Disclaimer: Dragon Age is Bioware's sandbox — I'm just playing in it! Just something that bit me while I was writing A Templar Unbound, that wouldn't let go.
"You stayed behind. You could have … I will not allow the events at Haven to happen again. You have my word."
— Cullen, Dragon Age: Inquisition
Cullen Rutherford could pinpoint the exact moment when he began to regard the Herald of Andraste as more than just her title.
Surprisingly, it wasn't her success at closing the Breach that swayed him; nor was it her subtle flirtation, the like of which — though for humour, he suspected — he had not experienced for many years. It wasn't even her heroism in defending the village of Haven against the onslaught of Corypheus's army. No, the moment when it all began to change, for him, was when he was leading the refugees through the under-croft of the Chantry, along the once secret pathway and out into the mountains.
His position as Commander of the Inquisition's forces, such as they were, had kept him at a certain distance from the Herald since she had first dropped into his path from the Fade. Between her activities in furthering the Inquisition's reach and the development of the enemy they now found themselves up against, there had been little time to think of her as anything other than Andraste's messenger.
It was only as he stood on the mountain path, the wind biting into his cheeks, that it really hit him: she was a fierce and wonderful display of humanity, and more than the simple epithet they had bequeathed on her.
When Haven's fate was clear, it was Lavellan who had spoken with bravery at buying them time; Lavellan who had ordered him to get as many people as possible to safety while she held off the threat from the mysterious Elder One, to give them time to escape before she buried the village — and herself — in snow. She hadn't even hesitated.
It had taken him a moment to process what she was saying, what she meant, before realisation had hit him like a punch to the solar plexus and he'd taken her up on her command. Now he regretted not looking back as he'd run to the aid of the survivors, as it could be the last time he ever saw her.
With snowy mountains either side of him, Cullen waved the last of the Inquisition's followers up the mountain, his only companion an archer ready to give the signal to Lavellan that they were safe.
Again, he hesitated.
While he couldn't see her, he knew that somewhere down in that valley – which under different circumstances, might have been beautiful twinkling back at him in the moonlight – was a woman fighting not only for her life, but for dozens, hundreds, of others. And she was doing it without question that it was the right thing to do. Lesser people would have run. Lesser people would have abandoned their positions and fled for their lives.
And now here he was, serving as her executioner by lighting the signal to let her know they had made it.
Perhaps she would be safe, he argued with himself. Perhaps, some way, some how, she would find a way out. But even as he thought it, a quick glance at the perilous mountains spelled out the obvious end to her journey. Surviving an avalanche, much less finding her way back to them, was as unlikely as... unlikely as her survival of the conclave, he mused with a wry smile.
Cullen was overcome with the sudden sense that he should have stayed with her. She was a relative stranger to this land, and had started life here as their prisoner. It should have been his duty to protect her, shouldn't it? Or at least go down with her. And yet...
He cast a longing glance over his shoulder, towards the last of the villagers as they disappeared over the crest of the hill. Even with Cassandra and Leliana, these people probably wouldn't have got far. Who knew what awaited them in the mountains? They needed their Commander, to bolster their courage and keep their hearts steady. And they needed their Herald, for all the faith she gave them. As, he realised, did he.
Beside him, the archer shifted in the snow, drawing Cullen from his reverie. "Ser?" he asked, with questioning eyes.
With a small nod, he replied. "Do it."
The arrow went up like a beacon, soaring above his head and leaving a trail of smoke in the sky. He waited for a few silent moments as the world seemed to hold its breath.
Then there was a rumble, a shake, and boulders and snow alike began to cascade down the hill towards the helpless village down below, a swirling storm of cold and death. As the ground beneath their feet began to tremble, Cullen found it hard to pull himself away, his gaze transfixed on the dragon as it swept up into the air.
"Move, move!" he shouted, and then the only thing he heard was the thundering of his footsteps as he ran towards the people who most needed him.
"You cannot be serious." Cassandra's words were sharpened by her accent and she glared at the Commander from across the fire.
"Cassandra is right, Cullen," Leliana agreed. "We cannot risk losing you or anyone else to the snow, as well. The people need their Commander."
"What the people need is the woman who has been giving them hope through this entire ordeal." He fixed each of them with a stony glare. "I cannot just sit around and do nothing. We have to look for her – we can't just abandon her, and assume she is dead; not when she risked so much to make sure we could get away."
Cassandra and the spymaster exchanged a look that was laced with guilt, but each of them shook their heads in disagreement against him.
"Perhaps we could set up a Watch," Josephine suggested, trying to appease the tension that had built between the four of them in the hours since Lavellan's... disappearance.
"No, the men are too tired," Cullen said, with more force than was perhaps necessary. He glanced around the campsite, watching the slouched figures and empty expressions with concern. Without the Herald to give them hope, it seemed that many people from Haven had given up. "But... perhaps you are right," he admitted, looking back to his colleagues. Leaning forward, he put his head in his hand, staring absently into the snow at his feet. "Perhaps it would be foolish to go out and look for her."
Josephine's suggestion of setting up a watch was not a terrible idea. It may not be as pro active as he would have liked, but it held more sense than blindly getting lost in a blizzard and leaving the men without their Commander. He was the best they had.
They had managed to pitch camp for the time being in a steep valley at the foot of many surrounding mountains, where they were sheltered from the worst of the blizzard's onslaught. Bad enough that they had had to hike through unknown territory, but when the blizzard had begun, the need for shelter had been more pressing than their escape from the claws of their enemy.
The four of them sat in uncomfortable silence, no doubt considering the fate of their Herald, when a soft clearing of the throat alerted them to Solas's presence by the side of their camp fire.
"Sorry to interrupt," he said in his elven lilt. "I thought I might be of some assistance."
Cullen glared at the mage, whose presence was a reminder of the very thing they had lost. Lavellan's companions had been with her as she fought to turn the trebuchets on the mountains, but when they had arrived without her, her couldn't deny the flash of anger that had shot through him at their abandonment of her in her moment of need. Even though, logically, he knew it was better that three of them had returned than none at all.
"You wish to help?" Josephine addressed the mage with surprise.
Solas's head dipped in a brief nod. "Yes. With my magic, I can shield the Commander from the worst of the storm if we set up a small fire at the precipice." He indicated to the top of the long hill they had traversed, which was now so covered in snow their tracks had already been lost. "I wouldn't advise going beyond the boundary of the mountain pass, but it might help."
It was better than nothing. Cullen felt three pairs of eyes turn to him expectantly. "All right," he said, getting to his feet. "Lead the way."
He wasn't sure it was possible to feel any colder, but out of the shelter of the valley, Cullen found he was wrong.
He watched with some amount of agitation as Solas set to preparing a small fire by a pair of rocks that would do as a crude replacement for chairs. Using his magic he lit the wood, and remarkably, a roaring fire was giving off heat in no time at all.
Cullen's gaze turned to the endless fields and slopes of white around them — not that he could see much for the snow blustering about.
"You really believe she could still be alive?" Solas asked from beside him. The question sounded genuine, with no hint of reproach.
"I think the possibility is worth investigating," Cullen replied evenly as he rubbed his hands together. "I realise how hopeless it seems, but… if there's even a chance, we should try." He swallowed, staring back out into the abyss. "I should try."
Solas cocked his head. "Interesting," he said, after a long moment.
"I assume you must think the same. It would take more than pitiful charity to come up and keep watch with me."
"Indeed," said Solas, giving Cullen the first smile he could remember seeing on the elf. "For what it's worth, I agree with you, Commander," he said respectfully. "I for one do not think she is dead."
"No." Solas put his hands towards the flame he had made, warming them against the bitterness. "Lavellan is complex, and strong. The world still needs her. If we are to fight this Elder One, it must be in her wake."
Cullen knew from experience that the world was not always just, or fair, but he didn't voice these thoughts to the mage. He reflected for an idle moment how strange it was that his life had turned out this way: from being bound by the Order and their religious restriction of mages, now to working with one to save another. If Knight-Commander Greagoir could see him now…
"This fire should keep us going for a while," said Solas, unperturbed or simply ignorant of the Commander's thoughtful silence. "We should be able to last for some time."
Cullen nodded, and the two of them fell into an uneasy silence, each of them scanning the distance for any sign of their friend.
It had been many hours, and the Commander was alone.
Solas's fire, true to his word, still burned as hot and brightly as it had when it had first sprung into life, but the mage had returned to camp for some rest and food — mostly at Cullen's insistence.
Upon asking whether the Commander did not also need to rest, Cullen had responded that he barely slept anyway, so he may as well be up by the fire, looking for signs of Lavellan. Solas was to send word if anyone down in the camp had any urgent need for him.
The more the hours drew on, the more hopeless Cullen felt. Was this truly the end the Maker had in sight for the one he had sent to them in their time of need? It seemed so… cruel. And yet he couldn't ignore the dragging sense of gloom that descended upon him as the night wore on, like a tight fist clenched in his gut that would not let go.
The blizzard had at least somewhat, the wind still held a bitter chill. Maker help Lavellan if she was out in this storm, for he couldn't see how she could possibly find them, even if she was. The gentle slopes behind Haven had quickly given way to a more perilous trek, and with the snow that had fallen since, there was no way to track their footprints.
Still. There was no way he was going to leave now.
So lost in his thoughts was he, that it took him a while to notice a shadow move in the dark. Against the backdrop of night and mountains, it was hard to make out at first, and could just have easily been the snow playing tricks on him. Steeling himself, Cullen stared at the shape, willing it to take form.
Whatever it was, it was moving slowly.
Cullen was about to dash towards it, before he stopped. The snow drift were Maker knew how big, and it could be little more than his tiredness getting the better of him. If he went out into the storm without any warning, he may not come back…
He got to his feet. The camp was not far behind him, he could quickly make it back and rally Cassandra and a few guards to his aid, if necessary.
Giving one last glance to the figure in the distance, he bolted back down the hill as fast as he could afford.
"There! It's her!"
"Thank the Maker! I did not truly believe…"
Cullen's legs burned with the pain from running in the snow, but he didn't care. As he set eyes on Lavellan's tiny form collapsing just before them, it didn't matter. He could hardly believe it was her. After everything, she had been delivered to them, against a ridiculous improbability. A cacophony of different emotions crashed down on him at once, setting his heart racing in his chest.
The first and most immediate was worry for the young woman's health.
With Cassandra and two guards at his side he dashed towards her, reaching her first. Her eyes were closed and she was no longer shivering; the last of her strength had left her.
Cassandra was about to ask whether he needed any help, but he wordlessly bent and swept Lavellan up into his arms. She looked so small and fragile against his chest that he wondered how they had ever thought to lay all their burdens upon her, as they had since she had stepped out of the rift. He found he was transfixed, staring at her face as though she was little more than asleep, struck, suddenly, by how very real she was. Not the Herald of Andraste, or the mage, or the elf — just Lavellan. Just a woman.
Cassandra's brusque tone snapped him out of it, and he nodded, stalking back towards the camp as forcefully as he could go without disturbing the woman in his arms.
Lavellan was wet, and cold, and it was starting to seep through the cloth covering his armour. But Cullen didn't care. He held her as closely as he could, to shield her from any more hurt the world might wish upon her. Not tonight. Tonight, he would have ripped the dragon from her with his own bare hands if he had to. He damn near wish he had.
Walking back through the camp with Lavellan in his arms, Cullen was not prepared for the atmosphere that greeted him when he got there. An unearthly silence descended upon the villagers around him, like a ripple disturbing a still pond, as one by one they noticed who the Commander had rescued from the storm.
Fervent whispers started to rise up, those in shock or disbelief, and Cassandra and the guards made a good effort to keep their curious eyes at bay. "Later," she instructed many of them as they tried to get a closer look at their Herald. "The Herald needs to rest."
When Cullen stood in the entrance to mother Giselle's tent, he paused under her shrewd gaze.
"Place her here, Commander," she said after a moment, and Cullen obeyed, bending to lay her ghostly figure atop the bed. With a touch as gentle as he could manage, he moved her damp hair from her face, pausing for just a moment as he marvelled at her. He had never been this close to her before, and his gloved hand hesitated at her cheek. In her sleep, she let out a sigh, and he was so close he could feel it warm his cheeks.
Maker's breath, indeed.
"She'll be all right," he murmured, almost to himself; a promise he hadn't needed to even think about making.
"I will tend to her while you and Leliana discuss what to do next," Mother Giselle spoke, clearly a dismissal, but one that Cullen didn't mind.
He straightened, his steely facade slipping into place as easily as he would don a cloak. He turned and gave a nod that was almost a bow to the woman who would watch over Lavellan. "Of course. Thank you."
He left without a word, his hand unconsciously falling to the pommel of his sword as he walked. The night ahead was long, and would be fraught with worry, distractions, indecisions, and more than a little arguing. But one thing was certain: Lavellan had been delivered unto to them seemingly from death itself. By all rights, it was a miracle.
And Cullen was more certain than ever that he would do whatever it took to protect her.