Chapter 1: Wolf Meet
There had been more survivors than expected from all the races. Not only the ancient Elves, who he had been confident were safe, but also their short-lived modern descendants as well as the Humans, Dwarves and Qunari. There had been deaths but it had not been absolute annihilation or even widespread. He thought the quicklings would not survive long, but was mostly relieved to have predicted incorrectly. It would have been a most regrettable sacrifice, but the alternative was unacceptable. For over a thousand years, the death of every elf had been on his hands, the loss of their immortality a consequence of his dreadful mistake in creating the veil. It was true that the survival of the mortals created complications in the matter of land rights, the humans in particular had ridiculous nationalistic claims against many of the ancient places, but he was confident that time and superior power would cause the fools to cede to the wisdom of their elders and inevitably capitulate. His kind were still greatly diminished in number but they had forever to expand their numbers and hopefully the shemlen elves would birth new generations that were as long-lived as their antecedents. Perhaps they would live longer themselves in the absence of the veil.
One of them stood before him now, shockingly charismatic for one so young, so shallow in experience. She spoke with confidence and apparent familiarity, called him by his true name, Solas. She seemed as though she knew him well, her voice breaking at times, perhaps with anger or perhaps softer sensibilities. She brushed impatiently at her eyes and blinked slowly at times. Was she concealing tears? Were they of anger or sorrow or something more complex? Did they all have such sharply unavoidable emotions? he wondered. When he awoke to the veil, he had found it difficult to discern whether they had any depth or finer sensibilities at all but over time his perceptions changed. All the same, he had not expected to see the expression of such passionate feeling for her kind and the other shemlen as well. She was surprisingly sophisticated in her arguments. She was … compelling. He agreed to most of her requests. Her reasoning was sound and did not conflict with his own goals. Besides, undignified though it was, he must seek to establish diplomatic relations with the various shemlen so they would understand the need to ally with him if the Forgotten Ones or the more dangerous of the Evanuris escaped their prisons before he was ready to deal with them. The concessions he made now would go a long way towards that aim.
Why did she continue standing there? She had made her arguments. He had agreed. Why did she seem to be expecting more?
He must have met her in the time after he woke from Uthenera, Yes, he was certain she had helped him. Was she Cassandra? No, that one had been human. He hoped she had survived, it was clear from what he had read in his journals that the Seeker had been an admirable creature of faith and purpose.
He looked at the woman before him, a female elf, one of the Dalish. This must be Inquisitor Lavellan then. Unfortunately, someone, perhaps even himself, had destroyed many of the passages in his writings that concerned themselves specifically with his personal accounting of her. He relied on those journals to tell him of what had happened in between the time he awoke from Uthenera to when he had fixed what he had broken. The efforts themselves had been personally damaging. He had overextended himself badly and due to the strain, he had lost a great deal of his recent memory following the discovery that he could not activate his own orb. He knew that his initial attempts to repair the harm he had done had been as wrong-footed as his acts in creating that same harm. He knew that he had joined an organization called The Inquisition, that this very young woman had led it and had therefore been instrumental in salvaging Thedas from his errors. He knew something of her virtues, weaknesses, habits and triumphs by reputation, if not reminiscence. He owed her much. She had helped him put it right, no matter how unwittingly, no matter the cost.
“I thank you, Inquisitor, for everything you have done that brought us to this moment. I admire what you have accomplished. There is no need for you to submit to further formalities in obtaining the promises I have made to you. They will not be forgotten. You may take your leave. One of my sentinels will be honoured to show you around the estate, should it please you.”
She nodded abruptly and turned, pausing once to almost, almost, glance back at him before continuing on, her shoulders sagging slightly.
It was unfortunate he had no memory of her. She was clearly remarkable.
It was a small price to pay, he thought.
Dara had a moment of foreboding, little things felt wrong. There was sudden silence among the small creatures around their campsite. Even the breeze had stopped as if the air had withdrawn into itself. Then a blast of wind rushed over her back, nearly flattening her, as a thunderous shriek split the air. A dragon had sailed over the ridge. It was probably as surprised by them as they were by it, but she was fairly certain the inconvenient bugger’s response would not be to just keep flapping along on it’s merry, leather-winged way. Nope, they probably had a good long slog ahead of them of infuriating it’s cranky self to death by lobbing spells and arrows and poking at it with pointy things while dodging it’s searing attacks. With a massive gout of flame, the dragon attacked the camp and most of the inhabitants ran to arms. At first Dara was terrified when she couldn’t spot Lace, but she looked at the crest of the hill just in time to see Scout Harding darting swiftly away between the rocks and shrubs towards a deep, rocky overhang that was likely the safest bit of nearby shelter. She wasn’t sure how she really felt about her own dear love leaving her behind without a backward glance. However, she was sure her fellow surfacer had a perfectly pragmatic explanation as to why it made excellent sense. She looked forward to hearing it. She looked forward to Lace finding several ways of persuading her to not be upset. Too bad they wouldn’t be sharing their tent tonight. It was on fire.
In my head-canon For Lace Harding her combat skills are not those of someone who relishes battle. She is quite lethal, but relies on stealth, so most people/creatures don't even know she's there before they meet a quick death. She's not up for the blood-thirsty, prolonged, brutality of battling a dragon, but any dragonlings it calls will probably not even get close to the fighting.
She had been sleeping too heavily. She had not woken to the gentle tug on her magic of the wards being disarmed, the restless noises the animals would have made at the approach of a stranger and the quiet sounds of someone stealthily entering her small cabin. She’d been so exhausted from the day’s hard work that she’d gone to bed early instead of sitting through the gradual sunset of summer solstice. The sun had still not extinguished when she woke to the sound of someone in armour moving a few feet away from her. She sat up abruptly and pressed herself against the wall beside the bed crouching with her legs curled under her, out of the immediate reach of the intruder. Her arms on either side of her in an illusion of surrender, but her hand was placed close to a hidden dagger. She looked into the eyes of her living nightmare and knew the weapon was useless to her. She could never manage a pre-emptive strike or move in time to defend herself against him if he chose to attack and even if she did, he was twice her size, could negate magic and had two hands to her one. She tried to calm herself with the thoughts that he hadn’t tried to kill her while her only protection was a thin blanket, he hadn’t stripped her of her magic, he hadn’t attacked her in any way. (Yet… a small sharp inner voice spoke to her)
The man jerked a chair over and sat down, folding his arms in front of him, an act that was both intimidating and calming at the same time. Whatever he had come for, it wasn’t to cut her down as soon as she was in reach of his sword. The fading sunlight shone on his face with such a blazing gold that he looked more like a brutal, metallic construct than a man. He stared expressionlessly at her and said nothing for a long time.
“You! You owe me an explanation. Several explanations.” he barked.
She didn’t quite manage to suppress the way the sudden noise made her flinch and knew that it had revealed her fear of him, as if that had been in any doubt. To evoke fear was doubtless his purpose. He wanted her to be as on guard as he clearly was himself, there would be no careless moves to provoke an unfortunate reaction. The best way to handle him would be to not to try to “handle” him. Soft words would not soothe him, quite the opposite, in fact.
“As I recall, I was doing that very thing when you flew into a rage, used both a spell purge and a holy smite on me and while l knelt on the floor gasping for breath, you grabbed a valued staff and smashed it against a stone mantle until it was nothing but splinters and shattered crystal, while ranting about lyrium shackles, blood magic and tranquility. Every possible curse that anyone could aim at a mage was thrown at me. I left as soon as I could rise to my feet and stagger away and if I looked back then or at all in my subsequent journeys these past months, it was simply to ensure you weren’t chasing me down. Why are you here?”
“You wrote to me many times.”
“Not once did I suggest you drop in any time or hint as to where I would be should you decide to do so. Again, why are you here? I’m not the only one who can provide the information you need to fill in that substantial gap in your memory. I’m not even the best source of information. I wasn’t there with you prior to the conclave and I was away on missions more than I was with you when I was the Herald. There are others who would know more about the details of your life and whose word you would trust. You wouldn’t even had need to consort with “lying, dissembling Maleficar”. You could have received adequate explanations from several of our trusted companions, some of whom were known to you prior to your lost years, one of whom is the Divine herself. I would hope you wouldn’t term their words demon tricks?”
“None of them are my wife.”
“You’ve chosen to take my word on that now have you? Or were you simply assured of it so many times with verbal descriptions of my appearance, perhaps accompanied by sentimental portraits and published histories of the inquisition that you were forced into acceptance of the idea that you, Cullen Rutherford, former Knight-Captain of the Gallows had willingly wed a mage.”
He looked away from her, his jaw tight, a scowl creasing his brow. It was actually a good sign. He was no longer studying her like a hunter facing down a cornered predator and his eyes were briefly downcast like he might be experiencing at least a flicker of shame. Truthfully she felt a little shame for the way she had abandoned him. He’d been damaged by poison meant for her, he survived what would have certainly ended her life. He couldn’t help that he had lost so much of his memory going back to the time prior to the Kirkwall explosion but that loss also meant that he couldn’t help thinking of mages as dangerous, and as less than people. He was wrathfully paranoid and trained to react ruthlessly against her kind. She was certain that none of the vows they made when they married meant willingly remaining at the side of someone who was what you feared most. She would not stay by a man who was so angered by her mere existence that he had bullied and threatened her grievously and had given her every reason to believe he could carry out worse. She had not expected him to easily accept her presence when he had so much shock and upheaval to deal with but she also hadn’t expected him to attack her when she was alone with him for a few minutes. When they first became close, he had occasionally spoken of his Templar past as though he had been a danger to any mage due to his terror of magic, but she had never been able to see it in the carefully-spoken man she knew until her beloved husband had transformed into a flat-eyed, shouting beast who used her own magic against her. Even though his templar powers were weak without lyrium, it had felt brutal.
She had travelled for months to avoid him while leaving an ample trail of letters to be passed through the hands of friends, letters that made it clear that an answer would find her if he wished to reach out to her in any way, even if only to ask that their marriage be annulled. She had received exactly two terse notes from him, both rejecting direct contact at the time of writing, neither seeking any answers from her. She had written him weekly for 6 months before she stopped, then hadn’t tried to contact him in 4 more, not since she had decided to settle on her own on this remote parcel of land. The fact that it was inaccessible without passing through the territory on which Cassandra was re-establishing the Seekers had made it appealing to her. She didn’t wish to be traceable by anyone other than the scant handful of people she could still trust. It was secure and protected against unexpected visitors, or it least it should have been. She wanted a solitary refuge in which to simply sink from sight. She wished to be rumoured dead or irretrievably missing. She had no desire for visitors, not wanting proximity to put others at the risk of harm, not after what happened to Cullen. And she wanted to avoid him. She had given up hope of anything, even a clean break, from him. She had finally admitted to herself that she was incapable of coping with her fear of the vast array of hurt he could deal to her. Every letter had she had sent, no matter the tone, whether it was angry or conciliatory, no matter the actual words, or how mundane or impersonal the subject, had the same implicit plea under the surface “Don’t hurt me again”. But she had avoided staying in any place for more than a few weeks because she would open herself to the possibility he could. She let go of her anger at him at the same time she had let go of hope that there would ever be any possibility of repairing what they had lost, just an eventual ending. She had assumed that their ties, when cut, would be cut with the assistance of intermediaries. Rather than continue to delay any plans for the future due to questions of his part in it, she chose to start a quiet life for herself on land that been bequeathed to her directly by a noble who died after the inquisition had been formally disbanded.
Informally was another matter, in truth, the Inquisition she had led was over, but the Divine Victoria had begun immediately to set up a shadow inquisition to stabilize Thedas as most of the formal organizations had been thoroughly decimated by the machinations of Corypheus and the various civil wars that had broken out before and after the explosion at the conclave. It’s core purpose was to prepare for the looming threat of Fen’Harel and his plan to unmake the world. She could have no part of it other than as a figurehead and as a figurehead, her main function would have been as a target for the ire of malcontents. She’d had more than enough of attracting dangerous attention.
He looked back to her before he spoke again. At first his voice, though he spoke clearly, was barely above a whisper. “I’m no longer so lost as to assume our marriage could only be the result of trickery and illusion…. I have no clear idea of what should happen between us, but I regret what did happen the last time I saw you. I am sorry for the way I mistreated you. I am sorry that you were unsafe with someone who had promised you a lifetime of love and loyalty. I have questions and the answers I need most can only come from you. I can not make any important decisions or put a foot in any direction, never mind put anything right until I can talk to you. ”
He hesitated, looking like it was hard to choose what it was he wanted answered first.
“We were married, that is …unusual in my experience, not only because you are a mage…. But … What were our plans had marriage between elves and humans not been recognized by the chantry?”
“We would have remained together, that much I know… You asked me to commit to a life with you beyond our bonds through the inquisition. We wouldn’t have tried to make a home with my clan or your family, we were not suited for those lives. We left Skyhold and were in the process of disentangling ourselves from the inquisition to lead our own lives together. We had long assumed that marriage between humans and elves would eventually be possible, since both Cassandra and Leiliana were the most likely candidates to become Divine and they were equally clear that they intended to make that possible. There was no likelihood of success for any who were more conservative about such changes since my support was felt to be crucial in selecting a new divine.”
“Given your position in the faith, given what you experienced, did you become an Andrastian?”
“No. I did accept the possibility that there was much that was true behind the faith, but I did not convert. I have always been open-minded about other beliefs. the Dalish faith is rooted in a tradition that was based in what was regarded as historical truth, a history that intersects with accounts of other peoples. I would say I retained a necessarily altered version of my Dalish beliefs and became convinced that there was a great deal of fact supporting the exaltation of Andraste’s life, but also much that had been obscured to suit the organizations that carried on her faith. I was confronted with uncomfortable truths that changed my own beliefs, I battled one of the ancient Tevinter magisters who despoiled the Golden City and having physically entered the fade and witnessed the Dark City myself, I can not dismiss any articles of faith out of hand, simply because they aren’t my own.” She was unsurprised that one of Cullen’s first questions touched on faith, his own had been crucial to his ability to persevere.
“You refer to your Dalish beliefs as necessarily altered, why?”
“I met two of The Creators, our old Gods. They referenced a world of the ancients which was radically different from the tales the Dalish have handed down. They were far from what I had been taught to expect. One was in the form of a bitter and dangerous human witch who aided us because it served her purpose, though I do not know what it truly was. The other was one of our companions in the inquisition.”
“Solas? There have been attempts to explain him to me, but I can’t make sense of them. He was an immortal God? Not simply a powerful apostate who was perhaps a little mad?”
“He was sufficiently immortal that he was immune to the aging and disease that ends most lives, that much I believe. He would say that none of them were ever Gods and that power had made them dangerous and perhaps a little mad. Unfortunately he seems determined to embrace that danger and madness to bring back the world of the ancient elves. I am not the person to lead that fight. He knows too much about my ways whereas I don’t know enough about his true nature. When I last saw him he was resigned to the need to eventually cut away his kinder tendencies and ruthlessly sacrifice anything to achieve his aim.”
“He is an enemy then. You have a surprising number of enemies for someone who literally saved Thedas.”
“Not so surprising. There were many who suffered irreplaceable losses in the wars that decimated Thedas and they will happily curse all the sides who fought each other. Besides, I had enough power that my influence was feared, I crossed the interests of others and there were no claims on my loyalty that were based in debts that could be called in. By defeating one bringer of destruction, I opened the door for the next. There will be those that blame me for his rise, even though it seems to have been inevitable. Solas is far removed from being an ally. Even if he wouldn’t harm me directly, I have no doubt that those who might seek him would.”
“Is that what happened when I was poisoned?”
“I … I don’t know….. We were able to trace the hired assassin, but she and her associates had been completely wiped out less than a day after the attempt. There were no clues to even hint at who hired them.”
“What can you tell me of the first time we met? I know about our positions in the Inquisition, but what do you remember of our first encounter? What did you think initially? I can’t imagine that I presented an inviting figure to a mage, that I was anyone you would have been drawn to.”
“It was at the remains of the Temple of Sacred Ashes, I was there to to attempt to close the breach, I’m… I’m sure you’ve been told of the rifts and the mark I once carried. You had been battling the demons that were emerging from the tears in the fade. Cassandra, Seeker Pentaghast introduced us on the battlefield, you were the Commander of the inquisition, I was simply “the prisoner”. Despite the suspicion I was under you spoke and looked at me with kindness. It gave me comfort in a terrifying situation. I wasn’t successful in repairing the breach that day, but I did manage to stabilize it enough that the onslaught of demons ended. When I collapsed from the effort, you caught me as I sank to the ground. We have often disagreed but that first encounter made you someone I trusted.” Her voice trailed away as she spoke of the trust she had for him in the past. She didn’t trust him anymore and that thought stopped all other words she might have spoken.
They had spent years building a deeply layered bond together only to have it shred after poisoned fruit had passed his lips.
He nodded then frowned like he was puzzling something out. After a long pause he spoke in a voice at first so soft she could barely hear. … “I have remembered fragments of that. There is so much gone from my memory and what returned is frustrating. I have to unravel a snarl of disconnected strands to mesh with the accounts I’ve heard. I know something of the big events we lived through but none of the little moments of my life, of our life together. I want the emotions that can give meaning to mere facts. I need those most…… I have recovered flashes that all run together; dragons, false Gods, tears in reality that connected to the fade, one so vast it swirled in the sky over the mountains. I remember a little about the explosion that levelled the Kirkwall chantry, but I can’t entirely sort it out from the explosion at the conclave, and mixed in with that is Meredith’s unhinged tyranny culminating in the sight of her turned into a horrifying red statue, and I see monstrous creatures crusted with the same crystal, one of them enormously tall tossing someone I know was you like a doll before an avalanche buried a village…. I remember feeling something break inside me at the sight. I couldn’t draw breath or stand, everything turned into a blur of pain and when my head cleared I was on my knees …. “
He couldn’t remember how it felt to love her, but he remembered how it hurt to lose her.
They were both silent for a long time after that.
“Were we already… involved when that happened?”
“No, we had barely even flirted. And anyway I flirt a little with everyone when I’m getting to know them. We were more drawn to each other than I realized. You were what I thought of most when I regained consciousness and struggled through a blizzard to where the survivors had set up camp. When we reached Skyhold you told me you’d never stand back and allow what happened in Haven to happen again, especially to me, … I didn’t realize until later that you had strong feelings for me. I thought you were speaking as a dutiful Commander, but you were speaking as a friend who genuinely valued me, more so, you were speaking as someone who felt something deeper than friendship… You haven’t ever told me about your pain when I fell with Haven. Hearing it now …. it’s something new to me.”
“You use the word friendship, so there would have been affection and loyalty even if we hadn’t formed a romantic bond. What we had was based on more than attraction and common purpose.”
She was drained, the adrenaline that had rushed through her on awakening had faded and the mental exhaustion brought about by his mere presence left her barely able to form coherent thoughts. She’d gone almost a year without setting eyes on him and now that he was apparently ready to talk rationally, she just wanted to sleep.
“I’m sure you have many more questions but I ask that we continue in the morning.”
“I do have more and I would prefer to wait for morning too. What I hope to learn will take days at the very least and I have no plans to leave this place while questions remain. I won’t go off to rest elsewhere only to return to your absence.”
“So you trust me not to become an abomination while you have me cornered in an isolated cabin but not to remain in place under such circumstances? I suppose that is an improvement in a warped sort of a way.”
“I suppose it is.”
“Will you actually sleep? Or spend the night watching me for any signs of possession with your hand clutching at your pommel for dear life?”
That was a bit cruel she thought. It verged on mocking him over the horrors he survived at Kinloch, but it was hard not to be a little salty over the possibility her husband might be jittery enough to run her through over the inability to awaken quickly from a bad dream, the sort of dream his own hostile presence could evoke.
She was badly afraid of him. It would be a long time before that might change.
“I suppose we will both have to soften our mutual distrust in order to avoid any pre-emptive murdering.” He growled and then stared at the wall next to her hand. ”A good first step might involve slowly removing whatever you’ve got hidden there and placing it between us, along with anything else you have hidden, I will find it all anyway. Point out the staffs and I’ll move them to a corner, and I won’t damage any of them this time. I’ll set aside my weapons and armour in return.”
“After I’ve disarmed myself?”
“Of things I could easily take away? Yes.”
In lieu of an answer, she removed the dagger from the hiding place, as well as another she had between the mattress and headboard, a short sword she had secured discretely to the back leg of a bedside table and glass flasks with disabling contents that were hidden in plain sight.
“You’re well-armed for a mage.”
“I’m Dalish, I was never prevented from learning hands-on combat skills like the circle mages were and besides, you insisted I enhance my command of physical fighting and stealth to protect myself if I was unable to cast. It saved my life more than once.”
He methodically began removing his gauntlets, pauldrons, and greaves while watching her carefully. Partway through unbuckling the breastplate, he looked puzzled and froze, then rubbed the back of his neck in a painfully familiar gesture, one that she was shaken to realize she still found intensely endearing. She looked away and barely managed to keep her sharp intake of breath from turning into a sob. He placed his sword on the table and removed the dagger from his boot before he removed the boots themselves. He glanced around the room with a deepening frown. He seemed to be looking for a place to rest and was spotting nothing that seemed likely. The wooden chairs were small, rough and uncomfortable, the table inadequate in every way and the floor was cluttered and piled leaving little space for anyone to lie down somewhat straight other than directly next to the bed and that made the prospect somehow ridiculous. He also did not seem to have entered carrying anything that would be useful to a traveller looking for a place to bunk down.
“Where is your sleeping roll?.”
“A very bad bear shredded it in an attempt to shred me. I cut him up in revenge.”
Well that was unexpected. It was (almost) a joke. Even if it did involve slaughter and enraged woodland creatures, she thought.
She knew neither of them would feel especially comfortable so near to each other, she wondered if either of of them would actually sleep. However, he was determined to stay in the same one-roomed cabin as her and she had no interest in bolting barefoot into the night to avoid it. Certainly, that would be far from productive or sensible in any way. It felt mildly reassuring to think that it was more practical to remain under the same roof with him rather than run off for her own safety. Still, she wasn’t sure if her next suggestion would be pragmatic. Should she make things easy for him after he had entered her solitary home knowing he was unwelcome? If there was no place for him to rest comfortably on the floor, maybe he should just put up with discomfort.
They hadn’t shared the same bed since the second night in Antiva City, before everything went to ashes. After that their room had been bustling with healers, friends and Antivan officials, some of whom had no official business connected to investigating or otherwise reacting to the attempt on her life and were clearly there to rubberneck at the Inquisitor and the tragic effects of the assassination attempt. It eventually caused even Josephine’s remarkable diplomacy to snap and she’d raged through the guest quarters of her home throwing out all who were not necessary in treating Cullen. He was unconscious or raving for a day and a half. She didn’t leave their room until he awoke. She rarely left it in the following month while he recovered. Later she’d wished that she curled up next to him on the bed and taken her rest there instead of on the Orlesian-style lounge in front of the fireplace. She had hung back because she hadn’t wanted to get in the way of the healers. She watched mistrust grow in his eyes as his memory failed to return and the accounting of the unbelievable truth of the years they had shared added to his confused frustration rather than clearing it. Looking back, she felt like sleeping by his side might have made a difference to how he reacted when he awoke to a strange new world, though that probably wasn’t a logical thought. It would have made difference to her. it would have been one more small thing to hold on to when she found herself an unwanted stranger to her husband.
“Sleep beside me then. If you are going to stay here, the bed is the most practical option. It’s more than large enough for us both and we’ll have a better idea of what the other is doing if our sounds and movements disturb the other in the dark. We won’t need to startle at every shuffle and sigh as you try to rest on an uncomfortable floor or I turn on a bed that creaks.”
The only light remaining in the room was moonlight through the window. She had no fire in the hearth on such a warm day and neither of them had lit candles when the sun’s light faded away.
As he lay down, she shifted away till she was on her left side with her back to the wall and her legs curled in front of her. He rolled so he faced her, one arm stretched in front of him, as if he was ready to grab her wrist.
She stared out the window across the room, trying to find enough peace to relax by counting the stars. Despite their exhaustion, it felt like hours before either of them unwound enough to slumber, and they both did so fitfully, often waking themselves as much as each other by moving or making noise. She made a point of not looking at him, he had the unsettling habit of occasionally slitting his eyes open as he slept, so she couldn’t be sure when he was watching her, when he was unconscious or, for that matter, when closed eyes meant he was merely trying to fall asleep.
They both finally settled into a deep sleep after the birds began their morning chorus when the night sky paled before daybreak.
This was the first piece I wrote in this series. Butlercream's work "For You, Always" gets huge credit for getting me started and this chapter in particular owes the most to that work as it also concerns Lavellan+Rutherford dealing with the consequences of Cullen's memory loss under similar circumstances. That piece went into a short hiatus after the 11th instalment was posted (IIRC) and prompted some wondering on my part about whathappensnext(!?) Ultimately, I stopped speculating, replaced her Lavellan with mine and started writing a version for that character. I've been sitting on it for a while, editing to correct obvious defects in writing and revising it if I thought there was too much overlap. I'm not sure if I was more delighted or dismayed to read the following line when it returned, since it was a central premise of mine; "She had very few options aside from living by herself in the country." Well, honestly, "central premise" beyond the one I'd already glommed on to.
Chapter 4: Tea-Time In Antiva.
“So, do you wish for sugar or do you prefer to drink it without the sweetness?" Josephine smiled as she poured the tea into the tiny, exquisite cups. "Sweet, thank you", Esa answered patting her hand. She held out the cup to him and another to her younger sister who was seated with them in the lavish sitting room. The afternoon sun streaming through the tall windows was shining in his eyes, he pushed himself back until his face was out of the brightness.
When he first moved to Antiva, the vibrant colours and bold designs that were popular there had dazzled him almost to the point of dizziness. He had grown up in a Carta family that esteemed “good, solid, Dwarven craftsmanship” which meant geometric furniture that was either hewn out of a rock or made of heavy hardwood that was carved to mimic the look and feel of a rock. You were not offered a thin cushion as a simple comfort but rather as an acknowledgement of prestige. As the youngest child he had the least of anything, he had also resultingly been a low-ranking member of his House. He had spent many Carta meetings shifting on a sore backside. It was part of why he had been such a practiced rogue, greatly preferring to accept obligations that brought him action and risk and enabled him to avoid the numbing possibilities of planned gatherings. Antivans sat on soft, deep settees overflowing with cushions made of lavish textiles to support your shoulders or lower back depending on size, there were small, flat pillows to go under your boots when you rested them on upholstered footstools or oversized poufs that were also used as extra seats and there were tiny needlepoint squares that were filled with dried botanicals for scent. Ornaments often rested on little padded mats. The best weapons in the estates’ armoury were cradled inside cushioned display cases. After the first week, the riot of colour and pattern had stopped assaulting his eyes and he lay back in his soft new nest and vowed never to leave Antiva for long unless he had to save the world again, and as that had turned to be someone else’s job, he had rarely left the country. When he did, he usually packed an extra bag full of pillows.
His relatives and former colleagues would often visit for the reason of seeking his input in disputes. Until a few years ago there would be some contrivance to have Josie present for supposedly secret Carta business. As he, himself was formerly Carta, there was really no reason for him to be involved either, as far as such things went, but they claimed that as the Inquisitor, even though that was something else he no longer was, he had a unique position of consequence and as the Inquisition’s former Ambassador, not to mention head of her family’s business, Josie’s’ skills and connections made her an invaluable expert on trade. This was true, but her status as an outsider would have normally disqualified her from such a deep involvement in Carta business. Esa was pleased to be generous with his time and advice. Truthfully, he unreservedly enjoyed his people now that he was no longer squabbling with those closest to him for position and respect. He enjoyed playing generous host to those who had once outranked him, not to rub their nose in his status, but because he was happy to ignore it as something outside of his life. His sense of vanity left him pleased to be treated as a wise elder statesman and his need to be useful was satisfied by the extent to which he took it seriously. He loved watching their enjoyment of the Montilyet hospitality he had married into, especially amongst first-time visitors who always looked mightily perturbed at the intensely busy Antivan style of his home. After a welcoming boar-hunt and a couple of evenings of sitting on silk velvet and quilted satin filled with down and other absurdly soft things, they’d be putting their feet up, leaning back in a chair and grinning at each other in unconcealed delight.
“Yvette! what have you done to your hair! Is this some sort of new fashion? Why stripes?!” At least once a day Josephine asked her younger sister about the broad streaks of silver in her dark hair. Yvette gave her usual answer. “I came by the style in Orlais” It was true, after all. Yvette had been happily married for over thirty years to a minor Orlesian noble. He had died suddenly and she returned to her homeland several years ago to live with them. Her children were grown and could travel by ship to visit her at the Montilyet family estate just outside Antiva city with greater ease than they could have, had Yvette remained in the remote country home where she’d raised her family. She preferred the liveliness of her sister’s residence over the quiet that had descended on her own home. Josephine had no remaining memory of her sister’s marriage or that of any of her other siblings, she was always enchanted and baffled by her many nieces and nephews. There was always someone visiting, she had many friends who refused to forget her, even if she could no longer do the same. It amazed him how well she could still put guests at ease and charm them utterly when she remembered almost no-one and nothing recent.
The thing that had awed Esa the most about Josephine when he met her all those years ago was not her beauty but her remarkably curious, intricate mind and prodigious memory. More so, how much it was expressed through small acts of thoughtfulness and charm that had made her work as a diplomat seem effortless. She was funny and instinctually kind. He’d never met anyone remotely like her before or since. There was so much of her that remained the same even in the absence of her once remarkable memory. He was grateful for that.
Esa and Josephine had only one child, a son named Reijo, who died in a horse-riding accident when he was nineteen. Two years ago, when her memory had gone into a rapid state of decline, she went through a bad period where she would forget he had died and then remember. For her it felt like it was the day they had lost him and her fresh grief brought the loss to Esa with similarly sharp pain. Then she had simply stopped knowing why Reijo wasn’t with them and at first that had been easier. Inevitably she started losing more memories of him, realized they were escaping her and would panic as she tried to recall what was missing, going through the chests in which they had saved the keepsakes of his childhood; the tiny hats, the books, the notes, the embroidered jackets he had worn every year on First Day and a beautifully carved rocking bronto sent on behalf of the Grey Wardens, something which was obviously the handiwork of Thom Ranier. A few months ago, she had seemed to stop remembering their boy entirely. Sometimes though, she’d be anxious that someone was missing, she’d say ”I can’t remember who but it feels very concerning” and she’d ask him to take her around the estate because “I’m sure we will find whoever it is and then we can make everything be as it should.” Eventually she’d forget they were looking for anything other than the beauty of the day and propose they get a basket of treats and walk up to a hill that had a distant view of the ships headed for the port.
Yesterday she had stumbled over his name. Today, she had said it when she woke up in the early morning but for the rest of the day she hadn’t used it all. She had looked vague and called him “My dear ser.”
They never held hands. He personally felt it looked ridiculous between adults and never more so when there was a vast difference in height between people, especially when the couple were a human and a dwarf. They took each other’s arms at formal occasions and in private, which he found more dignified. Besides, without the restriction of interlocked fingers, there was a whole little language between them of hidden amusement, warnings, reassurance and love spelled out in taps, squeezes and gentle strokes. She looked at him with a slightly confused smile and then slid her hand along his forearm, massaged her thumb on the back of his hand and then rested her head on his shoulder. Esa closed his eyes, leaned back into the cushions and relaxed next to her. Lately, he often felt suddenly tired for no reason. He heard Yvette put down her empty cup and leave the room. He reached for one of the little sachets filled with the flowers and greenery that had grown around Skyhold and crushed it softly so they’d release their scent into the room before he fell asleep.
Chapter 5: Mmmmmmmkay Sera, Sera?
“GaahAAAWK!!!!!!” Sera shrieked as she plunged off the side of the tower and landed. Hard. At first Daphnis started to laugh, as much in shock as startled amusement but quickly stopped when the lanky blonde elf didn’t move. She froze and then started running towards her just as Solas went sprinting past. He was already casting as he slid to his knees. Sera remained motionless with one of her legs looking horribly wrong in a people-aren’t-supposed to bend-like-that way. Cole appeared at her elbow clutching bottles of healing potions and gazed at Solas who was casting a series of healing spells. “She is going to hurt” the spirit-boy intoned unhelpfully. Daphnis bit back the unfair urge to snap at him and took a deep breath instead. She placed her hand at the side of Sera’s head, gazed at her pretty face and prayed to the maker that she would be alright.
Sera’s eyes began to flutter and then opened fully as a long whimper issued from her mouth, they were black wells of pain and confusion. “Give her the elf-root one drop at a time. She needs it right away, but we can’t risk injuring her further by moving her head up so she can swallow larger quantities.” Solas ordered as he continued to cast something complicated at her head and neck. Daphnis uncorked the potion and began dripping it slowly into her lover’s mouth. Sera looked terrified, there was a tear sliding sideways out of her eye and her breath was catching slightly from distress. Solas moved his attention to her leg, casting to numb it and then moving the break back into place. Even with the pain blocked she moaned as he set the bone. “Solas! I think she’s going into shock.” Dapnis remarked as the elf turned pale and her face started going slack again. He turned his attention away from the leg and cast another spell which revived her, then resumed the healing spells to knit the damaged bone. Finally he accepted the splints which one of the healers had been holding out to him and stabilized the break. “The bone is healed, but it will be weak for several days, he said, “she must put no weight on it in that time, she should have bed-rest. The head injury is more concerning. I will remain with her for at least the first day.“ As Sera was carefully shifted onto a stretcher, he looked at the Inquisitor and asked ”Where to?” “Her quarters” she answered. Solas didn’t hide the flicker of annoyance that passed across his face. He seemed to find the tavern as distasteful as tea and was not going to enjoy this.
Really it would have made more sense in terms of facilities to put Sera in her own Inquisitor’s suite, but Daphnis suspected she’d get herself into more trouble confined in that quiet, well-appointed tower than in the bowed room off the busy, noisy tavern. She didn’t want to think what would happen if Sera were left alone long enough to get bored, which would probably be less than thirty seconds. She’d aim herself at the staircase in search of company and amusement, then have another fall in her weakened condition, either that or nearly drown herself trying to rig up some prank involving the bath. Given enough time, she’d turn the ceiling into a giant bee-hive and riffle through Daphnis’ desk for the names of especially peevish nobles to surprise with gifts of boxed wasp-nests.
Sera was shockingly silent that first day, responding to questions with one-word answers and occasionally crying softly. It was so unlike her and therefore truly disturbing. After she was finally allowed several hours of proper sleep, the old Sera returned.
There was nothing unusual about Sera calling Solas “Yeh prissy bald git” or “fussy old elf-arse” or to refer to Daphnis herself, with phrases like “Marvellous Posh-tits” but eventually, amidst all the crude nicknames, it became apparent that she didn’t seem to know anyone’s actual name. She did know a little about the Inquisition or rather the whole “glowy-herald blowy-uppy conclave business”, as she put it, but not that she was a part of it.
Skyhold was a complete puzzle to her. She accused them repeatedly of having her on and became fixated on the temperature as she looked out into the warm, verdant courtyard since she could not reconcile that sight with the news that it was located on a peak in the inner reaches of the Frostback mountains. Attempts at explanation made it worse. “We don’t know why it’s warm, it just is, It was just slightly warmer than the surroundings when we arrived, which seemed like it was merely because of the walls sheltering us, but the longer we’ve been here and more people have joined us, the warmer it has become. It's like something holds on to all the warmth and energy of us. We have all sorts of gardens, even some fruit trees. We think there is old magic attached to the stones of this place that holds in the heat” Sera interrupted “It’s getting hotter the longer we’re here because of magic and people? MAGIC?! Magic is making it hotter? That’s never good. What if too many people show up all at once, like for a party or maybe yer enemies will just shove in a bunch of stupid gobshites an it’ll get too hot an roast us. I’LL BE BOILED IN MY BED!!!” Solas tried next with even less success to explain the ancient wards in simple terms, but that only resulted in Sera ranting about how he looked “like the type that would love old warts just for being old. And warty! Go away, yeh droning demon-licker!!!” He stood up and moved towards the door, gave a bow that managed to somehow be both slight and exaggerated at the same time and said “Sera, I am glad you have recovered your delightful wit and feel sufficiently well enough that you no longer require my attendance. Inquisitor, I have no doubt you will be overjoyed to take over from me in seeing to our patient’s every need.” Sera waved him away so frantically that Daphnis was sure one of the woman’s hands would fly off her arm if she continued.
“How do you stand that one? the quiet is worse than the talking, all that silent judging, UGH! He’s just lucky I wasn’t feeling well, otherwise there is NO WAY I would have let him lurk around and breathe pompously at me. I’d have kicked him out, well, if I didn’t have the broken leg problem, but I could have hit him with me crutch. Do I have a crutch? when do I get to walk around with a crutch? I want to find a stuck-up someone and then hit the idjit with my crutch.”
“I think I will just avoid confirming the availability of any crutches, canes or walking sticks” said Daphnis “Don’t mind me while I move some firewood out of the room, it’s clearly a hazard.”
“What should I call you, Oh glowy one?” one asked Sera. Daphnis considered her answer and then said “My name is Daphnis but you usually call me your Lady-Bits or Honey-handfuls.” Sera stared, then burst into loud giggles. “Ok, Quiztor.”
Throughout the next day, the other companions dropped in, even Vivienne, who brought a small box of exquisite Orlesian chocolates, then fled politely before she could be tempted into dropping a single barbed comment. The Iron Bull took one of them at Sera’s invitation and declared it wonderful but also inferior to the plain bars produced under the Qun. Having tasted both, Daphnis had to agree, the Orlesians made complex, delightful confections with it but they could not compare with the high quality and intense flavour of a simple piece of Qunari chocolate. Over the next three days, everyone except Cole had a pleasant visit with Sera. His attempt didn’t go well, not even with his pet rabbit, False-Nug in hand. Sera took one look at him and started screaming at him to get away from her. She was somewhat hysterical and she seemed to think he was going to use his eyes to eat her soul. Her comments were more than a bit cruel. Fortunately, he was out of earshot before she spat out the worst of them. After calming Sera, Daphnis followed him up to his attic, to see if he was alright. He didn’t say much, mumbled something about “they flew away but will return to roost.” and then fed greens to the bunny. Daphnis thought it would be best to avoid telling Sera that “away” for Cole meant lurking in a spot located a few feet over from her head. On her way out, some poncy loon tried to get her attention by making wind noises and swooping gestures with his hand, so she shoved him into the wall as she walked past. She was quite certain it was the same jerk who had pestered her in the cellars under the kitchen, and she didn’t want to think about where he’d turn up next. She would let Leliana know about him and the spymaster would make certain he permanently ceased to annoy. One way or another.
Daphnis anticipated a few boring days of watching Sera nap intermittently while she read through inquisition business. Instead, she was almost as active as when she was on a mission because of the frequent errands Sera had her running. Sera was never alone since, as Daphnis anticipated, the tavern room meant there was always someone dropping in. Most often it was Blackwell, who would bring carved toys to work on while he exchanged lewd stories with her which made the pair of them howl with laughter. Usually in the evening she'd sit holding Sera’s hand and reading to her from Sera’s favourite books of badly-written ribald tales. Sera would start leaning against her shoulder and sleepily twine Daphnis' chestnut hair between her fingers until her hand would slowly drop when she started to drift off to sleep.
Hey, Quiztor, How about a cheese sandwich then? I’m famished. Can you get me a some Ferelden cheese melted on bread in the oven so it’s nice an bubbly and a bit burnt around the edges?” She described the cheese she preferred and Daphnis went to the tavern kitchen herself to request the food. The cook was absent so Daphnis prepared the simple sandwich herself and while it melted, she made tea, gathered up some apples, pickles, a bit of dried sausage and a sweet biscuit to bring back to Sera to fill out the snack into a meal. She learned something. She learned that the particular Ferelden cheese, Okla, that she used was pleasant and mild tasting when eaten out of hand, she also learned that the faintly pungent smell it had became rank when heated, rather like a whiff of a hobo’s old clothes in a heatwave and that when the cheese scorched, it produced an odour that suggested the smelly hobo had been murdered and then cremated within the oven. Trying not to gag, Daphnis brought the food (of a sort) up to Sera. “Here it is”, she exclaimed, her face mask of false cheer as she took care not to inhale through her nose or actually really breathe at all. “Fuck that’s awful!” Sera yelled and hurled it out the open window. Iron Bull started roaring in disgusted outrage as Sera had apparently managed to skewer the goopy mess directly on one of his horns. “ I didn’t even know he was there, but I bet I could have done it anyway if I’d been trying” she sniggered. “No!“ said Daphnis and grabbed the apple out of the blonde’s hand before she could lob it at the other horn.
Hey, Quiztor, how about a nice warm blanket then? Asked Sera, making an exaggerated shiver “one of them silky down-filled ones?” “Silky down-filled ones… repeated Daphnis. “I don’t suppose you’d like a blue one?” “No the red is better, I like those pick-stitches on it.. “ Sera trailed off as she realized she’d been caught out. Daphnis stared at her and said nothing, waiting for her pain-in-the-ass beloved to speak first. Sera did not look remotely ashamed, only briefly uncomfortable and then started cackling “I’m not sorry at all, that was so much fun! It was hilarious keeping you hopping and you were so lovely about everything, you’re such a softy under all that sarcasm and that tight, tight uniform. I really didn’t know who you were at first, everything was so fuzzy and blank. I liked having you around though, it was so nice, even when I had no idea who you were or that I’d already seen your superb self naked." “Don’t count on refreshers any time soon.” Remarked Daphnis drily. “I think I need to take a walk and maybe destroy something.” “Did you just figure it out now, or did you already know?” asked Sera. “I’ve been suspicious for a while, you were laughing too much. By the way, I hope you didn't shriek at Cole like that as part of the joke, that was unkind.” said Daphnis. “Creepy just creeps me out. I didn't remember him and I over-reacted. Can you help me get downstairs before you go? I don’t want to be stuck in here anymore. Are you really angry at me?” asked Sera. Daphnis looked away, folded her arms and frowned before she answered. “ Yes, I will help you up. Yes, I am angry. Just how angry? I guess you’ll find out when I get you to the stairs." Sera side-eyed her and said ”You wouldn’t... do anything awful? Never! You wouldn’t? Would You?” Daphnis glared and pulled the elf up, handing her the crutch that she’d left out of sight beside the door. “Maybe I’ll leave you at the top of the steps and take bets on whether you can make it down by yourself, if you’re lucky, I’ll let you keep the crutch. Or I could just toss you at the Iron Bull and yell at him to “think fast”.” Sera giggled loudly. Daphnis put her arm around her to make sure there was no possibility the elf lost her balance and when they got to the head of the stairs, picked her up and carried her down to a chair near the fireplace. “You really are a dreadful asshole sometimes, well most of the time, really.” she said, then kissed her and left to go decapitate practice dummies.
Chapter 6: Homing
This takes place over a period of nearly two months ***** indicates a jump in time.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
She could hear children playing. And fighting and crying and shrieking for every conceivable reason including the joy of hearing their own voices as loud as possible. It was as much part of this place as the call of the birds. The children weren’t hers, she had never wanted any of her own, but she did not dislike them, quite the opposite in fact. She wanted their proximity, if not always their presence. She let the sound wash over her and gazed at the play of light through the leaves. It was the first time in well over a week she’d sat in her garden and let peace flow into into her. It was something she did most days. It … balanced things, in her thoughts, in her emotions, in weighing which reactions made sense and which didn’t. It put her in a state of mind where her need for solitude was satisfied and she was ready to accept the company of others as something to be enjoyed, not endured.
Anya had been too busy welcoming her husband home to need to balance anything, the first weeks were always an overabundance of each other at their best. He’d forget to be a crank, she would have no need to retreat from others, including him.
Thom seemed to have a knack for returning home when her solitude was about to turn to loneliness. The way she missed him would increase from an occasional twinge to a keening ache and he’d be there. It was always glorious when he’d appear, roaring about needing a bath, exhausted, happy to be home and full of tales of his life as a Grey Warden. They would make each other laugh at the oddest things. Immediately on his return the world around them seemed to have brighter colours, cleaner edges, there was a feeling of shininess about everything as if it had acquired an inner glow and they’d spend days exploring every possible way of enjoying each other on every possible surface that could accommodate them. Eventually they’d start looking at beds as a place where someone could actually sleep, clean up the fresh squalor they’d imposed on her orderly home and exchange feasts with her tenants.
“Tenants” was not really the best word, they were more accurately a colony of semi-permanent guests living in the main house of her estate, while she kept home in a former forge behind the stables near the gatehouse. She had bought the place for the extensive, walled-off lands, not the impressive architecture. The only time she’d lived in the mansion was while she’d converted the high-ceilinged work-shed into a home with a huge central fireplace. She didn’t like the sheer size of the main house, it seemed ridiculous for a woman who preferred to live on her own, especially because it would require a small army of servants to keep it from falling into disrepair. It had made more sense to her to give the house over to a handpicked group who would live there and keep the place running for their own benefit rather than her comfort. They were a mix of human refugees, of Tal-Vashoth, of elves who’d escaped servitude or outright slavery, and dwarves who’d found themselves on the wrong side of House and Carta politics, some were reformed criminals, some permanent malcontents and trouble-makers, most were ordinary people who wanted ordinary quiet, lives, all appreciated the walls of her estate and were willing to maintain them. She liked having people nearby without actually having to deal with them unless she wanted to. It was, in fact, a joyous, busy place full of families, friendships and people working together. She was well aware that in some ways, with all that necessary communal living and common purpose, it was like the Qun without the strictures of living under the Qun. She was also well aware that there was a fine balance involved in keeping it successful by letting most decisions fall to others while knowing when to mediate the petty disputes that could become bigger and burn the place down. She enjoyed the time she spent with them, but inevitably all that happy noise and the demands for her attention would start buzzing in her brain like bees and she’d retreat to her quiet home.
Next week, Sera would arrive. She found the elf exhausting, but always felt a pang when she finished her visit. Thom would be in a wonderful mood for as long as Sera remained but once she had left he’d resume his inevitable slide into morose brooding and would eventually get stir-crazy and unpleasant.
Anya had always chafed at what she found to be excessive companionship, she could not see the joy in a constant presence at her side. She had been together with Thom for over ten years and none of those years had passed where they had spent the majority of time together, other than the first one when she had been the Inquisitor and even then they had just been in the same place, not always at each other’s side. Thom’s duties to the Grey Wardens took him away for long months; of training new Wardens at the fortresses, on missions in response to reports of Darkspawn, often spending weeks in the deep roads, and on recruiting assignments throughout Ferelden and The Free Marches. It was probably why they had lasted as long as they had; neither of them were capable of living a shared life for extended period of time. She would get increasingly irritated at the intrusion of another presence in her home while the relative ease of domestic life would unsettle him. He would begin to brood. Sometimes, when he brooded, he would also drink and it was never moderately.
Sera had come and gone. Her visit had been a treat. She brought out the fun, playful side in in Thom. Perhaps a little too much of it involved pranks, obscene jokes and unflattering stories about the nobility, often in combination, but Anya laughed as hard as they did. The end of the visit had been strange. Thom had seemed to retreat into himself in the final two days and when Sera left he grabbed her in a tight hug. He didn’t seem able to speak coherently when he tried to say good-bye, just kept shaking his head and squeezing her arm and patting the side of her face. When she had gone, he’d shut himself in his work-shop and not come back out for over a full day. He had subsequently spent more of his time than usual in there.
It was sometimes an unhappy relationship, but it worked for her. She couldn’t imagine a conventionally happy one lasting. It seemed like an awful lot of work for something she wasn’t terribly interested in achieving. It hadn’t been an easy life with him, but it certainly would not have been easier without him. She loved him and that one fact overshadowed all other concerns.
Thom had spent most of the past few days fucking drunk. Already in the early afternoon he was at the “can’t-focus-my-eyes-and-walking-is-questionable-at-best” stage, Super. At least she’d missed the part where he told maudlin stories about his failure to rescue dogs, abused nugs and neglected pit-ponies. She still wasn’t sure what a fucking pit-pony was but they were among Thom’s many regrets and secret sorrows. His kindness outweighed his flaws, but like everything with him, it had a darker side which caused him to sink into deep unhappiness as he berated himself for every failure or inaction. Grey Warden stamina meant he burnt though alcohol faster than others, It took an effort to consume enough for it to affect him strongly. He could get piss-drunk when the mood took him, which wasn’t often but still predictable enough to eat away at her affection for him. Sometimes she wondered if he had ever been the man she fell in love with or if she had unknowingly stepped up to care for the equivalent of one of the pitiable creatures that featured in his rambling tales about his moral failings. She used to find his gruff, plain-spoken manner intensely appealing. She had wondered why he never gave himself much credit for the good, helpful things he did for others, almost as if he were throwing good deeds into a void. She liked that there seemed to be no bullshit about him. Then she had learned that most of how he presented himself was a lie. After that, she had increasingly noticed how easily blunt speech became flat-out rudeness and how much his regrets were more about himself and what he termed his “wasted life” rather than those harmed by him. She’d stuck by his side after he’d stepped up to face the truth. However, afterwards she had refused to call him by anything other than his true, dishonoured name.
She didn’t like being around anyone who was drinking heavily, she had too much personal familiarity with the well-deserved reputation Vashoth had for functional alcoholism. It was especially an issue among the first generation, those who had left the Qun and struggled without it to guide them. She, herself had been careless about drunkenness when she’d worked as a mercenary and it often led her to predictable regret. As Herald, then Inquisitor, she’d come to care about her cause and her companions too much to risk being at less than her best. She’d rarely touched the stuff after Haven was attacked partway through celebrating the closing of the Breach, with the result that most of their forces had been forced to fight red Templars while partially or entirely intoxicated. She made an ill-considered exception once at Skyhold when The Iron Bull had got her passing-out drunk on Maraas-Lok, an experience that rapidly went from fun to horrible and it was the last time she ever took more than a polite sip of anything alcoholic. She wondered about his motives in that at the time and more so several years later when it became clear he’d been expected to take her down during the attempted invasion of the south by the Qunari. By that point he was full Tal-Vashoth himself and was more than willing to reject any attempt to repair the severed ties to the Qun, though she believed he could have easily flipped the other way had it not been for his loyalty to the Chargers and attachment to Dorian. She had liked him tremendously, if never entirely trusting him. She was untroubled by how right she’d been.
She remained in touch with him and with most of the upper structure of the inquisition, except for that lunatic arsehole, Solas, who was busy plotting to ruin everything while wearing fur and shiny, shiny, very, very tight armour. Arm-stealing bastard. They had got along more often than not, but she should have punched him out on one of those occasions he had inspired the impulse. As for the others, It was a polite long-distance letter-writing sort of contact with most of them. The only ones she saw frequently were Sera, who always showed up to visit when Thom was there and Vivienne, who stayed with her for several weeks every year and contrived to avoid visiting until Thom had gone. She didn’t entirely understand how or why she and Vivienne had become friends, but it was one of the few genuinely strong, unconditional relationships she had allowed into her life. They were both people who kept most others at arms length as much as possible. Oddly, that impulse had made them deeply comfortable with each other.
There was something eating away at him more than usual, it was very different from the expected reappearance of the more sullen aspects of his personality. It was like there was something filling up his head that was cancelling out all other thoughts and memories. His eyes were far away and he’d start humming and muttering to himself. Sometimes he stared blankly like he wasn’t sure of her name, if he even knew her at all or if she was a curiously mobile hat-rack. He often didn’t answer when spoken to and when he did, his surly tendencies were worse than normal. It was surely too soon for him to hear the Calling. Then again, he had been so much older than other newly recruited Grey Wardens when he took The Joining and no-one had a clear idea what kind of effect that could have on someone who was already getting close to fifty, with years of rough living behind him, especially because the onset of the Calling varied amongst Wardens. It was rare for someone his age to be taken as a recruit outside of a Blight but the reckoning of his past and the remaining scraps of genuine honour he had clung to demanded it.
He was pacing near the fireplace. The agitation that had taken hold of him increasingly throughout the day cleared until he slowed, then stopped and stood staring at the flames. He started to speak “There is no-one who remembers me when I was a young man with so much potential ahead of me. All the good I could have done, the things I might have achieved and even the good that I did… it’s tainted by how I squandered all that possibility and by the blood on my hands. You, at least can remember me as a man who tried to put things right. You’ve paid for that as much as I have; no children and a disgrace at your side.” She walked behind him and wrapped her arm around him, dropping her head to rest her cheek against the back of his neck. Now was not the time to remind him that she had never wanted to be a mother, not before the Inquisition and certainly not after. She had been clear from early on that a relationship with her was conditional on not having a family, none of her own, no adoptions. She enjoyed other people’s children a great deal, she simply lacked any urge to be a parent herself and had many well-considered reasons for that. As did he. “You would have made a good father” she whispered. It was true. He loved being around kids, he was wonderful with them. He didn’t want any of his own because of his ugly past, because he felt his complicity in the murder of children would have cursed his own. He hadn’t cost her anything but a nonexistent family she had never wanted. She hadn’t cared that he had never been able to give her much more than love from a badly damaged man. Love had been what she wanted from him.
He was organizing his gear and shoving things into his pack. He hadn’t slept through the night in days, hadn’t touched her except in passing, couldn’t conduct a conversation or stop whispering to himself, except when he was humming instead. He closed the pack and hoisted it onto his back. He was staring at her, his mouth working like he was trying to form words but couldn’t. He just grabbed her and held on tightly for a long time. He kissed her repeatedly and he was crying. She didn’t cry, except that she was and she didn’t like it. She didn’t like any of this, it was awful. Everything was awful. Her head was howling like a hundred angry wasp nests. She heard him rasp out “Goodbye Anyanka.” then he stepped away and his eyes started sliding into that distant look. She trailed behind him and watched him walk towards the door in the enormous, wooden gate and let himself out. She wasn’t going to keep trotting behind him and watch him disappear down the road. It was pointless to prolong this. It was miserable. She turned and walked across the yard and looked in his workroom. As she anticipated, it was cleaned out; no unfinished projects, everything he had made had been given away, even his tools were gone. There was not a speck of sawdust, nor a loose scrap of wood left. She closed the door with no intention of ever opening it again. She went into the house and climbed up the steps to her loft. She wasn’t really thinking of the window that had a view of the road, but walked straight to it nonetheless. She could see him walking up the first rise. In a minute, he’d disappear, but if she waited long enough, she could catch a few more glimpses of him as he receded into the distance.
She looked down at her hand resting on the deep sill and noticed that there was something new sitting there beside it, a small, exquisitely carved chest. The outside had inlaid panels that looked like the mountain views around Skyhold, formed from bits of the pretty, coloured stones he used to collect in his pockets when he travelled. It was the type of container that could be filled with keepsakes. She would open it later. It didn’t matter if there was anything inside or if it was empty, it was the last thing Thom had made for her and that was enough.
I had trouble writing this, Blackwall is not a favourite. I found his sour, dour personality off-putting even before his secret was revealed. I found it hard to be true to the character without it turning into a slam on him. I didn't want to simply give up and go the route of hollowing out the character until all that's left is a pair of striking eyes twinkling out of a woobie mass of hair.
Chapter 7: Sounding it out
Brindran sighed as he waited for Cassandra. He wasn’t worried about her, but she was beyond an hour late and he was hungry. At what point, he wondered, did he just accept she was not going to join him? It seemed unlikely that she had spent more than three hours dropping off the requisitions and negotiating prices with merchants over her supplies. She was very efficient about such things. Her impatience with small talk had the effect of silencing merchants when they tried to charm her into paying a higher price than she felt the goods were worth. Their patter quickly dried up under the full force of her blazing glares and wordless disgust. She intimidated most people into backing away from any form of conflict with her. The idea that he should be concerned for her welfare was ridiculous. Even so, he found himself becoming increasingly uncomfortable with killing time when he had no idea where she was. Le Masque du Lion was always sincere in their welcome to the Inquisitor, but a lone elf could still make himself feel uncomfortable occupying a table for well over an hour without ordering. He sighed and looked for her approach one last time. He discreetly beckoned to the waiter and exchanged a few quiet words with the man, who returned minutes later with a tray holding a half bottle of Ghislain Rosé and two open packages which he presented to Brindran for approval before folding them closed and tying them securely with pale blue string. Both were lined with vine leaves to prevent the contents from transferring grease spots onto the sturdy paper, one contained four miniature fruit tarts that resembled little flowers, the other a small selection of fine cheeses and charcuterie.
He paused outside the cafe, deciding where to search first. If she had started at the merchants near the docks, she would have passed through the main part of the Summer Market on her way to meet him. It was possible she could have stopped at an armorer or a sword-smith, but he didn’t believe that would have distracted her to the point of not sending word that she would be late, it didn’t seem likely to have taken enough time to make her late at all. He looked the other way, up towards the courtyard, it seemed the best place to start, especially since he had a strong idea of where she had gone.
As he walked towards Wilvan’s shop he spotted Cassandra under the arbour at the back of the gardens. She was completely wrapped up in a new book, one of several, judging by the bundle at her feet. She had probably meant to just peek at the first few paragraphs but had been drawn in to read at least the first hundred pages. He circled the plaza so he could stay out of her direct line of vision as he came closer. He slowed and quieted his steps as he came near before startling her by pushing the packages next to her. She jumped up, stared at him and made an inarticulate squealing noise as words died in her throat, it was somehow much better than her usual disgusted grunts and growls. It was hard not to laugh, he clapped his hand over his mouth to stop himself.
Chapter 8: I Was Told There Would Be Cake, This Is Bullshit
The prints on the winding path were clear, they were merging on to a route recently travelled by armored interlopers. These were Orlesian military boots in a place where Orlesian troops had no presence, only the deserters, the Freemen of the Dales as they called themselves. Judging by the number of different bootprints, they were a larger party than his own, but that should be of no concern with careful tracking. Arroyas had no need to warn the others to quiet themselves, they were already falling into position: Cassandra not far behind, ready to make a devastating charge on his signal, Varric waiting to pick off the weak and weaken the strong with a volley of shots and Dorian prepared to cast barriers and destructive spells. Arroyas had seldom been particularly impressed with a mage’s fighting abilities. They were rarely found among Tal Vashoth mercenaries, but he’d worked with some when he’d paired up with bands that were more of a mix of peoples. Those he had encountered were usually hedge-mages of meager ability and training, capable of surprises that could turn a conflict but too often better used off the field as healers than on as fighters; in a heavy fight they rarely could manage more than a few barriers and fireballs before their usefulness was outweighed by their narrow array of fighting skills. The Circle mages on the other hand were highly useful once they got past notions of theory to let the realities of combat guide them, but were seldom worth allying with as they brought unwelcome official attention. Both too often showed a lack of battle-sense that left them bleeding out from strikes a child could have foreseen. Solas and Vivienne were notable exceptions to his impressions of mages, but the Vint was something else entirely. Sometimes Arroyas wished he could be a bird overhead watching him fight. The way the man fought was... elegant. His casting was an intricate dance of purposeful grace that cut a swathe of havoc across the battlefield, a combination of precise footwork which reinforced glyphs and helped him dodge any missile that might pass a barrier while he rained a barrage of spells outward with convoluted swings and jabs with his staff that could and did rip the flesh and shatter the bones of enemies foolish enough to attempt a direct attack in close combat.
Hopefully they weren’t being led, though the broken brush and the careless meandering stride shown by the bootprints made that unlikely. Even so, he frequently paused to scan the periphery for any signs of flanking scouts or snipers waiting in a vantage point. As long as they maintained silence, they would hear their quarry before they saw them. The goal was to close the distance from the party ahead and use the verdant undergrowth to conceal their own numbers and location; rush out from the shadows, dispatch them quickly and create commotions that would flush the rest of their quarry to join a melee that they would never reach.
The enemy were not far in advance; the clearest prints were still filling with water. But the increasing light levels meant the forest was thinning. This could be to their benefit if the decreased cover exposed the enemy, but if there was a clearing ahead, his people would not only lose the advantage of concealment for attack, but it would also become risky to continue following them directly. They needed to unambiguously locate the Freemen and make their move quickly.
The trail appeared to lead to a short but steep slope. He could see the first target. There was a scout travelling at the rear, with the purpose of scanning behind to ensure the Freemen weren’t followed, but not as intent on that task as he should have been. He could hear the rest of them moving ahead. It sounded like a moderate party, tired from the days march and in all probability with their guard down as they moved downhill with thoughts of a break. The incline and the spacing of the voices indicated switchbacks. Perfect for picking the enemy off with the advantage of higher ground, especially if they were spread over separate sections. It would be best if he took the man down himself with the quiet efficiency of a cut throat rather than signalling to Varric to pick him off. He indicated his intent and began moving in.
There are trackers undone by a missed tripwire as they peered ahead or by studying the path so intently they failed to realize they had attracted an enemy’s notice. This beautiful afternoon in the Emerald Graves, the Inquisitor Adaar failed to notice a straight piece of branch on a steep slope already slippery with wet leaves and stumbled when it rolled under his foot, alerting the the scout he’d been about to eliminate as he shot past him off the path. Worse, he slipped down the length of the slope into a hollow occupied by an enormously tall Chevalier who had been about to sit down and had unsheathed his greatsword to sharpen it while he rested. No element of surprise, his own daggers not even out and he could very well find himself gutted while he drew them.
He preferred it when humans were smaller than him. He preferred not to be cornered by anyone that had the advantage on him. Surrounded by a copse and damp, sloping ground, the glade would be impossible to exit quickly. The space was too small to give him many chances to surprise the man by a rogue’s usual bag of tricks and there were only so many times he could dodge before his luck ran out and he caught a blow.
This was a fight to be lost by a failure of defense and won by fierce attack. So he would attack.
He feinted as he went into stealth and as the chevalier swayed in response to the misdirection, flanked from the other side. He would never be sure what made the man pivot away; a movement of air too close by or perhaps an experienced soldier’s instinct, but instead of a pair of forceful blows to the man’s neck, the result was one dagger skittering uselessly over armour and the other gouging a wound that would at best enrage the man. A shadow strike to the chin that should have snapped back the head and could have stunned a bear merely made the brute hesitate before he forcefully brought the pommel of the greatsword down on Arroyas’ shoulder. The Qunari nearly dropped his own blade from the force of the blow. He leapt back, barely dodging a powerful kick that would have smashed into the side of his knee, would have more than likely brought him down and definitely would have left him in the path of the greatsword swinging so rapidly that it sang.
He had no barrier. He had no barrier! What in the void was Dorian doing?!
He and the Chevalier slowly circled one another. Above him on the hill, he could hear cries as the other Freemen were decimated. He could hear the rapid clank of bolts releasing, then hissing through the air, meaty thuds and screams as Varric hit his targets. A battle-cry, a violent clash of metal and a shout cut off as Cassandra charged into an opponent then thrust her sword into him. He couldn’t tell if any of the howls he heard were from terror, flames or lightning, he wasn’t close enough to note the consequences of the Vint’s magical damage. He certainly had no opportunity to pause and listen closely. He had no idea if the mage was in the thick of the fight or had been brought down and was lying well back on the trail dead or dying. Wherever he was, it was not nearby and he was in no position to aid Arroyas, Nobody was.
The warrior thrust again, a blow that Arroyas sought to evade by bowing backwards. Unfortunately the final part of the swing was aimed, not at his midriff as anticipated, but his legs and although the wounds were superficial rather than serious, there was pain and there would be blood-loss. He desperately wanted to get back to where his people were; protect them, fight with them at his side, and this horse-fucker was in his way. Arroyas attempted three attacks in rapid succession. All failed to connect, his opponent knocking him back on the third with such force that Arroyas was nearly sent sprawling and left briefly disoriented. He barely avoided an overhead swing that could have cleaved him in two.
The two of them continued striking at each other, neither managing decisive blows. They were evenly matched and survival would be a consequence as much of luck as skill. Several times in the fight he unleashed a frenzied series of attacks on his foe hoping to overwhelm him. He was fuelling himself on fear and anger, could see mistakes in strategy a fraction of a second after he made them. It felt like half his mind had slowed while the rest was racing and neither were functioning effectively. He thought he was going to fell the hulking Knight when he managed to exploit a gap at the side of the armour, exposed when the greatsword was lifted up to the side, but the savage jab hit bone as it sunk in and the blade was twisted away from inflicting a deep wound that would have bled out till the swordsman could no longer fight back. Maybe it would fester and take the Chevalier down before a week had passed but that was of no use now. He had no idea how long they had been facing off. He wondered if he’d simply drop from exhaustion before he had opportunity to finish the man. His opponent had diminished greatly in energy, however it was not the slowness of a badly injured or dying man, but one still capable of inflicting a grievous wound and carefully rationing his strength.
There was a pained grunt followed by a scream. A body with smouldering clothes snagged in the branches of the saplings, then fell to the forest floor. If Arroyas had not been fighting for his own life, he would have sunk to his knees in relief. Dorian was the only mage he had ever fought with that physically hurled opponents away from him with the end of his staff while hitting them with a fireball or lightning. Those magnificent shoulders weren’t there just to be admired. He felt a sensation like long fingers stroking the back of his neck before a brief impression of warm hands cupped everywhere on his body as the barrier settled around him. Wherever Dorian was specifically, he was close enough to see Arroyas and turn this fight in his favour.
Arroyas knew what was coming next. He backed up and readied his daggers then hurled them at the Chevalier as Dorian cast a static cage and the Chevalier was trapped, howling in anguish and helpless. He rushed forward, grasped the handles of the daggers and cut the throat, ending the last bit of life keeping his enemy upright. The body toppled to the ground, sprawling heavily to one side. Arroyas wanted to join him. He was spent, panting so hard that he needed to draw in more air before he’d finished exhaling the last breath.
The other sounds of fighting were gone, this had been the final combatant. Dorian swung down into the clearing and immediately began pacing furiously while he tore into a series of Tevene curses before eventually switching back to common.
“Fast-vas! I forgot to cast the main barrier on you. Always protect the leader! Cassandra was closer. And then you were gone before it could wrap around you. I am absolutely horrible. It was a sloppy, unforgivable shortcut. I’ll not forgive myself for the injuries you suffered. I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry”
His throat was tight, overwhelmed with the emotion of a fight full of near misses and a dread of fallen comrades. He bent forward with his hands on his knees. He was exhausted and still gasping for breath but he wanted to speak. He wanted to say so much, the thoughts swirled in his head like twigs caught in rapids. He grabbed Dorian’s hand to get his attention, looked up and locked eyes with him. Dorian’s perfect eyes, Dorian’s perfect hand. For a moment he wondered if he was passing out, there was that feeling of slipping sideways while the world jolted away in another direction. But he was fine, no dizziness, no weakness, he was starting to feel the pain from his injuries but it was from nothing beyond mending.
“I fucking thought you were dead, don’t be dead.” He blurted out while inwardly cursing himself for being so damned crude and inarticulate.
Dorian said only one word, so softly only Arroyas could hear it “Amatus”
There would be plenty of time to say more later.
Chapter 9: Lighthouse
"I saw the light in the window through the woods. I was supposed to meet you here earlier today, wasn’t I?" Bull’s voice rumbled out of the quiet darkness, waking Halliwell. He’d spread blankets on the slope next to the small lodge and fallen asleep outside in the deep shade while watching the stars. “Yes”, he answered, sleep making his voice throaty. “I expected to find you here when I arrived before noon, I had brought a generous warm lunch, which turned into a modest cold supper. There isn’t much left. You are very late. I know you’ll have a story because you weren’t taking on any new jobs.” Bull cleared his throat uncomfortably and shifted on his feet. His unease spoke of embarrassment. Whatever had delayed him was not something unavoidable or important. Halliwell didn’t ask further, just continued watching Bull from his relaxed position. Bull sighed, stepped towards the porch, and went inside. For a few days only, this place would again be home. He wanted it to be longer, but he had no desire to see Bull forced into retirement by the addition of another serious injury to the missing eye and bad leg. And he himself had responsibilities that were not easily discarded. Maybe, eventually, perhaps before the time they were old men, they’d stop travelling around fixing other people’s problems and settle their lives together under the same roof.
Halliwell could hear the sounds of Bull removing, then stowing his equipment. A few minutes passed while he was scooping up the leftovers to eat before he emerged and moved to the pump, filled a bucket, splashed away the dust and stickiness of the day from his naked bulk and shook himself off, the drops flying off his silvered body and catching the dim light like shooting stars. He wiped at the residual water with a large linen towel, flung it over a chair and joined Halliwell on the blankets. Even without touching, the chill from the well water was palpable on his skin as he rolled towards him. “I’m sorry” Bull said. “I believe you”, answered Halliwell. He reached over his head, grasped the brandy in his hand and passed it to Bull, who sniffed the neck of the bottle then took several long swallows before placing it back on a flat rock and laying back, an arm behind his head. “There is an Inn on the way here from Jader, friendly place. The barmaid is a treat, so is the Landlord. I planned to stay there overnight, they don’t mind Tal Vashoth in their beds as long as the bill gets paid. I had a few drinks and some laughs with a Ferelden cheese merchant and there were these two elves that had never met my kind face-to-face and got a little silly with me, I gave them all something to celebrate. A lot of time passed before I had a good sleep. I woke up with the lunch bell instead of the rooster and didn’t consider that I’d already let one night pass into two. I didn’t make good time on the road, because I forgot that I was already late. I may have been under the impression that I was half a day early.” “Uh-huh. So.... that was the bare bones.” drawled Halliwell “There were several of those”, Bull answered. Halliwell snorted then said “stop right there, save it for later. You can detail your adventures and I’ll tell you about the Starkhaven ambassador’s secretary, but I warn you it gets boring fast. Actually you might be able to meet him, he keeps showing up at my official residence, he might even be there now, tapping hopefully on the windows.“ “Definitely later" said Bull as he pulled them together, then slowly raked a trimmed, but still dangerous claw up his thigh. Halliwell spread his large hand across Bull’s chest, placing it so it was framed against the massive pectoral, not remotely covering it. He enjoyed the way Bull made him feel small and took complete control. something intolerable from others. There was no-one else who he had ever wanted to utterly give himself over. It felt like he was like standing on the edge of an old quarry in early summer, the sense of newness with so much yet to come, the pause before the leap towards deep water that lay too far below, before the exhilaration and fear of the drop, the shock of plunging into something that enveloped and overwhelmed him with a feeling like he’d might not draw air again while anticipating the relief of that first, necessary breath.
Chapter 10: Secret Identity
Maxted and Josephine left the rented estate to do business. They had arrived in Val Royeax as part of a small party in advance of formal visits and official business within the city. He needed to visit his usual court tailor and had offered to accompany Josephine on her own errands. She had planned several receptions and salons on behalf of the inquisition, meaning she needed offerings for their guests and was liaising with suppliers, new and old, to make arrangements.
He looked forward to the coming weeks, he enjoyed much of what Orlais had to offer, although he preferred all of it in small doses. Unlike some he knew, he had few fears regarding The Game. There were less than a handful that could best him at it. He loved the challenge, he also enjoyed the relief of not having to deal with it as a part of his everyday life.
Maxted and Josephine wandered through the Summer market in search of a particular pastry shop that was becoming the current vogue in Val Royeaux. They spotted the proprietor’s sign just as a familiar and imposing figure emerged, followed by two heavily burdened elves clad in the old fashioned robes required of Circle mages.
Josephine hailed her; “Ah Madame De Fer, I am unsurprised that this establishment has your patronage. You have given me confidence that it’s wares will be as delightful as it’s reputation promises” The Grand Enchanter of the diminished Circle of Magi politely smiled and nodded slowly at each of them “Ambassador Montilyet, Inquisitor.” Maxted smiled back, hoping he didn’t look like a gurning fool. He always felt like an idiot in front of this woman. He’d never entirely extinguished the effects of the puerile, embarrassing crush he’d formed on her when she had walked down those stairs at Duke Bastien De Ghislain’s estate. Often, when he had spoken with her and there was no more official business to discuss, he’d fall into those deep, grey eyes and start blathering foolishly as he flailed in conversational panic. He was a towering, accomplished man who felt like a gangly half-grown boy next to her statuesque, poised figure. He would stay calm this time and… well, he would stay calm. He took a breath. “Please” he said, “I am not my title, after all this time you must feel free to use my given name.”
“My dear, what are we, if not the standard-bearers of our own accomplishments? You should carry your title with pride. Besides, you know I could never manage to remember that little bit of trivia.”