A/N: OMG I can't believe it. Cullen? I've developed a fanfic crush on Cullen? *hangs head in shame* It's just… for some reason, he kept making me writhe and whimper while I played Inquisition. I know he's super-saturated in the fanfics, but I can't help myself—I gotta write. So, here it is. I don't care how many people read this dribble; the main thing for me is I HAVE to write it, get it out of my system, ya know. Thanks, Bugs, for encouraging my addiction :P
There will be some spoilers referenced from the game, but this is a separate story. Also, just so you know, I've taken a few liberties with the characters. Most notably, my Female Inquisitor doesn't exactly follow the character presets of F!Trevelyan provided in game. Also, Cullen weans himself off of lyrium rather than quitting all at once. Call it creative license or writer's prerogative or whatever. I wanted a few things different, so they're different. *shrugs*
Finally, if you've read any of my other fics, you know I love a long story, and long chapters. I always feel I should apologize for the length, but so far no one's ever complained. *ahem*
I hope you enjoy… *flourishes a little bow*
Chapter One: It's just bad luck…
It seemed every time she woke, HE was sitting beside her.
"How long this time?" she asked, blinking the sleep out of her eyes. Her throat was still a little scratchy, but at least the chills were gone. And the shakes. The aches remained however—unseen, untouchable, bone-deep wounds that silently spoke of her continuing torment. She buried every sign of the discomfort deep inside, something she was used to doing, and waited for her guest to speak.
Solas leaned back in the chair beside her bed, half a smile on his lips as his soothing voice answered, "Only for the night. I think we're past the point where we have to worry about your health suffering from the mark. Though I'll admit, I was taking the opportunity to study it some more, and perhaps part of me wishes you had remained sleeping so I could remain studying." He had an impish expression to his face, like a little boy caught stealing sweets from the kitchen.
She returned the smile, sitting up in the bed, her linen tunic slightly oversized on her thin frame. It was easy to let her guard down around Solas; he knew more about her than any of the others here in Haven, even though he asked the fewest questions. And most importantly, he didn't repeat what he suspected. She felt she could trust him—at least to a certain extent. Willingly she held out her left hand, palm upwards, and said, "Of course."
He shook his head, somewhat shyly, and stood up. "I shouldn't. Seeker Cassandra stated she wishes to speak with you as soon as you awake. It is important."
He watched her nod and throw the covers back, unperturbed by either the Seeker's inconsiderate command or his presence within her bedchamber. Solas sighed and turned his back to give her some privacy as she got herself ready for the day. She was so innocent and naive about certain matters, such as a man watching her while she slept, and so fearful and distrusting in other matters, such as talking about herself or her past. Of course, it didn't help that she had been suffering from amnesia for the past week, ever since she first awoke after the explosion at the Conclave. Still, it was an oddity, though thankfully he had been the only one who noticed such things—yet.
She was also oblivious to the danger she was in, thankfully. They purposely hadn't told her about the attempts made against her life in those first few days after the Breach appeared. The bridge of his nose wrinkled in disgust; people—humans especially—always struck out at what they didn't understand. As she had been the only survivor of the Breach, they blamed her for it and demanded her death in recompense.
Even now, a week after she worked so hard to stabilize the Breach, after all she'd given so willingly, he feared the threat remained. Yes, most people in Haven were now calling her the Herald of Andraste, but there were those who saw her as the Herald of the End Times, and as such feared her. Ignorant fools.
That was the problem: ignorance. It was fear of the unknown that made people lash out blindly at whatever appeared the easiest target. Unfortunately, the girl made a very easy target. She was weak physically, all too trusting and willing to believe others, and quite often clumsy—or perhaps she was unskilled. At any rate, she was in constant need of supervision, as much to keep her from accidentally tripping down a flight of stairs as to discourage would-be assassins. And Solas had pulled last night's shift.
He heard the stifled groan behind him, the soft scramble as she raced across the room almost on her hands and knees. He turned to see her reach the chamberpot just in time. There wasn't much for her stomach to sick up, but what was there was quickly vacated. He knelt beside her and tried to offer comfort. Briefly he thought about brushing her long hair from her face, but wisely changed his mind. There were some things he didn't want to know, so if he was ever directly questioned, he would be able to deny knowledge without having to lie…
Ugh, he hated having to deal with people!
She had gathered her hair in one hand, on the side opposite from him. Solas supported her by the arms, feeling through the tunic her skin prickle with gooseflesh, until the nausea subsided. "Better?" he asked, solicitously.
She nodded, wiping her chin on the back of her hand, not trusting herself to open her mouth to speak.
"With the Breach stable, the mark is no longer killing you. However, your body is still recovering from the earlier effects. Give it a few more days, perhaps another week, and this too will pass."
She nodded again, accepting his words, though she knew better. "I should get going. Mustn't keep Cassandra waiting. Is she…" she paused to grunt, reaching across the floor to grab her boots, tugging them onto her feet. "Is she up at the chantry?" She stood, settling her feet into her boots as she looked around for her coat. She seemed a little unsteady on her feet, but not enough to warrant concern.
"Where else?" he asked, rhetorically.
She missed the inflection, swinging the thick woolen coat around to get her arms into the sleeves. "Well, there's the practice yard; she likes to swing at the dummies."
He refrained from smiling, knowing she hadn't meant the joke. Seeker Cassandra often liked to 'help' train the new soldiers, more than a few of them sporting deep bruises and light sprains after sparring with her. "I believe the agenda for today is all business. Leliana returned during the night with the last advisor. No doubt she will want to meet you, Herald."
She made a small face, as quickly vanished as it had been timidly made. "Please don't call me that." Her voice was soft, her chin tucked in as she focused on buttoning the front of her coat. Through her long brown hair, he thought he caught a glimpse of a blush across her cheeks.
"What else am I to call you?" he asked, spreading his hands wide. "You have amnesia, unable to remember your name, much less what happened to you at the Conclave. Or has that changed?"
She swallowed thickly. "No, it hasn't. I only… well… I don't feel like a Herald, of Andraste or anyone."
"What is it supposed to feel like, being a Herald? Do you know? No? Then perhaps you are one." He smiled suddenly, encouragingly, his fingers reaching out to touch her chin and lift up her face. Yes, there was the slightest embarrassment over her actions from a moment ago, painting her cheeks with pale pink. "Or perhaps you are not. Regardless, it is a name—of a sort—to call you. You can be thankful for that, at least."
She gave him that timid smile again. "I suppose."
Solas didn't stare. He had studied her features enough during her initial illness, he could easily remember every blemish. Yet no matter how deeply her face was scarred, her smile always seemed to lift the marks away. That is what he focused on. "Would you like something to eat before you go?"
She shook her head, feeling her stomach cramp and twist at the mere mention of food. "No, I…" she dabbed at the sweat clinging to her upper lip. It was always worst first thing in the morning, but after she got up and started doing things, it became easier to ignore the discomfort. "I don't think I could just yet. I'll try later, after a little fresh air."
"You expect to find fresh air inside that stuffy edifice?" he scoffed, referring to the chantry.
At least, she thought he was referring to the building and not the people within it. "After Cassandra's done with me, I'll go for a walk, maybe down to the lake. Walking seems to help," she shrugged, "At least, it doesn't hurt."
He wanted to warn her not to wander too far from the village, but he didn't want to explain why he was so cautious. Mentally he made a note to let Varric know what she was intending; he had the day's shift. "Very well. Run along, then; I'm sure this newest advisor is anxious to meet you."
She pulled away, ever eager to comply, ever eager to gain favor, and was out the door almost before she opened it. Solas sighed and waited for the door to close before he gathered up his things. He had been studying her through the night, making a few notes in his journal regarding the mark and her condition, and he didn't want those notes to fall into the wrong hands, like Adan's notes nearly had. That absent-minded alchemist was more trouble than help, leaving his notes scattered all over the place.
Outside the cold air stung her lungs, the sunlight reflecting off the snow stung her eyes, and she curled in on herself to hide the discomfort. She started down the street, heading towards the steps that led to the chantry, her walk quiet and unimpeded. Few people—if any—recognized her when she walked alone or didn't wear her armor, as she was this morning. In fact, it usually took Cassandra's bullish and booming voice calling her "Herald" for people to even take notice of her. She was in a word: unremarkable.
That is, so long as she kept her scars hidden. Long brown hair helped with that, the lengths falling straight and boring over her shoulders and enclosing her face. And with her form hunched over crossed arms and wrapped in thick though plain clothing, she looked just like every other faceless, nameless refugee seeking shelter in Haven.
She finished the first tier of steps and was about to climb the second when she heard Varric's voice. She had already formed a strong liking for the storyteller, and regularly sought him out, gratefully spending hours of her time distracted by his unbelievable tales. Her attraction was so deep, it caused her to lift her head up, parting the draping locks, so she could see him. He was standing next to the campfire outside his tent, talking with a man whose back was to her. Perhaps it was due in part to her fledgling curiosity, or perhaps it was due to that kernel of 'self' that had recently been growing within her, but impulsively she turned aside from the steps and slipped behind the tents, trying to get as close to Varric and his companion as she could without being discovered.
She inched forward, her heart pounding over her mild act of defiance—she was supposed to be meeting with Cassandra, not skulking behind tents eavesdropping on a friend. She pressed herself flat against the wall, the requisition officer's supply tent looming above her, and listened.
"So, Curly, I see they finally finished your new armor," Varric's voice spoke in a lazy fashion.
The answering voice was no-nonsense, confident, a voice that commanded your loyalty and trust, while promising to deliver authority and discipline. "Don't call me that."
"I was only trying to pay you a compliment," his voice was now all innocence, "The uniform looks good on you."
"Thank you, though it's going to take some getting used to…" The other man's voice broke off suddenly, to fall into a heavy sigh. "I can never tell when you're being serious, and when you're pulling my leg."
"I like to multitask where I can. Saves time and effort."
Varric's laughter was contagious, causing that timid smile to lighten her mouth, a tiny sparkle to dance in her hidden eyes.
"So, what do you think of our little Herald?" Varric asked.
"I haven't had the pleasure yet, have I?"
The two were silent for a count of three before Varric said, "Really. I was there, Curly, when you met her last week, just outside the temple, right before she stabilized the Breach. Any of this ringing a bell?"
"Er…" the other—Curly?—seemed to have to think for a few moments. She inched away from the wall, her curiosity fully engaged, though one hand remained in contact with the stone, as if touching it kept her invisible. "Wearing scout armor? Mismatched helmet too big for her? Stood behind Cassandra most of the time?"
"Hey, I scrounged that helmet for her," Varric defended himself, and her by association. "Poor kid was already suffering amnesia, and getting her head knocked around by a bunch of darkspawn spewing out of the Breach wasn't helping." There was a slight pause before he pressed, "So, you do remember her."
"I, ah, barely, yes," 'Curly' responded, but after a moment there was another sigh. "Fine, not that well. I did sort of have a lot on my mind, like holding off darkspawn so you and the others could get to the Breach. Not to mention retreating the wounded to a safe distance, searching for any survivors and picking up stragglers, keeping the path clear so all of you would be able to reach Haven again…"
"All right, all right, I get it. I guess it wasn't fair of me, expecting you to remember someone you met a week ago, and only for a few minutes. But you have been here a week, now, and you still haven't seen her?"
"I haven't had the time, what with trying to raise an army from scratch when all I have to work with is farm boys and milk maids."
"Ah, come on, Curly, you love a challenge."
There was that dreadful silence again before he said, "Stop calling me that."
"Sure, sure," Varric agreed, and even she could tell he had no intention of stopping. "But you're, ah, gonna see her today, right? I hear Leliana's back, brought that diplomat she wanted to recruit for the Inquisition."
She felt a momentary twinge of guilt, knowing she should be there already, but finding herself unable to move from the spot.
"Yes, we're all supposed to meet this morning up at the chantry, to start planning our strategy. As a matter of fact, I was on my way there when you stopped me for a 'quick question'."
"Well, don't let me delay you, Commander." There was the sound of snow and gravel being crunched beneath the soles of boots, as the two began walking closer, their voices increasing in volume. "Could I ask a favor, though?"
"What is it?" the Commander replied an exasperated tone.
"Tell the Herald to come see me later in the tavern, after the meeting. She likes listening to my stories, and I just remembered one this morning that I think she'll enjoy…"
And suddenly there they were, no more than ten feet from her, passing across the opening between the tents. The Commander's head was up, his eyes scanning the area, constantly alert. Immediately he spied her, hovering near the wall, and obviously close enough to have heard their conversation. His eyebrows drew downwards into a frown, his mouth opened—she was sure to spout some sort of reprimand—as he started for her.
She was trapped, and she knew it. A wave of emotion, uncontrollable and unlooked for, washed over her, turning her knees to jelly and her blood to ice. It had been a long time since she felt fear, felt an overwhelming dread that she had done something wrong and was going to be punished and she needed to run to hide…
She heard him shout as she turned and hesitated, unsure how to escape when she found herself facing impassable stonework. Frustrated and flustered, she couldn't at first remember that she could run either to the left or the right along the wall. Instead she thought only of getting away from what was behind her, which meant moving forwards, which meant climbing the wall. She looked up to see if there were any handholds, and all her fears of the Commander faded in the face of what towered over her. A stack of crates was looming on the edge of the wall, leaning out over the side, swaying slightly as if being balanced. As she hesitated she saw the stack wobble one last time to tip that little bit too far. And all she could do was stand there, staring upwards and waiting for the inevitable…
One moment, a crate over her head was falling, the lid coming off, heavy-looking pieces of metal inside reflecting the light of the morning sun.
The next moment, something just as hard and unyielding struck her from behind, pulling her off her feet, spinning her through the air. She struggled, blindly, not understanding how the crates could have landed on her from behind. Then she and this other very heavy and very hard thing landed on the ground, the force knocking the wind from her body, leaving her silent and empty.
Cullen was ever the soldier first. It was an involuntary action, like breathing, long-ingrained after spending more than half his life as a templar. He had to continually scan his environment, to be aware of who and what was around him, and where, and what was the possible danger, if any. As soon as he and Varric passed the open area between the tents, his head twisted to look down the narrow space. In less than a heartbeat he became aware of the girl, dressed in nondescript clothing like a servant, leaning out from the wall. And of the stack of crates teetering over her oblivious head. He shouted, already moving towards her, intending to warn her of the danger she was in, only to see her eyes widen in fear… of him? He watched with consternation as she turned away from him and stopped, seemingly confused to find herself facing a wall, and then slowly lifting her face to stare acceptingly at her fate. He didn't have time to curse as his powerful legs propelled him forward, desperate to reach her before the crates fell.
It was a race he barely won. The top crate had opened as it fell, chunks of metal escaping to rain like lethal hail ahead of the wooden box. He reached the girl and gripped her with his gloved hands, pushing her ahead of him, twisting her around to tuck her beneath his armored chest. He didn't register her resistance, the blind and fearful thrashing, only that he had her safely away from the danger. Something hard hit his shoulder pauldron, bouncing away harmlessly, before the ground raced up to meet them.
It took a few moments for everything to quiet down. Metal hail continued to fall, a few rolling far enough to strike the sole of his boot, making a sound like a collapsing building. More crates followed, each of them a little louder than the first, shattering open and piling themselves on top of each other. He hunched over the girl, covering her with his whole body, shielding her from the danger, until at last there was silence.
He had his eyes opened the whole time, staring at the youthful face beneath him. Long brown hair had been flung across the lower part of her face, obscuring her features, the strands unmoving as they stretched across a fully opened mouth. But it was her eyes that captivated him, eyes so wide that he could barely see the ring of soft brown irises. Large dark eyes like a doe, an innocent forest creature startled by an unseen danger.
She made a small sound, a gasp, her whole body shuddering as she struggled to breathe. He realized he was lying on top of her, his weight pressing down against her diaphragm and chest. He shifted to his knees, though he remained over her, and asked, "Are you all right?" His gloved fingers reached out to pull her hair away from her mouth.
Before he could touch her she flinched, gasping, limbs flailing until she managed to roll out from beneath him. She coughed and gave a little moan as she pushed herself to sit up. Immediately she ducked her head, her hair falling forwards to continue hiding her face, though she did consent to tilt one large brown eye towards him, almost as if peeking over her shoulder.
He didn't try to touch her again, as startled as she by her reaction, though his hazel eyes studied every minute detail to ascertain her condition. Her lips were parted, still trying to fully re-inflate her lungs, a few lighter strands of hair over her mouth moving with the current. Her whole body heaved with each breath, but it appeared that everything was still in working order. He watched her swallow and struggle to speak, "Ex… excuse me… I… I shouldn't have… I…"
"You're right; you shouldn't have!" he snapped. Damn it, but the girl had given him a scare. Giving her a scare in return might teach her to be a little more observant. "Those crates nearly bashed your brains in!"
It was his best scowl, one he saved for the newest recruits who showed the most promise, and an appalling lack of seriousness. It did not have the desired effect, however, causing him to stare in consternation as she accepted her reprimand without protest. In fact, without any emotion. She capitulated so readily, he was the one feeling like an arse, yelling at a girl—a servant! Maker's Breath, but this day was not starting out very well.
"Are you hurt?" he started again, intentionally keeping his voice calm and soothing. He didn't understand why she feared him so much, but he thought it might be best if he treated her with aloof politeness. She wasn't one of his recruits, after all. He held out a hand for her to take. She stared at it a moment, that one large brown eye blinking. After a couple of heartbeats she shook her head and set her hand in his.
"What were you doing back here?" he asked, helping her to her feet. Carefully he brushed the worst of the muck off her arms and shoulders, letting her brush off her posterior.
"I, er, I was, um, on my way, that is, Seeker Cassandra, uh, wanted me to…" Her voice faded away, her wits too scattered to think of a lie quick enough. Apparently her luck was turning, as he seemed willing to let her off the hook.
"She's up at the chantry, not down here," he pointed out.
She nodded, a quick and flighty sort of movement.
"Well, if you're not harmed, then you'd best get going. Mustn't keep the Seeker waiting, if she has work for you to do."
"No, ah, no, she, that is…" her words sputtered out again. She stared at the Commander; she had no trouble remembering him from last week, his commanding presence, his concern for his men. Yet apparently he thought she was… a servant? Mentally slapping herself, she decided it didn't matter what he thought of her, as long as he had forgotten, or forgiven, her eavesdropping. Muttering a quick, "Excuse me," she spun away, nearly tripping over her own feet in her hasty retreat, scurrying to put as much distance between herself and the Commander who flustered her so easily.
Cullen let himself be distracted for a moment, watching the girl race off like a startled rabbit. Such an odd person…
"Pummeled by Pommels," Varric quipped, reminding him he wasn't alone. He turned around to see the dwarf holding one of the pommels that had fallen out of the top crate. "Sounds like the title to a cheap who-dun-it."
"Yes, the first book in your next serial, perhaps?" Cullen countered.
"Funny, Curly, very funny. What do you say, we solve this little mishap before we go inventing new ones?"
"Good idea," he hummed. He turned his gaze upwards, where a very confused and shaken Threnn, the Inquisition's quartermaster, was leaning over the wall, looking down at the mess. "You, there! What happened?"
"I… I don't know, ser," Threnn stuttered, recognizing the uniform of a superior officer rather than the man wearing it. "One moment, everything's fine. The next…" she shrugged.
After nearly ending up crushed beneath the debris himself, he was in no mood to be placated by a mere shrug. He lifted hard hazel eyes up at the startled woman, not at all at a disadvantage simply because he was standing several feet below her. "You don't know," he repeated in a disgusted tone. "That poor girl was nearly killed, crushed beneath a mountain of equipment," he pointed to the jumbled mess heaped thigh high, "All because you couldn't be bothered to know about your own job."
Threnn swallowed, but her ignorance was painfully clear. "I swear, ser, I don't know how it happened. That stack's been there for three days, and never once looked like it was about to fall. No one was even near it today, not that I saw."
"Who stacked them?" he pressed, feeling his ire rise at the quartermaster's lapse in attention.
"One of the soldiers; how should I know?"
"Damn it, woman, it's your business to know!"
"Hey, Curly, come on," Varric put a hand on his arm, "No harm's done, everyone's fine. Let's step away, huh? Let the woman do her job and clean up the mess."
"Someone almost got killed due to dereliction of duty, Varric. I cannot let that slide."
"Yeah, I know, but not here," he pressed in a low voice. The tone gave Cullen pause, and he reluctantly agreed to let Varric pull him away from the quartermaster and the soldiers already at work cleaning up the mess.
"All right," he ground out between clenched teeth, once they were a little ways away from the others, "What's going on? Why did you stop me from putting her on report."
"Look," Varric sighed, pausing to rub at the back of his neck. He always got a pain there whenever he had to deal with humans too much, probably from all the craning. "If there's one thing you gotta keep in mind when dealing with the Herald, it's that accidents happen around her. Most of them are things she does herself, like tripping over her own feet or backing into people and chairs. But sometimes, it's just bad luck, you know, or meant to look that way…?"
Cullen's honey-colored brows drew forwards over his eyes in a frown, the space between them filling with deep wrinkles. It was a positively sinister look, one that immediately made every recruit quake in their boots. "I'm no longer in the mood for riddles, Varric…"
The dwarf was immune, having seen too much in his life to be concerned with a pissed-off former templar. He was more frustrated with Cullen's lack of understanding. "I'm not… I just… argh," he grunted, pulling him even further away from any potential eavesdroppers. "You've been told, I take it, about the attempts made on her life, during those first few days after the explosion?"
"Somewhat," he allowed. "Truthfully, I've had other matters on my mind…"
"Well, Cassandra hasn't. She's taken it upon herself to keep an eye on the Herald, mostly because these attempts have continued." He saw Cullen's shocked look and knew he was finally getting through his thick skull. "Oh, they've been clever, whoever it is who's trying to kill her. The girl's accident prone to begin with, so if something happens that appears to be random—and potentially fatal—there's no one to point an accusing finger at. Like just now. Sure, Threnn is in charge of supplies for the Inquisition, but that stack's been there for days, and who could have predicted that the Herald would have been standing there this morning, right underneath it? Yet she was, and it fell, and there's no one to blame. You see what I'm getting at?"
"I'm beginning to… Wait!" he gasped, his eyes growing wide. "Maker's Breath! That was the Herald…?"
Now it was Varric's turn to look surprised. "You really didn't recognize her?" He chuckled, a little darkly, and added, "Oh, this is rich."
"That girl…" Cullen turned to look in the direction she had run off. "The Herald…" he swallowed. "And I treated her like a servant."
Varric couldn't help himself, the laughter fading but the shit-eating grin splitting his face wide open. Cullen faced him again and groaned at the expression. "You could have said something, you know."
He tried, and failed, to make his face look innocent. "Oh, I don't know. Seemed like you had everything well in hand." He struggled not to laugh more at the stricken look on Cullen's face. "Don't worry about it, Curly," he tried to put his mind to rest, somewhat sincerely, "She is rather unremarkable, after all."
Not those eyes, he thought to himself.
"Lots of people overlook her, especially the way she hunches in on herself, and gravitates to the side or stands out of the way. I'm sure she didn't take offense over the way you brushed her off." All his reassurances were calculated precisely to increase Cullen's discomfort.
"I… I should go… apologize or something…"
Varric briefly wished he could be a fly on the wall for that conversation. "Fine, but when you do, don't mention that we think someone's out to get her. It's kinda something Leliana and Cassandra want to keep her from having to worry about; poor girl's got enough on her plate as it is."
"Why shouldn't she know she's in danger?" he asked, confused.
"Well," Varric shifted from foot to foot; he always felt uncomfortable with this part of the plan. "We've been keeping it under wraps, because Leliana doesn't want to let on that we know there's an assassin after the Herald. She's hoping that he'll get overconfident, thinking he's remaining undetected, and make some fatal mistake. But that means we can't let her know someone's out to get her, or she might act differently. There are some of us who are keeping an eye on her day and night, hoping to catch sight of this assailant, but so far…" he spread his hands. "Well, you're observant. Did you see who pushed the stack?"
Cullen thought about it for a moment. "No, there was no one close enough that I could see."
Varric nodded. "Yeah, it's been difficult. Still, we gotta try, for all our sakes; the Herald is the only one able to close the Breach or those other smaller rifts." He started walking with Cullen up towards the chantry. "So, let them know what happened this morning, but do it where the Herald can't hear."
"Understood," he agreed.
"Oh, and, ah," he stopped him with a hand to his chest, "Don't forget your apology."
Cullen squeezed his eyes shut, pinched the bridge of his nose, and moaned, "You're not going to let me live that down, are you?"
"Never," he agreed.
Cullen drew a heavy breath and pushed open the doors of the chantry, leaving Varric chortling behind him.
Inside the building it was cool, the tall ceilings drawing the heat upwards and the snow-packed windows letting in only muted sunlight. He set his shoulders and marched down the length of the hallway, only giving brief nods to those who offered greetings, as he headed towards the room at the back. He and Cassandra had been setting it up as a war room of sorts, collecting maps and compiling reports, so that when this latest member of the Inquisition arrived, he or she could be quickly brought up to speed.
He knocked briefly on the door, more to give warning than to ask permission to enter, and opened it with hardly a break in his stride. "Good morning, everyone," he said crisply, all business and efficiency.
"Ah, Commander," Cassandra greeted him, her accent as thick as the braid in her hair. "Now that you have arrived, we can make the introductions."
He glanced around at the others as names were exchanged, and couldn't help but feel a bit of apprehension: he was the only male in the room.
The meeting had lasted all morning, thanks to his late arrival. Cullen had stoically endured the silent looks full of questions from Josephine, the subtle glances Leliana made to the mud on his new uniform, and the pregnant pauses as Cassandra struggled not to ask why he had been so late. As Varric predicted, the Herald hung back a bit, almost blending into the paneling with her long brown hair mimicking the patterns of the woodgrains. Yet when Cassandra asked for her help on a course of action, she readily gave it with hardly a thought or concern for the danger or hardships involved.
"Then we'll leave for the Hinterlands in the morning," Cassandra declared, leaning away from the table. Leliana began gathering up reports while Josephine's quill made scratching noises at her tablet.
The Herald made to leave, sensing the meeting was over, but Cullen's voice stopped her. "One moment, Herald," he said, trying to be quiet but knowing the other women were straining their ears to hear every word. He saw the girl pause at the door, and stepped up to her side to try to attain some sort of privacy.
"Oh, ah, yes, Commander Cullen?" she sputtered, still keeping her face hidden within those long straight locks. Apparently there simply was something about him that made her nervous, judging by her downcast face and hunched posture and the hand on the door ready to open it. Even her eyes were lifting no higher than his abdomen, long and curved dark lashes fluttering with her high-strung blinks.
"Ah," he paused. He had intended to deliver his apology as quickly as possible, but with her nervous state, and their eager audience, he decided to wait for a better opportunity—a less stressful opportunity. "Don't forget, Varric's waiting for you in the tavern."
He hadn't meant to elicit a reaction from her, yet it got her to lift her face up to him. He almost regretted it, seeing her stricken expression: twisted brows, wide eyes, pink-tinted cheeks, slack mouth… Blessed Andraste, those scars…
As if suddenly realizing someone had a clear view of her face, she ducked her head again, hunching her shoulders, pulling in on herself even tighter than before. It was a defensive gesture, something that set off alarms in his head, but he brushed them aside for now. The girl had been through quite a lot in a short time, after all—not to mention whatever had happened that had left those scars. It was completely understandable for her to be a little skittish. Besides, he had caught her eavesdropping, and reminded her of that embarrassing fact by bringing up Varric and his story.
"Yes, well," he tried to ease her discomfort, yet somehow only made it worse, "He's in the tavern. I could…"
He had intended to offer to walk her there, thinking not only of protecting her from her mysterious assailant, but that it would be a perfect opportunity for him to apologize for his earlier treatment of her. Yet she was already turning away, mumbling about not wanting to keep Varric waiting, nearly hitting herself in the face with the door in her haste to escape.
He took a deep breath and made to follow her, he was a man rarely dissuaded from a mission, but Leliana's voice stopped him. "A moment, Commander." He let the breath out slightly exasperated, but closed the door and allowed the Herald get away. Instead of talking to him, however, she turned towards Josephine. "Well, Josie?"
The latest recruit to the Inquisition tapped her cheek thoughtfully with the feathered end of her quill. "Yes, very odd, as you said on our way here." She paused to sigh, tilting her head as she considered. "You asked me to provide a fresh and un-coached opinion of the Herald; I will give it. I would say she is slightly strange, but these are strange times, as is her situation."
"Concentrate on how she acts," Leliana pressed, "Her personality. Her body language. Anything."
Josephine took another pause, her eyes staring at the table spread with maps and pins. "Very well. She obviously lacks self-confidence, as is evident in her posture, and her fumbling to open the door just now."
"I figured as much," Cassandra hummed, but after a quick look from Leliana she became silent again.
"There's more to it, like a… nervousness. An almost skittish or… oh, what's the word… fearfulness? Yes! That is it! She acts fearful, but it's not a life-or-death type of fear, nor is it directed at us. Except," she gave a little, teasing sort of laugh, her eyes flashing, "For the Commander. There is something about him that leaves her exceptionally flustered."
"That's not entirely my fault," he tried to defend himself.
"Perhaps it is only that you remind her of that which she fears. That being something from her past. Such as, how she acquired those scars…"
"She has amnesia," Cassandra bluntly stated. "If there is something in her past that would make her fearful, she cannot remember it."
"Not directly, no," Josephine allowed, "But she could be remembering the emotion, without being able to remember the cause." She looked to Cullen. "She seemed all right with us women, but you made her nervous, Commander. Could it be because you are male?"
"It wasn't that…" he tried again.
"No, she has no trouble being around Solas," Cassandra interrupted. "Or Varric; she often eagerly seeks out his company, as you just saw."
"Then perhaps it is the uniform," Josephine suggested. "It reminds her of, oh, I don't know—the templars? Commander Cullen could easily do that, being a former templar himself. Perhaps she got those scars as a templar, or from an abusive templar, if she was a mage."
"She isn't a mage," Leliana answered before Cullen could protest alleged templar abuse, "Solas confirmed that before she even woke up. And I checked through the list of all the templars who attended the Conclave. No one matched her description. It's almost as if she wasn't at the Conclave, but she had to have been, to have survived the explosion."
"I don't make her nervous because I'm male," Cullen finally managed to squeeze in, "Or because I was a templar. I make her nervous, because I caught her spying on myself and Varric this morning."
"She was…?" Leliana started, but stopped at the dark look spreading across his features. Apparently, he wasn't to be interrupted again.
"I stopped to speak with Varric outside his tent on my way here." Briefly he sketched in the details of what happened with the toppling crates, and Varric sharing the suspicion that there was someone out to kill her.
"That explains the mud on your uniform."
"How long has this been going on?" asked Josephine, shocked.
"Since the explosion," Leliana answered. "Even during those first few days, chained and locked up as our prisoner, someone tried twice to break into her cell and kill her. We had to post guards around her, for her own protection as well as to keep her incarcerated." She looked at Cassandra, "It appears he hasn't given up."
"Are you sure it's a 'he'?" Josephine asked.
"Reasonably, thanks to a rather large footprint found next to a poisoned blade." Leliana rounded on Cullen next. "And you are sure you saw no one by the crates?"
Cullen shook his head. "I'll admit I was more concerned in saving the girl than seeing who was standing up on the wall, but I didn't notice anyone close enough to have pushed the crates."
Leliana nodded soberly. "I don't know how it could have been anything other than an 'accident.' No one could have planned that she'd be standing at that exact place, at that exact time. Yet…"
"It might have been luck," Josephine supplied, "Her assailant was merely passing by, saw an opportunity, and took it."
"Bad luck," Cassandra grumbled, "Which she seems to gather by the bucketful."
Leliana shook her head, giving up on figuring out the Herald's problems. "Regardless, perhaps you shouldn't take her with you to the Hinterlands, Cassandra. I know Mother Giselle asked specifically for the Herald, but…"
"She'll be safe enough," Cassandra countered. "I'll take Solas and Varric with us; they already know about these 'accidents,' and are quite capable of helping me protect her. And we'll watch to see if anyone else from Haven tags along. An extra and unexpected soldier could be our assassin."
"That would be too much to hope for, wouldn't it? That he'd be that careless." Leliana sighed. "Very well. We'll continue to watch and wait, and pray he does something obvious. Commander Cullen, Josie, I'm sure I don't have to stress to you the importance of acting normally. We can't let on that we know there's a killer on the loose. We especially can't afford for the Herald to act any differently. So, please, I know it's cruel, but don't let her know that she's in danger."
"It does seem cruel, yes," Josephine hesitantly agreed, before finishing in a rush, "But I trust you. I won't speak to the Herald about this."
Cullen thought his cooperation in the matter had already been proven, but when Leliana stared at him, he also gave a curt nod.
"If there's nothing else?" Cassandra asked, looking at Leliana who shook her head. "Then excuse me. I have a lot to prepare before we leave tomorrow."
She spun on her heel and had opened the door before Cullen managed to make his own excuse. "I, ah," he gave a little cough, "I should get going as well. There are, um… recruits… in need of, er… training… and the like." He gave a short bow, but didn't wait for their acknowledgment before he too was out the door. Not quite fast enough, however, as he heard Josephine's voice drifting past his ears.
"Oh, you were right—he is a cute one!"
Blessed Sweet Andraste, he thought to himself, clicking the door firmly closed behind him and blocking out any response Leliana may have given. Why was it always the same, he asked himself as he started for the main door. He had garnered the attention of the young ladies, ever since he became a templar recruit. He thought at first it was the uniform; it was said some girls liked a man in uniform. Yet on those rare occasions when he'd worn civilian clothing, the girls still gathered irritatingly nearby. One of his fellow templars, a slightly older woman, once told him he had a 'baby face,' whatever that was supposed to do. He figured it meant something youthful, so he'd tried growing a goatee.
That also didn't work. If anything, it seemed to draw the attention of even more women. He rubbed at the back of his neck while his boots pounded across the snow packed lane, his eyes scanning automatically. No matter what he tried, he could never escape the feminine whispers and giggles and, and, and silliness and… He made a disgusted sound quietly and mentally shook his head. What was it about girls and giggling? Always giggling, just behind your shoulder, growing suddenly quiet whenever you turned around, and then bursting out again as soon as your back was turned. Were they giggling at him? Was there something in his teeth? A cowlick in his hair? What?
It was maddening.
Even the recent marring of his 'baby face,' a scar acquired during the Kirkwall Rebellion—from his Knight-Commander no less—had no effect. He tried shaving the beard and allowing the scar to show more prominently, but women only cooed and suggested that there was some valiant story behind how he'd gotten it. His steps stopped and he sighed, letting his eyes drift out over the view. If only they knew…
He started walking again, pushing the problem aside. After all, it wasn't as if he preferred men or anything. He liked girls, had even liked one or two well enough over the years thank-you-very-much! But it had never been his desire to have a wife and children. His family, the only family he had ever wanted, was the Templar Order. And he'd had that, for a time. His fellow recruits had been his brothers and sisters, his commanding officers his father figures. After he'd risen in the ranks, the younger recruits were like his nieces and nephews, his sons and daughters. All that was gone, now.
Well, not all. He passed his tent, not daring to glance at it, lest it tempt him too much. He had given up a lot to become a templar. At the time, he had felt it was the right thing to do—just as he felt now, about the Inquisition. Yet whatever he had sacrificed to become a templar, was nothing compared to what he had sacrificed to join the Inquisition.
He wasn't foolish enough to believe he was infallible. He knew what he was doing was dangerous, even life-threatening, at the very least his judgment might become impaired. He needed someone to act as his safeguard. He needed someone knowledgable, someone who could be understanding without being sympathetic. His options were limited, however. There were very few who understood what it meant to be a templar, without being one themselves.
He looked around again, his eyes ever sweeping, ever evaluating…
…and saw Cassandra sitting outside her tent, honing the keen edge of her blade, preparing it for tomorrow's journey. Perfect.
"Seeker, might I have a word with you?" he called out as he approached.
"Of course, Commander," she inclined her head, her main focus on her sword.
"In… private," he added softly, an uncomfortable tension tightening around his eyes.
The whetstone stopped in her hand. She didn't speak again, but nodded once and carefully set aside her blade. Dusting off her hands as she stood, she fell into step beside him.
Once they started moving, a little of the tension seemed to leave his shoulders. He took a deep breath and searched the area to make sure they were not followed. Still he couldn't make eye contact as they started away from the soldiers' encampment, where they both stayed, and downhill towards the lake. "I, ah, I've come to a decision. Last night."
When he grew silent for several paces, Cassandra encouraged him with a very gentle, "Oh?"
"Yes. The Inquisition is important, not that it wasn't before, when the Divine meant it as a backup plan for stopping the Mage/Templar war. But now, with the Conclave destroyed, the Divine dead, demons spilling out of rifts all over Orlais and Ferelden, the Breach…" He stopped her, far enough away from the practicing recruits that no one could hear them. "The Inquisition means more now—to all of Thedas—than it ever did before. I… I want to give as much as the Commander of the Inquisition, as I gave as a templar."
"What are you saying?" she asked, her black brows pulling with suspicion.
He took a steadying breath before facing her squarely. "I'm giving up taking lyrium. It's a tie to my templar past, a tie that I must sever or it'll forever color my reason. The Inquisition must be more important to me than anything else."
She felt a cold chill run down her spine; what he was proposing simply wasn't done. "Are you sure, Cullen?" she dropped the title as she set the tips of her fingers on his sleeve, the conversation becoming too personal. "There are risks involved…"
"I know the risks," his voice was dark though passionate, "But this must be done. I must do this."
She paused a moment before she accepted his conviction and nodded. "How can I help?"
He glanced away, staring out over the frozen surface of the lake. "Keep an eye on me. If I start to slip… if my judgment falters, or I rely too much on lyrium, or for whatever reason…" He looked back at her. "If I am no longer able to perform my duties, I need you to relieve me of command and find a new commander. I'll accede to your judgment in this. Hold me accountable, Cassandra, please."
Though she was a Seeker not a Templar, and therefore did not take lyrium, she did understand the price he was about to pay. "Of course, Commander," she affirmed his title, instilling her voice with confidence. Truthfully, if he was to succeed in this, it would take a miracle. "How do you plan on doing this?"
"I've decided to try weaning myself," he admitted, "I already started decreasing my dosage as of this morning."
She nodded as if this was the most logical course of action, whether or not she agreed with him. "Any ill effects?"
He gave her half a smile, pulling at the scar above his lip. "It's too soon to tell, yet, which is why I wanted to speak with you now, before there could be any doubt as to my personal motives or mental faculties. If anything arises, I'll share it with you, but I might not be able to tell."
Her hand moved to his shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze, "I understand. I will do as you ask. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to finish packing for tomorrow."
"Of course. Thank you, Seeker."
"Commander, I…" she tried to give him encouragement, but words had never been her strongest skill. "You'll be fine. I have confidence in you."
She saw him nod in answer before she turned away, her thoughts racing. If he could succeed, if he could somehow manage what no other templar had, it would mean a great deal to a lot of people. It could inspire more to join their cause, namely other templars dissatisfied with the direction their Order was taking. Silently she prayed for his continued strength and willpower, not only for his sake, but for those others who had yet to follow his example.
Cullen watched her go, the smile turning self-deprecating. "That makes one of us…"