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Alone, they make emptiness real.

Together, they are the bones of the world.

–the Qun, Canto I

~~~

Bull keeps watch, broad-axe resting across his lap. He doesn’t need to–Solas and Merrill put up wards like little fortresses, good as cliff-rock, but he can’t sleep. Even the night breeze off the river can’t extinguish the shuddering smell of ash on the Exalted Plains. Nothing’s on fire for a straight mile in either direction. He gets the feeling it’ll always smell like burned undead, burned houses, burned Orlesians.

It’s been a shit day, a terse day, the kind of day where Bull lost his words. It started simple: Merrill, doggedly cheerful and digging through ruined elf remains in the refuse of an old shack, ashes and grime up her forearms and thick splat of black refuse on her jaw. Solas, politely coughing and wondering if they shouldn’t move on. Varric, losing his shit and snorting into his arm.

“Daisy,” he finally said, “Daisy. You’re going to make yourself sick.”

Bull saw her go up to the shoulder inside the carcass of a wraith demon once, tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth; this is nothing.

“Don’t be silly, Varric,” she replied, a look of triumph as she finally drew out a pendant, clotted with black ashes and demon pus. “We’re taking these to the Dalish.”

He figured that was what she was after. As soon as they’d strolled into the Plains and Harding had mentioned it off-hand in her report, he saw the way her eyebrows shot up, the way she adjusted her thin chainmail as though nothing were amiss. She wanted to go the second Harding said the first syllable of the word. But she hid it. Hid it for weeks.

Merrill’s skilled at masking the hard anxiety prickling and nibbling at her, just as everyone’s content to let it be hidden. Everything with Merrill requires collaboration and others give the effort without question. Merrill possesses a rare dose of silliness he thought had been beaten out of the south since the last Blight: a disarming smile to evoke shitty verse about the way sunlight glitters on water, or whatever inspired the ancient elves to write poetry, a snort-worthy and occasionally dirty sense of humor, and ceaseless curiosity.

Merrill can be summed up as a living act of necessity, Bull figures. After all, Merril was and is a blood-mage. There’s nowhere in Thedas where someone wouldn’t draw a knife the moment they pieced it together. There’s not a village that wouldn’t throw her out, or a mage enclave that wouldn’t call for the sword.

(Only Krem knows when Bull himself found out he half-considered taking the Chargers onward somewhere else, despite his orders from back home. “Give it a month,” Krem said. Twenty-three days later he watched Cassandra trapped under a dragon’s foot, knocked out after a swipe from the spiked tail caught her off guard. He was half a battlefield away; Varric screaming from behind the stone where he shot his crossbow. But Merrill, untouched by panic, disappeared through the ground, sliding up again through the earth where Cassandra lay. She cut open her own hand from palm to elbow with the Seeker’s blade and called a barrier strong enough it hobbled the beast, cracking its ankle instead of making them mincemeat.

“It’s a tool, you lug,” she said later, toweling the dragon blood off her greaves. “I know how to use a tool.” Bull wordlessly handed her a bucket of water, and Bull stayed.)

It’s plain enough Bull could teach it to a new ben-hassrath recruit: how to make people trust you when you can kill them with their own insides. Laugh often, smile without guile, gamble with Josephine and lose, every time. Forget where you left your staff four days out of seven and flirt carelessly, mercilessly. Merrill made Sera teach her how to shoot a bow once, with enough pleas for corrections to posture and stance and hold it with me, would you?  It took an entire quiver of hours, and then another. Sera hasn’t called her “elfy” or anything of the like, since, and he’s spotted them more than once on the roof of the Herald’s Rest—Sera, smirking and muttering a jibe that makes Merrill grin. Even her eyes light up.

(Once, after she broke her ankle climbing up a ravine at the Storm Coast, Bull carried her on his shoulders for six miles back to the Inquisition camp so Solas could take a look. He can’t remember for the life of him what she was scrambling for. But she rested her cheek on his head, an arm carelessly wrapped for balance around one of his horns. Her fingers, strangely careful, tracing patterns where they sprung from his head.

“Something on your mind?” he asked.

“I’m wondering,” she murmured, “how you grew.”)

The big eyed-looks, the absent-minded twittering, the hours spent with Dagna in the undercroft gasping over big tomes and making little explosions to rattle the dust from Skyhold’s eaves. Commonplace enough now not even the servants blink. She feeds Leliana’s birds little mealworms she cultivates herself in her room with a sack of old flour; she cannot stop herself from constantly adjusting Cullen’s furred mantle and fussing (“You’re peaky as a dove, Cullen, and these feathers don’t help a thing”). When she isn’t speaking, her thinking takes up palpable space in the room. She never stops.

It adds up. People would love to believe Merrill is harmless, and that fact makes life easier for Merrill. Her advisors, her companions, her knights believe Merrill is without worry, without care, and most importantly, without malice. It sets everyone knee-deep in ease. It works out. Bull figures he’s got the definition of her sealed up, neat and quick as wax on a letter. Be sweet and survive. It’s not a bad plan, maybe even one he’d advise under the right circumstances.

And he’s content to let it lie. He doesn’t seek her out, doesn’t question it. She can sense it, he thinks, because she doesn’t find much time for him unless a big head needs to get put to the axe. It suits. Tied up like a well-thumbed knot.

Until today.

Today, they tromped across the stream to the Dalish encampment, Merrill leading the way with letters and pendant in hand. Their Keeper halted them at the camp, flanked by steely-eyed archers. Wary eyes, tilted head, and all Bull’s instincts say we better go. But the axe doesn’t tell the hand how to swing it.

The Keeper and Merrill exchanged words in Elvhen, and then he stared at her, mulling. White-haired and old. 

“Merrill,” he murmured. “Merrill, clan Sabrae.” And then his eyes widened on some realization, and grinds out a word that made Solas draw his staff from behind his back. 

The Keeper snapped several harsh phrases, easily translating across language to leave now, and Merrill said calmly, plainly, “No.”

Dalish elves move fast: in a breath’s time, Bull drew his axe out but then so did the rest of the clan. Bows drawn, knives in hand, heavy, curved swords balanced and ready to swing.

The archer at the Keeper’s side drew his bow full, the tip of his arrow pressed into Merrill’s forehead. The arrow’s point teased out a drop of blood. It dripped down the bridge of her nose.

“I’m one of you,” Merrill said, hands at her sides.

The Keeper rambled in the common tongue with great purpose: he wanted her companions to hear them too. Shame. “Your pride drank the blood of the Sabrae. Your ambition led them to perish under shemlen swords.” He ground his teeth. “The name Merrill spreads far, like dust. To speak it leaves ash in our mouths. A forgotten name.”

One of her hands clenched, just briefly. He saw it out of the corner of his eye. Varric’s crossbow tracked on the archer with the arrow at Merrill’s forehead. Bull was close enough to throw her to the ground on a hairpin motion, cover her with his body until the arrows stopped firing. The Keeper said one long, final string of Elvhen and then pursed his lips in a hard line. They waited.

Bull’s heart thudded against his chest. Hard enough if he cast a glance down, he’d see the skin quivered under each hit against his ribs.

Merrill raised her hand, the pendant still clutched in her fingers. She wound it ‘round the archer’s arrow, tying a steady knot.

Her hands didn’t tremble. Her shoulders didn’t quiver. Another drop of blood ran down her nose.

“Returning what you lost,” Merrill said, letting the sheaf of letters fall to the grass. Bull watched each inch of motion: the lift of her foot, the lean back, the press into the ground as she took a step away from the arrow.

The movement was too much for the Dalish; they fired. Magic sung around Merrill, a torrent raised by those two little drops dripping from the tip of her nose. Each Dalish elf freezes, including the Keeper. A violet shield blossomed, impenetrable as stone between the Dalish and the four of them.

The Keeper exhaled in slow, strange thaw–Merrill only held them in time for a moment, long enough to get the barrier up. He bites out a word, and then Dalish do not go for their weapons again.

The way they looked at her.

Merrill took one, two, three steps back, and Bull reached out, snatched her flush against his chest. His axe held steady. Merrill wound her small hands around his fingers as he clenched the weapon. His hands held it too tightly to drop. She pushed it down, gently, gently, till it lowered. It took time.

“We need to go,” she whispered, and slowly, not letting her out of the circle of his arms, they turned, they crossed the river, they fled.

And now Bull sits, watching Merrill sleep.

Solas had tried comfort, some hasty remark about the natural ignorance of the Dalish and how little Merrill was like them anyway. “Stop talking,” said Merrill, harsh, sharp. She strode ahead of all of them without another word.

They made camp. Merrill set up her bedroll far from the fire, out in the open, and fell asleep. 

Bull’s read the file, chatted up Varric, paged through the book: Merrill, an outcast and only survivor from a Dalish clan, the exact circumstances of which he can’t quite corroborate. But he can guess. Sounds like Hawke was a man with a set of heavy iron boots and no patience. She spent a little under a decade in an alienage. Whatever way’s figured out how to live, it’s hers. It keeps the peace. Bull can live with it, and keep his distance till he’s called upon. At least, that was the plan.

Now there’s one piece of it he can’t shake, one piece to rattle every fact and notion he’s formulated about her: Merrill lives utterly without fear.

You don’t pull this kind of act without being afraid for your very breath. Knowing your time is limited. You don’t charm without the balance of knowing, without the precise measurement the curve of your lips, the cant of your voice, the tilt of your head. One misstep leads to a slit throat. So goes a life of hiding. 

But he’s fucked up. He’s forgotten warriors who live without fear either hold their soul to a higher power, or don’t know the weight of chains.

He’s never seen Merrill bend the knee to anyone. Merrill is free.

~~~

Bull falls asleep, but stirs just before dawn. Merrill is gone, but not far. He straps his axe to his back, and follows the path down to where the wide river laps at a bank.

She’s on her knees in front of a golden halla, its front hoof in her lap. He stops a good sixteen paces off and stares.

Merrill’s wiggling something out of the hoof. The halla whines and pulls.

“Shush,” she murmurs, giving it a gentle swat on the foreleg. “Be still.”

It doesn’t take long before her slim fingers remove the pain: a sharp stone. Merrill tosses it into the river.  She shoos the halla away with little flicks of her hands, even when it tries to headbutt her. She gently pushes it away between the horns as she gets to her feet.

“Shoo,” she says again. “Find the herd.”

The halla finally chooses to turn and go, limping as it does so. Merrill sighs, turns back towards the water. It doesn’t take a whole minute before she turns her head and says, “Don’t be rude.” 

Bull forgot he was standing there. He takes a place next to her, squatting down on a stone. Merrill sighs and sits with crossed legs on the bank.

There’s just the shhh, shhh sound of the river until Merrill says, “I knew they wouldn’t be happy.”

He blinks. “The Dalish?” he asks, trying to draw it out.

“Yes.” And then she doesn’t say anymore. Her eyes are on the water.

“How’s your head?” Bull asks.

“My—oh!” She touches her fingers to where the arrow pointed yesterday. The memory stirs makes Bull’s hands itch for the axe. “I don’t know. I don’t have a glass.”

She turns her head; Bull reaches and thumbs the spot. There’s a tiny indentation. With any luck, it won’t scar. He rests his hand there.

Merrill asks, “Were you going to cover me, yesterday? When they were about to fire.”

“Yes,” Bull answers.

She narrows her eyes at him suspiciously. “Why?”

“Because you’d have died.” A flat answer. Simple. “I wasn’t going to let that happen.”

“Does Josephine pay you that much?” Merrill wonders aloud.

“Not really,” Bull admits, a heavy shrug of his shoulders. “But I’m there to make sure everyone goes home alive.”

“It’s worth that, to you?” She sounds astounded.

“Yes,” he repeats.

“Even blood mages.” It’s not a question. She’s testing him. He removes his hand.

“I don’t think people should die for trying to return letters,” Bull says, finally.

This is not an answer that makes her happy. She bites her lip and looks away. They sit in silence for a long while.

“It was stupid.” Merrill looks out at the river. “All of you might be dead and I knew—” She pulls her knees up to her chest.

“They don’t forgive,” Bull finishes, watching her take a breath. She nods. He asks, “What did they say to you?” The long strings of Elvhen muttered by the Keeper.

Merrill twists one of her braids between her fingers. “He said the Dalish forgot my name. It means, ah, nobody’s named Merrill again. Not ever. Not anywhere in Thedas.”

A culture that digs in tooth and nail to every scrap of heritage it can find. Only so many words, so many traditions, and they choose to forget a name because the shadows surrounded it are too deep. It’s heavy. Bull understands it perfectly.

“You’re Tal-Vashoth,” says Bull, without thinking, but she’s from Kirkwall. She knows what the word means. The same, but not the same.

“I’ve gone hunting for them before,” Merrill admits, nods. “With Hawke. A long time ago.” She leans back on her hands. “I thought—we were far enough away, yes? Years-far. Miles-far. But they know. They knew the minute they saw my face.”

The words go unspoken: they’ll always know.

His eye steals to the side; she keeps her hands covered, most days, but not this morning. The scars are faint, crisscrossing and layered like Merrill wove herself anew out of a knife’s point. He doesn’t know why, but it comforts him. Comforts him to know even after that kind of bullshit she could keep going, that she didn’t stop, and her body could handle the war of it. If she can, I can.

He doesn’t know why that thought enters his head. It curdles his stomach.

How do you not regret this every day? he wants to ask her. How do you live, scattered to the wind like an outlaw? Because she is, even with the Anchor branding her the Inquisitor.

An echo of the Qun. How was any of this worth leaving behind your brothers, your sisters, your place?

And then he looks at her, the way the wind lifts her dark braids, the little crow’s feet beginning at the corners of her eyes, the long scars holding her together from fingertip to wrist and remembers, you are free.

“My old Keeper,” Merrill says, distantly, as though she heard him, as though it reverberated between them, “said nothing warranted blood magic.” She deepens her voice in poor imitation. “‘Your soul, da’len, is worth so much more.’”

“You don’t think so?” asks Bull.

“My soul is worth no more Dalish dead,” Merrill says, tart and sharp as ice, “because of my mistakes.” She looks at the water again. She’s counting. “Twelve lives, not including the four of us. I know what I am, thank you very much.”

Merrill stands, brushes dust from her armor. “If I’m not worth that, then I’m not worth a thing. Sit here and balance the ledger, if you want. I’ve other work to do.”

Fuck, Bull thinks at the sound of her small feet padding back up the plains to the camp. Her words find a soft place to gnaw at him. They don’t let go.

~~~

Their detour to harangue the Dalish was actually a detour from a favor Merrill promised to Solas on locating a certain spirit, which itself was a detour from reestablishing Orlesian keeps from being overrun by the undead in the Plains, and the Plains themselves are supposedly a movement to squash one of Corypheus’ leeches from sucking the life out of Thedas, but so far all Bull’s seen is people ripping at each other, razing villages to the ground, and halla trotting amongst the wreckage, trying to find patch of unburned grass.

(Bull finds a contented pleasure in retracing each of Merrill’s hairpin turns. It soothes the same part of his mind that likes to play chess with Skinner, when she’s not too distracted with tugging Dalish into her tent, or in his head late at night when he can’t sleep. Merrill gleefully collects distractions, and there’s a never-seen-before tinge of happiness in her face every time she announces, I’d rather do this today, come along.

And they go, every task, every time. Bull gets the sense nobody’s ever really deigned to follow Merrill’s lead before Corypheus made her hand a key to the future.

Merrill spends the morning after the Dalish incident exacting penance like a god tired of her children. The Anchor bothers her—she spends an hour rubbing it through her glove—and Solas won’t stop talking.

Bull’s seen her Creators, the ones Solas paints with horsehair brushes on the high walls of the rotunda back at Skyhold. Antlers, limbs green as wick, halla eyes with wine-dark pits, fingers somewhere between roots, branches, and flesh. He can tell what it’s supposed to be—wild, Solas is going for wild, here. Do the Dalish have a god of judgment? He doesn’t know. He doesn’t care. Elgar’nan is the one Merrill spits like a hot coal when she steps on a piece of glass, or spills a bottle of wine. 

Bull watches them walk. Merrill’s pissed at Solas for the knock about the Dalish yesterday, and the fact that even so they’re on their way to do a favor for him. Solas is pissed at Merrill because he lost track of the spirit and couldn’t find her in the Fade last night, and is convinced if they hadn’t stopped to chat with the stubborn, antiquated Dalish, they’d have found it by now. They tread six or eight paces ahead, Solas squinting at a circling bird in the sky. He’s waxing on: “Perhaps near the water again—spirits are drawn to it, sometimes, when lost. It gives direction.”

“Mmhmm,” is all Merrill has to offer.

“I hope, at least,” Solas continues, “since I cannot hear her cries for help in the Fade any longer.”

“What’s going on?” Bull asks, even though he knows.

Varric snorts. “You ever dance the remigold, Tiny?”

Bull cocks his head.

“I like the remigold,” Varric says. “It’s the only quality piece of culture to come from Ferelden, really, other than the fur coats.” He gives a little stretch, adjusting the crossbow on his back. “The point is to see how close everyone’s feet can get without stepping on each other.”

The corner of Bull’s lips turn up. “Yeah?”

“Starts off real dainty,” he tells him, “and it’s easy. Step, step, three turns, and then you stomp between your partner’s legs without maiming their instep and then you turn out and stomp between somebody else’s—you get the picture. By the end of the night, everyone’s piss-drunk and enemies dance toe to toe with each other just to see who can bleed first.”

Varric’s eyes get hazy in the middle of the description. Must’ve learned it from Hawke. Merrill’s eyes don’t ever get that way when she talks about him, if she talks about him at all. She doesn’t speak much about the Kirkwall days, far as he can tell. She gets letters from the pirate, though—Isabela, the tome-stealer. Every time she sends a letter to Merrill, she curls up in the nearest chair and can’t be disturbed for any reason. His chest goes tight if he sees her, a languid peace in her limbs as she curls up in the spiked, sword-bound chair of the Inquisitor. Wrapped up like the barn cat his tama used to let inside on cold nights.

“Hawke taught me it,” Varric says. Check. “He broke my toe once.”

“We need this,” Bull says with complete certainty. “I need this.”

“I’ll teach you,” he promises.

“You’re teaching all my boys.” He’s firm. “It’ll be mandatory. Just in time for Halamshiral.”

“Perfect,” Varric drawls. “Can’t wait.” He nods ahead of them. “Look up. Here’s your first lesson.”

Solas crosses his arms and slows his pace. “You should let me examine it more frequently,” he says, cocking his head.

“I’m fine, ma serannas,” is Merrill’s answer.

“But there’s no need for you to walk around in pain.”

“No worse than a papercut. I’m fine.

Solas rolls his shoulders, ruffled. “But what harm would it do?”

“Creators, Solas,” Merrill snaps, “Last time I let you look at it, I thought you were going to wrap yourself in it like a bedroll. No.

Varric snickers; Bull snorts. Merrill twists her head over her shoulder and glares at him, solid as a punch to his chest and pointed as an arrow. It’s simple and shouldn’t make him half-stop in his tracks, but it nearly does.

Merrill has words for everyone. She doesn’t do looks. She’s annoyed at Solas, but that—that. She’s unhappy with Bull. Beyond unhappy—disappointed. He keeps his face blank, doesn’t let his brow furrow, and she whips her head forward and strides ahead of all of them.

“Turn, turn, turn, slam.” Varric wipes his hands of imaginary dust. “The remigold.”

~~~

So much of the Exalted Plains feels is just a long walk to fucking nowhere.

Varric says, “We’re lost.”

“Stop mothering.” Merrill waves a hand.

“Daisy,” he says, “you still can’t find your way around Skyhold.”

She doesn’t answer.

New information: a marked downside of Merrill’s anger is bone-cold silence. On any given day, Merrill rends the old legends of soft, quiet elves padding across the earth in their stocking feet to utter pieces. A whirlwind of noise—twittering after someone, calling a name, asking question after question, little gasps and an “oooh!” here and there. Fluttering, pale fingers. They tap her lips, pinch her chin, touch scars and skin and leather workings, but always gently enough it warrants no apology.

(The first time Merrill met the Chargers she’d pushed past both Bull and Krem to get at Dalish—drawing herself up to full height, reaching out to rest her long fingers along her jaw. Like all the stitches in her back finally went taut, and there she was, everything they’d written him about. Spent the whole battle bent over like a little crone, muttering and casting and moving faster than she had a right to do. But nothing impressive. Just an elf.

Not till then, watching each inch of her unbreakable spine unfold, did Bull see her. Plain as the rain beating his face. The Inquisitor.

Merrill murmured in Elvhen—Skinner looked ready to cut her hands off, but stilled. A pause for breath before Dalish’s long, whimsical laugh shattered the tension, and she took Merrill’s hands in hers, eyes glittering.

Bull asked Skinner later what the deal was, never seen her hesitate—no, wrong word. Recognize.

“Couldn’t get a read of her while we were fighting. Too little, too blank, she wouldn’t look at any of us,” Skinner said idly, picking at her nails with a knife. “But when she touched Dalish, she was different.” She shrugs. “You could tell.”

Bull’d refilled his tankard and hers, settling back in his chair. “Tell what?” he pressed, an eyebrow raised.

Skinner snorted. “She didn’t care about you,” she said. “She saw Dalish, and she forgot you were the boss. I like that in a woman.” She took a drink. “I like that in anyone.

Women and children first. For Merrill, men can wait.

And they did, for twenty wet and miserable Storm Coast minutes, until Merrill remembered they were there.)

Now Merrill marches them over stony paths in the hot sun in blank silence. It took four hours for Solas to give up the ghost, and if Varric doesn’t shut it all three of them will spend an eternity on Merrill’s shit list.

Bull wonders idly why Merrill didn’t bring any women along—rotation, perhaps, so he didn’t get rusty. Varric, for old times, and he puts a smile on her face. Solas, for his lore, or expertise, or whatever. Luck of the draw, he supposes. It’s pretty obvious she regrets it.

He does, too. The few times Merrill’s taken him out into the world, Vivienne’s been along. Always asking him about where he’s been in Orlais, pulling him into wars of little favors. He fetches water for her bath, she made him horn balm in the Western Approach after he scratched the scalp around his horns raw in the dry air. She tut-tuts at the state of his pants and holds order aloft as the highest of religions. Bull respects it, and her.

And Vivienne loves to fill silences, whether nervous or cold or impolite.

“Daisy,” Varric tries again.

“Oh, hush,” snaps Merrill, turning them on a path that goes up rugged cliff terrain. It seems random and cruel, but Bull’s pet theory revolves around the Anchor pointing her where to go on days like this. Maybe the pain eases off the closer they get to a rift. Like a compass. Either way, Varric pales. “I should’ve brought Cassandra,” she mutters. Check.

“The Seeker complains much louder than I do,” Varric reminds her, with just a hint of protest, to save face. “Or maybe you like being carried around by the Right Hand of the Divine.”

The world’s slightest tint of red casts across the back of Merrill’s neck. Silence. Varric chuckles. “Can’t blame you,” he says. “Can’t blame you one bit.”

Solas gives a tired sigh under his breath. “Hear that?” Varric chirps. “Chuckles lends us his approval.”

“No,” says Solas, “I do not.”

Bull gives each of them a boost up to the next ledge—first Solas, then Varric, then Merrill, before he launches himself up next to them with a heave of his arms.

They make their way up the cliff face, slow and steady. Solas and Varric start bickering. It should ease the silence; it doesn’t. It tenses each of his muscles, like his skin’s too tight for his own bones.

“The Seeker and I prefer our separation,” Solas airs.

“She called you an apostate a couple hundred times.” Varric rolls his eyes. “Big deal. She still kept you around.”

Solas stiffens. “Whatever logic you used to explain why you stayed here applies to you and you alone. Kindly leave me from it.” When Varric makes a disgruntled noise, he clears his throat and launches into monologue in response.

(Hot sun makes everyone’s tongues loose in their head. Snapping. Sten’s trying to pick a fight with Ashaad—anybody can taste how nervous the kid is, Sten should know better. They talked about it last night on the floor of the tent, Hissrad sliding a thumb between his lips, Sten settled under him, sweat still prickling on his brow.

Do you know how to not be a jackass? he asked. Sten groaned and rolled his eyes. But it’s so easy, Hissrad.

Even the Qun’s very best will rust and crack open under sweat and baking heat. They’re scouting the perimeter for Fog Warriors, even though they rule the muggy nights, but a tip’s a tip. Arvaraad snarls at Sten to shut up.

Ashaad needs to stop scratching at his vitaar like a kid wearing it for the first timebut it’s his first time out, Hissrad’s not forgotten, and he stills him with just a touch to the elbow. Ashaad’s hand goes back to the bow. If Qunari blushed, he’d blush. A smile pinches at the inside of his mouth.)

“—Boneheaded and rash,” Solas finishes with a satisfied tone, coming to the end of a long wind.

“So? Without her, there’s no Inquisition,” Varric argues.

“Point,” Solas concedes, “yet perhaps we might have settled somewhere less vulnerable than the underbelly of a massive mountain.”

Varric’s hackles don’t raise very often, but there it goes. “You can’t put that on the Seeker.”

“Both of you,” says Merrill, far ahead and twelve feet above them on a boulder, “need to find a little quiet.”

(Hissrad’s not even supposed to be there; it’s his rest day. Sweat dripping down the back of his neck, running down his vitaar. Ashaad sneaks a scratch when he’s not looking.)

Days like this, Bull detests his own brain. When it aches with the old tightness of a badly healed up bone.

Earth cracks under his feet, and Bull’s knee goes sharp, the pit of his stomach drops out, and suddenly he’s falling, falling, falling—

A whole lot of black. Fuck. All his muscles seize up. Open up. He can’t. Open up.

Ground under him crackles. Crash of lightning. Rift. Open up. The sun burns hot on his brow. He’s sweating under the eyepatch. You gotta get up. He can’t. Every inch of him lies heavy as lead. Nothing’s too heavy for you. Get up. Get up.

The sound echoing across the rocks jolts him, cracks him open, and jaw clenches—the shriek yanks inside his brain and fumbles around, rustling through him like an errant hand until it finds the one sound that still makes him sweat through the mattress on cold nights, the scream is too close, too close, how close is it and he needs to get up right fucking now—

A voice, high and shrill and good, how can a voice be good: “Don’t you touch him!”

And his eye snaps open.

Merrill’s got the terror demon suspended by the neck, raising her staff like a hangman’s rope. The demon writhes, claws at the purple flames cinching tight around its throat as it rises slow, inch by inch, up, up, up.

Violet fire anoints her feet, her hands, touches at her brow. She wears certainty as a mantle, even as the ground shatters open beside her, a rage demon clawing its way into the world. One of her hands snakes out, traces a glyph, and the air buzzes with plague as ashen boils bubble up on the ground and latch themselves to demon-flesh.

Sound of shields and swords sparking at each other from the side of his bad eye—those are Freemen, Freemen and demons and a rift, cracking the sky like a new sun. You gotta get up. Get up.

The rage demon, undeterred, reaches for her across the stony ground.

Its molten claws are nothing compared to Merrill; her eyes burn with a wild determination. When Merrill goes unraveled, Merrill goes strong. It doesn’t make sense. Chaos makes her take root. Like an old tree remembering why it was made. It shouldn’t work that way. That’s not what chaos does. It unmakes what’s good. It shreds strength like paper.

It shouldn’t work.

Get up. Get up now.

The terror demon screams and dies, finally, green froth bubbling out of its mouth as Merrill chokes it out of existence. The rage demon screeches, launching towards her, a couple inches away—Bull turns over, pulling the axe from his back and burying the blade between its eyes before rumbling to his feet, prying it out of the skull. The world spins. It doesn’t matter. He stumbles forward, off-kilter—but he’s up.

(Tal-Vashoth erupting out of the sand. A big gray hand clamping around Sten’s ankle and dragging him down and to stab a knife in his neck. Gargle of lungs filling with blood. A long sword sliding up out of the ground and buried between Ashaad’s legs—twists, shreds him.

Even Qunari wail when they die like that—piercing, bone-pale sounds, dragged from the marrow.

The sound ignites him. Hissrad’s anger breaks out of his own skin—he digs each Tal-Vashoth out of the ground and cuts them down. Weeds.

By the end, gray limbs stick out of the sand like old driftwood, and sand feeds on the blood. The tide’s coming in. He’s the only one standing there. He doesn’t know how long. But when he finds his feet, Hissrad runs.

Only bits and pieces of it exist now. Too many fingers reaching in, carefully pressing and pushing and reshaping. It used to comfort him, how he could be remolded. Just clay under the Qun.

All the fingers left in their wake was a stern voice: You weren’t afraid.

He was.)

~~~

They make camp, because, well, Bull fell off a fucking mountain.

“I’m fine,” he says. Solas’s fingers prod his temple. They’re cool to the touch. It’s weird as shit. He’s been working on Bull for the better part of two hours, and his hands still haven’t warmed up. He tilts Bull’s head back to examine his eye, thumb on his brow. “Really.”

Solas already tended the burn on his back. The Fade vent, the one that cast him off the rocks like a kicked stone, flared hot enough to burn flesh. Not bad, but bad enough. The ruined skin lines his harness—he’ll drink to the scar it leaves later.

(The Chargers will love that Bull got knocked fifty feet off a cliff by the equivalent of the Fade sneezing. He’ll have to write them when they get to the next fort. He can see it like he’s there himself—Krem ripping open the letter in the Herald’s Rest, reading Bull’s short and sparse words aloud before engaging in a dramatic retelling. Stitches has a mean, crowing cackle reserved just for when Bull fucks up—then there’s Grim’s snort, the way even Skinner’s eyes will gleam. Maker, Boss, Krem will say. Didn’t realize a little fart from the Fade could knock you on your ass, but you know what, we’re living in a new world.)

He’d written the letter in his head as he sat, bent over his knees, as Solas carefully cleaned the wound. No flinching. He’s better than that, and this? A burn, a stuck knee, feeling like the world’s biggest living avalanche? It’s nothing.

Merrill stood next to them both and watched the process, from the cleaning to the cutting. She stood on his bad side, couldn’t see her. Bull knows full well you can’t actually feel someone look at you—it’s your own instincts trying to get you to pay attention. But he could hear how her breathing changed—when Solas cut away blackened flesh, when he exposed the deep red trench of the burn. The way she stopped breathing altogether. The little creak of her leather vambraces as she crossed her arms, clenched her fingers.

Words rolled around in Bull’s mouth, all of them useless.

When her breath caught for the fourth time—not that Bull counted—Solas said, steady and quiet and not at all unkind, “Go do something else.”

Merrill went off over the hill, muttering to Varric about helping forage for dinner. A lie—nobody lets Merrill touch food, but they all let her wander off without protest.

Varric snorts as he places logs for the fire. “I owe you one, Tiny.”

Bull cocks his head; Solas readjusts him with barely-held exasperation.

“You’ve given me hope in a time of great despair.” Varric digs around in his pack. “Maybe tonight I’ll light a candle.”

“Best light two or three,” Solas says, squinting. “Bull’s rather large.”

“Today,” says Varric as though he hasn’t heard, “I saw a Qunari fly.” He strikes flint and steel together, chk chk chk, until it sparks. “A real miracle.”

“Indeed.” Solas’ mouth quirks up in a smirk. “Andraste bless us all,” he says.

Bull laughs—a real one, short but deep from the belly.

~~~

Merrill eventually reappears, just as the sun is heading down over the Plains, carrying an armful of apricots.

They’ve been chewing on hardtack and gamey, brown fennec stew. Varric’s a good cook, but you can only do so much. He’s teaching Solas how to play diamondback on a flat rock, using bits of gristle instead of sovereigns. They push the bits around with the tips of their knives. When Solas wins a hand, Varric accidentally-on-purpose flicks a piece onto Solas’ robes. Solas merely raises an eyebrow, and a few minutes later a stale breeze flutters all Varric’s cards into his face. Bull’s attempting to repair the lion’s share of his armor before they set off tomorrow.

Then Merrill appears over the hill. He glances up, sees her long form against the horizon, and exhales a breath he didn’t know he was holding.

The day’s been shit. That’s all.

Lethallin,” Solas greets, putting down his cards. “You return to us.”

When she comes into the warm circle of the fire, she plunks down on her knees on her knees in the dirt, like she always does, and tumbles the apricots onto a spot of grass. He notes the red scrapes and dirt covering the soles of her feet.

“Daisy brought us presents,” says Varric.

“As though you deserve them,” Merrill says, but she’s half-smiling. She tosses two each to Solas and Varric. Bull resists the urge to automatically hold out a hand before Merrill turns to him. She searches his skin, eyes all over, before she motions, and his hand goes outstretched. She places four apricots, withered little gems, in his palm before curling his big fingers around them.

Then she pulls back to the fire, rolls over on her back, and bites into one herself.

The apricots are too lean with thick skin, but wretchedly sweet. Nothing even resembling sweet’s touched his tongue in weeks.

He pockets the pits. Why the fuck are you doing that? But they clatter in his pocket, press against his thigh.

Eventually Merrill rises and she and Solas trace circles of wards around the camp. Solas makes marks on the ground with his staff; Merrill’s lies unused on the ground, and little violet wisps drop from her fingers. They disappear into the brittle grass, the broken earth. He always watches them. He wants to figure out how it works. (Merrill does magic without her staff constantly; it only reinforces his belief that the only reason mage staves exist is to throw off enemies—you forget the magic comes from them, not the length of wood and steel in their hands. There are probably other reasons, but that’s the one Bull cares about.)

Varric banks the fire, and he and Solas climb into their bedrolls. As soon as their eyes close, Merrill pads over to Bull, glances at the spot next to him. He pats the ground.

She sits carefully, eying the armor spread out across his lap, like she wants to offer to help but she’s not sure how. Instead, she sits back on her hands.

“I hate this place,” says Merrill, on a sigh.

“Makes four of us.”

“I thought I would like it, even though it’s Dirthavaren,” she admits. “All Harding’s reports about the halla. Sun, every day. Not cold.”

“Not cold,” Bull agrees. “Still terrible.”

“Still terrible.” Merrill nods, leans back against the stone. “How’s…” She doesn’t know which piece of his body to address specifically, so she finishes her query with an awkward gesture meaning all of that?

He grunts. She nods. They sit. It’s not content, but it’s better than nothing.

To Bull’s complete surprise, he breaks the silence. He hears himself say, “You don’t usually kill like that.”

Silence, but she’s quick to fill it. “Oh?”

“You’re not much for the wringing the life out of anything,” Bull says. “Even a demon. You scrunched him like a dishrag.”

“Well,” says Merrill, “you were so still, and you were smoking like a log, to boot.” She shrugs. “I thought you were dead.”

Bull gives her a look. “Boss,” he says, “It was just a spill, that’s all. Nothing to worry about.”

“Well, how was I supposed to know?” Merrill says, feathers ruffled. “It wasn’t little. Forty feet, Varric said. And too fast for me to catch you. If you’d—” She cuts herself off, folds her feet under her.

If you’d even wanted me to. Bull knows exactly what she means by catching him, knows it means the little obsidian knife she keeps up her sleeve. He doesn’t say anything, because she’s right. The silence says it for him. He would rather fall. Every time.

“Look,” he says. “if anybody can fall off a mountain and live, it’s me. It’s what I’m supposed to do. Part of the keeping everyone alive thing.”

“And itburned you,” Merrill goes on, as though he hasn’t said anything. “I could smell it.

Bull squints at her. She’s cast fire before, probably burned something or someone to a crisp as was needed with her own staff, her own hands. The concern for him doesn’t make much sense; his skin’s as ruddy as dragon-hide. Anybody else stuck on the vent would be dead, or ashes, or worse.

He doesn’t say anything. Instead, he lifts and turns over his harness, deposits it between them so it lays across her lap, the metal underside looking up at them.

It’s dinged and scratched up, still bearing singe and soot from the morning. He takes her hand and touches her fingers to the metal. Merrill traces the underside of the armor carefully, carefully.

It takes her a while—they sit there for a quarter of an hour, and Merrill doesn’t speak. She keeps coming back to the scratches lining the edge of the harness. “Patterns, I think,” she finally mutters, wrinkling her nose. Bull nods. He keeps his eye on her wrist, the way it bends as her fingertips read the underbelly.

Her eyebrows go up. “Language,” Merrill inhales. The discovery erases every touch of weariness and exasperation in her face, eyes widening in the purest delight at learning, and his stomach knots up and goes sideways.

“Kind of,” Bull says. “Code. Old code, from the first ben-hassrath.” Merrill traces the markings, totally indistinguishable from the rest of the battered armor. It should deeply disturb him how quickly she found it. But it doesn’t. “They used scratched up leather to communicate—boots, belts, whatever was available.” He clicks his tongue against his palate. “Hiding in plain sight.”

“Did it work?” Merrill asks, holding up the armor so she can look more closely at it.

“For three or four ages, yeah,” says Bull, and her soft, wheezy laugh makes him smirk.

“Tevinter, I suppose.”

Bull mmhms in agreement. “I think we let them,” he says, parsing through his history. “Something about needing to move to a better system, feeding them false hope.”

Merrill snorts softly. “If Varric were awake,” she tells him, “he’d call that spin.” She runs her thumb back and forth over the markings. “It’s two words, I think,” she postulates after another break of silence. “But that’s all I know.” She sounds oddly self-conscious, as though she didn’t just get farther in breaking a thousand-year-old Qunari code in an hour than a scholar might in a century’s time.

He reaches over and tilts the piece in her lap. The moon’s bright enough tonight he can look at it, even though he doesn’t need to read it. “It’s from the book your Isabela stole.”

Merrill pokes his hand. “Perhaps,” she advises, “you shouldn’t leave it in an open cabinet.”

“Wise advice, Inquisitor,” Bull says. When his eyes catch on the markings again, he mutters them aloud.

She jabs his hand again. “Common, please.”

Bull’s unsettled by how this mistake rankles him, hot and sharp against his insides. “It says, ‘only pieces,’” he translates. “Each change only marks a part of the greater whole. The sea and the sky themselves: nothing special. Only pieces.

She considers this.

“I’m just a little bit of what you’re making,” Bull says. He never said why she needed to look at it. “So if anyone has to fall off a mountain, or get plugged full of arrows, it’ll be me.”

Merrill tilts her head, and when their eyes meet, he sees each hairpin turn of her mind working. Her eyes, wide and pale green, almost silver under the night sky. He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like it because—fuck, she’s reading him. And even though he can see the gears turning, the sparks flying, knows she’s thinking—

He can’t read her at all.

Merrill breaks the stare, looks back down at his armor. He’ll have to part with it when they get back to Skyhold, get a better harness. It’s not a loss, shouldn’t feel like one. It’s a tool and its work is done.

Merrill considers this. She runs a thumb along the code again—only pieces—and then reaches, her long arm spanning the distance between them. Merrill rests her hand on his back, light as a feather against the thick bandages covering his skin.

“It’s there,” she says, and her voices touches him as gently as her hand. Her thumb runs back and forth along a spot just under his shoulder blade, just where the armor lays against the muscle. “It burned hot enough to scar.”

That’s all she says. But she doesn’t move her hand. The feeling vibrates through the bandage, through his too tough skin until it feels like her long fingers wrap around his spine—how does she know that’s what he needed to hear? How does she know keeping those scratches, what should just be meaningless shit, is worth the scar?

“I’m sorry.” It’s out of Bull’s mouth before he knows he’s saying it. Merrill withdraws her fingers, cocks her head. “You’re angry with me,” Bull continues, “For yesterday. The shit I said about you. And your—yeah.” He twiddles his fingers. Merrill furrows her brow. “So I’m apologizing.”

He’s not actually apologizing for how he feels about the magic—they both know it. But maybe he could’ve phrased it better. Found a better way to confront her about it. That’s supposed to be what he’s good at.

A moment of silence, and then Merrill laughs—trilling, almost, like a handful of little bells. It takes him half a breath to realize she’s laughing at him. But there’s nothing hurtful in it, nothing hard or sharp.

“Oh, Bull,” she says. “You think that hurt me?”

“I, uh,” is what he manages.

“Of all the things people say! About me, about my magic—Creators,” she breathes out, practically doubled over. “Does a druffalo weep when you prick it with a pin? Does a big Qunari like you need healing when you stub your toe? Oh, Bull.” And she dissolves back into hysterics.

When she finds her breath again, she leans back on her hands.

“I appreciate it,” she informs him. “But I’m still angry with you.”

He blinks slowly at her. The pit of him sinks.

“I don’t know why,” she admits. “I’m trying to piece it together. I need time.”

They sit in silence, the fire crackling. It’s a better answer than anything he can gather.

~~~

A mile out from camp, they pass a burned-out farm. It’s just like all the other ones they’ve passed—razed, fields both overgrown and dried out. Bull eyes it: the wheat’s tall enough to hide a man, or a small army, grown overlong with no threshing. An outcropping of dead trees shades a house with no roof and only two walls, now. A four-legged table still stands in the center of the dwelling.

Maybe it was an orchard, once. Bull squints. They might still be good underneath, but it’ll be years before they bear again, all gnarled and twisted like broken hands.

He squints again. One tree—one tree’s still got fruit. Faded orange orbs at the very top, the only bits not picked by birds or tossed by the wind. Skinny little things, too small and tough to eat. He sucks in a breath, stops walking.

Bull’s got an image burned into his brain. His tama, teaching them about Tevinter and how they thrive on disorder, on standing on the necks of their brothers, on bleeding the weak for crazed rituals. She passes him an etching carved into a slat of wood, worn at the edges by the touch of big fingers through the years.

A mage, standing in a field, hand outstretched to a tall, strong tree. The tree, bearing soft peaches—he remembers how carefully they were carved, the intimate detail of each swoop—bends like a servant in order to deliver the fruit into the mage’s hand. As though the mage snapped its fingers and the tree fell to its knees in its haste to obey. Bull remembers a knife held behind the mage’s back, tight in a fist, dripping.

Engraved at the bottom: The world bows to me. I bow to no one.

He stares at the top of the tree, where the too-withered fruit shudders in the hot breeze across the Plains. The tree stands taller than the house, so high the blackened tips claw at the clear, blue sky. Bent branches, broken here and there, snapped in the center by the weight of a bare Elvhen foot.

“Bull!” calls Merrill from downwind. “We’re walking, not gawking.”

Bull goes.

~~~

They spend six days tracking Solas’ spirit, after he hears her again in the Fade. The cry is weaker, dimming quickly—but he was right. They head towards the water.

Bull’s sore, but Solas makes light work of his aches and pains. Merrill always finds herself somewhere else when they stop, when the bandages unwind, when the smell of his own dead flesh cuts the air like a knife.

It takes a long time, sometimes. He and Solas start playing chess without a board—it takes his mind off it as Solas cuts skin away, reapplies poultices. Bull figures it does him good too, combats the anxiety running high as they get closer and closer to wherever they’re supposed to go.

It all becomes routine after the first day—Solas works on him, then Merrill comes back right around sundown, right when he’s done the first layer of bandages. Each day, her timing’s pretty impeccable.

She sits behind him, finishes the wrapping. Neither of them say anything. And Bull knows it’s fucked up to look forward to it, but, shit.

When Merrill touches him, when she bandages the burn, he doesn’t need to think of chess, or letters to Krem, or recite the Qun backwards.

It’s enough. It shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be. It is.

~~~

The halla won’t stop bothering Merrill—not that it bothers any of them, because it’s a rare source of amusement in this shithole.

She’ll be standing atop a stone, surveying the horizon, and one of the beasts will ram the back of her legs with its head. Sometimes she tumbles, sometimes she doesn’t—or one moment she’ll be pulling a thorn out of her foot, and the next moment she’ll be on her back on the ground, a halla nickering into her hair.

Once, a herd follows them for half a day. Herd is a generous term, but there’s ten of them, white as clouds. When they make camp, the halla move in too, stepping in the fire pit as they try to gather wood and catching linen ‘round their horns as they set up tents.

Shoo,” snaps Merrill, finally, waving her hands—and they scatter like a flock of pigeons out into the valley, and even Solas can’t stop laughing.

~~~

It’s been a week since they started off again, and the day’s running hot. Midafternoon, they walk down through a rocky valley and encounter a slew of bodies peppering the ground. The first thought to pass through Bull’s mind is another shit day, coming right up.

Varric stands on a rise, crossbow cocked, keeping cover. Bull turns over a corpse with his foot: a mage, riddled with arrows. “Bandits,” he offers up.

The acrid smell of ozone, ashen flesh, and blood wafts over them like a wind. Merrill places her hands behind her back, a strange, polite, pale figure among the dead, and walks between the bodies. She kneels next to a corpse and runs a finger along a thick ridge of burned flesh. All the faces twist in pain, mouths open. They’re fresh dead: most of their eyes still loll in their skulls and the ravens haven’t yet called their armies to feast. Merrill cocks her head.

“Lightning,” she confirms, and stands up. “But not mage lightning—the burn’s too hot.”

Solas, in the center of them all, inhales through his teeth. His gaze settles downwards—Bull follows, and they all trace the long divots of rent earth beneath the corpses. “Claw marks,” he breathes. “No. No.” He pulls his staff from his back and goes off at a sprint.

Merrill takes off after him as he ignores her call to hold, swearing under her breath, and Bull follows without a second thought, swinging the broad-axe from his back. But they’re both faster than he is, their bare feet disappearing over the hill. When they vanish from view, the corners of his vision go white with fury.

When he comes over the crest, he marks Merrill putting herself between Solas and a big human in mage robes. Before he can even get halfway there, the scream happens—iron nails up his spine, a roar that shivers the wheat of the plains like an earthquake. Not a hundred paces beyond them is a pride demon on its knees, bound like a prisoner at the gallows.

“Boss,” Bull says, and can’t finish his sentence. It’s the way she looks at the demon. He watches her shoulders straighten, her spine knitting tight. And he knows.

“We’ll do it,” she says to Solas with a curt nod.

The hairs on his neck stand up. Bull almost says no. The word waits on his tongue.It’s a fucking demon, and it’s not worth anyone’s life. They need to put it to the knife and out of its misery. It throws its head back and moans, not even a half-hearted roar, the high scrape of steel on steel. Varric winces.

Merrill’s face goes still. She inhales, pulls the little obsidian knife from her pocket, her knife, the one for that, and sets all Bull’s teeth on edge. “Hold it long enough,” she says, “and I can get her out.”

Her. Bull grinds down, chokes . It’s not worth you. It’s not worth that. But then Merrill is hauling ass towards the cage, and they’re all just standing there. Solas stares and Bull shoulders him in the back—he almost falls over.

“Go,” he snarls, charging after Merrill. “Go.

The battle’s shit. Solas can barely cast a spell against the demon, and Merrill gets caught in Pride’s whip when it snags around the piece of the cage she’s destroying. There’s a hiss of burned flesh and Bull moves with speed to cut off its hand in two swoops of the axe. The limb falls with a heavy thud to the ground, squirting out Fade-green blood. Varric lands a crossbow bolt straight in one of Pride’s many eyes, and Solas screams.

And then Merrill limps to the last pillar, cuts her hand, smears a dark stain of blood across the sandstone. She closes her eyes—flecks of blood and stone dust scatter across her face again—and he knows she’s casting a spell, but she holds steady and focused as a prayer. In the haze of battle, Bull recognizes holiness when he sees it—even if he doesn’t believe it. Under the Qun, all revere the end of suffering: they hold it close to their hearts. In pursuit of order, one must take the blade for the many.

It’s a strange thought to have as he buries his axe into a demon’s kneecap. But it’s as true to him as his own breath: to call a thing by its name is to know its reason in the world. Sacrifice. It is what it is.

She opens her eyes: the stone cracks straight down the middle. It’s over. The demon fades, with nothing but a distant crack of lightning in its wake, and a wispy, weakening shadow.

It isn’t a woman, even though it looks like one. Solas spits an Elvhen swear and spans the distance between them, going to his knees in front of the spirit. Merrill hobbles over, leaning on her staff—Varric and Bull start for her, and she throws out a hand, hisses, “Wait.

Bull stops immediately, nearly rocking back on his heels; Varric keeps going.

Merrill’s gaze twists, and she thumps her staff on the ground once, flinging her hand out again. “I said hold,” she snaps, voice low and strong and certain. Only then does Varric stop. Bull watches him try not to let the hurt, confusion seep onto his face. Merrill’s never had to tell him obey before. But here they are.

The spirit and Solas converse in Elvhen. The voice from the ephemeral form cracks on its own weariness. Merrill stands next to Solas, leaning heavy on her staff. Bull’s hands itch; his shoulder tenses. She shouldn’t be on that leg.

 

She hunches down near Solas. They speak too soft for them to hear, but Bull can read her lips. It’s time for her to go, she’s murmuring. You must send her. Solas stiffens, shakes. She whispers into his ear. Everyone needs a friend when they’re going off into the dark. Don’t let her begin the journey alone, lethallin.

Solas bends his head, reaches his hands out in supplication. The sun hangs low in the sky, about to break into the pinks and reds that will scatter the dry plains with color. The shadow fades into a soft sweep of dust, as gentle as a sigh, and spirals into nothing.

A rustle in the grass—Bull turns and there’s the mages who started it all, standing in the high, dead grass, looks of horror plastered on their faces. Solas’ face twists, and he rises in one fluid motion, starts after them.

“You,” he snarls, “are murderers.” The temperature around them suddenly increases, and fire gathers in his hands.

“We didn’t know,” pleads the mage, the big man with the robes. They’re covered in soot, cuts, blood. “It’s dangerous out here—Venatori all over the place, undead and Maker-knows-what. Please – what were we supposed to do?”

Solas’ staff has fallen by the wayside, and he raises red, glowing hands. “You owe a debt,” he mutters, “and an eye calls for an eye.”

“Solas,” says Merrill, moving quick as she can to take his arm, pale fingers snaking around him. Her staff drops behind her in the effort. She wobble. The fire dims.

His face turns to her, painted in—surprise. Wide eyed disbelief.

“They tortured her,” he hisses. “She suffered.”

She turns to look at the mages, cowering. They’re too low on mana to throw up a barrier, so Merrill weighs the scales. He hears Varric exhale a low, tense breath. Bull keeps an eye on him in case he jumps forward again. But mostly, mostly—he just watches Merrill.

He can mark every hairpin turn of her brain as she regards them both. Merrill wants to say yes—Merrill, a champion for living things, hurtled on by freewill and rage when others suffer. Merrill wants to say yes because these kinds of actions should not stand without retribution. Merrill hates just as much as anyone else.

But Merrill cares more for the soul. So she squeezes Solas’ arm and murmurs, “No. No, da’len.

HIs focus narrows to one sharp point of complete betrayal.

It suddenly occurs to Bull how much Solas loves Merrill—loves her in the heavy, strange, fickle way love exists outside the Qun, dependent on touch and chivalry and a hundred things that don’t matter. Like what’s happening now. It’s conditional; it leaves a foul taste on his tongue. Merrill’s choice will break what lies between them, even if it means he simply takes back his outstretched hand from where it opened and asked for her heart.

There is no love under the Qun, but if there were—if there were, Bull reasons, it would be steady as a tool, waiting to be picked up and used for its greatest purpose. No retreating. No tossing its head in pride, scorning when the tide did not obey. No conditions. Only coexistence. Only knowing when it was born, it became part of the unshakeable universe. No conditions. Just a piece of everything else.

“Shoo,” says Merrill, and the mages don’t need to be told twice.

Solas turns to her, eyes wide and hurt. She takes both his arms in her hands, half for balance, half to hold him steady till they go. “Merrill,” he murmurs, and his voice cracks. “They hurt her. They hurt her. They made her kill. They—”

He cuts himself, off, his chin dropping to his chest. Trembling. Tears gather at the corners of his eyes and fall. She pulls him close and he presses his eyes against her shoulder. His hands gather at her back.

“I know,” Merrill murmurs, and then trails off into Elvhen. Bull restlessly shifts from foot to foot—hurry up the compassion, he thinks, so you can get off that leg.

“You don’t,” he finally says, ragged, and Merrill squeezes him.

“I don’t,” she agrees. “But Wisdom hasn’t a heart for vengeance.”

Varric stares. Bull knows how it rattles the mind to watch someone go from pawn to player. They’ve had over a year of this—is he just having this realization now?

It’s easy to piece together: once, Merrill was an overly amenable blood mage who let someone take her arm and with it, her power. Bending the knee to a hero, just like Varric. Eyes trained to the wayward direction of another’s steps, just like Varric. Swept up in a big light and a big shadow, just like Varric.

Not anymore. Ascension is a ball-buster of a word, but Merrill’s shoulders carry heavier shit.

“I’m sorry,” Merrill says quietly, and she is. The truth in her voice wraps around them.

“That’s not good enough,” Solas snarls, pulling away from her roughly. He strides off into the distance. He doesn’t look back.

Only then does Merrill sigh, her shoulders sagging. She staggers—Bull moves in a second, sweeping her into the hard cradle of his arms and lifting her up off the ground. She’s weak as a kitten after whatever she did to break the spirit out. Part of him grinds down again—all this, all this for a thing. It’s not even alive. It burns him up.

“You okay, Daisy?” says Varric. He hands up her staff, open concern on his face.

“The leg’s a bit wobbly,” she admits. Bull holds her up, an arm around her back and one under her knees. Too precarious to throw over his shoulder. Merrill reaches up, pats his jaw.

“One of these days I’ll have to carry you,” she says, “and then we’ll all be in trouble.” Varric snorts, pawing at the back of his neck, but Bull hears the relief. It matches his own, melting over him like fine rain.

~~~

Bull wants to make it back to one of the forts—Fort Revasan, if they could, or maybe the Eastern Ramparts, but it’s not meant to be. They go for a cave instead, and when Varric goes off to see if he can rustle up some rabbits for dinner, Bull peels off Merrill’s half-ruined greave.

The burn goes through her leather greaves and the mail around her legs—long, thin stripes from her ankle to the top of her knee. Just one side. She’s lucky. Her shakiness is mostly from the big magic—not the wound. He can work with that.

Bull gets the poultices. Merrill can’t heal worth shit, that’s what Solas is supposed to be for. But he’s fucked off to pout, so they’ll make do.

(He gets it, sure, he gets it, but it’s not right. You don’t just leave.)

The clasps on Merrill’s mail are too small for his fingers. She bends her head and he watches as she undoes each one on the inside of her leg, all the way up to her thigh.

Merrill doesn’t flinch when Bull helps her roll the mail back and away. The cuts aren’t bad, but it’s burned the wounds, blistered the pattern of the mail into her skin. She doesn’t even clench her hands as he cleans out each track.

“Today was terrible,” she says after a while, and Bull grunts in agreement.

“Do you think he’ll come back?” he asks.

“Solas? Oh, I think so. He needs time.” There’s a pause.

Bull starts wrapping her leg. “He likes you,” he finishes.

“He likes me,” Merrill agrees, sheepishly as he’s ever heard her. “A little too much.”

Bull raises an eyebrow. She sighs.

“He tried to kiss me, once,” Merrill explains, “In the Fade. I didn’t realize—I was distracted, because he took me to Haven, and I was so confused because all the little things were wrong. Seggrit’s stand was on the wrong side of the door. Varric’s fire was burning in the wrong spot.”

“He kissed you in the Fade?” Bull repeats, stuck on point one. The corner of his lip curls up.

“It’s the Fade,” says Merrill, rolling her eyes, as though this sort of thing happens constantly. “It doesn’t count, Bull. It doesn’t.” She shoots him a glare without any heat, and then sighs. “But… yes.” She throws her hands up, and he ducks his head as he finishes wrapping the bandage. A real smile pinches the inside of his mouth; he keeps his face neutral. Merrill’s hands finish her sentences for her frequently. Like now: fucked if it does any good.

“I get a real persistent feeling from Solas,” Bull says, and she nods.

“That’s who he is. It’s a good thing, for the most part,” Merrill sighs, fondness touching the edges of the sound. “And I’m good at saying no. Dread Wolf take us both.”

She undoes the leather covering each of her palms. On the left is the deep, mesmerizing gash of the Anchor. It’s quiet, the glow a faint hum of green. On the right—five even, precise slices, drawn in a perfect circle. A sun scratched into flesh, into permanence. She examines them with a pointed glance, scowling. She wiggles her fingers for the pot of poultice by her foot; instead, Bull holds out a wordless hand.

It takes her a moment to look up, and then Merrill regards him. He holds her gaze steady until she rests her scratched up hand in his. He dips a thumb into the green muck of the poultice pot and slides it along the first cut.

Her eyes close at the touch, and the softness hurts Bull. The hard voice in him howls at the act of mercy—you don’t ease an ache, that’s not you. Not the weapon, not the liar.

“Do you always—” He begins, then stops.

Merrill wiggles her fingers. “Make a pattern?” she finishes. “No. This was so I could keep track today.” He could have figured that out, he knows, by looking at it, but his tongue demands the asking. He slides another thumb’s worth of poultice into her palm.

“I used to have a rule,” she says, “I would make every mark different, so I could remember each one. Give it its own dignity.” She snorts. “It was a rule Marethari would follow, if she—well.”

Bull tilts his head, concentrating on her skin.

“My old Keeper,” she says.

They both look at her arms. Too many scars to count.

“I was drinking in the Hanged Man with Hawke once,” she says, “and Hawke asked me what one was from, and I couldn’t remember for the life of me.” She snorts as she says this, half in disbelief at herself. “And he said, good. Don’t let it touch you.

She falls quiet, and they both look at it. Merrill is proud, Bull realizes. Ashamed she might want to do it the old way, when she’d already given up—everything. That’s the way you have to break with it.

“I did it for them,” Merrill says, suddenly. “Blood magic. I broke a curse on an artifact. And then they turned me out.”

And now they’re gone, Bull knows. He pads more poultice into her hand. The wounds bleed strange—like they don’t want to seal up. Like the cuts know how they were used.

“You want to ask me why,” she says pointedly.

“I do,” agrees Bull, “but not while you’re bleeding all over me.” He reaches for the roll of bandages. “And you’re still pissed at me from the first time we talked about it.”

Merrill rolls her eyes. “Do you ever listen to yourself?” she asks, wound tight. “All this talk of how you’d rather get scratched up by a demon than let anyone else get hurt, and you can’t understand why I’d do it?”

That rakes him. “It’s not the same,” he says.

“Tell me what’s different,” she demands. “You’re a big Qunari who can get kicked into a mountain by a dragon and not die. And you’re the only one who can and all that rubbish.” She looks ready to spit; Bull finishes wrapping her hand in bandages.

“Yeah? You got a point in there, somewhere?” he asks.

Merrill stares at him. “You’re not the only one who can do what no one else can.” She inhales through her teeth. “I choose them—“ She waves her hand at the mouth of the cave, “over me. That’s it.”

“I’m not a mage,” Bull starts, “but I’m pretty sure there’s a few more ways to go about it that aren’t blood magic.”

She glares. "They don't always work. Sometimes it has to be done."

“And what does it get you?” Bull asks, because it has to be asked, even though he knows. He saw her save Cassandra, he saw her spare the demon, he saw it all and Bull’s not a believer, he’s a thinker. “Yeah. You made a choice, and now you’re all alone. Can’t be worth it.”

Silence. He watches her brow furrow, the way her face changes. Every inch of muscle in his body tenses. It’s not irritation anymore, that’s—that’s pity.

Merrill exhales, slow. He catches himself counting the length of her breath. “I know why I’m angry,” she whispers.

It messes with Bull’s stomach, his insides all knotted up. “So say it.”

“Well, I think—” Merrill begins, two fingers to her lips. “It happened—I was angry at you before I was angry at you. That’s why I couldn’t understand.”

Bull squints. “You gotta walk me through that one.”

“Before you said anything about what I do,” Merrill says. “Or any of that nonsense about me being worth anything.”

Bull looks down at where they touch, and suddenly both of her hands wrap around his. No, the gesture says, stay here with me. Don’t go somewhere else.

“You said—” She furrows her brow, hunkers down her shoulders, lowers her voice and tries to smooth out her accent in imitation of him. “’Oh. You’re Tal-Vashoth.’”

She turns her head and looks Bull in the eye—strange hurt flecks the rim of her eyes, a dim, odd fury, but then. She looks straight through him. Straight through him. Bull’s pinned as a dagger in the center of a target. It would be easier if she’d drawn an arrow and shot him clean.

“Bull, I’m not Tal-Vashoth,” Merrill says, and the hand on his squeezes, grips so he can’t run. It’s shameful—every bit of him burns with it. “I’m not. You are.”

(Windfall. A roar in his ears.

The Storm Coast, where it all begins and it all ends. Standing on a cliff, watching Venatori bastards clutching tomes in one hand and fire in another, surround his boys.

The Dreadnought, pushing forward through the distant fog. Wet rain on his face.

Gatt says, if you call a retreat, the Dreadnought goes. He looks up at Bull with wary eyes. Damn shame. But it’s gotta be done.

Bull opens his mouth and closes it. No—no getting around it. Bull hesitates. Bull hesitates. He fucking hesitates. Watches the Charges stand vulnerable and bare of defense as a clean throat. Watches the Venatori step closer and closer.

He’s frozen. He’s frozen on the Storm Coast, his brain in Seheron, remembering the last time he lost everyone, cut loose and flying. Gatt says, Hissrad? and snaps his fingers in his face. You in there?

Merrill places a hand on his arm. The touch is warm, warm enough to feel like a brand. It brings him back to his body.

“Call the retreat,” she says softly. Gatt’s eyes widen, his mouth dropping open in a wide o, but Merrill shakes her head. “Call it.”

Bull doesn’t say anything.

The Dreadnought burns and sinks, bright and loud, and with every flash of fire and scream of the crew that echoes all the way back to the cliffs—and it does echo, he hears every Qunari voice raised to the wind in fear—it pulls him in on himself, into a knot, and all he knows is I’m gone, I’m gone, I’m gone.)

He forgot.

Or maybe it—left him. Or, really, he let it go.

Long, unbearable silence.

“I thought,” Merrill murmurs, “you would need it—to get out of Skyhold. To keep busy. To not linger on it. So I brought you with me. I should—” She cuts herself off, shakes her head. “I shouldn’t have,” she finally says.

Bull’s only response is a hoarse “No,” but he doesn’t know what he’s refusing.

Merrill keeps his hand in hers. “I didn’t think—it’s my mistake.” She gives a short, harsh laugh. There’s pain in it, sharp and hard. This is not what she expected this conversation to be. Who knows what she thought—not that Bull had buried this so deep it became an artifact of his own soul. “All my mistakes came to the wasteland. I thought you were trying to—I don’t know. Project it on me. Blaming me.” She shakes her head. “But you weren’t.”

Here’s the thing: he always knew. He knew it from the moment they left Skyhold and Varric clapped him on the shoulder and said, “Always good to have a big Qunari around.” From the second they stepped up to the Dalish and he watched them throw Merrill out. The moment he realized the words of the Qun were burned into his back forever. Every time his mind glances on the words, feels them as his touchstone, he knows they don’t belong to him anymore.

Bull can push pain out of himself like no one else can—it’s meaningless, and he’s been telling himself it’s just another cut, but it’s—more. It makes him brittle. Easy to shake. Bull doesn’t have the heart to correct anyone when they say qunari instead of tal-vashoth and that’s weak of him, weak and he doesn’t need a crutch to live day-to-day but there it is. There it fucking is.

“It’s not you,” he says, long after her words have faded away. He doesn’t know what to say. He’s blistered and open as a wound. Bull opens his mouth and closes it, but can’t—can’t.

He stares at the cave wall instead, breathing slow, his vision going out of focus, because he has to gather himself up, he can’t do this in front of her, he can’t do this in front of anyone, where can he go, where’s the tamassran who can break him to pieces and find the new way he can exist now in the world, a way that won’t touch him, won’t brand him and grind him up like dust—if he fades out enough, he can find it, it’s not in here, not in this useless body that belongs to nothing and no one, not even himself.

Merrill moves, rolls to her knees—that’s gotta hurt, stop—and then thin arms wrap around him, tangled about his neck. He can feel her breathing against his skin. One hand rests on the back of his neck. His face presses into the slim valley of Merrill’s shoulder.

“Don’t,” she whispers. “Oh, Bull. Don’t.” And then she presses her lips to the black ridge of his horn. He shakes at the touch. His arms wrap around her of their own accord, too tight around her hips, but she just rests her chin on the sturdy bend, thumb stroking back and forth against his neck.

“We’re only meant to learn how to breathe once,” Merrill murmurs. “The second time hurts worse than the first.” It makes no sense, and yet, it’s the only thing that could.

 

~~~

Solas doesn’t come back.

They wait, because Merrill’s weak as a kitten and they could use a break. A day passes. Bull repairs Merrill’s greave as best he can—he can’t mend anything, whether it’s armor or wounds, but he’s all they have, and he does his damnedest.

He and Varric play diamondback with a handful of dried beans. Merrill spends a lot of time watching the horizon, inspecting their wards. He catches her parting them once, like hands through a waterfall, and is so distracted Varric literally steals a card from his hand.

~~~

After three nights, they give up. Varric’s asleep back in the cave, curled up and snoring next to a banked fire.

Merrill’s at the edge of camp, cloak wrapped around herself. Bull ducks out of the entrance, careful of knocking his horns.

“You thinking about wandering off?” he asks, and she glances at him over her shoulder.

“No,” she admits. “Thinking about which way to take tomorrow.”

“So it’s hurting.” It’s not a question. Merrill flexes her hand. Check.

“He’s taking more time than I thought,” she admits. “He’ll find us.”

“If he wants.” Bull finishes the sentiment for her. She nods, wrinkling her nose, and takes a seat on a rock. He crosses his leg and sits next to her, close enough his horn touches her arm when he’s not careful.

The sky’s clear at night, here on the Plains. Big, wide moon. Flecks of stars, little silver gems, cast about every which way.

Bull rolls words about on his tongue. He has a question, and he’s not sure how to ask it. Merrill reaches over, rests her hand on his head, rubs at the base of his left horn between two fingers. He leans into the touch without thinking.

“When they left you,” he says, and every word is chosen so carefully, because even though he left the Qun—even if Merrill left the Qun for him—it’s the Dalish who pushed Merrill out of their circle, sent her off cold and alone into the world, “what happened?”

She rubs the base for a few moments of silence before she answers, gathering the evenness of her tone. It’s important to pretend she’s not bothered by it, after all—the old ways and their failure. “Marethari knew the moment I called the demon,” she says, “so I could cleanse the mirror.” She doesn’t go into detail, but that’s all right—Bull will know when she wants him to have it.

“I don’t think she talked to anyone,” Merrill recalls, voice distant. “She called me up in front of the fire, announced it to everyone in hearing distance. Merrill! Blood mage! Stirrer of evil! Kisser of demons!” The dim enthusiasm makes the corner of his lip curl, even though he can imagine how her heart thudded against her chest, how it must feel to stand before your whole family, naked in the shame they cast on her skin.

“They said, you can go or you can die.” She says this so casually it makes his skin tighten. “So I went. And I didn’t die.” Her fingers cease in their soothing circles on his scalp. “But they did,” she says very quietly, so quietly, and he curls his hand around her ankle.

“I thought,” Bull says, after the silence has passed, and the dark mantle of night settles around them, “I guess—knowing that, I’d say—you would have chosen the Qunari. Not the Chargers.”

Merrill blinks—even though he can’t see her, he knows the exact expression on her face. “Bull,” she says seriously, “do you think I chose that for you?”

Bull shrugs, but doesn’t answer. How can he? He stood, she spoke. The shame is simpler, here, less complex.

“Just because I spoke,” she murmurs, “doesn’t mean I was your voice.”

He snorts. “That’s generous,” he says, “but let’s not kid around.”

“I mean it,” she says, and then she’s gently turning him by the horn so he can look up at her, and she tilts his chin up with one fingertip. “I don’t believe in it—when one person speaks, the world changes. It’s nonsense. You don’t just—nobody just follows.” She’s saying it for herself as much as she’s saying it for him: Hawke with the big shadow. Hawke with the sharp sword. Hawke with little patience and even less care for how much blood was shed. “You were free to tell me be quiet, Boss, or move, or wrench the horn from Gatt’s hand. But you didn’t.”

Those last three words are like a match being struck, a single light against the darkness. “You didn’t,” she repeats, as though she feels it too. “I thought—they’re your people, the Chargers. It didn’t even occur to me the Qunari in that dreadnought might’ve been. Or the ones on Par Vollen. I just thought—Bull can’t lose them. So I said sound the retreat.” She shrugs.

“You did a good thing,” he says, struck numb by her words. “You—don’t credit it to me.”

“Bull,” Merrill says, and cups his jaw in her hands, “a little mercy for yourself. Please.” And then she kisses him.

His eye’s wide open as she presses her lips to his—his lips, chapped by harsh sun and high wind, open without second thought. The first thing her fingers find is the clasp of his eyepatch. They pause at the tie, waiting for him, and he nods, and then it’s gone. She runs her thumb over the patch of scars, tender as anything Bull’s ever felt, and usually—he doesn’t want people to look at it much, the scar on his eye. Makes them feel pity, which crushes him worse than anything.

But Merrill is unafraid. She presses her lips to his lost eye, and then tilts his head back again, and he’s lost under her.

Somewhere along the line, she slides down from the boulder and into his lap, curling up in it, arms hooked around his neck. Merrill kisses him dizzy—Bull can’t remember the last time that happened—and when her tongue strokes along his, he wills himself not to shudder.

But then her hands, hands he’s watched since he met her, the quiet bend of her wrists in the firelight as she examined his armor, hands dropping violet light as they circle the camp in wards, trace down his chest. Her nails carve along the heavy slabs of muscle, along his belly, until a hand disappears beneath the waist of his pants.

Bull’s hips buck before he can say are you sure and then Merrill is panting into his ear, “I won’t—just tell me—” and he breathes out yes and then she’s wrapping her hand around him, hard as stone.

She’s steady as she strokes him—patient. Merrill tastes like elfroot, tart and green, until he can’t breathe for the way she claims his mouth, and pants into her throat instead. When he comes, it’s stark as white light. Porcelain breaking. Clean and full, and Merrill whispers, “Good, good,” into his ear as she tightens her fist, his flesh dragging against the calluses on her fingers.

It wipes his brain clean, like taking a breath above water. For a moment, there’s just her, just her hand, just the way she sighs so contentedly as his hips jerk against her hand.

When he can breathe again, Bull presses the sharp points of his teeth into the skin of her neck, and she laughs. He sucks until she bruises, and then she nips at his jaw in retaliation.

Bull goes onto his back, pulling at her hips. She balances her hands on his stomach, very still.

“Please,” he murmurs, and she shivers at the ache in his voice. Merrill lets him pull her forward until she’s straddling his chest, and Bull is again attempting to undo the mail that wraps her legs. His fingers are too thick, and shaking, maybe, and Merrill reaches between and undoes the clasps—and he’s come already, but each little movement of her fingers runs heat down his spine.

His big hands smooth the mail away, trace down the slim curves of her long legs. His hand finds the bandage, where the mail is written into her skin, and slides her knee into the crook of his elbow so it won’t lean on the hard ground.

Merrill blinks, a half-smile on her face as she looks down at him, traces from his forehead and down his nose, until she runs her touch along his lips. He catches her hand, mouth to her palm.

They don’t say anything more—Bull tilts her forward, leg cradled in the crook of his arm, until she comes to rest on him. When her knees frame his ears, glances up at her. Her thigh quivers underneath his hand, as warm puffs of his breath fan her skin, and she nods, cants her hips forward.

He sinks into her with a groan. At the first brush of his tongue, her breath hitches. She winds in on herself, muscles knotting together and bends low—one hand clamped around the curve of his horn, the other at the ground, clawing at the dirt. She rocks against his mouth in wordless plea, and Bull suckles, eye closed and half-drunk on the warm, salt taste of her, the heady scent. Nothing but this. His nails dig into her hips, keep her steady.

Merrill comes with her voice carried on a sigh and quivering like a leaf. The end of her breath curls up into a laugh, little pearls of delight.

~~~

The sun wakes him in the morning—even the morning light is too hot, too bright. A rock pokes into his back. And he’s lying there all alone.

Merrill never said we’re the same, you and I, or even we’re alike. They aren’t—Merrill is free, unafraid, and as Bull looks up at the clear sky, he sees Qunlat written in the clouds. The same way you see the faces of the dead in everyone you meet. For a second, he can’t get up. It’s too heavy.

He thinks of Merrill, Merrill who craves the Dalish in her life even as she scorns their resistance to change, and how there is no weakness in reaching for what’s lost. The voice of a tamassran, cracking open his skull in a dark room: nothing’s too heavy for you. His own voice, a voice at ten, reciting the Qun with his brothers and sisters under the morning sun: solitude is illusion.

They take root beneath his scalp. Give him the strength to blink, to stare back into the empty sky as it stares down at him.

A soft trill of laughter from behind him. He sits up. Merrill’s leaning against the rock, carefully tying her greaves on.

“We’re lazy this morning,” she says, impossibly cheerful. She bends over him, touches her lips to the same spot on his horn’s curve—if this is what happens every time Merrill gets laid, Bull may not survive it—“Varric’s slow enough without your lagging.”

“I’m not slow,” Varric calls. He’s putting out the fire. “I’m just actually thinking about where we’re going, instead of running straight into big ass demon rifts. Like some people.

“Oh, hush, you lump,” Merrill chastises, but her voice is warm with affection. Varric just groans and kicks dirt over the coals.

She offers him her hands. “Come on,” she says, and smiles. He reaches out, heaves himself to his feet. And Bull goes.