The door slammed against the wall as Cassandra Pentaghast stormed into the outbuilding. Solas was seated at his rough-hewn desk, a luxury presented to him when he had announced some knowledge of the fade and rifts between the real and surreal. He did not bother looking up from his reading as he placed a hand on a stack of parchment that fluttered from the sudden breeze. He had become accustomed to her frequent intrusions when she felt he had answers worth loudly demanding from him.
“We have found a survivor from the Conclave disaster.” She paused then, and Solas wondered if she had been told to pause for reaction after making this proclamation. The Seeker was not known for her tact, tending to charge right over you with questions, accusations, before the focus of her attention could take a breath, let alone react properly. She had rehearsed this moment. Solas suspected Josephine had prepped her for the interaction. This had all the earmarks of the Lady Ambassador’s touch.
“Yes?” he responded carefully, his mind wheeling through the reasons why he was being given this information. Was it one from the Circle who had survived? Or perhaps an elf? Some connection to him they had conspired at their great war table.
“It is a woman. When the breach opened, this woman fell out of it. She is… she is marked somehow. We think she perhaps might have been the cause of the explosion. Adan is with her now.” Cassandra vacillated between angrily pacing and affecting her trademark insecure pose. It was an embarrassing tell the elf had considered pointing out to her: toes pointed inward, hands worrying one another at her waist, unsure shifting of weight from one foot to the other.
“The Alchemist?” Solas had met the man once or twice in passing. “Do they think this mark is a result of some alchemical reaction? Is it a burn of some kind? That explosion was not like any alchemy I have witnessed before.”
Cassandra’s lips parted slightly for a beat before she spoke, “We have no healer or surgeon in our ranks at present.”
“So this woman is injured?”
“She is unconscious.”
“And why am I being told?”
“Adan believes the mark is somehow connected… to the Breach.”
A slight lift of the eyebrows as the realization dawned, “You want my help.”
He followed Cassandra up the steps and into the Chantry hall, ignoring the suspicious looks cast in his direction from the Nightingale's camp. The spymaster happened upon him in his wooded camp six weeks prior, interrupting both his dinner and his quiet reverie with her small band of scouts. They were on a standard security sweep before the first pilgrims would make their journey to Haven, to the temple. Their expressions betrayed they were every bit as surprised to find him as he was to be found. He followed willingly, not wanting to cast any additional suspicion on himself. Being an apostate elf, alone in the woods outside what appeared to be a gathering of the influential was hardly an ideal situation, after all.
The Lady Seeker opened the door to the underbelly of the chapel and indicated for him to go in first. “Is she is a patient or a prisoner?” he asked, brows furrowing.
“Until we know how she survived, what she has learned, we thought it safer…”
“For whom? If she is truly unconscious, what are you so afraid of?”
Adan slinked toward the door as they entered, looking every bit a man glad to have his reprieve. The prisoner-patient lay on her side on a small cot, her arms and ankles shackled together. She wore a gilded crest on her dirty over-shirt, and the quality of her boots showed that she had was not without rank, nor influence. With her thick dark hair spilled over her face, she gave every appearance of a corpse save the ragged breaths he could hear from several feet away. “Who is she?” he asked Cassandra.
“Best we can tell, she is a relation of Bann Trevelyan, out of Ostwick. She attended the conclave. Beyond that, we know very little. We have not wished to alert the Trevelyans that she survived, for fear they might attempt to claim her.”
“And likely further fear that they would learn how you are treating one of their daughters,” Solas responded softly, kneeling beside the suspected Trevelyan. Her hands hung limply from their wooden braces. As he reached to turn over her hands the left twitched, clenched, vibrated as if in pain, emitting a brilliant green glow. Solas felt his heart flutter in his chest in time with the mark’s pulse.
“I think,” he fought to keep his voice even, his face impassive, “it would be best if I stayed here and observed. This is unlike any magic I have encountered in my travels.” Not a lie, just a careful avoidance of the most damaging facts. Cassandra said nothing in response, her expression unreadable in the flickering half-light.
The first time she stirred was in the dead of night. With a candle guttering beside him, Solas had allowed his notes to rest on his chest as he drifted slightly, head lolling against the wall as he hovered on the edge of sleep. Her first movement, the small scratch of fabric against rough sheets as her leg curled up into her body, roused him back to full consciousness immediately. He sat still in the dark, listening intently to see if she made another movement, head finally turning to focus on her. The girl known only as Possibly Trevelyan rolled then in one solid motion onto her back, her hair falling slowly away from her face to hang off the edge of the cot.
Adan’s administrations had clearly not been hygiene-focused. The patient-prisoner’s features were streaked with ash and a bit of blood. If there were some undiscovered injury, infection was likely to set in. Sending an alchemist to act as healer was a disgrace, the man was clearly more familiar with lobbed bottles than applied poultices. He would have to ask for proper cloth, sterile water.
She stirred again, and Solas stood. Her eyes didn’t open, there was no indication of waking. However, any movement was good. Perhaps whatever had put her in this state would prove less than permanent. Jingling in the room beyond the cell. A guard peered in. “I thought I heard something.”
“Just me,” Solas said quickly. “I need some materials if you would be so kind to send for them. A basin with water that has previously come to a boil. Some cloth, cotton or linen, clean. Three of the bottles from my hut, blue in color, on the shelf above the door. And a loaf of bread." The guard's brow wrinkled in a query before Solas sighed and continued. "I am hungry.”
With her face cleaned and the hair mostly arranged out of the way, she started to look more like the noble girl she was and less like the corpse he had worried she’d become. Possibly Trevelyan, face lightly windburned and bruised from her ordeal, was more than slightly lovely. One might even say beautiful, were one inclined to think such things. From her fingers, he had gathered that she was more skilled with a blade than much else. That ruled out magic as a natural inclination and therefore made how she had come out of a giant crack in the sky with powerful rift magic intact an even greater mystery.
Perhaps some day she would wake and tell him the tale.
Less than a day with his charge and he was already daydreaming about that possibility. Twice now he had slept beside her, hoping to find her spirit wandering in the fade, hoping to coax her back to reality. Possibly Trevelyan had stayed stubbornly locked away inside her own head, not wishing to join him even in dreams. Solas sank to his knees beside the cot again and took her left in between his own hands, slowly turning the palm upright so he could peer into the green glow.
“Who are you?” he whispered. “Who are you that you could possess such a gift and survive? To walk out of the breach relatively unscathed, and with this stowaway. What makes you so very special?”
She stirred again, tension in her arm pulling her hand slightly away from his. “Too many eyes,” she breathed in her sleep. Solas felt an electric chill run down his spine. He reached across, took her chin in his hand, and turned her face back toward him. With disappointment, he saw her eyes remained firmly closed.
“What had too many eyes?” he murmured. “What do you see?”
When morning came, Adan made his way back into the small basement that served as Haven’s prison. The prisoner still slept on her cot, considerably cleaner than yesterday, and now with a thin blanket covering her. The alchemist chuckled. It seems the elf had tucked her in. The elf in question was also asleep, back turned to him, on his small bedroll. The small round table held the remnants of a candle and some hand-drawn diagrams: several views of the hand, the crack sketched neatly down the middle; one light charcoal of her face, lips slightly parted.
The fit came on as dusk first settled, Possibly Trevelyan convulsing so violently on her bed that Adan called for a guard to help restrain her. As the night wore on the attacks came more frequently, straining both the cot and civility between the elf and the alchemist charged with her care.
“We need to administer a sleeping draught. She’ll kick herself to the floor at this rate.”
“We still have no idea why she is unconscious! A sleeping draught could kill her!”
“You do realize she’s dead no matter what we do? Maybe her not waking up is a blessing. Have you seen the people outside?”
Solas stared at him evenly in response.
“You haven’t? Sweet Andraste have you not left this room? Do you know something we don’t?”
Adan looked past him, at the stacks of paper, books with notes stuffed out the sides. “You haven’t found anything, have you?” the question took on an edge of suspicion. Solas knew he would have to deal with the implications of that accusation later.
It was another two hours before the attack. Loud shouts and the familiar scream of wood bludgeoned by metal. They were in the Chantry's open hall, attempting to claw their way into the dungeons below. Solas checked the cell door, feeling the relief flood when he found it securely locked. Adan’s suspicions might be their saving grace tonight if it prevented the horde from breaking in to tear the survivor to shreds. He had no doubts as to how they would deal with him: the suspicious apostate elf who had spent all this time and effort only to fail to provide an answer. The door above opened, the protests of the guard giving way to a startled cry of pain. Good to see they had posted such an unseasoned soldier on their overnight watch. Perhaps this had been the Lady Seeker’s plan all along, to dispose of both apostate and prisoner at the hands of an angry mob. Much cleaner that way. Less documentation and official seals. Just a hasty report about security measures, round up the suspects, clean up the mess left behind and move on with their lives. From outside the iron bars, he saw the first faces appear. Angry, rough, searching in the torchlight for the source of their frustrations.
“Give us the Divine’s murderer, elf, and we’ll give you no trouble.”
“I am afraid this patient is not mine to surrender,” he made a gesture of supplication with his hands. “Perhaps you ought to take it up with Seeker Pentaghast.”
“Seeker ain’t here. Far as we can tell, no one gives two shits what happens to the bitch.”
With a fluid motion, Solas brought his hands together in front of his chest, right above the left, fingers just touching the heel of the opposite hand. A ball of white-blue energy crackled in the space between. “It would seem your assessment of the situation is incorrect.” He released the energy, feeling it fly from his fingers on a swift path to the braggart’s chest. The force burst found its target, with enough velocity to knock the man clear off his feet. The others pushed backward in an arc. “Leave,” Solas commanded. “My next will be much more fatal.”
The last of the mob's scurrying retreat still echoed on the stair when the aforementioned Seeker learned of these events. Solas found himself in the unfortunate position of being backed into a wall by the formidable Pentaghast, her shining steel-clad fingers poking into his sternum. “You said you could unravel the meaning. You said you would have answers. Instead, I find out you attacked one of the people living in this village?”
“Allowing the local rabble to assault Lady,” he applied extra emphasis on the word, “Trevelyan would serve no purpose. You would be no closer to the answers you so desperately seek, and you would have a substantial Free Marcher family to answer to, as well. Do you really think that would be the wisest course of action?”
“Adan,” she continued vehemently as if he hadn’t spoken, “tells me you sit beside her night and day. That you never leave her side. That you gaze at her as if… as if….”
“As if she is an object of fascination?” he shook his head in disbelief. “She is. She physically walked through the fade and survived. A mortal woman. The fact that she still breathes is fascinating to me. And her mark… I’ve never seen its kind before. This is ancient magic. Fade magic. I believe she’s tied to the rifts, and if I can just devil out the how and why of what has caused her-”
The prisoner began to thrash once again then, incoherent shouts of surprise and dismay escaping her lips. Cassandra stood aside ineffectually as Solas deftly caught Possibly Trevelyan's flailing wrists.
“Does she… how long has she been doing that?”
“Most of the night. And I would prefer she not further injure herself if you would not mind securing her feet.”
Cassandra did as she asked, staring wide-eyed until the prisoner was still once again. Solas slumped into the chair beside the bed with a sigh.
“Did she say something about eyes?”
Solas nodded. “That phrase is the most frequent, yes. Mostly likely something she saw in the fade. Guardian spirits, perhaps. She is fortunate to have made it out alive.”
“Adan thinks she will wake soon. He said she has been responding to his care.”
Solas frowned, “Yes, she does grimace when he pokes at her. If that is what he chooses to interpret as promising, then I suppose I will defer to his expertise.”
“I want to question her the moment she’s awake.”
“I do not believe anyone would try to stop you, Seeker.”
Cassandra turned to leave and he called after her. “Seeker?” she turned slightly. “I understand what it is that you were accusing me of, but I assure you: I do not know this woman. I do not know how she has sustained this particular injury. And," he sighed, rubbing at the skin between his eyebrows with his fingertips, "and my interest in her is purely academic.”
Cassandra paused, hesitated a moment before clenching her jaw. “Trust that it stays that way.”
The temple above them lay in ruins, thick chunks of ruined masonry and melted metal covering the ground. A few smoldering fires still burned beneath the great green chasm in the sky as Solas stood beneath it, gazing up. The spirits he would normally seek out to assist in such a task had fled, driven from this place by the force of the explosion that ripped the heavens to shreds. Around him lay the twisted and burning forms of those who died first, poor souls who lived just long enough to feel the flesh seared from their bones.
The path opened into a forest with a long twisting stream running through it, frozen solid. Here and there the evidence of the rift showed itself; tiny green flames sprouting up from the earth, waiting to release agony on any who happened too close. He bent to run his hands over the water's frozen surface, marveling as he always did at the strange way the spirit-self processed feelings of cold, warmth, touch, pain.
Before him, as if he’d breathed her into existence, stood the prisoner. Solas rose back to his feet. “Lady Trevelyan?” he called, his voice echoey yet muted in this place. She turned to him, her expression distant and empty, eyes narrowing as if she could not see him clearly. Brilliant crystal blue eyes. Eyes like royal robes under a thin sheen of frost. Solas felt intense pressure on his chest, sharp against the bruise Cassandra had left.
“There are people waiting for you,” he whispered, noting the shiver that passed over her, his words felt more than heard.
He woke abruptly to the sound of boots on stone as the soldiers descended on them, pushing him roughly out of the chair where he’d slept, dragging the patient-prisoner to the center of the dungeon floor.
“Thank you, Solas,” Seeker Pentaghast stepped from the cell without looking at him. “Your services are no longer needed.”
Solas scrambled to his feet, gathering what he could from the table as he was led by the elbow out of the dungeon. He hazarded one last glance over his shoulder at where the prisoner knelt, her head down, wild cloud of hair covering her unearthly eyes.
Outside, the daylight burned as he pupils adjusted. The guard released him beside a wooden table, piled high with rusty armor and dull swords. "What is to become of me now?" he asked the freckled woman who grinned a gap-toothed smile at him as she shoved a pair of greaves across the rough surface.
"Now? Now you join the fight."
"The fight," as his fellow conscripted milita members referred to it, meant the scattered pockets of demons that emitted from smaller tears in the veil. Solas slid his pack onto his shoulders as he stared at the large rift, angry and swirling in the distance. "That... doesn't look good," stated a voice at his elbow.
"No," he agreed, securing his staff to the straps at his shoulder. "But I've seen worse."
The dwarf at his side chuckled. "I'll have to ask you about that later. If we survive this thing." He looked up at Solas skeptically. "You know how to fight?"
"I can handle myself. Is that thing just for decoration?" Varric laughed derisively in response, clutching the ornate weapon close as if afraid Solas would offend it. There was a story there, to be sure. Judging from the pained expression the dwarf tried to hide with another sarcastic remark, it was one he was unlikely to share.
The dwarf, Varric, thankfully proved to be as adept with his crossbow as he was with the witticisms. He made for pleasant enough company as they dispatched the creatures who slowly winded their way down the path, a relief considering his other traveling companions were terrified boys ill equipped for the fight ahead. They came across their first true tear in the veil shortly, Solas watching the young soldiers' faces contort in fascinated horror. This was no great demon army, and Solas suspected that the stragglers who found themselves on the outskirts of Haven were there more by happenstance than strategy. It almost seemed a pity to kill them. They were merely misplaced by the rending of time and space occurring all around them, after all.
“Do they just keep releasing those things?" Varric dispatched a lesser shade with a grimace. "Or is there a limit? Let’s hope it’s less than twenty demons per rift.”
Solas smiled slightly. “I believe we will see fewer as time goes on. They will seek out the entrance points to this world not stacked with the remnants of their compatriots.”
“Maybe we should mount one on a pike. Sort of an early warning sign.”
Solas opened his mouth to retort when Varric interrupted. “Oh great, here comes Miss Sunshine.”
He turned to see the Lady Seeker ascending the rampart behind them, the familiar form of Possibly Trevelyan behind her. She was unshackled, at least, which was a small comfort. The marked hand was at her side, the strange green pulse quickening as she drew closer to the rift. Behind him, the tear roared and rippled, releasing a strange pulling sensation he felt at the back of his neck. The hand responded in kind, the cold green energy crackling and causing its bearer to wince in pain. It was almost as if the mark wanted to be joined with the power of the rift, almost as if...
Without a second thought, he took her hand by the wrist and raised it toward the rift, feeling the energy arc between the wound in her palm and the wound in the air. She gasped slightly beside him, attempting to pull her arm away as he held it firmly in place. A flash of light, a great sucking in of air, and the tear burned from existence before them. He dropped her hand, his suspicions confirmed. Relief flooded through him as he turned to her. “I am….”
Possibly Trevelyan gazed up at him in surprise, yet the strange blue depths of her eyes held not a glimmer of recognition. She did not remember him. She did not remember the dream.
“... Solas,” he continued carefully, hoping the pause was not noticed. “If introductions are to be made.”
The ascent was slick, the dusting of fresh snow covering the hard-packed layers of ice beneath. Ahead of him, the Seeker continued to brief the prisoner. From what he had garnered she was Most Definitely Trevelyan: an Evelyn, in fact. He also learned they were to meet the Spymaster and Commander at the forward camp, where they could then press on to the Temple proper. The demons were scattered, and scant. There was something disrupting their attempts to gather, to work as a force instead of in pieces. Solas suspected the mark on Evelyn's hand of causing this disturbance. They could not discern between the material and immaterial worlds, their senses blurred by the pull of both the holes in the world they fell through and the strange, hypnotic pulse that resonated from Evelyn Trevelyan's palm. He watched her as she moved, the way she unconsciously flexed her fingers just before balling the hand into a fist as the shocks wracked through her. All things considered, she was weathering this remarkably well.
His ministrations had prevented the mark from spreading - as it was wont to do - up her arm and engulfing her entire body in its cold flame. The binding spells were strong and would hold, for a little while. If she was careful and learned to harness the ability, to release it in focused streams rather than discharged build up, she would survive much longer. With a sideways glance at the Seeker, Solas idly wondered if he would be permitted the time to work with her, to teach her to wield it like a proper key or weapon.
"You okay? Your face is much more doom and gloom than I'd prefer, walking into the unknown." The dwarf was again at his side, eyes more piercing than his lighthearted tone of voice would betray. They fell back a few steps, Cassandra forging ahead and the prisoner struggling to keep up. "Is this thing going to kill her when we do... well, whatever it is she needs to do?"
"Kill her? I do not believe so. But I think that each use she makes of that power will alter her. I only pray we are able to close the breach before it alters her irretrievably."
"And then what?" Varric narrowed his eyes. "Are you saying you know how to get that thing off her?"
In a manner of speaking, Solas thought before shaking his head in response to the dwarf's query. "I have no way of knowing if it's possible, but I think I will have to try."
Varric closed his mouth quickly, his jaw grinding slightly as he turned his eyes from Solas to the retreating figure of Trevelyan. "I hope you can figure it out. I think that kid's been through enough."
The top of the path yielded another small tear in the veil, a small assembly of lesser demons winding their way around the crackling light. Solas felt a pang of pity for these creatures, forced into this world blindly, unsure of their place or purpose, lashing out at the strange shapes that confronted and confused them. He watched as Evelyn hesitated for a moment, her palm sparking.
"You must seal it," he goaded her. "And quickly."
Her small white teeth worried her lower lip for a moment before she reached with her arm, the power from within her flesh arcing toward the tear. Her mouth tightened into a firm line, eyes unblinking as the power bucked her backward, the connection broken as the rift sealed.
Solas exhaled. "Well done."
She let out a laugh, loud and jarring in the cold silence as she curled her fingers under and opened them again. Varric quirked a brow, "Let's hope she's still amused when she sees the big one."
This lighthearted attitude was quashed once they met up with the gathered forces at the top of the hill. Chancellor Roderick was exactly the type of unpleasant bureaucrat these sorts of tumultuous events tended to bring out of the shadows, a small-minded man with beady eyes who seemed suspicious of every shadow. The Lady Trevelyan was undaunted by Roderick's tone and accusations and forged ahead, jaw clenched in anger and right hand resting on the hilt of her sword.
The mountain path provided a brief respite from the clanging of swords and shouts of fear. He ascended the ladder first, followed by the Seeker, the elf and dwarf bringing up the rear. Here, above the fray, all that could be heard was the howl of the wind and the whisper of long-faded fabrics, likely banners hanging in the abandoned outpost ahead. The sound of clanging steel and shouts of fighting did not reach them at this height, although the silence did not bode well for the scouting party that took this route earlier. At the back of his neck, separate from the thrum that sounded from Lady Trevelyan's palm, the familiar electric tickle of fade remnants scratched. There were spirits in the cavern, likely the selfsame ones that dispatched the Spymaster's men.
He rounded the corner and there they were, three sad little shades still lingering, routing through their paths without purpose, without vision. They were disposed of quickly, Solas mentally noting each's passing back into the nothing from this world they desperately clung to. It never became easier, to see what was once a peaceful and curious being twisted by their violent birth into this world of washed-out colors and dull sunlight. Some could be saved, but the process of such a rescue would likely not win him friends among his companions, and would further raise suspicion of his motives. All he could do was assist in their destruction and lift a silent prayer for their rest, no matter how his heart may break for each.
In the clearing beyond the stone building, the demons encountered proved far more formidable. He watched with dismay as Evelyn Trevelyan, the home for a great and misplaced power, found her sword lodged in one of the pride demons. She cried out for assistance. The spell left his fingers before he could fully process her request, freezing the shade instantly. As it crumbled, Lady Trevelyan stumbled backward slightly, the weight of the sword once again fully in her hand. She threw him an appreciative glance that made his ears feel warm. It was strange, interacting with her here as if they were strangers when he had shared such intimate knowledge of her in a shared dream. Perhaps there would be a time when he could probe her for detail, see if any lingering trace of him remained, if only subconsciously.
Solas placed his staff back against his spine, noting the penetrating stare of Varric.
"Where did you say you were from, exactly?"
"I didn't," Solas responded without returning the dwarf's gaze. "But if you must know I am from a small village just to the north."
"You have a clan or something in that village?"
"No," he said simply. "I have been without others for a long time."
"It's just that I have known some mages in my time, Chuckles. Good ones, too. None move quite like you."
"I suppose I shall have to take that as a compliment."
Cassandra made an impatient noise. "The temple is ahead, if you are quite done with your pleasantries."
Solas bowed slightly. "By all means." He made his way toward the outline of the walkway, feeling the weight of Varric's eyes on him.
"You know, you're tall for an elf," Varric called after him.
Cassandra snort-laughed, her smile more sneer, "Everyone is tall to you, Varric."
Solas chose to ignore the observation entirely. He hoped this Tethras would not prove to be a problem.
The fire crackled low, its flames fighting the encroaching snow, embers creating a thin sheen of steam around the perimeter. Solas stared into the flickering light, turning over the events of the day in his head slowly, trying to puzzle them out. They found the temple a smoking remnant of its former self, considerably more ashy and molten than remembered. Evelyn led the way down the path, first to leap down into the pit and confront the unknown. Seeing the self-assured way she approached the breach, the heady, giddy confidence with which she opened it with her palm, it all evoked feelings he thought were long buried. Admiration. Awe. Hope. Echoes and memories of one who lived before threatened to overwhelm and Solas fought to swallow them back down. His focus shifted to dispatching the demons that wandered through, grimacing slightly as each fell, thwarted just as they had first opportunity to experience this other world. Then the moment he feared came at last. She had raised her palm again and the sense of loss consumed him. All of his work, his carefully laid plans, torn asunder as she sealed up the tear in the world, leaving behind a scar that throbbed in time with his own heart.
The exertion of the closing, the weight of what they'd seen and the power she now possessed burned through Evelyn like a fever. Leliana's men had to carry her down the mountain for the second time, however this time they opted for a private cabin instead of a prison cell. Solas found this development curious. The rumors spread like wildfire through the camp: she had been rescued by Andraste herself. In times of strife, common people always turned to their legends to save them and believers in the Chant were no exception. There was almost an absurd beauty in the way they interpreted every raindrop on a newly budded tree a sign of the Maker's benevolence. Evelyn's survival was no longer suspicious, it was a sign. Her mark was not a tragic accident, it was a miracle. While she slept off the battle that had nearly killed her, the people wove a tale of dramatic heroism and salvation. She woke a few hours later to find herself the newly-anointed Herald of Andraste.
Solas folded his fingers in front of his face, his mouth set in a straight line. The events of this morning had elevated Lady Trevelyan from prisoner to Herald. He was curious to see what path this legend would take. The sun slipped behind the mountains, the sky gave way to stars. Just beyond the dull crackle of the fire, the sounds of an encampment preparing to bed down for the night could be heard. The surrounding buildings dimmed the lights, soft voices and quiet laughter, a hushed argument near the pub. The Chantry sister made her regular descent toward the soldier camps. She glanced behind her, not seeing Solas seated on the retaining wall. Her tryst with the soldier remained a secret. The Nightingale paced, backlit by the brazier. Her dreams remained uneasy, her spirit unable to rest.
All was peaceful, for now.
Solas was not ready to sleep. The dreams that plagued Leliana were of the past, things left unsaid, deeds left undone. Fire and blood and screams she could not silence. His own dreams, however, held the fear of a future, carved into the veil as if by a hot knife. In the distance, something terrible thrummed. He did not know how long it could be kept at bay. The doors of the Chantry creaked open and Evelyn Trevelyan, pale and striking in the firelight, exited. The slump of her shoulders, the caution of her step betrayed the weight of the world she now bore. The Inquisition would have many casualties, and Solas feared their Herald might be among them. “A word?” he called out as she passed the stone steps beneath him. “I could not help but notice they've kept you in there for hours. Are the affairs of Ferelden so pressing that the Inquisition demands your sleep as much as they do your sword?”
He slid down to the stony steps so that they could walk side-by-side. “I might not have told you, but your name is familiar to me. I have picked my way over the stony remnants of a Trevelyan fortress. Near Carusa Pass. Do you know the place? It was the site of a great battle during the Orlesian war. The hold stood for ninety days before it fell to invading forces. Do you know why?”
Solas turned to her, halting their progress. “The army played drums. Day and night. The soldiers never slept, never dreamed. That does something to a person, to their mind and their spirit.”
The clouds slipped away from the crescent moon. In the distance, the call of a bird, woken by some commotion. “I would not have them take your mind and spirit before the enemy is at our gates, Herald.”
She visibly blanched at the word, her eyes downcast, staring at his feet. He flexed his toes against the wrap on his foot. The rage demon had taken quite the swipe at his right ankle, dislodging both fabric and flesh. Both would need tending to.
"You're hurt," she said plainly. Then, with a shake of her head. "Don't call me 'Herald.' I'm not the herald of anything."
Solas responded with a slight bow of his head. “Of course, I’m sure you’d prefer something less… constricting. I am sorry for my insistence on formality. You must understand that an apostate cannot afford to be seen speaking out of turn, or showing any other sign of forgetting his place.” As if on cue, he noticed a man near the pub craning his neck to get a better look at who the newly-crowned Herald was talking to. An uneasy feeling settled in his stomach like a hot stone.
“The ankle will heal,” he said, a bit too quickly. The demon had taken him by surprise as he was watching her attempt to disrupt the breach. The mix of panic and fear he'd felt: panic she would not be able to seal it; fear that she would. He glanced at her and noticed she was staring at him in concern and he worried the words had come out too harsh. "Apologies," he said with great deference, "I think we are all tired."
They walked the path to the south of the inn, following the stones past where construction had begun on massive siege engines. Trebuchets and battering pendulums did little against demons of old, but Solas knew better than to suggest such things to either Seeker or Commander. Battle plans and war tables were not to be trusted to the likes of him, no matter what his experience. Still, his concerns remained. This was a war to be won carefully, through strategy and cunning; not brute force. It would be fascinating to see how their hurled rocks fared against endothermic fires; if their rams had any ability to splinter ice formed by magical means.
“The tides that battered you have shifted, Herald,” he began slowly, then paused. “It would serve you well to employ a more stoic face in response to that title. All eyes will be upon you. They will look to you for guidance, for leadership. I wonder how that strikes you.”
She frowned in confusion and his eyebrows raised. “You do know why they are addressing you as such, don’t you? We all heard the tale, you stepped from the rift in a beam of light, a woman in the visible behind you. Only now that they know what you can do, what power you possess, that light has become the golden gleaming rays of the Maker Himself, and that woman none other than his bride. You’re now a step below the second coming of Andraste. A glorious savior sent to seal the breach and heal the world.”
"We tend to burn our saviors, you know," she said wryly. "Let's hope this fervor passes before they start building pyres." Beside him, she began to worry at her sleeve. Solas frowned. She was still a fledgling, unsure on her feet and uncomfortable with the power she now wielded. It would take time, and effort, to turn this sparrow into a dragon.
“I fear that this Herald business is not a phase. These are people lost, clutching at whatever thread of purpose their Divine’s death might hold. To them, this event is unthinkable without a greater reason. They hope you will prove to be that reason. That they have chosen, for now at least, to accept that the voice of their lost Divine chooses to sound from you is a relief. When you closed the rift, you were transformed from suspect to savior in their eyes. I rather think they would have hanged you by now for murder had you not become the new center of their missing Maker’s grand plan. We should all be so lucky to be above suspicion."
"I won't let them do anything to you," she said with a sudden ferocity that startled him.
He recovered before his steps could falter, his stomach performing a lazy somersault. The sensation was… unexpected. “Thank you,” he managed.
"Solas, you seem to know a great deal about this...." she made a small ineffectual motion with her hand, "this entire breach situation. You were there. You saw what I did. Do you believe?" Evelyn's fingers returned to her sleeve, Solas noticing that they worried a loose thread that had split the seam, pulling a flap of fabric through.
“Are you asking me if I believe that you’re their Herald? Or if I believe in the Maker? In Andraste?” he asked carefully. “Or is the real question what you believe? Do you feel as if you are on a holy mission? It is highly possible that what either of us believes is irrelevant. What matters is what you do with this title, this position, this power.” The gaze between them held for a moment too long. “I fear,” he said thickly, “that I have taken enough of your time.” With his last word, he took her elbow in his hand, removing the scrap of cotton in one swift tear. “If something takes your focus, it is best to remove it, Herald,” the right amount of honey applied to the word to avoid insult. "You should get some rest."
“Solas? I had some questions.”
He carefully replaced the stopper in the bottle before him. “I am hardly surprised, Seeker. You do not initiate conversations. You interrogate or accuse…and sometimes you do both.” Brushing his hands together, he turned to face her. “Since today is interrogation day, shall I offer you a chair? Or do you prefer to stand, for maximum intimidation purposes?”
The sneer on her face didn’t reach her eyes. There was a sadness there as if suddenly she realized how others perceived her. Solas had often thought she knew, and simply didn’t care. It was difficult for a woman of privilege elevated to a position of power to remain soft as water.
“It is about the… the Herald.”
He felt his chest tighten. “Is it the mark? Has she… is there pain? I had not seen her for many days and only briefly this morning." The image came unbidden of their Lady Herald striding up the stone steps before the Chantry, her hair coming undone at the nape of her neck, cloak blown open by the wind.
Cassandra’s lips parted in surprise. “I… no. She is well. Although I am certain she appreciates your…” her brow furrowed, “concern. I was hoping you had a development, something you had uncovered.”
It was now Solas’ turn to frown. “No. Nothing has changed. Why do you ask? Have I worn out my welcome.”
“Oh,” eyebrows again raised. “I am sorry. I had assumed…. it was foolish of me. When I saw how you. I thought… never mind. This was my mistake.”
He watched her pace awkwardly before she made for the door. What reaso n could she possibly have for thinking that he had information he was not sharing? “May I ask why you thought perhaps I had learned something new?”
Cassandra laughed shortly, sharply. “You would think I am ridiculous if I told you.”
“And if I pressed? I want to ensure that anything I am doing, anything in my behavior is making you think I have anything to hide….” he held his hands open, an offer of supplication. Cassandra nodded, taking in a breath.
“You… you look at her differently.” Cassandra's eyes had widened in a way that almost looked expectant.
“Differently?" he asked uneasily. "Differently how, exactly?”
“Before, when I asked you to study her, to find out what her link was to the explosion… and even after, for a time, you stared at her as if she were a riddle you were trying to unravel. Like an object of fascination.”
Solas laughed, “I still find her fascinating, I assure you.”
“Yes, but. It is different, yes? There is something in the way you stare. As if you are seeing her for the first time, every time. It was a look of knowledge, a look of…” she trailed off before smiling sheepishly. “I told you, it is ridiculous. If you say it is nothing... I am sorry I disturbed you.”
She left the dwelling, closing the door behind her. Solas sat down in his chair, the concoction on the table momentarily forgotten. The conversation had left him confused and oddly disoriented. In his mind, he replayed the last few times he had encountered the Herald, wondering what the reason could be for Cassandra’s curiosity. The last time he had encountered her before this morning, he had observed her coming out of the blacksmith and found himself running to catch up to her. She was wearing her hair back, pulled into a low ponytail that swung when she walked. As she turned to see him, she tucked a loose strand behind her ear, using just her thumb and forefinger. He’d noticed the pink nail beds of her hands, fingernails perfectly round, ending in slight half-moon cuticles. They’d spoken of summer, both asking if they were likely to see it again. Before that, it must have been on the road in the Hinterlands, when she had returned with her hunting party and asked for his assistance in dealing with the mage encampment. Her new doublet was green and gold. It had complimented her eyes. She did have quite lovely eyes. His stomach then did a most uncomfortable forward somersault and he felt the creeping dread of thoughts best buried. Solas turned back to his desk and shoved his notes about irritatedly. Now was not the time for flights of fancy and flowery words about a woman's eyes.
“You don’t think I should go.”
Not a question, a statement. One she clearly demanded an answer to. Solas dropped his supply pack onto the wagon. “I did not hear you approach, Herald.”
She stared at him with lips slightly parted, an expression he had grown to associate with a hollow feeling deep in his abdomen. “Why does it matter what I think?” he asked quietly. “Your advisers have quite made up their minds.”
“I respect your opinion, as much as theirs.”
Solas sighed. “I think that it is a clear trap, one they are not even bothering to conceal. I do not know why Commander Cullen thinks it is such a good idea to send you right into the heart of danger.”
“It is a necessary means to an end. Without my response, we may never learn what Alexius is plotting.”
“Even if it means running the risk of losing our greatest asset against the Breach?”
She stared at him evenly. “Is that what I am? An asset?”
“Among other things, yes.” He watched the frown form, the deep crevasse between her eyebrows. “It would not do to lose you. Not now.” He idly wondered, not for the first time, what it would feel like to smooth away that furrow away with the pad of his thumb.
“Then come with me.” Her shoulders squared and he squashed his inappropriate thought down like an unpleasant mushroom.
“I had already planned to, Herald.”
In the months that followed, he would think back on that exchange; turning it over in his head like a puzzle box, trying to discern if there had been a way to prevent these events from unfolding. Perhaps if he had stayed behind, he could have found a way to stop Alexius. It would have still meant the Herald's death, but perhaps he could have saved the others….
The portal had opened the moment Dorian struck at the amulet, completely dissolving both the Tevinter and the Herald at once. The miasmic cloud was gone in an instant, leaving behind no trace of either. Alexius, in a rage at having his elaborate plan foiled, had struck Cassandra as she charged forward, her face a mask of shock at the disappearance of Evelyn Trevelyan. Chaos erupted in the throne room. Solas dispatched three approaching guards before being felled by the hilt of a blade from behind. The merciful blackness of those next few moments was a memory he clung to when things were unbearable. To remember that unconsciousness brought mercy, that sleep removed pain, these were secrets to hold dear.
He awoke hours later in a cell containing a cot, a table with a small lantern, and a large thrumming shard of red lyrium. For the first few weeks, he thought they planned on using the lyrium to develop him into some sort of weapon. After the first of the villagers were harvested, he no longer held that belief. They had not figured out his purpose, nor his identity, barely cared he was an elf or a mage. They simply saw him as another vessel to bring about their great uprising. A font of lyrium for harvesting until his body finally gave way.
Not that this stopped the questioning. Screws, burning pokers, needles of all varieties, threats of dismemberment, forcing him to watch as they dismembered others… all were eagerly employed. When he was unmoved by the cries of refugees as they were slowly rent apart, they began more creative means.
He recognized Minaeve’s voice before he could see her face. She was disemboweled. When the elf woman’s death failed to move him, they turned to Adan. Someone must have mentioned that he often spoke to the alchemist late into the night.
“Where is Trevelyan? Pavus?” He kept silent, the haunting memory of two lives snuffed out before him stilling his tongue. When they refused to let this particular line of inquiry rest, it gave rise to wonderings.
Could she still be alive?
Six months into his stay, the questions stopped. He was left alone in his cell, marking the hours by the footfalls on the great stone steps above. The descent at midday, the ascent at midnight. The siege outside had finally quieted, either because the Inquisition forces had given up hope or had simply extinguished their numbers. Dreaming into the Fade to answer this question was too dangerous. The Breach had spread until it left tendrils of itself everywhere around them. The veil was tissue thin, permeable, likely to dissolve entirely. He was both filled with dread and awe to imagine what that sight would be to finally behold here, in this nightmare world.
Scraping at the door, bread shoved through the bars. “Eat, elf.”
Solas turned on his side on the cot, facing away from the guard. “Suit yourself. Starve, then.”
He woke to shouts and rent metal, bright light and a moment of rushing air before he lost consciousness again. His eyes opened to firelight, warm and golden, the familiar weight of a blanket on his side. He tried to sit up, found his hands and ribs bandaged. “Try not to move. You’re safe.”
Tears stung the edges of his vision as he gingerly rolled onto his back. The roof was thatched, familiar beams above high shelves lined with glass bottles, dried herbs.
No. No, it can’t be.
“I thought you were dead,” her voice was thick, choked with emotion. “My men broke into the cells at dawn, I heard the call and pushed through the ranks. To see you lying there, so…” she trailed off, raised one hand to her face. “I am so sorry, Solas.”
From her lips, after all this time, his name sounded reverent as prayer. “Herald,” he managed in a whisper. “It was not your doing. But how…?”
She laughed slightly. “It was meant, I think, to transport me to a time when I could be killed before I became relevant. Instead it sent me forward nearly twelve hours. We appeared in an empty room, sneaking through the shadows. Dorian and I… all we could do was wait. Wait and then step in, save who we could, gather our forces, prepare our assault.” She paused and took in a shaky breath. "I hate that it took me so long to... it felt impossible. The men we lost, the blood and the smoke...."
Solas turned to look at her, wincing from the pain in his side. She sat in the chair he often used while writing, wrapped in one of the quilts from the chest in the corner of the room. She must be freezing, the snow on the windowpane was piled almost to the center. Her feet were quite bare. How long had she been here? How long had he been asleep?
“I had to save you,” she said softly, glancing up at him, eyes catching the light of the fire.
“Who else survived?”
She smiled. “We had very few casualties from our ranks, all things considered. I managed to get most out of the castle. They are recovering nearby. Don’t worry yourself, you should rest.”
He leaned back again, head against the pillow. “I suppose I should thank you. You did not have to risk so much for an apostate mage.”
“You are so much more than that. Don’t you know?”
Solas pushed himself up onto his elbows. She stood, letting the blanket fall from her shoulders. Beneath it she wore one of his linen shirts, bottom hem brushing the tops of her thighs, neckline dipping dangerously low. Her hair was loose and wild, glinting in the dim.
“Solas, I was so blind.”
He managed to struggle into a sitting position, her weight settling on him as she sat astride his hips. Her fingers brushed across his face, his cheekbones, his jaw, as her mouth met his. Her lips were warm, her breath honey and something deeper as she opened her mouth. Teeth clinked against teeth, hungry, desperate. Her hands were on his shoulders, pulling at him and he found his own hands seeking out the bare expanse of skin at her lower back, forcing her against him until she cried out. He flipped her beneath him with one fluid movement, ignoring the dry ache of his wounds. Her fingers found the knotted ties of his breeches and she began to pull them apart impatiently. Their eyes met, and she nodded slowly, teeth chewing her lower lip. Beneath him, she shoved her hips up in a manner that nearly caused him to lose consciousness again. He took her roughly, unable to control the animalistic urge she brought forth in him, realizing for the first time that this was what he wanted from the first moment he saw her, really saw her. Not to follow her, not to uncover the secret of who and what she was, but to possess her entirely. His and his alone. Her gasps of surprise gave way to baser, more guttural sounds and he was a man lost.
After, lying beside her with his fingers lazily tracing along the edge of her ribs, he thought to ask. “Where did you hide?”
She smiled down at him secretly. “I expect you know where.”
He frowned. “I'm not sure what you mean.”
“Go ahead,” she said playfully. “Guess where I was. Where would I hide?”
Solas shook his head as if trying to clear away cobwebs. “I don’t understand.”
“Oh, you must have some ideas. Or do you need me to,” she slid her fingers down his stomach, “help you remember?”
He caught her wrist in his hand, pulling it away from him, searching her eyes for that flicker, that spark of familiarity. “Who are you?”
The demon, for her part, was clever. She had adequately exhausted him before going after her true target, leaving him in a weakened state and unable to put up much of a fight. When the first burst of fire hit him square in the sternum, he felt panic. Was it the lyrium's influence that made him so weak of mind to fall for a parlor trick? Or was there something more sinister to blame, something lurking deep in his heart and mind that he had failed to properly repress, making him vulnerable? He managed a weak barrier before she rushed at him again, twisting Trevelyan's features into visions both nightmarish and painful. Inside his head he heard her fevered pleas to stop, the sobs of "Why?" as he struggled to separate the feelings such pleas gave rise to from the danger before him.
The vision faded as a gruff male voice yelled, “Enough.” Solas found himself wishing very much that he had consumed that hunk of stale bread, sure that this was to be the last energy he would expend in his life. He lay on the floor, gasping for air and heard the voices around him through a thick fog.
“It’s pointless, he doesn’t know where she is.”
“Bring up the dwarf again. Perhaps he’s had time to think things over.”
“And the elf?”
“Toss him on the lowest level. He’ll at least feed a shard.”
Dawn came, and Solas found himself on the stone floor of another cell. For the first time in all those long months, he wept.
Lyrium, it has long been said, has its own song. Humming, twining, pushing itself into the crevices of the mind until it became a part of thought itself. Solas, now a veritable expert in the physical properties of the red variety, decided this lyrium held more of a thrum. An insistent, aching beat that you felt in your teeth, under your fingernails, digging deep into your spine. The shard placed in his cell had begun to increase the speed of its thrum in the past weeks, as if it were building to something. Judging from the way his mind now wandered, Solas suspected he knew what that something was.
Infection is almost awe-inspiring, can one look at it clinically. The way it started with an itch at the back of his neck, a feeling that something had changed, deep within. So gradual yet persistent. When his fingers began to crackle with red-tinged energy, he was both devastated and unsurprised. Now his vision was red-rimmed, glowing bright when he closed his eyes. Even his dreams had begun to carry the hue.
For a long while, he had kept track of the days, marking them on his wall one by one with the arrival of the morning guard. This practice grew sloppy following their attempts to extract information from him, his perception of when one day ended and the other began becoming fundamentally flawed. Then the guards dwindled in numbers. Some days only one scraped his way down to the dungeons, looking gaunt and haunted. Some days no one came at all. Solas did not know how many days had passed since they last thought to feed him. There was something in the way the last guard had looked at him, that knowing pitiful frown and thick swallow as he tossed extra bread through the bars.
It wouldn’t be long now.
His legs tucked beneath him, Solas sat with his head resting against the stone wall. There had been some commotion in the floors above, shouts and scraping boots on the steps. His enthusiasm for goings-on within the castle walls had waned considerably as of late. It simply took too much energy to be interested. So much easier to just sleep. Sleep and try not to dream.
There was an agonizing creak, rusted tumblers turning before the door could be forced open. Evelyn Trevelyan, followed by the fancy mage they’d met in the village. She looked exactly as she had the last moment he remembered seeing her, the real her, down to the moon-shaped scuff on the toe of her boot. She whispered his name, dropping to her knees and fumbling at her belt. Either their conjuring had finally managed a true likeness or….
His eyes widened as her head inclined, the dank musty cell now laced with the faintest memory of wildflowers and sunlight. Solas pushed himself forward to look into her face.
“It’s… you,” he said breathlessly. “Really you. You’re alive.” He frowned then, shaking his head as if to clear away cobwebs. “But it isn’t possible. I saw you die, Inquisitor. We all did. And when they sent that other, I thought that was a reason to hope, to dream.” Again, his head shook and he faltered, leaning heavily against the wall.
"Other?" she responded faintly, frowning in confusion. "What other?
His mouth hung open for a moment, then he snapped it back closed. She persisted, "Were there others of the Inquisition here? Do they still live?"
Dorian's looked uneasily from Solas to the Herald. "There are many rooms," the Tevinter man suggested, motioning for the stairway. "If they're here, they'll likely be in this wing."
The trio came upon the Lady Seeker first, Cassandra looking aghast at finding Evelyn alive. "So, tell me about this Other," Dorian murmured, focusing a white crackle of energy toward the lock.
Solas watched passively as Dorian positively exploded The Seeker free. He blinked slowly, lazily, the effort of keeping his eyes open at times too much to bear. "I... they sent a," vision of her, skin bare and smooth in the firelight, fingers insistent at the hem of his shirt, her mouth on his and everything so very warm. "It doesn't matter. It wasn't real." Just a memory. A memory to take down into the cold and the dark.
Cassandra smiled sadly at them. "All this time," she said faintly. Solas knew how she felt. The days, the long nights, the hard ground and constant painful thrum of the lyrium nearby. It had been unendurable. Yet, here they were, enduring despite the hours of solitude punctuated only by brief flashes of pain. His thoughts thrummed in time with the shard in the open area of this prison, throbbing red and electric hot, filling his ribcage with ruby-tinged sickness. Hard to think with all the noise, the intrusion of sharp cutting into his lungs, pushing his heart to an uncomfortable compression. Ah, yes. It was within him. He had seen it before, and often wondered how long until he succumbed to a similar fate. Rocky red hollowing out his limbs like hot coals, eating away at his body while his mind still burned. He shook his head, noticing the concerned way she was staring. "We should move on. There may be others who yet live."
The floor above yielded only Alexius' guards, men who were possessed of both the strength and madness only the constant exposure to red lyrium could produce. Evelyn moved with the familiar grace that caused a lump to form in his throat, watching the way she danced across the floor, feet sure of their landings. His own fight felt heavy, clumsy, as if he were wrapped in a warm wet sheet he could not struggle hard enough to get out from under. The urge to lie on the metal grated floor and allow himself to drift was nearly overwhelming. Again, he caught her gaze upon his face, the memory of her hand on his cheek just moments ago. Such sadness, to know this now, at the end.
His mind was frequently overtaken by sweeping thoughts, memories of life before, regret over what might have been. With the battle raging around him, he would be momentarily lost in reverie, snapping back only when her voice called out, his movements to spellcast being performed automatically in response. Despite the growth crowding out his organs, he felt empty within.
This feeling of gnawing nothingness did not improve when they found Leliana. She was a specter of her former self, sunken eyes in a face scarred by pain and torments he could only imagine. Despite her condition, she seemed all-too capable of leading the charge, driven by some unknown force toward a certain vengeance. Solas slumped into formation behind her, only half-listening to directives as she conversed with their Inquisitor. In his mind, great green fields stretched as far as he could see below a crystal-blue sky that tugged at his heart. It was a shade that he found great comfort in, one that covered him during the moments he no longer wished to remember. The same shade regarded him now, Evelyn again staring at him as if she could see his thoughts. Solas squared his shoulders, hoping it helped him affect an air of confidence. She had to be steadfast in her mission, this was not the time to worry about what ate away at him from the inside out.
Their party lingered in the barracks, regathering their strength before pushing ahead. Leliana and Evelyn sat apart from the others, heads bent low as the Spymaster recounted everything she knew of the hallways beyond. Dorian was engrossed in a guard's journal. Solas found his breath hard to catch, each inhalation scraping his airways. The way Cassandra's breaths came in staccato bursts betrayed her own struggle with the cancerous rock. He placed a hand on her shoulder and she settled, her rid-rimmed eyes meeting his with a mix of sorrow and understanding. "It will end soon," he whispered before withdrawing his touch.
How they survived remained a miracle, in his eyes. After the worst of Alexius' dark magicks had finally faded away, the small group stood in a loose gathering in the center of the room. Outside, the consistent pounding of the doors at the far end of the great hall echoed through the chamber. 'They will be through soon," Leliana said quietly. Solas nodded.
Dorian continued to work with the amulet, attempting to unlock the abilities hidden away. His brow creased with frustration, mirrored in Evelyn's face as she watched his ministrations. She glanced at Solas then, the sad smile attempting to be hopeful.
"Do not fear for me, Herald," Solas said, wincing with the effort of speech. His body had been substantially battered in the fight, the gravelly pain inside his chest now matching the abrasions on his skin. "If you succeed, there will be nothing here to fear."
"And if we don't?" Dorian called back, a thin layer of perspiration visible on his face.
"It will not matter anyway," Leliana said grimly. "We are already dead." Solas found himself unable to look at Evelyn.
Splintering from beyond, the faint roar of demonic voice. They were nearly through the door. He gave Cassandra a sideways glance, who inclined her head in agreement, tears forming at the corner of her eyes. "We are ready," he said to Leliana, fingers gripping at his staff.
The two women turned to the door, Solas feeling the tearing pull of duty and desire. "Open it for nothing," he said to Leliana before he and Cassandra disappeared and the spymaster sealed the entrance behind them.
The hall was dim, smell of sulfur and decaying flesh wafting from the south. The remaining forces of darkness were shoving away the fortifications as if they weighed nothing, although it had taken nearly all his energy to assist with their placement less than an hour earlier. Cassandra took in a shaky breath. "Solas?"
"It has been a pleasure to serve by your side, all the way until the end."
He smiled slightly, "And mine as well, although such a bitter end I never imagined."
They were no match for the horde they faced, Cassandra felled first by a large guard wielding a spiked maul, caving in the chest of her armor with a sickening crunch that made his stomach turn. He found himself grasped in the elongated claw of a terror demon, his own strength failing him as he was lifted. His last thought was of wildflowers and sunlight, the scent of her hair.
The dawn broke, golden beams streaming through the holes in the thick foliage above. After the snowy expanse of Haven, the Hinterlands outside of Redcliffe Village seemed impossibly green and warm. Thick undergrowth and tall, heavy oaks interspersed with vibrant fields dotted with flowers trailed off at the base of the surrounding mountain range. The air was heavy with flora and the buzzing of insects. It was truly a different world. Solas was already seated at the fire, reading through a small leather-bound journal, when the first of the encampment began to rise. The bustle of the day began almost immediately, with supplies hauled from beneath canvas to be inventoried and distributed before they began their march. Breakfast looked to be a variety of game hens, meat sliced thin to better sizzle. It was nice, in a way, this constant feeling of being within a group of others. Something that he had not experienced for some time but found he missed, now granted by the Inquisition. Haven had always felt a temporary placement, a gathering of loosely-connected individuals who would scatter in the wind. Now, however, this was a coalition. A force to be reckoned with. Solas couldn't be happier to be a part of it.
Evelyn Trevelyan pushed open the flaps of her tent and stretched lazily in the sunlight. She smiled slightly, dropped her rucksack in the dirt, and settled down near him. He snapped the journal shut, arcane sketchings slipping from view, and leaned back. The past few days following the events at Redcliffe castle were inexplicably somber. Something had changed between them; a sudden shift that hit him like a punch in the chest. It started when she reappeared in an instant after the amulet attempted to pull her away, looking a bit more battle-worn than she had less than a minute prior, and staring at him with an intensity he had not before encountered. The look did not abate upon their return and he would frequently catch her lost in one of those meaningful stares: lips slightly parted, brow furrowed.
Dorian was also behaving quite strangely around him, making odd comments about him being a "sly dog," a baffling expression he meant to look into further. The Tevinter mage had taken up the habit of pointing out the Herald with much fanfare, whenever she came into view. Often this pointing would involve suggestions that Solas might have "something to share."
She did not discuss the events she witnessed in the false future, but he feared that terrible things befell him in that alternate reality. It was something in the way she stared, an inherent sadness undercut with what looked a great deal like longing. Like the kind of regret that only missed opportunities beget. Solas often wondered if she would ever confess what she saw. The future was often fluid, indeterminate; part of him felt he wanted to know what was very nearly his end. The longer she stared, the more he felt certain that she had lived through his death. It was... intriguing. Perhaps one day he would ask her.
Solas planted the base of his staff in the soft earth before him as he walked, marveling at how supple and spongy the ground was around the small lake. Ahead of him the dark, glowering Blackwall spoke in low tones, Evelyn inclining her head toward him in a way that made Solas’ heart catch uncomfortably in his throat. He ignored the feeling, plodding ahead, watching as she nodded solemnly, the space between her eyebrows creasing slightly as Blackwall continued to murmur. This area had been ravaged by both war and petty looting, making the roads too dangerous for most common folk to travel. While this was certainly the topic of the conversation conducted before him, it couldn’t help but make the elf’s blood pound in his ears and raise all sorts of delusional fantasies about the secrets they whispered.
It was ridiculous, this feeble crush that he carried as if he were a child. Some sideways glances and a few careless words from the Herald and he was mooning over her as if he’d never seen a woman before. Deep within, he knew the true root of the attraction, but that reality was a topic best left buried. Kept secret, kept separate. No matter what new truths her mark would unlock, for now, she was just another woman. A human woman, at that. One bred of nobility, raised in a tradition of superstition and misremembered children’s stories. A woman such as she, taught to follow the Chantry of the privileged, was now their Last Great Hope, a glittering effigy of their fallen Andraste, sprung to life and slicing a path through the world to glory. He heard the rumors at camp, knew of the resentment the Herald bred in some circles. If only the common rabble knew the true history of their beloved Andraste, perhaps they would not be so hasty to question her "chosen."
Not, of course, that he believed she was actually some sort of religious icon. She was just a woman.
They returned to camp as the sun slipped behind the easternmost mountains, flooding the valley with orange light. One by one, the members of their party shedded their gear and started to relax: Cassandra with her rigidity only slightly yielding; Varric kicking dirt and rock from his boots before heavily seating himself on the nearest log; Sera flopping into the dust in a positively childlike way, releasing a half sigh/half curse. Solas maneuvered himself near the cooking fire, undoing the laces on his own boots. The accouterments of modern warfare still felt stiff and unnatural to him, despite Evelyn's constant assurances that they would provide both safety and comfort.
Blackwall was introduced to Harding, handshakes exchanged, and the man was pointed in the direction of one of the tents. Solas was relieved to see it was not the one he begrudgingly shared with Varric and another man known only as “Knock.” Knock’s espionage skills were highly praised among the other recruits, but Solas had thus far only observed the man’s penchants for overindulgence in wine, dirty jokes, and his irritating tendency to snore. The addition of another broad-shouldered hairy individual was not welcome in the already cramped quarters.
As the evening waned, their party slumped toward bedding, trickling away one by one until it was just the two of them on one side of the fire, a single scout dozing at the other. Evelyn looked over at him again in that manner, lips parted. He glanced up from the tome open on his lap. "Was there something you needed?"
"I," she began, worrying the ring that adorned the thumb of her left hand with the fingers of her right, "I wondered why you haven't asked...." She flushed red, taking in a deep breath. "It's just that you're the only one who hasn't asked me what happened. In Redcliffe. In the false future." The scout stirred, causing Evelyn to startle, her blush deepening. She quietly continued, "Beyond the debrief I gave to everyone, you haven't been curious...?"
Solas stared at her evenly, noting with concern the anxiety this conversation was clearly causing her; she wore the tension across her shoulders like a thick winter cloak. He glanced toward the scout and closed his book. "Herald, would you care to walk with me? I find it aids with digestion before bed." He raised his arm toward the ruined outbuildings beyond.
Away from the fires, the air was crisp and cold. He allowed her to lead, watching as she strode ahead, arms crossed before her in a defensive posture. They arrived at a half wall, toppled long enough ago that grass had overgrown most of the fallen stones. He inclined his head slightly toward her. "I will admit that I am curious. Anyone would be, given the opportunity to hear about a possible future for oneself. However, that curiosity is tempered by caution." He sat against the wall, gazing out over the wide expanse of dark mountains and foothills beyond. "I have come to believe that my fate was not altogether pleasant, judging from the sad looks you have thrown my way on more than one occasion. I sense that perhaps this fate was unpleasant for you to witness. Understandable. The falling of a comrade in battle is never easy for one to bear."
Fingers traced the spot where mortar had joined brick, the ages of wear making the groove deep enough to swallow his finger to the first joint. "If you are hesitant to tell me of my death, Herald, do not be. I no longer fear my own death, and neither should you. Besides, it would appear you prevented at least that untimely end from befalling me."
"Not quite yet, I haven't." Evelyn scowled. "We're still working on that part." With a heavy sigh, she allowed herself to sit on the wall beside him. "While it might be easy for you to hear, it wasn't all that easy to live through. To see you and Cassandra like that, tainted." She shivered slightly. "And then for you to sacrifice yourself..." she paused, "yourselves. All of you, I mean. To see you like that, when I wasn't sure if I could fix things."
So it was his death that she was so perturbed by, one facilitated by the insidious glowing rock that seemed to have spooked the entire party; Master Tethras in particular. "I am not surprised by any of our sacrifices, all things being equal. It sounds as if it was to assist in your erasing that rather unpleasant-sounding future. Besides, if it were an infection by red lyrium, we were all sentenced to death already. There is no recovering from that poison, I'm afraid." She did not look comforted by this, and his voice dropped lower. "I... I am sorry, Herald. I am sure it was difficult to see your followers cut down, especially ones who were already mortally wounded."
Her head shook. "But after Dorian-" she stopped the thought in its tracks, teeth catching her lower lip.
"Dorian? What did Dorian do?" Perhaps this was the secret behind the Tevinter's strange behavior as of late.
"He said he found a logbook, a journal of sorts. It said that there had been interrogations. Torture." Evelyn pushed herself off the wall, slowly wandering toward the distant windmill.
Solas fell into step beside her, hands folded behind his back. "I suspected as much. I wondered why they kept me alive that long. Tevinter magisters are not known for their kind treatment of elves. I was frankly surprised they hadn't dispatched me immediately. Perhaps they thought I had information, secrets, some access to you or your power that they wanted to mine." He frowned then, "It is not a shock to learn I was tortured, and the Tevinter are unique in their methods of torture. It would have been interesting to see what they tried to extract.. and how."
She had gone pale, positively horrified by his musings. He felt a rush of shame. "I am sorry, again. I cannot help that this fascinates me. As someone who has traveled the Fade, to actually come up against one who has glimpsed one of my alternate realities in the flesh... I am intrigued." They walked on in silence for a few minutes, the only sound the distant braying of horses, the crunch of fallen leaves underfoot. "There is no reason to blame yourself for our fates. We joined you willingly, and will gladly follow you, even unto our own deaths." She glanced at him, something unsaid staining her cheeks pink. "Did I speak out of turn?" His voice fell to a whisper. What was she not telling him?
"Herald!" the scout hurried along the path to interrupt them, her hand outstretched, parchment clenched in her fist. "There is a missive, from Haven. The mages have all arrived."
So the moment was nearly upon them. "We should be getting back, we will need to leave at first light... Herald?"
Evelyn stared at Solas a beat longer before collecting herself. "At once. We'll talk later, Solas."
He watched her with curiosity as she made her way back to camp, one of her hands twisting a lock of her hair into a curl. "Of course."
The route to his own tent took him past the horses, where Dorian surprised him. The mage had been lingering near the horses more and more, seeming to have developed an interest in one of the stablehands. Dorian called out to him. "You have been missed, my friend. Tell me, where have you been wandering so late?"
"I just needed... some time to think," Solas said cautiously. "I learned something disturbing, about the events of the future at Redcliffe. I needed to process them."
"So," Dorian smirked, backing up to allow the man to pass. As Solas rounded the path and turned toward the gates, Dorian called after him, "She told you, then. I am sorry, to have spilled all that. But we had been through a traumatic day, you see. We were bonding, as friends do. Besides, I thought it might have been important in a tactical sense, in case she needed to know your weaknesses going forward. To protect you, you see. Magisters do love their desire demons."
Solas paused for a moment. "She only said that I had been tortured."
"Ohhhh," Dorian's voice took on an edge of mock horror. "I am sorry. Had she not told you the details? Positively scandalous. But not at all surprising, even if it is a bit cliche." The Tevinter stepped closer, his voice dropping to a stage whisper. "I mean, the Lady and the... apostate sidekick."
Ah. So there it was.
"Sweet dreams," Dorian drawled as he pushed past.
The walls of the tent positively rattled as Knock released another quaking snore. Outside, the birds had begun to softly chirp. Dawn was but a few hours away. Solas lay on his back, staring at the canvas above. Sleep had not come, no matter how he tried to empty his mind. The smirk on that Pavus' face, the slow sinking dread of realization, the horrific knowledge that she had been attempting to tell him she knew. He had believed himself long past the days when such an embarrassment would feel this sharp, and yet: there it was. Even now his ears burned hot to remember the way she picked at the cuff of her sleeve, eyes looking everywhere but at him. He wondered if the journal's description had been that horrifically detailed, or if Dorian had simply embellished it to lurid ends. Knock made a choking sound and rolled to one side, directing a noisy breath toward the center of the tent. There was no point in trying to get any rest now.
Solas emerged to the grey of predawn with his rucksack in hand, intending to strike out early. There was a path through the woods that might buy him an hour, perhaps more. With any hope, he would arrive in Haven before the others and have a few moments to himself before he had to confront the Herald. Finding himself at the gates to the village with still no shred of idea what to say, he made a path directly for his cabin, where he could slip inside and feign busywork for awhile.
He was surprised to find her directly in his path. This gave him even less time to properly formulate his confession, to choose the words he would artfully weave together to explain his embarrassment at what had happened in that alternate world.
And also to stop wondering what her legs looked like beneath her under-armor.
"Herald," the word seeming a breathless explosion from his lips. At that moment, he realized just how small Haven was. Leliana was practically breathing down their necks as they stood, the Commander standing only a few paces before them. And all around where people he knew even less well, carrying blankets and saddles, warming themselves by the fire. "Perhaps this is not the best place to discuss my... " he regarded her solemnly, with a dip of his head. "What you were trying to tell me." The flush on her cheeks told him that she already knew of what he spoke. "Perhaps we should...?" she nodded, following him down the path, toward where the newly-constructed war engines rested in the snow. Once they were out of earshot of that damned merchant, he paused. "I wanted... I needed to apologize. I'm not sure of how aware you are of the machinations of demons; desire demons, in particular. I wanted to assure you that despite the particular... ah... fantasy that one constructed for me, that I bear no intentions... that is to say that I do not harbor any... any unseemly thoughts toward you." She crossed her arms and stared back at him in confusion. He feared he was not making his point.
"I was trying to explain that I now know why... why you sometimes look like... I was simply attempting to tell you that... that my bedding of a facsimile of you while under extreme emotional duress was not some harbinger of hidden feelings run amok. That I am not shirking my duties while lusting after you in secret. That I would not do anything to compromise your position, nor your mission here. I hold you in the highest respect, after all, and despite what I did to defile your image... I..." She continued to stare at him, practically gaping at this point and he felt his heart sink. "Red lyrium does have an effect on the judgment of the infected, I'm afraid. I apologize if my behavior under its influence left you with any unsavory feelings toward me."
"Solas," she said firmly. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
His stomach now resided somewhere in the vicinity of his ankles. The wind whistled across the valley. In the distance, the shout of target practice and gentle clang of the blacksmith's hammer. She stared at him, arms still crossed, eyebrows raised as if waiting for an explanation. There was a sudden short laugh of derision that snapped his attention to the platform adjacent, where the Tevinter mage reclined. "Is everyone in the Inquisition this thick? I have to say, this performance is not helping my doubts about our chances."
Solas frowned. "I believe I should take my leave. Herald. Master Pavus."
The table in his cabin was littered with rough sketches, a few jotted down words whose meaning had been lost to the ages, dotted here and there with coordinates of possible artifacts. hands clasped behind his back, and surveyed the collection of knowledge. This room had served him well, providing both shelter from the elements and a place where he could work more or less uninterrupted, squirreling away all the little thoughts and clues he encountered as they journeyed. He would miss this space, once their quest was over and he had returned to his primary mission. It was an uncomfortable thought, this realization of attachment. So long outside the confines of anything resembling society and he had believed he was now immune to its pull. The Inquisition had provided him with compatriots, the comfortable hum of people and noise he had not realized he missed, and the ability to remember what it felt like to be close to someone. To yearn for more closeness, to desire something he thought he no longer needed.
Dorian's interruption had been a good thing, he reminded himself. Once again he felt himself on the verge of letting a piece of his facade fall, giving in to a baser urge that would do nothing to further his cause. These little slips in judgment were happening more and more often, and all due to the proximity of Evelyn Trevelyan. He settled in his chair, shoving loose pieces of paper out of the way until his hand found a small, green, leather-bound journal. This is where he kept the notations he took during her convalescence, the pages proving less than useful in the days that followed, but he was still unable to discard them. With two fingers he flipped the book to the center, where it fell open naturally, the spine creased from frequent visits to this page. There was the place where he sketched her face as she slept, her features in shadow. He had thought of her then as a mystery to be deviled out. How could he know how that mystery would deepen, blossom?
A knock then, he hastily pulled a large stack of formulas to cover the open page, turning slightly toward the half-open door as he did so. Evelyn Trevelyan stood with her hand on the door's edge, pushing it open as she stepped inside. "Herald," he said with barely-concealed surprise. "Please, come in. I apologize for the clutter. I've been... working."
"I wanted to check on you, make sure that you understood. Dorian didn't intend to cause any problems, I'm sure. He only told me what he thought I needed to know about your imprisonment. About everyone's, imprisonment," she emphasized. "I never would have pried into further detail."
"Yes," Solas worked to unclench his jaw. "I do appreciate Master Pavus' appreciation for my privacy. Perhaps I should have a word with him. Thank him personally."
"Remember," her voice carried an edge. "He is simply trying to help. As you are. Try to remain civil with one another. For the good of the Inquistion." Evelyn paused. "Solas? I am sorry if they used me... that is to say, my image to cause you any pain." She took a breath. "I hope I am not overstepping my bounds. I simply wanted to say that so we won't need to discuss any of this again. Just know that I am sorry if I inadvertently hurt you. It was never my intent."
Her words were so carefully chosen, so perfectly tiptoed around the giant hanging maybe between them that it made his heart ache. "Not overstepping," he corrected, gently. "I dare say there will be many more... stumbles on the road ahead. This is complicated. The situation we find ourselves in." Solas stared silently for a moment too long. "The Breach, I mean." He didn't mean the Breach at all, but that was hardly important now. That was a conversation for another time and place. One he wasn't certain they would ever reach.
She turned toward the door again, and part of him screamed and railed against her leaving. Was it possible that she didn't know the ways of desire demons? Or is that a problem for mages alone, in her world? Perhaps they were something the Chantry protects their virgin daughters and sons from, something to be dealt with in the Circle like most other shameful things. Desire demons, after all, can project destructive illusions. All demons can, provided there is something there to work with. Sloth demons know what will make you comfortable, placid, for example. To keep you in thrall. Perhaps a room you loved as a child or surrounding you with puppies. Desire demons, on the other hand, feed off the deepest, darkest wants of your secret soul. He found he desperately wanted her to hold him accountable for what the demon brought forth, to come to him again screaming and demanding that he tell her what that meant if it meant anything at all. That part of him wanted her to know what it meant and wanted her to know. He wanted to her to know that what he was, in that terrible future, was a soul flayed raw, unable to cover its wants and needs any longer beneath a veneer of propriety and calm.
That part of him also wanted her. Here, in this place, in the room the very essence of temptation has conjured to push him over that treacherous edge. That part knew how easy it could be to slip, to close the distance between them, to take her wrist in his hand and pull her to him, to show her what he felt and what she meant. That part would willingly and happily pull her to his bed and let the rest of the world be damned around them.
Most fortunate for the world that it was not the part that prevailed. Instead, he managed a quiet smile, lips pressed together and a small nod. "Thank you. Goodnight, Herald."
A week passed, full of clear winter days and frozen cloudless nights. Evelyn Trevelyan did not darken his doorway again, preferring instead polite greetings in the comfortable and safe presence of others; the occasional raised hand of acknowledgment from a distance. Something was shifting deep between them, that much was certain. This would inevitably come to a head, and he was wondering more than ever if he felt still himself capable of what he needed to do. If he would be able to resist the temptation of her touch. If she would ever offer that. Sometimes he still felt as if he were deluding himself with these thoughts of her intentions, her feelings. Other times, late at night in his cot, he felt almost certain that something simmered there for her, beneath the surface. Something he could find warm solace in, were he willing to allow his own deep-seeded feelings to rise. As if he were a person who could give in to such idle whims; such flights of fancy. As if his intentions and thoughts could be so focused on another, and not the grander purpose of his awakening.
This stalemate continued until the day of the Great Sealing. Solas led the mages The breach glowed angry and green, crackling in the sky, a bolt of lightning that never faded from view. If you knew not what it represented, what it meant to the world below, you might find it beautiful; a Borealis cut into the fabric of the heavens, rivaling at times the sun, the stars and moon. Today, Evelyn stared at this wonder. Solas stood beside her, following her gaze. "Will this work?" she asked faintly. "Are we ready?"
"The mages are ready, Herald. Nerves and fear of failure hold them back now. Nerves and fear only you can quiet." He heaved a heavy sigh. "I wish I knew for certain that your attempt would be successful, however, I can only theorize. I do, regardless, believe our chances good."
She turned her hand over, staring at the green ripple across her palm. "And then will this be gone? Do you think it will disappear or..." she trailed off, the unasked question darkening her stare.
He took her hand in his, pretending not to notice the way she flinched when he did so; trying not to interpret the possible reasons, good or bad, that she might have reacted in that way. "I believe this mark, while gifted to you as a result of the Breach's creation, is not necessarily so tied to it that it will simply disappear the moment the Breach is sealed." He turned her hand over slowly, feeling the anchor sear his flesh with its icy flame. "We will deal with the hows and whens of removing it after you have dealt with the present problem." He dropped her hand then, returning his attention to the scar in the sky, unnerved by the way her eyes remained focused on his face.
The clouds above the Temple of Sacred Ashes swirled green and white, crackling in time with the electric flame from her palm. Solas watched as she moved her hand in time with the throb, fingers extending, then curling back inward. The gathered masses shifted nervously as she moved, and Solas felt his own throat constrict with nervous fear. She had to accomplish this. Closing the breach was the first step in defeating Corypheus, and defeating Corypheus was the first step in unlocking the Orb. Unlocking the Orb was the final step in this Act, and then he could finally begin the next.
The Herald of Andraste was a necessary piece of this puzzle. He had come to hope that she was not destroyed by this closing. Her destruction would prove most inconvenient for a number of reasons: she would be unable to assist with any remaining rifts that remained open, she would be unable to restore her power to the Orb and assist in its final unlocking, and there was that bit that was most inconvenient of all.
He was most inconveniently in love with her.
Solas shoved that feeling down deep in the pit of his stomach, ignoring the way the thought of her death made him want to vomit and sob at the same time. With his staff raised, he called to the mages on the balcony above to prepare themselves, to focus. Focus everything on the Herald. As if he'd be able to focus on anything else. Their energies funneled through his own, he allowed the magicks to wash over him, through him. Focus, pull, exhale, release. He felt the energy leave through his fingers and slumped forward against the staff he'd driven into the ground before him. The bright stream flowed around her, gathering at the point in her palm as she released the rift's power into the breach above. There was a great rushing of wind and then a large boom of pressure that knocked everyone backward several feet.
He rose into a crouch, hearing the others scrabble to find their footing as the dust settled around them. The cry rose first from those on the upper levels; the sound of victory and relief exclaimed by one, and then many. His own voice silent, he squinted until he made out her form, sitting upright on the ground a good hundred paces from him. She reclined back on her right hand, her left still glowing as it rested, arm folded across one raised knee. Then she turned and her soot-stained face was one of triumph. His heart swelled and he rose to his feet in time to watch the others crush past him, rushing to her side. He saw Dorian at the edge of the throng, mocking him with a knowing smile. Solas stepped backward, remembering himself. Hang back, elf. Your eagerness will betray you, in more ways than one.
Haven was already at full celebration when he returned, the people drinking and dancing in the open, screaming greetings at those who made their way through the gates. Tonight would be a night to remember, one they would carry with them during the harder parts of what was to come. Solas pushed through the merriment, thankful that the alchemist was already joining in the revelry. He swept the already-bound packet of writings into his pack, tying off two rough-woven blankets at the base before he dropped it beside his door. Once he had wiped the grime from his face and hands, he returned to the celebration's hub in front of the Chantry doors and saw Evelyn standing alone. Not wanting to seem antisocial, he grabbed a cup on his way to where the Herald waited, finally apart from her advisers and that irksome Tevinter mage. "You've done well," he said as he sidled up next to her. "Their faith in you is well-placed, Herald."
"Is it?" her voice was thick. "I still don't entirely understand how I managed to do this. It's a problem I can't simply stick a blade in, or shove away with brute force, and therefore not one I've been trained to manage. This ability I've acquired feels like magic, yet you remind me I am no mage. So how is their faith so well-placed? How am I anything more than a story, propped up on divine expectations I can't deliver? Everything that has happened to me, everything that continues to happen, is all an accident. I feel less like a hero and more like a weapon. Used by forces I can't see."
"Isn't that the way of your Maker? Perhaps this is exactly how Andraste felt, and the stories we hear are only the pretty parts. Perhaps this is just how the story goes for everyone who has ever been called 'hero.'"
"Perhaps the stories are all lies." She smiled sardonically. "Or perhaps I am just too tired, and a little drunk. I assure you I'm usually much more fun at parties."
The laugh stuck in his throat, the hand that was lifting the cup frozen halfway to his mouth, as he noticed the glinting in the distance. There, coming down the mountainside, was a force the dwarfed the Inquisition's meager army by tenfold. It swarmed down the pass, the lights of the gathered torches merging into one river of fire that poured toward them at an alarming speed. The first cries came up from the gates. The guards at the towers to the west sounded the alarm. Solas crouched, placing the cup on the ground. It was a futile gesture, an attempt to keep it from spilling and making a sticky mess on the ground. This ground would see far worse than wine before the night was through.
He watched her move from his side, their conversation completely forgotten. "Something is trying to get through the gates!" The cry came from a panicked soldier, running toward them. Grimes, that was his name. He was barely seventeen summers when he came to the Inquisition's doors, pleading for a position after his family burned in the mage rebellion. Solas saw the fear in the boy's eyes and his stomach became a stone. Many would die this night. He hoped Evelyn was prepared for the number that would fight and fall in her name. Making his way down the stairs he saw she was well ahead of him, standing with an unfamiliar figure who was dressed like a scarecrow. The boy looked up then, eyes wide and staring, pale and gaunt. The force of the stare hit him in a scattering of words, ancient and forgotten, whispering in his ears. Solas felt the pushback as he fought to remove the sudden intrusion in his mind, watching the boy inhale sharply in response. Then he saw the figure on the hill, towering above the others, the familiar form like a cold knife in his belly.
Still unsettled by the boy who had attempted to read his thoughts, Solas warily followed the small procession that attempted to secure the trebuchets. She moved as deftly as ever, dispatching the red-tinged forces adeptly and efficiently. He found most of his defensive spells completely unnecessary in the wake of her elegant destruction, landing most of his wards moments after she had already dispatched her latest attacker. They came in waves, relentless, each pause allowing her to secure their machines of war with the same finesse and focus she applied to her weapon-wielding. The last machine clicked into place, volleying a stone that unleashed an avalanche on the mountainside. The torches went out, the cry rose from the troops of Haven. And then, just as hope had begun to flare anew, the roar that shook the teeth and loosened the guts of every man and woman within earshot.
You feel a dragon before you see it, the deep rumble of primal fear preceding any wyrm shadow circling on the ground. The men began to run before they were fully sure what they ran from, and Evelyn followed, attempting to keep her charges safe, protected; pausing only to help those who had become trapped or had fallen as they hurried back to the safety of the Chantry.
Inside they found the survivors of the devastation. Wounded, dirty, and afraid, what remained of Haven limped and worried, looking to their Herald and Commander for direction. Solas skulked into the shadows, attempting to eavesdrop on their plan of attack when he heard the harsh whisper. "But what of your plan of escape?" Cullen’s question was met with only silence; it was a type of silence that felt like an answer. As she pushed away from the group, he fell into step beside her, glancing at her sideways as they walked.
"So is this to be your great martyrdom?" he fought to keep the anger from his voice. "I might remind you that you still have men able and ready to fight. Why must you be the one to provide the distraction?"
"I'm the one he wants," she responded simply. "If this is the way this whole damned horror ends, then let it end with me."
He gripped her by the upper arm. "And what of the Inquisition then? You gave them a central purpose they previously lacked."
"Let me go, Solas." Evelyn jerked her arm away, striding back toward the Chantry doors. Solas paused for a moment, then hurried behind.
"I will not leave you to face a dragon alone, Herald," he said in the most matter-of-fact tone he could muster. "Not when I might prove useful."
It was that damnable former Templar who ultimately stopped him. Commander Cullen Rutherford, resplendent in his fine armor, freshly hewn blade hanging at his side, strode confidently to where Solas wavered in the door. He had every intention to follow, to shove his way through the red templars and fight and die at her side, if needed.
"She is strong," Cullen said, not attempting to mask the admiration in his voice. "She will be fine. We need you to help with the others. We will need you to provide a signal of some kind when we're through." Commanded, then, like any other of the rank. Solas was relegated to the position of troop, footman, underling. Commander Cullen stood in the doorway in his place, watching Evelyn Trevelyan, The Herald of Andraste, march toward a near-certain doom. If she looked back, one last gaze at the Chantry before she descended, it would be Cullen she saw, gazing back at her.
A hand on his chest then, one of Leliana's men handing him a small pack. "Supplies. None of us had time to proper gather up our things."
Solas thought guiltily of the well-packed rucksack that hung on his own back. He had taken the liberty of squirreling away some key tinctures, two books he knew he could not replace, his journals, his notes. "Of course," he said with a small smile. "Thank you."
The path of penance was barely visible, so thick was the covering of snow. The Chancellor's memory held, however, and they were able to plod their way down the other side of the hill that Haven straddled, a silent stream of battered and weary survivors, anxious for safety and rest. The fires of Haven were a dim orange glow before Cullen halted their progression, nodding to Solas. "Give the signal."
A shooting star, glowing red, released from his palm into the cold night. It hovered in the air, high enough for her to see before dissolving into a shower of sparks.
"Flames match the fires that burn deep in his chest. 'See, survive, follow. Find me and I will say the words out loud.'" Solas startled. He had nearly forgotten about the strange boy from the castle gates.
Cassandra looked equally surprised to find the boy still within their ranks, but her surprise gave way easily and swiftly to irritation. "What are you talking about? What words?"
The boy raised his face, eyes catching the last glints of red flame before they were lost to the cold and released a whisper-hiss. "Vhenan."
The mountain crevasse provided suitable, temporary protection from the elements. The tents were erected in a wide semi-circle around the cache of items they managed to salvage from Haven. Inventory was taken, rations were portioned out among the survivors, warnings were given about both cold and beasts, and they began to wait.
For the first night, they remained cautiously optimistic. A guard was posted at the mouth of the mountain pass, watching for some sign of movement from Haven below. The great blanketing snow had extinguished the light from both the fires and the torches of their foes, making it difficult to discern if anything still moved in the valley. One false sighting, determined to be a wolf darting among the trees, had made the gathering both nervous and a bit giddy. Laughing and assuring themselves that she would make her way through the snow at any moment, faces falling the instant they broke eye contact.
By the second evening, the mood had turned grim. The snow began , obscuring the path they'd forged and blanketing the entire area in slippery white ice. Most stayed in their tents that night, wrapped in pelt and wool to stay the chill. Solas remained near the central command, pretending to study his book near the fire as he listened to the inner circle fret.
"She should be here by now," Cullen's voice, steely and stressed. "If she's fallen... Maker, how can we forgive ourselves?"
"She knew what she sacrificed. She did it for her people." Cassandra, always the voice of reason, even when it was wholly inappropriate.
"We'll have to decide how to announce this," Josephine kept her voice low. "The people will want a memorial. Perhaps some sort of statue or-"
"Are we truly discussing entombing her? Before we're certain?" Cullen's voice broke, the audible emotion making Solas' blood run cold. So his suspicions were accurate. There were feelings, buried beneath all that shiny steel and hair. "I'm not going to stay here and listen to you plan a funeral."
"Cullen!" Josephine's voice again, harsh this time. "Stop. It would be suicide to go out there."
Solas rose to his feet as the commander stormed past, Josephine in tow. "I could go with him, Ambassador. Provide light, protection."
Cullen opened his mouth to protest when a sound caused him to pause. Wolves, baying in the distance. "Sweet Andraste. If she's out there, they'll tear her to pieces."
"The wolves will not harm her." Solas felt their stares. "I set wards, while you four argued your way up the mountain." The statement was not exactly untrue, just less complicated than the whole truth.
Josephine's face clouded for a moment, then she composed herself. "Thank you, Solas. I-"
A cry interrupted whatever meager apology was coming. “It’s her!”
The call echoed through the steep valley where camp lay. Commander Cullen, Cassandra, Josephine, the Spymaster all running through the thick snow. Solas followed cautiously, ignoring the hitch in his breath when he saw her crumple at the top of the hill. Cullen took her in his arms then, sliding back down toward the encampment. Making his way around the pole that held his own shelter, Solas watched as they disappeared into the flaps of the command tent. Josephine emerged a few moments later, gesturing to Mother Giselle. He stayed at a distance until the revered mother rushed inside, tailed by two of attending sisters.
The lady ambassador was a portrait of despair, her hand on her forehead, pacing.
“Is she going to be all right?”
Josephine started at his voice. “Master Solas. I didn’t see you there.” She sighed. “She’s alive, which is a miracle all its own. How did she… nevermind. What’s important is that she’s here. Now. I’m sorry,” she focused her attention back on Solas. “Did you need something?”
“I thought perhaps I could help.”
“Help?” her eyes widened. “We have capable healers, Solas. I don’t know that she needs a mage.”
“Her mark,” he said quickly. “I am wondering if anything has changed. After, I mean.”
“Oh. I’m sure there will be time for that… after we know how she..." Josephine shook her head quickly. "She needs to rest, regardless. I will keep you informed. I am sure everyone appreciates your concern.”
Solas took a step back. “Of course. Please let me know if I may be of service. I hope she is well.”
Securely inside his own tent, he lay flat on his back on the pallet and stared up at the rough fabric above. His heart thundered, blood warm in his ears and he fought hard to steady his breathing, repeating a mantra over and over in his head. Willing the words to become true.
You’re relieved she’s alive. Nothing more. Because she possesses the mark. You’re relieved she’s alive. Nothing more. You’re relieved she’s alive. Nothing more. Nothing more. There is nothing more.
It was late the next morning when Cassandra approached him. “Josephine said you had some interest in the mark?”
“Of course. I wanted to see if perhaps something had changed after her encounter. If it has spread, or stopped. If it has the power to seal such a breach again, should the need arise.”
The wind picked up, upsetting the horses. Cassandra made a disgusted sound. “You think we'll have to close another hole in the sky?”
Solas regarded her solemnly. “I do not know. I would hope to find out.”
Cassandra nodded toward the command tent. “Then let us find out.” Solas followed. Your interest is in the mark. Your interest is in the mark. Nothing more. Nothing more.
She did not wake that first day. He dismissed those who questioned his presence by reminding them that they did not fully know what might have befallen her at Haven. "What if the mark has been altered?" he asked in irritation. "Would you have me risk the safety of the entire camp?" They didn't need to know that the mark was as stable as ever, pulsing with less frequency now that the large breach had been sealed. No electric crackles of light disturbed her deep rest, aided by a foul-smelling concoction the healer had brewed the night before last. She slept, seemingly undisturbed by the extent of her injuries: more than one broken bone, a dislocated shoulder that had to be reset, several abrasions and bruises. Best that she sleep until the bones had begun to knit, resolving from sharp pain to a dull ache. Her recovery would be lengthy, and he hoped she awoke well enough to travel to a proper place to convalesce.
He happened to have such a place in mind.
The fresh snow gleamed blinding white in the moonlight, undisturbed in a way that made his light footfalls crunch slightly on the surface. She followed not far behind, her own steps hesitant. His fingers splayed, flames leaping to life at the brazier as he turned toward her. Evelyn stood with her wounded arm cradled, her knees turned inward, guarded. The injuries she'd sustained were healing, bruising growing lighter with each passing day, yet the aches remained. Tonight, while she'd rested in the command center, something extraordinary had occurred. The people, gathered in their shabby ranks, huddled against the freezing code, had sung a hymn. It was a hymn he'd heard before, the verses varied from generation to generation, yet the underlying meaning remained the same. Up and until this point, Evelyn Trevelyan had been simply a symbol, a story they told and only half-believed. Her legend was so much more than she could ever live up to be. With the simple matter of her resurrection from the grave, however, she had become so much more. The people believed in her power, in her divinity. They would follow her wherever she deigned to lead them.
There was opportunity in this.
"All apologies for taking you away," he began. She gave a short laugh in response.
"I don't mind. I felt as if they were about to crown me."
"They still might," Solas smiled slightly. "I wanted to speak to you alone."
"Yes," she replied softly. "I thought you might."
"The orb of which you spoke, the one Corypheus carried. It is elvhen."
Her eyes widened. "Oh."
"Yes. My fear is how people will react if they learn of its origin."
"Solas," she shook her head, frown forming. "I told you, I will do whatever I have to in order to ensure your safety."
"It isn't simply my safety I'm concerned for, Herald. But, thank you." Solas flexed his fingers toward the flame.
"I'm concerned for everyone right now. I haven't any idea where we go from here."
The smile appeared again. "I know where we go from here. We only need you to lead them. Rest, now. We'll set out in the morning."
She stepped backward, rocking unassuredly on her heels.
"Was there something else?" he asked.
"No," she said, the word sounding more like a question, "I had just thought...." Then, more firmly, "Nothing. I'm just tired. Thank you, Solas."
He watched her turn and make her way to the encampment, simultaneously praying and fearing that she would look back.
The days grew ever shorter as the mountain region entered winter. It had seemed to Solas that this region remained in perpetual winter, marked only by the slight increase in snow and chilling wind. They'd dwelled within these walls almost two weeks now, the bricks covered by elaborate scaffolding and cloth as the structure was re-invented. The Herald of Andraste was now Inquisitor Trevelyan, their rebellion was now a force to be reckoned with, they had been elevated to the level of legitimacy, and new recruits arrived daily, scrambling to find places to lay bedding. Solas had found his own place within the fortress, not far from the main hall. It was reasonably quiet, adjacent to the library, and spacious enough for his studies. It was in that library he stood, scanning the document before him. With irritation he lit another candle, fighting against the fading sunlight to finish his work. It had been mere hours since they found the astrarium, marking the star pattern Dorian Pavus had pigheadedly insisted was known as “Equinor.”
Did that grouping truly look like a horse to his ilk?
Since their journeys had uncovered these star-gazing instruments, The Inquisitor had taken a particular interest in the sky maps, often interrupting his work to ask him again to show her how to read the charts. Once he had suggested that she might be better satisfied by asking one of the mage scholars, but the crestfallen look on her face had convinced him that she was not happy with that solution. He wondered idly if perhaps that sharp-tongued elf on the floor above him was rude to her. He didn't dare imagine another reason she would so readily seek his counsel instead. Their conversations of late had become more intense, possessing a depth that surprised him.
Solas gently blew a puff of air over the vellum, hoping to speed the drying of his ink. The sun had set, and tonight there was no moon. Perhaps this would be a good time to tell her the story of these stars. A time to tell her… to tell her a great many things.
He ran the pad of this thumb over the small halla sketched in the lower right corner of the page. With consummate care, he rolled the vellum and secured it with string. Gathering up two larger books on elven lore and his folded star chart, he made for the hall. The door to the private wing stood ajar and he wondered if perhaps she had retired to her personal desk for the evening. All the better. Her balcony held the clearest view, unobstructed by thick glass or firelight.
Josephine exited the chamber door and closed it tightly behind her, startling slightly at the sight of him, arms full of materials. The ambassador surveyed his belongings slowly, then shook her head at him, a frown on her lips.
“The Inquisitor has received a missive from Field Marshall Savaugne. She is called to the Western Approach at first light. This is a delicate matter which requires her full attention.” Josephine once again regarded his books and paper. “Whatever this is can wait. Leave her be.”
Solas returned to his study and extinguished the lamp, the candle beside it.
Leave her be.
Yes. Perhaps that was the best advice.
He hoped he would follow it.
This section of plaster was set, it would need to dry overnight before he could add another color. Solas rocked back on his heels and smoothed a corner with his spade. It was arduous work, long since abandoned by the people for a reason: it took too damned long and made your fingers ache to the bone. But the effect was so perfectly realized; like a tapestry woven from stone instead of cloth. When it was finished, this room would gleam brighter than any jewel on her throne, any colored window glass in her great hall. This was his gift to the Inquisition: frozen frames of memory and conquest. One day, when their travels and travails had ended, he would tell her the meaning.
He looked forward to that day more than he liked to admit. The day when he could untie the mask each of them wore and let them meet as equals; bare-faced and without shame.
Scraping noises of wood on stone sounded in the space. From his vantage point on the scaffolding, he watched the Inquisitor enter the rotunda. She paused in the center of the room, seemingly bewitched by the fresco on the wall, head tilting to one side as she examined, her hands loose beside her. He descended the ladder, inadvertently startling her.
"Hello. I thought the Ambassador would keep you busy with the Duke."
“I met the Duke. I think we were equally unimpressed.”
He chuckled. “Do not let your associates hear you say so. You are the golden savior after all. Meets and greets with the local nobility should be your primary concern.”
“Your sarcasm wounds me.”
“Very little wounds you. It is among the reasons I find you so intriguing.”
“‘Intriguing’ is a strong word.”
“Not in the slightest," Solas stepped off the ladder to stand near her. "Simply an apt one." He followed her gaze, examining the panel he'd finished just two nights prior. "This room has long held such works, it is a place of storytelling, the walls are well suited for it, after all. It is always the same story, the story of Skyhold; although the characters and events change. This is your story." He threw her a sideways glance. "You should not look surprised. Skyhold is your fortress, why would it not contain your story?"
"It's beautiful," she breathed. "I don't know how you found the time."
Picking up a piece of oilcloth from the table near the wall, he wiped the plaster dust from his hands. "It's a slow-going process. Admittedly, I prefer to work in paint. But the stone in here is perfectly suited for this. It would be disrespectful to the wall to cover it with paint that would only flake and fade." Something in her eyes flickered when he mentioned the paint. "Oh," he continued. "I hope you do not mind the mural in your chamber. The loft seemed too empty to leave unadorned. I thought some reminder of victory and purpose would best serve as the guardian of your dreams. If you would prefer another scene, I could easily accomplish that when you next venture out."
He cleared his throat. He was talking too much, filling the space between them with words because he feared the heaviness of the silence that lingered when they stood too near, alone, as they were now.
"I wondered if that was you. It was surprising. Lovely... but surprising." She cocked her head. "Don't you sleep?" Then she gave a slight smile, downturned eyes, hint of blush as she realizes what a ridiculous question this is. Of course he sleeps.
"I do," he said wryly. He glanced at the overstuffed sofa beside them, piled high with books. "Despite all evidence to the contrary."
"You didn't ask for a bed."
"I'm accustomed to hard surfaces. The ground suits me just fine."
She pushed a small stack of tomes over to one side, perching herself on the edge of the cushion. Fingers folded, elegant in spite of the cuticles being rough and torn. She has been chewing at the nails again.
“But how have you been sleeping, Inquisitor? What is that saying? ‘Heavy is the head that wears the crown?’”
“Is it a crown?" she smirked. "Feels more like a noose. I think preferred the stocks.”
“Then I will ask that a set be installed presently. I know just where it will fit with your decor."
"I suppose you would, seeing how much time you spend in there while I'm away."
He raised his hands, "I am sorry for intruding. It was simply an attempt to make your accommodations more... accommodating."
"I didn't say I minded," she laughed. "But if you want to visit, you should simply ask when I'm here."
Another heavy silence hung between them. "This fortress is smaller than you imagine, Inquisitor. I wouldn't want any unsavory rumors."
She laughed again, "Sweet Andraste, Solas. I'm not asking you to sneak up in the middle of the night. I didn't think you'd have such a problem with an invitation to study in my study. Josephine mentioned she interrupted you...."
"Yes," he breathed, "I was trying to bring you star charts last week. She informed me you had business early in the morning, so I decided against it."
"And instead you painted Skyhold in glory in my loft while I attended to matters of state." Evelyn pushed herself up from the couch. "You are welcome to visit with star charts, or perhaps other lessons, whenever you'd like, Solas. There is nothing untoward about sharing knowledge."
"Other lessons?" he asked evenly.
"I've been meaning to learn a bit of Elvhen, actually," she folded her arms across her chest. "We're running into more Dalish. I want to appear welcoming."
"Of course, whatever I can do to help."
She smiled, "I'd hoped you'd say that. Goodnight, Solas. I hope you have pleasant dreams."
Evelyn closed the door behind her. Solas stood for a moment longer and then allowed himself to rest on the arm of the sofa. His mind whirled. Of course she wanted to learn some Elvhen, any good diplomat would. And she had expressed interest in the stars, hadn't she? If she thought it was appropriate, well. Above him, a distinct snickering noise sounded, prompting Solas to return to his fresco. If nothing else, at least this strange dance of theirs entertained the Tevinter.
“The accent is on the ‘ah’ in the second part of the phrase. Not to change emphasis it is more of a… think of it like a pause for breath. Take a breath there. That will help it flow more naturally.” He watched expectantly as she took a deep breath.
Solas smiled, dipped his head in acknowledgment. “Ma serannas, Inquisitor.”
“Why is it always ‘Inquisitor?’ So formal. I do not call you ‘mage.’”
“It is meant only as a sign of respect. I did not mean to offend.”
“You haven't. I had a question, if I may. You called Sera 'Lethallin.' I've read the texts in the library. ‘Lethallin’ is for a man. Lethallin, man, Lethallan, woman.”
“Ah.” He laid his fingertips on the edge of the table, tracing its fine carving. “That is a matter of time and semantics, I’m afraid. My Elvhen is closer to that of the ancient language than the Dalish dialect. Ancient elves did not feel greetings, endearments, needed to be gender specific. After all, ancient elves were not male or female, they were of the people. One heart, one voice, one spirit. ‘Lin’ means, quite literally, blood. Are women not also made of the same blood?”
“I suppose they are. When did it change?”
“That I cannot tell you, it happened without my input.”
Evelyn laughed, her chinks flushing pink. As her head shook, he noticed the ends of her hair were still damp from her earlier bath, the overall aura of fresh cream and roses bore all the hallmarks of one of the Lady Ambassador's Orlesian concoctions. This strange intimacy of being in her chambers, seeing her so disarmed and dressed down was nearly overwhelming. She glanced up again, above his head, toward the elaborate mural. He had stayed his hand from keeping the image too flowery, too overly ornate. It was a constant struggle he had in his art, keeping his thoughts and heart out of what flowed from his hand. Years ago, someone with eyes not unlike hers had told him that he betrayed himself when he created. You cannot hide from me, not when I see the secrets in your mind in every petal of every rose. His eyes flicked back to her, surprised to find she now stared directly at him. A clatter from the stair broke their gaze, a young girl with a tray stopped at the top of the stair.
"It's my nightly draught," she said with an edge of dismay. Solas nodded and began to gather up his books. "Would you stay?" Evelyn asked, a little too quickly. "Just for a bit longer. I have things I've been meaning to ask you. About this place, specifically. You seem to have quite a bit of knowledge about it. Surely you have stories to share. She indicated the chairs by the fire.
"I do," he said cautiously. "You would want to hear them? Really?" She continued to surprise, especially when it came to her curiosity, her willingness to learn ideas and histories contrary to what her studies taught her. It was part of what made her an object of endless fascination.
"It was Elvhen, originally," Solas settled into his chair. "Not this structure, but the levels beneath, the foundation. The first Fereldans to explore this part of the mountains found it and destroyed it, ground the structure down to the foundation and built this fortress atop the remains. Almost nothing, save some foundational structures, is original, everything above has been built and rebuilt over the centuries. Despite the desolation and rebuilding, the layout has remained similar over the ages, something that has puzzled the historians who have studied such ruins. It is almost as if the fortress knows how it wants to be built. And it has been occupied, on and off, for ages."
He laughed, glanced over at her, "You're certain you want to hear this?" She smiled in response. "I could tell you instead of the legends. This place holds the clays and stones of multiple civilizations, many races and ancestries marks are on these walls. The Rivani called it 'Where Hold the Sky,' and it was a trading post during the Tan Empire. The stories of that time tell of a mysterious and unseen trader, granting goods like wishes. The Orlesians called it 'Skyholde' and their version was more a utopia than fortress, replete with flying nugs and rainbow-colored dragons blowing bubbles. There are even tales of Tevinter occupation, with some artwork uncovered that shows a building of similar facade piercing the sky. And of course, every notable ghost, highwayman, and banished disgraced nobleman has a connection to some version of this place. Built and rebuilt, as I said, in the same patterns throughout history. But the Elvhen structure that first stood here has never been replicated, not properly. In the Divine Age, ownership passed to an enchanter by the name of Ganot. Ganot fancied himself a scholar of Elvhen histories, and thought himself knowledgeable in both their structures and artifacts. He took it upon himself to restore the great spire that once stood in what is now your courtyard."
He paused before continuing, "The spires that Ganot constructed all burned and melted, for his attempts at construction brought about a mysterious storm. Ganot himself did not survive the attempt, he cried out in agony until he succumbed to his wounds, his limbs gradually turning to ash and blowing away in the wind. His apprentice scholar wrote his last words, to be included in one of the histories of this place. 'It does not want to be discovered.' Scholars have puzzled over these words for generations, but one thing is clear: whoever built this place did not want its secrets to be unlocked."
The bottle grew emptier and her questions about navigation and ancient ruins gave way to idle gossip.
“Did you know?”
He hoped she could not see his slight smirk in the half-light. “About The Iron Bull and Pavus? I had some… idea.” Setting down his cup, he turned toward her with a conspiratorial look. “The rounded walls of that tower they do… ah, echo at times.” He leaned back, with a laugh. “Do not look so scandalized. I heard whispered conversations, nothing more. Enough of the words came through clearly enough to realize I was not overhearing casual discussion of the weather or dinner.”
The fire crackled as they each considered their next words carefully. Their silences, once comfortable and contemplative, had recently become… charged. Anxious, waiting, as if each were fearful of what the other might say. Or perhaps “fearful” wasn’t the right word. Apprehensive? Expectant? Anticipative?
“I…” he began slowly, clearing his throat. “That is, does it bother you? The Iron Bull and Dorian? To know that they are having this personal… dalliance? Either because it distracts from their duties or because it perhaps denies you something you sought in one or the other?”
The look on her face released a staccato laugh from him. “I am sorry. Sorry. I should not have assumed. I will admit I do not always understand what human women find attractive, and The Iron Bull seems to have his fair share of admirers. As for Dorian, I feared you might be misplacing your affections. I do not think his interests lie in your gender. I will not attempt to decipher your romantic yearnings in the future.” She had turned in her position on the chair, legs tucked up in front of her in an almost childlike way, leaning to peer at him from just behind the wing. The silence held for just a second too long, the gaze lingering a moment longer than it should have.
Solas stood abruptly, upsetting the cushion from his chair. “You… you should sleep. I think that’s quite enough for tonight. Besides, you likely have duties to attend to.”
She followed, standing hesitantly by the stairs as he made his way down, calling as he opened the door into the hall. “But you’ll come again tomorrow?”
He willed his hand not to shake as it clutched the knob. “Ma nuvenin, Evelyn.”
Emprise du Lion was not nearly as regal as its name would imply. Instead of a charming village, they found a cluster of ruined buildings, with the threat of red lyrium-addled templars looming in the surrounding woods. Camp was established slightly outside what remained of Sahrnia, with small tents huddled together around a fire. The party that accompanied the Inquisitor was small by design, the theory being that a smaller group could go undetected for at least a short time, with reinforcements arriving once the village had been secured. Solas was surprised he had been included in this group, but the Inquisitor had been nothing if not surprising as of late. Seeking his counsel more and more often, asking him to accompany her on scouting missions. Solas sat near the cooking fire, taking a roll of cloth from his pack and gently unwinding it to admire the stone contained within in the fire’s light. It was an object of immeasurable age, taken from the pocket of a templar they felled on the road behind them. How he had come across such an artifact, let alone what he planned to do with the object was truly a point of bewilderment. Turning the stone over in his hand, he examined the carvings, now visible in the flicker of light.
Boots beside him then, boots attached to impossibly long legs. “Is it important?”
“Perhaps.” He handed it up to her, red rock with greenish gold runes glimmering in her fingers. “We will research it back at Skyhold, see if I can discern its origin.”
“You don’t know where it’s from?” she held it up to her face. “That seems… unusual.”
He laughed. “My not knowing something is hardly unusual.” Wolves howled in the distance; the moon was rising. “You should be getting off to sleep. Dawn will come early, and with it many demands of your time and attention.”
“I think we’re bunking together,” she sighed. “Dorian and Iron Bull laid claim to the other tent, and the scouts are four deep in theirs.”
A long moment of silence.
“I could sleep out here,” he said at last, carefully choosing his words. “I do not mind the ground. It would not be the first time.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, it’s freezing out here.”
“I do not mind the cold, either.”
“You’re being stubborn.”
“Only practical. How would it look for you to take me into your tent?”
Another long silence.
“How would it look for me to leave one of my inner circle out in the cold? When the others arrive?” A light snow began to fall as she spoke, causing her to shrug at him. “See? Inhumane conditions.”
The tent was cramped, small, two bedrolls with barely a third of a foot of space between them. He cleared his throat and sat on one of the rolls, his legs folded beneath him. Evelyn sat opposite, taking down her hair from its pins. When she reached to undo the neck of her jacket, he laid back, turned on his side to face the canvas wall, listening to the soft rustle of clothing, the scratch of her boots against the roll as she kicked them off. It was what it was like, now, in her presence. Acutely, painfully aware of every movement, every motion, every breath. She moved in slow motion whenever she was near, haunting his moments. She settled in behind him, easing out a long breath of exhaustion and relief as she reclined.
“Sometimes it feels like this is happening to another person.”
He rolled over, startled to find she was facing him, perched on the edge of her own roll, hands tucked under her head. “I think that is how everyone thrust into importance must feel,” he whispered, not trusting his voice not to crack.
She laughed slightly. “I suppose that’s true. I never think about that. It’s too hard to imagine I’m the only one,” she affected a tone of mock seriousness, then, “Thank you for keeping me grounded, Solas. I can always count on you to keep me in my place.”
“Happy to oblige,” he responded quietly. In the distance, a familiar squeal followed by hushed laughter. “I cannot escape the two of them, no matter where I go, it seems.”
She leaned in impossibly close then, their faces a finger’s breadth apart. “Tuck the blankets round your ears. It helps blot them out.” Her breath was warm and smelled of salt and fresh herbs. Likely the tea he’d watched her sip earlier. She lingered there, close enough to cause a shiver of electric tension to overtake him. “Goodnight, Solas.”
He laid back, staring at the ceiling and willing his breathing to calm, listening to her breath grow slower and even. There would be no sleep for him tonight, not with the less than half a foot of space that existed between them while she slept, her face tucked into her chest for warmth. A spill of hair had come loose from her elaborate blanket cocoon and now lay across her cheek. Solas considered moving it back into place, two fingers catching the strand and tucking it back, perhaps grazing her ear in the process. Her eyes would open, finding him so very close and something would shift between them.
The kiss would start slowly. Foreheads bumping, noses grazing one another. Gentle and soft, it would continue until she opened the blankets, inviting him in. There, on the shared bedroll, he would no longer be able to keep things gentle, nor soft.
Dorian and Iron Bull deserved a turn at being scandalized.
She roused suddenly, causing his ears to flush with uncomfortable heat. He again slipped onto his back, stared at the ceiling. Fortunately, she hadn't caught him staring at her like some kind of ravenous animal.
"Have you not slept?" she asked drowsily. "I thought I would have trouble with the cold."
"Sometimes," he said carefully, "the act of rest is more helpful than the act of sleep." Solas pushed himself up on one elbow, careful to avoid leaning too close. "It is not the cold, Inquisitor. I just have much weighing on my mind." A heavy moment of silence passed between them. "About our expedition here, I mean. There are Elvhen ruins nearby I am anxious to visit."
She pulled her legs up suddenly, grazing his side with her knees. The flesh beneath his tunic burned as if she were made of molten lead. He shifted uncomfortably, attempting to make himself small against the wall of the tent. She turned to him, eyes glinting in the dim of the tent.
"You were correct, however. The temperature is quite unpleasant. I should thank you, then, for the invitation. It would have been most unfortunate to find me a frozen in the morning. I am not nearly as effectual when iced over." Despite his attempts to push away, they seemed closer than ever. He could feel her warm breath on the place where his neck met his shoulder, causing the uncomfortable warmth to flood over him once again, in spite of the chill.
An almost imperceptible shiver then, from Evelyn. "Are you too cold?" he asked, shifting closer before he thought better of it. "Here," he lifted the edge of his own blanket. "It's big enough. I can remain here and you can use more than half." He pulled the blanket across so it rested on her shoulders. He withdrew his hand and it accidentally grazed hers beneath the shared cover, fingers sliding over one another. "Your hand," he said slowly, quietly. "It's like ice." He took the offending hand in both of his own, willing warmth into her fingertips. Her free hand rose in startled reaction, finding his arm and extracting from him an uncomfortable laugh-gasp that he immediately regretted, because she then drew away. "How are you so cold? What do you do in your castles when the winter winds grow fierce and no amount of cover can keep out the chill?"
Without waiting for a response, he adjusted his grip to her forearm and pulled her to him, turning her slowly in the process. Her head tucked beneath his chin, arms folded before her, wrist still held in his own grip. His knees slid behind hers, his feet resting neatly under her own. "When I was... younger," he said quietly, "we were taught to sleep like this when travels took us through the mountains. Of course," he paused, swallowed hard, "it works better with more bodies, but we can make do with just two."
The wind outside the tent howled, shaking the canvas flaps. "I think there will likely be another few feet of snow when we wake," he murmured. "Travel might be slow." Discussing the mundane kept the mind busy, distracted. Solas hoped it would be enough to keep his body from betraying how her proximity affected him.
The wind continued its unearthly roar, howl of wolves in the distance, she shifted against him and he stared at a fixed point on the far wall in a fruitless attempt to distract himself.
"I would have suggested this myself," she said, edge of yawn in her voice, "if I had not believed you would bolt out into the ice. You seem to run any time I get lean too close. I thought you were afraid of me.
At this, he let loose a low laugh deep in his throat. "Do you believe I startle so easily, Inquisitor? My concerns were for your reputation, I assure you. I am not afraid of you, despite the tales others might tell."
She moved her head slightly, her hair rubbing against his jaw. "Evelyn. If we're sleeping like nesting spoons, we can use first names, please. Now, what tales?"
"Didn't you know?" he asked with a tone of mock surprise, "The people might love you, but the Chantry faithful spread the sordid truth. You dance naked bathed in the blood of infants beneath the light of the full moon, drunk on rift power. You feast on virgins to regain your strength and practice forbidden spirit rituals to lure men to their deaths. Fortunately, I am not an infant, so my blood is safe, and it has been many years since I was considered innocent. Now, if you're going to lure me to my death, you're not doing a very convincing job of it... unless you plan to smother me with my own bedding."
Her fingers grazed his arm. A sudden vision of turning her over, separating her knees with his own and pressing her back against the hard ground. He cleared his throat and shifted his arm away slightly. He steered the topic back to their travels. "There's a shrine nearby, to Ghilan'nain. A very old one, predating the first Dalish clans. I visited it once in my youth and it remains a place I think of often, and fondly."
Only silence then between them, his heart thundering in his chest. The wind died down, the only sound that of swiftly falling snow and the occasional beat of a night-bird's wings in the dark. She shifted against him, releasing a lazy yawn. Clearly she needed rest, and as she relaxed, rocking into him in her maddening way, he felt his own mind drift. His dreams were of sunlit hills in the valley in which he was born, his skin warm, feelings of comfort as his fingers were gripped tightly in an act of love, security.
Solas awoke suddenly to daylight peeking through the tent's door, shocked to find his face buried in her hair, lips pressed against the place where her spine met shoulder. His fingers were laced with her own, hand drawn up tight against her chest with his arm encircling her rib cage. She had shifted half onto her stomach in her sleep, with his own body following suit, legs entwined with hers. He carefully extracted himself, ignoring the way the soft sighs she made in her sleep left him feeling raw. With his legs drawn up, arms wrapped around his knees, he took a grounding breath.
It was best to be outdoors when the others woke.
The world beyond his tent was painted over in dazzling white, the fresh snow covering every available surface. Already a few of the men were digging paths from the tents to the campfire, attempting to fight a losing battle against the blowing drifts. The journey would be slow-going, and tricky.
Dorian stepped out of his tent, face contorted by angry shock. "We're not going to travel in this, are we? This is beyond comprehension."
"It's snow," said Iron Bull, stretching behind Pavus, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "You have seen snow before, haven't you? You walk through it, you push it around. It doesn't exactly bite."
Evelyn emerged then, wrapping a thick coat over her shoulders. She positively grinned at Solas. "Sleep well?"
Despite all the deceptions he'd built around him like tiny walls, he did try to answer most of her questions as truthfully as possible. It was easy to avoid the harsher parts of the truth, when necessary, while still remaining steadfast to his vow. Discreetly vague statements, clever turns of phrase, artfully placed humor, all had served him quite well up and until this point. Regardless, he ignored both his unspoken rule and the screaming exhaustion of his body.
"Yes," he returned her smile, "quite comfortably."
Most evenings ended with the chronicle. Writing down an accurate account of what was seen, what was done, what was learned would help them going forward. Most of the approach of the Inquisition was to hack and slash their way through this world, Solas took it upon himself to ensure they remembered everything that was gained; everything that was lost.
It also provided a necessary distraction from his thoughts, inflamed past the point of comfort after their shared tent in the Emprise. As of late they had been...
“Red. Swirling warm blood fills your ears and palms when you look at her. Cannot look too long, it is like staring at the sun. Leaves spots before your eyes in her shape. The feeling like a sore, deep inside you. Festers, pains, ground down deep try to hide it. Cannot. It eats at you. The truth is an infection.”
Solas dropped his pencil. “I did not hear you come in, Cole,” he said evenly. “I believe we had a conversation about knocking?"
Cole sat at the edge of the table and stared at him, wide-eyed. “Yes. I remember.”
The two regarded one another for a moment before the elf sighed and closed the journal. “Was there something you needed?”
“I felt it, from up where I rest. Pain like a punch. Why do you not let the words out? The words hurt you to keep secret.”
“I suppose that is true.” Solas leaned back in his chair, fingers folded before his face. “Sometimes, Cole, we keep things inside and allow them to damage us, because the damage caused by letting them out could be much, much worse.”
Heels drumming against the desk as Cole rocked, “But you love her. And you cannot keep it a secret forever. It makes you clumsy in your words, in your actions. You know it cannot stay in.”
“Perhaps you are right. But that is my decision to make. And while I appreciate the insight, I would also appreciate you not mentioning it again. Now if you will excuse me, I have much to do. We travel to the Winter Palace tomorrow, you know.”
"Yes." Cole slipped off the table, hazarding a glance back at Solas. “Would you like to know how she feels?”
His eyes snapped shut as if he’d been struck. “No,” he said weakly. “No. I think I would prefer to hear that from her.”
“Then you should ask her. She won’t mind.” And with that, Cole vanished from the room.
The Duke was as good as his word, and the accommodations at what he had deemed his “hunting lodge” were substantial. Their party arrived the night prior to the ball, exhausted and dusty from the ride, and were sorted into individual rooms. Solas found his own more than ample, with ceilings arching high and reliefs etched in gold foil lining the corners. He stood in the direct center, bare feet flexing against the plush rug, wondering at the absurdity of it all. The Inquisition had gone from sleeping in wooden outbuildings to the decrepit fortress, and the idea of opulence had seemed absurd because of these arrangements. Even the colors hurt to look directly at, this messy display of wealth. Gaudy, really. How he wished he could be more offended by it. Right now, all he wanted to do was sink into the expanse of expensive linen and silk on the high-piled bed and lose himself for a few hours before dinner.
Beds were a luxury he was still adjusting to, having spent more than a few months sleeping alternately on ground or bed roll. His new perch in Skyhold had a couch, which seemed downright decadent - lumps and stabbing springs and all. The Inquisitor had one day appeared in his doorway, a devilish gleam in her eye and dragged him up the stairs to the second floor. He had protested - things to do, items to sort - and also felt a strange unfamiliar bubble in his chest at her hand on his arm, pulling him to somewhere secret. He feared and marveled at what she could possibly have planned.
It turned out to be a room of his own. One she had painstakingly arranged herself, that much was obvious. Simple furnishing, with a fire burning bright in the wall opposite the door and the floors freshly scrubbed. She’d presented it with a grand flourish of her arms and looked quite satisfied with herself.
“You want me to sleep here?” he’d asked. She looked positively crestfallen, and he’d felt himself instantly feeling a desperate need to please her. And so he attempted to sleep in the room. The first night he’d laid awake, dealing with the unfamiliar sounds of the courtyard below, the strange rustling creaks the bed made when he rolled from one side to the other. The next morning, weary and stiff, he’d made his way down to the dining hall to find her waiting for him. She was so eager to hear how he’d slept, what dreams he’d had, if it had been different to wake under that ceiling instead of his own.
Unable to lie to her, he’d instead stretched the details of his restless night. How he drifted to the sounds of the workers in the courtyard, bedding down the plants to protect them from the frost. How he heard the songs of Mother Giselle, how her voice was more raspy and wisened than Leliana’s. How he rose to the calls of the ravens, returning from their night flights with messages for the castle. Despite his sore neck, he smiled at her and thanked her for the gift. The smile she returned made his heart thud painfully in his ribcage.
He was in love with her. Hopelessly, stupidly in love with her. It always hit him like an arrow to the stomach: knocking the wind out of him and forcing him to believe he might die at any moment. That he had other duties was irrelevant to his heart. That she was the Inquisitor meant nothing to the pulsing blood that thundered when she drew near. That she would panic and claw and run when she learned the truth was shoved down and buried beneath hot flushes of lust and adoration that consumed him when he so much as thought of her.
Never let the Dread Wolf catch your scent. The Dalish did get some things right, even if they misinterpreted what exactly the warning meant. It was meant to bring mercy, but not to his prey. When he fell in love - and it had been quite some time since he had fallen so - it was total devastation. Wars had been started over less. He knew this, for he had been the one that started them.
Dinner with the Duke was relatively mundane. He found himself disinvited from the main dining hall and had his supper with the other elves, where elves belonged: in the kitchen. It was a slight he was becoming painfully more and more familiar with. When one followed The Inquisitor, one became accustomed to standing in the shadows. If she were truly as uncomfortable with her position as she claimed, she never betrayed this. She carried herself with every pretense of royal blood, a statuesque vision in either armor or finery. How could he compare to the shining ivory tower that was their Inquisitor? No, it was best to bow and defer.
Don’t forget your place, elf.
He excused himself before the game of Wicked Grace began, choosing a back hallway to return to his quarters, up a winding stair, into the darkened cavern of the upper floors.
“Solas.” Her voice had this unnerving quality that felt as if she were shaking him by the spine. This is what it was like to hear your love speak your name, he thought. As if they were slowly undoing you from within.
“Did you tire of the party, Inquisitor?” he asked quietly, a slight smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Or simply the company?”
She was dressed in floor-length silver, a white snowfleur cape draped around her shoulders. Someone had combed out her hair with great delicacy, leaving thick waves spilling down her back. “I…” she trailed off, made a useless gesture with her hand, slumping suddenly against the railing, as if the weight of being her had become too much to bear. “Do you ever feel as if you’ll never truly have a moment to yourself? Never be really alone again?”
“I am sorry,” he responded, bowing stiffly. “I should leave you.”
“No,” she said a little too quickly. Something in her tone gave him pause. “No. Will you walk with me for awhile? There is a gallery. We could just walk.”
He nodded once in acquiescence.
Later, with the lights extinguished and the hallways outside grown quiet, Solas lay awake in his bed, replaying the hour they’d spent wandering the abandoned gallery. Her laughter echoing inappropriately in the stately room. The moment where she’d paused, her hand finding his arm before she pointed out a particularly exquisite carved wood. The way her cheeks flushed before she pulled her hand away, the breathless moment where something passed between them, heavy, electric. It almost felt like anticipation. It was not the first time he had felt such a moment with her. There was an evening in the library, right after they had moved into Skyhold, that she passed too closely behind him. Startled, he turned and they ended up with their faces only inches apart. She looked up at him, let out a sudden puff of air that he felt against his lower lip. The reaction in his body was the same, the dizzy feeling of his circulatory system reversing itself, all of time standing still.
Solas turned to one side, fell into a restless sleep. He dreamed of the woods outside of Haven, in a time where they were still unspoiled by blood and fire. The snow fell lazily around him, soft and blanketing. And, as if the dream were a wish, she stood on the edge of the trees, still in that silvery dress.
“So much for time alone?” he quipped, finding himself by her side in that wonderfully instant way dreams had.
“Is this real?” she asked, looking up at the sky, blinking against the snowflakes that battered her eyelashes.
“Of course it’s real,” he said, shaking his head. “The question is which reality it is.”
“Earlier…” she began, her voice faltering as she frowned. “That… I don’t know what that was.”
“You felt it too.”
“Yes. I believe I did.”
She reached up then, hesitantly, fingers cold against his cheek. Carefully, as if she would break him, she raised her lips and pressed them against his, sighing softly against his mouth before she withdrew. With a wordless apology, she turned from him and against all better judgment, he found himself grabbing her by the waist, pulling her back to him. He forced her lips apart roughly, his hand tangled in the hair at the back of her head, the other holding her hip in place. If they were to be damned for things done in dreams, he would make it such a fall.
They broke apart, her face turning to his shoulder, breath ragged.
“That was…” she breathed against his shirt.
“Yes,” he said, his own voice rough in his throat. “And I think it best we both wake up.”
His eyes opened, sunlight poured through the crack in the drapes.
The day was busy with preparations, and he didn’t catch a glimpse of Evelyn through all the bustle. At five, a porter delivered a ridiculously formal army uniform for him. All red coat and blue sash and a ludicrous hat that made him look like an overdressed onion bulb when he donned it. For all the Inquisition’s pomp and circumstance, their fashion did leave much to be desired. He hoped that he would at least be in good company, with the other strange assembly of companions wearing suitably clownish attire. With great relief, he saw the other male members of his party dressed similarly uncomfortably - although they seemed to have dodged the hat part. It made him wonder if his own hairlessness somehow offended the citizenry of Orlais.
Not that it would surprise him.
All of his snark disappeared when they met in the grand foyer, Inquisitor Trevelyan waiting to lead them. Her hair, usually a long and unruly affair, was carefully coiled on top of her head. A small crown of grape leaves flanked the coils, matching the gold leaf belt at her waist. The gown was pale blue, like the sea on an overcast day, delicately woven into vine and branch patterns that seemed to cover her as if she were the cause of their sprouting. The fabric gathered and clung in ways that defied the laws of nature, moving and shimmering with her more as an extension of her form than a cover. She would be the envy of all in attendance.
And the desire of many, he realized with a dry lump forming in this throat.
Her station had garnered her attention throughout her life, and the elevation to Inquisitor had expanded her reach farther still. Yet he could not deny that even without title or position, she would turn heads wherever she stepped. Inquisitor Trevelyan was a great beauty, and no amount of battle grime or blood or tarnished armor could disguise that. Seeing her so adorned was completely breathtaking. He feared he was not the only one who noticed. There were likely courtship candidates already clamoring throughout Ferelden, and now the suitable suitors of Orlais would join them. How long could he hope to vie for her attention when the world came calling? Men of status and stature far above his own. Men who would bring her love and happiness and not mar her good name with their mere presence.
He had already noticed Commander Cullen’s long stares, the nervous way he rubbed the back of his neck when she entered a room. The vision of the Commander carrying her down that slope, her head resting on his shoulder, had haunted Solas every night since. That should have been me. The nagging thought that wouldn’t abate. Cullen, with the broad shoulders and the perfect lion’s mane of hair. Cullen, sitting by her side, worrying about her health. Eventually, she would realize that the Commander was a more appropriate choice to bestow her affections on. Cullen was the one who stood beside her now, in a place fitting. They did make an attractive couple - he in his military dress, she a vision in glimmering blue. Solas wondered idly if they would dance later this evening. If perhaps that would be the moment that she would see her adviser in a new light, a warmer light. The thought caused him to sneer slightly, eyes narrowed. Leliana handed the elf a cup of wine just then, looking at him with concern. He regained his composure. “I… do not care for social affairs,” he offered as the party prepared to depart.
This, of course, was a most vicious lie. He could not deny the thrill approaching the palace gave him. The sight of the burning lamps, the sound of distant music, the polite conversation all around a dull roar. It was a life he had once known and sometimes missed terribly. The intrigue and the drama, the heady mix of sex and betrayal that filled such gatherings. It was intoxicating. Ahead of him, Cullen Rutherford leaned in and whispered something to the Inquisitor that made her laugh. Solas felt his jaw clench and hoped that he would be able to enjoy himself.
The ball was a standard affair of overblown formality. They were introduced individually as they entered the grand ballroom, his own title, “elven servant,” filling him with both irritation and giddy delight. Solas pushed past the noblewomen gathered at the top of the stair, trying to get a better look at the Inquisitor and her entourage, and headed for the garden. He told himself that this would be a better place to eavesdrop, to gather information that might be of use, not wanting to admit that he simply didn’t want to watch her be wooed. He plucked a goblet from a passing serving girl and settled into his new vantage point.
At least the food and wine was freely flowing, even if the party failed to entertain. And although he had listened, unnoticed, to many private conversations, all he had gleaned was idle gossip about who was wearing cheap imitation couture, which noblemen were bedding the servant girls, which noblemen were bedding the servant boys, and where someone named Lady DuFomphe had spent her summer (in Valeance, can you imagine?). Just as he was about to find the nearest fruit display, Inquisitor Trevelyan entered the side garden, stopping all conversation. She smiled demurely, made her way past the small groups of gathered guests, and placed both hands on the marble railing. Solas finished the cup in his hand quickly and moved to join her.
“This is exhausting,” she sighed, turning to place her back against the rail, hands tucked prettily behind her. It was a coquettish pose he was unaccustomed to seeing from her. Sometimes it was easy to forget that she was a lady, but then again he generally saw her hacking the heads off beasts, or hauling her battered and bruised self back to her quarters. They had little time to observe one another in more polite settings.
“It is, but it is important to play. It is what they expect of you. You have to be everything, to everyone. It is all they want,” he smiled slyly. “Not too high a demand.”
“You almost sound as if you’re enjoying yourself.”
“I am,” he straightened the hem of his jacket, reclining on the rail beside her. “Wandering the woods, alone, does not exactly compare to playing at intrigue over fine Antivan vintage.”
“Well,” she sighed, laughing slightly. “At least one of us is having a good time.”
In the doorway, Josephine appeared, looking disapproving. She gestured to the Inquisitor to come back inside.
“It would seem I am being summoned.”
“It would appear so. Do not look so worried. They generally will not eat the guest of honor alive until after the dancing has concluded.”
“Oh? That is a comfort. Thank you, Solas.”
She pushed off the rail, heading back inside. Then she paused, turned.
“Would you care to dance?”
Solas felt his mouth grow dry, forced his face to remain impassive. “I care for dancing a great deal, but I think you might need to find a more suitable partner. Being seen dancing with the ‘elven servant’ does not do you many favors in this crowd.”
“I hate that they called you that.”
“It is, more or less, my title. Preferable to ‘apostate mage,’ at any rate. Now go, before you fall from favor.”
She hesitated again, as if wanting to say something more, then thought better of it and headed through the glass doors. The orchestra began to play, someone laughed in a high-pitched way, almost hysterically, somewhere a bird trilled, woken from its evening slumber by all the noise. Solas noticed all these things faintly, beneath the clamoring thunder of his own heart.
Later that night, they would meet again, in the same garden. She was a bit paler, the whole elaborate scheme clearly taking its toll. She stood beside him once again, silent. “I must say, Inquisitor, you do have a way of livening up a party,” he quipped. She smiled slightly, still staring off into the distance.
“This place was Elvhen? This palace?”
“The place, yes. Not the palace. This was built later, on top of the ruins of Halamshiral.” Solas raised his arm overhead, making a grand sweeping gesture. The towering white castle above crumbled like sand and faded away, leaving only the dark and the green. “Halamshiral was the capital, and it was something to behold,” he spoke quietly, moving his hands in arcs and whorls. Beneath his fingertips, and ethereal framework began to take shape. Great silver and crystal spires rising overhead, stretching toward the heavens. They swirled like smoke, one moment clear and defined and the next fading away. “All was lost during the Exalted March.” Solas fluttered his fingers, and the smoky cityscape fell to the ground at once. “The Dales forgot what once was, and the memory of the glory of Halamshiral was reduced to piles of brick and ash.”
She shivered beside him. “This is a dream."
“It is. It was the only way I knew I could dance with you. Without ruining you completely,” he extended a hand to her.
He woke with the smell of fresh lavender and vanilla all around him.
May the dread wolf never catch your scent.
It was a warning, yes. But not to her, not to his intended prey. It was a mercy. He was in love, and it was the type of love that could destroy. It was the scent of her hair clinging to him even now, the way she always smelled of the outdoors when she pushed her way into the hall upon a return, the feeling of her weight in his arms, even in a dream. May the dread wolf never catch your scent. Like Halamshiral before, all the walls of his heart would come crumbling down.
The sunlight and noise were disconcerting, in a way that only truly affects those who are feeling the effects of overindulgence the night before. His head pounded, sharp pain behind his eyes, but the question of which overindulgence sparked the headache remained. Was it overly rich food and too free-flowing drink, or was it because he had once again given in, despite his better judgment?
He tossed his pack onto the saddle, wincing as someone dropped a heavy trunk behind him. He turned to see two of Cullen’s men, the commander himself striding up toward them. “Just put that in the… Maker’s breath, Solas, as you all right?” the commander’s concern slid into a knowing smile. “Too much merriment before the action? Or perhaps after? I dare say more than one of us is suffering from that particular malady this morning. Orlesians do love their wine.”. He jutted his chin toward where Iron Bull reclined under a shady tree, waving away Dorian’s attempts to help him to his feet. “We’re a sorry lot today, I’m afraid. Hope that we don’t have any trouble on the road. Not a one looks battle-ready.”
As if she had heard this cue, Evelyn stepped into the courtyard, looking herself a bit pallid. Dark circles under her eyes betrayed a fitful sleep, and Solas felt the familiar rise of warm shame. Her eyes met his and his blood went cold. The presence of encompassing knowing was held in her gaze. That will be an uncomfortable discussion, once they were back at Skyhold.
Cullen pushed past him, a hand raised in a gesture of apology as he made his way toward The Inquisitor. He had some pressing matter to discuss with her, Solas was sure. Something that would require them to ride side-by-side, to further the discussion. Nothing untoward, of course, just a meeting of equals on the road together, strategizing as they were wont to do. How many times could the commander attempt this tactic, before he decided to make his move? Something in the bold way the man stood now, his back to Solas, arms folded in front of him instead of worrying the back of his hairline in that nervous way he had, showed that there was not much time remaining before he would make a public declaration.
Solas was certain the wedding would be lovely.
He slid up onto his horse, finding Iron Bull slumped on his own mount alongside him. “Here,” the Qunari said, tossing him a waterskin.
“What is it?” Solas asked, unscrewing the top and grimacing at the pungent stench that wafted from within.
“Probably best not to ask that. The Qunari call it Kata-asaara. It’s a disinfectant, and a hell of a hangover cure.”
Solas took a swig from the bottle, pleading with his stomach to keep it in place. “Death breath,” he exhaled weakly. “Yes. The name is apt.”
Iron Bull laughed and slapped him on the back roughly. “You’ll be singing its praises in no time. If you can keep it down, that is. And, Solas, I wouldn’t lean in toward any open flames for a while."
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
The ride back from Halamshiral felt much longer than it was. The world had gone red and grey, the headache pounding in pulse with his heart while his guts positively roiled. He managed a queasy sideways scowl at The Iron Bull, who grinned maniacally back at him. By the time they reached the main road, he was fighting whether to cry or vomit. His head throbbed with every strike of the horse's hoof, his eyes squinted shut against the relentless sun. When they rested the first night, he felt awash in relief, crawling into his tent and passing out almost immediately. The morning sun brought a fresh new pain: the cringing embarrassment of remembrance left alone in a now-clear mind.
There were very specific, important reasons he was part of this Inquisition, and unnecessary romantic entanglements was not among those reasons. He had come into this organization, adopted this facade, with a singular purpose, one he could not stray from. And then Evelyn Trevelyan had stumbled into his plans and messed everything up. What had started with a simple fascination with her predicament in absorbing the anchor had developed into a foolish schoolboy crush he had told himself he could ignore. When that schoolboy crush had crossed over into lustful thoughts, he dismissed them as a natural reaction to their close quarters. Love was never to be part of the equation. Yet, time and time again she had stumbled back into his mind, into his dreams, refusing to be ignored.
He rode on, several horses behind hers, watching the back of her head as she traveled. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, leaving her neck bare. Her collar had irritated the skin where her neck met her shoulder, leaving a red mark. She rubbed at it now, slender fingers worrying the place and readjusting her shirt. He felt the pangs in his chest, the desire to be the one to attempt to soothe that spot with his own touch. This need to be with her was bordering on obsession. He thought back to all the times he had very nearly taken advantage of her vulnerability. In his dreams, how close he had come to crossing that line, telling himself that it didn't matter there, that neither of them could get hurt, all the while knowing full well it was a lie. There was a night, frozen in a tent outside the shine he desperately wanted to visit in Emprise du Lion where he had become concerned he had gone too far; waking so wrapped around her that any casual observer would have thought them lovers. She had never mentioned it, however, and he believed himself to be in the clear.
Skyhold bustled with activity as they entered the gates, the noise and confusion of various parties sorting through crates, packs, and the matter of the prisoner they transported provided Solas with an opportunity to slip away, hauling his own belongings up the steps and into the hall. His hand was on the door to his study when he heard the hurried footsteps behind him.
"Solas?" Evelyn now stood less than ten feet away. "I was hoping to have a word with you."
Josephine and Cassandra appeared behind her, arguing about some piece of paper Cassandra waved in the air. "Inquisitor," the Lady Ambassador said, an edge of irritation in her voice. "If we could beg your input on this matter, it seems we have come to an impasse."
"Of course," Evelyn smoothed the edges of her riding jacket against her hips and made to follow them. "Solas, we can speak later?"
"Of course," he echoed, watching as she made for the War Room vestibule, shivering when she paused to glance back at him before disappearing through the door.
From his study he heard Commander Cullen and Leliana make their way through the hall. Their debrief had run late, most of Skyhold now slept. The heavy closing of the door to Inquisitor Trevelyan's wing sounded soon after and he felt the all-too-familiar sensation of dread settling on his chest like a hot stone. He had only meant to provide comfort, in that first dream. Hadn't he? Perhaps he had been doing a bit of showing-off, something to impress her. He was so very eager to impress her as of late, for reasons he had found embarrassing and best left unexplored.
Solas pushed himself from his sofa and threw open the door before pausing in the hall. He had to explain himself. Apologize, do something to stop the course of action before things went too impossibly far. Every day since Haven was this same empty ache. Every day another leaf fell from the tree in the center of the herb garden. Every morning he stood at the great dining table with his breakfast growing cold before him, staring distantly at a future that grew ever more hazy and indeterminate. Every evening the big and the little words that passed between them, all spelling out raw desire that he knew would boil over at any moment. Every night the fear of being alone pressed up against the fear of giving in and telling her. Time was passing, slipping away from them both, and he had remained this unmovable object, helpless against the limitations and insecurities closing in around him like walls. Then she had kissed him. Such a simple thing, that kiss, chaste and innocent and sweet before she pulled away. Meant to shock him perhaps, or as a thank you. He would never know the intention behind it due to his own brash behavior. He had taken a moment meant to be an offer of trust and broken that trust so thoroughly. Then, without giving her time to process both his behavior and the events of the Winter Palace, he'd done it again. Why did he have this compulsive need to thrust himself into her thoughts? Her dreams? He wanted to give her something more than a catalog of non-definitive acts, something other than his clawing desperation. The options, however, seemed equally repulsive.
Dear Inquisitor, I’m sorry I cannot meet with you any longer.
Dear Inquisitor, I’m sorry I came to your room and seduced you, left you bruised and ruined, you poor exquisite thing.
She needed a better story. Who wouldn’t?
This was a story he could easily tell. The things he thought, the things he dreamed. Of her. With her. Love in every place he imagined and more. Love to wake the dragon, flames consuming them both. Not that he was the dragon, oh no. In this story, he was the innocent. She would be the true danger.
One of the soldiers stared at him from across the room, and he realized with a slight panic that she had asked him a question. “I am sorry. I was lost in thought.” The woman nodded and carried on with whatever she was tasked with during these late hours, a small shake of the head as she made her way to the courtyard.
At least this wasn’t a lie. He was lost in thoughts too shameful to be expressed. Desiring to walk through her dreams, pick apart her mind, open her skull and delve inside until he knew everything there was to know about how she thought, how she breathed. He wanted to invent an entire future with him by her side. He knew this was a sinking ship, that he would have to abandon her, his dreams, his future at some point. Dangerous how easy it was to forget that part. Stolen kisses in hazy dreams, lingering glances, slight touches when they passed one another; this was the legacy they shared up and until this moment. Solas knew that it was rising to a boiling point, and that eventually one of them would cross that line.
From the courtyard, voices. He heard his name mentioned. It wouldn't do for him to be seen entering her chambers this late. Skyhold was a place rife with gossips, with rumormongers. Among them are those who would use such damaging knowledge to facilitate her downfall. Remove her from the throne… with her head intact, if she's lucky. Solas had spent years developing what he had long considered an iron self-control. The reserve he wore like a warm cloak had served him well, protected him from making many of the same pratfalls his younger self fell into. It was this reason he thought it best to wait until morning. It was this reason he turned from her chambers without hesitating. It was this reason he fumbled through the door to his study without betraying the way his hands shook. It was this reason he managed to make it the fifteen steps to his desk before the reserve crumbled away completely and he turned back around, his steps quickening as he grew closer once again to her door.
Rumors be damned.
She stood from her chair the moment he entered, the blanket across her lap falling to the floor, forgotten.
“I am sorry to disturb you. I know it is late.” He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, his arms folded across his chest.
“You aren’t disturbing me.”
“Yes… well. You do not know why I am here. What I have to tell you might be quite disturbing indeed.”
Something in the way she stared caused a great undoing within him, a tiny tinkling as the last vestiges of his icy reserve broke apart, leaving behind nothing but the realization he was not there to apologize. No, he could see it was far too late for apology, which left only the unsaid. Neither of them moved, standing nearly two yards apart, neither willing nor able to come any closer. He spoke again, his words uncharacteristically hurried, distracted. “I keep thinking you know, that you already know everything. As if the letters I write you inside my head, as if I’ve sent them…” he trailed off then, his hands hanging loosely at his side. She closed the distance between them, stopping just within arm’s reach.
“I need you to tell me." Her eyes were heavy, hooded, standing so close to him in the near-dark. "Say it."
“Ma emma lath, ma vhenan, ma vhenan’ara. Ma’arlath,” he watched her expression, her eyes darting as she struggled with the words, tried to fully decipher. The kiss came before he quite realized what he was doing, her muffled gasp against his lips as he pulled her to him roughly by the waist.
She stared up at him then, her eyes ablaze with the invitation that he had both hoped and feared for so long. Her fingers found his in the dim, entwining their hands tightly together, and her lips parted, the words he desired waiting just behind teeth and tongue. Solas leaned forward then, pushing his forehead into hers roughly. “Please,” his voice was only a whisper. He shook his head, eyes lowering from hers. “Please do not ask me.”
When he looked up at her again, the gaze she returned was one of hurt confusion. “It is not because I do not want you, believe that. I want you more than I have ever wanted anything in my long life. And if you ask... if you request it, I can not deny you. That is why I am begging you to please… please just stop. Do not ask this of me.”
For a long while there was nothing but their soft breathing as they stood like this, locked together but afraid to move closer. Their fingers grasped, his nose bumped against hers once, twice, and then he withdrew, slowly pulling his hand from hers. “If you invite me to your bed, I will go willingly. But you have duties, duties of a higher calling and I cannot allow myself to be a distraction.” He heard the choked laugh/snort of derision she gave and he shook his head again. “No. You are not listening. If you invite me to your bed, neither of us will leave it again. This will consume us. I cannot let this fail. Not because of me.”
The fire crackled in the otherwise silent room. When she spoke, her voice was clipped, quiet yet angry. "You said you were concerned you would ruin me completely."
A lump formed in his throat. "I did say that, yes."
She took his hand again, held softly in both of hers. "And?" she breathed.
"And? And what, exactly?"
"What if I wanted you to ruin me completely?"
Solas stepped back slightly. "You should not say things you don't mean."
She gazed up at him, pulling him closer. "And if I do mean them?"
"I can't," he whispered as she snaked her arms around his torso, no longer timid. Her dressing gown so cobweb thin he worried it would tear beneath his fingers as he gripped her hips.
"You can. Stay."
There were fingers on his chest, he conscious of this even while he lingered in half-sleep. “What did that word mean?” Solas opened his eyes. The first glow of dawn was still hours from the horizon, the entirety of the fortress asleep, still. He covered her fingers with his own.
“Which word?” he pulled the coverlet up over one of her bare shoulders.
“Ah. That word.”
“You said it, more than once.” Her cheeks flushed scarlet and she looked away from him then. The night was still a heavy blur of image and sensation. His scandalous confession, her closing in on him, his fumbled pleas for mercy, her absolute refusal to yield, his slow slip over the edge of reason and then no other words needed. She had pulled him to her bed and in the tangle of limbs and clothes most of her bedding had ended up on the floor. Whispered apologies, whispered instructions that became insistent demands, needy whimpers, contented sighs.
He had no doubt he had spoken it aloud, more than once.
“It is a word that evokes a feeling, not a common elvish word, I’m afraid.”
“Is there no translation?”
“I think the closest would simply be, ‘mine.’ A sort of absolute, definite mine. All-encompassing.”
She shivered, her leg twining over his beneath the voluminous blankets. “Alath’ma,” she whispered, her lips grazing this forearm as she lifted their hands together.
With one fluid movement she was turned onto her back, his teeth at her neck as she held him close. “Alath’ma,” he responded.
The next morning, a wayward glance from one of the kitchen maids caused Solas’ stomach to knot. How well did sound carry in that courtyard? He watched Evelyn push her own breakfast around her plate, staring out the leaded window with a distant expression. He would ask her about this later, in the tiny study beneath the great hall. She would only smile mysteriously in response. He backed her against the bookcase and she laughed quietly.
Their secret had an equally secret name, only ever whispered to one another. In the garden, as they passed a little too closely on the path. In the library, pressed against the wall so no one peering down would see. In the fields of Crestwood, while she examined a carving on a rocky face, his lips against the hollow of her ear, just out of sight from their traveling companions.
“Alath’ma,” he would whisper, and she would breathlessly respond, “Yes.”
The watchtower horn stood on the easternmost rampart, used to signal arrivals of dignitaries (two low long blasts), shipments (three short blasts), friendly forces (three sustained blasts), opposing forces (two short blasts), and their leader (one sustained blast). Whenever it sounded, Solas found himself freezing in place. If the noise lingered, the gooseflesh appeared on his arms unbidden, the electric prickle of static on the back of his neck. When only silence followed its call, he found himself gravitating toward the nearest exit, singularly drawn to the courtyard. He had to catch the first glimpse of her arrival. It was silly superstition, the fear that his failure to appear at the moment she dismounted would somehow lead her to believe he was not worthy of her affections. That he had to remind her of his existence, lest her measured gaze fall on another.
Today the signal came as he was seated deep within Skyhold, his legs folded beneath him as he sat in an overstuffed armchair, lost in another history book. For centuries he had ignored the story of the Fereldan nobles, finding it droll and inconsequential to his own pursuits. Yet this was the bloodline that had produced that which he now held most dear. He devoured each story, each line of reign, each battle and glory; for every victory that led to a life lived, a life shared with another, a life born anew led to the life of Evelyn Trevelyan. The odd assortment of random chance and fate that had culminated in her perfect being was a story he could no longer dismiss. It was the only story that mattered. At the moment of the signaling, he was halfway through the legacy of Vailance Trevelyan, one of her great-great-great uncles who built the waterways that irrigated the farmlands of Fereldan’s rocky (and previously thought to be barren) coastline. He was an impressive figure, producing nine sons and seven daughters before felled by a cave-in on one of his excavations. Vailance was a man of the people, one who relished being alongside his working men, seeing the rock hewn from the walls. The etching drew Solas’ eye, searching the man’s features for some hint of hers, wanting to know where the strong brow originated, if her father’s line gave her that perfect aquiline bridge of her nose, the slightly protruding lower lip, her perfect jaw. His finger traced over the page before turning, pausing as he heard the horn sound.
The call lingered in the air, fading slowly before becoming nothing more than a faint ringing in his ears, heart catching in his ribcage. The silence that followed brought him to his feet, the book forgotten, tumbling to the floor and disturbing the dust that settled no matter how many times she ordered the room cleaned.
The hall had already emptied, most everyone crowding to the front entrance to watch the return of The Inquisitor. Solas silently slipped through the door to his study, seeking the exit through the adjacent alcove. Cullen was the first to her, his greaved hand catching her mount’s reigns, steading the beast as she slipped off one side. Her helmet removed, mass of hair spilling out, wild in the wind. She smiled slightly at the Commander, a friendly and empty expression that nevertheless set Solas’ elf blood aflame. Jealousy of the former templar, his broad shoulders and effortless charm, ran deep; an unpleasant crack in the deeper recesses of his self that he could not close, no matter how hard he might try. She bent her head as she removed her pack, tossing it to one of the stablehands who crowded ‘round her horse. With measured grace she nodded to each of her advisers as they hurriedly spoke in turn, teeth worrying her lower lip as she stole a glance to where Solas stood on the upper stair.
Their eyes met and a moment of infinity passed between them, the slow lazy warmth spreading through his limbs as her slow blink acknowledged the question in his own eyes. It would be hours before the duties of the day were settled, the maps marked, the plans set in motion for the dawn. There would be a run-down of the things she missed, the updates which needed her full attentions, the decisions she would make. She would dutifully disrobe and assume the garb most suited to her position and rank, hair perfectly coiled atop her head to keep it from her face as she bent over the war table, studying each movement of her forces. And through it all, he would wait, wiling away the hours as he attempted to busy his mind, keep his thoughts clear of her.
It would not work.
They would dine apart, separated by both their status and the numerous attendees jockeying for her notice. She would make her rounds to check on the stores and the riders for tomorrow. She would say goodnight to her advisers, making a great show of returning to her quarters. It would be an hour and a half after that, when the hall emptied and the lights extinguished, before he could safely make his own way upstairs.
Then she could be his, wild and unfettered in his arms. Dawn always came much too swiftly.
~~Apologies for taking so long. I had the holidays and a change in jobs that kept me running around, but believe me when I say no one is more anxious to continue this story than I am. I'm working on several chapters for this, and a few newer stories that I will eventually get up the courage to post. Until then, enjoy some fluffy time.~~
“And this one?” he thumb found the small pink hollow, two inches above her navel.
“Tree branch. I was climbing down and misjudged a step.”
“Are you sure you’re battle-hardened? All of your prominent wounds seem to be from a rather clumsy childhood.”
“Would you rather I bore more marks of war? Less signs of scuffle from challenging my brothers to dares?”
His lips, carefully applied to the scar, stopped her laughter in her throat. “I have to get back downstairs. There was a dignitary I…” she made a sharp intake of breath that he felt down his entire spine.
“They can do without you for another hour.” The dignitaries could be hanged. He only wanted to hear her make that gasp again. Tossing the thick bedding out of the way, he set about to do just that when the distinct sound of heeled slippers on the stairs sent them both into a panicked scramble. Evelyn sat up, her hair a wild mess of half-curls and matted bed-knots in the filtered sunlight, clutching the quilt around her bare shoulders. It looked every bit as bad as it was: the scattered pillows and bed coverings piled in front of the massive fireplace, her under armor carelessly left inside-out on the sofa.
Then there was the matter of the naked apostate, tangled in the same sheets she now desperately attempted to cover herself in.
“Your Grace,” Josephine said, her shock only portrayed by the pink flush in her cheeks. “I wanted to ask you if you would prefer we serve the ram’s steaks or the fresh silverfish for tonight’s banquet.” The lady ambassador pretended as if the clipboard before her was a fascinating read, frantically scanning it with her eyes.
“The ram,” Evelyn said faintly, trying to will her voice to sound as if this were any other conversation. “Unless you think the fish would be more…”
“Ram is fine. Thank you, your Grace.” Josephine fled down the stairs as if the room behind her had suddenly been engulfed in flames.
Evelyn turned to Solas; he raised himself up on one elbow. “I’m going to have to deal with that later.”
Employing only his index and middle finger, he tugged on the quilt she wore until it fell around her waist. “Later.”
She fell back, her hair spread against the pillows, and looked up at him with a serious expression. “Why all the interest in my scars?”
“I intend to memorize them, so I will recognize the new ones.”
“Are you planning on leaving new ones?” she teased.
“None that I will ever see,” he promised.
Sorry this has taken so long. Training takes a ton of brain power! More forthcoming. I've had a productive weekend.
The Emerald Graves in late afternoon was lush and eerily silent. A three-day expedition to examine ruins uncovered by local Dalish scouts turned into a weeklong exercise in hard labor. Cullen's men were dispatched when it was found the scouts were useless against massive piles of rubble and rock, with a robust complement of Inquisition-loyal dwarves and The Inquisitor not far behind. They worked tirelessly, making slow but steady progress. Solas watched as he re-laced his boots, his eyes heavy. His own preliminary investigations into the unearthed cavern had covered his skin with thousands of years of dust and cobwebs. An unfamiliar crick in his neck now traveled down his arm, causing a tendon to sing any time he flexed the fingers of his left hand. He was getting old, he realized sadly. This world took its toll on the body as well as the spirit. He often found himself wondering how long he had before it consumed him completely.
“Does it bother you? Being here?”
Solas paused from his threading to glance up at Evelyn. “Why would it bother…" he frowned. "...oh. Oh, you mean the elves. No. It does not bother me any more than any ancient battlefield would.” He returned his attentions to his boot lacings. “Why? Do you think I should be bothered by wars fought and lost ages before this one solely based on the shape of my ears? Tell me, do you mourn every tomb we tromp past? Do you ache for those felled from your purported side?” The toes inside his boots cramped as he loosened the binding. Solas winced and slowly turned his ankle in a circle, feeling the pins and needles creep up his calf. She still stood over him, arms folded across her chest and a look in her eye that said this was not what she'd hoped to hear. “I am sorry,” he sighed. “I think I'm tired.”
"I think we all are," she said in a strangely clipped way. "I'll leave you to it, then."
There was a soft derisive snort nearby. Varric slid down to a seated position against an adjacent tree and began to cut into an apple with a small silver knife. "You know, Chuckles, for one of the smartest men in this whole mess, you really know nothing about women."
"And what," Solas struggled to remove his boot, "do you hope to teach me about women, Master Dwarf?"
"Don't take that tone. I have no doubt you know your way around well enough. But human nobility? They like the whole," Varric gestured vaguely with his knife, "dark and broody thing. That was a perfect in, telling her of the fall of your people."
"Pray tell, why would I want an in?" Solas raised his eyebrows in what he hoped was a reasonable facsimile of disbelief.
"Oh come on," the dwarf looked almost insulted.
"So Lady Josephine has been spreading rumors."
"If she has, I haven't heard them. And I hear everything," Varric sliced off a thin sliver of fruit. "I have eyes. You two aren't nearly as discreet as you'd hoped." He cut another slice, staring at the elf. "Oh, don't panic. I'm not here to out you for doing what everyone does in times of war. I just hope you know what you're doing."
"If everyone is up to this same something, do you ask that question of everyone?"
"No," Varric chewed thoughtfully. "Just you."
"Because of who I am?" Solas bristled.
"No," Varric paused, tilted his head, "Well, actually yes. But not only because of who you are. Because of who she is. Because of what she represents, and because of what's to come." He wiped his blade on his knee and leaned forward, lowering his voice. "Look, I've written enough of these stories to know it won't end well for her. The heroes never live happily ever after, not really. And for the rest of us on the periphery? Much worse."
"I am on the periphery of your story?"
"This ain't my story. I would have written better campsites, food, removed The Storm Coast entirely. The point is that she's, well, she's The Inquisitor. Commander of Armies, Rightor of Wrongs, Sworn Sword and Vessel of Andraste Herself. That's a lot to live up to, and considering her birth... I'm just saying, noble ladies with holy callings don't usually end up making the apostate bedwarmer King, you know?"
"Ah," Solas said, his jaw feeling tight. "So in your story there's a more suitable hero counterpart for her?"
"I already told you: this ain't my story. It's hers." Varric settled back. "I just hope you weren't getting your hopes set on being around for the end."
Solas smiled sardonically as he slowly stood. "Of course not."
Varric nodded once, seemingly satisfied with the conversation.
Solas tossed his boots into the pile near the leatherworker, curling his toes into the soft earth beneath his now-bare feet. He had not meant to snap at her question. Truth be told, the idea did weigh heavily on his mind, clouding his dreams and pursuing him even into waking daylight, the memory of blood shed and tears wept for the now-dead. This was a place haunted, tormented, so thick with sorrow and memory that there were places not even birds dared to sing. How did he communicate to her what it felt like to stand on this ground? Was she even capable of understanding?
"I had hoped to find your mood improved," her voice was soft and cautious, "but the expression on your face tells me there's little chance of that."
"I have not been sleeping well," he said simply.
"So I gathered from your earlier startling confession to being tired," she responded in a dry tone. "If you're exhausted, sleep."
"I can not. My tent is near the cookfire and the noise and smoke makes it nearly impossible-"
"Use my tent."
He glanced up at her then, eyes weary. "Why do you do this?"
She startled, "Do what?"
"Invite me to your room, your bed, your tent... as if it does not matter."
Evelyn let loose a short laugh of shock. "Of course it matters!"
"It does, but not in the ways you mean. You forget yourself more and more. There will be consequences."
"If you're talking about Josephine, I made sure to impress upon her that my private life is to remain private."
"It isn't just Josephine," he let his hands fall limply to his sides, the irritated tendon flaming to life in his arm. "You have to think about your position."
"My position?" She hissed. "Do you presume to tell me how to behave, as if my rank is so unfamiliar to me? I was born for this position, Solas. Who are you to tell me how to sit on my throne?" There was a rustling sound from the overgrown path. Two scouts wandered too close on their way to the stream. They gave uneasy sideways glances to The Inquisitor and mage.
"Perhaps this is something we could discuss later?" he suggested tersely.
Her mouth hung open a moment before she clamped it back shut, shaking her arms as if she could shake away the irritation. "As you wish," she spat, storming off toward the command tents.
That opportunity did not come that night, nor the next. Nor did it present itself on the long and treacherous route back to Skyhold, where she disappeared into a confluence of official documents and urgent requests. Solas collapsed onto his couch, falling into a deep slumber before his snuffed candles had stopped smoking. His dreams, however, did not afford him any peace. Dark, hollow places awaited him, with the cries of a familiar voice pleading with him to help, to come, to hurry. Glowing eyes growing dim in the thick ink of nothing. He woke with a start and sat at his desk blankly, his ears ringing in an unpleasant way that prevented him from hearing the question until she asked it a third time.
"Solas, what is it?" Evelyn sounded irritated. "I came to apologize and you look as if... I don't know how you look," she sighed in exasperation. "Have you still not slept?"
"I have," he said faintly, covering his mouth with his fist so that his next words were muffled. "But my dreams gave me no rest."
Evelyn crouched beside his chair. "What dreams?"
He shook his head. "It is nothing. You came to... I am sorry. You came here for a reason."
Her forehead creased with concern. "Forget that. Tell me what it is you saw."
"It is... a friend. A spirit who is a friend. I heard her call to me in my dreams. She is trapped, bound by mages with clumsy words and fumbling spells copied from books best left undisturbed. I can sense her essence fading. I think," his face fell, "I think she is dying."
"Do you know where?"
Solas nodded. "Three days travel from here, in the Exalted Plains. I do not know if we have time."
The argument momentarily forgotten, Evelyn straightened. "We have to try."
Despite his obvious dread and her obvious worry, the stony silence of their standoff followed the pair onto the road. The journey was difficult, snowmelt making the pass unstable and, at times, treacherous. Their descent was slow, irritatingly so even to those who did not feel the same urgency to reach their destination. Daylight brought the slippery icy melt, dodging sudden landslides and hidden patches of frozen ground that sent the horses staggering; the nights held a frosty wet chill that seeped through the tent canvas, leaving a dull ache in the limbs and a hallow ragged cough deep in the chest. On the third day he falling ice and slick gravel gave way to soupy mud as the party entered the foothills. The Exalted Plains stretched brown and barren, burned beyond recognition in places. This land had once been fertile and full of exotic colors, nearly blinding to the eyes. Years of war changed this landscape, boot and blade pockmarking the ground and the funerary pyres scorching the rest. The dead here had to be burned to be permanently stilled. Frightened men in battered helms blamed the rifts, but the truth was older. Ground that soaked up this much blood for so many centuries had a way of giving a half-life to anything that fell upon it. Souls ripped from this world too soon, angry and fearful, infested these bodies. More than any of the other horrors of war, this unending battle against foes who fell only to rise once more haunted the rank and file. Day after day, watching their comrades die only to have to strike them down again the next. The nights were filled with the sound of desiccated flesh whispering across the stony ground, and haunted moans of confusion and anger that no level of drink could properly muffle.
Near the river they encountered the first pocket of these pitiful wanderers, faces slack, mouths hanging open in endless silent screams.
"He doesn't know why his limbs won't work. Stiff, cracks in the skin like dried leather, snapping twigs. The faint memory of the taste of fruit. But his tongue now tastes of rot and soil. Cold. Everything is so cold."
Blackwall shuddered visibly as he pulled his sword from the husk of a decrepit Orlesian soldier. "Could we perhaps not read the... ehr, minds of these things?"
"Perhaps it's best to quiet these thoughts, Cole," Solas said softly. "They are beyond our help now."
"Yes. At least the burning stops the cold feeling." Another sharp glance from Blackwall
The bodies were stacked, Blackwall muttering a few words under his breath that sounded vaguely ceremonial, if not entirely Chantry-sanctioned. The scouting party stood silently as the flames consumed the remnants. This quiet continued while they followed the river south, watching the water pick up into rapids where the brackish sea began to mix in. Within him hummed an uncomfortable energy. Somewhere past the bend, a summoning circle throbbed its dark rhythm into the earth. Just beneath that dread-inducing hum was another vibration of ancient magic, dormant and unsettling, hidden in the hills. "Look," Evelyn said breathlessly, pointing across the water. Beyond the far bank, several pale-colored fabric sails jutted from behind a rocky outcropping.
"Ah yes," Solas stopped just short of standing beside her. "I had heard there was a Dalish encampment nearby."
"They follow the paths without seeing, their blood remembers the ways both words and time have forgotten. Buried. They search for a home they can no longer find. The questions are there, but they fear the answers. I'm sorry, Solas."
"There is nothing to apologize for, Cole. My knowledge is not always welcome." Solas warily avoided the water's edge, as if touching it would somehow catch the Clan's attention. He could hear the sharp laughter, the shout of a child. Primitive shadows of what they once were, living like squatters in the land that should be theirs by birthright, sleeping near a sacred place htey could not begin to fathom, even if they cared to.
"What is Cole talking about?" Evelyn narrowed her eyes. "What knowledge?"
"It was before I came to the Inquisition. I found that my attempts to share what I'd learned in the Fade was met with fear and, at times, open hostility. I'm sure that's what Cole was referring to."
But Cole's attention was focused elsewhere, pupils dilated wide as he made an "Oh," exclamation that was half-sob. Solas felt the same wave of energy (crackling rage pulsing confusion why why why am I here why stop it stop the light and the pain will go why why) so strongly that he nearly lost his footing and had to use his staff to hold himself upright. There was a roar, alien and metallic, that set teeth on edge followed by the anguished and terrified cries of men. The sound pierced him as surely as a spear, taking his breath away as he struggled to clear his head, ears once again ringing loudly. Evelyn had her hand out as if to steady him, but he pushed past her outstretched arm, fingers grazing her wrist. Blackwall noted this with interest, and the disappointed expression Inquisitor Trevelyan wore even more so. Evelyn widened her steps to catch up to Solas, gazing over his shoulder at the summoning circle in the clearing.
His face was blank, no twitch or frown betraying the pain that coursed through him at this vision. The pride demon stomped uncertainly around the circle, testing the edges and finding only building pressure, sharp stabs when she ranged too close to the barrier. He heard Evelyn's sword leave its sheath, her hand resting on his shoulder as she drew closer. "Tell me," she whispered. "Tell me what to do." Solas unconsciously leaned his head toward her in response, their foreheads nearly meeting. Blackwall again sharply focused on this.
The demon roared, the surviving mages scrambling toward their party in relief. One dropped to his knees, clinging to the front of Solas' tunic. In response, he took the mage's hands and shoved them roughly away from himself. To Evelyn, then: "We have to destroy the pillars. It will free her."
"Will it save her?" Evelyn's eyes searched his face.
"From this, yes." He stared grimly back at her, watching the realization cause her features to droop slightly.
Magic is an art best practiced with a quiet mind, a determined focus. He found that he lacked either as he cast recklessly, wildly, his own internal storm affecting his abilities. Fortunately, Blackwall and Evelyn proved much more stalwart, effortlessly destroying stone after stone until the circle lay in a crumbling ruin. The part he needed to play in this whole wretched affair left him with a giant void deep within, an empty space that made the release of her spirit feel as if it were something he observed, instead of brought about. He watched that other version of himself speak the words that felt hollow and alien to his ears; watched her form, once vibrant and dancing with light, slowly fade and blow away like ash. Then he was back inside his body, with Evenly kneeling beside him, her words slow and soothing. The world flooded back in, the grey sky and wind too bright, too loud. Then, beneath the cacophony, the meek voices of cowardly men.
"Is it... is it gone?"
Solas stood to his full height, striding toward the three who cowered back against the boulders at his approach. Behind him, the telltale sound of boots rushing to catch up, her hand on his arm, shaken away once before she gripped it more firmly.
"Solas," she hissed. "You can't."
"Oh, but I can," he spat. "They are fools, playing with forces they are incapable of understanding. This time we were here to stop it, to destroy a beautiful, living thing to patch up their mistakes. What of the next time?"
"I can deal with them," she pulled his arm forcefully. "Lawfully. Killing them is just as bad-"
"Killing them would be a mercy!"
"Then let us not grant it. Let me deal with it. This is my burden, not yours. I have to deal with this my way. I'm the Inquisitor."
His eyebrows raised slightly, and he took a step backward, letting her hand fall away. "Of course you are. How could I forget?"
Hours later, after the mages were carted away by Inquisition soldiers, she found him sitting back at that divot in the ground, the scorch marks fading from the trampled grass. "We can go back now, Solas. To camp, or journey on to Skyhold. Whatever you need."
"I need," he trailed off, looking across the waves, at the fading horizon. "I believe I need a little time."
"Yes. Time to sort through what happened. Time to myself."
She stiffened at the last word. "Ah." Two small steps backward. "I understand." When he didn't turn to look at her, didn't move to stop her from leaving, she strode back toward her waiting party. "We're heading back to camp."
"And Solas?" Blackwall asked uneasily, looking from the elf's crouched figure back to their Inquisitor.
"Solas will not be joining us at this time," she said brusquely.
Blackwall watched her stalk away, his brow wrinkling, mouth hanging slightly open as if he were trying to devil something out.
"Yes," Cole was at Blackwall's side. "They do. Most nights. But sometimes they just sleep."
Re-entry was more and more difficult and disorienting the longer one had lingered in the Fade. It started moments before true waking, the loud rush in the ears as the world returned to consciousness, the sensation of cold damp air bringing an unpleasant ache in disused joints, the firmness of the ground beneath compressing the spine. Solas carefully raised himself up onto his elbows, his sleeves stiffly cracking under a thin sheen of frost. He slowly circled one ankle, then the other, until warmth began to return to his bare feet. He'd slept longer than he had intended. Time in the Fade passed by differently, more slowly or quickly depending on area or activity. In fifteen minutes of actual time, one could experience what felt like years. Similarly, you could easily while away an afternoon in the misty depths only to awaken and discover years had passed. Decades, at times. Solas hoped it had not been months that he'd lain here, but the mossy growth on his things didn't bode well for hopes of a few hours, either.
He stood and immediately staggered, spreading his arms wide to keep his balance on unsteady legs. The bright moonlight pooling in the cave entrance told him of the hour, but not the day. He did note, with some concern, that the moon was nearly full. It had been a thin fingernail when he found this shelter. His absence had likely caused concern at this point. Sliding his pack onto his shoulders, he took a deep breath and emerged, thankful that the snow had not reached the foothills as of yet. With luck, he would reach Skyhold before mid-day.
At least the return journey was quiet, ascending slowly into snowier regions until he glimpsed the fortress walls in the distance. The courtyard was busy with the standard daytime activities when he made his way through the gates, tired and damp with snowmelt. He noticed the temporary pause in movement, the quieting of conversation. Above him, on the main stair, there was a flurry of activity as two scouts scrambled through the doorway, throwing glances over their shoulders at the place where he stood, pack hanging limply in one hand. He wondered if he had time to change before he was summoned to explain his absence.
In the rotunda, he tossed the rucksack in with the books and scrawled notes that littered his sofa, noting with dismay that the piles had shifted. Someone was looking for something among his things. That, however, was an irritation he would have to deal with at a later time. Solas pulled his tunic over his head and turned to cross the room, to the assorted trunks shoved against the far wall. He was rummaging through these trunks - which had also clearly been searched through - when the door shoved open.
She entered confidently then stopped, arms crossing in front of her chest. Evelyn had dark circles forming under her eyes, and a fresh battle wound scratching her upper lip that had only just begun to heal. She smelled heavily of lavender and vanilla, fresh from the bath he had clearly interrupted. He could see the curls of damp hair at the nape of her neck just below where she'd hastily tied it back. She stared at him a beat, mouth slightly open, then looked away deliberately with a flush rising to her cheeks. He stared down at his bare chest and realized it was his half-naked state that had flustered whatever speech she'd rehearsed on the way to his room.
"I'm sorry, Inquisitor," he plucked out a shirt and kicked the trunk closed before pulling the garment over his head. "I had hoped to be more presentable before greeting you."
"Greeting me?" her words were quiet, with a slight waver that contained both restrained tears and barely reined-in rage. "Is that how you planned to make this... was that what you..." she paused, took in a long breath. "It's been almost four months, Solas."
He blinked, caught off guard. Damn.
She glanced upward, eyes shimmery but refusing to let any tears fall. "I thought you were gone. Dead, possibly. No word, no sign, nothing. For almost four months. And then you come back in through the front door as if you'd been out for... for a walk and just... change your shirt?"
"The shirt was dirty," he said plainly, stepping forward. She retreated in response, holding a hand up to halt his approach.
"Where were you?"
"I am sorry, Inq-" she cast him a sharp look that froze the word in his throat, "... Evelyn. I went to see if I could find any trace of my friend. I visited the places she had dwelled in the Fade to see if perhaps she would return, in one form or another."
"And did you?"
He shook his head. "No."
"Perhaps. Not as she was, but sometimes there remains enough of a spirit to reform into something new."
Evelyn folded her arms more tightly, hugging herself. "So you searched for something, someone, that you couldn't be certain existed, and you did this for almost four months without sending a word."
Solas stepped closer, lowering his voice. "I am sorry. I did not intend to stay in the Fade for so long."
She stepped back again. "You were in the Fade? This entire time? Just... sleeping?"
With a shake of her head, she pursed her lips together. "I don't believe that. That you just slept. For this long. Without food, without waking, without wondering if you should perhaps..." she stopped, conscious of the whispered conversations above. She shook her head again.
"Perhaps," his voice was just above a whisper, "we could discuss this later?"
She scoffed, chin jutting as she glanced at the railing above. When she spoke, the words came as more of a hiss. "If you think I'm inviting you into my bed tonight, to give me your apologies, your excuses laced with honey after this?" Evelyn turned and made for the door, raising up an arm as if she could read his mind. "Do not follow me. If you want to give a report on your findings in the Fade, tell it to one of the mages." The door shut heavily behind her, and a chorus of whispers floated down from the upper floor, following by barely muffled snickers.
Somehow, she managed to avoid him for the rest of the day, lingering in the War Room before taking her evening meal alone in her quarters. Just as the guards began to light the lamps, the reports from the southern troops arrived. She strode toward the passage alongside her counselors without glancing in his direction, their speculation over the meaning of this missive already giving rise to frenzied arguing. He found himself a strategic place near Josephine's bookshelf and watched the door with interest, half-heartedly paging through the manuscript in his lap until they again emerged. From the way her advisors exited, he took it the news was not received well. Josephine shuffled past with an apologetic smile, Leliana striding without expression. The commander cursing slightly under his breath. And now The Inquisitor, her hands tucked behind her, frowning as she saw him now standing at the end of the hall. Skyhold had long been dark and silent, with all the night guard tucked away in their beds. Her advisors now extinguished the lamps behind them and made the same journey, putting their worries on a shelf until dawn.
“Why are you here?” her voice was weary, an edge of anger, sadness. The argument still as fresh in her mind as in his. A glance up at him, eyes wide and glassy, and then a sigh. “We’ll talk tomorrow, Solas. I’m much too tired for this now.”
She made to push past him, into the ambassador’s office and he moved without thinking, an arm at her waist barring her path through the door. She stopped, startled, and put her hand on his arm, as if to force it down, looking back up at him with a mix of confusion and irritation. “What are you-”
He kissed her then, free hand moving up to catch her head right at the back of her skull, fingers twined in her hair. She didn’t resist, her arms opening wide for a moment before her own fingers were at his lapels, pulling him closer. They crashed into the door frame, her back against the wooden panel, his knee pushing her legs apart, hips pinning hers as the kiss became more intense. She made a small sound that was half sob, half invitation and he found himself unbuttoning her collar, slipping his hand inside to trace her collarbone. Her skin was always so soft, so warm in spite of the harshness she faced. She pulled at him greedily and it made him feel greedy too, wondering if they would make it to her room, or at least the rug in Josephine’s office.
A harsh, guttural sound echoed in the space behind him, someone clearing their throat. He felt her freeze, and pulled back slightly in response, his head dipping into the shadow.
“Was,” she sounded hoarse, out of breath. “Was there something else you needed, Commander Cullen?”
Solas could hear the awkward shift of the Commander’s metal grieves. “I left an important missive in the war room, your worship. I can retrieve it another time.”
The elf withdrew slightly, stepping lightly back into the dark of the hall. “I was just leaving.”
“Yes,” she said, clearing her own throat. “We should all be off to bed. I’ll see you in the morning, Commander. Solas.”
They walked, her slightly in front of him, into the vast great hall as Cullen hurried into the War Room, not looking back at either of them.
She inclined her head slightly. “Fifteen minutes, make sure he sees you back at your work, then you follow.”
“Ten,” he whispered, pulling her to him again. “I will not survive fifteen.”
Another hurried kiss, fingers grasped until pulled apart by distance as they both went their momentarily separate ways.
A little fluffy sexy storytime, by request.
"It's nearly dawn, you know." His voice was weary, eyes half shut. Still, she persisted.
"It's barely past midnight."
"But it feels later. I've just returned. Can I not have one decent night's sleep?"
"You've slept enough if I recall," she said, tone edging toward dangerous.
"You know what I mean. Restful sleep."
"I'm too wired. You have to help me relax."
He opened one eye toward her, the other still scrunched tight. "I am not sure if I can do that again right away. You'll have to give me a few minutes."
"That is not what I meant."
"Then what do you require?"
"Tell me a story."
He rolled onto his back on the bed, arm draped across his eyes. "You never let me finish my stories any longer. You always attempt to distract me."
"I promise to be good."
"Your promises are empty." He sighed, glancing down at where she lay, on her stomach, near his hip. "Fine. What would you like to hear?"
Her eyes glittered at him in the dark.
"Seriously?" he groaned. "Why am I never allowed to tell you of Qunari legends? Why must you want to hear the fabricated fables of men and women long forgotten?"
"Don't the Dalish remember them?"
"The Dalish misremember them, at best. Why the interest in Fen’Harel stories? They are not even the best ones.”
“They’re usually the funny ones. There’s a twist at the end.”
He frowned. “Not twists. Lessons. Morals. Every elven god has a morality point. The people use their stories to teach the young.”
“What is Fen’Harel’s lesson?”
Solas found his throat had grown quite dry. “Be careful what you wish for.”
One of her long fingers then, poking him in the side. He rolled onto that side, catching her hand in his. Fingers laced together with hers against his chest, he began. "There once was a village...."
She sighed, scooted closer to him.
"You promised to be good," he admonished her, tapping her fingers with his in warning. "The village was plagued each night by a great beast. It had the body of a bear, but was larger than any bear ever witnessed in the woods around the village. It had the head of a great serpent, but covered with hair instead of scales. Teeth sharp as knives and claws more deadly than any harpy talon. Every sunset it appeared on the horizon, entering the village and stealing away one of their young. Attempts to stop it from its thefts were met with great carnage, as the beast slaughtered any who stood against it."
She had her lips against his collarbone and he made a tsking sound with his tongue.
"Finish it, I'll behave," she whispered.
He cleared his throat. "The people prayed to Mythal, but all she could offer were tears and songs of mourning for their fallen. They prayed to Andruil, who fought valiantly against the beast but was ultimately wounded and had to withdraw. The beast, you see, anticipated her every attack and countered it. Finally, one desperate mother prayed to Fen'Harel. She had lost two sons to the beast, and feared the loss her young daughter as well. At the dawn, Fen'Harel came. He knew he could not best the beast in battle. Instead he fired a single arrow into the sky and left. The people mourned and panicked, and prepared for the beast to come again... " he trailed off, momentarily losing his train of thought. He next words were strained, breathless. "You... you are not behaving."
In the hall downstairs, a whispered argument took place. Apparently, Solas had returned... his arrival disturbing two Chantry sisters who were attempting to harvest mushrooms from the garden. Their scandalized giggles had roused Dorian from where he dozed in his chair, creeping down to the garden wall to see for himself what had caused the sisters to flush so furiously and avoid his eyes as they passed.
"We aren't... we cannot be certain it is Solas. The Inquisitor is a grown woman and if she chooses to... ah, entertain a gentleman guest, then it is none of our concern." Josephine stood in the hall in her dressing robe, her hand gestures were quick and erratic, clearly, the topic made her uncomfortable.
Dorian scoffed. "I happened to inhabit the floor above his weird little... study-art room for nearly a year, you know. If you think I didn't recognize something so irritatingly familiar."
"Good heavens," Josephine cut him off. "I do not need you to go into detail."
"I wasn't about to. But believe me, I could. From memory."
"Perhaps it is simply another elf? Perhaps elf vocalizations... ah..."
Dorian's mouth was an open smile. "Lady Josephine has never dabbled in the elfish talents? Oh, then allow me to educate you... they don't all sound the same just because they happen to be small-boned and fond of silly hats. I am telling you," he leaned against the wall, arms and ankles crossed, "I would have known that particular set of vocalizations anywhere."
Echoing in the stairway above then, a soft cry rang out, followed by a low laugh. Josephine flushed scarlet in the candlelight. "Perhaps we should give them some time before we... welcome Solas back." She pushed the sisters and Dorian away from the chamber door, shooing them the way one would a gathering of clucking chickens.
Upstairs, the pair now lay on the rug on the floor, the sheets half-pulled from the mattress and twined around them. Evelyn yawned lazily and asked, "Did he return to kill the beast?"
"Who?" Solas asked slowly, as if returning to this world from a dream. "Oh. Oh, yes. I mean, no."
He pulled the quilt up around them. "The beast came that night and the warriors stood against it. The beast felled every one. Next it dispatched the women, and then the elders. As the children cowered together in the great hall, the single arrow fell from the sky and pierced the beast at the base of its skull, killing it instantly."
"So he didn't save all the people?"
Solas looked down at where she rested on his chest. "They didn't ask him to. They asked him to kill it."
"And he did, by being clever."
"He did with the slow arrow, one the beast never saw coming."
"He's tricky like that."
"I think he's predictable like that, vhen'an. It's why he is so dangerous."
She stared up at him, hair spilling over his side. "Do you think he was dangerous?"
"Yes," he whispered. "In more ways than the stories tell."
“You are very quiet.” The fire threw shadows to ridiculous heights on the walls, all pointed and elongated and dancing.
“I’m thinking.” She waited a long moment, then pushed herself up on her side to look at him. “Aren’t you going to ask me what I’m thinking about?”
“Would you like me to?” Then he drew a sharp breath. “Ow! What was that for?”
“What kind of question was that?”
“I apologize. What I meant to say was, What, pray tell, are you thinking about?”
The log split apart, sending up a shimmery wave of sparks. She shivered in the night air. “Do you ever worry about how this will end?”
“Is now really the time to worry about such things?”
“I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
“I daresay a great many people will be hurt. It is inevitable in war.” Her eyes, huge and accusing in the flicker, confronted him. “What? Was I supposed to ask you another question?”
“I meant I didn’t… I mean, of course, I don’t want anyone to get hurt in the war, even if it is inevitable. I meant that I didn’t want either of us to be hurt… by this.”
“Ah. I see.” He rose then, tossed another cord of wood on the fire so that it could regain its pleasant roar. “Are you asking me if I am prepared to deal with the inevitable hurt that…” his hands made vague motions in the air, “this can bring?”
She sat up straighter, adjusting the large coverlet around her shoulders. “And if I am?”
He dropped into a cross-legged sit beside her. "What brought this about? Have you been speaking to Varric?"
"Varric? What on earth does Varric have to do with this?"
"Before... before the whole argument business between us," she gave him a wary look and he put his hands up in supplication, "Before we argued, he had some choice words for me. The dwarf is nothing if not blunt."
"Words about us?"
"Among other things. He wanted to remind me these tales do not always exactly end happily for the elf lover."
Evelyn stared silently into the flames a moment, her fingers worrying the edge of her blanket. "No, I suppose that is true."
"He wanted to remind me that I am not the hero of this story and that I am hardly the person the actual hero might choose to rule beside her, or whatever it is you intend to do after this is over."
She continued staring at the hearth, her words quiet and tinged with bitterness. "And do you believe that's what I seek? What I need? A hero to rule beside me? Some knight from a fairytale coming into save me at the last moment?"
"I think," he sighed as he settled back down, "that I would fear most for the knight in that scenario." He winced as her nail poked him in the side again. "Am I to be subject to random acts of violence every time I speak?"
"Only when you tease."
She went to poke him again and he caught her by the wrist gently. "And if I am not teasing? What if I earnestly want to know if you would rather prefer someone more... suitable?"
She noticeably stiffened at the question. "Do you think you're so unsuitable?"
He nodded gravely, pressing the inside of her wrist against his lips. "I can prove it to you."
The fire was nothing but ash and ember before they spoke again.
The predawn glow revealed a world obliterated by blinding white. A blizzard had struck Skyhold in the hours they slept, the guards attempting to shovel off the ramparts with first light, clearing away blocks of snow along the parapet, shaking their gloves off after. A fruitless gesture, as the flakes continued to fall and would soon cover their progress. Evelyn stood at the balcony doorway, breath fogging up the glass before her, patchworked Ferelden quilt clutched tight around her shoulders.
“Did all of this happen overnight?”
“It started soon after you fell asleep, but yes. Not uncommon for this region.” He rose and pulled on his trousers, thrown haphazardly over one arm of her overstuffed sofa. With a click, then doors opened, letting in a swirl of snow and a gasp of cold air. He stepped out onto the balcony, the accumulations covering his feet.
“Are you never cold?” she asked.
“Rarely,” he responded in a matter-of-fact manner.
“Is that an elf thing? From living in the elements?”
“No. Simply a 'me' thing.” The wind picked up, sending flurries down faster than before. “I think the snow will continue for at least a few more hours. It is unlikely anything of merit will be accomplished before evening, and then it will make more sense to wait until tomorrow.”
“Whatever shall we do with ourselves?”
He pulled the door shut behind him. "Come back to bed. I shall show you."
She snorted a laugh in reply, stepping backward and hearing a strange crunch underfoot. Several of the letters from her desk had tumbled in the chill breeze, now covering the floor. He crouched to help gather them. The pile of correspondence in her quarters was always large, but it seemed to have become something much more formidable in his absence. He noted that several of the letters bore a familiar seal: a horse's head. "Your family has been busy writing, I see."
She snatched the papers from his hand, a strange and difficult to read expression crossing her face for a moment. "My father," she said darkly. "He is just being ridiculous. Thinks he has the right to inform my oversight of the Inquisition now. I would not be surprised if he sent one of my brothers to counsel me." She frowned. "I suppose he thinks me too young to lead alone."
"You are hardly alone. Skyhold teems with your compatriots."
"None that mean much to my father." She placed the stack of pages back on her desk as he stooped to pluck another from the carpet, one that had fallen farther from the others. This was on fine paper, embossed edges and a glossy sheen that said the fibers were likely woven with silk thread. Unlike the more goldenrod sheets from her family, this one bore a red wax seal stamped with a rose. Solas stared at it curiously as he handed it to her, unable to ignore the flustered way she took and shoved it beneath the others.
"I assume it safe to say that he does not know about..." he made a vague gesture with his hand.
"No. I do not often involve him in my romantic encounters."
"Often?" he raised an eyebrow. "Are there so many?"
She shot him a withering glance as she opened her wardrobe. "If your plan is to sneak out before they've begun breakfast, you might already be too late." Solas smirked in response, pulling his tunic on over his head and giving her a dramatic bow before heading for the stairs. "And, darling?" she called after him, freezing his descent in place. "Your shirt is on inside out."
The reports stated the rubble had finally cleared, the cave-in had been repaired and the walls reinforced, a proper period of mourning for the fallen men had passed, and his initial suspicions were confirmed: the entrance was to an ancient temple, seemingly one undisturbed by looters. Evelyn stood beside him at the War Table as he reviewed the sketches sent by the initial scouting party.
“And you’re certain,” Josephine finally piped up. “A cache of weapons-grade veridium? Fade-infused?”
“Of course I’m certain,” he sounded offended by the question. “This is why I encouraged the excavation months ago. It has until now lain untouched, undiscovered. You could outfit armies six times yours for centuries.”
“We could send more scouts,” Leliana gave Josephine a sideways glance. “Enough to explore the lower reaches. Ensure that it is as he says.”
“Oh, by all means,” he scoffed in reply. “And have your footprints and campfires tell every Freeman in the Dales that there is something worth looking for.”
The three shifted uneasily, looking to Evelyn for guidance. She turned to him. "You would advise?"
“Let us go in, accompanied by soldiers with wagons and weapons and claim it by force.” Solas looked from one to the other and then exploded, “Are you truly going to gently coax enough ore out of the earth to win this war? Or are you going to take it? Which do you think will actually yield results?”
Cullen flushed scarlet red, his hand finding the back of his neck to rub in that anxious way he had. Fortunately, he did not look at Josephine who looked similarly flustered. Taken aback, Solas realized the scene his words had evoked for each of them.
“Inquisitor,” he stiffly bowed at Evelyn, then mercifully took his leave of the room.
"Was it something I said?" he heard Leliana ask before the doors closed behind him.
Thankfully, none of her inner circle followed them to the Graves, delaying the conversation he could tell Evelyn dreaded. When they made camp that first night, he attempted to broach the subject lightheartedly. "At least Leliana has yet to discover..."
"So much for the spymaster," Evelyn said wryly. "It seems the rest of the Inquisition, however, has placed bets."
"Oh," she paused and tugged off her boots. "It ranges from 'will they marry' to 'who is on top?'"
"I see. Perhaps I should join the wager."
"There are still empty cells at Skyhold, elf." Evelyn pushed him down onto his back, unlacing the ties on his breeches.
"Lady Trevelyan, you're going to feed the rumor fires with this kind of behavior."
"Then we best give them plenty to talk about."
"Does it make you sad, Solas?"
Solas looked up from where he crouched to see Dorian positively grinning down at him, framed by the ancient trees. He heaved a heavy sigh as he rose back to his full height. "Fine, I will bite. Does what make me sad?"
"Tromping around on the undergrowth, knowing every root sprung from a fallen ancestor."
"Oh... that." He spoke as they walked, shoving branches out of the way. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, Dorian, but I feel no greater connection to the elves who fell on these soils that I would any other fallen knight. If I am expected to wallow in sorrow every time we traipse over a place where a man or woman with similar features to my own was felled unjustly, I daresay I'd have to sob and crawl my way through the entirety of Thedas. I wonder, is this the question I'm to endure every time we pass through these woods? Perhaps we'd like to round up the others, make sure everyone has the opportunity to make this observation."
Solas noted the pointed look Evelyn threw back over her shoulder. "I apologize for my tone, Inquisitor. I have much on my mind this morning. Besides, there are some questions which should just not be asked."
If Dorian inferred anything from his statement, he didn't show it. "Oooh, is it the Fade? We do so love hearing about the Fade. Please do go on."
Cole, then, quiet and on the outskirts of the group. "It was not the Fade. She didn't let him sleep."
Sera made a loud "snerk" noise, muffling her giggles behind her hand.
Solas flushed slightly. "Thank you, Cole. Remind me to have a talk with you later about appropriate interjections in conversation."
"We have already discussed that."
"Apparently it bears repeating."
"You're angry," Cole stopped walking.
"I'm not angry, Cole. I already said I am distracted. It makes me short."
"Yes, and I said you were distracted because-"
"Yes, thank you, Cole. Let's move on."
Blue eyes peered from under his hat. "But we were moving."
Sera was absolutely beside herself, using a tree to support her as she heaved in laughter spasms.
Relief, then, as he glimpsed the crumbling walls in the distance. "Inquisitor, I believe the entrance I mentioned is ahead, just past that wall. I was hoping we could-"
"He would like to change the subject," Cole stated simply.
Solas pushed ahead, leaving the confused Cole standing alone. Sera pushed herself back up. "Oh, I take it back. This wasn't half as boring as I worried."
“Equinor, Solium, Fenrir, Kios, Eluvia, Draconis” her thin fingers outlined the shapes in the sky.
“Ghilan’nain, Enansal, Fen’harel, Suledin, Enasal, Mythal,” he took her hand in his and moved it on the same path she had just traced.
"But the stars are the same? The same patterns?”
He nodded, bringing her fingertips to his lips, delighting in the way she shivered in response. “There is a star added, or subtracted, here and there, but they are the same. The eyes tend to find the patterns.”
They lay on their backs on the ground in the kitchen garden, the flames of the cook fire long extinguished. It was a perfect moonless night, and when she’d asked him about the elvish names for the constellations, he couldn’t resist the urge to take her outside, right then, to where they could lie beneath the stars. True, the view might have been better from her own balconies, but the thrill of being here, together in the open, where someone might happen upon them was overwhelming.
Recently, he had become all too comfortable with the idea of being found out. Of taking her hand in public, kissing her in front of others. Allowing her to lean against him after dinner had been cleared and Varric had begun yet another story. Such heaven, to share a love so openly.
"I wish you had taught me this earlier. There have been places in our journeys that have such amazing views of the skies."
He laughed slightly. "I tried, actually."
"You did?" Evelyn glanced over at him. "When?"
"The night before you first left for the Western Approach, remember? You'd received a letter that caused some trouble. Your Lady Ambassador stopped me. I was outside your chamber door, arms full of charts." Solas crossed one foot over the other, folded his hands behind his head. "I suppose it was a good thing. I had been prepared to, well. It was what I suppose I considered an opening."
"I'd forgotten. Pity you didn't," she turned back away from him, mimicking his ankles-crossed, hands supporting head posture. "If I recall that night properly, I took a bath after she left. You could have helped me scrub."
He smiled slightly. "Pity indeed. Still, it worked out in the end, did it not?"
“Enasal,” she whispered through her own smile, ignoring the question completely. She raised her hand again to the sky. “Ghilan’nain, Suledin, Mythal, Ghilan’nain, Fen’harel. Right?”
“Yes, ma’salath. Very good.”
Her forehead creased as she pushed herself up on an elbow. “Do you mean that, actually? Am I?”
“Mine?” he rolled his head to one side to look up at her. “Or my love?”
“Your one love. Do you think I’m… it sounds ridiculous to say out loud.” She shook her head, trying to shake the thought away.
“Do I think you are what?”
She rolled her eyes, flushed pink in the dark, “The one,” she said with forced dramatic intonation.
He shook his head. “No.”
Evelyn gave a short snort-laugh of incredulity. “No?”
“To call you ‘the one’ implies that there were others. There were not. Not like this. Not ever.”
“Ever? Ever is a long time.”
“Longer than you know.”
Evelyn stood beneath a moonless night, glittering stars shimmering against an inky blue sky. Solas watched her slowly turn in a circle, the delight radiating from her face. Inquisition political affairs had kept her away from Skyhold a full two weeks this time, giving him ample opportunity to brood over her absence. His restless nighttime wanderings had taken him to her room on more than one occasion, finding the empty bed and cold hearth echoing the hollow in his chest. This project of his had started as a flight of fancy, a few embellishments to the room to give her something to find, little hidden touches to explore when she herself was restless. Quickly that turned to the elaborate project she now stood in awe of. "Are they... jewels?" she asked in wonder.
"No," he said quietly, remaining at his post beside the railing. "They sparkle because of a small enchantment."
"They're magic." She grinned openly.
"More of a parlor trick than anything."
"There was a time when everything was so imbued. Entire wall murals of forests with creatures that sprung to life when approached, floors painted like the sea, replete with swirling depths."
She cocked a brow at him. "All that and I just get a few twinkling stars?"
"I am but one man."
She nodded slowly, chewing her lower lip as her eyes again swept over the painted ceiling. "That you are."
As the sun sank lower, painting the mountains a deep amber, Evelyn sat on her couch with legs folded beneath her, sorting through missives and organizing them into tidy stacks, ranked by urgency. Solas was draped across the other end, legs sprawled as he held his book up close to his face. They had settled into this easy companionship almost without his notice; hours that would normally be spent in heavy tension giving way to something more comfortable and solid. It had happened so smoothly, so seamlessly that it was positively terrifying. He was accustomed to her presence. Such familiarity was dangerous, in certain circumstances. It made it much more likely to be caught off guard, or with your defenses down completely.
"Solas?" she asked, stretching her arms over her head. "Are you moving in?"
"Hmmm?" he looked up from his reading.
She jutted a chin toward the corner, where his supplies still stood.
"Oh. I meant to take that down. You arrived sooner than I anticipated. If it bothers you, I could..." he watched as she rose and padded barefoot toward the offending objects: a small leather roll that contained brushes, some small jars in a case, an assortment of scattered bottles that gave off a slight glow. Evelyn dropped to a crouch and palmed one of the bottles, rolling it in her hands.
"That particular mix does give off heat, yes."
"Is it safe to touch?"
"Quite safe. It was sometimes used for runic healing." He tossed his book on the sofa and took the bottle from her hand, removing the stopper. Placing the tip of his index finger over the opening, he turned the bottle over and then uprighted it, stoppering the top once again. "Give me your hand."
She extended her open hand and he slid his palm over hers, fingers snaking toward her wrist. With a swipe of his finger, he gently stroked the glimmering concoction across the base of her palm. Evelyn trembled as she felt her wrist flood with warmth. "Wow," she breathed. "And the blue? Does that warm, as well?"
"No, that one is cooler, pricklier."
"And the green?"
"Like bubbled water, fresh from a spring."
She nodded, lips slightly parted. "How many of these vials did you say you had?"
"There are eleven total. There were thirteen, but I used the last of the yellow and white on the ceiling."
"Just two bottles for the entire ceiling?" her tongue played with the corner of her mouth.
"A little goes a long way."
"Does it? Show me."
Solas tossed her the bottle, which she caught between her hands. "Take off your clothes." He strode down the stairs as she watched, head cocked. When she heard the bolt slide shut from below, she smiled a crooked smile, hurriedly undoing the buttons of her jacket.
The sun had slipped behind the mountain range, with only the flicker of the fire and candles playing across her bare flesh as she laid back, hair splayed against the pillows. He knelt over her, brush tapping against his lips, and frowned.
"Is something wrong?"
She gave a laugh of complete incredulity. "My breasts are wrong?"
"Your breasts are perfect, and right now perfectly in the way of my perfectly planned line. Turn over." There was a moment where it seemed she might protest before she rolled onto her belly. Straddling her hips, he twisted her hair into a coil with his finger and draped it forward over her shoulder.
"Can I ask what this perfectly planned line..." the end of her question dissolved into a gasp as she felt the icy sparks spread from her tailbone to the base of her skull.
"Hold still," he murmured, making quick strokes off to either side of her spine, each movement of the brush eliciting another noisy breath from her. Evelyn heard the mattress creak as he shifted to sit back on his heels, surveying his handiwork. There was the light clink of glass and another shift in his position before his brush swirled against her left hip in widening circles, leaving a firey trace of pigment that flushed her surrounding flesh pink. He ended the spiral and moved the brush across the back of her thigh, tracing the curve of the muscle beneath. She felt him tip forward, his hands resting on either side of her as he lowered himself toward her neck and then slowly down her spine, exhaling a warm breath against his tracings. The potion responded by igniting a fresh sensation of burning chill that infused her nerves, causing an involuntary spasm in her toes.
"Turn on your side," he commanded, guiding her hip with his hand. He extended the spiral pattern there up along her side, lining her rib cage with tiny circular patterns that made her eyelids flutter shut. The brush then withdrew and he rocked backward onto his heels again, looping a hand beneath her left knee to tug her onto her back. With her foot braced against his shoulder, he carefully spiraled around the leg, the loops narrowing the nearer he grew to her ankle. The brush dipped into another vessel, this one dark and smokey looking. Placing the brush between his teeth, he switched to her opposite limb, drawing a swift line from ankle to inner thigh, stopping just short of the juncture. Evelyn made a low whine, eyes closed, face turned to the side.
"Not yet," he said in a low voice, turning her knee outward to better focus his attentions on her lower abdomen. "You have to let me finish this."
The fibers of the brush continued to dance maddening patterns across her torso, dipping to her hips, pelvis, sweeping over her ribs until she glowed every bit as much as the painted sky above her. Each pattern brought with it a new sensation dancing across her flesh, making her feel woozy and unfocused, spinning on the coverlet as he moved over her. The feeling slowed, bringing her into a heightened reality where every inch of her body seemed to sing with its own individual voice. She waved a hand in front of her face, watching the dreamy way the fingers blurred with motion, tiny winged creatures shimmering on the surface of her palm, sending the fluttery feeling throughout her limbs.
"This is... I wish I could describe it. It's so delicate, but encompassing." She gazed down at him with heavy hooded eyes, watching as he cleaned the brush on a cloth at the foot of the bed. "It's impossible. I wish..." her eyes drifted closed for a moment, the smile spreading across her face. She opened her eyes again, lazily grinning, and found him bare-chested above her. "I wish you could feel it."
He dipped his head low, catching her lower lip in his mouth and lightly nipping it with his teeth. She sucked in a noisy breath and reached to pull him closer. "You needn't worry, vhenan. I intend to."
The smell of fresh coffee, fruit-laden pies, burnt sugar, and buttery breads filled the room, the bustle of people serving and receiving their breakfast foods creating a constant low-level din that Solas registered only as a dull roar. He sat slouched in his chair, cup clutched in front of him, fingers of his left hand drumming against the stoneware in a distracted rhythm. The window beyond framed the courtyard tree, branches still laden with heavy snow as two squirrels chased one another up the trunk, sending small flurries falling to the earth. His unfocused eyes stared past this courtship ritual, past the men sparring in the wooden ring to drift lazily over the stones of the far wall, scanning unseeing as his mind wandered.
Fingers nimble, scratching slightly as they tugged off his breeches. A soft giggle and she flopped backward, pulling him to her. Her heels digging into the mattress as they clawed at one another. Hips dragged up to meet his. Soft gasps becoming moans. Flipped over, his hand pulling her head backward by the chin, tongue tracing the curve of her ear in the way that caused her breaths to come faster. A whispered promise that if he continued, she would-
He found himself jarred back to reality in an embarrassing flush when one of the mercenary recruits bumped his chair as she passed, mumbling a half-heard apology. Solas glanced up at the head of the table, where Evelyn sat with one leg crossed over the other, her own plate cold and forgotten. She smiled slightly at some point on the wall beside her, her fingers tracing the lower lip of her open mouth, thumb and forefinger pinching the flesh there slightly. Beside her, Josephine bore a concerned expression, clearly frustrated that her words found no purchase in The Inquisitor's consciousness. With irritation, the lady ambassador leaned forward, napkin grasped in her fingers and rubbed brusquely at Evelyn's neck. Evelyn started with a shock and grasped Josephine's wrist, staring at the napkin as if she'd been attacked. From this distance, he could see a smear of iridescent blue paint on the white linen. The two women exchanged a few low words, Evelyn shaking her head dismissively while the Antivan carefully folded the linen over, the blue stain clearly offending her delicate sensibilities. Josephine then focused her stare on Solas, who felt his blood run cold. Evelyn put a warning hand on her ambassador's arm, whispering something as she rose that seemed to put Lady Montilyet at ease. He paused before following.
Evelyn waited in the hall beyond, holding another white linen napkin in her hand. "Our Lady Ambassador," she raised a perfectly manicured eyebrow, "would like me to inform you that you seem to have something behind your ear."
"Ah," he took the offered cloth, "it would seem someone made a mess, not wanting to wait until it was dry."
"I don't remember there being many protests."
"I remember my mouth being otherwise occupied."
She suppressed a smile, clearing her throat quietly. "Our northern scouts have sent word of a delegation approaching. They'll be upon us by supper. Lady Josephine suggested I should bathe."
"Are you suggesting I join you?"
"I'm suggesting conserving resources, you could use a wash."
Solas canted his head, "Are you suggesting I am filthy?"
She tugged at his tunic, ignoring the startled looks from two passing infantrymen. "I'm declaring it."
They stared at one another for a silent beat that stretched on and on.
"Unless you'd rather go back to your breakfast."
He shook his head.
Evelyn backed toward the door, pushing it open with both hands behind her. "I was hoping you'd say that."
The banners were first sighted as Cullen's men began lighting the rampart torches, sounding two long sustained horn blasts that sent the fortress staff into a scurry of preparation. Rugs and table linens changed over as the banners unfurled from the balconies. Evelyn whisked from the War Room and back to her quarters by an armament of personal attendants, arms laden with silks and jewels from the vaults below. He caught wind of the reason for the barely restrained panic from one of the kitchen maids. House Trevelyan approached, and while Solas noted Evelyn's expression bore signs of disappointment, it showed no surprise.
Strange that she didn't mention the visiting dignitaries were relations.
Solas made his way back to the rotunda at the first sound of the raising gates, Varric nodding appraisingly as he approached. "Planning to stay hidden? That's probably for the best."
"Planning to stay out of the way," Solas bristled. "Unless my services are needed."
"Don't fool yourself, Chuckles," Varric leaned against the stonework. "Your services are exactly the reason for this visit. Every floor of this castle has buzzed about your little affair for weeks. No doubt some Orlesian's noble's second cousin whispered to his courtesan who told her lady maid who wrote to her sister who went to a party where someone's aunt from Starkhaven overheard that the Herald of Andraste is tangling the sheets with an apostate mage. They're probably performing skits re-enacting the most salacious bits at every street festival. If I were you, I would find a dark corner until Dear Father is done reminding the leader of the Inquisition of her responsibilities to her good family name."
"That," Solas said sharply as he opened the door, "is completely ridiculous."
"I'm sure it is," Varric tossed over his shoulder. "Want me to tell you when it's over?"
Solas paused, his hand on the door's handle. "... Please."
The door muted the conversations in the hall enough for him to be unable to discern anything other than tone. From what he could tell of the tone, however, most of it was polite. There as a moment where a voice grew heated, stopping just short of a shout before all became quiet. The sounds of a retreat to a more private location, most likely the wing that housed the War Room and the Ambassador's office, followed by the noise of servants clearing up wine goblets and then the courtyard sounds of horses, cargo, men greeting other men as they bedded down. It would appear the Trevelyan patriarch and his attachment would be staying at least the night.
It was early, at least an hour before dawn, when he heard the commotion of the courtyard start up again. There was another conversation in the main hall, something clipped and quiet, but with an air of finality before he heard the great gates of Skyhold creak open. Solas emerged to a quiet and empty room, the side doors still firmly shut, the only noise the distant clatter of pots and pans from the floor beneath.
"Why on earth are you skulking around at this hour?" Commander Cullen Rutherford entered through the main door, a scroll in his gloved hand.
"I was not skulking, I assure you. I thought I heard activity, found it unusual this early."
"The Bann left just a moment ago. Some business he needed to attend to. Had you wanted to say goodbye?" Cullen crossed his arms. "I don't recall you having an interest in meeting him."
Solas squared his shoulders toward the Commander. "Did The Inquisitor see him off?"
"Of course," Cullen sighed, crossing the stone floor toward the southern wing. "I should have known that would have been the focus of your interest. She's otherwise occupied, if that's your next question." Cullen shook the scroll in the air as he passed. "She has the business of running things to attend to. I'm sure she'll seek you out when you're needed." The gritted teeth, the emphasis on the word, neither were lost on him. With his jaw clenched, Solas watched the door close behind Commander Rutherford.
It was hours before Evelyn left the War Room, still dressed in a deep green silken gown that far from her usual style, and clearly meant to meet whatever expectations Bann Trevelyan had in his daughter's appearance. She had deep creases beneath her eyes betraying the puffy aftermath of a sleepless night. Solas stood when she entered, prepared to absorb whatever terrible revelations the visit had brought.
Instead, she said something he had not expected at all.
"We have received a letter from a scholar in the Frostback Basin," she said, oddly stiff and formal. "Leliana has vetted the information, and it seems valid. He claims to know where the first Inquisitor is buried."
"Are you going to travel there?"
She nodded, rubbing at her forehead. "At once. I'd like you to come with me."
"Of course." He watched her nod appreciatively, wearily, as she turned. "Evelyn?"
"Not right now, Solas," she said without facing him. "We'll discuss it when we have time, later."
The horses were packed and ready by the time he emerged with his rucksack, Evelyn already mounted and having a terse conversation with the expedition scouts. By the time they had left the gates, it was evident that this was to be a hard ride, paced at a breakneck speed with minimal stops for rest and water. There was an uneasiness in the ranks that was palpable at every pause, a constant checking over shoulders and scrutiny of every shadowy underbrush. They weren't saying it, but the reports had clearly stated that the way would be fraught with dangers.
The attack came shortly after they made first camp, the approach signaled only by a prickle at the back of his neck, nearly imperceptible itch on his flesh that brought him to his feet with a swiftness that made Varric's eyes narrow.
"You leave a fire burning somewhere?" the dwarf asked. "If I didn't know better, I'd say the way you just stood up was propelled by something not quite natural."
"Something is approaching," Solas said quietly, backing toward the tents as he scanned the horizon.
"Who?" Varric tossed his apple core into the cookfire. "Everyone's acting spooked but we haven't seen a sign of anyone this whole way."
"They were templars once, but not any longer." Cole appeared quite suddenly at Solas' elbow. "They remember what it was like before the red. They try not to think about it. Thinking makes them sad, but sad only leads to angry."
"Fuck," Varric was on his feet now.
"Indeed," Solas stood behind him.
"I can see six. They are not attempting to hide."
"That's because they're all goddamn insane by this point."
The roar of the largest one, body grotesquely mutated by the red rocky growth, drew the attention of the others. Evelyn began to shrug her plate back on, Solas stepping to her side without a thought to fasten the straps at her shoulders. "We count six, but there could be others."
"Should we send the archers into the trees?"
"There isn't time."
She moved into a defensive position in front of him, a gesture that always made his heart feel like it had become wedged in his throat. He raised a barrier just as the first addled red knight reached the edge of the clearing. That first man was already too far gone, his face a broken mess of red crackling energy and muscles pulled taught over crystallization, visible in the places where his flesh had split apart. The horrors of what red lyrium did to a body had more of an effect on the men than he could have anticipated, some having never seen it up close before. The fighting became messy as the fear took hold, clanging metal and hysterical curses surrounding Solas as he attempted to land his casts with precision against foes that moved with unpredictable recklessness, some charging headfirst into flames as if they either could not see the danger or simply did not care that certain death awaited. Moving in this way, turning to ensure that nothing was able to overtake him as he tried to avoid hitting the chaos of their own, he was able to control the flow of the battle until only two remained.
He was dispatching of the largest of their group when he felt a searing heat tear into his leg. The smaller, quicker of the horrors had landed a cut, and it was quite deep. In anger, he struck out with a force spell that knocked back two of the Inquisitions' troops as it ruptured the beast, tearing it to pieces before shattering those pieces into a messy spray. One of the fallen, a man by the name of Norran, glared up at Solas as the other, Ailis, rolled onto her side, clutching at her abdomen in pain.
Evelyn pulled her helm off, sweat matting her hair to her face and stared in disbelief at the fallen. "Help her," she said to Norran. Turning toward Solas, then, "Why would you..." the helm fell into the grass as she saw the stain of blood spread from his thigh.
Solas sat heavily on the ground. "I believe it is not as bad as it looks, but if you could help me to my tent...."
She instead immediately helped him to her tent, wincing when she pulled back his rent pant leg to uncover the wound. "This will scar."
"You should see my opponent."
"We're all picking pieces of your opponent off our clothes. I don't know what to do here."
"There are salves and bandages in my knapsack, if you would be so kind to retrieve them."
Evelyn returned with her armor removed, clutching his bag. Retrieving the items as he instructed, unscrewed the top of the purple jar and smeared a thick amount of the salve onto his cut.
"You can use that sparingly. I want it to last."
"Not a chance. I won't see you lose a limb to infection."
"Then you probably should have cleaned it first," he grimaced.
"Shit.... what do I do?"
"It will be fine. You just globbed enough on me to disinfect an entire Qunari dreadnought. Now hand me the bandages before you encase me completely." He worked the cloth around his thigh carefully, watching her anxious supervision. "I will be fine. How are Norran and Ailis?"
"They were upright when I went to fetch your things. They're likely disgruntled, but that's to be expected when you get the wind knocked out of you by a supposed ally."
"I suppose then I will have to apologize. It was a reaction borne of anger and distraction."
"That isn't like you."
"That is exactly like me, I just am normally better at keeping it under wraps."
He placed his hand flat against where the cut throbbed, willing the flesh to knit back together. The wound was caused by a red lyrium infected blade, and would not heal from magic alone. It would heal with a slowness he was neither accustomed to nor appreciated. "And you?" he asked.
"Hmmm?" Evelyn packed the jar and remaining bandages back into the sack. "What about me?"
"How are you?"
"I wasn't wounded."
"That is not what I meant."
Evelyn closed the top of the bag. "I know." She sat up, pushing her hair back behind her ears. "I was hoping to speak of this when one of us wasn't bleeding all over the other's bedroll, but..." She sighed heavily. "My relationship with my father is a bit complicated."
"I believe that everyone could make that statement."
She smiled wryly. "This is true. But my position, my title, this makes things a bit moreso, in our case. He believes that my calling carries with it additional responsibilities to my family. Responsibilities he has come to believe I am not taking seriously."
"And you do not agree."
Evelyn stared at him solemnly. "No. I most certainly do not."
A moment of silence. Then, "Dare I ask?"
He saw the tear slip down her cheek and moved quickly to take her chin in his hand. She caught the hand and instead brought it to her lips, pressing the kiss against his fingers, and then his palm. "I don't want to talk about this. Not now." With two fingers against his sternum, she pushed him back onto the bedding.
"What would you rather talk about?"
"I don't want to talk at all." Evelyn placed another kiss on the skin of his upper thigh, above where the wound lay covered, her hand pulling at his smallclothes.
"Do you really expect to keep using sex as a way to avoid serious question- oh," the thought dissipated as she again moved, taking his swiftly hardening length into her mouth. "I... I don't know if it's such a good idea in my condition."
Evelyn pulled back to look up at him. "Then just lie there. I can handle this on my own."
Solas gasped and gripped the blanket beneath him as she again lowered her head. "I... this is hardly fair."
She stopped again, eliciting an involuntary groan from him. "I'm not interested in fair. Now shut up unless you'd rather I stop and argue with you."
He found himself quite beyond the ability to argue at that point.
When he was finally able to quiet his breathing again, it sounded as if everyone else had bedded down for the nigh. The pair now laying entwined on top of her bedroll. "Better?" she asked him.
"Is that a standard Fereldan healing treatment?" he asked thickly, still entranced.
"Are you asking me where I learned that?" she scoffed.
"No. No, I think I would rather not know the answer to that."
"Are you telling me that's the first time?"
"Do you really want to know the answer to that?"
She laughed into the hollow where his neck met his shoulder.
"Should I go back to my tent?" he asked. "I think I can walk now."
"No. It doesn't matter."
"So everyone most decidedly knows, then."
She was quiet.
"Including your father."
"My father is my problem to deal with, Solas."
Evelyn pushed back to look up at him. "For as long as he can be."
The crickets sang in the wood outside as Evelyn settled back onto his shoulder. Within minutes her breathing had slowed, warm and steady against his chest. Solas lay staring at the tent wall, feeling her weight slowly drag his arm to sleep, welcoming the pins and needles loss of feeling. If only he could numb his heart in a similar fashion.
The dark came early here, the fading sun finding the path to the surface increasingly difficult as day turned to dusk. The Basin was always a more terrifying place at night, even for one who no longer feared the ghouls and goblins. Magic here, ancient and powerful, had carved the landscape and left behind its puckered scars. Solas no longer dreamed within these depths, he found that the visions contained within the permeable veil of this place left nightmares that did not dispel upon waking. Ghouls and goblins were one thing; Frostback Basin held horrors much more unpleasant.
He feared now that he knew how he would die.
Inquisitor Ameridan's legacy as Inquisitor, as man of both faith and fervor, was known to all in these lands. The shock of discovering he was of the Dales shook Solas more significantly than he would have imagined. He was no stranger to the erasing of his kind in the annals of history, for reasons both personal and educational. He woke in a world that had misremembered him completely, writing all evidence of his life among the people out of their stories, and twisting the significant parts of his life among the Evanuris into a tale of revenge and betrayal. The truth was so malleable to humankind, so impermanent. They lacked the discipline and the honor of the Elvhen. To misrecord history was to deny it, and denying one's past made for terrible futures.
Seeing where this land was headed reminded him of why his quest was so important, no matter how fond he had become of its inhabitants.
Yet, even this discovery, this realization of who Ameridan was paled in comparison to learning of his end days, of what befell him. Of Telana.
Ameridan was an Inquisitor elf who loved an Elvhen I've'an'virelan. He gave the remainder of his life to protect the people, to uphold his position, to stand against the fall of the world; she wasted away physically while her spirit foundered in the Fade. Left to sink into the great abyss without a vessel in the other world; waiting for the one for whom duty overtook all else. They had stood together, Solas and Evelyn, staring down at the small skeleton ringed with flowers, the dull ache in his heart stinging nearly as profoundly as the rip in his leg. Evelyn groped for his fingers, squeezing when she found purchase. "I thought to...."
"You thought we'd find them together," he had whispered.
She nodded, the tears slipping down her face. "Andraste, this place. This terrible place."
Then he'd felt the temptation rise again, to tell her what he knew, to explain to her why this happened, why in this place, what it all meant, what he had personally witnessed and accomplished. For months they had coexisted in this new reality, one where a moment alone meant frenzied hands and whispered confessions of love. Before that was endless weeks of stolen glances, misunderstanding one another's intentions; even a pained snowy week where they huddled in various campsites, bodies locked together for warmth while they denied the desire each fought so valiantly to keep from rising to a boiling point. It was something to laugh about now, the "why were we trying not to?" when the end result was so full of light and happy. Almost enough to make him forget.
Cole had said something as they made the somber journey back to the boats, one of his little Cole utterances. Evelyn had stopped, bent forward, her hair slipping loose from her ear and falling into her face. Solas fought the urge to push it back for her, lest he receive another knowing look from that damned Tevinter, when he heard Cole softly speak behind him.
His words, simple and unobscured, given without context, cut Solas to the core. It was a thought that often kept him awake at night, staring up at the ceiling and turning over the strange inconsistencies in what he found, versus what he expected.
Solas thought of it now as he waited by the fire, warm and safe from listening ears, Cole once again materializing beside him in an instant, the mere thought of him summoning his physical presence. "What you said to me yesterday, Cole. The thing that made me upset. Do you remember?"
"Do you know what it means?"
"It's not important that I know what it means," Cole said simply, turning his head slightly to watch Solas. "It matters that you know what it means. Curtain fell like silk, but cut like iron, severing all connection, removing the path. You watched in a mix of awe and horror. In sorrow," Cole's voice affected Solas' cadence for a moment, then. "What have I done? In glee, what have I done? But the energy was too much, too soon. Watching, waiting, hidden away in a place she will one day walk. You tell yourself none of this is real, that she can't be real. But you know."
Cole blinked then. "Where did it go?"
"I'm sorry, Cole. This is something we can't discuss. Not now."
Cole nodded. "I understand. She scares you."
He gave a short laugh of derision. "I can assure you that is not it."
"But she does."
Now he wondered if perhaps his lofty dreams would never come to pass. Perhaps he would be the one to wither while waiting.
"Take moments of happiness where you can find them. The world will take the rest."
Evelyn entered the encampment circle then, removing her gloves and flexing her fingers. Did the same thoughts haunt her? Did she fear their end as he did, or did she remain blissfully ignorant of the oncoming doom? For so long, he had known, known deep in his heart that he would be the decimation of them both. Either through reveal or further deception, his shaky facade could never be maintained in the long term. She would learn, she would know, and when he offered her the choice, she would shrink from him in revulsion. Solas glanced up at her, watching her face as she worked over the events of the day. He reached up, took her wrist in his hand, feeling instantly the snap of attention from her scouts. Their dalliances were no longer a secret, but any overtly public displays of affection were still regarded as uncommon, out of place, forbidden. Rubbing his thumb against the small bones at the base of her palm, he looked back toward the spiraling paths. "I thought we could walk a bit, before bed." She nodded wearily, slowly circling one of her shoulders as she fell into step beside him.
They wandered the raised platforms of the camp, the thicket of forest below teeming with noise from insect and animal alike. Fortunately for them both, the herb wards seemed to be working and they were able to gain distance from the noisy campfires and the prying eyes. He moved gingerly, still favoring the stronger leg. Although the salves had kept the wound healthy, the healing was agonizingly slow. When they were finally past the guards, he spoke. "Today was overwhelming, to say the least. To learn that the first Inquisitor was trapped like that, frozen in time and purpose. I am sorry for what you witnessed."
Evelyn was silent, eyes minding the edges of their route.
They followed the path through the forest, the phosphorescent plantlife glowing all around. "Did you wish to discuss the..." he sighed, "the Telana connection. I was not anticipating finding out much about Inquisitor Ameridan, let alone learning so many details of his love life." The path opened to the creek bed and he paused to negotiate a way across the water. "It made me wonder once again if I would be mentioned, in the great book of the story of Inquisitor Trevelyan."
She smiled weakly. "You are obsessed with this mythical book. Will you be mentioned at all as my mage lover? Will it be phrased more poetically, the way the Avaar do? The leaf-eared love of Trevelyan's reign?"
He had been remembered as less, when he was remembered at all.
The creek took a bend to the south, and they followed the shore. "However you shall be remembered," she continued, accepting his hand as she stepped around a particularly slippery rock, "if we shall be remembered at all, I hope that the story ends well, or at least that they know how it ended. Imagine, all these years searching for the final resting place of one who yet lived."
The giant overhanging danger had yet to be mentioned, he realized, his mouth growing dry as the memory of the frozen beast once again reappeared. "I should only hope we do not find the same end as Ameridan and Telana: holding off the remnants of an old god until we both wither and scatter like ashes." Her eyes were full of confusion as he pulled her toward the cave. "We face a dragon, Inquisitor, and no ordinary dragon. This is a summoned god of old, powerful and dangerous, unlike any other wyrm we have encountered." Her back was against the damp cave wall then, and he began to loosen the straps at her shoulders. "Therefore I am taking your Ameridan's advice, and finding my happiness at every opportunity."
The dusk slipped at last into night, the larger and more vocal insects of the basin coming to life and beginning their strange songs. The small fire he built burned low in the rear of the cave, providing just enough light for the outline of her features to be visible. He lay beside her in the dark, supported on his side by one elbow. In the distance, the otherworldly chanting of the Hakkonites floated through the thick underbrush. They would not dare wander this close to their camp, maintaining just enough distance to unnerve the guards in the trees. They rested here on his cloak, pulled hastily from his shoulders to provide some protection from the hard stone beneath them, breathlessly grasping as if it were their last night together. How often he worried each of their nights might be.
It was a moment stolen as so many of their moments on the road together were, a retreat from the noise and inquisitive stares of the camp. Although he had become a restless wanderer in the time before Evelyn Trevelyan, he now found he preferred the thick walls of Skyhold, with their piled beds and thick pillows, blankets. When things were quiet, they could lose themselves for days in such luxury, pulled away only for the primal need of food and the constant demands for her input on various matters of state.
With a single finger, he traced a line from the hollow of her throat to her shoulder, feeling more than seeing her shift toward him. "Do you worry? That you will be forgotten?"
"I worry more for you. I couldn't bear for you to wither away, were I... were I to fall before you."
Solas sighed, settling onto his back. "I do not think that Ameridan's end is prophecy. You walk a different path, no matter how many similarities we might find in your histories."
The words hung unspoken, the reasons he could list why her end would most decidedly come after his own. Instead, he kept to the simple, to the obvious. "Even in the unlikely event that I outlive you, I will remember." He turned his head toward her again, "I remember events, places, people, from lives that are not my own. You can rest easy that I will carry the memory of you, of your deeds, and of us to my grave, whenever I might find it. My memory is long, ma'salath, and it is clear."
He felt the words threaten again, desperate in his mouth to bring her in, make her complicit in his plans. He often dreamed of this, when they lie together in their athlean. He dreamed of impossible things, things that could never be. Of making her a general in his own great army, of ruling with her side-by-side, equal and well-matched. In his dreams she was the one to usher in the next chapter, to honor his memory by instilling his vision once again, in his absence. In his memory. Impossible, dangerous dreams, these. Then, words from her that fell like daggers.
"And what if that memory of me were to be... ruined?"
"Ruined? What is ruining this?"
Evelyn sat up, shrugging herself into her undervest. She pulled her hair out of the collar and slumped forward, arms dangling over her bent legs. "I suppose if we're destined to be eaten by an ancient god sometime tomorrow evening, there's no reason to be coy."
"I was not aware you were capable of being coy."
Her lips pursed and she narrowed her eyes. "I'm trying to be serious."
Solas pushed himself up into a sitting position. "I apologize. Please, go on."
"My father came to Skyhold."
"Did he? I must have missed that."
Another withering look shot his way.
"... sorry. He came to Skyhold. Was there a reason?"
Evelyn made a strange self-conscious shrug, then clasped her hands together, hugging her knees to her chest. "He thinks it's time that I make some... adult decisions."
"Of course, leading one of the strongest forces in Thedas against an immortal Tevinter magister is clearly child's play." Solas rose to his feet and began to pull his trousers on. "I wish you had told me this earlier. I can understand why you have been so quiet and reserved. Insulting for him to step in and decide that the decisions you are making, the changes you are bringing about are not serious, not adult enough." He shook his head with irritation.
"He wants me to get married, Solas."
Solas paused briefly in retying the threads at his waist, then resumed. "And I take it this is not your way of proposing."
"There was much talk, much forceful talk of finding an appropriate match."
"Yes, of course. I realize I am not on your father's short list." He pulled his tunic over his head.
"He has someone in mind already."
Solas stood quietly, arms hanging loosely at his sides, suddenly unable to look at her. He frowned at his bare feet. "I see."
"I told him no, Solas. I told him that I wasn't ready for something of that nature."
"Do you think he accepted your refusal?"
Evelyn was quiet. He heard her stand, footsteps soft across the cave floor. Her arms snaked around his abdomen from behind, her forehead resting between his shoulder blades. His eyes snapped shut, pain familiar and long-forgotten spreading across his chest. "I love only you, you know this."
He placed a hand on top of hers. "Foolish girl, what has love ever had to do with marriage?"
They stood like that for awhile while he felt the warm damp spread of tears on his back. "What do I do?" she said in a quavering voice. "I need you to tell me what to do."
Solas turned to face her, his hand moving to her chin to turn her face upward. "Nothing."
"Nothing?" she laughed incredulously, sniffing back her tears.
"We take it as it comes. We worry about it another time. There are dragons to fight, nations to bring under your sway. How does something as silly as a betrothal compare?"
"You're telling me not to think about it? When it's all I can think about?"
"I am telling you there are far more important things that need to occupy your thoughts. Damn your father for failing to appreciate that."
She nodded, tipping forward to bury her face in his chest. There was a time he feared that loving her would mean watching her wither and die as he lived on, before he knew how close, how easily realized his ultimate goal truly was. Now the end was imminent, clicking ever closer with each advancement in her journey, each increase in her strength and power. Soon this would come to its messy end, and he was in no way prepared for it.
This was by no means his first love. He had his prior affairs, as any hotblooded young man with too much to prove and endless time would. Each were fleeting things, over before they could properly begin. Any woman he had focused his sights on for anything more than a meaningless tryst had never taken him truly seriously. It wasn't until after Fen'Harel that anyone had considered him anything more; and by then it was far too late for flowers and romance, promises of "forever." In Evelyn Trevelyan he had found something he had often sought without realizing, something he had not quite known he wanted: the possibility of a future. How strange that it came now, when he no longer had one.
She had composed herself, put her brave leader face back on, and was now gathering her things from the ground. "Once we've woken it, tomorrow... do you have suggestions for how we should approach taking it down?"
Solas pushed the feelings down into a dark corner of his belly. "Don't die?" he suggested lightly, smile spreading slowly as she shoved him. "You act as if I am some sort of expert in the destruction of old gods, vhen'an. " He stooped to pick his cloak off the ground, eyebrows knotting as he considered their options. "I would suggest going ranged. Fire and lightning offense. And probably the Bull, as he would rage-quit the Inquisition if you didn't bring him along."
He extended his arm, fingers encircling her wrist. "It is no different than any other foe. We will discover its weaknesses, develop a strategy. Together."
"Together," she breathed, relaxing the tension in her shoulders.
He smiled what he hoped was a reassuring smile. For now.
The screech was deafening, shaking the ground, appearing to knock everyone except the qunari off their feet. Solas pushed himself back up, ears ringing loudly, and watched the burning remnant of Hakkon Wintersbreath undulate in his tortuous death throws. The dragon reared up one final time before toppling backward, hitting the icy rock wall as the former god made his final, rapid descent into the freezing waters below.
This was hardly the first dragon they had toppled as a fighting force, yet this victory held none of the cheers or relieved laughter of the others. Instead, the guard clumped together, checking over one another's limbs, speaking in hushed tones. Many had fallen during this fight, and those corpses were approached slowly, probed with a question they all knew the answer to. Every soldier has known the ache of watching a comrade fall in battle. The veterans could tell you stories to make your blood run cold of the horrors of wars fought and the methods by which their friends were dispatched. But even the most seasoned in the ranks could not prepare for the destruction Hakkon unleashed. The unfamiliar believe dragons to all breathe fire. Flame does terrible things to a body, melts the flesh to the bone and burns the hair with a sickly sweet scent you can never shake. Yet ice is more terrible yet. They'd watched the first victim in horror, the flash freeze happening so quickly they could still witness his terrified eyes rolling beneath the thick ice, searching for help that could not possibly come swiftly enough. Mouth hung open in a silent scream as the ice slowly crushed the air from his lungs, until the light finally faded from his eyes. After witnessing that agony, every swift rush of air brought a panic into their hearts they could not possibly tamp down. Evelyn swearing as she shouted for them to not break formation. But how could these frightened souls stand in a line and face down that end?
Evelyn now lingered at the edge of the field, staring off toward the distant bleak horizon, her hands shaking ever so slightly. Solas strode across to her, taking her forearm in his hand and she shook him off. "No," she said. "Not yet. I can't face them yet."
"All right," he backed off from her. "Would you like me to lead them back to the camp?"
She nodded. "And then pack up the camp. I'm not spending another night in this cursed place."
They rode through the night in stunned silence, the others bearing the haunted expression of souls who have seen what can never be unseen. When Skyhold finally appeared in the distance, gleaming in the evening sun, Evelyn paused and then leaned forward heavily, her head touching the neck of her horse. She sat, hand distractedly patting the beast before she straightened. If this strange display bothered her party, none betrayed this. They wearily followed the line, crossing the bridge into Skyhold's courtyard, the shouts welcoming their return stopping shortly when they saw how few they numbered.
Evelyn slid from her mount and raised a hand to those who rushed toward her, silencing their reports. She instead turned her sights to Solas, who followed without question. He paused in the corridor and spoke in a low voice to two of the young girls who normally attended to Evelyn's quarters, then followed her up the stairs. She sat gingerly on the edge of her bed, perfectly upright, hands folded in her lap as he dragged the heavy tub from the corner. There was a light knock from the lower level. Solas stepped quickly down the stair, pleased to discover the girls had left the buckets without lingering to gawk.
"I... I wasn't expecting for it to be so..." she made a fluttery motion with her fingers.
"It was much more than I believe either of us bargained for." Solas poured one of the buckets into the tub, the steam rising up into the chill air.
"I suppose I thought nothing could surprise me, not any longer. Not after tainted templars and darkspawn magisters come back from the dead."
"I think that what we encountered, all of it, was much more unnerving than either of those abominations." Solas deftly rolled up one sleeve with quick fingers before dipping the now-bared arm into the water. He shook the excess droplets from his hand and motioned for Evelyn.
She stood mechanically, mind still a million miles from where they stood. "I was so confident. I thought ballistas and arrows were some sort of match for... but they weren't. They weren't. We very nearly died. All of us."
He unbuttoned the front of her riding jacket, removing it and the undervest and throwing them into a heap several feet from the tub. "Lift your arms." She obeyed, and he slid her thin linen shirt off, wincing when he saw the deep purple and brown bruise spreading across her ribcage. She glanced down, following his gaze.
He bent to unlace her boots. "It will be fine. The bath will help." Holding both of her hands in his, he helped her step into the tub, rolling up his other sleeve as she sank into the hot water.
Evelyn splayed her fingers on the surface, just breaking the tension there. "Riordan was only seventeen, you know."
Solas sat beside the tub, folding his arms on the edge. "I did not know that. He was very young."
"He was in love... well, I don't know if it was love, exactly. But he was sweet on Naiva."
She nodded, pushing her hands past the surface's thin membrane, submerging her fingers. "And now he's dead. Frozen in place. His last thoughts wondering why I did nothing to save him."
Solas rested his chin on his folded arms. "You did everything you could, vhen'an. I dare say many more would have died if not for your efforts."
"Then why am I sitting here thinking of the ones that fell? Why am I not able to celebrate those I saved? Why do I only see Riordan's face, frozen and dying?" She crumpled forward, folding into a ball.
Solas reached out to push her hair behind her shoulders, out of her face. "You are a good leader, that is why you feel the loss of every person so profoundly. This is why they follow you, above all else. You have compassion, a quality that is sorely lacking in many who command."
"If that's all true, then why, even when I've lost so many, is my first thought always of you? Every time I saw another struck down, I looked for you. Every time I had a moment to breathe, I used that breath to ensure you still stood. What kind of a leader does that make me?"
"A human one," he said softly. "Here." He reached past her legs to retrieve the thick sponge that floated there. "These are the worries that plague every person forced into a position of power. There is nothing wrong about feeling this way." The sponge rested on her shoulder now, his fingers squeezing warm water over her flesh.
"Whether or not there's anything wrong with it, I'd rather not feel this way."
"I think that is also a common theme." Another cascade of water on her back as he held the length of her hair up and out of the way. "Doubt, worry, guilt, fear."
"These past few days have had plenty of that."
"Yes, the past few days have been trying, to say the least."
"Solas," she pushed herself back against the end of the tub as he held the sponge aloft. "I'm trying to explain that things between us are shifting, changing."
"I see... would you rather I leave?"
"No! No," she rubbed her face with her hands, then hugged her knees again. "This has all been wonderful, exciting... but it's becoming more real."
The word sat like a stone in his stomach. "Real?" he echoed.
"I find myself now having to consider all the very real ways this might end. Seeing the dragon, facing down a god, knowing what lay ahead, seeing Ameridan and Telana and knowing their fates.... it all comes back to the damned book."
"That damned book," he smiled wryly.
"Stories have endings, Solas."
"They do, but do we have to write the ending just yet?"
"We don't, but I also don't know how many heartbreaking chapters I can endure right now."
He squeezed the water out of the sponge and made to place it on the edge of the tub when she grabbed his hand by the wrist.
"I need this to be happy, for as long as it can be. Give me something I can remember and cherish, when there's nothing else left." She pulled his wrist closer, shoving hand and sponge into the water between her knees.
Solas frowned. "Are you certain? After today I would expect..."
"Solas, please. For just one night, stop talking."
The knocking woke him, louder, more insistent than the timid sounds her usual attendants made. Beside him, Evelyn slept soundly on her stomach, still-damp hair tangled on the pillows. The knock sounded again, with someone trying the knob. Solas slipped silently from the bed and pulled on his breeches, cautiously making his way down to unlock the door.
"Master Solas," Josephine adjusted her collar. "Is Lady Trevelyan..."
"She is sleeping, something she very much needs. Can this wait?"
"I'm afraid it cannot. I had tried to tell her when she arrived, but she was quite insistent on not being bothered." Josephine nervously looked behind her in the hall. "She has a guest, one who is anxious to see her. When she wakes, if you could please tell her... if you could tell her Warren is awaiting an audience."
"Warren... is awaiting... an audience," he repeated slowly.
"He was very specific in how to tell her. Please."
Solas found Evelyn sitting up in the bed, rubbing at her eyes. "Were you talking to someone?"
"It was Josephine. She had a message for you, one that I need to repeat to you."
Evelyn gave him a skeptical look.
"Warren is awaiting an audience."
Her face immediately registered wide-eyed shock and she shot from the bed to the stairs before skidding to a stop, clearly realizing she was naked. She sprinted to the other side of the room, holding her side gingerly, and began rifling through her drawers.
Solas sank into a seated position. His heart thudded, dull and painful, as if it already knew what this meant. "I know you said your father had someone particular in mind. I just was not aware it was someone you knew."
"What?" she stared at him wide-eyed, pulling her hair back into a messy ponytail. Then the realization dawned, mouth gaping open. "Oh Solas," she sighed heavily, allowing how weary she was to once again overtake her face. "Warren is my fucking brother."
There was a hurried kiss at the bottom of the stair and then Evelyn had exited the room before him, anxiously buttoning the sleeve of her jacket as she entered the main hall, Josephine pausing in her circular pacing to rush to The Inquisitor's side. "I am sorry, your grace. I was told you did not wish to be disturbed, but your brother is..."
"My brother is an insistent little shit, Josephine. I know."
"I would not have put it quite like that, but he was determined that I wake you."
Evelyn tightened the messy bun at the back of her head. "Where is he now?"
"The tavern, your grace. He's been buying rounds for the past hour."
Evelyn pinched the skin on the bridge of her nose. "Of course he has." She strode briskly toward the front entrance, Josephine hesitating for a moment before following. The door closed behind them and the hall fell into an eerie silence, leaving Solas standing alone.
With the commotion surrounding their guest now fully contained in the tavern and the area immediately outside it, he considered the pile of unfinished notes stacked on his desk, the various sketches of areas where more keystone shards might exist, the books with pages now covered by a layer of dust, neglected for so long. He stooped to blow across the pages of the closest, swiftly righting himself once more as the courtyard door sprang open. "Why on earth are you coming in that way?"
"Solas. I wasn't expecting you in here this early. I'd heard you were sleeping in." Dorian closed the door behind him. "I took the long way around, thought I'd enjoy the sun."
"You are returning from Iron Bull's room."
"Nothing gets past you!" Dorian skirted around the desk. "Not that it's any of your business, but the whole building was becoming a bit rowdy for my tastes. I'm rather surprised you're not in there." Dorian waited for a reaction, and receiving none, poked further. "Brother appears mysteriously, sister rushes to speak with him. I wonder, what could possibly be the topic of conversation?"
"I am working, Dorian. Whatever she has to say to her brother is none of my concern."
Dorian paused, his voice carrying an edge of disbelief. "You're serious."
"Oh come on. Not even you can possibly be this stoic."
Solas leaned back in his chair, fingertips pressed together beneath his chin. "And I suppose you would spy, were our roles reversed?"
"Absolutely. Without question."
"Well then," Solas leaned back over his book. "Very good luck for both Evelyn and myself that I am not you."
Dorian made a small sound of exasperation and headed for the stair. "You know," he said, pausing at the doorway, "we could just go down together, grab a drink. Have a friendly conversation in some out of the way corner and - "
"Fine. Be stubborn and remain in the dark about the forces conspiring against you until they're running you out the door."
Solas didn't look up, slowly turning a page. "They would not be the first to try."
The door slammed in irritation.
He leaned back in his chair, arms folded across his chest. "Well, you look like shit." Warren was heavier than she remembered, not overweight by any stretch of the imagination, just thicker in the arms and neck, chest. Whether from actual physical exertion or too much fatted calf and honeyed wine, she wasn't sure. He'd always had a way of making any appearance change, any change of his hair, any failure to shave, any weight gain or loss look both intentional and somehow better. It was one of the many things that she loved about him, and also one of the many things that irritated the hell out of her.
"I just took down a high dragon. One possessed by a god, actually."
"Did he break your hair brushing arm? Don't you have people for that? Or is this perhaps part of his curse?"
"Is this why you're here? To discuss my hygiene?"
"I'm discussing your appearance. Your hygiene I have yet to get to." Warren smiled lazily as the barkeep appeared with a bottle. "I suppose it's just life here in the mountains. You've gone native, I hear."
Evelyn frowned slightly as she reached for the bottle. "Is that how our father is referring to it?"
"It?" Warren smiled, all toothy, tongue between those neat rows of teeth. "Is that how you refer to... it?" She groaned and collapsed forward, head buried in her arms. Warren gave a delicate pat-pat to the back of her head. "You know I have to tease. It's only fair."
"I never teased," her voice was muffled, head still down.
"Bullshit," he pried the bottle from her fingers and filled his cup. "You were relentless."
"I was seven."
"The first time. What was the excuse when you were nine? And later still, when you were nearly twenty? You weren't nearly as prolific so I have to take my mocking opportunities when they come. I assume he did, and that's why you're finally out of bed and here with me?"
She glared up at him. "Don't be disgusting."
"That, my dear sister, wasn't disgusting. Let me enjoy this, just a little. Remember I've been cooped up here the better part of a week, getting to know your people. Trust me, it's probably the most polite thing anyone has said about your... entanglement."
"Andraste, I don't want to hear-"
"No? Did you know there's a song?"
Warren smiled again. "Fine. If you don't want to talk, then drink."
"So, bald, huh?"
She made a choking sound into her cup. "You are absolutely the worst."
"I just asked around, wondering what he looked like. I wanted to be able to scope him out for myself when he showed up. "
"And have you?"
"You two disappeared so quickly I didn't have a chance. And from the song's second verse, I knew better than to disturb. Holy shit, are you blushing?"
"Warren," she warned.
"Fine, fine. I'm sorry." He refilled her wine. "I just wanted to know."
"I thought you'd already heard. Isn't that why you're here?"
"I'd heard our father's take on the whole sordid affair. I'm here to hear yours."
"And to watch me. And to convince me he's right."
Warren made a tsking sound deep in his throat. "You really think I rode all the way out here, abandoning civilization and all its comforts, to convince you that dear old dad is right? Does that sound at all like me? That dragon must have knocked your last vestige of good sense loose."
"I'm sorry, Warren. His letters have just been so crazed, so insistent. He barely raised an eyebrow over the possibility of me marrying before. Now he's obsessed with the idea. And to think of me with..." She trailed off, shaking her head
Warren's voice went soft. "I have met him, you know. He isn't a bad guy."
"I really don't want to talk about him. I'm sick as fuck of hearing about him. I think I have received a complete listing of every breath he's taken since birth from both our parents." She rubbed at her face with her fingers. "Aren't we past the whole arranged marriage thing?"
"We were, before you became a holy icon and started leading an army. Now they think they need to help you make more responsible choices."
"More responsible than Solas, you mean."
Warren raised his glass in a mock toast. "There it is. It has a name."
"They don't mention his name in the song?" she said dryly, emptying the bottle into her own cup.
"Oh, they do, but I wanted to hear you say it. It's the only way to tell for sure, and now all my suspicions are confirmed: we're doomed."
"Doomed?" she raised her eyebrows slightly.
"Completely. I'm now certain to fail at my appointed task."
"I thought your task was to hear my side of the story."
"Not entirely. I wanted to hear your side of the story, that's why I agreed to come talk to you. I've come to help you see that your side project is both tearing your family apart and not exactly wonderful for the future of you or your Inquisition. Now that I've heard your side, I'm going to have to write a very hard letter home."
Evelyn turned sideways in her chair, draping one leg over the arm. "You haven't heard my side. You've heard a song."
"I heard you say his name," Warren had that infuriating smile once again. "Little Evelyn is in love."
"I can't believe they chose you to be the one to talk any sense into me."
"They knew I'm your favorite brother. Just as you are my favorite sister."
She snorted, relaxing further into the chair in spite of herself. "I'm your only sister."
Warren motioned for another bottle. "That's hardly the point."
Warren was saying something, leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner. She reclined in response, arms crossed across her chest, attempting to rearrange her face into a facade of seriousness. "I said," Warren waggled his eyebrows dramatically. "I didn't think you'd be one for the older types."
"He's not an older type."
"Evelyn," he wheeze-laughed. "The man is completely bald. How old is he, anyway?"
"Oh my heavens," Warren set his cup on the table heavily. "You don't know?"
"It hasn't exactly come up."
"Not once? Not when talking about your childhoods, or your family? Never once did you bother to ask, 'say, how long ago was that childhood?'"
"We don't talk much about his childhood."
Warren frowned. "But he knows about yours?"
She shifted. "Somewhat."
"Somewhat? The fuck does 'somewhat' mean? Evelyn," he stretched his arm across the table to clamp a hand on her forearm, drawing her closer. "How well do you know this person?"
Evelyn quickly finished her goblet. It was a question she'd begun to ask herself, late at night. Lying beside Solas in the dark, watching the soft rise and fall of his chest and wondering who he was before her, before any of this. He seemed eager for any story she would tell of her own childhood, but vague and quiet when asked of his own. He was from the north. He didn't have a clan. He was largely self-taught and often alone. She glanced up at her brother, who was starting to give her that famous concerned stare when a tray plunked down between them.
"Compliments of the crew," the dwarf winked, hooking a thumb back at a table where three men sat. One stared over with particular interest.
"Come now, Evelyn," Warren grinned broadly, their conversation instantly forgotten. He raised one of the glasses to his lips. "We don't want to appear rude."
Another round appeared almost as if by magic. The bard struck up a tune, something lively that made those in the bar area stand in their seats. Someone was patting her on the back, another tankard filled before her. Warren was shouting something across the room. Laughter rang out in response. Another song. Another round. Warren rising from the table and whispering something to her as he passed. Another round.
What time is it?
There was something she needed to do, but it was slipping away. Evelyn settled back into her chair, trying to remember where and what the urgent appointment entailed. The room around her was a noisy swarm, singing somewhere in the near distance, laughing, sounds of an argument rapidly growing heated. She turned her head, blinking slowly, and saw Warren was leaning in to whisper in a young man's ear, his smile too broad, his hand resting on the other man's lower back. It was one of the mercenaries they'd picked up in Crestwood. Or was it some other -wood? It was all blending together as time pressed on. She half-laughed, half-hiccupped. Warren was clearly drunk. In her peripheral vision, there was a little flutter of activity. She turned again, shifting forward to lean heavily against the table. Sera stood off to her left, a slow-spreading grin of evil delight overtaking the lower half of her face as she excitedly waved her hands. That was when Evelyn realized.
Fuck. I'm drunk.
She attempted to stand and found the ground beneath her was now the deck of a ship in a treacherous storm. Evelyn's head swiveled as she leaned against the table. Warren's seat was now vacant, as was the mercenary's. Typical. It was the Bann Sturvant's second wedding all over again. Warren had left her inebriated and trapped in the world's most boring conversation on the merits of local hunting grounds while he'd stolen away with the Bann's horsemaster. He'd emerged early the next morning, straw still clinging to his shirtsleeves, completely mystified by her sour demeanor. She'd not spoken to him for two full days after, until he managed to worm his way back into her graces with an overwrought apology and a fair bit of gossip he'd learned from said horsemaster. It had always been the way with them: her the sturdy, reliable sibling and him the complete disaster.
He was a fun disaster, though. She did have to give him that much.
There was a woman at her side then, one of the scouts, a redhead, Marnie? The woman took Evelyn by the elbow and led her toward the door. "It's all fine, your grace. Just a bit too much sunshine yesterday, and I do believe the fish was bad. I'd heard two others say it gave them terrible spins."
That wasn't right. She hadn't had any fish. Had she?
The sunlight outside momentarily whited out her vision before her eyes adjusted. Another woman at her other side, a hushed conversation. "The Inquisitor is not feeling well."
"I'm not sick," she tried to say in response, her voice sounding thick and slurred.
"We'll just get you inside. You can rest up there."
At the top of the stairs, Evelyn wrested her arms free. "I'm not sick," she insisted, the two women stepping back a bit in response. "I just..." she staggered backward through the door. "I just need a moment."
Solas glanced back over his shoulder as she shoved her way through his doorway. "Is your brother staying for awhile, then?"
"Warren," Evelyn said, drawing out the "ahr" sound. "Is making himself quite comfortable." She slumped against the couch arm.
"Are you drunk?"
"Yes!" she lifted her hands up. "Thank you! I am very drunk! They kept saying I was ill or that I'd had too much sun."
"Who kept saying?"
"The... people. In the bar."
"Ah," Solas stood, taking one of her outstretched hands in his own. "I think they were perhaps trying to protect your... reputation." He guided her onto the cushion of the sofa, pausing to relocate several stacks of books and scribblings to the floor.
Evelyn made a very unladylike snort in response. "My fucking reputation. Don't say the wrong things. Play the game. Don't drink too much. Be the right person. Don't blaspheme. Don't sleep with the elf. Marry at your station." She fell onto her side.
Solas tugged one of her boots off. "All things to worry about later." He pulled at the other boot. "You should have some rest now."
"Ugh. Rest," she grumbled, but her eyes were already blinking heavily. Solas laid a blanket on top of her.
"How old are you?"
"The honest truth?"
"I'm not quite sure. By the time I was old enough to understand a concept such as age, there was no one around to confirm exactly how long I had been alive."
"And that was in the north? In your village?"
"Yes. There and beyond." He sat in his chair, watching as she tucked a hand under her head.
"Was it sad? Is that why you don't talk about it?"
"It was, at times. It was always quite happy at times. Lie back down."
"But you didn't have a family."
He shook his head, "Not like yours. But we make our own families sometimes."
"You're lucky," she sighed, tongue heavy and unwieldy. "No one told you who to be. Who you could love. Told you who to marry."
She laughed, another hiccup.
She nodded. "Solas?"
"I would say yes... if you asked me."
He turned away quickly, feeling the first prick of tears. "Try to sleep, vhenan."
The leaves were completely brown on one half of the plant, withered and fading in the cold shadows. Solas plucked off the dead branches with a slight frown, letting them drift to the trampled patches of grass. The herbologist Josephine had insisted was "well-vetted" had clearly not received such vetting in mountainous regions. He stooped to pull on the heavy stone vessel, slowly dragging it into a patch of sunshine before selecting one green frond.
"Seems a bit shady for a garden," the voice was friendly, relaxed, matching the figure reclined against the stone arch.
"It is," Solas said carefully. "I had advised something more central, away from these high walls."
"And she didn't listen." The man let a lazy grin spread across his face.
He frowned. "No." A slight pause. "She was trying to prevent this from becoming a place for," he waved a hand loosely in the air, "meditative reflection, I believe was the phrase."
"That sounds like Chantry bullshit."
"It was indeed. I presume you are Warren?"
The grin widened. "She said you had a funny way with words."
"Archaic. Formal. You sound a bit out of time."
"I suppose that depends on the time." Solas glanced pointedly past the man, toward the door he blocked.
"Clever." Warren stepped back slightly, allowing Solas to pass. "She mentioned that too. What's with the weeds?"
Solas twirled the branch slowly in his fingers. "I was going to brew some tea. Your sister is..."
"Hungover all to shit?" he let the door loudly swing shut behind them.
"Elfroot, when brewed, speeds rehydration."
"I should have you make me one." Warren followed Solas to the stair. "You know, you're taller than I expected."
"You haven't met many elves."
"Oh, but I have. None quite as tall as you." They crossed the dark stone corridor. "When I'd heard about you, I hadn't expected someone quite so... strapping."
Solas pulled apart the greenery and placed the pieces in a mortar, shaking a sprinkle of salt over the pile before mashing. "Probably the benefit of being raised in the fresh mountain air. Although I am sorry to disappoint your fantasies of some delicate woodland creature entrancing your sister with my lilting song."
Warren smile turned devilish. "You were raised in the mountains, then? Near here? So your family is local?"
Solas examined the green paste critically before reapplying the pestle. "Do you really wish to know about my parentage? Or were you tasked to simply deal with me?"
"Tasked?" The smile never faltered. "I should have visited this place ages ago. Everyone here seems to believe I'm on some grand quest. I don't believe I've ever had my presence taken so very seriously before." Warren watched the greenish fluid swirl in a glass bottle, both men momentarily distracted. "Is that what you do for the Inquisition?" he asked after a long moment. "Are you some sort of herbalist or healer?"
"I was almost certain you knew I was an apostate."
"I believe the term used was 'damnable hedge mage,' but yes, I might have heard that somewhere." He watched as Solas stoppered the vessel and shook the concoction more vigorously. "You do understand my father's hesitation."
"Hesitation. That is quite the polite term." He hefted the large black kettle over the coals, adjusting its position carefully. "You do not have to be so very careful with me. I know a thing or two about the weight of familial expectations."
"Then you also know a thing or two about our family, I'd assume."
"I know enough. It will not matter, in the long run." Solas rose from his crouched position and gave the bottle another firm shake.
"Wel, that sounds fairly ominous."
"It was never intended to." He placed the back of his hand near the kettle's metal hull, then took a stone mug from the shelf above. "I understand her position with your family. I understand that she was born and raised to fill a certain role within that family, and that her education and development was centered around fulfilling that obligation." He tipped the kettle slightly by the handle, catching the steaming water in the mug. "Unfortunately for the Trevelyans, I also know that all sense of duty and obligation to one's family tends to fall to the wayside when one becomes the central figure in a holy army standing against the end of the world." Solas emptied the glass bottle into the mug.
"Do you believe she feels a similar neglect of family ties because she's caught up in this whole Inquisition business?"
"Of course not. But I do know Evelyn, and I know that right now her mind and her heart are concerned with matters beyond mingling your bloodline with another, similarly suitable vintage. There are larger things at stake, and she is..." he stirred the mug thoughtfully. "She is like nothing I expected to find among you."
"Among humans, you mean."
"Among anyone." He extended the mug slightly. "I should deliver this."
Warren shifted out of the way, calling after the man as he passed out of the kitchen. "She can't avoid him forever, you know. Eventually, she will have to give an answer."
"Eventually we all will, Master Trevelyan. However, that is something to worry me on another day."
Evelyn was half sitting up, squinting into the faint light as Solas came back into the rotunda. "What time is it?"
"I am afraid you have missed dinner. I brought you something to help with your head."
She winced as she leaned her head back against the couch's arm. "Warren is probably wondering where I am."
"I told him you were resting. Sit up and drink this, please."
She pushed slowly upward, sniffing at the mug as he handed it to her. "You... spoke with him?"
"You sound concerned by that prospect. He seems to be under the impression our speaking was your idea."
"I was drunk."
"Yes," he agreed a bit too quickly, earning him a sharp look. "Drink. It only works when still hot."
The cup emptied, he assisted her to a wobbly standing position and Evelyn slowly made her way back to her room to change before she had to deal with another person, dismayed to see her brother admiring the dwarven tiles on the far wall. "These are fascinating," he said without turning to face her. "Any idea what they mean?"
"No," she said weakly. "We have people who... who do that sort of thing. Nothing to report yet, the set is incomplete, one of those answers." She placed a hand against her forehead. "Can we discuss art another time? I need-"
"To throw up?" he asked, glancing back at her. "It would probably help more than the moss your boyfriend fed you."
"I don't have time for this right now, Warren. Whatever the two of you discussed can be..." she wearily drooped her shoulders, "... discussed later. Just... just be nice. Please."
"It was very nice, I assure you. He's a bit bolder than I expected. Usually, his type is more deferential. He was quick to tell me how well he knows Evelyn."
There were the sounds of people laughing from the Ambassador's suite, getting close to the door. "We'll get to what that means later, Warren. Now I have to go and change."
"Yes, and clean up. Please. You smell like a meadery."
She gave a dismissive gesture and speed-walked toward her quarters before skidding to a stop. "Wait. Did he say that?"
"Did he call me 'Evelyn?' To you? Out loud?"
He looked away for a moment in confusion before responding. "... yes? I think he did. Why? What does he normally call-" then he shook his head. "Actually, no. You know what? Don't answer that question. I can't believe I'm about to say this, but I really don't want to know." He regarded her for a moment, lips pursed together. "Wait. Why the hell are you making that face?"
"Nothing. I'm just... tired. It's nothing." She closed the door behind her, heart fluttering even as her stomach lurched. Evelyn. Not Inquisitor. Not Herald. Not Her Grace.
Something akin to boredom had settled over Skyhold. Scouting reports had found little in the way of activity from Venatori or Templar, leading some to the uneasy conclusion that whatever movements Corypheus and his army might be making, they were doing so well underground. This made the already strange and awkward gathering of the Inquisitor's advisors even stranger and more awkward. Josephine still insisted on the standard morning briefing after breakfast, even though she had run out of colorful ways to say that "the status is... unchanged." Leliana haunted her tower with her usual thoughtful stare. The woman had yet to realize what she was, what she represented, but this period of inaction had rendered her feeling particularly unmoored and it made her visage shimmer if one stared too long. Solas wondered if the others noticed at all. Cullen had taken up afternoon games of chess with Warren, clearly misunderstanding the Trevelyan man's interested smiles as a genuine interest in bettering his skill at the game. Morrigan, meddlesome and quietly curious, had gone from hovering in the background to showing up unannounced in otherwise quiet conversations, often with strange and cryptic predictions that would prove irritatingly correct.
She knew something, that one. Something that unsettled him whenever he found himself caught in her cool feline gaze. Beneath the surface of her skin stirred magicks ancient and unknown. She bore the trace aura of the familiar, and her method of casting was too fluid, too second-nature to be Chasind.
Solas turned the keystone over on his desk, feeling the familiar pulling hum as it settled back into place. The witch had stared silently at the artifact with a particular interest, the light reflecting in her eyes in a way that told him she was not entirely surprised by its magic.
"Warren says you cheat at cards, that's why they don't ask you to play." Evelyn lingered near the library stair, fresh from some conversation that had left her cheeks flushed. She'd undoubtedly been talking with both her brother and the Tevinter, together the two made an impressive gossip golem that would destroy any and all productivity the moment they appeared with their latest salacious tale.
"Your brother was misinformed. Master Tethras believes I cheat because I win... occasionally."
She snorted and flopped onto his sofa. The past few weeks had made her a little too casual, a little too comfortable. Warren's presence had relaxed her almost to the point of forgetting what still lay ahead. Something he was glad she could be relieved of, but also concerned for. When reality returned, he feared it would bite more savagely after this respite.
"We haven't been outside these walls in weeks," she said then, reading his mind without realizing it, as she was so apt to do. "Not even you."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"Don't think I never noticed you darting off at the first sniff of the ancient and unknown. You spent nearly a fortnight at that ruin, with hardly a word sent back."
"If I recall correctly, that was at a time when I did not know my presence would be so keenly missed."
"And didn't you miss mine at all?"
He trained his gaze on her with a pointedness that caused her flush to deepen. "More than you will ever know." She parted her lips slightly, leaning imperceptibly forward as he stepped toward her. The spell was broken by the distinct sound of snickering. This damnable room.
"There is a place I had been meaning to... it is not far, that is to say, it is a stone's throw from the gates. Would you like to join me-"
"Yes," she said eagerly, practically leaping to her feet.
“It’s a pond.”
“Of everything I enjoy about your company, your unparalleled powers of observation are right at the top of the list.”
Evelyn scowled in response, then her mouth dropped open as he pulled his shirt over his head.
“Are you going to swim? In that?”
“We are. I suggest you remove anything you do not wish to get wet.”
“Is it cold?” she called to him as he swam to the center of the pool.
“It is quite warm, I assure you. I believe there is a hot spring somewhere nearby.”
“Are there… fish and things?”
“I would assume there are. This is, after all, their domain. You are not afraid of watery creatures, are you, Lady Trevelyan?”
“Only if they’re the bitey kind.”
“Come,” he swam back to near the shore, extending his arms before him. “I will protect you from anything that threatens biteyness.”
The pond was ringed by thick forest that broke only overhead, showcasing a fantastically bright display of the heavens in its leafy frame. The water around them reflected this same picture, the ripples from their bodies causing the stars to constrict and stretch around them. “Lie back,” he commanded.
The effect was perfect. From their backs, all either could see was stars and cloudy heavenly miasma above. It gave one the impression that one was literally floating in the stars above.
“See? Nothing bitey. Just stars and warm water.”
“I think that if anything bit me now, I wouldn’t care,” she responded breathlessly. “There’s so many. It’s beautiful.”
“It was once believed each star was the spirit of an ancestor,” he said softly. “And that the light was a promise, shining down on them. Then they acquired more knowledge. Now we know they are simply old and dirty light, traveling across the ages to find us. Some think they are each the size of our sun, perhaps with worlds of their own. Maybe there is a world out there where another version of you and I are looking up at the stars in a similar way, watching our ancient light blink back at them.”
“Do you think they’re happy?” Evelyn pushed away and treaded water slightly.
“Of course they are,” he sighed, dragging her back to him. “How could they not be?”
The world was a soft and warm cocoon, piled high with blankets. He was only peripherally aware of her weight settling in next to him, arm snaking around his waist as she exhaled contentedly against his shoulder, her leg wrapping around his as they slowly turned to cuddle more efficiently. Solas then gasped loudly, pushing away.
"How are your feet so cold?"
"Someone took me to a pond, outdoors, in the snow, in the middle of the night." Her voice was muffled, half buried in the pillow.
"Yes, but then you wore socks and boots back. You even took a hot bath when we returned."
"I didn't want to smell like pond." She burrowed further.
"Do I smell like a pond?"
"No. You smell like..." she inhaled deeply, then sighed. "Like you always do. How do you always smell like this? It's always clove and campfire and fresh linen, even when we've ridden for miles on a hot summer's day."
"Would you believe me if I told you it is ancient magic, secret and forbidden?"
Evelyn propped her cheek on a fist and raised an eyebrow. "Would you teach me?"
"Of course not." The pillow nearly hit him in the face. "One, you are not a mage. Two, you are certainly too human to do it properly. And three, I cannot tell you all my secrets."
"Have you?" she asked, pulling the pillow back to her and lowering her head again.
"Told you all my secrets?"
"Is there something, in particular, you wish to know?"
Evelyn rolled onto her back, bending her knees and placing her icy toes beneath his calf, eliciting another exasperated noise from him. "Who was before me?"
"Before you? Are you asking about my prior lovers?"
"Lovers?" she drew out the 's.' "So there was more than one."
"Does that bother you?"
"No, 'bother' isn't the right word. You had told me there were none like this, but I figured that was flattery to bed me."
He turned his head to look at her. "I was honest."
"But there were lovers."
"There are gradients between lovers and this, vhen'an."
"If you must know, before you was someone quite like you, actually."
"Did she look like me?"
He shook his head. "No."
"Wait... was she blonde?"
"Was she- Can I speak seriously for one moment?"
"Isn't that really all you do?"
He sighed. "She was headstrong, proud, a leader. Sometimes quite irritating, actually-" he made a strangled scream. "I swear I will fetch socks if you keep that up."
"Alright, so this irritating leader, possibly blonde..."
"It was a mistake. A slip in judgment. I had feelings bred from shared experience she did not truly share. I believe now that she loved what I represented, to her, more than she loved the person beneath."
"So you left."
"She was the one who... departed. She belonged to another, and the division of her heart was our ultimate downfall. It ended poorly."
"I'm sorry, Solas."
"It was a long time ago." He rested his head on his crooked elbow. "Now you."
Evelyn covered her face with one arm and groaned. "Don't make me talk about him."
"Why?" he wrested the arm off her face. "Was he blonde?"
"It was just a stupid fling. I was young. He was young. We thought it was love. I think it was more just the combination of being left alone once too often in the Spring."
"Ah yes. Rutting like deer in the meadow."
"Don't be crass."
"So you did not rut in the meadow?"
"Well, I mean, of course we did. Nearly every chance we got."
"I am no longer sure I want to hear this story."
"It ended," she gave him a pointed glare. "Mostly because he stopped kissing and started speaking. Ruined it completely. He had opinions, most of them wrong, but he would never know when to just not share them. He couldn't read the room, not even when he was on top of it."
"I definitely no longer want to hear this story."
"So there it was, my first real love. My last relationship, if you can call it that. Before Fergus there were small courtships, usually supervised and much too orchestrated for my tastes."
"Was one of those the one your father writes about?"
The silence stretched on, grew heavy, Evelyn staring up at the ceiling, worrying her lower lip with her fingers. "Do you really want to know?"
Solas fell back heavily, taking a long moment to consider. "Yes? No? Not really, but also sometimes I wonder."
"Who he is?"
"That, and what he is like. Where he is from. There is curiosity there, I suppose."
Silence again. Then, "So you said lovers, plural. I take it the indecisive taken woman was not your first love."
"Just... no? Nothing you'd like to expand upon?"
He shot her a knowing look she boldly ignored. He rubbed at his face and then sat up fully, staring into the dark. "My first love was a woman who... she was the woman who made me what I am today, for better or for worse."
"Is that a bad thing?" Her eyes were wide in the fire's dim.
"How did it end?"
"The way these things often do. She was an alchemist, and very driven by her work. I was young and stubborn, wanted to be the center of her universe. I could not be. We had a falling out, a catastrophic one."
"Do you still think of her?"
"It is sometimes hard not to. She was so..." he waved his hand ineffectually, "instrumental in my life. Someone like that tends to leave a scar. I think a part of me still looks for her in everything around me, expecting to hear her voice."
Evelyn frowned. "That sounds like powerful love."
"It was, for me. Not for her. And it was still nothing close to this."
She stretched lazily "Like this. There's that flattery again." Her head snapped toward him, voice lowering. "I'm not taking off my bedclothes. I just got warm."
"Evelyn," he pushed himself up on his side. "I mean it when I say this is different, that you are different. I would never have bedded you under false pretenses."
"But you have enjoyed that part," she smiled slowly.
"I have, and I hope to continue to. It is not all this is, however."
"That sounds serious."
"It is serious. Very."
She furrowed her eyebrows, eyes narrowed. "Deadly?"
He smiled slightly. "Quite possibly."
"Are you just saying that to get me naked?"
"I would never dream of making you cold." Solas pulled back the blankets and slipped out of bed.
Evelyn sat up and watched him move across the dark room. "What on earth are you doing?"
"Fetching you socks first."
She grinned and pulled her nightshirt over her head.
"You are telling her story. On the goddamn walls."
"I am. On the goddamn walls." Solas tipped the bottle into his mouth. "You think it too much."
"It doesn't matter what I think. She loves it, right? She always did love her portrait being painted. And here you are, painting her twenty feet high."
"It is fresco."
"Hell yeah, it is." Warren grinned
"No, I mean it is not really painting-" Solas paused, noting the confounded look taking over Warren's face. "Nevermind. That is not important." He leaned back to gaze up at the panel before them. The great all-seeing eye of the Inquisition rained light down. "This space has always contained stories."
Warren lifted his bottle and gestured toward the blank panel to their right. "What will go there?"
"I suppose we will have to see what she does."
"I think that's what's being discussed now. There was some serious talk about serious men and serious things going on in that wing."
"There often is, in that wing."
Warren smiled turned wry. "Which is why I prefer the bar."
The reports on the Grey Wardens had started worrisome and grown positively grim. For nights now the strategy sessions had stretched late, Blackwall reluctantly dragging himself down the long hall to the War Room for advisement. Evelyn fell into bed each night weary yet unable to sleep, staring up at the ceiling as she gnawed on her cuticles, pausing to softly ask him questions about demons and abominations that left him feeling chilled. What had the Order wrought? How far would the rot of it carry?
"She's seen some shit," Warren breathed, breaking Solas out of his reverie. "I don't think our life prepared her for that. We spent the Blight locked away on a hill. It barely affected us, save losing some men to the king's order. Most of the children were considered too young to be eligible. Our eldest brother wasn't so lucky."
Solas leaned against the desk. "She has mentioned Liam before. Says he is the 'sweetest' of her brothers. That is the word she uses, time and time again. 'Sweet.'"
Warren swallowed hard and nodded. "He is. Very quiet, deep. He was the sort that would lose himself in a book in the garden for hours, until my mother had turned the entire house upside down in a panic, searching for him. She would fret that he was too mild, too sensitive, that his future betrothed would push him around too easily. To be frank, I don't think he would have given half a shit if they did. He never appeared interested in matters of state, seemed more content to stay within our little world forever. Then came the Blight and, and the eldest son, his sacred duty." The last two words were venom, bile Warren washed down with a mouthful of brew. "He came back intact, thank the Maker. Physically, anyhow. He's still sweet, but it's in a way that's so much more... simple. He stares for long hours instead of reading. Sometimes we find he's drooled a bit on himself." A beat, a silence that lingered. "At least it's peaceful. The night terrors are not so charming."
"War has a way of destroying the mind."
"It has a way of destroying far more than that." Warren stared thoughtfully at his hands before continuing. "After he returned my father gave up all hope of growing into his proper place as head of the family. He turned to me, but my proclivities were already known well enough to see I would never be the source of a blood heir. Tom is a slovenly moron with a tendency to be a total asshole, unreliable as a source of family pride. That left Evelyn and she... well, she's been too busy with other things."
Solas shifted, crossed his arms. "Other things being saving the world, or is this me in particular?"
"It isn't all just about you, you know. I could give you the speech about how no one would ever be good enough, but we both know-"
"We both know your father has already determined which particular one is quite good enough."
Warren shook his bottle, testing its remnants. "I don't agree with him that his children are just breeding stock, okay? But I can see why it chafes. You build a family name through generations. It has to be hard to watch it sputter out. He just doesn't get why she can't run this army, defeat the evil, become a religious icon, marry someone brag-worthy and begin reproducing en masse."
"I am impressed."
"By my witty analysis?"
"By your ability to bring this up once again under the guise of another friendly conversation."
"I don't remember bringing it up."
"We were discussing war. You leaped to family."
"If you knew my family, you'd see how it's not that far of a leap."
"I suppose you believe that unique to your family."
"I only know mine. Why, are you planning on finally introducing us to yours?"
The sound of voices in the hall interrupted, eliciting a resigned sigh from the Trevelyan. The War Room was emptying for the evening, much earlier than expected. The two men sat silently, each staring downward.
"I should-" Solas pushed himself up to his full height.
Warren swallowed another mouthful of beer and shrugged. "By all means."
In the great hall, Evelyn stood apart from her advisors, gazing thoughtfully at the throne as they argued. The weight of the conversation hung in the phrases he heard as he passed.
"...strained to our limits..."
"...ridiculous death wish..."
"Did you ever wonder?" Evelyn asked quietly as he stood beside her. "Why they gave me a throne?"
"Are you asking why the Inquisitor has a throne?"
"I'm not the queen."
"No, not a queen, but the seat of power is yours, nonetheless."
"Power," she repeated softly. "Is that what I have? I feel as if I exercise very little power. I feel sometimes as if I'm told what is right, who to listen to, where to go, and what to do."
"Do you feel as if your advisors have the true power? That they tell you what to do?"
"Among others. The Empress, the King, other lesser leaders of smaller holdings. Now Morrigan, Vivienne," her eyes turned to him, "you, at times."
He recognized the exhaustion in her words, in her face, and heard the wariness lying beneath. This wariness caused a tight ball of unease to form deep in his gut. When her speech became so formal, so prepared, so... regal, it often meant there was a fissure of distrust forming. This was not uncharted territory between them. "Have I provided unsound guidance?"
"Don't do that. This isn't about you. It's about..." she wrung her hands and he saw the quiver in her chin. "They want me to..." her voice dropped to a whisper. "We're launching a siege on Adamant Fortress, Solas."
So this was the cause of her unease. He had thought that they would have to face the remaining Grey Wardens at some point on the field. Bringing the assault to their walls was another matter entirely. Many would die against those walls, and many more would face whatever horrors the blighted men inside now carried within them. The battles they faced had escalated and felt less like victories and more like miracles of survival. "Are you afraid, Evelyn?"
She nodded, a tear slipping down her cheek. "Yes."
A high pitched giggle from the corner of the room, the rugs were being cleaned. He cleared his throat. "Perhaps we should continue this in your quarters."
"Not tonight, Solas," she wiped at her face brusquely. "I have to prepare myself. Go and drink with Warren, then get some sleep."
"I'm sorry." She shook her head, lips pursed. "Not tonight. Goodnight."
The door closed with a definitive click, leaving him standing on the other side.
They stood together in the rain, watching the battering ram slowly wrench back into position. The wall had given way at last, and now the Inquisition's men, her men, poured through the ragged opening. Her fingers flexed, brushed against his. "Thank you."
Solas raised his eyebrows slightly. "For?"
"For being with me now. Here. After. Well, after the other night."
"You were under a great deal of strain. Besides, I could hardly leave you alone. You know what we face."
"Do I? Do you?" She smiled sadly, squeezing his fingers. "Be careful."
"Always." Solas stared up at the great stone building before them, only peripherally aware of Evelyn slipping from his side. Adamant Fortress had once stood as a testament to the Grey Warden reach and influence within Orlais. A bastion of power and justice, with heavy walls and mighty griffons patrolling the skies above. Lack of both resources and care had dulled the shininess, made haunted halls where once life teemed. Dustiness and decrepitude crept over floors worn smooth by the stomping of boots, the crumbles of tapestries lost to the ages. Now the ravages of time and neglect paled in comparison to the damage the forces of men inflicted upon the structure. Thick plumes of smoke rose from the balustrade, choking clouds of hot ash and the scent of burning flesh filling the air. The fortress yet stood, in spite of the barrage of fire and stone lobbed at it from the Inquisition forces. Solas could not help but be impressed, a response he frequently felt at the sight of ancient Dwarven architecture. Scrabbling up the great stone steps of the main approach behind the other members of his party, he paused to survey the scene. The battle had taken heavy casualties on both sides already, blood of Inquisition, Orlesian, and Warden alike mixing in the rocky soil. Blackwall stumbled, his eyebrows knitted together as he noted what had caught his boot: a Warden chestpiece, raw rib bones poking where it had been cleaved in twain.
“These are not your brethren any longer,” Solas placed a firm hand on Blackwall’s armored shoulder. “They are but a twisted semblance of what they once represented. Steel your mind.”
Blackwall’s mouth snapped back closed, a look of determination crossing his face. With a curt nod, he turned back toward the great doors made of steel and wood that opened the courtyard to the upper ramparts. Solas knew not what they would find within the walls, but he had a feeling that none within the party were properly prepared for the true horrors of what the Wardens had brought upon themselves. Foolish men, too long denied the respect and glory they believed they were due. Solas might have pitied them, were they not presently trying to kill him.
“To me,” Evelyn's voice sounded hesitant, in spite of the command. Her words were clipped and fast. One small scouting party to the north, to assess the threat before ladders could be deployed. One single scout to survey the courtyard below. Two with her to attempt to find the Warden Commander deeper in the fortress’s innards. Three for heavy combat to slice through the forces between. He was to travel with the combat portion, to offer whatever support was needed.
“Solas,” she said softly, her eyes lingering on Blackwall’s hunched form. “Protect him.”
The fighting was surprisingly light, a discovery that set his nerves on edge. If the brunt of their forces had not been sent to deal with direct combat, that meant the Wardens were mounting an assault that would be far worse. Rumors of their blood magic rituals had echoed through the troops during the journey here, stirring primal fear amongst their recruits. Their men were an army, equipped to be canon fodder and little else. Few among them had ever witnessed an abomination first hand. Even the templars within their ranks were far from battle-tested.
The theory of an enemy rarely held up to the horrors faced.
Ahead of him, his iron-clad companions kicked down a door that hung loosely on its hinges, sending splinters cascading down the stone steps on the other side. “Wardens,” Blackwall yelled down to the landing below. “We mean you no harm. Drop your weapons and nothing will befall you.” A steady stream of arrows responded, Blackwall raising his shield to catch them. “I will subdue the archers. Solas, deal with the mage.” With his shield raised, he bludgeoned his way down the stair, slashing at the first archer with a blow that knocked the man backward, screaming as he fell. Blackwell let loose a bellow of victory as he shoved through the makeshift barriers to reach the second.
Solas picked his way down the steps behind the fighters, feeling the crackle in the air that raised the hair on his arms. The magic here was old, and very deep. It permeated the walls around him, rising up through the floors. Adamant was built on a rift that splintered time itself, weakening the veil and disrupting the natural flow of the energy of the area, causing the font of mystic within him to respond in a mix of fury and anticipation. He should not linger.
Perhaps this hesitation was visible, and why she chose that moment to fire. It caught him off guard, the spike of ice that froze his left arm and made his wield clumsy. He released an incantation of dampening in response, muting her power and slowing the entire room. Blackwall ran from him as if caught in a gel, his feet releasing soft and muffled thumps in the distance. The Qunari roared in slow-motion, his axe slicing through an intruding man’s neck as blood arced away in a glittering spray. The mage slowly shifted her position from behind the pillar, revealing a vallaslin of Mythal blood-marked across her face.
Solas pulled his staff back against his shoulder, two fingers extended as the numb wore from his left hand. Her expression bore no emotion, flat and empty, eyes dulled as though waking from a thick sleep. She examined her own fingers in the half-light of the torches before raising her gaze to meet his own. She possessed a power not yet fully unleashed. The thick haze of magicks yet to come wrapped around her like a cloak. She did not know what she was, but it was impossible to think that the Venatori did not recognize her potential. She would be marked for death, as surely as any other with a hint of the arcane. Her blood would produce a horror both ancient and unknown, a coup de grace with which they hoped to turn the tide of the battle. It was only a matter of time before she was called, to stand unblinking and obedient as her throat was slit.
Later he would say it was empathy that drove his hand, although that was never entirely the truth. She lifted her staff in a defensive posture, then something shifted, shimmered, a light within that recognized kindred, a stirring of her buried potential’s instinct toward self-preservation. She dropped the staff, pupils widening as his fingers found the edges of her face. The thrall released with a fierce heat that singed his fingertips, the elf Warden slumped to the floor as he shook the feeling back into his fingers.
"Is she dead?" The Iron Bull pushed with his foot, shifting her tiny body violently.
"As good as," Solas replied, slumping back against a wooden scaffold.
"Should I crush her skull? Finish the job?"
"There would be no point to it. She will not wake for hours."
"But when she does, she'll be one of those things."
"Not if we do our job, my friend. Leave her." Solas placed his hand against the Qunari's arm. "Please."
A look that Solas did not entirely like flickered in the only visible eye. "Sure thing."
The roar erupted above them, obliterating all thought. Their party staggered back as the stone above shook, burdened with the weight of the blighted dragon. "He's here," Iron Bull stated in a dark tone.
"Yes," Cole's voice then. "The Warden Commander chases Erimond. The Inquisitor chases the Warden Commander. He chases the Inquisitor."
"We have to move quickly." Solas pushed past the others, to lead the band up the stairwell and onto the ramparts above. He ran despite the chill ache in his arm and side that still lingered, chasing after the distant sounds of Evelyn's shouts, the dragon's claws scraping the masonry as it skittered up and over, after her. The walls were a chaos of blood and fire, men engaged in brutal clashes only to be burned together as the wyrm laid waste to all in its path. There was another burst of flame and the dragon took flight, honing in on a figure in the distance. Solas felt his heart heave in his chest until he realized Evelyn stood directly before him, staring in blank horror as the dragon descended.
"No," she cried, breaking into a sprint.
"Evelyn!" Solas ran after her, sliding to a stop as the silent explosion lit the night. There was an ear-splitting crack as the floor beneath his feet canted. He saw Evelyn fall, spinning onto her stomach in an attempt to grab hold of the ground as it shifted. Solas reached for her arm but it was too late and she was tumbling, falling as he lost his on hold and felt the earth rush toward him. There was the sound of Evelyn releasing a primal scream before the world crackled and went blinding white, then dark.
There was the memory of pain, searing and hot, tearing through him before the dark took over, whispering secrets ancient and near-forgotten. Now he felt a familiar aching pull settle into his chest, warmly flooding his limbs, down to the very tips of his fingers and toes. Then came the ringing in his ears, not unpleasant, almost like a melody he knew well, albeit louder and more insistent than he could recall. There was another sound, a repeated tone, rapidly increasing in both speed and volume. A word. "No." Solas felt the earth beneath his fingers become real, pressing against the skin with a feeling that was almost... charged. He pushed himself up and realized that it wasn't the ground that held this charge - it was everything. He felt it course over his flesh, around and through him, lifting him upward, imbuing his senses with something that had felt beyond reach only a few moments ago. The energy inside him boiled, threatening and strong as it rushed to answer the call, halted in its path by the word, again. "No." Solas shook the feeling from his head, vision clearing as he found himself standing in the eerie green glow, his skin still shimmery with the raw power that flowed through the very air. He turned his head to see Cole's face hanging before him. He canted his gaze, brain stumbling to catch up with what his eyes struggled to comprehend. Cole hung upside down, but he wasn't hanging. He was standing, just on another surface, one above him.
"I'm not supposed to be here." Cole's words were frantic. "I can't be in the Fade. Not physically. I can't."
"What does he mean?" Blackwall was examining his hands and arms, as if not believing they fully existed. "Have we died? Is that it?"
"No," Solas rolled his shoulders, relaxed his neck, taking a moment to settle his mind. "Not dead. But he is correct: we do appear to be in the Fade. Physically."
"I thought that wasn't supposed to be possible."
"Nothing is truly impossible when it comes to the Fade." Solas turned. "Did we all break through?"
Blackwall made a sort of noisy exhale. "How are you so calm?" Then he gestured, "She's over there, with the Seeker." Solas headed in the indicated direction and Blackwall called after him. "You can't just leave us like this!"
Cole, now standing near Solas, called out, "Just think that you want to be there, then move there."
Blackwall struggled before landing heavily near the pair. "I thought you weren't supposed to be here."
"No. But I still understand how it works."
"Lovely," Blackwall grimaced.
Evelyn was half on the ground, Cassandra crouched near her. "I don't understand," she looked up at Solas. "How did this happen?"
"I imagine it was the mark. Your panic response amplified by certain old magicks in that place to open a rift. We fell through that rift and found ourselves... here."
She lifted her hand, the mark pulsing a dull green. "I can do that?"
"It appears so," Solas helped her to her feet.
"Does Corypheus know that I can do that?"
"I believe that is why he seemed so desperate to claim the mark from you."
Her gaze darkened as she turned this information over in her mind. Behind her, Solas became aware of The Iron Bull's steady stare. "Sooo... what happens if he manages to get some sort of control of her? Corrupts her, the way he seems to just, y'know, do?"
"I would suggest we not let that happen."
"Right." That look again, the shifting behind the Qunari's flat expression that made Solas' blood chill.
"Everyone seems to be taking this remarkably well," Blackwall's voice was sarcastic, creeping with panic.
"We've been dealing with demons, blighted dragons, mind control, blood control, alternate timelines, ancient magisters, some real shit," The Iron Bull slung his axe over one shoulder. "I haven't seen any one of those things respond to freaking out. So I suggest we all keep it together."
"Well said," Evelyn dropped Solas' hand from her own, staring down at it as if she hadn't been aware she was still holding onto it. He was focused on some point past her head. She followed his gaze, eyes widening. "Is that the Black City?"
"It is. How unusual to find it so... so very close. This is not a part of the Fade I am familiar with, nor is it one I would have chosen to visit."
"That sounds ominous."
"We would do well to be careful. The demon the Wardens were attempting to summon might be nearby."
"How nearby, exactly?"
"Closer than I would prefer." Solas frowned, surveying the landscape. "Judging from our surroundings I would think this is the domain of a fear demon. A quite powerful one, at that."
"How can you tell that?" Varric's friend, the warrior named Hawke, finished buckling his pack and stood.
"Because he's afraid," Cole spoke softly.
"I would dare say we all are. But I hardly think it's the demon alone causing that." Hawke checked the hilt of his sword and adjusted the pack on his back. "So we know where we are, and possibly what we face, but do we know how the hell to get out of here?"
Evelyn worried her lower lip with her teeth. "We fell near the rift the Wardens opened. Could we find that, perhaps?"
"Yes," Solas nodded. "I believe that portal there might be the one we seek." In the distance, the misty purple and green clouds swirled. "Be on your guard, this place can cause confusion."
"That's the understatement of the year," Hawke strode ahead of the others.
Cole's words continued to gnaw at Solas. The others appeared to shake the comment off, just another throwaway odd thing from the odd boy with the tendency to say odd things. Fear took many shapes, and the Fade here would twist to show each some reflection of their own deep-seated horrors, yet he could not help but feel that some of this were particular to him. Something about the way the architecture formed, the repeating iconography of wolves, some trapped in the mouths of screaming blighted figures, seemed intentional. Doubly troubling was the presence of red lyrium. The infection Corypheus spread had reached even here, the land beyond. Was this place formed following the events at the Temple of Sacred Ashes?
The paranoia did not abate when their party rounded a corner to find a large, shattered eluvian standing sentinel in the middle of a small island, a skeletal figure surrounded by tomes and rough sketches collapsed before it. Evelyn carefully turned over the books, the pages crumbling into dust at her touch, before placing a hand against one of the warped remnants of the mirror's glass. "There is something about this that feels almost familiar," she said.
"That is not surprising. I believe the demon guarding this place might be the same you encountered in the Fade at the Temple of Sacred Ashes."
"I've faced it before," she said faintly.
"So it remembers me," her tone turned grim.
"I fear you are quite familiar, yes," Solas again pulled her to her feet. "If this demon feeds off the energy Corypheus has inspired, it will know much about you."
"Do you think it's looking for her?" Hawke looked around uneasily.
"If we have somehow managed to arrive without notice, that would be surprising indeed." Solas indicated the stair in the distance. "I would suggest we proceed quickly."
His mind remained focused on the task at hand, moving swiftly through the murk and over the stone steps, hoping beyond hope that they didn't find any physical manifestations of fear he might find difficult to explain. The Qunari was already staring pointedly at him far too often for his liking, and the last thing he needed was one of the others remarking that something seemed off, or Cole deciding to expound on any of the responses he failed to control. All they had to do was make it past-
Solas stopped in his tracks, hearing the sharp intake of breath from Cassandra behind him. Standing not three yards ahead was a woman dressed in chantry garb who bore a most striking resemblance to the deceased Divine. As she spoke, something about her shimmered with energy that again caused the corresponding power deep within him to respond. Solas staggered back slightly, feigning something in his boot as he crouched, trying desperately to keep his composure. He could hear the conversation as if it were in a distant room, clawing his fingernails into his palms to ground himself in the last shreds of reality this body still clung to.
"... is it possible?" Evelyn's voice returned to full volume in a rush. He found her standing above him.
She frowned. "Solas, are you all right?"
"It was just something in my boot," he breathed deeply. "Is what possible?"
"Can she really be Justinia?"
"You survived your first trip into the Fade. It is possible she did, as well. Or it is possible an empathetic spirit saw her plight and felt strongly enough to take on her form."
"Is there any way to know for sure?"
"We could ask her," Solas brushed his hands off. "She might be willing to tell us, if she knows."
"She also said I could face the fears the demon took from me, by using those orbs the spirits left behind. She said the demon took them from me... it feels almost like a kindness."
"I take fears from people, take their hurts, but I'm not a demon," Cole's form shivered, his voice again had that near-hysterical edge to it.
Solas touched the boy's arm lightly. "You are not like this being, Cole. I promise you that."
"No. He eats the fears. They make him stronger. I take the pain to ease their suffering, not to benefit my own wants." Cole appeared more solid. "Thank you for reminding me, Solas."
Evelyn shattered the orbs, releasing small ripples of energy that altered the space around them, culminating in a shared vision. A small circle of mages wearing Warden armor, holding the Divine in some sort of binding while Corypheus approached, the orb held high. Then a commotion at the door, Evelyn stumbling in, her face turning from confusion to rage. Justinia managing to land a single strike when the spell disrupted, the orb tumbling across the stone toward Evelyn, who caught it without a thought. The world flashed again and they all found themselves again standing in that same grotto.
"Those were Grey Wardens," Hawke spat.
Stroud, the Grey Warden companion who had stayed relatively quiet until this moment, raised his hands. "They were not of their own minds, we've seen how he compelled them."
"And we shouldn't be angry? That something can be so easily compelled by a self-proclaimed vengeful deity just because they drank some concoction to what? To help them fight darkspawn? Is that the tradeoff we're supposed to accept?"
"You're over-simplifying because you're angry, Garrett," Stroud replied. "Remember we're in this together."
"Now is neither the time nor the place," Evelyn looked weary, rubbing her marked hand with irritation. "Fade demon first, then we can decide who's to blame."
It continued on like this. The spirit representation of Justinia remaining cryptic and evasive as their party picked through the various enemies the fear demon conjured, Hawke and Stroud bickering at the rear. On more than one occasion they encountered a remnant of some unlucky spirit still wrapped in the fear and suffering experienced by a mortal. Some spirits would cling to a horror experienced by the living mortals, driven by a compassion they could not escape. He was surprised to find his heart wrenched every time Evelyn stopped to try to release the soul from its torment, digging through decrepit crypt jars and boggy soil to unearth trinkets, trying to right the wrongs these lost souls mourned. It was on one of these expeditions that he heard her call out for him, her voice high and fearful.
"Solas, what is this?"
She stood at the edge of a graveyard, small and unkempt, its stones weathered and near-buried in tall grass and weeds. Each was emblazoned with a name that he realized was familiar. Each had a line beneath the name that caused a pit to form deep within him.
Becoming his parents
She reached for his fingers and squeezed, hard, tears slipping down her cheek. "What is this?"
Then he saw it, his own name carved in stone.
"It is the demon. Trying to frighten us." He struggled to keep his voice level. "We should not linger here."
She nodded, wiping at her face. "Don't tell the others. Keep them away from here."
They found the others standing on the stair above. "There's a barrier ahead," Blackwall said in a low tone. "And that thing that says its the Divine is standing near it."
"It is Justinia," Cassandra's mouth hung open. "Can you not see? She is here to protect us."
"It's a demon, Seeker Cassandra. How can you not see what it's trying to do?" Hawke seemed incredulous.
"Whatever it is," Solas replied evenly. "It seems to identify very strongly with the Divine, and it seems intent on helping us. I would suggest we allow it to, until it proves otherwise."
"Yes," Evelyn's tone was short. "If it wanted to kill us it likely would have done so by now. Nothing else seems to have hesitated. Let's get this over with and out of this cursed place."
The spirit with Justinia's form did not turn on them, instead continuing to lead, protect, and break through barriers when necessary, revealing more of the past as it did so. The Divine was the woman sighted behind Evelyn when she burst through the rift and returned from the Fade, giving her own life to save their now-Inquisitor. It seemed more likely than ever that this spirit had been so moved by the sacrifice that she chose the form, the personality, the very essence of the woman as her own. The noblest gift such a spirit could bestow: perfect imitation to carry on the memory of something the spirit so admired. A form of immortality. Beautiful to witness, if tragic.
Despite the spirit's protection, the fear demon continued to attempt its worst, culminating in cruelties spoken to each in turn in the wretched voice of Corypheus himself. It taunted Blackwall with hidden secrets from his checkered past, Cole with threats of abomination, Hawke with past pains clearly left better buried. Solas closed off his mind, creating a wall of static noise that would protect him from the prying, searching tendrils.
"Do you believe this will end well, Inquisitor? How can you when you fail to recognize what warms your bed at night?"
Solas stopped short, feeling his heart squeeze. It was all the demon needed to break through.
"Dirth ma, harellan. Ma banal enasalin. Mar solas ena mar din."
His jaw clenched, the words came before he could stop himself. "Banal nadas."
Later, they would nurse their wounds and their losses at the far camp, trying to forget the final horror of the demon they faced. The Grey Wardens were to assist the Inquisition, much to Solas' irritation. They'd lost one of the Wardens in the Fade, the man called Stroud that Hawke had introduced to the Inquisition. The Warden's death impacted her greatly, and he felt the decision to protect the Order was one driven by grief as well as Evelyn's misguided Ferelden loyalty to the organization. He hoped this decision would not spell doom for them all.
"What did he say to you?" Evelyn pulled her boot off beside him.
"The demon. It was in elvhen. He spoke too fast for me to gather anything other than 'victory.'"
"Ah," Solas assisted her with her other boot, watching her wince as she rotated her shoulder slowly. "He was letting me know all of my efforts would be for naught. Essentially, I am and will always be a failure. Fairly common fears, I frankly expected better."
"And you replied?"
"I told him nothing is inevitable."
She laughed slightly. "I don't think you're a failure, for what it's worth."
"And, Solas?" She caught his arm, words coming fast and with great fervency. "I won't let you die alone."
The campfire that night held the usual chatter. There was more than one drunken toast to fallen companions. Rumors of Grey Warden possession passed from one man to the other. The conversation turned, however, when those who witnessed the events outside the command tents joined the circle. The Inquisitor and the elf were at it again, more brazen and bold than ever. There was a re-enactment of the way she'd grabbed his arm, an exaggerated recreation of the kiss, giggling over the mimicry of the elf's expression as he was pushed backward toward her tent.
"I guess she's not mad anymore," was met with uproarious laughter, the fears and death forgotten for the night.
"Are you awake?"
"Barely." Solas adjusted his neck to allow her more space beneath his chin. "I would ask what inspired that, but I must confess I worry that asking will prevent it from happening again."
"Liked that, did you?"
"I thought that much was obvious."
"Only to me and half the camp."
"If you are trying to embarrass me, I lack the energy to muster it."
"Pity." He felt the corner of her smile against his collarbone.
Solas laughed quietly and placed his hand over his eyes. "What time are we to leave?"
"I believe daybreak was the order."
"Want me to go take it back? Tell them we'll be spending the day in here?"
"Your bed in Skyhold is more comfortable. And the walls much thicker."
Evelyn rolled onto her back, still cradled in the bend of his arm. "I don't want to return to Skyhold."
"Do you plan to run away, then?"
Her head tilted back against his shoulder. "If I did, would you go with me?"
"Is this a serious question?"
Evelyn was quiet, her fingers restless against his ribcage. "Do you think I'm selfish for thinking about it?"
"No. I think you grow tired of command. It happens to the best of us."
"You say that as if you know."
Now it was his turn to be quiet.
"I'm sorry, Solas. I wasn't being rude."
"I know." He shifted toward her, her forehead just against his mouth. "We could, conceivably, go away for a little while. Not forever, I think that would result in a price on my head."
"I love that you think my father doesn't already have one." She nuzzled into his neck further. "Where could we go?"
"I know of places, not far."
She placed a hand against his chest. "They would be reluctant to let us go alone."
"Let them send a small escort, then. I can still find ways for us to be alone." His fingers laced through hers.
"A vacation," she sighed.
"Yes. A vacation."
"Then take me."
"Fine, but then we should think about taking that vacation."
Her laughter was muffled by his mouth.
The good humor didn't last past first light, when the announcement that she was going to take some time away was met with stony silence at best, and harshly whispered words at worst. Solas heard the arguments from a distance, observing but not interfering, although the stares being directed at him proved he had already clearly interfered enough, in some's view. Evelyn left the command area in a huff, mounting her horse with only a terse, "It's time to go." He gathered the important details of the objections in her muttered grumblings as they rode.
"My duty, as if I'm not entitled to any time alone. Even the soldiers get R&R, why am I not allowed the same? If it's so imperative I be at Skyhold, why are they so anxious to send me off for every minuscule request, every nothing artifact in some godforsaken corner of a desert no one else has ever heard of? Why am I the one fetching elfroot and iron from the fucking plains if my place is at Skyhold? What do they do without me then?"
He knew better than to respond, following behind at a safe distance, letting her rage in her quiet way. She eventually trailed off, allowing the occasional heavy sigh and shake of the head releasing the last of the frustration. They reached the campsite by nightfall, their attachment of men setting up near the road to watch for any oncoming danger. Their horses tethered, he forged ahead to the clearing beyond while she gathered her things.
The grove was so vivid green it hurt at times to look at. Silver moonlight on heavy damp leaves, smell of wet grass and deep ponds. It was beautiful, primal, wild. Such a peaceful place to cause his heart to feel so heavy. A place laden with memories long scattered to the four corners of the world. Solas put his hand in the cool earth, willing it to unlock. Tonight he was tempted to dream, to enter the Fade and seek out the lost souls within these rocky walls. But he couldn’t, not here. Not with her dreaming beside him. She tended to wander in, even when uninvited, their connection too strong to be denied, even when unconscious.
She was unlike anything he’d ever encountered before. And this made it too risky to open some doors. He knew he would betray too much, without meaning to.
As if he summoned her, she sat beside him then, tearing a hunk of bread in two and offering him half. He shook his head and she shrugged, biting into her half with ferocity. “How can you not be hungry? I feel as if we’ve ridden for days.”
“A little over a day. It can be too dangerous to stop through these woods.”
She exhaled a long breath, leaning back against the ground. “These paintings are elvhen, aren’t they? What is this place?”
“It is a grove that was once important to the elves who lived in these lands. Its name has been forgotten for many centuries. It is considered a holy place, a shrine to one of their gods.”
“So the paintings are thousands of years old? How are they still so vibrant?”
“Ancient elves would imbue their cave markings with a bit of magic, the same I used in your chambers. A way of marking so that their paths are not lost to the elements. See there?” he splayed his fingers wide, indicating a large depiction of elves marching in a line. “See how it glimmers in the moonlight? There’s something else there, something only revealed with veilfire. A message. Or a warning.”
“Can you read it?”
“I could if I had some veilfire, yes. Perhaps in a bit we will see if there is a brazier nearby. They tended not to leave such etchings without a way to see them. First, finish your dinner.”
She chewed in silence, staring up at the glimmering painting. “Why are there holes? In their heads and chests?”
“These elves are enslaved. Holes in the mind, in the heart. They are not free. There, off to the left?” he gestured toward a menacing figure in black armor, the skeletons of elves at the feet. “That is one of the... the beings that enslaved them. And there, to the left? Those are the now freed elves riding into battle. The rebellion.”
She stared at the images of the elves, bows and swords in hand, riding the halla. The golden halla at the front had no rider. “And that's Ghilan’nain.”
Solas smiled. “Very good. It is, in a way. The golden halla is used to represent her in most modern elvhen lore, but it is truly her emissary. An immortal halla who will lead the people to safety, to freedom, to victory. Her name is Hanal’ghilan. She was a gift to Ghilan’nain from another god.”
“Her lover, at any rate.”
Solas looked at her sharply. “Why would you assume that?”
“An immortal golden halla? To protect her people? That's quite a gift.”
He sighed, settled back beside her. “It was more complicated than love. Ghilan’nain was not a god when it all started. She was just like any other of the people. She had a particular talent, some said that was given by the gods. She could create. A sort of organic alchemy. She was a master huntress, you see, and when she was no longer challenged by all that she found in her lands, she began to create new creatures. The gods were displeased, because creation is a power that only they possess. Andruil, who favored Ghilan’nain above all others, struck a deal for her life. Ghilan’nain would be elevated to godhood in exchange for sacrificing all her creations to the other gods. Thereafter, she would create only for them.”
Evelyn had stopped eating. “That isn’t the way that story goes. Ghilan’nain was captured by a hunter, and turned into a halla by Andruil.”
Solas laughed. “That, vhenan, is a Dalish story. It's better that one of the people be blessed by a god than to become elevated herself. I think they believed it blasphemous.”
“It seems the Dalish alter a lot of elven lore to fit themselves.”
“Is that not the way with every society, since the beginning of time? History, legend, all changed to fit current social mores. Look at your own Andraste, for example. How much of that has been covered up, changed? Even her own elvhen army was written out of the chant.”
“That does seem to be true." Evelyn brushed her hands off on her trousers. "So did she? Sacrifice her creations?”
“She did,” Solas said quietly. “Or at least, she began to. The cries of bird and hare haunted her dreams and she wept bitterly. In her desperation, she asked for someone to help her, to help her deceive the other gods so that she wouldn’t have to slaughter all of her beloved creatures.”
Evelyn sat up, a little breathless. “Fen’harel.”
He nodded, his throat dry from her excited response. “She knew that he alone would know how to hide things from the other gods. So together they chose one bird, a deeply black raven she had imbued with the shimmer of a morning rainbow, and taught it to fly so high and so quickly that it would resemble other birds against the sun. Then the gods would not notice it. Then they took a sea serpent she had breathed into life and taught it to dive deep, and to hide among the seaweeds. And finally, they took the halla, her most beloved, and those they taught to be fleet-footed and secret, delving deep into the forest and staying out of sight. After Ghilan’nain had ascended, Fen’harel let loose the halla, and they ran free amongst the fields and became beloved of the elves. This caused the other gods great anger, because they knew they had been deceived, but Ghilan’nain was moved by the gesture, for it was her connection to her people. Her way of letting them know that they would always be loved and protected by her.”
“So Fen’harel did love her!” Evelyn seemed quite pleased with herself.
“It was more complicated than that, especially then. While he loved her, they were not lovers. Ghilan’nain was powerful and quick-witted, and she saw through to what he really was. She never allowed him to bed her, but the knowledge that he loved her enough to grant her that incredible favor, and that she knew him enough to see through to his true nature… that was a kind of love that transcends. It was a love that was never to be, anyway. He was frivolous at times, and therefore not capable of truly understanding a woman such as she was. Beautiful, powerful, vengeful, terrifying. He never felt truly worthy of her. And she could never see past what lie inside him.”
The two of them stared at one another a long moment before Solas broke the spell, rising to his feet. “Come,” he offered her a hand. “Let us see if we can find veilfire.”
The brazier was located in a small alcove, beneath two carved trees. Above the brazier was another of the primitive paintings that made Evelyn exclaim, “Oh!”
Solas raised the veilfire, illuminating the painted image. A wolf in a cloak of nighttime, embracing a woman with halla horns. “Oh. Yes. Well, this is one of her groves.”
“I’ve seen this before. In Skyhold. I assumed you were painting them.”
“Common elvhen art. Yes, I paint a similar image.”
“You paint this exact image. In the barn, below the loft. In the blacksmith, in the upper level. In the inn in that old room with the ceiling caving in. In the study….”
“They are places I hold dear.”
“They are places where we lost ourselves, back when we still had something to hide.”
“They are some of the places where we have lost ourselves, yes. Would you like me to paint in all the places? That abandoned hut we found in the cliffs above Redcliffe? The room you hurriedly rented at the inn in Val Royeux after we enjoyed too much summer wine and abandoned your poor associates with a thin lie about needing a tome from a rare bookseller that only I could recognize on sight? That cave in Crestwood? Did you know the people living in that area believe that cave is now haunted?”
“Are you trying to make me blush?”
He laughed slightly. “I’m sorry. I forget myself.”
She placed a hand flat against the painting and glanced back at him.
“I am finding myself curious as to what you have in mind.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Tradition.”
He nodded. “It is important to preserve tradition.”
She pulled him to the ground, her head turning as he bit at her neck gently. “Wait. There’s writing here.”
“Yes,” he responded without looking.
“Can you read it?”
She pushed him away roughly, rolling her eyes. “Will you?”
He sighed and squinted at the etching. “It is a poem, of sorts. There isn’t a direct translation. The closest would be,
I will shelter you
I will comfort you
Even when you are nothing left
Even in death
I will remember you.”
Evelyn adjusted her jacket, undoing the buttons. “Sounds like wedding vows.”
“They were, of sorts.” He plucked a leaf from her hair and twirled it in his fingers as he stared down at her.
"Now I'm curious what you're thinking."
"Tradition," he answered. "One in particular."
She nodded solemnly. "I hear traditions are very important."
Evelyn was chewing on the pad of her thumb. "I had just grown up with that idea, that Wardens were the heroes. Always. I mean, the king of Ferelden was one. The goddamn Hero of Ferelden. Blackwall."
"Blackwall seemed unaffected. As for the King and the Hero, we found neither within the walls."
"I think it was more the fact that we could have." She shook her head. "You must think I'm silly to keep going on about this. It was just that I always thought of them as the ones that saved... everyone else. I didn't expect to have to save everyone else from them."
The loud boom of thunder stirred them both. The rain continued outside the thick glass pane, sky streaking with lightning. "So much for dinner, then." Solas pulled the blanket higher as she shivered.
"Couldn't we have them send something up?"
"I could head down there, fetch whatever it is you would like."
She put her hand on his arm. "No. Stay. It will let up eventually."
Solas eased back against the headboard, her arm wrapping over his middle with such fluidity, such comfort. That such a familiar gesture could cause such a giddy reaction in him, even after everything he'd endured... it made what was to come that much harder. The thought was an unpleasant one he tried to crush under a bootheel, stamping it down lest it spoil the feeling of butterflies in his chest.
"We should talk, you know."
Her words caused the anxiety to rise again. "Oh? About?"
She snorted. "You're kidding, right? Take your pick. We should probably talk about what happened at Adamant, of course. But also what's going to happen after... after we return. After our," she propped her head up on her fist. "What did you call it?"
"No, before that. This morning."
"Ah, that would be the 'great forward leap.'"
She smiled lazily. "That would be the one."
"Did that need discussing? I thought I made my intentions toward you rather clear."
"Maybe just so I can relive it," she sighed. "I feel like such a child, but I'm sorry. I'm excited. We feel so much more real."
"This has been real for months, or have you not heard the song?"
He received a halfhearted pillow swat to the face. "I really try to forget the fucking song. I should have enacted some sort of epic vengeance for that."
"Yes, the reign of Inquisitor Trevelyan and her famous crusade against the arts."
"Just the ones referring colorfully to my nethers, thank you very much."
He frowned slightly, lips parted. "I did mean to say something about that one. It was not the fruit I would have chosen."
"Sweet Andraste, shut up." They both laughed quietly. "Anyway, I'm glad. To know that you're mine."
"I have been yours since the beginning, you know."
"I didn't. Say it again."
She put her head on his chest, the remnants of her side braids unraveling themselves. "The forever and ever part."
He undid the coils of a braid with his finger. "I will love you forever, just as I always have."
"You didn't always know me."
"Would you like me to say I did not truly exist until I did? It would not be a complete lie."
She shook the hair back from her face before settling back down. "I'm just hoping that I can be the thing to end your fear. The one we saw, in the Fade, I mean."
"I think we all die alone, Evelyn. It is not an uncommon fear."
"No, but it also wasn't the one everyone else had, which means it must hold some particular worry for you." She traced a small circle on his skin. "Is it because you were alone for so long? Is that why that thought terrifies you?"
"We have gone from love and devotion to my deepest terrors already? I thought we would pace ourselves a bit better."
"I can't stop thinking about it."
"I know." He ran his hand through her hair, then rested it against her back. "I suppose I often find myself alone when things matter most. It was not a trend I wished to continue." Solas let the feeling wash over him as he counted slowly in his head. Five... six... it dissipated to his great relief. "I think I was feeling tired of being alone, before I met you. That is the energy that demon would have fed off of. All the anxieties and fears we felt most poignantly from the explosion at the Conclave to that moment. Fear of being alone becomes more sharp once you know you no longer have to be."
"I guess that would explain mine, as well."
During that moment they'd shared in the Fade, he had caught a glimpse of the tombstone in the back corner, weathered as if it had stood for years. It bore her full name and a single word, failure. "Yours was unsurprising, all things considered. The fate of everything rests on your shoulders. Failure is a worthy fear."
"That makes me feel so much better."
"I was trying to be comforting."
"I know. I'm teasing. Mostly." She rubbed her chin against his chest. "Do you want to know what I'm afraid of right now?"
"Some more than others."
"We can practice. Now, pretend that I am Warren."
"Don't be disgusting. No. I can't. Not after what we did on the floor earlier."
"Fine. Pretend Warren is here, in the room."
"... my earlier point stands."
He made an exasperated sound. "You know what I mean. What would you say, were he here?"
"Give me a moment to get dressed?"
Evelyn rubbed at her face and sat up a little. "I suppose I'd start by telling him that you and I have decided to live as if we are in love openly."
"As if we are?"
"Because we are." She glared at Solas. "And that I am no longer entertaining any other offers."
"What do you think he will say?"
"'Why the fuck are you talking like that? ' most likely."
"Fine, I won't help. I can find dinner instead." Solas again made to leave the bed.
"No! No. Stay put. I'll be serious. I can be serious." She pushed her hair back over her shoulders and sat up a little straighter. "Warren, I'm in love. I'm an adult woman and I'm in love and if I'm going to survive this thing I need to keep my wits about me. I can only do that if I have Solas with me. I love him. And I do think it's high time I'm married, but for the right reasons."
He smiled, his eyes shining. "Do you think that will persuade?"
"I don't give a fuck if it doesn't. It's the truth." Outside the window, another ear-splitting thunderclap.
"I thought you said this would pass."
"I never claimed I could control the weather."
"This forever thing seems much less appealing after learning that. I guess we'll starve." Solas heaved a dramatic sigh, "I could go out, there were no tombstones proclaiming my fear of water."
"Stay, just a little longer. I had another idea." Evelyn dove beneath the covers.
"Should we ask Warren to leave first?" he laughed and then winced as she bit his hip, hard. "Evelyn?"
"Mmm-hmm?" came the muffled reply.
"I do love you, you know."
She tossed the blanket back over her head and grinned up at him. "I know. Tomorrow, let's tell everyone, okay?"
He fought to keep his smile from shaking. "Okay."
"But not tonight. Tonight, you're just for me."
He sat up quickly, pulling her upward before turning to flip her onto her back. "I am always just for you. I want everyone to know it."
Evelyn let an evil grin spread across her face. "You're going to have to work hard. We're competing against the storm."
He found it wasn't hard work at all.
Skyhold glimmered in the midday sun, the blanched stones shining like a beacon. Home. Evelyn smiled at him and nudged her horse forward, the first horn sounding as the men on the walls sighted their banners. The courtyard was unusually still, with no clanging of swords or shouts of the trainers to be heard. Perhaps Rutherford decided to give it a rest for a single day. Only Josephine stood at the turn in the stair, smiling a closed mouth smile that did not reach her eyes.
"If we could speak in private, your worship?" she called as Evelyn slid off her mount.
"In a moment. Where is Warren?"
"In the tavern, your grace. If I could first give you the status of-"
"Later," Evelyn raised a single hand, already heading toward the smaller building. She reached the door and stopped, extending that same hand behind her, fingers spread in an invitation. "Come on, let's do this."
Solas cautiously accepted her hand and followed her into the dim of the tavern. It was always a rowdy place, full of song and commotion, smells of spilled beer and firewood. Today, however, the place seemed almost deserted. Only a handful of people sat at the tables, spread throughout the room, hugging the walls. Warren was among them, sitting alone with a tankard before him.
"We've returned," Evelyn said triumphantly.
"So I see," he replied, emptying the cup in one swallow. "Have you spoken to your advisors?"
"I came to see you first, I had something I wanted to tell you."
"I think you should go speak to your advisors first."
She laughed. "Why are you being like this?"
Warren stared at her. "Look around you."
She shook her head slowly, her smile slipping. "I don't understand what you're getting at. Why are you playing this game? Where is everyone?"
"Evelyn," he said in a low, quiet voice. "Go speak with your advisors."
Her demeanor shifted almost imperceptibly. A slight straightening of her shoulders, head changing its angle. Her fingers went limp in his and he dropped her hand in response. "I'll find you after I've been briefed."
"Goody," he said dryly, gesturing toward the bartender with three fingers.
Solas followed her out into the courtyard, watching her straighten her jacket as she walked, smoothing her hair back into where she had gathered it up at the base of her neck. Josephine still stood on the stair, with that same strange smile. Solas felt his veins turn to ice.
"Not all of them," said Cole, now seated on the wall. "Just most."
"The path was damp with rain and the horses were already unsure on their feet. The storm on the horizon. Move, quickly, we mustn't be out in the open in the dark. Then the dark took flame. Red. Everywhere. The first screams, frightened, then angry. So angry. Why."
"An ambush," he whispered.
"No. They did not try to hide. I think we surprised them. They were frightened too, in their way."
"How many, Cole?"
Cole drummed his heels on the wall. "Three hundred and three men sent to Adamant. Plus you. Plus her. Plus me. Thirty-two fell against the walls; one hundred and twenty inside them. Twelve tumbled from the mountain pass when the attack started, reaching out for handholds that weren't there. Sixty and one returned to Skyhold. The red templars and their demons took the rest. The path was so narrow, they rode two at a time to keep from falling. Picked off like petals from a flower, two by two. Not enough swords to stop the collision. Just deaths, one side at a time. Until one side ran out of lives."
Solas stared at the open doorway to the fortress, wondering how she was receiving this news.
"It would not have mattered, if you had been there. She would have been near the front of the line. You would have just died, too."
"Thank you, Cole, but I think I need to be alone for a while."
"All right." The boy disappeared again.
In the hall, Varric gave a low whistle when Solas approached. "You picked a hell of a time to fuck off, Chuckles."
"So I gathered. I am glad to see you still live."
"There aren't a whole helluva lot of those you could say that about. Those of us that survived did it by dumb luck alone. If Curly's horse hadn't thrown a shoe, if Cassandra hadn't stopped to help him, if Iron Bull hadn't been flirting with that scout at the back of the procession..." Varric shook his head. "It was a goddamned disaster and we're lucky anyone made it back."
"We will likely have to push recruitment, speed up the training."
"We don't have time for that shit, or the money. She's going to have to find an army to absorb."
Solas glanced at the dwarf sharply, seeing the sad, knowing look in Varric's eyes. "Ah. And I assume there is one already awaiting her."
"Shiny and strong. Waiting for the right alliance."
"At the right terms."
Varric nodded. "You always were quick on the uptake. I like that about you." He shifted his weight, arms hanging at his sides. "Look, you knew this was coming eventually. Current events just sped it up a little."
"So I am to just roll over and take it for the sake of her military might?"
"No, you roll over and take it because it's the right thing to do."
Solas somehow managed to close the door to the rotunda without slamming it. He walked swiftly to his desk to place both hands against the rough wood, leaning forward and trying to steady his breath. This shouldn't anger him in this way. He knew their time was ending, wasn't that why he worked so hard to keep each moment tender and fraught with feeling? To give himself something to carry once he had to walk away, something to think about in his darkest hours alone in the confines of the new world he created. With a loud exhale his head fell forward, eyes shutting against the visions of a future he knew he would endure without her. His eyes were still closed tight when he heard the creak of the hinges and felt her slip inside, just behind him.
"Solas, there was an attack," she said, her voice devoid of emotion.
"I have heard." He turned, sitting on the edge of his desk. "I am sorry, Evelyn. I can only imagine how you must feel."
"I don't know that I feel anything just yet. I think I'm still processing all of this. There's been a... well, a lot to deal with over the past few days."
"I understand. Would you like to be alone?"
"No," she shook her head, wrapping her arms around herself. "But I do think I should talk to Warren alone. That boy," she shook her head, "... man. He was 22. That's technically a man, isn't it?" She rubbed at her upper arms roughly. "His name was Teague. Warren and he passed some time together. His horse lost its footing and he didn't come back."
"I am very sorry, Evelyn."
"You don't need to be sorry. When I heard how it happened, how they died." She looked away, toward the outer door. "If we had been with them, you would have died too. It's not a comfort to know I likely wouldn't have lived to know it, but there it is." She wiped at her eyes with the palm of her hand. "I should go. I have to give Warren my happy news. I think he might not be as pleased as I originally planned. Not now that I have to find something better than my heart to offer in exchange for our security."
When the door closed behind her, Solas allowed himself to sit heavily in his chair, his head in his hands. The memory of a familiar voice, its tone gentle, yet chiding echoed in his mind. Repeating the words he'd heard so many times before.
"Oh, my dear sweet boy. What have you done?"
They sat in chilly silence, their arms crossed in such a similar manner it would be comedic if not for the tension. Evelyn smiled slightly as a cup was placed before her, the bartender backing off as if afraid he'd be caught in the crossfire. "You're being ridiculous," she said quietly.
Warren snorted. "I'm being ridiculous. You're the one that fucked off into the hills to... well," he waved one hand.
"After everything I needed time to clear my head," she said tersely.
"Guess he can't clear it thoroughly enough here? Needed a change of scenery outside the curtained windows while you stay in bed all day?"
"Don't do that, Warren. That's not all this is about."
"Oh good, dear sister. Tell me all about love. Does it conquer all? Does it resurrect the dead and build you a fancy new army? Will it slave 'round the clock to hammer new armor, new swords? Don't presume to tell me about love as if I'm unfamiliar with the topic." He lifted his cup and took three deep swallows.
Evelyn picked at an uneven seam on the table, lowering her voice. "I'm sorry about Teague, Warren."
Warren choked out a laugh. "Wasn't it our father who always said that war takes everything from a man, even love?"
She glanced up at him. "Did you love him?"
"No." Warren sighed. "Maybe. I don't know. Maybe I could have. No exploring that now." Another drink, another gesture for the bartender.
Evelyn sipped at her own brew. "We lost too many men."
"That is exactly what I've been trying to explain. If you would just meet with him, listen to his proposal."
"What if I were not open to proposals?"
The cup paused halfway to Warren's mouth. "What do you mean?"
Evelyn scratched at the seam with her thumbnail. "What if I told you I'd decided to marry."
"I would ask you if you've taken complete leave of your senses."
She sat back in her chair, arms crossed again. "And if I have?"
He let out a loud whoosh of breath. "Little sister, tell me you're not this fucking stupid. Even if you do want to continue this with Solas, you wouldn't be so incredibly fucking dumb to make that a public declaration. Not with so many alliances still hanging in the balance. Not with an army to rebuild. Not with Father working so hard to negotiate roads, resources, meetings, more of... everything for you."
"I'm not marrying someone just to improve my position."
"But you'd marry someone to ruin it."
Evelyn frowned at the table.
"Look, sis," Warren's tone went gentle as he leaned forward. "I understand that you have a lot of really strong feelings for him. But you have to look at the bigger picture. You're down more than a handful of seasoned men. Morale is low. Your resources are strained. You could at least accept his invitation. Meet with him, hear him out. Nothing says you have to marry him on the spot." He drank another mouthful. "You know you might even like him."
"I don't want to like him."
"You're being a child."
"And you're starting to sound just like our father."
Warren's mouth set in a grim line. "I came here to help you because our dear parents are wringing their hands over your future. Yes, they would like to see you married and loved, but more than that they would like to see you survive this whole thing. You are going into battle with something we don't fully understand, and you're willing to rush in naked and alone, all for the sake of this elf. You barely know the man, you've admitted as much. You are caught up in the passion and fear and drama of this whole situation and you're letting it take over your good sense. How many more will die because you need to get your way?"
She downed the rest of her cup quickly. "I didn't expect a lesson on putting duty over heart from you, of all people."
"Listen, I never expected to have to give it. But for fuck's sake, Evelyn. Is he worth dying over? Is he worth everyone dying over?"
The bard began to strum at her instrument in the corner as the torches were lit, the golden flicker filtering in through the leaded glass. "If I meet with him. If I meet with him, I make no promises about our future together. We negotiate like business partners, nothing more."
"It's all I ask."
She slammed the cup back on the table. "Then I'll consider it. Tomorrow."
"Of course. Go get your head cleared, I guess."
"That isn't-" she huffed.
"Save it. I'm drunk and I'm heartbroken. I'm allowed to be an asshole."
"Fine. Wallow in it, if you like." She pushed back from the table. "Is that all?"
Warren nodded into his beer, tipping back to catch the last of it. As she walked toward the door, he called out. "Evelyn?" She paused, turning her head slightly. "I get it, you know." He leaned back in his own chair, crossing his ankles under the table. "Given more time, I might have had something worth dying for. But I wouldn't have risked your life in the process."
Evelyn pursed her lips and nodded. "Goodnight, Warren."
"Warren thinks I should meet with him."
Solas paused from his work unfastening the stays at her waist, then continued. "Are you going to take his advice?"
She sighed in a way that made him pause again. "I think I have to. He's offering men, horses, weaponry, resources, all things we suddenly find ourselves in dire need of."
"How very convenient for him." Solas tossed her undervest onto the sofa.
"Don't use that tone with me, I'm not playing into some sort of elaborate seduction. If I go, I go with an attachment, as if it were any other negotiation."
"As if it were," he frowned as she sat on the edge of the bed.
"It is, Solas. I just need him to understand that it is."
"Him. Does he have a name?"
"Do you want to know it?"
They stared at one another quietly, her clad only in her smallclothes, him standing above her. This was not how he'd wanted their first night back to feel. "I suppose I would rather not know it. Not yet. It keeps him in this sort of phantom state, not really real."
"He'll be real soon enough. I know his type."
"Oh please," she leaned back on her elbows, "he'll be overly confident without much to back it up. Shorter than he likes to admit, probably already gone soft around the middle. I understand he has the troops, but he isn't a warrior. He isn't some gallant knight riding in to save me."
He shifted his weight from one leg to the other, hands loose at his side. "Since when am I to be terrified of you being swept away by dashing warriors, all muscle and shining armor? Is there something I've missed?"
"Not at all. Everyone knows I prefer skinny magic types, no muscle, no armor." She quirked a brow.
"So you find me skinny? No muscle?" Solas approached the bed then, her foot coming up to press against his chest, holding him back.
"I've forgotten. Show me?"
"You will have to remove your foot."
She smiled slightly, tongue playing at the edge of her parted lips as she shoved him with her toes. "Make me." In response, he tried to lightly push her foot off of him, only to find her pressing back in strong resistance. She dropped the smile. "Make. Me."
Evelyn released a breathless giggle as he roughly tugged on her ankle, pulling her fully onto her back. He was above her then, her wrists in his hands, pinned on either side of her head. "Is this what you want?" he asked, eyes trained on her lips.
"Mmm-hmm." She struggled against him slightly. "Am I want you want?"
"You are. Always."
Evelyn roughly shoved her hips up against him. "Then shut up and take me."
This had been the return he'd craved:tumbled together in her bed, frantically grasping one another as each struggled for, and ultimately lost, control. Her noisy gasps grew faster, her feet hooked behind his knees and he again lost himself, completely, in her. They laid together after, catching their breath, still tangled together as the world slowly returned. "Was that," he cleared his throat. "Was that what you were looking for?"
Evelyn held one arm aloft, wiggling her fingers as she rubbed her wrist. She let out a laugh. "Apparently it was."
"Glad I could deliver."
"Warren refers to it as you 'clearing my head.'"
"Did you really need to bring him up? Now?"
"Sorry, I'll banish the thought."
"Too late," he pushed up slightly, leaning against the pillows. "What did he have to say about the other part?"
"He asked me if I've completely lost him mind."
"Did you explain that, yes, clearly you have?" he heard her laugh again. "And that did nothing to dissuade him on the topic?"
"The topic of," Evelyn lowered her eyebrows and her voice dramatically, "him?"
The name stabbed through his heart like a blade of ice, yet he managed to keep his face impassive. "Ah. Halden."
"It's just a name."
"Does he have another?"
She sat up quickly, pushing her hair back in distraction. "Vael," she crossed to her dresser and began rooting around in one of the drawers.
"So he is royalty, then."
"His family is, yes. He isn't some sort of heir to a throne. Much too far down the line of succession."
Evelyn paused, gripping the edge of the drawer. "Yes. Very."
"And not without influence."
"Solas I am considering meeting with the man. I'm not..." she pulled a shift over her head. "I'm not going to run away with him."
"I never implied anything of the sort."
"No, but you've got my sheets balled up in your hands like you're strangling them. Don't think I don't know what your jealousy looks like."
Solas' eyes dropped to the sheet as he released it from his grip. Damn. "I am not jealous."
"Good." She placed her hands on the mattress. "You have no reason to be. But I'll remind you every time I can, and I just ask you do the same."
"Remind you of what?"
She crawled across the sheets. "Of who I fucking belong to."
It was less than a month until she was summoned, the engraved envelopes arriving in quick succession to discuss the time and place of their meeting, the arrangements made for her travel and a large soiree planned to greet her to Starkhaven. Dressmakers, scribes, even Master Tethras himself were summoned in preparation of her travel, the dwarf exiting the conference with a sideways glance at Solas that lingered a little too long.
"You doing okay with all this, Chuckles?"
"Why would I not be?" Solas pretended to read the same line he'd been struggling with for the better part of an hour.
"She's running off to meet with the man she's allegedly destined to marry and you're fine with that."
He closed his book. "I believe Inquisitor Trevelyan will marry who she wishes to marry."
"And you don't think that's Halden Vael."
"I think the Vael family could be a valuable resource. I do not believe that requires a marriage."
"So you're just going to send her off, and be okay with that."
"I understand I am to travel with her."
Varric let out a low whistle. "Oh you are playing with fire. Look, I know these people. I lived with these people. Hell, I traveled with one of them for awhile. They're pious, they're rich, they're full of important duties and beliefs and righteous purpose... but they're also very accustomed to getting what they want."
Solas turned his book over in his hand. "And you think they want her."
"I think they want power. And the Inquisition represents that. She represents that." Varric crossed his arms.
"You think that I will..." Solas waved the book. "Be put out by this."
"I think you're going to get royally fucked by this. I just hope we don't all end up royally fucked in the process, no offense."
Varric made to leave the area before pausing. "Just, consider not traveling with her. For your own sake."
"I will consider it."
Varric snorted. "No, you won't."
The castle was ample yet understated, a testament to how the family put Maker and Andraste above their own earthly desires, while still leaving room for 38 bedrooms, a full servants' wing, three kitchens, an indoor fishing pond, and two ballrooms. Solas wound his way through the corridors to her rooms in the hours before her grand introduction, ignoring the curious glances from those tasked with preparing for the feast. He didn't care if he didn't belong here.
He had a gift to deliver.
Evelyn held the thin straps up against the light. The material was silken, shimmery, completely iridescent and knotted at one juncture. "I don't understand," she rolled it inside out with her fingers. "Am I to wear this?"
He gathered her hair up in his fist, twisting it into a haphazard bun. "Mmhm," he murmured, hairpins clasped between his lips.
"I wouldn't even know how to begin putting this on," she laughed, but there was a nervous undercurrent to the sound.
Solas removed the pins from his mouth and secured her hair at the base of her neck. "That is precisely why I am here: to assist."
She blushed, looking downward. "And what of the serving girls they gave me? Are they going to assist in your assisting?"
"I told them their services were no longer necessary."
"I'm sure that started rumors."
"Since when are you afraid of rumors?" he spun her around by the shoulders and worked loose the ties on her dressing gown. The heavy fabric fell to the ground around her feet. He traced a finger from her bare hip to just under her navel.
"We agreed," she said in a hoarse whisper, "None of that until after the party. I have to have my wits about me."
"You agreed," he reminded her. "I thought this whole affair beneath you."
"I have to ensure the road remains open. The letters said-"
"The letters were lies. You and I both know he is not capable of blocking a major trade route. This is a bluff, a bluff intended to get you here, tonight."
"I have already declined his overtures, you know. I told him my heart lies elsewhere."
Solas turned her again, slowly, her back against his chest. "And you and I both know it's hardly your heart he's concerned with. Lift your leg." He bent with her, lifting a length of the silken ribbon over her foot. "Now the other." They rose back into a standing position in unison, him slipping the garment up over her hips gently, then giving it a firm tug as the knotting fit into place. Evelyn gasped as the knot pressed against her, sending heat radiating down her legs.
"You said this was called an... an utha..."
"Uthanerala," he said against the curve of her ear, again tugging on the material as he secured the topmost straps over her shoulders. Her knees went weak in response. "It's a lost practice, but the Orlesians have similar devices. Theirs are much cruder, I'm afraid."
"Is it silk?" the question was meant to re-center her thoughts, which had gone quite woozy with each adjustment he made to the fit.
"Sea silk, some thin thread from halla mane, and imbued with an enchantment."
"What kind of enchantment?" she asked as he withdrew from her to collect her gown.
Solas plucked the dress off its hook and turned toward her, saying softly under his breath, "sou'enleal."
The slight shock of vibration emanating from the knot knocked a noisy breath out of her. She gripped the chair of the dressing table as he gathered up the skirts of the gown and motioned for her to step inside. "Wh- what was that?"
He helped her arms through the dress's bodice openings and attended to the row of buttons up her back. "You said it was best if I keep my distance tonight, let you handle his proposal and, undoubtedly, overtures. That, vhenan, is a reminder."
"A reminder of what?" she asked slowly, eyelids heavy.
He bent to kiss the place where her neck met her shoulders, roughly, hint of teeth against her exposed flesh. "Of who you belong to."
"What are you thinking?"
They laid in the massive bed, three rooms deep in her guest suite, separate from the world beyond. Evelyn didn't open her eyes, the smile spreading across her face. "I'm thinking that I'm likely going to have to answer for my sudden exit from the ball. I'm thinking that Halden's constant asking if I was 'quite well' will lead to a rumor about my poor health. I'm thinking that I don't give a shit about any of that because I'm too happy. I'm also thinking we should do this more often, since I slept like it was my only duty." She opened her eyes to focus on his face. "Why, what are you thinking?"
"That you skipped breakfast and that they will likely send someone else to knock on the door soon."
"I was up late. I needed my sleep."
"I hope that is not an accusation. I suggested sleep many times."
"You're the reason I was so keyed up."
He adjusted the pillows to lie on his side more comfortably. "I was not the one who suggested we retire early."
"No, you're just the one who put that damned thing on me."
"You asked me to do something, how did you put it... scandalous and memorable?"
"I didn't expect an ancient Elvhen sex toy."
"One uses the tools one has at their disposal."
The evening had been largely what he expected. Nearly an hour of tedious formal introductions, presentations of gifts, overblown and pretentious displays of history and wealth that no one outside of the surname cared about. There was a dinner, one he found himself seated with the other rank and file of her guard. Only the advisors were seated with her, a slight that Sera seemed particularly put out by. Once or twice during the meal, Solas had caught Varric staring at him with a sort of sad sympathy that set his teeth on edge. It wasn't as if he had expected to be at her side the entire night, but was dismayed to find how profoundly this slight upset him. Perhaps Master Tethras was right. Perhaps he had begun to get ideas about his position in regards to their Inquisitor. Ideas that were being firmly shoved back under the rug once protocol and ceremony took back over.
Still, they had managed to briefly be together for tiny stolen moments. A surreptitious kiss in the darkened garden under the pretense of "getting some air." An interrupted conversation near the fountains. And, of course, the times the Uthanerala had caused a flush to rise to her cheeks. Their eyes would meet across the ballroom and they would share a secret smile. Only once did her host seem to notice, quickly moving to her side to escort her to another part of the room. Evelyn would straighten, draw her focus back to Vael's words, her hand fluttering at the nape of her neck, adjusting hair that had not come loose.
Evelyn rolled onto her stomach, hair falling over one eye. "Tell you what?" she mumbled into the pillow."
"How it felt."
The red creeped onto her cheeks and she buried her face fully into the pillow for a moment before propping her chin on her hand. "Insistent, I suppose. I was very aware of it the entire time, and I think that somehow made me more aware of where you were in the room."
"That is the intent behind it. Intimacy in a crowd."
"Was that the intent? I thought it might be to get me out of there early."
"That was just an additional perk. I was not expecting you to want to leave so soon."
"I wasn't expecting it to feel like that when I sat down." She flushed again and half-screamed into the pillow. "I doubt I can wear that dress again. Plus, any time someone bumped into me I had to take a moment to... I guess compose myself is the polite way to say it."
"And the impolite way?"
"The impolite way would have been to just show you what it was doing in the nearest closet."
"I might have enjoyed that."
She dipped her gaze and grinned. "I think you're enjoying hearing about it now."
"I might be," he made to pull her closer.
The knock came then, loud and insistent, driving Evelyn from the bed with a groan. She slipped into her dressing gown and closed the double doors leading to the bedchamber behind her. Solas heard the muffled voices. If her ladyship was feeling better, her presence was urgently requested for a small meal during which particular terms must be discussed. There was also the matter of greeting the other guests....
"What other guests?" he heard her say.
The response was too low for him to make out. There was a quiet. "Give me a moment," then a dismissal of the offer of someone to help her dress.
It took her too long to come back to the bedroom. Solas rose quickly and began to reassemble his outfit from the night before. When she did finally re-open the doors, her face was pale and she was chewing her lower lip in a worried manner.
"Is everything alright?"
She gripped the collar of her dressing gown, looking at him sharply as if she'd forgotten he was in the room and was now surprised by his sudden appearance. She nodded, resuming the gnawing on her lip. "I have to get dressed."
"I assumed your absence at breakfast would cause some concern."
She fumbled through her trunks with shaking hands. "My father is here."
He paused his buttoning. "I take it this is a surprise?"
"He wasn't due for another two days."
His mouth dropped open. "You knew he was coming? Here? And you didn't tell me?"
"I was still figuring out how. I thought I would have things straightened with the roads and have at least opened negotiations as to troop reassignment so that I could present it all to him and then tell him... well, tell him everything. Now, instead..." she threw down a lacy undershirt angrily.
"Instead he surprised you and you've spent the morning with me."
"Something I will undoubtedly hear about." She pulled on a pair of socks. "Solas, if you could please just-" she gestured toward the door.
"Make myself scarce. Yes. I understand."
Her hand on his arm then. "Please, don't be angry. I will sort it all out."
The hall outside held three scullery maids, waiting for Mistress Trevelyan to vacate the room. His presence clearly didn't surprise them, a realization that made his ears feel unexpectedly hot. This uneasy feeling was not made better by the heavily armed men he passed on the stair, their chest plates bearing the Trevelyan crest. Was this a visit or a coup?
While Solas sat in his more modest accommodations, mulling over the various reasons why the Trevelyan Patriarch might have arrived so damnably early, Evelyn found herself escorted into the grand dining hall, where the lengthy table was occupied by only one figure: that of her father, Bann Martyn Trevelyan. The Bann did not look up when she was seated beside him, continuing to cut into the game bird that lay on his plate. Evelyn softly thanked the man who pushed her chair in and folded her hands in her lap. "You're early."
Her father savagely sliced the wing off the small bird, separating it completely from the roasted body. "From what I heard, I fear I'm already too late."
"I don't understand-"
"Don't play coy with me," her father pointed his fork at her, his eyes full of fury when they met hers. "I left as soon as I heard you'd packed him along like one of your party dresses. Bad enough you bring him to flaunt in front of the poor Vael boy, but from my understanding, you were seen practically rutting in the halls. "
"I was not," she lowered her voice, noting she was almost shouting. "What I do in the comfort of my quarters is no one's business but my own."
"When you're sneaking off to grope some elf servant in the garden in full view of your prospective's mother? When you're seen by more than one house guard with your legs all hitched around him in a hall? Is that still no one's business?"
Evelyn made to argue, then paused, face flaming at the memory. "I thought-"
"You thought you were alone. Andraste, Evelyn, do you know how often I've heard that excuse from Warren? I never thought," he sat back, shaking his head in a mix of disappointment and anger. "I never expected this behavior from you."
"It isn't what you think," she placed her hands flat on the table.
"It isn't?" he nodded, lips pursed. "So, it isn't that you're down nearly half your army? It isn't that the roads are clogged with bandits and highwaymen and you're having trouble getting bread, let alone armor, men? It isn't that the bloody Grey Wardens, a group of malcontents and criminals you decided to enlist, are now dying in droves on your failed missions? It isn't that the damned mages are uncontrolled, dangerous, in your employ? It isn't that you are up against an undead religious zealot leading an army of the damned with an archdemon under his command? Is that what it isn't? Or is the part about that boy the part I'm wrong about?"
"He isn't that boy."
"So that's the part you chose to refute. Warren was right, you are besotted with this unwashed hedgemage."
"You came early to tell me who I'm allowed to love."
"Stop being such a child, Evelyn." The Bann tossed his napkin on the table. "This isn't about love, or about your feelings. This is about duty, and honor. You have a nation relying on you to save them, even if they deny that's what you're about to do. How are you going to save them with your current resources? What are you willing to sacrifice to save them? Your pride? How many more will you let die for this elf?"
"You're asking me to make that choice. Now." Her voice was dull.
"I'm asking you to start behaving like a Trevelyan," he replied, uncharacteristically gentle. "Be the daughter I raised."
"I am the daughter you raised."
"The daughter I raised would think about everyone else before herself. I don't know who this person before me is. Now eat. I heard you were too ill for breakfast."
As she listened to the sound of his knife scrape the fine porcelain of his plate, she felt as if she'd never truly be hungry again.
Evelyn Trevelyan did not send for him that morning, nor that afternoon. It was dark when Solas wandered the halls, alone, noting the way the armed men closed ranks were he to drift too close to certain corridors. He slept alone, woke alone, and dined alone for a full three days, his invitations to the various daytime outings and evening activities clearly misplaced.
There is a moment, when one has gone too long without speaking to the object of one's affection, that doubt begins to slither in. Solas reminded himself that he was exercising the same patient distance that had protected him time and time again in his life, and that it would undoubtedly shield him from the inevitable pain he'd been avoiding. This could not possibly go on forever, and if she were the one to speed it to its end, all the better, was it not? He'd dreaded the undoing of all they had developed, although he knew it lurked around each corner. Every step The Inquisition took brought them closer to the battle he knew loomed, the one that would change the course not only of their love but all of history. If she were the one to drive the knife that severed them, it would be better. He knew this, deep in his heart.
This did nothing to dull the pain.
He found amusements where he could. The footmen who dwelled in the same hall as his simple bedchamber were known for card games in the east gardens. After he'd thoroughly emptied their pockets, the rumor spread that he had some sort of ability to foresee the future, which led to being sought out by more than one of the household staff. He found that the general, "you will have an unexpected journey, you will find love where you aren't looking for it, you should avoid gatherings of groups of threes," provided enough prophecy to heighten the gossip. Solas told himself that he wasn't doing this in the hopes of gaining her attention. It wasn't until it failed to work that he grumpily realized the plan was both childish and beneath him.
Given enough years and time, it might be possible to forget what love, real love felt like. No amount of time, however, numbed you from recognizing that stomach-dropping sensation when you first feel love slip away. The bargaining started early, the little games he would play to convince himself there was a reasonable explanation for her absence. That she was protecting him or being held prisoner against her will, that she had fallen ill and begged the others not to tell him. Any of those tragedies would protect him from the nauseating thought that he might be losing her.
There was a commotion, as if many people had all begun to move about the building at once. He spotted Varric in the hall when he pried open his door, and the dwarf looked a little uneasy about talking to him. "How are you holding up?" the dwarf asked in a tone that said he didn't necessarily want to know the answer to the question. When Solas stared past him, toward the sounds of the courtyard beyond, Varric's shoulders slumped a bit in relief. "We're moving out. Hasn't anyone told you?" Another sympathetic look before the door closed again.
It had to happen, didn't it? It was meant to end, and if not now, then soon? This is expected. This should not hurt. It isn't real. If given the chance to speak with her alone again, he told himself, he would end it immediately. Save her the pain and humiliation of having to break off something that never should have existed in the first place. It would be a kindness, after all. Solas considered the proper timing of this conversation, the place. Somewhere not too far from Skyhold, where they could have a polite conversation before he excused himself. Give her time and space to grieve, if she needed to grieve the loss. She would likely need that period before the formal engagement was announced.
The horse beneath him whinnied in protest, letting out several displeased bursts of air. "You uh, might want to let up on the reins a bit there, Solas," The Iron Bull said slowly. "They tend to stop if you pull too hard."
"Yes. Sorry. My mind was elsewhere."
The Qunari looked ahead, to where Evelyn rode beside her father. "Yeaaaah. I can imagine. Say," he lowered his voice to a conspiratorial tone, "mind if I give you some advice?"
"I have certainly never found a way to stop you from it."
The Iron Bull laughed, "That's good. Keep the sense of humor up. Laugh about it. Joke about it, but be careful who you're talking to. Drink, if that's your thing. Find a nice warm redhead to, uh, help you over the rocky parts. Best cure out there."
"Thank you," Solas said wearily. "I will certainly keep that in mind."
"Don't mention it."
It shouldn't make him that angry, to hear that others had already surmised he would need to be the one doing the moving on. As if his was the heart that needed mending, as if he were the wounded party when she had yet to deliver a single strike. This was how people attempted to "help" in these situations, after all. Yet his heart still burned more fiercely than his ears. It wasn't fair, to feel like this now, as he was so close to achieving what he'd intended. It wasn't fair to want something, someone that was so firmly anchored to the reality of the here and now he wished to prevent from ever happening. And it certainly wasn't fair that she got to just dissolve from his life like snow on a sunny roof, melting away until there was nothing left to mark where she'd once stood. Solas kicked his bedroll open in frustration, sitting heavily on the cold, hard ground inside his tent. The noise outside from the fires was infuriating, people laughing and carrying on as if his life wasn't ending.
This was the part never considered when one first feels the pull of love's call: the part where you have to deal with the tattered remains. He stretched onto his back on the bedroll, staring at the thatch patterns in the canvas. The noise outside grew quieter and quieter until the sound of crickets overtook the grounds. Solas rolled onto his side. The wind whispered through the grass as he felt sleep tug at him.
The hand on his ankle woke him at once. Halfway rising, he saw Evelyn in the entry to his tent, pulling the flaps closed behind her, one finger against her lips. He shook his head, eyes narrowing in confusion for just a moment. Then she was above him, upon him, hands pulling him impossibly close as her mouth found his, relieved sighs from each as they fell back against his bedroll, turning until they lay side by side.
"I thought you had-"
He nodded, whispering, "I thought-"
She kissed him again, silencing the words. When she replied, it was against his chin. "I was to be on my best behavior or he threatened to move in. To Skyhold. I had to prove I could behave myself. He had a guard posted outside my door."
"I suspected you were being held against my will."
"Held against my-?" she pushed against his chest. "He didn't want you sneaking in. The scullery in that place was worse than The Randy Dowager. He had knowledge of our goings on I wouldn't want anyone to know, let alone someone I was related to."
"Are you here to tell me..." he found the words hard to say, blinking rapidly.
"Tell you...?" she shook her head slowly, then hiss-whispered, "For the love of Andraste, Solas. I didn't marry him."
He nodded silently, her cupping his cheek with her hand.
"Hey, hey look at me. I'm not engaged to anyone. That wasn't what this was. We just sort of... talked. He's actually not all that bad."
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?"
"It's supposed to be the truth. I don't think he's into this arranged marriage much, either. It seems to be something our fathers worked on without stopping to consider either of us might have a say."
"Does that mean you can stop this whole ridiculous courtship ritual?"
She kissed him again. "It means that you can stop worrying. I have to play nice for appearances, but I believe I can have everything I need without needing to become a Vael." Evelyn began to slowly crawl over him.
"Are you leaving?"
"Shhh. Yes. I don't want to ruin what goodwill I have left by being found crawling out of your tent at dawn."
"Evelyn?" Solas whispered, grabbing onto her wrist. "I am in love with you, you know."
She smiled, teeth glinting in the dark. "I know. I promise I'll remind you just how in love with you I am soon." She squeezed his hand, "Just let me play along until my father is headed back home." With a twist of her wrist, she loosed his grip and grasped his forearm in her hand, pulling them forcefully together for one final kiss. "I know what's real," she whispered, and was gone.
Solas leaned back onto his elbows, his forearm still warm from her touch. As he eased himself down, the word repeating in his head, becoming less the musical breath of air she'd spoken with each repetition, growing almost menacing now that he was alone in the dark.
Real. Real. Real. Real. Real.
Thank you for being patient with my holiday break. The comments really have been amazing, and thank you for those who reached out via Tumblr to talk plot and writing prompts. I'll be posting the drabble requests I've received in the next couple of weeks. Keep 'em coming!
The snowmelt turned icy patches into soggy puddles, making the mountain path treacherous. They picked their way over the muddy, uneven terrain, muttered curses sounding whenever a boot found itself suctioned by the grey sludge. Varric scraped a large clump of mud and dried grass off his heel before jogging to catch up with the others, just in time to catch the stormy expression Warren made no attempt to hide. Varric followed the man's stare. Evelyn and Solas, apart from the rest of the party, hand-in-hand. As they watched, the elf pulled Evelyn to him before they pulled apart again, grasping fingers together at the last moment, his wrist flicking hers over her head to spin her. The smile on her face, the closed eyes... this was a familiar motion, a little something the man did that she clearly loved. Something once kept away from others, private, now enjoyed in the open.
Something about it made his breakfast threaten to return. The uneasy feeling of dread before the next twist in the story, a moment his writer's soul felt keenly. Warren was looking at him now, head tilted in curiosity. "It's nothing," the dwarf shrugged. "Just something in the air."
"Something in the air that smells a lot like bullshit, maybe."
"Is that directed at me, or someone else?"
Warren slowed his pace, letting the others pass by them. "I agreed to go on this little hunting trip for a reason, and that reason wasn't that I wanted any fucking fresh air."
"I know," Varric grimaced. "I got roped in the same way. Doing my part, all that."
"You and I both know gathering up stray herbalists and their belongings is neither of our parts in all this. We're out fetch-and-carrying because there's no one else to do it. If we're not swinging a sword, we're handling the dredge work, and no one seems willing to tell her that this can't continue."
"I nominate you, personally," Varric stomped against the stone, knocking more mud and debris off his footwear. "I think you're the closest to her."
"We both know that's hardly true," Warren responded grimly, watching as the elf pulled his sister's hand to his lips. "She's barely spoken to me since her visit to Starkhaven. She thinks that just because she has the Vael boy in hand there's nothing Father can do to intervene. Yet you saw what he sent. It was hardly a garrison, more of a token gesture. He might be willing to set their engagement aside, but his family is not willing a full commitment of their resources without her... well, full commitment."
"And you don't think she's paying attention."
"Not to what she should be, anyway." Warren kicked at a stone in irritation. "I'm not angry that she's happy. Andraste knows we all could use a bit more happiness these days. I don't think she's facing the reality of her situation. Of our situation."
"Yeah," Varric's tone was hesitant, as if he were unsure whether or not to continue. "That... that might be the talk around the campfires."
Warren stopped, hands on his hips. "There's discontent in the ranks, then."
"I'm surprised you haven't heard, kid. They haven't exactly been quiet about it."
"They tend to be when I'm around. I am still her brother, after all." He shook his head. "Shit."
"I can handle Evie," Warren squinted into the sun. "I'm going to need you to talk to him."
"Oh no. Don't rope me into this!"
"I've seen you two talking. He seems to trust you, listens to you."
"And what the hell am I supposed to say?"
"Just make sure he understands the... well, the gravity of our current position. He has always struck me as rather bright. Rational."
"Come on. No one's rational when it comes to this kind of shit."
"I know," Warren clapped a hand on Varric's shoulder. "That's why we need to be."
Varric stared down at the ground, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "Fine. Tell me what you're thinking."
"I thought I was banned from Wicked Grace Night," Solas didn't look up fully from his work, giving Varric only a short glance.
"I'm not here about cards, Chuckles."
"That is a relief, actually. I was not feeling particularly social."
"If that's your way of telling me this isn't a good time..."
"Forgive me." Solas closed the book and moved it to a corner of the large table. "I was being rude. What can I help you with?"
"It's more about what I can help you with." Varric glanced skyward, hearing the scrape and whisper of the floors above. "Maybe we should take a walk, get some air?"
Solas arched a single brow. "I see."
The night air still held the chill of snow, catching their breath in dusty clouds as they climbed the stair. They found themselves quite alone on this portion of the wall, there simply weren't the men to fully assign to guard duties in the numbers they'd enjoyed in the beginning. It at least gave Varric an intro. "I remember when there were enough soldiers up here to make sleep near impossible. I swear I could hear them talking most of the night."
"Ah," Solas replied, staring out into the dark mountains. "Did you bring me up here to discuss the troops?"
In her room, Evelyn stared blankly at Warren across her massive desk. "I'm not sure I'm following."
"I'm asking what your plans are for reinforcements."
"Have you joined my council without me hearing about it? Because I'm fairly certain that is the problem we're resolving at present."
"Oh good, you do have a plan."
"We're... reviewing our options."
"Options," he folded his hands on the desk. "Evelyn, I couldn't help but notice-"
There was a knock on the door. Evelyn stood, crossing to the stair in time to greet Josephine.
"Your Grace, I apologize. I was not aware you had a guest."
"It's just Warren, Josie. It's fine."
"Perhaps we could speak later, when you're unoccupied..." Josephine was waving her hand in a way that indicated this was the sort of discussion that couldn't really wait.
"Whatever you need, say it. I don't think we need to worry about my brother."
Josephine looked momentarily uncomfortable before nodding. "Of course. I have received word from the southern reach."
"And is she to have no say in this?"
Varric sighed. "I'm not telling you what to do. I'm not telling you how to handle what I've told you. I just thought you had a right to know. Look, Chuckles," he frowned for a moment. "I told you I wrote enough of these stories to know they don't end well, but that doesn't mean they have to end in fires and explosions. I know you don't think you're the hero of this story, but you have the chance to be. For her. Fuck, for all of us."
"... all of them?"
"From what we can tell, yes."
Evelyn sat heavily on her sofa. "All this worry I had about saving the Grey Wardens, only to be the cause...."
Warren rose. "Thank you, Ambassador."
Josephine gave a single nod, "I believe, when you are feeling up to it, that Mistress Morrigan wanted to have a word."
"Thank you," Evelyn said dully as the Ambassador excused herself. Then, to Warren, "for fuck's sake."
"I know it isn't the time, but-"
"Please don't. Not now."
Warren put up his hands. "Fine. But reality is going to keep barging in. This time it's the Grey Wardens, next time it could be our front gate. Hard choices need to be made."
Evelyn stood abruptly. "They don't need to be made right now, Warren."
Her fire was nearly dead when he ascended the stairs, stopping to poke at it before tossing another log onto the ashen pile. Evelyn sat stock straight in the center of her bed, hair down and combed around her shoulders. She was picking at a piece of dry skin on her lower lip. "The Wardens, Solas," she said sadly.
He sighed. "I heard. I was in the courtyard when the scout arrived." It was hard news to keep quiet, spreading through the fortress walls like wildfire.
"Warren thinks we need to pause everything until we can build a proper army. I will have to utilize the agreement with the Empress sooner than I anticipated."
"I know you had hoped to not call on them until we were ready to launch the full assault. I am sorry."
"Do you know what an Eluvian is?" she asked suddenly, dropping her hands to her lap.
He felt his blood run cold. "I do. Why do you ask?"
"Morrigan... Morrigan has one. She thinks Corypheus seeks another like it."
"Do you believe her correct?"
"We've had reports of his men in the Southern Wilds. They seem to be interested in an Elvhen ruin. She believes it has one of these Eluvian inside."
Solas at on the edge of her bed. "It is possible. From what I understand of them, they allow their user to move between worlds."
"Yes, she showed me."
His heart paused mid-beat. "Showed you?"
"She called it a crossroads, maybe The Crossroads. It was unlike anything I'd seen."
"How did it appear?" he heard the edge of excitement in his voice, despite his best efforts.
"She said it would be much brighter to an elf. It was still... beautiful, sad... haunting, perhaps. Like I could feel the memory of something that was no longer there. Forgotten realms."
"Fascinating," he breathed, earning himself one of her trademark pointed looks. "I am sorry. I wish I could have been there, to see it with you."
She frowned then. "Where were you, by the way? I stopped in."
Solas thought of Varric's face, twisted into a sympathy he couldn't bear to fully acknowledge. You can still be the hero. "I took a walk. Needed some air."
Evelyn eased back into the pillows. "Come to bed. I can't think about battles and artifacts much more."
There would be plenty enough of both in the days to come, he knew. They were coming to a time of great loss and strife, and he had to think about how he chose to contribute. I know you'll do the right thing. He hoped beyond hope that Master Tethras was right.
The icicles dripped in staccato against the stone outside her bedroom windows. Drip, drip, drip, each landing in the same pattern as Solas stared blankly at the ceiling overhead. Evelyn buzzed around the floor, dressing as she continued her monologue about troop placement and Orlesian battlefield courtesies, punctuated by breathless swearing as she lost yet another earring in the thick carpet laid before the fire. She stomped past the bed again before dropping to all fours, another muttered curse before a cry of victory. The offending jewel had been located. Solas blinked slowly, flexing his feet beneath the coverlet.
Today they moved to the Southern Wilds, to the thick and luxuriant jungle that lay beyond the Emerald Graves. This is where the scouts reported seeing the two things they'd most feared: red templars and signs of ancient Elvhen architecture. Morrigan preened as she exited the war room the evening they'd planned their assault, sure of herself and her predictions of what lay within the ageless walls. Solas knew better. The secret buried beneath locks both rigid metal and unyielding magicks thrummed in his mind when he tried to sleep, the echo of a voice long since faded from time, whispers turning to near-lunatic laughter in the night.
Evelyn stood at the foot of the bed, hand resting on one cocked hip. Shit. "I am sorry," he pushed upright. "I was lost in thought."
"Have," she drew each word out slowly "You. Packed?" There was a playful edge to the voice, but it was still an edge. One that had crept in with alarming frequency in recent days past. Edgier words, questions; shorter and sharper answers; pointed looks and a slight narrowing of the eyes as if she were trying to devil him out. Some evenings he would feel on the cusp of asking her what she was thinking. As if she could read his mind she would be on him with a fevered mouth and quick hands; fast and violent and over before he could fully catch his breath. She would sleep soundly after, breathing deeply with her back to him. Before others it was sweetness and light, the playful flirtations she once saved for in private. At first, he had been overjoyed, reveling in their time together in the sun. Now it felt like a performance, something to shield the others from the doubt he feared she felt.
Did he not feel it too? Did it not begin to sneak into his quiet thoughts as soon as Varric Tethras said his peace? Had someone, Warren perhaps, given her a similar talking-to? Was she plagued by the same worries and regrets?
Why were neither of them capable of voicing them in the time they spent alone together?
Maybe there would be a better time for such a conversation. It was best not to let this rattle him, not when he needed to draw on all his inner reserve to remain impassive on the journey ahead. They ventured into sacred walls he'd feared returning to. Who knew what ghosts still haunted those halls, what whispered secrets waited to be uncovered.
As the trees grew thicker with each passing mile, the ground beneath their horses' hooves turning soft and spongey, he felt more certain that the topic of the sudden unease between the two of them was one best left for a future date. Perhaps it was simply the weight of knowing this venture lay before them; an exploration that would almost certainly end in another confrontation with Corypheus. The arcanist dwarf had devised a method of breaking through the red lyrium armor worn by the former templars, but a means of defeating a corrputed magister still eluded them. Solas threw a sidelong glance at Evelyn's face, shadowed as it was by concern, and felt deep regret. How could he think that she worried solely for her relationship, for him, after all they knew they faced?
He'd spent too much time in this world. It was making him as self-centered, as mortal as the rest of them.
Those thoughts lingered as they lay in the semi-dark of her tent, the blankets cast aside as they waited for evening to cool. "Are you concerned?"
She sighed and rolled toward him. "It's hard not to be. He thinks he's an immortal god, Solas. And I have yet to see any evidence to the contrary."
"There is no such thing as an immortal god, Evelyn. They die just like everyone else. They just tend to be a bit harder to kill."
"Then I'm concerned that this one will be very hard to kill."
He opened his mouth, the words of comfort, of solace laying just behind his teeth and tongue when the thought was interrupted by a commotion outside. Evelyn pulled herself up immediately, shoving her hair back into a loose bun and tightening her boots before emerging. There were a few low voices and then a shout. "I thought you could use some support," the voice was male, thick brogue betraying the northern root of his ancestry. There was a collective cheer, and Solas shoved his way out of the tent to see Evelyn standing with her hands over her mouth, unrestrained delight readable on every inch of her face.
The assembly of men was impressive, several horses deep and with foot soldiers behind, all wearing the proud red crest of Starkhaven, led by an impressive man on a large white horse, armor glittering as if it had never seen a day beyond its fine, silken-lined chest.
"Ohhhh boy," Varric breathed beside him. "I knew it would look like a cliche when it finally came riding in to save the day, but I didn't expect it to be this on-the-nose."
"So his is Halden," Solas said quietly. "I saw him at his family manse, but only from a distance. I thought he would be taller." They watched the man slip from his horse and cross to Evelyn, bowing in a way that set Solas's teeth on edge.
"Surprisingly catty," Varric said with approval. "He does have a knack for making an entrance. Showing up with a full accompaniment of men before we have to face Celene's forces." Solas gave him a quizzical look. "Don't play dumb with me, Chuckles. They were going to gossip when they saw how few men we've got left."
"I suppose this does make us appear more competent and formidable."
"Thanks to Prince Charming, don't forget."
"I know you are trying to rile me, but she has discussed her arrangement with him. They will remain friendly for the sake of the family. Neither is interested in anything beyond friendship."
"Sure," Varric dropped back a bit. "I know I always show up in the middle of the night, looking dashing and providing just what is needed at just the right moment for women I want to be friends with. Get some sleep, Solas. I think it will be a few hours before she joins you."
Solas was dismayed to discover Master Tethras was correct. He was roused from a fitful sleep by her pushing her way back into the tent, reeking of rum and a bit too amused for his tastes. She laughed as she lay down. "I'm sorry," she hiccuped. "I didn't mean to wake you."
"I thought it would be prudent to sleep. We have an early start tomorrow."
"Don't lecture me. I had to be hospitable. He brought... Solas, he brought a full army. He saved our asses."
"Yes, how convenient."
She was up against his face then, eyes wide and glassy. "Are you accusing me?"
"Of course not. I just hope that his intentions toward you remain friendly."
"Would it surprise you to learn that some men want to help and support me because they believe in my cause, in my ability? That they think I am actually capable of making this world a better place and therefore are willing to make sacrifices?"
"Evelyn, you know I support you more than anyone. And I do hope you are correct about the Vael boy."
"That Vael boy just gave me an army. All you have given me is a good shake to my pedestal. Thank you for keeping me so grounded."
"Shut up, Solas. You were right."
He wrinkled his brow. "I was?"
"Yes. It would be more prudent for you to sleep." She rolled over then, her back to him.
"Evelyn?" he began again, hearing only a derisive snort in response. Solas rolled onto his back. Prudent or not, sleep would not come.
"Those were elves." Evelyn slowly stretched her hand, wiggling each finger in turn, before making a fist. The entire assembly was making these sorts of gestures, testing bone and tendon to ensure everything was still operational after the large concussive shock had sent them all tumbling over ancient stone.
"They were," Solas agreed. "There are clans in this forest."
"Yes," Evelyn frowned. "But those were not Dalish elves."
"They sure as hell weren't city elves. Not out here, not dressed like that." Varric shook some dust off the tails of his coat. "They had the markings of the Dalish, but not the style. They were a bit more... military, almost. Precision strikes, advanced training in arms... and that armor." Varric pursed his lips. "Shit's weird."
Solas said nothing, he didn't need to. So it was as obvious to the others as it was to him that the elves dwelling in this forest were unique. He'd wondered how many of the defenses still held, how long the loyalty would remain after the Vallaslin's owner had fallen. He'd not expected to find a full army still within, waiting, protecting, watching.
"Whoever they are, I believe it best we try to avoid them. At least until we understand what they want."
"They seemed to want to kill us, out there." Evelyn rolled her shoulder in a slow circle, rubbing distractedly at the joint. "Avoiding them might not be enough."
She was still not looking directly at him, a new habit that seemed to develop sometime between their last curt words the night before and breakfast this morning. She'd been up and out before he'd fully gotten his bearings, marching along the encampment to address various dignitaries and troops, scrutinizing the formations, doing whatever she could to avoid his quizzical stare. All the while her eager Vael shadow stayed near her side, offering introductions, suggesting alternatives, pointing out the damned foilage.
At least he hadn't managed to worm his way into their exploratory party. The last thing any of them needed was his insipid commentary on every tile, every bit of leaf or bark.
"You okay, Chuckles? You look set to murder someone," Varric again, his voice lowered in a conspiratorial manner.
"I am concerned about the path ahead, Master Tethras, nothing more."
The selfsame path led them along the perimeter of the Temple, its walls still holding, even after all these long years. Solas lagged behind the party, listening to the whisper of the trees. It was easier to remain behind than to risk another fiery exchange with the Lady Morrigan, who now stumbled through another Elvhen translation. Her grasp of the language was impressive, but still only partially correct. To read the words engraved on these stones, you needed to be able to see beyond the words themselves, to infer the meaning from the world that surrounded them. It was a full picture her mortal human brain could only glimpse as if through a silk sheet. She caught shapes and shadows and did her best to divine meaning from the abstract. It would be infuriating if he wasn't so heavy with dread.
The dread did not dispell when they found only red templars within the walls, nor when they were dispatched with easily. He felt the silent movement of the guardians above them, knew they watched with curiosity. Would these human intruders dance along the paths, the way she had wished them to? Or would they blunder ahead, crashing through walls and doors, destruction their only offering to the once-mighty Mythal?
Evelyn was staring at him, still not meeting his eyes. She stared at a spot directly in the center of his chest. Being in this place made him feel unattached from his body, floating and drunk on memory, and for a moment he feared she was reading his heart. The damnable thing was never as easy to control as his thoughts. He almost laughed, and the stone around him shivered in response. Could they feel it too? Did they know how the rooms here knew him? Pull yourself together. Solas had a fleeting regret they had not brought Sera along. It would have been interesting, to see how she behaved here.
The others, for their part, were too busy arguing to notice him at all. It ended with Evelyn declaring she would perform the rituals to proceed, the victory spreading across Morrigan's face as Varric and Blackwall released disappointed breaths.
"This is... odd," Morrigan raised a perfectly arched brow. "I did not notice before."
"We were sort of being attacked before," Varric replied. "I think there's probably much we missed."
"Aye," she said faintly, stepping back over the crumbled remnants of a pillar. "Still, 'tis a mystery worth pondering."
Evelyn followed her across the portico, carefully working her way around a grouping of colorful birds who did not seem the least disturbed by her presence.
"Why," Morrigan shifted her weight as she spoke, "would a statue of Fen'Harel be in a temple of Mythal?"
"Aren't they always near Dalish encampments?" Evelyn asked, staring at the birds, who had arranged themselves in a perfect circle on the floor.
"They are," Morrigan's voice was full of wonder, "that, however, is a Dalish affectation. Mythal and Fen'Harel would have been at odds. I wonder if this were added much later."
"It looks as old and dusty as everything else," Varric added.
"Perhaps," Solas said softly, "the Dalish know something you do not."
Morrigan turned, "I have studied the Elvhen for years. If I tell you 'tis odd, I assure you, it is."
Solas swallowed his response, feeling it burn all the way down. "By all means," he affected an exaggerated bow, "please enlighten me on all things elvhen."
Her nostrils flared slightly. "It does not matter. This is not the purpose of our visit."
Her irritating tendency to misinterpret elvhen art did not stop with the wolf statue. Solas gritted his teeth as she explained each mosaic, attributing wildly inaccurate tales of the history and meaning of each Evanuris. This was the education she'd given herself, reading histories of a forgotten time, written by men with agendas of their own, giving their own biased worldview to beings who existed in a world unlike anything any of them could imagine. It was almost a relief to find themselves stumbling into the echoey central hall of the temple, even though he knew what likely awaited them there.
And there he was, armor still polished, stern expression unchanging. He had been called Athras, in the time when they were brothers. A great warrior, silent and lethal, mind sharp as his blade. He had not left with the others, when the time came, loyal still to a cause he was born into. He now called himself Abelas. This stung deep in Solas' chest. To brand oneself with a name such as that. Had Solas loved her so little? Was his own name a betrayal?
This was one of many moments he would puzzle over in the weeks to come. Each memory frozen in time like one of his frescoes, bright and permanently etched. The moment when Morrigan made for the Well herself, chasing after Abelas. Blackwall's confusion, "Did you know she could turn into a bird?" The moment Samson finally fell, his armor shattered into so many pieces. The gaze of familiarity, of knowing, that passed between himself and the now-Abelas. Then Evelyn, arguing with him, arguing with Morrigan, stubbornly wading into those crystalline waters and drinking deeply, staring directly into his eyes as she did so, as if daring him to try and stop her.
These moments burned, as did the first when they passed back through the Eluvian, into Skyhold's embrace. That was the moment he had stooped to help her up, feeling her hand secure and sure in his own, and then saw her face. She stared at him with an understanding that he had not seen before, something dark and deep that almost frightened him in its intensity. Her eyes now tinged with golden light as she craned her neck in a way that was both alien and all too familiar, seeing the slip of awareness of what lies beneath, now awakened. He stumbled backward then, letting her fall back onto her hands and knees.
"Sweet Andraste, are you trying to kill her?" Blackwall pulled Evelyn to her feet, slipping an arm around her waist. When Evelyn turned back to him only hurt and confusion read across her face, the invader asleep once again.
The book lay forgotten in his lap, the pages fluttering in the breeze. Someone had left a library window open, the wind catching in the circular walls. It was a near-constant irritation he experienced, those above making decisions which impacted his work, his sleep, his sanity.
Things had been... strained since they left the Temple of Mythal. The anger, crackling between them like lightning, had only heightened after they pushed through the eluvian and back into Skyhold's walls. She had attempted to speak to him, her words drowning in the only thunderous clamor of his heartbeat as he watched her eyes, the swirling bright threads weaving into her irises. She did not know what she carried within her. He did not know how it would react to this new intruder.
Twice now he had dreamed of her after the events of the Arbor Wilds. The dreams came unbidden, thick and dark in a primeval forest under a moonless sky. She stood clad in iridescent white garments, shimmering in the dark. Each time she raised her arms to him, pulling him into the thick damp grass. Then the laugh, low and ancient. The words, threatening echoes of ages past, whispered against his ear through clenched teeth.
Then he would see it, the darkness in her eyes thick and overpowering. Reminding him that it was there, that it saw him. That it knew.
All of his machinations, his hesitant steps, his work, and care could be lost in an instant if the shard of spirit she carried rejected this binding. Solas did not know how far the mark would go to keep itself safe.
Evelyn entered then, continuing her maddening habit of appearing whenever he thought about her too hard, or for too long. He wondered then if the power within her had begun its dark whispers of him. What it told her in the dead of night, what stories it wove. "You're angry with me."
He stood. "Is that a question, or a statement?"
"It's a truth, I think." She jutted one hip out as she crossed her arms, her standard I'm being quite serious stance, one that she likely honed through years of being taken less than seriously by her brethren.
"I would not say I am angry," his words were measured, careful, hesitant to give away anything that might cause that glint to appear just behind her eyes, shimmering behind her teeth. "I made my feelings on the Well clear."
"And what would you have had me do? Let Morrigan drink it? You said yourself that her motivations were selfish."
"That does not mean it was a burden I believed you should bear."
"Then who? You weren't exactly eager. Should I have just left it for Corypheus?"
"No," Solas sighed, shook his head. "It was a no-win scenario. I know you did what you believed to be right."
"And you believe it to be wrong."
"I believe it to be ill-advised and reckless."
"As you believe me to be."
"Not usually, no."
She frowned. "Not usually?"
"You have been behaving... differently."
"Do not make me say it."
Evelyn made a derisive noise. "Since Vael, you mean."
Solas was silent.
"You've been treating me strangely since we returned. You don't want to talk. You don't want to sit with me. You scurry around as if I'm set to explode. I don't believe I'm the one behaving differently at all. If anything, my behavior is in response to yours."
He leaned against his desk, resting his hand on an open book. Her eyes followed the movement and he saw it there, again, that glint of recognition, of cold and lizardlike curiosity. "Are you," he said slowly, "quite alright?"
"Looking for vindication?"
"It is a genuine concern, vhenan."
Evelyn's face fell at the word. "You don't want to hear about this."
"Perhaps not, but you should tell me, all the same."
She placed a hand over her mouth for a moment, when she spoke the words were hushed and a bit frantic. "It's... it's as if there's another voice inside my head but one I can't always understand. It whispers, and sometimes I can make out a word or a phrase but mostly it doesn't make any sense." Her eyes darted up again, "Sometimes I think it is speaking to you."
Solas felt the cold chill run down his spine. "To me?"
"Or at you. About you. I don't know," she shivered slightly. "It will sound insane."
"Say it anyway."
"I feel like it would rather I went away."
"You feel that?"
"It's hard to explain it's like... it's almost a pressure, in my head. Pushing the me that still is me out. Wanting to see through my eyes, wanting to craft my words."
"Your words to me."
"Why do you think that is?"
"I don't know," she breathed. He could hear the edge of tears in her voice. "Maybe because it senses how I feel for you and it's latched on to that part of me. It's strange. It's like it knows you. Does it read my thoughts?"
Despite the panicked burn in his chest, he was unable to resist the quiver of her lower lip, the way her eyes searched his. Taking her wrists in his hands, he pulled her to him, wrapping his arms around her, hands in her hair, resting his chin on the crown of her head. "It would not have been better to let Morrigan have it, vhenan. Perhaps this was the best of outcomes. Perhaps we should have allowed Abelas to destroy it entirely. Regardless, what is done is done. Now we must decide how to live with the decision."
Her head felt fevered, too warm against his skin. How could she not be? Within her raged a war, just beneath the surface; the struggle of spirits too weak to overtake, just strong enough to inflame. What havoc they would wreak before he could find a solution was beyond his comprehension - a thought he found deeply unsettling.
There were methods, of course, of extraction; mystical secrets lost to the mages of today that involved neither manipulation of the veil nor blood magic to accomplish. It was once a routine practice among the young, an attempt to lose themselves in an intoxicating high brought about by the intermingling of souls within one's self. The Avaar had a similar ritual, although it involved only a single spirit in a setting not unlike the Harrowing. There were materials he would need to gather, places he would need to travel, a particular book long forgotten he would need to re-locate.
He glanced down at her, still buried in his shoulder. It would involve travel, time, distance. She would ask questions, risk unlocking what slept within. This would be easier had he not become so... entangled. It was a lingering irritation, always in the back of his mind. What have I done? There were things he had yet to accomplish, stories yet to be written, and none of them involved him carrying on a love affair with the existing center of the world he was attempting to bring crashing down around them. And now... now she carried a thing he never intended, a lost and angry spirit, full of vengeance and power. A spirit who had once been united in a cause, broken and forced into a position of sentry. With it she could wield the Great Dragon.
If the other piece inside her would allow it.
When he'd attempted to unlock the orb, finding himself too weak to accomplish this task alone, he thought the ancient magister would provide an easy foil. Both rift and Tevinter ghoul would be swallowed up in the opening, leaving behind the key he needed to unlock the final door, to release the old world.
Instead, Evelyn Trevelyan had somehow interrupted the ceremony, absorbed the magic that swelled from inside the orb and taken in the shard of the other, the one who had helped him seal away the ancient rift power.
"It comes to this, Fen'Harel," moonlight white hair spilling undone over her shoulders.
"I cannot finish this without it."
She nodded then, eyes aflame. "A lock requires a key. This is what you ask of me."
"I would do it myself, if I could."
"They would kill you gladly for it."
"They would kill me for less."
Her hand then, cold as marble against his cheek. '"Then I give it willingly." She pulled from her cloak a silver knife, halla relief carved into the blade.
Evelyn stared up at him, and within her eyes he saw the power of which she was unaware, piercing him with the sharpness of its knowing.
Once, shortly after they'd first arrived at Skyhold, he had asked her if she felt differently since the mark. In truth, he had desperately wanted to know that some sliver of the spirit was part of her, was an explanation for the attraction he felt himself unable to control. Now that he knew the truth, it was even more difficult to do what he knew he needed to do, going forward.
He would either have to tell her, truly tell her what she carried, or end this. Either option would hurt, but it was what was necessary to save her life.
“Come away with me.”
Such a simple request, one she was all too happy to acquiesce. Evelyn Trevelyan, willowy and tired, followed behind him without question. He'd puzzled this over in his mind, how to broach the subject, how to tell her what needed to no longer be hidden. Where to even begin with such things. The location was key. He feared telling her at Skyhold, feared her running to an adviser in a blind panic and spilling what he had revealed before he had a chance to fully explain himself. It needed to be somewhere safe, secure, intimate. A place linked to him inextricably, somewhere where she could understand why he was who and what he was.
There was only one such place.