The Commander’s tent was slightly larger than the other tents in the army’s camp and set off a little from the rows of those housing the troops. Healer Eala Arnal brushed her clammy hands along the sides of her skirts as she walked up to the tent’s entrance.
It was twenty till the hour; she was a little early. Her eyes skittered from the tent flaps to the frozen surface of the lake and back again, tugging her the collar of her cloak tighter around her neck against the chill evening wind. Should she call out? She decided she had to: it was far too cold for her to stand about for the next twenty minutes.
“Commander, “ she called out, and thank the Maker, her voice didn’t quaver.” Tis, Healer Eala come for your treatment.”
“Enter,” came a deep and authoritative voice from within.
As she entered the tent, she noticed the Commander sitting at his desk, and he looked more tired than he had earlier in the day when she’d seen him at the Healers’ Cabin. The purplish circles around his eyes appeared darker, and the lines on his forehead and at the corners of his eyes were scored more deeply. He tossed the quill he was holding on his desk and slowly got up from his chair, pulling a grimace as he rolled his shoulders and arched his back into his hand. He smiled at her as he came around to the front of his desk.
“Thank you for coming,” he said, perching on the edge of his desk with a little grunt. He pointed to a cloak stand behind her that stood beside his armor stand that now held his gleaming armor, each piece settled neatly in its place. “You can hang your cloak over there. Please make yourself comfortable.”
She nodded, and after removing her cloak and hanging it up on the stand, she came to stand before him her hands clasped in front of her as she waited for his direction. When she met his gaze, he smiled again, just a small lifting of the corners of his lips, really, but a genuine warmth lit his golden eyes and softened the severity of his features. Maker, he was even more beautiful than she had thought when she had seen him earlier.
“I suppose,” he began, running one thumb over his left eyebrow, “that we should begin with me telling you why I need you and what I require, yes?”
The Commander gave a short chuckle. “Eala — may I call you that?” At her nod, he continued,” there’s no need to stand on ceremony in here. My name is Cullen; I hope you will use it.”
“Oh, Ser, I can’t possibly do that,” she averred, twisting her hands together, color flushing her cheeks. Her eyes trailed over his body, clad now in just his breeches and a shirt, the collar unlaced and falling open over his chest. The light from the candles and the braziers burnished his skin and limined his hair in pale gold. She felt unreasonably warm, given the temperature outside, and her heart fluttered in her chest.
No, it would not do to become familiar with the Commander. Best to keep it professional. Not that he would want anything else, at least not with her.
One honey colored eyebrow quirked upward, but, thankfully, he let the subject drop. He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose before he started to talk.
“I, um, have a health condition that causes me severe headaches, muscle spasms, assorted body aches, and terrible pains in my joints. “ He reached behind him for a small glass jar of white cream and held it out to her. She took it, and he continued “that is a preparation of oakmoss and elderflower; the apothecary in Kirkwall prepared it for me. You know what it does, yes?”
“Yes, Ser, it’s a liniment for easing swelling and provides pain relief. “ She had some experience in making the preparation herself. Palming the jar in her hand, she made a note of it in her head. She would check the stores tomorrow to see if they had the ingredients on hand.
He nodded his head. “I — Yes. I would like you to —ah —“ His skin flushed pink from the tops of his ears down to his chest, and he averted his eyes. “To rub this into my neck, back, and shoulders twice daily. I just need some relief so I can work — it has been most difficult of late.”
At this display of unease, all her apprehension fled her. Handsome or not, he was her patient, and he needed her care. Now, her eyes roved over his form with a clinical eye, noting the guarded way he held himself and decided that he had to be in a great deal of pain.
“Right, then, Commander. Let’s get started. Shall I wait outside while you get undressed and get into bed?” But he was already standing up and pulling his shirt over his head, and his hands were working the laces on his breeches.”Oh, Maker!” She turned away, blushing herself now.
“Maker, please forgive my rudeness, Eala! I, um, just assumed you — that you wouldn’t mind,” he said from behind her.
“It’s fine, Commander! Please don’t trouble yourself about it. “
She stood there, biting her lower lip and facing the tent flaps as she waited for him to finish undressing. She listened to the sounds of rustling cloth and his soft grunts and curses. Her cheeks heated as she imagined what his chest had looked like, all curved muscle covered with a down of pale blond hair.
He is your patient, Eala. Cut it out.
“All right. I am ready,” his deep voice called from behind her. She turned to find that he was lying on his stomach, with the covers pulled up to his waist, his bare back exposed.
Eala swallowed, and knelt beside him on the bed, holding the jar of oakmoss and elderflower cream. Just another patient. Just another patient, she repeated that refrain in her head as she dipped her fingers into the cream and began working it into his neck and shoulders, systematically working her way down to just above the rise of his buttocks. His muscles were tight and tense, as she knew they would be, and she had to go slow, pressing deep soothing circles into his flesh and digging in her thumbs wherever she felt a knot.
“That feels good,” he slurred, his face tucked into the crook of on elbow. “Should have done this ages ago.”
“Why didn’t you?” She continued to massage the cream into the skin of his back, enjoying the little moans and grunts she pulled from him. His back was beautiful — all sculpted muscle without an ounce of spare flesh. The skin at the tops of his shoulders and upper arms was lightly freckled, and his entire upper body was tanned to a light golden color. He must spend time training in the sun without a shirt. Maker, was everything about him golden?
“I thought it was a frivolous,” he hissed as she alighted on a large knot above his left hip, “harder if you please; that spot has been killing me for weeks — waste of scarce resources — but now I..oh Maker,” his words petered out on a moan of pleasure.
She thought as much. Her own father has been stoic until the last, refusing to seek help because it would cost their family money they scarcely had..her eyes misted as she remembered her father lying on his death bed. She had been just 11 years old.
She shook off the memory and returned her attention to the man lying on the cot beside her. “Commander, you mustn’t feel guilty for this,” she told him, circling each vertebra with her thumbs and massaging them back into alignment. “You obviously need this.”
“I rather wish you wouldn’t use my title, Eala,” he rasped. “But yes, I see that now. Maker, I could honestly fall asleep right now.” The wonder in his voice almost made her chuckle.
“It’s what is supposed to happen once tension and pain are gone,” she said, switching her strokes to long and light scratches using just her fingertips over the skin of his back. “Sleep, Ser. I’ll see myself out.”
“Come tomorrow at six bells,” the Commander slurred before his eyes shut completely and his soft snores filled the tent.
Eala stood on the steps of the healers’ hut looking up at the gigantic green tear in the sky and shivered. It had been a week since the Conclave exploded and the Divine was murdered. She and the other healers had had their hands full patching up the wounded, but since that elf woman had stopped the Breach from expanding, things had settled down to nearly normal.
Now, she watched that elf woman — they were calling her the Herald of Andraste — she was speaking in hushed tones with that male elf apostate, Solas, in front of his cabin. The two elves had their heads together, Solas’ bald pate shining in the weak afternoon sunlight and the Herald’s white blond hair glistened like freshly fallen snow as it tumbled down over her shoulders and back, concealing her delicate features.
She was very beautiful; taller than most elves, with a willowy body that would look good clad in a canvas sack. Most everyone in Haven was taken with her. She wondered what the Commander thought of her and a sharp pang tore at her chest. Of course, he was probably just as enamored of her as everyone else.
But that was none of her business, so she forced the thought of it from her mind and stepped off the stairs. She walked past the two elves who gave her strange looks as she headed down the stone steps toward the village gates. She had some herbs to collect, and she wanted to be done before nightfall when she would have a bath and eat some supper before heading to the Commander’s tent for his treatment.
As she exited the village, she spotted him working with his men in the big practice field across the snow-packed road from the gates. She waved to him, and he waved back when she passed the field on the way toward the lake. She was glad to see that he seemed less encumbered by pain today. She continued on her way to collect her herbs, humming to herself.
When she returned to the Healers’ Cabin to sort out the herbs she had gathered, she sighed inwardly when she saw that Heather and Jocelyn were also there, sorting and putting away their own baskets of herbs. Eala didn’t understand why the two other girls did not like her; she had done nothing to them, but since she had joined the Inquisition, they never had two good words for her. Quietly, she joined them at the counter in the back of the cabin, set her basket down, and began to separate the herbs inside carefully.
“Joce,” Heather began as she reached for the jar of elfroot on the shelf above the counter. “Did you hear? The Commander has eyes for the Herald.”
Eala stiffened, but said nothing, standing on tiptoe to pull down the milk thistle jar. She dropped a bunch of the plant into it, closed the lid, and replaced it on the shelf.
“Yes, I saw them chatting on the field earlier this morning. It looked like they were getting on quite well. They make a gorgeous couple, don’t they? She looks so tiny next to his brawny blondness. And Maker, the way he was looking at her — as if she hung the moon!”Jocelyn sighed theatrically, fluttering her lashes and tossing her long red curls over her shoulder. “ I wish he would look at me that way.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Heather narrow her catlike green eyes in her direction. She braced herself for what she knew was coming as she continued to sort her herbs.
Heather slowly walked behind her, making tsking noises. “Yes, all the girls in Haven wish the same — even our own little piglet.”
Eala didn’t turn around. Instead, she picked up her pile of elfroot and trimmed off the excess stalks before leaning over to drag the elfroot jar toward her. Breathing evenly, she opened the lid and joined her pile of elfroot with the rest already in the container.
“Really?” Jocelyn’s skirts rustled, and she tutted mournfully. “That’s too bad.”
“Yes, I’ve seen her making calf-eyes at the man — as if a good-looking male like him would even deign to give her the time of day! I mean, look at her,” Heather’s voice dripped with acid. “Short and squat as a dwarf. D’you think she’s part dwarf? “
The two girls tittered cruelly, and Eala had to fight back the tears as she finished putting away the plants she collected. She didn’t know why she was letting their words get to her; it’s not like she hasn’t heard similar comments before.
She turned to leave, but the two taller girls blocked her way. Keeping her head down, Eala forced out a curt “Please let me pass.”
“Why,” demanded Jocelyn, her hands on her hips. “Don’t like hearing the truth, cow?”
“It should have been us,” Heather hissed, leaning down to poke at the front of Eala’s robes. “We should have been chosen to treat Commander Rutherford — not you!”
“Let me pass,” Eala repeated, stepping back from the blond girl’s accusing finger.
“Stupid little…” but Heather was interrupted from what she about say or do by Adan coming back into the cabin.
“What’s all this, then,” he asked as she hung his cloak up.
“Nothing, Ser,” Heather denied as she and Jocelyn returned to their places at the counter. “We were just conferring with Healer Eala about er..a new healing technique.”
“Well, get back to work. Those herbs won’t be getting cataloged and put away on their own, now will they?
“No Ser,” the two girls chorused and busied themselves with their stacks of plants.
Adan gave Eala a curious look but said nothing as she quickly wrapped herself in her cloak and left the cabin.