing less since it's your bed .”

Cullen chuckled in response then closed the trunk, turning back towards her. He had a threadbare looking tunic in his hands, one that looked like it had seen many years of wear and tear judging by the patches in it. It was a deep red with long sleeves that were once capable of being fitted at the wrist but was now missing its ties and long in length, likely long enough to be practically a dress on her. He then tweaked it by the shoulders and she saw the Sword of Mercy was stitched in pale yellow thread across the front.

“That's a…”

“My training tunic,” interjected Cullen. “One of them from when I was, as you would say it, eight and ten. I'm not sure why I kept it. Memory of my last hours before taking my vows, perhaps.” He then grimaced and added, “If you don't want to wear it, I can…”

“Cullen, no, ” breathed Meryell, shaking her head. Did he not know what he was offering her? This was not merely a shirt worn every day, not something from the last few years. This was from the last remnants of his boyhood, from when he'd stepped fully into the life of a templar and the terrible things that had happened to him during it. The things that had brought him here , to this moment with her. It only made her lo ...care for him all the more that he was willing to share it with her.

Extending her slightly shaking arms, hands palms up towards him, she asked softly, “Help me put it on?”

His expression softened and he breathed, “Of course, dear thief,” before crossing the room to her. Every touch of his hands was gentle as he maneuvered her into the shirt before finally he pressed them flat against her ribs, the heel of his hands braced on either side of the symbol of his old Order. She had been right, of course, that it would be more like a dress on her. If she were standing the bunched up folds around her waist would probably just barely graze the tops of her knees.

There was a look in his eyes that she couldn't quite decipher then he leaned forward to press a kiss to the top of her head. “Get under the covers. I'll be there in a moment.”

Meryell needed no other incentive other than that and smiled as she slowly crawled her way across the bed. As soon as she slipped under the covers on one side and tugged a pillow underneath her head, she felt exhaustion finally hit her like a battering ram. She fought to keep her eyes open over the next few moments, knowing that any minute she was going to lose her hold on consciousness.

Thus she wasn't even aware when Cullen slid into the bed next to her, only realizing it when her eyes fluttered open to find his face inches from hers. She realized then too that she had been drawn up against his body, held there by the loop of one arm, and that he was bare but for a pair of loose pants of some of soft material. His hand gently stroked hairs away from her face as he looked at her with soft eyes and a gentle smile.

There were no stern planes to his face here, no set to his jaw, no seriousness. Here he was not Commander Cullen, no, here he was merely Cullen . The man, not the former templar or the general or even the lyrium addict.

The difference took years off of his face.

Vhen-an-arah ,” he said softly, his voice a gentle rumble, “you should sleep.”

“Will you?” Meryell asked fuzzily. Wasn't there something she'd been intending on telling him?

Cullen chuckled and replied, “I will. I sleep better when you're nearby anyway.”

“Oh. Good.”

He laughed and shifted forward to press a kiss against her lips, humming contentedly when she returned it. “ Sleep ,” he bid, his tone commanding, and she found no reason to argue against the almost order.

Meryell merely squirmed her way into her preferred place against him, with her head tucked under his chin and one hand folded against his chest to feel to steady beat of his heart. Whatever it was that she'd forgotten would just have to wait as all clear thought fled from her a moment later, exhaustion and the heat of him dragging her firmly into the Fade.

Chapter Text

His brain - traitorous thing that it was - said that this was the right decision to make.

His heart, on the other hand, felt like it was breaking at what he was considering.

Burying his head in his hands, Cullen leaned forward to rest his elbows on the desk. He was mad to be thinking what he was.

And yet his brain wouldn’t shut up about fucking protocol and what could come out of continuing the delicate relationship he had with Meryell any further onward. It wasn’t that people hadn’t seen them together; no, the whole of Haven had been certain that they were far more of a couple than they actually were for months . He knew, he overheard the gossip himself and got informed of some of it by both his own men, Cassandra, and unsigned notes left on his desk that were in Leliana’s hand. And everyone who'd survived Haven had heard the tale of what had seemed to be a last desperate kiss - their first, though only a few knew that detail.

They weren’t who he was worried about.

He was concerned about those to come: the soldiers, the diplomats, the needy who were flocking ever more to the banner of the Inquisition. With Skyhold and their ever growing force that was spread out in makeshift tents and huts on the plains below the keep with the bulk of the fighting force, they couldn’t always be seen together like they had been. Could not sit comfortably in the tavern with the knowledge that no one would bother them.

He was ever looking at more and more paperwork with the bulk of the real soldiering left to his lieutenants, the mantle of Commander tugging him deeper under its hold.

And Meryell was the Inquisitor now. Not just the Herald or the foul-mouthed elf that he cared for beyond reason.

She was the damned Inquisition.

Pressing his fingers against his eyelids, Cullen muttered a blistering line of curses that would have drawn surprised looks from his men and an impressed whistle from Meryell. Logic and protocol that had been drilled into him for all the years he’d been in the templars screamed that he could not be with her as her subordinate. They’d already seen how well that had worked out in Haven when everything had been on the line and they’d taken precious time needed to face the force outside to kiss in a corner. It was a potentially dangerous mistake that they could never afford happening again.

And yet…

And yet, his heart labored in his chest at the thought of losing her. Not to death but to duty . To never be able to rest his arms comfortably across her shoulders again, her warmth steady and more than a little drunk against his side. Never curl his fingers into her short hair while his lips pressed hard against her forehead while he shook as her small callused fingers tentatively slid underneath the edge of his tunic to stroke his stomach. To never hold her against him as he'd done that night before she'd left for the Hinterlands or undress her or sleep with her breath soft against his throat. He would perhaps never know how she felt bare against him and slicked with sweat from love making if he took that path.

Just as Cullen hadn’t been ever fully certain he would have healed from her dying in Haven, he didn’t think he’d ever entirely recover from losing her. He didn’t dare say that he loved her - he did but he wasn’t sure yet that it was that kind of love - but he cared deeply for her. She had never berated him for his past after learning it but had never let him back away from the fact that the things he had done had been wrong. No, Meryell had merely accepted them as having happened and told him do better . Even when he’d woken her up in the throes of a nightmare - never certain of where he was and struggling against the constraints of their covers - she had simply waited for reality to resettle back for him before tugging him back down against her, kissing his forehead as she curled her fingers into his hair as if to secure him to the then and now and to her .

She was so much fucking more than a broken addict like him deserved.

Abruptly rising to his feet, Cullen drew in a sharp gasp of air and wiped away the moisture threatening the corner of his eyes. He could not discuss this with Folke. The hedge mage would not be reasonable at all given that his daughter was involved in the discussion. That and he was certain that Folke would see even thinking about going through with leaving her as hurting Meryell and Cullen would be forced by his own honor to give in to his promise of putting himself at the older man’s mercy if he did such a thing.

Maker, he’d practically fling himself at the hedge mage’s feet right now just for having the thought.

So who could he go to to discuss this?

If Cassandra had been in Skyhold, she would have been his first choice as she was both his friend and Meryell’s. She, however, was on her way back down to the Hinterlands with the woman that he was conflicted over along with Dorian and Sera to check on their forces that had been left behind there after they’d fled Haven.

He wasn’t going to give Leliana any further ammunition than she might already have. Josephine was an option but she was even more busy than he usually was nowadays. That and he was more than a little fearful that their ambassador would recommend that he go with the first option. Even with what she'd done to finish his rooms, he still feared censure from her. Neither of them, however, were very close to Meryell so he pushed them out of mind.

Cullen wasn’t close enough to any of the other inner circle to approach them, though he was gaining an appreciation of Blackwall as the man had taken up training with his soldiers (often alongside the Iron Bull, Cassandra, and Captain Arnald) and had a fine hand at training some of the younger ones. That didn’t mean he was the one to go to about this.

Stretching his hand across his face to rub both temples at the same time, he was suddenly hit with an epiphany.

There was someone who knew Meryell well and himself decently enough. Who stood a lower possibility of pulling a Folke on him, though he wasn’t entirely certain of that.

Striding out of his tower onto the battlements, Cullen quickly descended the closest stairs that led down behind the stable and asked one of Dennet’s new hands - a scrawny little whelp of a boy who had ended up an orphan from Haven - to see about getting his horse ready.

He needed to head down into the Fangs’ camp.


“Commander! Didn’t expect you down here so soon!” greeted Zarru as he rode into the camp, the dark-skinned woman standing in a wide-legged stance before a group of the mercenaries who were training some of their newest recruits. She was wearing far less than she normally was, steel set aside for more flowing Rivaini garb that showed off more of the tattoos that lined her flesh, despite the fact that it was still winter. He’d have expected a northern-born soul like her to have been more the sort to cover up in the south but guessed that she’d gotten used to different climates over the years.

From what he’d been able to garner from conversations with Meryell and Folke about the company’s second-in-command, she’d been a pirate from a young age before becoming a mercenary after some incident on the sea had made her put that life behind her.

“Zarru,” he replied, inclining his head as he slid down from the back of the big grey beast that Dennet had said was the horse for him. Patting its neck before he turned over the reins to one of the company youths who’d run up to take it, Cullen flicked his eyes over their new recruits before he could stop himself. Habit of years being in charge of men and women who were as likely to hurt each other as themselves. “New blood?”

“New blood for the ground at this rate,” replied the woman seriously. “Most of them aren’t much in a fight. Farmers and the lot...though I s’pose you deal with the same.”

“So I’m told,” grumbled Cullen, more than a little annoyed at himself for not currently having the time to observe his own men.

Zarru snorted at that. “Well,” she drawled, “I hope you and yours have more luck. Harvard was always better with the young ones but, eh, we Fangs make do. Someone will replace the old man eventually.”

Abruptly he recalled that the old man had been one of the casualties of the Fangs and the loss had been one that had torn Meryell up. He’d been the trainer of their recruits for years and had always had a soft spot for, in her words, a foul-mouthed brat. Yet, at more than seventy years old, Harvard had picked up a sword alongside the rest of the Fangs and had fought like a man half his age against the force that had come down on their heads in Haven. His death had been one of the witnessed one, with one of the Fang’s archers - the former Dalish elf that Meryell had introduced as Pod during their long walk to Skyhold - saying with surety that he’d fallen while defending the wagons that had left by the lower gate outside of Haven.

Having already made his condolences with Arnald and Zarru about the losses the company had suffered, Cullen said simply, “One can only hope that his replacement will turn out as good of Fangs as he did.”

The woman grinned at him, her teeth bright white against the dark of her skin, before she crossed her arms and turned her attention back fully to the new recruits. “So,” she drawled after a moment, “sure you didn’t come down here to bullshit with me, Commander. And since our Meryell’s out and Folke’s up top at what you lot are calling a mage tower , I’m guessing you’re hunting the captain.”

“I am.”

Zarru nodded then jerked her head towards the right in the direction of a modest sized tent with dark canvas and one of the Fangs banners planted in front of it. “He’s in there doing some sort of plotting for the job we’re supposed to go help with down in the Fallow Mire. Just announce who you are before you walk in.” She broke off with another grin before finishing, “Our Meryell wouldn’t be too happy to come back and learn that we’d knifed what’s hers.”

Feeling his neck flush at both the words as well as the reminder of what he’d come down here for in the first place, Cullen nodded his thanks and headed that way. As he reached the tent, he started to extend an arm to scratch against the canvas in the way that his own soldiers usually did to announce their presence but was interrupted by Arnald poking his head out from between the closed flaps.

“Ah,” commented the older man, his eyes blinking against the light of the afternoon sun in that way that said he’d been in the dark for too long. “I thought I heard your voice, Commander. Come in, come in.” Then the Orlesian man’s head disappeared back into the tent and Cullen followed, blinking his own eyes several times as they adjusted to the dim.

And he thought he had problems keeping track of when candles needed to be lit to have light to work by. Arnald seemed to have made it into an art given that he seemed to have been working for some time over the desk in what at first seemed like near darkness.

The Captain cursed as he muddled around the tent for a moment before he came up obviously fiddling with something that Cullen couldn’t quite make out yet. “Forgive me, Commander,” he said. “I often miss the point when I need light to work by. Zarru often reminds me that it’s going to one day cost me my eyes sooner than later.”

Waving a hand, Cullen replied, “No need to apologize.” He lifted a hand to rub at the back of his neck quite before he was aware to be doing it and let the motion lie. “I’m a culprit of the same myself.”

“Burden of command,” Arnald noted with a smile that could now be seen as he lit the candle wick he’d been fiddling with and planted the stand he’d set it into into a hole in the absolute chaos that was the table that occupied most of the tent. He shuffled papers further away from it for a moment before he lifted an actual chair by it’s back and canted it towards Cullen. “Here, have a seat and tell me what brings you down from the lofty heights.”

As he took the chair, Cullen smiled, saying, “I’m not sure Skyhold counts as lofty .”

“She’s above our heads, is she not?” replied Arnald as he manhandled another chair out from under the table and sat down in it. “Now...what’s this visit about? Surely it’s not the job down in the Fallow Mire as we’ve already met to plan that out and you stated fairly clearly the last time that it’s solid.”

“Ah...no. It’s not about that.”

Arnald arched a graying eyebrow and Cullen sighed before he leaned forward, resting his elbows heavily on his knees as he closed his eyes and fought the sudden upwell of terror and disgust. He could do this . He was no longer that tormented child who’d barely escaped Kinloch with the last shreds of his sanity. There was no shame in seeking out help and advice.

“Commander?”

“May we speak as...friends?” asked Cullen abruptly. “Of a sort?”

There was a long pause from the other man and then Arnald said gently, “You come seeking advice on something. Something which there is no one else - at least here - that you may go to for?”

It was rather fucking terrifying how well anyone who claimed the title of spymaster could read him sometimes. Leliana had the same damned trait and used it like the point of a knife most times to dig out what she wanted to know. Thankfully Arnald had always seemed a little more kind about it.

Opening his eyes, Cullen looked at the other man for a long moment before he simply nodded. In return Arnald simply ran a hand through his silver-streaked hair and gestured wordlessly with one hand for him to begin whenever he wanted.

It took more time than he was comfortable admitting to get his tongue to untie itself from the knot it was abruptly in so he could say softly, “It’s about Meryell.”

“Ah.” The Captain nodded his head before adding, “Hence why you are here with me and not Folke.”

“Yes.”

Arnald sat in silence and Cullen closed his eyes briefly before reopening them to look at the man patiently waiting on him to begin. Given the closeness that he’d observed in the Fangs - least of all how every one of them referred to Meryell as our Meryell - he imagined that the Captain had sat with his men in many meetings such as this. He was a listener and a far better one than Cullen had been attempting to be since the Gallows had become a veritable war zone along with Kirkwall.

Blowing out air between his teeth, he finally began, “I am torn between the thing that I want and what my brain thinks I should be doing.” Sitting up, Cullen gestured with one hand as he continued, “On the one side, I have logic , which dictates that the relationship between a commander and a subordinate shouldn’t be one of…” Love is the word he wants to put there but his throat tightens around it and refuses to let it loose. “...anything more than respect.”

Holding out his other hand, he added, “On the other side, I have my heart , which…”

“Wants things,” interjected Arnald, his soft tone and the slightly distant look in his eyes saying more than anything. “Things that the logical side of you, the soldier , believes are not yours for the having.”

Maker’s breath .

All he could do was nod and the Captain smiled before he stood, moving around to the far side of the tent where a smaller table sits. He picked up a bottle from it and two cups, returning with them held in one hand as he pulled the cork on the bottle out with his teeth. Arnald poured a generous helping of golden looking liquid into both cups before he sat the bottle on the edge of the main table and extended one cup towards him.

As Cullen took it, the other man leaned back and lifted one leg to rest his booted ankle against his other knee. “I felt like that once,” Arnald mused as he took a sip from his cup. “When I still had my commission in the Imperial Army. I had just made sergeant and there was this girl in a village. She was a sweet young thing but had an arm fit to nail any man a staggering blow with a sling. A farm girl, raised out in the countryside all her life, dedicated to herding sheep and milking cows.”

“What was her name?” Cullen asked softly as he lifted the cup to his own lips, smelling briefly before he tipped it to identify the liquor before it reached him. It wasn’t the vein of whiskey that Meryell preferred - hers was darker and had a deeper, woodier tang to it - but it wasn’t bad.

“Loyse,” replied Arnald with a smile that made his face seem several years younger. “She had the loveliest golden hair that fell past her waist, legs to drive a sane man wild, and blue eyes the color of the fountains of Val Royeaux. Ah, mon amie , I drowned in those eyes many a night and spent many more worshipping the blessed fount between those perfect thighs.”

Despite feeling the blush rising up his neck at the man’s descriptors - Maker’s cock , he was thirty and had bedded at least one woman in his life - Cullen managed to hold onto his composure.

“What happened?”

The other man smiled sadly and lifted his cup in a little bobbing salute towards nothing before answering, “Duty. Our station around the village came up and we were deemed ready to return home for a rest so as to visit our families. Of course I, young fool that I was, made a promise to Loyse that I could one day make an honest woman of her and give her my name. So I returned home, all alight with the news I was bringing to my family, before all of the shine was knocked off of it.”

“By your father?” asked Cullen, knowing that that was often the story behind a young man of noble blood who fell in with a peasant lass. The tale had always rankled his blood given that his own family had been simple farmers and any jumped up noble who thought to hurt his sisters like that had him going red in the eyes.

Snorting, Arnald replied, “No, no, of course not. If my father had cared that much about such noble shit, he’d never have allowed me to continue holding the family name.” He took another drink before continuing on. “No, Commander, that came from my mother. While my father believed in love matches, she certainly did not and expected me to be the good son and marry whosoever they told me to.”

“I was told very pointedly that I had a duty to uphold the Seraine name as well as her own family name of Gaiant despite having no solid connection to it except her. That duty was more important than love . Or whatever I thought was love since I surely would never lower myself to love a peasant girl.”

Feeling like a pit opened in his stomach, Cullen said, “And you held to duty.”

Shrugging, the older man replied, “I was a good son. Second in my line, expected to be the shining example of service in the Army since my older brother was to hold up the family business and name. So, yes, Commander, to my greatest regret, I promptly cast aside all thought of wedding my dear Loyse.” Arnald’s mouth then twisted into a grimace as he added, “Until a few years later, of course, when a bitch-child not long off her own mother’s teat claimed I took her by force. When I had nothing to my name after that but the ability to still bear the name of Seraine and wear the colors, I rode back to that little village.”

“But she had moved on.”

“With a simple man who loved her and had already given her two sons by the time I rode back into her life, with a third child on the way. They put me up in their loft for a while since I had nothing then and I helped her man work their fields for a handful of months before I finally struck out. She kissed me right there in front of him - an act I’m still stunned he didn’t gut me for as I would have slain a man who touched her when she was mine - and said that she prayed I would find happiness somewhere else in the world.”

“Which,” continued Arnald before taking a long drink, “I did. I found the Fangs and worked my way up through the ranks until I earned the Captaincy in the vote when the space went void more than twenty years back.” He smiled as he looked at the dark walls of the tent, saying, “Perhaps it’s not the life that young sergeant I was imagined but it is a good life. I may not have any permanent warmth in my bed but I dare say that I have more children than any sane man could ever want in a lifetime.”

Leaning forward, the man stared Cullen in the eye, his dark eyes intense behind his ever present mask.

“If I could do it over again, however,” he growled in a low voice, “I would tell my mother where she could promptly stuff her lineage and that I would marry who I willed. So, my advice, Cullen , that I highly recommend you follow, is to go with your heart and tell your head where it can fuck off to.”

“Is that as Meryell’s Captain,” asked Cullen as he resisted the urge to lean away from the man, “or as her secondary sort of father figure?”

Arnald just smiled. “We shall say both.”

Grimacing, Cullen gripped the cup with both hands as he growled out, “And what when we come to a situation like Haven again? How do I bury the need to keep her safe when she has to be the one to face down the monster at our door? How do I hand her two shitty choices at the war table - shitty choices that could easily end up with her dead - and not hate myself? How do I defend her against the inevitable whispers that she’s abusing her authority as Inquisitor by having me in her bed?”

“For the first,” replied the older man, “you do the same damned thing you did in Haven. You take her aside, you kiss her, and then you trust her to come back to you. Because Meryell will claw her way back through the fucking Void itself if Folke asked it of her and I imagine that you are either already or are soon to be on that same list.” He waved his cup laden hand flippantly then as he continued on, “For the second, you give her the choices, give her the best damned aid you can in making it out of whichever one she chooses, and you trust her again .”

Cullen swallowed before he asked, “And the last?”

Arnald smiled - a feral, menacing smile normally reserved for madmen - and replied in a low growl, “You love that girl with every fiber of your being and you either ignore the rumors because you and she and every fucking soul that damned well matters know the truth. Either that or you stare them down with all the fury you’ve got that they dare say such a thing before you tell them how far up the Maker’s soggy asshole they can shove their worthless fucking opinion. Or, my favorite, both .”

Then the man abruptly relaxed, his smile turning back into the casual one that he usually wore, as he added, “That’s my advice anyway, Commander. Take it or leave it.”

Blinking several times at the man while wondering just how sane he was to come to him - though still saner than going to Folke with this - Cullen nodded before he tossed the remainder of the whiskey to the back of his throat. As it burned its way down into his gullet, he sat the cup down on the edge of the table and stood from the chair to smile down at the Fangs’ Captain.

“I’ll certainly take your advice and give it some serious thought,” he said slowly. “Thank you, Arnald.”

The older man grunted and waved a hand before he flashed a hint of that feral smile again.

“Just remember, Commander, that that girl has a veritable herd of brothers and sisters who will go looking for the blood of the man who hurts her. I’ve even let them have one of our own when he fucked her over hard and the only thing that saved him was her telling us to back off because the bastard wasn’t worth the effort of the bloodshed. Or losing a good bowman.” Arnald narrowed his eyes as he added, “Somehow I’m not under the impression that if you break her heart that there will be such a rescue.”

Years ago Cullen might have blustered at the threat or even demanded that it be retracted because of his position. He was no longer that man, however, and he was certain that it wouldn’t be necessary anyway.

Despite saying that he was going to give it thought...he was already pretty sure which side he was going to fall on.

So he just smiled and said, “I’ll keep that in mind, Captain. Good luck in the Fallow Mire and see to it that our soldiers make it back in one piece.”

“Some of us will be leaving in two days to head that way to meet up with our girl to do just that,” replied Arnald with a smile. He then lifted his cup in a salute and said, “Have a good evening, Cullen. We should bullshit over drinks again when the both of us have the time. I enjoyed the few nights we managed it back in Haven.”

Chuckling, Cullen nodded in acquiescence of the request. He hadn’t had as many opportunities to do such with him or Folke as he had with Meryell but he had taken time out of his nights on the rare occasion when she hadn’t been in Haven to find one or both of them for a drink. It certainly wasn’t as entertaining as the nights he spent with her but he’d come to like both men during their talks.

“We should,” he replied. “Good evening yourself, Captain.”

With that he ducked out of the tent and immediately heard Zarru let out a loud whistle as she called out, “Bort! Bring the Commander his horse, lad!”

“Aye, ma’am!”

Smiling as he stood waiting, Cullen shifted his gaze over to Zarru, who looked at him with her head tilted curiously to one side in a way that made the beads in her thick strands of hair clack together.

“Sort out your problem, Commander?” she asked, her blue eyes startlingly bright in her dark face.

Nodding slightly, he replied, “I believe I did, Zarru.”

“Good,” she replied with a toothy grin. “I’d hate to have to knife you.”

“I’d hate to be knifed, so we’re even.”

She laughed at that and Cullen grinned at her before he reached out to grab the reins of his big horse from the different company youth that bolted up to deliver the beast back to him. Swinging back up into the saddle, he turned to head back up the hill with the Rivaini woman’s laughter in his ears accompanied by the sounds of training and the echo of Arnald’s words.

Duty or love, he thought as he urged the horse back up the hill towards the heights, eager to get there before the sky got too dark. That’s the core of the question.

Maker, he’d given enough to fucking duty.

Perhaps it was time he didn’t .

Cullen laughed aloud as he reached Skyhold’s entrance bridge, shaking in the saddle as he steered his horse across it.

He’d expected the choice to be hard .

And...honestly...it was far too easy a decision once he wasn’t scared to pick a side.

Chapter Text

“Darling, I hope you know that I absolutely hate you right now.”

Meryell, who was leaning over the main map that the scouts had been working on for weeks of the Fallow Mire, glanced up and laughed out loud at the sight of the dripping wet Tevinter mage. Dorian’s normally well coiffed hair was in a right state thanks to the damp, rainy weather that they’d encountered so far since travelling down into the Fallow Mire and his moustache seemed to be drooping for the sheer purpose of giving it company. Why he’d decided to leave his nice warm tent was a damned mystery. They’d set up all of their tents during the lull of it not raining when they’d arrived at Fisher’s End for that exact reason.

“You know you love me still. Even if I’ve ruined your boots,” she replied wryly as she turned her attention back to the map. There wasn’t really much there as the Fallow Mire pretty much lived up to its name and the undead had been plaguing their men as much as the group of Avvar in the area had. Of course, where the undead had just been killing them on occasion, the Avvar had actually caught them and were holding them captive somewhere deep in the region.

Hence why they were bunkered down in Fisher’s End waiting for the Fangs to meet up with them before they fully took the fight to the bastards.

“I am beginning to wonder why for just that reason,” muttered Dorian as he wrung out a sopping wet section of his robes. He then let out a truly theatrical sigh before making his way over to her, standing close enough to see the map but no so much as to where he’d drip on it. The map had probably seen worse than a few droplets of water already judging by what she was pretty certain was a bloodstain on one corner but the mage had a deep respect for paper, so she let it slide. “What are we looking at here, hmm?”

Shuffling a little to her left so he could get a better vantage point, Meryell replied, “What of this fucking piss pot of an area that the scouts have sussed out. Baba and the rest determined that it is demons animating the corpses, so whatever is happening here is a weakened Veil and not some sort of magic.”

The mage huffed out a laugh, saying, “That is both reassuring and not, though I’m certain you know that.”

“Fuck yes. So, we’ve got maybe half of this region mapped out. Mostly it’s death and bogs from the impression I got from Harding when she gave me her report earlier, though there’s some kind of magical shit near this spot.” Reaching out, she tapped a location that was very nearly a straight shot forward from their camp, barely more than half a glass of walking judging by the notations on the map. “That,” Meryell continued, “is what Harding and her lead scout Lyda described as a hill with a menhir on it.”

Dorian arched his eyebrows and asked, “And what, darling, is so strange about a hill with a large rock on it?”

“Because it's got what sure as shit sounds like a brazier for that veilfire stuff you and Chuckles can summon. Plus, it’s surrounded by demons if anyone gets too close.”

The mage rolled his eyes at that and moaned. “Maker forbid we go anywhere without demons!”

Meryell just grinned at his moaning and said, “I take you to the best places, don’t I?”

“Darling, I will set you on fire.”

“Even though you still love me?”

Especially because I still love you.”

Snorting a laugh, she leaned over and tapped on another marker on the map, saying, “Well, whenever the Fangs get here, getting over here will be our goal for that day. There’s apparently some sort of shallow cave in a rock there that the scouts figure will make a good camp for pressing onward.”

Dorian sniffed at that before asking, “And when , dare I ask, will the rest of your lovely family arrive?”

“Tomorrow.”

“I hate you even more.”

“Well,” drawled Meryell as she looped her arm around the mage’s shoulders as he was just a little taller than her, “if it’ll put me back into your good graces any, I packed a bottle of your favorite wine alongside my whiskey.”

His arm hooked around her waist in response, tugging her close against his sodden side but she didn’t protest. They’d have to go out in the wet to get to the alcohol anyway so she was already settled to the fact that she was going to end up at a similar state to him. Had been since they’d first set foot at the edge of the whole region, in fact.

Dorian hummed and said, “I suddenly find myself a little less inclined to hate you, darling. A glass of wine...or two...before bed, though, might just bring me back to feeling neutral about you.”

Laughing, she noted, “Have I told you that I am so fucking happy that I can bribe you with alcohol, Dorian?”

“No, but you can tell me over our drinks tonight. Alongside some gossip about your night with the Commander when the tavern opened, hmm? I heard you were carried off by him.”

Meryell snorted and grunted, “Like a sack of potatoes .”

“Now, now,” tutted Dorian as he paused at the door of the tent, peering at the dreary gray of the outside world with disdainful eyes, “that’s hardly romantic, darling.”

“Well no, but I was being a bit of a bitch to him at the time.”

“And later ?”

Reaching around with her free hand to smack him, she replied, “In my tent, darling . Where the alcohol’s at?” Dorian was actually one of the few she would talk about her and Cullen to more in depth as he knew when to keep his mouth shut about certain things. He also, unlike Cassandra, made her feel like she was gossiping with the Fangs as he had no qualms at saying all the things appreciable about Cullen.

Sighing theatrically again, the mage grumbled, “Oh, very well. Here, here, let me put a barrier up for all the little it will do to protect us on the move…now run !” They immediately dashed from the tent at his exclamation, she giggling hysterically while he cursed bloody murder in Tevene, before they stumbled into her own tent. Dripping wet, Meryell brushed her hair back out of her eyes while making a mental note that she needed to actually cut the mess back to her normal length before she bent over to pull a sealed wine bottle out of her open pack.

As soon as she handed it over to the mage, she started stripping out of her leathers so they could dry a little and Dorian whistled at her.

“If I knew getting you wet was all it took to get you out of your clothes, darling, I’d have gotten you naked in front of the Commander ages ago. Shall I tell him that you stripped for me when we return to Skyhold to make him jealous?”

Sticking out her tongue in response, Meryell replied, “What makes you think I haven’t stripped for him before?” She hadn't (yet) but he didn't need to know that they usually still went to sleep in their clothes. Though after that one night in his room that might be changing.

Dorian just waggled his eyebrows in response before he settled on the floor of her tent, long fingers curled around the neck of the wine bottle. “Because I know that neither of you have, ahem, done the nasty yet as our ever eloquent Sera would declare.” He then pouted, saying, “No glasses ?”

“No glasses,” she replied as she finished stacking her gear up in a dry section before plopping down on the ground near him in her sodden breeches and long-sleeved shirt, reaching for her own bottle as soon as she was settled.

“Such barbarism .”

Snorting, Meryell tugged open the cork on her whiskey, smiling around the mouth of the bottle as she took a long swig while he worked to get his wine open. “What do you expect?” she asked a moment later. “I am a barbaric Ferelden by birth, you know.”

Dorian sniffed before saying, “Honestly, dragging me down into your heathen ways. Why, if I ever go back to Tevinter, it will be a scandal.

“You love scandal.”

“Why, yes, I do.” He finally got the cork on his bottle and took a much more elegant drink from it than she had from hers. “ Now ,” he said seriously, “I believe you owe me a story.”

With a laugh, Meryell shifted around where she could lean her shoulder against his and settled in for a long night of slightly tipsy shenanigans with her friend.


Eight days later, covered in demon gore and undead gunk and the stickiest mud she'd ever encountered, Meryell glared at the ancient keep lurking ahead of them from their temporary shelter in an old house. “Rhiryd,” she called behind her as the big Avvar man had been obviously included amongst the team of Fangs Arnald had sent actually into the Mire. The Captain had intended on being there himself but apparently something else with a caravan being harassed by Red Templars in a pass south of Haven had taken priority. So they ended up with a mixed group of Fangs and Inquisition leaving Skyhold and splitting off at a halfway point along the way instead with him at the head of the rescue group.

“Yes?” he asked as he came to stand beside the old stool deemed still sturdy that had been relegated to the seat occupied by whoever was keeping an eye on the keep through the hole in the wall. Meryell turned away from the wall to cock her head up at him in question.

“So,” she began, “this group we're up against, do you know of them?”

Rhiryd grunted in response and looked like he was chewing air for a moment before he replied, “Some. They are from Blue-Ram Hold. Tend to be...hmm...hot head. Quick to anger. Thane is good, keeps check most time if same as I knew.”

Nodding at his broken Common, which was better than it had been (teaching him had been Sister Cecilia’s pet project since they'd found the big man half-dead two years back at the edge of the Wilds while hunting bandits for a job) since he hadn't known anything but yes and no originally, she asked, “Did your Hold have much dealing with them?”

“Some,” he replied. “Before my Hold, Red-Lion, was took by black sick.”

“Black sick?” she repeated, not certain what he meant by the term.

He nodded and gestured vaguely with his hands, which she'd always registered were huge , nearly three times the size of her own. They were heavy, square hands, meant for holding weapons and tools. Cullen's hands were similar in shape, which wasn't surprising as she remembered that the Avvar were one of the other Alamarri tribes like the one that most native human Fereldens were descended from.

“From eleven samhradh ...sum...sum-mer? Yes, eleven summer ago.” He nodded to himself as he finished the sentence then continued, “The sickness took all land, all animal. Cecilia, she tell me that Wardens stop it, stop dragon that rule it.”

Meryell blinked several times because that sure as shit sounded like the Blight and she hadn't known that it had spread south enough to affect the Avvar. Then again, how could she have when she hadn't even been in Ferelden when it had nearly decimated her birth country.

“It destroyed your Hold?” she asked.

Rhiryd shook his head before replying, “Took most life, not all. I survive with some but Hold could not stand. Death took the croí - the heart - from the Hold. Killed the young and old, took our Thane, took our Hold-Beast. Those left were lost, broken.”

Arching an eyebrow, Meryell pressed, “And then?” because that surely wasn’t all to the story. Judging by the dark expression that immediately took over the Avvar’s face, it had been something that had gone against everything that Rhiryd believed in.

“Warrior returned to the Hold,” he growled, his teeth suddenly gritted in anger. Obviously this was something that he had held onto for the past decade, that still drove him. “He was hot head, never agree with Thane. Never want peace. Saw...moment? Ch-chance?”

“Opportunity?” she offered.

Nodding, Rhiryd confirmed, “Opp-or-tun-ity. Yes. Saw this to turn Hold. Claimed gods left us, abandon us. That is why Hold fell sick. That is why Hold died.” He then clenched his hands into fists and continued, “Did not trust him. He was no augur, could not speak to gods. He did not know . I not let him lead me away.”

Meryell frowned and gnawed on her lip for a moment. “But the others did.”

“Yes.”

The answer was short but there was so much behind the single word answer. She couldn’t even begin to imagine what that must have been like, to have survived the horrors of the Blight only to have the whole of his Hold - of his family - turn against him. Because it had been obvious when they’d found him that Rhiryd had been alone for a long time.

Impulsively reaching out, Meryell lightly touched his arm for a moment and as his eyes met hers, she said softly, “You know the company would never do that.”

A small smile graced his lips then and he nodded slightly. “Do not fear company falling to same. Could but doubt. Do not have those like him.” As she watched, he slowly relaxed, the tension easing out of his shoulders as he let his hands fall loose at his sides once more.

“No,” she agreed, “the Captain doesn’t take the sort like I’m guessing he was.” Then she shook her head and chuckled before adding, “Though we seem to have gotten off on a fucking tangent, Rhiryd.”

The big man laughed at that and said, “You ask, I answer. Did not know things of me. Were curious.” He then shrugged easily and gestured broadly with one hand towards the hole in the wall that she’d been keeping an eye through. “Blue-Ram are hot head, as said. Attack hard but slow. Prefer big weapons.”

“You think they’ll still be like that a some-odd decade since you were with your Hold?”

Rhiryd snorted loudly at that, drawing attention briefly to them from one or two of the Fangs that were still awake in the rickety house. As they settled back down, he replied, “Avvar never stay same. Always change. Most anyway.”

Cocking her head to the side, Meryell mused, “Let me guess, Blue-Ram Hold didn’t take too much to change.”

“Hot head not good for it. Bet drinks that they are same.”

“Now that’s my kind of bet, Rhiryd.”

Chuckling, he nodded and she laughed before holding out one hand towards him. As he gripped it rather lightly for a man who walked so heavily and wielded a two-handed sword as tall as she was with ease, Meryell said, “Two rounds of drinks get bought by the loser?”

“Deal,” he answered before turning to leave her with her watch once more. Shaking her head after him in mild amusement, Meryell turned back towards her watch as she wasn’t about to be relieved for at least another two turns of the little hourglass that Astrid had brought to keep track of watches. She got the distinct feeling that she was going to lose their little bet but that would be perfectly fine.

Rhiryd seemed like the sort she’d like to have as something closer than just a general brother in the company. Plus, he was smitten with Sister Cecilia, who she had long adored. Anyone that the Sister approved of, was someone alright by her.


Seven hours later when they finally made their way into Hargrave Keep and spent a ridiculously long fucking time whittling down the Avvar warrior who’d been calling himself the Hand of Korth (a title that made Rhiryd outright scoff every time he heard it), Meryell flopped down onto the top step of the stairs the idiot had been standing on next to the big man. Rhiryd grinned down at her as he leaned forward with his elbows propped on his knees and said, “Owe me two rounds.”

Shaking her head, she looked out over the bustle below them as bodies were dragged away and a temporary camp was set up inside the keep. Dorian was using his magic to bring the braziers and a fire someone had built in the center of the old hall to life while Urien and Slaine, the two mages who had come with the company contingent, set about healing the wounds of the Inquisition soldiers that they’d just rescued. The seven of them were bruised and battered but damnit they were alive and half of that was because the man next to her had been right about the warriors from Blue-Ram Hold being slow and hot-headed.

They’d hit like fucking Hinterlands bears , which wasn’t entirely encompassed by the description of them hitting hard, but she’d gotten plenty of practice with those during her time there with Cassandra and the rest.

“Three rounds,” Meryell replied as she smiled because her people were safe. When he looked at her in surprise, she jerked her chin towards the sight in front of them. “Your knowledge of these Avvar helped save our people, Rhiryd.”

“Our?” he repeated softly, turning his gaze towards the others.

“They did name me Inquisitor.”

He huffed out a laugh in response to that before saying, “Many thought them mind lost for such.”

“I thought they’d lost their shit when I got told about it too. But…” As her voice trailed off, Meryell chuckled as she thought about how quickly things had changed in her head as soon as word had come in that the Avvar had captured their scouts. Suddenly a dozen cheerful shouts of Herald the moment she’d walked into the Singing Maiden had echoed through her head alongside smiles from scout and soldier and villager alike and then the heartbreaking recollection of poor Edan telling her Send ‘em to the fucking Void through bloodstained teeth. As wary of being the Herald of Andraste as she had ever been or concerned about giving orders as Inquisitor, she’d known one thing for certain right then at the war table: that these people were hers and she’d follow the Captain’s example to see right done by them. “But, fuck, I started thinking of them as mine a while ago to be honest.”

Rhiryd smiled and clapped a heavy hand on her shoulder, hard enough to rock her slightly forward. As she turned to look up at him, he grinned and said, “Then they are ours. Inquisition was wounded, lamed, by attack. Needs Fangs to keep fighting.”

Meryell just smiled and looked back over the group - her people - working in concert with each other.

“Yes,” she murmured, almost to herself as she nodded slightly, “the Inquisition needs its Fangs.”

Chapter Text

“This is not a room, Josephine. This is a fucking palace .”

“Honestly, Inquisitor.”

“No, no,” said Meryell sharply as she made another turn in the center of the room, waving one hand in a circle around her head. “This is ridiculous. It’s the size of the damned dining hall at our keep below the Vimmarks.”

Josephine made a slight exasperated noise before she folded her hands in front of her and asked, “What sort of room did you have on the occasion you were not out on a job?”

Tilting her head to the side, she pointed at one of the two smaller spaces that were off the back of the overly large room at the top of Skyhold’s main tower. “A little bit wider than the bigger one. Oh, don’t look so fucking horrified. It’s enough space for a bed, my trunk, an armor stand, and a small bookshelf.”

“Inquisitor…”

“Josephine,” Meryell said in a sharp but still somehow gentle tone, “do remember that I grew up in an alienage.”

The other woman’s teeth shut with an audible snap and then she shook herself, moving across the room with her hands held out in obvious request. Meryell submitted to the silent question and slipped her hands into the Antivan woman’s as she said, “Forgive me, Inquisitor, I didn’t think…”

“It’s fine ,” she interrupted, cutting off whatever else was left of the apology. She hadn’t meant the alienage comment to have been a bad thing because, other than her parents dying, it hadn’t been a bad life that she recalled. Sighing heavily, Meryell looked around the room again before shaking her head as she explained, “It’s a lot of open space.”

“And that is a problem?”

“Open space is a luxury.”

Josephine looked absolutely stricken and Meryell decided to take pity on the poor woman before she went and had herself a heart attack. Squeezing her hands, she asked, “ Why do I need this much space? And don’t tell me it’s because I’m fucking Inquisitor because I didn’t want the job in the first place.”

“It was less about so much space and more about giving you a place for yourself,” replied the other woman. "It helped that it also placed your room above everything else, making it the most defensible. As it should be.”

"Uh-huh.” Meyell then sniffed and said, "That's a good plan and all, Josephine, but it has one problem. No, sorry, two, it has two problems.”

As Josephine arched her eyebrows in question, she explained, “Half the time I’m either in Cullen’s tower or down in the Fangs’ camp . When I can find the time to even get to either.

“Ah.”

“Yes.”

And yet...the other woman was smiling .

Josephine shook her head and laughed before squeezing Meryell’s hands as she said, “Do you believe that any of us are worried when you are in those two places? It is well accepted fact now that your company is your family and that each and each one of you would do anything for the other.” The Antivan woman then smirked as she continued, “And the Commander , of course, would do anything to keep you safe.”

Then her levity vanished and Meryell cocked her head to the side even as she tried not to blush - and failed miserably - at the comment about Cullen.

“It is not at those times that we worry about you,” Josephine explained, “but the others. Where do you go when the Commander is busy? When the majority of the Fangs are not here? When your father is gone?”

“I don’t...I don’t have a clear answer for that.”

There were a dozen places that she could answer: sitting with Varric at his table to chat with him while he wrote, curling up into the spare chair in Dorian’s alcove in the library to read in companionable silence, dozing on Chuckles’ couch to escape the inevitable botherers, ducking away with Sera to help her with some mischief or another, lying in the loft to watch Blackwall whittle while he fielded questions of do you know where the Inquisitor is with a shrug, practicing with Cassandra until they moved as one, throwing herself bodily into the pile of Chargers normally in the Rest to hide and chat with Krem and Bull. None of those were the worrisome ones though. No, those were probably her frequent trips around Skyhold and back and forth to their camps down in the valley. Alternatively, there were the runs she'd been making through the kitchen, infirmary, or just tent-to-tent to make sure everyone was getting what they needed. And she'd been doing that before all of this Inquisitor shit came down the line.

“And that is why we wish to give you this room. You are…”

The woman abruptly turned her head away, blinking several times, and Meryell leaned forward in concern. “Josephine…?”

“I am fine,” she insisted with a tight smile, squeezing her fingers again. Then the Antivan woman said a little breathlessly, “I do not think you realize entirely yet what you mean to us. To all of the Inquisition.”

Meryell frowned at that, wondering where this was going.

“You are an elf , Meryell,” continued Josephine, using her name in that same breathless tone, the first time she’d done it outside of the war room. “Though so many of us know different, there are some that believe the stories that have been passed down over such long years about elves. There are also those, of course, who believe the lie that pointed ears somehow make you a lesser being.”

Shaking her head, the woman went on.

“Not to mention, you are a mercenary . A fact which you have never feared to proclaim and never hid despite the fact that I tried so hard to keep it a secret.”

Laughing briefly, Meryell said, “Sorry. Never seen one fucking reason to deny what I am.”

“Which is a thing I actually respect about you. That is not my point, however.” Josephine paused for a breath before going on, “What people think they know of the world tells them that elves and mercenaries are a certain way. It is what they expect. You have changed that.”

Blinking, she began, “But I haven’t...done anything . I’ve just been…”

“You?” queried the other woman with a laugh. “And that seems to be precisely what the people love about you. You aren’t afraid to get your hands dirty to help them. They’ve seen you laughing and talking and drinking right amongst them in the tavern. You've even brought the Commander there. It makes you…”

“A person, not a figurehead,” interjected Meryell. One of the very things she'd noted months ago that such behavior made them. She wasn't just the Herald, she was one of them.

Josephine nodded and said a quiet, “Yes,” with a bright smile. Then she laughed and added, “I will be rather affronted if you decide to not use the room. There was much work put into it and input taken from all of your company before you left two months ago for the Hinterlands and Fallow Mire.”

Tilting her head in silent question, she blinked at the woman. When all she got in response was Josephine freeing her hands so she could twirl them in a spinning motion, Meryell rolled her eyes but did as she was bid.

This time, as she turned to look at the room from where they stood at the stairs leading up into it, she actually looked . She had merely seen the size of it before and not really regarded what was inside . And what she found in the first glance had her lifting a hand to cover her mouth in shock.

There was a battered old company banner hanging over the fireplace mantle between two bookshelves that were heavy with stock she couldn't read the titles of this far away. The desk that sat off to the side of the dark stones that surrounded the fireplace was starkly familiar though, enough that she knew there would be a sword scar across the surface and that one of the scuffed paw-shaped legs had been replaced by a heavy rough-cut piece of wood on the seating side. Moving forward as if pulled, Meryell ran her fingers along its sides, the grain of the old wood tugging at her skin, as she looked at what was on the desk.

There was a little wooden box that she knew would contain one of Folke's non-medicinal teas, likely one of her favored flavors, without opening it as he always used the little boxes Mort carved. A tall wooden cup (likely also Mort given the full company arms was burned carefully into it) held what she was certain were the feather quills that Pod was constantly making for the Captain. In a small hand-made bowl of clay (probably Bel’s work) was a collection of rocks, crystal fragments, and the sparkle of tiny precious gems; the obvious work of Bort, Torrance, Myrtle, and the other current company youths who were always collecting such things. An old dagger held down a stack of clean parchment, blade chipped and slightly rusted with its wrappings fraying, made her nearly tear up because it was Harvard’s belt knife.

Fighting a lump in her throat, she breathed, “This is the Captain’s desk. From his office at the keep. I've hidden under this desk.”

“Yes,” noted Josephine with a nod and a smile. “He related that tale after I mentioned I wished to have a desk for you. Then he informed me that he'd see this one delivered because he'd see you with no other. And he needed a new desk anyway.”

Laughing, Meryell shook her head and turned away from the desk despite there being more on it. She would explore it further later to see what other treasures had been placed there. Instead she spun to put her back to it and began running her fingers over spines of the books lining the shelves, most of the titles familiar as ones that were old favorites in the keep. Then hers fingers stuttered because she knew that spine, knew the scuff at the bottom, the burn mark along the top, knew that the pages were nearly coming detached from the inside.

It was her copy of Adventures of the Black Fox. Not the one Varric had rescued from the Chantry. Not one purchased to give her a copy. No, this was her copy . The one she'd snitched from a South Reach book shop at twelve while helping another member of the gang rob it. She had read it greedily so many times, curled up in her corner in the hahren’s home or the gang’s miserable little hideout or her room at the keep.

She would know that book blind.

And it had been utterly lost in Haven.

How? ” breathed Meryell as she pulled the book out and cradled it against her chest like the precious thing it was.

Josephine just smiled and replied, “Commander Cullen began putting forth recovery efforts for those we lost in Haven since we're beginning to see the first thaw. One of the things he asked the volunteers to do was reach your cabin if it was feasible and recover what belongings of yours that they could.”

Oh fuck .

Fuck.

She was fucking crying.

Turning away furiously to hide her face but certain the other woman had seen anyway - keen damned perception that she had and all - Meryell said, “And they did.”

“Inquisitor, it was the first thing they did.”

For a moment she couldn't think, couldn't speak, because them rescuing her books meant they had her chest. Which meant…

Whirling around, Meryell abruptly didn't care about the tears on her face and Josephine seeing them. She sought out the chest, which was sitting open at the end of the fur covered bed - a fur that looked remarkably like the one Cullen had on his coat. That meant...where would he put them?

Only Folke would know about the most important objects in her chest.

Where? ” she breathed aloud then her eyes fell on the empty armor stand that stood near the windows opposite the stairwell. Given that her actual armor was on the stand in her tent, there was nothing to actually put on the stand.

But someone had carefully hung an old leather satchel with a long strap around its ‘shoulders’ and then draped a heavy looking shawl of dark wool over the top of that.

She vaguely registered Josephine saying something but Meryell did not hear the words. Instead she crossed the room with one hand holding her book to her heart and the other stretched out so she could carefully curl her fingers into the old wool.

Mamae ,” she whispered, stroking the back of her hand along the hanging half of the shawl. They hadn't been able to put her mother in it due to how the city had deemed the best course to get rid of the sickness. Instead the shawl had remained and when the goods of her parents’ home were taken for the rest of the alienage or coin to feed her, she had guarded it viciously.

Meryell then trailed her hand down to touch the old, supple leather of the satchel. It was a simple thing, just an open pouch with a bit of a flap for cover and a long strap to hang it over a shoulder, but babae had never been without it. He'd been an apprentice to his Clan’s craftsman and had made it himself, one of his first works. That it had stayed with him through the ordeal with the templars was little more than a miracle as none of his clothes did. After that, he had worn it every day, even when he took up the trade again, helping one of the South Reach merchants from the back of his shop to craft minor leather pieces, and made so much better.

Out of everything she'd ever had, the three items she currently touched were what she had held onto with everything she had. Through the bullshit of the hahren , the mild chaos of the gang, and all her years with the Fangs, these were her most precious things.

A soft hand touched her shoulder and Meryell turned, ducking her head as she realized it was Josephine. “Inquisitor,” the woman said gently, “are you well?”

Laughing a little, she replied, “I'm...damned if I know. Overwhelmed mostly. This is…”

“Much more than you expected?”

“It's bits of them,” Meryell explained. “That's part of baba’s reasoning behind his charms. It's not only tracking, it's a way to take a little piece of the company - of home - with you when you're away.” Which proved the point that the company wasn't abandoning her, that even if their contract with the Inquisition ended she was still a Fang until she chose to leave.

Josephine just smiled and carefully wrapped an arm around Meryell's shoulders, using her other hand to steer her back towards the center of the room. “Not only bits of them,” she said as she settled them facing the end of the need. “Look up.”

She did as bid and choked on a sob, somehow turning it into a laugh. On the wall behind the little raised area built above the bed, someone had painted the keep. Obviously it wasn't Chuckles’ because it was a more common style of painting and there wasn't a Fang in the company who had that much skill. Whoever had gotten together to describe it to the painter, though, had done a bang-up job. The keep was in the foreground with its banners flying and she could see part of the stables and other areas that had been built on over the years behind the trees that took up the bulk of the bottom of the wall. Behind it, of course, rose the bulk of the Vimmarks and she let out a long breath as she stared at it.

“Josephine?” she breathed, reaching blindly back for the woman with her free hand as she still held Adventures against her chest with the other.

Warm, slender fingers lacking callus and with only the wear of a quill tangled with hers and it sounded like Josephine was fighting tears as she replied, “Yes, Inquisitor?”

“I was wrong,” Meryell said with a smile.

“Not too much space?”

“Not too much space at all.”

Chapter Text

Cullen sighed as he heard a knock on what he considered the main door of his office - the one that faced Skyhold proper - and called out a, “Enter!” that probably sounded more than a little irritated. He thought by now, a good four months since they'd taken occupation of the keep, his soldiers and scouts had gotten the fact that he didn't want to make himself hoarse yelling at all hours of the day.

Then he looked up as the door opened and realized why the person on the other side had knocked.

“Varric,” he greeted, not certain he should be pleased to see the dwarf. Then he noticed the strained, nervous expression on his least favorite author's face. “Is something wrong?”

“Ah, well…” The dwarf rocked on his feet for a moment before sighing heavily and saying, “I need your help, Curly.”

Cullen’s eyebrows went instantly up and he tapped the remnant ink off the end of his quill into his ink pot, capped it, then set the quill carefully aside. He then leaned back in his chair, one arm crossed over his chest as he gestured for the dwarf to go on with his other hand before folding it over the first. If Varric needed his help, then he was going to pay attention.

My help?” he repeated dubiously.

“Well, I may have gotten myself into a bit of a...problem.”

Chuckling, Cullen jibed, “A problem that the great Varric Tethras can't solve on his own? Oh this I have to hear.”

Varric groaned and lifted a broad hand to pinch the crooked bridge of his nose. “Maker’s balls, Curly,” he grumbled, “you're sassing me.”

“I have my moments,” he replied with a smile. Then Cullen became fully serious and said, “I am listening, Varric. Do ignore my somewhat gleeful enjoyment of your plight.”

“Swears is good for you if this is what she brings out in you.”

He didn't make the comment he wanted to in response about it not having really anything to do with Meryell and merely Varric getting a glimpse at the person he'd been (at least amongst other templars) before Kinloch fell. Instead he just stared and waited for the dwarf to actually get on with what he'd come to get help with.

Varric grunted and closed the office door behind him, leaning against it as he said, “I need you to distract the Seeker in two hours, around sunset.”

“Why don't you have Meryell do it?” asked Cullen. Normally she was his partner in whatever small shenanigans he came up with as they'd become fast friends from the moment she'd been dragged off with Cassandra to first deal with the Breach.

“Because she'll be with me on the battlements.”

Cullen frowned and leaned forward, resting his armored elbows on the desk. “Varric,” he growled warningly, not liking where this was going.

“It's nothing dangerous, Curly!”

What is it? ” he growled.

Varric met his eyes for a moment before his gaze darted quickly away. Then all the air seemed to deflate out of the dwarf as he said quietly, “It’s Hawke.”

Now Cullen's eyebrows went up and he just stared for a long moment. Then he worked his jaw for a second before saying, “Hawke...is coming...here. Around sunset. Today.

Is here,” corrected Varric with a grimace.

“Maker's breath, do you have a death wish?”

“No,” he replied, sounding slightly annoyed. “Which is why I need you to distract Seeker.”

For a moment Cullen just sat there then he sighed, lifting a gloved hand to press a finger each against the inner corners of his eyes. He'd been having an actual good day and now he got the feeling that the stress of just knowing Treva Hawke was in the same vicinity as Cassandra was going to set off a withdrawal fueled headache. Then he sighed heavily and asked, “Anders?”

He heard Varric jerk against the door and opened his eyes, frowning at the stunned look on the dwarf’s face. “What?”

“You don't know?” breathed Varric, his voice almost so low that Cullen didn't hear it across the room.

“Obviously not since I'm asking,” replied Cullen in a clipped tone. “I know Anders was living with her, it's the only thing that kept me from giving the order to bring him in. That and he was still doing some good in Darktown with his clinic.” Before he destroyed the Chantry and kicked off this damned war that's been Ages in coming, he added to himself.

The dwarf just stood open mouthed for a moment before he ran both hands back over his hair, jostling some loose from the tie he kept a section in. “Shit, Curly,” he grumbled under his breath, “I thought you knew.” Varric then let out a long breath before throwing his hands up in the air as he said, “Hawke killed Blondie, Curly. Stabbed him right in front of us.”

Cullen didn't realize he was on his feet until he registered that he was looking down at the dwarf instead of across. He planted his palms flat on his desk and was abruptly, painfully hurt in sympathy for Hawke. Anders had been a crazed revolutionary (he'd gathered up a copy of the now infamous manifesto when raiding the Amell/Hawke Estate and read it himself) but he'd also once been a decent man. A mage he'd known in the Tower who'd been known to attempt to talk anyone into bed (including the templars), an escape artist, and a lover of cats . Annoying but largely harmless. Who had been dead for four years .

A mage - man , not mage, he reminded himself, his own personal attempt to see them as people and not only their ability - who Hawke had loved.

By the Maker, if he didn't know now what it felt like to lo... care deeply for someone. The thought of having to kill Meryell...he wasn't certain he could even stomach the idea.

“No,” he said, feeling more than a little breathless. “I didn't know that. I assumed...Maker, I assumed he left Kirkwall with her. Especially when I learned about the boy.”

Varric just shook his head and said, “You couldn't have known, Curly. As far as the mages, templars, and the Chantry are aware, Blondie is still somewhere out there. We didn't want them making him a martyr, so Hawke and Daisy made sure there wasn't anything to find.”

Cullen nodded slowly and noted, “A wise course of action.” He let out a long breath before saying, “Very well. Though, dare I ask, why ask Hawke here?”

“We faced Corypheus before, Curly. Remember when we disappeared for a month or so before things went to absolute shit.”

Snorting, Cullen asked wryly, “Which time?”

“Right after Leandra died,” the dwarf replied mournfully.

Oh, did he remember when that had happened. Cullen had practically had to hold Carver Hawke down to keep the hot-headed young man from running out of the Gallows to hunt down whoever had taken his mother. Instead he'd sworn he'd see to it himself, put one of the older templars he trusted to watch the young man, and then he'd gone looking for Hawke. He'd offered her his aid for Carver’s sake as well as his tracking experience (reminding her that he was an accomplished mage hunter with a deliberately quirked eyebrow) and had been there for every step of the way onward.

He'd seen that horror her mother had been made into, his stomach roiling at the foul magics at work, at the thought of his own mother (so many years dead then) being a victim of such magic. Had stilled his own final strike that would have taken that bastard’s head because Hawke needed it. And then, he had stood to the side with hands clasped over the hilt of his sword, saying a breathless prayer for Leandra Hawke (who had probably hated him for taking her son but also likely praised him just a little for not taking her obviously mage daughter away as well) while he listened to Hawke wail over her mother’s body.

He hadn't been witness to the conversation between the Hawke siblings after that as he'd simply told Carver that they had tried and he was sorry. However, he had walked the younger man back and forth to the Estate from the Gallows, and had seen the red eyes as well as heard the muffled shouts of dismay and sorrow. After that, as well, the somewhat bitter relationship between the two siblings softened.

Being the last members of your line had that effect sometimes.

“No, I remember,” replied Cullen, not wanting to bring up bad memories for the dwarf. As much as he'd been affected by the woman's horrific death, Varric had known her for far longer. “I assumed that Hawke’s disappearance was simply taking time to deal with family matters. That was what Carver told me when he asked for a brief reprieve from duty after it happened.”

“That's technically true,” Varric said.

Technically? Dealing with a darkspawn Magister is not technically , Varric.”

“We'll tell you all about it, Curly, if you can keep your head on for a few hours. I'll fill you in on all of the gory details myself. The real ones , I promise.”

“Maker's breath.” If Varric was promising him a truthful story without any over exaggeration, something serious was going on. Sighing, Cullen growled, “Fine. I'll be a distraction. Briefly . After that, you get to tell Cassandra about bringing Hawke in. Especially since I assume she's going to be here for a while.”

Varric looked at little pale at his words but managed to just shrug and reply, “Fair enough, Curly. She's hoping for some space for a bit...and maybe a babysitter or two?”

Lifting his eyebrows, Cullen asked, “She brought the boy?” He had learned about Hawke’s son via other sources and, while he was wary of what the boy might eventually be with two powerhouses of mages as his parents, he trusted her to train him. Treva Hawke had never showed one sign of falling, even when he had expected it, and that had been what kept him from arresting her or saying anything about her being an apostate.

She was one of the best examples that the Chantry teachings on magic were sometimes wrong.

“Well she wasn't about to leave him behind.” Varric then pushed himself away from the door, saying, “I should get moving. Still have a few more things to get into place.”

Cullen just nodded then, as the dwarf was opening the door, he called out, “Varric?” As the other man stopped, he asked, “Does he know that she's here?”

“That's one of those things I need to put into place, Curly,” replied Varric with a pained looking smile. “Wish me luck.”

Snorting as the dwarf disappeared, he slowly sank back down into his seat. Shaking his head, he picked his quill back up then reached out to flip the hourglass on his desk, carefully watching it out of the corner of his eye to keep track of time as he went back to work.

“You’re dealing with Hawke ,” he muttered to himself. “You're going to need more than the Maker’s own luck for that. We'll see how much you get.”

Chapter Text

Treva Hawke was not like anything that Meryell had expected. Oh, she'd heard so many stories of exploits from Varric and had managed to pull a few tales out of Cullen involving his run-in’s with the apostate mage hiding in plain sight amongst the Kirkwall nobles.

She knew those things and that Hawke had fled Kirkwall after saving both mages and templars in the Gallows.

What she hadn't been related was how damned tall the woman was, which made the almost flinty nature of her blue eyes even more forbidding. Though that particular thing was completely thrown off by her very nondescript leather armor covered by only a dark coat trimmed in gray fur against the cold, the distinct lack of a staff, and the four year-old boy with a mop of dark blond hair that she balanced carefully on her hip.

“You have a kid?” was immediately the first thing out of Meryell’s mouth.

Hawke snorted then laughed outright before she looked over at Varric where he'd taken a seat on a crate that had been left on the part of the battlements they occupied. “Everyone always makes that comment nowadays,” she said, sounding amused. Her voice was pleasant, if a little plain, and certainly not the lyrical tones that Varric went on about in Tale of the Champion. “Not oh what was it like to fight the Arishok or was Commander Meredith really mad but you have a kid. I'm glad that my biggest achievement is now reproducing.”

“Well,” Varric drawled, “most of us didn't expect you to be the motherly type, Hawke.”

“Really I'm as shocked as everyone else is.” Hawke then extended her free hand - the shape the familiar heavy square that marked Ferelden blood as much as the profile of her once broken nose - and said, “Pleased to meet you, your Inquisitorialness. Treva Hawke, at your service, and this young man is my Mathis.”

“Hi,” murmured the boy around a nervous thumb tucked into his mouth and the other half of his face pressed to his mother’s breasts.

Meryell winced a little at Varric’s variation of her newest title before she reached out to take the offered hand. “Meryell Verlen. And just Meryell is fine,” she insisted. “I get enough Herald and Inquisitor nonsense from the rest of the lot around here.”

She then leaned forward to smile at the boy and said, “Please to meet you, little man. You know, there's a few littles running around here that you could play with if your mamae agrees. I think they'd like a new playmate.”

“Didn't know you were good with children, Swears,” commented Varric idly as Mathis perked up a little at her words.

“Big as the company is,” explained Meryell with a casual shrug, “female members sometimes end up with child or deliberately have one with their partners. So lots of times we get littles running around from them or folks drop them off on our doorstep or we straight up find them abandoned somewhere. Most of ‘em - minus the ones old enough to serve - are back at the keep with the skeleton crew that runs things when the whole company is out.” She then paused to grin before adding, “Everyone gets rounds of babysitting when they join up. Keeping track of the little Fangs is about as tough as a full training day.”

Hawke huffed a laugh at that. “From keeping up with this rambunctious little shit, I can only imagine,” she commented. “Speaking of...there anywhere we can talk up here that's not liable to freeze my nose off and has a door so I can put him down? It may be thawing downhill but this far up in the Frostbacks it's still cold as balls and I apparently didn't inherit the Ferelden cold resistance.”

Nodding, Meryell gestured towards the still abandoned corner tower behind the mage. “It's not got furniture but the doors work and the masonry’s intact.”

“I can work with that.”

Several minutes later they were sequestered inside the tower alongside several more crates as seating that Varric had found on the other side of the battlements from where they'd been standing. Meryell sat down on one and watched the boy as he made his way around the room while his mother loosened her coat. Now that she could fully see the leathers underneath, her eyebrows went up because she knew the maker's marks on it.

“Red Iron?”

Hawke blinked, pausing as she combed her fingers through the loose tail her long hair was tied into before she just nodded as she went back to what she'd been doing. “My uncle practically sold me and my little brother into service with them in order to get us into Kirkwall. We served a year with Meeran to pay for it and he kept templars off my back sometimes in return. Mostly when I paid one of the boys coin to do so when his back was turned. Kept doing it for a few years after we were out too.”

“Meeran was a shit kicker,” commented Meryell. She'd met the man a whole once when the Red Iron had taken on a job alongside the Fangs and she hadn't relished the experience. Skeevy old asshole had tried to move on her and she'd threatened to cut off his cock if he touched her one more time. And she'd nearly held up that threat, all skinny six and ten years of her and a quick knife, when he'd tried again.

No one in the Fangs had mourned years back when news came round that the Red Iron was under new reins after Meeran’s untimely death.

“Asshole is the word you're looking for,” noted Hawke as she settled onto her crate. Then she smiled and waved an errant hands towards Mathis, saying, “Don't curb your tongue for my sake, sweet. I've never held mine around him and we don't look to impress anyone anymore so he can repeat what he wants.”

Laughing, Varric said, “You may live to regret that, Hawke. There's a very good reason I call her Swears.”

“That bad?”

“Maybe we'll just let you be the judge,” replied Meryell with a smirk. Then she sobered and leaned forward to rest her elbows against her knees as she said, “So Varric told me that you two, your brother, and your lover fought Coriphyshit the first time around.”

Hawke’s expression darkened and she growled, “Killed. Carver took his fucking head off after I set the bastard on fire. And that's not counting the frightening levels of damage that Anders did when Corypheus made him lose control over Justice.”

“Killed,” repeated Meryell, ignoring the mention of the possessed mage losing control for a moment. “Beheaded even.”

“Yes,” confirmed Hawke.

Shit.”

Running both hands back through her hair - and noting again that she needed to cut it - Meryell looked at both of them seriously. “Tell me,” she said in a low voice. “Tell me everything.”


Hours later, Meryell looked up at the sound of steps on the ladder and met Cullen's surprised eyes as he crested the second floor in a sudden rush.

“Maker's breath,” he said as he hurried over to where she was sitting up against the headboard of his bed, knees drawn up to her chest. “We were worried about you. Hawke and Varric found me after your conversation with them and said you were going to the library. Then Dorian didn't know where you had gone and no one else had seen you.”

“I'm sorry,” she breathed, shaking her head. “I didn't mean to worry you or anyone else. I just...I needed to clear my head.”

“In my bed?”

Somehow she managed a smile as she asked, “Who'd dare look for me here but you? Maybe baba. And Leliana but that's because she'll stick her nose in anything.”

Cullen sighed and settled onto the edge of the bed so his hip rested against the tips of her toes. He leaned over to brace himself on one hand as he reached out with the other to cup her cheek as he softly asked, “Are you alright?”

Frowning, Meryell slowly shook her head and felt a lump of fear rise in her throat. “No,” she replied, her voice shaking, after a moment. “No, Cullen, I'm not alright at all.”

“What did they tell you?” he demanded, his voice somehow commanding while still gentle.

“Corypheus...they fought him.”

Cullen nodded, saying, “So Varric mentioned when he came to beg me to help in his distract Cassandra nonsense.”

“They killed him, Cullen,” she breathed. She could feel hysteria rising in her, that same fear that had nearly consumed her in the healer's tent if not for Cole and Gil. “Her brother cut off his head, she set him on fire, and Anders nearly tore his arms off in a spirit-fueled rage. What can come back from that, Cullen? What the fuck are we facing because I can't fight something that can just come back from the Maker damned dead!”

His hand spasmed a little against her cheek and then he had his arms around and under her, lifting her up. As he settled her across his lap and pulled her against his chest, pressing his nose up against her cheek, he growled, “You are not alone in this fight, Meryell Verlen.”

“It's me he wants!” she exclaimed, hearing her voice go shrill in her own ears. She was dancing on the knife edge of hysteria and wasn't sure she was going to come back down on the right side.

“So help me, vhen-an-arah, if you think for one instant ,” Cullen snarled back as his hands came up to frame her face, the leather of his gloves tugging at her skin, “that your company , that the Inquisition , or that your father and I will let that fucker take you from us, you have lost your damned mind .”

She started shaking her head but he pressed on as he held her still, his grip firm.

“We will find the answers,” he said firmly. “We will scour the whole of Thedas, overturn every rock, give Leliana free damned rein to every secret she can ferret out. We survived Haven. We survived his first attempt to cause destruction.”

Then his voice cracked as he finished, “And by the Maker, I will face down that bastard myself before I let him take you from me.”

“Cullen, no,” she gasped out, lifting her hands to frame his face in turn. Hers were so much smaller against his larger features but her touch had as much effect on him as his did on her. She stared into his eyes - brown or amber, she could never tell the true color as they shifted between the two and every variation in-between. Right now, in this moment, they were a dark brown, like a reflection of the seriousness of their conversation. “You can't…”

“I nearly lost you once,” he breathed after interrupting her with a sudden kiss that stole her breath. “If I lost you now , after realizing that I…” He cut himself off and she felt his whole body shudder before he finished, “I don't think I could bear it, Meryell.”

“I can't lose you either!” she exclaimed, shaking him a little. Breathing hard, she shifted to swing her legs around on his lap to straddle his thighs. He leaned back just enough to accommodate her movement then pulled her flush against him, though the metal of his breastplate was still between them. Meryell pressed a kiss against the scar on his lip, feeling his lips respond briefly, then bowed her head to rest her forehead against his chin. “I can't…I can't, Cullen. I've never...no one has ever been this to me before.”

“Nor I,” he murmured into her hair.

“No, no,” she said firmly, suddenly lifting her head. Now was the moment to tell him. She'd lost her chance that night of drinking in the tavern and then had left Skyhold before she could have another. Here. Now. This was the moment. “I have never had a vhen'an'ara. Not one man before you. They were...temporary. They wanted nothing of me , just their cock in a warm body. I was either just a fuck to them or a knife-ear to take advantage of.”

His hands shifted, falling from her face as he hurriedly removed his gloves. When they returned, Cullen pressed his fingers over her lips and breathed, “Never again. Never say that word again.”

“Never,” she agreed, kissing his fingertips lightly. Then she closed her eyes and released a long breath before saying, “The heart’s desire.”

Cullen stilled then asked a little breathlessly, “What?”

Meryell replied softly, “That's what it means.” She opened her eyes to look up at him then and said it again. “The heart’s desire. My heart’s desire.”

“Say it again.”

“What?”

“Say it in Elven,” repeated Cullen, his eyes locked with hers. “I want to get it right.”

Emotion welled in her heart and all of the fear, all of the anxiety of earlier was washed briefly away. He wanted to say it right. He wanted... oh Maker’s cock.

She repeated it, precise and evenly, several times and he copied her carefully. His more confident but still wary pronunciation shifted as they went through it until it was perfect.

Vhen’an’ara,” he finally managed, a delighted look in his eyes as the syllables flowed together as they were meant to. Then he kissed her, growling the word out again and again into her mouth, against her cheek, her jaw, wherever he could reach to press his lips against her face. As she bent her head back, giving him access to her neck, Cullen breathed, “I will not let him try to take you from me again. Never again.”

Now the fear came back despite the warm lips against her skin and Meryell asked, “How do you kill something that doesn't die?”

Cullen's hands were back on her face then, drawing her head back forward so he could meet her eye-to-eye. She blinked, long and slow, then let out a heavy breath at his next words.

“Everything dies, Meryell.”

“Even darkspawn Magisters?”

Especially those.”

Barking a laugh, she leaned forward fully against him, laying her head on his right shoulder against the soft surface of his mantle. It wasn't terribly comfortable with his breastplate still between them but she didn't currently want to let him go long enough to remove it. Cullen tipped his head sideways to lean it against hers while his hands slid down her back before he cupped them around the curve of her ass.

“We will find the answers,” he said confidently after they sat like that for a long moment.

Letting out a breath, Meryell looked at his face next to hers and asked softly, “How do you know?”

“I have faith in the Inquisition.” He then lifted his head long enough to turn and kiss her forehead before returning to his previous position. “I have faith in you.”

She'd had trust before. The whole of the company trusted her to have their backs. Cassandra trusted her. But faith ...faith was similar and so different from trust.

Especially coming from Cullen.

“I'll trust in your faith then,” Meryell said softly. “Because I'm not sure I have enough that we'll make it out of this shit show.”

He chuckled, saying, “I'll do my best to hold us both afloat then.” Then he murmured, “I should go tell them I found you.”

“Now?”

Cullen's hands tightened, sliding around to better grip her hips, and he shook his head.

“No, vhen'an'ara,” he replied softly. “Right now I'm here for you.”

“Thank you,” Meryell murmured before closing her eyes and just listening to the sound of his breath, feeling the shift of his shoulders underneath her cheek, and the distant pulse behind a layer of steel that was his heart beat. All three along with the exhaustion from stressing out over the matter of Corypheus’ seeming immortality conspired to drag her down into dreams moments later and she let it take her.

She was safe.

Chapter Text

“The fuck’s this?” asked Meryell as Leliana held out a rolled up piece of parchment towards her across the war table. She'd stolen enough documents (and helped forge a few) to know that the paper was expensive and it wafted faintly of the sort of perfume rich ladies in Orlais tended to wallow in.

“An invitation that we sadly missed,” replied the spymaster as she folded her arms. “Apparently Madame de Fer has taken some interest in the Inquisition and attempted to invite the Herald of Andraste to her latest salon.”

Meryell snorted at the fancy words. “So, a party.”

“In short, yes, Inquis - Meryell,” Josephine said, correcting herself with a smile. “Though it might be worth our time to explore just what she can bring to the Inquisition. Another ally - particularly of such a powerful mage - could be indispensable.”

“I'll bite,” Meryell returned as she settled one hip atop one of war rooms tall stools. Gesturing at the ambassador and spymaster with one hand, she continued, “Enlighten me. I know fuck and shit about Orlesian mages, let alone one who managed to finagle a title out of someone. What'd she do to earn it?”

The two women on the other side of the table looked at her askance and Cullen laughed outright at their affronted expressions.

There was still laughter in his voice as he said, “The title is far from official to my knowledge. Even without it Enchanter Vivienne is one of the more formidable mages of this Age. She was the court enchanter to Empress Celene up until recently and was voted into power as the First Enchanter at Montsimmard at a young age. I remember the news being a scandal.”

“I did not think our stern Commander paid attention to gossip,” jibed Leliana, her tone light enough that Meryell could tell it was a joking jab and not a rude one.

Cullen just smiled as he rested his hands on the hilt of his sword. “The templars aren't that different from any other military and soldiers love gossip. We paid special attention when it was mages, even those not in our Circle.”

Leliana made a scoffing sort of noise that wasn't far from one of Cassandra's usual while Josephine smiled and added, “She is also, at the moment, the defacto leader of the loyalist mages.”

“Loyalist mages?” repeated Meryell.

“Those who did not revolt,” stated Cullen. “She has apparently rallied those who didn't take up arms or leave when the Circles fell. Given that the vast majority did go with the rebels they probably don't amount to much but…” He paused to let out a breath and lifted one hand to rub at the back of his neck. “Since we have already sought cooperation from the mages, we should explore efforts in allying with all factions of them that are seeking peace.”

Meryell's eyebrows went up at his words and she fought then failed to stop the brilliant smile she gave him. For anyone else to have said it would have been normal. To have Cullen , who was still deeply uncomfortable with magic but was trying to quell his fear, do so was a completely different mabari.

“So,” she said slowly, “she'd bring mages and be good to have on our side for skills. And I'm gonna guess political savvy? You don't become court enchanter and earn even a fake title without some kind of skill at navigating the rat's nest.”

“Indeed,” agreed Josephine. “If there is in fact something in Corypheus’ plans involving the Empress as you saw in that foul future, as well, her insight would also be useful.”

Meryell held up a hand then and said, “Alright, alright, I'm sold. Send a letter expressing our interest or whatever and see what she says.” She paused, sighing, before adding, “I'll even take a trip back into Orlais to see her myself if that's what it takes to get her here.”

Leliana and Josephine looked at each other then over at Cullen, who just shrugged at their inquisitive looks.

“We will see it done, Meryell,” the spymaster said with a smile. “And perhaps you should visit her anyway. You were travelling next with Serah Hawke to Crestwood, yes?”

“In about a week to find this Warden friend of hers,” answered Meryell with a nod. She then leaned forward to prop herself up against the table with one hand and looked at the map where one of the simple pin markers had been pushed into the cloth. “I suppose we could do that then head north through the Storm Coast and take ship at Highever. It'll be a longer trip for us than Jader was but the horses will get a nice break.”

She then hummed to herself and added, “I can ask Zarru if she still knows any reliable ship captains who'd be around there this time of year. She's always kept her resources fresh for when the company needs a ship.”

“Pirate captains?” queried Josephine. Meryell could practically feel the woman stressing out over what the Inquisitor on a pirate ship might do to their still recovering reputation.

“Mostly but she knows some merchants as well.” Winking at the ambassador, she jibed, “I'll be sure to tell her to stay away from pirates to keep you from having a heart attack, Josephine. Bets are off if that's all she can find though.”

The other woman sighed heavily before saying, “If it is the only option to get you to Val Royeaux, so be it.”

“I'll go ahead and start planning to send some of our forces out towards Highever so they'll be in the city whenever you arrive there,” Cullen noted with a smile. “Perhaps Zarru will have a Fang or two who could travel with them who would know whatever ship she finds?”

Smiling at him, Meryell said, “I'll include that in my asking. Anything else?”

“We should begin discussing what needs to be done in the Storm Coast,” answered Cullen, tapping his fingers on the region below the small brass marker that signified the city of Highever. “There are several reports coming from our scouts there that are rather worrisome.”

Folding her arms, she asked, “What sort of reports, Cullen?” This was the first she was hearing if this but that was mostly because they had a rule now about no talk about work when they were alone. At least not at night anyway.

His eyes flashed up to meet hers and his mouth set into a grim line as he replied, “Red Templars.” There was a definite hint of a growl in his voice as he said the word and why not? They had betrayed his old Order utterly, had swung down upon Haven in a hammer-blow meant to wipe them out, and would have been partly responsible for her death if she hadn't gotten seriously fucking lucky. She imagined he had pity for them because he knew the price lyrium took from a body but not enough to resist striking them down. After Haven and Redcliffe, she didn't judge him for that at all either as she'd rather see them dead herself.

And he definitely probably did not like that she would be the one by-and-large going out after them.

“Our scouts have not been attacked by them, correct?” asked Josephine as she lowered her board to look at the map.

Shaking his head, he answered, “No but…” Cullen trailed off and turned to pick up one of the rolled up pieces of parchment on the end of the table, planting a heavy unused marker on one end before he unrolled it and weighed down the end with another. Meryell leaned forward to see what it was and found the beginnings of a map of the Storm Coast, very much like the ones kept by their scouts in the Hinterlands and Fallow Mire. This one was, of course, not as filled out as the others but there were two Inquisition camps marked with the eye that she could see.

“This is what they've explored so far,” he explained as he gestured over the drawing. “I'm told that there are more scouts in the field up towards this left side who haven't yet reported back with their findings. However, the worry is here, along the shore.” As he gave the map a heavy tap in two different locations, Cullen growled, “We have definite reports of Red Templars and red lyrium. They seem to be mostly staying to the areas they've claimed, however, so it possible they're working on increasing their forces before they do anything major.”

Meryell looked down at the map then up at him and asked, “Does this need to come before Val Royeaux?”

“My dislike of them would have me say yes ,” replied Cullen. He then heaved a sigh and looked at Leliana over Josephine’s head, the spymaster shaking her own head subtly in response to an obviously silent question. “As of now, however, we still have too little information for us to make an official call.”

“We are hoping,” Leliana said, “to get an impression of their numbers before we send anyone in against them.”

Josephine nodded and added, “Thankfully, much of the region is still unoccupied since the Blight. Highever has been slow to recover these ten years despite Teyrn Fergus’ best efforts and I do not believe West Hill has fared any better. So there is little to worry about in the way of loss except with our own forces.”

Nodding, Meryell stared at the map for a long moment before she looked up to catch the eyes of Cullen and Leliana. “Find the answers,” she said firmly, “but let's not sacrifice anyone for this. Not unless there is absolutely no other fucking option.” She trusted that Cullen wouldn't needlessly sacrifice a soldier but Leliana...well, it wouldn't surprise her if the el’u’verelan was willing to do such.

“As you will,” intoned Cullen seriously as he lifted his fist to press it over his heart. Leliana nodded firmly in turn and Meryell took it as the agreement it was.

“Anything else then?” she asked.

Josephine looked down at the papers on her board and replied, “I believe that is all for today, Meryell. Tomorrow will be our long day of planning for your trip to Crestwood.”

“Make sure Hawke’s here then,” commented Meryell as she tucked her arm into Cullen’s as he came around the table with his elbow extended. “Not only to plan for Crestwood but her son since he's remaining here.”

“I was under the impression that our Master Tethras would be taking care of him,” commented Leliana.

“You're half right,” answered Cullen and all three of them turned to look at him. Meryell arched her eyebrows in a silent you know something we don't know and he just grinned down at her. “Trust me,” he said, “it's taken care of.”

Meryell flashed a look back at the two women, who looked just as confused as she did, before Cullen pressed her forward out of the war room. As they passed through Josephine’s office into the hall she asked, “Fine. How are you so knowledgeable of our new guest’s doings?”

He laughed and replied, “You think I don't have my own sources to what goes on in Skyhold?”

“Oh I know you do,” she replied. “I've been in your office when one of your soldiers has come in with those sheets of juicy gossip from the barracks. But who do you have to tell you about Hawke?”

“It's a secret.”

Cullen ,” she whined playfully. “I know how to keep a secret!”

“Not my secret to tell, vhen'an'ara .”

Sighing heavily as they passed out the open doors of the hall and started down the steps, Meryell said, “Fine.”

He arched his eyebrows in surprise. “That's it?”

“It's you , vhen'an'ara ,” pointed out Meryell with a smile. “The only other person that can match your level of stubborn is Cassandra, so I have no hope of working it out of you.”

Cullen snorted and replied, “I think you underestimate the levels of persuasion you could reach with me.”

Oh? ” she asked, stopping him at the bottom of the stairs. Turning to face him, she slid her hands up over his breastplate and mantle to lock her fingers around the back of his neck. As his hands fell to an almost chaste position on her waist - not too high and not too low - she smiled up at him. “Are you admitting, ser, that I have an unfair advantage and can weasel Inquisition secrets out of you?”

“Unfair advantage, yes,” he replied with a smile. “And you are our Inquisitor; Inquisition secrets are your secrets, so why would I hide those from you?”

“So not an Inquisition secret. From before?”

Cullen just smiled and was silent, which had Meryell stepping closer to him so she was pressed against his breastplate. It wasn't like she'd molded herself to him but...well...it didn't leave much to the imagination since her shirt choice of the day was rather low cut. And he looked , which made her feel considerably better about that fact that she had little to offer in the way of breasts.

“Shall I seduce you here in the courtyard to find the answer?” she purred.

He growled in response and she felt his fingers flex against her sides. “I would prefer,” he rumbled darkly, “you to do so in private if you insist upon the attempt.”

“Afraid someone will get jealous of you being with the Inquisitor?”

“No,” he replied succinctly. “I would simply prefer to have all of that part of you to myself. It may surprise you but I don't like to share.”

As Meryell flushed in response to that, there was a shout from somewhere behind her in the general direction of the door that led through to the garden and a child's exuberant giggle. Cullen let out one of those bray’s of laughter of his and she turned to see little Mathis Hawke sprinting his way across the upper courtyard with one of the Sisters who'd taken to working in the garden at his heels. The four-year-old was covered from head to toe in dirt and mud with what looked like the remnants of an elfroot plant tangled in his hair and had the brightest, most mischievous grin on his face.

“Come back here this instant!” scolded the Sister, who was also covered in mud all down the front of her robes. There were also muddy child sized handprints on her cheeks and a messy smear that looked like it might have been caused by a mud-coated kiss.

Tiny legs merely pumped faster in response to the shout as the boy sped towards the tavern. He never made it there, though, as a fully armored templar came out of seemingly nowhere and swept the boy up in one swift move to toss over his shoulder. Meryell blinked as she recognized him as the one from outside the mage's tower before her trip to the Fallow Mire. Ser Cutter had been what Dem had called him, she thought.

“Oh, Ser Cutter, thank you!” exclaimed the Sister. “This little menace…

“Has done what now?” interrupted the templar as he rested a heavy hand on top of the squirming boy on his shoulder.

Meryell couldn't see the Sister’s face from their vantage point by the stairs but judging by how violently red the back of her neck turned, she was one step away from a full-on apoplectic fucking rage.

“He has ruined a section of the garden! Dug up all of the elfroot there! He dug holes ! Turned it into a mud puddle!”

“Is a pond! ” defended the culprit in a tone that said she'd insulted him to the core and Meryell laughed along with Cullen as Ser Cutter swatted Mathis lightly on the rear with his other hand. “But, Un’ca , the p’ants needed water! They have water at home!”

Un’ca ?” repeated Meryell, turning to look up at Cullen with a confused expression. “Is he...is he trying to say Uncle ?” Judging by the immediate desolate look on the man's face, the boy was. “Maker's holy ball sack, Cullen,” she breathed in a hushed whisper. “Does Cassandra know that Carver bloody Hawke has been serving in the Inquisition under an assumed name?”

“We had managed to keep it a secret up until now,” he replied through slightly clenched teeth. Then Cullen sighed and shook himself. “No helping it now. The mabari was probably out of the pen anyway on that one from the moment Hawke set foot in Skyhold.”

“She's going to murder you.”

“I more fear Leliana murdering me than Cassandra,” he grumbled in reply.

Ooh ,” squealed Meryell delightfully. “I would love to be there when she finds out that you pulled a fast one over on her too.”

Cullen just sighed wearily. “You would find some delight in this, wouldn’t you?”

“I like annoying the el’u’verelan , what can I say?”

He snorted and then they both turned to look as they heard an exasperated noise of frustration from the Sister before watching her storm off. Meryell saw Ser Cutter - or Ser Carver , as she now knew his real name to be - heave a sigh and tilt his head back towards the sky in a gesture that was very likely him asking for strength. Then he started walking towards them with Mathis still over his shoulder, though the boy was now merely kicking his heels idly and not attempting to escape.

“Commander, Inquisitor,” greeted the man as he stopped in front of them. Meryell looked at him again now that she knew he was the younger of the surviving Hawke’s and could see some of the family resemblance. They were dissimilar enough that unless one knew they were related, it couldn’t be seen. Carver had a completely different facial structure - his was the more sturdy seeming Ferelden while Treva looked more of a Marcher as a whole - but it looked like they shared the same nose (though his hadn’t been broken), blue eyes, and brown hair. “Sorry you had to witness the antics of this scamp.”

“Not a scamp!” chirped Mathis, pushing himself up against his uncle’s back so he could see them. “Hi, Mer-ree!” he said brightly upon seeing her, reminding her that he had trouble with his ‘l’ sounds and she’d made a point to stare at Varric while giving the boy permission to call her Merry. “Hi, Cu’en!”

“Hello, Mathis,” replied Cullen in a gentle tone that was normally reserved for her or a recruit having a hard time. He then turned to Carver and said, “I believe our secret may be out soon.”

The other man flicked his eyes to Meryell and she grinned while nodding, which just made him sigh.

“Well,” Carver noted a little grimly, “we knew me coming with you had that risk but like I told you in Kirkwall, I sure as shit wasn’t staying behind. Plus with Treva coming here it was bound to come out. The scamp here doesn’t have a subtle bone in his body.”

“Nope!” chirped the boy. Then Mathis frowned and asked, “Un’ca, what’s su...sut...sut-el?”

Patting the boy lightly on the back, Carver replied, “Nothing you need to worry your tow-headed little self about. What you need to be worrying about, scamp, is how your mother is going to react to you tearing up the Inquisitor’s garden.”

Meryell just shrugged because she didn’t really care as torn up earth could be fixed easily enough but the templar shook his head at her. She realized a moment later that this was to be a lesson in something and smiled at him, moving her hand up and over her lips in a gesture of locking them with a key. Carver just grinned at her in response.

“Anyway,” he said lightly, “I need to get this menace cleaned up then go hand him off for punishment. We still training the new lot in shieldwork this afternoon, Commander?”

“Provided you get free of Hawke when she finds out you weren’t watching the boy,” jibed Cullen with a smile. Carver huffed in mock offense as he made to move around them, Mathis falling back down against his shoulder, as he made his way towards the stairs underneath the arch that led down into the lower courtyard.

“I’m not the one who was responsible for him this morning. Until afternoon, Commander. And a pleasure to finally meet you, Inquisitor.”

“I have a name, Ser!” she called after him.

“As do I!” he called back and Meryell laughed, shaking her head before turning her attention back to Cullen.

“I like him.”

Snorting, Cullen replied, “You’re lucky to meet him now and not when he joined up. Maker, was that an experience I don’t want to relive again.”

“Well,” she drawled, “I hope none of your new recruits remind you of such things.”

“Only if they have obviously apostate sister’s who are drawing attention to themselves under my commanding officer’s nose. Though…” He paused and smiled down at her before finishing, “I seem to recall my current commanding officer doesn’t have a problem with mages.”

Meryell laughed a little uncomfortably at the reminder that that was what she technically was before saying, “Sounds like you’re a far luckier man now than you were when dealing with a younger him.” That comment brought a bright smile to the man’s face - the sort that twisted his scar and made him seem younger - and she couldn’t help but smile in return.

Cullen moved one hand up to cup her jaw as he softly said, “A lucky man, indeed.” Her breath caught just a little at the tone and reminded herself that they were standing in the middle of Skyhold.

Instead she asked, “I’ll see you at dinner tonight?”

“I may need a reminder of the time but, yes, dinner tonight.”

Chuckling, Meryell said, “I’ll be sure to grab a runner to come remind you. Or just come get you myself.”

“I’d prefer the latter,” he replied as he started to step away and head to wherever he needed to be next since the days were ever busy for the Inquisition’s Commander. “You have a far prettier face.”

“I’ll remember to tell your runners that you appreciate me more than them!” called Meryell after him, which just made the man turn and grin at her.

“I think that is evident to everyone in Skyhold, vhen’an’ara ,” Cullen replied. Then he was gone, disappearing down the same way that Carver had just went and Meryell stood at the base of the stairs for a long moment with what was probably the most ridiculous smile on her face.

Sometimes she still doubted that anyone could want her but comments like that ...oh, comments like that soothed every single ruffled feather.

Still smiling, she turned and headed off on her own way because she too had her own things to do. And possibly some chaos to try to rush over and watch later when Ser Cutter’s real identity finally made it through the rounds of the Inquisition grapevine.

Chapter Text

“Hey, Yeller, wanna celebrate making it out of Haven? For old times sake?”

Cullen frowned, turning away from observing his lieutenants working recruits in the training yard, as he heard the shout from Skyhold’s upper courtyard. He didn't register it's target until a moment later when Meryell snapped back at the man.

“I'd rather suck bronto dick , Camden! And you're almost five fucking months late to celebrate anything involving Haven, masvian !”

“Oh come on , Yeller. We had fun didn't we? Certainly seemed like you were when you were riding my cock years back.”

As his ears burned because they were having this conversation in front of the whole Inquisition, Cullen angrily ignored the few pitying looks being directed towards him. Did they suddenly think that just because she'd been with another man years ago meant that whatever they had was squandered? Or that Meryell was going to just up and give in ?

He didn't particularly care who was in her past nor did he think she cared about his. The most important people to each of them right now was each other.

Years?! ” he heard Meryell snarl then. “Try a decade , Camden. I wouldn't touch your cock now with a fucking polearm. Then again I might not be able to find that miserable excuse of a thing even if I tried to cut it off with my belt knife .”

“You think you can talk to me like that just because you're suddenly some big shot ? Just ‘cause you got a worthless title? Or ‘cause you're fucking the Commander? I remember you when you was nothing , Yeller. Just some scared, angry little shit of a knife-ear that Folke brought back for us to play with.”

Now that was more than enough.

Turning to his closest runner, Cullen growled, “Get down to the lower camps, take my horse if Dennet won't loan you anything else. Find Captain Arnald and Folke and tell them I need their presence in the upper courtyard immediately. Got that?”

“Ser!” replied the runner, snapping off a sharp salute as he took off running towards the stable. Cullen didn't pay the young man any mind after that, as he was already jogging up the stairs from the lower yard, jaw set hard in preparation for what he would find. As he peaked the top of the stairs, he found Sera leaning against the wall underneath the arch of the keep's main stairs.

The little elf blew a raspberry at him before asking, “Come to rescue your lady love, jackboot?”

“Come to do something ,” he growled in response, not even slowing as he continued on past her. He stepped out into the upper courtyard from under the stairs and narrowed his eyes at the utter spectacle that it had become since the shouting had started. Anyone who’d been in the yard had fled to the outer parts of it, away from the two figures standing directly in front of the armory. From the tavern and the upper floors of the armory and parts of the keep, however, windows had been thrown wide and were crammed with curious faces.

The Iron Bull stood with his over-sized mug in hand by the door of the tavern, Krem and another Charger he didn’t recognize (an elf with what looked like a bow on her back), just seemingly watching the show. One glance around, however, revealed that there were the familiar faces of several Chargers that he did recognize amongst the crowd, as well as a few Fangs now that he actually looked. Cullen couldn’t help but silently applaud the Bull’s good sense at that move because he’d surely ordered his men into the crowd given that a few of the faces he knew were spaced evenly apart.

Cassandra was also present but she was practically in the middle of the action herself. She was standing not all that far away from Meryell and Camden, a short enough distance that she could easily run him through with the naked sword in her hand. Furious didn’t quite describe the expression on her face and Cullen was certain that his own probably echoed hers. He pitied their training dummies later.

He flicked his eyes over Meryell to assess her state other than pissed off and found the answer to be fine . As he started to turn his attention to the man that she was snarling something to that he couldn’t hear, a voice drawled from behind and above him, “Well, well...look what the Twins dragged in.”

Resisting the urge to roll his eyes skyward, he grumbled, “Hello, Hawke. Come to watch the show?”

“Actually the show came to me. I was just sitting here with the kid before everything got entertaining when that blowhard there starting shoving his boot down his throat.”

He turned to look at her at that and found Hawke sitting on the lower tier of the stairs, one leg hanging over the side while she had the other up where she could prop an elbow on it. Varric was seated next to her on the stairs and he seemed to have taken over entertaining Mathis as the boy was draped over the dwarf’s broad shoulders to look at what he was writing on a board propped against his thigh.

Oh Maker only knew what new ideas this was giving the dwarf.

“So,” Hawke drawled with a smile, “I hear tell that you’re moving up in the world, Curly.”

“How is that?” asked Cullen distractedly as he turned his attention back towards the center of the yard. Camden was saying something now, his voice low enough that it didn’t carry over the sound of the crowd. Part of him wanted to step in and break this up now before it turned into even more of a circus than it already was but another wanted to give Folke and Arnald enough time to make it up from the camp to witness what was going on.

“Varric tells me you’re fucking the Inquisitor.”

Instantly his whole neck heated up with embarrassment and as he started to open his mouth to protest that, Sera said from next to him, “Oh, they ain’t fucking yet. Maybe playing ‘round beneath the sheets but Cully’s still to wound up to have gotten some.”

He just clenched his jaw because how could they be having with conversation when that bastard had just called Meryell that slur. He then heard Hawke belt out one of those raucous laughs of hers before saying, “Oh, sweet, I think I like you.” Instead of focusing on them, he started to press forward into the crowd and dimly registered that the two women were following him by a sharp Cully Wully, where ya going and the sound of Hawke’s boots hitting the ground as she huffed out Fuck all, Curly.

The pair squared off in the center of the yard were still snarling at each other, Meryell spitting something out that he couldn’t hear clearly over the murmurings of the crowd around him. He noted that her eyes were narrowed into hard slits and her ears were twitching in time with the angry shaking of her clenched fists at her side. Cullen then turned his eyes to the man himself again, who was sneering down at the elf in a way that made a prickle of fear flare up his spine.

It was so similar to the way some of the templars under Meredith had looked at the mages. Looks he’d once ignored for a variety of reasons over the years in Kirkwall.

As his stomach wrenched sickly, he mechanically noted that Camden was broad-shouldered but he was a wiry sort of man with only the vaguest hint of musculature. Definitely not one that regularly held sword and shield or had spent the last eleven years wearing heavy plate like Cullen had. A second-line fighting sort like Meryell then, at least, the sort that struck from either behind the heavy lines or in the cover of shadow. He was also taller than Meryell by about the same average as Cullen was with wiry brown hair that looked like it was starting to go sparse early around the crown.

For some reason he had the brief, ridiculous thought of I could take him when Camden abruptly spat loudly, “Looks like your new toy came to save you , princess.” It took a moment to realize that he was the toy in that sentence and Cullen immediately fixed the other man with a hard stare as his hand reflexively closed around the hilt of his sword. He started to take a step forward and push forward through the last of the crowd that separated him from the open circle when he felt hands latch onto each of his arms.

“Ya think Quiz can’t put a shithead like that in his place, Cully?” questioned Sera from his right.

At the same time, Hawke gripped his left bracer tight and hissed, “Let her handle this, Curly.”

Out of the two of them he chose to turn and glare at Hawke, initially judging the woman’s abrupt jump when he did to be in reaction to how he looked as a reminder to the early days of Kirkwall. Instead her next words floored him.

“Andraste’s knicker weasels,” Hawke breathed, “you love her .”

Flinching back like he’d been shocked, Cullen started to hiss, “I…”

Curly ,” hissed Hawke. “No man looks that furious unless it's his sister, mother, or the woman he loves in trouble. And I'm pretty damned sure she isn't either of the first two.”

Pressing his lips shut, he just stared down at Hawke in silent reply. She was right, he loved her. He'd as good as admitted it several times without using the actual word. Had almost feared using it.

There had been that moment during his talk with Arnald when he’d thought about that he loved her but wasn’t entirely certain it was the romantic sort, the kind that lasted forever, that he was certain his parents had had before the Blight had taken their lives. Being directly confronted with it made him look at it again, however. Made him think of how she made him feel, of how he had been certain he wouldn’t have been whole without her. How the thought of losing her, accidentally or through his own actions, had made him almost physically ill.

Oh Maker, he loved her .

“Then why should I let her handle this alone?” he finally growled when he found his voice again.

Hawke just smirked back up at him in reply.

“Because a wise man knows when to pick the right battles to fight for his lady,” she said with a wise air that the apostate hadn't had the last time they'd actually had a normal conversation. Then she smirked as she looked over his shoulder and added, “And I think she's more than equipped to handle that jackass.”

As if her comment summoned the heavy sound of a body hitting the hard-packed dirt of the upper courtyard that was followed by a short shriek of pain, Cullen turned back around. Camden was now face down on the ground, his right arm wrenched backwards at a painful angle while his left was pinned under Meryell's knee. She crouched on the man's back with her other knee pressed against the small of his back right up against his spine. Her teeth were bared as she bent low to bear all of her weight down on that spot. He took another step forward, Hawke and Sera’s hands falling away from his arm, as he realized from the angered looks on the faces of the crowd that she hadn't been the one to instigate whatever he'd missed in that instant.

“You don’t fucking touch me ,” she snarled, her voice carrying through the air despite her speaking at a normal volume thanks to the silence that had fallen across the crowd. “And I don’t need saving from fuckwhat by nobody .”

Camden grunted into the ground in response and replied in a pained voice, “Didn’t look like that when your new toy carried you in from that pisser of a fight at Haven. Though you’re right, Yeller. You never wanted saving and you always did fine fucking things up on your own. Bet old Vard went down cursing your name from the shit you brought down on us.”

Meryell’s face went white at that and she jerked upright so her weight was no longer centered on the man’s back but instead was now focused more towards his hips. That gave him more leverage to move and Camden used it to twist his upper body up and around, throwing her off of him. He started to lunge after her where she sat stunned on the ground but Cullen was quicker than him or even Cassandra, who had started to move forward as well.

In three long steps, he crossed the space between the edge of the crowd and where they were. He drew his sword at the start of the second and had it fully extended by the time he planted his feet in front of Meryell at the end of the third. His sharp “ Hold! ” snapped through the air as luckily (or unluckily depending upon how one looked at it) Camden had the capability to stop himself from being skewered on the point of his sword, though the tip of the blade did dig into his shoulder right at the joint enough to bring blood welling to the surface.

“You will hold,” growled Cullen, glaring down at the man. It had been bad enough when Camden had called her that damnable slur. To lay Harvard’s death and the twenty six other members of the Fangs who had died at Haven at her feet, as if she had summoned Corypheus herself to do the deed...that was unforgivable . Particularly from someone who was supposed to be a part of that family. And, not to mention, the secondary thing that had driven him forward.

He had attacked the Inquisitor.

This was no longer Cullen stepping in to protect the woman he loved.

This was the Inquisition’s Commander stepping in to protect the Inquisitor.

“You going to protect her, pretty boy?” sneered Camden as he pulled back with a little grunt, slapping a hand over the wound in his shoulder as the tip of the blade slid free. He jerked his chin past Cullen where Meryell must be, though he didn’t dare turn his head to follow the motion. One of the main rules of combat he’d been taught was never take eyes off your opponent, whether they be templar or mage, and he wasn’t about to start changing that now. “She ain’t worth it. Just another knife-eared slut who thinks they’re better than us shamlen.”

His blood boiled at the fresh insult and if he didn’t have as much control over himself as he did, Cullen would have run him through then and there. This prick wasn’t worthy of a quick end, though.

“Gustav!” he barked instead, dragging his eyes away from Camden just long enough to register that there were two Inquisition soldiers in close range. “Morgan!” The two men obeyed his unspoken order without even a pause, stepping forward to grab the crouching man’s shoulders. Camden immediately sneered and tipped his chin up before letting out a harsh laugh.

“I’m not Inquisition ,” he sneered. “You can’t do shit to me.”

Cullen scowled at that and leaned down to say firmly, “I’m not certain where you came under that impression but the Fangs of Vimmark were hired by the Inquisition. You are officially working for coin on the paperwork, which I know full well managed to make it out of Haven in the hands of Lady Josephine. And, as the Inquisition’s Commander, it is fully within my rights to keep order within any holding of the Inquisition as I see fit.

“Load of fucking crock !”

As soon as the last word was out of the other man’s mouth, Cullen heard two sets of boots finish pounding up the last of the stairs and Folke’s voice bellowed out, “ Fangs, stand down! Captain’s on the field!” Instantly, every member of the company that he could see scattered throughout the crowd dropped to a knee as Arnald stopped in a wide-legged stance at the top of the stairs. The Captain was breathing hard, his chest heaving underneath the battered training leathers he wore, a sure sign that he’d been dragged away from some sort of practice maneuvers down in their encampment. Folke had obviously recovered faster or had taken the run better but he seemed far closer to teetering off the edge given that the sleeves of his coat and shirt sleeves underneath were both rolled up to the elbow to make way for the flames that engulfed his hands to the wrist.

Cullen took a step back then, trusting that Gustav and Morgan had Camden under control, and lifted his sword as he spun in a slow circle around the area. “All of you!” he shouted, absently taking in the fact that Cassandra had gotten Meryell to her feet and ushered her off to the side near the stairs, where Sera and Hawke had set themselves down as a living wall of steely-eyed fury between them and everyone else. “Clear the courtyard! Get back to your stations and lives, this matter is under control.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Bull give a sharp gesture and the Chargers amongst the crowd melted away with them as they began to slowly disperse. A respectful move, he knew, from one leader of a mercenary company to another, now that Arnald was on the field to have his men at hand. The big Qunari lifted his tankard in a salute toward Cullen and he returned the gesture with a sharp nod of his head as Bull retreated into the tavern before pointing his sword at the bright faces crammed in the tavern windows.

“And I want those windows shut !”

Shutters instantly snapped closed in response to his shout and Cullen turned back to face Arnald with a scowl.

“Captain,” he growled.

“Commander,” replied the older man sternly. Nothing in his face was of the man Cullen had met in every other instance. There was no easy amusement here, no turn into amicable conversation or quiet drinks in a tent. No, this was the iron-handed Captain of the Fangs of Vimmark that Leliana had found information on. “Are you arresting my man?”

Cullen brought his sword down to hang even with his leg, unthreatening but ready if need be, and replied, “Were it only his words at fault, Captain, I would give him over to the law of the company. However , he physically assaulted the Inquisitor and attempted to do it a second time after knocking her prone.”

Arnald’s eyebrows went up very briefly in mild surprise behind his mask but the expression was there and gone in an instant. He turned his head to look at Camden - still under the combined grip of Cullen’s men, though he’d now shifted to a knee himself - then shifted around to look at Meryell, who still looked pale and more than a little jittery. The man’s eyes narrowed and he asked, “What exactly happened?”

“I wasn’t here for the whole of it,” replied Cullen honestly, biting his tongue on every foul thing he wanted to say about Camden’s words. He then tipped his head in a half circle towards some of the kneeling Fangs before saying, “Some of your men, Seeker Cassandra, or Hawke could give you a better impression of things than I. At least for the first part of the incident.”

“Seeker Cassandra then.”

What? ” exploded Camden, causing both of them to turn and stare hard at him for the interruption. The man started to try to rise but Gustav and Morgan held tight to him, forcing him back down hard enough that he grunted in pain. “She’s Inquisition, Captain! She licks the ground that bitch walks on! You really think she’s going to give you a fair answer?”

“I think, boy ,” Arnald replied in a clipped, hard tone that carried as much cold in it as the avalanche that had swallowed Haven, “that you should actually heed good sense and shut that fucking hole in your face before it gets you into more trouble.”

Camden’s eyes bulged in response as he shouted, “You can’t listen to ‘em, Captain! They’re gonna lie ... furrrrk! ” He was cut off abruptly as Folke took a set of shuffling steps forward, his teeth bared in an expression that Cullen could only compare to a death’s head smile, and kicked the younger man squarely in the crotch. As Camden slowly sagged with a groan as the only thing keeping him upright now were the two soldiers holding him up, the hedge mage took a step back to aim another kick at him.

“Folke!” barked Arnald. “ Enough!

“Captain,” growled the mage but the older man cut him off with a dark glare. Folke huffed out an annoyed breath and took a pair of long steps away from Camden in response instead, but didn’t turn his attention away from him. And the flames licking around his hands hungrily didn’t dissipate one inch.

The hum of magic itched in the back of Cullen’s mind but he focused past it, calling out Cassandra’s name before things could go anymore off the rails than they already were. She jerked her head around towards him, her dark eyes narrowed and fierce with a protectiveness he didn’t think he’d ever seen from her. As he tilted his head to indicate she join them, she said something softly to Meryell, who replied in kind, before looping her arm protectively around the elf’s waist. They stepped forward together and Sera and Hawke fell into step behind them as if they belonged there.

“Commander,” greeted Cassandra as they stopped in front of them, planting herself directly on a line between Meryell and Camden, “Captain. How may I aid you?”

Arnald frowned and gestured briefly in a vague manner with his hands as he replied, “You can aid myself and the Commander in filling us in on exactly what went on before either of us arrived on the field. As a Seeker of Truth, your word is perhaps the most trusted here.”

The dark-haired woman turning a burning gaze towards Camden, who was still slumped over in pain, silently reminding them of the man’s statements - particularly the one he'd made about her only a moment ago. “I don’t control what my men say, Seeker,” Arnald began. “Fully admit to being aware that my man there is an asshole...but he’s the company’s asshole.” The Captain narrowed his eyes behind his mask as he finished, “So I’d like to know what he said as to know when he crossed the line.”

Cassandra blinked slowly in return before giving a slight bob of her head. Cullen let out a breath he hadn’t been aware he’d been holding then and shifted half of his attention to Meryell. She was just standing there silently, her head bowed so the long locks her hair had grown into fell over her face, hiding her expression from him. He could read her body language though, the folded arms, sloped shoulders, bowed head, and the way her hip was locked against Cassandra's said everything that she didn't.

Cullen wanted nothing more in than moment than to pick her up and take her away from all of this nonsense. Or, even better, to turn back time and step in before Camden had made that damnable comment that had hit her so hard. He couldn't though, not now, not when Camden had laid hands on her and had the intent to do Maker only knew what.

Even if he'd never known an inkling of caring for her, he would not have let someone handling the Inquisitor like that stand.

Cassandra slowly laid out the scene that preceded what he had heard from the lower yard. She and Meryell had been merely walking across the yard, discussing a new novel that Cassandra blushed at the mention of (he wasn't certain he wanted to know what that was about). They had been doing nothing but minding their own business when Camden, sitting amongst a group of Fangs in front of the armory, had shouted out that first sentence at Meryell. Cassandra quoted it in a clipped, angry tone then relayed Meryell's reaction.

Shock. Disgust. Anger.

She went on that she herself hadn't realized what Camden’s initial comment had been eluding to until Meryell had shouted back at him. The shouting had attracted the crowd, including the Bull and his Chargers and any Fangs in the keep, but she hadn't drawn her sword until Camden’s last comment before Cullen had started up the stairs. Cassandra had apparently drawn her blade as soon as the man's first words were out but Meryell had given her a signal to stand down, that she had it under control. And she had trusted that and stepped back.

“That,” finished the warrior, “is when the Commander arrived on the field.”

Arnald nodded slightly in acknowledgment, his expression like stone, and flicked his fingers in a little go on gesture. Cassandra turned to look at him but Cullen just shrugged.

“I couldn't hear what was said after they stopped shouting,” he explained and frowned when Cassandra's expression turned somehow darker.

“Perhaps that was for the best at the time,” she intoned sternly as she squeezed Meryell's waist lightly. “Shall I say?” asked Cassandra, her voice gentling as she turned her head towards the younger woman.

Meryell shook her head in response, finally lifting it a moment later. The guilt in her eyes hammered into Cullen with the force of the Bull’s war maul and knocked the air out of his chest just as neatly as that beast of a weapon had once. In all of their talks, he'd never come to the impression that she actually might blame herself a little for the deaths of those they'd lost in Haven.

Suddenly he regretted his sword not digging deeper into the man's shoulder.

“No,” Meryell replied firmly. She straightened up then and looked at the back of Folke’s head as she said, “He made the comment about me being some fucking big shot and I promptly reminded him that we hadn’t had anything in ten years, so me suddenly getting a shitpiss of a title hadn’t been what prompted me refusing his cock. Then he made the bright comment that he should have done a better job at taming me when he had the chance. If he had, maybe I wouldn’t be such a fucking bitch and would actually give him what he was due.”

There was a long silence in response to that then Folke twisted his heel viciously into the dirt while the presence of his magic grew heavy and thick on the air, Sera reached for a bow and arrow that weren’t at her side with a scowl, Hawke made an angry hissing noise while glaring at Camden, and Arnald stood still as stone in silence in a way that was terrifying.

Cullen stared at Camden for a long moment after that before sheathing his sword lest he do something well and truly foolish with it. Though taking Camden’s head seemed more and more like a prospect that everyone could agree on.

After a moment the Captain cleared his throat and asked in a low voice, “The first attack, girl?”

“Deflected,” replied Meryell flatly.

“But he reached first.”

Cassandra nodded sharply and answered, “He made an attempt to grab her with the comment Perhaps I can teach you your place now.

“Let me shoot ‘em full of arrows, Quiz!” piped Sera, her voice as vicious and wild as the gleam in her eyes. “It’s the least this shithead deserves!”

Meryell just shook her head in response and the younger elf spat a curse, stomping in a circle before she stormed back towards the stairs to sit down with an angry huff of breath. Cullen eyed her for a moment before he said, “Meryell.” When she just barely shifted her head towards him, her eyes still focused on Folke, he intoned seriously, “This isn’t a company matter. It can’t just disappear. Too many saw him reach for you and you put him down. They heard his words and saw him throw you then try to get at you again before I stepped in.”

“Assault on the Inquisitor,” she said softly, her voice barely more than a whisper. When he just nodded, she bowed her head again and asked, “As my advisor, what is your recommendation, Commander?”

Commander. Advisor.

Not Cullen .

It was a reminder that this was not a decision to make as the man who cared for her but as the man who advised her and kept what were now her forces at strength. He was learning how to make that step in the war room after his talk with Arnald, learning how to be one person there and another elsewhere. And vengeance for wrongs done to her as Inquisitor, he reminded himself, were the solely hers to mete out by her hands and order alone.

Gripping the hilt of his sword, Cullen inclined his head slightly and replied, “I would advise, Inquisitor, that he be taken into custody and held. Let him cool his heels in the cells over the course of your trip to Crestwood and make a decision upon his fate when you return from Val Royeaux.” He then turned his attention to Arnald, who was nodding in agreement, and added, “And I would ask if the Captain of his company would strip him of his commission.”

Meryell started to open her mouth but Arnald beat her to it, saying quickly, “ Done , Commander. You are correct that this is far beyond anything we could handle within the bounds of the company and I won’t have the Inquisition thinking that we’d attack one of our own. I’ll have his badge before we return to camp.”

“Captain,” breathed Meryell, her ears drooping slightly in a way that Cullen had never seen before. “I’m sor…”

The older man whipped his hand up, palm extended towards her in a gesture of stop , and as her voice trailed off, he said, “I won’t hear it, my girl, not one word of that. You protected him enough a decade ago when he deserved to get what he got for his deeds against you.” He then snapped into a Ferelden salute, one hand clasped over his heart, and bowed just slightly towards her. “The Fangs of Vimmark serve the Inquisition and will do so until we or it deems that our contract is done. You understand me, girl?”

There were tears in Meryell’s eyes and Cullen’s hands twitched as he resisted the urge to reach out and take her from Cassandra into his arms and wipe those tears away. Even if they were ones at being touched by Arnald’s gesture.

“Yes, Captain,” she replied softly.

Arnald nodded sharply then and turned on a heel, the gesture as sharp as it had probably been when he was still in the Imperial Army. They then watched him stride over to stand next to Folke, resting a hand on the hedge mage’s shoulder as they looked down at the slowly recovering Camden.

Captain ,” groaned the man between bared teeth, his voice still reedy and thin from the swift attack on his most sensitive area. “They’re lyin’ . Whatever they was saying, she wanted it. Little knife-ear wanted every inch .”

Cullen tensed and he felt more than saw Cassandra do the same right before Folke and Hawke’s magic collided against his fragmented senses in a clash that made him see stars - though much of that was from the sudden influx of sensation given that the apostate was so much more powerful than the hedge mage. As soon as that cleared, he realized that the Captain had shouted, “ Enough! ” as the last bits of the sound managed to reach his ears.

“I have handled every report made against you, son, so don’t give me that shite of a story that you’re the victim here. You were lucky before in that most of them were forgiven by those that brought them forward and the rest were settled in the fighting ring. This is different.

“Captain, you can’t,” began Camden, only to be cut off as the older Orlesian stepped forward and leaned down so he was nose-to-nose with the younger man, who couldn’t lean back at all as Gustav and Morgan held him firmly in place.

What is the first rule of the company?

Arnald’s voice snapped across the upper courtyard, sharp as a banner caught in high winds, and then in the silence that followed all that could be heard was Camden’s abruptly ragged sounding breaths. When no answer came from the man, someone from the company (it sounded like Astrid) practically howled, “ Fangs! ” An instant later every man and woman of the company who was there, including Meryell and Folke, shouted with one staggering voice.

This is the Captain and his word is law!

It was rather terrifying in that moment to witness what every single members of the Fangs had admitted was a severely disorganized company come together in such singular unison.

Cullen merely settled back to watch as Arnald straightened and gave a sharp nod to the gathered before he said sharply in a ringing tone, “Camden Bowfort, you are hereby stripped of your commission in the Fangs of Vimmark. Any claim you had to us and any we had to you is now null and void.” He then squeezed Folke’s shoulder and said, “Remind me, old friend, what this lad’s charm is.”

The presence of Folke’s magic stuttered and slipped out from underneath Hawke’s more blindingly bright presence as the flames around his hands finally dissipated. A wide grin split the mage’s face as he replied, “I believe, Captain, that this i’tel’gon’lan had me make his out of his belt buckle. May I do the honors?”

Arnald merely gestured for him to go ahead and as Folke crouched, Camden laughed hoarsely before saying loudly, “Why don’t you just kill me, Folke? You know what I did to her back then. And you’ve been bedding the high and mighty bitch, Evune. You know what all elf’s are good for.” He then leaned forward as much as he was allowed and hissed, “She’s a rabbit no matter how many times you call her your daughter, old man.”

Cullen saw the move coming a league away as Folke’s shoulders bunched and twisted, swinging his right fist up into a sharp punch that shattered Camden’s nose in a truly glorious shower of blood. There was a small cheer from the gathered Fangs and he saw Hawke grinning despite carefully touching her own nose, once painfully broken so badly it had never healed right, in sympathy.

Nuva mar’edhis banafelas i miol’en av ra ,” spat the hedge mage in Elven as he roughly kept Camden’s suddenly lolling head upright with one hand so he wouldn’t choke on his own blood and tugged at his belt with the other. As soon as the leather strap was free, he stood and said to Gustav, “Do make sure he doesn’t die. I really do want to see the son of a bitch get what’s coming to him.”

The swarthy skinned solder just nodded sharply as he took Folke’s position in steadying the man and Morgan grinned as he replied, “We’ll see he stays alive, ser. Wouldn’t be fair if he got away with insulting the Inquisitor like that.”

“Good lads!” chirped Folke with a grin before he turned away, holding up the belt by the buckle for all of the gathered to see. “Fangs! What do we do with those who betray us?”

Pitch ‘em to the Void! ” came the shouted reply and Cullen glanced over at Meryell to see her smiling just a little bit as she joined in with the yelling. Her expression brightened even further when her father took the buckle in both hands and it sparked with magic before the light guttered and died.

“So ends the career of Camden Bowfort,” intoned the mage as he rolled the belt up and tucked it away, presumably to get rid of it later. Arnald nodded then turned in a slow circle, regarding all of the gathered before he took a deep breath.

“Fangs!” he said loudly. “I want everyone down in camp - and I mean everyone - and we are going to have a discussion about this sort of shit never happening amongst our own ever again. You have until a glass before sunset to be in camp and you had better make sure everyone you’ve ever fucked, kissed, or bled alongside is there with you. We have an understanding?”

“Aye, Captain!”

Dismissed!

As the Fangs rose to move out, Cullen flashed a hand signal at Gustav and Morgan - one of the ones meant for before battles where talking wasn’t the best course of action. The pair nodded in unison and hefted Camden up, hauling his limp arms over their shoulders. He could hear Morgan start up a running commentary as they walked off - mostly about how much of a dumb shit the man was for going after the Commander’s lass - while Gustav attempted to keep Camden’s head upright between snorts of laughter. And noted that as they carried the man off, his pants didn’t hold up the battle to stay around his waist without the belt and immediately fell to his ankles. Suddenly Cullen realized why Folke had wanted to do the unbelting honors.

When the upper courtyard cleared of the last man, Arnald turned to point at both Meryell and Folke as he said, “You two aren’t required for this meeting. I don’t expect to see you, don’t want to see you, and expect you both to respect that.”

“Arnald,” murmured Meryell, stepping away from Cassandra for the first time since the warrior had helped her to her feet. When the Captain held up hand, she stopped, and he gently reached out to turn her in Cullen’s direction while murmuring something in her ear that only she could hear. With a small smile, she turned to look at the older man and asked, “Is that an order?”

“Aye, whelp, we’ll call it an order,” replied the man warmly before giving her a light shove. He moved towards Folke as she stepped forward cautiously and Cullen held out his hands towards her. Meryell’s hands slid into his slowly, her fingers shaking minutely against his own, and he was extra cautious as he pulled her towards him.

It suddenly felt like dealing with a half-wild animal, ready to bolt at too swift a movement.

Bowing his head, Cullen asked softly, “Do you want to go to your place?” Not was she okay because he knew she wasn’t. And he knew that going somewhere where no one else could possibly find them would likely be what would make her feel best after what had just happened.

When her mouth tilted up at the corners into a smile, he’d knew he’d said the right thing.

“Yes, vhen’an’ara ,” she replied quietly. “You, me, and baba . No one else.”

Cullen just nodded and lifted her hands in his to press a soft kiss against her fingertips as he murmured, “As the thief wishes. You go to Folke and go ahead. I’ll finish up here and bring along the alcohol.”

Her smile shifted from wary into a bright flash that nearly blinded him with the abrupt intensity and she arched up onto her toes in order to kiss his cheek. Then she was moving towards Folke, who had been watching them quietly alone since Arnald had disappeared without a trace, and took his hand to drag him away. Cullen watched until they disappeared down the stairs to the lower courtyard then turned to regard those that were still standing there with him.

“Thank you,” he said firmly to Cassandra and Hawke. The former merely shook her head and he knew her answer without her saying it. She needed no thanks for defending someone who was a friend but Cullen gave it anyway.

The latter snorted a laugh and flapped a hand errantly at him as she said, “After all the shit you saved me from over the years, Curly, I owe you more than one or two favors.” She then swept up the stairs with a parting, “Don’t get into trouble, kids,” as she scooped up her son from Varric’s shoulders. The dwarf just sat there for a minute after she was gone, smiling and winking at Cullen, before he picked up his work and followed with a parting Later, Seeker, Curly, Buttercup .

Maker save him from whatever Varric had been jotting down that entire time.

Shaking that thought from his mind, Cullen clasped wrists with Cassandra as she moved past him, heading back towards her customary spot at the upper yard’s training dummies. Then he looked at Sera, still sitting sulking on the steps, and smiled. She glared at him for a moment before bounding up onto her feet.

“So that’s it, Cully?” she exploded. “No arrows, no taking that shitpiss out of his hide?”

Sighing, he replied, “That’s not how it works, Sera. Not in the Inquisition.”

“You lot are fucking mental,” spat Sera, throwing up her hands in disbelief. “Oh, this one insulted me, let’s just lock him up to let him think about it . Shitheads like that don’t change , Cully!”

“I don’t expect him to.”

“Then let me fill ‘im with arrows! That’ll teach a lesson!”

Cullen just arched an eyebrow as he asked, “That we kill someone outright instead of punishing them properly for the crime they’ve done?” Sera just blinked then a slow smile came over her face, setting her to bouncing on the balls of her feet and pointing at him.

“Oh! Oh! ” she squealed. “You’ve got a plan in that planny head of yours. Someplace good to send that shithead. Right, right?”

“I have ideas,” he replied honestly, “but the final decision lies with Meryell. And if she lets him go, Sera, we have to honor her decision.” When she wrinkled her nose, he added, “Even if we think it’s a bad decision.”

Shaking her head, the little elf said, “Bonkers all, you lot. Whatever . I’m going to go see if Beardy wants a drink. Least he makes sense.” As she stormed off, looping around him to head down the stairs towards the stable where Blackwall was usually working, she called back, “Go see your lady lo~ove, Cully Wully! I bet she needs some of that sword of yours right now.”

Knowing she wasn’t talking about his actual sword, Cullen sighed and headed for the tavern to buy a number of bottles off of Flissa as he’d said he would before heading down to join Meryell and Folke. “With her father there?” he muttered to himself as he crossed the yard before opening the door. “No, thank you, Sera.”

Not moments later he was back out with six bottles in a basket as well as some sort of cheese, meat, and small crackers that Flissa had insisted on throwing in. And with not one coin having been spent out of his own purse as every man and woman in the tavern had been clamoring to buy the bottles for him as soon as they learned where he was taking them. He’d been so stunned by the gesture that he hadn’t even argued, not even when Bull had grinned and tossed a coin across the room from his seat via several of his Chargers before Krem slapped it onto the bar.

Cullen allowed himself a smile as he hefted the weight of the basket on his way down the stairs before sobering abruptly. There might be celebrating in the tavern...but he got the feeling that where he was heading wasn’t going to be half as cheerful.

Chapter Text

“...seemed like you were when you were riding my cock…”

“...remember you when you was nothing…”

“...should’a done a better job of taming you years back…”

“...teach you your place…”

“...never wanted saving…”

“...old Vard went down cursing your name…”

Despite everything she tried, the things Camden had said kept echoing like thunderclaps through her skull, the rumblings of them shaking right down to blood and bone. He had said things that had angered her, that had made her blood hot for a fight or a fuck, the same way that he always had. That was how they’d started their little dance when she was five and ten, fresh to the company with youthful rage carrying her along in its wake. He’d insulted her, she’d snapped off, and somehow that had led to furious kissing and ripping off clothes in one of the keep’s storage rooms.

She hadn’t been intending on playing his game even a little bit (and certainly not to the finish he wanted), not at first. Brush it off and move on was the tactic she’d used with him since their relationship had fallen apart. Then he’d mentioned her riding his cock and she’d just snapped . Anger and old broken fear had welled up, suddenly as fresh as it had been back then, and she let the rage carry her again.

And then, when she’d had him pinned down, furious at his gall to try and touch her (to grab her arm in that possessive way he still had, like he owned her because she’d given her body once upon a time), he’d clawed open a wound she’d only barely sewn shut. Harvard’s death and those of the other twenty-six members of the company - HonorAlenaKirykBastianNickelPeterDorotheaClaraMarsailBryanTarotAlkesOdwenReynyMareyJausaVerrinLianoBedlamThagaGeiriGilasMinaBryneRiffolkTempest - she remembers them all in a rush that tastes like sorrow and death. She remembers the name of every member of the company that has died around her, but Meryell has these carved on her heart because it feels like her fault that they’re no longer there. It's not, she knows that, but the mind doesn't necessarily follow logic all of the time.

Even with her father’s hand in hers and blessed solitude ahead with only him and Cullen and the knowledge that Camden is well and truly fucked , these things still choke her throat. Still threaten to tear her apart because she is far more fragile than she seems and the only people that really, really seem to notice it are the two men she cares for most.

Ara vherain ,” Folke said from behind her, dragging her attention briefly away from her storm swirl of thoughts. “Where are we going?”

Ma eth an ,” she replied as she pulled him further and further downward into the bowels of the keep.

“Safe place?” he echoed and Meryell could feel the frown. “Do you not feel safe in the keep? In camp?”

Nodding her head, she answered, “ Vin, baba. It isn’t like that.” Throwing a glance over her shoulder, she saw the pinched, tight look at his face that showed how worried he was. “It’s just a place that’s safe from being found when I want privacy without the risk of being disturbed. I don’t fear anywhere in Skyhold.”

Given his silence, she wasn't entirely sure he believed her.

They finally reached the bottom and the last turn to the left that led to her hidden cavern and she wants nothing more than to bury herself into the cushions until Cullen arrived with the alcohol. Then she will drink herself silly until the faint tremors of old fear no longer make her hands shake from time to time and she doesn’t remember the memory of rough hands pawing at her hips as she attempted to twist away. She didn’t know if they’d let her though, if they will let her just re-bury the memories and the reasons in the grave she put them in so long ago and cover it up with fresh dirt.

If she’s honest, what she really wants is to be alone with Cullen, to kiss him and touch his skin and taste him until she fully embeds him over the memory of everyone else in her past. That won’t happen tonight, though, nor will it likely happen in the two days she has left before they leave for Crestwood.

Meryell just stood there instead, staring at the pile of cushions and wanting , until her father dragged her down into them. As soon as they were horizontal, she felt the storm rise up into her throat, threatening to burst out of her and rage out of control. She curled her fingers into the edge of Folke’s coat and pulled herself in close to him, as tight as she could press without lying on top of him. He wrapped his arms around her in return, cradling the back of her head with one hand, and then he broke her .

Ir abelas, asha’lan ,” he breathed, his voice cracking slightly. “I should have paid more attention back then.”

The storm welled, grew in power, and then it burst free of its fragile confines.

Its leading edge picked her up, like a ship in the full gale of the hurricane Zarru described once, and flung her headlong into the tangle of emotions she'd been fighting for so long that day. Meryell gasped and on the exhale came the first sob; the sort of sob that tore the air from the lungs, that felt like it was tearing the body apart from the inside out. She clung to Folke like he was a port in the storm, as if only the press of his arms around her and the faint stubble on his unshaven cheeks against her forehead could shelter her from being washed out to sea.

Ten years was a long time to keep emotions buried.

At some point she must have fallen unconscious because when she became aware again, it was to longer limbs tangled around hers, curls tickling her lips, and warm breath against her collarbone. Meryell slowly opened her eyes and realized she was laying on her opposite side now, her body half lying on top of Cullen's. Their legs were hopelessly tangled and she was higher up his body than she preferred, so his face rested against her throat instead of their normal position of her head tucked under his chin. It doesn't seem like it would be comfortable for him but he was utterly limp and warm against her so it must be.

She shifted just slightly, trying to turn and look for Folke, but then the arm around her waist tightened to pin her in place. Meryell leaned back enough that she could see Cullen peering at her with one bleary eye before he grumbled, “Morning.”

“Is it?” she asked, turning her head to look out the opening of the cavern. She absently noted that there was a slight crick in her neck while looking to see that the sky isn't even lightening outside. If it is morning, it is still very early as she can usually at least see the sun dappling the treetops and the distant mountains.

“Close enough.”

Cullen then ran his other hand slowly up her side before he cupped her face with it. “You went to sleep without even getting a drop of the alcohol. I didn't have to pay for one bottle.”

Blinking, she just replied, “Oh?”

“The Iron Bull and everyone else in the tavern refused to let me as soon as they knew I was coming to you.”

“Oh. Ir abelas . I didn't mean to…”

He was shaking his head then, as much as he could with her pressing the back of his skull into the cushions anyway, and interrupted her with a stern, “You don't have to apologize for anything , vhen'an'ara . Not after today.”

Meryell quirked her lips and (not wanting to think about that so soon after waking) corrected, “Yesterday.”

“Yesterday then,” he replied with a little huff of a laugh. Then he cautiously - delicately - brushed his thumb across the edge of her lip and asked softly, “May I kiss you?”

A little confused that he would ask, she replied, “You don't have to fucking ask , Cullen.”

Cullen just shook his head. “Yes, I do. After yesterday, I do.” Her heart stuttered a little at his words and what they mean, only finding herself able to nod in response. Then he was lifting her up just enough to move her down so their bodies were more in line and he could better reach her mouth, his lips closing over hers with what she could only describe as reverence .

It was soft and gentle and sweet and Meryell melted against him in the wake of it. For a moment there was only the press of his mouth against hers with the lingering taste of whiskey (did he and Folke drink?) flavoring it and the distant sensation of his hands gripping her hips. When they finally separated, she propped herself up with one elbow braced against his shoulders and the other arm curled around his face, lacing her fingers into what she could reach of his persistently curling hair. He hummed contentedly in response and smiled up at her, all honesty and a little shyness.

“Why’d you say you had to ask?” she questioned softly, unable to stop herself from pondering over that phrase. Instantly his expression stuttered and she frowned. “Cullen?”

Shaking his head, he started, “Because,” then immediately stopped, obviously taking a moment to gather his thoughts. When he began again, it was instead a soft spoken question.

“Will you talk about it?”

Part of her wanted to brush it off and reply talk about what but she wouldn't do that to him. She hadn't been in a relationship of this sort before but she knew she didn't lie to Folke or anyone else that she was really close to in the company. Cullen deserved the same as they did; no, he deserved more .

He obviously thought her slow response meant he'd said something he shouldn't have because his face turned panicked. As he reached up to touch her face again, saying her name, Meryell turned to press a long kiss into his overly warm palm. “You've said nothing wrong, vhen'an'ara ,” she breathed as she brushed her nose across the dips between his fingers, calluses catching at her skin.

“I worried…” He paused, frowning as he turned his face away, the lines of his jaw suddenly tight. “I thought,” Cullen said slowly, “after I asked that it might have been like...like Kinloch was for me. That he…”

No ,” she insisted firmly, moving her left arm so she could press the fingers of one hand against his mouth. When he stopped talking, Meryell moved her hand and leaned down to kiss his scar, wondering once again where he'd earned it. “If it had been anything like I assume you went through there,” she breathed, “Camden wouldn't be alive today. Arnald would have let the company kill him for doing harm to a child.”

Cullen's chest sagged underneath her and she realized with horror that he'd thought the worst had happened to her. Kissing him again, she said, “It was words, only words, really. There was once when he tried to force me but he let me go when I said no. He let me go. Camden may be an asshole but he's not a bastard .”

“I might disagree with that assessment after what he said to you,” growled Cullen in return. Then he gently took her face in both of his hands and kissed her, breathing out, “And I know words can hurt just as much as anything, Meryell. You don't...you don't have to hide from me.”

Looking down at him, Meryell immediately balked at saying it. She'd told the man lying half beneath her many things but this ...she'd held on to this for a long time. Most who'd even been in the company at the time hadn't even known what had happened, just that Meryell had been hurt and Camden had been the cause. With her being only five and ten, that had been enough reason to beat the shit out of him while she'd been sitting with the Captain as he coaxed it out of her. He and Folke knew, since Folke had been her recruiter and kept an eye on her as per rule of the company. Thankfully she and Folke hadn’t been so close then or else Camden may have been dead long ago and buried in a ditch.

Licking her lips, she began slowly, “It ended...oh, five months after it began. We started with words and fighting with each other and we ended it with about the same.” Cullen arched his eyebrows slightly but she shook her head at him and continued on. “Our relationship was never the sort of thing to build anything on, to never become something beyond fucking in corners and hissed dirty talk. I wanted it to be, though, wanted it to be more than it was. Shit, the girl I was thought it was more than it was and she was a fool.”

“I’m sure she wasn’t a fool,” he murmured, idly tracing patterns with the pads of his fingers across her collarbone.

Meryell shook her head. “In this, she was.”

“I…” She stuttered on the words she’d said back then, her heart abruptly hammering in her chest. Not out of fear or an echoing memory...but because they were words she wanted to say to the man beneath her. That she meant with everything in her but feared because what if it happened again? What if she gave away everything and came up wanting again?

Calling him vhen’an’ara was practically saying it in and of itself she knew but those words ...they were Important, with a capital. She remembered her parents saying them above her head when she was little and curled up between them, their cheeks pressed together and ears touching. Folke had said them to her and did it frequently, whispering them along with one of his names for her against her cheek or forehead with a kiss every time as if the words were only for her.

Saying the words meant something.

“Meryell?”

Cullen’s voice, worried and confused, broke through her scattered thoughts and as her eyes refocused on his face, she said the first thing her whirling mind gave her in a bare whisper.

“I love you.”

He stilled underneath her, his entire body suddenly tensing up, and his shaking hands suddenly finding her face. Cullen started to open his mouth then he paused with a frown, brushing his thumbs carefully across her cheeks. For a moment he just stared at her, amber eyes assessing her as attentively as he did his troops, then Cullen stretched up to kiss her as he breathed, “Come back, vhen’an’ara . You aren’t here with me.”

And, just like that, she was.

Shaking, Meryell pressed one hand flat against his chest, pushing aside his tunic so she could reach skin as if to cement herself to the now purely by contact. Then she spoke in a rush, “I told him that and he laughed. Said if I loved him then I should let him claim me, let him lay his mark on me. I thought...I thought he just meant sex because I’d heard such things with the gang. I thought it would just be different when we were together after saying that.”

Turning her head, she pointed to the spot on her right ear, where unblemished skin gave way to an old faded pair of curved scars. Folke had done the healing on it himself, refusing to let anyone else do the work because she was his responsibility. She’d balked at the scars back then as they were a reminder but accepted when he explained that it was the best even a more powerful healer could have done with the damage.

“He bit me,” she whispered. “While he had his cock in me and driving hard to completion, he suddenly had my ear in his teeth and he bit me . It bled like a son of a bitch and I fought him while he did it, kicking and screaming at him Elven. Half the reason it’s so bad is because I pulled away. It’s why I don’t like them to be touched.”

“He,” began Cullen only to stop, his voice trembling. Then she felt a finger touch her cheek, just underneath the lobe of her ear, and he breathed, “May I?”

Meryell froze then slowly forced herself to relax as she nodded, murmuring, “I trust you.”

He inhaled a shaky breath at that and she closed her eyes, holding herself still as his fingers slowly, carefully moved up over her ear. The touch was featherlight, barely revealing the roughness of his hands, and brushed up over the top of her ear like a ghost. He stroked the skin around the scars then shifted his hand to curl around the back of her neck, gentle pressure pulling her down closer to him.

When his lips touched the scar in a light kiss, Meryell let out a little hiccuping sob as her heart swelled with love with the man beneath her. Turning her head suddenly within his grasp, she caught his mouth with her own as she shifted her position, moving from lying on her side against him to straddling him. His hands fell almost automatically back to her hips, fingertips digging in as he hummed into her kiss and his hips gave a slight thrust up into hers.

Pressed chest to chest like that with the taste of him still on her breath, Meryell cupped Cullen’s face and dared take the leap.

Ar lath ’ma vhen’an . I love you. You are my home.”

He stilled with a shudder and his breath shook against her face as he let out a long exhale. Then Meryell let out a surprised squeak as Cullen abruptly flipped them, his weight coming down on top of her in that delicious way she loved about humans as he growled and kissed her. He kissed her throat, her cheek, her mouth, danced down in a pattern of kisses to nip her collarbones and press a delicate kiss into the low cut of her tunic that hinted at her breasts, before he came back up and claimed her mouth again. There were a dozen or more half-breathed I love you s scattered through those kisses, words whispered as wonderfully against her skin as vhen’an’ara had been.

Then he kissed her hard, like she was going to disappear from underneath him, and breathed, “ Vhen’an ,” in a tone that she couldn’t put a word to.

She did note, a little deliriously, that the scattering of lessons she’d been giving him in Elven lately during their nights was paying off.

Vhen’an ,” she replied with a nod as a knot of something welled up in her throat. It burst out of her in a laugh and she reached up to tangle her hands in his curls, pulling him down to press her forehead to his. Shaking her head, Meryell closed her eyes and breathed, “I think...I think I’ve loved you for a while. I was just…”

“Scared,” he supplied as soon as her voice trailed off and she opened her eyes to look into his. Like Dem had told her once, eyes were the key to a person...and she could see everything she felt in his .

Fear.

Love.

And an overwhelming sense of yes .

Yes, this is good.

Yes, this is right.

Meryell just nodded and Cullen smiled before kissing her softly. She deepened the kiss, made it an exploration, a quest for more , by curling her hands deeper into his hair and pulling him down into her. He followed with a growl into her mouth, the sort of sound that rumbled from deep in his chest and rattled her bones, giving in utterly to her silent request.

“When did you know?” she asked in a moment that they separated for air. When he frowned down at her in slight confusion, Meryell clarified, “When did you know you loved me?”

“Oh,” replied Cullen, frowning slightly. He shifted slightly, resettling his weight over her, before he replied, “I think….no, I know I realized I was falling for you after you went to the Hinterlands that first time. There was a night that I expected you to be there to drag me out of my tent for drinks and then realized that you weren’t there. It stole my breath and I knew that this was something . But love ...”

He looked away then and she watched his throat tense up before he swallowed hard. In a low voice he then finished, “I think I realized that I loved you when I thought I was about to lose you. There was no place for it then. Accepting it...well, that took a while.” Turning back towards her, he laughed. “Hawke actually made me see it yesterday.”

Meryell blinked. “When all that was going on?”

“I’m sure you didn’t notice my reaction when he called me a toy there to save you and you a princess.”

She shook her head because, no, she hadn’t. Her focus had been on Camden and she hadn’t let even Cullen’s presence drag that focus away. Not when she knew how quick on his feet that the other man could be.

Chuckling, Cullen said, “Apparently a man only looks that furious if someone’s insulted his sister, his mother, or his lover. So she took a guess.”

“And that…”

“Made me realize that it had been there for so long but I’d been scared to grab it.” He shifted and lifted a hand to brush hairs away from her forehead as he continued, “Scared because I’d nearly lost you or I feared that one day you’d wake up and realize how broken I am.”

“Cullen,” she started to interrupt but he quickly moved to press a finger against her lips for a second, shaking his head.

“I feared you being named Inquisitor,” he whispered, voice barely audible. “Of how it would make us look. How it would make you look.”

Now she wouldn’t stay silent.

“You know I don’t fucking care about that,” interrupted Meryell.

“I know but I....duty was always important to me. Even before I joined the Order, I knew there were things that needed to be done as the eldest son and I should do them. It became even more important after because duty is the Order...or it was supposed to be, at least.”

Frowning as she wondered what the point was, she flattened her hands against his chest and he let out a sudden breath before shaking his head. “I warred,” he continued, “between what I felt was my duty to the Inquisition...and the wants of my heart. Which was more important?”

She knew the answer, knew it because of how he’d responded to her words, of how swiftly he’d kissed her and said I love you , but his words still made her tense.

He moved so he could cup her face in his hands and she stilled at the realization that he was smiling. Not just a normal smile but a broad, bright smile that she wasn’t certain that she’d ever seen on his face. It was, she thought a little deliriously, the sort of expression he might always have worn if he’d never joined the Order. Then, however, she never would have met him and that was a thing she abruptly couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

“And then,” he said warmly, “I realized after a conversation with Arnald that I already knew the path I wanted to take.”

Meryell felt her heart hammering in her chest, like it was fit to burst through the confines of flesh and bone, at his words. Slowly she slid her hands up his chest and around to the back of his neck, where she locked her fingers together as she breathed, “And that path?”

She knew .

But hearing ...hearing it made it more real.

Still smiling that smile, Cullen leaned down and whispered, “ You ,” before he kissed her. Meryell tugged on the back of his neck in return, wanting him closer, wanting him everywhere . He was still supporting most of his weight on his arms and she wanted to tell him to stop .

That, however, would require her to drag her lips away from his right then and she wasn’t ready for that yet.

He nuzzled her face when they finally did separate themselves from each other but his mouth had other places it was going. As he kissed down her neck, Meryell stretched as far as she could to give him more access and nearly missed the question he murmured.

“And you, vhen’an ?”

Laughing, she closed her eyes and replied, “First realization that I was falling for you? That night on the barrels.” She felt his lips stutter across her skin and there was a breathy exhale, after which she added onto her words. “You were handsome and human and so my type and….you called me thief as if it meant the same as lady .”

With a smirk she moved her loosely locked together hands that had been hanging around his neck up into his hair, separating them as she did so. Gently putting pressure on his head with the heel of her hands to indicate she wanted him to move back up towards her, she turned her head to meet him as he did so.

“I fantasized,” she purred lowly, “about a moment like this. You on top of me with all of that delicious muscle bearing down on me. Your breath ghosting along my ear…like this.” Turning her head, she breathed out slowly towards his left ear, feeling him shiver as she watched his eyes grow hungry . Her breath caught as she was suddenly swept up in those emotions again, in the imagining that she’d had during those early morning hours.

Only this time there wasn’t anything to bring her down.

This was reality.

Cullen was there , his weight on top of her, and she knew the taste of him. Knew the smell, the texture of his skin, and the heat of him as he held her close. She knew his fears and past and he knew hers and he wanted her .

She wanted the lyrium addict and he wanted the knife-eared bitch.

Meryell felt like she’d stopped breathing for a moment at that thought and inhaled sharply before she said the rest in a low rush.

“Your face buried between my thighs, driving me towards orgasm.”

Maker’s breath ,” he breathed and she could immediately tell the effect her words had had on him from the pressure growing ever more noticeable where the lower halves of their bodies met. He pressed a kiss against her lips and asked, “And you...?

“Redcliffe,” she answered simply, knowing his question was when she’d started to love him. He merely nodded and kissed her again because he knew . She hadn’t shared what she’d learned of his fate with the others, only that he had died leading an assault. Only she, he, and Dorian knew that he had died leading a hopeless assault on a keep he’d firmly stated was unassailable for her .

That knowledge had nearly broken her and the only thing that had picked her back up was Varric saying It doesn’t happen if you go back, sweetheart. Let’s get you back to Curly.

“And how many times,” asked Cullen softly then, the edge of a growl lacing his voice, “did you fantasize about me like that?”

Smiling at his attempt to bring them back to safer ground, away from the time magic and death that tainted the events of Redcliffe and what had followed, Meryell replied, “Enough.”

“Did you....after your injury?”

“Maaaaybe,” she drawled, causing Cullen to grunt and lean closer to her, his eyes bright and intent.

He nuzzled her cheek with his nose and asked, “After Val Royeaux?”

Meryell pecked him lightly on the lips, to which he snorted, before she answered, “Yes.”

“After Haven?”

“Spending a night naked in that cot with you made me all hot and bothered.” She grinned as that particular response had an effect as his hips thrust against hers very briefly before he held himself still again.

Cullen kissed her then asked in a whisper, “Now?”

Laughing, she immediately pulled him down for another kiss by the front of his shirt as she answered, “What do I need fantasies for now , vhen’an ? There is no longer a need for them when I have you right here.”

Instantly the kiss went hot and hard and heavy after that comment left her lips. His mouth was firm in its wants and it claimed hers in a battle that Meryell gladly surrendered with only a little bit of fight as a token protest. He growled as she slid her hands underneath his shirt and asked, “What do you want now, love,” kissing her soundly before she could formulate even the hint of a reply. There was, for a long moment then, only the sensation of him and his mouth and all she could think in answer was that she wanted more.

When they finally paused, breathing hard and heavy in almost unison with each other, she shifted to hook one of her legs around his hip and ground herself up against the bulge in his pants. He made a short whining noise in his throat in response, his eyes fluttering shut as she breathed, “Touch me.”

“Where?” asked Cullen thickly, his eyes still shut. She watched his pulse hammer in his throat, felt it thunder in his chest, and smiled before she arched her neck up to kiss that pulse point.

They had teased and they had touched skin but they had never gone further. Everything else had been with fabric between them, dry humping like a pair of children just discovering the act on the occasion that it went further than teasing. Though those moments had only been since arriving in Skyhold and they had been rare still with work and days in the field.

“Everywhere,” Meryell replied, breathing her response into his skin and she felt him twitch. His whole body jumped at the word along with the very eager part of him that pressed against her crotch. After a moment he shifted his weight the side of her, propping himself up one arm so the other was free. The heat of that hand was almost searing against her skin as he trailed it up her side underneath her tunic but she was on fire herself, every nerve and inch screaming for him him him .

His movement seemed agonizingly slow but she knew it wasn’t, though that didn’t stop her from whining and throwing her head back. Cullen growled and dove for her throat in response, kissing his way down until he met her collarbone and sucked . Meryell bucked her hips, trying to find friction for the sudden fire between her thighs, and he obliged by tucking his leg between hers. As she clamped her thighs around it, determined to ride out the sensation and wait now that she had something to hold onto, she realized that his fingers had found the knot of her breastband.

It took some doing - in which he grunted and cursed it in a low voice against her throat and made her laugh while she scratched her fingers against that favorite spot against the back of his neck to soothe frazzled nerves - but it finally came free. Cullen tugged the cloth out from under her with a huff and then held it up with a victorious growl, shaking it a little before he tossed it over his shoulder errantly. She quietly tucked the sight of him above her like that, eyes bright with desire with swollen lips and his curls in full unruly force while looking so proud , away to remember fondly when she might need it most.

“Up,” he snarled in a rough voice as he tugged at her tunic, attempting to drag it up her sides several times. With her back against the cushions, however, it caught and Meryell couldn’t help but laugh at the frustrated look on his face.

Cullen growled in response, hissing, “A hand if you would, dear thief?”

“If I’m the thief,” she replied, “why are you trying to steal my shirt?”

He chuckled and leaned down to kiss her in response, replying gruffly, “I’m trying to find my heart. I believed you’ve stolen it.”

She laughed at that, despite her heart pounding wildly at the answer, and silently arched her back. He ended up only pulling her tunic up just far enough to reveal her breasts, so small and certainly not enough to fill his hands, and just stared for a moment. Meryell started to open her mouth to say something only to cut herself off with a gasp as Cullen bent and pressed a kiss against the curve of her right breast. His stubble tickled and then rasped as he immediately moved over to close his mouth over her nipple and her mind went blank at the sensation. It stuttered back to life a moment later and Meryell lifted her head to look down at him as his eyes darted up to her while he smirked against her breast.

Smirked.

Maker’s fucking cock, this man.

What his mouth was doing sent little sparks of want cascading through her and then she felt his hand brush her now bare belly. Looking down past him, she saw his fingers stutter over the loop of her belt and turned her eyes to meet his as they asked silently for permission.

Yes ,” she breathed and in two quick tugs he had her belt open. His fingers made equally quick work of the laces on her pants, tugging them just loose enough that he could slip his hand between the thick fabric and her skin. She shuddered at the feel of it, of his skin against hers there, anticipation tightening her body up into a silent scream.

Abruptly Cullen released her breast and moved back up to her face, kissing her cheek and then her mouth as he breathed, “This is...this is okay?” Part of her was undeniably frustrated with the pause because his fingers were right there , so close to where she fucking needed them , and he’d stopped. Meryell knew though too, that he was just being himself and worried given their earlier conversation.

Catching his face in her hands, she pulled him into a deep kiss that was all warring tongues and clashing teeth. She took his lower lip between her teeth as she pulled away, sucking on it before she released it with a resounding pop . He let out a pair of heavy breaths as he stared down at her in response, his eyes blown wide and dark, as she replied in a firm whisper, “You are not Camden.”

Cullen leaned in to kiss her again at that, breathing, “ Vhen’an ,” as his hand slid further downward into her smalls. Meryell whined into his mouth as his fingers finally reached the curls between her legs and slid into the slick crevice, bucking her hips as he crooked a finger inside her. Then another joined it and they groaned as one as she thrust herself down onto his hand. He began a slow, almost tortuous pace within while his own hips stuttered against her hip in an aborted attempt at seeking completion.

Realizing that she was letting him do all of the work, Meryell freed herself from the kiss and breathed, “Side.”

“What?”

“Get on your side fully,” she replied, fighting against the haze of pleasure that was blocking coherent thought. Cullen obeyed with a blink, settling onto his side beside her rather than half leaned over her without ever entirely stopping the slow thrust of his fingers. Meryell immediately started scrabbling one handed at his waist as soon as he was settled. His breath caught on a sudden inhale at the same time that she finally found the edge of his shirt and jerked it up to reveal the tensed muscles of his belly and he breathed her name on the exhale.

Turning her head, she kissed him hard for a brief second before saying, “I can’t let you give without giving something in return.”

He just stared at her for a moment and there was something suddenly in his eyes that she couldn’t put words to. Then Cullen closed them, shaking his head a little, and when he reopened his eyes a moment later whatever that something was was gone.

“Do not…” he breathed slowly, his voice shaking as his fingers slowed within her. “Do not ask does this feel good .”

For a moment she was confused and then realization hit like a thunderclap. Kinloch. Demons. There was a connection there, something old and strong , and she wondered if he’d discovered that during his time with the woman in Kirkwall, if that was what had stopped him going to her. It also made warmth curl in her chest despite the reminder of what he’d gone through because he had just shared a part of that. The worst thing that had happened to him, that he barely spoke of except in the vaguest terms, and he’d given her a fragment .

“I will not ask,” confirmed Meryell, sealing it with a kiss that he nodded into. Taking that as permission, she slid her hand teasingly down his stomach and savored the twitch of his muscles in her wake, before closing her fingers over the buckle of his belt. It ended up taking both of them to pry it loose, he chuckling and wriggling his other hand down between them to hold the buckle while she tugged the leather free. The long laces on his trousers, in comparison, were ridiculously easy to get past. Instead of doing as he’d done with hers and leaving them mostly still laced, she pulled them almost entirely open before sliding her hand into his smalls to wrap her hand around his cock and draw it free.

She kept her attention entirely on his face, wanting to watch to make sure she didn’t misstep and do something that would remind him of then, and learned by touch instead. Varric’s flowery tongue might have described it as velvet and heat in one of his terrible romances but she wouldn’t say that herself. Heat, yes, but velvet made her think of soft things...and what she curled her fingers around was anything but soft.

With her eyes on him, Meryell gave a slow, exploratory stroke and the sound that it brought out of Cullen curled her toes and made her clench the walls of her cunt around his fingers.

“Yes?” she asked, low and soft. A simple question requiring a simple answer.

He let out a long breath and nodded. “ Yes .”

Smiling, Meryell pressed her mouth to his and as he responded, she started a set of strokes that made him grunt in surprise. In response she deepened the kiss, opening her mouth to his, and hummed when he responded in kind. After a moment his hand, which had stuttered to little more than occasional twitching between her legs, began to pick its pace back up. The world became little more than them in that moment, spiraling down into just the small space of them and the pleasure growing inside each of them.

At some point she turned onto her side as well to brace one leg up on his hip, allowing him better access as soon as he tugged her pants open wider. That also lead to her forehead being pressed hard against his mouth as her other hand fisted desperately in the fabric of his shirt, his other hand having found it’s way to hug the back of her head. There was only the ragged sounds of their breathing mixed with the noise that their bodies were making until he growled out into her skin, “I can’t...last.”

Bucking her head up, Meryell caught his mouth briefly before gasping, “Then don’t .”

Cullen managed to huff a laugh and asked, “You?”

Almost .”

He kissed her then growled, “Let’s fix that,” and she felt his thumb shift, searching, before it found the swollen knot of flesh at the head of her cunt. Meryell managed a single fuck before he pressed down and rubbed that little spot and she swore she saw stars. It felt like she was being consumed, like the glorious feeling he’d brought to life inside of her was going to swallow her whole, like falling and flying all at once.

And the sensations kept shattering her, kept sending her higher and then bringing her back down again, as he kept his thumb at work. At least until she managed enough mildly coherent thought to get her hand moving again. One gentle squeeze and a few quick strokes of his cock had his hand twitching out of place between her thighs as he came with a dull shout, spending himself on the cushions beneath them and the front of her pants.

Breathing hard, Meryell wiped her hand on one of the cushions then scooted forward, tucking her chin underneath his as she pushed up his shirt to press her bare breasts against his skin. Cullen grunted dully in response, obviously still too caught up in the aftershocks, and she smiled as she nuzzled his throat while feeling her own still sparking through her body. When he did finally move, it was to grasp her hip with his hand and bring that part of her flush against him, trapping his slowly softening cock between them.

Then his lips pressed into her hair and he murmured, “We’re a mess.”

Laughing, she tipped her head back and bumped his chin with her nose. “A fucking amazing mess,” she said warmly. “That widow of yours from Kirkwall taught you well.” He chuckled in response then dipped his chin low to catch her mouth with kiss, a slow, sated thing that made her feel sleepy and content.

“I love you,” he said softly, as if the words might be stolen away if they were overheard, as soon as their lips separated.

Ar lath ‘ma ,” she replied as she tucked her head underneath his chin again, closing her eyes in contentment. Cullen closed his arms around her fully and nuzzled his nose into her hair before he let out a long breath that slowly fell into the steady rhythms of sleep. Meryell just lay there listening for a moment, her own exhaustion not yet dragging her down and smiled as she ran her hand idly across his side, touching a faded scar here and the hard ridges of a muscle there.

When it finally pulled her under, dragging her into dreams and the Fade, she had a single final thought.

Who knew that Camden’s bullshit would bring me this?

 

Chapter Text

“Meryell, darling.”

“Yes, Dorian, love?” called Meryell over her shoulder as she focused on the path ahead of them. Cassandra, riding next to her, made a distinct noise of annoyance in response. Likely because she knew what was coming.

Why ,” intoned the mage seriously, “is it always raining whenever you take me places?”

Varric snorted a laugh from where he rode at the back of their line with Hawke. “Obviously it's your gloomy personality, Sparkler.”

Gloomy ?” gasped Dorian with mock outrage. “Varric, how dare you imply that I am anything less than perfect?”

Hawke chuckled as she pointed out, “Because my dwarven friend is a master of bullshit .”

“Now, Hawke, don't say that. Tiny has perfect control of himself.”

Cassandra growled between gritted teeth and Meryell laughed under her breath as she turned her head to see the woman rolling her eyes skyward. She and Cullen shared a similar exasperated look when they were asking the Maker silently for strength; so similar that she half wondered if it was a Chantry taught thing.

“Is there a reason,” she asked under her breath, “that you brought all of them?”

Grinning, Meryell replied, “Well, I just knew that you couldn't bear to be without Varric's calming presence, Cass. Hawke had to come and Dorian was just a lovely bonus.”

The warrior snorted at that, shaking her head. “Calming is hardly how I would choose to describe him. He is more like a burr under the saddle.”

“Annoying but you can't get rid of it without far too much work?”

Cassandra tipped her head forward in a nod, a small smile twitching at the corner of her mouth. “Justly so,” she murmured. Then her eyes hardened as she added, “Though that is not all .”

Meryell tilted her head to the side at the older woman and gave her Forder a press of her knee. Just enough to bring him closer to Cassandra's mount, a big black Amaranthine Charger who stood at least two hands taller than her horse and was fit for a warrior according to Dennet. Keeping her voice low so it wouldn't carry back to the others, she said, “You can't be angry at him forever.”

The immediate look on Cassandra's face said that she damn well could and was going to continue being angry.

Shaking her head, Meryell pressed, “He was just trying to protect them.”

“I was not his enemy.”

“He didn’t know that from shite.”

Cassandra pressed her lips into a hard white line and Meryell turned her attention back to the path that was leading them to the camp that Harding had managed to put together in the few weeks it had been since Hawke’s unannounced arrival at Skyhold. As she was tugging the map out of her saddlebag to make sure that they were still heading the right direction, the Seeker let out a little huff of air.

“I am being absurd again, aren’t I?” she asked in a quiet voice. “Turning my eye back to the past and regretting. It is unworthy of me. To doubt.”

“Doubt you made the right choice?” asked Meryell lightly, her eyes focused on the map as she laid it across her saddlehorn. Keeping her horse facing steady forward with her knees, she lifted up the edges as she added, “Or doubt that you made the wrong one?”

“Perhaps both.” The warrior next to her shrugged, a motion she was only aware of by the lift of the woman’s arms out of the corner of her eye. “As I said before, perhaps if I had merely explained ...if I had told him what we faced…”

“Wouldn’t have mattered,” she interrupted and looked up at the other woman. “We may call Varric many things, Cass, but he doesn’t give away the secrets he's trusted with.” As Cassandra nodded, Meryell tucked the map away before it got too wet before lifting a hand to rap her knuckles lightly against the warrior’s vambraces. “Besides, if you had Hawke for Inquisitor, it’s very fucking likely you wouldn’t have me.”

Cassandra’s expression softened at that and she smiled as she nodded in agreement. “You are right.” Then she flinched as she added, “I am sorry, my friend. I do not mean to imply that I would wish you…”

“Dead?”

The woman grimaced in response and bowed her head. When she lifted it again, Cassandra said, “I would regret not having known you, Inquisitor.” As Meryell flashed a glare at her, she smiled and inclined her head slightly forward. “Meryell. My apologies.”

“I’ll forgive it. Just this fucking once though.”

Cassandra laughed lightly because that had been her response to every utterance of Inquisitor the woman had given her since she’d laid down the rule about her name in the war room. Then she smiled and said warmly, “I may regret some steps on the path but I do not regret where it has brought me. Nor the friend it has brought me.”

Meryell sniffed mockingly, immediately earning a light cuff on her shoulder as she said, “Aww, Cass, you're making me cry.”

“You make light of me!”

“Only because you make it so easy.”

Cassandra made a noise of annoyance but there was a smile creeping at the corners of the Seeker’s mouth. Meryell grinned at her and picked up the reins of her horse again before calling over her shoulder, “Oy, you lot! We’re almost to camp!”

“There had better be dry tents!” came Dorian’s immediate reply and she just shook her head at his antics. It actually was barely drizzling fucking water on them but judging by the state of the clouds that wouldn’t likely last long. So instead of replying to him, she put her heels to the sides of her Forder and sent him forward into a steady lope.

“Well, come on then, tarlan ! Before we soak all of your skirts through!”

She heard Hawke laugh loudly from behind them as Cassandra pushed her Charger to follow, the big horse’ hooves eating up what little lead she’d gotten. Then Dorian said loudly, “I'm not certain what that word means, darling, but I feel as if I’ve been insulted .”

Meryell tipped her head back at that and laughed until her sides hurt by the time they rode into North Gate Camp.


Despite the fact that she was sharing a tent with Cassandra on this trip, somehow all four of them (Hawke had insisted on heading on on her own) ended up crammed into it by the time the skies unleashed their full fury upon them. She still wasn’t quite certain how they’d managed it, but they had.

Cassandra was settled on her side across her cot, a small smile on her face as she read whatever book was her current project. It certainly wasn’t one of the more racy ones that Meryell had caught her reading on one of their first occasions of sharing a tent. There wasn’t enough of a blush on her cheeks for that.

Varric had dragged a folding camp chair with him when he and Dorian had practically raided their tent. After settling it at the end of Meryell’s cot nearest the securely tied door, he’d sat there in near silence as he carefully balanced an ink pot in two fingers and wrote. It was impressive because the ink was in the same hand that was balancing the board he was using to write on with only his folded knee as minor aid.

Somehow Meryell had found herself in the floor - which was thankfully protected from the rain by two of the camp soldiers digging shallow trenches around every tent - and Dorian had planted himself behind her on her cot. She had an arm looped over each of his knees that he’d settled on either side of her and hummed randomly as he run his fingers through her hair in an attempt to tame it. Attempt was the word because he kept pausing to curse under his breath in a slew of Tevene that she only caught the occasional word that she knew of while his fingers nimbly banished a knot from her hair.

“Darling, this is a disaster ,” he muttered in the common tongue as he worked on another knot, buried deep in her hair towards the base of her skull. “How do you put up with this?”

“Basically go fuck it in the mornings,” she replied with a slight shrug. When he made an appalled noise, she tipped her head back to look up at him with an arched eyebrow. “I normally don’t let it get this long. Keep meaning to cut the shit.”

“Well,” he said strongly, “if you are determined to let it remain in this state and not care for it, I will cut it for you myself. This is an insult to such glorious locks.”

Meryell shrugged. “Long hair just gets in the way.” She then drew one of her legs up to her chest and dug a thin dagger out of a sheath on her boot, flipping it blindly in her hand before lifting it towards him hilt first. “If you would do the honors, good ser.”

He sighed theatrically, muttering about it being such a sin to waste such lovely hair, but took the dagger from her nonetheless. Shaking her head lightly at his antics, she instantly stopped as his hands caught her head and held her still while looking down at her with an arched eyebrow.

“No moving if I’m to be doing this. Cutting you is the last thing I want to do. Now...how short?”

Short ,” she replied as she lifted her head back upright. “Almost as short as yours.”

Dorian made another mournful sound that earned a glare from Cassandra and a low chuckle from Varric. Then he gave a low, “Very well, whatever pleases you, darling,” and grasped a long lock of brown hair in one hand. Meryell felt the blade of her dagger ghost along her neck for a brief instant before he found the spot he wanted and cut upwards with it.

It was a little strange to realize that it hadn’t been all that long since they’d met in Redcliffe but she trusted him utterly with a dagger at her throat. Or, given what they'd gone through together, maybe not so strange at all.

He was moving along just fine until he’d cleared away most of the longest bits of her hair and made an amused noise in his throat. Meryell frowned as his warm hand gently tipped her head forward, his thumb gliding down to brush the neck of her tunic away from the base of her throat.

Darling ,” he purred abruptly with abject glee in his voice, “have you and our dashing Commander finally decided to tangle beneath the sheets?”

Meryell instantly regretted the loss of the long hair as she felt heat sear across her cheeks. Looking up from her position, she caught Cassandra’s eyes and the woman merely arched an eyebrow at her in silent comment. It said I will stop them if you wish it and she smiled in thanks before shaking her head. In all actuality...she was a bit eager to spill the fact to her friends that their relationship had moved forward the little bit that it had.

“What’s that, Sparkler?” asked Varric and she heard him hurriedly settle his things somewhere else and rise. While Cassandra scoffed loudly, the dwarf laid a warm hand against her shoulder as he leaned forward to look at what Dorian had found. As he whistled impressively, she allowed herself a little smile.

Straightening up against the light press of Dorian’s hand, Meryell turned to look at her oldest friend in the Inquisition in the eye as she said, “It doesn’t fucking complete your bet.”

Varric just laughed at that and said, “As if you two would let us know if it did! I’m not certain anyone’s going to ever win that bet, sweetheart.”

“Ah-ah,” chided Dorian as he lifted a hand, “I want to hear the story of that mark. It’s practically still new, which means you and our Commander were together before we left Skyhold days ago.”

Meryell just smiled brightly and nodded before proudly declaring, “In his Tower. Fully clothed. Against the door.”

She wasn’t about to share anything else about those hours of that morning with them. They didn’t get to hear how she’d perched on his desk for a kiss and somehow ended up against the main door with his hand inside her trousers. Nor would they hear how they’d terrified at least one guard who’d attempted to open that door - Cullen had snarled at him and all they’d heard was a hitch of breath and running feet. Or how they’d no doubt embarrassed another when one had started to open the east door and she’d called out I wouldn’t before Cullen had torn his attention away from her neck long enough to growl an angry Out. No, the memory of her legs wrapped around him as he pressed her against the door, his teeth nipping at her jaw and throat as he brought her soaring to completion was all for her.

It was certainly going to do a lot to keep her bedroll warm on this trip.

As the mage made a disappointed clucking noise in his throat at the words fully clothed , she heard a choked little gasp from Cassandra. Turning to her friend, Meryell quirked her lips into a wicked smile. “To paraphrase him once: he’s no fucking saint.”

Now there was a blush in the warrior’s cheeks.

The words just made Varric laugh harder before he exclaimed, “I think I owe Curly a drink! Maybe more than one.” As Meryell started to lift a hand to point at him, he held up his own hands in a gesture of surrender. “Don’t you worry, Swears, I’ll be quiet about it. You know other than the bet I respect you and Curly’s right to privacy.”

“Thank you.” She then tilted her head back slightly and asked, “Dorian?”

Sighing theatrically, he replied, “Very well. May I at least use it in our chess games? It might actually make him distracted enough to miss my cheating enough for me to win.”

Frowning jokingly, Meryell lifted a hand to tap her fingers against her chin as she hummed as if in consideration and Dorian whined, “Oh, darling, please . I’ll promise only to do it when you’re nearby even. Honestly, the man is insufferable when he wins all of the time.”

Cassandra snorted at that as she turned her attention back to her book while asking, “Insufferable? Is that really how you would describe him?”

“Oh, yes. He’s quite proud of his chess skills.”

“Can’t have Curly getting too big of a head,” Varric muttered with a wink at Meryell, which she rolled her eyes at. She then clapped her hands on the outsides of Dorian’s shins and let out a huff of breath.

Fine ,” she said sharply. “But only in chess games, Dorian, and only if he’s really being insufferable.”

“Ha, yes! This is why I love you, darling,” cheered the mage. She then felt him bend forward before he pressed a light kiss to the top of her head. “You let me do the best things.”

“Like set fools on fire?” piped Meryell as Varric shook his head and returned to his writing since Cassandra was already embroiled in her book again.

Dorian just chuckled as he turned his attention back to her hair, gathering up more strands before he carefully pressed the blade of her dagger up against them. “For you, Meryell, I would set all the fools in Thedas alight.”

“Now let’s not be hasty,” piped Varric from his seat. “We’re trying to save the world, not burn it down.”

“Fine, fine ,” grumbled Dorian as Meryell laughed. “Only half the fools then. Is that more acceptable?”

“Hmmm, well, probably some of those could be still used by Ruffles and Nightingale to get the Inquisition what it needs.”

With another theatrical sigh, the mage growled, “Very well, I will only set the fools we run across on fire. That way our rather terrifying ladies will have no need to possibly be angry at me.”

Meryell just smiled and patted his leg before saying, “Probably the best course of action. Particularly for Leliana.”

Dorian scoffed at that. “A fact,” he began pointedly, “that you would know very well. I feel no need to irritate our lovely spymaster into such a similar feeling of rage around me.”

Rolling her eyes at his words, Meryell relaxed back against the cot and deigned not to respond to that comment. Instead she merely let herself fall into the sensation of Dorian’s quick fingers in her hair, in the steady breaths and whisper of turning pages of Cassandra, and the rasp of Varric’s quill across parchment. The rain pattering the outside of the tent and the ground outside was a calming backdrop to the sounds of part of her Inquisition family and she smiled to herself.

Finally - fucking finally - things felt right again after that shit with Camden.

Chapter Text

Push through...one more...one more…

Cullen gritted his teeth, hearing them grind against each other as he forced himself through another push-up. He was barely through the normal amount he did upon waking and he was already sweating like he had run several laps of the battlements. His arms shook weakly from the effort, every muscle straining, but he refused to give into weakness.

He couldn't afford weakness.

The Inquisition couldn't afford weakness.

Snarling wordlessly, he managed two more before his arms refused to continue. As he hit the cold stone of the floor below his loft, he cursed loudly.

Fuck!

For a long moment he just laid there, eyes closed and breathing hard as the coolness of the stone leached some of the excess heat from his body. Then he curled his lip and slapped angrily at the stones with both hands, frustrated beyond words at his weakness.

What use was he if he barely had the strength of a kitten? What use was he when most of the time lately he was blinded by headaches so fierce that he couldn't see?

What use was he to the Inquisition like this?

To Meryell?

The ache twisted inside him then, a sharp pain focused somewhere around his stomach and Cullen gasped. He turned onto his side and curled up reflexively, bringing his arms in to wrap around himself. It did nothing because this wasn't a pain that physical touch could soothe.

No, only the cool blue liquid inside his old kit, mixed precisely and accurately, could quench the ache. It would smother the feeling in light and warmth and he would feel so good . All it took was reaching into the bottom drawer of the his desk for the box...

And his chains would tighten around him again.

No ,” Cullen snarled aloud, turning his head towards the cool stone to rest his forehead against it. He was stronger than this.

He was more than an addict .

He would not give in.

He would not.

Letting out a harsh breath, he slowly forced himself to uncurl and climbed to his feet. Everything hurt but he still had time for the sensation to work through itself. Given that he’d gotten little sleep from the nightmares - which always seemed to take a worse turn nowadays when Meryell was away - it wasn’t even dawn yet. He had time.

Tilting his head back, Cullen rested his hands on his hips and just stood breathing for a moment. Then he turned and walked over to his desk, sighing a little as he sat down because the chair was soothingly cool against his bare back. For a moment he just sat before scooting forward to pick up his quill and open the ink pot to dab the tip into it.

There was work to do.


“Commander, are you well?”

“Hmm?” queried Cullen as he looked up from his perusal of the war room map. His focus on it and the hard grip he had on the hilt of his sword was literally the only thing keeping him from collapsing right then and there. The pains of the morning hadn’t gone away at all and now he had a headache to go along with them, lancing pains at his temples and the base of his skull that made it hard to think at times.

He found Josephine frowning at him worriedly from across the table, Leliana having already vacated the room judging by the open door, and furrowed his brow slightly.

“I’m...I’m sorry, Ambassador,” he said softly, blinking at her. “Did you ask something?”

The Antivan woman slightly dropped the arm holding up her ever-present board and replied, “I asked if you were well, Commander. You missed several questions that Leliana and I asked during the meeting and you seem…” She pursed her lips and he imagined she was looking for a polite way of saying looking like shit. The descriptor was certainly what he felt like right now. “...distracted.”

Cullen nodded before he frowned, asking, “I missed questions?” He didn’t even remember missing something. Had his memory lapsed? Or had he simply been so caught up ignoring the aches in his bones that he’d missed them?

“Yes,” she answered lightly. Josephine then laid her board on the table where she stood across from him and rested her hands on either side of it. “Is it the Inquisitor’s absence distracting you?”

Part of him needled at him to answer honestly, to say that no he wasn't okay because he hurt and barely slept for the nightmares and he wanted lyrium so badly that it made his teeth ache...but he didn't.

Instead he merely forced a smile onto his face and nodded as he said, “Yes. It's quite...well... quiet without Meryell around. I apologize for my lapse, it won't happen again.”

Lifting a hand to flick it idly towards him in a dismissive gesture, she returned, “No apology needed, Commander. I understand the distraction of missing someone you care for.” He tilted his head curiously at her comment but didn't have a chance to say anything as she went on. “Do you need anything?”

“What?” asked Cullen, a little confused. Josephine had never asked such a question, not in the time they'd known each other. “No. Thank you, Josephine, but no. I'm fine. I believe I'll stay in here for a while and get some work done.”

He caught just the bare edge of her frown before it disappeared alongside the clear worry in her eyes. Josephine picked up her board then and cradled it against her chest as she dipped a knee in a slight curtsey.

“Then I leave you to your day, Commander.”

“Good day, Ambassador “

She pulled the door almost shut behind her as she left and Cullen sagged almost immediately against the table. He kept one hand on the map to brace himself and freed the other from his sword so he could pinch the bridge of his nose. The ache at his temples lessened for a brief instant before it came roaring back and he let out an involuntary grunt of pain in response. Immediately after he stiffened and stared at the door, wondering if she'd heard the echo of it down the short hall in her office.

When there was only silence and his own breathing in response for several moments, Cullen relaxed. He looked down at the map again and as soon as the letters of the Frostbacks began to swim, he knew he would be actually taking the time spent in the war room to try and pull himself back together. There wasn't any work that could be done when he couldn't even see where his men were or where he might need to send them.

Closing his eyes for a moment, he leaned on the table for a long time until he felt like he could stand without support. Cullen then slowly made his way over to one of the chairs in the room and sank into it with a heavy sigh. He dropped his head back against the top of the chair and just tried to breathe.

The day had barely started and he could only feel like it was going to get worse.


Hours later he managed to make it out of the war room and into the great hall right as the lunch hour was starting. Unfortunately his stomach immediately roiled at the delicious smell of the stew that had been prepped into the kitchens. Cullen fled out the main doors in response and breathed deeply as soon as his boots touched the ground of the upper courtyard.

He needed food but if he couldn't stomach the smell, it wouldn't do much good for him to get anything. It either wouldn't make it into him at all or he would just end up expelling it later when his stomach inevitably rebelled.

Sighing, he shook himself and turned to head down the stairs to the lower courtyard. At this hour the training yard opposite the stables would be empty and he could work through exercises without being interrupted (for the most part). Doing those usually helped take his mind off of the pain in his head and the ache in his gut. Not to mention glossing over the fact that it wasn’t the exercise making every muscle hurt.

Cullen stomped down into the yard, already working at his belt so he could lose his coat and armor. He’d learned the hard way that if he was going to do his usual training exercises, it was best to not be wearing either. The first time he’d tried had ended up with him overheating so much that he’d spent the rest of the day half-feverish in his tent, puking into a bucket.

Once everything was off and stacked neatly on top of the old stump that sat at the edge of the yard near the keep’s well, he rolled his shoulders from one side to another. Something cracked in his back in response but he ignored that and the twinge of pain that flared down his spine (which he was certain was age and not withdrawal ) to head over to the practice weapon racks. They had sheltered them right up against the stable wall, fashioning an extension to the eave of the roof so it would give them some cover from the elements if they didn’t end up covered with the oil cloths specifically set aside for that purpose. At the moment the cloths were folded up off to the side given the run of decent weather they’d had lately and the fact that he knew that Rylen had had men training this morning.

Pulling a sword from the rack, Cullen tested the feel of the weighted wooden blade for a moment before he brought it up into a sharp salute in front of his face. He nearly hit himself in the process and, though he wasn’t certain whether it was the weight or the weakness of his arm, he traded the sword out for a slightly heavier one before he picked up the one of the few full-size practice shields.

Saluting again, this time to an invisible opponent, he turned his attention to the closest training dummy. Almost immediately his left shoulder started to ache but he ground his teeth together and pushed through.

He counted swings and kept up a running commentary in his head as another way to distract himself.

One-two...parry...three-thrust...dead.

Slowly Cullen lost himself in the movement, in the counting. There was only him, the dummy, and his sword and shield.

One...feint...two-three...parry...four...dead.

Time slipped away and he wasn’t certain how long if had been. Normally he could tell by how sore he was but that was an invalid method of determination when he was this deep in withdrawal. Everything hurt, so how could he know when there was more?

Parry...one-two…

“Fancy a real opponent instead of that lump of straw, Commander?”

The sudden voice made Cullen jump, which caused his sword to miss its downward swing. As the blade bounced off the dummy’s shoulder, sending a slightly jarring pain rattling up his arm, he regained control of the weapon before he turned to regard his visitor. Blackwall arched his eyebrows from where he leaned against the corner of the stable and let out a short huff of breath when he did but the other man didn’t say anything.

“You offering?” he asked after regaining his breath.

“Only if you want something that hits back,” replied Blackwall. “I'm no Cassandra but I think I can give you enough of a fight.”

Chuckling, Cullen admitted, "I don't think I could handle Cassandra today anyway. And I certainly won't turn down a sparring partner...particularly not one I hear my men speaking so highly of.” Blackwall looked oddly uncomfortable at the compliment but perhaps that was the way of the Wardens. It wasn’t like he was particularly knowledgeable in the workings of them with his only interactions being the few moments Amell and Alistair Theirin had been in the Tower (which hadn’t been the best of circumstances obviously). He didn’t count the few rare occasions in Kirkwall when he had so happened to see Anders as they had mostly been from a distance.

As the other man straightened up and began tugging at the ties that fastened the padded gambeson he usually wore around Skyhold together, Cullen asked, “Shields or no?”

“Your preference, Commander,” came the reply, slightly muffled as Blackwall tugged the fabric over his head. He tossed it over the stone edge of the well before he began rolling up his shirt sleeves so they sat just above his elbows. “I’m the one that interrupted your exercises.”

“Less exercise than distraction,” muttered Cullen as he loosened the strap on the shield to pull it off his arm. He was certain that he’d kept his voice low enough so as not to actually be heard by the other man but that impression was swiftly cast aside with Blackwall’s next comment.

“Missing the lass, then?”

He couldn’t help how his shoulders stiffened up just a little at having been heard because he felt like that comment had given away too much. Obviously Blackwall hadn’t taken it the way he meant it, assuming he was talking about a distraction from Meryell’s absence and not the withdrawal, but the idea of someone else knowing itched at the back of his mind.

Those that already knew about it were also knowledgeable in how templars worked, in what lyrium did and could do to them. The population at large, however, didn’t know about templars and lyrium. If they knew how the Inquisition’s Commander hungered ...well...they might not look kindly on an addict being in charge of the army.

Sometimes he felt like others could just look at him and know .

“Right,” he managed to comment lightly after a moment, trying to force his tone away from the unease it wanted to fall into. “It’s never quite the same when she’s out in the field.”

“Ha, never is,” noted Blackwall. “The tavern’s always more quiet without her around. Though Sera doesn’t get into as much shit.”

“Maker’s breath, don’t even remind me of what a mess those two are together.”

That made the other man laugh and Cullen smiled slightly as he put the sword he’d been using back into the rack, replacing the shield as well. Then he removed two of the long two-handed practice swords from their fastenings and tossed one towards Blackwall. The Warden grunted as he caught it and asked, “Thinking of changing your tactics, Commander?”

Shrugging, Cullen turned away from the side of the stable and took a few steps as he swung the sword experimentally. It was considerably heavier than the one-handed sword had been and put a far greater strain on his arms and shoulders but he could take the pain. He then turned to grin at the other man as he replied, “I keep in practice with both. And I think you can call me Cullen, Blackwall. You aren’t a subordinate of mine.”

“No,” he replied, “but it’s a matter of respect. You’re a good Commander, I can tell by how your men talk about you.”

Would they do the same if they knew? If they knew about the nightmares and the cravings and the nights spent in agony? Would they still see someone to respect...or only someone to pity?

“We’ll call saying my name respect enough,” Cullen said as he tried to shove the thoughts away but they burrowed into his skull like mice in the grain stores. He needed distraction. Bringing his sword up into a high guard, he dropped into a defensive stance as he barked, “Attack, ser!”

Blackwall’s dark eyebrows furrowed for a moment, as if he were considering something, then he nodded sharply and readied himself. When he swung a moment later and Cullen caught the jarring strike on the metal quillons fastened around the top of the wooden hilt, all he could think was Yes. This is the distraction I need.


Unfortunately like most things, the distraction didn’t last.

Cullen’s attacks and parries finally began to flag when the muscles all along his shoulders and upper back began to burn constantly. Blackwall was the one that called it off, however, begging off as tiredness and needing to be elsewhere. He had a briefly delirious thought that the other man knew how bad off he was when he asked Alright there, Cullen but shook it away, dismissing it as the madness it was.

Maybe he looked like shit but he certainly didn’t look like the withdrawn addict that his mind kept insisting he did.

So he replied that he was fine if tired, put away the weapons, and gathered up his things to make his way slowly back up the stairs to the upper courtyard and into the keep. He returned to his tower to stow his armor and resisted the urge to just go ahead and climb up into his second floor to fall into bed, instead going up only for a fresh tunic and breeches. Then he headed back across into the keep and went down to the bathing room that had been Josephine’s own little pet project to get setup inside. Mostly for the use of herself and Leliana but the invitation for using it had been expanded to the rest of the inner circle and himself as well as Meryell.

Not that he complained at all about her project. She’d brought in dwarven engineers to redesign what had been a small hall on the third ground floor and had spared little expense now that they had funds coming back in, even putting in runes to control the water flow as well as heat if desired. Normally he didn’t appreciate such luxuries (a quick bath from a basin was usually good enough for him most days when he was in a hurry) but the heat had turned out to be a good cure to his aches.

Some of the time anyway.

Today was not one of those days. Instead of soothing the aches, the heat merely leached the soreness temporarily out of his muscles but did nothing for the bone deep ache in them. And, rather like Gil’s potion that he'd taken before leaving his office this morning, it did nothing for his pounding headache.

He lingered longer than he normally would have, still hoping for a change, but finally accepted that it was as good as it was going to get. By the time he was dressed again, there were spots behind his eyes from the pain in his head and he was swaying slightly. If he didn't know how long it would be before he would be found, he would have seriously considered just collapsing in the floor.

Instead he forced himself out of the room with his dirty clothes in hand and slowly began climbing the stairs that led back up to the second ground floor of the keep. He found himself breathing hard all too quickly and Cullen was doubly frustrated when he had to grab the wall of the stairwell to steady himself.

What bloody use am I like this?!

Abruptly there was the sound of quickly approaching footsteps from above and he straightened painfully. As he leaned against the wall of the stairwell, while wondering how he was going to explain his lurking, he looked up and saw the familiar face. Immediately he relaxed, closing his eyes as he murmured, “Rylen.”

“Andraste’s puckered nipples, Cullen, what are you doing?” snapped the Starkhaven man. He bounced down the last few steps between them and reached out to steady him, pushing him back against the wall. “You look like shit .”

Snorting, Cullen opened one eye and said, “I'm glad I can rely on you to always be honest with me.”

“Shit warmed over,” grumbled his captain. Rylen then looked him up and down before he asked softly, “It taking the piss out of you?”

“I'm fairly certain it's already taken that and more,” he replied weakly while silently thanking the man for not mentioning lyrium or withdrawal by name. The walls had ears, after all.

Rylen just snorted then said, “Fuck all then. You can't go through the main hall in a state like this; there's nobles up there at the moment all fluttering about. Last thing we need is them whispering that our Commander's unwell. Guess we'll have to get you out back to your office another way.”

Cullen grimaced at the mention of nobles before he nodded weakly in agreement. Then he caught the slightly stressed we that Rylen had said and frowned. “We?”

“I wasn't coming down here alone , Commander,” replied his captain, a bit of a flush in the man's cheeks. Almost immediately more footsteps came pounding down the stairs and Cullen stiffened before he could think too hard on that blush. Then the owner of the steps called out and he relaxed in relief that it was him and not a stranger.

“You wouldn't believe how fucking hard it is to get away from that wretched woman,” Folke was saying as he rounded the turn in the stairwell. He slowed immediately at the sight of them and his brows furrowed before he stopped with a grunt. “You look like shit, isha’len.”

“So I keep getting told today,” Cullen commented dryly.

Folke snorted before saying, “We can't take him through the hall.”

“Already covered that.”

The hedge mage flipped a hand errantly at Rylen before he scratched at the faint stubble on his jaw. “There's an old servant's stair on the second floor that I think leads up to that area above the hall. It's on the other side of the floor though.”

“We can get him there.”

“Darling, I know how able bodied and strong we both are but we're both shorter than our dear Commander. Not to mention that he's all but falling down if not for that wall.”

Cullen frowned before slowly asking, “Folke, how exactly do you know how able Rylen i…” His jaw snapped shut as his mind caught back up with the fact that the mage had been chasing his captain ever since the arrival of the Fangs in Haven. As the mage turned and arched his eyebrows curiously, he quickly added, “Nevermind. I really don’t want to know what either of you get up to in your spare time.”

“Not even…” began Rylen teasingly but Cullen lifted a hand in a gesture for him to stop.

“Don’t let it interfere in your job. End point.”

“Ah,” said Folke airily as he stepped down to the stair just above the one both Cullen and Rylen were standing on. “You run by the same rule as the Captain. But our extracurriculars are unimportant. Getting you in bed is the priority.”

Groaning, Cullen hissed, “It isn’t even halfway throu…”

Isha’len ,” the mage interrupted sternly as he laid a hand on Cullen’s shoulder, his gray eyes starkly serious, “I know you have a habit of pushing yourself through terrible situations and fair reason as well as experience for doing so. This is not something that you can do that with all of the time. If this is how you treat yourself while attempting to come out the other side of this, I and Gil need to have a serious sit down talk with you.”

Bristling slightly because he knew his own damned limits, Cullen straightened up against the wall so he could stare the man in the eye as he hissed, “About what ?”

Folke narrowed his eyes in return, his stare turning hard, before he replied in an undertone, “ Lyrium and the things we’ve seen it do. Don’t push away those that know things, son. Not with this. Not with my daughter in this.”

The mention of Meryell cut all of the wind out of his sails.

Cullen bowed his head in the wake of the look that he could only describe as disappointed and let out a breath. He steadied himself against the wall with his shaking left hand, curling the right that was holding his clothes into his chest. Then he murmured, “I apologize.”

“Don’t need an apology , Cullen,” said Folke as the mage carefully took hold of his left arm, slipping underneath it so it fell across his shoulders with a speed that reminded him of the man’s many years as a mercenary. He’d probably helped to carry many fellows, both drunk and injured. “I need you,” he continued as he secured his grip on Cullen’s wrist, “to stop being such a stubborn shit like most templars are.”

The man then snorted as if to himself and Cullen looked up as Folke smiled at Rylen. “No offense to you, darling.”

Rylen just snorted before he reached out to gently grab Cullen’s right wrist in one hand and the ball of dirty clothes in the other. Heat flared across his cheeks and the back of his neck in embarrassment at the situation and for a moment he fought to not relinquish his grip on them. Unfortunately the withdrawal and exhaustion mixed with the lack of food didn’t lend him much advantage and Cullen’s grip fell slack as the muscles of his hand and arm shook. He cursed under his breath and both of the other men seemingly ignored it as his captain turned around to face the same direction as he was, drawing his arm across his shoulders.

“None taken,” commented Rylen finally. Cullen caught the other man’s jerk of his head out of the corner of one eye and frowned as he added, “I’ve hung around this one long enough to know he’s a whole different class of stubborn from the rest of us.”

“Traitor,” grumbled Cullen goodnaturedly. Even if he was slightly annoyed, he knew that Rylen meant well.

Folke also meant well, in his own way.

The Starkhavener just grinned, a bright flash of teeth against the dark contrast of the tattoos on his chin, then said, “Well, come on then. Let’s get him to bed. On three.”

Somehow after that Cullen lost track of time, losing it in a haze of muttered voices and the smell of unused places and the distinct feel of strong arms being the only thing keeping him upright. By the time he came back to some kind of coherency, he was sitting up on the edge of his bed and Folke had him by the shoulders. Or perhaps sitting up was too broad a term as it felt like if the mage let go he would topple over.

Blinking, he looked around his room for a moment before starting to say, “How…?”

Folke shook his head as he interrupted, “You pretty much passed out on us after the first step down. I don’t think you quite realized the point that you pushed yourself to, isha’len .” He then carefully braced one hand against Cullen’s shoulder as he reached with the other towards the half-tied ties on his tunic. “It’s not the sort of thing you can do in your situation.”

“No,” replied Cullen, feeling like his tongue was abruptly thick in his mouth, “no, I knew.”

“You nughumping fool ,” spat the mage immediately, his temporarily free hand coming back to rest on his shoulder. Folke shook him slightly as he leaned down to lock eyes with him, his expression both shocked and appalled as he asked, “Don’t you know the risks of that? The side effects?”

Cold anger flared up Cullen’s spine and he managed a snarl as he spat, “How the fuck am I supposed to know about the side effects, Folke? I know descriptors of how withdrawal goes and how it feels from both experience and the one healer that the Gallows still had but other than that I have nothing .” Staring hard at the older man, he continued, “You think the Chantry tells us what happens after? You think those sons of bitche s let us know what we will go through? All we know half the time is that our memory will start to go and that they’ll take us out of service when that happens. The only reason I know anything more is because I was at Greenfell! I saw it! Those poor fucking bastards, so lost in their pasts that they don’t even know what day or year it was!”

He wanted to wrench away from the man’s touch out of anger but he didn’t have the strength .

“All I got that I didn’t know was that it coming out of my system would make me run hotter than normal. Other than that I already knew everything from going through it temporarily before. That and the choice could kill me. So what more do you fucking want me to say?”

Cullen wanted to plow on that sometimes pushing through was the only thing that kept him going, that kept him from pulling that damned box out of his desk. That kept him from taking that one more sip, just one more that his body wanted. Driving himself to exhaustion was often the only way to keep it at bay.

But he didn’t.

Instead he just stared at Folke, breathing a little hard after his outburst, as the hedge mage’s expression softened. The other man’s fingers clenched slightly on his shoulders and then Folke let out a breath, bowing his head.

“Maker, we cocked this up,” muttered the mage. Then Folke straightened up and said, “I assumed you knew the risks when I realized that you showed the signs of stopping. Told Gil and some of the other healers the same. As long as you had served, high as you served, there was no way you couldn’t know.”

“We’re definitely going to sit down and have a talk,” he continued. Folke then reached for the ties on Cullen’s tunic again. “Though first you need to get some sort of food in you as I’m certain you haven’t eaten given your weakness and then sleep.”

Unable to help the flinch in response to the comment about food - which just made the mage scowl since it confirmed the question - Cullen softly began, “Folke, I…”

“Maker help me, isha’len , if you attempt to apologize for that little outburst, I will beat your ass up and down your precious training yard once you’re capable of defending yourself.”

Blinking at the man, he managed a chuckle despite the slight guilt bearing down on him at yelling at the man. Angry as he was at the question, Folke hadn't deserved that sort of outburst. “Is that so?” he asked.

Folke tilted his head to the side and smiled. “You think I can’t, son? I’m a fair hand with a sword.”

Cullen just smiled and shrugged before he sobered once more. Tilting his head, he weakly lifted his hands from where they hung limp at his sides to rest on the bed and held them palm up. “May I apologize for unjustly taking out my anger on you?” he asked.

“No,” replied the mage coldly, “and I’ll tell you why . Because it’s better for you to yell at me and get that rage out at a safe target than to have you aiming it at someone who’s not a safe target. And believe me, I’ve been yelled at by a few templars in my life.”

That drew his eyes to the scar on Folke’s cheek and the mage grinned wryly while shrugging. “That was less yelling,” he said, “and more automatic smiting. All the yelling was Meryell.”

Cullen snorted at that and managed a smile as he commented, “I don't doubt that. She's fierce.”

“That's one word for my girl,” the other man commented with a smile. They then both looked over at the yawning space where the second floor fell away at the sound of one of the tower doors opening. When the lock slid home, Folke smiled. “Ah. That'd be one of the lads with food.”

“Folke?” called a female voice from below and as the mage frowned, Cullen commented, “That doesn't sound like a lad , Folke.”

“Keep your teeth together, isha’len ,” growled the mage. He then called out, “Evune, love, we're up here. I told Rylen to send for one of the lads to come help me.”

There was a soft ah in response and then nothing before the nearly inaudible whisper of feet upon the ladder. A hand bearing a tray crested the edge of the floor first, holding a steaming bowl, a shallow cup of something dark and equally hot, and what looked like a collection of herbs. Then Cullen saw a head with long auburn hair piled up in that messy but controlled way women somehow managed and pointed ears appear immediately after. The elven woman smiled, which made him register the copper colored lines tattooed on her face, as she finished climbing up and bent to retrieve the tray with one hand. As she calmly walked around them to set it down on his bedside table, Cullen noticed that she let her free hand trail along Folke's back in an affectionate way.

Even in his pain-addled state, he remembered Meryell once mentioning that her father and an elven woman in the company shared beds on occasion in the most casual of ways. This then must be her.

Evune turned after she sat down the tray to say, “Your pet templar did send down for a lad but after his runner explained what it was about to the Captain, he decided to send someone who might actually help you.”

As Folke frowned, Cullen said quietly, “Arnald knows?”

The elven woman turned her gaze to him and nodded solemnly. “He respects your desire to keep it secret. Those of us that know what it is templars face, that have aided our own and recognize the signs, do the same. Your secrets are our secrets, Commander, and we do not surrender secrets.”

For a moment he just blinked at her, unable to comprehend what to say in response, then Folke grumbled, “Rylen is not a pet, love.”

Ma’halla , I tease. I know how you are,” replied Evune with a gentle smile. She then stepped forward and leaned in to kiss his cheek as she added, “Now, I have brought a simple broth, some of your headache tea, and a bough of your burned woman’s laurel.”

“Good. Come now, isha’len , let's get that shirt off of you.”

Cullen stiffened and stared at the mage, feeling a blush creep up the back of his neck. “Folke,” he said quietly, “I'm beginning to think you want to see me naked.”

At that the older man just laughed, tipping his head back in a starkly familiar way. It hit him a moment later that Meryell laughed in the same way when something caught her off guard, drawing a full and honest laugh out of her. Suddenly he was torn: on the one hand he wanted her back so he could touch her, could kiss her, could simply sit and speak with her into the long hours of the night...yet he didn't want her to see what he'd fallen to. She didn't need dealing with him and his issues on top of the issues of the Inquisition.

Especially not after having to deal with the situation and feelings that asshole Camden had spawned before she'd left for Crestwood.

“Oh, darling,” drawled Folke as he abruptly moved a hand to gently pat Cullen's cheek. “You're adorable and I do appreciate such a fine form , but you aren't my type at all. Now ...shirt off then food and bed. You can keep your trousers this time, I promise.”

As Cullen involuntarily blushed at the innuendo the man had put into the last sentence, Evune theatrically fanned a hand at her face. “Oh my,” she gasped, her tone a high-pitched mockery of. “Such scandal! Our own Folke and the Commander!”

“Maker's breath,” he muttered, closing his eyes briefly. “You two are terrible.”

“It's why we work together so well,” commented the mage with a laugh. Then he made a gesture towards Evune and the elf stepped closer so she could lean down to grab the loose fabric of Cullen's tunic. He felt on fire with embarrassment as the pair of them divested of him his shirt and it didn't help when the woman whistled.

Folke good naturedly slapped Evune on the thigh in response and she giggled before turning away, moving back across the room towards the tray. “I swear,” he muttered under his breath, “she acts younger than she is sometimes.” Without waiting for a comment, he clapped his hands together and said, “So...think you can feed yourself or shall I embarrass you and feed you like a child?”

“I think I can manage,” Cullen replied uneasily. The situation was embarrassing enough without the man doing the latter.

“Suit yourself, I'm easy.”

As soon as the mage moved to step away, however, it was revealed that Cullen was not as steady as he felt. Thankfully Folke didn’t take up his offer of embarrassing him and instead helped him move up the bed so he could lean against the headboard. As he was handed the soup, Cullen saw that Evune had moved the brazier back into the middle of the floor from where he normally shifted it off to the side during the day and was lighting what looked like the herbs she’d brought inside of it.

She caught his gaze as she looked up, smiling before she blew gently into it again. “ Radladara ,” she explained. “Your burned woman’s laurel. We burned it in my clan for those who were suffering all sorts of pains, so perhaps it will ease some of yours, Commander.”

“Thank you,” replied Cullen after a moment. He then awkwardly shifted in place, looking down at the bowl in his hands, before he softly said, “Neither of you have to stay here. I’ve dealt with this on my own for months…” As Folke abruptly sat down on the edge of the bed, his voice trailed off and he looked up to meet the man’s eyes.

Isha’len ,” the mage said gently, “we are not here simply because we must be. We are here because we care for your health, and not merely for the sake of Meryell or the Inquisition. There will be no accusations and no guilt thrust about. You do not have to do this on your own. Not unless you choose to.”

For a moment all Cullen could do was stare at the man, a sudden lump in his throat. He’d been facing quitting on his own for the most part, other than the occasional (and rare) check-in with Cassandra and more recently the comfort of Meryell’s presence. Both women had respected his decision to do so, though Meryell often did small things to try and help him when she could.

No one, however, had come out and told him that he didn’t have to fight alone. Silently said it, yes, but directly...no one had done that. Not since he’d left home.

Blinking his eyes several times to fight back the sudden moisture that realization had brought, he nodded and looked back down into the bowl. “Thank you,” he murmured before picked up the spoon in a shaking hand, moving it slowly up to his mouth in a move that he hoped the older man would read as the end to the conversation he wanted it to be. Folke seemed to indeed sense that as he patted Cullen’s left leg before standing up to walk over and have a quiet conversation with Evune.

He turned his attention onto the broth then, which was somewhat weak in flavor, but it didn’t make his stomach roil like the smell of food had earlier. Half of it was gone before he began to feel tiredness creeping in on him, causing the bowl to droop into his lap. Suddenly Evune was there, scooping it up out of his hands, and then Folke was proffering the somewhat cooler cup of tea under his nose.

“Come on, lad,” urged the older man gently. “Let’s get a little bit of this in you to try and help your head and then you can sleep.”

Cullen wrinkled his nose slightly but obliged the mage, opening his mouth since he was too tired now to even think about lifting his arms. Then it seemed like a blink of an eye and he was lying down on his side, one arm curled underneath his head and pillow with his blankets tucked firmly about him. He frowned, more than a little confused as to what had happened, then heard voices softly whispering from the end of the bed.

“You are staying with him, ‘ma’halla?

“Poppet claimed him, so that makes him as good as mine too, love. So I’ll stay, yes.” He then heard Folke sigh before he went on, “I don’t think there’ll be a problem tonight but we have to have a talk about this. Let Gil know the full story of what happened that I told you and make certain to note that he’s doing this on little knowledge. Add in a curse about the Chantry being colossal fuckers for me.”

Evune chuckled, a small musical sound. “I will do as you ask. But…”

“But?” pressed Folke.

There was silence for a moment except for the sound of the shifting boards of his floor before Cullen heard her ask, “You will be safe alone? I remember there have been the templars of ours who have smited you while they are going through this.”

The mage scoffed lightly in reply before saying, “Templars who still mostly had lyrium in their system, darling. Cullen’s been without for long enough that I’m certain there’s not anything like that he could do. Don’t worry yourself anyway, I know how to work through a smite.”

“It is not the smite I fear, ‘ma’halla.

“I don’t think he has magebane hiding under his bed either, Evune. And he wouldn’t use it on me. I trust him. You think I would have continued letting him anywhere near Meryell if I did anything less?”

A mage? Trust him?

He wasn't quite certain what to think of that.

Cullen managed a small smile as the woman scoffed, saying, “You think your da’assan would have listened to you? Especially when she has found a bor’assan ?”

“I will tell her when she returns that you find the Commander to be the bow to her arrow,” jibed Folke.

“I will tell her myself ,” replied Evune as he tried to comprehend how he exactly was a bow to an arrow. He didn’t send Meryell anywhere, unless one counting giving her advice at the war table as doing so. Or perhaps she meant it as only being a pair?

An arrow was little use without a bow and so was a bow without an arrow. Still dangerous in the hands of the skilled but never so dangerous as they were together.

Cullen was still trying to figure it out when Evune said, “ On nydha, ‘ma’halla. Watch well.”

On nydha , love,” replied Folke quietly.

As the woman slowly descended the stairs, he felt the bed dip at the end with weight before the older man sighed heavily. Cullen then felt a hand pat his shin before the mage called out, “Go back to sleep, isha’len . You need it.”

He was not only surprised that Folke had realized he was awake but that when he said sleep it was as if a spell had been cast over him. Cullen closed his eyes again as the bone deep exhaustion dragged him down and, as he did, swore that he felt a hand gently pat his shoulder and a voice say something soothing in his ear.

Whatever it said, however, was lost to the Fade.

Chapter Text

“So,” drawled Meryell as she dropped their map down on the flat rocks in the middle of their temporary camp, “we’ve got to get to the dam in order to access the controls to drain this stupid lake.” Leaning forward, she planted a smaller rock on the spot that she’d marked as Caer Bronach after getting one of the men in Crestwood village to give her its location. “And then we’ve got this bitch .”

“Bitch?” repeated Dorian as he settled to her left on another rock, a bowl full of their dinner steaming in his hands. “Now, now, that’s no way to talk about a lady.”

Snorting, she replied, “It is about this lady.”

Sighing, he asked, “And why is that, darling?”

Meryell just grinned impishly at him and replied, “Because it’s going to be an utter bitch of a job to convince her to open her legs to us and let us in.” There was immediately the clatter and slight thud of the ladle they were using to scoop their stew out of their small travel pot and she turned towards the fire that her back was to. Cassandra was red faced as she picked the utensil from the ground and looked unamused, while Varric was half leaned over and choking on laughter.

Dorian just tutted in response but still smiled as he said, “That was crude, even for you, darling.”

“I spent the last half of childhood between a gang and a mercenary company and all of my adulthood up until now in the latter,” she noted with a casual shrug. “That’s actually not the rudest thing I could conceivably come up with.”

“Maker preserve us,” muttered Cassandra. She then straightened and glared as she asked, “If you wouldn’t mind ceasing such...colorful commentary...until after we’ve gotten dinner?”

“Only so as you don’t knock over the pot out of shock as well, Cass.”

The Seeker made that exasperated noise of hers in response before quickly cleaning off the ladle with water from her waterskin and finishing getting her dinner. By then Varric had recovered enough to do the same - though he was still shaking his head and grinning - and both of them joined her and Dorian around the rock.

“So,” began the dwarf as he sat down on the ground, “this lady…”

Snorting, Meryell immediately replied, “Is full of bandits. I went poking around before we left the village for information and managed to find out that they’ve done some shady shit around here. Oh, and they call themselves the Highwaymen, which is literally the least fucking original name I've ever heard in my life.”

Dorian shook his head and muttered, “Such incompetence in naming themselves obviously can't be allowed to stand.” Meryell flicked a potato from her stew at him in response to that, which he just laughed and ducked away from while scolding, “My clothes , darling!”

Cassandra coughed loudly to get their attention back to the matter at hand and Meryell pointed at Dorian before she turned back to the map. He stuck out his tongue at her in response, to which Varric laughed before saying, “ Children , are mommy and daddy going to have to whip you back into line?”

The Seeker’s horrified look in response to that was perfection .

Grinning at Varric, Meryell leaned forward to tap her finger on their map in the general location of where they were on the Old Market Road. “No, Da,” she replied, putting a bit more of an inflection on her original Ferelden accent, “we’ll behave.”

“Good,” he said with a chuckle. Then Varric scooted forward on the rock he’d claimed and balanced his bowl in one hand while gesturing with the other towards the map. “So...you want to finish relating about the lady for us, sweetheart?”

“Right. This fucking lady . She’s important Ferelden history, so let’s try to not bang her up too much when we do get inside.”

Cassandra coughed before asking, “Do we have a plan for getting inside?”

Meryell shook her head as she leaned back to scoop a spoonful of the stew into her mouth, answering, “Not yet. I figure we should probably set up camp here since we’ve got a nice fucking view of the keep with shelter from this tree and rock, plus we can keep an eye on the lake rift from here. Plus, it’ll give Varric and I time to do some snooping around and see what the best way in is. And if we need reinforcements for this shit.”

“Reinforcements from where exactly?” asked Dorian. “There weren’t all that many soldiers at camp.”

“Our forces are scattered throughout the region,” Cassandra explained as she leaned forward. “If I recall correctly from our briefing, there is another camp to our east at Three Trout Farm. All of our soldiers and scouts are not always in camp as well, so there are more here than you might believe, Dorian.”

The mage blinked then inclined his head towards the woman with a murmured, “I will bow to your better voice of experience, sweet Cassandra.”

Scoffing in response (which was to try and cover the blush in her cheeks that Meryell damn well saw), the Seeker said, “It might be a better course of action for one to scout the keep and one of us to make our way over to Three Trout while the other two remain here.”

Shaking her head, Meryell argued, “Back to the village if we go that route. I told Harding before we left camp to pick two of her soldiers who were worth a damn at being sneaky to dress down and set up there as a drop off point. We at least know the road back to Crestwood and those two are specifically there for the purpose of getting word back to North Gate and on to Skyhold.”

Varric let out a low whistle and asked, “That a Fang tactic, Swears?”

“One of the standards for anyone out on a job, though we usually hired out the work ahead of time,” she replied with a casual shrug, not afraid to share details about the company’s organization with them. They weren’t going to betray their workings.

Cassandra frowned slightly before saying, “That first letter you were going to send out...it was going to such a contact?”

Meryell grimaced slightly because that letter was still a bit of a sore point. She didn’t regret her action one bit because back then she still hadn’t trusted anyone all that much, though Varric and Cullen got more for being civil. However, she was aware that she probably could have handled the early days with the Inquisition better than she had. The past was the past, though, and couldn’t be changed.

Nodding, she answered, “There was. We also had a contact at the Conclave before it went to shit. Drop points in Jader, Highever, and Amaranthine if I ended up having to take a coastal route home on the way out. Anyway!”

With a shake of her head, Meryell continued, “Given what I heard of this group from the villagers, we probably want to go with the latter plan. Though the fuckers could have played them for fools and be a smaller group than they think. But…”

“Keep like that,” murmured Varric, his eyes focused over the large rock towards the distant towers half shrouded by Crestwood’s almost ever present mist, “it holds a lot of people. And a region plagued like this one spawns a lot of bad folk looking to make a bit of quick coin.”

“I say,” piped Dorian, “that we do the sensible thing and get some soldiers to help us take our dear lady on the hill. Rather like that plan of yours in Redcliffe: distract with one group so the other group can slide in from the back to strike the killing blow.” He then laughed as he spooned up a bit of his stew. “Hopefully it’ll be without a trip into the future this time.”

“Maferath’s rotten balls, don’t even joke about that happening again,” scolded Meryell, her eyes narrowed slightly. As he lifted a hand in a sudden sympathetic gesture, she waved him off. “I’m not fucking glass , Dorian.”

The mage frowned, his lips pursed beneath his mustache, before he leaned forward and murmured, “Of course not, darling, but we will not pretend that it wasn’t terrible. Let me give a little comfort to my friend since I was fool enough to bring it back up?”

Sighing, she grumbled, “Fine, you sod.” As his hand stretched out to rest on her shoulder, Meryell let go of her spoon to reach up with her left hand to lay it over his. His fingers squeezed slightly and she made the gesture in return while turning to smile at him.

“Forgive me?” he asked quietly.

“‘Course,” she answered shortly.

Dorian smiled then pulled away, turning back to his food, and Meryell looked at the others.

“Right. So who's riding back and who's staying here?”

Cassandra let out a breath and said, “I will ride back. I do not think even a bandit would be fool enough to attack a Seeker.”

“You'd be surprised,” commented Varric. “Most bandits don't do a lot of higher thinking.”

“Then I shall take my chances, Varric.”

The dwarf just shrugged before saying, “Sparkler and I can keep watch here while you go take a look around, Swears. I'm pretty sure your vision in the dark is better than mine.”

“So, it's settled then!” Dorian swept out a hand to encompass their camp as he added, “By the time you two get back, we'll have a veritable palace waiting for you.”

Laughing Meryell finished off the last of her stew and stood up as she said, “We'll just have to tear it all fucking down right after that, Dorian.”

Sniffing theatrically, the mage huffed and turned away from her. “Fine! We'll see if I attempt to give you something pretty ever again.”

Shaking her head, she leaned over to kiss his cheek as she purred, “I'm not into pretty things anyway, love.” With that Meryell straightened and said in a louder tone, “I'm going to wash this up then get a start on this shit. Be safe on the road, Cass.”

“Maker watch over you, Meryell,” replied the older woman solemnly while Dorian flashed a sly smile.

“If you don't like pretty things, darling,” he called after her as she carefully made her way down towards the lake so as not to be seen, “may I have your Commander?”

“Don't like him ‘cause he's pretty, Dorian!” she called back. Turning, she flashed him a broad smile and a wink. “I like him for all the wicked things his tongue does.”

Meryell turned back towards her destination with a laugh as she heard the mage let out a hoot of laughter and Varric say, “Why, Seeker, you're turning an awful shade of crimson. Something you ate?”

As she reached the water and dunked her bowl and spoon in to rinse them out, she lifted her eyes to regard the shadowy silhouette of the keep against the slowly darkening sky. You , she thought grimly as she stood back up, you're going to be mine, you big bitch. And we're going to murder every bloody bastard that calls you home right now for hurting these people.


Two weeks and three days later, with the Inquisition flag flying atop the keep and bandit blood still being scrubbed out of the stones, Meryell stood staring furiously at the wheel that controlled the outflow for the dam.

It was funny how quickly she could go from being amused by the rather heavy pawing session they'd interrupted between those two youths to cold outrage.

She clenched her left fist and felt the Mark flare in response, green light glowing through her leather half-gloves. Pain lanced up her arm in immediate response, same as it always did when it activated. Drowning it out had become second nature now with how many rifts she'd closed since falling into the piss pot that was everything after the Breach.

In that moment, however, she needed the pain as a distraction to keep hersel