So while the first few chapters were quite peaceful, giving our two main characters a lot of time to get to know each other and grow close, it can't stay all calm forever, can it? This is the part where shit hits the fan, as Varric would say. I'll not say more.
IX. From Beyond, I Arrive
In my time as a leader, I have learned many important lessons about respect, perseverance and the weight of justice. But there is one lesson I will, above all, never forget: It is at the height of your strength that you are the most exposed. At the point where you feel victorious and invulnerable, that is when disaster will exploit your guilelessness, and strike.
Shenlira awoke before dawn, stirred from sleep by a dream. It had not been a nightmare, but had felt like a childhood memory long forgotten. A forest deep at night and the smell of burning wood in the cool air. She had been carried by strong arms that were not her father's, endlessly on through the shadowed maze of trees. Lights had flickered in the distance, yellow and red ribbons somewhere far behind, but she was taken away from that place, that place where something had ended… That time is long gone now. It is for the better. She was momentarily saddened by it until she became aware of warm, male body against her back, holding her in a tender embrace, skin against skin like a snug cocoon. His scent mingled with her own, a leftover reminder of their lovemaking, and the images it brought to her mind made her tingle all over. His face above hers, taut with concentration, the look in his eyes as though he was lost in the throes of passion, and the way it had felt when he had moved inside her, so fierce and yet so gentle… The hand that had rested lightly on her hip moved as if it wanted to emphasize that memory, fingers wandering upward playfully.
"Did you dream, just now?", Cullen said quietly, nuzzling into her hair. She smiled and turned in his arms. His face, as familiar by now as a favourite song, appeared completely relaxed as he surveyed her with a look of deep affection in his dark eyes.
"How did you know?", she wondered, smiling at the unruly mess his blonde hair seemed to be in the morning. So he did do something to it, although the state it was in right now might have been her doing…
"You mumbled in your sleep, in elven. It did not sound distressed though. I hope you have slept well?", he inclined his head and placed a light kiss on her temple. The last words sounded distinctly prankish, making her blush and realize that she was still not wearing a stitch of clothing. Cullen could not suppress a smile, one that was so light and carefree, the smile of a young man. This aspect of him was still new and rare, such a contrast to the solemn, dutiful side he showed to most of the world. But both were part of the same man, telling her a story about his true depth. There is so much more to him than what can be seen on the surface.
"I… very well, actually.", she managed to say and then eyed him, half-curious, half-embarrassed. "That thing you did… With your hand…", she dropped her voice as though somebody else could hear her words if they were too loud. Cullen's smile broadened in clear amusement. "Where does a sequestered templar learn something like that?" This actually made him laugh out loud.
"I didn't live all my life like a priest, you know, contrary to what everyone believes. There have been a few women…" He didn't finish the thought. Shenlira's eyes widened in dismay.
"A few?", she echoed, indignantly. His hand wandered from her hip up her arm and he let his fingers trace the elegant ridge of her collarbone before he answered.
"A few means three, in this case. And then none for a long time. And now there is only one.", this last he reaffirmed by leaning in to kiss her. She moved to protest, yet he stayed adamant. With uncanny skill, he proceeded to distract her so thoroughly that soon she forgot all about other women and quite frankly, everything else around. Afterwards, a blissful kind of silence fell around them once more, a peculiar peace only lovers knew. Shenlira felt drowsiness creep in and her body relaxed into a bone-less languor.
"I wonder if anyone suspects that behind that discipline of yours there hides an entirely wicked man.", she mused, a yawn stretching her voice. He laughed quietly at that and pulled the covers up to her shoulder.
"Varric, maybe. That song he sang during the march…", he answered, making her snort.
"That was no song, it was a filthy epithet." The timbre of her voice told him she was dozing off.
"Rest a bit… Someone is sure to come knocking soon, with some important matter or other.", Cullen whispered. He moved to separate from her as not to disturb her sleep, but a slender leg pinned him down with surprising strength, just as she would have locked a spirited horse to her will.
"Don't leave. Just a little longer.", he heard her say, and he did stay, enjoying the remaining time where nobody bothered them, with all the world muted and softened. It should be like this every day, an inner voice suggested to him. It should, he conceded. Until, sadly, a clouded sun peeked through the balcony doors and someone indeed came knocking.
The departure from Winter Palace was a lengthy affair full of formal farewells, bows and polite promises. Gifts were exchanged, some of them important contracts or ledgers about soldiers transferring from one force to another, as a show of good will. Some were actual supplies, others purely symbolic paraphernalia who's meaning probably no one but Josephine fully grasped. Her ambassador had greeted her with a very knowing look in the morning after she almost ran into Cullen exiting her room. She couldn't refrain from a remark about Shenlira's sudden perkiness, but mercifully had turned more serious when the formalities started. Cullen on the other hand had overseen the loading of their carts and readiness of the soldiers for the march back to Skyhold. After he had received several baffled looks from his soldiers, he started thinking that something was wrong with his face. He asked them sharply what there was to smirk and goggle about, but they immediately went rigid and denied everything. So he shrugged and turned his back on them to mount Black, but caught a hushed conversation.
"Was the Commander actually humming?", this from recruit Marten, who else of course.
"I thought I hadn't heard right, but he was! This can only mean one thing…", another whispered excitedly.
"A deal has been sealed.", Marten, in an ominous tone.
"If you have so much time on your hands to discuss my personal life, maybe one of you would like to spend a day polishing my ceremonial armour with the smallest handkerchief I can find?", his voice made them flinch as though an eagle had swooped down to pick at their heads. "Off with you, pups!", Cullen barked, satisfied when they scattered like fishwives. He only barely glimpsed Leliana's slight smirk from across the gathering place and wondered if he had actually been humming.
Finally, after hours of formalities, they were allowed to leave the shining pomp of Halamshiral, embarking on the five-day journey back to Skyhold. Ash fell into step beside Black in a familiar way and Cullen felt a boyish sort of happiness when he caught the secret, bashful smile on Shenlira's face. She did not speak, but he sensed her thoughts about the night they had shared as if it was a graspable thing he could reach for, picking it from the air. He decided that all politics and squabbling nobles and Empress assassins aside, it had been a visit marked by revelations.
The first three days of their journey were uneventful. Night had already fallen on the fourth day when the procession came to a long row of empty farmhouses lining a road flanked by a steep slope. Torches had been lit to chase away the deepening shadows, but Cullen felt uneasy for a reason he could not define. The horses snorted and shook their heads, if from agitation or exhaustion, he didn't know. The scouts had not reported in for a while, yet that too simply happened after nightfall, when they moved more slowly and carefully. Nothing out of the ordinary. And yet…
"We should stop soon for the night, Sajnalin.", Shenlira spoke from beside him, sounding worried. "Something is making Ash restless. And the sky is overcast…", she looked above, where a deep blackness covered everything, not even one star shining through the thick clouds. A bleak sight.
"The next village is only an hour's ride away. We will camp on the outskirts and –", but he never finished his sentence. A bloodcurdling cry tore the night air apart. Silence fell for less than a heartbeat. Then several other shrieks joined in from all around, rising to an unearthly cacophony. Battle-cries.
The ambush was instantaneous. Red templar bore down on the Inquisition in a crimson wave, and Shenlira saw a young recruit be cut down by a broad sword sweep as a scythe cut wheat. He didn't even have time to draw his blade. Cullen's call to arms almost deafened her. The soldiers who had escorted the party from the Winter Palace met the red templar fearlessly. A terrible skirmish ensued. The enemy came from the shadows between the farm houses to their right, effectively bottling their forces up against the steep slope on the left.
Suddenly, men and women were fighting each other everywhere in those close quarters. Cassandra and Leliana stood their ground, side by side at Josephine's caravan. She watched the seeker bash a man over the head with her shield, while Leliana struck another down in a whirl of daggers. Bull swung his two-handed axe in sweeping arcs at the thick of it, surrounded by five attackers. One couldn't even swing a belt-knife without hitting someone. There just wasn't enough space. Screams and the screech of metal on metal filled the night air with a terrifying dissonance. Rider-less horses between the fighters whinnied and stumbled in panic, making it even harder to hit the right targets with her bow.
Ash startled from the intense sword clashes and when a templar lunged at Shenlira with his blade held high, she could not evade the strike. She was saved by Cullen, who stepped between rider and attacker and parried the blow. The man's sword skittered over his shoulder guard dangerously, but he managed to turn the blade and plunge his own into the man's chest. There was a brief relent in his ceaseless orders where he turned to her. He'd shed his cloak, silver armour now splattered with blood. Someone had managed to hit his arm and deal him a shallow cut, which was bleeding profusely. He didn't seem to care, instead looking her over thoroughly.
"Lira – are you alright?!", the fierce battle noise almost drowned out his yell and she could see his face was set in a grim mask.
"Am fine – they came out of nowhere. What-" But at that moment, another attacker charged at Cullen's vulnerable back. Her arrow hit him through the neck and he fell where he stood. Ash became more and more panicky beneath her, neighing and desperately trying to break her hold.
"You're too exposed down here! No archers - get up on that ledge!", Cullen's voice was one of command that she wouldn't have disobeyed if she'd wanted to.
Balancing on the roan's back, Shenlira reached for the edge of the slope and barely caught it. Her hands almost slipped when Ash finally could take no more and bolted, leaving her dangling in mid-air. Something that had once been a templar took a swipe at her with gleaming claws, but Cullen let out an enraged howl and cut the creature down. He squandered no time as he managed to grip her around the legs, pushing her upward as if she were no heftier than a bundle of hay. Panting, she gained purchase on the ledge and immediately scrambled to her feet.
Never before did Shenlira have to shoot a bow in such a thick, packed space. But shoot she did, there was little choice. Her people were herded closer to the slope, with no amount of reprieve in the unrelenting attack. She glimpsed Dorian on the roof of a carriage some way off, swinging his staff like a conductor during a concert. Solas and Varric, cornered against the rocks but protected by Blackwall who stood defending them like an indomitable bastion. She had no time to contemplate the strange luck that the enemy had no archers, but fired arrow after arrow into the fighting crowd, desperate to save as many of her people as she could. A templar trying to pull Dorian from the carriage buckled over, skewered through the back. One of the two attackers harassing Cullen fell too, arrow buried deep into the defenceless patch at his neck.
She shot and shot, until her quiver was empty. Someone threw her a full one and she caught sight of Scout Harding, who had joined the fight to protect the overthrown supplies cart. Two terribly young soldiers helped her bravely. Her next arrow saved one of them from an unearthly claw of red lyrium. The assault was a bloody, brutal thing and all her concentration went into the aim, praying endlessly that she wouldn't hit one of her own. So much so that she sidestepped without looking at the ground.
The world suddenly shifted sideways. Something closed tight around her ankle and pulled sharply, ripping her off her feet. There was no regaining her balance. Shenlira fell and slid down the other side of the ledge in a steep tumble. Snow creeped in everywhere, into her mouth and ears, even beneath her snug leather clothes, and she was freezing and coughing even before she reached level ground moments later. Her knee collided painfully with something hard and she lay still for just one heartbeat. When she stood and tried to take a step, she almost stumbled again, realizing that her ankle was in the tight grip of a metal wire. A snare, here?! The thing that had bruised her knee was some odd contraption sticking out against the light snow in the darkness. As she looked around, she could make out more of the same snares lined up along the bottom of the ledge. The fighting sounds were almost silenced down here. Behind her, a cluster of firs stood, very closely grown. It was pitch black under their towering shadows, but that wasn't where she needed to go anyway.
The ledge loomed before her, many feet high and slippery with fresh snow. She'd fallen a long way and a helpless sort of panic hit her all of a sudden. I have to get back! Her companions, her people were in danger. That thought drowned out any suspicions why someone might have set up these strange snares here, or why a small voice in her mind questioned the purpose of this peculiar ambush. She worked frantically to loosen the wire, when her neck suddenly prickled with awareness. Unseen eyes were watching her from the shadows. Someone is behind you!, pure instinct shouted at her in alarm. Someone had waited patiently here, knowing she would gain the high ground during the fight. Setting snares to separate her from the others. Nothing about this ambush, or the many during her journeys before, had happened by chance. That realization turned her insides to ice.
Shenlira only had one moment's notice. One second in which she straightened and turned, before a hand gripped her throat and the dagger was plunged into her side. The tiny shift saved her lungs from being skewered, but she felt the blade rip through muscle and soft tissue, rending veins apart. And then came the pain. White-hot agony that made her queasy and blurred her vision, stunning in its intensity. The scream died in her throat and fleetingly, she thought she could hear a far-away, terrible laughter of triumph. A warm rush of blood drenched the fur-trimmed leather jacket as her body gave up its service, unable to keep her standing.
She fell to the ground, like a slow-moving avalanche, and saw the face of her attacker looming above, but the world was already fading. Only one glimpse. The bright gleam of an ivory necklace, shaped into the head of a white wolf. White, white, white in between the vast void. The darkness descended like a tidal wave and pulled her under. But in that last moment of clarity, hiding inside the burning haze of pain, she sensed something reach for her from beyond the veil, something insidious and evil. Older and much cleverer than her, it wore many names and yet defied her understanding. The utter wrongness of it made her want to cry out with terror. No! No! Please, stop – Its claws buried into her very spirit and tore down the walls of her mind, freeing it to swoop in with a rush of glee.
Cullen! Sajnalin, help! The name, the final thought as she fell, deeper and deeper, into an endless nightmare.
"Where is she?!", Cullen's voice had risen to a yell without him noticing, but Leliana ignored the anger in it.
"She was up on the ledge the whole time, shooting down-", the woman halted and wiped blood from her dagger, then ordered the scouts to bring torches.
The fighting had finally stopped, although it had cost them dearly. Two dozen soldiers had perished in the ambush, and the number was climbing. As soon as they had put the red templar on the flight, Cullen had turned to the ledge, but Shenlira had disappeared. Nobody had seen her anywhere. Now he felt cold fear grip his heart and squeeze it tight. Where could she be? Had there been archers after all that he'd overlooked? Did she fall off the other side and injure herself, or worse? She wouldn't leave without telling me. She wouldn't. Something happened.
Everywhere around, the Inquisition soldiers were trying to recover from a bloody skirmish. Many were wounded and the sounds of pain grated on his nerves. Healers tried to bandage his arm, but he waved them off and just tied a strip of cloth around it for now. When Cassandra and Leliana returned with torches, he barely spared them a glance before taking one and setting out. They rounded the ledge and found it went much further down than on the other side, into a forest of dark firs. Cullen's breath caught when they came across the dead body of a scout lying close to a strange metal contraption. It looked like some manner of coil. Leliana stepped around it carefully and her gloved hand dug up a thin metal wire beneath the snow. It went up to the ledge.
"A snare, of some sort.", she commented, but Cullen was overcome by a terrible apprehension. As he lifted the torch, he saw the entire length of the slope lined with snares. The flickering light fell on a second body next to one of them. A shred of colour caught his eyes, a glaring imprint against the white surroundings. The quiver. No.
His heart turned over in his chest and he was running before he knew it. Shenlira did not stir when he called her name. An awful sound rent the air when he saw the snow drenched in red blood and the gaping cut on her side. Leliana and Cassandra flinched, making him realize that it was coming from his throat, a cry of pure denial. He dropped the torch to kneel beside her and gingerly lifted her into his arms. She was so cold, cold like death. No, Maker, no! It couldn't be – not now! The stricken faces of the two women beside him told him he'd spoken those words out loud, yelled them, but he didn't care. With a strangled breath, he ripped off his gloves and searched for the pulse at the side of her neck. There! It was so terribly uneven, galloping wildly ahead for a moment only to falter to a feeble flutter he could barely feel. But Cullen clung to that tiny thud like a drowning man to driftwood, willing it to go on, to keep fighting. Leliana assessed the damage methodically, her face grim in the torchlight flames, while Cassandra immediately sent the two scouts who'd accompanied them to get a litter.
"Dagger strike to her flank. Nothing vital was hit, only muscle and a big vein – she has lost a lot of blood. It isn't bleeding anymore, though. We should be able to rouse her."
But try as they might, they could not get Shenlira to open her eyes. Cullen called her name, even yelled at her in anger, provoked her, pinched her cheek. Nothing happened. She stayed still and unmoving, like a corpse. Panic threatened to overwhelm him. It hovered at the edge of his mind, but all the years of his training held it at bay, just barely. Leliana grabbed the torch and moved it as closely to the wound as she dared, leaning in. Cullen saw the jagged tear of skin and flesh beneath, red and angry. His blood ran cold at the sight. Bad cut. Deep into flesh, but no organs pierced. There was a strange discoloration of the muscles, as though…
"Poison.", Leliana's voice was toneless. "Cassandra, search for the dagger, now!" The seeker was already on her feet. Cullen heard her pace the area. His eyes met Leliana's over the lifeless body he held.
"Leliana –", but she cut him off.
"I will find a way!", this with such determination, he knew he did not have to say another word.
"It's here!", Cassandra called out, but when she reached for the blade lying in the snow, someone cried harshly, "Don't touch that!" Solas, walking towards them with brisk steps. The elven mage went straight to Cassandra to examine the dagger on the ground. He did something to it – Cullen had no idea what, but he spoke some elven words and a strange hissing sound came from the thing.
"Don't touch it with bare skin. It's fade-touched and poisoned. Wrap it in cloth.", he then swiftly turned and kneeled beside Shenlira. He let his hands drift a few inches above her, one close to the wound, the other at her heart. Cullen felt him work magic, unlike anything he'd sensed from Circle mages. He had stopped taking lyrium, yet some of his templar abilities still remained, and he suspected they always would. This magic was… old. Very old.
"Something is wrong. Inside her, her spirit – it calls out in despair. But I can't…", and then, out of nowhere, the Anchor on her hand sprang to life and hit Solas with a force that levelled him flat on his back. Shenlira's eyes opened wide, her body suddenly thrashing like a wild animal in Cullen's arms. She let out a scream that cut through his heart, a wail of pain and desolation. The wound spouted fresh blood as she ripped it open again with her desperate flailing. She threw utter gibberish at them, nonsense words he couldn't understand, neither elven nor human.
"Lira, stop! Lira!", Cullen tried to calm her, but received a blow to the temple when she lashed out, beyond knowing. Her eyes were in frantic movement, darting around but sightless, unfocused. Maker, what is happening?
"What have you done to her?!", he roared at Solas, who had just about gathered himself again. The mage did not answer immediately and Cullen took another swipe from Shenlira, his attention diverted. Everything in him rebelled at the idea of using force on the woman he loved, but there was no choice. Break down later, focus now! They held her down, he and Cassandra together, until abruptly, she ceased struggling. For a short moment, her eyes cleared of the fog that seemed to hold her in its grip, and found his face.
"Sajnalin… It hurts…", it was a broken whisper. Tears streamed down her cold cheeks. They undid Cullen, twisting and tearing him apart inside. "He tore it all down, all of it – it burns. Like fire! I'm so afraid…" She fell silent and he saw a look of utter, naked fear in her eyes that felt like it would haunt him forever. Then she lost consciousness again, going limp and motionless.
"We have to get her back to Skyhold, now. Something is happening to her spirit, but there is a… A wall blocking me. I need the artefacts from my study. And I have to talk to Morrigan as soon as possible.", Solas said while the soldiers came and loaded Shenlira gently onto a litter. Cullen's mind was so disturbed that he could not think straight, but the disciplined, controlled part of him that had always managed the dire situations – the templar part – took over like an automated process. It felt as if he watched from above as his body moved and gave orders, but he played no true role in it, an observer on the outside.
"What is happening to her?", he demanded, but the elf's features went slack in defeat.
"I don't know.", he answered, dismayed.
Cassandra and Leliana took most of the duties he'd usually have to perform after such a terrible incident out of his hands. They saw to the injured and readied the departure, had the soldiers wrap the fallen into cloth and load the bodies to be carried home to their loved ones. People were sent out to get help from the nearby villages. Bull and Varric repurposed Josephine's cart to a sickbed for Shenlira, who was laid onto the soft blankets that many soldiers brought without being asked to. Dorian and a healer cleaned and bandaged her wound as best as they could. After a short dispute between Morrigan and Solas, they both decided against examining the wound magically again, since the first time had been dangerous enough.
Cullen walked between the soldiers and felt their solemn faces like an unbearable weight on his shoulders. Many of their comrades had died to achieve a victory that wasn't one at all. As their Commander, he was responsible for all of them. Until now, the Inquisitor had never been gravely injured before. They had thought her larger than life, possibly even invincible, and now they had friends to bury and a leader who hovered at the edge, holding on by a thread. He leaned against the cart, for a moment unable to breathe, unable to find strength anywhere. If he lost her, he would not come back from that. His world would be void of colour. Empty. Again.
"Cullen.", Josephine's soft voice roused him and he heaved a great sigh before turning to face her. The ambassador stood beside Leliana, both of them looking severe and extremely tired in the flickering torchlight. It was the middle of the night and nobody had slept or rested since the morning before.
"We leave now and don't stop until Skyhold. You better get in the cart.", Josephine went on.
"The soldiers… I have to-", but the protest lacked conviction, and nobody tried to pretend otherwise.
"No, leave that to us. She needs you right now. Just…", Leliana's words trailed away.
"Keep her alive. Andraste preserve us…", Josephine said wearily. Before Cullen climbed the steps to the cart, Leliana spoke again.
"Nothing about this ambush was random. Not the location, not the attackers, not anything. Our scouts died silently so nobody could warn us. Normally, I would say the orders must have come from Corypheus… But this was not his usual style, it reeks of a clever assassin. Whoever is behind it, they had this planned for a long time, knowing that Shenlira always takes the higher ground in a fight if possible. They set the snares to catch her and had the ambushers push us up against the ledge. I don't know why they didn't kill her or who 'they' even are. Not yet. But I will find out, and then we will make them pay.", her voice rang cold with contained rage, eyes hard and steely. Cullen gave her a heavy nod and watched her walk away as he closed the carriage door behind him.
Shenlira lay on a makeshift bed of blankets and pillows, silent and still. Someone had gathered Heartwood and the quiver he'd given her as a present. His cloak was folded beside them, together with a fresh linen shirt. He took it and gently wrapped her in the fur and feather lining, remembering that it had comforted her on a night that seemed like a million years ago. The carriage began moving as he took off the blood-splattered armour and changed into the new shirt, leaving the things in a corner. They smelled of death and violence. The healers had left Shenlira in a loose white tunic so she would not be constricted and the wound stayed accessible to them. Cullen half-sat, half-stretched out next to her and let his hand rest on her chest. Her heartbeat seemed a jerky, erratic thing, but it palpitated along somehow. Live. Fight., he urged the struggling muscle. Fight with all that brimming vitality in you. With his brow against hers, he began praying. It was the only thing he could do right now, plead the Maker to preserve her life – he didn't care anymore if she was truly any kind of divine champion, sent by Andraste. He would believe anything if she'd only survive.
He must have fallen asleep while praying, for it seemed his eyes had not closed for a moment when a shattering scream woke him. Shenlira went into a fit and he reached to soothe her, finding her skin burning hot as though he'd touched the glowing embers in a hearth. Her fever-bright eyes darted around the room, seeing nothing. The wild mane of fire-kissed hair stuck to her sweat-drenched brow and neck, lank and dull now. Her voice rose to a terrible keening and whatever horrors were seizing her, he was powerless to chase them away. People came running to help, but nothing calmed her. Cullen had fresh snow brought to cool her body. When the shivers started, he swaddled her with more blankets. Still, all through the night and into the morning hours, Shenlira would doze off into a fitful sleep and then wake screaming in such a dreadful way, Cullen thought it would drive him insane.
A grey, overcast dawn came and during one of her fits, while he begged her to stop, please, be still, lest your cries break me apart… A sound came from outside the cart. One lone soldier's voice, singing. It was a forlorn lament and at the same time strangely soothing. Others joined him, one by one, until their whole procession was united in song. Cullen let his voice mingle with theirs, and by the end of it Shenlira had gone still in his arms, asleep for the time being.
The party stopped for exactly one hour by Leliana's orders, so the soldiers could at least take a short reprieve. Cullen left the carriage with the feeling of being ten years older than when he'd entered it. A lyrium headache hovered close to pounce on him at an unguarded moment, and he was so tired, endlessly tired. He wandered between the horses and men, all grim and silent, until he found three people talking in quiet, serious voices. Solas and Morrigan were arguing about something, while Leliana tried to sort it out. He did not trust the apostate witch and her strange powers, although she now eyed his appearance with a sort of wary sympathy.
Cullen caught Leliana by the arm, but she had already seen him and spoke out.
"How is she?", she asked in a tight tone.
"The fever still rages through her. She sleeps, but fitfully. The screaming and thrashing tires her out…", he began and dropped his voice for what he said next. "Leliana, you have to stop it. She has so little strength left and… I don't know how much longer I can bear it." Still, the other two seemed to have heard his words, since they shifted uncomfortably on the spot. Leliana's eyes were the only thing that showed emotion in her face as she looked at him. They were deeply sympathetic.
"Cullen, I wish I could, please believe me. But any potion we give her could interfere with the poison. I was just speaking to Morrigan…" The witch took the mention as an invitation to speak. Her voice was confident, but grave.
"We analysed the dagger and found that not only the weapon was fade-touched, but the poison on it too. It's rare, possibly even unique. There is little we can do until we have Skyhold's magical resources at our disposal. From what Solas told me, any magic we try on her is… blocked. I suspect it's a barrier designed for exactly that purpose, so the poison can work undisturbed. Although…", she was in deep thought for a moment, her strange yellow eyes on something far away.
"Although I could put a paralyzing curse on her. It would only affect her body, bypassing the barrier. The screaming and thrashing would stop and maybe we'd finally get some sleep.", she said in a slightly clipped tone. Solas looked outraged at the idea.
"Barbaric! She would still feel everything, still be in pain, still anguished. How would you like to be locked inside a body that cannot move, crippled by poison and fear, unable to call for help?!", he demanded.
"If she keeps this up, she will fade away before we even reach Skyhold and then what, mage? Have you found a way to cure death yet that doesn't make a shambling corpse but a real person?", the witch snapped, but seeing the look on Cullen's face, they both fell silent. He closed his eyes for a long moment and heaved a sigh.
"Do it.", he then said curtly, hoping to the Maker that Shenlira would forgive him this act. Insisting that he be present during the spell, he stood back while Morrigan and Solas argued how to do it for a while. At last they agreed that Solas would try and keep the anchor contained while Morrigan paralyzed Shenlira. At the moment when Morrigan spoke the incantation, Shenlira woke and went rigid.
"Ma'shal en hes Fen'Harel!", she cried in a broken voice and Solas flinched back momentarily. Morrigan snarled at him to keep the containment shield steady. An unreadable expression flickered across his face, but he caught himself. When they'd finished the spell, Shenlira fell back to the covers and moved no more except for the shallow rise and fall of her chest. There was a terrible stillness to her now, but at least she was not struggling anymore.
"What was that, what she said just now?", Cullen asked Solas, but Morrigan answered instead of him.
"A phrase the Dalish invoke to ward off ill omens: 'Don't take me, Dread Wolf". You know the elven god of deceit, I assume? The People believe he can snatch away their lives at his whim, and so they try to banish him when they feel death is near.", she said. Cullen had no idea what she saw on his face, but the woman who had never been known to take back blunt words suddenly looked uncomfortable.
"The fever is the reason. She is seeing ghosts and terrors that are not here. But the fits should stop for now. We will lift the curse when we get back to Skyhold and figure out how to fight this… thing.", she added in a more measured tone, before she left. Solas stayed for a moment longer. As Cullen watched, the mysterious elf rested one hand on Shenlira's brow, his face showing an odd kind of pity.
"It is not the end yet. Ir abelas, Da'Assan.", he said quietly. During his study of the elven language, Cullen had learned enough to understand those words: I am sorry, Little Arrow. As silence fell inside the cart and he was once again alone with her, he wondered what Solas had meant by those words. Sorry about her being hurt? Sorry that it is was not the end yet? But exhaustion soon dragged him under, and, with one hand lightly on the spot where he felt her flickering heartbeat, Cullen fell into a restless sleep.