The first time Cullen meets her, she isn't wearing any shoes.
Despite the rest of Thedas burning around him, it's the first thing he notices—he doesn't see the bloodstains on her rough-spun robes or the tips of her sharp ears poking through the tangled, silver hair that hangs limply in front of her face. No, he only sees her toes wiggling in the bloodstained snow as she shifts her weight back and forth, nervously staring at the Breach above them all.
He is… stunned. Whoever she is, she doesn't seem to notice the cold, nor does she notice the wary looks Cassandra is giving her, sword still drawn and ready to strike. She does, however, notice the insignia on his vambraces, and the contempt in her eyes is unmistakable.
He tries not to think about it. She can close the rifts, and that's all that matters.
The explosion at the Breach is earsplitting and echoes through the valley like the loudest thunderclap Cullen has ever heard. If death had a sound, he thinks, it would probably sound like that.
The second time he sees her, she is dead—or maybe not? He's not altogether certain. By all rights, she should be dead. Even when the soldiers and scouts come pouring out of the blackened remains of the Valley of Sacred Ashes, he remains convinced that she could not have survived.
He almost thinks he's hallucinating when he sees Cassandra hiking up from the valley with the girl cradled in her arms, unmoving. Before Cassandra reaches him to explain, however, the girl spasms wildly, spilling to the ground in a heap of knobby limbs, charred clothing, and crackling green energy that makes Cullen's hair stand on end. She lets out a strangled scream of pain—
Things move quickly after that. A flurry of activity explodes around Cullen and he finds himself shouting orders at a small group soldiers to get her off the ground, hold her steady. The elf girl is rushed to Haven for medical attention before he can even get a good look at her face.
She won't survive the night, Solas tells them.
Two days pass. She'll be dead by morning, Adan mutters as he pours potion after potion down her throat. There's no way her body can handle the anomalous magic that seeps and sputters from her palm. It's just not possible—
But she survives.
She automatically dislikes him, that much is obvious from the beginning, but Cullen isn't too particularly fond of her either so he guesses it's only fair. The elf grates against his nerves with every sentence she utters in the war room even though they are few and far between, and she keeps her body angled slightly toward the door as if ready to flee at a moment's notice. Her face remains in the shadows beneath a curtain of poorly-braided hair. For hours, she listens to their bickering about the newborn Inquisition: what's their next step, what's the plan? She makes eye contact with no one and simply listens, only stopping them every once in a while to ask a question.
Her disinterest is maddening. He has to clench his teeth to keep from snapping at her.
When he first heard about the prisoner, he pictured a seasoned warrior with a greatsword attached to her back, scars marring her face, and a determined look in her eye. She was supposed to be a savior, a sodding hero. She had to be able to mount all the burdens of Thedas on her shoulders with practiced ease. Though he would never admit such a thing, Hawke had automatically come to mind when he was informed of a miraculous survivor of the Conclave—Maker only knows she's survived other instances that should have been her grisly end. Hawke is a warrior that Thedas would be willing to stand behind: strong, capable, and determined to do the right thing no matter what.
The Herald is none of those things. She is no warrior—not with those skinny, useless-looking arms. She is a mage. A Dalish mage, and a powerful one if Cassandra is to be believed. This should give him some modicum of relief—their savior isn't completely helpless—but hearing how skilled she is only serves to make him more paranoid. Apostates are unpredictable. She cannot be trusted.
They are halfway through a meeting when her hand reaches up toward the staff strapped to her back. Cullen can't help but tense and grip the hilt of his sword a little tighter (mage mage mage dangerous close quarters too many people can't save them all), but he relaxes when he sees that she is simply reaching up to tuck a stray lock of silver-blonde hair behind her ear. As if sensing his watchful gaze, the Herald looks sharply at him, her eyes filled with suspicion. She glances briefly at his hand that is still gripping the hilt of his sword, and her lip curls slightly in distaste at the sight. The suspicion in her eyes quickly turns to loathing.
Guilt curls in the pit of his stomach, but he pretends not to feel it. He has done nothing wrong. He is not the dangerous one in the room. He will not apologize for taking the necessary precautions.
Apostate. He will not rely on her blindly like the others.
Cullen straightens his shoulders and meets her gaze head-on, green clashing with gold above the war table. He doesn't trust her. Maybe he never will. Still, he doesn't care—he cannot care, not if he is to uphold his duties for the Inquisition. She has lived her life unsupervised and unchecked and he will not let the Inquisition become Kinloch.
He doesn't let his sword out of his sight until she leaves for the Hinterlands the next morning.
The reports begin to flood his desk within a fortnight. Cullen reads them one right after another, becoming more baffled by the sentence. Sweet Maker, she's not just doing her job, she's doing it well. Efficiently, even. He tries to reconcile his own version of the Herald—waifish, reserved, and irritating to no end—with the version Scout Harding describes in her reports.
In the dwarf's words, the Herald is kind and well-spoken to almost everyone she meets, and she gives everything she has to those in need: she takes the time to find blankets for refugees, even going so far as to directly assault a templar encampment to get them; she helps their hunters in her free time and teaches the locals to make Dalish-style animal traps and fishing lures; she gives them every gold piece she finds scattered in caves and valleys across the land, reasoning that it belongs to them anyway.
It doesn't make any sense, he argues. Why would she spend two days herding a druffalo across the entire region for some lowly farmer? Why would she search caves and ravines for the wedding ring of a man assumed dead? Why would she undertake any of these missions, barring the ones specifically assigned to her? What is there to gain from such menial, thankless tasks? To Cullen, it seems more like a waste of time than anything else. In the reports, she sounds… inspiring. Selfless. Honorable.
She also sounds too good to be true, so Cullen decides to reserve his judgment until she returns.
Regardless, he signs off on the reports and sends them on to Josephine and Leliana for review. Time spent thinking about the Herald is a luxury he can't afford, not with the current state of Haven's defenses. He has work to do.
After several weeks, the Herald finally returns from her journey to the Hinterlands. She enters the gates atop a hart with her three companions in tow on their own respective horses—Dennet's generous contribution to the Inquisition, he guesses, but Cullen has no idea where, when, or how the Herald managed to find a sodding hart—and the rest of her entourage filters through the gates behind her.
She looks regal atop her mount, silver hair braided intricately down her back in a style that is distinctly elven and breathtakingly beautiful; envy takes root amongst the ladies of Haven at the sight of the intricate knots and twists as she passes by the smithy. Even Lysette stares after the Herald wistfully, touching her own hair absentmindedly in her wake.
As she nears the stables, Cullen spots Cassandra and Varric on their own horses behind the Herald. Varric is saying something and gesturing wildly with his hands, a smile stretched widely across his face—telling a story, he guesses, if Cassandra's scowl is any indication. On the other side of the Herald, Cullen watches as Solas leans over in his saddle and murmurs something to the Herald that makes her lips twitch in amusement. It's the closest he's ever seen her come to smiling and the emotion looks strange on her face.
Distractedly, Cullen calls Rylen over and puts him in charge of the recruits for the moment before he walks briskly toward the stables to meet them. She has brought back multiple wagons heaped with supplies, dozens of eager (though mostly untrained) recruits from Redcliffe, and a curmudgeonly Grey Warden who seems perfectly content to grunt in response to every single question that is thrown his way.
The Herald is also not wearing shoes. Again.
"Herald," he calls out, catching her attention. As she looks at him, he can see the wariness reflected in her eyes; he makes sure not to touch his sword.
"Commander," she replies coolly. With practiced ease, she swings down from her saddle and hands the reins of her hart to the nearest stable boy—he pales as he looks up at the enormous beast and very carefully begins leading it toward the nearest empty stall, muttering prayers under his breath that the beast doesn't trample him to death.
The Herald pads over to Cullen, her bound feet hardly making any noise at all as she approaches. "If you're looking for my final report, you're going to be rather disappointed," she says distractedly as she removes the clawed gauntlet from her left hand; she flexes her fingers and rubs her palm, wincing slightly.
And for a moment, the world stops turning.
Cullen has never been this close to the Herald before, not in broad daylight like this. In the past, she has always stood on the opposite side of the table in the dimly-lit war room, her face tilted downward and her brows creased deeply in consternation. But here in the bright sunlight next to the smithy, he can finally see her.
And Maker's breath, she is quite pretty.
He's never noticed it before—he wonders at his complete lack of observational skills when the sweet scent of the embrium blossoms woven through her hair floods his senses—and Cullen momentarily forgets what words are when she looks up at him, raising an eyebrow expectantly. As unrelenting as the Waking Sea during a storm, her beauty washes over him all at once, threatening to drown him: eyes the color of polished jade, framed by full, dark lashes and nearly-imperceptible laugh lines; high cheekbones, sharp and deeply tanned from her years living outdoors; lips the color of ashen roses.
He can sense her magic from where he stands, metallic like lyrium but sweeter and powerful enough to make him sweat. Her mana reserves are vertiginously vast, practically bottomless and so very, very dizzying. It is as if a sinkhole to the Deep Roads has suddenly opened up inches in front of his toes; he fights to keep his balance and not fall in.
She has freckles.
"Commander," the Herald says, peering up into his face with concern. Her eyes are filled with an unfamiliar warmth that makes it hard to breathe, like his armor is strapped too tightly to his chest. "Are you feeling all right? You look as though you've seen a ghost."
Her voice is enough to pull him from his reveries. Cullen clears his throat and rubs the back of his neck to swipe at the droplets of sweat that are trickling down his neck to stain his shirt collar. He does not meet her gaze. "I am… all right, my lady. Your concern—"
"You don't look fine," she interrupts, her voice a little steelier. She crosses her arms over her chest and frowns. "When was the last time you slept? You look exhausted."
Cullen opens his mouth to feed her the same lie he tells Rylen and Leliana and anyone else who asks about his health. He is perfectly finedespite the pounding headache that assaults him in the presence of her magic—Maker, she must have lyrium in her saddlebagsor something—but the words die in his mouth when she steps forward, close enough for him to notice the flecks of silver in her eyes. He is suddenly very aware of his hands and the way they clench nervously, sorely missing the reassuring feel of the sword at his hip.
Slowly, she raises a hand and reaches out—perhaps to check his temperature or to use some healing magic, he doesn't know—and Cullen's heart begins to pound uncontrollably in his chest. He fights the urge to flinch away from her, to grab his sword and strike down the mage before she can poison his mind—no. That's not right. This is not Kinloch, this is not Kirkwall. She is the Herald of Andraste, not a blood mage. Fighting his instincts, Cullen freezes and distracts himself by following the delicate lines of the tattoos across her forehead and reciting the Chant of Light in his head.
She is frowning in concentration as her hand hovers mere inches from his face, the hum of a spell ready at her fingertips. Cullen begins to sweat as images flood his mind: blood and the sharp scent of magic and her face, looking down on him with shame and more blood, so much blood. His stomach rolls.
Her fingers freeze mere inches from his face as she notices his agonized expression. The concern in her eyes shutters immediately and she drops her hand to her side where she grips her robes tightly, crumpling the fabric.
"Ir abelas," she murmurs, avoiding his eyes. "That was— I should have asked permission first."
"It's all right," he tells her, cursing the tremor in his voice. Not Kinloch not Kirkwall but Haven this is Haven and everything is fine. "You just caught me by surprise."
"Do you…" she trails, shifting nervously. He looks down at her, trying his best to regulate his heartbeat. "Do you suffer headaches often?"
Cullen swallows thickly, wondering what kind of magic allowed her to discover what was ailing him. As she steps back to an appropriate distance, his headache ebbs slightly. He finally feels like he can breathe. "You needn't concern yourself with my health," he tells her. "But… yes, I get them more often than I used to. It is a minor concern, my lady."
She finally meets his gaze, her expression sympathetic. "One of my brothers used to get headaches all the time when he was younger; chewing on dried taproot was the only thing that worked. I'll look for some next time we leave Haven."
"I could never ask such a—"
"You did not ask," she points out. "I am offering."
Cullen rubs his temples and sighs. He's never heard of taproot and wants to say no, she has more important things to worry about, but Leliana and Josephine might murder him if he rejected her help so blatantly. Reluctantly, he replies, "I do not wish to add to your duties, Herald, but I would be remiss to turn down such an offer. Thank you."
She gives him a small smile, one that actually reaches her eyes. "Do not thank me yet. Taproot tastes positively awful."
He decides that he likes her smile—it brightens her eyes and creates a dimple in her left cheek that he wants to examine more closely—but she does not remain with him for long after that. Her attention is drawn by Solas, who comes up behind her and murmurs something in Elvhen that makes her brows knit in concern. She rests a hand on Cullen's forearm, her eyes filled with a silent apology, before she is led away by the elf toward the gates of Haven.
Cullen watches after her, his eyes lingering on her bound feet as they crunch through the snow. She doesn't appear to notice the cold at all. He wonders how she manages it. I should have Harrit make a pair of—
"Not what you expected?"
Cullen glances over as Cassandra walks over and stands at his side, arms crossed. Her face is grimy and her armor is dented and crumpled in a few places—Maker's breath, are those scorch marks?—but on the whole, she looks well. She raises a questioning eyebrow at him, looking pointedly at the retreating form of the Herald.
He merely grunts in response, turning his gaze back to the pair of elves in the distance. They are speaking rapidly, their lips forming unfamiliar words that he wishes he could understand. "She is certainly something, I'll give her that."
The Seeker shoots him a sidelong glance, her lips turning down at the corners. "I was surprised to see her talking to you."
"That makes two of us."
"She holds no love for the Order, as I'm sure you know."
"I do not blame her," he answers bitterly, scowling as he remembers their reports of templars attacking civilians along the western roads. The whole world's gone mad, it seems. "Still, we were civil. At the very least, I don't think I made her any angrier."
"A good improvement," Cassandra says. She lowers her voice to a murmur, "Still, I was more surprised you did not take her arm off at the shoulder when the opportunity presented itself. You must be feeling better today."
Cullen winces and instinctively looks around to make sure no one is close enough to hear them. A few soldiers are helping unload the carts of supplies to his left; thankfully, the sound of the smithy is enough to grant them privacy. "I can't say it didn't… cross my mind," he admits. "But I would never harm her, Cassandra. You must know that. She is too important."
"I know," she assures him. Her flinty gaze is not unkind as she looks at him, continuing, "Still, it would be wise to exercise caution around her, especially when your symptoms worsen. I imagine being near her magic is difficult for you."
He hums lowly and bites the inside of his cheek. "I usually don't have problems around mages like this. She feels—"
"Like lyrium," Cassandra finishes. She exhales slowly through her nose. "I've noticed it too. For both your sakes, it might be best if you steer clear of the Herald as much as possible."
"You will watch me?"
She inclines her head forward. "Of course, Cullen."
He clenches his teeth and nods tightly, shame pricking at his cheeks. "Thank you. I truly hope it never comes to that."
"As do I," she tells him, dropping her arms to her side. A wistful expression comes over her face and she stares past him. "She is a… complex woman. I know her better than when we left, certainly, and yet when I see her I cannot help but feel like I am still looking at a stranger. It is an odd feeling."
"You've travelled with her for weeks. How can she possibly still be a stranger?"
"The Herald keeps her secrets quite well, Commander. I have tried to pry things out of her and met with little success. Even Varric cannot get her to open up. She speaks only to Solas."
"And yet you still trust her." It's an observation, not an argument.
She nods confidently, her eyes falling upon the Herald. "I do. Her intentions are righteous and she believes in what we are doing. That should be enough."
But it isn't.
He hears it in the Seeker's silence, sees it in the nervous set of her jaw. As she watches the pair of elves speak animatedly, he sees a tinge of jealously flit through her eyes. "You know, a short conversation with Sister Nightingale would tell you all you need to know about the Herald."
Cassandra blinks and shakes her head, frowning at his suggestion. "I would know her on her own terms. We have asked so much of her already. To break what little trust we have and go behind her back… no, I could not do it."
"I was joking."
She blinks. "Oh. I did not—"
"It's all right." He gives her a wry smile and shrugs. "I suppose you're too exhausted to deal with my sorry sense of humor."
Cassandra's eyes glimmer with pleasant surprise, and she looks him up and down, scrutinizing him closely as if she had only just realized he had been standing there. "You are in remarkably good spirits today. I must admit, it is good to see you like this, Cullen—perhaps there is still hope for the Order." She inclines her head, a small smirk playing upon her lips. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have many things to do before dinner. I will see you in the war room later tonight."
He nods and bids her farewell, watching closely as she marches purposefully toward the gates of Haven. The Herald sees her pass and smiles in acknowledgement; she is leaning on her staff as she listens to Solas talk—about what, he isn't sure—and only looks mildly interested in what he has to say. Every once in a while, her gaze will drift off in the direction of the woods. A shadow of longing flickers across her face.
One of my brothers used to get headaches all the time when he was younger.
He wonders how many brothers she has—are they loud and infuriating like his own siblings, or are they haughty and reserved like the other Dalish he's met? Does she have any sisters? He wonders if she misses them—oh, what is he talking about, of course she does. There's no way she wouldn't.
He wonders why he cares.