The first time he met the Herald of Andraste, he didn’t think much of her. The only thing on his mind was how many soldiers fell to bring her closer to the Breach. She was a prisoner then and no where near as important as any of them thought she would become. To him, her being an elf and a mage mattered not at that time. It was only later, after the first attempt at closing the Breach, that it struck him: she was just like the Hero of Ferelden.
Not physically, but the fact that she, too, was a mage elf. It also brought back old memories of his time in the Circle of Ferelden, before the abominations. How strange. He hadn’t thought about her in a very long time. Between the Kirkwall Chantry exploding, Meredith going mad and trying to command what was left of the templars in the city, he had little time to reflect on the past.
His heart still beat slightly faster at the thought of the young woman he had under his care at the Circle Tower. He recalled there were times it was hard to stand in the same room as her. A gentle flower she was. Reading and studying piously and had the most beautiful smile when she looked at him. He was so young, though. Young and naive. He dared to hope she shared his feelings as well, although nothing could come out of it. His interest was clear though and she never did anything about it. But some days, he could tell by how she looked at him that she wasn't completely as uninterested as she tried to make him believe… And then, the incident in the storage room happened. She got inside the phylactery reserve with another mage and broke phylacteries. Or rather, only the one of her friend who happened to be a blood mage. If that Grey Warden recruiter had not been there…
He shook his head a bit. Now was not the time to think about his old flame. Besides, wasn’t she with that other Grey Warden that survived Ostagar with her? Why couldn’t he let her go? How long had it been now? Ten years?
And where was she today? No one had seen or heard of her since the end of the Fifth Blight. Was she going alright? Was she happy? Did she remember him? At all?
The knock on the door pulled him out of his thoughts.
“Cassandra wishes for us to meet the Herald. Well, officially,” he heard Josephine said from the other side of the door. “Are you ready, Commander?”
Reminiscing will have to wait. Now that Cassandra had declared publicly that the Inquisition was reborn, saying they had a lot of work ahead was putting it mildly. A handful of soldiers, pilgrims always coming in, an abandoned village with little fortifications, rough headquarters (much to Josephine’s dismay even though she did her best to hide it), isolated from the rest of the world and, the cherry on top, no Chantry support. The thought of it all gave him a slight headache.
“Ready as I'll ever be,” he answered as he walked out of his room. It was his temporary quarters. He had plans to move with the soldiers soon after they were done meeting with the Herald.
“There is so much we need to discuss. I can barely figure out where to start. We have to deal with the accusations of the Chantry, gain followers and favors from the people and nobility so our renown could stretch beyond this valley and there is, of course, the matter of closing the Breach with the help of the mages or the templars… But for that, they need to stop fighting to---”
“One thing at a time, Ambassador. If you list everything that must be done to her at the first meeting, she might end up running away with the only hope we have to end this madness.” And how would he be able to keep everyone alive if the only person with the power to close the Breach would disappear?
“Yes, you're right. But she needs to know all this.”
“And she will. All in due time.”
“And when will that be?”
“Considering the state of things, probably at the second meeting.”
It was a joke. Or an attempt at it because it was half the truth. He and Josephine looked at each other and a ghost of a grin appeared on their lips. Their future looked grim as they will be under a lot of pressure for the coming weeks to do the impossible: bring back the Inquisition from the history books, close the Breach, find out who killed the Divine and bring her murderer to justice. Some humor wouldn't hurt to lighten their burden, but neither of them was in the mood right now.
“There you are,” Leliana said as she saw the two of them entered the war room. The function of the room was improvised, just like the rest of Haven: no windows which forced the use of an incredible amount of candles to have enough light to see the war map, two human size statues and books. Lots of books. Which probably didn't have anything to do with war. He had yet to look at them, but considering the previous owners of the place, Cullen suspected they were all about religion or whatever cult they had here. It was also probably one of the rarest rooms without a cold draft or some damp that found its way inside through some unknown crack.
“What are the news?” the Commander asked, taking his position behind the wooden table.
“Solas told us that if we can send enough power into the mark, we have a chance to close it,” the Spymaster added. “If only we could ask for the mages of Redcliffe to help us.”
“Oh sure. Like that will not go wrong. We don't know anything about the mark. In fact, none of us do. Not even Solas. Making it stronger might be the end of us!”
“What do you suggest then?”
“What? They can't do a thing!”
“They could weaken the Breach, allowing the Herald to be able to close it with the amount of power she already has. I think this would be the safer course.”
“You have no proof of that.”
“Like you have no proof that pouring more power into it will not be too much for the Herald to control.”
“I think we should discuss this once Cassandra and the Herald will join us,” the Ambassador cut in. “Besides, we have to take care of the Chantry accusations first. No one in their right mind would want to associate themselves with us if the Chantry claims we're heretics.”
And as if on cue, Cassandra and the one bearing the mark came in.
Their first meeting went well. The Herald seemed like a woman with a good head on her shoulders and Cullen was thankful for that. Polite and diplomatic, surprising for a Dalish elf. Truth to be told, he was expecting someone more on the defensive, considering the background of the Dalish. At least, the mark had not been granted to an idiot or one thirsty for power. Maybe the Maker was watching over them.
He was busy training the recruits when they finally had the chance to speak properly for the first time outside of the war room. All that was on his mind was their mission and he couldn't help but talk about it, almost giving her a lecture. It happened then, the first spark. Her smile caught him off guard and he found himself unable to find the right words until he focused back on his work. Thankfully, a scout came in with a report which saved him from a longer awkward moment with her. However, she did not end the conversation there. Oh no.
She wanted to know more about him and he obliged her of course. After all, if they were to work together, they might as well learn more about one and another. Nothing unpleasant until she asked questions about the life of a templar and their vows. He could have swore she asked those questions to tease him or try to make him blush. The Hero of Ferelden had the same playful glow in her eyes when she was about to play a trick on a fellow mage or templar...or him.
Never trust the quiet ones.
However, the Herald was anything but quiet. She quickly took matters into her hands to solve their problems. Meanwhile, when she was out there dealing with all sorts of dangers and conflicts, he took care of the trouble brewing within their ranks. The mages and the templars already serving the Inquisition kept blaming each other for the Divine's death. He had to be firm and made sure to take no side to settle the many disputes rising around sporadically.
Adding to all this the Chancellor's “help”. Conveniently appearing at the worst time to feed the fire. They all had their hands full. Was it the same for her? Against all odds, she and her small group had to fight to get alliances from elves, dwarfs and Fereldans to counter the Blight while being declared a traitor to the country. How did she hold up? How did she do it? And more importantly, will they be able to do the same with the Inquisition?
One night, as he busied himself to go rest in his tent after a long day of training, he found her standing in front of it. The moon begun its ascension in the sky an hour ago, lighting shyly her face and her Dalish tattoos. It was the first time in days he saw her and he couldn't help but think that she was a sight for sore eyes.
“All done for the day, Commander?” she asked with her arms crossed over her chest, that playful gleam shining in her eyes.
“And you? Done closing all the rifts in the Hinterlands?” he answered with a grin on his lips.
“Not quite but I'm getting there.” She tilted her head to the side, grinning back at him. “How about a drink, Commander?”
“At this hour? I'm not sure it's a good idea. I have to inspect the troops first thing in the morning.” His hands found themselves on the pommel of his sword, a habit he took from their war room meetings. Something he was grateful for right now. He didn't know what to do with his hands at the moment.
“I understand, but you look like you could use a break from everything.” Her comment surprised him. Wasn't she the one who needed a break? She looked as drained as him if not more. “Only one drink, Commander. I promise to not hold you long.”
“Alright, but only if you let me buy yours.”
“Oh you don't have to---”
“I insist. Let it be my contribution to help you unwind a bit.” Now it was her turn to be speechless. Did she think he wouldn't notice her state? Truth to be told, if it wasn't of the moonlight, maybe he wouldn't have. Or was it his suggestion that made her unable to speak?
Finally, she found her voice again and thanked him. During their time at Haven, taking a drink with her became something he looked forward to when he heard she was coming back from wherever she went to build the Inquisition's reputation. They had good conversations and their load of disagreements, especially after she recruited the mages of Redcliffe to their cause as free allies. His head hurt from all the complains and extra work it gave him as he had to be vigilant at all times. Out of habit, but also, out of fear. His memory of the abominations at the Circle Tower in Ferelden was still fresh, even after ten years. He couldn't let that happen here. Ever.
How stupid he felt when the threat that could destroy them actually came from the outside.
It couldn't have happened at a worse moment: the whole Inquisition was celebrating a well-earned victory when the enemy knocked at their door. One look at it all and he knew they were done for. However, he kept his opinion to himself and dared to hope they could be victorious. They had the Herald of Andraste at their side after all.
He dispatched orders, sending the civilians to the Chantry and leading what little army they had. The Herald bought them time, but a dragon, an archdemon, arrived. Any ground they won turned into smoke and ashes. They gathered at the Chantry, the last refugees running in with the Herald and her team. Their choices were limited. He opted for an ultimate sacrifice to destroy the enemy, but then, unexpectedly, Chancellor Roderick remembered how to escape the valley. Him. Of all people. He held the key to their survival. But the cost…
She was to remain behind to cover their escape.
Time was of the essence. He couldn't afford to linger and debate. There were too many lives at stakes. It was with a heavy heart and a shaky faith that he gave her his last words before returning to the survivors and ordered them to follow the Chancellor. It took every fiber of his being to not look back as he engaged the underground path out of Haven. Guilt quickly set in and he wondered how he will ever be able to look at himself again next time he'll be standing in front of a mirror.
“This way!” Cassandra yelled at Blackwall and Varric. “Hurry!”
“It would be easier for me if I had your legs!” Varric shot back. The cry of the archdemon was still echoing between his ears, frightful as ever. And Corypheus. How the hell did he survive their last battle? Hawke made sure he was dead. If you looked at dead in a dictionary, you would find the picture of Corypheus. So how the hell was he still alive and kicking their butts?
“The thought of being buried alive is not motivating enough?” Blackwall added. The Grey Warden pushed opened the doors of the Chantry with Cassandra's help.
“Buried alive in an avalanche or being eaten by an archdemon. Tough choices there, Hero. Is 'none of these options' a possibility?”
While the two of them argued, Cassandra quickly scanned the area. The building was empty and there were no indication to show them where to go. How were they supposed to find the road the Chancellor mentioned? Were they going to die here? With the Herald?
Thank the Maker! Cullen had left one of his men behind to show the way! The scout waved his arms almost hysterically at them, probably eager to leave this place which was filled with an ominous feeling.
“Quit being smart-asses and get in there!” she ordered Blackwall and Varric. The two men didn't need to be told twice and ran toward the passage the Inquisition soldier pointed. The Seeker took one last look behind before rushing inside the underground path, closing the march of their little group. Too soon, the ground shook beneath their feet and a loud rumbling grew closer by the second.
“Faster!” she commanded. The soldier held his torch higher, doing his best to not panic and follow Cassandra's orders. Dust fell from the ceiling, a little at first then heavily before a section of the tunnel collapsed on them. At that moment, Cassandra and Blackwall both raised their shields together.
“To my side!” the Grey Warden shot at her. Understanding he planned to combine their shields in hope to increase their protection, Cassandra hurried to his side, dragging an unconscious Varric with her on the way. The dwarf had been knocked out by a large debris that fell from the ceiling and hopefully, he didn't suffer from any severe injuries. The scout rushed beneath Blackwall's protection and tried to keep the torch lit. Without it, it would take them forever to leave this place.
The rumbling became weaker, then stopped. The shaking also ceased. Cassandra opened her eyes and her heart skipped a beat when there was no more light. Were they...buried alive?
“Give me a minute,” the soldier said, visibly shaken by the events. The sound of a piece of flint hitting another mixed with their erratic breathing were all they heard in the passageway for a couple of minutes. As light appeared again, Cassandra noted their luck: two feet behind them, the tunnel was completely buried in dirt, rocks and snow.
“Let's move before the rest of the tunnel fall on us as well,” she told the men. A small moan came from Varric, proof that he was still alive. Relieved to hear that, she took him down the path with Blackwall's help. His helmet took most of the hit. However, with the dim light of the torch, it was hard to tell if he was bleeding or not. They would have to wait until they were outside to examine him properly.
The tunnel seemed to go on and on and on when, finally, a cold breeze blew in their direction. It felt as if they had been stuck there for hours and Cassandra welcomed the bitter cold on her face.
They were alive.
“Is this the part where you finally admit that you like me, Seeker?” a familiar voice asked her.
“Of course you would only wake up now that the worse is behind us,” she grunted annoyingly at him before letting go his arm. Varric weakly laughed as he leaned on Blackwall to regain his balance.
“How lucky a man can be?” He removed his helmet and, after a thorough inspection, tossed it aside in the heavy snow. “We just survived an avalanche and I can finally get rid of that horrible helmet. I hated it but it just saved my life.” He looked behind him, the pitch black tunnel silent as the dead. “And people wonder why I hate to go underground.” He took a pause. “What now?”
“We must find the rest of the Inquisition,” Cassandra replied. “Before we freeze to death out here.”
“What about the Herald?” Varric knew the answer, but he had to ask.
“Our escape route crumbled behind us. It is useless. However, I doubt she had the time to follow us.”
“So she's dead?” His question sounded more like an affirmation than an interrogation. Cassandra remained quiet for a moment, put her shield on her back and spoke again.
“She fired the trebuchet. Maybe she had time to find shelter afterward.”
“Where? Nothing could have withstood the force of that avalanche. And that's if that thing didn't kill her in the process,” Blackwall sighed. “It would take a miracle to even find her body.”
“We must try,” Cassandra carefully said. “Let's find Cullen and organize a search party.”
Whether it was luck or faith, the four of them easily could follow the trail of the Inquisition. Cassandra seriously started to believe even more that it was the Maker's work. They should have died. All of them. And yet, here they were, braving the cold to reach the temporary camp their comrades established after their escape, down in a valley, surrounded by mountains. Except for Varric who suffered a minor concussion from the hit he took during the collapse of the tunnel, none of them were injured. Only a few scratches remained from their battle at Haven against the Elder One and those got healed quickly and easily by the mages with healing magic.
Cullen was keeping himself busy, trying to not think about those they left behind when he saw the Seeker coming his way. His surprised look changed rapidly to worry when he didn't see the Herald at her side.
“Where is she?” He didn't dare to hope for good news and Cassandra never gave him the time to think she had any to deliver.
“She did not follow us. The tunnel collapsed behind us half way through. However, she could have found another way. We have to look for her.” They had to. She was too important to be considered dead unless they saw her body. More than ever, they needed her. Not just because of her mark, but mainly because she was their light in these dark times.
“You two! You're coming with me!” he shouted at two soldiers, pointing them with his gloved hand.
“I am coming as well.” Cassandra told Cullen.
“Are you sure? You just traveled a long way. You could use some rest.”
“I have just arrived. My memory of the path is still fresh.”
“Alright. We're leaving. Now.” The soldiers immediately followed him and Cassandra. As the Commander walked pass the two other advisors, he quickly explained them what they were going to do and left the camp to their care. Neither of them tried to stop them.
Shaking violently, Ellana forced herself to take another step forward. And another. And another one.
Breathing hurt. Her feet felt like ice. And the mark kept pulsing in her hand, the aftermath of her encounter with that Elder One. She was alive...but for how long? She had no idea where she was going or if she was walking in the right direction.
There was so much to think about: Corypheus's revelations, her teammates, the Inquisition, her clan's safety, her role in all this storm of events.
Creators, give me strength, she prayed. I didn't die at the Conclave and closing the Breach didn't kill me either. Please, let me survive this as well. I didn't escape an avalanche to die of cold. My end should be of old age or in combat but not like this. I still have so many things to do. I have to stop this madman to destroy Thedas. The vision I had at Redcliffe must not be.
She was worried sick about Cassandra, Blackwall and Varric. What if sending them away had been their downfall? What if they were trapped in the Chantry, beneath all this snow, waiting for the Inquisition to dig them up? By the Dread wolf she hated not knowing these things.
The cold wind bit in her exposed skin and the light snow flying around almost blinded her. If only the sound of her steps in the snow was the only one around. However, wolves howled nearby, as if watching her and waiting for her to fall. Being Dalish, knowing the behavior of wild animals were among the things she knew well, although hunters of the clan were more knowledgeable about them. Unfortunately, since the Breach, animals have not been acting normally and Ellana feared these wolves were tracking her or would attack her on sight.
She did not have the strength to fight back if they came to that.
Creators, I know I said I would rather die on the field of battle but please, let it not be wolves. Not tonight. I'm greedy, I know but...I'm not simply a Lavellan anymore.
She never asked for the title these people gave her and neither did she want everyone's hope on her shoulders. Still, running away was not an option since Redcliffe. And she made friends. Turning her back on them would mean to betray herself. They treated her like a person. Well, the most important ones. Never Cassandra or Leliana called her “knife-ear”, even when they interrogated her about the explosion at the Conclave. Varric kept the “Herald” title close to his lips, but she never saw a hint of hatred in his eyes. Sera, Bull and Dorian never cared. Solas wasn't sure about her at first, but warmed up after he saw she was genuinely interested in what he had to say and share about the Fade. Josephine reluctantly talked about the problems her lineage brought in the ranks and outside, clearly not happy about the lack of respect others showed to the “Herald”. Blackwall respected her and gave her advice according to his own experience without restraint. Vivienne and her were not on good terms, but it was because of their views on the Circle. And Cullen…
When he was talking, he always looked at her in the eye unless he had to explain specific war strategies on the map. He put everything he had in training the recruits and maintaining order within their ranks. Did he try to deny any ill rumor about her? Perhaps. She wanted to believe it. Having the commander of your forces on your side meant no mutiny. A good thing. And the way he blushed was utterly adorable. Sometimes, she felt bad to tease him so much, but he made it so easy.
Did he make it with the others? She hoped he did. She wanted to embarrass him again so he would rub the back of his neck with those shy eyes of his and---
A camp site! With a shivering breath, Ellana made her way to it. She found embers. Were they recent? It gave her a small boost of energy and she walked toward the small path between the mountains that led down to the valley. Each step grew heavier. She felt as if she went deeper into the snow every time she moved forward. Just another step. Just another one…
The Inquisition! It was there! At the bottom of the valley! Everyone was safe! How could she think otherwise by the size of the camp and all that light?
“There! It's her!”
“Thank the Maker!”
Her legs give out on her and she fell on her knees at the sound of those voices. The darkness hid the faces of her rescuers, but if she had any doubt, they all vanished when her face came in contact with the fur on Cullen's coat.
She muffled words into his pauldron.
“What is it? Are you hurt?!” Gloved hands lifted her face away from the warmth.
“It heard me...” That was all her weak voice could manage to tell him before she passed out.
If we are to have a chance – if you are to have a chance – let that thing hear you.
Maker… Did she really hold to his words all this time or was it her way to tease him one last time?
“We have to take her back to camp immediately,” Cassandra told him before quickly inspecting the elf's vitals. “She's freezing cold. We don't have much time before she succumbs to hypothermia.”
“She'll make it.” Cullen answered with conviction. He removed his coat and wrapped their savior tightly in it, making sure the fur of his pauldrons covered her face, then took her in his arms. “Let's go.”
The two men that came with them held up their torches and led the way down to camp. Every once in a while, the Commander looked down at the woman he was carrying to check if she was still breathing and that his coat protected her face from coming directly in contact with his icy cold armor. The metal could do worst to her then the cold wind itself.
The way back was indeed easier. However, it seemed to have taken them forever to reach the camp. That was how they all felt anyway. They were all worried about the condition of the Herald. When they finally reach the camp, Leliana was waiting for them.
“This way,” she pressed them. “The healers are already waiting for her.”
“How did you know we would find her?” Cassandra asked although she didn't sound very surprised to hear that Leliana had already everything prepared.
“I didn't. But I figured that if you did, she would need immediate care. How is she?” She turned to Cullen.
“She's still breathing. That's all I can tell you.”
“Where did you find her?” She took them to a tent where three healers waited around an empty bed of fortune.
“At the entrance of the valley, where we last stopped before settling here.”
“Incredible. She almost made it back by herself. The Maker is truly watching over her,” Leliana whispered to herself.
“We'll talk about this once she has recovered.” He settled her down on the bed and moved away to let the mages work. Everyone felt silent, their eyes on the Herald. Cassandra was the first one to leave to check on Varric and Blackwall. Then Leliana walked away to speak with Josephine. Only Cullen remained at her side, hundred thoughts on his mind.
Was she going to be ok? How did she survive the avalanche? What about that creature they all saw? Did he say anything to her? Did she fight him and his beast?
Will she ever forgive him for leaving her behind?
He had been pacing for the last thirty minutes, rubbing the back of his neck from time to time when he looked toward the healers. Even if she was alive, he was restless. He—They nearly lost her. Whether or no it was luck or the Maker, he couldn't afford another situation like this one to happen again. They needed proper fortifications, a stronghold to hold their ground against a similar force and to make sure she didn't have to be the one to pay the price for their safety.
“Commander,” a mage called shyly, “your coat.”
Cullen turned around and saw one of the healers, a young mage of barely twenty years old, handing out his coat with utter care. His gaze went back toward the tent where he could see the figure of the Herald resting underneath two warm blankets.
“Thank you. How is she?” he asked, his fingers taking carefully what was his and put it back over his shoulders.
“She will be alright,” the mage nodded to him. “Two bruised ribs, minor scratches and a bit of frostbite on her cheeks. We mostly tried to keep her warm as hypothermia was the most serious condition she had. But she is fine now, Commander. She just needs rest.”
“Can I go see her?”
“Of course.” Cullen followed him to the Herald's side. Under the light of the torches, he could see the unusual redness of her cheeks and nose and the comforting rise and fall of her chest. “You found her just in time, Commander. You and Seeker Pentaghast probably save her life.”
He looked at her sleep. Peaceful. Safe. Alive. A sigh of relief escaped his lips.
“You can go rest now. You did good work.”
“T-Thank you, Commander.” With a quick bow, the youth was gone.
He sighed again and put a hand on her shoulder. The guilt remained there, in his heart, heavy as his lyrium chains. He should have been more prepared, asked Leliana to investigate the disappearance of her scout, pushed the recruits to more training, kept the civilians and workers inside the walls of Haven, called a retreat, anything but having her face danger alone for their sake.
However, he knew all those 'what ifs' might have not change the outcome of the battle. She was the Herald of Andraste and he was one of her advisors. The fate of the many rested on their shoulders and the decisions they would make. They were here tonight because she did what she had to do.
And it would always be the case, facing danger on a daily basis. The mark she carried put that burden on her alone. All he could do was to make sure she was ready to face their enemies and that their army would always be at its best.
“Never again,” he whispered to her as his grip slightly tightened on her shoulder. “I promise you.”
Few minutes later, Mother Gisele came to relieve him and to watch over the Herald while she rested. He returned to Leliana, Cassandra and Josephine and they began to argue about their next move.