Wintersend part 20

Evelyn had left Adamant Fortress and was now walking briskly along the road leading into the harsh, barren Approach. It was not her intent to run away. If that had been the case, she would have gone by horseback, but she needed time to calm down before she started hurling things around. The large battering-ram still stood before the smashed gates like an abandoned petrified monster from some old forgotten age. And right and left of the road she saw other pieces of siege equipment, mainly trebuchets, looming like sleeping dragons. It was a dismal sight, even in the comforting light of the fast rising sun, and brought back the memories of the battle they had fought to conquer the stronghold. And everything that had come of it, including the involuntarily journey through the Fade.

She was simmering inside, right now not knowing whether to scream out her frustration or to weep from misery. Or to do both. She was aware of the people starting to dismantle the trebuchets, probably the sappers from Jader, and the curious looks some of them were throwing her. She didn't know if they recognized her, but even if they didn't, it wasn't wise to act like a bronto on a rampage. The last thing she wanted was drawing attention to herself.

She clenched her jaw and marched on, causing little whirls of sand with her stomping feet.

'And to think I brought you a present to express my admiration for you,' she seethed half out loud. 'To think I brought you to my bed! Had I known you were stone at heart, absorbed with rigid duty and righteousness, I'd have kicked you down the stairs!' Instead she kicked at a stone lying in her way. Deep inside she knew she was acting unfair. Cullen had shown his love for her in many ways on several occasions, even in public, and as ultimate proof had jumped after her into the Fade. Between the anger and the sorrow, she felt a pang of remorse but dismissed it right away. His remark about personal not being the same as important had hurt. Still hurt. Together with his statement that she should get into safety not because she was his woman but because she was the Inquisitor, it was enough to bring about a stream of irritating pricking tears. Impatiently she wiped them away with the back of her hand. When he had kissed her in Skyhold's courtyard he had made her feel like a careless woman in love. With his remark from a few minutes ago, he had pushed her back into the "Your Worship" department with all the attached responsibilities she had never asked for, but that weighted with the heaviness of the world itself on her shoulders. Of course, she knew it was her burden to carry and though it was difficult at times, she had accepted her fate as well as she could. She wouldn't have minded so much if it had been Leliana or Cassandra or even Bull who had pointed out that her first and most important duty was to save Thedas. But to hear those words from him were like the equivalent of being thrown into a bathtub filled with icicles. Cullen was supposed to be her safe place; with him she could, now and again, forget about her title and everything that was attached to it. If he too started to vent those obvious facts, there was nowhere left to hide, not even for a few hours.

She turned and stared at the sturdy bulk of Adamant Fortress. As fortresses went, this was an impressive, but not very attractive one. But then again, it wasn't designed as a fancy castle by some Orlesian dandy to please his elegant maîtresse. It was built to keep the enemy out. But no fortress can stand against treachery coming from the inside, Evelyn mused. And treachery it had been, no matter how you looked at it. Even taken into consideration the Grey Wardens had been all at sixes and sevens at that time, they had betrayed their own organisation and with it the whole world. Determinedly Evelyn forced herself to concentrate on the reason why they had come here in the first place, instead of lingering on her frustration, lest she would lose herself as yet. If she had to be the Inquisitor and nothing but the Inquisitor, she better started acting like it. After all, everyone relied on her to give a verdict; she would be the one who was to decide on what to do with the surviving Grey Wardens. Even more lovely, the whole future of the organisation lay in her hands. Joy of joys. So she should sort herself out and return to Clarel's office because she couldn't play the judge out here on the dusty road. She started walking back to the stronghold with resolute strides and a back so straight it looked like she had swallowed a broomstick.

She was of the opinion Clarel had been dangerously gullible and she should have known better, or at least should have seriously weighed all the possibilities, before she handed her men over to the mercy of the Tevinter Imperium. And then there was that other, perhaps even more grave, fact of the Grey Wardens cooperating with Corypheus, holding the Divine captive. But who was she to condemn the Warden Commander for her actions? Could she truly understand the impact of the Calling? Was it something like the threat of a sweet whispered promise of a demon? Probably it was much worse. It was a promise of certain death. You could strengthen yourself against it and know it was inevitable; in the end, Evelyn imagined, it always came as a nasty shock. One thing she was sure of: the discussions would be tough and undoubtedly there would be a lot of shouting involved.

When she approached the gate, she saw Cullen appear from behind the battering ram and her heart skipped a beat. He looked distressed but she wasn't intend to give in to the sudden wave of guilt that came over her. She cut him short before he had the chance to say something. 'I don't want to talk about it,' she said curtly. 'Not here and not now. We have more important things to deal with.' Secretly, and rather wickedly, she enjoyed his expression that turned from distressed to devastated at her words. Now you know how it feels to be slapped in the face.

'Evelyn,' he started clumsily, 'I didn't mean to-'

'I said not now!' she snapped. She swept past him and entered the fortress, leaving him the choice to follow or stay behind. Perhaps Fenris can teach him how to brood, she thought grimly. Who knows it will work better to scare the demons off than a well-trained army.

Leliana looked sharply up when the door to the office opened and tried very hard to hide her disappointment when she saw Hawke and Fenris enter. She had cursed herself when the Inquisitor had stormed off. She shouldn't have lashed out like that, she should instead have had a quiet talk with Cullen once they were back in Skyhold. She blamed it on her tenseness but that could never be an excuse. The atmosphere in the room had been despondent ever since, even after she had called for refreshments and everyone was silently drinking wine or ale to recuperate from their Fade experience. Varric had given her some kind of report but he had been quite flat, compared to his normal flamboyant behaviour. Even Dorian's ceaseless babbling had dried up. He didn't look half as self-righteous as he used to, but perhaps it was her own perception because she saw the world in dreary grey colours at the moment. It had been a testing night to all of them, and to top it, the others had been through a difficult trip in the Fade which had left its mark on their faces. Reluctantly her eyes swivelled to the mage Anders who had positioned himself in the shadows of a corner, and wondered what was going through his mind. Another serious problem to sort out. She wished Josephine were here; she would have handled this tight situation so much better.

She turned her attention to the former Champion of Kirkwall who still looked alarmingly pale. 'Are you feeling better?' She did her best to sound as friendly as possible, biting back her worries. 'Please, take a seat. Both of you. And have something to drink.'

Hawke gave her a slight nod. 'I'm fine. Thank you for asking.' She let the nod follow by a tired smile. 'Somewhat too much stress during the past months for my liking.' She carefully lowered herself in an austere wooden chair and reached for a pitcher with water.

'Maybe it could be –' Varric began in a cheery voice, but he faltered under Hawke's murderous glare. 'Or maybe not,' he grumbled under his breath.

'Where is the Inquisitor?' Hawke informed, ignoring the dwarf altogether. Tired she might be, but still observant.

Her question got answered right away when the door opened anew and Evelyn entered, closely followed by Cullen, who looked as if the Nightmare they had escaped from had made a return exclusively for him. Leliana let out a silent sigh of relief, disregarding for the moment Cullen's expression of naked suffering, and already opened her mouth to express some kind of an apology, but Evelyn stalled her by raising her hand. She came right to the point. 'There are a lot of things we have to decide upon, but right now, I think, the most important issue is the fate of the Grey Wardens.' Her wandering look rested upon Stroud, who stubbornly had refused to sit down and stood rigidly straight by the window. The morning sun laid a bluish hue over his black hair. 'I take it you are the highest in rank around?'

Stroud shrugged. 'I suppose I am.'

'Does that mean the other Grey Wardens will follow your will?'

'I don't think they have another option,' Stroud reacted rather mockingly. 'Clarel is dead and Weisshaupt is a far way off. Besides that I'm quite certain they will be relieved someone else will be taking the decisions out of their hands.'

Evelyn pursed her lips. 'Right. I'm still struggling with what the Grey Wardens have done, as do you I assume. No need to dwell on details and appalling images. But I'm of the opinion it will be much worse to dismantle the organisation than to let them exist. Who knows when the next Blight will hit Thedas. I suggest you will join the Inquisition. Under our supervision.'

'You suggest we will bow to your command!' Stroud flew up. 'You suggest we abandon our independence and dance to your tune! How can you ask that?!'

Before Evelyn could give a heated response, Hawke interfered. She had stood from her chair and turned to face the Grey Warden. And her face didn't look benevolent. 'She can ask that because you have messed up big time and made a bloody poor case for yourselves. You can play the affronted party, and I just know you're on the brink of shouting how the whole of Thedas never understood, and never will, how you sacrifice yourself to keep us all safe from the darkspawn. Believe me, my brother just loves to throw those words into my face. In the meantime, I know all about it. But even he will admit, when he learns about it, the Grey Wardens are responsible for the death of Justinia. And were in cahoots with Corypheus. And still you dare to protest.'

'Yes, but,' Stroud tried to put a word between her reasoning. But just as Varric he received a murderous, by now near deadly glare and fell abruptly silent. If there had been a way to escape through the window he had done it.

'Do you really believe the people of Thedas will take it as an excuse your mages were under the influence of a self-declared god, and thus were ready to murder their treasured Divine because they were not able to think for themselves?' Sarcastically she lifted an eyebrow. 'Even if they did so, I fear that story will only lessen the already meagre goodwill. And do you think they are willing to forgive all the horrendous actions because the Grey Wardens were hearing the Calling and thus were afraid of dying?' Her voice had obtained that special gritty tone she only saved for the occasions that really mattered to her. She snorted derisively. 'I've got news for you, Serah. All of us are afraid of dying, especially in the present situation. Think again.' When Stroud didn't come with an answer, simply because he couldn't compose an adequate one, Hawke continued relentlessly. 'I would take the Inquisitor's offer if I were you. It's the best you can get. Not many people would be so generous under the circumstances.'

Stroud bowed his head and ground his teeth. Reluctantly he admitted the woman was right and he was defeated on all fronts. Or better, the Grey Wardens were. He looked up at Evelyn and stretched out his arms. 'You can fetter my hands and take me prisoner if you like. I throw myself and the rest of the Grey Wardens at your mercy.'

Evelyn cocked her head, not totally persuaded of his sincere intentions. Besides, she thought his gesture rather dramatically. Surrender Orlesian style. 'Just like that?' She sounded as unconvinced as she looked.

'Not just like that,' Hawke said. She looked shortly at Anders who had been a Grey Warden once. And remembered all too well her brother's haughty pride. 'Many men and women joined the Grey Wardens. Perhaps not always out of the best intentions, but their dedication is beyond dispute. And they are a proud organisation. Handle them with care, Inquisitor.'

Evelyn looked from the former Champion, a woman she held in high esteem, to the sudden meek Grey Warden. She considered she could choose not to pay attention to what Marian Hawke had said. Like she had put forward on earlier occasions, her title didn't count any longer though she seemed to take that with admirable ease. As if she is glad the burden no longer rests on her shoulders, Evelyn thought. She could understand that. And yet she still feels the responsibility. Apparently you never get free of that. Would she be like that, after they would have succeeded in slaying Corypheus? Would she go on caring for the world? She couldn't tell right now but, looking at Marian Hawke, it seemed that sort of responsibility was like a kind of disease you never entirely got rid of. 'I will try to heed your advice,' she said, while pointedly staring at Stroud, 'but we cannot take the risk of Grey Wardens running amok once more. So we will leave a complement of Inquisition soldiers behind. To make certain no-one gets it into their head to contact the Venatori.'

Stroud opened his mouth as if to utter a protest, but thought the better of it and said nothing. He realised he was no match for either women.

'Cullen, can you see to that?'

The Commander hesitated just a heartbeat too long. 'Do you, er.' He cleared his throat. 'Do you want me to stay behind?'

Evelyn could simply hear the exertion with which he tried not to sound forlorn, and inwardly she rolled her eyes. 'Of course not! You're the Commander, we need you at Skyhold. I just want you to sort it out. Or better, to appoint someone who can do that. You know the men better than I do. You must know who is most suited for the task.' She ostentatiously avoided looking at him. At the same time, beneath the thin layer of irritation, a feeling of guilt was agitated bouncing up and down, and a little voice inside her head screeched, you're acting like a complete and utter twat! She ignored it.

Leliana saw her chance to put in a word in an attempt to ease the palpable tension between the Inquisitor and the Commander. 'I recommend Captain Halbert. He is very capable, and keeps his head cool when it counts.'

'Good,' said Evelyn before Cullen could react. 'That's one problem solved. But there's more trouble we have to deal with.' Her eyes rested on Anders, who made a serious effort at mastering the art of invisibility in one go.

'I will keep a close eye on him,' Cullen offered.

'Still not lost your Templar abilities?' Anders couldn't help saying, his cover given away anyhow.

Dorian coughed delicately when Cullen didn't reply. 'I assume what our dear Commander means to explain is he will do his utmost to keep you out of the clutches of one vengeful Seeker. I reckon she will not hesitate to disembowel you on the spot.'

'There's a woman you don't want to meet in a dark alley,' Varric agreed, 'or even on a well lit grand boulevard. Compared to her, Aveline is an adorable fluffy puppy with floppy ears and a cute squeaking bark. I take it you get the picture. And then, maybe even worse, there's the Iron Lady who will have you for breakfast without a second thought.' – Fenris grimaced darkly at the memory of their encounter in Skyhold's Great Hall. – 'Although, she will certainly use the right cutlery while she devours you, if that's any consolation.' He smirked broadly which only emphasised the dangers Anders was about to encounter.

Anders himself, in the meantime, looked bewildered from the Tevinter mage to the dwarf. 'I understand I at least will have a choice of women,' he muttered, 'that's something.' He still felt light-headed and couldn't' decide if it was due to the strange emptiness Justice had left behind or the outlandish situation he found himself in. He wasn't sure he could cope with all this. With this unexpected turn of fate. And he certainly wasn't looking forward to be dragged into a court and bombarded with accusations he wasn't able to challenge. He was convinced his life was forfeit anyway and somehow wished he had stayed behind in the Fade. Death would be inevitable and he'd rather have died knowing with his last act he'd saved the lives of others, than to be hanged like a traitor. His eyes drooped.

Fenris let out a deep sigh and stood from his chair. He turned to the mage and amazed everyone present, and Anders the most, by saying, 'You stay with Marian and me. We will see to it no-one will pounce upon you. Be it with a sword, or whatever knife Madame de Fer uses to handle her courses.' He gave Cullen an apologetic smile. 'You will be too busy with organizing the march back to Skyhold.' And with making amends with your woman, he added in the privacy of his head, because he had perceived the tension between those two as well. At the same time he sensed the light pressure of Marian's fingers on his wrist, broadcasting her approval.

Anders stared wide-eyed at him. 'You're serious..?' he said, hesitantly.

'I am. But that I'm willing to defend you, doesn't mean I will make your life easy.' He shook his head. There was a change in Anders he couldn't deny, a change that made him questioning his former solid opinion that the mage was nothing but a dangerous warmonger with the blood of a whole city-state on his hands. Perhaps it was true Justice had been the evil genius behind it all and Anders hadn't been able to stop him. Whatever the case, he wanted to keep him in sight. He suddenly realised his always faint shimmering fear Anders one way or another would drive a wedge between Marian and him, was gone. There was nothing to be afraid of, not even his past, after that gruesome confrontation in the Fade. Not even Anders. He recognized right now the mage was the least of his problems. And thus, to his own amazement, he was willing to stand up for him.

Evelyn's eyes lighted up. 'I wished all of our problems would dissolve just like that,' she said happily, although she fooled no-one present with this attitude. Stubbornly evading Cullen she went for the door. 'I believe I better have a chat with Blackwall before he gets the wrong message and thinks the Grey Wardens have ceased to exist.' Before she shut the door behind her back, she added, rather menacing, 'Although I'm convinced he will listen to reason. He strikes me like a man who can make the difference between personal and important.'

Cullen cringed visibly. What made it even worse, he knew everyone in the room had understood the nasty jab. And what it was about. The awkward silence that fell after Evelyn's boisterous departure only underlined it. He felt like he had let something precious fall out of his hands and he didn't know how to put the pieces back together. It didn't help he knew all the eyes were aimed at him. He had made a grave mistake although he didn't understand about what precisely Evelyn was so angry with him. He had made it clear that he loved her, hadn't he? She meant the world to him. He thought that was obvious, but apparently it hadn't been enough. His shoulders slumped. 'I will go and find Captain Halbert,' he muttered helplessly.

'I will go with you,' he heard Leliana say. She sounded concerned and placed a comforting hand upon his arm. That did it.

A little spark of irritation lighted up in his chest, aimed at his lover. What was she thinking, bloody hell, acting like some spoiled toddler! He had given her his soul and his love. He had bared his very essence to her and with one word, one sentence she didn't like, she turned against him and treated him as if he had betrayed her. Without thinking he swatted Leliana's hand away.

'No,' he grunted, the word forcefully pressed through his teeth, 'I must do this on my own.' At that statement he fled the room and slammed the door shut behind him in a much more harsh way than Evelyn had done before him.

The awkwardness in the room grew until, finally, the Bull rumbled, 'I bet they will have one hell of a good make up sex this night.'

At that even Anders had to laugh.

Leliana wasn't so sure, and thus slipped after Cullen while she thought the others didn't notice her. Apart from the Tevinter elf. He seemed to notice everything. Did she have to deal with him? For a moment she held her breath when her brain did the calculation. No. he was no danger. Sometimes she hated herself for dealing with people instead of encountering them. Right now she felt for Cullen and scolded herself for scolding him. But in the end all that counted was the result.

She had become a cold and reckoning person after ...

... there had been that Chantry in Lothering, the Hero of Ferelden ... and then the unexpected turn of the left hand. The Spy. It had changed her, and she was, up till this moment, still not certain her life had made the right move. But she had to live with it, hadn't she..?

She followed Cullen a few paces and abruptly decided it had been enough. She needed sleep after this tiresome, trying night. She needed to relax and think over all that had happened in such a short time.

Just before she retired the thought overwhelmed her: she needed a lover, at least for one night. Or day. She was convinced that would lessen her stress more than a few hours of sleep could do. So, before she could reconsider her sudden impulse, her footsteps turned to where she knew she could discretely intercept the Bull. He was probably the only one who wouldn't read anything special in her request, who wouldn't make more of it than it was. The Qunari didn't do romance. They just did sex. Right now, that suited her well.

First note: To be honest, I didn't like Stroud much. The way he acted unperturbed to what happened in the Temple of the Sacred Ashes and then tried to blame Hawke for the carnage in Kirkwall, made my blood boil.

Second note: in the game everything between Cullen and the Inquisitor is sooo lovey-dovey ... it really made me long for a good quarrel. Just to make their relationship a bit more interesting. DAI allows no opportunity to have a rivalry romance and I miss that. I admit, having a good shout at Fenris sometimes was really fun!

And, alright, the third one: Leliana always intrigued me. She irritated me, I hated her at times, but she is a fascinating character. She has developed into something between a nun and a reckless spy. Quite a combination.

And, as always, thank you for reading!