Cullen had just finished checking to make certain the small group of Templars camped just outside the gate had set up watches for the night and was heading back inside the gates when a soft voice out of the dark startled him.
"Still working, Commander?" A slight movement on the low wall next to the steps brought the young Dalish woman who was beginning to be called the Herald of Andraste into the circle of firelight cast by the torch. She took another step to the edge, sitting down gracefully with her legs over the edge while Cullen wondered, not for the first time, how someone with her fair skin could go so unseen in the dark.
"There's so much to do, and Haven isn't exactly a defensible position, Lavellan. But I'm almost done for tonight."
She nodded, brushing her short dark hair back from her face before reaching behind her to bring a steaming jug and two clay mugs into the torchlight. "If you're almost done working, would you care to share a drink, Commander?" Zima must have seen something in his face because she added quickly, "it's just mint tea sweetened with honey, Commander, I find it relaxes me and helps me …sleep." Her left hand tightened over the strange scar that marked her miraculous survival. Until now, she had cooperated with everything they asked very quietly and shown little sign that the mark bothered her, though Cassandra and Leliana had reported it clearly caused her a great deal of pain at first. They'd all thought that stabilizing the rift had relieved her of the pain, but now he wondered if they'd been mistaken. "I slipped out here to…get outside of the walls for a few minutes."
He nodded and accepted the mug, sipping for a moment while he thought quickly. "You seem to be so comfortable with everything, Lavellan, that we tend to forget you're Dalish, I think. I suppose living like this must feel very strange to you?"
"When we're out in the field, not so much, but when we're here…" She stared into her mug of tea before sipping hastily. "I'm sorry, you're a Templar so I suppose I shouldn't say this to you."
"Ex-templar. And even I was, you aren't an apostate."
She chuckled softly, glancing back toward the gates. "The chantry isn't overly fond of the Dalish, Commander, we only exist as Dalish because of an Exalted March. Though honestly, I'm only uncomfortable near the priests here because they either see me as either the Herald of Andraste or a heretic; neither seem like a safe thing for a Dalish."
"I can understand that. I think many non-humans, even those who believe in the Maker, avoid entering the Chantry itself, which is regrettable, and I'd imagine it would be even more uncomfortable for a Dalish for several reasons."
He was startled when she laughed softly, giving him an almost impish smile. "Would it surprise you to know that I've been inside chantries in the Free Marches a number of times? Commander, hasn't anyone wondered why I was at the summit?"
"You said your clan's leader, your…Keeper sent you to find out if the conclave was a threat to the Dalish?" He cupped his hands to warm them around the mug, watching her dark blue eyes study him over the rim of the mug as she sipped slowly.
"Yes, but didn't you wonder why me?" She lowered the mug, staring into it for a moment as if gathering her thoughts. "However much some of the Dalish would like to pretend otherwise, we do have to have contact with non-Dalish, at least to trade for things we can't produce ourselves, particularly metalwork. Or did you think we hauled around a full blacksmith's shop and an iron smelter in one of our aravels?" She surprised him with another impish grin that made her look years younger.
"I…guess I never thought about it." He took a sip, watching her with both fascination and a little caution now that she seemed to be letting down her guard a little.
"Most clans have at least one or two people who have enough experience to be able to trade with humans and dwarves in relative safety, and when I showed a talent for being unnoticed, my Keeper apprenticed me to our current trader. He taught me how to conceal my vallaslin, how to go unnoticed, how to observe the people for potential trouble before we tried trading, and how to evaluate a blacksmith in particular." She grimaced suddenly "And he taught me how to spot the worst trouble and remove myself safely. It is rarely a good thing for a young elven woman to be noticed by a human, particularly a human noble; they're inclined to see us as…toys, as things." Zima saw his eyes darken, and shook her head. "No, I learned to be very alert, Commander, and I also learned that while many humans never saw past our differences, many others did and were people very like my own clansmen in many ways."
"I see. So she sent you because you have spent more time among humans."
"Partly." The smile slipped for a moment, then she recovered. "Our clans are too small for anyone to be expendable, but I go in harm's way for them because my loss would harm the clan less."
Now that he was watching her more closely, Cullen didn't miss the momentary flicker of her eyes down at the mug, then back to meet his calmly. "Why? Do you mean that you go in harm's way to be their eyes and ears outside the clan?"
He saw tension in her shoulders and the way her hands tightened on the mug. "Partly that." She saw the question in his eyes and shrugged. "No one in Clan Lavellan is directly dependent on me, and there have also been times I've left the clan for a few months to travel and learn more than my clan may think necessary. I have learned too much about the non-Dalish for even my own clan to be entirely comfortable with me now. For all we Dalish pride ourselves on recovering and preserving old knowledge, they are much less comfortable with someone who is interested in more than that. They're still my clan, but I have walked a different path from them for many years." Her lips twisted wryly as she looked down at her left hand. She suddenly took a long draught of the tea. "I never thought it would take me this far from them, though."
She raised the jug and refilled her own mug and his. "What you're doing here, have done here in and in the Hinterlands, is very important, Lavellan, and you've been giving people—human, elf, and dwarf—hope."
Zima wrinkled her nose at him. "A symbol? That's fine for now, but what happens when I make a decision they don't agree with? Will I instantly go from Herald to heretic? Even Lady Josephine, Leliana, and Cassandra want very badly to believe that I was somehow chosen by the Maker. You, at least, call me Lavellan, you know, just as if I'm a person and not a symbol."
Cullen frowned, thinking back and realizing that the others did almost always call her Herald and how her eyes, that odd dark blue, often rested on him briefly, curiously, when he addressed her by name. "You're right, I hadn't noticed. You said you had been inside chantries before this? How does…" His words trailed off as he tried to think of a way to ask without giving offense.
"Why would a heathen Dalish spend time in a chantry?" She held the mug against her cheek for a moment, eyes closed as if drawing warmth from it. "Back not long before the blight, or at least before the Free Marches heard about it, I met a Chantry priest, a Revered Mother, in fact, who saved me when she could easily have won favors and donations for her chantry by handing me over to someone, and she did it although she had never seen me before and even recognized I was Dalish." Her eyes stared past him into the dark. "It's a boring story, really, but when I tried to repay her, she refused, saying if I felt I owed a debt, she would be interested in hearing whatever I felt safe telling her about the Dalish gods. Our clan stayed in the area for several months, and I…was glad of an excuse to get away from our camp at the time. " Her slight hesitation made Cullen think she had censored what she was going to say, but he was reluctant to pry when he was actually finding out more about her than they'd learned in several weeks. "She slowly became a friend, allowing me to read books from their library, discussing them with me, then she gave me the names of a few other priests and scholars in the Free Marches who she thought might be willing to teach a Dalish along with a letter from her." Zima shrugged. "It was a relatively peaceful area, and of course we had no idea a blight was starting in the south, so I told our Keeper, who was the only one who knew I'd been visiting a priest to learn more about humans, that I was going to travel for a few months to meet some of these people. She didn't entirely approve, but I don't think she was surprised either." Her eyes suddenly refocused on his, sharp and piercing. "So yes, I've been in chantries many time, I've heard the Chant of Light, and I've even read it, including the Book of Shartan." There was another brief flash of that impish grin. "Which I also probably shouldn't admit to even an ex-Templar."
A voice from the darkness startled both of them. "Does that mean you believe in the Maker instead of the Creators, Lavellan?" Solas stepped into the light, leaning on his staff, his eyes curious, but not entirely approving, on Zima.
She shrugged. "I believe in both the Creators and the Maker, but there's a difference between that and worshipping them, and I don't. I'm not certain we actually know the truth about any of them. However hard we try, we Dalish only know bits and pieces of our history and religion, and I have my doubts about how well we've interpreted even those." She eyed Solas warily, as if expecting an outburst, but he studied her with an expression that was almost approving in return.
Cullen watched the exchange silently, startled at her admission. Everyone had assumed that she was devout to the Dalish gods, though many also seemed to assume that being "chosen" would mean she would convert to the Maker, yet here she was firmly claiming a middle ground that no one, even Solas, had apparently considered.
"I can find no fault with that, skepticism is healthy as long as it does not become cynicism, and you are far more open-minded than the other Dalish I have met."
"And how many of Clan Lavellan have you met before this?" Cullen was a little surprised at the challenge in her voice, recalling for the first time that Dalish and other elves did not always trust each other, though he knew that Leliana had reported that Zima had made a point of speaking to every elf in Haven at least briefly to learn their names, down to the lowest servant.
"None, an omission I am beginning to regret, though somehow I doubt you are typical of your clan?" Solas's statement was almost amused, a challenging question that caused Zima to break their stare uncomfortably. "I would be very surprised if you were. Good evening, Lavellan, Commander."
He continued serenely past them through the gates, but when Cullen turned back to Zima, she had an exasperated expression, staring through the gate and muttering a phrase in Elvhenen that he couldn't quite make out before catching his stare and flushing. "I apologize, I don't know why, but he brings out the worst in me, Commander; it's been a long time since anyone treated me like a child or made me react like one." Her lips twisted in a rueful smile. "And yet, you and he are the only two people here who never refer to me as Herald, at least when speaking to me alone." Abruptly she hopped off the wall. "Our clan's hahren told me once that when you feel lonely and want a friend, take a walk with two mugs and one will find you." She grinned impishly at Cullen's expression as she collected the mugs and jug. "I'm rather glad you found me before Solas did. Good night, Commander." She vanished into the darkness before he could even react enough to say good night, realizing he'd never even thought to wonder why she'd had two mugs with her.