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The Half-Life of Element Zero

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Chapter sixteen 

The only good thing she could say about the infirmary (a collection of mismatched cots in filthy, weather-beaten tents) was that it was currently empty. 

The bad news? It was empty because its last patient had died from infection only a few days before. 

Dirty water. No soap. Nothing sterilized. Bandages were taken from the dead and reused without bothering to even rinse them out. And it reeked

She tried not to lose her shit, but there was really no other way to describe her reaction. She did have the presence of mind to lose her shit in English, so at least nobody was explicitly offended. 

Mother Giselle told her that most people either used mages as healers, or potions (or both). The handful of mages in Haven were either unable or unwilling to help, except Solas, who had been traveling with the Herald. Adan gave Mother Giselle as much potion as he could, but his supply was very limited. 

In either case, she explained to Helen, basic sanitation was not something that “the country people” were used to practicing. 

Helen found a runner and told him to bring Adan to her. 

While they waited, Helen called over Quartermaster Threnn. Helen explained that she needed to be able to clean and boil blankets, sheets, clothing, bandages and surgical instruments (which were little more than knives and bone saws) every day. What would that require in manpower and resources? 

Threnn told her, “We have the manpower, but there aren't enough laundry kettles in Haven as it is. We could purchase some, I suppose, but they won't be here for weeks. Maybe Harritt could make one? I'm not a blacksmith, so I don't know.” 

Adan arrived and explained that the primary reason he was unable to spare more than he did was because, “that greedy, buck-toothed bastard Seggritt has most of the ingredients I need. His prices start at 'robbery' and go all the way to 'sodomy.'” 

Helen thanked them all. Then she left to find Leliana. 

The good Sister was praying in her tent. Helen waited patiently until she was done. Leliana was apparently having a crisis of faith over the Death of the Divine. “What good is the Maker,” she asked, “if he can allow such things to happen?” 

Helen thought the Maker was superstitious claptrap, so her answer was mostly a shrug. After Leliana had calmed down, Helen explained the situation with the infirmary, and the mages, and Adan, and Seggritt. 

Leliana was already aware of the problem. “The mages tell me that they are afraid the Templars will attack them for using magic, and I cannot say they are wrong. 

“As for Seggritt, he is the only merchant willing to be here. He claims he's already selling at a discount, which complete nonsense. But he won't come down on his prices. Even Varric's connections won't bring anybody out here.” 

“I see,” Helen said, frowning. “Thank you, Leliana.” 

It was nearly sunset by now. She tracked down Varric. “Let's talk over dinner,” he said, and he took her to the tavern. 

Helen had not yet been to the tavern, figuring it would be dark, depressing, and full of people who whispered and stared at her. What she found instead was a bright, warm pub, where Varric was a celebrity. Helen received more than a few curious looks and one Chantry sister, deep in her cups, slurred out a blessing. But for the most part, she was ignored. 

Every few minutes, somebody would come over to their table, and start discussing shipments, or people, or intelligence, or whatever with Varric. She belatedly realized that Varric was conducting business. She quit trying to explain her situation and finished her dinner in peace while Varric held court. 

Finally, when the tavern was much closer to empty, she told Varric her dilemma about the situation with the infirmary, and Adan and Seggritt. 

Varric gave her a sympathetic look. “I'm as frustrated as anybody, but the fact is, nobody wants to come to the ass end of nowhere to set up shop right under the Breach. And we can't just take Seggritt's supplies, or conscript them, or whatever you want to call it. Because then he'll leave, and he'll be loud about it, and it won't go well for the Inquisition.” 

Flissa came over to check on them. Helen ordered an entire second dinner. 

“That's a hell of a lot of food,” Varric said. “You sure you can eat it all?” 

“Easily. But back to Seggritt—can we order the supplies directly from somewhere else?” 

Varric tilted his head to the side and stared off into the distance as he searched through whatever contact lists he kept in his head. “Maybe,” he said, but he didn't sound convinced. “If it was just elfroot, it wouldn't be a problem, but the best compounds come from places that aren't easy to get to, like the Anderfels, and the Hissing Wastes. Seggritt's a bastard and a crook, but he has sources. I'll look into it,” he promised. 

“Thank you, Varric.” she said. 

Her second round of calories arrived, along with another ale for Varric. Helen tucked in. “So. Ruffles stopped by today,” he said, oh-so-casually. “It seems that there was an accounting oversight, and I should have been getting paid.” 

Helen looked at him as she chewed, but said nothing. 

“I told our good Ambassador that I appreciated it, but I didn't need the money. And she said that it wasn't about need, it was about what was right. That I risked my life every day for the Inquisition, and that it would be dishonorable to take such a sacrifice for granted.” 

She raised an eyebrow over the rim of her mug. She wasn't sure where Varric was going with this.

“Got anything to say about it, Herald?” 

“Yes,” she said, tearing open a warm dinner roll and adding a pat of butter. “Did you take the first offer, or did you hold out for sick leave and a pension?” 

He gave her a slow smile and tucked some wayward bangs behind his ears. "You sure you're not part dwarf?” 

She smiled back. “I am sure.” 

“Well, I still turned it down. I don't need it, and the Inquisition does. But I want you to know, it means a lot to me that you asked.” 

“Of course, Varric. You chose to stay. I am grateful to you.” 

Varric kept her company while she finished her dinner, telling her about how Cassandra had first arrested him, and how some of the things that had actually happened to Hawke were so unbelievable that he'd left them out of the book. 

When Helen was done eating, Flissa came over to take her plates and handed them a bill. “Put it on my tab,” Varric said, but Helen stopped him, and told Flissa to put it on the Inquisition's tab. 

“I am not getting paid, either,” she explained to Varric. 

“No? Well...maybe you're not part dwarf.” 

** 

Helen woke up far too early the next morning. She told herself it was simply because she was now used to such hours, and not because of another nightmare. 

Just like before, Telina arrived with breakfast shortly after Helen got up. Helen thanked her and then thought of something. "Telina, how do you always know when I am awake?" 

The girl looked confused as if it made no sense. “Well... you light a lamp, milady. We can see it in the windows.” 

Helen nodded, then shook her head. She was asking the wrong question. “What I mean is, who is watching my windows to see when the light goes on?” 

“Sister Nightingale's people, milady. Somebody watches over your cabin all night, to make sure you are safe. When you get up, a runner tells me. I put your breakfast together, then I come here.” 

Helen found that answer alarming for a number of reasons, not least of which was the idea that her safety was at risk. And then there was the issue of Telina herself. “Wait. Did they wake you just to... bring me breakfast?” 

“Oh, no. Most of us in the kitchen have been up for hours already. Commander Rutherford and his recruits rise early, Harritt and his people are up, Flissa's usually awake, or about to be, anyway, to prepare for the morning crowd. And a lot of the Sisters eat before they go to morning prayers.” 

That made Helen feel a bit better, knowing that she at least wasn't getting this poor girl out of bed. “Thank you. That is good to know. I appreciate everything you do for me, Telina.” 

Telina looked uncomfortable, but she nodded her thanks and left. Well, at least she isn't curtsying and sprinting out the door this time. I guess that's progress. 

After eating breakfast and getting dressed, Helen walked down to the forge. Although it was still dark, Harritt and his men were all up and working hard even as the sun rose. 

"Heard you was back," Harritt said when she showed up. "Here. Come have a look." He showed her black leather armor, with chain mail, pauldrons and gauntlets armored in an opalescent metal. "And lookit this," he said excitedly. A wicked looking dagger retracted directly from the top of the right gauntlet. "You can remove it, like that, see? Take it out, clean it, sharpen it, what-have-you." He gave her strict care instructions and a flask of oil. Then he gently placed the armor in her arms, like a new father handing over his infant. 

After thanking him profusely, she asked him about laundry kettles, explaining why she needed them. “Hmm, yeah, I can spare the iron. But we'll need to build a mold first, which will take a couple of days. I'll have my men start on it.” 

Helen took her armor back to her cabin and thought about her next moves. She needed to talk to Leliana, and to Solas, and to Cullen. 

She decided to save Solas for last. The man liked his sleep and had been on the road for a month. 

First, she sought out Leliana. She updated her on the progress for the infirmary. Then she asked why her cabin was being watched at night. 

Leliana paused for a moment. “Because we have credible reports of at least four separate plots to have you assassinated.” 

“Oh.” Helen wasn't even sure how to react to that news. “Is...that a lot?” 

“It is four more than we want, but as long as the Inquisition is a player in Thedas politics, there will be plots. Most of the threats are just grandstanding and politics. The plot itself is the point, not your actual death. That is how the Grand Game is played. However, one of the plots is internal, right here in Haven.The guardsmen who were punished in the wake of Ivans death have been quite vocal about wanting to see you come to harm.” 

It took Helen's brain a moment to remind her that Ivans was the Templar who had tried to rape her while she was still a prisoner. Honestly, her entire memory of that day was mostly just a blur. 

“Is it a serious threat?” Helen asked, “Are they truly dangerous, or are they just complaining?” 

“They are dangerously stupid,” Leliana said. “It isn't what they plan that we worry about. These men are not thinkers. It is what they do on impulse that has us worried. If they were to attack you...” 

“I would defend myself.” Because killing one man in self-defense might be acceptable, but killing a few began to look like she was unstable or vicious. 

“You see the concern.” 

“I do. Thank you for telling me.” 

She stopped by Seggritt's table. “The answer's no, Herald,” he said as she walked up. “I know what you're going to ask. My prices are fair. Take it or leave it.” 

Helen looked at him for a moment, his little piggy eyes looking back at her. “We have a saying in my world. 'What goes around, comes around.'” 

“This isn't your world, Herald. It's mine.” 

Helen debated whether she should slap him into a stasis field to literally scare the shit out of him. But that was more likely to frighten the people she wanted to help more than it was to influence his prices. 

Next on her list was Commander Rutherford. She made her way down to the training yard, where all the ground pounders were trying very hard not to hurt themselves. 

Cullen was yelling at a recruit. "Right. Now block. Block. Block him! No. NO, dammit, not—don't do—Maker's sake, boy, IT'S A SHIELD, not a dinner plate. It protects you, not the other way around." The boy turned red but tried again. When he got it right, Cullen said, "Good! Keep at it," and then moved along the line. 

Helen had been expecting something like her old drill instructor from the Marines, lots of screaming and repetition and physical training. Cullen was certainly running drills, but his approach was more like an exasperated dad. He was...actually, he was rather good looking, when he wasn't scowling at her, or being a complete ass. 

 

Chapter 16 Cullen

 

She got close enough that he could hear her, but not so close that she was encroaching on the training grounds. “Commander Rutherford?” she called out. “Do you have a moment?” The look of warm pride on his face was replaced with a sneer, his eyes went cold and his shoulders tensed up, but he walked over. “Need something, Herald?” 

“Yes, please. I need advice,” she said, trying her best to keep her tone professional. Then she sketched out the issues with the infirmary. “The mages have said they will not use magic because they are afraid of being punished by the Templars. I have not spoken to either side, yet, and do not want to make accusations.” 

“All right,” Cullen said, looking a little impatient. “So what advice did you need from me, specifically?” 

“Do you believe the Templars would agree to leave the mages in peace so they can work in the infirmary?” 

“Doubt it,” Cullen said. “Mage healers never worked without a Templar because of all the blood around.” 

“Well,” she said, confused. “it is an infirmary, Commander. Of course, there will be blood." 

“Which makes it an ideal place to practice blood magic!” he snapped at her. 

Oh. Right. “I had not thought of that. Do you we could convince a mage and a Templar to work together?” 

“Why don't you go ask them yourself. Now, if you'll excuse me, Herald, I have men to train.” 

“Oh, for fuck's sake!” she shouted in English, then switched to Common. “Adan cannot make potion because Seggritt will not sell the ingredients at a reasonable price. Harritt is going to stop making weapons for a few days so he can make laundry kettles from scratch. The mages and the Templars refuse to work together because their mutual hatred is far more important than actual lives. 

"You are the Commander, no? Will you not even allow me to find a way to boil water? Then, by all means, hurry back to training your men, so that they can die bravely from sepsis! And dysentery!" 

The soldiers had all stopped training to watch. 

“And by the way,” she continued in a low voice, poking him in his breastplate, “your guardsmen? The ones you sent to bed without their supper? They have been openly plotting to kill me. Maybe, if you are lucky, you can add, 'allowed his men to kill the Herald of Andraste' to your resume.” 

Cullen stared at her, shock written all over his face. 

“Thank you so much for the advice,” she said, allowing her accent to get deliberately thick, and sketching a mock bow. Then she stormed off into the woods. 

** 

It took Helen a while to calm down. She used Singularities to create several dozen very large snowballs. Then, one by one, she Pulled them off the ground and Threw them into the sky. She gave some of them names. Clinton. Cullen. Seggritt. She muttered every curse in every Milky Way language she knew. 

She felt, more than heard, Solas approach. “Did Cassandra send you?” she asked, not turning around. 

“She told me the recruits were treated to a display of your fluency this morning. I came looking for you on my own.” 

Something about his cultured voice made her want to come apart at the seams; to sob uncontrollably, or to scream until her lungs ached, or to smash boulders into the mountainside—anything to unleash all of the anger and frustration and grief she had inside. 

But Solas had snapped at her more than a few times for saying or doing the wrong thing. Whatever he was, at the moment, he was no safe harbor for her. 

She used her biotics to gather the remaining snowballs into a little wall, then slammed a Shockwave into it. It churned up the ground along the way and pulverized the wall into a cloud of sparkling snow. 

“You do not use that spell very often,” he said, coming up behind her. 

"No. It is powerful but inflexible. Once it is unleashed, it cannot change direction, and it obliterates almost everything in its path, friend or foe. The destruction is satisfying, I suppose, but I prefer the skills that let me adapt to my environment." 

He paused for a moment, then said, “That is... surprisingly self-aware of you.” A moment later, he stood directly in front of her. 

She looked up at him. “Are you here to scold me?” 

“No. I was simply concerned for your safety.” 

“I think I am safe from the goats, Solas.” 

“From the goats, yes, but perhaps not from assassins.” 

“Ah. Leliana sent you after me.” 

His lips pressed into a line of exasperation. “Is it so hard to believe that I came here of my own volition?” 

“No,” she conceded. “But honestly, I would welcome an assassination attempt right now. I could use the fight.” 

“If I may make a suggestion, come back to town with me. We can spar in the training yard, ” he said. “The physical exercise will calm your spirit, and your advisors will not worry for your whereabouts.” 

She agreed and they started walking back towards Haven. She told him about her issues with the infirmary. “No healers. No medicine! No sanitation! Three things that could eliminate most infection and disease. Seggritt will not move on his prices. Cullen will not help with the mages and Templars. Harritt is helping with kettles, but that won't be ready for at least a few days. I had actually planned to come find you earlier, see if you had any advice, before I, you know...” 

“Told off Commander Rutherford, at the top of your lungs, in front of all his men.” If she didn't know any better, she'd say that Solas almost sounded proud of her. 

“Everybody seems to know there is a problem but nobody knows how to fix it. It is appalling. I lost my patience.” 

“Haven is poor, fuel is precious, and many people here are ignorant about such matters. But you are right to challenge the status quo on this issue, Herald.” 

“What would you do?” she asked. They had reached the lake edge of the training yard. Solas skirted around it so they did not interfere with Cullen's men. Cullen himself was looking over a report of some kind. 

“Talk to the mages and Templars, as the Commander suggested.” 

“But he never said—” Helen stopped for a moment, “he did actually make that suggestion. I heard his tone, not his words.” 

Solas raised his eyebrows at her but said nothing. They walked the rest of the way to the sparring area in silence. He went to a barrel of practice weapons, and choose a quarterstaff for himself, and a wooden sword for her. 

He brought the sword over and stood to face her. To anybody else, it would look like he was instructing her on how to hold a sword. 

 

Chapter 16 render

 

He said, in a voice so low only that they could hear, “The Commander is well aware of the issues with the infirmary. In fact, I heard that he wanted to throw Seggritt into the dungeon, and confiscate his stocks. I would also hazard a guess that the reason he is reluctant to approach the mages and Templars is because he has to break up arguments on a near-daily basis.”

“Then why did he speak to me like that?” Helen hissed, trying to keep her voice down. “I am only trying—”

“Because he is afraid of you, Herald.” Helen looked at Solas' face to see if he was joking. He wasn't.

“You are a woman abused by his own men, with magic he cannot overcome, from a world he does not comprehend. Now come,” he said, placing the sword in her right hand, “let us begin.”

“I do not know how to use a sword.”

“Then it is high time you learn.”

He spent an hour showing her the basics—stance, grip, footwork, and defensive moves. It was much harder than she thought it would be. She was famished by the time they finished. Most importantly, she had calmed down.

Serannasan Ma, Solas,” she said as they put the practice weapons away. “You are a good instructor.”

Ma ane a on lin'sila, Herald. 'You are a good learner.'”

And something about the new Elvhen words clicked into place in her UT.

Solas. His name meant “Pride.”

Helen made small talk with Solas as they headed back into town. She realized that this was, perhaps, the first time she had seen him walking for any period of time without a weapon strapped to his back. He walked with his hands clasped loosely behind him, talking casually but his eyes always on the move, taking in their surroundings at all times.

It reminded her of an Admiral inspecting a ship, looking for anything out of place. She wondered if it had anything to do with the threats against her.

“I understand I have you to thank for my new salary,” he said, as they neared her cabin.

“You do not need to thank anybody, Solas. It should not have been overlooked at all,” she said.

“Nevertheless, I appreciate it.”

They had reached the door of her cabin. Helen looked up at him. He was still scanning their surroundings. “Thank you, Solas. I needed” she almost said “a friend” but wasn't sure if that was the right term, “an ally today. It was kind of you to look out for me.”

Solas looked at her fully in the face. She didn't know if it was the sunset, or just because she'd never looked closely before, but his eye color was more purple than the blue she'd believed them to be. I wonder how often he hears that he has pretty eyes?

Then she remembered what had happened the last time she'd thought a man had pretty eyes.

Solas, unaware of her thoughts, inclined his head towards her just a little. “Good night, Herald,” he said, his expression gentle.

“Good night, Solas.”

She let herself into her cabin, and quietly scolded herself. You are only here to close the Breach. If she survived, she was going to get the hell out of Haven and never look back. If there was a spaceport on Thedas, she'd find it. If there wasn't... well, she really hadn't thought that far ahead, but wherever she wound up, it certainly wouldn't be Village Stinkhovel.

And if closing the Breach killed her, it wouldn't matter. Either way, she had no energy to spare for thoughts of pretty eyes on handsome men.