There was a knocking at the door.
Cullen groaned and considered burying his face in his pillow so that the noise would be blocked out. He had no idea what time it was, but he knew that it was still dark and he had been deeply asleep only a few moments ago; for a moment he wondered whether it was simply a misunderstanding, whether it was just a noise in the corridor outside his quarters and no one was trying to drag him cruelly from his bed in the middle of the night. But the clinging tendrils of sleep were brushed away when the knocking came again, more persistent, and he came to his senses. No one would be interrupting him at this hour unless something was truly amiss.
He wrenched himself upright, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand as he crossed the small room towards the door; he made it safely from his sleeping quarters and into his office without incident, but then hit his hip against the edge of his desk in the dark. He winced and limped the rest of the way to the door, pulling it open just as the knocking began to sound a third time.
There was a man in full armour on the other side, his hand raised to complete the summons he’d been rapping out on the wood. Cullen dredged through his sleep addled brain to find his name. “Ser Taris,” he said, trying to sound authoritative rather than slurred and drowsy. “Report.”
The knight placed his clenched fist over his chest and bowed stiffly. “Apologies for waking you, Captain, but the Knight Commander wishes to speak to you. It is a matter of grave urgency.”
“Of course,” he said, rubbing at his eyes again. “Please tell the Commander that I will be with her shortly, once I have changed into something more appropriate-”
“She anticipated that you would say that, ser, and she wished for me to tell you that no one damn well cares at this hour of the night if you’re wearing a shirt with patched elbows.” The knight coloured and tried very hard to keep his eyes on his captain’s face, rather than glancing down at the offending garment. “Apologies, ser, but those were her exact words and she was rather adamant.”
With a rueful sigh, Cullen said “Fine then. I’ll grab my boots and be on my way. I will be right behind you.”
He hurried back into the dark rooms, carefully avoiding the desk this time. As he pulled on his boots, he glanced down at his sleepwear, which- while not as bad as Meredith had made it sound, - certainly wasn’t something he’d be comfortable walking around the fortress in on a regular basis. The shirt was old and a little ragged on the hems, but patched elbows? He wasn’t a Darktown beggar, he just liked to be comfortable. There were very few comforts in the life of a religious knight, and if he happened to like sleeping in an old shirt and baggy pair of breeches, it was hardly anyone else’s business.
Until, of course, when nights like this arose and his Commander insisted that he had to attend immediately to whatever crisis had developed. Well, he was the Knight Captain, Maker take them all. They’d just have to deal with his rather unfashionable apparel.
Ser Taris was waiting in the hallway for him when he emerged, and they set off together down the corridor towards Meredith’s rooms. “What time is it, ser knight?” Cullen asked, fighting off a yawn.
“It’s just after two, Knight Captain. Again, I really must apologies for waking you, but Knight Commander Meredith-”
“I know, I know; save your breath, man.” They reached the room of the Commander in no short order and Ser Taris bowed again, fist clenched over his breastplate. “I must return to my post, ser. Please, do not hesitate to ask if you should need anything more.”
Cullen nodded to him, already turning the handle to Meredith’s quarters and stepping inside. He saw no need to knock- she was clearly expecting him and it was also clear that she wouldn’t have disturbed him for anything but the direst of circumstances.
“Cullen.” She wasn’t facing the door; she was standing by the window with her arms crossed, her posture stiff and unbending as always. It was a shock to see her dressed so casually, but she had clearly only recently come from bed as well. Her clothes were hardly any better than his; she was wearing a billowing tunic that was several sizes too large, the sleeves pushed up on her arms to show off wiry, scarred flesh that was more muscular than most of the men under her command. Her pale blond hair, leaning more towards grey at her temples than when he had first met her, was loose and made her look marginally younger. “I trust you didn’t stop for something as foolish as a change of clothes.”
“Only shoes,” he said, taking a seat on the far side of her desk.
“I felt I gave your escort rather specific instructions,” she said, turning away from the window; the words sounded like they should have been humorous, but there was no laughter in her eyes. “But, what is done is done.”
“Apologies, Knight Commander,” he said, nodding his head deferentially at her. “I had no idea what the emergency might be, and felt it better to be prepared.”
“Indeed,” she said, pacing slowly across the room. He could see that she was barefoot, her feet just visible beneath the overly long hem of her breeches. She was silent for a long moment, and he began to wonder if the reason for his being dragged out of bed was really all that urgent. Just when he had opened his mouth to speak, and ask what all the fuss what about, she said “Tell me, Cullen, what you know of Hawke.”
His mind immediately narrowed in on that one marvellous name, her name, and he felt his fingers dig into the arms of the chair. Meredith had her back to him, gazing out the window again, and he forced himself to relax before she could turn around. What did he know of Bethany? They would run out of hours in the night before he could finish telling her everything he knew about Bethany Hawke- from the way she laughed when she danced, to the way she smiled gently at the very youngest apprentices that she coddled and protected, to the way her perfume was so very intoxicating. But he knew that wasn’t what she wanted so he forced his rampant imagination to the back of his thoughts and tried to sound aloof and professional.
“Bethany has caused us no trouble in the time she has been here, if one can discount her brother’s constant interruptions. She has been a very settling influence on some of the younger-”
“I was talking about her brother, Cullen,” Meredith said coldly. She glared at him over her shoulder. “I am quite capable of assessing the character of someone who is already in my care. But you have spent time with Garrett, have you not? I wish to know what you think of him.”
He gaped for a second, before he recovered himself. Maker take it all, how could he have been so stupid- of course she was asking after Garrett, not Bethany. His infatuation was going to slip him up sooner than he would like. “Garrett comes across as aggressive and volatile, but I am of the opinion it is just a carefully maintained persona. He is wildly loyal to his family and friends, to the point of being almost tediously predictable. And he has made it no secret that his sympathies lie with mages, probably in no small part due to his sister’s imprisonment and the indoctrination he would likely have received from his father.”
Meredith was pacing again, her brow furrowed with intense concentration. “Do you suspect that he would go so far as to involve himself in that ridiculous mage underground?”
The question didn’t surprise him; he had wondered it himself on many occasions. “I wouldn’t necessarily discount the idea, but I feel he’s too savvy to risk Bethany by marking his allegiances so firmly.”
She nodded, her fingers tapping restlessly on the window sill. When a few minutes passed without a word from her, he leant forward in the chair. “Commander? If I may ask, why is it that you felt the need to discuss Garrett Hawke at this hour of the night?”
“Because, Captain,” she said slowly, fixing him with an icy stare as she turned around, “Garrett Hawke openly murdered a Templar tonight, in the defence of a Qunari. And any man or woman who takes the life of one of mine with such brazen confidence is someone who I am inclined to be vastly suspicious of.”
Cullen sat back, stunned almost beyond words at Meredith’s revelation. The fury was rolling off her, her figure so tense with controlled anger that it was a wonder she didn’t explode. He struggled to find some other meaning to her words- and found nothing but the horrific truth she had spoken. “Garrett did… wait, no, what were the circumstances? I cannot believe him capable of cold blooded murder.”
Meredith began to pace again as she related the story of the missing Qunari delegate, the Viscount’s attempts to hide the issue by seeking the aid of the one man in Kirkwall that the Arishok seemed inclined to acknowledge, and the chaotic fallout when Garrett had allegedly uncovered Chantry involvement in the kidnapping and a bloodthirsty mob of fanatics led by one of their own. “And now we must be satisfied with Garrett Hawke’s version of events, seeing that he very efficiently slaughtered anyone who could gainsay his wild tale. This displeases me greatly.”
“But if he had the authority of the Viscount, we cannot do anything against him,” Cullen said, feeling his stomach churning miserably. Maker, what a mess Hawke had caused this time! “And there is the issue that Varnell clearly appears to have acted outside his authority, and that is without even taking into consideration the bodies of the Qunari which are proof of his folly. I think we have no choice but to accept his version of events, Commander.”
She didn’t answer him immediately, her eyes angry and pensive as she stared into the fireplace. “I will speak to the Grand Cleric in the morning,” she said slowly, as if she was considering her options with infinite care. “And you will seek out Hawke, to hear the story firsthand. See if you can’t find any inconsistencies in his telling of the tale.”
“And if I do, Knight Commander?”
“We will deal with this issue in a manner befitting the crime,” she said simply. She seemed to rouse herself a little from the angry contemplation she had drifted to. “It is agreed then. Return to your quarters, Captain. We will speak again in the morning.”
His thoughts in turmoil, Cullen bowed before leaving the room and making his way back down the hallway towards his own quarters; he hesitated with his hand on the door, standing in the dark as he tried to cobble together some cogent thought from the mess that was his head.
Maker’s Breath, what had Hawke done? What could he possibly have been thinking? The damnable idiot was making bigger ripples in Kirkwall with each passing day- now to have stood on the side of the Qunari, and against the Chantry, however fanatical an element of the faith it was that Varnell represented…
Now there was another problem that he hadn’t considered- Varnell’s death was likely to raise all manner of hell in the ranks. He had spent the last several years based out of the Chantry itself, part of the contingent of knights who served the Grand Cleric directly for protection, but that didn’t mean he was a stranger in the Gallows. Cullen could think of more than half a dozen men who were likely to feel more than a little outraged at the death of their friend. And if Meredith declared Garrett to be off limits, if she was grudgingly satisfied with the play of events from earlier that evening, then that meant there would be only one person who could bear the brunt of their desire for vengeance.
His chest tightened painfully at the thought of her coming to harm as a result of her brother’s actions. He knew he shouldn’t care, knew that he should only care about duty being done with no regard for the emotional wellbeing of the mages, but… it was Bethany. He did not like or trust mages, and wouldn’t care if it was any other enchanter in the building at risk from a grieving, vengeful Templar. But Bethany wasn’t ‘any other enchanter’ and he did care; far more than he should if he wanted to keep her safe and himself sane.
He rubbed his hand over his face, glancing back up the corridor towards Meredith’s rooms. The light had gone out beneath her door. “Dammit,” he cursed softly, even though he didn’t know what he was cursing in the first place.
Letting himself back into his room, he went straight to his desk and snatched up the ring of keys that granted him access to every room in the Gallows. He flicked through them in the dark, holding them up to the dim light provided by the embers in the fireplace until he found the one he was looking for- the third floor Enchanter’s Wing. He slid it from the metal ring, setting the rest of the keys back in the top drawer before he went back to the door and eased it closed as quietly as possible.
As he walked, he berated himself for his stupidity, questioning his judgement for doing this. He had to warn Bethany about what had happened, and prepare her for the very likely reality that someone would try to make her life unpleasant, at the very least. Once he knew Meredith’s thoughts on the matter, he would recommend that Bethany be kept under close watch, to ensure she came to no harm. Although knowing the Commander, her response would probably be to have Bethany locked away in solitary confinement until the matter had blown over.
He felt himself grow tense at the thought of Bethany in solitary confinement and he gritted his teeth; he had to stop thinking about her with care or concern, because it just made it that much harder to keep away from her. Knowing that she returned his affections made each day an insufferable torment, but to watch her suffer while he could do nothing to help her? It was better that they stayed away from each other, because he didn’t dare to think about how he would react if he admitted that cared for her and she came to harm.
There was no way he’d be able to contain himself if that situation ever arose. So he stayed away, for her own protection and his own peace of mind. And if sometimes at night he replayed that one magical afternoon in his head, two weeks prior when he had held her in his arms and kissed her until she trembled, there was nothing he could do except berate himself for his weaknesses.
He took the stairs two at a time, pausing when he reached the third floor as he scanned the darkness for anyone who might intercept him.
What rotation had he set the guards to tonight? He ducked into a shadowed doorway when he heard the tell-tale rasp of steel on stone, just dropping out of sight as one of his men came around the corner on patrol. He waited until the footsteps had faded into the distance before he set off again down the hallway, counting the steps in the dark as he always did, an almost unconscious action now after so long. Thirty four steps from the stairwell and he was at her door.
Glancing up and down the corridor one last time to make sure he wasn’t seen, he slipped the key into the lock and turned it, wincing when the click of the bolt sliding open echoed loudly in the empty hallway. He eased the door open just enough to slide inside and shut it with infinite care so that he wouldn’t make any more noise than was necessary.
Once he was inside, he took a deep breath to calm himself- and immediately regretted it. The whole room was infused with her unique scent, that damnably intriguing combination of honeysuckle and lyrium; he couldn’t even tell anymore if it really was a perfume, or if that was just what he’d decided she smelled like.
His common sense chose that moment to rear its head and frantically insist that he had no place being in her room, two things forbidden to him by his vows- a mage and a woman. He didn’t know which made her more dangerous to him. But he had to admit, this was hardly the best idea he’d ever had- her brother had just admitted to murdering one of his brothers in arms, and his first response was to dash to her room in the middle of the night? If he was discovered, the fallout would be disastrous.
Steeling himself, trying to look on this from a professional standpoint and not at all from the position of a man concerned about the woman who might possibly have been considered his lover- or as close as he was ever going to allow himself to get in any case- he turned around and surveyed her room. And immediately began to regret his decision to come here.
She had not drawn the curtains and the moonlight spilled into her room, bathing her in soft white light. He hesitated when he saw the way the bars on the windows cast shadows across her bed- even in sleep she was caged, and his soul twisted knowing that he had helped to ensnare her in the first place. She was utterly breathtaking in slumber, her ebony hair spilling out over the pillows and one hand tangled through it, carelessly flung over her head. Her lips were parted slightly, as if she were just waiting for a kiss to wake her… he shook his head, trying to think past the wild heat that flooded through him as he stared at her. Maker, she was such a temptation. He had to make this quick, for both their sakes. If he lingered here, in the quiet sensuality of her bedroom, with her looking like that…
He knelt beside the bed and- stared. He was supposed to wake her, but rousing her from sleep just seemed like such a crime when she looked like that. Soft and warm and comfortable and infinitely kissable. Mages are not to be trusted, his common sense cried desperately, trying to gain his attention. Even now, you could be her thrall, enchanted by her through dark magic alone and not by any feminine charm she possesses.
Unable to help himself, he lifted a hand and hesitantly touched it to her cheek, her skin petal soft beneath his fingertips. She murmured wordlessly in her sleep, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth; he saw her eyes flutter open fractionally, before drifting shut again.
Then she stiffened in alarm and her eyes flew open.
She gaped at him, mouth working for several seconds before she managed to get actual words out. “Cullen?” she breathed tremulously. There was a hint of panic in her voice. “What are you doing in my room?”
“Bethany,” he whispered, trying to keep his mind on his task and not on the way she looked so delectable with her sleep mussed hair and flushed cheeks. “I came to warn you- something has happened with your brother, and-”
“Garrett?” she said in distress, her voice several shades louder than it had been a moment ago. Before he could shush her, she sat bolt upright in bed- and the blanket pooled around her waist, revealing far too much skin and something made of silk that he assumed was supposed to be considered a nightgown but really just fell under the category of outright temptation. “What’s happened? Is he alright?”
He shook his head to try and gain control of himself, but it wasn’t working. Blessed Andraste, that scrap of silk couldn’t possibly be what she wore to bed; surely there was more to her sleepwear than something held up by mere strings of lace that were half the width of his finger?
“Cullen!” She grabbed the blanket and clutched it to her, her cheeks flaming even in the dark room. “What are you doing here? What has happened to Garrett?”
With the worst of the temptation covered by the blanket, he blinked and looked up at her again. “Um… right. Sorry.” He felt his own cheeks growing warm at his momentary lapse, and he broke her gaze. “Garrett was asked to investigate the disappearance of a Qunari ambassador. To cut a long story short, he found the ambassador, who had been murdered, and killed the Templar responsible.”
Her body grew far too still as she processed his words, and her eyes grew impossibly wide. “Garrett… killed a Templar?” she whispered.
He nodded. “That’s how it appears,” he said quietly. “I’m to go and speak with him in the morning, to learn his side of the story. But I felt you needed to know, for there is likely to be-”
“Repercussions,” she said softly; her saw her hands clench tighter in the blankets. “You think someone is going to blame me for what happened.”
“If Meredith doesn’t make you a scapegoat, then someone else will,” he admitted, feeling sick to his stomach to even say it aloud. “I will do my best, Bethany, but there’s only so much I can do without drawing further suspicion down on top of you.”
She nodded, running a hand through her hair absently with a vaguely panicked look in her eyes. “Of course, I understand.” She buried her face in her hands, the blanket falling to her waist once again. “Oh, Maker, I don’t understand! Why would Garrett be so foolish? Maybe… maybe this is just a bad dream. I’ll wake up in the morning and everything will be fine.”
He tried not to choke on his words- Maker, you’re supposed to be comforting her, not gawking at her! “Bethany, everything will be fine; you have my word on that.”
“No, it won’t,” she said miserably, lifting her head from her hands. She wasn’t crying, an excellent start, but he didn’t know if he’d ever seen her look so forlorn. “If everything was going to be alright, you wouldn’t have risked so much to come and tell me in the middle of the night. If you thought everything was going to be okay, you would have waited til the morning, or let me find out through someone else.”
While his brain screamed that this was a terrible idea, he reached up and placed his hand against her cheek, running his thumb across her soft skin while she leant unconsciously into his touch. “You have my word, Bethany,” he said softly.
She sighed as her eyes drifted closed. The misery had not lifted from her entirely, but she seemed less distressed than she had a moment ago. “Cullen, I-”
There was a knock at the door.
They both froze. He saw her eyes go wider than seemed humanly possible, and he could feel her breath against his wrist, shallow and panicked. Trying not to let the panic infect him, he pulled gently against her cheek until she was facing him.
“You have to get the door,” he mouthed as silently as possible.
“But you’re here!” she hissed, her breathing growing more erratic. “If they see you-”
“I’ll hide,” he whispered, fighting to remain calm even as she slipped further into panic. “Beth, listen to me! It’ll be more suspicious if you refuse to answer.”
“But I… what if it’s about Garrett? What if they-”
“If someone meant you harm, they wouldn’t have knocked.” He stood up, all but dragging her out of bed with him. His head grew light as he took in just how insignificant her nightdress really was and he bit his lip to stop himself from reaching for her. “You have to get the door.”
She was blushing, and he saw her fingers tug at the hem of her gown, as if an extra half inch was going to make the difference compared to how much of her thighs were already showing. “I can’t answer the door!” she hissed under her breath. “I’m not-”
He snared something robe-like from the back of a chair, and pulled it over her shoulders before she could protest. There was no time to fiddle with laces or buttons, so it gaped widely at the front, revealing that gossamer slip of fabric and far too much skin. She was still blushing furiously, and tried to hold the gown closed with one hand. It didn’t do a lot of good.
The knocking at the door came a second time. “Miss Hawke?” The voice was male, and polite.
He pushed her towards the door and she glared at him. “Hide!” she whispered furiously, before succumbing and putting her hand on the doorknob. He just had time to slide across the bed and drop onto the floor on the far side, out of view of the door, before she was inching it open just enough to see who stood on the other side.
“Is something the matter, ser knight?” he heard her say politely.
There was a clink of armour, as if the Templar in question had just bowed to her. “Apologies for waking you, Miss Hawke; Knight Commander Meredith has sent me to stand guard over your door tonight. There has been an incident and she fears for your safety.”
Cullen felt his stomach drop in horror.
The tremor in Bethany’s voice couldn’t have been faked. “You’re going to stand here… outside my room… all night?”
“That’s correct, Miss Hawke. Please, be at ease. I will not intrude on your personal space, or your sleep- I am merely to stop anyone from disturbing you.”
“Wh-what happened? Why do you need to stand here?”
“I am not privy to the details, miss. I merely know that your life may be in danger and I am to stop that danger from eventuating. Please, I am sorry to have borne such enigmatic and frightening news, but put your mind to rest- nothing will get in or out of this door while I stand here. You are quite safe to sleep.”
Cullen could hear her thanking the knight, murmuring a good evening to him before the door clicked closed loudly in the silence of the night. He climbed awkwardly to his feet and stared at her across the room, the panic he saw in her eyes mirrored in his own.
He was trapped in her room.