Chapter 1: Prologue
Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
- The Old Astronomer to His Pupil, Sarah Williams
The pain was everywhere, white hot and crackling, radiating from her left side in waves of nauseating agony. Slick warmth at her temple felt cold in the unwelcome breeze, her mind foggy as she tried to recall what had happened. Fingers scrabbled for purchase, finding froze wetness that yielded to her touch. Snow. What the ...?
Clarity fought for dominance as the memories sank in, overriding the sharp tang of winter pine on the air, the metallic taste that could only be blood on her tongue. She remembered ... the city festival in summer, the rumble of passing combustion engines under-cutting the sound of street performers and pedestrian chatter, the acrid rasp of petrol always present beneath the scent of gourmet burgers and fudge. She remembered the impact of a shoulder against her own, knocking her sideways into the road; a friend's hand grasping at her sleeve; the screech of brakes, the screams of others, the expletive-filled curse of a driver who couldn't stop in time; her last sight being Ria's eyes as the car mowed them both down ... Ria. Where was she?
The urgent need to find her best friend forced her eyes open to blinding white that stung like grit. Face down. Got it. Bracing herself, she pushed up onto her knees, crying out with guttural expression as the pain in her side exploded in answer to the injudicious motion. Spots danced before her eyes, threatening to overwhelm her with the staccato thud of her own heartbeat echoing through her head. She sagged back against her heels, slumping to her right instinctively. She didn't dare look down at herself, afraid of what she might find. Judging by the throb in her head, she'd been badly injured. The crackling lance of sheer agony from her side did not contradict that impression.
Still fighting to stay conscious, she forced her gaze to focus. The blinding white dimmed just enough to be discernible, all around her jumbled and uneven, broken up with the jut of debris from beneath. Wooden spars, bright cloth, blood ... Something awful had happened here. Unbidden, her eyes rose to the sky, shocked to find not the familiar city buildings rising above her, but the dark gloom of snow-covered mountains bordering a night sky littered with unfamiliar stars. Unfamiliar stars, and two moons.
"What the fuck ...?"
A low groan nearby tore her gaze from the panic-inducing sky to the settling snow at her right hand. What she had taken for nothing more than a crumpled scatter of cloth shifted, revealing the pale face she had been worrying over since her rattled brain had managed to find some coherence. Ria's blonde hair was dark with blood, plastered to the side of her face with icy crystals of snow that glittered in the moonlight. She sprawled on her side, whimpering at the movement jostled what had to be at least one broken bone in her right leg.
"Rory?" Ria's voice was painfully weak in the unnerving stillness. "Wh ... what happened?"
Rory blinked, trying to clear her vision. "There was a ... car ..."
She could hear what sounded like voices in the distance, see lights dancing over the snow far below them. She wanted to call to them, but there was no strength in her voice, in her body. The spots before her eyes grew darker as she slumped forward into the snow, unmoved even by the stabbing pain in her side. The last thing she was aware of was Ria's voice, harsh in the deafening silence, calling for help as the mountains rumbled above them.
"What ... where are we?"
Her tongue felt thick, too thick to form words properly. She wasn't cold anymore; no, she was hot. Too hot. Dry, painful heat that radiated from her head. She could smell incense, a soothing smoke that calmed the panic rising in the back of her mind. Her eyes opened slowly, feeling sticky with grit, her surroundings swimming into focus.
"Easy," a gentle voice told her, a young woman coming into view. "You're safe now."
"Wh-where's Ria?" Rory tried to ask, certain she was indecipherable. But the woman seemed to understand her just fine.
"Your sister is here," she told the injured woman, soft fingers turning Rory's head gently by the chin to her right so she could see Ria. "She is alive, as are you."
Her best friend was lying in a bed close beside this one, her head bandaged, apparently asleep. But the woman had called her Rory's sister. And this was not a hospital, she realized, letting other details filter into her foggy mind. Grey stone walls, candles for illumination; the mattress beneath her felt hard and oddly spiky. And the woman herself ...
Now Rory really focused on her, there was something terrifyingly familiar in the way she was dressed. She was no nurse, that was for certain. The red and white robe was alarming in itself, but the glimmer of candlelight on the golden sunburst that adorned that robe almost stole the breath from Rory's throat. Familiar, in that she had spent hours interacting with characters dressed just like that. Terrifying, because they weren't real.
She groaned suddenly. "What happened?" she heard herself demand. "Where are we? Who are you peop -" Her question broke off as she tried to move - between the stabbing pain from her side and head, and the rolling wave of nausea, it was a wonder she didn't pass out all over again.
"Hush," the woman told her, firm but kind. "What do you remember?"
Rory frowned, wincing as the expression tugged painfully at a tight sensation at her hairline. "There was ... snow," she said, straining to remember anything more. Well, anything she could say out loud. If this wasn't some kind of crazed fever dream, then talking about cars and burgers would likely end with her cut in two by the nearest templar terrified that she was an abomination. "Something hit me ..."
"Do you remember why you were in the mountains?" the woman asked, still in that gentle tone.
"Going to ... somewhere?" That was a guess, but it seemed to do the trick. "I-I don't even know what year it is."
"I will tell you," the kind woman promised her. "But first ... are you in pain? Do you need to use the pot?"
"Pot?" As soon as the word left her lips, Rory guessed what she meant. No modern plumbing in Thedas. "Um ..."
Embarrassingly, the answer was yes, and the process of getting that done was not at all pleasant. Quite apart from the pain in her side, just the act of sitting upright brought the nausea to the fore in spectacular fashion. But despite the fact that her patient had just vomited copiously over her lap and was now crying uncontrollably as she apologized, the gentle woman just folded the soiled layer of her robe over and helped Rory to sit on a smoothly-carved commode, drawing a screen about her so she could make use of the facilities with at least the illusion of privacy. That done, Rory was helped back into the bed, thoroughly ashamed of herself, lying back with the unsettling thought that this couldn't be a dream. Who throws up, cries, and uses a medieval chamber pot in a dream?
"There now," her astonishingly tolerant carer said when she was settled again, her robe already changed for a clean one, though Rory noted with some disgust that she had not washed her hands. "I'm Sister Carys, and you are in the Chantry in the village of Frosthelm, in the Ferelden Frostback Mountains."
"I... don't know Frosthelm." Rory frowned thoughtfully. That wasn't a named village in the games, that she knew of. She hadn't read the books, or played all the D.L.C., but she was pretty sure this was new information.
Sister Carys smiled. "I would be very surprised if you had," she assured her patient. "Frosthelm has only stood these past ten years. It was established as a stop on the Penitent's Path to Haven, which is where you were going, of course."
"Of course," Rory heard herself say weakly. Did she say Haven? Why the hell would I be going to Haven? It's totally destroyed. She'd watched it happen countless times in the third game, after all.
"The date is 14 Solace, 9:41 Dragon," Carys went on, seeming not to notice the sudden shock in her conscious patient's eyes. "There is to be a great Conclave at the Temple of Sacred Ashes, between the rebel mages and templars, mediated by Divine Justinia herself. As I understand it, you and your sister were traveling with the Right Hand of the Divine and her party when the avalanche cut your convoy in half."
Perhaps it was just as well Rory was feeling so weak. The only sound she could manage was a horrified grunt. All the screaming was inside her head. Just the date was enough to tell her how screwed she was. 9:41 Dragon. Conclave. Justinia. The third game was just about to start. Oh, sweet merciful gods, let this be an insane fever dream. I don't want to live this shit-storm! Everything she knew, everything she'd played multiple times ... it didn't go well for the nameless cast. Between the Conclave and Haven and Adamant and the Arbor Wilds ... She heard herself whimper pathetically.
"Calm yourself," Carys tried to reassure her, assuming that her shock was fear for her companions on the road. "There were no fatalities. Indeed, you and your sister were the worst injured. A little ironic, given your conscription as healers."
"Conscription?" Fucking hell, did some idiot decide that I'm part of the sodding Inquisition?
"Recruitment, then." Carys considered her for a long moment. "You don't remember any of this, do you?"
Sensing a get-out clause, Rory started to shake her head, stilling the motion hastily as her temples throbbed. "How badly were we hurt?" she asked, uncertain why she was playing along. This was nuts. Completely, utterly insane. Things like this just didn't happen. The Modern Girl in Thedas was a fan-fiction trope, for gods' sakes!
Carys frowned at her question. "Moderate head injuries, both of you," she said in concern. "You have several cracked ribs on your left side, but no open wounds, thankfully. You're conscious and coherent. Your sister, however ..." She trailed off uncertainly.
"What about Ria?" Rory demanded, as forcefully as she could manage in her weakened state. Her head turned, seeking out the still form in the next bed. "How long have we been out of it?"
"Ria was awake and talkative until yesterday afternoon, though the content of her speech was less than reassuring," the sister told her worriedly.
I'll bet it was, Rory thought sardonically. Cars and hospitals and accusations of abduction by cosplayers, probably. But that wasn't her main worry. "Did she fall asleep, or did she pass out?" she asked Carys with intense concern.
"As I understand it, she fainted between one word and the next," Carys began, visibly startled when Rory lurched to sit up, heedless of pain and nausea.
"What?" Even an "unskilled" carer like Rory knew that was bad, but apparently not so the healers of Thedas. "Hasn't anyone tried to wake her up?"
"We thought it best to let her sleep -"
"Bollocks to that, she's not asleep," Rory snapped, panic and pain destroying her manners with the urgent need to be sure her best friend was still alive. She'd only seen someone die from a head injury once; she did not intend to see it again today. "Wake her up. Wake her up now, or I'll do it!"
Apparently bowing to whatever skill these people thought she had, Carys rose hastily, turning to lay a gentle hand on Ria's fingers, calling her name softly. Rory rolled her eyes - that wouldn't wake Ria even if she was only sleeping. Stifling a harsh cry of pain at the fluctuating agony in her side, she threw the blanket off her legs, swinging her feet to the icy stone of the floor. Breathless already but high on adrenaline, she pushed herself to stand, lunging forward as her knees buckled to land excruciatingly hard beside her friend's bed.
"Ria? Ria, wake up!" Unlike the sister, there was no softness, no gentleness in the hand Rory laid on her friend's shoulder, nor in the tone of her voice. She was loud and she was forceful, and she went straight for the techniques she had been taught were illegal at home to try and rouse her friend. "Sister Carys, I need something I can press down on her fingernails. A quill or a stick, anything!"
If it wasn't the Chantry's practice to take unexplained orders from patients, Sister Carys showed no sign of it, fleeing out through a heavy wooden door as Rory focused her sudden fury on her unconscious friend. She pinched earlobes, rubbed her knuckles hard on Ria's sternum, tried everything she could think of to elicit a response. She knew what was supposed to happen; it had happened often enough under her hands in the emergency department where she had worked for four years. The patient was supposed to jolt awake, complaining loudly at the painful wake up.
"Come on, don't do this to me," she begged, feeling her fear taking hold as Ria consistently failed to respond to the pain she knew she was inflicting. "You can't leave me alone, you're the only person in this fucked up dream who knows me. I can't dream you dying, I can't."
The door behind her opened with a bang, heralding the sound of Sister Carys babbling to someone else about her patient's sudden mania before being shut out once again. Footsteps tapped against the flagstones, but Rory ignored them, reaching for the candle that stood nearby. She couldn't reach it, the tenderness in her side a torment that had her frustrated, letting out a tearful curse against the world in general and her own uselessness in specific. Ria lay still, pale and unmoving, oblivious to everything Rory knew to try. Her pulse was weak; her breathing shallow and slow. Both were signs Rory didn't want to read.
"Here." A gloved hand came into her peripheral vision, holding the candle she'd failed to reach by herself. There was one more symptom she could check, one more sign that would tell her if her horrible, terrible dream was turning into a nightmare.
Barely acknowledging the owner of that hand, she seized the candle, holding it close to Ria's face as she pried first one, then the other eyelid open. And what she found opened whole new vistas of despair to her. Both pupils were blown, one wider than the other, her best friend's blue eyes turned black with that unnatural dilation. Neither one reacted to the light of the candle directly beside them. Even if she'd had access to a C.T. scanner, or a surgical theater, Rory wouldn't have known what to do. She was a basic, bog-standard care assistant; not a nurse, and definitely not a doctor. In this place, where there was nothing that might even be considered basic medicine back home, Ria was gone. Unless a mage were to walk in and relieve the pressure on her brain ... but there was no point hoping for that. Rory couldn't save her.
"I want to wake up now," she heard herself say, the words seeming to come from some great distance beyond herself. "Let me wake up. I don't want to be here. I don't want to be alone!" Unbidden, her hand came down hard on Ria's pale cheek. "Don't you leave me! Don't you dare leave me!"
She drew back to strike again, only to find her wrists caught in strong hands that would not allow her to take out her shock and grief on a dying woman. A low voice was speaking into her ear, the words lost beneath the roaring in her ears as she struggled against the grip that was holding her together ... until she wasn't struggling anymore. She sagged between the body that held her and the bed that held the body of her friend, tears streaming from her eyes as she screamed out her loss, her fury, heedless of who heard. If this was a dream, it wasn't letting her go; if it was real, she was completely alone. And that was something she could not stand.
She was vaguely aware of other voices, other hands, pulling her away from the stillness of Ria's form. A cup at her lips, that low voice telling her to drink. Perhaps it was poison, her despondent mind hoped, longing to wake up or die, whichever was best. She didn't want to be alone, not again. She drank.
She woke, briefly, hours later, to find another fresh cup at her lips and the feeling of worried eyes on her as she drank again, succumbing willingly to the sleep that reached out to claim her. Twice she woke, and twice she drank, each time wondering if this time the dream would end.
When consciousness at last returned, it found her still in the Chantry infirmary. The pain in her head had eased, the bandage removed from her temple to let the jagged gash there heal naturally. Her mouth felt furry, coated with something unspeakable that made her grimace as she swallowed. Slowly, her eyes opened, feeling the certainty settle in her soul as she looked up at the vaulted stone ceiling above her. Thedas was real. There would be no waking up from this dream that had proved its deadly dangers with numbing cruelty. The thickness of the padding on her side had been reduced, but the pain was still there with every breath she took. Definitely cracked ribs.
Aware of someone watching her, she lowered her eyes from their contemplation of the ceiling to bring her gaze to rest on ... someone she hadn't been expecting to see yet. Holy crap, but he was handsome, even in this awful light. But right now, she didn't care. The delectable, adorable Commander Cullen Rutherford was sitting beside her bed, and she felt nothing. Because the bed beside hers was empty.
He watched her head turn, her eyes focus on the vacant pillow scattered over with petals of Andraste's Grace, and answered the question she could not bring herself to ask. "Two day ago," he said softly. "We thought it better for you not to see the pyre."
Rory stared at the empty bed, aware of a numb chill in her soul. So that was it. She was alone again. First her parents, and now Ria. Everyone always left, one way or another. "So what happens now?" she asked, her voice tiny and hoarse in the silence, grateful he hadn't offered her any platitudes.
Cullen sat forward. "Now you heal, and honor the commitment you made to us," he told her solemnly. "We leave for Haven tomorrow. I expect you to be with us."
Haven. Where someone else's story would begin, in the wake of her friend's ending. Where death and destruction would reign within the year, and too many lives would be lost for one evil being's pride. But it was a purpose, wasn't it? They called her a healer. She might not be a nurse or a doctor back home, but here she could make a difference, maybe. Basic infection control, for one thing. If she stayed with them ... she wouldn't be alone.
Dull and aching, she met his solemn expression with blank calm. "Yes, commander."
I think it's fair to say that I can't write comedy. ~laughs~ I swear, this wasn't intended to be so angsty straight out the gate, but for some reason that's what came out. I promise, it will get lighter. Promise. Encourage me, and I might even update before the end of the month. ;)
Chapter 3: A Better Impression
A moment ago, the world had been the right way up. One unexpected patch of ice later, and Rory was flat on her back, grimacing up at the sky as her healing ribs throbbed painfully.
A warm chuckle reached her ears. "You know, cupcake ... you've gotta be the clumsiest healer I've ever met."
The stocky shortness of Varric Tethras sauntered into her line of sight. His grin was surprisingly comforting; had been, right from the moment they'd met, when the Seeker had ordered him to sit in the cart with the recovering healer everyone was so worried about.
It was two weeks from Frosthelm to Haven ... two weeks since Ria's death. Rory had spent the first days in sullen, numb silence, though that didn't seem to bother Varric. He filled the silence easily, drawing on a seemingly limitless repertoire of tales and anecdotes, all the while watching her listlessly staring out at the snow-covered mountains that had killed her friend. No, that was wrong. A car accident had killed Ria; an accident she would have survived if they'd woken up in a hospital, rather than a backwoods Chantry where basic care took second place to singing the Chant of Light. She knew what had been behind the sudden need to have her in company at all hours of the day and night; Varric had been put on what they would have termed back home a suicide watch. In their eyes, they had already lost one healer to misadventure. They couldn't afford to lose another one to her own depression, and they didn't even know what was coming in the weeks and months ahead of them. She did.
Despite her bitterness and grief, Rory knew she was in a position to make a difference, however small. Oh, she wasn't going to touch the big events with a barge pole - far better to endure the tragedies she knew were coming, than derail the story and be totally in the dark. But as Varric regaled her with stories of Hawke - Garrett, the mage, she had to remember that - she pulled herself together under his gaze. Dream or not, she was here. Ria would never forgive her if she let herself fall apart. She was just going to have to make the best of it.
And there were surprises in store for her. Varric, who had always been more of an annoyance to her in the games, was a warmer character in person, his humor just a little darker than she had realized. He also embellished his stories outrageously - it was amazing just how often the hero was rescued by his dwarven friend. She'd finally challenged him on it, the first words she spoke to him after three days of silence to call him out on his bullshit, which he owned up to easily and effortlessly engaged her in a lively debate on the limits of poetic license that lasted a good hour or more. It was only when they camped that night that she had realized what he had done. For three days, his embellishments and exaggerations had grown more and more outrageous, until the moment when she had called him on it. He'd been baiting her, wanting her to challenge him, drawing her out of her self-imposed isolation the only way he knew how.
She couldn't hide away again after that. The soldiers who were traveling with the Right Hand began to include her in conversations at the campfire, making a place in this core of pre-Inquisition devotees that was hers alone, and Rory had finally realized the reason for their former silence. They had thought they would have to watch her die slowly, over months, by inches. By breaking her silence, she had proved that she could be tempted to live, and they were eager to offer that temptation - not because they needed a healer, but because she needed friends. And in spite of herself, she was grateful for their offered friendship.
Not so much right now, of course, lying on her back in the snow with a dwarf grinning down at her.
"Oh, shut up and be helpful," she grumped, waving her hands at him.
Still chuckling, Varric leaned down to pull her onto her feet, wincing sympathetically as she hissed in pain. "Those ribs still giving you trouble?"
She nodded, forcing herself not to touch her tender side. "And will, for at least another month," she told him, brushing the snow from her skirt.
"Can't you take something for it?" he asked in concern.
"I wouldn't be much of a healer if I use all my stock for myself," she pointed out ruefully. "I can still do my job with cracked ribs. Those potions can do more good for other people." She tilted her head, looking down at him curiously. "Aren't you supposed to be under guard?"
"Oh, I am," Varric assured her. "Look."
He gestured to a young soldier who was standing nearby. Rory waved at the lad, who she thought might be called Eoin, and smiled at the slightly sheepish nod she got in reply. Varric's warm chuckle made itself known again, enjoying the interaction he got to witness. It was all fodder for his writing, after all.
"C'mon, I'll walk you to where you're going," the dwarf volunteered. "Where are you going?"
She grimaced nervously. "I have to speak to the commander," she confessed, tugging on her braid. "He's been put in charge of space allocation, and I have ... none."
That wasn't the only reason she was nervous, of course. Anyone back home would have understood; okay, maybe not anyone, but most people she knew. This was Cullen Rutherford. Handsome, troubled, driven, sexy as all hell ... the single greatest crush she had ever developed, and until two weeks ago, he'd been non-existent. Now he was very much existent, and had spent the last two weeks thinking she was a suicidal wreck. She was pretty sure he was the one who had arranged for Varric to talk her out of that initial depression. It was more in character for him than Cassandra, at any rate. She hadn't spoken to the commander since he'd asked her to follow through on a promise she hadn't actually made, but she'd seen him watching her. Was he expecting her to start screaming again? Would he comfort her if she did?
Rory tried not to giggle at that thought. He'd be more likely to send her packing if she fell apart again. No, the goal today was to prove she wasn't a raving lunatic, mad with grief. Approaching his personal problem might have to wait until he was sure she wasn't going to slap him for not being her best friend.
"You've got a tent," Varric was saying as they moved through the little village.
"A tent that I share with Elora and Inis," she pointed out. "Can't really see or treat patients there."
"You've got a point," the dwarf agreed. "Curly's been surly the last couple of days, though. Might not be the best time."
Surly was one way of putting it. Rory's main experience as a care assistant might have been in critical care, but she could spot the signs of severe chronic pain, even if no one else here could. Cullen was irritable, easily annoyed, his skin sallow and marked with dark circles under his eyes, constantly frowning even when he was supposedly at ease. He looked like stomped over crap, to be honest, but she didn't know the full extent of his withdrawal symptoms. She wasn't even supposed to know he was going through withdrawal. She'd gleaned from the game that he had unpredictable insomnia, headaches, and apparently generalized pain that could buckle him from time to time. There were ways to alleviate those symptoms, but she needed him to admit to suffering at all first.
"I'll just have to be persuasive, then," she responded absently. She paused at the gate, surveying the stockaded area that had been set up for training recruits and housing the fledgling group that would be the Inquisition.
Cullen was there, barking orders at the soldiers sparring in front of him. He looked even paler in this unforgiving light. A gust of wind rushed off the frozen lake, ruffling the skirt around her calves as she shivered, hugging her arms about herself in an attempt to stay warm. What she wouldn't give for a pair of jeans and some boots. Instead, she was garbed in a woolen dress with long sleeves that fell to her mid-calf, over a linen shift, with thick wool thigh-highs that were overlaid at the sole with hide and held up with what felt like string. Surprisingly warm, given the freezing conditions, but itchy and prone to get wet easily, and every now and then she got a shocking whoosh of wind right up her skirt that froze her bare backside.
"Well, there he is, cupcake," Varric announced, somewhat superfluously. "Want me to wait? I've got nothing but time until the Divine gets here."
"Uh ..." Was Cullen more or less likely to yell at her if she had moral support? "No, I can handle this," she said, sounding far more confident than she felt. "It's not like he can do more than make me cry."
"If you get through it dry-eyed, I'll buy the drinks at the tavern tonight." How was that for motivation?
If nothing else, Varric's assurance made her smile as she stepped away from him, tucking her arms close about herself in an attempt not to have chattering teeth when she reached the intimidating presence of a man she had written some embarrassingly candid fan-fiction about in another life. As she approached, however, Cullen suddenly marched into the midst of the training ground, shaking off his fur mantle to take up a shield and demonstrate its proper use to the only slightly clueless recruits. Rory was left on the outside of the circle that formed around him, unable to see past the shoulders in front of her, glancing curiously to the man Cullen had abandoned so abruptly.
"Do I smell, or something?" she asked, more for something to say than any need for an explanation.
He laughed, shaking his head. "I don't think he saw you, lady," he assured her in a robust accent she had to remind herself was Starkhaven, not Scottish. "The commander's been very focused today."
"We only arrived yesterday," she pointed out mildly, her mind wandering to some of the content of that awful fan-fiction even as she spoke. "He's not really expecting raw recruits to be proficient on their first try, is he?"
"No, he's not so hopeful of that," the man agreed. "But the sooner they learn technique, the sooner they'll improve and be able to teach others competently. I'm Knight-Cap ... Captain Rylen. Sorry, the change in rank title's still tripping me up. And you are?"
"Hmm? Oh ..." Embarrassed at being caught wool-gathering, Rory blushed under his expectant smile. "I'm Rory. Just Rory - no title."
"Ah, you're the healer?" Rylen nodded, putting a face to the name he'd already heard a fair amount. "There's your title, Lady Healer Rory."
She snorted with derisive laughter. "I'm definitely not a lady."
"Healer Rory, then," he corrected himself cheerfully. "Your accent says Ferelden. Local lass, are you?"
Panic gripped her at the innocent query. Why hadn't she thought of that? Someone was bound to ask sooner or later - thank gods she was English, from London; her accent at least placed her in the one country in Thedas she had a fighting chance of pretending to call home. The in-game map flashed through her mind, supremely unhelpful as it was. She couldn't say Redcliffe or Lothering, or Denerim ... all too risky, too many people here hailing from those parts. There must be somewhere else. Honnleath? No, Cullen's from there. Come on, come on, think ...
"Gwaren," she blurted, quick to add, "originally. I've moved around a lot."
"Where were you during the Blight, if you don't mind my asking?" To his credit, Rylen did seem genuinely interested, rather than suspicious. And he would be - he must have met more than a few Ferelden refugees in the last decade who had fled to the Free Marches to escape the Blight.
But it was another question she didn't have an answer for. Where wasn't hit by the Blight? Mind racing, Rory went for evasive. "I ... don't like to talk about the Blight," she offered awkwardly, hoping she wasn't being too rude.
Thankfully, he seemed to take her reluctance as a mask for memories she didn't want to revisit. "Sorry, I shouldn't have asked," he apologized, a little awkward himself. "I heard it was bad in most places. Wasn't fair of me to pry."
"No, it's ... it's fine," she assured him, more than a little guilty at hearing him apologize for her reticence. "I just don't like talking about it, that's all."
"I understand," he said easily enough. "There's not many who do."
"Thank you." Rory smiled, not wanting him to feel bad for asking a reasonable question. It wasn't his fault she didn't have an answer for it. "You're from Starkhaven, aren't you?"
"Aye," Rylen confirmed. He eyed her with a teasing grin. "What gave me away - the sexy accent, or my astonishing good looks?"
Despite herself, she laughed aloud at that. "Oh, definitely the accent," she said, with a giggle in her voice. "Ria would have -" But she broke off, her smile suddenly gone. Ria wouldn't be jumping anyone anymore, sexy accent or no. Ria was gone.
Rylen was silent with her, no doubt searching for something to say. "I heard what happened on the road," he said finally, offering her his open palm. "I'm sorry for your loss."
Without thinking, she took the hand offered to her, comforted by the understated strength with which he gripped her fingers. No one had touched her since before Ria's death, except to help her overcome the problems she faced with her injuries. She hadn't realized how much she was missing the casual touch of a friendly hand. Ria's hugs had always been the best. "Thank you, captain."
His smile was gentle in the face of her honest grief. "My name's Rylen, lass," he said quietly. "You're welcome to use it."
Surprised by this offer, Rory felt herself smile, if only for the briefest moment, squeezing his hand in return. "Rylen," she echoed, accepting his permission gratefully.
At the sharp snap of words from his superior, Rylen ripped his hand out of hers, standing smartly to attention as Cullen emerged from the group he had been educating. The commander was flushed from the exertion, the high color in his cheeks only serving to emphasize how sallow his complexion had become. He turned stern eyes onto the captain, shrugging back into his mantle.
"You're on security detail for the Temple perimeter," Cullen told the former Starkhaven templar. "Take three men and a scout - I want to be sure no one is taking a different route to the Conclave."
"Aye, ser." Rylen saluted with a crash of his armored fist against his breastplate, pausing just long enough to nod to Rory before striding away.
"I would appreciate it, Lady Healer, if you did not distract my men from their assigned tasks," Cullen then said to Rory, already turning away even as she responded.
"I would appreciate having a place where I can work, commander," she heard herself retort, stung by the implication that she had somehow deliberately gotten Rylen into trouble just by talking to him.
"You have a tent," the commander reminded her. "What we were able to salvage from the avalanche -"
"- is currently piled up next to it, yes," she agreed. "Though I fail to see how I can be expected to do the work you expect me to do in a tent."
Cullen sighed, turning back to face her. She could see this was an additional headache he wasn't prepared for today, but if she was going to be of any use to them at all, this problem had to be addressed.
"You are a healer," he said wearily. "I doubt your needs are this complex."
Her eyes narrowed slightly. "Are you familiar with the concept of confidentiality?" she asked him, making an effort not to snap. "Not all ailments are generic, and not all people are comfortable discussing them where others can hear. Surely you can see that? For me to do my job, people need to be able to trust me; to trust that what they say, and what I see, won't be heard or seen by anyone but the healer they share it with."
She was surprised to see his brows furrow in a curious frown. "It's your standard practice, to protect your patients' privacy this way?"
"Isn't it everyone's?" It certainly was back home, but this definitely wasn't the NHS. Apparently the basic healer in Thedas didn't give two figs about their patients' dignity, going by this reaction. "Everyone deserves the dignity of having their privacy respected, commander."
He was staring at her, apparently having difficulty wrapping his head around the concept of a healer who offered more than just bandages and elfroot on command. It was disconcerting to be under that gaze - as many times as she had seen it in the game, nothing could have prepared her for the full weight of Cullen Rutherford's regard. He'd given her his full attention. She could feel herself fidgeting under his eyes, wondering if he could tell just how big the lie she was sitting on really was. It was a relief when he finally spoke.
"How large a space do you require?" he asked quietly.
"An office would do, for now," she suggested, "but eventually I'll need somewhere to house patients while I treat longer term illness or infection."
"I see." He nodded thoughtfully. "You will have that space by day's end. Haven will be overflowing within a few weeks; where people gather in large numbers, disease runs rampant. Even I know that, poor soldier that I am." Something flickered in his eyes as he said this, some suggestion toward humor that made her lips twitch toward the hint of a smile. He reached down to the makeshift desk that stood between the tents, making a note on one of the many pieces of paper that littered it. "For now, I'm afraid I must ask you to examine the recruits in your tent. I'll arrange for them to come to you singly, and limit the amount of movement in that part of the camp. There isn't much more I can do to help preserve their privacy."
Staring up at him, Rory felt that smile come to life on her face ... her first proper smile since being dragged into this mess in the first place, delighted to discover that Cullen really did care about the well-being of his people just as much as she had always suspected. "That's ... that's wonderful, commander," she declared, grateful that he understood. "Thank you."
The scar on his lip tugged tight for a moment, betraying a smile that was only really visible in his eyes. "It's a pleasure to meet a healer who cares so deeply for patients she hasn't even met," he told her, holding her gaze far longer than was truly necessary. Not that she was complaining. He cleared his throat. "Ah ... I should ..."
"Yes, I have ..." Rory gestured vaguely toward the tents, shivering in the cold air. "Thank you, commander."
She turned to walk away over the crunching snow, unable to resist a glance back as she went. His gaze caught hers, his eyes following her as she blushed and quickened her step. That had gone much better than she'd expected.
"Only it burns when I take a piss, and there's this redness ... right here, look."
Rory blinked, finding herself eye to eye with yet another trouser snake. She'd seen more male genitalia today than she'd ever expected to. For some reason, Ferelden men didn't seem to think a visit to a healer was complete until they'd waved their wang in her face. On the other end of the equation, getting an Orlesian to even admit to having a cold seemed to be like drawing blood from a stone. She looked up, past the angry-looking penis, to its owner's face.
"You can put it away, recruit," she assured him, somehow managing to keep a straight face. "I recognize what you're describing to me."
"Are you sure?" he asked worriedly. "You don't need to ..." He gestured to his unhappy manhood.
"I'm very sure I don't need to," she promised confidently. "It's a very common problem, and you don't need any medicine to deal with it."
"That's a relief to hear," he admitted, pulling his leggings up and fastening them before taking a seat again. "Saw a mage once - cost me two months' wages - and all he said was it'd go away on its own."
"And it did?" she asked curiously, unsurprised when he nodded.
"Only it come back a couple of months later," he told her. "It does that - here and gone, here and gone."
"Well, I can promise you that it's a very easy fix," Rory guaranteed. "But it's something you'll have to do for the rest of your life."
"I'd give anything to piss in peace the rest of my life, miss," he said fervently. "Maker knows it's a small pleasure until you can't do it no more."
"I'm sure," she agreed easily. "What it comes down to is this ... you're not drinking enough water. Ideally, you should be drinking between four and six pints of water a day. It's still going to be uncomfortable for a few days, but the more you drink, the weaker your urine will be, and the less pain there will be when you pass water. Drink enough water every day, and this problem will never come back."
"That's all, just water?" the soldier asked in disbelief.
"Just water," she confirmed with a smile. "With most things, the remedy is usually simple. But please make sure the water is clean, or you will become very sick, and there is very little I can do to help with that."
"What, you mean like boiling it first?"
"Exactly," she agreed. "I'll see what I can do to make sure there's an adequate supply of clean drinking water for the camp, but for now you're on your own." Just like the twenty or so other recruits I've seen today who have a U.T.I. because they only drink ale.
"But I'm fit otherwise?" he queried, apparently needing to hear her say it again.
"Fit as a butcher's dog," Rory promised him. "Go forth and be mighty."
Chuckling at her dismissal, the soldier left the tent, once again leaving her in peace. By her notes, she'd seen around fifty men and women today. She was beginning to think this pre-Inquisition had an inexhaustible supply of ex-templars, farmers, and random mercenaries. No one had actually said anything about what she was supposed to do with the inevitable two or three who weren't fit for duty, but she was determined to do this right. So that meant a report of some kind.
Drawing a fresh sheet of parchment onto the writing board she'd found in the crates piled outside, Rory uncapped the little pot of ink. This quill and ink business was taking some getting used to, but she managed to produce a reasonable report, complete with recommendations, with what she considered to be the bare minimum of blotches and mistakes. It was legible, anyway. But who did she give it to? It dealt with the recruits, so was she contributing to the mess of paperwork that filled Cullen's days? Good gods, what was she going to do about him, anyway?
Startled, Rory jumped, dislodging the ink bottle from her knee. She yelped, making a grab for it as it plunged toward Elora's bedroll. She missed, but the bottle landed safely in the outstretched palm of the messenger who had surprised her in the first place. He looked up with slightly worried eyes, handing it back before straightening.
"Oh, thank you," she enthused, settling the ink safely to one side. "Elora would snap me like a twig if I covered her bed with ink."
He chuckled nervously with her. "Yes, she's a little scary," he agreed, fingers scratching against his chest in a way that was suddenly familiar. The way he just stood there silently was familiar, too.
"So ... can I help you with something?" she asked politely, raising her brows above her smile.
"Hmm? Oh!" Blushing, he came back to himself. "Commander Cullen wants to see you, Healer. He sent me to bring you to him."
Trying to ignore the excited ping in her stomach at this news, Rory nodded, packing her notes into a neat pile. She paused - she couldn't really leave them in here. The tent wasn't secure, and these notes had personal information on a good number of the pre-Inquisition recruits. Nothing for it; she was going to have to keep them with her until she could get hold of a lockable chest. Even then, she'd have to hope no rogue decided to investigate it. But for now, they'd have to stay on her person. Tucking the pile into her arms, she rose, stepping out of the tent into a world that was darker than she'd thought it would be.
"Good grief, is night already?" she asked in surprise, letting out a belated groan at the ache in her back. How many hours was it since she'd moved out of that tent?
"Sunset, Healer," the messenger told her, waiting patiently to take her to the commander.
Stretching carefully around the throbbing ache of her cracked ribs, Rory turned to walk with him toward the village. "You can call me Rory," she told him as they went. "What's your name?"
"Not sure I'm allowed to, Healer," he said uncertainly. "But I'm Jim."
"Really?" She didn't mean to giggle, but come on ... how had the Dragon Age fan community guessed that? "Sorry, I don't mean to laugh," she apologized quickly. "I haven't taken a break since this morning."
"Couple of people mentioned they didn't see you when they called lunch," Jim commented thoughtfully. "You've eaten since breakfast?"
"Um ..." It was embarrassing how hard she had to think about that. There was a gnawing sensation in her stomach now she came to notice it. "No, I don't think so."
"Didn't you hear the bell?" Jim asked, aghast at the information that the healer was so bad at looking after herself. "Chantry bell. They're ringing it for meals while we're here."
"Oh, I didn't know that was why it was ringing," she admitted ruefully. She'd assumed it was some kind of call to noonday prayer or whatever. "Thank you for telling me."
She glanced up as they climbed to the second level of Haven, smiling at the sight of Varric waving to her from the door of the tavern. The dwarf had a tankard in one hand and a deck of cards in the other.
"Drinks, remember?" he reminded her with a grin. "You've been at it all day."
"I remember," she assured him with a tired smile. "And my day's not over yet, I'm afraid. Another night?"
"I'll hold you to that," Varric warned in amusement, letting her walk past. "You're working too hard!"
Rory laughed, waving him back into the tavern. If he thought this was a busy day for her, she didn't want to know what he'd think when the shit hit the fan in a few weeks. Still, thank gods for all that random reading she'd done over the years. Who'd have thought four years working in an emergency department would combine with her slightly obsessive interest in medieval medicine to work so well for her in this situation? This insane situation that she was almost sure by this point was absolutely real. Really, incredibly, deadly real. I am still totally screwed, though. Her gaze fell on Cullen, standing where Solas would take up his station in the not so distant future, and felt her heart judder at the sight of him. Well and truly screwed.
"Commander, I found her," Jim announced as they mounted the last steps. "She hasn't eaten, ser."
Cullen gave the messenger a vaguely quizzical look. "No one has eaten yet," he answered with understandable confusion. "The dinner bell won't ring for another hour."
"I mean since breakfast, ser," Jim told him, despite Rory's earnest desire for him to shut up.
"Which is fine," she said hastily. "It isn't going to kill me to miss a meal."
Cullen was frowning at her now. "Lady Healer, you are injured," he reminded her. "Even I know you need a good diet to aid the healing process."
"Should I fetch her something, ser?" Jim offered, eager to be helpful and make a good impression.
Before Cullen could open his mouth, Rory rushed to head that off. She was not a wilting flower; she did not need preferential treatment. "That's not necessary, really," she insisted as firmly as she dared. "It's only an hour and ... Was there a reason you wanted to see me, commander?"
He was frowning again. Suppressing the ridiculous urge to apologize for a perfectly reasonable viewpoint, Rory forced herself to hold that gaze, daring him to argue with her over something as trivial as missing a meal. All the while, her inner fangirl was squealing. He's worried about me! Look, I can touch him! He's real! ... is sexual harassment a thing in Thedas?
"I have managed to secure a space for you to work," he told her, snapping her out of her ogling. "I am reliably informed that this was built for a healer, so it should suit your needs." He half-turned, laying a hand gently at her back to direct her into the cabin behind him. Rory squeaked at the contact, instantly regretting the excited sound as he pulled his touch away in concern. "Forgive me, are you in pain?"
"No!" Great, now you're a suicidal wreck with nug-like tendencies. Good going, Rory. "I mean ... that is, my ribs do hurt, but you didn't hurt me," she hastened to explain herself.
"I shouldn't have touched you without seeking your permission, I apologize," he answered, a very faint hint of confusion beneath the concern in his eyes.
"No, that's fine - please don't apologize," she fumbled. "I like being touched by you." There was a beat as her ears caught up with her mouth. "That came out wrong." Suicidal nug-woman with no boundaries wants the ground to swallow her whole now, please... wait, is he blushing?
He was blushing. He was also giving her that invisible smile of his as she groaned and shut her eyes, acutely aware that she was blushing far more fulsomely than he was.
"I doubt the Maker wants you eternally imprisoned in the stone beneath my feet, my lady," he assured her in amusement. "It would be a terrible waste."
Rory's eyes snapped open, staring at him in astonishment as her cheeks burned. "Are you flirting with me, commander?" she blurted out. Did Cullen flirt? She didn't remember any flirting until he established a relationship with the ... Hoooo boy. Cool your heels, Ror, the love of his life might be on her way to Haven right this instant.
Whether flirtation had been his intention or not, her abrupt accusation had him hastily back-pedaling. "A terrible waste of a skilled worker," Cullen blurted right back at her. "For Haven - for Thedas. Not that I expect you're thinking of leaving us, which ..." He stopped himself, resolutely closing his mouth and pushing open the cabin door. "Your clinic rooms, Lady Healer."
Rooms was an overstatement for the space he ushered her embarrassed, flustered apology into. It was a single room, with four stripped beds along one wall. A desk stood in one corner, next to a line of chests that held linens, bandages, potions - everything they had salvaged from the avalanche outside Frosthelm. Everything she needed to do what they expected of her. The place needed cleaning, but she could do that, easily. It was, in a word ...
"Perfect." She turned to Cullen, touched to know he'd arranged this simply because she had asked for it. All right, so it was necessary for a healer to have a clinic to work in, but he had arranged it for her, and he was even making sure that he was the one to show it to her. Horny fangirl is hopeful. "Really. This is so much more than I was expecting. You didn't ... no one was living in here, were they?"
"No one has been displaced for your benefit," he assured her. "It is heartening to note that is your only concern."
"Thank you." Without thinking, she reached out to touch his arm gratefully. "I really do appreciate this."
The cool warmth of his gloved hand covered her own on his wrist. "It is good to see you engaged in something beyond your grief," he said in a soft voice.
"I made you a promise," she heard herself answer through the flicker of painful pleasure that came with his words. Pain, for the loss she didn't think she was ever going to come to terms with; pleasure, that he didn't want to lose her to it. Of course he doesn't want to lose his only bloody healer. Start thinking with something north of your hoohar. "I would hate to let you down."
The gold-touched brown of his eyes softened infinitesimally as he held her gaze. "That is good to know."
There was something deeply comforting in being the recipient of that softness; a balm for the bruises that littered her heart. She knew he'd suffered so much more than she ever had, yet here he was, wasting his time and energy to help her. Wasn't looking after people supposed to be her job here?
"Oh!" Startling both of them with a sudden thought, Rory broke the moment into shattered shards, pulling her hand from his arm to rifle through the parchments she held. "I wrote a report, but I don't know who to submit it to."
Sighing ruefully, Cullen held out his hand. "It's to do with the welfare of my recruits, therefore it comes to me," he conceded, taking her report and scanning it briefly. "Maker's breath, woman, who taught you your letters?"
"My writing's not that bad," she protested, glancing over at the page in his hand. She was wrong - it was that bad. "Well, it's legible."
"Just." For the briefest moment, she could have sworn he'd flashed her a grin, feeling unaccountably gooey at the knowledge that he was teasing her. "Do not miss the evening meal," he said then, turning to leave. "Your own health does not come second to the health of everyone else under your care."
"Takes one to know one." She just about swallowed her wince at the sharp look he gave her for that. "I'll answer the dinner bell, commander."
"I had best not hear otherwise," he warned, considering her a moment longer before stepping to the door. "Good evening, Lady Healer."
She watched him out through the door, closing it in his wake to lean against the weathered wood with a mildly relieved sigh. Cullen was not an idiot; she couldn't pass everything she let slip off as healer's intuition. That one hadn't been too bad, but it was a slippery slope. She couldn't afford to get too comfortable, at least not yet. He had to tell her his problems, or he would never trust her enough to allow her to ease his symptoms.
Also ... was it unethical to treat someone on whom you had a raging crush? Someone who didn't seem to mind that crush. Someone who couldn't possibly be real. And if the survivor turned out to be a female human or elf ... someone who might forget her in an instant to fall in love, as he should do. So why did the thought of that abandonment hurt so much, if that's what he should do?
Sorry about the medical stuff - I'm pulling this out of my arse rather than researching it, because Rory doesn't have the internet! That's my excuse, anyway.
Chapter 5: A Last Farewell
Who in the history of Thedas had decided that mixed bath-houses were the way to go? According to Varric, the bigger cities had separate bath-houses for men and women, but a backwater like Haven was lucky to have one at all. Separate for humans, that is; apparently elves weren't offered the same courtesies. Not that this was much of a surprise.
Between the emphasis in the games and what she'd witnessed here for herself, Rory was not unaware of the racial segregation. She had, however, placed herself very firmly on the tolerance side of the debate with one reaction to hearing the slur "knife-ear" used in her presence - Seggrit now refused to even acknowledge her existence, and the father of the elven girl she'd slapped him for was working on making her a good pair of boots. Of course, Seggrit had complained to Cullen about her. The commander had taken her side, but had also insisted that she publicly apologize to the merchant. So she'd apologized for hitting him, and suggested that next time she would just call him a pathetic streak of racist pizzle instead. She'd been hurried away at that point, and that evening, Varric had present her with a pair of soft hide gloves, "so you don't hurt yourself healing the world with your unique brand of love, cupcake."
That little incident had a surprising consequence, though. Until that point, she'd been working exclusively with the soon-to-be-Inquisition. After word spread through the village about the healer who hit people for being offensive, however, the locals had started to come to her little clinic. Humans and elves, they came asking for help or advice, and always insisted on paying her for her services. She refused their money, of course, but that didn't stop them. Everyday someone left something for her outside the clinic - a cloak, freshly-picked elfroot by the basket, hair pins, three aprons, a new dress, several pairs of stockings, even a belt with multiple pouches that seemed to have been made for her. She'd acquired an assistant, too; a cheerful widower named Fabian, who wanted to join the unnamed organization, and had been sent her way by the Seeker. He was a quick study, thankfully. Between them, they were managing to keep on top of the demand for their services, but Rory was beginning to think she might need to hire on someone else.
But it wasn't all good news. The date of the Conclave was fast approaching. Word as beginning to filter into Haven of the travelers coming their way, estimates of the sheer numbers that would be passing through the village on their way to Temple of Sacred Ashes. Rory had started to bulk up her stock of bandages and healing potions; Adan hadn't even blinked when she'd placed her order with him, though Master Taigen had accused her of wasting their time. The proverb better safe than sorry was on a constant loop in her mind. She'd received more than a few strange looks when it became known she was hoarding moldy bread and a bucket full of maggots, but no one had challenged her on it. They were also baffled by her insistence on washing her hands so many times a day. She'd given up explaining why; at some point, someone would make the logical connection but, for now, it was just considered to be a personal habit, like she was obsessed with cleanliness.
Which brought her back to the concept of the bath-house, a place she just could not bring herself to visit when there was anyone else there. Flissa found it hilarious that a woman, who by this point had seen most of the village in various states of undress, could be so shy of anyone catching a glimpse of her own naked body. It wasn't that Rory was ashamed of her figure; she just didn't have the same level of comfort with nudity that everyone else here seemed to have. Earth's Western society had instilled in her a shyness about her naked form that no one in Thedas shared. That didn't mean she wasn't washing regularly. It just meant she was bathing at stupidly late hours, when everyone else was asleep.
Besides, Haven was a very different sort of place past midnight. It bustled during the day, busy with bodies going about their business; soldiers training, scouts reporting, children playing, Chantry sisters chanting. But when night came, it gained an ethereal sort of stillness. In the moons' light, with no voices to disturb the quiet, she often found herself thinking back to Origins, to the first time she'd encountered Haven - a Haven that was still and brooding, the emptiness of the streets a foreshadowing of the inevitable bloodbath her various Wardens had always meted out here. In the dark of the night, Haven mourned its dead, and offered her a place to mourn, too. A place that gave her time and space to think, and to try and plan just how she was going to survive this. To decided if she even wanted to survive this.
Hugging her drying cloths and clean shift to her chest, Rory made her way through the almost silent village, listening to her own footsteps on the newly-fallen snow. When she had boots, she wouldn't have to concentrate so hard on that, she knew, but she'd find something else obscure to focus on, rather than the silence. Some nights, she just didn't want to think.
The candles were still burning when she let herself into the humid heat of the bath-house. The place was stone-built, heated by the hot spring that had been diverted to create it, and consisted of three chambers. The first was little more than an antechamber, its sole purpose to act as a buffer between the cold outside and the rest of the bath-house. Through a well-oiled door was the second chamber, slightly larger, with stone benches lining the walls where people could leave their belongings as they bathed. The only other door in that second room lead to the bath itself; a good thirty feet by twenty, with the bath itself sunk into the floor like a stone-clad river running through it, very much like a Roman bath. The water was running, too; cooled a little by its fall from Andraste's cupped stone hands into the bath, it was continually replacing itself. Of course, it was a hot spring, and as such smelled more than a little of rotten eggs, but it was warm. In a frost hole like Haven, smelling eggy was a small price to pay for half an hour of actual warmth.
A quick scan of the dressing chamber was enough to reassure her that no one else was using the facilities. Rory set about removing her clothes, unpinning her hair, moving carefully for the sake of her ribs. They were healing; five weeks on from the accident, they no longer hurt when she moved normally, just when she stretched, or touched her left side, or tried to lie on her injury. It wouldn't be long before she was as good as new. Off came the cloak, followed by the dress; then the shift, and, finally, the strange leather-soled stockings. Blushing at her own nudity, despite there being no one here to see it, she wrapped one of the drying cloths about herself, moving to select a soap from the shelf by the door, slipping into the bathing chamber with a reflexive inspection of all shadows in case of Peeping Toms. Satisfied she was alone, she discarded the drying cloths by the door, and stepped down into the pungent water.
Forget the smell, this was heavenly. A little strange, maybe, to be sitting in three feet of running hot water, but more importantly, hot water. Ignoring the flush on her chilled skin, she sank down until only her head was above the surface, letting the heat soak into her aching muscles, loosen the knots in her neck and shoulders, listening to the steady thump of her own heartbeat. The combination of stress, cold, and labor was doing nothing to ease the tension that gripped her muscles. If she could, she'd do this every day.
Closing her eyes, she let herself hang there, half-floating, half-crouched, ruminating on how much she missed power showers and indoor plumbing in general. There was nothing even remotely dignified about relieving yourself into a bucket, even if everyone else was doing the same. Gods, and having a period here was no picnic, either. The shameful collection of rags she'd had to use in place of sanitary pads was now consigned to the bottom of her personal chest, well-washed and awaiting their next embarrassing outing. She had used the baths every night that week, and paid for her lack of sleep with cramps from hell.
She rolled her neck, groaning in satisfaction as her spine cracked loudly, and twisted about to reach for the soap. Lathering her hands, she closed her eyes once more, tipping her head back into the water to thoroughly soak her hair before beginning to work the soap into the long length from the bottom up. Reaching up to her scalp was still painful, making her hiss at the stabbing twinge from her left side.
"May I help?"
Rory let out a shriek at the unexpected voice in the quiet, jumping so violent that her lazy crouch became an awkward sprawl as her hands dropped to cover her breasts. The soap went flying, catching the intruder on the chin. Spluttering through a mouthful of eggy, soapy water, she risked one hand to wipe her eyes ... and felt her mouth go dry.
Cullen was sitting in the bath with her, not five feet away, bare chest gloriously golden in the dim candlelight. In one hand, he held the soap she'd thrown at him. "Forgive me, I didn't mean to startle you," he apologized, moving closer only to still as she shrank back. "I wasn't silent in entering."
"No, I-I didn't hear you ..." Despite her best intentions, her gaze slipped downward. "Hooo boy ..." Wow, little Cullen really isn't that little. She snapped her eyes back to his face, unfairly indignant when she caught his eyes focused southward. "My face is up here."
"As is mine," was his response, ludicrously calm in this awkward situation. Isn't he supposed to be the shy one who can't talk to women? "I should have made myself known sooner, but I didn't want to disturb you. It's rare to see you so relaxed."
"Because there's no time for it," she pointed out, as curled up as she could get, shoulders hunched above arms that were desperately trying to be a bra and panties and failing badly. By contrast, Cullen looked positively decadent, lounging comfortably on the underwater bench, entirely too close for comfort. "What are you doing here in the middle of the night, anyway?"
"I could ask you the same question, my lady," he pointed out mildly.
She barked out a loud, nervous laugh. "I'm not a lady at the best of times," she insisted, focusing her gaze on the wall behind him. There, that's safe - no Cullen cock or yummy man chest. "Especially when I'm naked." She didn't need to see his face to know how that sounded. "I didn't ... I mean ... I ..." Rory sighed at her own foot in mouth issues. Nug woman with no boundaries strikes again. "I don't suppose you'd consider looking the other way while I drown myself?"
Cullen was chuckling. Typical. The first decent smile out of the man and I can't see it because of the diverting obviousness of his schlong. But he was smiling, and it was because of her. Admittedly, it was because of her inability to say anything that didn't come out a little twisted, but still ...
"As I believe I've said once before, your untimely demise would be a terrible waste," he reminded her in amusement. "I must ask, however ... what is it that makes you so nervous?"
"Being naked," she answered promptly. "And, you know, you're ... floating in the current somewhat." My gods, I'm turning into my mother. "The product of prudish parenting?"
"Would you prefer me to leave?" he offered, the humor gone from his voice.
"You shouldn't have to leave just because I don't know where to look?" she countered uncertainly. "Look, obviously, I'm a prude and that's why I'm here in the middle of the night taking a bath. So why are you here in the middle of the night?"
The silence went on for too long for her comfort. In spite of her embarrassment, she let her gaze drift from the wall to his face. He was no longer looking at her, but frowning into the middle distance, no doubt trying to decide what to say. She could make an unnervingly accurate guess, but she didn't want to force him into a confession of vulnerability when they were both already naked enough as it was.
"Cullen?" She slipped closer in the malodorous water, her derriere finding a spot to perch on the warm stone at his side.
He smiled faintly. "You used my name," he said, his voice almost lost beneath the rippling cascade of water from Andraste's hands.
"You didn't answer my question," Rory pointed out in a gentle tone.
"No, I didn't." He sighed softly, lowering his eyes to contemplate the surface of the water. "I have ... difficulty ... sleeping on occasion," he told her in a low voice. "Headaches. Sometimes the heat of the water is enough to soothe me."
She studied his profile thoughtfully, her shoulders sinking from their hunch, though her hands did not drop from her breasts. Finally, he admits to being only human. "Why don't I know this?" she asked, startled by how intimate the inquiry sounded.
He glanced at her, guilt high in his expression. "You have enough to do," he answered. "I can endure this."
"You don't have to endure it," she told him, still soft despite how strongly she felt about this. "Someone wise once told me that your own health shouldn't take second place to the health of those you care for."
A quiet huff of laughter left his lips. "I told you that."
"And you're very wise," she confirmed. "A little pig-headed, but mostly wise." As his smile deepened at her odd compliment, she pressed her advantage. "Will you come and see me? I'd like to help, if I can."
Again, the silence was long, but at least he was thinking about it. "On one condition," he said eventually, twisting to face her. "You let me wash your hair for you."
Well, she hadn't been expecting that. The inner fangirl was squealing again. Hands! Cullen's hands! On me! He wants! Oh, my giddy aunt, I can't breathe! The mouth, however, was nowhere near as eloquent. "What?"
"Let me wash your hair," he reiterated his condition. "Reaching upward is obviously still causing you pain. Let me help you ... and we'll find out if you can help me."
She stared at him for what felt like far too long, the inner fangirl arguing vociferously with the inner grown-ass woman with emotional baggage. How is this a difficult decision Culle-oops-I'm-so-sexy-Rutherford wants to touch, let him touch! Hair-touching might lead to other touching - WOOHOO! - which we are not ready for. I'm ready! So ready! Trust me, you're not. But it's Cullen! Naked Cullen! That's the problem. I see no problem! Because you're fixated on a fantasy. They don't last. I'm not listening! But what if - Lalalalalalalaaa! .... oh, bollocking hell.
"A-all right," she heard herself agree. After all, if this was what it took to get him to tell her about the lyrium, it wasn't so bad. "How do you want me?" Cullenlingus! ... oh, for gods' sakes, shut UP.
Cullen considered the soap in his hand for a moment, his eyes just barely skimming the protective clasp of her arms about herself before finding her gaze. "Turn around," he told her, gesturing to make it clear.
Blushing to the roots of her hair, Rory shuffled to put her back to him. Her right side rested against the edge of the bath, a startled gasp escaping her throat as she felt his arm brush her back. A moment later, warm water was pouring through her hair by the handful as he wet the length once more.
"You could try to relax, too," he suggested at her back, sounding amused once more.
"I can't help it," she admitted in embarrassment, shivering in a way that had nothing to do with the temperature as his fingers began to work the lather into her hair. Somewhere inside, the inner fangirl fainted with an audible thump. "I'm just not used to public nudity."
"This is public?" he asked, that smile she couldn't see easily discernible in his voice.
She rolled her eyes, tilting her head to guide his fingers. "You know what I mean."
"I do," Cullen agreed gently. "And I understand it, even if it is unusual. I find your modesty charming, in point of fact."
Now it was Rory's turn to huff with laughter. "No one's ever called me charming," she told him, flattered by the compliment. "Ria was always the one people noticed."
"What was she like?" he asked curiously, though he sounded a little tentative. But the pain that usually stung like lemon in a paper cut at the thought of her lost friend did not hit so hard here and now.
For the first time, Rory didn't feel the need to avoid that question, lulled away from the pain by the soothing motion of his fingers in her hair. "Ria was ..." But how to describe her? "She was my best friend," she said with soft regret. "Fearless. For the longest time, she was all I had. She could always make me smile ... and she had the dirtiest laugh." She laughed a little herself just at the memory of it. "She liked to sing. And her hugs always felt like home. She didn't deserve to die like that."
"She sounds like a lovely woman," Cullen said after a moment. "I'm sorry we couldn't save her."
"She'd have hated it here." Rory chuckled faintly, knowing her friend that well, at least. "She liked her little luxuries." Like plumbing, electricity, and cell phones.
"Tell me about her," the quiet man at her back urged. "Anything that comes to mind."
To her surprise, she did. She told him about Ria's unfounded hatred of peas, her inability to pass a curios shop without going inside, her love of warm sunny days. She regaled him with choice anecdotes of the years they'd spent together, careful not to share anything too outlandish, enjoying having someone to laugh with her over some of the more ridiculous scrapes they'd got into together. And somewhere along the way, laughter turned to tears - not the loud tears of an inconsolable pain, but the soft weeping of an inevitable goodbye.
And Cullen let her cry. He washed the soap from her hair, lead her from the bath, dried and dressed her like a child. He let her sob as he twisted her wet hair into braids wrapped about her head, leaving her only for a few moments to dry and dress himself. He held her when she turned to him, seeking the comfort of another heartbeat. He didn't ask for anything, or expect anything, soothing her grieving heart with an embrace that felt like home.
When the tears were finally done, he didn't fill the silence with needless words. He simply walked her back to the clinic through the mournful stillness of Haven's slumber, leaving her at her door with a gentle hand and promise ... she had let him help her; he would let her help him. Tomorrow.
Chapter 6: Familiar Faces
"Hump a nug - who invited the Qunari?"
Rory glanced up at Varric's complaint, following his uneasy gaze to where a large group of Qunari had just walked up to the gate. Gods, they're even bigger than I thought they'd be. She knew vaguely who they were, of course, aware that two potential Inquisitors were among that group of massive mercenaries.
"I doubt they're here to spread the Qun, Varric," she offered to the dwarf, turning her attention back to the minor bandage she was securing on, of all things, a nug's paw. "There, all done."
The little girl who had begged her to sweetly to bind up her pet's boo-boo beamed at her. "Thank you, Mistress Rory."
"It's my pleasure, sweets," she told the child. "Just don't let Master Muttons here pick any more fights with foxes."
The little girl giggled. "I won't!" she promised faithfully, skipping off with her nug cuddled close in her arms.
"Since when do healers drop everything for a pet nug, anyway?" Varric asked her as she bent to pick up her basket of freshly-washed bandages.
The dwarven storyteller had taken to keeping her company when she wasn't in the clinic, at a loss for how to fill his time until the Divine arrived and was ready to hear the story Cassandra insisted on him sharing with her. And since he was so often right there, he often ended up doing things with and for Rory. Take now, for example. He'd outright refused to do any of the washing, but he was carrying her skiffle board for her.
"Since now," Rory informed him, kicking her skirt out of the way as they walked up the steps to the clinic. "Besides, that was helping her just as much as her nug."
"Strangest healer I ever met," he repeated his oft-declared assessment of her character for the umpteenth time. "They'd probably re-educate you in Par Vollen for acting out of type."
She laughed, setting her basket down to begin hanging the bandages on a line to dry in the sun. "Varric, seriously, the Qunari aren't here to go on a rampage," she promised him. "They're the Valo-Kas." At his blank look, she went on. "Tal-Vashoth merc band? They've been hired to keep the peace."
"How do you know all this stuff?" he asked, baffled by her informative response.
Because I've played it through and read all the codex entries. "Soldiers gossip like old women," she told him cheerfully. "I listen."
"So that means the Divine's almost here then, huh?" Varric frowned thoughtfully. "Makes sense, I guess. It takes a lot to bring down an ox-man."
"Varric." Rory paused in her work, eyeing him warningly. "You know how I feel about racial slurs."
He had the decency to look abashed. "Sorry, cupcake," he apologized. "Force of habit."
"Break the habit, then," she suggested. "You never know when you might need someone just like them to to care if you live or die."
They both turned to find one of the Valo-Kas standing on the steps near where they were talking. He really was huge, curling horns somehow making him seem even bigger. Rory wasn't sure she blamed Varric for stepping backward, even if it did put her in the line of fire somewhat. It was tempting to do just that herself, especially when she noted the sharp blade on the enormous sword resting at the Qunari's back. His smile, though, was surprisingly charming, almost boyish, as he nodded to them.
"Didn't mean to frighten you," he apologized in a quiet tone.
"I'm not frightened," Rory countered honestly. Wary of the big man with horns who could possibly break my spine with a careless hug, yes; frightened, no.
"Speak for yourself," she heard Varric mutter none too quietly beside her.
"Neither's he, he's just shy," she added out of pure mischief, just to hear the dwarf bite down an argument with an audible snap of his jaws. "Can we help you?"
The Qunari's smile never faltered. "I hope so," he said easily. "Shokrakar said we were supposed to report to either a Lady Seeker Pentaghast, or a Commander Rutherford, but no one will tell us where to find them."
"Everyone's a little on edge, sorry," Rory apologized, knowing it was learned fear of the unknown that was keeping the people here from being polite. "As far as I know, the Lady Seeker is in the Chantry. If the commander isn't on the training ground, then I don't know where he is."
"Then I'll tell Ataas to try the Chantry," the Qunari said gratefully. "Thank you, Lady ...?"
"Rory," she offered, ignoring Varric's wary cough. "Just Rory. And you are ...?"
"Kaaras," the big mercenary told her with a teasing sparkle in his eyes. "Just Kaaras."
She laughed softly. "Pleasure to meet you, Just Kaaras." So he might be the Inquisitor?
"And you, Mistress Rory," Kaaras replied, inclining his horned head to them both as he took his leave, turning to step back down and report to the leader of his company what he had discovered from the only person in the village who wasn't trying to pretend he was both invisible and mute.
He was only just out of earshot when Varric exploded. "Are you insane?"
Rory rolled her eyes at him. "What?" she asked defensively. "It's not like anyone else was going to tell them where to go."
"They're Qunari!" Varric protested. "Do you remember what they did to Kirkwall?"
"Correction - they're Tal-Vashoth," she pointed out. "They have nothing to do with what the Qunari did in Kirkwall."
"That's worse," he insisted. "Tal-Vashoth are crazed killers."
Rory couldn't help being taken aback. It had never occurred to her that Varric might still be hung up on the Qunari invasion of Kirkwall. Yet it did make sense. Kirkwall was his home, and the Arishok's attack had been utterly, savagely meaningless.
"Varric ..." She turned to face him, leaning back onto the stone wall behind her to bring her closer to his eye level. "What the Qunari did in Kirkwall was terrible," she said gently. "But so was the Exalted March on the Dales. Do you really think the way to move on from it is to hold an entire race accountable for the actions of a few, the way most humans and elves do?"
He stared at her, conflict clouding his eyes. "Kirkwall is my home."
"And no one says that you can't be angry for what was done there," she assured him. "But blaming the Tal-Vashoth for the actions of the Qunari is like blaming every surface dwarf for the behavior of those in Orzammar. They weren't involved; they don't even consider themselves Qunari anymore. I know it isn't an exact analogy, but it's close."
Varric frowned, the expression heavy on his face. "I get what you're saying," he told her reluctantly. "It's just hard, you know? They killed friends of mine; innocent people who didn't deserve that bloodbath."
"And Hawke ended their threat," she reminded him, still trying to be gentle. "I'm not saying go out and make friends with the very next Qunari you see. Just ... try to keep an open mind, okay? Not every Qunari is a crazed killer or a blind adherent of the Qun. Just like not every surface dwarf is a liar or a thug."
He chuckled blandly. "Cupcake, every dwarf is a liar," he told her, but she could see she'd got through to him. "I'm not making any promises, but ... you're right. Not every human is an entitled ass."
She snorted, chuckling through a brief flare of indignation. "I'll take that as a compliment."
"What can I say?" Varric shrugged. "You bring out the charmer in me."
"How are you not fighting the ladies off with a stick, with lines like that?" she asked teasingly.
"Who needs a stick when I have Bianca?" he countered, good humor restored with just a little banter. "She's all I need."
"Liar." Rory laughed. At least the crossbow doesn't treat him like a shameful secret.
"Didn't I just say that?" he asked, letting her take the skiffle board from his hand as she turned toward the clinic door. "Don't work too hard, cupcake."
A vain hope, that one. The rest of her day was full - not only with the everyday ailments of the villagers of Haven and the pre-Inquisition, but also with increasing numbers of visitors from all over the southern kingdoms. It seemed as though everyone and their pet dog wanted to be able to say they were at the Conclave, and their representatives were beginning to arrive. No sign of templars or mages yet, but some important figures were already here. Chancellor Roderick, for example, had swept in that morning and taken charge of the Chantry in preparation for the Divine's arrival in a few days. The Valo-Kas were another example, as well as representatives from a few noble houses. In every group, there always seemed to be someone who needed a healer. The nobles, however, were particularly trying.
"How can I help you, my lady?"
The young woman opened her mouth. "I -"
"She has feminine weakness and hysteria," her companion boomed. "You will provide her with a sedative."
For a moment, Rory's jaw worked silently. She glanced between the pair sitting in front of her - one delicately beautiful human girl, staring fixedly at the floor; the other, a robust Valkyrie of a Chantry sister, glaring at Rory impatiently. She'd never had to deal with an overbearing parental figure before; in the hospital, that was usually left to the senior nurses. The problem was that, here, she was the senior, and she had an awful feeling she was about to offend someone important.
"I'm sorry, sister ... are you this lady's relative?" she asked politely. "A close family member?"
The sister drew herself up in her seat. "I am governess to the noble house of her birth," she declared proudly. Prime demon bait, this one.
"But not related by blood," Rory pointed out.
"I fail to see how that has any relevance," the imperious woman sniffed. "Give her the sedative, and we shall go."
"It has relevance because unless you are her mother or sister, or she specifically requests that you remain, I'm going to have to ask you to leave," Rory said as firmly as she could. She didn't miss the sudden flash of hope that crossed the younger woman's down-turned face. In for a penny ... "Any consultation with my patient is private and confidential. I'm sure you understand, sister. The Chantry confessional operates in much the same manner."
"She can have nothing to say to you that she would not tell me," the sister insisted.
"And that is her decision to make," Rory said sternly. "However, here and now, you are wasting time better spent with my patient on stroking your ego for an audience that doesn't care. I have other patients to see, and no time to spend on your sense of self-importance. So, unless you would like me to call one of the soldiers in here to remove you, I suggest that you leave. Now."
The sister spluttered indignantly. "You wouldn't dare."
She met the woman's glare head on, refusing to back down. Honestly, what was wrong with some people? All right, so the Chantry had power, but not in this. Not in her clinic. Rory declined to be intimidated in her own space, especially by some jumped up busybody who thought her fancy robe entitled her to ignore the personal boundaries of someone who had been placed in her care. Evidently the look on Rory's face promised that she would follow through on her threat for, after a long moment of impotent glaring, the sister abruptly stood.
"I shall be making a complaint to your superior," she announced, flouncing toward the door with Rory at her heels.
"You do that," the healer said calmly. "I'm sure he'll enjoy it."
She shut the door firmly on the sister's seething face, drawing the bolt across to make sure the woman didn't try to come back in. Cullen wasn't going to thank her for that, but hopefully he'd grasp the situation well enough not to try and order her to allow such a blatant breach of her own stated code. Hearing a giggle behind her, she turned to find her patient crying with laughter into her sleeves.
"That was wonderful," the young woman crowed. "Can I keep you?"
"Only if you're prepared to stay here indefinitely, I'm afraid," Rory told her, smiling as she sat down. "Now, shall we start again? I'm Rory. How can I help you, Lady ...?"
"Trevelyan," the young woman said, hiccuping through the last of her laughter. "Evelyn Trevelyan."
Rory felt her heart sink. So this might be the love of Cullen's life. And why wouldn't he be drawn to her? Evelyn Trevelyan was young - younger than Rory, certainly - and devastatingly beautiful. In her own opinion, Rory could just about manage pretty in the right light. The delicate features of the girl in front of her were more than alluring, sensual promises made by the wide mouth and bold eyes. The inner fangirl hissed like a feral cat, taking an instant dislike to a canon P.C. she'd played multiple times in the past and enjoyed. It was like a slap to the face to suddenly realize that this might be the girl Cullen passed her over for. But Evelyn was here for help, and Rory wouldn't allow herself to be petty because of an imagined attraction.
"And what brings you to see me?" she asked, more reserved than before but hoping it would be taken for professionalism.
Evelyn blushed, fidgeting awkwardly. "Well, I ... it's my bleeding time," she offered uncertainly. "And ... the pains are ... quite bad?"
"Unusually bad?" Rory asked, startled and pleased with how quickly she had set aside her petty jealousy in favor of helping this woman with her problem.
"Oh, no worse than they are every month," Evelyn told her. "It's just ... it does make traveling rather uncomfortable, and we expect to be in the valley for several days. Sister Vada is ... less than forgiving of anything that delays us."
"Let me guess," Rory drawled, "she's the one who branded it feminine weakness and hysteria."
The young woman nodded. "The sea voyage was awful," she confided shyly. "I had pains and sea-sickness, and all she had to say was that I was complaining too much. She thinks if I'm sedated then I won't complain."
"Heaven forbid a woman should mention she's in pain," Rory muttered, angry to find this attitude reflected by a woman. This wasn't the first time she'd heard this, though. According to several of the women in Haven, human and elf, their menfolk thought period pains were a myth.
"She throws Andraste in my face when I do," Evelyn said in an unhappy tone.
"And I'm sure that really helps," was Rory's sarcastic response. She sighed, shaking her head. "Well, I can't guarantee the pain will go away completely, but I can give you something that should help." She twisted in her seat, leaning down to retrieve a small pouch from one of the chests by her desk, handing it to the young lady before her.
"What is it?"
"It's a tea," Rory explained, "made with willow-bark, spindleweed, elfroot, and fennel. One small pinch, steeped in hot water for three minutes. Do not drink more than two cups every three hours."
"Why?" Evelyn asked, sniffing the contents of the bag curiously.
"Because you'll throw up copiously and feel even worse," Rory told her without flinching. She knew that for a fact; that was what had happened to her when she'd overdosed by accident on the stuff. "Follow the instructions, and the pains should definitely lessen."
"I will." Young Lady Trevelyan tucked the little pouch away in a pocket of her cloak. "And thank you, Mistress Rory. Most healers I've seen just dismiss it as beneath them, or don't believe me."
"Most healers are men," Rory pointed out in amusement. "No womb, no opinion - that's my view." And I just misquoted Friends. What is wrong with me?
Evelyn giggled, rising to her feet to take the healer's hand. "One day, you'll have to come to Ostwick," she suggested warmly. "I'm sure my mother would love to meet you."
"That's a very kind offer, Lady Trevelyan," Rory answered, trying to banish a sudden wave of sadness. Because this warm young lady would never go home again. In a matter of days, she would either be dead, or marked for a thankless fight. It was a sobering thought. "It's been a pleasure to meet you."
"And you," the lady responded with a smile. "Thank you again."
They were met at the door by Sister Vada, who seized her charge by the arm and marched her away at speed. Rory watched them go, guilty to her core at a pang of petty jealousy over what might never be. What was better for that girl - to die suddenly in a massive explosion, or to live and be loved by a good man or woman? The same question could be asked for anyone here who had that maybe in front of them.
She felt, more than saw, her assistant moving to stand beside her.
"Shrivelled old bat, that one," Fabian commented mildly, nodding at the departing sister. "You all right, Ror?"
Rory's smile was bittersweet. No. No, I'm really not. "I'll live," she told him, turning to meet his gaze."Is there anyone waiting?"
He shook his head. "Not right now. Messenger came by with this for you, though." He handed her a small sealed missive.
"Thank you, Fabs." She smiled, taking the note from him as he chuckled at the nickname she'd pinned to him from day one. "Look, why don't you hold clinic for the rest of the afternoon? I'll be around if you need me, but I think you are more than capable of handling it."
He stared at her, stunned by the faith she put in him. "Really?"
She laughed at his incredulity. "Really," she promised.
"That's ... I won't let you down!" he declared. It was quite something, to see a forty-something-year-old man almost bouncing with excitement.
"I know you won't," she chuckled, patting his arm. "Go, rearrange the desk to suit you, Healer Fabian."
"Healer Fabian ..."
Turning away from the clinic cabin, she absently reached up to check how dry the bandages were. Dry enough to come down and be rolled, but before that ... She looked down at the folded paper in her hand, breaking the wax seal to open it up and read the short message written within.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, I will call upon you for that consultation an hour after the dinner bell is rung.
Cullen Rutherford, Commander
As the words sank in, Rory felt the choking fog of foreknowledge lift just a little from her mind, a slow smile creeping over her face. Got him. Ramming the letter into her belt, she turned to take the dry bandages down, whistling tunelessly as she worked. Roll on dinnertime.
Chapter 7: Ulterior Nothings
The amber liquid burned her throat as she swallowed, lighting hot coals in her stomach that spread their warmth all the way to her fingertips. After more than a month of weak beer and boiled water, the sudden introduction to strong liquor was something of a shock to the system.
"You know," Rory commented mildly as she set her cup down, "I'm fairly sure you're the only person in the world who brings Ferelden firewater to a healer's consult."
Cullen offered a quiet suggestion toward a chuckle. "Call it dwarven courage." He shrugged, taking a mouthful from his own cup. "Some things need a little courage to be spoken of."
"I understand." You'd be horrified to know just how much I understand. But if getting slightly tipsy was what it took to get him to open up to her, even a little, then it was a small price to pay. And for him, she would offer something she gave her other patients no choice in. "Would you rather I didn't take notes?"
He seemed surprised to be asked, his glance straying to the locked chest beneath the desk where she kept all the information she'd gathered on the people she cared for. "Isn't that against your standard practice?"
Her lips curved in a gentle smile. "In special cases, no," she told him. "There are some people who would rather suffer in silence than have anything written down. I think you may be one of those people, commander."
"Cullen," he corrected her quietly. "My name is Cullen."
"Cullen," she echoed, again struck by how intimate it felt to say his name.
Taking another sip from her cup, she savored the burn in her throat for a long moment, studying him in the silence. He seemed so weary, an exhaustion born of stress and sleepless nights, too many burdens on already over-burdened shoulders. For whatever reason, he had chosen tonight to go without his armor, without the prickling fur of his customary mantle; instead, he wore a simple bleached-wool tunic over his rust-spotted shirt. He looked lost and alone, and she wanted nothing more than to wipe that melancholy from his soul.
Swallowing a fresh mouthful from his cup, he sighed gustily, letting out a bitter, mirthless laugh. "Where do I even begin?"
"Begin with what's causing you the most trouble," she suggested softly. "There's no set limit on how much, or how little, you should tell me. I'll never force you to answer my questions. But if I'm going to help, I need to know what's wrong."
"Headaches," he said simply, taking her at her word. "My head always seems to ache, a niggle in my skull that is always threatening the worst. And when the worst does come ... it's blinding. It's as though some mage has reached into my mind and set my thoughts ablaze. I cannot think; I can barely raise my head at such times. I feel hot and cold by turns, burning in some unnatural fever that only quiet and darkness seems to lift."
That sounds more like a migraine than anything. Not as awful as I thought it might be. "Do you take anything to relieve the pain?" she asked, curious but gentle.
Cullen shook his head. "My options are limited," he admitted. "I have to be able to function. But not even healing potions touch it."
"Well, healing potions won't touch pain like that," Rory explained. "There's no injury or illness to heal. What you're describing is something that is triggered by stress and tension. But there are a few things we can try that won't sedate you - see if we can prevent more of these worse headaches."
"It is a relief to hear you say that," he said, the gratitude in his eyes warm. "I am ... loath ... to ask a mage for help."
"That's not uncommon," she heard herself say, but inside, her heart was breaking for him. After all you've been through, a mage would never be able to help anyway. You'll never be able to wholly trust one again. She felt bad now for all the romances she'd backed him into with mages, even though that wasn't real. Not here. "You mentioned last night that you sometimes have trouble sleeping. Is that because of the headaches?"
"Partially." He shifted awkwardly in his seat, refilling his cup from the bottle he'd brought with him. "I would rather not discuss my ... my nightmares."
"Of course." She wasn't going to push him into sharing anything he wasn't ready for. She could, however, give him a little nudge. "Cullen ... I've noticed that, at times, your movement is stiff, as though you're in pain. Are you?"
He looked up sharply, brown eyes flecked with candlelit gold as his gaze bore into her own. "Healer's eyes," he murmured, almost to himself. "Sun-kissed storm clouds that see so much more than we dare to hope."
The sheer unexpected poetry of his murmur brought Rory's mind to a quavering halt, her heart thudding so hard in her chest that she heard its unsteady rhythm in her ears. No one had ever described her like that, yet she knew it was her eyes he was talking about. She'd always thought of her eyes as nondescript gray, but he saw that gray as storm clouds. And sun-kissed ... only Ria had ever noticed the flecks of brown in her eyes. Her best friend had always said that those brown spots were a continuation of the freckles that covered Rory's face, laughingly calling them sun kisses. Cullen thought they were sun kisses, too. Cullen Rutherford had looked into her eyes often enough, and deeply enough, to be able to describe them perfectly.
"Uh ..." She felt herself beginning to blush, looking down at her cup as she hastily finished off the contents, gasping at the alcoholic shock to the system. When she managed to look back at Cullen, he was smiling his invisible smile, seemingly very pleased with himself for making her blush at all. "That wasn't fair," she accused halfheartedly.
"On the contrary, I find your blushes very fair," he countered easily. It didn't look like it was going to apologize for the comment that had set her cheeks on fire, either.
"If you don't want to answer the question, you could just say," Rory complained, embarrassed by how easily this man got under her skin. Already being half in love with him before ever actually meeting the commander was not doing her any favors.
"I will answer your question," he assured her. "Your powers of observation simply surprised me. I had thought my stiffness rather well concealed."
"It is," she promised him. "But I know what that pause after straightening up means, and the reason why you groan when you stand. Muscular stiffness does ease off with movement, but that first gesture toward movement is always the worst."
Cullen's brows raised, his expression impressed with her deduction. "How did you know it was muscular?"
"Your joints don't crack when you move," she shrugged, inwardly glowing at being the focus of his admiration. "And you said yourself that you find heat soothing. In the absence of an injury, it's something else that can be attributed to tension. And unless we find some way to ease that stiffness, you are likely to give yourself an injury in the normal run of things."
"So what would your recommended remedy be?" he asked curiously.
"You need to relax more," she said bluntly.
Cullen's lips twitched in exasperated amusement. "And how do you suggest I do that, Rory?"
Her mouth dropped open. He said my name! He said my name! Shaking herself, she groped for a response that wouldn't make her out to be a bumbling idiot. "Use the baths every day that you can, preferably before you go to bed," she heard herself say, sounding a lot less flustered than she felt inside. "Take regular breaks to stretch and rest your eyes. Uh ..."
There was one more thing she should suggest that would almost certainly help, but she couldn't quite get the words to line up on her tongue. Something about the way he was watching her intimated that he knew the solution she was failing to offer perhaps better than she did. In fact, he most likely did. He was a seasoned fighter, after all. And what was holding her back from offering? It couldn't be fear. She was certain he would never hurt her intentionally. So what was it about the obvious remedy that glued her tongue to the top of her mouth?
"There is something else that does work," she heard him say, the alcohol-boldness of his voice breaking through the muddle of her thoughts. "I've had success in the past with muscle massage, but it is not something I am capable of doing for myself."
"I could do it." The words were out before she could stop them, the hoarse croak of the almost catatonic fangirl who desperately wanted permission to touch him.
Cullen leaned forward, his cup cradled between his hands. "Are you certain?" he asked, eyeing her in concern. "You are not comfortable with bare flesh."
"I like yours." Again with the blurting. "Please forget I said that."
He laughed then, a rich, merry sound that transformed his face from broodingly handsome to heartbreakingly gorgeous. The smile wasn't invisible anymore; it tugged at his lips, brightened his eyes, awakened the lines of his face into happy motion that took her breath away. "If it helps," he chuckled, knocking back the last of his firewater, "I like yours, too."
That was too much for the inner fangirl. She collapsed in squealing glee, leaving the darker thought to roam unchecked. He's drunk, they whispered. Drunk and lonely and vulnerable. He doesn't know what he's saying. If he was sober, he wouldn't look twice at you. But despite that warning, she found herself smiling back at him with shy pleasure, hearing Ria's voice in her mind's ear. Just go with it, Ror. He likes you.
"All right, well ... my pasty white flesh aside," she managed, rolling her eyes even as her smile deepened. "Would you be comfortable to have me do that for you? I can always ask Fabian, if you'd rather a man -"
"No." Just one word to stop her in her tracks, his smile fading from view. "Please. I ... I would rather only you and I knew of my ... difficulties."
She held his gaze for a long moment, wishing he would just tell her about the lyrium. But that required a level of trust she hadn't yet reached with him. "All right," she agreed softly, seeing a little of his tension melt from his expression. "I'll make up a potion that should help with the headaches. It'll be ready tomorrow. And the .. massage ..." She hesitated. "I'm not sure how you want to go about it. Or where."
"Would it be inappropriate to ask you to my tent?" he queried, obviously uncertain whether he was crossing a line just by asking.
Rory bit her lip. It wasn't like a tent was exactly private. "If you can ... guarantee no interruptions, I-I think that would ... would be a good idea," she concurred thoughtfully, trying not to linger on thoughts of his bare skin under her hands, both of them enclosed in a small space that belonged entirely to him. After all, if she did it right, he should end up too relaxed to do anything more drift off to sleep.
"I can give orders not to be disturbed for one night," he said confidently, watching as she nodded once more, setting her empty cup down beside his. "Rory ... thank you."
She looked up, surprised by his sudden, raw thanks. "Whatever for?"
"For helping me to admit to this," he said in a solemn tone. "For not asking why. There is a reason, but I ..." He trailed off, guilt coloring his expression as he failed to explain.
"Cullen." She reached out, one hand covering his where it lay on his thigh, keenly aware that only a single layer of soft leather separated her from the hands that had cared for her so tenderly just the night before. "You don't have to tell me anything. But I promise you ... anything you do tell me will stay with me, unless you're doing harm to yourself that someone else could prevent."
He stared into her eyes, his gaze burning into her, searching for all her secrets without the need for words. "You care so much," he breathed, a strange sort of wonder in his voice. "Why?"
I love you. Or at least, the idea of you. "Because you need me to," she said gently. "Not about the soldier or the commander. I care about the man behind them, who gives all his care to the men and women under his commander and has so little left for himself."
His other hand lay over hers, sandwiching her fingers between both his palms. "You see more than anyone I have ever known."
She felt herself soften, the guardians around her grieving heart relaxing their vigilance. "I take the time to look," she whispered, hating herself for the half-truth that it was. I've watched you struggle, watched you grow, studied you, struggled with you. "Let me help you, Cullen."
"You are helping me, Rory."
He leaned closer, his eyes flickering to her lips, and she felt her stomach clench with numbing anticipation. She knew that look; she'd seen it in the game before each and every kiss. She'd played just for those kisses for a while, and now she was seeing that look, up close and personal. He wanted to kiss her ... and, gods help her, she wanted that kiss almost more than she wanted to keep breathing.
Loud laughter from the tavern outside spilled in through the window, startling her back with a soft gasp. I can't do this. Not until I know if he's due an epic love story, at least. It wouldn't be right. Seeing her hesitation, Cullen drew back himself, gently releasing her hand.
"Will you come to me tomorrow?" he asked quietly, his turn to blush as he realized how that sounded. "As a healer. Visit my tent as the healer. The massage."
Grateful he hadn't taken offense at the way she put distance between them, Rory felt her shy smile rise again in answer to his flustered fumbling. "I will," she promised. "After dinner?"
"After dinner," he agreed, rising to his feet. "Get some sleep. The next days will be trying for us all."
"I will if you will," she quipped impishly, glad to see the gentleness in his eyes did not fade at her half-serious teasing.
Cullen paused at the door, seeming to debate with himself for a long moment. She waited with him, uncertain of the reason for the delay ... and squeaked audibly as his hand closed about her elbow, tugging her close enough to press his lips to her forehead. The kiss burned like a brand, marking her forever though no one would ever see what it left behind. She shivered as his breath ghosted over her brow.
"Good night, Rory," he murmured to her, fingers squeezing her elbow before he released her to step away.
Unseen by him, she slumped against the doorframe in his wake, her eyes following his progress past the tavern until she was distracted by the sight of Varric watching her with knowing eyes. The dwarf waited until he had her full attention, raising his tankard in invitation while gifting her with a particularly suggestive grin. Rolling her eyes, she laughed, pushing away from the door to go and join him. After all that, she could definitely use another drink.
Chapter 8: The Unwary
Warning - there is an attempted rape in this chapter. The story got dark on me, but it's not irredeemable. Just be warned what's in this one.
Why did she drink so much last night?
After her highly stimulating session with the commander, Rory had made the unwise decision to go to the tavern, where Varric had introduced her to the wonders of fermented berry wine and then attempted to embarrass her with a game of Wicked Grace, where the stakes were either secrets or clothes. What he didn't know was that, even drunk, Rory could hold her own. Wicked Grace was not that different from poker, and she'd learned how to play poker from an elderly lady with advanced dementia on some interminable night shifts. By the time he called a halt to the game, Varric was down to his pants - having refused to stake secrets himself - and all Rory had had to give up was one expletive-ridden anecdote about the scar on her inner left forearm. She'd gone to bed feeling very pleased with herself, but, oh, she was paying for it today.
But despite the killer hangover, she still had work to do. There were medicines to make up, bandages to change, the clinic to clean. Fabian needed more lessons in basic care, which was normally easy when she didn't have a queasy stomach and dizzy head. By mid-morning, they'd opened the clinic, and soon had a line of people waiting to see them; mostly newcomers, soldiers and servants from the retinues of nobles passing through Haven on their way to the Temple. By the middle of the afternoon, however, they'd seen all these, and Rory was going stir-crazy being stuck inside. So when she overheard Master Taigen complain of being low on elfroot, she immediately volunteered to go and gather more.
With a canvas sack in hand, she passed through the training ground on her way east to the forest where elfroot grew in abundance.
Pausing, she turned at the sound of the familiar voice, smiling as Rylen jogged over to her.
"And where're you off to, oh illustrious healer of warts and all?" he asked cheerfully. "You look like a woman on a mission."
"Afternoon, Rylen," she greeted him warmly, shading her eyes from the sun. "I am on a mission. I have to fill my sack with elfroot leaves, or Master Taigen will turn into a kindly old man."
"Och, we can't have that, can we?" The Starkhaven captain laughed his robust laugh. "Haven might sink if he learned how to smile."
She laughed with him. "I'm doing my bit for the good of the community."
Rylen's smile faded as he glanced at the trees. "Just don't go far, aye?" he suggested. "My boys mentioned seeing a camp out that way. We might have some unwelcome visitors in the those woods."
"I'm sure I'll be fine," Rory assured him. "I won't be gone long."
"Mind you're not, I'll be keeping an eye out for you," he warned with a smile. "Good hunting, Ror."
"Have fun beating the dummies, Ry," she answered, smiling as she turned to continue on her way. She liked Rylen; he always managed to send her off with a smile, no matter her mood.
Still, it was a little unsettling to be walking alone into the woods after his warning. Until now, Haven had been a safe place to be. Oh, she knew that wasn't going to last, but she'd convinced herself that demons were all she had to worry about in the near future. It hadn't occurred to her that humans or elves might be a threat to her safety, despite all the play-throughs with predictable bandits. But then, bandit was just a word to her; avatars who only attacked the well-armed and armored player character so she could up her XP. She'd forgotten that here, bandit could mean anyone, and they were actually more likely to prey on the defenseless. And defenseless was a very good word to describe Rory in this world.
All the same, she did carry a knife, even if that little blade spent most of its time in the sheath at her belt. Not today, though. Today, her little knife was busy, harvesting leaves from the elfroot stems she found growing in abundance in a wide patch just beyond the logging stand. To date, she wasn't sure why only the leaves were required from a plant called elfroot, but she wasn't going to start experimenting. Tried and tested techniques that worked in this world were just fine.
Time spent outside did wonders for her lingering headache, the last of her hangover easing away in the fresh air and the quiet. That was something she was still getting used to - Haven was so noisy. From dawn 'til dusk, the little village rang with the sound of people going about their business. There was the forge, the training ground, the chatter of men and women as they gossiped over their chores, and underneath it all, the continuous drone of the Chant of Light. Even at night, the Chantry stayed awake, brothers and sisters reciting the canticles in shifts, fulfilling their part of Andraste's promise. Yet out here, in the middle of the day, it was so quiet. Just half an hour from the village, and you could be forgiven for thinking you were miles away from any kind of civilization. All she could hear was the breeze in the trees, and the shuffling crunch of druffalo hooves over the snow. It was peaceful, calming, and as she worked, Rory found herself humming, making music for the first time since Ria's death. The intrusion of an unexpected voice brought her humming to an abrupt end.
"Pretty tune from a pretty girl."
The accent was French - Orlesian, Rory - and belonged to a man about her own age, dressed in hunting leathers, and lounging against a tree not too far away. He was armed with long knives at his belt, and was looking at her with more than simple interest.
Rory's fingers tightened about the hilt of her small knife. "Thank you," she said warily. "What brings you out here?"
"Milord prefers to eat game hunted by those he trusts," the hunter told her, pushing away from his tree. "As for me, I am delighted to find beauty in these ill-favored wilds."
Forget the elfroot. Feeling the alarm bells ringing in her nerves, she rose to her feet, her half-filled sack in her hand. "Well, I'm expected back at the village," she informed him. She knew this feeling, had felt it often enough when walking home late at night through London's quiet streets. It was fear, naked and raw, and cramping her throat as her heart began to pound. "They'll miss me if I'm gone too long."
She made to leave the little clearing, but he stepped in front of her, a predatory darkness about his eyes that made her back away quickly, gripping her knife harder. A knife she didn't know how to use. If this was a story, rescue would already be on its way. But as he advanced on her, she knew this was no story. She was alone, defenseless, and this man was a born predator who had found easy prey.
"We won't be long, petit," he told her, laughing as she raised her little knife between them. "Be a good girl, and I won't slice your pretty throat with your pretty little blade."
"That's my choice?" she heard herself demand shakily, unable to keep her incredulity silenced. "Lie back and take it, or you'll kill me when you're finished?"
"You will not get a better offer, petit."
It wasn't the words that frightened her so much as the way he said them - as though no one would blame him even if he did kill her. As though she deserved what he intended simply by virtue of being female and out of sight of help. As though raping her was his right, and somehow her life was a generous gift in exchange.
A sensible person would probably have taken the offer, knowing without needing to test the theory that he was more than capable of doing worse than just raping and killing her. Rory, however, had regular bouts of unsensible behavior, especially under duress. "I think I'll take my chances, thanks," she spat at him in sheer bravado, and lunged, slashing wildly at his face with her knife.
He easily sidestepped her attack, catching her wrist as she made an attempt to get past him. Strong fingers bent her hand back, cruel eyes glinting as she cried out in pain, the knife falling from her fingers. Caught, she tried to pull away, opening her mouth to scream for help in the vain hope that someone might be near enough to hear. The hunter dragged her back, throwing her down onto the unforgiving snow with enough force to knock the breath from her lungs, and before she could raise herself to scramble away, he was on her. Rough hands ripped at the laces of her bodice, tearing the linen shift beneath, snarling as she cried hot tears, begging him not to do this. He ignored those tears, too strong to fight off; a monster in human form that pawed and bit at her bared flesh, too hot, too heavy, too hungry, too self-important to care that she was unwilling.
His mouth slobbered over her neck, teeth biting savagely as she struggled, big hands reaching down to drag her skirt upward, to push his pants downward, discounting the push of her hands, the kick of her legs ... and suddenly he roared in pain, blood spurting from a wound in his shoulder to splatter hot against her skin. The hunter raised himself from his prey, and a short figure seemed to materialize from nowhere beside him, planting a firm kick into that injured shoulder to send him sprawling onto his back. As Rory scrambled back, curling tightly into a sobbing ball, a second figure ambled out from the trees and brought a great hammer down onto the hunter's chest. No amount of fancy leather armor could have stopped that blow, the blunt weapon staving in breastbone and ribs, each one puncturing some organ vital to life. A great geyser of blood erupted from the hunter's mouth and nose, staining the snow with more than blood as death took him swiftly.
It was all over in seconds. Shocked, shaken, terrified, Rory stared at her saviors with wide eyes, unable to keep the tears from flowing. They were dwarves, male and female, cleaning off their respective weapons as though there wasn't a half-naked corpse with very little chest left lying between them.
"Happy now, Malika?" the bearded male was saying. "You know she's going to tell them she saw us."
"Oh, and you would have preferred to just walk past?" the female snapped back. "She won't say a word. Look at her - she's so shaken up, she probably can't even see us."
The male scratched his beard, eyeing Rory thoughtfully. "If you say so," he conceded, nodding to his companion. "Grab his pouch, let's get going."
In a mess, her mind jumbled with thoughts of what almost happened and what did happen, Rory lowered her head to her knees, hugging herself tight as she struggled through her own fear and relief toward some kind of calmness. He might have - But he didn't. He tried to - But he didn't. I could have - But you weren't. Pull yourself together, girl, and get back to Haven. On your feet.
She staggered upright, pulling her torn bodice over her bruised skin, forcing herself to look around the clearing. Who knew how long she'd been crying there? She was alone again but for the cooling body of her attacker, her rescuers long gone. But her half-filled sack of elfroot leaves stood by the path toward Haven, filled to the brim and tied shut, her little knife resting on top of it. Despite her state, she actually laughed at the sight of it, at the knowledge that two dwarven warriors had stopped long enough to finish her harvesting and clean her knife before continuing on their way. Grateful, but desperate to be gone from here, she snatched up the sack and the knife, and ran for the track that would take her back to Haven.
She had just passed Master Taigen's cabin when the Fates conspired to try and kill her with fright for the second time that day. Reassured by the nearing sounds of swords clashing, her frantic pace had slowed enough that she could convince herself to stop and make an effort to repair the damage to her appearance. Her dress wasn't that badly torn, on reflection - the laces were snapped and would have to be replaced, and a long tear along the seam at her left shoulder would need to be sewed up, but on the whole, it wasn't a disaster. The shift beneath was torn to the breast, but again, salvageable. She could feel a bite mark rising into a bruise on her neck, and another where her neck met her shoulder, and her wrist throbbed painfully, but she knew she had been very lucky. She couldn't expect to be that lucky again.
And then a burst of flame ignited the path directly in front of her, ripping a scream from her bruised throat.
"Don't turn around, shem."
The voice was harsh, female, and Rory had no doubt that turning around would result in the next flame taking hold of her. This was not her day. She was never leaving Haven's walls ever, ever again.
"Well, now you've scared her speechless, fa'lon, mind if I do the talking?" a second voice interjected. This one was male, and a lot friendlier.
"Be quick," the female ordered in an unforgiving tone. "They'll have heard her scream."
"This is why the Keeper didn't want you to come, you know," the male responded. He sighed, and Rory heard footsteps moving closer to her back. "Where's the Temple of Ages, please?"
Trembling all over, Rory took a slow breath. Someone will have heard you scream. Answer the nice elf before his friend decides to flambé you. "Temple of Sacred Ashes," she heard herself say in a voice that was too scared to be hers. "Past the village, over the river. It's at the head of the valley." Please don't hurt me.
She heard them move away, but her eyes were focused on a familiar figure visible through the trees ahead of her. They did hear me. Thank gods. Five figures were running toward her as she sank down onto her knees, shaking like a leaf.
"Rory! You all right? What happened?"
Suddenly safe, the shock of her afternoon hit her with the force of a hurricane. She burst into tears, groping her way forward to throw her arms around Rylen as she sobbed out the incoherent story of her misadventures. Her friend held his naked sword away from her as he tucked an arm about her shoulders, listening patiently as she pieced together everything that had happened since she'd left the village.
"You, go back to Haven," he ordered one of his soldiers. "Report to the commander that we need a perimeter sweep now. You three, go to the logging stand and retrieve the body." As the four saluted, moving to follow those orders without a moment's hesitation, he sheathed his sword, turning his attention back to the shaking woman under his arm. "All right, darlin', I've got you. Come along with me, let's get you back to Haven."
Clinging to him, Rory was only too happy to be guided back to the deceptive safety of the stockaded village, too shaken to notice the curious eyes that followed their progress to the clinic, where a horrified Fabian took charge of his traumatized senior. She didn't know how angry people were as word spread of the attack on their healer, how alarmed they were that Dalish elves and unknown dwarves were in the area. She didn't witness how tense things suddenly became when the dead hunter was identified as a man-at-arms in the service of an Orlesian marquis, who had the gall to demand that she was punished for his death. No one told her that Cullen almost broke his hand on the marquis' nose in answer, or that Haven was hastily declared off-limits to all the parties passing through to the Conclave. No one could be trusted but their own, clearly.
All she knew was that the world of Thedas was suddenly a very real, very frightening place. The time had come to start taking things very seriously indeed.
Chapter 9: Healer's Hands
"You don't have to do this, Rory. Not tonight."
She sighed, shaking out the drying cloth in her hands pointedly, her eyes fixed on a fascinating bit of wall to her right. "So you keep saying," she said in a wry tone. "Yesterday, in fact. Oh, and the day before. And today, you've been avoiding me."
Cullen rolled his eyes, stepping up out of the bath. "I have not been avoiding you," he informed her, taking the cloth from her hands to wrap it about his waist.
"Really?" she asked knowingly. "So why did it take following you to the baths in the middle of the night to even find out if that potion is working for you?"
"I don't know whether to be disturbed or flattered that you tracked me through Haven on a moonless night, just to give me a massage," he commented, avoiding the question like a pro.
"I wouldn't have had to if you'd just let me do it in your tent two nights ago," Rory pointed out, crossing her arms over her chest. She was still addressing the wall, hoping he mistook her blush for the heat in the bath house. "Now we either do it here, or I walk you back to tent and do it there. Either way, you're getting a massage tonight."
She could feel him staring at her, weighing up her intent, not daring to look around and meet that gaze. That cloth at his waist would not be modest at all now it was wet, and she didn't think he'd take her seriously if she was talking to his crotch. Oh yeah, talking to the wall is a much better impression to be making.
Cullen sighed heavily. "You are the stubbornest woman I have ever met,"
"So're you," she retorted, listening as he stepped into the dressing chamber. "So that's a yes, is it?"
"It's a reluctant concession from one stubborn woman to another," he called out to her.
Rory felt her jaw twitch. Trust him to take me literally just to see if he can get a rise out of me. "So put away your man-boobs and decide where you want to be massaged," she countered, instantly regretting her choice of words. "In what location do you - no, that's worse." She grimaced at her own clumsiness with words. "In here or in your tent? And shut up."
She heard him chuckle, the sound setting off a happy little glow inside despite her mild irritation. "I said nothing," he protested in amusement.
"I know you said nothing," she replied. "I could feel you maliciously saying nothing with every word I said."
"That makes no sense, Rory," he informed her, sounding a little muffled.
"You have a very piercing stare," she offered by way of clarification. "I always know when you're waiting for me to blush."
"And you have a beautiful bottom, but you don't hear me accusing you of maliciously wiggling it at me."
Rory's hands flew to cover her backside, relieved to discover that she was still clothed. Clothes only miraculously disappear around him in daydreams, you daft sod. Still, it was embarrassing to realize that he'd noticed her rear end, though it could only have been in the last couple of days. The morning after her close shave in the woods, she'd gone to the forge and bought a sizeable amount of butter-soft ram-hide from Harritt, then politely asked one of the women who was good with a needle to make up a couple of pairs of pants for her. The resulting articles were warm, sturdy, and form-fitting, and she felt a lot more secure in them. Her next purchase was going to have to be a longer jacket, though, it seemed.
As Cullen's chuckle reached her ears, she growled under her breath, letting her hands fall away. "Are you drunk?" she accused mildly.
"Just exhausted," he answered, and the laughter was gone from his voice. "Forgive me, I shouldn't have ... after what happened with the Orlesian ..." He sighed, sounding closer than before. "It was inappropriate of me to say such a thing."
"Cullen, I'm not a china doll," she said in frustration, though barely any of that was because of him. Everyone in Haven seemed to be on eggshells around her, and it was driving her insane. "I've been coddled and mothered and generally treated as though the wrong word will break me, and it won't." She turned, glad to find him fully dressed once again. "What happened was my own fault. I decided to go out alone, even after Rylen warned me it might not be safe."
His eyes blazed suddenly. "Never say that again," he told her sternly, staring into her eyes with an intensity that would have frightened her from anyone else. "What that ... what he did was not your fault. Men like that are the dregs of the world, no better than maleficar or darkspawn. His actions do not reflect on you. And I will not have you thinking otherwise. Do you understand?"
Gobsmacked by the fervor in his words, Rory could only nod mutely. For once, the inner fangirl was silent, awed into speechless gawping by this very real evidence that he seemed to genuinely care ... for her well-being, at least. She felt her breath catch in her throat as his bare hand touched the aching bruise on her throat, reaching higher for callused fingers and palm to cradle her jaw almost tenderly.
"If that man had not already met the Maker, I would have killed him myself," he went on, his voice intimately low between them. "You are mine."
Oh, my giddy aunt ... A glowing pool of pure, unadulterated desire ignited deep in her belly, throbbing with each beat of a heart that was suddenly far too loud. "Yours?" she breathed, not quite able to summon her voice.
She must have looked confused or alarmed. Whatever the reason, Cullen seemed to abruptly realize he was wavering on the edge of a clearly defined line. "One of my people," he clarified, drawing his hand back from her burning cheek. "My responsibility. I look after my own."
Ah, disappointment, thou art a feisty bitch. "Yes, you do," Rory assured him, glancing down at his hand, which still sported bruised knuckles from a punch made in her defense. "I - we - appreciate how much you care for us."
The corner of his mouth twitched, hinting toward another of those unseen smiles. His hand rose, rubbing at his neck in a manner that was wonderfully familiar, and Rory felt some of her disappointment lift on seeing it. My gods ... he really does like me. But what about Evelyn Trevelyan, or that trigger-happy elven mage? He might like them more, if he gets the chance. She gave herself a mental shake.
"I ... take it we're going to your tent, then?" she asked, dragging herself back to the reason she'd ambushed him in the bath in the first place. "I'd offer the clinic, but Fabian's taken to sleeping there with me."
Cullen looked almost relieved by her topic change. "He wants to protect you," he commented, gesturing for her to move past him to the door. "That, I can understand. And yes, my tent."
"What do you mean, you can understand?" Rory glanced at him curiously, lifting her cloak off a hook to pull it around her shoulders as they stepped out into the cold night. "I don't need protecting."
"Yes, you do," Cullen argued quietly as they fell into step together. "I am at a loss to explain how a woman so well-traveled knows nothing of personal defense."
And the convenient lie come back to bite me in the arse. A arse he apparently thinks is beautiful, but that's beside the point. "I've never needed to learn," she told him, which was true, in a way. "No one's ever threatened me enough that I've needed to fight them."
"Which makes our failure in security even worse," he grimaced. "Surrounded by soldiers, you should have been safe."
"No, all it means is that I've been extraordinarily lucky," she affirmed a long-held belief out loud, and that wasn't a lie, either. "I think the fact that I made it to twenty-six without my luck running out is quite impressive, actually."
"You might almost call it miraculous," he agreed, the hint of a smile once again in his voice.
"I don't attract trouble," she protested laughingly.
"Perhaps not, but I have seen you trip over something that wasn't there more than once," he reminded her, nodding to the guard on the gate as they passed through.
"Clumsiness is not a crime," she defended herself mortified that he could say he'd seen it happen multiple times.
"The way you cackle with laughter whenever you fall over could be considered criminal, if it wasn't so charming." He came to a halt, opening the ties on his tent flaps as she waited.
"I do not cackle," Rory insisted adamantly, only to be undermined by a disembodied voice from the next tent over.
"You do cackle. Like a wee nug being tickled."
"Shut up, Rylen."
She rolled her eyes at the sleepy laugh that answered her, ducking into Cullen's tent as she felt her cheeks burning. What was her Starkhaven friend going to think of her being in the commander's tent after midnight?
She was surprised to note how warm it was inside the canvas structure, though it was hardly spacious. Just room enough for a small brazier, two chests, a crate for a desk, and a bedroll, all illuminated by a dim lantern hanging from the crossbar. In this enclosed space, Cullen seemed too big, too close, too handsome. Too tempting. But she was here for a reason, she had to remember that.
"How do you want to do this?" he asked in a gentle tone, as though aware of how too he was in here.
"Where are you tense?" she answered him, needing to know that before she could go much further.
"My neck," was his somewhat predictable reply. "My shoulders."
As much as she would have liked to hear "everywhere", it was something of a relief to have him pinpoint the place that needed to be manipulated. All over would have taken most of the rest of the night, for a start. And just his neck and shoulders helped her avoid the highly titillating experience of a totally naked Cullen under her hands.
"Then we can do this with you seated, or lying down, whichever you'd prefer," she said with a nod, raising her hands to undo her cloak. "This is all about you."
His expression flickered for just a moment, a shadow implying unkind inner thoughts darkening his eyes for a split second. Then he turned away with a short nod, bending to unlace his boots. "It will be more comfortable for you if I am lying down."
It was awkward with both of them trying to prepare in such a small space. When Rory bent to remove her own boots, she was virtually eye to eye with his groin, noting - with pride in herself for seeming detached - that Commander Cullen was a leftie. When he stretched up to remove his shirt, she realized that he was easily a foot taller than her, her gaze focusing on the divot of his clavicle right at her eye-line. His arms came down on either side of her, his eyes finding hers in the dim light, and for just a breath, she was sure they were wavering on that line again. Then he stepped back, ducking to avoiding the lantern, and lowered himself to the bedroll, arms flat at his sides as he stretched onto his stomach.
"You've done this before, haven't you?" she accused him lightly, her voice hushed to avoid disturbing the others in the tents all around.
"Once or twice," he confessed with the same humor, his volume matching hers for the same reason. "After injury, to rehabilitate my muscles. Never ... never like this."
"You have to tell me if you feel pain, all right?" she warned then, inching closer on her knees. "I don't want to hurt you."
"I will," he promised softly, watching as she pulled a small bottle of unfragranced oil from one of the many pouches on her belt. "I trust you."
"I should hope so," she agreed, considering her options. Quite apart from the sheer magnificence of his naked back, he was broad ... too broad for her to comfortably do this from either side. "I, uh ... I need to ... straddle you," she confessed awkwardly. "Is ... is that all right? I'll try not to actually sit on you."
Cullen let out a soft snort of laughter, waving his fingers at her. "It's fine," he assured her in a confident tone. "I doubt you weigh much more than my sister."
She blinked, wondering which sister he meant. Something else she wasn't supposed to know. "I'll take that as a compliment," she decided, lifting onto her hands and feet to swing a leg over the narrower span of his waist and hips.
"It's intended as one," he promised, tensing only a little as her knees came to rest between his arms and ribs. But he somehow managed to banish that new tension as she settled with her backside brushing his. "Rosalie is tiny."
"Oh, well, thank you," Rory chuckled softly, pouring oil onto her hands to warm it. "Now shush and let me relax you."
"You're like Mia when you're bossy, though," he added, closing his eyes as her hands began to stroke over the broad expanse of his shoulders.
A slow tremor leeched through him at the gentle passage of her hands. How long had it been since he'd let anyone touch him, she wondered, admiring the golden gleam of taut skin over toned muscle in the dim candlelight. Long enough that he sighed with what might almost have been gratitude when her hands did not immediately pull away. In fact, now she was touching him, Rory wasn't sure she was going to be able to stop. His skin was smooth beneath her palms, hot and firm, yielding to the slow pressure she eased into him with only the barest resistance. He groaned, the sound laced with relief and pleasure, and she felt herself grow hot as that sound struck straight to her core.
Was that the sound he would make if she touched him somewhere else, she wondered shamefully, knowing she shouldn't be thinking such a thing when he was under her care. Here and now, in this moment, he was vulnerable, beautiful in the trust he had given her to see him so disarmed. She had never felt so privileged, so touched, to be allowed to treat someone, yet her traitorous thoughts would not stop. Would he sigh like that if she kissed the little scar between his shoulder-blades? Would she hear that moan against her ear as he moved inside her? She should not be imagining it, taking advantage of him in her mind's eye. But the thoughts were there, unbidden, impossible to ignore.
He really was an Adonis, glistening beneath her hands as she worked the tension from his muscles, a god among men. But it wasn't his physical beauty that made him so; at least, not solely. This was a good man, a kind man, so troubled by his past mistakes that he was prepared to endure terrible torment to separate himself from the man he had been then. How many people even had that kind of honor, let alone were ready to exercise it? Yes, he had his faults - a learned hatred of magic and mages, a temper that flared a little too easily, a casual indifference to keeping his family in the loop - but who didn't? To have come so far after enduring so much and still be gentle at heart ... that was what made him beautiful in her eyes. The woman he chose would be lucky indeed, and she had better recognize it, or Rory would break her perfect nose for her.
As he relaxed under her palms, she listened to his breathing growing slow and steady, no longer laced with moans but with the comfortable sigh of deep, dreamless sleep. Mission accomplished. With careful motion, she lifted herself from his back, reaching to tuck the blankets warm about his shoulders. Wiping her hands clean, she pulled on her cloak and boots, hesitating as temptation reared its head. Where's the harm? He'll never know.
Slowly, gently, she leaned down, brushing the ghost of a kiss to the upturned corner of his mouth, over the scar that had haunted her dreams a few too many times. His lips puckered, as though answering her kiss in his sleep, making her smile as she stroked her fingers through his tousled hair. "Sleep sweet, sweetheart," she whispered softly, slipping from his side to let him slumber in peace.
Oh, yes. Mission definitely accomplished.
"... from sky-tearing peaks of the sacred mountain; to secret steep'd root of the ancient oak trees ..."
Rory stood in the nave of the Chantry, satchel hugged to her chest, trying not to fidget. What was she doing here?
She'd managed to avoid the Chantry for a month and a half, though she knew services were held every day. No one had mentioned it yet, but she knew someone was bound to notice sooner or later that the healer wasn't attending the Chantry or singing the Chant of Light. She couldn't even use the excuse of work; Fabian went regularly, and he was more than capable of holding clinic for an hour once a week. She just couldn't bring herself to do it. She couldn't bring herself to pretend that she believed in the Maker. She'd turned her back on the god her parents believed in when they'd turned their backs on her, preferring to believe in what she could see and touch. If there was some all-powerful deity looking down on her, she hoped he, she, or it was just as offended by her as she was by them. She refused to play along and pretend that she shared a faith she barely comprehended, much less believed in. That wasn't why she was here, though.
No, she was standing here in the incense-choked nave, watching the candle flames dance and listening to the Chant, because a very intimidating Leliana had come to the clinic with a request for a healer to wait on the Divine herself. Fabian had been rendered catatonic just at the thought of meeting the Divine, so Rory had stepped up to do what needed doing. She was more than a little unnerved by Leliana, though. The woman was so cold, stating what was required without giving away any details. All the while Rory was packing her satchel to cover any eventuality, Sister Nightingale watched her with pale eyes that saw too much for comfort. She never would have believed it, but Rory felt afraid of the bard - afraid that soon she would be exposed as a nobody with no history beyond the six weeks she had spent here in Haven. What would they do when Leliana discovered that the healer they trusted was no one? What would Cullen do?
She could hear the murmur of voices in what would soon be the war room; some female, one male. What was wrong with the Divine that she needed a healer, anyway? Shouldn't she have someone on staff to deal with any medical concerns she might have? Oh, Rory was aware of what a huge honor it was to be asked to wait on the Divine; she just couldn't quite see why it was necessary. She was horribly afraid that this was all some pretext to get her here so she could be interrogated.
The door opened, and she looked up to see Chancellor Roderick and Josephine Montilyet walk out together, closely followed by Cassandra. The Seeker caught her eye, gesturing for her to enter the room where the Divine waited.
"The healer you requested, Most Holy."
The room was different to what Rory remembered from the game, though some elements remained the same. The candle-covered sideboard, for example, and the bookcases in the corner. But the map table that would dominate the space was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there was a bed to the left, made up with vibrant linens; a desk in the nearest left corner that looked suspiciously like the desk Josephine would soon be using in another room; a hearth she had never even suspected was present in the right-hand wall, set about with padded chairs.
And in one of those chairs sat Divine Justinia herself, gray-haired and blue-eyed, her large and impressive hat set upright on a table nearby. Her lined face turned toward Rory with a kind smile.
"Come closer, child," she said, and Rory felt her feet shuffle her forward, hearing the door close at her back with a finality that was terrifying. "What is your name?"
"Uh, Rory, your, uh ... Most Holy."
Justinia's smile gentled in the face of her obvious uncertainty. "You frightened the girl, Leliana."
Rory felt herself jump visibly at the reply that came from behind her.
"It was not my intention, Most Holy," the redheaded Left Hand said in answer, moving away from the door to stand beside the table.
"So little is as we intend," Justinia replied philosophically. She turned her eyes back to Rory. "There is no need to fear, child; you are not to be punished for some imagined misdeed. Do you know why you are here?"
A car mowed me down and somehow this is my afterlife. "Only that you wished to see a healer, Most Holy," Rory offered, still a little wary despite the reassurance.
"Not any healer," the Divine told her pleasantly. "Cassandra has told me much of you. A healer who protects the dignity and secrets of those she serves - a rare being. I have need of your discretion, Rory. While you are here, I will not be disturbed, and there are matters I must discuss with my Hands. May I rely upon you to keep what you may hear close to your chest?"
"Of course," Rory assured her without a second thought, though her brow creased in confusion. "I was under the impression that you needed a healer, not a smokescreen. Surely you can just ... order privacy for an hour?"
She heard Leliana laugh softly; saw the smile on Cassandra's face as the Seeker moved to the table herself. Did I say something funny? Even Justinia's smile was amused.
"You think I am wasting time better spent on others in need?" the Divine asked, lifting her hand to invite her closer. "Your time will not be wasted." She raised the hem of her robe to her knees, revealing some of the worst bandaging Rory had ever seen. And she'd seen the attempts made by medical students. "I fear the sore is not healing," Justinia told her. "I understand you have more than a little skill in such things."
Choosing not to ask why the Divine couldn't get a mage to heal her, Rory dropped down onto her knees, pulling an apron from her satchel. She maneuvered it over her head, covering her clothes with the clean linen, reaching to lift the bandaged leg and inspect the damage. "It will be painful to remove this, Most Holy," she warned, horrified by the state of the dressing. It was stiff and crusty, and distinctly smelly.
Justinia's smile was resigned. "Life is pain, child," she said, accepting of the discomfort. "Do what you must."
Rory nodded, gently setting the woman's foot down as she looked about for something she knew had to be somewhere. There. On a table behind her were set a jug and two basins - not strictly intended for her purposes, but needs must. She was going to have to soak that bandages thoroughly to have even a chance of getting it off without causing more damage.
As she moved to collect them, returning to her knees before the Divine, the three women began to speak.
"Well, Leliana?" Justinia asked as Rory set to work soaking the neglected bandage. "What have you discovered?"
"The Grand Enchanter will not be joining us," Leliana told her solemnly. "Neither will the Lord Seeker. It appears they both suspect a trap, and have sent representatives in their stead. For the mages, Senior Enchanter Maxwell Trevelyan, of the Ostwick Circle; for the templars, Knight-Commander Greagoir, of Kinloch Hold."
Engrossed in her work, Rory's brows rose at the mention of that name. She'd wondered what had happened to Greagoir and Irving; now it seemed she had an answer to one half of that question. It was a shame, in a way ... she couldn't say she liked Greagoir, but she'd respected him. To know he was going to die at the Conclave, trying to make peace, was just a little sad.
"I do not understand this paranoia in Lord Seeker Lucius," Cassandra was saying. "He has always been a fair man. Why would he choose to distrust the word of the Divine?"
"Perhaps he knows something we do not," Leliana suggested darkly.
"Or perhaps he shares the opinion of his predecessor." Justinia sighed, flinching a little as Rory began to peel the sodden bandage from her leg. "Lord Seeker Lambert was adamant that I tricked him into missing his opportunity to cow the mages at their vote."
"Whatever the reason, his absence will not help proceedings," Cassandra predicted, her own tone dark. "Even if an accord is reached, he may not honor it."
"The same could be said of the rebel mages," Leliana mused in agreement. "I find it curious that those mages who consider themselves loyal have not sent a representative."
Like Vicious Vivienne would ever take part in something that doesn't offer her a clear path to power and influence, Rory thought. She's probably waiting to see who comes out on top so she can ingratiate herself with them. Now there was a character she could happily live without meeting. With gentle hands, she delicately pulled the last layer of flimsy wrapped from Justinia's leg, and found herself looking at a venous ulcer that probably hadn't been cleaned in weeks. This was definitely going to hurt.
"Madame de Fer does not like to be a single voice among many," Justinia cautioned. "She will shed no tears if the Conclave fails." She glanced down at Rory, interest sparking in her gaze at the little bottle the healer had produced. "What is that, child?"
Rory lifted her head, surprised to be addressed. "Distilled poppy and willow-bark," she answered, not expecting them to know what that meant. "A few drops on the wound should numb the worst of the pain while I'm cleaning it."
"Should?" Leliana queried, one brow raised in challenge.
"Everyone is different, Sister Nightingale," Rory defended herself. "What works on one person may not necessarily work for someone else. There's no way to know until you try it."
"And you admit freely that your potion may not work?" the redhead asked, her expression unnervingly inscrutable.
"Am I supposed to lie to the Divine?" Rory countered as boldly as she dared.
"Let her do her work, Leliana," Cassandra interjected. "She does more good than harm. I have seen it."
Under Leliana's probing gaze, Rory carefully administered three drops onto the worst affected areas of the ulcer, letting the distillation soak in as she then doused her hands thoroughly from a bottle of moonshine she'd been given a few days earlier. It wasn't quite alcohol gel or hand sanitizer, and it stung like blue blazes, but it did the job she needed it to do. Endeavoring to ignore her audience, she turned her attention to cleaning the wound.
"Without Fiona and Lucius present, I fear the Conclave is likely to fail no matter what we do," Justinia went on, as though she hadn't interrupted the conversation herself. "The Inquisition of old is becoming increasingly our only option to restore order. Should these talks fail, it falls to you, both of you, to rebuild the Inquisition and find those who will stand against the chaos. I will support you however I can, but the Chantry will not support an independent body without a fight."
"But who will be Inquisitor?" Cassandra asked a little hopelessly. "The Warden is nowhere to be found, and if Varric knows the Champion's location, he is refusing to divulge it."
"Renew efforts to find the Warden," Justinia told her. "And perhaps your dwarf will tell me what he will not tell you. I will speak with him tomorrow, after the Conclave adjourns for the day."
No one seemed to notice the way Rory's hands stilled for a fraction of a second. The game heavily implied that Varric never had the chance to speak to the Divine, so that meant ... Fucking hell. The explosion, the Breach, the demons ... it all starts tomorrow. Three days of non-stop demon attacks, starting tomorrow. It was too soon. She wasn't ready. But then ... who was ever ready for apocalyptic violence? Tomorrow, Haven would lose faces she'd come to know and care about - grumpy Master Taigen, gentle Mother Lisl, Divine Justinia herself. Corypheus could already be here, concealed in the Temple, biding his time. And when his time arrived, their time would be up.
Justinia hissed in pain suddenly as a stubborn piece of necrotic skin sloughed away, revealing healthy pink tissue beneath.
"I'm sorry," Rory apologized, wincing in sympathy. "I'm almost done."
"You warned me there would be pain," Justinia reminded her warmly. "You have gentle hands, child. Do not apologize for doing what the Maker clearly intended you to do." She watched a moment longer before returning her gaze to her Hands. "I will not require you at the Temple. Remain here; begin to build the foundation of the Inquisition with Lady Montilyet and Commander Rutherford. The Knights-Divine are perfectly capable of protecting me among the devout."
So capable, they won't even hear you shouting for help. Rory grimaced, sluicing her hands with moonshine once again. From her satchel, she pulled a hunk of moldy bread, bracing herself inwardly as she tore off a sizeable chunk and put it in her mouth, chewing to soften it and break down the starches. Unsurprisingly, it tasted absolutely revolting, but there was no alternative. This was the closest she could get to penicillin in this world. Even if this woman was going to die tomorrow, Rory was still going to give her the best care she could.
Aware of the disgust on the faces around her as she chewed, she removed a jar of honey, a wide pad, and two rolls of linen bandages from her satchel. A good glob of honey went onto the pad, and she removed the bolus of pre-digested bread and mold from her mouth to spread it on top of the honey. This, she laid gently over the clean ulcer, and began to wind the linen about the Divine's leg, to hold the dressing in place.
"How fascinating, to watch a healer without magic at work," Justinia said, sounding delighted in spite of the gooey mess that had just been applied to her leg. "Yet you do not seem to treat yourself as you do others, child. The bite on your neck - can you not heal that?"
Glancing up at her, Rory shrugged, hands busy bandages. "Bruises heal on their own, Most Holy," she replied. "Sadly, predators don't care if everyone can see their calling card."
"Those are the marks of a man's teeth," Justinia observed mildly.
"He was still a predator," Rory told her, glad she was calm in relating even a fraction of the story. "And I was incredibly lucky."
"The Marquis du Revel's man, Most Holy," Leliana supplied. Rory wasn't sure why she was surprised - the redhead probably knew the flavor of her last fart.
"Ah, yes." Justinia seemed to know what had happened. "A bad business, but perhaps it is better that he lost his life. Such wolves do not easily change their pelts, no matter the punishment given."
At a loss as to what to say, Rory ducked her head, making a mental note to find a scarf. What is so bloody fascinating about a bruised neck, anyway? Everyone wants to talk about it! Tying off the bandage, she wiped her hands on a cloth, gathering the used bandages into it to be washed and used again. A gentle hand touched her chin, guiding her face until she looked into the kind eyes of the Divine.
"A life given to service for the good of others is a life well-lived," the old woman said softly. "I see your soul, child. You have known cruelty and loss. They haunt you, always. Yet you look on the world with hope, sharing the goodness in your heart despite that pain. The reward is rare, but still you give. I pray every day to meet a soul like yours."
Humbled by this high praise of her character, Rory stared, almost shocked to find that her eyes betrayed so much. "I'm no one special, Most Holy," she murmured awkwardly.
"In your own eyes, perhaps not," Justinia told her gently. "But in the eyes of those who see you, you shine. Do not be afraid, Rory. You are not alone."
Tears sprang into Rory's eyes. How did she know? How could she possibly know how scared I am, how lonely it is without Ria? Every day, she missed her friend - missed her smile, her voice, her bravery. Some days, she forgot her loss, already turning to share some moment only to be reminded there was no one to share it with. She'd thought she had it well hidden, yet this devout woman saw it in an instant. Saw and understood, without the need for words.
She swallowed hard against the lump in her throat, whispering almost soundless thanks. Released from the Divine's grasp, she hurried to tidy up, escaping as soon as she could. Out of the Chantry, through the village, over the training ground, walking as swiftly as she could, blindly picking her direction until her feet slid on the ice of the lake. Away from everyone, she crouched low, setting her head between her knees until the dizziness faded, until the tears subsided. Six weeks, and still it hurt as though Ria had died just yesterday. Would it ever fade, this gnawing ache in her heart; this cold void where her only friend used to be? Would she ever stop hoping to wake up from a dream that had taken everything away from her?
A yell caught her attention, raising her face into the cold sting of the wind to look back toward the shore. Rylen was waving to her, grinning, dangling something from his hand. Are those ... skates? She felt a sharp huff of laughter leave her chest in a rush, a smile replacing her haunted frown. One random comment in passing days ago, and suddenly he had skates. Where the hell did he find ice skates here, anyway, she wondered, turning carefully to make her way back over the ice.
And as she went, she realized that the Divine was right. She would always miss Ria, but there was space in her heart for others. Friends, and perhaps something more than friendly, with the right person.
She wasn't alone.
Now taking votes on who the Herald should be - Female Trevelyan, female Cadash, male Adaar, or male Lavellan. I can't decide, someone do it for me!
Chapter 11: Chaos
On paper, or in a dramatic line of dialogue, it didn't seem like much. But the reality was raw, all-consuming chaos. Three days and night of screaming pain, of burns and poison and blood ... of horrific death.
The explosion at the Conclave had been so much worse than Rory could have imagined. Even she, who had been expecting it, was shocked to a standstill by the deafening thunder-crack as green fire burst toward the skies, detonating the Temple like a nuclear blast. For just a moment, all was still. Then the shockwave hit Haven; a roaring crash of sound and pressure that shook the place to its very foundations. Great chunks of masonry fell on the village and the camp, thrown two miles clear of the ruined Temple to crush and pin even those who were not caught in that dreadful conflagration. The Breach stood proud of all that destruction - a swirling, merciless vortex in the sky, harbinger of doom upon all the world.
But Rory had no time to stand and gawp as others did. She had been preparing for this moment for more than a month and, despite her horror, she was quick to respond. While soldiers rushed through the ruined valley to what remained of the Temple, hoping for survivors, she took charge on the ground in Haven. Nearly everyone was injured in some way, from bleeding ears whose drums had ruptured to crush injuries that no healer could cure without magic. She made too many life or death decision in the chaotic hours that followed, and each one cut like a knife. Each bundled corpse that joined the others was a failure, as though she should have been able to save them, no matter how little she could have done even with all the resources of modern medicine at her disposal. The walking wounded became her new assistants, taught hastily how to clean and dress and wound, how to ease a burn with snow, how to stop excessive bleeding. The pilgrims' camp offered up their own healers, and by the time dawn rose into the new verdigreen world, they had a functioning field hospital outside Haven's gates.
Then the soldiers returned, and with them a new influx of the wounded and dying, survivors who had been in the valley when the Temple exploded. In the midst of this loud, pain-filled mess, Adan had pulled her aside, asking what he should do for an unconscious patient. Bloody to the elbows and perversely offended by how clean and alert he was, she had rattled off instructions on monitoring pulse and breathing, on cooling and warming a fever, too busy to sit down and talk him through it gently. She was overwhelmed; he was on his own. It was only hours later that she realized who he must have been talking about, when she overheard others around her sharing ugly words about an unknown survivor found in the Temple itself, now locked up in the Chantry. She'd missed her chance to see Solas at work, but there would be other chances. The inner fangirl's curiosity would have to wait to be satisfied a while longer.
As the sun set on the second day, she'd managed to snatch a few hours of sleep - the first in more than twenty-four hours - only to be roused by screams of pure terror from the west of the village. Demons were gathering at the bridge, held back only by the determination of the guards. She caught a fleeting glimpse of Cullen and Cassandra as they ran to respond, ordering what few mages and templars there were to defend the village. And for the first time, she heard Cullen address his soldiers as Inquisition. The story had well and truly begun.
Knowing that there were more hideous injuries in store, Rory had grabbed four of the emergency med-kits she'd been holding in reserve, and the three most alert-looking of her conscripted assistants, and joined the rush toward the bridge. Nothing could have prepared her for what she saw there.
In the game, shades and terrors were more of a nuisance than a real threat. In reality, they almost stopped her heart with knicker-wetting dread. A mass of twisted, mutated flesh and bone, the shades were a poor parody of a real form, claws dripping with acidic ichor that burned through weapons, armor, flesh, and bone. They focused on the weakest prey they could find, bringing to bear an almost overwhelming sense of defeat even before they were in range to attack. And the terrors ... they were aptly named. Spindly creatures born of nightmares, woven from rotting skin and bone; just the sight of them was enough to send panic through the ranks who moved to defend the village. But Cullen's people were well-trained, disciplined. They marched into the fray without coddling their fears, and together, they drove the demons back.
By the sickly light of the Breach, Rory had set to work. Most of these wounds were superficial - painful, yes, but not life-threatening. The acid could be neutralized with snow, they'd discovered; the terrors' claws burned so hot that they cauterized any injury they inflicted. She was still giving lessons as she worked, calling answers to questions from her assistants that kept her from eavesdropping on the hasty orders Cullen was giving. She was even distracted from Solas' arrival by the sudden realization that one of her assistants was none other than Lady Evelyn Trevelyan, who had made it out of the valley with nothing more than a bruised wrist. That was a surprise, one that made her smile. Evelyn would go home again, but apparently not quite yet. The girl was a fast learner, and not afraid to plunge in and at least try to help. She'd make a good healer if she survived this.
Before midnight, Cullen and his men returned to the valley and, ignoring his order to stay put, Rory and Evelyn went with them. It was only two miles to the Temple, but by all that was holy, every inch was hard fought. Wraiths and shades prowled the path; each advance was met with resistance. Whenever they found a rift, a team was left to monitor it, to kill whatever emerged. By dawn, they'd reached the last bridge, still intact, guarded by heavy gates at either end. Here, Cullen ordered a rest stop, sending a runner back down to Haven for reinforcements and supplies. By the time a young soldier shook Rory awake again, the forward camp had been established, and Fabian had sent fresh satchels filled with medical supplies along with everything else.
Satisfied that Evelyn could handle the injuries that would be received here at the forward camp, Rory had joined the the soldiers preparing to press on to the Temple ... and had caused a minor argument in the process.
"I am ordering you to stay here," Cullen had tried to insist when he spied her at the back.
"And I'm disregarding that order," she'd countered stubbornly. "Evelyn's staying, she can handle things here. You're going to need a healer up there."
"You're asleep on your feet -"
"So're you," she'd argued, annoyed by this waste of time. It hadn't occurred to her until later that he'd been worried about her safety more than anything. "So is everyone else. But this needs to be done, and we'll do it. Do your job, commander, and let me do mine."
He'd scowled at her, but relented, turning to order Rylen and Eoin to protect the healer at all costs before returning to the head of the war party. Weary - no, actually, closer to exhausted - Rory marched out with them onto the slope of the mountain. It was hard-going, even without the constant demonic ambushes. The path was rough and steep, littered with burning debris and, worse, burning corpses. Each time the Breach expanded, it hailed Fade fire down from the sky, forcing fresh demons through the Veil to slow their advance. Above them, the brooding, jagged ruin of the Temple of Sacred Ashes loomed, a terrible shadow against the flickering illumination of the Breach.
And here they were, a rough camp made up in the lee of a blessedly intact wall, just beyond which was the last rift before the approach to the heart of the Temple. After the initial fight to clear out the demons that had already spawned, they'd been able to dig in. The rift had a pattern to it; it spawned three waves of wraiths, shades, and terrors every two to three hours. Time enough for Rory to see to any injuries incurred in each spawning attack, and to discover something utterly demoralizing - that the greater shades excreted a toxin from claws and teeth that she had no way of countering.
No matter what she did, the wound always festered within minutes, creeping red lines tracking from the puncture site toward the heart. She couldn't stop its progress with any potions, nor even with a tourniquet, and when it reached the heart, the victim died, poisoned beyond hope of antidote. She'd attempted an amputation - with a lot of help - on the first victim, desperate to stop the progress of the toxin, but it spread too quickly to contain. The line of covered bodies grew each time a greater shade spawned. The death the toxin brought wasn't a peaceful one, either. Men screamed in agony from the moment they were injured as their muscles atrophied in the wake of the poison withering them from within. They screamed without fail from that first moment of contact, until the moment their heart stopped beating.
It was too much. Rory could feel herself growing more and more desperate, less and less capable of rational thought, as the long night dragged on. She hadn't slept more than ten hours in the last sixty, always needed by someone else who was in pain. She was shaking, aching, hovering always on the verge of tears. The screaming haunted her every thought, clouding her mind until she couldn't concentrate properly on her very necessary work. She was bone-tired, and she couldn't complain. They were all exhausted, and not one of them had slept any more than she.
"Will you just help him?" an angry voice snapped by her ear - Calman, one of the older recruits, glowering at her as she tried to soothe a young boy whose screams were slowly growing weaker.
It would have been better for the lad if he'd been bitten closer to the chest - the toxin was taking what felt like forever to reach his heart. If she'd had any poppy juice, she would happily have overdosed him, just to avoid his agonizing suffering continuing any longer.
"I've done everything I can," she told Calman, knowing that the sound of the boy's dying cries were not helping anyone keep their temper controlled.
"You've done nothing!" Calman shouted at her, one hand grasping her arm tight enough to bruise. "You've got all those potions, give them to him! Slit his throat! Shut him up!"
Rory felt her temper snap. She was at her wit's end; she did not need this. Turning furious eyes onto the aggressive man beside her, she heard herself snarl. "Get the fuck away from me, or I swear I will break your fucking nose."
He shook her hard, red in the face as he loomed close. "He's in pain, you sadistic bitch - help him!"
"I can't!" she snapped back at him, pulling on her arm in his grip.
"Then what the fuck good are you?" he roared, each word falling into sudden silence.
The screams had stopped. The boy was dead. And the last thing he'd heard was the admission of his healer that there was nothing she could do for him. The camp was silent, angry, tired eyes turned toward the pair of them as Calman glared at a woman who had gone above and beyond to try and get them all through this.
"Calman!" Rylen sounded furious, each word clipped as he barked an order from where he was nursing a broken arm. "Report to the rift!"
"But, captain, she -"
Burning with upset, Rory ignored the scowl the man sent her as he marched away, turning her attention back to the still form beside her. One shaking hand reached out to gently close the boy's unseeing eyes.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, guilt and pain and overwhelming weariness forcing tears from her eyes as she fought not to lose control of herself. "I'm so, so sorry ..."
But there was still work to be done. She stretched automatically to lay the boy out, and he was just a boy. A boy who had died in excruciating agony because she hadn't had the strength to end his life for him. A callused hand covered her own - Elgor, a man whose life she had saved just yesterday, though it felt like a lifetime ago. He looked at her with sympathetic eyes.
"Take the moment you need, healer," he told her softly, his accent placing him as one of Rylen's former Starkhaven templars. "I'll see to the lad."
Weary and heartsick, she nodded, knowing he was right. She was no good to anyone like this. "Thank you."
She pushed herself up onto her feet, so tired that she staggered on leaden legs. Other hands reached out to steady her, to guide her down to sit on a broken statue. Someone handed her a water-skin, urging her to drink. She did, only then realizing how parched she was. As the water-skin was taken back, another hand pushed half a meat roll into her fingers, another voice counseling her to eat while she had a moment. She felt a body sit beside her, sharing a blanket for warmth. They were all tired, demoralized, numb ... but she was one of them, and they would look after her.
"Sod me, cupcake, you look like shit."
Varric. They're finally here. Rory raised her head, actually smiling at her dwarven friend as long-needed hope blossomed inside her. If Varric was here, then so was the Herald. The end of this particular nightmare was in sight.
"And you're a vision, as always," she answered the concerned comment with weary good humor. "What brings you up here?"
"Just my usual inability to say no to a scary lady with a sword," Varric told her. He glanced over his shoulder, grimacing awkwardly. "You remember that little talk you had with me about bad words for other races? Might want to take a look at the guy who's going to save all our asses."
She wasn't the only one who leaned around his stocky figure to get a look at the trio coming up the path. She was the only one who snorted with laughter, however, glancing back to Varric to meet his ironic smile with a knowing glance.
"Bloody hell, it's that oxman who dropped out of nowhere!"
"He killed the Divine, why's he still breathing?"
"What's that on his hand?"
Oh, you poor bastards, Rory thought as the soldiers around her whispered to one another. Time to let that casual racism go. Because the one who would soon be known as the Herald of Andraste was eight feet of broad-shouldered Qunari, brindle-horned and dusky gray-skinned, carrying a sword bigger than Varric was tall. She couldn't help smiling as Kaaras' eyes fell on her, warmed by the recognition in the smile he offered her in return. Then the Anchor on his hand flared, and he let out an animalistic snarl of pain.
"Easy," she heard herself say, one hand out to still her companions as they tensed in response to that sound. "He's not here to kill anyone."
"And no one is to kill him," Cassandra added as she came level with them. "Where is the commander?"
"Engaging the rift, Lady Cassandra," Rylen answered, as the ranking officer present. "The spawn cycle's just beginning again."
"Very well. Begin preparations to fall back, captain," the Seeker ordered. "This will either work, or kill us all. Adaar." As the Qunari warrior met her gaze, she gestured for him to keep moving, falling into step at his side.
"Looks like that's my cue," Varric commented, tipping a wink to Rory as he stepped past. "C'mon, chuckles, you'll miss all the fun."
"I doubt this is anyone's idea of fun," a new voice answered as the fourth member of their party strode past.
In her exhausted state, all Rory really noticed about Solas was the back of his head. It's so shiny! Does he polish it with oil or something? ... seriously, brain? Fen'Harel walks by and your first observation is that he somewhat resembles a cue ball from behind? But despite knowing what Solas was, and what he had done, Rory actually felt relieved to see him. His presence at least meant that the mark on Kaaras' hand wouldn't kill him. After the last few days, she could live without any more death, thank you very much.
"All right, ladies, you heard the Seeker," Rylen was saying, hoisting himself up onto his feet with a wince as he knocked his sling. "Stretchers for those that can't walk, supplies packed away. We'll be back for our dead when the living are seen to. C'mon - h'up, h'up!"
With much good-natured grumbling, the camp stirred to life, most of them with half an ear on the sound of the fighting going on beyond the wall. Swallowing her last mouthful, Rory moved to repack her satchels, aware that at least one man soon to join them would need her before they could set off. Ah yes, that first good look at Cullen's arse in-game, when he helps the limpy man, her inner fangirl supplied with typical distraction.
"Whoa ... captain, come and see this!"
She glanced up absently from her work, amused to see so many of the tired soldiers crowding into the open stone doorway as the vibrato whine of a rift being closed buzzed over them. She didn't need to watch it herself, but she was glad so many of them were witness to that spectacle. Should put that murderer accusation to bed once they start discussing it. How dumb do you have to be to watch that and still think he's the bad guy?
"All right, back to your jobs," Rylen ordered after a while. "Rory, there's a leg here needs seeing to."
"Broken, or bleeding?" she asked, opening up her satchel again.
"Clawed," she heard a familiar voice say, glancing up to find Cullen helping - of all people - Calman down to rest beside her. "By a terror," the commander added, rubbing a weary hand over his face. "There were no greater shades in this spawn."
"That's a blessing, at least," she commented, stifling a yawn of her own in the face of his fatigue. She didn't even glance at Calman's anxious face. "Elgor, could you help me for a moment, please?"
"Continue your duties," Cullen countermanded before the man could even reply, meeting Rory's surprised glance with an almost teasing expression about his eyes. "What do you need, Healer Rory?"
She just about managed not to laugh, too tired to trust her reactions to be appropriate. "Could you remove his boot and expose the wound for me please, Commander Cullen?" she asked, rummaging in her bag. "Calman, I'm very sorry, but this is going to sting like a bitch for a few minutes."
The man looked at her in utter terror, reaching out to grip her sleeve with a shaking hand. "Am I going to die like the lad?"
She raised her head, meeting his terror with calm reassurance as his commanding officer stripped the boot from his foot. "Not today, Calman," she promised, handing him a diluted potion that would numb at least some of the pain.
No one was going to die like that boy ever again, she decided. She would make sure she always had concentrated poppy juice with her, learn to cut a throat so the victim died quickly. She couldn't condemn anyone to die like that again. But the sooner Minaeve got set up, the better. For all their sakes.
Chapter 12: Fading Light
There is a persistent myth that a person can somehow catch up on their lost sleep. Total bollocks in Rory's experience. There was only so long a healthy body could stay asleep before it had to be up and moving; certain necessary biological functions that absolutely had to be attended to. Water and food were just as necessary as sleep, but it was proving far easier to regulate her intake of those than it was to try and reestablish a reasonable sleep schedule.
She didn't remember much about the journey back to Haven - a vague recollection of falling over far too many times for comfort until someone decided she should be carried. She blushed to remember just who had picked her up; Cassandra, of all people, insisting that she was the freshest of the soldiers and the healer was the most precious of the cargoes that needed bearing down the mountain. Lord, but that woman was strong. And as soon as she was no longer responsible for keeping herself upright, Rory had passed out. The next thing she remembered was waking up briefly to the sound of Chantry hymns at sunset, a good ten or more hours after she'd fallen asleep, safe and secure in one bedroll among many, packed into the quieter end of the field hospital outside Haven's gates. She'd roused just long enough to have a drink, use the pot, and check in with Fabian, only to roll back into her blankets and drift back to sleep.
That second slumber lasted only another three hours or so, and she woke to the more familiar sound of the wind over the ice and the quiet voices of men and women in pain. Leaving the bedroll, she made herself known to the healers who were covering the night-shift, relieved to note that they had things pretty much under control. She was treated with startling respect - startling, because she honestly hadn't realized they all looked on her as the senior healer in these parts - uncomfortable with their deference to her suggestions, but she had also been firmly told to go back to bed. Unable to face just lying there in the darkness, not quite able to force herself to sleep again just yet, she chose instead to leave the tents, wrapping up tightly in her cloak as she breathed in the gloriously fresh air.
The world was green. The eerie light of the Fade spilled out from the stabilized Breach, staining the night sky, the moons, the snow. She'd never realized just how much that tainted light could affect the play of shadows and light over everything around her. And it wasn't a dusky shade, or a foresty shade. Here and in person, Rory realized that Fade light was Disney lime green, raising the specter of Maleficent in her mind. Unfortunately, Corypheus was no Disney villain. Poor, unfortunate souls ...
Turning her face away from the Breach, she shivered in the wind, letting her gaze skim over the snow-swept ice. Everything was still green, but it was easier to pretend she wasn't standing within spitting distance of that awful scar in the sky when it wasn't in her eye-line.
"You should be sleeping."
For once, she didn't jump on hearing an unexpected voice in the quiet. Perhaps she was just too tired. Whatever the reason, she simply turned her head toward Cullen as he came up beside her, looking just as weary as she felt, no armor tonight betraying that he, too, was supposed to be sleeping.
"So should you," she answered softly. "Have you had any sleep yet?"
"A few hours," he told her, staring out over the ice. "There's so much to do. And ..." He trailed off, but she knew what the unspoken problem was. The nightmares. Too many demons, too little sleep, too much history, all keeping him from being able to approach sleep calmly. The shadows cast by the events at Kinloch Hold still stretched their hands over him.
"And," Rory agreed with a heavy sigh of her own. She could still hear the screaming of the dying, somewhere in the back of her mind. She'd been lucky so far, but she would suffer nightmares of her own sooner or later. "How is your head?"
Cullen gave a sigh of his own. "Mercifully clear," he admitted, his tone deep with gratitude as he glanced at her. "That second potion of yours seems to be working."
"I'm glad. The last thing you need is that headache on top of everything else." She shivered in the gusting breeze, shaking out her shoulders before pulling her cloak closer about herself.
"Cold?" Without waiting for her answer, he reached over, wrapping one long arm about her shoulders to pull her close against his chest. "You should go inside. We can't have you catching a chill."
She snorted with laughter, offering no objection to being hugged into him. "Contrary to popular belief, you can't catch a chill just from being cold," she heard herself tell him in amusement. "Lack of sleep, on the other hand ..."
"So go to bed," he told her promptly, grunting as she unwound one hand from within her cloak to prod his stomach.
"You go to bed," she countered, surprised by the way he caught her hand, enveloping her smaller fingers in his bigger palm.
They were silent then, both lost in thought, neither prepared to try sleeping again just yet. Without quite realizing it, Rory's head tilted slowly, finding a resting place against Cullen's shoulder as they shared the peaceful silence together. Her gaze focused on his hand and hers, enchanted by the contrasts there. Hers, small and weak, encased in pale blue hide; his, large and strong, wrapped in supple dark leather. Two hands with two different purposes, yet driven by the same need to protect and serve. She felt his head tip, his jaw pressing lightly to her hair as the arm about her tightened just barely.
"The next time I give you an order, I expect you to obey it, Rory," he murmured to her. How long has he been holding onto those words, she wondered. That conversation was days ago.
"And I will, if it isn't a stupid order," she answered him in a soft tone.
"I don't give stupid orders," he argued, his voice as soft as hers, lacking the heat of a true argument. Perhaps he was just too tired, too.
"That one was," she told him, curling her fingers through his as she felt him tense. "No, listen. Without a healer on hand, your party would never have reached the Temple, let alone held it. More people would have died. You don't have to like it, Cullen, but I won't be kept from where I'm needed."
"You could have sent the girl," he countered quietly.
"I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if I had." Rory shook her head just a little, rubbing her cheek against the fur that adorned his shoulder. "Evy's brave, but she wouldn't have been able to cope. The forward camp was the best place for her. I'm the official healer; I couldn't ask anyone else to do that."
He was silent for a long moment before answering. "You're right, I don't like it," he sighed, his chest expanding and contracting against her. "But I understand. Just ... promise me you will stay back from the fighting."
She smiled faintly, touched that he was so concerned about her safety. "I think we've established that I can't fight for toffee," she assured him gently. "I can definitely promise to do my best to stay out of the firing line."
"That's all I can ask."
He dropped her hand, twisting to pull her closer as his arms wrapped about her fully. She went easily into that embrace, sliding her own arms about his waist in answer. In the eerie green night, it didn't seem real to be standing here in Cullen Rutherford's arms. Is this a dream? Am I in the Fade? If this is a dream, why hasn't he kissed me? I don't dream cut-price Commander, I dream full-on horny obsessive Commander! ... so why does this feel so much better?
"You did everything you could. At a certain point, a man's life falls into the Maker's hands."
She felt her breath catch in her throat. How does everyone seem to know what's hurting me? Am I that easy to read? Justinia had seen through her in moments; now Cullen was offering reassurance to doubts she had expressed to no one, not even herself. She hated that feeling of helplessness, of knowing that there really was nothing she could do. But she hadn't mentioned it to anyone.
"I should have ended it for them," she whispered sadly. "I didn't want to believe it was over, and they suffered for it. No one should die like that."
"You weren't ready to make that decision for them," Cullen murmured in a gentle tone. "And no one blames you for it."
"Calman did," she pointed out, but he wouldn't let her focus on that thought.
"Calman is an idiot," he said disapprovingly. "I heard about his behavior. And you still cared for his wound the way you care for anyone else who comes to you."
"My personal opinion doesn't matter," she told him, sharing a simple but fundamental truth of anyone in any kind of caring profession. "It doesn't matter if I hate his guts and wish he would fall off a cliff. He was injured and in pain; he needed a healer. That's my job, not to pass judgment."
"Exactly." Cullen drew back a little, looking down into her eyes. "It's your job to help those who can be helped. Every death lies at the feet of whoever did this - mage, templar, or other. Not yours."
She couldn't bear to look into his eyes, to see the warmth and sympathy there, not when she wasn't ready to let go of that sense of her own accountability. Maybe I could have stopped this from happening. Could we have stopped Corypheus here, before he killed Justinia and broke the world, if I had just said something a few days ago?
Closing her eyes, she pressed her face to his chest, thankful she met only warm wool and not bracing cold metal. "Tell that to my heart."
His arms drew more securely around her, holding her against the accusations rolling through her mind. "You tell it to mine," he murmured against her hair, feeling the same weight of guilt. "Security was my responsibility. All those people ... I failed them all."
"No." The word was muffled in his chest, making it necessary for her to raise her head once again and brave his gaze. "Cullen, no. You are not responsible for this tragedy. You said it yourself - the fault lies with whoever did this. They are responsible. Not you." And if I get the chance, I'm going to kick Coryphytits right in the nadgers for making you think you might bear the blame for any of this.
"You're so certain," he said wonderingly. "How can you possibly be so sure?"
She smiled gently, daring to reach up and let her gloved fingers curl to his cheek. Oh my gods, I'm touching Cullen-gorgeous-Rutherford! "Because you're a good man, Cullen," she told him firmly. "Too good to be able to conceive of anyone doing something so evil as this. And that isn't a bad thing."
"I wasn't always like this," he told her regretfully. "I've done terrible things."
Not so very terrible, in the circumstances. "Everyone has a past," she countered. "It's what you do in the present that counts."
"There you go with the caring again." He smiled his invisible smile, deflecting her earnest assurances with the barest hint of a blush on his chilled cheeks.
"Well, it's not a river, I can't dam the flow," she pointed out warmly. "You really do need to get some more sleep, though."
His smile faltered, the flame of fear hidden deep in his eyes. "I'm afraid to sleep," he confessed in a low whisper, the words almost lost in the breeze off the ice.
Her heart clenched as he admitted to this deep fear, tender concern choking her throat for a moment at his hesitant admission. Oh, my poor, broken lion ... "They're just dreams," she told him gently. "They can't hurt you."
"And ... the demons ..."
Damn, I forgot about the real demons in the Fade shit. She shook her head, edging just a little closer in the wrap of his arms as she held his gaze. "You are not weak," she insisted fervently. "You are no fool. No demon will ever trick you. I believe that. I believe in you."
"With the Veil torn -" he began, but she cut him off, laying her fingertips over his mumbling lips.
"I'll prove to you how safe you are in your dreams," she told him, her tone refusing to take no for an answer. "How safe it is to be around you. Just trust me." Her hand claimed his, turning to pull him away from the lake and toward the lines of sleeping tents.
He followed at her heels, realizing about halfway to their destination what it was she had in mind. "You can't spend the night in my tent, Rory," he protested, though he made no move to pull his hand from hers, or to slow her progress. "Your reputation ..."
"... can handle a little salacious gossip," Rory informed him confidently. "I am a healer. You are the commander, and you need to sleep. So I am going to help you get that sleep."
"I won't take a sleeping draught," he objected fiercely. "I need ... I need to be able to wake up."
She rolled her eyes, turning to look at him pointedly. "Do I look stupid to you?" she asked with mild amusement, knowing how much it must have cost him to say those words but refusing to coddle a fear that would kill him if he didn't overcome it. "Get in the tent, Cullen."
He hesitated, rubbing his neck as he eyed her, clearly torn between obeying and insisting on protecting her reputation. She met his gaze calmly, not at all concerned about her reputation, or lack thereof. What she cared about was proving to him that it was safe for him to sleep, even with the Breach so close; that he was in no danger of possession because of the man he was. After all, the first victim if he was possessed would be the person sleeping closest to him - her, in this case. She wasn't afraid, and she was hoping that one night with her sleeping at his side would be enough to prove to him that he didn't need to be so afraid, either.
He must have seen that in her eyes, recognizing her stubbornness for what it was. "Some people would call you crazy for tempting fate this way," he warned, but there was a warm kind of accepting defeat in his eyes as he said it that sent a prickling shiver to her toes. That's right, Cully-Wully, pick your battles. Let the crazy lady win this one. After a moment of watching her refusing to give an inch, he sighed, ducking into the tent ahead of her.
She felt a ridiculous urge to pet him like an obedient dog. Who'sa good boy? You are! Suppressing both that and her happy grin, she ducked in after him, tying the flaps securely behind her. The brazier was unlit tonight, the biting cold only slightly lessened by the wind-break of the waxed canvas.
"Chilly," she commented, perching on one of the chests to remove her boots. "Lucky me you run hotter than everyone else."
"What?" Crouched by the bedroll, Cullen looked up at her in confusion. She watched the comprehension dawn on his face as he caught on to what was going to have to happen. The blush was glorious to behold, rising with gradual grace in glowing red that crept up from the collar of his tunic to burn even the tips of his ears. "Oh ... oh, I see." He cleared his throat nervously. "Is ... are you ... is that ... acceptable, to you?"
How can he not know how adorable he is? I'm all but forcing myself into his bed, and he's worrying about me? Rory couldn't have stopped the smile rising on her face if she'd tried. "It is acceptable to me," she assured him as gently as she could. "Is it acceptable to you?"
"Uh, I ..." He seemed to be groping for something to say that wouldn't make him out to be a horny teenager or a frigid old maid. "I ... wouldn't want you to get cold."
"It's very important your healer doesn't keep you awake with her chattering teeth," she agreed, pleased to see the ghost of a smile flicker across his face in response, the way his shoulders relaxed as she made no big thing of an act that most would consider to be even more intimate than sex. Look at you, being all confident. What happened to Little Miss Talks Nonsense?
"Yes, that would not be conducive to a good night's sleep," Cullen agreed with her, tossing his boots aside. "You are sleeping furthest from the entrance, however."
Rory sighed as she wriggled her feet out of her own boots. Should have expected that, smarty-pants. "Still protecting me?" she asked lightly.
He met her gaze with a burning sincerity that turned the thoughts in her head to quivering jello, holding out a hand to invite down into the blankets. "Always."
My turn to blush. And what a blush it was. It began somewhere around her belly button, gaining momentum and heat to meet the chilly air at the top of her high-necked tunic with what should have been an audible sizzle. It felt as though she could have cooked dinner for six on her face. And don't forget that you're grinning like an idiot, too.
Bright red and embarrassingly close to giggling with sheer nervous delight, she slid her hand into his, letting him tug her down onto her knees beside him. "Don't you say a word," she warned, knowing from experience that he was enjoying the fact that he'd made her blush again.
"My lips are sealed," he promised in amusement, reaching to undo the tie of her cloak at her neck as she worked the buckle of her belt loose.
Potion bottles jangled softly against one another as she set her many-pouched belt to one side with her boots, letting Cullen lift the wool cloak from her shoulders while she unbuttoned and removed her gloves. Without words, this all felt very intimate, as though there were more here than a stubborn woman proving a point to an equally stubborn man. And for all her noble sentiment, Rory could feel her nerves fluttering as she crawled by him to lie on her side, her nose mere inches from the canvas wall. A moment later, she tensed as the long, lean length of Cullen Rutherford curled himself into the contours of her back, drawing his thick blanket over them both. His arm came to rest about her, the weight of it laying directly over her almost healed ribs, but she didn't mind that pain. It was a reminder that this was real, it was happening. No one had aching ribs in a dream.
He felt warm and solid against her back, a protective shield against the world outside. Hot breath wet her neck with humid heat, sending scorching shivers down her spine to earth somewhere inside with crackling intensity that made her press her thighs together tightly. She drew in a slow breath, forcing herself to relax into the broad chest that lay against her back, the strong thighs that cradled her backside and legs. You're just going to sleep. He's this close to keep you warm, not to ... wait a second ... She wriggled experimentally, and felt her cheeks burn once again. Oh, my giddy aunt ...
"Uh ... Cullen?"
"Are you ... comfortable?"
She could almost hear him carefully considering the question, examining himself from top to bottom as he shifted at her back, making her ever more aware of what she had noticed. Feet, arms, legs, head, chest ... Oh. Cullen cleared his throat in embarrassment, lifting his arm from about her to remove the hard object pressing into her backside, laying the dagger down beside her head. Well, that's disappointing.
"My apologies," he murmured, wrapping his arm about her once more. "Force of habit."
Rory bit down on a slightly hysterical giggle before it could escape. "Understandable," she managed to assure him in a whisper, shifting to lay her hand over his at her stomach. "Try to sleep, Cullen. I'll keep you safe."
He pressed his face against the back of her neck, his arm tightening around her as he huddled closer in the cold night. "Where were you ten years ago?" was mumbled against her skin, a question he no doubt hoped was too indistinct for her to understand and answer.
On the streets with ten pounds to my name and nothing else, she thought, but she couldn't, wouldn't, tell him that. That belonged in a past that had no place in this world. Tonight was about him; helping him to relax into sleep, to understand that he was more than capable of defending his own mind, even when he was lost in dreams. With that in mind, she stroked her fingers gently against his arm, his hand, humming a soft lullaby she remembered from her childhood, before everything had gone horribly wrong. Though to her it was sad, a reminder of a life that had been far from perfect, to Cullen it seemed to be soothing, lulling him into accepting his weariness, into letting sleep claim him. She hoped that sleep would be dreamless. And if it wasn't, she'd be here to pick up the pieces and try again. Here, she would stay, at least until morning, gossip and rumor be damned.
Wrapped up in the arms of a man she was fairly sure held her heart in his palm and didn't even know it, it wasn't such a bad way to spend the night. She just hoped he wouldn't regret this in the morning. Everything looked different, in the cold light of day.
The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.
- Meister Eckhart
The ringing of the Chantry bell roused Rory from a peaceful sleep.
For the first time since arriving in Thedas, she felt properly warm, not lurching to wakefulness in an utterly uncalled-for fit of shivers that normally sent her flailing from her blankets in search of as many layers of clothing as she could find. And the reason for this became clear as soon as she tried to move.
She was trapped - not unpleasantly so - in the strangest position she had ever woken up in; arched only a little uncomfortably on her back, thanks to the arms encircling her waist, and pinned in place by the golden head resting on her breast. Cullen had somehow curled up tighter as they slept, tucking his thighs beneath both her own and snuggling his cheek into the pillow of her bosom, which was probably more comfortable than the horsehair pillow her head rested upon. If they'd been upright, she would have been sitting in his lap. As it was, her feet were flat on the crumpled blanket they'd thrown off in the night, her knees were hooked over his thigh, and his hand was possessively palming her hip as he sighed in his sleep. And ... oooh. Now that's definitely not a dagger.
As the sound of others stirring awake began to filter in through the thin canvas wall separating outside from in, Rory attempted to inch away from the insistent bulge prodding at her backside. Cullen groaned softly in his sleep, tightening his arms around her in defiance of her escape, pulling her more firmly against that very real evidence that he was most certainly a man. Which would have been fine, she told her blushing self, absolutely fine, if that added pressure hadn't also included the strong wrap of his hand squarely over the last tender part of her almost-healed ribs. She didn't make much of a noise, but the combination of her abrupt tension and the staggered intake of her breath was sharp enough to wake him with a jolt.
His head snapped up, knocking his forehead painfully against her chin. "Oh! ... oh, Rory, I ... are you all right?"
To her everlasting shame, she whimpered, raising a hand to her mouth. "I thing I bith ma thongue."
"Let me see." Apparently unaware of his morning glory, he straightened himself out against her side, raising himself onto one elbow as he dragged his arm out from underneath her. Gentle fingers urged her mouth open to let him look inside. "No blood, I ... why aren't you breathing?"
Tilting her head away, Rory covered her mouth lightly with one hand. "Morning breath," she mumbled through her fingers, rolling her eyes as he laughed sleepily. "Did you sleep well?"
He ran a hand through his hair, loosening the tousled curls. "Actually ... I did," he admitted a little incredulously. "It must have been the company."
Her smile was bright in response. "Well, don't tell everyone, or they'll all want a healer to hug at night."
"That would leave you seriously understaffed," he agreed lazily. "I should get up."
"So should I," she mused in a soft voice.
Yet neither one of them moved, staying comfortably warm together as, outside the tent, the camp roused to the tune of sergeants bellowing their soldiers out of bedrolls and into the cold light of dawn. Rory gazed into Cullen's eyes, captivated by the sleepy wonder of this strong, slightly broken man who didn't seem to be able to pull himself away from her. Is this what it would be like to wake up beside him every day? This lazy warm feeling that makes it almost criminal to give in to the need to get out of bed? Why isn't he saying anything?
"I, um ..." She swallowed, clearing her throat. "I-I should probably ..."
He nodded above her, still unmoving from where he lay at her side. "So should I."
You hang up. No, you hang up. Even as this random thought passed through her mind, Cullen moved. With purpose. She gasped as his knee nudged between her own, as he loomed higher over her, leaning down until his breath brushed her lips, his eyes promising that this was his intention. Her own head tilted up, morning breath forgotten, offering her lips to his without a second thought ... and a very familiar voice pointedly cleared its throat outside the tent.
"It's safe to bring her out now, commander," Rylen informed them. "The lads're out on their run."
Rory's head fell back against the hard pillow with an audible thud, silently cursing her friend's terrible timing. Cullen groaned in the back of his throat, raising his head to reply.
"Thank you, captain."
"Aye, ser," the Starkhaven captain replied. "You also wanted to be reminded that the small council is meeting with the Herald today. Looks like the chancellor's invited himself along."
"Of course he has." Cullen sighed, dropping his brow to Rory's shoulder for a brief moment. "All right, captain, I'll be with them in a few minutes."
He rolled out of her grasp, moving to pull on boots and begin assembling his armor for the day. Rory raised herself onto an elbow, wiping the sleep from her eyes. And just like that, the bubble bursts. Shame, I was enjoying that bubble. She pushed herself to sit up, reaching for her own boots.
"I should get going, anyway," she told him with a wry smile. "We've both got a lot to do today."
Golden-brown eyes were grateful as he met her gaze. "Another time, perhaps?" he asked, the query real and almost timid as he made it.
"Perhaps." Her smile broadened as she stood, collecting her belt, cloak, and gloves from where they had rested all night. Perhaps?! Are you completely insane? Yes, say yes, and sneak in here naked tonight! Ignoring the ranting fangirl inside her mind, she looped her belt back into place. "You know where I am if you need me."
"I'll see you later, Rory," he promised, reaching out to catch her hand before she escaped. "And Rory? ... Thank you."
She bit her smiling lip, glad for once that she had a tendency to wake up rosy. "Anytime."
A last regretful squeeze of her hand, and Cullen released her, letting her step out into the almost deserted bank of tents as he turned his attention to buckling his armor into place. Wiping flyaway hairs from her eyes, she ducked out into the dawn, immediately confronted with Rylen's teasing grin.
"Good night, was it?"
Rory rolled her eyes, restraining the urge to give her friend a thick ear. "You know, there are times when I could cheerfully strangle you, Ry."
"Och, so I interrupted something," he guessed, chuckling as he fell into step with her. "Good for you, girl. You need a good roll."
"I'm not listening," she told him with a laugh, grateful for how normal he was being with her. He could have taken their friendship to a very strange place now he knew for certain she'd spent the night with his commanding officer and friend. "Why are you following me?"
"Have to get this arm looked at," he reminded her. "Healer's orders."
"And you actually listened?" she teased fondly, glancing at his splinted arm briefly. "I'm astonished."
"Well, my healer's got this very pretty wee assistant," Rylen confided in her as they walked. "If she loved me, she'd make sure wee Evy was in charge of my recovery."
"Isn't that fascinating?" Rory answere, pausing just inside the field hospital tent to remove her gloves and switch her cloak for a clean apron. She flashed her friend a warm grin. "I'd say you're very lucky I love you, then."
And watching Evy check the dressing on Rylen's broken arm brought a truly genuine smile to Rory's face as she checked on her own patients. The girl was not immune to the captain's charm, it seemed, her blushing smiles the perfect counterpoint to his warm flirtation. It was good to see; heartening, to know that they had formed a connection in the chaos of the past days and both seemed eager to explore it. And that means she won't be interested in Cullen! Win-win for the nug-woman!
But even with the Breach stabilized and the nearby rifts sealed, there was no time to ruminate on potential love affairs or missed opportunities. There were bones to reset, dressings to change, potions to give out; people to introduce herself to, patients to reassure, beds and blankets to change, bandages to wash. There was stock to be inventoried, lists to make, alchemists and quarter-masters to charm. And in the middle of all this, a request came from on high for a report on the injured - how many, who, and how long before they would be back in action. An exceeding nuisance of a request ... but since filling it meant a trip into the village and a chance to see the leaders of the Inquisition at work in the new war room, Rory volunteered.
It took most of the afternoon to complete - there had been no time to keep notes since the explosion - but at least it was still daylight by the time she made her way to the Chantry. What she found going on there was deeply unsettling, to say the least. The door to the war room stood open - the moment Rory stepped into the building, she could hear everything being said. And Chancellor Roderick was in full flow.
"... this beast, who knows nothing of the Maker, the Herald of Andraste? It is nothing more than a horned thug, a murderer! It can't even raise a voice to object!"
You sanctimonious arsehole. As she moved closer, Rory could see Cullen through the door, standing on the far side of the map table, his jaw set tight as he glared at the chancellor. Gold to his left and purple to his right betrayed the presence of Josephine and Leliana; as she came level with the door, Rory could see Cassandra standing a little further inside the room, and Kaaras Adaar himself standing beside the door, his head bowed.
The Qunari looked defeated, hurt by the words being spewed about him. Any minute now, Kaaras, someone will put him in his place, Rory promised him in her mind. But no one did. Cullen's expression grew tighter, but he didn't say a word. Leliana was impassive; Josephine, mute. Even Cassandra, mouth open to object, never quite managed to say anything. The chancellor's poisonous, xenophobic rant continued, unchecked by those who should have spoken up.
"Look at it," he said, gesturing to Kaaras with one wild flail of his arm. "These creatures attacked Kirkwall without provocation - they insinuate their Qun into the hearts of the faithful and corrupt them! That mark proves nothing - the beast should be tried and punished for it's crimes!"
Seething, Rory found herself staring into the room, silently begging any one of the four witnesses to this awful tirade to say something, to be the good people she knew they were. But she also knew they likely wouldn't. It was likely that each of them harbored some fear of Kaaras, simply for being what he was; that none of them had quite realized that he was just a person, like them. They saw the horns, they remembered the fierce way he swung his sword, they looked at the mark on his hand, and they thought his skin must be as tough as old boots. After all, he must have had a lifetime of this kind of behavior. It wasn't an excuse, but it made sense. Disappointing sense.
"These Qunari are little more than beasts of burden, no more thought in their heads than a cow in the field, products of bandits and whores -"
Kaaras suddenly snarled, his limit reached with an insult to his parents, slamming a clenched fist against the stone wall at his side.
"You don't need me here for this," he said, each word a growl that covered the hurt Rory had seen in his eyes. He straightened, leaving a bloody mark on the wall, and strode from the room, barely noticing the healer who watched in seething silence.
"You see?" Roderick declared triumphantly. "Your vaunted Herald is nothing but a mindless, violent -"
"That's enough, chancellor." Rory couldn't keep her mouth shut any longer, marching into the war room to glare at the cleric. If no one else in here was going to shut him up, then she would. "What a fine example of the Chantry you are. What a beautiful display of bigoted cruelty. You must be so proud of yourself."
Roderick spluttered, but he had clearly not expected anyone but those present to hear his relentless attack. To be called on his bad behavior to his face by a mere peasant must have pricked his pride. But the hint of shame in his eyes told her he knew he'd gone too far, keeping him quiet as she turned her glare onto the others.
"And you ..." Her eyes swept the council of the Inquisition. "Was no one going to defend Kaaras? All quite happy to stand by and listen to him being attacked and humiliated, just for being different? The only real problem the chancellor has is that Kaaras is not human. And by not defending him against such awful words, you are going to make yourselves his enemies."
"The chancellor represents the Chantry, Lady Healer," Josephine offered, though she didn't sound convinced. "Diplomacy suggests -"
"How many diplomats will stand by and watch as the figurehead of their organization is insulted to their face, Lady Montilyet?" Rory interrupted pointedly.
"None, Lady Healer. Wars have started over less." Josephine lowered her eyes, ashamed of her inaction and grateful when Rory's sharp glare turned to include the others.
"You all asked Kaaras to join the Inquisition," she reminded them, not leaving anyone out of her reminder. "You offered him protection, and when he needs it, you do nothing. You're throwing him to the wolves by placing him at the forefront of the Inquisition with no intention of protecting him at all."
"Rory -" Cullen began, but swallowed whatever he was going to say when her attention snapped to him.
"Just because he's a warrior, doesn't mean he doesn't have a heart," she told them all harshly. "Just because he's lived his life with discrimination and cruel words does not mean he is used to them, or that he deserves them. Kaaras is a person - just like you, chancellor, just like everyone. Horns and gray skin do not make him an animal; being different does not strip him of the ability to understand every insult and take them to heart. Words do more damage than any amount of swords, and he'll have to face a lot of words in the days and weeks to come. I had thought that everyone in this room was capable of understanding that he needs you to have his back, so that he can fix the sky for you without feeling unwanted or used, without resenting you for seeing him as nothing more than a painted stereotype."
She paused, letting her disappointed gaze touch each and every one of them - Roderick, who flushed angrily and looked away; Josephine, who couldn't meet her eyes; Cullen, who looked more saddened than anything; Leliana, who couldn't quite hide a flicker of something in her impassive eyes; and Cassandra, who looked thoroughly ashamed of herself.
"You should be setting an example to the men and women who will choose to follow, and you're failing. You should all be ashamed of yourselves."
Shaking her head, Rory dropped her report on the map table, turning to march out of the war room as smoothly as she could. Oh, my gods, I just scolded the four most powerful people in the Inquisition! How am I not sporting a dagger in the back right now? She thought of the bloody mark Kaaras had left behind him, the only sign of his hurt and anger he had left in that room. She could do something about that, at least.
Behind her was shocked, shamed silence as she approached the main door. Then she heard Cassandra speak.
"The healer is right," the Seeker said in a solemn tone. "He cannot change who he is. We can change how we -"
The main door swung shut at Rory's back, preventing her from staying to eavesdrop on the outcome of her little parental discipline routine. She stood in the middle of the path, breathing hard, trying to calm herself in the wake of what she had done. Well, you've burned those bridges now, Ror. Here's hoping you're not tossed out on your arse for it.
So much for morning kisses with a sleepy Commander.
Don't hurt me! :)
Chapter 14: Answers
The knock sounded very small in the bustle of Haven, so small that Rory wasn't entirely sure it could be heard inside the cabin. But evidently it was, because it got an answer.
"Who is it?"
"It's Rory," she called, hugging herself against the chill. "The healer. May I come in?"
"The door's not locked."
Her hand rose automatically to push, but she stilled herself, recalling a few times in her own past when an unlocked door did not mean she wanted company. She'd just scolded a room full of important people for failing to respect Kaaras' needs. Now was not the time to be a hypocrite.
"That's no reason to just barge in and disrupt your privacy," she told the door in front of her, aware that she was garnering more than a few curious glances. "I can just go away, if you'd rather be alone."
"No, it's ... it's fine," he called from inside. "You can come in."
With a clear invitation, she pushed open the door, stepping inside to close it behind her. The cabin was exactly as she remembered it from the game, with the added aroma of the pelts on the walls and the smoky fire in the hearth. Kaaras was sitting on the bed, flexing his bloodied knuckles between his knees. She was struck again by just how big he was, his sheer size making a moderate space feel smaller purely because he was in it. Another thing they're all just going to have to get used to.
"I, um, I wanted to see how you are," she said quietly, moving slowly toward him. "And to apologize for what was and wasn't said in there. Roderick's an arsehole."
"And the others?" the big Qunari asked in a heavy tone, not raising his eyes from his fingers.
"Have no excuse," Rory admitted reluctantly. Although they might have excuses, they just aren't being forthcoming with them. I'm not a mind-reader. She sighed, moving to pour water from the jug into the basin. "They're good people, Kaaras. But even good people make mistakes, out of ignorance or fear. I have faith that they'll correct that mistake." Lifting the basin, she turned to kneel at his feet, gently taking his bloodied hand in hers to carefully clean the split skin over his knuckles.
Kaaras didn't object, watching her as she tended to his self-inflicted hurt with kind hands. "I shouldn't have lost my temper," he said, regret filling his voice.
"I thought you were quite restrained, actually," she answered, drying his hand with a soft cloth. "I wasn't."
A flicker of a smile touched his boyish features as he looked down at her. "I heard some of that," he admitted. "You didn't have to."
"Oh, I think I did," Rory told him airily, though she couldn't deny the anxious pang that gripped her stomach at the thought of the line she had crossed in the Chantry. "It was unforgivable, what he was saying. How he was referring to you. They should have spoken up. Next time, they will."
"You seem very sure of that," Kaaras murmured, unconvinced, curling his large fingers at her direction so she could paint his abused knuckles with a greasy compound of yarrow and elfroot.
"Sometimes people need a push to make the right decision," she shrugged lightly. "Like I said, they're good people."
He seemed to accept that, falling silent as she pulled a roll of linen from her belt pouches, wrapping it securely around his hand. "It wasn't anything I haven't heard before," he offered eventually. "Oxman, savage, beast ... humans and elves and dwarves have called me that all my life."
"That doesn't mean it stops hurting," she pointed out, tying off the bandage carefully. It took me years to get used to being called ginger, and even then, it still hurt when people used it as an insult. But this wasn't about her. "The fact that it hurts doesn't mean you're weak. Anyone who says that words don't hurt is a liar."
"I wasn't expecting it from a Chantry cleric," Kaaras told her, as though he needed to justify his reaction somehow.
"Of course you weren't," she agreed, sitting back on her heels to look up at him. "The Chantry is supposed to be the voice of Andraste and the Maker. Unfortunately, you find small-minded people everywhere."
An almost shy grin lifted his expression. "And you're big-minded?"
Rory laughed quietly. "In some things, maybe," she conceded in amusement. "People are people, no matter what they look like or where they come from. And people come in two flavors - good, and idiot."
It was Kaaras' turn to laugh at her frank assessment of the world at large. "Just two, huh?"
She smiled, shrugging. "In my opinion, most evil acts, most cruelty, can be boiled down to idiocy," she confirmed, glad to see his mood lightening. "And everyone's capable of being an idiot from time to time. It's up to us to educate them."
"And how do we do that, Healer Rory?"
"We teach them," she said simply. "We show them how wrong they are, by not letting them silence us or chase us away. We help people see beyond their prejudices by being good people ourselves."
"Put like that, it sounds easy," he conceded with a rueful quirk to his expression.
"It does, doesn't it?" Rory sighed, aware that it was anything but. "The more you do it, the more people will stand and do it with you." She patted his knee, using it as leverage to push herself up onto her feet. "When the dinner bell rings, come and sit with me. I can chat enough to fill a room."
"You think I'd be welcome?" he asked uncertainly.
"I just invited you, so yes," she countered warmly, tipping the contents of the basin out through the window. The people she sat with - Varric, Rylen, Evy - wouldn't make him feel out of place. "It's better than hiding and letting all the wild stories run rampant. You have to start somewhere, Kaaras."
"You are the strangest human I have ever met," he told her, with the air of someone making a new discovery.
"That's not necessarily a bad thing," she chuckled, pleased that he wasn't holding onto that debacle in the Chantry. What he needed now were friends, and the only way to make that happen was to expose him to people and hope for the best. "I'll see you later. And if I don't, I'll drag you out of here by one ear."
Kaaras laughed easily at her threat. "Don't worry, I believe you!"
"Good. Dinner, don't forget."
With his assurances ringing in her ears, Rory let herself out of his cabin, closing his door in her wake. She turned to leave ... and almost swallowed her tongue in shock. Cassandra was right in front of her, definitely inside her personal space, and looked like a woman on a mission. The Seeker took a step back, apparently surprised to be almost run down directly outside the Herald's door.
"I'm sorry," Rory apologized hastily. "I didn't see you there."
"The fault is mine," Cassandra told her, glancing over Rory's shoulder to the closed cabin door. "I was going to ..." She seemed to reconsider her words in mid-sentence. "The Herald, is he ... well?"
"As well as can be expected," Rory answered. It wasn't her habit to shared details after a conversation like that one. "He'll improve, if we make the effort."
"Healer Rory, what you said in the Chantry," the Seeker began, and Rory felt the panic rise, sending her pulse-rate soaring.
Oh gods, this is it, she thought miserably. What happens when you get fired from the Inquisition? I doubt they give you two weeks' notice and a severance package. Where the hell am I going to go?
"... you were right," Cassandra went on, the words not coming easily from such a proud, certain woman. "There is no excuse for my inaction. He is the Maker's chosen, regardless of his race. But I ..." She hesitated, glancing again to the cabin door. "I am uncertain how to make it right. Do you know?"
Rory found herself staring at the Seeker, her thoughts short-circuited by the unexpected admission of responsibility. So ... I'm not fired? I scolded the entire council, and I still have a job? She shook herself, aware that an answer was required.
"He ... he needs a friend, more than anything," she heard herself say. "He's all alone here, Seeker. Everyone he knew died at the Conclave. Seeing him as a person, rather than a religious icon, would be a good place to start."
Cassandra nodded slowly, accepting this advice in the spirit it was given. "That is something I can do," she conceded thoughtfully. "Thank you, Healer."
Relieved she hadn't offended a woman who could probably snap her neck with one punch, Rory let a lopsided smile quirk her lips. "You may as well call me Rory, my lady," she replied quietly. "We're swimming in healers now."
"You may be correct ... Rory." Cassandra inclined her head as she used the proffered name. "And you have more than earned my name in return. Were we to lose you, it would be a sad day, especially for the commander. You have aided him immeasurably since we came to Haven."
And you're the only person he's told about his lyrium withdrawal. To get praise from you, I must be doing something right. "The commander is ... a special man, Lady Cassandra," Rory told her a little warily, feeling her cheeks pink as her thoughts turned to Cullen. "I-I don't want him to suffer if I can help it."
"Then I would like you to take charge of distributing the philters to the templars," Cassandra added firmly. "Such daily proximity is likely making his symptoms worse."
It was a real effort for Rory to make herself show confusion. She wasn't supposed to know Cullen was in withdrawal, and Cassandra really shouldn't be assuming that Rory was in possession of all the facts. It's a good idea, though; why hasn't she taken this job away from him before now? Her acting must have been improving - the Seeker realized she'd said too much.
"He hasn't told you," she said, consternation furrowing her brow. "You are so close together, I thought ... I should not have said anything. The task will be given to someone else."
"We're not that close, Cassandra," Rory blurted out, forgetting the woman's title in her embarrassment at the assumption being made.
The Seeker leaned toward her, a conspiratorial glimmer in her eyes. "I saw you on the lake last night," she intimated softly. "The moonlight, the snow, the way you embraced each other ... it was very romantic." As Rory opened her mouth, Cassandra shushed her with a faintly envious grin. "I will not say a word until you allow me to."
"There's nothing to say," Rory tried to insist, torn between embarrassment and amusement as the Seeker winked inexpertly at her.
"Of course there is not," Cassandra agreed sagely. "Now, if you will excuse me ..."
Left to stand stupidly on the doorstep as the Seeker let herself into Kaaras' cabin, Rory couldn't quite believe what she had just heard. First Rylen, and now Cassandra. Does everyone here think I'm in some kind of secret love affair with the commander? Am I in a love affair with Cullen? We haven't even kissed! Several late nights, one massage, one long hug, and one night in the same tent does not mean we're an item. Or does it? Is that why he was so worried about my reputation - does one chaste night somehow equate to an engagement here?
But if that was true, surely Cullen would have said something to that effect. Her feet scuffed against the snow-swept stone as she mounted the steps to return to the clinic. He'd held onto her so tightly in his sleep, but was that because she was handy, or because she was her? It was so confusing. And how the hell do I find out without getting him drunk?
Startled from her thoughts, she raised her head, surprised to discover that it was Leliana calling to her from the tent where she coordinated her spy network. The bard met her gaze with those scarily unreadable eyes.
"A word, if I may," Leliana suggested, in a manner that wouldn't take no for an answer. "In the Chantry."
Unable to refuse, Rory nodded mutely, adjusting her direction to return to the Chantry. As she walked, an icy ball of utter dread formed in the pit of her stomach. What did Leliana know? And what was the spymaster going to do about it? In the game, there was an opportunity to prevent Leliana from having someone killed, but would anyone notice in time if Rory ended up on that kill list? She met the redhead by the doors, dimly noting that their hair was almost the same shade as she allowed herself to be lead through the nave and into the now empty map-room. She stared down at the sparsely-placed markers, flinching as the door closed ominously behind her. The silence dragged on, excruciating minutes ticking by as the ice in her stomach tossed and roiled with dreadful anticipation.
"Am I so very frightening that you do not dare to look at me?" Leliana asked finally, coming to stand close beside her.
Too close. "You're the Left Hand of the Divine," Rory answered quietly, forcing herself to meet the bard's gaze. "The dagger in the dark. Anyone who has a past should be afraid of you."
"Afraid that I will use that past against them?" The stern expression softened, and Rory found herself looking at the Leliana of ten years ago, the Leliana of Origins. She's still in there somewhere. "Why would I do such a thing to someone who has already proven themselves loyal? I am simply seeking the answer to a question."
"You can't get answers without asking for them," Rory pointed out, her eyes watchful for any sign of trickery. Is she lulling me into a false sense of security with the loyalty comment?
"Very true," Leliana agreed. "But first, I should like to tell you a story."
"Stories are for telling." Why is she dragging this out? Just drop the bomb, already.
The brief smile that touched Leliana's face was like a flash of sunlight from between the clouds - there and gone in an instant. "Indeed," she acknowledged, twisting to lean back against the table comfortably. "The story concerns two girls, neither one more than sixteen years old, who appeared as if from nowhere in the days after the end of the Fifth Blight. They dedicated themselves to helping the wounded and dying in Denerim, uncaring which race a person belonged to. When asked, they said they were sisters, from Gwaren. Yet no one in that city could place them, when asked."
Rory let her eyes falls back to the map once more, studying the familiar names and landmarks as Leliana spoke. She wondered if the bard had noticed her tension, the way her shoulders had stiffened at the mention of two girls who had appeared from nowhere. But that appearance happened in Denerim, not an avalanche in the Frostbacks. So why does this sound so familiar to me?
"These girls - or women, I should say," Leliana went on, "spent a decade traveling Ferelden, offering their services to whoever needed them. They became known as traveling healers, gaining in skill as the years passed. In the South Reach, the younger was courted by the lord of the land, yet she chose to move on when her sister did, preferring the bond of blood over the temptations of riches. They never asked for payment, yet those they aided cared for them in turn. In Amaranthine, half a year ago, they met the Right Hand of the Divine, and pledged themselves to the then-unformed Inquisition without a second thought."
Oh ... oh my gods, Rory thought, finally catching on to what was being said. I wrote this. A character sketch based on me and Ria, something I never did anything with. That shameless self-insert idea that came so easily but refused to be written. And that's my Thedosian life story? I actually do have a past here? It was such a relief to realize that, it took a moment to notice that she was smiling as the bard continued.
"Regrettably, the younger sister was killed by an avalanche as they made their way to Haven," Leliana said softly. "Yet the elder remained, and has given more than we ever asked. But my question is this ..."
She paused, and Rory tensed, aching with suppressing the urge to turn and run, terrified of what might be coming.
"... who were you, before you were Rory and Ria?"
How the hell am I supposed to answer that? I never wrote a full backstory. An oversight, that, since it's now my backstory. But where was the harm in offering just a little of the truth in answer to Leliana's probing? It wasn't as though the spymaster could check the facts, and it might be a good idea to have a little of the real truth of her background mixed in with the fiction she'd created years ago.
"No one who was missed when they disappeared," Rory offered soberly. "And long forgotten by now, I imagine. I'm glad you can't find them. They were angry, bitter little girls for a very long time."
"No ties?" Leliana asked in a gentle tone. "No family that will mourn your loss with you?"
"None." And it still hurt to say that out loud. Rory turned her head to meet the bard's sympathetic eyes. "Does it matter?" she asked, the words almost a challenge.
Leliana's smile was sad as she shook her head. "No," she answered, sharp eyes witness to the shudder of exoneration that rippled down the healer's spine. "But I appreciate the trust you give me in sharing what I asked for."
"I may fear what you might do, but I trust that you would do it for the right reasons," Rory told her sincerely. And I trust that Kaaras is going to do everything he possibly can to bring you back to yourself. She drew in a shaky breath. "May I return to my duties?"
The spymaster studied her for a moment, then nodded. Released - and relieved that no one was going to know she wasn't Thedosian unless she told them - Rory slipped from the map-room hurriedly, lengthening her stride until she was out in the fresh, brisk air, even welcoming the sickly glow from the Breach on her skin. That could have gone so badly wrong. Instead, she had a backstory she could remember the bare bones of that covered the last ten years, and Leliana's trust.
Perhaps the Maker was real, after all.
Chapter 15: Whose Line Is It, Anyway?
"You do not dream."
It took a moment for Rory to realize she was the one this statement was aimed at. She glanced up from her notes, surprised to see Solas standing in the doorway of her little clinic. He wasn't the most at home inside the rustic buildings of Haven, but did make his place in this little corner of the village, where the clean, pungent smells of the clinic and Adan's alchemy workshop overpowered the smoke and odor of concentrated human habitation.
He wasn't talkative with anyone but Kaaras, either, which was why it took a moment for Rory to kick her mind into a response. Well, that, and the fact that he was the Dread Wolf incarnate.
The elven apostate seemed to find her absent reply amusing. "Forgive me," he apologized, the softness of his rueful smile difficult not to smile at in return. "I had thought that, without patients to see, I would not be interrupting your work. I see I was wrong."
Rory let out a quiet laugh, shaking her head as she blotted her writing. "There is always something that needs to be done," she admitted wearily. "What can I do for you, Solas?"
"You are a mystery, Healer Rory," he said, taking her invitation to come inside, though he didn't sit. "In past days, I have walked the Fade, touching the dreams of those who have pledged themselves to this cause. Yet nowhere have I found you. I must admit to being profoundly puzzled."
"Are you saying I'm somehow not connected to the Fade?" she asked curiously. It had never occurred to her. She'd just assumed that she was a dreamer like everyone else who wasn't a mage. "I do dream, Solas. Sometimes I remember my dreams, sometimes I don't. But it does happen."
"Perhaps it is simply that I cannot seem your dreams because you dream of things beyond my comprehension," the elven mage suggested thoughtfully. His guess was probably dangerously close to the truth, but he was fishing for answers she couldn't give him. Thankfully, she realized that, frowning at his suggestion.
"I don't keep regular hours," she pointed out. "You probably just haven't found my dreams yet. It's a little disturbing that you're looking at all, you know. A person's dreams are very personal."
"The Fade is a vast realm, and dreamers only visitors," Solas told her. "Do you consider seeing a person you know going about their business in waking to be a violation of their privacy? It is the same in the Fade with dreamers."
She bit her lip, uncertain quite what to make of that. "I suppose you're right," she conceded, not really wanting to have this conversation at all. "I'm just not comfortable with the idea that you're purposely looking for me when I'm at my most vulnerable."
"Indeed," he accepted graciously. "Seen in that light, it is, perhaps, disturbing. I mean no harm in my wanderings."
"I never said you did," Rory assured him, glancing to the window. She couldn't help hoping someone might call for her, to get her out of this little chat. There was something very unsettling about knowing that Fen'Harel was hunting for her in the Fade.
"In answer to your question, Healer ... no, I do not believe you lack a connection with the Fade," he said then, still watching her with a steadiness that was unnerving. "You clearly feel deeply all the breadth of emotion humans are capable of. There is no sense of the curse of Tranquility about you."
Probably because I've never been connected to the Fade. It made sense, in a way. Despite her thankfully established backstory in this world, she wasn't from here. She hadn't been born into a world that had a Veil and a Fade; it just wasn't a part of her genetic make-up. She did dream ... well, she had nightmares. She just didn't visit the Fade to do it. It was a relief, in some ways; though she'd never experience the Fade for herself - unless something went badly wrong at Adamant, provided she survived that long - she would never have to worry about falling prey to a demon seeking to possess her. To be honest, she could live without the Fade. There was too much in the waking world to concern her - she didn't really want to live with the worry that demons might infest her in her sleep, too.
"I'm an enigma wrapped in a mystery," she shrugged, trying to dismiss the concern the elf had expressed with trite humor.
"Perhaps," Solas mused softly. "Or perhaps, as you say, I have simply not found you yet. The answer is often the simplest."
"I like simple," Rory answered easily. "Can I help you with something, Solas?"
The hidden god smile his deceptively gentle smile. "I believe you already have," he told her in a calm tone. "I will leave you to your work."
He stepped back out into the windy village. Rory heard him apologize to someone, and a moment later, Evelyn pushed in through the door, shaking the snow from her dark hair. There was a dark mark on her throat, visible only for a moment before she readjusted her scarf, but the sight of it made Rory grin.
"How's Rylen?" she asked innocently, doing her best not to chuckle as Evy turned a charming shade of pink.
"I didn't go to the training ground," the girl said a little defensively, hanging up her cloak. "You wanted me to see how Fabian is coping at the pilgrims' camp."
"So I did," Rory agreed with a warm smile.
In the days since the Breach was stabilized, they had managed to discharge all the wounded from the field hospital and dismantle it. Fabian had shown an aptitude for illness, rather than injury, and had asked permission to join the healers in the camps. With Evy eager to stay and learn more of healing, Rory had seen no reason to deny him his wish, a little envious of the freedom he had to choose. She was apparently vital to the upper echelon of the Inquisition, and had been ordered to remain at the clinic in Haven. But she was keeping as close an eye as she could on conditions in the ever growing camps.
"He's running low on mint, comfrey, and feverfew," Evy reported, moving to check their own stocks. "There's been an outbreak of something he called spider lung."
Or bronchitis, if you're form Earth. Rory frowned thoughtfully, the mention of spiders sparking a memory. "I should have spoken to the scouts before they headed to Redcliffe," she sighed, scratching her ribs through her shirt with an absent hand. "There's a boy called Hyndel living at the crossroads outside the village who brews a potion that's perfect to counter breathing difficulties."
"You could send a message," Evy suggested helpfully. "After all, you know his name and where to find him. Maybe he'd sell us the recipe, especially if he remembers you."
"That's ... a very good idea." Rory nodded to her assistant, smiling at the genuine pleasure on the young woman's face. Here's hoping that I can get away with passing off future in-game knowledge as something picked up in my travels. "I'll talk to Leliana, see if I can get a request included with the next raven."
"What if she says no?" Evy asked, washing her hands thoroughly as she looked over at Rory.
"Then the Herald can take the message for me," Rory answered with teasing confidence.
She was fairly sure Kaaras would, too. The last few days had seen his confidence with the various members of the Inquisition rise. The men and women were following the example set by their leaders, and Rory couldn't help being proud of the small council for proving her right in her assessment of them. She didn't need to be disappointed anymore.
For a start, Chancellor Roderick was barred from the war room and from even approaching Kaaras' cabin. Leliana, despite her lingering anger and grief at the loss of Justinia, had made a point of seeking Kaaras' opinion on some of her operations, in full view of the village; Josephine had been overheard asking him about his life and culture, and made sure to sing his praises in every dispatch she sent out. Cullen had been a little less obvious, waiting until Kaaras approached him to lead by example, and for the last two days had graciously accepted defeat in sparring matches that had been witnessed by a good fifty or more soldiers and workers. Cassandra, knowing they would have to trust each other sooner rather than later, had invited Kaaras hunting with her, and had gone out of her way to give him the credit for the druffalo steaks that were very much appreciated by the entire inner camp the next day.
"You didn't answer my question, by the way," Rory commented as she wrote out her request on a small scrap of parchment. She flicked a knowing smile over at Evy. "How is Rylen?"
The noblewoman fidgeted a little in her seat, her hands stilling in the task of taking inventory. "What ... what makes you think I've seen Captain Rylen?" she asked, doing a very creditable job of looking innocent.
Rory chuckled quietly. "The beautiful love bite on your neck would seem to imply you might have spent a little time canoodling while you were out and about," she suggested with a grin.
Evy's hand flew to her throat. "He didn't!"
"Didn't you notice?" Rory's grin grew as Evy shook her head. Rylen, you sneaky sod. Marking your territory without prior consent, tsk, tsk. Not that she seems to mind, but still ...
"I was ... a little distracted," the younger woman admitted reluctantly, brushing her knuckles against her flaming cheeks. "Possibly overwhelmed is a better word."
"But not unwilling, I hope?" Rory asked. She didn't believe for a moment that Rylen would force himself on a woman, but she knew from experience how easy it was to get swept up in something you weren't ready for.
"Oh, no, nothing like that," Evy rushed to assure her. "He's very mindful of my feelings, all the time. Actually," she added with a slight frown, "he keeps asking if I want to stop, and it's getting a little annoying."
"Try not to get annoyed," Rory advised her with a gentle quirk of a smile. "It's very easy to get caught up in the moment and find yourself going further than you're ready to. The fact that he keeps asking is a good thing."
"Is that why you're not sleeping in the commander's tent?" Evy asked, her eyes bright with inquisitive eagerness. "Did you go further than you were ready to?"
Rory felt her mouth drop open. Walked into that one, didn't you, Ror? "I wasn't ... we didn't ..." She drew in a fortifying breath. "The commander and I are not in a relationship."
"That isn't what Rylen says," Evy told her. "Or Varric. Lots of people think you're his woman."
"His woman?" The turn of phrase pricked at her pride. "I'm not property, Evy. I don't belong to anyonebut myself." But you didn't argue when he said you were his, a traitorous little voice in her mind piped up. And that was weeks ago.
"No, that isn't what they mean," the sable-haired woman was saying. "Varric says that all the commander needs is a good woman, and you're a good woman. I think it's obvious you should be together."
"And how did you come to this conclusion?" Rory asked, more amused than offended by this apparently rampant speculation on her non-existent love life.
Evy squeaked happily, leaning forward to share her opinion on the subject. "Well, for a start, everyone says you only came to Haven because the commander asked you to," she began, warming to her subject with an enthusiasm that suggested she'd been dying to have this conversation for quite a while. "You make special potions for him yourself and you deliver them personally. Your face light up when you see him, or when you talk about him. You spent the night in his tent. And you blushed when he took his shirt off to spar the other day, you couldn't keep your eyes off him -"
Rory held up a hand, laughing at this embarrassing litany of her own preoccupation with the commander. "All right, I admit that I find him attractive," she conceded in defeat. "And that I don't seem to be able to hide it. How does that translate into you should be together?"
"You didn't let me finish," Evy pointed out cheerfully. "He watches you. He can hold an entire conversation with someone while watching you from across the village, and he always knows exactly where you are. And he smiles when he sees you - he doesn't smile at anyone else. Oh, and he follows you to the bath-house late at night and stands guard at the door so no one else goes in. You were seen embracing each other. I think it's terribly romantic."
He watches me? Wait ... he guards the door when I'm washing? How did I not know that? Listening to Evy's argument, it did sound romantic, Rory had to admit. The stoic commander and the dedicated healer, finding love in the light of the Breach. Shame it was all a fiction, really.
"Evy, I promise you, nothing has happened between us," she said aloud. "And even if something had, I doubt the commander would appreciate the entire village discussing it. He's a very private man."
"But you do like him," Evy insisted earnestly. "And it's obvious that he likes you."
"It's a nice dream, Evy," Rory told her friend gently. "But it's just a dream. Unlike you and Rylen."
But as Evy blushed and stammered, Rory couldn't help wondering just who she was trying to convince. Herself? She knew Cullen had willingly held her in his arms, intended to kiss her. The fact of the interruption did not negate the purpose with which he had leaned into her, the audible disappointment in his groan when their time was cut short. Nor could she deny that her heart thumped whenever she let her mind linger on him, or the fact that she took every excuse to be in his company, even if it was only for a few minutes. There was no hiding the protective way he spoke to her, or the care in her eyes when she looked at him. On Earth, she would have made the first move long before now, but here ...
Too much had happened to Cullen that was completely out of his control. The fall of the Ferelden Circle, the madness of Knight-Commander Meredith - they'd shaped him, damaged him, and not once had he had the power to change the events unfolding around him. Even now, he was caught up in events beyond his control, reacting to moves made before he even reached the first square on the board. In this, at least, she could give him back some of his autonomy. She could wait; let him set the pace, if she was his choice. It was gloriously frustrating, but she refused to make his mind up for him. If this was what he wanted, if she was what he wanted, then he would have to make it clear, when he was ready to.
Until then, she was just going to have to content herself with teasing Evy and Rylen about their budding romance. What a shame.