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To Lose Sight of the Shore

Chapter Text

“Though all before me is shadow, yet shall The Maker be my guide.”

A hushed voice broke the morning’s stillness, its untried, rusted tones reverberating off the chilled, stone walls.

“I shall not be left to wander the drifting roads of the beyond.”

The freshly risen sun carried with it no heat, but its cool light sighed between the ornamental hatches of the tall, narrow windows, where it fell upon a carven woman. The air appeared to dance about her, like a gentle snowfall.

“For there is no darkness in The Maker’s light, and nothing that he has wrought shall be lost.”

He was bent to one knee before the stone figure, head bowed towards the ground, his gaze unwilling to meet the woman’s open arms and kind, placid features. It was a caution built on admiration. A caution built on respect. A caution built on fear.

The amber glow of candlelight flickered about his face as he repeated the prayer. It was practiced, precise, and after a lifetime of rehearsal, it would not fall short of perfection. It was familiar, and it was comfortable. In dark times he couldn’t help from clinging onto it.

Cullen was worried about the Inquisition and the direction it was heading. They were accepting help from allies they had little reason to trust, housing known fugitives and criminals, they were even sided with the rebel mages, an enemy they’d been fighting not long before. He wanted to trust Trevelyan’s judgement, he wanted to trust Lelianna’s reassurance and Josephine’s optimism. But it was… Difficult. Not one year before Cullen had watched Kirkwall’s Circle fall apart. He witnessed the devastation a single apostate mage could produce, and had to fight his way through the resulting catastrophe. Demons, abominations, blood magic. All too unpleasantly familiar. More innocent people falling victim to dismemberment, more friends torn apart before his eyes. He remembered how he felt. The memory itself ached. She was right, I was right. It’s happening again, it will always happen again…

But then, the betrayal. Treachery and tyranny by she he was meant to trust, meant to follow. A decade of lies unfolded in that single despairing afternoon. He was only able to doubt for a moment. How could she. How could I…

The decisions he made that terrible, desperate day were made in seconds. People, however, cannot change in seconds.

He knows he has to let go, leave the past be and move on. Allow himself to start anew, turn a new leaf. Again. It’s why he left his post, left the Templars, left the Chantry; left all that he knew behind to devise this, this absolutely insane exploit.

I came here to clear my head, not fill it with more worries. He sighed, his daily headache settling in already. They came easily these days. I will support the inquisition to whatever means necessary. We will close this breach with the help of our allies, allies who are ready and willing to lay down their lives for the cause.

With that he stood up, already hearing the soft foot falls and whispers of the early rising Chantry sisters, who were just now preparing for their morning errands. He made his way down the open hall towards the large, formidable doors. His back was straight, his steps were even and calculated. Even his stride was measured and powerful despite the minute twinge in his legs from having been kneeling. This was his role now, his place. None shall see me falter. There will be no room for misjudgements this time. Failure is not an option.

“Commander Rutherford, is it?” Cullen recognized the voice; theatrical, confident, and always just a little louder than necessary. He slowed to a stop and turn and face the other man.

“Yes. And you would be Lord Pavus, I presume.” He answered politely. They’d never spoken directly before.

“Ah, yes! The pernicious Magister of the Tevinter Imperium, here to infiltrate your forces and rob the Inquisition dry of all its strength and resources.” The man projected. Rather absurdly, Cullen would note. “But Lord Pavus is my father, and lucky for you, he has no interest in your Inquisition. You can call me Dorian.” He folded his arms, apparently finished.

“Dorian, then.” There was a pause.

“Do you always look so…” the mage lifted his hand from the crook of his elbow and gestured halfheartedly, “Irate?”

“What?” Cullen frowned indignantly at the accusation.

Dorian smirked, there was laughter in his voice, “I see. Well I’m sure you’re busy, Commander. I better not keep you.” And with that he slid away in the opposite direction. Cullen stood still as he watched Dorian leave, blinking dumbly and wondering what had just happened, and what could have possibly been so amusing to the exuberant mage. 

Chapter Text

For the first time since Dorian had arrived, the secluded, alpine village of Haven was teeming with life. It was a celebration unlike any Dorian had ever seen. People; farmers, cooks, servants, soldiers, smiths… Simple, homely, ordinary people coming together joyously for a single common purpose: to rejoice. That was it. No bribes, no lies, no threats, no profuse demonstrations of wealth and power. He couldn’t help having looked down on the Southerners before, with their dirty clothes, plain faces and calloused hands, but seeing them now… Seeing this side of their culture; it was fascinating.

They were all so open, so honest. None tried to hide their wide (occasionally toothless) grins, or smooth the creases and folds that stretched with their smiles. They danced wildly around fires, often with food or drink in one hand and a partner in the other. They barked laughter unapologetically, pushed and tugged one another amicably, and sang despite any lack of talent. It was as beautiful as it was disastrous.

The breach was closed, the danger was gone, and the night would be free of worry.       

Dorian leaned against the corner post of a cabin, arms folded in an attempt to fight off the cold. He happily observed the crowd, but he did not mingle. He knew the people were weary of him, though it wasn’t likely they’d take note of his background in amidst the music and dance. The people of Haven had only just warmed up to the rebel mages, and this was indeed after they’d helped repair the big imposing hole in the sky. Dorian had yet to prove himself to them, and so for now, he thought it best to leave them be.

He tapped a finger against his arm distractedly. Well, it had been a long time since he’d let himself have a little fun, though he’d never done so with a crowd such as the one he watched tonight. Maybe, maybe if I had a few drinks first, I could…

“Forces approaching!” The music stopped instantly and joyous shouts fell into startled murmurs and gasps. Dorian caught sight of the Commander at the top of the steps that came down from the Chantry. His voice rang urgently over the new silence. “To arms!”  

A chill ran down Dorian’s spine and he reached for his staff. As he did, Trevelyan jogged up, drawing his sword.

Upon passing him, the Herald turned to face Dorian and walked backwards towards Haven’s gates. “I hope you kept sober?” He asked, half-jokingly.

“Unfortunately.” Dorian nodded and moved to follow the other man.

“Good, I’ll be needing you out there.” Trevelyan spun around and quickened his pace, Dorian at his heels.

 

*

 

It felt like days since Dorian slept. In fact, it might have just been that long. It was late, or maybe early, and a quiet mourning hung in the air like a plague. Dorian sat aside on a rock whose flattened top protruded from the snow. He leaned his weight forward, elbows resting heavily on his thighs. Hanging before him, his hands were raw, rubbed red from tending wounds, red with dried and frozen blood. The cold ate at him, and he could no longer feel the places in his body where bone pressed to skin. He’d sat like this before. On his windowsill as a young man when he’d learned of his father’s plans. Alone on the street outside a tavern after Alexius asked him to join the Venatori. The weather was colder this time, considerably so, but he felt just as alone.    

These people mourned their friends, their families. He watched them as if hidden behind a cloak of invisibility. A scout sat on the other side of the fire-lit clearing, leaning forward much like Dorian. The mage recognized him, a man among the celebrations. He had been drinking joyously, singing aloud with a woman in his arms. She was gone now, and it been hours since the man lifted his eyes from where they were fixed on the ground. Compared to that scout, compared to all the others, Dorian didn’t feel as if he had had anything to lose but a warm bed and a good meal.

Haven was gone. Buried by the mountains that once stood as its protection. Buried as well were the soldiers and villagers who fell, bodies locked in battle with the corpses of their foes, the horrid, wretched beasts. With crystals of blood red piercing through their molting, grey hides. Dorian wasn’t sure he ever knew such terror.

The Commander walked across the clearing, obstructing his view of the depressed scout. The fire’s deep, orange glow flickered about the man, shimmering white and yellow on his heavy armor. As he drew nearer towards the shadows, the warm light diminished into a thin line the danced the outer edges of his frame. His head was bowed, shoulders hunched, posture stiff. He did not acknowledge Dorian.

He stopped a few paces to Dorian’s right and settled down against a chest, slowly, as though his joints were sore and his muscles stiff. His back hit the chest with a light thud, and he leaned his head backwards, letting out a sigh. Relief? Pain? Dorian didn’t move a muscle, knowing that the invisibility he maintained throughout most of the night would dwindle with the proximity. I should give the man some privacy, he thought, why else would he come to hide in the shadows. Ever a victim to curiosity, however, his eyes continued to follow the man’s movements.

The Commander’s eyes were closed. He stretched out his legs before him and the lifted his hands to his face. He smoothed them over his eyes and then further back into his hair, eventually leaving them to rest on the back of his neck once letting his head fall forward. His chin rested against the chest plate of his armor, the thick fur lining obscuring most of his face. He took another few deep breaths, and then was silent again.

Dorian had never seen the man unguarded before. Usually the Commander was standing tall, or pacing back and forth as he read through the daily reports. When he had somewhere to be he walked there with purpose, dignity, and he almost never saw the man sitting down or taking a break. Dorian was always under the impression that the Commander was rigid, inflexible, and much too severe. He was gruff and serious, and as far as the mage was concerned, he never laughed or smiled.

The silence grew far too uncomfortable.

“Commander?”

The man’s head shot up, arms falling to the hilt of his sword. He glanced wide eyed in Dorian’s direction.

“Oh, I – Dorian, I didn’t see you there…” He cleared his throat, voice breaking. In the dead of night the dim lighting was difficult to trust, but there was a split second where Dorian could have sworn that the Commander’s eyes were glistening red. “Was there something you needed?” He looked away, embarrassed.   

“I was about to ask you the same.” No answer, Dorian tried again. “Are you alright?”

“I’m… Fine. As well as one could be after the events of today, I suppose.” He wiped his eyes with the heel of his palm, being as nonchalant as he could about it. Dorian felt a twinge of guilt and looked down at his folded arms.

“I’m sorry.”   

“Don’t be.” The Commander sighed. He shifted in his spot and reached around to open the chest behind him. “Here.”

Dorian looked over. The other man held out towards him a folded blanket. A forest green fleece, the kind that was normally issued out to soldiers. He reached out to accept it, but the Commander didn’t let go right away. “Your hands.” His brows furrowed.

Dorian pulled his arm back a bit, turning his hand over to examine it. “It’s nothing, no need to worry,” he smiled, the gesture alone was draining.  “I was just helping the Chantry Sisters patch up the wounded. I’m no healing mage, but…” He couldn’t muster up the energy to deliver a punchline. “But I needed to keep myself busy. It seems I’ve neglected to wash my hands.”

The corner of the Commander’s mouth pulled into a tired, half smile. “I know what you mean.” He handed the blanket to Dorian. “They would’ve frozen solid in this climate, anyway.”

Dorian quirked an eyebrow as he pulled the blanket over his shoulders. He couldn’t help it.

“So, the Commander does have a sense of humor after all?” That only made the man in question look away again, staring at his feet to avoid the mage’s jest.         

“Are they doing well then? The wounded?”

“Those who survived the journey from Haven will heal in good time. Chancellor Roderick didn’t make it, as you might have heard.”

“No, I haven’t.” The Commander sighed again. “How is the Herald?”

“Trevelyan’s fine, he’s just resting now. I can still hardly believe he survived Corypheus and the avalanche. I found myself continuously checking to see if it really was him, that we weren’t mistaken.” Dorian huffed a laugh.

“Didn’t the two of you also survive being shot forward through time?”

“Yes. And before that he survived the conclave.” Dorian shook his head, “The company I find myself in sometimes, I swear.”

“At least he’s on our side.”

Chapter Text

Cullen’s legs felt like lead as he trudged through the soft, powder snow. The landscape was blinding, a ruthless and mesmerizing white from where his foot fell to where the sun shun bright in the cloudless sky. Its light was deceiving, however, for it showed no path nor gave any heat. Instead, it hung idly as the wind bristled against Cullen’s cheeks and nose, biting them until they were red and sore. Behind him walked a long train of bronto-pulled chariots and carts, and in their tracks marched the villagers of Haven, the former rebel mages, and the soldiers of the Inquisition. Somewhere ahead, where Cullen could not guess, was The Herald of Andraste.

The Commander didn’t sleep at all the night before. After his chat with Dorian, the two found separate tents to retire to, and while everyone (save for the night watch) slept, Cullen lay wide awake.

Head spinning, skin sweaty and irritated, fingers restless, eyes burning… It seemed that his condition was getting progressively worse with each passing night. How many people were lost at Haven? How many could I have saved? How many more will depend on me in the months to come? Will I make it? He shut his eyes tight against the torrent of queries that ravaged his mind. His blood pumped loudly under his eyelids, the pulses seemed to flash against his pupils. The pressure was unbearable.

He heard someone to his left and opened his eyes to find them, but in the haze he could only see a blurred figure.

“Cullen.” There was a hard emphasis on the consonants, vowels clipped short; the accent was unmistakable.

“Cassandra.”

“You didn’t sleep last night.” It wasn’t a question. “How are your headaches?” Clinical, dispassionate, objective. Cullen was glad he had her to confide in.

“Not so well,” He admitted, “once we find this, place, that Solas speaks of I should be better. Once we settle down, perhaps.”

“Hmph.”

“What?”

“I am supposed to believe you will settle down? You are a busy body, Cullen, you will never settle down.”

They’d been over this before. Cullen sighs, finding particularly rough terrain under the foot of snow. “Keeping busy keeps me on my toes, it’s harder when I have nothing to do, when my mind has time to wander.”

“Say what you like for now. In time you will see that my advice is sound.” Having the final word, she fell back to walk alongside the lead cart. Cullen thought she was being positively insufferable, what could she possibly know about him that he himself wasn’t already aware of? He shook his head, gently, he had no will or strength to argue today.

 

*

 

The Herald was in sight now, smiling gleefully and standing above what Cullen hoped was their last peak. He struggled up its base to peer over the edge, and once his eyes were given a moment to adjusted, he wasn’t disappointed with what they showed.

Ahead, nestled amongst the sheer cliffs of the relentless mountain side and arched over a great water fall, was a fortified fortress. Tall, stone walls encircled the great castle, and a wide iron gate clutched at the neck of the bridge, the only way in. It was unlike any stronghold Cullen had seen on this side of the Waking Sea. He stood still, letting himself evaluate the fortress in awe. Behind him, the parade of Haven’s former inhabitants caught up and looked upon the forgotten citadel with hope. Murmurings spread amongst them, and Cullen believed he heard smiles in their voices.

He stood aside and allowed the crowd to walk by, surveying them as they headed towards what would be their new home. Hand on his hilt, chin held high, there was a new hope burning inside of him, and the fire was fed with every villager, scout, mage, and soldier that marched passed. Every survivor. The long train of people and carts eventually dwindled, until the last cart rolled out in front of Cullen. It carried the wounded who could not carry themselves, as well a healing mage and a Chantry sister. Behind the cart was the last small group of people, and among them was Dorian.

Cullen hadn’t forgotten the mage who’d condoled with him the night before. It was true that he hadn’t spoken to the man much at all prior to that night, yet it had been the first time he’d seen him so… Quiet, thoughtful. It was also true that the Commander did his best to avoid the Tevinter since he joined the Inquisition at Haven. He figured the son of a noble was only looking to profit off of their efforts, or their information. The man was so, ostentatious. Cullen guessed that someone so flashy was either after something for themselves, a liar, or only willing to stick around until the going got tough. None were qualities that Cullen particularly cared for.

Yet, despite Cullen’s judgements, here he was.

He walked with one arm supporting a woman, one of the Inquisition’s soldiers who, judging by the gauze tied tightly around her thigh, fought bravely before Haven fell. Tucked over her shoulders was an army issued fleece blanket, very similar to the one he had handed Dorian the night before. The two trudged and limped along the bronto tracks that flattened the snow, stumbling once or twice. Dorian caught her by the arm each time, straightening her out once again before smiling, commenting. Cullen couldn’t hear from where he stood, but whatever the mage had to say, it made the woman blush and laugh out loud. Cullen suspected the man was flirting. He couldn’t help smirking at the thought. Dorian hadn’t been with the Inquisition long but already he had quite the reputation.

Amidst her laughter, the woman nodded towards the Commander, saying something else that he couldn’t hear. As she did, Dorian looked over towards the man, still smiling, and their eyes met. The mage raised his free hand and mocked a salute. Cullen remained stiff, unanimated, but humored the man with a nod.

Perhaps it wasn’t fair of me to pass judgement so quickly, he mused. I can give him a chance, yet.   

For a moment he couldn’t feel his migraine, or his aching limbs.  

Chapter Text

Deliberate foot falls echoed throughout the tower, resounding off the curved walls and spiraling upwards through the breaking light, rustling the air and dust that had sat idly for decades. Centuries, perhaps. The tall room smelt of saw dust and crumbled mortar, and a little something damp.

He followed the circling stairway up, thoughtlessly tracing his fingertips against the stone walls as he went. His foot fell onto the wooden floor of the second level, sending up small clouds of dust about his buckled boots as he made his made his way further through. His outside hand rested lightly on the smooth, polished banister, and he following its path as he gazed upwards at the walls of shelves. Shelves filled to the ceiling with an archive of aging books. Molded, beaten… Valuable. His gaze followed the walls around the room and he turned himself to face the furthest end, settling where he was to lean casually against the wooden rail. Light cascaded down through the clearing, illuminating the dust that hung like a curtain, dividing the tower. He let out a huff of air and the particles whirled frantically, as if he had breathed life into them.

“What a dump.” He said aloud, and that sound, too, echoed.  

“We’ll fix that.” Dorian looked down to find Solas standing in the middle of the room down below.

“Ah, Solas! Just the elf I wanted to see.” He projected musically. “You seem to know an awful lot about this place, so tell me, just how old would you say all these books are?”

“It’s hard to say, Dorian, I’ve only ever seen them in the fade, through memories. In those memories they were quite new…” Dorian believed that Solas was, if anything, a bit strange for being so obsessed with the Fade. It was one thing to study it, but to live through it the way Solas seemed to… Even for Dorian it seemed a bit unhealthy. His passion and knowledge was impressive, however, and at the very least useful. Dorian had spent time asking about the elf’s adventures, it seemed to make him happy. The apostate was still speaking, but Dorian wasn’t registering what was being said until the other mage addressed him once more. “… You seem to be well read, Dorian, or at least that’s what you like to declare. I was hoping you might join me in reorganising and archiving the library once the rubble has been cleared out. With any luck, most of the books can be salvaged, we may even rediscover something new.”

“Well, I doubt we’ll find anything I haven’t come across before, but it would be nice to see exactly what Skyhold has to offer.” He pondered. “Send word for me when you’re ready to start, for now I’ll keep looking around,” he lifted himself off the banister and made his way towards the stairs. He added in a lower voice, “I certainly won’t want to be around while they’re hauling out broken beams and barrels filled with dust.”

 

*

 

Already the previously deserted fortress was bustling with life. In every room, through every hall, people were dragging out buckets of dust and carts of debris. They stacked fallen bricks into piles that were determined by their condition and usability, and the same was done for the wood and furniture that was found strewn about. Dorian walked through it all, stepping over long planks of wood and skirting around people who strode purposefully with arms full of materials and salvage. Eventually he reached the door, and with some difficulty pushed it along its rusted hinges to step outside. Exiting from the dim interior, the bright light greeted him like fire. The fresh air, however, was more than welcoming. His eyes adjusted, and Dorian found himself walking out into a court yard. The place was riddled with weeds, vines climbed and twirled up stone walls and indistinguishable figures and carvings. The grass grew tall and wild, small white flowers budding above the reach of their slender stems. Yet another place that will require the working hands of Haven’s former inhabitants. In good time the place would be beautiful again.  

Among the working hands were some of the Chantry sisters that Dorian had acquainted himself with after Haven. They weren’t tending to the wounded now, however, currently it seemed their task was gardening. Mother Giselle was there, too, pondering a small room that stood on the far side of the courtyard. It wasn’t the flowers, structures, or statues that grabbed Dorian’s attention though, it was the small table that sat under a quaint little gazebo. Sitting on top of the table was what appeared to be a chess set.

Leaning on said table, was none other than the Inquisition’s Commander.

The man sat with his chair turned side long, using the table as an armrest while he trifled through some papers. Notes, requests, reports, updates… Even from Dorian’s vantage point on the opposite end of the garden, he could see the Commander’s knitted brow. Perplexed, as usual. It was funny, Dorian thought, he grew up surrounded by men and women who took themselves far too seriously, who thought themselves important above all things and fervently demanded respect without ever cracking a smile. Dorian learned quickly to avoid these people, to never grant them the satisfaction of having his full attention, but something about the Commander drew him in. Dorian could have laughed out loud right then. Of course I can’t keep my eyes off of him, he thought, the man is undeniably gorgeous.

The Commander certainly wasn’t of the same stock of those in Tevinter; while those in the north tended towards a clean, polished, and sculpted look, southerners seemed to be more than happy to wallow in their own natural pungency. He should be appalled. In his home country men had dignity, they were diligently clean, hair styled and slicked to perfection, they made sure to keep up a flawless complexion and made sure that any blemishes would be covered, hidden, or removed completely. Generations of selective breeding helped with that. Men were meant to be groomed and presentable, they were meant to fit. It was everything Dorian loved and hated about his culture.

Despite the Commander being a lowly Southerner, one who waited days before shaving, who never bothered covering sun spots or scars, who only wore the most practical of armor… He was alluring. Maybe it was his confidence, his authority, or the way he held himself. Tall, respectable, noble; but not arrogant. Perhaps it was the way the man seemed to be shroud in mystery, he was a million contradictions in one, a walking paradox.  

Or, maybe, Dorian just liked the man’s powerful physique, his strong jawline and soft hair. One can’t be too picky during the apocalypse, after all.

Regardless of what the mage thought of the other man, he knew that nothing was going to happen between them. The Commander was, in some obscure technicality, his superior, and trying to woo the man would be inappropriate at the very least. Besides, Dorian thought abhorrently, he probably prefers the company of women. There was, however, no harm in simply speaking with the man. Even if he can’t touch, he can look.   

With his mind made up, Dorian sauntered towards the chess board and the unsuspecting advisor.

“Do you play?” The Commander looked up from his papers, brows raised, much like the last time Dorian’s words snuck up on him.  

“Sorry?” He asked.

“Chess, of course!” Dorian sat himself down in the opposite chair, making himself comfortable while he surveyed the board. “I used to play this between my studies as a child.” He said conversationally, turning his pieces to face forward.  “I was pretty good, very good. I even started playing for gold.” The man smirked and looked back up at the Commander. “So Commander, do you play?”

The other man paused for a moment, intrigued, before answering.

“I do actually, or I did.” He set the letters down into his lap, and adjusted his chair so he sat at the table, “I used to play this with my brother and sisters, and we’d barter chores.” He smiled at the memory. Then he rested his forearms on the table, leaning forward readily, assessing the pieces on the table. “Let’s just say I ended up with a fair amount of free weekends growing up.”  

“Oh, is that challenge I hear?” Dorian quipped, prickling at the Commander’s suggestive tone. “I was afraid I’d have to go easy on you. Thatwould’ve made for a frightfully boring game.” He was silently pleased to see how easy it was to tear the other man from his duties. The Commander ducked his head bashfully, avoiding Dorian’s eyes as he smiled again.

“It has been a long time,” He assured, “so I can’t make any promises.” 

Chapter Text

“And that is why blood magic is still considered rather prevalent in Tevinter, despite their being laws against it.” Dorian moved his knight across the board, landing it deliberately onto one of the tri coloured hexagons that patterned the set. It was a daring position to leave himself in, but the mage leaned back easily and crossed his arms, emphasizing the end to his tangent. “Your move.”

Cullen leaned forward, eyes staring intently at Dorian’s knight, pondering what his opponent’s angle could have been. Surely he didn’t…no, of course not… “So your Templars,” he continued conversationally, “they only exist to regulate the - Lower class - mages?”

“Ha! Not on paper, no, but a Templar without any lyrium can only enforce so much on a magister, or any trained mage that lies comfortably within the upper echelon of the Imperium’s societal ladder.”

“So like you, then?”

“Yes, like me, you cheeky bastard. Are you going to take your turn or not?” Dorian added under his breath. The Commander simply laughed, ignoring the other man’s crass informalities, then picked up his piece. He moved the ivory white grand cleric diagonally across the board, decidedly ignoring the tempting move that Dorian’s black knight had opened up, then he leaned back to signal the end of his turn.

“And it would be naïve of me to assume you’re one of the many model, law-abiding citizens the Tevinter Imperium has to offer?”

Dorian raised an eyebrow, not fully expecting the inquiry. “You catch on quick, Commander, but if you’re meaning to ask whether or not I dabble in the forbidden arts, as you seem to have been hinting at for five turns now, rest assured that I do not, and that you have absolutely nothing to worry about. Well,” he added with a comfortable laugh, “not on that front at least.” Cullen raised an eyebrow at the last remark, the corner of his mouth pulled in an absent smirk, but he remained silent.      

“And what about you, then,” The mage continued, steepling his fingers, “did you come from a comfortable background? Born above the law? You do seem to be well adjusted to life at the top.”

 “Well,” Cullen cleared his throat. His smile fell and he shifted restlessly in his seat before answering. “Let’s just say it isn’t exactly, common, that young boys would leave comfortable homes to pledge a lifetime of service to the Chantry.” The man’s tone was decidedly clipped, but Dorian couldn’t tell if he was irritated, or simply unaccustomed to informal concerns.

“I see,” Dorian, in an attempt to hide his discomfort, quickly moved one of his pawns. It tapped lightly against the board, the sole interruption to the awkward silence that fell between them. Until…

“Checkmate.”

“What?” The mage looked up in shock.

“You faltered.” Cullen remarked casually, then he picked up one of his pieces, one that Dorian, admittedly, hadn’t considered, and lined it up with the dark queen. Dorian leaned forward in disbelief and let out a sound that was not unlike Cassandra’s ever-telling grunts. “And here I thought you wouldn’t be going easy on me.”  

“Unbelievable.” Dorian shook his head. The other man appeared much too pleased with himself. It was infuriating. The mage furrowed his brow, almost glaring across the table. “I want a rematch.”

The Commander was unfazed, shrugging his shoulder casually and pulling a face of mock consideration. “If you really think you can beat me. But we’ll have to do it another time. As it is I’ve already extended my break longer than I intended.”

A few words came to Dorian’s mind, most of which were Tevene and would have had his mother pulling him by the ear were she to hear them. “Very well.” He stood up, fingertips pressed poised against the table’s edge, “But next time we play by my rules.”

 

*

 

 A small fist fell hard against the surface of the wooden table, sending a small cloud of dust into air, swirling in the sudden commotion before the lone, flickering candle light.

“That’s not fair!” followed the cry. The young boy couldn’t have been older than seven, but his brows were knit and stern, and beheld a grave expression that was beyond his years. He stared down his sibling across the table until she could no longer bear it, and she burst into giggles.

“You’re too tiny to be scary!” She laughed between breaths. The younger boy’s eyebrows rose under his mop of curly, blond hair. “Besides, I’m playing the game fair and square, you’re just no good!”

“Am not! Am not!” He pulled back from the table and folded his arms, his chubby cheeks blooming like roses.

“Children, children!” Came an exasperated sigh from the shadows in the corner where the beds were kept. Left for the sisters, the youngest of whom was already asleep, the other for the first son. “If you’re going to be this loud playing your game then I will just have to take the board away from you.” She adjusted the infant boy in her arms, rocking him lightly. He had just started to settle down. “At least until you’ve learned to keep your voices down!”

“Sorry, mum.” The two answered in unison.

“Come on,” the girl stood up, and she was indeed much taller than her younger brother. She possessed the straight and narrow form typical of girls her age, and she wore her dusty blonde hair in ringlets, tied back with a green ribbon. She was growing faster than her mother could sew, and the frayed ends of her dress hung high above her ankles. “Help me clean this up before we go off to bed.”

The two collected the pieces off the set. Most were crudely carved out of fire wood, others that had been lost or broken were replaced with stones that bore the markings of various identifying symbols. The pieces were placed into the box, and were followed the board; an old cutting board painted with the triple shaded honeycomb shapes that represented the player’s positions.

The children left to their beds, and placing her youngest son onto her own bed, the mother tip toed her way towards the dining table and blew out the candle light, letting darkness befall the small farm house.

 

 

Cullen, at seven years of age, lay awake in his bed. His head was tilted towards the window, as it was most nights. In the heavy silence he watched the sky, the blue grey clouds traversing a deep and dark nothing. Behind them stars twinkled happily. The moon painted their edges in a pale light.

Chapter Text

The pain pulsated and thrummed heavily at Cullen’s temples, each beat scattering his thoughts just as he’d collected them again. He braced his full weight against the heavy desk of his office. Before him, strewn about the oaken surface were piles of papers and scrolls from nearly every corner of Southern Thedas, laid askew by shaking hands. The Inquisition had banners raised and supporters gathered in what seemed to be every village and city between the westernmost deserts of Orlais and the seas beyond Denerim, and with every camp erected and every location claimed came the promise of more forces to be trained and more patrols to be issued. Simply keeping up with the correspondence and orders would have been a difficult task in itself, the fact that more and more of the crudely scrawled letters reported bad news made the entire process a nightmare.

“The Red Templars-” Meredith’s decaying smile stretched manically across her lifeless skin, the force of the red lyrium’s essence like a violent chant, an alluring rage that beckoned to you, held you, terrified you- “taken Suledin’s Keep-“ Swords cutting easily through rotting, greying hides only to hit hard against the crystalized growth within. Each slash brings a furious inhuman snarl from the husks. It could have been you, it could have been- “-holding nearby villagers prisoner-“ A cage, trapped, crushing, no way out no way out no way- 

The Commander whirled around and slammed the side of his balled up fist against the stone frame of the narrow window behind him, surprising himself out of the trance. Slowly, he stretched his fingers flat against the cool surface and gently rested his forehead beside them, reveling in the brief silence he had established for himself. He counted his breaths, each rise and fall of his chest proving that weight he’d felt there just moments ago was imagined, fabricated. The thought was almost reassuring. Without looking, he considered the bottom drawer of his desk, the one fastened shut with a padlock. He contemplated what lay inside. A single box withholding a single substance. This can all go away. You’d be better off taking it. Everyone would be better off…

“No. Not today.” He said aloud. “Maker knows I’ve survived worse than this.”      

 

*

 

“Ah, here it is.” Solas pulled a small, lightly bound book from its place on the high shelves. Resting his hip against the side of the ladder and bracing his feet tightly on its steps, he freed both of his hands to clear dust off the book’s cover and squinted at the title, which was too faded to make out. Dorian looked up from where he sat on the ground, just having started on his seventh stack of books.

“Is that the one you saw while you were in the Fade?” He glanced back down at his work, placing a book into the box on his right, between authors Ge and Gi. 

“Yes. There were many strong feelings attached to it. Good memories, it seems. Whoever was reading it must have been absolutely enthralled. Few memories have I wandered where such passion had been attached to a book. So, I was curious.” The elf began to carefully turn the yellowed pages, happy to find the writing inside to be intelligible. Dorian smiled and let out a small huff of laughter, shaking his head in disbelief.

“Aha, the feared renegade apostate, trading deals with demons from beyond our world in exchange for some good reading recommendations.” He mocked, placing the next book from the stack into the box on his left.

“On second thought,” The elf continued, ignoring Dorian’s remarks out of habit, “I may not share the same enthusiasm for this genre of literature as did the owner of the ancient memory.” Dorian, intrigued, looked up once more and found the elf’s face twisted into a humorous grimace, the childish expression drew an easy laugh from the Tevinter mage. 

“And what sort of genre would that be?”

“See for yourself.” Solas tossed the book, not uncarefully, down to Dorian, smiling openly as he did. The other mage caught it eagerly and immediately began skimming through its pages.

Dorian shot a look at Solas, who stood still upon the ladder, anticipating the other’s reaction. “This is positively… Lewd.” And at that the two could no longer hold in their laughter. Dorian flipped to random sections of the book, eyebrows raised. “I didn’t even think the great authors of old could be this dirty.”

“Boys…” Both mages stopped and looked around to find Spy Master Leliana making her way up the stairs behind them, shaking her head and tisking in mock disapproval. “So typical!” Solas cleared his throat and returned his attention to the shelf in front of him, a smile faint on his lips. Dorian did the same, ducking his head once more to the stacks of books laid out before him.

 

*

 

The remainder of the day was pleasant enough, and the tall, circular library was quiet for the most part, though there was a constant rhythm of stiff, rustling paper and the occasional thud of a heavy, leather bound book being stacked.  There were only a few occasions where the tower seemed to respond with any semblance of life and that was only when the mages partook in flippant debates regarding various authors and periods of history. Dorian scrutinized the spine of the next book in his pile, then checked the cover, then flipped through the first couple pages. With there being no author, or at least, no visible indication of one, he placed it in the small pile of similar “authorless books.” He didn’t mind the quiet of the library so much, he had always found a sincere sort of solace in books, a welcoming comfort in their pages. He used to read all the time as a child, constantly reading… Until he found ways of physically sneaking out of his parents estate, that was. Then, as if reminiscing in an almost forgotten childhood had summoned it, he picked up an old book bound and engraved in a style that was unique to his homeland. He traced his fingers along the worn indentations, recognizing them almost immediately. So far the only books he’d found had been books of educational and historical value, books about ancient battles, properties of potions, religious text, dragons… The last thing he expected to find was a collection of Tevinter fairy tales. He fingered through the book’s contents, reading the stories’ titles and recalling their themes. It had been decades since he’d read these stories, but they remained clear in his mind, only now of course he could better identify the stories’ logical fallacies as well as their racist and classist ideologies. How typical it was of upper class Tevinter to compress these sort of principles and beliefs into short works of fiction made attainable to the most impressionable. Dorian only shook his head in a manner that was both glum and forgiving, and set the book aside into a pile of its own.

 

*

 

Heavy, rich curtains were drawn shut across the ceiling-high windows that bordered the large dining hall, obstructing the passage of the Northern sunset’s hot and harsh light. The room wasn’t left completely dark, however, as a canopy of ornate candle-lit chandeliers hung glistening from high above. Their crystalized lights reflected upon the silverware laid out across the deep red table cloth below. It was a room fit for a wondrous ball and a table fit for 50 guests, but only three chairs were occupied that evening.

A young boy sat at the edge of his seat, the elaborately carved chair being much too heavy for him push forward himself, even if his feet did fully reach the ground. He fiddled with his fork, which was also heavy, and pushed the green food in laps around his plate. On his left, at the head of the table, his father slowly lifted food to his mouth, and across from him his mother slowly cut a small piece off of the steak. Somewhere behind him a servant stood idly out of plain view, ready to assist should the masters of the house need anything.

“Dorian. Quit playing with your food like that, you’ll scratch up the plates.” His mother spoke without looking up. The young boy sighed and then shoveled the food into his mouth, letting some of it hang out between his lips.

“Dorian, would you eat like that if we had guests over?” His father glared until the food was slurped out of sight. It wasn’t every day that the Pavus family got together for meals. Dorian hardly ever saw both his mother and father in the same room at any given time, and more often than not one or both of them were busy attending dinners with other families and organizations. Dorian had grown accustomed to eating with his nanny (an elderly woman whom he mistakenly believed was named “Nanni”) among the servants those days when his parents didn’t come home, but those tended to be his favourite meals, and Nanni agreed to it but only when the young boy promised not to tell his parents. She knew nothing good would come should the parents find out their son had been eating in the lower kitchens among the “working people”.   

Tonight was special, however, tonight was Dorian’s last night home before leaving for The Circle of Magi. Already at 8 years of age Dorian was showing a promising amount of magical ability, much to the pleasure of his parents. Though the young boy couldn’t articulate it, he often wondered whether his parents were truly proud of him or simply pleased with themselves.

“I have a gift for you, before you go, I was going to give it to you in the morning, but I suppose you can have it now.” Lord Pavus spoke, looking up from his food and smiling at his son. Dorian widened his eyes with interest and on queue a servant came behind him holding a book out for the young boy. He took it eagerly and observed the cover. A collection of early Tevinter fairy tales.

“Thank you so much!” He exclaimed gleefully, a trick his mother taught him when guests came over and bored him, he’d discovered that the guise worked just as well on his father. “I’ll have Nanni read one to me every night.” His mother frowned, and his father stared down once more at his plate.

“Dorian, Nanni won’t be going to the Circle with you, you know that.”

“Oh. Right. Tonight then?”

“Ah, Well-“

“We’ve given her away.” Dorian’s mother cut her husband off. “You’re a big boy now you don’t need a nanny, certainly not when you’ll be going to school. We sent her away this morning, she’s now working for the lovely couple that I had over for tea the other day, they’ll be expecting a child any day now. It’s… Dorian?” Without a word the young boy grabbed the book and left the dining hall. He didn’t look back, but behind him he could hear the start of a shouting match erupting between his parents. He ran up the stairs, down a long corridor, and shut himself in his room. Quickly, he looked around. Sometimes she left notes for him in his room on special occasions, she must have left something behind for him, even a short “good luck” note. Finding nothing, he tossed his new book roughly to the floor and made straight for his bed, dropping his full weight onto it and pressing his face into the pillow, crying quietly so that no one would hear. 

Chapter Text

“Here.” With his left hand the commander held out a folded piece of paper to the scout entering his office, and with his right he continued jotting down notes, his eyes never leaving the desk. “Take these papers regarding construction in the Western Approach to Spy Mater Leliana for me.”

“Yes, sir.” The scout reached for the note, hesitating momentarily before grasping it. “Um...”

“Yes?”

“It's just that, er, Master Pavus wishes to see you, sir.”

Cullen stopped writing mid sentence. Strange, he thought, Inquisitor Trevelyan has already updated me with all the findings from their latest venture, could there be something else that was overlooked? Even kept from the Inquisitor? “Well? Did he say why?”

“No, sir.” The young scout stammered, “Just that it was important you came at once, sir.”

Cullen stood up, wincing slightly as he straightened his back. The Commander hadn't seen the mage since their game of chess more than a week before. The two had been busy in the time since, however, setting up Skyhold and exploring the regions further west. As it was, the Commander still found himself incredibly busy, even with everything having settled down and found a place or routine. He wouldn't want it any other way, despite what Cassandra might deem wise, the heavy work load helped the days blur together and the nights pass soundlessly.

This supposedly urgent meeting with Dorian was certainly a deviation from Cullen's routine, but not an entirely unwelcomed one. If the mage was in possession of information so pressing that it called for Cullen's immediate attention, then he trusted that it would be of great value, worth hearing directly from the man himself.

The scout took a few uncertain steps back, “He's waiting for you in the garden, sir.” And with that he scampered out of the room.

 

*

 

He couldn't have explained it, but stepping outside into Skyhold's small courtyard made Cullen feel all of a sudden, off. As a rule he'd almost never come to this part, and when he did it was at the crack of dawn when most everyone else was still asleep, or just rising. Now the place felt too bright, too loud, too crowded. Too many faces that the commander didn’t recognize, too many names he couldn’t quite recall. Many of these people had not likely seen the Commander outside his own quarters in days, and already he could feel their eyes dart towards his unexpected presence. It wasn't insecurity he was feeling, not really. 

He stood for a moment on the shaded landing below the arch, searching the lively green clearing for Dorian before spotting him. The man was leaning comfortably against one of the pillars of the gazebo, basking in the sunlight and partaking in pleasant chatter with one of the Inquisition's agents. It didn't appear that he noticed Cullen's entrance, and so the Commander stayed watching from the shadows for a few moments longer, surprising even himself, as it was hardly the most efficient or productive choice.

Dorian, as always, appeared completely relaxed and confident. He didn't possess the stiff posture or rigid edges typical of nobility, but instead seemed to move naturally with ease and even elegance. It was the sort of confidence that not only made the man seem at home in almost any setting, but the sort that also drew people in. The mage smiled warmly and his skin seemed to glow. A week spent in the desert seemed to have done well for the man. And I hardly left my office in all that time, perhaps I should schedule more time training with my soldiers...

He paused. Hold on. Dorian didn't look as if he had any urgent news at all. Why didn't he just come to me? Why go through the trouble of sending a runner? Unless...

Doubtful and a little flustered, Cullen made his way into the clearing towards Dorian, not knowing at all what to expect.

“You asked to see me?” 

“Ah, yes! Commander there you are!” He almost felt embarrassed having the other man's full attention on him. “We still need to have that rematch, don't go thinking I've forgotten now.”

Cullen furrowed his brows. “The runner you sent said it was urgent.”

“Is this not?”

“Unlike some people I do have work to do around here you know.”

“Trust me we all know. In fact, most of us think you could use a decent break. Now let’s go, unless of course you're afraid you won't be able to beat me twice.” The mage turned smoothly and made his way to the small chess table, pulling a chair out for himself while gesturing for the commander to take the opposite seat.

“Of all the-” Cullen muttered before following. “Did Cassandra put you up to this?”

“Oh, quit your whining and sit down.”

Cullen hesitated again, finding himself ever out of his element and contemplated the pile of unchecked correspondence in his office. One look from the mage however, clever and confident, made up his mind. He took the seat and leaned over the board, eyes already darting from piece to piece, calculating.

“Alright, I’ll warn you though, I have no intension on letting this game drag on.” The Commander boasted.

Dorian raised an eyebrow, leaning in to the challenge. “I didn’t expect you would, but as I’m sure you recall, last time I promised we’d have our rematch my way.”

 

*

 

They were 10 turns into the game and Cullen could already see the other man’s angle and was predicting his moves accurately. Dorian didn’t seem to notice that the commander had caught on, and was moving right into the trap he was setting up for him. Cullen reached for the piece to block Dorian’s promoted knight enchanter, but as his fingertips touched the polished wood they burned and tingled. He drew his hand back sharply and hissed, tapping his thumb and forefinger together testing their numbness.

“Flaming swords- What in the maker’s name was that!?” Cullen scowled, flicking his hand to cool off the burning sensation.

“Just an old Tevinter trick.”

“That’s cheating!”

“Of course not! It’s right in the rules: should the knight enchanter, or magister as we call that piece in Tevinter, has a chance to be threatened during a turn they may charm any one of the opponents pieces so long as it isn’t the king or another knight enchanter. Only one piece can be charmed at a time and only when the knight enchanter is being moved.”

Cullen squinted. “You made that up.”

“I wouldn’t dare.” Dorian mocked.

“Alright then. Tell me this: What is the opponent to do should they not be a mage?”  

“The opponent will just have to get a little creative. A true commander of such a game should know how to act when the odds appear to be stacked against him.”  Dorian shared a knowing glance with the Commander.  

Cullen slouched back in his seat and sighed, looking begrudgingly at the board before him for a few moments. “And here I was afraid you would make it too easy for me…” He shook his head, thinking. “Am I to assume that the pieces should remain where they fall?” He gestured to his pawn that lay on its side, having rolled three spaces away.

“You would assume correctly.”

“And that if a magic wielding piece may cast a spell, then a piece trained as a Templar may dispel magic as well?” Dorian simply nodded in response.

Cullen leaned in once more and rethought his strategy.

The game went on longer than Cullen would have liked, but he hardly noticed. Before him was a new challenge and he was just getting into the swing of it.  With every other turn it seemed as though Dorian was casting a completely different spell, changing the board and effecting the pieces in ways that kept Cullen constantly on his toes. In turn Cullen did his best to predict which spaces or pieces Dorian would charm in order to counter it, but he wasn’t always successful, leaving him to reconsider the pieces at play once more when a turn didn’t go his way. As another unique turn of event, it was for once the newly energized Cullen doing most of the talking while Dorian listened politely and observed his opponent.

“Checkmate!” Cullen laughed. “I have your king cornered, leaving you with no more possible moves.” He smiled triumphantly and leaned back in his chair, still marveling the board before him. Only when he noticed Dorian’s silence did he look up to meet the mage’s eyes. The other man was relaxed, leaning back against into his chair with his arms folded comfortable across his abdomen. His eyes held what seemed to be a knowing shimmer, and one corner of the man’s lips lifted in what was a kind of smile, as though he was recalling a fond memory. Cullen quickly averted his gaze, feeling all at once like the eyes of the entire world were upon instead of the eyes of a single man. “I should be going,” He said lamely, “this was…” What was it Cassandra called it… “A good distraction, thank you, but now there is much work to be done.” He stood from his seat and began to leave.

“I hope we’ve the chance to do this again sometime.” Dorian spoke to the man’s back.  

Cullen paused. “Of course.” He replied over his shoulder.