The news had reached her earlier that day. The war room had been oddly silent when she entered for her debriefing on the mission results of her advisors. A chill had run down her spine. They had looked at each other, silently vying to be free of the burden of telling her. Fortunately for them, she already knew.
Leliana eventually spoke up, seeing as this grave error was her own, she felt it her duty. “Inquisitor,” she began, “I am very sorry to say that the assassination of the Duke of Wycome had… unexpected consequences.” She took a breath. Mirana’s heart sank into her stomach. “Devastating consequences, your worship.” She handed her the letter written by Clan Lavellan’s keeper, her eyes cast downward in shame.
Mirana merely glanced at the letter, pale green eyes ghosting over it as if it were a receipt for shipments of nugskin. She didn’t need to read it; she could feel the loneliness seeping into her like cold water. “They’re all dead, aren’t they?” The deafening silence was answer enough. She thought she should be angrier; why wasn’t she screaming at them? Blaming them for the genocide of her clan? She should be pounding her fists on the table, scattering their little pawns to the corners of the room because why did it matter? How could she save the world if she could not even save her own family?
She merely nodded her head in grim acknowledgement, her jaw set despite the droplets that lingered on her eyelashes. Rather than morph into a fist, her fingers gripped the table with a surprising amount of force. Her small knuckles shone white against the weathered parchment of the map as she willed herself to numbness. Not here. She was the Inquisitor, their precious “Herald.” They would not see her succumb to the hysteria that was fighting its way from her stomach to her throat, threatening to choke her. The people certainly would not care to see her weep over a pack of Dalish elves, not after so many humans had already died. They were inferior. Stupid, she had been told, by an elf of all people.
“Where else needs our attention?” she had asked, her voice rigid and cold.
Now, along in her quarters, she stared at herself in her small mirror. Blank, she decided, blank was the word she was looking for when she examined her face. He has made me blank. She ghosted over the places where her markings, her vallaslin, had branched across her cheek in gentle brown. They had been the sign of Dirthamen, the god of secrets, of knowledge. Two things she had thought were important, two things she constantly sought out, fascinated by the history of her people as she was. But it was this thirst for truth that had cost her the last remnant she had of her people. She no longer felt Dalish. The only sensation she could comprehend was cold. Cold and empty.
She wept at how easily she had given them up, her people. A fool. She was a fool for loving him as well. She had fallen for his sweet words, his intrigue, and the naïve feeling that he understood her. She had felt alone ever since she had left her clan, ever since the events at the Conclave had stranded her in this place of humans with nothing but the Mark on her hand. She had clung to her heritage desperately, for even the few elves which kept her company saw the Dalish as simple savages grasping at wisps of an irrelevant history. He had made her think she was of value, even if her culture was not. And, at the time, her love for him outweighed the love she bore for her traditions. Slave markings, he had revealed her vallaslin to be before he removed it with fingers glowing like blue fire. She had watched him while he did it, observed the normally stoic elf melt with happiness at the sight of her naked face. Then was when she realized she loved him. Shortly after, they were over.
Only in the aftermath, she realized that she was irrevocably alone. She neither had her vhenan nor her clan. She didn’t know who she was anymore. She had betrayed and been betrayed all at once, it seemed. She had let her family die while she sat back, staring at the pawns on her Thedas chessboard, playing god. She had been careless, forgetting that beneath those letters were real people with real lives to be taken. Her role as Inquisitor had made her forget, she feared, what it meant to be real. She hardly felt real now.
Sharp nails dug into her skull, her neat braids becoming unruly as more sobs wracked her small body. Unable to stop herself, she let out a scream of rage, fists slamming against the mirror until bloodied shards lay embedded both in the carpet and in her knuckles. Pausing to catch her breath, she caught sight once more of her blank face, now red and splotchy with emotion. “Mala suledin nadas,” she whispered to herself as she picked up a particular shard and held it to her forehead. Now you must endure.
She stayed within her chambers for days, hardly leaving her bed except to piss or walk out onto the balcony and watch the birds over the mountaintops. The entirety of Skyhold fretted over the health of its beloved Herald. Mirana received frequent visits from healers, one even Dalish, per Josephine’s request, but no one was allowed in with the exception of the one cook she allowed to bring her food. When the woman came in, however, she buried the scabbed mess of her face within her pillow, threatening to suffocate herself if not left alone. She kept this up for nearly two weeks, until one day the voice at her door was one she had had yet to hear.
“Mirana?” it had inquired, uncharacteristically uncertain. She had been lounging on her sofa, skimming through a copy of Swords and Shields Cassandra had left in hopes to raise her spirits (it hadn’t worked), when Solas opened her door, unbidden. Letting out a yelp of surprise she stood up and quickly turned away, embarrassed that he of all people should see her face, see what he did to her. “Please end this unnecessary suffering; it will do nothing to bring them back. All it is doing is harming both you and your cause.”
She walked over to stand on her balcony, the strain in her shoulders the only sign of her agony. “You think I don’t know that?” she retorted, praying her words sounded more menacing than they felt on her tongue. “Why are you here, Solas?”
He moved to stand behind her, leaning against the frame of the open window. His eyes unwilling admiring the shape of her form from behind. How he yearned to brush his fingers through her pale blond locks, to feel her small warmth pressed up against him as she slept, admiring the beauty of her serenity in the darkness before he joined her in the Fade. He hoped he had not caused the light that so graced her features to dim, but he knew it to be true. And it killed him, for the choice had not been his to make; it was Fen’harel rather than Solas that had ended their entanglement.
Struck by the despondence of her voice, he remained silent for a moment as he tried to recall what he was going to say. Finally, he gave up on the clever excuse for coming he had been planning on the walk here and instead spoke the truth. “I came to make sure that you were alright. Your sudden disappearance was rather unsettling, especially when it became prolonged.” I miss you, vhenan.
“Well I’m afraid to say that I’m a bit unsettled myself.” She chuckled dryly at the understatement, grip tight on the stone rail. “I was dumped out of the blue and then my entire clan was murdered. Everything that mattered, gone before I could even realize it. So, in the eyes of many, I think my prolonged disappearance is perfectly understandable.”
“Yes,” he said quietly, shoulders drooping with regret, “I suppose it is.” He stared off into the distance, contemplating, before he suddenly inquired, “Are you ashamed of your face, Inquisitor?” He was caught off-guard when she jumped in surprise.
“What do you mean?”
He could sense her anxiety and inwardly cursed himself for bringing her more misery. Hadn’t he done enough already? “You feel as if you have offered your people one final disgrace by having your vallaslin removed. You regret it, because now you are no longer Dalish in their eyes. You feel as if you have betrayed them and whatever remained of their culture,” he predicted, his tone matter-of-fact to hide the deep pangs of regret underneath.
“Thank you for putting my innermost feelings so eloquently.” She shook her head. “I know you think little of my culture,” she spat, “but now is not the time to reiterate. I thought you were doing me a favor; I was too smitten to have known otherwise. But you… you severed my ties to everything, didn’t you? And you knew it too. You knew you were erasing this part of me that I was proud of and you didn’t care. In some sick, twisted way you were making me yours, only to leave me. You made me lose everything!” She whirled around to face him then, the blood pounding in her ears causing her head to ache. He could see what he had done to her; what did it matter now what he thought? She just wanted him to hurt.
With each fiery word she breathed, roaring like a dragon off into the peaks of the Frostbacks, Solas felt his blood grow colder and colder until he imagined himself completely frozen, rooted both to the ground and his previous choices. The shame was maddening. He had loved her, he did love her, truly. He had wanted to help her, to remove that ugly brand of slavery from her beautiful face as he did to his kin so many years ago. He had thought it to be a gift, her liberation. But now she wouldn’t see it that way, of course, not after he had filled her eyes with tears. His own grew blurry as he watched her shake with an impossible sadness wearing the guise of fury. So normally full of light, of hope, it broke him to witness her this way. Then she turned to face him and suddenly his knees threatened to crumple beneath him.
Where her vallaslin once was were hideous cuts, crudely marring her skin in the shape of her previous markings. On her cheeks, normally flushed with life, were several lines curling upwards into her temples. They were black and crusted over with yellow-white pus that contrasted greatly with the dark circles beneath her eyes. Upon her forehead sat the distinctive U shape of Dirthamen’s sigil, the only other telltale sign being the jagged lines that ran down her nose. Beneath her bottom lip, her chin was nothing but a collection of scabs; she must have given up there. Solas gaped at her, unable to speak. For once, his thoughts refused to form coherent sentences and he waited for her to speak, dumbfounded and utterly destroyed with the knowledge that he had caused this. How much pain would he bring unto this world before he wiped it from existence?
“Why?” she whispered, tears rolling down her disfigured cheeks as she glared up at him, her anger fading into defeat.
“Please,” he spoke earnestly as he moved towards her, “allow me to heal it; you don’t deserve this agony, vhe-” He caught himself, barely. “Mirana.”
She pushed his outstretched hands aside, her own shaking as she brought them up to brush hair from her face. This is why she always wore it up; its length was dreadfully annoying when trying to have an argument. “No, I want it to scar. And you didn’t answer my question.” She had heard his slip and it stung her like the glass she had dug into her face.
“It was for the best,” he said curtly.
He dropped his gaze, trying to find the words to say what was needed though not wanted. What he wanted was to pull her close and beg her forgiveness, tell her what lay in his heart, unhindered by the necessity of secrecy. He wanted to put his hands to her face and mend her, body and mind, because what was he without her? She had changed him, try as he might to resist, she had softened him with her words and her touches. For a moment, just a moment, she had made him doubt, something he hadn’t done in a long time. Doubt his plans, his rightness, and his certainty that he would die alone. But now he knew his plans must be carried through because he must atone, he must right the wrongs of his past, the wrongs that cost him everything. Cost him her.
“I believe it was.” I had no choice. “Sometimes we must make difficult choices in order to better ourselves in the long run.” I love you more than I thought I was capable of loving anyone. “I have made mine, just as you made yours in removing your slave markings. You just have to trust that my intentions were kind in sharing the truth with you. I did not want you living in ignorance as did your people.” I never wanted to hurt you, vhenan, nor did I wish to break all your familial ties. I couldn’t bear to see you wearing the hideous marks of our past, marks I cleansed to set so many free. I could think of no better way to set you free.
“You’re lying!” she cried out.
“I understand that you grieve their loss, and rightly so. They did not deserve such a fate. But I must implore you to move on. So many rely on you for you to cast your life away, not when there is so much left of it. You must learn to steel yourself; so many things will succeed in hurting you if not.” If I could take away your pain, I would. I would make you forget me if only it would make you whole again.
“If you’re going to chastise me, I would prefer it if you’d just leave,” she snarled before returning to glare at the mountains. She remembered when he had brought her here, to Skyhold. She remembered the long journey on foot through the snow, the relief at the distant sight of the castle, outline in the light of the sun like some heavenly visage. He had stood beside her then, watching her own visage glow with excitement. He had thought her beautiful, intriguing even from the moment he laid eyes on her, sleeping in the dungeon cell as he studied her Mark. But then, seeing her there, cold wind tossing her hair and bringing a pink flush to her cheeks, he had become scared. For he knew that whatever he was feeling would bring ruin to them both. From there his dread would only grow, soon becoming the only emotion stronger than his love for her.
“Forgive me, I should not have come. This was foolish.” He started to leave when he felt a hand on his wrist, tugging him back. His mind flashed to a previous incident on a balcony with disconcertingly similar motions. He hadn’t wanted to lose her then, so why now?
“Did I ever mean anything to you? Or was I just another stupid elf for you to enlighten?”
He frowned to himself before turning back around to smile sadly at her. “I never thought you were stupid, Mirana. Quite the opposite, in fact.” His hand itched to grasp hers, but it remained clamped firmly on his arm. Her strength surprised him, but he should be used to surprises with her, by now.
“Did you love me?” she pressed him, watery eyes possessing that quiet determination he so admired.
Yes. Every day, with all my being, he yearned to say as he would wrap his arms around her. I have never loved another as I have loved you. As I still do. But all he did was stand there, blinking like an idiot as he watched her face grow crestfallen.
“I see.” Her words were barely a whisper.
“It’s better that I know, than to go on thinking otherwise. It’ll make it easier, eventually.” They watched the sun set over the white peaks before she headed back into her room. She walked him to the door and opened it. “Have a good night, Solas.”
He felt numb as he exited, as if he were in some sort of nightmare. How could he let her think that? Would it be better to believe a lie or have to live with the truth? He stared at her, absorbing her defeated expression as his own. How could he look at that face, which was once so lovely, and let it continue to weep for him? He had never thought himself a monster before, and he had done much worse things than break a young girl’s heart. He was overcome with the urge to pull her into him, feel the soft curves of her breasts against him, smell the earthy scent of her hair and taste the sweetness of her mouth. He wanted to beg her forgiveness on his knees, kiss every inch of her until she knew how much he cherished her. He wanted to watch the scabs fall off her face, leaving her beautiful skin unharmed and radiant beneath his touch. He wanted to badly for her, all of her, but rather than a profession he blurted, “Do you wish to return home?”
She thought about it for a moment before replying, “Yes.” Then she closed the door with a bang of finality.
That night he found her within the Fade. It wasn’t difficult; when he was feeling particularly lonely or full of self-loathing he would watch her in secret. The frequent reminder of his loss would keep him grounded, he thought. The wolf in her dreams would confuse her, on the rare occasion he allowed himself to be spotted, but he knew she would never comprehend. The red eyes shining like lyrium in the darkest corners of her conscious didn’t frighten her; for some reason she couldn’t put her finger on, they were oddly comforting. She pretended that they belonged to a guardian spirit and, whenever she caught sight of them, she was struck with the sensation that she was in the company of a friend.
Tonight, however, he came to her as himself. As if afraid to speak, he lingered in the dense growth of forest for a few minutes, admiring her grace as she sauntered between the trees. Her hair was down again, falling down to her chest in waves the color of moonlight. She wore a slender green tunic in this dream, the shape of her legs complimented by tight-fitting breeches. Her bare feet were silent in the grass, giving Solas the impression that she was floating atop the dew-soaked blades like a dancer. She looked so happy here, far happier than she had appeared since… He swallowed, unexpectedly nervous as he moved out from his cover.
“Do you know where we are?” he inquired softly, not wishing to startle her.
“Yes.” She turned to face him, beaming so bright he felt a small smile appear on his own mouth. What a treat it was for him to see her like this. It was like reliving a distant memory. “We’re in the Free Marches. My clan is just over that ridge.” She pointed over to a large hill outlined by the light of the full moon, nearly bouncing with excitement. “I haven’t been here in so long, it feels like nothing’s changed!” she exclaimed. “I remember hunting in these woods with my friend, Illivere. He would always sing this stupid song about birds. Each feather represented a secret, he would say, and that’s why we must pluck them before we eat, or else someone might ingest some juicy gossip about you and the Keeper’s daughter. Of course, it was a lot more musical than that.” She laughed, a light noise that nearly elicited a similar reaction in him, much to his annoyance. “Unfortunately, I can’t remember the verses.” Her mirth dampened as she became aware of yet another aspect of her clan that would be lost with her.
“I have a great collection of literature on the culture of your people. I believe there is one or two books on folk songs. Would you be interested in borrowing them?” He walked to stand beside her, forcing his gaze upon the moon so that he wouldn’t stare at her. He wasn’t sure whether it was the glee brought on by their location, or the shimmer of her eyes in the dark, but feelings he had worked so hard to stow far away in his mind were beginning to resurface.
The smile returned to her face, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “I’d like that very much, thank you.” She shifted her weight anxiously, her hands wringing each other as she glanced up at him. “Would you like to walk with me?” She nodded in the direction of her clan’s camp, to which he gestured for her to lead the way. “So, I’m guessing you have something to do with our current location?”
“Who knows? The Fade works in mysterious ways. Perhaps it is the guilt within your subconscious that has led you here.”
“Or the guilt within yours.” She huffed, scrutinizing his stiff posture and wondering how he could keep his head held high through such a lie. But yet he walked onwards, hands clasped behind his back as he appeared to admire the foliage in their path. The ease with which he could tell lies frightened her, but also filled her with some sort of hope, unrealistic as it was, that their end was not what he truly wanted. Whatever emotions Solas held under that polite mask of his, she knew she would only be able to guess.
He merely shrugged in response to this accusation before changing the subject. “Tell me more of Clan Lavellan.”
“I’m sure you already know all you need to: we’re Dalish. Savage, ignorant, worshippers of false gods who bare the slave markings of their past like trophies.”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it, you’re just trying to be polite. But really, Solas, you don’t need to be. You were never one for small talk, why pretend?”
“Can I not be curious about your family?”
“Not anymore,” she growled, her voice harsher than she had intended. After a moment of awkward silence, she apologized. “I need to move on,” she said, her voice dull.
As do I, Solas thought in response. But did he want to? More importantly, did he want her to? As much as it would please him to see her return to her usual self, the idea of her with another caused his fingernails to dig into his palm with such ferocity he nearly broke skin. “Over time it will get easier, I promise.”
Mirana doubted this sincerely, but said nothing. They walked the remainder of the way in silence. The only noise in the black forest was the low hoot of an owl, perched on some distant branch. “We’re here.” They had come across a clearing filled with tents of various shapes and sizes but, as she had dreaded, no people. Of course they wouldn’t be here, she had been foolish for hoping otherwise.
Solas noticed the sudden slump in her shoulders as she regarded the empty village. He knew that she would be disappointed at first, but he hadn’t brought her here to make her melancholic. “They are gone, at least in the flesh. But I told you of how I could get glimpses of past lives through memories, correct? Brief flashes of conscious permeate the air, Mirana. Can you feel them?” He watched her close her eyes, furrowing her light brows as if she were straining. He chuckled silently, knowing she couldn’t see. Despite how adorable he found this display, it sent a pang of sorrow through him as he was reminded once more of all he had lost.
“No,” she whined, reopening her large eyes to look around her. “I’m not a mage; I can’t just sense things like you do.” Ever since she was a child, she had wanted so badly to possess the magical ability of mages, to be connected with the Fade in ways a mere rogue could never be. She had learned not be jealous (her mamae taught her that jealousy was one of the ugliest beasts she would ever encounter), but she couldn’t help her fascination, especially when she was with him.
“Relax, lethallan. Nothing comes easier when you are agitated. Perhaps there is a particular place here where you have a more potent memory?”
She thought for a moment before she began to walk, her eyes glassy as if she were sleepwalking. Eventually she halted in front of a tent that, by outward appearances, seemed no different from the others. But it filled Mirana with the warm sensation of familiarity, of coming home. “This is where my family lived. I was born in here.” She pulled by the furs that served as a doorway and entered, Solas trailing closely behind. The air around her was silent, the darkness empty. Her eyes quickly adjusted, however, and she came across a collection of handprints along the wall. “I can’t believe these are still here! My parents would measure the growth of my sister and I using our handprints. I’m the bigger ones, you see?” She gingerly placed her hand atop the largest print, though it still was a good few inches smaller. “I stopped making them years ago. I guess I thought I was too old,” she murmured wistfully as she pulled away.
Solas watched her, hoping she might be able to conjure up a memory from the relic on her own. Her defeated expression, however, told him otherwise. Not wanting to touch her more than he had to, he let out a sigh before grabbing her hand. Then, ignoring her grunt of surprise, pressed it back against her print on the wall, holding it there for a few seconds before he felt something change. He was immediately filled with the echoes of a childlike joy and he almost closed his eyes in order to fully delve into the memory, but he quickly grew enthralled with her face. “What do you see?” he asked quietly, not wishing to cause her dreamy smile to falter.
“I see my little sister. She’s laughing, we’re both laughing at something.” To his delight, she began to laugh herself, a bubbly, high-pitched noise that he had never heard before. The laugh of a child, he thought, a being who has not yet seen the horrors of this world. “I see mamae by the fire, telling a story. She’s brushing my hair as she talks.” She brought a hand up to hover over her head as if trying to touch the ghost of her mother.
Lost in the moment and not wanting to deprive her, he gently placed his free hand beneath hers, feeling the cool silk of her hair as her fingers wrapped around his own. He could feel the warmth of her recollection radiating from her body, enveloping him as well in the sensation of family. It had been longer than he could remember since he had felt these things. The beautiful, innocent joy upon her face nearly brought tears to his own eyes, and he couldn’t bring himself to look away. He wanted to bottle this moment and keep it for eternity, stored safely in a place where no one could ever touch it, ever corrupt it. But he also wanted to cup it in his hands and drink her now, selfishly. The urge to taste her being, her splendor, grew too much for him, and he forced himself to pull away, releasing her from the memory.
She blinked and it was all gone. The feel of her mother’s touch, the sight of her sister’s fair hair as it glimmered in the light of the small fire, all gone. She was suddenly very cold. “Solas?” She cursed herself for sounding so helpless.
“I am outside.”
“What happened?” she asked as she exited the tent, upset that the sensation had ended so abruptly.
He refused to look at her, though the back of his neck and tips of his ears were flushed. “I could only hold on to it for so long,” he lied, “I am sorry. Did you enjoy it while it lasted?”
She smiled to herself as she looked back at the tent behind them. “It was… wonderful, Solas. Thank you.” He nodded in response, his own smile half-hearted. “Did you see it too?”
“Ah, no. I assumed it might be personal so I remained here.”
“That’s a shame; I was certain you were going to make a comment about me as a child.”
He raised an eyebrow at her, curious. “And what sort of comment might that be?”
She shrugged, grinning down at her feet. “Oh, I don’t know. Something along the lines of, ‘you haven’t changed a bit’ at the image of me smacking my sister in the face with a stuffed halla.”
He chuckled at that, trying not to let it sound as bitter as he felt. “I do wish I had seen that, actually,” he admitted. “I’d no idea that a young Inquisitor was prone to throwing temper tantrums.”
“And you thought I was soft, didn’t you?” she teased.
“Truthfully, I’ve always found you rather intimidating.”
“No, ma vhenan.” There it was again, the casual slip that made them both flinch away. They both froze, eyes flitting in every direction except each other’s. That damned term of endearment would be the death of him, Solas thought. He must learn to control his tongue; why was it so hard around her? He could already feel them melting back into their old pattern of banter. He had to stop himself before it was too late. “I think I will leave now, Mirana. I will see you again whenever you wake.”
“Solas, wait. Please.” He paused but remained facing away from her; his expression would give too much away. “I understand that you don’t want to be around me right now, and that makes me appreciate this that much more, but please, there is one more thing I need to see. Please,” she begged, praying that whatever residual feelings her had for her would cause him to take pity.
He reluctantly turned back around, moved by the desperation in her voice. “Do you know where we might find this memory?” He fought to maintain a steady monotone, his gaze already lustfully scanning her figure as her skin reflected the moonlight. He must stop, for what little he thought holy, he must stop. She nodded and thanked him earnestly, practically bursting with anticipation as she led him back into the forest. He watched her hair swing at her waist, the night breeze suddenly warmer.
She led him back down the hill, weaving in and out of trees like an apparition. He hurried to stay with her, not wishing to lose sight of her, the single light in this darkness. She was searching, making circles around herself as she repeatedly became lost. He could feel the gentle tug of another memory off to their right, but he enjoyed watching her move so much that he let her continue to wander. “I could’ve sworn it was near here.” She scratched at her head, finally stopping to glare, flustered by her surroundings. He ducked his head to hide his smile. Rather than explain that he knew, he merely began to walk off in the direction he was feeling pulled. It was an odd mixture of sentiments, one he couldn’t entirely understand. He detected feelings of loss, of friendship and, much to his displeasure, feelings of romantic affection. He ended at a large oak tree, so old its branches curved downwards, nearly touching the ground before ascending back towards the sky.
“Here!” She immediately ran over to the tree and began to climb, scaling the massive branches with ease. “I never thought I would be able to do this again.” Before he could ask if she wanted him to follow, or suggest that they might try to find the memory at the tree’s base, she was already beckoning him to join her. “Can you climb?”
He scoffed at her before pulling himself up off the ground and into the tree. “Really, Mirana, how old do you think I am?” He had never done much tree-scaling in his past, but his lithe, elven figure was built for climbing and he hardly struggled once he found his balance.
“I don’t know, a couple thousand years?” she joked, to which he snorted. She wouldn’t understand the irony here, of course. “You carry a walking stick like an old man.”
“I was under the impression that it made me appear wise.”
“I had no idea you were so into appearances!”
“Only when it causes people to think of me as a being of immense wisdom. I quite like pretending to predict their future, whenever they ask,” he jested.
Mirana rolled her eyes, looking down at him with a begrudging smile. “You know, all-seeing guru, they say humility is the greatest virtue.”
“To some, yes,” he replied as he pulled himself up so that he could talk to her face rather than her bottom, “but there are many virtues we hold in high regard. Compassion and sincerity, to name two.”
“Well, it appears you have some work to do then,” she teased, hiding her pain with humor once again. His smile waned momentarily, but she was already climbing again. “Here, this is where we used to sit.” They had reached a grand collection of branches so close to one another that they formed a sort of seat shielded from view by a dense, leafy veil. Solas could see the appeal of such a hiding place; they were so high he felt as if nothing could reach them.
“Who is it that you are attempting to find?” he inquired politely, betraying none of the torrent emotions that raged within him as he secured a spot next to her. He could feel the memory fighting to be recognized like tiny hands yanking him in some unknown direction. They were in the right place.
“My friend, Illivere. I want to know what happened to him after I left, whether or not he…”
“Are you certain that you wish to know? The caveat with knowledge is that once it is known, it is very hard to not know.” She was determined, though, she told him. If she had been the one to doom them then it must be her burden to bear. “If you insist. Would you like me to come with you this time?”
She reluctantly nodded as if reassuring herself that it was a good idea. “Yes, just in case something happens. Do I..?” She reached a hand towards him, uncertain whether she was supposed to touch him to activate it.
“Just remember,” he warned her, “you cannot change anything there. That is not the nature of a memory. You may only watch and feel the events take place, but never alter them in any shape or form.” After she nodded in understanding, he bid her to relax, then put a hand to her head to try and evoke the conscious of her friend within her.
It worked, and they found themselves perched in the same position, only the sky had shifted to the bright cerulean of day. Merely a foot to their left sat a young elf with short, dark hair and an impish look on his face. He was singing a song, rather off-key, and laughing as he watched something below him. It must’ve been the song about the birds, Solas realized, for Mirana clapped a hand over her mouth in surprise. She looked as if she were on the verge of both laughter and tears as he paused within the song to shout, “I won’t stop until you get up here.”
“I’m going as fast as I can, Illy!” A voice, slightly more juvenile but clearly Mirana’s, called from the haze below them. Finally, she poked her head up, nearly passing directly through her older self as she crawled over to sit beside her friend. She couldn’t have been more than 14, with hair cut to her shoulders and a few dots of acne on her nose. Solas felt, however impossible it seemed, even more in love with her then. Such a precious sight, he almost said aloud.
“Now will you finally stop singing that awful song?” she groaned, slightly out of breath. After steadying herself, she finally looked over at his face. He grinned back at her, wiggling his eyebrows expectedly as she let out a squeak of surprise. “You got your vallaslin! I can’t believe it!”
“Yeah, it wasn’t that bad,” he shrugged in false modesty. “It didn’t even hurt.” Illivere was much like Solas’ younger self, he thought, trying not to shake with amusement.
“Ma harel! I bet you cried.”
“Did not!” He punched her arm gently, to which she responded with a hard slug of vengeance. “Hey!”
“What?” she mocked him, “Did that hurt, da’len?” He then pushed her, a little more roughly than intended, causing her to lose her balance and teeter backwards. She let out a scream as she felt herself start to fall, but it was quickly cut off as Illivere caught her and brought her back beside him.
“Did you really think I would let you fall?” He laughed. Then suddenly it was sunset. Mirana, now around 20, was back in the tree with her vallaslin, smiling at Illivere as if he had hung the moon. “We haven’t been up here in years, it seems,” he said, grinning over at his friend.
“I know. With all the traveling, I thought we’d never come back.” Both of the Miranas were blushing; Solas feared for what was coming.
“I’m glad we did. I… I missed you.” He tentatively placed his hand on top of hers, a questioning look upon his handsome features.
“As did I,” Young Mirana whispered, her green eyes seeming to probe his. Solas was very familiar with this expression, and what she was after when she wore it. Then suddenly they were upon each other, grasping, tearing, desperate. He was on top of her now. Her clothes were falling to the forest floor like leaves in autumn. He shot her a look that read, In a tree? Really?
“Solas, look away,” Mirana urged him, feeling sick with embarrassment.
But he couldn’t; he had to look. Her body, even beneath another man, was tantalizing. Her face, contorted in pleasure as she moaned, forced him to dig his nails into the bark as he tried to deflect his primitive urges. He knew it wasn’t real, that Mirana was truly seated next to him, fully-clothed and mortified, but his body was not convinced. He yearned to touch her, now that he saw her in a way he had thought he never would again. He missed her softness, the feel of her surrounding him. Her moaning intensified and he waited with bated breath for the climax, but it never came. Rather, they were transported again. This time, night had returned and Illivere was alone.
Years had passed, Solas felt rather than saw. The stench of smoke pervaded the air around the young elf. Beside him, he heard Mirana stifle a sob. “Well, Mirana, I thought there was no better place to spend the last bit of my time. Everyone’s already gone; there was nobody left to talk to. At least I won’t have to worry about sounding like an idiot, talking to myself, if no one’s around to hear it. How does the shem phrase go? If a tree falls and no one’s around—“ He sighed and shook his head. “Oh, fuck the shems. Where were you?” He pressed his hands to his face, shoulders shaking with muffled crying. He pulled out a dagger from his belt, fingering the tip of the blade while he appeared lost in thought.
“Mirana, do you want to leave?” Solas urged her, knowing what was about to happen. She just shook her head stubbornly, determined to make herself suffer. But hadn’t she already suffered enough? he thought with a glance at her mangled face. “Mirana,” he spoke more sharply, his hand around her arm. “Please, wake up.” She was watching him bring the blade up to his throat, watching his lips murmur a prayer of repentence…
“Mirana!” Solas’ shout echoed in her mind as she shot up in her bed, clutching her covers to her chest as she let out an agonized wail. All alone once more.
Elven definitions (as defined by Wiki):
lethallan: casual reference for someone who is familiar
ma harel: you're lying
da'len: little one, child
shem: short for shemlen (quickling), a derogatory term for humans
“Are you alright?” He had rushed to her chambers as soon as he had woken up, stomach knotted with concern. Now, kneeling at her bedside, he scanned her tear-streaked face with narrowed eyes. She was shaking her head vigorously as she gasped for air.
“I need to go back,” she kept muttering, looking around frantically as if searching for a way back into the Fade.
Desperate and unable to think of any other way to console her in this state, he moved to sit on the edge of the bed so that he could grab onto her. “Why? Mirana, you know that you cannot change anything that you have seen.” He attempted to steady her by holding her shoulders, trying to keep her at arm’s length, but eventually her struggling became so violent he was forced to press her against him as she sobbed. She resisted at first, tiny fists pounding against his back, before relenting into a crushing embrace.
“I killed him! I killed all of them!”
“No you didn’t, da’len, you did nothing wrong. It was out of your control.” She continued her nonsensical self-blaming, her words a barrage of futile despair that seemed to pierce his heart a little more with every harsh syllable. Nothing he said would calm her down, he knew, but perhaps if he could invoke a sense of familiarity he could end her relentless shrieking. As he had done last night, he placed a hand on top of her head and began to stroke her hair as he imagined her mamae would have. His fingers ghosted over her scalp before becoming entangled in the blond silk as they traveled downwards. “Be still, be still,” he cooed into her ear, praying that she would come back to him eventually.
And she did. After what felt like a millennium of blurry, choking pain, she quieted down. Her ragged breaths slowed, the clumps of his shirt she had wadded into her fists were released, but she still held onto him. For some reason, she couldn’t find it in herself to let go. Paradoxically, her strength both grew and waned whenever he was near. Now, pressed up against her, she trembled. She had never thought he would hold her again, that they would ever be closer than the dozen feet they had allowed themselves after the break-up. But here they were. Selfishly, she hoped he would stay.
“Would you tell me another story about the Fade?” she asked him, her question broken up by a tiny hiccup.
His eyebrows raised in surprise at this seemingly random request. She had always loved hearing of a particular spirit or memory he encountered. Before, she would often sit with him on the couch in the rotunda, listening as her eyes danced around the walls he had painted. She had wanted to help him finish. He remembered her struggling to keep her brush within the outlines he had provided her for. When she thought he wasn’t watching, she would lick her thumb and try to remove her errors, but ended up making the smear even more pronounced. Panicked, she would look around for a cup of water and a rag to scrub it with. When that didn’t work, she would cover it with something and then leave to go and find more water. She believed the substance had a magical, paint-removing property because, in her absence, Solas would steal over to where she worked and remove the mistake himself. She would return to find it gone and a small, triumphant smile would light up her face, thinking herself quite the magician. “Excellent work, vhenan,” he would praise her when she finished, pretending he was seeing the painting for the first time. “I would much appreciate your artistic prowess again, if you are able to spare the time.”
He continued to stroke her hair now as his mind wandered. Of course, he would leap at any chance to make the elf smile, as he always had tried to do. “Certainly. I have just the one in mind. Once, I came across an old man upon his deathbed. He knew his death to be imminent, yet he was not frightened. He missed his wife, you see, for she had disappeared long ago. He waited patiently to die, but his body stubbornly clung on. Then, a woman walked into the room. ‘My love!’ he cried out, believing his wife had come home. He was filled with such joy, then he died.”
Mirana groaned, interrupting him. “What kind of story is that?”
“An unfinished one. If you would allow me to continue?” She sighed into his shirt before reluctantly nodding. “The woman was not his lost love, however. It was rather his daughter, coming in to stoke the fire in the hearth. It seemed a Spirit of Compassion had made her appear to him as his wife so that he could die within his happiest moment.”
She was silent for a moment, absorbing the weight of this tale with watery eyes. Eventually, she chuckled darkly, moving away so that she could look at him. “I’m not sure how, but that comforted me.”
He smiled at her gently, his hand still within her hair. “I am glad. It is good that you know that some elements of good still exist in this world.”
“And what are you, then? Are you an element of good or of evil?”
“Most people are not so easily defined. Rather than black and white, we exist in a world of gray. We see ourselves as good, naturally, as we usually are doing what we believe to be right. But what is right, truly? It is a matter of perspective. If one person claims something we believe to be just is unjust, it can no longer be just, do you see?” He wanted her to understand so desperately. No, not merely understand, he yearned for her approval. Or at least her acceptance. The truth of his identity sat on his tongue, threatening to tumble out of his mouth. But it would only cause her lovely eyes to fill with tears again, her soft lips to quiver with shock, and he could not allow that. He dropped his hand from her head, the sudden loss making his fingers grow cold.
“Wait, where are you going?” She watched him detach himself from her, mentally and physically, as tendrils of dread began to wrap around her lungs.
“This… whatever this is, it will only lead us both to more pain. I do not want to hurt you again. Please, Mirana,” he tried to move away as she stood up and started towards him. “You know this cannot be.”
“How can you be so sure? What have I done wrong?”
“Nothing… nothing.” He shook his head, the image of her pleading form causing his chest to clench. “The fault is entirely mine. You must trust me that this is for the best.” He started to back away in the direction of the door, the hurt on his face a reflection of her own.
To his astonishment, a wry grin cracked open her face and she let out a hollow laugh. “Trust you? You’re asking me to just trust you on this one? That’s rich, really.” The edge in her voice was enough to make him stop to stare at her, his eyes begging her to understand. “Why did you come, then? Last night? This morning? Is this all some sort of a sick joke to you? Do you enjoy seeing me like this?” Her voice had risen with her hysteria and now her skin shone as red as a tomato. “I thought you were supposed to be there for me! I should be focusing on Corypheus right now! But here you are, making me feel idiotic like always. You must be a sadist. You must get some sort of kick, watching me pine after you, leading me on, getting me to love you…” She appeared as if she were about to faint from the rush of emotions, her legs visibly wobbling beneath her. Solas went to steady her, not thinking, and she quickly darted away. Within the blink of an eye her bow was in her hand an arrow was aimed at his head. “Don’t you come a step closer or I’ll send one of these right through your stupid bald head,” she threatened, though he could hear the wobble within her voice.
“I wasn’t,” he sighed; any defense of himself at this point was futile. “Forgive me. I will never bother you again, I promise.” Slowly, he turned around and made his way towards the door. The iron handle felt heavier than he thought possible. He hung his head. How would she know that he loved her? That he was breaking his own heart as well? That the only thing keeping him from running to her was his desire to protect her from what dangers his future held? She wouldn’t. She couldn’t know because she could never look at him the same, or worse, what if she wanted to come with him? He tugged forlornly at the handle, unable to utter even a goodbye, when an arrow embedded itself in the wood just inches from his ear. He jumped, surprised, as he whirled to face her.
“The truth,” was all she said, words hurled at him through gritted teeth. “Now.”
“Mirana, please, I have already told you—“ Another arrow whizzed past his head, this time slightly closer to its target.
She wouldn’t hurt him, would she? She nearly cried after she accidently shot a fennec; could he really have corrupted her that much? “Stop, Mirana, this is childish.” He could feel his resolve crumbling at her blind fury, knowing that he brought it into existence. The next arrow was so close that it nicked the tip of his ear. Blood began to roll down his cheek. The plops of it hitting the ground echoed throughout the silent room. They glared at each other through blurry lenses, both waiting for the other to break.
It was an eternity before Mirana let her bow clatter to the floor. She never broke his gaze, even as she fell to her knees. Her hands shook so violently that she had to clasp them together, her woeful expression giving her the air of someone praying for forgiveness. She hadn’t meant to hurt him, not really. She was ashamed of what her desperation had driven her to. She knew she looked like a madwoman. But how could he just leave again? She tried to swallow the rock in her throat. I will not cry in front of him. I won’t give him the satisfaction. It was he, however, whose tear was the first to fall. She watched it roll down the cheek that had remained bare of blood. She let out a sob. Then he was kneeling in front of her.
“I’m sorry,” she began, but he held up a hand to stop her. He didn’t deserve her apologies. But she deserved at least a part of the truth, now that he was prepared to give it.
“We cannot be together, Mirana,” he started, gingerly taking one of her hands into his, “because, unlike me, you do not live in a world of gray. You are good, lethallan, you are wise beyond your years. The people, your people, of Thedas adore you because you have led them well. You have saved them while displaying an incredible amount of kindness and mercy, more than I should comprehend sometimes,” he added with a smile. “They need you to stay with them, their brilliant Herald of Andraste’s will, because you represent something so lacking in this world: hope.” She frowned, failing to understand where he was going with this. “I am leaving, Mirana. I am going down a path that you will not wish to join me on. That I wish you not to join me on. You will hate me, eventually, I have tried to accept that. I will have to. I would rather you hate me than forfeit your morality.”
She ripped her hand from his and pushed herself to her feet, glowering down at him in disbelief. “And what is this path you are so eager to leave me behind for? How do you know I’m going to hate you?”
He sighed and stood up with a weary groan. Inevitably she would be the one to make him begin feeling his age. “That, I cannot answer. But, for your second question, it is a matter of me knowing you and how you think.”
“I don’t think I could ever hate you, Solas.”
“Oh really?” He gestured to his bloodied ear, to which she smiled sheepishly. “It will not be difficult, I am certain.” Once she knew the truth of his identity, how could she ever love him again?
“I believe that once you love someone, truly love them,” she placed a hand gently on his cheek, trying to get him to look at her, “it is impossible to stop. No matter what they say, or do.”
His frame relaxed as he, foolish as he knew it, was filled with a sense of optimism. He looked down at her with eyes wide and uncertain. He knew he had no choice in leaving her, but if they were together, just for another moment… “I agree,” he said quietly, heart racing with an excitement he couldn’t quell.
“Did you stop, Solas?” She was drawing nearer, doe eyes innocent and yearning all at once. He couldn’t help himself, he put a hand to her face, caressing her cheek as he silently began to heal her wounds. Rather than protest, she watched him, enthralled as she had been when he had removed her vallaslin. The scabs fell off as his hand passed over them, pulsing with energy.
She was so beautiful, he thought, her face cleansed and gazing brightly at him once more. He smiled, taking in the softness of her expression as he replied, “No, ma vhenan, never.”
If possible, her face seemed to light up even more, practically glowing as she regarded him. She let out a quiet laugh of joyful incredulity as tears tumbled down her smooth, pale skin. What a relief it was to learn that the love she had for him, the love that she thought might burn a hole through her heart, was requited. Perhaps she was about to die, she thought giddily, and this was a Spirit of Compassion. Her eyes flitted to his lips, asking permission to do what they both had been craving for weeks now.
Torn by his desire for her and his need to preserve her happiness, Solas tried to break away from her magnetism. “But you must know: this cannot change anything. I am still destined to leave you.”
“But not yet. We have right now. We have a final moment of happiness; it’s a gift. Whatever happens, whatever path you tread, we will have this. And I will be certain of one thing, at least. Ar lath ma.”
“Ir abelas, ma vhenan,” he whispered before pressing his lips to hers in a frenzy of passion. His hands began in her hair, its satiny feel arousing his senses just as much as the taste of her on his tongue. He felt her responding to him, making small noises of pleasure as his hands explored her body, determined to make up for the time they had been deprived of its softness. Both enraptured and desperate for each other, their kisses grew more ravenous, their grasping more forceful. Unsure of what she wanted, Solas pulled away, his eyes roaming her face for an answer.
Gasping for air, hair disheveled, cheeks flushed with exertion, he thought she had never looked more stunning. She smiled at him then, so full of exuberance that he nearly laughed with delight. How fortunate was he to witness such a sight? Then, if he thought it couldn’t be better than this, she removed the nightgown she had been wearing. He watched it hit the ground before returning his gaze back to her with a mien like a hungry wolf. Did she not wear smallclothes? She noticed his stare and suddenly became self-conscious. Did he no longer want her? Did he not want to become too attached before his departure? She hastily apologized, embarrassed at her brazenness, then bent down to pick her clothes off the floor.
“No!” he exclaimed suddenly, grabbing her arms and holding her in place. “Please,” he spoke more gently, “you are… the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”
Mirana’s eyes widened before she grinned in amusement. “Still quite the sweet talker, I see.”
He returned her smile as his finger traced the curves of her chest absent-mindedly. “Perhaps. Though I must confess, seeing you like this makes my usual level of eloquence much more challenging to attain.”
“Well, consider me impressed,” she replied coyly, taking the hand that was fondling her into her own and leading him towards her bed. She crawled in and immediately burrowed under the covers, peeking out at him mischievously as he shed his own clothes and entered her feathery domain.
He found her immediately, her flesh hot against his own. Like a small fire, he thought fondly, she was both powerful and mesmerizing, capable of growing to extraordinary heights. Even without him. He tried to stave off the impending chill of desolation; for now, she had said, they were together, and that was all that mattered. He pressed his mouth to her neck, savoring the warmth his flame provided him. His kisses moved slowly down her figure, the taste of her overwhelmingly intoxicating. He knew he didn’t deserve her; not one inch of this marvel should be his to claim, yet how could he think of his imminent loss at a time like this? This was his final opportunity to make her happy before he inevitably broke her heart again. He must try. But what if this was a mistake? His fingers traced circles on her thighs; her back arched as she whispered his name. Who was he to break this spell she had cast over him? He chuckled inwardly at the notion that perhaps she was the better mage here after all.
Now, as she pleaded for him, bare and completely vulnerable, he felt sick with guilt. But then, there she was. How could he deny her? He would never be able to devote his entirety to her, as much as he wanted to. But he could love her, he told himself, even if from afar. His heart would be devoted, he decided then. In that way, he would be hers, always.
Their eyes met at the pinnacle of their pleasure, attempting to absorb as much as they could of the sight of their lover, for they both knew of the finality of the experience. Breathing heavily, he pressed his forehead to hers. He could not find the words to voice the intense emotions he housed within his head. She wished that he could stay this way, inside of her forever. She tried to memorize the feel of his skin against her own, the rhythm of their hearts beating nearly in sync. Before she was finished, however, he rolled off of her to lay down at her side. Fearful he would leave, she clung to him, burying her head in his chest. Neither of them acknowledged it, but they both wept in silent mourning.
“Please,” she asked him after a period of silence, “will you stay with me the rest of the day, at least?”
“Of course, vhenan, I will stay.”
“Will you tell me another story?”
“Of course, vhenan.”
Within a week, he was gone.
Ar lath ma: I love you
Ir abelas: I'm sorry
Nine months later, his daughter was born. Mirana, still twisted with pain, named her Mala’nan. Your revenge. She served as a constant reminder of her father and, whenever she was near, it was as if his ghost had found her. The sadness grew so immense sometimes that Mirana would be forced to avoid her. The tiny girl did not deserve this, she knew. She felt guilt whenever she addressed her, her little head cupped within the palm of her hand. How could she not love her though? Her wisps of brown hair were so soft, just as her skin. She would watch her mother with a pair of fascinated green eyes, wide and absorbent as a sponge. Her fingers would wrap around her own and she would produce the loveliest smile Mirana had ever seen. Together, they would sit and just smile at each other, filled with an understanding that went beyond words. For the first time in a long time, she wasn’t alone.
It did not take long for Mala’nan to begin showing signs she was destined to possess magical abilities. At a year old, she had learned to conduct a small wave of electric energy through her finger to steal her mother’s attention and, whenever she was angry, she tended to set things on fire. Fortunately for their drapery, she was an abnormally happy child, preferring to sit outside in the sun, dandelions sprouting at her feet while Mirana read to her. She seemed to have an especially good connection with the Fade as well, for a baby at least. She would find her mother in dreams often, squealing in excitement as she would totter to her side. A non-mage, Mirana rarely remembered her walks in the Fade, let alone could she control them. She prayed her daughter would not be a somniari, a Dreamer, like her father. This fear for her only grew stronger when, one day upon waking, she had learned the word papae. “No, da’len, mamae,” she would correct her, heart racing as she pondered where she could have had the opportunity to learn that word. It had certainly never come out of her own mouth, Mirana thought, puzzled. Her mother would try to think nothing of it, figuring she just heard things—like her experience with memories—in her dreams. It’s not as if she had any power to stop her, regardless. She would just praise her for being such a smart da’len as she hugged her and planted a tender kiss on her forehead. Mala’nan would gurgle with pleasure, teensy hands clapping together in an exuberant display of pride.
At the news of the Inquisitor’s pregnancy, Skyhold had experienced a wide array of reactions. Most were unsure whether they should be happy for her or furious at him. Most succeeded mainly with the latter. They tried to keep word from spreading as best as they could; the entire army was under orders of secrecy, but naturally one pair of loose lips has the power to sink ships and gossip was soon blazing throughout all of Thedas. Everyone, from the nobles in Orlais to the farmers in Fereldan had an opinion on the situation. They varied greatly, ranging from joy, to intrigue, to disapproval at the mystery surrounding the identity of its father. Mirana had received valiant offers from her male colleagues to claim its parenthood in order to stifle the brewing scandal, but she refused them. She could not force them to live a lie, she would say. Additionally, it would be difficult for any human to pass as Mala’nan’s father when her ears were distinctly elven. If there must be outrage, she could handle it. Creators, she had only saved the world! One would have thought they’d give her the benefit of the doubt with all things considered.
But eventually her daughter was born and the uproar puttered out as people lost interest. She rarely went to battle anymore, resorting mainly to commanding her forces at the war table. The public frightened her now. She imagined they judged her by the thousands, the sacrifices she had made forgotten with the passage of her lineage. This was not true, of course, but motherhood had made her paranoid in addition to many other things. The residents of the castle loved her child, at least of that she was certain. Mala’nan had won them over just as she had her mother. Many had not seen a baby in a long time and they loved to play with her and shower her with little gifts. Even Cullen, who had been the most awkward with her at first, enjoyed picking her flowers as the two sat together in the garden.
She came across them now as she entered the courtyard. Even though the sun was high in the sky, she had been exhausted from staying up the whole night before. The Commander had generously offered to babysit for her while she stole a brief nap. Motherhood was definitely taking all she had to give; she couldn’t wait for her Terrible Twos. The thought of raising her alone was daunting, sure, but she knew that she was up to the task. She had to be.
He smiled at her as she plopped down beside her daughter, facing him as she crossed her legs. “I hope she hasn’t been too much trouble.” From the looks of it, however, she appeared to be quite the opposite. A pile of tiny flowers lay at her feet and, for the moment, she was content with placing them on top of her head. It was an effort completely in vain, Mirana noted with a giggle, as whenever she would look down to pick up another flower, the one she had most recently positioned would tumble back into the grass in front of her. She didn’t seem to notice, on the contrary, she kept working with a solemn diligence.
“Oh, not at all. Mallie’s actually been quite a pleasant distraction. We all need those once in a while, you included.” He sent Mirana a knowing look, to which she just shrugged.
“What was it you told me the last time I requested a nap? ‘No rest for the wicked?’”
He returned her grin as he rubbed the back of his neck in embarrassment. “Ah, yes, I did say that, didn’t I? Well, either way, just because the wicked don’t sleep, doesn’t mean you can’t. Especially now.” He leaned back on his hands, regarding her with slightly raised brows. “I can tell it’s taking a toll on you,” he said quietly.
“A lot of things have taken a toll on me, Cullen,” she sighed. Mala’nan suddenly grew discontent; she thought she was experiencing a shortage of flowers (though really, she had just managed to strip the majority of them of their petals). She whined and reached in Cullen’s direction, her fingers acting like they wanted to grab something. He looked around himself for a moment before finally settling on a baby embrium to give to her. He wiggled it on her nose before placing it in her hand, causing her to giggle and return his sweet smile.
“Wow, I had no idea that you of all people would be good with children,” Mirana teased, though she would never admit, the sight of him playing with her daughter made her chest ache. Would he have played with her like this?
“And what is that supposed to mean?” He huffed, trying not to sound offended.
Mirana chuckled. “It’s just that, well, you used to be rather uncomfortable around her. You were scared to touch her, like she had a deepstalker hidden in her diapers or something.”
He looked as if he were about to object then decided that perhaps, to her, it would have appeared that way. If she knew the truth about his underlying feelings, his discomfort would’ve made more sense. But, of course, she could never know. He wasn’t even sure himself, how could he be now? It had been nearly two years and she still would lock herself in her quarters some afternoons to cry. He wanted to desperately to see her happy once again after all she had helped him through. Without the support of her and Cassandra, he had no idea where he might be right now. She had saved the world, true, but the elf had also saved each one of her friends in tiny, significant ways. Such a compassionate soul deserves a happy ending, he had told himself one day as he watched her examining something on the war table. It was something in Lydes, he remembered. Something with a duchess.
“I haven’t always been the best with children, I admit. I have a nephew, but that’s about the sum of my experience.”
“Well you should feel very accomplished then; you’ve certainly won her adoration.” As if to prove her point, Mala’nan picked one of the flowers from her dwindling collection and held it out to Cullen as a gift.
“Why thank you, my lady. This is very kind,” he said politely, shooting Mirana an amused look.
She was equally touched and filled with dread. The two had both grown to care for each other, that much was clear. Certainly one day she would ask why she didn’t have a father, like normal children. Wasn’t he the most logical choice for her? He was handsome, with a good heart and a strong mind. No doubt he could make them happy, she and her daughter. But what about him? She knew she could not devote herself entirely to any other, even years later she still mourned Solas’ departure. He deserved better than a broken-hearted woman that still pined after a lost love.
Cullen noticed the darkness within her gaze, the sadness that nestled itself so deep inside of her that one thought perhaps it was just her disposition. But he had known her before; he was well aware of the beacon of positive energy she had been, for he had been drawn to her himself as a moth to flame. She would always burn him, he knew, but he didn’t mind. “You still think of him, don’t you?” he asked softly.
“It’s hard not to,” she admitted. “Whenever I’m around her, I’m reminded of him.” She sighed, then added dryly, “Luckily she has hair, or else it’d be like looking at a bloody portrait.”
Cullen smiled weakly, tipping his head in inquiry. “Really? I thought she had more of your good looks. She definitely has your eyes.” Was this flirting? He couldn’t tell. Now he appeared as if he sat in something wet.
“I hope my cheeks aren’t that full. I know I look younger than I am, but—“
“No, no, it was meant as a compliment,” he blurted out.
She found his tendency to get flustered endearing, if not incredibly amusing. “I know, Cullen. Thank you. You’ve been invariably thoughtful and it truly means a lot to me. It means a lot to her as well, though she’s not very good at voicing her gratitude yet.” She smiled down at her daughter as she ran an affectionate hand through her soft hair. The child was growing sleepy. Her mouth stretched wide in a yawn, displaying a pair of two tiny bottom teeth. Mirana gently brushed the leafy debris from her clothes before lifting her into her lap in preparation to leave.
“Would I be able to speak with you later?” he asked hastily when he saw her stand to go.
“Yes, of course. I hate to leave, but it seems to be someone’s bedtime. Wave goodbye, Mala’nan.” Seeming to understand the sentiment behind this, she flailed her chubby arm up and down in an attempt at a wave and gurgled something that at least began with the letter B. “I’ll come around after dinner, unless it’s urgent?”
“Ah, no. After dinner will be fine. I shall see you then.” He bade Mirana farewell, then pressed a kiss to her daughter’s hand. “I wish you the best of naps, Mallie.”
She seemed to take his words to heart; the second Mirana placed her in her crib her eyes closed and she was off in the Fade. She stayed with her for a while as the moon slowly made its ascent above the mountains. She watched her eyelashes flutter as she dreamed, her lips moving as if speaking some silent language. Her knuckles ghosted over her daughter’s large cheeks as she absorbed her innocent beauty, soft and light, unburdened by the machinations of the world. Could she stay like this forever, she wondered, with her head small enough to cup in her hands and her feet the size of pebbles? “He would have loved you so much,” she whispered. She fought away the images her mind would conjure up of the two of them together, father and daughter. She did not want to think of him holding her, telling her mystical stories of his journeys while she gazed up at him with wide eyes that could not comprehend his words yet understood nonetheless. She was only harming herself with these illusions of him kissing her nose, putting flowers in her hair…
Her eyes flashed to the darkening sky beyond her window. What time was it? She had no inkling of how long she had been sitting here, lost in this maternal trance. She hoped Cullen didn’t think she had forgotten him. She pressed a kiss to her daughter’s forehead, smelling the sweet scent of her hair as if she herself were a tiny flower, exquisite in bloom. “Sleep well, ma vhenan,” she murmured into her ear before departing, “I’ll be back soon.”
She was nearly breathless by the time she swung open the door to his quarters, chest rising and falling as she regarded a man she didn’t immediately recognize as the Commander. He stood with his back towards her, clad in the garb of a normal man: plain shirt and breeches. Foolishly, she was surprised to see him like this; she figured he probably wore his armor to bed. He smiled at her in greeting as she came in, his hands moving to tidy up his desk out of anxious habit. “I thought you had forgotten. I’m glad you’re here.”
Mirana snorted. “Well, I usually attend meetings scheduled by the commander of my army, but I’m happy to be appreciated.” She could tell something was a little off by the curious lilt in his voice but decided not to broach the subject. “So this Exalted Council we’re going to,” she began, “Josephine told me they had plans for the Inquisition. Do you think they could actually succeed in disbanding us?”
He surprised her when he laughed aloud. “No, not if she has anything to say about it. Personally, I think that the whole thing is ridiculous. How can they forget all that you did just two years ago? Fereldan and Orlais and all bloody Thedas for that matter would be a collection of ash if not for you. How they can just ignore all the good…” He groaned, shaking his head as he muttered, “Politics have always made as much sense to me as Orlesian fashion.”
“You act as if I were a one-man army when in reality, without you and the others, I would’ve just been a Dalish elf with a glowy hand.”
He leaned against his desk as he watched her speak, despising himself for how much he enjoyed the sound of it. Maker damn him, why was he so invested in this woman? From the moment he had laid eyes on her, he had found the Dalish elf intriguing in the least, entrancing at the most. But over the time he had worked with her, grown to know the great depths of her heart and the quiet wisdom with which she commanded, he had built a deep respect for her. His trust in her surprised him, as he found himself seeking her assistance in dealing with his addiction. So non-judgmental then, she had seemed proud that he was doing this for himself, breaking the chains the Chantry had bound him in. That was when he began to consider her as a friend, a friend he could rely on, a friend who perhaps saw him as the man he so badly wanted to be. He wasn’t aware of his love for the Inquisitor until he saw her, one day after Solas had left, staring so dejectedly at a mural in the rotunda. Tears had caused her bright, green eyes to glimmer before rolling down her cheek with an unexpected dignity, a power buried beneath her despair, that he knew then she deserved all the happiness in the world.
“Cullen?” Her question brought him back to the present only to flush in realization that he had been staring. “Is everything alright?” she asked slowly. Her scrutinizing gaze wandered from his reddening cheeks to the large bottle of rum that sat next to him on his desk. “Have you been drinking?”
He rubbed at the back of his neck before picking up the bottle and fiddling with it in his large hands. When he spoke, his voice was quieter than before. “I haven’t in a while. I forgot how much it burns going down. A bit like lyrium.” He smiled wryly as he shook the bottle, listening to its contents slosh while his mind fought off the torrid flashbacks bubbling up underneath his subconscious. “Frankly? You make me nervous. I thought if I had some, er, liquid courage, I would be able to ask you what I needed to ask you.”
“Are you telling me that one of my own advisors is scared to raise a simple question with me?”
“Well, that’s where the issue arises, Mirana: the question is probably the most complicated question I’ve ever dared to ask someone.” He took a breath, sent her a look as if he were about to reveal this grand query, then took a sizable gulp of whatever was in the bottle.
She rolled her eyes as he proceeded to offer it to her before crossing her arms and glaring at him in exasperation. “Are you going to spit it out now or should I just come back in the morning?”
He smiled, the warmness the drink brought upon his insides growing in intensity at the sight of her, hip stuck out in a pout, the tips of her ears pink with annoyance. “You know, the first time we met I recall you were standing in this exact position. Of course, it was a lot colder then.”
He took another swig, ignoring her. “I thought you were really arrogant, at first. But then I realized it was because you were scared. I had never thought about how it must’ve felt, being a Dalish elf in such a place where humans were meant to worship you.”
“Maybe that’s why you found comfort in him. He was like you in ways that we weren’t. In him you found,” he paused to hiccup before his lips cracked open in bitter amusement, “solace.”
“Don’t make jokes, Cullen; they don’t suit you.”
He continued as if he hadn’t heard her. “But then he left you. You bore his child, and he’s never returned for her. You don’t truly wish to raise her all on your own, do you?”
Her glare slowly faded into a look of dejection, her entirety seeming to slump with the truth she had thought of continuously but had never been breathed into words until now. She bit her lip, hands twitching at her sides as her mind combed for ways to respond. Eventually, she relented and snatched the bottle from his hands, taking several deep gulps before shuddering from the taste. “What are you trying to do?” she muttered.
“I’m trying to get you to see reality, Mirana. To see that you don’t have to be alone for the rest of your life. Your daughter could have a father.”
She laughed wryly. “Oh, and who are you suggesting to fill those shoes? Has Josephine prepared a list of suitors she wishes me to court?” She belched then continued to empty the bottle down her throat before slamming it on the desk beside him. She opened her mouth to add to her rant only to stop as he grabbed the wrist that hovered over the bottle.
She couldn’t contain the giggle that escaped her lips—this was all too ridiculous. In truth, she had entertained the idea of taking him as her husband for a good deal longer than she’d care to admit, and the sight of him with Mala’nan continued to crumble her resolve just a little bit more. She could feel him watching her now, brow furrowed in doubtful anticipation, though he remained a professional distance away as if afraid she might flee at his touch. “Cullen,” she began, making an effort for her words to come out clear and sensical, “you know you’re a dear friend of mine, and Mallie absolutely adores you. You’ve helped me so much over the past couple of years; I could never thank you enough, but—"
“You don’t need to thank me for doing the right thing,” he replied with a shake of his head. He realized she must be dodging the proposal for a reason, but he humored her by playing along.
“But it wasn’t just a matter of moral obligation for you, was it?” she asked in a tone that suggested she already knew the answer. A brief flash of anxiety passed over his features, but she met his gaze evenly.
After an awkward period of silence, he finally uttered, “No. No, it wasn’t.”
She blinked. Once. Twice. Her small body was already beginning to absorb the rum and she had started to sway. Brown eyes flashed to see the green inches from his nose. She was so close; he could feel the warmth from her breath as it fanned up and down his neck. Gingerly, he tugged on the arm he had been holding captive, silently begging her to come closer. He saw things he never thought he would. Yellow flecks in her irises. The strong cupid’s bow adorning her upper lip. A faded scar on the tip of her chin. She smelled of air and milk and lavender, so close now her lips were practically brushing his.
Then suddenly, she froze. Her mind was reeling, her thoughts headed in so many different directions she wasn’t sure if half of them were even her own. Her rational side yearned to guide her into his arms while the other screamed at her run in the opposite direction. She flashed back to the Fade, to Solas’ face as she spoke of her memories, his hands lazily clasped behind his back as he listened. She heard his voice, ma vhenan, he would say as he smiled in greeting, his eyes lighting up whenever she wandered into the rotunda. She could still feel his heart beating against hers, his hands wound in her hair as if their tangled bodies had become one.
His presence flooded her, and she stumbled away from Cullen as if struck by a wave. “I can’t,” she finally muttered. Her expression sagged as she found it necessary to admit both to Cullen and herself: “I’m still in love with him.” The words sounded almost like a revelation, but of course she was already well-aware of her unyielding attachment. How she wished she could just forget it, forget him, and find happiness elsewhere, but her dreams rarely came to fruition.
The taste of her practically on his lips, he felt a new coldness seep under his clothes and into his skin as his arms were suddenly emptied. “He’s not coming back, Mirana!” he exclaimed, startling himself with his own intensity. “No matter how much you wish him to,” he added more gently. He could see his words cutting her like daggers, but he knew that she needed to hear the truth. Before she could object, he stepped closer to her to try and catch her flaming eye. “If he didn’t come when you bore his child…”
She scowled at him, outraged at these accusations against Solas, but also at how easily she jumped to defend the man who had left her. “Maybe he doesn’t know!”
“You’re the Inquisitor. Everyone knows. He couldn’t have passed through a town without hearing some gossipmonger speaking of it,” he argued, though his voice remained level. “I know it must be hard to accept, but it’s been two years. I’ve no idea if you’ll ever love me, and that’s fine. You deserve to be happy, Mirana, more than anyone in this world. All I ask is that you try, even if not with me.” He placed his hands on her shoulders, bending his head down to her level as he finished. “Please.”
“But I have his child? How would you ever accept her as your own? You realize that her ears will grow to look like mine, right?”
Cullen smiled, wanting nothing more than to trace their delicate shape with his finger. He knew what her words implied: everyone would know Mallie wasn’t his daughter. “I have thought about it, admittedly, but, seeing as I probably won’t have children of my own, I don’t see why I can’t love her as one.” His past mistakes had left him feeling unworthy of bringing a child into the world. In fact, the entire notion of loving another had been nothing more than a distant dream before now.
She looked at him, standing before her with a gentle smile shining between his alcohol-flushed cheeks. His curls were tousled from him frequently running his fingers through them while his shirt was lopsided and hung low in the front, revealing the outline of his collarbones. Tall, earnest, and disheveled, he appeared different than Solas in nearly every aspect to her, yet somehow she felt drawn to him. Perhaps it was the drink burning in her stomach, perhaps it was the thought of not being alone, but she slowly moved towards him, mouth gaping with uncertainty. Could she grow to love him? Did she have enough trust to give another man the power to leave her and her daughter?
She was cut off by the sound of the door to his room swinging open. A scout was running towards them, his cheeks puffing breathlessly. “Commander, Inquisitor. Urgent news!” Cullen looked mildly irritated at the interruption but nodded for him to continue. “It’s the Inquisitor’s daughter, sir,” the scout addressed him, scared to speak directly to her.
Mirana felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up as a chill sent tremors down her spine. She pushed past Cullen to glare at the woman, panic already making her hands numb. “What is it?”
The scout gulped. “We’ve already sent word to our allies and multiple search parties outside of Skyhold. She’s gone, Inquisitor. Someone has kidnapped your daughter.”
"No one out of the ordinary entered Skyhold today, Inquisitor; my scouts would have reported it.” Leliana spoke as she paced around the war room. So far, she had been the calmest of them all. Josephine was in an anxious outrage, writing letters in a shaky hand to all of the nobles close enough to maybe have seen something of the suspect by the time the birds reached them. Cullen had been stunned into silence at the news, guilt gnawing away at his innards because he knew, he knew, that he was the reason Mirana hadn’t been there. Now Mallie was gone and he couldn’t do a single thing and that made the Commander furious. He had resigned to staring blankly at a space on the map, practically boiling beneath his armor. Mirana had been nearly inconsolable at first, the shock overwhelming her as she frantically rifled through her daughter’s crib, scouring her room for any sign of her. But then there was nothing, and she burst into a conflagration no one had expected out of the generally sweet-tempered Inquisitor. The rage had subsided somewhat now as she forced herself to be sensible, but it was only a matter of time before the full extent of her emotions reared its ugly head once again.
Mirana’s fingers rapped on the table as she addressed her spymaster. “Then it must’ve been an inside job. Have all of our residents and staff been accounted for?” Leliana nodded. “Then how could someone sneak past our guard and into my chambers without being seen? There must have been at least one witness!”
“If they blended in with the kitchen staff or the scouts, who could have known the difference? They came in at night, presumably, and were able to slide by under the cover of darkness.”
“But why? Why would they want her? What kind of sick, twisted things…” Mirana trailed off, her breathing picking up as she imagined her beloved Mala’nan screaming for her mamae as she was hustled through the blackness. She could be dead, or worse. She didn’t want to think of worse.
Josephine hurried to try and soothe her nerves. “The chances of someone going to this much trouble to harm your daughter are very low. Why capture Mala’nan when kidnapping any other child would be significantly less work? I suspect this has more to do with politics than base desires, Mirana. Whoever has done this likely wanted to gain leverage over the Inquisition.”
“Could this be about the Exalted Council? Would Fereldan or Orlais do something like this?”
The diplomat shook her head sharply, loose curls swinging by her ears. “Even if they were willing to risk the negative attention they would gain by doing this, they wouldn’t want to disrupt this period of peace. I suspect the culprit will be a party that either is widely unknown in Thedas or indifferent to how they are perceived by its citizens. Whoever they may be, they have made a great deal of enemies tonight, Inquisitor.”
This provided little comfort to the despairing mother. Her head hung low as she leaned on the table for support. It was becoming difficult to stand; her head spun like she was rolling down a mountain inside of a barrel. She squeezed her eyes shut. Breathe in, out. Trembling shoulders rose, fell. “How are we going to find her?” she asked once the quiet had become too deafening.
“We’re doing everything that we can, Mirana,” Cullen began softly, his voice hoarse with pain, “we’re doing everything we know.”
She slammed her hands on the table so roughly her palms stung. “Well that’s not good enough, is it! She could be miles away, she could be hurt, they could be hurting her, she could be dead for all we know.”
“Don’t think like that-“
“You!” She was nearly screaming now, face red and ferocious. “You don’t get to tell me how to think! I would’ve been there, I could have saved her if it wasn’t for you! Yet you have the nerve to try and comfort me right now? My daughter is gone and we’re here standing around a stupid map talking! Words! How are words going to save her? I should be out searching for her, at least that would feel like progress.”
Cullen flinched as her fury was flung at him full force, but stood his ground with as neutral of an expression as he could muster. Did she not know he was grieving too? “Ah yes, I’m sure it would progress things along for them quite nicely, like a mouse running into the paws of a cat.” He couldn’t keep the venom out of his voice. “You realize that is precisely the reaction they want? An Inquisitor, weakened by heartache, running blindly into trouble. They’ll likely hold her for ransom. I say we wait and see what they want so we don’t risk any bloodshed.”
She was astonished by his suggestion. After seeing them together, she had thought he had cared for her, his Mallie, perhaps even loved her. Of course, she realized now, he had just been using her to get her to want to marry him. Mala’nan meant nothing to him, she figured, how could she if he was willing to sit and wait, abiding by the terms of her kidnappers? “You… you bastard,” she whispered, lip quivering with emotion.
Cullen gritted his teeth as he leaned towards her from across the table. His frustration with her was becoming obvious to the two innocents observing this feud. Josephine and Leliana exchanged a glance, soundlessly questioning what exactly had gone on between them before this meeting. “If it’s you they want and you play right into their trap,” he growled, “they won’t have a reason to preserve her life.”
“So you’re suggesting we do nothing? Sit back and wait for them to write us, perhaps? Maybe read a good book?” She mirrored his aggressive stance as she hissed, “You must be a truly broken man, Cullen, unable to love even a baby. I pity you.”
This caught him off-guard. He took a few steps backwards as if it hurt him just to be around her, then marched back up to the table with a wrathful expression. He let out a cry of exasperation as he sent the small pawns so delicately placed on the map soaring into the wall. “You don’t know anything, do you?” he barked, relishing in her shock, then feeling guilty over her fear. Rather than reply, she just backed away, glaring at him with hateful eyes before whisking around and striding out of the room. The door banged shut behind her as the Commander watched in dismay.
She fled immediately to her quarters and before she knew it she had outfitted herself in armor she hadn’t worn in over a year. Her bow and quiver attached to her back, two daggers gleaming at her sides, she took one last look at her daughter’s crib before leaving. She had no idea where she was going, but she was getting out of the castle. Perhaps she would hunt or do some target practice under the light of the stars? She itched with the urge to move; how dare he suggest she do nothing? As if she could stop the thoughts of her missing child from flooding her brain at every moment, waking and sleeping.
At this late hour, Skyhold was silent. News of Mala’nan would likely reach the ears of every inhabitant tomorrow, but tonight the atmosphere remained unperturbed. Walking through the courtyard on her way out, Mirana swore she could hear the ghost of her daughter’s laughter in the wind, smell her clean, earthy fragrance in the flowers of the garden. Perhaps it was because she was delirious with anguish and fatigue, perhaps it was because this was the last place she saw her smile, but Mirana felt that she was closer to Mala’nan here. She collapsed onto a bench, her legs wobbly beneath the burden of being useless. Did her daughter know that she was sorry? Did she know that her mamae prayed for forgiveness each night for the period of her life when looking at her filled her with the vilest hatred? She hadn’t deserved the perfection of her cherub cheeks, rosy against her milky complexion. She hadn’t deserved the beautiful sight of her laughter or of her walks in the Fade. She was pathetic. She was unworthy.
A sudden breeze tossed loose strands of hair onto her wet cheeks and, coincidentally, blew open the door that housed an eluvian behind it. The entire yard was immediately bathed in light. Had someone left it open on accident? Not many people used the small room, considering that the elven relic was the extent of its attractions. Perhaps a couple looking for a quiet space? She pushed herself to her feet and ambled to close it. Her fingers brushing the handle, she peered into the small space curiously. The eluvian seemed to be rippling with brightness, its fluid surface distorting her reflection. For some reason, she felt drawn inside. Why were its muddy depths moving as if they had just been disturbed? Her brow furrowed as her mind started to piece things together. Leliana had said that no one entered the castle today, but every worker was present, so the abductor must have found another way into Skyhold. A way no one would expect, that would hold little chance of discovery. Ever since their escapades at the Temple of Mythal, this room had been closed off and all but forgotten. A gasp hitched in her throat.
“Mirana?” Cullen’s voice behind her made her jump. “What are you doing?” He had come to apologize for his earlier outburst, but decided her potential disappearance through a mystical mirror was the more pressing matter.
“The eluvian,” she breathed, eyes round as the moon that crowned his head, “they used the eluvian to take her.”
He took a step closer in case he might need to reach out and grab her to keep her from doing something reckless. The eluvian glimmered threatening behind her, no more than an arm’s length away. “How did you—I don’t even know why I’m asking—you’ve always been good at solving things. Just don’t try and be too clever, alright? We’ll send our men through as soon as they ready themselves, there’s no need for you to endanger yourself.”
She shook her head as she backed away, the magical hum growing louder as she neared her exit. “I’m going to find my daughter, Cullen. You’re not going to stop me.”
“I know,” he sighed, “I’ve never been able to in the past, I just believed, since, you know…” He scratched as his chin, searching for the right words. “I’ve grown to care for you, Mirana. I thought that might mean something, that it might make staying a little easier-“ She tried to interrupt him but he quickly cut her off. He was going to say what he wanted to say, especially now, with her prospects of living growing increasingly uncertain. “I know she’s not the only reason you’re so eager to pick up and leave. You think you’re going to find him somewhere out there, don’t you? Perhaps bump into him at a local tavern?” he sneered half-heartedly. “Has it ever occurred to you that he might be the culprit?”
Mirana glowered at him in disbelief, fingernails digging into her palms to keep from raising her voice. “He would never!”
“He might have decided to pay his daughter a visit for the first time,” he continued, unfazed by her contempt, “finally decided to come into her life after over a year because of course he is capable of loving a baby.” His chest still ached over her biting words. How could she have just played so contentedly on his deepest fears? How did she know that his capacity to care, to actually care, was the loss he dreaded the most, the loss that had pushed him to quit lyrium?
Her fair skin looked nearly gray in the dimly lit room as guilt broke through her careful composure. “Cullen… I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that; it was unnecessarily mean. You didn’t deserve it.”
“Whether or not I deserved it matters less than whether or not you believe it to be true.”
“How could I? After seeing you with Mala’nan, how could I ever..?”
His heart melted at the softness in her eyes. For just a moment he thought he had finally struck a chord with her, that she was going to follow him out of that room and into the safety he knew he could provide for her. Her lip was quivering and she looked so scared then, so vulnerable, that he couldn’t help it. Cautiously, as if worried she might start and bound away like a wild halla, he brushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “I don’t want to lose you, Mirana,” he whispered, meeting her eyes with a confidence that surprised him.
Briefly, she appeared as if she were considering. Her gaze roamed his face, searching for any sign of dishonesty, praying for it, in fact. There was nothing but kindness and, dare she say it, love in the tender way he was looking at her now. A moment’s hesitation, a short lapse in her determination, she reached up to grab his hand. Maybe… maybe. The maybe was tempting, then, but not nearly as much as the thought of holding her daughter again. Of the chance of seeing him again. She gently pulled his hand away and dropped it, shaking her head as she murmured, “But how can you lose something you’ve never had?”
She didn’t stay to watch the pain erupt on his face. She walked to the eluvian, pausing with one hand already through when she heard him say, “I’m going to find you again, Mirana. You will return.” He wasn’t sure if this was more a threat to her or a reassurance to himself. She just smiled wryly, then disappeared.
Mirana found herself in the same crossroads she had visited with Morrigan, though this time the fog that enshrouded the place had dissipated slightly. She was able to see the rows of eluvians clearer than she remembered. Farther than the eye could see, they stretched onwards into the white beyond. So many were broken—glass shards littered the stone like tiny stars—but many more were in working order, prismatic mists churning in their frames. She wandered around, looking for any sign of a struggle. There wouldn’t have been very much of one, considering the size of the abductee, but Mirana knew there must be something. She closed her eyes, exhaling deeply as she focused her senses. The dull thrumming of the mirrors reverberated within her chest, making a her feel a bit dizzy as she walked. It seemed to be louder in one direction, so that’s where she went, scanning the ground for any trace of life.
Eventually she came across a collection of gravel where it appeared something heavy had been dropped and crushed the stone pathway. She bent down to dip her finger in some of the black powder that must have spilled in the accident. It had a strange smell; perhaps a type of explosive? She wiped her hands clean on her cloak, preparing to venture into the eluvian nearest to the evidence when she was startled by the sound of a stifled gasp behind her. By the time she whirled around to face the stranger, an arrow was already drawn, her bow taut and ready to fire. A young elf girl stood before her with arms raised in surrender, her eyes a pair of frightened, gray pools. A small wave of nausea moved up Mirana’s throat at the delicate lines of a vallaslin stretching along her cheek and temple.
“Who are you? Why are you here?” she barked, looking her over for any indication she sported a weapon.
“O-Ophaeri, miss,” she stuttered, “I don’t know why I’m here; I think I’m l-lost.”
Mirana couldn’t help the smirk that curled on her lips. “Lost? You just happened to wander into a magical mirror?”
She shifted her weight around impatiently, though her fingers retained their grip on her weapon. “Well as likely as that is, I’m afraid that I’m not particularly inclined to believe you. What do you know of the Inquisitor’s daughter?”
Ophaeri cocked her head to the side, confused as to why a hooded figure aiming an arrow at her head would ask such a random question. “I know she is elf-born, with eyes like green fire. The last mage of Clan Lavellan.” Though Mirana believed her to be terrified, she seemed suspiciously certain of herself here. As if realizing her wariness, Ophaeri quickly amended her statement. “The Dalish revere her, they believe her birth to symbolize great change for the elven people.” She wrung her hands together, appearing nervous once more. “It is only n-natural for my people to know of her.”
Mirana nearly bought it. Nearly. “Natural, indeed. Though I don’t see how they would know of her magical ability, considering that only a select, trusted few residents of Skyhold are aware of it.” She took a step closer, hood falling away as she shook her head. “Unless, of course, you’ve seen her for yourself?”
A jolt of surprise flashed in her expression, Mirana herself barely caught it, but it was as damning as a confession itself. Then, a wry grin appeared on her face. “So you are as clever as he made you out to be.” Before the question of who had even formed on her lips, Ophaeri had taken off running. With a groan of annoyance, the Inquisitor followed her as quickly as her legs could manage. The two darted around the eluvians in a puzzling game of chase. Mirana could feel herself getting lost in the maze of portals, even losing sight of her target multiple times before witnessing her dart into one. She knew this was very likely a trap, but was also unwilling to waste perhaps the only opportunity she would get to save Mala’nan. Using her knife, she hastily carved an M into the golden frame in the hopes that if something did happen, Cullen would have a simpler time locating her. Then she walked through.
Her shoes nestled into the wet grass without a sound as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She was in a forest somewhere; trees surrounded her like obsidian pillars, effectively blocking out any source of light the moon could have provided. Slipping into stealth, she pulled her hood further over her head and began to stalk. It was cold here; she tried to breathe as little as she could, for any exhalation would produce a cloudy vapor easily spotted in the blackness. After a minute or so of travel, she noticed a dim light, likely a fire, casting shadows in the wood. She supposed this must be where Ophaeri was headed, but could hear no voices suggesting the presence of others. If she had taken Mala’nan, surely she wouldn’t have left her alone? And if so, the noise of the child’s wails would be bouncing from tree to tree—she was absolutely terrified of the dark. Unless… Mirana tried not to think of the alternative.
She was nearly upon the assumed campsite when suddenly the glow she had been following was extinguished. She grew cold as she was enveloped in the cloak of night once again. How could it just disappear? Had she imagined it? She wondered if her hysteria was beginning to verge on schizophrenia when she caught the glint of a pair of eyes off to her right. She blinked and they were gone, leaving her to assume the truth of her previous thought. She continued in the direction she believed the fire had been, feet light as leaves. She had the sickening feeling something large and lethal was trailing her, breathing ice down her neck. Another glint to her left. Perhaps a fox? Awful tall for a fox, she thought as a shudder slithered down her spine.
Her heart was pumping a such a ferocious rate she feared whatever creatures hunted her could hear it. She must find a way out of the forest, or at least find some light. Unfortunately, it seemed impossible for her to achieve either. She briefly considered lighting up a tree with one of her explosive arrows, then decided that she definitely didn’t need to draw anything else to her location. She tried listening for the sound of running water, anything to indicate that there was an end to this labyrinth, but was unsuccessful. Eventually, she figured backtracking would be the safest option, but when she turned around she found herself face-to-face with the closest pair of eyes she had seen yet.
She gasped, shock preventing her from drawing her bow quickly enough, and was promptly knocked off her feet. The air in her lungs evicted, she fought to catch her breath as she scrambled backwards. Her limbs caught on unseen roots, making her attempt at escape practically moot. Soon, her hands were bound and a gag stuffed down her throat. Her capturer spoke little as he pushed her along with rough hands. Another Dalish, just like Ophaeri. Did he not recognize her for the Inquisitor or was he simply indifferent? What kind of grudge would a Dalish clan hold against the Inquisition? She knew it was illogical, but a part of her feared it was for their role in the accidental demise of her clan. Perhaps they had been planning retribution and decided kidnapping Mala’nan was the surefire way to get Mirana to them? Her mind spun with hundreds of potential schemes, potential answers, for this ridiculous predicament. She was pondering a notion involving a secret elven army, the Ben-Hassrath, and several large herds of nugs when they finally reached the camp.
A dozen wide eyes glinted at her from around a small campfire. Rather than vicious, many of them merely appeared surprised at the intrusion. Dressed in traditional garb, she felt an odd sense of familiarity within their presence, as she had when she had visited her former home in the Fade. Her pleading gaze was met with varying degrees of suspicion; did they not know she was one of them?
“I have found a shemlen wandering in our woods. She appeared to have come out of the eluvian,” the elf who had brought her here addressed the small group, speaking the ancient tongue as he pushed her to her knees. Mirana responded to this with a small choking noise, the cloth in her mouth preventing her from denial.
“Let her speak, Ulhain,” a man’s voice barked in Trade tongue from her periphery. As if irritated, he bent and snatched the gag from her mouth forcefully, causing her to cough and sputter as she shrugged off her cowl.
Her ears revealed, shock rippled throughout the camp. Faces that had once been suspicious now looked at her with a guarded confusion. Who was this strange, unmarked elf? Why and how did she find their encampment this late in the night? She waited for the noise to die down before speaking in the little Elvish Solas had tried teaching her. She was surprised Ulhain and the rest of these Dalish elves appeared to be fluent in it. She had thought that only the clan’s Keeper had knowledge of the tongue? “I am your sister. I am searching for my daughter.”
Ulhain chuckled darkly, his black eyes narrowed menacingly. “Sister?” He had switched back to the common tongue. “You may know some Elvish, but your face is naked and disgraceful. You are nothing but a flat-ear.” His hand gripped her hair and gruffly yanked, exposing her neck for the talkative crowd to see. “She is clearly a spy,” he growled in Elvish, then proceeded to list words she didn’t comprehend, though by the looks she was receiving, they weren’t particularly amiable. She let out a gasp as a dagger was pressed against her throat, its sharp edge digging into her skin painfully. Her hands tugged desperately at their bounds, fingers stretching for her own daggers underneath her cloak to no avail. Was she truly going to die here, by the blades of her own kind?
“Wait!” The voice from her periphery cried out before materializing in front of her. He shoved Ulhain out of the way then knelt in front of her, gathering her face in his hands to get a better look at her. She blinked a couple times in disbelief at the familiar face, only inches away, staring back at her with a mirrored expression of incredulity. They continued to gawk at each other until the man broke into a smile so big it made her ache because she never imagined she would see it again.
“It’s been a while, old friend,” Illivere whispered, “I guess we have some catching up to do, then?” He winked before standing up and turning around to address the increasingly rambunctious group. “I’m afraid we all have some apologizing to do, because it seems we’ve accidentally kidnapped-“
“The Inquisitor! She’s the Inquisitor!” Ophaeri’s voice puffed from somewhere in the distance. Everyone’s head turned as the young woman bounded into the clearing, red-faced and breathless.
“Ah, just in time,” he greeted her, grunting as he hoisted Mirana to her feet. He cut her hands free then pointed to a small tent. “Let’s talk in there, since I’m sure you’re just bursting with questions.”
“For starters,” Mirana cocked her head in Ophaeri’s direction, “how did I get here before you?”
She pushed a lock of mousy brown hair from her eyes before regarding her sheepishly. “Well, I was trying to get you off of my trail, you see. But then, it seemed that I got off the trail and, well…”
“Became lost? Life can have the most convenient sense of irony sometimes, can’t it?” She sighed, brushed the forest debris from her clothes, then walked with as much dignity as she could to the tent, ignoring the gaping mouths and astounded utterances she received upon passing.
A few minutes later, Illivere joined her, apple in hand. “Hungry?” he asked, offering it to her so nonchalantly she wanted to stab him.
“You’re not dead,” she blurted out, her bluntness making him snicker.
“Astute observation, scout.” At her refusal of the apple, he shrugged and took a bite himself. He watched her thoughtfully as he crunched, thinking of how much she had changed since the last time he had seen her. Impossibly, she seemed even more beautiful. Now, confidence radiated off of her like glow from a fire. He supposed it came from her position, but she seemed more assured of herself than she ever had during her time in the clan. Perhaps their Keeper had known what she was doing when sending her off to spy on the Conclave. Though he doubted anyone Mirana had grown up with could have ever imagined the sweet-tempered child would become leader of the most feared organization in Thedas. He smirked. But he wasn’t here to admire her, he was here on business. That didn’t mean he couldn’t try to annoy the living shit out of her, though. “What happened to your face?” he probed, relishing at the sight of her beginning to heat up.
“That’s really what you want to talk about right now? My missing vallaslin?” She shook her head in exasperation. “I thought you had died, Illivere! I was in the Fade and I saw you… I saw you…”
He frowned. “Saw me what? I obviously didn’t die.” He sighed, realizing his usual quipping was inappropriate for the subject, then softened his voice. “After witnessing the massacre—you’ve heard about that, right?—I considered the possibility, yes. With you gone and everyone else I cared for dead, I didn’t see any other option at the time. I… didn’t carry through, though and eventually Ulhain and his group found me. They’re not really a proper clan, but they were close enough I figured it couldn’t be too bad. Better than being with the shems.” His nosed twitched in disgust before noticing the question Mirana held in her watery eyes. He chewed on his lip before deciding the truth would be easier. “Your family… I’m so sorry, Mirana. They died fighting, I saw them. They were so brave.” He ran a frustrated hand through his thick hair, gaze downcast in shame. “Braver than I was.”
A pause passed between them before she spoke. “I’m just glad you’re alive. It was hard being the only one left. Unimaginably hard.” Why hadn’t he come to Skyhold? She knew it was likely a long journey from wherever they were now, but he could’ve used the eluvians as Ophaeri had done. She wouldn’t have had to spend these past years agonizing over his death on top of all the others; she would’ve had one person to share the pain with. How had he been managing? At first glance, he appeared his usual, carefree self, but there was a twinge of something dark embittering his words. She rested her chin on her knees, trying to refrain from letting her emotions gain control over her pragmatic side. “So,” she began with a small cough, “your… clan? group? has been spying on my daughter and I. Why?”
He smiled then, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Nothing personal. We just do as we’re told.” He shrugged noncommittally before digressing, “I would love to meet her, if fate ever allows it. If she’s anything like you were, I bet she’s cuteness incarnate. Does she do that thing you used to do with the flowers?”
His flirtations made her uncomfortable, considering their prickly departure from each other years ago. “She’s missing, Illivere. She was kidnapped and I’m trying to find her. I thought your spy would have told you?” she sneered weakly.
He blinked a couple times, mouth hanging agape as if stunned beyond words. “Elger’nan’s balls, I had no idea. It must’ve happened before she got there. She said you found her in the crossroads, so it would make sense…” He shook his head then offered a grim smile. “He is not going to be happy about this.”
Before Mirana could ask who this mysterious leader of theirs was, Ulhain ducked into the tent with an air of concern. “My lady Inquisitor,” he anxiously patted down his wispy remnants of hair while he greeted her, “I must beg for your forgiveness. Please know that I had no notion of your identity. We know that the Inquisitor is a Dalish elf and were informed of her missing vallaslin, but the thought never crossed my mind.” He pressed his hands together, his head bowed as he tried to atone for nearly slitting her throat minutes before. “Please, we admire your reverence of our culture and would never wish harm upon you or your kin.”
Mirana stared up at him with eyebrows raised in shock. How quickly people change when in the presence of someone with power. Occasionally, she wondered if they even considered her a person. To go from flat-ear to esteemed guest on the drop of a hat, though, really took the cake for quickest turnaround. “Ah, well, it is done. The suspicion was understandable, I suppose, though my neck would probably disagree.” She rubbed at the thin, scabbed line that stretched a few inches across her throat. “I will forgive you.”
He nodded his head rapidly, beady eyes wide with gratitude. “Yes, thank you, sister. If you require anything at all, please do not hesitate to ask. We are at your complete disposal.”
Mirana smiled politely as he exited before turning to Illivere with a questioning look. He groaned as he pushed himself to his feet, yawning loudly before answering. “Don’t worry about him. He’s just trying to make sure he’s on your good side so he won’t get on Fen’harel’s bad one.”
“I just think it’s funny that—wait, did you say Fen’harel? Why would the ancient god of mischief care about who’s on my good side?”
Illivere just laughed. She really didn’t have a clue, did she? “I’m sure you’ll find out soon enough. For now, it’s late and I, for one, would like to go to bed. You can stay in here for the night.” At the start of her griping, he sent her a knowing smile he hoped was at least a little comforting. “Don’t worry, I’m sure if they haven’t killed your daughter by now, it’s likely she’ll stay alive for the foreseeable future.”
But of course, she couldn’t sleep. She didn’t even try, not while knowing Mala’nan was somewhere out there. After taking a minute to gather herself, she exited the tent. The cool, crisp air of early morning greeted her hours before the sun would. The area around the fire was empty save for Ophaeri, whose small frame lay shadowed in the glow. Mirana assumed she was asleep like the others, but then she made her way to her feet. Mirana ducked her head back inside as the woman cast a furtive glance around the cluster of tents, the observed her dart off into the woods with a furrowed brow. As was the way of the spy, she supposed, but considering she had been spying on her, she was more than interested to see where Ophaeri was headed.
After giving her a couple seconds head start, she crept into the small clearing. Her feet were silent on the grass as she moved to pick up her bow and quiver they had ceremoniously placed at the base of a large tree. She considered finding Illivere, but the man was nowhere to be seen upon her first sweeping glance and she didn’t have the time nor the will to go bursting into people’s homes at this unholy hour. She would track this spy on her own. She prayed she wouldn’t be led into another trap.
It wasn’t difficult to track Ophaeri now that she wasn’t purposefully covering her trail. She caught up with her within a few minutes of walking, following the small signs of disturbance in the branches and fallen leaves. Luckily for Mirana, she had been a gifted huntress, skilled in both the pursuit and the kill, and right now her prey was much larger and clumsier than the average August Ram. Green eyes reflecting nothing but the hunt and the light of the moon, she stalked the spy all the way back to the eluvian they had originally entered through. Was she going to Skyhold? She assumed that had been her destination when she had intercepted her a few hours ago. She bit her lip, uncertain. She had nothing against the girl personally, but she couldn’t allow her to continue to spy on the Inquisition. Perhaps she could recruit her instead? Her grip grew clammy on her bow. But if she couldn’t…
She stuck her head into the mirror after giving her enough time to assume that she wouldn’t collide with her backside. Then she stepped through fully, her eyes darting about in a slight panic when they couldn’t pinpoint her immediately. She thought she saw the flash of a foot fading into a portal to her right and she quickly ran to it. It was no different than any of the other eluvians, but Mirana could have sworn it had been locked when she had passed it before. Now, it glowed a magnificent, beckoning blue. Her fingertips nearly brushed its humming surface, consumed by confused fascination, before she realized she needed to mark this frame as well. Inexplicably nervous, she carved her initial with an abnormally shaky dagger before gathering the nerves to venture forth into the unknown.
The sun had already risen in the place Ophaeri had led her, and it was a gorgeous morning. It appeared as if they were amidst the ruins of some ancient temple. Stone, battered with age and decorated with vines peppered the landscape in such an array it suggested the ghost of a great hall, or perhaps a grand ballroom. She heard the dull roar of a waterfall somewhere behind the sea of massive trees that framed the large clearing with an interweaving of twisted limbs. She was unsure of the age of these ruins, but the sight of a statue of a wolf led her to believe this land belonged to her ancestors.
She ambled over to the statue, practically scared to breathe and cause even the most minor disturbance to the peace of this place. She had seen many monuments of Fen’harel throughout her journeys—even her clan had used them as appeasements—but this felt realer than the rest, as if the stone eyes were preparing to blink into life, the rigid head to turn and look at her. Her hand wavered, outstretched in desire to touch it. Did Illivere and his group worship these statues of the god? Is that why he mentioned his name? Perhaps Ophaeri had come to make an offering? She had never known any Dalish to worship the Dread Wolf; most clans erected statues in attempts to pacify his potential wrath.
The wolf was glaring stoically off into what she assumed to be forest, but after following its gaze she discovered it was observing a narrow path that parted the trees. Glancing around for any indication of Ophaeri, she started off in that direction. The path, upon closer inspection, was crafted from the same stone as the rest of the ruin. After many years the blocks had eroded so that they were dangerously uneven and Mirana was forced to watch each step. This slowed her progress enormously, and by the time she reached the walkway’s end Ophaeri was already speaking to somebody.
Mirana ended up in what she could safely assume had been a library. Though only a large corner remained of the walls, bookshelves were spread out in a way that suggested the former shape of the place. Each one had to be at least ten feet tall and filled with tomes of every size. How they had gotten out here, she had no clue, as they certainly weren’t original. It seemed that someone was putting in an effort to recapture whatever splendor this decaying palace had contained.
Several paintings lay in frames against the beginnings of a new wall. One of them in particular caught her eye; it detailed the side-profile of a woman holding a small child. The woman was smiling blissfully, her eyes closed as she pressed her forehead to the child’s. She stepped closer. Unlike the woman, who she now recognized to be a pale-headed elf, the child stared directly at the viewer. The shape of her face, of her lips, the faint shadow of eyelashes against her pink cheeks—she was looking at Mala’nan. Her baby stared back at her with matching green eyes full of wonder and innocence, but there was a strange feeling of accusation within them as well. Her heart was pounding, though now it was with just as much a result of fear as of hope. It was impossible…
“I’m afraid I have bad news,” Mirana heard Ophaeri say, “awful, in fact. I’m sorry that I couldn’t come right away, we had an incident in camp involving-“ She was cut off by something and Mirana, still pouring over the portrait, didn’t look over until she heard his voice.
“Mirana,” he said, breathing her name as if it had not been spoken in some time. It felt funny; it didn’t sound right to him. It didn’t feel enough. Nothing would ever be enough, not anymore. Not after what he had done. Yet here she stood, the ghost of all his misdoings coming to torture him with the eyes of his forsaken child. He watched the shock on her face morph into a joy so pained he could feel its reciprocal in his own countenance. Dressed in armor and armed to the teeth, had she come to find him? Did she know? His eyes roamed her, absorbing all they could of the beautiful woman who likely would never look at him this way again.
He moved closer to her, his smile darkened with sadness. “It has been some time,” was all he could think to say. Her appearance had stunned him just as much as his did to her. He could see her struggling to decide whether she should hug him or decapitate him, and for some reason that made his heart ache for her even more.
“Where were you?” she whispered, covering the gap he had left them in a few, slow strides. “Why did you not come back?”
“I told you that I had to leave, I was under the impression that you understood.“
“But not even for her!” she cried out, pointing to the painting. “You wouldn’t come back even for your own daughter?”
His face grew ashen. He had been expecting this argument, but certainly not this soon. He had pondered what exactly he would say to her in this moment, but no words could ever make her understand. “I wanted to, Mirana, I… I want to. So very badly.” His eyes flashed to the portrait of his daughter. “I painted it not long after she found me in the Fade,” he mused, expression clouded with wistfulness. “She was a tiny thing, hardly able to walk, yet she tottered to me with such gumption that I knew precisely who her mother was.”
Mirana folded her arms across her chest, though her words came out a little less dogged than before. “How could she have been able to find you? She can barely feed herself, let alone navigate the Fade.”
He gestured for her to walk with him, eager to find some privacy from the sharp ears of Ophaeri, who was wisely faking an interest in the grass. She reluctantly followed, her gaze lingering on her daughter until her painted visage was out of sight. He observed her as she stared as his work, fascinated. Was this how she looked at her, with eyes soft and deep and longing? The love with which she regarded her made his shoulders heavy with remorse yet filled his every cavity with such a warmth he felt as if he might float. It was similar to how she used to look at him, but far gentler, for it was shared between mother and child. An unbreakable bond, he knew, bound them together. With all his being he wished, not for the first time, that he would be able to witness this beautiful, unspoken promise of perpetual acceptance and adoration he had unintentionally created.
“Perhaps we were both searching for each other, somewhere in the backs of our minds. A child, too young to comprehend what a father is, yet knows she does not have one. And a father, too foolish to comprehend the implications of the word, finds himself picturing his daughter’s face whenever his mind slips from his meticulously manipulated thoughts.” He was silent for a moment, afraid his voice might betray him.
“A few times, upon waking, she would ask for her papae,” she said quietly. “I do not think she knows she is fatherless.” He couldn’t bear to look at her, to see her trying so hard to forgive him because Creators knew she wanted to. But they both knew Solas didn’t deserve it. Nor was he worthy of the title of father—he felt guilty even saying it aloud—and she was the one most aware.
When he was informed she was with child, he had been unable to imagine the immense fear she must be coping with, but he felt it when he would visit her in the Fade—a dark, abysmal sensation that weighed down the air around her. The thought of how much pain he had brought into her life was torturous. Some nights he felt undeserving of the air in his lungs. He had never truly been worried—Mirana was one of the most resourceful and hardy individuals he knew of—but the idea of raising a child on one’s own was daunting to say the least. That, paired with his incessant self-loathing, had prepared him to accept that she had moved on. He was aware that it would be the best option for all involved parties, and he considered himself a fairly sensible man. Mala’nan would have the father he could never be, and Mirana would not wither, alone, in the prime of her life. But like a rose, she had remained rooted, instead adapting to the unforgiving environment by acquiring a set of thorns. He could sense this now, as obvious as if they were digging into his side. But past her cold features he knew beat a heart that was as gentle as it had been when he had broken it.
He turned to face her finally, ending their walk on a grassy ledge that overlooked a massive waterfall. She would never know how great his desire was to convince her to join him so that the three of them might live here happily. Together, in this magnificent remnant of her ancestors and of his near past. But even if he considered the notion of her actually accepting his plans of mass destruction, she would have been convinced unfairly. How he wished she had not drank from the Well of Sorrows, especially now, with Mythal’s essence inhabiting his own. “I hope, more than anything I believed I have ever hoped for, that one day she will not be,” he replied, bittersweet expression hiding a host of other, more torrent emotions.
His stone façade crumbled a little more at the way her face alighted. “Does that mean you wish to come back?”
He laughed breathily. “Of course, Mirana. I will always want to come back. There will always be a part of me which wishes for things that cannot be.” The brief glow faded from her eyes as she grew sullen. “Remember the path I spoke of, years ago? I’m afraid it is still dark, and certainly no place for a child. No matter how much I desire it, my mind cannot be changed. Even now. But please, never doubt that there is a moment of mine not spent in agony, in guilt. After seeing her for the first time, I considered returning. I quarreled with the idea in my head for so long that I failed to notice my feet had taken me to Skyhold. I… I stood there, in the room containing the eluvian, for some time, contemplating because I knew that once I saw you, I would not be able to leave. Not twice.
“So, I played the coward. I accepted that the only plane in which I could visit my daughter would be nonphysical. I accepted that I would never lay eyes on your lovely form again because, truthfully, I was scared. Terrified, even, because it is very rare for someone to make me consider things, truly consider them, as you have already with my opinion of the Dalish.
“I have told you, long ago now, it seems, that the moment I laid eyes on you, I felt the world change. After growing to love you, I felt that I, too, was changing. For the sake of my people, I could not allow that, regardless of my feelings. I am doubtful, but I still hope that one day you might understand my motivations and the necessity that drives them. The mistakes I have made are irreversible, as most mistakes are. I have failed so many in my lifetime, Mirana. I did not want to add my daughter’s name to that extensive list, but I had no choice.”
“There is always a choice, Solas,” Mirana whispered as she pressed a tender hand to his cheek. “There will always be a choice.”
He relished in her touch for a second before moving out of her reach. His smile was painful. “And I am afraid, in your eyes, I will always choose wrong.” He clasped his hands behind his back, steeling himself for what must be said. “Which is why I believe it is best, for you and our daughter-“
“Say her name!” She screamed at him, overwhelmed and frustrated because she had told herself that he would return. “Say her name, you fucking coward!” She knew, she just knew that if she could only speak with him one last time, she could change his mind. He would smile and kiss her and apologize, to which of course he would be forgiven, and they would go home. They would be a family because that is what you did when you brought a child into the world. After you felt them beginning to grow within you, a part of you was lost to them. After you felt them kick, the first signs of life, you knew that you would die for them. After you felt their tiny fingers grasp yours, you knew you would kill for them. This was how it was meant to be, she had forced herself to believe. How could he just deny she and Mala’nan as if they were merely another mistake?
He visibly flinched away, startled by her outburst. His eyes narrowed as he prepared a retort, but faltered at the desperation on her face, at the stubborn tears that threatened to slide off of her lashes and down her cheeks. He had no right to anger, or even irritation, because he had caused this. Their daughter’s incredibly harmful name was a consequence of his actions and his alone. He could not blame her for her pain, for this aggressive strike upon him using the only child he would ever have. My revenge. But if that were true, would he not feel some sort of grim satisfaction that often came with an act of vengeance? Her life was an act of revenge, yes, but rather than his own he believed her to be retribution for his misdeeds. For, as much as it aggrieved Mirana whenever she lay eyes on the child, it would aggrieve Solas tenfold to never have that luxury. All he would have are tiny moments in the Fade, now, when her youth spared her any potential recollection of him in the future. There, he could hold her to his chest as he walked, pointing out the most fascinating sights in the places he took her. He could tell her stories of fantastical creatures and of heroes, men and women who fought for what they believed, ignoring of the constraints of right and wrong. He yearned so badly for her to know of his special, gray world.
But she would never know, and she would grow up to hate him. If she even was able to grow up at all. He shuddered at the idea, but assured himself he would find a way to save her. Save both of them. In the Fade, however, he tried to minimize these horrifying thoughts, focusing instead on his daughter’s giggling face. “Mir enansal, mir athim,” he would call her. My blessing, my humility. He knew that this small period of her life would be the only in which she could love him and dreaded with each passing day the inevitability of his retreat from her life. He still had so much to teach her, so much love to give and kisses to plant on her forehead. They would share an occasional moment, however, where he had cause to doubt the certainty of her eventual hatred. Moments when she would stare him and the most beautiful smile would spread across her tiny lips. It was as if she could see right through him, past all his transgressions and ancient hurt, and bore witness the side of him he never knew existed: a father. They shared a love of such innocence, such meaningful blindness, that Solas believed that perhaps it would be his redemption. If he could love a child as much as she, he thought, there might be something in him worth saving.
But it was only a foolish impulse; he deserved everything he would get. He became reassured of this now as he looked at the woman who had been so furious at him she crafted that name. Perhaps if he continued to punish himself, he would feel better about his conscience.
“I… I cannot. Please, do not make me.”
Mirana opened her mouth to continue disparaging him, but found herself unable to speak. She grasped at her throat, looking around with wild, confused eyes before eventually her voice returned. “W-what just happened?” She shook her head, finally seeming to come to her senses. “You know what, it doesn’t matter. Coming here was a mistake. I’ve already wasted too much time.” She turned around and began marching back the way they came, using her determination to mask the impending breakdown.
“Wait!” he called out, jogging to catch up to her. When she abruptly stopped, he let out an impatient huff, “I mean, do as you wish, I would just prefer that you wait.” She sent green daggers in his direction as he moved next to her but made no attempt to keep going. He needed to be careful with his words, lest she figure out his power over her. “Please, I would like to know why you decided to come here, if it was not in search of me.”
Her eye twitched in a mixture of annoyance and amusement. Still conceded as always, it seemed. “Why ask me when you could just retrieve one of the spies in my castle? Or was that what Ophaeri was debriefing you on when I got here? What even are you all? Illivere said that you all are agents of Fen’harel; does this mean you’re some kind of cult leader? Why would that require spies in Skyhold?”
Solas shook his head impatiently. “Simply put, yes, we are in service of the Dread Wolf. If that is what you could consider a cult, then so be it. The spies are merely informants; they carry no plans of attack.”
She snorted. “How comforting. Well, regardless, I really must be going. This matter is far more important than trying to reason with you.” She headed off again without a look back, thinking herself very strong, until the portrait came into view. Her steps faltered as guilt tied her stomach in knots. If he knew, did she believe he would still be here, not searching? Despite all her anger, she did not. She sighed, brushing an exhausted hand through her hair before whirling back around. He had followed her at a distance but was quickly in front of her by the time she said, “Mala’nan is missing. She was kidnapped last night. I was trailing Ophaeri because I believed she might lead me to her.”
He blinked. He had been expecting many things, but definitely not this. Usually, a million thoughts spun around in his head and he could just pluck any coherent one out, but now he was speechless. For the first time, Mirana saw a Solas without words. Rather, he was a bundle of emotions, the first of which was astonishment, then came fear, and then the fury. She watched them all appear on his face, normally so composed and collected. Now, the darkness in his gaze was enough to frighten her. She tried to back away, but he grabbed her arms and pulled her closer. “Have you any idea who might have done this?”
“Someone who desires power over the Inquisition and lacks fear of public retaliation.”
His eyes widened in realization before narrowing again. He released her then went to snatch his staff from where it rested against a bookshelf. He was unsure whether this was a stab at the Inquisition or at him, but either way this day would be their final one. He knew of one particular group that fit the description and exactly where to find them.
“Come,” he ordered, “I believe it is the Qunari that have taken her. Only they would have the motivation and the utter brazenness to commit such an atrocity.”
She followed him, of her own volition this time. “The Qunari? How are we supposed to take on an entire nation?”
“We are not, at least, not all at once. We will find where they have hidden her and remove anyone who stands in our way.” His eyes flashed he added, “I do not think they will be expecting the Dread Wolf.”
Mirana shot him an incredulous look before they stepped through the eluvian. “What, are we going to summon him?” she inquired jokingly.
He smirked. “I suppose one could say that.”
Solas led her at a brisk pace to the eluvian she had come across earlier with the black powder in front of it. Neither of them spoke much over the short journey; both minds were fully occupied on thoughts of their missing daughter. The silence was broken, however, when Mirana posed a very valid question.
“What if you’re wrong and the Qunari have nothing to do with this? My presence here could be seen as a declaration of war!”
Solas merely shook his head. “I have sources within the Qun. They have informed me of their plot to break Thedas from within through the assassination of its leadership. I had originally believed it would wait until the Exalted Council, but they must have decided to single you out.” He assumed this scheme was orchestrated to draw him here as well, as the Qunari desired possession of his growing network of eluvians. Of course, they thought him merely an agent of the elven god. The Qunari had no idea what they had unleashed.
She folded her arms across her chest, sending him an exasperated look. “So, what you’re telling me is I’m either a) waltzing into a grand assassination attempt or b) declaring war upon a nation of giant, horned warriors?”
“I believe ‘a’ to be the more likely option, if that brings you any comfort.” He shot her something that might have been a smile if not for the rage that boiled beneath his skin.
She sighed, muttering to herself as she followed him through, “Well, I suppose anything would be better than another-“ She was cut off by the sounds of a thousand yells and a thousand swords clashing against steel. What appeared to be hundreds of Inquisition troops were engaged with phalanx upon phalanx of Qunari forces. She felt nauseous. “Bloody, fucking war,” she hissed, eliciting a slightly amused look from Solas.
Cullen, who was shouting orders while battling a warrior wielding a very large axe, caught Mirana’s look of intense consternation. After a bewildered double-take, he produced the most impressive nonverbal, “shit,” Mirana had ever seen before jabbing his sword into his enemy’s stomach and hurrying over. “Inquisitor!” he exclaimed, wiping some of the blood and sweat on his face off onto his sleeve as if self-conscious. “I thought you were—why are you—why is he—oh, sweet Maker.” He pressed a hand to his forehead, glaring around himself in disbelief. “I sent a group of scouts into the eluvian at Skyhold where they discovered the trail you had presumably left. A Dalish elf greeted them and told them that the Qunari were holding both you and Mallie prisoner.” Solas raised a curious eyebrow at this nickname, but refrained from interrupting.
“Naturally, I had the scouts check this claim before I brought the troops in. Trust me,” he gave her an earnest look, “I would not provoke war lightly, no matter how well the elf appeared to be acquainted with you, but…” He swallowed, jaw clenching as the familiar anger was awoken. “The scouts said that while they were scoping the grounds of this place, they… they heard her. Screaming.”
Mirana grew faint, her skin dulling to a pale gray as the world shattered to pieces underneath her. Were they hurting her? How could anyone lay even a hair on her baby, her kind, trusting Mala’nan? The thought of them corrupting her, twisting her gentle nature into something vile and broken was more than enough to send her over the edge. She swatted away the hands that had moved to steady her, trying not to tremble as fingernails dug into her palms. “They will all die,” she whispered, her voice like gravel.
Cullen hastened to amend his report. “Well, we’re not certain she’s being hurt. Young children do have the tendency to scream when they’re hungry, or tired, or-“
“Or scared,” Mirana interjected, stony gaze sweeping the thick castle walls she knew contained her daughter. “We must find a way in. Have your troops had any luck?”
He shook his head. “They met us as the gate, almost as if they knew we were coming. We had no opportunity to break through the door. If I am familiar with the structure of castles, however, there’s a good chance of an alternative entrance somewhere-“ He faltered when he noticed a spark of green energy erupt from Mirana’s left hand. “Are you alright?” he asked, eyebrows knitted in concern. She winced, as if the outburst caused her some discomfort, then clutched the hand with her other.
“Ah, yes, I think. That was strange; it doesn’t usually act up unless I’m near a rift.” She massaged her hand for a moment before sending Solas a sidelong look. “But nothing to worry about, I’m sure?”
The elf, who had been sporting an impatient scowl for the extent of this exchange, stared down at her Anchor, plainly perplexed. He was aware of the toll she would eventually have to pay for her gift, but figured it was too soon. For now, it would be merely a sting, like a shockwave pulsating through the nerves of her hand, but soon—and he’d no way to predict how soon—it would progress into a full-body trauma so intense it would take her life, and likely the lives of those around her. It troubled him how untroubled she appeared; her words carried a note of anxiety, yet her expression was hardly one of bewilderment. “Has this happened before, Mirana?” he asked carefully.
She swallowed before reluctantly nodding. The last thing she needed right now was for them to be worried about her, not with her daughter being used as bait. “Just one or two times, but it’s really not a problem. Please, let’s just focus on the task at hand.”
“Yikes!” a voice quipped from behind them. “That was one of your worst yet.” The three whipped around to see Illivere posing casually in front of the eluvian. Mirana’s eyes widened in pleasant surprise whereas Cullen’s narrowed in suspicion. The elf gave the commander a broad grin, unthreatened by both his position and the scar on his frowning lips. “Don’t worry, we go back a-ways. Right, Mimi?” he teased, using the childhood nickname he knew she despised.
“We have neither the time nor the patience for this,” Solas growled. At Mirana’s puzzled expression, he explained, “Illivere is one of Fen’harel’s agents within the Ben-Hassrath. He is our main informant on the activities of the Qun.” He paused, guiltily amused at the look of absolute mortification on her face. “I realize this is a bit… awkward.”
Cullen, oblivious to the implications of this statement, queried the jaunty rogue on less personal matters. “You said that you and the Inquisitor are, uh, old friends? Ah, well it is good to meet another Lavellan. At least, I assume you’re of the same clan.” He shook his head. “Regardless, I must ask: have you spoken to anybody bearing the mark of the Inquisition recently?” His knowledge on elven history and lore was limited, but he was almost certain that nothing he had read mentioned anything of Fen’harel’s agents. His opinion of Solas already low, he was quick to grow suspicious of him as well as Illivere. The idea that he had left Mirana to join a cultist group of spies was enough to make his jaw clench.
Illivere cocked his head to the side thoughtfully. “Uh, no, I don’t think so. Are you looking for someone?”
“No, I was merely curious,” Cullen lied. Though his voice remained cordial, his instincts made him chary to trust the newcomer.
Mirana, whose mood had only improved slightly at the sight of her friend, brought the group back into focus. “So you work with the Ben-Hassrath, then? Would that by any chance give you any insight on the layout of this castle?”
Illivere nodded. “That’s why I’m here, actually. I got word that there was all this,” he gestured to the sea of battlers before them, “going on and I figured you could use some help. I was stationed here for some time—welcome to the Darvaarad, by the way! It boasts quite a pretty view of the ocean when there’s not a thousand men trying to kill each other to block it.” The commander appeared as if he were preparing his interrogation as he spoke, so he decided to start moving. “I know of a sort of secret entrance on the east side.” He drew his daggers as he headed into the battlefield. “We can try and blend in. The passage is just a couple hundred feet away,” he said as he pointed one of his jagged blades to a drum tower conveniently located in the thick of battle. “Watch out for those shock troopers—their axes hurt even worse than they look.”
Mirana hurried after him, bow drawn and posture wary, leaving Cullen and Solas to exchange a meaningful glare before they both moved to guard her back. The crowd of fighters became progressively thicker as they traversed, initially undetected. But a group comprised of three elves and a large man clad in furs will inevitably draw some attention when surrounded by a horde of Qunari. Several Defenders were the first to notice this oddity and charged them, swords glinting like the sunlight on their bared teeth.
Illivere immediately rolled out of the way, slipping into stealth in preparation to stab the assailant in the back. Mirana, now unguarded in the front, narrowly escaped the blade aiming to maim her with a well-timed leap in the opposite direction. Focused on sending a hail of arrows at her attacker, she failed to notice the massive shock trooper she nearly landed on top of. He, of course, noticed her and quickly smashed his axe into her unguarded side. Fortunately, Solas had cast a barrier on her the moment Illivere had left her side, but the force from the impact still sent her flying. Cullen rushed to her side to help her up, his hands gentle with uncertainty as they guided her waist and shoulder. She tried to shrug off his sympathies, but the blow had knocked away the majority of the barrier and she was heavily winded, leaving her to lean against him for support.
Solas, witnessing this out of the corner of his eye, was immediately pelted with unexpected stones of jealousy. His rhythmic fire flinging only hesitated for a moment, however, before it became much more aggressive. Cullen’s affections had been obvious to him just through observation of how the man regarded her. The commander had always had an infatuation of sorts with Mirana—even when Solas was still at Skyhold—but she had never, to his knowledge, reciprocated any of these sentiments. But now, after two years of his absence, the way she smiled at him caused him to believe otherwise. She had every right to this; Solas wanted her to spend the last of her time happy, which was something he knew he could never make her. But there was still a side to him that still clung desperately to the love they had shared, wishing it to be anything but gone. Of all the things he had prepared himself to lose, her affection had been the most difficult.
The Qunari that had hit Mirana was soon up in flames as Solas immolated him mercilessly. The scent of burning flesh filled the thick, salty air as deep screams were added to the already deafening roar of battle. Now on her feet, her eyes met his in surprise at his violent outburst. He merely nodded before sending a Fade boulder crashing into another warrior that had crept up behind him.
The fighting was becoming intense as more and more realized that it was indeed the Inquisitor pelting them with arrows. Unfortunately for their attackers, it meant Mirana and her followers had to silence each voice proclaiming her name, lest they allow word of their presence to spread to the kidnappers. Though she hadn’t shot in a while, her bow was practically an extension of her arm and a volley of poison-tipped arrowheads were quickly embedded in her foes. Though not at her side, Solas remained as vigilant as he had always been when she was endangered. He cast barrier after barrier despite the annoying truth that Cullen would let nothing within a few feet of her. Illivere was more difficult to spot on the battlefield, darting around his opponents with the deadly inconspicuousness of a needle. Soon, with a bloody trail of bodies in their wake, they finally reached a low-lying tunnel obscured by moss. Illivere peeled it aside and gestured for them to follow him into its dark depths.
They were enshrouded in a sudden blackness. Three pairs of elven eyes—two blue, one green—glinted at each other, reflecting the sudden emerald glow from their leader’s hand. The brown, human eyes took longer to adjust to the dim surroundings, but quickly grew mesmerized by the light beneath them. Cullen stared at it in bewilderment before turning his gaze to the long shadows it cast upon her face. Had she always been this gaunt? Though she met his expression evenly, he didn’t fail to notice the slight quiver of her shoulders.
“I don’t suppose this is what you would consider typical, is it?” Cullen remarked.
Mirana flexed her fingers as if to abate the sporadic jolts of fire that were traveling through her nerves. The Anchor had been rather problematic recently, true, but it had never maintained at this level for more than a few seconds. Her small bones curled into a fist as she caught Solas’ frown. Did he know something about this? What was another secret to him, anyways?
“What is it, Solas?” she asked, voice tilted in agitation.
He shook his head. When had he allowed himself to become so transparent? He had been away from her for so long, perhaps he had forgotten the extra effort it took when she was near. “I was merely thinking of our daughter,” he lied, still refusing to use her given name. He added curtly, “We mustn’t waste any time,” before starting off into the black expanse ahead.
Illivere sent Mirana a suggestive grin after Solas was out of ear. “A little unexpected, I’ll admit,” he said, referring to their previous relationship, “But as they say, ‘go big or go home,’ I guess. To be honest, I wasn’t sure the old guy was capable of feeling, but you’ve proven me very wrong. Doubt he could do it in a tree, though.” He winked before ducking out of the way of a well-deserved smack to the head.
“He’s not that old,” she muttered. And what had he meant by, ‘go big or go home?’ “Regardless, can you start moving? We’re on an important mission. Unless, of course, you have more inappropriate commentary on my love life?”
“I do, of course, but I’m afraid if your commander hears any more he might start steaming at the ears,” Illivere pointed out, then slipped into the shadows to both catch up with Solas and avoid the verbal barrage he felt forming on Cullen’s breath.
After he was gone, he exhaled largely as if the armor had been lifted from his shoulders. “The nerve! You have… strange taste, Inquisitor.”
“I’ve been told,” she replied dryly, breaking into a brisk walk.
Cullen kept up with her as they followed the sound of footsteps ahead. Truthfully, he was thankful that the other two members of the party had went ahead. In addition to his desire to speak with her privately, the corridor was also growing progressively narrower, barely containing enough room for the both of them, let alone four. He tried to ignore the occasional brush of her hand against his, quickly proving torturous even though it was accidental. He was well aware of where her feelings lay when it came to him after her words at the eluvian, yet he could not deny the poignant ache that had resided within his chest ever since. He knew she was still desperately in love with Solas—he was reminded of it every time she cast her eyes in his direction—and it made him hate her a little. Not nearly as much as he despised her former lover, but the animosity towards her fickle emotions was certainly there, nestled deep within the knot in his belly.
They remained silent for some time, he, fuming, while she charged onwards, a bolt of light. Neither she nor the other elves required much light to see, which made Cullen thankful for the odd outburst from her hand, at least for now. She was trying to catch up to Solas and Illivere while also making sure Cullen wasn’t left to stumble aimlessly in the dark. An impatient scowl resided on her face as she tried to think of anything except the potential fate of her daughter. She focused on counting her breaths first, then on their footsteps, then on the steady drip of some unseen water, then finally on Cullen’s occasional grunt as he bumped his head on a low-hanging stalactite.
“You wouldn’t have any clue this place was built for Qunari,” he grumbled, partly to himself, as he rubbed at the lump amassing above his forehead.
“Perhaps it’s used by the non-Qunari members,” Mirana suggested.
Cullen cleared his throat before digressing towards his intended topic. “Your friend, uh, Illivere, is it? How long have you known him?”
Mirana knitted her brows in suspicion. “Ever since I was a child. Is there a reason you ask?”
“Well, to put it frankly, I don’t trust him.” Before she could object, he continued. “You were certain of his death before, weren’t you? Yet now he walks before us a member of the Ben-Hassrath? In addition to that, how could he have known we were here, Mirana? You seemed just as surprised as the rest of us at his appearance, so I can assume you didn’t share your plans with him. Even if he is with the Ben-Hassrath, the eluvian—their only known way of traveling to his location—was surrounded by our men. He would have no way of knowing we were here, unless he was the elf that sent us here in the first place. The elf that caused us, regardless of his validity, to virtually declare war on the Qunari nation,” he hissed, voice hardly above a whisper.
Caught off-guard by this accusation, it took Mirana a few seconds to respond. “You think he had something to do with this? Why would Illivere want us to wage a war with his own people? Well, his new people,” she added, slightly morose, before continuing to defend her oldest friend. “There are plenty of explanations for him showing up here when he did. Perhaps he saw you and the few thousand others wandering the Crossroads, looking like a bunch of-“
“And who is this Fen’harel they’re supposedly working for?” He cut her off; he often grew conveniently deaf at times of quarrel. “Solas spoke as if you were already aware of their ties to this… this entity.”
“Forgive me, Cullen, I wasn’t in a particularly investigative mood when, after two years of searching, I stumbled across the father of my child. A child who just so happens to be missing right now, so I would greatly appreciate it if you-“
“I don’t understand how you can place so much blind faith in people you used to know, Mirana. In two years, people can change more than you think. I didn’t want to start an argument, now especially, but my fear is that these agents of this Fen'harel character might have played a role in taking Mallie.”
Mirana abruptly stopped and whisked around to face him, features cast in green shadow. She was well-aware of his feelings towards Solas, but she didn’t think he could be dense enough to believe he might have anything to do with this. “He’s her father,” she said fiercely.
“Is he really? I’d no idea!” he retorted, his tone sardonic. “It’s not as if I’m reminded of it every time you open your mouth.”
“Maybe if you set aside your emotions—which are absolutely ridiculous, might I add—we might have a chance at saving her. Or does she no longer matter to you as long as there’s no possibility of me loving you back?” she snarled at him, straightening up so she could glare directly into his eyes.
He nearly backed off when she got into his face, but managed to stand his ground. He could’ve sworn the light within her clenched fist flashed as if it too was caught in the frenzy of anger. He scowled down at her, fighting off the vicious words that were threatening to slice the self-satisfied smirk off of her face. His chest rose and fell as his blood grew warm with rage. How had he ever thought her to be kind? Gentle soul, his arse. To take this vulnerable part of him and twist it so wretchedly made him consider whether loving her was worth it. Of course it wasn’t; why in the Maker’s name had he ever thought this would work? It had been a battle lost before the first sword even unsheathed.
Finally, he stepped away from her, head shaking in defeat. “Whatever impression I gave to cause you to believe that I loved you, I’m very sorry for. You should know, though, that regardless of how I feel towards you, my feelings towards your daughter have always been genuine.” He felt numb. “I’m sorry for the distraction. We should get moving.”
He watched her eyes widen in astonishment, any smugness wiped clean from her face. She had expected him to yell at her, to put up the fight she knew he was capable of. To see the commander back down from any challenge was disheartening to say the least. Now, for some reason, she felt especially disappointed. Surely she hadn’t been wanting him to assure her that it wasn’t true, that she had even the smallest chance of happiness lest Solas fled her open arms again? But she had denied him one too many times and he had never liked being in second place.
The pain was evident in his expression, almost as obvious as the regret within hers. They stared at each other, absorbing the effect their actions had produced, before Mirana looked away in shame. Loose strands of hair shielded her face as she watched him begin to walk away, eyes seeming to finally have adjusted.
“Cullen…” she began, then was forced to stop as a sudden wave of agony jarred her entire arm. It felt as if someone had taken a knife and split open her veins and hot blood was pouring out so quickly she was losing consciousness. She let out a scream as she crumpled to her knees. The light in her palm had flickered out, bathing the two in complete blackness as she writhed.
“Mirana! What happened?” He was soon back at her side, hands gripping her shoulders firmly. “Is it the mark?”
She merely had time to nod before another blast ripped down her limb and a large explosion ensued. They were both sent flying into the nearest wall, bodies splashing as they landed in a small puddle of grimy water. Coughing madly, Mirana could feel herself being shaken and, beyond her ringing ears, saw Cullen mouthing something to her as he pointed upwards. Grasping her aching skull, she shook her head, uncomprehending. Overwhelmingly dizzy, she looked to where he was directing her just as the roof of the tunnel collapsed upon them.
Solas froze at the sound of a woman’s scream, undeniably Mirana’s. He whirled back around to the direction it came from in time to witness a brilliant green light envelope the dark beyond, so bright he was forced to shade his eyes. He felt his heart hit the bottom of his stomach as he realized just how quickly the affliction was progressing. What could have triggered it so soon?
“Was that the Anchor?” The fuzzy outline of Illivere cried out in disbelief. “Do you think she’s okay? That sounded like it hurt.”
Solas gritted his teeth, brow furrowed in worry. “She should be alright, for now. I fear her body will be unable to bear the burden of it much longer, though.” Still bearing the urge to protect her despite their years apart, he started hastily in her direction only to stop as the whole shaft began to quake. He was forced to grasp the rocky wall for stability as loose stones and dirt tumbled to the ground around him, coating his clothes in a fresh layer of dust. He quickly shook the debris from his eyes and broke off at a frantic pace, however fearful he might’ve been at the thought of what he might discover. If she were dead, he knew he would never forgive himself. Truthfully, he wondered if he could keep on living. The image of her wide eyes staring, cold and deaf, perpetually locked in a final look of terror caused a few unexpected tears to spring into his eyes. No, he would not lose her. Not until he had to.
He reached the pile of rubble, terrified that his worst fears had come to life. He couldn’t hear any noise from under the rocks, so he began to call out her name as rocks were sent flying backwards, briefly coated in a bright aura of energy before hitting a nearby wall and tumbling to the ground. With desperate hands, he dug at the barrier, mind and body working simultaneously to remove the debris and free his vhenan. He seemed to be making some progress until the rapid removal of rocks in a portion of the mound resulted in another cave-in had Solas not blasted the tumbling blocks away in a fit of exasperation. “If you can hear me, Mirana, help me find you,” he commanded, nearly panting as he leaned over to yell into a crevice. If she was alive and could speak, Mythal’s power over her would compel her. He waited in silence for a response, the echo of water dripping somewhere in the cavern the only interruption to the dark stillness.
He cursed to himself in Elvhen, head drooping in defeat. All she had accomplished, and she would perish to a mere rockslide. Mala’nan, granted they were even able to rescue her, would be motherless just as she was fatherless for the first part of her life. Would he be able to take her with him? For he knew he could not leave her in the hands of the Qunari and whatever purpose they had with her. Those eyes, those enthralling green eyes. Would he be able to look at them and never feel the black, soul-crushing tomb of regret enveloping him like the rocks enveloping the corpse of his beloved? Fists clenched at his sides, he started one last attempt at digging, using all the strength he could muster to send a barrage of debris soaring into the darkness beyond before dropping to his knees. His eyes flickered shut as he conjured the image of her face, of her supple lips as they formed the sound of his name, the light twinkle in her gaze when she spoke of something she cared deeply for, the sight of her pushing hair behind her ear with cheeks reddened in irritation. All that he would never again lay eyes upon, except perhaps in the Fade. But then she would only be a memory, not the living, breathing woman that had grown to be as much a part of him as any organ. Mirana, his heart.
He would have to raise his daughter now, as the leader of a rebellion that would eventually be the demise of this world. Perhaps with her godly blood he could give her the guise of being one of the ancients. Perhaps she would not be harmed when he ripped the Veil from its place and freed his people. Her people. Wouldn’t he have taken her anyways, had Mirana not decided to go with him when the time came? He had known, from first time he had held his baby girl in the Fade, watched those gentle, tiny fingers curl around one of his own, that he would protect her at whatever cost. Even her mother. “Ma vhenan,” he bade her farewell in the ancient tongue, “I will keep her safe until at last we are together once more. This, I promise.” He pressed a hand to the mound, imagining he could feel the soft coolness of hers rising to match it, then stood up and strode past Illivere without bothering to wipe the wetness from his eyes. “Come. We cannot afford to linger.”
Illivere, who had been watching this all with wide eyes and a pale visage, merely shook his head in disbelief as he caught sight of a distinctive green glow beneath the rubble. Merely a flicker, but he was certain of what he saw. Without a word, he darted over to the mound and began to furiously dig at the place where the light had been.
“Stop. It is no use,” Solas ordered, voice weak with despair, “she would have suffocated by now, if the impact itself had not killed her.”
Illivere just shook his head, his response labored by his heavy panting, “Did you not see it? The light? It was her, I swear it.”
“Light?” Solas whipped around, staff already glowing in his hand as his eyes scanned the crevices for any sort of sign he had missed. “What light?” They were both silent as they waited for it to appear, Illivere muttering prayers under his breath while Solas scowled, trying not to let hope get the better of his skepticism. For what felt like hours they stood, waiting for a sign that the Inquisitor still had breath within her. There was nothing, and then, like the first shreds of dawn, Illivere’s face was bathed in a warmth that, for the both of them, symbolized a magnificent renewal.
Rocks were soon flying in all directions as the two elves cleared the pile as if vying to be the first to lay eyes on her. Her childhood friend was the first to spot one of her hands, small and dainty despite the callouses brought on from handling her bow, as it emitted its piercing radiance. It was faced palms down, as if she were lying on her stomach, and it twitched as the damp air of the cavern reached it. They hastily pushed the rest of the rocks back from where they guessed her body would be and soon her head and torso were uncovered. Solas nearly wept with joy at the slow rise and fall of her back as she breathed, her eyelashes fluttering in recognition of his voice. “Mirana… Mirana…” he whispered her name as if he had never expected to say it again. He quickly grew lost in thought, muddied hand cupping her cheek, and had to be reminded rather sharply by Illivere that their goal was, indeed, to get her out of the cave-in. They tried pulling at her, but she seemed to be caught up in something, groaning in discomfort as they tried yanking her by the arms. But no, she wasn’t merely groaning, she was uttering a name.
“What is it? What’s she saying?”
Solas bent his head towards her, eyes narrowing as he heard who she was calling for beneath her bloodied lips: “Cul-len. Cul-len.”
“Fenedhis lasa. Don’t tell me he’s trapped in there as well,” Solas growled. “We’ll get him out too, but you’re first.” He tried tugging at her again, moving some rocks at her sides to help loosen her, but she only shook her head as her lower half remained stubbornly wedged.
“Elgar’nan’s balls, what’s holding her legs?” Illivere exclaimed, wiping sweat from his dark brow as he stretched out his aching back.
Solas gritted his teeth, one way or another, he was getting her out from under there. “I’m not sure. We’ll need to remove the rest of the debris from above her to find out.”
They worked for a few more minutes, the movement of rocks punctuated every so often as one of them knelt down to determine Mirana was still breathing. Eventually, they came across a shield with a dented and heavily scratched eye of the Inquisition that Solas recognized as the commander’s. From its position above Mirana, it appeared to him as if Cullen had used it to shelter her head from the crushing weight of the rockslide. He stuck his hand into the crevice behind the shield, lighting up the unconscious commander’s face in flickering blue veilfire. Blood dripped from his nose and down his forehead from some unseen place behind his hairline; Solas would have believed him dead if his eyebrows didn’t knit together in annoyance at the sudden glow thrust into his face.
Solas sighed. “I hope you haven’t exhausted yourself, Illivere, because we have another ton of rocks to clear.” The two set to work once more, the dull thudding of small boulders slamming onto the ground failing to rouse Cullen from his comatose state.
The thump of the debris falling around him was transformed into the sound of his fingers rapping anxiously against his desk. Fire throbbed in his veins, blood threatening to crack open his skull as he hunched over in pain. The lyrium laid beneath him, practically glowing through the glassy haze shrouding his bloodshot eyes. His breaths came out in labored gasps; the pull of the drug seeming to tug at his skin beneath the heavy layers of armor he wore. His mouth grew dryer with each thought of the substance, biting roughly on his lips until a fresh, metallic taste filled his mouth. But it wasn’t enough. Images flashed through his mind—images from the Circle Tower he had fought for over a decade to block out. The screams of his friends as they were ripped apart by abominations, the sickening sensation of their blood splatter hitting his face in hundreds of tiny droplets. They were feeding off of them. Cullen could hear the sounds of their voracious chewing bouncing around the vaulted ceiling and no matter how tightly he pressed his hands to his ears, the wet gurgles of their innards being exhumed still reached him. The demons’ voices still pierced his mind with heinous temptations, forced his thoughts to things that shamed him, the most repetitive of which being the Warden’s naked body beneath him. Not even twenty, he had crumpled to his knees and sobbed, all alone.
Not for the first time, his resolve wavered. His hands clutched the box laid out before him, nearly shuddering at the thought of ingesting his poison. The reins pulled tightly on him, the contents rattling within as his hands trembled. Just once more wouldn’t hurt him, would it? No one would need to know. Anything that could cleanse the corruption from his mind… even if only for a moment. But no! He found himself flinging his cache to the door just as it opened. Surprised green eyes. Pale eyebrows knitted in concern.
So long as you weren’t aiming at me, I’m sure the box had it coming.
Suddenly he was the one against a door. Beautiful noise came from behind it. A voice sang a lullaby in a language he did not comprehend. Mirana’s low voice echoed now, much more soothing than the desire demon, yet it produced a similar effect on him. He pressed his forehead to the wood, closing his eyes to imagine her standing at her balcony window as she often did, staring dreamily off into the mountains with a hand subconsciously pressed against the bulge beneath her white linen nightgown. The door opened suddenly. Tearful green eyes. Pale eyebrows raised in shock.
Cullen? What are you doing here?
I, uh, thought you might want some tea. I was doing my rounds and I heard you were awake so I thought, you know, if you enjoy such things...? He bumbled with his words, the two cups in his hand nearly spilled over as he shrugged.
She laughed, wiping at her eyes as if he wouldn’t notice. Truthfully, I would appreciate some ale right now, but I don’t think she would. She gestured down to her stomach.
He blushed as his gaze drifted over her breasts in its descent. Was it cold? He thought perhaps it was when a shudder ran down his spine. How do you know it’s a “she?”
She smiled as she shrugged, backing away from the door so he could enter. I don’t know, I just feel her. A little girl with ten fingers and toes. She accepted a cup from him and began to walk away, leading him toward the balcony. His eyes dropped to her ankles in fear of looking anywhere else. I think I’ll name her Mala’nan, she said, taking a dainty sip from her mug.
He watched her long hair get tossed back by the cool, night air. Is that a Dalish name? he asked, if only to hear her voice once more.
Her smile was dark. Yes, in fact. I thought it better be, considering she’ll be the last of Clan Lavellan.
It’s pretty. He tried to change the subject. Though I’m sure it would sound better coming from your lips than mine. You’ll have to help me think of a suitable nickname. His eyes met hers for what felt like the first time during this entire exchange. He watched the hardness in her features melt and felt part of himself melt as well.
Suddenly her eyes widened and she jumped, some tea spilling onto her dress as she nearly dropped it. Shit!
Are you alright?
She just kicked! She pressed her hand to her stomach, ignoring the hot liquid seeping through the fabric and searing her skin as she anticipated the next sign of life with bated breath. He watched her, a smile of wonderment growing on his lips. He yearned so badly to touch her, to feel the life she was growing for himself, to watch her face light up like it hadn’t in months. Cullen! The way she spoke his name surprised him, but her grabbing his hand and pulling it to her stomach nearly floored him. She must have noticed the timid expression on his face because she giggled. Do you feel it?
At first he didn’t, but then, like the tiniest notion of a push, he felt something against his palm. Maker’s breath, is that...?
Mala’nan. She’s really there, she whispered.
She smiled at him then, brighter than even the moon as it cast its glow over the two of them. Her hand squeezed excitedly over his, tears glimmering in the corner of her eyes.
“Cullen! Why isn’t he waking up?” Mirana’s voice was loud in his ear, but it was different. No longer soft and beguiling, she sounded panicked.
“We do not have time for this,” another voice grunted, farther away. “I can put a protection ward over him so they won’t find him.”
Small hands shook at his shoulders. “He saved my life! I refuse to just leave him for those Qunari bastards.”
A third voice rang out from a distance. “If he doesn’t wake up soon, I’m afraid we’ll all be dealing with the Qunari bastards.”
The air was suddenly cold. Snow settled on his coat and tickled at his nose as he gingerly stepped over the bodies of the fallen soldiers. Red ebbed into the stark whiteness of the ground. For a moment, everything was red, white, and frigid black, but then there was green. He ran towards the sound of a blast, making it just in time to witness the gaping chasm in the air collapse into itself. Cassandra tilted her head in greeting, her scowl deepening the folds in her forehead as he praised her for figuring out a method of closing the rifts. Maker knew anything with demons was not his specialty.
Do not congratulate me, Commander. This is the prisoner’s doing.
It is? I hope they’re right about you.
An elven woman turned around to face him from her position behind the Seeker. His first thought was that she looked nothing like a prisoner. Hands unbound, cheeks flushed with adrenaline, a stubborn quirk in her mouth as he expressed his doubt over her merits. She looked so small to him then, even standing next to the dwarf. Brown, Dalish tattoos stretched across her forehead and down her chin like roots in the frozen ground, colorless with the exception of her cheeks and tips of her pointed ears. Her eyes startled him as she looked him over; they seemed as large and green as the hole tearing its way through the sky above them. Was this truly the person that could end this mess? How many of his men had died to bring this dainty little creature up the mountain? And here she was, staring at him so coolly, arrogance tugging at the corner of her lips.
You’re not the only one hoping that.
We’ll see soon enough, won’t we? His voice is sharper than intended, frost biting into his words as much as his fingers.
It was no longer cold and the sky no longer bore the green haze of the giant rift. A chess board lay in front of him, black and white pieces staring resolutely at each other from across their checkered battlefield.
You really must stop staring, Commander—she’ll start to think she has something on her face. Well, other than the usual… Dorian trailed off from where he sat across from Cullen, flashing a hand in front of his face to demonstrate he meant her Dalish markings. Do you want her to come over here? I can catch her attention, he smirked as he moved a knight to capture one of Cullen’s pawns, adding, I think she finds me attractive.
Cullen rolled his eyes at the mage, though he couldn’t ignore the warm rush of panic that traveled up his chest and into his throat. Don’t be ridiculous; she’s only got eyes for the elf. He glanced over to where Mirana and Solas stood across the courtyard, chatting enthusiastically about something he undoubtedly knew nothing about. He retracted his pawn from the board before he began setting up his move to take his opponent’s queen.
Dorian scoffed. Why that is, I’ve no idea. I swear when it’s not in his hand, his entire staff is shoved up his arse! And don’t even get me started on his choice in attire. I believe “apostate hobo” is the most fitting term, don’t you? Ooh, that’s good. I think I’ll use that. He played his next move before shooting the commander a suggestive look. It’s not as if you have feelings for our Inquisitor, do you?
What? N-no! That would be… unprofessional.
Admitting it would certainly be more professional than continuing to stare at him as if you were trying to set his rags aflame. Oh, do be careful, Commander, I think he’s beginning to take notice. And he does indeed possess the ability to set you on fire.
Cullen’s hand twitched over the bishop he had been planning to take the queen with, his keen eyes now spotting the opportunity for a checkmate. He moved a pawn forward, his own king now unguarded.
Truth be told, Dorian began, nonchalantly setting up his knight to win the match, I think he’s jealous of you. He fears you are a better man.
Checkmate, indeed! That was a bold move, my friend, but in your jealous angst it seems you left your king unguarded. Dorian picked up his fateful knight and, with great flourish, knocked Cullen’s king over. He watched in a confused stupor as it careened over the side of the table and hit the pavement beneath them, bouncing several times before tottering to a halt by his boot. His eyes traveled from the chess piece upwards to meet the cold, blue gaze of Solas, staring at him from across the yard.
Don’t fret—there’s always next round to redeem yourself!
He was startled to meet the same calculating expression when he opened his eyes. Solas scrutinized him for a moment before sighing in a mixture of relief and exasperation. “There, the healing incantation seems to have worked.” He stood up from where he kneeled over the larger man, brushing at the dirt on his robes before offering him a hand. “Are you able to walk?” he inquired impatiently.
Cullen had to blink a few times for his head to clear itself completely of pawns and bloody snow. Ignoring the proffered hand, he pushed himself unsteadily to his feet and looked for Mirana. She was at his side immediately, concerned gaze searching his own for any hint of pain or anger.
“Are you alright?” They both asked at the same time, resulting in a weak smile from Cullen and a hoarse chuckle from the Inquisitor.
Her hair had fallen almost completely out of her bun, outlining her face and neck in frayed stands of muddied white. She pushed a dirty lock from in front of her eye with a shrug. “My bow’s a little worse for wear,” she nodded towards the splintered piece of wood that jutted out from where they had lain inside the rock, “but things could be much, much worse.”
He wiped at the blood dripping down onto his eyelashes with the back of his hand, his smile more genuine this time. He looked down at the elf with grime plaited through her hair and purple splotches of new bruises covering her arms. For some reason—an echo of a dream, perhaps—he swore the moon’s light was touching her features once again, and he was overcome with the sudden urge to hold her to him. Just how close had he come—had they all come—to losing her? His life meant nothing to the world, merely a tiny stitch in the fabric of destiny, but Mirana? He stepped towards her, fingers nearly reaching out to grasp her before knitting themselves lamely behind his back. “You are safe, Inquisitor, and that is all that matters.” He fought to keep the emotion from his voice, to remain stern and noncommittal as he should have been from the start.
She stared at him for a moment, her head moving as if about to shake in disagreement, before Solas spoke up. “Mirana, we must move swiftly. The sound of the explosion likely awarded us some unwanted attention.”
She looked down at her treacherous hand, expression suddenly fearful. “What if it happens again? I don’t even know what caused it.”
Solas’ countenance softened as he placed a hand over hers. “I will try my best to stifle the effects of the Anchor, but I’m afraid it will only get worse as time progresses. I believe… I believe that your body is too frail to contain its power much longer. It is impressive you remained in control as long as you did, da’len.”
“What are you saying, elf?” Cullen’s incredulous voice growled from behind Mirana.
Mirana placed her other hand on top of Solas’, dirty fingers grasping him as if he were the only thing keeping her upright. She could read him better than most, could dissect the fright in his eyes and, in turn, force it from her own. Her shoulders rose and fell as she steeled herself with a breath.
“What he’s saying is that we need to hurry up and find my daughter.” She released his hand from hers, chin lowering in a nod of understanding before skirting past him into the darkness beyond, pale green light glowing persistently at her side.
The four hurried down the corridor, led by both Mirana’s light and the seemingly endless path of flickering torches. They were beginning to grow unsure of Illivere’s navigating skills when they suddenly came upon a large iron door so dark it was nearly indistinguishable from the wet stone surrounding it. His nimble fingers made impressively quick work on the lock before he entered the compound as unobtrusively as if he had just used a key. Filing silently behind their guide, they slunk under large archways bearing flags with the symbol of the Qun, around massive sets of armor with holes specially befit for horns, and up many sets of spiraling staircases to a destination Mirana only hoped contained her daughter.
It was oddly quiet; they had faced no quarrel with any Qunari forces this far, despite the telling prattle of Cullen’s armor reverberating up and down the corridor. Mirana’s hands twitched over her daggers, wary to use them yet fearful she might have to unsheathe them at a moment’s notice. She much preferred archery to direct combat; the killing was less personal that way. She didn’t much care for looking a creature in the eye as she slit its throat, and the feeling of another’s blood between her fingers always made them itch for a wash.
“Are you sure you know where we’re going?” she finally whispered to her friend, head twisting around as if the sudden break in silence would bring on an onslaught. “You would think there would be more guarding Mala’nan, if we were getting close.”
Illivere produced a suave smirk, pretending to be offended by her lack of confidence. “Have a little faith in your old friend; if I can come back from the dead, just imagine what other incredible feats I’m capable of.” As she took a breath in preparation to respond, he pressed a finger to his wide mouth and gestured down the hallway adjacent to them where the sound of voices and clinking metal had begun to grow. He bade them to press themselves up against the wall while he poked his head around the corner to inspect how large this incoming patrol was. Mirana watched the black curls at the nape of his neck kink as he had to maneuver himself underneath the arm of a statue to properly assess the ranking and weapon class of each opponent. She imagined his shrewd eyes narrowing as he cocked his head, as perceptive as the ravens he used to sing about.
Finally, he ducked back around the corner to debrief the group with an abnormally serious expression. He opened his mouth as if to speak before shutting it and shaking his head as if utterly overwhelmed.
“Well, spit it out,” Cullen barked impatiently.
“Frankly, there’s a lot. An awful lot. Too many for the four of us to handle, especially now that Mirana is essentially handicapped,” he joked weakly, gesturing to the knives at her side which, accumulatively, had seen about as much blood as a kitchenmaid’s butter knife.
Cullen raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure? It didn’t sound like that many—“
Mirana interrupted with a growl, “I can wield these just fine, thanks.”
Illivere rolled his eyes, hands anxiously tapping at his own weapons. “Yeah and if that fails I know we can rely on you to blow them straight through the roof, right? No, bad idea. If you want to get your daughter back, the word is inconspicuous here, okay? If they’re keeping her where I think they are, just continue as we were until you reach a massive door. Make sure not to go through that door—there’s a dragon, a lot of explosives, a real mess.” He waved his hand dismissively as Cullen and Mirana exchanged bemused glances. “There’s a little passage to the left of that door and some stairs. I think she’ll be in the room up there. Knowing the Viddasala, it’ll be heavily guarded with shit that disarms magic—that’s mainly a problem for you though, papa elf.” He threw a wink at Solas to which the mage grunted something under his breath that made Cullen snort with laughter.
“And what of you?” Mirana interjected, hasty to get a move on.
Illivere shrugged, a dashingly humorous glint in his eye. “This tasty chunk of meat will be tonight’s distraction.” Before she could object, he added, “Don’t worry, lethalan, they won’t hurt me. But I do recommend you hurry, because they definitely won’t object to hurting you.” He sent another look at the approaching Qunari before nudging them to move forward. “Go, I’ll keep them occupied for as long as I can.”
Mirana pressed him into a brief yet meaningful hug, breathing in his scent that, despite being altered by his new life in the Qun, still contained the tiniest hint of cedar and night air from many years sleeping out under the stars. “I hope one day you’ll be able to meet her,” she said as she pulled back, face glowing with a tender smile.
For a moment, his composure faltered and something nearly verging on regret flashed over his countenance, but like a bird over the sun, the shadow passed and he was grinning once more. “But of course, for that to happen, you’ll have to save her first.” He nudged her more firmly this time. “Go on, then!”
Solas was already charging down the corridor, having grown tired of this empty conversation. Not even stopping to see if Mirana and Cullen were following him, he followed Illivere’s directions and continued down the hall, the light from the fading day casting bright triangles on the floor. He glanced out a window at the sea of fighting below, the armies no bigger than mites to the eyes of a god. How many would never see the sun again? How many would die for his daughter? His long fingers trailed along the stone wall, felt the weaker bits come loose and crumple to dust underneath his touch, then wiped the residue on his robes and forced his attention forwards. By the time he reached the doors that stretched to at least three times his height, Mirana and Cullen were at his heels.
“So, if your friend was telling the truth, there’s a dragon behind this door?” Cullen inquired, his scrutiny obvious. “That would be an important thing to check on, once this business is taken care of.”
“Well if you wish to face it while we rescue the Inquisitor’s daughter, please, by all means.” Solas remarked snidely before moving around him to search for the passageway. Mirana raised an eyebrow at him, to which he only offered a sad smile. Who was he to put any claim to her parentage? The words “my daughter” would feel strange coming out of his mouth, like a candy so sweet on the tongue that it was sickening.
He watched her expression suddenly wrench with agony as another tremor of the Anchor’s power coursed through her. The orange glow of the sunset was brightened with an abrupt green as Mirana cried out in pain. She had to lean against the door to keep from collapsing to her knees, which shook beneath her so badly that Cullen pressed a hand to her back in support. A cold sweat had broken out on her face as she fought to keep from screaming, another spasm causing her spine to arch before she slammed her forehead to the wood, the bang resounding as if it were a knock. Cullen yanked her back into him, hugging her writhing body while the back of her head thrashed against his chest. He felt utterly powerless, hand clasped to his leader’s mouth, muffled shrieks of pain escaping while the light burned ever brighter in front of them, threatening to off them both and there was not a single thing he could do.
Solas, fortunately, was able to pause the effects—at least for a little while. To witness the woman he had loved for so long be reduced to this, as a result of him no less, was heart-breaking. He pressed his hand to hers and urged the magic ripping away at her bones to quiet and the tears bloodying her skin to sew shut. Almost immediately, the glow dimmed and she regained control over her body, the hurt dissipating from her eyes. Cullen cautiously removed his hand from her mouth, sensing her improvement but still feeling her lack in stability as she leaned against him. She was watching Solas intently, lungs heaving as he dropped her hand and backed away. A realization dawned upon her then, as she drank in the grim expression haunting his thin face.
“You knew all along that it would kill me, didn’t you?”
Solas couldn’t help but smile bitterly; his Inquisitor was oftentimes too intelligent for her own good, often asking questions when ignorance would be much easier. He knew better than to lie or avoid an answer, so he settled for a curt truth. “Yes.”
Her eyes closed. Cullen felt her shudder and instinctively tightened his hold. Without speaking, her response was clear; it hung in the air like fog.
And you still left.
The three stood there, staring at each other while the invisible, silent haze gathered around them. Mirana let it build until it began to suffocate her, chest aching as she gentled pushed herself out of Cullen’s grasp. She could feel his gaze on the back of her head, likely shocked and scared for her; he was probably reaching out lest her screaming nerves fire out of control once more. But strangely, she felt more in control than she had for a long time. She wiped away the wetness under her nose and shoved past Solas with stinging eyes.
“I can save you, Mirana.” Solas spoke with his head hung, not turning around to address her because it was the coward’s way. “If you allow me.”
She didn’t stop moving, her voice fading up the stairwell as she ascended into Illivere’s aforementioned passageway. “Save your daughter first.”
Cullen watched her disappear before turning to Solas with clenched fist and jaw. He knew he didn’t threaten the mage, even as he towered above him with a hand ghosting over the hilt of his sword. If he were still on lyrium, he would be able to dispel whatever magic the elf hurled at him and drive his steel through him as he had yearned to for longer than he felt comfortable admitting. He thought that he would elicit a slightly amused look of challenge, but instead he was met with an expression more pained than he had believed the stony-faced elf capable. This caused him to falter momentarily in confusion, but his voice remained level and gravelly with menace. “You will save her life, and then you will choose: stay with Mirana and your daughter or leave and never allow her to find you again.”
“Your feelings for her embolden you, Commander.”
“You don’t frighten me.”
Solas lips cracked into a wry smile. “That’s because I am not trying to.”
Their attention was suddenly drawn from one another to the sound of Mirana’s scream as it drifted down the stairs she had ascended. Cullen was the first to start running, taking the steps two at a time with his blade bared in preparation. He reached the top of the spiral and burst through a door into a massive room that was completely empty save for a large stone pedestal, upon which sat a tiny figure drooping with chains.
His sword clattered to the ground.
The sound of his footsteps bounced back and forth between the wide stone pillars that lined the walkway, the echo mingling eerily with Mirana’s crying and the painful wheezing of Mala’nan. She had fallen to her knees in front of the pedestal and, unable to bear the sight of her daughter’s torture any longer, had hidden her face in her hands. Cullen nearly collapsed at her side when he caught a glimpse of the blue glowing within the heavy shackles bounding the child’s wrists, feet, and neck. Lyrium-imbued, he knew too well, to stifle any magic and cause the unfortunate mage terrible pain. Made for victims much older and of an entirely different, larger race, they had been tightened accordingly and the bloody result was seen dripping down the chains. A hideous mask, like a toy version of those they used to cover the faces of their own saarebas, obscured her face. As gingerly as he could, he removed the dreadful thing and flung it to the side, tearful eyes scanning her.
Her tiny eyelids didn’t flutter, didn’t greet him with the lovely green irises of her mother. She only shuddered, too fatigued to even open her eyes. He wiped away the blood that had dried above her upper lip and on her ear lobes, fighting to keep his hands steady because how could they do this? How could they take a little girl who loved to put flowers in her hair and put her in chains? They probably felt like hot embers to her skin; lyrium in its solid state was excruciating to mages as it severed their connection to the Fade and their supply of magical energy, which was as much a part of them as their blood. She probably was crying when they put them on; the ghost of her sobs seemed to resonate in the very stone of the room, absorbed like the smell of smoke to wood.
“Mirana,” he choked out, “we have to get these off of her.” He started tugging at the shackle on her neck, trying to pry it apart with raw strength alone. She whimpered at his touch and he quickly backed off, terrified of hurting her even more. His eyes scanned the manacles on her hands and feet for any sort of hole that might indicate the existence of a key. While he searched, Mirana remained quiet, her stare as blank as glass. Finally, he grasped her by her arms and tried to pull her to her feet, but she remained firmly rooted. “Mirana, please, we have to try to save her,” he begged, dreading that she was already too far lost in the recesses of her mind.
“They’re killing her,” she croaked finally, lips dry as sandpaper.
“We won’t let them.” He gathered her face in his hands, desperate for her to look at him, but her focus remained in some far-off place.
“They’re killing her,” she repeated. “She will never smile again.”
He dropped to his knees in front of her, pressed his forehead to hers as he gathered her in his arms. “Look at me, Mirana,” he softly goaded before becoming frantic as he felt time slipping from their fingertips and shouting, “Look at me!” She obeyed. “We can save her, we won’t let them win, we won’t let them have her. We will take her home and her smile will be the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. But you have to come back to me, you have to be strong for just a little longer because she needs you right now.”
Her body shook as she sobbed silently, but she held his gaze. She would be strong, for her. She would rip out the heart of every Qunari in this damned fortress. She would bathe herself in blood so her daughter would not spend another moment sitting in a puddle of her own.
She allowed Cullen to help her to her feet and guide her to Mala’nan’s side. “Mamae is here, ma vhenan.” She pressed her lips to her little freckled nose, thinking of all the nights she had spent counting each tiny dot while she watched her sleep. Her hand brushed through the soft strands of her hair, felt the familiar shape of her head, breathed in her scent. Beneath the blood and iron, she was still there. Her soul clung stubbornly to her—Mirana could sense it within every strangled breath. “Ar lath ma,” she whispered before straightening up, her voice suddenly growing cold.
“Come meet your daughter, Solas.”
He had been standing silently beside the entranceway during this entire exchange, his feet unable to carry him the rest of the way. He could see the brown of his daughter’s hair from where he stood, along with the blue of her chains. Surely they had not gone this far to get to him? Surely they knew the consequences of bringing harm to the child of a god? It was in this horrific disbelief that he had stared, nearly as motionless as Mirana at the sight of Mala’nan. He could feel the lyrium eating away at her mana as it scarred her flesh, could sense her uncongealed power beginning to wane. But she was his daughter, and it would take much more than this to strip an ancient elf of her birthright.
Her eyes opened as he approached, looking from Solas to Cullen to Mirana in confusion muddled by her weariness. Her cheeks were kissed by her mother, her back rubbed by Cullen, but her attentions were directed towards her father. Having never seen him in the waking world, she stared at him as if trying to figure out why she recognized him. Her dimpled fingers wiggled as if trying to reach for him, legs kicking under their restraints because she wanted him to hold her. She knew him, from sweet, whispered words in the Fade, hands pressed to hers as they sat in grass, trees dappling his patient face with shadows.
All of a sudden she began to cry, looking around herself in fright. Solas felt tears starting to well in his own eyes, his arms stretching in her direction, feeling unexpectedly empty without her nestled within them. But when a deep voice boomed from behind them, he realized why she had grown scared.
“And so, the Wolf is caught. I’m glad to finally make your acquaintance.”
Mirana whirled around, her jaw dropping at the scene surrounding them. At least a hundred Qunari warriors flanked them on all sides and more continued to file out of the pillars as if they contained secret doorways on their backside. Her daggers were bared immediately as she assumed a fighting stance, the odds of her success meaningless in light of her sobbing daughter behind her. Having dropped his sword when he entered the room and ruined his shield in the cave-in, Cullen was virtually defenseless. It didn’t mean he wouldn’t put up the fight of his life though, stepping in front of Mirana’s uncovered side as he glared at an opposing spearman.
Solas slowly turned around to face a Qunari woman adorned in an elaborate headdress with a large book strapped to her shoulder. She met his gaze evenly, chin raising in a sign of challenge. “I am the Viddasala, high priestess of the Ariqun, leader of the Ben-Hassrath—“
“I know who you are,” Solas interrupted, growing impatient at the arrogance of this pretentious scheme.
“And I know who you are,” she retorted. “You didn’t think a being of such unbridled power could slip under the Qun’s nose undetected, did you? We could not simply allow you to continue threatening the safety of our way of life. You want to bring chaos into the world and have done so with the birth of your… abomination. I’m aware of your strength, elf, and I know what sort of power feeds the bas-saarebas,” she pointed to Mala’nan with her spear.
“She’s just a child,” Mirana yelled, “and Solas is just a mage. I realize you fear magic but this is—“
The Viddasala let out a bitter laugh. “Just a mage? Inquisitor, you have no idea who the elf in front of you is. He has lied to you for years, manipulated you into doing his bidding. Every move your Inquisition made, he had already calculated. He used you as a means to an end, and a despicable end, at that. Go on, tell her how Corypheus came into contact with the orb in the first place and why you wanted it back so badly. Tell her the real reason why you left the Inquisition,” she paused, coming to a halt as she glared at him.
The name hung in the air for far too long, Solas thought, and the silence that followed lasted even longer. He didn’t dare turn around to look at Mirana, watch her frown as she started piecing it all together, every sliver of his betrayal. He was planning on telling her the truth himself once Mala’nan was safe, but his truth had been stolen from his own lips where it had sat ever since the night he took her vallaslin and left her crying his name. He promised himself he would explain everything later, when the Viddasala’s head lay at his feet.
“I take it someone has been feeding you my secrets,” Solas stated coolly, hiding his sudden realization with a blink. “I don’t know what his name is under the Qun, but I’m sure you’ve appreciated a spy with such an in-depth knowledge of both your adversaries. Truthfully, I’m embarrassed I didn’t see it sooner.”
The Viddasala’s smile was humorless. “Ashaad,” she called out into the sea of Qunari soldiers that encroached upon them, “step forward and claim your credit.” There was no visible movement for a while, then the line of Qunari broke and a lone elf traipsed into view.
“No!” Mirana’s cry didn’t appear to startle him, rather his gaze remained glued to his feet. “Illy, how could you?” When his only response was silence, she grew more desperate. “You lied to me, you lied to us all! After all those years we spent together… were those all lies too? You were always looking for something more, but this? Why?” She felt as if the world was coming down around her, landing in puddles around her shoes and splashing up at her shins, leaving her clothes heavy with saturation.
“Go on, tell her.” He looked to the Viddasala for permission before addressing Mirana in a tone far too serious for the elf she had thought she’d known.
“The Qunari gave me a purpose after our clan was wiped out. They found me after I’d chickened out of ending my pathetic excuse of a life, not Ulhain’s clan. I had a new home, guaranteed meals, and a cause I could fight for. I converted as soon as I could. I became Ashaad. They put me to work finding Dalish recruits, which was when I stumbled upon Ulhain and Fen’harel’s agents. I learned of their plot, met their leader, and returned back to the Ben-Hassrath where I would continue to report on their activities under the guise of a double-agent. It all worked out pretty well; I gained their sympathy because of what happened to our clan, then I gained their trust because of my relationship with you.
“Of course, the plans of mass destruction couldn’t have been allowed to go on so plans were made to capture the Dread Wolf and extinguish the flame of his little rebellion. There aren’t that many ways to fool the god of trickery, but we knew he shared a daughter with the Inquisitor and—with the knowledge I gained from him about his network of eluvians—she was able to be taken without a hitch.
“Both you and Solas would undoubtedly come to her rescue, though I guess it was dumb luck that it would be at the same time and place. The Qun wanted you both dead, and it ended up being a two birds, one stone kind of situation. They had plans for the Exalted Council too, but this would send a more powerful message, especially if brought on a war between the Qun and whatever fragmented mess the Inquisition would be without its leader.” He sent a glance at Cullen, who had grown so red in the face Illivere thought he could see the steam rising from under his coat. “Yes, I was the elf that sent your soldiers here. Congratulations on your excellent sleuthing abilities.”
Mirana’s shoulders slumped, her body feeling the effects of her mental anguish. “How could you?” she kept muttering. When she blinked, she swore she saw the short elf with the curly hair and brash demeanor she had grown up with. She could still hear him singing as they sat among the branches, his words lifting off into the sky as if kicked by each lazy swing of his leg. She thought that if he sang now, the music would sink to the ground and decay like leaves.
“Don’t take it personally, Inquisitor; he took quite a while to completely relinquish all loyalty to you during his re-education,” the Viddasala said, her tone less than reassuring.
Mirana and Illivere stared at each other, seeming to have a conversation beneath their searching eyes. When Mirana spoke finally, her voice was as hoarse as if she had been screaming at the top of her lungs. “If you want me dead, fine, kill me if you have to,” she ignored the look she received from Cullen and continued, “but please, if you ever cared for me at all, spare my daughter.”
“The Qun was never going to kill her, Mirana,” Illivere murmured.
“No,” Solas interjected angrily, blue eyes flashing from his betrayer to his dying daughter, “they mean to sever her connection to the Fade entirely, rendering her essentially a Tranquil. They fear her power and would rather see it eradicated than tamed, which was what I first suspected. They’ll keep her bound in these chains the rest of her life,” he spat, the energy within him itching to be released and burn everyone who stood before him to the ground.
Illivere saw Mirana looking from him to her daughter, features sharpening with each glance as if she were a blade set to stone. “You don’t know his true power Mirana, he could use her as a tool to destroy the—“ He was cut off as a dagger embedded itself within his eye, striking so hard that the gelatinous orb burst as the hilt collided with his eyebrow. The eye’s twin met Mirana’s gaze in bewilderment before the lens grew clouded and the spy crumpled to the floor, blood spilling over his face and creating a river of red in the grooves of the stone.
It all happened so fast. Mirana’s dagger had been a blur, her throwing arm retracting and releasing before Cullen had the chance to shout out a warning to her. A spear was hurtling towards her back, but Cullen saw it as if it were merely inching along in the air, gliding like a swooping bird of prey. It sought blood for retribution, but Maker, he would not let it have a single drop of hers. The choice was immediately clear to him, though his body had already stepped into its path before his mind could agree.
It didn’t hurt as he thought it would; rather than a harsh sting, the spearhead pierced his chest with a dull aching sensation that encompassed the entirety of his torso as it exited his back. He remembered feeling confused as Mirana began calling his name. Almost like a lover, he thought. Her hands were on his face and she was talking, but he couldn’t hear anything beyond the violent throbbing in his ears. He wondered for a moment if the point had shattered his heart, but saw her and foolishly knew that it still functioned. He fought to keep his eyes open for just one more fleeting second of her visage as she cried for him. He felt a firm tugging on his stomach and looked down to see her hands attempting to remove the spear. He placed one of his own on top of hers and shook his head weakly. He smiled as she said something, enjoying the final time he would see these expressions lighting her face like the glow from a fire.
Coldness crept up upon him as her hands suddenly disappeared. He couldn’t see anything from where he lay on the ground, blood forming a pool around his shivering body. Her screams made him try to get up, but he couldn’t move.
“Save her! Save Mala’nan!”
He couldn’t help. He couldn’t save her. Rather, he would bleed out at her daughter’s feet while she was dragged away. His last thought was an empty hope that someone who didn’t believe in the Maker would perhaps be given an exception in death so she wouldn’t have to wander the Fade all alone.
Solas watched as two brutish Qunari clamped their arms around Mirana and dragged her away from Cullen’s corpse while she screamed at him to save their daughter. Surrounded by enough opponents on his own, he was unable to provide aid when it was needed, his immediate attention diverted to repelling the spears as they soared towards him. With a flash of his eyes, each clattered to the ground midflight as if an invisible shield encompassed him. He was walking straight towards the Viddasala, unhindered by projectiles or warriors who charged him and were immediately flung backwards by some unseen force. Try as they might, the Dread Wolf was on the hunt, and he always caught his prey.
“Stand down, mage—we can still hurt your daughter,” she warned, though her muscles were bunched with the urge to flee.
Solas merely smirked, not even glancing over his shoulder as the Qunari that had rounded upon Mala’nan was turned to stone, large hand frozen in marble inches from her neck. “I am no ordinary mage, Viddasala, and you will not lay another finger upon her.”
She stared at the stone form of her soldier in horrified bewilderment. Her feet began to scrape backwards, though fear was reluctant to show itself readily on her face. “We’ll kill the Inquisitor, then!”
He rolled his eyes. “If you were going to kill her, you would have already done so. What I expect is that you’re using her as another trap, thinking I’ll be foolish enough to waltz into it and you can make another failed attempt at capturing me. You shouldn’t have provoked me; I don’t enjoy murder in the slightest.” Then he pictured his daughter laying behind him, her very essence being drawn out and leaving her clinging to every breath. He shrugged before adding, “Usually. I’m afraid this time you will be the exception.”
“Maraas kata! Ataash Qunari!” she yelled, trying to rally her troops as they began to take the hint that fighting was futile. Nothing has ended! Victory to the Qun!
“Ebasit kata,” Solas fired back, close enough now to see the white of her eyes, “itwa-ost.” It has ended. You have all fallen. He smiled wryly as she grew visibly shocked at his knowledge of Qunlat. He yearned to feed the terror within her until it burst and she was left as nothing but a mewling shell of her former self. Fire sprang up all around them, clinging to her army and spreading as her soldiers collided into one another, yowling in torment as the scent of burning flesh rose into the air in a thick, black smoke.
Her vision suddenly impaired, the Viddasala began calling out frantic orders to her troops, the spear in her hands trembling as she coughed. The black cloud enshrouding her made her blind and the screams of her kin were near-deafening. “Show yourself, coward! What sort of god attacks from the cover of darkness?”
She immediately regretted her words as a deep, guttural growl was emitted from behind her. She whirled around to meet three pairs of eyes, all glowing red with bloodlust as they neared her. Something warm dripped down her leg as the massive wolf stepped out from the smoke, its claws scraping against the stone as it circled her. She could see the muscles rippling under its dark pelt, could hear its breaths and its tongue running over its chops as it tasted her in the air. There was nowhere to run, there was nothing to do but fight for her life. She let out a roar and stormed the Dread Wolf, who bared his fangs as if he were smiling at her worthless bravado.
He snapped her weapon easily with his jaw, splinters flying everywhere as he pounced on her. Claws dug into the flesh of her shoulders as he growled into her face, lips curling back to reveal an impressive set of teeth. He savored her dread, lapped it up as if that was how he had achieved the name. Then, he tore her to bits, beginning at the non-vitals to prolong her agony. An ear, a horn, then her arms and legs. She was still screaming by the time he ripped open her stomach and ate through her intestines. When he finally came for her throat, some of it still hung from his snout, the blood dripping unceremoniously onto her face as he let out a victorious howl.
He nudged the lifeless shreds of meat and bone with his paw, satisfied when her frozen look of fear was redirected as her head lolled to the side. He dismounted her and stood, watching the flames around him consume the remainder of the group that had tortured his child. He licked the blood from his nose before prowling regally to the pedestal in the center of the room, the fire parting in front of him as if it too was apprehensive of crossing paths with Fen’harel.
By the time he reached Mala’nan, he had morphed back into his human form. He wiped the remaining blood from the corner of his mouth with his sleeve before leaning over her tiny form. He had never been this close to her in the waking world, and for a moment he was scared to touch her as if she might break under his fingertips. His hands slowly lowered themselves around her face, cupping her head in his hands as he examined her for the first time. Behind her eyelids, her eyeballs darted around as if she were in the middle of a dream, but he knew this couldn’t be true because of her shackles. Perhaps, he thought sadly, she was trying to see but was so tired her eyes couldn’t open. His hands moved to the restraint around her neck, the lyrium stinging his skin as he tugged. With little effort, her neck was free and the torture device was blue dust at her feet. He repeated this with her wrists and ankles, the loud popping of the device breaking failing to rouse her from her troubled snooze. Her skin was red and raw where her confinements had been, puckering up as if she were suffering from burns.
“Mir enansal,” he murmured, glowing hands gliding over her wounds as he sat down on the pedestal and pulled her into his lap. “Mir athim.” He wasn’t sure if it was his voice or the sudden lifting of her pain, but her eyelashes fluttered and she looked up at him. She watched him as he stroked her cheek, the color beginning to spread beneath his fingertips as her body regained its strength. Tiny hands reached up and patted his face as if checking to see if he was real, this bald man who felt so familiar. He was memorizing every aspect of her, from the dimples in her knuckles to the three teeth poking out of her shiny, pink gums.
He let a small flower grow in his hand, watching her as she observed it sprout with a fascinated mien. She waited until its purple petals had finished spreading up to the sky before she clumsily took it into her palm and waved it in front of her face, giggling with a newfound mirth. She proceeded to place the flower on top of her head then offer him the sweetest of smiles. “You are so beautiful,” he whispered, a foreign warmth spreading throughout his chest as he gently plucked the flower from atop her hair and tucked it behind her ear. She tilted her head as he spoke, not comprehending his words but knowing their meaning nonetheless. “You have no idea how long I have loved you, da’len.” She smiled and tried to respond, hands clapping together in their excitement. “Yes, babadah indeed.” He chuckled and pressed a kiss to her forehead, wondering how he could have played a part in creating something so lovely.
The two sat there for a while, completely engrossed with each other. Solas could sense her energy beginning to return, a subtle warmth that changed the hue of her skin from gray to pale pink. He slowly rose to his feet, holding her against as if he were afraid she might fall out of his grasp. It was almost as if she wasn’t real, this wonderful little elf with his nose and eyes nearly as big as her heart. Eyes that peered over her father’s shoulder to see Cullen laying, unmoving, on his side.
He glanced down at her when she made a strange cooing noise, then watched her take the flower from behind her ear and drop it to the ground. “Did it tickle your ear, vhenan?” He bent down to pick it up from where it had landed, a couple inches from the corpse’s face. She accepted the flower when it was offered to her again, but only repeated her previous action, this time with the addition of a string of babbles that appeared to be directed to Cullen. She must think he’s asleep, Solas realized, a pang of jealousy causing him to grit his teeth. “Come now, da’len, I must get you someplace safe so I can return for your mother.” He started walking away from the pedestal and the dead commander only to be stopped when she erupted in a wail. She was reaching out over his shoulder and slamming her hands against his back, seeming to say: No, we wait for him! Of course, she wouldn’t understand that they would be waiting an eternity.
“Ma vhenan, please—” He was met with a series of nonsenses in a tone that was so similar to how Mirana argued that he nearly laughed. She must have learned through observation of the Inquisitor at her meetings. “Why do I have the feeling that you’re quite the handful? Your mother is an impressive woman.” How could she not be, raising a child on her own? His eyes flashed from Mala’nan to Cullen, his shoulders drooping before they stiffened with resolve. Anyone who would offer their life for another was clearly devoted to them and, as much as it pained him, his daughter had grown attached to the dead man. If he were to be replaced, how would he not be the ideal substitute? Despite all he had sacrificed, the happiness of Mirana and their daughter was still of the utmost importance to him, and if this was his best shot at that, so be it.
He moved back towards the body, Mala’nan growing restless in his arms as they neared. He knelt down in front of Cullen, setting the child down behind him so she wouldn’t bear witness to his sightless brown gaze and bluing lips. Sighing, he took the spear into his hands and, with a sharp jerk, yanked it out of his front. Mala’nan jumped as it clattered to the ground a few feet from her, beginning to curiously crawl towards it before a firm word from Solas stopped her. He put his hand to the hole in his chest and sent his energy forward, listened as the flesh stitched itself, rejuvenated cells multiplying and repairing their host. Soon, a circle of new, pink skin had replaced the bloody wound, but the Commander still did not breathe.
Mala’nan, sensing her father’s distraction, had moved over to the flower she had bestowed to Cullen, confused as to why it remained on the ground. It appeared as if he were looking right at it—why did he not pick it up and tickle her nose with it like he was supposed to? Frustrated, she picked it up herself and brought its petals down over his eyes and nose, figuring he was asleep and she would have to wake him. She tried this for a minute or so, uttering “words” of encouragement, but to no avail. She combed her mind for more ideas on how to wake him up. She tried talking directly into his ear, then screaming directly into his ear, and when that didn’t work she resorted to poking him relentlessly. When nothing changed, she began to cry and flail her arms about, starting to wonder if there were such a thing as a permanent nap. Then, with a single, gravelly word, she was immediately brought out of her fit.
She had been screaming for her, screaming so loudly she believed her lungs might collapse from the effort. Her feet scrambled for traction against the stone flooring before they were kicked out from under her and she was dragged farther and farther away. She continued to struggle and squirm, ignoring the bruises forming on her arms as she tried to head-butt one of her qunari captors. She collided with something too soft for a skull—perhaps a shoulder? —then a large hand clapped itself against her ear so roughly she thought she had gone deaf. A dull ringing, then another skull-splitting jolt. The torchlight dimmed as her screams faded into silence.
When her eyelids flickered open, she was alone. She blinked, trying to lift the veil that blurred her vision. Her hands felt heavy. She looked down at the manacles that constrained them in confusion, the chains rattling as she brought them closer to her face. They appeared to be different from the lyrium-infused chains they had Mala’nan in. Just boring chains for the boring elf, huh? she thought in bitter amusement. Then she saw the red on her hands and remembered. Illivere. She felt the knife flying out of her hand, almost of its own volition, heard the sickening thud of the blade hitting its target with a precision she didn’t know she possessed. She could see his remaining eye staring at her with a strange mixture of shock and acceptance before it rolled back and she could see only white. With one swift move, she had cut the last tie binding her to her clan, leaving nothing to claim from her heritage but the blood on her hands.
But the blood wasn’t his, was it? The realization hit her like a stab to the chest, and she nearly fell on her face from where she sat on her knees.
She had watched him die, clutched his bleeding form as he sagged against her, cried and begged for him to get up because what would Mala’nan do without him? At this point, she had begun to wonder how she herself would manage without his gentle smile as he regarded her across the war table when he thought she wasn’t looking, or his scarcely-concealed huff of exasperation whenever an overzealous scout would interrupt one of their conversations on the ramparts. She knew he would have claimed it to be duty that caused him to leap in front of that spear, but the look in his eyes had told her otherwise. Despite how hard she had tried to push him away, his affections stubbornly clung to her until his heart finally shuddered to a stop.
Had she been blinded by heartache all this time? A man who had loved her truly, unselfishly, and she had been too broken to allow him to help piece her back together. Now it was all ruined. He was dead, her daughter in chains while Solas battled impossible odds. She choked out a sob and, unable to wipe the blood from her hands, stared as the sticky redness dried, cutting jagged lines over the contours of her palm.
Head bowed, she continued to weep after she had given up fiddling with her manacles. It was no use; her fingers were trembling too hard and she could feel the Anchor preparing another assault from somewhere within her fist. Moving seemed to agitate it, so she tried to remain as still as she could, not even bothering to glance upwards as a figure entered the chamber. They seemed almost frantic as they ran to her, and when she finally looked up her woeful eyes met those of a very panicked Qunari warrior.
“Get up,” he barked as he unshackled her, to which she merely shrugged.
“What’s the rush? I was just starting to get comfortable.” A knee to the face. Was that blood dripping into her mouth? She didn’t have time to check as she was hauled roughly to her feet and a spearhead was pressed to her spine.
Out of fear of paralysis, she obliged, but the anxiety in his voice sparked a new hope within her. If he was relocating her, did that mean that reinforcements had arrived? Perhaps if they had lost her daughter as leverage, they would work harder to keep her within the Darvaraad. As long as Mala’nan was far away from this place, Mirana couldn’t care less what befell her. If her mark continued to act up, she figured she wouldn’t last the week anyway. It seemed to sense that she was thinking of it, because no sooner had they made it into the next hallway than a jolt of green energy burst from her hand. Unable to control herself, she let out a pained groan and would have stumbled to her knees had the qunari not jabbed her in the rib.
“Move!” he shouted again, prodding her until she picked up her pace.
Her vision blurry, she struggled to distinguish between shadow and being, tripping over nonexistent objects and habitually bumping into walls. She needed to stop and lay down, but he wouldn’t let her. Eventually, the agony grew so intense that mid-scream she vomited blood. “Please,” she begged, “I can’t go any further.” She gasped for air, her face pressed to the cool stone in an attempt to quell her nausea. Her fingers were twitching relentlessly now, the ripping sensation reaching up to her forearm now. Another blast was coming, and she feared this time it might be her last. The qunari muttered something in Qunlat before unceremoniously throwing her over his shoulder and continuing on his way.
She felt her vision darkening as unconsciousness tried to rescue her from the inevitable destruction of her form, but the Anchor wouldn’t allow that. Suddenly, the soothing black was lit up by an electric green and she felt as if her arm had been submerged in fire. The qunari let out a screech as he, too, was blown back by the power of her mark. The wind left her as she collided with the floor, but she forced herself to stand and began running in the opposite direction that he had been taking her. Undoubtedly, the amount of noise she had been making had attracted attention and she needed to be as far away as possible when the qunari’s backup arrived.
She ran for as long as she could before another wave hit her and she collapsed. Grasping her wrist, she watched as the energy seemed to throb within every cell, her very veins glowing a sickly green. She was so close to the exit, she could feel it. If she could just get to Solas…
Heavy footsteps sounded from somewhere in the darkness behind her. No, no, no. Not now. Not when she could see the light from the stars shining through the giant open door at the end of the hall. Looking around desperately, she crawled to hide behind a pile of crates and tried to ignore the unmistakable scent of gaatlok. If her Anchor went off in here, it was likely she and the rest of the castle would wind up in many tiny pieces across Thedas. She wrapped her arms around her legs, pressing her forehead into her knees to keep from screaming. She focused on counting her labored breaths, felt her breasts against her thighs with every rise of her chest, tried to subdue her mark into silence as the footsteps grew nearer. She held her breath when they stopped directly in front of her hiding place, preparing to make her final stand. But then, the voice of a ghost rang out as clear as day.
Her eyes sprang open. It couldn’t be. Slowly, she brought her head up to see Cullen standing before her, the moon framing his head in a pale, angelic light. He certainly looked a little worse for wear; dark circles under his eyes contrasted with the stark pallor of his face, and his lips were dry and faintly tinged with blue. Most of his armor had been removed, leaving him in what she assumed he wore under his armor, clothes similar to what he had been wearing the night he had proposed. In fact, he had such a mundane look about him that if Mirana had not known him, she would have thought him to be a mere farmer, so far from the true ranking he had been through hell to receive.
His eyes softened when he saw her, a grin cracking open his lips as he reached a hand towards her to help her up. She accepted him, the fingers of her good hand curling around his own as he lifted her to her feet. That he was unexpectedly warm was her second thought, her first being that he was merely a ghost, or a Spirit of Compassion come to relieve her in her final moments. But she could feel him, the softness of his flesh, the coolness of his breath on her face, the wetness of the blood on his shirt. She said nothing for a while, merely brushed her fingers over the hole in his shirt and the pink, unmarred skin underneath. He sighed at her touch, watching her examine him, moonlight glinting in her eyes like it had the night he had felt Mallie kick for the first time. Maker, he would die for her everyday if it meant she would look at him like this.
“Are you… real?”
At her question, he chuckled. “Yes, I’m real.”
Her eyebrows knitted in confusion as she met his gaze. “But I watched you die? You bled out in my arms…” The sadness within her voice made him want to draw her into him, assure her that he was real and that he was staying, for good this time. But instead he backed away from her touch, turning to face the gaping doorway.
“I was dead, I think, at least for a little bit. But Solas brought me back,” he added quietly, as if reluctant to bring him up in conversation.
Mirana shook her head in disbelief. “That’s impossible; even the most powerful necromancers can’t truly bring someone back to life, they can only animate their corpse. But you feel warm. Alive.” She reached a hand out as if she wanted to touch him once more, just to check, but faltered and her arm dropped back to her side. The thought crossed both of their minds: perhaps he is a god. He watched the wonder from her expression fade as she averted her gaze. “So he’s alive too, then? Did he save her?”
Cullen nodded. “All I remember is waking up and Mallie was right in front of me, inches from my face,” he mused, ghosting over his cheek with his fingers as if recreating the sensation of her touch, “and I thought that… that we had both died and this was some semblance of an afterlife. I thought that I had failed you. Failed her.” He paused, and when he spoke again his tone was darker. “But then I saw him. And the carnage.” He shuddered. “He simply said that he had done what was necessary and that I must do the same. I couldn’t tell if he was talking about the scene around us or something else, I could only stare. How such an unassuming man could wipe out an entire fleet of qunari soldiers I’ll never know. He picked up Mallie and watched me struggle to my feet before saying that he was taking her someplace safe. He told me to find you and then go to the eluvian beyond the gate, wherever that is. I had no desire to let him take her, but I was in no place to put up a fight, you must understand, Mirana,” he added after witnessing the indignance blossom bright red in her cheeks.
She let out a defeated sigh, aching shoulders slumping as the anger left her. “He won’t hurt her, of that I’m certain. I’m just afraid that he’s not going to want to let her go.”
“And if the claims made against him are true…”
“Then we’d better get moving.” She grabbed him by his arm and started to lead him in the direction she had been heading. Though she found the idea of Solas as the Dread Wolf ridiculous, he hadn’t done anything to deny Illivere’s story. Could he really have been plotting against the Inquisition—against her—this entire time? Was there any truth behind this tale of Fen’harel, and if there was, what would that make his daughter?
Almost as soon as they had started walking to the exit, the door behind them banged open and the sound of many low voices began reverberating against the barrels of gaatlok. Mirana cursed under her breath before tugging Cullen along onto the breezeway adjoining the room with a set of stairs leading to the next. She had no idea where it led, but she figured anywhere was better than a chamber full of explosive powder and a horde of enemy warriors. “Come on!” she urged him, feeling embarrassingly similar to the qunari that had dragged her down the halls as he struggling to keep up, breathing raggedly with a hand clasped to the hole in his shirt as if he suffered from phantom pains. She supposed being dead for a short period of time hadn’t done wonders for his stamina, but he understood the necessity of their haste and lumbered behind her as fast as he could.
By the time they had ascended the stairs, the sound of voices along with the clattering of heavy armor had become closer and Mirana could see the shadows of the approaching group growing in the torchlight behind them. They darted down a hallway to their right, skidding to a halt in front of a massive doorway. Options limited, they exchanged a glance before heaving the giant doors open just enough for them to slip inside before hustling to close it behind them.
The room was pitch black save for the faint, green glow from Mirana’s hand and the stars shining through a massive gate on the other side. She pressed a long ear against the wood while Cullen slumped to the ground, heart aching from the effort. She prayed that the qunari would just pass them by and continue en route, but she figured she wouldn’t be that lucky. The agglomeration of shadows stopped in front of the door, and though she couldn’t make out what they were saying, she could tell from their tones that they knew precisely where they were. She slowly backed away from the door, gesturing for Cullen to follow as she mouthed, “Can you fight?” He tried to nod as he pushed himself to his feet, but his knees gave out from beneath him and he fell.
“I’ll take that as a hard no,” she uttered under her breath as she scurried to help him up. She draped one of his arms around her shoulders, struggling under his weight as she practically dragged him away from the door. Try as he might to conceal it, she could feel him quivering against her like a leaf in a storm, his flesh feverishly warm against her own. Brow furrowed in a mixture of effort and concern, she carried him until her small body could no longer support him and they both collapsed behind a pile of overturned sacks.
“Mirana,” Cullen wheezed, “I think the spell is wearing off.”
“What?” she shook her head, frenzied at the thought of him dying again when they were so close to escaping. “No, that’s ridiculous. You’re just fatigued. We just need to rest here for a bit and then—”
“Mirana,” he hushed her with the quiet graveness of his tone. His hand that had been clutching at his stomach lifted to reveal a pool of dark red spreading across the white cotton.
“No… no! I won’t let you die twice. I-I’m going to heal you.” She patted at her coat and pants, around her belt and even around her neck. Barren, save for a small vial of lyrium. Fat lot of good that would do them now—they must’ve taken her health potions when they captured her.
“Mirana,” he rasped, repeating her name because he knew it was one of the last time he would get to enjoy its feeling on his tongue, “go to your daughter. She needs you. There’s nothing more you can do here; I was little more than a shell anyway, a reanimated corpse. An abomination.”
“But you’re alive! Your skin is warm,” she whispered, pressing a bloodied hand to his cheek before moving it to his chest, “your heart is beating. You’re alive, Cullen. You’re not an abomination; you can be saved.”
He merely shook his head. “Please,” he begged, voice choked with emotion, “it’s hard enough having to… having to lose you twice. Just go.”
Silence permeated the room. Dense breathing echoed throughout the chamber. She heard the qunari laugh from outside the door. “So you’re just going to give up? Y-you’re a coward! Just like him.” Just like him, getting her to grow attached and then leaving her, time and time again. She couldn’t meet his gaze as she rose to her feet and shuffled off towards the gate. She could feel his eyes burning holes in her back, but she steeled herself to carry onwards. If that was the last thing she said to him, the last words he heard in this existence, so be it. She had been kept far too long from her daughter and if he had found the will within himself to be apathetic, so could she.
But how? Certainly not after he had brought her tea when she had been too sickly to leave her chambers, or read Fereldan children’s tales to her daughter while she had pretended not to listen (for his most animated impressions only appeared when he believed her to be out of earshot). A strange feeling bubbled in her chest, threatening to melt away the chill that had pervaded her for so long.
“Cullen—” she began, whirling around to face him only to stop dead in her tracks as a sudden flash from her Anchor revealed the massive, sleeping form of a dragon. Her shout caused it to stir, a puff of smoke rising from its nostrils as it exhaled loudly. Its scaly stomach expanded shuddered, its tail nearly hitting her as it swung out. She didn’t dare breathe, merely cursing Illivere inwardly for this having been the one thing he had been truthful about. There was no way she’d be able to open the gate without waking it and, without any sort of weapon, she’d be little more than a midnight snack to the beast. No wonder the qunari hadn’t followed them in here; they were as good as dead. Unless…
She glanced down at her fist, biting back a whimper as she felt the power building. When her Anchor erupted—and she knew it would at any moment—the dragon would undoubtedly awaken, but if she were able to cause a distraction, Cullen could slip through the gate unnoticed. He could save her daughter, she knew he would take care of her in her absence, if only he weren’t bleeding out a hundred paces from their only way of escape. She hurried as quietly as she could back to his side, shaking his shoulders to rouse him from unconsciousness before pressing a finger to her lips. “Dragon,” she murmured.
Even in his deteriorating state, he managed to snort, “Maker’s breath! The bastard wasn’t joking.” He shook his head, squinting up at the light she was emitting. “Just open the gate and if it comes at you, blast the sodding thing into the next world.” His cough was wet, his words darkened by defeat. He was tempted to close his eyes again, to ease into death as if he were falling asleep, but something about the way she was grasping her arm told him to hang on. When he examined her closer, he could see tears welling in her eyes. From the pain? They certainly wouldn’t be for him. Yet no matter what hurtful words she flung in his direction, he always found himself trying to protect her like a faithful mabari. “Mirana?”
“Solas was right,” she rasped through gritted teeth, “it’s going to kill me, I can feel it. There’s no way I’ll be able to make it to Mala’nan, and when this—when I—erupt, it’s going to wake the dragon.” She muffled a groan by burying her head in her shoulder. “You need to go to her, Cullen, you’re the only one I-I would trust to take care of her. Please.”
“I’m not leaving you here, you know that. Why would you even bother asking?” He grunted as he pushed himself to a sitting position, blurred vision causing the green of her eyes to blend in with the green of her mark as it pulsed and throbbed, threatening to end her existence with each spark.
He blinked, then suddenly there she was again. The same eyes that had glistened in fascination at the idea of her daughter were now hollow and devoid of all emotion save pained desperation. “If you don’t go, she won’t have anyone.”
“She has Solas.”
Mirana shook her head, practically sobbing as she hunched over in agony. “H-he’s not the man I thought I knew. She needs to be safe. Please, Cullen. Please!” She couldn’t help the wail that escaped her cracked lips, but he immediately pulled her to him to cut her off. Face pressed into his neck, she could feel her hot tears on his skin while the energy from her hand vibrated against his chest.
“Don’t make me do this,” he pleaded into her hair, but he knew he had no choice. He was merely stalling to prolong these precious last few moments with the only woman that had ever truly held his heart in her hands. He wasn’t sure whether his lightheadedness was due to blood loss or anxiety, but when he tried to move he merely flopped back to the ground. Why couldn’t these elves just let him die? He pressed a hand to his wound and felt it immediately grow wet. Mirana felt his hesitation and, without a sound, hastily ripped off her leather coat and thrust it towards his wound. Cullen heard a soft clink at his feet as he gingerly pressed the garb against his stomach and looked down to see a potion bottle roll into his boot. Thinking it first to be a health potion, he picked it up and brought the vial close to his face, eyes squinting as he examined its contents. He recognized it as soon as the light from Mirana’s hand hit it, could feel its power thrumming against the veins in his fingers as if threatening to redirect the very flow of his blood. Lyrium.
Instinct caused him to raise his arm up and nearly throw it to the ground; Maker knew one sip of this stuff would abruptly erase any evidence of his years of progression past his addiction. A realization pierced him, as cold and dreadful as the spear had felt through his stomach, and he slowly brought the bottle back to eyelevel.
“What are you doing?” Mirana gasped, lifting her forehead up from the floor to glare at him, “That’s lyrium, it won’t help you. Get to Solas; he can heal you.” As another wave of pain shot down her arm, a bright green flare flew up and into one of the crates beside them, causing splintered wood to rain upon them. Out of the corner of his eye, Cullen swore he saw the dragon’s ear twitch.
After the debris had finished falling, the only sound that remained was Mirana’s labored breathing. He stood watching her, gaze flashing manically from her to the lyrium. Green to blue. Blue to green. Green threatening to kill her, blue threatening to kill him. But the blue could save her, save her and her daughter. She needed her daughter, and for some reason he would never be able to explain in words, he needed her. He needed her.
“Why are you still standing there?” She finally screamed when she opened her eyes and saw him. “Go!” Now, between her sobs, she was purely begging. She shook her head to try and stifle its spinning. When it finally stopped and she saw him uncork the lyrium potion, she understood. “Cullen,” she whispered in horror, “don’t do this. It won’t help. Think of how much it hurt you.”
“If I can do it once, I can do it again,” he assured her, though his voice was darkened by uncertainty. He produced a weak smile, mainly for her benefit, before downing the bottle in a few strangled gulps.
She didn’t notice a change in him immediately, but as he knelt down in front of her she noticed a sort of blue tint in his eyes, as if the veins had changed color. He no longer held her coat to his stomach, but blood dripped from one of his hands where he had crushed the vial. He plucked the shards of glass from his palm without releasing her from the intensity in his gaze. She would have been mesmerized if not for the skin on her forearm being ripped open and pockets of light burning jagged stripes through her bone. She screamed, her echo ricocheting throughout the cavernous cellar as cracks began forming up her arm and shoulder. She could feel herself coming undone, her very atoms splitting apart in a billion tiny nuclear explosions.
Then suddenly, the light emanating from her began to wane, the gaps in her flesh ceased to grow, and the pull of the Fade on her conscious became merely a tug. She was breathing hard, seated opposite of Cullen, his right hand grasping her left so hard it was shaking. The dragon was stirring far off in its corner, but he merely grasped the back of her head with his other hand and pressed her forehead to his, urging her to focus on him. Her watery eyes were petrified, yet beneath their depths he could sense a spark of hope alighting.
“Cullen,” she murmured, a mixture of fascination and joy brightening her tone as she regarded him.
His newly-returned powers could only dampen the effects of the magic in her arm, and from the increasing discomfort in his fingers, they would lose their potency soon. “Tell me as soon as you think you’re able, then I’m going to let go of you and we’re going to run to the gate. If we can crank those levers simultaneously, I think we have a chance.”
Mirana merely nodded in response, willing herself to concentrate on the feel of him against her in order to subdue her quaking muscles. She could do this, now, she could save Mala’nan. “I’m ready,” she finally said, though she was unprepared for the sudden loss of his hand from hers. Almost immediately, the pain started to return, but she was already on her feet and running towards the giant gate.
The moonlight cast shadows on the massive form of the dragon, the darkness rippling as the outline of its raised head darkened the floor by their feet. When they reached the levers, they heard it stand up, the floor quaking as it let out a puff of steam. “Now!” Cullen shouted, then yanked his lever, Mirana following suit. The iron gate let out a groan before beginning to rattle upwards, its rusted exterior scraping unceremoniously against the stone. At the noise, the dragon’s great, purple eyes rounded upon them and it began to charge, a blast of fire heating up behind its tongue. Mirana saw this and, her body seemingly acting without permission from her mind, ran at Cullen and tackled him to the ground as the fireball collided with the wall precisely where he had been standing. Distracted by the new route of escape, the beast chose instead to bypass its original prey in favor of freedom, bounding for the gateway.
Breathless and slightly singed, Mirana looked from Cullen to the shrinking form of the dragon as it soared over the peaks of the castle. He was staring up at her, nearly as shocked at her actions as he was at the entire situation. Inches from her face, he yearned to pull her into a kiss. Her eyes held the same question his did: is this right? She was sitting on top of his wound, but he could hardly notice the pain, not while he was close enough to feel her heartbeat against his chest and her breath on his face. She lingered in this position, eyes roaming his face as if she thought the answer to the question she had been asking herself for two years might be found there.
Then her look steeled, her warmth leaving him as she pushed herself away. “I’m sorry. We don’t have time to get distracted, not until Mala’nan is safe.”
“Of course,” he replied, a slightly crack in his voice causing him to repeat himself more firmly. “Of course.”
As they stood up, Mirana felt a sharp twinge in her arm as the mark started to flare up again. Silently, Cullen placed his hand in hers. She met his gaze with a sheepish smile and a shrug. Try as she might to remain impartial to his advances, this was inevitable. And, loath as she was to admit it, the feel of another’s fingers intertwined with her own was something she was very partial to.