Actions

Work Header

A Letter Home

Chapter Text

In the remote alpine lake village of Riesen-Tal, two days upriver from the city of Ansburg, an aged Tal-Vashoth wainwright closed his shop for the night. Heavy, freezing rain pelted the fertile valley, and the man's strong joints that once moved freely as he'd climbed the rigging of a dreadnought, now swelled and ached in the damp chill. He flexed his hands to work out the stiffness, then limped upstairs to his home.

Going to be a bad night. Might have to have Hissera whip up a poultice after dinner. Sooner or later, Anaan Adaar, you're going to have to accept that you're getting too old for this shit.

He laughed to himself as he stoked the fire in the stove. 

Sod that. The day I stop is the day they light my pyre.

A tentative knock tapped at the shop door below. The old veteran stepped cautiously back downstairs, retrieved a hatchet from the rack, and opened the window grate on the heavy oak door, startling a young human in a hooded cloak bearing a badge marked with a spiked eye. There was no sign of a wagon.

"Shop's closed. If you need repairs, come back in the morning."

"Master Adaar?" the man panted, his voice heavy with fatigue. "Please, Serah, if I may have a moment of your time, I've come a long way."

"Is that right? Well, who are are you, who do you serve, and what message is so important it can't wait until a decent hour?"

"My name is Turner, Serah. I serve the Inquisition, and I've orders to deliver this to none but your hand. Herald Adaar said to tell you...please forgive my pronunciation: Ebatot tal-eb noms...? I so hope I got that right."

The older man paused, then chuckled.

"Close enough. Alright lad, you've got your moment. If you have a mount, bring it round the side to the stable."

Anaan's heart raced as he bolted the portal, and strode the length of his shop to the interior stable door.

Meraad's alive! Been nearly a year since she was last home...don't know what this 'Herald' business is, but with the weird news out of the South, I hope she's alright.

Rain dripped from the eaves onto his broad, curled horns when he opened the outer door, and he irritably shook it off as the courier stepped into the lamplight leading his tired horse.

Kid's younger than I expected...no more than eighteen if a day. Marcher by the sound of him, possibly Wycome. Hands not unfamiliar with rough work, dual daggers on the belt, light step, definitely rogue trained. Looks to be favoring his left leg, and likely not seen the proper side of a solid meal in a while.

Turner stoically extracted a folded, wax-sealed missive from his courier's bag, and passed it to Anaan. Though the elder Adaar was desperate to read, he tucked the missive inside his coat. 

"Do you have shelter for the night, son? When's the last time you ate?"

"I..I don't, Serah." The courier seemed genuinely surprised by the question. "And I've not eaten since just past dawn this morning. Lady Adaar marked this urgent, and warned me not to linger in the passes, though I didn't expect the weather to turn this foul. Nearly missed the trailhead to the upper valley in the dark, and had to push so as not to miss the last ferry. Maker be praised your ferryman's an able hand at the oar, for I half feared we'd drown out there. He landed us safe at the quay, and directed me straight to you. "

"Captain Ehlert did us both a favor then. This late in the season, the inn's usually closed after sundown. So, get your horse settled in, wash up over there at the pump, and bring your packs upstairs. Dinner will be ready shortly."

Turner beamed. "Thank you kindly, Serah! I'm much obliged, and more than willin' to offer good coin for your trouble."

"The Void you will," Anaan huffed, then smiled. "News of my daughter is coin enough, and I'll not let it be said Anaan Adaar turned away a traveler in need.  See you inside."

Master Anaan Adaar by Genevra Brown

Chapter Text


Anaan returned to his kitchen and fetched extra dishes before checking on the pot of stew his sister had left to slow cook for him that morning. When he sat by the stove and broke the seal on Meraad's letter, he was surprised to see it written in Qunlat instead of the common Trade tongue:  

Papa,

I don't know if this will reach you, but I need you to hear this from me, not an Inquisition agent after I'm gone. I wanted so badly to write sooner to tell you I'm alive, but the truth is I don't know what I am right now, and there's really no one here that understands. Please bear with me.

A magical explosion ripped open a massive breach in the Fade above the Conclave, killing thousands of people.  Except for me.

Don't ask me how I survived because I don't know, and I can't remember what happened before. Though from what I've witnessed in the aftermath I'm not entirely sure I want to. 


I have no words to do justice to the devastation, or the impact the Breach has had. Some nights I swear I hear the mountain itself screaming...I'm not sleeping much anymore.

The last thing I recall was running for my life, I saw a strange woman, then woke up in a dungeon with a mark on my hand that allows me to magically seal the lesser rifts. But I don't know what it is or where it came from.

Everyone seems to have their own theories as to why I survived (none of which involve pure, dumb luck, however crap the luck). Half of them believe I was the cause of the blast, but witnesses insist I stumbled out of the Breach with the aid of Andraste herself.

No, that isn't a joke. In the space of a day, I went from being a Vashoth apostate prisoner accused of mass murder, to being named 'The Herald of Andraste'. I guess when you're desperate for answers, any port in a storm will do.

I'm now part of an organization called The Inquisition. It was founded by an edict of their late Divine, and the hands of her former advisers, though some of the lower priests still demand my arrest. The ungrateful shits denounce me and call my team deluded heretics while they fight over who will be their next Divine. Meanwhile, we're the ones cleaning up the mess their stupid war has created.

At least I'm trying to. So many people demanding so much of me at once, I can't catch my breath.

I doubt I'll ever embrace the Andrastian faith any more than it would embrace me, but there are some truly good people here who are also trying to just put things right again. Or I think they're nice...some of them seem to be working for their own agendas.

We're still trying to track down if any of my kith survived, so if you hear anything from Shokrakar or the other Valo-kas, please tell them I'm alive and how to reach me.

People here are terrified, and keep looking to me for answers. I may end up doing more harm than good, but at least I'm doing something, which is more than most of those entitled priests can say.

That's the real reason I've stayed, even after they granted my freedom. No matter how much they may spite me, I couldn't call myself a Healer if I left behind so many needy people that can't fight for themselves, and I've seen some of what lies on the other side of this Breach, Papa. If I'd run home and brought this nightmare with me, I'd never forgive myself.

I'm sure they've only allowed to live because they have no choice if they want the Breach closed. Many of them believe I'm a holy being (no matter how many times I tell them I'm not), but many more still believe I'm a just a hedge witch with no proper training, so in its own weird way, this curse of a mark has become my salvation too. 

We recently went to Val Royeaux to speak with the Chantry mothers, and urge them to unify forces with us. I wish I could have appreciated the city for its beauty, but like a shiny apple with a worm-rotted core, it was too full of fear and hate, mostly directed at me. They didn't even try to hide their contempt. The Mothers not only refused us, they tried to sic the Templars on me! That failed, thankfully, and I'm okay, but it's clear we're on our own.

Please, no matter what you may hear, do NOT come here. It isn't safe, and I don't think I could do what I have to do if I knew you were caught in this too. I'm just not that strong, though I wish I was, because I would give all the gold in Thedas for even one hug from you right now.

They call this place Haven but it isn't, not for our folk. The fear of Oxmen runs deep, and most of these people don't know (or care) about the differences between Qunari and Vashoth. It's the first time in years that I've ever been made so completely aware of just how different I am, and it hurts to be shunned, especially when I'm only trying to help them. But, if I walk away, how will they learn?

Mother once told me there would never be a place for me in the human world. I stubbornly set out to spite that claim, and it's bitten me in the ass. I was a fool to believe that being a healer would protect me, and now I fear I may never see you again. That is perhaps my greatest regret.

If I don't come home from all this, please forgive me, and remember me as I was.

I love you, always.

Meraad

 

"Master Adaar?" Turner's tentative voice broke the silence.

Anaan startled, blinking tears from his dark violet eyes. He cleared his throat to compose himself, tenderly folded the missive back into its packet, and invited Turner to sit at the table while he dished the food. Then from a high shelf in the pantry he brought forth a dusty bottle and a pair of glasses, and poured a generous dram for them both.

"Twenty-year-old Starkhaven single malt," he said, raising his glass in toast. "To my girl. To your health for braving the roads to get her words to me, and to the cause she fights for. Ataash varin kata."

Turner respectfully sipped, trying hard to stifle his cough in reaction to the fiery liquid. "W-what does that mean, Serah?"

Anaan stared into the bottom of his glass, as if he might see his daughter within its depths.

"In the end lies glory."

For a few minutes, they ate in silence. Anaan burned with questions, but he was a kind enough host not to press for answers until he was certain the boy was well-fed and warm. So he sat by the stove, smoking thoughtfully on his favorite pipe, and carefully considered his written reply.

When the scout cleaned his plate, Anaan said, "I know you're tired, but if you'll indulge an old man a while longer, I have some questions that need answering. Then, I'll show you to a bed and send you on your way back to your Herald with a reply in the morning."

"Ask away, Master Adaar."

"I want your honest impressions about this Inquisition, and the people advising my daughter."

Chapter Text

"You asked to see me, Sister?" Varric asked as he entered the dank basement storeroom.

Hate this place. Too close to the dungeons. Why in the Void would Nightingale want to meet down here?

Leliana stepped into the light of the overhead brazier, followed by a haggard-looking young courier, who stood silently in the shadows to her left, his eyes downcast.

"I did, Varric. Thank you for coming quickly. We have recently received correspondence that I've been unable to translate, and I would appreciate your discreet assistance, beginning with a copy of an outgoing missive."

"You want my help?" He smirked. "And here I thought you could read dwarven just fine. You certainly had no trouble going through my letters."

She ignored the slight rebuke. "A necessary precaution. All correspondence are reviewed for the safety of the Herald, as you well know. But these missives are in Qunlat. It was my understanding that during the Qunari occupation of Kirkwall you became quite proficient in the language to assist your own spy network there."

Ohhh...she must have intercepted some of Tiny's Ben-hassrath reports! That would explain why she's not having him translate instead. Can't say I'm not curious myself what the horned bastards are up to.

"Sure, I'll help."

"Sister Nightingale, please," the courier pleaded. "Is this really necessary? I already..."

Leliana held up a hand for silence, never taking her eyes off Varric and the missives, and the boy complied. Varric hesitantly accepted the letter and moved beneath the brazier for better light.

The handwriting looks too delicate to have been written by Tiny...and some of this grammar's a bit rough. Maybe a different dialect? 

He cleared his throat and read aloud, "'Papa, I don't know if this will reach you, but I need you to hear this from me, not an Inquisition agent after I'm gone. I wanted so badly to write sooner to tell you I'm alive...' Wait, what is this? Is this from Meraad?"

"Oui. As I've said, all correspondence is reviewed for the safety of the Herald, including her own. I see you find it distasteful, but there is still much we don't know about Lady Adaar. For the Inquisition to succeed we must know who she's speaking with and why."

Varric looked back at the letter and sighed.

"I get what you're saying, Sister, but...does she even know you have this?"

"No, which is why I require your discretion. Continue, please."

Shit. I'm sorry Meraad. For what it's worth, I think you're a good kid. I really hope there's nothing in here to make them think otherwise.

Varric resumed reading, hating himself more and more as the letter concluded, "'...Mother once told me there would never be a place for me in the human world. I stubbornly set out to spite that claim, and it's bitten me in the ass. I was a fool to believe that being a healer would protect me, and now I fear I may never see you again. That is perhaps my greatest regret. If I don't come home from all this, please forgive me, and remember me as I was. I love you, always, Meraad.'"

He folded the paper and handed it back to Leliana, unconsciously wiping his hands on his jacket.

"Well, congratulations, Sister. We've just confirmed that she's a scared woman who loves her family, and who, despite knowing next to nothing about the faith, and getting shit on for being Qunari, is still doing her best to help the cause. Is that all, or do you have more plans to destroy my self-respect today?"

She huffed in irritation. "I do not enjoy this any more than you, Varric. However, replies to her letter arrived this morning that must also be translated. Turner?"

Turner passed the next missive, and the dwarf frowned in disgust.

"Fine. But don't ever ask me to do this again."

He unsealed the parchment and held it up to the light, the formal Qunlat written in a bold, masculine hand: "'To the Inquisition Council, greetings.'"

"What?" Leliana exclaimed. Turner looked equally surprised, and held up his hands in a gesture of peace.

"I..I knew nothin' of this, Sister, I swear it! He only said to make sure to keep them in specific order, with this one first. And even if I knew their language, I don't read the missives, I just deliver them!"

The Nightingale squinted suspiciously, then gestured for Varric to continue.        


"My name is Anaan Adaar. I am the proud father of your "Herald", Meraad.

I assume your Spymaster reads your mail (as they should if they're worth a damn), so I've taken the liberty of asking Turner to deliver this to you directly, to avoid any misunderstanding between us.

Normally I wouldn't give a flaming nug's ass about some human political group so far South, but since my daughter is caught up in all this, you now have my undivided attention. Whether that proves to be a good or bad thing for you will depend on your response.

I've heard some positive things about your organization so far, and was told that you're trying to put things right down there. That, I approve. You've also earned my girl's respect, and that carries weight with me and the rest of her family.

But some of what I've heard also sounds like the very parts of the Qun that her mother and I tried to spare her from - namely, a dedication to a militaristic religious cause bordering on zealotry.


This concerns me.

Meraad is not Andrastian. We are not Andrastian. And as a non-human mage, I know she's everything your Chantry hates, short of being born a 'Vint. But she's a good girl, with a good heart. You may have her trust, but you haven't earned mine, and I have a bit more knowledge of the ways of this world.

You likely know by now that she's asked us not to come down there. However, she did not specifically say we couldn't get involved, so I have a proposal for you.

I'd wager your organization doesn't have the manpower to be everywhere you need to reach yet. And if you know anything about Marchers, we're not the kind of folk that take kindly to outside military forces, no matter how good their intentions.

Given the history between humans and Qunari, you may not have considered the Tal-Vashoth as potential allies, but you should. I don't claim to speak for our kind everywhere, because we're just not that unified, but we have a strong community here. We're close enough to Ansburg and Antiva to regularly trade with both, we know the best routes through the mountains to avoid unwanted attention, and where to get supplies. Also, since humans usually believe us too stupid to understand your language and customs, they tend to speak freely around us.

So, for my daughter's sake, my family hereby offers our services to your Inquisition as local agents.

I served as a Karaas (a navigator) in the Qunari navy for many years before becoming Tal-Vashoth, and later in the same capacity with a civilian fleet out of Wycome after Meraad was born. I've been an established trader in this village for nearly 25 years, and have merchant and military ties across the Marches, Orlais, Antiva, and Rivain.

My brother Taar was a Taam-Kasari in the Beresaad (a shock trooper - favors the greataxe) and served in good stead with several merc companies in the North before retiring to become a smith. His wife Hissera is a Vashoth mage, and was Meraad's mentor. She currently serves as our village's Healer, and could be of use to your scouts if they need aid and can't risk being seen in the city.

In exchange, we ask only for unimpeded contact with Meraad. We don't give a damn about your secrets, we just want to know she's well.

But whether or not you choose to accept my offer, I will say on behalf of all the parents whose children have volunteered to aid you: you'd better be damned sure that your cause is just before you commit their lives to it. Because if you lot prove false, and get my daughter killed for no good reason, then beware the men who lived to old age in professions where most die young.

I look forward to your swift response, and a mutually beneficial partnership.

By my hand and seal,

Anaan Adaar"

 

Varric chuckled as he closed the letter. "Andraste's ass, I like this guy! If the Inquisition isn't smart enough to take him up on that offer, I know several people who would!"

"Indeed," Leliana replied. "I think I may safely say that as soon as his credentials are confirmed we can agree to his terms, if you would be willing to transcribe this to share with the Council."

She turned to the young courier. "You spoke at length with this man, Turner. Do you believe him capable of what he claims?"

"Every bit of it, my Lady," the scout declared. "No matter his race, a Marcher's word is his bond, and the mountain folk stand by their own. I stayed a few days as his guest due to poor weather, and had the privilege of meeting Master Taar and Mistress Hissera, as well. From what I've learned of the Adaar clan, I'd much rather have them on my side than against it. They're good people, worthy of respect, and I don't claim that lightly."

"What else did her father send?"

"A letter to Lady Meraad directly, along with this crate of gifts from her family." Turner struggled to hide a smirk as he handed Leliana another note, written plainly in the Trade tongue.

"He said he didn't bother to seal it too tightly, as he expected you'd search it first, and to give you this list of its contents for your reference."

Varric burst out laughing, and even Leliana graced them with a rare smile as she reviewed the list. 

"Oh, I definitely want to meet him now! Well, Nightingale? Has your curiosity been sated?"

Leliana deftly searched the contents of the box, being careful to return everything exactly as she found it. Then, to Varric and Turner's surprise, she lay Anaan's unopened reply to Meraad on top and closed the lid.

"In light of this new information, Scout Turner, I shall allow you to remain main courier on this route, as you have already established a rapport with the Adaars. Once I address the Council, I will send you back with our reply in the next day or so. Deliver this package to the Herald immediately, then rest. You are dismissed."

Turner beamed and saluted them both. "At once, my Lady. Thank you!"

After he departed, Leliana said, "It appears, Varric, that I have once again misjudged, and I apologize. Thank you for your help."

"No problem, Sister. And hey, for what it's worth, I'm probably one of the only people here that fully appreciates what being a Spymaster requires, which is precisely why I'm not doing it here. But if I might make a suggestion? When you pitch this to the Council, offer a stipend to the family too, in either trade or coin. Knowing they're under Inquisition protection and provided for might take some stress off Meraad. It's up to you to decide whether or not you want to tell her that her Dad asked to be a field agent, though from what I've learned so far, she might actually like it, once she gets over the shock."

Leliana nodded and headed for the stairwell.

"Agreed. And I trust you'll say nothing of this around The Iron Bull, yes? This is something the Ben-Hassrath does not need to know, for many reasons."

"Don't worry, he won't hear it from me. Come on, Nightingale, let me buy you dinner, then I'll write that transcription."

Chapter Text

The Apostate Adaar by Genevra Brown

In a cramped cabin on the far edge of Haven, Herald Meraad Adaar desperately tried to massage away the throbbing fatigue headache behind her eyes. All she wanted as a nap before dinner. It didn't seem like much to ask after spending the day dealing with bureaucrats and the war council. But at seven foot in height it was nearly impossible to find a comfortable position on her tiny single bed without sprawling diagonally. It took several minutes of juggling and punching pillows into a corner pile just to relax enough to doze.

Just enough time to be jolted awake by an urgent knock at the cabin door.

I swear they time it. Somewhere, one of Nightingale's vicious birds is perched in the rafters, waiting for me to try to sleep just so they can alert the runners. It never fails.

With a frustrated growl, she rolled out of bed and stomped across the wooden floor, instinctively ducking her head to avoid catching her broad, curling horns on the rafters. The weathered door hinges creaked as she fiercely yanked the door open, and the startled young courier on the threshold jumped three feet backward and nearly toppled into a snowbank along with his package.

"TURNER! Oh, sweetheart, I am so sorry! I thought...never mind what I thought. Please, please do come in!"

She offered him a chair by the hearth as she pulled up the covers on her bed. She was desperate to ask about the package, but as an invited guest in her temporary home, courtesy mattered.

"How are you? Did you have a good trip?"

"I'm quite well, my Lady Herald. Thank you kindly for asking."

"Eton Turner, we've been over this! When it's just us, please call me Meraad. May I get you some tea? Have you eaten?"

Turner laughed and gently set the heavy package down on the end of her bed.

"If it's not too bold of me to say, my La...Meraad, now that I've met Master Anaan, you remind me so much of him. In a good way! Not everyone is so kind to us runners."

The Herald's eyes flashed like amethyst fire. "Has someone mistreated you?"

"Oh no, no! In truth, most folk forget we're even there once the job is done. That's not always a bad thing, since we usually haven't the time to chat. But I'm off duty after this, with a bath and meal to follow, thank you all the same."

Meraad perched on her bed to face him, curling her long legs beneath her.

"So you were saying you've seen my family? Please, tell me how they are!"

"I did indeed! Master Anaan was a gracious host, and I'd the pleasure of meeting your aunt and uncle too. When last I saw them, all were well and in fine spirits, and voiced their concerns for you. This package comes from all of them, along with an extra letter from your Da."

Despite her excitement over the delivery, Meraad politely encouraged Turner to share village news and road gossip for a few minutes, until the soothing warmth of hearth left him struggling to hide his yawn.

"Eton, I can't begin to tell you how much this has meant to me, but I see you're ready to drop. Go get yourself some rest. I'll have a reply ready for you tomorrow, ja?"

The young courier stood to salute, but Meraad pulled him into a grateful hug instead before opening the door for him.

"Have a very good night, Scout Turner. You've done excellent work, and your superiors will hear of it."

His proud smile warmed her heart as he adjusted his cloak and stepped out onto the icy path. "May the Maker bless you and yours, my Lady. Good night." 

She leaned against the door frame, a silent wave her only reply.

Sweet boy, I'm not sure your Maker even knows that I exist, but I appreciate your intent. May your gods watch over you too.

Turner disappeared down the stairs to Haven's front gate, just as The Iron Bull, and his lieutenant, Cremisius Aclassi, entered the lower courtyard. Bull glanced over at her cabin, offering a respectful nod when he saw her standing on the threshold. Meraad smiled back and started to say hello, but was interrupted by the happy shrieks of a pair of female scouts, who raced down from the upper courtyard to pounce on the Qunari. Bull's lusty laugh echoed through the square as he scooped both girls over his shoulders, and the group moved on to the tavern without a backward glance. 

With all the dignity she could muster, Meraad stepped back into her cabin, bolted the door, then shuttered the windows in the vain hope that no one else would disturb her. 

Figures the one person out there I would like to disturb my rest doesn't seem to know I exist either. Just my luck to meet another Qunari in this backwater, and he not only turns out to be a Ben-Hassrath spy, but an arrogant, bloodthirsty meat shield with a preference for humans to boot. I swear if I hear one more tavern wench or chantry sister bragging about bedding him, I'll…

Woah, where did THAT come from?! Granted, Bull is easy on the eyes, and I've been in a bit of a dry spell...okay, a LONG dry spell, but who cares who he beds?

She sighed in frustration and doused the lamp, haunted by the sound of his laughter. 

Who are you kidding? You do, damn it. He smells SO good, and that voice...he could read a laundry list and get you weak in the knees, and the cocky bastard knows it! More than that, he's the seasoned, confident commander and tactician you need to be, not a clueless Healer trying to fake it.

A flush that had nothing to do with the fire blazed across her skin.

Gods, watching him fight on the Storm Coast, towering above his team like a war god rising out of the sea, rain and sweat shining on those broad shoulders and gorgeous horns...

That mischievous sparkle in his eye, and his fantastic laugh when he realized the rumor that a Qunari merc was the Herald of Andraste proved true...

Aaaand then it all went straight to the Void the instant you spoke Qunlat.

She swallowed hard around the sudden lump in her throat as a wave of loneliness and regret washed over her.

What were you thinking?! The way he cringed...you should have known better. You're not 'true' Qunari -- he only signed on because his superiors told him to. He hates Tal-Vashoth, he distrusts mages, and compared to his your Qunlat must have sounded like dockside slang to a foreign noble. Why would he bother with you when there's no shortage of willing humans to choose from?

The package waited on the foot of her cold and empty bed, silently reminding her that she wasn't entirely alone in the world. Meraad angrily scrubbed her tears away with the cuff of her sleeve, gathered up the surprisingly heavy box, and settled down onto the hearth rug with it for better light.

Oh, sod this self-pity and pull yourself together. You're his boss, and he's a professional merc, just like you used to be before all this chaos addled your brain. You're not into casual trysts, and the Qun doesn't understand romance anyway, so stop thinking with your underused nethers and focus on your damned job. Open your presents!

The moment she lifted the lid, all thoughts of The Iron Bull were drowned by the comforting scents of HOME. She barely resisted the urge to dive in and examine the neatly packed contents in order to read her father's letter first, and wondered how Leliana could have missed it when she found the seal intact.       

" My Dearest Meraad,

I couldn't have been more surprised when your courier showed up with your letter, but I'm glad he did. It's been too long since we've seen or spoken to you, and we all miss you very much.

I suppose it's pointless for me to say I'm worried for you. You've always had a heart full of good intentions (I thank Hissera for that). But I also know you're as impatient and stubborn as me, and as spiteful as your mother, so I guess it's also pointless for me to tell you to be careful, and not take unnecessary risks.

From the moment you fought your way into this sorry world, you've never taken the easy path for anything, have you, Imekari?

One of the hardest parts of being a parent is accepting your child has become an adult, and the fact you can't protect them from everything. All we can do is hope we raised you right, and trained you to have the strength to face your challenges when you ask to go it alone.

But we will never stop caring.

I'm well aware of what Southerners think of us -- that was one of many reasons we settled in the Marches instead of Orlais. And I'm sorry you feel so alone. However, while I'm not dismissing your concerns, I suspect things may not be quite as bad with your companions as you think.

Turner had many good things to say about you and your advisers (runners and servants see a lot. Remember that). So even if you feel like you're struggling right now, it sounds like you're making a positive change down there, and we're proud of you for fighting for a cause you believe in.

There is nothing wrong with being scared, Meraad, and I'm relieved to hear you admit it. Only a fool goes into a fight without fear, and overconfidence will get you killed.

But over-thinking doesn't help you either. Hissera tells me that's a common problem with you Healers, caring and feeling too much for your own good. You can't always assume everyone hates you for who and what you are without giving them a chance to prove otherwise.

Nor do you have to try and solve every problem yourself. Make time to get to know the people you work with. Learn from them, and delegate to those with skills you don't possess yet. Asking advice doesn't make you weak, and they'll respect you more if you're honest about your own abilities. Just remember to also have enough faith in your own strength and convictions to be willing to make hard choices, even if it defies council.

You will make mistakes. There will be people you cannot save, and you will mourn them all. Accept that now and forgive yourself for it. And no matter how bad things get, try to keep your sense of humor, and please keep singing, Songbird. The best weapon against fear is defiant laughter, and music can lift the heaviest heart. You're too damned young to embrace being grim and cynical yet. If you can't find joy by yourself, find friends that can make you laugh. They're worth their weight in gold.

Lastly, while I know you mean well, it is not your burden to protect us. We're not so old and frail as to be helpless, and worrying will only split your attention from the task ahead of you. We'll respect your request to stay up here for now, but we've offered our services in support of your Inquisition as local agents in the North.

Before you disagree, set aside your personal feelings and think about what we collectively have to offer, and you'll realize this is a good thing. Besides, we're going to do it anyway. In return, you do your job with a focused mind, survive this mess, and come home when you can. Deal?

The box we sent has a few items we all thought you might need. We'd have sent more, but poor Turner only had the one horse, and he's a bit small.

Stay in touch, please. Believe in yourself, work hard, and always know we're here for you if you need us.

I love you too, sweetling.

Papa"


Her heart felt light for the first time in weeks, and she was still giggling as she carefully refolded the letter and set it aside. Inside the crate were three distinct bundles, one from each member of her family.

From her father: A hand-carved wooden hair comb; a wooden travel mug on a belt thong; and a leather-bound book called, 'Folk Songs of the North'. She blinked back tears as she flipped through its pages, recognizing many favorite childhood songs. But for as much as she appreciated the sweet gesture, it felt wrong to sing joyful songs amid so much fear and pain. The last thing she wanted was for people to think she was disrespecting their suffering. 

She tucked it back into the box, jostling an oiled leather pouch she'd nearly missed on first look. Inside was a palm-sized picture frame that opened like a small book, containing two painted portraits: the first of Aunt Hissera and Uncle Taar, and the other of her parents. She'd only turned seven when her mother, Asha, had died, and as she stared at the portrait in silent fascination, Meraad felt a bit guilty she couldn't clearly remember what she'd looked like until then.

There was no mistaking the mix of their features in her own. Her mother's platinum white hair, high cheeks, and full lips, combined with her father's pewter grey skin, violet eyes, and the broad, curled horns she'd been teased about as a child for being too large on a girl. But seeing her mother's elegant face as an adult nearly twenty-three years later left Meraad feeling oddly detached, and it disturbed her that she couldn't explain why. She carefully closed the frame and packed it back into its pouch.

Aunt Hissera sent a matching set of soft wool fingerless gloves, heavy scarf, and a headband that laced in the back, broad enough to protect her head and pointed ears against the freezing wind. There was also a small sewing kit with fine thread in several colors, a jar of muscle rub, a pot of lip balm, a variety of herbal teas and tinctures, and several bars of her favorite goat's milk soap.

Best of all, a large crock of Hissera's best horn balm, for which Meraad was positively giddy.

At the bottom of that bundle was tucked a personal note from Hissera herself:       

"I've said it before, but please, make sure you eat more than just trail rations. Stay hydrated, stay warm, and try to sleep when you can. And when you inevitably ignore my good advice, I've sent tea to aid your sleep, and for your headaches when you overextend yourself. USE THEM, I can send more later. 

Most importantly, young lady, keep your hands and mind busy. If you don't feel up to socializing, read, play cards, keep up with your embroidery. Spending too much idle time in your own head is unhealthy for you.

Sei nicht so streng mit dir, Spatzi. Ich hab dich lieb." 


Meraad burst out laughing. I love you too, Tante, you wonderful old witch.

Uncle Taar, as she'd hoped, sent a box lined in waxed paper packed to the rim with treats: A precious canister of green Antivan coffee beans ready for roasting; a bottle of his favorite spiced mushroom ketchup to compensate for bland Ferelden food; a dense fruit cake soaked in dark Llomeryn rum as an early birthday treat, and a rawhide bag filled with his special trail bars, made from a blend of druffalo jerky, suet and dried fruit.

He'd also included a block of beeswax, a bone-handled utility knife with a handmade sheath, and a beautiful new set of enameled horn caps, along with several pairs of heavy, felted wool socks.

Another note from Hissera added:    

" Onkel reminds you to keep your weapons and armor well-oiled against the frost. Blend the beeswax with some good tallow to weatherproof your gear. Take extra care of your feet, sleeping naked will keep you warmer than clothed, and tuck the next day's clothes into the end of your bedding so they'll be warm in the morning, even if it takes a few extra minutes to dress. I agree.

He also says finding a bedmate would be even better for you. I agree with that too."
 

"Thanks," Meraad muttered, blushing furiously at the thought of her family discussing her sex life. "I'll take that under advisement."

She carefully packed her treasures away in the crate, and settled by the fire to write home before bed.

Chapter Text

Turner returned to Anaan’s shop on the 10th of Firstfall. Despite being late afternoon on a beautifully clear day, the winter sun brought little relief from the biting cold, as heavy snow blanketed the alpine valley, and thick ice ringed the shores of its glacier-fed lake. Nevertheless, merchants and laymen alike brought steady work to the aging wainwright, seeking everything from minor repairs, to custom wagon fabrication in preparation for spring trading, and Turner was genuinely pleased to see the wagon shop so busy this late in the season.

Master Taar ran his own prosperous smithy from the large shop next door, where an overlay water wheel harnessed the power of the nearby river to drive the forge's trip hammer and bellows. Mistress Hissera’s apothecary clinic was housed in a timber-framed cottage on the opposite end of their sprawling back garden. Their modest homes connected above the shops in a communal sitting room, and the family often enjoyed nightly meals together.

Growing up part of a large trade clan himself in the coastal city of Wycome, Turner almost envied Lady Meraad for being raised in what seemed to be such an idyllic location. But when he considered the distance to the nearest major city through inhospitable forests and bandit-ridden mountain trails, the young scout decided that maybe the sea coast wasn’t so bad after all.

He waited by the woodshop door until Anaan paused to fill a cup from the water pump, then called out in practiced Qunlat, Shanedan, Anaan!”

The elder Adaar looked up in surprise as he wiped sweat from behind his curved horns with a shop towel, and waved the boy over. 

“Well, shanedan, young Turner! Welcome back! I was hoping we might see you this week. I was just about to close up for supper, so if you’ll be staying, feel free to take your pack to the guest room upstairs.”

“I am, and thank you kindly, Master Anaan. It’s good to be back.”

“I don’t doubt that, given what we've been hearing from the South.” Anaan closed the workshop door, and stepped across the breezeway between his shop and the smithy. The rhythmic pounding of the heavy trip hammer filled the room, vibrating the reinforced walls in counterpoint to the hissing rush of icy water over the wheel outside.

“TAAR!”  

The hammer stilled with a resounding thud, and Master Taar stepped into the light of the open door. He was large even for a Qunari, easily eight foot tall, and although Turner had met the man before he was still an impressive sight. The smith's back-swept horns, cut off almost to the base, were capped by engraved metal bands that matched those containing the thick braids in his hair and beard, and his bass voice rumbled deep from his scarred chest as he bellowed back, "What do you need?"

“Go fetch that horned harridan you call a wife, and wash up for supper. We have company!”

The giant smith squinted past his brother, and his weathered face split into a broad grin. 

“Turner! Good to see you! Hissera's already in the kitchen, far as I know, so go on ahead and get settled. I’ll be right up.”

Anaan nodded, and waved Turner toward the stairs, saying, “So you’re learning Qunlat, I see. Not a bad idea. If you’re interested, we could teach you a bit while you’re here.”

“I appreciate that, Master Anaan. Bought me a phrasebook from a Rivaini trader, thinkin' it might come in handy, but it's not much, and I always learn better hearing it spoken. I’ll gladly take whatever help I can get.”

A few minutes later, the family gathered around the table for a hearty meal of rich beef goulash, served with sausages, eggs, peppers and pickled gherkins. A basket of fresh bread rolls with sweet butter sat beside a steaming plate of roasted potatoes. After weeks of trail food, Turner's mouth watered at the sight, but he hesitated to eat until he'd delivered his dispatch. 

“You'll be pleased to hear Herald Meraad and the Inquisition have done wonders down in the Hinterlands,” he said, heaping food onto his plate. “They not only stopped the rogue mages and templars from terrorizing the farms, they also fed and clothed the refugees, set up watch towers against bandits, and restored trade to the region. The Chantry may have denounced us, but more and more people flock to support the Inquisition’s cause every day, noble and commoner alike. Even some of the chantry mothers have joined us in Haven!”

Anaan beamed. “Some of the traders talked of improved conditions in the region, but we had no idea it was Meraad and her crew making it happen. I couldn’t be more proud. But how about you let me read her letter, while you tuck into that meal. Otherwise Hissera's glare is going to burn a hole in my head.” He winked at the Healer, whose scowl broke into a smirking nod of approval.

"As if anything could penetrate that thick skull, you old goat! I just don't like good food going cold over formalities."

Turner happily passed over the thick envelope and sat back to enjoy his meal, as Anaan took a sip of beer before reading aloud:     

"Dear Papa, Tante Hissera, and Onkel Taar,

First, thank you all so much for the thoughtful gifts! I was having a really bad day when Turner delivered them, so they couldn’t have arrived at a better time. (I also think I scared the poor boy, so be extra nice to him for me, please.)

That being said -- Papa, I can’t believe you actually sent a letter to the Council! N showed it to me before meeting with them that night...”


‘N’? “ Anaan paused to ask.

“Sister Nightingale, the Spymaster,” Turner whispered.

Anaan thanked him and continued:            

“I’ll admit, I was angry at first. Not only for your threat, but because I meant it when I said I didn’t want any of you caught in this mess. And yes, I was worried about how the Council might react toward me for it if they’d taken offense. No matter how beautifully you said it, they’re all proud people, leaders in their own right, and I respect their opinions.

But you really impressed them, and once I confirmed your credentials, they insisted we should work with all of you. You're right, you are all far from helpless, and it was never my intention to suggest that you were. I was stressed and exhausted and let my emotions get the better of me, and for that, I apologize.

However, I stand by my request that you please not come to Haven. We don’t know what’s going to happen, or whether attempting to close this Breach may cause more harm than good, and there is no way I could not be worried if you were here right now. I just can’t afford that distraction with so much at stake.

I do agree that you would all be very valuable assets up there, though. You have a lot to offer in experience, skills, and contacts, and we would be fools not to accept. To that end, Turner has been authorized to establish a nesting box at the farm for our message birds, and he is to remain there long enough for contact to be established before returning to Haven. Welcome aboard.

By the time you receive this letter, we should have already reached Redcliffe, and hopefully gained the assistance of the rebel mages. With luck, the job will be done by now, though from what we’ve seen in the field, it's going to take a while to get this sack of cats sorted. I may not see you till Summerday at the earliest. Still, for the first time in months, I’m actually feeling optimistic.”


“It makes sense Meraad should seek help from the rebel Zauberer,” Hissera said, as she sliced sweet apricot torte for dessert. “She has no reason to trust templars, moreso after the way the chantry folk treated her in Val Royeaux. But if she's planning what I think, I'm concerned. We've cast in tandem before, she and I, when I needed help with a difficult Healing. But attunement with a large group is tricky, and they wield magic differently. Eton dear, you said one of the mages she travels with is Dalish?”

“I did, Ma’am. Master Solas.”

“That's good. Our way of magic is akin to the Dalish, more intuitive than regimented. We respect it as a living thing, channel it, not try to dominate it as the Circle does.”

“Magic is alive?” Taar asked.

“In the same way that fire, water, earth, or air can be ‘alive’, Liebling. It’s a force of nature, neither good nor bad. Like that river, if you respect its flow, it can be your ally. But force it to be what it’s not, and it fights at every step, wasting time and energy.”

She chuckled. “Not unlike Meraad herself. As much as I love that girl, patience has never been one of her virtues, and she must feel terribly pressured to fix this. I just hope they don’t push her to do something reckless.”

“I couldn't rightly say, milady,” Turner replied. “But if you have questions, write them down and I'll pass them on to Master Solas when I get back.”

Hissera cupped the scout’s stubbled chin. “You’re a good lad. Please continue, Anaan.”        

“On a personal note, I took your advice (and that fantastic fruitcake!) and sat down with some of my companions to get to know them better, and I’m so glad I did. You might be interested to know, Onkel Taar, that one of them is none other than Messere Varric Tethras, author of that 'Hard in Hightown' novel you liked so much. I told him you admired his work, and he was gracious enough to sign a copy just for you. I sent it with Turner, along with some holiday gifts for all of you. (The blue bundle is for you, Turner). Happy Satinalia!”


“She didn’t...” Taar exclaimed as Turner passed him the book. “Hot damn, she did!” 

The smith paused over the inscription, eager to start reading, but calmly grinned and closed the cover, waiting to hear the rest of the letter.     

“I’d also like to ask, are you familiar with a merc company called ‘The Bull’s Chargers’? Their Captain is a Tal-Vashoth named The Iron Bull. They operate mostly out of Orlais, but have also contracted in Nevarra, Ferelden, and the Marches, so I wondered if you might have encountered him.

The Chargers hired on to aid the Inquisition, and have been a joy to work with so far. Bull also proved to be an impressive bodyguard in the Hinterlands. He fights like you (favors the greataxe) and I've been learning a lot about effective tactics and team management from his example.

And by the way, Tante Hissera, might I impose on you for more of your horn balm if you can spare it, please? I’m running low, and Bull mentioned he needs some too. None of the vendors here even know what it is.

I have to get back to packing, we leave in the morning for Redcliffe. Stay safe and wish me luck -- if all goes well, I should be home soon.

Alles Liebe,

Meraad.”


Hissera laughed heartily and said to Anaan, “Ohhh, Papa, your girl likes him.”

“Why? Because she asked for horn balm? Maybe she’s just being polite...oh, sod it, yes she does. Well, how about it, Taar? Do you know him?”

Taar smoked his pipe thoughtfully. “Actually, yes. Or rather I know of him. Small company, only about fifty men if memory serves. But they have a damned good reputation, if a bit unorthodox. Bunch of crazy bastards that hire on as skirmishers and shock troops because of limited numbers. The Inquisition must be doing better than I thought if they can afford them too, because I’ve also heard they’re not cheap.”

“Eton?” Anaan smoothly inquired. “Is Meraad bedding this man? You must have met him at Haven.”

Turner looked decidedly uncomfortable and cleared his throat before replying. “Nay, Master Anaan, unless something’s changed recently. Word round Haven is The Iron Bull was bedding pretty much anyone but Lady Meraad. The tavern girls and runners often brag about him...a few of the chantry sisters too.”

When Hissera tsked in disappointment and Anaan’s expression turned grim, the scout hurriedly added, “But I’ve never seen the Captain be anything but a gentleman around her, Serah! Nor have I heard him take her name in vain among his men, or allow anyone else to do so. To be honest, I was under the impression Lady Meraad really didn’t like him at all.”

Hissera winked at her husband, and poured herself another mug of coffee. “You’ll understand when you’re older, dear. I do hope Meraad can keep her wits about her. I taught her how to stay safe, but when it comes to romance, she hasn’t had the best of luck. Poor thing tended to scare them off, assuming you two brutes didn’t do it first. Not to mention she's headstrong, moody, and has all the tact of a stampeding druffalo when she really wants something. Hmm...now who does that remind you of, Taar?”

The couple grinned smugly at Anaan, who offered an obscene one-handed salute in reply, and Taar snorted with laughter.

“While I personally believe a good tumble is the best stress relief there is, Meraad doesn't give her heart lightly. This Iron Bull must be something special for her to have set her sights on him.”

Anaan huffed. “Well, he’d better not break my girl’s heart, or he’ll damned sure be getting more than just a letter from me.”

 


 

On the 18th of Haring, Turner found Anaan lighting a candle in a jar on the sill of the sitting room's southern window. Wind and snow lashed the farmstead outside, and the scout worried the returning bird from Haven might be lost in the storm.

Anaan put an arm around the boy's shoulder and gestured to the candle.

"Today's Meraad's birthday. Thirty-one years ago tonight, she surprised her mother and me during the crossing from Seheron, demanding to be born a month early." He chuckled to himself. "Brat was impatient right from the start."

"She was born at sea? Not here in the village?"

"Aye. The ship was caught in a heavy squall, not unlike this, about fifty miles north of Estwatch. No sooner had her mother said she feared we were going to die, when Asha's damned water broke. The ship's healer knew little about Qunari women and even less about babies, but we did what we could for her. Barely a quarter hour later, the cord was cut and I held that tiny, flailing girl in my arms. Never held a baby before."

Smiling at the memory, Anaan sat down and lit his pipe. "It was a hard, fast birth and Asha just wasn't ready to be a mother. We were both terrified. She said the baby looked small and sickly, and might not live through the night, to which the healer just laughed and said it was just as well since the rest of us likely wouldn't either. Drunk bastard thought he was being funny. He got them both cleaned up, then left us all alone in the hold to wait whatever might happen."

"I can't imagine how frightening that must have been!" Turner exclaimed. "Never been a father m'self, but I've nephews and nieces. I was home for the birth of a couple of them, and that was scary enough on dry land. I don't know how women do it, to be honest. What happened then?"

"Asha was exhausted from labor and weeks of sea sickness. The last thing she wanted to do was nurse, but bless her, she tried. Our girl was so weak she could barely cry, let alone eat, and for the first time I prayed to any god that would listen that my daughter would live, even though the very word, 'daughter' was strange to me. I'd heard the term of course, visiting so many foreign ports, but it wasn't until that moment I fully understood what it meant."

At Turner's confused expression, Anaan explained, "Under the Qun, men are called to breed, and that's the last we hear of it. I may have other kids out there somewhere, but I'll never know. Same with Taar. A woman's role ends at the birth. Babies are taken by the Tamassrans, given a number, and raised to serve. Taar and I were both raised by the same Tama, which is as close as Qunari get to being brothers."

He stared back at the candle's flame, his eyes unfocused. "As my wife and I huddled in that filthy bunk, our baby opened her eyes, and they were the same color as mine. She clasped my finger in hers and stared at me, and I just knew in my heart she was going to live. She was a fighter like her old man. This was my child, my blood, and the fucking Qun would never have her!"

Embarrassed by his own outburst, Anaan took a long draw from his pipe to steady himself. "It's Qunari tradition for a Tama to name children, so naturally I defied it by naming her myself: Meraad. In Qunlat, it means 'the tide.' I chose it not only for the raging seas she was born on, but because no matter what happened, my daughter would have the freedom to set her own course, on her terms. And I swear, the moment I said her name aloud, the waters calmed and the storm blew out as fast as it had rolled in."

He gestured to the candle with his pipe. "Call me a sentimental old fool if you will, but I light that candle for her every year she isn't here to celebrate with us, just as her mother once did for me when I was at sea. A light to guide her home, wherever she may be."

"Not foolish at all, Master Anaan," Turner said quietly. "My Mam always lit a lantern for my Da when he was at sea too. It's tradition." He looked to the candle with new clarity. "A light in the darkness...like the Lady is to us. I'm truly honored to share the occasion with you all."

"You gave her the best start you could, Anaan," Hissera said as she and Taar joined them in the sitting room. "We all did, and you should be proud of that. The rest is up to her."

Taar fetched the bottle of whisky from the cupboard and poured them all a glass, which they drank toward the candle with a toast for Meraad's good health and happiness. Suddenly, they heard a soft thump in the loft above, followed by a distressed squawk. Turner bolted up to the nesting box, and returned cradling an Inquisition raven with a small canister attached to its leg.

"Oh the poor thing!" Hissera cried. Turner deftly removed the message from bird's leg as she carefully checked it for injuries, then wrapped the chilled bird in her apron. She invoked a minor fire spell to warm it, while Taar fetched its bed box and Anaan brought water. Seeing the raven was in good hands, Turner sat near Meraad's candle to decrypt the message.

Moments later, he looked slowly up at the family, tears falling freely down his ashen cheeks.

"Read it." Anaan whispered. "Please."       

“Notify family. Breach closed, but Haven attacked by unknown army and a dragon. Village overrun, heavy casualties. Herald drew enemy fire, caused avalanche to secure refugee's escape, saving many lives. Haven is buried. Herald currently missing, feared dead, search ongoing. Regrouping at new camp. Remain with family until further notice. Pray for the Herald. Maker keep you safe. - N"


Anaan Adaar never felt the pain as his knees struck the wood floor.

He never heard his glass shatter as it fell from his nerveless fingers.

In that moment, there was no sound in all the world beyond the breaking of his own heart.


She's gone.

My baby is gone.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 
So cold...stiff

Where...? I can't...

I can't see!

Meraad reached with a trembling hand to feel her head for damage, and the rift Mark suddenly flashed and flared on her palm. Blue lights danced before her watering eyes as needle sharp pains sparked up to her shoulder, and she cursed every malicious spirit in every language she knew until her vision began to clear. She squinted around her to get her bearings, disoriented by the shifting shadows cast in the erratic light.

S-stone floor...mud...ice? Some kind of pit? How did I get...?  Wait.

Monster....Dragon...AVALANCHE...

...falling…

Panic made the darkness smothering and oppressive. Part of her wanted to scream for help, but feared the waste of energy and air. She HAD to find a way out!

*Or you could stay here...* 
An insidious voice hissed from the shadows. *Rest here...sleep forever. Would anyone truly miss you? Haven’t you done enough?*
 
Startled, Meraad twisted to find the speaker, then fell back gasping in agony.

Oh gods...ribs....hurts to breathe...broken?  

Don't want to move, but I can't stay here!!

Panting through gritted teeth, she forced herself to roll and stand, bracing her back against the frozen rock wall for defense. A tentative search for voice's source revealed nothing but shadows, and she yelped when her horns scraped against the low stone ceiling.

Her free hand rifled through her belt pouch for a healing potion, but found only a single bottle left.

Without hesitation she broke the seal and downed it in one swallow. The minor elixir barely took the edge off her splitting headache, yet even that small respite allowed her to refocus enough to test her magical reserves. If she could just manage to heal herself a bit, she might be able to dig out...  

Nothing. 

Between the battle, and whatever that Corypheus did to remove what he'd called The Anchor, she was drained to the point only prolonged rest would help. Even a lyrium potion might not be enough.

She carefully skirted the perimeter of the cramped space to gauge the size of her prison, and nearly cried at the scent of fresh air from the deeper shadows. The flaring mark revealed carved walls and support beams cased in ice. Not a hole then...a cave. A TUNNEL.

Could this be the tunnel Roderick spoke of? Did they all get away?! Maybe I can still catch them!

The strengthening breeze led her up a long, winding path of icy stone to a larger antechamber, and the promised freedom of an exit on the opposite side. She shoved off the wall into a stumbling run, then recoiled as three demons materialized to cut off her escape. They hovered before the door, hissing in confusion, clawed hands grasping from beneath hooded shrouds.

"NO!  YOU SHOULDN'T BE HERE! DAMN YOU, I CLOSED THE BREACH!"

The demons spun and swarmed at her cry, rotted teeth bared to feed on her misery, and the unfairness of it all flooded her with rage. Like the breaking of a dam, power surged into the Anchor from the depths of the Fade itself, channeling through her outstretched arm to tear open a rift that filled the room. A sickly green light shredded and pulled the screaming beasts back into the Fade, before the rift sealed itself behind with a deafening boom. The blast wave drove her to her knees on the frozen stone, clutching her head.

What was THAT?! I've never cast like that before! Feel stretched and gutted...burning like when he tried to take the Mark. What did that monster DO to me?!

Meraad staggered to her feet and reached for the entrance, until she saw the valley below raging with a violent snowstorm, and she hesitated to leave shelter. But the others couldn't be far ahead, could they?

Clinging to that desperate hope, she cinched her wool headband around her ears, covered her mouth and throat with her scarf, and trudged into the gale.

It wasn't until she found the empty refugee camp in a copse of trees that she accepted just how horribly she'd miscalculated. Nothing remained but bits of abandoned gear and the remnants of fire pits.

No no no these ashes are long cold...how long was I in that cave?! There's no way I'll find my way back to it now, if I don't get out of this wind and rest for a bit I won't last much longer. I have to find shelter!

Fighting to remember her rescue training over her growing terror, she rifled through the discarded gear for anything of use, and her hopes rose when she found a mage staff in the snow. Its head was broken past repair and any residual energy gone, but at least the shaft and blade were intact.

She determined the direction of the wind and scanned the bases of the evergreen trees for a large one with heavy, low branches, stabbing into the snow at its base with the staff blade to find a tree well deep enough to accommodate her. Then she dug out a den on the leeward side and packed the cleared snow into a wind break.

With shaking hands she used her utility knife to cut fresh boughs from the thin lower branches for bedding to insulate her from the frozen ground. It wouldn't do for long term shelter, but at that moment just being out of the wind made it feel grander than any palace, enveloped by the astringent scent of fresh cut pine.

She desperately wanted a fire, but that would mean trying to find dry fuel. This site had been camp for a large group, which meant any usable tinder nearby would be gone, and she was in no fit state to go hunting farther afield. So she tucked smaller boughs into the gaps in her armor, along with handfuls of leaves and grass she'd collected as she'd searched, then packed clean snow into her wooden travel cup and snuggled it in next to her body to melt.

Already the den felt warmer compared to outside, and her numbed fingertips began to tingle and burn as she breathed on them, a welcome sign that she was still alive and functioning.

Meraad recited Aunt Hissera's lessons in her head, embedded after so many years of treating travelers for exposure in the mountains, knowing she had to keep aware of her own body if she was to survive alone.

Soon fatigue overwhelmed her, and as the wind howled through the tree above her, she curled up on her side and fell into a fitful sleep.

By the time she woke a few hours later, the snow in her cup had melted down enough to drink. It didn't completely wash away the charred, acrid taste of battlefield smoke from her throat, but it revived her enough to keep going.  She drained the cup, strapped it back to her belt, and cautiously peeked outside.

The storm hadn’t lessened a bit. In fact, it looked worse. She closed her eyes to center herself, hoping it was safe to tap into the ambient energy of the local Fade. 

Not a chance.

SHIT. Witch weather! Too many spells unleashed in an already unstable area, combined with so many deaths --  well, that explains the demons, and why I haven't recovered my mana. Who knows how long the local weather will be mucked up after this. No point in trying to wait it out here then. Have to try and get enough distance today to tap into the Fade safely, assuming I don’t get buried by the blizzard first. This just gets better and better.

Reluctantly, she stretched her limbs as far as the cramped shelter would allow, covered her face, and climbed out.

The moment Meraad left the copse of trees, a blast of piercing wind hit her with the force of a fist. She gasped and coughed, every breath stabbing like knives in her chest, and she frequently had to wipe building ice from the scarf over her mouth. Tiny, stinging snowflakes clawed at her watering eyes as the wind froze the tears on her cheeks.

It was impossible to tell what time of day it was when the low, heavy clouds blocked the light. and as she pushed deeper into the canyon her entire world narrowed to putting one foot in front of another. Periodically she'd test to see if she could draw power yet, and each time she met with failure, unwelcome doubts seeped in. 

If I can’t cast here, what about the other Mage healers? How many more people will die for lack of healing magic because we can’t rejuvenate? Did the others even make it out?

She stumbled forward, wracked with terrible guilt.

I should have known. After Redcliffe, I should have known that stopping Alexius alone wouldn’t be enough! I saw what they were planning in that dark future, and heard him talk about his Elder One! And while we were all patting ourselves on the back, the bastard followed us right back to the base!

All those people...as if the Conclave wasn’t enough. That odd boy said the monster didn’t care about the rest of the village, he just wanted me. Those people died to defend me , and I don’t even know if any of them escaped.

I've failed them. Maybe I deserve to
 die out here too.

She choked on a sob, hating herself for even thinking it.

Coward.

If you quit now, then those people died for nothing, and more will follow.

You owe them, Meraad Adaar!

Your enemy now has a face, and if you don’t fight him, he’ll not only win, but your inaction will make you his accomplice. You will be the monster you always feared you’d become:

Saarebas.

Meraad shook her head in denial even as she moved forward.  

Corypheus is a giant! Even without his DRAGON, he threw me like a broken toy! He said the Mark was just a mistake, and knew I don’t know how to properly use it. The power he wields..how in the Void am I supposed to fight THAT?

She was exhausted, body and soul, and deeply resented this burden that she felt so unprepared for. The terrifying enormity of the true enemy they faced chilled her more than the unforgiving mountain winds.

But if you give up now, demons will overrun the South, and red lyrium will devour everything.

Just like it devoured Bull in future Redcliffe.

The memory of the captain's corrupted, broken body tossed by demons to the throne room floor filled her with a rush of protective fury.

So if you care for the Iron Bull as much as you claim, 
YOU CAN NEVER LET THAT HAPPEN. Bull wouldn’t let it happen. And don’t whine that he’s warrior and you’re ‘just a mage’, like he’s somehow invincible, because you know that’s a lie. You’ve healed him enough to know that he bleeds.

He bled for you at Haven, and many times before that.

Bull won’t quit because he’s a true leader that uses his wits as much as his strength. Prove you’re worthy of him. Prove you’re worthy of all of them. Stop panicking over what you can’t fix, and THINK about what you can. What would Bull do? 

Meraad took a breath, and stabbed her staff blade into the ground before her as if it were the heart of Corypheus himself.

That's right, Bull would fight. He’d take this one step at a time, and face that big bastard with his horns up.

So fight, ADAAR. By your very name, you are a WEAPON. Would you shame your family who sacrificed everything so that you could live free? You’re not the only one with a family to lose! What about all those people with no magic, no homes, no training, that flocked to you because they believed you could help?

You've already made it through one night in the storm. That’s more than some of those poor people can say.

Live. Find the others. 

Over the next few hours Meraad wove her way across the valley floor, using the treeline for momentary wind breaks. Not for the first time she truly envied the smaller hornless races the ability to pass through heavy brush without snagging branches, or to wear hats and hoods. She distracted herself by mentally designing a hat to wear over her horns, as well as a checklist of items she’d never go into the cold without ever again.

Her teeth chattered so hard she feared they'd crack with her shivering. The pine boughs and leaves under her leather coat helped, though not as much as she’d hoped. The sullen green glow of the rift mark gave her a little light to see by, but no heat, so she had to find shelter again soon, preferably some place where she could build a fire.

The cold bit into her joints with each step through the heavy drifts, and as the canyon narrowed, the funneled winds slowed her even more. She thought she could hear voices calling to her in the moans and hisses of the wind through the rocks and trees, and it was becoming harder to remember why she was out here, or what she was looking for, or what it was like to feel warm at all.

Bull is warm. Bull is always so warm. Be like Bull. Think warm.

If only she could summon enough fire to thaw herself, or at least a shield against the wind, but even if she had the mana, the risk was too great that the magic would go out of control. She leaned into the lee of a rock outcropping and closed her eyes for a moment to try and sense any of the other mages, but it was like looking for a ship's lantern on a raging sea. 

Then the wind formed words she could understand:

*It’s warm with us, so warm, and we have LOTS of magic. You’re strong, Mage. We can help you become even stronger if you just let us in…*

 She jerked awake, horrified to realize she’d started to doze. 

IDIOT. You know better! You’re weak and exposed here...find shelter now or die! MOVE!

A strong gust whipped through the canyon, throwing her back down the path she’d worked so hard to climb. She slammed hard enough into the rock wall to knock the air out of her lungs, and couldn't even cry out as her right knee hit the stone and fresh pain shot through her leg.

Determined to regain ground, she crawled forward and touched flat, sanded wood in the darkness, and suddenly the wind diminished. At first she thought she’d found the remains of a lean-to shelter braced against the cliff, but the light of the Anchor revealed the underside of a broken wagon, tilted forward and half-buried in snow. It had snapped its forward axle, likely from having been overloaded with refugees and goods on the uneven terrain, and the wind had tossed it back just as she had been. 

The solid front wheels canted out away from the wagon bed, with the ends of the broken axle jammed into the frozen earth. Its right rear wheel lodged on the cliff face, turning the whole structure into a wedge against the wind. Taking advantage of her surge of adrenaline, she dove under the tilted flatbed and began clearing away the drifted snow, first with her freezing hands, and then with a hastily-removed pauldron for a makeshift shovel.

As she scraped down to bare ground, she uncovered something even more wonderful: a whole sheepskin, crusted with dirt, that had likely been used as padding on the wagon’s bench. It wouldn’t be big enough to completely cover her, but at least it would help insulate her from the ground, and with so many bits of broken wood at hand, she could finally build a fire.

Using her pauldron and knife, she dug two holes about a foot deep and a foot wide in the newly-cleared ground, one inside the shelter and one angled just outside to allow for the wind to pass over it, before scooping out a tunnel between to allow for airflow. Then she shaved down a piece of broken wood and carefully stacked the kindling into the bottom of the larger hole, along with a few pieces of pine, and scraps of cloth cut from the bottom of her tunic.

Time was of the essence now as her strength was starting to wane, and if the spirits had taken notice of her, she didn’t dare try even a spark of magic. She struck a piece of white quartz with the notched back of her blade, dropping sparks into the shredded tinder, and when a tendril of smoke began to rise from the tiny cherry embers, she broke down into grateful tears. 

The whoosh of air through the chimney tunnel as the wind fed the kindling from below was music to her ears, and soon the cramped shelter glowed with life-giving heat. She once again packed her cup with snow, then stripped off her boots and draped her socks, gloves and headband from the rear axle to dry before examining her knee in the dim light. Though starting to swell, she could still move it, and by some miracle the cut wasn't deep enough to require stitching. Meraad cleaned the wound as best as she could and bound it with another strip of cloth cut from her tunic, promising herself she’d get a proper poultice on it as soon as she got back to civilization.

Soon the fire burned merrily in the little pit, and she dug into the bottom of her belt pouch for the last of Uncle Taar’s emergency trail bars. The near-frozen ration was a challenge to chew, and now she understood why her Uncle insisted she always carry one. When the water melted enough to drink, and she settled in for one of the best meals of her life, and when she put the thick wool socks back on, it was with a genuine moan of pleasure.

I never thought I’d see the day when dry socks and tepid water could almost be better than sex. 

She considered stripping off the rest of her armor, but just having warm feet and thawing limbs was blessing enough. Meraad banked the fire and tucked herself onto the pad as best as she could, then pulled the tiny portrait of her family from her pack, and comforted herself by singing a favorite folk song her father sang to her when she was little. 

I promise you, Papa. I will find a way home. Then I’m going to soak in a bathtub for days, put Uncle Taar’s favorite hot sauce on everything, drink spicy hot chocolate, buy ten more pairs of these amazing socks, and sleep for a week.

I’m going to ask Varric to teach me how to play Wicked Grace and Diamondback. I’ll ask Solas for stories, and Leliana for songs. I’ll ask Dorian and Vivienne to teach me about flashy combat magic, and Cassandra to teach me about tactics.

I’m going to beat this monster, send all these people home, give up being a merc and become a minstrel like I always wanted to be.

And maybe I can finally tell Bull how I really feel about him, and see once and for all if he feels the same about me. 

But first, I’m going to beat this fucking mountain.

 

 

Chapter Text

 
A deep thrum echoed through the valley when the mountainside shattered, snow and stone and debris racing toward her in a torrent of freezing death. She turned and ran, the roar of the avalanche thundering in her ears as the ground beneath her feet gave way...

Meraad woke screaming, flailing the empty air to protect herself from the fall, until her left horn hooked on the wagon's broken axle and jerked her backward hard. For long, gasping moments she scanned the unfamiliar shelter as memory sluggishly returned, then freed herself and sat up to refresh the fire.

Another boom shook the shelter, and she tentatively stabbed the outer snow wall with her staff blade, dreading to find herself entombed. But the meager firelight reflected off flakes of fast falling snow, just as a clap of thunder pealed through the narrow canyon.

Thundersnow. Because a blizzard wasn’t enough. Guess the local spirits want one last crack at me before I get too far out of range.

Meraad had experienced thundersnow only once before during a snowstorm on her eighteenth birthday, and back then she’d loved it. But watching the violent storm from the safety of her family’s farmstead, and being caught in an improvised shelter in the unforgiving Frostback Mountains, were two distinctly different animals.

Time lost all meaning in the unrelenting darkness of the storm. She couldn't tell if it was day or night, and could only estimate how long she'd rested by how far the fire had burned down. All that really mattered at the moment was she was alive and mobile, and far more alert than she’d been the day before. 

She waited long enough to drink one last mug of water and eat the rest of the trail bar before repacking her armor, this time with the sheepskin draped across her chest and shoulders. Then she cut two eye slits in the bottom edge of her wool headband to help protect her from the wind. It would limit her visibility, but that was better than going blind on the descent through the canyon.

It took all her courage to fill in that tiny fire pit and leave the relative safety of her den, and as she leaned into the wind to start her climb, Meraad couldn't shake the nagging doubt that she should have found other survivors by now.

Even slowed from injury, I’m still one lightly encumbered person, compared to what I hope is a large group laden with wagons and wounded, and all I’ve found so far as been a cold camp and a broken wagon? Visibility is shit right now, how do I know I didn’t stumble down a side path in the darkness?  

No, 
I have to believe I’m on the right trail. Please, please, if there are any spirits or gods in this miserable world that are actually interested in helping instead of just being entertained by my distress, help me find a sign of the others soon.

Lightning struck an outcrop above the wagon, shearing the stone, and Meraad dove into a snowbank to evade the jagged shower as it crushed her former shelter with a sickening crack.

So it’s like that, then. Meravas, you bastards.

She levered herself to her feet with her staff, flipped off the sky with a series of obscene gestures, and pushed up the trail. The peal of thunder that followed sounded suspiciously like mocking laughter.

A freezing gale tore through the canyon with terrifying speed, and more than once Meraad was forced to cling to the cliff face until it passed.

The voices on the wind transformed into those of her team, urging her to turn back, to stay, to join them. When she didn’t reply, their calls became pleas for help, and in her fatigued state she hesitated.

But when Bull's voice uncharacteristically begged for mercy, the illusion shattered. Meraad shook her head and pushed forward, ignoring the howls of rage that followed.

Ebost issala, demons! I have promises to keep, and not to you. Thanks for reminding me what I’m fighting for.

By the time she reached the bottom of the pass, any strength she’d recovered under the wagon was well past spent. The canyon widened into a plateau dotted with evergreens, yet even with pauses to rest from the unrelenting wind, she was burning far more energy than she’d consumed, and would soon need to find another shelter.

A coughing fit wracked her with painful spasms, her breath rasping in her lungs, and her numbed fingers lost hold on her staff in the darkness when she leaned against against a tree for support. But before she could panic over its loss, the wind shifted and her addled brain registered a startling new scent.

Wood smoke...?! Smoke means fire. Fire means warm. Warm means Bull. I have to find Bull.

She pushed away from the tree line and blindly staggered back into the storm, every step through the knee-deep snow an agonizing fight for ground. The trail climbed through a narrow pass to the mouth of another valley, where a large camp, full of people, and light, and hope, sheltered from the storm.

For a moment she stared in disbelief, until she saw the Inquisition banners on the perimeter. So great was her relief that her legs could no longer support her, and she dropped to her knees in the snow. 

In the distance, a familiar-sounding male voice cried, “THERE! It’s her! Thank the Maker!”

Multiple sets of heavy footsteps raced up the icy trail toward her, but her vision was too blurred to determine who owned them. She didn't recall collapsing, until a warm hand felt for the fluttering pulse at her throat.  

“She’s alive, barely. Get a stretcher!”

“Out of the way, Templar! I’ve got this!" A booming voice commanded, rousing her back through the fog.

That voice...I know that voice...I like that voice… 

Powerful arms scooped her up, and she flinched at the sudden movement.

“Easy, Boss. I’ve got you," the voice she liked soothed. "Try to stay awake if you can.” 

Another vicious coughing spasm overwhelmed her, and she choked in pain as her ribs grated against the wall of Bull’s broad chest. He cradled her close and strode downhill as quickly as possible without jostling her more than necessary.

“Just hang on, Meraad, we’re almost there. Stay with me.” 

He’s alive. He’s so warm. Stay with him.

Meraad happily buried her face beneath the curve of his strong jaw, savoring his radiant heat and the spicy musk of his skin. She didn't know where ‘there’ was, and didn't care so long as it meant she could stay like this in his arms. 

People crowded to see as they passed, their voices clamoring and chattering like the spirits on the mountain, but she couldn’t make out their words and was too tired to try. 

A quick shift of canvas and the voices receded, replaced by softer tones and urgent whispers. At their direction, Bull tried to ease her down but she clutched him tight, and gentle hands disengaged her arms. The loss of his warmth threw her into panic and she flailed out to reach him, until every abused muscle and joint in her thawing body screamed in protest.

Someone pressed a bottle to her lips and a woman's voice urged her to drink. The potent elixir burned like wildfire as it spread from her chest through her limbs, forcing her muscles to relax and leaving a blessed numbness in its wake.

They pulled off her headband and mud-stained sheepskin, then pried open the straps of her long coat, and a shower of leaves and branches tumbled out.

“What...what is she wearing?” The healer asked incredulously.

Somewhere to her right, Bull softly chuckled in Qunlat,  “*Well, aren’t you full of surprises.*”

“*Horns up...*” she whispered back as darkness claimed her.

 


  

Where?

Can’t move.

Why can’t move?

Warm. Soft warm. Naked, clean, bed...sounds different. Tent?

Smell herbs. Someone's crying.


“My Lady? Meraad?” Leliana’s voice softly called. “I don’t know if you can hear me. I pray you can hear me.”

I hear you, Meraad’s mind replied, unaware her mouth didn’t echo the words. I’m here.

“These things take time, Sister,” an older woman sighed. “We have done all we can with the limited resources we have. She is in the hands of the Maker now.”

Mother Giselle? I said I’m here!

“I understand Mother. Please, go and rest for a while. I’ll stay with her.” 

Breeze. Tent door closed. Someone’s cooking. Hungry...when did I last eat? 

“Meraad?” Leliana called again. “Please! So much has happened, we need to know you’re alright. I have news from the North, my Lady. News from Turner.”

Turner.   Meraad’s mind clawed through a thick haze of medicinal herbs. Eton Turner. Mousy hair, sweet face, easy to miss. Marcher boy from Wycome...scout...courier...HOME. Turner is home with my family!

“Papa…?” She whispered, struggling to open her eyes against the weight of what felt like massive sandbags. Then she groaned as the light of the lantern hanging from the tent frame above pierced her skull.

 Leliana gasped and reached up to dim the light a bit. 

Oh Maker be praised! Please be still, my Lady. You’re safe for now.”

“My family...?” Meraad weakly clutched at Leliana’s hand.

Sister Nightingale beamed and held up a long, thin piece of paper.

“This message arrived from Turner a few hours ago. The raven had difficulty finding us after the roosts were destroyed in Haven. ‘Safe and sound. Roost established. Family well, sends love and best wishes to Herald. Waiting further instructions.’ “

Leliana's smile faltered. "You must know that our last message to them was that you were still missing, and feared dead. You were lost nearly four days, and have been in and out of consciousness for another three since you were found. We hesitated to send word to your family until we were certain that you would recover, but I promise you, now that you’re awake I will do so immediately.”

“Thank you.” Meraad croaked, her voice thick with grief and guilt. “Leliana...I’m so sorry. It’s all my fault...he came for me...I tried to stop him…”

Shh ...now is not the time to speak of this, my Lady. Please, rest now and recover your strength. You will be needed in the days to come.” 

To Meraad’s surprise, Leliana leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead before standing to leave. “I am so very, very happy you are returned to us. Maker bless you and keep you safe.”

Her violet eyes filled with grateful tears as she watched the Nightingale depart.

My family is alive. Bull’s alive. The people made it out.

I beat the mountain, Papa.

Now I can find a way to beat the Monster.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Hissera sighed with satisfaction as she closed her leather-bound ledger. Thanks to Turner's assistance with cataloging the clinic's current inventory, she had a head start planning which herbs to plant after spring thaw, as well as a list of supplies to purchase in Ansburg on their next trip to the city.

She turned to remark on this to the young courier, but something in his manner as he stoically wiped down the workbench made her pause. His face was set in a mask of careful neutrality, yet to the empathic Healer, he radiated waves of silent frustration far too strong to ignore.

"Did you just find a difficult spot to clean, Eton, or have you been wronged by furniture in the past?"

Turner blinked at the worn wooden surface as if seeing it for the first time, and she collected his cleaning rag to hang dry. “I think that's enough for now. I want to thank you for your hard work around the farm recently. You’ve been a great help.”

"It’s no trouble at all, Mistress Hissera,” he mumbled. “I...I like keepin' busy.”

"So I see! Yet I think you wish you could do more, don't you? That if you ease the work, it may ease hearts too?"

Eton opened his mouth to protest, but Hissera calmly arched a brow and stared him down, until his shoulders slumped in resignation to the truth.

"I just feel horrible about all this, milady. It’s not the first time I’ve delivered ill news, to be sure, but seeing a man as strong as Master Anaan grieve like that...it was the first time I’ve ever hated my job. He’s been a gracious host to me, you all have, and I felt like I’d betrayed him.” 

Turner ran his fingers through his mousy brown curls and shook his head. “I tried next morning to offer some words of hope, to tell him I still believe the Lady lives, but I may as well have been talkin’ to stone.”

Hissera stiffened. “Has he been harsh with you?”

“No, Ma’am! More like he doesn’t even note I’m there. He stays in his shop, sunup to sundown, and if he speaks to me at all it's...hollow. Not angry, not sad, nothing. Sweet Maker, I almost wish he would rail at me, just to break the terrible silence!” 

He untied his borrowed leather apron and returned it to its peg by the door. “Mind you, I don’t blame him for being resentful. Don't matter I'm just a messenger, I’m here, safe, and his daughter's not. Now here we are a fortnight gone, with me still lurkin’ under that poor man’s roof, asking him to keep the faith when I’ve no way of knowin' if my bird even made it through! Anything could happen this time of year, and I…” Turner looked up in horror as he lamely tried to clarify. “I mean, the weather’s been…”

“It's alright, I know what you meant.” Hissera gently touched his shoulder. “But this guilt isn’t yours to carry. You didn’t send her into danger. And between you and me? I believe she's alive, too."

She gestured for him to retrieve a shallow basket from the shelf, then set to work snipping sprigs of herbs from the dried bundles hanging in the rafters. 

"Meraad and I have worked magic together for many years, Eton. I love her as my own child. If she were dead, I believe in my heart she’d find her way to me in the Fade, if only to say goodbye, and I’ll hold to that until I’ve proof of a body.”

“But Anaan and Master Taar don’t believe.”

“Because it’s not that simple for them. No matter how long they’ve been Tal-Vashoth, they were Qunari first, and in desperate times the mind finds comfort in old habits. The Qun teaches ‘struggle is an illusion’, and hope is a denial of reality that only prolongs your suffering. Just accept your lot, get back to work, blah blah ‘victory in the Qun’. It’s oppressive rubbish, if you ask me, but this is the way they are.”

“I'm still learning the language, so beggin' your pardon if I'm wrong, but doesn’t Hissera mean ‘hope’?”

“JA, it does!” She cackled. “When I was small, my Mama said to me, ‘Hope is the rainbow over the waterfall of our life.’ Isn’t that nice? Of course, Anaan will tell you my name only proves I’m here to prolong his suffering.” Hissera winked. “He’s right.”

She wrapped a thin piece of twine around the stems of her fresh-cut herbs, and offered a second one to Turner to copy her example.

“Jokes aside, my brother’s always been protective of Meraad, for reasons that aren’t mine to share. It’s harder to distance yourself from the pain of losing a child than losing a companion to war. More so for those who sacrificed everything for the chance to even have a family. My husband was the same way when we lost our youngest son.”

“Your...? I’m deeply sorry, milady! I had no..." but Hissera waved away his apology.

“Danke, sweetling, but it was many years ago. My little Arad died at birth, and I would have died with him if not for Asha, Meraad’s mother. She’d been a healer in Seheron, but she was no mage, and the damage was beyond her skill alone to fully heal. So my life was spared, but I could never conceive again. Taar was beside himself with grief, frustrated he couldn’t have done more to help me. It can be hard for a warrior to accept that there are foes in this world you can’t just cleave with an axe. Douse the lamps for me, please?"

Hissera gathered her ledger and herb basket, closed the clinic door, and led Turner back across the icy stone path to the main house. “You mustn't trouble yourself over Anaan. I promise he isn’t angry with you. He’s just a bit lost right now, so we must be patient, and carry this hope for him. But I am curious, Eton, why do you believe?”

He frowned as he considered the question. “Well, she’s the chosen of the Maker’s Bride, isn't she? How could He not defend her? Beyond that, I have faith in Lady Meraad. She and her team have already overcome so much...my gut says if anyone could survive the fall of Haven, she could! She just has to!”

A clamor of thundering steps, crashing pans, and a string of blistering Qunlat curses rang from the house. The kitchen door slammed open, and Taar breathlessly scanned the darkness of the snowbound garden until he spotted them.

Rasch!” He called as he waved them inside. “A raven just landed...Anaan’s got it upstairs!”

Turner bolted past him up to the sitting room, with Hissera and Taar close behind. The couple joined Anaan by the hearth, none of them daring to speak as they waited for the boy to decipher the precious missive's code.

“SHE’S ALIVE!” He shouted, then read aloud, "Notify family: Herald reached us at forward camp four days after battle, injured but expected to make full recovery. Moving survivors north -- hold for further instructions. Maker be praised!"

With a whoop of joy, the Adaars all swept him into their grateful embrace, their laughter and cheers ringing through the house. Then Anaan staggered, and slowly sank into a chair, his face buried in his scarred, trembling hands.  Taar nodded to his wife and steered the confused courier toward the hallway door.

"It’s okay, son, just give him a moment. Come and help me in the kitchen.”

Hissera sat on the arm of Anaan's chair, hugging his shoulders in support. “That’s it, brother, let it out. I told you she wasn’t lost to us yet.”

Anaan shook his head. “You did, but...this is different, Hissera! Look, stopping rebels and bandits, helping refugees, that’s merc work I can understand. But how do you fix a demon-spewing hole in the sky? What kind of enemy was she was fighting that made burying their base  seem like the best option?! And now we hear she spent four days in the mountains after the battle...how did she survive that? I don’t know…maybe there’s something to that Maker after all."

"Bah. Meraad’s mountain folk, with strong Vashoth blood, and we all trained her well. I'll credit that before any divine intervention! What matters most right now is that she's living, so it's time for you get back to doing the same, Serah. You got poor Turner worried sick about you.”

He wiped his eyes and leaned into her hug, nearly knocking her from her perch. "Only Turner, huh?”

“Oh, don’t flatter yourself, I’m far too familiar with your foul moods to be phased by them anymore. So no more brooding, you sullen old goat, or you’ll have me to answer to!”

“Tyrannical hag. I’ll never understand how Taar puts up with you."

Hissera kissed his nose and grinned. "Because he's smarter than you."

"Better looking, too!" Taar called from the door as he and Turner returned with trays of food. He placed a tall drink in Anaan’s hand, then raised his own glass in toast,  “To Meraad, and to hope. May they both live long.”

The family saluted and drank, savoring the relief of the moment, until the silence was broken by a clear tenor voice ringing out in song, growing stronger with each heartfelt refrain:

“Shadows fall, and hope has fled
Steel your heart, the dawn will come
The night is long, and the path is dark
Look to the sky, for one day soon
The dawn will come

The shepherd's lost, and his home is far
Keep to the stars, the dawn will come
The night is long, and the path is dark
Look to the sky, for one day soon
The dawn will come

Bare your blade, and raise it high
Stand your ground, the dawn will come
The night is long, and the path is dark
Look to the sky, for one day soon
The dawn will come.”


Eton Turner, tears streaming down his sun-kissed, freckled cheeks, beamed at them all as he also raised his glass:

“To the good health of Lady Meraad. Maker be praised.”

 

----------

A second raven arrived nearly a month later, as the morning sun reached the valley floor. The surrounding hills were a blanketed in the new blooms of early spring, and the farm’s doors and windows were open wide to catch the breeze that carried the scents of pine and wildflowers down from the high peaks.

Turner raced down to Anaan’s shop with the freshly decoded message: " Herald Adaar chosen to lead the Inquisition by popular demand. Inquisitor sends her regrets to family for delayed reunion, with best wishes. Inquisition base established in northern Frostbacks -- an ancient fortress known as Skyhold. Coordinates attached. Return immediately for debriefing. Maker watch over you.”

“So, my orders are up," Turner said. "Figured I’d take the rest of today to pack and supply, then head South tomorrow while the weather's good.”

Anaan gazed beyond the shop’s door toward the wide expanse of the lake’s southern shore, chewing his bottom lip in thought. Then he glanced back at Turner with eyes full of mischief, and a conspiratorial grin worthy of a Rivaini pirate.

“Allow me one extra day to make arrangements and pack the wagon, then send word to your Nightingale. I’m coming with you.”

 

Chapter Text

The main floor of The Herald’s Rest tavern filled to capacity after evening shift change, turning the air into a stifling haze of smoke and heat from the fireplace, the kitchen, and the press of bodies near the bar. 

Inquisitor Meraad Adaar sank into a chair in a shadowed back corner beneath the stairs, unlatched her borrowed armor, and finger-combed her hair into a loose side braid to cool off her neck.

“I honestly don’t know how you can stand it in here all the time, Bull. I feel like I’m being smothered!”

The captain set a tall stoneware tankard of rum-laced ginger beer on the table beside her, before dropping into his own chair with deceptive carelessness.

“It’s not always this busy. And some of us actually like the heat, Boss.”

“Hmm, fair point. Must be rough for you down here, coming from a hot place like Seheron. If you or your team need warmer gear, please let me know and I’ll talk to Josephine.”

She slipped off her armored coat and dropped it onto the bench beside him. “In the meantime, thanks for the loan, and for introducing me to the new recruits like that. You were right, it was good to get their perspective.”

“No problem,” he replied. “With a small company, I know every soldier under my command. Since you don’t have that option, I thought a few faces might help. It’s important to remember they’re people, not just numbers.”

Meraad suppressed an involuntary shiver as she sipped her drink.

Gods, the the look in Mira’s eyes when she said she’d joined up after witnessing me fight the Archdemon...that kind of devotion is terrifying.  I get that it’s good for the Inquisition for people to believe I’m holy, but I’d rather they remember I’m a person too.

“Level with me, Bull, how do you live up to your team’s expectations? Do you ever find it overwhelming?”

He smiled encouragingly. “Not really. Best advice I can offer is try not to overthink it, and accept you’re never going to please everybody. No matter what comes next, you’ve got a good army coming along. Remember that.”

Meraad rubbed her burning eyes against the lingering smoke, and held the cool tankard to the side of her throat to leech some of its chill.  “I’m trying. But I’ve never even worked in an army of this magnitude, let alone led one! I really envy the bond you have with the Chargers. Reminds me of when I first joined the Valo-Kas, even if it still surprises me you have a ‘Vint for a second in command. You haven’t exactly been quiet about much you hate them.”

“But Krem’s not ‘a Vint’, he’s just Krem.” Bull stretched back in his chair, and nodded to his Lieutenant by the base of the stairs, casually keeping watch over his chief’s blind side. " Look, I can get worked up about a group or a nation just fine, but people...it’s too much work to hate them one by one.”

“Well, that’s reassuring, considering as both a Vashoth, and a mage, I’m at least two things you’re not fond of either.”

“Nah, don’t worry, Boss. You aren’t a bandit terrorizing innocent people, and from what you’ve told me about your family, neither are they. You’ve more than proven you can pull your weight, and watch my back in a fight. You have nothing to fear from me.”

She chuckled mirthlessly over the rim of her mug. “I think the Chantry may disagree with you about the ‘terrorizing bandit’ part, but thanks all the same. As for the Chargers, they’re an excellent team. I mean that.”

The sound of his relaxed, easy laugh made her flush more than the sweet alcohol. “Thanks! They’re a crazy bunch of assholes, but they’re mine. You should come drink with us more often too. With everything going on, you could do with some stress relief.”

“Oh, I could definitely use more of your company…” Meraad's amethyst eyes smoldered hungrily in the torchlight as she licked her lips, then she blanched in horror at how inappropriate that sounded. “F-for drinks , I mean! To drink , and spend more time with your Company!”

Bull grinned, but politely refrained from comment while he scanned the room. He waved to someone at the other end of the bar, and Meraad's heart sank when she recognized his target.

Tessa was a petite, voluptuous human barmaid in her early twenties, with a bright laugh and lusty demeanor, brought in from the refugee camp to work in the tavern. Worse, she was a natural flaming redhead, which Meraad knew Bull loved.

Because of course she is. Once again, the gods are assholes.

“Hey, Boss,” Bull gestured to the girl with his chin. “Speaking of stress relief, do you know if that new redhead is available? She’s been throwing signals.”

The question hit Meraad like a punch to the gut, and she coughed to hide her disappointment.

Keep it together...you have no claim on Bull, and Tessa can’t help being small, beautiful, charming and everything you’re not to him. Bet she also smells like sunlight, cooks like an Orlesian chef, and reads to orphans and rescued puppies.

“I’ve no idea," she replied hollowly. "Probably. Anyway, thanks again for the drink. Tonight’s been...educational. See you later, Bull.”

Swallowing hard around the lump in her throat, Meraad rose with all the dignity she could muster and went to the bar, where she ordered a mug of stew with bread, and a tall glass of water. The last thing she needed now was a hangover to add to her misery.  She barely tasted the food when it came, and tried very hard not to cry at the sound of Tessa’s delighted giggle from Bull’s corner, or his low, sexy chuckle that followed it.

It’s your own fault you feel this way, you know. You were deluding yourself on that mountain to believe that when he carried you to camp it was for anything more than practicality. They need you alive to close rifts, and it simply would have taken too long to fetch a stretcher. Unless you wake up tomorrow two feet shorter and a buxom redhead, you’ll always just be ‘Boss’ to him and nothing more.

She wiped away a slow, angry tear with her gloved hand, careful not to let him see. 

Sod it, maybe it’s better this way. He’s Qunari, you’re a Vashoth mage. For there to be anything between you, one of you would have to make a drastic life change, and the Qunari would never have you even if you wanted to. If you truly care for him as much as you claim, would it be fair to ask him to give up the Qun when it obviously means so much to him?

Besides, what would your family say? Bad enough you’ve already lied about him being Tal-Vashoth. Ben-Hassrath Bull would be obligated to report about the village, which would jeopardize dozens of innocent lives, so in the end it’s not just about you.

Meraad didn't hear the man approach until a meaty hand slapped down on the bar beside her, and he pushed himself close against her right side. A powerful blend of liniment and cheap ale assailed her as he leaned close to her ear and breathed in slurred Qunlat,

"*What’s your name, pretty lady? Mine’s Kas. I’m a lieutenant with Rethsaam's Rebels. No need for you to sit over here all alone, come join me for a drink.*" His hips tilted forward suggestively. "*Or, if you’re game, we can get out of this cesspit and go back to my tent for a private party.*"

She blinked in surprise and slowly turned to look up at him. How does he not recognize...wait. No uniform...he thinks I’m just another merc!

For a moment, she actually considered his offer. The Tal-Vashoth wasn’t unattractive, but there was a predatory cruelty behind his eyes that she instantly distrusted, and as desperate as she was for company, she didn’t want it like this.

She stood to face the merc, who leered and put his hand around her waist possessively, before sliding his thumb up to graze the side of her breast. Shocked by the man's audacity, Meraad instinctively glanced toward Bull.

Tessa happily chatted as she draped across the captain’s lap, but Bull's focus was entirely on Meraad. His slow nod assured he was listening to every word, and only needed her signal to intervene.

For once, that brought her no comfort. Sparing one last irrationally jealous glare toward Tessa, Meraad extracted Kas’s hand.

"*As nice as it is to be appreciated... *" she glanced back at Bull, "*No, thank you. I wouldn’t be very good company tonight. And in the interest of full disclosure, I’m a mage.*"

The merc laughed loudly and replied in Trade tongue, “So? You wouldn’t be my first Saarebas, girl. I like a little risk. As for ‘company’, well, I’m not looking for a chat, Princess, just a good fuck. Since I doubt you're getting any from these ‘mage’-hating basra , I’m doing you a favor too. Let’s go.”

The barmaid let out an indignant squeal when Bull suddenly stood, but the Inquisitor’s eyes never left Kas.

Not this time, Bull. I've had quite enough of feeling helpless for one day.

“I’m not a Saarebas, ” she growled. “And I've already said no. As for your ‘good fuck’, you've obviously got at least one functioning hand. Go fuck that, Dathrasi.

All conversation stopped when the merc's right hand shot for her throat, seeking to choke the mage before she could utter a spell in defense.

Meraad grabbed his thumb mid-strike to jerk his arm past her shoulder, grasped his horn with her free hand, and headbutted him to the face. His long nose shattered with a sickening crunch, and she followed with a hard, fast punch to his sternum that dropped him to the floor gasping for air.

Members of the man’s crew surged forward in defense of their fallen teammate, but instantly stopped when a Tal-Vashoth who could only be their company's captain barked at them to stand down. Unlike his bleeding lieutenant on the floor, this man had no difficulty in recognizing the furious Lady Inquisitor, still in a fighting stance above the warrior's prone body.

Kost, my Lady! Kost, ” he said, stepping forward slowly with his empty hands raised. “I’m Captain Rethsaam, and this man is under my command. I regret that I wasn’t quicker to intervene by the time I realized who he was accosting, and take full responsibility for his actions.”

Who I am should make no bloody difference, Captain!" Meraad seethed. "Regardless of station, the simple fact that I said ‘no’, TWICE, should have sufficed.”

"I agree, Inquisitor, and he should be punished. You're well within your rights to demand his life for this offense, and I don't appreciate the drunken lout tarnishing my company's good name, yet I ask your mercy. The boy lacks common sense when he drinks, but he is still a good soldier, and they're in short supply.”

Meraad glared at the man whimpering on the floor, then noted the grim faces of Bull, Cullen, Cassandra and Varric as they all stepped forward to await her order.

Behold your power, "Inquisitor".  You can claim this man's life and none will question it, even though the offense was personal. This veteran captain is begging YOU for mercy, and your decision here can impact morale beyond one man. What kind of leader are you? Choose carefully, Healer.

Her adrenaline fled in a rush as the full gravity of the situation hit, and she paused a moment to wipe the blood from her forehead to hide her trembling. 

“No, Captain, his death isn’t necessary. I wasn't injured, only startled, and as you say it would be pity to lose a potentially good soldier. However, being drunk excuses nothing, Serah, and he’s not so far gone to not understand the consequences of his actions. So while I do believe in redemption, punishment is still warranted, and I want it clearly understood that if he ever does this again, to anyone under my protection, his life will be forfeit. Commander Cullen, please place the man under arrest. Let him stew in a holding cell tonight until he sobers up, and send a healer to attend to his injury. Since you claim responsibility for him, Captain Rethsaam, your company will pay the healer for their services, and cover any supplies needed for his care.”

“A fair and just decision, Your Grace,” the Captain replied with a respectful bow. “I will comply, and thank you. I hope this unfortunate business will not affect the terms of our continued service to the Inquisition?”

Merc to the last.

“No, Captain, as far as I’m concerned, it will not. Thank you for your understanding and support.”

Cullen’s men unceremoniously carted Kas off the floor and out the main door, followed by Cabot with a bucket and mop, grumbling about the extra work as Meraad addressed the room.

“Okay, everyone, show’s over. Very sorry for the disruption, the next round is on me. Please, enjoy the rest of your evening.”

A ragged cheer went up through the crowd, and patrons rushed to the bar, causing her to retreat back into the corner to avoid the crush. Bull placed a steadying hand on her shoulder and she flinched.

“Easy, Boss, it’s just me,” he tilted her face toward the lantern to examine her head. “Good job with the merc. That was a fair call, and they'll fight harder for you now because of it. See? You're better at leading than you give yourself credit for."

He dipped a linen napkin into the dregs of her glass of water, and gently dabbed the blood off of her face.

"Can't say I was surprised that asshole went for your throat, but your deflection was impressive. Nice work. However, you also could have said something, and I’d have stopped him for you without it ever having gotten that far. That is my job.”

Meraad jerked her head away, eyes flashing with cold fury. “Aaand yet another backhanded compliment. Believe me, I’m well aware that I’m nothing but a ‘job’ to you, Serah, you don’t need to constantly remind me that you think I'm weak. If I’d felt incapable of handling one fucking drunk trying to paw at me, I would have asked. Besides, you’re off duty, and you looked like you already had your hands full, so maybe if you ask little Tessa nicely she’ll bring you your free drink before her seat gets too cold. Good night, Captain.”

She shoved away and weaved through the crowd, pausing only long enough to give Cabot coin before slipping out into the night. The instant she left the tavern she cloaked herself in the power of the Fade and dashed up the stairs, trying to put as much distance between her and Bull as she could.

It wasn’t until she climbed the tower and securely locked her door behind her that she dared let her frustrated tears flow.

What have I done?

I show mercy to one captain, but potentially alienate the one who’s been my friend and bodyguard for months, just because he doesn't want me?

What have I done?

Chapter Text

Bull stood in stunned silence as he watched Meraad storm out of the tavern.

Damn. Some days I really hate being right. 

“M’lord?” 

Tessa grinned lasciviously at him over a pair of foaming tankards, her cleavage cinched up in her bodice almost to overflowing. At any other time he might have found it cute, but at the moment he was merely irritated the buxom barmaid had approached on his blind side. Again. 

When he didn’t immediately reply, the girl followed his gaze toward the outer door. “Aww, cheer up, Ser! I brought your drink, and one for m’self since it was offered. Shall we get back to where we were before Lady Gloom Horns spoiled everything?”

“‘Lady Gloom Horns’?” He wasn’t smiling.

Tessa wrinkled her nose impishly and giggled. “Just made it up. Every time I see her in here she looks like she should have her own thundercloud hanging about. I’d say she’s just in need of a good tumble, but with them magic folk you never can tell.”

“Yeah, well you can unmake it now,” Bull growled. “I hear that making the rounds, I’ll know the source. You’re new around here, and you don’t know what she’s been through. Show some respect.”

“Aww, don’t be cross, Ser." Her full lips pursed into a carefully-crafted pout. "We have all night. Drink with me?”

“You know, I think I’m gonna call it a night, Tess. Thanks anyway for the drink, you can have mine.” 

Without waiting for a reply, Bull strode to the stairs and stiffly climbed to the tavern's third floor, sparing a glance to the end of the landing where that squirrelly demon kid Cole liked to lurk. The corner was empty. Bull shrugged, entered his room and locked the door. As he sat on the bed to strip off his ankle brace, his thoughts returned to Meraad’s parting words, his gut twisting at the unbridled pain in her eyes.

“ ‘What have I done? ‘ “ A soft, anguished voice said from the shadows. “I show mercy to one captain, but potentially alienate the one who’s been my friend and bodyguard for months, just because he doesn't want me? What have I done?

“Hey, Cole.” Bull sighed tiredly. “Somehow I thought you might show up. Did Meraad really say that?”

“Yes. Most days I can’t hear her...she’s too bright, like counting birds against the sun. The Mark sings too loudly, and there have been many others here that needed me more. But this pain is heavy, it smothers her light like a thundercloud, so dim, so dark, a tempest about to break.”

Asaaranda ...it's not the first time that comparison’s been made about her. She’s too tightly wound for her own good, and I hate being part of the reason why.

“I don’t understand, The Iron Bull. You want to be with her, as she wants to be with you, but you make her believe that you don’t. Why?”

It was pointless to try and hide this from Cole. And if he was honest with himself, it actually felt good to be able to talk to someone.

“Because it isn’t safe for either of us right now, kid. Meraad hasn’t been Inquisitor long, and people are still getting used to the idea of a Vashoth mage being the Herald of Andraste. I’ve spent years building a reputation for myself and my crew, and I conform to the nobles' idea of what a Tal-vashoth merc is supposed to be. She doesn’t. She has to care what they think of her. I don’t want to tear that down by having people accuse her of bias, or undue influence from the Qunari. I figured if she thought I wasn’t interested, she’d give up.”

“Concerned, conflicted, confused…” Cole said in his strange sing-song voice. “Questions left unanswered, ravens unsent, guilt from omission, the named left nameless.You want to shield, to soothe, to save.”

Bull nodded. "I never thought it would be an issue, but now that I've gotten to know her... everything's way more complicated. If the Ben-Hassrath believe I can't be objective, they’ll replace me, and she’s far safer with me. The easiest compromise was to not get any closer to her than necessary to to do my job, so I wouldn't have to deny what I didn't know. ”

He took a swig from his hip flask, then stretched out against the bed's headboard to face Cole, who had perched himself on the foot board like a curious crow.

"Initially, I thought she only liked me because she was happy to see another Qunari down here, but I’ve seen her turn away other mercs since, even before that idiot in the bar tonight.”

Never forget the look on that bastard’s face when she headbutted him. Priceless. Don’t know who taught her how to brawl, but judging by how fast she responded to that particular attack it wasn’t the first time she’s had to do it. Yet one more thing I underestimated her for, and I demoralized her when she was still shaken up. Nice work, asshole.

“But there is more...” Cole said. “You fear the lurking shadows beneath her brightness...so much untouched, untested. You fear the saarebas. She fears it too.”

Damn, this kid cuts to the bone.  

“What does she fear, Cole?”

"Too many voices crying out for help," Cole intoned. "Too many eyes watching but never seeing, the cold and fearful seeking the Light she bears yet doesn't understand. I am more than a giant, more than a mage! Not holy, not a demon! Words are forgotten but deeds are remembered. Don't think of sleep, or hunger, or cold, or pain. Helping stops the hurt. I am good , I am not saarebas! "

I don’t get it.  I’ve worked with saarebas in Seheron and respect what they do, even if I couldn't help feeling sorry for them. But Meraad treats the name like it means abomination. Is that how the Tal-Vashoth see them?

“Voices on the wind, vengeful spirits on the mountain, calling, coaxing, clamoring for her…'It’s warm with us, so warm, and we have lots of magic. You’re strong, Mage. We can help you become even stronger if you just let us in…' “

Bull sat up, not liking where this was heading.

“The mountain? You mean when she was lost in the pass?”

“My fault...all my fault. Spirits on the battlefield, demons clawing the veil...too many dead because of me. I failed them! The beast came for me and I should have stopped him! Too cold, too tired to fight, can't use magic or they'll get in! Memories of death and darkness...a future that cannot come to pass...I can’t lose Bull! So warm, so safe, so strong and sure. Have to prove I’m worthy, have to fight for him as he fights for me...”

Cole transfixed Bull with the intensity of his gaze, lost in Meraad’s nightmare.

“The Mountain spirits called to her, ‘turn back, don’t fight, join us! ’ They promised peace from pain, from pursuit. Then their voice became yours, and when you called for help, and she hesitated…but when you begged for mercy, she rebelled. Her Bull would never beg! ‘Ebost issala, demons! I have promises to keep, and not to you. But thanks for reminding me what I’m fighting for.’

Bull stared at his own distorted reflection in the side of his flask, reevaluating all of his previous impressions of Meraad Adaar.

I had no idea she thought that highly of me.  And I assumed she’d used magic to save herself on the mountain...damn. She fought the storm, without magic, alone and injured for four days, trying to prove herself worthy of me? That’s why she was terrified to let go when I took her to the healers...I was her lifeline. 

“She fears you hate her now, her magic, her storm. Words from hurt make words that hurt. Like you, her duty dictates, directs, divides. But she is very sorry.”

Bull closed his eye and took a steadying breath. 

No, sweetheart, I’m the one that’s sorry. I know what you want, what you need, more than you even know yourself. But between my duty to the Qun, and yours to your family and the Inquisition, I just can’t be the man to give it to you. I wish I could help you see that without hurting you more. But I promise I won’t leave you.

“Thanks, Cole, this really helped. I…”

A soft, insistent knock tapped on the door from the battlements. Bull glanced back at Cole as he crossed the room, but the boy had disappeared as silently as he’d arrived. With a smirk of admiration, the captain opened the door to find The Nightingale herself standing on the threshold.

“There is an urgent matter I must discuss with you, privately.” Leliana said sternly, striding into the room.

He scowled. “Look, Red, if this is about Meraad, I’m really not in the mood for a lecture, and there’s more…”

She held up her hand, both in a command for silence, and to display a folded missive.

“We received this message directly from the Ben-Hassrath, requesting your presence…”

Shit. Here it comes. They're gonna replace me, and I won't be able to protect her.

“...and the Inquisitor. It appears that the Qun wants to form an alliance with the Inquisition.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Long hours passed before Meraad finally succumbed to exhaustion, her dreams plagued by the memory of her escape from Haven. But this time, Bull didn’t save her on the outskirts of camp. He laughed as she lay shivering in the snow, tears freezing on her cheeks, and mocked her for being presumptuous and weak. Then he strode away, indifferent to her cries and apologies, and simply left her to die.

A gentle hand tugged her ankle and she jolted awake, her heart racing in disoriented panic trying to shake off the threads of the Fade that bound her as tightly as her tangled bed sheets.

“Forgive me, my Lady.” Leliana called from the foot of the bed. “I knocked, and heard you cry out in distress. Will you be alright?”

Meraad groaned and wearily sat up, scrubbing tears from her eyes. Being startled out of a dead sleep always left her in a foul mood for the first few minutes, and only Leliana’s politeness kept her from snapping. She ran shaking hands through her hair and glanced over at the southern window to gauge the time, estimating it to be a little past dawn.

Unh. Ask me after coffee.”

Nightingale threw open the window curtains as Meraad swung her long legs over the side of the bed, and the mage hissed at both the sudden bright light, and the icy stone floor beneath her feet.

“That’s it! I don’t care what it costs, I’m going to Val Royeaux and getting proper curtains and some fucking rugs. Bad enough to live in a bell tower without freezing my ass off too!”

“Indeed?” Leliana smirked unsympathetically. “And would Your Worship care for any other amenities? A new wardrobe? A bathing tub? Antivan chocolates delivered on silk pillows by nubile concubines?”

That earned a tired laugh. “Actually, a bathtub would be great, and I'm always up for chocolate. But no concubines, please. I already have a hard enough time dealing with having servants at all. How about just scrounging up some coffee instead, Cheeky Madame?”

With a knowing grin, Leliana presented a heavy stoneware stein, still warm from the hearth. Meraad lifted the lid to inhale the heavenly scent of spicy, mulled coffee with sweet cream, and refused to speak another word until she'd at least downed half the mug.

“I don’t care what you say, Leliana," she purred. "You are a good, kind lady, and one day people will write songs about you. Okay, seductress, I’m reasonably coherent now. What did you need?”

“The Iron Bull has requested your presence at the training grounds, Inquisitor. He has something important to discuss with you.”

Vashedan.” Meraad closed her eyes, her good humor instantly lost.

This is it. He’s going to tell me he’s taking the Chargers, and The Inquisition will lose some of their best scouts all because I had to throw a tantrum like a jilted teenager.

Deep down, she wanted to run and hide, but that would only make things worse. A leader had to accept the consequences of her actions. She only hoped she could find some way to make amends to the others for the loss.

“Thank you, Nightingale. Please give me a few minutes to get dressed and let him know I’ll be right down.”

After her departure, Meraad meticulously washed, dressed and did her best to cosmetically undo the ravages of a restless night, hoping to at least face him with some shred of dignity. Half an hour later she crossed the grassy courtyard, to find Bull aggressively sparring with Krem.

The young Lieutenant saw saw her approach and shouted, “G’morning Your Worship!”

Meraad nodded grimly, braced for the inevitable confrontation, but Bull simply shifted his stance and said, “Glad you came by. I got a letter from my contacts in the Ben-Hassrath. Already verified it with Red.”

Gods, so even the Ben-Hassrath knows how badly I messed up, and Leliana just didn't want to be the one to deliver the blow.

“Would you like to discuss this alone?” She asked with a glance at Krem, desperately wishing her humiliation wouldn’t be public.

“Not like I was hiding it from my boys. Besides, right now I need to hit something.”

Shit. He’s not just disappointed, he’s furious with me, and his crew is too. I'm gonna be sick.

“You know they’ve got training dummies, Chief.” Krem panted.

“Yeah, and the training dummy might actually defend itself against that shield bash!”

Wait a damned minute! This was my screw up, Krem shouldn’t be taking the beating! 

“HEY!” Meraad snapped. “So what did the letter say? And by the way, Serah, I thought you were only supposed to be watching.”

Bull paused, surprised by her reaction.

“Yeah...so was I. But the Ben-Hassrath have been reading my reports. They don’t like Corypheus or his Venatori, and they really don’t like red lyrium. They’re ready to work with us, with you, Boss. The Qunari, and the Inquisition, joining forces.”

“Wait...WHAT?”

I have to still be dreaming. I could have sworn he said the Qunari wanted to ally with...a Vashoth mage.

“That would be an unprecedented offer," she said cautiously. "If I believed it was legitimate. Which, for the record, I don’t.”

Bull smirked. “Ordinarily I'd agree with that, but they’ve identified themselves. They’re not running a game on you.”

“Pardon my cynicism, but why in the Void would the Qunari want an alliance with me?”

The two men resumed sparring as Bull replied,  "Because a massive shipment of red lyrium was found out on the coast.” 

“They want us to hit it together,” Krem added, grunting with the effort. “Even talked about bringing in one of their dreadnoughts. Always wanted to see one of those big warships in action!”

Bull knocked his Lieutenant back with a staggering blow, and shook his head in disappointment. “Did you see that? Take a break, and go get some water.”

"For what it's worth, Krem" Meraad said as she stepped aside. "My father was a navigator on a dreadnought before I was born, and he used to tell me stories about them. I’ve always wanted to see one too.”

Krem flashed a grateful grin and left the training ring as Bull continued, “The Ben-Hassrath are worried about tipping off the smugglers, so no army. Just my Chargers, you, maybe some backup. But trust me, Boss, they wouldn’t use the word ‘alliance’ if they didn’t mean it.”

“Fair enough, but tell me honestly, if we agree to do this, what will this ‘alliance’ actually get us?”

“Naval power, more Ben-Hassrath reports, Qunari soldiers pointed at the Venatori. It could do a lot of good.”

She squinted suspiciously. “And yet you don’t seem entirely happy about all this. What aren’t you telling me?”

“No, I’m good, it’s, uh…" Bull looked away, and his hesitation alarmed her more. "I’m...just used to them being over there. It’s been a while.”

“Why? Isn’t the Qunari dream to extend their reach to the whole world? Or could it be you're worried they'll think you've embraced your Tal-Vashoth cover a little too much?”

“Something like that," he sighed. "Look, the Qun answers a lot of questions, and it’s a good life for a lot of people. But I do understand your concerns. It's a big change, and a lot of folks wouldn’t do so well in the transition.”

“That's right, Bull, folks like me! I respect your devotion to the Qun, but you are asking me to accept a LOT on faith alone, and I know all too well what they do to mages. How do we know this isn’t a trap?”

He rested his large hand on her shoulder, and she flushed with embarrassment at not being able to hide how much she was trembling. 

“We're not looking to convert anyone, Meraad,” he said gently. “And I promise, you won’t be alone. This is just us joining forces against Corypheus. On that front, I think we’re good. Besides, they already know you exist, you haven’t exactly been hiding. If they really wanted to harm you, they’ve had ample opportunity before now.”

Damn it he’s right. No matter how much my family would be having a fit right now for even considering a deal with the Qun, I have to think of the greater good. Corypheus is the greater enemy, and the Qun's resources could be a tremendous benefit to the fight against him. At the very least, it couldn’t hurt to talk to the emissary and see what they have to say. Look at Bull's face...this means so much to him.

“Alright, I agree,” she said with far more conviction than she actually felt. “I think the Inquisition could use some help from the Qunari.”

Forgive me, Papa.

“Good! I’ll pass on word to Cullen and Red. We can set up the meeting whenever you’re ready.” He turned to follow Krem.

“Bull, wait. Before you go, I…I need to tell you I’m sorry. For last night.”

His jaw clenched, and Meraad almost lost her nerve, but he waved his hand dismissively. “It’s okay, Boss. You don’t have to..”

“No, I do! Please, just let me get this out. I was wrong. I was unprofessional, and I had no right to say what I did. Who you spend time with is none of my business, and I should have let you do your job.”

She took a deep breath, fighting to hold her voice steady, but failed miserably.

“When I came down here today, I honestly thought you were about to tell me you were going to end your contract with the Inquisition. I make no excuses for my actions, I ask only that you believe I'm not usually so forward. I greatly respect you, as a Captain, and as my friend, and I’m truly sorry if I made you uncomfortable.”

Bull’s gaze softened, considering his words carefully, then cleared his throat and said, “Thanks, Boss. The boys and I respect you too. No matter what may have happened, that hasn't changed. And for the record, despite how I originally came to join the Inquisition I took this contract in good faith, under my own name, and my Chargers don’t break contracts, ever. If you don't mind my saying, Inquisitor, you really need to relax.”

She laughed ruefully. “You’re not the first to tell me that.”

“You’ll be okay.” He said encouragingly, heading for the tavern. "Come on, let me buy you breakfast.”  

 

------------------------------------------------

 

Barely a week after the Inquisitor’s party left to meet the Qunari emissary, Sister Nightingale perched at her desk in the Rookery, reviewing scout reports from all across Thedas. One message in particular caught her eye, newly arrived from the village of Riesen-Tal:          

Message received. Family joyful to learn of Inquisitor’s health and appointment. Returning to Skyhold as ordered, with veteran wainwright and trade goods. Maker willing, expect minor delay of no more than a fortnight past original due date to account for wagon. -- Turner”


Leliana nearly choked on her tea, and read the missive again to be sure. Then she called for a runner to assemble the council immediately, and a few minutes later stood at the war table to announce: “we are soon to host a very important guest, whether we may like it or not.”

“Oh, what now?” Cullen growled. “Is the Empress herself coming?”

Josephine gasped in indignant horror. “I should certainly hope not! Skyhold is nowhere near in a state suitable to accommodate the Imperial court!”

“If the Empress were coming, Ambassador, I hardly think we would receive notice by bird, unless she wished to remain anonymous.” Cassandra said patiently. “Who is it really, Leliana?”

“Lady Meraad’s father.”

A moment of stunned silence fell upon the group, until Josephine quietly asked, “But...didn’t the Inquisitor specifically ask that her family not come here?”

Cullen laughed, “Meraad asked them not to come to Haven. She said nothing about Skyhold. I'll wager that’s exactly the counter he has in mind if she should protest. Personally, I’m looking forward to finally meeting the man.”

“As am I,” Cassandra said with a grin. “Particularly after his audacious introduction.”

Josephine immediately began taking notes. “I will of course arrange quarters for him, and will leave disbursement of these ‘trade goods’ mentioned to Ser Morris. Should we send word to the Inquisitor?”

“No.” Leliana said. “She has enough to worry about with this alliance. I estimate six weeks for his arrival at the earliest, though I shall alert the scouts to watch for them and keep us apprised. Wait to notify her until she returns and has time to rest. In the meantime, designating quarters is sufficient.”

“I will see him afforded every courtesy.” Josephine laughed. “Maker help us.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Bull and Meraad Meet the Qunari


Meraad blinked in surprise when Qunari emissary revealed himself on the rain-swept ridge above the Storm Coast.

Their ambassador is an ELF?  Wait, Bull mentioned something about elves and humans as converts…vidda-something...viddathari? Well, he may be one of Bull’s old friends, but he's sizing me up like a butcher eyeing a prize goose for Satinalia dinner.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Inquisitor Adaar," the man Bull called Gatt addressed her with surprising civility. "Hissrad’s reports say you’re doing good work.”

‘Hissrad’? Not sure if I should be alarmed or impressed that even the Ben-Hassrath call Bull ‘Liar'. Wonder if they know I speak Qunlat? 

“The Iron Bull’s name is ‘Hissrad’?” 

“It is.” Gatt replied condescendingly. “Under the Qun, we use titles, not names.”

So, Bull didn’t tell them everything about me after all...another surprise.

Bull caught on to her game and nodded. “Yes, my title was ‘Hissrad’ because I was assigned to secret work. You can translate it as ‘Keeper of Illusions’, or…”

“Liar.” Gatt interrupted. “It means liar.”

“Well you don’t have to say it like that.”

Meraad's smile didn't reach her eyes. “Nice to meet you too, Gatt. It's so heartwarming to hear my friends are saying nice things about me in their secret spy reports.”

“Oh, he does, though they aren’t really secret, are they? Relax, Hissrad. Unlike our superiors, I know how it works out here. All I care about is stopping this red lyrium from reaching Tevinter. That's where you and your Inquisition come in.”

"Yeah...about that," she said cautiously. "Your invitation was pretty specific about the size of the force we were allowed to bring to this meeting, and we complied in good faith, but all we've seen from the Qunari contingency so far is you. Where are the others?"

"Awaiting my signal. My superiors wish to verify the Inquisition is an ally worthy of respect. You've shown you can follow directions, now we require a demonstration of skill. You clear the coast of the Venatori threat, then we'll take their ship."

"Wait, you expect us, with only a token force, to eradicate multiple camps of Venatori smugglers, including an unknown number of mages, before the rest of your group will even show themselves? I'm not liking the sound of this. What do you think, Bull?”

Bull scowled as he surveyed the terrain below. “It's risky. If the scouts underestimate enemy numbers, we’re dead, and if we can’t lock down the Venatori mages, the ship is dead. But we need this alliance."

Gatt scoffed. “Is it riskier than letting red lyrium reach Minrathous?”

Meraad and Bull both stared at the elf coldly. Going right for guilt, I see. Easy for him to be so cavalier when it isn’t his men in jeopardy. If their spy network is so bloody well-informed, why can’t he give us more accurate enemy numbers? This feels very wrong...but Bull’s not saying anything. Is my concern valid, or am I just letting my distrust of the Qunari cloud my judgement? 

“I hate to say it, but it looks like our only option is to split our forces to clear out both Venatori camps in time."

“Agreed. I’ll stay with you, Boss. Krem can lead the Chargers. Let me go fill him in, then meet me uphill when you're ready.”

Bull spared an uneasy glance at Gatt as he departed, alarming Meraad even more.

Alliance or no, I’m not doing a damned thing until I find out more about what this could potentially cost us. 

Gatt crossed his arms and smirked at her. “Just waiting on you and Hissrad…or ‘Iron Bull',  I guess.”

“Yup! So, Gatt. Bull mentioned you two were friends back in Seheron?”

“Y-yes," he stumbled, surprised by the personal question. "When I was a child, I was a Magister’s slave, and he brought me along with him to Seheron for...company. Bull attacked my master’s ship, killed the bastard and all his soldiers, and set me free. After seeing this giant, horned warrior slaughter the man who hurt me, I became a loyal Viddathari.”

Wow, assuming that’s true, it’s no wonder Gatt hates Vints so much. It also explains why Bull seems hesitant to disappoint him... he feels responsible. I really hope the Qun didn’t send Gatt here to exploit that connection.

“I'm truly sorry, I didn't know that.”

Gatt looked genuinely hurt. “One of the few things he hasn’t shared with you, apparently. ”

“Bull isn't in trouble for passing those reports on, is he?”

“The Ben-Hassrath aren’t pleased, but Hissrad was one of their best agents, and they trust him enough to accept how he joined the Inquisition. They hate to discard a tool that might still have some use left in it.”

And there is the big difference between the Inquisition and the Qun: MY people are more than ‘tools’ to be used and discarded. Ironic it was a Qunari who taught me that.

“Speaking of which, I have to confess until meeting you I’ve never known an elf working for the Qunari before. Are there many of you out here?”

“Some...the Ben-Hassrath usually pick elves or humans to work outside of Qunandar, since we’re a little harder to spot.”

“Fascinating! Maybe you can tell me then just how an alliance with the Qun will actually benefit the Inquisition? I can say from experience the Southerners are twitchy about Qunari walking around the stronghold, and we don’t have any real trade yet to offer you.”

“That answer’s above my rank; I’m only here for this job. But we have powerful ships, agents spread across Thedas, and if you ally with us us, we know a lot more than what Bull sees in those reports he’s been forwarding to your Spymaster.”

He studied her a moment before adding, “You know, it could make an interesting report to hear the Inquisitor’s opinion of the Qun, particularly from a Tal-Vashoth bas saarebas.”

Ohhh the contempt...he doesn’t just hate ‘Vints, he hates mages in general, and really hates Tal-Vashoth. Being Inquisitor puts me only slightly above dirt to him. Lovely. Keep it friendly for Bull’s sake.

“Not sure what 'saarebas' is," she lied, "and I’m Vashoth, not Tal-Vashoth. I really don’t know enough about the Qun to judge it.”

That seemed to mollify him a bit. “Fair enough. I think you have to be raised under the Qun for it to ever fully make sense. Some who join as adults think it’s just a kinder form of slavery. Even I thought about leaving at first, when I was younger, but I always returned, because the Qunari were willing to listen, and teach, and cared for me as one of their own. I like the simplicity of knowing my place, and in knowing it’s the right place.”

A shiver of dread ran up her spine as the full ramifications of this 'alliance' sank in, as well as the inevitable payoff when their mutual enemy was defeated.  

‘A kinder form of slavery' he says. Sure, for NON mages. The little zealot's just confirmed my worst fears. Bull's faithfully done everything the Qun asked of him, and for what? When pushed past his breaking point, they discarded him at the ass end of the world rather than help repair the damage they caused.

If they’ll do that to someone loyal to them, where will that leave me when the Venatori are gone, and the Qun decides I'm no longer 'useful' ? A Vashoth mage with growing political power, and they don't negotiate. To maintain their order, they’d have to destroy me before I could potentially become a threat to them too. 

Fine. We’ll clean out the damned smugglers, but only to stop the Venatori. If I didn’t care so much for Bull, we’d be heading back to Skyhold right now.


“Well, I appreciate your time, Gatt,” she said with false cheer. “This has been enlightening, to say the least. We’ll let you know when we’re ready to move out.”

“I await your pleasure, Inquisitor.”

My 'pleasure' will come from taking my team and leaving you far behind.

She strode up the muddy hill, his hateful glare like daggers in her back the whole way. Every instinct screamed this situation was wrong, that they should just run, but if she suggested such to Bull without proof, he could justifiably counter she was letting her personal bias get the better of her.

It wasn’t until she got within range of her team that she started to feel safe again. At first, the sound of Bull’s voice as he issued commands to the Chargers comforted her enough to take a breath and calm down. But when she heard the unusual undercurrent of worry in his tone as he offered tactical suggestions, her anxiety returned tenfold.

Oh gods, he does sense it. Even Krem thinks he sounds like an overprotective mother, and Bull's trying to make sure his boys are extra cautious without openly saying why. No no no, what have I gotten us into?

“All right, Chargers! Horns up!

“HORNS UP!"

Bull turned back to her and quietly said, “Ready whenever you are, Boss.”

Meraad looked into the eyes of each of the Chargers in turn, her gut tied in anxious knots, but they were counting on her to be strong and boost morale, so she smiled encouragingly.

“Okay, let’s go get this over with.” 

“Right. Chargers! Hit ‘em hard, and hit ‘em fast. When this is over, drinks are on me!”

She watched the team leave, hating everything about this place and the forces that dragged them to it. But just as she finally worked up the nerve to voice her concerns to Bull, a subtle shake of his head warned her to stay silent. Gatt was right behind her.

He’s worried he’s just sent his boys into a trap, and there won’t be a damned thing we can do about it from here, but if I say anything in earshot of Gatt, I risk the alliance. Sod it, this is not fair!

As her party marched through a steep gully toward the Venatori camp, Meraad officially decided that she REALLY didn’t like the Qunari emissary. Even more than his contempt for her, there was a snide bitterness about Gatt’s attitude toward Bull that convinced her the elf had a personal agenda beyond taking out the Venatori. He teased Bull about coddling the Chargers, that he'd given them the easier, less defended target. But Bull wasn't phased.

“ ‘Suppose we’ll do the heavy lifting then! Just like old times.”

Gatt responded with a forced laugh, and once again Meraad noticed him scrutinizing her reactions as much as he was Bull’s.

HA, he thinks there’s something between Bull and I. Probably wonders if the Vashoth witch has been corrupting their agent with her heathen ways. The joke’s on you, you snide little bastard.

“Yes, well, be careful, Hissrad," he sneered. "My agents said to expect opposition ahead of the main camp.”

“We’ve all done this a few times, Gatt. That’s why we’re here, remember?”

“But you’ve been living outside the Qun for years, Iron Bull. Just wanted to make sure your reflexes hadn’t gotten as soft as the rest of you.”

Ooookay, joking with old friends is one thing, but he’s not playing.

“You know, Gatt," she hissed. "For being a spy, you don’t seem to understand the concept of ‘stealth’. Do you want the Venatori to find us before we’re in position? If not, please shut up.”

Gatt stared as if she'd slapped him. Bull winced too, though she did catch the ghost of a smile as he passed her. She didn’t care. The agent was an ass, and she was tired of his disrespect.

And there's one more reason to make me suspicious. If the Qunari were serious about an alliance with us, I would have figured they’d send an emissary with some actual diplomatic skills instead of a vicious brat with an obvious chip on his shoulder. I dread to think what he’d have done if Dorian were here!

In the end, clearing out the three Venatori camps on the upper ridge took less time than Meraad had feared. Part of her wanted to believe it was due to their superior training and skill, and she had certainly improved since she started training with Commander Helaine. But if she was honest with herself, she also suspected these smugglers weren’t exactly the top of their class, which is why they’d been sent on this run to the middle of nowhere. By their slow reactions and poor defenses, they weren’t expecting opposition at all. Still, as long the job got done and her team got out alive, even a cheap victory was still a victory.

Bull gave Gatt the all-clear to send up their flare, though his attention was focused on the opposite ridge where he knew the Chargers should be waiting. His relief when he saw his boys milling by their own signal fire warmed Meraad’s heart. Gatt, however, couldn’t resist sniping, “I knew you gave them the easier job.”

She bit back a dozen scathing retorts, but Bull simply smirked, refusing to let the man ruin his good mood. His control amazed her, though she supposed it could also been because he’d known Gatt for so many years, it was easier to dismiss the man’s obnoxious attitude.

Suddenly a ship's bell rang out twice in the cove below, and the mighty Qunari dreadnought emerged from the mist to flank the smugglers ship and cut off their escape.

“Woah..." she murmured. "Papa told me so many stories about the dreadnoughts, but actually seeing one in person...the tales just don’t do them justice. That is gorgeous!”

“Yeah, they really are. Brings back a lot of memories. You see those cannons on the port bow? Those are the Adaar you’re named for. Now, watch this.”

A pair of explosions burst from the cannons almost simultaneously with a sound more mighty than Meraad had ever imagined possible. It echoed from the steep walls of the horseshoe cove even over the thunder and pounding surf, and she couldn’t help but be awed by their power. The strike arced unerringly across the bay into the smuggler’s ship, sending the smaller vessel down within seconds. 

“Nice one!” Bull cheered, and Meraad had to fight hard not to throw her arms around Bull and hug him out of sheer excitement. Instead, she happily headed for the trail to the beach to go meet the dreadnought's crew, until a flash of moment from below made her freeze. 

"Bull? Look down there, are they....?"

"Crap."

Six Venatori mages, apparently missed by the Qunari scout’s headcount, were marching up the strand directly toward the Chargers. At Krem’s barking command, the team immediately assumed defensive positions, prepared to hold their ridge at all cost.

Meraad followed Bull's line of sight and visibly paled. “Oh gods, even with Dalish to help, there’s no way they can hold out against six of them at range!”

“No," their Captain lamented. "They can’t.”

Gatt had no pity for any of them. “Your men need to hold that ridge, Bull!”

“If they do that, they’re dead.”

“And if they don’t, the Venatori retake it and the dreadnought is dead. You’d not only be throwing away an alliance between the Inquisition and the Qunari, you’d be declaring yourself Tal-Vashoth!

“But they’re MY. MEN.” 

Sensing danger, Gatt changed tactics. “I understand, but you need to do what’s right for the Qun, Hissrad! With all you’ve given the Inquisition, half the Ben-Hassrath think you’ve betrayed us already! I STOOD UP FOR YOU!” 

So that’s it...  Meraad gaped. This was never about an alliance, it was all to test how far Bull had fallen! As if they haven’t taken enough, now they want him to kill off his own men, just to prove his loyalty? What is wrong with these people?!

Bull’s jaw and fists clenched, trapped by indecision, and she realized then that the fear of becoming Tal-Vashoth was as great to him as her fear of becoming an abomination. He was facing one of his worst nightmares, carefully orchestrated by those he’d faithfully served, delivered with heartless precision by the hand of someone he’d once saved and trusted.

Her father’s words came back to her then: You can’t be everywhere. You will make mistakes. There will be people you cannot save, and you will mourn them all. Accept that now, and forgive yourself for it.

But the sight of Bull's torture as he struggled to face the inevitable filled her with unbridled fury. 

NO, Papa. I will NOT accept this! This is WRONG.

“What are you waiting for Bull!?” She screamed, pressing the signal horn into his scarred hands. “They still have time to fall back if you signal them now! CALL THE FUCKING RETREAT!”

“NO, DON’T!” Gatt countered, but he was too late. The horn blared across the cove, and the Inquisitor and her Captain watched in bittersweet relief as the Chargers escaped.

Gatt spun on his heel, trembling with rage as he reached for his blades, ready to lunge at Meraad. Bull silently stepped between them, his face an inscrutable mask as he glared down at his former friend, and against all common sense, the elf couldn’t resist one last dig. 

“All these years, Hissrad, and you throw away all that you are. For what? For THIS?” He gestured to Meraad, refusing to even acknowledge her as a person.

Meraad couldn’t have stopped herself if she’d wanted to, and she really didn’t want to. She channeled her rage for the Qun and all who represented it into a mental blast of focused willpower, stunning Gatt as it drove him to his knees at the edge of the cliff. 

"His name...is The Iron Bull.”

Gatt blanched in horror as he suddenly remembered he was alone, facing an unbound bas saarebas. He foolishly looked to Bull for aid, only to be met by a wall of apathy, and all the fight drained out of him. The emissary slowly staggered to his feet, muttered, “I suppose it is.” Then limped out of the camp.

On the shoreline below, the Venatori mages gathered to launch a simultaneous volley of fireballs toward the now unprotected Qunari ship, and Bull sighed heavily.

“We're too far away to stop them. There’s no way the ship will get out of range. Won’t be long now.”

She didn't want to witness this, but Bull refused to move, so Meraad lay a comforting hand on his arm and said, “Bull, when the dreadnought sinks…”

“Sinks?”

Magical flame raced for the ship’s powder magazine, and Bull pulled Meraad into his arms and turned his back to the cove, shielding her from the deafening explosion as the ship vaporized with all hands on board. 

“Dreadnoughts don’t sink.”

He turned back and whispered to the uncaring sea, “Ataash varin kata. Asit tal-eb.”

The words caught her off guard, as she’d been taught the Qunari didn’t observe funeral rites.

Wait...'In the end lies glory, the way it’s meant to be...’  

He isn't mourning their dead. We just burned his last bridge to home.

He's praying for himself.


Oh, my dear friend, I am so deeply sorry. However long it takes, I swear I will find a way to make this up to you.

“Come on,” Bull said as he turned away toward the trail, his voice thick with unshed tears. “Let’s get back to my boys.” 

 




Meraad reluctantly left Bull and the Chargers at camp, knowing she had an important duty to perform. She raced to her tent, gathered ink and quill and sat down to write a warning to Leliana, but her emotions were still so high that she wasted several sheets of paper before her final draft.     

 

UPDATE. Smugglers stopped, target cargo destroyed, enemy threat neutralized. However, BH emissary failed to give accurate tally of enemy numbers (I believe deliberately, based on new information). Called the retreat to save our people, and Q ship was also lost. Our BH companion was disavowed. I accept full responsibility, and stand firm in my decision. 

Be on alert for possible reprisal, and consolidate allied resources to compensate for loss of access to BH network. Returning immediately, will give full report on arrival. -  Adaar.
 

She delivered the coded missive to Scout Harding, trying to calculate the possible outcomes of this failed venture as the raven disappeared into the night sky. In the distance, the Charger's celebration was in full swing, and she eagerly crossed the camp to join them. 

But when Bull looked up at her from across the fire pit, he said nothing, not even in greeting, almost as if he didn't recognize her. His expression hardened into a carefully crafted mask of neutrality, yet to an Empath, the force of his true emotions hit her like a fist. He was utterly lost, scared, confused, fighting with all his remaining strength to maintain his composure in front of his team, and her heart broke for him all over again. 

She desperately wanted to hold him, comfort him, reassure him that somehow they'd find a way to salvage this, but before she could move, Krem sat down to refill Bull's tankard. The lieutenant met her gaze and wrapped a protective arm around his captain's slumped shoulders, silently conveying it might be better if she give them some distance while the Chief processed his new circumstances. With a nod of respect to them both, Meraad stepped back into the darkness. 

Krem's right. Like it or not, I'm not Qunari by culture, but I still look like one. Bull doesn’t need a physical reminder of what he’s just lost. Best to let him reconnect with his boys, and take stock of what he has left, and if he wants to talk, let him come to me in his own time. 

She strode to the healer’s tent and offered her services tending their mercifully few wounded instead, relieved that her correspondence that night wouldn't have to include letters of condolence to next of kin.

No matter how much this hurts, and even if Bull never forgives me for ordering the retreat, I’d do it again. Better to have the Chargers alive and resentful, than be forced to live with the guilt of their needless deaths.

When she finally entered her tent later that night, she found a covered plate of food, a pot of tea, and a note from Krem that simply read:      

 

Thank you.

Meraad grinned through a haze of tears.

No, I regret nothing.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

It had been a week since they’d departed the Storm Coast, with another week of travel ahead to Skyhold. The roads were clear, the weather pleasant, and everyone was coming home alive.

Bull barely noticed.

Tal-Vashoth. Like the old tales often said: ‘you meet your fate on the road you take to avoid it.’

How long do I have before the madness claims me? Will I even feel it when it happens? Will my boys be the ones to hunt me when I become a beast?

Or will it be Meraad?


He studied the graceful line of her back as she rode near the head of the vanguard, chatting quietly with Varric, and when the dwarf said something that made her laugh, Bull’s breath caught at the joyful sound. She'd been avoiding him all week, he was sure of it now, and that wasn't like her. The Inquisitor could be almost as bad as Cole for suddenly showing up when someone was in pain, ready with a healing potion, or simply a kind word. It was more than reading body language, because there'd been times she'd known he was hurt even before he was consciously aware of it, and over time he'd just come to accept it as a weird, occasionally annoying but useful thing that healer mages do. Yet now she kept her distance?

Wait, what if she knows I've already started to change, and she's distancing herself to make it easier to accept when she has to put me down? Shit.

That first night on the Coast after being disavowed was one of the worst of his life. It didn’t matter that he’d been living as a Tal-Vashoth for the last few years, in his heart he’d always known it was a role, and he was still faithful to the Qun. It was easy to enjoy the hedonistic pleasures of Orlais and sleep with a clear conscience, knowing the Qun would always be waiting.

But now that was all gone, because of her.

No, that’s not fair. There’s no way she could have known how far the Ben-Hassrath were willing to go, and I suspected trouble the moment Gatt showed up.

Damn it, Gatt...out of all the people they could have sent, why did it have to be you?

Bull still saw the face of the starved, terrified child he’d found chained in the Magister’s quarters. He remembered the primal satisfaction he felt when that same Magister had died screaming under Bull’s bare hands, along with the bastard’s guards and crew. He remembered the boy’s cries when he first left him with the Tamassrans, afraid that Bull, the only person who had defended him and treated him with true kindness in his young life, would never return.

He remembered the hesitation he felt when a young, angry Gatt first asked to be assigned to his team in Seheron, knowing even then the boy’s hot temper would lead him into trouble, but Bull had vowed to teach him control.

So many missions...the shit we’ve been through together. Gatt didn’t understand when I was sent to Orlais and didn’t take him with me, as if the choice had been mine to make. He didn’t understand when I didn’t request for him to join my company later on…

Aaand there it is: the attitude, the snide remarks, the judging stares, it all makes sense now. He volunteered for the mission. He wasn’t happy living under the Qun, and how did he find me? Thriving, with my own company, well-fed and prosperous, working openly alongside a Vashoth mage. He thought I was a hypocrite to all he’d been forced to accept, and that I’d abandoned him.

In a way, I did.


Bull suddenly felt he was being watched. He looked up and saw Meraad turned in her saddle, glancing back at him as Varric continued telling her a story. Her eyes were full of silent questions, but when Bull didn’t respond, she smiled sadly and returned her attention to the dwarf.

I don’t know what Gatt said to her, but Meraad wasn't just pissed off when she came back, she was spooked. Given how Gatt feels about Tal-Vashoth and mages, he probably shot off his mouth and gave her more reasons to distrust the Qun than her family already had. It was obvious she wanted to say something, but likely thought I wouldn’t believe her. That has to change. I underestimated her again, and so did the Ben-Hassrath, and now this stupidity may cost everyone even more in the end. Poor Gatt’s gonna have a hard time explaining what happened…

No, Gatt’s not a 'poor kid' anymore. He’s a grown man, and he was an idiot. This whole thing was a botched job from the outset, and he let his personal feelings get in the way, ruining all hope of what could have been a good thing if it had been handled by a real diplomatic envoy. If they’d learned anything about Meraad Adaar from my reports they would have known she’d never sacrifice her people...

But I didn’t tell them everything I could have about her, did I? Gatt and the Ben-Hassrath will likely blame her influence rather than accept I'd willingly defy the Qun. 

Her people. Me, and the Chargers, we're all her people. Gatt’s not the only one that let personal feelings get in the way; I did too, and it almost cost me my team. Just like Seheron. Meraad set aside her fears of the Qun to at least attempt for an alliance because it meant so much to me, and when shit fell apart she saved my boys because I hesitated.

She made the call when I couldn’t.


“You okay, Chief?” Krem asked from his seat on the supply wagon. Startled, Bull quickly blinked back tears and cleared his throat. 

“Yeah, Krem. Just thinking.”

“Ah. That explains the burning smell,” his lieutenant grinned, offering Bull a bread roll filled with roasted beef, sharp cheese and greens. “Here. You missed breakfast. May as well eat while you’re brooding.”

Bull was about to protest about being coddled, until the smell of the meat reminded him he really was hungry. He murmured thanks and started eating.

“If you want to talk about it, Chief, I’ll listen. Maker knows you’ve heard me grouse often enough. And please don’t bother gettin’ all stoic and saying it’s nothing.”

“I don’t know that you could understand, Krem…”

Krem scoffed. “What? Trying to live a dual life and finally being forced to choose one over the other? Nah, no idea what that’s like at all.”

When Bull said nothing, he quietly added, “for what it’s worth, all of us were willing to hold that ridge as long as we could, but with the odds being what they were, I’d be lying if I said we weren’t grateful you pulled us back. Some of us know what it actually cost you, though, and we’re sorry for that.” 
Krem looked up at Meraad. “We’re sorry as well if losing the alliance has soured things with you and the Inquisitor, especially because of us. Will we be ending the contract with the Inquisition over this? If so, there’s some people we’d care to say goodbye to if we have time.”

Bull nearly choked on the last bite of his roll. “What? No. I’ve no plans to end the contract, and if the Boss does she hasn’t said anything to me. In fact, she hasn’t said anything to me at all in the last week. Why, did she talk to you?”

The Lieutenant nodded. “Every night since we left. She told me what happened with the emissary -- how he lied about enemy numbers, and you got booted for choosing to save us instead of the ship. It means a lot to us that you did that, Chief, and we’ll do our damnedest to make sure you never regret it.”

She didn’t tell them that I froze. Any other employer would exploit that leverage and renegotiate the contract....unless she thinks I won't be around long enough to bother...

“Did you know what the guy had in mind, Chief?" Krem asked. "Was that why you were warning us to take extra care?”

“No, Krem, I didn’t; but yes it was. The Boss and I both had a bad feeling about the job, for different reasons, but Gatt was an old friend, and she’d already agreed to the alliance. By the time we realized what was actually going on, we were all committed and you were out of range. Gatt knew there was no way we could have stopped the Venatori on the beach before your position would have been overrun, and forced me to choose. I called the retreat, which the Boss supported, even though that left no way to stop the Venatori from killing the dreadnought. Gatt lost his mind and tried to attack her, yet even after I blocked him, he couldn’t keep from mouthing off. So she slapped him down with a spell to remind him who he was dealing with, and he backed down when I didn't intervene. Boss could have killed him, but let him go rather than risk an act of war for harming an emissary.”

“Wait, why would he attack the Inquisitor?”

Bull sighed. “I’m pretty sure he believes she corrupted me, being a Vashoth mage and all.”

Krem burst out laughing, though he did his best to stifle it lest they be overheard. “And here I thought those Ben-Hassrath guys were supposed to know everything! The Inquisitor corrupting you? Meaning no disrespect Chief, but I’ve known cloistered Chantry sisters wilder than her! Lady Meraad’s one of the most tolerant people I know when it comes to other folk’s beliefs. You even told her what you were on the first day, and she never asked you to stop or change who you are.”

She also never compromised my cover -- not to the Inquisition, not even to her family.

“That really explains a lot now,” Krem continued, shaking his head. “The Inquisitor’s worried about you, Chief, as much as we are, and she’s asked about you every day. That food I gave you was from her, after I told her you hadn’t eaten this morning. And no, she hasn’t said a word about our contract. I think she’s afraid that you blame her for what happened and is waiting for you to pull us out. She’s stayed away out of respect, worried her appearance would only upset you more.”

Wow. I am so accustomed to treachery I was ready to believe Meraad Adaar, one of the most guileless people I've ever known, would only do a kindness for the sake of leverage, because that’s what I'd have done in her place. Never mind the fact the woman once panicked I'd leave simply because she’d snapped at me. 

“Krem, I am a jaded asshole.”

“Yeah, Chief, you are.” Krem laughed. “We all love you anyway.”

 



They camped that night on a low ridge overlooking River Dane. From this vantage, under the light of the twin moons and an endless field of stars, Bull had a spectacular view of the valley below. He recalled this crossing as being an important landmark, where the Orlesian army had been ambushed by Ferelden rebels during the occupation decades before. The loss to Orlais in both lives and treasure was great enough that their Emperor pulled his support, not wanting to squander more resources trying to claim what had proved to be an ungovernable, rebellious province. It was a major turning point in the war for Ferelden’s freedom.

And now here I am, cut off by those who felt I wasn’t worth the resources to justify the loss of life I’ve caused. Fitting.

A strange sound from the thick woods below the ridge pulled his focus, barely loud enough to be heard over the rushing water. Someone was singing by the riverside, a voice so low and rich he wasn't sure if they were male or female. 

But if it’s a minstrel, why wouldn’t they be up at the camp trying to earn a coin instead of hiding by the river? There’s tales of spirits in these parts, with all this rift weirdness, it could be anything down there. Where are the perimeter scouts?

He drew his greataxe and moved silently through the dense forest along the bank, his senses sharp on the hunt. The swift river’s flow masked the sounds of his approach as he reached the singer’s location, and soon he could make out words:

“I must away now, I can no longer tarry,
This morning’s tempest I have to cross.
I must be guided, without a stumble,
Into the arms I love the most.”

Bull froze in the shadows of a thick copse of trees, mesmerized by the sight.  Meraad stood waist-deep in the swirling waters of a small stone-lined pool, singing as she peacefully bathed. Her pale pewter skin and curved horns gleamed in the moonlight as she washed her hip-length hair with goat's milk soap, and the grove filled with the intoxicating scents of lemon balm and honey.

Like a river goddess from an ancient myth, luring unwary travelers to their fate with a haunting song. I could think of far worse ways to go. 

She drew a deep breath and dove down to rinse, and stayed underwater so long Bull almost jumped in after her. But then she exploded to the surface with a laugh, shaking droplets from her hair and horns, and set a pair of large river stones on the edge of the bank. He watched in fascination as she invoked a fire spell to heat them, adding the metallic tang of charred rock to the air before pushing the stones back into the pool, and with a moan of almost sexual pleasure she rested against the bank to savor their radiant heat.

This was a side of Meraad he'd never known existed. He'd never seen her this unguarded, and had no idea that she could sing. What other secrets did she hide?

Suddenly he felt awkwardly out of place. Though witnessing her in this state hadn’t been intentional, it also wasn't invited, and for the first time in his life that actually bothered him. 

Would she even still be interested? She's been friendly enough, but since her confession at the training ground she’s been carefully professional. Damn it, why does everything have to be so complicated? If it were anyone else in that pool I'd have stepped out by now, and ended the night sated and with a good bath. Instead I'm lurking in the shadows until she’s distracted enough for me to sneak away.

Then it hit him.

Because you actually respect her. With all the others it was understood that sex was just sex, and simply for the fun. No ties, no complications, everybody wins. But as Cole said, she has too many eyes on her, too much pressure to perform. She needs a safe harbor -- someone she can trust to be this vulnerable with, or she’ll never relax. Otherwise the stress is going to break her, and she's already too close to that point.

You know exactly how that feels.

Without the Qun, are you strong enough to be the bulwark she needs, both on and off the battlefield?

Do you care enough about her to find out? 

Until you can answer that honestly, Tal-Vashoth, let her enjoy her peace while she can.


Her voice haunted him as he backed away and moved quietly out of the woods:

“I must away now, I can no longer tarry,
This morning’s tempest I have to cross."
I must be guided without a stumble
Into the arms I love the most.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The moment that Master Dennet accepted their mounts on the return to Skyhold, Meraad raced to the War Room to brief the Council. Rain-soaked and exhausted, she stood drying her hair with a towel as she ended her report: “...And as I wrote, I stand by my decision, no matter how much I regret the grief it's caused Bull.”

Leliana nodded. “From what I've learned about the Ben-Hassrath since the Chargers joined us, I believe you were correct to suspect their intentions. The loss of this alliance and their contacts is unfortunate, but thanks to your warning I have been consolidating our resources, and in terms of information gathering we are stronger than we were even six months ago. My greater concern at this moment lies in possible reprisal from the Qunari against Bull, or against you.”

“That's crossed my mind. It would be naive to assume the Ben-Hassrath aren't aware of my family or my village by now. I'd appreciate a little extra protection for them if possible.”

The Nightingale grinned. “I sent word to our scouts in the area immediately after I received your message.”

Bless you. My family won't care for it, and I could almost pity any assassin that tries to attack them directly, but a little discreet support can't hurt. Now, while I'm still coherent, are there any other pressing issues that won't wait until I'm at least able to clean up and eat?”

Josephine cleared her throat. “Unfortunately, yes...the Ben-Hassrath emissary is here. This 'Gatt' has demanded a formal audience with you, and The Iron Bull, immediately upon your arrival.”

“Oh, Gatt demands?" Meraad snorted. "He's here to officially announce the alliance failed, and instead of telling us out on the road, he's counting on diplomatic immunity in front of witnesses to protect him from the bas saarebas.”

“I concur,” Cullen said. “I'd say he's trusting that meeting him while you're exhausted could make you careless and tractable, and that outing Bull as a spy publicly could both discredit the Inquisition, and anger any nobles the Chargers have served in the past.”

Meraad's gut twisted in fury at the thought of the encounter ahead. 

“I don't give a flaming nug's ass what Gatt wants right now, and I'm in no mood for any more stunts. If he seeks an audience in my house then it will be on my terms. Josephine, please demand for Gatt to meet Bull and I at the training grounds. The little shit can deliver his message surrounded by the men whose lives his treachery nearly cost. Then, Commander, please escort him and any entourage out of Skyhold immediately.”

She grasped the war table to steady herself as a wave of fatigue washed over her. 

“After that, barring a dire emergency, I ask that any other Inquisition concerns delay a little longer, please, just for a day or two.”

Josephine looked ready to protest over her clipboard of pending work, but after glancing at the other counselors, she relented.

“Of course, my Lady. If you wish, I shall have the servants draw you a bath.”

"Yes, please. And before I go, I want you all to know how grateful I am for your support. I couldn’t manage any of this without you, and wouldn’t want to try. Thank you so much.”

“I believe I speak for all of us," Cassandra said. "While we may not always agree with your methods, Inquisitor, you have proven yourself a woman of conscience, and have done great good with what you have been given. Maker grant you strength to continue.”

The Inquisitor laughed tiredly.

“At this moment, my friend, if He can grant me enough strength to resist pounding a surly elf into the ground like a tent peg, I'd consider that blessing enough. Have a good evening."

As she entered the courtyard, Meraad spied Bull waiting quietly by the training dummies. Their relationship had improved dramatically in the week since they'd camped at River Dane, and although she couldn’t explain his change in demeanor, she wasn't about to question why.  Bull had ridden beside her, sharing stories of his team's adventures, even inviting her to join him and the Chargers for meals and drinks. He allowed no talk about the Coast, or the Qun, or any Inquisition concerns when she visited their camp, and Meraad cherished the respite. The last thing she wanted now was for anyone to spoil that progress, especially Gatt.

“Hey, Boss,” he said, as despondent as a man heading to the gallows.

“Hey, yourself. I gather you've heard about the meeting then?”

“Yeah. Only surprised it's not in the throne room for a proper show in front of the nobles.”

“We're meeting here because I ordered it. He is not in control. In this keep, on this field, you answer to me, Captain, and as one of my people, your fight and your enemies become mine. No matter what happens, we stand together. Got it?”

Bull grinned, genuinely impressed. “You would have made a good Tamassran.”

“I asked you a question, Serah.”

“Yes, Ma'am.”

“Good. Then let's get this crap over with because there's a bath waiting, and they've wasted enough of our time already. Ah, speak of the demon...”

Gatt strode up to them, dressed in formal armor and a smug smirk. Meraad held up one finger for silence and growled in Qunlat: 

“*Before you say one word, let me make this crystal clear to you, boy. No matter what lies you've told yourself, you possess no power, no friends, nor any sympathy here. Only a very temporary flag of truce, and my rapidly diminishing good graces keep you breathing right now, so if you seek to cause dissent in my house, or bring any harm to me or mine, I'll interpret it as an act of war. Choose your words carefully, make your statement politely, then get out. Defy me, and I'll personally throw your broken carcass to the wolves. You may now, in the Trade tongue, speak.*” 

Visibly trembling with both fear and impotent rage, Gatt cleared his throat.

“Inquisitor Adaar, by the will of the Qun, I must inform you there will be no alliance between our peoples, nor shall you obtain any further reports from your Tal-Vashoth ally.”

Bull glowered down at the emissary. “You under orders to kill me, Gatt?”

The elf met the gaze of his former mentor, searching for any sign of hope, then visibly deflated at the harsh truth. 

“You...You've truly become one of them now, haven't you?" Gatt swallowed hard, his eyes misted with unshed tears. "No. I have no orders to kill you. The Ben-Hassrath already lost one good man, they'd rather not lose two. Ebasit kata. Panahedan, Hiss...The Iron Bull.

He bowed stiffly to them both, and walked away to meet his escort at the gates waiting with Cullen's guard.

“Well," Bull said. "So much for that.”

Meraad's heart clenched at the terrible loss in his tone, and silently cursed every line of stress and fatigue on his handsome face, along with the bastards who put them there.

But the worst has passed now. The Qun's zealous fever has broken, and his vision is clearing. Time to give him motivation for recovery.

“There's no denying the loss of the Ben-Hassrath reports will hurt," she began. "But we're pooling resources. Do you think we might smoke out some of your old contacts before the Qun find them?"

Bull blinked in surprise. "That’s...not a bad idea. They'll pull their people soon enough, though we might identify the agents who replace them."

She rested her hand on his broad shoulder. "For what it's worth? I'm proud of you. You did the right thing.”

“Yeah..." he murmured, unable to meet her eyes. "Eventually.”

Vashedan, that's it. He's beating himself up for not calling the retreat first, and questioning his own loyalty to his boys!

“Stop that! You were forced into an untenable position, Bull. It doesn't matter if you hesitated, you still acted. Regardless of my order, you blew that horn, not me. You chose, and your team is alive tonight because of that choice. Don't you ever forget that.”

“Thanks, Boss.” Bull smiled, then glared as his lieutenant joined them by the ring. “You're late, Krem.”

“Sorry, Chief. That last fight with those bandits in the foothills reopened a wound I picked up on the Coast. Stitches tended it, but it's still a bit sore. Good to see you, Inquisitor.”

“Good to see you too, Krem." She frowned. "I noticed you favoring that leg again. No disrespect to Stitches, but if that keeps giving you grief you let me know and we'll see about speeding up the healing a bit. How fares the rest of the Chargers?”

“Hale and hearty, my Lady, and glad to be back. Chief's even breaking open a cask of Chasind Sack Mead for us tonight to celebrate!”

“That sounds like a fine idea, though I'd take it easy on the alcohol tonight if I were you. My plan involves a bath, a hot meal, sleeping in a proper bed, and trying hard not to think about the stockpile of work waiting for me on Monday.”

“Why not join us?” Bull asked. “Spare a few minutes.”

Meraad stared wearily up at her high balcony. A bath was waiting... sure, at the end of four unforgiving flights of stairs, and once you make that climb, you're in for the duration. Oh sod it, the water will reheat, and you've earned some fun too. They all smell as badly as you do.

“I do like Chasind Sack Mead.” She grinned.

“Good! Hey, Krem!” Bull called out, grabbing a practice shield and tossing another to his surprised lieutenant. He waited long enough for Krem to equip before bashing, and this time Krem properly repelled the charge, much to his captain's delight. 

HA. ‘Still sore', my ass. You're doing fine.” He wrapped a great arm around Krem's shoulder, beaming with pride. “Just fine.” 

 




Two hours later, Meraad's bath was forgotten in the simple joy of good company, and even buxom Tessa's giggling as she flirted with a table of nearby guards didn’t upset her tonight. But eventually the stress of day caught up, and she begged the team's leave as she cat-stretched in her chair.

“Don't you ‘awww' at me!” She laughed. “I've lost enough coin on cards to you shifty reprobates, and some of us endure a longer hike to bed. Last round's on me. Good night, Chargers.”

The mercs replied with drunken cheers, and Bull rose from the table with her.

“Come on, I'll walk you back. Gotta stretch my leg anyway. See ya later, boys.”

Meraad smiled to see the weather had cleared, promising a crisp, chilly night ahead. The towers glowed in the sunset as lamps were lit in the dark lower courtyards, and Bull gestured to the stairs leading to the battlements.

“You up for a side trip?”

“Sure! Been awhile since I viewed the sunset from here.”

Meraad drew a deep, cleansing lungful of mountain air as they walked up the battlement stairs. 

"Mmm, I love that fresh smell after it rains. It's one of my favorite..."

The Captain suddenly pivoted on his heel as pounding feet rushed up behind him, and met his oncoming assailant with a solid punch to the head. The man fell back, stunned, as a second assassin's thrown blade buried to the hilt in Bull's shoulder.

BULL! ” Meraad cried, cursing her fatigue for slowing her response with a barrier spell.

I'VE GOT IT!

He pulled a throwing axe from his belt and hurled it into the second assassin's chest, killing him instantly. The first man staggered to his feet, dagger in hand, and lunged for Bull, snarling, "Ebost issala, Tal-Vashoth!"

With contemptuous ease, Bull caught the man mid-leap, spun, and hurled him to a screaming death over the parapet.

“Yeah, yeah, ‘my soul is dust .' Yours is scattered all over the ground though, so…” He grimaced in pain as the wound in his shoulder throbbed. “Sorry, Boss. Thought I might need backup, but I guess I 'm not even worth sending professionals for.”

“How bad is that wound?” She stepped in for a better view but he waved her off.

“It's fine. I've hurt myself worse than this fooling around in bed.”

Meraad rolled her eyes. “Quit swaggering and let me... oh sod it, Bull, is there poison on that blade?!”

He laughed mirthlessly, and despite her protests, pulled the dagger free to toss it over the wall behind its former owner.

“Definitely. Liquid Saar-qaamek. If I hadn't been dosing myself with the antidote tonight, I'd be losing my mind and puking my guts up right now. As it stands, it stings like shit, but that's about it.”

“Explains why you weren't drinking much, Sack Mead's one of your favorites.”  She passed him a vial of healing potion. “Here. Don't sigh at me you ingrate, just drink it. Later on, I'd like you to write down the recipe for that antidote, please?”

As Bull complied, she examined the remaining corpse to verify the man was dead. 

“This guy looks familiar, though I couldn't say from where. Vashedan. Well, so much for the Ben-Hassrath just letting let you go.”

Bull pitched the empty bottle over the parapet, his voice barely a whisper as the glass disappeared into the mountain's shadow.

“They did.”

“Wait, you expected this?" 

“Yeah. Change in the guard rotation tipped me off."

"Why in the Void would you keep that to yourself?" She fumed. "Damn it, Bull, I could have shielded you!”

"Tell me, did you suddenly learn years of Ben-Hassrath training to hide facial expressions when I wasn't looking?" 

She scowled, but looked away, unable to argue.

"See? Like that. If I'd warned you, or the guards, the assassins would have caught on. Incidentally, that's also why you lose at cards."

"This is no time for jokes. I still could have helped!”

“Nah. Sending two guys with blades against me? That's not a hit, it's a formality. They're just making it clear that I'm Tal-Vashoth.” He growled. “Tal-va-FUCKING-shoth .”

“You always spit 'Tal-Vashoth ' like a curse, but I'm one as well, remember?”

Bull sighed. “This isn't about you, Boss. And no, you're not. You're Vashoth. You grew up with a family, and have never lived any other way.”

“Okay, fine. But you're still you, Bull. You've been living as a Tal-Vashoth for years, why does that all suddenly have to stop now?”

“Because that was just a role! This is my LIFE, as one of those…” He shook his head in denial. “I've killed hundreds of Tal-Vashoth back in Seheron. Bandits. Murderers. Bastards who turned their backs on the Qun, and...and now I'm one of them.”

She stared in horror as the full impact of his loss hit her.

Oh gods, the Ben-Hassrath are priests...Bull didn't just lose his home, he's lost his faith. Without the Qun's control, he actually believes he's fated to turn savage, like some kind of incurable disease!

“Bull, I need you to listen to me, and listen well. You didn't turn your back on the Qun, you were repudiated by the Qun for an act of mercy! Don't you see?! You sacrificed your past for the Chargers future! How does that make you any kind of monster? My father, and my uncle are both Tal-Vashoth, and neither of them turned savage! They chose a better life, on their own terms, and so can you! Because, like them, you are a good man.”

“Without the Qun to live by,” he mourned.

Meraad furiously grabbed him by both horns and forced him to look her in the eyes. 

“The fact that you even feel this conflicted at all proves you are not a savage! Your morals are strong, and you still know right from wrong. The Qun may have conditioned you to believe only they can validate your existence, but that's BULLSHIT, and if they can't accept you for the amazing man you are, that's their loss!”

She stepped back into the dying rays of sunlight and glared at him. “And by the way, Serah, how about a little credit for the rest of us? If you were even half as bad as you seem to think you are, do you really think I'd still allow you here? Would the Chargers, your loyal, LIVING team in that tavern down there still willingly kill or die for you? It isn't the Qun we respect about you, it's YOU. You are The Iron Bull, a Tal-Vashoth mercenary Captain of the Inquisition. You are a good man, and you are my friend, so you'd bloody well better get used to it!”

Bull blinked in surprise, then slowly graced her with a crooked grin.

“I...I think I can live with that. "

“GOOD!” She laughed, her anger dissolving at the sight of that wonderful smile. “Because I have officially hit my limit with this shit for one day! Now, if you're sure you don't require further healing, go get cleaned up, and I'll tell Leliana about these idiots.”

His scarred hand tentatively brushed hers on the railing as she turned to head downstairs.

“Boss...I want you to know that no matter what I miss, no matter what I may regret, this is where I want to be. Anytime you need an ass kicked, The Iron Bull is with you.”

Meraad's heart soared as she clasped his hand tightly in return.

"Thank you.  And anytime you need help, please ask! I swear to you, so long as I live, you will never walk alone. Good night, Bull."

"Good night...Meraad."

 

 

Chapter Text


Meraad returned to her quarters to find them completely redecorated in the month she’d been away. Josephine, Leliana and Vivienne had outdone themselves, and the result made her temporarily forget all fears of assassins in the Keep.

A Marcher-style four poster bed framed by heavy curtains dominated the room, along with embroidered wall tapestries, new window drapes, and thick, hand-knotted rugs to keep the chill at bay. A large divan covered in long pillows and throw blankets sat near the fireplace, replacing the dainty Orlesian couch. 

Some kind soul had even cleaned and preserved the sheepskin that saved her life during her escape from the mountains, and it now held pride of place in front of the white marble hearth.

She woke the next morning from her best sleep in months, and happily lazed in the luxury of the woolen mattress, soft cotton sheets, and goose down comforter until her bladder demanded she rise and visit what was becoming a beautiful new bathroom.

The transformation of the unused storage closet was one of the few indulgences she'd felt no remorse asking for, and Mason Gatsi and his team of dwarven engineers did not disappoint. In addition to a rainwater cistern shower above, a system of pumps and ducts funneled water from underground springs throughout the keep, with drain channels built under the tiles in preparation for a Qunari-size soaking tub. The tub itself was still under construction, but by the quality of the work so far, Meraad had no doubt it would be worth the wait. In the interim, a human-sized copper tub with a high back served in its stead.

A firm hand knocked on the chamber door just as she opened the balcony curtains and refreshed the fire in the hearth. With a heavy sigh, she threw on her silk robe and slippers, and went downstairs to answer.

Let me guess...it's either a runner telling me there's an emergency meeting, or this has all been a dream and I'm about to wake up in a lumpy bedroll in Crestwood.

To her pleasant surprise, Bull stood upon the threshold, armed and lightly armored, carrying a large basket. 

“Well, good morning, Serah! Is this an official visit, or are you going out for an aggressive picnic?”

He spared a glance behind him, escorted her back into the room, and bolted the door in his wake. 

“Bit of both. Red's running a security sweep of the grounds and personnel after the attempted hit last night. I told her she likely wouldn't discover anyone else, but better safe than sorry. She's asked that you remain in your quarters with a guard until that's complete, and assigned me to the job.”

“I don't understand, why wouldn't Nightingale want you on the search team? Out of all of us you're the most likely to recognize a Qunari assassin.”

“Nah, they'd see me and realize the previous attack failed, so she needs both of us out of sight. But if it's any consolation, I brought breakfast.” He raised the basket lid. “Antivan coffee, and fresh chocolate croissants...”

“Never thought I'd actually be grateful to have a potential assassin on the loose! Welcome aboard, Captain.”

She carried the basket upstairs and placed it on the table to explore its contents. “Wow, you weren't kidding about breakfast, there's a feast in here! This is...Bull what are you doing?”

He flowed around the room, checking all the doors, windows, balconies, closets, the loft, and under the bed. 

“Nothing to worry about. Damn, Boss, I was glad to get my room fixed up, but this is really nice.”

“Isn't it?! I didn't know they’d done it until I came home last night. I squealed like a five-year-old on Satinalia when I saw that bed.” 

Meraad poured a mug of coffee for them both, raised a toast to his thoughtfulness, and asked, “So, Leliana's hunting weasels while the prize hen and cock get locked up in the coop?”

Bull snorted into his cup, and Meraad said, “what? It's corre…oh. Oh gods, I didn't...I am so sorry, I didn't mean...”

Her words trailed off into awkward silence as he inscrutably studied her over the rim of his mug, and the longer he hesitated to reply, the more flustered she became. Finally he sat forward, set his cup aside and took her hands in his.

“Alright, Meraad, I think it's time we clear the air. I've caught all the hints, right from the start. I get that you want to ride The Bull.”

Despite her anxiety, she burst out laughing. “‘Ride The Bull'?  Sorry, but please tell me you didn't choose your name just so you could use that ridiculous line?”

His shameless grin made her heart skip a beat. “Nope, happy accident, though it's a great way to break the ice.” He brushed a stray curl behind her ear. “Point is, I'm not sure you understand what you're asking for. Not sure if you're ready for it.”

“W-wait, you're being serious?! Damn it, Bull, this isn't funny, or fair. You knew how I felt, but you made it clear early on you didn't want me, and I've done my best to respect that and keep things professional. Don't tease me like this, please.”

Without warning, Bull swept her across to straddle his lap with speed she wasn't aware he possessed. Though slender, Meraad was by no means petite, yet he embraced her as tenderly as someone half her size. His strong fingers laced through the nape of her thick hair as he grazed his lips across hers, testing her response, and she shivered at the taste of spiced coffee on his tongue. His free hand slipped beneath her robe to pull her close, allowing her to feel his growing length pressing against her through the fabric of his silk pants.

“Still think I'm teasing? Now, I'll ask you one last time, am I still what you want? If not, no hard feelings, I only need to hear you say it."

Her mind raced at this sudden change of circumstance, and she ached to accept, yet a looming, unwelcome doubt remained.

You love him, but he doesn't have sex for love. Are you willing to just be someone's conquest again? If not, tell him now, or the heartache that follows will be your own damned fault.

Swallowing hard on her frustration, she drew a ragged breath and closed her robe. 

“Bull, I do want this, want you. But, I...I need to know where we stand, once and for all. You may be free to choose your life path now, but I’m not. So if all you’re looking for is someone to take the edge off, there’s a tavern full of girls down there who would happily assist you. Most of them already have." 

She cupped his stubbled chin, committing his features to memory, praying this wasn't her last chance to ever feel him this way. 

"The truth is, I care for you far too much to pretend I don't anymore. I'd rather admit it, and risk losing you now, than ever have you resent me for asking more than you're able to give.”

He captured her hands in his and planted lingering kisses in the middle of her open palms.

"Thank you. I appreciate your honesty, to me, and to yourself. But I haven't been resisting all this time because I didn't want you, Meraad, it was to protect you. I couldn't risk the Qun replacing me if they suspected my judgment where you're concerned was compromised. I figured if I kept my distance you might lose interest, but you are a tenacious woman, Lady Adaar. Though, to be fair, I am pretty irresistible.”

That earned a reluctant laugh, and he stroked her cheek. 

“Ben-Hassrath training, remember? I grew up learning to manipulate people. When it’s a hostile target, you give them what they want. But when it’s someone you care about…” He tilted her chin up to meet his gaze. “...you give them what they need. I know what you need, Inquisitor, and now I'm free to meet that need. You're exhausted. You accepted a responsibility you never wanted, with thousands of lives riding on your decisions, and you bear that weight all day. So I'm not just offering you great sex, I'm offering a place where you can truly relax, knowing someone else is in charge for a bit.”

Meraad stiffened. “In charge...like some kind of handler?”

“NO," he snapped. "You’re thinking of the Avaarad, the keepers of the Saarebas. I’ll forgive that insult once, because I understand your fear, but I will never collar you, Meraad. I will never allow anyone to bind you against your will, nor will I ever hurt you without your permission. You will always be safe. If you’re ever uncomfortable, if you ever want me to stop, just sayKatoh and it’s over, no questions asked. Outside this room, you’re still the Inquisitor, still the Boss, but in this space, you’re mine.”

“And what if I want control? Could you do something else if I wanted to?”

“What, like now I’m the naive young farm boy and you’re the ruthless Inquisitor seducing the truth out of me? No. This is who we are. It would be disrespectful to what you need to treat you any other way. If that doesn’t work for you, I understand.”

Meraad flushed, feeling more excited about the concept the longer she considered it. 

“No, no, that all sounds reasonable, though it makes me curious now about your ‘passing time’ with the serving girls...is this what you do to them?” She cringed the moment the words left her lips, hating the sound of her own insecurity, but Bull simply smiled. 

“Nah, they spend most of their day following orders and feeling unimportant. They needed someone to make them feel special and let ‘em cut loose with no repercussions. But don't worry about them. Long as we’re doing this, you’ve got my complete attention.”

“But I thought Qunari don't do committed relationships.”

They don't. The closest tradition they have, for someone you care enough to risk it for, is to find a dragon’s tooth, break it in half, and each partner wear a piece. That way, no matter how far apart life takes you, you’re always together.”

“A dragon's tooth?! Wow...nice way to discourage anyone from trying! And my father accused me of making things over-complicated…”

Bull pulled her in close and laved her neck with soft, nipping kisses. “He's right. You do.”

“This from the man with a system for manipulating people, complete with safewords.”

Her breath quickened when he nibbled where her neck met her shoulder, and she felt his grin against her skin at confirming a sweet spot.
“Systems are comfortable," He purred.
"And my goal…” he wrapped his arm under her and carried her effortlessly to her bed.
“Is for you…” he sat and untied the sash of her robe in one long, slow pull. 
“...to get very comfortable.”

Meraad closed her eyes when the garment slid from her shoulders, bracing herself as the morning sun gilded her skin. This was the part she dreaded with any new lover, waiting to be assessed for flaws. 

“Look at me.” Bull commanded, and she jolted. “You have nothing to hide, Meraad Adaar. Not now, not ever. You're fucking beautiful.”  

The intensity of his gaze, his hunger, overwhelmed her. She wanted so badly to believe this was real, but...

He clasped her to his broad chest, his scarred hands running soothingly down her back.

"Easy, I've got you. I won't ask who made you feel unworthy, because they’re not here, and mean nothing to me. But for this to work, for you to be free, I need you to trust me as much as I trust in you. You're safe here. There’s no Inquisition, no war, nothing outside this room. Just you, and just me. Breathe, relax, and let me take care of you.”

The warmth of his sincerity melted the last of her resistance like ice in spring thaw. She threw her arms around his neck and claimed his lips in a ferocious kiss, desperate to finally share the passion she'd suppressed for so long, before savoring the spicy musk of his skin. 

“I don't know what it is, but you smell so good...”

Shhh.” He kissed his way down her throat to the lush valley of her breasts. “Don’t speak, just feel.”

With one hand behind her neck, he urged her to lean back, trusting in him to hold her, and she cried out when he drew deeply on her sensitive nipples, sending a rush of heat to her core. It amazed her that hands so powerful could be so gentle as he caressed her, even when he dipped between them to seek her warmth.

He hovered there, offering a last chance to change her mind, but she pressed his hand closer, leaving no doubt what she wanted. Bull claimed her mouth again and slipped one large finger inside, slowly working deeper with every pass as she clenched around him, and in her heightened state she was ready to fall apart by his touch alone.

“Meraad, how long has it been?" His tone was casual, but the Empath felt his concern, and she huffed in exasperation.

“About two and a half years. Is that going to be a prob...?” She moaned wantonly when he deepened his kiss and a second thick finger joined the first, curling and stroking an intoxicating rhythm designed to drive her mindless with lust. Her nails raked his shoulders, skin flushing pink from chest to cheeks when the first waves of climax struck, and Bull chuckled as she helplessly shuddered against his hand. 

Good girl. No, sweetheart, it won’t be a problem. It just means we take it slow the first time, and that’s fine with me.”

Time lost all meaning for Meraad as Bull dedicated himself to the exploration of her body, learning every curve, every scar, every spot that made her tremble, many of which she'd never known herself. He found where she loved having her horns rubbed, that her feet were extremely ticklish, but could also make her melt when he rubbed the right way, and to her astonishment she enjoyed being spanked. She fell bonelessly on the bed, knees draped over his horns, still writhing through a breathless aftershock when he asked, "Feel like trying for more? I think you're ready, but we don't have to do anything else unless you want to.”

Meraad stared at him, awestruck by his patience and generosity, then happily reached for him.

Yes, Love, please.

Bull froze, and for an instant she feared she’d said something wrong. But he smiled his gloriously crooked smile, lowered her legs to the bed, and moved sinuously up her body, licking, nibbling, tasting and teasing, with no outward sign of strain or hurry. Then he rolled to her side and propped against the headboard, pulling her along to once again straddle his lap. He took her hands and encouraged her to touch him, and any initial concerns over lost time faded as instinct took over. With strong hands and soft lips she worshiped him in return, relishing each low growl and break in his composure until he politely stopped her. 

“Damn, healers have great hands. But I’ve got other plans for you right now.”

He raised her up, letting her guide and set the pace inch by delicious inch, and as she savored the sensation of him filling her so completely Meraad was deeply grateful for his earlier care. When their hips joined she threw her head back and groaned, “Goddds...Bull, you feel amazing!”

"So do you," he sighed with genuine relief. "It’s been a long time since anyone could take me fully, they’re all so damned sm...ALL.”

His breath caught as she clenched around him, her eyes sparkling with happy mischief. She had never felt more brazen, or more alive, and reveled in his surprise.

SEE, Bull? You wasted all that time on tiny serving girls when you could have had this.” She clenched again, grinning at his snarl of satisfaction. Not to be outdone, he thrust upward hard, answering her shuddering cry with lusty laughter. 

“Maybe, but you’re worth the wait."

“Oh, that was a good answer, Serah.”

She locked her gaze to his and slowly rocked, adjusting to the feeling of so many long-neglected places being stroked at once, until their mutual hunger drove her faster and she leaned back, clutching his muscular thighs behind her for balance. 

“Yessssss, “ Bull hissed. “Come on, Kadan, ride hard!”

Kadan...A distant part of her mind caught the word, registered its meaning, and screamed in joy. But the primal part currently in control only wanted to release them both, and she rolled her hips in time to meet his. When her legs began to shake with the effort, Bull wrapped one arm around her back and teased her swollen pearl with his free hand, flooding her with increasing pleasure as her wails echoed from the high ceiling. Then she froze in stunned silence, back arched, muscles clenched, lost to blissful submission until the waves of ecstasy subsided enough to allow a desperate gasp for air. 

Bull caught her as her arms gave out and eased her to the bed, never breaking their connection. 

“Well, that was a pretty sight. You still with me, sweetheart?”

“YES!" she panted, smiling so hard her cheeks hurt. "Holy shit yes, don't you dare hold back now!”

His green eye flashed with pride.

Na'thek.

He laced his arms under her knees and leaned forward into his thrust, his teeth grazing her throat beneath the base of her jaw as his hips picked up speed, and only then did Meraad comprehend the true control the mighty warrior had maintained for her comfort. Even his scent seemed to change -- richer, spicier, yet undeniably Bull, and something deep within her blood woke to his challenge. 

She grasped his horns and held tight as he unleashed his full strength, both thrilled and terrified by his relentless fury. This was a kind of ferocity she'd never known, in a partner or in herself, yet she welcomed it. Welcomed him.

Soon the Healer felt him tense as his own climax neared, timing when to pull away. But she locked her ankles around his back, and a guttural voice she barely recognized as her own goaded him on in Qunlat, daring him to stay and claim her for his own. Then she sank her teeth into the same spot beneath his jaw where he’d marked her, just short of breaking skin, and it proved his undoing. Bull roared and pulsed deep inside her, his fingers digging hard into her hips for leverage, and for long, shuddering moments they clutched each other tight until the frenzy abated.

At last he gently slipped away and collapsed beside her, fighting to catch his own breath, and she broke into silent tears.

“Shit. Meraad, did I hurt you? Talk to me.”

"N-no, I'm alright!" She stammered through chattering teeth, mortified that she'd made him worry. “I’m alright, I swear! I’m just...th-that was…” 

With a deep sigh of relief, he gathered her protectively into his arms. 

“It's okay, Kadan, I understand. Let it out. Just let it all go.”

The moment he gave permission, the floodgates shattered, and for the first time in her life, Meraad Adaar experienced true release. 

Every tension, every judgement, every moment of stress and terror since the nightmare of this war engulfed her life poured from her in wordless, soul-wracking sobs, and Bull accepted it all. He cradled her close, kissing and stroking her hair in silent reassurance she wasn't alone, until the storm ran its course and she fell into healing sleep.

 



Bull woke as the late afternoon sun streamed through the western windows into his good eye, and froze when he didn't immediately recognize his surroundings. Then he focused on the tear-stained, love-bruised, tangle-haired woman sprawled peacefully in his arms and couldn't help but smile.

Kadan. In the moment of truth, you called her Kadan. Lie to yourself all you want about Qunari emotion control, but you can’t lie to her now.

She heard you.


And you meant it.

He started to ease out of bed, but there proved no need for stealth. Meraad slept so deeply he doubted a war horn could rouse her. With anyone else, this was the point he’d have quietly dressed and left, but he hadn't lied when he'd told her he was told to stay until the security sweep was finished.

Riiiiight, that’s why you’re still here. Just admit it, asshole. You want to be here when she wakes up.

Bull gathered his gear and straightened the room as he mulled over this new course of events. Though he hadn’t come here with the intent of seducing her, he had no regrets about any of it, not for her, or for himself. And he definitely wanted a repeat performance.

Well, without tears, though that was for a good cause and long overdue. These people have no idea how close they were to breaking her, and hopefully never will. 

And damn it felt good to be with a partner who properly fit! So responsive…I knew there was more to her under that shell, and it’s an honor to be thought worthy of sharing it with. When’s the last time anyone but her told you that you were actually worthy of something, as your true self?

He closed the window curtains, fetched a washcloth from her bathroom and refreshed the fire to heat a pot of water. Then he carried her to the divan and gently bathed her, leaving her resting under a light blanket while he washed himself, changed the sheets and tucked her back into bed.

Okay, so what about the rest? It’s one thing to travel with mages, another to sleep with one. You worried about getting her too worked up in case the wrong kind of magic happened, but she didn’t lose control of her powers, even during her breakdown. That’s a good sign.

You’re blazing a new trail here -- you can’t judge her by what you thought you knew of mages before. She’s no more a “typical mage” than Krem is a “typical 'Vint.”

He dressed and armored, collected his greataxe and a fresh mug of coffee, then took guard position by the top of the stairs where he could see every accessible door...and watch his Kadan sleep in peace.

So that's what she meant by “making love”. Always assumed the term was just a fancy euphemism for sex, but I get it now, and see why she held out for so long.

And she chose you. No matter what you’ve done, who you were, or what may come next, she chose you.

The Iron Bull, you are a lucky bastard after all.

 

 

Chapter Text


A storm moved in after sunset, and Bull had to give credit as he watched the thunderheads roll across the high peaks that the view from Meraad’s room was spectacular.

As someone used to wearing heavy armor, he’d never been overly fond of storms, until he met Meraad. She loved storms, and many nights when the others lamented over bad weather, it always made Bull laugh to hear her cheering at a particularly impressive peal of thunder. On some weird, primal level the tempests energized her, and it was the days of what she called “unrelenting brightness” that annoyed her and gave her headaches.

Now that I think about it, most of her combat spells favor frost and lightning, and she loves it up here in the mountains, despite nearly dying from exposure. I wonder if there’s some kind of connection between a mage’s favored spells and the climate they thrive in? Considering how much that fire-flinger Dorian bitches about the cold, I could believe it.  It's worth looking into.

He stirred up the fire in the hearth and added a couple of large logs, before refilling his mug and returning to his post. Meraad sighed in her sleep, and Bull's heart swelled with pride that she sounded so peaceful and contented. Too many nights he’d sat watch in camp and listened to her softly cry herself to sleep over the events of the day, and he hated to hear her suffering.

Not anymore, Kadan. Not on my watch.

The Chantry bell rang to mark the hour, and Bull shifted the heavy curtain just far enough to allow him a view of the torch-lit battlements and courtyard.

Eight o’clock, guard change. Shouldn't be long now.

Bull strode to Meraad’s bedside, placed a soft, lingering kiss on her head and whispered,  “Time for me to go to work, sweetheart. Sleep well.”

A smile and sleepy mumble were her only reply, and it was all he needed.

By the time Bull locked her chamber door behind him and found his position in the deep shadows at the corner of the landing, an alarm bell rang out from the guard tower outside.

Wait for it…

A slight disturbance in the dust along the edge of the carpet was the only sign of their passage as the stealth-cloaked assassin rounded the corner leading to Meraad's door. Bull’s powerful arm shot out in a sweeping arc and slammed the rogue into the stone wall, stunning them as the air was driven from their lungs in the impact. Now uncloaked, the assassin attempted to draw daggers from their belt but underestimated the warrior's fury and speed. Bull easily pinned them by the throat to the wall, then snapped both their wrists, choking off their cries of pain before they could wake Meraad.

“Excellent catch.” The sudden light of a candle lantern illuminated the area and Leliana strode toward the pair. “Your trap worked beautifully.”

Bull never took his eye off the assassin. “The fire out?”

“It is. A pile of oil-soaked rags in a storeroom on the outer bailey to draw away the guard, just as you predicted.”

“Fucking amateur.”

Nightingale huffed in agreement as she jerked the rogue’s hood and mask away, revealing a pale human woman with tightly-braided, flaming red hair.

“Well, hello, Tessa.” Bull sneered. “Looking for me?”

Tears of pain and fear streaming from her eyes, Tessa shook her head as far as Bull’s grip would allow.
NO. ” She croaked. “You should be dead! Ebost issala, Tal-Vashoth!

It took every ounce of control Bull possessed not to crush her fragile human throat. In a terrifyingly calm voice he said,
“Sister Nightingale, give me her dagger, please, and mind the blade.”

“We need her alive for interrogation, Bull." Leliana protested. "What if there are others?”

“There are no others. You heard her, she thought I was dead. This one is here for Meraad. Give me her dagger, please.”

The Nightingale’s eyes hardened as they studied the former barmaid and agreed with Bull's assessment. She retrieved the pair of daggers from the floor, carefully handed one to Bull, and kept the other for herself.

“Take a good look at that blade in the light.” Bull said. “Don't touch it, but note the color and scent. That’s the same liquid Saar-qamek they tried to use on me.”

“Noted." She efficiently stripped Tessa of her weapons and armor while Bull kept the girl pinned. "Without the antidote, what would this have done?” 

Bull’s jaw clenched tight in fury. “A small amount can burn away a victim’s memories and leave them a mindless slave, good only for simple labor. A double dose like this directly in the bloodstream would have killed Meraad, after a prolonged struggle as her mind and body tore themselves apart. The bastards didn't just want her dead, they wanted her to suffer.”

I accepted that pathetic attempt on my life as a formality, but now this is personal.

“I see." Leliana said coldly. "Thank you for your report, Captain. Do you require further assistance?”

“Nope. But stick around. You may find this educational.”

 



Half an hour later, Bull wiped his hands and stared dispassionately at the broken corpse at his feet.

“This was too close, Red. Never again.”

Leliana sighed. “I agree, and although their attempts mercifully failed, thank the Maker, I am frustrated that they achieved even this much. I have not had many dealings with the Ben-Hassrath before you joined us, and regret I was not more diligent in studying their tactics, a mistake I will not make again. I would appreciate your assistance in updating our security protocols to account for this new threat.”

“Gladly. Start with getting some damned lights in here. I want to see this hallway and every landing well-lit at all times, day or night. I also want at least a pair of armed guards assigned to the tower door immediately, starting with two of my boys until you and Cullen confirm a new roster.  I’ll stay here on guard with Meraad tonight, and have a list of further recommendations for you by sunrise.”

They rolled Tessa's body into the area rug, and Bull was pleased to see the assassin's blood didn't irreparably stain the hardwood floor.

“Did you know she was a spy, Bull? I recall seeing her flirt with you often.”

“I had my suspicions. It’s no secret I had a taste for redheads. There’s a lot of gingers in Ferelden, so I could have dismissed that a cute one might show up with the refugees. But she started making herself too obvious -- asking a lot of questions of my boys, always coming up on my blind side, trying to distract me whenever Meraad was in the room. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure I saw her talking with the guards that tried to take me out yesterday. Probably tipped them off when she saw Meraad and I leave the bar.”

“Good to know. For my part, I’m glad you are here, and will get this cleaned up immediately. I must say your skills are far more...diverse, than I expected, Bull. I am impressed.”

“It’s nothing to be proud of." He said quietly. "And I’d appreciate this kept between us.”

“You don’t wish to inform the Inquisitor of this?”

Bull stared at the chamber door, thinking of his Kadan sleeping peacefully within. 

She can’t know how close this was, or she’ll never feel safe anywhere.

“No.” He said, unlocking her door. “Let her rest.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text



Dawn broke with the soft peal of the chantry bell and a chorus of rolling thunder. For long, confused moments Meraad stared into the darkness, disoriented by unfamiliar shadows and the muffling of sounds, until she recognized the heavy curtains of her own new bed.

Then she remembered what else was new about this bed, and happily skimmed a hand under the blankets to find him.

When she found only cold sheets at her side, her heart clenched in sudden fear that the most erotic night of her life may have been nothing more than a dream, until a welcome ache in her thighs confirmed she was very much awake, and she hugged herself in glee.

“Bull?” 

“I’m here, Kadan,” he called from the far side of the room. “Good morning.”

She rolled out of bed, groaning from more aches in places unaccustomed to such vigorous use, pulled on her robe, and used a cantrip spell to refresh the fire in the hearth.

SHIT!” Bull cursed at the sudden bright light. "How about some warning next time?"

“I'm so sorry! It's chilly, I didn’t think...wait, why are you sitting in the corner? Bull, have you been on watch all night?!”

He rose from his chair and stretched. “Yeah. Everything’s okay though.”

“No, it bloody well isn’t! Why didn’t Leliana relieve you?”

“She did, Meraad, and after giving me her report, I told her I’d keep watch until morning while they implemented some new security procedures. This was my choice.” 

He set his great axe against the wall and pulled her into his arms, dissipating her annoyance with a tender kiss. “I also didn’t want to assume you’d be comfortable waking up with me in your bed. That’s not a common thing for me either, so I was trying to be courteous.”

“Sweet man, you are always welcome in my bed. You look like you could use it, too. Did you get any sleep?”

“Nah. Wasn't my first all-night watch, and I had coffee and a report to finish." He rubbed the bases of her horns with his thumbs until she purred like a contented cat. "Besides, watching over you while you sleep isn't what I’d consider work.”

"Aww, damn it all, I'm trying to be indignant. You've denied me hours of prime snuggle time, Serah, I demand recompense!”

Bull gently but firmly gripped the thick hair at nape of her neck, forcing her to look him in the eye.

“Did I just hear you say, ‘demand ’, Kadan?

A thrill ran down her spine at his dangerous tone. “...request?”

“Good girl. I think that can be arranged, if you behave yourself. How are you feeling?”

“Sore, but for all the right reasons," she sighed. "Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I felt this good. If I wasn’t already committed to work today I’d show you how good, but the Council's been more than patient.” She reluctantly pulled away and padded into the bathroom. “By the way, I had a crazy dream about you last night!”

“Did it involve a blindfold, pink silk ropes, and a tray of chocolate-covered guimauves?”

Meraad peeked through the doorway, wide-eyed and blushing. “Nooo...but I’m damned sure going to be thinking about that now.”

Bull grinned lasciviously.

She cleared her throat and walked out, drying her hands on a towel as she crossed to her wardrobe. “So, in this dream, you kissed me, said something about going to work like you were heading to a market stall, then went outside. One of those assassins from the wall -- that tall one I thought looked familiar? He sneaked in with a pair of poisoned blades to kill me for corrupting you.”

“Weird. Then what happened?”

“You broke the bastard's limbs, force-fed him his own blade, and let the poison do the rest. It was horrific, but at the risk of sounding heartless, I was so furious after finding out what saar-qamek does, I wasn't sorry. Like I said, it was crazy!”

He wrapped his arms around her from behind and kissed her head, savoring the scent of her hair. “Well, nice to know I could be of service.”

Meraad beamed at him from the mirror as she fixed the clasps of her tunic, until she saw the chain of love bites purpling her throat and shoulders. 

Holy shit, Bull! I look like I’ve been mauled!”

“Didn’t hear you complaining last night.”

She laughed. “Ass.”

He stroked his hands over the curves of her generous hips. “Pretty sure there's a few there too. Speaking of which, Kadan, aren’t you a little early for the morning meeting? I’m not that tired yet.”

“Ohhhh no, you desire demon. If I take you up on that now I just know they’ll send people to get me right when things are getting good, and I don’t want innocent blood on my hands on such a beautiful morning. Besides, I've got plans.”

She finished dressing, took his hand, and led him to the door. The moment they crossed the threshold into the hall, Meraad grabbed him by his horns and kissed him.

“Okay, as we are now outside, you, Serah, are to eat a good breakfast, have a nice bath, and get some sleep. That’s an order.”

“What if I have things to do as well?”

“Right now, you don’t. You just pulled an all-night watch guarding the Inquisitor, and the Inquisitor, your fucking healer, says you’re off-duty. Are you questioning my orders, and your ‘system’, Captain?”

The mischievous gleam in his eye promised he wouldn’t forget this. “No Ma’am.”

“Good. I’ll meet you at your room later, hopefully no later than midday. By the size of that stack of papers I saw on Josephine’s clipboard earlier, I'm going to need the break.”

“Sure, Kadan. Just let me fill Krem in, and I’ll see you then.”

“That reminds me. Krem gets the day off too, along with whomever you called in to help last night. And I want your help in doing something really nice for him later.”

“Okay, any particular reason?”

Meraad lovingly stroked his cheek. “Because Krem helped us make this happen...Kadan." She paused, tasting the word, loving the way Bull's eye lit up in pleasant surprise to hear her say it.  "He took care of you out on the Coast when I couldn’t, and encouraged me to not to give up hope for you. He’s a fine young man with a heart of purest gold, and we both have a lot to thank him for.”

“He told me you two had talked, but I had no idea...damn. You’re right, he's a great guy, and deserves something special for this. I’ll take care of it.”

“Let me know when you do, please, I’d like to be there if possible. But now I need to run.” She leaned in for one last soft kiss, nibbling his lower lip. “The sooner I get my work done, the sooner we can play.”

Bull swatted her as she turned away, making her yelp in surprise at the pleasant sting. 

“Make sure you eat too, minx. You are definitely going to need your strength for later.”




At first, Leliana wasn't sure she'd heard the runner correctly when he informed her the Inquisitor had summoned the Council for an early meeting. The Spymaster rose and raced for the War Room, joining an equally confused Cassandra and Cullen in the throne room. 

“Leliana?” The Seeker asked as they headed for Josephine’s office. “What's wrong? Do you know why the Inquisitor has called us?”

“I don’t. The new security measures are still being implemen...Josie! Have you heard what’s going on?”

The Ambassador gathered a stack of files from her desk. “No, and I am most disconcerted to be caught unprepared. We were not scheduled to meet for another two hours.”

As the counselors reached the War Room door, Cullen called them to a halt. “Do you hear...singing?

Cassandra whispered, “Could that be the Inquisitor? I don't understand, if there is an emergency, why would she be singing?”

The music ceased when the door opened, and they entered to find Meraad at a side table, arranging fruit and pastries on a platter.

The Inquisitor straightened, stared at each of them in turn, and promptly burst out laughing.

"Oh gods, your faces! Totally worth it. Good morning, everyone! Please, come take your places, I'm almost finished."

The Spymaster studied the unusually giddy Herald, unsure whether to be amused or alarmed. 

Meraad hates rising early, and is not normally given to pranks. What could possibly have....?

Wait. Could that be a love bite I see beneath your high collar, my dear Inquisitor? 

She suddenly recalled the events in the tower from the night before: Bull’s fierce protectiveness, the scratches on his back and shoulders that had nothing to do with the fight...

Well, well. So our illustrious Captain has been more diligent in his duty than I thought!

FINALLY.

“Good morning to you, Inquisitor. I trust you are well rested ?”

Meraad's shameless grin practically lit the room. "Very much so, Sister! That wonderful new bed performed beautifully.”

Oh HO, the satisfaction in her voice...she is indeed ‘awake’, and it would seem The Iron Bull’s reputation is deserved. Maker, please don’t let him break her heart, it would be a pity to have to kill the man after all he’s contributed.

“I am so pleased!” Josephine chimed, oblivious to the innuendo. “If you will forgive me, my Lady, you have appeared rather weary of late. We believed if you had a bed better suited to your stature you might rest more comfortably. I trust the other appointments are also to your liking?”

“They are, and I appreciate your thoughtfulness. In fact, I feel so refreshed, that I'd hoped we might make an early day of it today.”

Nightingale struggled to contain her smile. And I have no doubt of what, and who, awaits you at the end of it! Oh, Selena, mon amour, did we ever look so happy? I miss you, sweet Warden.

Yet for all that I wish them joy, l
et us see if our newly-awakened Inquisitor performs as effectively as the old, or if this is a dangerous distraction. I cannot rule out the possibility that the strife with the Ben-Hassrath of late might all have been a ruse for Bull to gain her confidence. It’s what I would have done, and she must be prepared for the potential consequences.

Meraad gestured to the side table. “As apology for the early hour, I took the liberty of having coffee and breakfast delivered so that we could get right to work, if that’s alright with you.”

“Of course, Inquisitor!” Josephine said. “And may I say we were pleasantly surprised to hear you singing, your Grace. You have a lovely voice!”

Meraad froze as she sipped her coffee, her smile fading. “You are mistaken, Lady Josephine. I am not a singer.”

“It’s nothing to be embarrassed over, Inquisitor,” Cullen encouraged. “I’m rather fond of singing myself. It can be good for morale.”

Her stoneware mug thudded on the table. 

“I'm sorry, no matter what you think you heard, I am not a singer. May we get to work now, please?”

A heavy silence fell as the counselors exchanged concerned glances, until Meraad shook herself and plastered on a vibrant smile. 

“The chef made brioche au chocolat, and added the first of this season’s strawberries from the new greenhouse. Please, eat and enjoy! Josephine, what’s on the agenda today?”

The Ambassador, recognizing the clear request to change the subject, arranged map markers while the others assembled their plates.

By the time they stopped at midday, Leliana was relieved to note her concerns for Meraad's ability to focus were mercifully without merit. In fact, the Inquisitor had issued commands with greater clarity and confidence than ever before, and Josephine happily announced they’d cleared what might otherwise have been a week’s worth of reports in only a few hours. And despite the brief tension that morning, Meraad was pleasant and cheerful for the rest of the meeting. One scout report from the Hinterlands in particular excited the Inquisitor enough to snatch the missive from the pile to confirm its details. 

“This one! Red Templars, lyrium smuggling, and a dragon? Well, of course this must be investigated immediately! If that’s all for now, let’s get supplies arranged and I’ll notify my team. Are we done?”

“Y-yes...?” Josephine consulted her checklist. “I believe that is all for tod...”

The door to the hall closed before she spoke the last syllable.

“Leliana," Cassandra asked. "Have you told the Inquisitor her father will be arriving soon?”

“No. My last report from Turner a fortnight ago asked for silence, as Master Adaar wants to surprise her. However, I suspect now she won’t be the only one who is surprised.”


 

Nightingale propped her feet on her desk in the Rookery, and sipped a cup of tea as she fed treats to the raven perched on her shoulder.

“Ah, Leliana! I was hoping to find you here.” Cullen called from the stairwell. “I have a few questions for the Inquisitor, but she wasn’t in her quarters. Might you know where she is?”

With deceptive casualness the Nightingale glanced out the window toward the battlements, her heart bubbling with affectionate mischief.

Hmm, it’s been well over an hour since she left the War Room, and should take a few more minutes for Cullen to get there...assuming they wasted no time on her arrival, they’ve had enough of a head start.

“I believe Lady Meraad is discussing maneuvers with The Iron Bull. Perhaps you may find her in his quarters.”

And now you shall learn the consequences of disturbing my rest, Cheeky Madame.







Meraad basked in blissful afterglow in Bull's arms, the wide curve of her polished horn cradling his as she nuzzled against his throat.

“Okay, you were right, I did need this. Although, I'm still deciding whether you're good or bad for my work ethic. Toward the end of the meeting, I was ready to scream every time Josephine shuffled her papers.”

“I could tell." He laughed. "You were so hot when you got here I'm surprised you didn't leave scorch marks on the battlements.”

“Yet still you made me wait, you insufferable tease! What was that about?”

He tilted her chin toward him with one finger. “Think it through, Kadan. 

She paused, then sighed at the obvious answer. “Because The Inquisitor was off duty, and needed to stay outside.”

“There you go.” He brushed her lips with his. “So how about you stop trying to top from the bottom, and get us both something to drink?”

"Yes, Serah," she smirked, wrapping the sheet around her to stave off the chill as she rose to pour water from the nearby decanter. “Oh, stop looking so smug, you know this is all new for me. It’s hard enough to accept being in command at all, I never imagined shutting it off would be even harder. Since I became a Knight-Enchanter I’m expected to be even more in control, of my troops, my magic, and myself...I feel like I’m wearing mismatched armor and can’t figure out how to adjust the straps."

She handed him his glass and sat down on the edge of the bed, studying him as she sipped from her own. "Of course you already knew all that, didn’t you? I think I finally understand what you’ve been trying to tell me all this time. I feel a bit stupid now for not seeing it sooner.”

“You’re not stupid, Kadan, you’re just too close to the problem to be objective. I know better than most what it’s like to feel caught between roles, and I’ve had years of experience at it. I can help you find your balance too.”

“What about you, Bull? What about what you need?”

“You don’t worry about that, sweetheart, I’m good.” He paused for a moment, seemingly surprised by the revelation. “Actually, I...I’m better than good. Ol’ Iron Bull is just fine. Now tell the Inquisitor to clear out again, and come back to bed."

The door burst open as Cullen strode into the room, saying, “Forgive me for interrupting Inquisitor, but our fortif... oh sweet Maker!

Meraad clutched the sheet around her as she jumped up in shock, but Bull leaned back on his elbows for a better pose without a care in the world.  

“Cullen! How’s it going?”

The Commander tried to stammer a reply when Josephine entered, clipboard in hand. “Commander, is the Inquisitor here? I was told...." she gasped, stunned into silence.

“YES, she is." Meraad snarled through clenched teeth. "May I help you both with something?” 

Cullen politely looked away, but Josephine, mesmerized by Bull's impressive physique, could only squeak, “...I cannot move my legs.”

"Josephine!" Cassandra raced in from the battlements, scanning the room for possible threats. "Is something the matt...WOAH! ” 

"Oh for FUCK'S sake!" Meraad snapped, then said in Qunlat, "*That’s IT. You're getting double deadbolts on your doors. Maybe a portcullis too.*”  Bull just laughed.

The Seeker turned to her fellow counselors, demanding, “Do you SEE this?!” Cullen, ever the gentleman, held his files before his eyes like a shield of virtue and said he didn't see a thing, and even if he had there was absolutely nothing wrong with a bit of fun.

"Indeed!" Josephine said, still unable to blink. "Who wouldn't be at least a little curious?"

Cassandra huffed in disgust. “So, I take it…?”

“Actually," Bull teased, "...she's the one who’s been taking it.” 

Meraad and Cullen both snorted, but the Seeker wasn't impressed. “I do apologize for interrupting what I assume was a…momentary diversion.” 

Bull sighed and rested a calming hand on Meraad's lower back. “*Easy, Kadan.*” 

But the Inquisitor had reached her limit. She rose to her full height, fists clenched in fury, and glared at her counselors like a vengeful goddess. 

“This was more than a ‘momentary diversion’, and Bull and I intend to continue. DO ANY OF YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH THAT?”

Cullen and Josephine talked over each other insisting they were fine, while Cassandra calmly regarded Meraad with new respect. 

"It is a surprise, I’ll admit, but not a problem.”

"GOOD! Then clear out and leave us alone!”

The counselors tactfully retreated, offering apologies and supportive well wishes for the rest of the evening as they closed the door behind them. Meraad sank to the bed, trembling with suppressed rage. 

“Did you see the way they gawked at us? It was like we weren't even people!"

“Humans usually do, sweetheart, don't take it personally. Trust me, I see it all the time.”

“And the way Cass sneered at you! GAH! I just...I wanted..." The sound of ripping fabric made Meraad stare at her hands in horror. "Vashedan!  Oh, I'm-I'm so sorry! I can fix that!"

Bull kissed her fingers as he gently pried the sheet from her grip. "Nah, don't worry about it, Morris doesn't blink an eye at my requisitioning new sheets anymore."

"I don't get it, Bull. I've lived among humans my whole life, I should be used to this by now! Yet you can just take it in stride? How?”

"I'm a sexy bastard. Bit of a curse, to be honest."

"Please don't mock me, Love, I really want to know."

He sighed. “Ben-Hassrath training, remember? And to be fair, I'll bet the humans you grew up around, in a Tal-Vashoth community, were smart enough to keep their opinions to themselves. You probably didn’t hear anywhere near what you might have if you’d lived in human city. This is nothing compared to the shit I’ve taken from the nobles in Orlais." Bull sat up and put an arm around her shoulders.

"It isn’t that I'm never bothered, Kadan. I just accept there's a difference between malice and thoughtlessness. This is eating at you right now because it's come from your counselors, not just random people, and you assumed by now they knew us well enough to ignore our differences as you do theirs. I'm sure they'll all feel like shit about it later, especially Josephine, once she gets it out of her system, and the Inquisitor needs to learn to hide her emotions better too. I can help with that.”

Yes, please. But not right now.” Meraad launched off the bed, slammed and bolted the heavy oak door, then shoved a chair under its handle for good measure.

With a lustful growl, Bull pinned her against the door from behind, his powerful arms snaking around her waist, and she shivered to feel him already hard against her back. 

“You know, Kadan…” he said, teeth grazing up the back of her neck to her ear. “Seeing you ready to throw down with Cassandra just for insulting me? That was pretty fucking hot.”

She laughed despite herself. “I was an idiot for considering it, too. She'd have wrecked me! And what was that you just said about controlling emotions?” 

“I said, the Inquisitor needs to show better control.” He spun her in his arms and wrapped her long legs around his hips, relishing her joyful moan when he sheathed himself deep in a single thrust. 

“But the Inquisitor isn’t here right now, is she?”

 



Hours later, Meraad jolted awake when a great gust of wind shook the outside door. But this time, she wasn’t alone.

Bull snuggled against her back and sleepily murmured, “It's okay, Kadan. I’m here.”

She relaxed into his embrace, savoring his heat and comforting presence.

Gods, I love him so much...for the first time in my life, I can honestly say I made the right choice.

But does he feel the same? 

She turned around to face him, her heart hammering in her ears at the risk she was about to take.

“Bull?"

"Hmm."

"I need to ask you about an important mission."

"Can it wait till morning, Kadan?"

"No." She swallowed hard, then raced to get the words out before she lost her nerve. "The Hinterlands scouts found a hidden valley north of the Rebel Queen’s Ravine, with lyrium smugglers and a Red Templar camp...”

“Okay," he yawned. "And what else? You don’t get this excited over smugglers.”

“A dragon.”

“...You have my attention.”

“The scouts think there’s a nest of them! A brood of dragonlings, and a high queen dragon known locally as 'The Fereldan Frostback',” she cupped Bull’s face. “...with lots of teeth.”

Bull was suddenly wide awake. “Meraad, are you asking...?”

“I love you,The Iron Bull. I want the whole world to know you are my Kadan, as I am yours, no matter where life may take us. Would...would you slay a dragon with me?”

“You know, it's not often people surprise me, Meraad Adaar," he said, his voice thick with suppressed emotion as he pressed his head to hers.

"But I love you too, Kadan. YES. Let’s go slay a fucking dragon!”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

A few days later, thanks to Inquisition patrols on the Imperial Highway and a lucky turn of favorable spring weather, the party reached the Rebel Queen’s Ravine in record time.  Throughout the journey, Bull and Meraad had done their best to maintain professional decorum in front of the troops. But as they neared camp at sunset, Varric rode beside the couple and casually asked, 

"So, Bull. You and the Inquisitor, huh?”

“Vashedan." Meraad rolled her eyes. "Here we go...” 

Bull smirked. “Yup!”

“I’d really love some impressions, a bit of imagery! Something for my next book.”

The captain stroked his lady's cheek, and she happily rubbed her face against his palm. “Sorry, Varric. That room is for her and me. No one else invited.”

“Ooh, ‘safe harbor from the storm outside, with love to keep them warm’. Niiice.”

Meraad stared at Bull, astonished by the dwarf’s all too accurate metaphor. “Something like that.”

“Aw, could you make it sound angrier? ‘Love’ is a bit soft. I have an image to maintain.”

“Okay then, how about passion?”

“That's better. ‘Love’ is all starlight and gentle blushes. Passion leaves your fingers sore from clawing the sheets....hey!” Bull grinned lustily as Meraad nipped his thumb.

“Passion it is, then!" Varric chuckled. "I can’t say I wasn’t a little surprised when I heard about you two, given how Qunari usually feel about mages. Did you know Hawke and I actually met a saarebas in Kirkwall years ago? Saved him from the Templars.”

Meraad winced, and Bull frowned at Varric for dampening the mood. 

“Alone? How’d the Templars get him away from his arvaarad?

“Not sure. It was part of a plot to turn the Chantry against Qunari. But we helped Ketojan escape to the Wounded Coast and returned him to his unit…” He trailed off, suddenly remembering the story didn’t have a happy ending.

“Let me guess," Meraad said. "His handler wasn't happy to see him off his leash, and even though he willingly returned, condemned him as corrupted?”

“Yeaahh. Sorry, I probably shouldn’t have brought that up.”

“It’s okay, Varric. I grew up hearing horror stories about what happens to saarebas, so it's nothing I wasn't already aware of. Although, given the bias of the storyteller at the time, I'll confess some of the tales were so horrific it made me question truth from fiction. You told me once you’d worked with them, Bull, what’s it really like?”

Bull sighed. “Sad, mostly. The magic appears late in childhood just like it does for other races. Some kid's gone years learning to be a baker, or soldier, or builder, and then one day, that's all gone.”

“You sound like you pity them.” Varric said. “That’s a bit surprising given how much you don’t like magic.”

“Well, maybe I’ve been shown it’s not all a bad thing when used for the right reasons. And yes, I do pity them. In theory, they’re no different from anyone else. They’re people too, just serving the Qun, but too many Qunari are afraid of them.”

“Not you, though?”

“No." Bull kissed Meraad's hand. "Anyone who takes that burden and lives a good life with it has my respect.”

Her eyes filled with grateful tears as she whispered, “thank you, Kadan.”

Suddenly Cole’s singsong voice called from behind them, “...she almost says the word sometimes. Katoh. She tastes it in her mouth, sweet release a breath away, tongue tying it tenderly like you tie her. But she doesn't. For you, and for her, because it makes it mean more. A fuller feeling, a brighter burst.”

Bull coughed as Meraad blushed to the tips of her pointed ears. “Yeah...and how’s she feel about you saying this in front of everybody?”

She raised her chin in elegant dignity. “Bull and I are consenting adults, and there’s nothing wrong with what we choose to do in bed.”

“Not just in bed,” Cole continued. “Sometimes it’s up against the wall. Once upon the War Table!”

The Inquisitor’s eyes darkened with lust at the happy memory. “With no regrets.”

“Hey, listen, Inquisitor, “ Varric teased as the party passed the entrance to the camp. “You do whatever works for you. You don’t have to act restrained in front of us.”

Meraad passed her horse’s reins to a scout and retrieved her saddlebags. “Careful what you wish for, Messere. I was being quiet before out of courtesy, but since the word is officially out...” she winked.

Bull wrapped his arm around her waist as the two of them strode toward her tent, cackling, “Have a good night, boys!”

 




When Varric emerged from his tent early the next morning, he was surprised to find Bull and Meraad wide awake and fully armored, quietly talking by the fire. He started to call out in greeting, but something made him hesitate to disturb them.  With only a brief wave and nod in passing on the way to retrieve his own breakfast, he sat on the opposite side of the fire, pulled out his journal and a featherless quill, and jotted observational notes.

They spoke mostly in Qunlat, so softly that at first Varric could only make out a few words. Meraad sat with her back to Bull, her face painted in vibrant vitaar, sipping coffee as Bull wove her platinum hair into an intricate mesh of battle braids. The graceful speed of his fingers as he worked was fascinating to watch, and not for the first time Varric wondered if there was a significance to the pattern. As the warrior finished one braid, he passed it over her shoulder for her to hold out of the way of the next, pausing only to kiss her neck before returning to the weave. The Inquisitor seemed oblivious to the world around them, purring as her thick tresses were tamed by her lover’s powerful hands.

The hairstyle, and her vitaar, were an interesting contrast to her elaborate armor, designed in the style of the ancient arcane warriors to honor her rank of Knight-Enchanter.

A vashoth mage healer, bearing qunari vitaar, human weaponry, and elvhen armor laced with dwarven runes. The Inquisitor stands for all cultures, mage and mortal alike, and respects the traditions of all those she defends. At her side, a Tal-Vashoth warrior -- her partner, lover, and champion. Two rebellious hearts beating as one, standing defiantly against all who would oppose them.

Andraste's ass, it’s so perfect it’s almost sickening. My publisher’s going to love this.

Bull finished his task and Meraad turned around to face him. They rested their heads together, hands entwined in their laps, and to the casual observer looked as if they were praying. But what Varric heard was a pledge of a very different kind.

Holy shit...they’re talking about fighting this dragon like it's part of some kind of commitment ritual. I know Qunari don't marry, is this a Tal-Vashoth thing?

Well, whatever it is, more power to them. With all the weirdness that poor woman’s survived I can’t think of anyone more deserving of some happiness for a change. And Tiny, forced to choose between his people, and his people...by the way they're both grinning, he made the right choice. Good for you, big guy.

He sighed and tucked his book back into his pack.  Admit it, Tethras, for all that you claim to be a cynical sonofabitch (sorry, Mother), you’re still a sucker for true love. It's been in far too short a supply in recent years. That these two found it in the middle of all this shit is even more miraculous.

Varric raised his mug in a silent toast to their happiness, and to their continued good health.

And if we have anything to say about it, Bianca and I will make sure you both live to enjoy it.

 




Meraad, Bull, Cole and Varric reached Lady Shayna’s Valley just as the morning sun rose above the distant Blood Cliffs. The scent of wildflowers clashed with the stench of burning wood and charred flesh as they came across the wreckage of a smuggler’s wagon near the bottom of the first hill.

Varric couldn't help but feel happy, and even a little envious, watching the couple striding ahead hand-in-hand. But their love didn’t blind them to the danger of this place, if anything it made their senses sharper. He'd never seen either of them so focused before, as eager as a pair of hungry wolves, and he was very glad he wasn’t their target.

Maker help anyone stupid enough to mess with their kids if they live to have them!

Bull stopped to examine fresh tracks in the churned earth. The captain's grin was positively feral as he declared, “Yup, definitely dragon territory! This is gonna be GOOD .”

A startling, furious screech reverberated off the surrounding cliffs as the Ferelden Frostback recognized intruders in her nesting grounds.  Varric had fought a high dragon with Hawke outside of Kirkwall, yet for all his experience it was still impossible not to be awestruck with fear by their size and power. His qunari companions actually cheered.

“GODS, look at those horns!” Meraad cried. “She’s gorgeous!

“And she’s TAKING OFF! ” Bull bellowed in reply. “Let’s GO, Kadan!

Varric and Cole disappeared into the shadows of stealth as Meraad and Bull raced to the valley floor. The dragon reeled high overhead, hurling flame on her visible enemies, but Meraad's barrier spell deflected the blasts as the pair took shelter in the lee of a rock column. Shrieking with frustration, the Frostback stooped into a dive, shattering the outcropping with her tail to shower stones down on their position, but the qunari dove away. In the distance, a chorus of hisses and shrieks filled the valley as the dragon's brood woke in their nests.  

"We're too exposed here!" Bull shouted. "Gotta find a defensible position before she calls for support!"

Meraad pointed to a trail leading out of the canyon through a high stone arch to the north. “Up there! FOLLOW ME!”

Varric felt the familiar sensation of Meraad’s barrier spell surround him before they dashed across the valley floor, dodging stones and dragon fire, and as they reached the archway into a high-walled passage, it seemed the dragon had given up pursuit. But the trail fed into a large, rock-strewn field of charred trees and pockets of flame, and at its heart the Fereldan Frostback waited, roaring in challenge.

Meraad and Bull paused at the top of the trail, laughed like fiends and exchanged a fast, desperate kiss. Then the Inquisitor surrounded her team with a fresh barrier, and Bull unleashed his own roar to pull the dragon’s focus before leaping into battle. 

Part of Varric’s mind desperately wanted to observe and note everything for future reference, but there was barely any chance to breathe, let alone think. One moment stood out vividly, however: midway through the fight, the Frostback unleashed a rage-filled wave of sound so powerful they were all left momentarily stunned by the force of it.  Eight young dragonlings, each the size of a draft horse, raced from the border nests to their mother's defense, and Varric was sure they were doomed.

But Meraad recovered quicker than all of them, and whether by the power of the Maker, or his Mark, the Inquisitor screamed in defiance and tore open the sky.

A rift almost large enough to rival the Breach appeared above the dragonlings. The gaping green maw consumed them all, leaving only scraps of their physical forms behind, and weakened their mighty mother. Varric had never seen a mage cast such a thing, and apparently neither had the others. Even Meraad seemed surprised by the spell, staggering when the rift sealed shut with a deafening boom. Bull caught and steadied her, and Varric saw the unmistakable question in her eyes -- would the warrior repudiate his lover out of fear of the forces she commanded?

Instead, The Iron Bull shouted, “NICE!”, hoisted his greataxe, and struck the stunned dragon with an earth-shattering blow, and Meraad whooped in joyful relief.

From there on, it was pure butchery.

Since becoming a Knight-Enchanter, the Inquisitor healed from the front lines, wielding a staff in one hand, and a sword conjured from spirit energy in the other. Varric remembered Meraad and Bull's initial training sessions, and how she'd awkwardly struggled to compensate for being in melee range and not get in Bull’s way.

What the dwarf witnessed now was a thing of beauty: two balanced warriors working in perfect unity, one mortal, one arcane, weaving fluidly around each other in a glorious dance of death, driven by a primal need to claim and conquer. The canyon walls rang with Bull’s war cries and the hissing of ice spells meeting the dragon's flames, while Cole’s twin daggers slashed in counterpoint to Bianca’s unleashed mechanical fury.

Finally Bull cleaved open the beast’s throat as Meraad’s spirit blade met him from the other side, and the mighty Ferelden Frostback breathed her last.

The Inquisitor, blood-soaked and panting, called to her team, “Is everyone alright?! Bull??”

“Never better! Did you SEE the way everything lit up when it tried to fry us? Now THAT was a fight!”

Kadan..." she whispered. "We did it. ” 

The Iron Bull dropped his axe as Meraad launched herself into his arms, oblivious of the carnage or their audience. She wrapped her long limbs around him and kissed him with every ounce of strength she had left, and he returned her passion with equal measure. They parted a few moments later, laughing and breathless, and only after Meraad made one last check for injuries and distributed extra potions did they search the Frostback's body.

Beyond a cache of items the beast had hoarded, the Frostback herself was a treasure trove of bones, leather, and sinew. But most priceless of all, the perfect tooth, which Bull pried loose with utmost care for Meraad to clean and carry back to Skyhold. The Inquisitor sent up a signal bolt to alert their scouts it was safe to enter and process the carcass, and her party would continue their search for the smugglers in the morning.

They made camp that night in a secluded cave behind a waterfall that fed into a small lake. Varric volunteered to cook dinner while Meraad and Bull went to the lake below to bathe, and Cole took watch at the cavern entrance. The rogue stared out into the night, his head tilted to the side, listening.

“Trust me, Kid," Varric chuckled,  "They’re going to be a while. Give them some privacy.”

The spirit boy smiled sweetly. “A cage of hate bound the Songbird’s wings, fearful, fettered, forlorn; her song silenced by shame. But her mate brings a new song...coaxing, comforting, consoling. The Fade rings with their music.”

Curious, Varric rose and walked to the cave mouth, tuning out the sound of the rushing water as he would crowd noise in the Hanged Man. He half dreaded what he might hear, given who was out there and what they were likely doing, but when he found it…

Well, I’ll be damned. Guess I owe Nightingale ten Royals after all.

Chapter Text

  

Bull and Meraad returned to the cave after sunset, vitaar removed and carrying their armor, and he could not have been in better spirits. 

One of the best days of my life. As if conquering one of the great ataashi wasn't enough, I got to do it with my Kadan fighting beside me!  I've never seen her get that aggressive before, in or out of battle. That was awesome!

With a nod of thanks to the dwarf for cooking dinner, Bull dropped his gear, and dished two bowls of stew while Meraad busied herself by the fire making a pot of tea.

And she sang for me. No guards, no armor, no pretense...my river goddess sang for me, just because she was happy. 

It was all worth it.

He grinned with pride as he watched her in the firelight, dressed in a simple robe, with her long, damp hair bound into one heavy braid over her shoulder. She was shaving some kind of bark into a pot of water, and his smile faltered when he recognized its astringent scent.

“Willow bark? You okay, Kadan?

“You’re getting better at spotting my remedies," Meraad smiled tiredly. "Yes, Love, just got a bit of a headache. Busy day’s finally caught up with me I guess, but I want to save the potions we have left in case we meet any more trouble down by the coast tomorrow. It’s fine.”

She left the pot over the coals to boil, accepted his offered bowl with a kiss of thanks, and sat on their blankets near the fire to eat. 

Bull wasn’t convinced.

Her hands are shaking...she’s more drained than she’s letting on. When are you going to learn you can’t fool me, Kadan?

Varric stretched out on the opposite side of the fire, his notebook open on his lap, warming his feet as he chronicled the day. “Been a long time since I fought a high dragon, but you two looked like old pros at it today. Have either of you done that before?”

“Nope.” Bull said, sitting cross-legged beside her as he ate. “Largest I’d fought before was a wyvern, and that was nothing compared to the Frostback. I’ll never forget this day as long as I live.” He stroked Meraad’s hair. “For many reasons.”

Meraad beamed at him, and Varric groaned, “Come ON, you’re killing me with all this sweetness! Seriously, Tiny, how can you expect me to sell my readers on you being a mindless weapon when you act like this?”

“Are you kidding?” She laughed. “People love it when the Bad Boy shows his softer side.” She winked at Bull, took one bite of the stew, then frowned at her bowl as if seeing it for the first time.

“Something wrong with my cooking?” Varric asked.

“N-Not at all! I just…” She set the bowl down and rubbed her eyes with her fingertips, then opened the top three clasps of her robe. “I’ll eat more after I drink my tea. Promise. But to answer your previous question, that was my first dragon of any kind. I don’t plan to do it again anytime soon though; that really took a lot of out me.”

“That reminds me, your Inquisitorialness, since when have you been able to create rifts?”

“Honestly, that’s only the second time I’ve done it. The first was in the tunnel as I was escaping Haven, when three demons appeared between me and the exit to the valley.”

Three? You’re shitting me!”

“Wish I was. If I’d been in my right mind at the time I would have been terrified, but I was concussed, and furious that on top of everything else that had happened, demons had escaped the closing of the Breach. All I could think of was sending them back to the Fade, and suddenly a rift opened, ate all three like it did those dragonlings, then left me stunned on the floor when it closed. I never wanted to do it again.”

She shivered, and Bull squeezed her hand in support, having heard this story. “I asked Solas about it after we reached Skyhold, and he said when Corypheus came after me at Haven, the Mark resisted because it was already bonded to me. That’s what the bastard meant when he accused me of ‘spoiling’ it. Corypheus didn’t care if I lived or died, so he simply tried to tear it out, and when that failed, there was a backlash of energy at the release of his spell on me. Solas speculated it burned open my connection to the raw Fade even wider and unintentionally strengthened my tie to the Mark, allowing me to open rifts as well as close them.”

Meraad rose to check on the kettle, then scowled to see it wasn’t boiling yet. “I don’t dare use it often though. It’s dangerous to open the Fade physically, and t-takes a tremendous amount of focused will...to control. But...eight dragonlings seemed worth the ri....”  She clutched her head and swayed, and Bull caught her before she could fall into the fire. 

Kadan, what’s wrong?”

I don’t know…” she choked. Her eyes filled with frightened tears as she stared into the flames, her breathing harsh and short.

“Heart’s racing...burning in my head make it stop please make it stop.

“The dragon’s blood sings a song of fire,” Cole said simply. “The Mother rages within.”

Varric bolted to his feet. “Andraste’s ass, Kid! Are you saying she drank dragon blood?  When!? Bull do you...” 

I don’t know! it might have happened during the fight or....”  

Or when we kissed afterward, covered head to toe in it. SHIT.

Meraad doubled over in pain and Bull’s heart sank. He knew the dangers of dragon blood, even for a race as inured to poisons as Qunari, and had avoided it because of the madness it could cause. He could resist most toxins after years of wearing full body vitaar, but Meraad only wore it on her face, and though her Vashoth constitution and the water of the pools apparently delayed the effects, they couldn’t hold off the power of a venerable high dragon’s blood forever. She was completely unprepared for this.

He laid her down on their bed with her rucksack for a pillow, then stretched out beside her for support. Her eyes were glassy and unfocused, pulse racing at her throat, and her skin flushed a deep, angry red across her cheeks and chest. Bull had no way of knowing how much she’d swallowed or what the blood would do to a mage, but he did know they were all in terrible danger. 

A massive peal of thunder boomed outside, and the rush of the waterfall increased with the sound of pouring rain from what had been a clear sky moments before. The air within the cave grew heavy and smelled of ozone as a fine mist rose from the sandy floor, but the temperature around them plummeted.

“Bull...“ Varric muttered. “I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but if she loses control, there's no templar here.”

With a calm he didn’t remotely feel, Bull kissed her head and replied, “I’m aware of that, Varric. Take Cole and leave, now. I’ll stay with her.”

“Not happening, Tiny. I don’t know what this shit will do, but she'd never leave one of us, and we won’t leave you to face it alone. How can we help?”

Too hot...” Meraad whispered, fumbling at her clasps. Bull gently moved her hand aside to open her robe, and she sighed gratefully at the feel of the cooler air. It didn’t last long.

She’s burning up, but not sweating...I’m no healer but I know that’s not good. Have to cool her down now, but it isn’t safe to take her to the pool in a thunderstorm.

“Varric, bring me my water skin. Cole, get her boots off, please.” He silently signaled to Cole to take her staff, her knife, and his greataxe out of reach as well, just in case.

“Maybe the Kid can put her to sleep until this wears off?” Varric asked.

Cole shook his head. “So long as the fear remains, the Mother’s rage is too loud for my voice. Only her Kadan is louder.”

Bull realized then what he had to do. Too many nights after leaving Seheron he'd woken from nightmares, drenched in sweat and choking on his own fear with no one to guide him back to the light, and he’d be damned before he left his love to the same fate. He had to quell her panic before the dragon's madness fully took hold and potentially killed them all.

BULL!" she cried. "You have to run! I feel her...fire in my veins, f-fighting me...I’m so scared I don’t want to hurt you...please RUN!

“I’m staying right here, Kadan.” 

“I don’t know how long I can hold it!  You have to RUN!”  Her voice broke in agonized sobs. “Please don’t die with me, Love...not like this! I can’t...”

KATOH.”  Bull hated to startle her when she was already panicked but he had to shield the others as well, and trusted she’d respond to his command. "Look at me, Meraad. You accidentally drank the dragon's blood and it's hitting you hard. I know you’re scared, sweetheart, but I promise what you're feeling right now will pass, and I’m staying with you. Do you hear me?”

Drag...? Y-yes, but what if…

“No ‘buts’. If you really want to save us, I need you to trust me and do exactly as I say. Put your hands on my horns, and you hold tight until I give you permission to move them. If you lose control of your magic, you’ll strike me first, so you have to stay focused. I'm trusting you with my life, Kadan, because I know you’re stronger than this. Do you understand?”

Meraad nodded, panting harshly, “I understand...I love you, Bull. I’m so sorry.”

“I love you too, Kadan. This was an accident, no one is mad at you. You’re not going to hurt me. We’ll get through this.” He rested a strong hand on her belly. “Breathe from here.”

“Tiny!" Varric anxiously hissed. "What in the Void are you doing?” 

Bull never took his eye off Meraad. “Helping our Healer remember who, and how strong, she really is. So from here on, Varric, no matter what happens, stay quiet, and don’t interrupt again.”

And be ready to run if this doesn’t work. This could end up being the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, but I didn’t fight a fucking dragon only to lose her now.

For tense moments the couple simply breathed in tandem, slowly and deeply. The mist in the cave dissipated, though the storm outside continued. 

“You’re doing great, sweetheart. Nice and easy.”

Suddenly another peal of thunder echoed through the cavern and Meraad convulsed, her tearful eyes wide with terror as she screamed, “PAPA! Papa needs help! Monsters in the dark...voices crying too many voices, dark blood steaming on snow...I HAVE TO HELP HIM!”

He pinned her down, gritting his teeth against the pain when sparks of barely-restrained lightning arced along his horns from her trembling hands. 

“It’s not real, Meraad! I know it feels like it, but it’s not real. I’m real, and you’re safe. Come back to me, Kadan!

“...I have to help him...” she whimpered, collapsing as the vision faded. “...have to show him I’m good.”

Bull had no idea what she was talking about, but knew better than to take anything said under the influence of so powerful a toxin at face value. 

“You are good, Meraad, and your dad knows it. I’m sure he’s just fine. Deep breath now.”

He waited a few moments for her to settle, then cradled her head and offered her a drink from the water skin. “Not too fast, there you go. Are you here?”

She drew a shuddering breath. “I'm here, Kadan...I’m so tired...”

“I know, sweetheart,” he soothed, offering her another drink. “So I’m going to teach you something that helps me when I feel lost too, okay? When you’re ready, look around you, and name the first five things you see.”

Meraad hesitated at the odd request, but trusted his guidance. “I-I see a cave...a campfire...I see Varric, and Cole...” she blinked up at Bull and weakly smiled. “I see you.”

Bull brushed a few curling strands of hair from her forehead, and smiled back. “I see you too, Songbird. Now, with your left hand, name four things you can touch.”

Her breathing slowed in concentration, her eyes locked on Bull as she felt around her. “Soft sand...a blanket...my wooden mug...“ she laced her trembling fingers through his over her heart, drawing from his strength. “I can touch you.”

He kissed her hand. “Yes you can, Kadan. As much as you want. Now close your eyes, keep breathing nice and slow, and tell me three things you can hear.”

"Thunder...rushing water…” She pressed her face into to his chest, seeking the comforting pressure of his body against her aching head despite their combined heat. “I hear your heart.”

“You’re doing great. Keep your eyes closed, and tell me two things you can smell.”

“I smell wood smoke...” she inhaled deeply. “I smell my Kadan. He smells good.”

He chuckled softly. “Okay, last one, sweetheart. Tell me one thing you can taste.”

Her lips ghosted over her lover’s heart in a feather-light kiss, tasting the sweat on his skin. Bull caressed her cheek and whispered, “You can let go now, Meraad. I’ve got you.”

She nodded drowsily as her right hand slipped from his horn. She desperately wanted to rest, but pain and fever stopped her, and it frustrated him not knowing what else he could do to help. Bull scanned the area to take stock of their resources, then grinned in sudden inspiration.

Adapt and overcome.

“Cole,” he softly called. “We need your help, please.”

Instantly the spirit boy was beside them. “YES, The Iron Bull, she can hear me now! The Mother’s rage still burns, but her own song is strong again, bound to you.”

Bull released the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. “Good. Kadan, I know you’re hurting, but we’re not healers. If you can still hear me, we'll need your help to get you through this. Try to focus as best as you can, and relay to Cole what you need.”

Cole rested his pale hand on her brow and closed his eyes. 

“Fire fights frost...steam rises to heat the blood, driving heart to race and head to pound...the white willow in the water will quench the flames and give peace from pain.”

“Got it," Bull squeezed her hand. "Varric, that pot in the coals should have her willow bark tea in it, please. I forgot she’d even started the batch.”

Varric quickly poured a mug of the infusion as Bull eased Meraad upright, letting her rest her head against his shoulder to shield her eyes from the firelight while he pressed the mug to her parched lips. She grimaced at the bitter taste, but kept sipping as fast as the heat would allow. Cole beamed in delight.

“She is grateful, The Iron Bull, and thanks her Kadan for being clever.”

“You’re welcome, sweetheart," Bull said, lowering her back to bed. "What else do you need?”

“Leaf of green elfroot,” Cole replied. “And water to wash, cool but not cold, works with wind to cool the blood.”

“Understood. Varric, please bring me a couple of cloths and a bowl of lukewarm water. Cole, the elfroot should be in her belt pouch.”

She sighed as Bull tenderly bathed her face and body, blowing softly on her skin in his wake, and cried thankful tears when chewing the tart leaves eased her blinding headache. 

Then she flinched as another vision struck, but before Bull could react, Cole touched her head and crooned in lilting Qunlat, "*No, Imekari. The door is locked, it is not safe. Stay in your bed.*"

"*Yes, Tama...*" Meraad mumbled, and instantly quieted.

From the cave entrance, Varric signaled to Bull to join him, and Bull reluctantly complied. 

"Sorry, I know you said not to interrupt, but look. The storm's breaking up."

It was true. The charged air in the cave dissipated as the fury of the storm passed, leaving only the sullen roll of retreating thunder, and misting rain. Bull raced back to Meraad’s side to find her shivering, and though her temperature was still high, her silver skin was coated in a fine sheen of sweat.

“The fire has retreated!" Cole declared. "Only embers now, winter has won! She can sleep.”

Bull almost cried with relief. He gently lifted Meraad to allow Cole to remove her sweat-soaked robe before returning his sleeping mate to the bed, propped on her left side in case she needed to be sick. He folded the damp cloth into a cool compress over her eyes, then sat near the fire, his head resting in his own shaking hands.

It worked. It actually worked, and everyone’s alive. Holy shit.

“That,” Varric said, keeping his voice low to avoid waking Meraad, “was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. You are a man of many talents, Bull, and nugshit crazy to boot! Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I am now. And thanks, but we got lucky. Most of that fight was on her, and if she didn’t trust me as much as she does, that probably never would have worked. I think the worst has passed, but dragon blood affects people differently. I also don’t know if her being a mage will complicate things, so don’t be surprised if she gets a bit moody or aggressive for a while. No matter what happens, we really appreciate your help, guys.”

“Anytime, Tiny. Only wish I could have done more. I vote we camp here another day and give everybody a chance to properly rest up.”

Bull rubbed his neck, his muscles still tense after Meraad’s near-miss spell. “Sounds good to me. I’m fucking beat. Cole, you mind taking first watch tonight?”

“Gladly, The Iron Bull! None will harm us here. The spirits are quiet now.”

Varric offered Bull a drink from his flask. “That sensory thing you did with her, what was that?” 

“It’s called Grounding. A meditation exercise to help you reconnect with your surroundings. Useful after a stressful fight, or when you get disoriented. I use it a lot myself.”

“Well, for what it’s worth, any doubts I may have had about you two as a couple are officially gone. I honestly think you're good for each other.”

“What? You mean you finally stopped believing I’m even more secretly a spy, screwing the Inquisitor for Qun and country?” He returned the flask.

“That too, but I meant what you both did today. That ritual this morning, the way you fought so well together, then you risking your life to save her from herself, and all the while she was just as scared for you. It’s nice to see that kind of love actually exists outside of romantic fiction. So do you mind if I ask now what it was you two were really fighting that dragon for, apart from an epic drinking story?”

“A tooth,” Bull grinned.

“You went through all this for a tooth?

“Yup. There’s this old Qunari tradition that if you find someone you care about, you can craft a special token from a dragon’s tooth. The tooth is split, and each partner keeps one half as a reminder that no matter how far apart life may take them, they’re always together." He stroked her cheek. “Because the best things in life are worth fighting for.”

“That’s a beautiful sentiment, but couldn’t you have gotten a tooth from one of those dragonlings and called it good?”

“Well, yeah, but where’s the fun in that?”

Varric laughed. “That’s quite the commitment! So, does this mean you guys are married or something?”

“Not in any legally binding way, but I know I don’t want anyone else.”

“Neither does she,” Cole chimed in happily. "Kadan. Anchor in the rushing tide. Scent of leather and spice and sweat, soothes and salves and saves. Her heart’s choice, and her strength when she has none left to give. She loves you."

Bull cleared his throat as he blinked back tears. “Thanks, Cole. Do us a favor though and don’t mention the tooth to the others yet. She doesn’t mind you both knowing, but this is a private thing between us, something outside the Inquisition.”

“I can respect that.” Varric replied. “Not the first time I’ve kept a secret from them, though denying the women of the Inner Circle the chance to throw a wedding? You’re a braver man than I thought.”

“Heh. Maybe when all this crap is done we’ll think about it. I haven’t even met her family yet, and as close as Meraad is to them, she’ll want them to find out first.” 

Bull started a fresh batch of tea for the morning, hesitating over asking his next question. 

“Speaking of family, Cole, what she said earlier about her dad being hurt -- do you know if that was true?  You once told me you saw my old Tama, so is this something we should take seriously?”

“Yes,” the spirit boy frowned. “His hurt touches hers, and the Mother's blood shows visions of what may come. Voices in dreams call to her, but their words are wrong. The door is still locked."

“What does that mean?” Bull demanded, remembering Cole’s tale of her journey from Haven. “What door? Who’s talking to her?”

Cole flinched. "No! I-I'm saying it wrong! You fear she will succumb to demons, but it is not demons that speak, at least not the kind we fight...this door is old. Too many locks. She is haunted."

Varric threw up his hands in defeat. “Don’t look at me, none of this shit makes any sense. As much as I like our illustrious Inquisitor, she's a magnet for weirdness. I think until we know more, you should get some rest too, Bull.”

“Not yet. If she wakes up badly I need to be alert. No offense, but neither of you are physically strong enough to restrain her if it needs to be done, and I know her weaknesses.”

“None taken, that’s a valid point. Well, then if you don’t mind, I’m going to bed. This has all  been quite enough excitement for this old dwarf for one day. Good night.”

Bull picked up Meraad’s discarded bowl of stew and ate it while he sat vigil, and when she began to shiver again he decided it was safe to cover her in a light cloak. As he fished the kettle out of the coals, Cole said, “You should rest too, The Iron Bull. She won’t wake tonight. You will need your strength for what may come, as will she.”

“You care to elaborate on that?”

“I’m sorry," he looked distressed. "There are too many paths from this crossroad, too many bars upon the door, locked by hands far older than hers. She bears a key, though she doesn’t know it. The Star-Seeker holds the other. ”

“And who is the 'Star-Seeker', Kid?”

“Her father.”

'Star-Seeker'? Wait, Meraad told me her dad was a kaaras on a dreadnought...Cole must mean navigator.  

Bull sighed in frustration. “Okay, I am officially too tired to try and decode any more weird crap tonight. If you’re sure you’ve got everything under control, I’ll go to bed, but wake me if anything changes, please.”

Cole smiled and quietly returned to his watch, and Bull stretched out behind Meraad, gathering her protectively into his arms. His last conscious thought as fatigue rushed up to claim him was:

I don’t know you, Anaan Adaar, but by your daughter’s word you’re a man worthy of respect. Wherever you are, I wish you well, and promise you I'll keep her safe.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 It was late afternoon on the first of the two-day ride from Rainesfere to Skyhold, and Anaan and Turner aimed to get the covered wagon to the Pilgrim’s Path Outpost by sunset.

“Miserable day for travel,” Anaan groused. “If this road wasn’t so well-maintained, I’d never have risked it in this storm.” 

Turner hunched down under the hood of his heavy cloak as a massive peal of thunder boomed overhead, echoing off the surrounding hillside like cannon fire. 

“Reminds me of that squall near Hercinia, though at least this time we’re on solid ground, and there’s no pirates.”

“Oh, admit it, you loved it. Once you got your sea legs, you took to the riggin’ like you were born to it, and ‘pirate’ is a matter of perspective. They may have been ‘pirates’ when they boarded our ship, but I found the company rather agreeable once we joined their crew.”

“ ‘Agreeable’?” Turner burst out laughing. “I’d say the Admiral found you more than ‘agreeable’ once you sweet-talked her out of killing you just for being Qunari.”

“Isabela’s a good girl at heart. Fine commander too.”

“I wouldn’t know," the scout smirked. "I barely saw you two above decks for almost half the trip. I’m still amazed she let us keep our wagon and cargo.”

Anaan chuckled lustily at the fond memory. “Damn, she was a spitfire! Always did like Rivaini women. As for the cargo, well, it didn’t hurt that I had friends in the Armada. One of their captains, Lachlan Poole, has a trading company in the Marches I did some custom work for years ago. It was a Raider ship carried Asha and me from Seheron when Meraad was born, and we stayed at their stronghold on Estwatch for her first month before going to Wycome. There’s no bad blood between us.”

“HA! I knew it! You had me convinced you seduced her like those other women we met on the way, but you already had a pass with the Fleet!”

“Don’t kid yourself. My ‘pass with the Fleet’, as you put it, was enough to keep us alive and garner us passage, but it was charm, and not inconsiderable skill, that kept us rolling with this wagon of goods.” He drew a long pull from his dragonthorn briar pipe. “And that fine young Lady was well worth the effort.”

“She’s half your age!”

“As I recall, oh virtuous one, good Mistress Maeve at The Ship’s Bell in Highever was old enough to be your mother when I introduced you to her, and she treated you right, didn’t she? Age is nothing but a number, boy, and there’s something to be said for experience. Remember that.”

Turner grinned, his ears flushing a bright red that had nothing to do with the chill mountain air. 

“I....I stand corrected, Serah. My apologies.”

Anaan laughed and ruffled the scout’s hair with one giant hand. “Two months on the road...introduced you to new contacts, met your kin in Wycome, taught you how to navigate, killed bandits, and bedded our way across half of Ferelden. I’m almost sorry to see it end!”

“I can confidently say this has been the best courier run of my life, Anaan, and I couldn’t have asked for better company. I almost feel a little guilty that I’m being paid for it!”

“Don’t be, not one whit! You’re coming back with good information, new alliances, valuable trade goods, and you helped folk on the way. You’ve more than earned your coin, Eton Turner, and when all this is over you can take that back to Wycome, and live out your days with pride in a job well done. No regrets.”

“You know, I will!” Turner declared, then squinted through the mist up the road as he pulled back on the reins to slow the horses. “There’s a rider stopped ahead..hard to tell their colors from here. Possibly a patrol?”

Anaan loosened his long knives in their scabbards and settled back under his cloak as they approached, eyes wary for any signs of ambush, then quickly reevaluated when they heard the child crying. Even over the sound of the thunder, Anaan’s keen ears heard her distress as she pleaded with the guard. He tamped out his pipe, then took the reins from Turner.

Please, Ser!”  The child wailed from the back of her restless horse. “My family needs help!”

“Girl, it’s too cold and wet," the guard replied unsympathetically. "We can’t send guards out into the wild after every wolf that threatens a Freeholder’s sheep. Go on home now.”

Anaan studied the child a moment before deciding to intervene. Young human girl, slight build, no weapons, dressed in clothes too large for her, riding a tired plow-horse. Is this guard blind? 

“Turner, is that idiot one of your lot?”

As they neared the pair, Turner caught a glimpse of the guard’s uniform and sneered. “Nope. One of the locals out of Rainesfere. Apparently they patrol the lower part of the trail as far as the Outpost, and the Inquisition patrols the upper road to Skyhold.”

“Good. I’d hoped my daughter had a better eye for personnel than this.” He pulled the wagon up along side the guard.  “Good evening, Serah. Did I hear the child say they needed help?”

The guardsman rolled his eyes. “Great. Another fucking merc. This doesn’t concern you, oxman. Move along.”

“Doesn’t seem to concern you much either, ‘human’." Anaan turned to the girl. "What’s your name, young lady?”

The child’s eyes were wide with fright, but whether it was at Anaan’s appearance, or the trouble she’d fled, he wasn’t sure. 

“Riley, m’lord. Riley Baker. Can you help me please?”

“Depends on what help you need, young’un. What are you running from?”

“Monsters! Stinky monsters up from the mine! They killed our neighbor's livestock and set fire to their farm...Pa thinks they’re darkspawn and sent me to get help!”

The guardsman scoffed. “Darkspawn. Hasn’t been a sighting of darkspawn in this region in years. Probably just some unwashed Avvar bandits on a raid in the dark. Look, I’m overdue back to the Outpost. If you want help, take it up with the captain and see if he thinks it’s worth the time to send someone.”

“Talking to your captain sounds like a fine idea,” Anaan said coolly. “What’s your name, soldier?”

“Benet. And you’re now officially blocking the road. Move along.”

Anaan passed the reins back to Turner and stepped down from the wagon. At over seven feet tall, his head easily cleared the height of the horse’s withers as he cautiously stepped toward the frightened farmgirl. 

“Easy there, little one, my name is Anaan, and that young man over there is Turner. We’re with the Inquisition, not mercenaries. You look about ready to fall off that fine steed of yours, so why don’t you join us in the wagon where it’s warm and we’ll take you up to the Outpost?”

Despite her fear, the girl shied away. “If you’re Inquisition, let’s see your badges. How do I know you’re not bandits?”

“HA! Smart girl. You’re right to ask.” The Tal-Vashoth fished an Inquisition agent’s badge out from under his cloak and Turner did the same. “Come on now, let's get you out of this cold.”

Fatigue won out over fear, and the girl held her arms out to Anaan to let him lift her from the saddle. 

She’s younger than I thought, couldn’t be more than ten. Poor thing weighs next to nothing. I’d heard they’ve been having bad weather in these parts since that Breach wrecked the place...wonder if the Freeholders are suffering for supplies? Have to remember to ask Meraad when I see her.

Turner tied the girl’s horse to the back of the covered wagon as Anaan bundled her in his own heavy cloak and set her on the seat between them, then pulled a spare for himself from of the luggage. By the time he signaled to Turner to roll out, Guardsman Benet was nowhere to be seen.

I guarantee your captain will hear of this, Benet. Soft hands, well-fed, fine cloak and blade, eager to abandon a scared child in a storm on the trail. Inexcusable.

He smiled kindly down at Riley, staring owlishly back from within the layers of fur-lined wool. 

“When’s the last time you ate, Miss Riley Baker? Are you hungry?”

“Yes, Ser, if you please. Last I ate was some cheese and bread before dawn when Pa said run for help. Didn’t have more to spare after the monsters burned the storehouse.” She sniffed, as tears began to fall. “I miss my Pa! I want to go home.

Turner fetched his water skin and one of Taar’s trail bars as Anaan gathered the girl up in his arms, cradling her as he used to do his own little girl when she was frightened.

“You'll be alright, sweetling, just eat that up and rest warm. You did your Pa proud getting here on your own, and we’ll get your family help, I promise.”

“*Anaan?*“ Turner said quietly in practiced Qunlat. “*I didn’t get a good look, but her horse looks like it’s seen a fight. Possibly claw marks on its flanks. She didn’t look injured, but as cold as it is she might not be aware if she was.*“

Anaan nodded, and asked her, “Riley, did any of those monsters chase you? Are you hurt?”

“No, Ser, I’m not hurt. One of them tried to grab Carrots as we ran, but he kicked it before it could grab me. It was dark so I couldn’t see what they looked like, but they’re really stinky.” She yawned hugely after finishing the bar, and soon dozed off in Anaan’s arms. 

Turner clicked to the horses to pick up the pace. “*What do you think, Anaan? Could it be darkspawn? What do we do if it is?*“

“*If it is, we see if there are any Grey Wardens in the area and leave it to them. They’re far better equipped to handle that kind of threat than we are.*“

“*Have you ever seen darkspawn before?*“

The smith stared ahead into the mist, his eyes haunted. “*Yes. I’ve no desire to see another, nor do I want to talk any more about it. Let’s get to the post.*“

They rode in silence for the remainder of the journey, and Anaan held Riley protectively in his arms, soothing her back to sleep when thunder pealed overhead. 

I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Sod it all, we’ve come this far, please just let me see my girl again!

The heavy rain that had plagued them on the lower road turned to snow by the time they drove into the main yard of the Outpost. Anaan left Turner to secure the wagon, arrange lodging, and send word to Skyhold of their arrival, while he asked for directions to the Captain’s office. He carried the girl to a fortified stone building at the center of the compound and went inside. 

A bored-looking clerk sorted missives at a desk in the outer office, and was momentarily startled to see a Qunari walk in from the cold carrying a wrapped bundle. 

“Yes? Are you making a delivery?”

Anaan smiled and pulled part of the cloak away to reveal Riley’s sleeping form. “Of a sort. Found one of your young Freeholders lost and seeking help on the road. Says their Hold’s been hit by raiders, possibly darkspawn. I’d like to speak to your Captain, please, if he’s available.”

“I see,” the man said dismissively. “If you’d like to make an appointment, I will see if he can make time, possibly tomorrow, or the next day.”

“What part of, ‘this child is in need of help and their Freehold may be overrun’ did you not understand? Or do the smallfolk not matter to your organization?”

SER, if you wish to make an appoin...”

“Don’t ‘Ser’ me, boy, I work for a living. I asked you a question.”

The clerk sighed irritably, muttering under his breath in Orlesian before replying in the Trade tongue: “I heard you, Ser. There is a guard unit that patrols to the outer farmsteads twice a month, though the Freeholders made it clear they wished as little interference from us as possible. If there is an emergency, they could have sent a raven, and as yet we’ve received none. The captain is out of the office for the evening and cannot be disturbed. If it truly means that much to you, though why it should I have no idea, leave your complaint in writing, and I will see it delivered. As for the child, take her over to the chantry on the eastern wall, and they will look after her. I’m afraid that’s the best I can do for you.”

“You any relation to Benet, by chance?”

“Do I look like a common scout? My name is Lowell de Melville. Do with that as you like, but as I maintain the captain’s appointments, you would do well to remember your place, mercenary. My time is...valuable.”

To the man’s horror, Anaan responded in flawless Orlesian, “So, seeking bribes, are you? Your poor service has been duly noted, Lowell de Melville. Perhaps if your base-born mother hadn’t dropped you on your head as an infant, you might have been smart enough not to assume the ‘uppity oxman’ can’t understand you. You work in a diplomatic position, boy, and your Inquisitor is Qunari. I wonder if you disrespect her this way, and how many other needy people have been left to suffer because they couldn’t meet your price? If I can’t see your captain, tell me where can I find the nearest Grey Warden.”

“Th-there are none here.” The clerk stammered in the Trade tongue, attempting to salvage some control of the situation. “The only Grey Warden seen in this region is Ser Blackwall, and to my knowledge he is out in the field with Inquisitor Adaar. I am not privy to her itinerary to tell you when she will return. Now leave my office before I have you removed.”

“The Inquisitor will hear of this," Anaan declared as he turned for the door. "If even one of those Freeholders dies because you refused to help, their blood is on your hands.” 

Pfft. And I suppose you’ll now tell me you know Inquisitor Adaar?”

“As a matter of fact, I do. My name is Anaan Adaar. Meraad is my daughter.”

He left the dumbstruck clerk behind and strode across the dark courtyard toward the Chantry. Riley squirmed in his arms and asked, “is it true, Ser? Are you really the Inquisitor’s Pa?”

“Yes, sweetling it’s true. Sorry you had to hear all that. I’m taking you to the chantry for the night and get you settled in there, then we’ll try to help your folk in the morning. Don’t you worry.”

To Anaan’s relief the chantry proved far more hospitable. The Lay sister at the door recovered from her initial shock at a Qunari on her doorstep when he presented Riley, and the woman promised Anaan she’d personally see to the girl’s care. After giving careful directions how to find her farm, Riley returned Anaan’s cloak and gave the giant a grateful hug before the sister led her inside.

For a moment, he stood on the dark porch, staring at the closed door, warring with himself over his next course of action.

We were so close. I’m truly sorry, Imekari, and I hope you understand. If you were here, I’d step aside, but there's no time to wait and I don’t trust these people. Hopefully it won’t be so bad when I get there.

Turner met Anaan halfway across the inner courtyard and guided him toward the inn. “Got us rooms, wagon’s stowed and under Inquisition guard, and the horses stabled for the night. Is Riley at the chantry?”

“Yup.”

“Ohhh, I know that look. Things not go well with the captain?”

Anaan’s jaw clenched. “Never saw the man. Got himself a clerk with delusions of grandeur that felt his time was too valuable to assist a Freeholder child and an ‘uppity oxman’. On top of that, apparently the only Grey Warden in the entire region is out in the field with my daughter, and they don’t know when she’s due back.”

Shit. So what are we going to do, Anaan?”

‘We’ aren’t doing anything. I’m going to look in on Riley’s folk. You are going to take the girl and my wagon on to Skyhold, then wait there for Meraad to return. Tell her I love her, I’m proud of her, and that I’m sorry I missed her.”

Turner stopped in his tracks. Anaan sighed tiredly and put his hands on Turner’s shoulders.

“Eton, I’ve come to love you as one of my own, and I know you’re capable in a fight. But if there’s even a chance of darkspawn being involved, I can’t in good conscience take you with me. You’re young, you have your whole life ahead of you, and the Inquisition needs you, whereas I’m just a tired old rogue who’s had more than my fair share of adventures. Please, do as I ask.”

“With all due respect, not a fucking chance. I can make arrangements for Riley and the wagon to both be delivered safely, and you know full well I won’t slow you down.” Turner smirked. “Besides, the message raven doesn’t like you, and someone has to tell the Inquisitor where to find us.”

Anaan shook his head and smiled sadly. “Forgot about that stupid bird. I knew was going to regret getting you laid. You were easier to deal with before you finally grew a pair, now you think you’re invincible.”

“Are you kidding?" Turner laughed. "I’ve heard the stories! Some of the veterans serving the Inquisition now fought during the Blight and told me what it was really like. Give me some credit, Anaan. If these things are enough to worry you, then that terrifies me. But not as much as the thought of having to tell Lady Meraad that I abandoned her Da when I knew he needed backup. We’ve come this far together old man, we either reach Skyhold together, or not at all.”

Anaan's violet eyes shone with pride in the lantern light. “Fine. We leave at first light, if the weather allows. I’ve got snow gear packed in the wagon, and we’ll take some extra food and supplies for the Freeholders if it can be spared.”

The scout turned away from the Inn and gestured for Anaan to follow him to the Inquisition barracks. “Let’s go arrange that now. I’m still getting to know folks here, but the lead scout and I are old friends. We trained together. Her name's Agnes Cadeaux.”

“Does the Inquisition not run this Outpost?”

“Not exactly. It’s a checkpoint halfway between Skyhold and Rainesfere, and from what I heard there was some issue with the local banns not liking a military order bordering their territory. The Inquisition had to agree to jointly maintain this road and the Outpost, but with a civilian commander from Rainesfere. A retired templar named Calder.”

“I wonder if their captain knows his clerk is fleecing the faithful. I may have made a mistake tipping my hand about being Meraad being my daughter, as now the shifty little bugger has reason to feel threatened. Your Spymaster needs to know about this.”

“I’ll make sure to report it before we leave. In the meantime, let me introduce you to Agnes.”

Lead Inquisition Scout Agnes Cadeaux proved to be a stout local girl with a sharp wit, a sturdy bow, and a mutual contempt for Lowell de Melville. 

“Wish I could say I was surprised,” she said after Anaan told of his meeting. “We’ve had requests for support from the Freeholders, but our hands are tied since we have to follow the chain of command to avoid upsetting the locals. Bloody politicians are more worried for the size of their territory than the needs of their people.”

“Good way to make the Inquisition look apathetic and ineffective,” Anaan snarled. “The captain does nothing?”

“To be honest, Master Anaan, I don’t think Captain Calder even knows half of what’s going on. He spends the bulk of his time traveling between here and Rainesfere, dealing with demands from the Bann. He’s not a bad man, he just doesn’t always get the information he needs, and from what you’ve told me I’d say Melville's the reason why. This Outpost hasn’t been fully operational for long, and man's only been here about two months, since the previous clerk died. The last time I tried to lodge a formal complaint with the captain regarding the needs of the Freeholders, Melville outright accused me of bias for being born one of them, and threatened to have me replaced. I didn’t have enough proof to back my suspicions, and the smug bastard knew it.”

She rose and paced angrily, running her fingers through her short blonde hair. “On the one hand, now that you’ve seen it too, that gives me a bit more of a leg to stand on, but on the other, Melville could also claim bias because you’re related to the Lady Inquisitor. Fucking Orlesian knows he’s got a cushy post and plans to keep it. We need more proof before we can take this to the higher ups in Skyhold.”

Agnes stopped at her desk and began quickly making notes, setting aside missives for her scouts, and filling out what looked to be requisition forms.

“Okay, here’s what we can do. If you’re determined to head out to the Freehold, I’m coming with you. Before you protest, Master Anaan, even with Inquisition badges to support your good intentions you know how wary Mountain folk are, and their faith in Lowlanders has been shaken. I know these mountains, and the Freeholders know me. You’re going to need a guide. I’ll see us geared, with some extra supplies for the farmers just in case. Best case scenario, it's just a few bandits to put down, we'll drop off supplies, and have you back on the way to Skyhold in a couple of days.”

“I won’t say I like it,” Anaan sighed. “But you’re right, a local guide will make this faster. Let’s be ready to go by first light, in case Melville gets it into his head to do something stupid to stop us.”

“And I’ll make sure your wagon and goods are safely delivered to Skyhold, though Riley should be safe in the chantry here. If it turns out to be nothing, she’ll be closer to home." Agnes made another note in her ledger.  "Anaan...you do realize the Council isn’t going to be happy about you going out on this mission yourself instead of waiting for reinforcements, right?”

“I don’t give a flaming nug’s ass if they do. Even if they act on your request immediately, the time it takes for your missive to reach them, to process the information, gather the supplies and troops, then get down to the Freehold is time those people may not have. If her counselors have learned anything of me in all these months it's that I don’t sit idle when there’s work to be done. You're short-handed, and I made that little girl a promise. I'm a man of my word. You’re mountain folk yourself, girl, you understand.”

Agnes beamed with pride. “Indeed I do, Ser, and it’s a relief to hear some common sense spoken for a change. Now, you two get some rest while you can, while I finish up here. I’ll meet you in the courtyard an hour before dawn.”

The following morning, Anaan said goodbye to his faithful horses, Jessamyn and Jax, and secured the wagon for transport before he accepted the use of one of the Inquisition’s sturdy mountain horses. Turner and Agnes waited patiently along with an extra pack horse to carry emergency supplies and the message bird. But despite their supplies and knowledge, as the small company rode out across the snow-covered courtyard to the northern gate, Anaan couldn’t shake the sinking feeling that they were completely unprepared.

If there are any powers willing to hear me, please, make sure these kids get out alive. 

 

 

Chapter Text


“Okay, okay, enough already!” Varric said from across the campfire, breaking the awkward silence. “Stormy, you’ve been walking on eggshells for the last three days. You do know none of us are mad at you, right? 

Meraad sighed and glanced over her shoulder at Bull. “Am I that obvious?”

“You really need me to answer that, Kadan? ” 

Varric chuckled. “And please, don’t apologize anymore. We’re all fine, we understand.”

She closed her eyes, trembling as she fought the urge to scream at her well-meaning friend.

No, you DON’T understand! I was a careless idiot, and nearly killed you all! You don't understand how sharp my senses are, or how hard you are to shut out now. You don't know about the nightmares I’m sure are trying to warn me of something, but I lose the message as soon as I wake.

And I can't tell you any of this, because I still need you to trust me, even though I'm not sure I can trust myself. 

She exhaled a slow breath through a plastered smile. “You’re right, Varric. I guess I’m just overtired. Everything will be fine once we get back to Skyhold.”

“You know, I almost believed you that time. Tiny, if you keep coaching her, how do you expect me to take her coin at Wicked Grace? Are you trying to deny me a steady source of income?”

“You get enough from Cullen and Dorian anyway.” Bull kissed her head. “Come on, Kadan , let’s go to bed.“

With a nod, Meraad rose and helped Bull to his feet, then waved goodnight as they walked into their tent. Bull sealed the door behind them and drew her into his arms.

“Alright. Talk to me.”

It wasn’t a request, and she hugged him tight as silent tears began to fall. She thought of a hundred different ways to say what was in her heart, but in the end it boiled down to, "I’m disappointed, and feel like I ruined what should have been a wonderful trip for us both.

He stroked her hair and calmly replied, “Well, that’s a bit selfish of you.”

Meraad stiffened. “Clarify that, please?”

“You truly are your own worst enemy, Kadan,"  Bull tilted her chin up to look him in the eye. "When have any of our missions gone completely according to plan? You’re beating yourself for what you see as failure, at the expense of everything you’ve gained, and making assumptions on my behalf as well.”

As she considered his words, Bull removed her armor and clothing, followed by his own, then fetched a jar of solid coconut oil from her pack and patted the bed. Meraad stretched out on her stomach as he warmed the oil in his hands, and groaned into the blanket when he began massaging the tension out of her muscles, starting with her sore feet.

“You know, Love...gods that feels good...it’s really hard to think while you’re doing that.” 

“Are you asking me to stop?” He worked up one leg, then the other, grinning at her contented sighs when he found stress points even she wasn’t aware of until he released them. “Didn’t think so. Why do you feel everything's ruined?”

“The...the plan...was to slay the dragon, get a tooth, return to Skyhold, make the pendants and celebrate. ”

“Okay, and did we not get what we came for, with everyone alive and relatively healthy?”

“We did...save for that part where I accidentally poisoned myself and you had to stop me from killing everybody.”

Bull worked his way up her body from hips to horns until she lay completely boneless, then eased her onto her back and brushed her hair from her forehead.

“That is one way to look at it. Or, you could consider that on top of clearing several major threats out of this region, and stopping more red lyrium from getting through, you’ve learned a higher degree of control on your powers than you previously believed you had. You learned a valuable meditation technique for future use. You taught your team some practical healing skills, discovered a new way to utilize Cole’s abilities, and confirmed just how loyal your men are to you in the process. Now, I’m not saying that getting poisoned wasn’t a shitty way to accomplish all of that, but if you’re willing to look at all angles there are actually a lot of reasons to call this trip a win.”

He leaned close and held her gaze. “You can be miserable, or you can motivate yourself, but whatever has to be done, it is always your choice, Meraad. I’m not disappointed. We did what we came to do, we’re all alive, and with profit. I couldn’t be more proud of you, or of this team.”

Her eyes filled with grateful tears. “I love you so much. Thank you. For your perspective, and for your faith.”

“I love you too, Kadan. I promised you I'd always give you what you need...” His lips ghosted across hers as he settled himself into the cradle of her thighs. 

“...and right now, what you need are better memories.”

“Bull, what about the oth…”

He claimed her lips again, silencing her half-hearted protest, and she laughed as she wrapped her long legs around his waist in invitation. With an approving growl Bull accepted, swallowing her blissful moans when she grasped his horns to arch into his thrust, and they slowly moved as one, worshiping each other over and over through the night until they both collapsed in sated exhaustion.



When the party regrouped with the remaining members of their Inner Circle late the following morning, Meraad appeared renewed, and Bull’s enthusiasm as he described the battle to their companions was infectious. None of the men mentioned the incident with the blood, and for all her self-doubts, she couldn’t help but be caught up in the celebratory mood as they began the journey home.

Word of the Frostback’s death spread quickly through the region, and cheering villagers and freeholders alike lined the road, hoping for a glimpse of the beast’s skull as it rolled past on a supply wagon. By the time they reached Rainesfere a few days later, the tale of the battle had grown to ridiculous proportions (helped in no small part by Varric) and to Meraad's great dismay many curious onlookers followed them into the inn.  

As an Empath, she usually found large crowds painfully draining, but only those who had traveled with her into the valley knew the truth of why she was even more sensitive to the light and noise and press of bodies that night. With that in mind, Bull embraced his role as bodyguard and kept uninvited contact at bay through silent intimidation, while Varric smoothed any ruffled feathers by keeping patrons enraptured with his storytelling. 

A few minor nobles arrived to pay their respects, some with sincere thanks and congratulations for removing the threat to the region, and others with empty platitudes, resentful of the organization's continued success. Finally Meraad reached her limit and offered her apologies, pleading fatigue and an early morning to come, and with Bull helping to clear a path, the couple headed for the stairs.

“My Lady Inquisitor!" A cheerful male voice called. "Please, do forgive my intrusion. Have you a moment?”

Meraad paused in pleasant surprise.  “Well, good evening, Captain Calder! I didn’t know you were here. You’re well, I hope?”

The captain was a dashing man with kind hazel eyes and the bearing of one born to nobility. Like Bull, he wore command well, and the silver streaks in his chestnut hair and beard only added to his distinguished charm.

“I am indeed, Lady Adaar, thank you for asking. I was surprised to find you here as well, though the timing is fortuitous. If you’re heading to the Outpost in the morning, and it is of no imposition, might I accompany you?”

“Expecting trouble in the pass?” Bull asked.

“None that I'm aware of, Captain Iron Bull, but one can’t be too careful this time of year. Besides, how could I miss an opportunity to chat with our illustrious Inquisitor on an otherwise boring trek?”

“HA! I’d wager Seeker Pentaghast’s conversation would appeal to you far more than mine, Serah,” she winked, knowing well that the captain had carried a torch for Cassandra for several months, and he had the good grace not to deny it. “But you're certainly no imposition. We’re leaving at first light, weather permitting.”

“Excellent! By your leave, Your Grace, I shall see you then. A pleasant evening to you both.”

Dawn broke with freezing rain and the promise of a miserable ride west, but after brief discussion, the company was unwilling to wait another day when they were so close to home. Meraad huddled beside Bull near the stable door as their horses were fed, and their companions kept a respectful distance until they knew she was fully awake. Her nightmares had robbed her of a solid night's sleep, and only Bull seemed immune to her foul mood as she yawned between sips of coffee.

“*Have you considered these dreams might not actually be a message, Kadan?*” Bull asked softly in Qunlat.

“*Of course I have!*” She snapped, then shook her head. “*Shit. Sorry. Believe me, Love, I’ve tried to ignore it, but I’ve had the same dream for the last three days, and it's getting worse. I saw Papa, and he was definitely in danger, though I didn’t recognize the place, nor could I see what’s threatening him. I’m terrified for him, Bull!*”

“*Well, from what you’ve told me, he’s not defenseless, and neither are your aunt and uncle. There’s also Inquisition agents up there, so he’s not without resources or backup. I hate to say this, sweetheart, but you also have to accept that even if this is some kind of vision, the Marches are weeks away, so it may not be anything you can fix.*“ He stroked her cheek. “*Maybe Red will have a letter from your family back at Skyhold.*”

“*I hope so, it’s been so long since I last heard from any of them. But you’re right, there’s too much I don’t know. I just wish it would let me sleep.*“ She kissed his hand. “*And you as well. I am officially ready for this trip to be over.*“

Bull chuckled, “*You say that, but three days in Skyhold and you’ll be climbing the walls to get back out on the road again.*“

A peal of thunder boomed overhead, but she didn’t cheer the sound, or seem at all interested in the storm. She finished her coffee, rinsed her mug in rainwater, and wandered into the stable.

“*I don’t know, Love. I’m really missing my own bed right now.*“

By midday Meraad’s practiced, cheerful demeanor belied her anxiety. Her troops hated traveling in foul weather, so in the interest of morale she took time to talk with them, making sure they had proper gear for the weather and were all well-fed, as seeing them in good spirits raised her own.

Captain Calder approached as they stopped for lunch, and aided her in serving soup and bread to the troops. Meraad genuinely liked the former templar, and had from their first meeting when he’d openly admitted he’d been appointed to run the outpost by Arl Teagan as a spiteful statement to the fact she was a foreign apostate. The captain resented politics as well, and after hearing of the good her people had already done in the region, felt she deserved more courtesy than his superiors believed. Eventually even Bull acknowledged that Alexander Calder was a good man just doing his job, despite part of that job being to spy on her for the nobles.

“So, what news from the ‘Post, Captain?” Meraad asked. “Anything interesting since we’ve been away?”

“Well, there’s been some talk of Avvar on the move now that the passes have opened, but we’ve seen nothing this far north yet. It’s the Lowlands you should be more interested in. I recently returned from a meeting with the Banns, and you and your people were quite the topic of discussion. Of note, you would do well to be wary of Bann Cymbrica of Oakenfeld. The woman is a fair-weather friend at best to her allies, but when it comes to you My Lady, she remains in deepest winter. She insists Your Grace is a spy of the Qunari seeking to subvert the Chantry and betray us all to the Qun.”

Bull pressed a mug of soup into Meraad’s hands, and tapped the bottom of the mug in a silent command for her to eat. “Cymbrica? I remember her...sour face, pissy attitude, smelled like a coastal bog at low tide?”

“And a mustache to rival yours,” she smirked. “We met her on the way home from Crestwood, Captain. Not only is her accusation hilariously false, but her motives are far less virtuous than they seem. Apparently she’d been misinformed as to some of the services The Bull’s Chargers could be hired to perform, and resents I was able to hire him when she couldn't.”

“*I mean, come on, I do have some standards.*“ Bull muttered in Qunlat, and Meraad snorted into her mug.

Captain Calder laughed heartily at Meraad’s admission. “I suspected it was something personal. In light of what I’ve learned about the Tal-Vashoth since first meeting you, my Lady, I did my best to dissuade the rumors where I could, yet I advise caution nevertheless. She’s not without influence in the Bannorn.”

“Thank you for your efforts, Serah. I promise the information won't be wasted."  Meraad studied the clouds hanging low over the foothills and closed her eyes to feel the energy patterns of the storm. "But we should get moving if we want to make the post by nightfall. If I'm reading this right, there’s going to be an unusually hard freeze tonight.”

Her prediction proved true, and the convoy reached the stables late that night to three inches of new snow over the frozen cobblestones. Worse, despite all efforts to convince herself she was fussing over nothing, Meraad's anxiety for her father had escalated the closer they'd gotten to the post. She retired directly to her quarters in the barracks, too afraid to even close her eyes, let alone sleep. In the end, she choked down a meal she barely tasted, and reluctantly took a small dose of sleeping potion, more to avoid keeping Bull awake than her own need for rest.

“I’m so sorry this is happening.” she murmured as she lay in Bull's arms, waiting for the potion to work. “I’ve never experienced anything like this before, and hate that I can’t explain it now. Do you think it could still be a side effect of the dragon’s blood?”

Bull gently massaged the base of her curved horn. “It’s hard to say. I figured that would have run its course by now, but I’m no healer. We don’t know how much of it you got, or if it affects mages or Vashoth differently. I’m more concerned about you not sleeping, and not eating unless I tell you to. That’s not like you. I wish I knew how to help you more.”

“You already are, Love. I wouldn’t have gotten this far without you, and feel like a burden to you for it. I can’t imagine this is what you had in mind when you chose to be with me.”

"Kadan, even if I thought you were a burden, which I don’t, you let me decide what's too much for me to carry. My shoulders are plenty strong for the both of us. And as you said, it’s my choice. So for tonight, let that potion do its job and get some rest. You’re safe, I’m with you, and we’ll deal with tomorrow when tomorrow comes. Okay?”

“Yes, Serah .”

 



An urgent pounding at the door startled them both awake. Bull kissed her head, told her to stay put and rose to answer without any care for his lack of clothing.  

Nightingale entered with only a nod of greeting, then closed the door behind her. The bard looked uncharacteristically nervous, clutching a small bundle of missives, and actually seemed unsure of how to begin.

Instantly awake, Meraad’s heart sank as she threw off the covers and reached for her robe, tossing Bull his pants.

“Leliana...gods, please tell me this isn’t about my father.” 

“How did you…?” she started.

Bull’s arms were around her before her knees buckled. He eased her to sit on the end of the bed as she choked, “Is he dead?” 

“We...we honestly don’t know, Meraad. We only received Turner’s report from Pilgrim’s Path two days ago, and I raced here as quickly as I could.”

Bull stiffened. “What do you mean, Turner’s report from the Post? Her dad was HERE?”

“Yes. He and Turner have been traveling for the last eight weeks, and please hear me out!” she held her hands up in a gesture of peace as Meraad’s eyes blazed with fury.

“I promise you we did not plan this in advance, Inquisitor. My instructions were for Turner to come to Skyhold for debriefing, and by the time we learned your father was with him, they had already been on the road for nearly a fortnight. You had just reached the Storm Coast by then and were dealing with the Qunari emissary, so our intention was to wait until you’d returned and rested before informing you. Then Master Anaan specifically asked the Council not to say that he was coming, because he wanted to surprise you. We’ve had scouts watching for them all along their route...until they arrived here.”

Meraad’s voice trembled as she asked, “And what changed when they arrived here, so close to their destination, and well within range of Inquisition forces?”

“According to these reports,“ Leliana handed them both missives then stepped back out of strike range. “Turner and your father rescued a young Freeholder girl on the road who claimed her family’s farm was under attack, and after escorting her to Captain Calder’s office they were turned away by the captain’s clerk. The girl was taken to the Chantry for her protection, and Turner, Master Anaan and Lead Scout Cadeaux set out the next morning to investigate, citing concern that waiting for reinforcements could cost the Freeholders valuable time.”

"Oh, I remember Melville from our last pass through here," Meraad snarled. "I wasn’t impressed then, and I’m even less so now. Given the circumstances, I probably wouldn't have waited either. But Captain Calder rode back from Rainesfere with us and said nothing about any of this! He claimed there was no disturbances in the area!”

Bull scanned the notes. “Judging from Cadeaux’s report, he didn’t know.”

“Correct. According to your father’s colorful addendum, it also appears Melville went so far as to suggest a bribe for access to the Captain, and has possibly been doing so with other travelers. Cassandra has a copy of these missives, and is even now delivering them to Captain Calder, while my scouts have gone to Melville’s quarters to detain the man. We’re all to meet at the Captain’s office as soon as possible.”

Meraad slowly rose to her full height. “What I’d like to know, Spymaster, is how the fuck this happened on our doorstep? If this man has been disrupting communications for what? Two months!?  Why is this only now coming to light?”

“Trust me, I am as angry about that as you. Scout Cadeaux felt she lacked sufficient proof to make an accusation, and Melville convinced her that her report would be discounted for bias because she was born among the Freeholders. Yet with your father as a witness, she hoped it would be sufficient to open an investigation. Our scouts had been ordered to respect the civilian chain of command, due to the tense diplomatic relations with Redcliffe, and out of respect to Captain Calder. But I promise you there will be changes after this.”

The Inquisitor quickly dressed and armored, her hands shaking with fear and rage, all the while refusing to look at Leliana.

I want to hate her, hate all of them, but I can’t. I've no doubt Papa asked them for silence, because OF COURSE he would. It’s all just one big fucking game to him. Never mind I specifically asked him to stay away, ‘oh, Meraad will understand!’

I love you dearly, you stubborn old man. I don’t fault you for helping the Freeholders, but I did NOT need this on top of everything else! Please be alright.


Her pack landed on the bed beside her, and Meraad looked up to see Bull also dressed and armored, holding both his great axe and her staff. Their eyes met, and Bull nodded in grim support.

Thank you, Kadan.

Leliana quietly said, “I am so sorry, Meraad. I should have...”

“Save it for later, Red.” Bull growled as he opened the door.

Meraad shouldered her pack, and glared at her despairing Spymaster.

“I’m not happy about any of this Leliana, but Bull’s right, this isn't the time for apologies. Let’s go see the captain.”

 

 

Chapter Text


Bull was caught between fear and fury as he escorted Meraad and Leliana across the frozen courtyard toward the captain’s office.

Holy shit, her dad is actually here, which means she may be having actual visions after all! I heard of so-called ‘seers’ in Rivain, but thought that was just a scam. Solas talks about having visions of the past, sure, but Cole said what Meraad is seeing is something either happening now, or in the near future.

Can all mages do that?! It could be potentially useful if it can be controlled, but at the moment she doesn’t seem to have a lot of say in the matter. And if the Chantry’s reaction to the Rivaini seers is any indication, this will be just one more thing for the local Mothers to use against her as proof that she's dangerous. Great.

Meraad broke his reverie, her breath steaming in the bitter morning air.

“This meeting is a waste of time, Bull! They already have at least a two day lead on us. We need to get a team and follow immediately!”

“My Lady, no!” Leliana exclaimed. “I appreciate that he is your father, and that you are upset, but you are still the Inquisitor! We can send scou…”

“Don’t even finish that sentence, Nightingale." The Inquisitor growled.  "Just do what you and the Council seem to do best, and keep it to yourself.”

Bull noted the sadness in Leliana's eyes as she raced to keep up with the long-legged Tal-Vashoth on the icy path. 

He had no sympathy for her. 

I know why you’re looking guilty, Red, and you should. Out of all secrets, the Council shouldn’t have kept this one from her. At the very least you assholes could have told me, but no doubt you all thought it would be funny when the old man showed up on her doorstep to surprise her. Bonus if we were in bed at the time.

We both know you were behind that prank in my quarters before we left, but this isn’t a joke now.
Meraad needed her family to stay away, especially after Haven, and now you’ve broken her trust, and mine. I hope the laughs you’ve had behind her back were worth it to you, especially if she doesn’t reach her dad in time. You have no idea what kind of damage this has already caused, and I’m going to be the one putting her back together when it’s all over, not you.

Thanks a fucking lot.

They passed through the unlit clerk’s office, straight into Captain Calder’s reception room. The captain sat at his desk, head in his hands, with copies of the missives and a stack of older reports spread out before him. The single shaded lantern cast stark shadows on Cassandra’s face as she stood with a comforting hand on the captain’s shoulder, but she quickly stepped away when Meraad and Bull entered and the captain rose to greet them. 

“My Lady Adaar, please allow me to humbly extend my sincerest apologies. I am as shocked by all of this as you are.”

“I highly doubt that, Captain,” Meraad glared at her counselors before offering a small smile to Calder. “But I do believe that you were unaware these events. Regardless, blame and apologies can wait. I'm putting a team together to go after my father and the scouts. I just need a guide or directions to find the Freehold.”

Before the captain could reply, an officious voice shouted from the Clerk’s office, “Take your hands off me! The captain, and the Arl himself shall hear of your mistreatment!”

Lowell de Melville stumbled into the room when the scout shoved him forward, then quickly straightened himself and his fur-trimmed coat. He opened his mouth to protest, but froze when the door closed, and he recognized they were not alone. This was Bull’s first time seeing Melville in person, and he instantly agreed with Meraad’s description of him.

Well-fed pretty boy. Fine, tailored coat and gloves, definitely out of budget on a clerk’s pay. Wiry build, delicate hands, looks like he spends as much time fussing over his hair as Dorian.

Leliana blocked the door to the room behind Melville as Cassandra moved around the end of the heavy desk to flank him on the left. But Bull and Meraad remained in the shadows behind Captain Calder, letting the officer take the lead before revealing themselves.

“Captain! These Inquisition thugs burst into my quarters and dragged me here without any cause or authority. They have completely overstepped…”

“I have received a series of disquieting reports regarding your conduct, Lowell.” The captain said with deceptive calm. He leaned forward, his calloused hands resting on the edge of his desk, eyes flashing with rage in the lantern’s light. “I have heard from multiple witnesses that you have not only withheld critical mission data from me, but have even demanded bribes in exchange for an audience.”

Melville scoffed. “If this is in regards to that Freeholder brat and the Oxman mercenary, all I can say is to consider the source, Ser. I said nothing of a bribe, but simply stated my time was valuable, as was yours, and that he needed to put his request in writing to book an appointment as you had already left for the day. Instead, he became surly and hoped to intimidate me, claiming he was related to the Inquisitor.”

“He IS related to the Inquisitor.” Meraad snarled, stepping forward into the lantern light beside the captain. “Anaan Adaar is my father, you pretentious little shit, and he was on his way to see me. Now thanks to you, he’s somewhere in the mountains with two scouts doing the job YOUR forces should have been, because they they couldn’t trust you to do it.”

Melville looked ready to wet himself as he fidgeted with his fur-lined gloves. “I...Inquisitor Adaar, my apologies, I swear I had no idea! So many Ox..” he coughed “..so many Qunari mercenaries have visited the region since your ascension, how are we to know the truth of who is related and who merely claims it for courtesies they are not due?”

Captain Calder was unmoved. 

“It isn’t your place to decide who is or is not worthy, Melville. Your place is to book appointments and alert me of disturbances, and you said nothing of this event when I came in the next day. I also have reports here logging similar incidents going back to the time you started here. By your own admission you have now confirmed these reports, and I’m disgusted that you not only turned away travelers in need, but you have embarrassed me in front of our allies in the process. You are hereby stripped of your post, and will remain confined to quarters until I return and decide your punishment.”

Melville lunged across the expanse of the heavy oak desk, his arm outstretched to strike for the Inquisitor’s heart. With no room to swing his axe, Bull grabbed her arm to pull her behind him as Leliana and Cassandra both moved in to intercept.

But Melville never reached his target. His grey eyes widened with shock before the life left them forever, as the broad blade of Captain Calder’s sword impaled the man from his throat out through the back of his head. The captain grimly shoved the twitching corpse to the floor and removed his blade for cleaning as Leliana moved in, quickly finding a thin assassin’s blade in the corpse’s hand.

“Nice work, Captain.” Bull said with genuine respect. “You’re faster than I thought.”

“I take no pleasure in the deed, Ser, but thank you. My Lady Adaar, are you unharmed?”

“I’m just fine, thank you all. What a damned fool thing for him to do! Let me guess, Leliana, poisoned blade?”

Sister Nightingale nodded, using her own knife to carefully cut the seam of the dead man’s glove to turn it inside out on the captain’s desk. “It is. As you can see, his glove is inset with several small vials of multiple toxins. The one on this blade was chosen specifically for you, my Lady.” She tossed the dagger accusingly on the Captain’s desk. “Magebane, Captain Calder. A common recipe used by templars in Val Royeaux to drain a mage’s mana.”

The Captain reeled in shock. “Are you suggesting I sanctioned this attack?”

“You are a former templar, Ser, and openly admitted that you were appointed here specifically to counter the presence of Lady Adaar as an apostate. You would certainly have had access to the poison.” She looked to Cassandra, knowing the Seeker was fond of the captain. “I’m sorry, but I must consider all options, no matter how unpleasant.”

Bull rose from where he’d bent down to examine the corpse. “It wasn’t him, Red. Look at this.”

“What did you find?” 

“Something about Melville's manner was off even before he attacked, and I noticed his accent slipped a bit after the Boss startled him. Look at the cut of his clothes, and that knot he tied on that belt. He’s a Vint. Probably a Venatori spy.”

“What in the Maker’s holy name is a Venatori?” Captain Calder asked.

Meraad sighed in exasperation. “A fringe group of Tevinter extremists. Yet one more wolf at my door.”

“My apologies, Captain Calder.” Leliana said after confirming Bull’s observations. “In light of this recent development, I retract my accusation. If you’ve no objections I would like a small, trusted group of my agents and your guard to search the man’s quarters for further evidence to be sure, and do a security sweep of the outpost in case he has accomplices.”

“Yes, yes, whatever you need! I’m grateful for your assistance, and will cooperate in any way I can, provided you can be discreet. I would also appreciate more information on this Venatori faction as soon as you’re able to provide it, so that we may watch for them in future.”

“This is all well and fine, “ Meraad snapped. “But there remains the issue of my father and the scouts in need of assistance, and damned if I'm going to wait in the barracks while you do another security sweep, Sister.”

Bull noted the look that passed between Leliana and Cassandra.

Come on Red, you know her better than that. Don't try to coddle her now to ease your conscience.

“There is no reason we can’t accomplish both tasks, Your Grace.” Captain Calder said decisively. “I know where the Freehold is, and can guide you there while Sister Nightingale conducts her investigation here. I think it’s more important than ever for the Freeholders to see neither of us are as indifferent to their suffering as Melville’s treachery would have them believe.”

“That is a valid point,” Cassandra said. “If you’re willing to authorize the action, Captain, in keeping with the Redcliffe Accords I will stay to maintain order at the Outpost until your return. I am one of the sole agents approved to do so in case of emergency.” The captain smiled warmly at the Seeker and quickly retrieved the requisite forms from his desk to sign. 

Throwing all public protocol aside, Meraad hugged Cassandra in silent thanks, then swiftly left for the stables, with Bull close behind.

“*The weather’s turning to shit, Boss.*“ Bull said in Qunlat as they crossed the torch-lit courtyard.

Meraad never broke stride, her gaze fixed on the stable door. “*Yes, and it’s going to be even worse in the passes. If you’re having second thoughts, stay here and help Leliana with the security sweep.*“

Bull was genuinely surprised by the contempt in her voice. “*Are you serious?*“

She froze just inside the stable door, then pulled Bull into an empty stall and threw her arms around his neck, trembling in reaction to everything that had happened.

“*I’m so sorry, Love, that was a stupid thing for me to say. As if I wasn’t already in knots over Papa and the the Council, I wasn’t expecting a Venatori assassin too. But that’s no excuse to take it out on you.*“

“*Breathe,*" He soothed, holding her close. "*There’s no harm done. You have every right to be upset. I only wanted to make sure you have everything you need before we leave.*“

They could hear the others approaching the stable, and reluctantly disengaged. “*Yes. Unlike my last trek through these mountains, I actually have all my gear and potions, and can freely use magic.*“  She brushed his stubbled cheek and smiled. “*And I have you.*“

Bull grinned and kissed her palm. “*Yes, you do.*“

Captain Calder, Cassandra and Leliana entered just as Meraad directed the stablemaster to have their mounts readied, and the Seeker asked, “Have you chosen who you will take with you, Inquisitor?”

Meraad looked out the stable door toward the mountains, running scenarios through her head. “Cole, for one. He may be able to sense when we’re close to the others before we see them. Beyond that…”

“Inquisitor, “ Leliana said tentatively. “For all that you believe I am being overly cautious, do you truly know what it is you’re riding toward? According to the reports, even the little girl didn’t clearly see what had attacked the Freehold, only that they smelled odd. You could be risking yourself and your team in bad weather for nothing more than bandits.”

“I have reasons beyond those reports to be fearful, Leliana, but as I don’t have time to disclose them, you’re just going to have to trust me. Good morning, Cole, thank you for coming so quickly.” 

The spirit boy smiled as he stepped out of the shadows of an empty stall, then closed his eyes, listening to something in the distance. Meraad turned back to Leliana. “Your concern is duly noted, thank you, but we’re still going. We’ve already lost enough time as it is. I just need to decide who else to take.”

A horse at the far end of the long stable suddenly kicked the side of its stall, whinnying in panic, and Bull saw all color drain from Meraad’s face.

Kadan, what is it?”

My dream…” she whispered. “...The horse was screaming.”

A groom stumbled into the corridor, crying out to the Maker in despair as the frantic kicking shook the wooden walls, and horses in nearby stalls grew restless in the confusion.

Meraad wrapped her magic around her to speed toward the source, and with a vicious curse Bull ran after her, gesturing at Leliana to follow. Behind them, the captain shouted to to the grooms to get the other horses and all personnel out of the building immediately.

He found Meraad at the open door to the end stall, frozen in unblinking horror at what lay within. The kicking had ceased, replaced by the sounds of enraged shrieks and the crunching of shifting bone.

In the stark light of the wildly swinging lanterns, Bull saw what had been a draft horse shifting into something out of a nightmare. Its eyes were clouded a sickly white, and dark spines protruded from its withers and flanks, dripping with black, viscous blood. Patches of its hair and skin sloughed away as it rolled helplessly against the ground, whinnying in fear.

Bull gagged as the unholy stench of plague-ridden meat wafted through the door, and Leliana cried out, “Holy Maker, that smell...it’s darkspawn taint! The beast is blighted!”

“My Lady!" She shouted at Meraad, still staring unresponsive. "You must use fire to purge the tainted blood! NOW!”

The Inquisitor nodded, mumbling, “Yes...the blood. There’s too much blood.”

She calmly hurled a lightning bolt to stun the creature senseless, then built a powerful ball of fire between her hands. 

“Get everyone out.” 

Meraad waited only long enough for Bull to shout the all clear before unleashing the fireball, which caught the dry straw on the floor of the stall and consumed the diseased animal in moments. The stones of the outer wall and floor cracked and popped in the intense heat, but she continued to pour power into the flames until the horse and everything inside the stall was reduced to ashes. 

Bull gently touched her back and she flinched, then extinguished the blaze before it could spread to the rest of the building. He pulled Meraad into his arms and held her tight as she trembled violently.

"You okay, Kadan?

Her eyes were haunted as she shook her head no. “C-Captain, whose horse was this?”

“It belonged to the Freeholder girl your father brought in, Your Grace.” He shouted for a runner. “Get word to the Chantry and tell them to quarantine that child until we know she’s clear, and check the other horses. If you see any signs of corruption in the animals, kill them cleanly and burn the corpses, and get a repair team to seal this area off. MOVE.

“I prayed I’d never have to smell that again,” Leliana choked.

“As did I," Calder nodded. "I served in the Denerim chantry, Sister Leliana. Though my own contribution to the war was small compared to yours, I fought during the Blight and helped with recovery efforts after. It’s not a thing you can ever forget. And now, sadly, it appears we know the truth of our enemy. I am so terribly sorry, Lady Adaar.”

Meraad pulled away from Bull, furiously scrubbing away tears on her sleeve. “Don’t be. I’m not giving up on them yet, Captain, any of them. All this has done is help me decide who to take. Leliana, tell Blackwall to meet us here. We leave within the hour.” 

She strode away to the paddock where their mounts had been taken, shutting down any further protests. Bull moved to follow, when Cole lay a gentle hand on the warrior’s arm.

“The old door locks are brittle, The Iron Bull. The voices are louder. They are knocking."

 

 

Chapter Text

 
Anaan lit his pipe and scanned the snow-covered courtyard through the boarded window of the Freehold's chantry, watching for any signs of movement in the evening twilight. So far, all was quiet, and he prayed it might stay that way.

The stone walled building proved to be the most defensible structure in the valley, and the barricades were holding. But after spending nearly three days trapped inside with the villagers, Anaan was under no illusion they were safe. 

Here’s hoping that bird managed to get through this storm. The damned thing’s surprised me before. Best case, should take a day to fly to Skyhold, another day to rally forces, and a minimum of two days more on a forced march to reach us.

Of course, they may decide this place isn't even worth rescuing. These folks don’t have much to offer in the greater scheme of things outside of that cursed mine, and once the word gets out about what’s really attacking here, the powers that be may decide to cut their losses and let the village burn, even with us in it.


He chuckled to himself. That's also assuming all those tacticians surrounding my daughter are persuasive enough to get it through her stubborn head that it’s a viable option. I don’t envy them that fight.

“Brought you some soup, Anaan.” Turner said quietly. “The Revered Mother thought you might be hungry.”

“Nice of her to remember me, even if she couldn’t bring it herself. Thanks.”

The young scout passed the mug, scowling back over his shoulder toward the dark chapel. “I can’t believe a chantry Mother would behave so ungratefully. She owes you an apology.”

Anaan waved off the suggestion with a sad smile. “Forget it. People do stupid things when they’re scared, and the last thing the woman likely expected at the time was to see a horned giant in her chantry, carrying an injured girl and barking orders on how to shore up their defenses. Half of these folk likely expected me to burst into flame for even entering, so I’m not bothered. How’s Agnes faring, by the way?”

“Stoic as ever. Once the Revered Mother calmed down, she said you did well setting Agnes’s leg. I’m glad you knew how to do that, because I didn’t.”

“Well, let this be a lesson then. If... when we get out of here, take the time to learn some basic healing, especially in your line of work. Can’t always guarantee there’ll be a healer around when you need it, and the herb lore is useful for a rogue.”

“I swear I will.” Turner lowered his voice. “Tell me straight: do you think they’ll send help?”

Anaan sighed. “I honestly don’t know. They should have gotten word by now, but we have to be prepared for the possibility that we’ll have to find our own way out if we can.”

“Surely Lady Meraad wouldn’t just…”

“Meraad may not be the one to decide, Eton. Her Council may not have told her we’re here, knowing she’d have a hard time being objective about it, and that’s my fault. Not to mention we’re operating without official sanction. My only regret is that you and Agnes are in here with me.”

“It was our choice, and we’d do it again given the chance. Just admit it, if we hadn’t been with you the villagers would never have listened, and you’d all be dead. Between her getting them rallied to the chantry, me gathering the the stragglers, and you helping them batten down the hatches, we made a pretty efficient team.”

“Fine, stubborn brat," he winked. "Just don’t let it go to your head."

“I learned from the best.” Turner grinned, then frowned as he peered around the edge of the window, being careful not to stand where he could be seen. “Do you think the darkspawn are still out there? Maybe the cold drove them back into the mine?”

“They’re still out there. They don’t give a damn about the cold.” He drew deeply on his pipe. “I heard the filthy bastards not too long ago, breaking into one of the houses across the square.”

“What do they want? ” 

“It’s a raiding party, son. They want to torture and kill. That’s what they do.”

Turner studied the old man for a moment. “You seem to know an awful lot about these things. How?”

“By talking to Grey Wardens. Like you, I needed answers, and learned there’s no good answers to be had." His violet eyes fixed on Turner, warring with himself over whether or not the boy was ready to hear the truth, and whether he wanted to remember it himself.

Sod it. We likely won’t live out the night anyway.

"You asked me if I’d seen darkspawn before, and I have...the night the beasts murdered my wife, and nearly killed my daughter. The same night I learned Meraad was a mage.”

The young scout blanched. “But I thought your wife died to a fever? That’s what Lady Meraad said.”

“That’s what Meraad remembered. She was so little...if it made things easier for her to believe her Mama died to illness, we didn’t feel inclined to dispute it. And considering what the taint does to people, it’s not really a lie. I suppose it made it a bit easier for me to accept too.”

“I’m so sorry, Anaan. Were you there when it happened?”

Anaan stared out the window, seeing a much different landscape.  “No. I’d made landfall in Wycome that morning after a three-week run, bringing home presents since I’d missed Meraad’s seventh birthday a few days earlier. But the weather was foul, the roads weren’t well kept that far outside of the city, and to be honest I wasn’t sure what kind of reception I’d get when I got home. Asha and I...we fought before I left. Worst fight we’d ever had. I found out she’d been teaching Meraad about the Qun, which I had expressly forbidden, and she threatened if I left again she’d return to Seheron and give Meraad to the Tamassrans.”

“But, why?” Turner asked incredulously. “Why would she want to go back after everything you both went through to escape?”

“I told you Asha had been a Tamassran. Outsiders see the Qun as restrictive, and it is, but as a skilled healer she’d been afforded a great number of privileges she didn’t realize she missed until she’d left them all behind. Suddenly she found herself in a foreign land, having to run her own household with a small, needy child who, in Asha’s mind, was competing for her Husband’s affections on the rare times he was home. I loved them both dearly, and told her I wasn't leaving them by choice. But my contract was ending, so I begged her to wait for me just one more run.”

He blinked back tears at the memory. “That's when she told me Meraad was sick with terrible headaches, had been for weeks. So on top of everything else, Asha felt like a failure that she couldn’t find a cure for her child’s pain, and wanted to take her where she knew they could heal her properly. Hissera told me later that frequent headaches are common when new powers manifest, but none of us knew it at the time.”

Turner looked at his shoes, and Anaan shook his head, knowing exactly what the boy was hesitating to say.

“Please don’t think too harshly of Asha, Eton. There was a time when she laughed, and danced, and could light up the room with her smile...the same beautiful smile Meraad bears to this day. I plucked that flower from her sheltered garden and selfishly tried to keep it for my own, and for a time she bloomed, filled with my romantic dreams of traveling the world. But the reality proved to be something very different, and it’s a harsh life for our folk outside the Qun. I was her lifeline, and I wasn’t there. In many ways I was just as much to blame for how things turned out.”

Thunder rolled over the valley, and a great gust of wind slammed the side of the building, whistling around the window seams. Anaan shivered in spite of himself. 

“I don’t know what happened at the farm that night. Meraad has no clear memory of it, and it was over by the time I got there. I rode in near midnight, to find the front wall and thatch still smoldering like they'd been repeatedly struck by lightning. There was a stench of charred meat, and the wood pile against the side of the house was scattered. I found the bodies of three darkspawn on the ground near the house, burned almost beyond recognition, and a blood trail leading into the barn. One of the lanterns lay on its side just inside the door, and when I raised it I found our mare, Tilly, literally ripped apart in her stall. Just beyond her was my poor wife, laying in the straw, her body already cold. She’d taken a blade to the gut and their foul taint spread up from the wound, though she’d bled out long before the corruption could take her. A small piece of mercy, all things considered.”

Turner’s voice was barely above a horrified whisper as he asked, “And what of Lady Meraad?”

“Once I saw Asha was beyond my aid I ran for the house, and found Meraad face down in the open doorway, freezing and unconscious, but alive. It looked like she’d tried to get back inside and never made it past the threshold. When I picked her up she suddenly screamed and lashed out with a bolt of blue lightning -- I vividly remember it was icy blue as it stung my hand. She was far too weak to actually hurt me though, and once she recognized me the poor girl just fell apart. I couldn’t get a coherent word out of her outside of ‘saarebas’, and knew then that at least she understood what she was.”

Though woe to anyone that’s called her that since. I've never understood why she fears the word so much. 

“I wrapped her in my cloak, packed up a few supplies and keepsakes, then took her to Taar’s house just over the hill, since Hissera was a mage too. The following morning I rode alone into Wycome, found the nearest Grey Wardens, and took them back out to the farm. I remember one was a dwarf, a warrior named Petras, and the other a human mage named Tomas. Decent men, both of them. 
The storm had broken by then, and seeing everything in clear daylight only made it worse. Tomas asked if there was anything else I wanted out of the house, since the best way to purge the taint was through fire, and I told him to just burn it all. Afterward they asked about Meraad, and though I feared they’d tell the Templars, I took them to see her. I had to be sure. They found bruises on her throat from where one of the beasts had tried to choke her, and more to her head and shoulders where she’d been thrown into something hard, but Hissera said she’d made some kind of barrier around herself that had protected her from worse. I don’t know how it all works, what matters was the Wardens sensed no taint in her, and I couldn't have been more grateful.”

Anaan relit his pipe and quietly puffed for a few moments as Turner asked, “And did they tell the Templars?”

“No, bless them both, they didn’t. They said the darkspawn were the only issue that concerned them, and that threat was dealt with. Meraad had a teacher to look after her, so they departed in peace, and I knew I’d been given a second chance. I resolved to come in from the sea and never leave her alone again, but we couldn’t go back to that farm. Tomas had done a thorough job of purging the place; the barn and house were razed to ashes, including Asha’s body, since they couldn’t risk the corruption spreading. We told the city guard lightning had struck the barn in the storm while we were visiting family and the fire spread to the house. No further questions were asked. Stayed in Wycome long enough to sell the property, and I used that money to help set up shop when we reached Riesen-Tal, which had been Hissera’s home village. I missed the sea, but I never once regretted that choice.”

“It appears, Master Adaar," a woman’s voice softly said from the shadows of the main hall. "That I owe you an apology. For many reasons.”  

Revered Mother Sabine quietly stepped toward the pair, tears shining on her weathered cheeks. “I truly didn’t mean to intrude. I only came to see if you’d eaten, and couldn’t help overhearing. I was most ungracious to you when you first arrived, Serah, and in truth I can’t blame my poor manners entirely on my fear of the darkspawn.”

Anaan was angry and embarrassed to have unintentionally shared so private a moment with an uninvited stranger, particularly this one, but something about the woman’s desperate sincerity made him bite back his retort. 

‘Serah’, not ‘Ser’. She's Marcher-born, though she’s been in Ferelden long enough to muddy her accent. Interesting.

“Are you from Kirkwall, Mother?”

The Revered Mother’s dark brown eyes went wide in shock. “What? How…?”

“I’ve been around." Anaan smiled kindly. "Always had a good ear for accents, though yours is subtle. Your comment also just made me reconsider your reaction to first seeing me at the door. You didn’t confuse me for a darkspawn, what you saw was a Qunari invader, and you were angry. Kirkwall was the most logical choice.”

“I’m unsure whether to be frightened or amazed by that.” She smiled in return.

“Go with amazed, there’s been enough fright for a while. And before you ask, no, I wasn’t in Kirkwall for the invasion, nor do I condone what happened. I’m Tal-Vashoth, if that means anything to you.”

“A little. I don’t claim great understanding of Qunari culture, but that’s something to do with rebels, yes?”

“Yes it is. I turned my back on the Qun thirty years ago to give my family a chance at a better life. It didn’t go entirely to plan, but things rarely do. I’d wager you might know something of that.”

“You could say that," she laughed. "To answer your question, yes I was from Kirkwall. I ministered to the refugees in Lowtown during the Blight, and the Qunari invasion, and the terrible war that followed. When an assignment to a far-flung outpost in Ferelden was offered, I gladly accepted, believing I'd retire quietly away from the strife. Then the Conclave was destroyed, the Breach tore the sky, a Qunari apostate became the Herald of Andraste, and the Inquisition rose up practically on our doorstep. Now I find myself surrounded by darkspawn, aided by not only a Qunari -- pardon me, a Tal-Vashoth -- but the Father of the Herald Herself!" She shook her head. "The Maker truly works in mysterious ways, blessed be His name, yet I allowed my personal bias to cloud my judgement about you when you came to aid us. It reflects poorly on the faith, at a time when we need unity more than ever.”

“Call me Anaan, please. There’s not much point in standing on ceremony now. As for misjudging, you certainly wouldn’t be the first to do so, and being from Kirkwall, you have more cause than most. At least you didn’t attack first. For what it’s worth, I’ve no grievance with your Maker, only some of His followers. Thank you for the soup, by the way.”

“You’re very welcome, Anaan. And what of you, young Scout Turner? Are you of the faith?”

“I am, Revered Mother, as is my family, praise be to the Maker.”

“Then perhaps, as one of the devout, you might enlighten me as to your impressions of the Herald?”

Anaan stiffened, sensing a trap, but held his tongue. There’s no malice in her tone, she’s genuinely curious. Can’t say I’m not a bit curious about his beliefs myself, as we’ve never really talked about it.

Turner paused, carefully considering his answer.

“I’ve had the privilege of knowing the Adaar family nearly two years, and I can say with conviction that they are good and moral folk. They've never dissuaded me from or mocked my beliefs, and even helped me find the nearest chantry to honor Wintersend when I stayed with them in their village. As for Lady Meraad herself, I've never once heard her claim to be a holy being. She's a Healer, and she acts out of a genuine desire to help people. I can’t speak for the intentions of all those that follow her, but I feel no conflict of faith in serving Lady Meraad. And yes, Revered Mother, I'd be saying this even were her Da not right in front of me.”

To Turner’s surprise, the Revered Mother hugged him. “Thank you, my son. You’ve just answered a great number of concerns I’ve had regarding the Inquisition and its leadership, particularly after the disturbing reports I've received from my superiors about Lady Adaar over the last year. I've felt terribly conflicted about her until now, and I thank the Maker for guiding you to us. Despite of all our current troubles my heart is lighter tonight than it has been in years. You should be very proud, Anaan Adaar, not as the father of our Herald, but as the parent of a child who can inspire others as your daughter has done.”

“Turner’s not saying she can also be a right terror when crossed," Anaan chuckled. "But she is a good girl, and I'm proud of what she’s accomplished. How she turned out this well with a blasphemous old sea dog like me for her Papa is a miracle unto itself, but thank you all the same.”

“You do yourself a disservice, Serah.” She said, taking his giant hands in her own. “Whatever else you may have been, I can see you are also a good man, and a good father. The sacrifices you’ve already made for her sake are proof of that, and I've witnessed the way you protect these scouts like your own kin as well. I would never have expected to see such kindness or compassion from a Qunari.”

“Nor should you.” Anaan said honestly. “To Qunari, you’re just a bas, literally a “purposeless thing” outside of the Qun, and not worthy of respect until proven otherwise. And I won’t tell you that every Tal-Vashoth you may meet will treat you better. But for me and mine, we just want to live in peace, and maybe leave this sorry world a bit better than we found it. I haven’t had the best impression of you chantry folk either, so it’s a credit to you that you’re willing to keep an open mind about me and my girl. It's been an enlightening visit all around, and I’m only sorry that it’s taken the threat of a greater evil to bring us to it.”

“I agree! Is there anything more I can do to help you?”

“Yes, Revered Mother, there is!” Turner exclaimed. “Your flock here may be small, but even one voice can make a difference. In our travels we’ve seen so many people stand blindly against the Inquisitor based solely on her race, or because she’s a mage. But if you tell others what you’ve seen, maybe more people might be willing to listen and help too. As you said, right now we need unity more than ever.”

Anaan beamed with pride at the scout. What was that phrase? ‘Out of the mouths of babes.’ I promise you, Eton Turner, I will get you out of this alive if it’s the last thing I do.




Heavy clouds brought early night to the valley floor, and Meraad scowled as she read the weather patterns. “Vashedan. We’re going to need to find shelter soon. There’s more snow and strong winds heading for us from the north and it likely won’t let up until morning. We’ll be riding into the leading edge of it if we keep going. Captain, do you know of any good places to camp nearby?”

“Yes I do, my Lady. The Bucklin family has a farmstead not far from here. Good people, they raise the sheep that provide the Outpost with much of our wool. We should be able to shelter there, and I know from experience Reed Bucklin’s wife Lynna sets a fine table.”

The team wound their way through the canyon as fast as they dared, eager for a hot meal and a dry bed. But when they reached the farmstead half an hour later they were disappointed to see no lights in the house, no smoke from the chimney, nor any signs of movement.

“The place looks abandoned,” Bull called over the rising wind. “Maybe that kid your dad found warned them on the way and they all got out? Structure looks sound though.”

“Considering what’s coming at us, it's better than trying to set up a tent in heavy wind. Why don’t you, Blackwall, and Cole get the mounts stabled while the Captain and I see if anyone’s at home?”

Captain Calder nodded. “I agree. Warden Blackwall, do you sense any darkspawn nearby, just in case?”

“I...no, my Lord I don’t.” Blackwall said hesitantly. “I’d still be cautious all the same.”

They all dismounted, and Meraad and the Captain headed for the main house while Bull led their horses to the barn. He wrenched the door open on its icy track, but their mounts shied and refused to approach the building. With growing alarm, Bull found the lantern and striker just inside on the wall and looked inside. 

The cheerful light seemed morbidly out of place as it illuminated the scene. Every animal within had been slaughtered, their parts carelessly scattered and left to rot. There was no reason to the act, this was carnage. Then Blackwall tripped over something hard beneath a nearby snowdrift and dislodged the frozen carcass of a large shaggy sheepdog, its muzzle stained black with foul-smelling blood.

Maker’s breath…” the Warden swore. “Look at those wounds! At least the poor mutt went down fighting.”

Bull quickly scanned around the site, noting the distinctive patterns of the frozen, churned earth and the blood spray on the walls, and his heart sank.

"...and this place wasn't abandoned. SHIT. We have to warn..."

A scream of horror and primal rage shattered the night. The warriors sped to the front of the house, its ground floor windows lit to daylight brightness by Meraad's conjured wisp. Captain Calder was dragging her away from the building, his sword drawn defensively against he saw inside as she stared at her own trembling hands.

She was covered in blood.

The moment the captain saw the men approach he stammered, “L-lady Meraad found the Bucklins. They’re...” his voice broke, unable to finish.

A gust of freezing wind ripped the farmhouse door from its broken hinges as Meraad fell to her knees, retching and vomiting into the snow. Bull left her with Calder long enough to look inside the doorway, and instantly regretted it.

The wood floor of the main room was awash in coagulated blood, dripping down from the mutilated remains of what had been a family of six, all hung from the rafters like meat in a smokehouse. Given the height of the beams, Meraad must have walked right into them before her light revealed the truth.

The smallest of the corpses looked to be a child no older than five, and Bull’s mind suddenly flashed to a very different scene: a schoolroom full of Qunari children, their tiny faces bloated and discolored, indiscriminately slaughtered by a Tal-Vashoth rebel’s poison. Only the terror on his Kadan’s face, and his overwhelming need to protect her, gave him the strength to resist the destructive fury he felt burning in his heart.

Meraad staggered to a nearby water pump and began furiously scrubbing her face and hands despite the cold. She jumped when Bull gently cupped her face.

“Easy, Kadan, easy, it’s me. I'm here.”

“I hate to ask it of you my Lady," Captain Calder interrupted. "But have you the strength to burn this place? We’ll find no shelter here, and the corruption needs to be purged before it spreads.”

Meraad's eyes clenched in pain, and when they snapped open again, they blazed with amethyst fire.

“Oh, I have the strength, Captain,” she snarled as she spun her staff before her, using it to gather energy from the storm itself to enhance her spell. Then she unleashed a torrent of flame down on the thatched roofs of the house and barn, followed by strategically placed fireballs through each window and doorway, until the entire structure was engulfed. The mountain winds fed the inferno, and even at a distance the heat was intense, melting snow from the branches of nearby trees.

Beside her, Bull heard the Templar tearfully intone:

“Though all before me is shadow,
Yet shall the Maker be my guide.
I shall not be left to wander the drifting roads of the Beyond.
For there is no darkness in the Maker's Light
And nothing that He has wrought shall be lost.

I am not alone.
Even as I stumble on the path
With my eyes closed, yet I see
The Light is here.

Draw your last breath, my friends.
Cross the Veil and the Fade and all the stars in the sky.
Rest at the Maker's right hand,
And be Forgiven.”

Meraad sagged against her staff as the last of her rage and mana spent, and without a word Bull scooped her into his arms and quickly carried her toward their horses. The fire would continue to burn through the night, but they still needed shelter.

“I fear the Lady’s spells may have escalated the storm," Calder said. "But it needed to be done. If you’re willing, I know of another site about two miles further in the lee of the cliffs, used by the shepherds as an emergency camp on the way to market. We’ll have to set up the tents, but it’s sheltered, and there’s water.”

“Let's hope it's better this one,” Bull said grimly. “Lead on.”

He transferred his saddlebags to Meraad’s horse and passed Blackwall her reins, then set her onto the saddle of his warhorse and mounted behind for the short ride to the next camp. Bull was thankful that the stout gelding was more than capable of carrying them both, as he didn’t trust her alone in the saddle, and there was no time to rig up a travois. 

Cole rode up beside them and took her hand. "The storm breaks. A lock breaks. Bad dreams, my head hurts, where is Papa? Safe, strong, scent of the sea. Where is Papa?"

Bull kissed her head as she dozed in his arms, trying hard to ignore the smell of blood and ash on her clothes as the wind wailed through the canyon.

I promise you, Kadan. I am going to destroy every one of these monsters if it’s the last thing I do.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The shepherd’s camp proved to be every bit as good as Calder had claimed, with a sheltered overhang wide enough for the tents, a well-established fire pit that had obviously seen generations of use, and a rushing stream downhill that fed into a small meadow. At any other time, Bull would have thought it one of the prettiest campsites they’d ever found, but he had little chance to enjoy it.

From the moment they dismounted, Meraad was a blur of frantic motion. As Calder tended the horses, and Blackwall and Bull set up the tents, she and Cole gathered firewood nearby. Bull noticed her pause by several trees and shrubs along the riverbank, creating just enough of a mage light to carefully inspect the leaves and bark, and muttering to herself as she took cuttings from each.

By the time the tents were up and their gear stowed, she had a good fire set, far faster than should have been normal. Calder and Blackwall were pleased, but Bull was genuinely concerned.

They don’t know her the way I do. Meraad isn’t like Dorian and Vivienne, flashing magic as if expecting applause after every spell. She and Solas keep their spells subtle because they've lived in fear of being caught using magic. And sure, that farm needed to burn, but the amount of power she used, with a templar watching, was excessive for her. Now she’s using what little energy she’s recovered to boost a campfire?

Cole quietly set an empty bucket beside her then stepped back out of her way, and Bull grew even more worried by the mournful expression on the spirit boy’s face.

She hasn’t said a word to me since we left the farm, and now Cole’s watching her too. What are you doing Kadan?

Meraad gathered up the bucket with a nod of thanks, followed by the pot she’d rapidly boiled the tree bark in, then bid the men goodnight and went straight to her tent without a further word.

“Wait, my Lady!" Blackwall said. "Aren’t you going to eat?” 

Bull took the bowl of stew from the warden’s hands and followed her. “I’ve got this. Thanks, and goodnight.”

When he entered the tent he found Meraad, naked, using a cloth dipped in the tannic infusion she’d made to aggressively scrub herself before pouring some through her unbound hair.

Kadan," Bull said gently as he set the soup aside. "Let me help you.” 

She paused, her head hanging down, and simply nodded. Bull could see she was shivering, though whether from the cold or reaction, he wasn’t sure.  As he rinsed out her hair, she snapped a piece of one of the thin branches she’d collected and started chewing the end of it, then used some of the remaining infusion to rinse her mouth.

“What’s that you’re eating?”

“Not eating, just chewing,” she mumbled. “Ferelden Dogwood to clean the teeth. White Oak tea to wash. Have to get rid of that smell...that taste.”

When the rinse water ran clear, she wrung out her hair and hastily wove it into a single loose braid. Then with a glare at her filthy armor, she curled up on her side of the bed, away from Bull and softly lamented, “I liked that coat. Have to burn it too...too much blood.”

Bull sat down beside her and stroked her back. She flinched at his initial touch, but he’d seen her do that enough in recent days he didn’t take it personally. 

“Nah. I know a few tricks for getting blood out of leather. We can salvage it.”

“I don’t want it,” she hissed as she buried her face in her hands. “Please, take it away.

“I understand sweetheart, but you don’t have a spare here, so, for now, why don’t you try and eat, and let me see what I can do with it?”

There was no response.

Kadan?

He shifted her heavy braid away from her face, and saw she was asleep. If he hadn’t been acutely aware of the sound of her breathing when she normally slept, he could have chalked it up to exhaustion, but this was different. Then, he smelled the herbs on her breath, and found an empty vial of sleep potion in her limp hand. The very potion she’d agonized about taking even a sip from back at the outpost, she’d completely drained to shut everything out, including him.

Part of him was actually hurt by that, considering everything they’d been through, until it occurred to him that out of all her recent behavior, that was the most uncharacteristic. She hated being medicated. There was something else at work here, something he wasn’t seeing, so he refused to react until he’d calmed down and thought it out. Bull tucked her in, ate the bowl of stew, then gathered his cleaning kit and her armor.

As the storm finally caught up to them, he sat in the corner of their tent and quietly set to work. He’d always found the simple act of cleaning and repairing armor to be soothing; restoring order out of chaos, an act of purification. He wished he could do the same for her troubled mind as he did her gear.

Okay, take it apart. She was justifiably shocked by what we found at the farm tonight. But she's a healer, not usually squeamish around blood or bodies, and this wasn’t the first time we’ve found mangled corpses since joining the Inquisition, not even those of kids.The way she burned that place says this was something deeply personal, predating the farmhouse.

Bull's heart sank as he began adding up everything he'd noticed over the last week since they left the waterfall cave.

He had to remind her to eat and rest. She had difficulty sitting still. She flinched from his touch when they settled into bed at night, then would cling to him like a lifeline. She'd exhaust herself into sleep, then toss and turn with fitful dreams she couldn't recall in the morning. She obsessed over washing despite the cold, and lamented that she would have to burn her clothes by the time they were done...

Shit. It isn’t the dragon’s blood.The answer was was right in front me, and I missed it.

Asala-Taar , the Qunari called it. Soul sickness. An affliction so common among soldiers in Seheron as to become an epidemic, with sufferers usually removed from combat duty and reassigned to priesthood or as laborers. He mentally kicked himself for not seeing it sooner, especially considering it was the very thing that had made him turn himself in to the Reeducators before the Ben-Hassrath sent him to Orlais.

Of course, reassignment wasn't an option for Meraad. There was no one else who could close the Rifts, and the Inquisition was still establishing itself. If word leaked that the Inquisitor was fragile, their allies could lose confidence in the cause, their troops would be demoralized, and their enemies would strike before she was ready. The only ones who knew about it at that moment were him and Cole, and Cole couldn’t explain it clearly. Bull had to keep it that way for now.

Focus. The dragon’s blood was the catalyst, but not the cause. She’s been worked up since she had that vision of her dad being in danger, so this is something tied to him. Possible abuse?

No. Her dad’s a symbol of comfort to her, not fear. Meraad loves him more than her own life, craves his approval, and wants to protect him as strongly as she does me. Something broke her, but it wasn’t him. In fact, based on her reactions I suspect now he may actually have saved her from whatever did.


Bull wrung out the cleaning cloth in his rinse bowl, pleased to see the blood coming out of the soft leather, and he felt a surge of respect for Anaan Adaar.

So what do we know? Cole said she’s ‘haunted’...an ‘old door with locks placed by older hands’ that were starting to break after what happened at the farm, and the Star-Seeker holds a key. Well, the old door suggests a block her mind built to protect her from something that happened as a child, and the locks by older hands suggests that other people, likely her dad, encouraged her to forget.

He set aside the clean and oiled leather to finish drying, then picked up her spaulders, studying the thick blood that coated the light metal.

Blood. ’Too much blood’ she said. On her armor; at the farmhouse; in the stable with that corrupted horse; and now that I think about it, in the cave she mentioned ‘dark blood steaming on snow.’ Whatever happened involved seeing a lot of blood, dark blood.

Tainted blood is dark, could this have to do with darkspawn?


That feels right. Up till now, the bulk of our enemies have been bandits, mages, and templars, in between killing demons at rifts. To my knowledge, the only darkspawn she’s fought since I joined her was Corypheus at Haven. But even though he rightfully scared the shit out of her, fighting him strengthened her resolve, while seeing that tainted horse almost crippled her...until she realized the darkspawn were a threat to her dad.

It’s got to be darkspawn. She encountered them as a child, something traumatic happened that affected her memories of them, and her dad saved her. I’d bet money on it. And now that he’s the one threatened by them, she’s starting to remember and it’s wrecking her, with the worst part of it being that she doesn’t understand why.

He looked sadly down at her freshly cleaned and oiled armor. ‘Please take it away’, she said. She didn’t mean the armor, she meant the pain. And we’re about to go fight darkspawn, because there’s no one else that could get here in time to save the villagers. Damn it.

Bull cleaned up, stripped down and climbed into bed behind her, softly kissing the back of her neck as he cradled her against his chest. Meraad sighed and stretched but didn’t rouse. He watched her sleeping, memorizing her profile, the curve of her neck and horns, the play of light from the distant fire on her silver skin as she breathed.

He fully understood then why the Qun dispensed with the concept of family and love matches, because it hurt too much and distracted from the job at hand. But in this moment with her so vulnerable in his arms, he didn’t care.

He would kill, or die, to preserve this. To preserve her.

 



When he woke hours later in the half-light of dawn, Meraad was awake, facing him, silently watching as if hesitant to speak. She placed one hand on his cheek and whispered, “I’m sorry.”

He sighed. “Just tell me why.”

“Because I am angry,” she said, her voice trembling. “More than I’ve ever been in my life, but not at you. After the way I reacted at the Outpost, I knew if I hadn’t taken that potion I might have done or said something horrible you didn’t deserve. I have never felt so conflicted, Bull. I was raised to heal, not hurt, but so help me, I want to hurt them. I want to see them suffer for what they’ve done, and I want them to know who it was that did it.”

She closed her eyes, struggling to swallow past the lump in her throat. “Yet, at the same time, I’m terrified. We’ve had a taste of what these monsters can do and how remorseless they are in doing it. Even demons didn’t scare me this much, because deep down, I know the ones we fight at the rifts are mostly spirits brought here against their will that are just lashing out, while the darkspawn are cruel beings of wanton destruction. If I’d talked to you about this last night, you’d have done everything you could to comfort me and help me calm down, and no matter how desperately I wanted you to, I couldn’t allow it. I’m not a warrior, my Love. This rage is so unnatural for me, and as much as I really don’t want it, I have to try and hold on to it a little longer or I may not have the strength to do what needs to be done when we get there. Please, tell me you understand.”

Bull pulled her close, kissing her breathless, leaving her no room to doubt his forgiveness or support. When they parted, he rested his head against hers and simply said, “I understand.”

More than you can possibly know, Kadan. You’re too kindhearted for the work we do, and it kills me that you may lose that in order to become the champion they need. You deserve a better life than this, sweet healer. I wish I knew how to give it to you.

He rose and laid her restored armor across the bed. “As promised, I got your gear clean, so you won’t need to burn it after all.”

She sat up and inspected the coat, blinking back tears as she marveled at his handiwork. “This is...thank you.”

“Save your tears for later, Inquisitor,” Bull commanded. “There’s work to be done, and you will eat before we go. Got it?”

Meraad drew a shuddering breath and wiped her eyes, gratefully drawing from his confidence to bolster her resolve. Bull was proud to hear the clarity and strength in her voice as she replied, “Yes, Captain.”

“Good. Now get your shit together and let’s go find your dad.”




The team raced to reach the Freehold the moment the storm lightened enough to safely break camp, but by the scene at the trail head, they were far too late.

The pale, diffused light of the midday sun through the low cloud cover lent a dreamlike quality to the brutality before them. The gate of the outer palisade had been destroyed by some kind of explosion, and the flayed corpses of the faithful guards who had tried to defend it now hung from the pointed walls as a feast for the carrion crows. All along the main road into the village, buildings were gutted and burned, and the bodies of people and animals lay scattered like broken, discarded toys. The snow deadened sounds beyond the crunch of their own steps, but there was no wind to carry away the stench of death and corruption that lingered despite the cold.

“Reminds me of Denerim after the Archdemon was slain,” Captain Calder said, his voice heavy with suppressed emotion. “Those first few days of the Thaw, we wondered if it could ever be as it was. It’s been so long since any darkspawn were seen here...I was a fool to assume the threat had passed for good. Ser Blackwall, can you tell if there are any of the beasts remaining in the area?”

The Warden chewed his lip beneath his thick mustache as he studied the terrain. “It’s...difficult to say with so much of the place already corrupted. Just keep your guard up.”

Suddenly Cole softly chanted, “Mockingbird, mockingbird, quiet and still, what do you see from the top of that hill? Can you see up? Can you see down? Can you see the dead things all about town?”

“How do you know that song?” Blackwall demanded.

“It just came to me,” the spirit boy replied. “Everyone says everyone knows it. The children knew it.”

“We’re too late." Meraad stifled a sob. "I failed them.”

Bull had never heard her sound so defeated. “There may still be survivors.”

“Oh, there are, The Iron Bull!” Cole happily pointed toward the bell tower of the village chantry a half mile ahead. “Old eyes, young eyes, watching and waiting and wondering. Sharp-eyed birds perched by the bell, praying for mercy from Maker or man. Either will do.”

Meraad clutched Cole’s slim shoulder. “They’re holed up in the chantry? All of them?”

“Not all, but enough. You seek the Star-Seeker, and he still seeks for you.”

At her look of confusion, Bull grinned. “His name for a navigator, Kadan. He’s saying your dad’s alive.”

“How could the boy possibly know that?” Captain Calder asked. “I don’t wish to dash your hopes, my Lady, but we’ve seen no signs of life.”

“It’s a long story, Captain. What matters is that I trust his word, so we go to the chantry. Thank you, Cole!”

Her joy was short-lived. Unseen, hostile eyes watched from all around as they rode down the main trail. The closer they got to the village square, the more agitated Meraad became, shaking her head as if to clear it.

“How you holding up, Kadan? “ Bull whispered.

“Something about this place...I feel sick.”

“Sick? In what way?”

She held up a hand in a gesture of peace. “Not in a ‘I’m tainted’ way, Love. I mean foul magic, trying hard to push me away. I can taste it, like an oily film over the Veil. Captain, can you confirm?”

The former templar’s eyes unfocused, then he nodded. “I concur, my Lady. The place reeks of blood magic, of a kind I haven’t sensed since the Blight.”

“That must be it then...it feels like what Corypheus tried to use on me at Haven, but..not him.”

Bull scowled. “What do you mean, ‘not him’?”

She struggled to explain. “Every mage has their own unique feel, for lack of a better word. Like a signature or scent, tied to their life essence. It’s part of why Templars can use our blood to track us. Whomever cast this is using a similar type of magic, but it doesn’t feel like Corypheus himself. Believe me, after what that bastard did to me at Haven, I know his spell markers well, just as he likely knows mine. However, even if it isn’t him, this is still bad.”

“All blood magic is bad,” Calder declared. “Is it the taint that makes this worse?”

“Yes. From what I learned after fighting Corypheus, darkspawn magic works differently to mine. He wasn’t drawing on the Fade to power his spells, he drew it from something within, possibly the Taint itself. I don’t understand the mechanics of it, but the ‘why’ isn’t as important right now as the fact there’s some kind of mage here corrupting the site, and I don’t know what they’re capable of. I’ll bet they’re behind this unseasonable weather too. Let’s just get to the chantry, and try to get everyone out as fast as possible.”

They paused at the edge of the village square to get their bearings and found the central community well had been completely defiled. The darkspawn had dumped tainted corpses and animals into the water, topped with broken furniture, bricks and scrap metal to create some kind of evil shrine, facing the chantry.

“They’re using siege tactics,” Blackwall said in astonishment. “Not just fouling the main water supply, but making a show of it to demoralize defenders. That shows far more intelligence than I’d expect from darkspawn.”

Bull nodded in agreement as they dismounted and cautiously skirted the square, scanning every open doorway and window as they moved. “I can see why. The locals did a decent job barricading the perimeter of the chantry. Someone knew what they were doing.”

“But that also means the Freeholders have been without clean water for at least four days unless they had the presence of mind to store any when they hid,” Meraad whispered. “Dehydration will kill faster than starving, especially if they’ve been fighting, or anyone’s already weakened by injury or illness. I suppose it’s too much to hope the monsters gave up when they ran out of easy targets and retreated to the mine?”

Blackwall shook his head. “If they’re using tactics like this? I highly doubt it.”

Meraad fought the urge to retch as they passed the corrupted well. “The tainted magic...the well is warded to keep people out. It radiates foulness like a festering wound.”

“I can attempt to purge the spell, my Lady,” the Captain said.

“Save your power until we know what we're actually dealing with. I'm not sure your purge would even work against this ward, as it's not actively attacking anything. I can dispel it, but if I do it may alert the one that cast it, like touching a spider web. If we’re escorting civilians, I want to avoid drawing a fight for as long as possible.”

She gingerly levitated a piece of masonry from the barricade far enough to allow the party to pass, then set it back into place before they approached the chantry door.

“You go to the door, Captain, the locals know you. We’ll cover you.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 
There was a knock at the door.

Not the pounding of an attacker testing the defenses, but a soft, urgent tapping, just loud enough to be heard without making too much noise. Yet after so many hours of unnerving silence trying to conserve energy in the face of dwindling supplies, it was still enough to make everyone in the chantry jump.

Revered Mother Sabine rose and stepped toward the door, but Anaan and Turner blocked her path.

“Master Anaan," she whispered. "It could be a survivor seeking shelter!” 

“Or, it could be one of those monsters using someone as bait. They’ve already shown they’re smart enough to try. I’m sorry, Mother. It’s not safe.”

“Mother Sabine?” A muffled male voice called. “It’s Captain Calder. We’ve come to help!”

Oh thank the Maker!”  Sabine cried. “Anaan, I know his voice, that is the Captain. Please open the door!”

Anaan signaled to Turner to be ready to attack as he moved the heavy benches from the internal barricade, unbolted the locks, and opened the door wide enough for a single figure to enter.

The man Sabine recognized as Captain Calder stepped through to greet the Revered Mother. “Maker be praised you’re alive! We've come to take you all out of here.”

“We?" Anaan demanded. "Who's ‘we’?”  

The outside light was blocked by a large shadow, and a silver hand curled around the edge to stop him from resealing the door. 

A woman's hand.

“Papa?”

Anaan tore open the door and suddenly found his arms, and heart, very full. He clutched his daughter with every ounce of strength he had, thanking all the powers for this mercy. But when he pulled back to look at her in the light, he was shocked by the state of her.

She’s lost weight she couldn’t afford. Dark circles under her eyes, and too much pain in them. Sweet Imekari, what have they done to you?

Meraad tearfully grinned and was about to speak, when her eyes went wide with fear. She shoved him back, shouted,“TAKE COVER!” then cast a shell of golden green light around the doorway and everyone nearby.

The spell enveloped him in protective warmth an instant before the chantry door exploded in shrapnel and dark flame, hurling him into the chapel. He hit the flagstones hard, his ears ringing from the noise, and when he slowly sat up to catch his breath, he saw a great, one-eyed Qunari kneeling over his daughter's prone body.

Who...? Wait, she said there was a Tal-Vashoth with her. Iron Bull.  He's bigger than I thought...built like Taar.

A human warrior carrying a mace and large shield appeared in the broken doorway, and Anaan was cheered to see the symbol of the Grey Wardens on his breastplate.

“Inquisitor! Is she alive, Bull?”

From his position Anaan could see Meraad moving, but struggling to focus, her eyes darting about to reorient herself.

And the merc was holding her in far too familiar a way for a subordinate.

“Yeah, Blackwall, she’s just stunned. ADAAR! Report!

Instantly she focused on the man’s voice, and for a moment, even the old smith felt rallied to answer, which actually impressed him. The merc had presence.

Meraad sat up, groaning as she rubbed her head and neck. “I-I’m here, Captain.”

The Warden nodded and returned outside, and Bull breathed a sigh of relief. “Good work on that barrier, Kadan. Can you stand?”

Anaan shook his head to clear his ears. Kadan?

“Yeah, shield took the brunt of it. Damn that hurt.”

She pressed close against the man as he aided her to stand. Anaan noted the way he steadied her with one hand cupping her face, the other on her lower back, and she welcomed it. This man was definitely more than a bodyguard, and in that instant, despite all other threats, The Iron Bull earned her father's undivided attention.

Warrior with a greataxe, possibly Taam-Kasari like Taar was. Looks to be around Meraad’s age, but sounds like a seasoned commander, and keeps his head in a crisis. Missing finger and braced leg on his blind side, though not wearing heavier armor to compensate. An enemy with any sense of tactics would feint and go for a low stab, but big doesn’t always mean slow. He’s obviously doing something right to have survived this long as a guard with that liability. So he’s not just a grunt...this one’s smart.

But there was no mistaking the affection in the merc's eye when he looked at her, nor hers in return, and when the Warden he’d called Blackwall summoned him outside, Bull kissed her head before stepping out.

Well, whatever else he is, he’s gentle with my girl, and she trusts him. That’s a good start.

Meraad drew a steadying breath and strode to Anaan's side, scanning him for signs of obvious wounds as she offered a hand up. “Are you injured, Papa?”

“No, just got the wind knocked out of my sails. Well done, Imekari. Turner! You alive, boy?"

“Yeah,” the scout coughed, stepping forward into the light. “Hey, Lady Meraad.”

“Happy to see you, Eton,” she smiled tiredly. “Captain Calder, is anyone hurt?”

The Captain stepped away from the Revered Mother to join them. “Nothing serious, my Lady, thanks to your intervention. But that door is a lost cause now.”

BOSS! We’ve got company!” 

Meraad’s expression hardened. “On my way! Revered Mother, please keep the villagers well back from the door. Captain Calder, Master Adaar, Scout Turner, with me.”

Anaan hadn't expected to hear Meraad address him so formally, but quickly adapted as they all headed for the entrance. This wasn’t his little girl now, this was The Inquisitor, and by his own request he was just another Agent. Order needed to be maintained.

Never seen her take command before, but she carries it well. She got that from you, Asha. I never had a taste for it. If not for her magic, she'd have been a good Tama too. In a way, she already is.

“Bull?” Meraad asked as they stepped out onto the porch. “What’s the situ...shit.”

Standing in a line along the burning remains of what had been the Freeholder’s courtyard barricade, ten armored darkspawn waited, slavering like rabid hounds. Though not overly tall, they looked stocky and strong, and each carried gore-covered weapons. 

Behind them stood two larger darkspawn, one heavily-armored warrior with a two-handed sword; the other clearly some kind of mage, its torso bare despite the cold, with thin leather straps crossing the planes of its bald, mottled head. Thin lips peeled back over long, jagged teeth as it leered, and its hands ended in terrifyingly long claws.

“The runty ones are called genlocks,” Anaan said quietly. “Vicious bastards, hard to kill even with magic. The taller ones are hurlocks. Didn’t know they had mages though.”

Meraad glanced at him in surprise. “I’m not going to ask right now how you know that. Any idea why they aren’t attacking?”

“Waiting for a signal, looks like," Blackwall said. "Probably taking orders from one of those hurlocks. Again, not the kind of control I’d expect from the beasts.”

The Inquisitor nodded in acknowledgement and whispered, “Master Adaar, Scout Turner, hold the chantry. If any get past us, you’re the Freeholder’s last line of defense.”

Anaan’s gut knotted over the idea of watching her go into a fight without him, especially against this enemy. But by the way her men positioned themselves around her they had established team tactics and were already picking targets. Swallowing his pride and parental fears he grimly replied, “understood, Inquisitor.”

Without looking back, Meraad reached behind her to take his hand, giving it a thankful squeeze, and Anaan felt how badly she was shaking. He squeezed back encouragingly.

“Boss, can you do that rift thing over the runts?”

“I don’t dare. With so much death here recently, there’s too many angry spirits, just like Haven. If I open a rift now, we’ll get demons too.”

HERALD .” A rasping voice called from the middle of the square.

The hurlock mage stepped forward from its position near the corrupted well, grinning smugly at his enemies collective shock.

“We are Emissary. Waiting for you, we have been.”

“...It’s talking to me…” Meraad choked. “Why is it talking to me?”

“Master knew you did not die, Qunari. The others are nothing to us. Surrender, and they shall live.”

“It lies!”   

Anaan jolted as a boy in a floppy hat spoke up beside him, his childlike voice trembling with rage. “The song of the Old God was lost to him. The Elder One promised he’d hear it again if the Horned Herald dies. Lust for blood and pain and power, gnawing, clawing, hungry. All will die screaming, their blood is water for the well.”

Anaan had no idea what any of that meant, but it apparently meant a great deal to Meraad. Her lips barely moved as she muttered, “The WELL. Bull...I have an idea.”

“I’m REALLY gonna hate this, aren’t I?”

“Yes. On my signal, take out the hurlock with the sword. Blackwall and Cole, corral the genlocks away from the chantry if you can. Calder, get as close as possible to spell purge the Emissary, then help with the genlocks. Everyone be careful to avoid their blood.”

“And what about you?” Anaan asked with deceptive calm, dreading her answer.

Meraad raised her chin and growled, “I’m going to give my enemy what it wants.”

Anaan watched in horror as his daughter stepped off the wooden porch, planted her staff by its blade in the frozen earth, and walked alone and unarmed toward the line of darkspawn, her hands raised in a gesture of surrender.

No no NO...respect for command is one thing, but I can’t condone this! Did she not just hear that kid say they’ll kill everyone anyway?!

Anaan moved up to stand beside Bull as the genlocks parted to allow her passage. “So we’re expected to just hold here let her do this?”

“You have your orders, Agent.” Bull said flatly, never taking his eye off Meraad. "Don't move."

“Who in the Void are you to give me orders? I don’t know you.”

“All you need to know of me right now, Anaan Adaar, is I’m the man that loves your daughter. The man that’s fought and bled by her side, who trusts her enough to know she won’t go into a fight without a plan. We hold.”

Anaan’s scarred hands clenched on the handles of his long knives, desperate to drag his child back to safety, to protect her as he hadn’t done when she was little. Yet something in the merc’s quiet conviction made him stay.

“Fine. But know this, boy, if she dies on your watch tonight, you’ll die right behind her, by my hand.”

Bull didn’t flinch.

“If she dies on my watch, Sir, you won’t have to. I’ll already be dead.”

 

 




Please let this work please let this work this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done keep moving don’t look away focus on the mage don’t want to look at the mage focus on the mage.

It took every ounce of will Meraad had to step off that porch toward the grinning Emissary, and the closer she got to the well, the more she realized the creature had done far worse than simply ward it to keep away the villagers.

With no native connection to the Fade, the beast siphoned the essence of blood and pain into the shrine to feed its spells in the same way she channeled energy through her staff, and by the amount of power emanating from the well, it had been hoarding for a while. But blood magic of any kind consumed quickly, leaving the mage with a constant craving for more. Combine that with a darkspawn’s already insatiable bloodlust, and it only confirmed Cole’s warning the beast had no intention of letting any of them live.

It also made this Emissary one of the greatest arcane threats she’d ever faced outside of Corypheus himself.

Between the overpowering reek of diseased flesh, and the foul magic emanating from that well, every instinct screamed at the Healer to destroy this gross violation of the natural order. But there was also something so horribly familiar about it that part of her wanted nothing more than to flee, and only the greater fear of losing the two men she loved most kept her feet moving forward into the darkspawn gauntlet.

Her head pounded from the strain of resisting the repelling wards until she closed the distance to melee range of the Emissary, then gave the signal: her upraised hands curled into fists, with her index and little fingers pointed defiantly high.

Horns up, my Love. Hit ‘em fast, and hit ‘em hard.

Chaos broke behind her like a crashing tide as the battle instantly engaged. She exalted in the sound of Bull’s war cry as he challenged the hurlock warrior, while Blackwall drew a line in the frozen earth and dared the genlocks to meet him. 

But Meraad underestimated the speed of her foe's response, and before she could summon her spirit blade, the Emissary hissed in rage and pulled power from its shrine. She barely managed to shield as a prison of dark magic bound her, robbing her of the ability to cry out or utter another spell as it slowly crushed her body under the pressure.

“Fool Herald, you disappoint," the beast laughed. "We feel the power in you, thought you would challenge us. Now we claim your marked hand, and with your blood to feed us we shall kill your men and take your females to breed. A strong broodmother you would be, Qunari, but to hear the song, the Master demands your life.”

Its clawed hand closed around her throat, savoring her fear, and the cruel familiarity of the act froze her blood as a torrent of long-buried memories flooded her mind:

Our cottage by the sea in a winter storm. Smell of Tama’s stew on the hearth makes me feel sick as I lay in bed, head pounding, burning with fever.

Tilly screams in the stable! Tama fetches her cloak, says stay in bed, stay quiet, the door locks behind as she goes to see.

But its too quiet, she’s away too long…

Tama screams! Something crashes into the side of the house, into the wood!

PAPA! 

No, Papa isn’t home, forget hurt, forget sick, break the rules, have to help!

Take a cloak and lantern, it's so cold...

Tilly stopped screaming but Tama didn’t. Sounds of growling and snarling and...laughing...Smell of bad meat.

Round the corner of the house, trip over split wood in the dark, falling into mud.

Raise the lantern, my hands are red! Wet and red with blood! Have to see don’t want to see. Wood on the ground not wood...Tama’s leg! Bent all wrong, and three monsters in the shadow of the barn, one big, two smaller. Wicked faces, scary faces, bloody armor and blades and teeth. Where are you Papa?! Safe, strong, scent of the sea. They hurt her Papa!

Tama screams RUN but big monster grabs my throat, lifts me, chokes me can't breathe please don't hurt me! Monster laughing STOP LAUGHING STOP HURTING...storm burning in my head...so cold hate, burn them, hurt them, help Tama! Too bright too bright, hot burning meat, monster screaming now.

Flying, falling, hitting hard…wake up, mud in my mouth, monsters all burned, bodies still twitching.

Where is Tama?

Find the lantern...dark blood steaming on snow, red trail in the mud, follow it into the barn.

Tilly not Tilly broken Tilly! Blood on the walls blood on the floor too much blood...Tama’s trail through the blood...

Raise the light, I found you Tama!

Blood everywhere. Take her hand, hold to my cheek. “It’s alright Tama, the monsters are gone! How do I help you? What do I do?”

Tama’s eyes wide, so frightened, so ANGRY.

She pushes me away, her last words a vicious hiss: 
“Imessar-bas...KATARA, SAAREBAS!”

Scared, confused, hurt, didn’t I help Tama?  

The light falls...

Tama’s leg burned like the monsters. Burned by my magic. 

I’m a monster too.

Tama’s hate echoes in my head, her curse for the demon-possessed child that failed her:

Die, dangerous thing.

Run, run away too much blood too much hate can’t look at her now. Want to go home, don’t see the bodies, don’t smell, don’t taste. Open the door too weak too cold head hurts falling...

Strong hand grabs my shoulder NO DON'T TOUCH DON'T TOUCH I’m dangerous! I’m bad! 

Tamas choose our place, and Tama named me Saarebas!

...please don’t hurt me...

“MERAAD!”

Papa?! Papa’s home? He sounds so angry...shaking his hand in pain, smell of lightning NO I HURT HIM TOO! I’m sorry I’m bad Papa I don’t mean to hurt, I wanted to help, I want to be GOOD!

“OPEN YOUR EYES!” Papa shouts. “BULL CLEARED YOU A PATH, TEMPLAR! USE IT!”

Templar?

“HOLD ON, KADAN!”

Another voice, a strong voice, anchor in the tide, calling across the Void. Scents of spice and leather and musk. My Iron Bull.

I hear you, Kadan.

But will you still want me when you learn the truth?

Accident or no, dead is dead. The tide rises, the tide falls, but the sea is changeless, and I can't deny what I am anymore.

Tama named me.

Tama cursed me.

Meraad gasped in a great rush as Calder’s spell purge banished the Emissary’s prison and sent the darkspawn reeling. Her senses returned, and with them her fury, and a renewed clarity of purpose.  She waved away the templar's assistance as she glared down at her enemy, a slow, feral smile spreading across her tear-streaked face.

“Since you beasts think as one, know this: I'm not a child, and I'm not your prize. I AM A SAAREBAS.”

Knight-Enchanter Adaar’s body transformed into a golden wraith as she cloaked herself in the power of the Fade and stepped through the shocked Emissary. She released the spell to become solid while still within its emaciated body, and reveled in its dying screams as its broken corpse blasted across the empty square.

Makers breath…” Calder swore, but Meraad coldly turned to survey the field.

Six of the genlocks were dead. The surviving four rallied to their commander’s side, and the combined force was engaged in battle near the chantry doors with Bull, Blackwall, Calder and her father. Despite losing the support of their Emissary, the darkspawn warriors seemed to have lost little of their vitality, but the same could not be said for her men.

Why didn’t they fall back to the chantry?!

They were were protecting a body.

Two of them.

Eton Turner and Agnes Cadeaux sprawled together in a spreading pool of blood near the chantry steps. Agnes’s bow was as broken as her leg, and it looked like Turner had covered her with his own body to take a blow meant for her. From this vantage, Meraad couldn’t tell if they were alive or dead, but the sight of them was enough to snap her tenuous control.

“ENOUGH!” she bellowed, sending a bolt of lightning at the hurlock’s head. The beast twitched and fell back as its minions stepped forward to defend it, allowing Meraad to surround her team in a protective barrier, then unleash a chain of lightning into the clustered enemy force. Two of the genlocks went down, with the remaining two stunned long enough for Blackwall, Cole and her father to butcher them.

Only the alpha remained.

The hurlock spun to charge her, and Bull struck the beast to the back with his greataxe, roaring in triumph at the perfect strike. But rather than fall, the hurlock roared in defiance as the gash sealed shut before their eyes.  Meraad attacked again with another shaped bolt, and again the hurlock shook off the damage.

One of the genlock corpses at their feet shifted, its armor collapsing in on what was now a desiccated husk, and Meraad realized the darkspawn were all connected by more than just hive mind. As Bull and Blackwall regained its attention, she risked a moment to read the patterns of the local Fade to trace the darkspawn’s power to its source.

Thin threads of blood essence pulled from the fallen bodies into the well, which redirected their combined power into the hurlock alpha in a steady stream. As another genlock corpse withered, the hurlock healed, its blows striking harder. Worse, Meraad saw hungry tendrils reaching from the well toward the fallen bodies of Eton and Agnes, meaning it could potentially feed on any blood within range in the village, and the alpha would only grow stronger.

Calder’s purge couldn’t stop this.

But she could.

She retrieved her staff and raced back to the well, ignoring the pain and sickness the wards caused as they tried again to repel her.

“BRING IT TO ME!” She shouted, sending another shaped bolt of lightning at the hurlock’s head. "HEY! You want the Herald? Come and get me!”

Though not as clever as its Emissary, the hurlock was intelligent enough to remember its mission and charged for her, ignoring the blows of the men on its heels. The moment it got within range, Meraad planted her staff and dispelled the well's wards, breaking its tie to the hurlock. Then she siphoned the backlash of released energy and transmuted it, purified it, channeled it into a renewed barrier for her own men. The hurlock staggered and fell, visibly shrinking as the power drained.

It’s weakened! ” She screamed. “KILL IT NOW!”

Bull happily buried his axe into the beast's spine, as her father's long knives impaled its heart, and the hurlock’s dying howls were music to their ears. Then she summoned her spirit blade and attacked the shrine, slicing and shattering the foul debris into the well, before she set fire to the remains. The well would never be pure again, but at least the corruption was contained. 

She knelt to examine Eton and Agnes, and a wave of crushing guilt washed over her as the vision of her mother's corpse, broken and burned in a pool of her own blood, superimposed over Agnes's body. But this time, Meraad refused to run. The Healer cast her senses into their bodies, scanning for even a glimmer of life...and found it. 

I’m so sorry I hurt you, Tama. I promise I will be better.

Meraad felt the spirits of the fallen pressing against the local Veil, not in anger, but in joy, grateful to be freed from their tormentors. She focused their gifted energy into her surrounding team, enveloping them all in a shimmering ring of Resurgent light, cleansing, purifying, mending and restoring, and her heart sang to feel their wounds washed away by the healing tide.

From the chantry door she distantly heard a woman’s voice intone,

“Blessed are they who stand before
The corrupt and the wicked and do not falter.
Blessed are the peacekeepers, the champions of the just.

Let Him take notice and shine upon thee, for thou hast done His work on this day
And the stars stood still, the winds did quiet, and all animals of earth and air held their breath
And all was silent in prayer and thanks.”

When the last of the spell's light drained away, the team gently helped Agnes and Turner to stand, and Meraad finally faced her father.

“*I’m sorry I’m a saarebas, Papa,*” she whispered in Qunlat. “*I’m sorry I hurt Tama. But see? I can be good too.*”

Then the darkness claimed her in its welcome embrace.

Chapter Text



Imekari, what...?" Anaan began, then caught her as she collapsed. He scooped her into his arms, and confirmed his earlier suspicions about how much weight she'd lost.

I don't care how much these people need done, THAT is going to change. Damn it, sweetling, you know better.

“Please," Bull quietly asked. "May I take her?”

The elder Adaar was reluctant to give his daughter up to anyone at that moment, but there was true yearning in that respectful request. With a silent nod, he passed Meraad into Bull’s arms, and it warmed his heart to see the way the merc cradled her, kissing her head and whispering assurances to her that he was with her, that she was safe, even if he wasn't sure she could hear him.

Two things became clear to Anaan in that moment: first, that this man loved Meraad as much as he’d claimed; second, this was not the first time he’d held her like this, comforting and protecting when she was vulnerable.

Young man, how many times have you had to piece her back together? Sod it all, I was afraid something like this would happen. She’s always pushed too hard, trying to prove herself. At least he seems aware of it too.

Revered Mother Sabine touched Anaan’s shoulder. “Forgive my intrusion, but the Herald needs rest, and it’s far too late for anyone to travel tonight. I would like to offer her the use of my chambers. I'll rest with my flock.”

Anaan scanned the faces of the devout survivors, staring at his daughter in awe and fear. 

They’ll be talking about what they witnessed here today for decades to come, as well they should. But the last thing she needs right now is a crush of folk asking for blessings.

“That’s kind of you, Mother Sabine,” he replied. “Given the circumstances, a little privacy is a good idea.”

“I agree,” Bull said. “Thank you, Mother. We brought extra supplies with us, still out on the horses. It’s not much, but should tide you folks over until reinforcements arrive in the next day or so."

"I can help bring it in," Turner offered, but Bull shook his head. 

"Boss would have all our hides if you did. You and Agnes just got back on your feet, you've done enough for tonight. Go get cleaned up and get to bed, Cole can show the villagers where it is.”

Captain Calder added, “Warden Blackwall and I can see about repairing this door, or at least rigging up a defensible block from the weather. We’ll post watches too, just in case.”

“Good. I doubt the Inquisitor’s going to wake anytime soon, so even if we think the darkspawn are gone, extra security wouldn’t hurt. I know she’d thank you if she could.”

“There’s no need,” the templar smiled kindly. “Just take care of your good Lady. We'll see you in the morning.”

Anaan and Bull followed the Revered Mother toward her chambers. 'Your good Lady.’ So their relationship's out in the open, at least among those they work with. Well, that will save some time.

The villagers knelt and bowed their heads in respect as Meraad was carried past, and Anaan was thankful she wasn’t awake to see it. He didn’t begrudge them their devotion, but he also knew how awkward she felt about being seen as holy when she wasn’t a follower of their faith. It was Bull's behavior that interested him more.

He's shielding Meraad like she’s made of glass. I could credit that to romantic over-protectiveness, but that wasn’t how he was behaving during the fight. There’s something wrong he’s trying to keep hidden from the others.

Mother Sabine escorted them through a narrow stone corridor, then opened a heavy wooden door.

“I'm afraid it may be snug for Tal-Vashoth, though should still provide some peace for the night. There’s extra bedding in the chest there. We haven’t sufficient water to draw a proper bath, but there is enough in the rain barrels for a pitcher to wash with, and I’ll bring you dinner when it’s ready. Maker bless you all for your help, and for sharing your provisions with our flock in this time of need.”

Bull smirked when the Mother closed the door behind them. “ 'Tal-Vashoth’, not ‘Qunari’ or ‘Oxmen’. Been educating the bas in your spare time, Sir?”

He lay Meraad carefully on the bed and began stripping off her armor with practiced ease. Anaan chuckled when Bull suddenly paused, remembering they not only had an audience, but that the audience was his lady's father.

“First off, you may as well call me ‘Anaan’, son, and yes I have. Sabine's a good woman, not just a bas, and she’s proven to be remarkably open-minded for one of their clergy. Doubly so for being a transplanted Kirkwaller. She meant it as a courtesy, so be sure to return the kindness when you talk to her.” He picked up Meraad’s coat to hang over a nearby chair, then brought Bull the pitcher of water, a basin, and a cloth. 

“Secondly, I helped bring that young woman you’re tending into this sorry world, and I already know you two are lovers, so when it comes to her health and comfort, modesty can hang. Your Kadan needs care more than you need to worry about her old man being a prude, and you and I have some things to discuss.”

“You think this is really the best time for an interrogation, Anaan? It’s been a long day.”

“Yes, it has. I was there. And I've been helping defend this infested backwater for nearly a week, so don’t talk to me about being tired. We’re here, we may as well get this out of the way.” He grinned and winked. “Answer me straight, and it may even be painless.”

Bull laughed and shook his head, accepting the inevitable as he returned to his task. He stripped Meraad down to her smallclothes with gentle efficiency, poured water in the basin and bathed her. Anaan disguised his observation by cleaning the ash cake out of his pipe, and sweetening its bowl with a cloth soaked in rum from his hip flask.

He’s definitely done this for her before. Hissera gets that same look when she’s healing, keeping her expression neutral so she doesn’t worry the patient. Yet another warning.

Bull set the wash bowl aside and tucked Meraad in before stripping off his own armor and scrubbing down. Credit where it was due, he moved with surprising grace for a man of his size and impairments as he changed into fresh breeches and stretched out beside her.

Anaan was relieved to hear Meraad sigh and mumble sleepily in response to Bull’s presence as he pulled up the covers, confirming she was just exhausted. He’d seen Hissera drain herself to unconsciousness from healing before, though nowhere near as dramatically. 

He packed the pipe with his favorite tobacco, and Bull asked, “You planning to light that in here?”

“Matter of fact, I am. I’m sure you know by now Meraad has a keen sense of smell, her mother did too. The scent of this pipe always calmed her when she was little, let her know her Papa was home. I thought it might help settle her spirits a bit tonight.”

“That’s...really good to know. Is that blend hard to come by?”

Anaan arched a silver brow. “Not particularly. Do you smoke?”

“No," Bull replied, wrapping an arm around her and rubbing the base of her curved horn. "But I wouldn’t mind having some on hand to help her relax when she gets homesick. Another reminder of who and what she’s fighting for.”

Though part of him was touched by the sentiment, Anaan puffed on his pipe for a few moments, silently adding up everything he’d learned so far about this young merc.

Then he carefully considered his options for how best to kill Bull, accounting for the fact his daughter was trapped in the Agent’s powerful arms.

Vashedan, from this distance he could easily snap her neck before I put a blade through his good eye.

Bull froze and stared at Anaan. Keeping his voice calm and soft to avoid waking Meraad, he slowly raised his open, empty hands away from her body in a gesture of peace.

“Yes, and she knows. I told her I was Ben-Hassrath the day we met, and her spymaster and my superiors all knew I was passing reports both ways. The Qun didn’t like it, but they tolerated my methods because Corypheus has always been the bigger threat.”

“Thank you for not wasting my time denying it,” Anaan said, tamping out his pipe. ”So, you seduced my daughter and got her to cover for you with her family from the start, convincing us you were just a high-priced merc to keep us from getting involved. Well played. Now I want to know what you've told the Qun about us and our village. Assuming we leave this place alive, and you’d better believe that I have every intention of doing so, am I going to find my home crawling with assassins?”

“No. I didn’t mention you, your brother, or your village. It wasn’t pertinent to the hunt for Corypheus, and I just couldn’t do that to Meraad. I also didn’t ask her to lie to you, though to be fair, I understand why she did, since she had no way of knowing who else was reading her letters. And contrary to my reputation, I did try to keep things professional at first. If the Ben-Hassrath suspected I’d fallen in love with her, they’d have replaced me with another agent that wouldn’t protect her like I would.”

Anaan sighed, quietly stood and drew his long knives. 

“Out of respect for my daughter, I’ll let you rise and arm yourself before I kill you. I’m sorry it had to come to this, hissrad. I was genuinely starting to like you.”

Bull kissed Meraad softly and eased himself from her side, shushing her sleepy protests as he rose to face her father. But to Anaan’s surprise, he refused to touch his weapons or armor, and kept his hands visibly at his sides.

“I have been many things, Anaan Adaar, but hissrad is no longer one of them, especially not where Meraad is concerned. The Qun disavowed me nearly three months ago. I am Tal-Vashoth. I only ask for a chance to explain myself. If you prefer, I’ll take that seat over there at the desk and you can sit here with Meraad, so she feels at least one of us close by. Neither she, nor your family, were ever under any threat from me.”

He could have killed her a dozen different ways before I reached her. He not only just gave up his position, he’s actually inviting me to guard her, just so she doesn’t feel alone? 

 “Alright, I accept your terms." He said, locking the door before stepping toward the bed, blades still in hand. "Move the chair to the far wall, and speak your piece.”

Over the next hour, the young captain reported everything about his relationship with Meraad, from the moment she met him and the Chargers on the Storm Coast, to how he became Tal-Vashoth in more than cover. To Bull’s credit, he stuck to the pertinent facts and didn’t waste time attempting to pander to sympathies, which Anaan appreciated.

When Bull told him about the proposed alliance with the Qun that went sour, Anaan was angry Meraad had even considered such an arrangement, until Bull told him she'd never trusted them, but at least wanted to hear what the ambassador had to say. It was important to her to decide with a clear conscience that she wasn’t just reacting from personal bias.

Anaan admitted his pride in her judgement when Bull relayed her impressions of the Qunari ambassador, her realizations of what kind of betrayal they potentially faced when Corypheus was beaten, and her contempt at discovering it was all a test of loyalty to get Bull to choose the Qun over his men.

When Bull described the meeting with the ambassador the moment they returned to Skyhold, Anaan laughed outright at how she'd sent the elf packing. And while he empathized with Bull over being disavowed, he agreed with Meraad that Bull had made the right choice in saving his men.

It was clear the man was still struggling with his new status. The wound was healing, but sore, and despite being so many decades removed, Anaan never forgot his first few days of true freedom, wondering if he too would go savage. But Bull appeared to be working through it well, which Anaan credited partly to his daughter's influence.

When Bull recounted the assassination attempt, Anaan said, “Smart, dosing yourself with the antidote. I’m surprised the Qun didn’t send a man against Meraad too.”

“They did. But she doesn’t know it, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

He told Anaan about the night he stood watch, waiting for the attack to come, and what became of the traitorous barmaid.

“Thank you for that." Anaan replied. "As if I didn’t have enough reason to hate the Qun, I’ve seen what a high dose of Saar-qamek can do to a mage, and it isn't quiet. You not only saved her from a brutal death, but kept her from potentially taking half the keep with her. I’m also glad you got the humans to step up their guard. Couple of agents tried to take me out on my first civilian navigation run after we reached Wycome, too. I killed them both and dumped them overboard off the coast of Llomerryn during a squall. The captain wrote it off as an accident.”

Bull studied Anaan with new respect. 

“You were Ben-Hassrath.”

“Yes I was, before Meraad was born. And, no, I didn't tell her. Never saw any reason to. But I made damn sure she knew about them, and what to look for should she ever meet one, so it's good you trusted your gut about admitting it to her when you first met. I even tried to teach her some of the skills early on, but bless her heart she never had the gift for it at the time. That’s changed since I saw her last, though. Is that your doing?”

Bull chuckled. “We’re working on it. Not only because I got tired of seeing her get fleeced at cards, but after so many years of dealing with Orlesian nobles myself, I knew if she couldn’t learn to hide her expressions better, they’d eat her alive. She already has enough stacked against her from that front.”

“Good, keep it up. As for being disavowed, well, you and I actually have something in common."

"What's that?"

"Being forced to choose between your duty, and your family. Like you, I’d developed a taste of freedom living outside the Qun, and was going through the motions with my superiors while convincing myself I was still loyal. But that all changed after I was wounded in battle and ended up in the care of the Tamassrans."

"Meraad's mother?"

"Very astute. Asha was a damned good healer, and devout as they come. But the more we got to know each other during my recovery, and the more I saw her beating her head against the wall trying save those of us broken in that unrelenting cesspit, the less value I saw in supporting the cause that sent us all there. I see you know exactly what I mean."

"Yeah." Bull sighed. "Yeah, I do."

"The moment Asha told me she was pregnant was our moment of truth. No matter how strong our old beliefs, she was my Kadan, Bull, and there was no doubt in either of our minds that the baby was mine. You know what the Qun would have done to us if we'd been caught. The fear of losing my family far outweighed the fear of becoming Tal-Vashoth, just as saving the Chargers, your family, meant more to you. So, I called in some favors with friends in the Armada, and we fled."

He stroked Meraad’s hair, and in her sleep she looked like his little girl again. "I wanted our child to have the freedom to chart her own course, away from warfare. Though it seems there’s no escaping that anywhere anymore.”

Right from the start ,Turner said Bull had never been anything but respectful to Meraad, and he's lived up to his reputation. I can see why he appeals to her and why his men are so loyal.  Definitely better than the previous strays she brought home.

Shit, four tours in Seheron...that is ridiculous. He was smart enough to recognize when he needed help too, which is good. Pity his only option at the time was the Reeducators, as the Qun never did see us as anything other than cogs, but even after getting dumped in Orlais, he stayed loyal. Gotta respect that kind of dedication.

Yet, when push came to shove, he put his men above himself, even gave up an eye to save one. He doesn’t ask for pity, and has strong ethics, just as Meraad does. This is a good man that just needs the right cause to believe in. That he found it in the Inquisition says a lot about this organization, and I’m glad he feels she’s worth fighting for too.


In turn, he’s teaching her. He knows how to lead, and how to navigate the nobles and their stupid Game as a Tal-Vashoth, which has unique circumstances her other councilors can’t understand. Most importantly, he’s helping her keep her head above water, so she can be strong for others. They’re actually good for each other, like Taar and Hissera. I’d almost be jealous if I wasn’t so damned happy for her. If they both survive this war, and I pray to all that’s holy they do, I hope they settle down together.

Anaan sheathed his blades and tried hard not to think about how much grief his snap judgement of this surprising young man almost caused.  He rose from the bed and offered his hand.

“I owe you an apology, The Iron Bull. I like to think I’m a pretty accurate judge of character, but I’m man enough to admit I misjudged you.”

With a sigh of relief Bull stood and gratefully accepted.

“Honestly, Anaan, in your position I might have done the same. But you were willing to hear me out, and to give me the chance to die with dignity and a weapon in my hand, which is more than most would have. I’ll never forget that. Thank you, Sir.”

A soft tap at the door heralded the arrival of Revered Mother Sabine with a small basket of food. “There’s also a pot of hot water for Lady Meraad. That sweet boy with the large hat went outside the village to find us fresh water for the night. He suggested the Lady would need some kind of tea she carries with her? Speaking of which, he left your packs here by the door.”

Anaan thanked her for her efforts and bid her goodnight, then returned to his seat at Meraad's side while Bull retrieved the tea from her pack. Meraad whimpered in her sleep, and Anaan gently pinched and rubbed the tips of her pointed ears between his strong fingers. Almost instantly her face relaxed into a slight smile.

“Huh,” Bull said, setting the pot of steeping tea and her mug on the bedside table.

Anaan grinned. “Used to do this when she got fussy as a baby or got headaches. She had a tendency to rub her ears when she got really tired, and found this soothing. Nice to see it still works.”

But her father’s good humor vanished when he again noted the dark circles under her eyes. “She told us she was exhausted trying to keep up with demands, but she looks downright haggard, Bull, and you’ve been hovering over her like she’s about to break. Don’t look surprised, you don’t live around healers for thirty years and not learn a few things. How long has she been having trouble sleeping, and missing meals?”

“Pretty sure it started long before I signed on,” Bull replied honestly. “She’s hates telling anyone no when so many need help, and some of the nobles are assholes about exploiting it. I’ve been working with her on how to delegate more.” He paused, clearly debating with himself over something, and that moment of hesitation filled Anaan with alarm. “But it’s gotten worse over the last couple of weeks.”

“What happened? And go on back to her, son. No sense in you standing here in the cold now.”

“The short answer? You did,” Bull said softly, easing her to her left side as he stretched out behind her. “Before we learned you were down here, and I’ll tell you now she was not happy to find that out the way she did, or that you defied her request to stay away, she’d been having nightmares about you. Meraad was convinced it was a vision all along, but because of...mitigating circumstances, we were both hesitant to believe them.”

“Never known her to have visions before, but what ‘mitigating circumstances’?”

Bull watched her sleeping, his features etched with worry. “Two weeks ago, Meraad and I and two of our team killed a high ataashi...and she accidentally swallowed some of its blood.”

“If that’s a joke, Bull, it’s not funny.”

“I’m not laughing. None of us realized it until well after the fact. That shit hit her hard, threw her into a fit, and she saw you surrounded by monsters she couldn’t identify, in a place she didn’t recognize, with dark blood everywhere. Since the Council hadn't told us you were coming, we thought you were still up in the Marches, so she was even more upset believing you were too far away for her to help. The nightmares got worse the closer we got to the Outpost, but she didn’t trust them because of the dragon blood. Then Nightingale surprised us with the news that you and Turner came here, followed by that Freeholder kid’s horse dying to the taint in the stable as we were leaving, and Meraad was the one to burn it. When she realized the threat you faced was darkspawn, she lost it. I’ve never seen her so terrified or so driven to pursuit.”

Vashedan, I worried that horse would get sick. It's why I asked the groom to keep it away from the others just in case. Glad they listened. I hope little Riley's alright, her family's here in the chantry.”

Bull glared at Anaan. “You don’t seem very surprised by your daughter’s reaction to the darkspawn. So let me see if my theory is right. She had a run in with them as a child, something traumatic happened that messed up her memory of the event, and you either saved her from them directly or soon after. Then, you encouraged her to forget about it, or at least supported a false memory.”

Anaan leaned back in the chair, puffing his pipe as he studied Bull. “I can see why the Ben-Hassrath chose you. You’re correct on all counts. How much of that did Meraad tell you herself?”

“None of it directly or consciously. I pieced it together from her comments, and her reactions to the carnage we’ve encountered on the way here. To my knowledge, she doesn’t remember any of it, but the symptoms of asala-taar she’s suffered from it are unmistakable.”

...I do remember.” Meraad whispered, slow tears falling from her closed eyes. “I remember everything now.”

“What do you remember, Imekari?” Anaan asked gently. “The last thing I heard you say was that you were ‘sorry for hurting Tama’?”

Meraad slowly sat up, and Bull gave her the mug of tea. She sipped for a few moments, then stared into the mug’s depths, unable to meet her father’s eyes.

“I...I killed her, Papa. It was an accident, but she still died because of me.”

Behind her, Bull looked to Anaan for confirmation, but her father shook his head. “You didn’t kill her, Meraad.”

“You weren’t there, Papa. I know what I did. Tama named me.”

Look at me.” Anaan commanded, invoking every bit of his training to restrain his rage at the haunted look in his daughter’s eyes. “First, young lady, stop calling her Tama. Your mother may have forced that shit on you behind my back, but you’re not Qunari and will never be as long as I live. Second, she didn’t name you, I did.” He took a deep breath. “Now, tell me what you remember.”

Meraad’s hands trembled to the point Bull quietly took the mug and returned it to the side table lest she scald herself. “Easy, Kadan, your dad isn’t angry at you. Try to distance yourself, and focus on the facts as you recall them.”

She nodded, and in a flat voice recounted everything she'd remembered of that terrible night, until she reached the point where she found her mother in the blood-soaked hay. She told them how she took Asha’s hand, told her the monsters were gone, asked how she could help…Meraad stifled a sob, struggling to continue.

Anaan held her hand. “Go on, Imekari.”

“She pushed me away into the mud, and that was when I saw how badly burned her leg was from my spell. I’d tried to save her but couldn’t control it, and I only caused her more pain! I was a monster too! Her last words to me were, ‘Imessar-bas...katara, saarebas!’  She hated me, Papa! She named me, cursed me, and that can never be denied. I am a saarebas, and being a child at the time pardons nothing. Dead is dead.”

Anaan closed his eyes, and Meraad withdrew her hand, hugging herself tight. “I couldn’t look at her, couldn’t bear her judgement. I stumbled for the house, but I was too drained and I fell before I could make it inside. The next thing I knew, someone touched my shoulder and I lashed out thinking one of the beasts had somehow survived. That’s when I saw you, Papa, shaking with the lightning I’d burned you with too, and knew she was right. I was too dangerous to live, like all saarebas, and I'd only hurt everyone I loved, no matter how much I tried to be good. She’d often told me stories of what happened to saarebas who hurt people, and said only her medicine would make my headaches go away.”

Meraad suddenly froze and stared at him in horrified disbelief.

“Her med...oh gods...I know now what she'd been giving me for my headaches that made me so sick. It was magebane.”

Damn you, Asha. You knew what she was all along and never told me. All that shite about 'taking her back to proper healers'... you were going to take her from me, knowing full well what the Qun would do to her, not only to spite me for leaving, but because you couldn't face the idea of having given birth to a saarebas. At least Hissera was able to appreciate her even if you couldn't, so she grew up knowing a real mother's love. But I'll be damned before I let my child suffer any more for you. 

“I should have been there,” Anaan said, his voice heavy with grief and guilt. “If I’d gotten home sooner, if I'd listened to my gut, I might have stopped this. I am so sorry.”

Seeing her confusion, her father took her hands in his again. “Listen to me, Meraad, and you mark this well. You DID NOT kill your mother. She took a darkspawn blade to the gut, and judging from what I saw when I found her, you wouldn’t have seen it in the dark and all that blood. Your spell may have accidentally hurt her, but she was already bleeding out, Imekari, and if their wound hadn’t killed her, the taint would have. There was nothing you could have done to save her. As for what she said…”

He swallowed past the lump in his throat. “Your mother hated everything to do with magic after tending so many wounds caused by it in Seheron. But that doesn’t excuse what she did to you.”

Anaan cradled her face between his hands, and rested his head against hers. “Okay, you are a saarebas. No,sod that, you are a Vashoth mage. You were born free, and your will is your own. Hissera taught you magic isn’t evil, it’s how you use it, and you have proven you use it for good. Because you are good. You have nothing to apologize for, and you don’t have to carry this burden anymore. It should never have been yours in the first place. I love you, Songbird, and I wouldn’t change you for all the world.”

He could almost see the weight suddenly lift from Meraad’s shoulders as the truth of his words sank in. The wound Asha caused their child might never fully heal, but at least she'd no longer condemn herself for a crime she didn’t commit. Anaan would cherish her look of stunned gratitude for the rest of his days.

“No more sorrow tonight, sweetling,” he said, hugging her close. “You did your job well, we’re all alive, and your Kadan is with you, so I want you to finish that tea, eat, and rest now. Alright?”

“I promise I will. I love you so much, please don’t ever think I wanted you to stay away because I didn’t want to see you. Thank you, for everything.”

As Anaan rose from the bedside, Meraad wiped her eyes and exclaimed, “Wait! Before you go, there’s something important I have to tell you. Something happy!”

“You’re pregnant? Good!" He winked at Bull. "Taar’s already got a head start on grandkids, the smug bastard, and I’m not getting any younger.” 

“What? No! Wait...” She paused, and her eyes unfocused for a moment. “...no. Although you may as well know, The Iron Bull, that when all this is over I have every intention of changing that, if you’re willing.”

Bull grinned. “Shit, yeah!”

“Good man!" Anaan's rich belly laugh filled the room. "Anyway, what’s your big news? ”

“Bull told you we killed a high dragon, yes?”

“I seem to recall it was mentioned.”

“Did he also mention why?” She reached over to the chair and collected a carefully wrapped bundle from her belt pouch.

“You had a chance to fight one of the great ataashi, what other reason do you really...is that what I think it is?”

Meraad beamed as she took Bull’s hand, and the two of them held up the flawless dragon tooth, ready for crafting. Anaan blinked back tears.

“Just when I thought you couldn’t surprise me any more. I wasn’t aware you even knew about that ritual, and I’ve never heard of anyone actually doing it until now. I... wow .” His voice broke. “This may not mean anything to the others, but it does to me, and it proves to me just how much you both want this, and each other. If you’re asking for my blessing on your union, you have it.”

He collected his pipe and turned to Bull. “I need to get some air, sort out a few things, and I’ll bed down with the scouts tonight. I would say, ‘take good care of her’, young man, but I can see you already have that covered. For what it’s worth, I’m damned proud of you both.”

“Thank you, Anaan.” Bull smiled. “I’ve never really had a family outside of the Chargers, so a lot of this is still new for me. That means a lot.”

“You’ll get the hang of it. You got my blessing, so there’s a big hurdle out of the way. Now you just have to survive meeting Taar and Hissera. But, since you took down a high dragon for their niece's hand, I’d at least give you decent odds. See you both in the morning.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The moment Anaan left, Meraad carefully packed away the dragon’s tooth, then sat blankly staring at her marked hand.

“How you doing, Kadan? ” 

“I’m...honestly not sure. So much has happened, I’m still kind of overwh...wha...what are…?” She closed her eyes and sighed in bliss as Bull pulled her into his arms and massaged the tips of her ears.

Shhh. I want you to let it all go for tonight and focus on right now.”

“Mmkay,” she mumbled against his throat. “Where are we?  And why am I mostly naked?”

“We’re still in the Freehold, sweetheart. You passed out just after the fight a couple hours ago, and the Revered Mother offered the use of her chambers for the night. I took your gear off and got you cleaned up.”

“Oh, that’s nice. Thank you. W-Wait.” Meraad pulled away in shock. “You did that while my father was here? And he didn’t mind?”

“He actually encouraged it. We had a few things to talk about.”

She cringed and rubbed her tired eyes as she reached for her tea. “Vashedan, please tell me he didn’t give the ‘break my girl’s heart, I’ll break your legs’ speech. As if I didn’t have a hard enough time finding a man willing to spend time with a mage without Papa or Uncle Taar scaring them off.”

“If they weren’t willing to stand their ground for you, you were better off without them.”

“That is exactly what Papa always said too,” she chuckled. “You didn’t answer my question.”

“Hey, I’m still here, aren’t I? Anaan and I had an honest, man-to-man discussion, where he gave me the opportunity to properly introduce myself. He listened politely, we shook hands as friends, and you know the rest.”

“Uh huh. He threatened to kill you when he figured out you were Ben-Hassrath, didn’t he?”

“Absolutely, and I don’t blame him. In fact, now that I’ve had the chance to talk with him, I understand your respect for him. He is a good man, in many ways.” Bull tilted her chin up and kissed her. “Your father loves you, Kadan, and would do anything to protect you. Now, he’s sure I would too.”

“So, you also know he was an agent as well? He didn’t tell me, I figured it out shortly after getting to know you. You both have many of the same mannerisms.” She smiled. “I may have a lousy face for cards, but I do pay attention.”

“Yeah, it came up,” he laughed, passing her a linen cloth full of dried meat, hard cheese, and a slice of crusty bread. “Here, eat. How much did you hear before you woke up?”

“Not a lot. I felt you come back to bed, and heard the anger in your voice as you told him your theory about my visions. I am amazed you recognized all of that based solely on my reactions! It makes me want to study your methods even more now. You truly are a brilliant man.”

“I’d be glad to teach you. And now that we recognize what we’re dealing with, I also want you to understand asala-taar is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s more common than people are willing to admit, especially among veterans, and it doesn’t mean you’re weak. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I’m here for you.”

Meraad stroked his stubbled cheek. “Knowing you’re with me is what gave me the strength to face that Emissary. But...I have to tell you something. I froze out there. I did have a plan, but it went horribly wrong."

"What happened?"

"My plan was to negate the magical threat, while you all took out his reinforcements. Since I wasn't a Knight-Enchanter when I last fought Corypheus, there was no reason for the darkspawn to know about my spirit blade, so I wanted to get in melee range of the Emissary and impale him like Calder did Melville."

Bull looked genuinely impressed. "That...actually was a good idea."

"Well I thought so!" She fumed. "But the closer I got to him, the more I got distracted by how familiar it felt, on top of fighting the repulsion from his wards. And he was fast, Bull, far faster than I expected. I hesitated just long enough for the bastard to hit me with that crushing prison spell, and when he choked me, all those horrible memories came back at once. I was useless until Calder's purge freed me. The only thing that saved me was that I'm faster with barriers, which gave me a bit of breathing room. But by all rights I should be dead, and it would have been entirely my fault for putting myself in that position. I feel like an idiot."

"Don't. That wasn't anything you could have planned for. What matters is you're alive to learn from it, and it's good you recognize what triggered the reaction. We'll be mindful of that in future. Are you feeling any better?"

"You know, I actually am, all things considered. I'm exhausted, but...lighter. It’s also nice to have validation I really was having a vision, and not just going mad.” She lowered her eyes. “Sorry, Love, I know you don’t really like talking about magic and weird things like this.”

“Look at me. Having unexpected visions isn't as weird as that mind reading crap Cole does, and he’s proven that can be a valuable asset. Your visions warned us your dad was in danger, and gave us a chance to prepare, so who knows? With the right training you might learn to control it. Maybe Solas can help. I don’t know that I’ll ever be completely comfortable with it all, mostly because I just don’t understand it, but I accept that it’s a part of you.”

"Gods, I love you. Thank you again for your patience and understanding, Bull, especially this past fortnight. You’ve done so much for me, is there anything I can do for you?”

“Yeah, you can eat. Now that the immediate crisis has passed, we’re going to focus on getting you healthy again, and that includes sleeping and eating more regularly than you have been. It’s time to heal yourself, Healer.”

“That’s something we've both been short on lately, Serah. Although, for all that I appreciate the Revered Mother's courtesy, I’m not sure how well we’ll sleep tonight in this tiny bed.”

She dutifully finished her food and tea, then swirled the dregs in her cup, mulling everything over until she finally stated, “There’s something else I need to start doing again.”

“What’s that, Kadan?”

“Singing. I don't want to hide it anymore. In fact, when we get home, I’m going to ask Maryden if she’ll tutor me. If nothing else, the vocal training might help me project my voice better on the battlefield.”

“Do you mind telling me why you hid it in the first place? Do you remember?”

“Oh that I’d never forgotten, Love. It was because of mother. I was so afraid of her judgement for so long, even after her death, but I couldn’t explain why…” Her eyes flashed in defiance. “Well, I’m not afraid of her anymore.”

She set the mug on the table and drew the coverlet over her shoulders. 

“When I was five, mother took me to the docks see Papa off, and a minstrel was performing nearby. I don't know her name, but she was a beautiful Rivaini woman with an incredible voice, who sang a folk song Papa often sang to me at home. So, I started singing with her, not knowing it wasn't proper, and rather than be offended, she gestured to keep going and played a flute to accompany me. It was intoxicating. I felt such a rush of joy, not just at the crowd’s response, but by the huge smile on Papa’s face. He loves music, and has a great voice himself, though his true musical talent is whistling. Afterward, the minstrel told Papa that with a bit of training I might make a good bard someday, and when he saw how excited I was at the idea, he gave me a coin for her purse, to thank her for her kindness. That was my first time seeing a gold Royal.”

“Generous man," Bull said as he collected their napkins and dusted crumbs off the bed. "Did your mother sing too?” 

“Oh no, mother couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket with both hands. But I was too little to understand just how possessive she was of Papa, and suddenly he and I shared a bond over something she couldn't, which only made her even more resentful. When he returned to sea, she immediately forbade me from singing. Ever. She insisted giving coin to the minstrel had been a waste, and Papa a fool to believe her, because the bas would never accept me in one of their schools.” Meraad sneered as she imitated her mother’s voice. “*Accept your place, foolish child. It’s the way things are meant to be.* 

Bull huffed. “Spoken like a true Tamassran. So you were punished anytime she caught you doing it?”

“Severely. Aunt Hissera, bless her, suspected something was wrong, and she told Papa the next time he came home. He and mother argued, and he asked me then if I still wanted to learn, because he'd bought a songbook for me to practice. But mother was watching, and I knew I'd be punished the moment he left again, so I told him no. The disappointment in his eyes still haunts me."

“You didn’t try again after she died? It sounds like the rest of your family supported it, and your dad even calls you Songbird.”

“They do." Meraad replied, her eyes filling with tears. "Papa tried for years to get me to pursue it after we moved to Riesen-Tal, but I was so ashamed that I’d lied to him. It didn’t matter that I was a child, or that she’d forced the issue, I had denied what I'd dearly wanted out of fear, even after she was gone, and I felt unworthy because I hadn't been willing to fight for it. So, I’d sing for my family if they asked, but by then learning magic took precedence. And as an apostate, it wouldn't have been safe to draw more attention to myself anyway."

"There's something else you're not saying," he observed. "Needing to take time to learn control your powers, I get that. Not wanting to draw attention to yourself and your family? Okay, I get that too. But as stubborn and willful as you are when you're passionate about something, you're seriously going to try and tell me you never considered it after that? Not even after you left home?" 

"Bloody Ben-Hassrath. Fine, yes I did. Once. A few years ago, the Valo-Kas were staying at an inn on the outskirts of Jader, and I overheard a pair of musicians talking about their plans when they got back to their university in Val Royeaux. I worked up the courage to ask about their school, or possibly finding a tutor, and they laughed. Not knowing I speak Orlesian, one joked that ‘the Oxman whore was looking to improve her station’, and the other wondered if my singing sounded like a cow begging to be milked, and maybe for the right price I’d let him milk me."

Her face flushed in anger and embarrassment. "Breaking that bastard’s nose was so satisfying...though it nearly cost me my job. The whole thing just confirmed mother had been right.”

“I'm sorry, Kadan." Bull sighed. "Wish I could say I was surprised. Your captain make you heal the guy after?”

“Yes, and she was right to do so. I was unprofessional, and I jeopardized my company’s reputation for a matter of personal pride. I own that. So, I kept my mouth shut and cleaned up my mess, which was the only thing that kept them from calling the guard and potentially bringing the templars down on me. I even resisted the temptation to set his nose back crooked so he’d sound funny when he sang, because I’d sworn an oath to never harm a patient in my care. And I never asked about studying music again. After the Conclave, I was so afraid of offending anyone I didn't even want to be heard singing for myself, because I thought people might think I wasn't taking things seriously. Or worse, that I was mocking their misery.”

“Well, speaking as a captain, you’re right, that was unprofessional. I’m proud of you for recognizing what you did wrong, standing by your oath, and putting the good of your team first no matter how galling it had to have been. Speaking as your Kadan, however, I hope the little prick suffered a bit before you healed him. At least tell me you headbutted him.”

She grinned. “Oh, I definitely headbutted him.”

“That’s fucking hot. Did your dad teach you that? Seems like something he’d do.”

“Yeah, he wanted me to learn how to brawl in case I couldn't cast, particularly several ways to break a choke, like the one I used in the bar on that drunk merc. Uncle Taar taught me sword, which until I became a Knight-Enchanter I never thought I’d use, and Aunt Hissera taught me knives. She may look like a sweet old lady, but Healers know where to cut to make it count. Their training has saved my life more than once."

Meraad glanced at the door and lowered her voice. "Please don't say anything to him about it, but Papa sent me a copy of the songbook he’d intended to give me when I was little, ‘Folk Songs of the North’, and I lost it at Haven. There wasn’t time to save it before the attack.”

“Damn. If I’d known, I’d have asked my boys to look for it when they went back for survivors.”

“Oh, no, Love. That would have been a frivolous request when the Chargers were already spread thin, though I appreciate the thought. Maybe I can find a copy if it’s still in print, next time we’re in Val Royeaux.”

She pulled the folding frame out of her belt pouch, and snuggled against Bull’s shoulder. “I was able to save this, at least. They're portraits of my family. This is Uncle Taar and Aunt Hissera, and this...this was my mother, Asha.”

Bull studied the fine paintings, memorizing every detail before Meraad closed the frame and returned it to her bag. “I see where you get your looks from. Physically, your mother was a beautiful woman. But you've got a lot of your dad in you too, more than just your horns. I've gotta confess it's a little weird to me seeing this kind of side by side comparison, though. I don't know what the woman who bore me looked like, and I've never met anyone with horns like mine."

"Oh sod it all, I didn't even think about that when I showed you this, I'm so sorry."

"Why? It doesn't bother me, just got me curious. I may not have known parents like you did, but my Tama was a smart, strong, beautiful woman who was every bit a real mom to me as your Aunt Hissera is to you. That's good enough for me. Speaking of which, your aunt and uncle are a handsome couple too. Taar looks like a pretty big man.”

“Oh he is!" Meraad laughed, relaxing. "I think he’s actually a little taller than you, though not by much. And I should tell you now he doesn’t speak up very often around strangers, so don’t take it personally if he's quiet at first. Once he’s comfortable around you, you'll find he’s really funny, and an amazing cook!”

“I like him already,” Bull said. “And based on that utility knife, and those horn caps he made for you, he’s a fine smith as well. I might have to hit him up to do some commissions. What about your Aunt?”

“Hissera is one of the best healers and herbalists I’ve ever known, magical or mundane, and a real spitfire. Her motto is ‘do no harm, but take no shit’. And you're right, she is far more of a mother to me than the one I was born to. I love them all dearly.“ She yawned as the herbal tea began to take effect.

“Well, for what it’s worth, Kadan, I think a lot of good has come of all this, and I fully support your talking to Maryden about voice training. Right now, the world hears your voice as the Inquisitor, the Herald. But your singing voice is unique to Meraad Adaar. When you feel ready, I think a lot of people might like to get to know her better too.”

Bull pulled the thin blankets up over them both and kissed her softly as Meraad curled up against him, the scent of her father’s pipe smoke lingering in her hair.

“Sweet dreams, Songbird.”




A soft tap at the chamber door woke them early the next morning.

Startled, Meraad shouted, “Whazzat...?!” and raised a barrier around the bed to protect them both from attack. 

“Well," Bull blinked up at the swirling golden green dome. "I guess if you’re going to wake up throwing spells, at least it's something helpful.”

The tap sounded again, and he rose from the bed. “It's okay, Kadan. I've got this.”

She nodded in agreement, and burrowed into the warm spot he’d left, already asleep. 

Bull opened the door and quietly welcomed Anaan, and the elder Adaar smirked at the softly snoring pile of blankets that was his daughter.

“Some things never change. Even when she wasn’t worn out it always was like waking the dead in the morning. I just came to let you both know that boy Cole’s been scouting the perimeter, and he spotted a company of riders on the road.”

Bull grabbed his armor and sat on the edge of the bed to fix his ankle brace, and Meraad raised another barrier when he accidentally jostled her.

“What the…?” Anaan began.

“Don’t worry about it. Did Cole identify them?”

“He did, though it took me a minute to understand him. It’s your Chargers, along with reinforcements from Pilgrim's Path, and a team of supply wagons, and they'll be here in the next hour. That should give you just enough time to get my offspring conscious and out of bed.”

A solitary silver hand emerged from the bedding in an obscene reply, and Anaan roared with laughter.

“Such a lady. You see the disrespectful horned harridan you’ve bound yourself to, Bull? Shocking, I say. She doesn’t get that from my side of the family.”

Bull fastened his shoulder harness and belt. “I knew the job was dangerous when I took it, Anaan, and I actually like ‘em feisty.”

Meraad growled and threw pillows at both of them as she sat up, rubbing her eyes. “There is not enough coffee in all of fucking Antiva to help me put up with this first thing in the morning!”

"Morning?” Anaan winked at Bull. “Lazy brat, it’s practically midday. I’ve been up for hours!”

She gasped and peeked out the window. The first light of dawn illuminated the frosty courtyard, and she glared at her shamelessly grinning father. 

“Oh, ha ha ha. Morning people. You’re a blight on the damned world.” Meraad stumbled out of bed, pulled on her robe, and hugged Anaan. “Good morning, you mean old man. How are you?”

Anaan tipped her chin up toward the light, compelling her to look him in the eyes. “A shite side better than you. I know you may not want to hear this, Imekari, but it's been on my mind all night, and I’d be doing you no kindness for lying. I’m worried about you. Now, I plan to be down here through the summer, and I want to see you get some color back in those cheeks before I head home, you hear me? You’ll be no good to anyone if you keep wearing yourself this thin.”

Meraad stiffened, and Anaan braced for a defensive outburst, but she sighed and nodded. 

“You’re right, Papa. Bull said the same thing. I hadn’t realized how far I’d overreached until all this happened, but I’m definitely feeling it now. Just please don’t say anything to Aunt Hissera! The Council is nervous enough about you as it is without her racing down here in a fit of righteous fury.”

“Fine, I’ll keep quiet about it so long as I see you improving. But if you burn yourself down this bad again, young lady, then maybe having her come thump you between the horns wouldn’t be a bad idea.” He kissed her between the horns instead. “But enough of that. Get dressed, you and your man get some food, and let’s get these people out of here. I’m looking forward to seeing this big fortress of yours. Meet you both outside.”

Half an hour later, the Inquisitor emerged from the chantry, bags packed and ready to move. After a brief conference over a cold breakfast, Bull rode ahead to meet with the Chargers while she stood with Captain Calder to address the Freeholders, inviting him to take the lead since the villagers knew him.

The Captain patiently explained that the combined forces of the outpost and the Inquisition would evacuate the Freeholders to Pilgrim’s Path, after preliminary scouting confirmed the village was no longer habitable due to the taint. The buildings would be razed, and the mine sealed to prevent further incursions. Some of the folk were understandably upset at not being allowed to return to their homes for possessions, and demanded to know how they were expected to start over with nothing.

“You won’t be,” Meraad said. “We have a relief fund established to help, and housing and food will be provided to all of you during the transition. And the Inquisition is in need of able-bodied workers in a number of areas, which provides housing, meals, and a decent wage as well, so any who are interested are welcome to continue on to Skyhold to apply. Captain Calder will escort you all to the Outpost, while my team and I remain here to purge the site. But you need to leave while the weather holds if you’re going to make it by nightfall.”

Revered Mother Sabine stepped away from the wagons. “My Lady Inquisitor, with your permission, I’d like to remain here with you to oversee funeral rites for our departed.”

Meraad couldn't help but feel the overwhelming surge of the Freeholders' collective relief at hearing their loved ones wouldn’t be left untended, and instantly agreed.

"You would be more than welcome, Revered Mother, thank you." She turned to the villagers. "I promise you all, they will be treated with utmost respect. Travel safely."

Bull and the Chargers arrived then, and as the villagers were loaded into the wagons, Rocky, Skinner, Grim, and Blackwall took a cart of supplies to collapse the mine and scout for any remaining darkspawn. Calder’s troops who hadn't been assigned to escort duty made efficient work of gathering the bodies for a communal pyre on the market green, while the Chargers carefully scouted the houses and readied each building with accelerants.

Anaan approached Meraad as she headed for the outer ring of houses with Bull and Dalish. “*This is a lot to burn,*" he said in Qunlat. "*And I know you aren't properly rested. You going to be up to this?*“

“*Yes, Papa, but thanks for asking. The Chargers brought spare lyrium potions, and Dalish is also a mage, though make sure you don’t call her one.*“

“*Don't call her a mage? Why?*“

“*After so many years in hiding as an apostate, she likes to tell people she’s just a ‘backup archer’ with a really interesting Elven bow.*“

He raised a brow at Bull. “*And people just run with that?*“

“*It’s kept the templars off us so far,*" the captain replied. "*I told her it doesn’t really matter anymore, but it's a bit of a running joke now.*“

“*Okay, whatever works. If Meraad’s got backup, that’s good enough for me.*“

She wrapped her arm around her father’s shoulders and hugged him as they walked, returning to Trade out of courtesy to Dalish. 

“I think you’re really going to like the Chargers. They’re a great crew.”

“Well I’m impressed by the few I’ve seen so far. They’re fast, efficient, and seem to know what they’re about. Tell me, Imekari, does this Skyhold of yours have a tavern?”

“It surely does.”

“Good. Bull, soon as we get settled in, bring your boys. First round’s on me.”

Bull grinned. “You’re on!”




By late morning, the clean up team was on the road back to Pilgrim’s Path with the village in flames behind them. But even with the aid of Dalish and spare potions, Meraad’s energy reserves were tapped, so she rested in one of the supply wagons until the caravan reached the main trade road just past sundown. The weather held mercifully clear the rest of the journey, and after a bath and a change of clothes, Meraad, Bull, and Anaan met for dinner at the Captain’s house.

Leliana and Cassandra joined them, and though initially reserved around the elder Adaar, the two councilors found themselves utterly charmed by the dashing old rogue, who regaled them with highlights of his and Turner’s journey from Riesen-Tal. Meraad could tell already that Skyhold would never be the same after his visit, and she couldn’t wait to introduce him to the rest of her team.

Finally Cassandra said, “You will be pleased to learn that all was quiet in your absence, Inquisitor. The security check found no further evidence of Venatori. It appears Melville was operating alone.”

“Melville?” Anaan huffed. “That pretentious paper pusher?”

“That pretentious paper pusher was an assassin for a fringe group of Tevinter extremists, Papa,” Meraad replied. “But thanks to your team's reports, Captain Calder had him brought in to answer the accusations with all of us present. When he knew he’d been caught, the idiot tried to kill me. Leaped at me across the Captain’s desk with a blade hidden in his glove coated in magebane . ”

Only the flash of Anaan’s violet eyes gave evidence to his rage as he slowly sipped his wine. “He’s dead now, yes?”

“Very. By the Captain’s hand, as a matter of fact. His sword stopped the man mid-leap.”

Anaan reached across the table and shook Calder’s hand. “Thank you for your intervention, Serah. Thank all of you for your diligence in protecting and aiding my daughter. Her family and I have every confidence in her abilities, but it’s still a comfort to us that she has competent people watching her back. If I may ask, Seeker, what’s the news on Riley Baker, that Freeholder girl I brought in?”

“As you know, the child was quarantined after her horse was discovered to be tainted. We grew concerned when the lay sister reported the girl had fallen ill as well, but it was largely due to exposure, and not the taint. In my last reports before returning control of the Outpost, she was reunited with her surviving family and is expected to make a full recovery. I spoke with her myself this morning, and she expressed an interest in training to become a scout like the ones who aided her, to better defend her family in the future. A remarkably brave young lady.”

“By way of encouragement," Meraad said, "we should invite her and her family to visit Skyhold. Her warning helped save the villagers, and I think she should be recognized for that. Along with a certain stubborn trio of scouts who raced recklessly ahead on an unsanctioned mission into unknown danger to make sure reinforcements were called in.”  She raised her glass to Anaan.

“You scared the shit out of me, Papa. But you all did a great job, and I’m happy you’re still here for me to toast to you.”

The group raised their glasses as Calder cheered, “Hear hear!”

Bull suddenly kissed Meraad’s hand and rose from the table. “With all due respect, ladies and gentlemen, we have an early ride home in the morning. So if you don’t mind, The Inquisitor needs to go off duty, now.”

Meraad flushed and politely excused herself, pausing only to wish everyone goodnight. Anaan excused himself as well, and walked the couple to the door.

“Try to get some sleep eventually, you two,” he whispered. “And remember you still have to be able to ride tomorrow. I’ll see what I can do about sweet-talking your counselors here into giving you both a few extra days off once you get back. You’ve more than earned it.”

Meraad hugged her father and whispered back, “You’re the best, Papa.”

Imekari, I’ve been telling you that for years. Now quit wasting time talking to me and go enjoy yourselves while you can. I want you in a good mood when you show me your new place.”

She squeaked happily as Bull swept her into his arms and strode toward the barracks.

“Count on it!”

Chapter Text

“Soooo, Anaan,” Varric smoothly inquired as they neared Skyhold the following afternoon. “What can you tell me about our illustrious Inquisitor as a little girl? You must have some great stories!”

“NO.” Meraad snapped.

“Well…” Anaan began, noting the desperate pleading in his daughter’s eyes. ”You may be disappointed to learn that for the most part she was a quiet, well-behaved child. Loved music, loved to read, helped out in the house and shops, and generally stayed out of trouble.”

She breathed a sigh of relief.

However,” he added with a wink, “when she did act up it was pretty memorable.”

“*Papa, please don’t encourage him,*“ she muttered in Qunlat.

“*Aww, come on Inquisitor, it’s all in good fun,*“ Varric replied.

Meraad, Bull, and Anaan stared at the smug dwarf. “*What? I ran a spy network in Kirkwall during the Qunari occupation. You think I didn’t learn the language? You were saying, Anaan?*“

She laughingly gestured to her father to proceed, and Anaan considered a moment, returning to the Trade tongue. “Okay, I’ve got one for you. When Meraad was around eight, she asked to go to the village school along with her cousin, Jarek. It was a one-room affair with about ten kids of various ages, in a diverse mix of vashoth, humans, dwarves and elves, so we thought it might be good for her to socialize. Unfortunately, one of the local human boys took an interest and started harassing her. Do you remember, Meraad?”

“Taran.” Meraad rolled her eyes. “Oh yes, I remember. He was three years ahead of Jarek and I, but big for his age by human standards, so we were around the same height. Used to try and hook things on my horns, and yank my braids. I'd been forbidden to use any magic outside the house, so I complained to our teacher, and she told me, ‘That’s just a little boy's way of showing he likes you’. Apparently being physically abusive was an acceptable sign of affection to her.”

Varric coughed, raising his eyebrows significantly at Meraad and Bull, but hesitating to elaborate in front of her father. Meraad shook her head.

“Totally different situation, Varric, and the key word is ‘abusive’. Taran didn’t like me, he was just trying to establish a schoolyard pecking order. Apparently he was the same way with his younger siblings too.”

“Didn’t your cousin help you?” Bull asked.

“Yes, but he couldn't be everywhere. We both thought our teacher’s explanation didn’t seem right, but we’d also been taught to respect our elders, and figured maybe this was a human thing we just didn’t understand.” She nodded to Anaan. “My apologies for interrupting, Papa.”

Anaan smiled indulgently and replied, “No no. Tell your side of it, and I’ll follow up.”

“Well, Taran took our teacher’s lack of intervention as permission. One morning, Jarek had to stay home sick so I went in alone, and despite my protests was told to sit next to Taran. The instant she looked away, he yanked my hair again while whispering nasty names, and I finally snapped. I grabbed him by the front of his shirt, yelled “NO!”, and headbutted him. First time I used that move. I knocked him right off the back of his chair and left him stunned on the floor, then I just sat down and waited to be punished.”

Anaan interjected, “Bear in mind, we’d told Meraad and Jarek they had permission to physically defend themselves if they ever needed to, but only so long as they didn’t provoke the fight, or throw the first punch.”

“And technically, I’d thrown the first punch, or so I’d believed. Go ahead, Papa.”

“I was summoned from the shop to collect my child for her violent misbehavior, and Hissera came with me, admittedly out of concern that someone might have called the guard on our budding young mage. Meraad has a temper, yes, but we raised the kids to be aware of their size and strength around smaller folk. We also knew it took a lot to push her to violence, so right away we had no doubt there was more going on than what we’d first been told. During our chat with her teacher about the woman’s misguided relationship advice, Taran’s blustering father showed up. After being apprised of the situation, the jackass insisted his son didn’t deserve healing after being beaten by a girl. So, I impressed upon him that he should rethink his parental priorities while his son was still young enough to correct his ways.”

Varric laughed. “You scared the shit out of him, didn’t you?”

“Literally and figuratively. I’ll spare you the details, but I'm proud to say that according to his thankful wife soon after, home life greatly improved for the whole family. Just because you’re raised to believe negative behavior is ‘normal’ doesn’t make it right, or worth passing on to your kids. Years later, rather than join the guard like his father intended, young Taran left home and became a successful tailor in Orlais.”

Meraad concluded, “And even though I’d resisted using magic, Aunt Hissera suggested it might be safer for her to tutor me at home just in case, but I was still allowed to play with the other kids after chores. Papa also made sure I understood I'd been right to defend myself, that Taran’s actions weren’t just a human thing, and I shouldn't accept abuse of any kind, regardless of my gender, race, or being a mage."

She reached out and clasped her father’s hand. “You taught me the importance of self-respect, Papa, and I’m thankful for that, even if I sometimes have to remind myself when dealing with the nobles.”

Anaan squeezed her hand back and softly replied, “I know it hasn’t been easy for you, Imekari, but I’m glad to hear you haven’t lost sight of that yet. I hope you never do. And as far as your relationship goes, since it was indirectly mentioned, you and Bull are consenting adults and nothing I’ve seen so far has given me any reason to believe either of you are abusive to the other. Quite the opposite, in fact. So, as long as you’re both happy, careful, and respect each other, that’s all I need to know.”

“Just when I thought Bull was the most un-Qunari Qunari I’d ever meet, along comes you, Anaan!” Varric exclaimed. “If you hadn’t told me you were Tal-Vashoth, I almost wouldn’t believe you’d ever been raised under the Qun to begin with.”

“I take that as a compliment. If I’ve learned anything in all my years, it’s that life is too precious not to make the most of it. Keep your wits and your sense of humor, give strangers a chance to prove themselves better than cultural expectations, and seize joy whenever you can. Doubly so in times of strife. Which reminds me, Messere Tethras, a certain beautiful Rivaini admiral of our mutual acquaintance asked that I extend you her greetings, and insists you need to write her more often.”

HA! Now, why am I not surprised you know Isabela?”

“From what I’ve heard they’re very well acquainted,” Meraad smirked. “Turner said you two barely went topside for over a week after she took your ship. And despite her notorious reputation for raiding, she allowed you to keep your wagon and goods, and even changed course to deliver you and Turner to Highever?”

Anaan's grin was almost feral. “Best trade negotiation I’ve had in years. Sorry I don’t have more of a message for you, Varric, but in the lady’s defense, she was a little distracted at the time.”

“That’s it,” Varric declared, throwing his hands in the air. “Sorry, your Inquisitorialness, but I just may have to write my next book about your dad instead. It’s nothing personal.”

Meraad burst out laughing. “GOOD! Let someone else take the scrutiny for a change! I guarantee his stories are far more fascinating than mine, anyway.”

“Well, maybe if you relax and enjoy yourself more, Imekari, you’ll have better ‘No shit, there I was…’ tales to share. Remind her of that for me, Bull.”

“As often as I can, Anaan.”

Suddenly Meraad sat tall in her saddle, scanned the road, and exclaimed, “Papa, come join me up ahead! I want to show you something special!”

Anaan turned his mount and followed her up the hill toward a large, flat overlook. 

“Okay, so what's the big sur…WOW.”

In the distance, a stone fortress rose defiantly above the snowy peaks, illuminated by the afternoon sun.

Meraad reverently whispered, “That, dear father mine, is Skyhold. Isn’t she beautiful?”

“I truly haven’t the words to do her justice, Meraad, but I’m starting to see what all the fuss is about.”

“I asked for this overlook to be built when the trade road was excavated. This was the spot where I first saw the keep as we escaped from Haven, and that view still gives me a happy thrill every time we come home.”

She stepped to the high stone wall overlooking the canyon, held up her staff, and released three colored bolts of flame into the air -- two green, one gold -- then watched the fortress. Within moments, two green flares sailed up from Skyhold’s battlements, and she sighed with happy relief as she returned to her mount.

“That’s a good sign, I take it?” Anaan asked.

“Very. Green flares mean the road is clear, and the keep is calm. Exactly what I was hoping to see. I just let them know we’re coming home safely, no wounded or dead, and should reach the gates before sunset. Once everybody’s settled in, I’ll grab a quick meal and a bath and give you a tour.”

Anaan shook his head as they returned to the vanguard. “No, you won’t.”

“But why…?” She pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed, “Because the Inquisitor will be off duty.”

Bull chuckled and rubbed her back. “Good job, Kadan.

Anaan studied the couple. They’re playing it as a joke, but I see it now, and Varric’s unspoken comment confirms it. Bull’s protectiveness, why she responded so quickly to his command in the chantry, and why he pointedly reminded her councilors the Inquisitor was off duty last night.

Meraad's a caregiver, pushed into command, and because she’s the only one that can apparently fix those rifts, they keep her perpetually on call. Thousands of lives now depend on her choices, and she’s still learning how to delegate, so Bull takes control when they go off duty. He protects her, even from her own people, just so she can relax for a few hours without feeling guilty that she’s abandoning her post. Which also means Bull can’t fully relax either because he’s always on guard. Well that is something else that is going to change.

With a plan in mind, Anaan took a sip from his flask and began whistling a jaunty Marcher folk tune Meraad loved as a child. The instant his birdlike trills and flourishes chimed off the surrounding cliffs, she joyfully cried, “Oh, I have missed that sound so much!”

Heads turned and conversation dimmed among the vanguard, and to the company’s greater surprise, Meraad’s rich contralto voice spontaneously added the lyrics to the tune:

"Well met, my brothers dear, all along the highway riding,
So solemn I was walking along.
So pray come tell to me what calling yours may be
And I'll have you for a servantman.

Some servingmen do eat the very best of meat
Such as cock, goose, capon and swan;
But when lords and ladies dine, they drink strong beer, ale and wine
That's some diet for a servantman.

Don't you talk about your capons, let's have some rusty bacon
And aye, a good piece of pickled pork.
That's always in my house, a crust of bread and cheese
That's some diet for a husbandman.

When chantry they do go with their livery fine and gay
And their cocked hats and gold lace all around,
With their shirts as white as milk, and stitched as fine as silk:
That's some habit for a servantman.

Don't you talk about your livery nor all your silken garments,
That's not fit for to travel the bushes in.
Give me my leather coat, aye, and in my purse a groat:
That's some habit for a husbandman.

So me must needs confess that your calling is the best
And will give you the uppermost hand.
So now we won't delay but pray both night and day;
Bless the honest husbandman."

As the song ended, Meraad laughed and clasped her hands over her mouth, shocked by her own audacity. But Anaan's raucous cheer broke their companions out of their stunned silence, and a chorus of appreciative whistles and applause surrounded them, with Bull loudest of all.

Anaan's voice broke, heavy with suppressed emotion as he rejoiced, “And there’s my Songbird.“

“Andraste’s ASS, Inquisitor! Where have you been hiding that voice all this time?” Varric exclaimed. “I agree with your dad, Songbird fits you better than Stormy. That’s officially canon now.”

Stormy, Varric?” Anaan asked.

Meraad giggled as she wiped her own happy tears. “He calls me Stormy because I like lightning.”

“Please, give me some credit for imagination. I call you Stormy because you start off quiet, but once you get going you can shake the countryside.”

Bull snorted, “Credit for imagination? You call me Tiny.”

“Feeling a little self-conscious, Bull?” Varric teased.

“Don’t worry, Kadan,” Meraad purred as she kissed Bull’s hand. “While Varric’s off winding his girlfriend’s gears tonight, I’ll be more than happy to show you how much I appreciate the full irony of that name.”

“Ohhhh," Varric groaned, melodramatically clutching his heart. "Hoisted by my own petard!”

Anaan laughed, “Sorry, Varric, but I’ve seen him out of armor too. And by the way my daughter’s been grinning since we left the outpost, that’s all you need to know.”

Varric held up his hands to concede gracious defeat. “Okay, I retract the question, and irony it is! Now before I bury myself any further, how about some more music, Inquisitor Songbird?”

The remainder of the ride proved far too short for Anaan as he reveled in watching his daughter blossom under the sincere support of her companions. He understood what overcoming this insecurity this meant to her, and by the look of loving pride on Bull’s face, the young captain did as well. Anaan thanked all the laughing gods that he’d lived long enough to see Meraad not only embrace her gift at last, but that she found a partner who appreciated her for herself.

Your misplaced rage kept her caged far too long, Asha. But you can never silence her again. My little Songbird is finally flying free...and she’s beautiful.

 

 

Chapter Text


The vanguard crossed the wide stone causeway leading to the gates of Skyhold as the last light of day gilded the high towers. Anaan marveled at the view of the valley hundreds of feet below, the magical lanterns that illuminated their path along the high stone parapets, and the ingenious dwarven runestones set into the cobbles which heated to keep ice from forming on the bridge. Despite living with two mages for many years, enchanted items were a rare and costly thing, so to see them in such casual use was impressive.

Clever intimidation tactic too.The display of passive power sends a clear message: ‘You now enter the stronghold of a mage.’ It’s not subtle, but it’s not like she was able to hide herself anyway. I like it.

“Well, Turner, we made it,” Anaan said as he ruffled the scout’s hair. “You should be proud of him, Inquisitor. This little shit stood up to me and refused to report in alone while I went to the Freehold, saying we’d either make it to Skyhold together or not at all. He’s a man of his word.”

She beamed at Turner, who flushed with embarrassment at the notice. “Is that a fact?”

“Aye,” Anaan continued. “His exact words were, ‘Not a fucking chance’, and reminded me your message bird took an inordinate dislike after I kept the rude thing from using my horns as a perch. Turner was more afraid to explain to you why he left your Papa without backup than he was of facing darkspawn.”

“And you were absolutely right to be. Thank you so much for helping get this crotchety old rogue to me in one piece, Eton. I am immensely proud of you.”

Turner saluted Meraad, then clasped Anaan’s arm. “My pleasure and privilege, Lady Inquisitor. It was the best run of my life so far, and I look forward to the day we get to travel together again, Master Anaan.”

“As do I, son. Maybe your whip-cracking boss here will let you come back with me on the return trip at the end of summer. If nothing else, you got yourself some stories to tell your grandkids later on.” He rolled his eyes dramatically at his daughter. “Not that I’d know what that’s like.”

Meraad burst into laughter, but trailed off when she spotted the couple waiting for them beyond the heavy portcullis. She squeezed Bull’s hand and tiredly said in Qunlat, “*Just a little longer, Kadan. *”

Bull nodded. “*I’ll coordinate with Cass and Red to get everybody settled in. Make your report, but unless there’s an emergency, do not let them keep you late tonight. If you go more than two hours past sundown without sending word, I’m coming to get you.*”

“*What’s wrong?*” Anaan asked.

“*Nothing’s wrong, Papa. The blond man in the impressive cloak is Commander Cullen Rutherford, my chief tactical adviser, and leader of the Inquisition’s forces. The lovely Antivan woman by his side is Lady Josephine Montilyet, my brilliant diplomatic adviser. They are the members of my council you have yet to meet, and are both very kind people just trying to do their jobs. But I see Josephine has her clipboard with her, which means there's a stack of paperwork waiting, and I need to brief the full Council on what happened at the Freehold. It’s not an unexpected duty, just a reminder our traveling party’s over for now.*”

“*Montilyet? There’s an old name. Still a lot of grudges between them and the Armada from back when their family had a proper trading fleet to contend with, though Jarek’s been doing good trade with their current house over the last year up in Antiva. Is that your doing?*”

“*Yes.*" Meraad smiled. "*I knew you all would be too proud to accept a stipend from the Inquisition. So, when Josephine, who is their heir-apparent by the way, learned my cousin was a smith in Antiva, she suggested a mutually beneficial trade agreement instead. I don’t know all the details, but I have complete faith in her integrity that he’d profit well from it.*”

“*He has been. And with three kids to feed, and another on the way, the timing couldn’t have been better. That also explains Taar’s last letter saying he’s seen an upturn in work too. Your instincts were right, fair trade is far more appreciated. Thank you for thinking of us, Imekari.*“

“*Always, Papa! Jarek and Katryne are expecting again? That’s the best news I’ve heard all day! When is she due?*”

“*Middle of Harvestmere, which leaves you plenty of time to arrange a visit if you’re able.*”

Meraad looked away sadly. “*I can’t promise anything, but I will definitely try. At the very least, that gives me time to send them gifts. But for now...*”

They dismounted in the courtyard, and, after a parting kiss for Bull, Meraad took her saddlebags and stiffly walked up the steps to meet her advisers. Anaan was about to follow when he overheard Bull quietly say, “Red, do me a favor and don’t keep her long tonight, please.”

“Why, Bull," Leliana playfully smirked. "I appreciate you’re eager to be together, but…”

“I’m not kidding. You and Cass know some of what she’s been through out there, but not all of it, and she’s more drained than she’s admitted. Please, keep it short.”

Mindful of the morale of their troops, the woman’s expression never faltered, but the concern in her voice was instantly evident. 

“Forgive me, I wasn't aware; she seemed so enthusiastic on the journey home. Her father mentioned something of this last night, but was reluctant to disclose details, so thank you for alerting me as well. I'll do what I can. We have the scout reports, so, assuming nothing else has come in recently, they shouldn’t require much more tonight. And you and I shall speak more of this later, yes?”

Anaan stepped through the crowd toward Meraad. You can bet we'll be speaking about this later too, Sister.

Soon after being introduced to Meraad's remaining counselors, Anaan found himself under the charming wings of Lady Montilyet, who confided how impressed she was with the work his nephew had been doing for her family. As she, Cullen and Meraad escorted him to his suite overlooking the herb garden, the Commander also thanked Anaan for the supplies he’d brought, and assured him they had been entrusted to quartermaster Morris as per the smith’s instructions.

Meraad hugged Anaan tight and whispered, “I’m sorry I can’t stay to see you settled in, Papa. But if you’re not too tired, get cleaned up and meet me at my quarters later for dinner. You’re already cleared with the tower guard, and your password is, ‘Whistler’.”

Anaan kissed her forehead. “I’ll be there, Imekari . Just don’t keep me waiting long.”

“Right, I wouldn’t want to rob you of your beauty sleep.”

“Please, if I get any prettier there’ll be a line of women camped at my door, and you’d have twelve siblings by Wintersend. I just don’t like my dinner getting cold. Scoot.”

His smile faded when the trio departed, already considering the list of issues he’d have to address with her counselors. But as he scanned his temporary quarters he was pleasantly surprised to find the suite comfortable and well-appointed, especially for such a remote mountain fortress.

New floor and windows, fresh plaster on the walls, rich rugs and tapestries to keep out the cold. Good, solid furniture too, none of that spindly Orlesian crap, and a proper bed I can actually stretch in. That girl is going to spoil me.

He packed his clothing away in the armoire, and found a large, claw foot soaking tub behind a nearby folding screen, alongside a basket of soaps and a stack of thick towels. In short order, he stripped his gear, scrubbed down, then slipped into the steaming water for a welcome soak before dinner.

Sod it. She can spoil me a bit if it makes her happy. This is pretty damned nice.

By the time the water began to noticeably cool, the rumbling of his stomach soon reminded him it had been a long time since lunch. Once he dried and dressed, he left his quarters to return to the main hall. Twilight still touched the rooftops, but he was pleased to see the grounds brightly lit, with alert, well-armored guards stationed at strategic points along the way.

From the way a few of these guards carry their shields, it looks like some are templar-trained. Smart, with those Venatori on the loose. Even I’d find this place a challenge to crack now, though it still might be fun to give 'em a test later on.

The main hall was as impressive by night as by day, even with scaffolding from ongoing repairs still visible. The guards were professionally courteous as they verified his identity and directed him toward the Inquisitor’s quarters, where another pair of guards waited. Anaan recognized another templar, though she wasn’t wearing chantry insignia, and he hoped Meraad had a say in the woman being posted there, rather than this being an indication of someone keeping a tight watch on their apostate Inquisitor.

Beyond the tower door, however, thoughts of templars gave way to the annoying reality that his daughter's quarters were the highest point in the keep. Four flights of stairs and a patrolling guard check later, Anaan waited outside Meraad’s chamber door, stoically gritting his teeth against the throbbing pain in his left knee.

Now, I know she got my bad knees, and her man wears a brace on his ankle, not to mention any other damage they’ve each earned over the years. This has got to be a rough climb coming home injured after a mission on a cold night.

The door opened, and Bull, wearing only a pair of red silk pants, welcomed Anaan inside. The elder Adaar scowled at the sight of yet another flight of stairs.

“I agree," the captain said. "The stairs are shitty, but the view's worth the climb.”

“Considering your view includes a bed and a beautiful woman at the end, I’d say that’s a matter of perspective. I’ve still got to hike back down this great stone bastard later, alone.”

“Oh, barely in the door and already grousing!” Meraad chimed from the room above. “Come on up old man, before your food gets cold. I’m starving.”

As he reached the final landing Anaan had to admit there was a benefit to being in the highest spot around. The heavy wool curtains were open for the last rays of sunset to filter through the Orlesian doors and stained glass windows, and the surrounding view of the mountains was stunning. Meraad greeted him dressed in a cobalt blue robe, her damp hair hanging in loose waves to her hips.

“I’m glad you’ve let your hair grow out again, it looks good on you,” Anaan said, then looked around the room. “Damn, Imekari, I thought my quarters were nice, but they’re practically a hovel compared to this. Maybe you should let me bunk here, instead.”

“May I remind you, four unforgiving flights of stone stairs. Daily.”

“Ehhh, fair point. Still, this is pretty. You must love it up here when it a storm rolls in.”

“Absolutely!” She gestured to take a seat on the large divan near the hearth, where a low table set with covered plates of food waited. “One of the blessings of living in a place with strong ambient magic. The fortress is so heavily shielded that the worst weather just rolls right over the top of us, and makes for a beautiful show.”

“I had no idea you were strong enough to build something like that.”

Meraad served their plates while Bull added logs to the fire and closed the curtains for the night. “I didn’t. It was already part of Skyhold, from generations of previous occupants over countless ages. We’re not sure who originally built her, or when, or why, but she’s ours now, and we’re doing all that we can to restore and improve her.”

“Speaking of improvements,” Anaan said. “You’ve got dwarven engineers on staff. Had you considered having them install one of those hoists they use for hauling ore in their mines here in your tower?”

“That...is actually a great idea! I don’t know how practical or expensive it would be to rig, but it couldn’t hurt to at least ask.”

Bull chuckled. “Knowing Dagna, it'll end up covered in gears, crystal flowers, and explosives.”

“Hey, as long as it works! Dagna is an arcanist, Papa. She’s...very unique. Brilliant mind, a gifted smith, and an enchanter of incomparable skill. She works below in the Undercroft alongside Master Harritt, our chief smith, who is also extremely talented with non-magical weapons and armor. He does the main assembly, she brings them to life.”

“Sounds like my kind of folk! Maybe when I go poking around while you’re resting, because you will be resting, I’ll look them up. How did your meeting go tonight?”

“Mercifully short. Leliana made sure I got out in record time since she already had preliminary scout reports. As expected, Josephine had other issues to discuss, but Nightingale convinced her they could wait for at least another day. So, whichever one of you motivated her to intervene, thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” the men simultaneously replied, then grinned at the other. 

After dinner, Bull cleared the dishes as Meraad poured coffee for them all, saying, “Okay, Papa, whatever that box was you asked to be delivered from your wagon is over there in the corner. Nightingale wouldn't tell me anything about it, save only that it had passed security, and you have excellent taste. Don’t worry, I didn’t peek.”

“You’d only have been ruining your own surprise if you did. Bull, do us a kindness and bring that beast over here, would you? I already know how heavy it is after I first loaded it.”

“Shit, Anaan!” Bull carefully set the box in front of them. “Did you pack the rest of the family in here?!”

“I may as well have considering everything Hissera shoved in there.” He pried off the lid and set it aside on the floor. “I’ll tell you up front, the bulk of this is a resupply, as Tante figured you’d be running low on your herbs and personal care items from home. But, The Iron Bull, her aunt also sent this is for you, by special request from your good lady.”

“Really?” He broke the wax seal on a large stoneware jar and peered inside. “Not sure what it is, but it smells great.”

“That, son, is Hissera’s horn balm. Best you’ll find anywhere in Thedas, and I do not make that claim lightly.”

“If this is the same stuff Meraad let me use a while back, I agree! Thank you, Kadan. Remind me to thank your aunt as well.”

“The only difference if you used Meraad’s is the herbs used to scent it. For us menfolk she likes to make it a bit more spicy, less floral. There’s some for you as well, Imekari. Your uncle, of course, packed in a selection of his homemade treats, including another case of his trail bars.”

“That's a blessing in itself, Papa. I’ll have you know, one of those bars helped keep me alive during my escape from Haven. Uncle Taar told me to always keep one in my pack, and I’m grateful I listened to him.”

“He’ll be relieved to hear that. I don't travel without the things either. Maybe if you sweet-talk him, he might even share the recipe. But in the meantime, this is from your cousin.” He passed her a tall black bottle with a wax-sealed top. “Jarek sent this as a token of appreciation for all the work he’s gotten thanks to you. The stuff’s pretty popular up in Antiva.”

She broke the seal and sniffed. “Oooooh...I smell rum...and...coffee!?”

“Yup! He called it 'Ulúa' , some kind of sweet coffee liqueur mixed with vanilla and dark Llomerryn rum. Taar recommends blending it with chilled cream, or added into your coffee.”

Meraad wasted no time in pouring some in her mug, and Anaan chuckled at her unadulterated bliss as she cradled the bottle protectively to her cleavage.

“Forgive me, my Love,” she purred, licking her lips. “This is so good it just may count as cheating on you.”

Bull brandished his coffee. “Only if you don’t share it, Kadan.”

“Heyyy now, killing a dragon for you is one thing, but...aww, don't smile like that!” She poured a generous splash into his cup. “Damn you for being adorable.”

“We all have our burdens. Hmm, this could be good with cocoa! Maybe a little cinnamon, some Rivaini chili powder...oh yeah. We are definitely going to need more.”

“How about you, Papa?”

“No, thank you, I have something different in mind.”

He drew a narrow stoneware jug and a pair of shot glasses from the box with almost ritualistic care. 

“A little gift from Taar and myself to your Kadan. Consider it our ‘welcome to the family’.”

Sensing a challenge, Bull set his coffee aside and calmly asked, “And what might this be, Anaan?”

A slow, inscrutable smile spread across her father's weathered face.

“One of my brother's specialties. He calls it: ‘Straw’.”

Meraad quietly retreated to the opposite end of the couch as her father poured single shots of the clear golden liquid, offering one to Bull. Their gazes met, and Anaan clinked the base of his glass against Bull's in toast.

"Prost." 

With a smirk, Bull returned the toast, and they drank.

Only years of experience allowed Anaan to brace for the impact as the potent spirit reached his stomach. What innocently began as citrusy sweet liquid silk, transformed into a spicy inferno radiating deep in his chest that flooded his whole body with an intense, lingering finish. He slowly released a shuddering breath, and waited for Bull’s reaction.

The captain's expression progressed from casual interest, to shock verging on the edge of pain, to ecstatic joy in seconds. Then he doubled over as if kicked to the chest, exhaling in a great WHOOSH.

“Holy shit…"  he coughed. "It’s like...great sex, soaked in dragon fire and syrup with a twist of lemon. That’s AMAZING!”

Anaan reverently closed the bottle, and turned to his daughter.

“It’s official. You can keep this one.”

She poured a tall glass of water for each of them. “Here, Love, drink this. You’ll thank me later.”

“I'll thank you now." Bull chugged the water, then used the glass to cool his flushed face. "So, why does your brother call it ‘Straw’?” 

“‘Straw’, as in, ‘the last’, since the next sip could be the one that permanently breaks you.”

“Niiiiice.”

Meraad shook her head as she set down a plate of savory oat cakes with sharp cheese.

“You’re insane, the pair of you. I won’t touch that stuff. I don’t like my food to hurt me.”

“Better that you don’t, Imekari. If men like us get drunk, punches might get thrown, but we don’t usually have to worry about accidentally burning down the house. This is quadruple-distilled, single-malt mountain whisky, not a summer shandy. Even I don’t drink this shit often. Truth be told, I’m pretty sure your uncle actually uses it to acid etch steel.”

Anaan retrieved a flat, wrapped bundle from the box and presented it to his daughter. 

“One last thing, from Tante.”

Meraad opened the bindings, and gasped when she recognized the contents of the leather-bound book within.

“Is this...? It is! This is a copy of her recipe book! Oh gods, I can’t begin to tell you how valuable this is right now! The number of times I've lamented not having her remedies...this is going to help save a lot of lives. But, I don't understand, I thought she'd never pass this on until she was ready to retire or...Papa, is she alright?

“Yes, yes she's fine. Hissera just felt it would be stupid to hoard this knowledge when people were suffering down here, and you’ve more than proved you’re ready for it. She only regrets not being able to give it to you in person. Read the inscription.”

“ 'A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle,’ Meraad whispered, her eyes filling with tears. “‘You may not be my daughter by blood, but you will always be of my heart. No matter how small you believe you are in the world, it only takes one candle to drive back the darkness, and one spark to start a fire. May your light shine ever bright, sweetling. I love you.’

She closed the book and hugged it close. “Thank you all for trusting me with this, I promise it will be put to good use. And speaking of Healing, when were you going to get around to asking for help with that knee, Papa? Or did you think I wouldn’t notice?”

Anaan frowned. “You’re off duty, remember?”

“NO. The Inquisitor is off duty. I was, and will always be, a Healer first, and you’re in pain. You could go down to the infirmary, but I’ve healed you before, and already know what you need. I only require your consent.”

His gaze softened. “Well, I was going to head to bed after this anyway. Yes, please.”

Meraad sat cross-legged on the floor and gently elevated his leg onto her lap, then removed his boot and rolled up his pant leg. After a brief examination, her hands glowed with the blue-white light of summoned frost. She held them over his knee without directly touching his skin, letting the chill soothe the minor swelling in minutes. 

Anaan relaxed into the cushions, and Meraad huffed, “Looks like I’m not the only one that’s been pushing my limits lately. You haven’t been doing the stretches she told you to do.”

“Well, things have been a bit chaotic lately..."

“Cry me a river. If I have to take better care of myself, so do you. That ‘don’t make me message Hissera’ threat is a dual-edged sword, Serah.”

“Ohhh, you hear this, Bull? Now what kind of ungrateful child would rat out her poor old man after all I’ve done for her? It just breaks the heart.”

Bull grinned unsympathetically. “Sorry, Anaan, but from what I’ve seen, she’s every bit your daughter.”

“You say that only because you haven’t met Hissera. Great healer, but a terrible example of demure womanly virtues. I raised my daughter to be a kind, loving young lady who would never disrespect her Papa, and...oh sod it, even I can’t keep a straight face on that one. Alright, brat, I’ll keep my mouth shut if you will.”

"Deal." Meraad rubbed her hands together vigorously to warm them. “Okay, you know the drill. Tell me immediately if this hurts in any way.”

“Wait," Bull said. "What kind of healing spell are you using that might hurt him?” 

She placed one hand beside her father’s knee, her other lower on his calf.

“Lightning.”

“You’re kidding.”

"She's not," Anaan explained. “It’s the damnedest thing. They can actually use a low-power lightning bolt for healing. Hissera told me at the correct strength it stimulates the muscles around the injury to improve circulation, which also combats atrophy and spasms, and even helps relieve nerve pain for a short time. Taar and I have both used it over the years on nights our joints flare up.”

He sighed with relief as the mild current made the pain recede, leaving a pleasant warmth in its wake.

“I hadn’t realized how much I’d taken living around Healers for granted until I spent the last two months on the road. Even with potions and poultices on hand, there’s just no comparison to a proper Heal.”

Meraad smiled but remained focused on her task, occasionally asking for confirmation about his comfort level. Bull watched with wary curiosity, until Anaan said, “You’re Ben-Hassrath trained, Bull. Everything has potential use, no matter how unconventional, so don’t let fear of the unknown curtail your options, especially if you plan to keep making a living as a fighter. Let her try this on that bad ankle of yours sometime, and you’ll see what I mean.”

Bull chuckled. “Been a long while since I’ve been on the receiving end of an agent’s scrutiny, but that's a valid point. Can’t say it doesn’t sound weird, but the theory of it makes sense, and I do trust her skill.”

A few moments later, Meraad dismissed the spell and examined Anaan’s leg for any sign of damage. “That'll do for now. How do you feel?”

“Almost good as new, Imekari." He rolled down his pant leg and tugged on his boot. "I should be able to get a proper night’s sleep tonight without this giving me grief, even after contending with those stairs. Much appreciated.”

“Anytime, you know you only have to ask.” She drained her own glass of water and wiped a fine sheen of sweat from her brow.

“You okay, Kadan? ” 

“Yeah, just a bit winded. Though the spell itself uses little power compared to a full lightning bolt, it still takes a lot of effort to hold that power back to the proper intensity, not unlike keeping a tight rein on an agitated mount. I can only do it for a few minutes at a time, though a few minutes is all that’s needed. And Papa’s right, Bull, I have a lot of experience with this. I even use it on my own knees or shoulder when they bother me."

"I believe you. Just wondered why more mage healers don't use it? This is the first I've heard of such a thing."

"Probably because either they aren’t taught to use elemental magic this way, or because there are herbal options that are easier. But for people like us that don’t like feeling drugged when dealing with chronic joint pain, it's a helpful alternative."

She dug through the box until she located Hissera’s herbal poultices. “Here, Papa. No, don’t argue, I can make more of them now, and you may need this tomorrow morning when you decide to go explore.”

Anaan cat-stretched and yawned. “Thank you, but I may just sleep in tomorrow, since my Healer threatened to sic her cantankerous mentor on me if I didn’t. It’s been a long week and I’m getting too old to be staying up all hours with you kids.”

“You’re not fooling anyone, old man. You can still run circles around me and you know it.”

“Well, I don’t know about that. But I do plan to at least keep breathing until I see my first grandchild. If that means helping you to win this war first, so be it.”

Meraad's laughter filled the room. “Tell me soldier, do you fight to rid the world of an ancient evil? ‘Nope! Just helping my daughter clear her schedule so she can start giving me grandkids, since my smug brother already has three and counting.’ Love it.”

“Hey, it never hurts to plan ahead! Speaking of that, have you two talked about what you’re going to do when this war is over? What happens to this Inquisition of yours once your enemy is defeated?”

She snuggled against Bull's shoulder and rubbed her tired eyes.

“It’s still far too early to say for certain, but for the sake of discussion, I’ll pack it all up and send these good people home. Maybe I’ll come back to the village and let Hissera retire. Maybe I’ll join the Chargers for a bit.”

“That’s pretty presumptuous of you, Kadan. What makes you think I’d hire you? I already have a healer, even if his potions do taste like crap.”

“No disrespect to Stitches, Kadan,“ she purred, nibbling Bull’s ear. “But I have far better ways of Healing you than he does. And you like the taste of my potions.”

“That is true. Plus you don’t snore anywhere near as much as he does.” He took her hand and left lingering, feather-light kisses across her knuckles until she shivered. “Tell you what, leave your resume with Krem, and we’ll keep it on file.”

“HA. Or, maybe I’ll just quit being a merc altogether, take up the lute, and go wander the world as minstrel.”

“Do you mean that?" Anaan beamed. "Are you considering studying music again?”

Bull nodded to her in encouragement and she grinned. “Yes, Papa. We have a resident minstrel here named Maryden, who's been with us since Haven. I'm going to ask her if she’ll tutor me when she has the time. Even if I don’t go on to do it professionally, I figured the vocal training could still help on the battlefield.”

“Well, whatever you choose to do, Imekari, I do hope to hear you sing more often. But for now, it’s time for this old rogue to find his bunk." He stood and gave his knee an experimental flex. "I have one request before I go, however.”

“Name it.”

“The dragon's tooth. I gather, since your counselors haven’t mentioned wedding plans, you’ve both kept this endeavor a secret save for those that helped you with the hunt. I’d consider it a privilege to craft the necklaces for you, not only as your father, but because I’m one of the few people here that fully understands their significance.”

Meraad instantly raced to retrieve the bundled tooth. As she placed it in his hand Bull said, “We’d be honored if you would.”

The couple walked Anaan down to the door, where he kissed her on the cheek. “My love to you both. Thank you for an excellent meal, the much-needed Heal, and enjoy your gifts. I hope I don’t see either of you outside this room until at least Monday.”

“Sweet dreams, Papa, I love you too. Here's hoping the Council agrees with you.”

As he strode back to his quarters, Anaan's heart was filled with renewed purpose. 

Oh they will, my dear children. By the time I’m done, they will.

 

Chapter Text



Meraad stared at the closed door, her heart sinking at the look in her father’s eyes as he’d left.

Vashedan,” she muttered, and walked upstairs to her desk. “Sorry, Love. The Inquisitor needs to go back on duty for a few minutes, then I promise we’ll go to bed.”

“It’s okay, Boss, I saw it too,” he acknowledged. “How do you want to handle this?”

She wrote and sealed a series of brief notes for individual delivery, then tugged the bell pull to summon a runner.

“I’m going to do something I should have done months ago.”

“What’s that, Kadan?

“Say no.”

Bull kissed her tenderly and whispered, “Good girl.”

 



The Council answered the Inquisitor's unexpected summons to convene in the War Room by eight bells the next morning, but this time, Meraad was not smiling. To their even greater surprise, Bull stood nearby, talking quietly with Anaan, who seemed unusually sullen.

“Thank you all for coming so early,” Meraad began, nodding to each of her counselors in turn as they gathered around the table. “I’ve taken the liberty of asking Captain The Iron Bull, and Agent Adaar, to join us for this morning’s brief session.”

Josephine stiffened, but her tone remained polite. “Brief, Inquisitor? We have a number of issues to dis…”

“No, Ambassador, I don’t, because I simply can’t. I have to rest for a few more days at least, or I won’t be any good to you should an emergency arise. This is not a request.”

Anaan glowered from the corner of the room. “And why is that? Could it be because this council piles the work of ten people on you, interrupts your sleep at all hours, barely gives you time to eat, and makes you negotiate petty squabbles, all while trying to save the sodding world?”

Stand down, Agent." The Inquisitor glared at her father. "I do appreciate that you came here today out of concern for my well-being, and your points are valid. But this council cannot, and will not, be made to accept full responsibility for my condition when I am just as much to blame.”

She turned back to her counselors, her voice softening. “So many times I wanted to refuse a mission, or at least delegate to someone better qualified, and I should have. But I was too afraid of disappointing all of you when you’d put so much faith in me, and I didn’t want to appear weak to our allies when we're still garnering support. That performance pressure only increased once I became a Knight-Enchanter, and when more people flocked to us for aid after Haven fell, I couldn’t bring myself to refuse them either. It just isn't my nature to turn away from people in desperate need if I can help them.”

“With respect, Inquisitor,” Leliana said. “Surely you must have known this appointment was a dangerous and demanding position when you accepted it, no?”

“Come on, Red.” Bull snapped. “You can’t claim she fully understood the risks to her health when she accepted the title, because none of you could have. And let's be honest, you all saw early on that she had a hard time refusing, and you’ve taken advantage of it more than once. The nobles do too.”

Leliana had the grace to look guilty, but said nothing. Meraad rested her hand on Bull’s shoulder for peace.

"Look, blame is a pointless waste of time and energy right now. I’m only here long enough to fully disclose my current status, so we can address the problem and correct it in future.”

“What is your status, Inquisitor?” Cullen asked with genuine concern.

She stiffly removed her outer robe, stripping down to an antaam-saar halter and pants that clearly revealed her gaunt frame, and Josephine gasped in shock.

“This. I’ve badly over-extended, mentally and physically, and were it not for the ambient energies of Skyhold to help me rejuvenate, combined with Bull’s aid in the field, I might have died from it weeks ago. The good news is this isn’t irreparable, but could be if I don’t take corrective measures now, and I could potentially become a threat to others if I lose control from exhaustion. I can’t let that happen.”

Bull helped Meraad back into her robe before addressing the council himself. 

“It’s a common misconception among humans that Qunari are somehow invincible, and to be fair we don’t do much to dissuade that belief. As a warrior, I keep taking the hits because that’s the job I was born to do, and I’m good at it. That's who I am. But we are not  machines.”

“And if you believe this Anchor protects me? It doesn’t,” Meraad added. “Some days it causes me a great deal of pain, but I didn’t say anything, because as far as I know there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

“Had we known you had become so delicate, we could have responded sooner, ” Cassandra said, and Anaan snorted in contempt.

“Delicate? That young woman has lived her whole life being shunned, feared, and underestimated, both as a Vashoth, and for being a mage. Anyone else in her position might have said sod the lot of you and stayed in her village with her own kind. But despite fear of your templars, and without the aid of your Circle, she still became a trained healer and went out into the world to help.”

Bull nodded in agreement. “Meraad even chose to become a Knight-Enchanter, rather than stay in the back ranks, because that path could make her a better field medic for the Inquisition. Because that is who she is.” He stroked her cheek. “But delicate? No, Seeker.  She’s quite possibly one of the strongest people I’ve ever known.”

“The same goes for Bull,” Anaan said. “I’ve witnessed how this man stands guard for her, even here, buying her time to rest without guilt that she'd somehow abandoned her post, so she can be ready when you need your Inquisitor.”

Cassandra sighed. “Which means he, too, is unable to properly rest. This answers much.”

“I...we didn’t realize,” Josephine said quietly. “I confess that in light of your deeds, Inquisitor, we have often believed you capable of anything. You have shown tremendous strength of will, and have been a source of hope and inspiration to many in this time of chaos. This is why we felt you were best suited to become Inquisitor, beyond being the bearer of the Anchor. We were wrong to assume.”

Cullen looked to his own stack of missives and chuckled sheepishly. “If it’s any consolation, my Lady, I also know a few things about over-reaching yourself to prove you’re still capable. All of us are well familiar with the unrelenting burdens of command, and the importance of delegation of duty. Now that we know the truth, we can assist you with that. There is no shame in asking for help.”

“I have been in your position, Bull," Leliana said. "During the Blight, with my...with the Hero of Ferelden. It is sadly too easy to be blinded by extraordinary deeds, and forget there is a very mortal woman behind them. Forgive me, mes chers amis for not intervening sooner.”

“I owe all of you an apology as well,” Meraad clasped Anaan’s hand. “I was recently reminded of the importance of self-respect, and that I should never accept abuse of any kind. That includes self abuse. I’m not asking for your pity, only your understanding.” She chuckled tiredly and rubbed her eyes. “And I promise I’ll do better with admitting when I need help from now on, instead of stupidly assuming I’m the only one that can fix everything.”

The tension in the room broke as the counselors rounded the table to close ranks in support. Josephine reviewed the files on her clipboard and declared, “There are no currently scheduled diplomatic meetings that specifically require your presence, your Grace.”

“Nor have I been made aware of any pressing security matters that require your immediate response,” Leliana added. “Are we agreed the Inquisitor and the Captain are off duty for the time being?”

“We are,” Cassandra concurred. “And I trust, Inquisitor, that as a Healer you are aware of what you require to restore yourself, physically and magically, and if not, that you will seek consult? We shall do what we can to afford you both at least a few days to recuperate, but our enemies may not be as patient.”

“I understand, Seeker, and yes I do. Thank you all very much.”

“And what of you, Master Adaar?” Josephine asked, flashing Anaan a disarming smile. “Is there anything we may do for you? I would be most happy to arrange a tour of the grounds, if you wish.”

Anaan grinned in reply, his good humor fully restored. “Oh, I’m a man of simple needs, Lady Montilyet. Just knowing these two will be afforded some proper rest is all that really matters to me right now. However, now that things are settled, if one of you would kindly direct me toward this Undercroft I’ve been hearing about, I'd be much obliged.”

“I’ll show you, Papa," Meraad said, heading for the door with Bull. "Good day, everyone.”

At the last door to the Main Hall, Anaan kissed Meraad on the head and said in Qunlat, “*Since you’re officially off duty now, I can pull a little rank again. Get fed, and both of you disappear while you can.*”

“*I’m sorry for snapping at you, Papa.*“

“*Don’t you dare be sorry for that. I don’t regret what I said, but I admit I overstepped a bit, and I respect that order needs to be maintained. I’m proud of you for taking responsibility for yourself and standing up for your people.*“

Bull shook Anaan's hand. “*Thanks for understanding, and for giving her the chance to sort that shit out on her own.*”

“*Well, not entirely on my own,*” she smirked. “*But I appreciate you at least let me take the lead before speaking up.*”

“*I won't lie, Imekari, I almost didn’t. I told you long ago one of the hardest parts of being a parent is accepting you can’t protect your child from everything, and that only got worse after seeing you hurt. But I’m impressed you caught what I intended to do this morning in time to intervene. Did you tip her off, Bull?*”

“*Nope. She spotted it as you left last night. I just supported her plan.*”

Anaan looked at his daughter with new respect, reverting back to the Trade tongue.  “Good. Very good. Maybe I won’t have to worry about you quite so much now, after all.”

Meraad laughed, “Yes, you will.”

“You’re right. I always will, and someday when you have kids of your own, you’ll do the same. But for now, while I have you both here, take a look at this and tell me what you think.”

He unfolded a piece of parchment, revealing a sketch for what would become their pendants. Meraad clasped Bull’s arm with excitement.

“Oh, Papa, that’s beautiful! I've always loved your woodwork, but I had no idea you could do this!”

“You’d be surprised what this old rogue’s hands can do. Long before I got into woodworking, I used to carve scrimshaw to pass the time on ship. Carving this will be a genuine pleasure. But, I hear people starting to fill the hall, so get out of here before they spot you. I can find my own way from here.”

“Go ahead, Kadan. Just gotta let Krem know he’s got command of the Chargers for a couple days, and I’ll meet you upstairs.”

Anaan called after him, “Bull, we still on for drinks with your crew?”

“Yup! See you Monday.”




Bull couldn’t stop grinning as Meraad tested out her new throne fashioned from the skull of the Ferelden Frostback. Over the past weekend, they'd both committed to getting the most rest and enjoyment the could out of their brief respite, and by the color in her cheeks, and her easy smile as she relaxed into the throne’s cushions, it was well worth it.

She has no idea how much she's going to intimidate the shit out of the nobles up there. A human would be engulfed by a throne like that, but with Meraad’s build and that great rack of horns, she looks like a warrior queen claiming her conquest. If there wasn’t a crowd of people here right now...damn, that’s HOT.

The counselors stood nearby with Anaan, admiring the new addition as Dagna made a final pass around the dais to ensure everything was set as intended.

“I like it," Meraad said. "But don’t you think this might be a little...much?” 

“Are you kidding?! It’s BADASS, Kadan! How does it feel?

“Surprisingly comfortable, considering I’m sitting in a gaping maw. I figured we’d just mount the skull above the doorway or something, I'd never have thought of using it for a throne!”

“Your smiths did excellent work." Anaan beamed. "And Bull’s right, it really suits you. As for 'too much', you’re well past the point of trying to blend in anymore, Imekari. May as well embrace it.”

“Well it should definitely make for an interesting first impression!” She rose and thanked her team, leaving the three Tal-Vashoth at the dais as the crowd dispersed. “Pity I don’t have more time to enjoy it right now. We have to leave for the Fallow Mire as soon as supplies are ready.”

“Sounds like a charming place. What’s in Fallow Mire?”

Bull sneered. “Some little Avvar shit decided to hold a team of our scouts hostage to pick a fight with the Herald of Andraste. We’re going to muzzle the mutt and get our people out.”

“The dark price of fame," Anaan shook his head. "I know you don’t see your troops as expendable, but the same can’t be said for every leader.”

“There’s no way I’d leave them to suffer on my account. We worried it might be a Venatori trap, but the remaining scouts in the area confirmed these men are acting alone, so we're hoping for a fairly simple extraction. Would you like to tag along?”

“Hmm...as enticing as slogging around a freezing Ferelden bog in leather sounds, I think I'll pass. I was talking with your Horsemaster earlier, and I looked over those rickety gear haulers of yours. In my assessment, the Inquisition needs a master wainwright to show these Southerners how to build a proper war wagon, which should keep me busy for a while. Guess we’ll hold off on drinks then, Bull?”

“No, you won’t,” Meraad declared. “Kadan, go spend some time with Papa and your boys. I’ve monopolized you for the last three days, your crew needs their Captain, too. I'll coordinate the supplies with Ser Morris.”

“You sure?”

“Absolutely. Papa’s buying the first round, tell Cabot the second’s on me, and give my love to the boys.”

She grabbed Bull by the horns and kissed him, whispering against his lips, “Just don’t stay out too late. We’re not going to see a proper bed for awhile, I want to make the most of it.”

“Yes Ma'am,” he chuckled, then cleared his throat. “Come on Anaan, let’s go before your daughter makes me change my mind.”

Anaan laughed and slapped Bull on the shoulder. “Your sacrifice is noted, and appreciated. Thanks for letting me borrow him for a bit, Imekari. I’ll do my best to bring him back in one piece.”

“You’d damned well better, old man! Love you both. Have fun.”

As they reached the stairs to the the upper courtyard, Anaan said quietly in Qunlat, “*Saw you shield training that young lieutenant of yours. He handles it well, but it’s obvious he wasn’t born for it.*“

“*How do you mean?*” 

“*The way he’s built, how he moves...he’s wasted on shield wall.*” Anaan winked. “*He should stick with the great sword.*”

Bull grinned and relaxed. “*I agree, but I like my boys to keep their options open.*“

“*Good idea. And no, I don’t care he’s Aqun-athlok, or even that he was born ‘Vint. I had a chance to talk to Krem briefly on the way in from the freehold, and think he’s a fine young man, who’d go to the Void and back for you. I understand he also had a large role to play in you and Meraad finding your way to each other?*“

“*Yeah, he did, which is why when we get back from Fallow Mire, I was thinking of taking him and some of the boys to Val Royeaux for a few days and thank him properly if we can. Would you like to come along?*“

“*I’m honored you asked. Is Meraad coming too, or is this stags only?*“

“*Oh, Meraad’s coming too,*” Bull chuckled. “*She has some plans of her own for him, and there’s some spots off the beaten path I’d like to show her as well. She didn’t really get a good impression of the city last time she was there.*“

“*Aye, I heard about that stunt the chantry mothers pulled, as if Orlesians weren’t pissy enough about us already. Well, if you don’t think having your Kadan’s father along will cramp your style too much, I'd love to. There’s some old friends I haven’t seen in years, so I don’t mind giving you kids some space too. Thanks for the invitation.*“

“My pleasure,” Bull said, reverting back to the Trade tongue. “In the meantime, welcome to The Herald’s Rest, my home office.”

The tavern bustled with troops and mercs coming in from a shift change. Bull paused a moment in the shadows near the door to give Anaan a chance to adjust to the dim light and note the exits, and by the elder Adaar’s smile he appreciated the professional courtesy. Once Anaan signaled he was ready to move, the two giants easily parted the crowd and headed for the bar.

“Evening, Cabot.” Bull called to the dwarf behind the bar. “I’d like you to meet Master Anaan Adaar. He's a friend, so treat him right.”

Anaan offered his hand in greeting. “Stone-met, Serah Cabot. Nice place you’ve got here.”

The dwarf accepted the handshake, but waved off the greeting. “Cabot’s fine, I’m no deep lord. So, you’re the Inquisitor's dad, then?”

“I have that honor. You’re well-informed.”

Cabot shrugged. “Drunks talk, and there aren’t many Qunari in residence these days. Plus the name Adaar’s a bit of a hint. I wondered if you might be making an appearance.”

“Well, I thought about coming in sooner, but had some business to attend first. Better late than never!”

“Welcome all the same. Want your usual, Bull?”

“Sure, Cabot. What’s the mood tonight?”

“Spirited enlightenment,” Cabot replied sarcastically. “Also, drunk.”

Bull grinned. “Yeah? Heard anything interesting?”

“Orlais wants war. Now talks. Now fashionable hats. Now they've seen something shiny.”

“Oh, I like him,” Anaan laughed, placing coins on the bar. “Whatever Bull’s having, I’ll have the same. And meals for the Chargers as well. I’m picking up their first round. The Inquisitor’s got the second.”

“Right.” Cabot scooped up the gold, pulled two large tankards of his best dwarven stout and said, “Yvette will be over in a minute for the rest of the orders.” He nodded a dismissive salute. “Bull. Master Adaar.”

Bull escorted Anaan over to his private corner, and a chorus of greetings rose from the Chargers' table as he slapped his lieutenant on the shoulder.

“How you doing, Krem de la Creme?”

Krem rolled his eyes and clasped Anaan’s arm, saying, “Nice to see you again, Master Adaar. So glad the Chief has someone new to hit with that joke. Is the Inquisitor joining us too?”

“Call me Anaan, and not tonight, son, but she sends her best. And for what it’s worth, I can think of far worse places to go with ‘Cremisius’.”

“Oh, so can the Chief, believe me. He loves his nicknames.”

“There’s a good reason for that,” Anaan huffed, retrieving his pipe bag from his belt. “Under the Qun, our names were nothing but numbers. It’s how the Tamassrans track bloodlines. Then you got your identity stripped further once you're assigned a job. A place for everything, and everyone in their place. At least out here you can choose or earn them for better reasons. Consider it a compliment.”

He lit his pipe and continued, "Speaking of names, I recall meeting some of you out at the Freehold, but there wasn’t much chance to chat, so I thought I’d come buy a round and get to know some of the team that's helping my girl, and this big fella, stay alive.”

Bull propped his feet up and smiled into his cup at Anaan's easy charm, and the way his crew warmed up to the old man just as they had his daughter.

I can’t wait to get them to Val Royeaux now. We'll find Meraad that songbook, and I can show her my favorite restaurants and some specialty shops...

And then it hit him. For the first time, he wasn't going just as her bodyguard, he was taking her there as a lover. Dedicated bonding had been such a strange concept back when he was still partying in Orlais, what would it be like to visit some of his old haunts as a committed couple?

Now that I know more of her likes and interests, and how willing she is to learn, it should be a lot of fun. I can’t wait to see her reactions!

Holy shit, I really am in love! 

Anaan broke into his reverie. “I've gotta tell you, Bull, I’d heard good things about your company out on the road, but now that I’ve had a chance to properly meet them, I’m impressed. How’d you find them all?”

Bull glowed with pride as he regarded his team. “A lot of them got turned away from other companies that didn’t want a ‘knife-ear’ or a ‘crazy dwarf’, and in the beginning I wasn't in a position to be too picky. But as far as I'm concerned, you get my back in a fight and carry your own weight, you’re good with me. And the more I got to know these guys, the more I found I got the better men in the end. They just needed someone willing to appreciate their talents. ”

“And willing to put up with your bullshit, Chief!” Krem called, raising his tankard in respect. The Chargers laughed and raised their mugs in agreement, then suddenly began to sing:

“Noooooo man can beat the Chargers,‘cause we’ll hit you where it hurts.
Unless you know a tavern with loose cards, and looser skirts!
For every bloody battlefield we’ll gladly raise a cup,
No matter what tomorrow holds, our horns be pointing up!”

Anaan toasted and cheered with the team, and Bull was amused to discover how much Meraad’s rich belly laugh sounded just like her dad’s. It was a great laugh. He needed to get her to do it more often.

As the noise settled, Varric, Dorian, and Cullen arrived, and while pleasantries were exchanged with Anaan, Bull spotted the deck of cards, and the eager gleam in the dwarf’s eyes.

Don't do it...

“Tell me, Anaan," Varric casually inquired. "Do they ever play Wicked Grace in your village?”

Anaan looked surprised. “Wicked Grace? Oh no, we’re a pretty sedate bunch up there. Haven’t played that in years. I think I might remember something of how it works, though, if you happen to have a deck.”

Bull genuinely had to fight to keep the smile off his face.

Varric, you're working the wrong Adaar. And this one knows you’ve been fleecing his trusting daughter.

I could almost pity you this. 

...almost.

An hour later, Varric sat dumbfounded, and considerably lighter of purse, as Anaan swept in another large pile of coin. The dwarf raised his hands in a gesture of surrender while Cullen roared with unsympathetic laughter.

“Well, Anaan, thanks for at least buying drinks before violating me like that. I suppose I had that coming.”

Anaan’s violet eyes twinkled with mischief as he grinned around the stem of his pipe.

Varric chuckled, “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Thanks for the warning, Bull. Ass.”

“Hey, it’s not my fault you assumed crappy card skill was an inherited trait,” Bull replied. “Just hope you held back enough coin for the road, since we’re leaving in a couple of days.”

“That depends on whether Curly is still interested in playing…”

“Ohhh no, Dwarf. I’ll not be the balm to soothe your deservedly wounded pride tonight.” The Commander shook Anaan’s hand. “It was an immense pleasure to watch you work, Master Anaan. Have a lovely evening.”

As Cullen departed and Varric turned to encourage another game with their companions, Bull softly tapped his tankard against Anaan’s and said, “For Meraad.“

“For Meraad,” Anaan happily replied. “Ataash varin kata. “

‘In the end lies glory’ indeed. I only wish she’d been here to see this.

Speaking of glory in the end...

Bull stood and said, “Well, as much as I’ve enjoyed this, which is to say, a LOT, there’s a beautiful lady waiting for me to come home.”

Anaan rose beside him and threw his arm around Bull’s shoulder as they both headed for the door. 

“Feels pretty good to say that, doesn’t it?”

“You know, Anaan, it really does.”

The men crossed the upper courtyard toward the keep in companionable silence, until a flash of lantern light off a polished horn caught Bull’s attention. Meraad stood on the landing above, a parchment clutched in her hand, struggling to keep her emotions in check as they closed the distance.

“What is it, Kadan?

“Change of plans.” she said flatly. “This missive came in for you, Bull. Leliana found a lead on one of your old Ben-Hassrath contacts, but her scout sighted agents moving in on the same man. They can keep the Qunari occupied for a time, but you need to take the Chargers and extract him before we lose him.”

“Shit. Which means we could lose the scouts in Fallow Mire.”

“No, it doesn’t," she replied, her voice breaking. "I said you need to take the Chargers. I’m going to Fallow Mire to rescue my scouts.”

Bull felt gut-kicked. These would be the first missions they’d taken away from each other since becoming a couple, and neither knew what they were riding into.

“Do you know about how long you’ll be away?” Anaan asked. “Either of you?”

“No, Papa, we don’t.”

The elder Adaar sighed. “Then this needs to happen now, or potentially never. I’d hoped to wait until you met the rest of the family, Bull, but I couldn’t live with myself if I let my daughter, or you, make the same mistake I did with her mother.”

He drew forth a box from his belt pouch and lifted the lid, revealing two exquisitely crafted necklaces of dragon tooth and silverite on a bed of black velvet. Bull and Meraad stared at the pendants, then at each other, as the reality of what her father was proposing sank in.

Neither of them could vocalize, Is this still what you want? Am I?  But by the smile on her face, there was no doubt, and he agreed.

“Good. Then meet me in the garden in an hour, and bring any friends you trust enough to tell.”

Chapter Text

 

Thunder rolled across the Frostbacks as Anaan waited near the stone gazebo of Skyhold’s lush herb garden. The air was heavy with the scents of impending rain, the richness of fresh-turned earth, and the sweet fragrance of night-blooming jasmine and frangipani blossoms from the greenhouse. He closed his eyes and inhaled their intoxicating perfume, filled with memories of the vibrant gardens of Par Vollen he’d played in as a child.

I don’t know how she got those flowers down here, but I’ve no doubt she did it for Bull. Comforting scents of his first home, as my tobacco is to her. I’m glad they both appreciate how much those little touches matter while they’re still young in their journey together, especially at times like this.

The sound of footsteps through the torch-lit garden alerted him to the arrival of the Meraad and Bull’s friends, and he was interested to know who they’d chosen. Meraad’s four counselors, a good sign of her trust for them; Varric and Cole, who Anaan learned had assisted the couple in slaying the dragon; Krem, of course, and to Anaan’s pleasant surprise, Eton Turner.

“Welcome,” Anaan called softly, beckoning them all out of the misting rain to join him in under shelter.

“Good evening, Master Anaan,” Leliana cautiously replied. “Please, would you please this is about, and why you asked for guards to be moved from the area?”

“It would be my pleasure and privilege. You have all been personally chosen by my daughter, and her beloved, to bear witness this night to a very special ceremony. A handfasting.”

All three women gasped with delight, though Anaan immediately noted the flash of deep sorrow in Leliana’s eyes that belied her smile.

Josephine flustered, “Oh, please forgive my ignorance of your people’s customs, Master Anaan! I know nothing of the protocols for a Tal-Vashoth wedding, and at such short notice I fear I have no gift or…”

“It’s alright, Lady Josephine,” Anaan reassured. “There are no written ceremonies you could have learned from. The Tal-Vashoth aren’t a unified people, and Qunari have no concept of love matches. Nor do we follow any human, dwarf or elf gods to compare on religious rites. By all legal standards of your folk, this has no officially binding power. But to our folk, and to them, it’s as binding as any Chantry wedding.”

Varric chuckled. “Holy shit, I can’t believe they’re really doing it. Well, while I think this is great, I’m curious, why now? A honeymoon to the Fallow Mire doesn’t sound very romantic.”

“Because Bull isn’t going with you, Varric,” Leliana explained, her voice heavy with grief. “The Chargers are urgently needed elsewhere, and Meraad and Bull don’t know if... when they’ll be together again.”

“After all they’ve already been through..." Turner lamented. "That doesn’t seem fair, does it?”

“Life isn’t fair, Eton,” Anaan said. “And like it or not, we’re at war. But they’re both veterans, and their recent trials only reinforced to them just how precious their time together is. So, rather than focus on what they could lose, they’re seizing joy while they can, as a reminder of what they’re truly fighting for.”

“A candle in the window,” Turner whispered.

Anaan ruffled the scout’s hair affectionately. “Exactly.”

A flash of movement in the light near the eastern garden entrance caused all heads to turn, and soft applause and cheers rose from the assembly. Anaan’s heart swelled with pride to see Meraad and Bull, hand in hand, grinning broadly as they approached their assembled friends. Both were freshly washed and simply dressed without adornments, save only for a crown of pink and white frangipani flowers woven into Meraad’s flowing hair.

The old smith suddenly felt lightheaded as he stared at his daughter and her Kadan together.

Where has my little girl gone? How could I have known that terrified, lonely child I carried into the mountains all those years ago would grow to become the strong, loving woman I see before me?


Damn, what I wouldn’t give for Taar and Hissera to be here! She smiles just like you did on our handfasting day, Asha, back when we were both still young and hopeful. I dearly miss the woman you were, Kadan, and wish she could see how beautiful our Imekari is now. 

The happy couple greeted each of their excited friends and thanked them all for coming, before Bull reached into his pocket and drew forth a thin coil of silk rope, as per Anaan’s request. Her father held it up to the light to confirm its surprising color.

“It’s...pink, Bull.”

“Yup!”

Anaan chuckled and shrugged, then asked the assembly, “Are there any here who dispute this couple’s right to this bond? And I’ll say now, you’d better have a damned good reason if you do.”

Their friends all laughed, but none objected, and Anaan turned to the couple.

“Good. With that out of the way, I charge you both to answer me honestly, in front of all these witnesses, do you fully understand what you’re about to do, and do you enter into this union freely?”

Without hesitation, both Meraad and Bull looked into the other’s eyes and simultaneously said, “I do.”

Satisfied, Anaan announced to the smiling witnesses, “As you all know, a few weeks ago, this crazy young couple, along with Varric and Cole, conquered a high dragon. Most folks believe they did it solely to rid the countryside of a significant threat, but they had a greater, secret purpose to motivate them.”

Judging by the grin on Varric’s face, Anaan had no doubt he’d known of the plan, but the others, except for Cole, looked confused. It was a true sign of Varric’s trustworthiness that he’d kept their secret, even from her counselors, and Anaan vowed to reward him well for it.

“The Qunari call dragons Ataashi, meaning ‘glorious ones’,” Anaan continued. “And the beasts hold a place of great reverence to our ancestors. They had an ancient custom, whereby two people who care deeply for each other would take a dragon’s tooth, split it in half, and both carry an equal piece, so that no matter how far apart life may take them, they'd always be together. Obviously, to obtain that tooth from a dragon that’s reluctant to part with it is a tremendous test of strength, both of body and of will. But it also tests the strength of the couple’s commitment, since failure could mean death for both partners, so it's never undertaken lightly. The tooth is a perpetual reminder that the best things in life are worth fighting hard for.”

He rested his hands on Meraad and Bull’s shoulders. “I had never heard of anyone in recent memory even attempting it, so imagine my surprise when my sweet girl told me she and her chosen had not only tried, but succeeded.”

The smith opened the velvet-lined box containing their pendants and slowly walked around the circle to display them to their astonished witnesses. Each half of the engraved tooth was capped in gleaming silverite, with a cabochon of semi-precious stone inset at the top near the pendant’s bail; Bull’s set with polished pink dawnstone, Meraad’s with vibrant blue turquoise, and as an artisan, Anaan reveled in the collective approval of the assembly.

Kadan,” Anaan declared. “In Qunlat, it means ‘my heart’. We’re a frugal people by nature, so the word can mean many things depending on the speaker, from a dear friend, to someone you hold as kin, or in this context, your beloved.” He offered Meraad and Bull their pendants, suspended on fine chains of silverite that could be adjusted to varying lengths as the wearer needed, and gestured to his daughter to proceed.

Meraad lovingly clasped her turquoise pendant around Bull’s broad neck and vowed, “I, Meraad Adaar, freely dedicate myself as the life and lovemate of The Iron Bull, in perfect love and perfect trust, in joy and adversity, in wholeness and brokenness, in peace and turmoil, living with him faithfully all our days, so long as love shall last.”

Bull tenderly caressed her skin as he clasped his dawnstone pendant around her neck, responding, “I, The Iron Bull, freely dedicate myself as the life and lovemate of Meraad Adaar, in perfect love and perfect trust, in joy and adversity, in wholeness and brokenness, in peace and turmoil, living with her faithfully all our days, so long as love shall last.”

A chorus of happy sighs and sniffles answered as Anaan offered the couple a chalice of sweet Antivan wine, bidding them to each take a sip, then offer the cup to the other.

“This toast symbolizes the need for balance between apartness and togetherness in your future life together.”

He took the chalice and asked the couple to cross and join their hands, left to right, right to left, then he artfully bound their hands together, tying off the ends with an elaborate decorative knot.

“Let this handfasting, and the tying of this knot, stand as symbols of your commitment to one another, though never an onerous one. If either of you have anything else you’d like to say, now’s the time.”

“Ladies first, Kadan ,” Bull grinned.

Meraad tearfully smiled. “When I first met you, The Iron Bull, I completely underestimated you. I thought you were a cocky, arrogant, incredibly sexy meat-shield who was everything I wanted to be as a leader, and all completely out of my reach. And while you are a cocky, incredibly sexy meat-shield, you're also a gentle, kind, intelligent, compassionate, and loving man of great passion and depth. You are my Kadan , my dearest heart, my light in the darkness, my anchor in the storm, and the truest friend of my body and soul. You helped guide me to find my own strength while selflessly sharing yours, and I love you so very much. No matter what may come, I am now, and will forever be, yours.”

“I love you too, Meraad Adaar,” Bull softly replied. “I'd never fully understood the concept of romantic love before, nor would I have believed it possible for someone like me if I had. Like the tides you were named for, you can be gentle and life-giving, or fierce and tempestuous, and that makes you a thrilling challenge to me. Your passion for life excites me in ways I’d never expected, and whether you realize it or not, you’ve helped me find myself too. You are a beautiful, complex, intricate knot, and I‘m honored to be the one you’ve trusted to unbind you, even as I’m bound to you. I’m a better man for knowing you, Kadan. And while I may have found a family in my team, it wasn’t until loving you that I finally found a home. I am now, and will also forever be, yours.” He grinned lasciviously. “And for the record, you have a really great ass.”

“And just when I started thinking that couldn’t possibly be Bull talking, there he is,” Varric chuckled.

Anaan laughed and asked the assembly, “Do you here in witness acknowledge and accept this union?”

Their friends smiled at each other and all responded, “We do.”

Anaan planted a lingering kiss on his daughter’s head, and cleared his throat against a lump of conflicting emotions. “My advice to you both, be understanding and patient with each other. Keep your sense of humor and appreciate all the little things. Don’t ever let mistrust or jealousy come between you, but be free in the giving of affection, and stay true and open in your feelings. I’m proud of you both, and you are both very loved. No matter what happens, you’re going to be okay. Never doubt that."

With one gentle pull, Anaan unraveled the cord that bound them, saying, "Now you will feel no rain, for each of you will be the shelter for the other. Now you will feel no cold, for each of you will be the warmth to the other. Now you are two persons, but there is only one life before you. Go now to your home to enter into the days of your life together, and may those days be good and long."

The moment their hands were freed, Bull happily swept Meraad into his arms and they shared their first breathless kiss as husband and wife, encouraged by the joyful cheers of their close friends. They stayed only a few minutes more to share a drink and accept the well wishes of their companions, before Anaan playfully barked at them to quit wasting time and enjoy the night while they had it.

They both gratefully embraced Anaan in farewell, then clasped hands and raced toward their quarters, laughing like excited children on Satinalia as their companions applauded. 

Anaan put his arm around Turner’s slim shoulders. “So, son, did you think when you first found your way to my doorstep that we’d ever end up here?”

The scout grinned, still a bit stunned by what he’d just witnessed. “No, Anaan, I didn’t, but I’m so glad we have. And if it’s not out of place for me to say, I pray the Maker will bless and keep them both.”

“All blessings of good intent are welcome, Eton. They’ll need them in the days to come. Thank you.”

He closed his eyes, savoring the scent of Meraad’s flowers as the thunder pealed above them.

Whatever beneficial spirits linger in this place, please watch over Meraad and Bull. Protect them in their travels, keep their hearts strong, and always guide them safely back to each other.

And please, help them end this damned war quickly because I really want to meet my grandkids.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Update -- March 2018

Although this story originally completed back in March 2016, while working on the latest installments of the series I made significant development on the background of Meraad's home village, Riesen-Tal, as well as my HC interpretation of the Ansburg region as a whole. After extensive research and development, I've loosely based the area on 18th century Austria, and decided the native dialect of their remote village is a blend of Ansburgian (German, favoring Austria) infused with dwarven / Trade tongue, and Qunlat, as well as colloquial slang of the Free Marches (including title use such as Serah and Messere, for example).

To that end, I've revised the early chapters of this story featuring Hissera (chapters 5 and 8 specifically) to reflect the flavor of that dialect, particularly in Aunt Hissera, who was born and raised there.  Along the way, it turned out that Hissera, Turner and Anaan had a few more things to say about the situation at hand, so for the sake of my beloved long-time readers I wanted to post a note here to alert of the revision.

A few other key scenes also underwent some editing a few months ago that may have been missed (the NSFW chapter 15 for one), so I would be delighted if friends and fans of the series might sneak a peek and tell me what you think.


This Appendices chapter will soon be home to a gallery of concept art I'm working on for the series as well -- stay tuned for updates!